11 Things to Do in Southern Oklahoma with Kids

Stop by and see the bison as one of the things to do in Sulphur.
I found a herd of bison in Chickasaw National Recreation Area. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Just a few hours north of Dallas/Ft. Worth, southern Oklahoma offers mountains, a former national park, a wildlife refuge and even a chocolate factory. On a recent trip north of the Red River, I explored the area between Lawton and Sulphur, Oklahoma. Here’s the ultimate list what to do in southern Oklahoma with kids .

What to do in Southern Oklahoma with Kids

I pulled together a list of 11 places for family fun in Southern Oklahoma.

Lake Murray State Park

Lake Murray offers lots of water fun and it's what to do with kids in southern Oklahoma
Enjoy Lake Murray and its unlimited ways to enjoy the water. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Just a few miles north of the Texas/Oklahoma border, Lake Murray State Park is the first and largest state park in Oklahoma.

With over 12,500 acres to explore, I found plenty to do. Boating and water sports are the obvious choices. But I also found a golf course, ATV/motorcycle area and hiking. Along with plenty of camping from primitive sites to deluxe RV sites are available.

First I stopped by the Lake Murray Resort that offers a range of accommodations, like newly renovated lodge rooms to historic cabins. I even found some floating cabins in assorted sizes.

Find Lake Murray Resort at 3323 Lodge Road, Ardmore.

Tucker Tower

Climb up Tucker Tower as what to do with kids in southern Oklahoma
Tucker Tower offers sweeping views of Lake Murray. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Next on the list, a stop by Tucker Tower is a must for families. The historic tower rises up 60-feet above Lake Murray and acts as a beacon on the lake.

The tower is an original Works Progress Administration (WPA) project at the southern end of the lake. Today it houses a museum to the WPA in Oklahoma and the views can’t be beat.

Nature Center

Explore the Nature Center as what to do with kids in Southern Oklahoma
Walk through the exhibits at the Nature Center when exploring Southern Oklahoma. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Next to check out the Nature Center is a family magnet. With interactive displays kids learn about the animals in the area, always a hit with my kids.

During our visit, my kids earned a Nature Center at Tucker Tower patch by completing a booklet.

Find Tucker Tower and the Nature Center at 13528 Scenic Highway 77, Ardmore. Both are free though donations are accepted.

Bedré Chocolate Factory

Stop by Bedre Chocolate Factory as what to do with kids in southern Oklahoma
Like chocolate wasn’t enough, Bedre Chocolate Factory offers a playground. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Continuing north, I found a chocolate factory with convenient access right off Interstate 35, that bisects the state.

Over 40 years ago, a chocolate factory began in the small town of Ada, Oklahoma. Now it draws all the road trippers traveling through southern Oklahoma. Bedré Chocolates offers a shop full of temptations. So grab a treat with the kids and watch chocolates roll off the production line from the floor-to-ceiling windows.

During our visit, we sampled their classic treat, the meltaways in nearly every flavor available. Along with traditional chocolate, my kids loved the salty snacks dipped in chocolate. As a kid bonus, I found a playscape right outside.

Find Bedré Chocolate at 37 N. Colbert Rd. and open every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free to enter.

Chickasaw Cultural Center

Explore Chickasaw Cultural Center as what to do with kids in southern Oklahoma
Tour the Chickasaw Cultural Center when exploring Chickasaw with kids. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Next the Chickasaw Cultural Center blew my family away. With an extensive tribal cultural center across 184 acres, kids have lots of space to explore.

With facilities that include the Chikasha Inchokka’ Traditional Village, it hosts reenactments and living history demonstrations. During our visit, we watched a stomp dance along with traditionally-dressed docents demonstrate Chickasaw crafts and agriculture.

Along with the village, I found a café, a gift shop, a fine art gallery along with a lake that kids can feed the fish. Such a beautiful facility that must be explored to appreciate.

Located at 867 Cooper Memorial Dr., the Chickasaw Cultural Center is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and noon until 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission varies.

Chickasaw National Recreation Area

Explore Chicksaw National Recreation Area as what to do with kids in southern Oklahoma
Explore the natural pools of Chickasaw National Recreation Area in Sulphur, Oklahoma, with your kids. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Before I visited the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, I had no idea it was the former Platt National Park. Sometimes national park gets reclassified and that’s the case for this area.

Though it might not be one of the big national parks, I found an area packed with historic buildings, natural pool swimming and scenic mountain vistas.

With a large recreational lake that beckons boat owners. And the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) historic buildings that add history. Finally the resident herd of bison is a must for kids. I found plenty of family fun for a long weekend.

Chickasaw National Recreation area features a couple of units. With the Platt Historic Unit, right outside the town of Sulphur, I found the Travertine Nature Center, the CCC buildings and the swimming areas. Then Arbuckle District offers Lake of the Arbuckles access at each of its three campground areas, Guy Sandy, The Point and Buckhorn. And an additional boat is located at Upper Guy Sandy area too.

The visitor center, Travertine Nature Center is free and open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. most days. Find it at 1504 Perimeter Rd, Sulphur. The park is open 24-hours a day.

Bison Viewing

Stop by and see the bison as one of the things to do in Sulphur.
As my kids top choice, find the herd of bison in Chickasaw National Recreation Area. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Kids love animals so stop at the Bison Viewing Area located off U.S. Route 177, just south of Sulphur. A herd of 10 buffalo call the Chickasaw Natural Recreation Area home.

After several attempts to see the buffalo, we caught the bison near twilight in the viewing area. During our visit, we even saw a couple of baby bison grazing near their mothers.

After exploring the Sulphur area for a couple of days, I decided to take the long road home. We drove over to Lawton, Oklahoma, before heading back to Texas.

About 90 miles west, I found a prairie landscape with rolling hills along wildlife refuge, the Comanche Museum and Cultural Center along with Fort Sill.

Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center

Explore the Comanche Museum when you explore Lawton with kids
The Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center offers families lessons in the WWII contributions and arts of the Comanche Nation. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Our first stop, the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center, is a must for more information on Quanah Parker and the Comanche people. The Comanche Museum focuses on the history of the Comanche people from the beginning until today.

During our visit, we learned about the WWII Comanche Code Talkers. Seventeen Comanche men used their native language to communicate in an undecipherable code that helped to defeat Hitler during D-Day.

The Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center is located at 701 NW Ferris Avenue. Open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday and closed Sunday.  It’s free and took about an hour to explore.

Fort Sill Army Base

The grave of Quanah Parker at Fort Sill, another site to explore in Lawton with kids.
Sitting high on Chiefs Knoll at the Fort Sill Cemetery, we find the grave of Quanah Parker, last chief of the Comanche Nation. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

 

Continue the history lesson and head over to the Fort Sill Army Base to visit the Fort Sill Post Cemetery (not be confused with the Fort Sill National Cemetery). As the final resting place of Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, his mother Cynthia Ann Parker and his little sister, Prairie Flower on the high point of the cemetery, Chiefs Knoll.

Visit the Fort Sill National Historic Landmark and Museum for history on the fort. With 38 buildings in the area, there’s lots to see.

For artillery buffs, a visit to the U.S. Army Artillery Museum is a must. With an outdoor display, families can walk through to see Howitzers.

Since Fort Sill is an active U.S. Army Base all visitors over 16 must pass a background check at the Ft. Sill Visitor Control Center. It’s free and takes about 15 minutes to complete.

Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge

As a top Oklahoma park area, Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge provides a refuge for free-range buffalo, Texas Longhorn cattle, prairie dogs, deer and elk over 59,000 acres. I suggest looking for animals at dawn and dusk, when they are most active.

With 11 different places to explore in Southern Oklahoma, plan a visit to Sulphur or Lawton with your family.

First stop off at the Quanah Parker Nature and Visitor Center for an interpretive display. Additionally the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge offers camping with 47 tent sites, 23 RV sites and 20 walk-in sites.

Open sunrise to sunset seven days a week with free admission. Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge offers 30 miles of hiking trails though we drove through looking for wildlife.

Holy City of the Wichitas

Explore the World Chapel at the Holy City of Wichita when you explore Lawton with kids
The interior of the World Chapel in the Holy City of Wichita near Lawton. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Close to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, I found the Holy City of the Wichitas, a shrine west of Lawton.

In 1926, the late Reverend Anthony Mark Wallock started an annual Easter Pageant. In 1934 the 66-acre site got a federal grant and the Federal Works Progress Administration built many of the buildings that remain.

As an annual Easter Pageant, the Prince of Peace remains the longest running passion play in the U.S. Depicting the birth, life and death of Christ, the play drew a record crowd in 1939 of 225,000. With the Wichita Mountains as a backdrop, Jerusalem comes alive with Temple Court, Calvary’s Mount and the walls of Jerusalem.

Find the Holy City of the Wichitas at 262 Holy City Rd. Open Wednesday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5p.m., free.

Where to Stay in Sulphur

Chickasaw Retreat and Conference Center

Stay at the Chickasaw Retreat and Conference Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma.
With a Junior Suite my family enjoyed our time at the Chickasaw Retreat and Conference Center. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

During my visit to Sulphur, Oklahoma, my family stayed at the Chickasaw Retreat and Conference Center, located next the the Chickasaw National Recreation Area. With over 1,700 acres to explore, the Chickasaw Retreat offers the ultimate refuge for relaxing and reconnecting as a family.

During my stay, I enjoyed a Junior Suite with my family. With a spacious room, I found plenty of room for a roll-away or pack-n-play. In the separate kitchenette I found a small refrigerator, a full-size microwave and separate sink. The luxurious bathroom included a soaking tub for rejuvenating along with a separate shower.

In a separate building, I found a wellness center that rivaled any health club with lots of machines and an indoor track. With a steam room and a dry sauna, relaxing comes easy at the Chickasaw Retreat and Conference Center.

I also found the Sole’renity Spa, with services like manicures and pedicures, massages, facials, wraps and waxes. My kids enjoyed the indoor pool during our stay as well.

The indoor pool at Chickasaw Retreat and Conference Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma.
Though indoors my boys, 9 and 12, enjoyed the pool during our trip. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Find Chickasaw Retreat and Conference Center at 4205 Goddard Youth Camp, Sulphur, Oklahoma.

The Artesian Hotel

Stay at the Artesian Hotel when visiting Southern Oklahoma with kids.
With a complete renovation the Artesian Hotel offers families nicely appointed rooms. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Artesian Hotel offers refined lodging steps from all the sights in the revitalized downtown Sulphur, Oklahoma. The original hotel opened in 1906 and included five stories and named after the mineral water found on the property during construction.

