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 

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

 

A few years ago, I picked up a well-loved, second-hand copy of Time Magazine’s “America’s National Parks” at a library book sale. Call it kismet: I’d mistakenly yanked the book off the shelf thinking it was a Hawaii hiking guide. Our youngest was still in diapers, and we’d yet to embark on a single road trip or visit any National Park other than Hawaii Volcanoes or Haleakala. Flipping through the pages, though, I was spellbound. Smack dab in the center of the book was a sunrise photo of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know when, but I promised myself there and then that we’d be standing at Delicate Arch someday.

Three years later in 2014, we took a leap of faith and planned a Southwest National Parks road trip. Our youngest was only five, and we weren’t sure how he’d fare with all of the hiking and driving, but we’d had a taste of Mount Rainier and Redwood in 2013 and found ourselves craving more. It was a challenging itinerary–9 parks in 18 days towing 3 littles over 3,000 miles–but 2014 holds a special place in our hearts as our first in-depth Parks experience. If we were smitten before, we were head-over-heels this go-round!

We visited Grand Canyon and Mesa Verde before stopping at Arches for 3 days. With a quick stop at the Visitor Center to view the park film and exhibits, we spoke with a park ranger regarding trail conditions and Junior Ranger booklets. Our youngest was especially thrilled to borrow a Junior Explorer bag. With binoculars, a jeweler’s loupe, colored pencils, field guides, and an activity binder, this backpack was free to borrow and held our youngest’s rapt attention throughout our stay. After participating in a kid-geared Ranger Talk (Highly recommend! We love Ranger Talks and try to squeeze in as many as we can), we set out to explore:

  1. Landscape Arch (1.6 miles + 0.5 miles more for Pine Tree and Tunnel Arches): From the moment we stepped foot in Devil’s Garden, the striking terrain was like none we’d experienced before: orange sandstone against the bluest of skies, miles of desert sand giving rise to wild green junipers. It was a divine master class in complementary colors and textures. The trail itself was relatively flat with minimal elevation gain; gravel and sand underfoot made Landscape Arch accessible to all. At 290-feet long, Landscape Arch ranks among the five longest arches in the world, but what is perhaps more impressive is its improbable width. Impossibly long and thin, this oxymoron of a spindly mammoth seems to defy the laws of physics.
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    Beginning of Landscape Trail in Devil’s Garden
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    I love this photo, if only for the sibling love
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    Utah’s summer skies are the brightest and bluest I’ve ever seen
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    The color contrasts and sandstone formations on this trail were amazing!
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    Landscape Arch, 2014
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    I know it’s horrible to shoot into the sun, but I loved the head-on angle here

    Unfortunately, it was 94 degrees the day we visited, and our youngest had no intention of hiking another four miles, so we divided and conquered: the hubby took the youngest an extra half-mile to Pine Tree and Tunnel Arches (which they loved), while the older two and I continued on to Double O Arch.

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    Hanging out at Pine Tree Arch

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    Tunnel Arch, 2014
  2. Double O Arch (additional 3 miles RT from Landscape Arch + 1 mile more for Partition and Navajo Arches): The trail becomes significantly more challenging after Landscape Arch. The gravel and sand trail morphs into steep inclines, slickrock scrambling, and narrow fins. While doable for older children (ours were 9 and 11), parents should exercise caution as this primitive trail contains steep drop-offs and areas of exposure. We lost the cairn trail several times, but hiking to Double O was worth every ounce of effort. The Disneyland crowds vanished the minute we left Landscape Arch, affording us blissful solitude the entire way.
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    The Primitive Trail is steeper and more rugged than Landscape Arch trail.
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    Final fin before Double O (note the brave soul standing atop the fin for scale)

    The kids enjoyed climbing the endless slickrock until the final fin to Double O when the wind suddenly picked up. Sand whipped into our eyes, and we dropped to all fours as persistent gusts threatened to knock us from our narrow perch. Low-pitched wind howled through rock wall tunnels, adding to the eeriness of the experience. Several parties ahead of us turned back, urging us to do the same for the kids’ safety. Being stubborn, we soldiered on for a few minutes until a rogue gust nearly knocked the kids off a narrow fin. Pride goeth before a fall, and I wasn’t sticking around to lose a kiddo to hubris. While disappointed to turn back so close to Double O, we were happy to have at least caught a glimpse of the overlook. Turning back turned out to be serendipitous as our favorite Arches experience occurred at Partition and Navajo Arches on our return trek. Partition Arch in particular framed an insanely gorgeous vista at a dizzying elevation. There were shaded shelves on either side of the arch that made for lovely impromptu sketch studios; moved by the spirit and beauty of Arches, we journaled here for close to an hour.

