Find Your Park

What is your favorite National Park?

It is the most common question I get asked when talking about our summer trips to the National Parks.   And it’s not an easy one to answer.   We’ve now explored 38 of the 59 U.S. National Parks.  Take a glance at my 13 Summers page to see a list of all U.S. National Parks and the ones we’ve visited to date.

The National Parks really do offer something for everyone.  We’ve all seen the vivid colors of calendars and screensavers, and the sprawling vistas advertised on TV.  Do you dream of exploring the rocky heat of the desert or climbing great mountains or of getting lost in the deep woods?  Do you want to fish in pristine rivers?  Photograph rare wildlife?  Explore a dark cave?  Or just stare up at the worlds tallest trees?

The thing is, having a relationship with nature, and with America’s Parks, takes more than just looking at someone else’s pictures, or watching a carefully filmed advertisement on TV.   Knowing nature is experiencing nature.  When people ask me to pick my favorite park, I don’t necessarily think of the ones that were the most beautiful.  I think of the ones where my experiences there were the most memorable.

I love the Grand Tetons because of the time we went kayaking in Jackson Lake, and the weather was so perfect and the mood so right that we pulled up to a rocky beach, stripped down to our under-roos and went swimming underneath the shadow of the great mountains, and the afternoon is a memory full of the shimmering laughter of the kids.

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I love Glacier because of the amazing 12 mile round-trip hike to Grinnel Glacier.    It was their longest hike yet, and they completed it in spectacular fashion.  We ate blackberries on the way up, we soaked our aching soles in a glacier lake, we rested our eyes on a disappearing glacier, we even saw the tail end of a grizzly on our way back down.  And at the end of that long day we feasted at Many Glacier Lodge and watched the sunset behind the mountains.  It was a most perfect day.

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I love the North Cascades because I remember the many fun hours the kids spent on the rope swing at the floating Ross Lake Lodge.

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I love Olympic because I watched my young children form streams and build rock dams on the river edge and play make believe with their stuffed animals in the middle of the Hoh Rainforest.

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I love Guadalupe Mountains because of the great adventure we had camped on a desert hillside in the middle of the frightening thunderstorm.  We had nowhere to go unless we drove out of the park, and we hid out and played cards all night to take our minds of the cracking thunder, the soaking wet tent falling down around us, and the lightning flashes we saw flash in the night.

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I love Big Bend because of the memory of my kids rolling in the mud on the banks of the Rio Grande and playing mud monsters to everyone that walked by them.

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I love Padre Island because we watched the sea turtles get released at sunrise and make their way to the great wide ocean.

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I love Bandelier because of adventure of climbing all those ladders over mountains of rock, and then later the memory of our tent finally collapsing and we had to throw it out in the middle of our trip.

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I love Haleakala because of the moment we all watched the sunrise above the clouds, hand in hand.

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I love Isle Royale because of the memory of the last three miles of our 44 mile backpacking trek across the island – we are all so sore and beyond exhausted, and then my entertaining son played his Gollum character and laughed us all the way to the end.

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I love Zion because of the moment we had on the top of Angels Landing, looking down into the great valley and around at each other, and I remember thinking about how strong and determined my children are, to achieve something like this at their age.

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I Love Joshua Tree because it was the very first park of our very first trip, and nothing warms my heart as much as looking back on those photos of the kids all those years ago, laughing and playing together in nature.

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Yes, it’s hard to pick a favorite park.  Maybe impossible.  But that’s a GOOD thing.  There are so many beautiful places waiting for you to see, and there are so many adventures out there, waiting to be had.  Remember, the National Parks are Your Parks.  Don’t forget about them.  Don’t make excuses not to go.  Don’t watch them through screens and photographs.  Just pick one and get there, and you’ll find that it’ll become your favorite too.

There are many more stories to share, and many more parks to show you.  I have some posted around this website, others are waiting to be published, and I’ll continue to share them here as I have time.   You can check here for some sample road trip itineraries.  Also, follow the links in the categories list on the right side of the page to find articles about parks in different U.S. regions.

If you’ve been to any NPS lands in the past year you’ve probably seen some sign of the Find Your Park campaign, launched in celebration of this year’s 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service on August 25, 2016.  The NPS was established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and today manages over 400 land sites.  Yellowstone was America’s first national park, established when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill to establish it in 1872.  Visit the www.findyourpark.com website to find hundreds of stories from park visitors as well as other information for visiting the parks.

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Maybe find your park tomorrow.  In honor of Martin Luther King, entrance into all National Parks is free on January 18th.  Take a hike, create a memory, laugh with your family, and maybe you’ll find your favorite park too.

Happy Trails,

~Cassie

 

Muddying it Up in Big Bend National Park

I’ve been organizing some old photos from our 2011 trip to the National Parks in the Southwest.  One of the great surprises of this trip was Big Bend National Park.  It may be a one of the lessor-known parks, but we loved everything about it… the smells, the silence, the window views, the wide-open spaces, the hot springs, and of course, the one and only, Ranger Dan.

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But what we loved most?  Playing in the mud!!

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Our hike along the Santa Elena Canyon trail on the banks of the Rio Grande started off ordinary enough.  But then the magic happened.  The magic of what kids do when they have the freedom to just… be kids.  They discovered a particularly muddy bank next to the rock face and the antics began:  the chasing,  the swimming, the slipping, the climbing, the laughing, the playing.  Even my 13 year old daughter had a blast with her younger siblings.