After an extensive renovation, The Artesian offers visitors and locals a respite of refinement. The 81-room hotel features a traditional bathhouse, an indoor and outdoor pool along with shopping and restaurants. Make an appointment at the kid’s spa while you enjoy a treatment of your own at Sole’renity Spa.

Find The Artesian Hotel at 1001 West 1st Street, in the center of the revitalized downtown of Sulphur.

Where to Eat in Sulphur 

Springs at the Artesian

Eat at the Artesian Hotel during your visit.
Along with food adults crave, the kids meals offer yummy options kids love. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

During my visit to Sulphur, my family enjoyed dinner at The Artisan Hotel restaurant, Springs at the Artesian. In an upscale dining room with seating for 140, I found homestyle-inspired entrees.

For our visit we sampled several entrees for dinner. My 12-year-old son ordered a classic cheeseburger served on a pretzel bun with bibb lettuce. Then my 9-year-old ordered the Chicken pot pie off the kids’ menu. With a flaky crust and loaded full of tender chunks of white meat chicken along with a rich béchamel sauce, this kid’s entrée would have satisfied me.

For dinner I ordered the Pecan encrusted Tilapia and along with a glass of merlot from the Springs at the Artesian’s full bar. To top off dinner, we enjoyed chocolate cake. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Bedré Café

Enjoy the Bedre Cafe when you visit Chickasaw Oklahoma.
With it’s vintage vibe the Bedre Cafe is a family favorite. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

For a quick lunch we stopped by the Bedré Café, located on the street-level shopping area of The Artesian Hotel. In a 1950s inspired malt shop, I found a large selection of Oklahoma’s own, Bedré Chocolates. Along with assorted baked goods and a coffee-house style drinks, Bedré Café scoops up hand-dipped ice cream and along with shakes.

For lunch my family enjoyed a panini of the day along with a turkey club wrap along with a cup of tomato soup. All satisfying though my sons loved the Arbuckle Shake made with vanilla ice cream and Bedré chocolates the most, imagine that. Open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., every day.

Arbuckle Mountain Fried Pies

Stop for a fried pie what to do with kids in southern Oklahoma
As an Oklahoma original sample a fried pie at Arbuckle’s along Interstate 35. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Located right off Interstate 35, Arbuckle Mountain Fried Pies provides a regional road trip snack. With both savory and sweet pies, we sampled the cherry and apple along with the pizza-style and beef and vegetable. With super flakey pastry that’s filled and pinched before your eyes, the pies are a must when visiting South Central Oklahoma.

Located at Interstate 35’s exit 51 in an old Sinclair’s gas station and open breakfast through dinner. This is the original location with other shops across north Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

Allergen Alert: All pies are fried in peanut oil.

Fat Bully’s Burgers

Grab a burger at Fat Bullys what to do with kids in southern Oklahoma
While you watch the sun set over the Arbuckle Mountains enjoy a burger. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

After exploring the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, I pulled the SUV into Fat Bully’s that features half-pound burgers and live music. During our visit, we sampled the metric burger and my youngest had a kid’s meal. All the burgers sat on toasted buns with trimmings on the side.

Located at 3133 Chickasaw Trail in Sulphur, Fat Bully’s serves lunch and dinner, Wednesday through Sunday. Live music on most Saturday nights and amazing sunsets every night.

 

11 Tips for Car-free Fun on Amtrak’s California Trains

tips for taking Amtrak in California.
One of the amazing views from Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner in California. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

As a road tripping maniac that’s driven three kids across North America, I hate my car at times. I love to use different forms of transportation. So when the opportunity came up to take the train from Southern California to the Central California Coast, I jumped abroad. After my trip, I came up with 11 tips for taking Amtrak in California.

Tips for Taking Amtrak in California 

1: Book the right train.

On my trip to Santa Barbara and Solvang this summer I boarded two different trains, Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner and the Coast Starlight. Each offering a different experience though they share part of the same track.

Tips for take the Coast Starlight in California
Hop abroad an Amtrak train for car-free fun in California. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Pacific Surfliner is a regional route that travels between San Diego and San Luis Obispo, California, stopping at most Amtrak stations along the way. It features a business-class car and coach cars with unreserved seats plus an observation car with a snack bar below.

The Coast Starlight runs between Los Angeles’s Union Station and Seattle with limited stops. It offers reserved coach seats, business class, an observation/snack bar car, a dining car, a parlor car plus sleeping cars.

California Driving Ain’t a Dream

2: Ditch the car and go car-free.

Tips of taking Amtrak in California.
Riding the rails instead of battling the roads tops my list of reasons to ditch the car and go car-free. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

As I look at my maps app, I blink again hoping that it’s a joke. But sadly, it’s true. Sometimes driving in Southern California is a nightmare.

With hours eaten up behind the wheel, the dream vacation crumbles as kids melt down in the backseat and this Mom loses it as another driver cuts her off.

I found a solution, ditch the car and go car-free. That’s what I did recently when I grabbed an Amtrak train. With dedicated parking at most stations, it’s easy to park the car and explore California car-free instead.

Transportation that Does More than Transport

3: The customer service difference on Amtrak.

I get it, I used to fly the friendly skies as a flight attendant for a major airline. And those skies aren’t friendly anymore.

What surprised me the most on my Amtrak train, customer service still shines on the rails. The conductor and the train stewards were polite and informative.

Looking to escape from the craziness of Southern California, then hop aboard Amtrak's Coast Starlight. Got all the tips and hints for your trip along with a video.

A steward helps passengers on-and-off the train. If the train hinted at slowing down, the conductor explained what was happening and when we would be on our way again.

I had a coach seat on the train that had to accommodate another train’s passengers when it went out-of-service. Passengers were standing everywhere, in the aisles and on the stairs.

But we were all on the train. There’s relief in that.

The stewards walked up-and-down the crowded train cars and apologized for the conditions. Then they informed us how many passengers would be getting off at upcoming stations. Then they thanked us for choosing Amtrak.

Wow. So simple but so often ignored. The passengers remained calm and even gave seats to the passengers who needed them the most–injured, elderly and those with disabilities.

Not All Trains Seats are the Same

4: If sitting in a seat is important to you, reserve a business-class or reserved coach seat.

Price sells many things in life in the case of train travel, buy up. As I learned on my weekend trip, things go wrong and when they do the train fills up.

Get a business seat, tips for taking Amtrak in California.
Looking for a reserved seat on the Pacific Surfliner then reserve a business class seat. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

If you and your family are traveling with luggage out of the area, buy a reserved coach seat or business-class seat. This guarantees a seat on the train. A regular coach ticket guarantees passage, meaning you could be standing at peak times or off-schedule operations.

Though I will be honest, when the trains went off-schedule the day I was traveling, I was grateful to be on the train.

Did I have to stand part of my journey? Yes, but the train conductor and the rest of the train staff constantly communicated to the passengers what was going on.

In our case, a train had to be taken out-of-service coupled with a big convention. That meant Amtrak had a busy weekend already then another train’s passengers had to be accommodated on my train.

If I had been flying, I would have been stuck at the gate watching planes leave the airport without me. As promised, a lot of the passengers disembarked in LA and I got a seat.

In a situation that could have escalated into some seriously pissed-off passengers. Everyone remained calm by opening a book or their phone and made do.

ThruWay Buses

5: ThruWay Buses make for easy transfers.

For stops beyond traditional Amtrak stations, ThruWay buses take passengers to their final destinations. As the case for my journey to Solvang, California, a charming Danish community, I boarded a charter-like bus at the Santa Barbara Train Station.

thru buses, tips for taking Amtrak in California.
Hop on Amtrak’s Thru Bus service to destinations beyond the train station. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

My train incurred delays but my ThruWay bus waited for the train to arrive. The process of getting off the train at Santa Barbara and onto an Amtrak ThruWay bus was painless. Requiring a lot less walking than changing planes at a mega airport, like Dallas/Forth Worth.

Coast Starlight

6: Book the Coast Starlight if your itinerary permits.

After exploring Solvang and Santa Barbara for several days, I needed to meet my family near San Francisco. I boarded Amtrak’s Coast Starlight at the 1905 historic Santa Barbara Train Station.

Where the Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner is a regional train route that stops at the majority of the stations along its route, the Coast Starlight does not. Running along the west coast from Los Angeles’s Union Station to Seattle, the entire journey takes about 36 hours.

Known as Amtrak’s the most scenic route, I was blown away. I took the segment from Santa Barbara to Salinas, California, taking about six hours.

My plan was to pull out the laptop and work. But I was glued to my picture window.

This route passes though untouched California coast north of Santa Barbara. For fans of the Pacific Coast Highway, when the PCH heads inland north of Gaviota, the train rolls through. This includes Vanderburg Air Force Base.

My Coast Starlight Experience

7: Pack all you want! Four bags are allowed.

tips for taking Amtrak in California.
I took four bags aboard with me. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Call me silly, but I felt a bit of old school glamour getting on my train. Maybe it’s the oversized sunglasses I was wearing or the fabulous weather in Santa Barbara but I imagined how a starlet would have ridden the train in the 50s. (Now, this 40ish Mom of three is not saying she’s a starlet but I had a vacation-induced fantasy. Don’t spoil it with reality. Or I’ll call you my husband.)

Arriving within minutes of it’s scheduled departure, my train arrived at the Santa Barbara Station, located on State St. in downtown. For my journey, I had a reserved coach seat. Finding the correct car was no problem and a steward greeted me at the coach car entrance. Then he asked if I preferred a window or aisle seat.

I grabbed my four bags (yes, I had one standard roll abroad, a backpack plus two shopping bags full of goodies) and stepped onboard. First, I stowed the larger suitcase on the rack downstairs next to the car entrance. Then I took the rest of my items to my window seat upstairs.

My Reserved Coach Seat

8: Forget the airplane luggage hassle.

tips for taking Amtrak in California.
Look Mom, it’s legroom and a legrest at my reserved coach seat. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

I had no problem storing my stuff since my train wasn’t taking off and traveling 500 m.p.h. through the air so I didn’t have to secure it. I left my backpack in my seat and the shopping bags in the open rack above.

No one was fighting for storage space. My bag wasn’t deemed oversized and checked either.

After I settled in, the first thing that I noticed was all the space. I could have danced in the space between the edge of my seat and the seat in front of me. Amazing.

I’m an average-sized woman and I’ve had to wedge myself into some small jet seats lately. It seems I’m always flying in the back of some regional jet that looks smaller than a sparrow. So this train seat was luxurious.

