More Than Meets the Eye: Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Prior to 2015, my impression of South Dakota was informed largely by bits and pieces I’d gleaned from the Travel Channel and a well-meaning Nebraskan friend. Corn, windmills, and biker rallies figured pretty prominently into the picture, as did tractors on highways and grasslands on steroids. Let me amend that: only grasslands on steroids. To hear my Nebraskan friend tell it, South Dakota comprised nothing more than 75,000 square miles of telephone poles and the very occasional crow.

“You’ve read Little House on the Prairie, right?” she said. I nodded, and she tossed her hands up in a you see what I mean? gesture. I thought she might at least concede Mount Rushmore as a worthy stop, but I quickly learned my lesson: South Dakota/Nebraska rivalry is a glorious, deep-seeded thing. Planning three days in South Dakota could only be perceived as a personal affront. “Have fun watching grass grow,” she huffed.

Here’s what I didn’t dare tell her: we could’ve spent three weeks in South Dakota and only scratched the surface of all that this beautiful state has to offer.

From Rocky Mountain National Park, we headed north, spending a day in Badlands National Park before bearing west towards Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore National Monument. Already, we were enamored of the otherworldly terrain and wildlife of the Badlands, but before our three days were through, we’d come to love so much more about this underrated state. We were fortunate to stay at the Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch, just ten minutes away from Mount Rushmore. We love in-park camping and had planned a week’s worth between Grand Teton and Yellowstone in the coming week, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I love a good KOA almost as much as the kids do. It’s the perfect camp/resort hybrid, and at $20/night for a tent-only site plus a $10 resort fee, this KOA measured head and shoulders above any commercial campground we’ve ever stayed at. But more on that later.

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Our home for two nights–Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch was one of our favorite KOAs ever!

Palmer Gulch turned out to be a convenient home base for exploring Wind Cave National Park, a short 40-minute drive away. Wind Cave doesn’t receive nearly the attention that Carlsbad Caverns or Mammoth Caves does, and that’s a shame–it’s a fascinating place to visit. On first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Wind Cave as yet another example of the ubiquitous South Dakota grasslands my friend had warned us about, but this prairie harbors a secret world. Beneath the bison herds and prairie dogs peeking out from park burrows lies a 140-mile labyrinth of passageways that makes Wind Cave the sixth longest cave in the world. More significantly, Wind Cave houses 95% of the world’s known boxwork formations–thin calcite projections that form honeycomb patterns. 95%! True, I’d never heard of boxwork formations before visiting Wind Cave, but still. I know a significant thing when I hear it. 😀 

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Wind Cave National Park, 2015

Visitors may only enter the cave through a guided ranger tour, so we stopped at the Visitor Center to purchase tour tickets and Junior Ranger booklets. We opted for the 1.5 hour Fairgrounds Tour, which would allow us to explore both the upper and middle levels of the cave. NPS labels this tour as its most strenuous walking tour, but don’t let that deter you–participants navigate 450 stairs over two thirds of a mile in dimly lit conditions, but aside from the darkness, this tour is entirely doable for kids and adults of all ages. At $12 per adult and $6 per kid, the tour was reasonably priced, and we were excited to see what Wind Cave held in store for us.

A short elevator ride transported us from the Visitor Center into a dark and complicated maze of cave passageways. Outside, it was a blistering 100 degrees; here, beneath the surface, it was a cool 50–chilly enough to warrant a jacket. Moving from room to room, our ranger pointed out elaborate boxwork formations and illuminated iridescent frost formations with a flashlight. She warned us not to dawdle, and it soon became clear why: passageways forked into multiple passageways, which in turn divided into multiple passageways yet again–a mitotic explosion of cave confusion to the uninitiated like us. We ducked low boxwork ceilings in rooms barely large enough to accommodate a single body, only to turn the corner to enter gaping caverns where our voices echoed for what seemed like miles. It was an amazing study in contrasts. Our ranger ended the tour by extinguishing her flashlight to let us experience absolute darkness–the kind of darkness that made it impossible to see our outstretched hands not six inches from our faces. It was an incredible experience.

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Descending into the depths, Wind Cave Fairgrounds Tour
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Low boxwork ceilings meant frequent ducking and stooping
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Intricate boxwork in Wind Cave
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Maneuvering between narrow walls, glancing up at intricate formations
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Boxwork ceilings, iridescent frost formations as well
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Fairgrounds Cave Tour contains over 450 stairs, but it’s very manageable for families. Nothing sketchy or overly strenuous.

