Banff and Lake Louise

When I was in junior high, my family took a family trip to Banff National park. Ever since that trip, I concluded that Banff was the most beautiful place on earth.

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Lake Louise, June, 2018

After our Alaska adventure this summer, we made a pitstop in Canada to visit family before coming home. We had one day to sightsee and I already knew I wanted to spend it  in Banff.

It had been over 20 years since I visited Banff National Park. Since my trip to Banff, I’ve visited other places. Glacier National Park reminded me of the beauty of Banff. Would I feel differently about the place now that I’ve been to other equally beautiful places. Definitely not.

Banff and the surrounding areas are still exquisite. Even with the crowds, it is was an enjoyable visit. The day started out raining and we were worried we’d be stuck with thunderstorms the entire day.

We drove to Banff from Calgary. I wanted to leave our hotel at 6:30, but we ended up leaving closer to 7:30 am. Since it was raining, the crowds at the park were still thin when we arrived closer to 9am.

We drove straight to the gondola that takes visitors up Sulphur Mountain. This little ride was nostalgic for me. I have a vivid memory of going up Sulphur Mountain as a child. It wasn’t an ideal day for the gondola ride because of the cloud cover.

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This is the only day we’d be here and I felt the experience would still be fun for the kids. On the plus side, there was no wait and we got special early bird pricing. Despite the clouds, the ride up was beautiful.  The visitor center was fascinating and we took the walk on the boardwalk up to the weather tower.

It was chilly on the mountain but we really enjoyed it. On a clear day, the views are expansive and amazing, but it’s not too shabby on the cloudy day either.

Afterwards, we warmed up with hot chocolate in the visitor center.

It was still drizzling, so we decided to take a scenic drive on Tunnel Mountain Road and pull up to the Hoodoos Lookout. We spent just a few minutes at the lookout, snapped a few photos and got back into the car and drove to Lake Louise.

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By the time we got to Lake Louise, the sky had cleared up and the crowds had built up. Despite the crowds, Lake Louise was magnificent.

We decided to make the hike up to Lake Agnes Tea House. The trail up to the tea house is a little over 3km. The trail is smooth but its steep. It was nothing for the kids, but it took us for awhile. They ended waiting for us at the top.

Once we got to the top, it was worth it. The tea house was crowded, but we found some tables. Luckily, we knew ahead of time that it was cash only and had brought money with us. It was chilly on the top and we enjoyed a hot pot of tea and sandwiches.

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After lunch, we took some pictures around the lake and walked back down the trail. We then drove back to Banff. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the town and ate dinner at pizza place before heading back to Calgary.

I would love to go back to Banff and spend more time there as well as Jasper. It’s on my bucket list.

Glacier Bay National Park: Day 3 Tide Pools

Our last day at Glacier Bay was pretty relaxing. We slept in and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. Our goal today was to check out tide pools during low tide.

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The schedule for high and low tides is available at the ranger station. For our final morning at the park, the low tide would be in the afternoon, after the shuttle would be leaving for the ferry dock.

We visited the beach before the tide was at it lowest. We still had a great time looking at the tide pools.

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We saw several sea stars in the pools. It was definitely very cool.

The day was clear and as we looked across Bartlett Cove, we could see Mount Fairweather.  As the shuttle drove to the ferry dock, we saw a bear in the forest. The shuttle drive pulled over for a minute so we could all watch the animal.

Unlike the ferry ride up to Glacier Bay, it was sunny and a bit warm on the ride back to Juneau. We spent almost the entire ride on the deck. We spotted some whales and porpoises as well as more sea otters. I think they might be my new favorite animals.

Back at Juneau, we had reservations at the Hangar On the Warf. We also took the opportunity to buy some smoked salmon for friends back home.

Our trip to Alaska was probably one of my favorites. We met some wonderful people. The pace was slower than parks we’ve visited in the lower 48. It’s a real special place and I definitely want to come back.