Tips for taking Amtrak in California.
Seat power on each row. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

I had a picture window to enjoy all to myself since the aisle seat was vacant. Then I found the standard 110-volt plug. Pulled out my chargers and plugged in my phone and my laptop at the same time.

The Amtrak Experience

9: Explore your train, especially the observation car.

explore the train, tips for taking Amtrak in California.
I love sitting in the observation car and watching the scenery roll by. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

My train pulled a line of train cars. Actually the Coast Starlight train blocks traffic on the streets at the Santa Barbara Station when stopped.

It wasn’t long before I was out of my seat and exploring my train. I went to the observation car with its domed skylights and enjoyed the view. This car is a favorite so it can be hard to get a seat at times.

10: Feel free to bring snacks aboard for your journey.

cafe cars, tips for taking Amtrak in California.
Amtrak trains feature a cafe car, below the observation car. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Below the observation lounge, I found the cafe car with a couple of tables. It’s kinda like the convenience store of the train. There’s a selection of drinks, hot and cold, treats and small meals. Nothing really glamorous so I purchased a sandwich before I boarded my train in Santa Barbara.

I met a cabin steward, James Lake, a 12-year Amtrak veteran. He graciously took me on a tour of the rest of the train.

Special Amtrak Cars on the Coast Starlight

11: Ask for a tour.

Make reservations for dinner, tips for taking Amtrak in California.
Make reservations for the Dining Car if traveling during dinner. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

We walked through the dining car where waiters and waitresses served food made onboard. With a printed menu, including a kids’ menu, I found chef-inspired selections. Reservations are accepted for dinner in the dining car, with business-class passengers getting first dibs.

The business class car was next and includes complimentary Wi-fi and bottled water along with an invitation to a wine and cheese tasting in the Pacific Parlour Car (additional fee applies). At Los Angeles and Portland, business-class passengers get access to the Metropolitan Lounges.

Tips for taking Amtrak in California.
With signature cocktails and special events like wine and cheese tastings, the Pacific Parlour Car is another reason to upgrade to Business Class. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

After the business class car, I walked through the Pacific Parlour Car, a vintage 1950s railcar. They were originally on the Empire Builder from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest but moved to the Coast Starlight.

Pacific Parlour Car

With a wood interior that reminded me of hotel bars where men in fedoras smoked cigars, I found the ambience enchanting. The Pacific Parlour Car features a full bar with signature cocktails along with coffee drinks and snacks.

Meals are served in the Pacific Parlour Car for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The parlour car offers a separate menu with a more limited selection than the dining car.

On the first level of the Pacific Parlour Car my guide walked me through a small movie theater where Amtrak used to show movies. Unfortunately, this theater is not being used at the time.

Tips for taking Amtrak in California.
The vintage theater in the Pacific Parlour Car isn’t showing movies right now. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

After the Pacific Parlour Car, I found the Superliner Sleeper cars, where overnight passengers enjoy a roomette with berths. Since it was booked to capacity for my summertime mid-week train journey,  I didn’t tour an Amtrak roomette.

After my tour, I returned to my seat and enjoyed the scenery whisk by until my destination.

Disclosure:

My Amtrak train journey was part of an hosted press trip. The opinions are my own.

Know Before You Go:

  • Amtrak doesn’t feature in-seat entertainment.
  • Sleeping cars feature a shared shower in each car.

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12 Haunted Cave Tours to Get Your Brood in the Mood this October

Take a Haunted cave tour.
Take your crew to a haunted cave this season for bone shivering scares. Photo Credit: Pixaby

Need a real scare this season? I’ve got 12 haunted cave tours across the U.S. to get your brood in the mood this October.

What about clumsily climbing through a cave so dark you close your eyes to get away from the suffocating darkness. How about knowing a thousand tiny, blind bats hang inches above your head with only an old-fashioned lantern to protect you?

Your skin crawling? Do you feel the goosebumps as a mysterious breeze crawls through a cave without wind? Have a facial twitch you can’t explain?

How about watching the lights of your EMF only to hear a researcher whisper, I haven’t see that phenomenon before.

Grand Canyon Caverns in Arizona

Take a hour tour outfitted with a lantern and a K2 an EMF meter to register disturbances in the electromagnetic field.

Tours:

Every day in October at 6 p.m.

Located at mile marker 115 along Route 66, that’s 63 miles northeast of Kingman, Arizona. Admission for adults is $22.95 and kids 6 to 12 is $16.95 with kids under 6 enter for free.

Cave of the Winds in Colorado

Take an adventurous lantern tour of Manitou Gran Caverns while listening to ghost stories with a little history thrown in.

Tours:

Every day in October at 11:00 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m.

Located at 100 Cave of the Winds Rd., Manitou Springs, that’s miles 8 miles northwest of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Explore a haunted cave this October.
Lights are optional on haunted cave tours, most use lanterns. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Spook Cave in Iowa

Take a tour with a Halloweeny name, Spook Cave. After the cave tour, kids can trick-or-treat.

Tours:

Every day 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Trick-or-Treating Friday October 20, Saturday, October 21, Sunday, October 22 and Saturday, October 28 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. only.

Located at 13299 Spook Cave Rd. McGregor, Iowa that’s 110 miles from Madison, Wisconsin.

Wabasha Street Caves in Minnesota

Would you let a lost soul guide your candlelit tour? Take an hour tour and hear the stories of the Lost Souls. Two different tours offered.

Tours:

Lost Souls Tours on Sundays October 8, October 15, October 22 and October 29 at 12:30 p.m. Admission is $10 per person, cash only.

Spirited History Cave Tour on Mondays, October 16, October 23 and October 30 at 4:00 p.m. Admission is $8 per person, cash only.

Located at 215 Wabasha Street South, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Your crew over the neighborhood haunted house? How about clumsily climbing through a cave so dark you can't remember if your eyes are open? What if the cave was full of bats? And a legendary ghost. Check out my list of 12 Haunted Cave Tours through the U.S.

Lockport Cave in Lockport, New York

Take an hour-and-half candlelit tour while walking along the Erie Canel then touring the Lockport Cave.

Tours:

Friday, October 20 and Saturday, October 21 at 7:00, 7:20 and 7:40 p.m.

Every day from Wednesday, October 25 to Tuesday, October 31 at 7:00, 7:20 and 7:40 p.m.

Tour starts at 5 Gooding St. in Lockport, that’s about 30 miles northeast from Buffalo, New York. Admission is $17.50 per person and kids must be 8 years to take tour.

Lewisburg Haunted Cave in Ohio

Who wants to tour a limestone cave 80 feet below ground with 30,000 live bats?

Tours:

Fridays: October 6,  October 13, October 20,  and October 27 from 7:00 p.m. to Midnight.

Saturdays: October 7, October 14, October 21, and October 28 from 7:00 p.m. to Midnight.

Located at 4392 Swisher Mill Road, Lewisburg, that’s 25 miles west of Dayton, Ohio. Admission Adults $17 and Children 10 and under $8.

Crystal Cave Park in Pennsylvania

Take lantern tour with guides dressed in Victorian clothing as they recount the hauntings in the 1800s.

Tours:

Fridays: October 13,  October 20, and October 27 at 6:00 p.m.

Saturdays: October 14, Saturday, October 21, and October 28 at 5:30 p.m.

Located at 963 Crystal Cave Road, Kutztown, that’s 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Admission for Adults is $20 and kids 8 to 11 is $12. Not recommended for children under 8.

Haunted Cave tours across the U.S.
With haunted caves from across the U.S. find a tour near you. Photo Credit: Pixaby

Lincoln Caverns in Pennsylvania

Take the kids on a haunted cavern tour followed by a haunted hayride.

Tours:

Fridays: October 6, October 13, October 20, and October 27 from 6:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Saturdays: October 7, October 14, October 21, and October 28 from 6:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Located at 7703 William Penn, Huntingdon, that’s 95 miles west of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Admission $22.98 for adults and $13.98 for kids.

Appalachian Caverns in Tennessee

Take a haunted Halloween tour of the Appalachian Caverns.

Tours:

Fridays: October 6, October 13, October 20 and October 27 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Saturdays: October 7, October 14, October 21 and October 28 from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Located at 420 Cave Hill Road, Blountville, that’s about 100 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee.

Bell Witch Cave in Tennessee

A cave so haunted it terrorized generations of locals. One man even died.

Tours:

Fridays: October 20 and October 27 from 6 p.m. to midnight.

Saturdays: October 7 and October 14 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. October 21 and October 28 from noon to midnight.

Sundays: October 8 and October 15 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. October 22 and October 29 from noon to 6 p.m.

Located at 430 Keysburg Road, Adams, that’s 42 miles north of Nashville, Tennessee. Admission $12 per person. No Children under 2, under 18 must have parental consent.

Cave of the Mounds in Wisconsin

Take a tour through a candlelit cave while trick-or-treating for gemstones. A family-friendly cave tour where costumes are encouraged.

Tours:

Thursday, October 26 and Friday, October 27, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Saturday, October 28 and Sunday, October 29 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Located at 2975 Cave of the Mounds Rd, Blue Mounds, that’s 25 miles west of Madison, Wisconsin. Admission for adults $17.95 Children 4 to 12 $9.95 and children under 3 free.

Ledge View Nature Center in Wisconsin

A family-friendly candlelight cave tour, packed with fun and facts.

Tours:

Friday, October 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Saturday, October 21 from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Located at W2348 Short Road, Chilton, that’s 76 miles north of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Admission: $8 for adults and $6 for 17 and under, minimum age 5.

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Zoom into Zion for Family Fun in Utah

Explore Zion National Park with kids
Take a hike over the Virgin River when you explore Zion National Park. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Standing in the shadow of the Court of the Patriarchs, the Navajo Sandstone peaks mesmerize me. As I hike through Zion National Park, it dominates my senses with its bold rock formations. Looking over the edge of the bridge, I realize the tame-looking Virgin River carved and molded it all.

The summer monsoon season shapes and erodes the rock. An afternoon storm turns a tickle of water into a torrent of debris and rushing water that shapes Zion’s landscape.

See goats while exploring Zion National Park with kids.
The goats of Zion National Park frolic alongside the road. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Zion is a part of the Grand Staircase, a geologic survey where over 500 million years can be studied in rock layers. The Grand Canyon represents the bottom layer, Zion represents the middle layer and Bryce Canyon National Park represents the top layer.

