Glacier Day 2: Iceberg Lake

Knowing that the bulk of our visit would be concentrated in the Many Glacier and St. Mary regions of Glacier National Park, we opted to camp in St. Mary. Online reviews suggested that St. Mary was quieter and less crowded than West Glacier, and we found this to be true as well. Although I would had preferred to camp directly in the park, at 6 minutes away from the St. Mary Visitor Center, St. Mary KOA was a convenient kid-approved compromise that included a swimming pool, hot tub, and showers. The stargazing was indeed as stellar as I’d hoped; seeing the Milky Way and myriad of nighttime stars from our tent is an experience I won’t soon forget. Our campsite was quiet and secluded; we absolutely loved our time there!

Watching the sun set over our St. Mary KOA campsite
Just another gorgeous technicolor sunrise at St. Mary KOA

Day 2 began with a 35 minute drive to Swiftcurrent Motor Inn, located in the Many Glacier region of the park. We had an 8:30 am date with Ranger Eric for the 10-mile, 1,200 ft elevation gain Heart of Glacier hike to Iceberg Lake. Although we’d purchased bear spray the previous day, taking our first big hike in Glacier with experienced company seemed like a wise idea, and we looked forward to learning from Ranger Eric’s wealth of knowledge. The crew that gathered that morning on the Swiftcurrent Inn porch numbered over 20, running the gamut from young to old, fit to less so, experienced to those toting just one 16 ounce bottle of water for an expected 5-6 hour hike (!! not the best idea!).

Iceberg Lake Trailhead; Ranger Eric rallying the troops

Ranger Eric moved at a quick clip. The first 15 minutes of the hike included a series of fairly steep switchbacks, and the faster-than-anticipated pace left me winded and nervous that we might have gotten in over our heads. However, once we reached a higher elevation, Ranger Eric explained that the first 15 minutes were the steepest, and that the going would be much easier from then on. Fortunately, he was right, and pace was never an issue after that initial climb. Later, I also realized that the faster pace was meant to compensate for the frequent ten-minute breaks and ranger talks to come.

Scenery for days, Iceberg Lake trail
Glacier National Park, Day 2

The hike to Iceberg Lake differed from our experience at Hidden Lake, but it was every bit as spectacular–perhaps even more so. Mount Grinnell dominated the skyline the first mile of the trail; the Ptarmigan Wall was just barely visible in the distance. Little did I realize that this hike would eventually lead us to the foot of this distant wall! Unlike Hidden Lake trail, the lower elevation of Iceberg Lake trail made for snow-free hiking and different alpine views. Here, summer was in full bloom: an explosion of bear grass and riot of wildflowers commanded the mountainside. Like with Hidden Lake, I found myself turning constant circles to take in the magnificent 360 degree views.

PANO_20160701_095054 (1)
Scenery for days, Iceberg Lake Trail
20160701_093916 (1)
Hillside of wildflowers
Listening to a ranger talk, gorgeousness abounds all around
Looking back from whence we came, 360 degree views; Iceberg Lake trail
Shield Mountain, Iceberg Lake Trail, Glacier National Park
Ptarmigan Wall still far in the distance

Shortly after completing the initial climb, we came upon an aspen grove that overlooked a wide meadow clearing. Here, we spotted not one, but two moose bulls grazing among the slender trunks! As moose sightings had eluded us in Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone National Parks, this was quite a thrill for our family! Even from a distance, it was clear that these were massive, majestic creatures.

In all of our excitement, our moose photos wound up blurry, but you can still see how this guy dominates the landscape around him.

About a mile in, we came upon an unobstructed frontal view of Swiftcurrent Glacier and Shield Mountain, aka Mt. Wilbur. Knowing that these glaciers may disappear within our lifetimes made this sighting all the more special. Ranger Eric explained that contrary to popular belief, Glacier National Park is not named for its abundance of glaciers (there are parks that contain greater numbers), but for the way its landscape was carved by the movement of glaciers.

Swiftcurrent Glacier, front and center

Climbing into the treeline, Ranger Eric pointed out trees with distinct bear claw markings, embedded with tufts of fur. We knew that we were in a region with one of the highest concentration of grizzlies in the lower 48, but it was still a little disconcerting to see how many trees were marked. We also stepped over several piles of fresh bear scat that made us truly appreciate the wild and untouched nature of Glacier. Ranger Eric also explained how bears graze in elevator fashion up the mountainside; there is a one-day bloom difference in flora per one-hundred feet of elevation gain which influences the bears’ feeding preference.

Bear claw markings; Iceberg Lake Trail
Is it just me, or does Ranger Eric seem a little too gleeful about these bear marks?

Climbing above the treeline to an exposed area brought cooler temperatures and a commanding view of the Ptarmigan Wall, now closer than ever. Its pinnacle-spired ridge and sheer cliffs were magnificent to behold. Below the treeline, numerous waterfalls both large and small carved exquisite paths across the mountainside.

Ptarmigan Wall; innumerable waterfalls all around us–too many to count!
Ptarmigan Wall, Iceberg Lake
Easy-moderately graded path; beauty abounds, Iceberg Lake Trail

As Ranger Eric talked about avalanche areas during a snack break at Ptarmigan Falls, I turned to find our youngest fast asleep, gummy bears still in-hand, enroute to his mouth! When I tapped his shoulder, he immediately jumped up and tightened the load lifters on his backpack, saying, “So, two more miles, right?” as if nothing had happened. The narcolepsy incident was hilarious, but it served as a good reminder to more closely monitor the kids’ water/food intake to ensure they maintained good energy reserves.

Feeling refreshed after an unintentional nap 🙂

Three hours after setting out from the trailhead, we finally came upon Iceberg Lake, and what a glorious sight it was. Framed below the commanding spires and sheer cliffs of Ptarmigan Wall, Iceberg Lake loomed far more massive and imposing than mere photos could possible capture. With lake water the prettiest shade of teal and chunks of floating ice large enough to withstand human weight, Iceberg Lake defied words. We learned that the term ‘iceberg’ as it is applied to this lake is actually a misnomer, as these ‘bergs’ are not the result of frozen lake water, but rather, the broken-off chunks of frozen ice fields. Hearing that there were no icebergs in the lake as recently as a week before our trek, we felt grateful to have witnessed Iceberg Lake in its full glory. Like at Lake McDonald, there was a collective, reverent hush here in spite of the number of hikers present.

