Sam Houston National Forest – Four Notch Loop Trail

Growing up in rural Utah, I was fortunate to be surrounded by millions of acres of public land. I thought of these spaces as my own. We spent summer vacations camping along streams and lakes where we would fish. Springtime was filled with opportunities to go deep into the deserts of southern Utah to explore the sandstone cliffs and remote places. Octobers were a time for hunting in the national forests.  I woke to the view of the mountains and was surrounded by these purple peaks daily. I was part of the land that surrounded me.

In my adult life, during moving adventures across the United States, I have learned I am unique in my deep connection to our public lands.

The reality is only 25% of Americans use our public lands. That leaves 75% of Americans that neither know nor have experienced these remarkable places. Why is that of concern? A crucial concept in conservation highlights the importance of all people spending time in wild spaces:

To know them is to love it. To love them is to protect them.

We tend to think of public lands as the over-posted social media national parks. It is true that the National Park Service manages over 85 million acres of National Park Sites, including our national parks. And I love them dearly. But, did you know, there are over 248 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land, 193 million acres of land managed by the US Forest Service, and 199 million acres of State and Government public lands? Chances are you live within driving distance of public lands.

Spend time in them, get to know them and the creatures that call them home, and then advocate for their protection.

In my opinion, Sam Houston National Forest is one of the most under rated, undervalued, underutilized public land systems in the United States. It is located only 50 miles north of one of the largest cities, Houston with over 2 million people. Sam Houston National Forest is over 163,000 acres, and it always surprises me I can go for a hike on any given day and have the entire trail to myself. This is particularly true during weekdays.

It is difficult to be outdoors during the summer months in Houston, unless it is very early in the morning. Summer temperatures get hot and humid. But late fall through spring (November through April), Sam Houston National Forest is a veritable sanctuary so close to the big city. During these months when there are periods of drier weather, stream crossings are easy.

As a multiple use forest, this place is available for all kinds of recreational activities, including motor cross, horseback riding, fishing, and hunting. Hiker trails are flagged throughout the park for special use.

The 128-mile Lone Star Hiking Trail winds its way through Sam Houston National Forest. This trail is gaining in popularity as a through-hike destination during the winter months. It is designated as a National Recreation Trail. While I have yet to walk the entire length, I do frequently hike portions, and it is incredibly well marked with aluminum trail markers. Because this is a National Forest, primitive camping is allowed right off trail, with restrictions during hunting season.

Backpack Trip Ideas:

Four-Notch Loop Trail is an excellent backpacking trail for beginners. We enjoyed a 2 day-one night trip here in January, entering the trail at the Lone Star Hiking Trail Trailhead #8. The trailhead offers ample parking and is well signed.

We opted to start our trek southbound and did approximately 7 miles before we took a short diversion to camp at the John Stokes Memorial Campground.

As we were only gone for 2 days, we took all drinking water with us. Streams that meander throughout the area did have some water but were not flowing abundantly. There are quite a few steep stream crossings, so it would be important to know stream conditions of the area before venturing out. It had been mostly dry before we went, so we found most stream crossings to be easy and dry.

The trail felt incredibly safe and well-marked. We passed a group of boy scouts, and another smaller group. We had cellular reception, through Verizon, for the duration of our trip. I have heard stray dogs can be an issue on the Lone Star Hiking Trail. On this portion, we saw nothing of concern but the beagle “Scout”, aptly named as it appears he believes his sole purpose in life is to guide people along this portion of the trail. After following us for a while, we called his owners who said he always returns in the afternoon. The next day, he met up with us at the end of the hike to lead us out. I think he’s a trail angel.

The John Stokes Memorial Campground is accessed through a trail that is clear-cut through the forest. It was difficult to find, as the end portion is covered with new growth lob-lolly pine trees. After crossing another stream, we came to the camping area which is a cleared location at the circular end of a dirt road. Though there are no amenities, we were thankful for the open space, as the wind was blowing quite a bit that day and we didn’t want to camp in an area with abundant tree cover for safety reasons.

The night was full of owls and coyote pack sounds. It was restful, and beautiful weather with a balmy 65-degree night in the tent.