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And when we climbed out of that particular section of the trail, into the wide-open mud-flats along the river, they were actually crawling their way across the bank on their hands and knees, playing mud monsters.   I thought at first the well-dressed Japanese tourists were shunning me and my parenting methods as they watched my children crawl their way back to the car caked in mud from head to toe, but soon enough one of them pulled out his video camera and started recording their hilarious progress.  We were all, adults and children, Japanese and American, sharing the laugh together.

I will never, ever, ever forget that day.  What is one of your favorite National Park moments?

~Cassie

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Our Backpacking Debut: Part 1

“You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”  ~A.A. Milne

Can we do it?

The question rolled through my head for months.  My family of five on a four day backpacking adventure in an unknown park, two thousand miles away, without experience, and without a guide was a somewhat overwhelming adventure to plan.

But my kids were undaunted.  As soon as I said “backpack” they were assured of their success before I even had the opportunity to convince them.  The challenge exhilarated them, and inspired visions of Alaska wilderness survivors naked and fishing in streams as they built brush fires by rubbing two sticks together.   Thank you reality TV.  However, the adults in the household were teetering on the far side of fear.  My husband had nightmares of kids falling down cliffs and I did the mom thing where every potential danger is magnified to a situation of certain doom.

I mean, we were planning to hike 45 miles!  Someone was bound to twist an ankle, strain a muscle, tear a ligament, or simply collapse under the weight in a fit of tears and irrevocable stubbornness.  Or what if one of them became dehydrated, or suffered heat exhaustion, or got sick from water contamination?  What if we had a bad reaction to the insect bites we were sure to get?  What if we ran out of food, or couldn’t find water when we needed it?  What if we were eaten by wolves in our sleep?  I mean, anything could happen.

And there’s no doubt about it, anything could happen.  But is that reason enough to not do it?  I guess we all need a challenge at some point.  I mean, we’re American, it’s practically part of our moral code.   Eventually, I stopped worrying, started planning, and set my wild fears aside.  We talked safety, we read, and we prepared for the trip of a lifetime.   For in the end, a complete four-day immersion into the incredibly wild and remote wilderness of Isle Royale National Park is worth every bit of effort, and bravery, it takes to get there.

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2014 – Isle Royale National Park, Greenstone Ridge Trail

Getting Prepared

One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries.”  ~A.A. Milne

Surprising discoveries are always nice, but not with your kids, in the middle of an unknown wilderness, with no cell service, two days hike from any help.  Be prepared for this trip.

Logistically, you have to think of this almost as planning for a trip within a trip.  Our entire 2014 road trip consisted of 33 days, 8 states, and seeing everything from parks to skyscrapers.   However, more people visit Yellowstone in a day then do Isle Royale all year, for good reason.  It is remote, difficult and expensive to get to, and fairly short on comfortable resources.  Do not expect ice cream shops and clean restrooms evenly distributed across the backcountry.  There are no motor powered vehicles allowed on the island, and in fact, if you can’t walk or paddle to it, you aren’t going to see much beyond the visitor centers.  Everything you need has to be carried in, and out.  However, there are other things infinitely more valuable to be found here:  untouched wilderness, astounding beauty, and solitude.

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2014 – Getting ready to cross Lake Superior!

Here are a 5 tips for getting prepared for Isle Royale:

1. Decide how long you will be on the island.  Spend some time studying trail maps and websites in order to determine which route you want hike and how long you think it will take.  Tally the number of miles you plan to hike each day and where you expect to camp each night.  I chose the Greenstone Ridge Trail, divided among four days.

2. Purchase your ferry tickets as soon as you’ve decided the dates that  you will be travelling to and from the island, as space fills quickly.   Unfortunately, this will not be a cheap park to visit.   Round trip ferry tickets for the five of us cost $700.  Then, you will have to pay a per person, per day, park fee in cash to the captain when you board the ferry.   Our fees came to about $60.

3. Acquire your backpacking gear:  a backpack with water bladder (for each hiker), a backpacking stove and fuel (nobody is gong to carry that huge Coleman double burner across an island), and the water filter are the absolute necessities, each ringing in at about $100.   Also, if you haven’t purchased durable hiking boots yet, now is the time.  Taking care of your feet is the most important thing.

4. Decide everything else you are going to carry in your packs.  I used the Isle Royale backpacking list that is on their webpage, as it is concise and tailored to the conditions on this Island, but you can find packing lists anywhere.  Aside from food, sleeping bags, and proper clothing, these are the things I would definitely not leave without:

  • Bug Repellant – and maybe even a face net.  Be prepared to do battle with an army of insects.
  • A small first aid kit – We used a lot of Cortaid and Ibuprofen.
  • Sandals – being able to remove your boots and wear a pair of sandals around the campsite is your new definition of bliss.
  • Cook pot, cup, and spoon – for boiling water, eating, and hot drinks
  • A plastic bag – for your dirty clothes.  They stink.  A lot.

5. Finally, before you leave home, make sure that everything you need, you’ve acquired, that everything you’ve acquired actually fits in your packs, and that once the packs are filled, every hiker can lift and walk in their pack.  Cheryl Strayed taught us all that this is no joke.  If you wait until you are on the island to pack and lift your backpacks for the first time, you might just turn around and take the very next ferry back to the mainland.

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2014 – Andy’s head net kept the bugs off and made him really happy while hiking!

