Helpful Hints, The Great Outdoors, Travel

Road Tripping from Houston to Colorado with Kids: Palo Duro and Cadillac Ranch

If you’re thinking about a road trip, now’s the time to go for it! In our first blog post in this series, we covered planning a road trip from Houston to Colorado with kids, along with some essential tips that will make the long drive easy. Now, we’ll dig into the nuts and bolts of the Texas portion – from Houston to Canyon, TX – and the rewards that await you once you get there.

It’s almost impossible to make the drive to Colorado in a day. Depending on where you want to end up, two can even be stretching it with kids in tow. Plus, you want to make those days at least a little fun, and the kids need to run around. Those factors considered, we decided that Canyon, TX was the perfect city to rest our heads in, both on the way there and back.

Why Canyon? These reasons sealed the deal for us:

  • It’s a little over 9 hours from Houston without stops – we could start at 8am, and with a few stops, be there before the kids’ bedtime
  • Colorado Springs, our first CO destination, is a little over 7 hours from Canyon, so we had time to get in a good hike in southern Colorado on our way
  • Palo Duro Canyon State Park is a place we’ve always wanted to visit
  • Cadillac Ranch is really close and right on the way out of town towards Colorado
  • There are enough places to grab some food to-go and a couple decent hotels

Getting There

There are lots of ways to get to Canyon from Houston, but the best (and most interesting) route seemed to be through Waco, up through Ft Worth, through Wichita Falls, and then on to Canyon. 45 to 287 is always an option, but save that for the trip back (in reverse, of course) when you don’t care as much about scenery and just want to get home!

We decided we wanted to make one real stop (other than bathroom breaks) on the way up, right around lunchtime. It turns out that there are two fantastic stops within just 10 minutes of each other – you can grab the best kolaches in Texas at the Czech Stop in West, TX, and then you can eat them at the Hill County NB Rest Area just north of Abbott, TX! The rest area is really the most fantastic rest stop we have ever seen. Clean, modern bathrooms, plenty of wide open spaces for running around, and tons of covered picnic areas. There was a nice breeze when we were there in late July, so it didn’t even seem that hot.

We eat a ton of kolaches, and these were WAY at the top of the list! Plus, there were autographed photos of Willie AND the Tiger King above the counter 🙂

Cadillac Ranch

Cadillac Ranch was one of two must-dos for our family. It’s an iconic Texas landmark, it has been on our list to see for years, and it would be really fun for our kids to channel their inner street artist. We bought 3 cans of spray paint before we left at Home Depot to make sure we were prepared.

If you haven’t heard of this landmark before, it’s basically 10 Cadillacs from the 1950s with their noses buried in the dirt in a field, so they are all sitting at a diagonal with the trunks in the air. These cars have been spray painted over and over again through the years, and it’s a tradition to bring your cans and tag them on your way through town. There’s no entry fee – just remember to give your cans to someone on the way out or put them in the trash.

Cadillac Ranch: Go early and bring spray paint!

At first our plan was to go to Palo Duro first thing in the morning and THEN go to Cadillac Ranch on the way out. That would have been a very bad plan for the following reasons:

  1. It’s friggin HOT out there mid-day in the middle of a field in Amarillo
  2. It gets super crowded at Cadillac Ranch starting mid-morning

The best way to pull this off is on the way up from Houston, get your rest in Canyon, wake up, and go straight to Cadillac Ranch first thing. If you get there around 8, nobody’s there yet, and you have your pick of cars to spray paint! You can take a billion photos (there is no better place on earth to get photos of your kids with colorful backgrounds!), you can keep away from others, and it’s still nice outside – even in late July. Just leave before 9:30 to get on the road to CO.

