Gateway Arch National Park?

Missouri – Visited June 2018 (28 out of 61)

This is no National Park

Where did the idea to re-designate this place a National Park originate? If you read online boards and blogs, there are multiple conspiracy theories. Was it designated as predictor of reduced federal protection for public lands in the west? Is it part of a new westward expansion? Is it Trump favoritism to increase property values in the vicinity?

Gateway Arch doesn’t meet the characteristic qualities of any other National Park. Within the National Park System, there are 19 naming designations such as: historical parks; historic sites; national monuments; and national recreation areas. Many of these would have been substantially more fitting. The area comprising Gateway Arch National Park is a pittance at 0.8 km². Out of the 60 other National Parks, the average area they encompass is 3,400 km². The second smallest, Hot Springs in Arkansas, still dwarfs this park at 22.5 km² (Wikipedia 2019).

At this park, there are no special geologic or archaeological features. There are no unique habitats or ecological systems that need protection. There is a man-made arch, a small park, and an underground museum. It is set in an industrialized area of St. Louis, MO along the Mississippi River. The river bank adjacent the park area is bricked, and appears quite lifeless. It serves as the slanted parking lot for vehicles too large to fit in the parking garage. The river water shimmers with oil sheen and loud barges pass. A sign and dock beckon a ride on a riverboat, its white wheel still trying to hopelessly recollect days more pleasant along this lofty river.

Still we went. There is history to be learned here, but I think the summation of this experience is what we don’t want. It reflects what we really want to see when we venture to a National Park: natural arches, natural caves, natural rainbows, natural river banks – NATURE. Kids will learn a few things, they will enjoy the arch, like they enjoy an amusement park ride.

Remember: Be aware, this isn’t a place to pull your RV especially if you aren’t used to driving in traffic or dense population. If you are trying to get to all National Parks, you have another place to add to your list, but go with a different perspective on what you will be experiencing. Go, and then write your politicians to demand protection for our WILD spaces.

Junior Ranger Badge:

  • Arch Design
  • History of Westward Expansion
  • Architecture

Things to Do Nearby:

  • Old Courthouse
  • Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

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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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Shenandoah National Park

Virginia – May 2018 (25 out of 61)

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

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

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

Junior Rangers at Shenandoah

Junior Ranger Badge:

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

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

Extra Tips:

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

Fallen Branches

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

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

Steep and Rocky

Remember:

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

 

When to Go:

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

Where to Eat:

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

Misty Mountains

Redwood Forest National Park

California – July 2013 (11 out of 61)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Junior Ranger Badge:

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

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

Jr Rangers in the Cave of Redwood

Remember:

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

Extra Tips:

Where to Eat

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

 

Hot Springs National Park

Arkansas – April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protest in a Park

Junior Ranger Badge:

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

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

Remember

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

When to Go

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

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Where to Stay

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

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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

Inspiration is Home

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


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

Junior Ranger Badge:

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

Remember:

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

Where to Stay

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

Where to Eat

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

When to Go

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

Top 10 Reasons to Visit a National Park on your Family Vacation!

1. To leave the bounds of normalcy and have an epic adventure.

Wander through misty Redwood National Park and imagine you are on another planet when you see otherworldly creatures like the Banana Slug. Hike the dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park and feel Sahara Desert movie scenes come to life. These things cannot be replicated at amusement parks. They are pure and true adventures that will be unique to you, because they are found in the wild.

Redwood National Park

2. To learn about your American Heritage.

There is an abundance of history poured into each national park. They tell the legacy of things we have valued as a nation; and how we determined to preserve these treasures collectively. Your children should know the names of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. They should understand the struggles and the work that countless individuals undertook to preserve these places for us.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

3. To get outside!

We need more outside time! Children are especially in need of time in an unfettered natural environment. It soothes the soul and calms the mind. Get away from mechanization and human creation, and explore nature. It stimulates creativity and spurs the desire to use your mind and body to go beyond.

4. To pass on the importance of preservation.

National parks must have our support! If we do not value them as a nation, then the financial incentive to preserve these places will dwindle. We must pass on a love of wild spaces to our children, only then can we secure national park preservation for future generations.

Badlands National Park

5. To experience the sheer beauty – together.

Don’t wait for retirement before you go and enjoy these spectacular places. In sharing our national park experience with others, all too often we hear them express a plan to visit when they retire. Why wait? The magnificence is too intense not to share with your children. Stand in awe TOGETHER!!

