As we crossed the Texas panhandle, we planned on visiting Amarillo just to see what there was to do there.  We found free camping and a handful of attractions, making it a good, budget-friendly place for us to spend a few days.

Free Camping near Amarillo, Texas

We chose to take advantage of free camping at Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, about 40 miles from Amarillo. Visitors can camp at Lake Meredith for 14 days in a 30-day period, and there is a total limit of 60 days per year. There are no hookups, but many campsites to choose from, most with a picnic table, fire ring, and shade ramada. Fires are only allowed in grills and rings, and you may gather dead and down wood for campfires.   A dump station is available in the park, but no potable water, so fill your tank or jugs before you get there! There are dumpsters and bathrooms with flush toilets and showers. Quiet hours are from 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM. Pets should be on a leash.

Lake levels are significantly lower than they had been in the past.  Though you will probably have a view of water from your campsite, you won’t be able to walk over to the lake to swim from the upper campsites. Boat ramps are still open.  Fishing, swimming and boating are all allowed, and Lake Meredith, being along the Central Flyway, is a great spot for birdwatching. There is also a Junior Ranger program for Lake Meredith.

Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument

One of the least-visited National  Park sites, Alibates Flint Quarries is only a few miles from Lake Meredith NRA and worth a visit for those interested in geology, history, or archaeology.  No entrance fee is charged to visit this National Monument.  The visitor center is open from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, seven days a week, closing only on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. In the visitor center you can watch a short film about the Monument, see exhibits about the people who relied on the flint quarries and the processes they used, and pick up Junior Ranger books,   Because many artifacts remain in place, the site is gated and only accessible on a  2-hour guided tour.  The hike to the quarries is approximately 1 mile round-trip with an elevation gain of 170 feet. 

brushy vegetation on a hill
The hike to see the quarry site was not too long, with lots to look at on the way.

There was no charge for the tour and our volunteer guide was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We walked in on a weekday and were the only ones on the next tour, but the park website does say to call the visitor center to make reservations. Visitors should call 806-857-3151 (weekdays) or 806-857-6680 (weekends) to make a tour reservation. 

The children all enjoyed the hike and completed their Junior Ranger books quickly.  Our guide was very happy to answer their numerous questions and set a pace that was reasonable for Tiny.

Two young girls studying a rock
The two youngest Tumbleweeds studying a rock

Prized by ancient peoples for its utility, forming projectile points and other useful tools, Alibates flint is sought-after today for its striking beauty.  It’s unlike anything we had ever seen before, and we enjoyed learning how it formed and was quarried and used.

Don Harrington Discovery Center

While we were visiting Amarillo, we went to the Don Harrington Discovery Center.  Admission is $11 for adults and teens, $8 for military, seniors, and children 3-12, and free for children 2 and under. Our family’s admission was free under the ASTC Travel Passportprogram, saving us $76.   

More a  general children’s museum than a science museum, the Don Harrington Discovery Center has a variety of exhibits and hands-on activities.  One large display taught younger children about the human body. Another featured a small conveyor that drops small pieces of dry ice into an enclosed pool of water, where it  gives off a fog-like vapor (carbon dioxide gas)  and is propelled around the pool as it sublimes.  At least, we believe it was dry ice and plain water.  There was no sign explaining the exhibit or the scientific principles behind what was observed.   Dusty and I had the knowledge base to figure it out, but I’m not sure the average visitor would.  Interpretive signs explaining the reaction would be a great improvement.

There were large-scale block-stacking and marble-drop games, simlar to Jenga and Kerplunk. There was a bearded dragon and a tarantula to be seen on “Critter Row.”  The “Space Gallery”  teaches visitors about phenomena such as solar flares, cosmic rays, and auroras. The children’s favorite part was a temporary Lego exhibit featuring Lego dioramas and a Lego building area for children.

brown three-masted Chinese Junk made of Lego bricks

Train made of Lego bricks

Two-masted ship made of Lego bricks

Planetarium shows were included, but we were very disappointed with the old, poor-quality projector.   At one point during the show, the system crashed and the projectionist had to reset everything and start over.

Don Harrington Discovery Center might be a good way to pass a cold or rainy day if you get free or discounted admission and are already visiting Amarillo, but I would not recommend going very far out of the way or paying full price.

