White Sands National Park – Clinging to Life

New Mexico

Visited March 2022

This park is a pastel world filled with ethereal light that cascades across pleasant, softest sand. It’s a place of moonscapes and unworldly formations, fit for space movie scenes. The beauty of the sand comes from its composition of selenite micro crystals, refracting light in a myriad of angles. The light splashes gentle colors across the scene, making it a photographer’s paradise.

These dunes cling to life because the water table is shallow enough to hold sand particles together. Dig a few feet down, and let the hole sit awhile, and soon it will be filled with water! This enables wildlife to live in the shadows of the inter-dunal areas.

The sands are always shifting, and so too must the plants. They adapt and traverse by extending their roots, or by building their own rooted platforms, rising up like sentries.

It was surreal to be in this park, in this region of the country, while the word ‘nuclear war’ continues to be bantered around like a ping pong ball whilst Russia devastates Ukraine. This national park exists amidst historic and active military might. White Sands Missile Range, an active military site and home of the detonation of the first nuclear bomb (Trinity), sits adjacent to the north, south, and west. Holloman Air Force Base borders the park to the east. Evidence of military presence surrounding the park is prevalent with signs. Even the road to the park from Alamogordo is subject to closure, at the directives of the military as they actively test missiles in the area and must occasionally close the road for safety concerns.

The environment is as imposing as the military presence. Rainfall in the area averages less than 12 inches per year, and the temperatures frequently exceed 100°F in summer. It is a remote location, bounded on the west and east by mountains of the basin and range formation. Life still clings, despite all hardship, despite onslaught, despite the unfairness of the situation. Life continues, because it is meant to do nothing less.

Junior Ranger Badge:

  • Safety
  • Flora and Fauna
  • Food Chain
  • Geology and Topography

This is a family-oriented park, there are not a lot of trails, so hike all that you are able. With the abundance of visitors during spring break, the park is very busy. Be sure to watch younger children closely in the parking lot and along the roadways.  There is a handicap accessible boardwalk trail, with some excellent views of the dunes. Be sure to take a guided nature walk. See the ranger station for schedules.

Extra Tips:

A visit to this national park is not complete without an attempt to sled the dunes. The gift shop sells sleds and wax. However, on busy days, many people may have an extra sled or two. If you see someone leaving, offer to purchase a used sled from them. On the flip side, if you won’t be using yours again, be sure to pass it along to someone else. There is no ‘best’ place to sled but avoid trampling the plant life as they live precarious existence.

Dog poop in a park equals YUCK! This is one of few national parks that allow you to bring your dog. PLEASE PICK UP AFTER YOUR PETS. We saw entirely too much dog waste, don’t ruin the experience or the privilege for others.

Be respectful of others. This is a national park, reduce your noise level by not blaring your music or imposing on others by flying your drone. But really, don’t ruin the experience for others.

Stay to watch the sunset, but be mindful of park hours. Park rangers shouldn’t have to round up visitors at closing time. When the gate closes, it is locked for the night.

Remember:

This National Park is located in a remote area of New Mexico. The closest town is Alamogordo. Be prepared with all items that you will need to enjoy a full day including plenty of water to stay hydrated, sunscreen, and snack/food items. Be prepared to vacuum out your vehicle as the tiny crystals find their way into everything.

Where to Eat:

The gift shop provides snack, and convenience store style items. Your best bet is to pack your lunch prior to visiting, and picnic in the park. If you would rather have a sit-down meal, the town of Alamogordo offers plenty of dining options.

When to Go:

A highly visited site, the sheer number of people enjoying the sand can feel overwhelming if you are one to visit our parks for the peaceful interaction with the natural world. Don’t be dissuaded, just walk a bit further out and you may find the perfect opportunity for a sunset picture of universal delight. Visiting in the less busy season of summer or winter, instead of spring break, might be a better opportunity for un-intruded peace.

