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Archive for the ‘National Parks’ Category

We awoke in Roswell, New Mexico, ready for more adventure.  To break up the long drive that day, our plan was to stop in Albuquerque and visit Petroglyph National Monument.  Located on a mesa of volcanic rock, Petroglyph National Monument stretches 17 miles to the west of Albuquerque.  It is on these rocks that ancient pueblo dwellers and early Spanish settlers carved images that we know today as petroglyphs.

We started at the visitor center for a trail map and the always popular Junior Ranger Book.  There are two different areas where the petroglyphs can be viewed.  We chose the Boca Negro Canyon, a short drive from the Visitor Center.  The first trail, Mesa Point, was quite a steep climb, weaving through giant rocks and ending on top of the mesa around 700 feet higher than the parking lot.  Along the trail we were able to clearly see many petroglyphs on the rocks.

Climbing up the paved portion of the steep trail.

Our favorite petroglyph. We thought it looked like a lizard holding a lollipop.

Once we made it to the summit, we were rewarded with incredible views.  The kids worked on their Junior Ranger Books and gave new meaning to the term “outdoor science lab”.

School in session atop the mesa.

While on top of the mesa we saw some pretty cool lizards and a rock squirrel stopped by to check us out.

After a short rest, we slowly made our way down the trail (much scarier than climbing up) and were able to check out the two shorter trails along the base which also featured some closeup views of the petroglyphs.

The kids really enjoyed the hiking and the petroglyphs.  They were quite proud when they realized how high they had climbed!  We would recommend the trip if you ever find yourself in Albuquerque and are looking for a neat outdoor activity with your family.

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Leg 4 of our Year Long Adventure has begun! The focus of this trip is on the natural beauty of the Southwest, so we will be visiting as many National Parks as we can while traveling through this region.  Day one of our journey took us on a long drive from our home base near Dallas, Texas, to Carlsbad, New Mexico.  As we left Dallas, it was pouring rain and 47 degrees, quite unusual for early May.  We had warmer weather when we left on Leg 3 in February!

We spent a pretty uneventful 10 hours making our way to Carlsbad.  It was amazing to see the vast number of windmills in West Texas stretching in a line as far as the eye can see.  The kids were truly impressed.

The next morning, we drove to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a 30 minute drive south from the town of Carlsbad.  Upon arrival, we obtained our Junior Ranger booklets and purchased tickets for the afternoon “King’s Palace” tour, the least strenuous of the guided tours.  Detailed descriptions of the different guided tours are available online, so you can pick the one which best fits your interests and limitations.

There are two ways to enter the caverns. One is a walk through the natural entrance and down a steep, winding trail that takes over an hour to get to “The Big Room”. The second option utilizes a high speed elevator that descends over 750 feet in less than a minute, arriving fifty yards from the same chamber as the natural entrance.  We took the elevator.

Our first stop was to take the self-guided tour of “The Big Room”.  This is an area inside the cavern that is literally a BIG room.  A 1.5 mile winding trail takes you through the room filled with amazing geological wonders.  Words cannot truly describe the place, and pictures do not do it true justice either.  It does not seem possible that this place is real.

We finished the self-guided portion of the tour in time to grab a quick lunch in the underground dining area before our Ranger-guided tour of “The King’s Palace”.  This tour took us to another four rooms of the park with all different types of formations.

Stalactites and stalagmites - do you know the difference?

Drapery formation in the "Queen's Chamber"

Carlsbad Caverns were discovered by a teenage cowboy in 1901.  He spent years exploring the caves with a homemade lantern made from an old coffee can filled with kerosene, and he named these rooms and all of the formations inside.  You can read more about fascinating story of Jim White here and here.  Today the Park Service has added many lights among the formations to enhance the wonder of the place.  One of the highlights of this Ranger tour is when they turn out all of lights in the cave for around 5 minutes so that we could experience true total darkness.  Our daughter Audrey was very proud to be selected as the volunteer who pushed the button to turn off and on the lights.

Audrey posing with the button that turns off the lights.

As we expected, the tour was very informative.  We learned all about the different types of natural formations in the cave and how they form.  One of the more interesting parts was hearing stories of the early years after the cave was discovered, but before the Park Service took over.  In order to publicize the caverns, everything from weddings to Chamber of Commerce meetings were held inside.  Part of the original “Journey To The Center of the Earth” movie was filmed in one of the chambers.  Unfortunately, people unknowingly damaged many of the cave formations, so paved trails were added and new rules enforced to preserve it for future generations.

