Posted in Travel

National Parks Tour: Stop 4- Death Valley National Park

The last stop on our Spring Break National Parks tour was Death Valley.  This was not on the list of places I was dying 😉 to visit. However, it has been on my son’s bucket list for quite some time.  Like his dad, he collects random facts for fun. He was determined we needed to go to the lowest point in North America.  The fact that it was one of the hottest points in the world might have appealed to him a little as well. 😊 

Death Valley Day 1

We cleaned up the AirBnb in Utah and set out early on Friday morning.  We looked for places to stop along the way, but decided to forego the Valley of Fire Slot Canyon and head straight for Death Valley.  The kids were excited that we drove past “Area 51” enroute.

We made it to Death Valley a little after lunchtime.  Everyone was hungry and in need of bathrooms, but it was too early to check in to our hotel.  So we stopped at The Inn at Death Valley for restrooms and lunch.  The inn is gorgeous. At the time we visited California still was not allowing indoor dining. So we ate on the veranda that wrapped around the side of the building.  Lunch was pricey, but it was delicious.  We all enjoyed the chance to get out of the car and stretch our legs.

The Inn at Death Valley view

While we sat around eating we let the kids decide what we wanted to see over the next two days of our visit.  We decided to drive out to Badwater Basin first. The plan was to see how many places on Badwater Rd. we could visit before we needed to check into our hotel.

Badwater Basin

Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America.  And even for mid-March it was incredibly hot.  We walked out on the salt flats and took some pictures and the kids took in the surrounding area.  We were not prepared for the wind and had to chase down a few hats that blew off.  The sand and salt blowing around kept us from staying outside of the car very long.

Devil’s Golf Course

From there we made the long trek back towards our hotel. We stopped at the Devil’s Golf Course so my dad could pretend to play golf 😉. We read that you can hear the salt bubbling beneath the surface of the ground here. So the kids put their ears to the ground to listen. The ground here is very hard and seems very rocky. It is also quite sharp if you fall so they did not venture out very far here either!

Listening to the ground…

Artist’s Palette

Our last stop before the hotel was Artist’s Palette.  We did get out to walk some here. E and I even climbed out into the center of the sand dunes in order to see the colors in all directions at the same time!

Artists Palette
The view back to parking from our hike over the hills!

The Ranch at Death Valley & Living History Museum

We stayed right in the National Park at the Ranch for this trip. Since Death Valley is so big we figured that it was worth the extra cost in order to be able to see a little bit more. After we checked into our rooms, we walked to the front of the property. The Ranch did not have outdoor tables, so we picnicked on a couple benches in front of the restaurant. The Ranch sprawls over quite a bit of land. All of our rooms were at the back right on the golf course. In the middle of the property is an outdoor living history museum. So we took our time walking through looking at old wagons, tools, and trains. Then made our way back to our rooms to end our evening!

Living History Museum at our hotel

Death Valley Day 2

It was too hot the first afternoon to hike the Natural Bridge hike, so we decided to start our day there first thing on Saturday. We hoped to get the hike in before it got to be too warm.  My dad was up early and grabbed us breakfast from the restaurant where we had eaten the night before.  He brought them back for us to eat in the room so we could eat as we got ready.   The breakfast burritos and waffles were amazing!

Natural Bridge Hike
When we pulled into the parking lot for the Natural Bridge there were only a couple of cars.  So we set out looking forward to having the trail to ourselves!  It was warm in the sun, but once we made our way into the canyon like part of the trail it was cooler.  We got a few pictures of the natural bridge and continued a little further past there before turning around to head back.

The Natural Bridge and some shade!

Golden Canyon Hike

The Golden Canyon is one of the places most well-known in Death Valley. Scenes from Star Wars were shot there and my dad wanted to venture on this hike. The morning warmed up fast so we did not do the entire hike, but enough of it for the kids to explore. They hid in some caves and climbed up the sides of the canyon.

Golden Canyon

Zabriskie Point Trail

From there we made our way to Zabriskie. This is a viewpoint that overlooks the far side of the Golden Canyon. While my parents took the kids to look out from the top, E and I decided to climb up another “hill” to see the view. We found ourselves heading down a trail towards the Golden Canyon and before we knew it were almost a mile down below the overlook. We never found the trail up to the top we were expecting (probably because you are not supposed to go that way 😉) but we enjoyed the hike down and back up anyways.

The view from Zabriskie
The sign we read after we hiked 😂

Stovepipe Wells Village

We drove to Stovepipe Wells Village and had a picnic lunch and did some souvenir shopping with the kids.  They picked out shirts and hats and then we made our way back towards our hotel once again!

Borax Interpretive Trail

Our final stop on the way back was the borax interpretative trail. We shared with the kids a little about the history of Death Valley and the Borax that was found there!

Borax Interpretive Trail

We decided to have a low-key afternoon and made our way to the ice cream shop at the front of the resort grounds. Then we played charades on the golf course outside our room with the kids and my parents until dinner time. My youngest even spotted a fox running across the golf course in the middle of the game! It was definitely eventful.

The view from our patio

Death Valley Day 3

We got up on our last morning early enough to pack up and get breakfast before we got on the road.

