Shopping for Gifts For RVers

It can be hard to know what to give families or children who are RVing fulltime. Space is limited, and families have to take weight into consideration.  Heavy items like clothes and books may be quite unwelcome.  Even clothing can be an inappropriate gift when storage space is limited.  Here are a few suggestions

Give a practical gift:

Even those of us who use GPS often like to have a road atlas on hand as backup.  A new, updated one might make a nice Christmas gift.

Gift cards for fuel or grocery stores are always appreciated. Try to choose chains that are widely available.

Gift certificates to go to the movies are another idea. Again, nationwide chains are best unless you know where the travelers will be.

A camera to capture all those fun experiences and new places makes a great gift for all ages.

Travel guides can be useful if you know the new places the recipient plans to travel to. The “Off The Beaten Path” guide books are a favorite of ours. (I believe there’s one for each state)

A membership to a chain gym can be used both to stay in shape while traveling and to be able to take a long, hot shower from time to time without worrying about conserving water. Some examples are Anytime Fitness, SNAP Fitness, and Planet Fitness,

Rechargeable flashlights/portable lights are great. No need to carry around extra batteries!

The National Park Passport and State Capitols Passport books are a fun souvenir. These are small blue books that visitors stamp with the special stamp and the date when they visit.

For families who hike, like mine, there’s no such thing as too many wool socks. Yes, we get excited about new socks. Yes, the kids too!

A travelling family will get a lot of benefit out of a zoo or museum membership that offers free or discounted admission to other museums.  We love our Western North Carolina Nature Center membership, which gets us reciprocal admission to both zoos and science centers under the AZA reciprocal program and the ASTC Travel Passport program.

 

2019 Road atlas
An updated road atlas comes in very handy!

Give Consumable Gifts:

Consumable can refer to food, certainly, but also anything that gets used up.  Christmas cookies, fudge, or a box of gourmet chocolates are all consumable. So are things like crayons, for families with young children, or other art supplies, or paper plates.

These are just a few ideas of gifts for RVers that don’t take up a lot of space or add a lot of weight.

When we began to consider buying a newer RV, we came up with a list of must-haves.  We wanted a door to our bedroom instead of just a curtain.  We wanted a place for the two boys to sleep without having to convert the dinette to a bed every night. Most importantly, we wanted to be able to use the kitchen and sleeping spaces without having to put out slides.  As short as this list of “musts” was, we had a hard time finding a travel trailer that fit our needs.

Overview of the Octane 272

After months of looking, we decided to purchase a Jayco Octane Superlite 272. This is a toy hauler travel trailer, with a front queen bedroom, rear queen bunk over a dinette that converts to a queen, and a set of  single bunks between the bathroom and living area. The boys sleep in the single bunks and the girls share the two queen beds. 

Camper bunk beds
These bunks are approx. 5’6″ long. The fridge can be seen on the left

This particular model has a foldaway dinette as the doorside option, rather than a sofa or captains chairs, giving us maximum flexibility.

You see, that doorside dinette means we have a table to use  after the kids are in bed or in the morning before they’re up.  It converts to a comfortable bed, so we could take along a guest or two on a short trip.  It also folds up against the wall, giving us more space to stow gear and coincidentally, making it very easy to clean the floor under the table. The way the interior features of the RV can be reconfigured reminded us of a Transformer-from which we get the name, Octavius Prime.

The rearmost dinette seats all six kids comfortably.  We raised the stops for the upper bunk to a height that allows us to sit in the dinette underneath it. Now we don’t have to raise the top bunk by day to use the dinette.  It was a simple adjustment-if you can turn a screwdriver, you can reset the stops!

The upper bed stays in the position shown, while the lower part converts from a dinette to a bed.

 

Although some Octanes have a party deck option to use the rear door/ramp as a deck, this option was not available on the Superlites. No worries! When we want to sit outside, we can sit under our awning or around a campfire. We do love the fact that we can put the rear ramp down and pull down the rear screen to keep the bugs out while enjoying sunlight and fresh air.  

View of the rear dinette with the back ramp open.

Organizing Our Octane 272

Because the interior is designed to be reconfigured during travel to hold ATVs, motorcycles, a golf cart, or other equipment, there is much less built-in storage than in a bunkhouse model.  We hit up Target, the Container Store, Dollar Tree, and Aldi to find items to use in organizing our new space.

First, the kitchen…

Command hooks hold our measuring cups and spoons, pot holders, and trusty Almanac. The paper plate holder we had for the old RV mounted to the underside of the overhead cabinet.

