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

Lake Clark National Park – Bear Paradise Found

Posted on: June 21, 2022               

Alaska

Visited: June 2022

Oh, Lake Clark with your kaleidoscope of braided streams and colors to last a lifetime. You hold something ancient and fragile. You are born of fire and ice with volcanoes that rise into the world above. Glacial ice melts and flows into turquoise hues beyond imagination, reaching the sea. The bears know that you will provide. They flock in numbers to your clam rich shores to eat their fill and dance upon the shallow, sparkling tidal flats. The ice melts leaving green jeweled mountain slopes crowned by specter mist. Only the fortunate get to glimpse what you contain, for though you are so much, you are difficult to see.

We embarked on this journey at an airport hanger at Merrill Field in Anchorage. We were guided to the aircraft by our incredible pilot, and found to our delight a small and agile, striped, blue as the sky, 5-seat airplane. Truthfully, while a common taxi in Alaska, at first it looked to us like a small toy. Thrillingly, it was all we needed to take the nearly 100-mile journey to Lake Clark National Park. This remote destination is reached by plane or boat only.

We whooshed into the sky and our tummies did somersaults to see Anchorage disappear below us and the expansive Cook Inlet appear. The tidal forces that shape this inlet are so incredibly strong and dramatic, surfers can enjoy up to 10 foot bore waves as water drains from Turnagain Arm. From the air, the tides create an hourly-changing landscape of pure beauty.

Flying over fish camp structures (utilized by Native Alaskans and others) beluga whales (once harvested from fishing platforms made of tree stumps) rise to the surface in the shallow waters. Their white bodies, rising temporarily, are easily spotted in the glacial silted sea. We fly over verdant green and see the Alaska Range (600 miles in length) jagged and newly rising in the distance, with snow capped icing. We glimpse passageways to the north and see glaciers stripe against the mountains. Then, we begin to spot the brown bears, roaming in the grass along the shores with their little round bodies obvious and moving in the landscape below.

Geomorphology is the study of physical structures on the earth’s surface, and I cannot think of a more concentrated place to see so many features in one place. U-shaped glacial valleys, braided streams, tidal flats, oxbow lakes, alluvial fans, and moraines all roll through my mind like candy.

The scene changes to cliffs, waterfalls, and mist as we turn up Tuxedni Bay, and fly along a glacier. I don’t have words for this. It is mystic and too much for pictures or description, it can only be seen to truly understand. We see lliamna Volcano barely crest through the clouds, still active. We know our presence here is only granted by powers far stronger than anything we obtain. We seek permission to be here.

The beach suddenly comes into view, dotted with small aircraft. This is where we will be landing, not a runway but a gently sloping beach. It’s a thrill, and our pilot gently sets the craft down, and the crunch of the pebbles under the large tires cuts the noise of the engine. We coast to our parking area, and eagerly exit the plane. We feel the ground again.

There are two viewing areas here, small passageways through the forest that leads to a broad sedge prairie. It is set against steep mountain slopes. As soon as you pass through the trees and look around, bears in number come into view. Their roly-poly bodies move surprisingly quickly through the green, gorging on the highly nutritious sedges until the tides roll out far enough to go clamming.

We watch them from a small, fallen log, roughly-hewn, bench. Bears are everywhere, we count eleven!! We observe one large darker brown bear pursuing a smaller cinnamon colored bear. It chases and stops, chases, and stops. It pretends to eat, and circles around, continuously closing the distance. The cinnamon bear is wary, but after the third pass lets down her guard and it happens. Bees do it…and bears do it! It wasn’t quick either.

After the show, we directed ourselves to the ranger housing. On the way, we witnessed another bear pursuit. A sweet little bear with an extra-long snout, whom we later found out goes affectionately by CJ, was being chased relentlessly by a much larger bear. She outran him, and collapsed adoringly on the beach, exhausted.

This area of the park was currently overseen by the incredible Ranger Abbey! She graciously gave the kids their Junior Ranger Books and Badges. They took their oaths, and she answered all our questions. I think I’ve said it before, but it goes literal saints and then park rangers in my personal hierarchy of remarkable people that walk this earth. They give so much and though paid in countless intangible ways, theirs is a life of service.

