Grizzly Goodbye

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“As a Junior Ranger, I promise to teach others about what I learned…” These words were enthusiastically repeated by High Five on the the final day of our recent trip to Yellowstone National Park. He hadn’t been quite old enough to take part in the excellent Junior Ranger program during our last visit , but this time around he was determined to work through his activity book and earn the Junior Ranger badge (which in Yellowstone is an actual badge instead of a pin). High Five’s official status as a Junior Ranger in Yellowstone was one of the many highlights of a day that included exploring the geysers of the Norris and Old Faithful basins and seeing our only grizzly bear of the trip just before heading home. Between the geothermal features and wildlife, there’s no place like Yellowstone 🙂

 

Norris Geyser Basin
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Old Faithful and Midway Geyser Basin
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Goodbye, grizzly! Goodbye, Yellowstone. We'll be back soon!

Goodbye, grizzly! Goodbye, Yellowstone! We’ll be back soon!

Bison Bedtime

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Ever since our unexpected trip to Yellowstone National Park almost three years ago, we’ve been looking forward to a return visit. Some warm early-May weather prompted us to make the three-hour trip from Helena to spend a few days in one of our absolutely favorite places from anywhere in our travels.

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Some of the park roads are closed this time of year, but even three days would not give us enough time to visit all the areas we wanted to see. We decided to focus our arrival day in the Mammoth Hot Springs area, the next day in the Lamar Valley, and our final day in the Norris Geyser and Old Faithful areas (regrettably, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone would have to wait for another visit).  DSC01405 DSC01406 DSC01413 DSC01415

Our first stop after entering the park was the Upper Terrace Drive at Mammoth Hot Springs. Walking the boardwalks through the massive geothermal formations is always a treat, and we eagerly visited some of our favorite travertine terraces and brushed up on the history and geology of the area at the Visitor’s Center.

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Choosing a place to stay had been a challenge, as it was still too cold to camp and our usual family-friendly choice, the Yellowstone Gateway Lodge, was already booked. In the end, we were surprised to find the rate at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel inside the park was actually cheaper than the other options in Gardiner. Since they were fine with the five of us in a singe room, we decided to give it a try. There were definitely some considerable downsides, including a shared bathroom, thin walls, and central heating that made the room quite warm despite turning off the radiator. In the end though, these were definitely manageable (the meditation app on our tablet came in handy throughout the night to block out the people above and next to us), and staying right inside the park added a whole new dimension. The kids loved sitting in front of the fireplace in the lobby, viewing the many works of park-inspired art on the walls, and exploring the Map Room, a large reception hall with nightly events, live music, and places to read and play chess and checkers.

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The other main plus of staying at the Hotel is the wildlife visible from right outside the window. While reading to the Younger Fives at bedtime, we had a wonderful interruption in the form of a herd of bison grazing just below us. The grass must have been quite tasty because they took their time and gave us plenty of opportunities to watch the several babies grazing with their mothers. Definitely the type of experience that could only happen at Yellowstone 🙂

Hiking the Lewis and Clark Pass

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After getting a start on exploring the 65+ miles of trails accessible from downtown Helena, we decided to take a longer drive and explore the Continental Divide. The Lewis and Clark Pass (Alice Creek Trail) seemed like a great place to start, being a 1.5 mile round trip hike that approaches the Rockies from the west. The history of this well-worn trail is fascinating; it has been used by Native American tribes for thousands of years as a gateway to the plains and buffalo hunting, and Meriwether Lewis crossed here with 14 others (William Clark took a different way) in 1806 en route back east.

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Our hike started off well, and the kids were excited to view wildflowers, form snowballs from the scattered patches of snow, and cross a gentle stream. While the incline is gradual, the path is quite straight and you can see the path ahead for almost the whole way. Without switchbacks or other changes to the scenery, the Younger Fives’ interest slowly faded. By the time the path made a 90-degree turn to the right to make the final climb, the snow was quite deep which made pressing forward slow and difficult.

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Coming down went more smoothly, and we stopped for lunch at the base of a small waterfall. The kids liked spending more time exploring the stream, following it through patches of cottonwood trees. Despite the setbacks, it felt amazing to be following footsteps that stretch back thousands of years.

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Directions
* Take Alice Creek Road, just over a mile west of the intersection of Rt. 200 and Rt. 279 (Lincoln Road). From there go about 7 miles on a good dirt road to a sharp left by an interpretive sign. Then the road narrows and goes another 3 miles to the end where the gate, picnic area, and restroom are located. 4-wheel drive not needed, but at least when we went the road was muddy in spots.
* Directions from other sites underestimated the distance from the Rt. 200 / 279 intersection to Alice Creek Road. Also, other directions said the dirt road went 7 miles, but that was only to the first forest service sign. It is really another 3 miles further to the trail head.
* The closest town is Lincoln, about 7 miles west of Alice Creek Road.
* From downtown Helena the total time to the trail head was about 1 hour 20 minutes.