We ended our time in-park with a cursory nod to Wind Cave’s above-ground offerings, hiking 1-mile Prairie Vista Trail. Rolling plains, wallowing bison, and skittish prairie dogs set the stage for a hot but easy stroll through a sampling of the park’s bucolic setting. I would’ve loved to spend the rest of the day exploring Wind Cave’s hiking trails, but there was a KOA with resort amenities calling to the kids like Siren song. They’re good sports, always indulging my hiking and backpacking whims without complaint, so how could I begrudge them an afternoon of kid-approved fun? We drove back to our campsite and unleashed their boundless energy on Palmer Gulch.

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Prairie Vista Trail

Talk about amenities–this KOA was seriously decked out! Water slides, swimming pools, climbing walls, and a giant jumping pillow would’ve been ridiculous enough. But throw in a foam pools, life-sized chess, hayrides, horse rides, and bicycle rides, and you begin to understand why the kids couldn’t tear themselves away. They played hard all afternoon, finally collapsing at camp five hours later for dinner. We cooked our own meals, but this KOA even offers a pizza parlor, nightly barbecue buffet, and an ice cream shop for those who’d prefer to let someone else do the heavy lifting. For $20 a night, I can’t recommend Mount Rushmore KOA highly enough!

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Catching air–the kids loved this jump pillow!
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With all the activities that the KOA had to offer, it was a happy surprise to see them enjoying basketball together
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Our youngest had the best time riding around camp
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Slippery, soapy, foamy fun. Our youngest made fast friends with this little guy.
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Water slides, pools, and sprinklers provided relief from the triple digit heat
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Mini playground just feet from our campsite. The kids played here before every meal. The main amenities area had a much larger playground with sprinklers and a climbing wall.
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Hearty dinner for the famished fam

After dinner, we drove to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. If we had any question about the kind of crowds this great American icon draws, we had only to survey the enormous size of the parking lot–far and away the largest of any NPS site we’ve ever visited–to know the answer. This is not the kind of monument that’s hidden behind some grand facade, either; it doesn’t require hours of hiking to get to. In fact, from the moment you step onto the grounds (and for many miles before), you can see Mount Rushmore. But the experience of visiting Mount Rushmore? So much more than that. Walking through the parade of flags, watching the presidents’ faces sharpen in focus with each passing step–it’s an intentional process that transforms and elevates the experience into something unforgettable.

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Entering Mount Rushmore National Memorial–turnstiles
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Parade of flags–each state is represented here
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Mount Rushmore crowds are huge, especially in the summer. I never thought I’d love a crowd, but it really added to the patriotic swell of the lighting ceremony.
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A little piece of Hawaii in South Dakota
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Mount Rushmore at sunset, June 2015
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Sunset over Mount Rushmore. You can probably tell from all the gray–we got caught in some crazy thunder and lightning on the way back to camp!

Although we didn’t have enough time to hike any of the trails that would have brought us to the base of the carvings, we enjoyed browsing museum exhibits that cataloged the arduous task of bringing Mount Rushmore into fruition. Given a second chance, I’d definitely allot an entire day here, but if 2015 turns out to be my only experience at Mount Rushmore, I’m extremely grateful to have experienced the park’s evening program. Like everything else about South Dakota, the evening lighting ceremony was so much more than I expected. The sun set over the amphitheater, crowning the monument with a brilliant halo and then darkness. Floodlights illuminated the stage, drawing our attention away from the darkening monument. Through film, the ranger explained the significance of the presidents honored by Mount Rushmore. She asked us to consider the symbolic light of freedom and its importance not just to Americans, but to all those fighting oppression worldwide as Mount Rushmore came aglow. By the time the audience joined her in the Pledge of Allegiance and “The Star Spangled Banner,” I was choking back tears. The ranger called those who’ve served to the stage, asking each serviceman and servicewoman to introduce themselves and their branch of service. I was beside myself. The crowd’s deafening cheers, the rousing ovation for the men and women who defend our freedom–it was a swell of patriotism and pride I’ll never forget.

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Evening lighting ceremony. As the sky darkens, the amphitheater stage comes to life
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Symbolic light of freedom, Mount Rushmore National Memorial. If you visit Mount Rushmore during the summer, I highly recommend attending this ceremony!
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The park ranger called servicemen and women to the stage. So incredibly moving.
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Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing “The Star Spangled Banner” during the evening lighting ceremony

Since 2015, we’ve compiled a growing list of places we’d like to explore in South Dakota, among them Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Jewel Cave National Monument. My friend will roll her eyes when I tell her our plans, no doubt. Is South Dakota all grasslands on steroids? Absolutely–and not at all. Amid all that grass, there is so much more than meets the eye, and I, for one, am thankful that my friend is a very good sport because goodness knows, I am a very bad listener.     