Zion National Park Must-Dos

Don’t have a ton of time? I explored Zion National Park with kids in just a few hours. Visit the following if limited on time.

Checkerboard Mesa

Just inside of the eastern entrance along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, the Checkerboard Mesa offers an example of stone fracturing and Zion’s ancient sand dunes.

 Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel

Drive through the Mt Carmel Tunnel when touring Zion National Park with kids.
Catching a photo from the windows of the Mt. Carmel Window is part of the fun. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel is a favorite with kids, unless your kiddo is afraid of the dark. As a one-mile long tunnel with several windows bored through the walls, I wish I could stop the car to savor the beauty framed by the tunnel’s windows.

Enter or Exit through the East Entrance of Zion National Park along Zion Mount Carmel Highway to drive through the Zion Mount Carmel Tunnel.

The Watchmen and West Temple

At the southern entrance, the Watchmen and West Temple offer inspiring peaks close to the Zion Human History Museum.

The Zion Lodge

The historic Zion Lodge offers a lunch break and a couple of family-friendly trails. I hiked the Emerald Pools Trail. Located right across the bridge and the Virgin River, it’s a 1.2-mile round trip hike with a paved, mostly flat trail.

The Grotto Trail, a 1.0-mile round trip hike, ends at the hanging gardens. And can be combined with the Emerald Pools Trail for a longer hike for kids up for more hiking.

The Temple of Sinawava

Take the Riverside Walk, a 2.2-mile round trip trail that’s accessible with assistance, along the Virgin River. An option for families with older kids looking for longer hikes. Take this trail to reach The Narrows, the all-day, strenuous hike along the Virgin River.

Zion National Park Family Fun

Hiking is on my kids, 13, 12 and 8, must-do list for every park we explore as a family. I choose popular trails less that two miles long for my 8-year old.

Hike in Zion National Park with kids.
Hike the Lower Emerald Pools Trail for a desert oasis and a waterfall. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Lower Emerald Pool Trail offers families with school-age kids a semi-shaded 1.2-mile paved round-trip trail to a 100-foot water fall. The trail slips under the rim and the water tumbles down from above.

Tilting my head up, a drop of the waterfall lands on my cheek as I absorb my surroundings. The indigo sky draws my eyes upward while the red sandstone walls radiates warmth and the emerald moss clinging to rock fills me with a sense of vitality. Only a hike under a waterfall can transform a moment into a memory.

Explore the rock formations when exploring Zion National Park with kids.
The sandstone rock formations come in all sizes. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

For families with strollers, try the Riverside Walk at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop. I found an accessible 2.2-mile roundtrip trail from the Virgin River to the Narrows.

To explore Zion National Park at a slower pace, try a guided scenic tour aboard a bus to see all the photo-worthy sights and maybe some of the Zion’s mountain goats too. Afternoon tours depart from Zion Lodge, three times a week.

For the adventurous families, Zion National Park offers guided horseback rides. With a one-hour and three-hour tour to choose from, families ride in the shadow of the peaks.

Zion National Park with Kids

The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about Zion National Park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the patches that the Rangers present them after completing their booklets.

Explore Zion National Park with kids.
My kids were fascinated by the windows in the Zion Mt Carmel Tunnel. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

For kids who yearn for more, Zion National Park offers a seasonal resource for families. Zion Nature Center (open 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., Memorial Day to Labor Day) offers families a chance to play games, look at exhibits and read books. Located north of the South Campground, it’s minutes from the Zion Canyon Visitor Center.

Zion National Park offers the Junior Paleontologist Program as well.

Cool Facts about  Zion National Park

It all began as a windswept desert 180-million-years ago. Time slowly compressed the sand into the Navajo Sandstone that rises up 2000 feet today. With the reoccurring floods of the region, water sculpted the canyon with the eye of an artist.

Archaeologists excavated evidence of human existence from 7,000-years ago. The Ancestral Puebloans cultivated corn and squash in the area.

Explore Zion National Park in half a day with five must-dos during your trip. Got all the details to plan a trip with kids.

 

The Mormons settled in Utah during the 1850s and Isaac Behunin named the area Zion, or Kingdom of Heaven. Though a Methodist minister, Frederick Fisher, named the Three Patriarchs, the Great White Throne, Angels Landing and the Organ rock features and continued with the religious theme.

Zion National Park earned its national park status in 1919. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed the Mount Carmel Tunnel in the 1920s and the switchbacks of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.

Where to Stay in Zion National Park 

Stay in a cabin in Zion National Park
Kids love cabins so reserved a Western Cabin in Zion National Park. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Inside of the park, Zion Lodge offers a main building that sits on the spot of the original lodge that burned in the 1960s. Modern hotel rooms and historic western cabins from the 1930s flank the lodge building that houses a restaurant, a café, a coffee bar, a gift shop and an outdoor patio.

The cottonwood trees shade the lawn in front of the lodge is a favorite gathering place. Situated next to the Virgin River, guests are steps away from hiking.

Where’s Zion National Park

Zion National Park is located 160 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada, the closest international airport. Springdale, Utah, Zion’s gateway town to the South Entrance, offers services for travelers.

Utah’s Route 9 is the Zion National Park Scenic Byway from the Interstate 15 turnoff. If continuing to Bryce Canyon National Park, exit through Zion Mount Carmel Highway for a stunning drive.

Zion National Park is part of the Grand Staircase and included in many national park itineraries. It’s located 85 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is 122 miles away.

Zion National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day pass for $30 per private vehicle.

Zion National Park offers a free seasonal shuttle bus (Spring through Fall) that departs from the visitor center stopping all the major destinations along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive like, Canyon Junction, Zion Lodge, The Grotto and Temple of Sinawava.

Know Before You Go: 

  • Temperatures in the summer can reach 100F, carry water at all times. I stop and make my kids toast the mountains so we remember to drink water.
  • Wear a hat and apply the sunscreen.
  • Monsoon season is late June through September where flash flooding can occur with little warning.
  • Consult a Park Ranger before hiking The Narrows Trail to see if flash flooding is predicted.
  • Cell service is weak within the park.

Oregon Goes Boom at Newberry Volcano in Bend

What to do in Bend with kids, walk on a volcano.
Kids love volcanoes so add Newberry National Volcanic Monument to your Oregon road trip. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

What to do in Bend with Kids

In-between Crater Lake and Columbia River Gorge, I found Bend, Oregon, located where the ponderosa pine forest transitions to the high desert. I did a little research and found Bend is a favorite outdoor destination throughout the seasons. Then I found a national park site where my kids could climb a volcano. Sold!

After we arrived in Bend, we spent the day at the Newberry Volcanic National Monument. With two different locations, it features lakes, hot springs, lava flows, a lava cave and a cinder cone in the middle of the Deschutes National Forest.

What to do at the Newberry Volcano

The Newberry National Volcanic Monument is divided into two areas, each with it’s own visitor center with seasonal hours and staffed with U.S. Forest Rangers.

Lava Lands Visitor Center

If limited on time start at the Lava Lands Visitor Center, located at the northern end of the monument closest to Bend. Conveniently located of U.S Route 97. It features a 3-D topographic map and introductory movie.

What to do in Bend with kids, hike to the Newberry Fire lookout.
Hike to the Newberry Fire Lookout when exploring the volcano. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

During our visit, we hopped the shuttle bus ($2 per person, round trip) to the top of Lava Butte, a 500-foot tall cinder cone volcano. A must-do for the family, we hiked up to the Lava Butte Lookout, an historic and active U.S. Forest Service fire lookout since 1913.

Staffed by an official fire lookout that scans the forest for tiny columns of smoke before they turn into raging infernos. During our visit, a volunteer Forest Ranger told us about the eruption 7,000 years ago that formed the butte and its crater. On the way back to the shuttle bus stop, we hiked the easy .25-mile hike along the Lava Butte Rim.

Climb a Volcano with your kids when you explore Oregon. Got all the family fun in the outdoors conveniently located between major destinations.

If visiting the Newberry National Volcanic Monument during the summer season (May 1 to Labor Day), explore the Lava River Cave, Oregon’s longest lava tube. An unguided tour that descends 55 steps into an unlit one-mile long cavity created by a massive lava flow.

Lava River Cave requires a 2-mile roundtrip hike and you must carry two light sources. Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the season. A ranger-led tour starts at 3 p.m. and reservations are made day of the tour.

Newberry Caldera

Located in a historic Forest Service guard station, Paulina Visitor Center is at the southern end of the monument, off Paulina Lake Road or County Road 21. During the summer season a forest ranger hands out maps and Junior Forest Ranger booklets. Staffed weekends only during the spring and fall from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and during the summer most days from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

What to do in Bend with kids, visit Paulina Cabin.
Stop off at Paulina Cabin for more information when you visit. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

During our visit, we hiked to the Big Obsidian Flow, a 1-mile loop moderate trail with a 500-foot elevation gain. The obsidian, or Black Glass, was formed 1,300 years ago and is the youngest lava flow in Oregon. This area has a vault toilet and picnic tables along with seasonal (summer) interpretive rangers.

Another hike for families, and especially waterfall-loving Moms, is the Paulina Falls trail. A .25-mile easy trail leads to an 80-foot twin falls. Both hikes have parking areas.

Within the the Newberry caldera, I found two lakes with hot springs, Paulina Lake and East Lake. Boating is permitted though both lakes have a 10-mph speed limit. Kayaks and paddle boards can be rented nearby.

What to do in Bend with kids, hike the big obsidian flow.
Hike a big pile of obsidian at Newberry Volcanic National Monument. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Newberry National Volcanic Monument with Kids

Since the Newberry National Volcanic Monument is managed by the United States Forest Service, kids can earn a Junior Forest Ranger badge. Pick up a booklet at the Lava Lands Visitor Center or the Paulina Visitor Center. The booklet focuses on activities for kids 7 to 12, though I always help my younger kids.

The Junior Forest Ranger badge is rather painless, with a few easy to complete activities. Most kids (my two boys 8 and 12 did it with no real complaints) should finish it under an hour. It doesn’t require attending a ranger program but kids have to interview a ranger.

Cool Facts about Newberry 

Located on the eastern edge of the Cascade mountain range and known for its volcanic activity, the Newberry Caldera is a 1,200 square mile volcano. About the size of Rhode Island, the Newberry Caldera is still active with seismic and geothermal activity. Ordinarily kids would snooze through this but mention seismic anything when standing next to a volcano and they start to listen.

The Newberry Caldera is thought to be 500,000 years old when the top layer of the earth collapsed and formed the crater. Subsequent eruptions formed cinder cones and lava flows.

