The Worst Family Travel Destination in the West

No pictures, no fun on this walk.

It is with great embarrassment and shame that I admit I never had visited the Grand Canyon before this month.

It is with even greater embarrassment and shame that I admit I tried to rectify this sad reality with a road trip to the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a South Rim attraction far away from the Grand Canyon National Park entrances that everybody knows and loves.

Let’s just say I was sorely disappointed.

It wasn’t the view that bummed me out—so long as you’re actually looking at the 4,000-foot-deep chasm in our continent, you pretty much can’t go wrong there.

No, instead I was disappointed by the underdeveloped facilities, the poor signage, the terrible food, the overrated and overblown “skywalk,” the price, and—perhaps most egregiously—the complete and total lack of safety precautions, considering that the attraction sits on the edge of one of the steepest cliffs in North America.

Put differently, I’m glad I didn’t take my kids to the Grand Canyon Skywalk because (they would have been bored out of their minds and) at least one of them surely would have fallen to her death.

To be fair, the idea behind the attraction is great. The Skywalk itself is a semicircular glass walkway cantilevered out over the edge of the South Rim of the canyon. The Hualapai Tribe built the place in 2007 as a way to get tourists to their reservation—a massive parcel of land far from the national park sites but close enough to be a day trip from Las Vegas. Because it was the first of its kind at the Grand Canyon, the Skywalk got major attention when it opened. It has been a pretty well-known tourist attraction ever since.

Execution, on the other hand, is lacking. Now visitors must park at a visitor center and board busses that stop at three spots along the way: A recreated (and supremely contrived) Old West village, the Skywalk, and Guano Point—the site of an old guano mining operation.

Of these three stops, the Skywalk is the main attraction. It is attached to an elaborate building with a small museum about the Hualapai tribe. It is surrounded by food trucks. Off in the distance, there’s a modest amphitheatre. Rules on the glass walkway are bizarre. You must wear booties on your shoes so you don’t scuff the glass. You have to stick your bags in lockers before you head out—nobody can carry anything with them. Also, and most annoyingly, you’re not allowed to bring cell phones out onto the walk. If you want pictures, you have to pay (a ton of money to) the Annie Leibovitz wannabes on staff.

Also peculiar: the lack of safety protocols.

Outside of the main Skywalk building, there is absolutely no fence or security system preventing visitors from falling over the edge of the canyon. Sure, the tribe employs a few folks who walk up and down the path near the edge warning people to stand back if they get too close, but if you go with a kid who’s quick and doesn’t listen, you could lose your kid forever. (If you go with a stupid grownup, you might lose him—the dumb ones always are men—forever, too.

The Guano Point area is infinitely more interesting than the Skywalk. There’s history in the remnants of a 1960s-era mining apparatus. There’s a decent hike. The view down the canyon provides great scale of just how deep the chasm really is, and a unique perspective of the Colorado River as it snakes by.

Still, the name—which effectively invokes bird shit—also is a very strange choice. Nothing named “guano” sounds appealing. Why not just use the tribal name?

My final complaint about the Grand Canyon Skywalk experience revolves around price. Unless I read the website incorrectly, the basic ticket came in somewhere around $60. For just a few dollars more, I was able to prepay for a “meal.” The website said nothing about what this meal comprised, but it seemed like a good deal until I was on site. After polling workers about which stop had the best options for the ticketed meal, I beelined for the café at Guano Point. Here, with my admission, I received a scoop of barbecue beef, a scoop of mashed potatoes, a half-ear of corn, a bowl of wilted salad, a cookie, and a bottle of water. It was underwhelming and would not have satisfied my kids.

Perhaps the biggest positive of the day trip to Grand Canyon Skywalk: The drive from Las Vegas. I went out with two friends, and on our journey we drove through one of the largest natural Joshua Tree forests in the world. The views were insane—almost alien. At one point the three of us parked the car, got out and walked around amid the trees, giddy with excitement. Compared to the experience of walking out over the edge of the Grand Canyon, this was what I’ll remember most on the day.

I know my kids would have felt exactly the same.

Happy Free National Park Day

Big girls. Beach. Beautiful.

Today, our annual celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is the first free national park day of the year.

This means every single American gets free entrance to every national park and national monument site in the country. It also means you’ve got no excuse to spend the kids’ day off from school bumming around indoors.

But before you get too excited, before you furiously fire up another window in your Internet browser to locate your nearest park and figure out how to get there, I want you to get angry, I want you to get pissed. This year the National Park Service is granting us only four free days, down from 10 last year.

Let me repeat that. Last year and years before it, we had 10 free days. This year we have four.

If you think this is just a coincidence, think again. Under the “leadership” of our new President and Secretary Ryan Zinke, the U.S. Department of the Interior is abusing our national park system, shrinking national monuments, attempting to change rules to sell off land for profit, proposing rate hikes, and, yes, even taking away free days.

Put differently, the people running our government are cheating us out of the park system that was established for the “enjoyment of the people” all those years ago.

IMHO, there are two main ways to fight back. First, of course, is to take advantage of all of the free days we now get. Go today. Go April 21, which is the first day of National Park Week (also the week of Earth Day). Go Sept. 22, National Public Lands Day. And go on Veterans Day, which is Nov. 11.

In addition, please support our parks throughout the rest of the year, however and whenever you can.

Remember: Family travel doesn’t have to be big or expensive or once-in-a-lifetime incredible. It can be a few hours at your closest park. Just get out there.

