A natural art-filled playground, replete with color, shape, form, and texture rests due north of eccentric Palm Springs. These two travel destinations go hand in hand, with their odd uniqueness and placid gorgeousness basking in the southern California sunshine.
It is a place of historic gunfights and rough settlers. It is a timeless place where the Giant Ground Sloth roamed, consuming the Joshua Tree seeds that were then spread through dung. The extinction of which has led to the dampened attenuation of the Joshua Tree’s range. Black Rock Canyon offers the most splendid view of the remaining Joshua Tree Forest.
Geologic and environmental forces continue to carve and shape the scene. Shapely boulders form via the timeless forces of freezing water and wind. Our family had a fantastic time scampering along boulder strewn trails and looking for images in the weathered rocks. There are abundant trails of all varying levels of difficulty, so finding a place to explore is easy. With names like Skull, Arch, and Split Rock, everyone will love the adventure of discovery.
At 789,866 acres, Joshua Tree National Park is bigger than Yosemite by a little over 25,000 acres, but it seems much smaller and very accessible, especially due to its location directly off Interstate 10. There are multiple visitor centers, but the Joshua Tree Visitor Center to the north is the best access point to see most of the hiking trails and points of interest. This visitor center is approximately a one-hour drive from Palm Springs.
Ask for a Junior Ranger booklet when you arrive for your children (and adult children) to complete while you visit. Be sure to donate to the park to cover the costs of these materials. This is also a great opportunity to talk to the ranger about ranger led programs happening during your visit. When you complete requirements in the booklet, return to the ranger station, raise your arm to take a ranger pledge and earn your Junior Ranger Badge. Topics covered include:
Always be prepared in these remote places. The most important supply you’ll need is water. I’ve written it all over this blog, but the most important rule in places like these is 1 gallon per person per day. It seems like a lot, but if you get disoriented, injured, or have mechanical problems it will be a great relief to know that you have plenty of water.
The Mojave Desert ecosystem is protected here by this land status. This fragile ecosystem lives at the edge of earthly extremes. Stay on the trails and respect the fragility of the unique plants here.
Where to Eat:
Keep it simple and pack the food you will need. Due to the distance from Palm Springs, you will want to make sure you have enough food for the duration of your visit.
When to Go:
This place is a paradise of exploration in the winter months. Be aware of when the Santa Ana winds blowing. They can be extreme.
Where to Stay:
Unlike many National Parks, Joshua Tree is surrounded by plenty of accommodations. From camping in the park, to nearby upscale RV resorts and hotels, there are numerous options depending on your desired experience. We always recommend staying in the parks if possible, enjoying the dark night skies is bliss.
Vacant space and openness abound. It grabs your soul and tugs at your essence. What is best about this place is the magic of national parks, they make you understand your humanness and your place within the universe. This place is the hottest, driest, and lowest national park. Our quintessential ego makes us center. Our thoughts plague us and overwhelm us. We are swarmed daily by questions of where we are in comparison to others. Are we smart enough, wealthy enough, connected enough? The universe does not care. Your presence is not requisite. The universe is requisite to us though, and understanding it is important if we can ever hope to comprehend what this life is all about.
Strip everything away, especially life quenching water. Drive far, far away. Come to the edge of earth and find clinging life forms that exist at the brink. Find strength in the purpose of living. Look to living things that go on, that reproduce, that perpetuate themselves through time despite all odds. A little bit of luck and a lot of strength, despite odds. It is love. It is exploration and adaptation. Keep going. Don’t stop. Ever.
Our family loved this place! The kids were at the perfect age for short hikes and there are plenty.
Short hikes we enjoyed:
Salt Creek – Water in the desert? Yes, this small stream is also home to the endangered Salt Creek Pupfish. Keep an eye out for them, as you may see them spawning during winter months.
Badwater Salt Flat – Go to the lowest point in North America! Photos here are especially spectacular. The way the light bounces around is just magical.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – Clamber up a sand dune, photograph it!
Mosaic Canyon – Located near Stovepipe Wells Campground, this shaded canyon is great for exploring what’s around the bend.
