George Washington’s Going Home

Okay, not George Washington, but I couldn’t resist the Hamilton lyric. It me! I’m going home! And I’m not George Washington, probably.

So I’ve made a couple of vague mentions of a big, stressful family project and a major milestone. As you might have guessed, the big project was a home purchase. And the major milestone was closing. Just seven years after moving back home to northern Virginia, we are finally in possession of the keys to our forever house! Whew. I’ve been avoiding writing this blog post so as not to jinx anything (I’m very superstitious) but – with closing behind us, we are officially homeowners again and I’m feeling a weird mixture of relief, elation, excitement, and exhaustion. It’s been a roller coaster.

I’ve gotten a lot of questions from friends and family who’ve been following along with the house-hunting saga:

How is the market? Horrible. I mean, great if you want to sell your house. Absolutely miserable if you want to buy – at least, in our area it was. We feel very blessed that we got a place, and that it didn’t take a year.

Is the house what you were looking for? Yes! It helped that we were pretty open-minded. At the beginning of our house hunt – which we started in earnest when we got home from Antarctica, although we’d been casually watching the market for about a year before then – we sat down with our realtor and talked about our priorities. Steve and I were in agreement that we really only cared about two things: we wanted a house (1) on a quiet street, and (2) in our same high school pyramid. Bonus points for the same elementary school. Beyond that, we were open to anything – any style, any condition, any size – within our budget, of course. (Our realtor told us that our expectations were “not unreasonable” and after that our rallying cry became “Go Team Expectations Are Not Unreasonable!”) We ended up finding a house on a cul-de-sac off a no-outlet road, so about as quiet as it gets, and in the same elementary-middle-high school chain. We’re absolutely thrilled.

So why now? Well, the short answer is that the lease on the house we’re currently renting is expiring and we did not want to extend it. We’re not thrilled with our current place and didn’t want to live here another year (although we could have, if it had come to that). We kind of hate our house and our street – love our actual neighbors, the people in our neighborhood are down-to-earth and delightful. But our biggest complaint for the past three years has been that we’ve been living on a street that is surprisingly busy: cars use our neighborhood as a cut-through, and we’re constantly seeing people fly up the street at 20 mph over the posted speed limit. These are drivers that don’t live in the neighborhood and neither know, nor care, that there are kids living in almost every house on the street, every single one of whom has almost been hit multiple times. Every time a car goes screaming by the house, I feel less safe. So we really, really wanted to go. We were just ready. And we couldn’t be happier to be moving to a much quieter street.

When will you move in? Towards the end of June – the house needs a lot of cosmetic updating, much of which will be easier to do before we have furniture in the space. We’ve been working on lining up contractors since we went under contract last month, and our first project has already started – YAY! We’re lucky in that the previous owner kept the boring/expensive stuff very up-to-date (the roof, windows, all the systems – all quite new and in excellent condition) but did nothing cosmetic. So we just get to make the fun decisions and enjoy a new roof that we don’t have to pay for. That’s the main reason we’re waiting about six weeks to move in – the other is that our movers were booked up until then anyway, heh.

Are you excited? We are! So excited. This has been quite a saga. We have actually been loving this house from afar and we tried to buy it off market back in March; we were shut down and then surprised when the house was listed for sale just a couple of weeks later. It was definitely meant to be. I’ve been running through the neighborhood for three years, wishing I lived on one of its quiet streets, and we couldn’t be happier to be moving into our dream neighborhood soon. And the fact that the kids will be safely enrolled in the high school pyramid that we carefully chose three years ago, with no disruption – not even a change in elementary schools – is amazing.

I’m not going to share many details about the move or the home renovation that we’re going to be doing – this isn’t a home reno or a DIY blog, for one thing, and I am notoriously private about my space, for another. (It’s a running joke with my colleagues that I hate it when people look into my house during zoom meetings.) But now you know why I’ve been too fried to read much lately – I’ve been reading real estate documents and lying awake gaming out doomsday scenarios in which the rug gets ripped out from under us and we have to scramble to find another rental. Glad to have that behind me, and now on to the fun stuff – picking paint colors!