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Rocky Mountain National Park: 5 Family-Friendly Hikes

In our family, life in the seventies unfolded to a revolving soundtrack of the Carpenters, Barry Manilow, and Neil Diamond. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom setting the record player needle onto vinyl just so, my dad singing and stomping to “Sweet Caroline.” I’d spend whole afternoons rifling through our album collection, pulling records from sleeves to hand to my mom. I remember one album in particular–a bespectacled, long-haired John Denver on the cover, guitar in hand–a greatest hits compilation. I may not have understood who Annie was or the significance of those country roads, but there was an earnestness to Denver’s voice that moved me even then. Listening to “Rocky Mountain High” with the kids decades later at Rocky Mountain National Park was like traveling back in time, linking past and present. Like coming full circle and going home. Wandering a few miles of RMNP’s trails, those lyrics came alive like never before. Hiking felt like catching a small glimpse of Denver’s heart.              

  1. Bear Lake Loop (0.8 miles)

If you’ve ever visited Bear Lake in late June, then you already know the truth we discovered on Day 3 of Road Trip 2015: the eponymous bear of Bear Lake might have more to do with the challenging parking conditions than any creature of the ursine variety! Still, one glimpse of beautiful Bear Lake was all it took to convince us that parking woes were a small price to pay for such beauty. We jockeyed for a stall at the Bear Lake Park and Ride (our fault for lingering over camp bacon!) and took a free park shuttle to the lake.

With a bevy of lovely trails and showstopping subalpine scenery to enjoy, Bear Lake is one of the most popular regions in RMNP. Crowds are something I prefer to avoid, but Bear Lake is popular for a reason: if ever there was a picture perfect postcard scene, Bear Lake is surely it. Bear Lake Loop follows the circumference of Bear Lake, offering multiple perspectives and viewing angles with an added benefit–the farther we hiked along the loop, the more the crowds diminished. And while you’re never truly alone on this trail, there are plenty of lakeside pockets and clearings to escape to, if only for a minute.

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Bear Lake Park and Ride–even with several hundred stalls, this lot fills by 9 am
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Bear Lake, RMNP
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Bear Lake Loop, 2015
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Bear Lake Loop offers pockets of solitude not generally found at the trailhead
  1. Nymph Lake, Dream Lake, and Emerald Lake (3.6 miles)

Once back at Bear Lake trailhead, we followed an adjacent trail to Nymph Lake, half a mile away. A short but steady uphill climb didn’t sound so bad on paper, but the unfamiliar altitude (9,400 feet) left us winded. Coming from sea level, we found ourselves headachey and nauseous. Recognizing the effects of altitude, we slowed our pace and hydrated liberally to take the edge off. (Which mostly worked, though we continued to experience headaches the next day, too.) We rested at Nymph Lake for half an hour, journaling and sketching the waterlily-ringed lake before us. While not as clear or vivid as Bear Lake, Nymph Lake had its own Monet-like appeal that made for an interesting watercolor study.

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Taking a break to sketch the scene with watercolors
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Nymph Lake, RMNP 2015
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Photo cred to the hubby for this shot…and most of the shots on this blog, really! 😀

From Nymph Lake, we climbed another half mile to an elevation just shy of 10,000 feet. This portion of the trail remains ingrained in my mind to this day: yellow wildflowers overlooking miles of forest, Longs Peak standing watch in the distance. It was hard to keep from stopping every few seconds; it seemed there was a rushing creek or family of deer vying for our attention around every bend. Perhaps that’s how it was meant to be–RMNP’s way of upping the ante to prepare us for the grandeur of Dream Lake. Framed by snow-capped Hallett Peak, Flattop Mountain and Tyndall Glacier, Dream Lake remains one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. We lingered on a rocky perch and sketched for the better part of an hour, savoring the view.