In addition to the parks I wrote about in these posts, we also visited Glacier Gardens, SEAlaska Heritage Institute, and DIPAC Salmon Hatchery in Juneau. We enjoyed all of these excursions.

 

Glacier Bay National Park: Boat Tour

The highlight of our visit to Glacier Bay National Park was a boat tour.  The full day tour leaves Bartlett Cove and travels 130 miles through Glacier Bay.  A National Park Ranger is   onboard to help spot wildlife, provide commentary and programs to help passengers understand and appreciate Glacier Bay National Park.

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Picture of tour boat. Picture by NPS.

We woke up early and ate our breakfast at the lodge before going down to the dock for the boat tour. They’ll start checking people into the tour around 7:00-7:15 am. Two suggestions. Breakfast at the lodge opens at 6am. We got there a little early and were first in line and soon others began lining up behind us. Service at the restaurant is great but slow. Many people opt for the breakfast buffet, so they can eat quickly and leave. Since we were one of the first people seated, we opted to order a la carte and had enough time to eat our food before making our way down to the dock.

Once we boarded the boat, we found some nice window seats on the second level of the boat. My oldest ended up spending the entire boat ride on the top deck. The younger two split their time, spending time inside and out. The boat came with binoculars for people to use. Even with warm clothes, hats and gloves, the wind can make standing outside for longer periods of time uncomfortable. Luckily, with the window seats, we could enjoy the views from inside.

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View from inside the boat.

Because everyone is so excited about wildlife, our fellow passengers were very nice about letting others hover on their side of the boat when they saw something interesting.

The ranger on our boat, Cate, was amazing! She did a great job narrating and answering everyone’s questions, she kept the kids engaged. Also, if a fellow passenger spotted something, she would announce it on the loudspeaker so others could hear.

We were blessed with great weather during our boat tour.  As we passed by marble island, we saw sea lions, puffins, and sea otters. As the ranger was giving a talk on birds, we saw whales!

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Picture of sea lions as we passed Marble Island.

Later, we saw a wolf walking along the coast. This was especially exciting for us. Last year, we spent a bit of time looking for wolves in Yellowstone, but didn’t have any luck spotting one there. The skinny wolf walked down the coast for a long time, looking for food.

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Wolf walking along coast. Ranger said he should fatten up once salmon come in.

The tour boat also serves chowder mid-morning, then lunch. Around lunchtime, the boat reaches tidewater glaciers. We saw eagles sitting on some ice floating in the water nearby.

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We passed by a number of eagles.

From the boat you can catch a glimpse of Grand Pacific Glacier. The boat took us Margerie Glacier. There we floated for a while. The glacier was magnificent. It is one of the few glaciers in the park that isn’t considered receding, but that might be different now. On the side, you can see where the glacier has darkened. One of our fellow passengers had photos from 2015 trip and the change was obvious.

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The boat also took us to see John Hopkins Glacier, Lamplugh Glacier and Reid Glacier. The ranger talked about the effects of climate change on the glaciers.

On the way back, some people took the opportunity to relax, but many folks stayed on the deck, still scouring the coast for wildlife. The kids participated in junior ranger program and got the junior ranger badges. The crew brought out cookies for the passengers to enjoy.

The boat is also used to drop off kayakers. On this particular day, it dropped off a father and son who we’re spending a few days kayaking and camping in the park.

We arrived back at the dock at 3pm. The seven hours had just flown by so quickly.

We walked the Tlingit trail, a short one way trail from the dock along the shoreline. We saw a porcupine walking along the forest by the beach.

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We also saw park displays including a traditional Tlingit canoe, a complete whale skeleton. We also visited the Huna Tribal House.

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Here, we attending a ranger program. The park ranger, who is also a member of Tlingit tribe, told us the story of the tribal house. It was fascinating and we left adding an appreciation of what the land meant to the tribes that called the area home as well as their resilience.

