The Great Outdoors

Hiking in Houston with Kids: Jesse H. Jones Nature Park

There are plenty of places in Houston to get outdoors with kids, from urban city parks to more wild, natural spaces inside the loop. If you’ve already conquered most of these and want an entirely new challenge for your family, Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center is a good step up from the city parks but still a reasonable drive from Houston. Before you go, make sure you pack water, snacks, and bug spray!

Located by Houston Intercontinental Airport about 30 mins from downtown, the park is nestled in a neighborhood but evokes more of a state park feel once you get in the gates. There are lots of trails and parking lots, so with kids in tow it’s helpful to have the inside scoop on which area is best. Here is the map, which we could only find on site:

Park at the orange dot, and take the Palmetto Trail up to the blue circled area, which is the Cypress Boardwalk Trail, for a really easy walk and a fun adventure!

When you enter the park, resist the temptation to park in the first lot. Instead, follow the road almost to the exit of the park. In the photo above, it’s the orange dot. That trail was definitely the most accessible and fun for kids. Other trails seem to be more for bikers near the park entrance, but bikers (and pets – take note!) are not allowed on the trails in the area we’ll talk about here.

Right in the parking lot is the entrance to the Palmetto Trail, which you’ll take to get to the blue circled area on the map above. It links up with the coolest trail in the park: the Cypress Boardwalk Trail. This is a meandering, elevated boardwalk through a swamp full of old, beautiful cypress trees. It’s completely shaded here, so even in the heat it’s not too bad. When we went there was no water in the swamp, but it was still really beautiful and interesting.

Part of the Cypress Boardwalk Trail at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center

If you have really little kids, like 1-3 years old, the Cypress Boardwalk Trail is an easy walk and may be plenty. There are plenty of interesting pathways to explore and some built-in benches on the boardwalks to rest and have a snack. There are so many neat things to see, including birds, squirrels, and insects. We even found a bay leaf tree and got to smell and taste a leaf, thanks to the signage!

If you have kids that are a little older, like 3.5 and up, you may want to kick it up a notch and try your hand at finding Spring Creek. There is a place called Spring Creek Beach that is just north of the Cypress Boardwalk Trail area. It’s not far, it just a little more rustic, going through less-traveled trails. But the payoff is great, especially for kids that like to dig in the sand!

We found this great digging area on the way to Spring Creek Beach – there is a trail just beyond this area that takes you to a nice beach and shallow creek area!

From the parking lot, here’s how you get there (weird directions, but it works):

  • Follow the Palmetto Trail to Cypress Boardwalk Trail just like above
  • Watch for the White Oak Trail sign, and follow that trail
  • Watch for the Spring Creek Beach sign and follow it
  • Go across the bridge, play in the sand and have fun for a few minutes, and consult your Google Maps satellite view – you’re so close!
  • There are several trails off this sandy area that take you to the very nearby river and sandy beach area (less than 1/4 mile) – just keep an eye on Google Maps and you’ll find your way.
The beautiful Spring Creek Beach is a great reward after a nice hike!

You will probably be really hungry after this hike – at least we were! The nearby city of Humble has a ton of food options, but most of them on 1960, the closest large road in the area, are fast food. If you want something more unique, try Humble City Cafe or Tin Roof BBQ.

We hope you have fun at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center – we’ll certainly be back to try the other trails, because there’s plenty to explore. We weren’t able to visit the Nature Center at the front of the park due to COVID, but that’s on our list too. If you visit, please leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Helpful Hints, The Great Outdoors

Memorial Park’s new Eastern Glades Is the Perfect Picnic and Play Spot for Kids!

Memorial Park is more than two times the size of New York City’s Central Park, but most of us know it by the running loop and not much else. We may see the golf course through the trees or the ball fields across Memorial Parkway, but it’s always seemed a little more for adults than kids. As of this month, that’s completely changed with the opening of the first phase of Memorial Park’s master plan, the Eastern Glades. We highly recommend packing a picnic (make it a donut picnic, because after about 9am it’s way too hot these days) and a frisbee and heading there as soon as you can!

