Banff has been on the Pritchard Wanderlist for quite some time. I knew it first as the home of the Banff Mountain Film Festival, whose tour I’ve been captivated by since my days at OSU. But it wasn’t long before I realized that it was an incredible venue of another kind. Tucked into the Canadian Rockies, Banff and Jasper National Parks are among the crown jewels of Canada’s park system, beset by high alpine peaks, massive glacier fields, deep forests and aquamarine rivers and lakes. As we planned our summer vacation this year, we were looking for something a little different than last year’s awesome but terribly civilized trips to Paris and Disneyland. After consulting the notes, Banff caught our attention and we made plans for a late summer journey north. The video above tells the story much better than words, so I encourage you to check it out.
Your first trip to Disneyland is a rite of passage. For the past couple of years, we’ve been trying to decide when would be the right time to take the kids south for their first trip to the Mouse House. My first trip was at the age of two (no memory). Jody’s first and only trip was at age five (faint memories). We put it off last year and were about to punt on the idea again this year. I think our anniversary trip to Paris (without the kids) left us with a twinge of guilt, which was promptly absolved by booking a trip to Disneyland.
We planned the trip as an end-of-summer bash, the week before Autumn went back to school to start the first grade. Never a family to shy away from a roadtrip, we decided to drive and took the long road (101) south. We stopped by Gilroy Gardens on the first day, which was unexpectedly awesome. It was the perfect way to start our trip. We spent the night in San Luis Obispo and rolled into Anaheim mid-day on Monday. We checked-in to the Grand Californian, and promptly invaded the swimming pool to wash 400 miles of roadtrip off our weary bones.
The next three days were exciting, fun, exhausting and memorable. Day One was mostly Fantasyland and Tomorrowland with a memorable trip to Cars Land over in California Adventure. Autumn and I stayed up late that night and had fun walking around Paradise Pier, eating ice cream and joining character drawing class at the Animation Academy. Day Two we switched it up and headed south to Legoland in Carlsbad. It’s a much larger park than I expected, but I thought it was missing some of the magic of Disneyland. We spent most of the time finding spots to just play with Legos and had a really fun afternoon in the waterpark. Day Three we were back to Disneyland, where we headed left and had some fun in Frontier Land and Adventure Land. Our plan to hit Big Thunder Mountain (my favorite) early was stymied by a beehive in the train station that had the ride closed for the first hour of the day. Changing course, we made a hasty and ill-advised decision to hit Pirates of the Caribbean, where we proceeded to damage the tender psyche of our children. Carson spent most of the ride screaming, “I don’t want to get killed!”. In retrospect it’s hilarious, though at the time I was second-guessing my qualifications as a parent. The kids bounced back and we had another fun and full day in the park, capped off by a great dinner at the Big Thunder Ranch BBQ and a late night to catch the fireworks.
Three days was enough for us. We spent our final morning relaxing in the pool before heading out for one last surprise. We took a small detour into L.A. to see the Space Shuttle Endeavor at it’s new home at the California Science Center. It was incredible to see in person, and I’m looking forward to going back when they have the installation and viewing area complete.
The trip was a total blast. It’ll be a few years before we find our way back, but we have some great memories to tide us over until next time.
For the sake of posterity, we recorded all the rides we did on our first trip:
First Day in Disneyland
- Peter Pan’s Flight
- Storybook Land Canal Boats
- Mad Hatter’s Tea Party (AKA: the “Teacups”)
- Royal Theater: Tangled/Rapunzel
- Star Tours
- Soaring Over California (CA Adventure)
- Radiator Springs Racers (CA Adventure)
Second Day in Disneyland
- Astro Orbiter
- Pixie Hollow (meeting Tinkerbell)
- Pirates of the Caribbean
- Tarzan’s Treehouse
- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
- Mark Twain Riverboat
- Disneyland Railroad
- Matt: Indiana Jones
- Matt: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln
- Jody: Indiana Jones
- Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree (CA Adventure)
- Matt: Tower of Terror (CA Adventure)
My affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America was short-lived. For a number of reasons, Troop 81 of Novato, CA had a hard time holding my interest. I bailed about a year into the program, well before I had achieved any level of proficiency in some basic elements of campcraft. Years later (around the time I was at OSU), I developed a deep appreciation for hiking, backpacking and alpine climbing. In the years that followed, I found a partner in Jody and pursued backcounty adventure at every opportunity. Together we learned map and compass navigation, backcounty cookery, winter travel, and any number of skills that we’ve deployed from Wyoming to Patagonia, New Zealand to the Dry Tortugas. And right here, in the mountains and along the coastline of our Golden State, we’ve had more adventures than we can remember.