Where to Stay:

Back country camping is prohibited, at the time of this posting, due to rehabilitation efforts. There are some excellent campgrounds in the area to enjoy, and due to the basin and range topography, tent camping is comfortable during most of the year. For cooler months, try Oliver Lee State Park which offers some wonderful hiking trails. In the warmer months, the Lincoln National Forest offers several campgrounds in the high mountains.

Joshua Tree National Forest – Quirky and Picturesque

California

Visited December 2013

A natural art-filled playground, replete with color, shape, form, and texture rests due north of eccentric Palm Springs. These two travel destinations go hand in hand, with their odd uniqueness and placid gorgeousness basking in the southern California sunshine.

It is a place of historic gunfights and rough settlers. It is a timeless place where the Giant Ground Sloth roamed, consuming the Joshua Tree seeds that were then spread through dung. The extinction of which has led to the dampened attenuation of the Joshua Tree’s range. Black Rock Canyon offers the most splendid view of the remaining Joshua Tree Forest.

Geologic and environmental forces continue to carve and shape the scene. Shapely boulders form via the timeless forces of freezing water and wind. Our family had a fantastic time scampering along boulder strewn trails and looking for images in the weathered rocks. There are abundant trails of all varying levels of difficulty, so finding a place to explore is easy. With names like Skull, Arch, and Split Rock, everyone will love the adventure of discovery.

At 789,866 acres, Joshua Tree National Park is bigger than Yosemite by a little over 25,000 acres, but it seems much smaller and very accessible, especially due to its location directly off Interstate 10. There are multiple visitor centers, but the Joshua Tree Visitor Center to the north is the best access point to see most of the hiking trails and points of interest. This visitor center is approximately a one-hour drive from Palm Springs.

Junior Ranger Badge:

Ask for a Junior Ranger booklet when you arrive for your children (and adult children) to complete while you visit. Be sure to donate to the park to cover the costs of these materials. This is also a great opportunity to talk to the ranger about ranger led programs happening during your visit. When you complete requirements in the booklet, return to the ranger station, raise your arm to take a ranger pledge and earn your Junior Ranger Badge. Topics covered include:

  • Wildlife
  • Maps
  • Habitat
  • Desert Resources

Extra Tips:

Always be prepared in these remote places. The most important supply you’ll need is water. I’ve written it all over this blog, but the most important rule in places like these is 1 gallon per person per day. It seems like a lot, but if you get disoriented, injured, or have mechanical problems it will be a great relief to know that you have plenty of water.

Remember:

The Mojave Desert ecosystem is protected here by this land status. This fragile ecosystem lives at the edge of earthly extremes. Stay on the trails and respect the fragility of the unique plants here.

Where to Eat:

Keep it simple and pack the food you will need. Due to the distance from Palm Springs, you will want to make sure you have enough food for the duration of your visit.

When to Go:

This place is a paradise of exploration in the winter months. Be aware of when the Santa Ana winds blowing. They can be extreme.

Where to Stay:

Unlike many National Parks, Joshua Tree is surrounded by plenty of accommodations. From camping in the park, to nearby upscale RV resorts and hotels, there are numerous options depending on your desired experience. We always recommend staying in the parks if possible, enjoying the dark night skies is bliss.

Death Valley National Park – A Place of Extremes

California

Visited February 2013

Vacant space and openness abound. It grabs your soul and tugs at your essence. What is best about this place is the magic of national parks, they make you understand your humanness and your place within the universe. This place is the hottest, driest, and lowest national park. Our quintessential ego makes us center. Our thoughts plague us and overwhelm us. We are swarmed daily by questions of where we are in comparison to others. Are we smart enough, wealthy enough, connected enough? The universe does not care. Your presence is not requisite. The universe is requisite to us though, and understanding it is important if we can ever hope to comprehend what this life is all about.

