Yosemite through the words of my 7-year-old

The journal.

The journal.

Visiting Yosemite National Park has become an annual ritual in this family. We go (usually in spring), we hike, we commune with nature, we take a continuing education class or two, then we come home.

We’ve done this sort of thing just about every year for the last six. For almost all of those years, I was the one who did most of the writing—not only in my journal, but also for my clients, on my computer, both there in the park and here back at home. (I’ve updated a few guidebooks about the park.)

Last year, however, L got in on the action, too. As part of a broader effort to get her to journal, I challenged her to write about our multigenerational experience inside the park when we visited back in April 2016. She took the task very seriously, scribbling copious notes throughout our visit. Before we began, she agreed that at some point I could use her work in an article. That article published yesterday on the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia.

The piece, titled, “Yosemite, daughter-style,” comprises whole snippets from her journal—entire passages that describe slices of Yosemite in her words. I edited the copy only for style and grammar.

In the story I quote her on a wide range of subjects, from the road trip there to shufflepuck, our room at Evergreen Lodge to my father’s wacky way of ordering salad. I also tried to preserve her cadence—this totally unique voice that falls somewhere between innocent and totally irritated; a perfect mix for 7-going-on-17.

The process of flipping through her journal to find these passages gave me a newfound appreciation for everything we experience when we visit Yosemite. I hope her words have the same effect on you.

Park passes latest addition to Colorado libraries

"Check-out" this pack!

“Check-out” this pack!

As a staunch advocate of getting kids outside, I was delighted to read news recently about a program at select Colorado libraries through which patrons can check-out 7-day passes to the state’s parks.

The “Check-Out State Parks” program is a partnership between Colorado Parks and Wildlife and eight libraries across the state. The program offers residents the ability to check out one of two seven-day hang-tag park passes (the king that hang on your vehicle’s rearview mirror) at each library.

Each pass comes with a backpack that contains a wildlife viewing guide, a camping guide, a compass, a binoculars, a magnifying glass, and more. There also is general park information, as well as educational activities. (It sounds like the packs are pretty similar to ones I spotted at Spring Mountains National Recreation Area in Nevada, and wrote about in this Expedia Viewfinder post.)

The Colorado passes are good for entrance to all 42 state parks. The passes can be reserved and renewed. The state also is encouraging people who check out the passes to share photos or Tweets from their trip with the hashtag, #CheckOutColorado.

The first eight libraries are part of a pilot program that started Oct. 1 and will run through March 31, 2016. The full program will launch to all 260 libraries in the state April 1, 2016.

Of course programs like this are AMAZING for family travel. They open up the great outdoors to families FOR FREE. What’s more, the educational information in those backpacks can help teach kids lessons about the environment they’ll remember forever. Hopefully my home state of California will adopt a similar program sometime soon.

Growing green kids


Petting a mossy rock in Yosemite.

My wife and I like to think we’re growing green kids in this family. That doesn’t mean we’re raising aliens. It also doesn’t mean we’re trying to keep them as innocent as possible. It means we’re bringing up our girls to appreciate every aspect of the environment in which they live.

Most of the time, this is a quiet quest. We have them pick up trash. We encourage them to conserve water. We go for hikes and teach them how to distinguish between a black oak and a live oak.

Sometimes, however, we make our commitment public.

That was the thinking behind my latest piece for Alaska Beyond, the (recently) rebranded in-flight magazine from Alaska Airlines. The story is a personal essay about our drive to raise our kids to be mindful of the environment. In the piece, I recount some experiences we had during our April 2014 trip to Yosemite National Park. The headline says it all: “Growing Green Kids.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might remember posts from (or about) that trip. This essay starts with an anecdote I haven’t told anywhere—a recollection of the night L and I almost bumped into a bobcat on the prowl for dinner.

From there, the piece waxes philosophical, but not overwhelmingly so. I won’t spoil the message here, but instead invite you read the piece. If it resonates with you, please share it with others.

The only way we’re going to preserve our environment is to get our kids excited about doing so. That challenge starts with us.

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?

