Jan 242012

We recently asked the teens to think back on all our family trips and choose the one they would most like to revisit.  Without blinking they said it would have to be Yellowstone National Park.  Yes, Yellowstone beat out Disney, Hawaii, South Dakota, the Jersey Shore, San Diego, Bermuda, a cruise, the Bahamas and many other destinations.  Why?  Because it truly is a one of a kind experience that can’t be had anywhere else.  If you haven’t been there yet, make sure you take your teens and tweens to Yellowstone before they go off to college.  Yellowstone is the stuff that lifetime family memories are made of.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone carves out dazzling multi-color cliffs

Established as the country’s first National Park in 1872,  Yellowstone is located in the northwestern corner of Wyoming with small tracts of adjoining land in Montana and Idaho.   The Park contains over 300 geysers and 10,000 thermal features as well as thousands of buffalo, elk, bear, wolves and more.  It encompasses over 3,400 sq miles which is just about equal to Delaware and Rhode Island combined.    We think it is more than worth the money to stay in the Park’s lodges or campgrounds as driving in and out of the park each day can be time consuming and some of best times to enjoy the most famous attractions are early and late in the day when the day trippers are gone.   During the peak hours for crowds, get off the roads and take a hike or go swimming in hidden away thermal warmed streams.

Thinking back on our visit, we came up with our top five favorite experiences.  If you need some encouragement to start planning your family visit to Yellowstone, here they are:

  • Yellowstone’s amazing geysers and thermal features:  If you didn’t know it, Yellowstone sits directly on top of an active volcanic caldera.  Its about 10,000 years overdue for an explosion but don’t let that stop you from visiting!   The heat from deep underground powers an amazing array of geysers, hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles.   Be sure to get beyond the congested viewing area at Old Faithful and walk the trails of the Midway Geyser and Upper Geyser Basins.  Take the time to stop and walk the boardwalks of the Mud Volcano trail as well as any other interesting features you see from the side of the road.  You definitely don’t have these at home!
Firehole Spring in the Lower Geyser Basin

Firehole Spring in the Yellowstone Lower Geyser Basin

  • Yellowstone’s awesome wildlife:  Despite the fact that wolves, bears, moose, elk, coyotes and many other animals live their lives pretty much the way they have been for thousands of years, suburban teens are likely to enjoy some unexpected up close and personal encounters with the wildlife.  We encountered a buffalo parade created when about 20 mom, dad and baby buffalo decided the nights were getting chilly and it was time to move to winter quarters near Old Faithful.    Elk are a common sight in the northern sections of the park and many other animals can turn up at unexpected times and places.
Buffalo can weigh over 2000 pounds so stay back a safe distance

Buffalo arriving at his winter home near the Old Faithful Inn

  • Swimming at Firehole Falls:  Much of Yellowstone is located at a 7,000+ foot high elevation, so you wouldn’t be surprised to see cold, clear mountain streams.  What is a surprise is to see steaming, near boiling water running out of thermal areas – be sure not to touch.  Neither the cold nor the hot makes for ideal swimming conditions, but, if you have a sense of adventure and are up for a little exploring off the beaten path there are a couple locations where hot meets cold to create some truly amazing swimming holes.  We still talk about our afternoon at Firehole Falls which is  located on the Firehole Canyon Drive,  off the Grand Loop Road just south of Madison Junction.  Stairs provide access from the road above, but this is definitely a swim at your own risk location — no lifeguards here.  We spent an afternoon floating in the current and enjoying the water.
Below  Firehole Falls

Below Firehole Falls the water calms enough for swimming

  • Fishing on Lake Yellowstone:  The waters of Lake Yellowstone are hundreds of feet deep but if you go with a guide the fish are easy to find.  Keep all the invasive lake trout you catch but throw back the native cutthroat trout.  We booked a half day trip with a guide, leaving from the Bridge Bay Marina.   They provided all the fishing tackle, bait, and life jackets required, as well as critical insight as to where the fish were biting that day.  Don’t want to actually touch the bait or the fish?  They will even deal with the that too!
FIshing guide at lake yellowstone

Our Lake Yellowstone fishing boat charter came fully equipped with a great, teen and tween friendly guide

