Great Sand Dunes National Park – November 2018

Hannah – 5 years old – National Park #4

We arrived in the city of Alamosa early afternoon and went straight to our hotel – Holiday Inn Express & Suites – for a swim.  With the distance we already drove from Santa Fe, and the park being another 45 minutes from Alamosa, I didn’t want to push Hannah’s patience and car trip time any further that day, as I knew this vacation was going to be a lot of car riding and driving overall.  We were spending two nights in Alamosa, so we had the entire next day to explore the park.  Also, being the only adult, I don’t have the ability to research anything while in the car, so I spent that first night figuring out a plan. 

Sand Sleds

I was researching what to do in the park and everything I was reading said to rent sand sleds or sand boards (like a snow board) and bring them to the park.  Thankfully the reviews I was reading also informed me that these have to be rented in Alamosa and they DO NOT rent them at the National Park.  I am so thankful I read that in advance, as I would have had a very sad 5 year old on my hands if we showed up and had to drive 45 minutes back to town for the sled!

Hannah with the sand sled

As luck would have it, there was a sports shop within walking distance of our hotel!  We stopped at Kristi Mountain Sports the next morning and rented one adult sand sled for $20.  They had child sized ones available as well, but I knew I would already be carrying a backpack along with the adult sled, and I figured we could share.  They gave us the sled and taught us how to “wax” it before every run. 

Visitor Center

The drive out was pretty uneventful.  You could see the mountainous sand dunes in the distance but it was hard to tell how far away they were.  Everything else around us was flat.  As we drove into the park, we saw hundreds of elk grazing in a field.  The Visitor Center was great and Hannah wanted to play with every cool sand storm exhibit they had in there.  We asked the rangers where to go and they informed us of where to park and said, “You can go anywhere!  But the higher you climb, the better the sledding!”  We drove down to the parking lot and got our daypack ready, loaded with clothes layers, PB&Js we made in the morning in our hotel room, and other snacks. 

Hannah crossing the Medano Creek River Bed

You start by crossing the Medano Creek river bed and hiking about ½ mile before you hit the dunes.  In November, when we were there, it is a dry river bed, but in the spring, with the snow melting off the mountains, it is an actual river that you wade through.  The sand can get pretty hot there in the summer, so it is recommended that you were tennis shoes rather than flip flops, but that was not as big of a concern in the late fall. 

The Dunes

PB&J lunch break

I wasn’t sure how far Hannah would make it before she needed a break.  But to my surprise, we actually made it about halfway up to the top before she said she wanted to try the sled.  We waxed it up and took our first ride down together, her in front of me.  We hit an unfortunate bump which made sand fly right into her face.  She thought this was hilarious, while I was glad she blocked it all from hitting my face!  We took several more rides on this medium sized hill, testing the sled out together and separately. 

The way the dunes are shaped by the winds can make some areas really tough, if not impossible to climb up.  You have to find a ridgeline and hike that and then decide which “bowl” you are going to slide down.  The sand seemed to be finer as you went up, making the sled go faster.  

It was a gorgeous fall day without a cloud in the sky.  With the wind blocked, the sun felt amazing and we removed several layers of clothes.  However, as soon as you crested a ridgeline and that wind hit, you wanted them all back on right away.  We took a break for lunch and then decided to explore more. 

I let Hannah lead the way and she found a new bowl for us to try.  Instead of sledding, she decided she wanted to roll down into it.  At the bottom, we were completely blocked by the wind.  She played in that bowl doing headstands, cartwheels, and rolling around while I relaxed and soaked up the sun. 

Sandy-hair Headstands

Hiking Out and Dinner

As the sun was getting lower in the sky, I knew it would get colder, so we decided to slowly make our way back to the car, sledding down the dunes where we could.  We pulled back into Alamosa around dinner time, dropped off the sled at Kristi Mountain Sports, and stopped at this great restaurant called Locavores.  I ordered some delicious fish tacos, while Hannah opted for her favorite, mac and cheese.  Back at the hotel, as we took our layers of clothes off, it had appeared we brought a mini sand dune home with us.  I think we had sand in our hair the remainder of the trip.

Lessons Learned

Doing some research ahead of time can save you a lot of time and aggravation.  Thankfully we took the day before to research about the sled rentals instead of driving straight out to the dunes.

Biscayne National Park – April 2017

Hannah – 4 years old – National Park #3

Robert is Here Fruit Stand

We had just finished walking the Anhinga Trail in the Everglades and decided to make our way to Biscayne National Park.  However, we got sidetracked by the Robert Is Here Fruit Stand just outside of the park.  It’s hard to miss this place as you drive right by it between Homestead and the Everglades.  It has an impressive selection of fresh fruit and one of my favorite treats –smoothies.  It also had a small animal farm in the back.  We grabbed some lunch and smoothies from the stand and sat at a picnic table while Hannah admired the farm animals.

