Category Archives: Outdoors

Family adventuring in the Caribbean

A few months before Christmas we warned our children that we did not want presents to be the focus of the season. We were going to think about what we wanted to give. No lengthy lists of all the items they wanted for Christmas. This season was going to be about the Savior and what we could do to be more like him. Shocking us, one of our children actually said, “I think that will help us all be happier.” Wise little souls they can be.

What we didn’t tell them was that our family Christmas present was going to be a surprise trip to Mexico, leaving the day after Christmas. On Christmas morning, they unwrapped a few little gifts they had gotten for each other and opened their stockings with treats from Santa. Then they each got one gift bag from Mom and Dad. As they looked inside and found a swimming suit, flip flops, and snorkel set, they got a little suspicious and all looked our way, waiting. We sat there and just said “Merry Christmas!” They stared. We giggled and then said, “OK, we have one more thing.” Then we gave them each an envelope with a bow. Inside the envelope, each child found a copy of a plane ticket to Cancun and a few photographs of the white sand, turquoise beaches we’d be enjoying for the next week. They jumped and screamed and Ellie even said “I knew you were going to do something like that!!” She’s very perceptive. So we packed our bags that day and took off the next morning for the Yucatan.

We had lived in Mexico when our oldest was just a year and a half and spent a month enjoying one of the most beautiful, geologically diverse places I’d ever been. Underground rivers, cenotes, tropical forests, beautiful beaches, Mayan ruins…it’s an adventure paradise. So I couldn’t wait to bring the kids back to explore. We decided to do our lodging on the cheap through Air BNB, which worked out great. Nothing fancy (as in, our place was on the fourth floor and the elevator only worked about 1 out of every 5 trips and when it stormed one day we had water leaking through window onto the bedroom floor). Still, we had a great view of the ocean from our balcony window, an infinity pool pool to enjoy, and awesome boogie boarding waves just steps away. The kids were in heaven.

Because we felt great about the money we were saving on our accommodations, we decided to splurge a bit on a couple of day-long excursions. Our first big outing took us an hour and a half south to an eco-adventure park called Xel-ha. The first thing I loved after we walked in was knowing we could go to any restaurant and eat whatever we wanted–and not have to worry about dishes. (I’m a mom cooking and cleaning for 6 daily so you see the draw.) Now we were on vacation! Zach got the biggest kick out of the soda stations where he could just stop, get a drink of whatever he wanted, leave his cup, and carry on to whatever cool activity was next on the agenda.

The park is nestled on the edge of the ocean where a giant, clear lagoon works its way to the coast from a ways inland. We rode bikes to the top of the lagoon, then snorkeled down. We floated in tubes, we zip-lined, we cliff jumped, we rode a giant waterslide down from the top of a lighthouse, and we zip biked through a rainforest (basically riding a bike in the air attached to a cable above so you can soar over cenotes, through caves, beside waterfalls). The girls and Scott even got to do a dolphin interactive experience, which they loved. We kept all our stuff in lockers so we could just walk around in swimsuits, playing, swimming, and stopping in restaurants when we got hungry. The weather was lovely, and after a short afternoon shower we even looked up to find a rainbow arching over the place. Heavenly.

We left Xel-ha wet, happy, and full of delicious Mexican food then spent the next day relaxing back at our condo. Then we were ready for another adventure. We had heard about a tour company called Alma’s LDS Tours, which offered a specific Book of Mormon emphasis to some of the Mayan ruins. We decided that sounded just right for us. The tour bus picked us up at 7 a.m. and we headed back down south to explore the ruins of Tulum and Coba. Tulum was a gorgeous civilization built between the 13th and 15th centuries right on the Caribbean coast. Our wonderful tour guide Arnie shared the history of the area and then pointed out interesting LDS tidbits, like the many carvings of what has been dubbed the “descending God,” a figure that looks like it is coming down from heaven to live among the people. Book of Mormon scholars think that the Nephite civilization could have been just south of this area so the story of a God coming down from heaven sounds a lot like 3 Nephi, when Christ comes down to heal and teach the Nephites.