We knew we wanted to see Dante’s View on our way out of the park.  My dad grabbed another expensive breakfast from the onsite restaurant.  He delivered it to our rooms so we wouldn’t have to eat outside again.  After we finished breakfast, we loaded up the rental car to set out for the airport.  Our last stop in Death Valley was Dante’s View.  It was a brisk, chilly morning so we did not spend too much time at the viewpoint before heading back to the car.

Dante’s view

We made our way to Vegas with some extra time to kill before we needed to drop off the rental car.  So we drove around letting E and B see the hotels and resorts before we made our way back to the airport.  The Vegas airport was packed so we just grabbed a few snacks to share and waited to eat lunch on the flight home.  Our trip was over faster than we expected once again!

My Key Takeaways:

  • It was hot!  Mornings were the best for hiking and sightseeing not just for the temps, but because the wind blew the sand everywhere in the afternoons while we were there.
  • Stay in the park if you can.  Death Valley is huge and covers a lot of land.  Trying to sightsee from outside the park would require a lot of extra driving, and gas stations are few and far between!
  • There is so much we didn’t see, but I do not know that it is a trip we would go back to do again.  At least not in the spring!  If we go back we might try for a winter trip in hopes to see a different view of the park!
  • If you can bring a cooler with food DO! Food is expensive within Death Valley and heading out of the park for meals is quite a trek. Bring lots of snacks and easy meals if you want to save a little cash!

Fun Notes:

  • Our trip through Nevada and California marked states 38 & 39 for the kids and I to visit together!  It also marked the 32nd state that we have visited with E & B!  And we are planning to cross a few more off this summer since we had to change our international travel plans again!
  • This was the fourth National park that we visited this year AND we have about a half dozen more on our plans before the end of 2021!

What is on your travel bucket list?  Do you hope to hit every state or have you already?  Are national parks your speed or do you prefer theme parks and museums? 

Posted in Travel

National Parks Tour: Stop 3- Zion National Park and another rest day

Zion National Park was definitely the part of our trip that I was most looking forward to and it did not disappoint in the least.  This was the part of the trip that I really planned out last summer when we were in Utah, even though I had no idea if or when we would be back!

That Wednesday morning dawned early (okay.. we were up hours before dawn) so that we could head to Springdale, UT to meet two guides to go canyoneering.    

Zion Adventure Company

I spent a lot of time researching the best company to use for canyoneering since we would have kids from age 7 and grandparents along for the trip.  The more I researched, the more I kept coming back to Zion Adventure Company and after a couple of phone calls to ask questions, I was ready to book!  ZAC offers several different options, but after comparing prices and activities we decided to go with the Family Adventure Day for a full day. 

We met the guides at the shop and because the morning was chilly, they quickly invited us inside for a safety talk and provided us with the recommended gear.  Donned with boots and water proof socks (and extra layers for the kids) we loaded back up to head to Zion.

First Glimpse of Zion

The drive through the park was breathtaking.  As you drive through Zion you are greeted with beautiful views in every direction.  The highlight of the drive through for the kids was driving through the 1.1 mile tunnel through the mountain that was completed in the 1930s.  Unlike most of the tunnels they have driven through, this one has no lights other than the natural light coming in from a few openings cut into the rock!

Driving into Zion!

On the other side of the tunnel, we exited the park and found a place to park alongside our guides.

Family Adventure Day

Here we donned our backpacks, grabbed our lunches, put on our scuttle butts (yes, that is really a thing) and started the trek towards the canyons. The mile long trek was cool, but seeing the snow over the canyon and park was a beautiful way to start the day. We were all excited to take a short break before entering the narrow opening into the canyons.

Hiking to the canyon opening

By mid-morning we made it to our first rappelling stop. Our guides led our first safety lesson and then we all took turns rappelling a 20-foot rappel. The kids were impressive. Maybe the rock climbing lessons at the YMCA in Ohio really did stick with them 😊. This was definitely the highlight of my day!

Slipping through the slots and under rocks.

One of their favorite things was sliding down one of the rocks into the canyon below. They learned how to use those scuttle butts to keep from hurting their bottoms. And they proceeded to slide back and forth on as many rocks as they could (and on the snow too).

Getting ready to slide into the canyon below!

We stopped for lunch before our longest rappel of the day and picnicked in the sun, losing our coats to backpacks and enjoying the beautiful weather. We also figured out how to use natures’ best bathrooms 😉 while waiting to rappel.

After lunch we had a 90 foot rappel that made everyone a little nervous, except for the two youngest girls, and surprisingly everyone handled it like champs!   

My dad going over the edge on the 90 ft rappel!

This was the drop that brought out everyone’s fears and insecurities, but between that rappel and the end of the day everyone was able to face their fears and embrace the fun of the adventure.  Our day ended with a few rope drops and a couple of shorter rappels.  As well as rock climbing through some narrow canyons. 

When we exited the canyons, we had to make the uphill trek back to the car. This was probably the hardest part of the day. Everyone was tired and the most fun parts of our hike were behind us. Our day ended up being much longer than anticipated, but our guides were still patient with us!

Despite the weariness climbing up the hill, when our guides offered to return with a car to pick us up, most of the kids said no and instead raced the car back to where we parked!

A few highlights from our day!

We drove back through Zion to Springdale and made our way back home, stopping for dinner on the way!  By the time we made it back to the house everyone was ready to relax in the hot tub.