Natural Bridge – This hike was a bit more advanced than the others. The natural rock bridge was enjoyable, but it was the hike back that offered some incredible views.
Be prepared. Be grateful for help from fellow mankind. Never deny another, when you can make a difference in their life. Love one another.
There are just some stories you cannot make up, like this is one. We drove to Keane Wonder Mine, to see the historic mining infrastructure. It was getting late, and there were no signs of other vehicles anywhere. We were headed back to the campground when a loud boom sounded, and the car careened a bit and suddenly came to a plunging stop on the dirt road. My husband and I looked at one another, concern swelling. After getting out, opening the hood to no avail, he checked the tire. It was obvious, a missing caliper bolt wasn’t holding our brake together! Without it, it was impossible to drive.
We stood around for a bit, and my husband thought maybe he could fix it if we had a piece of wire. So, we walked along the road, hopeful but not encouraged. Suddenly, as if placed there by gods, was the perfect wire in length and diameter. How on earth? Luck. My husband wired it, and we drove slowly to the ranger station area. It was dark, the Furnace Creek Gas Station didn’t have what we needed. There was no way we could pull our travel trailer home. So, they recommended a tow. A very expensive tow…or swinging by a park employee’s house – because he has a lot of spare parts in his garage!
We took a chance and drove to park housing. We found the slightly notorious gentleman, and he opened his one car garage door for us. There were hundreds of buckets filled with parts! He knew the bolt we needed was there somewhere. So, my husband and this incredible, ingenious park angel started looking. He understood the quintessential element of this place, resources are important. They found it! Luck? Blessings? Converging elements of the universe?
We headed back to the campground after profuse thanks, and a tip, with our hearts full of love. Love from another human, gratefulness for the resources that he shared with us.
Water. You need a lot of water here. Take 1 gallon per person per day with you EVERYWHERE you drive. Keep the family hydrated, carry water with you everywhere. I was a bit panicked when we found ourselves with mechanical problems, but not too worried, as we had water with us.
Also, it gets very cold in the winter months. This is a desert, but you need a jacket at night.
Where to Eat:
The Ice Cream Parlor at The Ranch at Death Valley for date shakes! Dessert in the Desert. Saddle up to the bar and order a date shake for everyone. Let the cool delight hit your mouth, quench your thirst, remind you of civilization and how far we have come. We can go to a remote corner of the world and order a perfect epicurean delight.
When to Go:
When to go depends on the experience you want. Do you want debilitating heat (highest on record is 130.0 degrees F), and time only in your car and at the ranger station? Is the requisite hot temperature picture a must? Pick summer.
Do you want to go for abundant hiking? Pick winter. If you have young children ONLY GO IN WINTER.
We camped at Stove Pipe Wells Campground. A car pulled next to our spot, and a lone young gentleman set up his tent and pulled out a nice telescope. After talking to us for some time, he said this was his last getaway before his girlfriend was due to give birth in about 3 weeks. We talked about having children, the art of it and the adventure. He was supposed to stay the weekend. The next morning, he was packing up. he was excited to start his new adventure as a father. He didn’t want to miss a thing. That’s why we take our children to these places. We don’t want to miss a thing, either. If you want to get to know your children, if you want to see the life you’ve created thrive and grow. If you want them to know luck and perseverance, get them to a national park. I like to think this gentleman is out there enjoying these parks with his family too. Maybe one day we’ll meet him out there.
National Parks are even better with friends! Channel Islands was a field trip destination while we lived in Tehachapi, California. My son’s fourth-grade teacher used this trip to solidify their reading of the book “Island of the Blue Dolphins” for her students.
This park preserves five different islands off the coast of California. It is a marine sanctuary of unparalleled beauty. The islands are accessible by the park concessioner, Island Packers, or private boat, so if you would like to get to the islands start your planning and reservations in advance.