One of the benefits of hiking in forest service public lands, is that you can usually take your dog with you. That is not the case in most national parks. We used this opportunity to take our dog with us, who donned his own backpack and carried his own supplies.

Denali National Park, Alaska – An Ancient Magic.

Time becomes meaningless here. There is an unfathomable energy, an ancient force of magic that stirs, and it is so very real. If a mountain range can be alive, if an entire ecosystem can speak, this is the place to listen. There are traces of wildlife everywhere. Feathers, hides, bone, fallen antlers and animal footprints of abundance dot the varied landscape. The animals are here, yet you cannot always see them. They do see and sense you. With every part of their being they sense your intrusion, as you stumble around foreign in every sense.

The birds chirp merrily, at all hours. Those winged spirits are the sign of a warm season, passing too quickly. Their joyful song resounds across a sunlight bedecked night. Green of every imaginable shade paints all surfaces, impeded only by dots of snow and steep mountain peaks. Mosquitos lazily buzz, but not much, with the frost that creeps along the ground on a mid-June night.

Words are not enough. Language, and humanity at its attempted descriptive words cannot reach here. Photos are but a speck of the whole. This place is everything. It is life. I am entranced, smitten with the ancient spells. I want more of it; it has lured me and will forever pull at my heart. I believe this place was given extra care by God; his hand graced this place with a little extra divinity. That we were able to share this place with our children, that we were able to give them this gift, was powerful stuff.

How could we ever forget flying into Alaska at midnight? Oh, those colors and that sky, pink pastels as the sun lay barely hidden. The hazy light swirled with a whisper and gently colored everything in not quite day, and not quite night shades. The clouds coming into Alaska were thick, life like and brooding. That sky was alive, both ominous and entrancing.


We started our trip flying into Fairbanks, taking the hotel shuttle. A short night of rest, and we were off the next morning via hotel shuttle to meet something I’ve dreamed since I was a child, the Alaska Railroad! The thrill of that trip, the gentle sway of the rail car as it pulled away and was enveloped into the wilderness, will never be forgotten. This train is a destination, an experience of its own. The history of Alaska is entwined in its establishment. The road from Anchorage to Fairbanks was only completed in 1971, and road travel is still difficult if not outright unavailable in most of Alaska.

Arriving in Denali National Park feels like entering another dimension. Stepping out of the train, we waited for our backpacks to be unloaded in the bright noon sunshine. The pine trees cascaded their shadows, and other visitors disappeared quickly onto tour buses. We repacked for the walk to the back country office, where we would obtain our backpacking permit.

After getting our permit and camper bus ticket, we boarded the back country bus and entered wilderness like never before. We were dropped off, along the Denali Park Road, at our back country unit. It was early evening when we exited the bus, and it was surreal when our driver pulled away leaving a faint cloud of dust. There was not another living soul within sight or sound. Every sense heightened as we were now truly alone in a vast wilderness.

The glacial till river that marked the entrance to our unit flowed quickly beneath a bridge. Without trails to follow in this place, we attempted to follow the river. It was running quickly, carrying the melt of winter still full to its banks. It was slow going through the adjacent willows, and there were moose tracks everywhere! I was terrified we would crash into one in the thick brush and was relieved when we pushed out onto open terrain. Odd holes along the riverbank caught my eye. I remembered them as some sign of bear but couldn’t remember the exact details. We later learned bears dig along the riverbanks, harvesting and eating Eskimo Potatoes. They are an important source of alpine food for many different animals, but bears leave tell-tale divots in the pebble strewn banks when harvesting.

We were exhausted from our travels the day before and didn’t make it far that evening. We set up our brightly colored tents and placed our bear vaults and eating location in the form of the golden triangle, each 100 yards away. This is a safety measure required in the back country to keep both you and the bears safe, so they don’t associate human smells and food with humans. We tucked in for the night after a quick meal.

That first night was restless, I can’t lie. After going to the bathroom repeatedly, I realized no matter how late, it was still light enough for me to see everything! It was such an odd sensation; we would never need a flashlight! Uniquely, the birds here chirp all night. Their tunes were enough to lure me into a gentle sleep.

