The North Cascades Institute

All travel promotes learning one way or another but we make a real effort to choose destinations that offer experiences aligned with our values. We just returned from our second annual 4th of July Family Getaway Weekend at the North Cascades Institute and it was absolutely wonderful. It’s hard to believe that such a remarkable all-inclusive destination exists at the edge of rugged mountain wilderness, on the shores of glistening green Lake Diablo with dramatic snowcapped mountains all around. Lucky for us, it does exist and not only is it kid-friendly, for several weekends a year they offer programs designed specifically for families!
The fun started on Friday morning at 10am. Yes, it was a little tricky to get packed up and ready to hit the road so early (it takes about two and a half hours to drive there from our house) but the early start is well worth the effort to have the whole day to spend on vacation in the forested wonderland of North Cascades National Park. Plus, it makes the trip an even better value with lunch included on that first day. We played a few “ice-breaker” games to get to know the other families and were thrilled to see that there were a lot of kids around the same age as ours. After a hearty, healthy, veg-friendly lunch, sign-up sheets were posted for families to choose their desired activities. We picked something called “Ecosystem Exploration” and also signed up for the Ranger-led Junior Ranger Exploration to earn yet another Junior Ranger Badge (apparently they let kids earn as many as they want from each park and let me tell you, William wears those badges with pride and wants as many as he can get)! Additional activities (various group hikes, free play in the art room, games, and story time to name a few) were offered that didn’t require signing up but plenty of time is also left open for family time, walks, relaxation, or whatever you choose.
Accommodations are Spartan with only two sets of bunk beds, a couple chairs and a small desk in each room but they are clean and well maintained. Pillows and a fitted sheet are provided but other than that, you bring your own bedding. The plain rooms weren’t a problem for us since we didn’t spend much time in the room but the thin walls with no sound-proofing were wearisome. The family staying in the room next to ours arrived after 10pm and had two kids to get settled down… noisy… and I’m sure we were too noisy for them the following morning. Oh well, I guess it goes with the territory if you sign up for a family weekend. Thankfully all the daytime activities had our kids so worn out that they weren’t easily woken during the night. Bathrooms are down the hall but that worked out well so I could shower and get dressed without waking the kids up in the morning.
It didn’t even take 24 hours for William to start insisting on hanging out with his new friends, totally in his element. Sara tends to be more reserved but she loved the beach and participated in a lot of the cooperative games (balls and hula hoops are left out in a common area for kids to play with).
The first night we took a walk down to Diablo Dam then on the second night the next we enjoyed a campfire complete with fun songs, Native stories, a silly skit, and smores (Sara’s turn to totally be in her element). It was especially hard for William to say goodbye to his new BFFs but after the Ranger Exploration, Badge presentation, and a lovely slideshow of moments from the weekend, we took one last walk to the dining hall then headed out. We will be back!

Family-Friendly Fun in Tucson, Arizona

Between visits to Great Grandma’s place in Arizona last Spring, we headed to Tucson and stayed at the super family-friendly JW Marriott Starr Pass resort for the first time. It was magnificent! Tucked into the desert hills beside Tucson Mountain Park is this gorgeous, sprawling adobe compound that was built only 5 years ago. There was a wonderful blend of luxury and family-friendliness. We didn’t have to go far for great food (there are several restaurants on-site and we love not having to drive anywhere to eat dinner) or entertainment (the pools and nearby hikes are fantastic). Water fountains that shot up from the ground and moved periodically were the kids’ favorite but we also loved the lazy river which wasn’t so lazy with kids on our laps in inner tubes, doing many laps of chasing each other.
Sara running alongside the lazy river while William and Dad float along
Single or double inner tubes for floating around the lazy river (there is also a water slide at one end)

We also loved that the Marriott was so close to the Saguaro National Park West so we could get an early start to do some exploring before the sun chased us indoors. William was especially eager to earn a Saguaro National Park Junior Ranger badge to add to his growing collection (he has ones from Olympic and North Cascades National Parks already).