A magnetic bar holds our knives and scissors, and the bamboo covering prevents the edges from being damaged.

Bamboo surfaced magnetic knife bar
This keeps knives out of little hands

 

Two rows of magnetic spice tins hold all the spices and herbs we need.

Two rows of magnetic spice tins
I bought one of these magnetic spice racks at Aldi a few years ago for the old RV. I found a second one at the Container Store, seemingly identical.

 

There was no place to hang a dish towel, so we added this bar that hooks over a cabinet door.  We were able to find one that matched the finish of the other hardware.

Green towel on cabinet door rackOverall we are very happy with our Jayco Octane 272 and have found it easy to add storage and organization.  If we cross paths during our travels, we’d be happy to give you an in-person tour!

Exploring Ice Beds Trail

Since this was our third summer camping at Hapgood Pond, the nature trail around the pond, though still pleasant, was getting to be a little boring and easy. We decided to explore more of the Green Mountain National Forest this visit. A stop at the ranger station gave us a lot of information on trails within the GMNF, and we settled on Ice Beds Trail.  This is a short, intermediate out-and-back trail, with an unusual payoff at the end.

In the winter, ice forms in the spaces within a huge pile of rocks. Sheltered by the pile, the ice lasts well into the summer, melting slowly and allowing visitors to enjoy a cold draft coming from the pile.  Once I stepped into the low point in front of the pile, I felt as though I were standing in front of the refrigerator with the door open!  

The hike had some minor ups and downs and at times the trail was hard to follow. The trail is marked with blazes but the footbed was not eroded enough to make the trail apparent.  The lack of damage to the land is a very good thing, it just means hikers have to pay attention and look for the blazes. We packed a lunch to eat at the turn-around point and spent plenty of time enjoying the cool air while eating. Then we climbed the rocks to explore. No ice was visible near the surface of the rock pile, but the cold air was evidence of ice buried deep within.

A boy with a backpack
Spike resting at the end of the trail

  This is a popular trail and we encountered several other parties along the trail. I would recommend trying to do this hike on a weekday like we did. I imagine on a weekend it can get rather crowded.

Overall this was a great hike for beginners or younger children. There are enough elevation changes that it feels like a “real hike” rather than simply a walk in the woods, but neither the distance nor the elevation was too much for our four-year-old.  

 

Family Fun at Hapgood Pond

One of the first National Forest Service Campgrounds we discovered when we started traveling was in the Green Mountain National Forest in southern Vermont.  Hapgood Pond features a small camping loop, with picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilets, as well as a day-use area with a swimming beach, flush toilets, and showers.  There is also a one-mile nature trail. The first 8 campsites are first-come, first-served, and we have always been able to get one of these spots, saving us the time, trouble, and extra expense of reserving a site ahead of time.  If you’re the sort of traveler who likes having reservations, then you can reserve sites 9-28 on recreation.gov.

 

Pond surrounded by evergreen forest
Hapgood Pond, formerly a mill pond, provides a place for wading and swimming, fishing, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding

This year we were a little disappointed when we arrived and found the camping fee had increased  to $20 per night.  We still camped there, and plan to in the future, because we find it to be a good value even at the increased rate.  The older children enjoy fishing in the pond, and we all have a lot of fun at the swimming area!

Things to Do Nearby

The nearby town of Manchester has outlet stores, a charming new-and-used bookshop, and a park with a variety of playground equipment and fitness stations.  We can get a workout in using the walking path and the various stations found along it, such as pull-up bars, while being able to see our children on the playground. There is a grocery store in Manchester as well, but we prefer driving further into Bennington to go to Aldi (and grab an iced coffee at Cumby’s) There are multiple places to get ice cream, including Stewart’s and a Ben & Jerry’s stand.  If you stop in at the Ranger Station, you can pick up lots of information about local hiking trails and other outdoor recreation as well.

On our trip from Kansas to New York, we decided to avoid I-35 and instead took highway 77 north through Kansas. Doing so allowed us to  see more of the country and small towns-after all, interstate roadsides look much the same.

Free Camping in Marysville, KS

As we came into a town called  Marysville, we passed a small park with some tent and RV campers.  We weren’t planning on stopping yet, so we drove on. Then I began to notice well-maintained historic buildings and wanted to take photos.  We decided to circle back to the park and see what the camping fees were.  