Trips leave from Ventura and Oxnard Harbors. Highly recommended Oxnard Harbor is a delightful, picturesque small harbor reached by driving through strawberry fields. After herding a class of fourth grade students (and my daughter who could accompany us) onto the large catamaran style cruise ship supplied by Island Packers, we set sail towards Anacapa Island. Quite quickly we were delighted by a pod of dolphins that swam with us for a great length of the trip.
The cruise takes about an hour and is extremely pleasant. There are some minor waves, but everyone enjoyed the excursion out. After driving near Arch Rock for photographs, the boat came around to Landing Cove. This small cove decreases ocean waves but climbing from the bobbing boat directly onto metal ladders that must be ascended was a bit harrowing, and of course, the students loved it! A long flight of trail stairs is then ascended to reach the plateau where the visitor center and hiking trails are found.
After walking to the visitor center, we toured the exquisite lighthouse. From there, we walked to both Cathedral Cove where we saw private boats floating, and Inspiration Point.
The day was breezy but beautiful, and it was a perfect excursion for all. The fourth-grade students did not mind the round trip hiking length of approximately 2 miles, which was well developed and flat. After we finished our tour and boarded our boat to return to the mainland, we glimpsed sea lions basking on the rocky outcroppings of the island.
There are so many things to do along this island chain including snorkeling, kayaking, tide pool exploration. and hiking on each island. To truly visit the park in-depth, would take at least a week. If you don’t have that long, a day excursion is very enjoyable.
There is no freshwater or food available on the island. You must bring everything with you onto your cruise ship, and on your tour. Bring a small hiking backpack or string bag to carry your items with you. Read the children’s novel ‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’ before you visit.
Please do not litter or leave crumbs of any kind, and do not feed the wildlife. This is a small and very sensitive ecosystem that deserves our respect. There are no trash receptacles. Pack it in, Pack it out.
Make reservations to Channel Islands well in advance.
Bring sunscreen and bug repellent for small gnats. A light jacket is welcome as the ocean breezes do blow here.
Where to Eat:
Picnic tables are available at the Anacapa Island Visitor Center. Plan to eat the lunch that you brought with you here.
When to Go:
There is no bad time to visit. However, check the park website to ascertain if there are any current closures. Always be prepared with layers and sunscreen for your season. It is windy here, so cold plus windy would make it uncomfortable. Dress accordingly.
Where to Stay:
There is camping available on each of the five islands! Camping in Channel Islands would be a wonderful experience but takes some advanced planning and reservations. If looking for hotel accommodations, try nearby Oxnard or Ventura.
A budget-constrained, quick trip to see fall foliage led us to some high survival adventure – think sleeping on the snow-covered ground freezing off our hineys at high altitude in under-performing tents! These beautiful children of mine are growing too fast, and there are still so many parks to see (and tortuous car rides to endure)! Creativity and budget considerations are going to play a part in getting us to all of them in the next several years. I’m fascinated by people who can afford to travel to all the parks, all in one go. That’s beyond our budget and time constraints for sure (normal family of four here). With one leaving for college, they will soon have their own lives, plans, and goals (and probably not be so keen on me trekking them to the middle of nowhere to see trees – Nah, they’ll probably like it still. We’ve raised ‘em right…right?). So, this momma is getting anxious to squeeze in the memories and trips as creatively and quickly as possible. Our Great Basin National Park is a perfect example of how to enjoy affordable adventure (chaos) .
Great Basin National Park is a natural wonder that characterizes the western United States. The geologic conditions that form this forest-island make this region abundantly special. Abrupt elevation changes create habitat zones that lead to interesting and varied ecosystems. One of many forest-mountain islands in the sky that dot the west, this place preserves a characteristic basin and range formation.
With budget constraints, we flew to Las Vegas with loaded backpacks intent on sleeping on the ground while getting in some hiking. With our self-contained accommodations, our first night was spent at the Red Rock Campground, just west of the city. Arriving at around 2:00 AM, we fell quickly to sleep in our tents until the morning winds, carrying an early winter storm, arrived and nearly blew us away. We were not defeated! My daughter admired the ‘van life village’ as we exited the area. We enjoyed a bomb breakfast at BabyStacks Café on our way out of the city.
