My favorite travel experiences of 2012

Yay flightseeing

Here it is, the awkwardly self-indulgent year-end retrospective! In 2012, I did not travel abroad, but I still managed to have one of the most exciting travel years of my life, spending time in 15 states, ranging from the hot sands of southern California beaches to icy glaciers in Alaska.

These were my favorite experiences of the year, presented in no particular order. I look forward to hearing your stories as well – what was your own favorite travel experience of 2012? Leave a comment at the bottom!

The White House Garden Tour

I’m still amazed I got the chance to walk within a couple feet of the rear entrance of the White House, to see Bo, the First Dog, and to examine Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden up close. The best part is that it was completely unexpected. I just intended to snap a few distant pics of the White House when I discovered they were giving away free tickets for the tour that day.


The Chinese New Year Food and Cultural Fair in San Diego

A cultural fair celebrating the Chinese New Year just a few blocks from my hostel in San Diego? Score! This was an enlightening afternoon, featuring giant human dragons, freshly made food, and older women singing traditional Chinese songs.

chinese ny vocalists

The Martin Luther King National Historic Site

To me, few people in American history are as awe-inspiring as Martin Luther King, Jr. This was true both at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which was built around the hotel where he was assassinated, and at the National Historic Site in Atlanta, which I visited about a month ago (story coming soon.) I can’t even describe the powerful emotion as I sat in the pews of the church where he used to preach, listening to recorded sermons from the 1960s coming out of the speakers, and as I visited his tomb and his boyhood home.

martin luther king tomb

Camping and seeing wildlife in Denali National Park

Though we had a rough start to our Denali adventure, with lost luggage and frozen tents, the trip ended up giving us close-up views of grizzly bears, moose, caribou, and dall sheep. You feel very small sleeping out in the wilderness on the land that belongs to these animals.

dall sheep close

The Country Music Hall of Fame

Featuring everyone from Johnny Cash to Taylor Swift, the Country Music Hall of Fame was a ton of fun. Even though I’m only a casual country music fan, there was more than enough memorabilia to entertain, including Carl Perkins’s blue suede shoes, a huge wall of gold records, Elvis Presley’s gold piano, the set of Hee Haw, and handwritten Miranda Lambert lyrics.

Carl Perkins actual blue suede shoes

Philadelphia Magic Gardens

I was excited to discover mazes of mosaics of broken glass, old china, bicycle tires, empty bottles, children’s toys and other repurposed junk at this amazing art installation on South Street. It’s one of the coolest art sites I’ve seen in the U.S.


Driving above 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park

You don’t get to experience tundra conditions in the lower 48 everyday, and it’s even rarer that you can drive at these high elevations. Rocky National Park in the summer offers such an opportunity on Trail Ridge Road. The wind was fierce, the marmots were active, and the views were spectacular.


Hiking inside Matanuska Glacier

My first crampon experience came on a guided tour of Alaska’s Matanuska Glacier, where I avoided crevasses, navigated narrow channels and drank some of the cleanest water in the world from running streams. Getting to see the inside of a constantly-moving glacier and seeing its flowing rivers and melting chunks of ice is a life experience I highly recommend.

Matanuska Glacier hike

Spending 12 straight hours inside the Mall of America

I don’t know if this one was truly one of my “favorite” experiences. It’s more like one of those personal challenges where you’re really glad when it’s over, but you’re proud for having done it. Thankfully, I survived the day with my sanity intact and without getting arrested for being a suspected terrorist (which is a real concern – click the link above to read more.)


Beach day in San Diego

Leaving frigid Chicago in January for San Diego was awesome, and so was hanging out on the beach with Grace from Pinay on the Move and Christy and Scott from Ordinary Traveler. The evening ended with my first-ever taste of banana bread beer, which tasted as awesome as it sounds.

San Diego beach day

Stalking Ben Franklin in Philadelphia

In Philly I ordered some history to go with my cheesesteaks. It’s easy, when the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Old City Hall, Carpenters Hall and the National Constitution Center are all within walking distance of each other. And Ben Franklin’s likeness is all over the city, to a hilarious degree.


Random fun in North Carolina

Visiting my friend Keilan in Greensboro led to some unexpected fun, like camping and hiking, the Ava Gardner Museum, the birthplace of Pepsi, and the ACC Hall of Champions, where you can pose with life-size university mascots.


