Junior Ranger Programs at National Parks

Leaving Phoenix - Carlsbad Caverns (10)
Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico


We LOVE national parks.  We have never been disappointed in our visits to these spectacular pieces of our country.  They are well-preserved natural habitats.  The cost to get into the park are a small fraction of the amount of things to do and see and experience.  It is well worth the money!

At EVERY major national park, there is a Junior Ranger program for the kids to complete Usually it is free, although we did have to pay a couple of bucks for one at the Smokey’s because there was not park entrance fee.  There are usually 2 different programs, one for readers (6 yrsold-12) and one for younger children.

Tennessee - Jackson takes a photo of black bearTaking a picture of a bear for his Junior Ranger Program.Our first stop at a National Park is always a visitors center.  We watch a movie, see some of the displays, grab a map, talk to the rangers about kid-friendly outings or any info we need to know and then ask for a Junior Ranger Program.  The kids work on these activities in the car and on our outings.  On our way out of the park, they like to return to any visitors center, show the activities they’ve completed and be ‘sworn in’ as a junior ranger to get their ranger badge.

Olympic Nation Park - Under the Tree
Olympic National park



Getting Sworn in at the Everglades National Park, Hats and all!

They are all specific to the things they will be seeing in that park and have pictures, puzzles, games and kid-friendly information.  I feel like these are most secretive than they should be!   You always have to ask for them and the rangers are usually like, “Oh yeah!  Those!”  why don’t they just have them out to take?  Anyway, my mission is to get the word out to our junior members of society to make our trips to National parks more meaningful and memorable!


Maine - Hallie & Jackson in the Forest
Acadia National Park Junior Rangers
Hawaii - Family at the Lava Tube (2)
Hawaii Volcano National Park Junior Rangers



The Folly of Flying by the Seat of our Pants

Most of the time, I love last minute planning and ‘on-the-fly’ adventure travel.  Usually, we find awesome places to see and things to do.  When we finish a trip, I frequently say that deciding on-thespotmade the trip better than pre-planning it.  However, our most recent trip showed us the disadvantages of not planning, preparing and researching carefully for a trip.IMG_1685

As we drove toward the ocean, swimsuits on and ready to rock the waves,  I looked up family-friendly beaches in Miami. I had heard that some beaches that were nude, gay, party  beaches, etc.  So I thought I would make sure it was family friendly.  Those 2 words should do the trick, right?

South Beach came up as the most popular IMG_1686beach; NOT to be missed.  I also read about a little park, Lummox park, on 12th street and Ocean, that is a great place for kids to play around.  Seemed like a no-brainer.  My husband dropped the kids and I off at the park.  I sun-screened everyone while they played and he parked the car.  Together, we went right behind the park to the ocean.

All the ingredients for a successful day on the beach were present.  Hot sun…check; rolling waves… check; warm water….check; gorgeous, clean sand…. check;

We were absorbed in keeping our family together and finding a quick place to plant our stuff so we didn’t have to roll the stroller through sand any longer than absolutely necessary.

IMG_1683We plopped down, spread out our stuff and the kids and I ran to the ocean as fast as we could.  Dave was occupied getting Whitney to stop crying and go to sleep despite the heat and sun.  It was a moment of chaos for our family.  And thus, we were completely oblivious to those around us.

When things finally calmed down and we looked around, we piece-by-piece discovered that we had unknowingly stumbled on to the gay-est beach in town.   To our left, there were hundreds and hundreds of male couples sunbathing in speedos and short-shorts.  To our right, lesbian couples tanned.  The four lesbians right next to us (like 5 feet away) were sunbathing topless facing up. There wasn’t a child to be seen for miles.  Men in skimpy swimwear showing tanned skin and feminine walk, chatted gayly (and I mean that in the happiest way).   Women in thong bikini bottoms (*and by bottoms, I mean they didn’t actually have a bottom) caressed their partners.