Las Vegas, with all its shining lights and wildly human-centric experiences, is far removed from the beautiful quiet of this National Park. Yet, most people think of Las Vegas when they think of Nevada. But jump into a rental car and head north along US Route 93 and you will be bounded by abundant public lands and wilderness areas (hallelujah nothing for miles and miles and miles). Approximately 63% of the State of Nevada is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and even more by other federal agencies! That’s so many places available for us to explore, and so much open space to observe and enjoy.
Along the way, you will pass through small towns like Caliente, Nevada where you can see the architecturally beautiful Caliente Railroad Depot built in 1923. Mountain bikers from around the world convene here to enjoy Rainbow Canyon and Big Rock Wilderness areas. Continue north to the town of Pioche, once one of the most important silver mining towns in Nevada, and scenic as it clings to the side of a steep mountainside.
The approach to Great Basin National Park is majestic. Rounding the mountain to the north, you climb steadily to the home of Wheeler Peak (second-highest in Nevada at 13,065 feet). It’s fantastic, unless you are following a heavily loaded semi-truck crawling at 5 miles per hour that you decide to lead-foot pass, careening around it (and three trucks pulling RVs) terrifying the family. The first visitor center, Great Basin Visitor Center, was closed during our visit, so we drove further on to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.
This family has seen a few caves, and we can be skeptics of cave tours. If spelunking is your thing (and apparently cave scientists hate to be called spelunkers – who knew?) then this cave is for you. The formations are exquisite works of art that only nature can create. It’s breathtaking, and there are so many incredible features, it is hard for the eye to absorb all the wonders. Take the tour.
After our cave tour, we headed to our evening accommodations at Upper Lehman Creek Campground. The winter storm from Las Vegas had reached us, and with snow flurries falling and the sun setting, we decided to wait to hike for one more evening. We enjoyed a meal at Kerouac’s Restaurant in Baker, which was a fun treat for us all, but especially enlightening for the kids as most ingredients are locally sourced and described on the menu. The portions were a bit small, but every single bite was profound, like Kerouac himself (see what I just did there).
Alas, we realized unfortunately we forgot to stop at a sporting goods store along the way to purchase fuel for our portable stoves…and this place is remote. The closest sporting goods store is well over an hour away. But saints are frequently found in campgrounds (in case you didn’t already know). A travel writer (a real one that gets paid for writing and traveling – what a dream job) was parked across from us and had a few solid fuel tabs that saved our trip. With those golden gems in hand, we loaded up our gear and trounced through the snow-covered woods along Lehman Creek Trail at sunrise.
Backpacking is an ever-evolving attempt at balancing the correct supplies and weight for what your body can happily endure carrying over rocks on steep trails. Too many clothes on a warmish day will throw my kids into tantrums. I’ve long since given up hiking in areas where we carry water (instead of relying on nature’s provisions) because my family members would rather die of dehydration (or drink my emergency reserves) rather than carry enough water. I thought I had finally found the right amount of gear. Really, I did! We use wool and synthetics only (cotton kills…apparently). I packed wool mittens and cozy beanies, snow parkas, and even fleece-lined hiking pants (which are fabulous). Let me just say, sleeping on the snow is COLD!!! Okay, we were never at risk for hypothermia, but it was a miserable shivering night, nonetheless. This odd part of my brain, the part that keeps us coming out to the woods knows that somehow this is good for my kids though. Some difficulty later in life will crop up, and they can say “I’ve got this, my mother almost killed us all sleeping in tents in the snow. This is nothing.”
We all look back at this adventure and we smile. We soak in the crystalline, ice-covered Lehman Creek that ran along the trail. Wheeler peak ascending above us in clouds and snow casts dreamy shadows over our memories. We laugh at the adventure and the sleepy drive back to the airport the next day. We embrace our cozy beds at home and think with absolute gratitude that there are these wild places for us to explore, to approach a limit to our comfort zone, to learn, laugh, and love in. So, get after it. Book that trip (don’t forget the fuel…write it on your hand so you don’t forget when you land at the airport). Be Wild Outside.
