A Farewell to Blogs

Six years ago, I began Travels with Children as a way of encouraging other parents to take their children to new places without fear, and to look for local things that might be as much or more fun than faraway vacation destinations.  At that time, my four children were ages 1-6 and it hadn’t crossed my mind to be nervous about taking them to museums and historic sites and libraries and other fun places, even if my husband couldn’t be there to help the adult:child ration improve.

Oh, the places we went!  We tried to do everything there was to do in our local area, made many trips into the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area to explore its family-friendly sites, and expanded our travels to other parts of the United States.  We had a minivan filled with strollers and diapers and we used it to get to many, many places.

I’ve never regretted taking a toddler to Philadelphia or a bunch of preschoolers to the San Antonio Missions.  Even though they might have been too young to remember every last detail, they remember snippets of things and look at the photos and have a sense that they have been to some really interesting places.  As they grow up, I’m even more happy that we took them to so many places at a young age, because as they get older, it is harder and harder to get away.

That is not to say we won’t continue to travel.  We’re squeezing in a few days to Washington, D.C., along with some medical appointments on that side of the country.  We still have a bucket list of places to visit in the Midwest and beyond, and many that we’d like to revisit.  We’ll see how far we get.

In the meantime, I have learned that in my case, the growth of my children brings with it new demands on my time, and that’s where my focus needs to be.  Writing about taking a 12-year-old to the orthodontist just isn’t as compelling as describing how to take four young children to the Art Institute without pulling all of your hair out.

Blogging has been a large part of our family’s life through these past years.  It provided an avenue for me to write and share ideas with other families, whether they were frequent travelers or venturing out on their first day trip with toddlers in tow.  It allowed me to meet some other terrific bloggers who travel and write about travel with their families.  Opportunity knocked for our family to visit some places we otherwise wouldn’t have considered, and my blog was mentioned in some widely-read publications.  Blogging has been a good thing for me and for our family.

Now, however, it’s time to say goodbye.  As you may or may not have noticed, I haven’t been writing much lately; even though I have tales of dozens more places we’ve visited in my head, I haven’t put them to the page, and this will be a formal end to that.

Thank you to those who have read this blog, commented on posts, or given me ideas.  It was always exciting to receive feedback on what I’d written.  To those who have young children and are wondering if they should travel with them:  Just do it!  Don’t worry that they’re not the right age or that they might not remember.  They’ll remember more than you think, and you’ll prepare them for future travels.  Go with them now while they enjoy being with you and your calendar isn’t crazy-busy with other things to do.  Do what you enjoy doing as a family, and then spread your wings a bit and try something a little different.  The memories will be worth it.

This blog will still be around, so back posts, all 865 of them, will be available for reference purposes.  If you’re looking for some other family travel blogs to follow, look at one of my “Finding More Fun” posts for ideas.  There’s also a pretty good chance that I’ll occasionally post short blurbs, including deals I come across, to the Travels with Children Facebook page, so give it a like if you’re interested in still hearing from me occasionally.

Farewell.  It’s been a great run.  Happy travels!

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Published by under Family Travel
on Oct 11 2013

Big Thrill Factory in Minnetonka, MN

With school out for the summer, my kids and I have been finding a variety of things to do.  We’ve been to museums, historic sites, state parks, baseball games, libraries, and a waterpark as we find ourselves out and about during the summer months.  While many of these stops have some educational or cultural value, some are just plain fun.  The Big Thrill Factory in Minnetonka was one of those.

Big Thrill Factory

I hadn’t heard of the Big Thrill Factory before we were invited to visit.  My first thought was that it was nice to have something fun to do on the western edge of the MSP metro area.  So many of our trips into “the Cities” take us into downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul, but it’s good to find something a little closer to home.  When I showed my kids BTF’s website and asked if they wanted to go, the answer was a resounding “Yes!”  With bowling, laser tag, a ropes course, and other amusements, they were excited to check things out.

We planned our visit for an early-summer Friday, knowing that weekends would be much busier.  Upon our arrival at 11 a.m., we picked up our “Ultimate Fun Pack” cards and headed straight to the lunch counter.  We wanted to be sure we had full bellies before we started to play. We sampled the pizza, chips & salsa, and chicken tenders and everything got a thumbs-up, though the spiced chips were a bit too spicy for a couple of my kids.  While we ate, we watched everything that was going on inside the building so we could decide what to do next.

When looking at the website pricing, the points and passes were a bit confusing, but it began to make more sense once we got there.  For the Ultimate Fun Pack, each of us received a wristband that allowed all-day access to the Kids Fun Factory, a large climb-and-slide area.  We also had magnetic-strip cards that allowed two hours of access to the ropes course, laser tag, time challenge, and bump ‘n’ spin cars, plus $5 to spend in the arcade.  At each station, our cards were swiped to allow access to the entertainment.

We started with the ropes course, where we were suited up in harnesses and set free on the black-light course.  Since it was only one story above the ground, even my seven-year-old and I were comfortable with some of the wider platforms, so we did those and then moved on.  My nine-year-old daughter, however, did the whole course a couple of times.  With thick steel beams a couple of inches under the ropes, it wasn’t scary to let the kids loose to explore the course.

The time challenge is a room with two sides and series of lit-up buttons.  When the buttons light up, you run to tap them and see how many you can get before your minute or two are gone.  You can play alone, or compete with another person.  It’s quite a workout to see how many you can get in the allotted time, and we found ourselves challenging each other to a few more tries.

The bump ‘n’ spin cars are bumper cars that spin, and you have some control over how much they spin.  My kids enjoyed them as well.

Bump and Spin Cars

The big hit of the day, however, was laser tag.  Since none of us had played laser tag before, we weren’t quite sure what to expect, but we soon learned that we all liked it.  In our two hours of time, we all played three or four rounds, and my ten-year-old managed to squeeze in a few more.  Sometimes we were in with a big birthday-party group, and sometimes there were only 10 or so playing.  (Up to 30 can play at one time.)  Once we got the hang of it, it was fun to be able to play another round to improve our skills.

When our two hours were up, we wandered over to the arcade to play some games, and were at first puzzled as to why we only had a few points left on our cards, equating to just a dollar or two.  After a bit, we figured it out:  we hadn’t paid careful attention to our exact start/end times for the two-hour amusement window, so when our time wase up, our cards with the $5 for the arcade allowed us to play an extra game of laser tag or time challenge, deducting points from our cards.  Because we know this now, if we return we will either use up our arcade points first, or keep very close track of our time in the challenge areas so we have some points left for skee-ball and the other arcade games, which produce electronic “tickets” that can be redeemed at the prize counter.

The kids climbed in the Kids Fun Factory for a while, and soon it was time to head for home.  We didn’t have time for bowling, and the outdoor mini golf and trampolines weren’t yet open for the season.  We had a good time at the Big Thrill Factory.

Things to know if you go:

  • The Big Thrill Factory is located at the corner of Highways 7 and 101 in Minnetonka, in what I believe is the old KMart building.  There’s a Burger King in the same parking lot as an alternative to eating inside the amusement hall.
  • There are a lot of lights, including black lights, and the noise level is pretty high in some areas.  If you have kids with sensory issues, this is something to be aware of.
  • We found the Big Thrill Factory to be clean and well-laid-out.  There are plenty of benches for parents and grandparents to watch the kids play.
  • Staff were friendly and visible.
  • Birthday parties sometimes get priority on the amusements for a round.  The parties appeared to be very well-organized, with staff members leading the kids to their activities and keeping them busy with games of “gray duck” if they had to wait for laser tag, etc.
  • Since we were there at a time that wasn’t busy, we were able to squeeze a lot of fun into our two hours.  On weekends or rainy days when it’s busier, having to wait for laser tag or other amusements will cut down on what you can do in the two hours of the pricing packages.  Purchasing points for your specific amusements is an alternative to the packages.
  • If you choose a package, pay close attention to your start time so you know when your two hours are done.

We found the Big Thrill Factory to be a fun place for school-age kids, and this mom found that she really enjoys laser tag.  Our visit there was a success.

Note:  The Big Thrill Factory provided complimentary “Ultimate Fun Pack” passes for our family.  We paid for lunch and additional arcade games on our own.

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Minnesota Day Trip to the Northfield Area

On a gloomy Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, my kids and set off on a mostly-unplanned day trip.

“Kids, get your laundry put away and your rooms tidied up so we can leave.”

“Leave?  Where are we going?”

“It’s a surprise!”

“Oh, I like surprises.”

Before we headed out the door, the only clue I gave them was that we were going to go somewhere related to a TV show they like to watch.

I gave them each a small notebook, and as we drove down the road, I instructed them to start writing several clues, which they would also use as a scavenger hunt once we arrived.

As we went through the list, one child was convinced we were headed to The House on the Rock.  It wasn’t until we got to “falafel” that my masterminds figured it out.  We were going to a flea market.  (Falafel was featured prominently on a recent episode of PBS’ Market Warriors.)

But first, a stop at the library.

Henderson Public Library, Henderson, MN

Here, in Minnesota, we have a marvelous system of sharing materials between libraries.  Anything borrowed from a library anywhere in our nine-county region can be returned at our home library, so we like to visit different libraries and see how their collections differ.

