Where are you Going Next Summer?

It’s a good day.  Seriously overwhelmed by the responses I’ve received to Thank You, Park Ranger this week.  I can’t express how incredible it feels to have a positive impact on the very people who have inspired so much good in my family over the last few years.  Thank you Thank you Thank you.

So here I am, feeling ever so slightly intimidated by my newfound respectable sized audience, and it’s time for another post.  Actually, I think it’s time to plan!

What???   I know, it seems early, but trust me it’s not.  It’s time.  The busiest National Parks can fill up campground reservations 4-5 months in advance of the popular summer months.  With the holidays at our doorstep, extra time for planning is already in short supply, and trust me, the planning takes time.  Early next year, you’ll want to be able to login to the park websites and reserve your campsites as you can expect an even larger crowd next season.

But, this is the fun part!  The dreaming part!  What have you always wanted to see?  What do you want to see next?  Historical battlegrounds in Virginia or the wildernesses of Yellowstone?  The Mammoth Cave in Kentucky or the Arches of Utah?  Do you want to hike the Dakota Badlands or windsurf the shores of Padre Island?  What about Mt. Rushmore?  The Grand Canyon?  The Grand Tetons?  The Redwoods?  The Olympics?

America is at your fingertips, and at this point in the game, anything is possible.

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2012 – Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

I tend to plan our long summer trips in two different stages.  The first stage is like writing a story’s discovery draft… you’re just dreaming up ideas and possibilities!  Have fun and get the whole family involved!  Your goal over the next two months is to decide on which parks (and other destinations) you want to visit and approximately how many days you want to be gone.  Save all that pesky reservation-making and logistical what-if’s for the much more labor intensive second stage.

Here are some tips and questions to help you start brainstorming:


  • The nps.gov web-pages are fabulous and so very user friendly.  Spend some extra time looking at the park map and all the headings under the “Plan Your Visit” section as they will give you ideas on things you may want to see and do.  This will help you decide how many days you want to be at each park.
  • The National Park Foundation page is also a great source of information and highlights each of the parks, monuments, memorials, battlefields, and other lands governed by the National Park Service.  I love their User’s Guide – a free download brochure of what not to miss in each region of the country.
  • My Countdown page is a complete list of the 59 National Parks sorted by state.
  • The Amazing Places book illustrates hundreds of wonderful places to take your kids no matter where you are in the country.  Get it.  Read it. Love it.
  • Check out my Itineraries page for trip ideas.  Our 2009 trip to the parks in California and our 2010 trip to the parks in the Northwest are both posted.  I hope to get the 2011 trip up soon.

Questions to ask Yourself

  • Do you want to travel across the United States or stay close to home?  Or maybe find somewhere in between?
  • Do you want to see something you’ve never seen before or show the kids a favorite place from your childhood memories?
  • What are your kids studying in American history or science this year?
  • What activities/events are already on your summer calendar?
  • How much vacation time could you and/or your spouse have by next summer?
  • Start thinking about ALL your options for carving out time for your summer vacation.  My previous post, Thirteen Summers, discusses this topic in depth.
  • How much money can you put away per month for the next 8 months for travel?  Give yourself a monthly goal and start saving today.  Seriously, transfer $10 into your family savings account right now.  Check out this website and the (plethora of others out there) that give ideas on how to shave a few dollars out of your expenses each month.  Stay tuned… new posts on budgeting for an extended trip are coming up soon.

That’s it for today! Happy Planning!

Thank You, Park Ranger

To All National Park Service Employees,

Today you are not at work, and I am sorry for that.  I wish I could do something to help you, but unfortunately the only thing I can do is hope that the government shutdown will be short lived, that the parks will re-open quickly, and that you will be back on payroll soon.   In the meantime, I would like to share a note of thanks.   I’m ashamed to say that I’ve not thanked you before.  For the past five years you have helped us, inspired us, protected us, guided us, taught us, made us laugh, and become a part of our own unique family memories at America’s parks.

You’ve ensured the safety of my family by monitoring the road, campground, and weather conditions.  You’ve watched animal movement, and taught us how to keep both ourselves and the animals safe.  You’ve maintained trail signs, bulletin boards, safety notices, and relayed vital up-to-the minute visitor information.  In 2009, after receiving a worried phone call from my husband, a Park Ranger in Sequoia National Park even hunted down my kids and I just to make sure we were ok.   A few days later we were in Yosemite National Park and another Park Ranger took the time to stop by our campsite and invite us to a twilight ranger walk.  He made the effort to get to know my kids, taught them a game and made them laugh, and during our walk together he even inspired a five year old to see the great mystery and beauty of a park meadow.  Thank you for making our first experience at the parks a great one.

