When Good Plans Go Wrong: 5 Lessons from Grand Teton Day 2

Inasmuch as Grand Teton National Park Day 1 was replete with marvel and majesty, Day 2 was a lesson in overambitious itineraries and learning to go with the flow. Our original itinerary looked something like this:

  • Hike 7.5 mile Jenny Lake loop to Hidden Falls
  • Hike 4 miles roundtrip to String Lake to swim
  • Time permitting, drive Signal Mountain Road and hike in 1.5 miles to view the meadow and wildflowers
  • Leave Tetons by 5 pm, arrive at Bridge Bay Campground (Yellowstone) 6:30 pm; attend Evening Ranger Program at amphitheater.

Clearly, brain snatchers had convinced me that anything other than the inevitable outcome (a.k.a. passing out after bullet point one and barely making it to Yellowstone in time to set up camp before nightfall!) was possible. We didn’t complete our itinerary–not by a long shot–but I did learn some valuable lessons about tailoring itineraries and being flexible.

Day 2: On the Real

Day 2 began with a stop at Jenny Lake Visitor Center to turn in the kids’ completed Junior Ranger booklets. The badges at Grand Teton were particularly nice, fashioned from wood instead of the usual plastic found at other parks.

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Receiving Junior Ranger badges, Jenny Lake Visitor Center

Not long after we left, visitors began to swarm Jenny Lake Center in droves, donning patriotic colors for the Fourth of July. Like us, most were bound for Hidden Falls. Unlike us, however, 99% wisely opted to take the Jenny Lake shuttle to put them within a half mile hiking distance of Hidden Falls.

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Boat dock, Jenny Lake shuttle, Grand Teton National Park

“$60 for roundtrip shuttle fair*? Suckers!” I scoffed as we passed the crowded dock. Sure, the hike along Jenny Lake trail to Hidden Falls was a little long–over 7 miles long if I were counting (which, clearly, I wasn’t)–but it was free. Free! Hath sweeter words in the English language ever been spoken than ‘free?’

Clearly this was one of those instances where my pursuit of cheap completely backfired on us. On the upside, however, at least the crowds thinned as soon as we left the trailhead. (Probably because everyone else had actually done the math!)

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Jenny Lake trail, Grand Teton National Park
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How much further, Papa Smurf?
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“Look at the wildflowers!”¬†

“Isn’t this great? We have the trail all to ourselves. Look at the wildflowers!” I exclaimed, pointing out the beautiful yellow blooms. The kids smiled, still excited and full of energy.

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“Look at that peak!”

An hour passed. The sun climbed higher in the sky, beating down on us with every step. Sweat clung to our foreheads and backs. “Look at that peak!” I said. The kids looked up but barely nodded.

“How much farther?” my youngest said, cheeks flushed.

“A mile or so,” I said, knowing full well we were at least 2 miles from the falls–with another 2-3 miles left on the return loop. “The quicker we get there, the quicker we get back.”

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Hiking along the lake, Jenny Lake Loop Trail
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Jenny Lake loop trail, Grand Teton National Park
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View across Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park

The kids trudged on for another hour–past the lodgepole pine forest, around the lake, through the forest again. “How much further?” my youngest said.

I pretended not to hear him.

And then we heard the most glorious sound: rushing water. I ran to the sound, quickly masking my disappointment at the unspectacular rush of water I was certain was Hidden Falls. “Well, it’s not that big,” I said, “but, hey, look! There’s a cool rock we can sit on for lunch.”

Honestly, the kids couldn’t have cared less about the travesty of the “falls” (spoiler alert: this was not Hidden Falls, though I wouldn’t realize that for another hour); they were just happy to stop and rest in the shade for an hour.

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Not Hidden Falls, Grand Teton National Park
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Not Hidden Falls, Jenny Lake Loop trail
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Lunch with a friend, Jenny Lake Loop trail
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Stopping for a bite to eat, Jenny Lake Loop trail

About 5 minutes into our return trip, a friendly hiker chatted us up and told us there was a waterfall “about 15 minutes from here” that was not to be missed. “It’s called Hidden Falls,” he said, waving as he departed. My heart sank when I realized that our picnic spot had not been Hidden Falls after all. After coming so far just to see the falls, I knew we’d regret it if we didn’t make the trek there. So I did what any self-respecting parent would do.

I bribed the kids.

With any sugary cold drink or chemical-laden treat from the Jenny Lake store their little hearts desired. The result?

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First glimpse of Hidden Falls, Grand Teton National Park
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The real Hidden Falls, Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park

Yes, we finally made it to Hidden Falls, three and a half hours after setting out to see it. It was beautiful but a little anticlimactic given the lengths we’d gone through to get there. This isn’t to say that the scenery along the way wasn’t beautiful (it was–tremendously so) or that this hike is a bad one (it’s a great one) or that the hiking was hard (it was amazingly flat). It’s that it was a flat 7-mile hike in gorgeous 80 degree weather–and we happen to have a family that doesn’t do well with flat, long hikes in warm weather. I knew this going into the hike from previous experience, but I’d read that Hidden Falls was a must-do for families with children. And being that Grand Teton was among my favorite parks, any must-do hike was a must-do of mine. Which brings us to lesson one.

Lesson #1: Make decisions based on your family.

I know this sounds blasphemous, but we’re just not a big waterfall family. Maybe it’s because they’re common in Hawaii, or maybe it’s just that we prefer alpine/lake hikes because they’re so different from anything we have locally. I really don’t know the reason, but I know historically, we’ve never done well on hikes with waterfall destinations. Mist Trail in Yosemite did not go over well with my then 6-year-old. Fortunately, he’s not a whiner, but there were many silent tears as he trudged up those steep stairs to Nevada Fall. No matter what any guidebook may say about some trail being a can’t-miss, a hike is only successful if all members of your family are on-board.