In Minnesota’s Sibley County, there are five small but well-used libraries, in towns ranging from 800-2300 people.  The library in Henderson is a repurposed church building complete with stained-glass windows and featured in the book Libraries of Minnesota, and we took advantage of its Saturday morning hours to check out a few books.  (An additional benefit is that my kids are very quiet in the car when they have new books to discover.)

Trader’s Market, Elko, MN

From Henderson, we headed east to Elko, where the Trader’s Market flea market is held three weekends each summer.  With discount tickets in hand, we paid our admission and entered the grounds of what was our family’s first flea market.  My first-grade daughter had her notebook so she could find all the things we had listed.  The flea market did give the kids an idea of what the Market Warriors pickers experience, but as a mother nervous about my brood being in people’s way or breaking fragile items, it wasn’t a relaxing outing.  We spent enough time on the grounds to find everything but the falafel, and left with only the little scavenger hunter thinking she wanted to go again.  (I’d love to go back without kids; it just wasn’t the best place to be with eight extra hands.)  When we left, it was lunchtime, and not wanting to go home yet, we headed down the highway to Northfield.

Northfield, MN

Northfield Riverwalk

Northfield is a hip little college town, home to both St. Olaf and Carleton colleges.  It is also the home of Malt-o-Meal cereals.  Its eclectic mix of downtown shops reminds me of Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado, and its riverwalk along the Cannon River had the kids remembering similar walks in San Antonio, Texas, and Omaha, Nebraska.  Our real reason for heading to Northfield, however, was a bit more adventurous.  In 1876, Northfield was the site of a botched bank raid by the Jesse James gang, and each year in September the town reenacts the raid in front of thousands of visitors.  Since we were visiting in May, however, we took in the next best thing:  a tour of the Northfield Historical Society.

Northfield Historical Society, Northfield, MN

First National Bank, Northfield, MN

Our guided tour of the Northfield Historical Society began with a short film about the James gang and its place in Northfield history, after which we were taken next door to the First National Bank.  This restored building is where the raid took place, and our costumed guide explained exactly how things happened.  After seeing the bank site, we were led to another room which showed more artifacts from the gang and the Northfield raid, as well as a map detailing the escape of the gang and eventual capture of the Younger brothers.  (Frank and Jesse James had split off and escaped completely.)  The one-hour tour was interesting and the guide was very knowledgeable.  Though there was nothing hands-on except a saddle and cowboy hat the kids could try out, my kids, ages 7-12, were interested enough in the story to remain attentive throughout the tour.

Before visiting the museum, I had considered going in September for the reenactment, but I think we might have gotten more of the story from the tour at a less-busy time of year.  We may instead attend the Younger Brothers Capture event near Madelia, Minnesota.

Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park, Nerstrand, MN

We decided to make one last stop before going home, to Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park, about 15 miles southeast of Northfield.  Minnesota has many and varied state parks, but this one is special in the spring because of its wildflowers in bloom, including one species, the trout lily, that has its only home in the world in three counties in Minnesota.

Trout Lily sign

At the visitor center, we checked out birding and wildflower kits and began our hike along the shortest of the trails, which led to Hidden Falls,

Hidden Falls, Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park

stopping frequently to identify the many wildflowers we saw adjacent to the path.  The low carpet of flowers under the tall trees made for a beautiful walk even on an overcast day.

The concensus of the group was that we need to return to this park and try more of the hiking trails sometime when my husband can come with us.

Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park

Since we didn’t have much luck with birds during our hike, we stopped by the campground site #45, where a variety of bird feeders had attracted several species, so the birdwatching group had a chance to use their borrowed binoculars and bird identification books as well.

 

Our day trip to the Northfield area was a success.  For families from the Twin Cities (MSP airport is just 40 miles away), spending a half-day in Northfield shopping, eating, and visiting the museum, followed by some time in the state park, would be a very doable outing that would incorporate a variety of experiences.

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Minnesota Highway 61 Road Trip: Red Wing, Wabasha, Kellogg

Perusing Facebook on a Friday evening recently, I noticed a friend’s status:  “4-H field trip to Red Wing/Wabasha tomorrow; we still have room for 4-6 people. Anyone interested?”  With an open Saturday on the calendar and a husband busy planting corn, my kids and I were quick to respond, “Yes!”

I had done a similar trip thirteen years ago with a Home Extension group of women, all my elders by 20+ years, and enjoyed it then.  I was interested to see if our stops would be as interesting for kids.

Red Wing Pottery Store and Museum, Red Wing, MN

Our first stop was the Red Wing Pottery Store, where a potter provided a demonstration of how the collectible yet useful pottery is made.

Kids gathered around the demonstration area as he worked the clay, making it look easy to put on the signature lines and forms of uniformly-sized hand-made pottery.  He said that experienced potters can make 40-50 pieces per hour, and that each piece has a potter’s signature.  After the demonstration, we had time to look around the shop area, which included not only a wide variety of Red Wing pottery items, but also Fiestaware and kitchen gadgets, a gift gallery, and a candy store.

Then we walked across the street to “Pottery Place,” where the Red Wing Pottery Museum is located on the second floor of this factory-turned-mall.

The free, self-guided museum displays the history of Red Wing Pottery, including some limited-run pieces.  I was surprised at the variety of designs and types of pottery the company has made in the past.

Red Wing Pottery Museum

Though there are no hands-on activities or child-centered displays, my kids were excited to see a big crock just like one we have at home, and they had fun taking pictures of the various pottery pieces.

Red Wing Shoe Store and Museum and World’s Largest Boot, Red Wing, MN

Next we were off on a short drive to see my highlight for the day:  the world’s largest boot.

Red Wing World's Largest Boot Poster

It’s found at the Red Wing Shoe Store right on Highway 61 in downtown Red Wing.  At 16 feet high and 2300 pounds, this size 638.5 shoe is hard to miss when you walk in the door.  Little hands are allowed to touch, but no climbing on the shoe is allowed.

Red Wing Shoes World's Largest Boot

Up the staircase on the second floor, there’s a small museum that showcases the history of the company and its products, and shows how the famous Red Wing boots are made.

Red Wing Shoe Museum

The kids loved the dress-up corner that showcased some of the professions that use Red Wing shoes.  Everyone’s favorite was the construction scene.  Did you know that Red Wing makes special boot treads for those workers who walk on construction beams high above the ground?

The main floor and lower level offer retail and factory-direct items, including Red Wing shoes and memorabilia relating to the company and the big boot.  Even the rest rooms are uniquely decorated.

Red Wing Shoes Restroom

National Eagle Center, Wabasha, MN

Leaving Red Wing, we drove along the Great River Road south through Lake City (where water-skiing was invented) to Wabasha (home of Grumpy Old Men), where the National Eagle Center is located on the banks of the Mississippi River.  Our family had visited the National Eagle Center four years ago, and when we drove up, my kids exclaimed happily, “Oh! THIS place!”  We had about 45 minutes before the next educational presentation was to begin, so the kids spread out to check out the exhibits.

Here, the first-floor exhibit area is hands-on and geared to kids, who can sit in an eagle’s nest, test their eagle-eye vision, and more.

National Eagle Center Exhibits

The second floor contains more exhibits and displays, as well as an outdoor observation deck overlooking the river, where eagles and their nests are frequently seen.  Perhaps the most popular area is the room where visitors can see and learn about the center’s resident eagles, all of which are permanently disabled and cannot be rehabilitated.

National Eagle Center

Interesting trivia we learned was that the bald eagle pictured on Minnesota’s “Support our Troops” license plates is Harriet, one of the eagles at the National Eagle Center.

In the rotunda, individuals and groups can have their photo taken with a real live bald eagle.

National Eagle Center Bald Eagle

The highlight, however, of the National Eagle Center is the educational program.

National Eagle Center Program

Led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff member, visitors learn about the lives of eagles and the National Eagle Center and its history and mission; then it’s time for an eagle to be brought out for feeding time.  It was fascinating to watch the regal bird tear apart a large piece of fish with its strong beak and make short work of its daily feast.

National Eagle Center Feeding

After the 45-minute presentation, we returned to the exhibits until we realized that we were parked in a two-hour parking zone and had overspent our time.  (I read later on the brochure that the National Eagle Center can validate an additional two hours of parking for visitors in the city’s two-hour spots.)

At this point, the official 4-H tour was over, but a friend and I decided to add one more stop before our vehicles headed for home.

LARK Toys, Kellogg, MN

Just ten minutes south of Wabasha in the little town of Kellogg is one of the best toy stores anywhere.  LARK Toys is a good old-fashioned toy store and more.  Here you won’t find battery-operated toys, but you will find unique games, imaginative toys, and books, with several toy-testing stations throughout the retail area.

Lark Toys Marionette

The “and more” of LARK Toys includes a museum of vintage toys in display cases along the hallways.  (One of my friends wasn’t happy that the toys we played with as children are now in a museum.)

