Monday, 27 June 2016

Welcome to Alberta

Returning home to Alberta after a recent road trip, we decided to stop at the Travel Alberta Milk River Visitor Information Centre for a quick break after crossing the U.S./Canada border at Sweetgrass/Coutts. This wasn't our first visit but it was the first time we took the time to look around.

'Rock formations' in the parking lot
EJ loves to pick up brochures whenever we travel and this time was no different. We were all impressed with the selection of maps and guides available (and all for free.) We chose some guidebooks that contain suggested day (and longer) road trips for various parts of our province. These guides have given us some terrific ideas for 'staycations' this summer. Even though we live in Alberta and travel a lot, there are sites that we haven't been to yet (or for a long time.)

Guides and maps provide info on various areas of Alberta. 
And the center doesn't end there. Walking past the front area and (clean) washrooms, you enter an interactive area where kids can take a quiz on Alberta, dig for dinosaur bones, see mining equipment, and ride on a chuckwagon. Each of these exhibits represents a different area of Alberta and its culture and history. There is even a kiosk where you can make reservations at Alberta Provincial Campgrounds. (I recommend a visit to Dinosaur Provincial Park for anyone with kids who like anything prehistoric! We visited last summer and can't wait to go again.)

For anyone planning an Alberta road trip this summer, the Milk River Centre is a great first stop if you are arriving from the south.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Beignets and Brown Feathers - An Afternoon in New Orleans

Pelicans swoop in and scoop up brackish water with their sagging beaks. A lone seagull snatches up a sardine from the sand. A quiet spot except for the cawing of ocean birds and the occasional blaring horn of a passing barge.

I love this time of day. I watch as runners sprint along the sea wall that separates the downtown skyscrapers from the churning water of the Mississippi River. They are heading home after spending their days toiling in cubicles and offices in these same buildings. The business day is ending as the French Quarter comes to life.

In the watery light of sunset, shopkeepers fold up sidewalk signs and draw window shades. Antique shoppers and families of tourists are replaced by couples out for a romantic evening, and later still, by groups of friends out for an evening of revelry.

Jackson Square and St. Louis Cathedral
I head over to Decatur Street and Cafe du Monde where I can see mule-drawn carriages quietly line the iron fence of Jackson Square, awaiting their evening fares. Sitting at a small patio table, enjoying a cafe au lait with my hot and crispy beignet, I pull a handful of postcards from my bag and begin the old fashioned practice of writing to friends and family while I wait for my husband and grandson to join me.

We decided to split up fro the afternoon so I could do some shopping and visit St. Louis Cathedral while they rode the vintage streetcars and took the Canal Street Ferry over to Algiers Point. It's a fun way to see the sights, especially for a 9-year-old who loves anything to do with transportation. The ferry ride is only $2 and a one-day "Jazzy Pass" for the streetcars is $3 and is valid for a 24-hour period. Nice and easy on the budget.

Canal Street Ferry
I don't have long to wait before I hear EJ calling to me. He is super excited to tell me about all he has seen. There were barges and tugboats on the river. Not something we see at home on the prairie for sure. He tells me about the brown pelicans "catching fish in their beaks" and the riverboat that is "almost just like the one at Disneyland!" He slows down enough to have a drink of his hot chocolate that has just arrived at our table, and take a bite of his beignet, powdered sugar sprinkling down the front of his shirt and dusting his cheeks (it is tough to eat them without wearing at least a little.)

Crispy hot and sugary beignet (French donuts)
Taking advantage of the break in conversation I open a paper shopping bag to share my shopping success with my husband who is enjoying his chicory coffee, black and piping hot, as he munches through his plate of "French donuts" as he likes to call them. There are mardi gras masks for our girls, full of feathers and sequins, in a variety of colors, a fleur de lis tea towel for his mother, and some mardi gras beads for my brother. Shopping in the French Quarter and the market is a must-do for any visit to the Crescent City.

