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.

Meow Wolf – Intro to our New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona Trip – November 2018

Over Thanksgiving 2018, I decided to take a trip to New Mexico with Hannah to check some more National Parks off our list.  We flew out of Eau Claire with a connecting flight in Chicago O’Hare to Albuquerque, NM.  Thankfully I used a United Chase Credit Card to book the flight and got us a free United Club Pass!  Hannah enjoyed the unlimited breakfast buffet and comfy seats while we awaited our 3+ hour layover before boarding our flight to Albuquerque. 

The next few blog posts will be about this trip and the specific parks and monuments that we visited.  However, I wanted to take some time to talk about the first part of the trip, because Hannah will tell you it was her FAVORITE thing we’ve ever done and she still to this day asks to go back to this place.  We rented a car and drove north about an hour to Santa Fe.  My friend Drew lives here and we were staying with him for the night. 

Meow Wolf

When we arrived, Drew was still working, but he suggested we check out a place called Meow Wolf.  I replied, “Meow what?  Is this some sort of cat exhibit?”  He explained it as an interactive art and music exhibit and said to trust him, which I do, but I still looked it up online to see if I could learn more.  Online you will find out that it is a “unique & immersive art installations with multimedia elements & a mysterious narrative throughout.”  Which honestly was not any more helpful of a description as Drew gave me. 

I decided to trust him and we shortly arrived at what appeared to be a renovated bowling alley.  I was skeptical, yet intrigued by the large sculptures outside the building.  The cost was about $50 total for our tickets (1 adult, 1 child) and when purchasing them, I told the girl behind the counter that we had never been here and did not really know where to start or what to do. 

She pointed towards a door and said, “There are 70 rooms inside (20,000 square feet) and there is no right or wrong way to experience Meow Wolf.  You can enter here, and you will eventually find an exit.  There will be some people in there that have bright vests on and if you need anything, they can help you.”  Ummm… okay!?  So we entered through a door and into one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. 

Experiencing Meow Wolf

meow wolf
Hannah in the “aquarium” at Meow Wolf

The first room was dark aside from bright neon lights and signs.  We walked through what appeared to be a life-sized aquarium, with neon algae and even a life-sized scuba guy.  The only thing we were missing was the water.  Later in the tour, we saw the actual aquarium that was being replicated.  If you are having a hard time picturing this, it’s because I am having a hard time describing it.  

We entered into another space that contained life-sized dinosaur bones that you could hit and they would play a musical note.  Another section looked like a tree fort, and yet a different part was what seemed like a normal 2-story house.  At one point Hannah had me crawling into this tiny space from a neon room and we came out into a fireplace in the living room of the house.  Something about me army crawling through this hole delighted her to no end as we ended up back here several times, which gave the employee in the bright vest a laugh every time he saw me wiggle through it. 

Meow Wolf

Next we were in the kitchen of the house and Hannah opened the refrigerator to unveil a bright white lighted hallway.  All you could see was white – the floors, walls, and ceilings were all white.  I imagine this is what going to heaven might look like.  She of course walked right inside of it, pulling me with her, landing us in another dimension of the experience.  

A Child’s Imagination is Inspiring

I honestly would not have seen half of the rooms if not for having Hannah with me.  A child’s imagination is endless and she somehow knew what buttons to press and hidden levers to pull that would open secret doors and into new rooms.  One of my favorite rooms had laser lights shining down in the shape of a harp, so the laser beams looks like the strings.  When you touched the lights, so really nothing at all, just the air where the lights were, you created the sound of the harp. 

Meow Wolf
Another interesting room at Meow Wolf

I could go on forever trying to describe the rooms but you may be better off just googling “Meow Wolf” and selecting images.  Better yet, take a trip to Sante Fe to experience this for yourself!   They will be opening additional locations in Las Vegas (2020) and Denver (2021) and I am so excited to take Hannah to them!