We needed to avoid a closure area along the river, and so took to the ridge line the remainder of our trip. We were continually drawn to the incredible vastness, the unique terrain of glacial remnants, and the mountain range views. The next two days went swiftly. We wanted to explore more, to adventure more. I wanted to cross the glacial ridge lines above tree line in the distance. As much as I love being outside though, I was on edge. I felt like we were trespassing in a place we didn’t fully understand. A two-night stay was enough here for our first time in this back country. The constant state of alert was taxing, as it should be. The freshly placed bear paw print, found in the mud near where we had camped the first night, assured me it was time to leave.

We met a bus on the road, not the camper bus but a park tour bus. Fortunately, it was early enough in the season for there to be a few empty seats to enjoy a tour further into the park. That was a safe place to view a grizzly bear, the caribou, and even the Denali Dall Sheep we were thrilled to see. I think perhaps we brought good luck with us on that bus. That trifecta of viewing is rare! We were even able to see Mount Denali, barely cresting in the distance. With the current road closure at mile 43, this was a special opportunity.

On our return to Denali Park Village, we stayed at the beautiful Riley Creek Campground. We watched as a mother moose and her twins cautiously wandered through, ravenously stripping the green leaves from small trees. We spent time in the visitor center, learning more deeply about the park and obtaining junior ranger badges. We enjoyed an evening park ranger talk in our campground about the brilliance of corvids (crows, jays, magpies, raven). In the village, the safety of civilization hummed around us.

On our last evening, the gentle patter of rain fell on our tent, the first drops of our trip. It was welcoming and soothing: “Safe, safe, you are safe, your family is safe, now keep this place safe in return. Keep the animals that call this place their own, their ways, their life intact,” it whispered. 

It’s difficult to go forward with this blog, to tell you the ins and outs of a perfect vacation here, because this place is so much more than a destination. Your time here shouldn’t feel like an ordinary vacation. The best way I can explain how to enjoy the ideal trip is to do things you know will take your breath away, that will make you put your camera down, your phone down. Do the things that make your children content to witness the wonders. Your time here should lead you to something so damn extraordinary, so precious, your soul is changed. The experiences that pull at your spirit are those you need to seek when you visit.

Extra Tips:

I planned our vacation to Alaska in its entirety without a rental car, our only sure means of transportation being our feet. It was completely doable, because of the available connections and their exacting timeliness. This was both more environmentally friendly and cost conscious.

You can take a bus everywhere you want to go within the Denali Park Village, and even into the park. The bus schedules at Denali allow for exploration of the park with very little un-intended foot travel. If you are physically able though, I would recommend the walking paths. They are incredibly well marked, with routes everywhere within the village.

You need to have back country experience before you backpack overnight in Denali. It is NOT a place for beginners.

Obtaining a back country permit takes concerted advanced planning. We spent hours researching the back country system in Denali. To keep everyone safe, back country permits cannot be issued unless everyone in your party has watched required safety videos, available on the park website. Every hiker may be quizzed by back country rangers on the video contents before issuing your permit. Both our children had to answer questions, and they were well prepared!

The park is divided into units where a limited number of hikers are allowed. Do your research in advance and have some units in mind. The most popular unit is 6, and it was already full. The rangers were not helpful in guiding us to choose a unit we should explore. I’m not sure why, but they were intentional at not giving us any hints as to which units we should see. It was a bit of a ‘yes or no game’ to get them to give us some concrete advice. It really is up to you to pick your destination and route, so plan accordingly.

You are REQUIRED to take a bear vault with you to the back country, where you will place ALL smellable items. There are many approaches to backpacking with supplies. I prefer for every person I am with to be self-contained. It helps our family members be more self-sufficient, organized, and responsible. So, we each had our own bear vault that I purchased in advance and pre-packed. They do have bear vaults at the ranger station for rental.

There are no trails in the Denali back country! Backpacking here is an entirely different experience, intentionally. Ah muskeg. You’ll get to loathe that word quickly if you veer too far off a ridge line or riverbank. Imagine backpacking along mattresses, you get the idea. It’s doable, but incredibly slow and frustrating. The experience is part of the adventure here, especially for your first visit.