Palo Duro

We had planned to go to Palo Duro on the way up to Colorado, but we messed up and forgot to make reservations in advance by purchasing a day pass. By the time we figured this out, they were all taken for the day we needed to go. We were bummed, but this turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise. Instead, we decided to hit up Palo Duro on the way BACK from Colorado in the evening. This was perfect because:

  • It was hot, but not too hot at all – like 91 degrees at 6pm, and we didn’t have to worry about it getting hotter. It got cooler as we enjoyed the park because the sun was setting!
  • You’ll be on Mountain Time because you were just in CO, so 6pm feels like 7pm and the kids won’t be too exhausted to have a good time
  • The park is open as of August 2020 for day visitors to enter 7am-7pm, but you can stay as long as 10pm!
  • There is almost nobody in the park except a few folks camping after 6pm. We had the place to ourselves!
  • The animals in this type of environment are most active at dusk, so you get to see cool things like armadillos and other wildlife
At Palo Duro Canyon State Park, there is unbelievable beauty everywhere you look. Photos don’t even do it justice.

We asked the park ranger what to do with small kids if we wanted to be there for like 1.5 hours, and she recommended the following:

  • Drive through the park – it takes about 30-40 minutes without stopping to hike
  • Stop at the overlook at the beginning of the drive where you can see the whole canyon – second largest in the country – amazing!
  • Hike the 0.5 mile Pioneer Nature Trail (trail map here – make sure to request one from the ranger upon entry). Even though it’s short, still bring plenty of water! There are lots of little trail offshoots to explore, and it’s easy to see how to get back while still enjoying the desert scenery.
  • Stop at “The Big Cave” (stop 10 on the trail map) and climb around, getting as close as you want if you’re brave!

All in all, the front end and back end of our trip that could have been a monotonous drive to get to the finish line in CO ended up being some of our best memories. Next up, we’ll cover southern Colorado up to Colorado Springs and the surrounding area – coming soon!

Helpful Hints, The Great Outdoors, Travel

Road Tripping from Houston to Colorado with Kids: It Begins

We’ve always wanted to go on a road trip with our two kids, currently ages 3 and 6, but we figured it might be when they were a little older. A plane trip always just seemed so much easier! But then, COVID struck. After many months in quarantine and being right in the midst of Houston’s dog days of summer, getting out of town had to happen or we’d all lose our minds! So off to Colorado we went. Here’s what we did and how we did it.

Can’t beat the scenery or the weather during a Colorado summer.

The Plan

Here is what we knew about what we wanted to do (and what we had to do given COVID) that shaped how our trip evolved:

  • Stay far away from others and in the outdoors as much as possible
  • Avoid the heat (because we have enough of that right now in Houston!)
  • Take in some breathtaking scenery
  • See multiple places rather than stay in one spot to give the kids a flavor of CO as a whole
  • Eat some good food, even if we can’t eat at restaurants – and eat healthy wherever we can

Our trip shaped up quickly to focus on the eastern side of Colorado, mostly because of drive time. We also knew we wanted to break up the long drive up there (and back) into 2 days, so that narrowed down the choices rather quickly into the following 10-day plan:

Day 1: Houston to Canyon, TX (9+ hours – longest and most painful drive)
Day 2: Canyon, TX to Colorado Springs, CO (7+ hours)
Days 3-4: Enjoy Colorado Springs and surrounding area
Day 5: Drive to Boulder (1.5 hours – easy!)
Days 6-7: Enjoy Boulder and surrounding area
Day 8: Boulder to Pueblo via Golden, CO (around 3 hours – to get a jump on the drive back)
Day 9: Pueblo, CO to Canyon, TX (5+ hours)
Day 10: Canyon to HOME!

Why Canyon, TX and not some other spot? We wanted to do 2 things there: see Palo Duro Canyon State Park and check out the infamous Cadillac Ranch, both of which ended up being AWESOME. More on that later.

Channel your inner street artist at Cadillac Ranch!