Our Favorite Part of Visiting Amarillo- Jack Sizemore’s Traveland RV Museum

Amarillo’s Traveland RV dealership is home to Jack Sizemore’s RV Museum. The museum is in its own building behind the dealership and there is no charge for admission. The RV Museum houses an impressive collection of camping vehicles, including motor homes, travel trailers and more, as well as vintage Harley motorcycles. Visitors can walk into many of the RVs and see the interiors. A few of the older units that should not be touched or entered are clearly labelled.  

Green vintage Harley-Davison motorcycle with left-hand sidecar
This 1918 Harley features a left-hand sidecar.

We saw the bus from the movie “RV,” a motor home that previously belonged to Max Factor, the oldest Airstream there is, and much more.  We were so busy looking at and exploring the museum, we didn’t really get many photos! If you’re an RV traveler visiting Amarillo, you have to go to the RV museum. For more information about the exhibits, see the museum website.

 

Visiting Amarillo, TX and Lake Meredith was a fun way to break up a long drive and see a few less-commonly seen attractions. We camped for free and got into the museums and NPS sites we visited for free as well, making this a very budget-friendly stop for us. 

While we were at our home base in Kansas, we knew we would be visiting Topeka to attend a Mother Earth News Fair.  We had previously attended one in Vermont and found it an enjoyable and educational weekend, so we were eager to go again. We decided to take a few extra days to see some of Topeka’s other sights.

Camping Near Topeka

We stayed at Lake Shawnee Campground, a Shawnee County park.  We paid $17 per night for an electric site.  Amenities included a dump station, showers, and laundry room.  The park has a playground and beautiful gardens.   The location was reasonable convenient to the things we wanted to see while visiting Topeka.

The Topeka Zoo

Topeka has a small zoo, just right for visiting with younger children.  Hours are 9:00 to 5:00, seven days a week, however the zoo is closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Regular admission is $5.75 for teens and adults, $4.75 for those over age 65, and $4.25 for kids 3-12 , and kids 2  and under are free.  Our admission was free under the AZA Reciprocal Admissions Program, since we have a membership to the WNC Nature Center, saving us $40.

Hippo in the water in a zoo exhibit
We enjoyed getting to see a hippo up close.

Giraffe in zoo enclosure

 

Along with exotic animals, the Topeka Zoo has an exhibit of North American wildlife, including black bears, raptors, and carnivores.

We probably would not have visited the zoo if we’d had to pay the regular admission price, but for free it was a good way to spend half a day.  Younger children or families who haven’t been to larger zoos would enjoy it, but since we’ve been to some of the country’s larger zoos, there was little  at the Topeka Zoo that was new to us.

 

Kansas State Capitol

  The highlight of our stay in Topeka was a visit to the Capitol Building.  Completed in 1903, the building underwent an extensive restoration between 2001 and 2013. Dusty had visited the Capitol as a schoolboy prior to the restoration, and was taken aback at the difference.  Decorative ceilings that had been whitewashed or obscured by drop ceilings were restored.  Copper handrails that had darkened with age were brightened up. Guided tours are available at no charge, or visitors can walk around on their own and take a self-guided tour.

children sitting in the judgee's bench
Sitting on the bench in the Old Kansas Supreme Court
staircase with copper handrails
Ornate copper handrails
stained glass dome with a chandelier
View looking up at the glass inner dome

mural inside dome

 

Kansas is the only state that allows visitors to climb up above the inner dome.  We took a guided tour via stairs  into the space between the inner and outer domes, and then onto the balcony around the outer dome.

staircase leading to a dome
This is the space between the inner and outer domes. See that staircase connecting them? We all climbed it, even the 4-year-old. The view was worth it!

 

 

As a whole, we really enjoyed visiting Topeka.  We caught up with one of Dusty’s old friends, enjoyed walking through and photographing the flower gardens at Lake Shawnee, had a fabulous day at the State Capitol Building, and learned very much about a variety of things at the Mother Earth News Fair.

As we planned a visit to Tucson, we began by looking for attractions that were free to the public  or free with our WNC Nature Center membership.  A look at the ASTC Travel Passport participant list led us to check out the International Wildlife Museum, a fabulous experience for both the scientists and the artists ni the family.