We slowly realized that we had just planted our family in the middle of people who were not wanting to see a big Mormon-family with tons of kids running around.  We felt so out-of-place with our 4 kids, a baby, our white un-toned bodies, my one-piece workout swimsuit and missionary hair-cuts.   While those around us were lathering their bronzed bodies with bathing oils and donning the latest fashion sunglasses, we were sun-screening around hand-me-down stretched-out kid’s suits in the shade of our just given-to-us-umbrella.  The closest I came to fitting in was when I breastfed– without my cover on!  While we were not exactly shunned,  several couples obviously picked up their stuff and moved 20 feet down the beach, away from our noisy children.  We realized we were in the minority (or rather the ONLY) and felt very uncomfortable.   But, because we only had an hour before we had to head out to the airport, we just stayed put and tried to enjoy the beach despite our obvious differences.

See the wide space we were given on a crowded beach?  How nice, right?

True to form, and much to our chagrin on every other part of our trip, our kids were oblivious to the people around them.  They didn’t seem to notice anyone or anything except the waves, water, sand and toys.  They didn’t miss having other kids to frolic in the waves with (but did miss the same-gender couples making out in the ocean because I started a seaweed war to distract them).   My 4-year-old did beg to take her swimsuit top off, but as far as I could tell, that’s all they noticed.

As we left the beach, we were still wondering if it was, in fact, a gay beach or a special event or WHY there were so many in that area.  We then noticed the rainbow flags flying loud and clear and soon learned via google that 12th street beach is the #1 Gay beach in Florida (and has been for 25 years).  So glad we didn’t miss it, LOL!

And someday we will tell our children the story of the day we took our family to the Gay Miami beach.

Olympic National Park Highlights

Olympic National Park was absolutely incredible.  Perfect for the kids.  This park has a variety of things to see and experience.  We went from the sandy beach to the highest peak with an overlook of the mountain range.  Then two hours later we hiked in a rain forest to a waterfall.   I loved the mixture of water, overlooks and forest!  We came from a hot and humid summer in Texas it was hard to imagine anywhere being chilly, but we used our jackets everyday so bring some warm clothes!  There is only one main road around the outside of the park.  Most of the sights I describe here were 15 mins to 45 min  drive off the main road.  We started from the Seattle side of the park on the North and worked our way all the way around the park and back to Seattle.

Our family woke up in a hotel a few hours from the park, but since we were too tired for the pool last night we had to take a short morning dip and have the hotel breakfast (Free buffet breakfasts are always the highlight of my kid’s day).  We headed out for a day of driving and seeing.  We split up the trip so that we had a stop every couple of hours and it was a perfect itinerary!

Dungeness Spit

Olympic Nation Park - Mariah on the Beach.JPG

This is not an actual part of the national park, but was so interesting and beautiful (once we found the correct location…don’t trust gps on this, navigate to Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge).  There is a $3 fee per party  to hike out to the Spit and we didn’t have cash (how do you go on vacation without cash you ask?  I don’t know, but somehow we survive every time).  We picked up an envelope and promised to send it later as we started hiking.  (To be honest, here was a moment one of the kids was throwing a tantrum and dad and the perp when back to the car while the rest of us meandered slowly waiting for them.  Travel with kids is tricky sometimes!)  We originally brought kites and we had to leave them behind.  This place is a refuge for animals so no playing allowed.  (There are great beaches to use kites later on so hold on to them! ) The hike was so beautiful.  The trail split into two trails: One is paved,wide and easy sloping, the other trail is a natural hiking trail, narrow and through more brushes.  The natural trail was longer in mileage, but still not very long.  We sent our slower 3-year-old with Daddy and Mommy hiked faster with the older kids and the little girl still beat us.  Once you get to the actual spit it extends 5 miles out into the ocean.  There is a great view from the end of the trail, along with binoculars to see the lighthouse near the end of the spit.  You have to hike down a fairly steep dirt hill to get to the spit.  Some people were walking further out, but we just got to the sand bar and started playing with the smooth stones, the driftwood and the sand.  It was really windy and cold, but there were places of refuge where we played with the kids and hid in driftwood ‘forts’.   It was quite a bit wider than I thought it would be, so its not like you could touch or see both sides of the ocean at the same time.  Our kids imagined and created with the rocks and driftwood for nearly and hour, while daddy skipped rocks into the ocean and I soaked in the relaxing sounds of the ocean and delightful giggles of my children.

