Kerri and her family took Birdy (their Jayco travel trailer) on another epic road trip this summer, celebrating the National Park Service centennial. One of the trip’s highlights was Yellowstone National Park, where they were able to appreciate first hand why this place is basically on everyone’s bucket list.
On this week’s episode of RV Family Travel Atlas, we are reporting from the field with our top tips for exploring our nation’s beautiful national park sites. We have been to a national seashore, a national park, and a national historic site in the last few weeks and noticed that some folks are showing up without a plan and getting a bit lost in the crowds.
Just because it’s the 100th anniversary of the National Park System doesn’t mean you are destined to fight for parking and wait in line for that perfect family selfie. If you plan ahead and follow a few simple rules, you can soak in the majestic beauty of our wild spaces without soaking up a lot of stress also. So we are offering our top 6 tips for exploring even the most popular (and crowded) NPS sites this summer.
On this week’s episode of RV Family Travel Atlas, we are celebrating the upcoming centennial of the National Park Service.
We invited Max Slavkin, cofounder of the Creative Action Network, on the show to talk about the See America Project, a crowd sourced art campaign that celebrates the beauty and heritage of America’s most beautiful places through a magnificent series of postcards, prints, apparel and calendars.
We have bought many prints from See America in the past, including this beautiful one of Cape Cod by Susanne Lamb:
See America has a new national parks calendar and post card set and we are giving a set away to our listeners. Enter in the contest hopper at the end of this post.
Max has generously offered our listeners a 15% discount that will be applied when you enter in the coupon code RVFTA.
We will also discuss a recent New York Times article about new programs, events, and initiatives available at National Parks across the country. Listen to hear our discussion of developments in Maine, Virginia, Louisiana, and Utah. Then head over to the New York Times website to read about the other 10 states highlighted in the article.
Plus we review a great coffee table book and app, both by National Geographic that will inspire you to plan your next big National Park adventure.
Complete National Parks of the United States, by Mel White offers a comprehensive guide to over 400 parks, monuments, battlefields, recreation areas, and seashores. It is easy to read and full of useful information.
National Parks by National Geographic for iPad and iPhone is free app but then offers in app purchases. Listen for our pros and cons to see if you should download it today.
YOU may be focused on the big one year birthday of RV Family Travel Atlas. But WE are gearing up for the great National Parks Centennial Celebration. This is Episode #52: Get Ready to See America!
On this week’s episode of RV Family Travel Atlas, we are talking to our favorite podcast correspondents, Brett Neilson and Kerri Cox, who both took epic RV trips this summer with their families.
Brett Neilson, from the Great State of Utah, headed up to Glacier National Park and has some great campground reviews and suggestions for hikes and family activities. He talks about…
- An overnight stay at Butte KOA, recently rebranded as a Journey campground, and Brett’s first experience with the KOA brand
- Fish Creek Campground in Glacier National Park
- National Park campground in Glacier and Yellowstone
- Family friendly hikes and wildlife spotting in the park
- A new truck ‘acquisition’ and plans for a new travel trailer (!!!!)
Kerri Cox, from the Great State of Missouri, hitched up her travel trailer and drove west to see the grandeur of Yosemite. How did her family fare on this 25-day tour de force? Listen to find out. Kerri will tell us about…
- Her stops out west along the Mother Road using the Route 66 Adventure Handbook, including graffiti antics at Cadillac Ranch.
- Yosemite Ridge Campground, their base camp for exploring the national park.
- Floating down the Merced River on rafts.
- Family friendly hikes
- Muir Woods National Monument.
We thought we were all that and a campfire s’more with our 34-day trip to the Great Smokies. But there were plenty of other families seeing this big, beautiful country in grand RV style. Those stories are coming your way on Episode #48: Dispatches from Glacier and Yosemite.
We are delighted to have Go RVing as our RVFTA sponsor. To find your AWAY head over to GoRVing.com.
After three full days of exploring the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains, we were in no rush to leave. I was getting used to putting the boys to bed each night then soaking in the indoor hot tub at the Cherokee KOA. But there was so much more to do and see. So it was onward to the Tennessee side of America’s most visited national park.
We chose the Townsend/Great Smokies KOA because of its great online reviews, its proximity to Cades Cove and the Sugarlands Visitor Center, and its close (but not too close) proximity to the zaniness of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
We had reserved a deluxe patio site back in January, and when I booked the site it was one of two left in the campground for the fourth of July weekend. It was in the front of the campground near the playground, the pool, and the camp store. It was busy and bustling in our area, but the proximity to the playground and pool were good for our kids. If you want peace and quiet, the sites by the river would be better. These deluxe sites are lovely, particularly the large stone fire pits and attractive landscaping.
