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.
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.
Today, marks the centennial celebration of the Grand Canyon as a national park. Last time I went to the Grand Canyon was several years ago, when I was expecting my first child. It was our last big trip before baby.
Without school age kids, we had a luxury of going in the “off-season.” We went in September and stayed right outside the park. While it wasn’t absolutely empty, the crowds weren’t nearly at the volumes it has during peak season.
Being seven months pregnant, I opted out of doing any serious hiking. Instead we strolled along the south rim, stopped a scenic overlooks and sat in on ranger talks. My favorite memory was waking up early and get a spot with other visitors to watch the sun rise over the canyon. It was a chilly morning. As the sun came up and its light hit the canyon walls, there were collecting oohs and ahhs, from all of us watching the rocks light show off their brilliant colors.
The Grand Canyon holds a special place in the American psyche. It’s a must do road trip for an American family, everyone from the Brady’s to the Simpsons has visited.
President Roosevelt established the park in 1906 as a National Game Preserve. The National Parks Association lobbied Congress to pass the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gave the president the power to create national monuments. Once passed, Roosevelt added the adjacent national forests renamed the area Grand Canyon National Monument. It not become a National Park until 1919 under President Woodrow Wilson. Along the way, efforts to make the monument into a park were blocked by opponents such as those that held mining claim holders.
It’s hard for someone like me to imagine the Grand Canyon as anything but a national park. While a 100-year anniversary is but a blip on the screen considering it’s been a formation for millions of years, it’s significant to us as a country. With people all around the world coming to visit, it’s more than a national park, it’s a national symbol.
Last Thanksgiving, we spent two full days at Big Bend National Park. My, how quickly things have changed. As I finally have time to write this entry after winter break, the government is shutdown (and many employees working without pay) over the proposed border wall. Meanwhile, national parks, including Big Bend, are open but are suffering without staff.
When we visited the park in November, there was talk about the border wall though no government shutdown yet. In fact, I had watched the season premiere of the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.” In the episode, Bourdain visits West Texas, including Santana Elena Canyon. The show drips with social and political commentary on the Texas/Mexico border and proposed border wall.
So that was on my mind when we visited Santa Elena Canyon (which I discussed in my previous post), as well as the next day when we crossed into Mexico, which became the highlight of our trip. If you want to go, make sure everyone in your family has his/her passport and take cash (small bills).
When I woke up Friday morning, the air was chilly. It was hard to convince my body to crawl out of the warm sleeping bag. My teenage son and husband were already up, had the camera set up to catch the sunrise over the Chisos Mountains. The two younger kids were still asleep. I finally got out of the tent. The sun was just rising and waking up at the base of a mountain is always worth it.
Big Bend doesn’t allow campfires, so I cooked eggs and turkey bacon on our camp stove for breakfast. It felt great it to eat a hot breakfast on the cold fall morning. Once our stomachs were full and our campsite cleaned up (Big Bend has bears, so it’s important to clean up well and put everything in a bear box), we headed to our first stop of the day, the Boquillas Crossing.
The Boquillas Crossing is located on the Southeast Corner of the park. If everyone in your party (including all the children) have their passports, you can cross into Mexico. Make sure you check the hours ahead of time. If you go late and don’t get back before the crossing closes, you’ll be camping in Mexico.
We arrived around 10am, and there was a steady line of cars pulling in. There’s a parking lot and at the end of the parking lot, you’ll see some adobe buildings. We were able to find a parking spot easily (when we came up, the parking lot was full and people were parking on the road).
When we got into the building, you’ll find a park ranger or border security person inside. He or she is only there to provide information and make sure everyone has their passport. The person doesn’t check it, just reminds you that you’ll need it when you come back to US side.
You leave the building through the backdoor and walk down a path to the Rio Grande River. There you’ll find the International Boquillas Crossing ferry. It’s really just a row boat. The fee is $5 a person round trip.
(I was going toad photos of the boat and town but I realized, there are others in the photos. I didn’t want to insert pictures of others without their permission.)
Once you cross, you can walk to the town, or go on a donkey (which was about $8 a person round trip). Usually, there’s a guide that walks with you and its customary to tip him as well.
You can pay everything in US dollars and that’s why I said to take a stack of small bills on the way over. The little town only has a little over 200 residents and it survives on tourism. There are a couple of restaurants and shops that sell handicrafts to tourists. Our guide was a friendly gentleman that was born and raised in the village. His wife sells crafts at one of the booths.
