Saving Money for Travel: 6 Practical Tips We Follow

Before we continue with Road Trip 2013, I want to get serious for a moment about a touchy subject: money.

Growing up, my family didn’t have a ton of money. I had the best childhood, absolutely, but making ends meet was always a struggle. Free bus program, reduced lunch fare, and hand-me-downs were part of the norm; dinners out and interisland vacations to Honolulu were a huge treat. Like a lot of kids in the state, flying to the Mainland wasn’t something we could afford. My first trip to the Mainland didn’t happen until I graduated from high school–and only because we’d won a free family trip to Disneyland.

To be honest, our financial situation isn’t very different today, albeit for different reasons–tuition, mainly. To be clear: this is our own doing; we’ve chosen the school situation our children are in, and we’re equally aware that riding the tuition carousel is also a choice. And while we’re fortunate not to carry credit card debt, the monthly budget struggle? Very real.

Why do I mention this? Well, mostly because it’s true, I guess. And also because I don’t believe we’re the only family in this situation. Browsing through blogs and social media, it’s easy to assume others’ situations. I know I’m guilty of this. The thing is, online presences are filtered; they provide rosy glimpses into small facets of people’s lives. The same is often true of real life–I have friends who believe we have endless discretionary income given our summer trips.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Everything we do is done on a strict budget; we simply don’t have the means to afford travel on a whim. With little to no discretionary income, we make everyday frugal choices in order to be able to pay for travel out-of-pocket. Some might equate frugality with sacrifice, but frugal living is a lifestyle that affords us travel opportunities–opportunities which enrich us in ways that material items cannot. There are two general areas where we try to save–pre-travel and during-travel–and while most of these tips are common-sense, I hope that being honest here might be helpful to you, wherever you may be in your journey.

Make travel a priority

This isn’t a tip so much as a mindset. When you make travel a priority, you’re more inclined to make in-the-present sacrifices for delayed travel gratification. You learn to value experiences, not “stuff.” You’re also less likely to view sacrifices as deprivation; rather, they’re a way to fund those travel experiences you just can’t put a price tag on. Make travel non-negotiable, and you’re well on your way to finding the means and gumption to making it happen.

Make your credit card work for you

Financial advisors espouse a cash-only approach to purchases, but as a travel proponent, I’d argue just the opposite: get a credit card, and make it work for you. (The following is not sponsored in any way; it’s simply my humble opinion.) Alaska Airlines Visa Signature has been a game changer for us. For one, Alaska is a budget airline, making it the cheapest option (next to Allegiant) for travel to and from Honolulu and thus our airline choice, regardless. The fact that Alaska Visa Signature offers an annual $99 RT companion fare is icing on the cake. Spouses can apply for individual cards, meaning your family, like ours, could be eligible for two $99 round trip companion fares a year. That’s $200 for two round-trips to/from Hawaii! Alaska Visa Signature also offers a huge 30,000 miles bonus for spending $1,000 in 3 months. If you’re a family charging all of your expenses, this isn’t difficult to achieve. We charge everything–food, gas, utilities–and pay off the balance monthly with the end goal of annual travel. And 30,000 bonus miles may not sound like much, but for us, it translated to one free round trip from Hawaii to the Mainland this year, a $600 value. Factor in those two $99 companion fares, and you’re looking at paying only $200 for THREE round trips to/from Hawaii. Switching to Alaska Visa Signature has helped our family realize thousands of dollars in savings. Delta offers a similar program, and for those who travel internationally, Chase Sapphire Reserve also has an excellent rewards program. Another great perk of Alaska Visa Signature is free check-in baggage for 6 travelers. Though we’re all about limiting check-in bags, this perk alone easily translates to $100 savings for us annually.

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Breakfast at Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone NP–a budgeted treat
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Dinner at Roosevelt Lodge, Yellowstone NP–budgeted treat

Plan a monthly and annual budget

For those of us in denial about spending, getting nitty gritty with expenditures can be harrowing. Still, you can’t know where you’re headed until you know where you’ve been. Track spending for several months; track spending across an entire year. Break your spending down across categories and calculate monthly and annual expenditures for individual categories. Spreadsheets work well, but pen and paper work just as well (I’m old school when it comes to stuff like this). For categories, think mortgage; groceries; sundries; gas; home, health, and car insurance, taxes, and registration; birthday gifts for friends/family; “fun” money for eating out or leisure activities; and tuition. Now evaluate these expenses against your monthly income. The goal is to ensure your income is greater than your expenditures–in other words: to live within your means. If you’re spending more than you’re making, it’s time to take a hard look at expenditures to determine what can be reined in. If you’ve already determined that travel is a priority, your choices become clearer. Depending on your lifestyle, it might also be important to allot extra for holiday food and gifts (we do this), retirement, college, rainy day fund, and other expenditures that are seasonal in nature, thus requiring less frequent (but necessary) contributions. Find categories you can scale back on (see next tip), and funnel any savings into your travel fund. Set monthly and annual expenditure goals, and–this is key!–stick to them.

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Cooking dinner at camp; Rocky Mountain NP
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Camping and cooking are affordable travel options for our family

Rein expenses in

Easier said than done, I know. But also? Very doable. We try to keep our grocery expenses under $500 a month. Hawaii’s cost of living is among the highest in the nation, and as a family of five with two teens, we cook and eat a LOT. Still, groceries are infinitely cheaper than eating out. At our kids’ school, school lunch runs $5 a kid. That’s $15 per day, $75 per week, or $300 per month in school lunch alone! Instead, we pack a mostly organic lunch daily for under $100 a month. We save $200 a month–a savings of $1,800 a year–and we’re also able to ensure the kids get a good dose of fiber, veggies, and fruit daily. We also rarely eat out–three times or less per month. For our family, eating out often means a tab of $50 or more for one meal–$50 that could feed us three meals a day for the better part of a week. That’s not to say that we deprive ourselves or don’t have fun. We just try to choose wisely. Dinner out can be as inexpensive as $10 for a gigantic Costco pizza; breakfast and lunch are cheaper dining-out options than dinner. We stock our freezer with items like Kirkland lasagna and Aidells chicken meatballs for nights when busy schedules or laziness tempt us to order out. While more expensive than cooking, they’re a cheaper option than takeout. To keep our budget livable, we roll over savings from month to month. For example, if our dining out expenses come in under $150 in January, we roll over any savings to February. In this way, we are able to occasionally afford more expensive “treat” dinners several times a year. (Korean yakiniku BBQ is the kids’ favorite!) Only in December do we transfer any rollover to our travel account. The goal is a livable budget–not torture!

Other ways we save? Limit Starbucks runs by brewing coffee at home for pennies per cup; watch Netflix and save yourself $15 per movie ticket. For the most part, we’ve stopped exchanging holiday gifts with friends and family. Instead, we plan holiday dates–beach days, evening drives to see holiday lights, and intimate dinners with those we love. These experiences have brought us more joy than material gifts. For what it’s worth, we also don’t spend on shoes, clothes, etc. beyond the bare essentials; we’re lucky to have cousins and friends who keep our hand-me-down supply well-equipped. If clothes and dining out are your thing, however, by all means, go for it! No judgment here. The point is to find target numbers and ways to scale back that work for your income and priorities.

