Tag Archives: national parks

Grand Tetons

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Our Saturday at Yellowstone was cut short as we hurried south in hopes of fitting in a visit to Grand Teton National Park before the sun set.

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Grand Teton sits just south of Yellowstone National Park by only a few miles. I have always found it astounding  how different the terrain is between these two National Parks that in are such close proximity.

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“The areas around the Grand Teton mountain range and its lakes were established as a national park in 1929 in order to protect the land from commercial exploitation. The protected area was extended into the surrounding valley in 1950. Grand Teton National Park currently covers more than 310,000 acres and is located only 10 miles from Yellowstone National Park.

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Located high above sea level at elevations from elevations from 6,320 to 13,770 feet, Grand Teton National Park is a diverse ecosystem with terrain ranging from summertime wildflower meadows to rushing whitewater streams. There are also numerous serene lakes with deep blue pools, echoing the stillness and color of the glaciers that shaped them. The wild and winding Snake River descends through the park in a rush of water and the dense forests blanketing the mountainsides provide habitat for a vast array of fauna and flora, with some species dating back to the prehistoric era.

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Opportunities for viewing wildlife abound inside the park. It is often possible to see both grizzly and black bears, gray wolves, coyotes, bison and bald eagles. Other common sightings include pronghorns, elk and a variety of smaller mammals such as the Uinta ground squirrel.”

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We arrived in the park just as the sun was sinking behind the mountains.

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It left us with little time to enjoy the park, but we did fit in a quick hike to String Lake and captured some photos of this stunning National Park before the sky grew dark…

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Mount Rushmore

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We began our second day in Rapid City at Mount Rushmore.

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“There are many ways to draw inspiration  from one of the nation’s most consequential and enduring patriotic symbols- Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. Just consider- the work of this massive carving, the largest monument in the world, was accomplished during a time of great national challenge and hardship- the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Between October 4, 1927 and October 31, 1941, Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers sculpted the colossal faces of U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln to represent the first 150 years of the great experiement in democracy that is America. What many might consider America’s greatest challenge- World War II- was still ahead, and the years to come would bring a full measure of triumphs and tragedies.

Yet today the four “great faces” continue to greet each dawn with pride and glory- an image mirrored on millions of visitors’ faces who come away from the monument  with their patriotism revitalized  and their senses refreshed by the serene and beautiful surroundings.

The mountains eastern orientation and its smooth granite face  caused Borglum to conclude he had found the perfect site for his visionary undertaking. Yet Borglum faced monumental obstacles  in pursuit of his dream. Harsh winters and inadequate funding often stalled progress. In fact, Mt. Rushmore stands not only as a rock-solid reminder of our national pride, but as a monument to the patriotism and stubborn determination of a sculptor and the local crew of miners  he guided into carving a mountain into one of the wonders of the world.

Today, the astonishment of the mountain reverberates through every visitor.

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The original plan was to visit Mount Rushmore on Wednesday evening, following a day at Custer State park, but as the day progressed the weather became progressively worse. By 2:00 pm the foggy drizzle that settled on Rapid City had grown into full blown thunderstorms. It was decided we would wait until morning to venture up to Mount Rushmore, choosing instead to head to our hotel.

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We stayed at the Rushmore Inn, a historic hotel that sits at the foot of Mount Rushmore. It was chosen for its price on hotels.com, but turned out to be more charming and delightful than we could have ever expected.

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The theme of the hotel interior reflected the name, with antique photographs and Teddy Roosevelt quotes dotting the hallways.

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There was even a Teddy bear on the bed…a toy named after Teddy Roosevelt himself.

Our room was even more impressive! We walked in to find our bedroom was two stories…a first in our years of hotel stays! Everyone was thrilled to get their own beds for the night!

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When we woke the following morning we saw that the sun had returned, although the wind and biting temperatures remained…

But we could at least make a stop at the national landmark before moving onto our next stop without getting soaked!

The crowds were minimal at 7:30 am.

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We found the park bathed in caution tape and areas under construction, blocking off many of the trails and viewing areas, but we soon found a spot that highlighted this awe-inspiring view and allowed us to take some photos of our time at Mount Rushmore.

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By the time we were leaving, the gift shop had opened. A quick stop for the kids to buy themselves souvenirs (Molly: a postcard, Braden: a dreamcatcher, and Rusty: a micro Lego set of Mount Rushmore), and we were on our way…

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Next Stop: Devil’s Tower!

 

Shenandoah National Park

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IMG_7722 (2)On Saturday morning we slept in a bit. (I love the effect of hotels’ light canceling curtains on my boys’ sleep schedules!) Then we drove over to Shenandoah National Park. The north entrance to this National Park was located in the very town we were staying in, so we couldn’t pass up this opportunity to visit another one of our nation’s beautiful national parks and mark it off our bucket list.

So different that its sister parks out west, this National Park offers unique vistas and a beauty all its own.

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In the heart of Virginia, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park protects a historic mountain landscape characterized by endless mountain ranges, dense forests, large tracts of wilderness, lots of wildlife.

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Because of its location near Washington, D.C.—it’s about two hours by car from the American capital—, the park receives plenty of visitors, many of them day trippers. Almost 1.5 million people visit Shenandoah National Park each year to enjoy the natural delights this pleasant park has to offer. And there are plenty of those.

