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.

DSC_0200

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

DSC_0294

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.

DSC_0296

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

DSC_0063

Travel the US for $18 a Day

I would like to spend the next few posts focusing on the travel budget.  When we take off for thirty days at a time, we get a lot of questions about how it is affordable.   To be honest, the hardest part is simply carving out the time, which I talked about at length in Thirteen Summers.  Finding the money to take a trip like this is surprisingly achievable, and considering all the usual kids activities and family outings, we often travel for not much more than what our family would normally spend at home over the course of a month.   For today’s post, I want to outline the basic travel budget.

A budget can be the crux or the creator of freedom, entirely depending on attitude.  I tend to look at it from the latter perspective as I believe that the experience of travel is one of the most important things we can give our children.  It teaches them to take an interest beyond their own walls, to look at the world they live in from a new perspective, to gain a better appreciation for the country they live in,  to wander in the wild places,  and to feel the Earth in their soul.  However, there is also no enjoyment in a vacation if you are breaking the bank.  Among all the rising costs of living, rising taxes, and stagnant wages, a budget-friendly vacation is necessary for everyone.  Let’s look at two very different types of vacations.

If I were to take my family of five cross-country on a six night, seven day, what I would call hotel vacation, I would estimate the essential costs for this travel using the simple budget below.

The Hotel Budget…
 ACTIVITY      ESTIMATED PRICE    TOTAL COST
Airfare             $300/person                 $1,500
Car Rental      $30/day                         $210
Hotel               $120/night                     $720
Lunch              $10/each/day                $350
Dinner             $15/each/day                $525

Expected cost for 7 days of necessities is $3,305.
Average cost per day is $472.00.  Average cost per person per day is $94.00

Now let’s look at a basic budget I might create when preparing for one of our road trips.  I’ve replaced airfare with the cost of fuel and dining out with buying groceries.  Also, camping prices vary greatly depending on how many amenities you would like at your site.  A typical forest service or park service campground is only $5-$20 per night, but a KOA tent site can run you anywhere from $30 – $50 per night.  I tend not to use KOA’s often for this reason, but their pools, clean showers, and laundry facilities are enticing, and I will add a few of them into our trips in place of the more expensive hotel option.

The Camping budget…
ACTIVITY      ESTIMATED COST              TOTAL COST
Camping        25 nights (~$20 each)           $500.00
Hotels             3 nights (~$120 each)           $360.00
Groceries       $150/every 5 days                 $870.00
Fuel                ~4,000 mi/18 mpg/$4.00       $889.00

Expected cost for 29 days of necessities is $2,619
Average cost per day is $90. Average cost per person per day is $18.

Yes, you really can take the kids on a month long trip that costs LESS than a typical seven day vacation.   In fact, if we were to travel by air, stay in hotels, and dine out for our meals, it would cost my family five times as much as our camping trips. I look at it as we can spend five times as long travelling for the same price.  If you only have the time to take your family on a 7-Day trip, the camping budget will start you at $630 per week instead of $3,305 per week.  And if you have the time to take your family on a  fourteen day vacation, the camping plan gives you a starting budget of only $1,260, which is pretty reasonable for a family of five for two weeks!

DSC_0496
2012 Trip – Our trusty tent and minivan in the dusky shadow of Devils Tower National Monument, WY

Next, you will want to estimate the costs of your extra activities, or the things you actually want to do while you are travelling.  Hiking, playing at a beach, going to a ranger talk, fishing, playing games in the woods, or having a picnic in the park are all wonderful activities that don’t cost anything extra.  This is just one reason we do a LOT of hiking on our travels.

However, travelling is also about participating in the cultural activities of the area you are visiting.  You may want to eat some authentic traditional cuisine, or go to a famous theme park nearby, take lessons to learn a new skill, or see a museum that showcases an important piece of history.  I’m not saying don’t do these things just because they cost extra cash.  In fact, by saving money on our essential travelling expenses, we have more to spend on the special activities that make our trips unique and memorable!  In the table below I’ve compared average pricing (again for my family of 5) on some of the typical types of activities that we do on vacations.

