Category Archives: BS outside the Midwest

First Family Vacation: Wyoming Road Trip

I wanted to get into the mountains this summer, but tackling the Tetons with toddlers seemed daunting. We’d heard great things about Medicine Bow National Forest and the Snowy Mountain Range (just a 10 hour drive from Des Moines, Iowa) and made southeastern Wyoming our destination for our first summer adventure vacation as a little family.

It turned out to be a wonderful trip to take with a 4 and not-quite-2-year old, capped off with a stop to view the total eclipse in Nebraska on our return. The highlights for me were our outdoor experiences (short hikes but big views), but there was really some fun family bonding, too. Eileen is in that parrot stage of learning speech, and she and Emmett played well together.

Tto be honest, those giddy moments – like getting to eat Fruit Loops, swim in a hotel pool and extra cuddles – are probably the memories of the trip for the kids.

The drive 

We loaded up on DVDs and books at the library, filled a giant tote with snacks and stayed at Joe’s parents in Council Bluffs to shorten our first big driving day to 8 hours. The drive from CB to Centennial took about 12 hours, total, with long stops at the Archway Museum in Kearney, NE (which totally made me grateful I was making the trek in our Chrysler Town & Country versus a covered wagon) and in Cheyenne, WY for dinner.

Where we stayed 

The first two nights, we stayed in an Airbnb-style little log cabin at J4Brehm’s Ranch, just outside of Centennial, WY. It was absolutely perfect for our family, and we wished we’d been able to reserve it through the weekend.

The cabin is listed as sleeping 6, which might be tight, but felt roomy for our two adults and two littles. The kids loved climbing up to the loft to horse around during the day, and it was nice to have a little kitchen and separate sleeping and living area.

The first morning, three of the horses came up to the fenceline just beyond our cabin and we got to pet them and see some of the other livestock on the other side of the ranch. The second night, Joe and I set up the baby monitor and had a mini date in the cabin’s private hot tub after the kids fell asleep. The sky was huge and the Milky Way was aglow. (They also have more primitive cabins for 4 and a cabin that sleeps 12 in some big lofts. I could see returning with cousins to take over the big cabin.)

We stayed in Laramie the other two nights, and then overnighted in Grand Island, NE, after the eclipse.

Where we hiked

Out first day, we drove the Snowy Range Scenic Byway and hopped out at Libby Flats, an observation tower that provides 360 degree mountain views, took a mini hike at Lake Marie, visited the natural hot springs in Saratoga and then returned for some hammock time at Lake Marie, which was totally dreamy.

Our second day, we headed to the Lewis Lake Trail Head (per some suggestions) to see if we could summit Medicine Bow Peak as a family. We borrowed an amazing Osprey hiking backpack from friends and it was easy to take Eileen along.

It got pretty windy and the rock scrambling became precarious right around lunchtime, so we didn’t get up to the tippy top. But I was really proud of how far Emmett climbed and we got in some incredible views. The glacial lakes that dot the landscape are stunning.

The morning after our first night in Laramie, we drove east about 20 minutes to Vedawoo National Forest, which has breathtaking rock formations.

The kids were not feeling hardcore hiking, but we did explore the simple trails just off the parking lot had incredible scenery. I’d love to camp here some day.

What we ate

We stopped for dinner in Cheyenne and wished we’d discovered the Accomplice Beer Company brewpub before we’d eaten. They have a full menu, but we just had a beer flight from their cool serve-yourself station. It’s in the old depot and the patio is right along the train yard.

My friend Chelsea goes to Centennial every year to visit family, and she recommended breakfast at Mountain View Hotel, which did not disappoint. I had a lovely omelette and latte (they roast their own coffee) and it was so filling we mostly just snacked for lunch, and then hit Bear Tree Tavern & Cafe for pizza and beers on our way back down from the mountains.

Another friend who lived in Laramie suggested Sweet Melissa Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant which was a funky and delicious lunch stop. We also picked up some provisions from the downtown co-op and had local brews and desserts at Coal Creek Tap, and dessert from Big Dipper Ice Cream Shop.

Total Eclipse 

We gave ourselves two days to drive home, and it just so happened that our return route took us through the path of totality for the solar eclipse. We got up at 3 a.m. to arrive just in time to watch from the Stuhr Museum, which showcases prairie pioneer life with a museum and living history village.