On our way back to the plane we witnessed a mother bear and her cubs. They were but tiny little babies staying close to her paws. New life across the tidal flats, they hung closely to their mother as she warily avoided human clusters and dug for clams. The circle complete.

Every park is a spiritual experience, but none have so encouraged me to really consider how I impact the environment and climate change as this. These bears thrive here because the snow melt washes plentiful sediment into the tidal flats where the nutrient laden soil is the perfect place for clams to grown plentiful. It is both a robust, but precarious environment, where even the smallest changes could have dramatic impact on these resident bears. Consume less, enjoy more.

Junior Ranger Badge:

It’s about the bears!

Extra Tips:

Be prepared for inclement weather and mosquitos, which should be a universal for any trip to Alaska. A rain jacket is a must, as well as a good camera.

Don’t bring bear spray with you on any aircraft! It could explode in route and that would be quite bad, maybe even deadly.

Stay close to your pilot/guide during your visit and follow instructions. Their job is to keep you safe throughout your journey to this park, so listen to what they say. If they tell you to group up and stay close together, do this immediately. The bears at this park do not appear disturbed by the presence of humans, but they are very attentive to other bears. Staying close together helps ensure the bears don’t confuse you with another bear.

Don’t have any food items on you while you are walking around the park, unless they are in a bear vault. They produce tantalizing smells, and even a few dropped crumbs could cause the bears to associate humans with food. These bears are not food habituated, and we want to keep it that way.

Bring sturdy walking shoes so that you can walk along the pebble strewn muddy beach to the different viewing locations comfortably. Some wore waiters, but we didn’t find them necessary as our Alaska Air Service crew timed our visit perfectly with the tides, so we did not need to venture out into the muddy flats far to take pictures of the bears.

Remember:

This is the bears’ habitat, not yours. This is where they eat, sleep, mate, and raise their young. Give them plenty of room, even if it appears safe to get closer. Even if your guide encourages you to get closer, that doesn’t always mean it is the correct choice. We watched another tour group walking closer and closer to a mother bear and her cubs, and she was obviously alarmed by them. Watch for other tour groups, and make sure the bears always have a safe exit. Don’t pressure the bears by walking too close. There is current research to see if visitor activities are causing undo stress to these animals. If they respond to you in any way, then you are stressing them. Be wise, and respectful, or the privilege of seeing them in this habitat in the future could be jeopardized.  

Where to Eat:

There are no food service providers in this park, except for private lodges. Our Alaska Air Service tour included an incredibly delicious picnic lunch with sandwiches, pasta salad, and bottled water. We brought our own re-usable water bottles, which we used throughout our trip to reduce plastic waste. If you wish to bring food onto the plane, please ask your pilot for approval first. They may want to contain the food or place it in a bear proof container or location on the plane to avoid bears curious bears bothering an unattended aircraft.

When to Go:

We went in the middle of June, and it was perfect! There were a few minor drizzles, but the landscape was a luxuriant green and the lupines were in full bloom. The bears were enjoying mating season and were very curious and attentive to one another.

Where to Stay:

Accommodations in this park are limited to independent businesses that operate lodges, and one private campground. There is one primitive campground. See the Lake Clark National Park website for additional information.

Back-country camping is allowed, and as of this publishing a permit is not required, though rules posted on the Lake Clark National Park must be followed, including Leave No Trace, Bear Protection, and adhering to closed areas.

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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.

Great Basin National Park

Nevada

Visited October 2021

A budget-constrained, quick trip to see fall foliage led us to some high survival adventure – think sleeping on the snow-covered ground freezing off our hineys at high altitude in under-performing tents! These beautiful children of mine are growing too fast, and there are still so many parks to see (and tortuous car rides to endure)! Creativity and budget considerations are going to play a part in getting us to all of them in the next several years. I’m fascinated by people who can afford to travel to all the parks, all in one go. That’s beyond our budget and time constraints for sure (normal family of four here). With one leaving for college, they will soon have their own lives, plans, and goals (and probably not be so keen on me trekking them to the middle of nowhere to see trees – Nah, they’ll probably like it still. We’ve raised ‘em right…right?). So, this momma is getting anxious to squeeze in the memories and trips as creatively and quickly as possible. Our Great Basin National Park is a perfect example of how to enjoy affordable adventure (chaos) .