About the International Wildlife Museum

The International Wildlife Museum is located on Gates Pass rd. on the west side of Tucson.  Admission is $10 for adults and teens, $7 for seniors and military, and $5 for children (3 and under are free.)  The museum is open 7 days a week at 9:oo AM, but is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Admission includes all exhibits and the wildlife theater, which shows nature films and documentaries.  Seating is first-come, first-served, but plenty of seats were available when we visited.  A sign on the door says popcorn is for sale in the gift shop for $1. Visitors should know that this is microwave popcorn, popped on request.  

Visitors should understand that the International Wildlife museum is not a zoo, and with the exception of a couple of exhibits in the insect room, you will not be seeing live animals, but rather preserved specimens and replicas.  One of the benefits of viewing a specimen is that it isn’t moving, allowing your young scientists and artists to carefully observe its anatomy and the colors, textures and patterns of its fur or feathers.

taxidermy display of several kids of birds
This display of various birds allows visitors to see and study details of the birds’ anatomy and feathers at length

 

Some of the displays depict predators in the act of pursuing and taking their prey.  If you think your children may be sensitive to this, we suggest preparing them ahead of time by reminding them that the animals are not alive, but stuffed, and that the scenes are created by humans.

taxidermy mount of wolvestaking a deer
Some of the displays at the International Wildlife
museum show the relationships between predators and prey

 

In addition to animal exhibits, the International Wildlife Museum has some art on display. One current exhibition is a collection of sculpted  leather mixed-media pieces by Jana Booker

 

Three brown sculpted leather portraits of indigenous people
Sculpted leather portraits by Jana Booker, on display at the international Wildlife Museum through July 2018
a shiny silver and gold- toned rhino sculpture
A Rhino sculpture made from buttons!

 

Although mammals and birds make up the bulk of the museum exhibits, the insect room was a great favorite with us all.  There was a wide variety of butterflies and beetles displayed, from native species to exotic.  There were live Madagascar hissing cockroaches and a live tarantula (which is not actually an insect, but an arachnid)

Two bright blue butterflies
just a few of the many colorful butterflies displayed at the International Wildlife Museum
Various longhorned beetles on a branch
Assorted longhorn beetles displayed on a branch.

 

We were also happy for a chance to see a specimen of the extinct passenger pigeon.  Nobody will ever have a chance to see this  bird again in the wild or in a zoo, so we were grateful to see it at all.  

A stuffed passenger pigeon
Now we know what a passenger pigeon looked like! What a beautiful bird, and what a shame they were hunted into extinction.

The International Wildlife Museum would have been well worth the price of admission, however, the ASTC Travel Passport program saved us $49 on admission to this attraction.  The adults and children alike learned quite a lot and we even went back a second day to sketch and take another look at some of our favorites.  I hope you get a chance to visit too!

Although we found lots of other things to see and places to go once we got there, the reason we went to Arizona in the first place was to see the Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon with vegetation in foreground and ray of light on the left
A photo just doesn’t convey the depth and breadth of the Grand Canyon. You just have to see it for yourself!

 

We were there in March, not due to any preplanning but simply because that’s when we got there.  The weather was cool still, but there was no snow on the ground.  I should say, there was no snow on the ground when we arrived.  

About Grand Canyon National Park

A national park since 1919, Grand Canyon National Park contains 1904 acres. The canyon itself averages a mile in depth and ten miles across.  At the widest point, the distance from rim to rim is an astounding eighteen miles!

Entrance fees for the park are for a seven day period.  Entrance for a private vehicle and occupants is $30, a motorcycle is $25, and bicyclists or pedestrians pay $15. An annual pass for Grand Canyon National park is $60, which admits the passholder and the other occupants of the vehicle, or when entering by bicycle, on foot, or by shuttle/train, admits the passholder’s immediate family (defined as parents, spouse, and children) While the Grand Canyon annual pass is a good value if you’re going to spend two weeks or more visiting,  the “America the Beautiful”  annual pass, which grants admission to National Parks and other federal lands, is an even better deal at $80.

The south rim has a visitor center near Mather Point, with educational displays, video presentations about the canyon and a knowledgable staff to answer questions.  The Yavapai Geology Museum  features exhibits about the formation and geology of the canyon, and large viewing windows (a great choice for viewing the canyon if you have young children and are nervous standing near the rim with them!)  Kolb Studio, near the Bright Angel trailhead, was previously a photography studio and private home.  Today the building houses art and history exhibits.  At Verkamps Visitor Center you can learn about the history of  settlements and development in and around the Grand Canyon.  On the eastern end of the park, you can climb the Desert View Watchtower  for 360° views of the canyon and surrounding landscape.  The tower itself, though, is also worth seeing for its design and architecture.  Designed by Mary Coulter, the building contains murals by renowned Hopi artist Fred Kabotie.   Hermit’s Rest,on the west end of the park, is another Mary Coulter design, has exhibits, a gift shop and cafe.  Finally, don’t overlook the Tusayan Museum and ruin. There are no sweeping canyon views here, but rather an intimate look at the ways of life of the Ancestral Puebloan people.

