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


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

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


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.


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.

Biscayne National Park

Florida – May 2017 (22 out of 61)

An Ocean of Adventure

Biscayne National Park is a watery oasis on the east side of the tip of Florida. Come here to rest and frolic in the turquoise waters. Comprised of 95% ocean, it is perfect for kids to explore and enjoy the unique ecosystem. The shallow depth offers opportunities for viewing the ocean bottom and the myriad of life and sunken ships during boat tours. With minimal wave action, it’s a great place for kids of all ages to become proficient at snorkeling.

Boca Chita Key, accessible via boat tour, is a fun place to spend the day. The gorgeous white coral sands and sparkling clear water is paradise found. The architecturally pleasing lighthouse is a perfect background for photography. Let the kids climb to the top during a ranger tour to take in the exceptional view. The west side of the key is very shallow and snorkeling in the mangroves will give kids an opportunity to view nurseries teaming with little fishes. Bring along an underwater camera to entertain children for hours as they try to photograph this water world.  If you would rather stay dry, just take a small chair or beach blanket to sit and soak your feet in the sparkling waters.

The Dante Fascell Visitor Center is an aesthetically pleasing facility perched next to the ocean on Convoy Point. Explore the museum and watch videos where you will learn about Stiltsville, and the fortunately lost city of Islandia. You can pick up junior ranger books and badges, maps, and speak with rangers at the information desk to plan your visit.  Take a walk on the Jetty Trail and find a park bench to sit and enjoy the view.

Biscayne National Park Jetty Trail

Junior Ranger Badge:

  • Unique biomes like mangroves, hardwood hammocks, sloughs, and estuaries
  • Animal Adaptations
  • Extinction and the early 1900’s feathered hat debacle
  • Watersheds


Protect skin from sun exposure! Please, remember to protect your children from the sun’s damaging rays. Fortunately, with such a variety of sun protection measures it is possible to enjoy plenty of sunshine without exposure so long as you are diligent. Maintain sun protection habits throughout your vacation to keep everyone comfortable and safe. Please, please remember that if your children have already developed a tan from sun exposure, they have already damaged skin. Suntanned skin does not equal healthy skin!

Wear wide brimmed hats. You might want to have your child wear them prior to leaving for your trip so they can get used to the feel.

Apply sunscreen while getting prepared in the morning. Then, reapply as necessary. Learn about SPF, and sunscreen ingredients. Many ingredients are exceptionally irritating to the eye. Consider sticking with zinc oxide-based sunscreens for the face. Our preferred facial sunscreen (worn daily) is Vanicream Broad Spectrum SPF 50. IT NEVER BURNS MY EYES! Our second facial sunscreen preference is Coppertone Water Babies Pure & Simple 50 SPF, it is easily found at most retail stores and pharmacies. My husband and son prefer Coppertone Sport Continuous Sunscreen Spray, or Bullfrog Mosquito Coast Sunscreen and Insect Repellent, but keep these away from eyes.

Cover up with Sun Protection (UPF) Clothing! We love these products. Like SPF, the higher the number, the better protection it provides against UV radiation. You can learn more about, and purchase these products from REI. You can also find them at many of the sun shops located in the Florida Keys. Our favorite is long sleeve technical shirts. They wick away moisture, dry quickly, and take up minimal space.

Find Shade. Bring an umbrella or small play tent with you when you know you will be in the sun for extended periods of time. Look for shaded places when boarding excursion boats or spending time outdoors.

Extra Tips

This park is best enjoyed out on the water! There is a bay excursion perfect for everyone. The Biscayne National Park Institute provides a wide variety of experiences to learn and explore including guided boat tours leaving from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. Check out their website and book your excursion as soon as possible, as tours do fill up quickly. Additional companies authorized to operate within the park offer sailing, tours of Stiltsville, paddle boarding, kayak rentals, aerial tours, and bowfishing! With minimal wave action on the bay, sea sickness shouldn’t pose a problem but if you are particularly prone consider speaking with your physician prior so that you can maximize your enjoyment.

Bring a change of clean dry clothing on excursions. A well-maintained restroom is available on Boca Chita Key. If your excursion takes you to this island where you plan to get into the cool waters, consider wearing your swimsuit with comfortable cover-up on the way out. Change before boarding the boat. The kids will be more comfortable in clean, dry clothing for the return trip.

Where to Stay

Camping in this park is available on Boca Chita and Elliot Keys. Unfortunately, they are accessible via boat only. During this trip, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Florida City-Gateway to Keys. It offered us quick access to the Everglades and Biscayne.

Where to Eat

There are not many restaurants near Biscayne National Park.  We were eager for more exploration, and up to the 50-minute drive to Alabama Jack’s (58000 Card Sound Rd, Homestead, FL 33030). This down to earth, eclectic place is located off 905A (the alternate to US Hwy 1) into the Florida Keys. It’s a great place to eat outside; watch for manatees and fish swimming in the water way; and eat conch fritters!

When to Go

Avoid peak hurricane season, between August and October. We went in late May, and it was perfect!

