Point Bonita Lighthouse | California

The Point Bonita Lighthouse, just north of San Francisco in Marin County, is often referred to as a secret “Jewel of the Bay”.  While you probably won’t find it on many “Best Of San Francisco Bay Area” lists and in fact, many locals don’t even know it exists, it is one of the most interesting and beautiful places in the Bay Area and was one of the highlights of our trip. The third lighthouse built on the West Coast, the Point Bonita Lighthouse has been guiding ships through the Golden Gate Straits for over 150 years.

Point Bonita Lighthouse in Marin County California

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To get to Point Bonita from San Francisco, make your way north over the Golden Gate Bridge (it’s toll-free in this direction!) and then follow the signs for Fort Baker/Marin Headlands Tunnel Route. You’ll drive through the 1-way Baker-Barry Tunnel (there’s a five-minute light, so wait for it to turn green) and then follow the signs for the Visitor Center.

Point Bonita Marin Headlands

You can check out the Visitor Center (housed in a historic military chapel) or continue on to the Point Bonita parking lot in roughly 3/4 mile. If the small parking lot is full, park along the road or in the larger Battery Alexander parking lot.

View of the Golden Gate Bridge from Point Bonita

The foggy coastline with the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco behind it. The trail to the Point Bonita lighthouse offers great views of the coastline, the bay, and the city… assuming you can see through the fog.

Harbor seals at Point Bonita Marin Headlands

The kids loved watching the harbor seals resting on the rocks and swimming around in the water.

view of Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline as fog lifts

As the fog lifted, we could finally see the beautiful San Francisco skyline behind the Golden Gate Bridge.

Point Bonita Lighthouse weather

There was a storm brewing out over the Pacific in the other direction, and the kids had fun making up weather stories as we walked along the trail.

Point Bonita weather

Summer weather in San Francisco can be quite chilly, especially when the wind kicks up. The kids were wishing they had jackets to wear even though the sun was so bright they could barely open their eyes which was definitely a mom fail on my part. Next time, we’ll wear layers! We love these Amazon Basics Packable Jackets when we’re traveling since they provide wind/rain protection and have their own carrying case.

kids on the Point Bonita Lighthouse trail

Another attempt at a group photo (minus Ellie) but the combination of sun and wind still made it difficult. At least they’re smiling!

Point Bonita Lighthouse trail

The half-mile hike to the Point Bonita lighthouse involves a partially steep and precarious trail, a tunnel, and a suspension bridge– so basically, it’s every kid’s dream trail!

Point Bonita Lighthouse tunnel exterior

The only way to get to the lighthouse is through this tunnel and currently, the tunnel is only open Sunday-Monday from 1230-330pm. The hours are so limited that we planned our entire San Francisco trip around them, so make sure to double-check that the tunnel will be open if you want to get all the way down to the lighthouse.

Point Bonita Lighthouse tunnel

In 1876, the Chinese workers that built the transcontinental railroad tunnels in the Sierra Nevadas were brought in to hand carve a tunnel leading to the lighthouse. Because of the proximity to the San Andreas fault line, dynamite couldn’t be used and it took 6 months to carve the 118-foot tunnel by hand.

Point Bonita tunnels

The kids absolutely loved going through the tunnel and it may have even been the highlight of the visit for a couple of them. They made their way through, dragging their hands along the rough, moss-covered walls, and we talked about how scary it must have been to build the tunnel.

Point Bonita Lighthouse near San Francisco

With the population explosion from the Gold Rush in the 1850s, another lighthouse was needed in order to mark the northern edge of the San Francisco Bay and reduce the number of shipwrecks on the cliffs. The Point Bonita Lighthouse was originally built in 1855, on the highest hill in the area but that proved to be a devastating mistake.

On the east coast (where the lighthouse designers were from), lighthouses needed to be as tall as possible so that they could be seen over the fog. But in the San Francisco area, the fog often starts thirty feet above the ground and extends upwards of three hundred feet, meaning that the tall lighthouse could not be seen in the dense fog, and the shipwrecks continued.

Point Bonita Lighthouse Sausalito

In the 1870s the lighthouse was moved to lower ground where it sits today and it still guides ships into San Francisco Bay. The US Coast Guard is responsible for maintaining the lighthouse and the National Parks Service is responsible for visitor access since the lighthouse is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Point Bonita lighthouse suspension bridge

The Point Bonita Lighthouse is the only lighthouse in America that can ONLY be reached by a suspension bridge (and one that’s designed after the Golden Gate Bridge, at that). It was also the last manned lighthouse on the California coast!

Point Bonita lighthouse San Francisco

The lighthouse still uses the original 1855 Fresnel lens in a three seconds on, one second off pattern so that it can be differentiated from other lighthouses in the area. An electric foghorn is now used, replacing the original warning cannon and steam siren, when the light is too difficult to see through the dense fog.

Rocky California coast Marin headlands

The Point Bonita Lighthouse helps to protect ships from crashing into the incredibly beautiful but incredibly dangerous cliffs of the Marin Headlands to the north of the lighthouse.

family on Point Bonita lighthouse suspension bridge

A redesigned bridge opened in 2012 and though it does sway and move a bit, it was designed to withstand the 100mph winds that commonly occur in the Bay area. The lighthouse itself can only accommodate 49 visitors at a time, so you may have to wait a bit on busy days. There’s always a ranger stationed at the entry that can answer any questions you have (our kids asked a ton!) and let you know when it’s safe to head across the bridge to explore the lighthouse.

Point Bonita lighthouse San Francisco Bay

The Point Bonita Lighthouse was one of our favorite Bay area stops and one that we’ll definitely repeat next time we’re in the San Francisco area. The hike to the lighthouse was fun and the lookouts were absolutely breathtaking- it definitely offers one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge in the area if you can make the trip on a clear afternoon.

Things to Remember For Point Bonita Lighthouse Visit

  • The tunnel to the lighthouse is ONLY open on Sunday and Monday from 1230-330pm.
  • Verify that the lighthouse is open in cases of inclement weather.
  • Bring your own water– there is nowhere to purchase food/drink at Point Bonita. We love these water bottles when we’re hiking.
  • Even if it’s warm in the city, it will be noticeably cooler in the Marin Headlands– wear layers!

What’s your favorite hidden gem in the Bay Area??

If you’re looking for more things to do in the San Francisco area, check out these posts:

Alcatraz Night Tour | San Francisco, CA

Alcatraz Island, located in the San Francisco Bay, a little over a mile off the coast of San Francisco, is home to one of the country’s most notorious prisons with a storied history. Did you know that you can explore America’s most infamous prison at night?! Tickets go quickly for the Alcatraz Night Tour, so make sure to plan ahead!

Alcatraz Night Tour San Francisco

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Alcatraz "The Rock" in San Francisco Bay

We booked our tickets wayyyyy in advance (90 days out!) so that we could ensure that the Alcatraz Night Tour would be available. While the National Park Service maintains Alcatraz itself, if you want to visit the island, you need to book tickets through Alcatraz City Cruises, the official concessioner of the NPS.