Lark Toys Museum

There’s a mini-golf course outside, candy and ice cream and a concession area, and perhaps the biggest draw, a beautiful hand-carved carousel.Lark Toys Carousel

 

Our visit to southeast Minnesota included a beautiful spring drive on country roads, history, roadside attractions, geography, learning about a national symbol, and a stop at a big toy store.  Was it as good a trip with kids as it was with adults?  Yes.  If you make this trip with kids, start out bright and early–try to be to Red Wing by 9 a.m. and the National Eagle Center around noon so you’ll have time to fit in a round of mini-golf and ride the carousel and check out the toy store before the end of the day.  This was a fun and educational trip, and I’m thankful that our local 4-H club put out the call for visitors to tag along.

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Finding More Fun: Family Travel Links, “It’s March Already?” edition

Time flies when you’re having fun, whether or not you’re traveling.  If you’re beginning to plan your summer travels, consider some of these locations.  Some are famous, some off the beaten path, and some may be right in your backyard.  I hope you find something that your family will enjoy.

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Minuteman Missile National Historic Site near Philip, South Dakota

When driving across South Dakota on I-90 en route from more eastern states to the Black Hills, there are a number of attractions and tourist traps that can provide a break from the ribbon of highway.  Wall Drug, Mitchell’s Corn Palace, 1880 Town, and a roadside sculpture park are all worthwhile stops along this stretch of road, but if you want to visit a real piece of history, find your way to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

Minuteman Missile Site Control Center

Growing up in North Dakota in the 1970s and 80s, missile sites were commonplace.  We passed one underground missile silo on the way to school each day, and there was a control center near one of the other small towns in our rural school district.  As kids, we were aware of the sites and of the fact that though farmers could farm around the sites, messing with the fences was not a good idea.  The import of the sites and the reason for their existence was lost on me.

We stopped at the Minuteman Missile site mostly because of curiosity on my part, to see what was inside those high-security areas that were a part of my childhood.  What we got, however, was a primer on the Cold War along with our tour of the site.

Our tour began with a short video at the visitor center; we chose the kids’ version which was very informative.  It described the Cold War and the reasons for having the missile sites throughout the Midwest.  If the Russians were ever going to try to send a missile our way, we were going to fire back with more power.  It wasn’t perhaps the most neighborly of situations, but it was effective.  No one ever wanted to use the missiles, but they were there if the necessity arose.

After the video, we drove to the next Interstate exit and met a park ranger for our actual tour of the control site.  This fenced-in house-like structure was indeed homey inside, with bunk rooms, a kitchen and dining area, living area/rec room, and other things you’d expect to find for servicemen who were on duty for extended periods of time.

Missile Control Center Rec Room

Unlike a regular house, though, there was a secure entrance area with very specific protocols on who was allowed into the building, and a security detail that was prepared to use force if necessary.

Security Room

From the security room, we took an elevator below ground to the actual missile control facility.  Located in a small vault-like room, with huge shocks to absorb the impact of a potential incoming missile, two people were always on duty, ready to send out the missiles if necessary.

Control Center

Precautions included communications with another site, and a physical distance between the two buttons that would need to be pressed in order to launch a missile so that no one person could do it on his own.

Control Room

I would encourage travelers to take the time to stop at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site when passing through South Dakota.  (There is also a similar site, the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site, near Cooperstown, North Dakota, run by the ND State Historical Society.)  This piece of our country’s more recent history is well-preserved and presents a mindset that is no longer part of our national culture.  All of the missile sites were dismantled several years ago, so only those preserved as historic sites remain to show and tell the story of this part of our history.

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site has a Junior Ranger program for children, and though guided tours aren’t always favorites with our kids, I did not get one comment about boredom while we were there.  Our kids learned from the video, and while we were at the site, asked questions to learn more about the site.

Tours are given twice a day; if you have questions, contact the staff at the site, who were very helpful in recommending arrival times and providing a description of the tour and directions to the visitor center.  Note that all tour visitors must be able to ascend a ladder unassisted in case of an emergency when the elevator will not operate.

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Snowcoach Tour of Yellowstone National Park from Big Sky Resort

Yellowstone National Park

When we were considering a trip to Big Sky Resort, one of the activities that intrigued me most was a snowcoach tour of Yellowstone National Park.  While three million or so people visit America’s first National Park each year, only a fraction do so during the winter months when access to most of the park is only allowed by guided snowmobile or snowcoach tours.  The idea of seeing Yellowstone’s geysers amidst a cover of snow, and without throngs of people, was something I wanted our family to experience.

Yellowstone in Winter

There are several snowcoach companies that operate tours into the park originating from Big Sky, and each has its own unique vehicles–some modern, some from the 1950s era; some for larger groups, some for smaller.  There are also various day trips offered to different locations in the park.  We opted for a one-day Old Faithful Winter Adventure tour through Yellowstone Tour Guides that picked us up at our Big Sky hotel, entered the park at West Yellowstone, and culminated at Old Faithful.

Yellowstone in Winter

Our driver, Rob, picked us up at our hotel just after 7 a.m. in a regular van for the trip to West Yellowstone on paved roads.  There were ten visitors in this initial group from Big Sky.  During the 60-90 minute trip (depending on winter driving conditions) to West Yellowstone, he shared much information about the Yellowstone ecosystem and some of the wildlife we could expect to see on our day’s journey into the park, allowing plenty of time for questions.

Coyote in Yellowstone

Once at West Yellowstone, we stopped at a combination gas station/convenience store/snowmobile dealership to take a bathroom break, grab some snacks, complete any pending payments, and switch to our snowcoach vehicle.  Traffic in West Yellowstone in the winter is comprised largely of snowmobiles, making the gas station a bit out of the ordinary.

West Yellowstone Gas Station Snowmobiles

In West Yellowstone, we also picked up a few more passengers, filling our snowcoach to capacity for the tour.  The snowcoach vehicle is a modified 15-passenger van, complete with “Mattracks,” special tracks put on the vehicle in place of tires for travel on packed snow.  Driving a tracked vehicle such as this is a bit of an art, especially when there’s fresh snow on the ground that makes the vehicle’s engine work harder, and our speeds ranged from about 20-40 mph during the trip.

Tracks on snowcoach

Taking frequent breaks, at least every hour or so, serves several purposes:  to allow guests to get out of the vehicle to see the sites and wildlife from a better vantage point, to allow for restroom and food breaks, and to let the vehicle recover a bit before the next leg of the journey.

Yellowstone Winter Roads

A microphone in the snowcoach allowed Rob to narrate the tour as he drove, and if he spotted something interesting, he stopped so we could get a better look.  We saw two elk fighting, racks locked together, a rarity in the winter as described by our guide.  We stopped to see elk and bison and had a coyote amble along the road right next to our vehicle.  On the water of the various rivers running through the park, we saw ducks and geese and several types of birds.  The only winter-typical wildlife we did not see on the trip was wolves.

Elk in Yellowstone

The snow in the park was deep and fresh and clean and beautiful, and my children found it hard to resist the opportunity to play in it whenever we had a chance.  After all, how many of us can say we’ve made snow angels at Yellowstone?

Yellowstone Snow Angel

Snowcoaches and snowmobiles are the only vehicles allowed in the park, and the roadway is changed over to snowpack in the winter months expressly for this type of vehicle traffic.  In the spring, the roads are closed, then cleared to allow for warm-season vehicular traffic.  Throughout the park, the winter scenery was breathtaking.  My favorite was the river water running through the snow alongside the road, but the views of mountains and geysers and trees with a snow-covered background were also something to see.

Yellowstone in Winter

All of the winter tour guides for both snowcoach and snowmobile travel have been trained by the National Park Service and as such have excellent knowledge of the park.  In addition, each guide makes almost daily trips into the park, so they have a familiarity with the ecosystem and can notice subtle changes that visitors might miss.  For example, on most days, our guide Rob saved the Fountain Paint Pots area for the return trip to Big Sky.  On the day of our tour, however, he noticed water running down the hill, which is sometimes a precursor to geysers in that area erupting.  While Old Faithful erupts every 70-90 minutes, Fountain’s cycle is longer at about 11 hours, and more sporadic.  Rob decided to give it a shot and pulled into the parking area on the chance that we’d get lucky and see Fountain erupt.  We walked along the boardwalk above the hot springs and viewed the paint pots, and then, just as we wandered toward it, we saw a geyser begin to shoot its hot water in the air.

Yellowstone Geyser

We were in for a real treat, however, because not only did Fountain erupt as we were standing there, but Morning, right next to it, which just became active again in June 2012 after 18 years of dormancy, erupted as well.  Our guides assured us that it was a very rare occurrence to see these two erupt simultaneously.  It was amazing to be standing in this beautiful place with geysers erupting so close to us that the steam collected on us and froze.

Frozen in Yellowstone

This was a hard act to follow, but we continued down the road with just a few minutes to spare before Old Faithful’s eruption around noon.  Truth be told, Old Faithful is the most famous geyser in the park, and it does shoot high and often, but the crowds are bigger there, and are kept at a distance, so it wasn’t as impressive as being in the middle of Fountain and Morning as they put on their show.

