Posts Tagged ‘National Parks with kids’

Editor’s Note:  Due to a broken computer and getting back to life upon the return of the trip blog posts for Leg 4 of our YLA are about 4-6 weeks behind reality.

A thousand years ago a group of people lived in Colorado.  They sought protection from their enemies and the weather in outcroppings in the sides of mountains.  They built very well planned out villages that had hundreds of residents.  Flash forward 1000 years and their buildings and villages are still here today at Mesa Verde National Park.

Pueblo cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde NP

Mom had this place on her Year Long Adventure Bucket List from the early planning stages. Leg 4 had us returning to Colorado on our trip through the southwest, so a stop through Cortez was on the itinerary.

We left Moab, Utah, with temperatures in the mid-40s and rain.  Cortez is about a 2 hour drive from Moab, and it continued to rain off and on through the trip.  We reached the entrance gate to the park to find that the main park attractions were still about 20 miles away up a winding mountain road.  It was cloudy, but not raining at the time.

As we made our way up the winding road towards the Visitor Center, the temperature kept dropping.  Soon we started to notice strange white flakes falling from the sky.  We were shocked to find ourselves driving through snow on May 19.  As we arrived at the Visitor Center, we found ourselves in a full on snow storm.

We spent around 15 minutes in the Visitor Center and returned outside to find that the snow had waned.  With the break in the snow, we decided to head down one of the self-guided trails that leads to a Pueblo Cliff Dwelling site.  Some of the more difficult trails require visitors to obtain a free tour ticket to enter.

View of cliff dwellings from the head of the trail

The ¼ mile trail that led to the site that was an easy hike. The site was really cool, and our kids really enjoyed the visit.  The highlight was getting to climb down a ladder into one of the underground rooms of the dwelling.  The site is in excellent condition, so it was really hard to believe that people had lived here 1000 years ago.

Close up look at Pueblo Cliff Dwellings. Is that the sun?

Climbing down into the kiva, an underground ceremonial chamber

Inside the kiva

Once we made our way back up the trail, the wet weather moved back into the area.  The kids quickly finished their Junior Ranger books, and we left.  Our voyage back down the mountain road took us through what we Texans would call a “blizzard”.

Driving back down the mountain in an intense snowstorm

We were two cars in front of a snowplow (on May 19!)  It was a bit scary (ok, terrifying) to be driving on a curvy, mountain road with limited visibility, but since you are reading this, you know that we made it down safely.

Snowplow in rear view mirror.

Where is the edge?


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Editor’s Note:  Due to a broken computer and getting back to life upon the return of the trip blog posts for Leg 4 of our YLA are about 5 – 6 weeks behind reality.

We left Bryce Canyon en route to Arches National Park, one of the “must-see” places on our list when we began planning the Year Long Adventure.  The drive between the two parks was spectacular and varied.  Holding our breath, we traveled on roads with names like “Devil’s Backbone” across high mountain passes, trying to ignore the steep drop offs on both sides.  Dad was able to commemorate his 40th birthday by standing in a field of snow on a mountaintop, a very unique opportunity for a Native Texan born in mid-May.

Celebrating 40 in Utah

The winding road took us through two more National Parks:  Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef National Park.  The rock formations were amazing, and the kids were inspired to name each feature they saw.   We arrived in Moab in the early evening, just in time for a quick stop at the Arches Visitor Center before it closed.

We're here!

We gathered Junior Ranger Books and park information so we could plan the best way to use our time the next day.  We did not have a hotel reservation at this point, so we rode down the main drag of Moab, reading hotel reviews on Trip Advisor on our iPhone.  Dad decided to approach the La Quinta Inn Moab with his freshly honed negotiating skills to seek a deal or upgrade, and ended up getting the two room suite for only slightly more than the price of the regular room.  Once you go “suite”, it is hard to go back.  Happy Birthday, Dad!!