Junior Ranger Badge:

  1. Leave No Trace
  2. Big Five: Grizzly, Wolf, Dall Sheep, Caribou, Moose
  3. History
  4. Botany
  5. Sled Dogs
  6. Mountaineering
  7. Dinosaurs
  8. Change


Bear spray is a must, even if you are only exploring the more populated Denali Park Village trails. There may be bear spray available for purchase at the park, but they may sell out. Each member of our party had their own container. The bottles were clipped within easy reach the entire time we were in the back country and walking in the park. Most importantly, you MUST take the time to educate yourselves on Alaska bear behavior! One of the required videos on the Denali National Park back country site discusses bear behavior. But there are others that go into more depth. Our favorite is ‘Staying Safe in Bear Country’, provided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website. I won’t discuss bear safety further here, as I’m not an expert. Take the time to research this subject, as it pertains to bears in the areas you will be visiting (coastal and brown bears may behave differently). It will give you confidence and make your trip to Denali more comfortable and safer. REMEMBER: DON’T DO ANYTHING THAT COULD HABITUATE THE BEARS INTO ASSOCIATING YOU WITH FOOD. KEEP THEM SAFE AND THAT WILL KEEP YOU SAFE.

Where to Eat:

Dining within the park is limited. You should plan to bring all meal essentials. There is cafeteria style eating near the visitor center at the Morino Grill. There are some basic snacks available for purchase at the bus station and at the Riley Creek Campground Mercantile.

When to Go:

We enjoyed our visit in June, but I think it would be spectacular in the fall or winter as well. I think I would avoid spring/early spring. The walking paths would probably be muddy/and or icy. Travel would probably be difficult.

Where to Stay:

If you are able, I highly recommend tent camping within Denali National Park. The accommodations at Riley Creek Campground were very nice with showers and clean restrooms. There are RV spots within that campground as well. There are numerous hotels and lodges near the entrance to the park. Lodging within the park boundaries is available by private concessionaires only, and while the park road is closed, only reachable by aircraft.

Posted on August 4, 2022             

Visited June 2022

Great Basin National Park


Visited October 2021

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.

Red Rock Campground, Nevada

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.

Caliente Railroad Depot

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.

Junior Ranger Badge:


Cave and Geology Vocabulary

Tree Rings



Moon Phases

Night Sky Preservation

Extra Tips:

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.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Texas – Visited November 2019

Please, let me apologize first for this post. Guadalupe Mountains National Park is extraordinary. Don’t let this first bit of furry impede you from visiting this special preserved mountain island. I certainly hope the below is corrected before you visit.

Precariously perched against the famed Permian Basin of West Texas, Guadalupe Mountains National Park appears most threatened in its integrity of all the parks we have yet to visit. Air and light pollution knock at its door, and this is a recent development of overwhelming intensity brought on by furious paced oil well drilling. To learn more, please read “The Permian Basin Is Booming With Oil. But at What Cost to West Texans?” By Texas Monthly.

Permian Basin Flare

This once remote park now plays boundary host to thousands of oil wells drilled in the Chihuahuan Desert. Oil well flares for miles can be seen against the horizon, and the once intensely dark sky of Guadalupe Mountains National Park is now lit by the mars-scape infrastructure booming in the dessert. I am not going to lie; it was a gut-wrenching experience driving to the national park through the Permian Basin drilling bonanza.

Yes, I do realize I was consuming oil in the process of my commute. Hear me out, because I am not a hypocrite. Here is where the devastation originates: trash. Roadside construction trash, in incomprehensible volume, litters the highways in every single direction. The volume and type of trash that is strewn was nothing short of soul-sucking to witness. It wasn’t just your average fast-food soda cup. There were actual drill bits, five-gallon buckets with hazard warning labels, and miles upon miles of plastic debris, of every form, strewn in every direction blowing through the sensitive desert ecosystem.