Book your tours for Lehman Caves in advance. They fill up quickly.
Fuel. Don’t forget the fuel. Always help-out other campers if you get the chance. Pass on the kindness. These places are sacred and deserve our sacred kindness to one another. Share the toilet paper.
Where to Eat:
There are a few fun little places to try in Baker. Kerouac’s had an excellent bar, and some fun food to try. Bring your own snacks and camping meals.
When to Go:
We enjoyed our visit the second week of October, and snow flurries fell. A lot of the park is 7,000 feet or higher. I would recommend this park for a mid-summer trip, or an early fall. It is cooler in the mountains, but you must traverse the basins to get here.
Where to Stay:
This depends on your ability to survive the wild. There are a few very small accommodations in Baker just outside the park boundaries. There are quite a few very nice campgrounds within the park.
There will be only one national park trip for us this year. From our remaining list, we chose Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park because we could get there without flying. This park offered a great respite for our minds and souls during these peculiar, Covid-19 laden times.
The deep chasms, breathtaking scenery, and plentiful outdoor opportunities were exactly what we needed to rejuvenate. With ample outdoor recreation surrounding the area, there was plenty to do while maintaining social distancing rules. Let me be clear though, we wouldn’t have traveled here without a travel trailer.
Rural communities in the western United States are frequently bounded by abundant federal lands. The financial support from visitors is a benefit to these communities. However, their health care systems are frequently small with tight budgets. The health of these communities factored into our equation to visit during the pandemic. The travel trailer allowed us the ability to social distance effectively so that we wouldn’t get sick or transfer our germs to these communities. These were the rules we followed during our trip:
(1). We only used the facilities in our trailer. We showered, used the restroom, and washed our hands only in our own bathroom, which conveniently was always with us.
(2). At gas stations, only my husband would go inside. He always wore his mask, and sanitized before and after getting out of the vehicle.
(3). I purchased all drinks, snacks, and food prior to leaving and we ate only in the truck and trailer, except for an opportunity to patio dine.
(4). When we needed to replenish groceries, only I went into the store. I stocked up on everything we would need for the remainder of the trip to limit additional stops.
(5). We attempted to souvenir shop in Taos, New Mexico, but even with masks we felt uncomfortable going inside. So, we did not do any further shopping. These small tourist businesses are getting hit hard financially. See a list below for links to shops if you are interested in supporting them by purchasing online.
(6). We maintained our social distancing in RV parks. These parks are a fantastic place to meet people. We denoted a significant change in demeanor this year. The world is more subdued and less inclined to engage. Still, waive and give a smile.
Always check the NPS website ahead of time so you know of any closures and personal protection requirements. We adamantly wore our masks while visiting the national park. Park Rangers are exposing themselves to the general public constantly. We need to keep these individuals safe. Regardless of your mask opinion, if asked to wear one please be courteous and do so.
About the Park:
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a superb wonderland of unique geological features and deeply impressive views. Metamorphic rocks 1.8 billion years old are sliced by the Gunnison River due to uplift providing views of pegmatite dikes that lace the canyon walls like pulled taffy. Large volcanic eruptions, millions of years old, capped the metamorphic rock and now provide incredible otherworldly land formations. The geological features are easily observable on the canyon walls, placed like pictures in a story book.
You will marvel at the green, gemlike Gunnison River that flows at the depth like a carefully placed ribbon. Everyone will get a thrill peering over the canyon edge.
The scenic drive through the park offers excellent and abundant pullouts with walkways of varying lengths. Several overlooks are handicap accessible, which we took an opportunity to use as my son is currently on crutches due to an injury. The visitor center was closed, but rangers were still offering programs and provided Junior Ranger books and badges.
Due to the limitations that we had with our son injured, we were not able to hike further into the canyon, but inner canyon permits were being issued. A trip back to hike inside the canyon is certainly on our to do list. At the time of this post, the campground is also still open. But, you should check the NPS website before you attempt any visit to this and any other national park.
