Spring Break on the Empire Builder
For about the last 14 years we have said that one day we would take the Amtrak Empire Builder from Chicago to Whitefish. The trip was not always in the forefront, but definitely not forgotten. I was not going to be able to get the entire week of Spring Break off due to month end at work so going anywhere too far flung was not an option.
It took a little convincing, but I was successful on lobbying for finally jumping on board! We had a fair amount of American Airlines miles we could use for plane tickets so we picked days around award availability (5 weeks in advance). Thursday to Tuesday - home to Chicago flight, Empire Builder Chicago to Whitefish, Spokane to home. Let's do this...
We initally purchased 3 coach seats even though deep down we all wanted Roomette's at a minimum. K frequently expressed her concern over a 4 week period. A week or two out the price for a bedroom dropped to a rate we were willing to pay. We jumped, but wanted to surprise K. Wanted is the key word here....see that photo above, she looks tired, right? At 2:30 AM on the morning of departure she got so nervous she got sick in her bed. So while doing laundry at an ungodly hour we let the cat out of the bag. She was oh so excited!
We arrived in Chicago around 9 AM and hopped on the Blue Line into the city. It was super easy and economical to take the train. The train fare was $5 per adult, and the train can be accessed from O'Hare. We had K's car seat, a rolling carryon, a rolling suitcase, and two bookbags. We chose seats at the back of the train car to keep our stuff as out of the way as possible. Once we reached our station Union Station was only a few blocks walk - easy peasy!
If you guys have not figured out by now, we make K learn a little something on every trip we take. She really wanted to go to the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve. It had been a while since she had visited the one in Kansas City so why not! We dropped our suitcase and her K seat at baggage check and stored our rolling carryon in the lounge storage area. Next stop...the Money Museum!
First off, the Money Museum is FREE!!! Who doesn't like free?
There are plenty of exhibts, an informational movie, some video screens where workers/money can be seen. (This is where Kansas City has a huge advantage!! One does not have to watch it via a screen.) As a souvenir one can take free bags of shredded money. Some exhibts are interactive and others are just reading about the changes in money/currency over the years.
Back to Union Station to wait in the lounge for just a little bit of time. Snacks and beverages are served to waiting passengers in the lounge. As the time to board the train approached we were all getting a little nervous. All of our train rides up until this point had been special event (Polar Express, etc.) or sightseeing trains. Over 30 hours on a train........
The Empire Builder was finally called to board right about the same time as the Texas Eagle was. Lawd...this made things a little chaotic. We did not feel like the directions given were very clear even though we knew our track number. We asked several other passengers along the way just to make sure we were in the right place.
We found the sleeper car line as sleeper cars/first class has priority boarding. The attendant at the front of the line told us what number to board at and we were on board in minutes. We had bedroom C which was upstairs in the sleeper car (If I recall correctly, there were 3 sleeper cars - 1 for the Portland bound train and 2 for Seattle. The train splits in Spokane.)
Being in a sleeper car our meals were included, but we still brought some snacks with us. We also brought small games, cards, colored pencils, and a notebook. We took photos just about every single time the train stopped to document our trip. Shortly after we were on our way, the attendant came by for dinner reservations. Then our time was spent just hanging out with no real distractions. Traveling by train is so much more free than air travel! It was definitely nice to not be confined to one small space! Time went by so quickly! Next thing we knew it was time for our dinner reservation. We were slightly nervous because they seat in groups of 4, and we are a family of 3.... Three of our four meals on board we were seated with a single traveler. We were nervous because we have K. K is an awesome kid, an old soul. We have never had any issues with her and others, but one never knows how others may react being seated with children.
After dinner we were EXHAUSTED! (Something about that laundry at 3 AM thing...) K claimed to top bunk. Dad and I shared the bottom. No real complaints because we were tired. I remember waking up sometime in the middle of the night when we were pulling into Fargo. It was snowing like crazy out!
Look at all this space in the room when the beds are up. hehehe.
