Tumbleweed Tales from Earth Day

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Living in Las Vegas for the month before we take to the skies at the end of May, we have had to make some adjustments to our usual Earth Day tradition. In years past (in Maine), we have always taken a waterfall hike, but not surprisingly running water is hard to come by in the desert. Instead, we decided to get some good practice for life without a car and change our hike into a walk to our local grocery store about a half a mile away.

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We all put on empty backpacks and strolled the back streets to arrive at Smith’s Food and Drug. Getting used to a new grocery store can be a little stressful, but we were relieved to find all the basic goods we need and were pleasantly surprised at the friendliness of the staff. We found that 3 days worth of groceries to be a manageable amount, and after checking out we loaded everything into our five packs.

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On the walk home the real adventure began. Crossing a vacant lot, we noticed the wind pick up and a massive ball of tumbleweed come speeding toward us. We quickly raced to the nearest street, but it was a clever one and followed in pursuit. Luckily, our Earth Day karma must have worked in our favor, and we all escaped without a scratch (but some cars parked on the street were not so lucky).

The rest of the day was not as eventful, but the Younger Fives enjoyed some refuge from the sun and wind to work on some Earth Day homeschool activities. This has been our first time out of the elements in over three weeks, and it is amazing how much more smoothly school goes when wind gusts are not scattering books and papers all over the place. The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge proved to give lots of great ideas, and we are trying out best to put the following tips into practice:

Five of Hearts: Turn up your thermostat in the desert.

Five Ball: Pick up trash.

High Five: Use windmills.

What are your Earth Day traditions? Do you have any favorite tips for living green?

Stellar Fun in Joshua Tree National Park

As part of homeschool we have been studying the solar system since we visited Bryce National Park this past November and had the most fabulous time star gazing. The kids have enjoyed working through kid friendly astronomy books, visiting a planetarium, and tracking the stars, moon, and planets as we travel. However, nothing so far could top what was waiting for us just outside the west entrance of Joshua Tree National Park: our very own telescope rental!

Coyote Telescope Rentals has to be one of the coolest businesses that we have come across. They rent out telescopes and star gazing equipment so that kids, adults, and families can get an up-close look at the night sky. The owners, Leigh-Ann and Darryl, are super enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their rental telescopes and about what to use them to look at.

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Honestly we were more than a little bit nervous to attempt to use a telescope with three young children. Neither of us had prior experience and the telescope seemed big and very expensive. However, the friendly folks at Coyote Telescope Rentals eased all of our fears and made the rental process smooth. They were great with the kids, who were each given their own red-light star gazing lantern and star chart. After meeting with Leigh-Ann and Darryl the kids were so excited to take part in such an awesome activity that they couldn’t wait for the sun to go down.

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Our rental took place just one night before the lunar eclipse when the moon was almost full and very bright. Therefore Leigh-Ann and Darrryl set us up with a telescope that would work best for viewing the moon, as most other objects would be washed out by the light of the moon. They gave us recommendations on which lenses and filters to use and then we were off to try the telescope out for ourselves.

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The Younger Fives loved helping to set up the telescope and get everything ready before it became too dark. The model that we rented could be placed on a table which made it very accessible to the kids. The moon ended up being the best object to look at as it was so big and easy for the kids to quickly find and stay focused on. They were all blown away by viewing the moon in such detail. Their excitement quickly made our fellow campers interested in what we were doing and it was great to tell them that you could rent telescopes in the area. As a family who packs light but still likes to benefit from great equipment like telescopes we just love that a business like Coyote Telescope Rental exists.

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A Taste of the Climbing Life

DSC03371-picsay It was a long shot, but one that we decided to look into. I (Five String) have always dreamed of rock climbing, and spending two weeks in the Joshua Tree National Park area seemed the ideal time to pursue that dream. However, as our emphasis is on “family” travel, I did not want to kiss the kids goodbye and head off on a climbing trip with everyone else unable to share in the experience.

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The breathtaking Intersection Rock area where we climbed.

