We had a very travel-heavy year (it's been amazing), and I've been neglecting the blog to update all of you on the amazing places we've seen. A year ago we traveled to Florida in our little pop-up camper and stopped at some beautiful National Park sites (along with beaches, of course). And the summer of 2018 was our epic, three week, road trip where we visited 13 National Park sites all the way from South Dakota to Utah. Whew! It was busy and wonderful and amazing to experience so much of our beautiful country. We're so fortunate to be teachers (in lots of different ways). So now I'm going to work backwards and talk about all of the places we visited.
Last week, our schools were on spring break, so we packed up and drove to Destin, Florida, stopping at all the National Park sites we could find on the way. We left a very cold Ohio behind and found nice weather down south. We started the drive early, and our first stop was the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park in Hodgenville, Kentucky. This was a great stop for a road trip; there was plenty of space to stretch our legs, and it was absolutely gorgeous. The memorial was beautiful (and looked very similar to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.), and the kids enjoyed climbing and posing on the steps. Once you get to the top of the memorial, the entrance around the back leads you to a climate-controlled area where the cabin that they at one time believed was Lincoln's birthplace is housed. However, most scholars believe that this is not the actual cabin he was born in (that one was probably dismantled to build something else), but it is probably very similar to the cabin he was born in. In addition, the space had a great hiking trail that we enjoyed. The kids of course completed their junior ranger booklets (it's their favorite), and we were back on our way. It was such a great educational stop! And as you can see, Ezra was very proud of his five-dollar bill postcard he bought!
After many, many hours of driving through straight, flat South Dakota, the landscape of Badlands National Park was exciting for all of us. It's like nothing we had ever seen. And, to this day, it is Ezra and Levi's favorite national park we have ever visited.
We started out our visit at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, where we saw a video about the badlands and the kids grabbed their junior ranger books to start working on during our visit. The kids also completed a ranger activity about the animals in the park. I love that the rangers spend their time educating the kids visiting in the park. Just past the visitor center is the Cedar Pass Lodge, where we stayed for our visit. It was our one splurge for the trip; we wanted to stay in a cabin in a national park at least once on the trip. The Cedar Pass cabins were amazing! The inside was nice and clean, and there was a porch with chairs to watch the stars after dark. The night sky views were amazing, and it was fun to see the bats flying around as the sun went down. We highly recommend Cedar Pass Lodge; it was a great mix between camping and a hotel stay. The lodge also has campsites available as well, and a little restaurant where we ate dinner the evenings we were there. There weren't a lot of healthy options, but the food was good and the staff was super nice. Of course, you can't beat the views, either.
We spent a lot of time hiking with the kids at Badlands; may trails are family friendly. Of course, I was scared to death of the possibility of the kids meeting a rattlesnake (there are warnings everywhere), but thankfully, that didn't happen. We easily hiked the Door Trail (0.75 miles boardwalk hike) for great views, the Window Trail (0.25 miles on trail), the Fossil Exhibit Trail (0.25 miles boardwalk hike although the kids walked around the boardwalk for some climbing on that one), and the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail (0.5 miles moderate hike up some stairs). My favorite was probably the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail. The views were gorgeous at the top! We drove the Badlands Loop Road, which took about three hours, but it was an amazing tour of the park. There were plenty of pull of spots for pictures, and we saw bighorn sheep climbing around everywhere, especially in the amazing Yellow Mounds area. The overlook here cannot be missed! After the Badlands Loop Road, there is an option to continue to the Badlands Wilderness Area on the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road. This road was extremely bumpy, but we drove on anyway. The kids were determined to see a bison on our trip (little did we know we would see hundreds in our three weeks out west), and they were not disappointed! The kids were ecstatic to see a few bison grazing in a field. Roberts Prairie Dog Town in the wilderness area also shouldn't be missed. There were hundreds of prairie dogs (and you can hear their cute little squeals) popping in and out of their holes. The kids were mesmerized! Seeing animals in their own habitat from a respectable distance was a phenomenal learning experience for the kids. You will see about a hundred signs begging you to visit Wall, SD. We took a quick detour during our trip to check it out. It is absolutely the most tourist trappy (is that a word?) place I've ever been to. Unless you like that kind of thing, I would recommend skipping it. But everyone should visit Badlands National Park at least once in their life. It was the perfect place for the kids to explore without dangerous hikes (like in the canyons in Utah, but more about that later). Badlands National Park was one of the highlights of our three weeks on the road!
