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Exploring the Historic Railroad Trail at Lake Mead

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Historic Railroad Trail, Lake Mead

Thanks to a recommendation from Oh Mah Deehness!, I decided a recent spring Saturday would be the perfect time to try a hike at Lake Mead’s railroad trail.

I’ve heard there are several cool tunnels along the trail. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to even the first tunnel.

But that’s life with a strong-willed kid whose attention span is a mile long.

Even though we didn’t come close to completing the trail, there were plenty of things for us to see along the way.

Historic Railroad Trail, Lake Mead

Spring is a perfect time for this hike, not only because the weather is great, but also because the wildflowers are in bloom. We also enjoyed some great views of Lake Mead and got to see an interesting bit of history. Along the way, we saw a sign pointing out several concrete plugs that rested next to the trail that had once been used in the construction of Hoover Dam. That’s certainly not something you see every day!

Historic Railroad Trail, Lake Mead

So, you may be wondering why we didn’t make it to any tunnels despite the fact that we were having a great time. Well, five-year-old E. wanted to stop and examine everything. Every wildflower, every view of the lake, every interesting rock. She also wanted to record her findings in her journal. She made plenty of nice sketches of her surroundings: the flowers, the boats docked in the lake, the mountains. I was happy to let her take her time…although eventually we had to call it a day and start heading home.

Historic Railroad Trail, Lake Mead

historic railroad trail, lake mead

Be sure to read up on this hike and Lake Mead in general prior to your trip. Have fun!

Visiting the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Winter

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Finally! I can’t believe it took me this long, but I am now able to cross off “Grand Canyon” from my travel wish list. An American icon and a truly miraculous natural wonder, the Grand Canyon is only a four-hour drive from Las Vegas. Yet it wasn’t until our second year as Nevadans that we visited this popular National Park.

Take a peek at a few of our photos:

Grand Canyon, south rim, in winter

Grand Canyon in winter

Grand Canyon, south rim on a chilly day

Hopi House, Grand Canyon National Park

Hopi House, Grand Canyon National Park

It’s always fascinating to visit such a famous place. I’d seen photos and heard about it so much that it almost felt like I’d been there before. It’s interesting how your expectations compare to the reality.

The Grand Canyon was exactly what I expected it to be, yet it was also awe-inspiring. Comprehending it’s size and depth was difficult, even in-person.

Have you visited the Grand Canyon? Did it meet or exceed your expectations?

A Perfect Escape to Estes Park, Colorado

Travelling with kids isn’t always perfect, but sometimes it’s pretty darn close. We recently spent three days in Estes Park, Colorado to help celebrate the birthday of my husband’s grandmother. Fourteen of us shared a rental house, which was quite an adventure. (Luckily, the house had five bathrooms!)

During our visit to Colorado, we went on a mountainside horseback ride, picnicked at Rocky Mountain National Park and took a stroll around the park’s Bear Lake, played mini-golf while watching the sunset on a fall-like evening, enjoyed great views from a tramway, and rode down an enormous slide.

I think my daughter summed it up as we were about halfway through our horseback ride: “This is the best day ever!”

Wondering if Estes Park should be in your plans for next spring or summer? Take a look at some of my travel photos and decide for yourself…

View from our horseback ride in Estes Park, CO

View from our horseback ride in Estes Park, CO

E and Shadow the horse. Estes Park, CO

E and Shadow the horse

Horseback ride, Estes Park

Horseback ride in Estes Park

Sunset from the mini-golf course. Estes Park, CO

Sunset from the mini-golf course

Miniature golf in Estes Park, CO

Miniature golf in Estes Park, CO

Bear Lake in September

Bear Lake in September

Family photo at Bear Lake.

Family photo at Bear Lake

View from our porch. Estes Park, CO

View from the porch of our rental

Giant Slide in Estes Park, CO


One Man’s Weekend Getaway is Another Man’s Day Trip

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Sometimes I wonder what the heck we’re doing. When my husband and I get antsy, it means that a day trip is in order. However, I’m pretty sure my family’s definition of “day trip” borders on delusion.