Named after John Newberry, who explored the area in 1855 for the Pacific Railroad, the Newberry National Volcanic Monument was dedicated in 1990. Astronauts trained at Newberry during NASA’s Apollo program.

Where to Stay in Bend

I found lots of options in dining, lodging and camping in Bend. During my visit, I stayed at the Riverhouse on the Deschutes ($$-$$$), located at 3075 N. Business 97 in Bend.

Stay at Riverhouse on the Deschutes and what to do in Bend with kids.
During our visit we stayed at Riverhouse on the Deschutes. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Riverhouse on the Deschutes offers the ultimate base. The newly renovated rooms feature sophisticated, modern details with a convenient location perfect for family travelers. Centrally located, the Riverhouse on the Deschutes offers quick access to enjoy Bend’s outdoor adventures.

I found six campgrounds in the Deschutes National Forest, some of the sites are reservable.

Where’s Newberry National Volcanic Monument

Located 95 miles east from Crater Lake National Park and 140 miles south from Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Lava Lands Visitor Center is 12 miles south of Bend, Oregon. During my visit, I stayed in Bend, with the largest selection of lodging and dining in central Oregon.

Newberry National Volcanic is open year-round though the visitor centers are open seasonally from May 1 to October 31. The monument requires admission, use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a day use pass for $5 per vehicle, good at all designated parking lots.

Bats and White-Nose Syndrome

If you plan on exploring Lava River Cave, the lava tube, you will be asked if you have visited a cave, like Oregon Caves National Monument in southern Oregon. You can not wear any clothing, including shoes, that’s been in another cave due to White-Nose Syndrome.

White-Nose Syndrome kills hibernating bat colonies across the U.S. and Canada. A fungus that thrives in low temperatures and high humidity that’s killed 6 million bats since it’s discovery in 2006. Since the fungus can survive in the soil for years, rangers forbid visitors from entering the cave with the same clothing or shoes from another cave.

Know Before You Go:

  • Wear appropriate shoes for hiking on the lava flows, like hiking or athletic shoes. I slipped a couple of times even with hiking sandals.
  • The lava flows offer little in shade. Wear a hat, light-colored clothing and bring plenty of water if hiking in the summer.
  • The shuttle bus to the top of Lava Butte takes exact change only and kids under 2 ride for free.
  • Kids under 6 earn a Smokey Bear pin by completing the Smokey’s Helper Booklet.

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30 Ways to Feed a Teen on the CHEAP CHEAP in NYC

Where to eat in NYC with teens, grab some ice cream.
Teens are still kids so ice cream hits the spot for an afternoon snack in NYC, like this one at Loeb Boathouse Express Café. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The kids voted and they want to head to New York City for their teen trip. I couldn’t wait to get there until I realized I would have to feed them regularly on a budget. Since I used to live in NYC, I had a few ideas. But I still had to research so I’m sharing my list of where to eat in NYC with teens.

Our Trip to NYC

Years ago, our scout group decided to go to New York City when they graduated from eighth grade. So after raising money for years, our group boarded a plane for NYC.

Planning a a NYC trip for a youth group
Designed by famed Architect Richard Morris Hunt and built in 1883, the HI Hostel features dormer windows and a mansard roof. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Since urban travel skills and traveling on a budget topped our travel lessons list, we booked a week at a hostel. Hosteling International’s Hostel on the Upper West Side provides private rooms for youth groups under 18 with bathrooms down the hall and an inexpensive café.

Our teens came up with a list of must-dos and then I added notable buildings and museums. Since our budget was tight, we bought NYC MetroCards and used the subways along with ferries and the tram to get around.

Where to Eat in NYC with Teens

Feeding teens can be tricky. Some have allergies or other food restrictions and some teens are just plain picky.

For youth group trips, the budget offers additional restrictions as well. Then the space needed to accommodate a teen group for meals offers more challenges in NYC where space is limited, especially in restaurants.

Breakfast

Our hostel offered a traditional breakfast for an additional charge. Though we wanted to sample some of the best bagels in the city.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, bagels for breakfast.
Tops for breakfast in NYC, the bagel of course. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Top Bagels and More

A bagel is a must for NYC and not all bagels are the same. I recommend making the effort to sample some of the best bagels in the city. As a bonus, most kids will eat a bagel and it’s filling enough to hold teens until lunch.

For about $3 you get a bagel schmeared with flavored cream cheese. For $10 you can get melt-in-your-mouth smoked salmon with scallion cream cream on a toasted everything bagel, my favorite. Order a regular coffee (NYC term for coffee with cream and sugar) to complete your breakfast. Though bagel shops offer juice for non-coffee drinkers.

Try one of the following for the best bagels in Manhattan.

Absolute Bagels, located at 2788 Broadway in the Upper West Side.

Russ and Daughters, located at 179 E. Houston in the Lower East Side.

Murray’s Bagels, located at 500 6th Ave in Greenwich Village.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, try French pastries.
A plate of croissants, including the cro-nut. Though honestly, it’s too sweet so skip it and order a regular croissant instead. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Dominique Ansel Bakery, located 189 Spring Street in SoHo (NYC term for South of Houston), is famous for the cronut.  But skip it since it’s way too sweet, even for my teen. Order one of their other croissants instead and ignore the sometimes snotty counter help.

Museum Eats

After breakfast, we headed to a museum most days since New York offers some of the best museums in the U.S. Most museums offer cafés for a quick bite while exploring their collections. I found this to be a convenient option to feed the kids though sometimes the offerings are limited and a bit pricey.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, take a break in the Museum cafe.
Take a break while exploring the MoMA Museum and grab a panini at their Cafe 2. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), 11 W. 53rd St., offers several restaurants though Café 2 is the most kid-friendly. With a seasonal menu prepared by a chef, we enjoyed one of its paninis and a salad.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), 1000 Fifth Avenue, offers several restaurants though The Great Hall Balcony Café offers the best option for kids. We enjoyed a grab-and-go salad and soup during our visit.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum1071 Fifth Avenue, features a small coffee bar with snacks at its Café 3. 

The American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West at 79th St., offers several restaurants though the Museum Food Court on the lower level features family favorites. During our visit we enjoyed salads though pizza, burgers, sandwiches and a selection of desserts are available.

The Loeb Boathouse Express Café, East 72nd and Park Drive North, offers another option close to several museums in Central Park. With breakfast items, burgers, soups and salads along with my favorite soft-serve ice cream, I found lots of outdoor seating for feeding a group of kids.

Food Halls across New York City

New York City offers food halls, a group of quick service outlets that share a common dining space. I relied on food halls to feed the teens because they could pick and purchase what they wanted. As a bonus, food halls offered lots of seating and tipping is not required.

A tad bit more expensive than traditional fast food (Subway or McDonald’s) but worth the extra dollar or two. And I found the top chefs from around the globe offered their quick-service concepts in the food halls.

Where to eat in NYC with teens. Try the Lady M Mille Crepes Cake
The best thing I sampled in NYC, Lady M Mille Crepes Cake that I found in the Plaza Food Hall. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Plaza Food Hall, located at 1 W. 59th St. in the basement of The Plaza Hotel, offers gourmet quick service outlets. Our group dined at The Plaza Food Hall before our theatre matinee and found some of the top chefs in NYC, like Chef Daniel Boulud.

Grand Central Terminal’s Dining Concourse or the Great Northern Food Hall, both located at 89 E. 42nd St., offers 35 different places to eat. Walk through the transportation hub and enjoy the Beaux-Arts building before herding the teens downstairs to eat. I found lots of options, like Jacques Torres Chocolate and Shake Shack, with lots of seating along with clean restrooms.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, a burger at Genuine Roadside Burger.
Enjoy a burger break at the Gotham West Market at Genuine Roadside Burger. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Gotham West Market, located at 600 11th Ave, offers long tables and several options for teens. I grabbed a burger at Genuine Roadside Burger, another grabbed pizza from Corner Slice.

Rockefeller Food Court, located on the lower level at 45 Rockefeller Plaza, offers lots of options for dining.

Hotdogs, Pretzels and the Black-and-White

A NYC hotdog topped the kids’ list and as a budget bonus, hotdogs are super-cheap. Not healthy or vegetarian but they’re a NYC icon.

Gray’s Papaya, located 2090 Broadway St. at 70th St, features hotdogs and fresh fruit juices. As a bonus, Gray’s Papaya has been featured in several movies and a must-do for movie fans. The recession special offers two hotdogs for under $6 and I found standing room only.

Need to feed some kids in New York City? Here's a list of quick service options that won't kill the budget.

A hotdog cart, located along most streets in NYC and especially Central Park, to grab hotdogs, drinks and pretzels.

Nathan’s Famous Hotdogs, several locations and carts across the city, offers another top choice for hotdogs.

Don’t forget to grab a black-and-white cookie, it’s a NYC icon. Easily shared and available at most delis and bakeries.

More Teen Eats

Where to eat in NYC with teens, grab a Shake Shack Burger.
Burgers go a long way with teens so order up a NYC original, the Shake Shack burger. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Shake Shack, several locations across the city, another place to grab a burger, a shake and an order of fries. Solid cheeseburger but I found lines at all hours. They offer an app but our order was too large so we stood in line.

Katz Delicatessen, located at 205 E. Houston St., is an icon. The pastrami on rye sandwiches are pricey but huge. I ordered a half and got a bowl of Matzo ball soup along with a seltzer. The adults in our group loved Katz’s though it fell flat for the teens.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, try Katz's for pastrami on rye.
The pastrami on rye is a NYC icon though teens might not get it. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Xi’an Famous Foods, several locations across the city, offers hand-pulled noodles in a tiny storefront. For the foodie adventurous in your group, I enjoyed the spicy cumin lamb hand-ripped noodles. Knocked me over into a carb-induced coma but worth it.

Pret A Manger, several locations across the city, is a UK-based quick-service outlet. During our visit we ordered a salad, soup and a sandwich along with coffee and bottled drinks.

Time for Dessert!

Managing a group of teens in NYC is exhausting, I recommend frequent dessert stops. NYC requires a ton of walking so desserts helped me keep my energy up and a smile on my face.

I found lots of super yummy desserts for under $10 though not everyone enjoys rich, creamy, chocolatey desserts like I do. Grab them an ice cream cone, a gelato or a chocolate chip cookie instead.

The Magnolia Bakery, several locations across the city, is known for their cupcakes. Though I loved the individual cheesecakes the best and the shops are girly-cute.