We spent a lot of time planning every detail of our road trip across the country. We wanted to experience as much of the country as we could, which was one of the reasons we choose to drive instead of fly. Our main destination was Wyoming; we wanted to visit family that lives there as well as see Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. However, to save money AND experience as much as we could, we decided to take a big chunk of our summer and make the crazy drive. Most people we talked to looked at us like we were crazy to attempt this cross-country drive with three small kiddos ages four, five, and six, but we saw it as an opportunity to spend quality time with the kids and show them how amazing God's creation is.
We started off our trip with a very long driving day. We made it all the way to Minnesota with just one major stop in South Bend, Indiana. We had a peanut butter and jelly picnic (a three week road trip means saving on meal costs as much as possible) on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. The kids could run around and stretch their legs, and then we were on our way. After a total of 12 hours of driving, we were closer to our first destination, Badlands National Park.
Our by far most-visited park is Cuyahoga Valley National Park. It’s not one of the most popular national parks with about 2 and a half million visitors per year, but we think it’s definitely worth a visit. CVNP is about 30 minutes from our home and our go-to for a day trip with the kids and a picnic lunch. It’s a beautiful park with quite a few great areas to visit. Two of the best things about this park is that it’s FREE and it’s never terribly crowded. It’s set up differently than most national parks (there is no “loop” to drive around), but a quick stop at the Boston Mills visitor center will show you where to go for the major attractions and activities. Although it did not become an official national park until 2000, it has great history. The Towpath trail (our favorite running trail), is a 20-mile trail that is a part of the former Erie Canal. Along the trail you can see lots of locks for the old boats traveling the Erie Canal and great views of the Cuyahoga River. We like to go for runs or bike rides on the towpath, but when showing people around the park, we take them to two major places. First, our favorite is the ledges hike that is short enough that the kiddos can do it on their own. It’s such a cool area with unique rock formations and caves. There is also a beautiful clearing that’s perfect for picnic lunches and letting the kids run around and play and an overlook with great views (but not enclosed so be careful with the kiddos).
Brandywine Falls is also a great place to visit in the park. This one is usually a bit busier, but it’s worth it. It’s a beautiful waterfall and boardwalk with upper and lower observation platforms. There are some other great areas of the park, like the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad (which at Christmastime has a great Polar Express ride), Beaver Marsh, and the iconic Everett Covered Bridge. Overall, a visit to this park is relaxing, beautiful, and a perfect family getaway, which is what National Parks are all about.
In August, we took a trip down to North Carolina for Dan’s cousin’s wedding. It was a beautiful wedding and wonderful to spend time with his extended family all together. We had picnics and boat rides and lots of cousin time.
When it came time to drive back home, of course we opened up our National Park passport to see what National Park spots we could stop at on the way home. Right on our way home was the Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. We explored the Visitor Center and learned the history of the park, which was the location of the largest battle of the Revolutionary War’s Southern Campaign. It was a turning point for the Revolution War; many countrymen without much training fought this battle for their freedom. They had a driving loop with stops and hikes where you could read even more about this battle. It’s a great historical park and it was a fun stop for us.