Things We Learned About Road Tripping in General

There are plenty of blog posts and checklists online about what to bring on a road trip with kids, so we won’t rehash everything you should pack. Here are a few things we tried/learned that really helped us on those long driving days with the kids:

  • Over-pack your snacks: we packed a TON of snacks and stuff for meals because we wanted to minimize contact with other people. You know what? It wasn’t enough! We STILL went to the grocery store multiple times. If you think you packed enough, you probably didn’t, so grab that extra large box of applesauce and those 3 extra packs of granola bars, and more of whatever else you think you have enough of!
  • Have a solid cooler/snack bag strategy: Bring a small cooler and a reusable bag for the front of the car, both packed with drinks/snacks/napkins/etc. This should be everything food-wise you need for the day. Make sure it’s accessible while driving so you don’t have to stop to unpack and reorganize (bathroom breaks will cause you to stop plenty!). Also pack a large cooler and large bag in the back with the rest of your food. Then, restock your small cooler/bag with fresh snacks/drinks each morning so you can grab and go as needed!
  • There’s more to life than iPad: While the iPad was totally a part of our strategy, especially for those 9+ hour driving days, there were some really cool and unexpected things that were super fun beyond screen time. First, podcasts! Download a bunch of them for free – our favorite ones are Story Pirates and Storynory. The kids were fascinated, the stories were cool, and they gave us some peace – huge win for the whole crew! Next up, this random license plate sticker book – we bought several cheap things for the kids to try on the road, but this one was the biggest hit and kept them occupied for the longest. It was a good riff on an old school game. Each long driving day, the kids got to choose one movie to watch on iPad, and the oldest played an iPad game while the 3 year old was passed out napping, so everyone was happy.

Learn more in our next post, when we finally get on the road. We’ll share the stop you can’t miss on the way from Houston to Canyon and tell you the best way (we think) to visit Cadillac Ranch and Palo Duro Canyon State Park with kids!

Read the next post in this series!

Best Of, Helpful Hints, Houston Events, The Great Outdoors

Best of Houston with Kids: Transportation Edition

If your adventures are anything like ours, sometimes getting there is the best part. Somehow kids can rattle off dozens of modes of transportation way before they can count to 10 – it’s probably because these many-wheeled vehicles are just so darned cool.

On our travels through Houston, we’ve searched high and low for the best places to enjoy planes, trains, cars, trucks, buses, and construction vehicles, and we’d love to share them with you. You may find yourself geeking out more than your toddler!

You can actually ride these trains quite a long distance at Zube Park!

Best transportation-themed park, inside the loop: Donovan Park. A classic, albeit crowded, choice for fun, the wooden train is the signature element of this super fun place to play. Get there early to beat the crowds and the heat, and head across the street to Melange Creperie or Cloud 10 Creamery for a well-deserved snack afterwards.

Runner up, best inner loop transportation-themed park: Hermann Park. Another get-there-early (like when the gates open at 8:30) kind of place, it’s worth it to experience the train! Trains start at 10, so snag some donuts on your way, enjoy a donut picnic, and watch the ducks until you can get your ticket. If you’re feeling really brave or your kids won’t dive headfirst off the boat like mine will, try the pedal boats too!

Yet another runner up for best ITL transportation park…because, fire trucks: Fire Truck Park. Nestled right in the middle of West University, this park is best for the younger set – infants through maybe age 4 – with tons of age-appropriate things to do and see.

Best transportation-themed park, outside the loop: Zube Park. March through November, the Houston Area Live Steamers graciously offer train rides to kids for free (donations accepted!). It’s a popular attraction, and it’s so special that this passionate group of train lovers wants to share their hobby with kids just for fun! Totally worth the drive.

Did you know there are planes that have fold-up wings? We didn’t until went to Lone Star Flight Museum!

Most awesome transportation museum: Lone Star Flight Museum. This was a complete surprise to us the first time we went – we love this museum! There are two spotless indoor hangars, a gallery to experiment with all things flight, and a super amazing gift shop to find something unique on your way out. They are always hosting interesting and creative educational events, too, so visit often or become a member!

Best place to be a fireman: Houston Fire Museum. Located in midtown inside historic Fire Station No. 7, built in 1899, this museum caters to both little kids and adults. Be sure to check the calendar, because they’re often closed for birthdays (which are extremely fun, by the way), but it’s worth the wait! There’s a place to dress up as a fireman, slide down a fire pole, play in a play house to learn how to escape a fire, and get inside the cab of a real life fire truck to save the day!

