In the summer of 2017, my family and I spent three amazing weeks taking a road trip through the national parks. We did a combination of tent camping, cabins, national park lodges and hotels. Many of my friends have asked for an itinerary, so this blog is a product of that. I hope that it’s a useful tool for friends and anyone else that may stumble on it when they plan their own trips.
A couple of days ago, we received an email from Zion National Park Lodge. The park will open sooner than anticipated, and the lodge had a limited number of reservations available.
We had reservations for early June that were automatically cancelled in April when the park closed. We were disappointed but not surprised.
Now, here was an opportunity to possibly rebook the trip and go. I already knew we wouldn’t, but we had a family discussion about it. As National Parks and campgrounds open up, a lot of people are itching to go outside. Especially after being stuck inside, possible walking along the same route for the last two months (that’s me!).
On the surface, a camping trip sounds like a good idea. You’re outside. It’s just you and nature. We’ve been dreaming of a trip to Zion. But we weighed the negatives and decided it wasn’t a prudent decision to go.
First of all, we live in Texas. While we have driven to Utah before, we were planing on flying into Las Vegas. Flights are an added stress now with social distancing practices. I haven’t flown since the pandemic, but I understand that there are new protocols at airports, plus I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable on an airplane. There have been mixed messages on whether airlines are actually spacing out passengers on seats.
Secondly, while the parks are opening up, there will be limited services. That may mean limits on programs, food offerings, guided excursions or even local businesses outside the park. For us, the trip was more than just a chance to get outside and explore. It would be a full vacation. We wouldn’t have the same experience.
Limited services also means limited interactions with people. I love meeting other travelers and locals, whether it’s the rangers in the parks, or local business owners.
Finally, while we’d be limited on some types of positive interaction, from what I’ve seen online at other parks, it’s quite possible that the popular trails will still be packed. A packed trail is annoying on a regular day, but in the days of COVID, there’s an added layer of stress.
Those were some reasons my husband and I were able to immediately come up with as cons against the trip. On the other hand, we really wanted to go to Zion and maybe there would be work arounds. Surely, wearing face masks would help on the plane. We could drive, but that might mean a night in a hotel on the way and that is something we wanted to avoid.
Yes, services would be limited, but the restaurant at the lodge would be open for carry out. If we stayed in the park, we could hit the popular trails at the crack of dawn to minimize crowds and otherwise hike less popular trails.
There are workarounds.
But what really it really came down to is the negative affect our trip might have on local community. Our trip would mean more people visiting remote areas and possibly exposing local communities. If we drove, we would expose even more people in remote areas. What if we became sick, we would be a burden on local hospital and health care professionals. We are strict about leave no trace principles. We want to leave nature as it is. An extension of that is we don’t want to bring harm to local communities we are visiting. We might not think we’re not carriers, but I don’t know that for sure and it’s not fair for me to make that decision to expose a local community without their say.
In the end, we decided that it wasn’t prudent to take a trip this summer to Zion National Park. We look forward to a trip next summer.
I received an email today from the Zion National Park Lodge that the lodge would remain closed at this time through June 14. We had a trip planned for early June, which meant our trip was cancelled.
Xanterra Travel Collection, the company that operates the lodge, sent me an email this afternoon, stating the our reservation would automatically be cancelled and my deposit will be refunded. I wasn’t surprised but disappointed.
A friend of mine had already cancelled her Yellowstone trip for the same time several weeks ago. I was holding off, even though I suspected that my trip would not be taking place. The kids were pretty disappointed when I told them the news, though again, not surprised.
In this time of COVID-19, I’m surprised at how quickly I went from expecting life to get back to normal by summer to now hoping my son, a high school junior, will be able to have a graduation ceremony next year.
I love to plan vacations. Depending on the destination, I will plan ours over a year in advance. Not only has the current situation make any short terms plans impossible, it takes the fun out of planning vacations even further out.
What will the future look like? When can we go out? How will the impact of this disease impact these places. This blog is devoted to trips mostly to natural places, but even those trips will be impacted. Will the businesses that support visits to those places still be around?