 

interior of a circular room
Inside the Desert Watchtower
child in front of large stone fireplace
Inside Hermit’s Rest, taking a rest, of course!

 

Camping

Although  RV and tent camping is available in developed campgrounds within  Grand Canyon National Park, free dispersed camping in the Kaibab National Forest puts visitors just outside the park.  Stop in at the Tusayan District Ranger office for a Motor Vehicle use Map (MVUM) or get an electronic version ahead of time.  We chose a campsite on FR 307 up the road a ways from the Grandview Lookout fire tower. There is a trailhead near the fire tower, with vault toilets.

Travel trailer in a snowy landscape
We got just enough snow to look pretty for a day and then make a mess of mud when it melted! But see how how much space and privacy we had boondocking in the Kaibab National Forest?

Within the park there is a building with coin-operated laundromat and pay showers.  Visitors do not need to be registered at the in-park campgrounds to use these amenities.  Showers cost $2 for 8 minutes, and the water was good and hot.  A bill changer is available in the laundry room. There were men’s and women’s rooms with multiple showers, as well as a handicapped accessible/family shower.  I saw the attendant unlocking the handicapped accessible shower for a woman with a young school-age boy.  I supposed she felt he was a little old to go  in the women’s showers, but she didn’t want to send him in the men’s showers alone.  I was glad to see the staff accommodate them!

We recommend bringing plenty of groceries with you.  Prices close to the park are very high.  We only planned to stay a few days and were not well-stocked.  Then we got some snow, which quickly melted, and we felt it best not to try to get underway until the mud dried out. After a week, when  we decided to stay a second week, we took a day to drive into Flagstaff to resupply. Had there not been a 14-day stay limit in the National Forest, we might have stayed even longer!  

Things to Do

In addition to the many museums and visitor  centers, Grand Canyon National Park offers a variety of ranger-led programs. There are daytime talks suitable for younger children, but we particularly enjoyed the evening ranger programs.  We learned about subjects ranging from the Colorado River to the effects of fire suppression on the forest landscape. These programs are held at Shrine of the Ages, which also is home to various religious services on Sundays. Although most worshippers were employees  (and their families) of the National Park Service, US Forest Service, or the hotels and eateries within the park, we were made to feel very welcome at church services as visitors.

One of the best parts of visiting Grand Canyon National Park was hiking.  We hiked about 3 miles along the Rim trail, hopping on and off the free shuttle at various points.  We also hiked below the canyon rim on the Bright Angel trail, going as far as the lower tunnel before turning around.  It’s  much harder climbing back up than going down!

Grand Canyon with vegetation in foreground
View of the canyon from near Hermit’s Rest

 

hikers in front of a rock face
Below the canyon rim on the Bright Angel trail.
hikers on a trail
it was a warm spring day, so we had plenty of company on the trail.
group of children hikers standing in a rock tunnel
One of two man-made tunnels on Bright Angel trail

When we visited Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in 2017, we learned of the National Park Service Hike for Health pins.  Five  National Park sites in Arizona participate, and each has a unique pin one can earn just by hiking a minimum distance in the park. The hiking distance can be accumulated over multiple trails on multiple days.  Just take photos of yourselves on each trail hiked to show the staff at the visitor centers.

Where and how we earned our National Park Service Hike for Health pins

 

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument:  5 miles required. 