Back in 2003, we created SierraSoul to document our wanderings and help educate others about backcountry travel. We’ve written articles on trip planning, snow camping, and first aid. We have a spreadsheet that helps you calculate the optimal caloric density for backpacking food and a half-written article about thermodynamics and heat transfer as it applies to backcountry travel. Despite this hard-won knowledge, I had always held on to one deep, dark secret: I couldn’t start a campfire to save my life. It is shameful, embarrassing and difficult to explain. I simply never learned how to do it. I think I hit rock bottom in New Zealand, on our second night along the Routeburn Track. We were staying in a hut with a pot-belly stove. The caretaker had stocked the hut with ample firewood, kindling, newspaper and (no kidding) a bucket of coal. And still I failed to start a fire. It was Thanksgiving.
Fast forward five years. Our backpacking calendar has slowed down considerably. Our nights outside are focused on the family, and we’re usually just a stone’s throw from the car. Autumn and Carson are becoming capable campers, having braved the wilds of Death Valley, the Sierra Nevada, the Marin Headlands and Grandpa’s backyard. Carson will climb anything in sight and is usually covered in dirt within minutes of our arrival. Autumn divides her time between woodland dance routines and reminding Mom & Dad that we get to roast marshmallows after dinner. Which brings us full circle…back to the campfire.
In early July, we took a week for a low-key vacation. Our plan was a few nights at Grandpa’s house and wandering trip through the Sierra, camping along the way. After a quick drive to Twain Harte and a night to decompress, we headed east along 108 and found a great little campsite off Eagle Meadow Road. We are still in dispersed camping mode, and likely will be until we civilize these savage beasts. What it lacks in convenience, it more than makes up for in solitude and guilt-free nights. We had pine trees, we had granite, and we had a big damn fire ring waiting to be used. After setting up camp, I put Autumn to task picking up the small, dry twigs we would use to prime that evening’s fire. With a hot meal in our bellies, we set the stage – more twiggy fuel, some dry pine needles, matches, kindling, firewood. I thought through the instructional pep talk that an Eagle Scout friend gave me a few years back. I buried my past failures, lit a single match and started our campfire. A s’more never tasted so sweet.
We eased our way back to Twain Harte to knock the dust off the children, celebrate the Fourth of July and catch some restful sleep in a comfy bed. But we wanted one more night under the stars before returning home to foggy nights in SF. This time we headed further up 108, near the top of Sonora Pass. We found a great campsite at about 9,200′ with beautiful High Sierra views. Autumn and Carson had a blast just playing in the dirt, climbing (and falling off) everything in sight. I found success by the fire ring for a second time. I won’t call it a comeback, but the progress feels good.
A chilly night led to a slow morning. But at least it was a slow morning filled with bacon and eggs. While the kids collected some last minute dirt under their nails, we broke camp and then headed down the hill. We didn’t quite get the four nights of camping we planned for, but two nights is nice. I’ll take two nights in the Sierra with this crew any time.
We took our first trip to Death Valley back in 2005 during a September road trip to southwestern Utah. It was a quick layover during a long drive to the storied canyons of Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. The scale of Zion Canyon with its high-country terraces and serpentine slot canyons quenched our thirst for a bit of adventure. And the Seussian red rock of Bryce burned its twisted forms into our memories. But the brief time we spent in Death Valley stuck with us most all. We found ourselves heading back just a few months later during an impromtu winter road trip down the east side of the Sierra. We gave ourselves more time to explore, making the pilgrimage to Racetrack Playa and ringing in the new year on the rim of Ubehebe Crater.
After Autumn was born, we started talking about when we could share the park with her, which was really a conversation about just how soon you could subject a young child to a twelve-hour road trip and camping in the remote desert backcountry. After a steady year of Tahoe trips and good number of nights in the tent, we decided fifteen months was about right. To make things interesting, we dismissed all of the responsible destinations and instead aimed for the Saline Valley, one of the most remote outposts in the largest national park in the Lower 48.
