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.

Itinerary:

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

Remember:

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

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.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Colorado – Visited June 2020

There will be only one national park trip for us this year. From our remaining list, we chose Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park because we could get there without flying. This park offered a great respite for our minds and souls during these peculiar, Covid-19 laden times.

The deep chasms, breathtaking scenery, and plentiful outdoor opportunities were exactly what we needed to rejuvenate. With ample outdoor recreation surrounding the area, there was plenty to do while maintaining social distancing rules. Let me be clear though, we wouldn’t have traveled here without a travel trailer.

Overlook

Extra Tips:

Rural communities in the western United States are frequently bounded by abundant federal lands. The financial support from visitors is a benefit to these communities. However, their health care systems are frequently small with tight budgets. The health of these communities factored into our equation to visit during the pandemic. The travel trailer allowed us the ability to social distance effectively so that we wouldn’t get sick or transfer our germs to these communities. These were the rules we followed during our trip:

(1). We only used the facilities in our trailer. We showered, used the restroom, and washed our hands only in our own bathroom, which conveniently was always with us.

(2). At gas stations, only my husband would go inside. He always wore his mask, and sanitized before and after getting out of the vehicle.

(3). I purchased all drinks, snacks, and food prior to leaving and we ate only in the truck and trailer, except for an opportunity to patio dine.

(4). When we needed to replenish groceries, only I went into the store. I stocked up on everything we would need for the remainder of the trip to limit additional stops.

(5). We attempted to souvenir shop in Taos, New Mexico, but even with masks we felt uncomfortable going inside. So, we did not do any further shopping. These small tourist businesses are getting hit hard financially. See a list below for links to shops if you are interested in supporting them by purchasing online.

(6). We maintained our social distancing in RV parks. These parks are a fantastic place to meet people. We denoted a significant change in demeanor this year. The world is more subdued and less inclined to engage. Still, waive and give a smile.

Remember:

Always check the NPS website ahead of time so you know of any closures and personal protection requirements. We adamantly wore our masks while visiting the national park. Park Rangers are exposing themselves to the general public constantly. We need to keep these individuals safe. Regardless of your mask opinion, if asked to wear one please be courteous and do so.

Masks On Black Canyon

About the Park:

Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a superb wonderland of unique geological features and deeply impressive views. Metamorphic rocks 1.8 billion years old are sliced by the Gunnison River due to uplift providing views of pegmatite dikes that lace the canyon walls like pulled taffy. Large volcanic eruptions, millions of years old, capped the metamorphic rock and now provide incredible otherworldly land formations. The geological features are easily observable on the canyon walls, placed like pictures in a story book.

You will marvel at the green, gemlike Gunnison River that flows at the depth like a carefully placed ribbon. Everyone will get a thrill peering over the canyon edge.

The scenic drive through the park offers excellent and abundant pullouts with walkways of varying lengths. Several overlooks are handicap accessible, which we took an opportunity to use as my son is currently on crutches due to an injury. The visitor center was closed, but rangers were still offering programs and provided Junior Ranger books and badges.

Due to the limitations that we had with our son injured, we were not able to hike further into the canyon, but inner canyon permits were being issued. A trip back to hike inside the canyon is certainly on our to do list. At the time of this post, the campground is also still open. But, you should check the NPS website before you attempt any visit to this and any other national park.

Junior Ranger Badge:

This park’s Junior Ranger activity book is one of our favorites, with a comic book style it covers:

  • Regional Geography
  • Geology
  • Leave No Trace
  • Habitat
  • Botony/Biology 

When to Visit:

Visiting in late June, the weather was still fantastic. Cool mornings of 60 degree weather, and sunny days with highs in the 80s were perfect for our visit.

