If taking a vacation seems out of your budget or impossible with work or kid schedules, it’s time to reconsider. The biggest reason to find the time or money isn’t to recharge or even to spend quality family time. Vacation hits a reset button on your perspective. When you step away from your daily grind, you see things through a new lens. I recently took a 12-day family trip to visit National Parks in the western U.S. -- the longest vacation I’ve taken in years. I’ll share some must-dos for the nine parks we visited, along with the ah-ha moments that helped me make much-needed changes back home. Our next two posts will also focus on vacations: family-tested travel tips and hacks, and insider scoop on the best family vacation destinations. Sign up for our newsletter (to the right) to have those posts show up in your inbox.
My house was built in the '80s and we still have the original windows and honey-colored wood cabinets. They don’t look retro or vintage – they look dated. I often look at my worn carpet and daydream about new wood flooring (well, something that looks like wood but is indestructible). I wipe off my cream colored Formica counter tops and envision marbled quartz. But the years slip by and the updates don’t happen. Primarily because the family budget usually comes down to either travel or home improvement, and travel wins every time.
We spend hundreds of days at home every year and maybe two or three weeks traveling, if you include weekend trips to visit family. I completely understand the logic of improving the home where you spend your day-to-day. I have many friends who take this path. I also have friends who can afford both travel and beautifully-updated homes. But that’s not our financial situation, so we prioritize family travel over home improvements because one of our family values is adventure.
3,000 Miles in a Van Caravan
Adventure might be the perfect word to sum up this year’s trip for my family – we’ve been gearing up for this one for almost two years. A 12-day road trip tour through nine national parks in the Western U.S. with some family friends. Between two families, we brought six kids ages five to 16. We flew out the evening of the last day of school because a field day, preschool graduation and elementary school clap-out weren’t enough excitement for one day. Over the next 12 days, we logged 3,000 miles in a 15-passenger van and a minivan. Try to contain your jealousy.
One of my favorite shots of all six kids in Yellowstone National Park.
In general, this was our route.
I came back with plenty of bumps and bruises, over 1,000 photos and some treasured memories. But as I reflect back on the trip, even a couple weeks later, I realize the biggest takeaway was the perspective I gained from taking a break and being in a different place with different people doing different things.
I found clarity on a few things and want to record it before the daily grind steps back in to steal my clarity.
Below are the lessons I brought back from the breathtaking mountains and big skies. I hope these benefit other working moms who find themselves falling into the same traps I do. I also included must-do suggestions for each of the nine National Parks we visited in case these photos sell you on planning a vacation.
Lesson #1: A change of scenery – or companions – can give you new appreciation for what you have.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Must-do: A snowy winter hike to an icicle-lined waterfall if you travel late spring or fall. Bear Lake and Trail Ridge Road if you visit in the summer.
I live in Ohio. Ohio has snow. But anyone watching our group’s giddy snowball fight in the parking lot of Rocky Mountain National Park in late May probably assumed we were from the deep south. The snow created the annoying need to bring an entire suitcase of winter coats and gear we didn’t need for the remaining 11 days of the trip. It closed the popular Trail Ridge Road trail.
The snow also became the most memorable part of this park. The kids loved the snow hike – it felt so different from the rest of our hikes. They slid down icy hills and aimed snowballs at the icicles hanging over the rushing water.
The snow-covered pines and rosy laughing faces in Rocky Mountain put a new face on the snow I was cursing just a few months before at home.
Lesson #2: If I want to raise independent and confident kids, I need to find safe places to loosen my grip in what can feel like a scary world.
Badlands National Park
Must-do: Pull off on the roadside if you see trailheads and go for a hike. We made our way to a peak that looked impossibly high from the ground, but wasn’t too difficult. The view of the red-striped hills across the horizon beat anything we saw from the ground.
On our trip we saw blasting geysers and baby elk and the towering red arch featured in an Indiana Jones movie. But the kids agreed that Badlands and Devil’s Tower were their favorite stops. They liked the areas where they climbed over boulders and had the freedom to wander and explore. There was an element of risk that helped fuel their fun - they felt proud of what they accomplished on their own.
We let the kids climb to some precarious places because they're pretty strong and confident climbers. My youngest broke her arm at 18 months old climbing out of her crib, so I learned long ago there’s virtually no way to avoid all risk of injury.