Dakotas Road Trip 2022: Castle Trail (Badlands National Park)

With a whole day to play in Badlands National Park, we wanted to mix up the adventure and try a few different things. We did the Junior Ranger program, of course – the kids are always salty, but then they’re happy to have their badges – hit a few overlooks, and visited a dinosaur site where we thought we’d see some fossils but didn’t. And we squeezed in an extra hike, for good measure – the popular Castle Trail.

The Castle Trail, I understand, is named for the towering buttes that rise in the distance and look like fairy tale castles. You can see it! It was a good family trail for us, because it was (1) flat, (2) clearly marked, and (3) as long as we wanted it to be, but no longer – it’s a long-distance trail, and we were able to go as far as little legs were up for and then turn back on our own schedule. There’s no shade, but that doesn’t stop us – we slathered extra sunscreen over our Casper the Friendly Ghost-pale faces and hit the dust.

I’d be misleading you if I didn’t admit that there was a fair amount of grumbling and a few refusals to walk, from both kids. It’s something I’ve learned over ten years now of hiking with littles: you just have to go in with no expectations, enjoy the hike you get, and not worry about the distance. If I was trying for a specific goal or wanted to hike the entire trail, I’d have been inevitably frustrated. But the Castle Trail was nice – again – because it offered up scenery the entire time, so we were able to turn back when the parents had enough kid diplomacy, and we still got in plenty of views.

Seventeen years of marriage – there’s my wisdom. Go in with no expectations.

No, but really – the Castle Trail was a great addition to our itinerary for the day, and a fun one to combine with the Door and Window Trails I showed you last week; it offered up different scenery and a different hiking experience, but was accessible and centrally located in the park. Can’t go wrong.

And that concludes our epic Dakotas (with Wyoming interlude) road trip from summer 2022! For a somewhat last-minute strategy shift after Yellowstone flooding scuttled our originally planned (and booked!) summer trip, we couldn’t have asked for a better experience. There was so much scenery to enjoy, the kids loved the cowboy culture, glamping was hilarious – it was such a fun adventure. I can unreservedly recommend the Dakotas (although if you’re not a biker, maybe check the Sturgis dates before you book…) whether you’re traveling with anklebiters or not.

Check in with me next week for the next travel series – we’re just going to keep right on rolling! And I can promise something very different: from this hot, sunny and sandy desert, we’re heading for the continent of ICE. Yep, I’m finally caught up and ready to share some pictures from Steve’s and my incredible adventure in Antarctica!

Dakotas Road Trip 2022: Badlands National Park – Door and Window Trails

A few years ago, we were on a streak of being away on vacation for Peanut’s birthday (which is the third week in August). Partly this was because I like to push our family summer travel as late as I can – anticipation is more fun than the post-vacation comedown – and partly it was because she got attached to the idea of a trip “for her birthday.” But in the past couple of years, the kids have been starting school on her birthday week, so the Peanut party has shifted to home base, and we’ve been traveling a week or so earlier. The fun bonus to this is – we’ve been able to be on vacation for our wedding anniversary a few times now. When we planned our summer 2022 travel, we aimed for that week as both the last possible travel week before school and anniversary week. And I knew I wanted to plan something extra special for our actual anniversary.

From everything I’d read, Badlands National Park seemed like just the extra special adventure I had in mind. The park is described as otherworldly, like nothing else, totally unique – sounds right to me.

Our first stop – after the obligatory run into the visitors’ center to hit the potty and pick up Junior Ranger booklets – was the Door and Window Trails. These are two separate trails located next to one another and accessible from the same parking lot. The Window Trail is very short – really just a quick jaunt to an overlook (where a kind stranger offered to take a family picture for us, and did such a nice job that the picture became our Christmas card image for 2022). But the Door Trail extends about a mile or so, via a few interspersed yellow posts (it’s not really a trail…) directly into the desert.

