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Biscayne National Park

I’m not sure if our visit really counts as a visit but I did scratch the circle off on our national park map afterwards. Everglades and Biscayne National Parks are really close to each other so we planned to visit both while in Miami.

Biscayne National Park

We were running out of time in Miami and were trying to cram in the last few things I wanted to do. Mostly, making sure we visited all national parks in the area. We planned to take a kayaking tour through the mangroves at Biscayne but after our mosquito tour of Everglades, we decided kayaking would likely be a terrible idea. Instead we stopped at the visitor center and planned to do whatever we could without hopping a boat to explore the ocean. There is a trail near the visitor center that goes along the beach and through the mangroves but much to our disappointment, it was closed for repairs to the boardwalk. So we just walked around the visitor center and left. It was definitely a disappointment and I’m still not sure I can properly say I visited Biscayne but I guess I have a picture with the sign so it counts. 🙂

Boardwalk at Biscayne National Park Closed for Repairs

95% of Biscayne National Park is underwater so it requires more time to properly visit. There are boat tours, lighthouses to explore, snorkeling/scuba/kayaing tours, there’s even an underwater scuba trail that takes you through reefs and shipwrecks! Maybe one day we’ll be back and visit the park properly for but now, we’re checking the box.

Everglades National Park in June

When you think of Everglades National Park in June what comes to mind? Humidity and swarms of mosquitoes? Yup. Me too. Except never actually having experienced that, I was like how bad can it be? It was bad. Like I was literally running from swarms of mosquitoes. While I’m not sure I want to relive that experience anytime soon, have you really lived if you haven’t ran from mosquito swarms? I think not. Crazy adventures make for the best memories/stories.

Everglades National Park sign taken from the car with the windows up because mosquitos

I’ve always wanted to visit Everglades and am not sure when we’ll be back that way so we decided to ignore the warnings and visit in June. I was really excited for Everglades because the terrain is so different from anything I’ve ever seen.

We arrived at the Shark Valley visitor center at 9am when it opened. Everglades is divided into several sections and we chose the Shark Valley area because we wanted to take an airboat ride which is in the northern section of the park. Shark Valley is a neat area with the chance for lots of wildlife sightings. There is a 15 mile path/loop that follows a river where alligators and other wildlife live. It’s really pretty. You can walk the path, rent a bicycle, or take a tram to complete the 15 miles. We didn’t have time for the tram ride so we opted to walk for a bit.

Shark Valley Loop Road

As all good visitors do, we stopped at the visitor center and asked the park ranger for a hike suggestion. He must have not liked our group because he gave no warning for the suggestion. Honestly, I have no idea why he suggested it in the first place. It was not appropriate for June.

Entrance to Otter Cave Hammock Trail

The loop the ranger suggested was Bobcat Boardwalk Trail, Shark Valley Loop Road, Otter Cave Hammock Trail, and then back along Shark Valley Loop Road to the car. The mosquitoes weren’t too bad to start but then we made the brilliant decision to hike the Otter Cave Hammock Trail. Sounds like a cute trail, right? I have no clue what the trail looks like because we were being eaten alive and trying to run out of there as fast as possible. Turns out walking into a heavily wooded area in the middle of the summer is a terrible decision. Two of the six in our group knew better and didn’t follow us in. The four of us from Arizona foolishly kept going.

Once we exited Mosquito Cave Trail, several of us literally ran back to the car, being chased by swarms of mosquitos (you probably think I’m exaggerating but I’m not), jumped in and declared we were done with the Everglades. My skin is itching just thinking about how many mosquito bites I had. We had 11am tickets for an airboat ride, which it was not yet time for, but had no more interest in exploring so we drove to the airboat place and sat in the car until it was time for our ride. Since there were six of us, we had booked a private tour and our tour guide was able to start our tour a little earlier than planned.

Everglades Safari Park Airboat Tour

The best decision we made was to book an airboat tour. If you visit in the summer, this is a must. Summer is wet season in the Everglades and the rain refills the grasslands. During the winter, or dry season, the ground dries up in many places. Ecosystems are so cool. In my next life I want to become a environmental scientist. Is it too late to change careers?