There are plenty of virtual trips available to view, but to me, those aren’t very satisfying. I love waking up in a snug sleeping bag. I dream about that first moment, when you unzip the tent with trepidation, fearing that cold morning air slapping you in the face. I crave breathing in the chilly morning air, the smell of the dew, drinking coffee around a warm fire. I love meeting new people and learning about their trip and the trails they hiked. I can’t get that on a virtual tour.
The REI Co-op sent a number of email advertisements encouraging people to camp in their backyard. I remember when my family did their first backyard campout. The kids were little, and we were testing out the first tent we ever bought. I brought the idea up with the kids. My teenagers scoffed at the idea though their younger brother seemed interested. We haven’t done it yet.
Don’t get me wrong, I live in an area filled with walkways and trails and am able to enjoy them while socially distancing myself. It seems silly to complain when so many people are in real pain, lost jobs, lost lives.
Back to Zion National Park. It’s become a joke in our house. The kids and I have gone to Utah twice for camping trips and every single time, my husband is unable to come with us. We joke that there is some curse that prevents him from going. So when this trip got cancelled, we had to laugh nervously that once again, he will not be visiting the state if Utah.
All five us are at home, working and going to school online. That is another striking change. When we’re all together on a camping trip, there is usually no electronics around except our cameras. We’re often somewhere with no wifi and limited cell phone connection. It can be stressful, siblings quarrel, but some of our happiest shared memories are on those trips. Things that were awesome, terrible missteps that we laugh about now, and stories of interesting people we met.
It’s a strange dichotomy with the life we’re living now. We are all together 24/7 but technology plays an integral part of our lives. My husband is in the home office working from home all day, my teenagers are on their devices for online school. I’m using a number of platforms, from seesaw to flipgrid to zoom for my youngest. The bright spot is we eat our meals together, but there’s definitely a lot less interaction.
For me, family vacations were the time when I probably made some of the most meaningful connections with my kids and the happiest memories as a family. If we don’t have that opportunity for a foreseeable future, how will I create those moments in the current situation. I don’t have an answer yet, I’m still searching.
January has already come and gone, and as I sit on my couch thinking ahead to the rest of the year, I’m already feeling restless. I haven’t been camping since late summer. I’ve been outdoors, yes. But I haven’t been out sleeping under the stars in months.
Last weekend, I got my wilderness first aid training. That was an eye opening experience. On one hand, I learned so much information. On the other hand, I’m a little freaked out about potentially leading a backpacking trip (It’s less about what might happen to me and more about what might happen to those under my care).
My family and I moved houses, which is another reason our usual fall/winter camping trip did not take place in 2019. The move did give me an opportunity to go through my camping gear, get rid of things that I no longer needed. I discovered that we have too many sleeping bags (who needs ten? Unless you are a family of 10). I got rid of our older, cheaper ones, which saved us some space.
Speaking of space, our new home has a large indoor storage closet, so now I have a great space dedicated to outdoor gear, including a bin of carabiners, another one of headlamps, sleeping pads and a collection of backpacks hung from a shelf. MUST KEEP CLOSET ORGANIZED.
So now that is all out of the way, where should I go? As of right now, I’m thinking Texas Hill Country and Utah.
Texas Hill Country
The Texas Hill Country because it’s easy and it’s my happy place. There are so many great state parks to choose from, though I tend to enjoy a nice long day hike at Lost Maples State Park. My ideal weekend itinerary, is arriving on Friday night to my hotel in San Antonio, Texas. My family and I will wake up early on Saturday and drive to Lost Maples hiking and enjoying a cold sack lunch. On the way back, there is the customary stop at Love Creek Orchard and Apple Shop, where we enjoy buying yummy apple featured baked goods.
Then, it’s back to San Antonio, where we enjoy recouping and eating a great meal at our favorite Peruvian restaurant, Rocotos Grill. If we still have energy, we make stop by the River Walk. Then it’s back to our hotel where we enjoy a good night’s sleep.
After a nice big breakfast on Sunday, we usually make a stop for ice cream, at city’s new Pearl District. Then the family piles back into the car for the long drive home.