I couldn’t get enough of the colors. It was very hot out – even with a little bit of cloud cover giving some relief – and the contrasts between the orange and taupe of the badlands and the bright blue sky were just spectacular.

Almost immediately, we spotted a bighorn sheep atop a distant butte, and then – just a bit further off in the distance – a second one. Sadly, I didn’t have my zoom lens with me! Bighorn sheep are always exciting.

The kids had fun climbing rocks and scrambling up and down the little embankments – this was a fun trail for them. You do have to have your wits about you – it’s easy to get lost in the unfamiliar landscape, since there isn’t really a clearly marked trail – but if you’ve got parents paying close attention, the Door Trail is a great choice for a family.

From the Door, we headed over to the Window and snagged that family photo, along with a few more snaps of the Martian-looking landscape – too cool. And then it was back to the (air conditioned!) car to cruise along to our next hike.

Check in with me next week for the final Dakotas post! And then it will be off to somewhere COMPLETELY different – travel posts continue!

Dakotas Road Trip 2022: A Wyoming Interlude at Devils Tower National Monument

While we didn’t get to spend a week in Wyoming as we were planning, I was pleased to discover that we’d be close enough to the state – albeit the other side – to make a day trip there from South Dakota. We were all excited about the prospect of adding a third state to our vacation agenda and exploring the gorgeous and fascinating Devils Tower National Monument.

Devils Tower is a massive rock tower rising out of the Earth and hundreds of feet into the sky. While there are many legends about how the tower came to be, the one I like best is the story of a group of young Indigenous boys who were being stalked by a massive bear. The Earth itself rose up to save them from the bear, and the deep grooves down the tower are the bear’s claw marks, made while the boys looked down from above. (The grooves are also popular for “crack climbing” – not on our agenda for this time!)

Views of the tower – I couldn’t stop snapping pictures!

We hiked a trail that wound around the entire circumference of the tower, taking us out onto the hills behind the monument and overlooking a grand river valley, then back to the visitors’ center.

Still want to make that Yellowstone trip happen – someday! In the meantime, we got our Wyoming fix in a pretty darn spectacular way, if I do say so myself.

Next week: our final park of the trip! It’s an extra-spectacular one, so I’m breaking the recap into two blog posts. Check in with me then!

Easter on the Bluebell Trail

Visiting Bull Run Park and hiking the Bluebell Trail is one of our favorite, can’t-miss, spring traditions. (Shoutout to Only In Your State and Facebook clickbait for first alerting me to this total treasure!) The Virginia bluebells bloom every year in early to mid-April, and they can be found growing in parks all around northern Virginia – but I don’t think there’s a park anywhere that can rival Bull Run Regional Park for sheer proliferation and glory. (And because someone always comments – these are Virginia bluebells; I am aware that they are not the same bluebells that grow in England. Different flower. I didn’t make up the name, okay? It’s just what we ungrateful colonials call them.)

This year, the bluebells’ peak coincided perfectly with Easter Sunday, and since I am always happiest in the church of the great outdoors, it seemed like the perfect holiday activity.

I think we might have actually been a day or two past peak, but you really couldn’t tell. It was a riot of blue all over the forest floor, on both banks of the great Bull Run.

Because it was also Easter, the park had set up an “Egg Scavenger Hunt” all along the trail, with huge wooden cutouts painted in seasonal designs. More organized families were coloring in the eggs on an official form. We just took pictures. (And got to go home without two extra pieces of paper…)

There were also signs with bunny-themed jokes. Nugget especially appreciated this sports-themed groaner…

Every year, when we hike this trail, it’s a muddy, sloppy mess. This year I was organized and packed both the kids’ wellies and my own. And then of course Nugget had outgrown his boots and the trail was perfectly dry anyway. At least my feet looked cute.