As we finish our afternoon repast and head to the streetcar station, our table is quickly filled by others who have been waiting in line for a spot. Cafe du Monde can get quite busy, especially during the summer months, but the wait is worth it.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Second Honeymoon in Vegas

When the weather turns warm and our thoughts turn to outdoor activities, I like to take some time to make sure our winter vacation plans are taking shape. One of our favorite spots during colder months is southern Nevada and the Las Vegas area. There are many things to do for the entire family but my husband and I like to visit there on our own as well.

Last December was one of these times. We decided to visit during the National Finals Rodeo, even though we didn't have tickets since there are so many things to do during that time. We stayed at the Renaissance Hotel so we could walk over to the convention center, home of Cowboy Christmas. Since I am a Marriott Rewards Platinum Elite member, we were able to enjoy the benefits of their concierge lounge. It was nice to have breakfast each morning plus appetizers and desserts in the evenings.

It was nice to be close by the convention center since we didn't need to take the car or transit. (Hubby appreciated the short distance since he was carrying the bags after I took advantage of the fantastic shopping opportunity.)

Cowboy Christmas
We planned this trip as a sort of second honeymoon, the first trip in a long time where I could travel with my husband for his entire vacation since I had recently left my ‘day job’ and began a venture into writing full time. This was going to be a vacation of sleeping in, staying up late and doing things on our bucket list (but only if we felt like it at the time.)

One of the great things about rodeo week in Vegas is the number of places you can take in the action on a big screen. We became regulars at the Golden Nugget downtown where the crowd got larger and more ‘into’ the competition as the week went on. The Nugget was a great place for us to hang out since they had some terrific concerts that started right after the rodeo performance.

I grew up on country and hubby is a fan so rodeo week in Vegas made us feel like kids in a candy store. To kick off the week, we went to the Downtown Hoedown on Freemont Street. That was a lot of fun. Even the Viva Vision light show was themed for the WNFR. We took in concerts by the talented Reba, Brooks & Dunn, Tanya Tucker, Big & Rich, Trace Adkins, and Terry Clark during the week too.

And our vacation fun didn’t stop with the evening entertainment. There are so many things to do in the Las Vegas area it’s tough to get them all in on one trip by we made a good effort.

Driving out of the city during the day, we visited the ghost town of Rhyolite. Walking down the main street, you can almost feel what the town must have been like in its heyday. Looking across from the remains of the school, you can see right through the eerie skeleton of the general store at a rather small, unassuming adobe building. Checking the guide map we realized this was the last brothel standing in the town. It seems the larger properties had succumbed to the elements years before but this sturdy little shack remains. A testimonial to the seedier side of town.

General store at Rhyolite with last remaining brothel in the background
While in Rhyolite, we also visited the Goldwell Open Air Museum. My favorite sculptures there were by Polish-Belgian visual artist Albert Szukalski. His depiction of the Last Supper set against the Nevada desert quite amazing. His effect of ‘shrouded ghosts’ was accomplished by wrapping live models in plaster-soaked fabric. Even during the week there were a number of other tourists visiting and taking advantage of the smaller crowds to get some great photos.

Another of our favoured Nevada spots is Death Valley National Park. Really too hot to visit in the summer months, this park is the hottest, driest, and lowest spot in the U.S. but one of its popular tourist spot still suffered damages during last October’s torrential rain storms and flooding. Sadly, we were unable to visit Scotty’s Castle on this vacation and I hear it won’t likely reopen until 2019. But there was still lots to see as we traveled on roads where 20-mule-teams once trundled along carrying their loads of borax from near-by mines and visited the remains of the Harmony Borax Works.

We walked out onto the salt flats at Badwater Basin, 282-feet below sea level. A bit slippery and I wouldn’t want to try it in the summer! Since we both love photography, we drove through Artist’s Palette where the late afternoon sun provided the perfect light against the colorful volcanic hills. (Now if I could only find the memory card with those pictures on it.)