The playground was designed by the folks who design playgrounds for Disney. It quickly became kid headquarters each afternoon when we returned from our adventures in the park.
The pool was also a perfect place for a refreshing post-hike dip.
If you want to book a riverfront site at the Townsend KOA we advise that you book VERY early. This is a popular campground and we spoke to several families who have been coming here for decades. This friendly couple booked their riverfront site well over a year in advance.
The campground also has a packed schedule of activities. We didn’t make the apple pie eating contest, but you better believe that we made the super soaker hayride. General Manager Mark Chipperfield rallied the troops and explained that he had high expectations for our performance in battle.
Mark was one of the friendliest general managers that we have met in our travels, so we didn’t let him down. We would head into battle with this guy any day. As long as he provides the hayride and the buckets of water.
There are great adventures to be had both on the campground and in the mountains around it. The 11 mile, one way loop road around Cades Cove is one of the park’s most famous attractions. It provides a magical window into the region’s agricultural past, and its beauty is breathtaking. There are many stops along the way, some with spectacular views and some with historical homes, mills, churches, and graveyards. This flat valley area surrounded by mountains is also a great place for spotting deer, foxes, and bears.
In spring and summer the road is closed to automobiles every Wednesday and Saturday morning until 10 a.m. so that hikers and bikers can enjoy its natural beauty without traffic.
The Townsend KOA is also close to dozens of world-class family hikes. We left early one morning for the North Fork Auto Road and hopped on the Trillium Gap Trail. Destination? 1.5 miles out and 1.5 miles back to Grotto Falls. This hike is unique because you get to walk behind a waterfall.
We went on July 4th, and the falls were very crowded. But all of the hikers were happy to be out in the fresh air celebrating their freedom. Hiking in one of America’s greatest National Parks was a perfect way to spend Independence Day.
The campground is also a fairly short drive to Newfound Gap Road (which cuts through the park and crosses state lines) and all of its magnificent attractions. We drove the long and winding road to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the park, for the short but vigorous hike up to the observation deck. It was a bit of a bust. We were socked in by the fog.
So we decided to head back down to earth where the weather was dramatically different. We ended up enjoying a delicious and adventurous lunch at Chimneys Picnic Area, which was highly recommended by our Missouri podcast correspondent, Kerri Cox. We loved Chimneys. Thanks Kerri. We owe you a picnic lunch!
Our family adventures in Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been amazing. But our boys always love their time at the campground best. We spent each afternoon and evening back at the KOA enjoying activities at the pavilion…
tubing on the Little River…
listening to impromptu jam sessions by our neighbors.
and we also indulged at the campground’s very own bakery/ice cream/fudge shop. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but they offer free samples of the fudge. Try to control yourself.
The Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is blessed with many good campgrounds. But some of them are great. The Townsend KOA is one of the great ones. Maybe it’s because of its location on the river, or its proximity to Cades Cove, or its great managers and team.
If you are looking for a campground that is close to all of the action, but also peaceful and relaxing, you couldn’t make a better choice than the Townsend KOA.
We have been frequent KOA customers over the last five years, but this was a sponsored trip. Our opinions are always are own.
This article originally appeared in the Jayco Journal.
With over 120 miles of hiking trails on Mount Desert Island, you could visit Acadia National Park many times over and never walk the same path twice. After three visits to Acadia (two of them with young kids in tow) we have discovered some amazing family-friendly hikes that will please both children and adults. All of these hikes encompass the best that Acadia has to offer, with sweeping ocean views, dramatic granite cliffs, and landscapes filled with cedar, birch, and spruce.
This easy four-mile round trip hike (also known as Ocean Path or Ocean Drive Trail) is the classic introductory hike to Acadia. Starting off at Sand Beach, the path brings you to Thunder Hole and Otter Cliffs, passing by one beautiful vista after another. There are many small turnoffs that can lead to dramatic views, and also dramatic drop offs. If you wander off the main trail, keep a close eye on your kids. There are also stretches where the path is right next to the road. Traffic can be fast and close, so hand-holding might be in order. Even though we enjoyed the scenery, this hike was crowded and usually is during the peak visiting season.
Reward yourselves after the hike with a swim at Sand Beach…just be prepared to squeal as you dive into the cold water.
