The Denali Road Lottery – Denali National Park

Denali National Park is hard to explain in words. It is huge, gorgeous, natural, thrilling, amazing….

I hear the words “once in a lifetime” connected to Denali pretty often. But after being there, I really hope that isn’t true. It is a place I want to visit over and over. I think that’s how a lot of people feel because an estimated 400,000 people visit yearly. Most of those visits are concentrated in the summer which would make the two-lane winding road in Denali laughably crowded, but personal cars are usually only limited to the first thirty miles of the park. To go further, you must jump on a shuttle bus and ride-share to your destination. Unless you win the Denali Road Lottery.

Denali Road Lottery Driving

Once a year, right after the summer shuttle buses stop running in September, Denali National Park opens to personal cars. To get a chance at this amazing adventure, you must apply for the Denali Road Lottery and if you are lucky you’ll win. I got lucky, and my family and our dear Alaskan friends got to hit the road.

Autumn Sunrise in Denali National Park

We began our driving somewhat early in the morning, taking in the rising sun against the autumn landscape. There was a chill in the air (read that as we Texans were wearing our heavy winter coats), and the flaming colors around us made us even more excited.

Wildlife viewing on the Denali National Park road

Whenever we wanted to stop and take a look at something, we did. When the wildlife wasn’t close at hand, we jumped out and tried to get a better look.

Mother and baby bear in Denali National Park

If I had to sum up the experience in one word, it would probably be “bears.” We saw 13 grizzlies that day!

Grizzly during Denali Road Lottery

There were plenty of other animals to see. The big five you are looking for are bears, moose, sheep, foxes and wolves. We saw all of the five, but the wolves were really far from the road. We luckily saw them by looking into a strangers telescope.

Moose family in Denali National Park

Tips for the Denali Road Lottery :

  • Bring plenty of food and water for your family.
  • Make sure your tank is full of gas.
  • Don’t be stupid around the animals. Don’t get too close, and definitely don’t turn your back to take a selfie.
  • Eielson Visitor Center is located at mile 66, and is a great place to have lunch and take a quick hike. I will warn you that it was INCREDIBLY windy when I was there…. like knock you off the mountain windy! I chose not to hike very far but the guys went for it.
  • If you get a chance, check in the day before and get your road lottery tags early. It will help you get a jump on the crowd and allow for a relaxing beginning of your drive.

Denali Road Lottery

Denali Road Lottery

Denali Road Lottery

If you want to take a look at the entire Denali National Park road, check out this time lapse movie of all 90-something miles of it.

Spring in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas

While on our way to the Trinity Site in New Mexico, I poured over our route.  Texas… well. Texas is big. And while I’ve been to a lot of it, I had never traveled to the West Texas area near El Paso. It is sometimes called “Big Bend Country” after our flashiest national park. But Big Bend is down on the border of Mexico, and we have another often forgotten national park called the Guadalupe Mountains up on the border of New Mexico.  And I was determined to get there!

Located in the Guadalupe Mountains, Guadalupe Mountains National Park contains the highest spot in Texas. – Guadalupe Peak.  Clearly, there is a naming structure at work here.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is one of the least visited National Parks in the US, ranking #12.   With five of those being hard to get to parks in Alaska, and one being American Samoa way out in the Pacific, that’s pretty significant.

Guadalupe National Park in Spring
Blooming yucca in front of El Capitan

What does that mean?  It means there aren’t many people to run into.  It also means there aren’t a lot of amenities.  You know how there are a crazy amount of hotels and places to eat at the Grand Canyon?  Yeah – don’t expect that.  There aren’t places to stay near there if you don’t want to camp.   We stayed in Carlsbad, NM and we drove all the way to El Paso to have lunch.

But it was absolutely worth the trip.

El Capitan in Spring
Prickly Pear Cactus against the Guadalupe Mountains

I loved Guadalupe National Park, even if we were only able to spend a few hours there while driving through. It’s a hard park to get to, and an even harder park to stay near, but it’s beautiful.  I wish we could have stayed longer, and I definitely want to return. It would be great to visit in the fall when the leaves are changing in McKittrick Canyon, or when we have more time and can hike up El Capitan. It is very close to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, so it would be a great joint trip for the family to visit both of those parks in the same swoop.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park
There are miles of trails to explore.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
El Capitan is one of my favorite landscapes to photograph in Texas.