Tours depart throughout the day from Alcatraz Landing at Pier 33, conveniently located near Fisherman’s Wharf. In addition to the Day Tour, there is also the Alcatraz Night Tour with special activities and a guided tour, and the Behind the Scenes Tour (ages 12 and up only) goes even more in-depth.

The Alcatraz Tour Option Comparison Chart will help you determine which tour works best for your family. When you select a tour time, you don’t have to commit to a return time- you can return from the island on the next available boat, and they run hourly.

No matter what tour you’re interested in booking, the key thing to remember is that you need to book way ahead of time. It is nearly impossible to get a same-day tour as they usually sell out months in advance. Make sure to book your tour as soon as you know your travel plans to have the best availability.

kids on cruise to Alcatraz

Once you check-in at Alcatraz Landing, stop by the Alcatraz Landing Cafe if you need to pick up a quick snack. While you can buy food on the boat, there is no food for sale on the island. Picnics and food are only allowed at the dock area on the island, though you can take bottled water into the prison. Currently, there is no food & beverage service available at Pier 33, Alcatraz Landing, or on the boat. Additionally, picnics are not presently allowed at the dock. Bottled water is the only beverage permitted on the island. The kids love these water bottles and we take them with us pretty much everywhere we go!

As soon as we boarded, the kids all said they wanted to stand on the outside of the boat to have a better view which worked well for me since I was taking pictures. The downside to standing on the outside of the boat is that you can get pretty wet– the kids didn’t seem to mind at all, though, especially since it was a warm summer day!

first views of Alcatraz "The Rock"

We were treated to a gorgeous boat ride to the island and none of the typical San Francisco fog.

Alcatraz prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay

One of the perks of the Alcatraz Night Tour is the onboard narration as you sail around the island before docking. Alcatraz is home to the first lighthouse on the US West Coast, originally built in 1854 and replaced by a taller one in 1909 after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 damaged the original.

Alcatraz on a sunny day

The first lighthouse was built to guide ships sailing into San Francisco Bay at the height of the Gold Rush. When they realized the strategic significance, the US Army built a fort on the island (completed in 1859) to ensure the harbor’s safety. Alcatraz was the largest US fort west of the Mississippi River during the Civil War era. Eventually, the fort was no longer as important strategically and Alcatraz officially became a Military Prison in 1907.

rocky shores of Alcatraz

In 1934, the Army transferred control of Alcatraz to the Bureau of Prisons. Then it was converted into the first maximum-security, minimum-privilege civilian penitentiary (the equivalent of a “supermax” prison) in the country. The rocky island offered a nearly escape-proof environment, and though there were 14 separate escape attempts, the reality is that no one ever made it off the island alive (probably!).


Alcatraz Penitentiary closed in 1963 because it was becoming overwhelmingly expensive to maintain and operate, and the island sat empty for six years.

Indians Welcome Alcatraz Sign

Many may not realize that Alcatraz became the site of an American Indian protest in 1969. The group, which called itself the United Indians of All Tribes, demanded reparation for the treaties broken by the government over the years leading to a substantial loss of land for Indian tribes. This group of American Indians seized the land and claimed it as Indian Land, and they lived with their families on the island. The protest lasted over 19 months and left Alcatraz with several damaged and destroyed buildings as well as a legacy of reawakening American Indian culture and identity.

Indian history at Alcatraz

Golden Gate National Recreation Area was established in 1972 with Alcatraz Island in its boundaries. In 1973, the National Park Service opened Alcatraz to the public for the very first time, and people flocked to the island to learn its legends and lore.

When we arrived at Alcatraz, we disembarked in small groups (30-50) for the guided walk to the entrance of the Main Prison. One of the biggest perks of the Night Tour is that the tickets are VERY limited (only a few hundred are available), so there are hardly any people on the island (and the daytime visitors are completely cleared out before the Night Tour begins).

steep staircases on Alcatraz

The walkways on Alcatraz are very steep, and while the distance from the dock to the Cellhouse is only about a quarter of a mile, the elevation change is 130 feet– the equivalent of walking up a 13-story building!! Comfortable walking shoes are absolutely a necessity. Those with mobility issues can catch a ride on the SEAT Tram though availability is first-come, first-served.

buildings on Alcatraz

As we walked towards the prison entrance, the kids all commented on how worn the buildings looked. The National Park Service works tirelessly to preserve the buildings on the island, even rebuilding them as necessary, but it is a never-ending job. Because one of the draws to the island is that the facilities are ruins, they take special care to match the concrete and paint to the rest of the building, preserving that battered look that Alcatraz is known for.

Break the prison rules and you go to Alcatraz

Alcatraz was often referred to as the “prison within the prison system”. Since the Courts could not sentence anyone there, the Bureau of Prisons sent troublesome convicts to Alcatraz until they could safely return to a lower-security prison.

group showers on Alcatraz

The Alcatraz Night Tour still includes the Award-winning Cellhouse audio tour offered during the day, giving an excellent overview of one of American history’s most notorious federal prisons. It brings that history to life with stories about its most famous prisoners like Al Capone and the “Birdman” of Alcatraz and interviews with former prisoners and correctional officers.

prison cells on Alcatraz

The 3-story prison housed four cell blocks: Cellblock A was not used during the federal penitentiary days, Cellblocks B and C housed the general population, and Cellblock D was reserved for those that couldn’t follow the rules and needed to be in isolation since it had segregated cells as well as solitary confinement.

kids listening to the Cellhouse audio tour Alcatraz

The kids loved the audio tour and were able to follow along independently, though we did make sure to stay together so that no one got lost. It’s easy to pause the tour to spend extra time looking at an exhibit or explain something to the kids, and then start it back up again when you’re ready. Christopher, the budding photographer, took photos as he listened to the chilling tales from the inmates themselves.

view of the mainland from the Alcatraz yard

Inmates could get outside and spend time playing baseball or have conversations at the Recreation Yard on the weekends. The prison yard had a great view of the mainland that the kids really seemed to envy.

kids in prison cells Alcatraz

However, once they saw the prison cells, they decided that living there wouldn’t be quite as much fun as they initially thought!

Alcatraz with kids

Ben and Lexie were too scared to go in “the Hole” by themselves so they dragged dad in, too! Isolation was reserved for the most dangerous and violent inmates, and they were confined to their cell 24 hours a day, for days, weeks, or even months at a time.

Alcatraz cell bathroom

Ben said he would be totally fine living in solitary because then he would have his own bathroom– I guess he really doesn’t like sharing a bathroom with all of his siblings!

example of a cell on Alcatraz

Inside a typical cell. Each cell was about 9 feet by 5 feet, and 7 feet high had a small sink and toilet, a cot, and a small table. Inmates were allowed to keep their personal belongings in their cells, and some were decorated with artwork.