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Hard earned nap after Mist Trail

Lesson #2: Kids have different interests than parents.

Seems obvious, right? Yet it’s amazing how often I neglect this very fact when planning itineraries. It’s helpful to keep in mind that what’s interesting to parents (scenery, wildflowers, views) may be less so to kids. As parents, we love flat hikes with expansive vistas. Our kids, however, prefer more strenuous hikes; extra points if it involves rock scrambling, opportunities to skip pebbles, or opportunities to get wet/muddy/dirty. Sure, they appreciate the scenery and destination, too, but it’s often the journey that’s more important to kids. Planning hikes that are physically challenging and allow ample opportunities to touch stuff along the way might work well for your family, too.

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Skipping rocks, Redwood National Park

Lesson #3: You can only have as much fun as the youngest/least-capable member of your group.

You know the saying, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy?” Turns out this applies in a broader sense to any member on a family outing. Our youngest is a great hiker and rarely complains, but even he has his limits. A flat 7-mile hike with few opportunities to touch anything is one of them. For our older two, any amount of hiking that exceeds 9 or 10 miles means risking the enjoyment of the entire group. It’s important to weight how must-do an activity might seem against 1) how capable the youngest member of your group is for the task, and 2) where the activity falls in the overall capability levels of your family. If mom and dad are hiking at the upper end of their limits, it will be much harder to help little ones along. If kids are taxed, they’re likely to complain, lowering the enjoyment of the activity for parents. Experience will help you find your family’s sweet spot–that perfect blend of challenge + enjoyment.

Lesson #4: Less is more (a.k.a. Enjoying one activity is better than rushing through 3 activities that no one remembers).

I have a bad habit of cramming our vacation itineraries with activities from morning to night. We’re often on the move from 6 am to 9 pm (just to be clear: I do not recommend this). This may be sustainable some of the time, but definitely not all of the time. More importantly, this just isn’t enjoyable. Anyone with a toddler knows that kids move to their own internal clock. A fallen tree branch can be endlessly fascinating; an entire day can be made out of a lake shore excursion. This often conflicts with my personal agenda to see everything the parks have to offer. Still, even I have to admit that rushing around is not my idea of fun. And isn’t that the point? To have fun? An itinerary is great, but learning to let it serve as a guide and not as an unchangeable schedule is even more important. If your family is having a blast at the lake and find yourself reluctant to leave, stay! I guarantee that memory and your kids’ association of that great memory with the park will be worth more than any must-see attraction you might have missed.

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Spending time observing banana slugs, Redwood National Park

Lesson #5: Don’t automatically dismiss activities with crowds. Or price tags.

Crowds are there for a reason. It’s tempting to avoid crowds and extra expenses, but not at the expense of your family’s enjoyment. Is $60 worth saving yourself 7 miles? The answer will differ for each family. In hindsight, for us, it might have been better to follow the crowd and take the boat shuttle to Hidden Falls. Yes, we enjoyed solitude on our hike, but we might have enjoyed ourselves more had we simply braved the crowded shuttle (especially since the end destination wasn’t all that exciting to the kids) and spent the afternoon hiking to and swimming at String Lake instead. It’s tricky to find a balance between crowded iconic activities and those that offer more solitude. Though I tend to prefer a quieter wilderness experience, I’ve learned that one is not necessarily better than the other. It’s all about finding the right balance.

In spite of everything, we truly enjoyed our hike to Hidden Falls once we changed our mindset and adapted our schedule. Once we decided that all subsequent activities were off the table, we were able to fully connect with our hike and the moment we were in. In that sense, Grand Teton National Park taught me the most important lesson of all: life isn’t about checking items off some imaginary, self-imposed list; it’s about being present, here and now, connecting every moment we can.

*The shuttle is $15 for adults and $8 for children, roundtrip.

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Grand Teton National Park: Day 1

I first visited Grand Teton National Park 3 years ago, during an epic holy crow-I’m-turning forty/3,000 miles/5-National Parks-in 72-hours whirlwind road trip with my brother. That tripped marked the beginning of a love affair with Grand Teton National Park. Captivated by its beauty, I vowed to return someday with my family to give it its proper due.

Last summer, we arrived at Grand Teton in the early evening after an 8-hour drive from Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore. Knowing we’d arrive late, we reserved a tent cabin in Colter Bay as a special treat. I love tent camping, but it was so nice to be able to jump out of the car with our sleeping bags and call it a day.

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Pathway to our tent cabin, Grand Teton
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Tent cabin and fire ring, Grand Teton
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Colter Bay tent cabin, Grand Teton National Park

Each tent cabin comes equipped with a fire ring, picnic table, and bear locker. Tent cabins are a unique hybrid of tent canvas and log cabin that offer a fun alternative to tent camping or hotel lodging. Coming from Hawaii, we were enthralled with the wood-burning stove inside. The bunk beds don’t look like much, I know, but they felt like heaven after a week of sleeping on sleeping pads. The restrooms at this campsite were particularly clean and spacious, with hot water sinks to boot.

Day 1:

We set our alarm for 3: 30 am and roused the kids from deep sleep–not a practice I generally recommend unless you have a sunrise float trip down the Snake River scheduled, which we indeed were lucky enough to snag. With a start time of 4:45 am, we drove 30 minutes to Triangle X Ranch. We were glad we observed the slower speed limit, especially when a large family of elk leaped in front of us. They paused for a moment to peer into our windshield. It was a thrill to behold!

The ranch was unbearably cold that early in the morning, but our hosts were warm and welcoming. We perused the gift shop and waited for the rest of the guests to assemble.