Great Basin National Park is a natural wonder that characterizes the western United States. The geologic conditions that form this forest-island make this region abundantly special. Abrupt elevation changes create habitat zones that lead to interesting and varied ecosystems. One of many forest-mountain islands in the sky that dot the west, this place preserves a characteristic basin and range formation.

With budget constraints, we flew to Las Vegas with loaded backpacks intent on sleeping on the ground while getting in some hiking. With our self-contained accommodations, our first night was spent at the Red Rock Campground, just west of the city. Arriving at around 2:00 AM, we fell quickly to sleep in our tents until the morning winds, carrying an early winter storm, arrived and nearly blew us away. We were not defeated! My daughter admired the ‘van life village’ as we exited the area. We enjoyed a bomb breakfast at BabyStacks Café on our way out of the city.

Red Rock Campground, Nevada

Las Vegas, with all its shining lights and wildly human-centric experiences, is far removed from the beautiful quiet of this National Park. Yet, most people think of Las Vegas when they think of Nevada. But jump into a rental car and head north along US Route 93 and you will be bounded by abundant public lands and wilderness areas (hallelujah nothing for miles and miles and miles). Approximately 63% of the State of Nevada is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and even more by other federal agencies! That’s so many places available for us to explore, and so much open space to observe and enjoy.

Along the way, you will pass through small towns like Caliente, Nevada where you can see the architecturally beautiful Caliente Railroad Depot built in 1923. Mountain bikers from around the world convene here to enjoy Rainbow Canyon and Big Rock Wilderness areas. Continue north to the town of Pioche, once one of the most important silver mining towns in Nevada, and scenic as it clings to the side of a steep mountainside.

Caliente Railroad Depot

The approach to Great Basin National Park is majestic. Rounding the mountain to the north, you climb steadily to the home of Wheeler Peak (second-highest in Nevada at 13,065 feet). It’s fantastic, unless you are following a heavily loaded semi-truck crawling at 5 miles per hour that you decide to lead-foot pass, careening around it (and three trucks pulling RVs) terrifying the family. The first visitor center, Great Basin Visitor Center, was closed during our visit, so we drove further on to the Lehman Caves Visitor Center.

This family has seen a few caves, and we can be skeptics of cave tours. If spelunking is your thing (and apparently cave scientists hate to be called spelunkers – who knew?) then this cave is for you. The formations are exquisite works of art that only nature can create. It’s breathtaking, and there are so many incredible features, it is hard for the eye to absorb all the wonders. Take the tour.

After our cave tour, we headed to our evening accommodations at Upper Lehman Creek Campground. The winter storm from Las Vegas had reached us, and with snow flurries falling and the sun setting, we decided to wait to hike for one more evening. We enjoyed a meal at Kerouac’s Restaurant in Baker, which was a fun treat for us all, but especially enlightening for the kids as most ingredients are locally sourced and described on the menu. The portions were a bit small, but every single bite was profound, like Kerouac himself (see what I just did there).

Alas, we realized unfortunately we forgot to stop at a sporting goods store along the way to purchase fuel for our portable stoves…and this place is remote. The closest sporting goods store is well over an hour away. But saints are frequently found in campgrounds (in case you didn’t already know). A travel writer (a real one that gets paid for writing and traveling – what a dream job) was parked across from us and had a few solid fuel tabs that saved our trip. With those golden gems in hand, we loaded up our gear and trounced through the snow-covered woods along Lehman Creek Trail at sunrise.

