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Chutes & Ladders: An Epic Road Trip

Chutes & Ladders: An Epic Road Trip

When we initially planned this trip months ago, it started out as just a little family road trip, but then more and more fun things came up that got added on. I usually like to come up with a story to share or a thread to follow when talking about our adventures, but there is so much I want to share about the last two weeks. Forgive me for this being a little bit journal-y. I’ve highlighted each day with just one picture, but there’s a big gallery at the end if you’re interested in more. 

 

Our fancy Father’s Day tinfoil dinners. Recipe to come on the food blog.

Day One – Telluride, CO

Our big summer trip began on Father’s Day. We went to church before heading out and Cooper gave Noel the best gift: joining all the kids when they sang a medley of songs about dads. Previously, whenever the kids sing special numbers in church, no matter how much we’ve tried to prep him for it, Cooper would get really tense, refuse to go up on the stage with the other kids, and then burrow his head in the pew the rest of the meeting. This time he went right up with the other kids without a problem. Noel and I both had tears in our eyes to see him take such a big step. The rest of the day was spent driving to Telluride and setting up camp. We had extra fancy tinfoil dinners with fish and asparagus and chocolate cherry cobbler for dessert.

The kids loved riding the gondolas in Telluride.

Day Two – Telluride, CO

We had really high expectations for Telluride, maybe too high. The town was really cute, but most of the really cool hikes were beyond the capabilities of some of our crew members. There was a 1/4 mile hike to a waterfall that was recommended as “family friendly” by someone at an info kiosk, but what the hike lacked in distance it made up for in washed out trails with steep slopes. After almost tumbling to our death a couple of times, we turned around. There also seemed to be a bit of a lack of signage in the town, but thanks to our data plans we were able to figure things out like the location of Carhenge (the giant free parking lot). The highlight of Telluride was the free gondola rides and eating Detroit Style Pizza at Brown Dog. (Our neighbor is a co-owner of Blue Pan, the sister restaurant to Brown Dog that just opened here in Denver.) We’ll probably visit Telluride again, but maybe when the kids are able to hike 5+ miles of difficult terrain.

Ellen looking down at Cliff Palace.

Day Three – Mesa Verde, CO

After packing up in Telluride, we headed straight to Mesa Verde National Park. We got to explore two cliff dwellings (Spruce Tree House on a hike and Cliff Palace on a tour). The cliff dwellings were probably the coolest thing we saw on our trip. Our tour of Cliff Palace  ended up being at 5pm, which wasn’t ideal, but despite the heat and it being the time of day the kids really start to be monsters everyone did really well. When we went to purchase our tour tickets the Ranger asked if we thought our kids could climb 10 foot tall ladders. We did our best not to laugh. (The tours are pretty inexpensive by the way, $4/person, and totally worth it.)

The view under Sipapu Bridge.

Day Four – Natural Bridges, UT

We crossed into Utah and headed to Natural Bridges National Monument. The kids were hot and tired so when we first started out on a hike to Sipapu Bridge everyone was super ornery, but once we got through the first three minutes of whining the kids gave up and decided to enjoy themselves. The trail is slightly technical (it’s steep and you climb three ladders) which was a little scary, but I think made it more exciting for the kids. A lot of the trail was in the shade which was also nice. Ellen hit another meltdown when we got back to the car (she was a wee bit sleep deprived since she was now only sleeping when the sun was down) so we just did overlooks for the rest of the trip. That night we stayed in some quirky cabins in Blanding, UT. It was a nice change of pace to sleep in a bed and have our own bathroom for a night.

Petroglyphs at Cave Springs.

Day Five – Canyonlands, Needles District

The last time we went to Canyonlands we took the kids to the Island in the Sky District, so this time we went to the Needles District. We hit up Newspaper rock and then headed into the park. Once again, Ellen was super ornery. She yelled and cried the whole .3 miles of the Roadside Ruin trail. (All the childless people were running the opposite direction). We let her take a nap in the car while we drove the loop to look at some of the landscape and then hiked Cave Springs. The caves were a nice respite from the heat, but we didn’t stay there too long because apparently Cooper hates caves. After having a nice picnic lunch, we headed into Moab to do some much needed laundry and grocery shopping. Somehow, we weren’t the stinkiest people at the laundromat.

Cooper cruising through the shoot the chutes.