How could we possibly trust the oil industry to care for our environment when they can’t even perform the most basic clean-up of their debris? In the mining industry, where I was previously employed, our facility “adopted” the highway approaching the plant. We meticulously cleaned (on schedule) all roadside debris. In truth, we understood the importance of appearances.

It was simply outrageous to myself and my children that global companies, such as Chevron, could allow visitors to travel through the area (or workers for that matter) to witness the enormity of the mess being left behind as they drill and pump ravenously. I promise, I am not exaggerating. It was the most disgusting display of lacking human regard for the environment I have personally witnessed. It was the most outrageously poor display of corporate responsibility imaginable, especially because correcting the issue is so ridiculously easy. Clean up after yourself.

To say we were relieved to arrive at the National Park, pristine in its infringed isolation, was an understatement. The experience exemplified one of the main reasons why we absolutely need to preserve wild places. We need wild spaces to exist, unadulterated by poor human choices.

Please go to Guadalupe Mountains National Park to get beyond the world, and to hike. Hiking opportunities in the park are abundant, ranging from challenging to leisurely. There is a trail appropriate for all ages and abilities. This park offers a respite in west Texas for the soul in need of diverse topography, scenic and varied hiking trails, interesting and diverse habitat, and a place to learn about geology and natural history.


Guadalupe National Park Brister Family

Junior Ranger Badge:
• Animal Tracks and Adaptations
• Archaeology
• Permian Reef and Geology
• The Wilderness Act
• Ranch Life

Extra Tips:
• Please be warned, this place is very remote. Be sure to bring plenty of water. Water is available at the campground and visitor center, but it is important to remember this is a resource you are consuming from the dry desert. Also, bring ALL your own food as there are no dining facilities available at the park. The Pine Springs Visitor Center offers a very small selection of basic amenities and snacks.

• The small, but comfortable, campground fills very quickly. On holidays or other busy weekends, plan to arrive before noon to guarantee a campsite. Reservations are not accepted; groups are the exception. There are no showers, but the bathrooms do have running water and are a comfortable walking distance to the campsites.

• The recommended water allowance is 1 gallon/person/day. It is dry here, remember. Several members of my hiking party (who will not be named) took only 3 liters of water. We were in the backcountry for over 24 hours. They were getting nervous and ran out of water before making the final trek back. THERE ARE NO WATER SOURCES IN THE BACKCOUNTRY!

Backpack Prepping in Guadalupe National Park

It can be incredibly windy in the campground AND in the backcountry. The ranger did tell of one poor visitor who returned to their tent in the middle of the night to find it (and all her contents) had blown away. Stake your tent well and put heavy objects inside. Secure all belongings as soon as you set up to prevent them from blowing away.

Where to Eat:
Eat in your car, or on the trail, in the parking lot, or with a snail.
There are no burgers, or strong ale, bring your own, in a lunch pail.

When to Go:
You should plan your trip in mid-spring OR mid to late fall. The elevation of Guadalupe Peak is 8751 feet. The elevation of the campground is around 7300 feet, so the higher elevations are going to make it cooler in the winter. Summers will be hot. We enjoyed our trip during the long Thanksgiving weekend and found the weather to be perfect. It was dry and comfortable for hiking, but it did get a bit windy.

Where to Stay:
There are 2 campgrounds: Pine Springs Campground (20 tent and 19 RV sites), and Dog Canyon (9 tent and 4 RV sites). Reservations are only accepted for group sites.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park Tent Site

Canyonlands National Park

Utah – Visited March 2016

A Poignant Exercise of Existentialism

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.

2016 JJB Family Vac 065

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.

2016 JJB Family Vac 117

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

Ten Essentials List

  •     Navigation (map and compass)
  •     Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
  •     Insulation (extra clothing)
  •     Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
  •     First-aid supplies
  •     Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
  •     Repair kit and tools (think pocket knife with attachments)
  •     Nutrition (extra food)
  •     Hydration (extra water)
  •     Emergency shelter

Junior Ranger Badge:

  • Erosion
  • Cryptobiotic Soils
  • Stratigraphy
  • Ancestral Puebloans
  • Create Poetry

When to Stay:

The first weekend BEFORE spring break season