6 Tips for Securing High-Demand Wilderness Permits and Campgrounds

It’s February, and planning for Road Trip 2017 is officially in full-swing! Midnight permit faxes, reservation-stalking on Recreation.gov, and obsessive checking and re-checking of NPS deadlines and Google Maps is the name of the game around these parts. This year’s trip poses particular logistical challenges, as we will be on the road for six and a half weeks. On the itinerary are 17 National Parks and 8 National Monuments–some new to us, others highly anticipated return visits. We’ll explore some parks as long as five days, others as few as five hours. 20 nights will be spent backpacking, 6 in motels, and 19 more will be spent in frontcountry campgrounds. And man oh man, are there reservations to be made–so many reservations! Airline tickets, ranger tours, backpacking permits, shuttles–the list seems endless. As an obsessive-compulsive planning type, I think I may have finally met my match.

As the kids grow older, backpacking has become a larger staple in our road trip repertoire. For one, it is incredibly economical–even more “expensive” permits such as a Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim trek can be had for as little as $8 a night per person. More importantly, the opportunity for intimacy with nature and uninterrupted family time can’t be beat. It’s a win-win situation in cost and payoff, especially for those (like us) who live outside the Lower 48 and must consider airfare and car rental expenses as well.

Securing wilderness permits, however, can be a source of anxiety and frustration, especially at popular destinations such as Yosemite or Grand Canyon. I’m no expert on the permitting process; I truly believe luck played as big a part in securing our Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim and Devil’s Postpile to Tuolumne Meadows permits as anything else. I have great respect for those who prefer a more spontaneous, less-planned approach to travel, and my intent is not to espouse one method over the other. However, for those who are inclined to plan, there are ways to increase your chances of securing high-demand wilderness permits. Here are just a few:

  1. Check NPS websites regularly for updates

    Check, double-check, and triple-check NPS websites for updated deadline timetables and preferred application methods. For example, less than a month ago, Sequoia’s website indicated faxing to be the preferred application method for wilderness permits. A recent update to the website, however, indicates that email is now the preferred application method. Reservation systems are tweaked constantly; I’ve learned the hard way that procedures can change seemingly overnight.

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    Ode to road trips past: Redwoods, 2013
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    Redwoods National Park, 2013

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    Cliff Palace tour at Mesa Verde, 2014
  2. Early is best

    Determine the earliest date and time applications for your desired permit are accepted. Sync your computer to the official NIST time, and aim to apply the minute reservations open. This tip applies to campground reservations as well, especially in popular parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. If your wilderness permit is handled by Recreation.gov, aim to set up an account and log in prior to “go” time. Pre-navigate to your intended trail/backcountry use area. Pre-select dates, and be ready to click “Book these dates” the second reservations become available. In some cases, hundreds of other people (literally!) will be competing for the same dates and spaces, so time is of the essence. A correlate to this tip is to note the time zone indicated on the reservations page and calculate any discrepancy for your specific time zone in advance. For example, 12:01 PST on Reservation.gov means a 10:01 pm booking time the day before the listed date for Hawaii folk.

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    So excited to return to the Narrows this year!
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    Hiking the Narrows, Zion, 2014

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    Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, 2015
  3. Flexibility is key

    For a Grand Canyon rim-to-rim, flexibility is key, especially with hundreds of applicants vying for a mere dozen spots. There are only 12 campsites available in Cottonwood at the base of the North Rim, and reservations at coveted Phantom Ranch are even more of a unicorn chase. Flexible dates are your best best; short of that, multiple itinerary options are you next best option. For example, our dates were only marginally flexible, so we included no less than 8 trail/itinerary options to increase our chances of securing a permit. While we were ultimately unable to snag Cottonwood, we were granted permission to take the North Kaibab Trail from the North Rim to Bright Angel Campground for 2 nights before heading out via Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim. It’s not ideal and will require a longer Day 1 hike than anticipated, but listing this option allowed us to secure a permit for a rim-to-rim traverse–a bucket list item for us. Listing no alternate options, on the other hand, might have resulted in no permit at all.