Hubby at Badwater Basin on a previous visit
Another drive into the desert was our visit to the China Date Ranch. Story has it that a Chinese man named Quon Sing (or Ah Foo) developed the water and planted fruits and vegetables in this canyon by the Amargosa River. Instead of working in the Death Valley borax mines as he had for years, he became a businessman and sold his produce to the mining camps. The story goes on to say that a man named Morrison ran Quon Sing off of his own land at gunpoint around 1900 but people still referred to the property at Chinaman’s Ranch. The date grove was planted by the youngest daughter of one of the later owners in 1920 and has expanded to what it is today, a delightful oasis in the desert. We stocked up on fresh dates and enjoyed a date shake before heading out on the road to enjoy more of the beautiful scenery.

We made sure to stop in at the Clark County Museum. They change the displays in their homes on Heritage Street by the seasons so I was hoping they might already have their Christmas decorations up. It turns out we were a bit early this year but they were done up for Thanksgiving. It’s really neat to see the differences in the houses through the different decades plus, I have to admit, I just plain enjoy visiting period homes.

This is just a glimpse some of the many places we visited during our stay. There were a bunch more including, Red Rock Canyon, The Morman Fort, and Springs Preserve among them. And I can say with certainty, we’re already making plans for another visit!

Monday, 16 May 2016

Thirty Days at Disney World on a Budget

Our family is crazy for Disney so when we decided to take a nice long vacation this year, Walt Disney World was a natural choice. Spending this much time at the Parks allows us to be flexible with our days. We can do our schoolwork in the morning and spend the remainder of the day at a Park or we can hit the Parks early in the morning and make it a shorter day so we can move the schoolwork to the late afternoon. We don't feel bad about not spending the entire day there since we have annual passes and know we are getting value out of them. We've found that if we'll be spending 10 to 14 days at Disney Parks, buying an annual pass is worth it,  especially considering parking, food and merchandise discounts, and now free Photopass downloads. We've used that feature quite a lot.

Photpass picture of EJ fighting Darth Vader at the Jedi Training Academy

How can we manage to stick to a budget during our vacation? Well, the largest expense for us, after passes, is accommodation.  With careful management of points, signing up for all bonus offers, and having a Marriott Rewards Visa card, we were able to book the entire 30-day stay on Marriott Rewards points! It helps that they offer the fifth night free with every four points redemption night as well. We're staying at an area Residence Inn where we have free breakfast daily and three nights a week they offer social evening (Residence Inn Mixes) that offer a variety of food items plus beer and wine. More help for our budget.

Nothing like being greeted with a freshly barbecued burger
and an ice cold beer after a hot sunny day at the beach

Eating at the Parks, or just eating out, in general, can really add up. By booking an extended stay property like the Residence, we have the advantage of a kitchen where we can make our own meals and prepare picnic lunches. Since we're on a road trip I was able to pack my crock pot. What can be more inviting than knowing our dinner will be ready when we get back to our suite after a day at the Parks or a local beach. That's not to say we don't eat out, we just manage it and choose our favorites (including character experiences.) We also pack a small K-cup style brewer for special coffees and teas plus hot chocolate. Rather than stopping on the way back to the hotel after a long day, one of us will make us drinks while the other gets our grandson ready for bed. This way he can have his favorite cup of hot cocoa before nodding off.

Our Residence Inn has coffee, tea, and hot cocoa (including whipped cream)
available all day in the lobby. A very nice touch.

There are lots of free things to do for kids at the Parks. Right now, during Epcot's International Flower and Garden Festival, there are even more. A big hit this year is Butterflies on the Go. It fits right in with our life-cycle unit (a plus for me.) We watched a butterfly emerge from its cocoon on one of our visits. Not something you get to do every day. In addition to the butterflies, kids will enjoy other nature inspired activities including inspiration on how you can create your own wildlife-friendly habitat at home.

Watching butterflies emerge from their cocoons

One of the new fun spaces for children is the Music Garden Melodies Playground where they can run off some steam on the net climbers and get creative with drums, chimes, and xylophones. Parents can take a break and watch their kids play from the comfort of park benches or the Adirondack-inspired chairs that furnish a glamping style tent.