Ferrara Italian Bakery, located 195 Grand St. in Little Italy, offers a cannoli and cappuccino fix with table service. Or grab a gelato from their walk-up counter and walk around Little Italy.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, Jacques Torres Chocolate.
Seriously the best chocolate chip cookie ever at Jacques Torres Chocolates. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Jacques Torres Chocolate, several locations across the city, offers a fine selection of chocolate. The chocolate chip cookies are the go-to item on the menu and during my trip, I ate three.

La Maison Du Chocolate, several locations across the city, offers more divine-looking chocolate. I sampled their èclair and angels sang. Skip it for the teens since they will eat it in one bite and the chocolate angels will cry.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, La Maison du Chocolate for eclairs.
Chocolate lovers will weep when they sample La Maison du Chocolate’s eclair. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Lady M Confections, several locations across the city, sells the crêpe cake. I sampled the signature mille crêpes cake with layer after layer of crêpey goodness. The best thing I ate in the city but I love my desserts. I found individual slices for about $8 at the Plaza Food Hall.

Épicerie Boulud, located in the Plaza Food Hall and Lincoln Center, offers more French pastries. Chef Daniel Boulud’s quick service outlet tempted me with an assortment of desserts. I choose the raspberry pistachio tart, a tiny work of food art.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, Epicerie Boulud.
Like a tiny piece of food art, I sampled the raspberry-pistachio tart at Epicerie Boulud in the Plaza Food Hall. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Junior’s Restaurant, a couple of locations in midtown and the original in Brooklyn, offers a full-menu though I grabbed cheesecake to-go. The original NY Plain tops lists for best cheesecake so if you love cheesecake, grab a slice. Makes the ultimate midnight snack.

Ladurée, located at 398 Broadway in SoHo, offers delightful French macarons for an afternoon treat. I loved the rose and orange blossom macarons the best. Grab some macarons to go in a pretty box for a souvenir.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, Laduree for macarons.
A rose-flavored French macaron from Ladurée made me swoon. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Soft Swerve, located at 85B Allen St. in Chinatown, is an Instagram sensation that topped my teen’s must-eat list. Ube, a purple root vegetable from the Phillipines, is the flavor of choice here. My daughter had to try it so we stopped by. Not my thing but the kids loved it and snapped it to all their friends.

Where to eat in NYC with teens, Ube soft swerve.
Ube, a purple root vegetable from the Philippines, topped my teen’s list of food to sample in NYC complete with Fruity Pebbles sprinkles. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Brooklyn Bridge Eats

During our trip, we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to add another borough to our list. As a reward, I promised the kids real New York pizza.

Grimaldi’s Pizza, located at 1 Front Street, bakes their pies in a coal-fired oven. A pizza costs less than $15, a bargain. Make reservations for larger crowds since tables seating more than four are hard to get.

Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory, located at 1 Water St. in Brooklyn Heights, makes their ice cream in-house (Cash only). Steps away from the DUMBO ferry pier, take the ferry back to Manhattan ($2.75/ticket).

Know Before You Go:

  • Public restrooms are hard to find. Even McDonald’s requires a purchase so buy a bottled water and take a scheduled potty break.
  • Pack hand sanitizer, baby wipes and bleach wipes to clean up everything from hands to tables.

Where to Stay in New York City with a Youth Group

Planning a a NYC trip for a youth group
Designed by famed Architect Richard Morris Hunt and built in 1883, the HI Hostel features dormer windows and a mansard roof. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

As a family traveler writer and a youth group leader, I got voted to plan our trip to New York City for a handful of high school girls. Packed with an itinerary full of museums and must-dos, I needed budget-friendly lodging for a group. My go-to for Europe, a HI hostel, provided what I needed for planning a NYC trip for a youth group on a budget.

Our mission, to learn urban travel skills so the girls had the skills they needed to travel the world as young adults.

Urban Travel Skills

What are urban travel skills? Knowing how to travel in urban areas using public transportation along with budget-friendly lodging options.

Planning a NYC trip for a youth group. Plan on using the subway.
Buy a Metrocard and use the subway, just a block away from the HI Hostel in New York City. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Traveling in the U.S. is a bit different than traveling other parts of the developed world. Travel can be expensive in the U.S. especially for young adults and college students who don’t have reliable cars or are too young to rent cars.

Traveling exclusively by air is expensive and cumbersome. Just think about hauling yourself and your luggage to-and-from airports without the use of a car. Train travel, like Amtrak, is inconsistent throughout the U.S.

I wanted to teach our girls how to travel using different modes of transportation, like subways, ferries, commuter trains, trams, ride-share and cabs. To do that, New York City topped my list for destinations more than any other urban center.

Planning a NYC trip to a youth group take the Roosevelt Island Tram for fun.
New York City offers many modes of transportation, like the Roosevelt Island Tram along with ferries, commuter trains, cabs and subways. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

With transportation figured out, I wanted to show the girls where to stay when traveling on their own as young adults. During my 20s, I strapped on a backpack and explored Europe with a rail pass and hostel membership card. It was fun and I wanted to give the girls the confidence to do it on their own.

Hosteling 101

A hostel is an inexpensive place to stay that provides basic lodging for all. Some are private and others are part of a federation, like Hosteling International.

Hosteling International (HI) is a federation of 70 national youth hostel associations. Formerly known as the International Youth Hostel Federation, Hosteling International began in 1932 and is classified as a charity.

Planning a youth group or student trip to New York City, it can be overwhelming especially with a limited budget. Top of the list, where to stay while exploring NYC. I've got all the information about staying at the HI Hostel in New York City with high school students.

Years back, there was an age limit for hostels but that’s been eliminated at most hostels. Open to all, though it still appeals to college-age students.

Planning a NYC trip for a Youth Group

According to HI, a group is 10 or more people traveling together. For students under 18, the group must be in a room of their own and have adult chaperones staying at the hostel.

Hosteling International caters to groups with a special reservation line to handle groups sales. For our nine-person group, we bought out a ten-bunk room.

Breakfast can be prearranged for a reasonable cost. Sack lunches can also be prearranged.  Luggage can be stored before and after the stay. Free tours and entertainment are available at the hostel too.

HI Hostel NYC

Located in the Upper West Side between 103rd and 104th Streets along Amsterdam Ave., the HI Hostel is actually an historic building. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, the famed architect of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and the Biltmore Estate, the hostel was built in 1883.

Originally for the Association for the Relief of Respectable Aged Indigent Females, the building offers dormer windows and a mansard roof along with rich architecture details throughout the building.

The HI Hostel NYC offers free Wi-Fi, free linens, a coin-operated, self-service laundry, a kitchen to use, a café, a game room, along with an outdoor courtyard. Space for your group to meet is also available. The hostel can assist in charter bus parking too.

Our Dorm Room at the HI Hostel New York City

A reasonably sized room featured five sets of twin-sized bunks with sheeting and a couple of fleece blankets per bed, think basic linens. Daily towel service was available though we had to grab towels off the laundry cart. Used towels are deposited in the bathrooms.

Planning a NYC trip for a youth group then think about staying in a hostel.
Urban camping at the HI Hostel in New York City with bunks beds the girls loved. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Our room was dim with just a single light fixture but it featured two large windows with black-out shades. We had air-conditioning with the controls in our room. A bonus since we visited in the summer and New York is hot and humid.

Each bunk features an overhead light with a couple of standard 110-volt household outlets. I plugged in my phone and left it on the light fixture and charging station.

Planning a NYC trip for a youth group, a hostel offers budget-friendly lodging.
Each bunk gets a metal school-type locker to store luggage and I purchased a lock for $4 from the lobby. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Each bunk also has a standard school-type metal locker though I forgot to bring a lock. I purchased one in the registration area for $4. The locker fit my standard carryon-sized rolling luggage with no problem.

The Shared Bathroom at the HI Hostel NYC

I found two bathrooms on each floor. Each was newly renovated with white tile and individual stalls for toilets and showers.

Planning a NYC trip for a youth group then book a stay at the HI Hostel.
The outdoor courtyard features Ping-Pong along with lots of seating. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The vanity features several sinks with lots of lighting and plugs for hair dryers. I never had to wait for a stall or sink though other people were always in the bathroom.

Shared Space at the HI Hostel New York City

The main floor of the hostel features a registration and reception area open to the public. A set of locked doors to the rest of the facility require a key card to open, just like a regular hotel.

Planning a NYC trip for a youth group, the hostel offers a cafe.
The cafe, located on the first floor, offered quick-service items along with a coffee bar and beverage cooler. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The café serves fresh coffee drinks along with assorted pastries. Cold and hot sandwiches are available along with salads, yogurt, fruit and cold, bottled drinks. I found the prices reasonable, especially for NYC and it offered extended hours.

A large dining area, game room, computer room, and lounging room completed the first floor. I also found restrooms, stairs and an elevator.

Planning a NYC trip for a youth group consider the HI Hostel NYC.
The HI Hostel in New York City offers a game room with free pool. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The HI Hostel New York City features a large outdoor patio. Guests gathered under the party lights and enjoyed talking with several tables and chairs. I even found a Ping-Pong table and hammock outside.

My Take Away from the Hostel

Our stay was a great experience for the girls. For girls who have attended camp, it was very camp-like. And I called it Urban Camping.

It was a bit like college dorm living too. So that gave them a taste of what’s ahead. None of the girls had any complaints and fought over the top bunks.

For a Mom, the beds were OK. My bunk mate, my 14-year-old, made the bed squeak and shake each time she flipped over in her sleep.

Walking down the hall to the restroom got old after several days. After a week, I was ready to have some private space. But this trip wasn’t about me, it was teaching kids how to travel within their budget.

The location was great. Two blocks to Central Park and one block for the 1 subway train. We used the subway to get around extensively.

The area was safe though we were aware and traveled as a group at night.

Things to Think About:

Some of the guests were under-dressed for the public spaces. Think college-aged dudes roaming the halls without shirts and girls in tiny shorts. But my Mom googles were on and we really saw more flesh in Times Square.

Hostel Must Haves:

  • Flip flops for shower and walking around the room.
  • Earplugs and eye mask. NYC is noisy.
  • Electronic chargers and even a small surge protector if you have multiple devices.
  • A lock for the locker.
  • A plug-in air freshener if staying with students for several days.