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Holiday beach dates with family make a great alternative to gift exchanges
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Holiday appetizer party with family, local style
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Decorating cookies with friends and family is a fun and free alternative to gift exchanges
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Cookies and hot chocolate make for a memorable and inexpensive afternoon

Separate accounts for separate funds

As a family that used to keep savings and checking bundled together in one account, I know how impossible it can seem to realize any savings for travel. Any money we earmarked for travel always got absorbed by incidentals–tires blowing out, washing machine on the fritz, trips to the ER. You can’t predict the future, but you can and should plan on annual incidental expenses. Life happens–often inconveniently. Finances improved for us once we created separate accounts for separate expenses. In our new system, tuition, rainy day incidentals, and travel each get separate accounts. Once a month, we transfer a pre-budgeted amount from checking into our travel savings account. The act of funneling money into individual accounts is empowering, and separate funds means travel money doesn’t get inadvertently blown on towing or impulse purchases from REI (not that I’ve ever been guilty of this!) 😉 In creating your monthly/annual budget, decide how much you can/want to funnel toward travel. To determine this, ask yourself how much a prospective trip might cost. Research baseline prices for airfare, car rental, and lodging, and ask yourself: how important is luxury to you when you travel? For example, given the same dollar travel allowance of $3,000 per year, I would rather take a no-frills, bare bones trip annually than save for a luxury trip 3 years from now. Your family may feel differently, and that’s okay! The point is to be honest about your travel goals so you can stay within your means.

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Some years, vacations turn into staycations–Malaekahana Beach
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For $12 a night, you can’t beat fishing here at sunset
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Crabbing is our favorite night activity at Malaekahana
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$12 sunrise view from our tent, Malaekhana Beach

Planning affordable travel=recognizing your choices

An annual trip to Hawaii is something most would consider a splurge, and that’s exactly what we’re doing every time we embark on a Mainland road trip, flying to and from Hawaii. Since paying for airfare is non-negotiable for us, we minimize other travel expenses so we don’t incur debt. Aside from two or three dining-out experiences we budget for, we shop for groceries and cook 90% of our meals on vacation. We pack lunches on dayhikes and make Costco runs to keep our snack expenditures in-check. And while an SUV or minivan might be more comfortable than a compact car, they’re also more expensive–renting a minivan for a week costs the same as renting a compact car for a month. You might prefer a shorter trip in greater comfort, and that’s okay; recognizing the choice, though, is key. For example, we love amusement parks, but we also know it’d take us 3 years of no-travel to afford an amusement park trip out-of pocket. Similarly, we love nice hotels just as much as the next family, but for the price of a one night stay, we could also book two weeks worth of campgrounds. Neither option is inherently better than the other; the key is to see your choices for what they are instead of limiting yourself to some preconceived notion of travel. There are multiple options to suit different comfort levels for any given dollar amount. A 2-3 week trip can fit within your budget if you’re willing to forego creature comforts; a luxury trip can also fit within your budget if you’re willing to shorten your length of stay. Whatever you choose, finding ways to be able to pay for your dream trip out-of-pocket makes all the sacrifice worthwhile.

Ode to Road Trips Past: 36 Hours in San Francisco & Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Trail

Locals might poke fun at the stereotypical Hawaii tourist fantasy of grass skirts, coconut bras, and hula-dancing maidens bearing flower lei at luaus, but really, we’re no different when it comes to the Mainland. The truth is Hawaii folk harbor some pretty quirky fantasies about the Lower 48, too. We obsess over IKEA and Trader Joe’s and how many jars of cookie butter we can smuggle home in our suitcases. We yearn for snow days and wood-burning fireplaces. Fantasize about RVs and cross-country road trips. Also, squirrels and raccoons are the most amazing wildlife ever–and no, I’m not even close to kidding.

When I was a kid, there was this commercial that aired between Underdog and the Flintstones. It featured Kalani, a local boy whose family owned property in Montana. Kalani had his very own babbling brook to splash in and an endless backyard of pine forest for horseback riding. He urged Hawaii kids to sell their parents on the merits of beautiful Ponderosa Pines. Come visit me, Kalani, and we can go to Yellowstone anytime we want! I begged my parents daily to move to Ponderosa Pines. Sure, I was only five, but I knew what I wanted, and what I wanted was that. I was sold on the dream.

Fast forward a few decades, and after one fun/exhausting/expensive-as-heck trip to SeaWorld, Universal Studios, Legoland, and Disneyland in 2011 (don’t get me wrong; I love all things Disney!), I recalled those childhood fantasies of RVs, road trips, and Ponderosa Pines. Thus was born the annual family road trip and the dream to see our nation’s parks. To be sure, our road trips looked a lot different in 2013. There were afternoon naps and potty breaks for our preschooler. Motel beds. Restaurant meals twice a day. Hikes were under 2 miles, and parks were sprinkled in almost as an afterthought between museum visits and city activities. Given the chance to go back though, I wouldn’t change a thing. These baby-steps laid the foundation for our appreciation of the size and grandeur of our nation, and perhaps more significantly, the kids’ love for our National Parks and the outdoors.

Road Trip 2013 began with a 5.5 hour flight to Oakland, CA . Flying with an antsy four-year-old was…well, challenging, but we touched down intact just after 11 pm. It was no less challenging to convince said four-year-old that what his little body perceived as 8 pm Hawaii time was in fact very, very late in California time. Between our excitement and the time change, no one slept much, but the troops rallied to hit the ground running early the next morning. Our first stop: San Francisco!

Day 1:

Part of my road trip/Ponderosa Pines fueled fantasies included hanging off a cable car Doris Day-style, so we parked at the Embarcadero and hurried to the cable car turnaround on Powell and Market. There was already quite a line brewing at 7:30 am, but in no time at all, we boarded a Powell and Hyde car and were off to the races–and I mean that literally, because man, those cable cars move fast! The scaredy cat in me reconsidered the hanging from the rails/certain death plan and settled for outward facing seats instead.

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Bright and early at the cable car turnaround on Powell and Market

Our next stop was Fisherman’s Wharf for a Golden Gate Bay Cruise. Prior to our trip, I’d found a 50% off Groupon for Red and White Fleet tours and purchased 10 am tickets to circle Alcatraz Island and sail under the world-famous bridge. Given another chance, we’d probably tack on a day tour of Alcatraz as well, but we loved our boat ride nonetheless. Free audio tours sharpened our bearings and helped us pinpoint historic San Francisco landmarks. Being on the water turned out to be a fun way to experience San Francisco with young kids.

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Tickets for our GG Bay Cruise
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Red and White Fleet cruise; with a Groupon, the cost was very reasonable
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Time sure flies…I can’t believe they were ever that little!
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We had perfect weather!
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Sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge
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Circling Alcatraz; next time, we’ll be sure to book a day tour here

Once back at the wharf, we set about to the important business of filling our bellies. And to those of us with Lower 48 fantasies, nothing says San Francisco like Boudin sourdough bread bowls brimming with steaming clam chowder. To this day, I’m unconvinced there’s anything more satisfying than tearing into piping hot sourdough to sop up ladlefuls of creamy clam chowder.

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Fisherman’s Wharf, 2013
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I still can’t believe we ordered 4 of these! Honestly, 2 would’ve been more than plenty
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There’s nothing for it but to pick it up and eat the whole thing!

