To Zion

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Our trip to Zion marked 4 weeks in Utah and 8 in the desert. We were nearing our limit in the land without water, especially with the prospect of California beaches on the horizon. Despite our dwindling interest in this arid landscape, we were immediately captivated with Zion’s unique beauty.

The night we pulled in, the campground was full, so we boondocked in an empty parking lot nearby. The next morning – at 6AM to be exact – Rick drove the camper around to get in line for a campsite. I stayed in the rig to make sure the kids didn’t fall out of their bunks, since we didn’t bother to wake them up. Our eagerness paid off, and by 9am we were settled in our campsite with The Watchman towering above us and the Virgin River a short stroll away for afternoon dips.

 

Zion’s appearance differed from previous Utah parks we had visited – Arches and Canyonlands. The red rocks were there, but craggier and mountain-like than what we’d seen. And while still arid desert, there were more trees and plants to provide contrasting colors to the tall cliffs.

Zion was the busiest park we had visited so far. Luckily, since we were camping, we didn’t have to deal with the parking situation within the park, but we quickly learned that the shuttle buses that ferried visitors throughout the park filled up fast.

We filled our week with hikes on the numerous trails around the park. One of our favorites was Canyon Overlook trail where we saw bighorn sheep and breathtaking views of the valley. I will say, if you aren’t a fan of heights, this Zion may not be for you. I was constantly on edge (literally and figuratively) worrying one of the kids would tumble off the edge of the trail.

 


An additional highlight to our time in Zion was meeting up with our friends Michelle and John, whom we met at Guadalupe Mountains. Michelle treated us to another round of her world-class strawberry margaritas and (on a separate occasion) minded the kids for a morning so Rick and I could enjoy a more strenuous hike on our own. Of course Rick picked the most dangerous and hair raising hike, Angel’s Landing. I hiked about 90% and let him finish the peak by himself while I white knuckled a nearby juniper tree and tried not to look down.

We spent multiple evenings at Michelle and John’s campsite and were grateful for their fellowship and hospitality. Being on the road full-time we often miss our friends and family back home, they made us feel a little less homesick.

In addition to the vertigo inducing hikes, we enjoyed the Virgin River which has helped shape and bring life to the canyon. We swam in it daily and even hiked part-way into the Narrows with the kids (for those that don’t know about the Narrows, this is another famous Zion hike in which the trail IS the river bed). Without the river so close by to provide easy entertainment for the kids and cool us off, I’m not sure we would have enjoyed the park as much as we did.

 

Utah – Canyonlands, Arches and most importantly MOAB

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Our first stop in Utah was Canyonlands NP, which while beautiful, wasn’t our best stop so far. On the advice of a fellow traveler, we headed to the remote Needles District of the park, thinking we’d be able to stay in a quieter area without all the crowds. Unfortunately, we found the reason it was quieter was because it offered little for families with young kids and was 1.5 hours from civilization – not great when I work on the road. We struggled to find a campsite, but ultimately settled on a picturesque spot in Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property just outside the park entrance. The campground was packed with rock climbers who all seemed to know each other, it was quintessential Utah.

After spending a few days in Canyonlands, exploring the handful of family-friendly trails, we headed back into Moab to figure out what our next step would be…what we didn’t realize was that we were about to fall in love.

Moab has been our favorite town so far on this trip. It is a small town located along the Colorado River in between Arches NP and Canyonlands NP. The town is full of outdoorsy people and tourists. It has one main street running through it, cute shops, plenty of restaurants and a great rec center/playground which we utilized to the fullest – and by that, I mean we camped there, showered there, took our kids to their daycare, swam, and worked out there. It was our second home.

