(I checked Cora's backpack last night while writing this and she packed three board books, her ballet slippers, a tiara, her maracas from Mexico, a blanket and diaper for her baby, and three small plastic princesses. I can't imagine what else you would need on a 12 hour car ride.)
~ ~ ~
So while we're enjoying Cora's maracas, I offer you this post I wrote 9 months ago as a New Year's present. Over the course of our Great American National Park Road Trip Spring Break Adventure, I received a lot of emails and comments asking about details on our itinerary, hikes, road trips with kids, etc. And since I mined google for blogs on the National Parks, looking for advice on hikes for kids, packing tips, and more before our trip, and I deeply appreciated those who gave more than just photos, but actual boring practical details on how they planned their days, I thought I'd wrap up with the same. And throw in a few extra pictures I didn't get to post yet because I already felt bad for how many I was uploading in the day-by-day posts.
And then I never finished that post and here we are on another road trip to Colorado, so Happy New Year! Now everyone should go to Utah in 2017.
Whale Rock; Canyonlands NP
Traveling with Kids
A brief intro here- obviously, James and I are big on traveling with our kids. At first it was because we didn't have anyone to babysit them overnight and we didn't want to sit at home for 10 years waiting for them to get older, so once Landon turned 3 we started planning the trips we wanted to take and just bringing them along. And truly, without exception, they have all been wonderful. From flying to Colorado to ski when I was at the firm, or budget road trips to stay in state park cabins when I first went to the government (and now a mix of our beloved road trips and the occasional extravagant international vacay), I honestly couldn't pick a favorite.
Our kids won't remember most of the trips we've taken so far- Landon is finally there and Claire is on the cusp, but to me that just isn't the point. I'll remember. Claire was 3 when we went to Keystone and she skied for the first time. Someday she won't remember doing that, but I will always remember her face as she marched off that gondola holding her tiny skis at the end of her first day of ski school- GLOWING with pride at having skied all by herself and SO THRILLED to have ridden in the "magic bubble" FOUR times. I grin every time I think of it. I'll remember Landon jumping off the rope into that raging river in Jamaica; Claire with a flower in her hair looking out over the Caribbean; Cora climbing rocks 5x her size in Utah. Our vacations consist of all of my happiest, most vibrant memories of the year. They're just a little brighter and a little more distilled than the everyday. A vacation is us away from work and school, to-do lists and chores. And there's nothing I like more in the world than just being us.
So, if you want to, just pick places you want to go- somewhere worth the hassle of packing up your life and paying to sleep somewhere else (I've never understood the "in town" vacation), and as soon as your kids (or at least one of them) is old enough to enjoy the destination you want to go to, just go. And don't feel like you have to be stuck in kiddie land- we've never done a kid-centric trip, no shows or organized games or licensed characters- I'm sure they're fun, but James and I weren't interested, so as the ones planning and paying for the trips, we've just stuck with places we want to go, doing stuff we want to do, with the kids along to enjoy it too. And the kids have always had a blast.
Road Trips with Kids
We take a lot of road trips- they're super cheap and super easy. James hates flying and loves driving and they make packing a breeze. Our kids are used to it and driving a day to reach a destination is just no big deal. I think it helps that we're anti-TV and electronics at home so getting to play with the Leap pad and watch a few movies over the course of a day is a huge treat. There are lots of ways to approach road trips, but here are some of the things we've learned over time that make them easier for us:
- Pack surprises. The kids pack their backpacks the night before and then I sneak in a few surprises- new reading books, activity books, coloring books, markers, mad libs, travel games, etc.- for them to find when they get in the car in the morning. I set up each backpack on their car seat and it's like Christmas when they get in there to open them the first time.
- Use movies to break up the day, but not cover all of it. On a 12 hour road trip the kids will usually watch 2-3 movies; it helps provide some structure, but still leaves room for coloring, chatting, reading, and talking.
- Don't stop. Some people may find differently, but in our experience, the kids are willing to give a certain number of hours to the travel experience, and stopping to let them play doesn't pause the clock. It keeps on ticking and it runs out at the same time. We've found it's best just to push through- stopping only for gas (with mandatory potty breaks for all) and then just go go go so you can get there and get out of the car and be done.
- On that note, we ration water. I keep the water bottles up at the front with me and pass one back upon request and then make that person pass it back to me. They stay hydrated, but don't mindlessly drink, requiring more stops. And everyone is happier the earlier we arrive.