Zion Day Two- A Short Hike

I still had not had my fill of Zion’s beauty.  The next morning my mom offered to keep the kids in the pool at the AirBnb and I quickly accepted. We offered them the chance to go, but all of them preferred a rest day at home, even without electronics.  My dad drove E and I back to Zion. He dropped us on the far side of the tunnel through the mountain to hike to the Canyon Overlook.

If you are familiar with Zion National Park then you have probably heard about the infamous Angels Landing hike. We decided early in our planning that this was not a hike for the kids to go on with us. Within the month prior to our visits there were two deaths at Angel’s Landing. So it was not a hike that this mom was the least bit drawn to. The day before the guides made some recommendations for hikes to us. They said they preferred the Canyon Overlook over Angels Landing due to the smaller crowds and views just as memorable.

Zion National Park

They were right and after a short hike out we found ourselves looking out over the Canyon below. It was breathtaking and once again pictures just do not do it justice.

There were chipmunks everywhere!

My only regret was not forcing the kids to come along with us. They would have loved climbing over rocks and ducking into caves to make their way out to the Overlook.

The canyon view from the overlook!

After our short hike, we walked the road to meet my dad. Since our phones did not work on the road, we just walked until we saw him again.

Heading back out from the overlook.
The road as we finished our hike!

Then we made our way back through the tunnel. We took pictures of the overlook from below and of the tunnel we had driven back through!

Outside the tunnel!
The view from the tunnel!

Zion was definitely my favorite part of our whole trip.  If we go back we will definitely do more hiking and spend more time in the park. 

My key takeaways:

  • Plan ahead. Shuttle tickets can be hard to come by. There are parts of the park that can only be reached by shuttle.  We got them for afternoons, but no mornings!
  • Canyoneering was a fantastic splurge.  If you visit and can afford an adventure like this, I would definitely check out Zion Adventure Company.
  • There are so many incredible things to do here, but you can see amazing views just driving through the park.  If you enjoy hiking, definitely plan to spend several days.
Posted in Travel

National Parks Tour: Stop 2- Hurricane, UT; Bryce Canyon (and a rest day)

You need to add a widget, row, or prebuilt layout before you’ll see anything here. 🙂

After we left the Grand Canyon we headed north to Utah and our next stop at an AirBnb in Hurricane, UT.  This was the part of the trip that I was most excited about, and not just because of the great place we found to stay. We made it to town in time to eat dinner at a cute little café before checking into the AirBnb and getting settled for the week.

The AirBnb had 6 bedrooms which meant almost everyone had their own room which is always a blessing when we travel.  We called it an early night considering the time change so we would be able to get up the next morning for the 1.5 drive to Bryce Canyon. The drive was fairly quick and while we were on the way, we read up a little on the history of this canyon and the hoodoos that are found there.

If you have never heard of Bryce Canyon (I had not before we started planning this trip), it is not really a canyon at all!  It is actually a collection of amphitheaters that were naturally created.  While it has the appearance of a canyon it is filled with hoodoos.  Hoodoos are these tall, pole shaped columns made out of rock.  The hoodoos were what the kids were most excited to see.

Bryce is a less visited park then both Grand Canyon and Zion, so once again we did not find ourselves in large crowds of people and when we came across a natural bridge across the road we were able to jump out of the car and take pictures on the way into the park. 

Driving into Bryce Canyon

The sun was shining and despite the snow on the ground it was actually really nice out when we pulled into the first parking lot. We set out for a view of the rim leaving water bottles and gloves behind. We figured we would get a peek and then drive through the rest of the park to see the views from the different stops along the way. Though I secretly was hoping we would get to make the hike around the rim if the weather cooperated!

Once again we faced a view that pictures just can not do justice. While we were standing on the edge we could see the next little viewpoint just up and around the corner. We could not go back to the car without making our way to see the view from there!

Our first view of Bryce!

Before we knew it we were standing at Sunset Point… and looking out could see the next viewpoint a ways up… and off we were hiking through the snow to Sunrise Point.  From there we could see the Queen Victoria, Thor’s Hammer, and Wall Street.

Of course I still wasn’t finished because I could see another view point just a little further 😉. The path got a little slippery from there due to the snow and ice. Not to mention there were several places where you were climbing up at a pretty steep incline. So my parents stayed back with my youngest playing in the snow while the rest of us ventured on up the hill.

Starting the trek uphill!

The uphill trek was worth it in order to see the view from the Lower, Middle and Upper Inspiration Points. The snow covered hoodoos were breathtaking and I can see where it got its name.

Inspiration Point! Way off in the distant center you can see where we started our trek!

I am sure the kids did not appreciate the beauty of it as much as the adults. Their highlight was trying to run back downhill without sliding on their backsides. Sadly there are no videos of this cause I was trying to make it down without sliding on mine. Haha.

We could see the Queens Garden Trail and the Navajo Loop Trail from our vantage point on the rim. Both of which I would love to do when they are not icy, wet and muddy! The kids actually said that they looked like they would be fun to hike too which says a lot.

Bryce can definitely be done in a day (or over several).  There are many hiking trails with so many different views, but if you are not a hiker, there is a lot of beauty to be beheld just by driving to and from the different viewpoints along the rim.  When all was said and done, we walked over 4.5 miles, but we passed 3 different parking areas on our trek that we could have driven to if we had not wanted to hike!

