Galveston, Texas

We’ve been ‘through’ Galveston several times to embark on cruises, but our stays were only 1 night pre-cruise. Every time, we would say “We need to plan a STAY here….”

Now, South Texas Gulf Coast in the heat of the summer is only enjoyable if you’re in the water, (imho) however, early Fall can be quite pleasant. That’s when we made our visit.  🙂

Accommodations:  Travel in Sept enabled us to avoid the congestion of ‘vacation season’ and find some good rates. A kitchen was a necessity (I need to cook the majority of our meals).  Galveston has a few hotels with kitchenettes but they were pricey.  On my  favorite condo site(s) – VRBO and Home Away I found a HUGE inventory from which to choose.

Our Condo complex – right across the street from the beach

There are no truly ‘beachfront’ condos or hotels in Galveston (the actual town) as Seawall Blvd runs along the beach.  Hotels, et al are across the street from the beach.  That’s really not a problem…just be aware.  Now, there are REAL beachfront homes (no condos/hotels)  further down the island outside of town.  On our trip, we preferred to stay in town.

We ended up in a unit that was ‘self-clean’ (No cleaning fee if WE clean kitchen & bathroom and sweep/mop/vacuum before checking out.  That’s it! )  If our cleaning met with their approval, there were no charges.  If it did not, we would be charged the $75 cleaning fee. I’m pretty picky about cleaning so this was not a problem.  (ok…I’m pretty sure it was cleaner when we left than when we arrived) Because the unit was very small, this took my husband and I about 30 min. Not only did I save about $200 on the rent (Many units in Galveston rent for MUCH MORE) but I saved the $75 cleaning fee.  The way I look at it, we got ‘paid’ $275 for 30 min. of work.  – not bad wages at all!!!

 

Beaches abound on Galveston Island and I’ll get to those in a minute.    First thing I suggest is a brief stop at the Galveston Visitor Center:  Here you’ll find not only information about what’s in the area, but also coupons for several attractions in town.  (and a few restaurants)

Parking:  Parking is always an issue on ‘islands’……and in Galveston, it’s NOT Cheap!!  The ONLY place you’ll find free parking is at the Visitor Center….and a TWO block section downtown with 2 hr parking. Those spots will be virtually impossible to get….  The remaining parking spots are part of the “Pay by Phone” system via an app  (PayByPhone.com  a secure site so I can’t link to it….)  Create an account, then input location from signs on each block and how much time you wish to ‘purchase’.  The app allows you to add time remotely, get online receipts and sends a text reminder when your time is almost expired.

Cash Parking Locations –  VERY limited

  • Downtown by The Strand, though these are a bit pricey,
  • In front of the Ocean Star Drilling museum – $1/half hour with a maximum of $5.

 

Bolivar Ferry:  This FREE ferry runs to Port Bolivar from the East end of the island every 20 minutes.  Because it’s an excellent place to see dolphins, many tourists just walk on and take the ferry over and back. We, however, took our car and spent the day in Port Bolivar.  The ferry was a pleasant experience  (air conditioned, restrooms, etc….).  Going in the off-season was great, though some report  wait times of up to 90 min. in the busy summer tourist season. If there in July, I suggest an EARLY start to the day.  🙂 Our wait (Sept) was about 20 min to board at the Galveston terminal…and no wait at all for the return trip.  It seems to be handled very well.

Bolivar Peninsula: Once over to Bolivar, we went to Ft Travis State Historic Park. I found the beach here nicer than what was available in Galveston – Not only was there no ‘fees’….but there are picnic areas with grills. We had just brought sandwiches for lunch, but I could envision a very nice beach day…with grilled hotdogs, sand, ocean….  It was almost deserted in Sept, but probably a pretty busy place in the summer.

While on the island, we found a shaved ice stand that had sugar-free syrups…and not just a limited number of flavors….   This lady offered to mix any flavor on her menu with Splenda.  We had to wait, but it was SO worth it to be able to choose from the FULL menu!!!  That NEVER happens!!!  🙂  She earned a ‘shout out’ from me.  🙂   J-Bird’s Shaved Ice.

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Sunset over the SeaWall – Galveston, TX

Now…..to the

Beaches:  Since Galveston Island is an ‘island’, it’s surrounded by beaches…  🙂  (on the Gulf side….inlet side is industry…) Most of the public beaches have a user fee and/or parking charge.  Even at the State Park south of town,  entrance is free….after you pay to park. 🙂  However, driving out of Galveston, you will find signs marking “Beach Access”.  These are roads behind vacation homes where the public can access the beach for free. (yes, it’s public access unless otherwise posted)   Now, there are no facilities, no running water (other than ocean 🙂 ) or restrooms in these areas.  It’s just sand, ocean and flying insects (LOTS of those so bring repellant),  but it IS possible to get to the water without paying. You just ‘lose’ facilities.  Those areas would be crowded during tourist season (inhabitants from beach homes, et al) but in Sept. the homes were mostly empty as were the beaches in front of them…  We had a few hours on a secluded beach…well….except for the insects….  It was a nice afternoon.


OK….I know that most people don’t consider antebellum homes or museums when visiting Galveston Island, but…….  There is some INCREDIBLE history associated with the area.  For instance, did you know that Galveston was the “Wall Street of the U.S.” in the late 1800’s?  Did you know that some of the wealthiest families of that time lived here?  Did you know that after the hurricane of 1900 (which is to this day the deadliest disaster event in US history) they not only rebuilt the city…but RAISED it 17 feet (!!!!) and built the sea wall still there today.  This was an INCREDIBLE engineering feat for the early 1900’s.  Spending at least a portion of your time in the area exploring these homes…this history…is worth consideration.

078.jpgBishop’s Palace:  This is the home of Colonel Walter Gresham and is listed by the American Institute of Architects as one of the 100 most important buildings in America.  I have to say, I’ve been to a lot of homes – antebellum homes in Virginia and the Carolinas, The Biltmore (NC), Plantations in Mississippi and Alabama, etc…but this may possibly be the most beautiful home I’ve ever toured.  Admission is pricey, but the architecture and woodwork as well as the history made it WORTH the cost to us.   Coupon for $1 pp off admission (from the Visitor Center)  helps a little with the cost.

 

 

Museums:

  • 125.jpgRosenburg Musuem   This is a small and free museum on the 4th floor of the Rosenburg City Library.  It’s size makes it easily visited in 1-2 hrs. and actually  ‘manageable’ for children. It covers the history of the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the rebuilding of the city and SeaWall.  The Rosenburg Library is right across the street from the Visitor center so you can park there for free. (if you get there early enough to find a space)  We DID ask permission before leaving our car – just fyi. 

 

  • Ocean Star:  When oil prices plummeted and off-shore drilling became UNprofitable, Exxon-Mobile brought one of their rigs to shore to turn it into a museum.  This was such a treat as this is something we would NEVER normally be able to see.  We spent 2-3 hrs here and only left because we had tickets at Pier 21 and HAD to leave.

 

I could have stayed longer.  The website: Ocean Star Off-Shore Drilling Museum has a virtual tour for more information.

 

 

  • Pier 21 Films:  This theatre shows 3 different films about the area – It’s located about a block from Ocean Star Museum.  We chose “The Great Storm”  about the 1900 Hurricane – using a $1 coupon we picked up from one of the many brochure racks located around town.   They also validate parking for 2 hrs – allowing for time at the museum if you plan it just right.

 

There’s so much to do in the Galveston area – in ADDITION to “Fun in the Sun” – not to mention that Houston with all it has to offer (NASA Spaceport is in Webster….Great place!!) is just a little over an hour away…

Enjoy the beach and water in this Gulf Coast area…but don’t think that’s all there is.  🙂

 

Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam is a structural masterpiece…an engineering wonder…especially considering the fact that it was built in the 1930’s. (1931-1935 to be exact)   It’s a National Historical Landmark, a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, and one of America’s Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders.  Need another reason to visit?  It’s just really interesting.  🙂

The Dam is located 34 miles east of Las Vegas. Though we are not the ‘Vegas kind of people’, we planned a visit there (flights and accommodations are quite inexpensive)  just to see some of the things in the area – Hoover Dam,  Death Valley Nat’l Park and the canyons of southwest Utah.  The WEST rim of the Grand Canyon is also within a few hours’ drive, though we didn’t have time to venture that far on this trip.

SOMETHING TO NOTE:  Hoover Dam is NOT a part of the National Park system.  It is managed by the Dept. of the Interior – Bureau of Reclamation. That means that it will not be as economical as the Nat’l Parks are to visit, however, you have a lot of choices on HOW you visit which will determine the final cost.  “Seeing” the Dam is free;  touring will cost.

VISITING HOOVER DAM:

First Point:  EXPECT temperatures in Black Canyon (Hoover Dam) to be 10-15 degrees higher than they are in Las Vegas or the Lake Mead area.  Bring Water!!! 

Because Hoover Dam is a potential military target, there are security checkpoints.  The first checkpoint is on the highway leading to the Dam. They may or may not stop you to inspect INSIDE your car. Then, when entering the Visitor Center/Tour area, there is airport type security.  Bags are x-rayed and are subject to size restrictions. (listed online)  Lines for this can be long later in the day.  Arrive early!  🙂

A visit to Hoover Dam can be done several ways – at a variety of costs.  – The most economical way is to park in the free parking  on the Arizona side.  Walking across the bridge is a ‘significant’ walk, but certainly manageable for those in good health. There are outdoor exhibits on the Nevada side as well as an AIR CONDITIONED gift shop & café. 🙂  A drive further up the Arizona side of the Dam gives some great views/photo ops of the back side of the Dam.  Then, views of the front of the Dam are best from the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge and pedestrian walkway on the Nevada side of the Dam.   These walks will give you a thorough view of the Dam (both front and back).  This plan involves a lot of walking, but for the able-bodied, it’s a fine way to see the Dam exterior and it’s all FREE.

For a more  ‘in-depth’ visit and more information, (and some cost)  there are tours available.

TICKET OPTIONS:  (prices current in 2015)

  • Visitor Center:  This ticket will give you admission to the museum detailing the building of the Dam and how it functions/produces electricity, an observation deck with views of the front of the Dam and a film on the history/building of the dam                                                                                                Cost:  $10 pp.

This is  included in the purchase of a tour (below) but can also be purchased alone.

  • Powerplant Tour: Includes the Visitor Center/observation deck/film (above) PLUS a tour of the power plant portion of the Dam.  They say the tour is 30 min…..but it’s really closer to 15-20 min.                                                      Cost:  $15 pp
 tunnels and passageways on the Dam Tour
  • Hoover Dam Tour: includes the 2 tickets above (Visitor Center/observation deck/film AND Powerplant tour)  PLUS a tour down inside the dam to see the tunnels and passageways.  They say this tour is 1 hour but really it’s 45 min.        Cost:  $30 pp

The two tours (Powerplant and Hoover Dam) are together for the first 20 min.  Then those with the Powerplant Tour wristbands are released to go back to the Visitor Center and those with the Dam tour wristbands continue on.   We took the Dam tour.

producing electricityTours are booked on a first-come-first-serve basis on the day of the tour only – no reservations.  There is no a/c on the Dam portion of the tour.  (There IS a/c on the Powerplant tour portion)  Therefore, an early morning tour is HIGHLY recommended!!  🙂  You will need to be IN LINE at the Visitor Center by 8:30- 8:45 ready to enter when it opens at 9 to get one of those early tours.  (possibly earlier on weekends….)

The last tour of the day is at 3 pm and they typically sell out by noon or 1 pm each day.

VIEW OF HOOVER DAM:

The road that actually goes over Hoover Dam (Hwy 172) was shown on our Rand McNally map to be a through road…but it is NOT!  About 1/2 mile up on the Arizona side, the road is blocked  (see google map below)  It’s still a GREAT road to take…wonderful photo ops with several pull-offs and of course, this is where all the free parking lots are.  There’s a larger parking lot with a nice viewing area at the top of this road.

Since you can NOT see the Dam while you are ON the Dam,  🙂 🙂 it is necessary to either go to the Visitor Center Observation deck, take the road on the Arizona side…or the O’Callaghan-Tillman bridge walkway (Hwy 93) to actually SEE the Dam.  That brings me to…….

