Free Admission to Over 1,000 Museums – This Saturday

Are you looking for something fun to do this Saturday?  If you live near one of over 1,000 museums across the country that is participating in Smithsonian’s Museum Day Live! (and chances are you do), you have the opportunity to check out a great nearby museum for free.  Go online here to check out which museums are participating and to obtain your free tickets.  Keep in mind that you have to obtain your tickets in advance online and that there is a limit of two tickets per person.  This is a great opportunity to visit that museum you’ve always thought of checking out, but that never quite made the cut when you planned your excursions.

We’ll be headed to Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock, Vermont this Saturday.  Museum Day Live! happens to coincide with the connected Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park’s Forest Festival, so I’m sure it will be a full day.  We’ve already spent two days exploring the National Historic Park (and Van has a junior ranger badge to prove it), so we’ll spend more time at the farm and museum and are very grateful to have the opportunity to visit this great museum at no cost.

Will you be headed to one of these museums this Saturday?  If so, where will you be exploring?  Let us know in the comments if it’s a museum you’d recommend to others.

Advertisements

White Sands National Monument

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

Truth be told, White Sands was one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting when we came up with this crazy idea to travel so extensively with a two-year old.  Although we were not able to camp in the monument, our visit did not disappoint.  I was so looking forward to camping on the white sand, but the monument only has limited back country camping.  We were a little puzzled as to why we were not able to camp there.  Once we arrived, it all made much more sense.  I guess the Federal Government prefers that family campers don’t set up camp in the middle of an active missile range.  I knew that the monument was near a missile range, but I did not realize that it was smack dab in the middle of the missile range.  In fact, the monument and the main highway leading to it had been closed earlier in the week when testing activities were being conducted.  My understanding is that this can be a weekly occurrence.

Lucky for us, the only activity we were caught in the middle of was yet another immigration checkpoint, well inside the borders of our country.  We were waved through once we told them we were on our way to White Sands, but we couldn’t help but think of all the folks doing exactly what we were doing who would have to stop and answer many more questions simply because of the color of their skin.

Our first stop at White Sands was the visitor’s center.  Van ran in with his passport in hand, eager to collect yet another stamp.  I picked up his junior ranger’s packet and off we went, ready to explore the park for the day.

Van working on his junior ranger packet

Van working on his junior ranger packet

We all had a great time running around the surprisingly cool sand.  Unlike the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, this sand is made of gypsum and is very cool to the touch.  Bare feet for the win!

The best part of the day was watching Van examine all the crystalline-like sand structures and spotting tracks of various small critters.

Our long and fun day at White Sands was capped off with our very last night of tent camping on the trip.  We drove to nearby Alamogordo and slept at a local campground, but given the low evening temperatures (it had been dipping into the 20s), we decided to finish out our stay in New Mexico at rustic cabins, local motels, and two lovely nights at the home of friends in Albuquerque.  Though it was sad to pack up our tent and realize that it would be staying in the car for the foreseeable future (and has since been replaced), sleeping in the relative warmth of an uninsulated cabin was heaven.

Visit Our National Parks for Free – and Camp KOA for Free

There are many things we enjoyed on our trip over this past year.  Second only to visiting with friends and family was spending so many glorious uninterrupted hours, days, weeks in our national parks.  If you live near a national park (and most of you do), I encourage you all to go and explore our heritage and history at these fantastic institutions.  For added incentive, National Park Week is coming up from April 19th to 27th.  In celebration, parks are offering FREE admission on April 19th and 20th.  While not all parks charge admission, if a park you’ve been thinking of visiting does, this is the perfect time to check it out.  Also, April 26th is National Junior Ranger Day.  We’ll definitely have to do something with Van to celebrate.  Maybe we’ll bust out all eight of his junior ranger badges (he just earned his eighth at the Springfield, MA Armory).

Junior Ranger Van

Junior Ranger Van

In celebration of all things outdoors and free, KOA is offering a free night of camping on Saturday, May 10th if you stay on Friday, May 9th.  Funds raised during that weekend will support KOA Care Camps, which allow children with cancer and their siblings to attend special summer camps around the country.  Win, Win!

Even if you’re not up for a visit to a national park or camping, I hope you are all enjoying some time in the fresh air and sun.  Nothing heals better than an afternoon frolic through the woods.

Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to visit Joshua Tree National Park.   The name always conjured up images of a strange desert landscape full of alien trees transplanted by fairytale characters.  Naturally, I had high expectations.  They were blown out of the water! This park was incredible for so many reasons that have nothing to do with the fantastical plant that gives the park its name.  Although seeing forests of Joshua Trees is reason enough to visit this southern California park.

We visited at a great time of year – the very end of October (yes, that means I’m a month behind on my posts).  The weather was warm enough during the day that light fleeces were all that was needed, except when they were tied around our waists while we were hiking.  As soon as the sun went down, it got cold.  It was in the low thirties at night, so we didn’t spend a lot of time out of our tent in the evening hours.  But, when we did spend some time in the cold night air, we were rewarded with the most brilliant sky I’ve seen on this trip.  We’ve been camping for eight months.  Without a doubt, Joshua Tree takes the prize for the most brilliant stars and inky skies we’ve seen.  It was not lost on me that the lack of moonlight added to this effect.  Like the Joshua Trees themselves, the night sky is reason enough to visit.