K was quite excited when she woke up to all of the snow! We got dressed then headed to the dining car for breakfast which we finished just in time to hop off the train for an hour or so in Minot, North Dakota.
It was a balmy -1F. There was a huge snowstorm approaching, but nothing but sunshine while we were out and about. We did not venture far from the train because, well, -1F! We are southern. That temp does not exist at home! I honestly do not know how, but y'all, the rest of the day flew by! We hopped off the train for a few minutes almost every stop for the remainder of the trip. It was always cold, sometimes it was incredibly windy! The windy stops gave K the giggles. She was having a hard time standing up in the wind without our help.
Right before we got to Glacier, while we were at dinner...DELAY! Which is awesome when the scheduled arrival time is 1.5 hours past K's bed time (which is really 3.5 with the time change). But we have learned in all of our travels that sometimes one just has to roll with it. This is one of those times because....we are stuck on a train! We got to eat dinner while the train was stopped. We saw some wildlife. We saw the snow blow...a lot! After about an hour or so the train finally proceeded. K slept on the couch. We fought the urge to sleep. We got to Whitefish about 1.5-2 hours past our scheduled arrival time. The hotel shuttle was waiting on us as they knew we were arriving by train.
Now Glacier National Park has also been a topic of discussion paired with the Empire Builder. It was finally a reality. Now, we definitely will have to visit again in the summer months instead of the winter-ish early Spring. Access was very limited within the park. (Yes, we knew this. Just wanting to inform others.) We were able to visit the visitors center for the Junior Ranger booklet. We went on a small, eerily quiet hike. We had a picnic lunch at Lake McDonald, and drove as far as we could before the road closed (Lake McDonald Lodge).
The remainder of the trip we just went with the flow, and stopped when something caught our eye. It did not really take long to make our first unscheduled stop! We saw a sign for Hungry Horse Dam. We did not know what to expect but K LOVES the Hoover Dam so it's worth a shot. We found it to be very similar to the Hoover Dam without the commercialization. It was incredibly strange. There were some trucks and trailers there, but no other people to be seen. We almost felt as if we should not be there. But then seemingly out of nowhere comes all of these snowmobiles. Ah, trucks and trailers...makes sense now.
We decided to check out Whitefish Mountain. K is decent on skis for a Southern kid. We bought lift tickets for the beginner lift since we were not going to split up from each other with her. It was Easter and there were candy filled plastic eggs on the slopes. We ended up with SO MANY. We finally banned K from picking up more. It snowed so much while we were on the slopes. Powder days are the best! We managed to get out in powder 4 days from January to April (Alberta, Utah, & Montana).
We leisurely made our way from Whitefish to Spokane the day before we flew home. Much of the drive was spent without consistent cell phone service. It was a pretty drive in and out of snow and portions of the drive beside the river.
We stopped at Crystal Gold Mine in Kellogg, Idaho to do their gold mine tour. K enjoyed it. The owner showed her how to pan for gold, but we were mean parents and did not actually allow her to pan because it was snowing at the water was quite cold. We knew we would be in Alaska this summer so she would have the opportunity. Our last stop was incredibly important....Old Spaghetti Factory in Spokane! K devours their food. Hey, you take what you can get when it comes to food battles!
Would we do it all again? heck yes!!!! Even taking the train. Next time will definitely be farther into summer so we can explore more at Glacier.
Around Vegas with Kids
Sometimes we get suspect looks when we tell people we have taken (or are taking...) our child to Las Vegas. We've taken her twice already, and we've passed through one other time. There's actually quite a bit of stuff to do in and around Las Vegas that doesn't involve gambling or partying it up. Here are some of the things that we like to do when we visit...
The Hoover Dam
This is always a must with K. I believe on our first trip with her when she was 3 that we visited it almost every single day! Some of the parking lots once across the dam are free.
The powerplant tour is pretty reasonably priced. ($15 Adults, $12 juniors) We've done it twice with K. One day we will visit when she's old enough for the Dam Tour, and we'll do that one, too!
Definitely, weather permitting (like, not in summer!) walk the bridge to see it from that perspective.