We ended the day with Thai food and then went back to the AirBnb to soak our tired bones in the hot tub.

***Our second day in Hurricane was a rest day (we always make sure to plan those so that everyone can relax, recharge, and enjoy the vacation). We woke up to snow falling, but it quickly melted so we could enjoy the outdoors. In addition to the heated pool and hot tub, the AirBnb had miniature golf, volleyball, horseshoes and a firepit in the backyard so there was plenty to do around there. In the afternoon we took an adventure to nearby St. George to look for dinosaur tracks and ended up off-roading through the mud… but that’s an adventure for another day 😉.

Posted in Joy, Travel

National Parks Tour: Stop 1- Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

Day One:

               As soon as we returned from Utah last summer, I started planning out a trip to go back.  I knew we wanted to go explore some of the National parks we missed on our last trip, but when the weather was cooler for hiking and being outside!  For spring break we decided we would make a trip out west to visit several of our country’s national parks.  My parents bought a new RV last fall and I started encouraging them to make a trip out to Texas. I joked that we would hop in and travel with them. 

The planning got underway and I laid out our trek west in detail, getting more and more excited. I looked at renting an RV and traveling out west to visit the parks. I started to plan and lay out the schedule, and decided that for a short 10 to 12-day trip, we would be able to do more and see more without the extra drive time added on to either end! So, we purchased flights and my parents made the trip out to Texas to fly with us from here!

Our fifteen hour roadtrip map!

               We decided to fly roundtrip to Vegas because it was central to all the places we wanted to see. And flying there was cost-effective for both the flight and a SUV large enough to hold 8 people!  Plus, I wanted the kids to see the Hoover Dam. What better way then by driving over it on our way to our first stop at the Grand Canyon! 

What we did not anticipate was that our morning flight would arrive without my luggage. So we decided to grab lunch and wait for it. Otherwise we could not be sure that we would have our winter gear and hiking stuff the next morning. This was obviously not part of our plan. However, we decided that it only added to our adventure and it also meant that we got to see the Hoover Dam at sundown before crossing into Arizona!

Sundown at Hoover Dam and the twisty road we drove to get there!

We made a quick stop at the Hoover Dam and then made the trek to our hotel in Williams, AZ. It had been almost two decades since I saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. I knew I wanted the first visit to be unique for the kids. In researching places to stay nearby and ways to see the park, I knew I wanted them to get their first view on a train ride from Williams. They have all ridden trains before, but nothing like this one. This ride begins with a Wild West shootout in town before boarding the train to the canyon. And as a bonus it would alleviate us having to drive in and park to see the canyon.

For convenience we decided to stay the night at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel (they also have an RV park for those who do make the trek by RV 😉).  The hotel was nothing fancy, but the lobby has a beautiful fireplace and the kids loved that we could see the train right outside!

Day Two:

Saturday dawned bright and COLD! We woke up to snow on the ground and a very chilly morning. But it did not keep us from enjoying the Wild West show and the train ride!

The Marshall facing off with the Cataract Creek gang

We boarded the train a little after 9 for a 2-hour trip to the canyon. The train is still socially distancing their passengers. That meant we had a few empty rows in front of and behind our party of 8. My parents upgraded us to first-class for the train and we were treated to hot chocolate, cider, drinks and breakfast on the trip!

Our view from the train!

Our car had our very own passenger service attendant. He was fantastic and made sure we were well taken care of.  He gave us recommendations of what we should be sure to see while we were in the village.  There was even some musical serenading during the ride.  We watched as it snowed outside throughout most of the trip. And the kids took some fun videos of the scenery as we journeyed while reading more about the Grand Canyon’s history.

We disembarked in Grand Canyon village and I hurried everyone to see the view. Despite the heavy fog and snow, it was still a beautiful sight.

The view of the canyon
Climbing trees and enjoying every moment… even the cold ones!
Me preparing to hike down the rim trail… but unable to convince anyone to come with me 😉

We hit up all the gift stores and museums to stay warm. And made the trek back and forth on the rim and determined that we would change our plans to come back the following morning if the weather improved before we drove on to Utah!

Our train ride back to Williams was just as eventful and fun as the ride out. We ate snacks and prepared to be attacked by the Cataract Creek gang of wild west outlaws. They escaped while we were at the canyon 😉. The kids enjoyed playing along and even pulled out money to “hide” as the robbers came through our first-class cabin. The Marshal finally caught up with them and took them into custody as we pulled back into the station.

               We had dinner at the Fred Harvey restaurant after our return. Then we let the kids shop for souvenirs with their travel budget before heading to bed for the night.

Day Three:

The next morning dawned chilly, but clear. I-40 closed in both directions due to the icy roads. That meant the only direction we could go from the hotel was to the canyon. Serendipity!

We set out early and found the roads fairly clear all the way up. We stopped at several overlooks to take pictures before returning to the Grand Canyon Village.

What a difference 24 hours made!
There is so much beauty in creation that can not be captured in photos.

It was not crowded at all for a spring break weekend. We even beat the train into town. We ate a leisurely lunch while the kids played in the snow. This time we could walk the rim and see everything clearly.

After lunch we took an abundance of pictures. Then we did some walking before getting back on the road towards Utah and the second stop on our great National Parks Tour!

