Acadia National Park

Maine – Visited May 2018. 

Acadia is a wonderful place for your children to learn how philanthropy, descended through time, enables protection of wild places. Through charitable giving, generations have had the opportunity to explore, preserve, and enjoy this North Atlantic coastal park. With crisp blue skies, lush green vegetation, and picturesque views, it is easy to see why this is a favorite for many.

The park has glistening inland ponds that entice exploration by bike, on foot, or by horse. The rocky coastal environment is exceptionally scenic, and even the little ones will enjoy the views. Tide pools offer opportunity to dip feet into crisp ocean waters while exploring special habitats. Quaint tours by boat are great fun for older kids. Souvenir shopping, and fine dining are plentiful in the seaside town of Bar Harbor. This is a park that can be enjoyed by everyone.

Acadia left me in wonderment, and our visit here was like glimpsing another world. It left me somewhat haunted, because we have so many parks left to visit, but this place beckons for me to spend more time. It’s placed in a region, that in another lifetime, I think I could have called home. The rugged beauty, hardworking people, and wide expansive outdoors place this special park in the heart.

Junior Ranger Badge:

  • Glacial Geology
  • Archaeology
  • Gifting Acadia
  • Loons
  • Tidal Pools

Extra Tips:

Biking on the carriage roads is better suited for older children. The famed carriage roads (constructed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to travel by horse and carriage without encountering motor vehicles) are a delightful way to tour the interior of the park. The rock chip surface and incline would be difficult for little legs to manage. Even our 11-year-old became frustrated at one point. Witch Hole Pond is a lovely carriage loop trail for families with older children to bike.

Read about park ecology and history before you visit. In our experience, we felt Acadia National Park visitor centers were lacking in educational exhibits. I was disappointed by the lack of ecological interpretive information. The Hulls Cove Visitor Center offered no interpretive displays. The Sieur de Monts Nature Center was closed during our visit, but it is small. The most valuable information was provided by a park ranger accompanying our schooner tour. With such a unique ecosystem, and habitat profoundly interwoven into the lives of residents, we thought there would be more opportunities to learn about lobster fishing, whales off the coast, or tide pool ecology. There is substantial information available on the park website, and I would strongly recommend researching and learning about the park before you visit.  There are lobster boat tours, not affiliated with the park, that you might want to consider if interested in learning more about this industry.

Take a boat tour. This is an ocean side park, and knowing what life is like on the pristine waters is part of the experience. We enjoyed a schooner tour, and my son helped hoist the sails!! We would have also enjoyed a seasonal passenger ferry to the Cranberry Islands.

Remember:

Reduce your footprint as much as possible to protect this place. This park is fragile and heavily visited. At all times, stay on the path. Only park in designated areas. Have a plan B to visit other destinations in the park, such as Schoodic Peninsula or Isle Au Haut if you can’t find parking. Consider taking the Island Explorer to tour the Park Loop Road area.

Limit your use of single use plastics. It takes resources to both bring and remove them from the island.

Where to Eat:

Jordon Pond House offers the tradition of popovers and blueberry lemonade, but it is both busy and expensive. Roadside lobster shacks at park entrances are an excellent choice, and there are plenty of wonderful restaurants in Bar Harbor.

At nearby roadside lobster shacks, daring taste buds will have the opportunity to try this fresh from the sea delicacy. There is nothing quite like fresh caught Maine lobster, a definite bucket list item. Blueberry pies, ice cream, and scones are also a treat, and every child is going to ask for a famous blueberry soda pop!

When to Go:

This park is busy, avoid peak times if possible. Even visiting in late May, before most park programs were available, was hectic. If you appreciate National Parks as a respite from humanity, try to avoid June through August. If you must go during these months, go beyond the heavily visited Park Loop Road. Schoodic Peninsula, away from most of the tourist destinations, offers solace. During our trip in late May, we were able to enjoy the area near Sewall Campground, particularly Wonderland, in relative solitude.

Where to Stay:

The Bar Harbor Oceanside KOA cabins were a perfect choice for our family. With bunkbeds for the kids, it gave us a better night’s rest than we would have had at a hotel. Our cabin came with a separate master bedroom, and a full kitchen for convenience. This campground boasts beautiful sunsets, tidal pools to explore, and they are dog friendly.

Support ‘Restore Our Parks Act’

I am unabashed when it comes to writing my representatives, and there are usually one or two issues per year for which I contact them. If you are new to advocacy, it is incredibly easy! To find contact information, click here for your congressman, and here for your senator.

Below is the email I sent mine asking them to support Restore Our Parks Act. Feel free to copy/edit/paste from my letter when you contact your representatives. To learn more about this act, visit National Parks Conservation Association. They explain why support is paramount to funding the $12 billion park system maintenance backlog.

“Please support the bipartisan Restore Our Parks Act. As a parent who has taken my children to 29 of the 61 National Parks, I cannot emphasize enough how exceptional these places are and how important they are to my identity as an American. They truly are our National Treasures. Sadly, the maintenance backlog for these places has become nearly overwhelming. Park staff work hard to protect and maintain aging and crumbling facilities, while millions visit. The parks need to be safe, maintained, and accessible in ways necessary to fundamentally protect visitors and that park’s primary purpose (ecological, historical, etc.).

Our park system offers so many things to both citizens of our nation, and foreign guests. Our park system offers educational opportunities to children through the Junior Ranger program. Through this program, my children have learned history, archaeology, ecology, geology, architecture, engineering and paleontology. They have also retained that knowledge because it was taught to them in some of the most beautiful places on earth. For many foreign visitors, these parks also become a window to view our nation. Are we crumbling, are we poorly maintained, are we on the precipice of decline?

I blog and advocate for our national parks, purely for love of them, not for economical gain in any way. You can read about our family’s adventures, enjoy some insight to these special places, and learn about our quest to see all 61 at www.nationalpark4kids.com. What national park system sites in Texas have you had the opportunity to visit? We just returned from Big Bend National Park, it was spectacular. It is an absolute gem, and deserving of the protection and maintenance being requested.

I am happy to discuss my love for these places with you further. Please contact me if I can give you any further insight or assist in any way.”

 

 

 

Gateway Arch National Park?