2009 – Yosemite National Park

You have guided us through so many beautiful places and taught us about why they are preserved.  We have followed you through underground caves, mountain passes, over rivers, and on forest trails.  You have taught us not only the names and locations of the plants and animals that live within the boundaries of the parks, but also about the unique roles they play in the environment.   You have humored my kids as they always, always, push through to the front of a group and nag you with dozens of questions and tell you their stories as we hike along together.  You’ve listened to them, just as much as you’ve talked to them.  Thank you.

2010 – Olympic National Park

You’ve taught my children that learning is fun!  Not only do you incorporate funny voices and crazy animal imitations into your fireside chats, but you also make our trips memorable with your incredible park ranger stories.  You’ve included life long learning into your career simply because you love the outdoors and you love our parks, and we get to witness your passion for the wild places on every trip.  You’ve served the people of our country every single day by making our lives a little bit better, and a little bit brighter.  Thank you for being such a phenomenal example to all of us.

2011 – Big Bend National Park

You have shared your hands-on knowledge with us as we’ve listened to your ranger talks all over the country.   You have let us touch, see, smell, and hear the whisperings of our country’s great wildernesses.   You’ve taught us about the indicator species of different forests, about endangered species protected within park boundaries, and about our changing climate and disappearing glaciers.  You’ve told us about what it’s like to work at the parks and the usually funny but always rich stories of how the parks were established.   You are always patient and happy to relay the information you have learned through your training and your travels.  You’ve taught us that learning takes a lifetime.  Thank you for your priceless service.

2012 – Glacier National Park

You took every single Junior Ranger badge seriously.  I know this could not have been easy, with three excited kids in front of you after you’d probably already seen a dozen of them that day alone, repeating the same information over and over and over… but you made them feel important, and you took the time to ensure that they not only learned something, but that they would remember what they learned.  You greeted them with patience and laughter.   I remember a crowded visitor center at Hawaii Volcanoes,  and there were pushy adults trying to vie for your attention over the heads of the kids.  You made the adults wait in line while you taught something to my children.  It made them feel connected to you,  made them feel connected to their park, and maybe it even gave them a glimpse of how important they are to the future of our nation’s park service.  Thank you.

2013 – Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Thank you for always being there when we come to visit.  Thank you for your time.  Thank you for your inspiration, information, protection, and passion.  Thank you for sharing the Nation’s Greatest Treasures with us.  Thank you for everything.  We hope to see you again very soon!

Happy Trails.

7 Ways to Remember

Last weekend the whole family set out for our first trail hike of the summer!  I’m ashamed to say we haven’t been out prior to this, but our Spring evenings and weekends have been filled with many dozens of softball and baseball games.  This time of year in Central Oregon is beautiful.  The snow is melted, the mosquitos are gone, the forest paths are springy and damp with wet pine needles, and the smell of rain and pine resin lingers in the crisp wintery air, which ever more frequently tastes sweetly of summer.  Black Butte is a fairly steep two-mile uphill climb to reach the top, but instead of the expected grunts and groans  as we ascended, walking the trail instantly transported the kids back to last years adventures, and they began telling a bunch of our “remember when” stories from previous trips.  That’s one of the great things about travelling together.  The very act of sharing those memories year after year strengthens your family bonds.

I started thinking about some of the traditions we’ve come of up with over the years that help us remember all the things we’ve done, and that provide some connection between our annual summer trips.   While I’m still in the beginning stage of this blog project, I thought it would be a good idea to take a moment to share some of the things we’ve started doing to preserve our memories, and some things I wish we’d been doing since the very first road trip.  Perhaps one of these ideas will work for one of you!

1.  Postcard Collection  Allow each child to pick out their favorite postcard for every single stop on your itinerary.  It’s such a simple thing to do as there are 3/$1 post card stands everywhere.  I get them a postcard from every park, museum, town, cultural site, or any random, cool place we stop that we want to remember.  The beauty of the road trip is that you get to see more than your final destination, so reinforce that with the kids!  Have them write a date on the back, and a couple words about their “mountain” for each place.  When you get home you can collect these in a special photo album, or even a dedicated shoe box.  Think of the collection the kids will have after so many years of travel!