There is just nothing quite like the Bayou Wildlife Zoo…

Craziest transportation experience, animals included: Bayou Wildlife Zoo. Our family is still questioning what on earth happened at this place! It’s a blast riding the rickety tram, listening to the speech of the creative tram drivers, and dodging hungry camels as they try and grab a bit of food from your bucket. It’s definitely down-home, and definitely memorable.

Best cheap transportation experience that will actually get you somewhere: The METROrail. Whether you are headed to the ball game or just plain bored, the METROrail is where it’s at. Park anywhere along one of the lines, buy a ticket, and enjoy the ride. Sometimes we park far away to go somewhere along the line just so we can ride the train for a few stops!

We can’t even remember how many super cool trucks we sat in at Touch-a-Truck!

Coolest transportation-themed event: Bellaire Touch-a-Truck (once a year, in March). This is the OG touch-a-truck event in Houston. Just Google “touch a truck houston” and you’ll see what I mean. They’re all a ton of fun, but they really bring it at Evelyn’s Park! See every form of transportation you can imagine, climb all over them, talk to real firemen and truck drivers, and so much more!

Most Texan twist on transportation: Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo (3 weeks in March). You might not think of the Rodeo as a place for enjoying things that go, but think again. There are tons of tractors and trucks to check out, along with ponies to ride!

What did we miss? Do you have any transportation-themed favorites? Let us know in the comments!

Helpful Hints, The Great Outdoors

Discovering Nature in Houston with Kids, Inside the Loop

Most people think of Houston as a giant, sprawling concrete jungle. While those people may be right (ok, fine…), there are plenty of unexpected natural areas to explore with your kids inside the city limits – even inside the loop.

In later posts, we’ll cover some of the incredible natural spaces outside the city, including state parks. For now, let’s stay closer to home and see what our fair city has to offer!

Hike the trails, climb the trees, and find unexpected treasures at the Houston Arboretum!

Many native Houstonians have heard of the Houston Arboretum and Nature Center, but more often than not, it seems like most haven’t had the chance to check it out. Kids or no kids, it’s absolutely one of the best places in the city to get in touch with nature. It’s like you just stepped into the piney woods! If you do have a family, you can let your kids to run, climb, explore, and create wonderful memories. A few highlights of the Arboretum include:

  • Plenty of easy hikes filled with fun things to see. The newly-opened Ravine Trail is short, near the entrance, and has some nice elevation changes. The half-mile Inner Loop Trail is perfect for strollers, as it’s flat and wide without being boring. Check out the map on the website for more detailed trail info.
  • A phenomenal nature center. While it’s getting renovated as a part of the Arboretum’s Master Plan and will no doubt get even better, the old one is still a real gem. Go on a scavenger hunt, see fish, bugs, and other critters, and talk to the fantastic staff that are there to help your kids learn.
  • A place to find the unexpected. We got the chance to visit frequently in the morning before taking our oldest to summer camp (which is the best camp in the city if you kid likes the outdoors, by the way!). We found crazy looking flowers, turtles in the pond, a wayward skunk, tons of bugs and birds, and bees and butterflies in a beautiful garden. Taking your time and looking closely at your surroundings is well worth it!

Another wonderful gem in an unexpected spot is the Nature Discovery Center in Bellaire. I always regret that we don’t take photos when we go there, but we are way too busy having fun! It’s free, and there are indoor and outdoor areas to explore:

  • Russ Pitman Park is the outdoor area that allows you to experience different types of native Texas habitats. It’s sort of similar to the Arboretum in some ways (though a lot smaller), but here there is a big sand pit and a ton of natural play opportunities. Bring a change of clothes – it’s way worth getting dirty!
  • Discovery Rooms are inside the Nature Center, which is actually a cool old house, and you can’t miss them. Have fun putting on a play, seeing live animals, talking to the knowledgeable staff, checking out books, and just looking at all the cool treasures!

Both the Arboretum and Nature Discovery Center have frequent events for kids of all ages, so be sure to get on their email list. You can also become a member of both places to show your support and receive some really great benefits.