Missouri – Visited June 2018 (28 out of 61)

This is no National Park

Where did the idea to re-designate this place a National Park originate? If you read online boards and blogs, there are multiple conspiracy theories. Was it designated as predictor of reduced federal protection for public lands in the west? Is it part of a new westward expansion? Is it Trump favoritism to increase property values in the vicinity?

Gateway Arch doesn’t meet the characteristic qualities of any other National Park. Within the National Park System, there are 19 naming designations such as: historical parks; historic sites; national monuments; and national recreation areas. Many of these would have been substantially more fitting. The area comprising Gateway Arch National Park is a pittance at 0.8 km². Out of the 60 other National Parks, the average area they encompass is 3,400 km². The second smallest, Hot Springs in Arkansas, still dwarfs this park at 22.5 km² (Wikipedia 2019).

At this park, there are no special geologic or archaeological features. There are no unique habitats or ecological systems that need protection. There is a man-made arch, a small park, and an underground museum. It is set in an industrialized area of St. Louis, MO along the Mississippi River. The river bank adjacent the park area is bricked, and appears quite lifeless. It serves as the slanted parking lot for vehicles too large to fit in the parking garage. The river water shimmers with oil sheen and loud barges pass. A sign and dock beckon a ride on a riverboat, its white wheel still trying to hopelessly recollect days more pleasant along this lofty river.

Still we went. There is history to be learned here, but I think the summation of this experience is what we don’t want. It reflects what we really want to see when we venture to a National Park: natural arches, natural caves, natural rainbows, natural river banks – NATURE. Kids will learn a few things, they will enjoy the arch, like they enjoy an amusement park ride.

Remember: Be aware, this isn’t a place to pull your RV especially if you aren’t used to driving in traffic or dense population. If you are trying to get to all National Parks, you have another place to add to your list, but go with a different perspective on what you will be experiencing. Go, and then write your politicians to demand protection for our WILD spaces.

Junior Ranger Badge:

  • Arch Design
  • History of Westward Expansion
  • Architecture

Things to Do Nearby:

  • Old Courthouse
  • Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

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Big Bend National Park

Texas – Visited March 2019 (29 out of 61)

Be Prepared, Be Flexible, Keep the Gas Tank Full, Roll in Mud if Attacked by Bees

Frequently, the goal of visiting a National Park is capturing the gorgeous sunset and smiling faces after climbing an extraordinary peak! Often, that picture can’t be captured without some tremendous and ridiculous endeavor, especially with children in tow. However, it isn’t worth it if it means traipsing along highly trafficked trails, parking on the side of the road onto precious wildflowers, or in other ways demeaning the value of the park. Big Bend is huge, and full of many opportunities to explore, find self meaning, and live with values that protect and celebrate wild places. When you visit, enjoy these opportunities and always follow park rules to protect it for future generations, and for the wildlife that call it home.

Big Bend is stupendous, but it isn’t for the faint-of-heart. It isn’t a place for someone expecting a gourmet meal and a spa treatment at the end of the day, unless you are willing to go through some extraordinary measures. Safety and preparation are also paramount. If you really want to get a hold of this place, think Rango. Go with optimism, a sense of humor, and a completely full tank of gas.

This park is about hiking, a lot of hiking. Hike up hills, down hills, across deserts, through dry ravines laden with javelina scat. Hike under sun, in shade, and amidst snake and prickly plant infested territory.

This park is also about the southern border with Mexico, and you can’t visit without being cognizant of that fact. Our government continues to fail passing meaningful immigration laws. Let me be clear, I abhor illegal immigration. I think it is dangerous, and immoral. I think, as a society, a second class of citizens has been created that have few protections against workplace danger. I think everyday Americans take advantage, with people to build, paint, and clean their homes; and do their yard work. Small and large businesses become wealthy from that labor source, and thus it has been difficult to regulate. If we need foreign workers, then we need a system to effectively, and legally manage that labor. However, I cant conceive of a border wall being constructed across this place. Equally, it made me visualize what one would look like elsewhere, across habitats, scenic vistas, ranches, and peoples backyards. We need to demand more from our politicians, and ourselves. We need an immigration system that works. You can use your visit here as an opportunity to talk to your children about citizenship, borders, and how human and animal habitats frequently cross these imaginary lines. 

  • Fill your gas tank at the last gas station you see before you enter the park, and fill up every time you pass a gas station in the park. Keep the gas tank full because the park is large, remote, and their are few resources. 
  • Bring plenty of water with you, everywhere. Bring full gallon jugs to keep in the car, and always, always bring water with you when you are hiking. I would recommend a minimum of at least 1 liter of water/person for hikes less than 4 miles, and 2 liters of water for longer hikes (especially in temperatures above 80° F). 1 gallon/person/day is the hiking standard. Don’t rely on spring water to filter, and utilize. It isn’t reliable and wildlife need these resources to get through the dry months. People have died in this park because they did not take enough water with them. 
  • Don’t bring your dog. He won’t be happy because this place is dry, prickly, and full of things that could eat, bite, or sting him. You won’t be happy because there are very stringent rules about where pups can join your treks.

Remember:

It is crazy busy in March! This is by far the busiest time of year, as most Texas schools have spring break in March. However, early spring is when the wildflowers are amazing, and the weather is beautiful. Just be patient and be flexible. Study the park map ahead of time. Understand that there will be full parking lots in some areas, and be prepared to find another nearby trail or activity. There is plenty to see and do, so don’t get frustrated or disappointed.

Where to Eat:

There aren’t many options for dining facilities within the park. To be economical, and healthy, you should bring food and snacks with you. Rio Grande, Panther, and Castolon all have snacks and sodas to purchase. Rio Grande has some very basic pantry items. The only restaurant within the park is Chisos Mountain Lodge. It is expensive, and very busy. They have some fun cocktails and a relatively nice menu, including one for children. Terlingua has some interesting dining choices, for when you finish up activities on the west side of the park.

When to Go:

The cooler months are your best bet for enjoying this park (October thru March). With so much desert hiking terrain, it would be a challenge to hike with children in the summer when temperatures exceed 100° F, and not much shade is to be found. While the Chisos Moutains may be up to 20° F cooler than the temperatures found on the desert floor, you still must drive across a great deal of desert to reach that location. This park is a great escape for those living in northern latitudes wishing to escape the cold winter! Check the NPS Park Website for additional information.