You will have to make a decision about a tent.  All the really helpful and lovely people at REI will rightfully suggest for you to purchase a backpacking tent because they are very lightweight and take up much less space in your pack.  However, we had already spent a small fortune on this hike and decided to use our perfectly good, extra-large, pop-up, six-person car camping tent instead of buying two new backpacking tents.  We split the poles, the rain cover, and the tent body among our five packs.  Yes, we sacrificed weight and bulk in favor of frugality.  This may be the cardinal sin of backpacking.

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Many of our camp neighbors were laughing at our “huge” tent! ~2014 Isle Royale N.P.

Plan your meals for each day to determine how much food to pack.  We ate our last handfuls of dried fruit at our very last rest on our very last day.  I would advise carrying a little extra.  Instant oatmeal packets were great for breakfast.  For dinner, we split three dehydrated meals between the five of us and found it to be plenty.  For lunch and snacks we carried granola bars, beef jerky, dried fruits, and trail mix.  Make sure to add some M&M’s into your trail mix!  It was very motivating to have that little bit of chocolate during an afternoon rest.  Finally, make sure to carry hot chocolate or tea packets.  Whether it’s the end of the day and the total and complete exhaustion has set in, or a cool morning where you’re trying to get your sore muscles moving, the hot drinks are incredibly warming and comforting.

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2014 – Packed and Loaded:  Four days of gear, food, and clothing for five people.

Should We Practice?

When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure than an Adventure is going to happen.” ~A.A. Milne

Uhhh.. Yes.

Physically getting ready for backpacking takes time, and nothing prepares your muscles and joints for carrying the extra weight through day after day of hiking, unless you do it.

I planned on getting our backpacks and gear by April, and then doing progressively longer hikes together on the weekends with the weighted packs.  Great plan.  Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to great plans.  Extenuating circumstances like travel ball schedules, homework, real work, summer camps, and every other thing that pops up when you have three kids got in the way.  I think we bought our last backpack and pair of boots two weeks before the trip.  In an act of final desperation, the weekend before we left I forced everyone to drop what they were doing so we could go for a hike and at least try everything on.  Predictably, it rained and we couldn’t find the trailhead.   Thank you procrastination gods for that one last lesson in planning ahead.  We were “suddenly” out of time.

Within a few days, the house-sitter arrived, the truck was packed, we drove for 48 hours into the Eastern horizon,  saw a Twins game in Minneapolis, fished in Voyageurs, canoed Boundary Waters, relaxed at the Grand Marais Fisherman’s Picnic, packed our gear, and then boarded the ferry.  We had arrived.

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2014 – Arriving at Windigo!  The before picture.  So very excited for the unknown!

I’ll be back soon with the story of our adventure!

Happy Planning!
~Cassie

 

A Southwest Road Trip Itinerary

I am excited to be publishing my 3rd itinerary!  It’s difficult to think of just one word that sums up the places we saw in the Southwest…  perhaps Vast.  Timeless.  Humbling.  Beautiful.

I will never forget the rock formations of the Chiricahuas which seem forgotten by time and society, but are waiting to amaze you, strewn out in the middle of a lonely desert; or when we ran wild across the endless stretches of dunes at White Sands -a breathtaking, other-worldly experience; and swimming in the hot springs at Big Bend, watching the vast night sky with more stars than we thought possible rotating around us.  It was a simultaneously humbling and exhilarating experience.  Watching the hatchling sea turtles released on the shores of Padre Island at dawn was such an inspiring statement of hope, and somehow you walk away from it with more faith in life.  The Johnson Space Center of Houston reminds you of how far we have travelled, and walking the ruins of Pecos and Bandelier in northern New Mexico reminds you of how very long we have been travelling.  And the Grand Canyon, a place where you can watch millions of years pass by in a single moment of time.  It almost takes your breath away.

You can find and download this itinerary here by clicking on the Itinerary #3 Heading.  I hope you find as much enjoyment and inspiration from this trip as we did.  And no matter where you are planning to go this summer, I hope you are indeed making plans to travel.

Happy Trails
~Cassie

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Grand Canyon National Park, 2011

5 More Reasons to Visit Olympic National Park

Are you planning for next summer yet?  Looking for a National Park that has it all?  Olympic has a little bit of everything and a whole lot of amazing.  Focusing a trip around this park will add interest for every single person in your family, and if I had to pick a Top Three favorite parks, without a doubt, this one would be on that list.  Here are my top five reasons why.

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1. Hurricane Ridge, O.N.P.  This is the view.  Don’t miss it.  Our first night inside the park we camped at Heart O’ the Hills.  It is a beautiful campground nestled among the dense Montane Forest, and immediate access to the adventurous Heart O’ the Forest Trail.  The next morning we awoke and drove up to one of the great Olympic Peaks at Hurricane Ridge.  Prepare to be amazed!  This view reminds us that there are places in America that can rival any scene over seas in beauty and grandeur.  The deer in velvet walking around us, the high alpine meadows full of blooming wildflowers, and the tree line framing the ocean of snow-capped peaks as far as you can see, made this one of the most beautiful days of our entire thirty day trip.

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2. Hoh Rainforest, O.N.P.  Yes, America has a rainforest.  Specifically a Northwest Temperate Rainforest, and it is soggy and green and lush and incredibly beautiful.  There are an infinite number of things to do here.