After ten hours of driving, doing a northern end run around the Sierra, we braced ourselves for the final leg of our trip: fifty dusty miles down the infamous washboard of Saline Valley Road. As it happens, the washboard wasn’t a problem. The 6,000 foot pass laden with 16 inches of unplowed snow was the problem. We white-knuckled our way over North Pass and drifted down to the valley floor, where we looked back at Autumn and took a moment to reflect on how incredibly responsible we were being.
That night, the temperature dropped to the low thirties, about ten degrees cooler than we had expected. Jody did an admirable job keeping Autumn warm, but low temps and the forecast for a major storm found us breaking camp by mid-morning and resigning ourselves to just a single night in the tent. We spent the next two days enjoying the hell out of the Lone Pine area, taking trips into the Alabama Hills and generally goofing around.
Two years and too many seasons have passed, and we find ourselves a family of four. Carson is fairly sturdy at age one and has ample tent time under his belt. We found an opportunity for another wandering road trip south. Two days after Christmas, we loaded up the Subaru and hit the road in the pre-dawn hours. A very dry start to the winter gave us the unusual opportunity to cross Tioga Pass in late December. We landed in a shoebox-sized motel room along Highway 395. Decompression in tight quarters took a while, but by the following day we found our way into the park and did a short day hike in Mosaic Canyon. Carson loved the view from his perch atop Jody, and Autumn was in her element, bouncing her way up the canyon. A full-speed faceplant had us both worried that our little girl would advance her quest to be toothless by the age of four, but the grill remained intact and we brushed the dust (and blood) away.
That evening we found ourselves more comfortable accommodations and settled on our plans for the following day. The temperature was relatively low, hovering around the low 40s overnight. Our original plan to camp in the Eureka Valley and visit the Eureka Dunes wasn’t going to fly given the elevation and corresponding temperature drop. But the Panamint Valley looked promising. Big and desolate, with a low elevation, the Panamint Valley was the perfect place to find some distance between us and everything else.
The next morning, we loaded up the car again and drove back into the park. We bounced our way north along a washboard dirt road and found a big patch of sand with plenty of room to spread out near the northern end of the Panamint Valley. Dispersed camping is the perfect remedy for the guilty feelings that usually vex families with young children in crowded campgrounds. Our nearest neighbor was two miles away and the kids had the biggest sandbox they could ever dream of. We played a bit and watched the sun set early over the Inyo Range. Camping in late December means very long nights, but we kept Carson and Autumn entertained until bed time arrived. Jody had her hands full sharing a tent with both kids. I stifled feelings of guilt and drifted off to sleep in my own tent just twenty feet away.
Morning brought happy smiles, but also bitter cold and a painfully slow sunrise. We filled our bellies with a big breakfast and broke camp, a little bummed that we had just one night at this amazing site. Our drive home took us back over Tioga pass and we stopped at Tenaya Lake, to stretch our legs and play on the ice. We drew into SF pretty late and knocked the sand out of our shoes one last time. We’ve now camped in three of the four major valleys in the park: Death Valley, Saline Valley and Panamint Valley. Getting to Eureka Valley just requires slightly warmer weather—something that isn’t hard to come by in this place. The kids had a great time and they’re getting used to these long road trips. We hope this is just the start of many more years exploring Death Valley and all the outer lands of this amazing state we call home.
Our plans for Autumn’s first backpacking trip were foiled back in April, when she came down with a cold the day before our planned departure. The Coast Camp at Point Reyes had been chosen for nostalgic reasons as much as practical ones. Not only is it close and comfortable, but Jody and I took our first backpacking trip together there back in 2001. The trip was on our calendar since she was in utero, and the decision to be responsible parents stung a little bit.
Looking at our calendar, the weekends through May and June were laden with events and trips, leaving little time to spend on the trail. But one option held promise: Montana. We were planning a trip to Billings for Doug & Jordan’s wedding. It seemed like a no-brainer to tack an extra day on the trip and explore a bit of the Big Sky state. So we did. Doug and Jordan pulled together some great recommendations and we found ourselves blissed out in the Beartooth Mountains. We spent just one night at the Woodbine Campground (along the Stillwater River), but the drive over Beartooth Pass and back along the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River rounded out an excellent little road trip.
It will come as no surprise that the occasion was well documented and captured a bit of the fun we had with Autumn’s first night in a tent.
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