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On the way to Dream Lake, Longs Peak in the distance
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Between Nymph Lake and Dream Lake
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This portion of the trail was especially scenic
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We felt like we were getting whiplash–there were beautiful creeks around every bend
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Dream Lake was sublime, especially as seen from our rocky perch away from the crowds
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Dream Lake, RMNP–we sat here for close to an hour just absorbing this beautiful scene

Though we were loath to leave Dream Lake, we still had a mile to go to reach our final destination: Emerald Lake. Climbing through the heart of Tyndall Gorge, we were excited to come upon a family of elk grazing in a meadow. They paid us no heed as we ascended the trail, finally coming to a rocky outcropping signalling the end of the trail and the beginning of Emerald Lake. I wasn’t sure anything could top the magnificence of Dream Lake, but Emerald Lake gave Dream a run for its money with its exquisite jewel-toned hue. We’re lake fans through and through, and this hike came through in a big way, supplying four beautiful subalpine lakes in under four miles. Emerald Lake even delivered an entertaining bonus in the form of a plump marmot who scurried about the rocks, panhandling for food.

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Between Dream Lake and Emerald Lake; loved seeing the mountains and lakes from multiple angles
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Emerald Lake, RMNP–it was challenging to take a photo without being unintentionally photobombed by lakeside visitors
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Emerald Lake (plus unintentional photobombing visitor) 😀
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Loved Emerald Lake’s beautiful jewel-toned hue
  1. Alpine Ridge Trail (0.6 miles)

Day 2 in RMNP dawned ominous and gray. A quick check-in with a park ranger regarding impending thunderstorms confirmed our hunch that hiking 5 miles along open and exposed Mount Ida Trail was probably not the best idea. His recommendation? Hike the half mile trail behind Alpine Visitor Center instead. I have to admit that I secretly pooh-poohed the idea– “Only half a mile?” I thought–but don’t let Alpine Ridge Trail’s short length fool you: ascending 200 feet at an elevation of 12,000 feet in under three tenths of a mile is no joke. Our youngest was seven at the time and had to sit with his head between his knees a long while to recover. He struggled to catch his breath, saying it felt like there was an elephant sitting on his chest.

Here in the alpine tundra, the growing season is short. Wildflowers bloom for six short weeks and plants grow low to the ground, adapting to the harsh winds and temperature extremes of this unforgiving environment. These miniature blooms have found a way to thrive where other organisms perish, and it was a treat to see their vibrant hues dotted against the stark expanse of glaciated greens and purples.

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Alpine Ridge Trail begins behind this Visitor Center
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Climbing toward the sun (or thunder clouds)
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Interpretive signs help with identifying all the different wildflower species
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Looking back at the Visitor Center
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Adventures of Five at 12,005 feet!
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At the top of Trail Ridge Road, fourteeners look like tiny hills
  1. Tundra Communities Trail (1.1 miles)

Located a few miles from the Alpine Visitor Center along Trail Ridge Road, the Tundra Communities Trail traverses alpine tundra and offers tremendous Alpine Ridge Trail views with far fewer crowds. I wish we’d taken pictures of this trail, but we were too busy keeping an eye on the thunderstorm headed our way…and driving ourselves crazy trying to locate the elusive pikas that had us turning circles with their distinctive chirps! We could’ve sworn we heard thousands of them, but spotting these little critters would elude us until Grand Teton National Park a week from now. Still, we loved hiking above the treeline through tundra meadow and especially enjoyed the strange and wonderful mushroom rock formations along the way. Tundra Communities Trail makes for fantastic and worthwhile tundra exploration along Trail Ridge Road.

  1. Hidden Valley Trail (<2 miles)

With thunder clouds rolling in, we were anxious to descend Trail Ridge Road but couldn’t bring ourselves to leave RMNP just yet. As luck would have it, RMNP’s Junior Ranger Headquarters is located at the base of Trail Ridge Road alongside a picturesque picnic area and valley creek. With a pot of lentil soup warming our bellies, we set out to explore Hidden Valley. A short boardwalk looped around the picnic area, branching off into spur trails that led into the mountains. We followed the most obvious of these trails and found ourselves quickly gaining elevation–and just as quickly losing traction along the steep incline. We later learned that this area is an old ski area used for winter tubing, which sounds just about right given the slopes we encountered. Downed trees littered much of the trail ahead of us, so we decided to turn around before things turned sketchy. To be honest, I’m not even sure of the trail’s official name, but exploring Hidden Valley reinforced the old adage that it really is the journey that matters most.

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Main loop around picnic area
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So many wildflowers in Hidden Valley
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Creek view, Hidden Valley
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The yellow wildflowers were especially pretty here
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Hamming it up in Hidden Valley

Back at Jellystone of Estes Park, we’d barely finished 4 holes of miniature golf before thunder crashed across the Rockies, splitting the sky apart in a torrent of rain. I’d used the phrase “lightning bolt” before but had never actually witnessed one until that moment. Watching lightning zig-zag across the sky and strike the ground with an electrifying crackle was a terrifying and awesome thing. The boom of thunder echoing across the Rockies is something I’ll never forget. Safe and sound in our tent, we were so glad we’d heeded the ranger’s advice about Mount Ida!