You can take a ranger walk to learn about this incredible forest ecosystem.
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You can climb on a colonnade of Sitka Spruce.  What is a colonnade?  Read about them here.
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You can read a book under the great green canopy that filters the afternoon sun.
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Or let the kids play in a shaded green meadow.
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You can engineer a rock canal in a glacier river.
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Or wade along the bank of it’s icy waters.
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You can take an early morning hike.
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Or find a hidden rock waterfall, and just see what happens while you are there.
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Just be there.  This incredible forest is full of the bountiful gifts of nature.

3. Rialto Beach/Mora, O.N.P.  The nourishing and dense coastal forest of the this park give way to the sprawling rocky beaches of the Olympic Penninsula.  These beach scenes are framed with the pounding surf, the rocky tidepools, the giant driftwood that washes ashore, and the distant, rocky sea stacks off the beach.  It is perfect place to romp and explore and just let the kids run free.  Bring a picnic and take the afternoon to enjoy the unique ecosystems along this coast.

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4. Forks, WA.  Do you have a tween in your household?  Although this obviously does not have universal appeal, sometimes the best motivation for getting your tweens and teens outside in the woods, is to take them somewhere they really want to see along the way.  For us it was Forks.  Oh yes, the year we came to the Olympic Peninsula, my eldest daughter was deep into Twilight obsession mode, and we did it all:  Port Angeles, Forks, and LaPush.   We saw Bella’s car, Bella’s home, Edward’s home, the hospital, the high school, and a few other settings sprinkled throughout the books.   I have to applaud the town of Forks.  Not only have they graciously embraced all the Cullen crazed visitors into their town, they have gone out of their way to re-create the magic of the book’s setting for Twilight fans around the country.

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5. Seattle, WA.  Part of planning a long summer vacation, is making sure that there is highlight for everyone in the family to enjoy, and seeing one of the country’s most unique cities might be more appealing to some than spending days sleeping on the ground and hiking in the woods.  Maybe.  Either way, Seattle is the gateway city to the Olympic Peninsula, and you should take advantage of your proximity to spend a couple days in the city.   Take a flight up to the top of the Iconic Space Needle and enjoy breathtaking views of the city and the Puget Sound.  Let the kids romp around the Seattle Center, splash in the fountain, and take a whirl on the carnival rides.  The Experience Music Project is a unique, world-renown museum that any music lover in your family will enjoy.  The Pacific Science Center, the Seattle Aquarium, and the Woodland Park Zoo are also fantastic outings for the whole family that offer enjoyable interactions with nature.  And what is a trip to Seattle without a stroll through Pikes Place market?  Pick up some meat on a stick and bury your nose in the beautiful flower bouquets.  Sports fans would love to catch a Mariners or Sounders game and the family history buff will enjoy the incredible Museum of Flight, our absolute favorite museum in Seattle.  There is something for everyone here.

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All in all, I don’t think there could be a better focus for your first trip to the Pacific Northwest than Olympic National Park.  Remember, our entire northwest trip itinerary is posted here.

Happy Planning!
~Cassie

A Living Shrine

Happy Veterans Day.  I sincerely want to thank all of those who have served our country.

Have you been making your plans for next summer?  I thought today would be an appropriate moment to mention beautiful Kings Canyon National Park, which is found next door to Sequoia National Park.

Kings Canyon is home to the General Grant Tree.  In 1926 it was declared by Calvin Coolidge to be our National Christmas Tree, and in 1956 President Eisenhower dedicated it as a memorial for all those who died in war.  The breathtaking General Grant is our nations only living shrine and the 3rd largest tree in the world.

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2009 Kings Canyon National Park – General Grant Tree

Nestled among the other Giant Sequoia found in this park, General Grant Grove is a lovely place for a walk and a little contemplation on some  of nature’s most extravagant gifts.

Happy Trails.
~Cassie

We have a Mountain to Climb!

I’m sure your kids have never complained about going for a hike in the woods, but mine do.. every single time.  So why all the hiking?  By now you might have noticed that most of my itineraries are centered around us doing a hike or five wherever we go.   However, I’ve learned the most important secret in the history secrets to hiking with kids.  Are your ready?  Here it is.  Once they are on the trail, they will stop complaining.  Every. Single. Time.

It’s all in the presentation of the task.  Kid’s love stories of superhuman hero’s and great epic journey’s.  They watch characters overcome incredible odds in their favorite movies.  Giving them the opportunity to accomplish their own great adventure, will not only inspire them to greatness, but will allow them the freedom to enjoy it without judgment.  They will create games, splash in the creeks, play in the mud, climb on the trees, and sometimes even stare in awe at the views.  And they will return stronger, more confident, and with a more adventurous spirit, ready to take on the next of life challenges.

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2010, Mt. Rainier National Park – Hiking the switchbacks up the Rampart Ridge Trail

Let’s talk about Mt. Rainier, one of my most favorite National Parks.  Why?  The hiking. The woods.  The smells. The views.  Everything is beautiful here, the hikes are challenging, and there is just so much to see and do!  We camped at the lovely Cougar Rock campground for three nights which gave us time for two very full days of exploring.

We kicked off our first day with the challenging Rampart Ridge Trail, a steep 4.6 mile loop!  Though the twins were only six at the time, they not only hiked up the endless switchbacks, but climbed on trees, dunked their heads in running streams, raced to the top, and made up silly games along the way.  Everyone completed the grueling uphill portion of the hike, we had fun doing it, and at the top we were rewarded with this priceless view of Mt. Rainier!