We awoke Wednesday morning, hit the breakfast room, and stopped at a grocery store in Moab to get picnic supplies for lunch.  This is an important step when visiting Arches because there is no food sold within the park.  Our excitement started to wane as we approached the park entrance and raindrops began to fall on the windshield.  A quick check of the outside temperature on the dashboard display informed us that it was 48 degrees outside.  Things did not look good for a day at a park that involves a lot of hiking.

Rain, rain, go away!

We took the road into the park as heavier rain started to fall at a faster pace.  Most of the major geologic formations lie along the main park road, a loop with stops at the best viewpoints.  Because there were no Ranger tours available, Mom ran through the rain to purchase a driving tour guidebook.   As we drove, we learned about the geological processes which create these incredible fin, window, and arch formations (simple explanation here), making them even more amazing to behold.

By the time we reached the parking lot for the first big attractions, “Double Arch” and “Turret Arch”, the rain had almost vanished.   Decked out in our rain gear, we quickly hiked the short trail to “Double Arch”.  We were able to climb up directly under the arch and were amazed at the viewpoint.  The size of the immense arches is truly amazing when you are standing close to them.

"Double Arch" from a distance

Underneath the massive "Double Arch"

We then crossed the road for a quick climb to “Turret Arch” and another photo opportunity.  By the time we reached the car, the rain had started to pick up again.  Sadly, this would be the pattern for the rest of the day.

View from under "Turret Arch"

The next hour was spent driving through the rain, looking at the incredible landscapes, and stopping at viewpoints.

Sightseeing in the rain

Taking pictures proved difficult through droplet covered windows and/or driving rain.  It was only raining lightly when we reached the viewpoint for the signature arch of the park, “Delicate Arch”.

Delicate Arch looms in the distance. To hike or not to hike? That is the question.

The viewpoint is still a mile hike from the actual arch, but we decided not to make the trek for a closer look.  This was one of the best decisions we made on the trip as 10 minutes later, the torrential rains came.

Back in the car, we made our way to the end of the main road where the park campsites are located and found some truly hearty souls sitting under their tents in the heavy rain.  The storm broke long enough for Dad and the girls to go search for one last arch, and they were rewarded with a pretty cool site.

The hike to the secret arch

One last arch

On our way back out of the park, the rain stopped a final time, allowing for a quick walk around Balanced Rock.  This is an amazing site where a boulder the size of several school buses balances atop a rock spire.  It is also a great trick photo opportunity.

Balanced Rock

Don't knock it over!

Arches National Park is a beautiful park, but not the best place to visit in the rain.  Moab was a cool little town with a laid back feel to it.  Hopefully we will get the chance to return some day during the dry season to try our hand at more hiking and perhaps river rafting at one of the many nearby sites.

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Editor’s Note:  Due to a broken computer and getting back to life upon the return of the trip blog posts for Leg 4 of our YLA are about 5 – 6 weeks behind reality.

We left Zion National Park and headed east toward Bryce Canyon National Park.  The two hour drive between the parks has some incredible scenery.  We arrived at Bryce Canyon City after dark and were fortunate to find a place to stay without having reservations.  There are only a couple of hotels in town, and our first choice had no vacancies.  Advance reservations would probably be a good idea if you are planning to stay in Bryce Canyon City.  The Best Western Ruby Inn met our needs perfectly.

The next morning, we awoke to 37 degree temperatures and snow flurries – on May 17!  Thankfully Mom thought to pack our cold weather clothes on this leg of our Year Long Adventure.  We got bundled up, gassed up the van, and headed off in search of the mysterious hoodoos.

The NPS website for Bryce Canyon National Park describes it as follows: “Bryce Canyon is, in the strictest sense of the word, UNIQUE – nowhere is anything else even similar!”  This is very accurate.  We did not know much about Bryce Canyon before visiting other than the fact that it was famous for hoodoos.  Hoodoos are rock spire formations that look similar to the stalagmites that are normally found in caves.  What we found was breathtaking, and unfortunately, our pictures cannot do justice to the actual views.  The drives between the canyon lookouts take you through heavily wooded areas that are home to many different species of wildlife.  We saw many deer on our drive through the park.