We expected to have our choice of campsites, given that the park has a generous number of sites and we were visiting in the middle of the week in the middle of the school year.  We were wrong!  Yes, there were plenty of spots from which we could choose, but many of the sites were already taken.  Some of the spots were filled with retired travelers, a few with families who appeared to be on long-term pilgrimages like us, but most of the campers were rock climbers.  Had I known more about the camel-colored rock formations pushing up from the desert floor like large drops of liquid not subject to gravity, this would not have been a surprise.  We set out to find a campsite that would protect us from the 60+ mile an hour winds that were predicted at night and found a site where we could set up our tent in a crevice between rocks and shrubs.  The wind may have howled, but we were snug and warmish all night long.

Campsite Success!

Campsite Success!

Alan’s ankle was beginning to feel better, so we were able to go on a number of small nature trails and a few proper hikes.  Van loves the nature trails, mainly because he loves running from sign to sign or number to number.  He was a little boy in heaven.  My favorite of the nature trails was our amble through the Cholla Cactus Garden.  The garden is situated in a part of the park where the Colorado Desert meets the higher, Mojave Desert.  There are many types of Cholla Cacti throughout the southwest, but these particular Cholla, the Teddy Bear Cholla, get their name for obvious reasons.

Teddy Bear Cholla, Johua Tree National Park

Teddy Bear Cholla, Johua Tree National Park

Just don’t cuddle them, or even get close to them.  If you brush against one with the slightest amount of skin or clothing, spines will jump off the plant and on to you.  This gives the cute but unfriendly plant its nickname, Jumping Cholla.  This was a case of making sure that our little Junior Ranger really stayed on trail.  Thankfully that’s the one rule about hiking in sensitive habitat that Van has really embraced.  Especially since he was working on obtaining yet another Junior Ranger badge.

We also took several hikes and nature walks through the Joshua Tree forests, in and around the magnificent rock formations, to see a small dam (a remnant from when this area received twice as much rain just a short century ago), and to see hypercolor Disneyified petroglyphs.  Shocking to think that this area, which receives so little rain, received twice as much a mere century ago.  It makes me wonder what this area will look like in another century, after climate change has an even more significant impact on the temperatures and rainfall in this area.

The most fascinating hike we took was to 49 Palms Oasis.  We hiked up and over a ridge through a dry desert landscape dotted with barrel cacti.  As we headed down into a valley, in the distance was a striking site.  A small cluster of green.  Palm trees in the middle of the desert!  Yes, I’ve seen plenty of palm trees in the middle of the desert before.  Typically in straight lines along streets, golf courses, and resorts.  But to see a natural palm oasis was something else.  What appeared to be a tiny cluster was actually quite large once we were hiking amongst the palms.  I can imagine how hikers in the hot summer must feel such relief in the shade of the fan palms.  And so I repeat myself, hiking to a true palm oasis is reason enough to come to Joshua Tree National Park.

49 Palm Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park

49 Palm Oasis, Joshua Tree National Park

My biggest lesson from visiting Joshua Tree is that the layperson’s view that a desert is devoid of life is categorically untrue.  Joshua Tree is an incredibly diverse biological environment.  Many of the plants were new to me, and I had such a blast learning about the myriad of plants we were living, hiking, and eating around and what each plant did to conserve water and thrive in this environment.  More surprising to me was the richness of color found in the plants.  I expected that the plants would mimic the colors of the rock and soil.  Instead, many of these plants stood out for their saturated colors against the tans and browns of the desert floor.

Deep Reds of a Barrel Cactus, Joshua Tree National Park

Deep Reds of a Barrel Cactus, Joshua Tree National Park

Greens of a Fan Palm, Joshua Tree National Park

Greens of a Fan Palm, Joshua Tree National Park

Our last day in the park coincided with Halloween.  We were not about to go trick or treating in the campground, so instead we celebrated by taking Van to Skull Rock.  Aptly named, indeed!

Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

Skull Rock, Joshua Tree National Park

Given the government shut-down, this was the first national park we had visited since the Pacific Northwest.  It was great to spend a few solid days in the outdoors – no traffic, smog, or crowds.  And since Van is growing up before our very eyes, he’s finally at the age that he can participate in the Junior Ranger activities with more understanding.  Although he had received two junior rangers badges at previous parks, this was the first park where he completed the activity booklet in order to earn a badge, bragging rights, and a fabulous book that he continues to read about Lilly the Joshua Tree.  The rangers were incredibly supportive and friendly with Van, which just added to how much we enjoyed Joshua Tree.  If you’re traveling to Southern California, spending a few nights camping and exploring this park should be very high on your agenda.  Aside from seeing friends, Joshua Tree was my clear favorite during our time in California.