THE BEST VIEW  – AND ITS FREE!

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O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge

Highway 93 and the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge on the Nevada side gives the BEST view of the front of the Dam.  This is the new highway/bridge built over the Canyon to accommodate ‘serious traffic’ and to avert regular traffic away from the security areas and tourist spots.   Before this was built, it could take ‘regular traffic’ 5-6 hours to cross this bridge during the summer tourist season.  The wonderful thing for tourists is that  Highway 93 and the Bridge spans Black Canyon less than 1/4 mi. from the Dam — giving visitors an incredible view of the Dam.  It should be noted, however, that you canNOT see the Dam when driving over the bridge.

pedestrian walkway

pedestrian walkway

The side wall is too high.  You must park, get out and walk on the pedestrian walkway built alongside the bridge. The parking lot will accommodate a LOT of cars, and there are restrooms and a water fountain there as well.   The pathway leading up to the walkway has both stairs and handicap walkway.  It’s accessible to most.  DON’T miss this!!

 

 

 

 

THE BIGGEST PROBLEM YOU’LL ENCOUNTER – PARKING

There is a parking garage on the Nevada side for $10.  There is also paid parking on the Arizona side that contains some covered spots, but it’s not a garage. The website says this costs $19, but that is incorrect. It is $10 as well. The advantage to this lot, however, is location – it’s right next to the Dam so is a shorter walk for those only wanting to walk across. There is FREE parking on the Arizona side too, however, it is in various lots  #10 – #15 further up the side of the Canyon – that means walking…possibly quite a distance if you’re in lot #15.  NOTE:  These spots are basically gone by 10-10:30 a.m.  After the crowds arrive, you’ll only find a space if someone happens to leave as you are arriving….  There are SO many reasons to arrive early.  )

Walking Across the Dam:  This is an experience regardless of what else you opt to do…    NOTE:  Cars are NOT ALLOWED to stop on the Dam (security issues). Do not plan to stop the car to snap that photo or let out passengers.  The speed limit across the Dam is 15 mph (and they ARE patrolling this…be advised) There are restrooms and water fountains on this walk as well.  🙂  They’ve done everything they can to make this day in the desert surrounded by concrete as comfortable as possible for visitors.

TIPS:

  • NOTE:  Hoover Dam is in the desert….   Deserts are hot….and Dams are made of concrete.  Summer in the desert lasts from April to Oct.  It’s pleasantly ‘warm’ the rest of the year….
  • EXPECT temperatures in Black Canyon (location of Hoover Dam) to be 10-15 degrees higher than in the surrounding area.  PLAN for this!!!
  • FROZEN water bottles are great.  Place them on your neck to cool the entire body   (This really works!)   then when the ice melts (which it will do rather quickly) you have water to drink.  This was my ‘all-time best tip’ for travel in the desert areas.
  • If you’re planning to take a tour and are parking in the paid parking area, ASK  the garage attendant if they are doing the tours that day – before you pay to park.  We pulled into the garage and thankfully asked that question.  We found out that tours had been cancelled that day.  We were able to leave without parking or paying the $10.  We returned the next day when tours WERE running.  You don’t want to find out there are no tours AFTER you’ve paid to park.
  • That brings me to the next point.  The website says they conduct Dam tours 7 days/week. That statement is followed with a disclaimer that tours can be cancelled for any reason – issues with the Dam or generators, a high security alert….or if the tour guides just don’t show up to work that day.  (I know…. ugh ugh UGH!!!)  We were told (by a source that shall remain nameless…ha)  that often the tour guides don’t show up on Sundays…making the tour schedule either cancelled…or limited.  If you can plan your visit on a day OTHER than Sunday, you might not run into problems getting on a tour.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t do tours on Sundays. :/  I’m just sharing our experience…..  We came on Sunday and left because there were no tours.  We returned on Monday and had a tour.  🙂
  • Arrive early….for parking…for tours…for relief from desert heat.  The parking garage opens at 8 am;  Visitor Center opens at 9 am (but be in line by 8:30 if you want to purchase an early tour);  First tour is at 9:35 am.  We were one of the first 25 in line and were put on the 10:35 tour.  These sell fast!!  🙂

NOW TIME FOR MY OPINIONS ON ALL OF THIS:  (Skip if you don’t like ‘opinions’  ha)

  • First, the tours were great!  I highly recommend them.  The Dam is incredible; the tour guides are personable and interesting.  It’s a GREAT tour!
  • Second…the tours were too expensive for what we got in my opinion.  Now, I don’t regret it.   I’m glad we did it our first time there, but I doubt if we would take the tour on a second trip to the area.  We’d just walk across the Dam and be happy.  🙂
  • Third, the Visitor Center is very small.. There’s not a lot there, so $10 was, imho, a  pretty inflated price (I’ve been to a lot of museums and paid a variety of entrance fees.  I have a lot to compare it to)  However, (and PLEASE NOTE THIS) when combined with the Powerplant Tour which is $15, it becomes reasonably priced…For $5 more, you get the tour. That’s the Visitor Center, Observation Deck, the history film and the tour for $15.  That’s not a bad deal at all!  When it comes to paying $30 for the Dam Tour, that’s just a matter of personal preference and how detailed you want to go with your experience, however, we, being who we are, chose to do that.  🙂
 ONE LAST PARTING WORD:  BRING WATER!!!  This is the desert…You’re in a Canyon. It’s hot year-round but especially April-Oct.  Bring Water!!!  🙂

Zion National Park – SW Utah

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is located in SW Utah about an hour west/northwest of St. George, Utah.

https://goo.gl/maps/CpX6FW93Tmo

GETTING THERE:  Las Vegas is the closest and most economical airport for flying to Zion. Though St George has a Regional airport, the smaller airports are typically more expensive to fly in to.  Las Vegas is about a 2 hr drive from St. George.  We flew into Vegas and arrived around noon, got our rental car, had lunch and drove to St. George for the night.   St George has plenty of chain hotels as well as the Wal-Mart Supercenter. We made a trip into Walmart that evening for picnic supplies after we arrived.   Though it was a full day, it wasn’t difficult. The next morning, we had a 2 hr drive to the Park.  If you prefer staying closer to Zion, choices include Springdale, LaVerkin and Hurricane.  They have limited accommodation options…and prices will be a little higher.

Visiting Zion National Park:  The Park is in THREE sections with 4 different entrances/roads. The “Main” road  which most people consider “Zion National Park” is on highway 9 west of  Springdale. This road will be the busiest and most congested..  If you have the time to explore the other “less traveled” roads, you’ll find a more solitary, “connect with nature” experience.

THE SHUTTLE:  Private vehicles are only allowed up to Canyon Junction (the turn off to Mt Carmel Highway) except for those with confirmed reservations at the Lodge.  A shuttle takes visitors beyond that point. Shuttles run every 7-10 min during the summer so this is really not an inconvenience.  We were there in Sept and seemed to never wait more than 4-5 min. for the next shuttle – just long enough to pull out the water bottles or snack. 🙂  The shuttles are not air conditioned. In Sept, it did get a little warm in the afternoon.  I wonder how uncomfortable it would be during the summer months…  The windows open so there is airflow when the shuttle is moving. The greatest advantage though is that the shuttle gives the family’s driver the chance to enjoy the scenery rather than worrying about narrow twisting roads, traffic or pedestrians.  It also eliminates fender benders or rear end collisions that would totally shut down this narrow 2 lane road for ALL visitors.  It’s a ‘positive’ thing. 🙂

Zion National Park Map  – shows the roads, Visitor Center and guest areas as well as park features 

PARKING:  During the busy tourist season, parking at the shuttle embarkation point is at a premium.  The parking lots are usually full from 10 am-3 pm. Visitors who arrive at the park after the lots are full will be directed back to Springdale to park there and catch a shuttle into the park. This shuttle is FREE too…but inconvenient…imho.  🙂  Arrive early  (prior to 9 am) to (hopefully) avoid this happening to you. We got to the park by 8:30 and had no problem entering and finding a parking place at the Visitor center.  It was nice to beat the heat too!  I noticed that by afternoon, people were ‘illegally’ parking along the road – the VERY NARROW, twisting, 2 lane road….  Apparently, they didn’t turn away as many visitors at the gate as they should have….ha!  🙂

HIKING:
Hiking is the best way to see any National Park. Hikes are listed in the Park Newspaper given at the Park entrance – with information about each hike’s length, time required, elevation change (strenuous level) and difficulty level.  If you have any health concerns (diabetes, heart conditions, knee or back/hip issues, etc…)  consult this chart before starting any hike.  Actually, consult it even if you DON’T have any of these issues.  🙂  You always need to know what you’re getting in to.

One Note About This:  Our family has started many a hike that was 8 miles…10 miles…26 miles..with no intention of walking that far. We didn’t want to completely miss the beautiful vistas just because we couldn’t hike 26 miles.  We go as far as we want to, see some beautiful things, then turn around and go back.  I think many people may avoid those hikes because they’re intimidated by the “26 miles” number and miss out on wonderful vistas.  Don’t skip the “Rim” hikes. They’re beautiful!!

The ‘most popular ‘longer’ trails in Zion are Angels Landing (5.4 mi.) and The Narrows (9.4 mi).  Though they are spectacular, several rangers we spoke with said there are more beautiful breathtaking hikes in the park.  They BOTH recommended Observation Point Trial   Its one of those long hikes –  (8 miles) but as I stated above, you don’t have to go the entire length….just a portion of it.  And for those avid hikers, it’s only 2.5 mi. longer than Angels Landing (not significant to a seasoned hiker) and well worth the extra time and effort.

The Narrows (9 miles) is the ‘other’  popular hike in the park, but is NOT recommended for those with diabetes/neuropathy/circulation issues…OR for children.   About 60% of it involves wading (possibly knee to thigh deep)  through swift currents in the river.  These are too swift for children, and the amount of time spent with wet feet precludes it for those with circulatory issues.   The park newspaper and website gives more information advising those who DO choose to take this hike.  NEVER head out on The Narrows without checking with the Rangers at the Visitor Center!!!  This is important!!!!   (read my comments in red below) 

Now….you CAN take the beginning portion of this hike – up to the river crossing and canyon. (about 1.5 mi.)   We did that.  Then I looked ‘longingly’ into the Canyon.  I wanted so much to go further, but we fit into the category of those who should NOT take this so we just looked and ‘longed’.  🙂  We thoroughly enjoyed the portion that we hiked.

IMPORTANT:  Before setting out on any canyon hike, check with the rangers about weather conditions.  The day after we left the park, (YES…..the VERY next day…..) 6 seasoned, experienced hikers were killed by a flash flood in Keyhole Canyon.  These were not novices.  They were men in their 30’s…40’s…who had a great deal of hiking experience and skill.  It’s not always about the weather where you are.  Sometimes it’s about the weather 200 miles away. Rain from that distance can (and will)  SWIFTLY run INTO the canyons and cause a flash flood…all while the skies over Zion are blue and clear. The park rangers are watching the weather events at great distances to determine the risk of flashfloods in the canyon.  Do NOT just look at the sky and say “It’s clear; therefore we’re fine”.  CHECK with the Rangers! 

Last but not least….KNOW the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.  These are listed in the park newspaper you will receive at the entrance.  Read through these to be informed so you can take care of your family.

This park is beautiful and can be enjoyed at all times of the year, but like anything else, you MUST understand the dangers present in order to stay safe.

WHAT DO YOU TAKE ON A HIKE?

