Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park – June 2017

Hannah – 4 years old – Backpacking Trip #1

As you read this blog, you are going to learn that the Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park (often referred to as the Porkies) is a very special place to me.  It is the place that Jim first took me backpacking when we first started dating, the place I started to fall in love with him, and the place he decided he was going to marry me… though he actually ASKED me to marry him on a different backpacking trip on the Superior Hiking Trail… but more on that another day.

And so, it had always been part of my plan to take Hannah up there someday on a backpacking trip.  I wanted to show her all the areas I had hiked with her Dad, and where we sat looking over the vast Lake Superior, dreaming about our future, talking about marriage, and kids, and how we are going to take our kids backpacking all the time.

Lake Superior – Porcupine Mountains

More Fun with Friends

Thankfully, I didn’t have to do this alone.  I happen to be friends with some amazing moms who also like backpacking.  We had been on several girls backpacking trips together over the years of our friendship.  When I brought up the idea of backpacking with our kids, they both immediately agreed!  Both of them had never been to the Porkies before, and they were excited to see what I had been raving about all of these years.

Our kids were ages 3, 4, and 5 years old.  I knew I had to keep the mileage low, the terrain relatively flat, and there needs to be a shelter at the end of the trail that doesn’t involve setting up a tent.  This was different than I was used to.  Jim and I typically hiked long miles, steep hills, and we would only rent cabins when winter hiking.  But something told me it would be a good idea to have a dry place to hang out in if it rained, especially if we ever wanted these kids to come on another trip with us again.

Little Carp Cabin

I found the perfect Porkies location and booked the Little Carp rustic cabin rental about 6 months before our trip.  There are several trail and distances one can hike to get to the Little Carp Cabin along Lake Superior, but one trail in particular was perfect – the Pinkerton Trail.  It is about 3 miles from the trailhead to the cabin, with a few ups and downs but nothing drastic, some creeks and bridges, and fun boardwalks on the swampier parts.   Map of Porkies

We arrived at the trailhead unsure of what these kids were truly capable of in terms of hiking, snack breaks, etc. My cousin who has experience doing this told me not to be surprised if it takes us an hour a mile.  Oh boy… I thought, what have I gotten myself into?  Maybe Hannah was too young?   Maybe I shouldn’t have invited a 3 year old with us?  What if something goes wrong? 

Hiking In

Hiking on the Pinkerton Trail

But in no time, the kids has loaded up their backpacks and were bounding down the trail, not even taking a second to look back and see if their moms were keeping up.  Thankfully the trail didn’t have any cross trails from the trailhead to close to the cabin, so I wasn’t too worried about them getting ahead of us.  I also knew they would slow down and wait for us as soon as they got hungry.

Speaking of their backpacks, I read that a general rule of thumb for backpacking is that one should not carry more than 25% of their weight, and it’s even less % for kids.  So a 40 lb kid should not be carrying more than about 8-10 lbs.  Hannah was using her school backpack this trip, not a proper hiking backpack, so I was even more cautious about weight.  She ended up carrying just her clothes.  It probably ended up weighing about 6 lbs and she did not seem to have an issue with it.

Night One

We arrived at the cabin in about 1.5 hours (faster than expected) and with only one snack break!  It was perfect.  There were 4 beds (2 sets of bunk beds), cooking pans, utensils, and a wood burning stove.  The outhouse was not too far away, but far enough to keep the smell away!  The cabin sat up on a ridge, overlooking the Little Carp River to the right and Lake Superior ahead.  The breeze was light, but enough to keep the mosquitos away for the most part. 

After unpacking our sleeping bags and food, the first thing I like to do when backpacking is get water filtering. To prevent getting sick from the bacteria in the rivers/lakes, you always want to filter or use purifying drops in your water.  Depending on the water source, one way of purifying may be better than the other.  In the Porkies, filtering is a considered a safe way to drink the water.  I highly recommend the Platypus GravityWorks 4L Complete Water Filter Kit.  (paid link) Filtering four liters of water at a time is a great time saver, especially when your water source is not very close by.  And with 6 people, you want something that can filter a lot of water in a short amount of time.  The Platypus GravityWorks is easy to use.  Once the water is filtered, it is very easy for the kids to fill their water bottles directly from the bag on their own.

We walked down to the water and happen to catch the most beautiful sunset over Lake Superior.  Of course, in all the years I’ve been coming to the Porkies, it has yet to disappoint me on sunsets.  The kids had a blast climbing on driftwood and throwing rocks in to the lake. 

Rain, Rain, Go Away

The next day we set out on a short day hike to Big Carp River (about 1 mile each way).  We packed up some lunches and sat out on the rocks along the shore where Big Carp entered into Lake Superior to eat.  The sun shone down on us and we were enjoying every moment.  Upon our return to the cabin, it started to rain.  I’ve never been so excited to have a cabin instead of a tent in my life.  We played cards, made hot chocolate, and told scary stories to the kids.  The rain passed in the afternoon and by nightfall the kids were zonked!

Big Carp River

The Hike Out

The final morning we packed up, cleaned the cabin, and gathered the garbage.  The downside of cabin camping with kids is you tend to make more garbage, and everything that comes in, has to be carried out.  So one of us tied a bag of garbage to our backpacks.  The bugs were out in full force that morning after the rain.  Unfortunately the hike out never seems to be as fun for the kids as the hike in, and we needed them to keep moving so we were not eaten alive from mosquitos.  They also started complaining about who gets to walk in front.  This was all a challenge.  We fed them a good breakfast and promised lots of treats if they could make it to the car without a snack break.  We then invented a game where they thought they were each getting an exact equal time as the “leader” – where really the moms would just randomly call out “switch!” when we anticipated someone was getting antsy at not being in the front.  Three miles felt like five that day, but we made it out with limited stops, bug bites, and only a few complaints from the kids. 

Lessons Learned

Keys to backpacking with kids – keep the mileage low, the packs light, and the snacks close by!  And backpacking with friends is always a good idea.

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.