Key Takeaways:

  • The Grand Canyon covered with snow was gorgeous, but prepare yourself for the lower temps if you go in winter!
  • If you can afford to splurge on a train ride, it is absolutely worth it. First class isn’t necessary as all the train cars have the same great service. You just might have to pack your own breakfast and snacks!
  • Do not rush your visit! One day was definitely not enough, even though you can see a lot in one day!
  • If you can afford to stay at the El Tovar hotel, it has a wonderful restaurant. It also has some gorgeous views of the canyon! It is now on my future bucket list 😉 There are definitely affordable options in and around Flagstaff and Williams to stay OR camp.
  • And the town of Williams has lots of great things to do. I highly recommend a visit there if you make your way out to the Grand Canyon. We did not take advantage of all the options, but there is always next time 😉

Posted in Joy, Travel

Houston & The Space Center

               Last spring when the school schedule was posted for the next two years on the district website, I started researching the best places to go during each of the school breaks.  I like to plan ahead and I love to think about where in the country is the best place to visit during that time of year.  Last year we spent Columbus Day weekend in Michigan visiting family after flying into Chicago! 

This year I was determined to take my kids back to Niagara Falls for the long weekend. Since they are old enough to appreciate it more, I thought early fall would be a great time to see it! I also knew I wanted them to see the Falls from the Canadian side on our next trip back. I figured if we were lucky we might get to throw in a trip to see my sister in upstate NY too.

Even without the ability to travel to Canada this time around, we considered asking B’s mom how she felt about us flying somewhere. But with the kids in school and wanting to avoid any of them having to miss school if they get exposed to any crazy germs, we decided once again to stick a little closer to home. As hard as it was to accept, we decided to pick somewhere we could drive to since it was only a long weekend.

  We debated between Oklahoma, the Texas Hill Country and the Houston Space Center for several weeks until finally E and I asked the kids last Monday to take a vote.  Apparently they have been  watching space videos at school this past week and they all unanimously voted for the Space Center.  B had been there before, but it was still his first choice.  He reflected that he was older and could appreciate it more now then the last time.  And while I had been to the Kennedy Space Center, I had not visited the Houston one and thought it would definitely be worth a visit!

We looked into Airbnb’s for this trip, but after pricing them and watching Hurricane Delta heading towards the coastline, we decided we had better book hotel rooms that were refundable. Luckily when we checked Thursday, it looked like the hurricane was not going to hit Houston with much more than rain, so we did not have to change our plans.

I have mentioned before that we have several museum memberships that have reciprocity and the Science and Technology Centers membership includes the Houston Space Center.  This meant that the only cost for this trip would be lodging and food. So we reserved our timed tickets and after a half day of school on Friday made the short (several hour) trek to Houston to check into our hotel. 

SATURDAY

We planned to arrive at the Space Center mid-morning on Saturday so after hot breakfast at the hotel we set out. One of the perks of membership is that you get to bypass the line at most museums and science centers so we skirted past dozens of people hoping for tickets to head right in when we arrived.

We avoided the simulators (tight spaces overdosed on cleaning supplies) and let the kids explore the exhibits.

Solving puzzles
Learning facts about Space travel

They enjoyed listening to how the astronauts eat, sleep and use the bathroom in space and figuring out how much they would weigh on other planets. I, on the other hand, enjoyed the tram to see the Johnson Space Center and the Apollo Mission Control Center.

After a day of exploring at the Space Center, we ate at an amazing Ramen restaurant and headed back to the hotel for popcorn and a movie night.

SUNDAY

On Sunday morning, we once again had a leisurely start to the day, not meeting up with B and E until 10am. We decided to head to Galveston to see the beach and the gulf first. It was definitely a hot morning, so we didn’t beach walk. Instead, we just spent a few minutes taking in the view!

Afterwards, we decided to head for Kemah Boardwalk to see the Aquarium and have lunch. The kids got excited about eating beside the 200 different species of fish. None of them remembered eating at the Aquarium Restaurant in Nashville during our years living in Tennessee, so it was very entertaining.

The view from Kemah Boardwalk.

               After lunch we walked the boardwalk.  We let the kids each pick a ride to ride.  The boys decided to head for the wooden roller coaster while the girls and I took a leisurely train ride.  By the time we finished, everyone was ready to head to the car.

The wooden roller coaster (probably no one wanted to ride it more than Kinsey, but she wasn’t tall enough)

               We decided to drive into downtown Houston to see the Water Wall (which was off) and to grab dinner at a restaurant that I remembered from when we stayed in Houston a few years ago.  We had a fantastic dinner at BellaGreen and I learned that they even have a location in Dallas now! We will definitely be heading there soon!

               We ended the day with popcorn and another movie night before heading back to our rooms to get a good night’s rest!

MONDAY

Monday morning we made the trek back to Fort Worth after a hot hotel breakfast made just for us (no really, we were late and they were done, but they made us fresh waffles anyways… haha).  The kids learned some history about Sam Houston on the ride.  And I used the time in the car to catch up on grading graduate school papers.  We made it home in time for a late afternoon lunch and a walk through the neighborhood with friends to mentally prepare for another week of school! 