Walking on the trails

We really enjoyed our opportunity to explore this incredible natural site and highly recommend it to all.  Bring a jacket because it is 55 degrees underground year round.  We were surprised at how busy it was on a Tuesday in the first week of May.  Advanced reservations for guided tours are suggested as they fill up quickly.  Our kids once again enjoyed the Junior Ranger program, and they were thrilled to receive both a pin and a patch upon completion.

Being sworn in as Junior Rangers

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Our adventure made its way to Cherokee, North Carolina, for a visit to The Museum of The Cherokee Indian.  Mom confirmed her family’s Cherokee roots last year and was very excited to visit their ancestral home.  Cherokee is in far western North Carolina and borders The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Cherokee Indians have lived in this area for more than 11,000 years, and they are an amazing people.  The museum does a great job of telling the complete history of the Cherokee from the Paleo/ Archaic periods to the present using a combination of artifacts, life size displays, and multimedia presentations.  The tour begins with a movie illustrating some of the traditional tribal myths, and other stories are told throughout the museum in a variety of ways.

The kids loved this very cool holograph exhibit which told the Cherokee legend of how disease came into the world. It also explained the role of the medicine man once in the tribe.

Our eleven year-old and eight year-old daughters really enjoyed the exhibits and felt a strong connection to the Cherokee.  Mom enjoyed learning about her people and gave the museum a thumbs up.  We were all very affected by the section on the Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of the Cherokee people by the U.S. Government beginning in the 1830s.

The town of Cherokee is a tourist town that seems to be active mainly in the summer.  We found this to be true with many of the places that we visited in the Carolinas.  About half of the restaurants and hotels in the area were not open and the town had an old kitchy tourist feel to it.

Many of the older properties in the town promote old stereotypes of the Cherokee.


Beginning in June, an outdoor drama called “Unto these Hills” and the Oconaluftee Indian Village (circa 1760) attract many more visitors interested in learning the history of the Cherokee.  All around town were placed fiberglass bears that were elaborately decorated.  The entire family enjoyed driving around “hunting” for these bears.


The Cherokee tribal lands border the southern side of the Great Smoky Mountains NP.  Located in North Carolina and Tennessee, this is the most visited park in the National Park System.

After we finished our tour of the museum, we decided to take a scenic drive through the park.  It had been raining all day, and the temperature was cool.  The road up the mountain winds along the Oconaluftee River, and the day’s rain had created many waterfalls on the mountain side of the road.

We drove through one of the campsites to find a few hearty souls trying to set up camp in the rain.  They were in for a LONG night.  As we approached the peak of the mountain, the temperature dropped ten degrees and thick fog covered everything.  Ice lay along the sides of the road.  We pulled over at a scenic overlook to find a view of nothing but the fog.

Our time in the Smokies was cut short by the worsening storm and limited visibility.  The park was really beautiful and was placed on our list of places that we would like to return to in the future.

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While driving north along I-95 heading from Orlando to Savannah, Georgia, Mom made a very interesting discovery on the map.  We were going to drive by St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the United States.  St. Augustine was founded in 1565 by Spain.

She had read many positive things about St. Augustine while researching this leg of the adventure, but mistakenly thought that it was located in South Florida near Miami.  St. Augustine had not made the list since we had not planned on driving that far south.  A quick browse of the internet on the iPhone (seriously, how did we travel before smart phones) and we found many interesting things to see including making a last-minute reservation with St. Augustine Eco Tours to take a dolphin cruise.

We had a 12:30 reservation for our boat trip, and were able to park and walk up to the marina about 12:29.  We were met at the dock by Captain Adam and headed out onto the Matanzas River.

The Matanzas River is part of the inter-coastal waterway that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean.  It is saltwater, and thus is full of all sort of interesting marine life.  The main goal of our trip was to see dolphins and we were not disappointed, seeing our first one about 30 seconds into the trip.

Captain Adam informed us that there are usually around 100 dolphins in the river during the Winter months and around 300 in the Summer.  We are not sure how the dolphins tell the difference since it was the last week in February and it was 80 degrees.  Later in the trip we got to float alongside a pair of dolphin swimming up river.  The kids and the parents thought this was pretty cool.

Captain Adam took us up into a canal in search of jellyfish, but unfortunately none were to be found on this day.  We then headed farther up river to see the bald eagles that have made their nest in a tree here for the last 17 years.  We were able to get a long distance shot of one of the parents, but the two chicks were not visible due to the fact that it was a very windy day.  The nest was about eight feet across in the top of a tree around 125 feet tall.  Quite impressive!

The boat also came equipped with a hydrophone (a microphone that allows you to hear under water).  We were unable to hear the echolocation of the dolphins we followed, but we were able to hear the sound of pistol shrimp on the bottom snapping their claws together.