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A long and narrow park stretched along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah National Park boasts some of the greatest mountain views anywhere on the American East Coast. From the 75 overlooks on Skyline Drive to the panoramic vistas from the park’s many mountain summits, the views are amazing everywhere.

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As an East Coast park, Shenandoah lies surrounded by high-use land. Farmlands, towns, busy highways and industrial areas encircle the park, making it a premier refuge for wildlife.

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This includes some really high-profile animals—mostly mammals, such as white-tailed deer and striped and spotted skunks, bobcats and coyotes, and American Black Bears. Those black bears are a big attraction in the park! Often spotted foraging in trees or alongside Skyline Drive, their exact numbers are unknown but said to range between a couple of hundred and a thousand, depending on food availability and the time of year.

We were blessed to get to spot one first hand when a baby black bear crossed our path as we neared the Visitor’s Center.

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(A google image of a baby black bear in Shenandoah. I wasn’t quick enough with my camera to capture my own photo.)

What a thrill!

Before we began our journey along Skyline Drive we made a stop at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center.

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Here we were able to get an overview of what the park had to offer, as well as learn a little bit about what animals make their home at Shenandoah National Park…

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Including its most famous resident, the Black Bear.

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After educating ourselves a bit on what we might see, we headed out to explore Skyline Drive and check out its many gorgeous overlooks!

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A ribbon of a road snaking its way along the Blue Ridge Mountains’ crest, Skyline Drive ties everything together. It’s the only road through Shenandoah National Park, running for 105 miles from north to south through the park. This is easily one of the most scenic mountain drives anywhere in the United States.

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It was even prettier than I expected.

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We were so glad we had the opportunity to explore this special corner of Virginia.

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We left the park by 12:30 pm, knowing we wanted to arrive at the Marriott Ranch before 2:00 pm so we could watch the return of the kids pulling their handcarts. This gave us an hour to kill so we drove into the downtown area of Front Royal in search of an ice cream shop.

What a charming town it was. I would have loved to have an afternoon (without little boys) to explore it more thoroughly.

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The ice cream shop was adorable and all the unique flavors offered there were homemade right there in the shop.

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It was a perfect way to cap off a few special days of making memories with my two youngest children.

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Road Trip Video #4

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3 1/2 months have now passed since we returned from our trip of a lifetime. With life consuming us, these days of exploration and ease seem like a lifetime ago. It was an amazing adventure, one we will look back on with fondness for decades to come.

Grace collected photos and little videos from every leg of our journey with the goal of documenting our adventure in a series of 5 (10-20 minute) videos. It has been a couple months since her last video. With all that has been going on she hasn’t had a spare moment to finish her last two videos of the trip, but last week, with the conclusion of the second quarter of school, she had a few days off and finished video #4. This video highlights our week and a half of vacation following Disneyland but before we reached Missouri. (Our adventures in Missouri will play out in Gracie’s final video.)

Some of the stops included in this vacation highlight reel include:

The Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Arches National Park, Petroglyph National Park, Four Corners, Mesa Verde, Roswell NM, and Carlsbad Caverns.

I think Gracie did an excellent job of capturing the adventure, the beauty, and the incredible memories we made as we rolled cross country in our converted school bus.

Enjoy #4!

What a Trip it has Been!

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It was almost 10,000 miles.

We traveled through 22 states.

Over the period of 7 weeks.

We visited 13 National Parks,

and hiked miles and miles of this beautiful country.

Brand new shoes, purchased at the start of the trip,

were worn clean through by the end.

A walking testament to all that was seen and done.

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For those who have forgotten or our joining us more recently, here is a recap of where we have spent the last 50 days.

Day 1: Travel to St. Louis, Missouri with a stop at the Columbus Zoo.

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Day 2: Tyler’s 10th birthday! Explore the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri

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Day 3: St. Louis Arch

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Day 4: Tour Hannibal, Missouri. Home of Mark Twain.

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Day 5: Drive to De Smet, South Dakota

Day 6: Tour Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homestead and then on to Mitchell, South Dakota to see the Corn Palace.

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Day 7: Visit 1800’s town, South Dakota.

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Day 8: A stop at Wall Drug and a visit to Badlands National Park.

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Day 9: Day 1 in Rapid City, South Dakota: Bear Country USA, Storybook Island, the Dinosaur Park, and a chuck wagon dinner.

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Day 10: Wildlife Loop at Custer State Park to see the world’s largest free roaming buffalo herd in the morning and then a visit to a mammoth fossil dig site in the afternoon.

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Day 11: Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments.

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Day 12: Check out Devil’s Tower.

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Day 13: Day 1 in Yellowstone National Park

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Day 14: Day 2 in Yellowstone National Park.

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Day 15: Visit Grand Tetons and go swimming in hot springs.

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Day 16: College tour of BYU Idaho.

Day 17: Visit temple square in Salt Lake City, Utah and swim in the Great Salt Lake.

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Day 18: College tour of BYU in Provo, Utah.

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Day 19:  Travel to Yosemite National Park.

Day 20: Visit Yosemite National Park in California.

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Day 21: Visit Sequoia National Park, California.

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Day 22: A day swimming in the Pacific Ocean at Newport Beach, CA.