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4 am, Triangle X Ranch, Grand Teton National Park

We loaded into our guide’s van and drove to our push-off site, a gravelly beach area several minutes down the road. Shivering, we donned our life vests and stepped into the boat, sleepy but excited to begin. Our guide pushed off, silent, allowing us to enjoy the quiet of the lapping waves. A full moon still graced the sky, but the day proved to be dawning crisp and clear. Lovely lavenders danced across the water, bathing the distant peaks in purple hues.

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Push-off site, sunrise float trip
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Full moon on the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park
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Lavender hues, Grand Teton National Park

Cool purples gave way to blush, then melon pastels, washing the peaks in warm, golden tones.

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Daybreak on the horizon, Grand Teton
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First blush of day, Grand Teton National Park
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Sunrise Float Trip, Grand Teton

 

A 2 hour float trip along the Snake River might seem long on paper, but each bend in the river brought delightful new angles and wildlife surprises, among them bald eagles, osprey, elk, beavers, and a grizzly bear. Our guide mentioned that a grizzly bear sighting along the banks was a thrill for him, too, as it only occurred about once a month. We felt fortunate to have experienced such a rare sighting from a safe distance.

 

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Bald eagle, sunrise float trip, Grand Teton
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That splash in the background is a family of elk crossing the river
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Sunrise float trip, Grand Teton National Park

If you’re on the fence about a Triangle X sunrise float trip, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a little pricey, but the river provides unforgettable views of the Teton range. Watching my family fall in love with the beauty and majesty of the Tetons made it well worth the cost. Our guide was careful to remain quiet, preferring instead to point out wildlife with a nod and a finger so as not to disturb the animals–or disturb our opportunity to absorb the peace in our surroundings. The float trip was the perfect start to our Grand Teton experience.

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Back at Triangle X Ranch, Grand Teton National Park

After arriving back at Triangle X Ranch with full hearts and hungry tummies, we found ourselves eager for breakfast. The original plan was to stop at Oxbow Bend to grill up breakfast, but my husband decided a special treat was in order after such an incredible morning. We drove instead to Jackson Lake Lodge, where we indulged in a scrumptious breakfast buffet at the Mural Room. Renowned for its panoramic views and outstanding service, breakfast at the Mural Room was a true trip highlight for us. The kids loved the moose-imprinted Belgian waffles and the fresh, ripe fruit. The food, service, and company combined with the float trip we’d just shared made for a favorite family memory.

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The view from our table, Mural Room, Jackson Lodge, Grand Teton
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Breakfast buffet, Mural Room, Jackson Lodge
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Moose-imprinted Belgian waffles, Mural Room

With tummies full, we continued on to Colter Bay Visitor Center, where we stamped our passport books and journals and picked up Junior Ranger packets. From there, we hiked the 2 mile Lakeshore Trail behind the Visitor Center. It was the first time we’d hiked in bear country, and those first tentative calls of “Hey, Bear!” were met with no small amount of trepidation. Fortunately, we didn’t run into any bears on the trail–just a gorgeous riot of wildflowers and a peaceful sand spit where we spotted a family of otters and nesting osprey.

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Hiking Lakeshore Trail, Grand Teton
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Lakeshore Trail, Grand Teton National Park

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Grand Teton never fails to stun, Lakeshore Trail

We ran into 2 families the entire length of the trail–during busy July 4th weekend, no less. Lakeshore Trail may not be an iconic Grand Teton hike, but it was truly rewarding. Upon returning to the Visitor Center, we stopped to sketch Colter Bay marina and catch up on our journal writing.

We later attended a Junior Ranger talk about bear safety, where our kids were thrilled to practice deploying (fake) bear spray.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring and birdwatching at various scenic overlooks, including Willow Flats and Cathedral Turnout. Unfortunately, the moose sighting we’d hoped for eluded us yet again (no luck at Rocky Mountain National Park or Yellowstone, either; we’re keeping our fingers crossed for a Glacier moose sighting in a few weeks). After our early morning start, we were too tired to explore Signal Mountain–clearly necessitating a return trip to Grand Teton someday. ūüėÄ

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Willow Flats, Grand Teton National Park
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Wildflowers at Willow Flats, Grand Teton National Park

After a long and memorable day, we settled in for the night, eager for our Day 2 hike in Grand Teton National Park.

Tell me: What do you love best about Grand Teton National Park? What is your favorite Grand Teton memory?

Canyonlands: Island in the Sky

With only one day to spend in Canyonlands National Park, we decided to focus our efforts on the section of the park known as Island in the Sky. Renowned for its awe-inspiring overlooks and vistas, Island in the Sky comprises one of four distinct areas in Canyonlands, including The Maze, Needles, and Rivers. Each area offers impressive solitude and rugged terrain, but Island in the Sky seemed best suited to our family’s needs, especially given its proximity to our lodging in Moab.

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Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park

After stopping at the Visitor Center to pick up Junior Ranger packets, we headed out to Mesa Arch. We hiked the short 1/2 mile trail, enjoying the unexpected pops of orange and white desert blooms contrasted against the slickrock and dirt. I’d seen photographs of Mesa Arch before our visit and was surprised by how small it seemed in person. (Then again, we had just spent four days in Arches National Park, so my perspective was probably a little skewed.) And then I took a step closer, and the view. Oh, the view. Photographs do little justice in capturing the expansive and majestic nature of this view.

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Early morning, Mesa Arch, Canyonlands
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The view through Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park

From here, we took Upheaval Dome Road to Whale Rock trail, a one-mile must-do for kids and adults alike! Seeing the bleached whale in the rock requires a little imagination:

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Whale Rock, Canyonlands National Park

Climbing this slickrock behemoth was a highlight for our entire family. The kids loved climbing the tail and following the cairns along the whale’s back. There are even handrails near the top to aid your ascent to the spout. Our youngest had a blast testing his shoes’ traction against the slickrock, dubbing his hiking boots, “Spider Man grippy shoes.” Whale Rock may not seem all that impressive from the road, but the 360 degree view of Canyonlands from the top is stellar.