Burning off some energy in the Music Garden Melodies Playground

One of the fun things for kids to do at Epcot any time of the year is Agent P's World Showcase Adventure. Your child will receive a special "secret agent" FONE (or you can use your own smartphone if you prefer)  that directs them to various spots in each country to help defeat the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz. Our grandson is a fan of Phineas and Ferb and happily followed clues and searched out secret spots as we made our way around the lagoon.

Signing up for Agent P's World Showcase Adventure

We love to find 'bonus' activities like this when we visit Disney Parks. Another one that we can get started at Epcot is collecting the Transportation Collector Cards. You can get these cards by asking for them from bus and monorail drivers and boat captains plus cast members who work in the transportation areas. Not all cast members carry them but even if they don't we've found them friendly and helpful in directing us to someone who just might have some in their pockets. There are 27 cards in the current series (four) so you will likely have to do a lot of asking to get the entire set.

Some of EJs Transportation Collector cards.
 Each has a picture on the front and information on the back

Another activity that involves collector cards is Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. All you need to do is stop by the Firehall when you enter the park gates (to the right) and register. They will give you a map and a pack of cards and send you on your way. It is up to you to follow the clues and battle Hades henchmen as you work your way through a series of Magic Portals helping Merlin keep the park safe from these evil doers. At the final portal, Merlin will appear and welcome you to the ranks of "Master Sorcerer." You can go back to the Firehall each visit and receive a new set of collector cards.

Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom map and spell cards

If your kids like the idea of a quest, there is also the Pirate's Adventure where they follow maps (and Captain Jack Sparrow's clues) to find hidden treasures while fending off enemies like Captain Barbossa. There are five missions in total that take about 20 to 30 minutes each. Just enough time for mama to take a break while papa joins EJ in his quest.

One of EJ's favorites is to be Guest Skipper on the Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom. Again, not all of the skippers will say yes when you ask but being polite (and sitting near the front of the boat) increases your chances from what we have found. The kids have a lot of fun steering the boat through the jungles and receive a Guest Skipper card at the end of the trip.

Someone was very excited to receive his Guest Skipper license from the Jungle Cruise

We found another nautical opportunity for EJ this visit. He was fortunate enough to pilot the Liberty Belle riverboat on the Rivers of America. This is a great treat for a nine-year-old who loves anything to do with transportation and driving. At the end of the trip, he received a license (signed by Mickey himself no less) that he is licensed to act as a pilot at the Magic Kingdom for one year. I like that each of these activities provides EJ with a special souvenir to take home.

Liberty Belle Pilot certification

There are a number of other fun 'bonus' activities at Walt Disney World, including the Jedi Training Academy at Hollywood Studios. This one requires an early arrival at the park and a long line-up as you (hopefully) get to sign up for one of the limited spots throughout the day. Trust me, it's worth it when you see the excitement on your child's face as they battle Darth Vader with their light saber as the crowd cheers them on. If your little one likes Star Wars (uh...ok that was a silly question) they can head over to the Launch Bay where they can see a bunch of stuff from the movies, meet Kylo Ren and Chewbacca AND have the opportunity to try their hand at trading with the Jawas. EJ had some luck trading a 2015 Disney eraser with one of them for a droid part. A great deal for him especially since we had picked up the erasers at the Disney Character Outlet at the mall. A great place to pick up pins for the kids to trade as well.

I almost forgot to mention our bonus free souvenir fun learning activity for Disney's Animal Kingdom. Their Wilderness Explorers program allows kids to earn 'badge (stickers) by completing activities in the Wilderness Explorers Handbook. The badges include things like African Culture, Conservation, and Animal Nutrition to name just a few. Kids can pick up their handbook from any Tropp Leaders around the park (they'll be wearing a uniform.) There are a lot of activities for this one so it will likely take you more than one visit.

EJ's well worn Wilderness Explorer Handbook.
Must remember NOT to put it in the backpack with the water bottles next time.

As you can see we've kept ourselves busy during our stay and managed to stay on budget by planning ahead and being organized. We still have another week before we head home and we're already collecting ideas for our next vacation.

