Hi, Michelle Neale here. And I want to tell you about the awe and wonder I share with my family as we explore the natural world.
We were not a super adventurous family before we moved into an RV and started traveling full time. We’re still not, by some comparisons: no backcountry camping or rock climbing or canyoneering or kayaking or… name another adventurous activity. Frankly, it’s a good week if we get in a couple hikes and a family bike ride.
But we have turned our daily lives into an adventure by stepping out of the work and school routine to travel, and spend most of our time outdoors in constantly changing environments. From campground playgrounds surrounded by redwood trees, to rocky ocean beaches, to spectacular National Parks, Rita (8) and Charlie (6) are soaking it all in.
Pedometers helped motivate the kids on our first few hikes, especially when they started calling steps “points” and tried to beat each other. They’re not always excited about setting out on a trail, unless there are rocks to scramble over, but they can easily handle 2-3 miles which was not the case when we first started.
The kids are recognizing rocks, plants, and trees from other places we’ve been, which helps keep things fun and inspiring. It’s also gratifying as a parent (currently homeschooling) to see them learning and observing, when a lot of times it doesn’t seem like much is sinking in. Instead of simply collecting interesting rocks, they’re identifying what catches their eye as mica, or quartz, or obsidian.
When we were at Wupatki National Monument in Arizona they learned about all the different ways Ancestral Pueblo people used yucca plants, and now they point them out wherever we go. They notice the differences between Juniper trees we’re familiar with in Southern California, and those we’ve come across in other Western states – something I may not have seen myself.
One of my proudest moments was at a nature preserve in Cortez, Colorado, when Rita stopped me from stepping on biological soil crust. I remember reading about this at a nearby Visitor Center. I had no idea that Rita had also read and retained that information, and she was right! I was about to step on what looked like dried earth, but was really a delicate community of organisms. A nature walk can be a nice contrast to a hike; when we don’t have an end goal or mileage in mind, it’s wonderful to see how much the kids can observe and get absorbed into small details like the dirt, or moss, or a caterpillar crawling across the path.
Geology has been incredible to be able to study in person, for all four of us. From Lava Beds National Monument in remote Northern California, to Grand Canyon, Death Valley, the Badlands, and Arches National Park, a subject as vast and abstract as the movement of rocks over millions of years comes to life when you can see the evidence of those changes in person, in such spectacular and different ways. Two of our most memorable family hikes have been in places where the results of erosion are otherworldly: Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah and Antelope Canyon in Arizona.
Bryce is in fact an amphitheater, not a canyon, filled with delicate, glowing red rock spires called hoodoos. In addition to earning a badge through the Junior Ranger program (which is awesome, by the way – ask for it at any National Park or Monument), the kids had the opportunity to “Hike the Hoodoos” for a special patch. The 3-mile Queen’s Garden and Navajo Loop trails down into the canyon and back were a challenge, but both the amazing surroundings and the search for certain plaques as part of their patch quest kept the kids happy and motivated. Not to mention a snack break before our steep ascent.
If you’re not familiar with the name Antelope Canyon, you’d most likely still recognize it from images: flowing rock walls in improbable shapes and colors that make it the most photographed slot canyon in the Southwestern US. It’s considered one of the most beautiful canyons in the world.
While we did have to wait behind a big crowd at Lower Antelope, once we were on the narrow canyon floor we were alone with our small group and guide for over an hour. The canyon defies description so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. It was magical to be inside the canyon, and the kids were as enthralled as we were. Every twist and turn led to another breathtaking view. Our guide pointed out rock formations that resembled a shark fin, a seahorse, and a cat. Sitting in a specific spot, he demonstrated how pounding on his chest echoed off the surrounding walls to sound like a drum. The kids loved trying this out themselves. They also enjoyed the adventure of climbing down and up a few steep staircases and ladders, and emerging once again at ground level.
This wasn’t a long or strenuous hike, but it was an unforgettable family experience.
For Chris and I to get to see places like Bryce and Antelope Canyon for the first time with our kids has been truly special.
Sure, if it were just the two of us, we could be spending more time out on the trails and less time in Visitor Centers waiting for the kids to finish their Junior Ranger workbooks. But we wouldn’t get to see the National Parks through their eyes, and notice things we may not have seen otherwise at a faster pace. Whether we continue traveling or decide to settle down again, it’s gratifying to know that our kids enjoy and appreciate the natural world both majestic and small, in ways that they will hopefully carry with them throughout their lives.