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    Last light, Grand Canyon 2014

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    Bright Angel Trail, 2014
  4. Consider a reverse trek

    For those looking to reserve Yosemite wilderness permits originating in Tuolumne and ending in Inyo National Forest, consider a reverse trek. For example, we had our hearts set on backpacking a 30-mile section of the John Muir Trail, beginning at Tuolumne Meadows and ending at Devil’s Postpile National Monument. With Yosemite’s strict entrance and exit quotas, particularly over Donohue Pass and Lyell Canyon, we knew obtaining a summer permit was a long shot at best. Instead, we set our sights on a reverse trek. Entering at Devil’s Postpile (Agnew Meadows) and exiting at Tuolumne opened up multiple trail options reservable through Inyo National Forest/Recreation.gov instead of Yosemite National Park. The benefits here are multifold: Recreation.gov’s online system operates in real time, whereas faxing an application to Yosemite requires a multi-day wait for approval. During this wait, any alternate routes you might have considered in lieu of your first choice could easily be snatched up, shutting down your backpacking options should your first choice route be denied. Also, Inyo National Forest offers multiple entry points and trails leading to the same destination. In our case, River Trail, Shadow Creek Trail, or High Sierra Trail all merge with the JMT at Thousand Island Lake and exit at Tuolumne Meadows. Having multiple trails to choose from in real time offered us the best chance of successfully booking this high-demand section of the JMT.

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    Moro Rock Trail, Sequoia 2014

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    Clara Barton Tree, Sequoia 2014
  5. Some folks go sly

    I haven’t personally tried this tip yet, and while I’m generally opposed to underhanded dealings as a matter of principle, there’s also a part of me that admires the evil genius behind this plan. In most cases, Recreation.gov allows you to make campground and wilderness permit as early as 6 months in advance. For example, on 1/1, you can make camp or permit reservations for a start date of 7/1. However, on 1/1, you can also theoretically reserve a 14-day block that extends all the way to 7/15. Again, I haven’t tried this personally, but I’ve read that you can deliberately select a too-early start date to guarantee a spot for your later preferred arrival date. For example, let’s say you would like to reserve Coveted Campground A from July 8-July 15. You could wait until January 8th to make your reservation, or you could “work the system” by reserving the earliest date that would allow you to wholly accommodate your desired reservation (in this case, January 1) and modify your reservation start date later. Though shady, this would theoretically guarantee you a spot at Coveted Campground A for your preferred dates nearly competition-free. Note that Recreation.gov charges a $10 fee to modify your itinerary; I’m less sure of any fees karma may eventually collect.

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    We’ll pass within 50 miles of Arches, but a return visit isn’t in the cards this year, unfortunately

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    Yosemite, 2014
  6. Shoot for weekdays, not weekends

    Last but not least, maximize your chances of securing high-demand wilderness permits and campgrounds by traveling weekdays if at all possible. Traveling during non-summer shoulder seasons is also helpful, but we were unable to swing this with school and work schedules. Traveling for close to two months means that we will inevitably wind up at a handful of parks during peak weekend visitation periods, but we tried to time our high-demand treks for weekdays to maximize our chances of acquiring permits. We hope that this strategy will pay off as we apply for our Rae Lakes Loop (Sequoia/Kings Canyon) permit next week–fingers crossed!

There’s no denying that applying for high-demands permits and campgrounds can be a frustrating process. And while dumb luck may play a larger role in determining success or failure than we might like, there are ways to stack the odds in our favor, however small that may be. After all, if success is where preparedness and opportunity meet, then preparing for the best gives opportunity every reason to knock on our door!

What are your favorite tips for securing high-demand campgrounds and permits? What summer plans have you been making?                          

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WW II Valor in the Pacific National Monument: Pearl Harbor Reflection & Tips

There are 1,177 men entombed beneath my feet.

The knowledge is humbling, overwhelming. The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 would stun the nation, catapulting America into WWII. History tells us that the battleship USS Arizona sustained a fatal blow to a powder magazine that day. That the violent force of the explosion caused it to sink in minutes, entombing the 1,177 sailors aboard. Some were trapped alive. I think about the average age of those who died that fateful Sunday–23 years old–and of my son, 15, not three years younger than the crew’s youngest. I picture the faint mustache settling in above his lip and the cartoon character baby blanket he refuses to part with. I think about the soldiers’ mothers, whose sons will never return. History may seek to analyze and interpret the events of December 7th, but standing here at the Arizona Memorial, there is no logic or reason–only profound sadness.