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Atop Whale Rock, Canyonlands
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Whale Rock, Canyonlands
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The view from atop Whale Rock, Canyonlands
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Ascending the spout, Whale Rock, Canyonlands

We drove a little further to Upheaval Dome and hiked the 2 mile (roundtrip) trail to the second overlook for Upheaval Dome. Geologists aren’t sure how Upheaval Dome was formed. One theory suggests that the dome was a result of a meteorite impact. A more widely accepted theory suggests that the dome was formed by the collection and expansion of salt moving upward through rock layers. The walk to the main (first) overlook is easy enough for all ages, but the hike to the second overlook involved narrow ridges and some exposure. Blustery winds can also be a concern with children here, especially in exposed areas with drop-offs.

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Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands National Park
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Blustery winds at the main overlook, Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands

We stopped and cooked lunch under a cute picnic shelter just outside of Upheaval Dome, boiling water for soup and distributing sandwich fixings. The kids worked on their Junior Ranger Packets for an hour. One thing I love about the Junior Ranger booklets is that they’re meant to engage kids for a good length of time; booklets often take hours to complete–badges are truly earned! Many questions require short answers and even essays for older children; other questions require recording sensory experiences along hikes or attending a Junior Ranger talk. All of the activities enhance kids’ experience and can help drive a park visit in a focused way if you are in need of an itinerary.

After lunch, we drove to Grand View Point Trail, located 12 miles from the Island in the Sky entrance on the main park road. From here, we hiked 2 miles roundtrip along Grand View Point Trail to some of the most stunning scenery we have ever seen. The views from this cliffside trail took our breath away.

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Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands
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View at the end, Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands
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Scenery for days, Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands
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On top of the world, Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands

There were a few exposed areas, but with adult supervision, kids should do just fine on this hike. The overlook from the parking lot is great, but it absolutely dulls in comparison to the scope and view you get along the trail. Hiking Grand View Point Trail is an experience that makes you feel small and insignificant in the best possible way.

The kids had had their fill of hiking by this point, so we filled the late afternoon with stops at various overlooks. ¬†Our final stop was the Visitor Center, where the kids turned in their Junior Ranger packets. The park ranger was fantastic and spent a lot of time checking the kids’ work and talking to them about their Canyonlands experience. I know I sound like a broken record, but if you have children, the Junior Ranger program at any of the National Parks is always well worth the time and effort.

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Getting sworn in as Junior Rangers, Canyonlands National Park

After a long day of exploring and hiking, we celebrated my husband’s birthday at Tamarisk Restaurant in Green River, UT. The food and service were outstanding, and the kids loved tasting chicken fried steak for the first time. With reasonable prices, great food, and friendly service, I’d highly recommend this restaurant to families traveling through the Moab area.

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Tamarisk Restaurant, Green River UT
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Enchiladas at Tamarisk, Green River, UT

Canyonlands National Park has so much to offer, I only wish I had allotted more time here so we could have explored the Needles district, too. Here are my tips for families visiting Canyonlands National Park:

  • Pack food and water: There are no restaurants or deli counters at Canyonlands. With Moab more than 40 minutes away, you’re looking at spending over an hour driving for a lunch or snack break unless you bring food with you. There are great covered picnic shelters in the park. Why not make a day of it, and enjoy your picnic lunch outside? Trail destinations make great lunch spots, too.
  • Get out and hike: Canyonlands is an easy park to see by car (ideal for those with mobility issues), but the best views and experiences can be had by hiking. Do as few or as many hikes as you like! The great thing about Island in the Sky is that most of the trails are short, 2 miles roundtrip and under–the perfect distance for little legs.
  • Participate in the Junior Ranger program: Kids and parents will learn so much more about the geology, wildlife, and plant life in Canyonlands through this program than they will from any guidebook or park newspaper.
  • “Don’t bust the crust:” Avoid straying off-trail. The soil in Canyonlands is live cryptobiotic soil composed of microorganisms that feed the plants in the park. Walking on the soil kills the biological soil crust. The NPS adopted a catchy slogan to remind visitors–don’t bust the crust!

 

How to Plan a National Parks Road Trip

In seven weeks, we will embark on a sixteen-day adventure through Glacier, North Cascades, and Olympic National Parks. With only three parks on the itinerary this year, this trip marks a significant departure from our usual pace. In the past, we’ve visited as many as 9 National Parks and/or Monuments in a single trip. So why the change? In weighing the same factors we consider every year, certain factors just prevailed over others this time around. Our National Parks trip planning is constantly evolving. With that in mind, here’s a how-to guide to help you plan your next National Park road trip adventure. Remember: there are no right or wrong answers. There are only answers that work best for your family.

Consider age

This year, our kids are 14, 12, and 8. They’re physically tough enough and mentally open to shouldering a backpack load, making backpacking our activity of choice this go-around. We’re focusing on several 2-3 day treks in each park, which lengthens the amount of time we’ll need to spend per park if we want to see other sites not covered on our backpacking routes. When our youngest was 4 years old, however, a one-day trip to Mount Rainier was just the right amount of time to see a few sights and play in the snow. A longer stay with hikes may not have worked out as happily for our toddler or us. As kids age, their attention span and physical abilities grow. Something that’s worked for our family is to match growing skill levels with age-appropriate activities and visit lengths. We use our youngest son’s age as a compass for the rest of the family–our motto is: if the youngest is appropriately challenged and happy, everyone’s happy.

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Mount Rainier National Park, 2013
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Mount Rainier, 2013

Driving–what’s your comfort level?

I’m happy to drive for hours on end but will avoid city driving like the plague. My husband, much like the kids, prefers short drives. None of us enjoy driving at night. We take all of this into consideration when planning our trips, limiting drive times to 8 hours or less with bathroom/snack breaks every 3 hours.

