Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Sequoia National Park, CA

With a nickname as exciting as "land of giants" you can be sure that Sequoia National Park is well worth a visit. Whether you're looking for time spent in nature, or abundant educational opportunities, this park delivers on both fronts.

Following the General's Highway makes for a great day trip if you're short on time. On the other hand the numerous campsites and lodges make this an easy week-long getaway, as well. The opportunities are endless and solely depend on what works best for your family.

Tunnel Rock

When planning your visit, I suggest viewing the driving map that the park provides. Viewing other maps can be confusing because there are many entrances to the park, but most of those entrances don't connect, they simply take you to trailheads. Those looking for a kid-friendly visit will find the driving map to be more straightforward.

There's so much diversity and plenty to do here. A few of the highlights include Hospital Rock where you can view petroglyphs, Crystal Cave where you can see impressive stalactites and stalagmites, and the Giant Forest Museum where you can learn more about sequoias and the park in general.


The park hosts a plethora of Ranger-led programs and talks so be sure to check the calendar to see if any are available during your visit. There's something special about being able to hear directly from some of the people who know and love the park so well.

No trip to Sequoia would be complete without visiting General Sherman. General Sherman is a sequoia who has the distinction of being the largest living thing on earth. Visitors are only permitted to get so close to the tree, but it's an impressive sight and there are various photo opportunities along the path. If you enjoy hiking, you can take a 2-mile hike among these giants.

On our visit, we entered the park from the South West, via the Ash Mountains entrance. The Foothills visitor's center is a good first stop to grab Jr. Ranger books, visit the restrooms, and learn about the park a bit.

Next, I recommend simply following the road up through the park. We tried exploring down a few side roads, but they were very narrow and only lead to campgrounds, trailheads, etc. Save your time and just follow the red line of the map - General's Highway. We stopped at Hospital Rock and various outlooks and then continued on to the museum and General Sherman before stopping in at Lodgepole to eat and turn in the completed Jr. Ranger booklets.

Because it was snowing so much, we weren't able to visit Crystal Cave or the Tunnel Tree, but those are both right off of General's Highway and seem like a lot of fun. If you're short on time, choose one or the other.

What you need to know

Being a National Parks pass holder comes in handy here. The fee is about $35.00 per vehicle. While that does grant access to both Sequoia National Park and King's Canyon, that's still more than most of the parks charge for admittance.

Elevation changes quickly so be sure to check the weather. We visited in May and were not allowed to enter the park until we'd rented snow chains! We ended up having to install the snow chains once we hit the higher elevations due to snow. Make sure you have jackets handy!

Depending on when you visit, certain roads, passes, or attractions may be closed so be sure to check the website for alerts and hours of operations. In addition, Crystal Cave requires tickets so if you're determined to visit that particular attraction buy tickets ahead of time.

There are multiple snack bars and restaurants scattered throughout the park, but there is no fuel so make sure to gas up.

Big Trees Trail makes for a good family hike at just a little over a mile long. Moro Rock is neat, but there are 400 stairs to climb, just fyi!

Some of the roads are very narrow. We took off exploring and started to head down Badger's Pass which turned into a very frightening experience when we came nose-to-nose with another vehicle. The park doesn't recommend long vehicles or vehicles towing trailers to go past a certain point so be sure to plan for that.

King's Canyon is adjacent to Sequoia National Park. While we weren't able to make it there, it looks beautiful. If you have time to spare, consider at least driving the King's Canyon Scenic Byway to take in the views.

If you'd like to see both parks, I'd recommend considering your overall layout and then cutting through the parks; start in one park and leave via the other. You may find that you don't have time to visit the South Fork King's River portion of King's Canyon, but you could still experience a good portion of both parks.


Here's a printable color page.

A fun craft tutorial.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Mesa Falls, ID

While highway 191 directly connects the two parks, the beauty and calm of Mesa Falls makes it a lovely side trip to tuck into your Yellowstone/Grand Tetons vacation.

On our visit, we spent the morning in Yellowstone and then made our way to Mesa Falls. After just a couple hours at the park, we spent the rest of the day and the night in Idaho Falls. Both places were peaceful and picturesque and just what we needed after the hub-bub of Yellowstone.

The main attraction at Mesa Falls is, of course, the falls. At 10 stories tall, they are simply stunning! We were mesmerized by them.

You can see the upper falls near the Visitor's Center and then later drive down to a lookout where you can view the lower falls.

The Visitor's Center was welcoming and very kid-friendly so make sure to leave time to look around. Even though it's a state park, they had their own version of a Jr. Ranger booklet. Pop in first thing so the kids can work on their badges while you explore the park. In addition, an activity book is available for download before the trip to break up the monotony of the long drive.

There are several hands-on activities for kids. The skulls and skins room was a big hit with everyone, with a large variety of pelts for viewing and touching. When we were there, there were some large birds nesting in trees across the falls. A telescope was available to view the birds. Also, a children's area was set up with color pages for little ones. Something for everyone!

We also really enjoyed the walk along the falls. The local flora was abundant and so pretty!

What you need to know:

Visitor's Center hours are from 9:30-5:30 in the Summer. A $5 entry fee per vehicle is charged.

Restrooms and water are available, but there are no restaurants in the park or near the park so be sure to plan accordingly.

This park made for a great stop that can be done in 2 hours - or less if you just want to stretch your legs for a bit.

large portion of the trail is accessible so it would be fine for strollers. If you want to get closer to the falls, you'll have to be able to navigate some steps.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a awe-inspiring blend of history, nature, and art come together at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Completed in 1941, this 60-ft sculpture honoring 4 American presidents, continues to grow in popularity with around 2 million visitors a year.

14 pillars featuring all 50 state flags flank the entrance to this national memorial. After soaking in the view for a bit, head inside the visitor's center to learn more about the sculpture and the men whose likenesses are featured.

Jr. Ranger books and audio tours are available so be sure to grab those right away to make the most of your time. I've found that the Jr Ranger booklets help my boys pay attention and get them actively seeking out information instead of growing bored.

View from the trail

The Sculptor's Studio is worth a visit and the trail is a must do, weather permitting! To recoup your strength, treat yourself to a treat or an ice cream at the Market Place and then be sure to browse the gift shop for a memento.

What you need to know:

Unless you are a true history buff, you can easily visit Mount Rushmore in just a couple of hours. The longest part was the trail. It's less than a mile long but has over 400 steps so it is quite a workout. Sturdy shoes and sturdy legs are a must!

It's $10 to park.

Despite Rushmore being a quick stop, the Black Hills area offers plenty of activities to fill your day. Take the Iron Mountain Road out of the park, then drive through Custer State Park and on to Needles Highway. They'll be lookouts and a visitor's center along the way.

Tunnel on Iron Mountain Road. If you look closely, you can see Mt. Rushmore!
When we visited, we started our morning with breakfast at Wall Drug. We then saw Mt. Rushmore, drove Iron Mt. Rd, wound our way through Custer State Park, zipped along Needles Hwy, and were able to make it to Devil's Tower before it got dark.


Read more about visiting Mt. Rushmore with kids here.

Free printouts for each president here.