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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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 website to find hundreds of stories from park visitors as well as other information for visiting the parks.


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,



Science Friday

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

~John Muir

I realize that I’m borrowing (stealing) today’s title from NPR, but I just love the Science Friday program so much that I’m going to call it a ‘tribute’ instead.

I’m really into themes.  Perhaps it was the years of submitting lesson plans for evaluation, but I actually can’t leave for a trip without having a science topic ready to discuss as our theme for the trip.  I don’t really explain this fully to the kids because I do want them to think of our trips as a fun vacation instead of something closer to summer school, but its just so easy to incorporate science into our everyday exploration of the world.  The thing is, when you’re out there experiencing it the kids don’t even realize they are “learning”  until they start making connections with things they’ve learned at school.  Their eyes light and up and they get so excited when they can speak knowledgably about something they know, and I can almost see the new neural pathways being formed as the knowledge takes on a permanence of its own just by the activity of recalling it and/or linking it to prior knowledge.  I can’t tell you how many times the kids have been on a trip and recognized a topic from the prior school year, or been in school and recognized a topic from the previous trip!

Learning is fun, universal, and a life-long adventure.  Choosing to spend your vacations out in nature learning about the world teaches the kids this idea on a very intuitive level.  Most likely, they’ll have a better attitude towards learning, which will make them successful in school, which will ensure they go to a great college, which promises they’ll get a great job and meet a great spouse and have beautiful kids that they can support all by themselves, which in turn, of course, allows you to retire early and travel more.  See?  It all works out.

But, I digress.  This post was supposed to be about my science theme for the Southern California trip (Itinerary #1).

Today’s quote is one of my all-time favorite John Muir quotes.  This central concept in biology, that everything is connected to everything else, is a universal and fundamental topic of science.  If the kids can wrap their heads around what it really means, they already have a great foundation for studying life science as they progress through school, and through life.  The best part is that children can understand this topic at any age.

To focus on this universal idea, I decided that studying Ecosystems would be a science theme for this trip.   The study of ecosystems gives us an opportunity to learn so many important aspects of ecology.  Here are just a few things you can show your kids on this trip:

  • The connections between living things and their nonliving environment.
  • The differences between various North American ecosystems.
  • That we find certain species in some ecosystems but not in others.
  • How different species have adapted to challenges or change in their environment.
  • How different species share the resources in the same environment.
  • The different food webs of the ecosystem and how each species plays an important role in the life of another species.
  • How humans are protecting and/or changing the ecosystem.

There couldn’t be a better opportunity to teach about the diverse ecosystem’s of the United States than while exploring the state of California.  On this trip alone, there are rivers, estuaries, rocky beaches, and sandy beaches.  There are glaciated mountains, lush forests, caves, lakes, and deserts.  There is just so much to see, and to emphasize to the kids that all these different ecosystems can be found in half the state of California, I think is a very unique teaching opportunity.  Make the effort to teach them some science vocabulary as you travel.  Incorporate the words as you hike and explore and the kids will easily gain a deeper understanding of their meaning and have a little bit of a leg-up when they head back to school.  Here are three simple but important vocabulary words to ‘casually’ work into your conversations during this trip:

  • Ecosystem – includes all the living and nonliving things in an environment
    Examples:  coastal beach, forest, desert
    Conversation Starter:  How do the animals that you’ve seen on this hike use the non-living parts of the ecosystem?
  • Community – all the different species of living things that live in an ecosystem
    Examples:  different plants, insects, or mammals in a forest
    Conversation Starter:  How do all the different animals in this forest use this tree? (think of the insects, birds, rodents, reptiles, etc.)
  • Population – includes all the members of one species in a particular area
    Examples:  Sequoia Trees, Cholla cacti, seaweed
    Conversation Starter:  Where do you see the wildflowers growing on this hike?