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2010, Mt. Rainier National Park – View from the top of Rampart Ridge Trail

After a long, lazy lunch we set out for our second hike of the day, a lovely romp along the famous Wonderland Trail to Carter Falls.  Although the waterfall was beautiful and well-worth the hike, our favorite part was crossing the Nisqually River!  This river was formed from the runoff of melting glaciers and so it is very wide and shallow with lots of boulders to climb around on and mud to play in.  The kids found endless ways to play on it’s rocky banks and we soothed our aching feet in the icy blue runoff waters from the mountains glaciers.  (If you like science, be sure to check out Rock, Ice, Life for a lot of ‘sciency’ information about this river and other features in our Northwest National Parks.)

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2010, Mt. Rainier National Park – Fun on the trail.  Fun on the river.

We began Day 2 at the visitor center in Paradise.  The paradise area of the park is well.. paradise.  It was still covered in snow in July, so we especially enjoyed the cozy visitor center while we explored all the exhibits and learned more about Mt. Rainer.  Our first hike of the day was the Nisqually Vista Trail, a 1.2 mile loop through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the park.  Although the hike was fairly short, it was exhausting trampling through more than a mile of snow!  And once again, although the kids were less than enthusiastic about a morning hike, once they were on the trail they had a lot of fun.  I mean, it’s snow!  Kids love snow.

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After lunch in Paradise, I overheard some strange mutterings of “No more hiking mom!” but I assumed they were somebody else’s children and we rode the Mt. Rainier Shuttle bus to our last hike in the park.  Comet Falls.  320 feet of breathtaking splendor!  The trail was only about a 4 mile round trip loop, but the hike to the Falls is a strenuous and steady 1.8 mile uphill trek, and half-way through a thirty day camping trip, not to mention spending the last couple days on the trails, the kids were a wee bit exhausted.  Once again, they approached the trailhead with all the exuberance of turkey’s on Thanksgiving.  Shocker.  I have to give them credit though; this time they came up with a whole host of alternative activities, but in the end what were my options?  Let them spend this beautiful afternoon in the wilderness sleeping in a tent?  No Way.  I found ways to get them laughing at me instead of dwelling on thoughts of quitting, and before they knew it, we were a quarter mile into the trail, they were resigned to finishing the hike, and suddenly they were just enjoying the simplicity of the moments, as children do.

Our path to greatness… setting out for Comet Falls.
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Climbing our mountain.
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A little rest…  I’m going to assume that look means “you’re taking another picture” instead of “why are we doing this?”
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Getting closer…
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Our first incredible glimpse of the plunging Comet Falls.
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We made it!  Standing at the base of the falls we could feel the pounding water through our feet, the powerful spray on our face, and the thrill of accomplishment running from head to toe.  Amazing.
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If the kids had given up before we even started, they would have missed this single irreplaceable moment.  This moment to learn that the most rewarding things in life, are often the most challenging.  It’s not something that can be learned through words; it has to be experienced.  I will never, ever forget that day.  The smiles on their faces.  The adrenaline that returned them swiftly back to the trailhead.  The laughter on the way home.   And for this reason, Mt. Rainier will always be one of my most favorite of all National Parks.

Happy Trails.
~Cassie

One Lost Wedding Ring and the Best Trip Ever

What is your favorite park?

It is an impossible question…  and one the kids get asked often.  But, all the parks were established to preserve an incredible part of the country, and not just any place… but the highest! The deepest! The longest!  The most!  The best!  There is something magical about all the parks.  Something that transcends the efforts of getting there.  We’ve now been to 27 National Parks; we’ve spent the night in a tent, hiked a few trails, gotten dirty, explored a wilderness, learned something new, and seen something amazing there.  We’ve learned a lot about these parks, and we all have fond memories of each stop along our trips for unique and various reasons. So, how do you pick the very, very best?  Your most favorite?  How can you rank the dense wilderness of Sequoia against the vast sun-beaten grasslands of the Badlands?  Can you even compare the alpine meadows of Glacier with the glow of an Arizona sunset on the walls of the Grand Canyon?  Or choose a favorite between the Mammoth Hot Springs of Yellowstone or the Great Bat Caves of Carlsbad or the flowing Volcanoes of Hawaii?  I don’t know that you can.

We do each have a few favorites through.  It’s like books.  I don’t think I can pick my most favorite.  But, I can pick my top three, hmm… or maybe I’d have to go with a top five.  Either way, there are a handful of parks that I hold very near and dear to my heart, not just for their beauty, but for some of the experiences we’ve had there.  Three of my most favorite are included in the Northwest Itinerary:  Rainier, Olympic, and the Redwoods.  So, although I can’t pick a favorite park, I think I can pick a favorite trip.  Not only does the Northwest Itinerary include six incredible parks, but it also includes some other locations that make this itinerary special:  the beautiful Lake Chelan, the pristine San Juan Islands, the culturally unique cities of Seattle and Portland, and the absolutely breathtaking Oregon coastline.   Not to mention that in between stops, you are driving through some of the most magnificent and productive forests in the world.

But every trip has its valley… even the Best One.  I lost my wedding ring on this trip.  It wasn’t a diamond or a family heirloom, thank goodness, but it was mine.  It was a very simple, plain, white-gold band, the one I was married with, the one I’d been wearing all those years we struggled through the early part of my marriage, and through all the happy times we shared while watching our family grow.  It was heartbreaking.  I believe I lost it somewhere in our campground at Lake Chelan, and after hours and hours of looking for it, driving away was torture.  But there’s more.  That was also the summer that we were trying to keep a flailing business partnership afloat.  I’m not sure if any of you have ever been through a business partnership “break-up,” but I think it may be as emotionally draining and devastating as divorce.  You face some of the hardest issues among our personal relationships:  the loss of loyalty, trust, and friendship.  The stress level and phone calls were enough to make us all think about driving home early.  I’m so glad we didn’t.