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Day 23-27: Disneyland, California. This was the big surprise of the trip. The kids just found out the day before we left.🙂

Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse statue at Disneyland California. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

Day 28: Las Vegas. Tour Hoover Dam.

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Day 29: See the sites of Las Vegas.

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Day 30: Another (unexpected day) in Las Vegas.

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Day 31: Visit the Grand Canyon.

Day 32: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

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Day 33: Arches National Park, Utah.

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Day 34: Visit Mesa Verde National Park to see the cliff dwellings and stop at Four Corners monument.

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Day 35: Visit Petroglyph National Monument.

Day 36: A stop in Roswell, NM while driving past on our way to Carlsbad Caverns.

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Day 37: A cave tour of Carlsbad Caverns with my brother, Travis.

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Day 38: Drive all day to Branson, Missouri. (See David and Jen along the way)

Day 39: Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri.

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Day 40: Second day in Silver Dollar City.

Day 41: Explore Branson, Missouri and tour the Titanic Museum.

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Day 42: Branson, Missouri.

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Day 43: Rusty’s 15th birthday. Spend the day in Marceline, Missouri, home of Rusty’s hero: Walt Disney.

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Day 44and 45: Visit Mimi Joy who is serving a mission in the Independence Missouri mission.

Day 46: Visit Nauvoo, Illinois.

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Day 47: Drive toward home.

Day 48: Home Sweet Home!

For 7 weeks our family 0f seven lived in our converted school bus which was lovingly named, “The Rolling Gnomes.”

We slept, ate, did school, and traveled together in 280 square feet.

For 7 of those days our 280 square feet felt like 20 square feet as we lived without the boys’ ADHD medication thanks to restrictive state laws regarding controlled medications.

Our little bus climbed mountains almost 10,000 feet high feet and at Carlsbad Caverns we explored 750 feet below the earth.

We crossed wind swept prairies, majestic mountains, mighty rivers, and desolate deserts.

We made it to the Pacific Ocean and then turned around and drove back home.

Along the way we gained a greater appreciation for our country, and a greater connection as a family.

As a family we grew and learned lessons about ourselves, about our nation, and about each other.

We learned:

About the incredible natural beauty found in the United States of America and gained a greater appreciation for the conservation efforts that have preserved this country’s natural beauty.

On the 100 year anniversary of the National Park Service we were able to explore some of the prettiest sites we have ever seen.

In the NPS’s “Find Your Park” campaign we each found “our park…

each of us falling in love with certain areas of the country and the beauty found there.find-your-park

Here are our “Find your Park” National Park choices:

Toby and Grace’s favorite national park was Grand Tetons National Park.

Rusty’s favorite was Arches National Park.

Molly’s favorite park was the Grand Canyon.

Ozzie loved Mt. Rushmore.

Tyler’s chosen park was Badlands National Park.

And my personal favorite was Devil’s Tower.

Some favorite stops included the City Museum of St. Louis, Silver Dollar City, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Homestead, Titanic Museum , 1880’s town,

and of course, Disneyland!

We fell in love with the Black Hills of South Dakota,

and were little impressed with Nevada and California.

But the greatest revelation that came from our travels was how good the people of this country are.

We met some of the kindest people in our travels, and in all our interactions with thousands of strangers we had only one negative experience.

It was reassuring and empowering to see the goodness that shone forth across this great nation. In an era of sickening news reports and political filth, it is easy to assume that the loudest voices, the ones highlighted on our evening news, represent the majority of American opinion.

But I have found that to not be the case.

The people of this country are good…no, great.

They are moral, and kind. They are friendly and helpful.

They are proud people who love their country and long for its leaders to raise their standards and be better.

On this trip we made many new friends and the experience lit a flame of hope in me that despite the immoral, disgusting, self serving faces seen clamoring to be the representative and voice of the American people,

the people of America are so much better than the faces that represent them.

As we traveled I fell in love with my country and came home with a renewed spirit of pride in our history, our culture, and our citizens.

Through this experience I discovered a buried gypsy within my soul that fell in love with the simplicity of tiny house living and the life of a nomad.

It is good to be home…

To see the people we love.

To soak in a bathtub rather than shower in camp showers.

We loved being reunited with our animals,

But I’m already missing life on the road and look forward to seeing where the Rolling Gnome bus takes us in the future!

Thanks for traveling with us.

It has been a grand adventure!

Arches National Park

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After spending the morning at Bryce Canyon, and driving four hours to Moab, Utah, we arrived at Arches National Park at 5:00 pm. With us we brought the same heavy rains that followed us through Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon National Parks.

It seemed like we are singlehandedly bringing relief to the drought strewn areas of the west with the Pennsylvania rain cloud that we were carrying with us.

In fact we were told that we were experiencing a real phenomenon in Moab. “We rarely get rains like this,” the ranger informed us.

The rain was too heavy to see very far or to take cameras out in, so we decided to head over to our campground and return in the morning for a morning hike before we began our drive to Four Corners Monument.

The early evening allowed us to relax, organize the bus a bit, and let the kids play at the playground and game room while I fixed dinner.

The rains finally ended and the reward for our lost hiking time was this magnificent double rainbow that appeared above our campsite.

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The next morning we were back at Arches National Park early to explore the unique rock formations and arches that have made this area famous.