Alcatraz library Cellhouse audio tour

The library at Alcatraz was home to around 15,000 books covering various topics, though anything with sex, crime or violence was banned. Well-behaved inmates were allowed to check out three books at a time from the library and some read upwards of 100 per year.

kids at Alcatraz

Ben and Lexie were excited to learn about visitation since they thought that life on “the Rock” sounded lonely. Inmates were allowed one 1.5 hour visit per month from an immediate family member or other approved visitor, and that’s it.

Broadway Alcatraz

The corridors in the prison were named after famous US streets and landmarks: Michigan Ave, Broadway, Park Ave, Sunset Strip, and Times Square.

Cellblock corridors Alcatraz

Broadway: The corridor running between Cellblocks B and C which housed most of the general population.

Golden Gate Bridge at sunset

One of the best things about going to Alcatraz is the view– we were able to watch as the sun went lower and lower towards the Marin Headlands to our west.

Oakland Bay Bridge under a nearly full moon

And we watched the moon rise over the Bay Bridge to the east.

Alcatraz hospital room during Alcatraz Night Tour

In addition to the lower crowds, the Night Tour of Alcatraz offers the chance to explore areas of the island that are not usually open to visitors. We were able to see the hospital and were VERY thankful that we have nicer hospital facilities if we ever need to use them.

Operating room Alcatraz at night

The operating room looked incredibly eerie– I could not imagine having surgery in a place like this!

Alcatraz with kids x-ray room

The hospital at Alcatraz provided medical and dental care to the inmates ensuring that they did not need to leave the island for any reason. The hospital also provided care for the prison employees and their civilian families that called the island home.

Sunset at Alcatraz

The sun was just starting to set when we boarded the boat for our ride back to San Francisco.

smiling girl on way back to San Francisco

It was quite a bit cooler on the ride back to the city but luckily, we were prepared with light jackets. Layers are so important when visiting Alcatraz because the weather changes very quickly and it can get chilly when you’re out on the water– even in the summer!

Alcatraz cruise back to San Francisco at sunset

Even with the cooler temperatures, the kids still wanted to ride outside and take in the sights as we traveled back to civilization.

San Francisco at sunset

We were treated to a glorious sunset and smooth sailing back to the city. There are two return times for the Night Tour (8:40pm and 9:25pm in the summer), and we opted to do the first one to watch the sunset. By the time the 9:25pm boat departed, it was definitely dark out, though the later departure would allow for more time to explore the island.

Sunset at the Golden Gate Bridge

Sunset and the San Francisco Bay

San Francisco skyline

As we approached the mainland, the city lights were just starting to come on. The Transamerica Pyramid and Coit Tower were easy to spot, even from a distance.

Alcatraz at Night Tour with kids

Goodnight, Alcatraz. We had a great time on the Night Tour of Alcatraz and would not hesitate to do it again the next time we’re in San Francisco. The kids were really interested in the content of the audio tour, and the entire experience seemed to hold their attention well, meaning that the adults were able to enjoy it as well.

Things to Remember for a Visit to Alcatraz

  • Book early– 60-90 days ahead of time if you’re traveling during peak season or want a specific tour or departure time.
  • There is no food allowed in the Cellhouse, but you’re welcome to have a snack before departure, on the boat to/from the island, or at the picnic tables by the dock on the island. Bottled water is allowed anywhere on the island and is sold at the gift shops as well as on the boats.
  • Wear layers as it can quickly go from warm to cool (or the other way!) during your visit. Also, comfortable walking shoes are a must given the steep walkways on the island.
  • While you are locked into your departure time heading to Alcatraz, you are not for the return to the city so you can spend as much time on the island as you would like. Most people should allow at least three hours for the round-trip cruise and time to explore the island.

Have you been to Alcatraz before?? Would you brave the Alcatraz Night Tour or prefer to visit during the day??

If you’re looking for more things to do in the San Francisco area, check out these posts:

Muir Woods National Monument | California

Trips to the San Francisco Bay area are often filled with the hustle and bustle of city life. If you can free up some time, make sure to visit Muir Woods National Monument on the Marin County side of the San Francisco Bay. There’s so much to do in Muir Woods with kids and it’s a perfect day trip from the city!

Located just a short drive north from San Francisco (over the Golden Gate Bridge!), Muir Woods National Monument offers a welcome contrast from the business of the city and the old-growth coast redwoods contribute to the lush views that surround you.

Muir Woods with kids

The land for Muir Woods was donated by Congressman William Kent, and though President Roosevelt wanted to name the monument after him, Kent pushed to have it named after the great preservationist, John Muir, instead.

Muir Woods National Park Monument

Muir Woods officially became a National Monument on January 9, 1908, by a Presidential Proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt– this was before the National Park Service even existed!! In 1916, Congressman Kent introduced the bill that created the National Park Service.

Things to do in Muir Woods National Park

We always make sure to arrive early in the day so that we can enjoy walking along the lush trails in peace– it definitely gets more crowded as the day goes on. We recommend stopping at the Visitor Center to get a park map, a passport stamp, and the most up-to-date information about things in the park. The Visitor Center is open daily from 8am-430pm, though the park stays open until 5pm.

What to do In Muir Woods National Monument

When we went a few years ago, it was recommended to arrive early because parking is extremely limited. Now, you’re required to book a $9 parking reservation online at Go Muir Woods. While you do need to select a 30-minute arrival window and arrive within the window, you are able to stay in the park until it closes so your time in the park is not limited in any way.

However, that leads me to believe that parking could still be an issue, especially later in the day, so personally, I would still aim for an earlier time if possible. There are shuttles into the park from Pohono Park & Ride (which offers free parking) for $3.50/person over 16. Reservations are required and the shuttle is currently only operating on weekends and holidays.

Muir Woods with kids flowers

Kids can become a Junior Ranger by completing a free activity book from the Visitor Center. There’s also a virtual Junior Ranger program online available for families that are choosing not to travel at this time.

Best muir woods hikes

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike” — John Muir, 1912.

Best hikes in Muir Woods

Muir Woods offers over 6 miles of trails with most visitors choosing to do the Main Trail Loop.  It features a 1/2 hour loop, a 1-hour loop, and a 1 1/2 hour loop depending on which bridge you choose to cross and head back.  The Main Trail Loop, departing from the Visitor Center, takes you through old-growth forests with coast redwoods towering 250 feet overhead.

What to see in Muir Woods with kids

The kids thought it was so cool that they could actually go inside the tree! And they were in constant awe over the size of these giant coast redwoods.

Muir Woods Bicentennial Tree

The kids were really intrigued by the bicentennial tree– and it was a great opportunity to talk about the word “bicentennial” since it isn’t used very often!

Things to do in Muir Woods National Park

While the Bicentennial Tree is nowhere near the oldest tree in the park (some are nearly 1000 years old), it does have the same birth year as the United States!