A five-day stay limit was posted, but there was no registration station. A quick Google search confirmed that there was no fee for camping. There were a few picnic tables and electric hookups available. Flush toilets, a dump station, and water were available in the park. The little Tumbleweeds enjoyed the playground adjacent to the camping area, and the adults could get in a playground workout.

Wooden playground with towers
The playground is suitable for a wide age range of kids
Man doing pull up on bar at playground
Working on pull-ups at the playground while the kids have fun

The park was quiet overnight with the exception of some train noise and truck traffic on the highway. We didn’t hear a sound from the other campers, even though no quiet hours were posted. Our stay fell on a weeknight; I don’t know if weekends are busier or noisier. The local police station is just up the street and we saw patrols during the evening. The park felt very safe and quiet.

Black Squirrel City

Marysville, KS has quite a few points of interest. There is a population of black squirrels, protected by local law, which give the city the nickname “Black Squirrel City”. It seems they interbreed with other squirrels, resulting in oddities like this red-tailed, black-bodied fellow.

Black squirrel with red tail
Black body, red tail

In celebration of these black squirrels, Marysville has squirrel statues scattered around town, decorated in unique ways by various organizations.  These were fun to find as we explored the town.

Squirrel statue with glasses and library card in pocket. Books are stacked at the feet

Squirrel statue with painted sunflowers

 

Black statue of squirrel with mosaic tail

 

The Pony Express Came Through Here!

We also enjoyed seeing a Pony Express station.  This building was a “home station,” originally constructed in 1859 and still standing on the original site. Riders would change horses here. There is a museum, but we arrived too late in the day. We hope to return another time to see it!

Stone building
Pony Express Home Station #1 still stands on its original site in Marysville, KS

Marysville’s Pony Express history is commemorated on this squirrel

Black squirrel statue with pony express painting on side

Library Park

As I walked down the sidewalk taking photos of squirrel statues, I noticed a black gate that read “Library Park.” Tucked into the space between the public library and the adjacent building I found child-height benches and tables, tidy garden beds, and a remarkable mural of book spines taller than I am. What a charming and cozy space for the children of Marysville to curl up with a book or just sit and enjoy fresh air! Though the library was closed for the evening, the gate was not locked; on the contrary, it stood open, inviting me in.

Black iron fence
The fence dividing the park from the busy street featured scenes of children reading and playing

Mural of book spines showing classic titles

 

We found Marysville, KS to be a convenient place for an overnight stop, with enough things to see and see to spend a day or two exploring. We look forward to our next visit!

 

 

Chicken and vegetables over rice
Chicken and Vegetable Curry, served with rice.

We want to eat a healthy diet, so we make sure to eat plenty of fresh vegetables. By eating the produce that is in season or on sale, we are able to keep our grocery budget low without resorting to ramen.  The vegetables used in this curry were a bargain! The produce market we frequent when we’re in the Phoenix area had a box of carrots in assorted colors-purple, orange, yellow and white- for only $2.  It was at least 6 lbs of carrots.  None of them were spoiled.  They were “ugly,” with some cracks and funny shapes, but perfectly fine.  Some of them went into this curry dish- the rest were sliced and cooked and sitting in the fridge to have tomorrow. We also picked up a 50 cent head of cauliflower, a bunch of asparagus for 99 cents per pound, and some yellow summer squash for 25 cents per lb.  Here’s what we did with them:

Chicken and Vegetable Curry

serves 4

1 can coconut milk

1 Tbsp curry powder

1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped

2 medium summer squash, sliced

half a head of cauliflower, cut into small florets

6 carrots, sliced

1/2 lb asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 large boneless chicken breasts, sliced 1-inch thick

Your source of heat can be a camp stove, grate over a bed of coals, or cooktop in an RV.  As you can see from the photos, I cooked this in the RV.  It’s been too dry and windy for a campfire this week.

Oil a skillet and place the chicken slices in a single layer. Season with salt and pepper.

 

Two cast iron skillets; one contains sliced chicken and the other, mixed vegetables

 

In a Dutch oven or pot with a lid, place all the cut-up veggies with salt and a few cups of water. Cover and steam.

In the meantime, gently shake the can of coconut milk, then open and pour into a bowl.  Add curry powder and chopped cilantro.

 

Bowl with a whisk and curry sauce

 

Once the chicken is cooked, cut the larger slices into bite-size pieces. (Cutting it too small before cooking can cause it to dry out too much during cooking)  Once the veggies are tender, drain off any extra liquid.