Day Six – Moab, UT

The main reason we were in Moab was for a big “Dirty Thirty” bash/cousin reunion with Noel’s side of the family. Overnight a couple of siblings and cousins had arrived, so we all went to breakfast at Jailhouse Cafe. After that, we planned to hike Delicate Arch with the kids, but some plans got changed around and Ellen fell off a picnic table and cut her head. Instead, we hung out at the campsite doctoring her and monitoring her for signs of concussion. While we were doing this, Cooper was messing around in the car, fell out of the trunk and hit his head and got a nasty goose-egg. (Note: We did a lot of semi-dangerous stuff on this trip and hanging out at the campsite is when people got injured.) Morale was low; we were all very hot and annoyed. Everyone else had spent the morning at Mill Creek (or the shoot the chutes as my dad calls them) and we were a little jealous, so after some lunch we headed there ourselves. It was so hot that everyone ended up joining us even though they’d already been there. While we were all sliding down the “natural waterslides” Noel said, “If I were to name this trip I’d call it ‘Chutes and Ladders.'”That night even more family arrived and we had a big dutch oven dinner and Dirty Thirty Mud Cake (AKA Mississippi Mud Cake).

Ellen, the raft’s captain.

Day Seven – Moab, UT

Once upon a time, a few of the members in our group used to be river guides in Moab and the main reason we’d met up there was so we could all go down the Colorado River. When we went to pick up our boats, the rental company freaked us out about taking the kids down the section of the river we were planning on (the river is really high and fast right now) so our trusty guides refigured the trip so we’d be on a safer part. The part we rafted was so safe it was almost boring. We hopped out halfway down so all the kid-less people could enjoy the exciting stuff (also we had some more traveling to do). We think the rental company may have been a little overly cautious in their recommendations, but better safe than sorry. And really, it was pretty daring of us to take our little people rafting at all. After we had an interesting lunch of mexicones (see the gallery at the end of this post) we hugged everyone and headed to Northern Utah.

Cooper and Uncle Mitchell chilling.

Day Eight- Brigham City, UT

The main purpose of the trip to my hometown was to hear the address my brother, Spencer, gave about the two-year-mission he just served for our church in Oregon and my brother, Mitchell, give an address about the two-year-mission he’s about to serve for our church in Belgium and the Netherlands. (As well as spend some quality time with family while we’re all in the same country.) Both brothers gave mature and touching addresses that were followed by a big lunch party at my parents house. We enjoyed multiple flavors of cheesecake and chatting with old and new friends.

Cooper’s Mike and Sully Drawing.

Day Nine – Northern Utah

I took Noel to the airport so he could get back to work then spent the day with my sister and her toddler (what?!). We did super fancy things like shop at Target and the DI and chat with my sister-in-law, Danielle, before she flew back East. That evening I swung by my grandparents to say hello and pick up my brother, Spencer, who had helped them make it to a doctor’s appointment. The kids stayed with my parents and a had a grand time with Grandma Cindy and Grandpa Wayne. Cooper drew the picture above while I was gone. It’s Sully and Mike from Monster’s Inc. For the longest time drawing has been such a frustration to him. The only thing he would draw was the same stick figure. (I literally have 100 of them from preschool.) When he’d try to draw anything else he’d get mad that he couldn’t draw what he wanted and would yell and surround himself with piles of crumpled starts of drawings. In the last few weeks he’s suddenly blossomed in this area.

Me, Mitchell, Spencer, and Hope after our trip to the temple.

Day Ten – Brigham City, UT

During the day, my dad rigged up a waterslide in the backyard. It was pretty warm so we all joined in the fun. That night  we went to the Brigham City LDS temple with all of my siblings, this was one of the things I was really looking forward to. What made it even more special is that we (along with my parents, aunts, uncle, and grandfather) were able to perform some temple sealings for my grandmother, her parents, and many other ancestors. Getting all the paperwork and foundational ordinances completed is something several of us had been working on for months, so this was a much anticipated trip. Sometimes it’s hard to explain how we “do work for the dead,” but it’s one of my favorite parts about our church – that even after death God still gives you a chance.

My parents and Cooper walking back from the jetty.

Day Eleven – Promontory, UT

On our last day, we took the kids to see some of the most notable sites near my hometown. First was the Golden Spike National Monument. The rangers there were super nice. Noel flew home with our parks pass and they kindly let me in with a scanned copy of it and my name in my checkbook since I’d left my ID at my parents’ house. (I looked super together.) Though Cooper loves trains, he was really rattled by the loud sounds the trains made during the demonstration. Both he and Ellen tried to climb my legs like a monkey climbs a tree. After a picnic, we headed out to the Spiral Jetty. I’ve only been to the jetty a handful of times, but it’s always different which is part of the allure of this earthwork. The jetty always reminds me of this braided essay I wrote in college, which in turn always gets me thinking about how I should write more.

There are benefits to going home when everyone else is just leaving to go out of town.