My travel journal/organizer/collecting spot for great travel ideas

Monday, 9 May 2016

An (almost) Perfect Mother's Day

My husband knows me well. I guess after 35 years of marriage that should be a given but...well...ok maybe not. He understands I have a weakness for all things French; wine, perfume, pastries, you get the picture. So for Mother's Day he decided we should have a late lunch at one of my favorite spots at Epcot, Les Chefs du France.

Now I have to admit I do miss having little Chef Remi come visit at your table but the food didn't disappoint. Our prix fixe meal began with a huge bowl of French Onion Soup. Hubby said he thought there was an inch of cheese on his crock, always a plus in his mind. It was served nice and hot with a warm baguette and could have been a meal in itself.

Chef Remi visiting our table during our last meal at Les Chefs du France

One of the nice things about this restaurant is their service. We have come twice with our grandson, EJ, and the waitstaff has been friendly and patient with him as he tries to read the French names on the children's menu (there are descriptions in English as well.) They served his pasta with ham and cheese just the way he likes it with each topping in a separate little dish (does anyone remember the TV program Monk? That is our grandson when it comes to different foods touching.) They also serve his meal with our soup course so he doesn't have to sit with an empty placemat and watch us enjoy our food.

Back to our meal. Hubby and I both chose the braised short rib with pearl onions and carrots. The menu says it is served on a bed of polenta but ours came with it on the side. I suppose it suits more tastes that way. Still a nice presentation  and absolutely delicious. I have to warn you, the portion sizes are very generous so be wary when you order.

Braised Short Rib

Our meal included a choice of any of their dessert offerings. I chose the creme brulee (my favorite as anyone who knows me can tell you) and hubby chose the chocolate filled swan cream puff so he could share with EJ who quickly attacked the creamy chocolate ice cream and left the fancy pastry for his papa to eat.

Chocolate Swan

My creme brulee was delicious as always. Served with a garnish of fresh berries and cream. The perfect finish to a wonderful meal.
Creme Brulee

The only thing that could have made this Mother's Day more perfect was having our daughters here to share it with us.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Murphy's Law and Family Road Trips

Have you ever had the feeling that no matter how well you plan a family road trip, it's inevitable that something is going to go wrong? Over the years, I've almost come to expect that Murphy is going to come along for the ride but I've also learned that being flexible and 'rolling with the punches' can turn many of these mishaps into some of our best family memories.

I like to get on the road early. Pack the vehicle the night before, no problem. Make sure the outlet works in the back of the van by plugging in the cooler, great idea. Turning the key on said van the next morning and hearing that sad little click that tells you the battery is dead - not good. You can see where I'm going with this. So, after unplugging the offending cooler that had sucked the lifeblood from our battery and getting hubby to boost the van, we were finally ready to hit the road. Lesson learned...or so you would think.

We've all heard the saying about too many cooks in the kitchen spoiling the broth, well I can tell you that having too many girls in a mini-van can cause a dead battery! On our first stop in Helena, each girl thought the other had unplugged the cooler. Auto club call number one. In Denver, same thing, auto club call number two. Before call number three became a possibility we stopped at the next auto supply store and purchased one of those booster boxes you charge up and carry along with you. We've upgraded since then, our new one charges, boosts, pumps up tires and has an emergency light. We don't leave home without it.

As you can see, having plans and remembering to follow these plans are two very different things. You would think that while traveling with a baby there are certain items that are standard to diapers. Fortunately, we decided to stop for a tea break near a Walmart when we realized the newly purchased box of Huggies hadn't come along for the ride. As I said, having plans, and a packing list, are only as good as your ability to follow them.

That wasn't the only time that a diaper bag got us in trouble on the road. After carefully laying out our route for the day to include enough time for a stop at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, we did a little shopping at the local drug store for a few baby items. Quick in, quick out, back on the road..."Mom, where's the diaper bag?" Don't panic! Get off of the interstate at next exit, turn around, drive for 45 minutes...find the bag safe and sound in the drug store, having been turned in by the woman who found it in a grocery cart in the parking lot! Thank goodness for honest people. We did make it to the arch that day but our visit reminded me of the Griswald's quick stop there in the Vacation movie.