Where to Stay:

The answer to this question depends upon how far in advance you are planning, when you intend to visit, and your budget. If you are looking for hotel style lodging, make reservations six to nine months in advance, especially if you plan to visit during cooler months.  Visit Big Bend is an excellent resource for accommodations. Within the park, getting a campsite can be a challenge during busy times. We stayed at Stillwell RV Park, which is 7 miles from Persimmon Gap entrance. It was perfect for our needs, and they never turn anyone away.

Example Itinerary

Day 1: Grapevine Hills Trail was perfect! This especially scenic hike is great for all ages, but takes a short and bumpy dirt road to reach. We drove in our pickup, but saw much smaller cars. This trail is a 2-mile RT in and out straight to a small boulder laden peak. We climbed it, enjoyed the fading sun, checked out the pretty flowers, and raced back to the truck so my son could grill burgers on the tail gate. He is 15, and he eats a lot, like, all the time! He was grill master, and it was just one of those perfect park days, really.

Day 2: Oak Spring Trail to Window Trail (4.3 mile in and out, add additional 4 miles if road is closed)– all downhill from here, or up, depending on your perspective. After abundant research, I clearly ascertained that Window Trail from Chisos Basin is bulging with people, which is not the way this outside gal would like to spend her time in the wild! So, in a moment of brilliance, I thought we would take Oak Spring Trail to Window Trail from the back side. First off, the road to the trail was closed, but this adventurer will not be dissuaded. Onward – across a 2-mile dirt road to the trail head (adding 4 more miles to this hike – shh don’t tell my family). I keep cool though, it’s all in the plan (wink wink). Then, we ascended, and went up, and climbed some more, and found ourselves on the side of the igneous mountain, to which I had assured my beautiful daughter we would NOT be climbing. Having nearly crested, and yet to see the illustrious ‘window’, we continued feeling rather like dwarfs or trolls (or whatever they are in Lord of the Rings) on an unexpected journey. Trying not to look over the steep edge, I tried humming the theme song, and relating that glorious feeling to my family, but they weren’t having any of it.  My kids quit. They stopped, in the middle of trail and sat. They weren’t going any further. So, I left them! YES, I DID! My son is 15 and one heck of a Scout, I knew they would be fine (especially because I load their first aid backpack kits with all sorts of precautions, they unwillingly carry with them everywhere).

When we reached the Window Trail (literally directly below), my kiddos decided to follow. It could have been the beckoning call of the stream, but more likely it was the sounds of other human life forms that lured them onward. Window Trail was packed!! It was not really hiking, but more like trekking across some water filled pools with zillions of others, trying not to slip and take out the person perilously walking in front of you.  We saw the ‘Window’ meh – just don’t let the little ones too close to the edge. 

The return trip was kind of like riding horses, super slow on the way out and running on the way back. We finally made it to the gravel road when I heard a humming sound and my husband saying “uh, honey”, which was ironic because as I looked back anticipating a car heading our direction instead I saw a giant cloud of bees was heading our way. “This is how we die, in a National Park, stung by thousands of Africanized bees” – is what I thought. “Puddle, where is water, no water to jump in, can I make mud by pouring the contents of my water bottle on the ground? No, I cannot, only 100 ml left!” “Kids, bees, duck!” I stammered, and just like that the bees were gone.

All this called for one remainder of the day, drinks and dinner in  Terlingua

Terlingua is FUNKY! It’s the greatest little end of the earth drop off town, ever! If you are expecting to see a Whataburger, you will be mistaken. Have you ever seen Young Guns? This place is a dry, dusty old mining town surrounded by glorious nothingness. Old bearded men, and motorcycle dudes sit beneath the veranda at the High Sierra Bar and Grill and drink beer. Dogs slip through the fence to greet patrons and beg for treats. The food, um, the drinks are cold, and the tequila is plentiful. GO!! Take the kids, let them see the reflection of endurance it takes to make a life in the far reaches (and patience, it takes time to cook food). Sip that cold margarita and know peace.

High Sierra Bar & Grill

Day 3: My family is sore from climbing the rocky crags from the day before. So, we take it easy, stopping at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. It has lovely architecture, placement, paleontology, and one display covers dog-sized-horses (not genetically selected by crazy pony breeders, but real fossilized tiny horses)!

Fossil Discovery Center

Homer Wilson Blue Creek Ranch is a fun hike for the little ones, and easily doable with a baby carrier. Only 0.5 miles RT, it leads to an incredible historic ranch site with a lovely little ranch house I would move to in a heartbeat. The back veranda offers an incredible view, and the ceilings are exquisite.

Homer Wilson (2)

At La Harmonia Store in Costolon, apparently, there are some excellent exhibits that explain military history in the area. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch that because my son has great taste in music and a new blue tooth speaker. So, we chilled in the parking lot, ate sandwiches on the tailgate, and people watched. The bathrooms here are nice, clean, and the toilet flushes which is a definite wonder in this far flung desert park.

The Dorgan-Sublett Trail was one of my favorites. It’s short, only 1-mile RT, but it leads to two small mesas where you can look to the Rio Grande valley and get your children to imagine what it would have been like to live on these homesteads. Inside the Dorgan home remains an incredible fireplace constructed of utterly magnificent petrified log stones.  My adorable family reached it before I did and they predicted I would be ecstatic when I saw, and I was!!

Santa Elena Canyon Trail – Packed, no place to park. Please don’t park on the side of the road and squish the wildflowers! You’ll get a ticket and look like a donkey. Turn around (with a 60 point turn like my awesome husband) and go park at the overlook, admire the view and head on to other things. There is so much to see, I promise you won’t miss it.

Santa Elena Canyon Overlook

Mule Ears Spring Trail – This 3.8-mile RT hike is a definite must for anyone with moderate hiking abilities. It isn’t exceptionally steep, but we did it on an overcast cool day – don’t attempt if it is above 80° F with smaller kids. My kids loved it, I didn’t even see them, they were always far ahead. I hate when I can’t see them, but they needed bonding time. My daughter misses her busy high school brother. So, if one was bitten by a rattlesnake (which fortunately they weren’t) I would have just chocked it up to sibling bonding. Plus, my husband and I had alone time, we may have even kissed. We grilled brats in the trail parking lot. Happy Day.