Old Faithful

After watching Old Faithful, we hurried over to the food area where we had the choice of a quick-service grill or a sit-down restaurant.  We’d been told that the grill lines could be long and slow, so we’d gotten there quickly and were third in line.  Our food was ready in just a few minutes, and then we realized our fatal flaw:  we had all stood in line together, while people behind us in line had split up their parties and were saving tables until their food arrived.  There was nowhere to sit, so we ended up standing up and eating in the lobby area.  Once done eating, we had time to browse the adjacent gift shop, make some more snow angels, sit on a bench made of skis, and even see Old Faithful erupt again from a distance as we waited for the rest of our traveling companions to finish their meals.

Ski Bench

From Old Faithful, we headed back along the same road, stopping again for wildlife sightings, some hot springs, and Firehole Falls.

Firehole Falls

We returned to West Yellowstone, where we left at a gift shop for a few minutes while we moved from the snowcoach to a van to take us back to Big Sky.  We arrived back at the resort around 6 p.m. after a full day of seeing Yellowstone in a very unique way.

Yellowstone Snowcoach

If you go on a Yellowstone snowcoach tour . . .

  • Book ahead of time, especially if you’re visiting during Christmas vacation.  Our guide said this is usually the only week of the year when they run at full capacity.  During other times of the winter, your snowcoach group will likely be smaller.
  • Know that the quoted price may not include actual park admission ($12/adults, free for kids or pass holders) or a tip for your driver.
  • Check to see if you should bring your own lunch or if you’ll be stopping along the way for it.  Different companies have different policies.
  • Wear your ski gear so you’re not cold when you’re out enjoying the park.  We wore our boots, snowpants, and winter coats and were comfortable in the 20-degree weather.
  • Let your kids bring a book or workbook just in case they need a diversion.  They might not need it, but the trip is essentially a day-long car trip with several breaks to get out and stretch.
  • Take your camera!
  • If you have the time, do a second tour to a different area of the park on a different day.  There’s a lot to see in Yellowstone.
  • Warm-season tours are also available; at different times of the year you’ll see varied things.  Our guide recommended May/early June as another good time to visit.

Yellowstone in Winter

Yellowstone Tour Guides provided complimentary tours for my husband and me, and we paid for our children’s admission.   Though this is not a low-cost tour, we felt it was well worth the price for the unique experience and information provided by our guide.  We are very glad we spent a day in Yellowstone as a natural and educational complement to the fun we had at Big Sky Resort.

 

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Big Sky Resort: A Guide for First-Time Visitors

Big Sky Zipline

“Live Big,” says the Big Sky Resort website, and that we did.  While we were at Big Sky, we had the opportunity to check out many of the activities the resort offers.  If you’re planning your first trip to Big Sky Resort, I hope this will help you to decide what your family will enjoy while you’re there.

Equipment Rental at Big Sky

Big Sky Equipment Rental

The rental area at the base of the mountain is well-marked and well-organized, but if you’re skiing for the first time, as we were, it can be a bit overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re doing.

First:  plan 30-45 minutes to get your rental equipment.  It takes a while to do the paperwork and payment and then be fitted for helmets, boots, and skis.  If you’re taking morning lessons, which begin at 9:15 a.m., be to the rental location by 8:30 or so to give yourself plenty of time.

Second:  when you arrive at the rental center, you need to start at the computer terminals on the right, even before getting in the line.  At the terminals, you enter you name, age, and size information in order to provide the best-fitting equipment.  If there are multiple adults in the party, they can each grab a terminal and split up the entry of the kids’ information in order to save time.

After printing out the information sheets provided at the computer terminals, get in the line to the left of the door, which will take you to the payment area.  From there, you’ll move through different stations–helmet fitting, boot fitting, ski fitting, and a final round of signatures–and then you’ll head out the door and be ready for your lessons or for the lifts to open and get on your way to skiing Big Sky.

Big Sky Ski School

Since our children had never been on skis before, and my husband and I hadn’t skied for many years, we all enrolled in group lessons at Ski School.  Our kids went off to the children’s area, where they had a small hill in a fenced-off area and a “magic carpet” lift to practice on.

Children's Ski School at Big Sky

Adults begin in a different fenced area at the bottom of the hill to get the basics of moving and stopping, and then move up the hill to practice coming down in a controlled manner.  Everyone learns at a different pace, and our instructor was very patient as we learned to navigate on our skis and come to a stop.

Ski School at Big Sky

One of our daughters caught on quickly, and soon she was up on the same hill that we were, making it look very easy to do her “french fries” (parallel skis) and “pizza” (wedge for stopping).

Ski School on Big Sky Slope

In hindsight, a full day of lessons probably would have been better for all of our kids.  Our younger children caught on pretty quickly and continued on with their dad for another day of skiing, but our tween boys had a little more trouble with it and might have had more success continuing on with a knowledgeable teacher than with inexperienced parents.

If you haven’t skied before, I recommend at least a beginner half-day lesson in ski school to get you off to a safe start.

Taking to the Slopes

If you’re an experienced skier, you won’t have any trouble with the trail maps and lifts and you’ll be off to a good start.  If you’re new to skiing, Big Sky has plenty of easy “green” runs to provide variety in skiing.  After a morning of ski school and an afternoon of practicing on the easiest short hill, my husband and daughters took one of the big lifts up and skied green runs down the mountain, enjoying (most) every minute of it.

I had a son who desperately wanted to take the dual-purpose scenic/lift trip on the Lone Peak tram, but it requires being able to ski a blue run down the mountain at the end of the tram ride, so he’ll have to save that for another time.

Snowshoe Tours

Snowshoe Tour at Big Sky

Some people don’t catch on to skiing as quickly as others, or have knees and hips that make skiing difficult.  For those in our group with this experience, we found a guided snowshoe tour to be an excellent way to enjoy the snow and the mountain at a slower and easier pace.

Snowshoe Fitting at Big Sky

Our guide, Bea, was great throughout the trip, from getting us outfitted in our snowshoes, to convincing a reluctant child that he wanted to make the trip, to giving us breaks without telling us they were rest breaks, to taking some photos of us along the way.  The snowshoe trip, which generally lasts about an hour and a half, entails snowshoeing about a mile and a quarter in distance while rising about 500 feet in altitude.  Along the way are breathtaking views of the Spanish mountain range and Big Sky’s Lone Peak, maybe some zipliners flying by overhead, and if you’re lucky some animal tracks or wildlife sightings.  At the top, above the treeline, there’s a yurt with sleds for a few quick runs, and even a porta-potty for those who need a pit stop.  The snowshoe trail runs between the ski runs but once you get a ways up you hear nothing but the quiet of nature.

Lone Peak from Snowshoe Trail at Big Sky

Although anyone can snowshoe, Bea told us that most of her snowshoe clients are women aged 30-60 and that the moms in the groups frequently say it’s their favorite thing to do at the resort.  In general, if your family or group signs up for a snowshoe tour, they won’t add other people to that time so you’ll be able to enjoy some family time together, along with your guide.

Tube Park

Tubing was the first thing we did at Big Sky, and it was a fun way to start off our vacation.  After checking in at the Base Camp building, we walked up a hill, grabbed our tubes, and rode up the magic carpet to the top of the tube park.  Once there, we had the choice of three runs–#1 right next to the magic carpet exit; #2 up the hill a bit farther and with a fire built for warming, and #3 which entailed a bit more of a climb but was a longer run.  Each run is its own chute with straw on the snow at the bottom slow-down area, and staff are careful that only one person is going down the course at a time.  Though #1 was the shortest, it was running fast, and those who wanted a bit more excitement could ask for a “super spinner” start by the attendant.  Although I had no qualms about the safety of the course, and my kids and husband had a blast, the scaredy-cat in me took over and I couldn’t bring myself to go over the edge.  I give the staff credit for encouraging me but not mocking my decision to back out.  (I’m also told that you can probably get a refund if you’re in my shoes and just can’t make the sliding start.)

Tubing Run at Big Sky

From the snow tubing area, the night-time views of the resort are beautiful, and because the number of people allowed in each one-hour tubing session is limited, you’ll get plenty of chances to try out all the tracks.  My kids estimated that they each got to do 7 or 8 runs before our time was done.

The safety-conscious mom in me was much more comfortable with this tubing hill than with the free-for-all hills in our area that have been known to result in broken bones, especially with the care the attendants were taking to make sure the course stayed safe.  (Of course, ask my husband about it and he’ll tell you they put down too much straw so he couldn’t go fast enough at the bottom . . . )  Tubing was a fun way to start our Big Sky vacation.

Ballroom Bonanza

Big Sky offers a complimentary kids’ club for a couple of hours each evening throughout the season, and paid babysitting is available at other times, but during the Christmas break they have a special “Ballroom Bonanza” set up for kids from 4-8 p.m. each evening.  For a fee, kids can go in and experience the fun, which this year included a bungee trampoline, climbing wall, tie dying, “calf” roping, face painting, giant Jenga, bean bag toss, and other kid-friendly activities.

Big Sky Ballroom Bonanza

Kids can come and go throughout the evening, but we made the most of it by giving our kids an early supper and then letting them be in the ballroom the entire four hours while my husband and I wandered through the shops and had a nice dinner at Chet’s restaurant.  Our kids had a blast and made new friends, and as we experienced throughout Big Sky, the staff were friendly and fun, even talking to the kids again when we saw them the next day.