Two hours earlier, we’d made the fifteen minute trek to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument –in our Sienna, not a rental car–a first and likely last for us in the National Parks system, given our homebase of Honolulu. We’ve driven thousands of miles visiting parks afar; it was only fitting that we visit the NPS site closest to home. Just a week prior, the Arizona Memorial had made international headlines with the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but today, there is a quieter crowd. Christmas is a week away, and the kids are less than enthused about our choice of holiday activity. With school out, they’ve merry making on their minds–not war. But with complimentary tickets to the Pacific Aviation Museum set to expire, we knew a combined Pearl Harbor/Pacific Aviation Museum tour was in order.

It’s a repeat visit for the kids, who’ve come before on field trips. But it’s been two decades, maybe three since my last visit. Everything is shiny and new–the result of a recent multi-million dollar renovation. It is comforting to see the familiar NPS set-up at work: park rangers, visitor center, gift shop. In many ways, the set-up reminds us of Mount Rushmore, complete with turnstiles, on-site museums, and guards. In other ways, less so: namely, the constant reminder that we are on an active naval base. We secure 10 am Arizona Memorial boat tickets* from a crowd-weary park ranger, who swigs water from his beat-up Nalgene. His boots and backpack indicate he is a hiker; his accent is not local. I don’t imagine this is the gig he envisioned when he signed with the Parks service. North Cascades receives 30,000 visitors per year; Pearl Harbor receives 1.8 million. It is the number one tourist destination in Hawaii, which is saying a lot for a state powered by tourism. He reminds us to meet at the theater in two hours, where we will view a short movie before boarding a boat to the Memorial.

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World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument
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Walking to the Pearl Harbor Memorial Theater

We wander the Visitor Center’s two exhibit galleries, “Road to War” and “Attack.” Everywhere we turn, we are met with the sights and sounds of war: gunfire, airplanes, and portraits of Japanese fighter pilots that could just as easily pass for photos of lost relatives. It haunts me. Patriotism comes naturally–I was born abroad on an Army base, and my father and his seven siblings served in the Army and Air Force. But I am Japanese-American, wearing the face of those who attacked Pearl Harbor that day. And I am Japanese-American, wearing the face of US citizens who were interned, of JA boys who gave their lives in service to prove their loyalty to America. Confusion and sadness turmoil within. Intellectually, I understand the whys and hows of all that transpired. But wandering these galleries, I don’t know how to reconcile these feelings. Emotion overcomes me more than once. I tell myself this is a good thing. That we should not forget the price of freedom, that our nation is stronger for recognizing that heritage and patriotism are not mutually exclusive. Above all, I am reminded that war is fiercely personal and that opposing sides often wear the faces of young boys not unlike my son, separated only by fate. Loyal to different flags, unaware of the politics at play or how their actions may change history.

The line at the theater gives Disneyland a run for its money. Every ten minutes, two park rangers rally throngs of ticket-holders into a cordoned-off holding area before funneling them into the theater. For 23 minutes, we view black and white footage of the two waves of Japanese attacks that day. It is surreal to see Japanese Zeros flying against the crenulated relief of the Ko’olaus, rows of sugarcane in Ewa plantation fields. Unlike the Ben Affleck flick, though, there is no melodramatic soundtrack to set the mood. The sounds of actual explosions, planes, and gunfire are sobering enough.

The kids don’t say much at the dock. I suspect they feel as affected as I do; it’s hard not to. We are ushered with several dozen visitors onto a Navy-operated boat. It is a short ride to the Arizona Memorial, and clear skies and calm waters make for a smooth ride. Looking out upon Ford Island and the telltale contour of Pearl Harbor, it is impossible not to picture the events of December 7th. The stillness of the harbor reminds us that time may have passed, but this will always be hallowed ground.

