How to Do Arches National Park with Young Kids in the Summer

Text & Instagram Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
A very pregnant mom, a dad carrying three cameras and a tripod, a 4.5 year old who has a love (“Oooh! I see a monarch butterfly near the cottonwood tree!”)-hate (“Heeelllppp! I see ants! Aaahhh! They’re going to bite me!”) relationship with nature, and a very heavy 10-month old, plus two grandparents (probably the fittest among us) and their 10-year old grandson who is in that phase where he is embarrassed by everyone and everything, get together to hike in Utah’s Arches National Park… in June.

The trailhead for Landscape Arches.
The trailhead for Landscape Arch.

It all sounds like the makings of a good joke or a disastrous vacation, but fortunately, it was neither. In fact, we had a perfectly pleasant visit, one that struck that rare family travel note of satisfying everyone simultaneously.

Here are a few tips for visiting Arches National Park with kids during the summer:

1. Start early, leave early, and come back late.
Everyone tells you this, but when the alarm goes off at 5:30 or 6:00, it’s understandably tempting to hit “Snooze,” especially since you’re on vacation. But trust me when I tell you that you will avoid literal and metaphorical meltdowns by getting an early start; even 20 minutes can make a big difference with respect to temperature in the southwest. Groan your way through the wake-up call if you must, but roll out early.

We were at the park by 7:00 AM and it was cool and overcast– perfect for hiking, especially for families, who are inevitably carrying more than they need. The other benefit of hitting the trails early was avoiding the crowds. By the time we had reached our destination and taken all the photos we wanted, we were on our way back down the trail and headed to lunch just as other families and hikers were starting out under a sky that had cleared and was now blazing with the noon-day sun.

While they sweated their way up the trail and back, we headed back to our hotel for lunch, a nap, and a swim in the pool. When our batteries were recharged, we headed back up to the park to enjoy the light and colors of what photographers refer to as “golden hour,” which is particularly spectacular in red rock desert.

2. Pack light, but pack smart.
Since temperatures on the days preceding our visit had been in the high-90s, I dressed the kids and myself in what I often refer to as “aspirational” clothing (as in: I’m aspiring to comfortable weather that doesn’t involve me wearing or carrying multiple layers of clothes for multiple people). It was cool as we set off on the trail, too cool for 10-month old Orion, really, especially when we were caught in a brief rain shower.

Fortunately, the more experienced hikers and outdoorsfolk among us (the grandparents) were prepared with a lightweight space blanket, which my dad wrapped around Orion as we waited out the drizzle under a tree. We had apples, a granola bar, and water, and charged up what remained of the trail.

Pack canteens of water, of course, and those snacks, but otherwise, travel light. If you take one of the trails recommended below, you won’t even really need to take sunscreen or bug repellent (as long as you apply both before you set off on your hike).

3. Take a kid-friendly trail.
Though the 10-year old would have appreciated something more challenging (he was in Utah, in part, to take a rock climbing class, which he aced), a hike categorized as “easy” was more reasonable for myself and the younger kids. Too many families make the mistake of pushing themselves to achieve something they’re not physically prepared for, and national parks are rarely the best place to do a test run of physical endurance or familial patience.

Mariel at the base of Landscape Arch.
Mariel at the base of Landscape Arch.

In Arches, the trail to Landscape Arch is family-friendly, and what waits at the end is no less impressive than the rewards of more strenuous hikes; in fact, the park believes that this arch is the longest natural sandstone arch in the world. The Landscape Arch trail is gravel most of the way, with a shorter section consisting of red sand. You’ll need to leave strollers in the car and don a baby backpack or do as we did and press a grandparent into shoulder-carrying service.

Grandpa takes a much-deserved break after carrying 20+ lb. Orion.
Grandpa takes a much-deserved break after carrying 20+ lb. Orion.

If this trail hike proves too much, take to the car and enjoy some of the scenic overlooks. One of the best is Balanced Rock, which is impressive from the car or looking up at it from the parking lot (it also has a loop trail around the base). If your kids are interested in pioneer history, then stop by the extremely humble cabin of settler John Wesley Wolfe, which is accessible by a very short trail. You can read more about the history of the Wolfe family and the cabin on the NPS
website
.