Growing by the entrance to the trail – before the bluebells in all their glory – was another treat: a forest floor studded with violets. I don’t remember seeing violets on this trail before – white starflowers, yes, but violets, no. Violets always remind me of my grandmother and the flower walks we used to take together; there was one stretch that we named “Violet Vale” in honor of our mutual favorite book, Anne of Green Gables. I think that Grandmother leaves me little signs and gifts, and this definitely felt like one:

Happy (belated) Easter, and happy (belated) Passover to all those who were celebrating earlier this month! Welcome, spring!

Dakotas Road Trip 2022: Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse – Two Very Different Monuments

When we quickly changed our summer vacation plans from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks to a last-minute Dakotas road trip – and especially when we booked lodging ten minutes from Mount Rushmore – I knew that the famous monument would be on our agenda. We wouldn’t devote an entire day to it, of course, but the kids were looking forward to this. For my part, I had mixed feelings about it. Mount Rushmore has never been high on my list of must-see American landmarks, for one thing, and for another… the idea of seeing four white men’s faces blasted into a beautiful mountain with no regard (at the time the monument was sculpted, at least) for First Nations or Indigenous spiritual needs was… off-putting.

But it was ten minutes’ drive from our campground, and we weren’t planning to spend much time there. We arrived – the place was swarming with people – checked out the visitors’ center, bought bottles of water for the kids (Nugget promptly lost his) and set off for the short, paved trail past the monument.

It’s a relatively easy walk, and the kids liked seeing the rockfall from the blasting. Nugget also got a kick out of looking up George Washington’s nose.

We tried to approach Mount Rushmore from a place of thoughtfulness. We talked about how none of the Presidents who appear on the mountain gave their consent for their images to be used, how the blasting altered the unspoilt beauty of the mountains, and how these hills are sacred to Indigenous populations. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how much the kids retained. But I tried, and now we’ve done Mount Rushmore.

From Mount Rushmore, we drove a short distance over to a very different monument: Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse was a Lakota leader who prophesied that he would return to his people “in stone.” Many years later, a Polish artist was commissioned to design and begin construction on the Crazy Horse Monument to honor the leader. The artist’s family still live and work on the unfinished monument today; for years now, only Crazy Horse’s head has been visible – they have just started in on his arm and hand.

We didn’t take the bus ride close to the monument, choosing instead to spend our limited time puttering around the Native American cultural center and listening to an Indigenous musician sing to a small but appreciative crowd (he introduced himself and shared some details about his tribe, and I’m sorry to say I’ve forgotten where he was from – I was a little stressed about something going on at work, and was distracted all day because of that). I couldn’t help wondering if the Crazy Horse Monument would have been finished by now (it’s been a work in progress for decades) or at least further along if the stories, history, and identity of First Nations and Indigenous people were as highly valued as the white faces on Mount Rushmore. Seeing the two monuments back-to-back was a really thought-provoking experiment.

Have you been to Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse Mountain?

Dakotas Road Trip 2022: Wind Cave National Park

Another must! As we have started traveling more with the kids, visiting national parks has been a big part of our family travel. I’d like to get to them all – that may not be realistic, but it’s a goal. And when planning the Dakotas, I knew right away that we wanted to stop by Wind Cave. How often do you get to visit a park that’s equally spectacular above and below ground?

If you’re planning to go to Wind Cave, note that tickets to go into the cavern are timed, and they’re first-come-first-served. In order to be in the first group down, we left our campsite right after breakfast and were at the visitor’s center doors when they opened. We got tickets for the 8:00 a.m. tour – success!

(Dress warmly! It’s cold in the cave!) The underground tour was fascinating. Wind Cave is one of the only places in the world where “boxwork” cave formations can be found – that’s the honeycomb-like structure in the top right photo. And it has over 95% of the boxwork in the world. By contrast, the stalagmites and stalactites that I remember from childhood visits to Howe Caverns in upstate New York – don’t appear at Wind Cave at all. Super interesting and cool. The kids were enthralled.

