Death Valley National Park – November 2019

Death Valley Park Sign

Hannah – Age 6 – National Park #8

The drive from Ventura to Pahrump, NV (a city outside of Death Valley National Park) was a long one, and it was the first time I had ever encountered a dust storm.  My phone would buzz a weather alert and a few minutes later visibility would be less than five feet in front of us.  The wind was incredible.  We stopped for lunch in Barstow, one of the only larger cities between LA and Death Valley, and could barely make our way into the restaurant without getting pelted with sand in the face. 

After the long and somewhat stressful drive, we were happy to see the city ahead of us.  We were unsure what to expect in this city and were surprised when we saw a lot of casino advertisements.  We then recalled that we had crossed the border into Nevada.  In fact, our hotel, the Holiday Inn, shared a parking lot with a large casino next door. 

The Pour House for the Win

After a quick google search, we decided on the Pour House for dinner, which I later realized was actually inside a Best Western about a mile away.  Now, call me elitist, but normally I wouldn’t think of restaurants inside Best Western hotels to be anything special.  However, we were pleasantly surprised at this one!  We walked in and saw a mini bowling alley that costed $1 or $2 per game that kept Hannah busy while my mom and I ordered a margarita and looked over the menu. 

The surprises of this restaurant kept on coming!  In addition to the American food on the menu, there was a complete Indian menu included (which you do not see online).  The waitress came over and told us the Indian food was amazing and explained that the Indian food is more “family-style”.  We ordered a vegetarian masala (or something similar to that) over jasmine rice with a side of the most delicious garlic naan bread I’ve ever tasted.   She wasn’t kidding – the food was plentiful and mouth-watering.  We ended up taking leftovers that fed us the following night as well.

Death Valley

The next morning we drove the 30 minutes to Death Valley National Park.  The park seemed massive as we made our way to the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.  Hannah LOVES the visitor centers and this one was definitely impressive.  We met with a ranger and she gave us a map that she went over with us, highlighting the various hikes we should do and even suggesting certain times to visit a few stops to coincide with sunset and/or ranger talks.

By the time I finished with the ranger, Hannah was long gone in the museum with my mom.  The museum was impressive with a lot for Hannah to look at, touch, and read.  We learned the following as we walked through, giving us all the more appreciation of this park. 

Death Valley Fun Facts

  • Hottest place on EARTH – Death valley holds the record for the hottest air temperature ever recorded at 134 degrees
  • Driest place in the United States – The average rainfall is less than two inches per year, and some years Death Valley does not get ANY rain
  • Lowest point in North America – Badwater Basin at Death Valley are 282 feet below sea level
  • Largest National Park in the lower 48 states – 3 million acres of desert wilderness
  • The mineral borax was mined in a part of Death Valley in the late 1800s.  In the 1920s, mining had slowed, so the Pacific Coast Borax Company transitioned the area to tourism and built the Furnace Creek Inn on the land, which is still in operation today.  The company fought to protect the land and Death Valley was deemed a national monument in 1933, and it became a national park in 1994.
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – Hannah and Grandma

A Day in the Park

We had a full day of “drive, park, hike, repeat” that day.  I am going to give you a quick overview of each place we stopped without going too crazy in depth or this post would go on forever. Map of Death Valley

  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – Impressive views and easy to access sand dunes right off the road.  Although nothing can quite compare to Great Sand Dunes National Park, this was a really fun stop.  The sand was a great temperature too for going barefoot!
Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
  • Mosaic Canyon – We had to drive about three miles off the main road on a very washed out skinny road, but it wasn’t as bad as the ranger told us it would be.  The hike was full of fun canyons, slides, and rocks to climb on.  This was my favorite hike of the day.
Mosaic Canyon
  • Salt Creek Interpretive Trail – Less than one mile boardwalk hike where you MIGHT see fish.  Unfortunately it was pretty dry while we were there, so this was not the most exciting hike.  Plus one of us was getting hungry. At this point, we were driving past the Visitor Center again, so we stopped in to use the restrooms and ate our lunch (PB&Js and apples) in the car on the way to the next stop.
  • Golden Canyon – You can see in the photo why this might be called “Golden Canyon”.  This was definitely Hannah’s favorite hike of the day.  While my mom waited below, Hannah led me on an off-shoot steep canyon hike.  We finally couldn’t make it up any higher in the skinny canyon, and the hike down was challenging, to say the least, in our flip flops.  I would highly recommend tennis shoes for such hikes, but it’s hard coming from Wisconsin in November, and not wearing flip flops in anything over 60 degrees!
Golden Canyon
  • Badwater Basin – This is the lowest elevation in North America at 282 ft. below sea level.  I’ve heard that the salt flat here changes in its appearance depending on the time of year, etc.  The salt was slippery, and Hannah decided to jump over a puddle, slipped, and fell into a pile of salty, dirty water.  Needless to say, our time at Badwater Basin was cut a little short. 
Badwater Basin
  • Artists PaletteThere is a one-way drive off of Badwater Road that passes by a place called the Artists Palette, which is aptly named.  It is incredible to see and we were so busy admiring the views and the colors (and driving), that we didn’t take any photos!  However, I linked to google images so you can see what I mean.  Also, it was fun to drive the tight, winding road knowing it was one-way.  And Hannah liked all of the crazy turns and ups and downs.
  • Zabriskie Point – This is a gorgeous overlook spot.  It’s about a ¼ mile walk up a paved path to the viewpoint.  It was the perfect way to end our day as we were all pretty tired and had probably done around 5-6 miles of hiking with all of our stops.  The view was gorgeous and a good reminder of how big this park is. 
Zabriskie Point