Day 4: We summited the misty mountain!!! No, really, we climbed the entire 12.4-mile Laguna Meadows, South Rim, Boot Canyon, Pinnacles route, and it was misty all day and so we didn’t see the views from South Rim, which is why we climbed the mountain. No golden ring. We did see the psychotic trail toilets though. Those things are ridiculous and look like something out of a horror film!! Please, don’t subject your children to the terror. They will have nightmares for the rest of their existence. Besides the fact that they look like massive thrones placed on the mountain, they are built for huge, tall timbering men. 

You thought I was going to write about the incredible mountain, and trek. Nope, if you want to know, climb requisite. We saw lots of college-age kids, and a few small children. Third graders will complain, fourth graders need lots of snacks, fifth graders and up will love it. It is considered the premier hike to do in Texas, and it will not disappoint!

Day 5: Rio Grande Village. It was a lot warmer on this side of the park, and busier. That might have been because the gas station at Panther Junction wasn’t working and the park personnel had to drive all the way to Odessa to get the necessary part. It is remote here, I’m telling you. Everyone was racing to Rio Grande Village for gas, and people were in line. Most people got it, the pump is slow, there is one side for gasoline and one for diesel. Most people were patient, and kind. One wasn’t. Don’t be the one, don’t be the donkey.

Boquillas Canyon Trail is fantastic. There was plenty of parking, and the 1.5-mile RT trail leads to exceptional views along the Rio Grande River where you come across homemade artistic wares for sale from the folks across the stream (across the stream is the country of Mexico, in case you didn’t realize). The artisans wait on the other side, probably with binoculars, for visitors to purchase and deposit cash in empty bottles they may collect in the dead of night, or in the middle of the day. One fellow was on a horse, so I wouldn’t skimp on the pay if you acquire a trinket. The trail leads to a fantastic, beautiful fault. I was ecstatic. My daughter thinks I am crazy, but she knows what a fault looks like. Yes, she does.

Hot Springs Historic Trail – Parking lot full, don’t be a donkey and run over the flowers parking on the side of the road if there isn’t a proper parking space. Apparently, the hot springs is the size of a large pick up truck, and people wait in line to get in. YUCK!!! It was the one temptation that my children were most looking forward to enjoying, and unfortunately this slightly germ-a-phobic mother made them pass.

River Road East to Glenn Springs Road – If you are brave and know what you would do if you had a flat tire in the middle of the desert, find a dirt road. If you have a back country-prepper kind of mindset, and you and the kids wouldn’t mind sleeping in the car if you break an axle, find a dirt road. If you have a very full tank of gas, find a dirt road. Big Bend is really experienced best this way. This 801,163-acre national park is full of wide-open spaces best accessible on bumpy, dirt roads that wind their way through the park. At the suggestion of a ranger, we took River Road East, swooped up to Glenn Spring and then out on Glenn Springs Road. We pulled over along the way (in a pull off, not on flowers) and grilled steak, salmon, and corn on the cob. We drank beer and root beer and roasted Peeps to make smores. It was windy, the sky was blue, and the sun was setting. It was the perfect dusty, prospecting, playing down on the desert kind of day that would have made my Grandpa Timothy proud.

Day 6: Sleep in, go get your Junior Ranger Badges, and do a little rock hunting at Stillwell RV Park. Stillwell is a private overflow campground for Big Bend National Park. It is located 30 miles north of Panther Junction, and only about 7 miles from Persimmon Gap entrance. Spring Break is ridiculously busy, and we did not want to search for a camping spot within the park, so we enjoyed our stay here. You cannot collect rock, flower, or animal specimens in the park, but you can collect rocks at Stillwell!!!

We didn’t let the sun set on our last day without a hike in the park, though. We drove to the Persimmon Gap Ranger Station and took the trail up the dry stream bed. It was laden, heavily, with javelina scat. We hiked, scrambled up rocks, and looked at the most fantastic geology yet. This is a great hike for little kids till you get to the rock cliff face at the end of the wash, then it’s best left to the mountain goats. We also, finally, saw a family of javelina up close. It was so exciting!!

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Shenandoah National Park

Virginia – May 2018 (25 out of 61)

Take your children to Shenandoah National Park to enjoy hiking along trails that lead to glittering waterfalls. Let them scamper along gorgeously wooded paths to find abundant wildflowers decorating the landscape. Take your children to learn about the profound sacrifice that was required to form this mountain oasis.

The creation of Shenandoah National Park is a story of volunteer and forced personal contribution to establish a sliver of preserved land along the Appalachian Mountains. It was conceived as a respite for people in large eastern cities, so they too could enjoy a place like the national parks in the west. A stop at the Harry F. Byrd Sr. Visitor Center prior to exploring is key to understanding and appreciating this place.

Besides extraordinary natural beauty, exquisite hiking trails, and excellent camping accommodations, time spent here is a great way to explore environmental philosophy. Was it right for the State of Virginia to utilize eminent domain to forcibly remove citizens to create the park? How much oversight are we willing to accept from government to regulate our individual choices when it comes to environmental protection? How much sacrifice are we willing to self-impose?  How can we improve choices that we make as individuals so environmental decimation does not entail mandatory or government directed change? During our visit, our children were asked to help raise the flag at the visitor center. This park offers a great way to consider the conjunction of citizenship and environmental protection.

Junior Rangers at Shenandoah

Junior Ranger Badge:

Pick up a Junior Ranger Activity Book from a visitor center and let your children complete the booklet. When completed, return it to a park ranger for them to take the park pledge and earn a Junior Ranger Badge! Don’t forget to drop some money in the donation box to pay for the expenses. At Shenandoah, children will learn about:

  • Habitats
  • Using senses
  • Seasonal changes
  • Wildlife
  • Water cycle
  • Nature journals
  • Animal adaptations
  • Map reading
  • History
  • Weather and climate
  • Astronomy

Extra Tips:

Look Up! This densely wooded landscape is serenely graced by chestnut, red oak, maple, birch, ash, basswood, and poplar trees. Remember, that what grows up must also come down (eventually). When hiking, picnicking, or setting up your campsite remember to look overhead particularly at the sound of any creaking or groaning heard from above. On our trip, we were certain to look overhead before setting up tents in the back-country. We chose an area in a clearing with no overhanging branches. After sunset, we heard several pops and cracks. At first, we believed that it might have been wildlife. Alright admittedly, I thought it was a bear. When two large limbs crashed to the forest floor I screamed (loudly) imagining a bear rushing! It was especially terrifying when we saw how gigantic the fallen branches were the next morning. They were tent crushers, for certain! We are so grateful that we looked up prior to setting camp.