Muir Woods with kids

Ellie’s favorite part of our visit was the giant bear carving outside of the gift shop!  There are two separate gift shops at Muir Woods- one at the Visitor Center with a wide range of books and another, the Muir Woods Trading Company, with the usual touristy stuff.  Our kids definitely had more fun exploring the Trading Company and we had to drag them out when we were done looking.

Things to Remember for a Trip to Muir Woods With Kids

  • Parking is extremely limited– and needs to be reserved online ahead of time.
  • The park is open 365 days a year but hours vary depending on the season.
  • In addition to parking/shuttle costs, it is $15 per adult (16 and over) to get into the park.  Alternatively, you can get a Muir Woods annual pass for $45 or a National Parks Annual Pass for $80 and those cover your admission for a year. We highly recommend getting the America the Beautiful National Parks Annual Pass and crossing a few National Parks off your bucket list.
  • The Main Trail Loop is a stroller-friendly boardwalk and paved trails so bring the kids and experience the serenity that Muir Woods has to offer!

Have you ever been to Muir Woods National Monument??  What’s your favorite California National Park/Monument??

Looking for more things to do in the San Francisco area? Check out these posts:





Everglades National Park | Florida

Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States and is the third-largest National Park in the lower 48 (and tenth largest overall). Located on 1.5 million acres of southern Florida, the Everglades is HUGE, but it’s easily accessible through Miami, Everglades City, or Homestead. Keep reading to find out how to spend a day at Everglades National Park with kids.

When we visited south Florida, not only did we do an airboat tour of the Everglades, but we also visited the Shark Valley Visitor Center in Everglades National Park. Exploring the Everglades by both water and land gave us a much better look at the park as a whole.

Shark Valley Tram Tour

Shark Valley Tram Tour open air vehicle

Shark Valley is the only place in the park to take a tram tour, and you know we love guided tours when we travel, so of course, that’s where we started!

Masked and smiling faces on the Shark Valley Tram Tour

As the in-park concessionaire, Shark Valley Tram Tours handles all of the booking/scheduling for the two-hour tram tour through the northern part of the park. With naturalists on every tour, the guides are able to point out wildlife and explain the ecosystem as you see the Everglades from the open-air tram.

Baby alligators in Everglades National Park

Alligators are the largest creatures that call the Everglades home and we saw several small ones that were about two years old. On the tour, we found out that the best time to see alligators is during the dry season (November through April) – and that’s also peak season for park attendance. The dry season brings with it lower humidity, fewer mosquitoes and biting flies, and larger numbers of animals and birds gathering near water holes.

Heron basking under the sun in the Shark Valley Slough

Often referred to as a swamp, the Everglades is actually a VERY slow-moving river. The “River of Grass” connects Lake Okeechobee in central Florida with the Gulf of Mexico and travels at a speed of about 1 mile per 2.5 days (compared to the Mississippi River which flows at roughly 2MPH).

Everglades National Park with Kids

Shark Valley got its name because the water flows towards the Shark River (which does sometimes have sharks, including bull sharks!), southwest of the park. And Shark Valley really is a valley. The valley sits in a geological depression between the coastal ridges of South Florida and is lower than the surrounding area- but only by about ten feet!

Everglades with Kids

Off in the distance, we caught our first glimpse of the highest accessible point in Everglades National Park. While we opted for the tram, you can also ride your bike (or a rental) out to the tower on the 15-mile paved road.

Alligator along the trail in Everglades National Park

On our way to the observation tower, we actually walked right past this huge gator without even noticing. We ran into a park ranger who asked if we saw the alligator on the side of the trail and we headed back down to check it out.

Shark Valley Observation Tower

Shark Valley Observation Tower against a blue sky

The Shark Valley Observation Tower is the highlight of the park for many visitors – and one of the main reasons that we opted for the Shark Valley area of the park rather than a more southern entrance.

Everglades National Park with Kids

Interestingly, the Shark Valley observation tower is the sister to Clingman’s Dome in Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Shark Valley Observation Tower in Everglades National Park

From the 65 foot tall Shark Valley Observation Tower you can see for roughly 20 miles in any direction on a clear day.

Smiling kids on ramp up Shark Valley Observation Tower

Even if you don’t see any wildlife in the park (which is highly unlikely!) the view from the tower is worth the visit!

Everglades National Park with Kids

Like most National Parks, Everglades does have an entrance fee of $30 per vehicle and provides 7 consecutive days of admission via any of the park entrances. If you’re planning to visit more than one or two National Parks in a year, we always recommend checking to see if you qualify for a free Annual Pass (Military, Veterans/Gold Star Families, 4th Graders, Handicapped) and if not, getting the $80 Annual Pass.

Things to Remember for a Trip to Everglades National Park with Kids

  • There are four visitor centers in the park:
  • Make sure to pack appropriately for the season. During the rainy season, ponchos and insect repellants are necessary. Always have enough water.
  • If you’re interested in doing the Shark Valley Tram Tour or renting bicycles, make sure to set that up ahead of time here.

Have you been to the Everglades?? Do you prefer exploring by land or by water??

Dry Tortugas National Park | Florida

Located roughly 70 miles west of Key West, in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the country’s most remote National Parks. Only accessible by boat or seaplane, the park is home to Fort Jefferson and is surrounded by beautiful blue/green water and coral reefs.

This post may contain affiliate links and we may earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you!) if you choose to purchase when you click on the links. Thank you for supporting Love Dwells Here!!

Getting to Dry Tortugas National Park

seaplane landing in the water at Dry Tortugas

Getting there is just the beginning of the fun! There are two options if you’re looking to visit Dry Tortugas: seaplane or boat. Seaplane Adventures is the only authorized seaplane service to the park, and it is definitely the quickest way to get to this remote island. The pictures from their website are absolutely amazing, and I’m sure that the view is unsurpassed, but for a family of 6, the price ($360-634/adult) was a bit steep. We opted to take the Yankee Freedom III from Key West, and while still a pricy option (just under $200/adult), it was much more manageable. Alternatively, if you have your own boat (or want to charter one), you could go that route instead.

Yankee Freedom III ready to leave Key West just after sunrise

The Yankee Freedom III is a high-speed catamaran and travels over 30mph on the 70-mile trip between Key West and Dry Tortugas. Since the trip takes just over 2 hours, boarding is first thing in the morning to maximize time on the island. Check-In is at 7am, Boarding is at 730am and Departure is at 8am. Even with the COVID precautions in place (temp checks and masks are required), check-in and boarding ran smoothly, and we departed right on-time.

Two smiling girls wearing masks onboard the Yankee Freedom III

A quick breakfast snack is included with your ticket, and while I forgot to take a single picture of it, it was delicious. I’m not sure if the breakfast menu changes at all, but it was a bagel/cream cheese, yogurt, and an apple, along with coffee and juice on our trip.

The ferry is spacious and comfortable with two decks, as well as inside and outside seating. There are four large bathrooms and three freshwater rinse showers available if you want to change into clean/dry clothes on the way back to Key West. Each deck has a bar serving beverages and extra snacks ranging from frozen mixed drinks (return trip only) to pizza and ice cream bars. We partook in beverages (both adult and child-friendly) on the trip back to Key West, and they were delicious!