Balanced Rock.
Balanced Rock.

4. Apply bug repellent and sunscreen before heading out.
Most summer days at Arches would be unbearable without bug repellent; there are mosquitoes and pesky no-see-ums. I swear by Badger Balm’s Anti-Bug Balm to ward off both pests. The same company also makes baby and kid-friendly sunscreen. Whatever brand you choose, bug repellent and sunscreen are musts if you’re in Arches during the summer.

5. Process what you’ve seen.
We always talk about what we’ve seen, compare it to other places we’ve been, and make a list of questions that we each have about the animals, geology, and other features we’ve seen. We get those questions answered by talking with rangers or other locals, checking our field guides, or getting online in our hotel room and searching for the answers. What was that flower we saw at the trailhead? What kinds of animals live in Arches? Did dinosaurs live in the area?

One of our questions from the Landscape Arch hike: "What is this flower?" (Photo by Francisco Collazo).
One of our questions from the Landscape Arch hike: “What is this flower?” (Photo by Francisco Collazo).

We also encourage our oldest to record her experiences by drawing in her journal. It’s interesting for us to see how she interprets what she has seen and her explanations give us a chance to ask her questions about her experience of our visit.

Have you been to Arches? Do you have any advice? Feel free to share it in the comments.

What We Feed Our Kids When We Travel

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
One of the fastest ways travel can wear our family down is in the area of food. We eat well at home, by which I mean fresh and homemade, and while we always want to try the local specialties, the fact of the matter is, in America, there’s a lot of garbage on the menu.

This is especially true if you’re on a budget.

For adults, there’s no shortage of fried food, pathetic iceberg salads, and overcooked or undercooked veggies, typically of the frozen or canned variety. For kids, the menu is even more limited, rarely ranging beyond a stock rotation of PB&J, hamburgers, chicken fingers, hot dogs, grilled cheese, and spaghetti. And let’s not even talk at length about flights, where options include overpriced boxes of poorly curated snacks and tiny foil packets of peanuts and pretzels and packages of cookies (though Delta’s Biscoff cookies do get our family’s seal of approval).

Ooh... a corn dog and breaded ravioli!
Ooh… a corn dog and breaded ravioli!

All of this is to say that we take an unusual amount of care planning what we’re going to eat on our trips, especially for long flights and the first full day of travel. That planning can be stressful–especially because it often involves increasing the amount of stuff we’re carrying (and you know how I feel about that), but the rewards of eating well offset the hour or two of annoyance endured while hauling everything through TSA and into overhead bins or under seats in front of us on the plane.

Here’s our strategy for the first two days of travel:

1. The day before departure, review what we have on hand at home– especially in the fridge.
If you follow my work on The Latin Kitchen, then you know that I really hate food waste. There’s little reason for it, other than poor planning, and there’s really nothing I find more depressing in the kitchen than coming home after a fantastic trip, only to open the fridge and find half a dozen science experiments in progress.

My pre-trip job, then, is to assess what ingredients we have on hand and make suggestions to Francisco about what we can do with them. I typically help prep and store items we won’t use on the trip and that won’t keep until we come home, turning greens, herbs, and vegetables into the fixings for stock or pesto. He takes the rest–cheeses, meats, fruits, and other vegetables–into snacks and small meals. Veggies, meats, and cheeses may get turned into pasta or grain salads (couscous, quinoa, barley, and orzo are all delicious and filling, and they pack and hold up well). Vegetables also get turned into raw finger-food munchables, and if there are only small bits of certain items, such as peppers and onion, they’ll likely get mixed up with some tuna for a salad, which will either be served on bread that will be hard by the time we get home or lettuce or greens that will be wilted and brown if left to fend for themselves until vacation’s end.