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Location: Utah

Established: November 12, 1971

Size: 76,359 acres

“This park contains more than 2,000 natural arches—the greatest concentration in the country. But numbers have no significance beside the grandeur of the landscape—the arches, the giant balanced rocks, spires, pinnacles, and slickrock domes against the enormous sky.

Perched high above the Colorado River, the park is part of southern Utah’s extended canyon country, carved and shaped by eons of weathering and erosion. Some 300 million years ago, inland seas covered the large basin that formed this region. The seas refilled and evaporated—29 times in all—leaving behind salt beds thousands of feet thick. Later, sand and boulders carried down by streams from the uplands eventually buried the salt beds beneath thick layers of stone. Because the salt layer is less dense than the overlying blanket of rock, it rises up through it, forming it into domes and ridges, with valleys in between.

Most of the formations at Arches are made of soft red sandstone deposited 150 million years ago. Much later, groundwater began to dissolve the underlying salt deposits. The sandstone domes collapsed and weathered into a maze of vertical rock slabs called “fins.” Sections of these slender walls eventually wore through, creating the spectacular rock sculptures that visitors to Arches see today.

The land has a timeless, indestructible look that is misleading. More than 700,000 visitors each year threaten the fragile high desert ecosystem. One concern is a dark scale called biological soil crust composed of cyanobacteria, algae, fungi, and lichens that grow in sandy areas in the park. Footprints tracked across this living community may remain visible for years. In fact, the aridity helps preserve traces of past activity for centuries. Visitors are asked to walk only on designated trails or stay on slickrock or wash bottoms.

Did You Know?

There are more than 2,000 arches in the park; to be classified as an arch, the opening must measure at least three feet across. The largest arch in the park, Landscape Arch, spans 306 feet (longer than a football field) base to base. New arches are constantly forming, while old ones occasionally collapse—most recently Wall Arch, which fell in 2008.

Arches National Park contains ephemeral pools, from a few inches to several feet in depth, that are essentially mini-ecosystems, home to tadpoles, fairy shrimp, and insects. The pools form among the sandstone basins, within potholes that collect the rare rainwater and sediment.

About 300 million years ago an inland sea covered what is now Arches National Park. The sea evaporated and re-formed more than 29 times, leaving behind salt beds thousands of feet thick.

Another unique aspect of the park is its knobby black ground cover, which is actually alive. A biological soil crust, it is composed of algae, lichens, and cyanobacteria (one of Earth’s earliest life forms), and provides a secure foundation for the desert plants.”

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We began our visit with a stop at the visitor’s center where the kids picked up the Arches’ junior ranger booklets and where we watched an informative 15-minute video entitled “Windows of Time,” about the formation of the arch features in the park.

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While in the visitor’s center we were informed that Delicate Arch, the most famous arch in the park, and one of the most recognizable symbols of Utah, was closed to the public due to treacherous trails as a result of unusually heavy rains the night before.

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Delicate Arch

 

The ranger told us all the other paths were open so we looked at the map, picked the route we wanted to take, marked the trails we wanted to hike, and set out on a fun journey of discovery through a beautiful world of nature’s rock art.

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Our first stop was Park Avenue Viewpoint for a view down an open canyon flanked by sandstone skyscrapers:

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From there we drove over to Balanced Rock where we walked the 0.4-mile trail that loops around the base of this classic hoodoo, a strangely eroded rock spire 128 feet high:

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Look how little the kids are next to it!

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Just beyond we turned onto the paved road leading to The Windows.

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There we took the 1-mile Window Trail that leads up to South Window, which is 105 feet wide, as well as gives amazing views of North Window and Turret Arch.

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The South Window Arch

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We all enjoyed the beautiful hike up to the arches.

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Except maybe Toby who ran the whole way up to catch up with us after parking the bus a mile away. 🙂

 

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The weather was perfect and we were so glad we chose to wait until the morning to see these amazing sites rather than attempt it in the rain.

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The kids loved being able to climb and explore the rock formations,

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And it was awesome standing beneath such monstrous, natural structures.

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The North Window Arch

 

It makes a person feel so small…

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And makes God seem so big when you stand beside a creation as large and glorious as this.

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We could have spent days exploring this park.

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I’d love to come back someday and hike the Delicate Arch trail, but we still had a magnificent day and saw some incredible sites…

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One of my favorite days of the trip so far!

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Next Stop: Four Corners Monument

The Grand Canyon

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“Vast, magnificent and inarguably beautiful, the Grand Canyon is easily Arizona’s most distinguishable landmark – and a natural wonder that you simply have to see to believe. Stretching 277 miles from end to end, steep, rocky walls descend more than a mile to the canyon’s floor, where the wild Colorado River traces a swift course southwest.

In the Grand Canyon,

” Arizona has a natural wonder which is in kind absolutely unparalleled throughout the rest of the world.” – Theodore Roosevelt

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Grand Canyon National Park encompasses canyons, river tributaries, and surrounding grounds. The Grand Canyon is situated in Arizona’s northwestern quadrant. With five million visitors making the trip to the canyon each year, Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. In addition, the park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. 

The Grand Canyon had a long and arduous road to becoming a national park, beginning in the 1880’s with several failed congressional bills. After making multiple visits to the area, Theodore Roosevelt declared the Grand Canyon a National Monument in 1908. The bill to grant national park status to the area was passed in 1919 and signed by then-President Woodrow Wilson.
 