One of the more famous family-friendly hikes within the Park Loop, this trail also rewards its hikers with stunning views of Sand Beach, Otter Cliffs, and Cadillac Mountain. We enjoyed this trail with another family and all of the kids had a blast navigating the rocky terrain. The summit offered incredible ocean panoramas as well as a safe space for snacking and enjoying the view. If you are feeling more adventurous, take the Cadillac Cliffs trail spur. We avoided this on account of young Wesley.
One local mom we met on the trail recommended parking at the Gorham Mountain Trail head, hiking to Sand Beach, and taking the Island Explorer Bus back to your car at the trail head. The promise of a fun bus ride back to the car might do wonders to motivate little hikers.
If you want to get away from the crowds clustered around the Park Loop, drive past Southwest Harbor to the Wonderland and Ship Harbor Trails. Both of these trails can be done independently, or you can do what we did: hike out to the water on the Wonderland Trail, then head west along the rocky beach to the Ship Harbor Trail and complete a loop back to the parking lot.
Time for just one of these two trails? We think Ship Harbor is your best bet, offering lots of paths down to the tide pools and, of course, great water views. We hiked these trails on a weekend during peak season and saw only a handful of people. This is truly the quieter side of Acadia.
We get much of our travel intel from the recommendations of other campers. A friendly hiking dad named Chris told us that the Flying Mountain Trail would be perfect for our family. He was right. This 1.5 mile loop was great fun for the boys, giving them a good challenge at the beginning with a steep ascent ending with beautiful views of the Somes Sound. The tricky descent kept them entertained, and there is a rock beach where the kids can play at the bottom. The hike ends with an easy walk via a fire road right back to the parking lot. Awesome hike. Thanks, Chris.
We’ve written about the Great Head Trail before on this blog. This was the first hike we took with the twins on our first long camping road trip years ago, so it holds a special place in our hearts. In our opinion, it has just the right amount of challenge and offers the perfect Acadian panoramic views. There is also the added bonus of ending the hike on Sand Beach where the kids can splash and play (if they have any energy leftover).
If you have a favorite hike in Acadia National Park, kid-friendly or not, let us know in the comments below. We plan on going back when the boys are older and tackling some greater challenges!
We used the following 3 books to plan our hiking in Acadia. We strongly recommend them.
Tom St. Germain’s A Walk in the Park is the best-selling trail guide for Acadia National Park for good reason. It fits in the back of your pocket and includes maps and concise descriptions of over fifty hikes.
The AMC’s Discover Acadia National Park by Jerry and Marcy Monkman also describes the park’s best biking and paddling. It includes a pull-out discovery map, far more detailed than the free one available at the visitor center.
We also recommend Best Hikes with Kids: Vermont, New Hampshire, & Maine, published by The Mountaineers Books. We have used this book in all three states, so keep a copy in your camper when traveling in New England!
We were stale. By the end of last summer, we had Max and Theo hiking up to three miles no sweat. On our trip to New York State we took on trail after trail, finding waterfalls and gorges and swimming holes.
But a pregnancy and newborn took its toll on all of us, and a year later the trail blazers were rusty. Even though I had found some online descriptions of kid-friendly hikes, I decided to talk to the rangers at the Big Meadows Visitor Center so we didn’t get in over our heads with the preschoolers and newborn we happened to be traveling with.
Lesson learned. Always have a conversation with the experts. The rangers pointed me toward the “Story of the Forest” trail and handed me a scavenger hunt booklet.
I was a little skeptical at first. There were a lot of words and I have fast-moving boys.
But the very first clue hooked them. They were running from blue blaze to blue blaze, searching for large fungi and animal watering holes.
We veered from the script when we came across a group of deer eating about 10 feet off of the trail.
I’ll be honest…after 10 clues or so, the boys weren’t paying much attention to the hunt anymore. They had their sticks and they were crashing along from blaze to blaze. Finding the blue paint patches kept them moving during the almost 2-mile walk.
Jeremy and I, on the other hand, were completely engrossed. We learned the names of some trees, found out where witch hazel comes from, and discovered more about the works projects that developed the park.
Neither of us were enrolled in any “Junior Ranger” programs while young, and though we enjoy the great outdoors, we don’t have a lot of formal knowledge. At the end of this hike, I wanted to do a dozen more just like it. It was such an engaging way to experience a new terrain, and both the adults and children were actually entertained by nature. At the same time. Wow.
