2015 Events in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

May 8th, 2015 by Amanda Geronikos No comments »

Kings Canyon National Park turned 75 in March, and neighboring Sequoia National Park will turn 125 on Sept. 26, 2015. In celebration of their big birthdays, both parks are offering special happenings throughout the year, some of them specifically designated for families. If you live in the area or are lucky enough to be vacationing there, don’t miss out on these great events (all of which are free, unless otherwise noted).

Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park

Hidden Trails of Sequoia and Kings Canyon
April to November

With over one million acres to explore in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, it’s difficult to decide where to start! Luckily, guides will direct families to the best views and hikes, with tours departing from Wuksachi Lodge and John Muir Lodge. The tours are available to all park visitors, though the National Park Service recommends them for children ages 10 and up.

Wonders of the Night Sky
May to October (Wednesdays & Fridays); May to September (Saturdays)

Skip the school planetarium and see the real deal. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks provide a unique opportunity to view the night sky, with some of the clearest views at Wuksachi Lodge. Guides lead groups in flashlight tours that include a chance to view several constellations up close, with or without binoculars. The event is hosted at Wuksachi Lodge on Wednesdays and Fridays, May to October, and at nearby John Muir Lodge on Saturdays, May to September.

Voices from the Past
May 20 to Sept. 6

Sequoia National Park turns 125 in 2015, but the park’s roots go much further back in time; in fact, many of the grandiose trees began their life B.C. Experience the history through the eyes of a character, who will transport you to yesteryear. The event takes place at Wuksachi Lodge, and is open to all park visitors. Afterward, a barbecue meal is offered for an additional fee.

Wildlife Wednesdays
June to October

Everyone wants to spot wildlife, but what do you have to do and exactly where do you have to go to do so? Meet with a park naturalist for tips and tricks to be used on your trip and in the future. In June and August, a Family Birding Walk is also offered — you’re guaranteed to see something then.

Family Campfires
June 5 to October 30 (Fridays)

After a day spent exploring, head to the Wuksachi Lodge Campfire Circle to relax with sing-alongs, storytelling and gooey marshmallows beneath the stars.

Family’s First Backpack Trip: Sleeping Among the Gentle Giants
June 25, 26, 27, 28

If you’ve never been camping with your family, give it a try in June, when Kings Canyon National Park will host an event that teaches kids the basics. Note: Kids must be able to walk about a mile (for an hour). It’s $100 per adult and free for kids.

Full Moon: Moro Rock & Panoramic Point
July 1, July 30, Aug. 28, Sept. 26, Oct. 25

The views atop Moro Rock are stunning no matter the time, but this event provides a unique chance to watch the sun set over the Great Western Divide before getting up close with the moon (so close, you can see craters and lunar seas). We recommend this one for families with teens.

Ersa of the Red Trees
August 2015

In 1921, a group of actors put on a play called “Ersa of the Red Trees.” In August 2015, the show returns to tell the story of Ersa, a young princess who magically morphs into a bird once each month.

Dark Sky Festival
Sept. 11, 12, 13

Back for a second time, this festival offers star viewing parties, guest speakers and interactive activities while a DJ spins space-inspired tunes! The event also includes a 2,000-foot scale model of the solar system.

— Amanda Geronikos

Dolphin Sleepover at the National Aquarium in Baltimore

May 7th, 2015 by Guest Blogger No comments »

My daughters’ birthdays aren’t about what they get, but what they get to do. We plan getaways and day trips geared toward their interests and passions at the time, which gives my husband and I a special one-on-one day with each of our kids. Past excursions have included a Broadway show with a backstage tour, a luncheon at American Girl Place and seeing the two remaining Beatles reunite at a concert for Ringo Starr’s 70th birthday (I’m still green with envy that my older daughter and husband pulled that one off!).

This year, my youngest daughter Maggie and I crossed something special off of our must-do lists — quality time with a dolphin.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore offers special sleepovers on Friday nights, alternating between allowing you to spend the night with the dolphins or with the sharks. And no offense to those toothy denizens of the deep, but we prefer our sea creatures a bit friendlier.

