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.
Alcatraz (San Francisco, CA) at Family Travels on a Budget. (Good, detailed info for families in this post.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From Old Faithful, we headed back along the same road, stopping again for wildlife sightings, some hot springs, and 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.
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 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.
“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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
The rules were as such:
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.
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).
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.
All trash goes into the numbered plastic bags, and is removed at each stop the car makes.
You may trade any item with another child as long as the trade is made peacefully and is mutually acceptable.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
They were impressive from the road, but seemed even larger when my family started climbing on them.
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.
After everyone had conquered the rock pile, we got back in the car and worked our way around the park loop.
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.
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?
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’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)
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
When we made our plans to visit Le Mars, Iowa, for Ice Cream Days, we expected to have a nice time and eat some good ice cream. I did not, however, expect to be wowed by the extreme family-friendliness of the Ice Cream Days celebration.
We’ve been to summer festivals before, but often only a small portion of the festival is suitable for kids. Queen coronations, beer gardens, softball tournaments, and street dances are designed more for adults to enjoy than children.
In Le Mars, however, absolutely everything on the schedule of events is designed for family involvement, and that makes it worth the trip for families looking to do something fun and different as they make their summer plans.
The Kids Ice Cream Cone-ival (like a carnival but ice cream themed–get it?) is a well-organized event in the city’s Cleveland Park.
Each child gets a number of tickets to use in the various carnival games (all Blue Bunny themed, of course, and run by Blue Bunny employees and their children).
Free watermelon, apples, juice, and Blue Bunny Ice Cream treats are given away as well, and there’s a nice big playground for the kids to play on when they’ve run out of carnival tickets.
Ice Cream Days Parade.
Perhaps the biggest draw of the weekend, the parade lasted nearly an hour with a wide variety of entries, many of them incorporating the Ice Cream Days theme.
I’d advise heading over to Foster Park early to get a good spot to watch the parade, then letting the kids play on the playground while you wait for the parade to start. After the parade, you’ll be right where the action is for Art in the Park.
Art in the Park. Primarily an arts and crafts fair with booths selling their wares in Foster Park, there are also craft projects for kids and entertainment (this year the Su Fu Du Drumline) after the parade, as well as concessions and ice cream (of course!). We left proudly carrying marshmallow shooters (kids) and handcrafted garden ornaments (me).
We arrived for just the Friday and Saturday portions of the annual festival, but in the future I’d try to get there on Wednesday afternoon to enjoy more festivities. There’s enough on the schedule to keep families busy for four days while allowing a bit of time to explore Le Mars.
Le Mars itself is a town where I felt right at home. Its layout is easy to navigate, its downtown beautiful and vibrant, and its homes and yards well-kept. I liked Le Mars enough that I posted on Facebook that I could easily see myself living there. Apparently that feeling is shared by others, because the population of the town is increasing, and I talked to people who have lived there for several years, only to be joined by extended family members who liked the town well enough to move there themselves.
And then there’s the ice cream. We really can’t forget the ice cream.
Le Mars is home to Blue Bunny Ice Cream, and more ice cream is made in Le Mars than in any other place, earning it the title of “Ice Cream Capital of the World.” The best way to sample the local concoctions is to head downtown to the Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor,
where you can explore the company’s history in the upstairs museum exhibits,
or better yet, place an order at the soda fountain.
Bring your appetite, though–a so-called “single” scoop cone at 3 p.m. was enough to make my 9-year-old son decline anything for supper.
Pleasing for our family was the allergy awareness at the Parlor; when we mentioned my son’s peanut allergy, the parlor staff cheerfully opened a new tub of ice cream and got a clean scoop for him so he could enjoy his ice cream without any worries.
While in Le Mars, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express, conveniently located near restaurants and Wal-Mart on the edge of town. Our room with two queens and a sofabed was extremely spacious, though sadly is only reservable as a room that sleeps 5, even though it’s larger than most 2-queen/sofabed rooms that are rated for six occupants at competing hotel chains.
At the end of the day when we finally regained our appetites, it was nice to be able to walk a few steps for a bite to eat, and in the morning we all enjoyed the ample complimentary breakfast.
The other treat we enjoyed in Le Mars was its public artwork, represented in a series of large ice cream cone sculptures, each uniquely painted and located in various business and community spots around town.
We took the map of the ice cream cones and made our way around town,
checking off each one and stopping to snap photos with many.
While walking downtown to find our last few cones, we came across an artist painting a mural of a historic Le Mars building and stopped to watch and chat a bit.
The last thing we did before leaving town was to visit the Plymouth County Historical Museum.
Located in the old high school building, the museum is organized by various themes in Plymouth County history and there’s plenty to see. My favorite was the “kitchens through the decades” display (aptly located in the old Home Ec room); my daughter liked “milking” the cow in the agriculture exhibit; and my train-loving son was delighted to see that the model railroad club was operating in an area of the museum. And as if we hadn’t had enough ice cream yet during the weekend, they were offering $1 root beer floats in the recreated Miller’s Lunch diner, which was pleasantly reminiscent of my hometown’s Mildred’s Cafe, down to the style of the booths and counter stools.
My kids are already asking if we can return for Ice Cream Days next year, and I’m strongly considering it. While you can stop and explore Le Mars and the Blue Bunny Parlor at any time, visiting the community during Ice Cream Days provides a lot of family-friendly fun and entertainment.
It probably seems as if I’m gushing over this event, and I’m usually not much of a gusher, but we did really enjoy Ice Cream Days that much. Ice Cream Days is held annually on Father’s Day weekend, so if you’re looking for a family outing in mid-June, Le Mars is definitely somewhere to consider in your plans.
