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The Stories Behind Your Favorite Images From 2021

Travel Writing

The fifth annual “Stories Behind Your Favorite Images” blog post is here! Can you believe it? Because I certainly can’t. If any of you have been following along since the beginning, than you know that I started out as a weekend warrior wandering around in Washington’s wilderness areas. (How’s that for some alliteration lol.) While a lot has changed, at its essence this page has always been about trying to live a life worth remembering.

The last couple years have been unquestionably difficult. Travel has been limited or completely restricted. Plans have been canceled, rescheduled, then canceled again. Emotions seems to be running higher with every passing day. Nonetheless, through it all the world remains a beautiful place and there’s still plenty of room to live a little bit more. So here’s to more back yard hikes, local adventures, and gratitude for the little moments that make life big!

10: Shoulder Season Tulips

Taking in views of Mount Baker from the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm.

In mid-2020, I noticed that a cabin that I’d been pining over for years had a few days open up around the holidays. I jumped on the opportunity and booked a stay! That cabin was located near Hood River in Oregon, and unfortunately by November 2020, in response to soaring COVID-19 cases, the Governor of Oregon issued a travel advisory asking out-of-state travelers to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. To comply with the advisory, the cabin owner was forced to cancel all reservations from out-of-state renters. Including mine.

Luckily, she was gracious enough to let me pick new dates before opening them to the public. Still, the only dates available were during the shoulder season. Specifically, April. April is an awkward month in the Pacific Northwest. Too early in the season for hiking in the mountains, but too late for snow activities. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I’m never around for my mom’s birthday!

Anyway, I decided that if I was going to do something in the area during April, it should be for my mom’s birthday. So I found some dates that my parents were available, and I started researching some activities that we could do in the area. That’s when I stumbled on the Wooden Shoe Tulip Farm! It wasn’t that close to where we were staying, but I’d always wanted to visit one of the Tulip Farms in Oregon or Washington, and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Turned out April wasn’t so bad after all!

But wait, there’s more!

Curious about the Mount Hood cabin I couldn’t wait to stay at? Check out my favorite Cozy Cabins in the Pacific Northwest That You Can Rent Out!

9: Stranger Danger In The Bahamas

Chilling with some nurse sharks under the dock at Staniel Cay Marina.

On the surface, meeting up with a complete stranger from the internet and hopping on their sailboat for a two-week trip to discover the best things to do in the Exumas may not sound like the best idea. After a frustrating year of canceled plans, omnipresent restrictions, and creative fatigue, I knew I needed to do something different. My parents weren’t thrilled about the idea. . . nor was anyone else in my life, for that matter. But all’s well that ends well – am I right?! I’m not trying to encourage dangerous or reckless behavior – always listen to your gut. But in my experience, the bigger the risk, the greater the payoff. And my gut was feeling bored.

Matt contacted me for the first time a couple of years ago. He emailed me a screenshot of his Instagram account with a short one-line message: “This is my IG if you’d ever like to work together in the Bahamas. I can take you sailing and show you all the best things to do in the Exumas chain. Cheers!” I didn’t respond. But I also never forgot about the offer. He continued to support my work, leaving the occasional positive comment on my posts.

Then at the beginning of 2021, he reiterated his offer, and this time I took it a lot more seriously. So seriously, in fact, that I got on a plane and flew across the country to Florida.

Matt picked me up in Fort Lauderdale at 6pm, and we disembarked from Miami on his Beneteau Oceanis 38 a couple hours later. I watched as the bright lights of civilization slowly disappeared on the horizon. The wind was howling, and the waves broke over the bow of the boat as we bucked a headwind for 10 straight hours. On my watch, I huddled under an increasingly soaked blanket above deck in the cockpit, not sleeping, fighting off waves of water and nausea. That first night was miserable. But even then, I knew I wasn’t going to regret taking the risk. Every good story needs its turmoil. There are no highs without the lows, after all. And despite the rough start, it only got better from there!

But wait, there’s more!

Ready to Plan Your Own Trip To The Bahamas? Check out How To Have The Best Week Ever In The Exumas!

8 & 2: Greek Island Hopping With A Penny Stock Millionaire

Zakynthos was what I call a Tim trip. Aptly named after Timothy Sykes. Tim is a self-proclaimed penny stock millionaire that saw social media’s potential to expand his brand early on in the game. Essentially, Tim sells a lifestyle. A lifestyle that can be achieved from the most beautiful places on earth (including Zakynthos, Greece), as long as you dream big, study hard, and lastly – and this one is key – buy his trading courses. Or at least that’s what someone might ascertain from a cursory google search.