So, was the risk worth the visit? This is the question we have to repeatedly ask ourselves these days. We have to consider how our choices will impact others and ourselves. We set out very specific safety rules for our trip, we followed them carefully, and we had a very successful and restful vacation without getting sick. If you are planning a road trip vacation to outdoor recreation areas during the pandemic, consider renting, borrowing, or purchasing a recreational vehicle that will allow you to self isolate during your travels. Be mindful of local health conditions and mandates.

Purchase from these area businesses:

Shop Taos Online

Gunnison/Crested Butte Shopping

Black Canyon Sign

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

Remember:
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

Acadia National Park

Maine – Visited May 2018. 

Acadia is a wonderful place for your children to learn how philanthropy, descended through time, enables protection of wild places. Through charitable giving, generations have had the opportunity to explore, preserve, and enjoy this North Atlantic coastal park. With crisp blue skies, lush green vegetation, and picturesque views, it is easy to see why this is a favorite for many.

The park has glistening inland ponds that entice exploration by bike, on foot, or by horse. The rocky coastal environment is exceptionally scenic, and even the little ones will enjoy the views. Tide pools offer opportunity to dip feet into crisp ocean waters while exploring special habitats. Quaint tours by boat are great fun for older kids. Souvenir shopping, and fine dining are plentiful in the seaside town of Bar Harbor. This is a park that can be enjoyed by everyone.

Acadia left me in wonderment, and our visit here was like glimpsing another world. It left me somewhat haunted, because we have so many parks left to visit, but this place beckons for me to spend more time. It’s placed in a region, that in another lifetime, I think I could have called home. The rugged beauty, hardworking people, and wide expansive outdoors place this special park in the heart.

Junior Ranger Badge:

  • Glacial Geology
  • Archaeology
  • Gifting Acadia
  • Loons
  • Tidal Pools

Extra Tips:

Biking on the carriage roads is better suited for older children. The famed carriage roads (constructed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to travel by horse and carriage without encountering motor vehicles) are a delightful way to tour the interior of the park. The rock chip surface and incline would be difficult for little legs to manage. Even our 11-year-old became frustrated at one point. Witch Hole Pond is a lovely carriage loop trail for families with older children to bike.

Read about park ecology and history before you visit. In our experience, we felt Acadia National Park visitor centers were lacking in educational exhibits. I was disappointed by the lack of ecological interpretive information. The Hulls Cove Visitor Center offered no interpretive displays. The Sieur de Monts Nature Center was closed during our visit, but it is small. The most valuable information was provided by a park ranger accompanying our schooner tour. With such a unique ecosystem, and habitat profoundly interwoven into the lives of residents, we thought there would be more opportunities to learn about lobster fishing, whales off the coast, or tide pool ecology. There is substantial information available on the park website, and I would strongly recommend researching and learning about the park before you visit.  There are lobster boat tours, not affiliated with the park, that you might want to consider if interested in learning more about this industry.

Take a boat tour. This is an ocean side park, and knowing what life is like on the pristine waters is part of the experience. We enjoyed a schooner tour, and my son helped hoist the sails!! We would have also enjoyed a seasonal passenger ferry to the Cranberry Islands.

Remember:

Reduce your footprint as much as possible to protect this place. This park is fragile and heavily visited. At all times, stay on the path. Only park in designated areas. Have a plan B to visit other destinations in the park, such as Schoodic Peninsula or Isle Au Haut if you can’t find parking. Consider taking the Island Explorer to tour the Park Loop Road area.

Limit your use of single use plastics. It takes resources to both bring and remove them from the island.

Where to Eat:

Jordon Pond House offers the tradition of popovers and blueberry lemonade, but it is both busy and expensive. Roadside lobster shacks at park entrances are an excellent choice, and there are plenty of wonderful restaurants in Bar Harbor.

At nearby roadside lobster shacks, daring taste buds will have the opportunity to try this fresh from the sea delicacy. There is nothing quite like fresh caught Maine lobster, a definite bucket list item. Blueberry pies, ice cream, and scones are also a treat, and every child is going to ask for a famous blueberry soda pop!

