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Monday 27 April 2020

National Parks Week

This past week has been National Parks Week here in the US.

While we haven't been able to get out and about to explore any of our favorite parks, they have been on my mind. So today I thought I'd share the National Parks that we have visited so far. Some of these have been sprawling parks filled with majestic landscapes while others have been historic parks showcasing important moments from America's past.

Here's a look at the National Parks we have visited by state...

Arizona is home to the National Park that is probably one of the first to pop into most peoples' heads when asked to name one. The Grand Canyon is truly spectacular and the scale is truly unimaginable. Photos really don't do it justice.

Grand Canyon
We've visited the Grand Canyon twice over the years. The first time was back in 2005, before the kids were born, when Kim and I visited the US on vacation from Sydney. On that trip we visited both the north and south rims of the canyon. They're quite different to each other, with the south rim being the dry, desert-like scenery that we tend to picture when thinking of the Grand Canyon, and the north rim being alpine and much greener. There was a distinct temperature difference too. In fact, the north rim is only open to visitors between May and October most years due to high snow fall. We visited the week before it closed for the season. Our second visit to the Grand Canyon was over Spring Break a few years back. We only visited the south rim on this trip, and as the kids were quite a bit younger, we didn't hike down into the canyon as far as we did on our first trip.

Given that we lived in California for 8.5 years, most of the National Parks that we have visited were located here. The San Francisco Bay Area is home to quite a few National Parks itself so visiting a National Park often required very little travel. That said, in all our time in California we never made it to Yosemite, which is one of the most well known National Parks in the state. We'll get there one day.

Alcatraz Island
Did you know that Alcatraz Island is a National Park? It is! We've visited Alcatraz twice and it's been a hit with both the kids and the adults each time. Technically, Alcatraz is free to visit, but there's only one company allowed to dock their boats there, and the ferry trip, of course, is not free. It also books up rather quickly so it's always good to book as far in advance as possible. Our first visit was in May 2012 when my parents visited from Australia. It was rather chilly despite being the end of Spring. Our second visit was in December 2018 and I was fully prepared with warm jackets for everyone, but it turned out to be a much warmer day. Ah, that crazy unpredictable San Francisco weather! The self guided tour is incredibly interesting and takes in many parts of the prison and the island. Did you know that the families of the wardens lived on Alcatraz too? Their kids even went to school on the island. Even if you're not interested in history, Alcatraz is a wonderful day out with stunning views over the Bay. The ferry ride there alone is worth it.

Cabrillo National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument is located along the coast near San Diego. We visited over Winter Break in 2015 and as you can see from the pictures it was incredibly windy. We took in the views over San Diego's water front as well as a visit to the historic Old Point Loma Lighthouse which was built in 1854. We watched the sun set over the city and it was just lovely. There are lots of hiking trails here and tide pools down on the beach.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area
Golden Gate National Recreation Area encompasses a large area of San Francisco's waterfront and the Marin Headlands across the Golden Gate Bridge. This area includes several smaller National Parks such as Muir Woods, Alcatraz, Lands End and Fort Point; a few of which I've shared here in this post. Because this National Recreation Are is so large, we've visited many parts of it on many different occasions over the years. From beach trips, hikes through the Presidio, taking visiting family and friends to Crissy Field, and even celebrating the National Parks 100th birthday. One of my favorite things about this area (and San Francisco in general) is that there are views of the Golden Gate Bridge from so many different perspectives.

Joshua Tree National Park
We visited Joshua Tree over Winter Break back in 2014. I had been super excited about visiting Joshua Tree, but one thing I didn't take into consideration was just how cold it would be there. In fact, it snowed during our visit! Can you believe that? Because I wasn't expecting it to be so cold, none of us were dressed for the weather (I only had sandals and Kim didn't have anything long sleeved). This meant that for much of our visit to Joshua Tree we were in the car. I would've loved to have gone hiking here, but it was simply far too cold. Driving through the park was still a highlight of our trip though. We saw some stunning sights, including giant joshua trees, towering boulders and spiky cholla cacti, and the kids were able to take part in the junior ranger program and earn new badges for their collections.

Mojave National Preserve
We haven't visited a National Park as a family since last Summer, but on my recent trip to Palm Springs for Alt Summit (which I promise to share soon) I drove through Mojave National Preserve with my friend Sareka. Being a desert locale, you would imagine that there's not an awful lot to see in Mojave National Preserve, but it's actually quite the contrary. The desert is alive with joshua trees, cacti, chollas, wildflowers, lizards, roadrunners, hummingbirds, and so much more. That's just what we could see. The joshua trees are always my favorite so I loved seeing so many of them as we drove through the preserve.

Muir Woods National Monument
Muir Woods is a popular tourist spot located just north of San Francisco's Golden Gate. We visited there twice during our time living in the Bay Area, although we did actually attempt several more visits. Seeing as Muir Woods is so popular it can be tricky to find a parking space, which means that several of our attempts to visits resulted in us going elsewhere for the day. If you do manage to find a park (or take the shuttle bus from Sausalito), Muir Woods is a lovely place to spend half a day. There are many different hiking trails with varying difficulty and accessibility. The kids loved seeing the towering trees and learning about them through the junior ranger program.