Hurricane Ridge

Olympic Nation Park - Hurricane Ridge (4).JPG

We stopped at a visitors center at the base of the ridge and got a Junior Ranger program as well as info about what we were going to see.  The drive up Hurricane Ridge was so foggy and it began raining.  I thought we were wasting our time driving, but my little one was napping (and even I grabbed a short nap) so I tried to be ok with driving through fog just for the sake of driving.  The older kids were listening to an audio book… car sanity saver!  However, as we continued to climb and climb we emerged on top of the fog and there was a spectacular view of many, many mountains and valleys and glaciers.  I was so happy that our 45 min drive was worth it.  The visitor center showed a short video about the area and had a topographical map showing us the different mountains we were looking at. The view from the lodge was spectacular.   Then behind the center we hiked to up a small hill (felt like a giant mountain with no oxygen).  My children wondered aloud if we would possibly see a deer just as we turned a corner to have a deer within feet of us crossing the path.

Olympic Nation Park - Hurricane Ridge (7)Olympic Nation Park - Hurricane Ridge (6)

This would not be the last deer (or elk) we saw and the kids were elated.  We reached the top of the ‘hill’ a bit out of breath, but in awe of the perspective and grandeur of it all.  Apparently, on clear days you can see out the the ocean, but our views were somewhat diminished by the lower fog.   We encountered a marmot (thank you visitor-center-movie for teaching us what a marmot is) on our path and saw several more deer, squirrels and birds.  As we drove down the ridge, I thought surely the fog had lifted since we had such great views, but it was still waiting for us as we dropped down in elevation.

Olympic Nation Park - Hurricane Ridge.JPG


Lake Crescent

Olympic Nation Park - Cresent LakeThis was right along the road we were traveling so we just stopped and jumped out of the car, dipped our toes in and took in the views.  Traveling right along the shore gave us many amazing views.

Sol Duc Waterfalls

Olympic Nation Park - Sol Duc Falls (3).JPG

It was getting late as we arrived, so we opted to hike to the falls and not to soak in the water at the little resort.  It was $14($10 for kids)  to swim (although we were late enough to get twilight $10 for 2 hours).   It looked less glamourous and more like a dirty swimming pool than the website would have you believe.  Still, I wish we could’ve experienced it.  Despite being late and tired, our kids did great on the hike.  They got into their own little world playing with each other and walked along with no complaints.  The falls were pretty.  It was beginning to get dark so we were rushing to get back to the car, but also didn’t want to ruin the magic of kids enjoying themselves in the wild outdoors.

City of Forks

Olympic Nation Park - Forks

Made famous by the vampire series, Twilight, this little sleepy town was just as written about.   I loved exploring a little.   We found a 2 bedroom motel (6 beds!) and our kids immediately went into the second room, closed the door and got some alone time without mom and dad.  I ran to the store for dinner.  The kitchenette was great for any cooking we needed to do.  Sometimes eating out is such a hassle and it is nice to eat in a place where we can be comfortable (not to mention the cost effectiveness). Breakfast was also from the local grocery store and we got some of the best donuts I’ve ever had!  I we discovered that our kids love the hard boiled eggs you can buy at the deli.

Olympic Nation Park - Hotel in Forks

Hoh Rainforest 

Olympic Nation Park - Family in the Forest
Our first stop the next day was the rainforest.  We had a taste of the moss hiking last nights, but this rainforest was even more covered than Sol Duc.  This is the only rainforest in the continental US.  Weve been to the other rain forests (Hawaii) but this was so different and interesting.  We hiked the Hall of Mosses.  It was a quiet and dense feel.  The sun was almost completely hidden.  The trees were huge with many logs to crawl into or on tops of.