During our time in the park, we learned how erosion changes the rock to form fins, windows, arches, and hoodoos.  For a simple explanation of the process and the differences between the formations, check here.



We made stops at many of the canyon lookout areas and were amazed at the incredible landscape.  The park road is an 18 mile one-way trip out to Rainbow Point.  At Rainbow Point, the temperatures had dropped below freezing due to the higher elevation.  Seeing hoodoos dusted with snow was something we did not expect to see in May.

Snow-dusted hoodoos

Our trip to Bryce Canyon was short, but spectacular.  We would highly recommend a visit here, especially in warmer temperatures, as hiking trails and camping sites are available.

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Editor’s Note:  Due to a broken computer and getting back to life upon the return of the trip blog posts for Leg 4 of our YLA are about 4-6 weeks behind reality.

After our exodus from Las Vegas, we headed to Utah to enjoy the many natural wonders that the state has to offer.  Our first stop was St. George, where we caught our breath and relaxed for a day before heading on to Zion National Park.

Enjoying a much needed day off in St. George, Utah

Zion National Park was the first established National Park in the state of Utah.  The thing that sets Zion apart from many of the other natural canyons of the American Southwest is the entrance point.  At Zion, the entrance is at the bottom, so your view point is looking up from the floor of the canyon instead of down into it.  This different perspective creates some stunning views.

We arrived at the park on a Monday morning during a school week and still had to park in the overflow parking lot.  This made us very glad that we chose not to come on Sunday when the visitor count surely would have been much higher.  After a brief stop at the Visitor Center for information and our Junior Ranger Books, we headed to the shuttle bus.  Zion utilizes a shuttle bus to get visitors to all of the points of interest in the park.  They highly encourage use of the shuttle and in our opinion, it really is a better way to view the park than driving your own car.  It must have also cut down on auto accidents from drivers veering into oncoming cars as they viewed the scenery.

We rode the shuttle to all of stops, including the historic lodge, where we purchased food and enjoyed a picnic on the grounds.  We hiked many of the easier trails and greatly enjoyed the beauty of the park.  Photographs cannot begin to do it justice.

Two of our favorite stops were The Hanging Gardens at Weeping Rock and the hike to The Narrows from the Temple of Sinawava.

Weeping Rock is a natural grotto where tiny waterfalls drip down the side of the sheer cliff walls and from a natural overhang.  This water source allows all sorts of plant life to grow directly out of the rock walls.  This hike was one of the “now THIS is really cool” moments of our Adventure.

View from the Weeping Gardens

Weeping Gardens

The hike to The Narrows is a mile long hike along the side of the Virgin River, culminating in a hiking trail which continues through the river when the water levels are low.  The river was high and flowing swiftly during our visit due to the spring snow melt, so the Narrows would for another month.  The scenery along the river is something that all visitors to the park should make the time to see.

Water falling from several stories up

Trail to the Narrows along the Virgin River

Virgin River, Zion NP

Zion National Park gets a “Thumbs Up – Must See” rating from the Year Long Adventure Crew, and we hope to visit here again in the future.

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Ready to see the giant sequoias

As we drove from through the California valley past orchards of orange, lemon, and nut trees to the foothills and Sequoia National Park, we noticed a few stores along the way that had signs out front offering snow chains for rent.  Since it was the middle of May, Dad assumed that these signs were leftover from the winter.  Imagine our surprise when the ranger at the park gate said we had a bit of a problem.  Because it was currently snowing at the top and the winding roads on the mountainside were covered in ice and close to impassable, snow chains would be mandatory after a certain point on the main park road.  Unfortunately, the giant sequoia trees that we had come to see were located far past this point.  We continued on to the Visitor Center to rethink our plan, as the thought of driving on icy mountain roads with limited barriers was not very appealing.  Thanks to our iPhones and a strong wireless connection, we were able to hatch a new plan that would allow us to see giant trees the following day.