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Approaching the Arizona Memorial by Navy boat
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As seen from the assembly chamber, Arizona Memorial

The all-white Memorial grows larger and larger until finally, its symbolic shape comes into full view–peaked ends sloping toward a concave center. The peaks represent America’s pre-war pride and eventual triumph; the concave depression symbolizes the attacks of December 1941. We deboard into the entry chamber, moving quickly to the assembly room to gather around floor portals that open directly into the water. Designed by architect Alfred Preis, the Memorial spans the sunken hull of the Arizona, floating above the battleship without touching it. Oil still seeps from the wreckage; this morning, there is a filmy sheen to the blue-green water beneath us. Our youngest points out a ten-inch slick just beyond the portal, a school of fish darting into view. Though the wreckage is clearly visible from all vantage points, there is a surprising lightness to the Memorial. Open-air ceilings accentuate blue skies, warm breezes. Overlooks allow for quiet contemplation over the water.

My personal discomfort stops me from photographing the Memorial, though I know that photography does not equal disrespect. Still, I am less sure of the selfie sticks, social media posts, and Go Pro cameras I see, though I try to refrain from judgment. Most visitors linger quietly–some in the assembly chamber, others in the shrine room with a marble wall bearing the names of Arizona’s fallen. Many offer lei, prayers. I don’t know how to honor the sacrifice here except to read the names of the fallen and try to comprehend the magnitude of each life lost. For a long moment, I am overwhelmed with grief, and then I see the diversity of those gathered: Americans of every color and credo, as well as international visitors–including many from Japan. Perhaps peace is the most beautiful testament of all to the sacrifice and memory of these men. Bonded here in reverence, it is clear that the humanity that unites us is so much greater than the sum of our differences. Here at the memorial wall, there is grief, yes, but there is also promise and beauty and hope.

Tips for Families Planning to Visit Pearl Harbor:

  • *Admission to WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument is free. Boat tickets to the USS Arizona Memorial Program are also free, but slots are limited. Recreation.gov allows you to reserve tickets up to 2 months in advance; there are also 1,300 first come, first served walk-in tickets issued daily. (A note of caution: walk-in tickets almost always sell out by mid-morning.)
  • For security reasons, no purses, camera bags, diaper bags, etc. of any kind are allowed at the Visitor Center. There are storage lockers available at the entrance for $3, but pockets are free and work well for phones, wallets, and keys.
  • The Memorial Program lasts 75 minutes, including boat rides, theater movie and time at the Memorial. Three hours provides ample time to wander the exhibit galleries and experience the Memorial. Allow an extra half hour to walk the Remembrance Circle and interpretive wayside exhibits.
  • Other Pearl Harbor Historic Sites include: the Battleship Missouri, USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Separate admission fees apply unless you choose to purchase a Passport to Pearl Harbor bundle, which allows access to all sites for one inclusive cost. However, we found that the Arizona Memorial and Pacific Aviation Museum alone took us the better part of 7 hours to experience. I’d recommend spreading visits over two days, or alternately, choosing one or two historic sites to focus on.
  • The Pacific Aviation Museum is fantastic for aviation enthusiasts of all ages. Historic Ford Island is restricted to those with military access; however, visitors to Pearl Harbor can access the museum by taking a free 5-minute shuttle to the museum. As this is an active military base, cell phones and picture taking are prohibited during the shuttle ride. We highly recommend taking advantage of the free audio tours available at the museum’s entrance. They provide a wealth of information and do a fantastic job of bringing the exhibits to life. Be sure to visit Hangars 37 and 79; Hangar 79’s windows house bullet holes from the Pearl Harbor attack. Our youngest, an Amelia Earhart buff, loved the Combat Flight Simulator, a 20-minute hands-on experience over Guadalcanal. Be sure to check the museum’s website, which often features coupons for free flight simulator admission (normally a $10 additional fee).
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    Pacific Aviation Museum audio tour
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    Hangar 79, bullet holes in windows sustained during Pearl Harbor attack
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    Waiting for the Ford Island shuttle

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One Perfect Day on Bainbridge Island

I’m a little embarrassed to admit the number of times I’ve watched Dr. Derek Shepherd sail into Seattle at sunrise, arms slung over the ferry rail, the weight of the world etched into his jaw. Christina and Meredith each have “their person,” and Grey’s Anatomy is definitely my show! Recreating this iconic Grey’s scene (albeit minus McDreamy, unfortunately) was one of the highlights of my first solo trip to the Emerald City. Fast forward five years, and I’m still enamored of Seattle’s ferries. It was a thrill to experience the ride through the kids’ eyes after a lovely day spent on Bainbridge Island–a day which turned out to be one of our trip favorites!  

