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.

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.