I recommend allowing at least 2 hours of time to experience the entire place.  By then, I think we had seen most of it, some rooms multiple times.  The photos I took do not do it justice.  I also highly recommend experiencing Meow Wolf with a child.  Their awe, amazement, and imagination is inspiring to witness. 

After Meow Wolf, we hit up a grocery store to get our supplies for the trip, such as PB&Js, apples, bananas, and some car snacks, such as granola bars, fruit snacks, almonds, and bubble gum.  We then met Drew and went to an amazing Mexican dinner. I could hardly keep my eyes open by the time we got back to Drew’s that night.  It was a long travel day, but an incredible experience that Hannah talks about to this day. 

Additional “Things to Do”

At the end of our trip we had an extra day in Albuquerque and took the 15 minute Sandia Park Tramway to the top of the Sandia Mountains (10,378 ft. peak) overlooking the city of Albuquerque on one side, and a ski hill on the back side.  Unfortunately, going up that fast gave me some altitude sickness.  Hannah thankfully handled it just fine!  While she wouldn’t stop pointing out all of the amazing things she was seeing on the way up, I was crouched down, crowded by a lot of people in a small tram, trying not to see my lunch again.  I was able to get a hold of my bearings after about 15 minutes at the top, but we were pretty cold and ready to hit the pool at our hotel before our early morning flight home the next day.  We also met a nice young couple at the top who had hiked the 7.5 miles up ~3,500 foot incline and were taking the tram back down.

Hannah at the top of the Sandia Mountain

Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park – June 2018

Porcupine Mountains

Hannah – 5 years old – Backpacking Trip #3

After our first spring Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park trip one year earlier, all of us moms and kids said we definitely wanted to return to the Pinkerton Trail and stay at the Little Carp Cabin again the following year.  However, there was one hiccup… one of the moms was going to be having a baby three months before our next trip.  Although I wouldn’t put it past this particular amazing mom to strap a backpack to her back and a baby to her front to go on a hike, the thought of carrying out all of those diapers seemed less than appealing to all of us.  So we were down to just the 4 of us – 2 moms, 2 kids. 

Hiking In

The hike in went smoothly and the kids fell right into step as they had done last year.  With only two of them, now ages 5 and 6, we traveled pretty swiftly through the tall forest and over the streams and rivers.  After unpacking our sleeping bags and filtering some Lake Superior water with the Platypus GravityWorks 4L Complete Water Filter Kit (paid link), my friend, Katie and I started building a fire to make dinner. That night we made steak, asparagus, sweet potatoes, peppers, and carrots while sipping on Sutter Home’s finest White Zinfandel. 

dinner and wine
Katie showing off our dinner and drinks

The kids were off exploring the woods and seeing if their favorite hideout spots were still there.  They had found a big crevice near the edge and decided that a bear must live there. We could not always see them, but could hear their giggles occasionally, giving us comfort that they were not too far away. We did have some ground rules though – they were not allowed to go down by the lake without an adult. This particular cabin sits high up on a ridge and the trail down to the lake is a little steep. They seemed to find plenty to explore up on the ridge.

Hannah discovering the local “wildlife”

A Long Day Hike

The next day was beautiful.  The sun was shining but the morning was pretty cool by the lake.  The kids were up and ready to do some day hiking.  After breakfast, we made PB&Js, filled water bottles, packed snacks, and dressed in layers for our day hike.  We started toward the Big Carp River on the Lake Superior Trail.  Once we reached the Big Carp River Trail, we took that up river.  The wind was blocked away from the lake and as we walked, we were all slowly removing the layers we had on. 

Hannah hiking along the Big Carp River

We had gone about 2.5 miles so far, meaning our round trip would be 5 miles, which is the furthest these kids have ever hiked in a day!  We decided we should probably take a lunch break when we happened upon a gorgeous spot with a lot of sun shining on the rocks by the river.  By then, we were all in shorts and tank tops.  We dipped our feet in the water while snacking and the kids took turns taking pictures of each other and playing on the rocks. 