Lunch our first full travel day in Utah: tuna fish, corn for Orion, bananas, and a salad-- everything was prepped at home during our pre-trip fridge cull. We also had  ears of corn we'd roasted at home. Grounds courtesy of the Utah State Capitol. :)
Lunch our first full travel day in Utah– everything was prepped at home during our pre-trip fridge cull. We also had ears of corn we’d roasted at home. Grounds courtesy of the Utah State Capitol. :)

2. The day before departure, we assess what kids’ snacks we need to replenish.
We have a 4.5 year old and a 10 month old, and each has particular snacks that are always in our backpacks, even for daily outdoor jaunts around our NYC home-base. The older one can always be sated and placated with 365 brand cereal bars from Whole Foods, while the younger one is calmed down with Mum-Mums, quick-dissolving rice rusks. Cups of applesauce are packable (we always have a fork-knife-spoon in our packs), as are Choopoons labneh, which come in some novel flavors (sour cherry, sweet carrot) and are so thick and creamy that they serve as a full meal for the 10 month old and a snack that fills the 4.5 year old enough to ward off a full-scale meltdown when we know it will be at least another hour until dinner.

Choopoons labneh is a filling, easily packed go-to snack for families on the go.
Choopoons labneh is a filling, easily packed go-to snack for families on the go.

3. Once we’ve assessed everything we have, we pack cold items in an insulated bag and non-perishables in our carry-ons.
If two parents are traveling with their kids, then divide and conquer is the operative rule; if you’re a single parent or you’re just traveling solo with one or more of your kids (I do this a lot), you can still give the kids some of the responsibility of shouldering the load. While you may resist the idea of carrying an insulated bag, it can really come in handy throughout the trip as you replenish your snack supply. Having snacks like cheese, yogurt, and other items that need to be kept cool breaks the monotony of not-so-healthy vending machine or gas station snacks. If our accommodations have a fridge with a freezer, we put the ice packs and the bag itself in the freezer overnight; if there’s no freezer, then we get a hotel garbage bag, fill it with ice, and put it in the insulated bag before we leave for the day.

4. Eat in order of perishability.
True, tuna fish salad is probably not the best lunch to pack for a trip… unless you keep track of your food inventory and eat in order of perishability. The tuna fish salad we packed for this trip (the obvious choice for using up a few small pieces of onion and pepper and celery) had to be kept cold and it had to be eaten within 24 hours; otherwise, to the garbage it would go… and then, the whole point of avoiding food waste, eating well, and saving money would be lost.

5. Refill strategically.
When you’ve brought plastic containers from home, you can refill them strategically throughout your trip. Dry cereals, fresh fruit, and instant oatmeal from the hotel breakfast bar are all fair game.

How–and what–do you feed your kids when you travel? Share your tips in the comments.

When Family Travel Doesn’t Live up to Your Expectations

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
If you follow me on social mediaInstagram and Facebook, especially–you might think that my life is one long string of happy moments.

Happy times.
Happy times.

For the most part, you wouldn’t be wrong. I wouldn’t mind a bigger apartment, a more adequate cushion between financial stability and financial ruin, and fewer incidents of my youngest pooping or spitting up right.after.his.bath, but all things considered, these are trivial wants. I’ve got pretty much everything that counts in life: good health; interesting and meaningful work; stellar, supportive friends; a partner who really does love me unconditionally (even when he probably shouldn’t– but we’ll get to that shortly); and children who are as smart, funny, kind, and good as they are cute. In short, what you see of my life online is pretty much an uncut version of my “real life.”

What you see of my life online is pretty much what my "real" life is like. Most of the time.
What you see of my life online is pretty much what my “real” life is like. Most of the time.

Most of the time, anyway.