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Driving Salt Lake City to Estes Park
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Favorite SLC stop: Crown Burgers, yum!

Two years ago, we tried to maximize our park time by driving between parks at night. We quickly realized we were not comfortable driving in unfamiliar territory at night, especially when tired. Your family, however, may feel differently. You’ll also need to determine the total distance you’re comfortable covering over the course of your trip, which, in turn, factors into how many parks you’ll be able to see. Some families may not want to drive more than 400-500 miles total; this will obviously factor into how many parks you’re able to see. 1,500-2,000 miles works well for us; we tend to find distances longer than 2,500 miles grueling. Your mileage (pun intended) may vary. Google Maps is fantastic for planning drive distances and times.

Narrow your geographical focus: what do you want to see?

This is probably the first question I ask when planning a trip. Two years ago, we focused on parks in the Southwest. Three years ago, we focused on San Francisco and Seattle sightseeing with short stops in between at Redwood National Park, Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, and Mount Rainier. If your focus is city sightseeing, you wouldn’t plan as many park visits. If your focus is visiting the parks, you’d probably limit your city sightseeing. You can still do everything, of course, but it’s helpful to narrow your focus so you can plan your time accordingly.

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Historic carousel, Golden Gate Park
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Hiking Point Cabrillo, Mendocino, CA

For those planning park visits, this map is a good starting point to determine which parks make good geographic sense to combine. Some combinations are obvious: Yellowstone and Grand Teton, Bryce and Zion. Others are less so. For example, tacking on Mesa Verde to the Utah five as we did might resonate with you; others might disagree. Similarly, some might argue that Black Canyon of the Gunnison should have been added to the itinerary given its proximity to Arches and Mesa Verde, but we opted to see Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks after Zion instead, based on our interests. Only you can decide what is best for your family.

Determine your limiting commodity and balance against cost

This is a big one for us. There are so many individual cost factors to consider: airfare, rental car, gas prices, distance, lodging, admission, activities, food. Once we’ve decided our general geographical focus, I start looking at airfare (we live in Hawaii, so airfare is always a factor for us). It’s cheaper to fly into Salt Lake City and drive to Rocky Mountain Park, even with an added day of rental car and gas prices, than it is to fly into Denver from Honolulu. However, the addition of a driving day (because we are unwilling to drive at night) means we have one less day for park visiting, which, in turn, affects my husband’s limited vacation days. These are the kinds of decisions we grapple with in planning our itinerary. For us, cost generally takes precedence over other considerations; other families might find time or age to be their limiting commodity. You’ll need to balance your limiting commodity with your values to prioritize what’s best for you. For example, given x number of dollars, we’d rather rent kayaks at our destination than eat out, but other families might feel differently. The key lies in determining what your family values. This not only makes good financial sense; it also ensures your family will gain optimal enjoyment from your itinerary.

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Driving to Rocky Mountain Park from SLC: Dinosaur National Monument

Research is your best friend in determining what kinds of activities are available in each park or city. I borrow guide books from the library and stalk the web for months beforehand, reading everything from blogs to Trip Advisor to find activities of interest. From there, I jot everything down in a notebook, noting where I found the information as well as any costs associated with the activity. Once I’ve secured airfare, lodging, and car rental, I subtract these costs from our overall budget, leaving me with a working knowledge of how much we have left to spend on activities. Some years, airfare and gas prices are cheaper, leaving us with more discretionary income to spend on extras like float trips or horse rides. Other years, airfare and gas prices prevent us from partaking in too many extras. That’s okay. I love the challenge of finding the most bang for our buck. Don’t be afraid to Google terms like “free cheap family activities Glacier National Park.” You’d be surprised by how many helpful returns you’ll find.

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A favorite extra: Grand Teton sunrise float trip, 2015

Map your route

Once you’ve considered your children’s ages, determined your driving comfort level, narrowed your geographical focus, and decided what activities you’d like to do, you’re ready to map your route to finalize driving distances and times. This is easy to do with Google Maps. We like saving our maps to use for navigational purposes–losing cell coverage on the road happens a LOT more than we’d like. We also always carry a paper map as backup (you can even print your Google map if you’d like). We’ve learned the hard way to carry a physical list of grocery stores, restaurants, and gas stations on our route as well, especially in unfamiliar terrain.

From here, I create a detailed itinerary, being sure to note any non-negotiables. Pre-paid campgrounds or a motel reservation would be an example of a non-negotiable–a place we’re required to be at a specific time. Some might argue that this defeats the spontaneity of a road trip. I’d argue just the opposite: once you plot your non-negotiables, you’re able to see those pockets of time that are negotiable–times when you’re free to let the wind carry you where it may. I research endless options for this very possibility, noting these options in the itinerary. I list local parks, ice cream parlors, paranormal exhibits, etc. in areas on our route so that should the opportunity arise, we’re prepared with fun options to choose from. Our visit to Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, South Dakota was the result of this very type of negotiable options list.

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Dinosaur Park, Rapid City, SD

Say yes to kitsch!

Once you’ve plotted your destinations and planned your activities, it’s always fun to compare your route with this map from Roadside America.¬†Our focus is always the National Parks, but we love a giant jackalope as much as anyone else. Kitschy attractions like Wall Drug are a fun and integral part of Americana that define and differentiate the road trip experience from other kinds of travel. Our 6 and 1/2 hour drive from Estes Park, Colorado to Badlands National Park wouldn’t have been the same without a stop at Carhenge or Hay Bales Easy Chair Toilet in Alliance, Nebraska. Both were equal parts hilarious and bizarre. Stopping at these attractions definitely broke the monotony of the drive. To this day, the kids still talk about our Arby’s lunch in Alliance. Nobody remembers what we ate, but everyone still remembers the giant blow-up gorilla across the street!

