There's nothing like a visit to one of our national parks to shock and awe you -- in the best way possible.
(Note: Garden of the Gods, pictured above, is not technically a national park but was given to the city of Colorado Springs 100 years ago by a generous citizen. It feels like a national park, though, so I'm counting it.)
Capulin Volcano National Monument
Great Sand Dunes National Park, where we followed the rangers' advice and got up onto the dunes early in the morning. We had to borrow some sleds from a generous family of hikers, because really, where can you buy sleds in Austin?
The Professor took the older two all the way to the top of the dunes (a 650 ft. elevation gain), stopping along the way to sled and slide. Caroline and I made it about halfway before choosing a nice location to roll around and make mermaid sculptures. To each her own.
I'll be quite honest with you. Two weeks ago we took Ian to Six Flags Fiesta Texas to spend our free tickets. The Professor and I made the conscious decision to put on our good attitudes and have fun, despite the searing temperatures, crowds, and long lines, because we love our boy. But as I sat there in our nation's largest sandbox, surrounded by views like this ...
and this ...
... I couldn't help but think, "This is ten times funner!"
Yes, you heard me. I said "funner."
Here's what you all absolutely need to know about visiting national parks with kids: They have these fantastic Junior Ranger programs at each park, where the kids get books, choose activities in the park to complete (from trash cleanup to nature bingo to a little history research), and are then sworn in as Junior Rangers, complete with badges, certificates, and at Garden of the Gods, even an announcement over the loudspeaker followed by applause at the Visitor Center.
As if that weren't enough, you can buy these nifty little passports for adults and kids for keeping track of all your national parks visits. The kids were motivated enough by the Junior Ranger badges and the prospect of stamps in their passports that we had to pull over at Capulin Volcano as we made our way home through New Mexico.
Very cool. National Park geniuses, I salute you.
Oh, and one more thing. Take advantage of the interpretive ranger programs! We sort of dragged our tired brood to the evening program on the pinon pine tree (not exactly a topic that would make them salivate). The ranger, a grandfatherly type, talked to us for forty minutes or so and then let the kids crack upon pinon nuts with rocks. It was the best thing since the sliced Wonder Bread their mother won't buy for them.
"I never knew trees could be so interesting!" Ian gushed as we piled back in the car.
The Professor and I barely restrained ourselves from celebratory high-fives.