Discover Utah’s Bryce Canyon to Share Fun and Adventure

Discover Utah's Bryce Canyon with kids
Discover the pink spires at Bryce Canyon National Park. Photo Credit: National Park Service

Discover Utah’s technicolor show where the delicate pink of a sunrise pops into vermillion red then rusts into a sunset orange. Bryce Canyon National Park offers expansive views at every turn in the trail. The Paunsaugunt Plateau’s dramatic scenery is a hiker’s dream and draws visitors from around the world.

History of Bryce Canyon National Park

What started as an inland sea approximately 40 million years ago until 20 million years ago when the Colorado Plateau began to rise and dry out. Bryce Canyon’s rainbow-colored limestone layers actually represent different eras of time.

Explore the Bryce Canyon River when you explore Bryce Canyon with kids.
Catch the Bryce Canyon River as it snakes through the firs at the bottom of the canyon. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Bryce Canyon is located on the top portion of the Grand Staircase, a sequence of sedimentary rock layers in northern Arizona and southern Utah. It offers a geologic survey of 525 million years displayed in exposed rock. Where Grand Canyon National Park represents the bottom of the Grand Staircase, Zion National Park offers a glimpse of the center.

Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon Pioneer and Bryce Canyon’s namesake, settled in the area and at times seemed obvious to its haunting beauty. Bryce Canyon National Park earned its national park designation in 1928.

What to do in 2 hours

On my first visit, I had limited time so after grabbing a map at the Visitor Center I hopped a complimentary park shuttle. At the Sunrise Point stop, I headed to the Rim Trail, a paved path running next to the edge. To walk from Sunrise Point to Sunset Point is an easy 1.0-mile hike.

NOTE: This path doesn’t feature a fence next to the canyon but is approximately 10 feet off the rim’s edge.

Walk through Bryce Canyon Lodge when you explore Bryce Canyon with kids.
The historic Bryce Canyon Lodge offers guests rooms steps away from the rim of the canyon. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

For more adventurous families, the Navajo Trail offers an up-close look at Bryce’s rock formations as the trail takes hikers into Bryce Amphitheater’s slot canyon. It starts at Sunset Point and is a 1.3-mile moderate trail.

I walked over to the Bryce Canyon Lodge to tour the historic park building. Inside I found restrooms along with a large gift shop, a restaurant and a ballroom that hosts ranger programs.

Explore Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park for family fun and adventure. With cabins, hikes and horseback rides, families can make memories together as they discover the pink spires of Utah.

After exploring from Sunrise to Sunset Points, I headed for Inspiration Point. Close but yet another vantage point of the Bryce Amphitheater then boarded the shuttle bus for the roundtrip ride back to the visitor center.

Family Fun in Bryce Canyon National Park

For older kids who love adventure, explore Bryce Canyon by horseback with a one-and-half hour guided tour that takes small groups to Fairy Castle and back. A three-hour tour explores the Peek-a-Boo Loop by horseback as well.

Take a hike when you explore Bryce Canyon with kids.
Kids love to hike and Bryce Canyon National Park offers several family hiking trails. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Bryce Canyon National Park hosts two summer festivals. An Annual Astronomy Festival in June and an Annual Geology Festival in July for visitors looking for specialized programming.

Bryce Canyon National Park features night sky programming. The park’s dark rangers, who specialize in the night sky, host programs to see a world beyond the naked eye.

Outfitted with high-powered telescopes, dark rangers point viewfinders on the Milky Way and nursery nebulae. On full moons, dark sky rangers guide visitors through Bryce Canyon on moonlit hikes.

Bryce Canyon with Kids

The Junior Ranger Program is the go-to program for families to learn more about Bryce Canyon National Park. It’s free and takes about two hours to complete. My kids love the patches that the Rangers present them after completing their booklet.

Lodging in Bryce Canyon National Park

Stay in a historic cabin when you explore Bryce Canyon with kids.
Reserve a cabin steps from Bryce Canyon’s rim to make memories with your kids. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

For lodging in the park, the rustic Bryce Canyon Lodge offers rooms in the 1925 historic lodge listed on the Register of Historic Places. The Bryce Canyon Lodge features a restaurant, a pizzeria along with lodge rooms and a few suites.

For guests looking for more space, western cabins are located steps from the canyon’s edge and the lodge. They offer rustic elegance in a more private setting.

Where’s Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park is located approximately 270 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada, to the south and 270 miles from Salt Lake City, Utah, to the north. Both cities offer international airports.

Bryce Canyon National Park offers a difference landscape and included in national park itineraries. It’s located 85 miles from Zion National Park. The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is 158 miles away.

Bryce Canyon National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase a 7-day pass for $30 per private vehicle.

Bryce Canyon National Park offers a free seasonal shuttle bus from the visitor center every 15 minutes and stops at the lodge, the campgrounds and Sunset, Bryce, Inspiration and Sunset Points.

Know Before You Go:

  • Bryce Canyon has frequent thunderstorms during Monsoon season, June through August. For your safety, when thunder roars, head indoors.
  • Bryce Canyon doesn’t have a partial fence around the canyon like Grand Canyon. Hike with the kids within arm’s reach.
  • Take it easy at Bryce Canyon, elevations range from 6,600 to 9,100 ft
  • Seasonal road closure can occur during the winter.

Take Your Kids to Prison for Family Fun

Alcatraz with Kids
On a clear day, Alcatraz doesn’t look that creepy but of course looks can be deceiving. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Why would you visit Alcatraz with kids? Well, Alcatraz topped the San Francisco to-do list for my kids, 9, 13 and 14. ALL DAY they asked, when are we going to Alcatraz. Seriously. And it was their favorite national park site of the summer after stopping at most of the national park sites on the West Coast, like Redwoods, Death Valley, Olympic, Mount St. Helens, Oregon Caves, Lassen Volcanic and Mt. Rainier.

A Prison with Kids?

I have boys and my boys are fascinated by prisons, along with a list of other things that most Moms don’t want to talk about. So I decided to tour the prison that defines hard-core prison life.

Explore Alcatraz with kids.
A walk through Alcatraz at twilight defines creepy for me. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

As a kid of the 80s, I’m all about scaring a couple of kids straight.  A walk through Alcatraz at twilight is creepy and borderline scary.But tweens and teens love to walk the line of scary and creepy so it’s perfect for them.

Though it’s not all creepy. The views of downtown San Francisco can’t be beat, really stunning. I booked the evening tour and the ferry ride along with the sunset were top-notch. Though I think we were lucky, remember that San Francisco fog!

Take a ferry to Alcatraz with kids.
On a clear afternoon, the view of downtown San Francisco can’t be beat. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

I had to see it for myself. Alcatraz is one of the places you have to visit to understand. Pictures can be haunting but walking through the cell block as the dabbled light casts a ghostly glow is eerie.

Alcatraz–What’s behind the name

Derived from the Spanish word alcatraces, or seabirds, the birds have called the island home for generations. In the 1850s, the island became a military fortress due to its strategic positioning in the San Francisco Bay.

Since the shipping traffic increased from San Francisco after the gold rush, a lighthouse was needed. In 1854 the Alacatraz Island Light became the first lighthouse on the West Coast.

During the Civil War, Alcatraz Island housed 400 soldiers and numerous cannons to protect the port. However, in 1907 the U.S. Army decommissioned Alcatraz.

The island always housed prisoners from the early days as a military fort. And soon after its decommission as a fort, military guards built a cellhouse.

Explore Alcatraz with kids and walk through the cell block.
A few of the cells on the tour feature personal belongings of the prisoners. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

In 1915, Alcatraz was renamed the United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch, a military prison. During the Great Depression, Alcatraz transferred from the War Department to the Department of Justice. Soon after, it became a high-profile, maximum-security federal penitentiary.

Home to the worst of the worst, infamous inmates like Al Capone, along with others with nicknames like Creepy, Doc, Machine Gun, and Birdman of Alcatraz were all incarcerated on The Rock. Inmates that caused problems in other prisons, came to Alcatraz too.

Explore Alcatraz with kids during your trip to San Francisco.
Alcatraz offers few windows so the light is dim and spooky. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

After the prison closed in 1963, Native Americans occupied the island in effort to claim it for all tribes. Support dwindled and in 1972, Alcatraz became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Explore Alcatraz with Kids

Alcatraz is creepy and eerie in the evening so the younger kids might be frightened by the night tour. My kids, 9, 13 and 14, loved this tour but tweens and teens love to be freaked out a bit. Actually Alcatraz was their favorite national park site from the entire summer.

Explore Alcatraz with Kids when you visit San Francisco.
My kids, 9, 13 and 14, loved this tour because its was equal parts eery and creepy. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Hard to believe, yet kids lived on Alcatraz as prison guards lived on the island and brought their families with them. The kids of Alcatraz played in the gardens and Moms rarely locked their doors.

Stop by the Ranger Station at the dock and pick up a Junior Ranger booklet. Take the tour, finish the booklet and turn it back in to the park ranger for a special badge.

Night Tour

Tour Alcatraz with kids during your trip to San Francisco.
The hospital ward creeps out adults and younger kids might want to skip it. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

We explored Alcatraz during the twilight hours for the Night Tour. A special feature of this tour is the cell house lock-down where a Park Ranger unlocks then locks all the cell doors on the cell block at once. A must if you take the Night Tour.

This tour is especially creepy since the setting sun casts deep shadows throughout the prison. The lighting is limited and the hospital ward is particularly eery in the evening. It might be too scary for younger kids, my 9-year-old decided to skip this portion of the tour.

Lock the kids up when you tour Alcatraz with kids.
Sometimes good kids go bad. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The Birds of Alcatraz

The birds came first, though moved on after humans occupied the island in the 1850s. When the prison closed in the 1963, the birds returned to the protected location that lacked natural predators.

The island offers refuge for over 5,000 birds today. The waterbirds include Pigeon Guillemots, Snowy Egrets, Western Gulls, Black-crowned Night-Herons and Brandt’s Cormorants. Some areas of the island may close to protect nesting birds that will abandon their nest if humans come too close.

Is a tour of Alcatraz Prison right for your kids? Find out the best time to visit and what to except for one of the most popular tours in San Francisco.

Birders, remember your binoculars and grab the brochure, Waterbirds of Alcatraz, at the kiosk after disembarking the ferry.

The Gardens of Alcatraz

The gardens that still bloom off the most surprising feature of the former high-security prison. Sprinkled throughout the property, residents first planted the gardens in the late 1800s.

Visit the gardens when you explore Alcatraz with kids.
Gardens sprinkle Alcatraz Island, planted and maintained by former inmates. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

With the help of reclaimed water, green houses and specially-trained inmates, the gardens flourished until 1963, when the prison closed. Over 230 species of ornamental plants still flourish on Alcatraz, including roses, calla lilies, bearded irises, agapanthus and hydrangeas.