Hannah at the Robert is Here Fruit Stand

I recall coming to this very same fruit stand with my husband Jim years ago.  He was wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt that day and while waiting in line for smoothies, the guy in front of us noticed his t-shirt.  Next thing I know, the guy is asking Jim if he wants to go smoke pot out back.  Although tempting, Jim and I opted just for the smoothies that day.

Biscayne National Park

We made the 35 minute drive over to Biscayne National Park and walked around admiring the ocean views.  We had pre-booked a boat outing to Boca Chita Key with the Biscayne National Park Institute.  Inside to the Dante Fascell Visitor Center, we were told that we were the only ones who signed up for the tour, so we would have the boat to ourselves! 

Boca Chita Key

The lighthouse on Boca Chita Key

The crew was great and there was also a park ranger on board who gave us all sorts of fun facts about the park, like it is made up 95% of water and only 5% land.  We arrived at Boca Chita Key in less than an hour and the park ranger asked us if we wanted to go to the top of the lighthouse.  Yes please!  She brought us up there, unlocking the doors as we walked up a small spiral staircase.  We could basically see the entire island as we walked around the circle at the top.  That’s when we noticed a beach across the island and decided we should check that out next. 

The beach at Boca Chita Key

The beach was gorgeous, with calm, shallow water and enough shells to keep any 4 year old busy.  I explained to Hannah that we cannot take these shells with us because they are part of a National Park. In order to respect the park and have others enjoy it for years to come, we need to leave it as we found it.  She seemed disappointed, but I assured her we could pick some up at the gift shop on our way out, which seemed to satisfy her. 

Overall our trip to Biscayne NP was a successful one!  If it’s a beautiful day out (which it so often is in Florida), I highly recommend the boat excursion to Boca Chita Key.

Lessons Learned

If a park is made up 95% of water, it is best to experience it ON the water!

Everglades National Park – April 2017

Hannah – 4 years old – National Park #2

After visiting the Rocky Mountains with Hannah, I knew I wanted to do more parks with her.  I also wanted to do a warm weather trip as the winters can get long here.  I decided on Florida because it is an easy flight and the Miami weather is great in April.  Also, I had been to the parks in Florida previously, so I had some ideas of what I wanted to show Hannah.

My Dad had recently retired and after finding out we booked this trip, he asked if he could tag along.  While I was thrilled to share this experience with my Dad, I also felt extremely sad that I wasn’t sharing it with my husband.  After all, the National Park trips were what we did together, and what we had envisioned doing together as a family for years to come.  But as far as Dads are concerned, mine is second to none and we felt lucky to spend this vacation with him.

We flew into Miami pretty late at night.  I typically do not like booking hotels in advance of trips to allow for more spontaneity along the way, but with flying in so late, I had pre-booked a hotel in Homestead – about a 45 minute drive from the airport.  Homestead is a city located right between Everglades and Biscayne National Parks, so a great place to stay when visiting them both.

Anhinga Trail

The next morning, after breakfast at the hotel and a Starbucks run, we started on our way to the Everglades.  We stopped at the park sign, of course, for a picture, and then at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center to make a plan.  I had taken the drive all the way down to the Flamingo Visitor Center on a previous trip with Jim, but unfortunately we did not enough time for that on this trip as we had boat reservations at Biscayne NP in the afternoon.  TIP:  Flamingo is one of the places you can see both crocodiles and alligators in the same area!

Hannah (with the Little Mermaid in hand) and an alligator on the Anhinga Trail

However, having been here before, I knew Hannah would absolutely love the Royal Palm Anhinga Trail.  The trail is the first left after the visitor center and it is full of wildlife and gators galore!  You can hardly walk without seeing a gator in the waterway surrounding the trail.  It is amazing at how close we could get to the gators and the birds and fish you can see are pretty amazing as well.  And at only about a mile long, it was definitely feasible for a 4 year old. 

Shark Valley

I want to also give a shout out to the Shark Valley section of Everglades National Park – on the north side of the park off of Hwy 41.  I visited this section many years earlier and would love to take Hannah back here someday.  It is a 15 mile round trip loop that can be walked, biked, or you can even take a tram.  The tram and bicycle rentals do cost money, but you can bring your own bike too.  I was there with my sister and we rented bikes.  There were times when alligators were literally just lying across the trail sunbathing and we would have to walk our bikes around them. 

Alligators on the trails?!  Aren’t you nervous?

Yes and no.  Yes, alligators are large reptiles that can move faster than we sometimes give them credit.  But as with most animals you may encounter in nature, it’s important to educate yourself on the dangers and precautions you should take around them.  Alligators feed mostly at night, so they are typically not hunting during the day, therefore daylight hours are much safer to be around them.  They are typically taking in the heat from the sun, trying to warm their body temperatures by laying out on or near the paths.  So if you don’t bother them, they shouldn’t bother you. Also, it is imperative to always stay on the trails and never go in or near the water where posted. 