The Eyes of a Six Year Old

To pass the time throughout the day on the drive from point to point, Hannah kept a notebook of all the things we were doing and seeing.  She had written a page for each stop we made. One night, while I was writing this blog, she came over and handed me her notebook to help me remember each of the stops we made.  It was so amazing to read her notes and see “Deth Vally” through the eyes of a six year old.

Hannah’s notes from the drive in to Death Valley National Park

Lessons Learned

“There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand.  There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”  ~ Edward Abbey

Channel Islands National Park – Santa Rosa Island – November 2019

Hannah – Age 6 – National Park #7

Since my dad had accompanied us on a National Park trip a few years earlier, we decided to invite my mom along on a vacation.  I knew my mom would like to have the trip planned out a little more than I typically do, which ended up working out great.  It forced me to look ahead at hotels which ended up being a very good decision on this trip, in hindsight.  We planned to visit three National Parks – Channel Islands, Death Valley, and Joshua Tree.  This trip involved a lot of driving, so it was nice to have another adult along in the car! 

I researched the different islands that make up Channel Islands National Park and the various options that were available for ferries to the islands.  We decided to go with Island Packers, which is located right in Ventura Harbor.  In November, they are not as busy and only offered a ferry out to one island (Santa Rosa Island) on the day we were booking.  I booked our tickets about two months in advance, which totaled $221.00 for one senior, one adult, and one child.

Channel Islands National Park

The Hotel

We flew in around 7pm on a Saturday night, took a bus to the car rental, and then drove about an hour and a half to Ventura, CA.  We stopped for some basic groceries on the way, as I had read that there is not any food or drink on the island.  I had booked two nights at the Holiday Inn in Ventura Harbor that was walking distance (one mile) to the ferry we were taking the next day out to Santa Rosa Island, one of the islands that makes up Channel Islands National Park. 

View of Ventura Harbor from our Holiday Inn hotel room

A Late Night Trip for Medicine

A few hours after our heads hit the pillow, Hannah woke up with a severe ear ache.  She was crying and in a lot of pain.  She had some ear pain during the flight, so I believe this was just some after affects.  However, I was concerned this could go into the next day and I did not want to be away from the mainland for an entire day if she was still hurting. 

My mom cuddled with her while I spoke to the front desk.  Unfortunately they did not have any Children’s Tylenol on hand and they even called the hotel next door, but no luck.  I ended up driving a few miles down the road to a grocery store that was open late.  Although I know I could have handled the situation on my own, I was very grateful to have my mom there to help and to not have to drag Hannah out of bed in the middle of the night when she was not feeling well. 

Thankfully, the medicine kicked in and she slept the rest of the night.  She was back to her bouncing-off-the-wall energy level self by morning!

The Walk to the Ferry

We had to leave the hotel before breakfast was put out, so we had some coffee and granola bars that we purchased the night before, and made some PB&Js to take with us.  We packed up our daypacks, which included the PB&Js, apples, snacks, water, hats, mittens, sunscreen, and a lot of layers of clothes/jackets.  It was pretty cool in the morning and we had a one mile walk to the ferry.  The weather was forecasted to hit the mid-70s, but I was not sure how that would feel out on the boat or island.  We walked along a harbor with all kinds of sail boats and fishing boats.  We finally arrived at the ferry, checked in, and spent at least 15 minutes perusing the gift shop.  Hannah had her eye on several items that we said she could consider and pick one out at the end of the trip.