  • Backpack:   It doesn’t have to be an expensive hikers pack….  We used the kids school backpacks.  🙂
  • Water….  WATER!!!  WATER!!  This is SOOO important.  One gal/pp is the recommendation.  Because our hikes are usually short, we may only take a few bottles per person in the pack, but the rest is in our car.  I freeze these and place in plastic Walmart sacks 🙂 to keep everything else in the pack dry.  You can place the frozen water bottle on your neck to bring down body temperature. Then as the ice melts (which it will do rather quickly) it becomes water to drink.  🙂 🙂   Do NOT try to conserve your water throughout the day.  Drink It!  OFTEN!  Before you get thirsty.  Here’s another tidbit…Thirst is the body’s signal that it is ALREADY dehydrated.  Drink your water BEFORE you get thirsty.
  • Protein snacks (Sugar actually harms the muscles during strenuous activity)  We like to take almonds, cashews & peanuts. Protein bars (withOUT a coating that would melt) are nice too. 🙂  I make my own trail mix of nuts and dried fruits rather than buying the pre-packaged ones….those are rancid.  ha!!
  • ‘High water content’ fruit –   Fruit is what we crave in the heat.   Bananas, peaches, grapes, etc… are good, but apples or oranges travel better. Place these next to the frozen water bottles in your pack and they’ll stay cold for a while
  • Extra socks if there is a chance your feet will get wet (Talk to the Rangers at the Visitor center.)
  • Of course, cameras, etc… and binoculars.  That’s the ‘fun’ stuff.  🙂
  • Most of us rarely go anywhere without our cell phones, and certainly if your cell is your camera, you’ll have it along, but realize that you may or may not have service in Zion….especially on hikes. Use good judgement and don’t get yourself into unsafe situations thinking your cell phone will be there to call for help…..
  • Small flashlight – or headlamp just for emergencies.  Make it a small one…  Don’t add unnecessary weight to the backpack with this.  Obviously, for longer day hikes, a good flashlight with extra batteries is needed.
  • Trail map (for longer hikes). Shorter, more popular trails are paved and self-explanatory, so a map isn’t necessary. Again, rangers at the Visitor Center will tell you if this is necessary.
  • Last but not least:  LEAVE NO TRACE!  Pack out whatever you pack in…and No, there are no waste baskets on back country trails.  🙂  Leave what you find.  No collecting!  🙂

Bottom Line:  Rangers are your friend!  Utilize their knowledge and skill.  Talk to them…and listen & follow any advice they give.  🙂 

MEALTIME/DINING IN ZION:

Like most National Parks, dining areas are limited.  There is a restaurant and small cafe at the Zion Lodge but that’s all.  Most National park visitors bring a picnic lunch to avoid wasting time leaving the park to find something to eat. 🙂  (That’s another reason I wanted my car parked INSIDE Zion – to have easy access to my cooler and picnic lunch.)

OTHER ROADS INTO THE PARK

NOTE: The entrance fee to Zion covers ALL of the Park entrances for 7 days, but you MUST keep your receipt.  You can also purchase the America the Beautiful Nat’l Park pass for entrance into ALL National parks for 1 year (cost $80)  This is a good choice if you’re visiting several of the Utah Canyon Nat’l Parks. (there are 5)  After visiting 3 Nat’l Parks you break even on the cost of the pass…If you visit 4 parks (in Utah or elsewhere) during the year, you’ll save money with the Pass purchase.

MT. CARMEL HIGHWAY:

  • This road connects the South and East entrances.  It’s a 12 mi road (continuation of highway 9) and travels up steep switchbacks and through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel.  The tunnel is quite an engineering Zion National Parkmasterpiece – it’s 1 mile long.  Traffic runs one way through there with park employees stopping and directing traffic.  Both times we went through, we never waited more than 5-10 min.  Large vehicles (RV’s) will have to be escorted through and that incurs a fee.  Check the website for details on this.  It’s a beautiful drive and worth it if you have the time!   🙂

KOLOB CANYONS ROAD

  • I LOVED this little section of the park!  It’s a 5 mi. road – right off of I-15 (Exit 40)  and is totally removed from everything down south…including the crowds!!!  🙂   You see vistas of the red rocks of Kolob Canyon and end at the Kolob Canyon viewpoint and  Timbercreek Overlook Trail (1 mi).
  • We spent about 2 hours driving this road because we like to stop and enjoy!   You COULD cover it in less time, but WHY would you want to?  🙂   There are only 3 hikes in this area – one of which is the La Verkin Creek Trail (14 mi) which crosses the  northern part of the park exiting on the east side. Again, this is one of those you could take partially then turn around.  There’s also a mule trail that looked interesting but alas, we did not have time for that.

Point to be noted:  Mules and horses always have the right of way in a Nat’l Park  🙂

KOLOB TERRACE ROAD

  • This is a steep 20 mi. road that is currently under construction. (Check the website for more information)   It begins in the town of Virgin and climbs north to the Aspen -covered plateaus of the higher elevations. I’m hoping to drive this on our next visit to Zion.  NOTE:  This road is NOT recommended for RV’s or vehicles pulling trailers.

As with all National Parks, visit the  U.S. National Parks website   National Parks – Zion   for complete information  – maps, shuttle schedules, camping/lodging info etc….

Hawaii Part 4 – Island Hopping

Island hopping (visiting more than one  Hawaiian island in a trip) will cost a little more money (unless you’re cruising).  However, for most visitors, the airfare to get to Hawaii is the most expensive part of the trip.  After that investment, you’ll probably want to see and do as much as you can on the islands – to get as much value from that airfare purchase as possible.  That means visiting more than one island.

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View of Maui from Mokuele Airlines

Planning transportation for island hopping can be a little over-whelming at first.  However, with just a little time and research, it will all come together and you’ll find it’s DEFINITELY worth the effort.   THEN, en route, it requires patience –as there are bound to be bumps in the plan.  Just do you research, make a plan, then stay flexible and you’ll have a WONDERFUL trip.

 

What Are The Options for Inter-Island Travel?  :

  • By Air:  This is the most commonly used mode of transportation by visitors and residents.  Most of this blog will be devoted to that…in a moment…..
  • By Ferry:  Ferry service was a wonderful option ‘once upon a time’, however, it has fallen victim to EPA regulations/restrictions – and was discontinued to all but 2 islands in 2009. WORD OF CAUTION TO TRAVEL PLANNERS:   The Ferry Company’s website (Hawaii Superferry) is still up as a tribute and ‘eulogy’ to the company (there seems to be a lot of anger over it’s closing….) to remind people of what the EPA cost them. However, only in the ‘small print’ does the website say that their site is a ‘eulogy’;  their last ‘run’ was in 2008. There are schedules, prices, etc…that could lead unsuspecting readers to conclude they can show up and get on a ferry…  I understand their anger, but the website could really affect visitors’ travel plans…ugh!!  Don’t get caught up in that!!!

The ONLY operational  ferries leave from Lahaina Maui and go to the islands of  Lana’i or Molokai.  The Maui-Lana’i Expeditions ferry operates from Maui to Manele Bay Lana’i.  They also offer tour packages  – just fyi.  🙂    The Maui-Molokai Ferry operates from Maui to Kaunakakai Harbor, Molokai.

Please Note:   The channels between these islands can be pretty rough in the afternoon as the winds across the water strengthen.  Even those not typically prone to sea sickness may have problems – especially on the Maui-Molokai route.  Be prepared with sea sickness remedies or travel in the morning.

  • By Cruise Ship:  This, of course, requires the booking of a Hawaiian cruise.  🙂    I’ve never seen the islands this way, but the advantages are having transportation, accommodations, and food all planned/arranged.  That’s probably a nice way to see the islands though the disadvantage, as I see it, is the limited amount of time allowed on each island…    Of course, it’s all a matter of preference.  🙂

Inter-island flights

NOTE AS YOU’RE PLANNING:

  • Some islands have more than one airport. Be aware of this as you check fares to make sure you’re going where you want to go…and to make make sure you reserve the rental car at the right airport.  🙂   On the Big Island (Hawaii) Kona is almost always cheaper than Hilo.  On Maui, Kahului  is typically cheaper than Kapalua and DEFINITELY more convenient than Hana.  Recently, Maui’s OGG (Lahaina)  airport has become a secondary hub within Hawaii for flights to and from the Mainland. (secondary to Honolulu)
  • Flights to Kauai from any other island always include a stop/layover in Honolulu (HNL).  If possible, plan the islands in an order that allows you to take advantage of this rather than having an unnecessary layover.  🙂

IMGP1299Inter-island Air Travel Carriers

There are several airlines that “hop” from island to island:  Hawaiian Air, Island Air, Mokulele Airlines and Go! Airlines (Mesa).  On our recent trip over, we flew on 3 of these.  It seems that these companies come and go as quickly as you can snap your fingers…  However, here’s my “take” (and links) on the companies we used.

Hawaiian Airlines This airline is the flag carrier for Hawaii and has frequent flights to all the major islands.  They are more expensive than the smaller companies, and their baggage fees are significantly higher ($25/bag compared to $15-17 for the smaller airlines as of this writing) however, their more frequent flights, larger planes and more reliable aircraft makes them the preferred airline of many. Depending on your situation, that MAY be worth the extra money.

Go! Airlines (Operated by Mesa  )  Go! was once the second largest inter-island carrier in Hawaii.  They ran a fleet of smaller aircraft. They are no longer in business – something that seems to happen a lot with these small airlines in Hawaii.

We had a “story” about Go! Airlines back in 2013…It started out great, but ended with the cancelling of our connecting flight back to Honolulu that almost caused us to miss our flight home on United.

One More Note:  If you find yourself with a ticket on one of these smaller airlines that falls through for whatever reason, it’s VERY easy to book a last minute flight with Hawaiian Air.  How do I know this?  That’s exactly what we did that night of our flight back to the mainland…bought 2 tickets on Hawaiian Air, the cost of which, Mesa Go! Airlines reimbursed us for when we got home and contacted them.  Though our experience was a little ‘rattling’ at the time, it worked out fine.  We got on flights we needed and were reimbursed for additional costs incurred.

R.I. P. Mesa Go! Airlines

Mokulele AirlinesMokuele Airlines http://www.mokuleleairlines.com/

Mokuele formed as an offshoot of the merger with iGo and is ALSO operated  by Mesa. This very small airline flies to Oahu (2 airports), Maui (3 airports), Molokai (2 airports), Lana’i and The Big Island (2 airports) on Cessna aircraft.  🙂  Yes, they go to all the very small airports.

Do NOT let the size of these aircraft deter you.   Flying with them was actually a pleasant experience.  Their terminal is outdoors…It’s a pre-fab building covered by an awning.  There’s a restroom, vending machines and 15 chairs for passengers as they wait for their flight.  ha!! Mokulele Airlines Kona (When we arrived, I HAD to take this picture. 🙂 .)  We knocked on the door and someone came out of the office to check us in….  We not only weighed our checked bags, but we weighed ourselves while holding our carry ons to get a total weight on the aircraft.  (NOTE:  They have a policy that doesn’t allow passengers over 350 lbs to fly – it’s a weight issue on the aircraft…)  The pilot checked our boarding pass and told us our seat number before we walked across the runway to board.  He then boarded the plane with us and went over safety procedures. Everyone gets a window seat (wonderful when flying over the islands) because there are single seats on each side of the aircraft.  When we got off the plane, we walked around to wait for our luggage, then I took a quick picture with the pilot before we rolled our luggage off the runway.  I didn’t have a problem with any of that.  It was an “experience”.  I just took pictures.  🙂

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Here are some of the wonderful views I got while flying over Maui…and into Kona:

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I would fly with them again!!!

 

 

Island Air  This is an airline that was not flying at our last trip to Hawaii (As I mentioned above, these small airlines come and go…) but it seems to be a ‘big name’ now.  Obviously, I don’t have any personal experience with them, however, a quick online search for fares shows them to be cheaper with lower baggage fees.

Finding the Cheapest and Shortest Flights:   As I’ve said many times on this blog, explore all your options (airline websites AND travel brokers) before making a decision. We went from Oahu to Kona to Maui, then back to Oahu for our flight home- on  3 different inter-island airlines. I checked fares and flight times and made the decisions that were best for us on that day…   There’s no ‘right answer’…  You just have to find what works best for you.

Just Consider these things before making that decision…..