Website : Guadalupe Mountains National Park by the National Park Service

Visiting the Trinity Site at White Sands – The Site of the First Nuclear Bomb Blast

The year was 1945.  The United States and the rest of the world had been at war for years, and the casualties were mounting.  After defeating Germany, all eyes turned to the Pacific theater.  America was making headway in the hopscotch war for tiny islands, and the top brass was beginning plans for an invasion of mainland Japan.  They codenamed it “Operation Downfall” and they knew the losses on both sides would be heavy.  It was planned to begin in October, and 500,000 purple heart medals were ordered in advance of the invasion.

The scientists of the Manhattan Project were on the clock.  Led by Dr. J Robert Oppenheimer, they were tasked with building an atomic bomb.  It looked like they had a workable design, but they needed to test it.  After looking at eight different sites, the government selected a spot in southern New Mexico near Alamogordo.  The government already controlled that area of desert, and the surrounding space was sparsely populated.  They called it the Trinity Site.

Visiting the Trinity Site at White Sands
White Sands Missile Range – home of the Trinity Site

On July 16, 1945, they tested the first nuclear bomb and it brought the war to a swift end.  The enormous number of purple heart medals weren’t needed (and are still being used today).  The landscape of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan were forever changed.  It was truly a monumental event.

Today, The Trinity Site is a national landmark.  However, it is somewhat inconveniently located in White Sands Missile Range.  For obvious reasons, the government can’t open the area to the public year round.  But they do open it for 6 hours every year in what they call the Trinity Site Open House.

Visiting the Trinity Site at White Sands
The Trinity Site field and obelisk

What to Expect at the Trinity Site Open House

We entered through the northern gate – Stallion.  We arrived near the opening time of 8:00 am.  We waited in line for about 15 minutes, handed our driver’s licenses to the military man at the gate (all of our licenses – not just the driver) and then entered.  We were not allowed to take photos once we entered White Sands until we reached the Trinity Site.

White Sands Missile Range Keep Out Sign
Fence lining the path to the Trinity Site

We drove along a paved road for about 20 minutes until we reached the site.  More military men directed us into parking spaces, and we exited the car.  We walked with the crowds of people on a fenced path to a fenced field.  In the middle of the field was a lava rock obelisk.

Also present was a mock-up of the Fat Man nuclear bomb, and the large canister nicknamed “Jumbo” which was originally supposed to contain the nuclear blast before scientists determined it would be useless to try.  Along the fence were historical photos about the test, the site, and the aftermath of the bombing.

Visiting the Trinity Site at White Sands
Warning sign at Trinity Site

There is also the McDonald/Schmidt house on the property where the bomb was assembled.  It wasn’t open in 2014 when we were there and signs said it was “Temporarily Closed.”  (The house is accessible for six hours a year, so I’m not sure why they couldn’t be bothered to open it this year.  “Temporarily” is relative, I guess.)

Tip: Wear sunscreen and bring a hat. It is the desert! I definitely got a little burnt. Also, the wind was pretty crazy and I was glad I brought a hair tie.

Radioactive Trinitite

Visiting the Trinity Site at White Sands
Radioactive trinitite – the green glassy substance created after the atomic bomb blast.

When the bomb exploded, the desert sand was heated to 14,710 degrees Fahrenheit and was scooped up into the large blast fireball. As the sand fused together it fell back to the earth as a rain of molten glass.  This was a brand new substance and scientists called it Trinitite.  At one time this green glassy substance covered much of the depression created by the blast.  But the newly formed Atomic Energy Site filled the depression and hauled away much of the Trinitite.

Radioactive trinitite held in the hand at the Trinity Site

There were pieces on hand to look at, touch, and play with.  Geiger counters click-click-clicked when they were swiped over them, and it was neat seeing something so rare.

Reflections Upon Leaving the Site

There isn’t much to do or see at the Trinity Site. There are is no entertainment. There aren’t interactive exhibits. But it is a place to reflect on history and a neat place to think about science.  As we left the site, we saw the line had gotten larger and there was a protest at the gate.