2.  Map Collection  Our family really loves maps.  I especially love the NPS maps you get when you enter each National Park.   They are printed beautifully in color and are full of so much information about each site.  The NPS publishes them for National Parks, Monuments, Seashores, Battlefields, basically any site within their jurisdiction.  One side is a full map of the park and includes important landmarks, trails, and other park logistic information.  The other side of the map usually describes the natural and cultural history of the park, as well as any other distinguishing features that make the park unique.  Beautiful and free!  What could be better?   Store them in document protectors, photo or scrapbook albums, or again, a dedicated shoebox works perfectly.

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3.  Sticker Collection  Decorate your Yakima!  Even if you don’t like bumper stickers on your car, show off where you’ve travelled by putting stickers of the all the places you’ve visited on your storage rack.  Ours has started so many conversations about the places we’ve been, and the kids love picking them out and seeing the stickers all year long!

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4.  First Photo  Take a photo of the kids at every National Park entrance sign.  The NPS does a great job of having really unique and creative signs for each park.  After the kids are grown and you’ve seen all the parks, you’ll have an amazing collection of pictures of the kids growing throughout the years!  One day I will make a photo album of all the park entrance photos and give it to them for a random birthday after they are grown and have kids of their own.

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5.  Junior Ranger Badges  There is a Junior Ranger Program at every national park. Immediately go to a visitor center upon arrival and pick up a Junior Ranger Packet.  They are usually booklets filled with word games, scavenger hunts, and conservation activities that teach the kids important things about the park.  Have the kids work on it throughout your stay and then turn them in before you leave.  Each child that completes the required number of activities will get “sworn in” as a Junior Ranger, and receive a Junior Ranger Badge.   Anyone into girl scouts or boy scouts?  It’s the same kind of program, and it’s nice to have a place to pin all the badges the kids earn.  I would suggest having a dedicated floppy sun hat, a vest, or a bag on which the kids could collect all the badge pins.

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6.  States and Capitals  What better place to store memories than the spongy brain of a growing child!  Can you even remember all the state capitals?  I can’t.  But a cross-country road trip sure is a perfect time for learning useless trivia information!  We tell the kids the capital city every time we drive into a new state, and then we reinforce the information every day we are driving there just by asking them (again and again), what is the capital of Texas, Idaho, Washington, California, etc?  I have fond memories of my Grandparents doing the same thing when we travelled with them, and I like the idea of passing on this little tradition.  Throughout each trip, we find ways to put them through a mini-trivia contest of the things we’ve learned.   For example, are all the kids arguing over who gets the last brownie?    Throw a few questions at them about things you’ve learned on your trips and keep track of who gets the most right!  Name two National parks in Wyoming.  What is the capital of Idaho?  Name three places we’ve seen that have caves.  Which state has the largest capital building in the U.S?  You can come up with anything!  We’ve spent whole nights by a campfire trying to stump each other with questions.  It’s fun and the kids learn (and remember) a lot!

7.  Travel Journal  Have the kids keep a travel journal.    We used a simple composition notebook, but it really doesn’t matter what you start with.  Make sure you have scotch tape, glue sticks, and one pair of scissors in the car so that the kids can cut and paste stuff into their notebook.  This is a great activity to keep the kids busy on the drives between sites.  Each time we leave somewhere, I have the kids write about what they did, or saw, or learned, or liked about that place.  Kids at every age can do this!  My youngest started out just drawing pictures and writing a few sentences about what they saw, but now they are filling pages with writing about their favorite adventures.  Not only does it help shuffle some of their memories into the long-term storage pathways of the brain, but it is an excellent way to keep the kids writing over the summer.   Also, by keeping the same notebook over the course of a few trips, it’s really fun for the kids to look back and see what they wrote in previous years, and to see how much they’ve improved!  They are always giggling when they read old entries, either because they are laughing at old jokes or laughing at how they used to write.  What a confidence booster for them to see how much better they are “now” compared to before.


Well, I have plenty more ideas to come later on, but I think that’s a good start for now!  I hope you have some memorable adventures this summer!  I can’t believe it’s already here.

Happy Trails!

Teaching Stewardship

Within three days of becoming a ‘blogger’ I found myself involved in a controversial discussion over the use of our National Parks and I’ve been feeling rather contentious ever since.  However, today I went to a very restorative yoga session where all we did was lay on our backs and hug pillows, so I’m  currently lounging in a state of gratitude and graciousness; much better for writing sensibly.  I think.