We left Bar Harbor early in the morning, partly because a water mane had broken and the whole area was left without water. That meant no teeth brushing or showers, so we just packed up and hit the road early. We didn’t have much of a plan (I’m a Type A planner and was trying to be a little spontaneous), but we knew we wanted to hit some of the other New England States. We decided to check out the Cape Cod National Seashore, so we drove through Boston (which had TERRIBLE traffic), and made it to Cape Cod in the early afternoon. We quickly stopped in to the visitor center to get a map and our passport stamped, and then drove to the parking lot to catch a shuttle to the seashore. In the national seashore, you are not allowed to drive, but must take the shuttle from the parking area. It’s a couple of miles away, but the shuttle was nice and it wasn’t too busy. When we got to the beach, we couldn’t believe how beautiful it was! Our shuttle driver told us that the Cape Cod National Seashore is frequently ranked as one of the best five beaches in the country, and I can understand why. The beach is clean and natural (there wasn’t any commercialization close to the beach, which is a big plus for being protected by the National Parks Department). We could also see lots of seals bobbing in the water.
We had a great time playing in the sand and the waves and pointing out the seals as they came up. We only stayed a few hours, and then drove through Rhode Island and stopped for Chick fil a and ice cream and then booked a hotel from our phones in New Haven, Connecticut. In the morning, we decided to check out the Yale campus. It was pretty underwhelming, and they didn’t allow visitors in any of the buildings or museums, so we wished we would have skipped New Haven and visited some of the National Park sites in the area. Next time we know!
We drove through Connecticut and New York and then hit New Jersey. For our first break to stretch our legs, we stopped at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area that is right between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. It was a good place to walk around for a few minutes and take in the beautiful mountains. New Jersey really is beautiful (in some areas at least). This was our last National Park site of our trip, and although we debated about taking a detour to Gettysburg, we decided that we should head home. It was a wonderful trip, and we were so proud of our little travelers who did so well in the car and we always ready for a new adventure. Besides movies in the car, the kids had no electronics for over a week and instead experienced two countries, 11 states, and 2,919 miles. This trip was so unforgettable for our family to bond and step away from real life for a while and be together. And next summer, our trip will take us west, so stay tuned!
We were so excited to visit Acadia National Park. We spent lots of time researching and reading guidebooks about the park and the area around it. We got to Bar Harbor, Maine in the late afternoon and checked into our hotel. We spent a lot of time researching cost-effective hotels that were still highly rated and clean. The one we chose, Atlantic Eyrie Lodge, did not disappoint. The price was reasonable, and it was very clean. The staff was also SO NICE. Upon arriving, I realized that I messed up one of the dates of our stay (I’ll have to be more careful for the next road trip), and they were so sweet, didn’t charge us extra, and fixed my mistake immediately. It felt like going to a family member’s house. They also had a pool (which the kids loved) with a view of the ocean. It was beautiful! We started out our first day with a lobster dinner (the kids had chicken tenders) on the water and then walking around the town of Bar Harbor. We also explored the sand bar that connects Bar Harbor to a portion of Acadia National Park. During low tide, you can walk to the island, but if you stay too long, you’ll be stuck when the tide comes in! It was so cool to see the water moving like that.
The next morning, we got up early and drove the 3 miles to what we had really been waiting for: Acadia National Park. We started by driving up to Cadillac Mountain, which has AMAZING views. The kids loved climbing from rock to rock. After spending some time exploring Cadillac Mountain, which is the first place in the US to see the sun rise every morning, we drove some of the loop (everything was gorgeous), and stopped at Sand Beach to let the kids play in the sand and the water. The water was VERY cold (even in July), but they loved running back and forth as the waves nipped at their feet. Then we took a hike to Thunder Cove, where at certain times of the day, the sound of the waves hitting the cove sounds like thunder. We decided to have lunch in the park and tried out the Jordan Pond House restaurant. We were a little hesitant because it seemed a little expensive, but it was totally worth it. The views were spectacular (it was outside dining), and the food was incredible. The kids were able to run around and play while we were waiting for our food, and we had a view of Bubble pond and the mountains. It goes down as my favorite dining experience ever. If you go, you have to order the popovers!