There are always reasons not to go, not to plan, not to spend the money, or not to take the time.  But, I’ve never yet felt that one of these trips wasn’t worth the effort or the sacrifice of being there, because this is the thing that is most important:  the time with your family.  Now it is three years later and when we look back, we don’t see the things that went wrong.  We remember the great eagle that swooped over our dashboard while in the San Juan Islands.  We remember how it felt to be standing under the powerful spray of Comet Falls after accomplishing a strenuous two mile hike up the foothills of Mt. Rainier to get there.  We remember the first time we walked over the rim and gazed at Crater Lake.  We remember our first Fourth of July in Bend, OR, a town we would come to call home.  We remember the breathtaking views overlooking the Olympics Mountain range and the laughter of following the Twilight Trail in Forks.  We remember that incredible Museum of Flight in Seattle.  We remember the salt-water taffy in Seaside.  We remember throwing ourselves down the great sand dunes of the Oregon coast.  We remember our last hike of the trip, walking through a dense fog in the middle of the Redwood forest.

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I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we all have valleys in life, just like every trip will have it’s valley.  Don’t let that stop you from taking them!  And more importantly, don’t let it stop you from finishing them.  Our first business disintegrated that summer, and I lost my wedding ring.  But, we just deal with the difficult times knowing that it’s only a low point, and that we’ll hike out of it soon enough, and onto our next mountain.  My brilliant husband has built up a better company and I’ve inherited a beautiful heirloom ring from my Great Grandmother.  And, now that I look back, I kind of like the thought of my plain gold band buried somewhere near the shores of Lake Chelan.  Maybe someday, some imaginative child will dig it up out of the mud and play a little game called “The One Ring.”  One can only hope.

Happy Autumn!
~Cassie

Paradise

Aloha!

We returned from our 5th Annual Summer Road Trip Vacation last week and now that I’ve had a few days to get the lawn under control and shuffle through a heaping pile of mail and email, I just wanted to write a quick bit about the land of Hawaii before it’s lost to me in a sea of memories tethered only by the photographs.  Yes, our National Park project finally brought us to nani Hawai’i – a combination of our family summer vacation and our 15th Wedding Anniversary celebration.  It was a special one this year, and it took us a long time to get here, but I think that’s ok.  Great even.  Sometimes it takes a long time to know that nothing that comes at us in the future could be harder than our past, and that we really are in it together, forever.

Andy, I’m so glad it was you.

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Anniversary in Hawaii, 2013.

I don’t think anything in my future could ever match the… spectrum of the last fifteen years, and I found those contrasts paralleled in Hawaii.  Please forgive the repetition for those well-versed Hawaiian travelers, but this was my first time to the islands and it obviously made an impact.  Though we only checked off four more National Parks on our countdown this summer (two in Hawaii and our last two in California), they were big ones, and worth every penny and every effort of getting there.

Hawaii is a land of contrasts:  her newest and blackest shores are birthed in the East each day from Pele’s fiery belly, while her oldest, reddest, westernmost soils rust away under the constant barrage of wind and rain and sun.  In between, she takes the shape of sharp pumice stone and delicate orchid petals, of craggy, soaring peaks and submerged coral reefs, of lush rainforests in the North and arid deserts in the South.  Her colors range from the darkest of grays to the brightest imaginable spectrum of the rainbow.  Her highest summits break even through the clouds and stand sentinel over the ocean waves crashing the beach below.  A sun-kissed man with a flowered shirt and deep creases about his eyes weaves baskets from palm leaves and speaks of ancient legends to the throng of tourists sporting Nikon cameras and Patagonia garb.  Her deceptively small islands of Paradise above the surface hide her source of great power beneath the sea, power that can not only withstand the immeasurable weight of the whole Pacific Ocean bearing down on her, but grow beneath it and produce the great web of life.

Hawaii is a land of rhythms:  an accelerated cycle of birth and death as her isles stretch desperately above the sea for nothing more than a moment before steadily sinking back beneath the waves from which they were born.  The steady beat of gourd drums echo your footsteps among her isles, usher in the sunrise and mark its set with a few moments of nothing but sound and light, between which their sound reverberates in the steady and ceaseless pounding of waves and the rhythmic stories of the hula dancers.  The wind stirs the lanai every evening.  The rain feeds the land every morning.  The tide goes out, the tide goes in, the moon chases the sun over the open sky every day, and the drums beat out the balanced dance of dark and light.  Her song becomes a part of your own rhythm, unnoticed until you cross the ocean and realize you left the rhythm of the rain and the light and the waves and the tide and the drums and the dancing women behind you, because they stay in Paradise.

Still, maybe Paradise isn’t entirely bordered by water.  Coming home to the mountains and pine trees, to our lovely parks and charming downtown, to the comforting smells of an approaching Autumn, and children anxious to go back to school was another sort of Paradise to me.  Especially with the candle burning on my desk from which I can breathe in the scent of the Hawaiian Breeze these last few days of summer.

Aloha and Mahalo.
~Cassie

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Sunset in my Paradise – Bend, OR, August 24, 2013.