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    Navajo Arch: we had this one all to ourselves. Strong winds made bonsai out of these trees!
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    The partition in Partition Arch
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    We couldn’t get enough of that arch-framed vista
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    One of my favorite moments at Arches

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    Lovely shaded spot on the opposite side of Partition Arch for journaling
  3. Double Arch (0.5 miles): Though tuckered out from Landscape and Double O Arches, the kids caught their second wind at Double Arch. A gentle half-mile stroll led us to the base of this spectacularly intertwined behemoth. We lay humbled beneath Double Arch and watched clouds roll by before climbing out as far as we could along the sandstone ledges. Though you could easily check Double Arch off your list in half an hour, we loved lingering here. Exploring every nook and cranny fostered an intimate sense of connection to the park; the kinesthetic and visceral connections forged here remain strong for the kids to this day. Our youngest still talks with affection about exploring Double Arch with his jeweler’s loupe!
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    Double Arch Trail. This structure reminded us of Tatooine.
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    Beneath Double Arch
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    Looking out from under Double Arch. I could never get tired of this view!
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    We sat here for over an hour, watching the clouds roll by
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    We can’t recommend the Junior Explorer bag enough–free to borrow and sure to keep littles engaged for hours
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    Exploring Double Arch

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    The trail back is almost as beautiful as the arch itself
  4. Delicate Arch (3 miles): Though NPS classifies Delicate Arch as difficult, most families would probably find it more moderate. There is a 200-yard ledge near the end with drop-offs, but not to the degree or sketchiness of Double O Arch. Traversing the rocky terrain is safe and doable for even the youngest of hikers if taken slow. With a 7 am start time on Day 2, trailhead parking was plentiful, and we were able to avoid the previous day’s soaring midday temps. The landscape evoked “John Carter’s” arid slickrock glory, offset only by Utah’s endless blue skies. Long, rocky inclines allowed the kids to choose their own path between cairn markers, making for a memorable experience. Rocky inclines gave way to spiraling rock stairways, eventually yielding to a narrow ridge pathway boasting multiple arch sighting opportunities across the valley (keep your eyes peeled!).
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    Hiking Delicate Arch, 2014
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    Our youngest was 5 at the time and loved this trail!
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    These desert views never cease to amaze me
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    With gorgeous rest stops like these, it was tempting to linger a while
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    Picking a path between cairns. The cloud-cover was disappointing at first but such a relief temperature-wise
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    Final push to Delicate Arch–I spy 2 arches across the valley

    No matter how many times I’d dog-eared that Time Magazine page or read online about how the arch appears right after this ledge, nothing could prepare me for that first glimpse of Delicate Arch. At over 60-feet tall and 40-feet wide, Delicate Arch holds top honor as the park’s largest freestanding arch, but here’s what mere photos and statistics cannot convey: Delicate Arch is huge. And glorious. And fleeting–a temporal blip in a scheme of eons. It dwarfs and humbles you; you can’t help but contemplate time and tide and the transient nature of existence. On your return trek, be sure to take the short spur trail to Wolfe Ranch Cabin to see an early turn-of-the-century ranch building as well as intricate and well-preserved Ute petroglyphs.

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    Delicate Arch 2014
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    Three years after marking that Time Magazine book, we’re here at Delicate Arch! It was a surreal moment.

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    Delicate Arch. The people at the base of the arch give a sense of scale–Delicate Arch is so much bigger than I’d imagined.
  5. Balanced Rock Loop (0.3 miles): More gentle stroll than hike, kids and adults alike will enjoy walking the circumference of this gravity-defying icon. Studying Balanced Rock from multiple angles gave us a true appreciation for its precarious size and structure. Stay tuned for hikes #6 and #7 and whitewater rafting at Fisher Towers in Arches, Part II!
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    Balanced Rock is a sight to behold
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    We loved studying Balanced Rock from different angles
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    From this angle, Balanced Rock looks exceptionally sturdy

    It’s hard to articulate just how much that little 50 cent book from the book sale changed our lives. In the years since, we’ve visited 21 National Parks and hope to visit 12 more by summer’s end. What began with a dog-eared photo and a promise has evolved to become the thread running through the fabric of our family history. The Parks are a hundred stories of bonding in the rain on the Olympic coast and trout-fishing on Yellowstone Lake and marveling over bighorn sheep on Iceberg Lake Trail. They’re stolen moments of holding hands through a Yosemite meadow and jumping at the top of the world in Mesa Verde. They’re three kids who consistently rank Park Ranger at the top of the ever-evolving list of what they’d like to be when they grow up. In no small way, the Parks have changed the way we see ourselves and the world. We are addicted!

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    The Mighty Five make Utah one of our very favorite states!