There are two public areas of Grand Canyon National Park, the North and South Rims. At 7,000 feet above sea level, the Grand Canyon South Rim is the most accessible section of the national park, with numerous places where visitors can pull over to admire the views. The Grand Canyon North Rim, 1,000 feet higher than its southern sibling, isn’t as popular because it is harder to get to, especially when harsh winter weather closes access roads. By car, the trip from one rim to the other is 220 miles. However, if traveling by foot, the distance across the canyon is 21 miles via the Kaibab Trails.”

It was a shock to our systems moving from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon.

This probably wouldn’t have been the case had we visited the South Rim but we chose to visit the North Rim so we would be in closer proximity to our next few stops. As we climbed from the desert of Vegas to 8,000 feet elevation the temperatures dropped from over 100 degrees to 58 degrees.

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We also encountered our first rain of the trip since our first day in St. Louis. 

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The drive in was beautiful. The drive into the Northern entrance takes you through a forest of Ponderosa Pine and yellow Aspen trees. You have no clue you are approaching the Grand Canyon until you run into the Grand Canyon Lodge, situated right on the edge of the canyon.

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When we got out we were greeted with chilly temperatures, drizzly rain, and thick, pea soup fog. We were a bit disappointed by the limited visibility due to the fog but were determined to make the best of it and enjoy this once in a lifetime experience, nonetheless.

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“Can you see our breath?”

 

Our first stop was to the Ranger Station to walk through the visitor’s center and so the kids could pick up Junior Ranger booklets to work on while we explored the park.

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One of the requirements for earning a Junior Ranger patch at the Grand Canyon is to attend a Ranger led education program. We headed over to the lodge to sit in on one about condors.

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After the program we stepped outside where Toby and the kids caught their first sight of this awe-inspiring view. I had visited the Grand Canyon as a kid but was still blown away by the awesome site, not fully remembering how impressive the Grand Canyon is in person.

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The low laying fog prevented us from seeing the full vista, but it was still an incredible experience. We were able to walk along the rim and even step out  on a walkway that extended over the mammoth crevice.

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The walk out to the end of the walkway was heart stopping for Rusty and I. Precarious under the best of circumstances, after a day of rain the muddy walkways made the climb out to the edge feel down right treacherous.

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As Rusty creeped to the edge he just kept saying,

“Why are we here? Why are we doing this?!”

It definitely didn’t feel OSHA approved with its crumbling walkways and large gaps in the railing.

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Rusty was shocked by the complete lack of safety measures and expressed his concern with:

“Really?!! Someone could die!”

To which a passing stranger responded with a laugh, “Only if they jump.”

Seeing the risks for two impulsive boys off their ADHD medication, Toby kept an iron grip on both boys.

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The walk out was terrifying for this Momma, who is scared of heights, but the views made the risks worth it.

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WOW!

We opted not to hike, as originally planned. The muddy trails made hiking challenging and by the end of the day the boys were having a harder time controlling themselves. So we stuck close to the lodge and just walked around the rim of the canyon.

After an hour in the rain and cold everyone was chilled so we stopped in the lodge café for hot cocoas to warm us up while the kids finished their junior ranger booklets.

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We left the Grand Canyon by 6:00pm for the long drive we still had ahead of us to reach our campsite for the night just outside Bryce Canyon.

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Next Stop: Bryce Canyon National Park

Yosemite National Park

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As a child I always felt Kansas was the most painful state to drive across when we were traveling cross country. The endless flat topography and acres of cornfields left little to stimulate the senses. It always felt like that trek across Kansas was the longest part of the trip.

But that is only because we never made it as far west as Nevada!

Thursday we traveled 11 hours from Provo, Utah to Yosemite National Park, California. This was our view all day long as we drove Route 6 across the middle of the state.

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It was unreal. At one point we drove 3 1/2 hours without seeing a single building, just miles and miles of sage brush and rabbits.

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On our drive across the entire state we only saw 9 other cars.

I was grateful we had a full tank of gas and no mechanical issues because there was no way to get help if we broke down. Across the entire 10 hour stretch on Nevada we had no cell phone service. If we would have had mechanical issues we would have been stuck until some lone traveler eventually passed our way.

We finally made it to Tonopah, Nevada where we once again met up with civilization. While there we filled up the diesel tank, ever grateful for the 128 gallon tank Toby replaced the original 38 gallon tank with from a junk yard find. The boys got out and ran off some energy after being trapped inside the bus all day, and the girls took on the task of cleaning the bus windows while I boiled water for spaghetti.

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Then we were on the road again. We drove two more hours, crossing into California, to get as close to Yosemite as we could before we pulled over to the side of the road to sleep for the night.

In the morning we headed into Yosemite. This was everyone’s first time visiting Yosemite, but we had heard so many friends express a love for Yosemite National Park that we decided to make a point of visiting..

Location: California

Established: October 1, 1890

Size: 747,956 acres

“In a high-country meadow two hikers crouch near the edge of a mirroring lake and watch a pika as it harvests blades of grass for a nest deep within a huge rock pile. When they resume walking, there is no other person in sight for as far as they can see. And on this sparkling summer’s day, the view seems endless.