Bryce National Park

6. To make exceptional memories.

Sure, you can make memories on a cruise, on a tropical island resort, or an amusement park but they are managed and manicured. National park memories include things like fly fishing with an elk in Yellowstone! During one trip, my husband was fly fishing and a cow elk walked up behind him and was drinking and eating for a long time before he realized she was there! People were driving by snapping pictures of the delicate scene.

7. To establish shared experiences.

Do you want to have something to talk about with your children? Shared national park experiences are unique in every way. We relive our backpacking adventure in Canyonlands National Park frequently. We laugh and cringe at the slick rock path we skirted around. We share in wonderment the memory of the juvenile wolf we witnessed walking through our campground in Yellowstone National Park.

8. To live STEAM.

With so much talk about Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math education in the school setting, why not go live it! National park visitor centers are replete with science. With exceptional Junior Ranger programs, children can do STEAM in the field. Many parks offer “backpacks” with unique supplies that make the park a true learning experience. Most importantly, children are surrounded by YOU and NATURE and the unique experience enhances their memory and inquisitiveness.

Mesa Verde National Park

9. To be docent for people from other nations.

People from all over the world come to the United States to witness the splendor of our national parks. Interactions are inevitable. One favorite experience is when are our children shared smore supplies with a family visiting from Germany. The father wasn’t particularly impressed with the unique campfire cuisine, but his kids were thrilled!! The second was helping a European family with their rental RV slide-out. My husband directed them to the fuse box and helped them with a quick fix, so they could be on their way to the next stop in their tight schedule. They were so grateful. Extending hospitality one to one is how we grow global cooperation.

10. To have fun!!

One family with whom we shared our national park love thought their children wouldn’t know what to do on such a trip. They preferred roller coasters. My kids love a good roller coaster too, but they will be the first to tell you national parks are anything but boring. They have snorkeled; sand surfed; splashed in hot spring fed streams; stood in completely black caverns hundreds of feet underground; and climbed hundred-foot ladders against sand stone cliffs within the park boundaries! Outside park boundaries, entrepreneurs offer even more adventures like rope courses, snow mobile riding, and sailing. Great, and unique fun will find you at any national park!

 

Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park

Florida – May 2017 (22 out of 61)

An Ocean of Adventure

Biscayne National Park is a watery oasis on the east side of the tip of Florida. Come here to rest and frolic in the turquoise waters. Comprised of 95% ocean, it is perfect for kids to explore and enjoy the unique ecosystem. The shallow depth offers opportunities for viewing the ocean bottom and the myriad of life and sunken ships during boat tours. With minimal wave action, it’s a great place for kids of all ages to become proficient at snorkeling.

Boca Chita Key, accessible via boat tour, is a fun place to spend the day. The gorgeous white coral sands and sparkling clear water is paradise found. The architecturally pleasing lighthouse is a perfect background for photography. Let the kids climb to the top during a ranger tour to take in the exceptional view. The west side of the key is very shallow and snorkeling in the mangroves will give kids an opportunity to view nurseries teaming with little fishes. Bring along an underwater camera to entertain children for hours as they try to photograph this water world.  If you would rather stay dry, just take a small chair or beach blanket to sit and soak your feet in the sparkling waters.

The Dante Fascell Visitor Center is an aesthetically pleasing facility perched next to the ocean on Convoy Point. Explore the museum and watch videos where you will learn about Stiltsville, and the fortunately lost city of Islandia. You can pick up junior ranger books and badges, maps, and speak with rangers at the information desk to plan your visit.  Take a walk on the Jetty Trail and find a park bench to sit and enjoy the view.

www.nationalpark4kids.com

Biscayne National Park Jetty Trail

Junior Ranger Badge:

  • Unique biomes like mangroves, hardwood hammocks, sloughs, and estuaries
  • Animal Adaptations
  • Extinction and the early 1900’s feathered hat debacle
  • Watersheds

Remember

Protect skin from sun exposure! Please, remember to protect your children from the sun’s damaging rays. Fortunately, with such a variety of sun protection measures it is possible to enjoy plenty of sunshine without exposure so long as you are diligent. Maintain sun protection habits throughout your vacation to keep everyone comfortable and safe. Please, please remember that if your children have already developed a tan from sun exposure, they have already damaged skin. Suntanned skin does not equal healthy skin!