Luckily, we found a rock climbing guide that responded to our request for a climbing trip that could accommodate a 7, 5, and 3-year-old. While he regretted to inform us that his insurance could only cover kids ages 8 and up, he would be happy to plan a morning for me that would still be exciting for the kids and allow them to share  in the climb as well. Nelson from The Climbing Life Guides proved true to his word and put together an absolutely unforgettable morning in Joshua Tree National Park, exploring the beautiful rock formations and desert landscape in a whole new way. DSC03305-picsay DSC03309-picsay As I was a newbie to rock climbing, Nelson started with a brief overview of the basics close to the ground. Five of Hearts joined in on the explanation of the gear, anchors, and basic techniques as Five Ball and High Five clambered over nearby boulders. Next he walked through the basics of belaying, where one person climbs and the other person serves as an anchor, and I got the chance to get a feel for how it would work while still close to the ground. DSC03331-picsay DSC03336-picsay Then, the real fun started. I left the rest of the Fives on the ground and followed Nelson up a rock scramble to the base of the first climb itself. He did a wonderful job explaining all the safety procedures, reviewing the communication we would use during the climb, and making sure that I had no questions. Then he began his lead climb up the rock face, placing anchors for safety along the way. When he reached the top it was my turn to climb. After a few nervous first inches, I trusted the equipment and my guide and really started enjoying scaling up the rock. My only real challenge came with remembering how to take the anchors out of the rock cracks as I went, but Nelson was able to clearly (and patiently) give me instructions from the top. DSC03323-picsay DSC03328-picsay DSC03324-picsay The kids, of course, were also having their own climbing adventure far below. After watching me at the start and cheering me on, they soon turned their attention to the many interesting boulders and rock formations that were perfect for them to explore. Upon reaching the top, I was truly surprised to realize how high I had climbed. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to wave to the rest of the Fives, tiny on the ground, and hear their words of encouragement. The surrounding rocks were truly stunning from the top of Intersection Rock, and the feeling of peace and tranquility is hard to describe. I also really fed off of Nelson’s obvious pride in my success with the climb. His smile said it all, the genuine joy of someone who absolutely loves sharing his passion with others. DSC03344-picsay

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High Five supervising from the ground.

DSC03348-picsayOf course, what goes up must also come down. Back on the ground Nelson had checked that I would be interested in repelling down from the top (instead of climbing back down), but I must confess taking those first few steps off the cliff into space were not the easiest that I’ve ever taken. Again though, knowing that I was in good hands made all the difference, and halfway down my repel I was comfortable enough to take a timid look behind me to the ground below. Once I finally reached the ground I was surrounded by the other Fives, and it it felt pretty good to hear the kids exclaim, “Wow, Dad, I can’t believe you just did that!” DSC03373-picsay DSC03359-picsay DSC03362-picsayThe second climb that Nelson had planned nearby was crowded with other climbers, so instead we set off for a very brief walk across the parking lot to climb “The Eye.” The kids were excited to have a new place to explore, and I couldn’t wait to climb again. This time the jitters were definitely gone, and I learned a lot about climbing and Nelson’s background as I asked him a ton of questions while we made the climb up into The Eye. This spacious shelter at the top of the formation was a welcome break from the sun, and we spent a few minutes resting before scrambling up the final few feet to the very top. DSC03379-picsay DSC03384-picsay The repel this time would be out away from the rock, meaning that I would be dangling completely free in the air without my feet walking down the rock face at all. Nelson sensed a little bit of trepidation on my part, especially combined with the howling wind. He suggested that instead of using the anchor bolted into the rock for the repel (which would have involved me having to lower myself over the edge before my weight caught on the rope), he could put anchors in a crack a little higher in the rock so that I would already be below the anchor when I started the repel. DSC03393-picsay I really liked this idea, but it would mean that unlike last time, when Nelson went down first, this time I would be entirely on my own. Again, he sensed the slight hesitation on my part and offered to put in a rope break, one that I would keep sliding down the rope to act as a back up anchor. These extra precautions on his part made all the difference, and soon I was lowering myself down, dangling in thin air, and having the time of my life. DSC03396-picsay After two amazing climbs and repels I expected that our time would be over. However, Nelson offered to lead everyone to The Eye by scrambling up the less steep back side of the formation and leading the kids over the more difficult sections. As we climbed he really took the time to connect with the kids and ask them lots of questions, and I appreciated that he was very mindful of their safety as they climbed up the rocks and crawled through some pretty cool caves. The Younger Fives are practically pros given all the free climbing we have done on coastlines from Newfoundland to Baja Mexico, and I think he was impressed with how comfortable they are on the rock. DSC03398-picsayWhen we finally all climbed into the shade of The Eye, I realized that this was my perfect ending to the day. It had been thrilling to climb to this height previously with Nelson, but it meant even more to me to be able to share it with the rest of the Fives. Seeing Joshua Tree National Park from above and trying something completely new as a family: it really doesn’t get any better and thanks to an excellent guide like Nelson it was all possible :)