We thoroughly enjoyed the breeze in our face and lack of mosquitoes. Our tour guide was a lot of fun and shared lots of cool information. I could have spent hours out there. The area was gorgeous and gliding through the water and grass was a blast. There are airboat tours all over the area but only a few are licensed to operate in Everglades National Park. If that matters to you, be sure to look at who’s authorized to operate in the park.

Airboat tour in the Everglades

We didn’t see much wildlife because who the heck wants to be out in the middle of June. We were there to ride in an airboat so any wildlife was a bonus but we did happen to see one alligator. A mother guarding her nest of eggs. In the picture below, there is a dark circle in the middle of the picture. What looks like a rock is her head. Her nest is in the grass somewhere in the back.

Mama alligator in Everglades National Park

The views were incredible. I’m not sure if the water is always that still or if we were there on a good day but everywhere we turned, the sky perfectly reflected on the water. Hence why I could have stayed out there all day.

Evergaldes National Park

In the middle of the picture below is a pond apple tree. They’re all over this area. The crazy thing about these apples is that the seeds are poisonous. What?! So basically don’t eat pond apples.

Pond apple tree

I know I’ve complained a lot about the mosquitos but I’d do it all over again if given the chance. If you are planning to visit in the summer, I’d suggest minimizing your walking. Take the tram, rent a bicycle, or take an airboat tour. You want to be moving faster than the mosquitos. I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of the area but that just means we’ll have to go back (not in June)!

Airboat ride through the Everglades

Dry Tortugas National Park

I love the national parks and would love to visit them all eventually. Some are harder than others to get to and those I assume I may not get to. Dry Tortugas was one of them. It’s 70 miles off the coast of Key West and Florida has never really been on my list. Nothing against Florida but there’s just so much to do between Arizona and Florida that it’s way down on the list. A friend of ours is from Florida and convinced us to take a trip to Key West and boy am I glad we said yes! When we started planning and I realized how close we’d be to Dry Tortugas, I knew I had to make it happen.

Dry Tortugas National Park

The Dry Tortugas are a group of seven islands west of Key West. The islands were named Las Tortugas (The Turtles) in 1514 but later changed to Dry Tortugas to signify that there is no fresh water on them. The United States started building Fort Jefferson on Garden Key (one of the seven islands) in 1846 as a way to control navigation of the Gulf of Mexico and protect Mississippi River trade. During the Civil War, the fort was a prison for captured deserters and also held the four men accused of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Most notably, Dr. Samuel Mudd. (We’re huge fans of the National Treasure movies so seeing Dr. Mudd’s cell in real life and learning even more about the story was exciting.) Eventually the Army left the fort and in 1908 it became a wildlife refuge. In 1992 it became a national park and is home to endangered sea turtles, birds, coral reefs, ship wrecks, and Fort Jefferson.

Garden Key

There are two ways to get to Dry Tortugas – a 2.5 hour ferry boat ride or a 30 minute seaplane ride. I guess the third option is to take your own boat but that’s only for local boat owners. Of course no option is perfect. With the ferry you get to spend four hours on the island. With the seaplane you only get two and a half hours. I really wanted to take the seaplane to see the area from the sky but our group opted for the boat. As long as the sea isn’t too rough, you can stand on the front of the ferry which was fun for a little bit but so windy as we were going 30+ MPH.

Yankee Freedom ferry ride to Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson is massive and was constructed with 16 million bricks. The color contrast between the red bricks and the different shades of blues in the sky and water make for absolutely stunning views everywhere you look.

Moat wall around Fort Jefferson

It’s so hard to decide how to spend your four hours because there is so much to do. Snorkeling, swimming, exploring the fort, walking on the beaches. We started with a dip in the water and a picnic lunch on the beach. Off in the distance in the picture below, you can see the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key.

Lunch views at Dry Tortugas National Park

After lunch we decided to explore the fort. There are three levels and throughout are signs explaining how the fort was constructed and operated. Every hall looked like the picture below. Some narrower than others but so perfectly constructed. Are all forts like this? This is the first I’ve been to so maybe this is normal.

Inside Fort Jefferson

In between each pillar is a window and I’m pretty sure I took a picture out of at least half of them. Jaw. Dropping. They each so perfectly frame the gorgeous sky, sea, moat wall, and beach. I could have sat there all day but only had four hours so we had to keep moving.