Day Twelve – UT/WY/CO

After eleven days of fun, it was time to head home. This was the first time I’d made the trip by myself. For the most part it wasn’t too bad, but we did have several emergency potty stops, a close encounter with several busloads of pioneer trek reenactors, and the privilege of driving through a terrifying hail storm followed by a torrential downpour. (Driver of the car in front of me that drove slowly and confidently with your hazards on, I wish I could hug you for being my anchor through the storm!) When we finally arrived home we were happy to have all our traveling behind us, but sad to no longer be on vacation.

 

 

Desert Oasis

Desert Oasis

A part of my heart will always belong to red rock country. Technically, I grew up in Brigham City, UT – a town most people have only driven past and where the school year can’t start until after the county fair. While the town and community obviously helped mold me into who I am, my soul will always claim the muddy waters of the Green River, the sagebrush strewn trails of the Wasatch front, and the red hoodoos of Southern Utah. A desert girl at heart, whenever my feet are on red dirt, I’m home.

I have always been fascinated by things that are green since they are rare to my natural habitat, but I remain fiercely loyal to the land I was raised on, loving anything that is dusty red. To borrow Edward Abbey’s words, “If we had water here this country would not be what it is. It would be like Ohio, wet and humid and hydrological, all covered with cabbage farms and golf courses. Instead of this lovely barren desert we would have only another blooming garden state, like New Jersey. And where then would people go when they wanted to see something besides people?”

***

Generally, when we get homesick for sandstone we head to Red Rocks, but at some point the hole in our heart gets too big and we have to have the real thing. We didn’t make any plans for Spring Break this year. We were just going to hang out at home and I’d take the kids to do some cool local stuff, but when I talked to one of the other preschool moms and she mentioned their plans to go to Moab I became painfully aware that the emptiness inside of me had grown so big it was dangerously close to swallowing me up. Our souls were in dire need of the comforting warmth of desert heat. In what may have been our first spontaneous act as a couple, we obsessively began planning a last minute, extended weekend trip to South Eastern Utah. We were giddy with excitement.

When Noel woke up in the middle of the night shivering uncontrollably, only hours before our planned departure, both our hearts sank and one or both of us may have even cried. After sufficient moping, napping, and general consumption of bland foods we regrouped the following afternoon. Noel was feeling significantly better after some uninvited purging (food poisoning?) and the car was already packed, so we decided to resume the trip one day late. Little did we know that a huge Jeep Safari was going to kick-off that weekend and our first and second choices of campsites were already full. Luckily, I’d read about a lesser known campground on my friend Valerie’s travel blog and the folks at Pack Creek Campground were able to squeeze us into half a group site. It was not ideal as it felt like all the jeeps, trucks, and RVs were closing in on us, but we were glad to have something. Every morning the jeeps would file out in lines and we’d head off to wander the desert on our own two feet, even the little people, quenching a thirst only a desert can.

Vacation to an Alternate Reality

Vacation to an Alternate Reality

We’ve grown accustom to a certain percentage of things going wrong in our lives. We could blame it on the kids, but truthfully things going less than perfect is nothing new.  We’ve learned to lower our expectations, which may sound depressing, but actually has made it easier to enjoy life. When we planned a weekend getaway to Winter Park, CO we tried to bridle our excitement since we knew getting our hopes up is always a bad idea. As the day approached we kept waiting for someone to get sick or a blizzard to hit, but surprisingly no disaster happened.

We started our vacation by driving up I-70 Friday afternoon without running into any traffic and even narrowly missed the 30 minute road closure for blasting related to an ongoing road construction project.  As we cruised right along, Noel and I both expressed amazement at how uncharacteristically lucky we were. The whole weekend continued like that, us waiting for something bad to happen and things going uncharacteristically well. Yes, our children still whined and Ellen almost got a black eye, but honestly there’s no reality in which our children don’t whine now and again and Ellen doesn’t periodically injure herself.

We rented a condo through VRBO at a really good deal since it’s the “shoulder season” (cheaper than any of the hotels and way more space and amenities).  Because it was the off-season we got to enjoy things like having the pool all to ourselves. The fall colors were gorgeous and we had amazing weather for all of our hikes. We even took some decent family photos with the aid of our tripod.

At the end of our trip, we made our way back home and got stuck in traffic (on a Monday when everyone is supposed to be at work) which seemed a fitting way to be welcomed back to our reality. It’s nice to get a break every now and then and I hope you all periodically getaway to alternate realities too!

Maroon Bells

Maroon Bells

Family Pic at Lake

Two years ago we went camping at Maroon Bells.  It was an enjoyable experience and we’ve been wanting to go back ever since. Campsites at Maroon Bells itself are pretty hard to come by, especially on weekends, so I had a reminder in my google calendar to make a reservation the second the sites opened up for our chosen days. Months ago that Google reminder popped up and I made a reservation hoping for a nice calm getaway, completely unaware that the trip would end up being bookended by a trip to Utah and Noel going to Scout camp.  Such is life.