Rock, Ice, Life

Let’s teach our children about the world they live in, about why the Earth looks the way it does, about why different plants grow where they do, and why different animals live where they live.  Let’s teach them about how the forces of nature have created the lands and the seas, and teach them how life is shaped to its landscape.  School will teach them the vocabulary and the process, but the opportunity for inspiration and passion to be ignited, the opportunity for the right teacher to meet the right student under the right circumstances is entirely left up to chance.  Don’t leave this to chance.  Let’s take it upon ourselves as parents to inspire passion for the world we live in.  Let’s give them just a little knowledge while they are gazing in amazement at thunderous mountains and rich verdant valleys.  Doing so will inspire the respect and wonder of nature within.  I can’t express enough how easy it is; all you have to do is talk about it a little, and what a permanent, lasting impression that your passion for the world will have on them.

Let’s get started!  Remember from my Science Friday post that I really like to have a science theme for each vacation.  I use it as a focus, like if they are going to learn just one thing on this trip, this is what it is going to be.  Throughout the journey we continue to revisit the theme as we see examples of it.  The Northwest (Itinerary #2) science theme is… Plate Tectonics!

I’m not gonna lie, that seamed a little anticlimactic.  Still, just wait until you learn how really cool it is!  (Yes, I might be modeling super-uncool mom enthusiasm here.)  I’ve also listed some more opportunities to point out unique ecosystems during the second half of the trip, using the vocabulary we discussed in the Science Friday post I prepared for Itinerary #1.  I chose this theme because the first half of the trip involves travelling up the beautiful Cascade Mountain Range, a range of mountainous volcanoes that were created by shifting of the Earth’s plates.  Our trip theme of plate tectonics gives us the opportunity to talk the kids about why the continents look the way they do and a whole lot of opportunities for them to see the evidence themselves.  I do have a very colorful powerpoint posted on plate tectonics here on my old teacher website.   However, allow me to give you a very brief explanation of the scientific theory for our purposes.

Plate Tectonics explains the large scale movement and change of shape in Earth’s plates.  The most superficial layer of the Earth is called the Lithosphere, and is composed of a very thin outer layer of mantle and the entire Earth’s crust.  The lithosphere is not one single large piece, but is actually broken into about 15 different pieces that we call plates, which can move and float across the mantle underneath them.  There are three types of boundaries between these plates and their movement gives texture to the surface of the Earth.  First, boundaries can diverge, where two plates are actually moving away from each other, like in the Red Sea.  Second, two plates can simply slide past each other as in the San Andreas Fault, which is called a transform boundary.  Third, two plates can converge where two neighboring plates collide.  If two continental plates collide, the edges will crumple and create folded mountain ranges, as in the Himalayan Mountains.  If two oceanic plates collide, one plate will subduct under another and magma will rise to the surface forming Island arcs.  Japan is an example of this.  Finally, if an ocean plate collides with a continental plate it will create a subduction zone where the ocean plate sinks underneath the less dense continental plate, and volcanic mountains will form as magma rises to the surface through the continental crust.  This last example is what formed the Cascade Mountain Range of the Pacific Northwest, which you will be hiking across throughout your Northwest Adventure!

Below are listed ways to make the science accessible to your children as you explore the National Parks on the Northwest Itinerary.  Good luck and have fun while you are learning!

Lassen Volcanic National Park

  • As the name implies, show the kids the volcanoes of Lassen!  All four types of volcanoes found in the world are represented in Lassen – shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome.  Although there have not been any recent volcanic eruptions, there are steam vents, boiling springs, and bubbling mudpots that are currently active and accessible to visitors.  Check out the Lassen NPS science page for more info before you leave, and ask the rangers at the visitor center where you can go to explore each type!
  • Make sure the kids feel the rocks!  All the rocks in Lassen originated from volcanoes.  Have the kids try to identify the different examples of pumice, basalt, and other rocks as you hike around the park.  Study different rock types at the visitor center before you head out!

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2010, Lassen Volcanic National Park – Kids climbing up a boulder blown off of Lassen Peak in the 1915 Eruption

Crater Lake National Park

  • Many children think that Crater Lake was formed from a crater hitting the Earth, but of course it was not.  The great Mt. Mazama was a volcano formed of succeeding eruptions that continued for over half a million years!  The last eruption blew so much material out of the top that everything left behind settled into a deep, bowl-shaped depression called a caldera.  Over the centuries this caldera filled with rain water and snow melt to form what is now the deepest lake in the United States, Crater Lake!  While you are walking around the rim trail and gazing at the exquisite views, talk to the kids about how this lake is different from other lakes they’ve seen.
  • Follow the paved pathway from the Rim Visitor Center to the Sinnott Memorial Overlook.  I think this is the best exhibit in the park!  Not only does it have an awesome kid-friendly video showing the growth of Mt. Mazama and the events that lead to the formation of Crater Lake, but it also has amazing exhibits on the Ring of Fire.  The Ring of Fire is a horseshoe shaped outline of the Pacific Ocean where much of the worlds volcanic and earthquake activity occur as a result of the movement between  tectonic plate boundaries.  The volcanoes associated with the Cascade Mountain Range are a part of the Ring of Fire.

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2010, Crater Lake National Park – Clemans Crew on the rim of Crater Lake.

