Sunday, February 5, 2012

Gulf Islands National Seashore

Players:  Jenny, Zach & Jackson
Date of Visit: 
January 2012
Location:  Florida & Mississippi (although we just went to the Florida portion)
Entrance Fee:  $8/car, good for 7 days
Type of trip:  Day trip
Park Passport Stamps Available:  11

Recently, we headed over to Pensacola to attend a wedding of a high school friend.  Although it's still in Florida (our home state), it's more than 300 miles from our home -- so we decided to make a weekend of it, and check out Gulf Islands National Seashore while we were visiting the area.  

Gulf Islands National Seashore is the largest national seashore in the park system (who knew?) and protects parts of the natural barrier islands that form along the gulf coast of Florida and Mississippi. Unlike some National Parks, Gulf Islands has several distinct areas on many different islands.  We visited the Fort Pickens, on the west end of Santa Rosa Island, as well as Fort Barrancas, which is in the Naval Air Station on the mainland part of Florida.  We also drove through the Santa Rosa and Okaloosa areas, to the east of Pensacola Beach.  The main visitor center, which we skipped on this trip, is located in the Naval Live Oaks area -- this area sounded intriguing, as it was one of the first federal tree areas in the United States, but unfortunately we ran out of time to visit. 

We began our visit with a trip to Fort Pickens.  The barrier islands of Florida were important from a defensive standpoint, as they block the entrance to Pensacola Bay.  A trio of forts (Pickens, McRee and Barrancas) provided triangulated protection for this important shipping hub.  During the Civil War, Ft. Pickens was defended by Union troops (and was one of only four forts in the south not to be captured by the Confederacy), while Confederate troops captured Ft. Barrancas over on the mainland.  A battle broke out between the two forts in November 1861 which resulted in over 5000 shots/shells being fired into the forts, and ultimately led to the Confederacy withdrawing from Pensacola Bay.

Jackson by one of the cannon in Ft. Pickens

Monday, February 28, 2011

Junior Ranger Program

One of the ways that we have gotten Jackson excited about visiting National Parks is by utilizing the Junior Ranger Program at several parks...and even from the comfort of our own living room!

How it works in the Parks.  Almost all units of the National Park system have a Junior Ranger program; some even have different "levels" of Junior Ranger programs geared toward different age groups.  Typically, completing the Junior Ranger program consists of going to a Visitor's Center and requesting an activity book.  Junior Rangers-to-be complete several age-appropriate activities (like attending a ranger program or talk, hiking on a park trail, picking up trash, completing a word search, and so on) that focus on environmental, historical or wildlife topics. Some parks, like Yellowstone, even offer "Junior Ranger Packs" including binoculars or a magnifying glass that a child or family can check out to help complete the activities. After completing the activities, children take the book back to a Visitor's Center where a ranger will review it and reward the child with a badge, certificate or button.  At one park we visited, Timucuan Ecological & Historical Preserve, Jackson even got to raise his hand and take an "oath of office" (he thought that was pretty cool).  Back at home, we have a cork board in Jackson's room where all his pins and certificates are displayed.  In addition, we have made it a habit to record his efforts and his thoughts about each park in his Kid's Passport Companion (along with his stamps).  Just to make it a little more "official," we even bought him a kid's version of a ranger hat.

Jackson hard at work at his "Ranger desk"

How it works on the web.  The National Park Service also operates a nifty WebRanger program, which allows kids and families to learn about the parks and park-related topics right from their living rooms.  Kids (with a parent's help) can create an account, print an id badge, do activities at all different difficulty levels, customize their ranger desk, post photos they've taken in the parks and so on.  Jackson loves going online with me to do "park ranger stuff."  If a kid completes all the activities, he or she will receive a patch.

We have found the WebRanger and Junior Ranger programs to be a great way to keep Jackson engaged in learning about the units of the National Park system.  He has really internalized it, and will now go out of his way to pick up and throw away trash he sees outside because, as he says, "I'm a Park Ranger, mama!"  I'm one proud parent.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Yellowstone National Park

Players:  Jenny, Jake & Jackson
Date of Visit: 
Most recently, June 2007 although I lived there for three months in 2005
Location:  Wyoming
Entrance Fee:  $25/car, good for 7 days at both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park
Type of trip:  Several nights camping as part of Western US Road Trip
Park Passport Stamps Available:  24 (!!)

In the documentary The National Parks:  America’s Best Idea by Ken Burns, one of the featured speakers talks about how every family has one National Park that feels like “their” national park; for me, Yellowstone is “my” Park.  Yellowstone was a park I visited with my family as a child; my father before me had visited with his parents as well.  Yellowstone is directly responsible for the existence of my son (whose name Jackson Cody recalls the two Wyoming towns closest to the Park); I have lived within the boundaries of the Park and hiked hundreds of miles in the backcountry.  I’ve seen the Park in the snow and in the heat, crowded in midsummer and nearly empty in early May; the Park has seen me joyous and sad, sick with fever and more alive than I’ve ever felt. I’m not a religious person, but if ever I’ve felt the presence of a higher power, it was here.  I came to Yellowstone at a crossroads in my life, and found it sublimely healing.