 My Thoughts: 

  • Don’t be afraid of these smaller airlines.  They ARE a savings over Hawaiian Air.  Do your research and be flexible and you can save some money.   however…..
  • Do NOT book with a smaller airline as your last flight if you need to make a connecting flight.  (i.e. you’re flying back to the Mainland)   In that case, book with Hawaiian Air.  Their frequent flight schedule won’t leave you stranded on the islands when you’re supposed to be flying home – You can catch a later flight if yours happens to be delayed.
  • When booking an inter-island flight to return for your connecting ocean flight, allow enough time for possible delays. This is NOT the time to try to squeeze every minute out of your vacation.  CONTINUATION OF OUR STORY ABOVE:  We were due to arrive in Honolulu at 6:30 and fly out at 10 pm.  With our last minute change/purchase of Hawaiian Air tickets, we barely made our connection.  Had we been more “squeezed” for time, we probably would not have made it.   We met another family who was in the same predicament as we..only their connecting flight was at 8:15.  I don’t know if they made their connection or not, but I’m assuming they didn’t as we didn’t make it back to Oahu until 8:30 and we took the first available flight on Hawaiian Airlines.  They just didn’t have enough time to make other arrangements.  Give yourself time to deal with unexpected situations.
  • Though you don’t have to book these flights MONTHS in advance as advised for most other flights, don’t wait too long.  As the airplanes fill up, the rates go up (Law of Supply and Demand….)   My experience is  that booking 3-5 weeks in advance in the Spring should secure fairly good rates…  Book At Least 6-8 wks in advance during the busier summer season.
  • Find out which Inter-island airlines have “agreements” with your airline for the flight home.  They each have their own agreements with different Major airlines   I found out AFTER we purchased our ‘extra’ tickets that Hawaiian Airlines has an “agreement” with United.  We were able to check our bags with Hawaiian Airlines in Maui and THEY transferred them to United in Honolulu for us.  That was such a relief with the changes and delays we dealt with.  Before that change, we were going to have to pick up bags at baggage claim in Honolulu, check in/re-check bags with United then go BACK through security.  With all the delays we dealt with, there just wouldn’t have been enough time to do that.  

Other articles in this series

Branson, MO Pt. 2: What To Do – Shows, Shopping and More

For Part 1 of this series:  Branson: Planning Your Trip

Shows:  The shows in Branson are family friendly;  as long as you choose something that fits your personal taste, you will be happy.  This is a list of the ones we have seen and liked….though NOT an exhaustive list of all the good shows.

  • Acrobats of China:  This is a good show, but don’t expect to find discounts for them.  They don’t exist!  Paying full price IS worth it.    www.acrobatsofchina.com
  • Baldknobbers:  www.baldknobbers.com  This is a family show – they claim to be the “First Branson Show”…along with the Presley’s;   It’s a country and folk music variety show.   I emphasize the words ‘country folk’ as this is NOT the modern country  music of the “stars”.  It’s a good show!  🙂
  • Presley’s: www.presleys.com  Claims to be the “First Branson Show”….along with Baldknobbers; There is a ‘friendly battle’ going on between these 2 families as to who was ‘first’.  They’re very similar – country and folk music variety show.
  • Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede Dinner and  Show  www.dixiestampede.com  VERY good meal and show about the story of the Civil War.
  • Jim Stafford: www.jimstafford.com   This is a classic Branson show….Jim is quite a talented guitarist and he plays quite a bit, but this is also a variety show with other acts.
  • Haygoods:  The Haygoods are a family who got their start at Silver Dollar City.  As their popularity grew they bought a theater on the 76 strip and have been voted Branson’s #1 Show for several years.  Tickets are reasonably priced and they have Family Passes that make it economical for families.  Highly recommended
  • Yakov Smirnoffwww.yakov.com  Yakov is from Russia  and does a comedy variety show.  He also has a dinner theater.
  • Photo Credit; Branson Conv. Ctr. CC Lic.

    Shoji Tabuchiwww.shoji.com   Excellent show, but don’t expect to find a discount or have this show included in any of the “free tickets” for attending a Timeshare presentation.  Shoji is a violinist and INCREDIBLE!

  • Twelve Irish Tenors:  If you love the harmonies, you’ll LOVE this show!!
  • Sight and Sound Theaterhttp://www.sight-sound.com/   This is Christian theater – Bible stories with incredible sets and live animals!!!  They have a continually changing fare, including  – Noah, Jonah, Moses et al –  and of course, the Christmas story every Nov/Dec.  (Our favorite is probably Noah and the Ark  🙂  )There is a backstage tour during the afternoon — a nice addition if you’re going to the show that evening.  🙂

NOTE:  Shows are the reason most people go to Branson…however, don’t think that’s all this town has to offer. If you’re not interested in shows…or if your budget just won’t allow for them, there are still MANY fun, family activities to keep everyone busy and happy while you’re there.


Other Things To Do:

Photo Credit: Party_of_Five on Flickr CC Lic.

  • Silver Dollar City: www.SilverDollarCity.com   LOVE IT!!!  There are discounts for admission to SDC; just look for them.  The added advantage to a day in Silver Dollar City is the number of shows in the park – all included in the price of your admission ticket.  If you enter the park after 3 pm, the next day is free.  This is a great way to plan your days there.  You can either have 1 1/2 days for the price of 1…or divide your visit into 2 partial days to suit the needs of young children or those with limited mobility or energy.   TIP:  I HIGHLY recommend the “grill meals” at Skillet Cookery. (pictured) The meal of veggies and meat are cooked on this 5′ grill. It’s the best meal in the park!!!   (imho) 🙂  This year, they are opening a new roller coaster that is the largest, wildest wooden coaster anywhere.  If your family likes these, it promises to be quite the experience.
  • Butterfly Place & Rainforest Adventurewww.butterflyplace.com   This is one of several around the country.  This is a good way to spend a few hours with the kids.  My kids really enjoyed it.  Coupons available; find them in the coupon booklets at hotels, restaurants, etc…
  • IMAX Theater:  www.Bransonimax.com  Shows run all day long, replaying on a regular schedule.   🙂  Buy tickets for the first show, then purchase tickets for a later show that day at half-price with your ticket stub.  Check the website for coupons for the IMAX and food items. This is a great activity if the day is cold or rainy.
  • Hollywood Wax Museum:
  • Ripley’s “Believe it or Notwww.ripleysbranson.com

    PHoto Credit; Louis CR Artist on Flickr CC Lic.

  • Branson Landing Cruise or Dinner Cruise:  This is fairly new, but looks to be a nice experience for a couple looking for a romantic evening.  We haven’t done this, but are wanting to on our next trip to town.
  • Mini-Golf:  Branson has quite a few mini-golf courses in every theme imaginable. This is a great family activity as the temps typically go down in the evenings.  This was often the highlight of our trip…we ‘bargained’ with the kids.  They tolerate our day of shopping (when they were young and didn’t yet appreciate a day of shopping. haha) and we’d take them to their choice of miniature golf that evening.  Of course, eventually, they appreciated a ‘Shop Til You Drop’ day and bargaining was no longer necessary, but that worked well during those ‘early years’.  🙂

Get Outta Town:  There are some wonderful activities just outside of town…in addition to Silver Dollar City (which is out-of-town too).   Check out the area around Table Rock Lake and Tanneycomo. There’s the regular lake activities and lake cruises and dinner cruises as well.


Photo Credit: Branson’s Best Reservations: http://branson-missouri.com/products/shopping/tanger-outlets

Outlet Shopping:  We often go to Branson in the Fall to do our Christmas shopping.  Bargains galore!!  When we first began going, there were 3 outlet malls.  Tanger is the only one left.  www.Tangeroutlet.com   They are extremely busy during ‘back to school’ shopping as well as the Christmas shopping season, so be prepared for crowds at those times.  Stop by the Lounge in the corner of the mall for a coupon book…free to AAA members; $5 for everyone else.  They will allow you to look through it before purchasing to see if you can get your $5 value from it.

Photo Credit: John Stone on Flickr CC Lic.

Branson Landing:   www.bransonlanding.com  This is the newest shopping mecca – an outdoor mall flanked by Bass Pro Shops and Belk.   It’s  NOT Outlet shopping but it’s very nice… make plans to spend a little time there.  NOTE:  The parking is quite a walk if you arrive late in the day.  There are shuttles to transport visitors – for a tip.  Nighttime is a GREAT time to go as well – especially during the Christmas season.  It’s beautifully decorated for the Holidays!!

Coupon Books:  Branson is the Place for Coupons.  Don’t go anywhere without at least looking to see if there’s one available!  🙂  The coupon books/brochures are at the entrances to most motels, restaurants and shopping areas. Pick up one of each (there is more than one company printing these) when you FIRST arrive in town so you have time to look through them before spending any money.  As I mentioned above,  the Tanger coupon book is available at the Tanger Lounge in the corner of the mall -$5 or free for AAA members. If you will do a LOT of shopping, this may save you some money even if you have to pay for it.

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

Yellowstone National Park

I LOVE these parks!! One of the reasons (there are many) is that they provide multiple vacations in one.

Do you want beautiful scenery? Tetons and Yellowstone have it.

Do you want science? Yellowstone has it! (geothermals)

Do you want wildlife? These parks have it!

Do you want History? It’s there!!

Do you seek out breathtaking sunrises and sunsets? My favorite is Tetons but The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone has some amazing vistas too!!

Do you want back country trails?  hiking for all ages?  handicap accessible trails?  Yep… they’re ALL there!!!

It’s possible to please everyone in the family with one destination!  You can spend a week…or 10 days….even 2 weeks….and not get bored, because every day is different….and it’s impossible to run out of things to see and do.  Yes!  I LOVE these parks!

First:  Begin planning with the National Park websites:

After visiting these sites for information, here are a few personal tips and observations:

  1.  Reservations for cabins/hotels/camping/RV’s should
    IMG_3084

    Jackson Lake Cabins

    be made early –  I suggest 7-8 months in advance.  Currently, Xanterra is the company under contract to manage the concessionaires (hotels, cabins, stores) at Yellowstone/Tetons however, check nps.gov to confirm this has not changed since this writing.  Do not expect 5 star accommodations in National Parks hotels/cabins.  These were built in the 50’s…60’s.  They do not have TV/cable, phone or room service, et al.  This is NOT a bad thing – it ‘fits’ with the atmosphere of a National Park vacation….just be advised.  🙂

  2. I STRONGLY suggest staying in a different location every night, as you work your way through the park(s). Yellowstone, especially, is HUGE!  If you’re staying in the same place each night, you’ll spend a lot of time driving to see the furthest areas of the park. We always enter from the south through the Tetons and work our way around the “8” (note the road on the map below – it’s an “8”) 🙂 heading northwest.  I’ve put our itinerary below. If you are entering the park from another direction, you could still follow this plan by picking up at your selected entrance and working around the “8” from that point.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/spendadaytouring/4424448855/in/photolist-bEmfrY-h9RhwQ-dfAFT4-deA3s5-63qDGR-dnfRab-djXCpB-63qiwt-dowHNL-df6L86-6ykP5J-9rGk8u-63qohM-aPhoPg-bNcJRn-63uScU-6ykN35-6ygFJB-6ykMtU-dhvG42-dmH7G6-6wp2M5-77FpKK-7JYsuX-dgE74F-dfJBdS-64U6NR-hE4Ayn-dnKnec-65cE79-6wp3wf-8JbFsb-f7KyWr-mpAHoF-63cEfz-dez6zS-6xZ3f8-77XFsd-8h6Nmc-eY5ddr-9PQKJA-63g3hU-kaemY5-mryvTr-63uEEE-a8AbxU-63bVQX-9Pqkgy-6vtYgD-5NKSeF

Photo Credit: Spend a Day Touring on Flickr CC Lic.

OUR ITINERARY:

Photo Credit: Sathish J on Flickr CC Lic. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sathishcj/

TETONS

  • 1st day  We stay in Jackson, WY the night before entering the park.  There are 2 different Cowboy Dinner Shows in the area both of which we have been to.  They are basically the same – equally good entertainment and food.  NOTE:  This is not ‘country’ music….it’s “cowboy folk music.”  Reservations recommended.  (1-2 weeks in advance should be enough)
  • 2nd day/night:  Enter the Tetons and head north on the main road.  IMG_2961Take a hike or two; stay at lodging in the park (reservations needed; 7-8 mos in advance).  Catch a sunset or Ranger Talk that evening.  The sunsets over the Tetons are exquisite!  Jackson Lake Lodge is a great place for viewing a sunset (or sunrise) as the viewing area has HUGE floor to ceiling windows.  It can get chilly after sundown so ‘indoors’ in really nice.   🙂

YELLOWSTONE:

  • 1st day/night –  Enter the park from the south, see Grant and West Thumb area (now quite active), the Old Faithful area, then stay in the Old Faithful area.   You have the option of the Inn or cabins.  We’ve stayed in both and they’re both nice – though totally different experiences.  This area is one of the main commercial areas in the park with grocery, fuel, concessionaire, snack bar and restaurant.