The Ferry Ride to Santa Rosa Island

It was a three hour ferry ride out to the island.  I wasn’t sure how Hannah would handle that long of a trip.  We started sitting at the top back of the two-tiered ferry but we soon got cold and went underneath to warm up.  We brought a deck of cards and started playing a card game at a table, but within five minutes of playing, there was an announcement that dolphins were spotted.  Hannah and I immediately went to the front of the boat. 

The captain had spotted a large pod of dolphins and turned the boat around to circle them.  The dolphins played and jumped alongside the front of the boat for at least ten minutes.  This happened several more times on the ride out to the island.  I ended up hanging out near the front of the boat most of the rest of the trip, talking with a number of people – a local man from Ventura who has been to several of the other islands, a family on break who were camping on Santa Rosa for a few days, and a very friendly Island Packers employee named Sam who was great at spotting wildlife. 

A dolphin playing with our ferry

Hannah split her time between me in the front and my mom in the cabin – running out every time they announced more dolphins.  She was ecstatic at how close they were and how fast they could swim.  We also saw two seals playing in the water not far off the coast of one of the islands we passed. 

Santa Rosa Island

As the boat slowed down to dock at the pier on Santa Rosa Island, I could tell the temperature had heated up.  We got off the boat and assembled for some basic instructions such as where the bathrooms were located and what time to be back on the ferry to leave.  Our plan was to hike the three mile round trip to Water Canyon Beach and back.  After taking off our layers and applying sunscreen, we set out on our hike.  Unfortunately we took one wrong turn which added about a half mile to our expedition. 

Map of Santa Rosa Island

The Coastal Road was an open dirt road along an old cattle ranch and airstrip, overlooking the ocean on one side, and a large foothill on the other side.  There were trails and dirt roads all over the island, a camping area, and only two locations that I knew of that had potable water – near the bathrooms and at the campground.  There was no shade as we walked along the road, and the sun was beating down on us.  We were all getting warm.  Hannah was also tired from the travel and late night ear ache the night before.  And as most any tired six year old might do, she was complaining about how hot she was, how hungry she was, and how long the hike was.  These can be tough moments. 

Coastal Road to the beach

Water Canyon Beach

I knew she would perk up as soon as we hit the beach and she was able to feel the ocean at her feet.  I just needed to motivate her for one more mile.  We talked about how excited we were to eat our PB&Js we made, and that Grandma had packed some extra yummy snacks.  We talked about how warm (or cold) we thought the ocean would be.  At one point, I walked faster ahead of them to see how close we were to the hill leading down to the ocean (and let’s be honest, to escape the whining for a minute).  We finally arrived at the beach and it was just as I had expected.  Hannah RAN to the ocean, which was colder than she thought it would be.  She went in up to her shorts.  I told her she could go all the way in, but she decided it was a little too chilly.

Hannah loving the ocean

Upon seeing the sand dunes that had built up along the coast, she of course decided she was no longer hungry at all and she just wanted to go play on the dunes instead.  We left Grandma with the snacks in the shade to rest and set off on our way to the top of the dunes.  Hannah rolled down, ran down, skipped down, and worked her way back up countless times as I sat at the top, enjoying the view and snapping some photos of her.  This was probably my favorite moment of the entire trip.  She got to see firsthand how the hard work of the hike in the hot sun paid off with a gorgeous view and nature’s best playground.

Playing on the Sand Dunes at Water Canyon Beach – Santa Rosa Island

More Exploring

We made our way back to Grandma and finished our lunches.  I am happy to report that the hike back to the pier was much more pleasant.  We arrived at the pier a little early, so Hannah and I trekked down an old rusty ladder to the beach below to explore more before leaving.  At low tide, this beach will connect to the beach we were at earlier in the day.  There were a lot of fun tide pools, caves, and big rocks formations that Hannah enjoyed discovering on this part of the beach. 

One of the many caves along the shore

The Ferry Ride Back to Ventura

On our ferry ride back to Ventura, we took a route closer to Santa Cruz Island.  Sam, the ferry employee I mentioned earlier, made sure Hannah and all the other small kids were up front when the captain drove the ferry into Painted Cave that was used in one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  We continued to find dolphin pods the entire way home, and the captain never hesitated to slow down or even circle them to get them playing.  The object was not to get us back to Ventura as quickly as possible, it was to give us the most enjoyable experience on the water they could, and they definitely did just that.

Humpback Whales!