All in all, the trip was without any major meltdowns or mishaps! This felt like a family milestone, for sure. I think we did just the right amount of planning ahead but allowing for wiggle room, and it was fun to collaborate with Joe and creating a memorable adventure for us all.

If you’re in Iowa and looking for a kind of “training wheels” mountain adventure with small kids, I highly recommend Medicine Bow. It was a budget-friendly trip, and my guess is it’s also far less crowded than the Colorado Rockies and other National Parks at this time of year, too.

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Meeting the manatees

I have a long list of “I’ve always wanted to…”

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And with that marvelous milestone of 3-0 looming, I did what lots of let’s-do-this-oriented bloggy ladies do and came up with some fun activities that I hoped to satisfyingly cross off on my way to the big birthday. Of course, it included one of my longest held dreams: Seeing manatees in the wild.

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My manatee obsession spans 20+ years; it’s become a part of my identity and one of the random facts most people who know me even a little bit will remember. Hence, I’m tagged weekly with articles about the beloved creatures and have been gifted three of these.

So this winter, or as some like to call it – Manatee Season – I was determined to finally make it happen. I booked our family a direct flight between Des Moines and St. Petersburg for a long weekend manatee-centric getaway.We stayed in Crystal River, which is a couple hours north of St. Pete. (Zip up the toll road and do not mistakenly think Hwy 19 will be a “scenic route.” It was a stop-and-go, strip-mall-infested nightmare.)

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Manatees are at home in both fresh and salt water, but in the colder months they like to come inland and hang out in the warmer springs. Two best-known Florida manatee havens are Homosassa Springs/Crystal River and Blue Springs State Park/Orange City. I’ve mostly heard about these magical spots through my membership with the Save the Manatee Club. Even Emmett got to “adopt” a manatee for his first birthday. He and “Squeaky” were both born June 13!

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Our Crystal River manatee adventure included a kayak trip with Aardvark’s Florida Kayak Co, Inc., which is a sponsor of the Save the Manatee Club and takes one of the most eco-minded approaches in all manatee tourism. We got a sweet Save the Manatee treat bag, and a private family kayak tour in the chilly Florida morning.

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Our guide is a board member for the club and was extremely knowledgeable, sharing information about the preservation initiatives and conservation challenges of the area. I’ll admit that most people who asked about the trip assumed I was going to be swimming with the manatees and when I saw the sweet creatures gliding below the surface, it took every ounce of willpower not to just jump into the water. But when you see how disruptive the boats full of scuba divers and snorkelers are in the habitat — some don’t even use propeller guards! — it’s easier to hold back and let the manatees be.

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Emmett did, however, jump/fall face first into the bay in the .25 seconds we had our heads turned while taking a break on the beach. Toddler adventures!

We also made two different trips to Homosassa Springs, a wildlife park that is way bigger than I had ever envisioned. You can take a little ferry boat from the main parking lot out to the park, and hear about the trees and wildlife along the way. A beautiful boardwalk features a number of different manatee and fish observation points over the springs, and another “Wildlife Walk” loop takes you through a kind of wildlife rehabilitation zoo.  If I were to do it again, I would have kayaked in the afternoon and gone to Homosassa in the morning. The afternoon was crowded and the manatees had all swum out to deeper waters. We were the first people in the park the second day, and got the practically private manatees-as-far-as-I-can-see fix I was hoping for!

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We didn’t do as much dining out as we typically do on vacation — eating our way through a city. Considering Emmett’s allergies, we enjoyed a few picnics at the King’s Bay park, which the little boy loved, and had a nice dinner out at the Fat Cat Grill, which is fancier than it sounds, but also had high chairs. (Lamb chops, ftw!) Back in St. Pete on Sunday, we went to the Dali Museum and drove down for sunset at Clearwater Beach.

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It was crazy to think we were on our first full family vacation (one lap child, one in utero), and it’s a memory I’ll always cherish.

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Freedom Weekend

There I stood, sandwiched between the U.S. Capitol building, the Washington Monument and a mall full of marching bands and red-white-and-blue floats. Free to wear a skirt and ride a bike and Instagram about it. America.