    OLD FAITHFUL INN Photo Credit: Mark Stevens on Flickr CC LIc.

  • 2nd day/night –  Begin the drive northwest. (around the southern loop of the “8”)  There are several geyser basins (Upper, Lower, Norris, Biscuit, et al) along this route.  If you try to see everything there (we always do!  ) this is a long day….  We’re trying to make it to Mammoth Hot Springs for the night –without missing anything along the way.  🙂
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/67832671@N00/

    Photo Credit: Don Sutherland on Flickr CC Lic.

    Photo Credit: Dan Dzurisin on Flickr CC Lic

    The actual area of Mammoth Hot Springs is not as active as it once was, (the geothermal areas are constantly changing) but it’s still worth the time to see.  However, the ‘must see’ is the Mammoth Village –  museums and shops and THE ELK.  Elk come to town every evening to walk around the streets, graze in the town square and sniff at your car…   YES, I’m serious!!   🙂  You don’t want to miss this!  If you’re interested in eating a buffalo or elk burger,  exit the park at the North entrance and go into Gardiner, MT.  (Your entrance fee when you entered the park was good for 7 days as long as you kept your receipt )  The drive is a very IMG_3314steep grade with hairpin curves, so I wouldn’t suggest it in an RV or camper.  Also, I strongly suggest getting back to Mammoth BEFORE DARK as the drive can be a bit nerve-wracking after dark, (imho).

    IMG_3369

    • 3rd day/night –  Head east out of Mammoth then down the eastern side of the “8” to the Canyon area –and plan to get there as early in the day as possible (don’t skip Tower Falls in your rush) There’s so much to do at the Canyon area. – it’s my favorite part of the park!!    There are 4 “must do” trails in this area:  1) brink of the lower falls  2) bottom of the upper falls  3) brink of the upper falls  –and on the opposite side of the canyon is #4) Uncle Tom’s Trail.  This trail is stairs down the side of the canyon…literally DOWN the SIDE of the canyon!  It’s strenuous, but not too hard for anyone without physical limitations.  It is ABSOLUTELY WORTH IT!!   Also, don’t miss Artist Point (quite possibly the BEST place for a sunrise or sunset).  Stay in the Canyon area that night.  You’ll sleep like a baby after all the hiking!  🙂 🙂  (Hint:  Go to bed early so you can get up tomorrow for a sunrise….)
    • 4th day/night –   Get up early and head out to Artist Point (or any other location you scouted out the day before) for a sunrise.  🙂  Sunrises over canyons are magnificent!!  🙂   We take our “breakfast in a bag” (Info on this in my post on Traveling with Children) and have “Breakfast With Scenery”!  🙂  If you didn’t have enough time to cover everything you wanted yesterday, there will probably be time this morning to catch those things/areas.  For our itinerary, this is a more relaxed day.  Our next stop is the Lake area – only a few miles down the road and there isn’t as much to see/do there.  (I actually like to get some laundry done before leaving Canyon Village too as there is a very nice (BIG) coin laundry there.)  At the Lake Yellowstone area there’s some trails and of course the lake itself.  No swimming in this lake – it’s fed from snow melt and is quite cold!
      IMG_3158

      Yellowstone Hotel

      The Yellowstone Hotel is something to see…  Even if you don’t stay there, you DO need to go inside and look around.  It was built in the 1950’s, high ceilings, open air rooms, huge verandah porch… quite exquisite!  🙂

    • 5th day/night –  We exit the park through the East entrance and Cody, Wyoming.  There are several things to explore in Cody…  🙂
    • If you have more than 5 days to spend in the park (LUCKY !!!)  choose whichever area interests you the most to spend that extra day (or two…)  Our favorites would the be Geothermal and Canyon areas 🙂  as these areas have more than you can really cover in 1 day.

    3.  To see wildlife, you’ll have to be up early (5-6 a.m.) before the heat…and the crowds.  Go to bed early.  Since the cabins/rooms don’t have television, that will be easier.  🙂  Those who stay up late and sleep in will miss soooo much these parks have to offer.  🙂

    • A Word About Wildlife:  These animals are “wild’ as the term implies. They aren’t even as ‘tame’ as zoo animals (if those are ‘tame’…)  Do NOT approach!  Keep your distance.  As you are driving down the road, don’t exceed the speed limits.  1)  An animal can dart out in front of your car causing a serious accident.  2)  You may round a corner to find dozens of cars stopped ON the road.  If there is a wild animal in the field, visitors will stop for pictures or a look. IMG_3401 There isn’t usually a parking area when needed because the animals don’t restrict their feeding to areas convenient for drivers to stop. 🙂 Drive slowly and attentively.  Not only do you want to see the wildlife, but you DON’T want to hit an animal or another car.  Note:  Wildlife in a Nat’l park is ‘protected’ by law – hitting one is a federal offense –  just fyi.    Be Aware:   Dusk and dawn are prime times to see the wildlife… I say that both as a ‘hint’ and a ‘warning’.  🙂

4.  EVERY Visitor Center is worth a stop!  This is where you get information about geothermal activity (eruptions), trails that will fit your family’s needs, locations and topics of Ranger talks, and of course, the only restrooms.  🙂  There are usually exhibits about the area as well as films that are wonderful ‘introductions’ or ‘summations’ of the area.   The exhibits are ‘low-key’ and small enough that they maintain children’s attention long enough for them to learn a little bit. Museums in small doses usually worked very well for my children…and I wanted them to learn something for all our efforts.  🙂

5  Attend at least one evening Ranger talk!  These take place at the Visitor areas/camping or cabin areas and the schedules AND TOPICS are posted at the Visitor Centers and campgrounds, lodges, etc…   (You do NOT have to be camping in the campground to attend a Ranger Talk there.  Ranger Talks in all Nat’l parks are open to all visitors.)  Choose one that interests your family.   Bring jackets, flashlights, insect repellant and possibly a blanket as it gets cold after sundown.  Of course, we never go to a National park without at least 1 pair of jeans…and jackets.

6. In a National Park, EVERYONE picnics!!   There are a couple of snack bars and a Cooking supper on the campstove few nice dining rooms throughout the park, but certainly not enough to accommodate all visitors there.  Everyone brings ice chests and/or camp stoves.  Our National Park menus include hotdogs, hamburgers, hobo meals, etc.  Sometimes, I bring a package of chicken t0 grill for grilled chicken salads then eat the rest on sandwiches the next day.  Hobo Meals are individual meals wrapped in tin foil and cooked in the campfire coals.  They are a GREAT meal because there are hundreds of options of varying meats, veggies and spices/sauces.  For more information about these:  Vacation Meals on a Budget

7.  Buy groceries outside the park…in Cody, WY (east entrance)  Jackson, WY  (south entrance)  Gardiner, MT (north)  or West Yellowstone (west).  The prices there will not be “low”, by any means, but they will be lower than they are INSIDE the park.  National Park prices (groceries and fuel) are astronomical!!!  Of course, if you have the ability (ice chest…) to buy food items 200 miles outside the park – or bring them with you, that will be the greatest savings…  🙂

8. Purchase fuel outside the park too. Of course, you’ll probably need to refuel while in the park, but at least start your trek with a STUFFED tank.  When refueling, we only get what we need to get to Cody.  Though is still expensive in Cody, it’s better than filling up in the park.

9.  Cell Phone Service:  There are towers in the commercial areas of the park (West Thumb, Old Faithful, Canyon and Mammoth)  You may lose service outside of these areas.  Of course, ‘roaming charges’ are up to your carrier….

Here’s hoping you enjoy one of our FAVORITE National Parks as much as we do!!

Vacation Destinations –With Children

My original plan for this article was to list the great vacation destinations we have visited and share the gems we found & tips we learned through our travels.   Then I found  Frommer’s site  Top 100 Vacations with Kids….  frommers.com/100placesforkids    I tried to make my own article as ‘complete’ as theirs and it quickly became  overwhelming….and entirely too long! That’s when I decided to go back to my original idea of personal experiences –    By adding a link to the Frommer’s article  THEY could be ‘complete’ and I could return to the idea of offering tips.  That worked a LOT better!  🙂 Use them together.  🙂

https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1d/US-NationalParkService-Logo.svg/256px-US-NationalParkService-Logo.svg.png

Photo Credit: U.S. Gov’t, Nat’l Park Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I have not put links to the locations as Frommers has done  -with one exception:  the  National Parks website.   Fortunately, that covers most of my entries here as we travel a LOT in National Parks. One Note:  When searching for information for the other destinations, be certain you find the OFFICIAL SITES  to avoid being pulled into packages sold by travel agencies/clubs, etc…   I have nothing against those but they will NOT save you money!! Another Note:  Our family is history and nature enthusiasts, so many of our vacations include those aspects in some form or another.

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SOUTH EAST

  • The entire East coast is FULL of history (Colonial history, Revolutionary and Civil Wars, antebellum plantations) and beauty (beaches, National Parks, lush green vegetation/climates).  Chose a state (area) and spend a week touring/visiting it to adequately SEE everything there.
  • Virginia:  With the variety of interests in our family, I was able to plan a Virginia vacation that had ‘something for everyone’.  VA has everything from history to beaches to nature/beauty to a Naval Base to theme parks.
    • Colonial Williamsburg/Yorktown/Jamestown Settlement:  You can easily spend a week in this area (including Norfolk and Richmond if you wish)  These are all National Parks/Historical Sites;  Busch Gardens for the amusement park enthusiast;  Virginia beaches;  NOTE:  In 2013, TEACHERS were given a 50% discount on admission to Colonial Williamsburg – I was not able to confirm that this program is still in effect, but it’s worth an inquiry.  You must present proof – school ID, I would assume.
    • Richmond/Norfolk –  These two towns flank the Williamsburg ‘triangle’ and give some variety to the sights.  Norfolk Naval Base gives tours;
    • Mount Vernon (George Washington’s home) or Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home), both in Virginia and both National Parks/Historical Places
    • Shenandoah National Park:  This is a small park that can easily be driven in a day;  hikes can lengthen your stay;  very beautiful
  • Washington DC:  In addition to the obvious places to see: Capitol, Monuments, Smithsonian, etc… DON’T overlook the Library of Congress and Supreme Court Building.  They are the most beautiful buildings in the area (imho).
  • Southeast Coast – Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia  (FL has its own category further  further down this list).
    • Lighthouse Tour on the GA and Carolinas coastlines  (There are a few up in VA too – just less concentrated….)
    • Kitty Hawk  (N.C.)
    • The history et. al. in Charleston, Savannah, Williamsburg/Jamestown/Yorktown, Appomatox, Petersburg is really more than can be seen in one trip….but we’ve tried. ha!  🙂
  • Smokey Mountain Nat’l Park, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, TN;  The Smokey’s is the only National Park (in the lower 48)  that has no admittance fee.  You can drive through in a day, but if you want to hike or explore, plan a couple of days. This is a YEAR ROUND destination.  ALL seasons have something to offer.  Our Christmas there was INCREDIBLE!!  It snowed the day we were celebrating Christmas!  🙂  Autumn views can’t be rivaled anywhere.    🙂  Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge  (gateways to the Park) offers shows, outlet shopping and many ‘touristy’ things to do.  Combine this with a day trip to the Biltmore in Asheville, NC.
  • Asheville, NC:  Biltmore Mansion (home of railroad baron, George Vanderbilt)  Tickets are pricey for this, but well worth it.  Make a stop at the McDonalds in Asheville…even if just for an ice cream cone.  It’s unlike any McD’s you’ve ever been to.  🙂  Seriously!
  • New Orleans, LA:  Rich in history and French Creole culture;  One of the oldest cities in the US;  Tour antebellum mansions; enjoy some blues or jazz;  Enjoy the French creole cuisine and architecture but be certain to try the beignets at Cafe du Monde;

NORTHEAST:

  • Boston:   There are multiple ways to see Boston –
    • History which includes The Freedom Trail (takes a VERY full day) with its many historical sites including Old North Church, Paul Revere’s home and the USS Constitution,  Lexington and Concord, JFK Presidential Library and a little further south, Plymouth colony.  There is a Johnny Tremain tour that is great for children – all the sites in  Esther Forbes’ book
    • Literature:  Sleepy Hollow cemetery (where Nathanael Hawthorne is buried); Homes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Charles Dickens, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as well as Walden Pond with Thoreau’s cabin.
    • While on the Cape, I HIGHLY recommend a whale watch tour  if you can  fit it whaleinto the budget (it’s not cheap).   It’s PHENOMENAL!!!  MANY whales swim around the boat!!  Take motion sickness meds even it you aren’t prone to motion sickness.  (I learned this the hard way…)  The Bay waters can be QUITE choppy.  I loved our da, but if I had it to do over, I’d take the Bonine and enjoy myself much more.