Kids Catching Waves: A Family Surf Adventure in Tofino

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Learning to surf together has been a priority of ours for several years now, but the timing never seemed to be right. At first glance, learning to surf on a February day on Vancouver Island might seem like the last place anyone would pick, but we had done our homework and knew it was just what we were looking for. Tofino, on the west coast of the Island, has been steadily developing its surfing reputation due to its consistent, year-round breaks and 35km of sandy beaches. Wetsuits are a must (even recommended in summer), so we decided to take the plunge and catch some waves.

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There’s no shortage of surf shops offering lessons (even in winter), but we settled on Tofino Surf Adventures. We liked that they were a smaller operation, and their laid-back yet passionate approach to surfing was apparent from our very first contact with them. After meeting at the shop and getting fitted with wetsuits, gloves, boots, and head covers, the sun came out in full force as we followed our instructor Antonio to Chesterman Beach. He did an absolutely amazing job accommodating our wide range of ages, and we appreciated that he kept the out-of-water instruction to a minimum in order to give us the most amount of time in the water getting a feel for the waves.

DSC00829 DSC00834DSC00835Five of Hearts and Five Ball took to surfing like pros and got a ton of personalized instruction on getting into a good position, popping-up to ride the waves to shore, and much more. High Five was content to try out a few waves and then charge in and out of the surf on foot, surfing on shore as it were. Knowing that the Younger Fives were in good hands, Five Spice and Five String were able to really focus on getting comfortable on their boards, all the while getting tips and feedback from Antonio as we went. The wetsuits kept us surprisingly warm (with the added bonus of helping us float), and our three-hour lesson (with a few snack breaks on shore in between) flew by in no time.

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Long story short, we are definitely hooked on surfing. The feeling of watching a wave slowly getting closer and then riding into shore is incredible, and we couldn’t have asked for better weather or a more family-friendly instructor to share the adventure with. Canada’s surf capital may not have the massive waves of other destinations, but for a family looking for an afternoon on a surf board it would be hard to imagine a better place 🙂

 

A New Spin on Snow Tubing

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We’ve very much been enjoying the winter climate here on Vancouver Island: cold enough for occasional snow but no bitter cold temperatures. We thought the few inches of snow in our river valley was impressive, but we soon realized it was nothing compared to the feet of snow we found during a day of tubing at Mount Washington.

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The highway drive from Qualicum Beach toward Courtenay was easy, and the 18 km  Strathcona Parkway is definitely manageable for anyone with four-wheel drive and/or good winter tires. Overall, less than an hour total to get from our doorstep to a winter wonderland. The sky was overcast when we arrived, but the clouds soon opened up offering breathtaking views of the surrounding peaks.

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The Tube Park is located at the Alpine Lodge, and we found the layout to be perfect for even the youngest of us. After choosing a lane and whooshing down the track, it’s a short walk pulling your tube up to the “Magic Carpet”, which does the work to get you and your tube back up to the top of the track. The operators were super friendly and made sure the kids got on and off without any issues, and after a few times down the kids felt comfortable enough to race ahead without us to begin their next trip down the slope.

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We originally didn’t know if we would get bored after a few times down, but this definitely was not the case. We underestimated the sheer variety of ways to tube down the track, each one providing a different experience. Fortunately, the wonderful staff at the top of the run gave us the nudge we needed. After the kids had their first time down, they were asked if they wanted a spin on their next trip. The first few spins were of the tame, “let’s see if they like this” variety. By the end of the day, though, the Younger Fives were begging the operators for the most head-spinning whirls they could muster, and the staff was more than happy to oblige. Spins are even more fun when shared, and we experimented with 1-, 2-, 3-, 4-, and even 5-person twirls down the slope. The only thing more dizzying than trying to figure out all the possible ride combination with five people was the actual experience of spinning like a mad teacup down the slope yourself!

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Fives’ Facts About Snow Tubing at Mount Washington

1. Location: Mount Washington (elevation 1,590 m or 5,220 feet) is located about 25 km from the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. It is home to the Vancouver Island marmot, one of the most endangered mammals on the planet.

2. Driving: The Mount Washington Alpine Resort is located at Exit #130 of Highway #19, about 13 km north of Courtenay. The Strathcona Parkway takes you the rest of the way, and chains are required if the weather turns ugly. Click here for more information about winter driving to the resort.

3. Passes: There are family two-hour and full-day passes (covers 2 adults and 2 children), with the option to add additional children at a discounted rate. We found the full-day pass to be ideal. We spent about 1.5 hours tubing, then took a leisurely hour for lunch inside the lodge, then went back out for another 1.5 hours. Not having the pressure of trying to get in as much tubing as possible before time ran out made the day much more enjoyable 🙂

4. Height Requirements: Children under 42″ ride free with an adult in the same tube. At first we were worried that our 7 and 5 year old might not make the cut. In the end, with boots on everyone was tall enough to ride on their own, and we were very glad we got each child their own pass so they could ride independently.

5. When to Visit: We planned our trip for a weekday, which meant the wait time was basically non-existent. The Tube Park is open 11am-7:00pm (and until 9pm on Friday and Saturday), and we had the place to ourselves until after lunch. We heard that on the weekends the wait can increase considerably, so go during the week if at all possible.