Here’s a taste of what we’ve been up to recently to help illustrate my point:

A day trip to Huntington Beach. I know what you’re thinking, so let me answer your question. Why yes, Huntington Beach is about a four-hour drive each way from Las Vegas. This little bit of madness was a joint effort between me and my husband, since I think I was the one who wistfully mentioned the beach, but it was his idea that this was a reasonable thing to do in one day rather than one weekend. We enjoyed some time at the beach, ate lunch at Sandy’s, and had post-sandcastle milkshakes at the 50’s-style diner, Ruby’s. We also spent a lot of time in the car.

A day trip to Zion National Park. When we had family in town, it was suggested that Zion is “just a couple hours away” and that we could totally drive there, look around, and come home in one day. Well, it turns out “a couple” is more like 3.5, and it didn’t help that we accidentally took the scenic route home. Although the Zion excurion wasn’t my husband’s idea, it did come from his side of the family, which I think demonstrates that crazy travel schemes are at least somewhat genetic.

We’ve got a lot planned for this summer: big adventures that involve flights and/or long drives, but also a few day trips near Las Vegas. Despite the crazy desert heat, I love this time of year! Something about summer makes you think you can go out and do anything…like drive 8 hours roundtrip, enjoy your destination, and get home in time to maintain your sanity.

Huntington Beach: a day trip or weekend getaway from Las Vegas

What do you think? Where is that fine line between “day trip” and “weekend getaway?”

Escaping the Heat at Mount Charleston

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Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, Mount Charleston, NV

I like to think of it as reverse-hibernation. While my Midwestern friends are updating their facebook pages with joyful pictures of their families outside in the nice spring weather, my Las Vegas friends and I are sighing. Pretty soon we’ll be the ones hiding indoors. A pleasant spring is drawing to a close, and it’s time to prepare ourselves for the hot temperatures that await us. We’re beginning to think about indoor activities, playdates at the park in the early hours of the morning, and how great it will be when fall rolls around and we can put away the sunscreen.

However, the hot Las Vegas temperatures can be mitigated by a trip to Mount Charleston, Nevada. Located about 30 minutes away from downtown Las Vegas, Mount Charleston is home to Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, which offers visitors picnic areas, hiking trails, and other outdoor fun in a slightly cooler environment. The recreation area is part of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, which covers 6.3 million acres.

Temperatures at Mount Charleston are often significantly lower than those found in the Valley. We noticed a distinct difference on our recent visit when we hiked part of the Fletcher Canyon trail on Earth Day.

For more information on activities and hiking trails within Spring Mountains National Recreation Area, check out this list of things to do from the Forest Service. You’ll also find some helpful tips to keep you safe during your outing.

Death Valley Advice

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The name sounds ominous, but Death Valley can be a fun day-trip if you plan ahead, arm yourself with plenty of water, and visit before the weather gets too hot. This is a park of “-ests.” It’s one of the lowest, hottest, and driest spots in North America. Here are three quick tips for enjoying your trip to Death Valley National Park with your family:

1. Check the weather. You might be surprised! Yes, the name is ominous and it does get extremely hot during the summer months. However, if you visit Death Valley in winter, you’ll want to bring a jacket. Also, be aware that if you visit the sand dunes or the salt flats, your clothes and shoes will get sandy, salty, or both. In other words, leave the fancy clothes at home! (This should be a no-brainer, but I’m always shocked by the clothes some people choose to wear when they go hiking.)

2. Do some research before you go. This is a vast park, so you’ll want to make the most of your time. We went into the park at the East Entrance, near Death Valley Junction, and worked our way north. We then hit the salt flats on our way back at the end of the day. Kids will enjoy the Mesquite Sand Dunes, which is basically a huge sandbox.

3. As you can imagine, it’s a pretty lonely drive from Las Vegas to Death Valley. A good place to stop for gas or food is Pahrump, Nevada. You’ll find a variety of restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores. I suggest stopping for gas here; there is a gas station inside the park, but the prices are higher than they are elsewhere.

Have you visited Death Valley with kids? Please share your advice by leaving a comment!

My 7 Super Travel Shots

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Today, I’m participating in Hostelbooker’s 7 Super Shots game. Here’s how it works: I was tagged by Wandering Educators (thank you!), and now I get the chance to share my seven favorite travel photos for each of the pre-determined categories. Then, I have the opportunity to tag five other bloggers who I think will have some spectacular travel photos to share.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane:

A Photo That Takes My Breath Away:

Hyatt Regency--Maui. Spa

When we went to Maui a couple years ago, I took a little time to myself and went to the spa for a pedicure. The view was incredible from the open-air relaxation room at the Hyatt Regency.