ACTIVITY                     ESTIMATED COST         TOTAL COST
Kayak/Canoe Rental    $20/2 Hours                    $40
Gardens/Museums       $15/Person/day              $75
Motorboat Rental          $100/Day                       $100
White Water Rafting     $60/Person/Day             $300
Six Flags Entrance       $60/Person/day              $300
Disneyland Entrance    $100/Person/day            $500

I’ve provided a complete budget, including the extra activities, in the itineraries I publish.  Although our trips are focused on getting to the National Parks, I think its important to explore other cultural and recreational opportunities in the area.  When else would you have the time to see the infamous Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, raft the Rio Grande in New Mexico, walk the pathways of the Japanese Garden in Portland, take the kids to the top of the Space Needle in Seattle, eat TexMex in San Antonio, learn to windsurf in Corpus Christi, or ride the waves at Schlitterbahn?  As expected, these day trips do add a considerable expense to the total budget of your trip, but by saving money on travel and lodging we are able to fit them in.

06-16-11P_009
2011 Trip – Rafting the Rio Grande in New Mexico

No matter what your budget is, the most important thing to do is to plan it ahead of time, and then stick to it while you travel.  Fit in the extras  when they are possible, but remember that it costs us virtually nothing to explore by foot our countries greatest of treasures, our National Parks.

Happy Planning!
~ 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.

13.23
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!

13.50
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.)

13.10213.97 13.73
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.

14.24

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.
14.28

Climbing our mountain.
14.35

A little rest…  I’m going to assume that look means “you’re taking another picture” instead of “why are we doing this?”
14.37

Getting closer…
14.53

Our first incredible glimpse of the plunging Comet Falls.
14.54

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.
14.59

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

Tripping towards Self-Reliance

Sometimes I think that despite having the best intentions, we do too much for our kids.  I know I do.  Naturally, we want to see them succeed in school, athletics, music, or whatever else our children spend their time doing.  We want them to grow up better than we did, and to see them become productive citizens.  However, not only do we shop, cook, and clean for them, plan their activities, and taxi them around town, we also act as their alarm clocks, monitor their homework, remind them about due dates and practice schedules, organize their backpacks, double-check that they have their gym-shoes, instruments, lunches and school projects for the day, and even arrange their play-dates.  As a teacher I know that parental involvement is the number one indicator of student academic success, but I also know that there are a lot of young adults that struggle when it comes to managing their own responsibilities and successfully working towards a goal.  Although there is a lot of good that comes from parental involvement, we also have to give them the opportunity to be independent and self-reliant.  How do we do this?  Many, many ways, one of which is a “good, old-fashioned, family” road trip.

The trips described in this blog won’t actually be successful if all the work that needs to get done is dependent upon one person.  It’s like the perfect storm of chores.  When you are setting up a new campsite every few days, eating virtually every meal out of a cooler or over a campfire, and living out of your car for a month at a time , everyone has to be responsible not only for themselves, but also for assigned chores within the family.  If the kids don’t work together and take responsibility for their own selves, there are going to be a lot of serious mommy meltdowns.  After being in the car for hours at a time, sometimes fighting the stress of traffic or trying to navigate your way to a new destination, and then finally arriving at a site with a list of chores to get done before the fun begins, you have to have a system in place to make it happen smoothly and calmly.  That system is everyone knowing their jobs for the family, and being responsible enough to get them done without constant reminders, nagging, shouting, and crying.