The night starts off with a private meet-and-greet with the dolphins and their trainers, where you get to learn plenty of fun facts about the dolphin family in residence and get to see them in action — and if you choose to sit in the first few rows by their tank, expect to get splashed.

Afterward, it’s off to the restaurant for a dinner of pasta and salad, then a chance to enjoy the aquarium’s 4D movie showing how sea life descended from the dinosaurs. By the end of the movie, the aquarium’s other visitors have cleared out, and it’s just the sleepover guests and an ocean’s worth of cool creatures to explore.

Kids standing in front of a dolphin tank and looking at a fish at the National Aquarium in Baltimore

The late-night tour of the aquarium not only lets you get to see every bit of sea life without the crowds, but it takes you behind the scenes into uncharted waters. We were able to check out where they prep meals for their thousands of different inhabitants, walk on a catwalk over the shark tank and even see where the aquarium’s vets keep all their animals in ship-shape. We held shark’s eggs, nearly stepped on a bullfrog who popped out onto the walkway in the rainforest habitat, and then, got to “tuck in” the dolphins and close a curtain over their underwater viewing area before we grabbed a few winks ourselves. Tip: Beg, borrow or buy an air mattress to use. The floor is very hard and unforgiving, even with a sleeping bag beneath you.

In the morning, they open the curtains wide for a wakeup call with the dolphins, who seemed as intrigued by the guests on the other side of the glass as we were with them. Then it was off to the restaurant for a continental breakfast before the final dolphin sendoff.

But our day wasn’t over yet! Our dolphin adventure missed one key thing — interacting with the dolphins. We booked a dolphin encounter for the morning, so we could get up close and personal with our very own dolphin, Foster. After spending a 30 minutes learning more about dolphin behavior, we headed out onto the training deck, where we learned a few of the hand signals they use to encourage the dolphins to catch balls, spin in the water and jump. After we got to run Foster through the paces a few times, we finally pet our new friend — his skin felt sleek and firm, like a slippery rubber ball. We snapped a photo holding fins with our new friend, and then enjoyed a little more of Foster’s antics, petting him before it was time to leave.

Whether you do the sleepover with the dolphins or the dolphin encounter, your ticket includes admission to the aquarium for the rest of that Saturday, so you can revisit your favorite animals. We spent an extra hour just watching the dolphins.

Plus, if you’re looking for a way to take a weekend trip without the major hotel cost, museum, aquarium or zoo sleepovers could be your ticket — especially if you don’t mind the more floor accommodations and lack of shower facilities.

The National Aquarium event includes two meals, plus the backstage tour, movie and free admission for the rest of the day for $115 per person ages 8 and older. The memories we had though? They were priceless.

To book your Dolphin or Shark Sleepover event at the National Aquarium, visit the website. For more information on special sleepovers, read about the 13 Best Nights at the Museums or 10 Best Zoo Overnights With Animals.

— Lisa Milbrand

Lisa Milbrand loves to get away with her family, if only to escape the chaos brought on by her busy writing and content strategy practice at moxieworkshop.com, plus her two cats, one big dog and need to hold on to every piece of her children’s artwork. When she’s not busy sussing out baby name trends for her blog In Name Only, she’s plotting her family’s next bucket-list adventures, to Scandinavia and China.

Hang Glide USA Takes Families to New Heights

May 6th, 2015 by Guest Blogger No comments »

I don’t do heights. My idea of being up in the air is to perch on a bar stool, drink in hand. So when my family recently visited Amelia Island, Florida, it was suggested that we take a light-sport aircraft flight on a trike, (a powered hang glider) via Hang Glide USA. I hesitated – aka I hesitated to allow my 12-year-old “babies” to go up. But since they were both – along with my husband – overjoyed at the notion of hang gliding, I didn’t have the heart to cancel the fun. I didn’t have the slightest intention of taking a flight, but it turned out that my husband exceeded the weight limit (220 pounds) and both boys happened to be under the weather when the big day arrived.

