One of our nations least visited national parks, Great Basin National Park is a treasure trove for nature lovers who desire peaceful solitude or families who want educational opportunities in the wild. (This would be an amazing destination for a homeschooling family.) The park hosts around 100,000 visitors a year, a mere fraction of the visitors at the more popular National Parks. For comparison, Great Smoky National Park received nearly 1.5 million visitors in July alone. But there is much to be found for those who venture to this remote park (in Eastern Nevada, about 4 hours from Salt Lake City). In a short weekend, we saw 3000+ year old trees, explored a cave, harvested Pinon nuts, and saw the rings of Saturn and a nebula through a telescope.
Great Basin NP is a designated International Dark Sky Park. They certainly take advantage of the dark skies by offering an awesome astronomy program (stargazing, full moon hikes, and a star train). Aaron and I have always loved astronomy, so we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend the Saturday night astronomy program and gaze at the stars and planets through a powerful telescope – even if it meant messing with Sprout’s sleep. The sun was still setting fairly late, but we strapped Sprout to my chest and paced the patio of the visitors center in hopes that she would fall asleep while we got to enjoy the starts. She fought sleep at first, but eventually drifted into dream land. The ranger who led the program was knowledgeable and gave a wonderful presentation. We were impressed (which is saying something, because Aaron’s PhD is in Physics)! After the presentation, the rangers located various celestial objects in the telescopes and everyone took turns looking through. We saw the rings of Saturn, a nebula, and a Messier globular cluster. The lines were a bit long, but I imagine they would be shorter if it weren’t a holiday weekend.
The park also hosts an Astronomy Festival around the end of September every year with educational activities and stargazing galore. I can’t wait to attend the Festival when Sprout is a bit older and can more readily appreciate all they have to offer!
After our fantastic experience with the cave tour at Mammoth Caves in 2015, we knew we had to check out the caves at Great Basin. The tours are an excellent value (only $8-$10 for adults, free for toddlers). Our tour guide was not the most patient and seemed less enthusiastic than the National Park tour guides we have encountered in the past, but the tour was still a wonderful experience. Sprout was excited to use her flashlight and the tour guide had said he’d let people know when it wasn’t okay to do so, so we were surprised when he scolded us for having the flashlight on during his introductory talk and then was annoyed by the crying child. Had he told us to wait to turn it on the flash light, we could have avoided the whole fiasco! Nonetheless, Sprout was in awe of the cave and we really did enjoy the experience.
Hiking and the Bristlecone Pines
Great Basin NP has hiking trails for all types of hikers from the gentle nature trail to more strenuous peak summits. With only a short visit, we opted for a easy-moderate hike on our first day to view the Bristlecone Pines. Although the trail only climbs 600 ft, the high elevation does make the hike a bit more challenging. Usually wildlife viewing in national parks involves bison, bears or bats. However, the ancient Bristlecones were some of the most astounding wildlife we have seen in any national park. To think of how the world has changed in just one of their lifetimes….
The beginning portion of the Timber Creek Trail was the perfect “before driving a long distance” trail as it gave Sprout time to explore and stretch her legs. With Dr. Who secured in her camelbak she moseyed along the path, crossing bridges, tossing rocks into the creek, and finding hiking sticks… all the things that delight a hiking toddler. We all enjoyed a picnic lunch along the water before hitting the road home.
Only one of the park’s seven campgrounds takes advanced reservations (Grey Cliffs Campground, which includes some group sites). However, given the parks level of popularity, it is unlikely that you will have a problem finding a campsite. If you are worried, try to arrive early. We visited the park on Labor Day weekend, and while the campgrounds were full when we arrived at midnight (we opted to sleep in the car with our handy hammock), we were able to find a campsite at Wheeler Peak Campground in the morning.
Wheeler Peak Campground sits at nearly 10,000 ft elevation. The campsites are generally large and well shaded by towering trees, but the high elevation means strong winds and colder temperatures. At night, the wind whipped our tent around, similarly to the storm we experienced in Canyonlands the previous year, but without rain. It was so strong that Aaron was concerned that a tree would fall on us. If you have the choice, this would likely be a fantastic campsite during the heat of the summer (July), but I would recommend choosing a lower elevation campsite for the cooler months. It is truly a beautiful campground. Sprout enjoyed playing “toss the pine cone in the bucket”, helping pitch the tent, and exploring the campsite.
Lower Lehman Creek, Upper Lehman Creek (was closed in summer 2016), and Grey Cliffs Campgrounds are all fairly close to each other and close to the visitors center. Though the sites may get a bit warm in the afternoon summer heat, many of the sites did have considerable shade and bushes that provided some privacy. If we were to go in May, early June, or September, we would likely try to get a site at Lower Lehman Creek Campground.
We woke up to a beautiful, blue-sky Sunday in Logan and a hiking-compliant toddler. Gleeful as parents of a toddler can be, we grabbed our water bladders, backpack, snacks and new baby carrier out of the closet, and after a quick pancake breakfast, we were in the car headed toward Richmond, Utah, and the Cherry Creek canyon trail.