Lessons Learned:

Even if you do not have time to visit every section of a park you want to visit, you can still have an amazing experience.  Every part of each park is different and beautiful in its own way and coming back at different times in your life also creates different experiences and meanings.  Seeing a park through a child’s (or grandchild’s) eye brings a new level of joy and discovery.

Rocky Mountain National Park – December 2016

Hannah – 3 ½ years old – National Park #1

In trying to escape the loneliness of the holidays, and establish new traditions and memories, I booked a trip for Hannah and I to Denver over Christmas 2016 (almost 3 years after Jim died).  Immediately after arriving in Denver and getting our rental car, we drove straight to Red Rocks Park as I had never been there and it was not far out of town.  It was easy to find a place to park along the road and we did a relatively short 1.5 mile easy hike there before heading to a friend’s house in Denver for the night.  It was nice to get her out on a walk after sitting in a plane all morning.  The next morning, we headed up to Estes Park, CO for Hannah’s first National Park experience. 

Red Rock Park

When my husband and I traveled to National Parks, we started a “National Park Sign Picture” tradition that many park-goers also partake in, and so I continued this tradition with Hannah.  At 3 years old though, she was determined that her Disney princesses that she had brought with on the plane also be a part of this picture. 

Rocky Mountain National Park

We drove in at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center (map of Rocky Mountain NP), drove north on 36, and looped around on Hwy 34 passing the Fall River Visitor Center, stopping for every animal we saw along the way.  Thankfully, our first drive through the park was already full of wildlife.  We saw a huge field of elk, and although I was hoping for a moose, Hannah seemed pretty amazed at the elk. 

Elk in a field behind Hannah

We stayed at a place called Murphy’s River Lodge that had a good breakfast and an indoor swimming pool that was pretty chilly in December, but Hannah did not seem to notice – she swam every night we were there.  The front desk also had movies to check out and bring to your room!    Hannah selected “The Land Before Time” and I recalled liking that movie as a child, so we grabbed that during check out and watched it our first night in the hotel room.  Spoiler alert:  the mom dinosaur DIES!  If you are trying to escape the loneliness and sadness – I’d advise against this movie!  Hannah, however, didn’t seem fazed by it, so only one of us was crying at this point.

Bear Lake

Bear Lake

The next day we had big plans!  We drove down the beautiful, scenic Bear Lake Road to Bear Lake.  My plan was to hike around the lake ( ½ mile hike) and maybe do some other hiking around that area.  It was a little busy so we parked near the end of the parking lot.  I brought a backpack with to hold any layers we remove along with some snacks and water.  You can NEVER have too many snacks when it comes to hiking with kids!  We made it all the way from the car to the trailhead when Hannah said loudly, “Mom, my legs are really tired.  Can we take a break?”  Every parent in hearing distance laughed as I secretly rolled my eyes and said, “Sure honey, but you realize we haven’t started the hike yet, right?”  So we sat at the benches between the parking lot and trailhead, eating a granola bar. 

To say I was skeptical that we would ever make it around Bear Lake was an understatement, but to my surprise, the moment we got on the trail, Hannah completely forgot we were hiking and she went into explorer mode.  She climbed all over the rocks and was amazed that the snow went up to her waist when she stepped off the padded down trail.

Sledding in a National Park

Sledding at Hidden Valley in Rocky Mountain National Park

After our hike around Bear Lake, we drove over to Estes Park Mountain Shop where we were able to rent a sled for about $5.00.  As far as I know, Rocky Mountain National Park is the only NP to officially have a sledding hill in it.  Hidden Valley is just outside of Estes Park on Hwy 34.  It is a perfect sledding hill for an afternoon of fun.  EXPERT TIP: Hike first, sled later – giving the kids something to look forward to is a great incentive to keep them going on the trails!

Downtown Estes Park

That afternoon we walked downtown to check out the scene, but by then Hannah was getting a little tired so we decided to just grab a bite to eat.  I had completely forgot it was Christmas Eve, and people were all starting to close up their shops to go home to their families when I realized if we didn’t find a restaurant soon, we’d be eating McDonalds for Christmas. 

Thankfully we popped into The Grubsteak Restaurant just in time and they must have seen the desperation on my face as the waiter said if we order quickly, he will still get our order in.  That’s easy for Hannah – her fave – Mac and Cheese!  I took a quick glance at the menu and said “What are you known for?”  He told me the Elk burgers are amazing, so I took a chance and he was right!  He even sat and chatted with us afterwards.

Lessons Learned

Overall, my first solo trip was both better and worse than I expected.  Better in terms of Hannah’s abilities to hike and keep pace with a vacation that did not include naps, but what I didn’t enjoy was the loneliness, though I believe that to be more because of it being Christmas and less about actually being alone.  I missed my family and was excited to be home with them the following weekend for our Christmas celebration.

I love traveling with my daughter and showing her the National Parks but I should NOT do that again at Christmastime.