The High Roller at Linq
Somehow we managed to not get sucked in on our first trip with K, but earlier this year it was very visible from our hotel. I mean, it's Vegas. We opted for a day time ride and had the cabin to ourselves. It's definitely a little pricey, but there always seem to be discounts available if you know what your schedule will allow.
Volcano at the Mirage
Since there are fewer instances than the Fountains at Bellagio, this one is a little more crowded. We still had no issue find a spot with a good view. (FREE)
Just be aware if your child does not like fire that there may be a little bit of a freak out. K wasn't overly impressed.
Nevada Southern Railway
This weekend-only train ride is about 35 minutes. ($10 adults/$5 kids) Some Saturday's have story time on the train.
We happened to be on board during a storytime ride. There was also a small craft to go along with storytime. K was 3 at the time and she very much enjoyed the experience.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
We really only went to Lake Mead for two reasons.
1 - K wanted to get in the lake (we let her put her feet in)
2 - We wanted to do the Junior Ranger program.
Brian Head Ski Resort - Around 3 Hours Drive
Our last trip to Vegas was in February so we popped over to southern Utah for a day of skiing and snowboarding. The conditions were great as it was snowing while we were there. Compared to many ski resorts we have been to the lift tickets were very reasonable. Kids 5 and under are FREE!
Zion National Park - Around 2.75 hours Drive
Again, in Southern Utah, Zion was definitely one of our favorite Vegas side trips. It was a very, very hot summer day when we visited so we chose to do the Narrows Hike. It's in the Virgin River in a slot canyon. K was 3 so we did not go very far into the hike since it can get quite deep. K routinely asks to go "hike in the river" again. Be sure to pay attention to the forecast and/or advisories because flash flooding can occur. We also participated in the Junior Ranger program.
KPipe Spring National Monument - Around 2.75 hours Drive (Near Zion)
We were already close by Pipe Spring in Northern Arizona due to spending the majority of our day at Zion. It's very remote and we had no cell phone service, but it was a neat place to learn about. They, too, have a Junior Ranger program. K got a private tour of the house by the Park Ranger.
Mojave National Preserve - Around 1.5 hours Drive
Located in Southern California, Mojave Preserve has all sorts of things to see! I wish we would have had more time there, but we had dinner plans in Vegas. The Junior Ranger book was fairly easy for K. She loved seeing all of the Joshua Trees, sand dunes, and cinder cones. I think we will return at some point when we have more time to explore.
Death Valley National Park - Around 2.25 hours Drive
Death Valley is also in Southern California.
So going in the summer when it was beyond miserable out was probably not our best idea ever! We did have so much fun though. The heat did keep us in more than out exploring so this may definitely be a better winter destination. K participated in the Junior Ranger program here as well. We did manage to see many of the highlights such as Badwater Basin during our time there.
Alaska...with a kid?!
Yes! We absolutely did it! We first visited Alaska in 2008 on a roundtrip cruise from Seattle. We always said the next time we chose to go it would be one of the one way cruises. Fast forward 10 years and a child later...
We knew 2018 was our year so we began researching, price watching, and saving at the beginning of the year so that we could jump when the opportunity came, and it did in late May. So rather abrubtly we found ourselves on a flight to Seattle to catch a shuttle bus to Vancouver. K has flown a lot so she's a champ when it comes to long flights. If your kids aren't, no worries! Tablets, coloring books, and snacks are all your friends!
We chose a hotel in Vancouver that was only a few blocks walk to the cruise terminal. It was a quite easy walk even with luggage when it came time to board the ship. We found everything that we needed in Vancouver was very walkable - dinner, drug store (for Kinder Surprise Eggs, of course!), and Tim Horton's! We would definitely like to return to Vancouver for a longer visit at some point.
Being on East Coast time we were out an about quite early on our morning of departure. We saw both our ship (Princess Cruises Star Princess) and a Holland America ship arrive. K had contained her excitement fairly well until we were scoping out the ships from Canada Place. We are uncertain if it was because we were face to face with our ship or the chocolate doughnut we allowed her to have for breakfast. She put on quite a show for passengers waiting to depart the ships.