While I highly recommend the Houston Space Center, I don’t know if Houston really needed a full weekend. Since our goal was to have a relaxing, low stress weekend after six very full weeks of working, it was exactly what we needed. But if we make a trip back to see the lights at the Space Center this fall, we might not stay for as long as we did this trip!

Posted in Joy, Travel

Waco, Texas

               I have been a big fan of the Fixer Upper for the last few years. And I have wanted to make a trip to Waco since long before I moved to Texas.  The timing never seemed right, but it has stayed at the top of my to do list for a long time. E had been wanting us to head there for almost as long!  So Labor Day weekend and an extra day off school and work seemed like a good time to make the trip there. 

               We spent a good bit of time planning this trip as we wanted to make sure it was memorable after so much anticipation.  We chose to splurge and stay at a Fixer Upper house for the weekend.  After I finished teaching on Friday we drove the short two hours to Waco and checked into the house in the midst of downtown.

Fixer Upper Season 2 Episode 1

Saturday morning we decided to head to the Silos to explore. The day dawned warm and bright and we started our visit with breakfast at Magnolia Bakery. We waited in a socially distance line and made sure to take time to enjoy our meal together before we jumped in line to see the rest of the Magnolia site.

Magnolia Bakery

E decided to head to the coffee shop while the kids and I went to see the showroom. After a brief tour looking at some of the latest creations we settled back outside to wait for E to return.

We spent a leisurely morning wandering around the Magnolia grounds and then loaded back up to see some of the other sites that Waco had to offer.

Throughout our three day weekend we checked out the silos, went on a self-directed tour of some of the Fixer Upper sites, visited Baylor campus, walked the suspension and pedestrian bridges, toured the Waco Mammoth site, visited Homestead Heritage and even spent some time at our Fixer Upper house watching the season that was filmed there!

Suspension Bridge

The kids enjoyed the Mammoth site and walking the pedestrian bridge, but the warmth of the weekend made it not as appealing to be outside. Our favorite parts of the weekend were truly spent relaxing with books and watching Fixer Upper in our Fixer Upper house!

Mammoth Site

Monday we had to head back to reality, but it was definitely an adventure I would love to repeat, maybe with a few shopping purchases from Magnolia for my own house next time!

Posted in Joy, Travel

Missouri Points of Interest

              After our trip to Missouri at the end of July, I knew I wanted to make our way back up with E & B for E’s birthday and one last fun trip before the end of summer!  I did some research and decided that I wanted to visit a few places near Springfield and maybe spend a day or two in Branson, so I kept an eye out for a great Airbnb that we could rent.  We decided on one in downtown Springfield and I started planning out our drive.  I have to note, that because this was a birthday trip for E that it was our most expensive trip of the summer.  Knowing that there were several things that we knew would cost extra, we planned ahead and watched Groupon for deals on activities that were on our list (and the kids list) of possible activities.

THURSDAY

We left early on Thursday morning. The drive to Springfield was about seven hours, so we loaded down with snacks, lunch & dinner in the cooler so we could stop for fun, but we wouldn’t need to stop for meals. While all six of us had been to Oklahoma before, we hadn’t been together, so we did plan some stops through the state while we were driving.

We stopped to see the Praying Hands at Oral Roberts University and picnicked by the largest concrete totem pole (who knew that was even a thing).

Praying Hands
Largest concrete totem pole

We stopped at the intersection of Oklahoma, Kansas, & Missouri for another photo op too 😊 and then had a picnic dinner by Grand Falls in Joplin!

Intersection of Oklahoma, Kansas, & Missouri
Grand Falls in Joplin, Missouri

Our Airbnb was amazing. It reminded me of a house right off of Fixer Upper and the kids enjoyed that there were plenty of rooms for everyone to spread out (and I appreciated that I got to have my own room instead of sharing with the girls for a change 😉)!

FRIDAY

On Friday, we headed towards Branson. One of the things all of the kids agreed they wanted to do was visit the National Tiger Sanctuary. We timed it right in ordering military discounted tickets and ended up there when they were starting a feeding tour, so we got to tag along without paying the upcharge. Despite the hot morning, the hour-long tour was incredible. The kids got to see all the tigers up close and watch them eat. They heard stories of how they were rescued and how they are cared for. We got to see some lions and a few other animals they have taken in as well.

After the Tiger Sanctuary, we stopped at the Creation Experience Museum. The museum is on the small side, but free. Even though we have visited the Creation Museum in Kentucky and the ICR Discovery Center in Dallas, we still really enjoyed this stop. We got a private tour and bought a few dvds for the car ride. Our tour guide told us they are working on moving to a larger location that will allow for them to expand the exhibits that they have in the future!

The next stop was one that B requested, and all the kids agreed with. We bought tickets on Groupon for the World’s Largest Toy Museum. This was fun for all of us as we saw toys that we grew up with and that we remember seeing in our grandparents houses as well while we were growing up. The kids enjoyed seeing the massive collections of Jurassic Park toys, matchbox cars, Barbies, and pretty much every McDonald’s toy ever made.

From there we made our way to the Snowflex Park at Wolfe Mountain. While we did lots of sledding when we lived in NY, and played in lots of snow in Ohio, I had never taken the kids snow tubing. While this wasn’t exactly the same thing, it was a blast (even at 90 degrees outside) and everyone wished we could have stayed longer!

