It has been a little over a week since my husband and I made the dramatic decision to pull our four children out of traditional school and begin homeschooling. During the discussions of whether or not to do this, one of the ideas that came up the most is how much more our kids could learn through travelling than through distance learning. So here we are! Me and four kids on the road while my husband works to support my new travel habit. On the next trip, we promised that he would come along.
For our first destination, we (I) picked a place that is majestic and far away from our typical suburban life – Yellowstone. Since we were driving up from Sacramento, we could not possibly make the drive in one shot, so we split it up with an overnight in Twin Falls, Idaho and another overnight camping in Craters of the Moon National Park.
It was a long drive from Sacramento to Twin Falls, but my girls all wanted to push through. I tried to stop for a nap before we reached Truckee since it seemed that everyone else was asleep, but the moment I stopped the car they all woke up and couldn’t contain their squabbles. The rest of the day we powered through by listening to Harry Potter & the Chamber of Secrets, stopping for a late lunch in Winnemucca, exclaiming over the landscape that is so different from what we see around home, and making decisions as a group.
Arriving at Craters of the Moon made the long drive totally worth it. Our campsite overlooked a lava field that is over 2000 years old, and we had endless amounts of fun setting up camp (once I let go of expectations for efficiency, that is!). Once we had camp set up, we took the 7 mile loop road around the park in the car. With the windows rolled down and a spirit of adventure we stopped at every sight along the way.
In the Devil’s Orchard we had our first big opportunity to discuss and adjust our world view. The 1/2 mile hiking trail was dotted with signs challenging the way people interact with the environment as it meandered through a landscape of lava, as many dead trees as living ones, and black dirt. The name of the place came from a minister passing through in the late 1800s who stated the area was only fit for Satan himself. The signs provoked us to consider our own perspective and whether we agreed with the minister or found beauty amongst the desolation. Camille, however, saw the signs as a statement that people are ruining the natural environment and are therefore inherently bad. Walking on the lava rocks crushed them over time, the lichen (which is the first plant to grow on lava) was extremely sensitive to pollutants in the air, and the cumulative impact over time would reduce the area to nothing more than black dirt. This led to a long discussion about our responsibility to care for the earth while we go about our business, about the history of industry in our world that prizes profit over health and well-being, and what children can do differently even though they are clearly not the ones responsible for the current situation. There were tears, there were hugs, and there were concessions to hard truths. Ultimately, we agreed that it is a paradox to enjoy the beauty of a place while also preserving it; paving a path through the middle of the “orchard” was just as destructive as kids playfully climbing on the rocks, and neither one was better or worse than the other.
Our third day of travel took us leisurely up to Yellowstone. It was a three hour drive that took us the better part of the day. Since we had plans to stay in a hotel in West Yellowstone, there was no reason to rush so that we could set up camp before dark. Which was a good thing because I have found that it is extremely difficult to get a campsite in Yellowstone without a reservation! We visited Bear World and enjoyed driving through the bear exhibit, but the highlight was the amusement park which was included in the price of admission. As no surprise, Julia went on the roller coaster over and over and over!
From there, the drive became even more beautiful as we climbed into the mountains. Driving through Idaho was gorgeous in a wide open sort of way, but something about trees and mountains satisfies my soul. Upon arriving in West Yellowstone, we headed straight for Imax to see a movie about the park. After that a nasty headache set in and we called it an early night. A good night’s sleep cured all and we were ready to continue our adventure the next morning. We started with the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, which was really great. The river otter exhibit turned out to be a favorite, but it was really cool to see grizzlies up close, too. As it turned out, this experience would pale in comparison to our adventures within the park.
Day 4 took us into Yellowstone where we discovered that we are not the only ones visiting on the “shoulder season.” The park was surprisingly busy and all the first-come-first-serve campgrounds were full by 7am. There went my plan to camp! There was no way I could have all my girls in the car and waiting at a campground before the sun was even up! So we meandered through the park and further discovered that when pulling a trailer it is extremely difficult to find parking. Only the largest attractions provided trailer/RV parking and even that proved to be quite the challenge!
To see the Porcelain Basin I had to parallel park with a trailer! Luckily, after 5 minutes of attempts, the vehicle behind me left and gave me more room to maneuver.
We ended up driving all the way to the North Entrance and staying in the tiny town of Gardiner, where we paid a ridiculous amount for a very cheap hotel. But the pizza place next door was good, we had great conversation with some travelers from Pennsylvania (hey! I spelled that right without using spell check!!), and prepared to get up very early the next day for a private wildlife tour. The best part of traveling with kids is that they really don’t know the difference between high end and low end; they just know about fun and boring.
Day 5 was a day I could finally turn over control to another adult. Chris with Yellowstone Guidelines met us at 6am to take us out to the Lamar Valley to see about spotting wildlife. He knocked it out of the park with our first stop – a grizzly bear eating a carcass in the river while three wolves tried to get a piece of the action. Chris assured us that it is difficult to see a bear in the wild and the best chance to see them is early in the morning. We watched until the bear ambled away and the wolves took over. Then we moved further up into the valley and came across an entire pack of wolves playing. The park’s wolf-management ranger was on site and the girls had an opportunity to ask all the questions they wanted.
Ranger Jeremy was extremely patient in explaining all things wolf and didn’t dumb things down for kids, which I was really grateful for because these little girls are smart! He even got into a genetics lesson when they asked about grey wolves vs. black wolves – and now my girls know what Punnett squares are.
In this picture, Julia is using the antenna to determine the direction of the wolf whose collar is tuned in. Each of the girls took turns doing this, even though it was pretty basic (the wolf pack was visible across the valley).
The piece de resistance, however, was seeing a moose within feet of the road way up in the valley. Seeing a moose is even more rare than seeing a bear, and I was beside myself with excitement. To see this gorgeous animal up close in the wild was a beyond thrilling. The girls were finally impressed because they could see the animal in all its detail without using a scope or binoculars. Even our guide got excited.
Our guided day ended around 1:00 at Mammoth Hot Spring, which was a perfect time for ice cream. We then worked our way back down to West Yellowstone and stayed another night in a hotel. I am hoping that on Day 6 we will finally be able to camp … but it is the first day of our trip forecasted for rain …