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Roadside America: Carhenge, NE
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Alliance, NE

Don’t forget the music

No road trip would be complete without your favorite music pumping through the speakers. If you’re renting a car, however, streaming your tunes can be frustrating if you don’t have the right equipment. We no longer count on having a CD player or Bluetooth car phone music adapter. Instead, we travel with this wireless FM transmitter radio adapter car kit, which allows us to stream our music using a non-broadcasting radio frequency. It’s cheap, easy, and fail-proof: every rental car has radio. We also no longer rely on the Cloud for road trips–coverage can be spotty in remote areas–we download music we can’t live without and use the Cloud when we have coverage.

A new-to-us tip we’re trying out this year is audio books, which sounds like a great idea. I will report back after our trip to let you know whether it was successful or not!

Tell me: what’s your favorite tip for planning a National Parks road trip? Favorite song on your road trip playlist?

 

Zion National Park: Hiking the Narrows

While horseback riding in Bryce Canyon, I got to chatting with another mom who had just come from Zion National Park. As luck would have it, we were headed to Zion, too–that afternoon, in fact–so I asked her for suggestions. Her one and only piece of advice?

Hike the Narrows.

“If you do only one hike in Zion,” she said, “make it the Narrows.” I’d read about the Narrows prior to our trip but had decided the hike would be too challenging for our youngest, who was only six at the time. I told the friendly mom that we planned to do the Riverside Walk instead, a one mile loop that leads to the mouth of the Narrows. “No,” she insisted, “your kids will be fine. Trust me: you need to do the Narrows.”

I listened with fascination as she told me about the outfitter her family had rented neoprene socks and hiking sticks from. I asked her questions about the water depth and temperature. Were there natural stopping points, or was it all river, all the way? Would we able to get the full effect even if we were only able to hike 3 or 4 miles in? (Spoiler alert: a resounding “yes” is the answer to both.) She reassured me that hiking the Narrows–even if it meant not seeing as much of the park as we’d previously planned–would be the single best decision we could make.

She was right. One-hundred percent.

We entered Zion National Park via scenic Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, a truly beautiful stretch of highway. The view of Zion upon exiting the tunnels reminded me of Tunnel View in Yosemite Valley–a striking and metaphorical passage from the ordinary world into paradise.

We pulled into a parking area between the two tunnels to hike Canyon Overlook Trail, an easy to moderate 1 mile hike. Parents should keep an eye on small children here as some sections of the trail are narrow and exposed. The views at the end are incomparable.IMG_20140619_142038

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Hiking Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion National Park
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View from the top, Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion National Park

We also stopped at Checkerboard Mesa before driving the winding road to the Visitor Center. With our Junior Ranger packets in hand and newfound plans to hike the Narrows, we had but a few hours left to make it to Zion Adventure Company to rent our gear! Luckily, Zion Adventure Company was located just a few minutes from the park entrance. For $14 each, we were able to rent hiking sticks and neoprene socks. We opted to use our own footwear for the Narrows, but the company also offers a $23 warm water rental package that includes canyoneering shoes in addition to the stick and socks. Note that all rentals require you to view a 10 minute Narrows Safety video.

We caught the Zion shuttle to Sinawava Temple bright and early the next morning. The 45-minute drive brought us to the Riverside Walk we’d originally planned. Half a mile along this paved trail brought us to the beginning of the Narrows Trail, which is where the real fun began.

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Temple of Sinawava, Zion National Park
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Beginning of the Narrows, Zion National Park

Walking upstream though the Virgin River was unlike anything we’d ever done before. We watched lush moss-covered rocks give way to intricately carved, towering canyon walls. For all the people traversing the trail with sunscreen and the like, the water itself appeared unsullied and clear. Stones and pebbles marked a colorful path beneath the river’s surface. We stopped often to admire the “weeping walls” and the interplay of light and shadows along the narrow canyon walls.

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Hiking the Narrows, Zion National Park
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A “weeping wall” in the Narrows, Zion National Park

The kids had a blast–this hike was simultaneously more challenging and a hundred times more memorable than any hike they’d done before. At times, the water levels found our youngest chest-deep in icy water, but he took the dunking in stride. All three enjoyed the challenge of navigating the current and slippery riverbed rock. My husband took to pointing out “rock maps” to help our youngest find the shallowest path through the river. He shouted out rock colors or shapes to follow, a routine our son loved.

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Taking a break, the Narrows, Zion National Park
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The Narrows, Zion National Park
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On the way back to the trailhead, the Narrows, Zion National Park

For those considering this hike with children, there are many natural resting spots–some along sandy beach-like areas and others along rocky coves. Also, because it’s an out-and-back trail, you can venture as far as you have time (or legs!) for and easily retrace your steps back. We found it took us much longer going up-river than down, though I’m unsure whether this had more to do with the current, the initial cold (we started the hike at 8 am, pre-canyon sun), or our frequent stops to admire the scenery. All told, we hiked a little over 7 hours, 6.5 miles total, stopping for crackers, salami, and cheese several hundred yards into the Park Avenue/Narrows stretch of the trail. There is a closer turnaround point about a half mile earlier (2.5 miles from the mouth of the canyon; this where the canyon branches off into Orderville), but we had our heart set on seeing the Park Avenue section, so we pressed on. The kids never complained once; in fact, it was the kids who insisted we continue on.

The next day, we managed to squeeze in a hike to Upper Emerald Pool (about 3 hours roundtrip), a quick stop at Court of the Patriarchs, and ice cream at Zion Lodge before bidding a sad goodbye to this beautiful park.

Our Narrows hike might have taken an entire day, but the quality and depth of the experience imparted such meaning to our time at Zion that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. As a very wise mom once told me: Trust me. You need to do the Narrows.

Tell me: Have you visited this amazing park? What’s your favorite Zion memory?