Hiking on the Lake Superior Trail

Surprisingly, the hike back to the cabin came with very few complaints.  The kids did awesome and the moms were happy they made it that far and that we didn’t have any rain yet that the forecast had suggested.  But little did we know… it was right around the corner. 

Rain and Warmth

Hannah and her friend adding comments and drawings to the log book

We had just arrived back at the cabin and were unpacking our gear from the day hike when the rain started.  The kids decided to write about our day hike adventure in the log book and then got out the deck of cards. However, they eventually were getting restless – even after that big hike!  So we put on our rain coats and headed to the beach!  A little rain isn’t going to stop these kids from throwing rocks into Lake Superior for hours! 

One of the best things about having a cabin to return to is the ability to dry out.  Most of the cabins have lines hanging up so you can dry your wet clothes.  We returned to the cabin and started a fire in the wood burning stove.  We made dinner and called it a night.  We all lay in our sleeping bags, listening to the rain fall.  The kids were zonked and fell asleep hard and fast.

Lake Superior
Lake Superior

The hike out was again a wet one, just like the previous year.  We didn’t take breaks and made it to the car pretty early after packing and cleaning up.

Lessons Learned

Kids can hike further than you think!  And having a warm cabin to return to after spending hours in the rain is incredible and highly recommended.

Winter Backpacking in the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park – January 2018

Hannah – 4 years old – Backpacking Trip #2

Some Background Info – Christmas in the Porkies

Jim’s family would often celebrate Christmas the weekend before actual Christmas, and my family would tend to celebrate the weekend after Christmas, which left us alone on the actual holiday.  We decided to book a winter trip to the Porkies (Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park) over the Christmas holiday.  We booked 3 different yurts that we cross country skied into.  One night while we were there, it snowed 14 inches.  It was magical.  We decided this was the type of Christmas we wanted every year, even when we had kids.  And we did just that every year following. Map of Porkies

After Jim died I desperately wanted to continue that tradition, but knew it wasn’t possible for me to do alone.  It would have required me to chop wood to keep us warm (something I am capable of, but didn’t really want to rely on).  And I wasn’t sure I should be alone in the middle of nowhere with a 1 year old.  And so, I had to learn to let go of some traditions, and figure out new ones.

A New Winter Porkies Experience

When Hannah was 4 years old, I was able to convince some friends to go on this winter adventure with me.  Though not over Christmas, we went during a long weekend in January.  I booked a yurt for one night and then a cabin (which stays warmer than a yurt) for the following two nights.  My friends were only able to join for the cabin nights.  At the fear of me staying at the yurt alone with Hannah, my dad offered to join us for the night in the yurt.  Although I was confident I could make it a night alone, I was pretty quick to accept his offer.

In the winter, only the eastern part of the park is open.  There are several cabins and yurts to rent with various hiking distances in to them.  We rented the Little Union River Yurt for night one with Dad, and the Union River Cabin for the next two nights with my friend Kara, her boyfriend Zac, and Kara’s two teenage daughters.  Winter Map of Porkies

The Hike, Ski, Sled In

We met my dad in the parking lot near the trail head and got our packs ready.  The route in was about 3 ½ miles.  I was not sure how the snow conditions would be and how Hannah would handle that distance in the snow, so I cross country skied while towing her in a sled.  She was elated with this mode of transportation.  I did a test run earlier that month on a particularly snowy day by skiing to her daycare and sledding her home.  It worked great! 

The ski and sled ride into the Little Union Yurt
Photo credit: my Dad

My dad had chosen to hike in boots.  The trail was broken in enough that this worked just fine.  Tip: I’ve been to the Porkies in the winter when there was no snow and we had to hike in boots, and other years when it was necessary to have skis or snow shoes.  I’d recommend bringing both boots and either skis or snowshoes and decide once you arrive which one to use.

We hiked in on the River Trail past the Artist-in-Residence Cabin – a cabin available for artists who are inspired by the amazing great northern wilderness.  It was warmer than we expected that day and by the time we reached the yurt we were nearly down to our base layers.