Was the nuclear bomb a technology the world could have done without or did it save enough lives we were justified using it?  Those answers wouldn’t be found in the New Mexican desert, but it was interesting to stand where this complex time in human history began.

Trinity Site Obelisk

Where is the Trinity Site

Website : Official Website of White Sands Missile Range

Independence Mine State Historical Site and Hatcher’s Pass, Alaska

In the Mat-Su valley of Alaska near Palmer and Wasilla is a beautiful mountain pass named after miner Robert Hatcher. Hatcher’s Pass is a great skiing destination for locals during the winter, but in the summer people come for the hiking and the history. For like I said, Hatcher’s Pass was named after a miner and it was rush for gold that brought people to this beautiful area.

Hatcher's Pass AlaskaAlaska was truly shaped by the searchers of gold and Independence Mine State Historical Site preserves a sliver of this important time. Being able to walk around in a true mining town can give your children perspective on how miners lived. Seeing the remoteness of the location can help them understand the isolation even into the World War II years. In its peak year, 1941, APC employed 204 men, blasted nearly a dozen miles of tunnels, and produced 34,416 ounces of gold worth $1,204,560; today $17,208,000.

There is a visitor’s center with a bathroom in the mine manager’s house. We had a couple kids with us under 5, so I wasn’t able to spend as much time pursuing the historical items there. But they looked interesting. You could borrow pans to use to pan for gold or a flower scavenger hunt. The panning for gold was a bust and overall not fun, but we could have been doing it wrong.

Also, the Gold Cord Lake Trail is a great one for families and leaves from the Independence Mine parking lot. At 1.7 miles roundtrip, it has a great lake view and would be a great picnic destination. There’s no food anywhere in the area, so make sure you are bringing it with you.

A nominal parking fee applies ($5 in 2013) and the visitor’s center is closed in the winter.

Independence Mine in Hatcher's Pass Alaska
The preserved buildings of Independence Mine State Historical Park.
Independence Mine Alaska Creek
The creek that the hopeful miners panned for gold.

 

Independence Mine at Hatcher's Pass Alaska
I’m not sure how any mining was done with the landscape distraction.
Hatcher's Pass machinery at Independence Mine State Park
Abandoned sacks and equipment from when the mine was in operation.
Hatcher’s Pass is gorgeous – and my kids are goofy.
Probably my favorite picture of the kids ever!

Website : Independence Mine State Historical Park

Where is Independence Mine State Historical Site?

The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Most of you are familiar with my Cold War fascination, so a trip to Albuquerque would not have been complete without a trip to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque.

The museum is located outside of the Albuquerque Museum District near Old Town. For a brief stint after the 2001 terror attacks necessitated a move from the original site on Kirkland Air Force Base, the museum was relocated nearer to the city’s other museums, but the outdoor display area was inadequate to hold their aircraft exhibits.

For when you are finished with the indoor museum section, there is still quite a bit to see! The museum has four airplanes that reside in the Museum’s outdoor Heritage Park. These very rare iconic warbirds (B29 Superfortress, B52-B Stratofortress, F-105D Thunderchief and A7 Corsair II) would be an attraction by themselves for aviation enthusiasts.

Propaganda at Nuclear Museum in Albuquerque

At 5 and 7, a lot of the museum was over the children’s heads. There was a pretty nifty scavenger hunt that kept Claire entertained for a while, but mom was definitely more interested than the children. I would recommend the museum for kids 8 and up though.

However, regardless of their ages, be ready to explain some things to your children. There are some VERY powerful photos of the devastation in Japan after the nuclear bomb drops. While not disturbingly graphic, seeing a photo of a city before and then utter nothingness after is not something you can just gloss over and not patiently discuss.

Luke was not at all paying attention, but Claire and I had a beautiful teaching moment about the costs of war. We saw photos of generals and important Cold War decision-making figures and talked about how the common people were historically who would shoulder the brunt of the devastation of war.

Mockups of Nuclear Bombs in Albuquerque

We then doubled back to the replicas of Little Boy and Big Man and talked about how suffering on such a large scale could come from something so small. I was almost crying while answering her kindhearted and confused questions this museum bought to her mind. Heck, I’m almost crying writing about it now. But I was glad I could be there and hold her hand while we talked about it, instead of having her read the cold facts and statistics in a history book.