Fallen Branches

Consider densely caloric, easy snacks, for children to carry. Honestly, I still haven’t figured out the exact amount of gear necessary for our backpacking trips. I know I would pack lighter if it were just my husband and I. However, with my children joining us it is always hard for me not to lug everything and the kitchen sink. I have learned that food needs to be carefully chosen. I don’t like relying on water in nature to prepare all our meals. I avoid perishable (easily squished) items as much as possible. I am plugging Pro Meal Bars (never received money or samples…yet)! They really are delicious, they stick with you for a long time, they make the best quick lunch while hiking. Oatmeal in the morning is easily prepared with a little boiling water. There are many prepared backpacker dinner meals available. I have found them to be either too spicy or too bland for my taste, and picky children might have an especially hard time eating them. We have started making our own dinner meals with rice, soup mixes, and cooked chicken pouches – make sure you are using a quick cooking rice (under 15 minutes). I give each a 1-gallon seal-able plastic bag with all our meals inside. They serve dual purpose as trash bags and we put them all together in one bag at night to tie in the tree for bear protection. I add a few hard candies, and I always bring along a little extra food for the kids. They trip, and the food spills, and you don’t want them going hungry. But, you probably won’t need the kitchen sink after all!!

Many hiking trails are steep. This park follows a ridge line, so trails predominantly slope off to one side or the other. There are exceptions near visitor centers, where nature hikes offer a more leveled experience. Hiking trails to waterfalls are generally quite steep. Back-country trails for the most part are both steep and rocky. We manged a 10-mile hike over 2 days/one night. I recommend hiking poles or walking sticks. Younger children who have never hiked or backpacked might find many areas especially challenging. For a more enjoyable trip consider height elevation changes in your planning.

Steep and Rocky

Remember:

In our experience, a general rule of thumb in National Parks is that dogs are only allowed within campground or other paved areas where there is an abundance of people. Each National Park is unique and generally has very specified rules regarding where “man’s best friend” can roam, leash lengths, etc. Park rules must consider the safety of visitors and wildlife. Please, review the rules for every place that you visit prior to going and make accommodations accordingly. These specified rules are available on park websites. Shenandoah National Park allows for dogs to accompany you in many locations, including hiking trails. However, some hiking trails specifically prohibit pets. Always, always be prepared to pick up after your pet, and carry or bury as permitted.

 

When to Go:

With over 1 million visitors per year enjoying Shenandoah National Park, solitude can be a little out of reach at popular times of the year. We enjoyed our visit in early May, when Big Meadow Campgrounds first began to allow reservations. There were still plenty of campsites available when we arrived on Thursday, but the campground quickly filled though not to full capacity. Unfortunately, many of the trees were still leafless and will not be fully dressed until the end of the May. Abundant wildflowers, however, were in full view. Popular hiking trails had a spattering of people, but we were able to find our perfect back-country campsite on the Rose River Loop where we were secluded. Thankfully, we were alone enough that nobody came running to the sound of my screaming when a bear…er branch fell.

Where to Eat:

The Appalachian Trail runs directly through Shenandoah National Park. As such, there are wonderful amenities for hikers within the park. Check out the Waysides for dining room or take out options that provide breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Misty Mountains

Redwood Forest National Park

California – July 2013 (11 out of 61)

There are certain places, that as a child, we learn about in wonderment. These places become revered in our heart, and we know that one day we will see them, as though time does flow backwards. Redwoods was that place for me.

Protecting the environment has always meant something very visceral. As a child, when asked, I would tell people I wanted to “save the panda bears” while others listed off nurse, doctor, or policeman. I didn’t have mantra pounding parents that led me to this conclusion. My father was a coal miner, so was my grandfather, and many uncles. I did live surrounded by nature in Utah, and we spent a great deal of time camping and exploring.

I have an MS in Environmental Management, and was blessed for years putting that to work in industry where I always felt impactful. Our family made our choice, as all families must, and I decided it best to stay at home with our children for now. I will go back to work again, but I am hesitant. I have felt hesitant for many years, but it isn’t for reasons that most people fear. I know that I will be entering the loosing battle again. It’s difficult to work on something that continues to erode, like a retreating glacier. There have been success stories, but make no mistake on a global level we are loosing the battle to protect earth’s environmental resources.

For now I must do the best I can to fulfill the part of me desperate to protect this beautiful planet. That means, sharing preserved and protected places with others, encourage them to visit, and most importantly take their children so that future generations will learn the importance of conservation. Wild places are necessary, but if a child doesn’t appreciate them, can we expect they will protect them in the future? I am flabbergasted by the number of our children’s friends who have never even gone car camping. Is a hotel with a water park more valuable to these kids than a stand of Redwood trees?

For some reason of evolution, preservation, or original sin, it is human nature to want more. It is hard to shun bigger, better, newer. So, knowing this about ourselves, we need to value preservation as a premier source of protecting our planet. Preservation is the “easy button”. Allowing earth systems to work their magic takes nothing but preservation.

Over 95% of the redwood forest was cut down. That is such a mind-bending number when you stand in awe of this magnificent forest. Add climate change into the picture, and it is heart wrenching. The redwood forest stores more carbon dioxide per acre than any forest in the world, even at its decimated state (https://e360.yale.edu/digest/california_redwoods_co2_storage).

Understanding climate science doesn’t need to be political. It is a very factual explanation, and “What Good is a Redwood” (available on the Redwood Forest National Park website) is a video that offers an easy to understand presentation. The basics are simple, ice core data tells us that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are greater now than for the majority of human evolutionary history. Currently, we are around 400 ppm.  For the past 400,000 years, this value hasn’t exceeded 300 ppm. The rate of carbon dioxide increase is currently exponential. Why is that a problem? Light energy enters the atmosphere from the sun. This energy then bounces off the earth surface as radiant energy. The radiant energy waves are absorbed by green house gas molecules in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is one of those molecules. It vibrates with the radiant energy it absorbs and holds it against the earth’s surface like a big woolen blanket. That energy is a good thing, normally, it keeps us from freezing. But, too much, especially more than what we have experienced for the last 400,000 years will affect our earth systems on a global scale. It is not just climate that is impacted, but also chemistry. Consider that as the oceans (our greatest carbon sink) absorb carbon dioxide in the air, carbonic acid is created increasing the acidity of our oceans. That is just one environmental cliff that we are about to face.