Junior Ranger Badge:
This park’s Junior Ranger activity book is one of our favorites, with a comic book style it covers:
Leave No Trace
When to Visit:
Visiting in late June, the weather was still fantastic. Cool mornings of 60 degree weather, and sunny days with highs in the 80s were perfect for our visit.
So, was the risk worth the visit? This is the question we have to repeatedly ask ourselves these days. We have to consider how our choices will impact others and ourselves. We set out very specific safety rules for our trip, we followed them carefully, and we had a very successful and restful vacation without getting sick. If you are planning a road trip vacation to outdoor recreation areas during the pandemic, consider renting, borrowing, or purchasing a recreational vehicle that will allow you to self isolate during your travels. Be mindful of local health conditions and mandates.
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.
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:
Signs of Wildlife
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!
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.
Families are bonded in amazement as they learn how ancient peoples existed in the most primitive but breathtaking landscape imaginable. Understanding the keys to how these people survived the climate, with precarious resources, and the predicament of unusual housing situations is an unavoidable part of the experience. Your child will be richer for it. They will have a shift in their world perspective because the entire experience of this place is the imagining of people that looked like them, but lived a seemingly impossible existence.
Budding archaeologists, historians, and rock climbers will be encouraged and inclined to follow their dreams! Wide, thrilling eyes will be bright as they descend ladders along sheer sandstone cliff faces into cliff dwellings of native ancestors. Families will explore the idea of religious ceremony, and question how artifacts elicit knowledge. Observers will learn deep, un-abating respect for different cultures and precious archaeological treasures. Kids love this place; it really is the archaeological equivalent of Disney Land!
The questions your children will ask will be beautiful, and you will learn things about them that you did not know before. What would their most pressing needs or concerns be in a place this harsh and majestic? What did these people think about as they crawled through the same spaces, but in a different time? You will walk away with unforgettable memories, astounding photographs, and a true humanistic knowledge deeply ingrained.
Junior Ranger Badge
Ancestral Puebloan Culture
Natural Resource Stewardship
If you are reading this, you probably have children and as a family person, you probably do not need this reminder but just in case: DO NOT BRING MARIJUANA ONTO FEDERAL LANDS! Colorado offers a new, um, recreational opportunity. Advertisement of this is readily abundant, and you will see it everywhere. Just remember, it is illegal to possess this on federal land – and the park rangers will be happy to enforce this law, I assure you. We happened to witness a group of youngsters, sitting with hands cuffed behind backs at the entrance gate on their way in. The odor from their vehicle might have given them away – it was potent to say the least.
Arrive very early (before or at opening) at the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center to purchase cliff dwelling tour tickets. This is especially imperative during the busy summer season. Our two favorite tours, which you can nicely fit into a day visit (with proper planning), are Cliff Palace and Balcony House (both on Chapin Mesa). When you are purchasing your tour tickets, keep in mind that it will take you approximately 60 to 90 minutes to reach the cliff dwelling tour area from the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center. Plan your time accordingly.
Be sure to visit the http://www.nps.gov website to review information on “Know Before You Go”, especially as they pertain to tours and expected physical exertion. You need to carefully manage your children. The socially awkward harness for toddlers can be unabashedly used without awkward glances in this place.
Pack your lunch the night prior. Food is available at Mesa Verde, but tour groups and lunch time crowds put a heavy volume on these establishments and you may find you are spending more time managing your lunch than you would have preferred. Picnic and pull out areas are abundant.
This place is fragile, and large volumes of visitors put a strain on preservation. Please, do your part and remind your children not to touch the structures. Make a game of it, or it is possible that you or your loved ones will suffer from very public humiliation at the hands of some very zealous park rangers. It is inexplicably a da Vinci, really. You wouldn’t want your kids touching the Mona Lisa either. Please watch those goldfish cracker crumbs also. Food attracts rodents, and rodents are very destructive.
Where to Stay
Dive in and stay in a tent at Morefield Campground, or take your RV (with limited advanced reservations). A truly scenic campground with showers, laundry, and a convenience store, make this a great opportunity to try tent camping with the family. The convenience of being within the park makes planning easier, and offers flexibility. Far View Lodge, also within the park, offers hotel style accommodations. Durango, Colorado, less than 30 minutes away from the park entrance offers a wide variety of amenities.