As for Utah, this summer will be our third trip back to the beehive state and our first trip to Zion National Park. I already have nights at the lodge booked (made reservations last year), but still deciding on our daily plans while in the park.
Outside of Texas, Utah is becoming my happy place it seems. While it’s smaller than Texas, it also has diverse landscapes. My husband enjoys fly-fishing and that’s on his to-do list for an upcoming visit, even if it probably won’t be this one. The kids and I are into hiking and exploring.
I’ll write a blog post about Zion after my visit. One of the challenges when planning a trip is including things on everyone’s wish list and being able to gauge the difficulty of trails. For example, my oldest really wants to hike the Angels Landing Trail. I’m not sure that is a trail my 8-year-old can handle.
I read a lot about the trails before a trip. I read guide books, the park web site, and forums. This gives me an idea of what trails we can realistically accomplish as well as a wish list of trails I want to hike.
Then, when I get to the park, I always talk to a park ranger. Even if I’ve read all about a trip, a ranger can give you invaluable information, most importantly, what the condition is of a trail that day. Sometimes, they can even give you alternate suggestions.
More than once, I have come into a park thinking a particular trail was out of the question because my kids were too young, but a good park ranger will give me advice on how to accomplish it with kids.
Finally, only you know your family. Not every 8-year-old is the same, not every 60-year-old is the same. So as a hiking leader/decision maker, you have to know the limits of your group. Part B of this is have an exit plan. At what point do you stop and gauge when to turn around? When to go on?
So those are my two planned trips so far for the year. I’m hoping to get a new more trips in as well but leaving my calendar open for freelance work. Until then, I’ll be dreaming of the outdoors.
Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, is a great place to take your kids to learn about U.S. history and burn off some energy. The protection of the fort during the war of 1812 (Battle of Baltimore in 1814 to be specific) inspired Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner.
I went there for the first time with my the younger kids last week during an impromptu pre-Thanksgiving trip. Even though I lived in the region for several years, this was my first visit to the site.
It was a cold and windy day when we visited. Our group consisted of my teenage daughter, my 8-year-old, my friend, her pre-school aged son and myself. My kids learned about Francis Scott Key and the Star Spangled banner in school, so they were excited to see the site. My friend’s son was excited to play outside.
The visitor center shows a movie and has displays about the Fort, Key and the Star Spangled banner. My son picked up the junior ranger booklet there as well. There’s a $15 fee to visit the fort. Children are free. You can also use your National Park pass.
The grounds right outside the fort has a lot space to run around. The fort itself has a lot of interesting nooks and crannies to explore. Some of the rooms have exhibits as well as artifacts on display.
Worth the trip?
I’ve never been to a national park I didn’t enjoy, so of course you should visit! Though depending on whose in your party, I would adjust your visit.
Preschool children and younger: The exhibits probably won’t hold their interest, but the grounds have plenty of room to run and burn energy. Adults could take turns looking at exhibits and watching the little ones. The fort itself would be fun for them to explore, but adults would have to make sure to keep an eye on children both for their safety as well as making sure they don’t climb or touch anything they are not supposed to.
elementary school kids: Elementary-age kids will enjoy the junior ranger program. It’s free! Ask the ranger on site for the book. While they are old enough to read and understand the exhibits, the junior ranger books will help them understand the exhibits better. Just pace yourself. There’s a lot of information in both the exhibits in the visitor center as well as the fort. If you’re not careful, younger kids will get tired and lose their patience.
Middle school and up: Middle school and older will appreciate the exhibits and films. There are usually volunteers around that are great and provide additional information. When you arrive, ask if there is a ranger talk. Those are usually interesting to almost everyone in the party.
Restrooms are located in the visitor center. There’s a film that plays at the top of the hour that provides a good overview to the site. There is no food at the site but since it’s located in Baltimore, I’d recommend making plans to enjoy a meal at one of the great places to eat in Baltimore either before or after your visit.