After the cave tour, we finished up the kids’ Junior Ranger workbooks and they took the oath of office. No days off!

Wind Cave might be most famous for its underground wonders, but it’s also gorgeous above ground – and well worth seeing. We asked a ranger for a hike recommendation – just something short, since we had other stops to make and were hoping to squeeze in a wildlife drive and try to find some bison. She pointed us to a small spur trail and, following her directions, we headed off into the park. The trail climbed up through serene forest and then came out of the woods at a fire tower with this amazing view.

(Lest you think that all of our hikes were perfect, we had a mid-hike tantrum to contend with, and it was not the kid you might have expected. They’re all human. That’s my hot take for today.)

Now – I know what you’re thinking. What about that wildlife drive? Did you see bison?

Wind Cave is a fabulous park for spotting wildlife – in fact, that’s why I really wanted to go. Sure, I expected the cave tour to be interesting (and it was) but here’s the thing about Wind Cave: it’s a relatively small park – only 44 square miles – and contains a disproportionately large number of animals, especially big mammals, for that area. So the odds of seeing something cool are quite good at Wind Cave – as we discovered on the drive in, when we spotted hundreds of prairie dogs. We stopped to ooh and ahh, because they’re always so stinking cute, but we were after something bigger this time. And we found something bigger.

Our first big mammal sighting: a herd of pronghorn antelope! They were so cool – elegant and gorgeous. We stopped the car and stared out the open windows for a good long while, taking in the sight.

As cool as the pronghorn were, they weren’t our ultimate wildlife sighting goal. So we kept going, scanning every hill for characteristic brown backs. And then FINALLY…

We found them! Our long-sought American bison herd!

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. (Pardon any blurry shots – I was snapping away!)

I wish I had gotten some better pictures! Not sure what was going on with my cameras, but at least the camera between my ears was in proper working order. I’ll never forget the sight of these amazing, majestic animals. And after striking out on bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and not seeing any in Custer State Park either, it was beyond exciting to finally get the bison sighting we’d been hoping for all week.

So – a truly epic day at Wind Cave! Starting the day out in a completely unique underground landscape – one that looked very different from other caves I’d seen before – and then moving on to a hike with a beautiful view, and finally… the cherry on top… getting to see pronghorn antelope and bison at last. I think that’s about as perfect as a day can get, right?

Next week, we continue our South Dakota adventure, visiting two very different monuments. Check in with me then!

Two Days in NYC… with Kids!

Back in the fall, when the (terrible!) news broke that Phantom of the Opera was ending its legendary run after 35 years on Broadway, Steve and I immediately knew that we had to get up to New York to see it before it closed. Phantom is my favorite musical of all time – I’ve seen it multiple times on Broadway alone, and have also seen several touring cast productions in different cities. And more critically, even, Phantom is also Nugget’s favorite musical. He knows the soundtrack by heart and has watched the movie countless times. I’d never forgive myself if I let slip the opportunity to take him to see the show before it left Broadway. As Steve and I discussed getting the tickets for the kids for Christmas, he dialed it up to eleven and suggested that since we were going to be in the neighborhood, why not see a second show too – Hamilton, of course? You know, for efficiency’s sake.

We arrived in Manhattan in the late morning on Saturday. The kids were beyond excited. Peanut had been to New York City before, but she was too little to remember – and Nugget had never been at all. Seems insane when you think about how easy it is to get from DC to NYC… but, pandemic. So we had a lot to catch up on: the kids needed the full NYC experience. First stop – pizza, naturally. We took them to John’s, right in the theatre district, and the pizza was a hit. With tummies full, we set out to explore Times Square – nothing like giving them the full blast right away, right? – but New York delivered a major highlight right outside of our lunch spot: a Lin-Manuel Miranda sighting. Yes – really! He was going into another theatre for a matinee. Steve and I looked at each other and said “OH MY GOD” (after he was gone – I promise we were very cool in the moment). The kids were oblivious.