Our post-lunch walk along Fisherman’s Wharf from Pier 39 to the Exploratorium measured in at a mile, but with a preschooler in tow, that mile felt more like five. Poor guy; with little sleep, a new time zone, and no nap on the horizon, a mile was a lot to ask. We arrived at the Exploratorium on foot in just over an hour–a little worse for wear but without any major meltdowns.

The Exploratorium offers interactive exhibits and multiple explorations in science, art, and human perception. It’s an eclectic mix, falling somewhere between art gallery and science museum with a dash of Brain Games to boot. All I know is we could’ve easily spent the entire day here once we got to playing. The kids loved the interactive physics games and especially enjoyed the Out Quiet Yourself exhibit, a scientific and meditative exercise in walking as quietly as possible across a gravel path against a sound meter.

After five hours at the Exploratorium, we shifted into low gear (literally) to drive down Lombard Street, aka the Crookedest Street in the World. Just as we hit the top of Lombard, though, I glanced back to find all three kids fast asleep. The hubby and I enjoyed the twisty descent alone, letting the kids catch a few well-earned Zs.

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The kids might’ve fallen asleep, but the hubby and I enjoyed Lombard Street

Even though I’m fairly sure we consumed our body weight in sourdough and clam chowder earlier that morning, we still managed to put away a golden batch of fish and chips at The Codmother Fish and Chips, an authentic joint run by a lovely British woman with a penchant for deep-fried and delicious. It’s been years since I’ve visited the UK, but this stuff was at least as good as real-deal London fare minus the newspaper cone. We wholeheartedly recommend it!

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The Codmother, located just off of Fisherman’s Wharf
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I couldn’t resist posting this one: proof positive that I might’ve packed our itinerary a little too full 😀

Not quite ready to head back to Oakland just yet, we splurged on dinner at Alioto’s on Fisherman’s Wharf. Critic reviews may be mixed, but for us, Alioto’s was the perfect mix of charming ambiance, sunset views, and iconic location. And what’s more iconically Fisherman’s Wharf than steaming bowls of spicy, brothy crab cioppino? Watching the sun sink below the horizon, we savored our seafood, thankful for the experience. A short trek over the Bay Bridge took us back to Days Inn, Oakland for the night.

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Crab cioppino and sunset at Alioto’s–delicious end to a great first day

Day 2:

Complete with an historic carousel and sand slides for cardboard racing, Koret Children’s Quarter in Golden Gate Park turned out to be an unexpected trip highlight for us! To this day, the kids reminisce about the cardboard slides and intricate rope towers they monkeyed around on. Our resident birder (aka the oldest) spotted his first hummingbird, and we loved the novelty of finding Queen Wilhelmina’s Tulip Garden and neighboring Bison Paddock smack-dab in the middle of the city. If these features sound completely incongruous, it’s because they are–with good reason: Golden Gate Park is HUGE. We’re talking multiple museums, windmills, and bison paddock huge. So when we decided to visit onsite California Academy of Sciences for our youngest, whose only road trip request was to see dinosaur fossils, we figured it might take as long as 15-20 minutes to circle the block. Did I mention it was Free Museum Admission Sunday?

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Koret Children’s Quarter, Golden Gate Park
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Hangin’ around
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They slid here for hours; people often leave their cardboard slides for others to enjoy
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Historic carousel in the children’s quarter
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Tulip Garden, Golden Gate Park

I hear you laughing at our delusion.

After two hours navigating gridlock and the assembled hordes, we finally managed to park and snake our way into the 5-city-block-long line. No exaggeration, we couldn’t even see the museum from where we stood! Still, the line moved quickly, and we were grateful to gain (free!) entrance within an hour. Sadly, a docent informed us that the Academy’s paleontology collection had moved and that their only remaining fossil was the T-Rex displayed in the lobby. Lucky for us, long-term focus was not our 4-year-old’s strong suit, and he was soon enamored of the earthquake simulator and indoor rainforest. We would’ve loved to spend more time at CAS, but it was 2 pm, and we had a 3 hour drive to Fort Bragg ahead of us.

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Free Admission Sunday was wonderful, but if you’re pressed for time, it’d be better to visit on a regular day to minimize crowds/traffic
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Thank goodness they had a T Rex–made this little guy so happy!
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Driving over the Golden Gate Bridge; bidding goodbye to SF

We nixed Point Reyes National Seashore from the itinerary for lack of time (though we will be stopping here to backpack this summer!), tracing Highway 1 to the exclusive coastal city of Mendocino instead. It’s not difficult to understand Mendocino’s appeal: here, wind-ravaged cliffs fall precipitously to the tempestuous Pacific; inland, bucolic hills roll gently toward redwood havens. It’s the kind of drop-dead gorgeous that beckons you like Siren song. It’s no wonder we couldn’t resist succumbing to an off-itinerary hike to Point Cabrillo Lighthouse in pursuit of the bewitching Golden Hour.

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Point Cabrillo Light Station
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Fort Bragg coast, Point Cabrillo Lighthouse Trail
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The light was so beautiful at that hour
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The fact that there was no one on the trail made it all the more special

There are few things in life I consider magical, but this Point Cabrillo Lighthouse hike made me believe: golden light low on the horizon, crashing waves against lonely, jagged cliffs, a sweet doe that appeared out of the brush to hold our gaze a long moment. With the lighthouse keeper’s lamp aglow in the distance and wildflowers amid tall grasses as far as the eye could see, it was almost as if we’d stepped into a scene from a Thomas Kinkade painting. The dirt was soft, the hiking was easy, and though we never found the actual trail to the lighthouse, we weren’t lost. We were exactly where I’d always hoped we’d be–out there, chasing the dream. img_20130622_231234img_20130602_192346img_20130602_192414

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The deer stepped out of the brush right after this shot was taken

 

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?                          

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

There are 1,177 men entombed beneath my feet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for Families Planning to Visit Pearl Harbor:

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

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One Perfect Day on Bainbridge Island

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

Streamliner Diner

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

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

Waterfront Trail

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

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

Bainbridge Island Historical Museum

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

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

Mora Iced Creamery

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

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

Bainbridge Island Museum of Art

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

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Bainbridge Island Museum of Art
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Vessel work by Barbara Earl Thomas

Ferry Ride

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

University of Washington

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

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University of Washington
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Suzzallo Library, Harry Potter Reading Room

Pink Door

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

  

Olympic NP: Backpacking the Southern Coast, Part II (a.k.a. In Which It Hits the Fan)

Have you ever had the feeling? The one that niggles at the back of your mind and warns you that things are too good to be true? That every event in life is connected and the butterfly effect isn’t just some bad Ashton Kutcher movie?

Suffice it to say that day two of our Olympic coast backpacking trek lives on in our collective memory with the kind of infamy usually reserved for do you remember the time Kid B pooped in his car seat and we had no wipes? type incidents.

So bad. And I’m only partially referring to the coast hike.

When last we left off, our unsuspecting family had fallen hard for the rugged coast, excited to set up camp along Third Beach. Freshly showered, spirits high, we hardly gave a second thought to the creek crossing next to our campsite. It was high tide, and getting wet just went part and parcel with the territory. For the record, let me just say: for a bunch of Hawaii folk who practically live at the beach all summer, I will never, for the love of all that’s holy, understand why it didn’t occur to us to remove our shoes before crossing the creek, but it didn’t.

(Cue Butterfly Effect theme music)

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The cursed creek…it looks so innocuous, doesn’t it?

