Today's guest post is being done by my friend and fellow twin wrangler, Shannon B. Shannon is a mother of 3 and military wife. In other words, she's superwoman. Recently, her family took a trip to the Grand Canyon, the Polar Express Train, the Petrified Forest, and a couple National Monuments. I am completely jealous of their trip and thought it would be a wonderful story to share with you. Once again proving that getting out and exploring the country is such a fun and rewarding thing to do with your kids! Enjoy!
Some people think its crazy to attempt camping and long road trips with young children.
I say, why wouldn't you want to experience these things with your kids?
We are a military family after all, so we are highly motivated to take full advantage of the regions we live in because we can never be sure how long we will be in one area. We would be kicking ourselves if we lived on the West Coast all this time and never saw Yosemite National Park, or explored all the nearby beaches, or even traveled to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon. We have done all of those things (and more), but most recently was our trip to Arizona in December.
The idea for this trip originated from an email I received from a friend last summer, about the Polar Express train trip that is put on by the Grand Canyon Railroad each year at Christmas-time. It is a very sweet re-enactment of the book, The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. The train goes to “The North Pole”, and then Santa gets on the train to briefly greet the kids and give each of them a special gift. We thought this would be a wonderful surprise for our 5-year-old son Luke, and while our girls (twin 2-year-olds, Dana & Brynn) wouldn’t really remember it, they were sure to have fun as well. We decided to stay in Williams, AZ, since that’s where the train depot is. Williams is about 60 miles south of the Grand Canyon, so we knew we had to include that in our plans as well. We also wanted to try and explore other national parks and/or monuments nearby, but made no other specific plans for those since, with small children in tow, you have to be flexible.
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
We left southern California on a Monday (camped overnight in a KOA in Needles, CA), and got to Williams on Tuesday. Yes, it took two days to get there---pulling a 28-ft camper/trailer and traveling with young children takes longer than usual! We also chose a KOA in Williams, because those tend to be the easiest to stay at when traveling with children. When the kids are older, we’ll “rough it” more, but for now its nice to have certain amenities that places like KOA offers (playgrounds, bathrooms & showers, etc.).
The train ride wasn’t until Wednesday, so we had most of Tuesday afternoon to check out Grand Canyon National Park. We didn’t go to there with intentions of doing any big hikes because honestly, we had no desire to try and hike down into the canyon with our three small kids. Too many hazards to consider, and it would just take way too long for us to get down there. And then we’d have to hike back up---most likely in the dark since the shorter, winter days are here. Plus, it was COLD. About 30 degrees when we got there, so there was no way we’d do that sort of thing this time. So we stuck to the driving tour, which fortunately for us, was fully accessible by car. By going in December, the whole South Rim road was open to drive on, whereas Mar. 1--Nov. 30, you have to take a shuttle if you want to go past Grand Canyon Village. We were also lucky to have been there in the afternoon because we caught a spectacular Grand Canyon sunset, plus an almost full moon rising.
Even though we didn’t do any major hikes, we definitely feel that we got a good first Grand Canyon experience with the kids (my husband and I had been there before kids) by just driving and stopping to make short hikes at the turn-off points. There were no crowds, and we even had up-close wildlife sightings of deer and elk at a few points along the road. The animals seemed to be used to all the people around, but as always you don’t want to get too close. I saw one bold photographer do this, and he almost got charged by an elk. Luke & the girls were fascinated by these impressive animals, and it was especially exciting for these SoCal kids to see snow!
SUNSET CRATER VOLCANO AND WUPATKI NATIONAL MONUMENTS
It was finally Wednesday, the day of our Polar Express train ride. But, that didn’t start until 6:30pm, so we had the whole day to fill with other adventures. So we packed our cooler with enough food & drinks to last through the afternoon, and drove northeast of Flagstaff, AZ to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. We did a mostly driving tour of Sunset Crater (which last erupted in 1064-65), and enjoyed the beautiful scenery of meadows, lava flows, and cinder dunes. The Loop Road is about 36 miles long, and continues through to Wupatki National Monument.
We got to stretch our legs a lot more while exploring the remains of masonry pueblos at Wupatki. We started at a 0.5-mile loop trail behind the Wupatki Visitor Center (a great little mini-museum with kid-friendly, hands-on exhibits), which leads to the Wupatki Pueblo. The pueblo was built by ancestors of today’s Hopi and Zuni Indians in the 1100s. The kids loved running around on the trail and even got to play in and around some of the buildings. But we were careful to remind them (especially Luke, our budding Indiana Jones) that anything he picked up must be put back exactly where he found it! The ranger who was working that day was very friendly and even showed Luke a spot where it was common to find small shards of Indian pottery---and even let Luke hold some of it. To say that my son was impressed is an understatement!