SATURDAY

Our second full day was supposed to be spent in Springfield and Sunday in Branson again, but as a last minute surprise E’s brother decided to fly out for E’s birthday and we decided to head home a day early.

So when E and I were talking about how to spend Saturday, we both decided we wanted to head back to Branson. While searching separately, we both came up with Dogwood Canyon and decided it was a sign that we should head there for the day. We had originally planned to do some hiking, caves, and an animal safari so when E found the tram ride through the Canyon we decided that it combined all the things that we were hoping to do in one and went ahead and booked it.

We packed a picnic lunch and made plans to explore and picnic before the tram ride. Dogwood Canyon is breathtaking. Pictures do not do it justice.

We spent the morning doing some hiking, exploring and then ate lunch outside of the nature center underneath the Treehouse Masters Treehouse (from Animal Planet) before boarding the tram for our tour.

The 2+ hour tour took us through the entire canyon. We stopped by waterfalls, the Wedding Chapel, Glory Hole and numerous bridges and stone crossovers.

The tram then crossed over into Arkansas entering Bison-Elk Country where we were able to see American bison, elk, whitetail deer and Texas longhorn. The animals walked right up next to the tram and the kids were able to see them up close and personal!

On the way back, the tram stopped crossing over a waterfall so that the kids could see the fish swimming right up next to us. The beautiful clear water was definitely something to see!

Upon arrival back at the Nature Center, we were able to see some animals up close and personal, like a couple of tarantulas and snakes!

We finished the evening with Hibachi Grill and packing up to head back to Texas!

SUNDAY

Our trip home was uneventful since we wanted to make it back in time to visit with family! If your travels and budget allow, I highly recommend a visit to Dogwood Canyon in Branson! Everyone agreed that while Missouri was not our most “affordable” trip of the summer, we can’t wait to go back to Branson again!

Posted in Travel

Adventures with Little House on the Prairie

               One of my fondest memories of the time Ben got to spend with the kids during his years with cancer was his nightly ritual of curling up on the couch with them and watching Little House on the Prairie.  I read them the first couple of books when they were in preschool, and they loved watching the series come to life with their dad.  He and I both loved the books.  And when Ben and I made a cross country trip a decade ago, we made a point to stop and see some of the Little House sites.  I think he might have even enjoyed those stops more than me as they were a reminder of his childhood. 

Ben at the Little House in Wisconsin, summer of 2009

               This summer the kids and I revisited the books in anticipation of a summer road trip to Kansas and Missouri to see some of those sites in July.  The kids embraced watching the series (season after season) and reminding me what was the same between the books and the movies and remarking on all the differences.  We were all excited about the opportunity to see where Laura sat to write the books, and the little house in Independence, Kansas that was like the one they lived in during their year on the prairie.

               Our first stop was at the house on Rocky Ridge and the museum in Mansfield, MO.  We went on a private tour through the historic house where we got to see the house and the furniture that has been meticulously preserved.  The kids enjoyed hearing the history of it’s numerous additions where Laura and Almanzo spent much of their married life.  After our visit to the house, we visited the Little House Museum next door.  The museum is home to a timeline of Laura’s life and written works set up to let you travel through her entire life in pictures and memorabilia.  Pa’s fiddle is even housed within the museum.  We didn’t get to see the Rock House on this trip due to arriving close to the end of the day, but the museum and historic house were worth the trip all on their own! 

Little House at Rocky Ridge
Timeline of Laura’s Life at the Museum

               We stopped to overnight in Joplin, and the next day we made a stop at the state line where Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas all come together.  While there wasn’t much to see there, the kids enjoyed standing on the spot where three states meet.

               Then we set out for Independence, Kansas.  As I remembered from my visit there in 2009, the site was difficult to find, but it was worth the search.  The site where the little house replica stands also houses an old one room schoolhouse, apothecary, post office, and several covered wagons.  As always, we made a stop in the giftshop for souvenirs before we left.  This time we chose a historical video retelling of Laura’s life that we could watch on the way home from Kansas. 

Little House on the Prairie
One room school house replica
The Little House replica
A covered wagon
The sites of the Ingalls/Wilder family travels

               Whether you are a homeschool family or just a family who loves literature, there is nothing like making history come alive for your kids through travel!  If you have traveled somewhere with your children to share pieces of history and have recommendations from literature to go along with them, I would love to hear about it!

“The real things haven’t change.  It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder

Posted in Travel

Lewis and Clark and Iowa Adventuring

               This has definitely been the summer of last minute travel plan changes, but I’m learning so much about going with the flow and embracing change!  A few weeks ago the kids and I were supposed to go to Ohio to visit family and ended up having to cancel last minute.  We were all disappointed as we had plans to visit friends on the way there and back, not to mention all the family we weren’t going to get to see.  So instead of canceling the entire trip, we decided to add on some fun stops and head north to see friends in St. Louis anyways.  Since we have been to see St Louis before, we decided to stop and see some things on the way there and the way home rather than spending all of our time in the city (and mark off states 35, 36, & 37 for the four of us together).

Picnic stop in Kansas

We drove through Oklahoma and Kansas with picnic stops for lunch and dinner along the way.  Our first overnight stop was in Nebraska.  We arrived just after dinner and checked into our hotel overlooking nonstop fields!  The view was fantastic, and other than one big rig, I don’t remember ever staying somewhere where you didn’t see cars and roads in every direction!  We woke up and grabbed breakfast on our way out of the hotel, heading for the Lewis and Clark Expedition Museum in Nebraska City, Nebraska.