Streamliner Diner

We initially intended to hit Bainbridge Island following an overnight camping stint at Dungeness Spit on the Olympic Peninsula. However, plans shifted, and with rainstorms forecast for the rest of the week, we instead found alternate lodging in Federal Way and drove an hour and a half to Bainbridge. Online reviews steered us toward Streamliner Diner for breakfast, and I can happily confirm the fabulous reviews we’d read were well-deserved. A stainless steel diner with funky, retro decor, Streamliner Diner delivers tasty fare and generous portion sizes at moderate prices. Of particular note were the delicious omelettes–sausage and pesto, as well as a caramelized onion, spinach, bacon, brie variety–and homemade pear turmeric muffins. Hash browns were crisped to perfection; the coffee: full-bodied and strong. After two weeks of grab-and-go trail breakfasts, we gorged ourselves silly.

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Sausage and pesto omelette, pear and turmeric muffin
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This little guy put away that entire steak, 2 eggs, hashbrowns, and a biscuit!
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Hashbrown perfection
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Shampooed hair after a week felt like a minor miracle!
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Streamliner Diner, Bainbridge Island

Waterfront Trail

Bainbridge is the kind of town that begs to be explored by foot, and two-mile Waterfront Trail provided the perfect antidote to our gluttony. A scenic and peaceful stroll through the harbor, marina, and surrounding neighborhoods, the Waterfront Trail’s western loop intersects many of Bainbridge’s main attractions. We watched rowers row, picked berries off straggly bushes past their prime, shaded our eyes from the sunlight gleaming across the water. With no set schedule and no reason to hurry, we lingered on the docks, watching kayakers paddle their way across the marina. If Seattle is a city on the pulse, then Bainbridge dallies to a dreamier beat. Strolling through town feels like vacation. Locals smile and chat up day trippers; one local boater recognized us–or more likely, the horrifying amount we’d just consumed at Streamliner Diner. “Walking off that huge breakfast you just ate?” he asked with a wink. Eventually, Waterfront Trail wound inland toward Eagle Harbor Waterfront Park, where we spent the better part of an hour playing American Ninja Warrior on playground equipment. The swings beckoned, and we were hard-pressed to find a toddler having more fun than our teen and pre-teen (and mama!) on those swings that day.

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Blue skies and plenty of sunshine made the Waterfront Trail one of our favorite walks
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Eagle Harbor Waterfront Park swingset

Bainbridge Island Historical Museum

Our walk led us to Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, a converted schoolhouse and island gem dedicated to the preservation of Bainbridge’s rich, diverse history. Don’t let its small size fool you–admission is not free, but the museum is well worth the $10 per family fee. We were lucky to receive a guided tour from our docent, who was both knowledgeable and gifted at bringing history to life. From the history of the Suquamish tribe to the role of sawmills on the island to an award-winning exhibition of the Japanese-American internment during World War II, we found ourselves immersed in the museum’s interactive displays and videos. We were particularly interested to learn the fate of island JA families who were evacuated to internment camps following President Roosevelt’s decree. As an American citizen living in Hawaii, my mother-in-law lost her family, home, and livelihood; her father and sisters were deported while she and her mother were relocated to Tule Lake Camp, a place as foreign to her as Japan. Like other internees, her story is one of struggle, endurance, and triumph–one that I did not fully appreciate until viewing Ansel Adams’s Manzanar collection. Calling it his life’s most important work, Adams set out to capture the internees’ indomitable spirit and determination to thrive in spite of public mistrust and government injustice. Without a doubt, the war was a time of suffering for many Americans; the museum’s commitment to representing diverse perspectives gives us hope that we are not destined to repeat the mistakes of history.

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The Waterfront Trail winds through the museum
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Entrance to the museum
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Exploring an outdoor exhibit
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WW II evacuation decree
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Ansel Adams’s Manzanar Collection

Mora Iced Creamery

How do you describe the little scoop of heaven that is Mora ice cream on a cone? Luscious, creamy, decadent–everything that ice cream should be–and a host of other complexities you didn’t know it could be. Full-flavored yet delicate. Decadent but light. Nuanced and multilayered. It’s no wonder this humble iced creamery has been raking in national awards and praise for years. Their signature MORA (blackberry) cone was simply divine; coconut, espresso mocha, and French vanilla were equally wondrous. I’ve visited Bainbridge multiple times in the past without stopping at this local institution, and believe me, my stomach grieves the loss of those uneaten cones. I would ferry to Bainbridge Island especially for this treat. It’s that good!