In the ruins of Coba, first settled around 100 A.D., we found more Book of Mormon similarities, such as a carving of a tree with two men that looked rather unhappy and turned away from the tree, and another two men walking toward it. Lehi’s Tree of Life perhaps? Our tour guide also asked Zach to read from the Book of Mormon where we learned about raised roads that paved the way between cities (see 3 Nephi 6:8).

We read this scripture standing in an area where there is evidence of an ancient road raised off the ground (or “cast up” as it reads in the Book of Mormon). How cool is that? The Book of Mormon is a record of an ancient civilization that would have been near the ancient people of the Yucatan. I loved thinking about these histories and the way the people lived and loved and worshiped many hundreds of years ago. Plus, it’s significant to remember that Joseph Smith hadn’t been on vacation recently to the Yucatan when he was translating the plates. He just wrote down what he saw. Coba wasn’t officially discovered in modern times until 1926, 82 years after Joseph Smith died.

Our last stop was at a beautiful cenote (or pool of water in a cave fed by the underground rivers that run through the Yucatan) where my kids completely peer pressured me into jumping off the highest platform I ever have into the water below. I think it was Eleanor Roosevelt who said “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Check. We drove home, first stopping to drop off another family at an all-inclusive place that we were told cost $800 per person per day. The kids asked if we could do that next time. We laughed. “Um, probably not.”

All in all, the trip was an incredible success. We got everything we were looking for: family time, warm weather, the beach, culture and history, and lots of adventure. It wasn’t easy getting on the plane and realizing that in four hours the temperature outside was going to go from 80 degrees to 20. Luckily, these sorts of experiences don’t completely get left behind with the weather. We keep them in our minds and hearts and remember them forever. I have a feeling that this December we might just give our children the same warning that we will not be honoring wish lists for toys and clothes. We want to give something more–something that last a lifetime.

Twelve Fun Places to Take Your Kids This Summer in Salt Lake Valley

Summer is coming. I sense it with a mix of excitement and dread. I love having my kids home and getting to see their cute faces all day. But ALL DAY is a long time when we are talking about 2 and a 1/2 months. We need a plan. They have a few things going on that I can count on–sports and art camps and a few daily must do’s, like chores, music, math, and reading. But I find that having one day a week where we plan a fun outing together gives us all something to really look forward to. Call it “Take-a-Trip Tuesday” or “Field-Trip Friday” or just “Let’s-Get-Out-of-the-House-Before-Mom-Goes-Crazy Day.”  Whatever you call it, you’ll feel armed and ready to experience plenty of adventures with your kids this summer if you have a list in your back pocket. Here are some of our favorite stops in the Salt Lake Valley:

  1. Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. I’m a grown woman who has never tired of watching orangutans, gorillas, giraffes, lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). All of these and so many more amazing creatures you’ll find at the zoo, along with a great little water play area for cooling down when it gets hot. Admission: $16.95 (adults), $12.95 (children 3-12). Annual family membership: $149 
  2. Clark Planetarium in downtown Salt Lake. We love the free interactive exhibits at the planetarium, where kids can learn about Earth, our solar system, and outer space. Cool educational IMAX and Dome Theater shows about the sun, black holes, the Amazon, extreme weather, the moon and more play daily. Show tickets for ages 3 and up are $7. Make it extra fun by riding TRAX downtown.