Over the loud speaker we heard the captain say, “Folks, Sam just thought he saw some calm water up ahead which can sometimes mean humpback whales are nearby.  If you don’t mind, I am going to shut down the motor and we are just going to sit here for ten minutes to see if we can get them to surface.”  Sure enough, not five minutes later, we had two humpbacks within 50 feet of our boat.  They breached the surface several times and then swam under the boat and off into the sunset.  It was an incredible experience.  Everyone on the boat got to see and experience these two enormous animals in their natural habitat, all thanks to Sam’s incredible eyes and the captain’s patience. 

Humpback Whales at Sunset – Photo Credit: Chris Brown, fellow National Park enthusiast

After the sunset, it was getting cold.  Hannah and my mom stayed in the cabin.  I, of course, loving the water and the ferry experience, ended up at the front of the boat again, talking with the local guy from Ventura and getting some restaurant recommendations for dinner that night.  He introduced me to another guy who was a fellow National Park enthusiast.  We enjoyed comparing notes on parks we’ve visited and where we plan to go from here.


We arrived pretty late at night back at the harbor and as promised, allowed Hannah to quickly make her gift shop purchase of a seal magnet and dolphin stuffed animal.  Being a Sunday, it was relatively quiet, but I could tell the harbor shops and restaurants looked like a pretty great place to be on a warmer weekend night.  We were very hungry and the restaurant suggestion – Brophy Bros. Seafood Restaurant & Clam Barwas hitting the spot!  My mom and I shared the seabass and it was amazing! 

Lessons Learned

One, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.  The Island Packers ferry crew did such an amazing job at slowing down our journey both to and from the island to give us the best experience possible.  The ferry ride, which I was initially concerned about the length of it, was one of the best parts of our adventure to Channel Islands National Park. 

Two, it might be about the journey, but the destination sure would be nice when you have a whining kid!  Kids are kids… they are going to whine sometimes.  It’s inevitable.  Take a deep breath and try to pass the time talking about things that interest your kid.  My husband Jim used to do this with me on really long backpack trips.  I recall a specific day we backpacked 20 miles.  We were both tired and exhausted at mile 13, but we knew we had to go another 7 miles before setting up camp for the night.  We happened to recently get engaged, so on that last 7 miles, Jim and I went back and forth discussing various wedding ideas – some realistic, some crazy wild ones that we knew would never actually happen.  I am not sure if he was quite as interested in that topic as I was, but it sure made those 7 miles go a lot faster than the previous ones!

Three, always seek the advice of a local when determining your restaurant selection!

Playing on the beach. Behind us is the pier on the left and the ferry on the right.

Petrified Forest National Park – November 2018

Hannah – 5 years old – National Park #6

The drive to the Painted Desert Visitor Center at Petrified Forest National Park was only about an hour and a half from Chinle.  It was Thanksgiving Day, and the park was busier than I had expected for the holiday.  The weather was cold, cloudy, and windy, and to be honest, Hannah and I were both a little “parked out” at this point in the trip.  Nevertheless, we persisted and enjoyed learning about the petrified wood, but I did not push her on any long hikes and all of our stops were relatively short.

The road through the park is one long road that has a visitor center on each end.  If I recall correctly, it’s about a 45 minute drive without stops from one end to the other.  We first stopped at the Painted Desert Visitor Center off of I-40, got a park map and had a ranger circle about six stops that were worthwhile along the park road.  Map of Petrified Forest National Park

What is Petrified Wood?

First, the question everyone is probably thinking… what is petrified wood?  I am going to give you a very basic overview of my understanding.  Millions of years ago, logs were carried down a river and buried deep under the sediment.  Oxygen was quickly cut off from the logs which started a fossilization process.  Over time, minerals were absorbed into the wood and crystallized, forming the solid quartz petrified wood we can see today in the park. 