This may not look all that high, but we took a photo from the bottom for perspective. See below.
This is the peak we reached in the above picture.
I worry when I let my oldest son ride bikes in the neighborhood with his buddies. Or when one of the kids has a play date with a family I don’t know well. The best I can do is weigh the risk and make the best decision I can with the information I have (I stole this from our recent post on making better, easier choices).
If I always play it safe, I run a different risk: that my kids won’t develop coping mechanisms or the ability to problem solve or process hurt feelings. Life requires those skills from all of us eventually.
Lesson #3: What you see, or think you know, is probably only about 5 percent of what is actually there.
Doesn't it look like a piece of bacon?
Standing outside elevators that would take us 300 feet into the Earth, we listened as our Jewel Cave tour guide Dorothy told us it’s the third longest cave in the world. She pointed to a map of the spiderwebbing caverns and said experts think they’ve still only uncovered about 5 percent of the total cave. Cavers can only stay underground for four days before they run out of supplies.
It would be easy to look at the miles of explored cave and think we know all there is to know about Jewel Cave.
I’m guilty of this in my life. I hit points where I think I know what I’m doing, or that I understand how marriage or parenting works. And then the bottom drops out. Or I see Instagram posts of beautiful people and stainless kids and wonder how these people do it.
Well, I’m seeing their 5 percent. The other 95 probably has a few smudges, just like my life. If you understand this struggle only too well, you may want to check out our post on how to stop the comparison game.
Lesson #4: Boundaries create stability and safety. Fun and adventure can still thrive within healthy boundaries.
Artist's Point at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.
Yellowstone National Park
Must-do: Geysers, mud pits, rainbow-colored springs, canyons, waterfalls and wildlife all within one park. We stayed in Canyon Village and loved the location and accommodations.
Yellowstone is home to all kinds of geothermal activity, which just means the super-hot activity underground leads to things like Steamboat Geyser blowing hot water 300 feet in the air every five to seven days. We used the GyPSy Guide app in Yellowstone. It narrated while we drove, giving us history on the sites we passed and suggestions on what stops were worth the time.
We named the narrator Serge and made a fair number of jokes about his warnings not to step off paths because it could “bust the crust.” Jokes aside, even the kids self-patrolled themselves to stay on the path and keep a safe distance from wildlife. Well, mostly.
He's playing it safe compared to the tourists who think selfies with bison are a great idea.
We saw plenty of tourists saunter right up to bison for a photo opp. Or inch up to a mother elk to get a better view of her adorable fawn. Days after we left the Mammoth Springs area of the park, we saw news reports of a Yellowstone employee injured by the elk that spend time grazing in that area.
Then we saw this video on the news of a man who ignored more than five signs, jumped barriers and went walking across the Prismatic Spring area. He's facing thousands in fines and possible jail time, and is lucky he wasn't seriously burned. Boundaries protect people and things. Especially as parents, we shouldn’t feel guilty for drawing those lines for ourselves and our kids.
Lesson #5: There’s always someone better, braver or more equipped. That's no reason not to try or enjoy.
Grand Teton National Park
Must-do: The view of the snow-capped mountains behind Jenny Lake and the hike around Jenny Lake.
We didn’t have time to do much more than admire the breathtaking views in the Grand Tetons and make a short stop at Jenny Lake on our way to the Jackson Hole ski area in Wyoming. We had tickets for the aerial tram, which rises 10,000 feet in just minutes – in the winter packing 100 skiers and their gear on each trip.
Jackson Hole Aerial Tram.
The view of Jackson Hole from the top.
As we traveled up the mountain, I looked at crescent ski tracks on what looked like vertical cliffs and my stomach flipped. I thought back to the rock climbers hanging from the face of Devil’s Tower and the backpackers high in the mountains and felt a twinge about my role as a tourist in these parks – not someone who belongs in the way these true outdoorsmen do.
It’s ok to do things I enjoy or think I might enjoy, even if I’m not the best at it. There’s not enough time in life to master everything. Doesn’t mean I can’t have fun dabbling.
Lesson #6: Just because something seems impossible doesn’t mean it is.