The only problem with the Ballroom Bonanza, our 9-year-old son proclaimed, was that there was a Packers fan there, but even the two of them seemed to work out their differences through their team-colored face paint.

Zipline Tour

Big Sky Zipline

If you had asked our kids what they were most looking forward to at Big Sky before our trip, they would have said the zipline.  They’ve dreamed of riding a zipline for quite a while, but most that we had considered previously had age or size restrictions that would have left out our youngest kids.  Big Sky’s zipline, however, has a 3-foot, 45-pound minimum, making it ideal for our family.

Big Sky Zipline Preparation

After checking in at Basecamp and being suited up in our harnesses, we headed up the mountain again, retracing part of our snowshoe route but then moving on to a bit more rugged ground before reaching the first line.  We had two guides with us, one in the lead and one behind, and when we reached the first line, guide Rachel zipped across to “catch” us on the other side, while guide Evan was responsible for hooking us up and doing the 8-point safety check for each of us.  Our kids just walked off the platform and went “wheeeeeee!” across the line.

Then it was my turn.  I looked across at the cable, looked below at the 60-foot drop, turned around, hugged a tree, and proclaimed through my tears, “I can’t do this!”  Evan and my husband assured me that I could, but I wasn’t buying it, and was seriously contemplating the long walk back down the hill by myself.  With exceeding patience, Evan offered that I could just sit in the harness, clipped to the anchor, to see what it would feel like without actually going anywhere.  I acquiesced, and sat there hooked to the tree for a bit, after which I allowed him to unhook the brace clip so I would slide across.

I have to say this about the first zip line:  the scariest part was the ending, because with my eyes squeezed tightly shut I had no idea when it was coming and the sound of the line at the end startled me as Rachel brought me to a safe stop.

On the second line, which is longer, but not quite as high, I again slid off the platform from a sitting position rather than just walking off into the air like my children did.

Big Sky Zipline Platform

I managed to peek a few times and started to think this was ok.  (Contrast this with my six-year-old, who didn’t have enough momentum to get all the way across and ended up hanging over the gorge for a while until Evan went out on the line and pulled her to the ending spot.  “That was fun!  Can I do the same thing on the next one?”)

By the third line, I was doing much better, and although I hadn’t mastered the “run off the mountain and let the line pick you up” enthusiasm that my children and husband had, I kept my eyes open the whole time and enjoyed every second of the magnificent view.  (Tip:  on the third line, you can do one of two things–attempt to situate yourself for a great camera shot with you in front of the mountains,

Big Sky Photo Third Zipline

or forget about the camera and pay attention to a view that you’ll never see again unless you repeat the zip trip.  I recommend going for the view, even though my picture looks like I’m a Christmas ornament on a really tall pine tree.)

Big Sky Zipline Tree Ornament

Although you can bring your own camera on the zipline, there is also an option to buy photos taken by a professional photographer on the mountain; you can buy digital copies of all your group’s photos (we averaged 35-40 for each of us) for a per-person fee, and copyright release is included.  We decided that it was important to have proof that I conquered the zipline as my final Big Sky activity of the trip and quickly bought the photos.

Overall Impressions

Big Sky Montana

Coming to Big Sky as a family of non-skiers, I was pleased that there was such a wide variety of activities for our family to try.  We all attempted some new and different things–some with more success than others–and created some family memories that won’t soon be forgotten.  While the activities themselves were fun, the staff at the resort get much of the credit for our enjoyment of it.  From Bea convincing my son that the snowshoeing would be all right, to Evan talking me out on the zipline, to the Ski School instructors getting all six of us up and moving, we were impressed with the people at Big Sky as much as the facilities.  We did indeed “Live Big” at Big Sky, and we had a blast doing it!

 

Big Sky Resort provided our lodging, activities, and some meals during our visit.  The experiences, however, were all ours.

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Visiting Big Sky Resort in Montana

Big Sky Mountain Village Welcome Sign

A while ago, a representative of Big Sky Resort, near Bozeman, Montana, and Yellowstone National Park, invited our family to see what a ski vacation is all about.

“We’re a family of six,” I warned him.  “It can sometimes be hard to pin down accommodations that fit us all.”

“No problem,” was his reply; Big Sky Resort has a variety of hotel rooms, condominium-style housing, and cabins available.

“Our kids have never been on skis before, and the last time my husband and I attempted skiing was 20+ years ago.”

Again, the reply came back:  “No problem!”  Ski school might be a good idea for us, but even if we didn’t take to the slopes perfectly, there would be plenty of other activities to do; in fact, the resort is popular with summer visitors as well.  Among the things we could do while at the resort would be tubing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, a spa, indoor-outdoor pool, shopping and dining, kids’ clubs, a kid- and parent-friendly zipline, and even a day trip into Yellowstone National Park.

We decided to give it a try, and they fit us in at Big Sky during their busiest week of the year, as it was the only time we had a school break long enough for the trip.

Over the next days and weeks, I’ll share specifics about things we did at the resort, but today I’ll start with an overview of our vacation.  We knew it would be an adventure no matter what happened, but we did not realize how much we would enjoy this vacation.

Getting to Big Sky from Minnesota

We had two options for getting to Big Sky — driving 1000 miles or flying into the Bozeman Airport.  We opted to drive, as many Minnesota families do.  From Minneapolis, taking I-94 through North Dakota is the fastest route, but since we’re southwest of the metro, we opted for I-90 through South Dakota as it offered a better halfway point (Rapid City) and the opportunity for some Junior Ranger programs along the way.  We chose to break the trip into two 8-hour driving days in each direction, though we know people who have driven it in one long day from the MSP area.

We’ve acquired quite a lot of winter roadtrip experience over the years, and while there were storms to the east and south of us, our route to the west was cold but clear, with snow-covered bluffs and hills making for a very pretty drive, even in parts of South Dakota and Wyoming that can sometimes be brown and dull to traverse.  Once we got near Buffalo, Wyoming, we had almost-continuous snow-capped mountain views, a real treat for us flat-landers.

Montana Mountains

Tips for Traveling on Christmas Day

In order to fit our trip into our children’s school vacation, we left early in the morning on Christmas Day.  This is perhaps the trickiest day of the year for car travel because most businesses are closed, and one must plan ahead a bit to ensure smooth travels.

For us, attending a Christmas Day church service was important, so we found a church with service times that fit our route.  I had also called ahead to some restaurants to be sure we could find a meal along the way, and learned that IHOP was open in both Sioux Falls and Rapid City.  24-hour restaurants like Denny’s, truck stops, and Chinese restaurants are other possibilities for Christmas Day travel, or if you want to be a fun mom, take your kids to the movies and let them have popcorn for supper!  Even bathroom breaks needs to be planned a bit, as not every convenience store was open along our route.  We didn’t let the gas gauge go below 1/2 tank, just in case we had to stop unexpectedly and/or couldn’t find a gas station, and we had plenty of winter survival gear and supplies in the trunk.

Making a Christmas Road Trip Fun for Kids

One new thing I tried during this trip to make it a bit more fun for the kids took a bit of planning and preparation but worked out really well.  I had picked up a variety of stocking stuffers–time-passers like books, activity books, and crayons; treats like gum and Christmas candies; snacks like cereal and granola bars; fun things like glow sticks and card games; and useful trip items like chap stick and zipper thermometers–and wrapped them up for the kids.  Each set of gifts went into a repurposed plastic bag and was then tagged with a number (we needed the chap stick before we got there, and I wanted to mix up the food and non-food gifts) and placed in a canvas tote bag, one tote for each driving day of the trip.  I ended up with enough packages that the kids could open one gift every time the odometer hit 50 or 100 miles.

Christmas Travel Gifts

The rules were as such:

  1. Take turns with who gets to open the plastic bag and distribute the gifts.  If it’s a group gift (i.e. a box of granola bars or a card game), that person gets to unwrap the package.
  2. While some of the packages were marked with an initial for each specific child, others were random.  Any child complaining about the color/type/character, etc. of the one they got would forfeit the next package (and Dad would get the gift).
  3. Each child had a canvas bag hanging from the headrest in front of him or her, in which they should keep all of their opened items.
  4. All trash goes into the numbered plastic bags, and is removed at each stop the car makes.
  5. You may trade any item with another child as long as the trade is made peacefully and is mutually acceptable.
  6. You may eat anything you get immediately, or save it for later, but know that these are the only snacks that have been packed for the trip.

This idea really worked out very well, providing little surprises to break up the trip and make the long drive a bit more quiet.

Staying at Big Sky

Our accommodations were in the Shoshone Condominiums, where we had a one-bedroom suite with a very comfortable Murphy bed adjacent to the kitchen table and a sofabed and two chairs next to it, along with two bathrooms, a full kitchen, fireplace, and beautiful mountain views.

Big Sky Shoshone Condominium

We liked that there was a leaf for the table so we fit comfortably while eating meals in the room, and I really could have lounged on the sofa all day and stared out at the mountains, but we had too much else planned to take much time for relaxing.