Looking out of Fort Jefferson to the ocean

You can walk on the top of the fort which is a little crazy as there are no rails. There are a bunch of cannons up there (I don’t know if they are original or replicas) and more signs explaining the history. The fort is so large that we didn’t have time to explore the entire thing.

Walking on top of Fort Jefferson

Inside the fort walls there used to be several buildings. In the left of the picture below you can see what remains of the barracks. The right side is the armory which is still largely in tact.

Interior of Fort Jefferson

After exploring the fort we headed back to the beach for more swimming and snorkeling before having to board the ferry back to Key West.

This was such a fun day and one of my favorite days on our trip. I cannot get over the insanely gorgeous water colors. I’m mostly a mountain girl but I can see why people love the beach and this part of the world. If you ever get a chance to visit Dry Tortugas, I highly recommend it. It’s a little pricey but worth every penny.

Death Valley National Park

If I’ve learned nothing else from this past year, it reminded me how important it is to do the things you want while you can. As such, my travel list has grown substantially. It’s possible all this time at home has provided extra time for wanderlust and list creating.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park was on my list because it’s a national park but it was never a priority. The hottest place on earth? Meh. I mean, what’s really great about that? Boy was I wrong! Death Valley is so cool! We were there for three days and only scratched the surface. Little Miss was supposed to join us but ended up having a conflict so we brought a couple friends. Traveling with friends is so much fun! We arrived in the afternoon and tried to squeeze in a few sites before dark.

Badwater Basin

At 282 feet below sea level, Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. The area is covered in salt flats that you can walk out on. We walked out a ways but the scenery wasn’t changing so we turned around. Apparently we stopped too soon and if you walk out farther the salt flats start to get really cool. Next time.

Right next to Badwater Basin is the Devil’s Golf Course. We almost didn’t stop here and I’m so glad we did! Pictures do not do the area justice. Those are not rocks but rather rock salt that has been eroded by wind and rain to create the jagged spires you see. They are fascinating to see in person!

As we worked our way back to camp we drove Artists Drive Scenic Loop. It’s an 8.5 mile one way drive that winds through hills splashed with different colors.

Artist Palette

We had a little bit of daylight left after we finished the scenic drive so we stopped at Golden Canyon. We didn’t get very far in but what we saw was so cool. Apparently Star Wars was filmed in the some of the canyons back in the day and Golden happened to be one of the locations.

DAY 2

Our goal for the morning of Day 2 was the Ubahebe Crater and we stopped at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes on the way. If you haven’t been to sand dunes before, they’re similar to Las Vegas. Everything looks close but you soon find out your destination is miles away.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

We planned to hike to the highest dune at only a mile away. Easy peasy, right? Not! We got 1/2 or 2/3 of the way there and decided we were good. The constant up and down sand hills is tiring. The dune we were going for is the tallest one you see in the right side of the picture below.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

We read that it’s best to visit Ubahebe Crater earlier in the day as the wind picks up in the afternoon. That’s not a joke. We left camp later in the morning that planned so by the time we made it to the crater is was close to lunchtime. The wind is legit and was making it so hard to walk. You can walk around the entire crater but we opted for only a short section. Pictures do not do the crater justice. It’s huge and so cool in person.

Ubahebe Crater

The picture below is an accurate depiction of how windy it was. We planned to have a nice picnic lunch on the edge of the crater but instead huddled behind the truck in the parking lot.

If you are planning to visit the crater, the turn off of 190 is not well marked. We were traveling north on 190 and completely missed the turn off. Next thing we know we were at the sand dunes, which at this point we didn’t realize are after the turn off. Once we left the sand dunes we kept on driving and eventually realized we were driving west, towards the other exit of the park. Nothing like adding a bunch of unnecessary miles to the day!

After lunch we worked our way back to camp and stopped at the Keane Wonder Mill & Mine. It was a gold mine in the early 1900’s and we spent some time exploring the area. I love seeing bits of history and imaging what it would be like to be alive during that time. I cannot, however, imagine mining in Death Valley pretty much anytime of year.