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We spent Independence Day weekend in D.C. and the Virginia wine country, thanks to a wedding invitation and my mom’s willingness to watch Emmett while we flew out for the fun, which also coincided with our fourth anniversary.

Highlights of the #freedomweekend: 

Hitting up the happy hour at District of Pi, the D.C. outpost for a favorite St. Louis deep dish spot, with my brother and his girlfriend.

Hotel sheets and a full night sleep.

Meeting up with some favorite college friends and having an awesome Pimm’s cocktail and hearty breakfast at Founding Farmers together.

Deciding on a whim to hop onto the Capital Bikeshare cruisers and cycling down Constitution Avenue when it was closed to traffic for the parade. The street was lined with people waving flags, and of course I waved back at the kids.

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We swung through the parade staging area, so I felt like we got to see the parade without waiting in the sun. I get all teary-eyed hearing patriotic songs and this was a pretty nice consolation for missing out on the Yankee Doodle Pops concert back home. (Did you guys go?)

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Geeking out at the Newseum. Can’t beat celebrating the First Amendment on Independence Day, right? So many of the exhibits offered reminders of how wonderful – and hard won – all of our freedoms truly are.

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The hotel pool at the Holiday Inn Express with the best view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Watching my beautiful friend Mara marry her best friend. Mara has impeccable taste, and the wedding at Early Mountain Vineyards was gorgeous, thoughtful, delicious and fun! 20140705_195351Dancing the night away with my high school crew. They own the dance floor.

10368316_10102113350770140_313293401580712690_oAnd just spending some quality time with Joe. Cheers to 4+40 more years!

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All my T-Rexes live in Texas

I spent a few days this past weekend in Dallas — or, more accurately, at a conference in a Wyndham off the highway outside of downtown Dallas. We did get a few hours our last evening, however, to explore a few pockets of the city. We first went to Dealey Plaza, which is the birthplace of Dallas and the where President Kennedy was assassinated.

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I thought the white structures surrounding the Plaza were maybe a memorial, but the concrete pergolas were WPA projects built decades prior to the president’s motorcade passing through.

After our history lesson, we joined the post-conference party at The Rustic, a slick restaurant/bar with a great backyard atmosphere (picnic tables, bags, a stage), homestyle Texas food and the most genius  it’s-92-degrees-at-7-p.m. cocktail invention ever: The Sangarita.

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Yes, that’s a big ole’ margarita with a sangria popsicle stuck into it. I got brain freeze about 13 seconds after this photo was taken. Note to self: Try some boozy popsicle recipes out sometime.

Free Range Concepts, the restaurant management firm behind The Rustic, had also just opened Mutts Cantina, a dog park/beer garden/restaurant that was totally waggin’ when we walked by. I love to see vibrant urban development ideas like these two spots when I travel.

We wanted to experience a little more of a Dallas neighborhood feel, so we ended up getting dinner at Gloria’s, a fantastic Salvadorian restaurant (which also has a great, dog-friendly patio)  in the Bishop Arts District. It’s a cute area with lots of independent restaurants and shops in a few blocks.

The best part of the trip though was learning, exploring and laughing with some cool new colleagues. I’m really glad I work with people who are as weird as I am.

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Hood River Flower Power

On wedding eve, the women in our family traveled to an organic flower farm to assemble bouquets, boutineers and fresh-cut table flowers for my cousin’s ceremony and reception.

My cousin Kelley is a total earth goddess and this seemed like the perfect way for us to celebrate and prepare for the Big Day with her.

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Armed with some boxed wine, red solo cups, clippers and floral tape, we got to work.

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Wendy, the owner, even showed me how to prepare a real boutineers — something I attempted as an amateur for past fundraising events.

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DSC_0227Before long, the group had created cheerful Mason jar bouquets ready to grace the tables the following day.

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The wedding the next day was at Mt. Hood Organic Farms which is not only the most beautiful venue I’ve ever seen, but the prettiest one I could imagine. Emmett kept my hands full, so I didn’t get nearly as many photos as I would have otherwise taken, but here’s a family shot in the shadow of Mt. Hood. This was the view from our dinner table!