Chris and Vanessa scrubbing the Volcano.
Chris and Vanessa scrubbing the Volcano.

We invited Noel’s sister, Vanessa Joy, and her husband, Chris to come with us. After a near death experience earlier this year, we figured they could use some R&R.

The whole crew at Maroon Lake.
The whole crew at Maroon Lake.

Despite the insanity surrounding the trip, we did our best to relax. Not having cell phone reception at our campground greatly aided that.

Ellen insisted on carrying her sleeping bag to our campsite.
Ellen insisted on carrying her sleeping bag to our campsite.
I loved our campground. You took a short trail to get it so it was nice and secluded.
I loved our campsite.  You took a short trail to get it so it was nice and secluded. This picture is taken from the “dining area” so the campground was also pretty spacious.
"Relaxing" in the hammock.
“Relaxing” in the hammock.

We did an ambling “hike” with everyone and Noel and I went on a hike alone while Vanessa and Chris kindly watched the kids.

Taking a break on our walk around the lake.
Taking a break on our walk around the lake.
Noel and me at Crater Lake, no not the one in Oregon.
Noel and me at Crater Lake, no not the one in Oregon.
A moose we saw at the lake.

The kids slept worse than they ever have on a camping trip and we experienced some frustrating potty training setbacks. (It seems Cooper was terrified to poop in the vault toilets . . . )

Kids messing around instead of sleeping.
Kids messing around instead of sleeping.

Somehow Vanessa and Chris still thought the kids were adorable though. Phew.

 Holding Hands
Holding hands with Uncle Chris.
Aunt Vanesa Joy feeding Ellen cake for breakfast.
Aunt Vanesa Joy feeding Ellen cake for breakfast. Best breakfast ever.

And because this is us, we also ate delicious food. Keep an eye on our food blog for all the recipes!

Dutch oven summer vegetable tian. Simply delicious.
Dutch oven summer vegetable tian. Simply delicious.

All too quickly, we had to pack up and head our separate ways.  We said our goodbyes to the beautiful scenery. When we got reception again Noel’s phone rang a million times with messages so I drove home so he could take care of scouting business.

Chris and Vanessa brought the kids Toy Story toys (and cleverly assigned three toys to each of them so they wouldn't fight.
Chris and Vanessa brought the kids Toy Story toys (and cleverly assigned three toys to each of them so they wouldn’t fight).

I’ll have to add another reminder to my google calendar so we can do this again next year, only hopefully not the day before Scout camp.

Creek

Sand Dunes and Alligators

Sand Dunes and Alligators

It’s been a long dreary winter and now that everyone is feeling better we took an opportunity to get outside. We’ve been itching to get to the beach for a while now. Since there is no ocean of reasonable proximity camping at Great Sand Dunes seemed to be a worthy substitute. After playing an intense game of 3 dimensional Tetris, we got all our camping gear in the car and headed south and away from civilization.

Great Sand Dunes

Great Sand Dunes is pretty remote. It’s definitely not like most national parks I’ve seen. There’s no cutesy town right outside the park entrance with gift shops and restaurants. There is one small entrance station with no employee to take your money and give you the glossy map. Not that the glossy map was necessary, the road from the entrance leads up to a parking lot and then the campground. That’s it. It’s a pretty cool place, there are these big snow capped Colorado-type mountains with these Lawrence of Arabia sand dunes leading up to them. In the late spring (this time of year) they have a creek that runs around the base of the dunes making a nice beach-y area. It’s quite popular on the weekends, but we went during the week, so we avoided most of the crowds except for one school field trip bus.

Cooper and Ellen were very excited to go camping, so excited that going to sleep was an issue and there were many shenanigans. On the first morning there while Audrey and I were distracted making breakfast, Ellen found her way into a bunch of prickly pear cacti, then tripped and rolled around in them. I’m glad nobody called in the authorities from all the screaming she was doing as we extracted the needles from her. Nevertheless, she bounced right back in spite of the trauma.

After finally finishing up our now cold breakfast, cleaning up the campsite, and going through an elaborate sunblock routine we got to head down to the “beach.” It was a grand time. The kids loved making sand castles and destroying them. Cooper had this boat he would send down the creek and then chase. Ellen had fun in the water until she got cold from the wind, but she could be revived along with Audrey by sunning on the hot sand.

In the afternoon we made a foolish attempt to climb the dunes after the wind had really picked up. Ellen really didn’t care for being sand blasted–none of us did really. However, Cooper loved sliding down the sand. It was fun, but short lived.