Wear wide brimmed hats. You might want to have your child wear them prior to leaving for your trip so they can get used to the feel.

Apply sunscreen while getting prepared in the morning. Then, reapply as necessary. Learn about SPF, and sunscreen ingredients. Many ingredients are exceptionally irritating to the eye. Consider sticking with zinc oxide-based sunscreens for the face. Our preferred facial sunscreen (worn daily) is Vanicream Broad Spectrum SPF 50. IT NEVER BURNS MY EYES! Our second facial sunscreen preference is Coppertone Water Babies Pure & Simple 50 SPF, it is easily found at most retail stores and pharmacies. My husband and son prefer Coppertone Sport Continuous Sunscreen Spray, or Bullfrog Mosquito Coast Sunscreen and Insect Repellent, but keep these away from eyes.

Cover up with Sun Protection (UPF) Clothing! We love these products. Like SPF, the higher the number, the better protection it provides against UV radiation. You can learn more about, and purchase these products from REI. You can also find them at many of the sun shops located in the Florida Keys. Our favorite is long sleeve technical shirts. They wick away moisture, dry quickly, and take up minimal space.

Find Shade. Bring an umbrella or small play tent with you when you know you will be in the sun for extended periods of time. Look for shaded places when boarding excursion boats or spending time outdoors.

Extra Tips

This park is best enjoyed out on the water! There is a bay excursion perfect for everyone. The Biscayne National Park Institute provides a wide variety of experiences to learn and explore including guided boat tours leaving from the Dante Fascell Visitor Center. Check out their website and book your excursion as soon as possible, as tours do fill up quickly. Additional companies authorized to operate within the park offer sailing, tours of Stiltsville, paddle boarding, kayak rentals, aerial tours, and bowfishing! With minimal wave action on the bay, sea sickness shouldn’t pose a problem but if you are particularly prone consider speaking with your physician prior so that you can maximize your enjoyment.

Bring a change of clean dry clothing on excursions. A well-maintained restroom is available on Boca Chita Key. If your excursion takes you to this island where you plan to get into the cool waters, consider wearing your swimsuit with comfortable cover-up on the way out. Change before boarding the boat. The kids will be more comfortable in clean, dry clothing for the return trip.

Where to Stay

Camping in this park is available on Boca Chita and Elliot Keys. Unfortunately, they are accessible via boat only. During this trip, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Florida City-Gateway to Keys. It offered us quick access to the Everglades and Biscayne.

Where to Eat

There are not many restaurants near Biscayne National Park.  We were eager for more exploration, and up to the 50-minute drive to Alabama Jack’s (58000 Card Sound Rd, Homestead, FL 33030). This down to earth, eclectic place is located off 905A (the alternate to US Hwy 1) into the Florida Keys. It’s a great place to eat outside; watch for manatees and fish swimming in the water way; and eat conch fritters!

When to Go

Avoid peak hurricane season, between August and October. We went in late May, and it was perfect!

Everglades National Park

Florida – Visited May 2017 (24 out of 61)

It’s So Green

Take your children here to readily see the necessity of environmental preservation. This park offers opportunity for children to learn about the inter-connectedness of humans to their environment on a massive scale.  Exploring both the park and the surrounding areas offers exceptional insight into ecosystem health as it pertains to wildlife and ecosystem services. Everglades National Park is quintessential for the protection of wildlife, and humanity as well. The inter-coastal tide-ways are a unique interdependent area. Their health equates to the sustainability of coastal fisheries where abundant sea life is harvested for human consumption. The sheer volume of recreational participants including all manner of boaters, snorkelers, divers, fishers, and sun bathers is overwhelming in this part of Florida, outside the park boundaries. Additionally, homes and farms of every sort absorb available spaces against the turquoise sea. A little exploration and contemplation makes it apparent that preservation of every square inch of this national park space is paramount to the success of this regional ecosystem, and economic system.

Your children will feel like jungle explorers, and both of you will get the chance to try wildlife photography with plentiful opportunities to see alligators (safely up close), numerous birds, and other wildlife. Everglades National Park offers an ocean expanse of places to see. The presence of 200,000 alligators, 2,000 crocodiles, and “sloughs” (freshwater land channels) will keep you on the guided paths. However, the numerous boardwalks and paths throughout allow you to explore different areas of the park while still feeling immersed in the open space.