After walking around the town and looking around, we ate at a little restaurant. There are two in town. One is a bit pricer but has a view of the river. The other one is less expensive. We ate at the one without the river view, mostly because it was quieter. We ordered Cokes for all of us (including our guide). We then feasted on goat tacos! They were so good. Afterwards, we walked across the street to check out the river view at the other restaurant. I gave the kids a little cash to pick out a souvenir and then it was a donkey ride back to the ferry.
Once we got back, we used a machine to scan our passports and spoke with a border agent over the phone.
It was around noon when we left the border crossing. By now, the parking lot was packed. We drove to Rio Grande village, also on the east side of the park, and took a short hike. The Rio Grande nature trail is an easy hike but known to be a great spot to look at birds. It did not disappoint.
We stopped at some scenic overlooks. Finally, we went to the hot springs. There’s a three mile loop trail there at the site of an old hotel that was built by the hot springs. The hotel is no longer there, just the ruins, but you can still dip into the hot springs. I hadn’t brought swim clothes, but the kids still jumped in. I only dipped my feet in. If you are careful, you can reach over and touch the icy cold water of the Rio Grande as well as the hot waters from the springs. By soaking in the hot waters of the springs, you can look across and see Mexico. Maybe contemplate on which side of the wall these hot springs will be located.
Also located on the trail are some pictographs. Ever since I saw my first set of pictographs on my road trip a couple of years ago, I’ve been fascinated by them.
We ended the evening with burgers and hotdogs at our campsite. We quickly cleaned up and headed over to the Chisos Lodge parking lot. We got some dessert at the camp store and headed over to the window view trail. It was a little cloudy but we still got to watch a marvelous sunset through the “window.”
That night, the two younger kids and I hung out inside our tent. With our flashlights on, we chatted and my youngest finished his junior ranger book. My oldest sat outside with his dad, hoping the skies would clear up and he could take some photos of the stars. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
Over Thanksgiving, we visited Big Bend National park. It was our first time visiting this desert beauty. Like other national parks, we only scratched the surface of what the park has to offer on this short visit.
Big Bend was named after the “big bend” of the Rio Grande river. Because of the parks climate, fall and spring are popular times to visit the park. Big Bend National park is one of the least visited parks, with a little over 350,000 visitors a year. During our visit, it seemed like most of those visitors came to the park during Thanksgiving week.
We arrived at Big Bend early Thursday morning (Thanksgiving Day). We spent the previous night at Alpine, Texas, which is about 80 miles north of the parks entrance. We had a campsite booked outside the park, but I really wanted to camp inside the park. That meant waking up early (5:30) to get out early and try and snag a walkup site. It was a foggy morning, so I had to drive a slower than usual. Our excitement built when we saw the entrance to the park.
There were no rangers at the entrance yet (we paid at a visitor center later), and we continued toward the Chisos Basin campsite. There are three campsites at the park as well as a number of back country sites. During the busy season, not only is it difficult to book a campsite at the park but permits for backcountry camping can run out as well.
After some discussion the night before, we decided we would try our luck at the Chisos Basin campsite. Within Big Bend National park is the Chisos Mountains, the only park that contains an entire mountain range within its borders. It’s centrally located in the park. It was close, but we were able to snag a campsite at the park. I would have preferred to have reserved one ahead of time, but we had only decided to make the trip a month ahead. The campsite is located near the Chisos Lodge, which is the only hotel at the park. There’s a visitor center, camp store and restaurant.
After setting up camp, we backtracked the way we came and parked at the Lost Mines Trailhead. Lost Mines is a popular trail in the Chisos Mountain region of the park. It’s almost 5 miles round trip. Along the way to the top are breathtaking views. You are walking uphill, but I’d say it’s only moderately strenuous. Also, even if you don’t hike all the way to the end and only go halfway up, you are still treated to some amazing views.
After our hike, we went to the Panther Junction, filled up gas, and paid our entrance fee to the park. We were hungry for lunch and figuring out a good place to eat our picnic lunch before the last hike of the day. We decided to go ahead and towards our last hike of the day, Santa Elena Canyon.
Located in the Southwest region of the park, the Rio Grande River flows between the high canyon cliffs, creating the natural border between Mexico and the United States. The trail is by the river on the US side.
Shortly before arriving at the parking lot for the trailhead, we pulled into historic Castalon. There is a visitor center there. The adobe building at from the early 20th centuries. You can see older ruins of buildings there as well.