I’m not sure if the National Parks has other hunts like this. I’ve never seen one advertised. If they are sincerely interested in getting families out of the visitors’ centers and onto the trails, this would be a great way to do it.
And we had what was quite possibly the best ‘adult fun’ we have had since the boys were born.
The Beehive trail takes you right up the face of a mountain that looks over Sand Beach. The views are phenomenal and the rungs and ladders can get your heart pumping.
Then we started our climb. We had the unfortunate luck to end up behind a group of young adults and their mother, none of whom seemed very suited for strenuous hiking. The poor mother was shaking and crying and proclaiming at every difficult turn that she just could not make it up to the next rock. One of the daughters had a bright red face and was quivering so badly that I actually thought, “I am going to have to call in a rescue helicopter if I want to get off this mountain.” On a trail such as this, there are very few points to pass people. We had to wait an awful long time at the edges of some pretty steep cliffs.
So here is how most of the hike went: I was in front of Jeremy and I would get to a steep precipice and would not be able to turn the corner until the other hiking party cleared out. I would stand at that steep edge, watching rocks crumble from under my feet and hear things like, “Oh my God Oh my God Oh my God I can’t do it I know I can’t do it.” The psychological toll that this took was really quite intense. At every turn I had all the time in the world to imagine the horrors that awaited me around the corner. Then I would finally get to turn the corner and…one two three points of contact and we were up to the next ledge. Really, it was not that big of a deal, but the lead-up was nerve wracking.
Jeremy took advantage of one of these moments to snap a photo:
While this was a beautiful view, I remember I spent most of my time at that spot thinking, “Don’t look down. Don’t look down…”
Finally, we found a wide enough ledge where we could pass this group. Although I felt bad to leave behind this sorry collection of souls, shaking and sitting flush against the rock while saying things like, “I don’t think I’m going to move for awhile”, the relief drowned out any tinge of guilt. We were able to complete the last quarter of the climb in sweet peace and quiet, pausing only at convenient moments to appreciate the astounding vistas.
Now that I think about it, I wonder if my face mirrored that of the hikers who encountered us in full melt-down mode on our Jordan Pond excursion. I probably did flash them that same look of pity mixed with confusion. I know I was thinking, Who the heck came up with this bright idea for the lot of you?
I sincerely hope they got down from that mountain and found the rib-tickling story to share. And I sincerely hope they made better trail decisions during the rest of their vacation.
We had a blast and enjoyed every moment of our time away from the little campers. It was the best date we had had in a long time. But of course, while we hiked, we couldn’t help but debate the age at which the boys would be able to climb the Beehive with us. The jury is still out, but we’ll let you know when the verdict is in.
|Stephanie in Acadia National Park, 2007|
It may be cliche to say it, but I don’t care. Having kids makes everything new again. The first time Stephanie and I went to Acadia National Park together was back in 2007. We had an awesome trip and did a lot of hiking and biking–accompanied by a lot of relaxing. After the bike ride that was recounted in the last post, Stephanie decided to kick back and relax on a warm rock next to Bubble Pond. She had earned it. Before we had the boys relaxation was an option at any point in the day. Particularly on a summer vacation. It makes sense right? You do something strenuous and then you relax and take a nap. Preferably somewhere that is quiet and beautiful. Preferably somewhere in Acadia National Park.
Flash forward four years and two boys later. We are back in Acadia. We have returned to Bubble Pond. We have just finished a six mile hike. Time to relax, right? No. Not even friggin’ close. Time for more activity, more adventure, MORE EXPLORATION. Max and Theo are not interested in taking a nap on a warm rock. They just had a nap while momma, da-da, and grandma took turns pushing them in their super-hip all terrain baby stroller (The B.O.B). Max and Theo are now interested in jumping off of warm rocks. And finding frogs. And splashing in the water. And finding powerful, magical sticks!
|Notice the feet. They have not touched the ground yet!|
|*Acadian frog. He survived the splashing. Barely…|
|We did not hurt the frog. I promise.|
|Rocks, Water, and Sticks. What else could a boy want?|
I have been to Bubble Pond twice. It was lovely on both occasions. During the first trip it was peaceful and relaxing. During the second trip it was exciting and magical. Both trips to the same place were totally different. This is one of my favorites parts of being a father. When we take the boys to our favorite places they become new again. Or different. Or deeper. Or richer. Or maybe just better.