We had a 6pm dinner reservation (You’ll need to make reservations for dinner at the lodge; don’t forget since that’s the only restaurant in the park). With an hour to go until dinner, we hiked the Forest Trail. This short, easy trail takes you through the temperate forest. The hike is easy but the views are spectacular! We even saw a moose by the pond!

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Moose sighting by the pond.

After the hike, we enjoyed dinner at the lodge. Afterwards, we looked around at the park visitor center, which is upstairs in the lodge and attended the ranger talk. The ranger spoke about home and how she found her home at Glacier Bay National Park and the animals and plants that also make their home there.

Writing about it now, I’m amazed how much we did in one day. It was an amazing day!

Glacier Bay National Park

People who set foot on Glacier Bay National Park come here with purpose.  No one just ends up here, our kayak guide said.

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Glacier Bay National Park, view from our tour boat

It’s true. Getting to Glacier Bay National Park takes some planning. There are a few large cruise lines that come to the park, but the stay in the bay, and people don’t disembark. There are some small boat cruises that dock at the park, but for the most part, if you want to step foot in the park, you’ll have to the the Alaska Marine Highway ferry or fly in.

In fact only two percent of visitors to the park step foot on the land. This results in a certain vibe in the park that sets it apart from the crowded parks we visited in the lower 48 last year or even Mendenhall Glacier.

The park was quieter than other parks I visited, but it was also more laid back. We all came to take in Glacier Bay National Park.

Our family took the Alaska Marine Highway ferry. We really enjoyed it, but it took some planning. The ferry schedule on the website looked a bit like a bus schedule. Though I figured it out, I didn’t feel comfortable purchasing the tickets online. I called the customer service line. The lady on the phone was very helpful and I felt confident that I was purchasing the correct tickets.

The ferry to Gustavus (the closest town to the park) only leaves twice a week, Monday and Wednesday. Because of our schedule, we went on a Monday and came back to Juneau on a Wednesday. Taking a flight gives you more flexibility. We chose not to fly because of the cost. It actually worked out in our favor. Because of fog during the week, a lot of the flights were delayed.

The ferry ride was quite pleasant. The employees were very friendly and the ship was clean. It’s a four hour ferry ride. We had time to walk around the boat, go outside and take pictures. We spotted wildlife such as whales and sea otters. The boat has a cafeteria and dining room. We also chatted with some other travelers.

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View from the ferry pulling away from Juneau. Credit: NPS

Finally, we made it to Gustavus. We were staying the Glacier Bay Lodge, the only lodge within the park. It’s operated by Aramark. There’s a shuttle from the ferry to the lodge.

Once we got there, my husband and you younger kids went fishing with a guide in Gustavus. My eldest and I took an afternoon guided kayak trip.

Guided kayak trips from the lodge are through a third party company, Glacier Bay Sea Kayaks. While it was cold on the ferry, by the time we met our guide and got ready for the kayak trip, the sky cleared up and the weather warmed up.

Kayaking along Bartlett Cove was amazing. We saw sea otters and eagles. We saw schools of feeder fish swimming under our boat. We saw harbor porpoise as well. We saw different types of kelp floating in the water.

Our guide was amazing. He was friendly and laid back, but knowledgable as well. While the wildlife viewing was great, even if I hadn’t seen a single animal, the view and the tranquility that came from kayaking along the coast alone would have made the trip worth it.

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My view from the kayak. Sure beats the view from my office.

After our trip we came back and waiting for my husband and younger two kids to return from their fishing trip.

We enjoyed a lovely dinner at the lodge. We were exhausted by the end of the day. We fell asleep quickly, which was good because we had to wake up early the next day to go on the boat tour.

Tongass National Forest/Mendenhall Glacier

Our trip to Alaska began in Juneau, the capital. We spent one full day touring the city. The highlight of the day was a visit Mendenhall Glacier in the Tongass National Forest.

The Tongass National Forest is largest national forest in the United States covering most of Southeast Alaska.

We took the Juneau city bus from our hotel to the visitor. The bus stop was right in front of our hotel. Tickets were $2 for adults and $1 per child. The bus stop to the visitor center is actually about 1.5 mile away from the visitor center, but it’s a pleasant and scenic walk.