The Delicate Arch and Balanced Rock top the list of postcard-worthy images at Arches. Both look physically impossible. But yet, there they are. I’m so guilty of facing problems and deeming them impossible situations. Thinking I can see every possible outcome and feeling helpless when I don't like a single one.
Impossible situations can replace joy with hopelessness. Productivity with defeat.
The red rocks at Arches serve as towering reminders that the impossible has been happening for thousands of years. There are explanations we don’t understand and solutions beyond our imagination – that’s a recipe for hope.
Lesson #7: Teaching our kids to be kind matters more than any adventure.
Canyonlands National Park
Must-do: The initial view from the lookout across from the Visitor’s Center at the Island in the Sky area of the park.
This park’s biggest lesson came from another visitor. A mom who swore and flipped off two of the kids in our group because she saw them throw a rock near an arch. First point: our kids shouldn’t have thrown rocks. Second point: this woman dropped an F-bomb and flipped the bird at a high school and elementary school kid over a thrown rock. Really?!
Canyonlands offers panoramic vistas and lizards and blooming cacti – and that women’s outburst was the ONLY thing our kids talked about the rest of the day. What a bummer. I treasure the national parks, and I wasn’t happy about the rock throwing, but showing love, kindness and respect to other people trumps even the parks.
Lesson #8: Community means making time to share meals with others, help others, connect with different generations and honor those who came before.
Mesa Verde National Park
Must-do: Well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan housing nestled right into the cliffs. $5-per-person guided tours.
The guide for our tour in Mesa Verde was native Puebloan and started the tour by tossing four laminated pictures in the dust and asking us to stand by the image we thought best illustrated “community.” One was a table filled with food, the second an older hand holding a younger one, the third the white headstones at Arlington National Cemetery and the fourth, people building a house.
Our guide made the point that community has meant the same thing throughout the centuries. The people in a healthy community still share meals together, help one another, and honor different generations and their fallen comrades.
I don’t invite neighbors or friends to dinner as much as I should because the thought of getting the house and food ready can be daunting. My family sometimes misses opportunities to serve our community or help others because we’re busy running to kid activities. People have depended on their communities for hundreds of years, and the building blocks of those communities stand the test of time.
There’s nothing wrong with my kids’ activities, but the time we made last summer to welcome home veterans deeply impacted my kids. It also honored previous generations and all the things we’ve learned as a country through their sacrifices. I need to be more intentional about building community in these type of ways.If you want to learn more about Honor Flight or do a family activity to honor veterans, check out our Honoring Veterans service project in a box.
Lesson #9: Keeping life a little simpler makes it easier for priorities to stay in the right place.
Our guide explained how his ancestors lived and farmed. They built housing into the existing cliffs and stabilized them so well the mud and wood structures still stand 800 years later. Every hundred years or so the community moved to a new area to let the Earth replenish itself. They had different jobs and people moved into positions based on their strengths and interests.
Life can seem so complicated . I fill my schedule and add things to my house when what I probably need to do is subtract rather than add. The more I have and the more I do, the easier it becomes to lose track of what really matters. I sweat the small stuff because there’s just so much stuff.
A book on my to-read list is Destination Simple by Brooke McAlary about the growing number of people "choosing to slow down, simplify, say no and focus on the things that are truly important."
Lesson #10: The decision to have a good attitude makes unplanned twists an adventure rather than a stressful experience.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Must-do: Sledding and surfing down the dunes on rented boards - grab the boards from The Oasis on the way into the park.
Our day at the dunes presented some challenges. We watched the black clouds in the distance as we drove in and rented our sand sleds and surf boards at $20 apiece. We stood with purchased sleds/boards and watched lightning bolts behind the dunes. We comforted crying children with sand in their eyes and welts on their legs from sand hitting them at 15 miles an hour. This could have felt like a bad day.
But there was a 45-minute window of warmth and calm winds where we sledded and surfed. We took pictures as the storms rolled in and rolled out. We admired the dunes lying at the base of the mountains in landlocked Colorado.
We left with great memories because we decided to have a good day. Embracing the unexpected is not usually one of my strengths. Being with friends kept my attitude in check, and hopefully this memory will nudge me the next time things don’t go according to my plan.
I didn't come back from this trip rested, but I came back in a much better place mentally. The fun, adventure and perspective will keep my bucket filled until the next trip comes along.
Until next time National Parks!