Adventuring through the National Parks, Part One

This week, the National Park Service celebrates #NationalParkWeek.  National Park Week is designed for you to find out more about America’s national parks.  With over 400 units in the Park system, from historic sites, monuments, battlefields, and parks, there’s a lot to discover.  You might be surprised what you can find in your own backyard by exploring nature, history, and culture.  You can find out more about these places during special events available during National Park Week.

Our family has been visiting the National Parks since our first major road trip back in July 2006.  Since then, we have explored more than 60 parks, monuments, and historic sites across the American West.  We’ve seen some of the classics, plus a few less-traveled places as well.  This week, we are going to share with you some of our favorite locations in the national park system–and why we think they are the some of the best places for your family to discover your next adventure!

With so many parks, there’s a lot to experience and enjoy.  Every family member will have their favorites for different reasons.  Here are my favorites out of the parks we’ve had some adventures in.

ROBYN’S FAVORITE NATIONAL PARKS

Welcome to ArchesArches National Park in Moab, Utah.   Arches feels like one of those places that you imagine would only be in a fairy tale.  With its red rocks and sweeping views, it’s nearly impossible to take in every single sight that mother nature whipped up. With over 2,000 sandstone arches, a day is not nearly long enough time to spend here.  Drive thru or hike up the many different trails that are for any skill levels.  While we did not hike up to the famous Delicate Arch (it is recommended for advanced hikers and can get too hot during the middle part of the day), we were able to take a beginner hike to a view point.  img_4323Our older teenagers loved climbing up the sandstone rocks, but I think they did it just to make me nervous.  We have been here twice in the past 10 years and will likely visit again!

 


 

 

img_4539Mesa Verde National Park in Cortez, Colorado.  Spanish for Green Table, Mesa Verde is so rich in history, that even our youngest kids stayed engaged as we took tour after tour to discover more about the history of the Ancestral Pueblo people.  The nearly 600 cliff dwellings have existed for over 700 years.  Although the popular Spruce Tree House closed to the public in 2015 due to excessive damage and falling rock, there are still dozens of cliff dwellings to visit.  img_4646My favorite was the ranger-led Cliff Palace, which allows visitors to look inside the doorways of the ancient dwellings and gain a better understanding of why the Pueblo people originated here then suddenly abandoned their homes.  If you prefer to stay on your own timeline and save some money, there are plenty of family hikes that you can do on your own.


 

xXcSTk+VRjG2Udcir2bP%Q_thumb_31327Glacier National Park in Northwest Montana.  Known as the Crown of the Continent, Glacier has some of the clearest, bluest water, I have ever seen.  Whether you’re choosing to hike, take a guided tour, or drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier has several days’ worth of outdoor activities and natural habitats to discover.  My favorite was Going-to-the-Sun Road, where the road hugs the cliff walls so closely I could reach out my hand and touch it as we drove up the mountains.  I’m a bit nervous on these high roads, so this really helped with my nervousness.  This drive takes about 2 hours, but with several stops along the way–to look at waterfalls, watch native wildlife like deer or mountain goats–it was well worth it.  Typically, you can only drive Going-to-the-Sun in the summer, because it takes so long to clear the road from all the snow during the winter.  UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3132bFrom wildlife to waterfalls, the drive does not disappoint.  Glacier now offers an audio tour to accompany you on your drive.


 

 

Whether you have your own favorite National Park or have never visited, I encourage you to get out and try something new this summer.  One of the mottos of the National Park System is #FindYourPark.  Every park is different and every park will bring out different feelings in your family.  Luckily, there are plenty of parks, which means plenty of adventures for every member of your family to enjoy.  The memories you bring home will be unforgettable, and make you want to start planning your next trip.

In Part Two, Duane will share his favorite parks we’ve experienced on our journeys.

 

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Making Memories On Any Budget

If you’ve known us or followed us for any length of time, you know that we love Disney.  We have a little history with Disney, though. Duane and I met working at The Disney Store back in 1996 and we were married just two short years later in Disneyland.  We have raised our kids in a “Disney home,” following many of Walt’s own traditions.  And we visit the Happiest Place on Earth whenever we can get away for a few short days.  Many people wonder how we can afford it, but we’ve visited so often that we know how to spend and save money. Also, working for Disney allows us several benefits that not all guests can afford.  And even though Disneyland will always be our go-to vacation, we also love going on other adventures outside of Disneyland.  So, how does one go on adventures on a budget?  I’m going to share with you my top 5 money-saving adventures.  And yes, Disneyland is one of them.