Colorado Gators Reptile Park

On our last day we packed up and drove on out. Morbid curiosity compelled us to stop at another local attraction: the Colorado Gators Reptile Park. This is the craziest small town tourist trap I have ever seen. This place started as a tilapia farm in the desert made possible by hot springs then became a rescue mission for alligators and other sundry reptiles. Honestly, it was kind of like walking onto the set of a horror movie. Everything was dilapitated and every time I saw a fenced area or cage where I couldn’t immediately see the resident creature I’d feel a sudden panic. They had everything: giant tortioses, geckos, emus, rattlesnakes, a 40 foot python, and of course lots of alligators including an albino and the alligator from Happy Gilmore. It was totally creepy-cool.

Cooper was totally excited about seeing the animals until he realized that one big rock was really a living turtle that was 3x his size. He never warmed up to that turtle even though we told him it was like Franklin. Ellen was freaked out at first, but then really got into throwing alligator food pellets in and watching them go for it. (I’d really rather not know what the contents of the alligator food were.)

In Conclusion

Good times were had by all. A lot of sand found its way back to our house. We will not be getting an alligator as a pet. We’re thinking next time we’re in that area we will have to stop by the other fascinating local attraction: the UFO watch tower.

Saving (a few) Dollars When Traveling

Saving (a few) Dollars When Traveling

Traveling anywhere can be expensive, but some places are more expensive than others. Alaska is one of those places. Now we aren’t the type of people that enjoy throwing money around, so planning a trip to Alaska proved to be somewhat tricky. However, we were determined to plan a fun trip that didn’t break the bank and would like to share some of our secrets with you. Obviously, not everyone is dying to go to Alaska (I myself would rather go to Hawaii, but that’s not where the in-laws put down roots), but most of the tips are applicable to traveling elsewhere.

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  1. Get an Airline Credit Card. Both of the times we’ve traveled to Alaska we’ve done so mostly with miles or free flights from our airline credit card. We were able to fly everyone to Alaska and back for only $15. Currently, we have a Frontier card because they have a direct flight to everywhere we have family.
  2. Travel During the Shoulder Season. The “shoulder season” is the time right before or right after the busy season. Since it isn’t the big tourist season you’ll often get deals on housing and flights, but still have a good chance at decent weather. In Alaska the shoulder season is May – beginning of June and September. (You could also go all Winter if that sort of weather thrills you.) We hit up the “busy” season this time, but did travel in June last time. Likewise, we’ve scored great deals on ski resort lodges in between ski season and summer and have found many good honeymoon/anniversary deals since March seems to be the off-season in a lot of places.

    Noel driving our fancy rental car. (Okay, every car seems fancy when yours is 18 years old)
    Noel driving our fancy rental car. (Okay, every car seems fancy when yours is 18 years old)
  3. Follow Noel’s Rental Car Advice. Noel wrote a great post on how we get good deals on rental cars that everyone should read before booking one. We weren’t able to score the kind of deals we typically are used to, but we were able to cut the price by a hundred dollars by renting from the off airport office.

    Noel and Cooper on the Metro in DC (Note: The metro people don't actually like it when you take your strollers on the escalator.)
    Noel and Cooper on the Metro in DC (Note: The metro people don’t actually like it when you take your strollers on the escalator.)
  4. Or Don’t Rent a Car at All. The first time we went to Alaska we were able to bum rides off Noel’s parents, but our itinerary and extra child didn’t make that an easy option this time. Alaska doesn’t have a great transportation system, unless you’re counting the train, but that’s expensive and therefore counterproductive to this post.  (And when I say train, I mean train as in chuggga-chugga-choo-choo.) There are amazing places to visit that do have great public transit though. When we visited DC and then subsequently lived there for a month, we didn’t have a car and were able to get around just fine.
  5. Check out Privately Run Hotels, B&Bs, etc. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at how much cheaper some of these places are compared to chain hotels. In Anchorage we stayed at the Northern Bed & Breakfast which was the only place we could find under $100. In addition to providing a hearty breakfast, the owner picked us up from the airport and let us use her washing machine. You can also often find decent deals on sites like airbnb.com or VRBO.com. (I really wanted to stay in this cute place in Talkeetna, but was heartbroken to discover it was all booked up.) Of course if you want to be super cheap there’s always couchsurfing or hostels, but that doesn’t exactly jive with our current life situation.
  6. Stay Just Outside of Big Towns For the Seward portion of our trip we didn’t actually stay in Seward, but right outside of it at Renfro’s Lakeside Retreat. This is another trick that works great in DC. Three out of the Four times I’ve gone to DC I’ve stayed in Virginia just to save a few bucks. (And the time we stayed in DC proper, we weren’t paying for it.)