Ptarmigan Wall, approaching Iceberg Lake
Just beyond a small patch of snow, Iceberg Lake
First glimpse of Iceberg Lake
Iceberg Lake, Glacier National Park
Iceberg Lake, Glacier National Park
The lake was the most vibrant shade of teal
Teal beauty beneath the Ptarmigan Wall
Pristine and crystal-clear, Iceberg Lake dazzled from every angle

We enjoyed a leisurely packed lunch of peanut butter, pretzel crisps, and trail mix at the lake, marveling in the view that was made all the more special by the effort it took to get there. Soon thereafter, our hiking group dispersed, traveling in pairs or small groups back to the trailhead at their own pace with Ranger Eric bringing up the rear. Less than a mile into our return trip, my oldest shouted, “Oh, my gosh, look!” which got my adrenaline pumping in a holy-cow-I-hope-my-husband-has-the-bear spray-at-the-ready kind of way. He pointed just off the trail and yell-whispered, “Bighorn sheep!” Not 5 feet below us was a bighorn sheep looking utterly unimpressed and annoyed by our presence in his path. We contained our excitement and scrambled twenty yards back to give him berth. It was an amazing first encounter for us with bighorn sheep! We watched him canter across the trail and up the mountainside, to which the kids exchanged grins of astonishment and whispers of, “Best hike ever!” It was one of those moments of pure joy where I remember feeling exceedingly blessed to be able to experience such a wild and remarkable place with my family.

Moments before our bighorn sheep encounter
Bighorn sheep cantering up the mountain, Iceberg Lake Trail
Seeing this bighorn sheep up close was such a thrill!

Without ranger talks or long breaks, we were able to make it back to Swiftcurrent Inn in just under 2 hours, where we treated ourselves to cold drinks and some well-earned ice cream and cheese/beef sticks. While not a difficult hike, the hike to Iceberg Lake was a hot and fairly long one at ten miles, and we were glad to soak our feet in the KOA hot tub and cool off with a dip in the swimming pool for sure!

Tips for families:

  • It’s important to note that this ranger-guided hike does not include a ranger on the return trip, so carrying bear spray is advisable.
  • Depending on your return pace, the projected time for this hike is 6-7 hours, so plan water and food accordingly. Snacks were indispensable to keeping our energy up; we each packed a quart-sized Ziploc of trail mix, dried fruit, and candy that we reached for throughout the hike. Note that there is also a convenient pit toilet at Ptarmigan Falls 3 miles into the hike.
  • Much of this hike is exposed; sunblock and hats are advisable.
  • While the initial switchbacks may be trying for little ones, the rest of the trail is very moderately graded, making this hike very doable for kids 8 and up despite its long length.

I’d love to hear about your experience at Iceberg Lake! What other trails have you enjoyed at Glacier National Park?

 (Photo credit to my husband and son for many of the above photos!)


Glacier National Park Day 1: Of Snow and Lakes

It’s so hard to get back into the swing of real life after a great vacation! A month has passed since we returned from our trip, and I still find myself thinking, “Wait, didn’t we just get back?” with regard to work, email, and other real life responsibilities. Oops, not so much!

This year’s trip began with a 3 hour drive to Moses Lake, WA after an early evening touch down in Seattle. Our original plan was to drive 4.5 hours to Spokane to decrease our drive time to West Glacier the next day, but considering how exhausted we were, I’m glad we opted to stay in Moses Lake instead. We were only there long enough to enjoy late night pizza at Guido’s and an evening at the Interstate Inn, but we enjoyed our time in this quiet little town nonetheless.

The next morning, we drove an hour and a half to Spokane to stock up on groceries and supplies at Walmart and Trader Joe’s before tackling the 5 hour drive to West Glacier.  I loved the ever-changing scenery through Coeur d’Alene, Flathead, and Kalispell.

Trader Joe’s, Spokane–oh, what I would give to have a TJ’s in HI!

Knowing we had two weeks of camping ahead of us, we decided to splurge on a one-room kamping kabin at the West Glacier KOA for the night. What a treat this was! It was so nice to be able to unload our sleeping bags from the car and call it a night. We all enjoyed the pool, playground, and porch swing before drifting off in our comfy bunks.

One-room kamping kabin, West Glacier KOA
Organized chaos. At campgrounds with swimming pools, we have our priorities straight. 🙂

We checked out bright and early to get a jump on our first day in Glacier National Park. After a brief stop at Apgar Visitor Center for Junior Ranger booklets and bear spray, we traveled the much-anticipated Going-to-the-Sun-Road. GTSR is a 32-mile engineering marvel that connects West Glacier and St. Mary, hugging sheer cliffs and winding through majestic mountains that overlook glacially-carved valleys. Glacier has been on my bucket list for ye-e-e-ars, and I’ve googled every image and video of the park available, but nothing could prepare me for the grandeur and incomparable beauty that is Glacier in-person. Standing along the bank of Lake McDonald, admiring the expanse of crystal-clear lake before me, I felt my eyes fill; I had to swallow to keep from embarrassing myself. The placid, mirror-like lake seemed to have a similar effect on other travelers, whose raucous shouts and laughter in the parking area faded to reverent silence upon reaching the lake.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park
Seamless reflection, Lake McDonald
GTSR, LakeMcDonald

At the time, I was convinced that Lake McDonald would remain the highlight of GTSR, not realizing that each new twist and turn in the road would reveal more awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping beauty than the last. I’ve never seen so many cascading waterfalls, snow-capped peaks, and verdant valleys in my life! GTSR truly is a feast for the senses.20160630_11121220160630_111628 - Edited20160630_111745

20160630_11122420160630_111848_Richtone(HDR)20160630_11301420160630_112703_Richtone(HDR)20160630_113113Located at an elevation of 6,600 feet, Logan Pass marks the highest point along GTSR, as well as the start of numerous hikes in Glacier National Park. It is also the most popular and crowded stop on GTSR. As the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot can be somewhat of a nightmare to navigate, we were happy to secure a parking spot and set out for Hidden Lake without having to circle too long.