  1. DAY DRIVES.  I think one of our favorite things to do as a family is to find a place just a couple hours away and take a day drive.  It’s always fun exploring new things.  Last week’s blog was about how to make memories anywhere and this is one of the easiest, and cheapest ways to do it.  Usually all it takes is a full tank of gas and some research.  Pack a lunch, grab your smart phone for directions, and you’re off!  Here in the Seattle area some of our favorites are Leavenworth, Mt. Rainier, any place a ferry can go, or even the city itself.  You just need to get creative.
  2. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE SEASONS.  Every town, city, state offers seasonal adventures.  In the fall, visit your local pumpkin patch.  Summer time is great for fruit or veggie picking.  Regardless of the season, find something new and fun and go for it.  Again, with just a little research, you can find adventure just about anywhere and at any time.
  3. VENTURE OUT TO A NEARBY BIG CITY.  One of our favorite getaways as a family is Portland, OR. If we have a couple of days off in a row, we try to head out of town. Portland offers great shopping and dining.  And it doesn’t matter how often we go, the kids love staying in hotels.  It’s a different experience for them. And who doesn’t love going for a swim or soak in the hot tub after a long hard day of eating and playing?
  4. GO FIND YOUR PARK!  Did you know that you can purchase an annual park pass for the entire family for just $80?  And it pays for itself in 2 park visits.  Every state offers several national parks, historic sites, or historic reserves.  Again, just pack a lunch, several snacks, water bottles, jackets and/or hats, and fill up the car.  The National Park Service also offers a Junior Ranger program with fun activities and adventures for your kids and an opportunity for them to earn a Jr. Ranger badge.  All of my kids, including my 17-year old, love earning their Jr. Ranger badges! Just visit The National Park Service to find out more information and programs near you!
  5. DISNEYLAND!  OK, you knew I had to! Like I said, we visit Disneyland as frequently as we can.  Each visit is different and depending on the kids, they all experience something new.  So, how can we afford it?  Before I was worked for Disney, we had annual passes.  If you visit the park more than 5 days, you will have paid for your annual pass.  Plus the annual pass gets you discounts on food and store purchases.  There are several hotel offerings around Disneyland Resort, so just choose the one that best suits your family’s budget and needs.  For our family, I’m all about saving as much money as we can.  I bring a backpack with me filled with snacks and waters to save on food purchases.  Our kids have learned to split meals so we only end up purchasing 3 meals at a time instead of one for each of us.  If they’re still hungry, they can have a snack, but most times, they’re just fine.  And I’m not big on souvenirs, but we give each of our kids a $25 gift card to spend on souvenirs, dole whip, churros, etc.  And the biggest money saver for us is transportation.  We load up all 4 kids in the minivan for a 18-hour-straight-thru drive.  We have done this so often that we know where to find the cheapest gas, cheapest food, and best times to travel to save time. I guess you could say we’re experts on Disneyland on budget!

As you can see, it doesn’t take much to find adventure!  Just a little imagination and research.  Now go find adventure!  It’s out there just waiting for you!

How to Make Memories Without Even Trying

I love my family, almost to a point where if we were the only 6 left on earth, I would be totally OK with it.  I’m very protective of us and our time together, which as the kids get older and we get busier, seems to be a little bit fewer and far between. So when we are all together, either purposefully or accidentally, we are very intentional with our time.  I saw a sign today that read,

We didn’t know we were making memories, we just knew we were having fun.

This is my new mantra!  With that being said, let me help you create memories with your family without even trying.

1. Don’t over schedule yourself.  I can’t stress this enough.  Work, school, PTA, sports, dance, music, karate, homework, housework, yard work, … the list can go on and on.  Over scheduling yourself and your kids is easy to do.  But it’s also not necessary.  Pick one extra curricular activity for you and/or your kids. The days off are a bit more frequent when you don’t have too much going on. Believe me, I get it.  Both me and my husband work full time, both of my teenagers have jobs, my youngest daughter is involved in basketball and brand practice, so I know how easy it is to get caught up in busy.  But try to set aside one or two days per month where you and your family is 100% “off.”  Let the vacuuming wait.  The dishes are fine in the dishwasher.  And there will always be laundry to do.  Take your free day and go make a memory or two.

2. Sneak in fun things even when you have a lot going on.  As much as I would like to say the Christmas season is full of baking days and relaxation for us, it’s not.  It’s easily the busiest time of year for me.  I don’t get to drop everything and go play with my kids when they are outside making snowmen.  But I do sneak in moments with them when I can.  Whether it’s driving around looking at Christmas lights or dining out at their restaurant of choice, creating moments for them will also create memories.