Before having kids, I had never heard of this Junior Ranger program and I’m actually the child of a National Park Service Chief Ranger (darn it, Dad, I would have liked one of those badges myself)! Anyhow, if you aren’t familiar with it already, this fun, educational program is absolutely one of the best things around. Kids are given a workbook and asked to complete several nature activities (possibly identifying tracks, going on a scavenger hunt, or writing a haiku). William took his tasks very seriously and stuck with it even after bumping his leg right into a prickly pear! When they’re done, a park ranger reviews their work then asks them to raise their right hand and repeat this pledge:

“I, (fill in name), am proud to be a National Park Service Junior Ranger. I promise to appreciate, respect, and protect all national parks. I also promise to continue learning about the landscape, plants, animals and history of these special places. I will share what I learn with my friends and family.”

How cool is that?! Here is a list of participating parks.

William getting a little help from Bob Cat. Busy Sara helping some birds take flight
Reciting their pledge with Ranger Donna. When they finished, she made an announcement over the intercom to introduce their newest Junior Rangers. The kids were delighted.

Easier Airplane Travel

Looking Out the Airplane Window

Five easy things you can do to improve your next flight with kids:
  • Travel early; most kids are at their best in the morning
  • Be extra nice to the flight attendants and ask if there are any kid “perks”
  • If you’re a family of four, sit two by two, in seats in front of one another–this way the only seat your long-legged kid is kicking is your own
  • Bring small surprises to keep the kids delighted and busy (sticky mosaic crowns worked for us on this trip)
  • Don’t feel guilty about letting them enjoy more screen time than normal–it’s a treat for them (and your fellow passengers if it helps keep them occupied and quiet)

Hauling car seats, babies and luggage across the airport only to head toward tiny seats at the back of a cramped airplane is hardly an upbeat start to a vacation. That said, we just returned from a trip to Arizona and it seemed like many of those usual obstacles didn’t exist this time around. Sure, it still took a lot to get organized and nobody likes to transport those awkward car seats anywhere BUT, now that the kids are old enough (3 and 5) to really communicate, understand the steps along the way, and even help a bit, air travel has gotten much easier. In fact, their curiosity and sense of wonderment made many of those typically mundane steps entertaining and, dare I say, fun!

Excited observations like “I see Christmas lights!” and “Look, the moon!” chirped from the back seat during our 4:30am drive to the airport. Like little scientists, we observed the changes in the sky as the sun rose and commented on the colors–they were mesmerized. The shuttle bus from the parking lot to the airport provided similar thrills but that was before they even remembered all the elevator buttons, escalators, and the subway ride to our gate. You’d never know it was so early by looking at them, they were on full alert. Even the security checkpoint got them excited and they were so proud of themselves for following instructions and getting it right. As we boarded the plane, the adventure continued as the amazingly friendly flight attendant invited the kids to say hello to the pilot.

Kids In the Cockpit Talking to the Pilot

While he talked to them for several minutes, I mentioned to that flight attendant how I remembered getting little wings every time I flew as a child. Well, guess what… they still have those (a plastic version with sticker instead of a pin but still, how cool). She said nobody ever asks any more but was happy to give them to the kids. Thank you, Alaska Airlines.
Seating was three by three on each side of the plane and because we’ve had bad experiences with our long-legged boy kicking the seat in front of him, hubby Rob had the idea of getting pairs of seats in front of one another. Brilliant! Not only did it fix the kicking problem, it kept the sibling rivalry at bay, and gave each of us some nice one-on-one time. I’d like to say that we didn’t have to resort to electronics to keep the kids happy and busy but William got to watch a DVD and I let Sara play with my phone for a while. As much as I’d like to be an unplugged Momma, there is a time and a place, and I have to say, this was a good one.However, on the flight home, our batteries ran out and the kids were totally fine with that. Besides doodling with markers and a sketch book, Sticky Mosaic crowns were a huge hit. Normally I wouldn’t get very excited about an art project with such little room for creativity (numbered spaces are laid out for specific colored squares and jewels) but it turned out to be a good exercise in following a key, provided great fine motor practice and the pieces were remarkably easy to keep contained for travel.
Best family vacation yet!

Kids Watching Planes Take Off

Do you have some favorite tips and tricks that work for your family on Airplane Rides?

An Earthy Earth Day

Sara and I tagged along with William’s preschool for a lovely hike in the woods at Bellevue’s Mercer Slough Nature Park , a 320-acre wetland area with miles of wonderful (easy, flat, stroller-friendly, lots to look at) trails for kids. READ MORE