Next up, after our whirlwind tour of Times Square (the kids’ assessment: “New York is made of TVs!”) was the main reason for our trip.

Time for my PSA! Phantom closes April 16 (and I’ll be starting my letter-writing campaign for a revival…). So you have two weeks, just about! If you’re remotely local to New York and thinking of trying to squeeze in a performance before the curtain falls for the last time – do it. You won’t regret it.

I got chills looking at the set again.

Peanut was a little anxious about the chandelier. I reassured her that in thirty-five years of the show running on Broadway, the chandelier had never actually fallen on the audience. (Hope that’s right.)

Best. Show. Ever.

Sunday morning arrived with clear blue skies (and biting winds). Our whirlwind Essential NYC Weekend continued with a long walk from our hotel in Times Square, by way of Fifth Avenue and Central Park, to the American Museum of Natural History. We pointed out New York landmarks – like Rockefeller Center – along the way, and the kids climbed a representative sample of the big boulders in Central Park.

Steve loves the Natural History Museum and always wants to visit when we’re in New York – we don’t make it every time, but we try to, and it was clearly necessary on this trip. The kids (and Steve) were totally enthralled by the dinosaur bones, naturally. I can’t deny that they are cool – I love the huge sauropod skeletons.

Next stop – the Met! This is my favorite NYC museum, and Peanut was excited about an art museum. It felt a bit extreme to smash two museum outings back-to-back in the span of a few hours, but it was necessary – both because of the whirlwind schedule (and limited time) we had, and because the kids can handle more total hours of museum if some novelty is baked in. Someday soon, I expect they’ll have more stamina for a deeper dive at one museum. Until then, we do it this way.

Our first stop in the Met was the Greek and Roman section. This was at Nugget’s request, because he’s currently reading the first Percy Jackson book. He mostly went from statue to statue, checking the explanatory placards for Greek gods and heroes he recognizes from the books. (“Mom, it’s Aphrodite! Mom, it’s Hercules!”)

After Nugget got his pick, it was time for an exhibit for Peanut. She learned about ancient Egypt in third grade and has been obsessed with all things Egyptian ever since. We delivered mummies and temples and she was in heaven. (“Daddy, it’s Sakhmet!”)

Still with me? We continued our race through the museum, pausing to snap pictures of gorgeous decorative vases and Tiffany windows, on our way to Arms and Armor. This was one for all of us – horse armor for Peanut, medieval history for Mom, swords for Steve and Nugget. Oh, and despite not having been to the museum in years, I was able to steer everyone to a suit of armor worn by Henry VIII – the kids have been listening to the Six soundtrack, so they were tickled.

After getting our fill of art at the Met – well, the kids got their fill; I could have stayed for hours – we hopped in an Uber and headed back downtown to the final stop on our whirlwind NYC tour. The kids were decked out in Hamilton t-shirts (souvenirs that Steve and I bought on a date to see the touring cast at the Kennedy Center) and they were READY.

Fourth time now that I’ve seen this show! Twice on Broadway and twice at the Kennedy Center. It never, ever gets old. This production was as good as they always are. The actor playing Aaron Burr is relatively new to the cast – I think he’s been performing the role for a little over a month now, maybe six weeks – and he was fabulous. They were all wonderful, of course. But especially Burr.