We also got to view egrets, herons, pelicans, and seagulls. The trip was great and lasted around 90 minutes.  We would have enjoyed the boat ride even if we had not seen any of the wildlife.

After the trip, we headed next door to have lunch at the Santa Maria Restaurant.  The food was great, but the thing everyone enjoyed the most was feeding the seagulls.  Old bread is provided to feed to the birds through trapdoors they have installed on the window ledges.  The gulls obviously dine here often and know the drill.

After lunch, we walked through the old narrow streets of the town to see some really cool old houses and Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine Catholic Church built in 1565.

Next up was the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.  This is the oldest fort in the United States and was set up by the Spanish.  It has defended against pirates and seen action during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and many other skirmishes.

The kids enjoyed going to the top of the building to see where the canons were fired.  The National Park Service does daily canon firings, but we were too late to see one.

On our way out of the park, we ran into Ranger Fritz, who graciously gave the kids a 15 minute private history of the fort which we greatly appreciated.  The kids did not have enough time to complete the Junior Ranger books, but we can mail the finished books back and the Rangers will mail us the badges.

Once the park closed we headed onto our original destination of Savannah, thankful for the unexpected stop in St. Augustine.  It has been one of our favorite places so far on any of the trips.

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The kids completed a Civil Rights unit with Mom before our trip to the Southeast, so we were looking forward to visiting some of the places that they had learned about.  We had our first opportunity when we visited Birmingham, Alabama.  After filling up on pizza at The Mellow Mushroom (yum!), we drove to the 4th Street Historic District to visit the Civil Rights Institute in Downtown Birmingham.

Our 8 year-old Audrey found the institute very interesting and was impressed at the amount of artifacts here that had been saved from the 1960s.  Focusing mainly on the local people and events, the Civil Rights Institute uses a mixture of actual news footage, life-size dioramas, and interesting displays (including an actual bombed bus from the Freedom Rides) to illustrate the history of Birmingham before and during the Civil Rights Movement.  Unfortunately, no photography is allowed inside.  The Institute also houses a research center which has preserved the personal narratives of people who experienced these events first-hand.

Despite the hardships and inequalities caused by the Jim Crow laws, the black citizens of Birmingham built a vibrant community in the 4th Street area with strong businesses, churches, and schools.  Unfortunately, this city became known as “Bombingham” in 1963 because of all the bombs regularly set off  in Civil Rights activists’ homes and churches.  The park across the street from the Institute was the site of the May 1963 protest during which the Police Commissioner Bull Connor ordered his men to use attack dogs and fire hoses to disperse the singing children who were peacefully marching.  It was these violent scenes televised across the country which helped turn the tide in the struggle for Civil Rights.

Across the street from the Civil Rights Institute is the 16th Street Baptist Church where on September 15, 1963, a bomb was detonated in the basement that killed four young African-American girls.  The church is still an active congregation today.  It was really moving to stand in front of this church and to ponder all that happened on this block in 1963.

After Birmingham we traveled South to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama.  Our focus here was learning about the famous 50 mile march from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965.  The National Park Service has declared the road between Selma and Montgomery a National Historic Route.  The NPS Interpretative Center in Lowndes County is located on this road halfway between Selma and Montgomery.

We learned a lot at the center, and the kids added another Jr. Ranger badge to their collection.  The march took place two weeks after “Bloody Sunday” when the Alabama State Police used tear gas and batons to stop the first attempt.  Under Federal protection, four thousand people started walking in Selma and the group had swelled to 25,000 when they reached the state capitol in Montgomery five days later.  The four spots where the participants camped each night during the march are marked along the route.  The purpose of the march was to bring attention to the fact that despite laws to the contrary, African-Americans were not given the same voting rights as their white counterparts.  Even attempting to register to vote had dire consequences.  The actions here in Alabama lead to President Johnson presenting the 1965 Voting Rights Act to Congress.

After our visit to the center, we headed to Selma and drove across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of “Bloody Sunday”.  Allison, our 11 year-old, was impressed that the marchers were able to cover such a long distance in only 5 days.   The most surprising fact we learned was that despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act, hundreds of African-Americans in this county who registered to vote still lost their jobs as sharecroppers as a result.   With no place to live, they gathered to live in a large tent city for 18 months.  The Interpretive Center was built on the location of this tent city.

It is hard to believe that these events in the Civil Rights Movement happened only forty-five years ago.  Our children struggle to understand how these things could have happened, but they agree that it is important to remember and pay tribute to the bravery of those who stood up and demanded change.  Audrey put it quite well.  “If we don’t learn about history, it could happen again.”