Olympic Nation Park - Kids in the Forest (2).JPG


Ruby beach  

Olympic Nation Park - Ruby Beach (4).JPG

We ate lunch on the shore as we flew kites, dug in the sand and played with smooth, round stones.  The views here were incredible.  (Have I mentioned that I was 5 months pregnant on this trip? My energy was low and I relaxed and  took in the view as often as possible.  My husband did more playing around with the kids). This beach had big boulders in the ocean that gave this such a unique beach feel.

Olympic Nation Park - Ruby Beach (2).JPG

Lake Quinault 

Olympic Nation Park - Hiking in the Forest.JPGOur last stop was a little hike around Lake Quinault.  The map was a little hard to decipher and I’m still not exactly sure where we hiked, but it was beautiful and enjoyable.  Olympic Nation Park - Kids in the Hollow Log.JPGWe spent another few moments soaking in the crystal waters with the giant mountains surrounding it before calling it a great trip and heading to the airport back in Seattle.


The thing that stood out to me in this park was it VARIETY.  Every stop was something new and different and we never got ‘bored’ of too much of the same sights.  This National park is worth getting to!

17 budget friendly travel tips for Machu Picchu Peru

My husband and I recently had the opportunity to travel to Peru for our anniversary.

Machu Picchu - Dave & Jamie in the Ruins (7).JPGI spent many hours researching for the trip, but there are some things you can’t prepare for without experiencing it.  For non-Spanish speakers traveling to South America for the first time, our eyes were opened in a few ways. Here are a few ways you can be more prepared than we were.

  • Travel:
    1. Spanish speaking.  Most everyone said that it would be fine to not speak Spanish and all the people working in the tourist town would be able to help us in English… not so!  Both of our hostel workers spoke NO English.  Even the word ‘map’ was unrecognizable to him (its ‘map-a’ in Spanish).  We had a difficult time finding maps or guidebooks in English at the Cuzco ruins, or even menus in English at the Lima Airport. We just had to point to something and hope it was good.   Bring a dictionary or a translator.  Luckily, my husband remembered just enough from his college course to get us through.
    1. Keep your immigration form handy:  When you go through immigration they stamp a form and then hand it back.  Whether they told us in Spanish and we didn’t understand or not, we didn’t keep the forms and upon going back through immigrations you have to show these forms or pay $10 per person to get new ones
    1. Lima airport doesn’t have free wifi, you can pay $10 for 24 hr access.
    1. The train to Aguas Caliente.Aguas Calientes - Train RideFor tourists to go to Machu Picchu, the trains are VERY expensive.  We paid around $300 for both us round trip (1 ½ hour ride each way).  You can save some money by buying a round trip upfront, but we weren’t sure when we would be ready to go home, so we paid a little more for 2 one-way trips.  This gave us more flexibility, but you run the risk of it being sold out.  There were only a few seats left when we bought our return trip so we weren’t able to sit together (Until someone traded seats with us.)  The Vistadome on Peru rail is more expensive than the Expedition.  Vistadome serves a snack and drink and the windows wrap around the top of the train to give a fantastic view.  However, the Expedition also serves a (smaller) snack and drink and has windows on the top.  I didn’t notice a huge difference and as a money saving tourist, would not have paid more $ for the Vistadome, except that it was the only option we had in the afternoon.   Inca rail was smaller and more affordable when I looked online, but in person was $75 each way, with fewer time options. It did look like there was another train option that all the Peruvians were taking.  I’m assuming a smaller train, cheaper and more stops, but I didn’t look into it since we couldn’t speak much.
    1. Expenses.  After you’ve already bought your flight to Lima and then to Cuzco, the cost of transportation to Machu Picchu is still very high.  Most people book a tour which means the tour company takes care of all the details of getting you around, you just have to meet with them.   After pricing everything out, I found it is still much cheaper to travel on our own.  I like this option better as well, because I have tons of flexibility, I can go or leave when I want and don’t have to wait for others or hurry up for others.  However, this means I have to make plans and hope they work and it can be a bit stressful.  It obviously up to you and what is most important.  But we chose the option of flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants and traveling on our own.