Junior Ranger Badge:

  • Unique biomes like mangroves, hardwood hammocks, sloughs, and estuaries
  • Animal Adaptations
  • Extinction and the early 1900’s feathered hat debacle
  • Watersheds

Remember:

Mosquitos! Wear repellant. While there are many “natural” alternatives available, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends only those with high active ingredients of DEET, Picaridin, IR3535, Oil of lemon eucalyptus or para-menthan-diol, and 2-undecanone. Speak with your doctor, but unless you have a medical condition or allergy, I highly recommend OFF! Deep Woods Insect Repellent worn daily while you are vacationing in the area. It is made with 25% DEET and provides up to 8 hours of protection. Speak to your pediatrician regarding younger children as, for them, certain repellants are not recommended.

The Everglades National Park and surrounding areas are home to numerous mosquitos because they thrive in the warm moist climate. West Nile Virus (transmitted by mosquitos) is a rare but exceptionally dangerous infection that can result in brain swelling, known as encephalitis. A very close family member contacted this disease in Colorado, so it is not unique to Florida. This disease can be deadly and leave lasting complications such as paralysis. Symptoms can include high fever, headache, or neck stiffness. Seek medical attention immediately. Additionally, Zika Virus (also transmitted by mosquitos) has been actively transmitted in Florida. Zika Virus primarily targets unborn children. Please discuss protection with your doctor and check out the CDC website for advice to people traveling to South Florida.

Extra Tips:

There are three main park visitor centers and they are located at vastly different accessible areas.  These are: Ernest F. Coe, Shark Valley, and Gulf Coast. The Flamingo Visitor Center is relatively inactive after suffering hurricane damage, but it can be accessed via the Ernest F. Coe entrance. Choosing your entrance is imperative to the areas that you will see. A long day could incorporate two centers. Realistically, if you wanted to explore each, you would want to take three days. With limited time availability, we chose the park entrance at Ernest F. Coe, which was nearest to the other two national parks we were visiting this trip (Biscayne and Dry Tortugas).

An example day trip itinerary:

Pack a lunch. Make your first stop at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center to pick up your Junior Ranger book and watch a video about the park, find ranger led activities, and pick up a park map. Proceed to Royal Palm where you will get your first great opportunity to see an alligator up close walking along the Anhinga Trail. This trail/boardwalk offers an incredible opportunity to see wildlife. Counting 14 alligators, we also saw birds and a variety of awesomely enormous grasshoppers. We covered our heads from the brief rain shower and took the Gumbo Limbo trail as well. It was tropical, hot, and humid and we viewed not much other than incredible plants and an enormous Liguus Tree Snail.

Take a lunch break under the verandah at Royal Palm with your packed lunch while the kids try to spot alligators.

Drive to the Pa-hay-okee Overook Trail. This was a favorite as the views were expansive. The mist across the slough and the plentiful trees were savannah like in their serenity. It was a great opportunity to enjoy the stillness of the park and an active hawk offered opportunity to enjoy the wildlife.

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Drive to Mahogany Hammock and enjoy this fun, twisty boardwalk in the trees. It is a great adventure for kids!

Drive to the Flamingo Visitor Center, a pink structure against the turquoise sea. It is beautiful here, but after Hurricane Irma, it is only partially open.  As such, this was a short stop for us. If we had more time, we could have looked for the elusive American Crocodile. There are only 2000 in the park itself!

Head back to the entrance and enjoy the views. Be sure to head back to the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center before it closes (5:00 PM for our visit) to hand in completed Junior Ranger books and get badges for the kids.

Where to Stay

If we don’t have our RV, we gravitate to Holiday Inn Express. We enjoy the free morning breakfasts, and they usually have a pool or hot tub to enjoy in the evenings. Comfy beds, reasonable prices, and plentiful locations make this our go to hotel. During this trip, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Florida City-Gateway to Keys. It offered us quick access to the Everglades and Biscayne.

Where to Eat

Stop at Robert is Here fruit stand on your way into the park to purchase crazy, fun fruit to enjoy during a lunch picnic inside the park boundaries. With things like key lime milk shakes, jack fruit, and asian guavas, it is an adventure for your taste buds and a fun way to start the day. Look out back at the petting zoo!

When to Go

Avoid peak hurricane season, between August and October. We went in late May, and it was perfect!

