Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Zion National Park--Watching Kids Explore Nature

Zion National Park is part of the "Grand Circle" which also includes Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon.  Consequently, it hosts an astonishing number of visitors including many European and Asian tourists.  Reservations for camping are a must especially on weekends and in the summer. Though one campground is first come, first serve, it is unlikely to be available.  At our trip in early May, the campgrounds were completely full by 11:00 a.m. so we camped at the only neighboring campground in the city of  Springdale.  Fortunately, most of the park operates on a shuttle bus system which alleviates all the traffic jams common to other parks (most notably Yellowstone).  

Zion is a desert oasis with deep canyon walls, natural arches, and "weeping" rocks where the scant rainfall creates a hidden spring in the rock walls feeding plants and wildlife.  One of the few places the shuttle buses do not go is through a 1.1 mile long tunnel.  This side of the park is worth the visit both for the views and the tunnel experience, especially if you have time for the unpaved 1 mile hike to lookout point which takes you practically on top of a natural bridge.

The bulk of our visit was spent hiking--with 5 kids including a baby.  Most of the shorter trails are paved and we wished we had brought a stroller.  The best hike was to the weeping rock where after a handful of switchbacks, we came to a shallow cave where water poured from the rock creating a hanging garden of sorts.  The Emerald Pools is another great family hike that follows parts of the river and also includes a weeping wall.  Zion is best known for the Narrows which is too difficult for a family with small children, but the hike to the Narrows is well worth the effort ending where everyone can play in the cold waters of the Virgin River.  The Lookout Point, just after the tunnel, was our most difficult hike including a very narrow trail that was difficult at points for the younger children.  The view from this natural bridge was fabulous and the kids loved seeing what seemed like a million lizards.

We also picked up a set of junior ranger books for our children.  This program is amazing!  Children aged 5-8 complete the first third of the book, older kids complete two-thirds of the book, and the remaining pages are optional activities.  Not only were the activities very educational, they provided my children with something to accomplish and do when the wonders of nature were losing their charm.   Some of the activities included writing a poem about the park, doing a word search, identifying plants, participating in a ranger program, and exploring the visitor's center.  After the children finished their books, they were offered a patch or badge and given a chance to show their work to a ranger (one of my children had his patch sewed to his souvenir stuffed animal).

The ranger program was a surprise highlight of the trip.  We attended a program about the delicate ecosystem of the Virgin River, especially the native fish population.  The ranger had plenty of hands on examples and games. And the program was only about 30 minutes.

In the summer months, plan to float down the Virgin River on tubes where local companies will pick up families a couple miles down stream (the water is too cold the rest of the year).  Adventurous souls can also rent gear to hike the Narrows.

Though our family enjoyed Zion, both Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon are much better.  And it would take close to a week to try and do all 3 parks.  With my family, I try to limit our camping fun to 3 days at a time.

Whether you live close to Zion or another National Park, it is a great way to spend a weekend with your family reconnecting with the wonders of nature.


Friday, May 11, 2012

My Packing List for a Family of 7

With 5 kids, packing for vacation requires a checklist otherwise someone forgets a swimsuit and someone else forgets their phone charger and did I mention that someone (okay it was me) once forgot to pack diapers?  

For the first time, our entire family is flying (and not on Southwest) so the packing list has become even trickier--we have to fit everything into carry-on luggage.  That is going to be quite a sight at the airport--2 adults, 5 kids, a double stroller, 2 car seats, 5 carry-on suitcases, 4 backpacks, 1 diaper bag, 1 laptop/camera bag, and a playpen (really hoping not to have to bring the playpen).  

Usually my motto is less is more when packing.  But less still has to cover all the bases (like remembering the diapers).  So for our 11 day trip, we are each taking 5 outfits (plus the 1 each of us is wearing expect for the baby who gets a full 11 outfits but that is a different post).  Each person also gets a pair of pjs (2 pairs for kids under 5), a swimsuit, a jacket, a hat, and a pair of sneakers (we will be wearing sandals). Don't forget socks and underwear (including diapers, wipes, and pull-ups).  

Next is toiletries. This is where less is more is important.  Because of the sheer volume of shampoo and sunblock our family will use, I will simply buy those items upon arrival as well as razors and a few other sundries like beach towels and beach toys.  So the short list includes 4 combs, 2 brushes, 2 small make-up kits (1 lipstick, 1 compact eyeshadow, foundation, blush, and mascara), deodorants, electric razor, 7 toothbrushes, 2 toothpastes, floss, chapstick, perfume, 5 pairs of sunglasses, and 1 stress relief lotion.