In the valley’s crowded mall, families stroll by, eating ice cream, dodging bicycles. People pile in and out of buses. Shoppers hunt for souvenirs. Kids hang around a pizza place. Rock climbers, coils of rope slung over their shoulders, swap stories. On a summer’s day about 14,000 people are in Yosemite Village

Both the solitude of the alpine ridge and the throngs of the valley are part of the experience when you visit Yosemite National Park. “No temple made with human hands can compare with Yosemite,” wrote John Muir, whose crusading led to the creation of the park. To this temple come 4 million visitors annually. And about 90 percent of them go to the valley, a mile-wide, 7-mile-long canyon cut by a river, then widened and deepened by glacial action. Walled by massive domes and soaring pinnacles, it covers about one percent of the park. In summer, the concentration of autos brings traffic jams and air pollution.

Beyond the valley, some 800 miles of marked trails offer hikers easy jaunts or grueling tests of endurance in the High Sierra wilderness. Even the casual visitor can explore this solitude without getting outfitted for a backpack expedition.

This park, roughly the size of Rhode Island, is a United Nations World Heritage site. Here, in five of the seven continental life zones, live the mule deer and chipmunks of the valley and the marmots and pikas of the heights; the brush rabbit and chaparral of the near desert; the dogwood and warblers of mid-elevation forests; the red fir and Jeffrey pine of mile-high forests; the dwarf willow and matted flowers of Yosemite’s majestic mountains.”

Did You Know?

Towering more than 350 stories above Yosemite Valley, El Capitan is the largest exposed granite monolith in the world.

We found Yosemite to be one of the prettiest national parks we have visited but also one of the most challenging to navigate. The climb into Yosemite National Park, through the Tioga Pass, proved to be the most stressful and trying drive of our entire trip so far. We put our bus through its paces as we slowly climbed from 6000 to 10,000 feet, through miles of switchback turns, to get to the entrance of Yosemite.

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Like Yellowstone National Park, we were amazed by Yosemite’s  vast size. It took us 1 1/2 hours to get from the Toulmne Visitor Center to Yosemite Valley.

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It was there in Yosemite Valley that we found the bulk of the visitors in the park. The crowds increased as we got closer to Yosemite Village. Add to that the fact that half the roadways and parking lots in the valley were closed for road construction,  we found Yosemite Valley to be a crowded, chaotic mess.

In addition to many road closures we also found out that the Mariposa Grove was closed for a two year restoration project, so we spent the remainder of the day in the Yosemite Valley.

Determined to not let the stressful, chaotic start to our day sour our experience at Yosemite, we began looking for a parking spot. This was challenging for even a small car, much less a 43 foot school bus. After an hour of driving from one filled parking lot to another we finally found an open spot next to the side of the road.

It was only 11:00am, we had been navigating Yosemite for 3 hours, and we were exhausted.

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We decided to hit the restart button with a picnic lunch before we began seeing Yosemite. Everyone needed to decompress, and we knew full bellies would put everyone in a better state of mind, so we began our visit with lunch.

From there we head over to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center.

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Around Yosemite Valley there is free shuttle service that takes visitors from one part of the valley to another. By utilizing the shuttle service you can move about the valley floor easily with  20+ different shuttle stops. We took the shuttle over to the visitors center.

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Here the kids met with a park ranger to get their junior ranger booklet to work on and attend a ranger led program.

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The kids learned about some of the wildlife found in Yosemite, particularly the foxes found in the park. They were able to touch the pelts of a red fox and a grey fox, and feel how much softer and lush the pelt of the red fox was. This beautiful fur is what almost led to the extinction of the red fox by fur traders before they became protected. In the park there are hundreds of grey fox, which were the less desired species, but only around twenty red fox are still alive in Yosemite.

They also learned that the squirrels, so abundant in Yosemite, had a special adaptation that was specific to squirrels in that area. They learned that the squirrels there were immune to rattle snake venom.

It was fascinating to learn about the conservation efforts made by the National Parks Service and how mistakes made in the past are being remedied. We learned how the parks are fixing mistakes made twenty years ago that killed off the turtle population in the park. The ranger shared how in the 1980s and 1990s, when white water rafting became popular in the area, the park went through and removed all the trees and debris from the rivers to make rafting safer. In doing so they mistakenly removed the habitat that the turtles needed for survival. Those branches and logs were used by the turtles to hide under and sun themselves on. That simple mistake led to the destruction of the turtle population. They are now trying to remedy that mistake by bringing in turtles from outside the park to repopulate. She told us if we keep our eyes open along the waters edge we just might see them, walking along with a tracker antenna attached to the top of their shell.

While we didn’t spot any bionic turtles we did see many of these cute little lizards,

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and a crayfish or two.

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If kissing a frog gets you a prince, what does kissing a crayfish get you?!

 

From there we hiked our first of three trails for the day. We decided to hike the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail. This time of year there are no waterfalls falling in Yosemite. Created by winter snow melt, they are dried up by mid summer, but it was still a beautiful hike.

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Along the way Toby taught Tyler how to whistle using an acorn top. What a wonderful skill to teach Tyler, Toby! 😉

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As we moved about the park, riding the shuttle and hiking the trails, we could see why Yosemite is a favorite park for so many people. The towering pines and enormous granite mountains have a way of making you feel small and in awe of nature’s impact.