We ended our summer break this year with a trip to California. Our family flew into San Francisco, and we had a half a day in the city before driving over to our final destination with just enough time to visit the Golden Gate Bridge, which we enjoyed, despite the fog.
I haven’t posted about parks or hikes in a bit because I haven’t been on any trips since summer. There was a backpacking trip to Big Thicket that I was looking forward to, but that trip was just cancelled. I’m disappointed and thought about my last trip, which was California in August. California’s fires have been on the news, and I finally decided to write a post about our trip.
This was our second visit to Golden Gate Bridge. Last time we went was about 11 years ago. The city has changed a lot since we last went. On our previous trip, it was easy to visit Muir Woods. Tip: if you would like to visit the famous Redwoods during peak season, make a reservation online for the shuttle to Muir Woods.
During our visit to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, we had chance to visit a visitor center, which wasn’t there on our first visit. The visitor center has a lot of interesting information about the bridge, restrooms and gift shop. Access to the bridge and walking across the pedestrian path is free.
If you have young children, note that currently there isn’t a junior ranger program at the Golden Gate Recreational Program.
There was a lot of fog the day we visited, so we didn’t get to see much of a view, but it was still fun walking on the bridge, feeling it sway, and watching people. I’d like to bring the kids back for a longer trip.
In the meantime, I need to find time to make it up to Big Thicket for a hiking trip.
In early July, our family had an opportunity to visit Utah again and participate in a rafting trip (a subject for a future blog post). After the trip, we decided to explore Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area before heading back to Salt Lake City for our flight.
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area is located in the Northeast corner of Utah and southwest corner of Wyoming. We made a quick stop at the dam before heading into the Recreation area itself.
This park is not under the National Parks Service but managed by the U.S. Forest Service. But just like parks under NPS, Flaming Gorge NRA had a nice visitor center and more importantly for my youngest, a junior ranger program.
Flaming Gorge is popular, but quiet and peaceful. Known for great fishing, it boasts 360 miles of shore line.
For us, the visit was short. It was a pit stop on the way back to Salt Lake City to catch an evening flight. Even though it was short, we thoroughly enjoyed the vistas, stopping at scenic pullouts to take pictures.
Near the visitor center, we took a short walk along a trail which overlooked Flaming Gorge Reservoir. We also saw a herd of sheep grazing nearby.
I would love to come back and camp here sometime, and there would be a lot to choose from. Flaming Gorge at 43 campgrounds, with over 700 individual sites, so it seems finding the perfect campsite would not be a problem.
Flaming Gorge isn’t too far from Vernal, Utah, which is where we had been staying. Vernal is the perfect place to visit if you or your kids like dinosaurs. Nicknamed “dinosaur land,” they have a great museum and is close to Dinosaur National Monument.
While, many people think of Colorado for summer activities such as rafting, we used a Utah-based company. It was such a wonderful trip, we’re planning another visit to Utah next summer.
Last week, I accompanied my husband on his work trip to Switzerland. We visited castles, lakeside towns, museums and tons of great restaurants. I literally got lost in the country, which was on of the best parts of the trip and the subject of today’s post.
Prior to my trip, I read an article in the Washington Post about the negative effect our reliance on GPS has on our brains. Though this isn’t the first time I have read about this, it was fresh on my mind during my trip.
During our trip to Switzerland, we visited the tourist towns of Luzern, Lausanne, Nyon and Montreux. Our home base was Geneva. We kept our phones on Wifi to avoid international roaming charges. Luzern has a city wifi, but the other places didn’t, or if they did, we weren’t able to join it. That was fine, it forced us to use the city maps, and sometimes, just retrace our way or simply get lost or awhile.
Getting lost was most fun in Luzern, which was everything I imagined a Swiss city to be, with cobblestone streets, alleyways that opened up to views of the Swiss Alps, and little cafes. We walked the streets void of large tourist buses and groups that plagued the main routes of the town.
On our way back from Mt. Pilatus, we followed the signs to the bus stop. That took some time, because we weren’t sure we were going the right way. Once we got to the bus stop, we were looking at a large bus schedule trying to figure out if we were going the right way. A man sitting on the bench popped up and ranger to help us. He was a local but had visited the United States for work before.