Reflective and still water in the Gulf of Mexico

With both indoor and outdoor seating, there’s something for everyone. We officially had seats indoors, and that’s where most of our group stayed, but I spent most of the outbound voyage outside on the deck, taking in the sights and looking for wildlife. The water seemed perfectly still and provided almost a mirror image reflection of the sky above- not something you typically see while out in the ocean.

Girl leaning over bow of boat looking at horizon

On the wildlife front, from the bow of the boat, we saw: LOTS of fish and jellyfish, about 10 sea turtles, a few dolphins, and a HAMMERHEAD SHARK!! Such a cool experience!!

First glimpse of Dry Tortugas National Park on the horizon line

First glimpse of Dry Tortugas National Park on the horizon.

Fort Jefferson in the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico

As we got closer, it became easier to make out the walls of Fort Jefferson and the sandy beaches of Garden and Bush Keys.

Exploring Fort Jefferson

Entrance sign to Fort Jefferson

The largest brick masonry structure in the western hemisphere, Fort Jefferson, was designed to protect the Gulf Coast. A 45-60 minute guided tour of Fort Jefferson is included with your ferry ticket, or you can download the self-guided tour and do it yourself (the tour has been adjusted slightly due to COVID and distancing requirements). While I planned to take advantage of the guided tour since they’re one of our fave things to do while traveling, we ended up exploring a bit on our own so that we could spend more time enjoying the water activities since they were a higher priority for the kids.

Tunnels and walkways Fort Jefferson

At its peak in the 1860s, nearly 2000 people called Fort Jefferson home; most of those men, though there were some women and children. The fort is essentially made up of gunrooms, known as casemates – cannons mounted in these casemates could fire through openings (embrasures) though none were ever fired. Carpenters built the casemates with wooden arches, and then masons laid brick and mortar on top, creating the brick arches that can be seen all over the fort.

View through a window of Fort Jefferson- can see the ocean and the moat

Fort Jefferson is surrounded by a moat, partly to protect the fort from the surf but also to provide another measure of defense against those that may try to attack. Notice how the bricks at the top of the fort are redder (see pic below)? The fort was constructed during the Civil War and mostly from Florida bricks. However, Florida, a Confederate state, refused to continue supplying bricks to the Union forces that controlled the fort, so it had to be completed with bricks shipped all the way from Maine!

Moat wall Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas National Park

The girls wanted to complete their Junior Ranger books, so we wandered around the fort as we completed the books. In addition to getting their Junior Ranger badges, they each also got a free ice cream sandwich when we got back on the ferry!

Dry Tortugas National Park Snorkeling & Swimming

Snorkeling gear is also included with a ferry ticket, and the kids talked excitedly about it the whole boat ride out to Dry Tortugas. Once we got off the ferry, I covered everyone in sunscreen, and then the big kids headed off with Grandpa to pick up masks, snorkels, flippers, and buoyancy vests. We made our way to the South Swim Beach, staked a spot with a little bit of shade, and made our way into the beautiful water.

Family getting ready in snorkeling gear

Ellie (and the GoPro for her YouTube channel that I’m *thisclose* to getting going) ran right in and quickly declared it the best beach she’d ever been to- white sands and crystal clear water will do that to you! She had a blast floating around and playing in the shallow surf near Fort Jefferson, with turquoise water reaching out as far as the eye could see.

The bigs and Grandpa got geared up and set off on a snorkeling adventure around the island. While good swimmers, they are not proficient snorkelers, so it took a few minutes to adjust to swimming with masks/snorkels and figure out how hard to kick while wearing flippers (the correct answer to that is not at all!). They explored the moat wall of Fort Jefferson before heading off to the south coaling dock ruins in search of coral and pretty fish- both of which they found!

Family snorkeling near moat wall of Fort Jefferson

Family snorkeling near moat wall of Fort Jefferson

Visitors are able to walk out on the moat wall, and I was able to follow their snorkeling adventure for a while.

Fish swimming along moat wall Dry Tortugas

And even spotted pretty fishies from my vantage point up on the wall.


I honestly think they would have been content to snorkel around the island all day – and I heard one of the boys say that he was bummed they didn’t see any sharks!

Black and yellow fish Dry Tortugas

Coral on the south coaling docks at Dry Tortugas

Lunch is also included with your ferry ticket, and again, I forgot to take many pictures! You have to return to the ferry to pick up your meal, but you can bring it with you to eat somewhere on the island- there are picnic tables available, but we just ate ours at the beach. Our lunch included: sandwich (either ham/swiss/white bread or turkey/cheddar/wheat bread), a bag of chips, a few chocolate chip cookies, and a drink. The sandwiches were heartier than I expected and even included lettuce and tomato! There are no trash cans around, so you do need to be mindful of the trash that you accumulate and bring it back to the ferry with you to dispose of at the end of the day.

Kids enjoying a picnic lunch on the beach

There’s nothing better than a picnic lunch on the beach.

2 teens paddleboarding in the blue/green Gulf of Mexico at Dry Tortugas

A nice couple camping on the island let the kids borrow their paddleboards for a few hours, and Ben and Lexie jumped at the chance to use them.

Girls paddleboarding Dry Tortugas National Park

Lexie and Ellie explored the waters surrounding the moat wall for over an hour, watching the fish swim below them.

Smiling teen paddleboarding Gulf of Mexico

Back to Key West

Yankee Freedom III - the concessionaire for Dry Tortugas National Park

All too soon, it was time to board the Yankee Freedom III and begin the trip back to Key West. Boarding was at 2:45pm, and the ship left promptly at 3pm for the 130-minute trip back.

Frozen pina colada at Dry Tortugas

On the return trip, alcoholic beverages were available for purchase. The piña colada with a dark rum float was absolutely delicious and at $8, very reasonable given that we were a captive audience. In fact, I felt like all of the concessions were reasonably priced-  a soda or a candy bar for $1, and I even saw someone with a bag of microwave popcorn though I don’t know how much that one cost.

Sleeping teen on the ferry back to Key West

As he always does, Ben slept on our return voyage. There’s just something about being on a boat that puts this guy right to sleep. Thankfully he wasn’t like that on our cruise over spring break!

Smiling girls with their ice cream sandwiches after completing the Jr Ranger program

Sweet, smiling girls enjoying their hard-earned ice cream sandwiches. I love that there’s a fun prize for completing the Jr Ranger books (in addition to the badge)!

All in all, we had an absolutely FANTASTIC time at Dry Tortugas. It’s one of those places that I’m already trying to figure out how we can go back again, and soon! I love that the kids had so much fun snorkeling and playing in the water, but I would love to go back and do the guided tour and spend more time exploring the fort. We may end up camping there next time so that we have more time- four hours just wasn’t enough!