When to Go:

This park is busy, avoid peak times if possible. Even visiting in late May, before most park programs were available, was hectic. If you appreciate National Parks as a respite from humanity, try to avoid June through August. If you must go during these months, go beyond the heavily visited Park Loop Road. Schoodic Peninsula, away from most of the tourist destinations, offers solace. During our trip in late May, we were able to enjoy the area near Sewall Campground, particularly Wonderland, in relative solitude.

Where to Stay:

The Bar Harbor Oceanside KOA cabins were a perfect choice for our family. With bunkbeds for the kids, it gave us a better night’s rest than we would have had at a hotel. Our cabin came with a separate master bedroom, and a full kitchen for convenience. This campground boasts beautiful sunsets, tidal pools to explore, and they are dog friendly.

Big Bend National Park

Texas – Visited March 2019 (29 out of 61)

Be Prepared, Be Flexible, Keep the Gas Tank Full, Roll in Mud if Attacked by Bees

Frequently, the goal of visiting a National Park is capturing the gorgeous sunset and smiling faces after climbing an extraordinary peak! Often, that picture can’t be captured without some tremendous and ridiculous endeavor, especially with children in tow. However, it isn’t worth it if it means traipsing along highly trafficked trails, parking on the side of the road onto precious wildflowers, or in other ways demeaning the value of the park. Big Bend is huge, and full of many opportunities to explore, find self meaning, and live with values that protect and celebrate wild places. When you visit, enjoy these opportunities and always follow park rules to protect it for future generations, and for the wildlife that call it home.

Big Bend is stupendous, but it isn’t for the faint-of-heart. It isn’t a place for someone expecting a gourmet meal and a spa treatment at the end of the day, unless you are willing to go through some extraordinary measures. Safety and preparation are also paramount. If you really want to get a hold of this place, think Rango. Go with optimism, a sense of humor, and a completely full tank of gas.

This park is about hiking, a lot of hiking. Hike up hills, down hills, across deserts, through dry ravines laden with javelina scat. Hike under sun, in shade, and amidst snake and prickly plant infested territory.

This park is also about the southern border with Mexico, and you can’t visit without being cognizant of that fact. Our government continues to fail passing meaningful immigration laws. Let me be clear, I abhor illegal immigration. I think it is dangerous, and immoral. I think, as a society, a second class of citizens has been created that have few protections against workplace danger. I think everyday Americans take advantage, with people to build, paint, and clean their homes; and do their yard work. Small and large businesses become wealthy from that labor source, and thus it has been difficult to regulate. If we need foreign workers, then we need a system to effectively, and legally manage that labor. However, I cant conceive of a border wall being constructed across this place. Equally, it made me visualize what one would look like elsewhere, across habitats, scenic vistas, ranches, and peoples backyards. We need to demand more from our politicians, and ourselves. We need an immigration system that works. You can use your visit here as an opportunity to talk to your children about citizenship, borders, and how human and animal habitats frequently cross these imaginary lines. 

  • Fill your gas tank at the last gas station you see before you enter the park, and fill up every time you pass a gas station in the park. Keep the gas tank full because the park is large, remote, and their are few resources. 
  • Bring plenty of water with you, everywhere. Bring full gallon jugs to keep in the car, and always, always bring water with you when you are hiking. I would recommend a minimum of at least 1 liter of water/person for hikes less than 4 miles, and 2 liters of water for longer hikes (especially in temperatures above 80° F). 1 gallon/person/day is the hiking standard. Don’t rely on spring water to filter, and utilize. It isn’t reliable and wildlife need these resources to get through the dry months. People have died in this park because they did not take enough water with them. 
  • Don’t bring your dog. He won’t be happy because this place is dry, prickly, and full of things that could eat, bite, or sting him. You won’t be happy because there are very stringent rules about where pups can join your treks.