A less formal but equally awesome nature opportunity is West 11th Street Park in the Timbergrove area. It’s a densely forested patch of nature that offers a slice of wilderness literally in the middle of a neighborhood. There’s no play area, but there are some great trails and chances to spot wildlife and natural beauty!

Buffalo Bayou Park has a great nature play area right in the center of Houston.

Our final recommendation isn’t as natural as the ones above, but it’s a great trend to see happening for kids in Houston: the emergence of nature play areas. These are popping up all over the place. Instead of the typical plastic slide and play structure, several parks are using natural materials to give kids a more authentic nature experience.

If you want to check a couple of these nature play areas out, try Buffalo Bayou Park near the Sabine St Bridge and also Evelyn’s Park. The area at Evelyn’s Park is small, but it’s so much fun to climb up the tree stumps and go down the big hill slide – and of course play in the sand.

How do you and your kids experience nature in Houston? What would you recommend exploring next? Let us know in the comments below!

Food, The Great Outdoors

Ode to the Donut Picnic

What do you do when the kids wake you up at 5:45 on a Saturday morning and you can’t get back to sleep? You have a donut picnic!

To avoid the Houston heat and humidity (a normal thing after 9 a.m. most of the year), take advantage of those early morning kid wake ups and get outdoors. A few great reasons to do this in Houston:

  1. You beat all the traffic and the long lines at the donut shop
  2. The weather is pretty darn nice in the early morning, even in August
  3. You get first choice of all the best donuts
  4. Your kids get the sugar they crave AND get to run it off before they crash for nap time
  5. You make some great memories with your kids!

To make this happen, you need 2 things – donuts and a really good, kid-friendly park. If you’re not the biggest fan of donuts, any breakfast item will do! Here are some combos that have worked well for us (you can tell we do this a lot):

  • River Oaks Donuts and River Oaks Park – these two establishments are right across the street from each other. River Oaks Donuts gives you kids a cool crown (pictured above), and you can get some delicious coffee. They also have FILLED donut holes and really creative donut options! River Oaks Park is great for kids ages 5 and under – they have a Cinderella carriage and plenty of great age-appropriate play structures. It’s tucked away on a quiet street and there usually is plenty of street parking, especially early.
  • Shipley Do-nuts and Jaycee Park (or ANY park for that matter!) – you just can’t beat Shipley for warm glazed donuts…especially the one at 3410 Ella. Go through the drive through and make sure to order at least half a dozen of the glazed donuts, because they are always perfectly fresh and warm at that location. Don’t forget kolaches too, another Houston tradition! Jaycee Park is tucked away just outside of the Heights, not too far from the Shipley mentioned above, and it’s got everything you need for the perfect donut picnic for kids of any age: picnic tables, a playground for younger and older kids, and a big field for running after eating.
  • Kolache Shoppe and Levy Park – you’re right, these aren’t donuts, but these kolaches are pretty much the best thing ever and worth calling out. If you’re not from Houston and you don’t know what a kolache is, race over to the Kolache Shoppe immediately and grab at least a dozen! If you’re going to Levy Park, hit up the Greenway Plaza location (note: this Kolache Shoppe location is closed on Sundays). Levy Park is by far the most awesome park in Houston for so many reasons. You can spend hours here, and everyone in the family can enjoy it.
  • Hugs and Donuts and Donovan Park – The donuts at Hugs and Donuts are special and a lot of fun to both eat and pick out. Bring ’em over to the “train park” as Donovan Park is affectionately called, and you’ve got a home run!

Don’t forget to grab some juice and coffee as well to enjoy with your breakfast. We usually eat the donuts so fast we don’t need paper plates, but a few napkins will do in case you need to lay them down. Find a picnic table or nice spot on the grass at the park, and you’re in business!

A small note about cleanup – part of the fun is to let the kids get icing all over themselves, so make sure you’re armed with every parent’s secret weapon: WIPES.

As you can tell, we eat a lot of carbs and spend a lot of time outdoors. I guess it balances out…