Of course, few books should be judged by their cover, and Tim’s story is no exception. As it turns out, he is also extremely generous and community-oriented. He has a truly awe-inspiring interest in charity and environmental causes through his many nonprofit organizations like Karmagawa. But perhaps the most surprising quality Tim possesses is his genuine desire to see everyone around him succeed. He is one of those rare humans who don’t engage in the scarcity mentality. And every time I find myself pulled into his world, this is the quality that strikes me as the most impressive.

It’s this unique quality that sent me to Greece. Over the past few years, Tim and Quin have traveled all over the world together. What started out as more or less a business relationship quickly blossomed into a thriving friendship. Occasionally, by the sheer happenstance of my proximity to Quin, I get swept up into one of Quin’s “Tim Trips.” And it’s always, without exception, one of the best trips of my life.

But wait, there’s more!

Plan the perfect bucket list vacation to Greece with my Complete Travel Guide To Milos Island and my Complete Travel Guide To Zakynthos Island.

7: Heaven Looks Like Big Sur

When we arrived in Big Sur, it was cloudy. We had been to this swing before, but neither of us remembered where it was. We drove along the coast slowly, hoping that some rock, tree, or other landscape would jog our memory. In the end, it was a campsite that made me jump out of my seat, pointing, “There! There! I think that’s it. Turn!”

As we headed up the steep dirt road, the clouds began to envelop the van, and tiny rain droplets scattered across the windshield. By the time we reached our camping spot for the night, the fog was as thick as pea soup. The only thing left to do was some serious binging. There are no windows in the back half of the van, and it’s easy to lose track of minutes, hours, even days if you’re not careful.

Luckily, every once in a while, nature calls and snaps you back to reality. Sliding open the van door, I immediately turned to Quin: “There’s a full-on inversion outside. Like in every direction as far as you can see.” Assuming it was a joke, he chuckled and muttered something about us having better luck in the morning. I, on the other hand, was already halfway out the door. The next thing I knew, we were both running through the knee-high grass toward the lone tree in the distance. And the rest, I’m still convinced, was just a dream.

6 & 4. The Most Overrated National Park

As long as I’ve known him, Quin has insisted that Death Valley is grossly overrated, a perpetual disappointment, and not worth going to. And thus, because there are a million beautiful places to see in the world, and I mostly trust Quin to know what he’s talking about (at least when it comes to photography), I reluctantly downgraded it on my bucket list.

Then, the world of travel locations got much smaller, and I took the opportunity to push for Death Valley again. We were, after all, going to drive right by it on our way to wherever it was that we were going. This time, it was Quin’s turn to reluctantly agree.

From sand dunes to salt flats and rainbow-colored dirt, I was blown away by Death Valley’s diversity of landscapes. So much so that the photos from that brief trip became some of my favorites of the year. Needless to say, Death Valley did not disappoint. At least that’s what I thought! Quin, on the other hand, still wasn’t impressed. Which just goes to show, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder!

5: Rebel Without A Cause In Yosemite Valley

Cooling down in the Merced River in Yosemite National Park on one of the hottest days of the year.

I wasn’t supposed to be here, wading through the Merced River in the middle of Yosemite Valley, just a stone’s throw from the car. I was supposed to be checking a major bucket list item off my list. Namely standing on top of Yosemite’s most iconic feature – Half Dome. I had meticulously planned a 4-day backpacking trip that would have taken us past some of Yosemite’s most classic views and culminated in a summit of Half Dome. I’d applied for and received the coveted permits. Everything was good to go. And then, just like that, it wasn’t. And yes, it was all our fault.

Before I start, there are two things that you have to know. First, car camping (including camper vans) is prohibited within Yosemite National Park. Second, in response to COVID-19, access to Yosemite Park in the summer of 2021 was severely limited. To enter the park in the summer of 2021, you were required to have a day-use reservation (which were nearly impossible to get); be staying at an accommodation within the park (which were all booked out); or have a wilderness or Half Dome permit (which we had).

Unfortunately, several van issues conspired against us in the days leading up to our backpacking trip, and we didn’t drive into the park until late the night before our hike began.