- And we pack all our food and snacks. I know for some people the stop for food is a nice break, but we have found it just isn't worth it. It adds time, it's usually crappy food, and with five people (who eat like 8) even crappy food ends up costing at least $40-50. I make PBJs the night before, fill baggies with cut up fruits, veggies, and light crunchy snacks (gold fish, wheat thins, pretzels, etc.), and pass them back as people get hungry. It saves us at least an hour of travel time which lets us finish up earlier and have a really good dinner upon our arrival. (This goes hand in hand with the "no stopping"- we've found we'd just much rather get a 12 hour drive done in 12 hours and be done in time for dinner than stop a bunch of times at places that are not our destination and our kids seem to find it preferable as well.)
- Set expectations. "We are going to get up and drive all day. We'll get to Tia's house in the dark and eat dinner right before bedtime. And then the next day we're going to play and climb rocks by a river!" We don't make them dread it- they like car days, but we also make sure they understand we will watch the sun rise and set from the car, and properly prepared, they've never seemed to mind.
Hiking Trips, generally
Hiking is really just a walk with a view and generally without pavement. You don't need any special equipment or accessories, and when we first started hiking, we just wore regular clothes- jeans, basketball shorts, cropped leggings, t-shirts, tanks, whatever- with running shoes. But now that we've gone on some longer hikes in rougher conditions (like our 7.5 mile hike in 105 degree Palo Duro Canyon in August), we're invested in a few items to make things more comfortable.
- Hiking shoes. I have these and they're awesome (I also got them on sale for $50 last summer.) They aren't necessary, but when I realized a nice pair would cost less than the running shoes I was ruining and would last me forever, I decided to make the investment. Plus the hiking boots provide additional grip, foot and ankle support, warmth, and water protection.
- Pants. This was my obsession before our Utah trip. I wanted a pair of pants I could wear on hikes that weren't jeans and weren't leggings- something comfortable, with pockets, in a fabric that wouldn't snag on everything like my leggings. It was IMPOSSIBLE. I ordered at least 8 pairs from various places (Amazon, LL Bean, Athleta) and they were all too short. I finally found some at Lululemon that of course have now been discontinued, but good luck on your search and let me know if you find anything good (and LONG) and I'll buy them too.
- Shirts. Layer! I wore a sports bra, tank, and thin long sleeved workout shirt from Gap, with a light jacket I got at Academy. This was perfect for Utah in March; other times I just wear workout tops or t-shirts. James likes wearing the fishing shirts from Academy because they're loose, don't snag on anything (like his workout shirts), and they offer SPF protection.
- Hats. I hate hats, but you should wear one if you're hiking in the sun. Even I wore one in Palo Duro Canyon, though I accidentally purposefully left it in the car for all the hikes in Utah.
- Kids. The kids just wear their regular clothes and regular running/athletic shoes. We've bought Landon hiking boots a time or two as gifts and he loves them, but they're totally not necessary. The kids also layer, preferably with long sleeve tees over short because they're easier to stuff into my backpack than a bulkier jacket, and they wear hats.
Other equipment and things to bring:
Okay, back to Utah! This draft has lingered for a while, but every day of that trip still burns so bright in my mind. When we were in Mexico eating our Japanese food on Thanksgiving, we all went around the table to say our favorite trip we took this year. Every single one of us said Utah (except Cora, who may not remember it and who LOVED her new house in Playa del Carmen). Everyone should see those parks sometime in their life and we can't wait to go back and add on Bryce Canyon and Zion in a few more years. What a spectacular part of the country.
Other things I keep stocked in the hiking backpack:
- Hiking backpack. We adore ours. It's a Kelty and I impulse bought it on super clearance for $55 on eBags for James for Christmas 2011. We've used it a million times and it looks brand new. I would absolutely pay full price for one- he's always found it very comfortable to wear and he's worn it for days on end. I love that it straps the baby in securely, including over his/her shoulders, is very padded, and has a two-pocket backpack to fill with snacks, water, jackets, etc.
- First aid kit. I have a small bag that stays in the hiking backpack and is filled with band-aids, Polysporin, kids' chewable ibuprofen, benadryl itch cream, gauze and first aid tape, adult ibuprofen, and Tums.
- Regular backpack. I carry my old North Face backpack from law school and fill it with snacks, chapstick, my camera, diapers, changing pad, and two big water bottles on the sides.