    One of our many camping trips with our well tested gear.
    One of our many camping trips with our well tested gear.
  7. Camp. It’s no secret that we like camping. How nice that it’s also a cheap way to get a night’s rest. Our original plan was to camp in Denali. (Before Noel’s parents gifted us a stay in a cabin.) At $11 a night (the price with our National Parks Pass) plus the $20 checked bag fee to get all of our camping gear to Alaska we would be saving over $100/night. Even if we had rented gear from REI or somewhere else (College Campuses often rent gear at really good prices) we still would have saved a lot. Because we were curious, we checked out the Riley Creek Campground and the sites looked pretty nice. They are also highly rated and in case you were wondering, no one camping in the campsite has ever been attacked by a bear. This is also a great idea for when you’re on your way somewhere, but don’t want to drive straight on through. The last time we went to Utah we broke up the trip by staying overnight at a State Park. It wasn’t anything special, but it made the long trip better for our family.

    Our make-shift kitchen that allowed us to have a delicious scrambled egg breakfast on our last morning.
    Our make-shift kitchen that allowed us to have a delicious scrambled egg breakfast on our last morning.
  8. Reserve a Place with at Least a Semblance of a Kitchen. You can save so much money buy not eating out for every meal. Chances are you might also feel better since you aren’t eating greasy food all the time. (Or maybe that’s just us.) The only place we stayed that didn’t have a kitchen was in Denali, but they did have a firepit so we improvised a little. We’ve used this tip in Monterey, Oregon, and every time we’ve ever camped. When we do eat out we heavily rely on Yelp and Urbanspoon to make sure we’re choosing restaurants that are worth our time and money. (Small warning: many of the chain restaurants in Alaska will have higher priced menus than you are used to. Some by such a small amount you won’t hardly notice, but some by an amount that seems outrageous.)

    Ellen picking up a few groceries for us.
    Ellen picking up a few groceries for us.
  9. Be Smart About Your Groceries – If you’re visiting California or Oregon or some other agrarian mecca, go to a Farmer’s Market or roadside stand. Let me rephrase that, SEEK OUT THE LOCAL, DELICIOUS PRODUCE LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT! You’ll likely get a good deal on some delicious produce (oh my mouth is watering thinking about it), but if you’re in Alaska go to Costco (Anchorage has two). Normal grocery stores tend to have higher prices for just about everything, but Costco is pretty much the same everywhere. We picked up a $3 Styrofoam cooler at Target and then headed to Costco to get some essentials. (In our case: yogurt, granola, blueberries, bread, eggs, granola bars, applesauce, and snack mix.) This was also a great place for a cheap pizza dinner. Through cunning planning we were able to avoid buying ice for the cooler. We filled it up at Noel’s parents house and replenished it every day with ice we’d made in rentals with freezers or onsite ice machines. We of course bought a few other things along the way at the normal grocery store to supplement. If you need condiments, pick up a few packets at a deli or gas station. This is also a great trick for backpacking. Oh, and a note about fish. You would think it would be cheap in Alaska because there’s so much of it, but it’s not. The cheapest way to get fish is to catch it yourself (unless you’re paying a lot of money for someone to help you have that experience) or find one of the many locals who is suffering from an overabundance of salmon. (Similar to how many of us suffer from an overabundance of squash every summer.)
  10. Use Any Local Connection You Have – Some places give local discounts. When we visited the Alaska Sea Life Museum we got a discount by having Noel’s parents buy the tickets. When we booked our Sea Life Cruise we used a coupon that was printed in the Anchorage Daily News. We’ve also used local connections to get us discounts on visiting the top of the Stratosphere and other places in Las Vegas.

    The family on our Wildlife Cruise.
    The family on our Wildlife Cruise.
  11. Choose One Big Splurge – Saving money is awesome, but sometimes it is worth it to do one expensive thing. The first time we went to Alaska we did not follow this advice and our trip wasn’t quite as fun. Our big splurge was our Sea Life Cruise (with the coupon of course) and it honestly was one of the more memorable things we did. I should add that we also did save money by bringing our own food instead of paying for the buffet. (Who really wants to eat at a buffet when they’re seasick anyway? Noel, I’m looking at you.)

A Few Free or Cheap Things You Can Do In Alaska

Anchorage Area

Kenai Peninsula

  • Whittier – Fun little place to check out with great views. $12 toll to go through the tunnel.
  • Soldotna Creek Park – If you have kids they will love you for taking them here.
  •  Homer and Seward are both cute little towns to walk around.
  • Exit Glacier – A nice little hike to a glacier and really the only thing you can see of Kenai Fjords National Park without taking an expensive boat tour.
  • Alaska Sea Life Museum –  A little more pricey, but on par with the average museum and cheaper than a lot of things you can do in Alaska. You can also save with a local!
  • Skillak Lookout and Bear Mountain Trail – This is what we were going to do for our date before it decided to rain and Glenna and Mike’s washing machine stopped working and we ended up at the laundromat instead.
  • There are all sorts of scenic little pull-offs along the Turnagain Arm. Some of them are owned by the State Park so there would be a small parking fee.
Denali National Park

I should note that we are typically huge fans of National Parks as they often offer a big bang for your buck. (Especially if you have an annual pass and go often, which we do.) However, the National Parks in Alaska are a little different. At Kenai Fjords you have to pay for a cruise or at least a kayak rental to see the coolest things and at Denali the majority of the park can be seen only by bus, and those buses aren’t free like in Zion. (The cheapest option is $26.25 per person 16 and older.) Still, there are things you can do at Denali that don’t involve an expensive and long, by the way, bus trip.