Hidden Lake Overlook trail is a short and sweet 3-mile out and back hike that begins on the west side of Logan Pass Visitor Center. While there is usually an option to continue an additional mile past the overlook to the lake itself, this portion of the trail was closed due to high bear activity that day. The announcement put us slightly on edge as a man had been killed by a grizzly a mile away from our campground a day earlier, just an hour before our arrival. My bear concerns, however, took a backseat once we got to the top of the stairs at the trailhead and were greeted by this looming wall of white:

Where’d the boardwalk go? Beginning of Hidden Lake trail

I quickly scanned the area for the “easy boardwalk” path I’d read about. Turns out, Hidden Lake boardwalk and 85% of the trail were hidden under winter snow and recent snowfall from the previous two evenings. Visitors paraded past by the dozen as my eyes flitted between our flimsy hiking shoes, woefully unequipped with microspikes or crampons, and the dirty blanket of snow before us. Hikers tromped up the hill in a motley assortment of swim shorts and Chacos, tank tops and flip flops, unfazed by the wall of white that was no doubt as familiar to them as tropical sand and surf are to us. Their confidence only served to reinforce the singular thought looping through my head: we are not a snow people. The farthest I’d ever walked through snow was maybe several hundred yards. During a snowball fight, no less!

We had no business leading three kids through 3 miles of snow.

And then my youngest squealed, “Ooh, I can’t wait to hike through snow! This is going to be the best hike ever!” and just like that, we found ourselves squelching through icy puddles, crunching our way up that slick initial climb. The going was slow–two steps forward, one giant sli-i-i-de back–but the husband and kids could not have been more delighted by the novelty of it all. They hiked circles around me, running ahead, then sliding back down to where they’d left me behind with my cautious turtle steps. “C’mon, mom!” they’d yell. “Go faster! You have to embrace the slide!” Me, on the other hand…I was just trying to remain upright. Which I wasn’t all that successful with to begin with, but I was pretty sure going faster probably wasn’t going to do me any favors in that department. 😀

Cautious first steps before all the fun ensues; Hidden Lake Trail
Having the time of his life, Hidden Lake Trail, Glacier National Park

20160630_122429Our trekking poles definitely came in handy for navigating the slippery slopes and ice. And the 360 degree views on this trail? Simply STUNNING. I was so glad my phone was dangling in a waterproof case from my neck, because I found myself reaching to take pictures nearly every second. About ten minutes from the Hidden Lake overlook, we were thrilled to come upon a family of mountain goats, baby kid safely shepherded between mom and dad. Clearly habituated to humans, the shaggy, snow white trio paid us no heed as they ambled across the trail to graze. It was a thrill to come so close to these beautiful creatures.

Views along Hidden Lake trail
Majestic and expansive; Glacier National Park
Gorgeousness from every angle, Hidden Lake Trail at Logan Pass
Hidden Lake trail seriously showing off 🙂


Finally, a respite from the snow, ten minutes from the overlook
Almost there! The beauty of this rest stop made it feel like a destination unto itself
Ten minutes before the lake, signs of summer returning
Family of mountain goats!
We moved off the trail to give these beauties space to cross; they must have come within 20 feet of us, which was amazing to behold.

After all of the fun we’d experienced on the trail, I wondered whether the journey might prove more exciting than the destination itself, but I needn’t have worried. Hidden Lake did not disappoint, its beautiful sapphire depths punctuated by chunks of floating ice. Photos and words do no justice in capturing the tremendous scale and beauty of this lake and Glacier National Park. We sat at the overlook for almost an hour, sketching and absorbing the stunning view before reluctantly turning back. Once we hit the snow, trekking poles were key for the descent; I can’t imagine having navigated some of the sketchier sloped sections without them. Once we completed these portions, though, the kids tossed their poles aside and ran/slid their way back to the trailhead.

Hidden Lake, Glacier National Park
Talk about lunch with a view! Hidden Lake, Glacier National Park
Incomparable beauty, Hidden Lake
Sapphire blue, Hidden Lake
It’s hard to imagine a better view 

They had such a great time; you couldn’t wipe the smiles off their faces! We all agreed: Hidden Lake was one of our favorite hikes ever. It was an amazing beginning to our explorations in what was to become one of our new favorite parks. With Hidden Lake behind us, we made our way to St. Mary to set up camp for the night, excited and full of anticipation over what the next three days in Glacier had in store for us.





Road Trip 2016: 21 Highlights We’re Looking Forward To

There are so many reasons we’re looking forward to this year’s National Parks road trip. As we get ready to leave, here are 21 of them:

  1. Seeing a mountain goat on the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park.
  2. Getting our caffeine fix at Storyville Coffee in Pike Market.

    Storyville Coffee, 2014…most amazing coffee ever!
  3. Celebrating the 4th of July from a backcountry site on Ross Lake, North Cascades.
  4. Hiking Piegan Pass or Grinnell Glacier trail to see the glaciers before they disappear from Glacier National Park for good.
  5. Eating ALL THE THINGS in Pike Market.
    Sunset over Pike Market, 2013

    I can’t remember whether the ricotta/lemon curd crumpet is better than the pesto/tomato/parmesan combination, so ordering them both again is clearly the only solution.

    The Crumpet Shop, Pike Market
    Blackberry ricotta crumpet, Pike Market, 2013

    Piroshkies are also high on the list of must-eat-again, as well as char siu sticks from Mee Sum.

    Piroshky Piroshky, Seattle, 2013

    And amandine croissants from Le Panier.

    Amandine croissant from Le Panier, Pike Market

    And seafood chowder from Pike Chowder. And so on and so forth. You get the idea. 🙂

  6. Hiking through the wildflowers on the Cascade Pass/Sahale Arm trail.
  7. Backpacking in Hoh Rainforest, one of the largest temperate rainforests in the US.
  8. Catching a sparkly vampire in Forks, WA…or a werewolf along the beach in La Push.
  9. Hiking and camping along the longest natural sand spit in the US, Dungeness Spit.
  10. Driving what National Geographic dubbed “one of the most scenic drives in the nation,” Going-to-the-Sun-Road in Glacier. So grateful that they finished snow plowing for the season; I was hoping we’d be able to do this drive.
  11. Backpacking to Toleak Point (Olympic National Park) with my brother, who lives in Seattle.