A Photo That Makes Me Dream:

Open Road, West Texas

I love the idea of road trips. I mean, I love the road trips themselves, but it’s the idea of them that really inspires me. This photo was taken in West Texas, on a very lonely road. Many parts of West Texas are so untravelled that you can drive for many miles without seeing another car. Something about all that open space really fascinates me, and I love the memories this photo brings back.

A Photo That Makes Me Think:

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington

My daughter and niece were very respectful as we watched the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. I think they understood that this was a time and place for quiet voices, and I was really proud of them. Because my daughter is a military brat, we’ve had to explain some concepts to her that other kids her age might not be familiar with. We’ve talked about deployment, terrorism, and the people who want to cause others harm. We’ve even talked about death a little, mostly in the context of family members who have passed away. It can be challenging to find a balance between honesty and protection; I hope we’re doing things right.

A Photo That Makes Me Smile:

Two girls at in the Smokies. TN.

We’re fortunate to be able to go on the occasional girls getaway with other mom/daughter friends. Last summer, my daughter and I went to Great Smoky Mountain National Park with our good friends from Ohio. I love this photo of the girls laughing, probably at the expense of their mothers.

A Photo That Makes My Mouth Water:

Ubuntu restaurant. Napa, CA

The vegetarian restaurant Ubuntu in Napa features some very unusual dishes. This beautiful salad, complete with edible flowers, was as delicious as it was beatuiful.

A Photo That Tells a Story:


See those people on the lift in front of me? Those were my friends and I should have been on the lift with them. But somehow I totally messed things up when I was trying to get on the lift, and I ended up on a four-person lift all by myself. Nothing screams “beginner” like the chick in the rented helmet who can’t properly board the lift. Oops.

A Photo I’m Proud of:

Bright (A flower at the SA Botanical Garden)

I love this photo of a vibrant flower at the San Antonio Botanical Garden.

I can’t wait to see seven travel photos from these fantastic bloggers:

Go Explore Nature
Family and Life in Las Vegas
Oh Mah Deehness!
I Backpack Canada

Kid-Friendly Activities in Las Vegas

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We spotted a rainbow in the Bellagio fountains. Las Vegas

If you’re thinking of traveling to Las Vegas with kids (or you live here already and need a little inspiration), then this list is for you! There are so many family-friendly activities in Southern Nevada that it’s hard to know where to start. I know this list isn’t comprehensive, so if you have any ideas you’d like to add, please leave a comment.

Let’s get going!

On the Strip:

1. The Shark Reef Aquarium, Mandalay Bay: Possibly the coolest aquarium you’ve ever visited. The enormous shark tank allows visitors an up-close look at a variety of sharks and other predators.

2. Eiffel Tower, Paris: Travel 460 feet into the air and enjoy one of the best views in Las Vegas.

3. Secret Garden, Mirage: Watch dolphins swim, flip, and dive. Stand face-to-face with white lions with only a wire fence between the two of you. This is a great stop for animal-lovers of all ages. Check out the fantastic photos of the attraction at Vegas Solo.

4. Blue Man Group, Venetian: A kid-friendly show that is a mix between performance art and rock concert. Take a look at the fantastic travel blog More Kids Than Suitcases for a review of the show.

5. Roller coaster, NY-NY: At $14 per person, this is one expensive roller coaster. However, you will have the opportunity to see the Strip zoom by at over 60 mph. Did you know you can get married on the coaster? Pretty crazy!

6. Bellagio Fountains: This is one of the more unusual attractions on the Strip. Why? Because it’s free! Watch the fountains dance to music in an intricately-choreographed performance.

7. Bellagio Conservatory: After you check out the fountains, go inside the Bellagio for another free attraction. The conservatory features a wide variety of flowers and plants that have been morphed into beautiful arrangements. The display changes based on the season, so be sure to go back for a return visit.

8. The Buffet, The Wynn: One of the best buffets on the Strip (and one of the more expensive). Kids will love the elaborate dessert section.

Off the Strip:

9. Red Rock Canyon: Take the scenic loop through the park, and stop for pictures along the way. If the weather is good, you can do some hiking too or bring a picnic lunch.