Forgive my lighthearted musings on this trip, but it really is a soul lifting kind of majestic place. There are rainbows here for heaven’s sake, everywhere you look giant red, precariously perched rainbows. You feel majesty, sure, but you also feel joy and happiness. It’s a place to bring your family or college friends. With short drives, and relatively short and easy hikes, its simply a place of outdoor amusement, of the natural kind.
During Spring Break, well frankly, there are also lots of college boys here, from all over the country as tell-tale by their insignia laden apparel. They hike with knowing-ness and camaraderie, and that brave new world look on their faces. I just couldn’t help but smile that they were here with buddies, learning new things, on a sparkling clear, blue sky day. They were probably camping somewhere in new tents purchased just for this trip, or in one of the overpriced hotel rooms in Moab, six to a room. They just looked the part of happy and adventuresome boys. And, yes, that is in fact a mullet hairstyle that my adorable nephew is wearing. If some of those college boys make good on their word and bring back the mullet that “the really cool little kid” was sporting, don’t blame me. You can blame my nephew, he is his own man. I assure you.
Sadly, there were far fewer girls. I couldn’t help to think of the lonely girls, eager to meet the man of their dreams or fall into the trap of what “Spring Break” means on some tropical beach, bikini clad, intoxicated with friends. The few groups of young women that we did see were gorgeous, absolutely beautiful and engaged in the real (not artificial) joyfulness around them. I looked at my daughter, laughing and enjoying the company of her younger cousin who had joined us, and told her I would allow her to go backpacking in Utah on her Spring Breaks in college but she definitely cannot go to Jamaica. She looked at me and said, “Only if you go hiking with me”. I thought ‘absolutely, sweet pea – I would love to join you.’
Extra Tip – Arrive Early, Make Overnight Accommodations even Earlier
Check the park website the evening before you arrive and plan to arrive 10 to 30 minutes before the park opens. During peak season, it is not unexpected to see park traffic extending outside of the park onto US Hwy 191 for more than a mile.
Junior Ranger Badge:
Arches (of course)
When to Stay:
Spring Break (March – April). Tie it with a visit to Canyonlands if you can. Check out www.discovermoab.com to view various activities that will be happening in the area and plan accordingly.
There were people here before you and people here before them, and on and on until it was only the first human to have come to these canyons. But, unlike other places on this planet, the chain of people is particularly short in this remote, difficult to access, astoundingly barren but intensely beautiful landscape. The connection is there, and you ponder what these individuals were like who left their hand prints on the sandstone cliffs. Take your hand and hold it into the air and compare it (don’t touch it!) to the white hand print painted there hundreds of years ago. It is breathtaking and timeless. This was an individual, a soul, a human being. They felt cold, hunger, fear, and as they were human, making equally a remnant of their existence, surely they felt love. You will feel removed from yourself and question your very own existence, the absurdity of your everyday cares. You will be transfixed to the most basic human necessity by pondering the basic human needs: shelter, food, water…and human connection.
Take risk here, backpack in and stay in the wild under the stars. Feel your humanity, because in the end that is why we go to these places. We don’t go to simply experience nature; we go there to reflect upon our own existence removed from all the conundrums that we have created for ourselves.
Live dangerously, let your children live dangerously in this place and know that there are risks. Our path was Peekaboo Trail. There will be moments of fear, that I take with me forever, of my little girl with her enormous backpack saddling along the sandstone path with a hundred plus foot drop looming against any slip, and nothing to stop her perilous fall. This is life, there are no guard rails. I will have the vision of me holding onto the straps of her pack in case she should slip and then reluctantly letting go knowing if I held too tight, it could be me that caused her descent and that is how life will be and her growing will be. When she goes to college, marries, has a home and children of her own, it will be that image and feeling of letting go that I will always take with me. Look upon their smiling faces of satisfaction and pride at the end of that trail. The confidence and resiliency will seep among the cracks of their entire lives filling in the gaps of insecurity in the least expectant moments. They didn’t die on Peekaboo Trail. They won’t die from taking that science final, or not making the basketball team, or losing a job.