We boarded Star Princess for our Voyage of the Glaciers cruise around lunchtime. We departed Vancouver for Ketchikan a few hours, and it was smooth sailing! Our cell phone plan has service in Canada, but be mindful of roaming charges when having a plan that does not. We easily had service through the first night and perhaps early the next morning. As the morning progressed the ship was in more open waters so there was no more smooth sailing! We have cruised a fair amount so it did not bother us much but I could see if one had not cruised much that it would be uncomfortable.
Ketchikan was our first stop. And in true Alaskan fashion...rain. Nothing a little rain gear could not fix. K enjoyed the free pass of jumping in all of the puddles. We had never really decided what we wanted to do or see so we just walked around. We walked all over the immediate area including Creek Street. K loved all the totem poles everywhere. We visited on Memorial Day so the (Tongass) National Forest Visitor Center was not open. They do have a Junior Ranger program for kids so that is definitely on our agenda for next time! I did notice when we got back on the ship that there is a free shuttle to Wal-Mart. I mean, if you're crew or you forget something, I bet it's great to have that option.
Up next, Juneau. We had promised K earlier this year that we would take her gold panning when we visited Alaska. We did the math and ended up booking a cruiseline excursion (vs. on our own) due to onboard credit. We chose an afternoon tour since we had quite a bit of time in port, plus it was less expensive. We walked to the Juneau-Douglas City Museum ($6 adults, FREE kids) to check it out. It was small but had a few interactive exhibits.
From there we wandered by the Governor's House then back through town to the ship for lunch. After lunch it was time for excursion, when we checked in with the attendant we discovered we were the only three on the tour!! This trip with visted the AJ Mine. I cannot remember exactly what the cost was but it was truly quite reasonable especially considering we had a private tour. The tour consisted of an underground mine tour, a presentation about the mine under a heated canopy, and panning for gold in a heated trough. The young ladies that worked on the tour helped K pan. She loved it! It's HER gold, just ask her...
We still had PLENTY of time for exploring after our tour so we opted for the Alaska State Museum ($12 adults, FREE kids). We had a wonderful time learning about all things Alaska while there. We did not have a ton of time there before closing, but we felt like we got to spend a decent amount of time looking at the exhibts.
Then there was Skagway. Unfortunately for many, the train was not running that day due to a rock slide. Fortunately for us, we had secured a car rental before we even left South Carolina. Our first stop of the day was to the Visitors Center for Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (free) for K to get her Junior Ranger Badge. Now, we have been to A LOT of National Parks, and we have never seen a visitors center so busy! We assumed that perhaps it was a direct correlation with the trains being canceled for the day. They have many first come, first served presenations throughout the day. Those tickets are handed out from the visitors center. We picked up the rental car, stopped by the grocery store (There's an IGA), and headed towards Carcross.
It is an easy drive up. We saw a bear. K wanted to snuggle it...uh, no! (But it's just so cute...) We arrived in Carcross, Yukon in time for lunch. It has changed a good bit in 10 years. They now have a built up tourist area with some shops and a visitors center. I suppose built up may be an exaggeration but it definitely has more facilities than it had 10 years ago. We ate lunch at Bistro on Bennett. The food was good, K ate well-that's always a plus! The locals pointed us to Caribou Crossing. So what the heck, we visited 10 years ago and may as well take K. Still looked relatively the same to us....Caribou Crossing is the lunch stop for most, if not all, of the cruiseline tours.
We hopped back in the car for a little more interesting scenery of Emerald Lake and the Carcross Desert. We spent a little more time at the desert to let K run around a bit. While we were there the naturalist from our ship stopped by with a guest. We got to chat with her for a few minutes. It was quite enjoyable. Upon leaving we made our trek back to Skagway with a stop for a photo op at the Yukon sign and then the Alaska sign. The car rental for the day was around $150. Yes, steep for a day rental, but much less than the cost of a cruiseline excursion to the Yukon.