  • Family Hiking off the Beaten Track: it really isn’t hard to get away from the crowds at Yellowstone.  Ask a ranger or consult a map to find a trail that will work for your family.  We took a 5 mile hike around Beaver Pond, but you might also prefer exploring the 2.5 mile boardwalk system at the Mammoth Hot Springs thermal terraces in the evening when the crowds are gone.   Make sure the teens leave the headphones back at the lodge and you are in for all kinds of interesting conversations.
Mammoth Hot Spring Terrace at Yellowstone Mammoth Hot Springs

Mammoth Hot Spring terraces are magical at twilight

We stayed for 6 days and felt like we just scraped the surface, just like this article barely communicates the wonders of Yellowstone and the great family experiences we enjoyed together.  Want to learn more?  Click the links in this article to visit many other posts we have done on Yellowstone and start planning your trip.  We divided our time between the Old Faithful Lodge and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.  Both were very comfortable.  Whether you go for a day or a week, camp, stay in a lodge or opt for driving in from one of the gateway towns be sure to put Yellowstone on your family vacation bucket list!

Aug 222011

Once you get outside of Whittier or Seward, most of the towns on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula are pretty small and lodging options mostly consist of campgrounds, local owned and operated motels and small fishing lodges.  For our two nights in Soldotna we wanted someplace affordable (since we paid out of our own pocket), clean, off the main road, with enough space that the teens and parents wouldn’t feel cramped.  We found the Alaska Serenity Lodge on TripAdvisor and after reading the rave reviews booked the top floor of the main lodge building.

The Alaska Serenity Lodge in Soldotna, AK

For the price of a night at the Residence Inn we got a homey apartment with a full kitchen, dining room, living room, two bedrooms, a deck,and  a grill.

We felt right at home at the Alaska Serenity Lodge

We also got access to an outdoor hot tub and fire pit, a beautiful lakeside view, use of a fish fillet station and lots and lots of rabbits to keep us company! 

Roasting marshmallows at the Alaska Serenity Lodge

The location and facilities were so inviting that we decided to buy some steaks and cook dinner for ourselves that evening, which gave us a chance to enjoy the property – a night before the upcoming holiday weekend we had it almost to ourselves.  We enjoyed roasting marshmallows over the fire  — and found time for the hot tub too. Given that it really didn’t get dark out at night, it was a long relaxing family evening.

View of the grounds and the lake at the Alaska Serenity Lodge

Owners Dave and  Katie Richardson were easy to deal with on the phone and via email. They even arranged for our flightseeing and fishing adventure with High Adventure Air. They answered all our questions and made us feel right at home.

One of the many bunnies seen at the Alaska Serenity Lodge

Besides the amazing number and variation of the rabbits on the property, the only quirk to remember is that, since they cater to fishermen, the Lodge doesn’t supply much in the way of bathroom soaps, shampoos or even a hair dryer – so plan to bring your own or make do!  Linens are provided but there is no daily maid service.  There were no additional cleaning charges at the end – we appreciated all the fees being included in the rate.

We give the Alaska Serenity Lodge a big thumbs up.  If you are traveling with a family we recommend the top floor of the lodge.  We didn’t get to see the inside of the cabins so can’t comment on them.  If you have stayed there please leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

Teens Go Fishing Alaska Style!

 Posted by on August 5, 2011  Comments Off
Aug 052011

One of the best activities we did as a family during our recent trip to Alaska was a full day flightseeing/bear viewing/fishing day at Big Twin Lake and Wolverine Creek.  We hit the lake on a beautiful blue sky day when the salmon were running and the bears were feeding.  See our article, Alaska: Where the Bears Are, for photos of the black and brown bears we saw.  Today we thought you might be interested in taking a peek at salmon fishing Alaska style.

Our day started out with a floatplane trip over the Cook Inlet to a landing on isolated Big Twin Lake where we transferred to an 18 foot fishing boat and headed toward Wolverine Creek.

Alaska's Big Twin Lake

We soon joined about 10 other boats also looking for salmon and bears.  We were surprised to see so many other folks on such a remote lake, but as we learned, when the salmon are running many Alaskans make it a priority to get out on the water.

Fishing with the masses at Wolverine Creek

We had brought our lunch so the next six hours were spent fishing, bear watching and touring the Lake.  Each person is limited to 3 fish daily.  With the help of our guide Ben from High Adventure Air, the teens both caught their limit and Mary T got one as well.

Our guide Ben, with High Adventure Air, was terriffic!

Of course, once you catch 30 pounds of salmon the question is what do you do with it.  Many of the lodges on the Kenai Peninsula have on site facilities if you want to fillet and freeze your own fish.  We opted to take it to a commercial processor where it was filleted overnight and returned to us in the morning.  We shared about half of it with the Alaska cousins and traded the rest for canned smoked salmon that came home with us as a reminder of our fun Alaskan fishing day!