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Entrance to the forest.

The Tongass is a temperate rain forest. The moss covered trees turn the forest into a magical storybook scene. There are steams and ponds dotting the path and sometimes you can see black bears, though we didn’t see any on our visit.

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The view of the forest from the trail.
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The trail from bus stop to visitor center is pleasant, but 1.5 mile. Keep that in mind when planning your day.

The best part of the walk to the visitor center was catching the first glimpse of the glacier. Despite it’s massive size, the glacier seems to just pop out.

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The first glimpse of the glacier.

The visitor center has informative exhibits, ranger talks and a movie about the glacier. There’s even a junior ranger program. There are great views and spots to take pictures.

In addition to the Photo Point trail, we also hiked the Nugget Falls trail. The trail ends at a waterfall.

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The view from the end of Nugget Falls trail.
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View of Mendenhall Glacier

My only other experience with Glaciers was at Glacier National Park. Mendenhall was different, The glacier was more intense. Up against the forest, the view was majestic and surreal.

Other things to know

The bus is the most economical way to get to the glacier’s visitor center, but you can also take a taxi or your own car. You can also come through a tour group.

In addition to seeing the glacier, there are a number of trails around the visitor center. These are great for viewing wildlife.

There’s no food for sale at the visitor center, so be sure to pack snacks.

Enchanted Rock

The website warns you that it’s crowded. Even then, I was unprepared for the number of visitors at Enchanted Rock.

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Enchanted Rock

Enchanted Rock is a state natural area. It’s in Fredericksburg, Texas. The park isn’t very large in size, compared to a lot of other parks. It’s main attraction is this large pink granite hill.

During the last weekend of Spring Break, we took the kids to Enchanted Rock. I had gone there as a college student, but had not gone since then. My husband had never been. I remembered that the park fills to capacity, so we drove up from Houston the night before and stayed at a nearby hotel.

We pulled up to the park at 8am and there was already a line of cars parked to get in. I expected that, but was surprised at how long the line was. It stretched on for more than a mile. We waited in our car for an hour as cars slowly pulled up, paid the entrance fee and parked. By the time our car pulled in, the parking lot was already full and the park was closed.

BUT.. once the parking lot fills, the park staff gives the next 200 cars a pass that assures them entrance to the park anytime after 1pm. You still have to pay the entrance fee, but you know you won’t be turned away.

After 1pm, we came back to the park along with the 199 other cars that had a ticket. Without a ticket, rangers weren’t letting anyone else into the park that day. We waited less than an hour to get in. I recommend bringing cash. If you have cash, you can pay the ranger as to pull in. Otherwise, you have to park and go inside the office to pay.

Luckily, we got to the park in time to attend ranger led hike on the Summit trail. I’ve hiked this trail multiple times. In fact, it’s probably the only trail I’ve hiked in the park since it goes all the way to the top, but this was my first time doing a ranger led hike.

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I love ranger led hikes. They’re educational, and whether state or national park, we’ve always found that the rangers we’ve met have been engaging with the kids. We learned about how Enchanted Rock came to be and about the fairy shrimp in the pools at the top of rock.

It was a lot easier climbing Enchanted Rock when I was in my 20s! But the hike isn’t too hard. The hike is steep and smooth granite.  To save your ankles you might want to make your own switchbacks and walk in a zig zag line. The length makes up for the incline.  It’s short so you can take your time. For those reasons, I would describe it as more moderately strenuous, rather than strenuous. We saw a lot of families on this trail. Mostly kids running up the hill and parents taking their time.

The views from the top are amazing. You can definitely take your time and snap photos along the way. My eldest liked taking photos. My two younger ones liked scampering up and down, climbing rocks.

There are also flat trails in the park, at the bottom of the rock. On a clear night, the sky fills up with stars. We didn’t stay that long, but I’ve always wanted to camp at Enchanted Rock for that reason. Not surprising, the park is also a favorite place for rock climbers.