    Cost breakdown for 2 people

    • Taxi to Ollaytantambo $55
    • Train to MP $120
    • Bus up the mountain $24
    • Macchu picchu tickets with mountain hike  $87
    • Tour guide $60
    • Bus down $24
    • Train back to ollaytantambo $150
    • Minibus back to Cusco $30
    • Taxi to airport $10
    • Total: $530 (not including airfare)

At Machu Picchu

  1. Make sure you have a PRINTED ticket to Machu Picchu.  They require the printed tickets at the top of the mountain (and they do not sell tickets there) and your passport.  I bought tickets at home right before we left for the airport.  I don’t know how accessible printers are in Peru and didn’t want to wait and find out.  There are several places to buy tickets to Machu Picchu in Cuzco, but I didn’t want to pay a taxi driver to take us there so I bought at home.  I did read that they sell out in high season, but there were plenty of tickets available for us on the day we went in late November.
  2. Inside the gates at Machu Picchu there are no toilets, water or food.  The hotel right outside the park sells some snacks, water, ice cream and food (buffet for $40/person and outrageous prices for everything else, too) but once inside the park there is no option for food or water.  The booth to check in for our hike did sell small water bottles for 5 soles.  The bathrooms outside the park cost 1 sole to go in.
  3. Mountain Macchu Picchu is a 4 hour round trip hike. (Wayna Picchu is 2 hours round trip). Machu Picchu - Dave & Jamie Overlooking the Village.JPGWe pride ourselves on being fast and fluid hikers, so we did it in 3 and 1/2 hour, but it was really, really hard. Over 3000 steps and a huge elevation climb. We were huffing and puffing and taking frequent breaks. Only a few steps after our breaks and we would be right back to breathing hard. We were so sore at the top and then hiked all the way down (including down the part where you can take a bus if you opt to). The sore muscles lasted for several days. I am not in the best shape of my life, but I am also working out several times a week. The lack of oxygen and the many steps made this hike very difficult. All that being said, the view from the top is fantastic and indescribable. Photos never do it justice. The reward of our hard labors was worth it. I just wish I would’ve done the stair master at the gym a few times to prep for this.
  1. Do Not go into Macchu Picchu without a guide! Machu Picchu - The Tour Guide.JPGWe first entered without a guide, looked around and then went back out to get a guide to tell us what we were seeing and answer all our questions. There are plenty of English speaking guides at the gate hoping to get a tourist for the day. The tour is about 2 hours and you will not regret knowing more about the ruins and getting to ask all the questions you want. As cool as the site was, I didn’t really know WHAT it was, so having a tour was critical making our trip worth it. Patrick (our tour guide) told us he would wait at the ruins FOREVER, so you could always ask for him. (We paid $60 for a 2 hours tour including a small tip).