10. Spring Mountain Ranch State Park: A hidden gem on the western side of Las Vegas. Located right next door to Red Rock Canyon, this state park offers visitors the chance to learn about both history and nature. The Overlook Trail is a great hike for young kids.

11. Calico Basin: Unlike many of the state and national parks in the area, there is no admission fee to enjoy Calico Basin. Take a stroll along the boardwalk trail or have a snack at one of the picnic pavillions.

12. Red Rock Lanes, Red Rock Hotel and Casino: Want to escape the heat? Find some indoor fun at Red Rock Lanes. Consider cosmic bowling if you already miss the bright lights of the Strip.

13. Springs Preserve: Offering nature exhibits, trails, animals, and botanical gardens, Springs Preserve is an educational experience for visitors young and old. Take a look at their events and programs calendar to find a special activity for your family.

14. Lied Discovery Children’s Museum: This interactive museum in downtown Las Vegas offers exhibits on a variety of topics including arts, science, and culture. Stop by before May 13, 2012 to check out the special exhibit, Curious George: Let’s Get Curious!

15. Steak ‘n Shake, South Point: This is the ultimate in kid-friendly fare. Reasonably-priced, casual, and a nice reminder of home for those of you visiting from the Midwest, Steak ‘n Shake is a great option for families dining on a budget in Las Vegas.

16. Hash House a Go Go: What could be more fun than “twisted farm food?” With menu items like bacon waffles, BBBLT (yes, all of those B’s stand for “bacon”), and good old fashioned pancakes, this restaurant is sure to be a hit with foodies of all ages.

17. Bonnie Springs: Located near Red Rock and Spring Mountain Ranch, this is a reasonably-priced, family-friendly outing. Stop by Sugar Bowl Mix for her thoughts on Bonnie Springs and four other kid-friendly Vegas activities.

18. Arbors Tennis & Play Park: Looking for a nice playground in Las Vegas? Drive out to Summerlin and check out Arbors Park. It offers a little something for everyone, including a crane for digging in the sand, giant slides, a tricycle path, a jogging trail, and a large, open, grass field for playing soccer.

Day Trips from Las Vegas:

Hoover Dam
Valley of Fire State Park
Death Valley National Park
Mount Charleston
Lake Mead

See? There’s lots to explore. Happy trails!

Note: I realize this is an incomplete list…feel free to add other ideas in the comments section! I was not compensated in any way for writing this post.

UPDATE: Looking for more to do in Las Vegas? Check out Part 2!

Photo: The Ultimate Sandbox

Death Valley NP, sand dunes

The Mesquite Sand Dunes at Death Valley National Park are so much fun to visit. We brought sand toys for my daughter, and she could have stayed there all day. Even my husband and I were running around barefoot and making “sand angels.”

Gotta love those three-day weekends. Hope yours was just as fun.

Our Visit to Alcatraz: Helpful Tips and One Surprising Fact

While we were planning our recent trip to San Francisco, Alcatraz wasn’t something I looked forward to as a highlight of the trip. It turned out to be much more interesting–and less cheesy and touristy–than I expected. Good job, National Park Service!

One thing visitors should keep in mind is that the Alcatraz tours do sell out on weekends. We had to switch around our schedule a little bit because the tours were sold out on the day we planned to go. Luckily, we were able to get tickets the following day, a Monday.

For people like us, who have spent most of our lives in land-locked locales, the ferry ride to and from the island is an added bonus. The trip only lasts about ten minutes, but there are some pretty good views of the San Francisco skyline and of the Golden Gate Bridge. Although we didn’t bring our daughter along on this trip, I think she would have loved the ferry (and been bored at the actual historic site).

Although guided tours are available, we did the self-guided audio tour of the prison. I liked that it provided accounts from actual prisoners and prison employees who spent time at Alcatraz. In describing various riots and escape attempts, the audio tour did an excellent job of guiding me to different points of significance, which helped these stories come to life.

One fact that surprised me: the families of the prison guards lived on the island. Not only that, they often left their doors unlocked and felt very safe there! Personally, if I lived next door to a high-security prison that housed some of the country’s most dangerous criminals, I’d turn that deadbolt every time I walked in the house.

Alcatraz is open every day except Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day. Hours vary and tickets should be purchased in advance. The ferry boats leave from Pier 33, which is located on the Embarcadero.


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