 

Walking Among Giants: Redwood National Park & Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

Every morning in the second grade, our class would belt out “This Land is Your Land” while our teacher held up photos of Redwood National Park and diagrams of the Gulf Stream current to illustrate the patriotic tune’s famous verse. Seeing California’s redwoods has topped my bucket list ever since. To a second grader stuck on a tropical island, nothing seemed more mythical than millennial giants towering over coastal cliffs. The reality three decades later, though? Even better.

After leaving Point Cabrillo Lighthouse (click here for San Francisco/Point Cabrillo Lighthouse trail), we checked into Seabird Lodge in nearby Fort Bragg. It was one of the nicest motels we’ve ever stayed at, probably due in no small part to its proximity to exclusive Mendocino. ‘Posh motel’ might sound like an oxymoron, but with full amenities, spacious rooms, and upscale decor, Seabird Lodge felt more like a coastal bed and breakfast escape than a motel. Given the chance, we’d gladly stay here again.

At the front desk’s recommendation, we dined at D’Aurelios, a gem of an Italian eatery hidden in an unassuming strip mall. This humble diner was true Guy Fieri material: impeccable service, reasonable prices, and outstanding food made this one of our best road trip finds ever! It was hands down the best pizza I’ve ever eaten in my life. Pizza sauce wasn’t something I’d ever given much thought to before tasting D’Aurelios garlicky, addictive, and downright crave-worthy sauce. This stuff was ambrosia!

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D’Aurelios makes THE most amazing pizza! Their “side salads” were gargantuan and delicious, too.

After some much needed rest, we ventured north toward Avenue of the Giants, a 31-mile stretch of old Highway 101 encompassing Humboldt Redwood State Park and purported to contain the most scenic display of redwoods in the area. It did not disappoint.

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I couldn’t get enough of that soft light filtering through the trees
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A true towering giant
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The kids took to calling the soft beams ‘God light,’ which seemed very fitting
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Well, hello, little banana slug

Avenue of the Giants redefines the term ‘enchanting.’ Here, sky surrenders to colossal trees and Lilliputian cars wind through shaded bends. You stretch your neck to pinpoint where canopy ends and sky begins, but it’s folly; even from the forest floor, it’s clear the redwoods climb forever and then some. The forest is all dappled light and prehistoric ferns and majestic giants, but it’s a fragile magic. Too often, we found ourselves seeking ever taller trees instead of appreciating the splendor of the forest. One of the best decisions we made was to pull over and wander on foot for a mile or so. If ever we believed that any of the trees were anything less than tall, all we had to do was lay on the ground and look up for a minute to realize the futility of comparing height when you’re talking redwoods. Walking among gentle giants, enveloped in the kind of deep silence that speaks to the passing of millennia, we loved the peace and serenity afforded here.

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Redwoods may not boast the same breadth and girth as sequoias, but their trunks are still massive!
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Hubby posing for scale, Avenue of the Giants
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Playing by the creek, surrounded by redwoods
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She loved standing in her own custom redwood spotlight

From Avenue of the Giants, it was another hour and a half to Redwood National Park. With a stop to admire Gold Bluffs Beach and check on trail conditions at Kuchel Visitor Center, we got down to business hiking Fern Canyon Loop trail. Fern Canyon is a 1-mile loop through a verdant gully painted in ferns. I’d read that this hike was a must-do (it is!) but failed to note how much of the hike was through a creek, so we got wetter than expected. I’d highly recommend Tevas and towels for this one. The kids enjoyed scrambling over logs, crossing swampy boardwalks, and wading through calf-deep water (thigh deep for our preschooler!): Mom and Dad loved the otherworldly ambiance created by the spectacular 30-foot canyon walls of ferns. The trickling of the creek and the dank, lush gully combined to make this hike a family favorite.

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Entrance to Fern Canyon Loop
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Lots of fun creek crossings
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The kids loved clambering over the wet logs and boardwalks
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Fern Canyon, Redwood National Park

We circled back to Prairie Creek, hoping to catch a glimpse of Redwood’s famed Roosevelt elk. Aptly enough, we found a herd taking respite in the shade at none other than Elk Prairie itself. The was the kids’ first wildlife sighting, and they couldn’t have been more thrilled! We pulled over and watched the family of elk for quite a while before continuing on.

From Elk Prairie, it was back to Prairie Creek Visitor Center to walk 0.3-mile Circle Trail. Realizing we were pressed for time, we nixed 1-mile Lady Bird Johnson Grove Trail from our itinerary in favor of Circle Trail. This easy, level trail was perfect for our 4-year-old, who’d had his fill of driving and hiking by late afternoon. Even he couldn’t begrudge the chance to see Big Tree, a 1,500-year-old colossus and true superlative in a park full of biggests and tallests. Having the trail to ourselves was a treat; in fact, we’d barely passed another soul all day. Redwood might be packed to capacity during the summer, but we were fortunate to visit during the first week of June when many schools were still in session.