The trailhead is in the parking lot of Cherry Creek Ski Area, in the “Additional Parking” section above the lodge, so no need for a high clearance vehicle. There’s a sign designating parking for the trail; trailhead elevation is 6000’. As we geared up, Sprout told us she wanted to walk (Hiker in Training, success!), and we set off up a primitive road through some private property. The meadows adjacent to the canyon’s mouth were covered with thousands of yellow flowers, Arrowleaf Balsamroot—beautiful!
Quickly, the road funnels onto a gently inclined footpath that parallels Cherry Creek. The significant snowpack still on the mountain was contributing to the fast water that captured Sprout’s attention over the duration of our hike. At one point, she claimed to have counted 13* waterfalls!! The cascading water is impressive this time of year; it feeds the trees that offer lush, green cover in the lower parts of the trail.
We took our time to reach the first bridge—a jerry rigged deal constructed from a downed tree and a branch/railing nailed into some upright trees. It’s not for the faint of heart, especially with the high runoff water. We secured Sprout in her carrier before crossing. Then, we promptly let her out in order to engage in her favorite activity, tossing stones into rushing water.
Having been on the trail for more than an hour (and having walked less than a mile), we figured Sprout would dictate our turn-around any minute now, but she kept pressing on, and soon we arrived at the second bridge—this one even more treacherous than the last. “Onward,” said the expression on her face, before she was snatched once again and secured in our carrier.
We stopped on the other side near some large rocks for lunch, and we were passed by a dude carrying a snowboard up the trail. Sprout was puzzled as we wished him well; the snowy ridge was only barely visible in the distance.
As if the lower trail were not breathtaking enough, this more elevated (and less shaded) part of the trail provided spectacular views of the snow-filled basin above us. There were a few captivating rock formations on the canyon walls in this area, aspen groves just beginning to gain their leaves, and evidence of avalanches resulting from the heavy snows last winter. It was clear that the trail here was only recently clear of snow, released from the grips of winter.
However, as our water supply dwindled (who would have expected Sprout to want to stay out on the trail this long?) we decided to turn back at we neared the snow line at about 7500 feet. We made a few stops for Sprout to take some more shots at the water with rocks. At our last stop, she reached for a floating stick and fell in. Luckily, we were able to scoop her out immediately. However, her clothes were soaked, and we had to remove them. Thankfully, we had our little picnic blanket on hand. Perhaps we’ll carry some spare clothes in the future!
Overall, this was a prime Cache Valley hike with beautiful views, easily rivaling the Bear River range’s crown jewel, Tony Grove, for little work. No part of the trail was overly steep, and the drive from Logan was about 20 minutes. I wish we had found it earlier.
*We will not corroborate her count, as her estimate was a bit post hoc for our liking.
Sprout found the perfect seat!
With the snow mostly gone from the valley, we pulled out our backpack, filled up our Camelbaks, and started to discuss our hiking plans for the next day. Aaron suggested the Five Hills Hike – a beautiful hike that inspires random outbursts of song, while dancing around with your arms spread wide like a young Julie Andrews. The hike seemed particularly fitting as Sprout is obsessed with the Sound of Music. However, after our hikes last summer (and our failures with snowshoeing this year – Sprout refused to ride on our backs) they often ended in frustration due to differing perspectives about how to hike between us and Sprout, I dreaded the idea of a fairly steep (too steep for Sprout’s own legs) and long-ish hike (There was a time when we though a 5-ish miles was a short hike. Oh how parenting changes your perspective). We needed a change of perspective.
So I proposed an alternative — a short and mostly flat hike that Sprout should be able to do on her own two feet. I want Sprout to enjoy our hikes. I want our hikes to be peaceful and enjoyable for all, to be quality family time and time with nature. Not the headaches of recent hikes. Something needed to change, and quite frankly that something was us, not her.
We needed new goals. Rather than aiming for a hike that got our heart pumping, we decided to focus on the other benefits of hiking… uninterrupted family time, connection with nature, and serenity. Once our goals changed it was easy to see how we needed to change how and where we hiked.
New goals led to different types of hikes. Instead of choosing cool hikes with awesome views and destinations, we began choosing hikes that allowed us to just walk without any pressure to get somewhere. No destination. No pressure to make it to that destination and back before dinner time. Just a peaceful walk in nature.
Our new criteria for a good family trail:
- Minimal elevation gain
- Near home (so we can visit often and not have to worry about how long or short our hike is)
- Flexible in length (so Sprout can hike as long as she’d like)
- Few or no serious hazards (i.e. no steep cliffs)
Giving Sprout choices and being flexible helped her get excited for our hikes.
- We try not to rush her out of the house for our hikes. She wants time at home to play with her toys and she doesn’t get much of it during the week (she is in daycare), so we try to give her some time in the morning to just be before heading out on our hike. This wasn’t really possible when we were trying to log longer hikes, but with shorter hikes, we can have slow mornings and still hike.
- We started asking her what type of hike she wants – a longer hike and nap on Mama’s back or a shorter one where she can mostly walk herself. She typically chooses the latter.
