The Grand Canyon: aptly named for its jaw-dropping landscape, it makes the top of every "must-see" list, drawing millions of visitors each year. It is inarguably worth the trip. For us, the Grand Canyon was memorable because of the seemingly insignificant moments strung together into one incredible adventure.
After extensive research, we decided to visit the North Rim of the park. My obsession with camping beneath towering pines secretly impacted our chosen destination, but I argued that smaller crowds and particular points of interest made the North Rim an obvious winner.
We were amidst herds of bison, grazing in lush green pastures when we spotted the park's entrance sign. Idyllic? Absolutely. Expected? Definitely not. Our perception of the Grand Canyon was painted with arid landscapes, tumbling weeds, and slithering rattlesnakes. This lush contrast caught us off-guard in the most wonderful way.
Our first stop was the visitor's center, where we could gain valuable insight to maximize our one-day experience. We expected to receive maps and tips on must-see points of interest. While this was included, we received the best advice one could ever hear: in a place so massive, it's easy to miss out on the tiny things... but in them, the real magic of this place is discovered.
We took the advice to heart, keeping aware of the seemingly insignificant treasures hiding amongst the grandeur. The artistry of river-carved canyons dressed in splendid hues of crimson and rust vie for your attention, and views span in every direction. Our first steps onto the patio of the Grand Canyon Lodge were silent. Words were replaced by tears of awe. Throughout the day we experienced many breathless moments as we absorbed the raw beauty of this untamed landscape. Yet we all agreed, the myriad of small things made our adventure to the Grand Canyon so memorable.
There is an intoxicating mix of cool forests clinging to the edge of sun-scorched cliffs. The road leading to the Lodge winds between giant pines, providing shaded refuge. You'll wrap a flannel around your chest to guard against the chilly breeze that whispers through tree tops. Don't forget your water bottle and sun protection... without a canopy of trees the heat quickly warms your body, and you'll be peeling those layers back rather quickly. This diversity of temperatures gives you a greater appreciation for the hardiness of all life within the canyon.
Beauty can be found away from the rim. Although you want to spend every minute gazing out across the hazy distant canyon walls and peering down perilous edges, the inner park landscape offers its own unique splendor. Challenge yourself and your family to a spur of the moment photo contest. Get in a snowball fight (yes, snow!). Spot wildlife: mule deer, bighorn sheep, and the kaibab squirrel whose only home is the North Rim.
Engage with one of the park's most interesting elements: the people. While there are moments where solitude is healing for the soul, one of the best parts of traveling is meeting people from all walks of life. Talk to those who share the trail with you. Save people from so-so selfies by offering to take a decent photo of them. Learn the stories of the men and women who protect, guide, and study within the National Parks System. Listen to them; they are passionate about educating visitors and preserving our parks.
Take a moment to appreciate the incredible creation we are called to steward. Thank the Creator. It is a privilege to travel. Some people never leave their little corner of earth. When you've soaked in the awe and wonder of our incredible planet, do something to care for it. Many generations have yet to drop their jaws in awe of vast canyons, gushing geysers, snow-capped mountains, and turquoise waters. Let's give them something to talk about.
The thousands of tiny, simple moments made our adventure to the Grand Canyon magical. I find myself closing my eyes tight, sealing in every recalled detail, lest I forget. Though I doubt I ever could.
everyone wants to let a little wild out sometimes
We had unfinished business in Moab, Utah. Unconquered arches called to us from our campsite in Arizona. With no set travel plans, we packed up and began our journey across sun-scorched, red-rocked landscapes to settle up with Arches National Park.
Spontaneous travel has its pitfalls. We often risk not finding a campsite in our chosen destination when we roll into town without reservations. As soon as the cell phone gained coverage, I began calling every campground near Moab, in hopes of finding an unclaimed site. After several rejections, I figured we'd be boondocking. We approached Slickrock Campground with little hope.
Entering the office, I was greeted by a ferocious feline who held me at bay while the woman at the front desk helped the camper ahead of me. Curling his black tail around my legs, he brushed against me with a purr that spoke volumes of his personality. I was properly warned: behind the front desk a sign was posted, notifying campers to "Beware of the Guard Cat". While he did his best to deter me, I finally made my way to the woman behind the desk.
While hotel staff are generally uniform in attire and dialog, campground staff are as diverse as the landscape of our magnificent country. My host was no exception. Beautifully unique, she smiled through a pierced lip, tucking back an unruly curl that had broken free from the bandana meant to contain what couldn't be tamed by a braid. The ink on her arms told stories, and I would have inquired, had I not been so distracted by our lack of accommodations.