There is also a lot of discussion about the decision to drop the bombs, and voices that weighed in on both sides of the argument.

Einstein artwork at National Nuclear Museum in AlbuquerqueBut this museum isn’t all about history. It is definitely about the science behind it as well. The great scientists responsible for nuclear advancements are all present here and the faces of the Manhattan Project are detailed. There are also hands-on explanations of a lot of the science involved. Lest we forget the other applications of nuclear science, there are also exhibits about nuclear medicine and nuclear power.

Honestly, in all of the museums I’ve visited in North America, this might be the best.  It does an amazing job of packing in science and history at every turn and explaining otherwise difficult concepts to visitors.

Next time I am in Albuquerque, I plan to make a return trip to spend more time here.  The kids were a little under the weather and I was a little emotional after some of the material in the museum, and we left before I was ready.  In the future, I’d plan three to four hours for my visit here.  There is a lot to learn here if you take the time to listen…

Website : The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History

The lessons of flight at National Nuclear Museum in Albuquerque

Disclosure – We were guests of Visit Albuquerque during our visit to this museum.  However, my Cold War obsession and other opinions are my own.

Where We Get Our Food : Corn Harvest in the Texas Panhandle

I’ll admit it. I’m a city girl.

That’s not something most Texans admit. There’s a lot of country pride in my state. But I grew up in a big city suburb and I’ve never lived in anything even remotely close to a town. I don’t know anything about farms.

My husband is a farm boy.

Farm Equipment at Corn Harvest in Texas

While he’s spent most of his adult life in cities, the wide open spaces of West Texas are where he feels most at peace. He’s probably clocked more hours working on the farm than flying, and he’s been flying for over 10 years.

When we go to visit his family, it’s a weird clash of cultures for me. James is clearly at home and the fact that all I can see for miles and miles are corn fields is a bit unnerving to me. And this is West Texas. It’s so flat you can see next Thursday from here.

During our road trip to Albuquerque, the kids demanded a stop at Grandma and Grandpa’s and James was excited that it corresponded to corn harvest. He took me out to the fields at sunset to check out some of the action. He jumped aboard a farm equipment thingamajig to ride for a while, but I opted to stay behind in the field to photograph the sunset.

Corn cobs and cracked dirt at corn harvest in Texas

Seed corn being poured into a semi at corn harvest in Texas

Partially harvested corn field in Texas at sunset

Sprinkler in a harvested corn field in Texas

Sunset during Texas Corn Harvest

Would you like to see more West Texas? Here are some of my favorite posts :
Friday Night Lights – It’s Real Y’all!
The Rim Cabins of Palo Duro Canyon
Kissing Texas Longhorns at Copper Breaks State Park

Byron Glacier, Alaska – A Family Friendly Hike Between Anchorage and Seward

I’ve now made three trips to Alaska – two with the kids and one alone.  I’ve seen several glaciers from afar.  They are beautiful, blue and mysterious.

Until the most recent trip, I had never been very close to a glacier.  I’d never touched a glacier and had not even seen from closer than about a half mile away.  They are truly massive, and just not that easy to access.  You can get near them on boats, but if they are actively calving it can be dangerous to get too close.

Byron Glacier on Kenai Peninsula

I wanted to take the kids to a close encounter with a glacier.  All the ones in close proximity are just too much of a hike, and we had my friend’s daughter with us as well.  She’s younger than my kids, so she’s even more limited in her ability to walk.  Matanuska is about two and a half hours outside of Anchorage and accessible by car, but almost six hours roundtrip in the car seemed like too much after a week full of activities.

I lucked into finding Byron Glacier, in the Chugach National Forest on the Kenai Peninsula.  It is not well publicized, but it is right next to the more popular Portage Glacier.

It is an easy hike that is only a little under two miles round-trip, and the path is almost completely even.  There is only about a 100 ft elevation change during the hike. There was some foot traffic, but it wasn’t what I would consider crowded.  Definitely family friendly!

Stream along Byron Glacier Trail in Chugach National Forest on Kenai Peninsula Alaska

The path to the glacier meanders along a stream.  The kids stopped often, taking the time to skip rocks across the stream.  They had so much fun doing that, they probably would have forgotten the glacier if I hadn’t been prodding them to keep going.