And so we crossed the creek, shoes, pants, and all. Sure, our wool socks and waterproof shoes were completely soaked, but no matter. We would leave them outside to dry overnight. And true, our perfect ocean-view campsite was marred by wads of used toilet paper strewn across the sand (so gross!), but so what? We were hiking to Toleak Point tomorrow, a destination Ranger Eddie had assured us was nothing short of phenomenal: bald eagles taking flight from the sand by the dozen, otters and seals playing just beyond the shore, tidepools teeming with spiny sea stars and giant green anemones–the likes of which could be found nowhere else on earth. We dined al fresco along driftwood logs just steps away from the roaring ocean, warming ourselves beside the crackling fire. Yes, the blanket of starless gray above seemed ominous, but our happy stint at Third Beach left us convinced it was more bogeyman than real. All bark, no bite.

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Home for the night, Third Beach, Olympic NP
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Fastening that rain fly, juuuust in case…..
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Campfire just past our tent on the beach
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This was the view from our tent. It was amazing!
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Waking up to this view was incredible
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Cooking dinner, Third Beach
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Those bear canisters were just the right height for makeshift chairs!
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Dinner on a driftwood log–it doesn’t get much better than this

You see where this is going, don’t you?

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Lord almighty, please don’t let her wax poetic about the rain again. It’s the Pacific Northwest. It rains a lot. We get it. But indulge me for a second, please, because this was truly Next-Level Stuff. See, we awoke to the gentlest of drizzles. Just a whisper of spray, barely even noticeable. Certainly not enough to deter us from venturing to the creek to refill water. Our shoes and socks were still uncomfortably damp, but my brother and his partner were arriving soon, and we needed water for oatmeal. We’d just have to dry our footwear fireside while we prepared breakfast, we figured.

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Morning low tide, the calm before the storm (literally!)
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Ignorance is bliss…if we only knew what was about to come

 But by the time we’d crossed the driftwood logjam en route to the creek, the drizzle had progressed to a steady trickle–with breakfast still to prepare and no awning to prepare it under. The beach didn’t offer much in the way of natural shelter, but it wasn’t cold (yet!), just windy, and surely, hot oatmeal and a blazing fire would warm our wet feet right up, right? Only, starting a fire in the rain proved impossible, or at least, beyond our skill set. We huddled around the simmering oatmeal while rain streamed down our already-damp pants and socks.

And then the wind picked up, and the kids abandoned ship to take cover in our heretofore warm and dry tent. Unbeknownst to us, they shed their wet clothes in favor of dry sleep clothes, leaving puddles of water and sodden long underwear strewn about the tent. Meanwhile, the husband and I braved the elements, hoping to warm our bodies with food. Rain streamed down our faces in earnest; each bite of oatmeal was accompanied by a mouthful of rainwater and sand, courtesy of the whipping winds. We began to shiver, and I remembered this quote I’d read once about backpacking, something to the effect of “there’s always some degree of misery to every backpacking trip, but it’s the misery that makes the highs all the more glorious.”

I was pretty sure we were due some serious glory.

As if on cue, we glanced up to see my brother and his partner walking toward us. They’d made the three and a half hour drive from Seattle at dawn to backpack to Toleak with us! In true Seattle-ite form, they arrived clad only in T-shirts, shorts, and rain jackets, unfazed by the heavy downpour. The kids ran out of the tent to hug them. With such a happy reunion, the rain didn’t seem nearly as miserable anymore. The turn in weather, however, prompted concerns over trail conditions (which included muddy rope climbs/descents and steep, broken ladders), and we voted to dayhike to Toleak instead of backpacking there, returning by afternoon to camp again on Third Beach. The guys pitched their tent next to ours in the rain, an almost cheerful affair now that we were all together. And then the sky split open and the ensuing deluge rendered the shoreline nearly invisible.

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Even with all the rain, she was so thrilled to find these smooth stones
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Happy find, Olympic NP

We made a beeline for our tent, the first in a series of increasingly Bad Decisions. In our haste, we’d plopped ourselves onto the water puddles and wet clothes left inside the tent. Which wasn’t such a big deal for the husband and I, who were already wet, but a little more dire for the kids and the guys, whose only dry change of clothes was now as soaked as ours. It was about this time that the creek-crossing incident began to haunt us. Our warm and dry tent was no longer warm nor dry, and it wasn’t long before cold entered the scene. Our phones indicated a temperature of 40 degrees with no chance of sun until noon the next day. Wet? Check. Cold? Check. Dry clothes? None. Chance of sun? Zero, nada, none.

So naturally, we decided to press on. With only four days of vacation left, we wouldn’t be able to try for Toleak another day. Besides, my brother and his partner had driven all the way here for this. It was just rain. We’d be all right. Increasingly bad decisions, remember?

Thing is, we’d spent so much time huddling in our tent that we’d missed low tide. The shoreline portions of the trail were no longer viable, forcing us to take the muddy headlands almost exclusively. With ladders and ropes involved, we decided it was best that the kids not shoulder a backpack load. The guys didn’t have daypacks and wanted their hands free as well, so they decided to leave their packs (and water bottles) back at camp. Which is how the seven of us set out for Toleak with a grand total of three liters of water. With no rain pants. Sopping wet socks. In 40 degree weather. With a crap-ton of rain.

Is it sick to say that the trail was actually really fun? That the hanging wooden ladders with missing rungs and rope-assisted muddy climbs were kind of a blast? We were less fond of the ankle-deep rainforest mud bog that seemed to go on for miles. We couldn’t be sure of the distance though, what with two topo maps between us, both completely useless. My brother’s partner’s map was an unreadable, soggy mess in his pocket, and mine was equally unreadable, folded up in a Ziploc bag. All I know is that mud-slogging is sweaty, thirst-inducing business, and it was maybe two miles in before we found ourselves down to our last half liter of water. With our water filter back at camp. And two miles left to Toleak.

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This rope section was steeper and muddier than it appears
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En route to Giant’s Graveyard
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Navigating the mud, Olympic NP
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Headland trail marker and evidence of yet another Very Bad Decision: abandoning our trekking poles (!!)
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What may possibly be the worst pic ever taken from the headland trail. Photos weren’t really at the top of my mind at the moment, funny enough. 😉
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Okay, I lied: this is the worst pic ever. Storm blowing in…

It was then, somewhere between Giant’s Graveyard and Strawberry Point, that we got lashed by yet another torrent from the sky. With rain sheeting in from all directions, we could barely open our eyes. And here is where we finally, FINALLY, started making smart decisions. Teeth chattering, our youngest’s lips were downright blue. Even my brother, who hadn’t batted an eye when he arrived now only half-joked to me, “I think I might have hypothermia.” I laughed, and he leaned in, shivering. “I’m kind of not kidding,” he said.

It makes me sad (now) to see beautiful pictures of Toleak online, but at the moment, none of that mattered. We were freezing and getting wetter by the minute. In a unanimous ten-second decision, we voted to book it two miles back to Third Beach. Along the way, several of us slipped and fell in the mud. When we got back to camp, everyone piled into the tent–mud, rain, and all. In a second unanimous decision, we voted to leave–stat! Easier said than done, what with frozen fingers and rain pelting us as we made haste to pack. We trekked another mile and a half to the car, teeth chattering and miserably cold. No spinning the truth here–there absolutely were tears of misery for our youngest on the way back. The older two were sullen and quiet. It was the lowest point we’ve experienced on any vacation. As a parent, I’d made some pretty crappy decisions that brought us here, and the hike back gave me plenty of time to reflect on that guilt.