What a weekend! The kids had such a great time – they loved New York City, loved Broadway, loved it all. Peanut is making her list of shows she wants to see next time (currently Six – which I really want to see, too – Bad Cinderella, The Lion King, and Aladdin; any more recommendations for her?). We talked all weekend about needing to get up to NYC more frequently. The pandemic put a damper on our travel plans – as it did for everyone – just as the kids were getting to ages that would allow them to travel more easily, so we’re making up for lost time. I’m sure we’ll be planning another NYC weekend soon – and the next one will be slower. Maybe just one show (which will be Six if I have anything to say about it) and fewer activities so we can spend more time in each place. But I’m just grateful today – grateful that we were able to get up to see Phantom one more time, grateful that the kids behaved so well, grateful for a sun-filled weekend with my family in an amazing city.

Any recommendations for the next family trip to NYC?

Dakotas Road Trip 2022: Custer State Park (and Glamping!)

When planning our somewhat-last-minute trip to the Dakotas, I knew that the South Dakota portion of the trip had to include Custer State Park. It’s a huge park, with a lot of wildlife and plenty of scenery, so I also knew I had to research it to figure out how best to use our time there – since we’d have one day, and one day only, to explore.

For a first priority hike, I settled on the Cathedral Spires Trail. It had pretty much everything I was looking for: the right distance, cool scenery that we definitely couldn’t see at home, and enough ups and downs to keep things interesting. To get there – bonus – we had to drive part of the Needles Highway, a narrow road that winds through spectacular scenery and includes some excitingly tight tunnels.

The trail starts out winding through the forest – beautiful trees all around. We took our time, stopping to examine flowers growing by the side of the trail and snack on wild berries. (Kids, don’t try that at home – unless you know what you’re doing! I learned about edible berries in Girl Scouts.)

Eventually, after a bit of a climb, the trail leaves the woods and breaks out into a hanging valley surrounded by towering rock formations – the Cathedral Spires of the trail name.

They were absolutely glorious!

Steve said it felt like hiking through a landscape created by Disney. I couldn’t have agreed more.

It felt like no time passed at all before we reached the end of trail marker at a big rocky overhang. We loitered around for a little while, drinking water and eating trail snacks, and then turned back and headed downhill to our car, bound for the next stop in the park…

Sylvan Lake, a short drive away, boasted a general store – where we picked up lunch – and an easy, mostly flat, trail around the water. We perched on a rock and enjoyed sandwiches (adults) and Lunchables (kiddos) with a view of the water, then set off for an amble about.

About halfway around the lake, we bumped into a mom and two little girls who were staying at the same campground. The kids had met over dinner the night before, and Peanut – who was big into the Babysitter’s Club last summer – was enjoying supervising the littler girls.

I’d be leaving out an important detail if I didn’t tell you about the big event that was taking place while we were there… so when we were at our gate in the Chicago airport, waiting to board our flight to Rapid City, we noticed that – with the exception of one other group whose Osprey backpacks and little munchkins gave them away as headed on a family hiking trip – everyone at the gate was in head-to-toe Harley Davidson gear. Steve did some quick googling and discovered… the Sturgis Bike Rally. Not being motorcyclists (or knowing any avid bikers) we did not know that this was a thing. We quickly discovered what a very big thing it is: an annual event that more than doubles the population of the host state. (I thought I had trouble finding lodging because the trip was so last-minute. Pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place…) The first part of our trip, up to North Dakota, took us out of the action. But when we returned to South Dakota, we were in the very epicenter. And there were motorcycles everywhere.

(You might be thinking, as my dad noted, that there are no bikes or riders in any of these pictures. The explanation is: I am quite good at angling humans out of my hiking photos. Put it down to long practice taking pictures that don’t include other people’s kids.) I’m only mentioning this to share my big learning with you: from now on, when planning a vacation, I will google to see if there are big events of any kind scheduled to take place at my destination, and I’ll either change destinations or pick a different week if there are. The huge crowds definitely changed the experience – didn’t ruin the trip, by any means, but something I will try to avoid in the future. On the bright side, “the time Mommy made us go to Sturgis” is now family lore.