Remember:

It is crazy busy in March! This is by far the busiest time of year, as most Texas schools have spring break in March. However, early spring is when the wildflowers are amazing, and the weather is beautiful. Just be patient and be flexible. Study the park map ahead of time. Understand that there will be full parking lots in some areas, and be prepared to find another nearby trail or activity. There is plenty to see and do, so don’t get frustrated or disappointed.

Where to Eat:

There aren’t many options for dining facilities within the park. To be economical, and healthy, you should bring food and snacks with you. Rio Grande, Panther, and Castolon all have snacks and sodas to purchase. Rio Grande has some very basic pantry items. The only restaurant within the park is Chisos Mountain Lodge. It is expensive, and very busy. They have some fun cocktails and a relatively nice menu, including one for children. Terlingua has some interesting dining choices, for when you finish up activities on the west side of the park.

When to Go:

The cooler months are your best bet for enjoying this park (October thru March). With so much desert hiking terrain, it would be a challenge to hike with children in the summer when temperatures exceed 100° F, and not much shade is to be found. While the Chisos Moutains may be up to 20° F cooler than the temperatures found on the desert floor, you still must drive across a great deal of desert to reach that location. This park is a great escape for those living in northern latitudes wishing to escape the cold winter! Check the NPS Park Website for additional information.

Where to Stay:

The answer to this question depends upon how far in advance you are planning, when you intend to visit, and your budget. If you are looking for hotel style lodging, make reservations six to nine months in advance, especially if you plan to visit during cooler months.  Visit Big Bend is an excellent resource for accommodations. Within the park, getting a campsite can be a challenge during busy times. We stayed at Stillwell RV Park, which is 7 miles from Persimmon Gap entrance. It was perfect for our needs, and they never turn anyone away.

Example Itinerary

Day 1: Grapevine Hills Trail was perfect! This especially scenic hike is great for all ages, but takes a short and bumpy dirt road to reach. We drove in our pickup, but saw much smaller cars. This trail is a 2-mile RT in and out straight to a small boulder laden peak. We climbed it, enjoyed the fading sun, checked out the pretty flowers, and raced back to the truck so my son could grill burgers on the tail gate. He is 15, and he eats a lot, like, all the time! He was grill master, and it was just one of those perfect park days, really.

Day 2: Oak Spring Trail to Window Trail (4.3 mile in and out, add additional 4 miles if road is closed)– all downhill from here, or up, depending on your perspective. After abundant research, I clearly ascertained that Window Trail from Chisos Basin is bulging with people, which is not the way this outside gal would like to spend her time in the wild! So, in a moment of brilliance, I thought we would take Oak Spring Trail to Window Trail from the back side. First off, the road to the trail was closed, but this adventurer will not be dissuaded. Onward – across a 2-mile dirt road to the trail head (adding 4 more miles to this hike – shh don’t tell my family). I keep cool though, it’s all in the plan (wink wink). Then, we ascended, and went up, and climbed some more, and found ourselves on the side of the igneous mountain, to which I had assured my beautiful daughter we would NOT be climbing. Having nearly crested, and yet to see the illustrious ‘window’, we continued feeling rather like dwarfs or trolls (or whatever they are in Lord of the Rings) on an unexpected journey. Trying not to look over the steep edge, I tried humming the theme song, and relating that glorious feeling to my family, but they weren’t having any of it.  My kids quit. They stopped, in the middle of trail and sat. They weren’t going any further. So, I left them! YES, I DID! My son is 15 and one heck of a Scout, I knew they would be fine (especially because I load their first aid backpack kits with all sorts of precautions, they unwillingly carry with them everywhere).

When we reached the Window Trail (literally directly below), my kiddos decided to follow. It could have been the beckoning call of the stream, but more likely it was the sounds of other human life forms that lured them onward. Window Trail was packed!! It was not really hiking, but more like trekking across some water filled pools with zillions of others, trying not to slip and take out the person perilously walking in front of you.  We saw the ‘Window’ meh – just don’t let the little ones too close to the edge. 