After camping one night at the town park and rec center, we stumbled on an awesome BLM campground along the Colorado River. We hunkered down here for a week thanks to it’s convenience to town, proximity to outdoor activities, and overall beauty. If you’re planning a trip to Utah, I strongly suggest checking out Moab as a central location to all kinds of fun trips. Here’s a short list of what we did:

  • Multiple paddles down the Colorado River, covering about 20 miles, including a whitewater section. We had to dump the canoe once and bail water several times, but otherwise successfully navigated this beautiful and exciting portion of the Colorado with the kids in tow.
  • Family bike rides on a bike trail that followed the Colorado River.
  • Gorgeous hike along a crystal-clear stream through red rocks and canyons.
  • Visit to Arches National Park to see the famous Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch and others.
  • Family movie night at the library – next to the Moab Rec Center the Moab library was probably our favorite spot. We went to story time on CJ’s birthday and met Charlotte an amazingly kind librarian who gave the children several books to keep and loaned us some audiobooks to listen to on our car rides. We are almost done reading Charlotte’s Web together which has been a real treat.
  • Old school roller skating at the Moab’s Family Roller Skating Night, with the La Sal Mountains as our backdrop as we skidded and tumbled around their outdoor rink.

We also celebrated CJ’s and my birthday in Moab. Cora Jean requested a “Simba cake” so I worked with the kind bakery manager at the Moab grocery to track down some safari animals we could decorate the cake with. It was a little weird not being with family and friends and throwing a big birthday party, but we had fun eating cake in one of the Moab parks, unwrapping a few gifts and climbing on boulders after the festivities (totally Utah).

Mesa Verde: Memories From the Past

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Having fond memories of my mom throwing a banana peel at the mule deer who muscled its way into our campsite back in the 1990’s – I was excited to bring my own family to Mesa Verde. We found the deer to be much more timid than my last visit, but the park equally magically.

Mesa Verde is both a National Park and a World Heritage Site. It’s home to 4,000 archeological sites built by the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived in the region from 550 A.D to 1300 A.D. In addition to beautiful hiking trails with striking vistas of the mesas and nearby mountain ranges, you are also able to tour a handful of amazingly well-preserved cliff dwellings. Climbing up steep ladders, crawling through stone passage ways and standing on cliff edges transports you back to the stone age to imagine what life might have been like.

We signed up for one of these ranger-led hikes which took us through Balcony House. Our guide, David Night Eagle (a member of the Sioux Lakota tribe), had a great sense of humor and even treated us to some traditional flute music at the end of the tour. Standing in the home of people who had lived here over 700 years ago and listening to his music was a special experience.

This park was a great mix of history and nature and I feel like I have a better understanding of the daily lives of early native people. Although at times it felt like the kids weren’t interested in the archeological sites, we’ve found them building “adobe houses” out of rocks at the subsequent campsites we’ve stayed at so something must have sunk in!

So Long NM, Hello CO

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After spending two weeks in New Mexico, we were excited to get to another state. From Los Alamos we headed to Durango, Colorado which we had heard much fan fare about. Durango didn’t disappoint. Cute shops, great eateries, and several breweries supplemented the large number of outdoor activities located just minutes from the downtown area. Additionally, Durango had the best community center of any of the western towns we’ve visited (if you haven’t picked up on a theme yet, we like to seek out libraries and community centers for low cost entertainment for the kids, and something different from the endless hikes).

Durango’s indoor pool included a massive lazy river, aerobics pool, lap pool, spacious hot tub and the largest water slide I’ve ever been down. After Rick’s fifth ride down he said, “I’m just grinning ear to ear the whole way down.” Which I felt pretty much summed it up. All four of us enjoyed endless slides down the twisting tube – especially the Ceej.

In addition to the pool, we enjoyed a local hike where the kids had plenty of fun clambering over all the boulders. CJ now repeatedly requests to climb “Pride Rock” – the name she assigns to every large boulder we see on hikes. They spent about 20 minutes having a pretend hyena hunt after we found a large fort some kids had built just off the trail – as you can tell CJ is a big fan of “The Lion King.”

We also enjoyed the Animus river which runs through town. The kids biked along the path that follows the river one evening and the next day we did a short paddle through town ending at a beach where the kids were able to play in the sand and on the rocks.

The big highlight of the trip for the kids was getting to ride the historic Durango-Silverton steam train. We rode the completely refurbished train up through tall pine forests with heart stopping sections that looked straight down into whitewater portions of the Animus. While on the train we met an incredibly nice couple who invited us back to their winery afterward where the woman, Michelle, regaled Liam with stories of her time working on a whale watching boat – needless to say, we will be taking a whale tour when we get to California.