After our quick night in Niagara Falls, we headed out the next morning. Our ultimate destination was Acadia National Park, but because it is quite a trek from Niagara Falls, we decided we would drive until we hit New Hampshire and then drive the five or so hours from there to Bar Harbor, Maine. We drove through upstate New York, and since we have the goal of hitting as many National Park sites as we can in our travels, we stopped in Seneca Falls, New York to get lunch and to visit the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Seneca Falls was a super cute, small town, and our lunch at Café XIX was incredible! The food was great, and the atmosphere, featuring pop-art style women involved in the Women’s Rights Movement. Then, we drove about a mile to the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. I was totally geeking out here. They have an awesome visitor center with a museum upstairs that we spent some time exploring. Outside, there is a park and a historical church which is on the corner where the very first Women’s Rights Convention was held on July 19-20th, 1848. Selah and I took a picture there to commemorate all that these women sacrificed for us to have the right to vote. The kids had a great time running around the park. There are some other things to do in Seneca Falls, including visiting Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s home. We wanted to get on the road, though, so we decided to just stick with the main park, which we all loved!
After driving some more through upstate New York (which takes quite a long time from Canada), we stopped in Rome, New York at the Fort Stanwix National Monument. The town of Rome, New York didn’t have much else, but the nice thing about making National Park sites a road trip stop is clean bathrooms, a safe place for the kids to stretch their legs, a cold, purified water station to fill up water bottles (most sites have this, although not all), and of course, a history lesson. Fort Stanwix is known as the fort that “never surrendered.” The British armies attempted a siege of the fort in 1777, and the troops there protected the fort and the siege failed.
When we arrived, the park was pretty empty. The kids had a great time running around and checking out all of the rooms of the fort, which were set up just like they would have been back in the 1700s. They even got to see the cannons and lookouts at the top of the fort. We explored for awhile and were on our way out when one of the park rangers asked the kids if they would like to play in some 1700s costumes. How could we resist? The park rangers gave them some period costumes and the kids had a blast pretending to be soldiers. It also made for some adorable pictures. The rangers here were so incredibly nice!
After leaving Fort Stanwix, we drove through Vermont (just a quick stop for a couple photos here; the scenery was GORGEOUS), and then we stopped in a town in Keane, New Hampshire to stay for the night. We got up early to head to Bar Harbor, Maine, where we were so excited to see Acadia National Park!
It’s been awhile since I last updated, and I realized I haven’t finished chronicling our summer road trip. I better hurry up and finish before we leave on our next epic road trip, which is coming soon over spring break.
After leaving the beautiful Traverse City (which we totally fell in love with and will be back again), we drove across Ontario, Canada to see Niagara Falls. I had seen Niagara Falls when I was in high school, but from the U.S. side, so we decided to stay on the Canadian side. It took us awhile to get through customs, and then it was a very flat and Ohio-looking drive to get to Niagara. Once we got there in the late afternoon, we were greeted with a VERY busy city block and a long wait for the parking garage in the hotel. We finally checked in, got our bags out, and then walked across a couple of blocks to get our tickets to the Horn Blower (the Canadian version of Maid of the Mist). We got on the boat, the kids were awe-struck at the beauty of the falls, and then we started our boat tour of horseshoe falls. The noise was way too much for our sensory-sensitive little Selah, so she cried the whole time while I held her. The boys enjoyed the boat ride even though they got soaked. After exiting the boat ride, we were bombarded by photographers pushing photos of us with a fake background of the falls for way too much money and lots of cheesy souvenir shops. We managed to get through all of that with our budget still intact, and then we walked back to the main strip and started looking for a place to eat dinner. The kids immediately noticed the RainForest Café and begged to eat there. We decided to oblige and went in to put our name in. It took us about 45 minutes to get a table, and then once we ordered, it took over an hour to get our food. I was getting pretty frustrated, but luckily the kids were very happy to watch all the rainforest-y things going on around them. After waiting way too long and paying way too much for mediocre-at-best food (although the kids still say eating at the RainForest Café was their favorite part of Niagara), we walked out toward the ferris wheel on the main strip. The ferris wheel is London Eye-esque and gives a great view of the falls when at the top. Although we waited in line about 45 minutes, the kids had a blast on the ferris wheel. It was dark when we were finished, and we started walking back to our hotel. Things on the strip got a little sketchy at that point, and we contemplated and then dismissed $7 ice cream cones and just went to our room for an early night.