  • The entrance fee at Denali is $10/person 16 and older. (Or free with an annual pass.) This kind of seemed to be on the honor system though because there was no fee booth stopping you from entering the park.
  • Sled dog demonstrations – You can catch a free bus to the visitor’s center or go on a 2.4 mile hike to see these. Our kids thought this was the best thing ever.
  • Drive the first 15 miles of the park. Private vehicles are allowed to drive the first 15 miles of the park and there are several hikes you can do between the Visitor’s Center and Mile 15. Most range from .6-5 miles.
  • See Mt McKinley. Many of the places you can catch a great view of Mt McKinley aren’t even in the park itself. Check out this list of 10 places you might see Mt McKinley for ideas.
Over Canada and Through the Woods to Grandmother’s House We Go

Over Canada and Through the Woods to Grandmother’s House We Go

Planes! Those were the words Noel texted his mom after we’d organized and strapped down the chaos that happens when you have four people, one car seat, and four bags that have all stumbled into one tiny airplane aisle. Our kids are pretty experienced travelers (Cooper has flown twelve times in his three years and Ellen has flown five times in her eighteen months), but I still get nervous every time because you never know what’s going to happen with kids, especially when you’re in a confined space for five plus hours. We lucked out that the payment system to watch the inflight TV was broken, so Cooper watched Toy Story 2 to his hearts content before falling asleep. Ellen of course pooped during take-off and I was the lucky one that got to wrestle her until they finally turned off the fasten seat belt sign. When Ellen started to get ornery I was experienced enough to know that it was better for everyone to endure three minutes of her crying while I held her tightly until she passed out, than it was for me to try and pacify a whiny baby for hours beyond bedtime.

Our very own slip and slide ;)After a good night’s sleep in Anchorage, we drove our rental car through the woods to Soldotna, where Noel’s parents live. We spent the next few days indoors catching up with family as it poured rain. We got so stir-crazy that we actually went to the park during the downpour and got our wiggles out until everyone was soaked.

Dramatic LandscapeThe next few days were spent in a cozy cabin outside of Seward. We also went on a wildlife boat tour to see the Kenai Fjords. We really lucked out with the weather and were able to see much more than any of their tours had seen in days.

Can I have a husky puppy?The next few days we said goodbye to Noel’s parents (They needed a rest, our kids had worn them out!) and headed up to Denali. Noel’s parents has kindly given us a two night stay in a cabin there. We checked out Denali National Park (the highlight for the kids was the Sled Dog Demonstration) and even were able to see Mt McKinley. Apparently only 30% of visitors typically see it, so we lucked out with the weather once again.

Cooper SlidingOur last day in Alaska we met up with Noel’s parents in Anchorage. We spent some time at the park and had a nice dinner before saying our goodbyes. Then it was back on that plane once again for a red-eye flight home. Ellen fell asleep easily in our laps, but the rest of us tossed and turned without much success. I’d had delusions that I’d be up for going to church that morning (I really hate missing church), but when we’d finally tucked everyone into their beds at 7am after hardly sleeping all night it seemed like a really bad idea to wake everyone in time to make our 9 o’clock meeting. I mean, sacrament meeting is sometimes bad enough when we’ve all slept.

Today we’re getting back into our groove and adjusting to temperatures above 65. More pictures of our Alaskan adventure below:

 

Getting Close to Nature

Getting Close to Nature

Screeeeech! Crash!

I was torn from a restful sleep instantly. Whatever that was, it sounded heavy. It wasn’t someone tripping over a lantern on the way to the bathroom.

Beep! Honk! Beep! Honk! Beep! Honk!

Audrey stirred next to me looking a bit annoyed at the ruckus. We lay frozen in our sleeping bags listening to car horns blaring throughout the campground. After a few moments the car horns stopped and it was eerily silent. Outside the tent I could hear what I thought was a stick snap and some snorting noises. Oh, wait, that was Ellen snoring. Somehow she and Cooper were miraculously still asleep.