There is so much to do in Boston for the history or literature buff, that this was by far my favorite vacation!!!

  • Cape Cod; Get a mile-by-mile guide online for information of things to do/see on the drive up the cape; Plimouth Plantation (living history museum) is north about 60 miles;  Beaches (though don’t expect the sun-soaking beaches of South Florida…this is Massachusetts),   Cape Cod Potato Chip factory (map on the back of the chip bag);  lighthouses; Provincetown  (Pilgrim Monument ) at the tip of cape   NOTE: Families should do their research before visiting Provincetown;
  • New Bedford Massachusetts:  Whaling Museum;  New Bedford is the setting of Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  This is an easy day trip from Boston or Cape Cod.
  • Gettysburg National Battlefield:  Battlefields are typically just roads/drives with narration or markers detailing what happened at each spot/pull out.  The REAL gem in visiting any battlefield is the Visitor Centers… with their films, museums, etc…  Don’t skip them!  🙂
  • Philadelphia:   History abounds here!  Birthplace of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution; Liberty Bell; Everything “Benjamin Franklin”   🙂
  • New York City:  The list of things to do in NYC is endless.  An internet search will help you make the right choices for your family.  NOTE:  The NY Gov. has recently said that ‘conservatives’ and ‘Christians’ are not welcome in the state.   How serious was he?  I don’t know…just always be informed when you travel.
    • History:  Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty,  Staten Island Museum and Ferry, 9/11 Memorial and Museum,  Of course, the museums are too numerous to list.
    • Arts:  Metropolitan Mus of Art is a ‘must see’,  Music spanning from  Broadway to the Metropolitan Opera – or Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.  Search the internet for your specific tastes…
    • Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, Bronx Zoo, Central Park, Empire State Building, Garment District :), Fifth Avenue shopping… Grand Central Station, Coney Island (amusement park)  Just a few ideas….
    • Sports:  In addition to games, there’s the possibilities of tours of stadiums, etc…  Now, Yankee Stadium  tours are the only tours I personally know about, but check websites for additional information.    🙂
  • Upstate New York:
    • Catskills
    • Niagara Falls  One of only 2 Nat’l parks that are ‘shared’ between U.S. and Canada.  You don’t need a passport to see the Canadian side as of the writing of this.  (This can change at any time, so check before you go….)
    • Adirondacks
  • Mystic Seaport Connecticut   (National Park)  This is a full day of a living history museum on the whaling industry of the 1800’s

Photo Credit: Aivar Ruukel on Flickr CC Lic.

FLORIDA

  • Everglades:  Bring mosquito repellant (with DEET) AND wear long pants and long sleeves. – no matter how wonderful your insect repellent is, it’s still no match for those insects in the Everglades!!  Don’t avoid this area just because of this.  It’s a great park… Just come prepared.  Include a trip down to the Keys if you have time.
  • Florida Keys:
    • Best snorkeling:  Bahia Honda!!  It’s better than John Pennekamp State Park (imho)
    • Hemingway’s home on Key West offers tours – and a chance to see his  ‘six-toed cats’  🙂
    • Over-seas Highway – from the Mainland FL out to Key West.  Seven Mile Bridge connects Knight’s Key  (Middle Keys) to Little Duck Key (Lower Keys)  It is CERTAINLY worth the drive!  If you’re a bicyclist, ride the ‘old’ highway and railroad bridge. It’s quite the experience.  The ‘old’ highway is also a great place to catch a sunset.
    • NOTE:  Families should do their research on the area before planning much time in Key West.
  • Pensacola:  white sand beaches;  Naval Aviation Museum;  Check to see if the Blue Angels are giving a show!
  • Orlando – Obviously, Orlando is home to The Mouse, but while in the area, don’t forget to take a day trip over to Titusville to see the JFK Space Center.  (This is the perfect break from theme parks if you need it)  🙂  I’ve written 2 posts on WDW:  Walt DisneyWorld on a Budget:  and More Walt Disney World Tips 

NOTE:  Teachers at accredited schools in Florida and Georgia can get complimentary admission to the Visitor Ctr and Educ. Resource Ctr with proof of employment – school ID I presume?  I have heard this MIGHT apply to all teachers but can not confirm it.  It’s worth an inquiry.  🙂 

  • St Augustine: boasts some beautiful pristine beaches!  🙂  It’s also the oldest settlement (fort) in the Continental US.  It’s also not far from Daytona.
  • Ft Lauderdale:  beaches – though crowded;  You may find Ft Lauderdale more ‘family friendly’ than Miami, not to mention cheaper to fly to.
  • Sanibel Island:  This area has the ‘to be expected’ beach vacation options with the added bonus of MILLIONS of sea shells!
  • Tarpon Springs & Ybor City (Tampa area):  Tarpon is the center of the sponge diving industry;  There are tours/boats to give visitors a look at the diving/divers though they do NOT take you to the actual sponge beds (locations are ‘secret’)   Go to the dock to see the boats come in with their day’s catch.  Ybor City is a Cuban settlement; taste Cuban cuisine;  cigar industry;

CENTRAL U.S. :

  • Branson, MO:  This is our weekend get-away of choice. The main attraction is country and folk music shows, but there is much more there. My post about all we’ve discovered there: Branson: Planning Your Trip and  Branson: What To Do – Shows Shopping  & More  Branson is VERY Family-Friendly.
  • St. Louis MO:  The Arch, dinner cruises (or sightseeing cruises) on the Mississippi, museums galore (we really like the Charles Lindberg Museum) and of course, Six Flags. Hannibal with all the Mark Twain ‘stuff’ is just north of St. Louis – a nice day trip.

THE WILD WEST (Which really isn’t in the ‘west’ at all)

  • Salt Lake City & Great Salt Lake:  A dip in the Great Salt Lake is an experience you’ll not get anywhere else…but do NOT get in if you have any wounds or scratches!  There’s a LOT of salt in it!!!
  • Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park – Montana – at the Canadian border. This is one of only 2 Nat’l Parks ‘shared’ with Canada. …    (Waterton is the Canadian side).  There is a very limited visitor season due to climate/weather – busiest months are July and August and that’s the only time I would personally plan a vacation there.  🙂
  • The Sierra Nevada’s are Incredible!!!  This includes everything from Yosemite and Lake Tahoe in CA to the mining towns south of Reno in NV…
    • Tahoe:  The main attraction here is skiing in the winter and water sports/activities on the lake in the summer.  All the casinos are across the stateline in NV.  While in Tahoe, take day trips to Carson City (NV)  Virginia City, (NV) and check to see if there are any local festivals in any of the surrounding towns.  On our last trip, we took in the Chili Cook-off in Virginia City and Cowboy Days in Genoa NV (OUR FAVORITE!!!)  I’ll write a blog post about it  soon.  🙂
    • Yosemite National Park is very beautiful but can be extremely crowded

      Half Dome in Yosemite National Park

      during the summer season.  If you can plan a trip in the late Spring, you can avoid some of that (Not too early as most of the roads don’t open until late April typically)  One difference between Yosemite and other Nat’l parks is that they DO have lots of eateries/restaurants/snack bars.  I”m not sure what that does to the whole “National Park experience”, but they’re there.

  • Yellowstone and Teton Nat’l Parks This takes a minimum of 5-6 days to really see it…
    Yellowstone National Park

    Yellowstone National Park

    These parks encompass everything from nature and wildlife to geothermal activity to hiking to beautiful vistas, sunrises, sunsets.  There’s more hikes than you could take in multiple visits.  Jackson, WY (gateway to the Tetons) is worth a visit/stay as well.  My post – linked above – gives details of our vacations to this area along with some tips for planning, budgeting, etc..

    IMG_2961

    Teton Nat’l Park

  • IMG_3438
  • Mount Rushmore/Black Hills: This is easily seen in a day including the hike/museum/Visitor Ctr. Plan to return to the park at sunset for the lighting of the mountain. (be prepared for congested traffic).  Catch one of the Cowboy/Folk Music dinner shows in the area if you have time.
  • Colorado:  Vacation  destinations ABOUND in CO…here are a few things we really like
    • Denver:  Museum of Natural History is a ‘must see’;  U.S. Mint offers tours, but requires security clearance which takes significant time and effort.  Research this (WAY) ahead of time.  Rocky Mountain National Park is approx.1 hr west of Denver
    • Rocky Mountain National Park (Include some time in Denver too)  This can be covered in a day, but with a few days, you can hike, attend a Ranger Talk and explore the park like it ‘deserves’ to be explored.  🙂
    • Durango/Silverton – and the Narrow Gauge Railroad between the two;  This affords views you cannot see anywhere else as the track goes where the road does not.  Views are spectacular and I highly recommend it!!  (great for kids – especially if they are ‘train’ fanatics) For those who don’t really want to ride the train all day long, (think of kids here….)  they offer a one way  train – with bus the other way.  My suggestion is to take the train TO Silverton and the bus back to Durango (thinking especially of kids here).  To get that option (and not be stuck doing it the opposite way)  you must make reservations early. Those tickets go fast!    If you prefer to drive between these two towns, you can take the “Million Dollar Highway” built back when a million dollars was a LOT of money!!  🙂
    • Mesa Verde Nat’l Park: Mesa Verde is cliff dwelling Indian ruins;  combine this with a visit to Durango/Silverton.
    • Jeep Trails: South/Southwest part of CO.  Reserve jeeps ahead of time in tourist season.  BEST TIP:  Rent the jeep 2 days in a row so you don’t have to return it by 5 pm…you can stay on the trails later the first night. I would say though, 3 days in a row is too much.  You’ll need a day to rest in between before heading out again. (imho)  There are enough jeep trails in the area to keep visitors busy for WEEKS.    Depending on where you go/stay, this could be combined with Durango/Silverton/Mesa Verde.
    • Colorado Springs:  Pikes Peak (drive or take the cog rail); Focus on the Family; Garden of the Gods
  • Utah National Parks:  Utah is a GREAT place for the outdoor enthusiast.  A family of children – young boys especially – will be thrilled with the climbing and exploring options. There are FIVE National Parks in SW Utah…all having their own special niche – and all fabulous!  Note:  I do NOT recommend going during the hottest part of the summer!!!  (just my personal opinion…)
    • Zion Nat’l Park:
      Zion National Park

      Zion Nat’l Park

      The main road of Zion is only accessible by shuttle. Arrive early in the day to be able to park inside the park. After the lots fill, you’ll have to park in Springdale and take a shuttle from there, then transfer to the Zion shuttle.