Pinnacles National Park
This National Park is a fairly short drive south of San Francisco, but unlike closer parks, it gets far fewer visitors. I really don't know why though, because the landscape here is stunning. Giant rocks rise from the earth creating walkable caves underneath. Parts of the park are shady, green and filled with moss covered rocks. Others face full sun and feel dry and arid. Then there are the caves. An afternoon hike here will leave you feeling like you visited several different parks.

Rosie the Riveter WW2 Home Front National Monument
This National Monument was located just a 20 minute drive away from our apartment but it too us about 8 years before we got around to visiting. Located right on San Francisco Bay in Richmond, Rosie the Riveter WW2 Home Front National Monument is a museum dedicated to the hardworking civilians of World War 2. Many of these workers were women who stepped up to work on war efforts while the men where away at war. The museum features lots of interesting and interactive displays and is incredibly informative. The kids really enjoyed the hands on aspects.

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park
This historical park is a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It's located right next to Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square on the waterfront. In fact, much of this Historical Park is a pier! The highlight here is the historic ships that line Hyde Street Pier. The views are the Bay are a highlight too.

Colorado has four National Parks as well as many more National Monuments, National Historic Sites and National Trails. So far in the almost two years we've lived here we've only visited one of Colorado's National Parks and it took us a while to get there despite being so close. We're hoping to cross more sites off our list this year. 

Rocky Mountain National Park
We've been living in Colorado for almost two years now and finally made it to Rocky Mountain National Park last Summer. We had tried visiting several times in the past but because it's such a popular place to visit on weekends our attempts had been thwarted by large crowds. Due to the pandemic RMNP brought in advance ticketing and this was a godsend for us! Now we could visit RMNP knowing that we'd actually get in. We planned out day at Rocky Mountain for when we had friends visiting from New York and it was such a lovely day. The cool mountain air was just what we needed in the hot Colorado Summer. We spent our time hiking around Bear Lake and driving the scenic road to the Alpine Visitor Center. We spotted moose, mule deer, chipmunks, elk and even a marmot who posed nicely for photos on a rock! The kids earned their Junior Ranger badges - another one for the ever expanding collection.

We visited Massachusetts during Summer Break in 2018 and fell in love with the state. So much history, beautiful landscapes, stunning architecture, and lots of delicious food. The weather wasn't so great during our visit (hot, humid and big rainy thunderstorms), but everything else made up for that. We visited two National Parks during our time in Massachusetts.

Boston National Historical Park
Did you know that there is a National Park right in the middle of Boston? There is, and it makes for a wonderful adventure, especially with kids. The Boston National Historical Park is spread over many famous Boston landmarks connected by the Freedom Trail. Due to the aforementioned thunderstorms and heat, we spread our journey along the Freedom Trail over two days, but you can easily do it in one. Along the trail we found historical graveyards with graves from the 17th century (I always love trying to find the oldest grave), Paul Revere House, Faneuil Hall, Bunker Hill Monument, Boston Massacre Site, and USS Constitution. The kids filled out junior ranger booklets and earned themselves new badges for their collections.

Cape Cod National Sea Shore
Cape Cod National Sea Shore is a sprawling park that runs along the coast of Cape Cod. We spent several days in the area after visiting Boston and it was beautiful - although due to several shark attacks many of the beaches were off limits. We visited lighthouses, hiked along trails, played at a few beaches (keeping an eye out for sharks!), and took in the beautiful scenery. Once again, the girls earned new junior ranger badges here.

New York
New York City is one of my all time favorite places to visit, but it's not the first place that springs to mind when you think of National Parks. Well, there are actually quite a few within the city itself (and many more throughout the state) and we've been to two of them.

Governor's Island National Monument
Our day spent on Governor's Island was one of the highlights to our Summer Break trip to New York back in 2018. The island, which is only open during the warmer months, is an amazing park right in the middle of the East River. It has plenty of green space to run around, trails through and around the island, fun playgrounds, cafes, camping, stunning views, and as if all that wasn't enough, it's also home to two National Monuments. Castle Williams and Fort Jay are both early 19th century military fortifications. We only got the chance to visit Castle Williams as we spent so long enjoying the rest of the island that we didn't make to to Fort Jay until closing time. It was nice to take in a little history during our visit.

Statue of Liberty National Monument
Now, this is one that the kids haven't actually been to, but I have. Back in 2006 I spent a few weeks working in New York and in my downtime I got out and about to explore the city as much as possible. One weekend I hopped on the ferry and made my way to Liberty Island to see the Statue of Liberty up close. It was such an amazing experience to see this symbol of America up close like this. I'd seen her from Manhattan and ferries many times, but you really can't appreciate the scale until you're up close. I hope to take the kids here one day.