- Camelbak. James bought one for skiing many moons ago and we frequently fill it for a long hike and have Landon carry it. It isn't heavy and adds to our water supply.
- Quart-sized ziplocs- handy for all sorts of things, including dirty diapers, trash from lunch, treasures the kids have found, unfinished snacks, etc. There are rarely trash cans along the trails and it is imperative to carry out everything you carry in; ziplocs are awesome for this.
- Snacks. Stuff easily eaten while moving or hanging out in a cave; trash goes in the ziploc!
- Wet wipes. Our kids will have gone on to college before I stop carrying these around everywhere, but they're handy.
- Extra socks- if it's a long hike and we're going near water, it's really nice to let the kids change socks after they're soaked theirs; not necessary, but always handy
- TRAIL MAP- we've been on a lot of lackadaisically marked trails; it's nice to have something to follow
Our Colorado/Utah Itinerary: March 12-19, 2016
Day 1: Fort Worth to Denver (lodging: Aunt Valerie's house; total drive time: 12 hours)
Day 2: Denver- Idaho Springs, Clear Creek Canyon (total drive time: 90 minutes)
Day 3: Denver to Moab, with a stop at the Colorado National Monument (lodging: Moab condo rented through Homeaway; total drive time: 6 hours)
Day 4: Moab- Arches National Park (total drive time: 30 minutes)
Day 5: Moab- Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park (total drive time: 90 minutes)
Day 6: Moab- Arches National Park, downtown Moab (total drive time: 30 minutes)
Day 7: Moab to Mesa Verde National Park to Durango (lodging: Hilton Homewood Suites in Durango; total drive time: 3 hours)
Day 8: Durango to Fort Worth (total drive time: 13 hours)
Total miles driven: 2,626
Colorado National Monument
Grand Junction & Fruita, Colorado
- Located a few minutes off I-70, the main highway you take out of Colorado to Moab
- Huge, with two entrances: east and west
- We took the west entrance, by Fruita as it was closest to us and promised quick climbs up into the mountain and straight to the visitor's center.
- Beautiful super short hikes and explorations located right behind the (great!) visitor's center; we spent a total of 45 minutes here and it was absolutely worth the $10 entrance fee for our car
- Rim Rock Drive is a 23 mile stretch along the rim of the mountain and I would love to drive it on another trip; if you enter from the east (near Grand Junction), you can drive it through to the west entrance to exit and continue on your way, but you'll need about an hour. We hope to do that next time we head to Moab from Denver (because we're definitely doing that again!)
- If you are driving from the Denver area, don't listen to google maps; take exit 214 off I-70 at Cisco, not long after you've crossed into Utah, and follow UT-128 along the Colorado River and through spectacular Castle Valley. It is beautiful and only about 10 minutes longer than the traditional drive along the two larger highways. I'm so thankful to the park ranger at the National Monument who recommended it.
- The town is small with a few hotels, a KOA campground, and a good sized grocery store with pharmacy.
- We stayed at a very nice, very new condo in Rim Village, about 10 minutes south of town. It made each of our drives a few minutes longer, but was worth it for us to have the space to sleep and spread out. The complex had playgrounds, basketball courts, and an indoor pool. We ended up using none of these because the hiking wore us out, but they looked nice! The views of the red rocks were amazing out each window and the kids were obsessed with our stairs and the fact that every room had a TV. We loved returning to our cozy home away from home each evening. (We also loved the in-unit laundry room; the parks were dusty and I ended up doing a load of wash every night. If you're camping you'll want a clothes line to beat your clothes and air them out.)
- There are some great restaurants in town; we loved the Moab Brewery (the nachos, chicken burrito, and naughty root beer were particularly delicious) and The Spoke for dessert (and what would have been lunch if we'd found it sooner)
- There are a TON of outdoor adventure activity options and tours- off-roading, zip lining, canyoneering, ATV'ing, etc. Cora was too young for any of it, and I'm kind of glad- it let us just fully explore the National Parks, but now that we've gotten a taste of each of them, we definitely plan to return when the kids are older to take advantage of the all the extra adventures.
Arches National Park (Arches post from our trip)
- 5 minutes away from downtown Moab (so about 15 from our condo)
- Wonderful for small kids. The hikes to the arches are pretty short (except for Delicate Arch, but even that was only 3 miles and there's a lookout point that's only 0.1 mile) so you get a big bang for your buck even if you stay pretty close to your car.