To read about other Civil Rights Movement sites we visited on Leg 3, click here.

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Leg 3 of our Year Long Adventure has us touring the Southeast U.S. in hopes of avoiding snow and ice.  As usual, we took MUCH longer than we intended to load the van on Tuesday morning, resulting in our estimated departure time of 10 A.M. looking a lot more like 3 P.M..  As we pulled out of the driveway, we felt like we must have forgotten something big because there was so much more room in the van than on the first two trips.  The truth is that we have become a mean, lean, packing-machine.  If only we were faster…

We drove from Richardson through Louisiana to Vicksburg, Mississippi.  (We are touring Louisiana on our way home).  Nothing like a seven hour drive to get the family back into the traveling groove.  We checked into our room at the La Quinta in Vicksburg, and we were quite pleased with the accommodations.

Early the next morning, the adventure began with a visit to Vicksburg National Military Park.

We used our National Park Pass for free admission (a must if you plan on going to a lot of the National Parks), and headed into the Visitor Center to do some learning.  The adults of the group needed some of this education since neither one of us could answer with 100% conviction which side won the Battle at Vicksburg.  (Please don’t tell Mom’s AP History teacher!)

After viewing the standard NPS Visitor Center movie and obtaining our Jr. Ranger booklets, we headed out on the Audio Driving Tour of the park.  Each of the states that had troops fight in the battle have placed a monument in the park, and some of them are quite impressive.

This area of Mississippi is surprisingly hilly, making this site high above the Mississippi River very desirable to both sides.

The Union desperately wanted to capture Vicksburg to gain control of the river, but found it virtually impossible to invade.  In the end, it was keeping new supplies out of the city that won the battle.  After 47 days of brutal fighting and incredible numbers of casualties, the Siege of Vicksburg ended when Confederate General Pemberton surrendered the city to Union General Grant on July 4th, 1863.  The 5,000 Confederate soldiers who died are buried in a city cemetery in the city of Vicksburg, while 17,000 Union soldiers are buried here in the park.  Graves of unidentified soldiers, 13,000 in all, are marked with smaller concrete posts instead of headstones.  It is quite sobering to see the cemetery stretching out in front of you.

One of the coolest things in the park is the U.S.S. Cairo Museum.  The Cairo was a Union ironclad gunship that was sunk in the Yazoo River by the Confederacy.  One hundred years after the sinking, the ship was raised and restored.  The restored ship is in the park, and you can actually walk onto the deck.

The entire driving tour took about two hours including stops, and is totally worth it if you find yourself in the greater Vicksburg Area.  (You can read about another great Civil War site we visited here.)

Our next stop after lunch was to head to downtown for lunch and then head to the Biedenharn Candy Store which houses a Coca-Cola Museum.  It was at this location in 1894 where Coca-Cola was bottled for the first time.  It was only sold in soda fountains before this.

The museum mainly shows Coca-Cola memorabilia from over the years, but it was pretty entertaining to show the kids some of the items that reminded us of our youth.  They were interested to hear about returning empty bottles to the store and getting the deposit money back.  We thought it was cool to get that quarter back in the late 1970’s for returning a 32 oz. bottle, but they had those same bottles on sale at the museum as collectibles for $20 each.  If only we had known at the time.

After leaving Vicksburg, we headed on eastward toward our destination of Tuscaloosa, Alabama (home of The University of Alabama – “Roll Tide”).  On our way in, we used the iPhone to search for good Bar-B-Q places.  We found that there were quite a few, and decided to visit Mike & Ed’s Bar-B-Q.

It was REALLY good.  Mom liked it so much that as we were driving to the hotel later she said, “Man, that was so good, I don’t even know what to do”.  Take that as a strong recommendation.

Feel free to check out our Facebook page for more timely reports on where we just ate or see pictures from State Welcome Centers…

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In November, we were able to take our kids to Washington D.C., but had only 48 short hours to see the sites.  We made a whirlwind tour of the city and got to see some amazing and historical places.  Here are our suggestions of ten sites to visit in the nation’s capital with your kids.  Reservations were required for a few of these locations, but all of these places we visited were FREE.

White House Tour: A few weeks prior to our trip, we contacted the office of our U.S. Representative, Sam Johnson, and were able to get tickets to tour the White House.  The tour takes around 45 minutes, and allows you to see some of the famous rooms in the house.  It was as much as a treat for the parents as it was for the kids.  The White House Visitor Center, located a few blocks away, is a great place to see before or after your tour.  They have a very interesting video describing the history of the White House and the various renovations it has been through.  Other exhibits we enjoyed were about  former First Ladies and the children who lived in the White House.  NPS Jr Ranger books for the White House/Presidents Park are available here, and they have a nice area for the kids to work/color/rest.