When we finally got back to the trailhead, our cramped little Lancer rental was as beautiful a sight as I’ve ever seen. With a brief, “Meet you at the Wilderness Information Center!” we piled in and blasted the heater. We stripped off our socks and shoes, unwilling to brave the rain even a second longer to retrieve dry clothes from the trunk. It was an hour’s drive back to the WIC, one filled with profuse apologies, relieved laughter, and gratitude that we hadn’t gotten into serious trouble in spite of my bad decisions. We were still shivering (though much less so) by the time we returned our bear canisters, and thankfully, Port Angeles was overcast but not raining, so we all changed into dry clothes. Bliss!

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This pic is so blurry, but I love it–partly because it’s one of the only photos I have of that day, but also because it captures a moment of humor in the middle of all the misery. We couldn’t stop laughing when my brother’s partner held his camera up and said, “Cheese!” 

Without a campsite for the night, we had some decisions to make. This time, I listened to reason (i.e. the kids) when they said they didn’t want to camp that night. I listened to my brother, who gave a big thumbs-down when we arrived at the only motel with available rooms in Port Angeles, only to find it resembled Bates Motel, complete with chain-smoking sketchy characters out front. And even though I really, really wanted to save the Dungeness Spit camp reservation we’d booked for the following night, I listened to the inner voice that said no campsite, no matter how beautiful or coveted, was worth sacrificing safety or happiness.

Instead, warm and happy, we drove three hours back to Seattle and feasted on carne asada enchiladas, chips, and fresh pico de gallo. Hot showers and quilted comforters awaited us at my brother’s home. Sometimes I think back to that afternoon and wonder what might’ve happened had we pressed on to Toleak. It might’ve turned out amazing, who knows? But regret was the last thing on my mind as I drifted to sleep that night, grateful for a warm, dry bed and safe, happy kids. Six miles and one very muddy trail wiser, I knew for certain that the bird in my hand was worth worlds more than two in the Toleak bush.

Coming soon: Seattle and Bainbridge Island; World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument

Olympic NP: Backpacking the Southern Coast, Part I

In a world where nothing seems certain, it’s nice to know there are absolutes you can bank on. The sun will rise. The birds will sing. And in Forks, Washington? Sparkly vampires and hunky werewolves are as real as real can be.

Also, you can bet your bottom dollar that it rains in Hoh Rain Forest. A lot.

Our initial plan was to forge ahead to 5 Mile Island along Hoh River Trail before retracing our steps back to the Visitor Center. After a cold and wet night spent in the rain forest, however, we ready to be done with the elements. Inclement weather had followed us for the better part of a week now–in mid-July, no less–and our spirits (and patience) were worse for wear.

Forget the herd of elk grazing along river’s edge. To heck with boiling water for coffee and hot chocolate. We were bailing, and in a hurry. We broke camp in record time, hitting the trail just after 7 am. The trickle of a waterfall we’d passed yesterday more closely resembled a flood after last night’s heavy rains. Fresh moss carpeted the forest floor in a layer of slick green; speckled fungi sprawled skyward like mythical beanstalks. It was as if every living thing in the forest had vied overnight for the title of Most Alive.

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Making our way out of the Hoh
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Beautiful Hoh River
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Ten minutes to the parking lot…happy campers

Still, nothing could match the lure of our warm, dry car. Come mud or high water–or both, as it were–we were a family on an escape mission. What had taken almost two hours to hike yesterday took less than one this morning. No stops for ceremony or high-fives in the parking lot; we slammed our packs in the car trunk and piled in.

With fresh socks and heat came relief and then excited chatter, namely: how Adam Richman had nothing on our appetites and what was for breakfast? The soggy granola bars stashed in our bear canisters had lost all appeal. Conversation fixated on a restaurant we remembered passing on our way into the forest, the one with the clever name–Hard Rain Cafe.

Equal parts quaint eatery and mercantile, Hard Rain Cafe boasts a range of eclectic offerings from espresso and burgers to kitschy trinkets and backpacking essentials. As tempting as the souvenir racks were, every hungry hiker knows there’s nothing more enticing than a juicy burger post-hike–nine in the morning or otherwise. Hard Rain Cafe’s bacon cheeseburgers delivered the savory oomph we craved. Portions were small-ish and pricey, but thick-sliced bacon has a way of mitigating all ills.

The hour-long drive out of the rainforest took us past the coast and into the heart of Forks, the sleepy Olympic town immortalized in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying Twilight paved the way for many of us who’ve since landed agents and contracts in the young adult publishing industry. And the city of Forks? Consider it a living homage to all things Twilight. From billboards proclaiming the city’s current vampire threat level (red, of course) to the Team Jacob/Team Edward posters plastered across every shop window, it’s all great fun.

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The infamous sign featured in the movie Twilight
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When in Forks, you pilgrimage to Forks High School and scan for the Cullen family

Twilight fever aside, there were still chores that needed tending to before our afternoon coastal trek. Chief among these were showers and laundry. God, but we needed a shower! In the interest of keeping it real, I have to admit that we hadn’t showered since Glacier, five nights ago. Seriously gross, I know. We stopped at Forks 101 Laundromat (our clothes were so filthy, they practically stood on their own!) and Forks Outfitters Thriftway, where we stocked up on backpacking food for the next two nights. Our last stop was Three Rivers Resort, a rustic lodge and campground in La Push, for coin-op showers ($1 for the first three minutes, one quarter every minute thereafter). I literally could not pump those quarters in fast enough. It was the hottest, most glorious shower of my life. Slipping into clean clothes, I felt like a new woman, excited and eager for our final trek: the southern Olympic coast.

It was a short drive to Third Beach Trailhead parking lot. Even with bear canisters and packs strapped to our backs, everyone was in good spirits. We were headed to the beach, after all–what wasn’t to love? Having hiked earlier in the day, our planned mileage was minimal–just a mile and a half to Third Beach, where we would camp overnight and meet my brother and his partner in the morning to backpack to Toleak Point. More importantly, the rain had stopped, and though it wasn’t exactly sunny, it wasn’t pouring either–a win in our book.

The short hike to Third Beach took us through coastal forest reminiscent of the Hoh, albeit flatter and less lush. There were moments where I wondered if we were on the right trail–Isn’t this supposed to lead to the beach…?–but it wasn’t long before we heard the telltale roar of the ocean. We stopped at a bluff overlooking Third Beach and marveled at the the juxtaposition of forest and coast–behind us, only trees; ahead of us, nothing but ocean and salt air. Here, sand and soil gave rise to ferns and wildflowers that thrived in the unique coastal mix of mud and grit.

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Familiar but different. Coastal forest en route to Third Beach
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Third Beach Trail, Olympic National Park
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Our first glimpse of the beach

The descent from the bluff was steep, but we barely noticed, so mesmerized were we by the ocean. When our feet finally hit the sand, it took every ounce of self-restraint not to make a beeline straight for the water. Instead, we made note of the creek before us for water resupply and took stock of the massive driftwood pile blocking our path. Climbing over individual logs wasn’t overly difficult; scaling stacks of driftwood piled 8-10 feet high proved more of a challenge. Backpacks made balance tricky, but we all made it safely over to our first unobstructed view of the Olympic coast. 