- We found March to be an absolutely perfect time to visit. The weather was wonderful- the highs were only in the 50's and I still broke out in a sweat each day. The sun feels very bright and I can't imagine how hot it feels in summer.
- Bring food and water. There is a water pump at the visitor's center but there isn't any food in the park. We packed our lunches at the condo each morning so we could hike to our heart's content and picnic on site, and then ate a big dinner out or at home in the evening.
- Bring sunscreen. The sun is powerful, regardless of the temperature, and I got burned on our first day.
- The Visitor's Center is immediately after you enter the park, don't pass it by (like we did). The road only has two lanes and you can't turn around until you're about halfway through the park.
- There are thousands of arches, only some of which are named. There is one main road that goes through the accessible part of the park, with a few short off-shoots to particular hikes or arches. You can see many of the famous rock formations and arches from the road or nearby view points without any hiking at all, and most of the hikes are quite short, making it a perfect park for young kids. And even if you don't want to hike, just drive through and back- the road is about 20 miles long and the landscapes are just otherwordly. And then go back at night- the stars will take your breath away.
- Cairns mark the hikes so keep an eye out. Most of the walking is over enormous, smooth rock, so they generally stand out and let you know you're going the right way.
- Our hikes:
- Delicate Arch (3.0 miles): HIGHLY recommend. As you can see in the pictures below, it is a totally different experience to see the arch up close.
- Landscape Arch (1.6 miles): Landscape arch is 306 yards across and impossible to comprehend without seeing it. That said, the hike itself isn't quite as fun as Delicate Arch, so if you're short on time, I'd drop this one in order to do Delicate or Double Arch. We enjoyed it very much, particularly when we went a little farther into some of the "primitive hike" to Double O Arch and more (not that we made it all the way to them, but plan to next time), but I'm not going to yell at anyone if they don't do it.
- Double Arch (0.5 miles): DO THIS ONE. It's only a quarter mile flat walk over sand to get to it- we let Cora do it out of the pack and then you can climb in these spectacular double arches. It's so much fun and it gives the kids the opportunity to do some climbing without any ledges or real falling risk. Delicate Arch was incredible, but I think Double Arch was the most fun. We also walked over and climbed in the caves that border it, mostly because we like caves and we like climbing and it's a fun, safe area to do it (this was also our most crowded hike; lots of families, kids, and other people all around, but they were cheerful and as excited about the whole thing as we were so it was fun). We spent more than 2 hours here and easily could have spent more.
- Fiery Furnace: the one we will come back for. I've heard this hike is simply incredible, but it's Ranger led (you must buy tickets in advance at the Visitor's Center to control the group size) and requires all hikers to be 5+. It's also only available from April - September. We can't wait to come back and experience it. The Ranger told me you can purchase tickets up to 6 months in advance, so if you're planning to go in the summer, I highly recommend you contact them early!
- Crowds: we had a line of cars that took about 15 minutes to drive through when we arrived at 9 a.m. on Tuesday; on Wednesday we drove past it at the same time to go to Canyonlands and there was no line; on Thursday at 10 a.m. we waited about 10 minutes. The hikes were very uncrowded and we had no trouble finding parking at any trail head.
- Length of stay: we found 1 day to be insufficient to see all the highlights we wanted to see; 2 days was perfect, and we even returned a 3rd time after dinner on Day 3 to see the stars, which were incredible, even just a few minutes away from the lights of Moab. I think you could do it in 1 day if you are okay seeing most arches from a distance and relying more on the viewpoints. We need to climb on and get close to things and I'm really glad we were able to indulge in a deep dive on Tuesday and then come back on Thursday to wrap it up.
Cairns marking the trail
Canyonlands National Park (Canyonlands post from our trip)
- Made up of 3 districts with separate entrances: The Needles, The Maze, and Island in the Sky. Island in the Sky is the closest to Moab and it's the one we chose. The Needles is a little further, but definitely on our list for next time. The Maze is the farthest and is recommended only for expert climbers, backpackers, and readers of topographic maps. Island in the Sky is very user friendly, with short, fun hikes and lots of magnificent view points.
- Island in the Sky is about 40 minutes away from Moab (Google maps told me it would take over an hour, but it wasn't nearly that long).
- Extraordinary views and vistas; I think Canyonlands is vastly underrated and really cannot recommend it enough. A half-day was enough time to see the highlights, do some great hikes, and eat a picnic lunch, though I'm sure spending more time would be even better.
- Very uncrowded; we saw 3 groups of people at the Visitor's Center, a few people at Mesa Arch, and two families on Whale Rock as we were walking off it.