He happened to be going the same way we were and we chatted all the way back to the city center.
Another time, we were returning back to our hotel and as we walked through some back residential roads, we ended up stumbling upon a beautiful church as wedding guests lined up outside to congratulate a new bride and groom. It was something out of a storybook!
Of course getting lost wasn’t always fun. I was alone on my way back from Montreux. After leaving the Geneva train station, I made my way back to the hotel, a 15 minute walk. Unlike previous days, where I took the exact same route, I came out of a different entrance from the train station. Still everything looked familiar.
I kept walking until I realized that everything looked familiar because we had explored the city a couple of days before, but it was not necessarily the way back to the hotel.
I had to pull the tourist map the hotel had given me and check it against the map at bus stops (the ones with a red dot to show where you currently were). Turns out, I wasn’t too far from my hotel, but the detour took me an hour.
At the time, I was tired from a long day of walking, and feeling frustrated. But later, I felt proud of myself. I had no phone, I didn’t speak the language well, and it was raining. But I figured out how to get to where I needed to go.
The experience reminded me of when I was a kid and went on family trips. We often got lost on these trips, but some of the best memories came from those experiences.
After I returned to my hotel, I treated myself to espresso and a chocolate croissant.
After July 15, fans of Galveston Island State Park will have to find another stretch of beach to plant their beach umbrellas in. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will close the beach side of the park for a three-year renovation project. The bay side of the park will still be open.
TPWD made the announcement in late April. Our family visited the park over Easter weekend. Galveston Island SP is probably one of my favorite state parks to visit. The weekend we went, the weather was perfect and the water had warmed up a bit so we could get in.
Galveston Island is located off the Texas Coast in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s probably the most popular beach vacation for Houstonians. At least that’s how it was for my family growing up. What I like about the state park is that there are usually less crowds than other parts of the island. The beach is nice and clean, there are outdoor shower facilities for people to rinse off as well as a nice picnic area.
But that’s just a small part of what makes Galveston Island SP so special. The park actually consists of two ecosystems. One is the beach side. The other half of the park (which is accessed across the street), is the bay side of the park. There, visitors can walk on boardwalks and study marsh wildlife. There are also paddle trails, though the park doesn’t rent kayaks or canoes, you’ll have to bring your own. It’s great place for bird and other wildlife watching.
The weekend we went, we got a chance to attend a beach exploration program with park naturalists. The naturalists talked a little bit about the wildlife found on the beach. We then went searching for wildlife and found ghost crabs, shrimp and little fish.
After the ranger program, we spent the rest of the time at the park enjoying the beach. The kids played in the sand and water, looked for pretty seashells and enjoyed a light lunch.
We’ve explored the bay side of the park several times before, but this time, we opted to just enjoy the beach side of the park.
There are also a number of campsites at the park, both on the beach and bay side. Most of the sites were damaged during Hurricane Ike in 2008, but volunteers and park staff worked hard to repair these sites.
With Memorial Weekend coming up, and the the impending closure of the beach side of the park, I would encourage others to visit Galveston Island State Park.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Charleston. It was a fabulous trip. As part of a multi-day trip, I was able to visit Fort Sumter and get another cancellation in my National Park passport!
The visit was part of a girls trip weekend. Up until planning for the vacation, I hadn’t considered a visit to Charleston. I’ve been to Savannah before, and wanted to go there again with friends. One of my other friends suggested Charleston, and that’s the city we finally settled on.
Once I started researching the city, I learned that’s where Fort Sumter National Historic Park was located. Of course, I already knew about the famous fort from U.S. History class. In 1861, the bombardment of the fort by confederate forces, and the return fire by U.S. troops started the Civil War.
In order to visit the fort, you must go via ferry. You can buy ferry tickets at one of two visitor centers, one in Charleston and the other is located at Mount Pleasant. During our trip, we arrived at the visitor center at 10am. Having missed the 9:30am ferry, the other opportunities to catch the ferry was at noon, 2:30pm, or 4pm. Hours for the ferry vary by time of year and location. The Fort Sumter website has all the ferry times.