3. Hiking in Big Cottonwood Canyon. We love getting up in the mountains to explore rocks, trees, water, animals and all the other beauties of nature. And guess what? If you live in Salt Lake Valley,you are only minutes away from some amazing options. A few of our favorite fairly easy hikes are Mill B South Trail, Bells Canyon Reservoir, and Donut Falls Trail. I have a two year old, so he would normally ride in a backpack (on my husband’s back!) when we hike. But he can meander for a ways on his own, and I can get a great workout if I decide to haul him on my shoulders. Win-win!
4. Red Butte Gardens in Salt Lake City. This is a fun way to explore the outdoors (without as much hiking as you’ll get in the canyons). You’ll find over 100 acres of display and natural gardens, walking paths and hiking trails. The whole family can enjoy activities year-round including concerts, classes, festivals, events, and exhibits. Admission: $12 (adults), $7 (children 3-17).5. The Natural History Museum in Salt Lake City is a fun and fascinating look at natural history subjects, with an emphasis on Utah and the Intermountain West. Kids will enjoy the many interactive exhibits (mine especially love the dinosaurs). Admission: $14.95 (adults), $9.95 (children 3-12). 6. Tracy Aviary and Liberty Park in downtown Salt Lake. If you love birds, this is the stop for you. With 8 acres that feature our colorful feathered friends, you might just feel like you’ve entered the Amazon. Admission: $11.95 (adults), $7.95 (children 3-12). Also in central Liberty Park are a few fun carnival rides that my kids love to hit (the ferris wheel especially). Before you head home, consider stopping by the pond to see the ducks and maybe rent a paddle boat! 7. Discovery Gateway in downtown Salt Lake is a hands-on, interactive children’s museum with dozens of fun options for kids of all ages, including obstacle courses, a pretend grocery store and gardens, a fun gravity exhibit, and a life-flight helicopter to explore. Admission: $9.508. Treehouse Museum in Ogden offers interactive, hands-on exhibits and experiences with a focus on literacy and creating a lifelong love of reading. I haven’t been here yet but hope to take my kids this summer. Admission: $5 (adults), $7 (children 1-12).9. The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium in Draper is a beautiful hands-on aquarium, home to 4,500 animals representing 550 species. Our favorite part is the underwater shark tunnel that makes us feel like scuba divers in the Caribbean. Admission: $19.95 (adults), $14.95 (children). Family membership for up to four children: $189. 10. Lagoon in Farmington offers spinning, soaring, flying, and falling for all ages.  If theme parks are your thing, look no further. Admission: $39.95 (48 inches and under) and $55.95 (over 48 inches).11. Thanksgiving Point in Lehi. You truly could spend your whole summer here. You’ll find Farm Country, the Museum of Natural Curiosity, the Museum of Ancient Life, and the Thanksgiving Point Gardens along with concerts, summer camps, cooking classes, restaurants, gift shops, and a farmers market. Annual family membership: $220. Museum admissions: $15 (adults), $12 (children), .

12. Seven Peaks in Salt Lake City and Provo. After receiving 17 emails from Groupon and KSL about this deal, I finally caved and bought the Pass of All Passes for $20 a person. But guess what? We’ve been to these waterparks twice already and it isn’t even summer yet! My kids have had a blast. Tubes, slides, waves, and rivers…this may very well be our favorite stop all summer (and we’ll go again, and again, and again…because we can).

So, yes. Summer is coming, ready or not. Don’t worry. Aside from the daily bouts of sibling squabbles and occasional boredom, you’ll have a wonderful time together. Especially if you have a few fun plans along the way. And before you know it, those favorite people of yours are going to be back in school all day, and you’ll miss them like crazy. It happens to me every summer. Let’s make every day count.

8 Reasons to Take Your Kids Camping This Summer

I like a nice hotel as much as the next gal. You know . . . jacuzzi, swimming pool, soft king-sized bed, fluffy pillows, crisp white sheets, and cushy slippers. What’s not to love? But every summer from the time our first child was 6 months old, we have taken our kids camping. We’ve been to dozens of beautiful places filled with natural wonders that you just can’t experience the same way unless you are sleeping right there in it. With the stars above, songs around the campfire, and sleeping with now 6 of us in one tent, it’s a tradition that I now treasure. Here are five reasons you might want to consider pitching your own tent this summer too:

  1. It fosters a break from technology. Technology is running rampant in our fast-paced, plugged-in, high-tech world and it is stealing the attention of our little ones. Don’t get me wrong–I like a good movie and I appreciate my iPhone with all it’s cool gizmos and gadgets. It’s how I listen to podcasts on my morning jog or audio books while I’m folding laundry. And it is a perfect tool for capturing photos and videos of our life. BUT recent research says that kids ages 8-18 are spending an average of SEVEN HOURS a day in front of screens. That’s a lot of time that kids aren’t having experiences in the real world–spending time with family, exploring, playing with friends, and problem solving. Which brings me to my next reason:
  2. Being in nature makes you better at problem solving. According to cognitive psychologist Dr. David Strayer at the University of Utah, being in nature (away from technology) for three days actually made people 50 percent better at solving problems! I read about this research in National Geographic and called Dr. Strayer to ask for more details. What is it about getting away that makes our brains function better? As he said, “The technology actually makes us pretty distracted. Our brains can only process so much.”
  3. Being in nature makes you healthier physically. I don’t know about you, but when we go camping, we are not sitting around our tent all day drawing in the dirt with sticks. Yes, we do that for some of the day, but mostly we are out and about. We have picked a place to explore for some reason or another (maybe because of its beauty or its history or its cool hiking challenges) and we spend our days exploring. The childhood obesity epidemic is real enough, and the problem is linked to inactivity. It is impossible to be stationary when you are hiking to see beautiful waterfalls in Yosemite or biking a path with dozens of geysers on either side of you in Yellowstone or swimming in the luke warm waters of Lake Powell (all things I highly recommend).
  4. Being in nature makes you healthier mentally. Think about it–how do you feel when you are sitting in a park, green and blue surrounding you? Or lying down in the grass, watching the clouds go by? Or walking a trail surrounded by the brilliant colors of flowers? Stress goes down, relaxation goes up. Researchers who study this have found that people who simply live near parks are less likely to have 15 diseases, including depression, anxiety, ADHD, and asthma. In one study, even being able to see trees through a window helped people perform better in school, recover faster in hospitals, and get along better with others! What surrounds you when you are camping? Usually–trees. Lots, and lots, of trees.
  5. You connect more as a family. Our kids LOVE playing with their friends. Our oldest son especially is asking almost constantly to have friends over to our house or to go hang out at his friends’ houses. I thought this phase wouldn’t happen until he was a teenager. He’s eleven! Still, friends are healthy and good, so I support it (within limits). BUT I love getting so much of his attention when we steal away together as a family. You know who else loves it? His sisters! They don’t get a lot of his time when we’re at home. But when we are hanging out together camping–with no screens or friends to be seen–our three older kids can’t seem to get enough of each other. (I mean, we go through the normal family spats too, but overall, they discover how much they like each other). Yay for family time!
  6. You get to see beautiful places. Truly–some of the most incredible places I have ever seen I experienced camping. Some of my favorites are Yosemite National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon. Over spring break we took our kids on a beach trip to San Diego and stayed at an amazing campground called Campland By the Bay, complete with hot tubs and swimming pools (seriously, if you like California, you should check it out). This summer we are taking our kids to explore the San Juan Islands and two other national parks in Washington. And for my husband’s 40th birthday, we are backpacking in Kauai. These are adventures of a lifetime, and they are doable!
  7. You get to work together as a family. I don’t know about you, but our regular life doesn’t consist of a whole lot of working all together as a family (especially when Dad works all day at an office). Sure, everyone has their individual chores–but it’s not like living on a farm where EVERYONE was involved in working hard toward the same end goal. Camping gives us that opportunity. There is a tent to set up and sleeping bags to unroll and mats to lay out and food to cook and dishes to clean and we are all right there doing the work together. It’s a very bonding experience.
  8. It’s cheap. Think you can’t afford to travel? Think again. Once you have your tent, sleeping bags, and maybe a little camping stove, you’re set. It only typically costs around $15-$20 for a campsite through the National Parks Service at www.recreation.gov.

So, yes, I like hotels. And I like the creature comforts of home. But camping has so many awesome benefits that it’s hard to find an excuse not to go. If you think you aren’t a camping sort of person, I dare you to try it. I bet you’ll be surprised.

 

Summer in Yosemite

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Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park

After experiencing gorgeous waterfalls, blue skies, granite cliffs, and colorful meadows, Yosemite is now one of my favorite places on the planet. Our family visited at the end of July, and I just couldn’t get enough of the cool hiking experiences and breath-taking views. I think I said “Wow” more times in one day than ever in my life. If you haven’t been here, please go.