A Walk to Remember

My Big Girl, drinking tea before the hike

My Big Girl, drinking tea before the hike.

My wife and I are avid hikers, and we’ve raised our girls to embrace the outdoors as well. Back in California, no day is complete without a tromp in the woods near our house. Here in London, though experiencing “woods” requires more of an effort, we get the girls out and about to breathe fresh air as much as we can.

This is one of the reasons why all four of us were so excited about spending Thanksgiving in the country (at Four Seasons Hampshire). It’s also why I didn’t bat an eye when L requested a hike after sundown one evening last weekend.

Our goal for the evening journey was simple: Hike well-marked pathways as far as we could in 30 minutes, then turn around, return to the resort and have hot chocolates in the library bar.

To guide the way, L took her ladybug flashlight; I bugged the concierge for a “torch” (that’s what they call flashlights here) of my own.

The walk started quietly; as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, L was focusing intensely on watching her steps.

Once we were startled by a braying horse, however, the mood lightened considerably. We quizzed each other on whether certain twinkles were airplanes or satellites or stars. We reminisced about our favorite parts of the day we spent in nearby Farnham (hers: Watching Christmas carolers; mine: Lunching in a 500-year-old pub). We even shared our favorite stories about the Baby, a.k.a., her little sister.

After 30 minutes—probably 1.5 miles in all—we turned around as planned. With the manor house looming on the horizon, L realized we likely were the only people hiking in the field at that moment, so she shared a perfectly normal (for a 4-year-old) request:

“Dad, it won’t bother anybody else. Can we please listen to Taylor Swift?”

Normally I have a strong No-Artificial-Sounds-in-Nature rule. On this night, however, because we were the only people in the field (and, of course, because she asked so politely), I relented.

L was delighted. She skipped. She twirled. At one point, she screamed along with words I hope she doesn’t understand for a long while (I think the song was, “Dear John”). And about halfway back—I kid you not—we spotted fireworks exploding over the trees on the edge of the property.

In that moment, my daughter described the fireworks as “magical,” “unbelievable,” and “amazing.” We now have been home a week, and she still uses those same words when talking about the hike.

To be honest, I do, too.

Those 60 minutes were the best 60 minutes of my Thanksgiving, and arguably the best 60 minutes I’ve had in a long, long time. These are the moments we as parents live for.

Could we have had the same experience at home? Maybe something pretty close. But being in a faraway, foreign place enriches every aspect of moments like that one, and the richer those moments, the better.

‘Getting Wet’ on Family Trips



We were playing in the playground at a local park when a new addition to the expat scene started the interrogation.

He grilled me about local schools. He asked for my favorite local restaurants. He went so far as to inquire about my favorite Tube stop, my favorite bus line and my preferred neighborhood bodega. Then he dropped the ultimate bomb.

“What do you do with the kids when it rains?” the guy asked in a panicked tone that conveyed total bewilderment.

“Well,” I replied quickly, “We get wet.”

This answer was significant for two reasons. First, of course, it indicated that we have lived in London long enough to do as Londoners do—that is, though the rain initially deterred us from going out and about, it no longer fazes us at all. Second, it revealed to me something bigger, bolder and more bad-ass about the way our family approaches travel in general: We don’t let anything slow us down.

No, I’m not admitting to a Griswoldian strategy of running my kids into the ground (though, before I became a father, my friends used to accuse me of “Clarking” them on guys’ trips). I’m simply stating that we usually don’t let harmless but unforeseen elements get in the way of experiencing a new place.

No matter how much our girls might want to stay inside.

We’ve forced the kids outside (and outside of their comfort zones) a number of times this past week. One day we got stuck in a squall on our walk back from the Tube (in case you, like the inquisitor, are wondering, our favorite stop is Warwick Avenue).  Another day, at a park up in St. John’s Wood, we waited out a downpour while trying to catch raindrops in an empty coffee cup.

Then, of course, was the afternoon I dressed up the girls in their “Welly boots” and led them around the corner for the sole purpose of splashing in a giant puddle.