3.  Document your moments so you can relive your memories. Most people have some kind of a camera on their phone.  It’s there for a reason, so use it.  You may not even realize you’re creating memories until you look back a week or two later and you are able to relive it. One of my favorite moments, which I didn’t even realize would turn into a favorite summer memory, happened two summers ago.  We took a few days to get out of town.  We stumbled upon a restaurant that we all decided looked decent enough for us to have dinner. It turned out to be one of my favorite memories of the entire trip.  The kids all got along, our food was amazing, we explored the restaurant after dinner which just happened to be full of history.  But I didn’t even realize how much I loved those moments until we were able to look back at the photos (played as a screensaver on our family Mac) and remember what an amazing memory it was!

What can you do this week or even this month to create special moments with your family?  Next week, I’m going to be sharing some of our favorite things to do as a family for every budget. I’d love to hear your ideas, so send them my way!

Road Trip Packing List

I can’t believe we’re already in September!  I don’t know how the summer has flown by and now we’re in back to school mode.  I may be in the minority, but I love having my kids home!  I love the sleeping in and cuddles on the couch that last into the late morning.  I love moseying into the day with just the sun to guide us on our adventures.  And I love spending it all with my family!

13774899_1736279196596936_1336765421_nOne of our favorite things to do is road trips.  Whether it’s just spending a day to drive to nearby Portland, OR or a few weeks to tour the country, we love just getting in the car and driving.  Last month we left for a ten day southwest America trip!  We visited Arches, Mesa Verde, The Grand Canyon National Parks.  This is our fourth  major National Park trip as a family. So while I’m still learning how to pack a family of 6, I’ve done enough road tripping to know what I’m doing.  Today I’m going to share with you my how-tos on how to pack for 10 days on the open road. Let’s go!

  1.  Try to keep your luggage to a minimum.  This means sometimes sharing luggage space.  My husband and I share one giant suitcase and we leave enough room for extra shoes or jackets for the kids.  While I would love for my kids to share luggage, I know that with a teenage son and daughter, it will not happen.  So, be realistic with who can share.  If you have littles and they don’t insist on pulling their own suitcase, pack them together.
  2. Pack plenty of snacks for the whole family.  With 6 people, we all have fairly diverse preferences.  While I prefer healthy non-spill snacks, my 7 year old would love to have a banana and peanut butter in the third row.  Not gonna happen!  Pack things that are easy to clean up and high in protein (to prevent car sick kiddos) like trail mix, beef jerky, and cheese sticks.  I always throw some extra goodies in the cooler for rest stop breaks, but try to keep the in car food to a minimum. We also keep drinks to a minimum with the exception of water, just to so we don’t have to find a rest stop every 20 miles.
  3. Small balls or frisbees.  We haven’t done this in a while, but I think we may need to revisit this idea.  When our older kids were smaller, we would make our rest stop breaks a little longer by getting out a ball or tossing around a frisbee.  It helps the littler kids with wiggly legs get a good stretch and helps mom and dad get a nice break from those long highway drives.
  4. Maps.  That’s right, a good ol’ fashioned, folded backward and forward map. While Apple Maps and Google Maps are great and convenient, when you’re out in the middle of nowhere without cell service, those apps will do you no good.  On our last trip, we ran into a bit of a jam with our directions and thankfully had a map in the car.  Without it, we would’ve been in trouble and probably would’ve extended our trip a few hours longer than it needed to be. If you’re a AAA member, you can get all of your maps for free.
  5. Use Gasbuddy.  Speaking of apps, Gasbuddy was a lifesaver on our last trip.  We like to save money wherever we can and thankfully our Gasbuddy app saved us close to around $50, just by driving a few short blocks away from the convenient gas stations.
  6. First aid kit.  While we don’t always need one, it’s a good idea to have one.  I pack in mine bandages, first aid cream, tylenol, wipes, and believe it or not, barf bags because we usually have at least one barfer in the car at any given time. If you’re doing any hiking I would recommend packing a full first aid kit.

One other thing I want to mention, is that when we travel, we stay at hotels across America.  It may not be the most economical way of traveling, but it is the easiest.  If you need help with finding great hotel prices, let me know and I will tell you my secrets!  It’s not hard, just takes a little more time.  And let me know how your next road trip goes!  I love to hear (and sometimes steal) other family’s ideas!

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A Grand Old Time

There’s something about the Grand Canyon that leaves even our loud family speechless.


But pictures can’t begin to explain or help you understand what you see when you look out into this enormous, beautifully terrifying rip through the Arizona landscape. 

