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.


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, 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


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, 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


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.

Top 10 Reasons to Visit a National Park on your Family Vacation!

1. To leave the bounds of normalcy and have an epic adventure.

Wander through misty Redwood National Park and imagine you are on another planet when you see otherworldly creatures like the Banana Slug. Hike the dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park and feel Sahara Desert movie scenes come to life. These things cannot be replicated at amusement parks. They are pure and true adventures that will be unique to you, because they are found in the wild.

Redwood National Park

2. To learn about your American Heritage.

There is an abundance of history poured into each national park. They tell the legacy of things we have valued as a nation; and how we determined to preserve these treasures collectively. Your children should know the names of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. They should understand the struggles and the work that countless individuals undertook to preserve these places for us.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

3. To get outside!

We need more outside time! Children are especially in need of time in an unfettered natural environment. It soothes the soul and calms the mind. Get away from mechanization and human creation, and explore nature. It stimulates creativity and spurs the desire to use your mind and body to go beyond.

4. To pass on the importance of preservation.

National parks must have our support! If we do not value them as a nation, then the financial incentive to preserve these places will dwindle. We must pass on a love of wild spaces to our children, only then can we secure national park preservation for future generations.

Badlands National Park

5. To experience the sheer beauty – together.

Don’t wait for retirement before you go and enjoy these spectacular places. In sharing our national park experience with others, all too often we hear them express a plan to visit when they retire. Why wait? The magnificence is too intense not to share with your children. Stand in awe TOGETHER!!

Bryce National Park

6. To make exceptional memories.

Sure, you can make memories on a cruise, on a tropical island resort, or an amusement park but they are managed and manicured. National park memories include things like fly fishing with an elk in Yellowstone! During one trip, my husband was fly fishing and a cow elk walked up behind him and was drinking and eating for a long time before he realized she was there! People were driving by snapping pictures of the delicate scene.

7. To establish shared experiences.

Do you want to have something to talk about with your children? Shared national park experiences are unique in every way. We relive our backpacking adventure in Canyonlands National Park frequently. We laugh and cringe at the slick rock path we skirted around. We share in wonderment the memory of the juvenile wolf we witnessed walking through our campground in Yellowstone National Park.

8. To live STEAM.

With so much talk about Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math education in the school setting, why not go live it! National park visitor centers are replete with science. With exceptional Junior Ranger programs, children can do STEAM in the field. Many parks offer “backpacks” with unique supplies that make the park a true learning experience. Most importantly, children are surrounded by YOU and NATURE and the unique experience enhances their memory and inquisitiveness.

Mesa Verde National Park

9. To be docent for people from other nations.

People from all over the world come to the United States to witness the splendor of our national parks. Interactions are inevitable. One favorite experience is when are our children shared smore supplies with a family visiting from Germany. The father wasn’t particularly impressed with the unique campfire cuisine, but his kids were thrilled!! The second was helping a European family with their rental RV slide-out. My husband directed them to the fuse box and helped them with a quick fix, so they could be on their way to the next stop in their tight schedule. They were so grateful. Extending hospitality one to one is how we grow global cooperation.

10. To have fun!!

One family with whom we shared our national park love thought their children wouldn’t know what to do on such a trip. They preferred roller coasters. My kids love a good roller coaster too, but they will be the first to tell you national parks are anything but boring. They have snorkeled; sand surfed; splashed in hot spring fed streams; stood in completely black caverns hundreds of feet underground; and climbed hundred-foot ladders against sand stone cliffs within the park boundaries! Outside park boundaries, entrepreneurs offer even more adventures like rope courses, snow mobile riding, and sailing. Great, and unique fun will find you at any national park!


Biscayne National Park

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.

DSC_0094 (2)

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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Mesa Verde National Park

Colorado – Visited 2009 and 2014

The ‘Disney Land’ of National Parks

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
  • Archaeological Concepts
  • Migration
  • 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.

Extra Tips

  1. 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.
  2. Be sure to visit the 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Petrified Forest National Park

Arizona –  Visited June 2009

Trees Rock

Fossil formation and remnants of the past are abound in this picturesque, remote National Park. These natural processes offer a unique opportunity to excite young minds. In-the-field activities are the most exacting way to understand geological processes in a comprehensive and lasting way. Would your children rather look at pictures of fossils in a book or see them in-situ in the wide expanse of the west?

Exploration of Petrified Forest National Park provides the opportunity to see into the past, present and future. You can look backwards into the Triassic period (245-215 million years ago)! This park offers one of the most continuously preserved portions of this period anywhere in the world. Both plant and dinosaur fossils from this period are found throughout the park. In its present, you can see the scientific processes responsible for our world. We use both the past and present to predict the future of this park as we learn how erosion and altering climate continues to alter these lands.

Junior Ranger Badge

  • Geological Processes
  • Painted Desert and Sedimentology
  • Paleontology (Triassic)
  • Fossil Formation
  • Wildlife
  • Appreciation of Scenic Vistas
  • Archaeology


This is a National Park. Federal law prohibits collection or removal of any objects, most especially petrified wood from its setting! Please, leave that pretty rock right where you found it for the next person to enjoy.

Extra Tips

Experience unique cultures and art. Here, you are in one of the most profoundly beautiful, spiritual, and culturally exquisite places in the western United States. The Interstate 40 corridor (aka Route 66) between Albuquerque and Flagstaff offers wide open, colorful scenic views.

In New Mexico, both Gallup and Grants provide the opportunity to shop for artistic treasures made in the nearby Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo Nation Reservations. The prices and people are fantastic. Many of the roadside restaurants in these small towns have exceptional New Mexican (spicy) cuisine with a specialties being chili verde and Navajo tacos. Our favorite place to eat is Aurelia’s Diner located at 2502 East Historic Highway 66, Gallup, NM.

Explore archeological wonders. There are numerous other national treasures in the area that just simply should not be missed. The archaeologic and historic sites in the area are the ‘Machu Picchu of the United States’. One of the best ways to find other parks to explore is to view the index websites available on the National Parks website, which offers both a map and index view simultaneously. The index page for Arizona can be found at and the index page for New Mexico can be found at

Where to Stay

Considering the remote location of Petrified Forest National Park, most likely lodging will be found at the beginning or ending of your route in either Flagstaff or Albuquerque. The closest lodging can be found in Holbrook, or Chambers Arizona, which both offer Days Inn accommodations.

Arches National Park

Utah – Visited March 2016

Spring Break Here

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)
  • Native Wildlife

When to Stay:

Spring Break (March – April). Tie it with a visit to Canyonlands if you can. Check out to view various activities that will be happening in the area and plan accordingly.