We spent only a couple of hours at the park. When the park ranger asked us where we were from and we said Houston. She said, oh I hope you didn’t come all the way up here just for the park.

We did and we didn’t. I wanted to take my kids here, but you can definitely fill the rest of your trip visiting other parts of the hill country like Fredericksburg, or farther out to San Antonio or even Austin. Spring time is especially nice with wildflowers growing everywhere.

 

Summer in Alaska

 

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I’ve always dreamed of going to Alaska. In high school, I had a mural of magazine photos depicting beautiful places around the world and many of them were from Alaska. Over the years, we made plans to to visit Alaska but never followed through.

This summer, we finally made it to Alaska! It was different than I imagined but in many ways it was even better.

Not only have I wanted to visit Alaska, but I had my own Alaska bucket list. it included a visit to Denali National Park, train rides, Glacier National Park, wildlife viewing, etc.

Unlike last year’s trip, we didn’t have time to take three weeks off to tour the state. The different parts of Alaska I wanted to see aren’t connected by roads either. That means travel by boat or airplane.

After some research, I decided that I should pick either Denali National Park or Glacier Bay National Park and plan a trip around one of those parks.

I’ve always wanted to see Glacier Bay, but both parks would be amazing, so I asked my teenager. He said Glacier Bay, so that’s where we headed!

The next decision was whether or not to take a cruise to Alaska or travel independently. Only two percent of Glacier Bay visitors actually step foot in the park. The other 98 percent are cruise boat travelers. There are a few large cruise ship lines that have Glacier Bay on their itinerary. Only a couple of boats are allowed in the park a day.

There are also some small cruise ships that come in. These do dock at the park. These tours are considerably more expensive than regular cruises.

In the end, we decided to travel independently. This isn’t the best option for everyone, but we absolutely loved it. Not only did we get a chance to really enjoy the park, we felt like we got to meet a lot of Alaska residents and see a side of the state most people don’t get to.

Happy Birthday Yellowstone

Today in 1872, Yellowstone Park was established, making it the first National Park. While it’s not the most visited national park in the U.S. (That would be Great Smokey Mountains National Park), it’s the park that comes to mind when I think of national parks.

The same is true for people around the world. My parents immigrated to the U.S. over 40 years ago. My mom told me that as a little girl, when she thought about the United States, one of the things she thought of was Yellowstone. She’s always dreamed of going. She was supposed to come with us last year, but didn’t. I hope to be able to take her one day.

While it isn’t the most visited park, it does get very busy, especially in the summer. The company that runs the hotels at the park start taking reservations on May 1 for the following summer. For our July, 2017 trip, I made reservations over a year in advance.

That worked out well for us. We were able to stay in all the hotels we wanted to. For those who don’t plan vacations over a year in advance, all hope is not lost. While staying at Old Faithful Inn, I met families that were able to get reservations at the hotel by calling every day. People cancel and you can snag a room, but you might have to be more flexible and do multiple bookings. There are also multiple campsites and hotels right outside the park as well.

While Old Faithful Inn is probably the most famous hotel in the park and my favorite, I love the location of Theodore Roosevelt Lodge the best. It’s located near Lamar Valley, so it’s a good starting point to check out wildlife. You can also rent a cute little cabin with a shared bathroom for a lot less than a room at Old Faithful.

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Badlands National Park

Our final park on our national park road trip was Badlands National Park. This is one park when I read about it ahead of time, I heard mixed reviews, with some people saying it’s only worth a quick drive through and others highly recommending it.

Our family really enjoyed the park. What we enjoyed about this park is the chance to find fossils, the night sky ranger program and the cabins inside the national park.

We started our visit with a drive through Sage Creek Road. It’s a good place to see wildlife, especially bison and prairie dogs.

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While, there aren’t any dinosaur fossils, you can and people do find mammal fossils here all the time. Unfortunately, we didn’t and the kids were a little bummed out about that. If had more time, perhaps we could hunt for fossils. For kids, that alone makes this park really exciting.