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Driftwood logjam
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We didn’t realize how high the logjam was until we got there
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Balancing was tricky…
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…but the rewards were immense.
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Admiring the coast, Olympic National Park

The Pacific isn’t unfamiliar to us–it surrounds our tropical island home, informing our culture and way of life. But this Pacific was something else entirely, tempestuous and untamed. Here, horizon and water melded into an impermeable wall of gray. Wind-sheared trees clung to lonely cliffsides and sea stacks. And the thunder of crashing waves reminded us that we were but powerless spectators to Nature’s formidable display. The Olympic coast was every bit as wild as we’d hoped for and then some.  

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Giant’s Graveyard in the distance
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Watching eagles swoop across the headland
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Stark beauty, Third Beach
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The Olympic Coast
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Entranced by the ocean
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Solitude and wilderness along the Olympic Coast, Third Beach

From a driftwood perch, we watched an eagle swoop across the headland. We surveyed the tide–high at the moment–taking note of the tide’s reach and all it had veiled. Soon, all that was gray would darken to evening black, and we would retreat to the warmth of our tent. But for the moment, at least, finding a campsite could wait. For now, we would admire the forlorn beauty of the coast. We would memorize the wind and salt and sand in our hair. And though it would be impossible to hear each other over the roar of the ocean and the whipping wind, our contented smiles would need no translation.      

Olympic NP: Backpacking Hoh River Trail

Camp mornings have settled into a familiar routine. Rise with the sun. Deflate sleeping pads. Sleeping bags in compression sacks. Disassemble the tent: boys on poles, girls on body and fly. And always, hot coffee. Coffee for bleary-eyed parents, cocoa for the littles.

It’s cold and gray again in the North Cascades. Yesterday’s beautiful weather was an anomaly; thunderstorms and 40 degree temps are forecast for the rest of the week. We zip our fleece pullovers and don rain jackets. Bid goodbye to Gorge Lake and snow-capped peaks no longer visible beneath the gathering gray. Today is a road day: 4.5 hours to Mount Angeles Wilderness Information Center, another 2 hours to Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center.

Our first order of business? Fuel–for the car, yes, but mostly for the hungry humans within. There’s a gas station with a lone fuel pump just outside the park boundary in Marblemount. I step outside to stretch my legs and am immediately hit by a heavenly aroma: coffee. Good, strong coffee–the kind that immediately recalls past Seattle and Portland trips. I look at my husband and then at the coffee shack. “Please?” my raised eyebrows plead. He smiles his consent.

I wander across the parking lot and look back to see the kids’ eager faces glued to the rear window. Crown’d Coffee is eclectic, eccentric. There are plush blue couches and wind chimes that ring brilliantly in the blustery Skagit wind. Statues of Quan Yin and miniature glass-blown bird figurines. Organic, fair trade coffee. Soy, almond milk everything, but also real heavy cream, whipped into rich, buttery pillows for hot chocolate. I walk back with a heavy cardboard tray laden with Everything bagels, cream cheese, coffee laced with organic cream, too much hot chocolate.

The drive to Seattle is quiet. It’s the middle of rush hour traffic, but mentally, we are deep in vacation zone–not quite ready to head home, but physically fatigued. Conversation lulls, though there is an ease to the silence. We’ve spent 10 full days talking to each other. Now is a time to just be.

Seattle finds us halfway to Port Angeles and en route to Krispy Kreme. We indulge in glazed doughnuts, savoring the taste and hoping it will hold us till next year. Our youngest watches the assembly conveyor belt in amazement, waving to the baker who humors him with a wink and a thumbs-up. Soon enough, it’s back to the cramped Mitsubishi and another two hours on the road that takes us past Tacoma and Bellingham and eventually brings us to Mount Angeles Wilderness Information Center.

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Krispy Kreme pit stop, Seattle

It’s late–1:30 pm–and the line at the Information Center is a mile long. It’s another 2 hours to Hoh Rain Forest and a 5 mile hike to our campsite for the night. Packing bear canisters will take longer than we anticipate–we’ve learned this the hard way. Ranger Eddie advises us to stop short of 5 Mile Island and set up camp instead at Mt. Tom Creek, a little over 3 miles in. He issues us backcountry permits for tonight, as well as permits for our next two nights along the coast. Ranger Eddie shares my demented Far Side/Gary Larson sense of humor and scares the kids with cautionary tales of tiny raccoon paws unzipping tents in the middle of the night in search of stashed gum and granola bar wrappers. I laugh more than is appropriate, but he’s twisted, and I am tired and amused.

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Ranger Eddie, Mount Angeles WIC

The drive to Hoh Rain Forest takes us far past civilization. The car radio gives way to static, then silence as we rush past the coast and deep into the forest. At first, the scenery evokes memories of Thunder Creek Trail in North Cascades–old cedars and firs lined with patches of slick moss–but then the forest gives way to something else entirely. Hanging moss in browns and greens draped in floor-length curtains from tree to tree. Giant ferns that bed the forest floor in a wild carpet of green. And everywhere, the rain. Pelting. Sheeting. Drizzling. Pouring. We would experience it all before the end of our trip

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Hoh Rain Forest, Olympic National Park

By the time we get our bear canisters locked and loaded, it’s 4:45 pm, and the rain is incessant. Walking through the parking lot means wading through streams, not puddles. Though not as cold as the Cascades, temps are in the lower 50s and dropping fast. We have rain jackets but no rain pants, and already, I can feel water running down the insides of my legs. I’m fairly certain my kids hate me. To be honest, I kind of hate me at the moment.

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Keeping it real: glum faces pre-hike
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Trying to find our happy faces…
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Hoh River Trail, Olympic National Park
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Hiking Hoh River Trail

“I’m sorry. This really sucks,” I tell my husband, as each step through calf-high puddles splashes mud up onto our arms and faces.

He shakes his head. “Don’t think of it that way. This’ll be an adventure we’ll always remember,” he says.

My oldest chimes in. “When will we ever get to camp in a rain forest again?” he says. Undeterred, he whips out his camera and waterproof casing and snaps a few photos. It’s enough to snap me out of my misery. True, it’s not my romanticized version of the rain forest, the “atmospheric” one I’d imagined at home. This is the real rain forest, complete with real rain and mud and cold for those who dare.

There’s a gritty beauty to Hoh River Trail. All is lush and green as one would expect, but there is also an untouched, almost mystical quality to the landscape. From the gray mist that cloaks the mountains to the pristine riverbed marred only by wind and time, there is a deep silence in the forest that speaks of past ages and our fleeting tenure here. We tread through the mud, voices hushed, listening to the sloshing of our shoes, the call of birds, rain dripping from moss to ferns.

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Hoh River pops in and out of view along the trail; mist clings to the mountainside
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Trekking Hoh River Trail
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Trekking poles help with the mud
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Brown and green as far as the eye can see; Hoh River Trail

When the rain slows, soft light filters through the trees, but these occasions become less frequent as darkness falls. Doubt fills my head–2 hours had seemed a reasonable time to hike a little over 3 miles, but what if I’d miscalculated? I knew hiking through rain in headlamps would be the straw that’d break this family’s back.