Little Union Yurt

We built a fire in the stove inside the yurt, which quickly heated up the yurt to a balmy 85 degrees – it’s a little challenging to regulate the temperature in there, but we finally figured it out.  After dinner, we got ready for bed, and Hannah suggested a late night moonlight walk.  We got dressed and hiked about a half mile before stopping, turning off our headlamps and staring up at the gorgeous sky, lit up by moonlight and stars.

Star-gazing on a night hike
Photo credit: my Dad

Union River Cabin

The next morning we packed up the yurt and hiked about 1 ½ miles to the Union River Cabin.  We got there just in time to get a fire going in the stove before my friends arrived on their snow shoes.  My dad said his good-byes and hiked out on his own.  That afternoon we explored the area around the cabin, hiked down along the river, and found a very fun sledding hill that everyone enjoyed.  I was very glad to have brought the sled for the added entertainment.

Sledding near the Union River Cabin
Photo credit: Zac Bogstad

The East Vista

The next morning we decided to all hike (and Hannah sled) to the East Vista overlook – which is about a 7 mile round trip.  The first 2 ½ miles was relatively flat while the last mile was basically straight up hill.  The East Vista overlook was well worth it, overlooking Lake Superior and much of the park.  On the way back down, one of the older girls suggested that she and Hannah SLED down the one mile trail.  We sent them on their way, the rest of us all jealous we hadn’t thought of that and didn’t bring additional sleds.  They had a blast and surprising did not hit any trees on their way down.  And I was glad Hannah had a teenager with her as it took the rest of us awhile to catch up to them.

The View from the East Vista – Porcupine Mountains Wilderness Park
Photo credit: Zac Bogstad

Snow Day

On our walk back to the cabin, it started snowing pretty heavy.  Overall throughout the day, it snowed about 8 inches.  It was beautiful.  We all played outside in the fresh powder – building forts, jumping into piles of snow, and enjoying every minute of the winter wonderland.  The fire was raging inside the cabin for a toasty warm surprise when we came in from playing. 

Hannah playing in the fresh powder.
Photo credit: Zac Bogstad

Someone left a 500 piece puzzle in the cabin and we were determined to finish it.  Unfortunately it gets dark early in the winter, so we rigged up some lanterns to continue our puzzle late into the evening until it was finally done.  Meanwhile, Kara and her daughter had cooked up the most delicious Pad Thai meal I’ve ever had while backpacking.

The Snow Shoe, Ski, Sled Out

We woke up the last morning and packed up our gear for the 4 mile snow shoe, ski, and sled ride out of the park.  However, we now had a lot of fresh powder to push through.  Hannah kept sliding to the back of the sled, making it harder for me to pull it through the snow.  We finally got her situated correctly so her weight was evenly distributed on the sled so I could actually tow her.  Once we all got moving, it was a very enjoyable hike out.  The storm the previous day had left all of the tree branches glittered with fluffy snow. 

Kara and her daughters had a head start and by the time Zac, Hannah, and I reached the cars, they had put their backpacks in their car and had the car warming up.  I dug out my keys from my pack and went to unlock my car, but nothing happened.  Hmmm… that’s odd.  Click, click… again nothing.  So used the keyhole to open my door.  And that’s when I saw it – the dome light was on.  Either Hannah hit it while she was changing into her snow gear, or perhaps I hit it getting my skis out of the car.  Regardless of the culprit, we weren’t leaving the Porkies quite yet.  I was so thankful for Zac and Kara there to help jump my car.  If I were alone, it could have been a long hike to find someone who could help us out. 

Lessons Learned:

It’s okay to leave some traditions behind, and it is okay to start new ones, or not.  I would love to tell you that we do this every winter, but the fact is that so far, it only worked out this one time.  I am so grateful to my Dad and my friends who helped make it a special experience, and I hope to do it again some winter, but it likely will not be an annual tradition. 

Also, ALWAYS check your dome light before leaving your car for a few days on an adventure.