Things to Remember For Your Trip to Dry Tortugas

  • Tickets for both the seaplane and the ferry sell out well in advance, so book as soon as possible.
  • If you plan to camp (the only way to stay overnight in the park) book it ASAP since campsites are VERY limited.
  • If you take the ferry, you’ll only have about four hours on land, so have a rough plan for your day before you disembark.
  • Supplies are limited on Dry Tortugas and the Yankee Freedom III, so bring everything that you’ll need:
    • Bathing suits and towels
    • Sunscreen – and don’t forget to reapply!!
    • Camera and binoculars
    • Motion sickness meds (if needed) – we prefer Bonine, but Dramamine works, too.
  • Dry Tortugas is a pack-in, pack-out park – make sure to bring a bag to carry all of your trash back to the ferry with you.

Teen paddleboarding in gorgeous water at Dry Tortugas

I’m pretty sure that Dry Tortugas is one of my all-time favorite National Parks now. What’s yours?? Check out our progress to visit all of the US National Parks. How many have you visited??

US National Parks by State

Exploring our National Parks is one of the most popular, and the most beautiful, ways to see the United States. The National Park Service, created in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson, has grown over the past 100 years to include over 400 National Park Sites (including National Monuments, Battlefields, etc). All of those are listed on our comprehensive National Parks Bucket List, but for the purpose of this post, we’re just covering the 63 National Parks in the United States.

Visiting all of the National Parks has been on our family’s bucket list for as long as I can remember. While I’d ideally love to visit ALL 424 National Park Service Units, our main goal is just the National Parks- and with parks spanning from Alaska to the Virgin Islands, it’s no small feat to visit them all. As of April 2023, we’ve visited 20/63 as a family.

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I’ve found that looking at the National Parks organized by state is much easier than trying to keep track of them alphabetically. I mean, who is going to Acadia National Park (in Maine) and Arches National Park (in Utah) on one trip?! And if they are, I wanna go, too!!

US National Parks by State









beautiful peaks of Yosemite National Park with blue skies, puffy white clouds - US National Parks by stateYosemite National Park





Kids snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National ParkDry Tortugas National Park





















New Mexico


kids running up the dunes at white sands national park - US National Parks by stateWhite Sands National Park

North Carolina


North Dakota






South Carolina


South Dakota












West Virginia






What’s your favorite National Park?? Thus far, I *think* my favorite is White Sands, but it’s such a hard decision! Annnnd now that we’ve visited Dry Tortugas National Park, it’s right up there with White Sands.

Things to Do In San Francisco With Kids

My love affair with San Francisco began nearly thirty years ago, and it has been one of my favorite cities in the United States since.  I visited many times as a child and once with just my husband (as a surprise for his 25th birthday!), but I was super excited to introduce our kids to “the City by the Bay” on our cross-country road trip.  We had a whirlwind weekend in the city, nowhere near enough time to see and do everything, but here are some of our favorite things to do in San Francisco with kids.

San Francisco Pin Image

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Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge across the San Francisco Bay with the city blanketed in fog

The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most iconic sights in San Francisco, connecting San Francisco with Marin County to the North.  It opened in May 1938 and boasted the longest main bridge span (that’s the part between the two main towers– and for the GGB, it’s 4200 feet) in the world at the time.  The Golden Gate Bridge utilizes a one-way tolling system, so you’re only assessed the toll when traveling towards San Francisco, and the whole thing is done electronically- there are no toll booths; you will receive an invoice in the mail a few weeks after you cross the bridge.

Golden Gate Bridge across the San Francisco Bay with the city blanketed in fog; yellow flowers

There are many vantage points on both the north and south side for viewing the Golden Gate Bridge. Many tout Crissy Field and Baker Beach as the best spots in the city, but we much prefer the view from the Marin Headlands as it allows you to see the city as well.  Battery Spencer, an old artillery battery from the late 1800s that was responsible for protecting the San Francisco Bay until World War II, offers one of the best views of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco (depending on the fog).  Parking is free but extremely limited.

If you have more time: Check out Golden Gate Park, which has gardens (including the Japanese Tea Garden- the oldest of its kind in the US), playgrounds, picnic areas, lakes (yes, more than one!), and even a carousel.

Cable Cars

Cable Car Turnaround in San Francisco

You can’t go to San Francisco and not ride on one of the iconic cable cars! There are three cable car routes in operation- the Powell/Mason and Powell/Hyde lines run mostly North-South, while the California Street line runs East-West.  While you can board from any cable car stop along the line, as a party of 7, we decided it would be a safer bet to start at the end of the line in order to ensure we were all on the same car.  We opted to take the Powell/Hyde line from Aquatic Park near Ghiradelli Square, and after a half-hour wait, we boarded our cable car.

Smiling Kids on cable car in San Francisco

The kids were super excited for their first time on a cable car!  While they really wanted to stand and hold onto the poles (like they’d seen in many movies), we chose to sit so that it was easier to hold on to everyone– the cable cars really get moving on those San Francisco hills!  For the best views, you want to be on the eastern side of the car, so you’re on the side that faces the San Francisco Bay.  If you’re debating between the Powell/Mason and Powell/Hyde lines, Mason offers a view of Lombard Street (the Crookedest Street in the World) from the bottom, while Hyde has a great view of Alcatraz.

Cable Car on the streets of San Francisco at night

We got off at Powell and Market (the end of the line) and had fun watching the cable car turnaround before hopping back in line to take the cable car back to Aquatic Park (where our car was parked).  We didn’t use the cable car as a means of transportation between two places but rather a fun round-trip full of San Francisco sights and sounds.

If you have more time: Stop by the Cable Car Museum, convenient to both the Powell/Mason and Powell/Hyde lines.  This free museum houses antique cable cars, cable car history, and even offers a view of the cables in action.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Fish Alley Fisherman's Wharf

You cannot go to San Francisco and skip lunch (or shopping!) at Fisherman’s Wharf.  Fish Alley offers a great selection of vendors, and while they all have the standard seafood fare, including clam chowder, each has its own recipe and specialties, so check them all out before placing your order.

Smiling kids with clam chowder bread bowls in San Francisco

After you get your lunch, clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls in our case, find a table to enjoy your meal, or look for a bench by the water.  The crowd is an interesting mix of tourists, the business crowd, and homeless people who provided (totally obscene) humor for our table, inspiring a conversation on how to behave in public.

If you have more time: Check out Boudin Bakery At the Wharf for delicious sourdough bread as well as a bakery museum and tour.

Pier 39

Sea lion at Pier 39

Pier 39, technically part of Fisherman’s Wharf, is home to many restaurants and some of the best shopping on the wharf, but our favorite spot is the Sea Lion Center.  After the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, K-Dock on Pier 39 became the go-to place for sea lions, in part for the protection from predators and easy access to food in the bay.  Hundreds of sea lions call K-Dock home throughout the year, but their numbers rise and fall depending on food supply and migration habits (most migrate to Southern California for the summer).