The next two days may possibly be our favorites! Afterall, we were on a Voyage of the Glaciers cruise! First up, a day spent sailing in Glacier Bay National Park. The Park Rangers were on the ship for the day (and so was the Junior Ranger program!) offering commentary and a booth set up indoors with park information and cancellation stamps. Our favorite glacier from the day (hands down) was Margerie Glacier. It felt like the port side was glacier viewing for so long! (It could be because a tender was taken down for photo ops for the cruise line.) We honestly could not tell you how many times the glacier calved when we had a front row seat. When the ship was turned for starboard side viewing we took K to the pool. It wasn't so much because we were done gawking at the glacier, but K had been doing adult things all day so we rewarded her.
Then day two of glacier viewing was in College Fjord. We sailed by LOTS of glaciers on the way to Harvard Glacier. It was equally as stunning as Margerie the day before. Lots of icebergs and calving to be seen (at least on the day we visited)! The viewing time was competing with dinner so when the ship turned for starboard viewing it was time to dash! Who wants a grouchy, hangry child? NO ONE!
The next day meant our cruise was over. It was bittersweet that our time was over on the ship but exploring the vastness of Alaska was up next. We took a shuttle from Whittier to the Anchorage aiport for the rental car then on to Denali National Park ($10 adults, FREE kids)! Oh my, it's a long drive but so worth it to see Denali. We got a clear, picture perfect view which we later learned that most do not get especially on the first shot!
Due to work schedules and having to return to the East Coast we did not have the opportunity to take one of the Denali bus tours. With what we got to see, we felt the park itself was lacking. We are not willing to "write it off," but we will definitely plan around a bus tour next time. K got her Junior Ranger badge and got to see Denali so she was completely satisfied with her trip! Now, I will add that that far north in June the sunset was at midnight. It never actually got dark. It was so strange to experience that.
Back to Anchorage for a night before our journey home...Our hotel was beside the seaplane base. So $90 later we found ourselves flying above Anchorage in a DeHavilland Beaver. It was so cool! K had asked when we were in Vancouver to fly but it was way more expensive there than Anchorage. It was such a perfect way to end our trip to the 49th state.
K rocked our time in Alaska. We were a little nervous as this was her first non-Caribbean cruise. We honestly did not love our first cruise there ten years ago. It was our first trip on Princess, and we will be back!!! Probably next summer, on Star, roundtrip from Seattle...
We saw bald eagles, moose, bear, deer, whales, sea lions, and on and on! Princess is absolutely solid on their Alaska presenation. They had naturalist presenations and other Alaska themed presenations and activities throughout the week. Oh, and puppies! They did have sled dog puppies onboard for a little bit in Skagway. (Bittersweet-when we were heading to the ship to be able to see the puppies we got the call that our dog was not doing well. He passed away overnight that night.) We had the privilege of sailing with Captain Michele Tuvo. He leads his ship well. Our interactions with him as well as watching him interact with guests throughout the week alone sold us on sailing with Princess again!
50!!! Every single state!!!!
I was probably in middle or high school when I decided it would be cool to visit every state. I am not certain that I ever believe it would be a reality. Lets break this down....at 11, I had visited as many countries as states--5. I would guess 8 by the time I graduated high school, and 2 more by the end of college. I was out of college (with "my own money") by the time I started checking them off. We had managed to get to roughly half of the US before our daughter was born. I was largely pregnant when a friend said, "K's going to be the only kid that starts kindergarten having visited all 50 states." I laughed because I knew it would not be close, but she knew better. It was on. (For the record - 43 was where K stood starting kindergarten.)
We are always intentional about incorporating learing with our travels. We pulled K out of school after a half day on Friday so that we could make it to Berea, Kentucky to have dinner with Friends and, ultimately, to just outside of Cincinnati for the night. Our first round of learning was at the William Howard Taft National Historic Site. The Junior Ranger booklet was fairly easy as most of it worked in conjuction with the house tour.