THE POLAR EXPRESS TRAIN RIDE
Before we knew it, we needed to head back to Williams to eat dinner, get the kids dressed in their Christmas pajamas, and then get ourselves to the train depot for our departure to the North Pole! As I said before, this was to be a surprise for Luke, so he had no idea where we were going until we got to the train station. He didn’t believe us at first, and then was a little worried that we were sending him on the train to see Santa on his own (like the boy in the book). Once he realized we were all going, he started to get really excited.
The train trip was everything we had imagined and wanted for our kids. The train itself was beautiful and impressive---it felt luxurious, not like your modern-day Amtrak ride! The ride was also well-organized. Relaxed. Magical. We were treated to hot chocolate and cookies on the ride to the “North Pole”. Then one of the “elves” read The Polar Express story to the children, going around and showing each page as they read. Note to self: if we do this again, bring our copy of the book so we can read along!
When arriving at the North Pole, you never get off the train. The “North Pole” is meant to be seen from the windows of the train. The kids all marveled at the festive lights, and then they spotted Santa and his sleigh (packed with a GIANT sack of toys!), which was parked in front of the little village setting. He waved at us as the train slowly passed by. Then we stopped. After a few minutes, the train started backing up, and Santa was no longer outside waving at us! Hmmm, where did he go? They informed us that Santa had gotten on the train (audible, excited gasps from the children could be heard throughout the train car at this news!), and to be patient since he had several train cars full of children to greet. It didn’t actually seem to take that long, because they did a pretty good job of distracting the kids with Christmas carol sing-alongs (they even passed out a songbook so the parents could help sing along too).
Then Santa appeared and the kids were all just buzzing with excitement. He made his way to where we were sitting and Luke was sweet, polite, and in awe of this friendly, authentic-looking Santa who was standing before him. Santa handed him a large, silver sleigh bell. He then handed one to Brynn, who immediately (and expectedly) shrunk into me, and he gave me another one for Dana, who had fallen asleep. My husband Will was up and ready to capture a quick photo of this sweet moment. As Santa made his way through the rest of the train cars, we enjoyed the rest of the ride back to the train depot where he stayed for a little while for more formal photo opportunities.
I highly recommend this trip to families with young children, probably best for at least age 3. Our 2-year-olds enjoyed the ride (well, Brynn did, since Dana slept for most of it!), but they are only just learning who Santa is! The trip made the biggest impression on Luke---he still marvels at his bell that Santa gave him, at the fact that he can hear it ring so it must mean he is a true believer :)
PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK
We decided that even though it was a long drive (about 2 hours each way) from Williams, that we just couldn’t leave AZ the next day without visiting Petrified Forest National Park. Will went there when he was a child, but I had never been. So, again, we packed food, movies for the kids to watch in the car, and away we went. This park had the most kid-friendly hikes of all the parks we visited on this trip. Most were easy, not too many hills to climb, and were just long enough for the kids to release their pent-up energy from being in the car for so long! There is a great visitor center at the southern end of the park, called the Rainbow Forest Museum. They have exhibits there about petrified wood, geology, and paleontology. The dinosaur skeletons & fossils were the highlight of the museum, according to Luke! We started our first hike in the park from the museum, on the easy 0.4-mile paved (with some stairs) Giant Logs Trail. Then after eating our picnic lunch, we moved on to another easy hike, the 0.8-mile paved Crystal Forest Trail, probably our favorite hike in the park. We still had to remind our son (several times!) that he could absolutely NOT keep any of the rocks he found there on the trails. There are so many tiny “wood chips” that may be tempting to keep, but it is against the law to take anything from the park. But there are places outside the park where pieces of petrified trees (mined from nearby sites outside the park) can be purchased if you want them for a souvenir. Before leaving the park, we also stopped at other sites that show evidence of early human occupation, such as the remaining foundation of Puerco Pueblo, and petroglyphs (found at Newspaper Rock and Puerco Pueblo).
I was truly surprised by the stark beauty of this place. I’m not sure what I expected before we got there, but was just stunned by how time, wind, and water have shaped this place over millions and millions of years. It is amazing to think that this region was once a floodplain, full of tall conifer trees (now fallen and petrified!) instead of a dry grassland/desert. And to be able to see and touch those ancient trees that had transformed into stone was just amazing.
During our travels that week, we were surrounded by another wonder of the American southwest: The Painted Desert. We could see gorgeous vistas of it from Sunset Crater, Wupatki, and also from the Petrified Forest NP. Before we made the 2-hr drive back to Williams, we did go into the Painted Desert Visitor Center. We had to get our National Parks Passport book stamped (boy that thing is filling up in the Western Region lately!), and also drove around a short loop there which had several turnouts with great viewpoints for taking photos. Perhaps for another trip we would research some desert hikes to explore it further.
We had a wonderful time on this trip, even if it was just a quick one. We feel very lucky to be able to take advantage of travel opportunities wherever my husband is stationed. It does take a bit of extra work & planning to take young children along on these adventures, but the great memories we are making are worth it. And even if you aren’t a military family who doesn’t know how long you’ll have to explore your area, it may help to have that “temporary” mindset. Because if you keep putting it off because it’ll always be there, it may just never happen!