Stay on Trail: Craters of the Moon National Monument

Craters of the Moon, Idaho

Craters of the Moon, Idaho

During law school, aspiring biglaw attorneys usually spend their second summer interning at a law firm they hope to call home.  Although they’re not attorneys, they’re called summer associates and treated quite well.  There are activities aplenty, along with the usual work.  One of the activities during my summer was a family feud-style game for which we had to answer questions beforehand to populate the answers.  One of the questions was, if you could be something other than an attorney, what would you be.  My answer?  A park ranger.   I realize that for many reasons this is not a good fit for me at this point in my life – what with no science degree and no desire to move around frequently during the start of a new career.  Instead, I simply enjoy my time outdoors and in parks, doing and learning as much as possible.  Craters of the Moon National Monument was the perfect place to do this.

Though a National Monument and not a National Park, we found that the facilities, ranger-led activities, maintenance, and services offered at this park were fantastic, the best we’ve seen on this trip.  We stayed for three nights and took advantage of this time to go on a number of great hikes, attend three evening ranger programs (at least I did, while Alan stayed back at the site to watch the sleeping babe), attend a ranger-led walk, and attend a junior ranger program.  We had thought that Van was too young to attend this program, as most of the junior ranger programming in parks is geared to children at least four to six years old.  The traditional junior ranger program (receive a packet, complete a bunch of activities through exploration in the park, and present the packet to a ranger for inspection) at Craters of the Moon is for older children, but a ranger came by our site and invited Van to the evening program, saying that he’d enjoy it even though he’s younger than most who attend.  And enjoy it he did!  He had a blast, sitting up front and raising his hands for lots of activities.  His favorite part was using the magnifying glass to examine items found around the amphitheater.  My favorite part was the induction ceremony for all the junior rangers at the close of the program.  Alan says that using the term “induction ceremony” is a bit too formal, but it was a ceremony and he was inducted as a junior ranger at the park, so I think that’s precisely what it was.  All the children stood up on stage and had to raise their right hand and repeat an oath.  Van didn’t do so well on the repeating, but the ranger made sure that his right hand was raised the entire time.

At the close, each child received a badge, which Van continues to wear.  Whenever we ask him what a junior ranger says, he says proudly: “Stay on Trail.”  He’s now super vigilant about keeping us on trail and often lets us know his motto whenever we’re out hiking – or frankly, even when we’re not out hiking.  Sadly, I didn’t bring my camera to capture the magic, but you can just imagine a squirmy Van on stage, his hand in the ranger’s, beaming proudly amongst a line of older children.  The only thing that would have made it better is if Van’s Uncle Jack was there to see it.  My brother had an infamous experience becoming a junior ranger at Devil’s Tower, showing up to turn in his completed packet with a massively bloody leg that resulted from a top-speed run in the park.  As we were reading aloud the junior ranger rules with the park ranger in hopes that we both qualified for our badges, we quickly learned that one of the important rules was that “Junior Rangers Don’t Run.”  Luckily, they didn’t hold Jack’s accident against him, and we were both sworn in as junior rangers.  Van has illustrious company!

This way.  Stay on trail!

This way. Stay on trail!

No, this way!

No, this way!

All this talk of “ranger this” and “junior ranger that,” and I haven’t said much about the park.  We loved it – absolutely loved it.  It’s not every day that you get to visit massively large lava fields and volcanoes aplenty.  We even slept on lava.  Basically, for three straight days, we were constantly standing, walking, sitting, sleeping, and eating on lava.  The park has two main kinds of lava: áa and pahoehoe.   The áa lava is larger, rockier, and more jagged and the pahoehoe is smoother and looks more like what I think of as a stereotypical lava flow.  In addition, there were large cinder cones in the park, essentially large mountains of cinders, and spatter cones.  These were my favorites, both to see and to hike to and around.  Walking on cinders is a completely different sensation.  They’re pieces of volcanic rock, but they’re fragile and they crunch beneath your feet.  Weirdly, I loved the sound and feel of walking on the cinders and can’t relate it to anything else I’ve ever walked upon.   Luckily, the parks has many great trails, because without well maintained trails (almost all surfaced with cinders), your shoes would quickly get eaten up by the lava.  The lava, which looks black at first glance, has a thin glass coating on the outside, which both makes it sharp and colorful.  Good thing we also had the little guy eager to repeat his new mantra, Stay on Trail!  Most intriguing to me was the various textures and surprising colors in this charcoal-looking landscape.  I tried to capture a few examples in the photos below.  I like to refer to the photo of brightly colored lichen as nature’s graffiti.

Craters of the Moon may be out-of-the-way in south-central Idaho, but it is well worth a visit.  Though many folks come through for the day, if you have the time, spend a few days there to explore all the different types of volcanic formations, including the lava tubes.  Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go inside any of the lava tubes because we were wearing the same hiking shoes we had worn on our visit to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky earlier this year.  Given the rapid spread of white nose syndrome, which has a very high fatality rate for bats, you could only explore the lava tubes if you were wearing clothing and shoes that had not been in any caves since 2005 or if these clothes or shoes were properly decontaminated.  I never did get a full understanding of what proper decontamination would entail, but we knew that whatever it was, we certainly didn’t meet the standard.