Strip everything away, especially life quenching water. Drive far, far away. Come to the edge of earth and find clinging life forms that exist at the brink. Find strength in the purpose of living. Look to living things that go on, that reproduce, that perpetuate themselves through time despite all odds. A little bit of luck and a lot of strength, despite odds. It is love. It is exploration and adaptation. Keep going. Don’t stop. Ever.

Our family loved this place! The kids were at the perfect age for short hikes and there are plenty.

Short hikes we enjoyed:

Salt Creek – Water in the desert? Yes, this small stream is also home to the endangered Salt Creek Pupfish. Keep an eye out for them, as you may see them spawning during winter months.

Badwater Salt Flat – Go to the lowest point in North America! Photos here are especially spectacular. The way the light bounces around is just magical.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – Clamber up a sand dune, photograph it!

Mosaic Canyon – Located near Stovepipe Wells Campground, this shaded canyon is great for exploring what’s around the bend.

Natural Bridge – This hike was a bit more advanced than the others. The natural rock bridge was enjoyable, but it was the hike back that offered some incredible views.

Junior Ranger Badge:

Extra Tips:

Be prepared. Be grateful for help from fellow mankind. Never deny another, when you can make a difference in their life. Love one another.

There are just some stories you cannot make up, like this is one. We drove to Keane Wonder Mine, to see the historic mining infrastructure. It was getting late, and there were no signs of other vehicles anywhere. We were headed back to the campground when a loud boom sounded, and the car careened a bit and suddenly came to a plunging stop on the dirt road. My husband and I looked at one another, concern swelling. After getting out, opening the hood to no avail, he checked the tire. It was obvious, a missing caliper bolt wasn’t holding our brake together! Without it, it was impossible to drive.

We stood around for a bit, and my husband thought maybe he could fix it if we had a piece of wire. So, we walked along the road, hopeful but not encouraged. Suddenly, as if placed there by gods, was the perfect wire in length and diameter. How on earth? Luck. My husband wired it, and we drove slowly to the ranger station area. It was dark, the Furnace Creek Gas Station didn’t have what we needed. There was no way we could pull our travel trailer home. So, they recommended a tow. A very expensive tow…or swinging by a park employee’s house – because he has a lot of spare parts in his garage!

We took a chance and drove to park housing. We found the slightly notorious gentleman, and he opened his one car garage door for us. There were hundreds of buckets filled with parts! He knew the bolt we needed was there somewhere. So, my husband and this incredible, ingenious park angel started looking. He understood the quintessential element of this place, resources are important. They found it! Luck? Blessings? Converging elements of the universe?

We headed back to the campground after profuse thanks, and a tip, with our hearts full of love. Love from another human, gratefulness for the resources that he shared with us.

Remember:

Water. You need a lot of water here. Take 1 gallon per person per day with you EVERYWHERE you drive. Keep the family hydrated, carry water with you everywhere. I was a bit panicked when we found ourselves with mechanical problems, but not too worried, as we had water with us.

Also, it gets very cold in the winter months. This is a desert, but you need a jacket at night.

Where to Eat:

The Ice Cream Parlor at The Ranch at Death Valley for date shakes! Dessert in the Desert. Saddle up to the bar and order a date shake for everyone. Let the cool delight hit your mouth, quench your thirst, remind you of civilization and how far we have come. We can go to a remote corner of the world and order a perfect epicurean delight.

When to Go:

When to go depends on the experience you want. Do you want debilitating heat (highest on record is 130.0 degrees F), and time only in your car and at the ranger station? Is the requisite hot temperature picture a must? Pick summer.

Do you want to go for abundant hiking? Pick winter. If you have young children ONLY GO IN WINTER.

Where to Stay:

As with most well-developed national parks, this place has ample places to stay. Check out the Death Valley National Park Service website for options including hotel and campgrounds.