    • Bryce Canyon: Bryce is quite possibly the most unique park I’ve ever seen.  The valley is full of pinnacles formed from erosion.  There is a shuttle here too, but it’s optional.  Arrive early to avoid the masses…

      Bryce Canyon Nat'l Park

      Bryce Canyon Nat’l Park

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Arches National Park:  All the canyons of SW Utah have arches, but Arches National park is a greatest concentration of them. – another very unique park and worth the time!
  • Grande Escalante:  This is a drive through SW Utah – en route from one National Park to another.  – very scenic
  • Canyonlands National Park

TEXAS

  • Dallas Metroplex:  Ft Worth Zoo (Our preference of zoos in the area) Six Flags/Hurricane Harbor; Dallas Art Museum;  Sixth Floor Museum (the JFK assassination story)  Arboretum;  George W Bush Presidential Library;  Ft Worth Stockyards, Our favorite DFW metroplex zoo is the Ft Worth Zoo. There are MANY things to do in the metroplex…search online for activities that fit your family.
  • San Antonio: Alamo, Riverwalk; Sea World; Fiesta Texas; Short drive north is  Schlitterbaun;
  • Austin:  the bats under the Congress Avenue Bridge come out every evening at sunset – there are tours, boats, etc..to make a full evening of this; LBJ Presidential Library; of course, the TX capital if you like to see different state capitals (we kind of like to at least drive by these for a quick look…)
  • 157Galveston/Corpus Christi….and the entire Gulf Coast has all the beach activities you would expect not to mention a lot of really interesting History – The “Wall Street” of the 1800’s and the story of the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the rebuilding and raising of the city  by 17 ft – an incredible engineering feat for the day.  Galveston, Texas
  • Houston has the museums and activities you would expect in a metro area – and just a little way to the southeast is Kemah and the NASA Johnson Space Center in Webster.
  • Padre Island:  This is a nice place to visit but be aware that in March/April,  it becomes a College Spring Break destination.
  • Brownsville:  Walk across the Rio Grande into Matamoras Mexico  (10 yrs ago, it cost .25 pp each way….)  At that time, a passport was not required but that’s been a while back.  Personally, I probably wouldn’t cross the border now, with the recent events and warnings from the State Dept, but it’s a matter of personal preference….

THE REAL WEST

  • California:  Cali has SO much to offer the vacationer.  Choose a region (south, central, north) to keep from being overwhelmed with the options.  🙂
    • Redwoods National Park
    • Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks
    • Yosemite National Park  (I detailed this above in the section on Sierra Nevadas)
    • Death Valley:
      Death Valley

      Death Valley

      This is actually quite interesting, but do NOT go during the Summer.  Their tourist season is WINTER.  We went in Sept and it was fine, though getting hot, even then.  It’s possible to hike this park during milder seasons (spring/fall) but only before 10 am each day

    • San Diego:  San Diego Zoo  has pandas!!
    • Disney Land:  This is the first Disney park but it has many of the same attractions as it’s partner in Florida
    • Golden Gate Bridge
    • LegoLand
    • San Diego
  • Grand Canyon National Park:   Those who tour this park in a day don’t really ‘see’ it!  You really need 2-3 days…..MINIMUM!!  Each rim (North and South) is different.  The Grand CanyonSouth rim is the most ‘popular’ and the most ‘populated’.  If your time is limited, see the “South” rim, but if you can make the long drive around the canyon to see the North Rim, you should.  We planned it a little differently than some might – Enroute to California, we visited the South Rim on the way ‘west’ and the North rim as we headed east (home). That eliminated the LONG drive around the canyon – and perhaps enhanced our enjoyment by splitting it into two visits. (no burnout)
  • Sedona:  Beautiful vistas, sunrises and sunsets over the red sandstone formations, shopping;  This can be combined with a trip to the Grand Canyon;
  • Hoover Dam:  This is 20 min. from Las Vegas;  It could also easily be combined with a trip to the National parks of Southern Utah OR the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Flights to Las Vegas are often very economical  I’ve written  Hoover Dam with more detailed information.
  • Crater Lake National Park:  Beautiful and easily seen in a day unless you want to camp or hike.  There are ALWAYS numerous hikes in any National Park.

BEACH/COASTLINE:

  • N. & S. Carolina: not only the beaches, but numerous lighthouses (some open for tours, others only for ‘seeing’ from the outside;  Kitty Hawk and the Wright Bros museum/area is quite interesting;  Lost Colony of Roanoke;
  • Georgia:  beaches, Civil War history
  • The entire Gulf coast Shore from Galveston-Corpus Christie -New Orleans-Mobile, Alabama  Pensacola…. and of course, down the west (Gulf) coast of FL
  • Pensacola:  White Sand Beaches; Naval Aviation Museum; Blue Angels if they’re in town
  • Mobile:  In addition to beaches in the area (I like Orange Beach) there’s the U.S.S. Alabama WWII battleship in Mobile Bay.
  • California beaches – Expect crowds
  • Northern California/Oregon shorelines are not for sunbathing, but are absolutely breathtaking with their rocky shores

HAWAII: Beach

  • Oahu: Pearl Harbor Memorial;  Waikiki,  The North Shore and Banzai Pipeline;  the Banyan trees are a ‘must see’ in Honolulu
  • Hawaii/The Big Island:  Volcano National Park;  Coffee plantations;  Orchid plantation; Akaka Falls
  • Kauai:  Coffee plantations here too;  NaPali coastline can ONLY be seen by boat or by air – no roads!  It’s incredible!
  • Maui:  Haleakala National Park – plan to see a sunrise or sunset. Haleakala Road to Hana-  NOT for the faint of heart, but well worth it!  –649 hairpin curves!!!

 

 

This is certainly not a comprehensive list – that’s what the Frommer’s site is for.   My purpose was to give ideas, tips and my idea of the ‘Must See/Do’s’.

Happy Vacationing!!

More Walt Disney World Tips

https://i2.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8f/Walt_Disney_World_Resort_entrance.jpg/512px-Walt_Disney_World_Resort_entrance.jpg

First article in this series:  Walt Disneyworld on a Budget:

PART II:   TIPS

  • Photo Credit; Tom Bricker CC LIc.

    Many ask which park(s) to visit if  limited on time/days.  Obviously, if you’re taking young children, they will definitely have their own ideas. 🙂  Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom will probably get high votes.  🙂  However, as you’re planning, don’t be too quick to overlook Epcot – even for the young ones. Disney does ALL the parks ‘right’ and your kids WILL enjoy it!!  Epcot is by far our favorite park.  With a multi-day pass, we spend 2 days there and 1 day in each of the remaining parks.  Recently we made a trip there for reasons OTHER than Disney.  We only had 1 day and didn’t even have to discuss it.  We went to Epcot!!!

  • Disney”s Park Hopper pass allows visitors to ‘hop’ to different parks in a day, but we never chose that option.  Each park has MUCH more than you can possibly do in a day….and transporting between parks takes time that could be spent enjoying the park you’re in —and the ‘clincher’ is that they charge you for the privilege of having less time in the park….    🙂  Every park has something special…a parade in the afternoon or light parade or fireworks at night.  You really don’t want to miss that.   🙂
  • Fast Passes have changed… 😦 and that’s disappointing…  Prior to 2009, anyone could swipe their ticket at the busier attractions to get an assigned time to return and by-pass the line.  It seems to be a “change in progress” now, so consult the Disney website for current information….  :/
  • When you arrive in the park, immediately sit down and plan your day (performances, character meetings, et al) with the schedule brochure in hand.  There are special things happening all day long, but to not miss anything will require a “plan”.   Plan any “must do’s” early in the day so if something interrupts or distracts you away from your original plan, you can still get to them later…and you don’t end up with regrets at the end of the day.
  • When you enter the park, GO LEFT!  Most people are right-handed and  instinctively go right. Go where others are not going and the crowds will be lighter.  🙂  Another option is to immediately head to the BACK of the park and work your way to the front. An added advantage to this is that when the day is over and you’re tired, you’re AT the entrance — rather than at the back of the park and struggling to get a tired (and possibly grumpy) family to the front entrance. Either of these options will help you to avoid a portion of the heavy crowds early in the day.
  • Parades, Fireworks and Performances in the Park:  People start reserving spots for the parades/shows quite early.  If you secure your ‘spot’ early, you can use the wait time to browse the shops.  In our family, Dad usually stayed and held our spot while the kids and I looked through the shops, then we would trade places if we needed/wanted to.  We did the same for restroom runs….good use of time.

Photo Credit: Trey Ratcliff Flickr CC Lic

Photo Credit: Ryan Dingman Flicker CC LIc.

Photo Credit; Joe Penniston on Flickr CC Lic.

Photo Credit: Jeff Christiansen on Flicrk CC LIc.

Fireworks at Epcot Photo Credit: Jeff Krause CC Lic.

  • The best place to SEE all the characters is at the parades, but if you’re wanting photo opportunities, that’s NOT where you will get them – crowds and THOUSANDS wanting the same thing.  Check the park map/schedule for times and places where these characters will be.  Often you will get a few minutes to greet, talk, snap a photo  – all without very long lines.  Yes, the character meals will guarantee you’ll see characters, but those are very pricey. Don’t think that’s the only way to see them and have a photo.  They’re all over the park!!  Just read the schedule, plan your day and always be on the lookout for impromptu sightings.
  • Photo Credit: David Cobb on Flicrk CC Lic.

    Strollers:  If renting a stroller, bring something to tie to yours to identify it… The strollers are identical, especially after you remove your personal belongings to go onto the ride. Bring a ribbon, sash, or balloon to identify YOUR stroller, but bring something patterned or ‘unusual’.  Red is extremely popular.    🙂

  • The “Magical Beginnings” map gives locations of all the Baby care centers. These are great, not only as a place to change a diaper or nurse a baby, but also just a place to cool off and rest/relax with young ones (ages 0-2)
  • Arrive Early:  Not only does arriving early put you at the front of the line at the entrance, but sometimes, during the busy season, they open the park earlier than scheduled.  Kids are at their ‘best’ early in the day so the more you see ‘early in the day’ the better off (happier) you’ll be.  Note:  Main Street USA in Magic Kingdom opens before the park officially opens.  By arriving early, you can spend some time there and be ready to explore the park at the opening bell.  🙂
  • If you’re vacationing during the hottest times of the year (July/Aug) bring a bandana for everyone.  Wet them at the water fountains (The water is COLD) and use those around your neck to keep cool.  Cooling down the neck lowers body temperature and makes you ‘feel’ cooler.

Walt DisneyWorld on a Budget

 

What family with young children doesn’t want to go to Disney World?  Doing Disney on a budget can be challenging, but NOT impossible.  (I’ve learned a few things on our trips there. )   Now, there’s really NO WAY to do Disney ‘cheap’, but it CAN be done for less than some people think…and for less than most people do it.

First Things First:  For the most thorough and updated information on what’s going on at the parks, refer to the Disney World website. It’s VERY detailed!  There’s no need to re-write that information here.  This will be personal insights on things not on their website…

Some OTHER GGGGRRRREAT websites for discounts and the planning process:

  • MouseMisers:  GREAT sit for discounts on all things Disney (Disney World, Disney Land AND Disney Cruises.)
  • Allears: ditto above  AND contains menus AND PRICES to all the restaurants on Disney properties
  • Disney has created an excellent Planning Guide
  • My Disney Experience app:  This has helpful information on park activities, special events and wait times on more popular attractions.

No, I’m not advertising for or compensated by these sites….just fyi.  🙂

Buying Your Tickets Tickets are less per day the more days you purchase.  On our trip in 2009, we had originally planned to buy a 4 day ticket until I realized that we could add an extra day for only $3pp. The cost of an added day is more now, but then, for$12 plus the cost of 1 more hotel night and food, we had an extra day in the parks. If your schedule allows for this, it’s great!

AAA Members can get discount tickets to Disney parks, but they MUST be purchased from a AAA office. They are NOT available at the park.

Tickets can be purchased at all the parks, Disney Hotels, online at   http://disneyworld.disney.go.com  or by calling 1-407-W-Disney.   Note:  There is $5  S/H charge added for tickets mailed to your home.  There is no charge for the ‘Will Call’ option.

Food and Snacks:  Keeping tummies full can be a major expense in Disney World.  As would be expected, prices are “theme park” prices (i.e. grossly over-priced).  Now, that being said, the quality of food in Disney parks is EXTREMELY GOOD!  It is possible to eat with special or restricted diets or eat healthy fare if you wish.  You will find an abundance of grilled meats, vegetarian selections and WONDERFUL ethnic fare, as opposed to burgers, fries and ice cream as in most theme parks.  Perhaps that will make you feel a little better about paying more for the meals.