A short aside about Jellystone of Estes: Though the staff was very welcoming and kind and the kids loved the Yogi Bear Mardi Gras parade, given the price of a tent-only site ($60 per weekend night) and lack of amenities such as a hot tub or pool, we probably wouldn’t stay here again. We’re happy to have tried it and enjoyed our stay, but we’d prefer to camp in RMNP next time.

As always, our time in RMNP was over too soon, but we were grateful to have sampled the sights and serenity that make this park so unique. Heading out of RMNP for South Dakota, we couldn’t help but smile at John Denver’s fitting send-off refrain. 

And the Colorado Rocky Mountain High, I’ve seen it raining fire in the sky.

You can talk to God and listen to the casual reply.

Rocky Mountain High, Colorado.

Also from Road Trip 2015: RMNP Trail Ridge RoadGrand Teton Day 1, Grand Teton Day 2, Badlands National ParkPANO_20150628_101243

Dinosaur National Monument + Rocky Mountain National Park: Trail Ridge Road

Let me come right out and say it: Dinosaur National Monument was not a destination high on our travel list. Like Mesa Verde, it was an afterthought of the we’re passing through, so why not? variety. Honestly? My expectations were embarrassingly low.

Oh, we of little faith! Because National Monument and Park status is not something so glibly conferred. Still, it took a Dinosaur National Monument visit to eradicate my heretical leanings once and for all. Spoiler alert: this unassuming park delivered in big and unexpected ways!

Salt Lake City

Summer 2015 began with a six-hour red-eye to Salt Lake City that sounded good in theory–cheap tickets with an early-morning arrival, allowing for a full day of SLC exploration. Turns out a 3 am (Hawaii time) touchdown makes for some very grouchy kids–and testy parents. Oops! Oh well, at least we got the cheap tickets part right. Luckily, the kids caught their second wind at Park Cafe. Trip Advisor nailed this SLC breakfast recommendation right: thick-cut slab bacon, in-house strawberry jam, and homemade hash that delivered beautifully in the surface area to crisp edges ratio department. Bountiful portions kept our hungry brood plenty satisfied.

From Park Cafe, we headed to Temple Square for a glimpse into the heart and history of the LDS organization. Regardless of religious affiliation, Temple Square represents a triumph of both architecture and the human spirit. It is easy to appreciate the immaculate grounds and reverent beauty found here. We spent the better part of the afternoon wandering Salt Lake Temple, the Family History Library, and LDS Conference Center. The Tabernacle, in particular, harkened back to childhood memories of watching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform around an old rotary-knobbed Magnavox on Christmas Eve (Whew, dating myself big time here. Anyone else remember standing up to change the TV dial? Bueller?).

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Afternoon walking tour through SLC

Melt-in-your-mouth pastrami burgers and creamy fry-dipping sauce from Crown Burgers made for a tasty early evening pick-me-up before a 3-hour drive east to Vernal. If you like pastrami, you’ll love this SLC institution! Vernal is a fun little town–a quirky, kitschy mishmash of dinosaur-themed memorabilia and potted flower-lined streets. Even the gas stations sport fun dinosaur statues. With two weeks of camping ahead of us, we happily splurged on a motel and settled in for the night.

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Crown Burgers with special fry sauce (It’s probably just mayo and ketchup, but I swear the stuff is like crack with that pastrami burger!)

Dinosaur National Monument

Dinosaur National Monument straddles the border of Utah and Colorado, sheltering a dinosaur fossil hotbed in Vernal and winding through dramatic canyon country in Colorado. Both regions are stunning. Unfortunately, we only had time for half a day in Vernal but earmarked both ends of the park for a return visit.