Everglades National Park

Florida – Visited May 2017 (24 out of 61)

It’s So Green

Take your children here to readily see the necessity of environmental preservation. This park offers opportunity for children to learn about the inter-connectedness of humans to their environment on a massive scale.  Exploring both the park and the surrounding areas offers exceptional insight into ecosystem health as it pertains to wildlife and ecosystem services. Everglades National Park is quintessential for the protection of wildlife, and humanity as well. The inter-coastal tide-ways are a unique interdependent area. Their health equates to the sustainability of coastal fisheries where abundant sea life is harvested for human consumption. The sheer volume of recreational participants including all manner of boaters, snorkelers, divers, fishers, and sun bathers is overwhelming in this part of Florida, outside the park boundaries. Additionally, homes and farms of every sort absorb available spaces against the turquoise sea. A little exploration and contemplation makes it apparent that preservation of every square inch of this national park space is paramount to the success of this regional ecosystem, and economic system.

Your children will feel like jungle explorers, and both of you will get the chance to try wildlife photography with plentiful opportunities to see alligators (safely up close), numerous birds, and other wildlife. Everglades National Park offers an ocean expanse of places to see. The presence of 200,000 alligators, 2,000 crocodiles, and “sloughs” (freshwater land channels) will keep you on the guided paths. However, the numerous boardwalks and paths throughout allow you to explore different areas of the park while still feeling immersed in the open space.

Junior Ranger Badge:

  • Unique biomes like mangroves, hardwood hammocks, sloughs, and estuaries
  • Animal Adaptations
  • Extinction and the early 1900’s feathered hat debacle
  • Watersheds


Mosquitos! Wear repellant. While there are many “natural” alternatives available, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends only those with high active ingredients of DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, Oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthan-diol, and 2-undecanone. Speak with your doctor, but unless you have a medical condition or allergy, I highly recommend OFF! Deep Woods Insect Repellent worn daily while you are vacationing in the area. It is made with 25% DEET and provides up to 8 hours of protection. Speak to your pediatrician regarding younger children as, for them, certain repellants are not recommended.

The Everglades National Park and surrounding areas are home to numerous mosquitos because they thrive in the warm moist climate. West Nile Virus (transmitted by mosquitos) is a rare but exceptionally dangerous infection that can result in brain swelling, known as encephalitis. A very close family member contacted this disease in Colorado, so it is not unique to Florida. This disease can be deadly and leave lasting complications such as paralysis. Symptoms can include high fever, headache, or neck stiffness. Seek medical attention immediately. Additionally, Zika Virus (also transmitted by mosquitos) has been actively transmitted in Florida. Zika Virus primarily targets unborn children. Please discuss protection with your doctor and check out the CDC website for advice to people traveling to South Florida.

Extra Tips:

There are three main park visitor centers and they are located at vastly different accessible areas.  These are: Ernest F. Coe, Shark Valley, and Gulf Coast. The Flamingo Visitor Center is relatively inactive after suffering hurricane damage, but it can be accessed via the Ernest F. Coe entrance. Choosing your entrance is imperative to the areas that you will see. A long day could incorporate two centers. Realistically, if you wanted to explore each, you would want to take three days. With limited time availability, we chose the park entrance at Ernest F. Coe, which was nearest to the other two national parks we were visiting this trip (Biscayne and Dry Tortugas).

An example day trip itinerary:

Pack a lunch. Make your first stop at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center to pick up your Junior Ranger book and watch a video about the park, find ranger led activities, and pick up a park map. Proceed to Royal Palm where you will get your first great opportunity to see an alligator up close walking along the Anhinga Trail. This trail/boardwalk offers an incredible opportunity to see wildlife. Counting 14 alligators, we also saw birds and a variety of awesomely enormous grasshoppers. We covered our heads from the brief rain shower and took the Gumbo Limbo trail as well. It was tropical, hot, and humid and we viewed not much other than incredible plants and an enormous Liguus Tree Snail.

Take a lunch break under the verandah at Royal Palm with your packed lunch while the kids try to spot alligators.

Drive to the Pa-hay-okee Overook Trail. This was a favorite as the views were expansive. The mist across the slough and the plentiful trees were savannah like in their serenity. It was a great opportunity to enjoy the stillness of the park and an active hawk offered opportunity to enjoy the wildlife.

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Drive to Mahogany Hammock and enjoy this fun, twisty boardwalk in the trees. It is a great adventure for kids!

Drive to the Flamingo Visitor Center, a pink structure against the turquoise sea. It is beautiful here, but after Hurricane Irma, it is only partially open.  As such, this was a short stop for us. If we had more time, we could have looked for the elusive American Crocodile. There are only 2000 in the park itself!

Head back to the entrance and enjoy the views. Be sure to head back to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center before it closes (5:00 PM for our visit) to hand in completed Junior Ranger books and get badges for the kids.