    Antelope Canyon 2012; I’ve had some fun road trip adventures with this guy! We don’t get to see each other often..happy to be able to spend some time with him.
  12. Hiking to Iceberg Lake in Glacier National Park…and painting the scene with icy lake water.
  13. Tidepooling at Shi Shi Beach at sunset, Olympic National Park.
  14. Linguine alle vongole at Pink Door, Seattle.

    IMG_20140220_180051 (1)
    Linguine alle vongole, Pink Door, Seattle 2014. This stuff was to die for!
  15. Paying our respects at the Japanese Internment Memorial on Bainbridge Island.
  16. Soaking in the Ladder Creek Falls light show in North Cascades at night, then backpacking across Ross Dam to Big Beaver the next morning.
  17. Playing with nostalgic toys at the Museum of History and Industry’s ‘Toys of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s exhibit.
  18. Sugar rush at Top Pot Doughnuts, Seattle. And Krispy Kreme!
    Top Pot Doughnuts, Seattle 2013

    No Krispy Kreme on Oahu means an embarrassingly large doughnut order for this Hawaii girl every time we visit!
  19. Riding the ferry from Bainbridge to Seattle, a la Grey’s Anatomy.
  20. Stargazing from our tent in St. Mary, Glacier National Park.
  21. Paying homage to our 2013 addition to the ABC Gum Wall.

    ABC Gum Wall, Seattle…there’s not enough hand sanitizer in all the world to undo the ick factor here. Truly.

We can’t wait to get started on this list! If you have any suggestions, tips, or advice for Glacier, North Cascades, or Olympic National Park (or anyplace else on the list), we’d be most grateful for any insight you’re able to provide. See you in three weeks…Happy Travels, all!


How to Keep a Travel Journal: 7 Tips

Keeping a travel journal is one of the best vacation souvenirs you can give yourself. So often, we come home from trips with T-shirts and postcards that are quickly discarded or forgotten, but a travel journal is the gift that keeps on giving. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve leafed through old journal entries, exclaiming, “Hey, do you remember that artist we met in Arches?” or “Wasn’t that cherry pie at Capitol Reef the best?” Travel is inspiring, and done right, travel journals can serve as wellsprings of inspiration for years to come.

Keeping a travel journal doesn’t have to be intimidating. There are no hard and fast rules; your journal can be as simple or elaborate as you’d like. The only requirement is that you start and maintain it. Your future self will be so thankful that you did! Here are 7 tips to help you get started on your travel journal today.

1. Pick a journal (and writing implement) that inspires you.

Whether it’s a composition book, leather diary, or specialty tablet from Barnes and Noble, find a notebook that inspires you. Your journal is a form of personal expression, and that process begins with the notebook you select. Pay attention to form and function: size, texture, and design should weigh into your decision. What kind of conditions will you be traveling in? Activities like backpacking will require a sturdier notebook than hotel travel. Personally, I love large, plain hardcover Moleskines or dotted Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks. Both of these notebooks hold up well to a variety of media and have expandable pockets on the back cover that are perfect for collecting ephemera. You’ll know you have the right notebook when you feel yourself itching to write in it. Some people prefer a new notebook for every trip, while others, like me, prefer keeping one journal across multiple trips. Choose the system that works best for you.

Moleskine pages lay flat–a feature I love. Plain pages are my personal preference, but you might prefer lined, squared, or dotted paper instead.

2. Start writing in your journal before you leave.

Get rid of dreaded first-page syndrome by breaking in your journal before you leave. I’m guilty of letting beautiful notebooks languish for years for fear of not having anything “worthy” enough to write. Don’t be so precious with your notebook that it never gets used! If you’re too nervous to dive right into your thoughts and feelings from page 1, try numbering your pages instead or creating a Table of Contents. Or use those first few pages to scribble your itinerary. The point is to write something. The act of writing ensures you’re not faced with the prospect of a blank canvas when you arrive at your destination. If you’re too busy packing before you leave, you can use your plane or drive time to break in your journal. This also gets you in the habit of writing, which is key to regular journal maintenance.

3. Vary your writing.

Journaling needn’t equate to pages and pages of diary-style recounting. Your future self probably won’t be interested in a dry, chronological recounting of every meal you ate or every gas station you stopped at, either. Make journaling fun by giving yourself permission to skip the mundane. Write about the interesting details you’ll want to remember ten years from now! Was your concierge a kooky character? Did you have an unexpected bear encounter on the trail? Don’t limit yourself to sentences and paragraphs, either. Give yourself permission to write lists and short bullet points. Where a five page entry might seem daunting, a quick list can be easily written in a few short minutes and can serve just as well in summing up the day’s highlights.

Journal entry for Yellowstone, 2015. Quick lists can be just as effective at imparting key details as lengthy paragraphs.

4. Explore other forms of creative expression.

I’m no artist–not by a long shot–but I’ve come to love watercolor sketching in my travel journal. There have been so many times I’ve taken a million pictures of a destination, only to come home and puzzle over those same pictures, wondering where we were or what it is we did there. Sketching a location, however, has a way of burning that moment into your memory in a way that no photo ever could. It requires you to be present, completely in the moment; it forces you to seek out details you might otherwise not have noticed. In the end, it doesn’t matter if your sketch looks nothing like the location you’re drawing (you can always take a picture to supplement)–what matters is your association of the sights, sounds, and feelings you had when you sat to draw. When I look at this sketch from Lakeshore Trail in Grand Teton National Park, I remember the way the sun felt on my shoulders after our chilly morning float trip, the way the water sparkled, the deep blue and maroon colored pebbles that dotted the shore. I recall the otter family offshore and the osprey nest we watched for an hour while my youngest created small driftwood sculptures on the sandbar. These memories were ingrained by the very act of sketching itself. A picture can truly be worth a thousand words.