 

Carrots, asparagus, squash, and cauliflower in a colander

 

Combine veggies, chicken, and sauce.  If the sauce seems too thin, you can thicken it with some cornstarch.  Simply ladle about half a cup of the liquid into a cup or bowl and add a Tbsp of cornstarch.  Whisk it together until smooth, then pour it back into the pan and mix well.

I hope your family enjoys this chicken and vegetable curry as much as mine did! Feel free to mix it up using whatever veggies you like best. This is a great way to use seasonal vegetables and stretch your food budget while eating a nutritional and balanced diet.

 

 

 


There’s much more to camp cooking than hamburgers and hot dogs and s’mores. You CAN eat healthy foods while traveling! This recipe was a hit with all the little Tumbleweeds.

Spring Vegetable and Egg Stir-Fry

serves 4

1 small head Napa cabbage, shredded

1 head baby  bok choy, sliced

2 medium yellow summer squash, sliced

1 bunch asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces

4 oz white mushrooms, sliced

1/2 large onion, any color, cut into 1-in pieces

2 medium bell peppers, any color, sliced

3 ribs celery, sliced

3-4 radishes, sliced thinly

4 eggs

soy sauce

minced garlic

fresh ginger, grated

oil

Noodles, rice, or cauliflower “rice”

You need a heat source of some kind: a camp stove, campfire grate over a bed of hot coals, or the cooktop in your RV. In a large oiled cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven, start cooking the mushrooms, radishes, and the celery with the ginger. I used about 2 tsp ginger, but but can adjust the amount to suit your family’s taste.

.Vegetables in a skillet

 

After the veggies start to soften, add the asparagus.

 

More vegetables in a skillet

 

Allow to cook for a few more minutes, then add the remaining vegetables.

 

At this point, I also add minced garlic.  We love garlic, putting it on “everything but ice cream” as my friend Corky says!  Since peeling and mincing garlic can be tedious, we use this:

 

Hand holding a jar of minced garlic
My favorite camp cooking time-saver!

While the veggies finish cooking, get out another skillet and scramble the eggs.  When cooked, mix everything together. We ate our spring vegetable and egg stir-fry over riced cauliflower, but you could serve it with rice or noodles according to your preference.

 

Vegetable and egg stir fry served with cauliflower "rice"
Spring Vegetable and Egg Stir-Fry, served with cauliflower “rice.”

General Tips for Camp Cooking

You can improve your camp cooking skills by learning techniques rather than just learning recipes.  The techniques used here can be adapted to make many other stir-fry dishes using what you like, what you have on hand, and what’s in season.  If you don’t eat one of the veggies I used in this dish, just leave it out or substitute a different vegetable.  You can also use thinly sliced chicken, pork, or beef in place of the egg, or extra-firm tofu cut into small cubes or strips.  You could stir fry just the vegetables, omitting the protein and rice or noodles, and serve as a side dish with a sandwich or burger.  

Sedona Red rock formations

Last spring, as we headed north from Phoenix to visit the Grand Canyon, we stopped to see Sedona, AZ.   We found easily accessible dispersed camping in the Coconino National Forest, within a reasonable drive of the many things to do in Sedona, but also near National Park Sites such as Tuzigoot and Montezuma Well.  We found so many things to do in Sedona, we stayed for 2 weeks instead of the couple days we originally planned!

 

Free Camping in the Coconino National Forest

Right off  I-17, exit 298, is access to the Coconino National Forest. Dispersed camping is permitted for up to 14 days; try to choose a site with evidence of previous use, which shouldn’t be hard.  

We especially loved how dark the skies were at night.  There was minimal light pollution and we enjoyed having a clear view of the night skies.

 

Things to Do in Sedona

Sedona is well-known for its beautiful red rock formations and several so-called energy vortexes.  We decided to start with a hike around the Airport Loop trail, named for the airport sited atop a mesa.  Trailhead parking, which is very limited, was full already when we got there. We drove further up the raid and parked in a pay lot near the airport. The parking fee was cheap ($3 in 2017) and there were ports-potties there, affording everyone one last chance to go before we set out on our hike. There is a connector, the Sedona View trail,  from this lot to the Airport Loop trailhead.  We hiked clockwise around the Mesa, but were I to do it again I would hike counter-clockwise, starting across the road from the trailhead parking.  Altogether it was a little over 5 miles of hiking, including the connector from the pay lot.  If you get there early enough to park at the Airport Loop trailhead, you could save maybe a mile.  It was a very achievable hike for families with kids, since their elevation changes are modest, but probably not a good hike for an absolute beginner or someone afraid of heights. A significant part of the trail is close to steep slopes or drop-offs.