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Waterfall just before our campsite

We pass a waterfall and then a stake carved with a tent image, marking our campsite. There is an audible whoop from our younger two, who feared we’d wind up lost, on the news. We nestle our tent against a wall of ferns and quickly boil water for dinner.

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We made it! Home sweet home for the night
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Starting a fire to dry ourselves out
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It was tough building a fire with all of the recent rain

Couscous and chicken are on the menu tonight, but in our rush, we’d forgotten to empty the canned chicken into a Ziploc bag. Luckily, we have welcoming neighbors–a jovial group of college teens from the East Coast who are backpacking a week in the Hoh–who share their can-opener. We cut through swampy grass to dine along river’s edge, where our other neighbors–kindly newlyweds–share their driftwood bench with the kids.

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Parmesan couscous and lemon chicken for dinner
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Gathering water from the river
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Camp chores after dinner

There is no latrine at our site, so our oldest digs “pre-need” catholes for the family. The forest is saturated, but he builds a good fire. We sit outside until mosquitoes and darkness drive us inside. We play a rowdy round of Liar/BS by headlamp. Not one, but two decks of cards–we’re emboldened by the earlier deluge and the thrill of camping in the wild. Later, we switch off our headlamps and whisper in the dark.

“You know what? Today kind of sucked, but it was kind of awesome,” my daughter says.

Our youngest nods, hair rustling against his inflatable pillow. “Yeah. In a way, part of me sort of hates backpacking, but it’s kind of awesome, too,” he says.

I reflect on the events of the day–the suck-y parts and the awesome parts–and smile. There is no truer wisdom to be found than from the mouths of babes.

 

Closer to Home: 3 Unforgettable Stops in East Oahu

So often, I find myself wistful whenever I browse through travel magazines and social media sites. Summit selfies and lakeside camp photos stir a longing in me that makes me wish I was anywhere but here. Thing is, here is a pretty darned great place to be–a fact I too often forget. More importantly, now is the moment I want to be in–and the only one we’re guaranteed. I’ll get back to the Olympic National Park and Seattle portions of our trip soon, but I wanted to pause for a bit to pay tribute to the humble backyard adventure.

To be honest, I guess I’ve been feeling a little burned out. Kids, work, activities–nothing new or out of the ordinary, but lately, it’s all been feeling like a bit much. I thought a little extra sleep might help. Or that maybe I needed to cut back on a weekend activity or two. Still, the feeling persisted. Then I walked past a Crayola-colored worksheet hanging on my son’s door–I am a Bucket Filler!–and it hit me.

I haven’t been filling my bucket.

Oh, I had a million excuses–kids, work, money…life–but the truth was, I’d let my bucket run dry. I count my blessings that we’re able to vacation most years (and these fill my bucket in a big way), but vacations can’t be expected to sustain you indefinitely. In neglecting to tend to my personal happiness, I’d lost sight of the everyday wonder in the here and now. I knew I needed to remedy the situation and was lucky enough to have 4 days off from work this week to do just that.

It didn’t take a lot of money–less than $20 for the entire week–and time was limited, with kids and activities to tend to. But it’s amazing how far you can stretch $20 and a few hours a day with simple pleasures. I sipped coffee and people-watched in a coffeehouse. Lay on the sand and watched the sun rise. Hiked in meditative solitude. Watched a movie (Queen of Katwe, which was excellent!) and shoveled a ridiculous amount of buttered popcorn. Slurped pho on a lunch date with my husband. Most of all, I watched waves crash over and over and released a breath I’d forgotten I’d been holding for months.

My favorite bucket-filling backyard adventure of the week was an excursion along the eastern coast of the island. Should you ever find yourself on Oahu, I highly recommend escaping the hustle and bustle of Waikiki and planning a day trip out east.

Stop 1: Sandy Beach and Makapu’u

Begin the day with sunrise at Sandy Beach, and prepare to be dazzled by early-morning surfers as they put on an electrifying show. img_20130910_132552

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Sunrise at Sandy’s–an unforgettable experience

Drive up the coast a mile or two and hike out to Makapu’u Lighthouse. More of a gentle stroll than a hike, there’s no better view to be had for less effort. Crowds are minimal on weekdays, allowing you to connect with your surroundings. I walked Makapu’u twice this week, meandering down a path toward lava tidepools and taking a spur trail near the entrance toward Ka Iwi Scenic Shoreline. I considered hiking Koko Head instead (a monstrosity of 1,000+ railroad track “stairs” that I will post about another time), but there is a time for challenge and a time for being gentle with yourself, and this trip was definitely the latter. Near the top, I scanned the horizon–no whales today, though they will return soon enough–and savored the views of Rabbit Island and Molokai in the distance. At less than two miles, you can easily walk this paved path in under half an hour, but lingering is what truly makes this trail memorable.

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Backside of Koko Crater and the Ka Iwi Coast
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Looking back toward Koko Head
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Makapu’u Lighthouse
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View of Rabbit Island from Makapu’u Lighthouse overlook
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Views of Waimanalo and beyond

Stop 2: Halona Beach Cove

After Makapu’u, I headed back along scenic Kalanianaole Highway toward Halona Blowhole. This lava tube-meets-ocean attraction is on the radar of every tourist and guidebook on the planet, and for good reason: it’s spectacular. I jockeyed for parking with the endless parade of tour buses streaming into the parking lot and then escaped the crowds via a rock “staircase” that leads to the secret beach cove featured in From Here to Eternity and Fifty First Dates. To be sure, this “secret” is not much of a secret at all, as you can certainly see the beach from the overlook. However, in comparison to the number of people at the overlook, relatively few people venture down because of posted danger signs. The danger signs are no joke–the current is powerful here, and diving from lava rocks into rough ocean is not something I would advise. However, from a lone perch high atop the black lava rock, there is no better spot to admire Halona Blowhole as it hurls churning ocean water 30 feet into the air. I sat here for close to an hour, watching green sea turtles drift in and out of the cove. I wandered into a cave tunnel at the foot of the lava wall and felt my bucket overflow with the incoming tide.

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The steps down to Halona Beach Cove
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Beautiful blue-green water…be sure to admire from a distance
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There she blows! Halona Blowhole
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From inside the cave tunnel

Stop 3: Lanai Lookout

From Halona, I drove less than a mile to Lanai Lookout. A favorite of fishermen and tourists alike, Lanai Lookout doesn’t draw quite the same crowds as Blowhole, or maybe it’s that it draws a different type of crowd–quieter, more contemplative. Whenever I’ve found myself in need of quiet reflection, Lanai Lookout has always delivered. This trip was no different. I sat alone along the sea cliff and listened to the roaring surf pummel the coast. Tracked not one, but two ‘iwa (great frigatebirds) overhead, giant wings splayed a magnificent seven feet wide. Soon enough, it would be Monday. Soon enough, it’d be back to work and the familiar grind. But for now, I’ll savor the sun on my shoulders and the hot Kona coffee in my belly. Breathe in the salty ocean air and trace the smooth lava rock beneath my feet. Refill my bucket with the thunder of every crashing wave. Because this moment–the one before me right now? This moment is everything.

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The ocean is mesmerizing here
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My favorite view of Koko Head and Kalanianaole Highway
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Pounding surf at Lanai Lookout
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Oahu’s eastern shore, as seen from Lanai Lookout

North Cascades: Ross Dam/Big Beaver Trail & Ladder Creek Falls

We fell asleep to the darkness of rain (read part one of our North Cascades adventure here) and awoke to the most glorious sight: light! Not sunlight, exactly, but something mercifully close. It illuminated the tent walls and warmed the ground beneath us. We clambered out of our tent, hoping to glimpse the sun, but in the thick of the forest, all we could see was canopy.