Keane Wonder Mill & Mine

After our mine exploration we headed back to camp. The boys had to do a little camper maintenance (change a broken leaf spring on a trailer) and they needed enough daylight to get the task done. Once the sun set, we watched a movie outside. Is there anything cooler than watching a movie outside while camping? I think not.

DAY 3

On our third day and final day in the park, we got up early to watch the sunrise at Zabriskie Point. It’s a short walk from the car but a very popular destination. Get there early to ensure a parking spot. This view of Death Valley is stunning. Even if you don’t get here for sunrise, be sure to stop by.

Full Moon Setting from Zabriskie Point

Our next destination was Dantes View, a viewpoint 5,500 feet above the valley floor. On the way, we drove through the 20 Mule Canyon which was a fun little side trip. Dantes View is 25 miles from Furnace Creek and not really worth the drive in my opinion. The view was nice but the drive was long and it was really windy up there. Personally, I’d rather have spent that time exploring the other areas of the park.

Dantes View

Next up, the boys wanted to ride Artist Drive so we picked up their bikes and dropped them off. Man, that road is steep! The picture below is one of my favorite from the trip. I was driving up the road and looked in my rear view to see this image. So I stopped and took a picture.

Riding Bikes on Artist Drive

And they rode their mountain bikes which makes it extra hard. But now they can say they rode in Death Valley!

Artist Palette

We visited in February 2021 and unfortunately, the Visitor Center was closed due to the pandemic. But we did get to see the iconic sign! The temps were perfect when we were there.

Our last stop was Harmony Borax Works. I had no idea borax is mined in California nor what it’s used for other than my favorite ant bait, but now I do! Borax was found in Death Valley in 1881 and a plant built shortly thereafter. The borax had to be hauled from Death Valley to the nearest railroad. They filled wagons, like the ones in the picture below, full of borax and then had 20-mule teams haul it 165 miles to the railroad. You know how on your box of borax is says 20 mule team and has a picture of mules and wagons? Now you know where that came from. Just another one of the many reasons I love national parks.

Harmony Borax Works

Unfortunately, our time in Death Valley had to come to an end but we will be back. There is still so much to explore. We stayed at the Sunset campground which is literally a parking lot. Most of the campgrounds in Death Valley do not take reservations but after speaking with a ranger, I learned they rarely fill up. We visited the end of February and the campground was hardly full. If you aren’t able to make a reservation I wouldn’t worry too much.

Full Moon Rising at the Sunset Campground in Death Valley National Park

Death Valley is barren and there is not much shade. I would not recommend visiting in the summer. The gas was stupid expensive so make sure you fill up before entering the park. I can’t think of any other tips other than to add Death Valley to your bucket list.

One our way home from Death Valley we stopped at Lake Mead for one night. We stayed at the Lake Mead RV Village at Boulder Beach. The sites are a little close together but you’re camping close to the lake so that’s expected. We weren’t right on the lake but it isn’t a far walk. Boulder Beach Campground is right next door and would be a great place to stay also.

In order to build the Hoover Dam, a railroad was built to carry the supplies to the dam. A section of the Hoover Dam Railroad system still remains and has been converted to a hiking/biking path. I LOVE the Rails-To-Trails system! This trail has five tunnels, gorgeous lake views, ends at the Hoover Dam parking garage, and there are signs all along explaining how the railroad and dam were built. Once again, the boys rode their bikes and the girls walked. If you’re in the area, I’d suggest checking it out.

That’s a wrap on the Death Valley National Park recap! If you’ve been to DV, what did you think? Hopefully you loved it it as much as we did!

Fall Break in Sedona

When I started this blog I wanted to give a voice to the less popular national parks and to write about family friendly activities. It’s easy to find information on the most popular parks but that’s not always the case for the smaller parks. I kept running into this issue when planning and decided to do my part to build out the content. What I did not expect is the joy I would get in looking back and reading about our trips. As time goes on memories fade. I am so glad I decided to start this blog to capture some of our memories in written form. Now, my blog is part for the world and part for me. This post, however, is all for me because I want to remember the last several days forever. (I wrote this post mid-October and never got around to hitting post. I’m not changing anything because I like the way it was written.) Read more