There is supposed to be a “vortex” along this trail. None of us felt or sensed anything out of the ordinary on this hike.  When I researched beforehand, I found references to trees on the mesa  that were supposedly twisted by the energy vortex.  We did see plenty of twisty junipers in a variety of places, but there are trees  like that at most elevated places, twisted not by mystical swirling energy, but the wind.

We also did some shorter hikes, but sadly I failed to record the trail names.  They were all fun and beautiful, though! There are so many great hikes in Sedona that I recommend buying a hiking guide if you’re going to spend more than a day or two. Normally I wouldn’t spend money on a paper guidebook that would just clutter up the RV later on, but you might order an inexpensive used one online before you go, and resell it or pass it on to another traveler when you’re done with it.

A “Red Rock” pass is required for use of National Forest lands in the Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon area. (See map) If you have a national park pass, such as the America the Beautiful pass, Every Kid in a Park pass, Access pass, or Senior pass, it will be honored.  Simply leave it in your vehicle’s display hanger.  A pass is not required for a brief stop to take a photo or look at a scenic viewpoint, but if you will be leaving your vehicle to hike, picnic, etc in the applicable area, you need a pass.  If you don’t have a national park pass, you can purchase a one-day Red Rock Pass for $5, a seven-day Red Rock pass for $15, or an annual Red Rock pass for $20. 

Things to Do Nearby 

While camping near Sedona, we visited several sites of historical significance. 

A single admission fee grants visitors access to both Tuzigoot National Monument and Montezuma Castle National Monument. Admission is $10 per person, with children 15 and under free, and is good for seven days, so you don’t have to rush to see both sites in a single day. Of course, if you have one of the national park passes, then your admission  is free anyway! 

Montezuma Castle  has a visitor center with some information about the Sinagua people, and a paved path leading to views of the “castle.” Not a castle at all, it is a well-preserved cliff dwelling.  In past times, Visitors were allowed to explore inside the dwelling, but to protect the site, visitors now must remain outside, down on the ground. A detailed model is displayed so visitors can se what the inside looks like, though.  The local schools were on break and it was busy the day we were there.  A ranger was available to answer questions and talk about the dwelling. I don’t know how many times we overheard someone ask him, “How did they get up there?”  

Each time he patiently responded that they had ladders.  One man retorted, “But what about the women and children?”

I was floored.  Never before had I encountered an individual who believed women can’t climb ladders!  Truth be told, the women and children of the Sinagua people were probably much more physically capable than this guy!

About 11 miles away, Montezuma Well is a limestone sinkhole, nearly 400 feet in diameter. Used a a source of irrigating water for over a thousand years, this body of water has a unique collection of life.  The water is too carbonated and contains too much arsenic for fish to survive, but a handful of well-adapted creatures have made a home there, some of which are found in no other known place on earth. Not only is Montezuma Well of interest from a geological and biological perspective, but it is a beautiful setting for a walk and some bird-watching. Guided birding walks are offered- contact the park or check the website for dates and details. Curly and Sparky, along with their father, went on a guided bird walk and really enjoyed themselves. The volunteer guide was able to accommodate a wide range of experience, and the other participants were friendly and welcoming.

Tuzigoot National Monument protects the ruins of another Dinaguan dwelling, a little different in style from the cliff dwelling at Montezuma Castle. The site was excavated and partially recontructed in the 1930’s.  Today the visitor center houses a fabulous little museum. A paved 1/3 mile loop leads visitors around and through the pueblo ruins. There is little shade on the path, so a hat, sunscreen, and water are recommended.

As beautiful and educational as those sites all were, our favorite part of our Sedona-area visit was the V-Bar-V Heritage site.  This petroglyphs site is gated and well-preserved. Open only on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, a volunteer docent is on site to present information about the petroglyphs, and answer questions,  It was wonderful to be able to see the petroglyphs up close, rather than through binoculars while standing at a distant viewing point. There is a fee to access this site; either the Red Rocks Pass or a National Parks pass will be honored.  There is a kiosk in the parking area to purchase a Red Rocks Pass if you don’t already have it.

There are so many things to do in Sedona and nearby that a family could spend even more time than the 14 days we were there. We plan to go back again sometime and hope you get a chance to check it out as well!  

If  you’ve already had a chance to visit, what were your favorite things to do in Sedona?  Tell us in the comments!