The return trip was kind of like riding horses, super slow on the way out and running on the way back. We finally made it to the gravel road when I heard a humming sound and my husband saying “uh, honey”, which was ironic because as I looked back anticipating a car heading our direction instead I saw a giant cloud of bees was heading our way. “This is how we die, in a National Park, stung by thousands of Africanized bees” – is what I thought. “Puddle, where is water, no water to jump in, can I make mud by pouring the contents of my water bottle on the ground? No, I cannot, only 100 ml left!” “Kids, bees, duck!” I stammered, and just like that the bees were gone.

All this called for one remainder of the day, drinks and dinner in  Terlingua

Terlingua is FUNKY! It’s the greatest little end of the earth drop off town, ever! If you are expecting to see a Whataburger, you will be mistaken. Have you ever seen Young Guns? This place is a dry, dusty old mining town surrounded by glorious nothingness. Old bearded men, and motorcycle dudes sit beneath the veranda at the High Sierra Bar and Grill and drink beer. Dogs slip through the fence to greet patrons and beg for treats. The food, um, the drinks are cold, and the tequila is plentiful. GO!! Take the kids, let them see the reflection of endurance it takes to make a life in the far reaches (and patience, it takes time to cook food). Sip that cold margarita and know peace.

High Sierra Bar & Grill

Day 3: My family is sore from climbing the rocky crags from the day before. So, we take it easy, stopping at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit. It has lovely architecture, placement, paleontology, and one display covers dog-sized-horses (not genetically selected by crazy pony breeders, but real fossilized tiny horses)!

Fossil Discovery Center

Homer Wilson Blue Creek Ranch is a fun hike for the little ones, and easily doable with a baby carrier. Only 0.5 miles RT, it leads to an incredible historic ranch site with a lovely little ranch house I would move to in a heartbeat. The back veranda offers an incredible view, and the ceilings are exquisite.

Homer Wilson (2)

At La Harmonia Store in Costolon, apparently, there are some excellent exhibits that explain military history in the area. Unfortunately, we didn’t catch that because my son has great taste in music and a new blue tooth speaker. So, we chilled in the parking lot, ate sandwiches on the tailgate, and people watched. The bathrooms here are nice, clean, and the toilet flushes which is a definite wonder in this far flung desert park.

The Dorgan-Sublett Trail was one of my favorites. It’s short, only 1-mile RT, but it leads to two small mesas where you can look to the Rio Grande valley and get your children to imagine what it would have been like to live on these homesteads. Inside the Dorgan home remains an incredible fireplace constructed of utterly magnificent petrified log stones.  My adorable family reached it before I did and they predicted I would be ecstatic when I saw, and I was!!

Santa Elena Canyon Trail – Packed, no place to park. Please don’t park on the side of the road and squish the wildflowers! You’ll get a ticket and look like a donkey. Turn around (with a 60 point turn like my awesome husband) and go park at the overlook, admire the view and head on to other things. There is so much to see, I promise you won’t miss it.

Santa Elena Canyon Overlook

Mule Ears Spring Trail – This 3.8-mile RT hike is a definite must for anyone with moderate hiking abilities. It isn’t exceptionally steep, but we did it on an overcast cool day – don’t attempt if it is above 80° F with smaller kids. My kids loved it, I didn’t even see them, they were always far ahead. I hate when I can’t see them, but they needed bonding time. My daughter misses her busy high school brother. So, if one was bitten by a rattlesnake (which fortunately they weren’t) I would have just chocked it up to sibling bonding. Plus, my husband and I had alone time, we may have even kissed. We grilled brats in the trail parking lot. Happy Day.

