Holland Lake – Beyond Picturesque

The early September weather in Montana has been on the chilly side with several snowy nights on the mountains. However, we were lucky to find a break in the weather and sneak away for a few days to Holland Lake in the Swan Valley of northwest Montana. We were rewarded with sunny days and gorgeous scenery. Including a few snow-capped mountains.


The national forest campground at Holland Lake is very popular, so we took a risk by showing up on a Friday afternoon with no reservation. However, we found a wonderful campsite with plenty of rooms for the kids to explore the forest and a sheltered spot to set up the tent.


We were excited to find that the campground offers kayak rentals and spent our first day kayaking across the crystal clear lake. The kids are becoming proficient paddlers and it was so peaceful to be on the silent lake spotting turtles basking in the sun. The absence of motor boats was a huge treat as the kids worked on their paddling skills without extra waves.


As soon as the sun set the temperatures quickly started to plummet into the 40’s, but thanks to the kids wonderful fire making abilities we had a blazing fire to sit around while stargazing.


We spent our second day at Holland Lake hiking along the lake and up to a waterfall. We weren’t sure that this late in the season the waterfall would have an impressive flow. However, when we got to the end of the trail we were rewarded with a lovely spray of water. A few minutes sitting near the spay and we were cooled right down from the steep uphill climb.


The rest of our time at Holland Lake was spent at the beach where the kids embraced the chilly water for what might have been their last swim of the season. Tearing ourselves away from this wonderful gem of Montana was extremely hard. If we could freeze time and make summer last just a bit longer Holland Lake is definitely where we would spend our time.



Among the Giants


Visiting Redwood National Park has been a priority for several years now, and it was truly a pleasure to spend two days camping at the lovely Elk Creek Campground in the adjoining Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. It’s hard to describe the feeling of looking up and straining to see the tops of the towering redwoods all around, of having the cool fresh air wash over you as you hike through a fern-covered canyon, or spotting whales and seals from your picnic perch above the sea. We won’t even try, but we will give some glimpses into our favorite spots at Redwood National and State Parks.


Prairie Creek Trail
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Prairie Creek Campground
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Fern Canyon
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Lady Bird Johnson Grove
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High Bluff Overlook
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And no good trip to a national park is complete without participating in the Junior Ranger program. The booklet (available in both the national and state park visitor centers) was one of the best we’ve seen and had plenty to keep the Younger Fives engaged and learning for two solid days. Now that they’ve taken the official oath, they feel honored to do their part to protect and preserve these magnificent trees and their surrounding ecosystem.

Granite Glow


With a week to go before we leave Southern California for Oregon’s Willamette National Forest, we’ve been thinking of some final activities to get in before we depart. At the top of everyone’s list was a final trip to Joshua Tree National Park, less than 90 minutes from the San Bernardino National Forest. This time around we decided to try something new, camping inside the park.

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We had spent most of our time in the Intersection Rock area during our last trip to Joshua Tree a few weeks ago, so the kids wanted to focus our climbing around Skull Rock in the Jumbo Rocks section for this visit. We found a great site in the Jumbo Rocks Campground, which offered some excellent climbing just beyond our tent as well as a hiking trail directly to Skull Rock. The kids wasted no time and sprinted to the rocks as soon as we parked in front of the site.

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After thoroughly exploring the formations towering over our tent, we walked to the center of the campground and took the connector trail to the Jumbo Rocks area. The rock formations in this part of the park definitely inspire the imagination, and we saw skulls, turtles, walruses, and a variety of other interesting forms in the monzogranite all around us. We had trouble keeping our eyes on the rocks, though, as the desert was in bloom around us, and all along the path we stopped to take a closer look at pencil cholla cactus and California buckwheat blooms.

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As always at Joshua Tree, we were equally exited to experience the park as the sun started to go down. We returned to our site and scrambled up the rocks there to watch the magnificent sunset, and from our perch up high we also caught a glimpse of a coyote making its evening rounds and of bats out catching their breakfast. By the time we settled into our tent a while later, we fell asleep watching the stars visible through the upper screen of our tent.

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The next day we made sure to get out on the rocks one final time before heading home when the afternoon heat set in. The Hall of Horrors area had always caught our attention, so we packed up and headed back towards Keyes View for our morning climb. After a few dead ends we found a way to the top of the middle formation, where we watched the moon still visible in the sun-drenched sky and played in some deep crevices in the rock. A few hours later we were all understandably worn out after two days of scrambling about, so we piled back into the car, put the windows down, turned the music up, and enjoyed a last view of the joshua trees as we made our way back to the San Bernardino Mountains.