Thankfully sites were available, and I began my usual negotiation process. As Good Sam members, we were already privileged to a discount, but I always try to get the best deal possible. Asking if additional breaks were available to firefighters, her dark eyes lit up.
"My brother is a smoke-jumper! I am so appreciative of all those guys do. How 'bout I give you another 10% off?"
We set up camp quickly, and scarfed down dinner at ravenous speed. We knew daylight was giving way to the dark skies of night, and we intended to see some arches before bed. As we snaked up the switchbacks at the entrance to the park, the sun dipped behind the western mountains, leaving only a glow to remind us of its departure. The temperatures cooled, and we rolled down the windows to enjoy the refreshing air that came rushing into the truck. Sticking her head out of the vehicle in canine-like fashion, my free-spirited daughter kicked her head back to let out a primitive howl. Giggles filled our cab, and she dared us to join in. Of course we obliged; everyone wants to let a little wild out sometimes.
We parked, immediately noticing the eerie silence. Little beams of light and the crunch of desert floor beneath four sets of sneakers was all that identified us against the vastness of night. The trail turned, leading us between spires of rock that dimmed what moonlight existed. Trudging through deep sand, we huffed and puffed as we dove deeper into the rocks whose shapes were hidden behind the dark curtain of night.
It's amazing how a short .4 mile trail can seem like a trek across the sahara with no light to give perspective. When we finally reached the arch, we were victors, celebrating the long-anticipated quest. Hoots of joy rose above the canyon walls, and we momentarily forgot about life beyond them. All that existed was us and a conquered arch.
Not every adventure turns out the way you plan it. Sometimes you miss your goal altogether. Sometimes it takes more than one attempt to accomplish what you set out to do. That night solidified a deep truth for our family: it's not about the destination, but the memories you make getting there.
It seems our travels always involve three things: adventure, education, and missed chances. Even if I were to never recount our journeys here, their memories will forever remain incredibly vivid in our minds. To us, they're legendary. Our recent trip to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore was no exception.
We awoke early that morning to the sweet symphony of nature outside our camper's windows. Perched above Lake Superior and nestled beneath towering oaks and pines, we continued to revel in our campsite victory. The city of Bayfield, Wisconsin maintains a campground just north of the marina. When my husband suggested camping there, I was reluctant because I had pictured a slab of concrete with little privacy or amenities. While the park lacked amenities beyond the basics, it more than made up for it in privacy. With our only neighbors tucked distantly behind the trees, we felt like camping royalty with our hidden spot and superior views.
The air was crisp, and the winds were charging off of the lake, cutting into our still thin Midwest skin. As groups of tourists gathered on the marina docks, whispers of six foot swells began to circulate through the formed line of guests anxiously awaiting the blessing to board the tour boats. Compassionate guides began making their way down the line with the disheartening news: due to the size of the swells on open water, we were not going to make it to the highly acclaimed Devil's Island-- an island known for jaw-dropping sea caves carved by the forces of nature. It was strongly recommended that weak-stomached landlubbers stay ashore, full refunds available. With a mix of ignorance and excitement, we shrugged off the warnings and climbed aboard.
Prior to shoving off, our captain reiterated the warning of choppy seas and offered us two things: last chances and barf bags. We refused, nervously chuckling about the thought that while rough waters weren't tummy-turning, a boat full of puking guests would certainly weaken the most iron-clad stomachs. Once we were no longer protected by the marina barriers, the chop was evident but more closely resembled a busy weekend on a Midwest lake. We settled in and began to soak in the panoramic scenery beyond our vessel.
Each island had a fascinating story that was animatedly described by our captivating captain. For example, Hermit Island was aptly named in honor of the legend of William Wilson, a man who despised the thought of company on his private island so much that he kept hopeful visitors away by firing rounds from his shotgun. Even if there were no tall tales to be told, our vigilant captain readily peered through his binoculars in search of wildlife that was abundant on the islands. We were privileged to see the majestic bald eagle, circling a nest on the tip of Oak Island. We were awed by the rock formations and boulder outcroppings that only enhanced the picturesque beauty of the shorelines.
As we neared the approach to Devil's Island, the waves begin to grow, tossing us around. Suddenly our sizable ship seemed to diminish in stature against the tumultuous waters. After some off-mic conversation between the captain and his crew, he addressed his guests by gesturing towards the fifteen foot spray crashing into the southern tip of the forbidden island. Avoiding a dance with the devil, he steered our ship towards calmer waters and redirected our attention to more island folklore.
As we approached Raspberry Island, the ship filled with shutter noise from every camera that was intently aimed at the crown jewel of the park. The lighthouse stood gleaming and proud atop the rocky shores, ready to beacon passing ships. A recent $3.4 million dollar restoration, equal to the annual operating budget for the entire park, brought this crown jewel back to its former glory. Although we did not go ashore, we immediately decided to make it part of our return visit.