- Bring food and water. There is never any food sold at the park, and in March, there isn't any water (they do have a pump in the summer), so bring LOTS. You're at least 40 minutes from anywhere you can buy either item.
- Our hikes:
- Mesa Arch (0.5 miles): A must do. Very easy, short hike to the beautiful mesa arch that looks out over a giant canyon. We explored and climbed over a few some of the nearby rocks, but you can stay on a relatively flat trail if you choose. If we'd been willing to chase her and keep her on the trail, Cora could have done it, but she doesn't take direction well so she was in the pack. The Arch is very different from the one at Arches and very cool because it's so low to the ground and you can get right next to it to look out to the canyon underneath.
- Whale Rock (1.2 miles): Super fun. Basically a long, giant, smooth rock laying across a mile of ground. You walk up one end fairly gradually (or climb up the steeper side like we did; if you slip, you just kind of slide down to the ground, so it's a fun challenge without a lot of risk even if I did totally freeze and have to get James to push me up) and then just run along the wide flat top of this massive rock. The big kids loved it- we were up high and they got to run and jump and play in a little cave and there was a ton of space to do it. Again, if we could trust Cora not to be insane, we would have let her out- the top really was quite flat, but the sides have a steep slope and we can't trust her to stay near us, so she stayed in the pack.
- We were kind of hiked out after Arches, so after Whale Rock we just focused on hitting the viewpoints. Our two favorites were:
- Buck Canyon Overlook: James's favorite, very cool topography
- Grand View Point Overlook: at the end of the road (a shorter road than the one through Arches), this one had rock towers coming up out of the canyons because why not?
- A must do along with Canyonlands. The entrance is minutes away from Island in the Sky and yet its views are breathtaking in a wholly different way.
- It's a state park, so you'll need to pay a separate entrance fee, but the $10 was more than worth it.
- We didn't hike here- just drove to the point at the end of the (fairly short) road and walked around. There's a visitor's center, a lookout point, and some rocks you can climb on if you go past the rails. The turn of the river is really spectacular and we found it very worth the stop.
- Another fabulous National Park. We added this on our way home so that we would spend the night in Durango and give us a head start on our long drive back to Fort Worth. Unfortunately, March is not the best time of year for Mesa Verde. There aren't any tours to two of the coolest dwellings- Balcony House and Cliff Palace. And even more unfortunately, Spruce Tree House, which is normally open year round, was closed due to falling rocks.
- Even off-season you can view the dwellings from across the canyon and there are several guided walks and tours. The museum is wonderful and the driving tour with stops highlighting the dwellings and how they changed through various time periods is great.
- Be warned: the drive is very long and VERY wind-y up to the park. I have never been car sick or motion sick in my life and my stomach was very unsettled by the time we got back down. Landon was sick to his stomach later that evening and I'm pretty sure that drive is why.
- The visitor's center is WONDERFUL. Even if you don't drive the rest of the way into the park, it's worth a stop. It's beautiful and there's so much history, information, and artifacts inside.
- If you have kids, stop at each Visitor Center and ask for their Junior Ranger activity book. The kids attend a ranger program, watch a video, and/or pick up litter (this was our hardest task! we couldn't find a SINGLE piece at either park and had to resort to just telling the rangers that we were careful to throw away all of our own trash and they let us count it), and answer questions of varying difficulty depending on age about the park, ecology, history, etc. Then you turn it in to the rangers, they review it (we found the whole thing to be taken very seriously, which was quite wonderful), and then the kids take a pledge to protect the parks, etc. and are given a shiny gold badge with the parks' name and symbol. It is AWESOME and totally free and I maybe cried a little every time they got one.
- We also invested in the National Park Service Passport books for each kid. Each park has a stamp with the day's date that you can stamp in your book, along with stickers you can buy, and I love stationery, books, stamps, AND stickers, so obviously we all have one now. You could also make one on your own before you went- using the stamps is free and you should make sure you stamp something at every park you visit.
- Pro Tip: Arches has stamps- one in the main area that is the normal stamp with the park name and date; but if you go into the little store there is another stamp with the park name, date, AND an arch! I re-stamped all our books after I found it.
I'll probably think of more and am happy to address any questions in the comments. But long story short (or, not short, as it were), Southeast Utah is gorgeous and you should go. It's like nothing we'd seen before and while we have many more places we want to go, we will absolutely be back.