When you reach the end of the trail, the stream is on your left and is wider than much of the hike.  A wide snowfield lies ahead of you with a glacial wall leading vertically from the snow.  To get to the snow, you have to walk over a small section of rocks.

We stayed on the snowfield and didn’t venture onto the icy vertical section.  There were families higher than us, but I’m from Texas.  I’ve got zero glacier experience.  I didn’t think it was too prudent for me to go higher.  I’ve been subjected to enough Man vs Wild-type TV shows by my husband to know glaciers aren’t a great idea to run around on all willy-nilly.

Child on Byron Glacier on Kenai Peninsula

I wish we would have allotted more time to play at the glacier.  The kids really enjoyed it, and I did too.  There are few completely free activities in Alaska, and this is a must experience adventure I would have done even if we had to pay to play.  Definitely add it to your list of things to do if you are in either Anchorage or Seward.

Children at Byron Glacier

Getting to Byron Glacier

At mile 79, Seward Highway (49 miles south of Anchorage), turn north onto Portage Valley Road.  Travel 6 miles (past Begich, Boggs Visitor Center) to trailhead parking.  It is just prior to the Portage Glacier boat dock.  Parking was free.  Map and more information at the Chugach National Forest website.

Child Pretending Reindeer at Byron Glacier in Alaska

What is a Sugar Shack? – A Journey into Traditional Quebec Culture

I loved visiting Quebec.  Montreal and Quebec City were lovely cities, and they were full of charm.  But, they were cities.  They had a lot of history evident, but life had moved on.  Most parts of the cities were as modern as any other city, and you had to go into the “Old Town” if you wanted to relive some of the more traditional parts of Quebec life.

It is always a goal of mine to get out of the city.  I like the slower pace, and the smaller number of people.  I guess I’m just a country girl.  So even though I loved my time in Montreal, I was happy to head out for an afternoon at a Sugar Shack.

Sugar Shack in Quebec
Learning how the sap is turned into maple sugar using traditional Quebec methods.

The Sugar Shacks are where the sap of the maple tree is boiled and made into maple syrup.  Most Sugar Shacks in Quebec are only open during the sugaring-off season – which is normally the spring.  Many families traditionally spend their Easter dinner together at a Sugar Shack, eating traditional Quebec food and lots of maple sugar.

A family enjoying a meal at a Sugar Shack.

Since it was the summer when I was visiting Canada, I visited the Sucrerie de la Montagne, which is open year round.  This sugar shack has been designated a “Site du Patrimoine Québécois” or Quebec Heritage Site, and it adheres to the traditional way of gathering the tree sap by hand.   What it should be designated as is “Place I’d Get Fat if I Ate There More Than Once.”

The food.  Oh the food!  The quantity was amazing.  There were things I’d never heard of like Christ’s Ears (Oreilles de crisse) which were some sort of fried pork thing, homemade bread, pea soup, and meat pie.  Flight after flight of traditional Quebec fare, which you then dump ample maple syrup over.  I can see why you would return year after year… but only once a year!

Maple sugar at a sugar shack in quebec
Syrup! Syrup for everyone!

When I was walking around the dimly lit eating area after overindulging in syrup drenched food, I found a yellowed newspaper article from decades earlier with several recipes listed.  Here is one of them, a maple sugar pie recipe.  I had this for dessert (which I obviously needed since I consumed only a year’s worth of sugar during the rest of the meal), and it was great!

Authentic Sugar Shack Recipe – Maple Sugar Pie

  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup packed maple sugar (brown sugar can be substituted)
  • 1/2 cup flower
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon butter

Put milk in the top of a double boiler and when hot add the beaten yolks to which has been added a little hot milk.

Mix together the maple sugar and flour and whisk gradually into the hot milk.  Remove from heat and add salt and butter.  Cool.  Pour into a baked pie crust and chill.  Serve with whipped cream.

Even if you can’t visit your own sugar shack, you can have a taste of it at home.  Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Where is the Sucrerie de la Montagne Sugar Shack?

Just to the west of Montreal, the Sucrerie de la Montagne would make a great half-day trip for the whole family.