If you have more time: The Aquarium of the Bay offers a unique look at the sea life that actually inhabits the San Francisco Bay.


Alcatraz in the middle of San Francisco Bay

First, a military prison in the late 1800s and then a federal penitentiary in the mid-1900s, Alcatraz Island is also home to the oldest working lighthouse on the West Coast.  While you can see Alcatraz from many locations throughout the city, the absolute best way to experience it is by going to “The Rock” itself.  Tours are offered through Alcatraz Cruises and need to be booked well in advance (ideally 60-90 days ahead of time during the peak season).

Cell in Alcatraz during the night tour

Once on the island, the Award-winning Cellhouse audio tour walks you through the halls of Alcatraz at your own pace.  On the 45-minute tour, you’re able to see the various cell blocks as well as hear stories from real prisoners– our kids really enjoyed the “Escape from Alcatraz” cell, especially since they watched the movie before our visit.

If you have more time: Do the Alcatraz Night Tour (head here for tickets!) with drastically lower crowds, a guided tour around the island before docking on the island, and the setting sun creating eerie shadows throughout the prison. Plus, if you time your return to the city just right, you can watch the sun setting over the San Francisco Bay.

Walt Disney Family Museum

Exterior of Walt Disney Family Museum at the Presidio

The Walt Disney Family Museum is located in the heart of the Presidio, a former US military fort.  This is definitely a must-do for any die-hard Disney fan, but even the casual fan will have a great time.  The museum walks you through the life and legacy of Walt Disney, including his creation of Mickey Mouse and Disneyland.  Check out the details of our visit here.

Disneyland of Walt's Imagination at Walt Disney Family Museum

The 13-foot model of the “Disneyland of Walt’s Imagination” was easily the highlight of the museum.  We loved looking for our favorite attractions and seeing the ones that had been changed or added as well as the ones that never came to be.

If you have more time: Walk around the Presidio, part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  There’s a life-sized Yoda statue at the Lucasfilms Headquarters entrance, a fun stop for any Star Wars fans.

Muir Woods

Towering trees at Muir Woods

Muir Woods National Monument, just north of San Francisco (you get to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge!), is a welcome respite from the city’s hustle and bustle.  The coastal redwoods that make up this old-growth forest are the tallest living things on earth, and some of the trees are nearly 1000 years old.

Peace and quiet at Muir Woods

Make sure to arrive early in the day to experience Muir Woods with lower crowds and the peacefulness that it’s known for.  Parking is extremely limited and must be booked online in advance– check out all the details here.

If you have more time: Head down to Muir Beach, three miles west of Muir Woods, a popular beach with locals (and sometimes the clothing-optional crowd).  In the winter, keep your eyes open for migrating humpback whales as they pass.

Point Bonita Lighthouse

Tunnel through the mountain to get to Point Bonita Lighthouse

It’s only open on Sundays and Mondays from 1230pm-330pm, and the half-mile path to Point Bonita Lighthouse includes a steep trail and a tunnel through the cliffs, but the reward is well worth it.  Check out the details of our visit here!

View of Point Bonita Lighthouse looking out over the Pacific

Originally built in 1855, the Point Bonita Lighthouse had to be moved to its current location in the 1870s. The original spot proved to be too high with the lighthouse often blanketed in the dense San Francisco fog, and it was unable to prevent shipwrecks.  By moving it to lower ground, the lighthouse remained visible under the fog layer and has effectively guided ships into the Bay for over 100 years.

Point Bonita Lighthouse suspension bridge

The Point Bonita Lighthouse is the only lighthouse in the United States that is only accessible by a suspension bridge.  The redesigned bridge opened in 2012, and though it sways in the wind, it was designed to withstand the 100mph winds that commonly occur.

If you have more time: Visit the quaint seaside town of Sausalito before heading back into the city.

San Francisco is a fantastic vacation destination, as there really is something for everyone.  History buffs can get their fix at Alcatraz or many other spots in the city, those that yearn for time with nature will love Muir Woods, foodies can eat their fill on Fisherman’s Wharf, and there are several major league sports teams for the athletes in your group. Whether you have a weekend, a week, or a lifetime, the City by the Bay has plenty of options to fill your days!

Have you been to San Francisco before??  Any tips for families looking to explore??


Top Five Things to Do in Pigeon Forge for Families

With a wide range of attractions- including a theme park, dinner shows galore, and access to one of the best National Parks in the country, there’s truly something for everyone in Pigeon Forge! Since it’s only about four hours from our house, it’s one of our favorite places to get away for a long weekend– or even longer because there’s so much to do!

There's so much for families to do in Pigeon Forge and the opportunities to make memories are endless; pack up the kids and embark on a Pigeon Forge adventure!This post is sponsored by the Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism. For more information on Pigeon Forge, visit their official website. As always, all opinions are honest and my own.


Five smiling kids standing in front of the Dollywood sign.

You can’t go to Pigeon Forge and NOT go to Dollywood– well, you can, I just wouldn’t recommend it! It’s the first place that our kids wanted to go in Pigeon Forge and it did not disappoint. With thrilling rides (including rides for the younger crowd), amazing food, and great entertainment, Dollywood is the perfect place to spend a couple of days!

Giant wooden roller coaster in front of green trees. Lightnin' Rod at Dollywood.

Dollywood opens for the season in March and is open until just after the new year. One of our favorite rides, Lightning Rod, was the world’s first launch wooden coaster. Even though it doesn’t have any inversions, this one still packs a punch!

The Dollywood Express (big black train) running through Dollywood with billowing black smoke, amidst the green trees and flowers.

Dollywood manages to combine thrilling new rides and old-time charm into one BEAUTIFUL park. The grounds are vibrant and well-maintained and the theming is exceptional. Soaking up the atmosphere is part of the fun of visiting.

Amazing Dollywood cinnamon bread in front of the Grist Mill

You absolutely should not miss the world-famous cinnamon bread from the Grist Mill. You can order it to enjoy right away or get it packaged to go- and honestly, just do one of each- it’s that good!!

The Old Mill

Five smiling kids in front of the Old Mill in Pigeon Forge.

Our family loves to incorporate historical attractions whenever possible while traveling and at home. The Old Mill, a water-powered gristmill, is a Smoky Mountain treasure and is the only building in Pigeon Forge listed on the National Register of Historic Places! A gristmill is any mill that grinds grain and the one in Pigeon Forge is nearly 200 years old.

Young girl and miller tying bags of cornmeal in an old mill

Inside the mill, the millers fill the bags of stone-ground grain by hand, just like it’s been done for the last 190 years. Working 6 days a week, the millers bag about 1000 pounds of stone-ground grain a day- some of it is cornmeal, some are grits, some are mixes, and all are delicious!

Corn being ground into cornmeal

In addition to learning how the mill operates, we also learned about the history of the building. Would you ever have guessed that The Old Mill was the site of the first Post Office in Pigeon Forge?! The Old Mill is full of Pigeon Forge history from the front door that served as a notice post in the 1800s to the third floor that was a Civil War hospital. It’s definitely worth a stop on your Pigeon Forge trip!