When we got into the park, we stopped at a ranger talk. She told us why the park was so famous for mammal fossils and no dinosaur fossils. The kids spent some time looking for fossils, but soon it was lunch time so we headed near the park visitor center and cabins.

We were staying at the Cedar Pass Lodge which is located next to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The lodge really consists of a number of cabins. These cabins were recently refurbished and were the nicest cabins we stayed in during our trip. My husband wished we had decided to stay here two nights instead of just one.

When we first got there, our cabin wasn’t quite ready so we decided to have lunch at the restaurant. The Cedar Pass Lodge has a restaurant and gift shop with basic groceries.

We then went over to the visitor center to pick up our junior ranger books and look at the exhibits. There’s a fossil lab there as well and you can talk to the scientists working on examining fossils. There is also a short movie about the park.

After the visitor center, we checked into our cabin, washed up and headed out to do a few hikes.

We hiked Saddle Pass, Door, Window and Notch trails. The hikes are shorter than those in other parks, but the kids loved climbing over rocks.  I admit, I had to rush the kids along a bit and in retrospect, having a little more time would have allowed us to linger a bit and let the kids look for fossils.  The kids definitely enjoyed the rocky terrain and being able to climb over rocks.

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After we were done with the hikes, we went back to the visitor center so the kids could get their junior ranger badge but the visitor center was already closed, so we went to grab dinner. Make sure you check the restraint hours, because it closes a little early.

After dinner, we went to the ranger night sky program. We got there as the sun was setting and we were treated to a beautiful sunset. The ranger gave a talk on the national park system and one it was dark enough, started the night sky program. It was awesome!

Living in the city, it’s always a treat to be able to get away to where its dark enough to see the stars.  In addition to being able to see the stars with the naked eye, the rangers had a couple of telescopes set up for us to enjoy.  I would encourage anyone with the opportunity to take advantage of a night sky program.

It was the perfect ending to a wonderful road trip. The following morning, the kids got their junior ranger badges, we packed up and headed out of the park.

Mount Rushmore

Growing up, I always imagined Mount Rushmore as an integral part of the American family road. Growing up in Texas, it was never part of our road trip. So I was excited to visit this National Monument.

My youngest learned about Mount Rushmore in his preschool class. He was so excited about visiting. He still says this was his favorite park. While, the park is small, it’s worth visiting.

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We arrived in this park in the afternoon. We spent the morning doing a tour of Wind Cave as well as a quick visit to Crazy Horse Memorial. (I’ll post about that separately).

There’s no admission to the monument but you do have to pay for parking. Even if you have the annual pass, you still have to pay for parking.

There’s a small shop at the front of the monument. Then there’s a walkway lined with flags of each state. This is a popular spot to take pictures.

We walked to the end of the walkway and took the elevator down to the trail. We wanted to go on a ranger led walk, but couldn’t find the group. We ended up walking on our own.

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The paved walk is pretty easy. It takes you up close to the monument and has facts about each of the four presidents on the mountain. We finally saw the ranger, he had finished the guided tour but was hanging out answering questions. The kids peppered him with questions they had about the monument.

Past the monument, the walk will also take you by sculptor’s studio.

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Here there was another ranger talk. We decided to opt out and just look at the exhibit on our own.

Afterwards, we went to the visitor center. There’s a movie you can watch and exhibits to look at. The kids also got their junior ranger badges here.

On our way out, we decided to enjoy some ice cream. There’s a restaurant and ice cream (Carver’s ice cream shop) shop at the monument. The ice cream cones are huge!  We were trying to decide whether or not to stick around for the light show at night.

We were a little tired and there was little a couple of hours until the show. We decided to skip it though if we had come closer to the show time, we would have stayed.

That night we had dinner at Keystone (that’s where our hotel was). We had dinner at an Indian restaurant and it was actually really good food!

The Black Hills part of South Dakota is beautiful and I would definitely come here again.