Backpacking is an ever-evolving attempt at balancing the correct supplies and weight for what your body can happily endure carrying over rocks on steep trails. Too many clothes on a warmish day will throw my kids into tantrums. I’ve long since given up hiking in areas where we carry water (instead of relying on nature’s provisions) because my family members would rather die of dehydration (or drink my emergency reserves) rather than carry enough water. I thought I had finally found the right amount of gear. Really, I did! We use wool and synthetics only (cotton kills…apparently). I packed wool mittens and cozy beanies, snow parkas, and even fleece-lined hiking pants (which are fabulous). Let me just say, sleeping on the snow is COLD!!! Okay, we were never at risk for hypothermia, but it was a miserable shivering night, nonetheless. This odd part of my brain, the part that keeps us coming out to the woods knows that somehow this is good for my kids though. Some difficulty later in life will crop up, and they can say “I’ve got this, my mother almost killed us all sleeping in tents in the snow. This is nothing.”

We all look back at this adventure and we smile. We soak in the crystalline, ice-covered Lehman Creek that ran along the trail. Wheeler peak ascending above us in clouds and snow casts dreamy shadows over our memories. We laugh at the adventure and the sleepy drive back to the airport the next day. We embrace our cozy beds at home and think with absolute gratitude that there are these wild places for us to explore, to approach a limit to our comfort zone, to learn, laugh, and love in. So, get after it. Book that trip (don’t forget the fuel…write it on your hand so you don’t forget when you land at the airport). Be Wild Outside.

Junior Ranger Badge:

Animals

Cave and Geology Vocabulary

Tree Rings

Petroglyphs

Conservation

Moon Phases

Night Sky Preservation

Extra Tips:

Book your tours for Lehman Caves in advance. They fill up quickly.

Remember:

Fuel. Don’t forget the fuel. Always help-out other campers if you get the chance. Pass on the kindness. These places are sacred and deserve our sacred kindness to one another. Share the toilet paper.

Where to Eat:

There are a few fun little places to try in Baker. Kerouac’s had an excellent bar, and some fun food to try. Bring your own snacks and camping meals.

When to Go:

We enjoyed our visit the second week of October, and snow flurries fell. A lot of the park is 7,000 feet or higher. I would recommend this park for a mid-summer trip, or an early fall. It is cooler in the mountains, but you must traverse the basins to get here.

Where to Stay:

This depends on your ability to survive the wild. There are a few very small accommodations in Baker just outside the park boundaries. There are quite a few very nice campgrounds within the park.

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

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.

Support ‘Restore Our Parks Act’

I am unabashed when it comes to writing my representatives, and there are usually one or two issues per year for which I contact them. If you are new to advocacy, it is incredibly easy! To find contact information, click here for your congressman, and here for your senator.

Below is the email I sent mine asking them to support Restore Our Parks Act. Feel free to copy/edit/paste from my letter when you contact your representatives. To learn more about this act, visit National Parks Conservation Association. They explain why support is paramount to funding the $12 billion park system maintenance backlog.

“Please support the bipartisan Restore Our Parks Act. As a parent who has taken my children to 29 of the 61 National Parks, I cannot emphasize enough how exceptional these places are and how important they are to my identity as an American. They truly are our National Treasures. Sadly, the maintenance backlog for these places has become nearly overwhelming. Park staff work hard to protect and maintain aging and crumbling facilities, while millions visit. The parks need to be safe, maintained, and accessible in ways necessary to fundamentally protect visitors and that park’s primary purpose (ecological, historical, etc.).

Our park system offers so many things to both citizens of our nation, and foreign guests. Our park system offers educational opportunities to children through the Junior Ranger program. Through this program, my children have learned history, archaeology, ecology, geology, architecture, engineering and paleontology. They have also retained that knowledge because it was taught to them in some of the most beautiful places on earth. For many foreign visitors, these parks also become a window to view our nation. Are we crumbling, are we poorly maintained, are we on the precipice of decline?

I blog and advocate for our national parks, purely for love of them, not for economical gain in any way. You can read about our family’s adventures, enjoy some insight to these special places, and learn about our quest to see all 61 at www.nationalpark4kids.com. What national park system sites in Texas have you had the opportunity to visit? We just returned from Big Bend National Park, it was spectacular. It is an absolute gem, and deserving of the protection and maintenance being requested.

I am happy to discuss my love for these places with you further. Please contact me if I can give you any further insight or assist in any way.”