View Larger Map

I visited the Sucrerie de la Montagne as a guest on a G Adventures trip – The Quebec and Ontario Explorer.

When One Ecosystem Isn’t Enough – The Montreal Biodome

A lot of Montreal’s charm lies in the outdoors.  It is a green city, and perfect for outdoor adventure if you are visiting in the summer.  But if you visit in the winter, or there is rain in the forecast, it is smart to have an inclement weather plan.  The Biodome is perfect for this.  It is completely indoors, so it should be near the top of your bad weather destination list.

Even if you are visiting Montreal in beautiful, summer weather you should consider checking out the Biodome.  This is especially true if your family has an interest in science and animals.  It is impossible to visit without learning something new, and there wasn’t a child present that didn’t have a smile on their face.

Guide at the Montreal Biodome

The Montreal Biodome contains five ecosystems – tropical forest, Laurentian maple forest, St. Lawrence Marine, the Labrador Coast and Sub-Antarctic Islands.  Each ecosystem has been meticulously developed to showcase how you would encounter it if you were visiting it out in the world.  The ecosystems are stocked with small animals that make that ecosystem their home.

With the focus on the ecosystem, it makes the learning experience different than what you expect from a zoo trip.  The animals are there, but you can truly learn about how they interact with their environment in the wild.

Montreal Biodome vs Biosphere

It might not be confusing in French, but it is in English.  The Montreal Biodome is not what you would consider a dome – and the dome that is a very visible part of the Montreal landscape is actually the BioSPHERE.  The Biosphere is an environmental museum that has various green exhibits.  See?  It is massively confusing.  To help clear it up, I have this illustration for you :

>montreal biodome vs biosphere

The Biodome is not visible from far away like the Biosphere.  The location is easy to see from afar, however.  It is located right underneath the Olympic Stadium.

So now that you are in the right place, what can you expect to find?

The Montreal Biodome Ecosystems

  • Tropical Forest – The Biodome’s Tropical Rainforest is modeled after the Amazon rainforest and is its largest ecosystem.  An indoor stream cuts through the exhibit and creates a lush valley and a marshland to observe.  There are a diverse selection of animals.  Among the hundreds of animals in this ecosystem, you can find piranhas, caimans, sloths, anaconda snakes, and a multitude of birds in this section.
  • Laurentian Maple Forest – A reproduction of a Quebec forest, this was my favorite exhibit.  I love to learn about the ecology of the place I am visiting, and this was the best place to do it within the borders of Montreal.  Just like in the rest of Quebec, the temperatures change along with the seasons, and you can see the changes in the vegetation as the year progresses.  You follow a mountain stream through a birch/maple forest and view a beaver dam and the changes that they make in the environment.  Lots of amphibians and birds inhabit this area, along with otters, beavers, porcupines and lynx.
  • St Lawrence Marine Ecosystem – A true underwater observatory, this area allows you to view hundreds of fish within twenty species.  Don’t forget to look up!  There are birds flying about!  This area doesn’t change as much as the maple forest does as the seasons’ change, but you can see subtle differences and feel a slight change in temperature.
  • The Labrador Coast – Steep, ice-covered cliffs that contain the cutest species of all birds – the puffin.  I know there were other birds hanging out with them, but when puffins are around, I only have eyes for them.   The climate stays relatively constant here, despite the time of year.
  • The Sub-Antarctic Islands – I’ve got one word for you – PENGUINS.  Four different species of penguin (Gentoo, King, Macaroni, and Rockhopper) live in this small ecosystem, and they are fascinating to watch.  They interact with each other, swim, jump into the water… all the things you expect from penguins.  They also smell pretty awful, which is also to be expected.  I could have spent an hour in here, just chilling with the penguins.

Parrots in the Rainforest ecosystem in the Montreal Biodome

Getting to the Montreal Biodome

The easiest way to get to the Biodome is to take the subway.  The Viau station is where you want to get off.  It is easy to see the area where the Biodome is located because it is directly underneath the very distinctive Olympic Stadium.


View Larger Map

Resources : Montreal Biodome Website – this website has detailed information on the plants and animals in the Biodome.  A great place to follow up with your kids to learn even more about what you saw during your visit.

I was a guest of the city of Montreal during my visit to the Biodome.