Journal entry from Grand Teton National Park, July 2015

The Sakura Field Sketch Set is my favorite watercolor set. Sakura Pigma Micron pens are waterproof, fade resistant, and provide archival quality ink for completing sketches. If watercolor sketch is not your cup of tea, perhaps you’d prefer colored pencils. Or oil pastels. Or charcoal. There are so many options out there; one of them is bound to resonate. Color adds another layer of interest to your travel journal, so don’t be afraid to branch out from the ordinary! Experiment with drawing maps, people, objects, and landscapes.

5. Vary your formatting.

We’ve become so accustomed to writing from left to right and from top to bottom that it can be difficult to imagine writing any other way. Yet varying your formatting can be a source of inspiration, providing another element of visual interest for your journal. Turn your notebook sideways. Carry sentences across two pages. Experiment with different fonts. Vary font size. Box important details or words with different color inks. The sky’s the limit when it comes to creativity! You’d be surprised how quickly your creativity begins to flow once you give yourself permission to experiment. Before long, you’ll find yourself looking forward to journaling for the creative outlet it provides.

Experiment with different colors, fonts, and font sizes. Strive for visually dynamic pages.

6. Collect and add ephemera.

As in scrapbooking, ephemera can serve as a 3-D layer in your journal, providing visual interest and capturing the local flavor of your destination. Ephemera can also serve as a stand-alone journal entry should you find yourself too busy to write. We save every restaurant receipt on vacation and tape/glue them in our journals. Without needing to write a word, these receipts help us to remember specific restaurants and meals. We collect ink stamps from every National Park–not just in our National Parks Passport, but also in our individual journals. They’re free, unique, and readily available for the taking; the only thing required is a stop at the Visitor Center, which is always on our to-do list anyway. Carrying a glue stick, double sided adhesive, or washi tape makes it quick and easy to adhere any tickets, receipts, or business cards you might collect. Keep an eye out for unique ephemera to spice up your journal. Local beer or wine bottle labels make great journal mementos!

7. Strive to maintain your journal regularly.

It can seem impossible to find time to update your journal unless you plan to block out regular blocks of time for journal writing. We try to reserve 30-40 minutes at the end of each night for this express purpose, but things don’t always work out that way. Oftentimes, we’re too tired, or camp chores take longer than anticipated. We’ve learned the hard way to stay flexible by maximizing small blocks of downtime during the day for journaling.

Short entry drawn/written at Dream Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park during a hike to Emerald Lake.

Jotting down a few words at lunch and breakfast like this gives you a head start on the day. It also helps preserve the sense of immediacy and rawness in your observations that makes travel journals so precious. Shorter bursts can be just as effective as–and in many cases, more effective than–one long session. Because shorter bursts are generally more doable, you might find yourself in a better position to maintain your journal on a regular basis. And if you miss a night or two? Don’t sweat it! Just hop back on that wagon and pick up where you left off. Aim for regular, not perfect, and you just might find that keeping a travel journal is a habit that sticks for life.


Gear Review/Makapu’u and Kuliouou Trails

Our road trip is two weeks away, and we’ve been having fun testing out new gear on recent hikes. I can (and have!) spent hours scouring REI and Backcountry, marveling over the countless backpacking/camping gadgets for sale, dreaming of all the possibilities. In the end, though, reality (i.e.: that darned budget) dictates limiting actual purchases to what we really need as a family instead of those fun-to-dream-about wants.

With only 3 backpacking packs in our possession, backpacks topped our list of needs this year. Luckily, there was an REI Anniversary Sale and member dividend that was burning a hole in my pocket to save the day! We were able to score an unbelievable deal on a 2015 Osprey Kyte 46 and REI Passage 38.

Osprey Kyte 46, jacket in the front mesh panel, separate sleeping bag compartment with integrated rain fly just above.

I’m not big on brand name items, but I couldn’t ignore the Kyte’s glowing reviews–or Osprey’s stellar lifetime guarantee. And call me shallow, but I adore that beautiful teal! One of the features I like best about the Kyte 46 is the external hydration sleeve. It can be a hassle to load/unload a hydration bladder from a filled pack, and this back access compartment eliminates that problem. The hip belt and load lifter straps are so smooth and easy to adjust with the pack on–one of many areas where Osprey’s commitment to quality is very evident. The fully adjustable harness and LightWire Frame technology ensures a custom fit and comfortable carrying experience. I love the roomy hip belt pockets that allow easy access to snacks and a cell phone, and the multi-zippered brain compartment that enables easy organization of frequent-use items.

Spacious zippered side pockets–each pocket can accommodate a sleeping pad, fleece pullover, and backpacking pillow.

The front mesh panel stretches to accommodate a rain jacket, and the side mesh panels can easily accommodate a Nalgene bottle each as well. The zippered vertical side pockets might be one of the Kyte’s best features. What the main compartment may lack in size is more than made up for by these spacious side pockets. I’ve stuffed a sleeping pad, pillow, and adult-sized fleece pullover into ONE pocket, with room to spare. There is also a sturdy shoulder loop for quick and easy trekking pole storage/access.

Roomy hip belt pockets, external hydration sleeve, stow-and-go trekking pole loop, multi-zippered brain compartment; Osprey Kyte 46.

With an integrated rain fly and separate-access sleeping bag compartment with floating divider, the Osprey Kyte 46 is perfect for overnight or 2-3 day backpacking trips. It can also be easily compressed and cinched for longer day hikes, making this a pack we’re sure to put to great use for many years to come.

With two girls in our family, we’ve had our share of unpleasant hiking bathroom experiences. Without going into too much detail, let me just assure you that the pStyle is a GAME. CHANGER. If you are female and you enjoy spending time outdoors, you need a pStyle. To be fair, there are cheaper silicone versions of the pStyle that I have not tried, but reviews on Amazon suggest that these imitations are less predictable, leaving room for error–definitely not a good thing (or look–shudder!) when you’re backpacking with only one pair of pants. The pStyle, however, is discreet, fail-proof, light, and compact, earning its spot as a must-have item in our backpacks this year.

With 8 nights of backpacking on the itinerary , compact cookware and mess kits were high on our list of priorities. Combining every Walmart gift card we’ve received over the past few years, we were able to nab this GSI Outdoor Pinnacle Camper cook set absolutely free! At 3 pounds 11 ounces, it’s not the lightest kitchen set-up for backpacking, but since the weight accounts for cookware and mess kits for 5 people, it works perfectly for us. One of the features I love best about this kit is how everything nests into one compact 9 inch by 5 inch package, making it suitable for flying, too, where space is at a premium.

GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Camper cook set; everything nests in this compact 9″ x 5″ matryoshka-like system.

With a 9 inch frypan, 3 L pot, 2 L pot, and 2 strainer lids, the non-stick hard anodized cookware easily accommodates families or larger groups. The set comes equipped with 4 plates, 4 insulated mugs, and 4 bowls, and everything nests into a stuff sack that doubles as a welded sink in the backcountry!

Full-size cookware (3 L & 2 L pots w/ strainer lids, 9″ frypan), plates, insulated mugs, and bowls for 4, welded sink carrying case.

If I had any complaints, it would be that the plates are not especially deep or made of high quality material, but that’s minor in the grand scheme of things. I love having full-sized pots and pans with backpacking convenience and integrated mess kits in the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Camper cook set.

To complete our mess kit (the GSI cook set serves 4), we cashed in a Sports Authority gift card and took advantage of a 30% off closing sale to nab this Light My Fire MealKit 2.0 for free! With 3 plate/bowls and 3 lids that can double as eating vessels, this kit contains more bells and whistles than we’ll need, but it’s great to have those options for future trips. The MealKit 2.0 also comes with a spork, pack-up-cup, and cutting board/strainer for cooking.

Closer to Home: Recent Hikes

Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail

Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail is a popular and easy 2 mile “hike” along paved road, offering stunning views of Oahu’s southeastern and Windward coasts. From the parking lot, the paved road steadily climbs 500 feet, allowing easy access for strollers, wheelchairs, and those with mobility issues.

Paved road along Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail
Looking back from whence we came: parking lot in the distance
Koko Crater and Ka Iwi Scenic Shoreline

Recent additions of rest benches and viewing areas make this a great beginner hike, and there is no spot more beautiful than Makapu’u for whale watching during whale season (November to May). Although the lighthouse itself is not accessible to visitors, we’ve been lucky to see dozens of whale spouts and breaches during whale season here. Located on the eastern side of Oahu, this hot and dry trail is also a prime location to watch the sun rise. The only con to this hike is that its popularity translates to large crowds; arriving after 10 am means circling for parking and sharing the trail with a hundred or more hikers. Don’t let that stop you, though–this hike is a beauty, and despite the crowds, we do this one at least 5-6 times a year!

View from the top, Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail
View of Rabbit Island, aka Manana (State Seabird Sanctuary); I don’t recommend sitting that close to the edge!
A patch of pink among the cacti and brush; pillbox in the distance
3 short years ago…boy, time flies!

Kuliouou Ridge Trail

Kuliouou Ridge Trail is a 5 mile out and back hike that ascends 2,000 feet to summit the Ko’olaus. Families should plan on spending 4-5 hours hiking this trail at a moderate pace. Although this is a moderately difficult hike composed primarily of switchbacks, rain can render the steep slopes muddy and challenging.

Slippery, muddy stairs about 15 minutes from the top, Kuliouou Ridge Trail

Exercise extreme caution, especially with children. With all the recent bad weather, we had a few near-mishaps this past weekend. There are several long and steep rock/tree root scrambles in the second half that can become quite treacherous when coupled with mud. (No pics, unfortunately; was too busy trying not to die!) I should have known better than to push this hike in the rain, and we nearly paid the price for it. It is worth your family’s safety to wait for several days of clear weather before attempting this hike. That said, this hike is an absolute must-do! We huffed and puffed through the 2,000 feet of elevation gain, and the last 30 minutes of steep mud puddle stairs were thigh burners, but hiking in the clouds made everything worthwhile. Unfortunately, the bad weather didn’t make for great views.


End of Trail, Kuliouou Ridge Trail
Clouds and fog at trail’s end, Kuliouou

However, the fog and clouds lifted for a brief minute, and we were able to get a glimpse of the glorious views Kuliouou is known for.

View of Waimanalo, Kuliouou Ridge Trail
View of Koko Head and Hawaii Kai
Glimpses of green and turquoise below, Waimanalo
Stopping for well-earned spam musubi and gummy bears at trail’s end.

Having hiked Kuliouou during clear weather, I can tell you that the views of Hawaii Kai, Waimanalo, and Lanikai from the top can’t be beat. If you’re looking for a challenging workout, ever-changing scenery, and stellar views, Kuliouou Ridge Trail is the hike for you!

Closer to Home: Lanikai Pillboxes Hike

Summer’s here! The blog has been quiet as of late, but with school and the kids’ extracurriculars finally behind us, we’ve been focused on prepping for our Glacier/North Cascades/Olympic trip (we leave in three weeks!). Maps are being compiled; lists are being checked twice. With the bulk of our itinerary leaning toward backpacking this year, it’s also crunch time for conditioning. This weekend’s fun and easy training hike was Lanikai Pillboxes.

Lanikai is renowned for its beautiful beaches.

Sunrise, Lanikai Beach 2013

Media outlets like CNN have named it the most beautiful beach in the US, and though I haven’t traveled enough to say for sure, I can certainly vouch for Lanikai’s beauty. Located on the eastern side of Oahu, Lanikai’s fine powdery sand and pristine turquoise waters make it one of the best sunrise spots on the island. But Lankai has another great attraction that I love as much or even more than the beach: the Lanikai Pillboxes hike, a.k.a. Kaiwa Ridge Trail.

This 1.6 mile out and back hike begins across the Mid Pacific Country Club near a private driveway on Kaelepulu Drive.

Beginning of the trail, Lanikai Pillboxes

The trail begins with a steep incline; there are trees and ropes along the chain link fence to assist with the climb, though they’re probably not necessary for most. Sadly, litter and pet waste makes this area less than appealing, but not to worry–better sights and smells await.

IMG_20160604_165817 - Edited
Hold your nose and climb fast, Lanikai Pillboxes
The beginning of the trail is a little steep, Lanikai Pillboxes

After a short climb, you arrive at a plateau that overlooks Lanikai Beach and the Mokulua Islands just offshore. Behind you are sweeping views of Mokapu Peninsula (Marine Corps Base of Hawaii), Flat Island, and Kailua Beach.