Since we were staying in the campground in the park, we took the Desert View Trail for 1.2 miles.  The trailhead was accessible from the campground, though we would consider it more of a walk than a hike.  Next we hiked the Arch Canyon Trail.  The maintained trail is 1.2 miles round-trip, but we decided to keep going up to the top of the rocks to the arch.  The route was marked with “unofficial” cairns but turned into a fairly challenging scramble.  Since Tiny was riding in a back carrier and making it hard for Dusty to keep his balance, we decided to turn back about halfway up the “unofficial trail.” It’s always been our rule that any of us feels we should turn back on a hike for any reason, the others will respect that.  We estimated 2.5 miles total for this hike based on Dusty’s fitness tracker.  The next day, we all went on a 1.6 mile  ranger-led hike to Red Tanks Tinaja.  Although there were a couple of other people on this hike, ours were the only children.  They had lots and lots of questions for the ranger about what we were seeing along the trail, and although the pace was slow, the time flew by.  We were all excited to get our hiking pin and resolved to get them at the other participating parks the following winter.

round lapel pin with organ pipe cactus
The one that started it all!

Chiricahua National Monument: 5 miles required. 

The day we arrived it was rainy, snowy at higher elevations, and the road was closed past the visitor center.  Not to be discouraged, we put on rain gear and hiked the Lower Rhyolite Canyon Trail out and back for a total of 3 miles.  We came back a couple of days later when things had dried up rode the hikers’ shuttle, which allowed us to hike from Massai point to the Heart of Rocks Loop, then back to the visitor center.  This hike was over 7 miles so we got our hiking pins when we got back to the visitor center, but we weren’t done hiking at Chiricahua yet!  On subsequent days we hiked Sugarloaf Mountain (1.8 miles) Echo Canyon Loop (3.3 miles) and Natural Bridge Trail (4.8 miles) bringing our hiking total for Chiricahua over a ten-day period to 20.1 miles

Round lapel pin with grey balanced rock against blue sky
The Chiricahua hike for health pin pictures one of the many rock formations visible along the trails

 

 

Fort Bowie National Historic Site: 3 miles required. 

Fort Bowie is unusual in that one doesn’t begin by driving to a visitor center, but rather parks at a trailhead on a gravel road and hikes into the park.  A 1.5 mile trail takes one past the post cemetery, Apache spring, ruins of a miner’s cabin, the Indian agency, and the Butterfield Stage Station, ending at the Visitor’s Center and ruins of the second Fort Bowie.  We took a guided hike, offered once a week, and received our pin at the visitor center, even though we had only done the first half of the hike. After all, we had to hike back out to get to our car, didn’t we?

Round pin with mountains and stagecoach
The Fort Bowie hike for health pin features a stagecoach.

 

Coronado National Memorial: 3 miles required. 

We started by exploring Coronado Cave. There’s a half-mile hike to the cave entrance, so there and back gave us one mile. The next morning, we got up early to ride the hikers’ shuttle up in order to hike back to the visitor center via Joe’s Canyon Trail.  This hike by itself was just over three miles one way.  

Round lapel pin with brown mountains and cactus
The Coronado hike for health pin reflects the monumen’ts spectacular scenery

 

Tumacacori National Historical Park: 4 miles required

Although Tumacacori itself was wonderful to see, most of the hike for this pin is outside of the park.  We only did it because we wanted to get the last pin!  The trail is flat without any particular points of interest and the further we got from the park boundary, the more trash we saw on the ground and in the water.  It would be a very good birding walk if one isn’t in a large noisy group, however.  We walked two miles out and then two miles back, but another option in January through March is to ride a hikers’ shuttle, offered the first and third Saturday of the month, and hike the four miles one way back to the park.

 

Round lapel pin with image of Tumacacori Mission
The hike may not have been particularly pretty, but the pin sure is!

Some good friends recommended we visit Bisbee, AZ,  an historic mining town.  We did a little research to see what there was to do there, and were surprised to find a Smithsonian-affiliated museum, the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum.  After looking at the museum’s website and admission prices, we decided to go see it!

Visiting the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum

Admission is just $3 for children under 16, and $8 for adults.  For our family, that added up to just $34.  For an even larger family, or one with a child over 16, a family membership at $40 may be the best option.The museum is on the smaller side and half a day is probably sufficient to see it all.

Mining cars displayed in front of the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum

The first floor has exhibits about the history of Bisbee, including the infamous Bisbee Deportation.  In 1917, striking mine workers were kidnapped, shoved into boxcars and transported out of state.  The second floor displays teach visitors about the progression of mining practices and equipment.  Many beautiful mineral samples are on display, many on loan from the Smithsonian. Visitors can read anecdotes from former mine workers talking about their work.