Day 4: We summited the misty mountain!!! No, really, we climbed the entire 12.4-mile Laguna Meadows, South Rim, Boot Canyon, Pinnacles route, and it was misty all day and so we didn’t see the views from South Rim, which is why we climbed the mountain. No golden ring. We did see the psychotic trail toilets though. Those things are ridiculous and look like something out of a horror film!! Please, don’t subject your children to the terror. They will have nightmares for the rest of their existence. Besides the fact that they look like massive thrones placed on the mountain, they are built for huge, tall timbering men. 

You thought I was going to write about the incredible mountain, and trek. Nope, if you want to know, climb requisite. We saw lots of college-age kids, and a few small children. Third graders will complain, fourth graders need lots of snacks, fifth graders and up will love it. It is considered the premier hike to do in Texas, and it will not disappoint!

Day 5: Rio Grande Village. It was a lot warmer on this side of the park, and busier. That might have been because the gas station at Panther Junction wasn’t working and the park personnel had to drive all the way to Odessa to get the necessary part. It is remote here, I’m telling you. Everyone was racing to Rio Grande Village for gas, and people were in line. Most people got it, the pump is slow, there is one side for gasoline and one for diesel. Most people were patient, and kind. One wasn’t. Don’t be the one, don’t be the donkey.

Boquillas Canyon Trail is fantastic. There was plenty of parking, and the 1.5-mile RT trail leads to exceptional views along the Rio Grande River where you come across homemade artistic wares for sale from the folks across the stream (across the stream is the country of Mexico, in case you didn’t realize). The artisans wait on the other side, probably with binoculars, for visitors to purchase and deposit cash in empty bottles they may collect in the dead of night, or in the middle of the day. One fellow was on a horse, so I wouldn’t skimp on the pay if you acquire a trinket. The trail leads to a fantastic, beautiful fault. I was ecstatic. My daughter thinks I am crazy, but she knows what a fault looks like. Yes, she does.

Hot Springs Historic Trail – Parking lot full, don’t be a donkey and run over the flowers parking on the side of the road if there isn’t a proper parking space. Apparently, the hot springs is the size of a large pick up truck, and people wait in line to get in. YUCK!!! It was the one temptation that my children were most looking forward to enjoying, and unfortunately this slightly germ-a-phobic mother made them pass.

River Road East to Glenn Springs Road – If you are brave and know what you would do if you had a flat tire in the middle of the desert, find a dirt road. If you have a back country-prepper kind of mindset, and you and the kids wouldn’t mind sleeping in the car if you break an axle, find a dirt road. If you have a very full tank of gas, find a dirt road. Big Bend is really experienced best this way. This 801,163-acre national park is full of wide-open spaces best accessible on bumpy, dirt roads that wind their way through the park. At the suggestion of a ranger, we took River Road East, swooped up to Glenn Spring and then out on Glenn Springs Road. We pulled over along the way (in a pull off, not on flowers) and grilled steak, salmon, and corn on the cob. We drank beer and root beer and roasted Peeps to make smores. It was windy, the sky was blue, and the sun was setting. It was the perfect dusty, prospecting, playing down on the desert kind of day that would have made my Grandpa Timothy proud.

Day 6: Sleep in, go get your Junior Ranger Badges, and do a little rock hunting at Stillwell RV Park. Stillwell is a private overflow campground for Big Bend National Park. It is located 30 miles north of Panther Junction, and only about 7 miles from Persimmon Gap entrance. Spring Break is ridiculously busy, and we did not want to search for a camping spot within the park, so we enjoyed our stay here. You cannot collect rock, flower, or animal specimens in the park, but you can collect rocks at Stillwell!!!

We didn’t let the sun set on our last day without a hike in the park, though. We drove to the Persimmon Gap Ranger Station and took the trail up the dry stream bed. It was laden, heavily, with javelina scat. We hiked, scrambled up rocks, and looked at the most fantastic geology yet. This is a great hike for little kids till you get to the rock cliff face at the end of the wash, then it’s best left to the mountain goats. We also, finally, saw a family of javelina up close. It was so exciting!!

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