Lanikai Beach and Mokulua Islands
MCBH, Flat Island, Kailua Beach

From here, you can visualize the first pillbox in the distance and the rocky trail that follows the ridgeline to get you there. The trail gains over 550 feet in under half a mile, but the short distance makes the steepness doable for families with young children. With a little persistence, it’s possible to make it to the first pillbox in 20 minutes, and there are many places to stop and catch your breath along the way.

The 1st pillbox is that black speck at the top/center of the photo
Looking back

The trail diverges in several spots–traversing the top of the ridge and contouring it in other areas–but rest assured that all spur trails lead to the same destination.

Follow the ridgeline to get to the first pillbox (far left)


Along the ridge, overlooking MCBH

Once you arrive at the first bunker, take a moment to admire the view. We were there just before sunset, and there were several groups situated atop and inside the pillboxes, waiting for the sun to go down.

View from the first pillbox, Lanikai

Early morning hikers often find themselves vying for space here as it’s a popular spot for sunrise photography as well. As documented in my Bryce horseback debacle, I’m not keen on heights and ledges, so I opted to stay firmly on the trail here. 🙂 The boys, however, climbed atop the pillbox with my husband.


The first pillbox. The boys climbed up here and made mom verrrry nervous.
View from the ground, first pillbox, Kaiwa Ridge Trail

Many hikers opt to turn around here, but a short 5 minute walk further up the ridge takes you to the second pillbox–and a breathtaking view of the Ko’olau Mountain Range in all its verdant, crenulated glory.

View of the Ko’olaus and Mokulua Islands (photo credit to the hubby)
View from the second pillbox, Lanikai
Lanikai neighborhood as seen from Kaiwa Ridge Trail

From here, you can follow the undulating ridge for another 20-30 minute; the trail eventually descends into a neighborhood about a half mile from the trailhead, but we opted to retrace our steps instead. The sun was just beginning to set, and we were treated to cool tradewinds and an entire hillside of night-blooming cereus readying for evening bloom. Night-blooming cereus is a tropical cactus flower that blooms in the evening and wilts by dawn.

Night-blooming cereus, Lanikai Pillboxes (photo cred to the hubby)

All in all, this short and sweet hike is one that I would highly recommend. It packs mega scenery for minimal sweat, showcasing stunning Windward views of the island. Tell me: have you hiked Lanikai Pillboxes? What’s your favorite Hawaii sunrise or sunset spot?

Tips for families hiking Lanikai Pillboxes with young children:

Plan to hike on weekdays, if possible

The trail can get crowded, especially on the weekends.  We finished the trail fairly late (6:30 pm), and there were still large groups of ten or more arriving to hike as we left. Weekdays are less busy and tend to be more pleasant.

Use the bathroom beforehand

There are no bathrooms at the trailhead, so plan accordingly. The nearest public restroon is located at Kailua Beach Park, 5 minutes away.

No parking near the trailhead

No parallel parking is allowed alongside the Mid Pacific Country Club. Your best bet is to park in the surrounding neighborhood, but be advised that parking can be difficult to find because of the new restriction against parking in the bicycle lane. Resist the temptation to park illegally–parking in a restricted area will result in an outrageous $200 flat fine! Instead, circle the Lanikai loop patiently–you’re sure to find something quickly, as visitors are always arriving and departing from the beach.

Apply sunscreen and avoid hiking midday

The Hawaii sun can be brutal if you’re not properly prepared, especially on an exposed ridge hike like this one. Good sun safety makes for a pleasant and comfortable hike.

Wear proper hiking shoes

Many tourists attempt this hike in flip flops and sandals. I’m sure it can be done, but as the trail is mostly slippery rock and gravel, shoes with proper traction are key.

Avoid hiking during or after rain

Again, the trail is steep and challenging in certain areas. Mud and wet rock only exacerbates these difficulties and makes for a sketchy hike. We saw two adults slip and fall this weekend, and the trail was bone dry. Keep little ones safe, and be sure to limit hiking to good weather.

Sunset, Lanikai Pillboxes last year
Sunset, Kaiwa Ridge trail


7 Reasons to Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Although I currently call Honolulu home, I was actually raised on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the sleepy little town of Hilo. Growing up, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park wasn’t something I gave much thought to; it was just someplace in our backyard that I could count on visiting several times a year. It’s only now, as an adult, that I’ve come to appreciate the unique wonder of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. If witnessing one of the world’s only active volcanoes isn’t reason enough to convince you to visit this summer, here are 7 other reasons that just might change your mind:

1. Thurston Lava Tube


Entrance, Thurston Lava Tube

Where else in the world can you walk through a massive 500-year-old lava tube? Lava tubes are formed when flowing lava rushes beneath the surface of a previously hardened lava flow. Thurston Lava Tube trail begins in a lush tree fern forest and winds through a dark and damp lava tube illuminated by lanterns. Inside the tube, the ground is flat and level, but cool water seeps from the ceiling and collects in muddy pools along the floor, adding to the eeriness of the experience. While there are other lava tubes and caves on the Big Island, Thurston is the most easily accessible (and safest) by far.

Tree Fern Forest, Thurston Lava Tube
Thurston Lava Tube

2. Devastation Trail

This 1.6 mile roundtrip trail takes you through a stark expanse of rugged beauty–the remains of a 1959 eruption of Kilauea Iki that left the area buried in cinder. Lone trees and barren stumps stand solemn against reddish-brown cinder mounds, evoking an eerie sense of otherworldliness. Perhaps what is most poignant about this path, though, is not the destruction that is so readily evident but the resurgence of plant life and native birds that serve as testament to the power of life.

Devastation Trail
Signs of life; Devastation Trail
Signs of life; the return of ohia lehua

3. Kipukapuaulu (Bird Park) Trail

This easy 1.2 mile loop flies under the radar of most guidebooks and visitors, but it’s one of our favorites. For as many times as we’ve walked this loop, we’ve never run into more than one or two people on the trail. Our oldest son is a birder, and Kipukapuaulu is one of the best places we know of to spot native (and endangered) Hawaiian bird species. Take a stroll through the lush forest–those with patience will reap the reward of hearing beautiful apapane and iiwi birdsong. Binoculars and a keen eye will help bring these delicate and brilliantly colored songsters into focus.  And as tempting as it might be to keep your eyes peeled to the treetops, there are also francolins and pheasants to be admired in the shrubs.