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We walked a trail over to El Capitan, where we were able to see climbers working their way up the smooth, granite face.

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There were telescopes set up for visitors to get a closer look at the climbers,

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and a park ranger on site that was answering questions about rock climbing in Yosemite. It was fascinating to see him demonstrate the climbing gear used by the climbers to propel themselves up the cliffs, and to learn about the logistics of the multi-day climb it takes to get up El Capitan, like eating and sleeping on the side of a cliff.

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Can you spot the climber? How about now??

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In addition to being in awe of the side of the granite monoliths, the kids were also in awe of the size of the trees in Yosemite. We told them to just wait until tomorrow’s visit to Sequoia National Park. We won’t be able to reach around the circumference of those trunks as a family!

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It was a beautiful day.

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We were able to salvage our day, which started so stressfully, and enjoy and appreciate one of the prettiest parks we have seen so far.

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This is what a good day at a National Park looks like:

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Next stop: Sequoia National Park

 

 

Trains and Rockets

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“A telegraph signal sent from the tracks… signaled a truly transcontinental extravaganza. As the word went out over the wires, the nation went wild. In city after city, church bells rang, trains hooted, fire engines howled, gongs clanged and cannons thundered.  Citizens thronged the streets to watch parades. People sang The Star-Spangled Banner, prayed and shouted themselves hoarse. Countless orators hailed this as a ‘great day’ of national destiny.”

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We were just inside Utah’s border when we saw the sign for the Golden Spike National Monument at Promontory Point, Utah. While not on our planned itinerary, I knew that the 24 miles it would take us off track would be worth it. (And it would be cost-free with our America the Beautiful pass.)

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I told the kids I had visited there when I was attending college at Weber State University, and the kids couldn’t stop laughing and teasing when they heard that it was a date that brought me there. For some reason they found the idea of visiting abandoned railroad tracks for a first date funny. 🙂

As a fan of all things historical, I told them that I thought it was a perfect first date.

“Mom, you’re such a nerd,” was the reply.

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In a day when cars or airplanes can travel anywhere, anytime, it can be difficult to appreciate just how momentous the completion of the transcontinental railroad was to the United States in 1869. The railroad was a tremendous feat of engineering that cost the lives of many. The railroad made it possible for people to travel from coast to coast in a few days, instead of a few months. The railroad effectively ended a way of life for the American Indian as white settlements multiplied throughout the West.

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The first thing we noticed when we got to the rail line of the Golden Spike National Historic Site was the silence. With the midday sun high overhead the only sound we heard was the wind coming down from the Promontory Mountains. It wasn’t always like this. In 1869 this was where the first transcontinental railroad was completed.

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During the 1860’s the United States Congress ordered that a railroad be built across the nation in an effort to connect the sparsely populated western half of the nation with more established areas in the East. The connection would help build the economy, shorten travel times, and help the military control resistance by the native tribes. Two companies sprang forth to make this happen, Central Pacific Railroad (CPR) and Union Pacific Railroad (UPR). CPR would build a railway east starting at the city of Sacramento. Beginning in Omaha, Nebraska UPR would lay its line heading west. The last spike to join the two was driven by Leland Stanford, the President of Southern Pacific Railroad, at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10th, 1869.

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We explored the visitor center and learned much about the great sacrifices made to accomplish this historical feat. Then we went outside. The two train replicas that are normally on display were gone for maintenance, but we were able to walk the track and see the site where the two lines were joined together.

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And what do my children do when left unattended on abandoned railroad tracks?

This, of course!

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As we were leaving the Golden Spike National Memorial a park ranger made a suggestion of another site, only two miles away, that we should check out. The site he suggested was  the ATK rocket garden.ATK is the company that used to make the rocket boosters for the space shuttle. Outside of their building is a small “rocket garden” that is free to the public.

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There were many different displays of rockets including a shuttle booster and a Patriot missile. Each had an interpretive sign that explained what we were seeing and what it was used for. All though all the rockets on display were very interesting, the one that fascinated me the most was the rocket booster for the Space Shuttle.

I know the Shuttle is a very large craft but you have no idea how big  until you stand next to this booster, and it takes two to get the shuttle into space!

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 We didn’t spend a lot of time here, but it was definitely worth the stop if you are on your way out here for the Golden Spike National Historic Site.

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The little boys were especially enthralled.

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We were so glad we took that 24 mile detour off the beaten path to check out these two historically significant transportation monuments.

Within an 8 mile radius, we were able to experience one hundred years of transportation history by visiting the Golden Spike National Historic site, where the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and visiting the rocket display at ATK, where scientists helped put a man on the moon exactly 100 years later in 1969!

From trains to rockets…a speedy, good time.

Devils Tower

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 We are now 10 days into our road trip and 1/5 of our way through our journey. What a journey it has been- full of amazing sites, incredible experiences, wonderful people, and innumerable blessings!

On Thursday, after leaving the Black Hills of South Dakota we traveled two hours west, crossing into Wyoming, for our visit to Devils Tower National Monument.

This was another stop I was looking forward to with eager anticipation, as it is a place that holds so many fond childhood memories for me.

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Toby and I reenacting the infamous “tree sniffing photo” of my parents on our childhood visit to Devil’s Tower.