Dry Tortugas National Park

Florida – Visited May 2017 (23 out of 61)

Rare Treasure

This park is a place of adventure due to the uniquely limited accessibility, pristine oceanic beauty, and remote location. Located off the tip of the Florida Keys, it is accessible via float plane or boat. Take your children here to cruise across the sea on tranquil turquoise waters while they look for diving sea turtles. Take your family here to explore a 19th century fort, so historically intense you will feel as though you just stepped off a pirate ship. Go to spend hours snorkeling along the fort’s moat wall with barracuda, sting ray, brain coral and many other tropical fish. Take pictures of your children with salty sparkles shining in their hair, and glorious freckles peeking beneath sun kissed smiles. Go here for yourself, to stand upon the deck of the Yankee Freedom Ferry (the most common transport to the island) and feel the wind in your hair, feel young, vibrant, alive and joyful.  I am still left in awe over this trip, it was pure magic, almost too beautiful to have been real.

Remember:

Dehydration and Sea Sickness.

Drink plenty of water the night before your trip, during breakfast, and during the trip. Yes, you will have to journey to the restroom facilities, but you will be in the warm sun for a substantial amount of time. You will also be very active walking around the fort and swimming or snorkeling. Keep track of children’s fluid intake and be sure to push plenty of water among the plentiful on-board soda pop. Dehydration can lead to nausea and be easily mistaken for motion sickness or exacerbate the condition.

Consider motion sickness ahead of time. Motion aboard the Yankee Freedom Ferry can be relatively significant. Our family didn’t experience any trouble, but if you are prone to sea sickness be sure to ask your doctor for recommendations before your trip. Waiting to take motion sickness medication until you are sick is not advised. Some motion sickness medication can make you drowsy. It has been recommended to me to take it the night before. This helps alleviate the drowsiness, but may still reduce motion sickness. Talk to your physician and pediatrician.

Extra Tips:

Plan to arrive early. If taking the ferry, you will access it via the ferry terminal. When you arrive at the terminal, sit along the west wall to board early as there are no seating assignments. On board, we preferred to sit in the booth like seating area along the windows in the food galley. It offered shade, and quick access to the front of the lower boat deck where we could stand against the rails. It was a thrill to ride the waves and watch for sea life.

Bring your own snorkel gear. This is especially important if you intend your children to actively snorkel. Being familiar with your gear will make ocean time a more comfortable experience. No need to purchase, however, as the ferry does provide free gear. Utilize the buoyancy compensators provided by the Yankee Freedom Ferry if you plan to snorkel for any length of time (especially if you plan to go completely around the moat wall). You will be more comfortable, worry less about your children, and enjoy yourselves significantly better. Even though you are along the wall, you cannot use it as a place of rest due to its height and wave action.

Tour the fort and finish the Junior Ranger Badge, lunch, and then ocean swimming. You will get a bit warm walking around the fort and a nice dip in the ocean before boarding for the return is refreshing. However, watch the time while the kids are finishing their ranger booklets and guide them accordingly so that you have plenty of time to explore the waters. We enjoyed lunch back on board the Yankee Freedom between fort and snorkel activities. Allow yourself time to rinse-off with fresh water at the back of the boat after you swim and before you board.

Where to Stay

We did not camp on the island. I am sure that it would be a spectacular experience, but we couldn’t facilitate camping gear on this trip. If you are considering camping, there is plenty of information available on the Yankee Freedom Ferry and National Park Service websites. Please read camping information carefully.

The drive from Key Largo (base of Florida) to Key West is over 2 hours. So, it is best to stay closer to Key West the night before your trip to Dry Tortugas as the Yankee Freedom Ferry boards at 7:30 AM. Key West offers plenty of hotel amenities. However, our family enjoyed staying at the Holiday Inn Express in Marathon, Florida which is located 1 hour from Key West. Marathon Key was one of our favorite areas as it is smaller and more sparsely populated. We loved the Tarpon Creek Bar and Grill on the hotel property. We also enjoyed watching manatees at Sparky’s Landing located within walking distance.

Where to Eat

Grab a quick breakfast at your hotel. Bring along snacks and bottles of water. If you plan to take the Yankee Freedom Ferry, lunch is included. For dinner, take a short walk to the iconic Half Shell Raw Bar in Key West.

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When to Go

I would avoid peak hurricane season, between August and October. We went in late May, and it was perfect!

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