Status update: We’ve been to 42 of the 63 National Parks. Whew. Yikes, I am way behind on this blog, but that is why we have January!
Everything I do comes with deep intention, and our National Parks journey has been no exception. I am most at home in these remote places; it’s where I feel most alive! The lessons I want my kids to learn, the things I want them to understand about their place in the universe and why we are flying through eternity on this planet, are most easily taught here. God’s gracious hand creating this world for us, is most perfectly viewed through this lens. The wonder and majesty of what we have, this spectacular earth we call home, is omnipresent under starlit skies in the middle of nowhere. Our role in protecting our special places, and helping others maneuver through life together, is best taught on an empty trail. Some of my favorite park memories are when we’ve shared these places with friends and family!
We’ve been at this adventure way longer than it’s been an Instagram trend. It started with a trip to Ixtapa, Mexico! Autumn was a baby, and James a toddler and I was a nervous wreck! It was the most miserable vacation I have been on, in the most beautiful place. I read the week before our trip, bodies were being dumped off shore by the cartels and fed to the sharks. I was terrified of catching illnesses in the pool, Autumn was terrified of the ocean. We all feared her beloved blanket would be lost by hotel staff when we sent it for cleaning. Joe was almost bitten by an alligator when he went golfing – slight exaggeration there, but there were alligators on the golf course. I couldn’t wait to leave!
When we got home, I told Joe we were done touring other countries until we saw all the great places in ours and we promptly bought a pop-up camper and headed to the Grand Canyon. The electrical system didn’t work when we got there and Joe had to drive into town for a new battery. We biked in the rain, we saw condors. We ate lunch with a massive bull elk in the campground. James earned his first Junior Ranger Badge after a hike looking at fossils, and we all fell in love with our National Parks.
We don’t go to say we’ve been. We go to know the places we’ve seen, to learn about them, to learn about the species that call them home. I spend weeks planning each trip to ensure that we have the full experience of the place. Our itinerary’s our usually pretty intense, and I never take enough pictures.
The Maltese Cross picture that marks my posts was taken while we were visiting Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. This cross is carved into his ‘Maltese Cross Cabin’ that he occupied in the 1880’s in the badlands of the Dakota Territory. The president responsible for doing the work to establish the first national park, should get due credit for this great gift. I am always thankful for the foresight he had in preserving these places, and to all the individuals who work so tirelessly to protect and preserve them. Historically, the cross was the symbol of a Christian warrior who pledged not only to fight in defense of the Holy Land, but also to protect the lives of his compatriots. This blog is an extension of the fight to protect our own holy lands and the fight to protect the creatures that call them home.
So, why the blog? I want more than anything to let the people who come across this know how special these places are. I want them to consider visiting, and taking their children. I want these parks preserved and protected into perpetuity. They truly are “America’s Best Idea”.
So, what are we going to do after we see all our National Parks? Well, it looks like I’m missing a few sign pictures – so I guess we’re going back! Truthfully, I’ve never spent enough time in any of them yet.
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.
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.
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.
Book your tours for Lehman Caves in advance. They fill up quickly.
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.
This scenic place is a deep reminder of the hardships of life and the amazing adaptability held within. It is a reminder to us that if we focus on the right character strengths, like the animals and plants found in this harsh desert landscape, we too shall prevail.
Children will learn how life thrives in difficult situations. They will learn about characteristics, like the careful use of resources, which allows the kangaroo rat to survive by getting the majority of its hydration from seeds it eats instead of drinking water. They will learn how cooperation enables the saguaro cactus, and it’s inhabitants to coexist because one offers shelter, and the other pest control. They will see how adaptability allows trees and shrubs to survive because they have special features, like wax coated leaves, that reduce evaporation. This national park is full of unique wonders oddly applicable to our human condition.
My very favorite memory of Saguaro National Park will unlikely be yours! On a late evening in 2002, my fiancé and I set out on a hike through the park. At the time, we lived nearby, and I wanted to take full advantage of our proximity. I was rather ambitious in my estimation of the time it would take us to hike Cactus Forest Loop Drive (8 miles) after parking at the Rincon Mountain Visitor Center. I also underestimated the time at which the visitor center parking lot would be closing, and the sun would be setting.