We linked this article to the Delicious Baby Photo Friday Page with is a great place to find links to lots of other fun family travel photos.



Mar 072010

     The Sandy Hook unit of the Gateway National Seashore represents the most northern reach of the Jersey Shore.  The six mile barrier beach sand spit extends into lower New York Bay, south of Manhattan.  The southern end of Sandy Hook hosts a number of fishing and bathing beaches while the northern end is home to a range of  historic military sites.  Whether you are looking for swimming, history, nature or biking you can find it on Sandy Hook.  And, the sunsets are pretty awesome too!

Sandy Hook Beach

The beach at Sandy Hook, courtesy National Park Service

      Most people access the Hook via car, although shuttle buses do connect the park to the Seastreak high speed NY-NJ ferry in the summer.  Lifeguards oversee the main ocean swimming beaches from 10 am to 6 pm between Memorial Day and Labor Day.   Be advised that Gunnison Beach is widely known as a “clothing optional” beach, but is well marked so you can avoid it easily.  Surf fishing is popular and permitted from any of the beaches after the life guards have left.  

Surf Fishing at Sandy Hook

Surf Fishing at Sandy Hook, courtesy National Park Service

     Beyond the surf, if your teen or tween is interested in military history, the Park contains the19th century Fort Hancock National Historic site and the Sandy Hook Proving Ground, which was a major army weapons testing location from 1874-191.   Check out the 30-foot thick walls of  Battery Potter.  This fortress was built to house a disappearing gun battery powered by a steam hydraulic lift system.  It operated from 1893-1906 but was rapidly rendered obsolete by faster firing gun technology.  Alas, the guns themselves are no longer there. 

     Many of the officer homes and other historic buildings at Fort Hancock remain in an unmaintained state, although a Museum and a restored home on Officer Row are open on weekends. 

Battery Potter at Sandy Hook Fort Hancock

Battery Potter at Sandy Hook Fort Hancock, courtesy National Park Service

     Sandy Hook is also the site of one of  America’s oldest lighthouses.  The lighthouse keepers quarters were restored and reopened in 2006.  The non-profit New Jersey Lighthouse Society provides weekend tours.  If you are really into lighthouses check out the Twin Lights overlooking Sandy Hook from the nearby cliffs of Highlands after you leave the Park. 

Sandy Hook Lighthouse

Sandy Hook Lighthouse, courtesy National Park Service

      A 5-mile long multi-use bike and walking path runs from the Park Entrance to Fort Hancock and is currently being extended to loop around the Fort.  Bring your bikes or rollerblades if you want some exercise.  More into watercraft?   Non-motorized car top boats, including kayaks, windsurfers and kite-boards can be launched from ocean facing Beach Area C and Horseshoe Cove on the bay side.  There are no rentals available so bring your own gear.  Hiking trails are also available beginning at the Visitor Center and extending the length of the Hook.  Bird watchers favor Plum Island, the Spermaceti Cove boardwalk, the Horseshoe Cove salt marsh, North Pond and the fields at Fort Hancock

Biking Sandy Hook

Brings your bikes or rollerblades to Sandy Hook, courtesy National Park Service

      The Park is very popular and parking lots generally fill by 10 or 11 am on summer weekends, although access to the historic areas remains open when the beach lots are full.  There is no charge to use the beach but there is a $10 per car  parking fee.  If you are going for the beach we recommend a weekday visit to avoid the crowds.  If you want to see the historic sites most of them have limited hours and may only be available on the weekends so check ahead by calling or visiting the Park web site.  Food concessions and bath houses are available at the major beaches but lines can get long.  The Sea Gull’s Nest at the D beach offers casual open air dining overlooking the water from noon until sunset.  Of course, you can also bring a cooler and eat on the beach or take advantage of the picnic tables and grill areas.

Want to Learn More About Great Activities for Teens and Tweens at the Jersey Shore?