View from Big Sky Resort Shoshone Condominium Room 1978

We ate our breakfasts in the Huntley Dining Room in our building, and it was definitely the best breakfast buffet we’ve encountered in our travels.  My daughter feasted on pancakes each morning, while the youngest loved the bacon and the boys went for omelets.  I filled up on the fresh fruit, yogurt and granola, and smoked salmon spread on a bagel, as well as the variety of cooked eggs and potatoes and biscuits and gravy.  There was certainly no reason for anyone to start the day hungry, even with the pickiest of eaters.  I appreciated the allergen labels (listing pork, gluten, etc.) on the entree tags.  The Huntley Dining Room is open from 6:30-10:30 a.m., and because we were there during a particularly busy time, we were happy to be early risers, as we had no line to get a table when we arrived at 6:45 Friday morning, but when we left an hour later the line was quite long.

Most other meals we cooked in our condo, though we had dinner at Chet’s restaurant one evening, where the bison/elk/beef meatloaf was delicious and my husband thoroughly enjoyed the huckleberry-sauced ribs, and we used the cafeteria in the Mountain Mall for a quick mid-day meal with good, meaty sandwiches at prices similar to those in an amusement park.  There’s also a small grocery store in the Mountain Mall with prices ranging from slightly-inflated-for-your-convenience (cream of mushroom soup at $1.75) to  desperate-mother-who’s-run-out-of-sugared-cereal ($8.00 for a box of Cap’n Crunch).  The store, though small, had a surprisingly good variety of products for any last-minute food, beverage, or medication needs at the resort.

Big Sky Weather

Before we left, I had asked what gear and clothing we would need for our trip, and I had packed multiple balaclavas, handwarmers, and other such recommended items.  It turned out that during our stay, the afternoons were at about 20 degrees with sunny skies and little wind, so we hardy Minnesotans found some of the layers and gear to be unnecessary (although the kids thought the base layers and goggles were really cool).

Ready for Skiing

There was fresh snow each night, and the sun came out during the day to give us beautiful views with clear blue skies.  Though it can get extremely cold at Big Sky, and storms can dump a large amount of snow, much of the ski season is made up of weather similar to what we had.  For us Minnesotans, the weather was very enjoyable.

Big Sky Activities

Though Big Sky Resort’s main focus is definitely skiing, there are many other activities to enjoy.  Into our three-day visit, we squeezed ski school, skiing, tubing, snowshoeing, ziplining, “ballroom bonanza” for the kids, and a day-trip to Yellowstone.  Given a few more days, we would have had more time to get better at skiing and do a bit more relaxing in our room or at the pool.

Big Sky Snowshoeing

On a Budget?

We enjoyed our trip to Big Sky very much, but I’ll be honest:  a ski vacation isn’t a shoestring-budget vacation.  If you’re thinking of a ski trip, check out the prices for lodging, lift tickets, meals, and activities to see if it fits in your family’s budget.  To save some money, compare the cost of staying on-site (which may include breakfast and/or ski passes for kids) with staying off-site and driving in each day, and try to find lodging where you can prepare your own meals.  For more ideas on saving money on a ski vacation, check out these articles at We Just Got Back, The Frugal Toad, ABC News, USA Today, Lonely Planet, and Family Ski Hub.

Overall Impressions of Big Sky

From the moment we arrived, we found all staff at the resort to be extremely friendly and helpful.  (Remember, this is coming from someone who lives in the land of “Minnesota nice.”)  Though we were first-timers at the resort and new to most of the activities, we felt welcome and not at all out of place.  The instructors and guides were excellent at calling us by name and being sure we were comfortable in all of our activities (including getting this scaredy-cat to decide she could conquer the zipline, and convincing a 10-year-old boy that he could indeed snowshoe up the mountain).

Even though we were there on what is the resort’s busiest week of the year, we didn’t feel that the resort was crowded.  The only crowds we saw were at lunch in the cafeteria seating area, where my husband told me that getting a table was a bit cutthroat, and at the base area, where what looked to be a long line for the Swift Current lift was actually only 15 minutes or so.  People at Big Sky are proud of the fact that the mountain is big and there are enough lifts that lines are generally non-existent, and cap at 10-15 minutes on the busiest days.  They tell me that this is excellent compared to many other ski resorts, which have much longer lift wait times.

Big Sky

While we were at Big Sky, I asked other families how they had decided to make Big Sky their destination.  One family from Missouri, all of whom were new to skiing, said that winter was the only time they could get away, and they had chosen Big Sky over some Colorado resorts because they thought it would be better for beginners.  A family from New York City who usually takes a March ski trip to Taos, New Mexico, decided on Big Sky in December on the advice of friends, and took advantage of the inaugural nonstop flight from New York to Bozeman.  They said that they enjoy skiing because it’s a family vacation where teenagers will happily go along with their parents.

We found Big Sky to be a relaxing place to visit, with a definite vacation feel to it.  People, both staff and visitors, were laid-back and pleasant, enjoying the skiing, the mountain views, and everything else there was to enjoy at the resort.

Conclusion

Big Sky View of Spanish Mountains

Though a ski trip may not have been something we would have previously considered for a family vacation, we truly enjoyed our time at Big Sky.  I can’t count the number of times my husband and I turned to each other and said, “Wow! That was fun!” or “I hadn’t expected to enjoy this so much,” or “The kids are going to remember this for a long time.”  We saw new places, tried new activities, and enjoyed our time together as a family.  We knew our trip to Big Sky would be an adventure, but we didn’t realize how enjoyable that adventure would be.

Have you been to Big Sky Resort?  If you have memories or tips to add for a successful ski vacation, please share them below in the comments.

 

Big Sky Resort provided our family with complimentary lodging, activities, and some meals during our stay.

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Tips Needed for a Ski Vacation at Big Sky Resort

Our family has traveled much of the United States in the past twelve years, but we have a new type of adventure coming our way, and I’d appreciate any help the experts can give.

We’ve been invited to spend a few days at Big Sky Resort, skiing and checking out the other activities offered there.

The problem?  My kids have never been on skis, and the last time my husband and I attempted it was 20 years ago.

The good folks at Big Sky have assured us that this will not be a problem and that we’ll be just fine and have a great time, but all the same, I like to be a wee bit prepared.

So, while we’ve got a pretty good handle on winter road trip preparations, we could use some advice on Ski Resorts 101, things like:

  • What to pack for a ski trip.  (Until last week when I happened upon them in a store, I didn’t know there were socks especially made for skiing.)
  • How not to get hurt.  (We’ve visited emergency rooms in several states, but I’d prefer to leave Montana off the list.)
  • What activities we should absolutely be sure to do.  (My girls:  “Mom, can we go to the spa? . . .  Mom, what’s a spa?”  Maybe we don’t have to put the spa at the top of our list.)
  • How to best capture the memories.  (My husband is still trying to figure out my Christmas gift–should I tell him I need some special kind of camera for the trip?)
  • What to expect weather-wise.  (Is Montana mountain territory similar to Minnesota farm country?)
  • General ski advice, or specific advice regarding Big Sky Resort.
  • Any other tips for making our first ski trip a lot of fun.

Since this is all new to us, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a blast, but a good trip can be made all the better with a little insider information.  If you know anything about skiing, would you be willing to share a tip or two in the comments?  When we get back, I promise I’ll tell you all about it.

P.S. I asked some family travel blogging friends if they’d written any posts to get me started.  Here’s some of the advice they shared.

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on Dec 11 2012

Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms, California

When we began planning our California trip, we asked our children for ideas of places they wanted to visit.  We weren’t surprised to hear “Disneyland!” “Legoland!” or even “Hollywood Sign!,” but the request of our youngest took us a bit off guard.  “I want to see the desert,” she said.

So, as plans were made to see the ocean and the mouse and many other popular California attractions, I looked for ways to incorporate a desert into our trip.

It turns out that it wasn’t so hard.  Joshua Tree National Park, just northwest of Palm Springs, is a beautiful desert to visit, and it was just two hours from our hotel in Anaheim, making for a nice day trip out of the city to see a different side of California.

We got our first taste of desert air as the morning quickly warmed up at Cabot’s Pueblo Museum in Palm Desert.  After an early lunch, we headed up California state road 62 to Joshua Tree.  Along the way, we commented at the curious-looking “cactus trees” alongside the road, and as we neared the national park, we finally figured out that these were the park’s namesake Joshua Trees.

Joshua Tree along road

Our first stop was the visitor center in Joshua Tree, where we paid our entrance fee, picked up junior ranger booklets, and watched a brief movie about the park and its wildlife. Then we hit the park road and drove into the park.

Joshua Tree visitor center sign

Whereas we had seen a few Joshua Trees along the state highway, we saw more and more of them as we neared the park boundaries.

Joshua Trees in national park

Once inside the park, there were many turnouts for cars to park, as well as picnic areas with restrooms, so we picked a spot and got out to explore.  Besides the Joshua Trees, there were many piles of rocks.

Joshua Tree and Rocks

They were impressive from the road, but seemed even larger when my family started climbing on them.