Therefore, preservation and proper funding of our national parks is critical. Besides the nature connection we feel when we visit, they promote biodiversity. They harness the environment to help keep essential earth life support systems functioning. They repair our planet daily.

Take your children to Redwoods National Forest to educate them about climate science. Let them wander in wonderment. Take your children here to freely appreciate the importance of stewardship and let them know that as huge and wondrous as our planet is, it is also precariously fragile. It takes every one of us making choices every day to do our best. We do it one decision at a time, to protect what is ours…like forgoing the paper plates for our next camping trip and just washing the dishes already. See, that wasn’t so hard.

Junior Ranger Badge:

Pick up a Junior Ranger Activity Book from one of the many Park Visitor Centers and let your children complete the booklet. When completed, return it to a park ranger for them to take the park pledge and earn a Junior Ranger Badge! Don’t forget to drop some money in the donation box to pay for the expenses. At Redwood, children will learn about:

  • Habitat
  • Signs of Wildlife
  • Tide Pools
  • Weather
  • Nursery Logs
  • American Indians
  • Banana Slugs

Jr Rangers in the Cave of Redwood

Remember:

Everything is protected in a National Park, including bugs! These creepy crawlies are essential to a healthy ecosystem, especially in the redwood forest. With over 100 inches of annual rainfall, the soil would be quickly leached of important nutrients. However, bugs, and other decomposers regenerate these nutrients by converting fallen leaves into topsoil! They are part of a special life cycle, so give them the respect they deserve and no squishing. The redwoods forest is full of some extraordinary bugs, too. We were fortunate to see both the yellow spotted millipede, and a quite perfectly posed banana slug on the Lady Bird Johnson Grove sign itself!

Extra Tips:

Where to Eat

It is approximately one hour from Eureka, California to Redwoods National Park. Truly exceptional local seafood is served in several establishments in Eureka that are absolutely worth the time, especially for dinner. The Sea Grill in Old Town Eureka was probably our favorite! I even tried raw oysters and let me tell you that they were amazing. They reminded me of a mouthful of seawater in the best way…really. The Eureka Visitor Center offers great suggestions for restaurants and activities in the area.

 

Hot Springs National Park

Arkansas – April 2016

“If I had a Million Dollars, I’d eat Peaches every day, and other Strange Things”

The most peculiar park we have yet to visit, Hot Springs National Park offers a glimpse at a bygone era of “healthful” endeavors. Of all National Parks we could visit on the centennial, this one seems in contradiction to the ideal. However, there is a depth and history beyond first impressions. Over-tapping of natural heated spring waters threatened to destroy the resource that was sought. So, this land was set aside in the 1800’s (even before Yellowstone National Park) as a federal reservation.

The fancy bathhouses and chilling (if not down-right tortuous) devices for recovery, such as electro-massage, are on full display as you tour the Fordyce Bathhouse. Individuals once came here to recuperate from syphilis, malaria, and other contagious diseases. One can’t help but wonder if these places were more hindrance in the past than help. However, two prominent therapies, still widely incorporated today included hydration through consumption of clean water, and fresh air obtained by walking along mountain trails and the promenade. While we chose to forgo the “bathing” experience allotted by the bathhouses still in operation within the park, we did taste the tasteless hydro thermal heated spring waters, and we did enjoy a peaceful hike through the forest behind bathhouse row.

In this park, contradictions are everywhere and reflected in the boundless interests and perspectives of every individual American, and those from other lands as well. A “Permit to Protest on National Park Land” exercised on an issue in Norway passed by us on the street. The busy hum of traffic down bathhouse row is a direct reflection of the supreme need to protect open, wild spaces.

This park should be appreciated as much for the extraordinary history, as well as the jarring contradictions. It was an interesting place to reflect upon this juxtaposition on the National Park Centennial. It is a reminder, still, that we need what nature provides. The battle continues today for funding and resources to protect and preserve the places we hold most dear.

….and the peaches song was just something that we heard on the radio while visiting that became our Hot Springs theme song.

Protest in a Park

Junior Ranger Badge:

Pick up a Junior Ranger Activity Book from the Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center and let your children complete the booklet. When completed, return it to a park ranger for them to take the park pledge and earn a Junior Ranger Badge! Don’t forget to drop some money in the donation box to pay for the expenses. At Hot Springs, children will learn about:

  • The Fordyce Bathhouse
  • History of Bathhouse Row and Architectural Décor
  • Heating of the Spring Water without Volcanic Activity
  • The Water Cycle
  • National Preservation

Remember

This is a busy city, and bathhouse row is located along a busy street. Watch your children carefully and use the cross walks.

When to Go

Fortuitously, we planned our visit during the Arkansas Derby in April! Seriously, it was unlike any National Park visit we have ever experienced but just as fun in a wonderfully quirky way. Held at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, the derby is a blast for kids of all ages We brought our lawn chairs and were able to sit inside the oval near the track to watch the horses racing. The kids loved it, my daughter especially enjoyed watching the ladies in all their colorful hats. Parking is difficult, so plan to arrive early or walk quite a distance.

DSC_6165

Where to Stay

The Gulpha Gorge Campground is available within the national park. Sites are first come, first served, but have full hookups. Our family enjoyed staying at the Hot Spring National Park KOA. Please note that it is not located within walking distance of the park. However, we enjoyed the amenities and our RV site was spacious.

Wind Cave National Park

South Dakota – June 2016

Treasure Above and Below

There is a National Park where you can take an elevator ride to the depths of the earth and enjoy ranger guided tours through one of the longest caves in the world! Go to Wind Cave National Park to see enchanting cave formations that grace the underground labyrinth where park rangers will guide you and your little spelunkers. Go to wander horizontally and vertically through the darkness, sometimes in narrow passageways that open into towering cathedral rooms. Intricate, weirdly wonderful cave formations like stalactites, popcorn, bacon, and box work are visible nearly everywhere. This place is a magical wonderland where imagination commingles with profound learning opportunities.