The town of Talkeetna, Alaska

If you ever go to Alaska, absolutely do not miss the kooky little town of Talkeetna, which has a cat for a mayor, plus silly gift shops, wooden moose, restaurants that serve caribou chili, and an overall hippie atmosphere.

moose kissing

Eating spaghetti on a stick at the Minnesota State Fair

There were plenty of cheesy highlights at the Minnesota State Fair, from the beauty queen faces carved out of butter to the 1,200-pound pumpkin to the paintings made from seeds. My favorite thing was the food selection. I was tempted by the poutine, fried pickles, and deep-fried Spam curds, but ended up going with the spaghetti on a stick.


Camping in the Indiana Dunes

Sometimes, you just need a weekend getaway to recharge the batteries. I got out of Chicago one weekend and headed to Indiana Dunes State Park, which features a campground along the shores of Lake Michigan where huge sand dunes have built up over the years.

indiana dunes

Flightseeing and glacier landing in Alaska

Saving the best for last, Felip and I had the opportunity to ride in a small plane and land on a glacier in Denali National Park in Alaska. The entire experience was unforgettable, from the amazing views to the thrill of landing in a totally white universe of mountains.

Mountains from plane

Bring on 2013!

What was your own favorite travel experience of 2012?


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About the Author

Scott Shetler is a Seattle-based journalist and blogger who seeks out offbeat attractions and awesome destinations around the world. He has been featured in Travel + Leisure, Connect Magazine, Matador Travel, and the Washington Post.

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  1. You had a great 2012! I love reading your posts. This was also a good year for me! My favorites:
    1. Our trip to China- climbing the great wall, touring the Forbidden City, drinking Starbucks at the Beijing Trade Center- all with my partner and our son!
    2. touring the White House during a 2 week trip to Boston and DC. I ordered the tickets thru our CA senators office 6 months in advance- and got the tickets!! The White House was magical!
    3. Taking my partners 102 year old grandmother, Margarita, to Guadalajara for 5 days! while Guadalajara was a fun city, the highlight was experiencing the kindness of both airline and airport staff in helping Margarita.

    May 2013 be the same!! Happy Traveling/Happy Experiences to everyone!!

    1. Wow, awesome memories! I didn’t do my homework on visiting the White House so I didn’t get tickets in advance. Someday I’ll have to get around to seeing the inside. Your Guadalajara trip reminds me of when I took my grandmother to New York City. She had such a great time.

  2. Oddly, I think my favorite travel experience this year was one I didn’t even understand. I went to a marionette show in a little attic theater in Brussels and didn’t understand a word. “Hamlet” in French. It was a hoot.

    1. Great point. I made the right call by supplementing big vacations with short weekend bus trips around the midwest. Those ended up being a big part of the year.

      I will indeed be disappointed if we do not rendezvous in ’13.

  3. What an incredible year you’ve had! I didn’t travel abroad this year either, yet it’s fascinating – and tons of fun – to discover or re-discover all these great corners closer to home that I would have otherwise ignored. Hope 2013 is at least as great as 2012 for you! 🙂

  4. It is funny all of us “life listers” writing our 2012 year in review but they’re much more fascinating than receiving the boring annual Christmas cards from distant relatives!

    I just found your blog and it looks like a lot of fun! It looks like you’ve spent a lot of time in PA- I spent 1 month there this summer and was able to have a lot of fun new experiences but I guess my favorite ‘travel experience’ this year was taking an Amish Buggy Ride- (I’m totally jealous of your White House Garden Tour-I’ve been to D.C. a number of times and have never been so lucky!)

    1. An Amish buggy ride sounds like a great experience. I’m already trying to plan one myself for 2013. Was yours done through a tour group, or do you have personal Amish connections?

  5. It was ‘AAA Amish Buggy’ in the kitchen kettle village in Lancaster. If you happen to go through them a girl named ‘Elsie’ was my driver and she was WONDERFUL!! You can do private or group rides.

    I hope you experience is as enjoyable as mine was!

    1. Ive been in contact with them since and I will be conducting a full interview with ELsie next time im in PA. What I’d really LOVE is to stay the night…or maybe even a weekend with her family!

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