People wanting to visit the fort do have to purchase tickets for the ferry. National Parks passes do not give you a discount for the ferry passes. There’s no entrance fee to the park, but adult ferry tickets are $23.00.
We opted for the 4pm ferry. That would give us ample time to walk around Charleston, and we could end the day with the tour. We were staying just north of Liberty Square so it also meant less of a back and forth for us.
Things to do
It ended up being a great decision. If you take the 4pm ferry, you can watch the flag lowering ceremony. The ranger does a short talk ahead of the ceremony about the bombardment of the fort and the significance of US flag flying over the fort then and now.
There is also a gift shop and museum at the fort. If you do take the last ferry and want to buy something at the shop, make sure you do that quickly, as the shop closes.
There’s a lot of information in the museum, and I felt a bit rushed at the end. You can also stroll the grounds. Check out the cannons, but don’t climb on them or inside them!
There is also a museum at Liberty Square in Charleston, where we bought our tickets. I did not get a chance to tour that museum. Of course, there’s also a junior ranger program. Since this was a girls trip, I visited without my little ones, so they didn’t participate in the program.
Charleston is full of history. Nearby and also a national historic park is Fort Moultrie. Unlike Fort Sumter, it is accessible by car.
Charleston is a beautiful city. It is both a ocean front town with palm trees and rainbow painted houses, but also a quintessential southern city, with great food, beautiful homes and gardens. It’s also a city that was defined by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and it seems like it faces its past head on.
There’s an old slave mart that has been turned into a museum. The tours we took of some of the restored civil war home confronted its legacy with slavery. These beautiful homes, buildings and gardens wouldn’t have existed without the wealth that was made off of slaves as well as the enslaved people physically building these structures.
We also passed by Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston. The church, which is said to be the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the south was the site of a mass shooting that took place on the evening of June 17, 2015. In the aftermath of the shooting, the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the confederate flag from the the statehouse grounds.
Everyone I met in Charleston was so friendly. The food we ate was amazing! We did not have a bad meal during our stay! In addition to a few small souvenirs I bought for my kids at Fort Sumter (my oldest collects pins from national parks), I bought a gullah sweetgrass basket from the city market.
Last weekend, my two younger kids and I spent an amazing weekend camping in… our neighborhood park.
It wasn’t an exotic destination, but it was fun. I live in the Piney Woods region of Texas, so we are blessed to live in a place that is scenic though flat.
The local parks department organizes this family campout twice a year. In fact, the first time we ever went camping was at this camp. Backyard campouts are great because if things don’t go well, you can always go back inside the house. Organized local camps, like the one we attended are great because they took care of providing food and planned all the activities. My youngest wanted to do it, so we signed up again. For me, it was a fun weekend without worrying about planning anything.
If you are interested in this type of program, reach out to the local or state parks department. We also participated in one with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It’s a great program. In that one, they let you borrow all the gear and equipment and you bring your bedding and food. The program is geared for first time or still pretty novice campers. The rangers will help you set up the tent, teach you how to use a camp stove, etc.
At our campout, the kids got to make crafts, built a cardboard toboggan to race down a hill, went on a scavenger hunt, watched movies on the lawn, and made s’mores. Typical camp stuff. The activities were simple, but being outdoors in the nice weather made it pleasurable.
Some families come with friends and participate every year. Some families took this opportunity to try camping for the first time.
I had a friend once make fun of the campout, because it wasn’t really camping. But I don’t think there is one particular way an outdoor adventure should be. My family and I camp a lot but I’m sure people who camp in the backcountry might think we’re not really camping. There are people I know that backpack. There are people I know that backpack and sleep without a tent!
These educational programs should wet your toes and give you the confidence that you can camp. Everyone can, but it can be intimidating. Once you gain the confidence you can work up to a far away trip. For some, camping with always mean car camping at a campsite or even in an RV or camper. That is real camping!
Camping takes us away from our routine. It brings us closer to the outdoors. It makes us slow down and get back to basics. It gives us connection to the land. Anyone can camp.