My favorite hike was on Mist Trail, where we hiked the few miles and hundreds of stone steps to this incredible waterfall. You could actually see a rainbow in the sunshine and mist at the bottom of the falls. This was a great hike for our kids–challenging but doable, with a great reward at the end. We thought the end of our journey would be the falls, but to our surprise, just past the falls was a giant pool of water, complete with natural rock waterslide!

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Natural waterslide at Emerald Pools.

Despite none of us having swimsuits, most of us somehow ended up in the water. My son was the first to throw his shirt and shoes to the side and jump in. Then my daughter joined. My husband and his brother got in and swam over to the waterslide. Then my sister-in-law (more adventurous than I ever realized) said she was going for it, fully clothed. I started to realize this was not an opportunity to miss, so I counted down (my perennial weakness) and jumped in the frigid water alongside her. We swam over to the waterslide, hiked up the smooth rock surface where it was dry, then slid down into the water. Super fun!

If that wasn’t enough of a surprise, we also saw a bear (the only bear I’ve ever seen in the wild) traipse across the rock surface not 50 yards from where we had just slid down the rock. A bunch of teenagers who were on the same side of the pool started screaming and running toward the water. Luckily, the bear took no interest in them and just kept walking along until it disappeared back into the brush.

At night we camped just outside the park’s south entrance at Summerdale Campground. As we were setting up our camp, our camp neighbor shouted, “Scott, look!!” We looked up in the sky and there was a huge orange and pink meteor streaming across the sky, with tiny pieces breaking off so it looked like a dozen blazing shooting stars all together. It was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in the night sky. Our kids were enthralled. Amazing! Come to find out, it was apparently some kind of Chinese satellite junk. Not quite as cool, but still.

The other neat and unexpected experience at camp was crawdad fishing. I haven’t done this since I was a kid, but our camp host said we had to try it. So we put a hotdog on a string and literally, within minutes, we could see the crawdads in the water creeping toward it and climbing on. It took us a few tries to get the things out of the water and into a bucket, but eventually we caught 8 or so. We kept 6 to cook because, well, why not? We are all about new experiences. We boiled them and cracked them open. They tasted fine. A lot of work for the two bites out of each one, but it was fun.

Our little family miracle of the trip happened to our 10-year-old son Zach. He had just picked out a souvenir from the trip that day, a neat wooden pocketknife with his name etched in. While we were fishing (pretty much in the dark) his pocket knife fell out of his pocket. We all looked around but couldn’t find it anywhere. After all, it was wood colored. We said we’d try again in the morning. We suggested to Zach that he say a prayer, and went to bed. The next morning, Zach and Scott went for a walk and I said a quick prayer that, if it be God’s will for him to find this little treasure, he would find it. I understood that God may want Zach to have the lesson about taking care of his things, and I was open to that result. But that lesson is of course much less fun. The other lesson would be that prayer works, and sometimes you even get the answer you are hoping for. Well, right after I said my prayer, Zach and Scott came back with big smiles. Zach said he remembered walking by a particular poky bush that made him jump the night before, so they went there. Lo and behold, they looked down, in the wood and grass and dirt, and there was his pocket knife. Yay for little miracles!

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Playing at the bottom of Lower Yosemite Falls.

Another adventure was, when we went for a hike to Lower Yosemite Falls, which had another little surprise waiting for us: fun pools of water and lots of rocks for the kids the play in. We hadn’t learned our lesson about wearing swimsuits in this water haven, but we got in, again, in our clothes. The kids climbed and swam and splashed for hours. Too much fun.

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Granite Point

For a view of the valley, we drove out to Glacier Point, where we did a short walk to a lookout point. From there, we could see two waterfalls and 360 degrees of rocks, trees, meadows, and mountains. Beautiful.

On our way out of California, we decided to stop at Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park, mostly because we wanted more stamps for our National Parks passport books. OK, not really. Well, partly. We of course were excited to see what made those places so special, especially as we considered the 100-year anniversary of the National Parks system. Both parks were incredible. I especially loved the Congress trail with the huge groups of sequoia trees–the biggest trees in the world. It was incredible to be so dwarfed by nature.IMG_1308

Overall–an amazing, wonderful incredible trip with some of my favorite people. We will definitely do this again.

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Happy kids, enjoying the outdoors at Sequoia National Park.