Drive through Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Five smiling kids in front of Clingmans Dome- the highest point in Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Part of the appeal of Pigeon Forge is the proximity to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. There’s plenty to do in Pigeon Forge without ever venturing into the park, but IT IS the most visited National Park in the country for a reason.

Snow and ice covered walkway up to Clingmans Dome.

Clingmans Dome is the highest point in GSMNP and well worth the drive. Make sure to check the road conditions before heading out because it’s only open from spring through late fall (depending on the snowfall). We went in mid-April, and while it was totally green throughout GSMNP, as soon as we started climbing toward Clingmans Dome, the trees were covered in ice. The half-mile hike up to the observation tower is paved but oh my gosh, it is STEEP!! The climb gradient is nearly 13% and man, I could feel it, but the views are totally worth the hike!

Beautiful sunrise over fields in Cades Cove, part of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Another popular Great Smoky Mountain National Park stop is Cades Cove and it’s especially beautiful at sunrise! The Cades Cove Loop road officially opens at sunrise so make sure to check times if you’re planning to go early. We were the only people on the road for this mid-April sunrise and the stillness was amazing.

Deer hanging out on the side of the road in GSMNP.

Like many animals in a national park, the deer were accustomed to vehicles and did not frighten easily. However, they are still wild animals and should be treated accordingly so stay in your car and leave them alone. As we drove around Cades Cove, we saw more deer and turkeys than I can count…

2 bear cubs climbing a tree with mama bear watching from the ground.

And then we finally saw what we’d been searching for… BEARS!! Or rather, we saw a bunch of cars pulled over to the side of the road (so we did the same), and then we saw a group of photographers with BIIIIIG lenses- so we hopped out to check out what was going on. The group of photogs was kind enough to point out the cubs scampering up the tree and mama bear watching from the bottom and we watched in awe for about an hour as the cubs went up and down the tree.

Check Out a Dinner Show

Pirates Voyage dinner show- acrobatics

Dinner shows are big in Pigeon Forge and there are plenty of options including the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Show, Dolly Parton’s Stampede, and the Pirates Voyage Dinner & Show. I’m bummed that we didn’t have time to try them all- I guess we’ll have to go back again soon- but Pirates Voyage was fantastic!

Young girl watching the Pirates Voyage dinner show

Enjoy a four-course feast while watching all the swashbuckling action and amazing stunts. The kids were seriously enthralled with the show, like to the point that I had to remind them to eat their feast!

Pirate themed dinner show featuring acrobatics and stunts.

Our kids LOVED the aerial stunts- watching the pirates do these giant flips and acrobatics was amazing. We had so much fun cheering along with our team; the competition aspect really gets the audience involved!

See Snow!

Three smiling kids in front of giant icicles in Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Since it’s located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge does get occasional snowfall in the winter, but did you know that you can play in the snow year-round?! Pigeon Forge Snow is the first indoor snow park in the United States and it is open all year. There’s tubing and a HUGE snow play area so that you can get your winter weather fix, even in July!

There’s honestly SO MUCH to do in Pigeon Forge and the opportunities to make memories are endless. It’s one of those places that you can have a fantastic visit on your first time in town or your fiftieth! Have you been to Pigeon Forge before?? Where do you want to go first??

White Sands National Park | New Mexico

We’ve been to White Sands National Park, southwest of Alamogordo, New Mexico, several times over the past few years on our quest to visit every US National Park. Every time we drive back “home” we make sure to detour to White Sands because it is so beautifully different than anything on the east coast and it’s the perfect spot to add to your Southwest road trip!

Pin Image for White Sands National Park

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About White Sands National Park

In 1933, under President Hoover, White Sands National Monument was created to protect part of the largest gypsum dune field in the world.  During WWII, the military began testing missiles at what is now known as White Sands Missile Range, which shares land with the western part of the park, ensuring that development does not encroach on the park boundaries.

Due to missile testing at White Sands Missile Range, it is imperative to check the closures schedule as the park does close several mornings a week for missile tests so that always plays a role in determining our route because we want to ensure that the park is open when we go.

In December 2019, President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 which redesignated White Sands National Monument as White Sands National Park, as well as adding an additional 7 square miles to the park.

White Sands Visitor’s Center

At the Visitor’s Center, you can learn all about the dunes and pick up a Junior Ranger activity book if you’re interested. The dunes were created from selenite crystals that formed during the last Ice Age that eventually wore down into gypsum sand.  Unlike normal rocks, gypsum is soluble so it normally dissolves and is carried out to sea, but it has never washed away at White Sands since there are no rivers out of the Tularosa Basin.  Instead, as the water evaporates, beautiful selenite crystals are formed and over time, these crystals become smaller and smaller due to the effects of wind and rain, leaving the nearly pure gypsum sand to blow around and create the dunes.

kids running up the dunes at white sands

While you’re at the Visitor’s Center, definitely buy a sled (and wax!!) so that you can ride down dunes. We purchased a sled and headed out to Dunes Drive to make our way into the park. Once out of the car, the first thing that the kids commented on was that the sand was not hot at all- it was almost cool under our feet even though the sun was blazing above us!

kids at the top of the dunes at white sands national park

The kids could have spent all day running up the dunes and sledding down. Even though the sand feels cool, it’s VERY reflective and you can get a sunburn QUICKLY. Make sure to apply and reapply sunscreen regularly and drink LOTS of water.

Kids sledding down the white sand dunes at White Sands in New Mexico

While I’m not normally a fan of the desert, there is something about White Sands National Park that I just cannot get enough of– it is one of my favorite places in the country.

White Sands Sunset Stroll

The nightly Sunset Stroll that the park offers is a great way to learn about the geology and ecology of White Sands.  The tour is offered every day and departs roughly an hour before sunset from the sunset stroll sign about 5 miles into the park. Make sure to check the official schedule as the start time can vary several hours depending on the time of year.

Yucca in bloom at dusk in White Sands National Park

The mile-long hike is fairly easy- our kids were able to do it as toddlers- though it is on the sand so it’s not wheelchair or stroller friendly.  The tour wraps up at the top of a dune so that you can watch the sun set behind the San Andres mountains.

Silhouette of five kids with the sun setting behind the dunes at White Sands

White Sands sunset Alamogordo New Mexico

After the sun officially sets, the sky stays a beautiful pinkish hue for quite some time allowing you to soak in the beauty of White Sands with cooler temperatures and a totally different color palate.  The park officially closes at 9pm in the summer so they do encourage you to leave pretty quickly after sunset in order to make it back to the gate before the park closes.

Yucca after sunset at white sands national park

White Sands is such a unique and beautiful place to explore so it’s always on my recommended list of places to check out in the Southwestern US, especially if you’re a National Park lover!

What’s your favorite lesser-known National Park or Monument??

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