Returning to the marina, the skies parted giving way to brilliant blue skies. The sun sparkled across the lake, marina, and charming city. As a gesture of kindness, the captain offered partial refunds to all guests in reparation for the missed island. Although we were impressed by this offer, we never felt slighted. Sure, it would have been incredible to witness the sea caves of Devil's Island, but we were equally satisfied with our adventure.
Oh, and I'm happy to report that no barf bags were filled on our journey!
Entering the area surrounding Arches National Park seemed other-worldly. Awed by the uniquely shaped rocks, we shouted out, "that one looks like a sleeping bear," or "I see E.T. in that one!", much like one would lying on their backs to watch clouds take form. Only we were not ready to lie around. Red rocks, river-gorged canyons, and legendary arches begged us to come explore.
Our spontaneous trip had already been chock-full of adventure: the spouting geysers of Yellowstone and the pristine beauty of the Tetons were checked off our list, but we were hungry for more. Thanks to the Every Kid in a Park initiative, our free entrance into the National Parks afforded us the ability to see as many parks as we could in our two week escape from reality.
Coming into Moab, Utah on the second of July meant that we risked not finding a camping site due to the influx of visitors that vacationed around the holiday. Searching for campgrounds ended successfully, and without the camper in-tow, we set out in search of arches. The summer heat often exceeds 100 degrees, but we were blessed by a blanket of storm clouds that offered reprieve from the baking desert sun. We explored Balanced Rock and began to get a taste of just how fascinating this park really was. However, we came to see arches, and the impending storm and late evening hours meant we had to keep moving, in order to see the park's most famous arch.
As we pulled into the parking lot at Wolfe Ranch, we gathered water bottles, laced our hiking boots, and wasted no time trekking towards our destination. The trail that led to an up close and personal view of Delicate Arch was a moderate three-mile hike, which we reasoned very doable for our pre-teen kids. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, we began to debate whether we could make it to the arch with the remaining twilight hovering in the sky. "You still have quite a distance to go," was the not-so-encouraging remark from a nearby hiker who noticed our lack of lighting and dwindling water supply. A quick family discussion ended with a disappointing 180, and an undiscovered arch. Not all was lost, however, as lightning bolts shot across the sky in magnificent display.
The storm passed quickly, and the remaining light gave way to the darkness of night. Our adventure-hungry family wasn't about to call it quits because of a few limitations, so we continued our journey deeper into the park and into the night. Consulting the map, we decided that Broken Arch was something we could surely find in the dark. After all, it was only .3 mile off the road. We were certain that our cell phone flashlights were electronic flares to light our way. However, in a place void of light pollution, they were no more helpful than the glow from a lightning bug's back side. With the moon hidden behind the clouds, navigating trails in utter darkness made us question whether we were daring or dangerous in our plight for the arches. At once the sound of other's voices gave us hope that we might have found our destination. Between us and the body-less voices stood a wall of rock too sheer to climb. The voices instructed us to go into the campground and follow the trail there, which would lead right to the arch. "It's easy," they promised.
Driving into Devil's Garden Campground, we briefly envied the campers who had made reservations well in-advance, guaranteeing them a site during the holiday influx. As we set out in our third attempt to experience the grandeur of an arch, we said a quick prayer for the batteries to hold out on our cell phone-turned flashlights. We soon became aware of the dangers that lie underfoot, as sand gave way to rocks, which dropped without warning into seemingly bottomless pits. Lights flickered ahead, and the body-less voices sang out through the darkness. We shouted to our new friends, and they gave the same promise that an easy route lay just ahead of us. We searched for this path with trepidation, hoping our friends would have pity for us and come show us the way. Alas, they served only as a lighthouse, proudly anchored upon their discovered arch.
There's a moment when you know you've been defeated, and our moment had come. The illusive arches lay unconquered in the dark, but we did not return to our campsite with heads hung in shame. Making the most of our time in this thoroughly wild place, we parked along the road and shut off the truck. Beckoning our hesitant kids from the safety of steel, we encouraged them to experience being in complete darkness in such a remote place. As we climbed out of the truck, my husband heard a rustle in the sagebrush next to us. I quickly dismissed the rustle until it got louder, and bigger. We breathlessly scrambled into the safety of the cab, giggling with excitement. While it may have been a jackrabbit, in our minds we had just missed an encounter with a hungry mountain lion.