K was much more interested in our next stop - Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. To be honest, I think it was our favorite as well! Due to the small amount of time we had to spend all of our time was spent at the Wright Cycle Company complex. The downstairs of the visitors center has information and exhibts about the Wright Brothers and Paul Laurence Dunbar. The Wright Cycle Company is next door. The Junior Ranger booklet here was slightly tougher than the one from the Taft house, but still not hard.
Many of the exhibits are interactive. We circled back to some of them multiple times because K loved them so much. We really enjoyed the video about the Wright Brothers at the visitors center.
We crossed into Michigan around 4 PM on September 1st! We were all quite excited because that meant 50 states for the two of us and 49 for K. In hindsight, we wished we had planned a little better to have visited Michigan prior to taking K to Alaska. That would have meant states 49 and 50 would have actually been states 49 and 50. Oh well....... Anyway, we often laugh a little how our 50th state is a state in our own timezone.
Our final stop on our drive up was at River Raisin National Battlefield Park. Now, we are not so well versed in the War of 1812. We have learned about it here and there, but we are much more versed in the Revolutionary War or Civil War. We got there around 45 minutes before closing time so our time was very rushed. We, unfortunately, missed part of the video. We did learn that there are some major improvements coming to the park in the near future. We hope to visit again once the park is made more similar to how it was at the time of the battle. We were able to walk the small trail before leaving. I want to say it was about a .6 mile loop. We did it fairly briskly because we were certain a storm was rolling in. Maybe we bailed before it happened, but we never actually saw any rain.
Sunday brought new adventures! We headed over to Ontario to visit Point Pelee National Park. We were not quite sure what to expect, but we really enjoyed it! I am certain that we will return for a longer stay. The drive over to Leamington is about an hour and a half from Detroit. We crossed into Ontario via the Ambassador Bridge. It was quite possibly the easiest border crossing we have ever encountered - both directions. We sat in line to get into the parking area of an amusement park longer than the cumulative amount of time crossing the border.
We had never visited that part of Ontario before, and there were lots of crops and greenhouses in the area. It looked a lot like parts of Iowa. We made a stop in Leamington at a store to pick up a picnic lunch and headed to the park.
From what I recall, entrance fees were fairly reasonable. We have a Parks Canada pass so I am not certain exactly what the daily rate is. First stop...lunch. We chose to have our picnic at Northwest (I believe) Beach. We could not have asked for a better lunch view. There were a handful of picnic tables still open on the beach. Here's were things went south....we did not have our swimsuits! I got fired as the family travel agent. hahaha. Seriously, in my research I knew about the tip and the marsh but somehow never saw anything on the beaches. Come on, we are not mean parents. Shoes and socks were off and we at least waded in the water.
There were nice facilities for changing, rinsing off, and restrooms - wait, washrooms...we were in Canada. :)
The Marsh Boardwalk area has some construction around it so the main parking lot there is closed, but the trail from the beach to we were at to the boardwalk was an easy walk. The tower is currently closed with the construction. It was neat to walk along the boardwalk and see the lilypads, cat tails, etc. There are canoes available for rent if one wanted to canoe out in the marsh.
Next up the tip! There is a shuttle from the visitors center down to the tip area. The ride was approximately 10 minutes. The first announcement was in French. K looked confused, and we were acting as if we knew exactly what was being said....:) The park advises against swimming or even wading in the water at the tip due to the currents. There have been a number of drownings that have occurred due to people not adhering to these warnings.
Once off the shuttle there is a large "42" marker for crossing the 42nd parallel. There is also a sign about being in Carolinian Canada. Being Carolinians we had to take that photo op. Getting good photos at the actual tip was a little tough because, afterall, most people are there trying to do that!
Wild Ontario was in the park while we were visiting. They had a small falcon and an owl out for viewing, and small hands on area with wings, claws, etc. Honestly, seeing the owl up close was very neat.
For as long as I can remember I have been obsessed with maps, globes, and wanting to see the world. Now I'm trying to make all of those childhood dreams into a reality.