     This is one in a series on Top 10 activities for family vacations with teens and tweens on the Jersey Shore.  Click the link to see the full list or visit our Travel with Teens and Tweens  Jersey Shore archives to see the posts in chronological order.
Atlantic Highlands Things To Do

Jersey Shore Hikes, History and More with Teens and Tweens

 Posted by on March 2, 2010  Comments Off
Mar 022010

     While the beach is the big draw at the Jersey Shore, don’t overlook the wonderful hikes, history, boating, golf, camping and other recreational activities available at the hidden jewels of the Shore, i.e. the county and state parks of Monmouth and Ocean Counties.  We’ll just hit some of the highlights here but be sure to check out the official sites like the Monmouth County Park System home page and the New Jersey State Parks site for lots more information, reservations and operating hours.  Within a short drive of the beach you can find:

The Historic Village of Allaire and Allaire State Park

     The non-profit Historic Village of Allaire,Farmingdale, NJ, maintains a well restored 18th century industrial village of more than 40 buildings including row houses, a chapel, a store, a blacksmith and the remains of an iron bog blast furnace.  Allaire provides in-depth insight into the Howell Iron Works, built in the 1820s and operated until it was abandoned in the 1850s.  The neighboring state park offers camp sites and the grounds are also home to the New Jersey Museum of Transportation and the Historic Pine Creek Railroad which offers rides on vintage narrow gauge steam engines.   This is a particularly good side trip for tweens that are studying America’ s early industrial history as the re-enactors are always helpful and engaging.  Our kids enjoyed the whole site, but they loved taking a break to rent a bamboo fishing pole from the store and take their chance trying to land a big one in the pond.

Fishing at Historic Allaire Village, NJ

Fishing at Historic Allaire Village, NJ

Manasquan Reservoir – Kayak and Fish

     Operated by the Monmouth County Park System, the Manasquan Reservoir in Howell, NJ is a special year round park that features a 770-acre reservoir, ringed by a 5 mile jogging path.  It is open for fishing and is stocked with large and small-mouth bass, hybrid striped bass, tiger muskie, bullhead catfish and panfish species. A State fishing licenses is required those age 16 and over.  The fish and water attract a wide range of birds.  A boat ramp is open from March 1 to November 30th and the park offers boat and kayak rentals as well as pontoon boat cruises for those who want to get out on the water.   The Manasquan Reservoir Environmental Center is also located in the park and offers a number of interpretive exhibits and activities.

Manasquan Reservoir at sunrise by flickr member  joiseyshowaa

Manasquan Reservoir at sunrise by flickr member joiseyshowaa

Holmdel Park – Go For a Hike

     The 565 acre Holmdel Park, also in Monmouth County, includes Longstreet Farm — a re-created 1890s farm complete with live farm animals and well trained interpreters in period dress.  It is also home to the 22 acre David C. Shaw Arboretum which focuses on the culture and study of indigenous woody plants, including a number of ornamental varieties.  For our teen and tween, however, the main attraction is the network of more than 10 miles of hiking trails that traverse pine, fern and beech forests. Bring a lunch and spend a couple of hours in the woods.

Holmdel Park by Flickr member David Pfeffer

Holmdel Park by Flickr member David Pfeffer

     We could go on and on about the wide range of recreational and historic sites available at the wonderful county and state parks at the Jersey Shore.  When you want to get off the beach, you don’t have to go far to be a world away.   If you have a favorite Jersey Shore park please add a comment, and a link if you have a blog posting about it.

    This is one in a series on Top 10 activities for family vacations with teens and tweens on the Jersey Shore.  Click the link to see the full list or visit our Travel with Teens and Tweens Jersey Shore archives see the posts in chronological order.
Spring Lake Things To Do

Holiday River Expeditions: Teen ‘n Tween Approved

 Posted by on February 17, 2010  Comments Off
Feb 172010

Getting out in nature, without electronics, is a great way to reconnect with your teens and tweens and to bring out the kid in everyone.  The Mitchell family, from northern Iowa, has been joining Salt Lake City-based Holiday River Expeditions for family river rafting adventures in Idaho and Utah for almost a decade.   Their favorite destination is the Main Salmon River trip in Idaho.

Main Salmon River Trip Highlights

The Main Salmon River trip is usually a 5 or 6 day journey that starts with a stretch of rapids with names like  Gunbarrel, Ranier and Devil’s Teeth.   Day 2 often includes time for a short hike and soaking in natural hot springs, in addition to shooting rapids near Salmon Falls.  Day 3 is billed as the most exciting day with a run of classic Salmon River whitewater including Bailey Falls, Split Rock, Big Mallard and Elk Horn.   A stop at Jim Moore’s historic log building is usually included on this day. Jim Moore came to the Salmon River from Kentucky around the turn of the century and lived a colorful life until 1942.