Mt. Rainier National Park

  • Mt. Rainier is the highest volcano in the Cascade Range and the 2nd most active, after Mt. St. Helens, experiencing about 20 small earthquakes a year.  Use the information at the visitor centers to teach the kids about how we study volcano’s, specifically all the research on the seismic activity of Mt. Rainier.  Have them look at the large relief map and brainstorm how they think the surrounding communities would be effected should the volcano explode in the future.
  • There are 25 named glaciers on Mt. Rainier.  It is the largest glacial system on a single mountain in the United States outside of Alaska.  A glacier is a sheet of slowly moving rock and ice.  They are formed when the snow built up in the winter doesn’t completely melt in the summer, and then gets compacted into ice as more snow is accumulated in the following seasons.  Before you visit, have the kids watch this really excellent video that gives information on how and why scientists monitor the glaciers so closely.  Almost all the hikes in Mt. Rainier give you breathtaking views of one of its many glaciers.
  • The rivers formed on Mt. Rainier are shallow, wide, and full of all kinds of rocks and boulders to climb around on.  This is because the rivers are formed from the runoff of melting glaciers.  When the glaciers melt, they release huge amounts of rock that were trapped in the ice into the river beds, where it is gradually tumbled downstream.  This gradual build-up of rock in the park’s riverbeds is called aggradation, and it causes the glacial riverbeds to be wide and rocky.  While you are out hiking with the kids, ask them why these rivers look so different from other ones they’ve seen, and try to guide them towards some of these answers!

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2010, Mt. Rainier National Park – Climbing around the aggradation.

North Cascades National Park

  • Though these mountains are not volcanic, the shape of them mountains is partly attributed to the movement of the many glaciers in the region.  As the glaciers move, they slowly gouge out huge rifts in the land, and scrape along the rock carving the deep valleys.  As you are standing at viewpoints around the park, have the kids try to identify some valleys that look like they have been carved out by a moving glacier.
  • The North Cascades are home to tremendous biodiversity, a word that describes the variation of life within a region.  Its ecosystems range from wetlands and marshes to high alpine meadows, housing a huge variety of habitats within.  This page gives you a list of hikes to do within different life zones of the park.  Make plans to take the kids to an old-growth forest or follow the Cascade Pass Trail to the Alpine ecosystems in the park.

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2010, North Cascades National Park – Diablo Lake from the top of Thunder Knob Trail

Olympic National Park

  • The landscape and diverse ecosystems at the Olympics makes it one of my favorite parks!  The benches and trails at Hurricane Ridge give you the highest and best views of the magnificent Olympics!  See if you can spot Mt. Olympus!  Below the glacial-topped peaks you’ll see scattered alpine meadows and lakes.  Point out the treeline to the kids and explain why this divides the alpine meadows from the sub-alpine forests.  Why can’t the trees grow at a higher elevation?  What does having the trees there allow (and not-allow) to grow?  Have the kids try to identify the living and nonliving factors that contribute to the different ecosystems found in the mountains.  Another interesting thing to point out is that these mountains are also not volcanic in nature, but were born in the sea and uplifted and shaped over millions of years!
  • The Olympics are home to some incredible forests!  This page describes five different forest ecosystems within the Olympics.  Research some species that are indicators of each forest type and while you are hiking around try to have the kids find those species of plants and identify what type of forest they are in!  My favorite teaching experience at Olympic N.P. was at the Hoh Rainforest.  The Sitka Spruce is an indicator species for the Northwest temperate rainforest, which means that unless that tree is growing there, it cannot be identified as the rainforest.  These large, majestic trees dominate the landscape, as do nurse logs.  Nurse logs are found lying on the forest floor and as they decay they grow more trees where seeds have germinated on them.  After the nurse logs rots away, you’ll see a colonnade, or a row of trees that sprouted together on the nurse log.
  • The precious piece of wilderness along the Olympic coastline is full of coastal forests, rocky outlets, sea stacks, beaches, and tidepools stacked with life.   In one tidepool you could see hundreds of animals!  Let the kids walk around each of these different ecosystems along the coastline and get them thinking about the great biodiversity that is sheltered by this land.  Have each of them stand in a different spot and without moving name or point to all the different species of life they can see at that moment.  Be ready to be amazed!

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2010, Olympic National Park – A colonnade in the Hoh Rainforest.

Redwoods National Park

  • The Redwoods provide a great opportunity to talk with the kids about the importance of conservation.  Today, there is only about 4% left of old-growth redwood forest that used to cover two million acres in North America.  Go to the visitor center and talk to the kids about the difference between human consumption and conservation.  Ask them what they think is necessary consumption and ask them ways that they think we can protect what remains of this majestic forest.
  • Since the trees are the highlight in this park, take the time to teach them a little about them!  This is another great place to study populations.  Ask the kids what factors they think contribute to the trees growing so tall (some reaching 360 ft!) or living so long (some live to 2000 years old!)?  Their resistance to insect and fire damage are important ones, as well as their ability to use both sexual and asexual reproduction aid in their survival.  They also live in a richly populated forest with complex soils, and the dense coastal fog that settles in the forest during the summer months provide water for survival.
  • In order to relate the Redwoods back to our geology theme, remind the kids that this park is located about 100 miles from where three different tectonic plates are joined.  The shifting and sliding between these plates creates more earthquakes in the this region of California than any other area of the United States.

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2010, Redwood National Park – The trees, the fog, the kids. Love.

So, I realize this was a lot of science for one day but I wanted to get all the science stuff for Itinerary #2 posted at once!  We are very excited to be leaving on our 5th annual summer road trip tomorrow!  If I can find the time to blog while travelling then I will, otherwise I’ll report back at the end of August.

Happy Trails!
~Cassie