A quick stop at the Quarry Visitor Center gave us time to view the park film, pick up Junior Ranger booklets, and hop on the summer shuttle to Quarry Exhibit Hall a quarter mile away. Recently renovated, the Quarry Exhibit Hall was truly magnificent! The structure itself contains glass-paneled walls that allow you to see for miles into the quarry, but what is even more impressive is the fact that the building houses over 1,500 dinosaur fossils in relief. In the early 1900s, paleontologist Eric Douglass envisioned housing the exposed bones in relief, suggesting that such a site would inspire more awe than excavating the fossils. He couldn’t have been more right. With skeletons left untouched and exactly as they’d been discovered over a hundred years ago, we felt like paleontologists discovering this quarry for the first time. True, we were a small and biased sample, but the wonder and awe we felt walking through the display seemed to confirm Douglass’ vision. This was not some hodgepodge of bones, either; we were able to make out entire articulated vertebral columns, skulls, and Stegosaurus plates. We purchased a one-dollar guide that was invaluable in helping us identify the fossils and decipher what we were seeing; between the guide and the quarry, our youngest was in dinosaur heaven.

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Dinosaur National Monument, Utah 2015
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Riding the shuttle tram from Quarry Visitor Center in Vernal
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Quarry Exhibit Hall
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Quarry Exhibit Hall houses skeletons in relief
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Vertebrae in relief
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Comparing fossils against our reference guide

The Quarry Exhibit Hall also houses many reassembled fossil skeletons, among them a Camarasaurus discovered in Dinosaur. An interactive Junior Ranger Talk gave the kids an opportunity to touch dinosaur bones, test their knowledge of Jurassic trivia, and emulate dinosaur gaseous emissions with balloons–a hilarious activity that proved you’re never too old to find balloon flatulence amusing. 😀

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Dinosaur National Monument
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After striking out on fossils at California Academy of Science, he was so happy to see assembled dinosaur skeletons here
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Informing the vision behind Quarry Exhibit Hall
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Blowing balloons to emulate dinosaur flatulence
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Flatulent balloons never get old

In a state that boasts the Mighty Five, it’s easy to see how a park like Dinosaur might get overlooked for top billing. But perhaps it’s precisely Dinosaur’s quieter nature that makes it feel like such a find. We only had time to hike 1.2-mile Fossil Discovery Trail before our shuttle arrived, which is a shame because Dinosaur National Monument looks to have some incredible trails. We’d love to tackle more hikes as well as camp or river raft through the park someday. Kids or no, I suspect we all harbor some secret seven-year-old dinosaur zealot deep within. Call me corny, but there’s something nostalgic about reigniting that dormant zest at Dinosaur National Monument.

Rocky Mountain National Park: Grand Lake to Estes Park via Trail Ridge Road

From Quarry Visitor Center, we drove four hours east to Kawuneeche Visitor Center in Grand Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park. Coming from triple digit temps in Dinosaur, we found ourselves reaching for jackets to stave off the cold in Grand Lake. With a quick stop to view the park film, admire elk, and play with roadside snow, we ascended Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Road is a spectacular 48-mile stretch of highway spanning the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park and linking Grand Lake in the west with Estes Park in the east. Crossing the Continental Divide, Trail Ridge Road traverses alpine tundra at dizzying elevations of over 12,000 feet. The drive begins like any other in the Rockies–evergreens and forest views–but within minutes, Trail Ridge Road redefines itself as something else entirely. Pine forests yield to wind-sheared firs and then barren sky as you climb above the clouds–a literal expression, not a figurative one. Here in the vast alpine tundra, clouds mist across the road, cloaking snowy peaks below. Devoid of trees, the Rockies seem to go on forever, just one immense fourteen-footer after another. It is impossible not to be moved by the enormity of it all.

Spotting a herd of elk grazing amid the clouds, we felt certain we were at the top of the world. It wouldn’t have been such a stretch given the rising altitude and thinning oxygen. Where else but at the top of the world could you find startlingly stark beauty like this?

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The ascent…climbing into the clouds
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The views keep getting better and better
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From up in the clouds, those 14-ers look like little hills
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Turning a curve to see this herd in the clouds was amazing
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We sat here for quite a while admiring these beautiful elk
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Trail Ridge Road, 2015

With daylight fleeting, we were disappointed to make a hasty descent to Estes Park and Jellystone Campground, our home for two nights. With the beauty of Trail Ridge Road still fresh in our minds, we were excited to see what Rocky Mountain National Park held in store for us at Emerald Lake and Mount Ida the next day. For now, though, it was on to more pressing matters, like dinner and s’mores and the adorable bunny who so graciously allowed us to share his charming home.

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The adorable bunny who shared his campsite with us for two days, Jellystone Estes Park

 

3 Days in Arches: 7 Family-Friendly Hikes + Whitewater Rafting Fisher Towers, Part II

“It’s a high water year, folks. You’re in for a treat,” our guide assured us with a grin.