Jasper Forest
Petrified log at Jasper Forest

Drive, Stop, Drive, Stop…

  • Painted Desert Inn – Our first stop was the Painted Desert Inn, a historic building from the 1920s that was originally built out of petrified wood, but not long after was renovated with an adobe façade.  There is an impressive view of the odd terrain from the rim.
painted desert inn
Hannah hanging out at the Painted Desert Inn
  • Chinde Point – Another overlook similar to the view at Painted Desert Inn.  We did not stay long here as it was windy and cold, and Hannah and I were both excited to see the petrified wood closer up
  • Pronghorns! At some point along the drive, we saw an entire herd of pronghorns grazing, which were beautiful animals and fun to see an animal we had never seen before. 
  • Puerco Pueblo – A short walk leads you around the ruins of a Pueblo village and we saw some very old hieroglyphics.
  • Blue Mesa Loop – A short loop drive off the main road where the coloring in the rock appears to be a tint of blue instead of the reds and oranges as typically seen in the park.
  • Agate Bridge – The bridge, a petrified log that creates a bridge because the ground below it has washed out from flood waters, is literally steps from the parking lot.  Today it is reinforced with concrete to preserve it.  There was an interesting saying that I liked posted near the bridge: “In the world there is nothing more submissive and weak than water.  Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong nothing can surpass it.”  ~Lao Tzu
Agate Bridge
Agate Bridge
  • Jasper Forest – Finally, we were walking amongst the HUGE petrified wood and it was so impressive.  Both of us kept picking up the wood/rocks and being amazed at how it felt, how it looked, and how smooth it was.  We took a bit of a longer walk at Jasper Forest and sat out on the rocks talking for probably an hour. 
Jasper Forest
Jasper Forest
  • Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center – Hannah is a sucker for the park museums and found the archeological digging site they had at this one for kids to be a blast.  She would go in the next room and make me hide the bones in the sand, and then she would come back and use the tools available to locate the bones I hid, being careful not to damage them.  We must have done this at least five times.
  • Giant Logs – There was a short trail right outside the visitor center with a ton of giant petrified logs.  If you have very little time to explore the park and want to see what it is best known for, this short little trail would be a great place to start.  If my memory is correct, at least some of the trail is paved for accessibility and strollers!

Lesson Learned

When you as an adult are tired and a little sick of sight-seeing, your kids probably are too.  There is no harm in skipping a few stops or just seeing what you can from the car.  When something is really interesting (like wood turned to glittery quartz), trust me, those kids will find their energy again!  And hopefully you can locate yours somewhere too!

Mesa Verde National Park – November 2018

Hannah – 5 years old – National Park #5

The drive from Alamosa to Mesa Verde National Park was gorgeous.  We weaved through the Rio Grande National Forest taking twists and turns, through valleys and alongside rivers.  We stopped at a gas station just outside of the turn into the park to fill up.  The last time I was here with Jim in 2011, we didn’t realize how far up the mountain the actual park was, and we were almost out of gas by the time we got to the top.  On the return down the mountain, we had to put the car in neutral and brake our way down to make sure we would make it to a gas station.  I wasn’t about to make that mistake again! 

We arrived at the Visitor Center and the Park Ranger gave Hannah a Junior Ranger book.  We do not do these at every park, but occasionally when we have extra time, she does enjoy them.  It may be easier when Hannah can read better, but at this point, she needed a lot of help with it, and since I was driving up a winding road along a mountainside, I thought I should keep my eyes on the road instead of sounding out “Pueblo” for her. Some of the activities did not require reading though, and she enjoyed looking through and drawing in the book on the 45 minute drive up the mountain. 

Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum

Since it was the week of Thanksgiving, there was a skeleton crew working and not everything was open.  This was a bit of a bummer, but it also kept the crowds down, and I felt there was still plenty to see and do.  At the top, there is a Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum that Hannah really enjoyed.  It featured many artifacts the ancient Pueblo people used.  There were also several small scenes showing how they originally built their homes and the development into the current cliff dwellings that you can walk through and see today.  It is incredible to see what they were capable of with such little tools and technology.   Mesa Verde Map

Cliff Dwelling along the Mesa Top Loop

After the museum, we took the car around the Mesa Top Loop making several stops to visit the sites and see the cliff dwellings.  Hannah and I discussed the challenges they must have had building their homes on the side of a cliff, and how they had to hunt for their food.  I also told her that “Mesa Verde” means “green table” in Spanish and why it was called that with the tall plateau landforms with steep sides that looked like a table.

Far View Sites

On our way down, we stopped at the Far View Sites which was a flat less-than-one mile hike showcasing some of the top pithouses and other ruins.  It was really neat as you are able to walk into the ruins as long as you stay off the walls.  The Pueblos were living at the Far View sites at least 200 years before they built the more famous cliff dwellings for which the park is so well known.

Far View Sites
Far View Sites

We cruised back down the mountain and arrived at our hotel in Cortez, grabbed dinner from the restaurant across the street, and you guessed it… hit the swimming pool!  We met a really nice family with 2 young girls at the pool, and I ended up talking to the mom for quite some time.  The next morning Hannah begged me to go to the pool again before we left, and we saw the family again.  Although I do not mind travelling alone with Hannah, it’s really nice to make those adult connections from time to time.  It’s also really fascinating to meet people from all over and get a little glimpse into their lives. 

Lessons Learned

Even if some of the park is closed for the holidays, you can still see and learn a lot.  I was a little bummed that the Spruce Tree House was not open due to restorations being done, but Hannah did not seem fazed by that and she had a great time exploring the dwellings we could visit.