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Mora Iced Creamery, Bainbridge Island
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Is there anything better than receiving an ice cream cone?
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French Vanilla meets Blackberry
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MORA (blackberry) signature flavor ice cream–divine!

Bainbridge Island Museum of Art

Less than a five-minute trek from the ferry dock, the art museum made for a wonderful conclusion to our walk. Admission and parking are free. The museum houses a range of eclectic works, showcasing artists from the greater Puget Sound area. We especially enjoyed the ‘Heaven on Fire’ exhibit by artist Barbara Earl Thomas, whose profound vessel work and writing collection moved us. For parents who worry that the museum might not interest youngsters, the museum offers a free scavenger hunt written activity that kept our kids engaged. Upon completion of the activity, they received pencils made with denim, reminiscent of the denim used to insulate the museum–a fun and free keepsake to remind them of our time on Bainbridge.

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Bainbridge Island Museum of Art
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Vessel work by Barbara Earl Thomas

Ferry Ride

We felt like rockstars when we pulled into the ferry terminal with literal seconds to spare. WSDOT runs a tight ship, adhering to departure times like clockwork. We parked our car on the bottom level of the ferry and made our way to the upper levels. The kids marveled over the sheer size of the ferry–they couldn’t believe there were manned snack bars, lounge areas, and levels of seating that required minutes of walking to access. The hubby took the kids to the upper deck to enjoy the open air; highlights included a pod of dolphins and ferry goers hand-feeding seagulls (not a sound practice, obviously, but still fun to watch). Seeing Space Needle from the water was a treat, though nothing could beat the majestic views of snow-capped Mount Rainier. My brother once told me that Seattleites lived for July. Riding the ferry into Seattle that warm summer day, I finally understood why.img_20160712_145914img_20160712_152215img_20160712_14580420160712_145826_richtonehdr  

University of Washington

Once back in the hustle and bustle of Seattle, we drove a few minutes to the University of Washington. Our oldest is a high school freshman this year, and the realities of college and his inevitable departure have hit us hard. In my (sad and pathetic) attempt to at least keep him close to family, I encouraged him to “fall in love with” (okay, “tour” might be the technical term here, but it’s all semantics) the UW campus. From apple and cherry tree-adorned walkways to gothic-spired libraries with secret Harry Potter-style reading rooms, UW boasts a huge and beautiful campus. Our son’s radar perked up at the sight of the Husky Union Building, a student center equipped with bowling arcades and X-Box game rooms outfitted with high def flat screens. We peeked into lecture halls, hung out in the Quad, and soaked in the flavor and vibe of the campus. Three hours and several miles of walking later, the oldest confirmed UW firmly in the ‘maybe’ category. I’ll take it!

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University of Washington
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Suzzallo Library, Harry Potter Reading Room

Pink Door

Hidden in historic Post Alley beneath an unsigned namesake pink door, Pink Door is an Italian bistro as renown for its aerial trapeze/burlesque shows as its sumptuous Italian fare. Though perhaps less appropriate for children later in the evening, 6 pm was a perfect time for enjoying an intimate family dinner here in Pike Market. On the menu: linguine alle vongole paired with crusty bread, Penn Cove mussels and clams drenched in briny broth, a decanter of house red to share. Where the dinner menu is elegant and refined, the dining room exudes energy, dynamism. Candelabras, lighted mirrors, and gold-trimmed decor evoke a sense of theatricality just shy of tacky (in a good way!). At once over the top and understatedly casual, everything about Pink Door invites you to linger–and linger we did, indeed. After weeks of hiking, backpacking, and camping, the knowledge that this was our final night of vacation made the splurge bittersweet. Tomorrow, we’d fly home to Hawaii and real life. Tonight, though? An amazing meal, unforgettable sunset, and an espresso nightcap at First and Pike sound like just the way to go.