Below is a list of ways that I expect the kids to be self-reliant on our family road trips:

  1. The kids are responsible for their own clothes bag.  I give the kids a packing list and they lay out everything that is on the list in piles on the floor.   After I quickly check over it and make sure the clothes are appropriate, they pack their bag.  Then for the rest of their trip, they are responsible for their own clothes and re-packing the bag at each stop.  It is no longer my responsibility.
  2. The kids are responsible for their own activity bag.  I allow each child to pack one back-pack with books, toys, coloring, or other activities that they want for the car rides and down time.  I check each backpack before we leave to make sure it is all road-trip appropriate, as I don’t allow electronic games, crayons that could melt, Legos, or any games with small pieces.  For the rest of the trip, they have to keep track of all their own stuff, keep it picked up, and shuttle it from car to tent and back again on their own.
  3. The kids have to keep the car clean.  Everyone is responsible for their own space and their own activity bag.  This means keeping track of their own stuff, picking up any trash in their area, and not invading the space of others.
  4. The kids have to help set-up camp.  We have setting up camp down to a science, and can generally get the whole thing done in less than 30 minutes.  Upon arrival, two or three of us lay out the tarp and set up the tent.  The other two clean the trash out the car, pick up anything that stills needs to be put away from the drive, and start pulling out camp chairs and coolers from the car.  After the tent is up, Aubrey usually goes inside to organize sleeping spaces,  while the twins run back and forth between the car and the tent carrying the mats, bedrolls, sleeping bags, and pillows that I pull out of the Yakima.  Once everything is inside the tent, the kids finish organizing it and I have time to re-organize any driving directions I had out and start reviewing the information I need for our new location.
  5. The kids have to help with meals.  They can collect firewood, prepare vegetables, and pull supplies out the cooler and boxes.  After eating they have to clean their own dishes and utensils, and help put away other supplies.
  6. The kids carry what they need for all hikes and outings.    Each kid has their own Camelback that is large enough to carry enough water for them on long hikes and has zippered storage compartments.  In the storage compartments I’ve put a whistle, small first aid package, sunscreen, and chapstick.  They can also carry their own snacks if desired, but I usually carry any picnic snacks in my camelback.
  7. The kids have to help break-down camp.  Packing up the campsite will take longer than setting it up.  We can usually have it done in 45 minutes if everyone helps.  Each kid packs his/her clothing bag, rolls up the yoga mat and sleeping bag, and sets everything they used on the picnic table, ready to be loaded into the car.  Once everything is out of the tent, Aubrey (or Andy) and I take it down and pack it up.  During this time, the kids are folding up the camp chairs, picking up trash, and putting any other gear or toys away. The kids bring me all the stuff that goes into the Yakima while I pack it away.  Then they haul in the coolers, food box, and pack the trunk.

It sounds like a lot written out like this, but once you establish expectations with the kids, and everyone sees each other working hard and doing their chores, they will settle in, work together, and get it done quite quickly.  They might even have some fun.  Getting to a new campsite is always exciting for us and we are all usually in a good mood.  The kids are finally freed from the car and I let them run around for a few minutes to explore and burn off a little energy before we set up camp.  It amazes me that the kids can find ways to make the chores fun too.  For example, they actually fight for the job of setting up the tent so they can try out silly sleeping arrangements and change who is sleeping next to whom.

100_0479
2009, Fernwood Campground – I couldn’t resist posting this darling oldie of the kids “setting up the tent.”

Ultimately, through all of the work and the shared responsibilities, the kids naturally feel more involved in the success of the family, and more responsible for themselves.  They learn to trust and depend on themselves, and that’s a lesson that can’t be learned through any other method than experience.  When you finally make it to that elusive hotel night, and you can take a long, hot shower, enjoy a soft bed and heavy comforters,  a hot meal that you don’t have to cook and clean up after, their appreciation for the simple pleasures of home suddenly skyrockets. The experiences of these long trips teach them self-reliance, but the hard work also teaches them to be really grateful for all the conveniences of home, and that lesson is priceless.

Happy Trails.
~Cassie

100_0302
2009, Yosemite National Park – Killer firewood haul.  Great job kids!