Our last visit was 10 years ago, and the kids were much smaller–and our fourth child hadn’t been thought of yet.

Visiting the same spot with bigger kids reminds you how fast time goes by, and it was fun to see how the kids have changed, and to do things we couldn’t do before.  We hiked between the Visitor Center and El Tovar along the South Rim, and did our Junior Ranger books.   Keeping the kids from waking to close to the edge was paramount, especially after Gus jumped to a rock that could have led to serious injury.


The hike was fantastic, with stellar views of the valley, the Colorado River, and the mountains more than 80 miles in the distance.  We visited with Ranger Rick at the Watchtower and loved hearing about the different animals who make the Canyon their home.


It was so cool to stop and see the elk in the park, like this guy, who took advantage of a mud pool to cool off on the hot day.  We later saw females and babies playing in the same place.  Naturally we stopped and watched–until they started bellowing and making clear we were intruding on their space.


We were at the Canyon from morning until late afternoon, and we still had so much more we didn’t get to see. Clearly we need to go back and experience it again.  There’s just so much to see–as August realized.


 Next time, we are going to visit the North Rim, though.

Dwellings of the Ancients

The drive to the top of Mesa Verde is beautiful, with incredible views of the surrounding Colorado countryside.  Being 9,000 feet above sea level gives you a stunning perspective on the world.


But you don’t go to Mesa Verde for this view.  You go because of the ancient dwellings built between 600-1200 AD–and getting out of the car and hiking into the ruins will give you an unforgettable experience.

The last time I visited was 30 years ago, and we didn’t do much hiking.  So we made sure to give time for a tour into Cliff Palace, and bought tickets for an afternoon tour.  Because we arrived early, we had plenty of time to drive out to the less-visited mesa, Weatherill, and take a self-guided tour of Step House.


It’s an easy hike, paved all the way, but it is on the side of a cliff, so the kids were a little nervous, and we kept them walking on the inside.  But the trek down is worth it, because Step House shows two completely different time periods.


And the chance to climb into a dwelling and see petroglyphs and handprints of the ancients gives you a strange connection to the past.


After a quick lunch at the Far Views Cafe, we drove out to Cliff Palace for our guided tour.  We arrived early and got a chance to look down into the ruins we would be visiting.  Then we met Ranger Paula, who would guide us down.  She reminded us all of my grandmother.

The steps down into Cliff Palace were narrow and the ladders into the site were tall.  Some of the family and the rest of the tour group was a bit nervous as they made their way down.


Once we got in, it was worth the wait and climb.  Our family sat and listened to the bats hiding in the ruin, heard the history of the place, and soaked in the incredible vistas.  Even the little kids were quiet in the moment. 


Walking through the ruins and seeing one of the last remaining paintings, created more than 800 years ago, was something all of us agreed was unforgettable.

Every moment spent in Mesa Verde was worth it.  Driving back down the mountain, we were caught up in reliving every moment, grateful for the day of adventures.  Great conversations  with Ranger Paula and Ranger Melissa reminded us that our country is full of great people, and we all actually have much more in common than the media may want you to believe.


This is why road trips are so important.  Memories and moments you will never forget in a country full of them: just go see it.

Hike Into Arches

Arches National Park is one of our family’s favorites, but we haven’t been able to really start exploring it because our kids were too little.  During our last visit six years ago, August was still in a stroller.

This year, we got to get out and do some “easy” hikes, which got us up close and personal with the stunning landscape of sandstone and red rocks.


After a quick stop at the Visitor’s Center to get our Junior Ranger booklets, we began the drive out to Double Arch, famous from its appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  With plenty of water for the hot weather, all nine of us embarked on the easy walk out to the trail.


It’s pretty amazing how close you can get, and standing under the arch really drives home how huge these structures really are.  After a quick pose for a group photo, three of us decided to climb higher.


Pretty stunning views and it looks higher and scarier from below than it did from up high.  Totally worth it, although it did freak Robyn out a bit.

We then drove out to Delicate Arch, so we could get closer than our last visit.  It’s an uphill climb and the kids got a little complainy, but it was so cool to see the landmark so much closer.


We made it to the top and were treated to a stunning view, and everyone drank a lot of water.  Austen got a bloody nose suddenly, so we hurried back down, but those few moments were glorious.


We drove through much of the rest of the park, and every curve is a treat of a view.  Returning to the Visitor Center, everyone got their Junior Ranger Badges, and we ventured out to enjoy a beautiful drive into southern Colorado.

Next time, we climb all the way out to the Arch!