About finding lodgings with a big event going on… it was a challenge, but I ended up finding something great and I do want to tell you where we stayed. We booked a deluxe campsite with a kids’ tent at Under Canvas Mount Rushmore. To be honest, we stayed here because it was the only place I could find with availability (and there was only one campsite left when I booked). But I’d also always wanted to try glamping, and the entire experience was a hoot.

The campground included a main tent – where breakfast, lunch and dinner were compiled from fresh, local ingredients; the food was delicious – and a collection of campsites ranged around the property. The main tent included “indoor” (really just… under canvas) and outdoor deck spaces for eating and lounging. There was a board game corner where the kids dominated, and complimentary nightly s’mores overlooking the sweeping view across the Black Hills to Mount Rushmore.

Our tent was a canvas platform tent with a little deck seating area, a giant – comfy! – West Elm bed, and even a working shower. The kids had their own little canvas tent just feet away, and they slept on cute little cots under big, fluffy duvets every night (until the final night, when a loud thunderstorm had the whole family snuggling together in Mom and Dad’s bed). I can’t tell you enough how much we loved Under Canvas. The staff was warm and welcoming, the food was fabulous, and the glamping experience was just a total riot (and very comfortable). They’re not paying me to say this – they don’t know I exist. But it felt like a huge win to find this spot and grab the last available family campsite on short notice, and I’d definitely like to stay at another Under Canvas location in the future. (Funnily enough, the week after we got back, my friend Adriana posted pictures on Facebook about her stay at Under Canvas Grand Canyon – which she also loved.) Only regret: I never made it to early morning yoga on the deck. Next time.

Well, this has been a novel of a blog post, so I’ll pause here for you to go make your glamping reservations for this summer. Next week, we check out Wind Cave National Park! Will we finally see the elusive bison? You’ll have to read my post next week to find out.

Dakotas Road Trip 2022: Painted Canyon Trail (Theodore Roosevelt National Park)

On our last morning in North Dakota, we woke up to bright blue skies and warm sunshine. It was a shame to leave, even to head for more fun in South Dakota. With a long drive ahead of us, we started looking around for ways to break up the time on the road, and decided one more hike in TRNP was in order. Although technically in the South Unit of the park, the Painted Canyon Visitors’ Center – and hiking trail – are about 45 minutes or so south of the rest of the park, so right on the way to the next leg of our trip. It was meant to be.

The trail starts on a bluff right next to the visitors’ center and starts to descend right away into the canyon.

Soon we were walking over gravelly sand and past striated buttes. The gorgeous tans, ochres and greens of the North Dakota badlands were all around.

(One of us leaned into the cowboy culture extra hard while in North Dakota. Three guesses who.)

Before we knew it, we had reached the valley floor and the badlands were rising all around us. The good news is: the scenery was spectacular – this was one of the most beautiful hikes we did all week. The bad news is: what goes down must go… up.

But before we faced that hot, steep climb, we had plenty of scenery to enjoy. I was still staggered at how beautiful the North Dakota badlands were. This trip was a little bit spur-of-the-moment and, to be honest, I hadn’t thought much about the scenery we’d be enjoying – I was more focused on finding lodging and figuring out which trails were likely to be the right difficulty level for the kids. This beauty was, although not unexpected if I’d been thinking about it, just a wonderful treat.

More prickly pear!

Always on the lookout for exciting wildlife, as we hiked along, I spotted a pair of fuzzy brown ears in the grass. We all stopped to stare (quietly).

Too cute! Eventually something startled him (it wasn’t us, I swear we couldn’t have been quieter) and he hopped away.

Fortified by an adorable bunny, we faced the climb out of the valley with as much good grace as possible. I tucked my phone back in my hiking pants and focused on trucking up the steep section of the trail and we eventually arrived at the top – sooner than expected, actually – red-faced, sweating and huffing, but very happy.

I mean, how could you be anything but happy with a view like that to look at?

Next week: we’re on to our next stop – South Dakota! Lots of adventure in store, so check in: same time, same place.