While still at Sequoia NP, we decided to take advantage of a couple of the hikes at the lower elevations where the roads were still passable.

We hiked the Hospital Rock Trail down to the Kaweah River.  The trail led to a location that was so amazing, it was hard to believe.  Giant boulders, roaring rapids, and incredible mountain views (video here).  Allison found a piece of a rare mineral, malachite, that she identified with her Rocks & Minerals book.

Andrew and Audrey found a giant red salamander as we were coming back up the trail.  While this hike was not something that we had planned on doing originally, we felt blessed to see this beautiful place.

Gorgeous scene just outside Sequoia National Park

The kids were VERY disappointed that we were unable to see the Sequoias, especially the “General Sherman”, the world’s largest living tree.  Instead of heading east as previously planned, the next morning we headed west in search of alternative giant trees.  We were only four hours away from Muir Woods National Monument, so off we went.  Having visited Muir Woods before, Mom and Dad knew that it would satisfy the kids’ thirst for giant tree viewing.  As an added bonus, we could spend the night in San Francisco, one of Mom and Dad’s favorite places.

The giant redwoods at Muir Woods are incredible.  Some of the trees are over 1000 years old and soar upward to heights of over 250 feet tall. Walking through this majestic forest is a peaceful, spiritual experience.

Looking up

In addition to the standard Junior Ranger program, Muir Woods NM offers a “Quest” for kids to help enhance their experience in the park.  Using the guidebook, you follow the trails through the woods and uncover clues to the location of a treasure chest and the combination to unlock it.  We found all the clues and located the treasure.

We began our journey searching for giant sequoias and ended up finding even taller redwoods.  A great benefit of traveling without concrete plans is the ability to change directions on the fly.  We joked with the ranger at the gate at Sequoia that “there are no problems, only opportunities”.  Muir Woods was our opportunity.

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When we were first planning our Year Long Adventure, one of the places we knew for sure that we would visit was the Grand Canyon.  Mom & Dad had both seen the Grand Canyon when they were younger, and our kids were extremely excited to see one of the true wonders of the world.

We arrived at Grand Canyon National Park a little after 6:00 PM, a little later than expected because of  our unplanned stops at Petrified Forest National Monument and Meteor Crater.  As we pulled into the main Visitor Center parking lot, we were amazed to be greeted by large elk meandering through the parking lot.

These elk were not bothered at all by the tourists a few feet away, snapping photos like the paparazzi chasing Lindsay Lohan.  Andrew was thrilled to see this young elk enjoying some of the tasty plants put in the flower beds.

Next we drove over to Grand Canyon Village to check in at the Yavapai Lodge East where we had reserved a room.  Just one week before, this was the only place in the park that had any rooms available. Even still,  in true YLA fashion, they were able to grant our on-the-spot request for a second night.

We were very pleasantly surprised to find that the Yavapai Lodge East was more like a nice hotel than the more “rustic” lodges we remembered from childhood.  Three days later, after realizing that we had left clothes in the dresser, we were even more impressed because Yavapai’s Lost and Found FedExed them back to us.

Our first day at the Park was filled with Junior Ranger Books, hikes along the rim, Ranger talks, and incredible views.  The main Visitor Center has a great 20 minute video, the perfect way to begin your adventure in the Canyon.

The entire family was truly amazed at the canyon views.  The size and scope of this place is really hard to grasp, and it takes your breath away each and every time you look.  Seeing the kids’ expressions when they glimpsed the Canyon the first time made it worth the trip.  Mom didn’t like people getting too close to the edge (even perfect strangers), so she really appreciated the railings at the observation points.