The topside offers its own beauty set in the Black Hills of South Dakota where American bison and other wildlife are easily discovered. Pine trees and grass prairies abound, and scenic pull offs offer many a great opportunity for that perfect photo.

American Bison Windcave NP

Junior Ranger Badge

Pick up a Junior Ranger Activity Book from the Wind Cave Visitor Center and let your children complete the booklet. When completed, return it to a park ranger for them to take the park pledge and earn a Junior Ranger Badge! Don’t forget to drop some money in the donation box to pay for the expenses. At Wind Cave, children will learn about:

  • Cave Discovery
  • Habitats and Diversity
  • Water’s journey
  • Fire Ecology

Windcave NP Junior Ranger

Extra Tips

To enter the cave, you must purchase a guided tour ticket at the Wind Cave Visitor Center. Tours begin at the visitor center. Tours do sell out, so it is best to arrive early in the day to purchase your tickets. It is possible to make reservations ahead of time for both the Candlelight Tour (minimum age 8) and the Wind Cave Tour (minimum age 16) by calling 605-745-4600. Other tours are available including: Garden of Eden, Natural Entrance, and Fairgrounds. In order to select the appropriate tour for your family, please visit the park website for tour descriptions. The park website discusses tour features including recommendations and restrictions.

For our trip, we made advanced reservations for the Candlelight Tour. Make reservations at least one month prior. Our children were 10 and 13, and so our family met the 8-year-old age restriction. Small buckets with candles, tipped sideways, are used as lanterns. Everyone (including children) carries their own candle bucket. No electronic devices, including cameras are allowed. The tour was thrilling, but somewhat strenuous and the surface was very uneven. No sandals are allowed. The kids were enthralled with the deep sense of adventure. The intense quiet and dark of the cave left a surreal feeling of peace for a long time, even after we left. Beyond the adventure and learning about the science and history of the cave, that peaceful feeling was an unanticipated bonus!

Comfortable, stable, closed toe walking shoes are an absolute must. Bring a jacket. The ground surface in the cave is uneven and can be slippery. Also, it can be quite chilly underground, even when warm and sunny on the surface. Bring a jacket or sweatshirt.

Control your children – yes, I really did write that. If you cannot, a cave tour isn’t for them. It is dark down there, like pitch black. You don’t want kids darting away from you or getting in the path of other visitors. The trip underground can be disorienting and for safety reasons, everyone needs to be able to concentrate on the traverse and not worry about errant children.

Parking becomes more limited later in the day, especially for RVs. If you are driving a motor home or pulling a travel trailer, we highly recommended that you arrive early.

Remember

Do not wear shoes or clothing that have been in any other cave, except Jewel Cave or Wind Cave. A mass extinction is currently underway in the United States. White-Nose Syndrome has killed over 5 million bats since 2006. Bats might not be particularly cuddly creatures, but they are essential to pest control and critical to a healthy ecosystem. White-Nose Syndrome is caused by a fungus that disturbs the bats during hibernation causing them to essentially starve. Spores may easily travel on your clothing or other items, so please protect the bats in your national park sites and follow these park rules.

Where to Eat

There are no restaurant or grocery services available in the park. The best itinerary includes arriving when the visitor center opens, purchasing tickets, and then a picnic lunch before finding time to hike in the park, or explore other nearby areas. See itinerary below. If you head to Hot Springs afterwards, check out  Woolly’s Western Grill  located at 1648 US HWY 18 Hot Springs, SD 57747; 605-745-6414.

When to Go

You just cannot beat South Dakota for Independence Day fun! Plan a complete summer vacation, including a visit to Wind Cave National Park during the first week of July. The weather is fantastic and there are so many things to do! For more information, we highly recommend you obtain a South Dakota Travel Vacation guide. You can either download at https://www.travelsouthdakota.com, or give them a call at 1-800-732-5682 and they will mail one to you.

Where to Stay

There are so many exceptional places to stay in the area! From tent camping to luxurious lodging, the Custer, South Dakota area is comprehensive in accommodations.  The Elk Mountain Campground is the only campground within the Wind Cave National Park boundaries and sites are first-come, first-served. Outside of the park, nearby Custer State Park offers plentiful campgrounds, and other lodging including motels and cabins.

Our Itinerary

I am an obsessive planner when it comes to our vacations! I usually keep us on a packed schedule, with scheduled down-time. We our providing our itinerary as an example, only. There are so many variables that you must consider for your own family but this may give you a start in planning your own excellent Black Hills vacation.

Driving Time Activities (July 3, 2016)
Badlands to Wind Cave Leave @ 6:30 Drive to: Wind Cave National Park (2.25 Hours) Hwy 44 W thru Scenic to Rapid City, Route 79 S. approx. 50 miles to U.S. Route 385. Right onto U.S. Route 385 North, then continue through Hot Springs. U.S. Hwy 385 another 6 miles N. and into Wind Cave National Park.
  8:00 – 10:30 Wind Cave Visitor Center located 11 miles north of Hot Springs off U.S. Hwy 385, about 1/2 mile west from the highway. Do not use your GPS to find the visitor center — you will get lost.
  10:30-12:30 Wind Cave Candle Light Tour – Reservations are accepted beginning one month before the tour and must be made by phone or in person. Please call 605-745-4600 Reservations for Candle Light Tour @ 10:30 (Long Pants, Shirt, Boots & Mittens)
  1:00 Packed picnic lunch in parking lot @ Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave NP to Mammoth Site 1:30-3:30 Drive to Hot Springs, SD and tour Mammoth Site 1800 US 18 Bypass Hot Springs, SD 57747; 605-745-6017
Walk to Wooly’s Western Grill 3:30-4:00 Ice Cream at Woolly’s Western Grill 1648 US HWY 18 Hot Springs, SD 57747; 605-745-6414
Mammoth Site to Fort Welikit 4:00 – 5:00 Fort Welikit Family Campground 24992 Sylvan Lake Rd Custer, SD 57730; 888-946-2267
  5:00 – 6:00 Set up camper and quick dinner
Drive to Bismark Lake (near Stockade Lake) 6:00-Sunset Fly fishing at Stockade or Bismark Lake 

89 South 16A East

Badlands National Park

South Dakota – 07/2016 (17 out of 61)

An Unexpected Beauty

Badlands National Park Vistas

Take you kids here to summit colorful dirt hill. Badlands National Park offers a glimpse at the remnant West. Stunning colorful vistas, abundant wildlife, and unique geology await you in Dakota territory. Your family will have the opportunity to watch wild bison languidly grazing in green valleys. Bighorn sheep can be spotted throughout the park; and prairie dog towns offer insight into animal social structures. Burrowing owls are frequent visitors too!