Wendy Irvine ready to take flight via Hang Glide USA

Since my husband and boys were grounded, I headed for the car. The next thing I knew Pilot Gene had me zipping up a flight-suit and donning a helmet that sported an intercom so he could hear me screaming… I mean talking during the flight.

Pilot Gene calmly explained his background before out flight. Over the roaring of fear in my ears I heard him say “corporate pilot,” “thousands of hours under my belt,” and “the light-sport aircraft is like my office” as in he’s as comfortable in the sky as we are in our home.

Pilot Gene assured me that if I gave the word, we’d immediately return to Earth. I could see my boys sizing me up. They’re loving kids, but I risked being toast in their eyes if I failed this little test of bravery. Next thing I knew Gene and I were in the air, serenely flying over Amelia Island and the Big Blue. Below I spied horses, wild dolphins, a well preserved Civil War fort, two hotels (the Omni and Ritz-Carlton that blend elegantly into the island), along with a sprinkling of antique B&Bs and yesteryear cottages.

Wendy Irvine getting ready to fly

I took the Introductory Discovery Flight ($99 for 20 minutes). This intro flight will show you everything I saw on Amelia Island plus Egan’s Creek where you might also spy alligators.

The Deluxe Discovery Flight ($249 for 40 minutes) takes you over most of Amelia Island and the Florida/Georgia border. You’ll fly over the St. Mary’s River and see part of Cumberland Island, Georgia, home to more than 9,800 acres of federally designated wilderness.

On the Cumberland Island Nature Tour ($250 for 50 minutes), you’ll fly over Cumberland Island — an essentially untouched wild place — that boasts the historic Dungeness Mansion ruins (circa 1783), Plum Orchard Mansion (circa 1898) and the tiny chapel where John F. Kennedy Jr. married in 1996. You’ll see wild horses, wild turkey, alligators, exotic birds, deer and dolphins.

Hang Glide USA departs from the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport and flyers must be at least 4 feet tall to enjoy the sky ride.

I’ll admit: my landing brought me utter relief. The experience though? Fabulous. I exited the light-sport trike with a new swagger to my step. But best of all? Seeing a different — you might say heightened — glint of appreciation in my boys’ eyes. I’ll take a light-sport flight for that prize any day.

For more information and to book your flight experience, visit the Hang Glide USA website. Bonus: Book a Deluxe Discovery Flight before May 11, 2015, and receive one additional Deluxe Discovery Flight for free!

— Wendy Irvine

Wendy Irvine is a family travel writer who (usually) tosses her boys into a travel experience and watches the copy write itself. Wendy loves to tweet posts for overloaded parents who’d love a tip or three on crafting sane kid-travel. Follow her @WendyIrvine.

5 Kid-Friendly Adventures in Kauai

May 5th, 2015 by Guest Blogger 1 comment »

Kauai is an ideal vacation spot for families on the go in Hawaii. As the northernmost and oldest geographically, Kauai is the fourth largest of the main Hawaiian Islands. It’s known for its diverse and scenic natural wonders, such as the 3,567-foot-deep Waimea Canyon and 3,000-foot-high mountain cliffs that rise from the ocean floor to the Na Pali Coast.

This family-friendly island offers so much to its visitors. There are adventures galore to be had, as the weather is ideal year-round. The difficulty can be funneling through the many activities and excursions, given your family’s varying interests, and the goal should be, like on any vacation, to find something that fits everyone’s bill. Here are five family-friendly activities in Kauai (that this writer has personally tried) so you don’t go wrong on your next trip to Kauai.

Na Pali Coast in Kauai

Na Pali Coast Tour via Kauai Sea Tours
There are really two ways to really see Kauai and this is one of them. The Na Pali Coast is absolutely beautiful and there is no way to reach its 17 miles of shoreline by car. Once on the boat, you’ll encounter dramatic scenery that includes gorgeous cliffs, sea caves and waterfalls, as well as sea animals from turtles to dolphins to whales (given the right season). The boat stops at a reef for a bit of snorkeling and the Kauai Sea Tours team knows where to find the best and most colorful fish sightings on the island.