Deserts in Bloom: Family Hiking and Rock Scrambling in Joshua Tree

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At the crossroads of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is perfectly suited for families. From scrambling on rocks of all sizes, to nearly a dozen short and informative nature and history trails, the park packs many opportunities to discover and learn into manageable kid-friendly excursions.

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We opted to start at the southern entrance and take the park road all the way through the park, exiting at the western entrance at the town of Joshua Tree. The Cottonwood Visitor’s Center was a great place to start our day. Inside were some great exhibits describing the animals found in the park, and just behind the Visitor’s Center we took the Plant Walk to learn about some of the cacti, shrubs, and trees we would be seeing.

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A cholla cactus in bloom.

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Learning more about a kangaroo rat nest.

From there, the road took us through the lower and hotter Colorado Desert, and we stopped along the way to take the Cholla Cactus Nature Trail. The pamphlet at the trail head did a great job explaining about these unique cacti, also known as the teddy bear cactus, and about the creatures who make their burrows using desert debris. While these cacti did look a bit cute and cuddly, we were sure to heed the warnings not to let the barbed spikes get too close to our clothing or skin.

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After finding a tiny scrap of shade cast by the Mazda5 to have a quick snack, we continued through the park, this time climbing in elevation to reach the slightly cooler Mojave Desert section of the park. Visiting in the spring definitely has its rewards, and it was fascinating to see so many colorful blossoms on some pretty intimidating looking plants.

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The highlight of our day was exploring the Jumbo Rocks section of the park. The kids loved this giant 3D maze of massive boulders and narrow crevices. After peering at (and climbing up the side of) Skull Rock, we made our way through the field of massive boulders to explore other interesting formations. Our path was never in a straight line, but figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B was certainly a memorable experience.

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Water from the dam was diverted to this trough for cattle.

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Unfortunately, park visitors have colored in the petroglyphs so they no longer can be enjoyed in their original form.

Grateful to eventually find our way back to the car and have a picnic in the shade of an oak tree, we pressed on to take the 1.3 mile Barker Dam Nature Trail. This man-made oasis, built to utilize a natural source of water for cattle, was a stark contrast to the parched landscape all around. We spotted many birds and spiders in and near the water, and we also stopped to see a Native American petroglyph site near the end of the loop trail.

 

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One of the many Joshua trees that give the park its name.

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In order to make it through to see the sunset and stargaze at Keys View (a peak with a paved road to the top), we took a break from the park and stocked up on cold refreshments in the town of Joshua Tree. We were thrilled to find vegan smoothies and baked goods at the Natural Sisters Cafe, as well as vegan ice cream at the natural food store next door. With the shadows getting longer, we then drove back into the park to Keys View. The sunset did not disappoint, and we enjoyed watching the stars (and planets) come out. All  in all, we could not have asked for a more informative, fun, and satisfying day in a national park.

Palm Trees and Warm Sand

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After a combination of snow and sickness prematurely ended our time in the High Sierras, we are happy to report we are in recovery mode in the warm waters and sunny skies of Desert Hot Springs, California. Not only is our home for the next few weeks a great place to pitch a tent and enjoy some family-friendly hot spring pools, but the location just outside of Joshua Tree National Park will give us many opportunities to explore the park itself..

 

 

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The view of Joshua Tree National Park from our campsite.

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Perhaps it’s the mineral rich waters (or maybe just that we are in a set place for more than a night), but the string of stomach bugs is (hopefully) finally coming to an end. We are looking forward to some memorable trips in and around Joshua Tree in the coming weeks, including rock-climbing, star-gazing, date farm touring. and lunar eclipse watching. After moving right along for almost two-straight weeks, it feels great to have some time to catch our breaths and explore the area in and around Joshua Tree at a more leisurely pace.