We took our first little “vacation” in over three years last weekend, braving a 5-hour drive with two kids to western Colorado to collect a few more NPS Junior Ranger badges for B. I’ve actually had this trip planned since last fall as I tend to do that….plan trips that we may never go on. They just sit there in Roadtrippers waiting patiently for me to remember them, eventually being shoved to the next page back as I just add more without actually going on any of them. Since I discovered the Junior Ranger program, this list has grown exponentially and there’s a small possibility that I don’t have enough years left in my life to go on ALL of these trips.
Still….I compulsively plan.
Curecanti National Recreation Area Junior Ranger Program
So we piled the kids, a cooler, suitcase, and lots of books into the car and made the trek through the mountains to Montrose. We got a little lost on the way due to a lack of cell coverage at the top of Monarch Pass, but we finally made it to the visitor center at Curecanti National Recreation Area….only to discover that we had just under an hour to complete the Junior Ranger book.
If there is one piece of advice I could offer to anyone wanting to start collecting Junior Ranger badges, it’s to give yourself plenty of T-I-M-E to go through the book at each destination (and, you know, enjoy the park). Or maybe we’re unique in that we have a son who likes collecting the badges but doesn’t like actually doing the workbooks? So sometimes doing the activities, especially if you’re in the middle of a frozen reservoir in the mountains in early March and it’s 18°F outside and the visitor center closes in 45 minutes and isn’t open again until you’ve returned home (which is 4 hours away) and you can’t get easily to any of the hikes (at least not with enough time to spare) and you’re forced to do the less “adventurous” activities that require a lot of reading, is like pulling teeth?
Needless to say, it wasn’t the most positive start to our little vacation, but we did make it through the six activities (including a hike around the parking lot) with a few minutes to spare, he got his badge, and C found a giant mound of deer poop in the parking lot that she thought was the greatest thing ever. Win-win.
We then kept on our little journey to Montrose where I had reserved an Airbnb for us….my first ever Airbnb. Honestly, when I told E I was thinking about using Airbnb, he pictured us all crammed into someone’s guest bedroom…or weirder. When I explained to him that it was a whole house and was about $150 cheaper than anything I could find on VRBO (our preferred vacation-home finder), he was okay to give it a try. Still, as we got closer and closer to Montrose, I got more and more nervous, trying to calculate what time we’d get home if we got there and it was awful or the owners were waiting for us with machetes and we somehow got out alive and could get back in the car.
Colorado National Monument Junior Ranger Program
The next day we got in the car (much to the delight of the kids….except not) for another trek even further west to Colorado National Monument. The weather was more on our side this time around, though being at a lower elevation probably helped. The sun was shining, the skies were clear, and the views weren’t bad either. Still, after having driven 5 hours the previous day, the 1.5-hour drive that day felt like an eternity and despite the fact the park offered a few tunnels through rock walls and a roadside mountain goat sighting, we were all very glad when we finally arrived and could break out of the
The CNM visitor center was nice with a little educational area that had some interactive exhibits the kids liked (including a button for a Canyon Wren call which they felt the need to press every 5 seconds) as well as the requisite bookstore. We picked up B’s booklet and headed out the back door where there was a conveniently located trailhead for a short hike along one of the canyon rims (fittingly called Canyon Rim Trail).
C’s personality really comes out during these hikes and I think some day she may just scale every single rock wall she comes across. The girl is BRAVE….too brave, at times, and we had to rescue her at least once or twice when she got a little too high on a ledge and couldn’t get back down. B entertained himself by building more cairns that marked the trail, and E and I soaked in the views and the sunshine. After about a 45-minute hike, we got through B’s activities and headed back to the visitor center where he got his second badge of the trip and his eighth badge overall. Then back in the car for a drive along the rim through the rest of the park and back to Montrose.
I prepped sheet pan fajitas and froze them the Thursday before we left and they were perfectly thawed by the time we got back to the house in Montrose. After a day in the car and the hike, being able to dump those into a baking dish and throw together a salad made this one of the best meals I have ever made. The entire house smelled like peppers, onions, and chili powder, but it was so good and this is definitely something I will do again in the future.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison Junior Ranger Program
The next morning, we packed everything up and piled into the car yet again for the short trip to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. I didn’t realize that 90% of the park would be inaccessible in March, so we were a little surprised when we saw the “Road Closed” sign just after we entered the park. That was disappointing as I’ve heard the views from the bottom of the canyon are amazing. Still, we picked up his book and spent about an hour-and-a-half on the short part of the trail (Rim Rock) next to the visitor’s center we could access without snowshoes, and then visited the only overlook that was open (Tomichi). We saw a few birds (a Crow, Western Scrub-Jay, Steller’s Jay, and a….wait for it….JUNCO! they followed us), but not much else and it was a challenge getting this one done (page 6 is required and is much easier in warmer months). Still, we persisted, and we left about 2 hours after we got there with B’s ninth badge and a little ranger doll for C.
The drive home was actually not too bad. We finished the audiobook I had grabbed from the library at the last minute with about 3.5 hours left in the drive, but fortunately, everyone in the car was either asleep or deep in the caverns of daydream land (except the driver – me), so it wasn’t too much of an issue. Until, that is, we hit a rollover accident just north of Colorado Springs and added another 45 minutes to our drive. We were all VERY DONE when we finally pulled into the garage at 7pm.
My takeaway from this trip was mainly that doing Junior Ranger activities in the winter in the mountains is probably not the greatest idea. While it was really nice that we virtually had the visitor centers to ourselves (except CNM which was surprisingly busy for the time of year), the difficulty in actually being able to do the activities made it really unenjoyable for everyone (especially B) and I really don’t want these badges to be a drag for anyone. I’d like to go on a few more NPS adventures before our pass expires in July (it’s nearly paid for!) since I’m kind of in love with the National Parks (and I think if I could do adulthood over again, I’d probably be living in one of them right now), but I think we’ll wait until the weather is warmer.