Joshua Tree Climbing on Rocks

I, with a fear of both heights and snakes, kept my feet firmly planted on the ground and proceeded to take about a thousand pictures of these things that we would never see at home in Minnesota.

Joshua Tree National Park

After everyone had conquered the rock pile, we got back in the car and worked our way around the park loop.

Joshua Tree climbing

My original intent had been to go out the south entrance, but we realized that we might run out of time before the visitor center closed, and we needed to get the junior ranger badges on the way out.

The kids kept working on their junior ranger booklets as we drove, peeking out the windows to find many of the things asked for in the guides.  As we wound our way back to the Oasis visitor center, the sun was already starting to get lower in the sky.

Joshua Tree Oasis

We turned in the junior ranger booklets to Park Ranger Pat Pilcher, who was one of the nicest national park rangers we’ve encountered, and left the building with newly-earned badges in our hands and memories of the desert in our heads.

 

If you go:

  • A brief drive-through with a stop or two can be done in an afternoon.  If you want to take more time to explore, or drive on some of the side roads to Keys Lookout or other popular areas, you’ll want to plan more time.
  • Plan meals and snacks carefully–you’ll need to eat outside the park or bring a picnic meal.
  • The visitor center at Joshua Tree is loud and the video can be hard to hear due to voices echoing in the building.  The Oasis visitor center is much more calm and you can find some shade from the palm trees  if you walk the path through the oasis.
  • If you begin at the Joshua Tree visitor center, it will be a 45-60 minute drive to get to the “crossroads” where you can choose to exit the park at the north or south.  From this crossroads, it’s about a 60-minute drive to the south exit, and 15 minutes to the north.
  • Though there are 25 types of snakes living in the park, I needn’t have been so worried.  Ranger Pilcher explained that when we visited in February, they’d still be underground unless it was a 70+ degree day and they were out sunning themselves.  If I return, I will certainly go in the winter when the snakes are underground.
  • When we turned in the junior ranger booklets, our family was also given a copy of a children’s book called A Tree Named Lily, which we were asked to share.  This book is also available online for children who might want to learn about Joshua Tree but are unable to visit the park.
  • We visited Joshua Tree on a day trip from Anaheim.  We arrived in time for the first tour of the day at Cabot’s Pueblo Museum, visited Joshua Tree, and then went up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway at dusk, returning to Anaheim by 8 p.m.  This was a very workable day trip with plenty of variety in it.

Have you been to Joshua Tree National Park?  What was your favorite part?

 

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Road Tripping with Gadget-Free Kids

Though we’ve never had an in-car DVD player, over the years I have gradually let the kids bring more and more gadgets with them when we travel.  Sometimes keeping the peace, especially on trails we’ve driven multiple times, is worth something in sanity.  By the end of this summer, however, I had tired of the arguments over who gets what, the constant state of something-needs-to-be-charged, and the mass of headphones and earbuds that are necessary to keep one child from disturbing the others.

When we went to Omaha at the end of August, I put my foot down.  They were going to have a gadget-free trip.  No i-devices, no DS, no e-readers.  They were to bring nothing that would potentially require a cord.  And no one was to tell me they were bored and ask to use my phone.

Although I sometimes live up to the title of “mean mommy,” I did help them to decide on some things to bring that would help keep them busy on the trip.  We had a few stuffed animals, some coloring books and workbooks, and a well-worn set of travel bingo cards.  I also took them to the bookstore to choose a few new books.  (Since we have a hard enough time keeping track of library books at home, I did not want to worry if they had fallen out of the car somewhere in the four-state area).

Now, I know that not everyone can read in the car, but fortunately motion sickness isn’t a problem in our family, so times with new books in hand can be almost as blissfully peaceful as when they have a new electronic game to play.  The trick is finding books that will hold their interest.

As a former librarian, I have plenty of notions as to what constitutes a good book, but I’ve also bombed out enough times to know that kids are happier reading what they want to read instead of what Mom says is a good book.  At the bookstore, I let them choose the books that piqued their interest, but when it came time to hit the road, I brought along a secret weapon that almost always counters boredom for elementary-age kids:  a colorful fact book.

I had been sent a review copy of The World Almanac for Kids 2013, and this is what I brought along for when all else failed.

I’m pretty sure that reference books weren’t nearly as exciting when I was a kid, although I remember the boys in my third-grade class clamoring for Ripley’s Believe it or Not and the Guinness world record books.  I’m pretty sure our almanacs were big and fat and black and white.  The new almanacs for kids, however, are colorful with photos and illustrations, and laid out with information that may or may not be useful in life.  Want to know what the world’s fastest animals are?  It’s in the World Almanac for Kids.  Need to know a few words of Spanish?  There are a couple of pages to get you started.  Sure, there’s the typical almanac information on presidents and countries of the world, but there are also facts about sports and space and even some book recommendations for kids.

Books like the World Almanac for Kids are great for those kids who love to soak up every last fact about everything they possibly can (partly, I think, so that their parents will sometimes be required to ask “How did you know THAT?”), but they’re also good for reluctant readers since they don’t have to be read through from cover to cover.  Kids can flip to the pages they’re interested in, read a few quick details, and move on to something else.  They might not even realize that they’re reading and learning.

Colorful fact books are some of the most well-worn books on my kids’ shelves, and they’re also great for taking in the car while traveling.  Who knows, your kids might try to impress you with their newfound knowledge of Nebraska, all of which they got from your secret weapon book.

It is possible to take a roadtrip without gadgets; it just might take a bit more creativity and planning to have something the kids will enjoy doing when the landscape no longer holds their attention.

These are some of the fun information books from our bookshelf.  (I’ve listed the newest versions currently available, and my kids would love for me to update our collection. And yes, they’re affiliate links, so if you’d happen to buy them for your own kids I might get a few pennies out of the deal. Just so you know.)

Do you have any other good road-trip books or activities to recommend?

(or any of Stan Tekiela’s other region-specific bird or animal books)

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on Oct 10 2012

Camping at Schreier’s on Shetek near Currie, Minnesota

This summer, we tested the waters of a seasonal campsite, where we could park our camper and leave it rather than towing it each time we wanted to camp.  We found the right campground fit for our family at Schreier’s on Shetek in southwestern Minnesota.

Schreier's on Shetek Entrance

In looking for a seasonal site, we had a pretty lengthy list of amenities we were looking for:

  • No more than two hours from home
  • Family-friendly campground
  • Would allow a small tent for our boys to sleep in alongside our camper
  • On a lake with a swimming area
  • Allows fishing from a dock or shoreline
  • Close to a bicycle trail
  • Reasonable rates
  • Lawnmowing included

We found Schreier’s to have all of these things.

Schreier’s on Shetek is located on the shores of Lake Shetek, about 35 minutes southeast of Marshall, Minnesota.  Most of its 100+ sites are set up as seasonal sites, but there are some overnight sites available as well.  Many of the sites overlook Lake Shetek as ours did.  I had a beautiful sunset view from our camper bedroom.

Sunset View from our Campsite

Most of the lakeview sites such as ours are on a small treelined bluff, with stairs leading down to a shoreline trail and both public and private docks.

Stairs to Lake Shetek

 

Playground and Sand Volleybal

In the family-friendly category, Schreier’s has several playground areas, basketball and sand volleyball courts, shuffleboard, a repurposed barn with arcade games that is also used for Saturday evening movies, and a compact yet challenging 18-hole miniature golf course (for which a small fee is charged).  Parents may enjoy the free coffee and wifi alongside the coin laundry area in the barn.

Schreier's Mini Golf and Activity Barn

Speed bumps throughout the campground roads keep it safe for kids on their bikes or on foot.  The campground is well-maintained and the owners live on-site, so any problems can be addressed immediately.

Campground Road

The only thing from our list that wasn’t at the campground itself was a bicycle trail, but this is where Schreier’s location shines.  It is adjacent to Lake Shetek State Park, through which the six-mile paved Currie loop of the Casey Jones Trail runs.  Bicyclists and pedestrians can ride a mile or so down a quiet gravel road and go in a rear entrance to the park, which is closed to vehicle traffic.

Schreier's Driveway; Lake Shetek State Park is down and to the right

Riding from the campground, through the park, around the loop, and back, is about 10 miles.  Some of the route is paved, some is gravel, and there are a few challenging hills, but overall it is a family-friendly route with scenery that varies from prairies and farmland to shaded river and lake views.  Our whole family, including our youngest, who is six, were able to complete the trail with a stop for a break at the End-o-Line Museum just off the trail in Currie.

Casey Jones Bicycle Trail near Currie

Restrooms and showers are located in a few different places in the campground, making them convenient to different groups of campsites.

Restroom/Shower Building that includes a picnic shelter; another playground

The campground office includes a milk, eggs, and a few other basic provisions available for purchase.  For more supplies, there’s a convenience store near the state park entrance, and the town of Tracy is just 15 minutes away.  Because of the threat of emerald ash borer, no outside firewood is currently allowed at Schreier’s, but there is firewood available for purchase at the campground office.