Recently, we took a family road trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York State. It was, as most of our travels are, a jaunt I proposed and planned. I’d been to the Seneca and Keuka Lakes area while working on the New York State guidebook last summer, but that particular visit was a solo trip, and I’d been eager to return with family in tow because the Finger Lakes are just such an incredible destination for parents traveling with their kids. Francisco was enthusiastic about the idea, so we started finalizing all the details for a long weekend. We’d rent the farmhouse I stayed in last year, go for a walk in Watkins Glen State Park, take Mariel to a kids’ glassmaking class at the Corning Museum of Glass, and maybe see whether Francisco could get in on a glider ride at Harris Hill Soaring Center. I wouldn’t be doing any wine tasting, but he could, and we’d let the kids burn off their energy crawling and running around the grounds of picturesque vineyards overlooking Seneca Lake. Sitting at my desk in New York City, booking the rental car and rolling our pennies for the farmhouse rental, I could just picture it: the perfect road trip, the perfect family weekend getaway.

But this is my problem, you see: expectations. My active imagination can conjure up the most beautiful scene of natural and familial bliss, the very picture of perfection. But nothing in life is perfect, even my just-short-of-perfect family, and it seems that no matter how many opportunities life hands me to learn the lesson that I really (no, really) should just let go of expectations and roll with it, I never quite get it.

In some ways, I can be a very slow learner.

**
By the time we got to the farmhouse on Saturday night, we were all tired. The drive from the city to Dundee, New York is about five hours, and on the last of several potty, leg-stretch, and gas fill-up breaks we’d pulled into a town that had a disturbing number of Confederate flags and people who looked none too welcoming. Mariel had been chattering non-stop for nearly six hours and we were all hungry for dinner, already burned out on road trip snacks.

At home, I’d pictured our arrival at the farmhouse. Everyone would be thrilled: Francisco would love the spacious kitchen and Mariel would maybe try sleeping in her own bed. Everyone would love the view, especially as we sat on the front porch in the morning, having our breakfast. Because we’re an emotive bunch, their respective pleasures would be expressed verbally, and we’d fully inhabit the house for the two short days we’d have it.

Only it wasn’t exactly like that. We dropped our bags, everyone gave a cursory look around– no verbal feedback!–and after grumbling about being hungry, we decided we’d skip cooking (which we’d fully planned to do– it was one of the reasons we’d chosen the farmhouse to begin with) and go have an overpriced, mediocre meal at a restaurant where I’d had a much better dinner the summer before. The only one of us who seemed thoroughly content was Orion, who claimed the kitchen floor as his own and made music out of egg whisks and wooden spoons. “Oh well,” I thought to myself. Surely after a good night’s rest everyone would come around and see the charms of the Finger Lakes.

One happy customer.
One happy customer.

Except no one slept very well, so we started day 2 on a low note. Despite beautiful weather and occasional picturesque moments, we were mostly warding off frustration and fatigue. We’re not a fighting family, though, so we all just wallowed in our own sad state. I really wanted everyone to pull it together, though. We’d spent time and money on this trip, dammit, and it was supposed to be fun, and no one was really playing along.

By late afternoon, when Francisco finally cracked a bit and said he’d just as soon blow off the half round of mini-golf Mariel had left and go take a nap rather than let her finish the second part of the course (the one that, in my opinion, looked the most fun), I’d kind of had it. While waiting for overly large servings of what were supposed to be small portions of ice cream, Mariel was playing around on the uneven wooden floor and fell down, skinning her knee and howling as if an entire pack of banshees had inhabited her body. Taking a cue from her, I took the ice cream and put it on the table with a melodramatically annoyed flourish, and disgruntled sighs emitted all around. Once again, only Orion was non-plussed.

This was not the way things were supposed to be, I thought to myself, my inner five-year old having her hissy fit. I left my family at the table to eat their ice cream while I went to get the car because that was it. We were done with the day and going back to the farmhouse and as far I was concerned, everyone could eat a bowl of cereal and just go to bed. I’d think twice before planning another family trip, oh yes, I would. If they couldn’t get with the program, then we’d just stay home from now on.

**
I don’t think you’ll be surprised to learn that I didn’t really sit back and take stock until we were back in our tiny apartment in New York City. Once you’ve decided to see things a certain way, you tend to not want to see them any other way, even when doing so would actually be of tremendous benefit to you (not to mention to the people around you).