This was a fantastic stop and while we only intended to spend an hour or so, we ended up spending the whole morning.  We watched a documentary explaining the Lewis & Clark Expedition and then explored the three-story museum.  There were canoes, a full size keelboat replica, and even a keelboat game that they could steer and try to keep from crashing (we failed miserably)!  After exploring the museum we hiked to the overlook so we could see the Missouri River and then made our way to see the Native American earth lodge on the other side of the property. 

A map of the Lewis and Clark expeditions
Practicing steering the boat
Hiking to the Missouri River Overlook
Inside the Native American earth lodge

We finished our visit with a picnic in the parking lot and then crossed the state line into Iowa with a visit to Waubonsie State Park.  We had the park pretty much to ourselves as we hiked the Ridge and Bridge trails from the Overlook where we could see for miles!  This park allows for hikers, horseback riders, and camping.  The kids decided we should come back in the winter when they allow snowmobiling!

Waubonsie State park
Views from the Ridge Trail
Heading back to the car, hike complete

Next time we want to explore the other half of Kansas and Nebraska.  There are several places in both we would like to visit and friends who we were close to that we missed out on seeing! More trips are definitely in our future!

Posted in Travel

Travel on a Budget

People ask all the time how we can afford to travel so much or tell me nicely 😉 they wish that they could afford to travel like we can.  So I want to tell you how we afford to travel so many places without breaking the bank!

I am blessed to still have an income coming in from Ben’s pension each month.  That income pays for most of our regular living expenses, but is NOT enough to pay for the extras like travel and fun educational and sports classes that the kids enjoy so much!  So for all these bonus expenses, I work!  I teach online classes and am a guest educator/tutor in my kid’s school district.  We budget for travel and we look for deals for wherever we want to go months in advance, even if we aren’t ready to pull the trigger on purchasing them yet! (Right now I am tracking on 4 different trips stateside that I’m price checking and waiting for the right time to take them!)

We had planned to travel internationally (to Europe) twice this year and budgeted for the trips since we moved to Texas.  Since the pandemic hit and cancelled a lot of those travel plans, we have quite a bit of money in flight credits waiting for us, and it freed up some cash that we could use to take some local trips throughout the United States in the meantime. 

I’ve mentioned before that we look for cheap lodging (but if you like camping you can definitely find lodging that is even cheaper!), and try to book things on AirBnB and other similar sites that allow us to save money overall.

Here are a few ways to save money:

  • FIND FRIENDS.  Sharing an AirBnb can eliminate half of your cost and you can split cooking as well so it still feels like a vacation. OR go visit family or friends who will let you spend a few days crashing with them for free while you sightsee in their area!
  • BRING YOUR OWN FOOD.  Pack a cooler of food, snacks, drinks and lunches so that you don’t have to eat out.  If you are in an Airbnb, plan some easy meals and pack the ingredients.  It does not have to cost anymore than eating at home does!
  • THINK FREE!  Look for state parks, national parks, and other free activities wherever you are traveling.  You don’t have to do expensive tours and excursions.  There are so many blogs and websites out there that will tell you all the free things to do in a location that will more than keep you busy!
  • ALWAYS HAVE AN EYE OPEN FOR DEALS.  If you have the ability to book last minute, it can save you a ton.  Many places will lower rates at the last minute so that they don’t have empty rooms.  I always check Groupon and other sites where we are traveling to see if I can get a good deal on an activity that we really want to do.  If you have never taken a cruise before, I highly recommend trying to book one last minute if your schedule allows it (I took a week long $300 cruise to Alaska one summer because I booked a balcony room last minute!  Cruises are one place that will drop rates incredibly low in order to fill every room… but maybe save it til the world is a healthier place😉). 

Places you can find deals:

  • Airbnb.com (if you want $35 off your first stay, ask someone to refer you! Or you can use this link: https://abnb.me/e/X9L069kq08!). Then share your link with everyone you know. If they sign up, you will get credits to use with Airbnb.com in the future too!
  • Groupon.com has deals on all sorts of activities. I always price compare to make sure the Groupon price is lower than what we would pay buying on site.
  • Museum Memberships. We have a membership to two different museums that get us into museums all around the country. These memberships cost about $180 total, but last I totaled we saved over $600 in museum visits by using the passes just last year!
  • State/National Park passes. Look up what these cost in your area. Ask for them for birthday/Christmas from family because they are the gift that keeps on giving!
  • We have booked some travel through military sites that are available to use since Ben retired military.
  • I have also heard great things about bookvip.com, but I have never used them. They are on my list to check out!

**As a reference, I recently took a 4 day trip with the kids to Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, & Kansas.  We paid for a couple of activities and spent three nights in hotels, with food, gas, lodging and entertainment I spent under $600 for the four of us! We could have saved money by staying at cheaper hotels/camping and by not doing things that cost extra money, but it was still an affordable trip!

I encourage everyone I know to travel with their families, no matter how old the kids are OR how short the trip is.  Traveling with your families makes memories that last a lifetime!

Anyone else have money saving tips they want to share?