Utah probably has to be the state with the most stunning National Parks of all. We've visited Utah on three different family vacations and have experienced some amazing sights. Our first trip to Utah was over Spring Break one year when we took in Zion National Park before heading to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Our second trip was over Winter Break when we visited Salt Lake City and the north of the state. During this trip we visited Dinosaur National Monument which shares a border with Colorado. It should have been snowy at the time, but we had unseasonably mild weather. Our third trip was this past Summer when we drove from California to Colorado. We visited many of the same places that we had seen on our previous trip and it was quite interesting seeing them in a different season. Arches National Park was the highlight of that trip, even if it was a gazillion degrees at the time!

Arches National Park
All those red rocks! Aren't they stunning? Arches National Park is filled with the most amazing red rock structures, carved by millions of years of wind and water erosion. As the name suggests, you can see quite a few arch shaped rock formations here, the most famous being Delicate Arch. It was incredibly hot when we visited and even though we waited until about 6pm to start our drive through the park, it was still over 105F. This meant that the kids weren't too keen to get out of the car much although I did do a little exploring by myself. I would definitely love to go back at a cooler time of year, and also see nearby Canyonlands National Park too.

Dinosaur National Monument
During our Winter visit to Utah we spent most of our time in Salt Lake City, exploring places nearby including Antelope Island and Thanksgiving Point. We took a couple of days out of our trip to travel to the top corner of the state to visit Dinosaur National Monument. We had anticipated snow and chilly temps but were met with surprisingly mild weather. We didn't even need jackets! The highlight of our visit to Dinosaur National Monument was seeing dinosaur bones up close. Now, most times when you see dinosaur bones they're been excavated from their original site and taken to a museum. Here the bones are still in their original location. This particular spot proved to be such a treasure trove of fossils that rather than digging them up, many were left in place and a large open plan building was built over the top to house them. When you enter the museum you will literally see a wall of dinosaur bones. It's pretty amazing. Some of the lower bones are accessible for visitors to touch. How often do you get to say that you got to touch a real dinosaur? The park is also home to stunning scenery, ancient pictographs, and campsites.

Zion National Park
Zion National Park is probably my favorite out of all the National Parks we've visited so far. Or at least, it's home to the most stunning scenery. Seriously, you won't find many places with more breathtaking scenery than what you'll see at Zion. The park itself is huge and really warrants at least a two day stay, however we only had one day here before heading on to the Grand Canyon. As the kids were still quite young (Mathilde was in a baby carrier much of the time) we stuck to fairly easy hiking trails. While we missed some of the parks most well known sights, including The Narrows, what we did see was simply beautiful. We'll definitely be back!

Washington is home to some gorgeous National Parks with mountains, waterfalls, hiking trails, towering trees and breathtaking vistas. The one National Park that we've visited in Washington is a little different to these.

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
Ok, so this one is a little unexpected given that the Klondike gold rush took part in Alaska and Canada, but there is a little museum in Seattle that makes up part of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. "Why in Seattle?" I hear you ask. Well, Seattle was the starting off point for most miners seeking to strike it rich in the Klondike. This park is actually just a museum. While it may be tiny, it's packed full of interesting information and artifacts about the Klondike Gold Rush. Kids can even earn a junior ranger badge here like mine did.

We visited our neighbor to the north early last Summer break while the crowds in National Parks were still relatively small. With the pandemic making travel a little tricky we decided to take a road trip and visit Yellowstone. We met up with some friends from Spokane, Washington seeing as Yellowstone was pretty much the half way point between our homes. We stayed in Jackson and drove to Yellowstone each day as the hotels within the park were closed. We had planned on also visiting Grand Teton (which we drove past several times) but we unfortunately had bad weather, and due to the heavy fog and clouds we couldn't even see the base of the Tetons let alone the peaks. The weather cleared on the day we drove home so we got a quick peak at the spectacular mountains as we drove past and they sure were stunning. We'll definitely be back!

I think that Yellowstone has to be one of the most spectacular National Parks we've ever visited, and so very different from anywhere else we've been around the world. Most people think of Old Faithful when you mention Yellowstone, but there's so much more to see here than just the famous geyser. In fact, in the area that Old Faithful is located there are dozens of smaller geysers and hot springs that are much more impressive. We spent two days in Yellowstone visiting as much of the park as we could. Mammoth Hot Springs and West Thumb were my two favorite areas and so very different from each other. We saw geysers, hot springs, mud volcanoes, travertine terraces, underwater geysers, waterfalls, canyons, and a lot of wildlife including bison and elk. 

We're hoping to cross a few more National Parks off our list this year. We're planning trips to Great Sand Dunes and maybe Mesa Verde here in Colorado, as well as the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave in South Dakota, and Indiana Dunes in Indiana. That last one is on my list purely for the name! Ok, and also because it looks like a fun place to visit. 

Have you visited many National Parks here in the US? I love to hear which ones are your favorites.

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