Buoyed by my optimism, Joe and I began our late afternoon hike around the loop, up and down the hills enjoying the gorgeous scenery on a winding, curvy path. We listened to the sweet sound of the mourning dove, awed at the lovely ocotillo swaying, and enjoyed the gorgeous sunset. The sky continued to darken as I assured Joe we would be rounding the corner to the visitor center at any moment. Then, we heard sounds, rustling sounds and footfall sounds, and snapping twigs. We gasped, knowing this place is home to Javelina. These largely nocturnal wild peccaries (not to be mistaken for a boar) travel in big packs and are notorious for their fierce defense of family and horrid eyesight. It is also home to mountain lions, coyotes, skunks, and even black bears. Our leisurely roadside hike became a huddled quick paced walk down the center of the roadway, as far from nefarious creatures found amongst the mesquite trees and cacti as possible. The sun set lower, our spirits became more panicked, and Joe tried to be patient and sweet though a bad knee was beginning to hurt. Then, there came the sound of a quickly approaching vehicle and a panic at that too. What relief to see a not-too-happy Forest Ranger on his search for a remaining vehicle’s occupants. Saved!
I have no pictures to document this visit. I do have pictures of our return, years later with our children. It was just as beautiful, the diversity of nature found within the park as enchanting. There is something intoxicating about this place, especially in the cool winters. The smell of lingering dessert rain is refreshing unlike anything else. The crystalline blue skies framed by reaching saguaro cacti are ethereal. It was great fun to relive our hiking experience and share our adventure with our kids, who have learned to love wild places, because we have shared with them National Park magic. Unfortunately for them, there were no unplanned night excursions through the park. But, if you want to see what nighttime here is like, overnight back country camping is available. See the Saguaro National Park camping website or Rincon Mountain Visitor Center for more information.
Learning about dessert animal adaptations is one of the primary reasons to take your family to this extraordinary place…and so is the amazing hiking. Just know how fast you can hike, when the parking lot closes and when the sun sets!
Saguaro National Park is blessed with two ecologically distinct regions. The first, Saguaro West, is located near the famed ‘Old Tucson’ studios. It offers sweeping vistas of classic Sonoran Desert landscapes with rocky outcroppings and jutted mountainsides against saguaro cacti in abundance. Saguaro East is located approximately 45 minutes to the east at the base of the Rincon Mountains. Here you will find a more upland ecosystem with different plants due, to an increase in annual precipitation and higher elevations. It is possible to see both in one day, but highly recommended to plan one day for each. It is certainly worth visiting both to get a complete picture of the vast variations and adaptability of animals and plants that live in this park system. If closer to the warmer months, Saguaro East is highly recommended.
Stay on marked trails when hiking. Desert ecosystems can be fragile, and also dangerous. By staying on marked trails, you will be easier to locate if necessary. Always carry plenty of water, one gallon per person, per day minimum. Don’t assume you can do a quick one mile hike in the heat without carrying water. Always have it with you. There are over 250 deaths and 3,000 emergency visits related to heat related illness in Arizona EVERY YEAR! Cacti thorns hurt! Don’t let your children run around this national park in sandals! A brief brush against a cholla cactus with bare skin will ruin the day.
Where to Eat:
Tucson has some fabulous dining options. Where you dine depends on which Saguaro National Park district you visit. If Saguaro East, a favorite restaurant of ours was McGraws on Houghton Road, but as of this posting they appear to be closed for Covid-19 so call before you go. Another option is Saguaro Corners Restaurant and Bar. Saguaro West is in close proximity to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum which offers dining options. A little further away is the iconic Daisy Mays Steakhouse, or the Star Pass Marriott Resort.
When to Go:
This is a virtually year-round park. Summer months are certainly going to be more taxing with temperatures frequently above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. However, there are ways to manage extreme temperatures, even with children. First, drink abundant quantities of water. Specifically, you need 1 gallon per person, per day. Secondly, plan your visit in the early morning. Monsoon season, typically in July, may make visiting more challenging as abundant rainfall could reduce trail access by flash flooding.
Where to Stay:
Back country camping is available at Saguaro East. There are also RV parks available near both park areas. There is an abundant variety of resorts available in Tucson, primarily golf/spa resorts. Some of our favorites include Lowes Ventana Canyon and the Tubac Golf Resort and Spa.