Tips for Families Hiking the Narrows:

  • Dry sacks: You’ll want these to keep your electronic devices and belongings dry. In a pinch, Ziploc freezer bags will do (this is what we used), but you may want to consider renting a dry bag from your Narrows outfitter.
  • Rent Appropriate Gear: You could attempt this hike without neoprene socks, but I wouldn’t advise it, especially for children. We were cold with neoprene socks and can’t imagine how uncomfortable it would’ve been to attempt this hike without them.
  • Leave No Trace: No digging catholes along the sandy beach areas; all waste must be packed out. It would be wise to come prepared with plastic bags and wipes.
  • Just do it!: Even if you can only walk a mile up the Narrows, your experience will be well worth the effort. Hiking in allows you to experience this slot canyon in a way that viewing it from the mouth of the canyon cannot.
  • The Gift of Time: Allow yourself enough time to enjoy and embrace the experience. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to block off an entire day for this hike, especially if you have small children who may not be able to move as quickly. The hiking will be slow-going but incredibly rewarding.

 

Bryce Canyon: Heavenly Hoodoos

Standing at just 55 square miles, Bryce Canyon may be considered small by national park standards, but don’t let its size fool you: this park is huge on adventure. In 2014, we spent two and a half adventure-filled days at Bryce Canyon, en route from Capitol Reef National Park to Zion. We caught our first glimpse of Bryce Canyon at twilight; the sun’s last rays bathed the hoodoos in soft pink light.

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Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon

We stood transfixed at Sunset Point, watching the mysterious rock formations fade into darkness.IMG_20140617_204221IMG_20140617_203551

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Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon 2014

Bryce Canyon is not an official Certified International Dark Sky Park, but it remains home to some of the nation’s darkest skies. We were thrilled to sit in on a ranger-led Night Sky Program at Bryce Canyon Lodge. Unfortunately, our evening there was marred by cloudy, overcast conditions. The rangers waited to see if the sky would clear after their lecture, but they were eventually forced to cancel the scheduled outdoor telescope viewing. They apologized to the disappointed crowd, saying that weather cancellations were so rare, they only occurred a few times a year. Determined to turn lemons into lemonade, we walked back to¬†Sunset Point and stargazed on our own. Sure, it took an hour to coax feeling back into our frozen hands and cheeks, but the experience was well worth it!

Day 1:

We started the next morning with a hearty breakfast at Clarke’s Restaurant. I can’t recommend this place enough–family friendly, warm service, and generous portions.

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Clarke’s Restaurant, UT; their thick-sliced bacon can’t be beat!

We spent the morning hiking the 3 mile Navajo/Queen’s Garden Combination Loop. Detailed information about the hike can be found here. Superlatives like ‘amazing’ or ‘incredible’ just don’t do justice in capturing the wonder of descending into the amphitheater for the first time. IMG_20140618_093511IMG_20140618_115330

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Hiking Navajo/Queen’s Garden Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

Each turn captured the hoodoos at a different angle, each step more spectacular than the last. Standing at the base of the towering hoodoos was particularly humbling; it seemed impossible that these gravity-defying formations could have been carved by water, wind, and time alone.IMG_20140618_113850

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At the bottom of Navajo/Queen’s Garden Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

Our oldest son enjoys sketching and spent time sketching the Queen Victoria hoodoo. We bumped into a woman from Germany who was also sketching Queen Victoria. To our surprise, it was the same woman we had sketched with and spoken to a week earlier, 270 miles away at Arches National Park! She and her husband were touring all five UT national parks like we were. Lucy was particularly kind to our son, taking interest in his art and sharing her own work with him. During our stay, we had the good fortune of running into several couples and families doing the same loop as us at several different parks.

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A friendly, familiar face. Queen’s Garden trail, Bryce Canyon¬†

We stopped at Thor’s Hammer and attempted to recreate my trust Fodor’s Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West cover.

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Close, but no cigar. Thor’s Hammer, Bryce Canyon
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Thor’s Hammer, Bryce Canyon National Park

 

The park offers incentives to those who complete 3 miles or more on sanctioned hoodoo hikes. Visitors are encouraged to take rubbings of benchmarks at the end of each hike or photos of themselves next to these benchmarks. We were happy to receive a keepsake magnet to add to our growing collection of National Parks refrigerator magnets.

We spent the afternoon driving the Main Park Road. A great tip I read in Fodor’s guidebook was to drive to the southern end of the park and stop at the overlooks on the way back since they’re all located on the east side of the road. ¬†We picnicked at Yovimpa Point and slowly worked our way back to Fairyland, stopping to enjoy the sights at each overlook.

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Lunch at 9,000 ft, Yovimpa Point, Bryce Canyon National Park
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Natural Bridge, Bryce Canyon National Park

We ended our day with a cowboy dinner show at Ebenezer Lodge. The kids were fond of the roasted peanuts, and everyone enjoyed the delicious barbecue. I booked the reservation expecting a kitschy, cheesy show, but the singing and entertainment were surprisingly first-rate. If you’re planning a visit with kids, I’d highly recommend a stop here.

 Day 2:

We divided and conquered on Day 2. The kids and husband were not keen on the prospect of horseback riding into the canyon, so they decided to complete their Junior Ranger packets and explore the Visitor Center while I braved the Canyon Trail Rides horses alone. It was my first time riding a horse that wasn’t hand-led by a trainer. It was also my first time descending 800 feet on horseback. Turns out, this Hawaii girl is terrified of heights. And death, apparently, as my horse seemed hell-bent on hugging the cliff edge of the trail. Our guide assured us this was normal, but this means little when contemplating an 800 foot tumble to certain death. Eventually, I eased into the ride and found myself enjoying beautiful Peek-a-boo Loop.