Overall, we were pretty disappointed in Niagara Falls. The falls, of course, are beautiful and worth checking out. But the area around the falls is so touristy and expensive, it takes away from the experience. We recently watched a national parks documentary, and interestingly enough, part of the reason that the national parks were founded was because the government considered the development of the area around Niagara Falls to be “a national embarrassment.” They didn’t want any of the other natural wonders of the U.S. to be tainted by developers trying to make money from tourists. They wanted everyone to be able to see these natural wonders in their untouched state. Generally, we agree. We’re glad we saw the falls (and also glad we only planned to stay one night), but it really solidified our love for the national parks and the beauty they preserve.
It’s national adoption awareness month this month, and Orphan Sunday is coming up in a few short weeks. Our lives are surrounded by adoption daily, so it’s something always on my mind, but this is a good month to spread awareness about the orphan crisis and the beauty of adoption.
If you’re reading our blog, chances are you know our story. If not, I encourage you to read my posts from the last two years. We’ve gone from excited and scared to happy and nervous to broken and thankful, and I think my blog reflects that. We gone from shouting on the mountaintops to hitting rock bottom. But, really, adoption isn’t about us. Adoption is about the millions of children going through life completely alone. And absolutely nobody should have to go through life along, especially a child. I’ve seen the change that having a family makes in the life of a child. Selah came to us a sick, small, scared little girl and has transformed into a spunky, friendly, talkative, energetic little girl who never stops talking. And as you all probably know, it has not been an easy road. It’s been full of sleepless nights, tears, and guilt that we’re not enough for this little girl. And we’re not. We’re imperfect parents who only make it through with the grace of Jesus.
So, this post is to put a face to the word “orphan.” When we hear that there are 147 million orphans in the world, many in our own country and in our own communities, it’s hard to picture them. But this face, the face of my daughter, is the face of a former orphan. Yes, she has changed a lot in the almost year and a half she’s been with us, but the rest of us have changed, too. I am so thankful that God chose us to be Selah’s family. However, not everyone is called to adoption. But, everyone is called to make a difference in the orphan crisis. If you aren’t called to adoption, I encourage you to be the community to someone who is. You might not be able to tell from the “highlight reel” of life (otherwise known as social media), but it’s hard. Really hard. There are days you feel like you are completely and totally alone, and I know for us, the support of our closest friends and family has meant more than we could have ever imagined. I’m come to realize in the past few months how important community is. Community encourages and invigorates us and gives us endurance. So maybe your part of the orphan crisis is to be there for families who are fostering or adopting. This is more important than it might sound, but I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see Selah’s face light up when she sees some of our “people.” I love knowing that she has people that love her, even more than just our little family. Or, maybe your part is to help give financially to families who are working so hard to bring their child home. Adoption costs upwards of $30,000, and if finances were not such a burden, more families would be able to adopt.
November is a month where we celebrate all of the many things that we are thankful for. I know I have a pretty long list of what I am thankful for. A lot of us do. What I also want November to mean for many people is to remember that not everyone has a lot to be thankful for. As Christians, God tasks us with remembering this and taking action. Proverbs 31:8 says, “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” And in Matthew 25, Jesus uses a parable to teach us that when we feed the hungry, take in strangers, take care of the sick, and others, we are doing this for Him! And, conversely, when we choose NOT to do these things, Jesus says, “whatever you did not do for one of these, you did not do for me.” My prayer is that there will be a time that we won’t have an orphan crisis to talk about. That we will have so many parents ready to step in and be a family for those who need it, people who are ready to help finance adoption, and people who are willing to come alongside those families by loving, encouraging, and supporting them that there will be no need for an adoption awareness month or orphan Sunday reminder. So, this month, as you are celebrating how much we have to be thankful for, I pray that you’ll remember some of the orphans who are going through life alone without much to be thankful for and pray about how God wants to use you and your gifts to care for the “least of these.”
All National Parks: Our Travel Bucket list
X Acadia National Park