No Huggies on the windshield this time
I can't say that traveling with a diaper bag is all bad though. I remember one particular night when it came in very handy. We were traveling to Atlanta, Georgia in August. We stopped at a roadside fruit stand where fuzzy round peaches were calling to called to us with their sweet deliciousness. Driving again, we were having a terrific time, singing along to our favorite tunes and enjoying the spoils of our fruit stand visit. Then the rains began. And the wind. On top of this, one of our wipers lost its blade and practically embedded itself in our windshield. It was the passenger side but we still had to deal with it. I can guarantee you that Huggies are super absorbent and can hold up through a tropical storm. I don’t remember who suggested it but our fix got us to the next Walmart where we picked up a new wiper blade. Disaster averted...or so we thought. As it turned out, the wiper was never the same again and wore a diaper for the remainder of our trip...regularly changed due to the rain of course. (Only a vehicle of four women and a baby would come up with something like this!)

On another rainy day, this time in California, we drove up into the Hollywood Hills. Driving around the curving streets, we came upon a house that was partially built but looked almost abandoned. I carefully steered around the mess of construction debris on the road out front of it as we made our way down the hill toward Roscoe's for lunch (best chicken and waffles around.) Driving along Hollywood Boulevard, I thought I heard a clicking sound so I opened my window but with all the traffic and rain, thought I must have imagined it. Not so. Our nail impaled tire held up to somewhere near the Nevada State Line...hello auto club. Back on the road with our donut tire, we were excited to see a sign on the side of the highway boasting 'Tires Repaired'. Just what we needed.

We thought we were in 'Area-51' when the lone clerk had to wake up the repairman who was already sound asleep in his trailer out back. Or maybe it was because of all the pictures of aliens hanging on the walls. But we were assured this was 'Area-52' by the slogans on the souvenir T-shirts and postcards (although these also depicted aliens...) No matter, the repair was completed and each of us left with an ice cold a slightly dusty bottle. It seems they didn't get a lot of business.

There was another construction site that caused me travel stress. Remember when the Griswolds got to Wally World and it was closed? (No, Disneyland wasn't closed when we got there. That would be unthinkable...although we did go to Yellowstone National Park once and it WAS closed but that's another story.)

Arriving at Yellowstone to find it closed is not a lot of fun
It wasn't the theme park that caused my near breakdown, it was the hotel that wasn't there. After dropping two of the girls and our grandson off at the park, our eldest daughter and I went to check in at the new SpringHill Suites that I had booked. I know the area well and I drove right to where it should have been...but it wasn't least it wasn't there in the form of a hotel with a front desk...and walls...and rooms...panic was setting in as I decided I must have had the address wrong in my mind. V looked up the reservation and read out the address...yep, this was the place. Tears were beginning to blur my vision as I insisted on driving just a little way up the road, the hotel couldn't just not be there. Turning around the corner, we now saw the sign..."Coming soon SprinHill Suites by Marriott." Tears running down my cheeks, I had no idea what to do. On a busy weekend in Anaheim, we were without a room.

Our hotel when we arrived
There is one thing I can count on about my eldest daughter, she is guaranteed to keep her head when her mother is losing hers. She calmly explained to her now sobbing mother that this was Marriott's mistake, not mine and that they were going to fix it. She then calmly directed me to the Marriott just a couple of blocks away where she insisted our problem would be taken care of. I must have looked like a crazy woman, swiping at my cheeks with a soggy kleenex and trying to keep myself together as I approached the friendly looking clerk at the elite desk.

How I must have looked to the desk clerk
"How can I help you?"

"You can tell me that the construction site on the corner is NOT the hotel where I have a reservation for tonight." Sniffle, sniffle. Hand him my platinum elite card.

"Not again," hands fresh kleenex to the woman having a meltdown in front of his desk as he checks the system, "sorry to say, yes, that is where you have a reservation. You are the second person that's happened to this week but I promise you we'll take care of you."

