Skip Disney World: Explore Our National Parks!

I have been holding back writing for sometime now on the blog, due to a bunch of exciting and scary things happening this summer.  I am viewing this summer as my marriage's puberty of sorts.  Lots of changes - some good, some bad.  But now, I am finally ready to open up and share these experiences with my readers. 

Recently, I returned from a week long road trip with my family (hubby, kiddo, and parents) touring several of our National Parks from inside a rented RV. I normally would shy away from this kind of trip for several reasons: 1. Bugs; 2. Confined Spaces; and 3. Lack of Concierge Service.

But, for the sake of trying to make memories for my daughter, and getting out of my comfort level more than a bit, I decided last year to plan this trip. However, it would have a few stipulations: there would be an RV instead of sleeping under the stars, bug spray by the gallon, and showers at least every other day.  

But once I broke away from my control, an unbelievable thing happened: I opened up and had a TON of fun - I think even more fun than I did when we went to Disney World. Maybe it was the appreciation that this was not created by millions of dollars, but instead, millions of years. That everyone I encountered had manners and the same appreciation I had for the wildlife and nature. No one approached the bison on the side of the road - instead they quieted their voices, took their photos, and went on their way.  

So in one week's span, we drove from Denver, Colorado to:
1. Arches National Park - Utah
2. Grand Teton National Park - Wyoming
3. Yellowstone National Park - Wyoming/Montana

So how can you have the same fun at a National Park like me? Try these helpful tips:

1. Get Gutsy and Rent an RV

As I stated before, we rented our RV. No use buying it if we weren't sure if we'd like it. But we rented ours from a local dealer and it was a current year's model. We chose not to rent from a national rental agency after researching and finding out many of theirs were 10+ years old and almost twice the price. Know your approximate route (miles) so you can estimate how far you are going and getting an accurate quote. But definitely check out the local guys - you may get a better deal!

Also know what types of amenities you need at the campgrounds - most of the time, you just need electricity and water and for smaller vehicles, like the one above, you just need 30 Amp (as compared to 50 amp for the large bus-like motor homes). Just by reducing your need, you can save at least $10 a night, and upwards to $30 a night.  

2. Research Campgrounds and Reserve Early

The National Parks have lots of campgrounds on property, but they fill up early. They are much cheaper, but have less amenities. If you want showers or a swimming pool to entertain the kids, you might check out places off property. You likely will pay more, but you will have more amenities.

For our trip, almost every night (except for Moab), we stayed at a different campground. This allowed us to move around the Parks (including Yellowstone) and see different sites each day.  

To help with our research efforts, I found a couple of RV ratings sites online and also used TripAdvisor. In the end, we stayed at 3 different KOAs and they were all fabulous. We signed up for the KOA club and received a slight nightly discount. In addition, if you are military, some campgrounds offer discounts as well. 

For one of the nights in Yellowstone, we stayed in the Park and had 2 bison actually IN our campsite (not just campground - in our actual CAMPSITE just roaming). That in and of itself was worth the experience!

3.  Don't Overpack 

You can go grocery shopping for bread, eggs, and other grocery necessities while on vacation (even on Park property). No use stuffing the RV with stuff you might not use. We also found some great food items (like Huckleberry Ice Cream) that had we not wandered in for bread, we might not otherwise have tried out.

But you should pack for all different weather patterns - we had hot weather in Moab (90 degrees) and cold weather in Yellowstone (45 degree evenings with rain during the day). So we packed 2 suitcases - one with warm weather items, and one with cold. It made it easier to open the RV and decide on which suitcase to open when without having to rifle through everything.  And if you run out of stuff, you can do laundry at most campgrounds. 

We also packed 1 suitcase full of bathroom supplies for the family - which also had the swimsuits, because some KOAs had indoor pools. So no matter what the weather was like, we could take a swim break.

4.  Plan Your Meals

Fast, 30 minute meals are great. So are one-pot meals. And even try foil packs over the fire. We made sandwiches in parking lots for a quick, 15 minute stop. I also brought along an electric griddle (like this) and it was perfect for morning breakfast. But if you want to enjoy the parks without cooking all the time, plan to eat out 1 meal a day (and rotate which meal that is). The National Parks have cafeterias that are fairly affordable (much better than Disney World) and decent. 

If you are outside the Parks, check out the Yelp app and find quirky, fun cafes in the towns to see what other travelers have found. We found The Jailhouse Cafe in Moab for breakfast that made a mean Chorizo skillet. By visiting these establishments, you are supporting the local towns, keeping them going!

And when in doubt, order pizza. In Moab, there was an awesome, East Coast pizza joint that delivered directly to our campsite. (Thanks Paradox Pizza) We reheated the garlic cheese bread for spaghetti dinner the next night in our RV oven. 