- We let her choose her snacks and packing her own bag (She uses a kids camelbak to carry her water, snack, and Dr. Who). We only fill the bladder with 0.5L of water so as not to weigh her down and because she doesn’t need more than that at this point.
- She decides when to walk and when she needs a break. Sometimes this is a rest on a rock or she’ll want to go on my back, but either is fine. We do try to encourage her to space out the breaks a bit (she often requests a snack break about 5 minutes into the hike), by encouraging her to make it to a certain tree or wait until we find a good rock, etc., but ultimately she can walk as much or as little as she wants.
- As she gets older, we may try some of these other tricks, such as toys, games, though we’ll probably continue to reserve whistles for emergencies only.
Lastly, we make a big deal about Sprout being a little hiker. We talk about how awesome nature is. We listen for the birds and talk about what we are seeing on the trail. We talk about what an awesome hiker she is and praise her for following trail rules – staying on the trail, picking up food/trash she drops, etc.
We are only a few weeks into this new approach, but I think we are all so much happier. Aaron and I still want to be able to go on longer hikes (we may start trying to do a few a month without Sprout), but we are able to be more mindful on these short hikes and that is good for our whole family… including our little hiker-in-training.
As a working mama, the weekend is my time be with my family and get some much-needed exercise in. When Sprout was younger (18 months and younger), our weekend hikes were a great opportunity for Aaron and I to talk, as Sprout was content just going along for the hike and we were free to hike which ever trails we wanted. I thought that hiking would get easier as Sprout got older… how I was wrong. (I’m sure it will get easier in a few more years).
By the end of last summer, it seemed like we all ended our hikes frustrated and angry, rather than reinvigorated and connected. It was all wrong and I found that we were going on hikes less often. Sprout wanted to explore every rock, leaf, and stick (very normal behavior for a 2-year-old) and take an hour to go less than a mile. She was angry if we tried to move her a long or put her on our backs, and we were frustrated that we wouldn’t be able to do the hike we had hoped to do. When she was on our backs (which she was only willing to do for short periods of time), she wanted to be in the conversation. She is quite the conversationalist. Aaron and I longed for our stress-free, heart pumping, meditative hikes that we once had.
So this year, we are taking a different approach (I’ll write about it soon, so stay tuned). We are working to become more patient and mindful, reminding ourselves that a child who appreciates nature is a wonderful thing. Give her time to explore and soon she will be complaining that we are too slow!
For those interested, we had a similar experience with snowshoeing this year (she refused to be on our backs)… I’m sure I’ll get use out of my new snowshoes eventually… 🙁
I am not an expert skier. In fact, I have only skied a handful of times in my life, so I may not be the most qualified to offer a review on skis. However, I don’t think most toddler skis are meant to created expert skiers (quite yet), so hopefully I can provide some insight for others hoping to expose their sprouts to skiing before they are ready for official lessons.
I scoured the internet and asked locals to find as many Halloween events as I could in Cache Valley! Please let me know in the comments if you hear of any other events, so I can add them to my list! The list is sorted by dates so that you can make sure not to miss anything that interests you. Happy Halloween!
Everyone needs a vacation, but with a little Sprout and a shoestring budget, our family has about one reasonable option: camping! Good thing it’s something we love to do. Around the holidays, our New Mexico family expressed interest in joining us on a camping trip in the mid-summer somewhere in the Four-Corners region. We eventually settled on planning a four-night camping trip at Mesa Verde because, not only is it a geographically unique and naturally beautiful feature, but it is culturally significant, with over 600 ruins of cliff dwellings built by the Ancestral Puebloans — including the Cliff Palace, the largest known cliff dwelling in North America.
After about 6 months of using traditional bibs and having the Velcro get stuck to all our towels and other things in the wash, I decided I was done with bibs. I made a few of these bib clips and never looked back. They are so functional, compact, and easy to make, I don’t know why they aren’t more popular. It didn’t take me long to realize that these little clips are good for much more than bibs at home. I keep one in my purse so that I can turn napkins into bibs at restaurants and we always have one with us when we hike to hold Sprout’s sleeping buddy: Dr. Who. Since these aren’t commonly found in stores, I decided to make a quick tutorial so that you all can experience their greatness as well! Let me know in the comments if you have found other uses for these clips!
With all our camping trip this summer, we are quite behind on our hiking posts. This trail, which we posted last year, is such an awesome hike that we did it again this past May. I wanted to make sure to post again with a bit more details for families (rather than just our story of the hike) so that I could add it to our Utah Hike List, even though the Riverside Nature Trail is no secret to locals. It was actually the first hike we did in Logan just over a year ago. It was beautiful then and is beautiful now.
My family and I are going to Mesa Verde National Park this week (a place I have wanted to go to for years), and I am super excited. As I do in preparation for any trip, I read about the park, the campground, and people’s experiences in general. One complaint seemed to come up repeatedly: there are no hooks, shelves, or soap in the campground bathrooms. Where do you put your toothpaste when brushing your teeth? where do you put your soap?, etc. We will be meeting up with my mom, sister and her family – dealing with multiple kids and stuff at the sink without anywhere to put things, seems like it would be an unnecessary challenge.