We camped at Stove Pipe Wells Campground. A car pulled next to our spot, and a lone young gentleman set up his tent and pulled out a nice telescope. After talking to us for some time, he said this was his last getaway before his girlfriend was due to give birth in about 3 weeks. We talked about having children, the art of it and the adventure. He was supposed to stay the weekend. The next morning, he was packing up. he was excited to start his new adventure as a father. He didn’t want to miss a thing. That’s why we take our children to these places. We don’t want to miss a thing, either. If you want to get to know your children, if you want to see the life you’ve created thrive and grow. If you want them to know luck and perseverance, get them to a national park. I like to think this gentleman is out there enjoying these parks with his family too. Maybe one day we’ll meet him out there.

Channel Islands National Park

California

Visited October 2012

National Parks are even better with friends! Channel Islands was a field trip destination while we lived in Tehachapi, California. My son’s fourth-grade teacher used this trip to solidify their reading of the book “Island of the Blue Dolphins” for her students.

This park preserves five different islands off the coast of California. It is a marine sanctuary of unparalleled beauty. The islands are accessible by the park concessioner, Island Packers, or private boat, so if you would like to get to the islands start your planning and reservations in advance.

Trips leave from Ventura and Oxnard Harbors. Highly recommended Oxnard Harbor is a delightful, picturesque small harbor reached by driving through strawberry fields. After herding a class of fourth grade students (and my daughter who could accompany us) onto the large catamaran style cruise ship supplied by Island Packers, we set sail towards Anacapa Island. Quite quickly we were delighted by a pod of dolphins that swam with us for a great length of the trip.

The cruise takes about an hour and is extremely pleasant. There are some minor waves, but everyone enjoyed the excursion out. After driving near Arch Rock for photographs, the boat came around to Landing Cove. This small cove decreases ocean waves but climbing from the bobbing boat directly onto metal ladders that must be ascended was a bit harrowing, and of course, the students loved it! A long flight of trail stairs is then ascended to reach the plateau where the visitor center and hiking trails are found.

After walking to the visitor center, we toured the exquisite lighthouse. From there, we walked to both Cathedral Cove where we saw private boats floating, and Inspiration Point.

The day was breezy but beautiful, and it was a perfect excursion for all. The fourth-grade students did not mind the round trip hiking length of approximately 2 miles, which was well developed and flat. After we finished our tour and boarded our boat to return to the mainland, we glimpsed sea lions basking on the rocky outcroppings of the island.

There are so many things to do along this island chain including snorkeling, kayaking, tide pool exploration. and hiking on each island. To truly visit the park in-depth, would take at least a week. If you don’t have that long, a day excursion is very enjoyable.

 Junior Ranger Badge:

  • Island Bingo
  • Ten Essentials
  • Mammuthus
  • Weather
  • First Inhabitants – Chumash
  • Ranching
  • Food Chains
  • Island Fox

Extra Tips:

There is no freshwater or food available on the island. You must bring everything with you onto your cruise ship, and on your tour. Bring a small hiking backpack or string bag to carry your items with you. Read the children’s novel ‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’ before you visit.

Remember:

Please do not litter or leave crumbs of any kind, and do not feed the wildlife. This is a small and very sensitive ecosystem that deserves our respect. There are no trash receptacles. Pack it in, Pack it out.

Make reservations to Channel Islands well in advance.

Bring sunscreen and bug repellent for small gnats. A light jacket is welcome as the ocean breezes do blow here.

Where to Eat:

Picnic tables are available at the Anacapa Island Visitor Center. Plan to eat the lunch that you brought with you here.

When to Go:

There is no bad time to visit. However, check the park website to ascertain if there are any current closures. Always be prepared with layers and sunscreen for your season. It is windy here, so cold plus windy would make it uncomfortable. Dress accordingly.

Where to Stay:

There is camping available on each of the five islands! Camping in Channel Islands would be a wonderful experience but takes some advanced planning and reservations. If looking for hotel accommodations, try nearby Oxnard or Ventura.

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.

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 www.discovermoab.com to view various activities that will be happening in the area and plan accordingly.