On the second morning, the girls and Dad woke up early and rode the shuttle over to the Bright Angel Trailhead.  The Bright Angel Trail is the 7.2 mile trail that winds down from the top of the canyon to the bottom.  This trail is 8-10 feet wide in most places, has no railing, and is the trail that the mules use to take families like the Bradys to the bottom of the canyon.  We had no plans of going to the bottom, but were able to hike down about a mile before we turned around and hiked back.  This trail offered more amazing views, but can be a bit scary if you have a problem with heights (Dad).

Mules on the Bright Angel Trail

Obviously Mom wasn't here. Don't get so close to the edge!

We really enjoyed our trip to Grand Canyon National Park.  While in the park, the shuttle system will get you around quickly to everywhere you want to visit.  With limited parking, this is a nice convenience, and you don’t experience the gridlock common at other major parks like Yellowstone.  Both evenings we ate dinner in the cafeterias in Grand Canyon Village, and utilized the General Store for on-the-go breakfasts and lunches.

Even the beer in the cafeteria is "Grand"

The crowds were not too large on this Thursday – Saturday in early May, and the weather was pleasant.   After the kids were sworn in as Junior Rangers, we stopped to see the IMAX movie in Tusayan, the town just outside the south rim entrance.  During the movie, you get to experience what it is like to raft down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon, as well as learn more about the lives of the natives and the early explorers.  If you have the time, it makes a nice addition to the trip.

The Grand Canyon is something that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.  Pictures don’t even begin to capture the magnificence and grandeur of this National Treasure.

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On our way to visit two more natural wonders, we were “getting our kicks on Route 66” between Albuquerque, NM, and Holbrook, AZ.  We spent the night in Holbrook, NM, a town off 1-40 and the Old Historic Route 66 which was a happening stop in the 1960s as American families traveled West.

Our first stop the next morning was at Petrified Forest National Park located about 20 miles east of Holbrook.  This park is home to one of the largest and most colorful concentrations of petrified wood in the world and also the “Painted Desert”.

In Year Long Adventure tradition, we began our visit to the park at the north end Visitor Center watching the introductory movie and picking up Junior Ranger Books for the kids.  There is a 28 mile road that travels north to south through the park, taking you through scenery that at times makes you feel like you could be on another planet.  Centuries of uplift and erosion have created a badlands topography of many mesas towering over acres of flat grasslands.  These mesas are made up of many layers of different colored rocks and minerals that have created the “Painted Desert”.  Many colors cascade across the landscape as the sun moves across the horizon.

In the center of the park are the ruins of Pueblo Puerco, an ancient settlement which once contained up to 100 rooms.  A short walking trail leads among the ruins where some petroglyphs can be seen.

Toward the southern end of the park is where the large areas of petrified wood are found.  Thousands of years ago, this area of the country was a tropical rain forest with huge trees up to 200 feet tall.   Over time and through a chemical change that was difficult to understand, many of these trees that had fallen were petrified.  Many of these trees have become colorful explosions of quartz and crystals.  At many points along the drive, the Park Service has created walking trails which wind among these huge pieces of the petrified wood.   At one point we found a tree lying next to the path that was still over 40 feet long.

It is against the law to take anything from the park, and they explain at the visitor center that over 1 ton of petrified wood and rocks are stolen from the park each month.  Luckily for those wanting a souvenir,  there are about a dozen rock shops outside the park that will sell you any kind of rock, crystal, or petrified wood that you could want. (Not sure where they get their inventory since it is illegal to take it out of the park.)

Despite the extreme conditions, wildlife does populate the park.  As we arrived at the South Visitor Center, we were greeted by two Pronghorn on top of one of the mesas. 

We toured the Rainbow Forest Fossil Museum inside where the kids got some great one-on-one instruction from Ranger Michael, who then swore them in as proud Junior Rangers.  The kids were thrilled when he let them hold a 200 million year-old fossilized tooth!

This park is truly amazing, and much different than we expected.  If you ever find yourself in Eastern Arizona, you really should make a point to visit.

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