After visiting this place, children will understand the great circle of life too, that humans have existed on nothing but their wits and ingenuity for millennia. Their ancestors survived insurmountable odds. They will survive, as well, with cleverness and perseverance. When they leave their mark upon the world, I will hope and pray that it will be as indelible, but just as sweet and spiritual-bound as the hand prints upon the sandstone cliffs.
Extra Tip – Day Hikes Be prepared with the “Ten Essentials”
You have children with you and you are in an extremely remote location where day hikes are the adventure of choice. If you venture out, for even a short day hike, you absolutely need to be prepared for a minimum 24-hour window in the event of an emergency. Remember that you may be as far as 75 miles from the nearest medical facility, and in a location where cellular phone service is poor to non-existent. Water is an absolute essential in this location. For a day hike, you should plan to bring a minimum of two liters/person. Try not to rely on filtration systems for water sources you may find on the trail. Water in this ecosystem is precarious at best, and animal and plant life rely solely upon what is available in a changing climate. Wildlife critters do not have the opportunity to grab a water bottle at the local gas station!
Having the proper equipment with you helps you, your loved ones, and your potential rescue personnel. Various websites provide a list of the “Ten Essentials” you should always have in your day pack. My favorite list is the REI “Updated Ten Essential ‘Systems’” available at https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/ten-essentials.html.
Ten Essentials List
Navigation (map and compass)
Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
Insulation (extra clothing)
Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
Repair kit and tools (think pocket knife with attachments)
The Grand Canyon is expansive, in every possible! The soaring vistas, the precarious recognition of your small self in the larger natural world carry peace from your spirit to the other side. The contrasting colors of the sky and stratigraphy paint images that will last an entire lifetime.
Dirt. How exclamatory that those simple grains of dirt created this miracle. Small, individual grains that slowly found themselves deposited in layers for millennia; and small individual grains correspondingly eventually washed away to places beyond, leaving the great gouge in the earth as the Colorado Plateau lifts higher into the sky. It is the largest canyon on earth at 10 miles wide and one mile deep.
Take your children here. Let them play in the dirt, let them sit on the ground and feel this great geologic connection. Let them eat it, be covered in it, combine with it, know it. In your home, you abhor it. You spend hours vacuuming it, dusting it, mopping it. But here, in this space, in this place it is the stuff of magic.
Extra Tip – Use Pedal Power
Bikes and National Park camping seem to go hand in hand. Bikes offer a quick way to access various locations within the parks, limit vehicular traffic, noise and air pollution, and offer a unique opportunity to enjoy the fresh air while getting from place to place. There are ample paved trails available. With younger children, the bike trailer offered a great way for us to get from the campsite to the rim and all of the activities surrounding. Bike rentals are available on the South Rim and all park shuttle buses are equipped with bicycle racks. There are only two locations where bicycle are not allowed, and you certainly would not want to use them in these locations anyway. They include inside the Grand Canyon (below the rim), of course silly. You may also not ride along any paved or unpaved portion of the Canyon Rim Trail, because it’s a long way down. Check the NPS website for more information on bicycling in the Grand Canyon.
Where to Stay:
There is an abundance of accommodations both within and outside of most national park boundaries. The Grand Canyon National Park is certainly no exception, but due to its extreme popularity, advanced planning is paramount.
Within park boundaries: There are three campgrounds within Grand Canyon National Park, two of which can be reserved through the National Recreation Reservation Service by calling 1-877-444-6777 or online at http://www.recreation.gov/.
Our family stayed at Mather Campground, located on the South Rim accommodating both tent and RV.
When to Go:
Junior Ranger Badge – Why Geology, Of Course!
Understanding the geologic processes that provide this mesmerizing expanse is certainly the primary theme. On the large scale, there is the canyon itself, but even on the smaller scale ranger led fossil tours allow children the hands on experience of exploration. Also, don’t miss the opportunity to learn about the incredible animals that call this place home.