Shenandoah National Park

Virginia – May 2018 (25 out of 61)

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

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

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

Junior Rangers at Shenandoah

Junior Ranger Badge:

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

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

Extra Tips:

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

Fallen Branches

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

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

Steep and Rocky

Remember:

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

 

When to Go:

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

Where to Eat:

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

Misty Mountains

Redwood Forest National Park

California – July 2013 (11 out of 61)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Junior Ranger Badge:

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

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

Jr Rangers in the Cave of Redwood

Remember:

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

Extra Tips:

Where to Eat

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

 

Hot Springs National Park

Arkansas – April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protest in a Park

Junior Ranger Badge:

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

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

Remember

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

When to Go

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

DSC_6165

Where to Stay

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

Wind Cave National Park

South Dakota – June 2016

Treasure Above and Below

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

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

American Bison Windcave NP

Junior Ranger Badge

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

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

Windcave NP Junior Ranger

Extra Tips

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

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

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

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

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

Remember

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

Where to Eat

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

When to Go

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

Where to Stay

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

Our Itinerary

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

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

89 South 16A East

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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

Inspiration is Home

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


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

Junior Ranger Badge:

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

Remember:

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

Where to Stay

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

Where to Eat

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

When to Go

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

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

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

Reminder

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 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.
  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

Reminder

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 https://www.nps.gov/state/az/index.htm and the index page for New Mexico can be found at https://www.nps.gov/state/nm/index.htm.

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.

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.

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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.

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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)
  •     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

Grand Canyon National Park

Arizona – Visited September 2007

Eternal Dirt

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.

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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:

October

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.