U.S. Capitol Tour: We were also able to arrange tickets to tour the U.S. Capitol Building through our Congressman.  Congress was not in session the day we visited, but the impressive architecture and history of this building and our informative tour guide made the hour-long tour memorable.  Because so many tours come through the building at once, you are given headphones to wear which amplify your tour guide’s voice so you don’t miss anything.  The details in the rotunda murals were amazing.  Once you are in the Capitol building you can walk through an underground tunnel to the Library of Congress.  Lunch in the Capitol cafeteria is not free, but it was very convenient.

Library of Congress

National Archives: The National Archives displays some of the most important documents in our country’s history.  We were able to see originals of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  Our kids really enjoyed this since we had toured Independence Hall in Philadelphia four days earlier and stood in the actual room where both these documents were signed.  To minimize damage to the documents, cameras are not allowed.

The Air & Space Museum: This museum was incredible, and our kids really wish that we could have stayed longer.  They enjoyed seeing the original plane of the Wright Brothers, a plane flown by Amelia Earhart, and many different space craft.  Their favorite activity was a hands-on exhibit designed for children to teach the physical science behind flight.  If we had not made him leave, Andrew would still be there today marveling at the exhibit that demonstrated lift by making a ball float on a pocket of air.

Amelia Earhart's plane


National Museum of Natural History: The Smithsonian is actually a group of over 19 different museums surrounding the National Mall, but this particular  museum holds many of the exhibits made famous by Ben Stiller in “Night at the Museum”.  You could spend multiple days here and still not see everything, and it was very enjoyable despite the large crowds.  The dinosaurs were a big hit with everyone in the family.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: We have been fortunate on this adventure to attend Mass at some amazing Cathedrals across the country, but this was the crown jewel of churches on our trip.  This is the largest Catholic Church in North America. The high ceilings and architecture can accurately be described as breath taking, and the mosaics are unbelievably beautiful and detailed.  We took a taxi to the church, but found that taxis do not hang out there looking for fares after Mass, especially at night.  We had to wait around 40 minutes before Divine Intervention brought a taxi our way, so plan accordingly.


Lincoln Memorial: The walk up the famous steps of the Lincoln Memorial leads to quite a sight. Sitting on the steps, looking out over the reflecting pool, it is easy imagine what it was like when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” Speech. The words to the Gettysburg Address are carved into one of the walls of the Memorial, and Mom was surprised at how much of the speech she remembered from 5th grade.  In the base of the Memorial, there are some excellent exhibits highlighting pioneers and events of the Civil Rights movement as well as President Lincoln’s life and achievements.  This is one of the two monuments where you can pickup NPS Jr. Ranger Books for the National Mall and Memorials Park.  At the base of the Memorial, you can also try some fun trick photography.

Washington Monument: The Washington Monument is the other location to pickup Jr. Ranger Books, or in our case, review your completed booklet with a Ranger and be sworn in as an official Junior Ranger.  Tickets are required to go to the top, but they are free and are available at the Visitor Center near the base.  We were fortunate to get the ticket for the next available time slot, and had a minimal wait.  The Monument is over 555 feet tall, and the top of the tower has windows on all four sides that make great viewpoints of the city in all directions.  This was a definite highlight of our trip.

Looking out of the observation window at the top of the Washington Monument

View from observation window of Washington Monument with Monument shadow in foreground

FDR Memorial: The FDR Memorial is a little of the beaten track, but definitely worth the visit.  The memorial is divided into four different sections, each representing one of the four terms President Franklin Delano Roosevelt served and featuring bronze statues illustrating events specific to that four year period.  Each section has a different and impressive waterfall feature – Andrew’s favorite part.

Korean War Veteran’s Memorial: This memorial features life-sized statues of Korean War soldiers on patrol, dressed in full combat gear and representing each branch of the armed services.  Behind them is a black granite wall on which is etched the faces of actual soldiers who perished.  From certain angles, the statues are reflected in the wall, making it appear as though an endless numbers of troops are coming out of the trees which line the area.  The atmosphere here was very somber, and we found it to be very moving and thought provoking.

Jefferson Memorial: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is located on the water and features a very impressive rotunda.  The kids really enjoyed walking around and through the tall stone columns.  Underneath the memorial, the Visitor Center features exhibits on Jefferson’s life and amazingly diverse skills.

Statue of Thomas Jefferson in Jefferson Memorial

We will have to return to Washington DC one day, because there are so many other things we would love to see!

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