It all stemmed from the publication of this article by John Lemons in the online magazine Aeon.  The article essentially calls into question the idea of whether the NPS has actually “preserved unimpaired” the wildernesses it was designed to protect.  Their mission states:

“The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”

Are the footprints of humanity changing, and perhaps damaging, the land “preserved” by the National Park System?  Without question, yes.

If you sell ice cream, they will come.  The first time I recognized this phenomenon was while exploring the Columbia River Gorge during our 2010 Northwest trip.  This incredibly beautiful area of Oregon is packed with lush foliage, dozens of cascading waterfalls, and breathtaking views of the Columbia River.  We saw four different waterfalls that day, including the infamous Multnomah Falls.  Multnomah is a truly spectacular view, and deserving of the hype and attention it gets, but Multnomah sells ice cream.  And coffee.  And beer.  Multnomah had hundreds of visitors the day we were there, but just a short hike into the same forest brought us to beautiful Wahkeena Falls, and the utter joy of observing a waterfall in relative solitude.

Wahkeena Falls, 2010 – Jack experiencing an Oregon waterfall.

Though I respect the credentials of Mr. Lemons, and agree with a lot of what he has to say, I don’t believe the crowds in some of our parks are necessarily a bad thing.  This is why.

The National Parks protect America’s Greatest Treasures, and by greatest, I mean the places in our country that inspire great thoughts and deeds, that hold the secrets of our history, that will be our last true wildernesses, and that provide a safe, natural habitat for animals that would otherwise be lost to land development. As our population grows, the parks are never going to look like they once did.  We can accept that, and then focus on ensuring the least destructive ways to accommodate the visitors, or we cannot accept it and continue to fight a battle of ideals while the hotel and dining concessioners plan their next move.  I want the parks to be visited, because it is the parks themselves that inspire stewardship, and that is what we so desperately need in the next generation.

Stewardship is an internal awareness of ownership and obligation.  Merriam-Webster defines it as the “careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.”    Our children today are much more well-versed in conservation than we ever were.  They are exposed to regular news stories on global warming, deforestation, and polluted resources.  They complete endangered species projects at school.   They recycle everything.  They go to high school and participate in mock panel discussions and lab simulations over the problems associated with an exponentially growing world population and finite resources.

Yet, despite being knowledgeable, how many of them will grow up to really care enough to put that knowledge to good use?  How many of them will grow up to feel ownership and responsibility for our wildernesses?   As our population grows, the decisions required to maintain our parks and other wild places are going to become more and more unpleasant.  How can we ask them to fight these battles, make the tough decisions, and to forge new pathways in conservation if they are not passionate about saving them?  Our country will need both leaders and voters that are truly inspired by nature, that consider themselves stewards of nature.  The only way to teach this is to get our children outside.  Stewardship has to come from experience, because only then will you know what you are missing if it is gone.

So yes, the crowds at Multnomah can be frustrating, but they don’t take away from the absolutely awe-inspiring spectacle of the plummeting waterfall.  If people want to meet their friends and family there, get married there, photograph or picnic there, I think it’s fabulous.   The same goes for Yosemite Valley, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and Old Faithful of Yellowstone.  In fact, with so many man-made attractions vying for their attention,  a few well-known spots in nature that will turn our children’s heads the other way are a good thing.  There are still thousands more where those that desire it can walk alone for days and contemplate the connections between life.  Like here.

I would love to see the dining and hotel concessioners ousted from our National Parks altogether, or at least prevented from any further development within park boundaries.  Also, I would be completely in favor of an annual visitor cap at our most congested parks, perhaps raffled off in lottery fashion each year like our hunting tag system.  But, I do believe we have to protect our parks for the people, not in spite of them, and I think that all too often the importance of the parks to humans gets overshadowed by the more passionate environmental perspective.  It’s not just important to us, it’s vital.   Our children are growing up in a world with a constant barrage of unrealistic Hollywood movies, video games, and plastic toys, and there could be nothing more vital to their emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being than getting the kids inspired by something truly unique and remarkable in nature, something that will light that fire of ownership within them.  We must give them the opportunity to realize that the nations greatest treasures are also their greatest treasures.

Happy Memorial Day weekend to everyone!  I hope you all have a chance to step away from your obligations for a bit and find your own little piece of nature.

Happy Trails.