Even if we were not victorious in our search for arches, our adventures in the park would never be forgotten. The stories we earned through our quest were the making of legends. And with unconquered arches still on our list, we have reason enough to return. The National Parks are our nation's finest treasures. Far greater than any material possession, every person gains great wealth when they experience them first hand.
Yellowstone: Re-Awakening the Wild in Me
The minivan was loaded: grandparents, two kids, my husband, and myself. Every remaining square inch was crammed with suitcases, road-worthy entertainment, snacks, and drinks. The day started with an impressive drive across the Bighorn Mountains (another must-see) and a supremely satisfying lunch in Cody, Wyoming. After playing twenty questions with our locally-raised waitress, we prodded her for the must-do activities once we entered the park. She insisted we stop at the last fueling station just outside the park entrance to enjoy the owner’s homemade ice cream.
We hit construction just outside of Cody. I suspected it was repair work on what remained of the road, post-snow melt. We laughed about the pot-holed gravel road that guided us into this national treasure and followed a hand-painted sign to famous ice cream. We pulled in and were immediately greeted by two tail-wagging black labs who, we assumed, were politicking for handouts. The ice cream, we discovered, was not homemade: it dripped out of the heavily worn soft serve mixer behind the counter. The germaphobe mother in me crept out and I managed to convince the family that we could wait on the ice cream. Back in the car my husband informed me of the owner’s boast: world-travelers returned year after year to enjoy her frozen treat. First lesson learned? Let go a little and trust the local advice.
It was rainy and cold as we entered the park. At our first glimpse of Yellowstone Lake the teacher mother in me took the platform and we discussed how the lake was formed. Upon hearing the word “volcano,” my daughter hit instant panic mode. While everyone else marveled at the hydrothermal activity at water’s edge, I held my daughter and reassured her of her safety. We prayed together, which apparently moved some onlookers who insisted on photographing the tender moment. As we obliged, we felt a connection, one which expanded to include many other people we encountered during our time there. Maybe it’s because we were all mystified by the greatness and power of this place. Maybe it’s because we were all a little more open to the world around us when the cell service dropped off. Whatever the reason, it was a welcomed change from the isolated, individual worlds we construct in our fast-paced society.
From the hissing mud pots to the roaring waterfalls, our exploding curiosity carried us through rain and hail, from one impressive site to another. The crowds of umbrellas and poncho-dressed tourists created camaraderie: we weren’t the only ones who cared little about the weather. Nothing could hold us back from experiencing all there was to see. At the end of our first day we were quiet as we retreated to our accommodations in West Yellowstone. Our minds were full. Our hearts were full, but we knew we would hunger for more.
The rain beat on the roof as we awoke to begin another day’s adventure. We unanimously agreed on our first must-see: the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. As we parked, the clouds parted, giving way to brilliant blue skies speckled with cotton ball clouds. Each step towards Inspiration Point was more impressive than the last. The gold and amber of the canyon walls gleamed in the warming sun. Suddenly the falls came into view and most of the hushed conversations overheard were filled with awe-struck superlatives.
From Inspiration Point we laced up our hiking boots to adventure down a 500 foot descent named Uncle Tom’s Trail which led to an up-close view of the breathtaking Lower Falls. The further we descended, the more we realized how physically challenging this hike would be. Red-faced hikers returning from the bottom gasped out the words, “It’s worth it,” as they struggled to ascend. Facing the stairs proved physically and mentally strenuous: 328 metal-meshed stairs clung to the side of the mountain giving way below us. Our knees trembled as we viewed the nothingness below us. Once we hit the platform we certainly agreed: it was indeed worth it! We reminded ourselves of this point as we began our own ascent.
Each remaining day of our time inside of Yellowstone held its own bragging rights. While Old Faithful was indeed worth seeing, equally impressive Castle Geyser deserves its own attention. Every stream that meandered through the park glistened regardless of sunshine or clouds; they were pure and clean.
The National Park Service has been successful for the last 100 years for many reasons. At Yellowstone it was evident in every aspect of our experience that every park employee carried the highest respect for the land and its wild inhabitants. The ample parking and well-marked trails made viewing the park’s main features easy and accessible for all. However, this is still a very wild place. The hydrothermal activity was everywhere, as were the bison herds. Fuzzy golden-colored calves rested in the prairie grasses while their nearby mothers grazed; unscathed by the tourists that gathered in droves, it was clear this was their land.
This wildness left us hungry for more and planning our next return. Somewhere between the dripping ice cream machine, majestic mountains, and spouting geyers I lost the germaphobic mother in me and re-awakened the adventurous woman that was dying to get out. In Yellowstone I rediscovered what it meant to get a little wild.
Born with a severe case of wanderlust, I'm always searching for new adventures and sharing those stories here.