Another crash erupted nearby quickly followed by hurried footsteps and someone banging furiously on a door. Our muscles tensed and we alternated between praying and making mental plans of how we’d scare a bear away from our tent by yelling and flashing our headlamps. The chorus of Beep! Honk!s started up again and a few cars and their passengers drove away into the night. As the sound of honking horns gradually got quieter and further away, our muscles slowly relaxed.

I whispered to Audrey, “I have to pee.”

“I don’t think now is a good time.”

I pushed the Indiglo button on my watch. 3:40am. I laid there on my partially deflated REI knock off ThermaRest trying to get comfortable with a full bladder and frazzled nerves. After quite some time the pre-dawn gray began to lighten the sky and I ventured out to make a cautious trip to the bathroom.

No bears in sight. Good. The car was also still in one piece. Also good. The dumpster by the bathroom had been toppled, but the bear proof lid remained closed. This made the chipmunk jumping into our car earlier seem like no big deal. I reported back to Audrey and finally fell back asleep.

* * * *

Camping has long been the ideal vacation for us. Cheap, plenty of fresh air, and the harder things you do the less people you have to deal with. One of our favorite vacations was a backpacking trip to Escalante, UT where a flash flood chased everyone away and we slept in a cave. (Don’t worry, it was a wide canyon so our lives weren’t in danger, it was just really wet.) Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether we’re super awesome or just plain crazy.

We’ve made a point to go camping with the kids several times each year. Every time we go people tell us how brave we are to take such young kids camping, but we’re sure cultivating a love for nature in them. Camping with tiny ones can definitely be trying. Bedtime can be a nightmare and any unexpected event of nature (rain, bears, chipmunks eating food in your trunk, getting stuck in a traffic jam at the end of a very long weekend, etc) can make things quickly unravel as epic whining ensues. However, it can be fun too. I guess you can say we’re beginning to understand what it means to “Come What May and Love it.

In spite or maybe because of all the crazy stuff that happened this weekend (and the bear was only part of it) we had some good laughs and enjoyed some of this beautiful world we live in. Photographic evidence to follow.

 

A Brief Travel Log

A Brief Travel Log

I always like to clean my house before I go out of town. That way everything is nice and inviting when I get back, at least for a few minutes before it turns into a post-vacation disaster area. You know what I mean,  a frenzied inventory of the kids’ toys is strewn across the floor (unfortunately they’re always still here), stacks of suitcases block the entryway, and piles of laundry loom in each clothes hamper. That about sums up where we are now.

A little over a week ago, we made a trek to Utah to spend time with family before my brother, Spencer, heads off to Eugene, OR for the next two years. I could probably write eleven blog posts about the trip, but I’m tired and I really want to get this published so my brother can see the pictures before he heads out tomorrow. Besides, I know you all just want to see the pictures anyway.

Great Sand Dunes

Great Sand Dunes

EntranceThe wind whipped through the desert hurling dirt blizzard-like across our windshield and lodging a tumbleweed into the front bumper of our car.  The road stretched before us, desolate. Noel and I looked at each other wondering aloud whether this was a good idea or not. As we drew nearer, the dunes appeared, surprising all of us with their magnificence. Still, when we stopped at the entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park to take a picture even the kids were scrambling to get out of the wind and back into the safety of the car.

Child RestraintWe saw a lot of unhappy people sitting in their vehicles as we looped through the campground in search of our campsite. Noel and I wrestled the tent together, staking every corner at least twice before finding secure holds that wouldn’t let the tent turn into a kite. Meanwhile, the children honked the horn, turned on the hazard lights, and found a permanent marker to draw all over the car with. Fortunately, we do our best to not own things that are valuable.

Delicious DinnerNoel performed miracles with our charcoal chimney and we were able to fill our bellies with tinfoil dinners and cobbler before we zipped the kids into bed. The wind died down just in time for Noel and I to enjoy some alone time by the fire.

Snuggles 1 By morning the children had managed to wriggle out of their sleep pods. We each adopted one for a few extra minutes of snuggle time to warm them up before making another delicious dutch oven meal.

Snuggles 2We packed up camp while the children chased chipmunks and periodically tried to run away and join other families. It was a good thing we’d camped because the parking lot at the dunes was already close to full when we arrived.

WadingThe children unhappily submitted themselves to being sunscreened, but their despair disappeared when we walked through the trees and showed them the small stream with its sandy beaches.

10-IMG_1389We’d wanted to explore the dunes themselves, but the children were having so much fun we decided to save that for another day and just basked on the “beach” instead.

SandWe were all sad to say goodbye since our time there was less than 24 hours, but it will give us motivation to go back. We often wonder if we’ve lost our minds when we load up our little family and all our gear to go on trips like this, especially since all that preparation usually gets us at least halfway to crazy. So far though, we’re glad we’re still trying do the things we loved before the little people came along. And truthfully, we think they love it too.

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