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Kelley grew up in Santa Barbara, California, but was always a free spirit whose sense of adventure I admired and emulated. She went to college at Notre Dame and I feel so lucky she lived close by during those years. I’m thrilled her husband is an outdoorsy Midwestern guy from Minneapolis; hopefully there will be a group Boundary Waters trip in the future!

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Just Peachy: Hood River Fruit Picking

Orchards line the highway in the Hood River area. It’s fascinating to see thousands of containers lined up in the grass, ready to transport the fruit commercially, but there’s also a 35-mile “Fruit Loop” dotted with U-Pick farms.

Fruit LoopMap via hoodriverfruitloop.com

Peaches were in season, and we picked 13 pounds of them at Draper Girls Country Farm.

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The peach trees provided plenty of shade, and it was fun to reach out and grab the golden, fuzzy delicious fruit in reach.

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Who can resist these sweet peach cheeks? Peach cheeks

Picking so many peaches the day before we planned to fly home was a bit silly, but they baked down into a delicious peach cobbler we had the whole family over to sample.

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The farm even had a little goat pen, so I got my baby animal fix.

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They also had a big swing that framed Mt. Hood – a fun family photo op. Emmett will be so smiley and expressive and then the minute we try a posed picture, he goes into cranky crunch.

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We stopped at a lavender farm not far down the road on the way back to town. It. Smelled. Amazing. The aroma of lavender was almost hypnotic, like some place in a storybook that lures little girls to sleep for a thousand years.

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They had u-pick bunches for $5, but I didn’t think I had enough room to pack and bring it home. They also have a little gift shop with plenty of other items made from their acres of lavender, too.

If you’re staying in Hood River, see what’s in season! I can’t believe it’s almost time for apple-picking here in Iowa. We love going to Center Grove Orchard. I’ve never been to The Berry Patch, but would love to visit next summer.

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Scenic cycling by tandem

On our first full morning in Hood River, we decided to do a cycling excursion with the fam along the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail. I think it was about 20 miles round-trip from the shop to Mosier and back.

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Formerly U.S. Highway 30, it’s now closed to cars, and the trail curves around cliffs overlooking the Columbia River. It was the most scenic bike ride I’ve experienced. Joe and I rented a tandem Raleigh road bike from Discover bike shop in Hood River. Joe said that the joke on RAGBRAI is to call tandems “divorce bikes.” He thought it would be funny if I took a picture pretending I threw him over the cliff:

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Riding a tandem as a couple definitely demands extra communication, trust and patience. I couldn’t see over his back, or break, shift or steer, which took some getting used to — especially as we climbed the curvy highway up to the trail head. Once we got in a rhythm and Joe started calling out when he planned to shift, or when we needed to coast and we figured out a somewhat elegant mounting and dismounting, it was totally fun. Of course, we had a flat about a mile in, but the shop outfitted us with a spare tube and thankfully Joe knows how fix things.

675deb9e012511e39cc922000aaa090c_7For people who live in more mountainous areas, the trail is relatively easy. We Midwesterners are used to things being a little more flat, but we survived. My cousin Beth was a total trooper!

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It only makes sense to pause for scenic vistas, right?

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377d5894013211e38e0d22000ae903cf_7One of the neatest features was riding through these old tunnels:

1150470_10101640020842040_1263989307_oWe heard there was a cute ice cream shop in Mosier from two women who loaned us a bigger pump to fix our flat, and the thought of a creamy celebratory cone definitely provided the inspiration to power through some of the hills. Once we got there, we learned the ice cream shop had closed. Thankfully, a convenience store next door to it had frozen treats. I enjoyed my favorite – a caramel magnum bar – while looking out at a totem pole.

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It was uphill after our treat, but once we got back to the scenic overlook, we were able to coast back to the trailhead.

9c5c2664012811e38a7322000a1fa414_7Still married!

945cd244013511e3904e22000a1f928e_7After not biking for the duration of my pregnancy, it felt amazing to get back in the saddle. I’m still struggling a bit to get back into shape post-baby, but I so appreciate the ease with which my body moves now that I don’t have a big belly altering my center of gravity and the insane swelling in my legs and feet has gone down.

I’d love to bicycle up the trails to the Ankeny Aquatic Center, like Joe and I did last year, but I think we’ll have to wait until next summer, when Emmett’s big enough for the bike trailer.

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