The museum was kid-friendly and the staff was very welcoming.  The first-floor exhibits included items that children could touch, pick up, and play with,  as well as old-fashioned clothing to try on.  The second floor featured a large shovel cab to sit in with a video screen showing what it would be like to operate the equipment.  For the youngest visitors, there was a corner with Tonka trucks to push around on the floor.

In the lobby of the Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum, free guides are available for three different walking tours of historic Bisbee.  We finished up our day by walking around, getting a cup of coffee, and looking at some of the historic homes and churches.  We enjoyed our visit very much and learned quite a lot at the museum.

 

After a couple of months at our home base in Kansas, we headed south in search of warmer weather. Our route took us through Oklahoma, naturally, and we were astonished at the number of things to do in Oklahoma City.

We camped at Thunderbird Lake State Park at a discounted rate  of $15 per night for water and electric hookups. The sites were spacious with fire pits and immovable concrete picnic tables.  Very few campers were there during our stay. The bathrooms were neither the best nor the worst we’ve ever seen.

We started with Science Museum Oklahoma.  Our WNC Nature Center membership granted us free admission under the ASTC Travel Passport program.  We enjoyed the museum so much, we went back the next day.  There was far too much to see in one day.  Planetarium and live science shows are included with general admission, so we saw a couple of shows.  Tumbleweed Dusty and the older children particularly enjoyed  the Segway training track/obstacle course.  Everybody loved the explosion-themed  live science show, especially the part where a small hydrogen explosion took place in my outstretched hand!  There was a variety of exhibits and hands-on activities appealing to kids of all ages and adults.  We would certainly go back on another visit!

Trying out the Segway course

 

Giant chessboard at the science museum

 

After  two consecutive days at the science museum, we visited the  Oklahoma State Capitol.  The building was undergoing renovations and much of the capitol’s art collection had been removed for safekeeping.  We did enjoy the architecture of the building as well as several murals, and learned a bit about Oklahoma history. We look forward to visiting again once the renovations are complete!

 

Even with construction in progress, the OK State Capitol building was beautiful

The Oklahoma City Museum of Art has evening hours until 9:00 PM on Thursdays with admission after 5:00 PM just $5 per person.   We didn’t run out of things to see inn that four hours.   Curly was amused and annoyed by one description: 

 

It says Potter was an “influential artist specializing in portraying animals in landscapes. Even in this depiction of a mythological subject, the young artist has included a cow, peering from behind the tree against which Mercury rests.” 

Curly was beside herself when she read this.  Anyone familiar with Greek mythology would know that the cow is in the painting not just because the artist loved painting animals, but as a character central to the story.

Jupiter had his  eye on the nymph Io, and his jealous wife Juno had her eye on him. To protect Io from Juno’s anger, he disguised her as a cow. Juno, not being fooled, tied the cow up and set Argus with his hundred eyes to watch over her.  Jupiter sent Mercury to put Argus to sleep and free Io. Mercury did indeed kill Argus and untie the cow, but it took Jupiter’s promise to stop pursuing her to persuade Juno to return her to human form.

 

 

This seascape was a favorite of Tumbleweed Maggie

In addition to traditional and contemporary  paintings and drawings, the museum h0uses an extensive collection of Chihuly glass.

Art glass by Dale Chihuly
These glass pieces were installed overhead, well-lit from above.
Curly poses in front of the 55-foot glass tower commissioned for the museum lobby.

There was a special exhibit on the art of the still life, and it included a hands-on corner with sketching materials and subjects.  The children spent quite a bit of time there drawing.

Sketching in the still life drawing corner

 

Subject of the kids’ sketches

We finished up our visit to OKC with a day at the zoo.  Our admission was half price with our WNC Nature Center memberhip,  but the OKC Zoo is a great value even at the full price of $11 for teens and adults and $8 for kids 12 and under.  We didn’t get to see everything in the one day we spent there, but we thoroughly enjoyed every minute.  The bats in the nocturnal creatures barn were fascinating.  We split up to attend two keeper chats going on simultaneously, one about orangutans and one about tigers, both of which were very informative. The reptile house exhibits were another favorite.

 

We had so much fun and I couldn’t pick just one favorite from among these attractions.  people often overlook the midwest states as boring and uncultured but we found many things to do in Oklahoma City, and look forward to a return visit sometime.