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Big Tree: 1,500 years old!!
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Big Tree stands a whopping 304 feet tall

We ended our time in Redwood National Park driving 9-mile Coastal Drive Loop. With narrow, unpaved roads and blind curves skirting precipitous cliffs, this 1-hour drive is not for the faint of heart, but the payoff in panoramic views of the Pacific is unsurpassed. I love Hawaii and our beautiful ocean views, but there’s something about the California coast that speaks to me. It’s a quintessential mix of rugged beauty and slate-blue water just shy of inviting; blue skies tempered by fog echo the mild but untamed sentiment of the coast.

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Stopping to stretch our legs on Coastal Drive
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Coastal Drive, Redwood National Park
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The views were worth those scary hairpin turns
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View of the California coast from Coastal Drive (please forgive the poor photo quality; these were taken on an old phone)

By sunset, we were more than ready for dinner at Good Harvest Cafe, a Crescent City eatery with an emphasis on local, organic cuisine. Dinner was pretty good, though I’ve read rave reviews about Good Harvest Cafe’s brunch fare–worth a try if you’re in the area. We settled in for the night at Front Street Inn with an ocean view of Battery Point Lighthouse to lull us to sleep.

The next morning, we awoke early to cross the California border into Oregon. We traveled the coast for 3 hours, admiring lonely sea stacks and pelicans before arriving at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Encompassing more than 40 miles of sand dunes in Reedsport, OR, Oregon Dunes NRA represents the largest stretch of coastal sand dunes in North America. The tallest specimens reach 500-feet high, providing recreational opportunities galore, including dune buggying, canoeing, hiking, and camping. We enjoyed a picnic lunch high atop a covered bluff before venturing down to the sand. Sand and surf may define our summers, but we’d never seen anything like this before! The dunes are marked by undulating sand ripples, paralleled endlessly across miles of coast. There is a hypnotic quality to the unbroken ripples that initially made us reluctant to mar the sand with footprints, but it wasn’t long before we were running and sliding down the dunes, getting the cardio workout of our lives. What comes down must first go up, and climbing up those steep dunes was tougher than we expected! We would have loved to spend all day here, but we had another 100 miles to cover before our final stop for the night: Newport, OR.

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This was the kids’ first time crossing a state line; OR marked their first state outside of CA and HI.
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Like sands through the hourglass…Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area
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Loved the ripple pattern–so striking over miles of dunes
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Life-size sandbox
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That dark speck at the top is the oldest. Sliding downhill didn’t work out so well, but running downhill was lots of fun

With a quick bird-watching stop at atmospheric Heceta Head Lighthouse, we arrived at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport a little after 3 pm. Normally, I’d hesitate to pay for admission knowing we only had a few hours left to closing, but we had a 60% off Groupon that sweetened the deal. The adorable sea otter exhibit was a big hit with the kids, as were the walk-through shark tunnel, aviary, and interactive kids’ exhibit.

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Birdwatching at Heceta Head Lighthouse; seeing pelicans up-close was a thrill!
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Rugged beauty, Heceta Head Lighthouse
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Quintessential PNW mystique
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Oregon coastline, near OR Sea Lion Caves, Florence
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Oregon Coast Aquarium, Newport, OR

We chowed down on clam chowder and seafood at Newport Chowder Bowl, followed by a chilly evening on the beach. Like many quaint summer towns along the Oregon coast, Newport exudes a laid-back, boardwalk charm that we’d love to explore more fully someday. In hindsight, it might have been wiser to explore the coast over 2 weeks instead of cramming it into 5 days, but I’m grateful to have gotten a taste of the coast. Even as I plan Road Trip 2017, this is an issue I continue to struggle with: is it better to see someplace for a little while than never to visit it at all? And what if doing so comes at the expense of more fully enjoying a single destination? This area is very gray to me, so please feel free to weigh in with your thoughts. There’s no denying we were National Park Road Trip rookies in 2013, making classic rookie mistakes: too much time driving, too little time experiencing, and way too much rushing around. No regrets, though; without that experience, we wouldn’t have had a baseline to know what worked and didn’t work for us. Best of all, 2013 was a pivotal year for falling in love with National Parks and road trips–and that’s something I wouldn’t trade for the world.

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Newport Chowder Bowl–their namesake chowder was so creamy and delicious
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Can you tell we were a little cold? 😀
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Father and son bonding time, Oregon Coast (Newport)

 

6 Tips for Securing High-Demand Wilderness Permits and Campgrounds

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

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

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

  1. Check NPS websites regularly for updates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Last light, Grand Canyon 2014

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    Bright Angel Trail, 2014
  4. Consider a reverse trek

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

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    Moro Rock Trail, Sequoia 2014

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

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

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

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    Yosemite, 2014
  6. Shoot for weekdays, not weekends

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

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

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