Adventuring Through the National Parks, Part Two

We are nearing the end of #NationalParkWeek, and it’s been fun for us to look back at our travels and where we’ve gone in the 12 years since we first started visiting what has been called “America’s Best Idea.”  In 2006 we ventured across the American West and drove over 6,000 miles.  We experienced Mount Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, Petrified Forest, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and a made thousands of memories along the way.  It started a love for the National Parks that continues today.

Robyn has her favorites.  These are a few of mine.

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Golden Gate National Recreation Area and San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park– San Francisco, California.  Take one day in San Francisco and experience everything from the infamous Alcatraz to the old growth redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument to the only Civil War-era fort built on the West Coast, Fort Point.  Visit the spectacular Golden Gate Bridge or tour the history of California at The Presidio.

1Get away from the crazy hustle and bustle of the waterfront and experience the history of sailing, fishing, and so much more at the San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park, or go directly to the coast and Lands End Lookout overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  There is literally so much to see and do in this amazing combination of monuments and historic sites, you will not be able to experience it all in one visit.

 


 

 

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Capitol Reef National Park – Torrey, Utah.  There are so many beautiful National Parks in Utah, it’s hard to choose one.  But Capitol Reef combines incredible arches, canyons, and red cliffs with a whole lot of history, which makes it tops for me.  The unique landscape of Capitol Reef made it ideal for Native American cultures, and there are countless petroglyphs visible, some just a short walk from the main road through the park.

Created more than 500 years ago, they are stunning examples of the Fremont people who lived here before the Mormon settlement of Fruita planted orchards of more than 3,000 trees.  1 (1)You can still visit one of the old houses, eat fruit right from the trees (they are maintained by the park), and then take a drive in deep red rock canyons–it’s a perfect experience for everyone.


 

Since Robyn only listed three, I’m limiting myself to three, too.  Honestly, I could list at least a dozen here, but since I only have one more choice, I have to go with the one that started it all.


yellowstone-1500x609Yellowstone National Park – Yellowstone NP, Wyoming.  Without Yellowstone, there would be no National Park system.  It was the very first National Park in the world, and it remains one of the most amazingly diverse ecosystems in America–a truly stunning combination of animals, geothermal wonders, rivers, canyons, and more.  It is one of those parks that you can’t experience just once–there is so much to see that a day’s drive from one end to the other will leave you a bit exhausted.  636559460866264567-1-Yellowstone-Kris-Wiktor-shutterstock-96972083Take time to explore the mudpots and geysers, marvel at the wateralls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and stop and stare at elk, buffalo, and countless other species that call the park home.  Yellowstone is one of the busiest National Parks, so plan ahead and make reservations for hotels around it, or for camping inside it.  You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll be reminded why our National Parks have been called “America’s Best Idea.”

What are your favorite National Parks?  What tips can we share about any visits you might be planning this summer?  Let us know!

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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.

 

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!

City of Rocks

At the end of highway 77 in Idaho–the literal end of the road–is a pretty stunning place that was once a main stop on the California Trail.

City of Rocks National Reserve is not quite a national park, but it sure is beautiful, and worth a detour through a forgotten corner of southwest Idaho.


The road into the park isn’t paved, and if you can avoid the locals who are zipping through on their way to the rock climbing and campgrounds, a leisurely drive is the way to take it.  Our Hondas both did great on the road, in spite of the gravel and uneven spots.


The rocks are truly beautiful, once again highlighting the incredible diversity of America’s landscape.  Stop at Camp Rock and see the names of pioneers written on the stone, or look for the faces in the mountains of stone.


This one is pretty hard to find.


Take some time to stop at the lovely Visitor’s Center.  We tripled the population during our visit, and the ranger was most appreciative of our time there.


If you are ever at the end of the road in Idaho, make sure to visit.  City of Rocks was a pleasant surprise!