 

 

We had never even heard of Chiricahua National Monument until we searched to see which parks participate in the Hike for Health collectible pin program.  The monument consists of over 11,000 acres, with over 9000 of those acres designated as wilderness. Not as popular as the better-known parks, in 2009 under 61,000 people visited.  No admission fee is charged, and in addition to 17 miles of hiking trails, there is an 8-mile scenic drive, making the park accessible to all.

Though there is camping in the park, we chose to use Indian Bread Rocks as a base to explore Chiricahua National monument, Ft. Bowie National Historic Site , and more.

The first day we were there the weather was bad, so we took a relatively short hike (Lower Rhyolite Trail) and spent time studying the exhibits in the visitor center and working on Junior Ranger books. The staff, both Rangers and park volunteers, were very helpful and friendly.

 

 

 We came back on a nicer day and rode the hikers’ shuttle up to Massai Point.  This meant we could hike one-way  from Massai point to the Heart of Rocks Loop, then back to the visitor center. There is no fee for the shuttle, but you do have to sign up in the Visitor Center and sign a liability waiver.  Children are permitted on the shuttle; if they need a car seat or booster, the parent or guardian will have to install it in the shuttle van.  The child seat can stay there in the van or in the visitor center until the party returns from their hike.  This hike was over 7 miles total. including  the rather challenging Heart of Rocks Loop, but so many rock formations were visible from  the loop.  We were all tired and sore when we got back to the visitor center and got our pins.

Young girl standing in front of balanced rock
Sparky posing in front of a “balanced” rock.
Small child with rock hoodoos in background
Tiny with hundreds of “hoodoos” in the background

  There was still  more hiking  to do, though.   On another day we hiked Sugarloaf Mountain, one of the highest points in Chiricahua National Monument, with an historic  Civilian Conservation Corps fire watchtower at the summit. This was a hike of .9 miles (one-way) and an elevation gain of 470 feet. We ate our lunch at the peak while enjoying views of the park and some of the trails we’d previously hiked.

 

After lunch, we hiked the Echo Canyon loop trail. This loop included a great diversity of habitat and some interesting rock formations.

Group of children standing between two boulders
All the kids on the Echo Loop hike

 

Teenage boy standing next to grey and green rocks
Slim exploring the Echo Canyon loop

 

Thin slot between rocks
What a fun place to hike!

 

Group of hikers on switchback, viewed from above
Lots of switchbacks on this trail.

 

It can be hard to know what to bring with you in your RV and what to leave at home when packing for a trip.  If you’re moving into your RV for a longer term, it can be even harder.  You will have to sell, give away, or store whatever you don’t take.

CLOTHING

One of the first ways to save space and weight and simplify your RV life, is to minimize clothing. When we started RVing full-time, we had play clothes, nice clothes, dress clothes, and several pairs of shoes for each person.  This added up to hundreds of pounds of cargo.

After a year of travel, I realized that khakis/slacks and a collared polo-type shirt would be suitable anywhere we went, from hiking trails to museums.  For girls who love dresses, choose a skirt or jumper that would pair with a polo shirt.  Tiny had a lot of outfits consisting of leggings and a coordinating shirt, gifts from family members.  Though cute, the leggings all were colorful prints and only “went” with the shirt that came with them. Since she still has toiletting accidents, Tiny goes though more bottoms than tops, and it didn’t make sense to have a bunch of tops and bottoms that only go with one other item.  As these get stained, torn, and outgrown, I’m getting rid of them and replacing them with basic navy or khaki slacks and solid colored polo shirts.When she has an accident, I can change just her pants, not a whole outfit.

IN THE GALLEY

Another place unnecessary things sneak in is the galley, or kitchen.  We have a big stainless steel stockpot, large enough to make soup or chili or boil pasta for my family of 8.  We also have a smaller enameled cast iron dutch oven.  90% of our cooking is done in these two pots. Either pot can be used on the gas range in the RV, on our propane camp stove, or on a grate over a wood or charcoal fire. I don’t need a teakettle to heat  water for my coffee; I can heat water in a pot.  I don’t need dishpans to hold washing and rinsing water; we wash dishes in the big stockpot, and fill a large plastic  salad bowl with rinse water.  I don’t need a garlic press, cheese slicer, hard-boiled-egg cutter, etc.  One large and one small cutting board  and a small assortment of knives take care of anything I want to cut, chop, or dice.

Dehydrated foods also can  help save weight and space.  We often use a stew blend consisting of dehydrated potatoes, carrots, onion, celery, bell pepper and cabbage.