Packing Tips  

  1. When a hotel advertises wifi and breakfast, it may not be what we expect in the states.  Both our ‘hostels’ served a roll with butter and Tampico orange juice for breakfast.  Aguas Calientes - Breakfast at the HotelWith the price we paid ($36  1st night, $24 second night), we weren’t going to complain, but I was glad that I packed oatmeal packets to add to hot water to make a more complete meal.  The wifi was only in the lobby at one hotel and was very spotty in another hotel.  I had to ask 3 times for it to be restarted.  They were friendly and kind about it, but it was annoying to have to go ask them.
  1. Bring your own toiletries.  Maybe you will stay in a nice hotel that provide these amenities, but we choose to stay in cheap places so we can afford to travel more frequently.  Both our hostels had no shampoo, conditioner, or lotions, or hair dryers, etc.  Our hotels did have toilet paper, but many of the public bathrooms did not, so pack your own! None of the public bathrooms had soap so if you want to stay germ free, bring hand soap and/or hand sanitizer. Bug spray was pretty costly ($7 for a small bottle) so if you can bring your own this would save money.  Sunscreen was also costly and since I thought it would be raining we didn’t bring any or buy any.  Our skin peeled for 3 weeks after our hike up Macchu Picchu mountain!
  1. Toilet paper:  You cannot throw the toilet paper in the toilet which is pretty gross.  Any bathroom outside of the airport didn’t have any toilet paper in the vicinity (so bring your own) and the toilet didn’t have a seat on it (just the bowl part). so practice your squat holds!
  1. Soles.  When we traveled, Soles were about 3 times dollars (so 1 dollar=3 soles) this math wasn’t easy to do in my head when they would say “40 soles” and I was trying to figure out if I was willing to spend that much money on an item.  In some cases, we spent more that we wanted and in others it was much cheaper.  Our first meal in the country we paid about $8 per meal which we thought was reasonable, until we walked down the street of Ollaytantambo and found hamburgers for 10 soles (or $3.50).  I thought Machu Picchu tickets for 2 were $300.  AFTER I purchased them and it appeared on my credit card bill as $87 (300 soles) I was so happy!
  1. Don’t believe the weather report. We had 90% chance of rain all day, everyday and it only rained from 3 am to 5 am. The misty mountain cleared of completely by 10 am.  Wear sunscreen! Bring sunglasses! We burned so quickly and deeply. Our skin peeled for 3 weeks after our trip. Our ponchos were a waste of money, but we were worried about rain breaking out, so we bought them before we headed up the mountain, we should’ve bought sun screen.

Other things to see in the area

  1. Auguas Caliente is the town at the base of the mountain up to Macchu picchu.  It has no cars in it, just a walking town.  It is quaint and cute and quiet. Aguas Calientes - Misty Town Square I loved that we spent our first night there and were ready to go up the mountain first thing in the morning.  I would definitely recommend this travel itinerary (taking the afternoon train into Auguas Caliente and spending the night), but it is a tourist trap.  Souvenirs here are nearly double what you will pay elsewhere. There is more selection there than in Cuzco or in Ollaytantambo, but it is costly. The food was reasonably priced.
  2. The ruins in Cusco are amazing too, but the price is high as well.  We paid $40 to see Sacqueshuaman.  Cusco - Saqsaywaman - Dave by the RuinsThe hand carved giant boulders made into a perfectly smooth wall were spectacular!  We paid a taxi driver $30 to drive us around to the other 3 smaller sites (on the same ticket) as well as take us to the airport.Cusco - Ovewrlooking the City
  1. If you are traveling on your own, they you may not be able to take advantage of seeing the ruins in Ollaytantambo without paying a high price.  You can only get tickets to see the ruins there by buying a combo packet that include 3 or 4 other places.  It was $40 for the combo pass and we knew were weren’t going to make it to any of the other sites, so we didn’t do it.  If you had the time and taxi, these places may have been interesting, but paled in comparison to Machu Picchu, so you may want to do them first.Cusco - Saqsaywaman - Lady Posing for Picutres

I know I don’t travel like many who save up, book nice hotels and a tour to make it all easy, relaxing and enjoyable. We choose the budget- friendly route so I can continue to be a stay-at-home mom to our kids and we can keep going on more and more trips.   Our philosophy is, “The less we pay on this trip, the sooner we can go on another one!” Also, we like exploring on our own terms and conditions coming and going when we feel ready and not when our itinerary tells us to.

If you want to ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ it is definitely doable.  Hopefully these tips help!

I’m so glad I got to see this amazing wonder of the world!  I sat in the grass here and soaked in the view (and rested my aching hiking legs) for over an hour!  Machu Picchu - Overlooking the Village with Llamas

For details and pictures of our trip and itinerary you can read it on my blog