 

 


 

As the August 2017 total solar eclipse approached, we realized we didn’t have time to get to Wyoming to see it, without sacrificing many of the other things we wanted to see on the way. We decided to put off the northern US run for another summer and instead to head south to get into the path of totality. 

We decided on western North Carolina and headed for the Pisgah National Forest, intending to find dispersed camping there.  I found references online to “designated roadside campsites” online and assumed they would be RV-accessible.  We got there, several miles down rough dirt roads,  to find that these campsites are for tents only.  There are pull-offs to park a passenger vehicle and a tent site with fire ring a short walk from the parking area.  It was late at night and we were tired, so we found a pull-off long enough to get our rig off the road and slept.  

Up early, we headed back to the paved road, which was the Blue Ridge Parkway, and looked for a viewing spot with room to park the rig. All the overlooks were crowded, but we found a place and got out the lawn chairs and eclipse glasses.  We had a long wait for totality and got to know some of the people around us in the meantime.  Curly was lying on her back in the grass looking up at the sun when something bumped into her. She jumped up and grabbed it: it was a little  snake not much bigger than an earthworm.  After we all oohed and aahed  over it, I suggested some of the other families with children might be interested in seeing it, so she showed it around before releasing it into the brush at the edge of the grass.

A small snake in a human hand
This little snake slithered right into Curly’s arm as she was on the ground looking up at the sky.

 One woman surprised me by remarking to me how “brave” Curly was for picking up the snake.  This snake was harmless and so little that I didn’t see any particular courage in holding it!

There isn’t much to write about the eclipse itself: if you also experienced totality, then you know what it was like, and if you didn’t, then no words will suffice. You’ll have another chance in about seven years!

After the eclipse we spoke to a ranger and confirmed that there wasn’t any dispersed RV camping in the vicinity.  We went and got a spot at the Mt. Pisgah campground along the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Sites are $20/ night. ($10 with the Access pass) No hookups were available, but there were bathrooms with flush toilets and showers, a dump station, and water spigots.  Some sites are more spacious and private than others.  We stayed in A-27, which was nice and big, but there was no level ground except the paved parking pad, and even that was sloped. The campground was neat, clean, in good repair, and attractive. The camp host was friendly. We would definitely stay here again sometime!

Things to Do In and Near the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest

We found lots of fun hiking in the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest. Devil’s Courthouse was a steep but short hike with fabulous, multi-state views from the top.

A teenage boy and teenage girl, two young girls and a young boy, and a toddler girl pose on a rock with mountains in the background
The Tumbleweed kids at the top of the Devil’s Courthouse formation along the Blue Ridge Parkway

At Graveyard Fields, we hiked to the lower falls, not realizing that we would be able to get in the water.  We took off our shoes and waded, but the water was so refreshing, yet shallow enough for young children, that we returned dressed in our bathing suits another day.  

A toddler in a bathing suit and life jacket sits with her father on a rock in a shallow stream
The water below the lower falls was shallow enough for Tiny and oh-so-refreshing on an August afternoon!

We also hiked to the upper falls, a significantly longer hike, muddy when we were there, but with rewarding views at the end. 

The kids were able to complete both a Blue Ridge Parkway Junior Ranger badge and an Eclipse Explorer badge.  There are numerous visitor centers along the Blue Ridge Parkwa- the ones we stopped at had exhibits and information about the history of the parkway as well as the wildlife or the region.

We also drove into Asheville to visit the Western North Carolina Nature Center. The WNC Nature Center is a small zoo focusing primarily on the native wildlife of the region.  Visitors can see it all in one day at a leisurely pace, and the well-designed and creative  play areas spread throughout make it great for younger children. This zoo is a popular membership among families that travel, because the one membership entitles families to benefit from both the AZA reciprocal admission program and the ASTC Travel Passport program.

Asheville is also home to the Montrose Park Players, with a free theater-in-the park summer season. We were fortunate to be there to see a performance of Peter Pan. The production was fresh and imaginative: no “Chief Ugg-a-Wugg” in sight, but a strong and capable Tiger Lily as the leader of the “Neverland Natives.” My children particularly enjoyed it when the Pirates and Lost Boys came into and interacted with the audience at various times.  All I all, we had a great evening. Admission was free; concessions were available.  If you ever get the chance to catch a show, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed!

We really enjoyed camping and hiking in the Blue Ridge Parkway and Pisgah National Forest, and look forward to a return visit someday!

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.