Because the mosquitos were particularly vicious, and we were dead tired from the drive and drama of the preceding days, we made the ill-advised decision to drive to the trailhead and sleep in the van. We had a parking permit, and we wanted to get an early start, so it seemed like a pretty innocuous violation at the time.

Despite our best intentions of getting an early start, we woke up to a Park Ranger banging on the van door. And this particular Park Ranger was NOT of the friendly variety. Not only did he write us a $350 citation for sleeping out of bounds, but he also took away our wilderness and Half Dome permits (which I’m pretty sure was just for shits and giggles). He then informed us that we would need to immediately leave the park because we no longer had wilderness permits.

Needless to say, I was crushed. To add injury to insult, we had no one to blame but ourselves. But don’t worry, this story does have a somewhat happy ending. Never one to let an angry Park Ranger get the best of me, I got on my phone and searched availability at every accommodation within the park. Eventually, I found a last-minute cancelation. I snatched it up, and we had a legal excuse to be in the National Park again. We may not have been able to summit Half Dome, but we did get to spend the longest day of the year splashing around in one of the most beautiful places on earth. If that’s not winning, I don’t know what is!

But wait, there’s more!

Want to start planning your own backcountry camping trip in Yosemite National Park? Here’s How To Backpack In Yosemite.

3. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished In Croatia

Floating in freezing cold waters of Croatia’s Eye Of The Earth.

The Cetina River Spring (Izvor Cetine), also known as the Eye Of The Earth, is an incredible karst spring located at the foothills of the Dinara mountains. When I tell you that this is the coldest water I’ve ever been in, it’s not hyperbole. The Eye of the Earth is a bone-chilling 40° F (5°C). It’s the type of water that hurts. But here we were, so in I went! Not once, not twice, but three times. Once for photos, once for phone videos, and lastly for the drone. After that, I threw myself on a warm slab of rock in the sun and began the well-deserved process of dethawing.

Just as I was beginning to warm up, a man showed up with his drone. He started up a conversation with Quin (whom he recognized from Instagram) and lamented that he didn’t have anyone to pose for him in the Eye Of The Earth.

It takes a good amount of effort to drive out to The Eye Of The Earth, and without a human subject for scale, it’s not quite as impressive.

So, without giving it much thought, I offered to model for him. I swam back out into the freezing cold water and floated around while he snapped photos with his drone. We exchanged IG handles, said our goodbyes, and I didn’t think about it again.

That is until I opened Instagram a day later, and my explore page was absolutely littered with a photo of me floating in the Eye Of The Earth. Initially, I was confused because neither Quin nor I had posted pictures from Croatia yet. Even more strange was that there were TWO of me in the photograph circulating around the web. The mystery photographer from the Eye Of The Earth had manipulated the image to make it appear that multiple girls (all looking identical) were there that day. He even went so far as to thank “the girls” in his caption. Without once mentioning or even tagging (the one of) me! And while there are no hard and fast rules in the wild west of Instagram, not giving credit where credit is due is definitely frowned upon. ESPECIALLY when someone models for you in an environment that few other people would have braved.

I still see his version of the photo pop up on prominent Instagram feature sights every once and a while, and it always takes me back to that strange, beautiful day floating around in the Eye Of The Earth.

1. Following In Ansel Adams Footsteps

If you’re a fan of landscape photography, you’re undoubtedly familiar with Ansel Adams. And if you’re familiar with his work, chances are, at some point, you’ve come across his iconic image of Precipice Lake. It was 1932, and Adams was hiking through Sequoia National Park when he found himself face to face with the now immediately recognizable body of water that became known as Precipice Lake. Nestled in the heart of the Mineral King wilderness, Adams remarked that he “was impressed with the solemn beauty of the scene and saw the image quite clearly in [his] mind.” 

Precipice Lake had been on Quin’s bucket list for years. Nevertheless, season after backpacking season, Precipice Lake remained on the back burner.

Precipice Lake is not easy to reach, and pretty much any way you slice it, you’re looking at multiple days of hiking and a lot of elevation gain. But with COVID-19 making international travel considerably more inconvenient, we found ourselves with a little more time on our hands than usual, and Precipice finally became a reality!