I had cooked taco meat at home earlier. We took out our camp stove, heated up the meat and enjoyed hot tacos. We were hungry and the weather was cold. The tacos felt amazing to eat. After we had eaten our fill, looked at the old buildings and took a bathroom break, we heading down to Santa Elena Canyon.
So, I’m burying the lead in this post, but the Santa Elena Canyon was one of the highlights of the trip. To reach the trailhead, you have to cross an offshoot of the Rio Grande. The day we went, the water was knee deep and cold!
We took our shoes and socks off and rolled up our pant legs. My teenager carried his brother. When I stepped into the water and began walking, I felt the sharp pebbles beneath my feet. Once you get to the other side, you have to pull yourself up to the bank. There is a rope you can use. They was a large group ahead of us and I just about died, standing in the icy cold water with sharp pebbles as I waited my turn.
Once we crossed though, it was totally worth it. The trail is lined with large grasses and plants. The high canyon cliffs was beautiful. There is a bit of an incline, but the trail is pretty easy. Of course, you have to cross that water on the way back!
As you look across the river, you see the cliff on the other side and realize that you are looking at Mexico. Nature doesn’t have borders.
After the hike, we cleaned up by the car and headed back to the campground. The sun was setting and it was dark by the time we got back to the campsite. We decided to get our tent ready for the night with our bedding.
I didn’t feel like cooking in the dark so we decided to eat dinner that the Chisos Lodge. They had a Thanksgiving buffet that night and it was a welcome treat after a long day of hiking. The buffet was pretty basic Thanksgiving food, but pretty decent. The kids really enjoyed the dessert.
By the time we were done, it was about 9pm. I turned in with the two younger ones, while my teenager and hubby stayed up for a bit enjoying the famous big bend night sky.
We still had another full day and another part of the park to explore.
“We can hear the water! We can hear the water!” the girls yelled out to me and my girl scout co-leader.
The eight girls, including our daughters, were standing on the edge of a creek. The creek originated from a spring and ran under rocks in the hills of the forest. We were in the middle of our hike in the woods, away from any big cities and no cell service. It was a cooler than normal weekend in Texas and we ran into only a few other hikers.
We walked up to the girls and could hear the gurgling sound of the water coming up and down the creek.
“It’s the babbling brook,” I exclaimed to my daughter, a reference to Anne of Green Gables. The girls took pictures and ran on ahead up is on the steep trail. The beautiful fall colors surrounded us, we were warmed up from the exertion of the hike, and were happy we decided to spend the weekend camping at Mission Tejas State Park.
Mission Tejas State Park is located in East Texas, near Crockett. I had never been there before, but when talking to a state park employee on the phone several months prior, he recommended it. It had a group campsite, it wasn’t too far from where we lived but far enough that it would be an adventure for the girls.
The park has an old mission, hence the name, as well as an old family homestead. The weekend we were at the park, they park rangers had organized a music festival. In addition to the festival, they had set out old wooden toys and games that pioneer children would have played with. The rangers taught our girls a few of these games, and they enthusiastically joined in and played for over a half an hour. They would have played longer but the November days were short and we wanted to get some hiking in.
The park rangers were friendly and helpful and the bathrooms were clean. With the shorter days, we didn’t have much time to hike, but it was perfect for the troop. As I mentioned, it was beautiful site and the girls were busy looking into logs and checking out wild flowers and exotic looking fungi.
The next morning, one of the girls yelled out, “Can you believe we’ve spent almost an entire day outside?”
Yes, we have taken them camping before.
The girls told us they wanted to come back to this park and hike some of the other trails. The ranger told us they are planning on hosting a festival in the fourth week of April.
Happy election day to everyone! First of all, if you haven’t voted, please go out and vote! If you are reading this blog, that means, you have access to Internet. That means you can look online for your correct voting location as well as research candidates online.
Next, I am excited to announce that my first travel piece was published by Outdoor X4 magazine. It’s a travel essay chronicling our family’s road trip last year through the national parks. I’m grateful to the publisher and editor-in-chief, Frank Ledwell, for taking a chance on me.
My day job for years has been working as a reporter covering everything from power markets in theMidwest to the Louisiana legislature. But outside this blog, I haven’t done much writing on the outdoors. I truly love be outdoors, and I hope to share that love with others and inspire them. I didn’t grow up going camping (though we did a ton a road trips and went on picnics and fishing trips), so the first time was overwhelming. But camping is something almost anyone can enjoy. It’s only by immersing ourselves in the outdoors can we appreciate how important these places are.