Also important is the fact that the captain and crew are really helpful and seem to love what they do. The captain provided Hawaiian history over the loud speaker during our sail, as well as breakfast and lunch. He and his team were making sure that everyone was having a good time on the 5.5-hour excursion that we went on, especially the passengers who were prone to seasickness (tip – take Dramamine if you suspect any seasick members of the family). The ride does get bumpy, and it’s a long time to be stuck on a boat if you’re not feeling well.

The cost of the Na Pali Coast Tour half-day sail and snorkel is $106 per child ages 3 to 12, $126 for teens ages 17 and older, and $136 for adults. The ride is recommended for children ages 3 and up.

Helicopter Ride via Jack Harter
The other best way to see the island is from high above in the sky, via Jack Harter Helicopters. It’s the only company that flies with doors off, so you can take expert photos and get a good breeze (dress warmly). The 60-minute ride takes you all over Kauai from Nawiliwili Harbor and the Menehune Fishpond to Kipu Kai and the Tunnel of Trees to Manawaiopuna Falls in Hanapepe Valley. The latter is actually nicknamed “Jurassic Falls” for its cameo in the hit film “Jurassic Park.” You’ll pass through canyons, North Shore beaches and end up near Mount Waialeale, Kauai’s ancient volcano.

Pilots engage with passengers through a two-way intercom system with a live commentary. It made a difference knowing what we were flying over at every point in time and it was nice to be able to ask questions through a small mic attached to the headphones. We were able to take photos on the tour, but everything had to be attached to a wristband or strap — we don’t recommend taking much with you on the flight.

Each ride costs $269 per person. Children must be at least 10 years old for the experience without doors; there is no age requirement for the enclosed AStar helicopter.

Waimea Canyon Bike Tour via Outfitters Kauai
Older kids will love a downhill bicycle ride through Waimea Canyon with Outfitters Kauai. The sunrise ride takes you to the top of the canyon down 13 miles of smooth winding blacktop overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The ride is four hours and the views are spectacular. The bikes are easy to ride, having wide saddles and hi-rise handlebars. We stopped for photos and to take in the views. Our leader stopped for coffee en route to the canyon and later gave out drinks and snacks during the ride. The ride was glorious and exhilarating, given the views of the skies at sunrise.

The cost is $86 per child ages 12 to 14 and $106 per adult ages 15 and older. The Waimea Canyon Downhill Bicycle Ride is good for kids ages 12 and up.

Waterfall Picnic Horseback Ride via Princeville Ranch Adventures
Princeville Ranch Adventures is located on Kauai’s North Shore on 2,500 acres. It’s a working cattle ranch with beautiful views of the Hanalei Mountains and Pacific Ocean. They offer various family activities including horseback riding, zip-lining, off-road vehicle tours and more.

The Waterfall Picnic Horseback Tour is ideal for horseback riding lovers. It takes you on an easy ride across terrain and then on a short hike to a waterfall where you’ll have a swim and lunch. The ride lasts about 3.5 hours and is a wonderful way to spend a morning in Kauai.

The cost is $135 per person. Princeville Ranch Adventures asks that kids be at least 8 years old.

Mountain Tubing via Kauai Backcountry Adventure
Mountain Tubing Adventure is a unique activity that gives you a chance to travel back in time to the sugar plantation era. It’s a really interesting way to see another side of Kauai.

The ride takes you through a tropical waterway consisting of open ditches, tunnels and flumes all of which were engineered and hand dug circa 1870. The ride starts out slow and speeds up in the caves, the last two of which you ride through in the dark — kids will shriek with excitement.

The guides are keenly on top of everyone’s safety, providing instructions when to raise your bottom and what to do inside the dark tunnels. Your guides will fit you with gloves, a helmet and a headlamp, and check your footwear to make sure that they won’t come off and float away during your adventure. The water is typically knee deep in most places, and the current moves you along fast enough that no paddling is required. At the end of your tubing adventure, the guides serve up a picnic lunch at a beautiful, natural swimming hole.

The rate is $106 per person and the tour is recommended for kids age 5 and up.

— Holly Fink

Holly Rosen Fink is a mother, marketing consultant, writer and blogger for a number of sites, as well as her own, The Culture Mom.