On the River

Holiday River Expeditions on the Salmon River, photo by John Telford

Day 4 features a visit to Buckskin Bill’s homestead (Buckskin was the last of the Mountain Men) and the running of  Jackson and Ludwig rapids. Later the group floats past the confluence with the South Fork of the Salmon River. Day 5 wraps up with the Vinegar & Chittam Creek rapids before take out and the bus ride back to Boise,.

Salmon River Rapids

Salmon River Rapids, photo by John Telford

Most Holiday River Expeditions trips include 10-25 people with families of teens and tweens well represented.  Each day, the group covers 20-30 miles of varied riverways ranging from flat water to hair raising rapids.  Everyone pitches in to set up camp each night, and pack it up in the morning, while the guides cook up hearty breakfasts and dinners.

Guides Go All Out for Teens and Tweens

Evening entertainment includes camp fires, games, songs, storytelling, and even a make-your-own costume night.  Mike Mitchell says, “the guides really knock themselves out to bond with the teens.  They stay up late talking to them and invent games that everyone enjoys.  The river brings out the kid in everyone, even jaded teens.”

Mike’s 17- year old daughter Kelly says that her friends think she is crazy. but. to her river rafting is the high point of her year.  “It is so much fun, particularly when we get to meet other teenagers on the river,” she explains.   Kelly and her siblings have developed lasting friendships on the trips and Kelly has been so taken with Idaho that she hopes to go to college there, and perhaps work on the river during the summer.

Local Knowledge Counts

“You really can’t undertake this type of trip on your own.  You need an outfitter with the permits and the local knowledge”, Mike explains. The Mitchells give Holiday River Expeditions high marks for handling the complex logistic and permit processes required to transport and support groups of 10-25 people deep in the wilderness for a week or more.   Holiday picks up guests for the Main Salmon River trip in Boise, Idaho.  From there, a private charter plane takes the group to the small town of Salmon, where a bus meets the group and takes it the last 2 hour drive to the put in spot deep inside Idaho national forest land.  The guides, rafts, food, tents and other supplies are ready to go when the bus arrives.

Running the rapids

Running the Salmon River rapids, photo by river guide Zack Rogala

Mike Mitchell explains that his  family, including three teens ages 15, 17 and 19, has joined Holiday River Expeditions on a wide range of trips starting when their youngest was about 10 years old.  He  values the company’s attention to safety and willingness to adjust to the specific interests and athletic abilities of the families on each trip.  Pre-trip communication helps to make sure that everyone in the group has opportunities to balance paddling, hiking, wildlife watching and daydreaming.

Going Fishin’ at Lake Yellowstone

 Posted by on January 9, 2010  Comments Off
Jan 092010

     At an altitude of over 7.500 feet above sea level, Lake Yellowstone sits on top of the center of the Yellowstone caldera.  It is almost 400 feet deep in some spots and is home to native cutthroat trout and invasive lake trout.  Fishing is permitted as long as you keep any lake trout you catch but throw back the cutthroat trout. 

Catching a fish with guide on Lake Yellowstone

Its a big thrill to reel one in on Lake Yellowstone

     There are a number of boat and fly fishing  outfitters approved by the national park service.  We opted to book a half day boat trip to fish on Lake Yellowstone though the front desk of our lodge.  We went with the park’s Xanterra  fishing guide service located at the Bridge Bay Marina.   They provided all the fishing tackle, bait, life jackets and knowledge of how to find the fish!  As an added benefit,  if you (or your teens and tweens) are too squeamish to handle the fish or the bait they take care of that too.  Most of the boats they use seat up to 6 people although we saw larger boats at the marina. 

Fishing guide at lake yellowstone

Our Lake Yellowstone fishing boat charter came fully equipped with a great, teen and tween friendly guide

Knowledgeable Guide Made for a Great Day

     Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and pleasant, taking us for a sightseeing tour along the edge of the lake on our way to an area where the fish were biting.   Since it was late summer and the water was warm we had to drop our line deep into the lake but 3 out of 4 of us caught at least one fish.    Our son was unlucky in the fishing department but she made up for it by letting him help drive the boat on the way back to the marina.  If you want, the guide will clean the fish for you too!  If not, the dining room at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel is open to the public and offers a wonderful view for lunch or dinner to wrap up your trip to the lake.

     This is another in our series of Top 10 Activities for families travelling to Yellowstone National Park with teens and tweens.  Click the link to see the rest.