Why did I need my family to have a good time? Sure, I wanted them to, but maybe Francisco just needed to spend those two days at the farmhouse in the Finger Lakes laying around on the couch or a hammock with a beer in hand, with nothing firm on the itinerary I’d carefully (over)planned. Maybe Mariel was just fine cosleeping with us in the same bedroom, even though there were three other bedrooms where she could spread out and have her own space. And maybe we didn’t need to play the full round of mini-golf. Maybe, instead, what we all needed was to just be where we were: I in my state of Finger Lakes wonder, Francisco in his legitimate “I need some sleep, stat” space, and Mariel not strapped in a booster seat, being whisked off to do the next thing, but to just be let loose in the yard to pick dandelions for as long as she wanted to do so.

Those lessons– just letting everyone be where they need to be, realizing that every state of emotion is temporary, and accepting that our happiness enriches but does not depend upon one another, and that it flourishes when we just go with the flow– are things I know, and yet struggle, over and over again, to keep in practice. Family provides plenty (continuous, actually) opportunities to practice, and family travel–especially when it doesn’t live up to our expectations–can help us get realigned with our inner compass.

Maybe it wasn’t the weekend I envisioned, but it ended up being meaningful after all.

How to Stop Packing So Much Crap When You Travel with Kids

Text & Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
**
Later this week, Mariel, our four and three-quarters year old daughter, will finish her first year of school (!). Two days later, we will all (Francisco, Mariel, Orion, and myself–did I mention I’m seven months pregnant?) board a plane bound for Utah, where we’ll be working for a week, doing research for an article.

We will, no doubt, be jockeying for overhead bin space with other parents who are starting their summer travels. Before Francisco even starts grumbling about the bin hogs, wondering where he’s going to store his camera gear, we’ll have “Excuse us, please”‘d so many times past SUV strollers laden with The Things Parents Absolutely Can’t Travel Without that we’ll be tired before our plane takes off.

I applaud parents who travel with their kids because there are so many moms and dads who don’t do so; it seems too overwhelming to them. But I wish more moms and dads would realize they really don’t need to bring everything and the kitchen sink with them, especially when they’re traveling domestically. All of the items they’ve convinced themselves they can’t leave home without are so burdensome that they’re frazzled and hunched over and snapping at the kids and each other, ruining their vacations before they even begin.

Clothes bag for myself and two kids... for a three-day road trip.
Clothes bag for myself and two kids… for a three-day road trip.

I see these parents in airports and I want to walk up to them and say, “Really, you don’t have to pack so much crap.” Your kids don’t need all the things you think they need. Children are far more resourceful than we give them credit for. In fact, they are far more resourceful than you are. For them, anything can be turned into a toy. The emergency card in the seat pocket in front of you? Mariel has spent long stretches of time looking at the pictures and making up stories about what she thinks is happening. The barf bag? It makes for a great hand puppet. Besides, if you’re honest with yourself, the main reason you probably want to distract your kids is to ward off your own anxiety about whether they might have an on-board meltdown. As with most tasks and challenges of parenting, if you just let your kids inhabit their natural rhythm, they’ll do a fairly decent job of self-regulating. And when they don’t, then it’s time to pull out the window clings (which, by the way, fit MUCH better into your carry-on than the “educational” toy you packed).

One of the ways to pack less crap is to subject everything to the wants and needs test. Lay everything you want to take out on your bed. Now, look at each item one by one and ask yourself if you’re really going to need it, or if you’re packing it “just in case.” Most “just in case” items aren’t necessary. And even plenty of needs (the 32-count bag of diapers, for example) don’t actually need to be packed; you’d be better off picking them up once you’ve arrived at your destination. Decide what your list of non-negotiables includes and stick to it. Type it up, print it out, and refer to it each time you’re getting ready for a trip.

Once you’ve eliminated some of those “want” items and you’ve slimmed down your suitcase and carry-ons in the first round of ruthless packing, ask yourself the “Can I carry it comfortably?” question. If you can’t carry it comfortably, it doesn’t need to come with you. When you’re traveling with kids, you want to be agile and mobile, not burdened by two overpacked shoulder bags, a backpack, and a rolling suitcase. For me, packing for my family is a lot like clothes shopping: If it’s not comfortable, it’s not for me.

