Making a Splash with Family Travel

Feet in puddles. The best part of our trip.

One of the biggest misconceptions about family travel is that you have to splurge for airfare and fly somewhere faraway to have an experience your kids will remember.

The truth: All you have to do is get the kiddos out of the house.

I’m reminded of this all the time, as we’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world with seemingly infinite natural beauty. When we tire of the routine, we pile in the car and head to the Pacific Ocean, about 45 minutes away. When we want a Big City experience, we shoot down the freeway and spend the day in San Francisco. Heck, sometimes we rarely leave our town.

Such was the case this past weekend, when, after a big rainstorm, I took the girls to a local park. The park sits next to the Russian River, and I know the place gets pretty muddy after a rain. That’s precisely why we went. Seriously.

I told the girls we were going to “hike.” Really, however, I had one plan and one plan only: To bring them to this trail system, encourage them to splash in puddles, and sit back to enjoy what happened next.

They followed the plan perfectly; all three of them were up to the tips of their rainboots within five minutes of leaving the parking lot. They enjoyed the puddle jumping so much that the three of them ran ahead on the trails to make sure they “scouted” puddles before I could find them and assess them myself.

One time, Baby G misjudged the depth of a puddle and got a boot full of water. Another time, Little R lost her balance and fell backward—straight on her rear. Then, of course, there was the Big Girl, who loves puddle-jumping but has anxiety about muddy clothes, so she hiked her pant legs up to her knees.

We stayed for nearly two hours. We were never more than seven miles from our front door.

About a week has passed, and the girls have talked about or puddle adventure at least two times every day. For them, this was a major family travel experience. Yet we didn’t “travel” at all.

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.

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

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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

Splish-splash.

Splish-splash.

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

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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