Here are some teaching ideas for the specific parks in the Southern California Itinerary:

Joshua Tree National Park

  • Make a desert wildflower scavenger hunt for the kids.  Their website has a fantastic list of blooming wildflowers each season.  Print out pictures, label the backs, and let the kids search for them.  Mine really enjoyed it and we learned that lots of flowers grow in the desert!
  • Go to Keys View and point out the infamous San Andreas Fault, the place where the North American and the Pacific Plates touch!  Here is a fantastic website full of information on the faults in general and the San Andreas specifically.  Ask the kids what they think happens to the nonliving parts of the environment after an earthquake.  Then ask them how those changes in the environment could change the species that live there.
  • Here is a great story about a Joshua Tree named Lily.  These whimsical trees look like they belong in a Dr. Seuss book and believe it or not, kids love learning about the role they play in the desert ecosystem!

Joshua Tree National Park, 2009 – Girls working on our desert wildflower scavenger hunt!

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

  • The Sequoia trees are the largest living organisms on Earth!  Their sheer volume is mindboggling, which makes them such a great focus for a discussion on populations.  As you walk through the Giant Forest, have the kids run around and touch every Sequoia tree they can find, then ask them how they know?  Get them to talk about which features make them different than any other plant in the woods.
  • Kids love finding the very large sugar pinecones.  It’s interesting that these pinecones are so large, but fall from a  relative small tree, whereas the Sequoia pine cones are fairly small.  Anyway, this is a great opportunity to talk about communities!  Even though they’ve already found Sequoia trees everywhere, the kids can see that all the different pine cones laying on the forest floor represent a community of trees that live in the forest with the Sequoias.  Ask them how all the different trees might share the same resources (soil, water, light) in the forest.  Also, the junior ranger packets might have a scavenger hunt already set up for the different pine cones and tree species.

Sequoia National Park, 2009 – Arwen proudly displaying a sugar pinecone.

Yosemite National Park

  • The mountains and valleys of Yosemite provide a great opportunity for discussing the living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic) factors that affect an environment.  Water is the easiest to talk about and most important nonliving factor that is necessary for life.   When you are hiking around the waterfalls, point out any moss you see growing on the nearby rocks, or small plants you see clinging to the cracks in the granite, or the fish and plants living in the runoff streams.  Start a conversation with the kids about how they think freshwater influences the life they see.  Ask them where they think the water comes from, and where they think its going.  Teach them that “water is lazy” and they will remember forever that water is always trying to find the easiest (lowest) way down.
  • Glaciation is another nonliving factor that can shape an ecosystem and glaciers play a major role in forming the geological features you see at Yosemite.  First, explain to the kids what a glacier is and when they occurred.   When you are in Yosemite Valley talk about how the valley was formed through the advancement and recession of consecutive glaciers during the ice ages.  If you have the extra time, plan a bus ride up to Glacier Point and enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime view of the work of Glaciers in shaping this environment!  Here is a very informative page on the geology (study of rocks) and hydrology (study of water) of Yosemite.
  • The meadows of Yosemite are beautiful and offer an excellent opportunity to explore the biodiversity of this ecosystem.  Even with staying on the designated boardwalks and paths, the kids can see an enormous amount of life in a very small area.  Have them count how many different species of life they can find!

Yosemite National Park, 2009 – Aubrey walking in Sentinel Meadow.

Pinnacles National Park

  • Explore a cave and get the kids talking about a very unique ecosystem!   The abiotic factors (rocks, light, and water) all play an important role in determining which organisms can live in this special place!  Many children think that nothing can live in caves, but use this opportunity dispel incorrect notions and have fun looking for new critters!
  • Pinnacles is located near the San Andras Fault and some of the cave formations were actually created by the fault action and long-ago earthquakes.  Remind the kids that they saw this same fault down in Joshua Tree and that the fault line extends all the way through California.  Find a map in the visitor center to point this out.  Kids love learning about anything that has to do with earthquakes!

Well, I think that’s enough for one Friday!  Hope your planning is successful, and as always, contact me with any questions or comments!

Happy Trails!