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Sadly, this is the only shot I have of my horse ride. I couldn’t bring myself to release the reins. Notice the very calm, unfazed 7-year-old in front of me. ūüėÄ

Going up was much easier than coming down, and I was able to truly appreciate the unique beauty and solitude of Bryce Canyon on horseback. Our guide pointed out bristlecone pines ¬†and various hoodoo formations and was vigilant about keeping our group together. If you ever have the chance to spend some time at Bryce, I’d highly recommend a horse ride with Canyon Trail Rides.

After lunch, we hiked an easy 1 mile trail to Mossy Cave at the north end of the park. The color contrast between the hoodoos, sky, and water was striking. The cave itself wasn’t particularly memorable, but the journey there certainly was.

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Benchmark at Mossy Cave, Bryce Canyon National Park

Our time at Bryce Canyon came to an end all too quickly and remains one of my all-time favorite national parks. Tell me: what’s your favorite Bryce Canyon memory?¬†

Tips for Families:

  • Hiking: to the extent that you’re able to hike, be sure to get out there and do it! Even dropping a few feet down into the amphitheater gives you a far different perspective than standing at the rim. The hoodoos are beautiful from the scenic view points, but there’s so much more to see and appreciate than meets the eye.
  • Dress in Layers: Bryce Canyon is situated at a high elevation, so even in the summer, night time temps often dip into the 40’s and below. Daytime temps can warm into the 80’s. Easily removed layers are your best defense against both extremes.
  • Participate in Evening Ranger Talks and the Junior Ranger program: Kids (and adults) will reap so much more from the experience through these programs. Guided telescope viewing is available during the summer, and there are even guided full-moon hikes that look amazing. See the NPS site for more details.
  • ¬†Pack a lunch: Bryce Canyon has lots of great picnic spots. There’s nothing better than enjoying a meal with magnificent Bryce Canyon as your backdrop. You may also want to pack saltier snacks such as crackers and salted nuts; we found that the higher altitude made us crave salt.

 

 

 

Closer to Home: Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

Mother’s Day 2016 began with breakfast in bed with the family and the lovely promise of a full day and 4 willing participants in whatever adventure my heart desired. With our Glacier/North Cascades/Olympic backpacking trip less than 8 weeks away (more on this soon!), hiking seemed a natural training choice. Hydration bladders were prepped; sunscreen was duly applied.

Kamiloiki Ridge Trail is not part of the state sanctioned Na Ala Hele trail system, and as a result, fewer are people are familiar with its existence. A 3.7 mile roundtrip hike that begins in Hawaii Kai and ends at the summit of the Koolaus, Kamiloiki Ridge Trail may not be as famous as other summit ridge trails on the eastern side of Oahu, but it’s every bit as beautiful. Running parallel to Mariner’s Ridge and Hawaii Loa Ridge trails, it offers similar views with far fewer crowds.

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Kamiloiki Ridge Trail, Oahu, Hawaii

The trail begins at the end of a dead end street in a suburban Hawaii Kai neighborhood. It doesn’t seem possible that a summit trail could begin in such a populated area, but that makes the surprise all the sweeter. After finding street parking, we made our way to Pahua Heiau, a sacred and protected ancient Hawaiian site at the end of the street.

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Pahua Heiau, Oahu, Hawaii

We offered a quiet prayer and respectfully requested permission to pass. Be aware that the trail is not at all obvious here; instead of heading toward the ridge, you skirt the left edge of the heiau through thick brush, eventually coming to the foot of Kamiloiki Ridge. Keep an eye out for the colored ribbons to stay on track.

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In search of colored ribbons, ascending Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

It was drizzling at this point, and the ascent up the ridge was a little precarious, both muddy and slick. The kids did well in spite of several long drops and sketchy footing in certain areas.

The rain stopped by the time we reached the top, thank goodness, and we were left with gray, overcast skies–ideal conditions, since 2/3 of this trail stretches across an exposed ridge.

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Along the ridge; Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

If you plan to do this hike, I would strongly recommend pants and a long-sleeved shirt. The prickly, overgrown brush that started out as a slight nuisance progressed quickly to complete aggravation; we all sustained some pretty nasty scrapes. Still, in spite of the brush, we had so much fun scrambling over waist-high rocks and testing our footing on the steep ups and downs. This hike is challenging but do-able for families with young children. Our 8-year-old doesn’t love flat multi-mile walks but tends to be amenable to hikes like this one with elevations gains and climbing challenges. There are natural resting areas along the ridge, though truth be told, I needed these rest stops (and oxygen!) far more than the kids did.

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Natural chair at the beginning of the trail; Kamiloiki Ridge
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Stopping for a breather, Kamiloiki Ridge Trail. Koko Head in the background.
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The view below; Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

The last 1/3 of the trail climbs through an ironwood forest. It’s noticeably cooler in the forest with soft iron wood needles carpeting the forest floor.

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Ironwood forest, Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

The ironwood forest is another area where it is easy to go astray, so be sure to follow the colored ribbons. Towards the end, there is a fun rope section where generous hikers left rope to assist with the final scramble up and down a muddy hill.

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Rope section, Kamiloiki Ridge Trail
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Descending the rope, Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

The wind was tremendous at the summit, exacerbated by the overcast skies and earlier rain. We quickly devoured a bag of well-earned gummy bears, enjoying our hard-won views of Waimanalo, Olomana, and beyond. Kamiloiki connects with other ridges along the Koolau Summit Trail (KST). Along with Kamehame and Mariner’s Ridge, Kamiloiki marks the third ridge the kids have summited in the east. The KST is sketchier and more exposed than its perpendicular cross trails, but we hope to be able to hike portions of the KST when the kids are a little older.

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View of Waimanalo, Kamiloiki Ridge Trail
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Too close to the edge for Mom’s comfort; Kamiloiki Ridge Trail

Tell me: what’s your favorite hike in Hawaii?