Gangly and angular, our guide’s arms hung disproportionately long in a way that no respectable non-teen’s should. The kid couldn’t have been a day over 18. What little faith I’d staked in the skimpy life vest strapped around my neck vanished the moment he uttered, “Dude,” like he was doing some bad Keanu Reeves “Bill and Ted” impression–only clearly, he wasn’t. He clapped a jovial hand to my shoulder. “Duuude. This is going to be some ride.”  

This is how Day 3 of our Arches National Park adventure began. Road Trip 2014 took us through 9 National Parks and 6 states with a Colorado River whitewater rafting trip serving as a highlight and splurge we’d carefully budgeted for. Only now, standing in a Moab parking lot being fitted for life vests, I was sort of wishing we’d sprung for a safe little float trip instead. You know–calm. Mellow. Post-pubescent guide.

We jumped into a rickety jeep sans seatbelts and zipped off to our put-in site near Fisher Towers, 45 minutes away. While our Canyonlands by Night and Day guides chirped about the myriad ways we could potentially die on this tour (waivers, liability, blah, blah), I had time to contemplate how little I cared for adrenaline rushes and how fond I’d grown of breathing. With warm gusts making bird nests of our hair, we cruised down the highway to a rash of exuberant high-fives and Lynyrd Skynyrd blaring from the front-seat boom box.

Nodding along to the beat, our guide explained how high water had turned our heretofore Class I and II section of the Colorado into more sizeable Class II and III rapids. He winked at our youngest–a hair over three feet and 30-some-odd pounds–small fry by any standard.

“You ready to hang tight and get wild, little guy?” he said, reaching across the seat to muss our son’s hair. He studied the life vest dwarfing our youngest’s face, clearly a size or two too large despite falling within the recommended age range for this trip before turning to me.

“He can swim, right, Mom?” he asked, almost as an afterthought. “I’m kidding,” he deadpanned.

Once at the put-in site, we learned that the guides would lead four separate tours. As a party of five, we were assigned own raft and guide–ours being the gangly teen with the lashes and curly locks girls would kill for, of course. With a trademark grin, he threw gear into our raft–extra life vests, a first aid kit (“You’re a Scout mom; you know how to use this thing, right?” he said with a wink), Tevas, sunscreen–and chatted up the kids about school and Scouts and Arches. I’ve no doubt the conversation seemed natural because he was young enough to be their older brother, but I was grateful for his easy rapport with the kids. “Relax, Mom!” he said to me more than once. “I promise you, this is going to be so much fun.”

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At Fisher Towers, getting rid of pre-ride jitters
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Our put in site, 45 mins from Moab
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Enjoying a breather without life vests

And oh, did we have fun! Despite my initial misgivings, our first-ever whitewater rafting adventure turned out to be a true trip highlight for us. Our guide explained how to lean into the center of the raft through the rapids and how to angle our bodies if we fell in. Boy, were we surprised to learn we’d be sitting on the edge of the raft and not inside it! Our guide expended all his elbow grease rowing while we focused on gripping that raft line for dear life. Being on the water was calming, however, and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves savoring the unique perspective the river provided: orange sandstone climbing toward the sun, the Colorado River snaking into the horizon. Our guide regaled us with brushes with celebrity–”Bon Jovi rented out that sandstone tower to film his music video!” (“You weren’t even alive when that video came out,” I quip; his smile concedes it’s true)– and Moab trivia. It was all so calm and un-rapids-like that we were lulled into thinking that maybe this was the extent of the ride.

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In which we find out we’re sitting on the edge of the raft, not in it!
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This view made everything better
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View from the raft, Fisher Towers 2014

But this was a whitewater rafting tour after all, and it was just a matter of time before our ride turned bonafide wet and wild. From around the bend, Onion Creek Rapids looked like little more than gentle froth, but the sly grin on our guide’s face told us otherwise. “Lean in!” he hollered, paddling directly into the effervescent white. With a whoop and an explosive geyser-spray that drenched us head to toe, we were off! The raft rocked wildly to and fro, battered about by the swirling eddies. We ebbed and crested for what felt like minutes; at one point, I could swear the raft leapt right out of the water. The kids screamed with delight, Mom loudest of all.