Finally, pack items that serve multiple functions and require minimal management. Rather than pack a blanket, a changing mat, a picnic blanket, and a scarf, I pack a 20-year old sarong that serves these and at least a dozen other purposes. Because it’s thin and dries quickly, I can wash it out in a sink when needed.

Inevitably, you will forget something you or your kids really do need. (This would happen, by the way, even if you overpacked). When this happens, consider it an excellent opportunity to teach your kids a lesson in creative resourcefulness.

TSA, flight delays, surly service… there are already enough reasons to be cranky when you’re traveling. Don’t carry so much crap that you make the experience even tougher on yourself and your kids.

How We Do Family Travel on a Budget

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
**
Since this time last week, we’ve been traveling around Puerto Rico on several work assignments. Covering a lot of ground with two kids during the island’s high season is no small feat, especially on a tight budget.

Mariel on the beach in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Mariel on the beach in Vieques, Puerto Rico.

Here are some of the ways we’ve been stretching our dollars:

1. We bought one-way tickets.
Given that we were traveling to the Caribbean over a holiday, flights were going to be a big-ticket item for this trip, so we compared round-trip and one-way ticket prices. Though there was a wild-card element about the cost of the return flight, our gamble paid off and our tickets ended up being about $400 cheaper than they would have had we bought round-trip tickets. Remember that flight prices tend to be lower on Tuesdays, so try to book on that day. (And if you have kids and you’re booking through Expedia, use Upromise.com as your launch pad so you can get 6% back on your purchase; the funds are funneled to your child’s 529 savings account. I’ve written a more comprehensive piece about that here.)

2. We packed our own car seats.
The average daily rate a rental car company charges for car seats is $11 each. That’s $22 a day for two kids. Multiply by seven days and you get $154. Yes, they’re cumbersome when you’re getting them to and through the airport, but otherwise, but bringing your own car seats will save you money. They’ll save you time, too; since you already know how to install your own car seats, you won’t have to figure out another system.

3. We brought our own snacks.
Plane snacks and car snacks for road trips; these will help you contain costs and keep you healthier. We like to pack fruit and granola bars, mixed nuts, cheese sticks, crackers, and apple sauce. We also pack instant oatmeal, an inexpensive and fast breakfast. All of these pack well and take up little space in luggage.

4. We do our own laundry.
Well, I shouldn’t say “we”; the truth is, Francisco is the one doing the washing. Each night, he takes about 20 minutes to wash our clothes in the sink or bathtub. He’ll hang them up to dry in the room; if they’re still damp in the morning, we’ll lay them out in the back of the car to sun dry.

5. We eat brunch rather than breakfast and lunch.
Three meals for four people every day can be a big line item on the travel budget, especially if you like eating well. We’re not into deprivation at all, but by the time we’re awake and have both kids dressed and ready to go, it’s usually time for brunch anyway, so we take advantage and eat a larger meal in that period between breakfast and lunch. It usually holds us until dinner.

Family portrait in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Family portrait in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

6. We don’t order alcohol.
The average price of a cocktail here is $16. If two adults have just one drink, they’ve already exceeded the cost of an entree. If we want to drink, we buy a bottle of wine and uncork it in our hotel room before or after dinner.

7. We don’t pay for WiFi.
We stay at properties where WiFi is included. $12-25 a day for WiFi is an easy way for a hotel to make an extra buck, but not at our expense.

8. We don’t put down a credit or debit card for “incidentals.”
Like being charged for WiFi, being asked for a credit or debit card to cover “incidentals” is a practice that I find really annoying, especially because the hold on your card ties up funds you’d otherwise have at your disposal, and it can take up to a week or longer for the hold to be released. I’ve been refusing to put down a card for incidentals (which we never use anyway) and if I’m met with protest, I’ll put down cash instead and make sure it’s returned upon check-out.

What are ways you save money when traveling? Share your tips in the comments.