Schreier's Campground Office

During one of our stays, we had tickets for the Wilder Pageant in Walnut Grove, and it was an easy 20-minute drive back to the campground after the pageant.  We talked to some other weekend campers who had also chosen Schreier’s in conjunction with the pageant and other Laura Ingalls Wilder events.

Non-Seasonal/Overnight Camping Area

For families looking for a nice campground with many amenities in southwest Minnesota, I can heartily endorse Schreier’s on Shetek.  It’s in a beautiful location, is well-maintained, and is family-friendly with lots to do.

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Finding More Fun: Family Travel Links, Back-to-School 2012

Our summer was full of experiences new and old, big and small, and plentiful enough to keep me from reading about what other travelers were doing.  Now that school has started, I’m catching up, and will share with you some of my favorite posts that came through my feed reader this summer.

Where did your summer travels take you?  I’m adding some of these places to my future-travel wish list.

That’s quite a list, isn’t it?  I’m already using several of these posts in planning our family’s next adventures.  What new places are on your wish-to-see list?

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on Sep 16 2012

Midwestern Family Getaway in Omaha, Nebraska

After a busy summer of swimming lessons and family get-togethers and other activities for which I was an excellent chauffeur for children, we finally had a chance for a family getaway at the end of August.  Our destination was Omaha, Nebraska, one that might not have been on our radar if the Omaha visitor’s bureau hadn’t offered us some free tickets so we could check things out.  We found that Omaha was an excellent family vacation destination and closer to our home than we’d expected.  After visiting the area, I heartily recommend Omaha as a place for Midwestern families to visit for a long weekend or a longer family vacation.

These are some of our Omaha highlights.

Henry Doorly Zoo

When we mentioned to people at home that we were headed to Omaha, many asked if we were going to the zoo.  Of all the things in Omaha, this seems to be the most famous among families, and I’d read excellent reviews of the zoo as well.  Still, I was unconvinced.  We’ve been to some pretty good zoos. How would Omaha’s stack up?

I’m pleased to report that I was impressed.  After having visited the San Diego Zoo this winter, I’d say that the Henry Doorly Zoo holds its own.  As a visitor, the two seemed comparable in size and had many similar amenities like a skyride and narrated tram.  Sure, San Diego has pandas, but the Henry Doorly Zoo has an impressive range of animals on hand, and enough of the exhibits are indoors that a rainy or wintry weather should not deter people from visiting.  With exhibits ranging from the desert to a butterfly garden to a swamp where I actually found myself telling the kids it was like the beginning of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, the Henry Doorly Zoo has a wide variety of experiences available for its visitors.

We arrived at the zoo just before it opened and left just before closing; it is truly a full-day experience and one that any zoo-loving family should consider in their Midwestern travels.

Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge

The Missouri River waterfront area in downtown Omaha is well-developed with parks and trails, and perhaps its most recognizable landmark is the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge.  The bridge is long and beautiful, and not so scary as I’d expected, and it allows pedestrians to stand in both Iowa and Nebraska at one time (a feat not so easy considering that the entire states’ shared border is created by the Missouri River) or simply take advantage of the extensive trail systems on both sides of the river.

Near “the Bob” is the National Park Service’s headquarters for the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, where visitors can pick up information about other Omaha and NPS sites, as well as exploring a few hands-on exhibits related to the Lewis & Clark expedition.  (There is no in-house Junior Ranger program here, however; the Lewis & Clark trail Junior Ranger activities are available exclusively online.)

On our wish list for another time is a gondola ride in Heartland of America park.

Old Market

Though a boutique shopping and restaurant district isn’t usually tops on our list with a carload of kids, we headed to Old Market for lunch.  We found the Spaghetti Works restaurant to be family-friendly and tasty, and eating outdoors on the patio reminded us just a bit of San Antonio’s Riverwalk.  There’s a wide variety of restaurants in this area (including a Subway if you need something quick for kids) and many shops lining the cobblestone streets.  Just be sure you have a map of the area (the Omaha Visitor Center is just down the street) to help you navigate the one-way streets, and bring change for the on-street parking meters for the most convenient parking.

Gene Leahy Pedestrian Mall

Also reminding us of San Antonio’s Riverwalk was the downtown Omaha Gene Leahy Pedestrian Mall, a beautiful promenade along a waterway anchored at one end by the public library.  (What could be better than that?)  The walk here is pleasant, with interesting benches for those want to pause for a bit, but the most fun part for families is sure to be the big slides.

Our server at SpaghettiWorks clued us in to the slides, and the found some sheets of wax paper so the kids could go even faster on their way down.  (I mention that the kids went fast because I was terrified of going down the long slide myself.)  Located just a few blocks north of Old Market, any family visiting Omaha should be sure to try out the big slides.

The Durham Museum

Though our kids’ favorite part of the Durham Museum was the temporary Mindbender Mansion exhibit which has since moved on, I found the Durham to be a beautiful museum showcasing the area’s history.  Located in the city’s old art-deco train station, stepping inside led me to imagine what it would have been like to enter that grand station as a traveler, perhaps on my first trip from the fields and farmland to the big city.  The main floor is well-preserved in providing that experience to visitors, while the lower levels allow the chance to walk through actual train cars of various eras and learn about the history of Omaha and environs.  Having just read The Devil in the White City, I found the exhibit on the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition, held just five years after Chicago’s World’s Fair, to be captivating.  I also spent many minutes poring over a series of panoramic photographs of downtown Omaha, all taken from the same vantage point over more than a century.

Joslyn Art Museum

Just west of downtown Omaha, the Joslyn Art Museum provides a cultural element both indoors and in its outdoor sculpture garden.  We went primarily to see Grant Wood‘s Stone City, Iowa, in person, but were also delighted to find some of Dale Chihuly’s work here.  Though not all of my children are art enthusiasts (yet), one of my sons walked through all the galleries with me while the other kids stayed with my husband and tried to count the number of glass pieces in Chihuly’s installation for a scavenger-hunt game on the museum-promoted SCVNGR app.

Wildlife Safari Park

Just southwest of the city of Omaha near Ashland, the Wildlife Safari Park offers a drive-through opportunity to see buffalo, elk, deer, and other wildlife from your vehicle, farm animals in a petting zoo and bald eagles in an aviary, and wolves and bears if you’ve brought your hiking shoes and are up to doing some walking on a beautiful yet sometimes-challenging path.

 

If you’ve enjoyed driving through South Dakota’s Custer State Park or other animal refuges, you’ll like the Wildlife Safari Park.  The drive and hike took us about two hours to complete, and there’s a visitor center available if you’d like to extend your visit.

Omaha Children’s Museum

Though we keep thinking our days at children’s museum are drawing to a close as our children grow older, our kids seem to have a different idea.  Though they were outgrowing some of the Omaha Children’s Museum sections, they would have stayed all day in the Super Graviton ball machine area.  They’re still asking to go back again and play with the balls.

Strategic Air & Space Museum

Just across the highway from the Wildlife Safari Park is the Strategic Air & Space Museum.  Fans of military aircraft will appreciate the wide variety of aircraft on display at the museum, and there’s a small play area available for kids whose dads might find the planes more interesting than they do.  The upcoming Robots exhibit looks to be interesting for kids.  (Note: the lunch counter at the museum will accept cash or checks, but not credit cards.)

Other Things to Do

Tucked between the Wildlife Safari Park and the Strategic Air & Space Museum, Mahoney State Park is a popular destination in the Omaha area.  In addition to the usual state park activities, Mahoney offers a waterpark, trail rides, and miniature golf.

For a unique stay near Omaha, sleep in a train caboose at Two Rivers State Recreation Area.

In addition to the Durham Museum and the Joslyn Art Museum, several other Omaha-area sites participate in the family-friendly Railroad Days each June.  My friend Ann wrote excellent reviews of Railroad Days when she visited a few years ago.

For those interested in the westward expansion of the United States, the Mormon Trail Center offers insight on pioneers who traveled through Nebraska on their way west.

Just across from the Omaha Visitor Center, take your photo with a bronze statue of Chef Boyardee on the grounds of ConAgra headquarters.

Where to Stay

If you’re planning to do most of your Omaha sight-seeing downtown at the museums, zoo, Old Market, and riverfront areas, a downtown-area hotel may suit you best.  Since we were also including the Safari Park and Strategic Air & Space Museum in our trip, we chose to stay in the suburb of La Vista, which was convenient to both areas.  The Embassy Suites there was beautiful and family-friendly, and our three-night stay was without any sort of complaint.  We walked across the parking lot to shop at Cabela’s one evening, and across the road to try an Omaha-original Runza sandwich another night.  (I heartily endorse the mushroom and Swiss Runza as something to eat while you’re in Omaha.)

Omaha: A Good Midwestern Family Destination

We squeezed a lot into our 3.5 days in Omaha; families could easily spend another day or two exploring the area.  As an interesting place for a family getaway without driving too far from our Minnesota home, I found Omaha to fit the bill just as well as Chicago, Duluth, Madison, or St. Louis, Midwestern cities where we’ve vacationed previously.  I recommend that families looking for a Midwest vacation destination consider Omaha in their plans.

Have you vacationed in Omaha?  Is there anything we missed?

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