Oh, and I’m not quite sure if this happens to everyone, but . . . after all the Blue Bunny Ice Cream I ate over the weekend, I stepped on the scale when we got home and it hadn’t budged a bit. If that isn’t a good experience, I don’t know what is!
Disclosure: We visited Ice Cream Days as guests of Blue Bunny, which provided compensation for our trip expenses.
When I started writing Travels with Children four and a half years ago, it was primarily to demonstrate to other families that it is possible to take small children to new places, and that family fun can be found anywhere if you just look for it. Since then, I’ve written more than 800 posts, reviewing places we’ve visited, linking to places other family travelers have gone, and dishing out advice and bargains and some miscellanea along the way.
As family travel blogs go, mine’s not one of the biggest or the most well-known. I’m not a freelancer who’s getting cool gigs in newspapers and magazines. I’m not in this to get rich, though it’s nice to bring in some income to help cover my blogging bills. I don’t always follow all the “rules” about creating and maintaining a successful blog.
That’s because of the family part of it. My husband works the equivalent of two full-time jobs, with most of the work done during the summer. Since we’ve had children, our agreement has been that my job is to keep the family going, while he earns the bread and butter. That’s just what works best for us. My children will tell you I’m a blogger, though I’m not sure they entirely understand what that means. Truth is, I’m mostly just a mom, looking for some fun and adventures as my children grow up all too quickly, and occasionally writing about interesting places we visit.
I’m happy to share these experiences with anyone who will read them, and I’m grateful to those who stop by and read, leave a comment, or share this site with their friends. My writing Travels with Children has provided our family with some extra opportunities to see new places, and I hope I am always honest and constructive in writing and reviewing our experiences. I’ve “met” some interesting people via Facebook, Twitter, and now even Pinterest, as part of this whole blogging/social media thing. Travels with Children has been good for me and for my family.
This weekend, many travel bloggers are out west attending the TBEX travel bloggers’ conference, or the preview of Carsland at Disneyland. For various reasons, the big travel-blogger adventures of the weekend aren’t part of my summer itinerary. Instead, we’re looking forward to going to Le Mars, Iowa, for Ice Cream Days, and later on to Omaha, Nebraska, to experience some pretty neat things in America’s heartland.
After all, fun is where my family is, and time and money don’t always allow for the faraway adventures we may dream of. Instead, we’re happy to look around and find the fun that is closer to home. And there is always plenty of that to be found.
It has always been my goal to help families enjoy their free time wherever it may be, and no matter what their budget allows. I hope that I’ve been successful in this.
If you don’t see too much on Travels with Children this summer, it’s because I’m out having fun with my kids. We’re looking for new parks, exploring new campgrounds, and visiting new libraries. After all, my days of traveling with children are fleeting and I must take advantage of every opportunity to spend time with them.
As always, thank you for reading. A happy summer to you and your family, wherever the road may lead you.
Since Mall of America opened 20 years ago, an aquarium beneath the mall’s east side has been one of its entertainment anchors. Originally known as Underwater Adventures, the aquarium underwent a name change and transformation about a year ago and now is one of a handful of Sea Life Aquariums around the United States.
We had visited Underwater Adventures a few times when our kids were younger, and were mostly underwhelmed with daily visits, although we found their educational programs to be well-done when we attended a special event. The moving walkway was a novelty, but it made it difficult to stop and look at specific things in the aquarium tunnel, and visits were often completed in 30 minutes or so.
I am happy to report that I see the changes at Sea Life Aquarium to be mostly positive. For those who have been to Underwater Adventures, these are the things you’ll find to be different:
The order of your journey through the aquarium is reversed. Visits now begin at the touch pools and end after going through the tunnel and up the winding ramp.
The winding ramp is now known as Mysteries of the Rainforest. It previously had a Minnesota theme.
The moving walkway through the tunnel is gone, allowing you to move at your own pace.
A scavenger hunt “quiz trail” keeps kids engaged.
Old favorites are there as well:
The jellyfish (my favorites).
The tunnel where you can have a shark swim over the top of you.
The opportunity to touch various sea creatures (though now just tidepool creatures, not sharks).
We spent about an hour going through the aquarium on a quiet summer Monday morning, looking at everything from the eels and an octopus to corals and sea horses and frogs.
My children enjoyed the Quiz Trail, although some of the questions prompted a look at the “fin facts” for a clue when there were no fin facts to be found in that area.
They viewed the rays from the overlook area and looked at the caiman at both below-water and above-water vantage points.
They were more impressed with Sea Life Aquarium than they had ever been with Underwater Adventures.
A few notes of caution, however:
I had been shown around the aquarium by a Sea Life representative earlier in the spring, on a busy day with both school groups and families there, and it was very crowded and loud. If you go, try to figure out a quiet time (first thing in the morning or later in the evening, avoid school holidays) so that you’ll be able to move more freely throughout the tunnel and other areas of the aquarium.
Explore your ticket options before you go. Walkup prices currently range from $17 for kids to $22 for adults. You can save money by buying tickets online ahead of time or buying a combo ticket. There are often coupons to be found around town, so keep your eyes open for them. The good news is that admission is for a full day, so you can walk through a few times if you’re spending the whole day at Mall of America. Memberships are also available if you’d like to visit more frequently.
Overall, we found the Sea Life renovations to be an improvement over Underwater Adventures and my children enjoyed our visit. Merlin Entertainment, the owner of the Sea Life as well as Legoland (in both Florida and California) and Madame Tussauds, generally adds a new attraction each year, so repeat visitors should be able to see something new at the aquarium annually.
Have you been to Sea Life Aquarium, either in Minnesota or one of its other locations? What did you think?
Disclosure: Our family was provided with complimentary admission in order to review Sea Life Minnesota.