A different kind of all-in-one

Little R, learning about animation at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Little R at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

I’ve never been a fan of all-in-one resorts. You know what I mean by that phrase, right? The places that tout they have absolutely everything you could possibly need during your stay, right there on property? Want good food? On-site restaurants. Want some culture? On-site museum. Want adventure? Check out the on-site pool or climbing wall or gym or wave pool.

While places like this certainly are convenient, they eliminate what I consider to be the most valuable component of travel: discovery. When everything’s “on-site,” nothing’s a surprise. And when nothing’s a surprise, at least IMHO, there’s not much reason to travel to experience it.

At this very moment, however, my family and I are experiencing a different kind of all-in-one. We’re spending a few days at the Presidio of San Francisco, a former army post that in recent years has been converted to a city within the city. Because the Presidio has overnight accommodations (we’re staying at the Inn at the Presidio) and other tourism infrastructure (such as restaurants and public transportation), it’s a great travel destination, too. And it’s perfect for families.

This afternoon we stayed “close to home” and explored things right around the inn:

  • We wandered over to the Walt Disney Family Museum and introduced the girls to the man behind the Mouse.
  • The big girls climbed trees on the great lawn out in front of the museum.
  • We tromped over to the Presidio Social Club, a fun but casual restaurant in renovated barracks.
  • We wandered back to the inn by starlight (a rare occurrence since this part of San Francisco often is socked in with fog).

None of these activities was more than 15 minutes from our tiny (21 rooms in all) inn, yet everything was separate. Put differently, we never left the Presidio, and we were out and about the whole day.

Tomorrow’s plan is even more eclectic. We’ll start our day at the House of Air, an indoor trampoline arena. Then we’ll explore Fort Point National Historic Site, which has guarded the Golden Gate Narrows for 150 years. After lunch down near the fort, we’ll come back to the Main Post (that’s what they call the area around the hotel) to learn about the archaeology in the area, hit some bowling at the Presidio Bowling Center, and throw down a fancy dinner at Arguello, a restaurant from renowned chef Tracy des Jardins.

We’ll wrap up our visit Friday morning by hiking to see sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy.

Even with all of these items on our agenda, we won’t even scratch the surface of all the things to do and see and experience in this national park (yes, this place is a national park). And that’s exactly the point; the Presidio offers the variety of an all-in-one without making you feel like you’re missing out on something equally awesome nearby.

“The Resort” in the Presidio is everywhere—the components are related but entirely unique. Add to this variety a hearty dose of authenticity and years upon years of history and you’ve got the makings of a great family trip.

Free park time for fourth graders, families

Little R, enjoying some park time of her own.

Little R, enjoying some park time of her own.

The National Park Service today unveiled a new program through which fourth graders and their families can get one full year of free admission to U.S. National Parks, federal lands, and federal waters.

The program, (appropriately) titled the Every Kid in a Park initiative, aims to provide an opportunity for each and every fourth-grade student across the country to experience their public lands and waters in person throughout the 2015-2016 school year.

That means the program starts in August and September, depending on where your kids go to school.

According to literature, the initiative was conceptualized by President Obama himself as a call to action to get all children to visit and enjoy America’s unparalleled outdoors. Today, more than 80 percent of American families live in urban areas, and many lack easy access to safe outdoor spaces.  At the same time, kids are spending more time than ever in front of screens instead of outside.  A 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that young people now devote an average of more than seven hours a day to electronic media use, or about 53 hours a week—more than a full time job.

The new program also is part of a larger effort launched earlier this year. This effort—Open OutDoors for Kids—aims to expand nature programs for all children, especially kids who grow up in the inner city and may not otherwise have an opportunity to experience nature on their own.

(Through this latter program, you can donate money to help directly; every $10 helps one child.)

Personally, I cannot say enough good things about these programs. I support them wholeheartedly, even though my kids won’t even qualify for the free passes for another four years (L is in kindergarten now). For those families with children who *are* 9 or 10, these initiatives are HUGE. They help families save money. They increase accessibility. And they’re just darn cool.

The National Park Service turns 100 years old in 2016, making next year the perfect time to cash in on those free passes and take a family trip to a park. I strongly recommend starting planning now. I know we will. Maybe we’ll even see you on the trails.

Which National Park have you always wanted to visit and why?

‘National Park Week’ Great for Family Travel

ltree

L, meet lichen. Lichen, meet L.

This weekend kicks off what is arguably one of my favorite weeks of the year: National Park Week, an 8-day stretch during which admission to all 401 of the parks in our national system is totally free.

For family travelers, this means now is a great time to get out and explore some of our nation’s biggest treasures.

Heck, Monday is Earth Day, so why not celebrate in a national park?

Many parks will be rolling out special programs all week long. Some of these programs are interactive; others are more educational in nature. In previous years my family has participated in art programs and guided hikes. We also have enjoyed storytelling sessions like this one at Buffalo National River in Arkansas.

(My wife, the archaeologist, always has longed to join up with one of the full-moon walks at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.)

Then, of course, there’s Volunteer Day on April 27, during which your entire family can get elbows dirty and participate in trash pick-up, trail maintenance or other forms of hard labor typically reserved only for rangers and docents.

If you’re part of a family that likes to explore parks independently, take advantage of the free admission and plan an outing all your own. One great resource: National Geographic Secrets of the National Parks: The Experts’ Guide to the Best Experiences Beyond the Tourist Trail, a new book by friend and fellow travel writer, Bob Howells.

As for us, we Villanos will be celebrating National Park Week with a mid-week jaunt from our home in Sonoma County, California down to Muir Woods National Monument, where we’ll have picnic and a morning under the redwoods.

Last time we went, R was so little that I had to carry her in an Ergo. This time, I’m sure she’ll give big sister L quite a race.

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