 

I remember camping at the Devils Tower KOA and sleeping under the silhouette of that mighty monument.

I couldn’t wait to return and share the experience with my own family.

As we approached the campground we could see Devils Tower looming in the distance, growing larger with every mile as we approached our camp.

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The Devils Tower KOA is located at the base of the monument, mere feet from the entrance of the park. It is a beautiful KOA, both because of the upkeep as well as the incredible views. It is the nicest KOA we have ever stayed at.

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Oh, how the memories came flooding back as we pulled into the campground!

We pulled into our site and the kids got out to stretch their legs and play at the playground while I fixed lunch.

Look at the view from our campsite!

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After lunch we headed into the national park to explore more closely the beauty of Devils Tower.

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As we drove into the park we passed a prairie dog town on our way up the winding road. At the top of the road sat a small visitor’s center at the base of Devil’s Tower. This was our first stop.

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Devils Tower:

“Devils Tower National Monument, a unique and striking geologic wonder steeped in Indian legend, is a modern day national park and climbers’ challenge. Devils Tower sits across the state line in northeast Wyoming. The Tower is a solitary, stump-shaped granite formation that looms 1,267 feet above the tree-lined Belle Fourche River Valley, like a skyscraper in the country. Once hidden below the earth’s surface, erosion has stripped away the softer rock layers revealing the Tower.

The two-square-mile park surrounding the tower was proclaimed the nation’s first national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. The park is covered with pine forests, woodlands and grasslands. While visiting the park you are bound to see deer, prairie dogs and other wildlife. The mountain’s markings are the basis for Native American legend. One legend has it that a giant bear clawed the grooves into the mountainside while chasing several young Indian maidens. Known by several northern plains tribes as Bears Lodge, it is a sacred site of worship for many American Indians. Devils Tower is also remembered as the movie location for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

The stone pillar is about 1,000 feet in diameter at the bottom and 275 feet at the top and that makes it the premier rock climbing challenge in the Black Hills.”

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The kids were invited by the park ranger to participate in the junior ranger program, an educational, interactive program offered at many of the National Parks. The kids had not yet had the opportunity to try and earn their junior ranger badge at previous parks because of our limited time at each of those parks. This time, however, we had a full day planned at the park and plenty of time for the kids to really explore, research and learn all about Devils Tower.

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The booklet included a nature bingo game, pages to draw on and record information about a flower they saw on their hike and a wild animal they saw. There were also crossword puzzles, true and false quizzes, and fill in the blank questionnaires that required the kids to read signs and find the missing information.

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Molly, Rusty and Tyler decided to try and earn their badge. Ozzie was more interested in simply reading the signs and not filling out the 12-page booklet, and Grace was not feeling well, so after walking through the visitors center with us she headed back to the bus to lay down rather than hike with us.

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While at the visitors center we got our National Parks passport book stamped and the kids began filling in their junior ranger booklets with the information they found in the visitor’s center.

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Then we headed out on the Tower Trail, a 1.25-mile trail that winds its way around the base of this mammoth rock.

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The trail was beautiful…

And the views were breathtaking.

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We stopped at each trail sign to read about the park and so the kids could fill in their booklets. I knew Molly and Rusty would love this activity but I was surprised how engaged Tyler was. I have watched Tyler blossom, as a student, on this trip as he experiences these places that he has never shown any interest in while reading about them in a book. He is learning, experiencing, retaining and growing through these hands-on learning opportunities and it just confirms that Tyler’s learning style is that of a hands-on, kinesthetic learner.

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Looking at the original wooden ladders that took the first climbers to the top.

 

As we walked around the monument we were in awe and understood why, upon seeing this magnificent place, Theodore Roosevelt designated it the first National Monument in the United States. This made Wyoming the home to the first National Park (Yellowstone) and home to the first National Monument.

Along our hike we spotted a deer laying by the path,

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And hikers high on the cliffs.

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Tyler loved watching the hikers up close through the binoculars.

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He and Molly both agreed that someday they would like to try mountain climbing.

It was a wonderful hike and we learned a lot along the way. By the time we reached the end of the trail three of the four kids had completed their booklet and were ready to have them checked over by a park ranger.

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They passed and were ready to be sworn in as junior park rangers.

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What a wonderful program. They all enjoyed it so much and learned so much, they all said they would like try getting their junior ranger badges at all the National Parks we visit. What an awesome experience it is being able to visit and experience our nation’s national parks, especially in 2016, during the National Park Service’s 100 year anniversary!

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By then it was nearing dinner time, so we walked back to the bus to find Grace feeling much better. We decided that before dinner we would enjoy a swim in the KOA  pool. After working up a sweat, the cool pool water felt good, and we couldn’t have asked for better pool views.

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After dinner everyone put on PJs and sweatshirts and we walked over to the camp’s outdoor theatre to watch, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the sci-fi classic that was filmed right there at Devil’s Tower. This KOA shows it every night in their outdoor theatre that looks out onto Devils Tower monument.

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I remember sitting under the Wyoming stars, at the base of Devils Tower, as a kid watching this movie for the first time and thinking it was one of the coolest experiences ever.

It was so much fun to relive that moment again. Sitting under the stars, in the cool night air, introducing my own kids to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” I thought to myself,

“Life doesn’t get much better than this.”

Next stop: Yellowstone National Park!