The Other Necessities.  I always bring a small first aid kit including nail clippers, band-aids, Neosporin, and Advil.  A few dollar-store-ponchos, hand sanitizer, 4 cameras with extra batteries or plugs, my fitbit, laptop, nintendo ds, 4 ds games (including a "new" one purchased from a second hand store), 2 iPod touches (with 3 new downloaded apps), 2 iPhones (with chargers), an iPad (with 10 movies including a new movie), 5 reading books, 5 stuffed animals, money (including several quarters and single dollar bills for vending machines), 2 backseat books, 1 coloring book, crayons, pencils, 1 color wonder book with markers, a few small toys including matchbox cars, as many snacks as the kid's backpacks will allow, bibs, kleenex, 3 pacifiers, a baby sling, 2 sippee cups, a couple of necklaces, pairs of earrings, ponytail holders, 1 autograph book, and don't forget the Disney trading pins.  Thanks to technology, I store all my reservations on my phone as well as a money tracker for expenses (each child gets a souvenir allowance) so I don't have to pack a small notebook like my parents did.  

The other question I get asked is how long does it take to pack.  That is harder to answer.  Packing begins a few weeks in advance by making the list and gathering the right suitcases (in this case I am borrowing a few carry-ons).  It also includes arranging for a ride to airport.  The day before the trip, I will do all the laundry (that way everyone's favorite shirt is clean).  Consequently, everyone wears their worst clothes that day including stained and mismatched outfits.  With clean clothes, we then pack systematically starting with shirts, pants, etc working our way down the list. I call out an item and all the kids bring it me. They love this part, especially picking out their favorites clothes and proudly telling me which day they plan on wearing it.  So, how did I miss diapers?  I only wrote underwear on my list and in the mayhem of each child bringing me clothes I simply forgot to grab the baby's "underwear."  This process usually only takes an hour.  Electronics get charged and then packed.  Lastly, we grab toothbrushes minutes before walking out the door.  

Think this is nuts--you should see what we pack for car trips where space isn't quite so limited.  

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

5 Apps Your Kids will Love on Vacation

Virtual Diaper Bag

A decade ago, I would buy a few, cheap toys for vacation and throw them in my bag.  Something new to entertain little ones on a long road trip, plane ride, or in a motel room (we didn't even have dvd players in cars then).  Now, for the same price (or even less), I can buy a few new apps and keep everyone happy.  Though some apps require internet access (save those for the motel), most do not.  My smart phone is slowly replacing most of my diaper bag.  Here are my children's top 5 list.

#1--Age 3-10:  Where's My Water

       In the Disney game Where's My Water, you dig tunnels to connect a water source so the alligator can shower (a "good guy alligator" as my son calls it).  This is a maze type game with obstacles in creating the tunnels including bombs, switches, plants, etc.  Easier levels are perfect for younger children and the more advanced levels are challenging for older kids.  Let your children explore on the free version and then upgrade for $1.00 when they love it.  This game is really a physics lesson in disguise for budding engineers.

#2--Age 6-12: Tap Zoo 2 
 In this imaginative game you begin by building your own zoo (what kid doesn't want to do that?).  Then, you trade and cross breed animals collecting coins and experiences.  Add bathrooms, sell an animal to pay for another one, and grow your zoo.  This game teaches following directions, interacting with the zoo map, and a basic understanding of earning and spending "money."

#3--Age 0-2 1/2:  Sort Sliders 

     This cute baby app shows an object in the middle of the screen and then has you tilt the object left or right to match between the two choices.  If you are correct, a dog appears and gives a friendly bark.  If you are wrong, nothing happens until you tilt to the correct answer (at which point the dog appears).  Young children go crazy for the dog.  With only 2 choices and simple objects, this app is perfect for the littlest ones. It also teaches hand eye coordination, shapes, and matching.  Emerging talkers will enjoy naming the objects and colors.

#4--Age 8-Adult:  The Moron Test 
      The name kind of says it all.  Tweens love challenging adults hoping to watch them fail.  The puzzles appear simple enough, but are actually deceptively difficult.  Pass them all and become a genius; fail, and well, you might be a moron.  Can you pass the moron test?

#5--Ages 6-Adult: Cut the Rope
      As the name implies, the simple levels require a perfectly timed cut of the rope but as the puzzle levels progress it becomes increasingly more difficult to get the candy into the mouth of the Om Nom monster.  Though this game becomes somewhat repetitive, many players find it happily addictive.  This game provides a happy alternative to Angry Birds.

Endless Choices

With thousands of apps, there is something for everyone (including an an e-book for mom).  So next time you are headed off, skip the dollar store and surf the app store instead.  A few new apps will be well worth the money.