Overall, we were impressed with all that Durango had to offer and could easily have spent another week exploring.

Cousins, Cousins, Cousins

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After leaving Sante Fe we headed north to Los Alamos to visit my cousin David and his family. We arrived and were immediately struck by the roving mob of kids that were playing on their street. We parked and introduced ourselves to David’s wife, Jessie and their three children, Maren, Charlie, and Ollie. Within minutes, Liam and CJ had joined the gaggle of kids while we went inside for a drink.

Los Alamos is largely composed of scientists who work at the National Laboratory and is the kind of place where people don’t lock their doors. Accordingly, its citizens appear, in a throwback to an earlier time, to be more comfortable giving their children much more freedom than most modern parents. During our stay with David, our kids spent the majority of the time on their own playing at the neighboring park or at a neighbor’s house. After 3 months in close proximity, the separation was good for all of us.

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After spending a couple of days with David and Jessie at their home, we all decided to go camping in nearby Bandalier National Monument which was established in 1916 to preserve the ancient cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pubelo people. Liam and CJ really enjoyed exploring Bandalier with Maren and Charlie and we enjoyed sharing our lifestyle with David and Jessie who had recently purchased a camper van of their own.

Liam and Maren regularly disappeared from the campsite, exploring the woods or playing games on their own, while CJ and Charlie enjoyed listening to CJ’s library of audio books snuggled in bed together. Maggie thoroughly enjoyed bedtime when the four older kids piled into bed with her for storybook time.

On our final day in Bandalier we did one last hike and began the four hour drive to Durango, CO. About an hour or so into the drive we came across a random, but idyllic picnic table on the side of Hwy 84 and decided to pull over for a rest. The kids were asleep so Maggie and I decided to enjoy a glass of wine and rare quiet moment. A bottle of wine later, we decided to spend the night. On a totally unrelated note, I woke up at 6am with a pounding headache. Unable to sleep, I decided to clean up the area surrounding the pull off which was littered with an obscene amount of trash. I was able to get everything picked up except the big screen TV that was lying in the pastureland (Maggie refused to help me lift it over the barbed wire).

 

Potpourri


In the course of our travels we’ve had a few short layovers in some cool places that didn’t warrant their own blog post, but we’d hate not to mention them at all. Here’s a quick re-cap:

LBJ National Historic Park –

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Liam and CJ learned about cattle branding – LBJ preferred to brand the horns which was more humane.

We made an impromptu stop at LBJ’s ranch on our way to Big Bend. The park encompassed a working homestead that replicated life for early German settlers to Texas, LBJ’s birthplace, a one room school house LBJ attended, and the family ranch where LBJ returned to after his presidency. The kids enjoyed seeing the long horn cattle and Rick and I enjoyed learning more about both Texas history and our former President.

 

Living Desert Zoo State Park –

While in southern New Mexico we stayed at two state parks, which on their own were unremarkable, BUT we made a side trip to a third state park – Living Desert Zoo which was definitely worth the stop. The kids loved getting up close with some of the native animals. The mountain lions and bobcats were particularly excited to see CJ. The mountain lion came charging down from his perch when he saw CJ and continued to pace, agitated he couldn’t get closer to her, while we watched him and his mate. Next door at the bobcat enclosure the male bobcat came up to see Cora Jean and proceeded to try and pee on her! Needless to say, we left the cats alone and went to check out the prairie dogs after that!

Carlsbad Caverns –

After Guadalupe Mt we stopped at Carlsbad Caverns on our way North. This is an incredibly unique National Park and walking deep within the caverns was like stepping into another world. We had fun making up stories about what the different cave formations were, although we had to give everyone a pep talk before making the 2 mile trek back out of the caves, it was a long way up!

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Santa Fe –

The city of Santa Fe was a welcome stop after several weeks in the boonies. We enjoyed the luxuries of city life – a dinner out, a fully stocked grocery store and…ice skating! We spent a full day at Santa Fe’s community center, first swimming at their large indoor pool, which included water slides and a lazy river, and then testing our skills on the indoor ice rink. No one was pulling any triple salchow jumps, but the kids enjoyed their first time on the ice – Liam is even thinking of taking up hockey!