“Again! Again!” the kids shrieked. We couldn’t get enough of the frothy white stuff, urging our guide to maneuver a long path through the next set. It was equal parts thrilling and terrifying in the most addictive of ways. I could see why people did this year after year. I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the guts to hoist myself back into a flimsy raft after this, but man, was it ever a rush. We floated through Fisher Towers with eagle eyes peeled for whitewater, screaming and laughing like loons every time our raft went flying through the air. Before we knew it, we were on the edge of the last rapid, our 3-hour ride all but over. Our guide was awesome, prolonging the ride as best he could by not paddling. Rapids being rapid, however, we were soon in the shallows and docking along the river bank. We’d had an absolute blast–I can’t recommend Canyonlands by Night and Day highly enough! If whitewater rafting isn’t your thing, Canyonlands by Night and Day also offers jet boat tours, zip lines, and ATV tours in the area.

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Holding on for dear life and having a blast
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In between rapids, the kids got a chance to row the raft
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The calm before the rapids
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The frothy white good stuff!

After a bumpy jeep ride back to the company office in Moab, we spent the rest of the afternoon hiking in Arches. Hikes #1-5, including Landscape Arch, Double O, Balanced Rock, Double Arch, and Delicate Arch, may be found here.

  • Hike #6 Windows + Turret Arch: This easy 1.2 mile trail brought us up close and personal with North and South Windows and Turret Arch, all of which can be readily viewed from the road. What’s the point of hiking when you can easily see these arches from the road, you ask? Well, everything, really, and perspective, mostly. There’s something both humbling and sacred about being in the presence of these temporary giants. It’s a feeling that can’t be replicated from the car. To clamber up boulders at the base of an arch or lay in the shade of a multi-ton wrinkle-in-time is to know the immense awe of these natural wonders. Arches does a fantastic job of maintaining the accessibility of this trail, making it perfect for kids and adults of all ages and abilities.
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    North and South Windows; note the line of people ants ascending the base!
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    Easy trail to the Windows
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    Not quite sure how this became our universal Arches pose 😀
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    The kids completed their Junior Ranger booklets under this arch
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    Turret Arch looks small from a distance
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    But grows larger and larger the closer you get

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    …And larger still! We’re the colorful specks at the base of Turret Arch
  • Hike #7 Park Avenue: This moderate 2-mile out-and-back trail evoked a skyscraper-lined cityscape hewn from stone. The steep descent toward the Courthouse Towers made for a moderate return climb under afternoon sun, but this is a very doable hike for littles if timed properly. The Three Gossips was our favorite formation by far, capturing our imaginations with its uncanny resemblance to a conspiring threesome. With formations like the Organ, Sheep Rock, and Tower of Babel, Park Avenue Trail is sure to spark your imagination, too.
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    Park Avenue is such a fitting name for this trail
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    Wandering Park Avenue after whitewater rafting
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    Looking up, you really get a sense of how enormous these formations are
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    My three silly gossips!
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    The OG Three Gossips
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    Exploring Park Avenue; it’s hard not to feel little here

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    Arches 2014
  • Bonus birdwatching hike in Scott Matheson Wetlands Preserve: Located less than ten minutes from the entrance to Arches, this lovely one-mile boardwalk loop meanders through fragile wetlands providing sanctuary to more than 200 species of migrant birds. While spring and fall might prove more fruitful for spotting seasonal migrants, our time in the Preserve was unfortunately a bust. We enjoyed exploring the informational kiosk and shaded gazebo, but afternoon summer heat rendered any potential bird activity non-existent. Still, this peaceful stroll through lush wetlands was like striking oasis gold amid Moab’s ubiquitous desert red rock.  
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    Beating the heat at Scott Matheson Wetlands Preserve

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    On the trail; no luck this time with the birds                   

Hikes are short and sweet in Arches, making this sandstone playground imminently accessible to both young and young-at-heart alike. With a bevy of great trails to choose from, a daily six-mile cap proved key in keeping our five-year-old (and thus mom and dad!) sane and happy. A three-day timeline worked well for us, allowing for leisurely hiking and ample time for fun extras like swimming. Your mileage may vary (pun intended, groan!)–families with older kids or hardier littles might easily squeeze these hikes (and then some) into a single day.

My one regret? Missing the Fiery Furnace ranger-guided tour. Exploring Fiery Furnace without a guide is allowed, but I think we’ve all seen “127 Hours”–um, no solo off-the-grid hiking for me, thanks! I hemmed and hawed over our youngest’s skill level and safety for this hike and missed our window of opportunity; I’ve been kicking myself ever since. These tickets sell out fast, so don’t let my mistake be yours: snatch them up and reconsider later–you can always return them if need be. Whether you’re a thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie or first-time hiker, Arches offers something special for everyone. Linger a while, and let yourself be moved.

Also from Road Trip 2014: Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Zion, Mesa Verde