Kipukapuaulu Loop, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Stop and listen, Kipukapuaulu
Bird Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

4. Holei Sea Arch

Located at the very end of Chain of Craters Road, Holei Sea Arch stands 90 feet tall, formed only within the last several hundred years by the powerful forces of lava and water. Everything about standing at the overlook makes you acutely aware of how small and insignificant we are. Here, the ocean crashes against the lava cliffs, reminding us of its power to both give life and destroy. The ancient lava cliffs represent a similar dichotomy: even as lava destroys everything in its path, it flows steadily to the sea, creating new land–and new life. Above all, Holei Sea Arch serves to remind us of life’s transience. It is a temporary formation–beautiful, yet fleeting.

Holei Sea Arch, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Power of the ocean at Holei Sea Arch

5. Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail

Also located on Chain of Craters Road, this 1.4 mile easy to moderate hike takes you over a field of pahoehoe (smooth) lava to a boardwalk that straddles some of the best-preserved petroglyphs in the state. Pu’u Loa is considered a sacred site. While it is believed that the ancient Hawaiians used these petroglyphs to record their travels and history, Pu’u Loa is believed to be sacred because it also served as a burial site for umbilical cords after childbirth. This practice carried deep spiritual significance and ensured long life.

Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs
Boardwalk, Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail

Walking the wooden boardwalk is fascinating, but getting there can be a challenge for those with mobility issues. Crossing the hardened pahoehoe lava field translates to many small hills with uneven surfaces. Hiking shoes, or at the very least, tennis shoes are your best best; too many tourists attempt this hike in flip flops or sandals, which tend to get caught in lava crags. Pahoehoe might be smooth, but it is still lava rock, and it will definitely hurt if you fall! The uneven terrain also means this hike might take longer than you’d expect; it’s always a good idea to bring water with you.

Crossing a pahoehoe field, Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Trail

6. Crater Rim Trail

This 11-mile trail follows the circumference of Kilauea’s summit caldera. The beauty of this hike is that it can be easily accessed from several locations along Crater Rim Drive, allowing you to hike as little or as much as you’d like. One of our favorite portions of Crater Rim Trail is the Steam Vents and Sulphur Banks area. With all of the surrounding forest area, it can sometimes be easy to forget you’re at an active volcano. The Steam Vents and Sulphur Banks let you know in no uncertain terms that the land is indeed alive. Those who have visited Yellowstone will be familiar with the inimitable smell of sulphur; it’s an odor kids love to hate. No matter how many times the kids gag their way through this trail, they always ask to stop at the Sulphur Banks whenever we visit.

Hmm, what’s that rotting egg smell?
Sulphur Banks, Crater Rim Trail

A word of caution: those with asthma or breathing issues will want to steer clear of this area. Gases and vog (volcanic dust and gases) are present throughout the park (and throughout the Big Island, occasionally spilling over to the other islands), but are especially thick in  this area.

Overlooking the caldera, Crater Rim Trail
Stark beauty along the Crater Rim Trail
Steam Vents, Crater Rim Trail

7. Halema’uma’u Crater

Located within Kilauea’s summit caldera, Halema’uma’u Crater is home to some of the best volcanic fumes and glow to be seen within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Best of all, you don’t even need to traverse any sketchy lava fields to be able to see this awesome display. Simply head up to Jaggar Museum to snag your spot along the rock wall at sunset and prepare to be dazzled. The last time we went, we found ourselves jockeying for position with several bus-fulls of tourists. Shouts in Japanese, Cantonese, and Italian could be heard across the museum as each group competed to be heard over the noisy din. We didn’t hold out much hope for a meditative night-viewing experience, but the moment the sun started to set, it was as though a sacred and collective hush fell over the group. Shouts faded to whispers as everyone stood in silence, sharing the powerful sight before us. It reminded me once again of how the National Parks have a way of dissolving barriers and uniting us in wonder.

Sunset, Halema’uma’u Crater
Fumes and Glow, Halema’uma’u
Halema’uma’u Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park has so much more to offer than first meets the eye. Whether you’re seeking the spectacular wow-factor of a lava night show or the quiet solitude of a stroll through Bird Park, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is sure to delight you and your family!

Tell me: When was the last time you visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park? What was your favorite Big Island experience?

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.

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.

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!)

Jenny Lake trail, Grand Teton National Park
How much further, Papa Smurf?
“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.

“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.”

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

Not Hidden Falls, Grand Teton National Park
Not Hidden Falls, Jenny Lake Loop trail
IMG_20150704_121957 (1)
Lunch with a friend, Jenny Lake Loop trail
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?

First glimpse of Hidden Falls, Grand Teton National Park
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Pathway to our tent cabin, Grand Teton
Tent cabin and fire ring, Grand Teton
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.

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.

Push-off site, sunrise float trip
IMG_20150703_054552 (1)
Full moon on the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park
IMG_20150703_053036 (2)
Lavender hues, Grand Teton National Park

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

Daybreak on the horizon, Grand Teton
First blush of day, Grand Teton National Park
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.


IMG_20150703_063846 (1)
Bald eagle, sunrise float trip, Grand Teton
That splash in the background is a family of elk crossing the river
IMG_20150703_063321 (1)
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.

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.

The view from our table, Mural Room, Jackson Lodge, Grand Teton
Breakfast buffet, Mural Room, Jackson Lodge
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.

Hiking Lakeshore Trail, Grand Teton
IMG_20150703_104903 (1)
Lakeshore Trail, Grand Teton National Park


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. 😀

Willow Flats, Grand Teton National Park
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.

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.

Early morning, Mesa Arch, Canyonlands
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:

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.

Atop Whale Rock, Canyonlands
Whale Rock, Canyonlands
The view from atop Whale Rock, Canyonlands
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.

Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands National Park
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.

IMG_20140616_125134-PANO (1)
Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands
View at the end, Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands
Scenery for days, Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands
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.

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.

Tamarisk Restaurant, Green River UT
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!