At first the girls almost didn’t get it; both of them looked at me with expressions that said, “You mean this is what we’re doing out here?” Slowly, however, they suspended disbelief. They started jumping. Then they started giggling. At one point, L accidentally kicked off a boot and landed in the puddle with her bare sock. I wasn’t sure how she’d handle the development; to my surprise, she loved every second of it.

By the end of our little puddle-jumping session, both L and R were soaked and happy; neither of them wanted to return to the flat. Over dinner, the girls kept bugging me about when we could go puddle-jumping again. Again and again, my answer was the same: Probably tomorrow. (And it was.)

The bottom line: Whether you’re traveling with or without your kids, you’re not really traveling unless you’re “getting wet.” Get out. Don’t let unforeseen circumstances throw you off your game. And remember that even with the greatest guidebook, the only way to experience a new destination is to explore.

How do you improvise when unforeseen circumstances force you to change plans on a family trip?

‘National Park Week’ Great for Family Travel


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.

A Primer to ‘Get Your Kids Hiking’

Alt's new book.

Alt’s new book.

My favorite kinds of family trips are those for which we spend a ton of time in nature. Day hikes, camping—you name the outdoorsy activity and it’s on my list. In this case, you could call me a Louvite, which is to say that I ascribe to the beliefs and research of Richard Louv.

This also explains why I loved Jeff Alt’s forthcoming book, “Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep it Fun!” In the book, the Cincinnati-based author offers tips and tricks on age-appropriate ways to include your child in all aspects of a hike, checklists of what to pack for any type of hike and advice for hiking with a special needs child. In short, he presents the Appalachian Trail of books about family travel outdoors.

I recently caught up with Alt to ask him about his work. Here are some highlights of our chat.

Q. Why is it so hard for parents to get their kids to embrace the outdoors?
A. There’s a fear factor that’s been instilled; within my own family ranks, we have families that literally are afraid of the outdoors. Also, as parents we’re all so busy now, and handing your kid a Smart phone or a gadget is easier and instantly quiets them down. So there are bad habits that have formed.

Q. What are the biggest challenges around building family vacation around being outside?
A. The biggest challenge is finding something age-appropriate. Some people might feel limited if their children are just starting to walk on their own or the kids are too heavy in a child carrier. My philosophy is that from birth to age 3, you can do whatever you want, so long as you can carry your child. Whatever you decide to do with your kids in terms of hiking, I wouldn’t recommend extreme weather hiking. And nothing too strenuous.

Q. Gear is so expensive these days. How can a family take up hiking without breaking the bank?
A. Gear can be expensive, but in general, hiking is probably the cheapest form of family time and entertainment available. If you think about it, you can acquire everything you need from second-hand clothing store. Child carriers, clothes, things like that. Finding long john underwear for your kids is harder; sometimes brand like Patagonia is the only choice in that department. Also, when they start to hike more, then you want to look at a good pair of running shoes with a decent sole on the bottom. If you have more than one child, buy things in neutral-colored clothing so that your young son can wear what your daughter wore.

Q. What’s the most important lesson to teach kids about life on the trail?
A. My first goal when I take my kids out is to make sure they know we’re not required to get anywhere or do anything. I follow their lead. If they want to walk for an hour, we do that. If they want to skip rocks across a creek a quarter-mile from the trailhead, we do that. I call this ‘child-directed hiking.’ My goal as a father is to make the whole experience so much fun that they want to go again and again. If they seem engaged on a hike, I know the hike has been a success. Another key lesson is to make sure they know that they should take nothing from the woods but memories and pictures.

Q. How old is old enough to overnight in the backcountry?
A. Personally, I don’t recommend hiking overnight until a child is old enough to carry some or most of their gear. Another potential problem with getting kids to do overnights too soon: You run the risk of putting your child into this forced road march, which could turn them off to the point where they won’t go again. I recommend base-camping and day hiking from there. Before you leave on your adventure, I recommend taking walks with the equipment you’re going to wear so that you—and your kids—can get used to it. Make sure the only surprises are what they’ll find on the trail. This will make everyone happier in the end.

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