But….Is there a way to save money?

YES!!!  First, Snacks….  Disney now allows outside snacks to be brought into the park. (that’s a change)  I always bring high protein snacks (nuts, dried fruits, peanut butter)  to fill up little tummies so they aren’t begging for everything in sight.  We eat a BIG high protein breakfast then postpone lunch until early afternoon.  Then, dinner can either be a lighter meal or postponed to later in the evening (7 pm) — or we leave the park and run through a drive through for a more reasonably priced meal.  Though that’s less healthy, it’s also less expensive than a meal in the park.

In budgeting, plan to spend approx. $11+/adult per counter service meal in the park…..more for the upscale restaurants.  We found that our 2 children could split an adult meal and have the same amount of food for less than the cost of 2 children’s meals. If you’re able to switch things up a bit like that, it will save significant money over the course of your trip.

Probably the single BEST money saving tip concerning meals is to consider portion sizes in various venues.  Many of the full service restarants have meals that can easily feed 2 adults (provided they’re not huge eaters…)  It’s cheaper to buy 1 meal even if that meal is a little pricier if you can feed TWO people with it.  For counter service, some of the sandwiches served are HUGE.  They can easily be split between 2 people, certainly an adult and child (or 2 children if your kiddos are picky or small eaters.)  Along these same lines, adults can order from the children’s menu… They offer some appetizing options, not just hotdogs or grilled cheese…and portions are plenty for most adults (unless you’re just a HUGE eater).

Eating at Downtown Disney is less expensive than eating in one of the theme parks.  It’s a 15 min. bus ride.  If you have time, that’s a good place to go at supper time.

If you simply MUST do a Character meals, they are less expensive at breakfast or lunch than in the evenings.  The menu will be slightly different, but they characters are the same..and it’s the characters you were going for anyway, wasn’t it?  I promise…your  kids won’t even CARE about the menu!!!  🙂 🙂

I can’t leave this section on meals without mentioning the Disney Meal Plans.  We don’t buy these as they are only offered to guests staying on Disney property, (we always stay off property) but here’s the information:

Disney Meal Plans:  

These meal plans are only offered to guests of the Disney resorts.  As you would expect, Disney advertises these as the “greatest deal since sliced bread”, and they MAY be a good idea for you, but before making that decision/purchase, consider a few things.

The only way to really get your money’s worth with these plans is to eat ALL your meals on Disney property. If you eat off property, you won’t break even. Word of Caution (and the reason we don’t buy these plans) is that they can quickly begin to ‘rule’ your vacation if you want them to be a ‘bargain’….  Of course, if they’re not a bargain, then you’re paying more for meals that necessary…hmmm….

To Note:

  • Each day’s meal credits expire at the end of the day.  No carry-over
  • Because table service or character meals take such a chunk of time from your day, it may necessitate the addition of 1-2 days to your vacation plan in order to do those AND see and do everything you want to see and do.
  • Character meals require advance reservations (made up to 180 days in advance) at the more popular venues/times.

Quick Service Plan     ($37-40 per person/day at the time of this writing)

  • Includes 2 counter service meals (entree or combo meal) and 2 snacks per day per person
  • Does not include special/character meals.

Basic or Plus Dining plans

  • Includes 1 table service meal  (entree, dessert and beverage),  1 counter service meal (combo meal/beverage)  and 2 snacks.  
  • It takes planning to make this a good value

Deluxe Dining plan

  • Requires VERY diligent planning  (and some ‘hoop jumping’) to make this work to your advantage and not lose money
  • Includes 3 meal credits per person (one meal = appetizer, entrée, dessert, beverage OR a buffet OR Counter Service combo/beverage) and 2 snack credits.
  • Because of the amount of special meals, this plan would almost REQUIRE an extra 1-2 days in the parks.  (imho)

For our family, we did not consider these to be a good bargain.  Instead, we stay off property (nice places, but less expensive) either in a hotel with breakfast included or a condo where we cook our own breakfasts. Then we can make our own dining decisions rather than having our days ruled by an eating plan.  🙂

A Word About Eating at Epcot :  Epcot dining is a truly wonderful experience.  The World Showcase offers a variety of ethnic foods…my favorite is the Quiche  (and pastries) in France  🙂   The chocolate in Germany makes wonderful gifts but be sure to get a few bars just for yourself while there.  🙂

….and Drinks:  Bring empty water bottles to fill at water fountains. (Though they allow you to bring in full water bottles, they’re heavy to carry!)  🙂

Timeshare Presentations are a Dime a Dozen in Orlando:   Orlando is FULL of timeshare companies. Though I would NEVER suggest purchasing a time share, (MANY reasons which I’ve detailed in Timeshares)  the presentations can work to your advantage if you have the time.  They offer many incentives (WDW tickets, free meals, local tourist activities)  if you give them 2 hours of your time for their sales pitch.  (Don’t fall for the ’90 min. promise…. It NEVER works that way)  Especially in Orlando, they will have a room for childcare with caretakers, toys and/or movies.  Parents may not enjoy the experience, but the kids will have a blast!!!!  🙂  We’ve attended our share of these and they ARE REAL and LEGITIMATE!  You WILL receive what you are promised….  but it will cost you in “time”.   It’s a decision you have to make – but don’t worry that they are scams.  They aren’t.

Next Post:  More Walt Disney World Tips

Branson, Missouri Part 1 – Planning Your Trip

https://www.flickr.com/photos/missouridivisionoftourism/7950851294/sizes/z/

Photo Credit: Missouri Division of Tourism CC Lic.

Perhaps I am more familiar with this destination than any other.  By my best estimate, we have been there probably 35-40 times.  (No Exaggeration)   We’ve stayed in many of the hotels, gone to a significant number of the shows and attractions, and shopped the outlet malls until we know them like the back of our hand.  🙂

Branson has fast become a ‘year-round’ destination though Summer is definitely the busiest time.  (We rarely go then as we don’t like crowds and lines…and bottle-neck traffic.)  OUR favorite time to visit is during the Fall. (It’s our weekend getaway of choice).  The weather is mild, the leaf color palette is absolutely MAGNIFICENT…and the outlet mall isn’t crowded.  ‘Back to school’ shoppers have left and the Christmas shoppers haven’t yet arrived (I start my Christmas shopping early) At any time of year though, it’s a great family vacation – or getaway if you live close enough.

Branson is very family friendly.  Our family would often split up while shopping, then meet back at a designated time and place.  Shopping in Branson has changed over the years though.  There is now only one outlet mall open – Tanger.  Branson Landing (Great shopping but NOT outlet shopping) is the new ‘in’ place go.

When To Visit The busiest times in Branson are the summer months (June-Aug) and Christmas season with the shows & shoppers. This is when traffic on “76” creeps.  NOTE:  Christmas season and Christmas shows begin the first week of November and continue through Christmas though exact schedules vary as each performer or family determines their own break for the Holiday.)   🙂

The Fall (Sept/Oct) is probably the second busiest time with the fall festival at Silver Dollar City.

Other than our visits in the Fall and Christmas seasons  we actually enjoy visits in Jan/Feb. (or March).  There aren’t a lot of shows during this time, but the shopping is GREAT, and the restaurants are open as well as things like miniature golf and museums such as The Titanic and Hollywood Wax Museum.  We’ve never been bored on a visit during Jan or Feb.  Just be aware that during this time, there are not as many options for entertainment/shows.  You WILL, however, find GREAT rates on accommodations.

Accommodations:   Though chain hotels now line the landscape in Branson, for years, the only establishments in town were the privately owned ‘mom-n-pop’ motels  (restriction from the City of Branson).  Honestly, though,  many of these locally and privately owned places (I’m referring to the ones that look nice on the outside, not the ones that are run down) are simple motel rooms, clean, safe and meet the needs of the frugal traveler, with rates WAY below the chains as they compete for business.  Over the last 20 years, we’ve stayed at a number of these and have no bad stories to tell.  There is usually a swimming pool and a continental breakfast in the morning.  Don’t be afraid of them.  🙂

Though reservations are a good idea 99% of the time in order to ‘shop’ for bargains, Branson is the ONE location where that is not necessarily the case.  In fact, you can often find VERY good rates by driving into town and looking at the signs outside the ‘mom-n-pop’ motels.  Many offer 2 nights for 79.99 or specials of a room for 1 night and 2 show tickets for $99.  I don’t know if those require attendance at a time share presentation or not…but those signs were outside multiple locally owned motels recently.  🙂

Photo Credit: Valerie on Flickr CC Lic.

Getting There:  Branson now sports its own airport, however, I’m not really familiar with it. It’s very small.  🙂  If you find fares to Branson too expensive, there is the option of flying into Springfield, MO.  It’s about 45 min. north – not a bad drive at all.  Traffic can be heavy on Hwy 65-S during the busy summer months, but it moves along without stopping.  Larger airports further away include Tulsa, St. Louis or Kansas City but they’re all over 200 miles away….

Getting Around:  Walking is the favored mode of transportation down “76” (the main highway with shows, hotels, restaurants, etc…)  as traffic is extremely heavy – especially at dinnertime and before/after shows.  While most visitors have a car, many find it easier to leave it parked and just walk to shows, activities, etc…  That’s where it becomes advantageous to KNOW what shows you’re interested in – and choose a hotel fairly close.  Weather is pleasant and temps tend to go down in the summer evenings (advantage of the mountains) so walking is actually quite pleasant.

Photo Courtesy of Branson Chamber of Commerce

Now…for those days of things were you MUST drive, Branson has planned the city in such a way that you can avoid “76” especially during the ‘busy times’.  “Busy times” are from the dinner hour through the opening of shows (typically 5 – 8 pm).  Allow 30-45 min. to drive that 1 mile section during these times.  Of course, restaurants are also very busy during this time so if we want to eat out on a night when we’re NOT seeing a show, (we usually eat in our condo….), we don’t even attempt to enter a restaurant until after 7:00.

Branson has built ‘traffic relief’ routes to help with the traffic….The map above shows the yellow, blue and red routes – They’re true ‘life-savers’!!  🙂

Shows:  They’re all good…and family friendly.  You will have NO concerns about taking  children to any Branson show.  Coupons are available for some shows in the the magazines or brochures located in the lobbies of hotels, mall lounges or the entrance to most restaurants or shopping areas. There are also Family Passes available that will save some money over individual ticket prices.  However, even with these, plan to spend $75-100 to take a family of four to an evening show.  Matinee performances are a little less expensive.

Photo Credit Ron Jones on Flickr CC Lic.

Silver Dollar City: www.SilverDollarCity.com   LOVE IT!!!  There are discounts for admission to SDC;  just look for them.   If you enter the park after 3 pm, the next day is free.  Not only is that a great deal, but with small children, it’s a wonderful way to enjoy your time in the park…2 ‘partial’ days.   The added advantage to a day in Silver Dollar City is the number of shows there in the park – all as part of your admission ticket.

Branson Landing Photo Credit Louis CR Artist CC Lic.

Outlet Shopping:  Shopping is a big attraction in Branson. There are several places–Tanger Outlet Mall and Branson Landing.  Branson Landing is the newest location – built along the river front with shops on the ground floor and hotel rooms and apartments for residents on the upper floors –  It’s quite beautiful – especially at night or during the Christmas season.  Both of these areas can be very busy (parking at a premium) during the back to school shopping season and Christmas.

Time Share Presentations:  These are a dime a dozen in Branson.  You can earn free show tickets, IMAX tickets, accommodations (sometimes in a condo), free meals, and sometimes Silver Dollar City tickets (if you bargain for them).  Of course, it requires your attendance at a 90-120 min. TimeShare presentation.  For more information on this read here: TimeShares    but NOTE:  ONLY attend if you have the will power to say an emphatic NO!!  (imho)   Purchasing a timeshare is only a good idea for those with money to burn.   🙂   However, if you can say ‘no’ and you have the time for it, the Timeshare PRESENTATION is a way to save some money on your Branson trip.

Next: Branson Part 2: What To Do – Shows Shopping and More