Correction: canopy and the tiniest speck of blue.

We were torn: our backcountry permit guaranteed us a second night along Thunder Creek Trail–a permit so coveted in rainy conditions for its natural protection from the elements that we were lucky to have snagged the last one. It was foolish to abandon a sure thing…and yet. The forest had been good to us, yes, but there was a promising patch of blue sky and a whole lot of National Park we had yet to explore.

Put to a family vote, the decision was unanimous: chase that sun!

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Thunder Creek Trail: a whole different animal in the sun!

We quickly broke camp and headed back, relieved to see the distant blue growing ever larger the farther we hiked. Light filtered through the trees and danced across the water, casting the forest anew; all that was wild and untamed yesterday was now docile and aglow. By the time we reached the trailhead, it was clear the sliver of blue we’d seen from camp was a mighty swath that stretched across the sky. We were in for a beautiful day!

We unloaded our packs and drove to Newhalem Visitor Center to return our bear canisters and Junior Ranger booklets. Not all Junior Ranger programs are created equal, and North Cascades’ was among the best we’ve ever participated in. From a kids’ corner with educational books, puppets, and board games to a swearing-in ceremony complete with special ranger hats and a stuffed grizzly, the park does an excellent job of fostering conservation ideals and a love of the outdoors in children.

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Turning in Junior Ranger booklets at Newhalem Visitor Center

With equal parts trepidation and exhilaration, we surrendered our Thunder Creek permit and left Newhalem without a backup itinerary. We were officially winging it: no plan for the day–and no campsite for the night. Whatever adventure North Cascades had to throw our way, we were eager and ready!

Diablo Lake

Our first stop after the Visitor Center was Diablo Lake Overlook, located just past Colonial Creek Campground on Highway 20. I’m certain we must have passed this turnoff on our way into the park, but with all of the fog and rain shrouding the road that day, we had no inkling that the lake even existed. Ironic, seeing as “missable” is the last word I’d use to describe Diablo Lake. Unparalleled. Sublime. These are the words that come to mind. From its exquisite aquamarine hue to the majestic glaciated peaks gracing its backdrop, this lake absolutely mesmerized us.

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Diablo Lake, North Cascades National Park
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Quite possibly my favorite lake ever
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We had no idea that the rain and fog were hiding those glorious peaks!
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Panorama, Diablo Lake Overlook
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Glacial silt gives the lake its amazing hue
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After all the rain, we felt blessed to have such beautiful weather our last day in the Cascades

The best part about Diablo Lake is that it’s accessible to all. There’s no need to backpack or dayhike dozens of miles to see this extraordinary beauty; honestly, you barely even need to park your car! With visitation to North Cascades National Park topping out at less than 30,000 people a year, the overlook never feels crowded, even at the height of summer. Diablo Lake boasts backcountry beauty with frontcountry access–a rare and wonderful mix. I could have gladly lingered here all day, but the sun beckoned us on to Ross Lake and the unfinished business we had left to settle.

Ross Dam/Big Beaver Trail

Our backpacking excursion along Ross Lake was not to be, but we had time and sunshine to spare–the perfect excuse to explore Ross Dam and Big Beaver Trail, if only for the day. We parked at milepost 134 on Highway 20 and set off along a dusty gravel trail that wove through dense forest before dropping a steep mile toward Ross Dam. Charming creeks and magnificent peaks were the order of the day, and we were able to experience plenty of both in blissful solitude. With the sun beating down our backs, we even found ourselves stripping off our fleece pullovers, and dare I say it–perspiring!–for the first time since we’d arrived in Washington. Teaser glimpses of Ross Lake enticed us on.

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Ross Lake Trail, Take Two!
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This steep drop was not quite as fun on the return trip 😀

Standing 540 feet high and 1,300 feet long, Ross Dam spans the Skagit River in an impressive display of concrete and engineering. The views from the top are dizzying: on one side, the Skagit River–wild and green; on the other, Ross Lake–a well of vivid blue rivaling only the sky. We continued another mile and a half along Big Beaver Trail, contouring Ross Lake and daydreaming about the backpacking trip that wasn’t. Like all good dreams, coming so close only to miss was bittersweet. Still. When the Cascades hand you sunshine, you don’t squander it on regret–you take it it and hike like there’s no tomorrow! We savored those last two miles back and were even lucky enough to spot a pine marten on our return trip.

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The dusty gravel trail to the dam
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Walking across Ross Dam
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Ross Dam–540 feet high. The view from the top was mind-boggling!
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Skagit River, Ross Dam
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Ross Lake, North Cascades National Park
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Ross Lake was impossibly blue
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How amazing would it be to wake up to this view?
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Still can’t decide whether this little guy is cute or scary. A little bit of both, maybe?

Gorge Lake Campground

In spite of our newfound “embracing the moment” credo, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that we experienced a moment of panic when we realized that our beloved site 82 in Colonial Creek was unavailable for the night. There were other sites to be had at Colonial Creek, but nothing compared to #82. Looking back, I’m so grateful for the way things worked out. Because if #82 hadn’t been occupied, we might never have discovered Gorge Lake Campground–and what may very well be my favorite campsite in any park, ever!

Gorge Lake is a primitive campground with a vault toilet and no potable water. Don’t let that deter you, though; it’s easy to stock up on water in Newhalem. (Tip: it’s a good idea to stock up on firewood, too; North Cascades doesn’t permit the collection of dead and downed trees except in the backcountry) There are only six sites, first come, first served at $10 each, but if you’re lucky enough to score one of three sites directly on the water, you are in for a treat. Quiet and spacious with unrivaled views of glassy Gorge Lake and distant peaks, these shaded sites are sure to set the gold standard for all future car camping trips.

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Gorge Lake, my favorite campground ever–the lake view from our tent was incredible
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Taking a break to sketch the scene

After pitching our tent, we sketched in our journals and enjoyed some late afternoon hot chocolate and ramen around the roaring fire. It was still broad daylight, but we had plans for the evening and knew we wouldn’t get back in time to build a fire later. We were drunk on sunshine and giddy with laughter. Those precious hours spent around our early evening campfire are among my favorite family memories ever.

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Coming from Hawaii, we’re probably unduly obsessed with campfires…this one borders on obnoxious, I know. 😀

Ladder Creek Falls Light Show

We capped off our time at North Cascades National Park with a short trek to Ladder Creek Falls to experience Seattle City Light’s nightly light show. Located behind Gorge Powerhouse in Newhalem, the half mile trail to Ladder Creek Falls led us over a bridge and through several impeccably groomed flower gardens at sunset.

From there, we climbed to the top of the falls and waited patiently for what seemed like hours for the sky to darken. When at last the cotton candy hues of sunset had faded to dusk, all was awash in light–brilliant pinks and purples and blues. It felt like a nod from the Cascades, a proverbial wink. Because sunshine may be fickle around these parts, but if you’re willing and patient enough to wait, North Cascades National Park might just dazzle you with the most brilliant show of them all.

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Traversing the footbridge at dusk, Ladder Creek Falls
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Ladder Creek Falls, Seattle City Lights