Our final stop in Santa Fe was to Meow Wolf – the coolest and most bizarre art exposition I have ever seen. The easiest way to describe it is to say, we stepped through the looking glass. Artist took over the old bowling alley and have built and entire new world inside, including a house in which you can slide through washers and walk through refrigerators. Giant rabbit statues, mammoth skeletons you can play with drumsticks and treehouses built on chicken legs are all inside. It’s really too bizarre to describe, but if you find yourself in Santa Fe we strongly encourage you to check it out.

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The Top of Texas – Guadalupe Mountains

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After Big Bend we had a short stop in Alpine, Texas, home of Sul Ross University and the fighting Lobos. We arrived in Alpine after dark and looked for a quite place to boondock. We thought we found one next to the university’s track and soccer field, but unfortunately, we did not see the train tracks that were located about 40 feet from our camper. No less than 8 trains passed in the night. After a sleepless night, we woke up and made the most of our stay with a morning track work out and mooching off the university library’s free wifi to catch up on some emails.

After leaving Alpine we traveled north towards New Mexico. Prior to this trip, I’d never heard of Guadalupe National Park which is located on the TX/NM border and we almost decided to skip it. That would have been a big mistake as it ended up being one of our favorite stops thus far. Similar to Big Bend, we arrived late in the afternoon only to find the park’s only campground was full. We decided to boondock nearby and hope that a spot would open the next day. Our boondocking spot turned out to be a wonderful place to watch the sun set behind the 8,000+ foot Guadalupe Mountains. There was also a nearby trailhead and one of the park’s few water sources (the park is located in the Chihuahuan Desert). We took an evening hike and spotted several cottontails, mule deer, and a pack of javelinas.

The next day we woke up early and were able to snag a spot at the park’s campground. Initially, we didn’t think much of the campground as it was really just a small parking lot, but it was located at the foot of the Guadalupe Mountains which provided a beautiful backdrop and access to several trails. The small campground and tight spaces were very conducive to meeting your neighbors. We had dinner with John and Ashli from Utah, who were also full-timing with their two kids; strawberry margaritas with John and Michelle who were from Long Island, NY; and we met Analeise who was traveling alone from St. Augustine with a bike and a kayak in the back of her pickup truck. If I have half of her spirit and adventurousness when I am her age, I’ll be ecstatic.

We did several hikes as a family and Liam was able to walk every step of the way, including a moderately difficult 5-mile hike through McKitttrick Canyon. If Liam gets accepted to Harvard later in life, I’m not sure I’ll be prouder. On the way out of the park, Maggie and Ceej got me a hat from the visitor’s center that only a middle-aged dad would wear: it’s army green with an embroidered javelina on it. I’ve worn it every day since.

Nearby Carlsbad Caverns gets all the hype, but if you ever find yourself in the area, I strongly encourage you to visit Guadalupe Mountains NP. It has a lot of history, plenty of beauty, and 80 miles of trails to keep you spry.

*(Boondocking – dry camping somewhere that’s not a regular campsite.)

Desert Life: Big Bend

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The “Window” at Chisos Basin in Big Bend

 

From Austin, we began making the daunting drive west across Texas to Big Bend National Park. I’ve never spent time in the desert and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from what, at first glance, seems like a lifeless and desolate landscape. I quickly fell in love with this unique environment which is actually teaming with life and beauty despite its harsh exterior. I have become absolutely smitten with desert plants, particularly the ocotillo, which each of the kids easily identifies now as, “that’s Mommy’s plant!”

IMG_4774Our trip wasn’t without a few hiccups. The morning we were planning on heading into Big Bend, we woke to a flat tire. Despite Rick’s skill at changing the trailer’s tire, we were significantly delayed and arrived at the park only to find all the sites booked up.

Not to be deterred, we found luck finally on our side, a last-minute cancellation in the full hook-up campsite meant we had a place to sleep for the night. The next morning, we were able to slip over to the main campground bright and early and snag a primo spot with privacy and easy access to the nearby trail – where we spent each morning and evening watching herons, snakes, nutria, and the most gorgeous star-studded sky we have ever seen.