IN THE HEAD

I used to love big, thick, plush bath towels. They’re so warm and fluffy to wrap up in after a shower or bath.  They take longer to dry, though, and take up more space when folded and stacked in the bathroom cubby, so in the RV we use thin beach towels.  They are lighter and dry quicker on a clothesline between showers, so they can be reused a few times before washing.  They also dry much quicker in a laundromat dryer.

We use campground showers when available instead of showering in the RV.  This not only saves the cost of the propane we use for heating water, but saves time, since there are usually multiple showers, at a minimum one for men and one for women. When we have multiple people showering in different showers at once, though, it’s harder for everyone to share family size bottles of product like we would at home.  To make going back and forth to campground showers easier, each child has a Dopp kit with their deodorant, toothbrush, and other personal care items.  To further simplify, most of us use a 3-in-1 hair and body care product.  Several brands offer these, mostly aimed at men.  It’s simply a shampoo/conditioner/body wash all in one.  It makes sense if you think about it- a product that will clean the hair and scalp should clean the skin of the body too, shouldn’t it? These products may not be best for everyone, but I recommend you at least give it a try.  It’s so much simpler to carry around one product instead of a shampoo, a conditioner, and a bar of soap or bottle of body wash. 

Do you need a bathroom scale in your teeny RV bathroom? I carried one around for a year before deciding we don’t need it. Many grocery stores have a “Higi station” or similar health station where I can check my weight and blood pressure from time to time.

Simplifying your beauty routine is important.  Wear your hair in a style you can wash and air-dry, and you can leave behind the hot curlers, straightening iron, blow dryer, etc. If you don’t want to forgo makeup entirely, choose a foundation with SPF protection, one mascara and blush suitable for everyday wear, and one or two choices of lip color.  I don’t need ten lipsticks to choose from or glitter eyeshadow, and you probably don’t either.

Packing light for your RV trip or fulltiming life may seem challenging at first, but will bless you and your family in the long run.  Less stuff means you can have a smaller RV, spend less time cleaning up and repacking your RV, and spend more time making memories!

 

Having spent a couple of months in  southeastern Arizona, we found plenty of low- and no-cost things attractions.  Here’s a few of our favorite free things to do in Tucson, AZ:

Fort Lowell Museum: Small, but well laid-out, this historical museum features lots of hands-on, kid-friendly exhibits, including costumes to try on and old-fashioned toys to try out.  It’s a great window into life in southeastern Arizona during the Apache Wars.

Little girl dressed in military uniform
Trying a uniform on for size at the Fort Lowell Museum

Mission San Xavier del Bac: This active parish church is located on lands belonging to the Tohono O’odham people, but is open to the public and welcomes visitors. It is known as the oldest European building in Arizona and a remarkable example of Mexican Baroque style.  Photography is permitted except during religious services.  

The church was built between 1783 and 1797, with most of the work being done by the O’odham people.  In the late 2oth century a team of conservators completed extensive restorations.   A video is played in the visitor center that shows how the restoration process was carried out.  Exterior preservation and restoration is ongoing.

 

Roy P Drachman Agua Caliente Regional Park: An oasis in the desert, formerly a ranch and resort, now provides opportunities for the public for picnicking, birding, and walking along developed nature trails.  There is ample free parking, restrooms,  and no day-use fee, though there is a rather extensive list of rules posted on site.  Bicycles, skates, scooters, alcohol, fishing, swimming, wading, firecrackers, kites, pinatas, drones, tents, shade canopies and tightrope walking are among the prohibited items and activities.  We were very curious about whatever led “tightrope walking” to be included on the list of no-nos! Leashed dogs, however, ARE allowed.  The park features a small art gallery in an historic building and a gift shop.  Check the hours before you go.

4. The Tucson Rodeo Parade: if you happen to be in Tucson at the right time, you can see the world’s longest non-motorized parade.  A celebration of pioneer and cowboy culture, and all the cultural groups that make up Tucson, the parade had a diverse assortment of horse-drawn vehicles, mounted groups, rodeo queens, and walkers- even dancers!

Dancers in colorful blue and red dresses swirl their skirts in a parade
Colorful skirts swirl in the 2018 Tucson Rodeo Parade

Finding free things to do in Tucson allowed us to stretch our budget and take in some of Tucson’s history and culture. We hope you have a chance to enjoy some of these things, too!