Garden lovers, grab the brochure, The Gardens of Alcatraz, at the kiosk after disembarking the ferry for more information.

Get the App!

The National Park Service developed an NPS Golden Gate App, covering Alcatraz Island among other NPS sites around San Francisco. The app includes an interactive map, hidden stories and up-to-date ranger information.

Where to eat at Alcatraz

Got hungry kids? The Landing at Alcatraz, the ticketing and boarding area off The Embarcadero, offers a cafeteria with options for families along with rain ponchos and souvenirs. Food service is not available on Alcatraz Island.

Picnics are allowed near the docks when you disembark the ferry. Only bottled water is permitted on the tour.

Getting to Alcatraz Island

Alcatraz Island is located in the San Francisco Bay and reached by ferry only. The Alcatraz Ferry Terminal is located at Pier 33 on The Embarcadero.

Parking is an issue while visiting Downtown San Francisco. During my trip, I used public transportation and left my car at my hotel.

Alcatraz Cruises 2017 Tickets

Ages Day Tours Night Tour
Adult 18 to 61 37.25 44.25
Senior 62 + 35.25 41.25
Junior 12 to 17 37.25 43.25
Child 5 to 11 23.00 26.50
Toddler 0 to 4 Free Free
Family Pack 2 Adults + 2 Kids 112.75 Not Available

 

The Behind-the-Scenes Tour is 4 to 5 hours long and not available for kids under 12-years-old.

More Information about Alcatraz and San Francisco:

If you need more information about Alcatraz or San Francisco with kids, I recommend the Lonely Planet Guides, like the following.

 

Disclosure:

Consideration for brands mentioned. This post includes affiliate links.

Know Before You Go:

  • Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance.
  • Parking is an issue for San Francisco. I used public transportation during my visit.
  • Alcatraz Island, or ‘The Rock”, is hilly and requires climbing. Motorized transportation is limited.
  • Luggage larger than a standard backpack is not allowed.
  • Photo ID required for the purchaser of the tickets.
  • Give yourself at least 2-and-a-half hours for the tour.
  • Bring a jacket and rain gear since the weather is unpredictable.
  • Make reservations for this popular tour months in advance, especially for the evening tour.
  • In Mid-August flies that hatch from the bird colonies and swarm.
  • The Self-Guided booklet, Discover Alcatraz – A Tour of the Rock, costs $1.
  • The cost of the tour includes an audio tour headset.

 

Discover a Land of Destruction at Mount St. Helens

 

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids.
Explore Mount St. Helens with kids to learn about the 1980 eruption that blew off a mountaintop. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Mount St. Helens, once a recreational playground for Washington, until one quiet Sunday morning in 1980 when the snowcapped mountain vaporized. A mudslide decimated a forest and a crater remained where a peak once stood. A scar in the landscape recovers and a trip to Mount St. Helens with kids is a must for your Washington road trip.

What happened at Mount St. Helens 

In 1792 British explorer Captain George Vancouver officially named Mount St. Helens after Baron St. Helens, an ambassador. Though the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and Yakama Nation’s name translates into the smoker, suggesting a history of volcanic activity.

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids while in Washington.
A one-mile wide crater dominates the landscape at Mount St. Helens. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

On March 20, 1980, a 4.2-magnitude earthquake rocked Mount St. Helens and jumpstarted the volcanic activity. The next week, steam started to vent. Volcanologists flew in from around the world to watch Mount St. Helens from every vantage point. By the end of April, a bulge appeared on the north side of the mountain.

After weeks intense monitoring, Mount St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, in a fury that geologists compared to Mount Vesuvius. Another earthquake, a 5.1-magnitude, melted the snowpack into a violent mudslide and pulverized the top of the stratovolcano into a cloud of black ash.

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids and learn about the 1980 eruption.
During our visit, we attended a ranger program to learn about the fateful day in May 1980. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

For the next 9 hours, a plume of ash soared 12 to 16 miles into the atmosphere that turned day into night. The eruption generated 3.9 million cubic yards of material, like ash, pumice, trees and boulders, that rushed 17 miles downstream.

In all, the eruption of Mount St. Helens killed 57 people. In its wrath, it destroyed 47 bridges, 15 miles of railroad, 185 miles of highway and 250 homes. It was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in U.S. history.

Explore Washington's Mount St. Helens with your kids to learn about the 1980 eruption along with the continued volcanic activity that rocks the area. Top of your adventure with a stay in a cozy off-the-grid cabin to ignite the imagination of your kids.

After the eruption, Mount St. Helens went from a 9,677-foot snow-capped peak to a 8,363-foot mountain with a one-mile wide, horseshoe-shaped crater. Since the 1980 eruption, Mount St. Helens continues to rumble, with intermittent episodes of venting steam and erupting lava domes. The majority of the area is closed to visitors so scientists can continue to monitor the volcanic activity.

What to do in 3 hours at Mount St. Helens 

Drive to the Johnston Ridge Observatory’s visitor center, at the end of State Route 504 (Spirit Lake Highway) and walk through the exhibits detailing the eruption. Watch one of the dramatic films and attend a ranger program, if available. Our program offered amazing historic photos of the eruption.

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids.
Take a hike and see how the landscape recovers at Mount St. Helens. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Kids need to move so we hiked the Eruption Trail, a .5-mile trail from the Visitor Center. See the lava dome and the crater along with a pumice plain and landslide deposit. If time permits, stop at the Loowit Viewpoint, just west of the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Mount St. Helens with Kids

The Johnston Ridge Observatory is a must for school-age kids with geologic exhibits and live seismographs. The visitor center offers two different films, perfect for school-age kids. Though the movies might be intense for preschoolers and too loud for babies.

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids during your vacation to Washington.
My kids earned a Junior Ranger badge during our visit to Mount St. Helens with special Junior Ranger programming. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

During our visit to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, my kids attended a Junior Ranger program that explained the eruption in a way a kid could understand. The program took less than an hour and parents are welcome to stay or explore the monument on their own.

Family Fun at Mount St. Helens 

Due to the delicate nature of the recovering landscape and the continued seismic activity, I found limited recreational activities at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument’s Johnston Ridge Observatory. Visit other nearby locations.

  • Coldwater Lake Recreation Area offers a picnic area, an interpretive trail and a boat launch.
  • Mount St. Helens Visitor Center at Silver Lake is a Washington State Park that offers exhibits on the 1980 eruption. Located 6 miles from Castle Rock along State Route 504, it’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer season.
  • Try the eastside or southside of Mount St. Helens for more recreational activities, like Lava Canyon, Ape Cave or Spirit Lake viewpoints.
  • Eco Park Resorts offers horseback tours, the closest to Mount St. Helens, that ride through the blast zone.

Camping near Mount St. Helens 

For my visit to Mount St. Helens, I decided to stay as close as possible. At Eco Park Resort, just 25 miles west from the Johnston Ridge Observatory, I found several cozy, off-the-grid cabins along with tent and RV camping that unplugged my kids and recharged my spirit.

Visit Mount St. Helens with kids and stay in a nearby cabin.
We stayed in an off-the-grid cabin, minutes from the Johnston Visitor Center. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

With a flicker of the gas-powered lights, my kids, 9, 13 and 14, and I settled in for the night under our cozy patchwork quilts. Set in a pristine landscape in the shadow of Mount St. Helens, it’s hard to believe the destruction that happened here 37 years ago.

Our cabin featured a pair of bunk beds that’s my boys fought over (in a good way) and a full-sized bed, each dressed with a cozy quilts for the brisk Washington nights. Since the cabins lack electricity, two gas-powered, wall-mounted lamps lighted our cabin. The flickering glow ignited my boys’ pioneering imaginations.

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids and stay in a cozy cabin.
Inside our cabin, I found a pair of bunk beds along with a full-size bed, dressed with cozy quilts. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

Inside our cabin, I found a table with four chairs, perfect for games after dinner. The long counter on one side of the cabin offered amble space for organizing camping equipment.

Outside our cabin, I made dinner on my gas camp stove, while my daughter swung on the cabin’s back porch swing. As we looked across the grassy meadow, we saw the first flickers of the nightly fire in Eco Park’s fire pit while my boys played in the late summer sun.

Explore Mount St. Helens with kids and stay at a cabin.
Steps from our cabin, the newly renovated bathroom had lots of hot water with a locking door and a flushing toilet. Photo Credit: Catherine Parker

The owners of Eco Park Resort, Dawn and Mark Smith, offer their personal experiences of the day that Mount St. Helens erupted. The Smith family resort, Spirit Lake Lodge fell victim to 500-feet of ash that day. As the land recovered, the Smith family returned and opened Eco Park Resort in 1995 at 14000 Spirit Lake Highway.

Where’s Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

The Johnston Ridge Observatory is located 52 miles east of Castle Rock, Washington, along State Route 504 (Spirit Lake Highway). It’s located 110 miles northeast of Portland, Oregon, and 150 miles southeast of Seattle, Washington.

Both cities offer international airports. The closest towns with traveler’s services are Castle Rock or Kelso, both along Interstate 5. Public transportation is not available to the Johnston Ridge Observatory.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area offers a scenic drive, just 165 miles away. Astoria and the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks offers more national park fun, 120 miles west.

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is open 7 days a week from mid-May until the end of October, from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80) or purchase an adult admission for $8 per person, kids 15 and under enter for free.

Know Before You Go: 

  • Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument’s Johnston Ridge Observatory is closed from the end of October until mid-May.
  • Mount St. Helens includes levels of restricted areas for the safety and protection of the recovering landscape.
  • Pets, bikes and horses are prohibited to protect the recovering landscape. Though a few bike trails are open.
  • Camping is prohibited at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.
  • Eco Park Resort is open from May until November and reservations are required.
  • Bring a battery-operated lantern for your stay at Eco Park Resort for additional lighting in the cabin and making after-dark runs to the potty.
  • Individual ground fires aren’t allowed at Eco Park Resort, though they light a fire pit that guests can enjoy. Remember the marshmallows!
  • Due to the remote location, Wi-Fi is not available at Eco Park Resort, though I had reliable cell service.
  • Since the cabin is off-grid, no electrical outlets are available in the cabin. Remember to charge the phone before arriving.
  • The cabins are heated though I didn’t turn of the heat for my stay.
  • The hot water is on a timer and the bathrooms contain showers only. The doors lock and if you have little kids, I recommend staying with them.