But enough of the existentialism! 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Timucuan Ecological & Historical Preserve

Players:  Jenny, Zach & Jackson
Date of Visit:  January 2011
Location:  Florida
Entrance Fee:  Free (unless you decide to enter the beach/visitor areas of the Talbot Islands State Parks)
Type of Trip:  Daytrip from home
Park Passport Stamps Available:  4
Trip Report:  Timucuan Ecological & Historical Preserve is a small NPS unit in/near Jacksonville, Florida -- I did not even know it existed until I was on the Park Service website doing a search on all the NPS units in the state of Florida.  It is made up of several small areas in the Jacksonville area, all of which have some historical or ecological significance and provides a glimpse of Florida's past.  The main visitor center is at the Ft. Caroline section of the park; the other areas you can visit are the Theodore Roosevelt Area, the Ribault Club on Ft. George Island, the Talbot Islands State Parks, and Kingsley Plantation.  There are no camping or food options within the National Park area, making this a great one-day trip.  There are, however, picnic areas available as well as camping in the state parks on the Talbot Islands.  In addition, you have to drive from section to section of this park, so there are plenty of opportunities to grab something to eat if you didn't bring your picnic basket.  Dogs are allowed throughout all of the park units, as long as they remain outdoors and on a leash.  If you visit, I highly recommend picking up (or downloading here) a copy of the "If You Have One Day" brochure, which outlines the best way to visit all of the sections of this park in one day.
Jackson & Zach taking a break near Ft. Caroline

Saturday, February 19, 2011

How to Plan a Great Family Camping Trip

Camping with your family can be great fun -- cooking hot dogs and s'mores around a glowing campfire, discovering new animals and plants on a nature trail, cuddling in your tent reading books at night, and so on.  It can also be wet, disgusting, buggy, hot, dirty, and many other things.  The difference between a good family memory and a vacation nightmare comes down to two things -- attitude and planning.  In this post, I'll review some pros and cons of a camping vacation, take a look at some of the essential gear for camping, and provide some tips and tricks for making your camping trip a great success.
Camping at 2 months old

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Players:  Jenny 
Date of Visit:  May 2009
Location:  North Carolina & Tennessee
Entrance Fee:  Free!
Type of Trip: 
Weeklong camping trip
Park Passport Stamps Available:  10
Trip Report:  Great Smoky Mountain National Parks sits on the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, and is the most-visited park in the National Park System.  In addition to being a fabulous hiker's park (the great Appalachian Trail runs for nearly100 miles through the park), Great Smoky Mountain houses an amazing array of plant and animal life -- including black bears and the reclusive salamanders.  GRSM also houses hundreds of waterfalls, lofty mountain peaks, and an interesting feature known as the Appalachian Grassy Bald -- an open hilltop or mountainside whose origins are not really known.  There is also a human history to the area (not entirely pleasant as hundreds of people who had lived in the park for years were moved out upon the creation of the national park), and you can visit old settlements and cemeteries within the park boundaries.

Part of the reason it is home to such an abundance of wildlife is due to the climate in the Smokies.  Great Smoky Mountain receives a lot of rainfall every year, and my trip in May of 2009 was no exception to this.  It rained on me every day that I was there -- sometimes only at night and the sun did come out while I was there but it was rain nonetheless.  It is important for visitors to the Smokies to be prepared for all types of weather, and hikers/campers should plan on rain during at least part of their visit.

Classic View of the Smokies

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Grand Teton National Park & John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway

Players:  Jenny & Jake
Date of Visit:  A few times during Summer 2005, but camped overnight in July
Location:  Wyoming
Entrance Fee:  $25 per car, good for both Yellowstone & Grand Teton for 7 days
Type of Trip: 
Overnight trip from Yellowstone
Park Passport Stamps Available:  4 for Grand Teton, plus 1 for the Rockefeller Memorial Parkway
Trip Report: During the summer of 2005, when I was living and working in Yellowstone, we made several trips down to the Tetons and Jackson, Wyoming.  To me, the Tetons epitomize what mountains should be...rising nearly 7000 feet from the Valley below, with a sparkling blue lake at their base.  It's hard to look at those craggy mountain tops without wanting to hike right up the side :)  Like it's neighbor to the north (Yellowstone), Grand Teton offers plenty of hiking, camping, fishing, wildlife watching, and so on.  It is also one of the premier climbing destinations in the Rockies.  Due to its slightly lower elevation, many of the trails and visitor facilities on the valley floor are accessible a little earlier in the spring than some of the places in Yellowstone.  Trails at higher elevations, however, may not be snow-free until mid-July.  Grand Teton is also a much smaller park than Yellowstone, allowing you to get a really good feel for the park in just a few days.
Tetons & Lake Jackson