Where to Stay

If we don’t have our RV, we gravitate to Holiday Inn Express. We enjoy the free morning breakfasts, and they usually have a pool or hot tub to enjoy in the evenings. Comfy beds, reasonable prices, and plentiful locations make this our go to hotel. During this trip, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Florida City-Gateway to Keys. It offered us quick access to the Everglades and Biscayne.

Where to Eat

Stop at Robert is Here fruit stand on your way into the park to purchase crazy, fun fruit to enjoy during a lunch picnic inside the park boundaries. With things like key lime milk shakes, jack fruit, and asian guavas, it is an adventure for your taste buds and a fun way to start the day. Look out back at the petting zoo!

When to Go

Avoid peak hurricane season, between August and October. We went in late May, and it was perfect!

Dry Tortugas National Park

Florida – Visited May 2017 (23 out of 61)

Rare Treasure

This park is a place of adventure due to the uniquely limited accessibility, pristine oceanic beauty, and remote location. Located off the tip of the Florida Keys, it is accessible via float plane or boat. Take your children here to cruise across the sea on tranquil turquoise waters while they look for diving sea turtles. Take your family here to explore a 19th century fort, so historically intense you will feel as though you just stepped off a pirate ship. Go to spend hours snorkeling along the fort’s moat wall with barracuda, sting ray, brain coral and many other tropical fish. Take pictures of your children with salty sparkles shining in their hair, and glorious freckles peeking beneath sun kissed smiles. Go here for yourself, to stand upon the deck of the Yankee Freedom Ferry (the most common transport to the island) and feel the wind in your hair, feel young, vibrant, alive and joyful.  I am still left in awe over this trip, it was pure magic, almost too beautiful to have been real.


Dehydration and Sea Sickness.

Drink plenty of water the night before your trip, during breakfast, and during the trip. Yes, you will have to journey to the restroom facilities, but you will be in the warm sun for a substantial amount of time. You will also be very active walking around the fort and swimming or snorkeling. Keep track of children’s fluid intake and be sure to push plenty of water among the plentiful on-board soda pop. Dehydration can lead to nausea and be easily mistaken for motion sickness or exacerbate the condition.

Consider motion sickness ahead of time. Motion aboard the Yankee Freedom Ferry can be relatively significant. Our family didn’t experience any trouble, but if you are prone to sea sickness be sure to ask your doctor for recommendations before your trip. Waiting to take motion sickness medication until you are sick is not advised. Some motion sickness medication can make you drowsy. It has been recommended to me to take it the night before. This helps alleviate the drowsiness, but may still reduce motion sickness. Talk to your physician and pediatrician.

Extra Tips:

Plan to arrive early. If taking the ferry, you will access it via the ferry terminal. When you arrive at the terminal, sit along the west wall to board early as there are no seating assignments. On board, we preferred to sit in the booth like seating area along the windows in the food galley. It offered shade, and quick access to the front of the lower boat deck where we could stand against the rails. It was a thrill to ride the waves and watch for sea life.

Bring your own snorkel gear. This is especially important if you intend your children to actively snorkel. Being familiar with your gear will make ocean time a more comfortable experience. No need to purchase, however, as the ferry does provide free gear. Utilize the buoyancy compensators provided by the Yankee Freedom Ferry if you plan to snorkel for any length of time (especially if you plan to go completely around the moat wall). You will be more comfortable, worry less about your children, and enjoy yourselves significantly better. Even though you are along the wall, you cannot use it as a place of rest due to its height and wave action.

Tour the fort and finish the Junior Ranger Badge, lunch, and then ocean swimming. You will get a bit warm walking around the fort and a nice dip in the ocean before boarding for the return is refreshing. However, watch the time while the kids are finishing their ranger booklets and guide them accordingly so that you have plenty of time to explore the waters. We enjoyed lunch back on board the Yankee Freedom between fort and snorkel activities. Allow yourself time to rinse-off with fresh water at the back of the boat after you swim and before you board.

Where to Stay

We did not camp on the island. I am sure that it would be a spectacular experience, but we couldn’t facilitate camping gear on this trip. If you are considering camping, there is plenty of information available on the Yankee Freedom Ferry and National Park Service websites. Please read camping information carefully.

The drive from Key Largo (base of Florida) to Key West is over 2 hours. So, it is best to stay closer to Key West the night before your trip to Dry Tortugas as the Yankee Freedom Ferry boards at 7:30 AM. Key West offers plenty of hotel amenities. However, our family enjoyed staying at the Holiday Inn Express in Marathon, Florida which is located 1 hour from Key West. Marathon Key was one of our favorite areas as it is smaller and more sparsely populated. We loved the Tarpon Creek Bar and Grill on the hotel property. We also enjoyed watching manatees at Sparky’s Landing located within walking distance.

Where to Eat

Grab a quick breakfast at your hotel. Bring along snacks and bottles of water. If you plan to take the Yankee Freedom Ferry, lunch is included. For dinner, take a short walk to the iconic Half Shell Raw Bar in Key West.

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When to Go

I would avoid peak hurricane season, between August and October. We went in late May, and it was perfect!

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