The geologic history of the area offers budding fossil hunters ample opportunity to spot finds. With the substantial rate of erosion of the soft surrounding matrix rock, the re-mineralized fossils stand out sharply. Go for a long hike and try spotting rhino, horse, camel, saber-tooth cat, turtle, crocodile, and snail fossils that lived here over 50 million years ago! Don’t touch, but instead snap a picture and fill out a find form at the Paleontology Lab in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center! A ranger will examine your photo, take location information, and try to identify it if possible. When you’re ready to grab some souvenirs. The gift shop adjacent to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center features beautiful Northern Plain Native artwork.

Junior Ranger Badge:

Pick up a Junior Ranger Activity Book from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and let your children complete the booklet. When completed, return it to a park ranger for them to take the park pledge and earn a Junior Ranger Badge! Don’t forget to drop some money in the donation box to pay for the expenses. At Badlands, children will learn about:
• The Lakota
• Rattlesnakes
• Plant Adaptations
• Stratigraphy
• Paleontology

Remember

It is illegal to take fossils from within park boundaries. According to 36 CFR Chapter I “…the following is prohibited: (1) Possessing, destroying, injuring, defacing, removing, digging, or disturbing from its natural state: (iii) Non-fossilized and fossilized paleontological specimens, cultural or archeological resources, or the parts thereof. (iv) A mineral resource or cave formation or the parts thereof.
Please, do the right thing and leave treasures where you find them.Educate your children as well. Remember, park rangers carry binoculars. If you are caught, you will be prosecuted.

Badlands National Park Fossil

Extra Tips

Enjoy ranger programs. There is so much knowledge to be gained in a national park and park ranger programs are a fun way for kids to learn. Ranger programs we enjoyed included a geology hike and fossil talk. Both events were held in the “field” where kids can look and touch which helps them retain knowledge. Rangers love to answer questions! Always plan to stop at a Visitor Center at the beginning of your trip to find when and where programs will be available during your visit. Beyond ranger programs, they frequently have other unique activities. For example, during our visit we enjoyed an evening performance by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble! Free!

Explore other nearby activities. Snag another Junior Ranger Badge as you teach your children about the madness of the cold war at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Check out the famous Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota, the ultimate roadside tourist trap. Seriously, there is nothing like this place and you must go! Where else can you get a picture riding a jackelope? Other local attractions include the National Grasslands Visitor Center, and the Wounded Knee Museum.

Ride a Jackalope

Where to Eat

Within the park boundaries, you can dine at Cedar Pass Restaurant and enjoy a Navajo Taco! Ok, so, they call them Sioux Indian Tacos here, but I grew up in Utah and they will always be Navajo Tacos to me. Whatever you call these delicious fry bread delicacies, they are a must have treat to look for whenever we are near Indian Territory.

When to Go

Nothing beats South Dakota for Independence Day fun! Plan a complete summer vacation, including a visit to Badlands National Park during the first week of July. The weather is fantastic and there are so many things to do! For more information, we highly recommend you obtain a South Dakota Travel Vacation Guide. You can either download at https://www.travelsouthdakota.com, or give them a call at 1-800-732-5682 and they will mail it to you.

Badlands National Park 1

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota – Visited June 2016 (18 out of 61)

Inspiration is Home

Take your children to this park to see intrinsically where the roots of preservation were breathed to life. If you are a national park enthusiast, you have come to revere Theodore Roosevelt as the architect of our beloved treasures. Traveling to his namesake park is something of a religious pilgrimage. A visit here is a journey for the soul. Like all great journeys, getting here takes effort. This landscape is what inspired the man to preserve our wild places. For that reason alone, it is worth the visit. Teddy Roosevelt was a giant among men. With a fascinating spirit he emboldened his life, and our nation, with accomplishments and charisma. The beauty of this place lies in the very essence of its desolate voice. Think wild horses roaming vast green badlands and you are getting the picture.


Hiking on trails at the Painted Canyon Visitor Center will give you a chance to explore the local flora and fauna and see an overlook of the colorful geologic landscape. Take time at the South Unit Visitor Center to learn more about Theodore Roosevelt. No, he never rode a bull moose, but he did finish a campaign speech with a bullet in his chest before being rushed to the hospital. Cruise along the Scenic Loop Drive, especially picturesque at sunset.

Junior Ranger Badge:

• Badland Prairie Flora and Fauna
• What is a Butte?
• Fossils
• Listen!
• Prairie Dogs and Keystone Species
• Theodore Roosevelt and 1880’s Ranching

Remember:

Follow the speed limit and wear your seat belt! This park is in western North Dakota and will generally be accessed via private vehicle. Subsequently, you may be traveling some distance before you arrive and will tour the park in your vehicle or by bicycle. Please be courteous of other park visitors, and the beautiful wildlife and follow all road signs. Park rangers will enforce speed limits. Also, since you typically are on a scenic drive in the park, passengers might be getting out frequently. Please remember to buckle up the kids and yourself – each and every time. The remote location is absolute reason to avoid easily preventable injury.

Where to Stay

We didn’t have the opportunity to stay the night in this area, unfortunately. I think camping in the park would be a truly wonderful experience. It is a very peaceful, remote place and would be ideal for car camping. Please visit the Theodore Roosevelt National Park website for further camping information. Some campsites may be reserved.

Where to Eat

The quaint town of Medora sits at the South Unit Visitor Center park entrance. With names like Theodore’s Dining Room, Cowboy Café, and Boots Bar & Grill, there are plenty of fantastic places to find a great burger in Medora! Our favorite stop was Medora Fudge and Ice Cream Depot!

When to Go

Summer months (June – August) offer the added opportunity to see the famed Medora Musical. Set outdoors, this musical show is fantastic fun for the family. Summer months are warm and dry, late June to early July would be ideal.