Leaving Our Mark at Great Sand Dunes National Park

DSC09003“Wait, they’re no trails we need to stay on?” The Younger Fives were in utter disbelief as we parked the car at Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and informed them they could hike anywhere they wanted. Being used to narrow, set trails that minimize the impact on fragile ecosystems, they thought maybe we were trying to trick them. However, Great Sand Dunes National Park is a wonderful anomaly in many ways, from allowing the freedom to blaze your own path to being able to leave your name (or any other design) behind in the ever-shifting sand.

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DSC09015The fun begins with a crossing of Medano Creek, a seasonal stream fed by melting snow on the Sangre de Cristo Range. We noticed immediately the stream was quite shallow, so we expected an uneventful fording. As we got about a quarter of the way across, we looked upstream to notice a small wave surge heading toward our sand bank. In a moment’s time we were ankle deep in water, scrambling to reach the next island of sand. After some observation we realized the water regularly dams behind small sand bars only to burst through, sending small waves to collect at the next sand obstruction. Trying to predict where the next patch of dry sand would be while outrunning the waves was absolutely delightful, and we had huge smiles on our faces as we reached the other side (albeit with soggy boots).

DSC08995 DSC09001 DSC09006 DSC09010The sand dunes themselves are a giant sandbox where just about anything goes. We all branched off to find our own paths up the dunes, and we soon realized climbing up the sand can be a bit of a workout. The highest dune, Star Dune, is 755 feet tall, but we contented ourselves with scaling some of the smaller peaks just a few hundred feet tall. Of course, coming down is the real treat, and we tried running, rolling, and sledding down on our bottoms (and there are even real sleds and sand boards to rent as well). After a few times up and down, we could really appreciate how the journey is never the same twice.


On a final note, we really enjoyed camping at the park that evening. The campground is very close to the dunes, and a recent survey found Great Sand Dunes is the quietest national park in the contiguous 48 states. After an action-packed day of exploring the dunes, there’s nothing like unwinding over dinner, watching a sunset framed by sand 🙂




How to Tent Like an RVer


After camping for more than 20 nights, we are slowly readjusting to living under a roof once again. During this last camping trip we were able to pitch our tent in some gorgeous parks. However, the majority of our nights were actually spent in a large RV campground. This was for the simple fact that we needed Internet access for work, and RV campgrounds usually offer some of the best WiFi signals. Of course this means that we have to forgo the beautiful vistas and sounds of nature, and we often find ourselves the only tent on the premises.

At first it can be a bit intimidating setting up a small tent while surrounded by huge RVs, many offering more space than our last rental house. However, we have found that being the lone tent in a sea of RVs has many advantages. For one, an RV campground is often super quite because all of your neighbors are inside in their private, soundproof, climate controlled accommodations. We also discovered while camping in the desert that RVs give off great shade and act as a wind break to their tenting neighbors. A final advantage of RV campgrounds is that in addition to offering WiFi they also have great amenities like laundromats and swimming pools.



We do have to admit that it is hard not to become jealous of your fellow campers in their big, shiny RVs with running water, air-conditioning, and comfortable beds. However, after many weeks of being the odd tent out we have come up with our own list of tricks for camping in comfort without the RV.

* Bring an extension cord: This is a great way to easily plug in kitchen appliances and also to bring power into the tent for laptops. The possibilities for creature comforts are almost endless: watching DVDs, recharging electric toothbrushes, cooking up pancakes on an electric skillet, and much, much more.


* Consider a 30 amp adapter plug: Occasionally in our travels we have come across sites that do not have a standard electrical plug. In this case, having a 30 amp adapter (the standard for smaller campers and RVs) can be the difference between having toasted English muffins for breakfast and having cold cereal.


* Cook with an electric skillet: Eating real food is probably our top way to ensure camping goes smoothly. With our electric skillet we have made soup, pasta, popcorn, tortillas, pancakes, rice, stir fry, and toasted trail mix. As a bonus, it is a great way to heat up hot water for washing dishes once you are done.


* Connect a hose with nozzle: This can turn your site’s faucet into a shower (for sandy children), a jet (for washing dishes), and everything in between. We still haven’t found a use for the “flat” setting yet, though. Any suggestions?

* Set up some shade: We have tried many different types of shade: E-Z ups, screen houses, and tarps like Kelty Noah’s Tarp. As a family of five with all of our possessions in our car, the E-Z up is no longer an option; however, we have found tarps to be pretty space friendly. These shelters have given us a dry place to cook and eat in the driving rain, and also a refuge from the baking sun.

What are your tips for making a campsite feel like home?