5. Get the Fire Going

Before you go, know how to start a fire, make s'mores, and how to properly put out a fire.  

For little ones, keeping them away from the fire with plenty of distance is key, but for the older kiddos, they will truly enjoy making their own s'mores on the fire. We picked up long marshmallow roasters at Bass Pro (found here) and that helped keep us away from too much heat. We picked up the usual makings, but also threw in some fun additions (Reece's, chocolate peanut butter, banana slices) just to mix things up. But after the second full on s'more each, we just started eating marshmallows.

One of the nights, we even made Jiffy Pop (like this) that we picked up for about a $1 at our local grocery store. While it didn't pop perfectly, it was still a lot of fun watching it puff up.

When the night was over, its important to make sure you know how to put out a fire. It isn't good enough to just pour water over the fire and walk away. I do it in several phases - the initial pour, secondary pour, and then spot pouring to make sure I get all the little sparks out. No one wants to see our pretty parks destroyed over negligence!

6. Bring Lots of Fun Things to Do

It can get boring when you are traveling over 200 miles in a day. Kids get antsy and even adults get bored too.  So I made sure to have lots of entertaining things to do.  I packed two gallon sized bags of travel games (card games and travel sized versions of their favorite games).  The reason for splitting them into two, is that they can get bored of the same ones during the trip. so about halfway through the trip, I swapped the first bag out with the other set. Each set had a regular deck of cards, but a new set of fun card games and travel sized games. The best time to pick up these games, I've found, is right around Thanksgiving and Christmas when they go for about $3-5 each.

Another tip I found useful, was to put a beach towel over the table top - to keep everything from sliding around. It helped keep all of the cards from moving around, and saved a few battleship pieces from their impending doom.

Also, my daughter has her own Kindle, so before we left, I loaded her up with a lot of audiobooks, downloaded from our local library. They have an excellent assortment of current, must read books from Overdrive and we could check out 12 before our trip. I didn't want her to hurt her eyes by actually reading the books in the vehicle, but listening along with them was a great way for her to kick back and enjoy.  I think she only got through about 6 of them, so she didn't run out - that was a bonus!

We lucked out and our RV had not just 1 TV, but two.  I will admit, there were a couple of nights that we popped in a DVD and watched them - as a family.  For the little ones, this might be a sanity saver (for all of you).  And we found Redbox kiosks all over, so if you get desperate and forget your movie collection, you can always stop for one.

7.  Don't Forget Your Furry Friends

Yes, you can bring your pets along! But the Parks have some strict guidelines as to where they can roam (and its not very far from where you can park). Pretty much, they can walk around parking lots and the campground areas - nothing more, nothing less. So if you wish to hike miles and miles with your yellow lab, it won't happen, at least not in the National Parks.

We chose to travel in June, when the weather was still mild-ish. In Moab, it was low 90s and in Yellowstone, it was really cool. This allowed us to feel comfortable enough to leave Diesel (our little guy) in the RV for 15 minutes while we climbed up to see a site. If it were going to be longer- say- at the Arches, which is more like an hour hike, my dad or hubby would stay in the RV with him. This isn't me advocating for leaving your pets in a hot car while you go have dinner. This is me saying, use your better judgement, pop open the vents and understand that RVs are better insulted and have more ventilation than a car while you go take a couple of snapshots. We didn't leave Diesel roaming the RV either - he had a nice kennel that he's used to that he'd run into so he wouldn't destroy anything due to anxiety.

We also made sure to follow all of the Park Rangers' instructions as to where he was allowed to be. We kept him on a short leash (6 foot max) and he was perfectly happy - wagging his tail along the way. 

When we got to the campgrounds off park, he could really get out and stretch his legs - many included fenced in doggy parks - perfect for letting him run around and go crazy. And many states have beautiful rest areas to stop at with lots of walking paths. I really enjoyed the ones at the borders of Wyoming/Colorado and Colorado/Utah (seen above).  

8. Stop and Savor the Moments

Don't Rush. Savor the moments with your kids. Yes, the Parks are big and there are lots of things to do and see and you will feel compelled to keep to a strict schedule. But allow plenty of moments to pull over on the side of the road to observe the animals. Or enjoy just looking over at your child and look at the joy in their face (and maybe capture it on camera). When you are in the Parks, something strange happens. You are forced to just take it slower. Maybe its the lack of cell phone reception. Maybe its the sulfuric smell. Or maybe you just realize you really do need to take it easier - you're on vacation.  

I found myself snapping pics all around me and then would turn to my side and see my hubby and daughter engaged in a great conversation about the water falls.  

Just true, honest moments. As your kids grow up, they will start tuning you out, so take the moment to instill as much wisdom as you can, while you still can.

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