I’m not going to lie. This backpacking trip kicked our cumulative butts. It was our first multi-day trip of the year, and the fact is we weren’t in hiking shape. The days were long, hot, and seemingly all up hill. Of course this all made arriving at our objective that much more sweet. We arrived just before sunset, and barely had time to set up camp before darkness descended on the scene. I was almost too tired to enjoy it that evening. But the next morning was a whole different matter. By the time we crawled out of our tent, all of our fellow campers had hit the trail and we had the entire place to ourselves. I can not adequately put into words how it felt to have free reign over a place like Precipice Lake. Suffice it to say that it was finally time to jump into what has to be one of the worlds most stunning swimming pools!

But wait, there’s more!

Want to hear more about this backpacking trip? I wrote a detailed post about our experience Backpacking The Mineral King Loop.

Most Liked Photo Of The Year: Mesas And Buttes In Monument Valley

Sunset at Hunts Mesa in Monument Valley Navaho Tribal Park.

I’ve been to Monument Valley a couple other times. Each time for less than an hour, each time with the goal of getting to Hunts Mesa. And each time a relative failure. 

This time I was in Monument Valley for a job with GetYourGuide. The Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park had just reopened after COVID-19 had forced the Navajo to close it to the public for almost 2 years. I had signed up for a 3-hour sunrise tour of the valley, then the plan was to spend the night at The View Hotel and leave. I had more or less given up hope of ever making it to Hunts Mesa. It had been closed the last two times I’d been in the area, and given that the Tribal Park was just opening back up, it seemed unlikely that it would be open now. 

Our guide for the sunrise tour pulled up in the pitch dark outside our hotel. We slowly rumbled along the dirt roads taking in one beautiful view after another. Then, more to make conversation than anything else, I asked about Hunts Mesa.

As I anticipated, he explained that they hadn’t started running tours up to Hunts Mesa yet. Maybe next time, I thought.

As I climbed out of the Jeep at the end of our tour, the guide scribbled something down on a piece of paper and handed it to me. I glanced at it:  “Phillips’ Photography Tours” was written in neat block letters. “Call Phil”, he said. “He’ll take you to Hunts Mesa.” And that’s precisely what we did. 

Of all the mind-boggling views at Monument Valley, this has to be one of my favorites. Getting there is no easy task. You need to hire an authorized Navaho guide to take you up the long bumpy dirt road to Hunts Mesa. It took about two hours to get to the top, but the time flew by. Phill knew the land intimately and told so many funny stories from his childhood adventures amongst the surrounding mesas and buttes that the drive was almost better than the destination. Almost. But not quite! Because the destination was nothing short of spectacular. Once we arrived, there wasn’t much to do except enjoy the views. Which is just the way I like it! 

And That’s a wrap! Thank you so much for being part of my 2021. It was a strange year, with lot’s of uncertainty that kept us all on our feet. I know I’ve said it before, but without your support, I wouldn’t be able to live this life that has brought me so much joy over the past few years. I’m continually looking for ways to give back to this community. If there’s anything I can do in the new year to bring more value to you or your bucket list, please let me know. Wishing you nothing but the best for 2022!

More Posts To Spark Your Wanderlust

The Stories Behind Your Favorite Posts of 2020

The Stories Behind Your Favorite Posts of 2019

And

The Stories Behind Your Favorite Posts of 2018

The Stories Behind Your Favorite Posts of 2017

Or

Building A Business On Social Media

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  1. Alexys says:

    Love these stories! I always look forward to reading your blog posts. Your images are stunning, and I love the way you write! You are such an inspiration in the outdoor community. Thank you for taking the time to write all of these helpful blogs and sharing your amazing travel stories and photos! 🤗

  2. Crystal says:

    I always enjoy these posts! I can’t decide between the inversion or Precipice Lake as my fave. You are definitely livin’ the life!

  3. Rhonda says:

    Thank you for sharing the stories behind the photos and trips! This makes the photos even more meaningful snd you and Quinn more colorful. I always look forward to your posts and writing. Safe travels for 2022 and Happy New Year to you both!

    • Jessica Dales says:

      Thank you so much Rhonda. I really appreciate you stopping by and taking the time to read the blog. I hope that you had a wonderful New Year and that 2022 treats you well.

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Hi, I’m Jess, an outdoor enthusiast based in Seattle. I grew up exploring the Pacific Northwest, and early on was infected with the travel bug. I tried to suppress my wanderlust in pursuit of a traditional career path, but after a short stint as a lawyer, I left the confines of my office to get back in touch with my roots. Now, I wander the world taking photos, making memories, and sharing my love for travel with others!

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