At that point, I didn't care what else he had to say. I only heard his promise to take care of us. And they did. Even though the hotel was packed and they didn't have any large rooms available, they managed to squeeze us into a smaller room by taking out some of the furniture and adding a rollaway. We weren't complaining at that point, it was a room, it had beds and walls. The girls laugh about it now, remembering our 'cozy' stay.

Yes, I would have to say that the 'missing hotel' incident was the worst 'punches' I have experienced but, in a way, one of our best vacation memories.

(Note: Marriott did compensate us for our distress on a future stay.)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Four Famous Faces - A Rainy Day at Mount Rushmore

I like to make plans and reservations well ahead of time for our family vacations...and then find myself changing them at least three or four times before our departure. I think the early planning and booking makes me feel secure that we will at least have a place to rest our heads as we travel along. Our current vacation was no different. Originally, we had planned a road trip that would take us through Montana, Utah, and Colorado before traveling into Texas and along the Gulf Coast on our way to Florida. Alas, our nine-year-old grandson had a different idea.

While we were watching one of the National Treasures movies (favorites in our home), EJ asked if we could visit Mount Rushmore on our way. He wanted to find the lake that the movie said was behind the monument. There went our first set of plans out the window. I quickly went online and adjusted our reservations on the Marriott website (our first choice in hotel chains.) I have it down to quite a science, Google maps on one tab and Marriott on the other, checking prices and driving times as I go. If we drive a little longer one day, we can manage more time exploring roadside attractions the next. There are times we do two nights in one city with a longer drive on either side, it all depends on when, and where, we decide to stop.

My favorite photographer trying out his new Nikon
So new reservations made and we were on our way to Rapid City, South Dakota to see the four famous faces carved into the side of a mountain. It doesn't matter how many times I visit, that first side of Mount Rushmore never fails to impress. This time, rather than driving from Rapid City, we decided to take Highway 16 from the west, through the Black Hill, and then Highway 385 north to Highway 244. Since we were traveling from Billings, Montana, this was a little faster and made for a very nice drive. I would guess it gets pretty crowded in the summer with trailers and RVs though so perhaps best left to off-season travel.

I have to let you in on a little secret, the lake that looks like it's right behind Mount Rushmore is in fact about ten miles southwest of it. But there is a small lake that is right along the road to the monument when you drive from this way so the kids will be happy to see it, even if it isn't the exact one from the movie. There is also a spot where you can see the famous faces through a keyhole about five miles away. It's a fun spot to stop but can get crowded even in during the off-season.

While Mount Rushmore is a part of the National Parks Service, there is no entry fee. You do have to pay for parking though since the parking complex since it is a concession between the NPS and the Mount Rushmore Society. We paid $11.00 to park and the pass is good for the remainder of the year.

We were happy to find there was a Junior Ranger program at the monument. We were also happy to know that the activity booklet could be completed with information to be found at the visitors' center since we visited on a rainy day (I heard we were lucky it was only raining when we arrived, it had been snowing that morning. Apparently they receive the most snow of the year in March & April.) It would have been a little difficult for EJ to keep his activity book dry while hiking the Presidential Trail. So we headed to the visitor center and worked our way through the displays and activities. One thing I find about the Junior Ranger program is that the adults often learn as much as the children. It's a great program that encourages family members to work together and find the information and clues to complete the challenges.

Being from Canada, our grandson had a lot of questions about the presidents on the monument. He knew about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln but was fascinated to learn about Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt. He was amazed that Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase included the area where his great-grandmother (my mom) was born in southern Saskatchewan. Of course, this area has now been added to our 'want to visit' list. I think it's important that children learn about their closest neighbor and what better way than to visit historical places that make the learning come alive.

It took EJ about an hour and a half to complete his booklet and investigate the visitor center displays. He also had to speak with a ranger and find out what they do at the park. He was happy to learn that part of a ranger's job is to help children learn about the parks and why they are important. He proudly handed the ranger his completed book and took an oath that he would always work to protect the parks before being presented with his badge.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking the paths,exploring and taking pictures (EJ loves taking pictures!) A great way to burn off some energy before we got back on the road for our hotel in Rapid City.
Driving through the drillers tunnel on the way to Rapid City