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We spent the week in the park exploring trails, meeting new friends, paddling the Rio Grande, and visiting our neighbor to the south. Liam earned not only his ranger badge, but two patches for hiking a rugged 3-mile trail and testing out his own botany skills identifying the various desert plants.

Despite the low water levels, we managed to paddle the Rio Grande twice, on an easy run from the Hot Springs to our campsite about a 3 mile trip with some sharp turns and a few shoals to make it interesting. We got to see swallows darting in and out of their nests on the cliffs and watched goats and burros graze on the Mexican bank.

Our last day we forged the river to visit the nearby Mexican town of Boquillas, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch of enchiladas, goat tacos, tamales and of course margaritas (literally everything on the menu).

Continue reading “Desert Life: Big Bend”

Austin for SXSW

IMG_4692The planning for most of our tip has been based loosely from stops I had identified months ago, including notable parks, cities and sights we thought we would want to see. Although I identified stops, we didn’t take any proactive steps to book campsites. For the most part this has worked out in our favor, allowing us to stay flexible if we want to extend our stays or add a stop. Austin however, challenged this method of travel.

After leaving the Houston area we knew we wanted to visit Austin, but of course hadn’t bothered to set up reservations. About an hour into our trip from League City to Austin I started looking up places to stay. We got a big surprise when the first RV park we called kindly informed us neither they nor any of the other intown parks had space…it being the week of SXSW, arguably one of the biggest music and film events in the country. Not to be deterred I expanded my search outside the city limit and found a park happy to charge us an arm and a leg to stay the weekend.

Even with the city slammed with a mass influx of hipsters, we managed to have a great time exploring as much of the city as we could. Friday night we walked the hike and bike trail that borders the river to view the famous Austin bats take flight and enjoy a free “backstage” concert with one of the SXSW bands. Saturday, we rose early to hit up the downtown farmers market for coffee and fresh local produce. Then it was off to Ladybird Lake, a portion of the Colorado River that runs through the heart of Austin and is a churning sea of paddle boarders and kayakers come the weekend.

We paddled our canoe down to Barton Springs, an in town oasis with year round 70 degree waters, where we enjoyed frolicking in the water with the rest of the tourists, UT students, and Austin natives. The kids and I took the Zilker Park train around the park before paddling back for an afternoon beer on a patio overlooking the river.

All in all not a bad way to spend 48 hours in Austin, not even SXSW could stop the Silvers.

 

Family Ties

IMG_4605My Aunt Cindy and Uncle John left Atlanta for League City, Texas a quarter century ago and, shamefully, my mom and I had never made the trip to see them. To make up for our indefensible absence, we decided to descend upon their home like a swarm of locusts. My mom’s sister-in-law, Aunt Pat, was kind enough to accompany my mom and brother on the 12+ hour drive from Atlanta. While we didn’t plan it, my crew pulled up to Cindy and John’s at the same time as my mom, Pat, and Russ, ensuring that the seven of us did our best to overwhelm our hosts right from the start.

My Aunt Cindy raised four children and runs a tight ship, so if our crew did overwhelm her during our five day invasion, she didn’t show it. She warmly opened her home and provided us with several delicious meals. Similarly, my Uncle John was nice enough to let us raid his liquor cabinet. Everything from his top shelf scotch to his homemade wine was on offer.

During our visit, we were also able to spend time with my cousin Tommy, his wife Lara, and their two boys, Jake and Gabe. Liam really took a shine to Jake and Gabe and is now ready to relocate to Texas to be closer to them.

The League City area had plenty to keep the kids occupied and we enjoyed visiting various parks (including Rocket Park which houses one of the Saturn V rockets that NASA used to send America’s astronauts to the moon in the 1960’s), nature trials, and the Galveston Children’s museum. Most importantly though, we spent plenty of quality time with family, catching up and reliving fond memories.

Many thanks to my Aunt Cindy and Uncle John for hosting us, my cousin Tommy and his wife for being our tour guides, and a special thanks to my Aunt Pat for ensuring that Liam and CJ got to spend time with Grammy Sue and Big Russ.