So I was all juiced up on our first hiking experience with the boys, and the next day I was having one of those ‘Mama rocks’ moments that comes on the heels of events such as sleeping through the night for the first time since giving birth, cleaning out your basement, or getting to work on time with no visible stains on your clothing.
This particular Mama Rocks moment manifested itself in the proclamation that “Of course we can do six miles. Yesterday was a breeze. And the boys loved it. And they fell asleep in the backpacks. And…blah, blah, blah. Stop doubting and get on board, ‘cuz this train of empowerment is leaving the station!”
I had it in mind that if we stuck to the carriage roads that led around Jordan Pond and Bubble Pond that we would be just fine, since there is no really rough footing. I conveniently blocked out the fact that there are miles of stretches on those roads that are graded uphill. In retrospect I remember years ago being on those same paths riding bikes with my husband and yelling at him, “This. Is. So. Not. Fun.” He would yell back at me to get off the bike and walk. I would respond, “Then what is the &%# point of the bikes?” This exchange happened more than once if memory serves.
So the boys started out like champs running down the paths, finding perfect hiking sticks, skipping and hopping and chasing each other. But things got sketchy fast. So out came the snacks.
You know the carrot and the stick? Well we have cheddar bunnies, and they worked for a little while before even that got old. They wanted to be up. They wanted to be down. They wanted to ride on our shoulders.
We finally realized that they were just plain tired and needed to be forced into a napping position. So they got strapped in with just a wee bit of fussing, and in about 10 minutes they were out like lights.
So I can say with all honesty that the last three miles were a perfectly enjoyable experience.
But here is the truth of the matter: when you take chances with your kids, you are going to have those moments when you wonder if today’s misery will trump even your worst-case scenarios. You are three miles in and you know you have no choice but to keep going forward because it is just as long to go back. The great part is you almost always emerge with some rib-tickling stories in those circumstances. I still laugh out loud when I think of the faces on a couple of hikers witnessing the four-alarm meltdown that occurred when we forced the kids into their seats. I hope they got a laugh out of the situation, but their faces registered more pity and confusion than humor.
And here is the other truth: you never know what is waiting for you at the end. We arrived at Bubble Pond with weary legs and a picnic lunch. The boys woke up, we ate, and then we all enjoyed a perfect lazy afternoon chasing minnows and catching frogs next to the pond.
The meltdowns fade, but this remains.
I vividly remember the last hike that my husband and I did before our twin sons were born. I was about 3 months pregnant and blissfully ignorant of the fact that I was carrying two babies instead of one. I was desperately trying to be one of those pregnant warriors who pursue activities like spelunking right up until they feel the first pangs of labor and rush off to the hospital only to emerge the next day ready for a good rafting adventure.
So anyway, we did a nice six-mile hike up to Apple Pie Hill, in the Pinelands of South Jersey. It was a beautiful fall day, crisp and warm with perfect cool breezes that came at just the right moments. We spent a good deal of time that day talking about how we would still do these things with a baby: just strap ’em on the back and change diapers on a bed of leaves. It would be just as much fun, but with a dash of baby-magic thrown in. Cue pre-parental sigh.
After that day, things went downhill quickly in the activity department. A couple of months more into my twin pregnancy and I could barely make it up the stairs, much less embark on any kind of hike. And then the boys were born and activities just sort of became complicated. While we were brave enough to travel quite a bit, for some reason we shied away from any serious hiking. We found different things to do when we visited the Blue Ridge Mountains. We took a shuttle up to the wolf preserve at Lakota. We picnicked at the Delaware Water Gap instead of hiking up to High Point.
So while we have had many amazing experiences with the boys this summer, the most significant ones for me were all the times that we strapped the boys into our hiking backpacks and hit the trails. Acadia encouraged us to do this. It is one of our favorite places on the planet, and there was just no way that I was going to experience it from a car. Or from a crowded vista looking out at Thunder Hole. I wanted the real Acadia experience. I wanted to hike.
So the first hike we did in Acadia was the Great Head Trail, right off of Sand Beach. This trail is listed as ‘moderate’ and it definitely is full of rock scrambles and uneasy footings. At the risk of slipping onto the corny side of ebullient, it was the perfect thing for us to do on our first day in Acadia. My husband and I both felt so empowered and joyful at the end of that hike and I know why. We had just done something that we use to do all the time before we had kids. And it was just as much fun. But even more so. Because there was a little bit of baby-magic thrown in.
Bar Harbor, Maine
|The view from our “bedroom.”|