About the Park’s Master Plan

There are so many good things to say about Memorial Park Conservancy’s thoughtful approach to master planning. They used the awful drought in 2011 as an opportunity to rethink the park’s ecology, history, and use, and their master plan is an exceptional result of this process. They are focused on making the park accessible to all Houstonians through different kinds of transit and to different kinds of people by providing places for families to gather and play.

Explore Memorial Park in a whole new way in the Eastern Glades by checking out these boardwalks that run through the forest, right by the lake!

Here are a few amazing additions coming to the park in the next few years:

  • Clay Family Eastern Glades: Just opened! This is what we’re talking about in our post today, and if it’s any indication of the quality and beauty of the rest of the plan, we’re sold.
  • Land Bridge and Prairie: Memorial Park is bisected by the giant that is Memorial Parkway, and this project creates a wide, green bridge to connect the two. Stroll over the bridge and you’ll get to explore a restored Gulf Coast prairie in all its glory.
  • Sports Complex: Opening this year, the sports complex brings all the sports fields in Memorial Park together in one area, freeing up space for things like the prairie restoration.
The new lake in the Eastern Glades is perfect for spotting tadpoles, relaxing nearby, or taking a walk.

Getting there and Parking

If you want to check out the Eastern Glades, here are a few key things to know about where to go and where to park:

  • Drive to the east side of the park: It would make sense that the Eastern Glades is on the eastern side of the park, but stating the obvious because it would be a long walk from anywhere else. Crestwood is the street you want to look for – you can get to Crestwood from Memorial Parkway or via Washington and driving through the neighborhood towards Memorial Park.
  • There are parking meters: It’s annoying sometimes to see these parking meters pop up in previously free spots, but just like the ones at the Arboretum, they serve an important purpose here. These meters pay for the operating costs of these incredible new park enhancements. 75% of parking in the park is still free and will be for a long time to come, and there is plenty of neighborhood parking close by.
  • Park on or around Crestwood St: We were able to park right on Crestwood at Blossom, which is the entrance to the Eastern Glades, and it was free on the street. We noticed that the neighborhood has a ton of free street parking, so that’s a great option. Let’s cross our fingers that everyone’s respectful when doing this so it doesn’t become a bunch of no parking zones!

Checking Out the Eastern Glades

Before going further, let us reemphasize the need to go early – like 7:30am – because it is beastly hot right now. You’ll have the space mostly to yourself: bonus!

The grass is probably the best feature of the park, and there are a lot of outstanding features. This is non-prickly, soft, AWESOME grass!

Here are the highlights of this incredible, 100-acre area:

  • Picnic lawn: There is a huge, circular lawn as you walk into this area of the park with super soft, bouncy grass that is so awesome you don’t even need a picnic blanket! The grass continues around groves of trees and provides shaded, green pathways for kids to explore.
  • Lake: The water in this lake is spectacularly clear, and there are new plantings right along the edge. We saw tons of tadpoles and baby frogs already getting settled! Walking around the lake is easy on the pathways and boardwalks, and it’s a nice way to get the lay of the land. There are also long, curved, stone benches that provide ample seating and a good climbing spot for kids.
  • Woodland boardwalks: As you walk around the lake, you’ll see some boardwalks leading straight into the woods – definitely check them out! You’ll end up right back at the lake, but it’s a chance to see the forest in all its glory. It’s neat that it’s not just a straight path – there are “ends” that encourage you to stop and enjoy.
  • Covered pavilions and picnic areas: There are no tables yet because of COVID, but there are three brand new pavilion structures with giant, built-in grills that will be fantastic to reserve, along with some private picnic areas. We also noticed some spots that would be perfect for future food trucks and farmer’s markets, so we’re crossing our fingers those will happen soon!
  • Audio Tour: Right now there are temporary signs encouraging you to do the audio tour – do it! You’ll learn some of the history and ecology of the Eastern Glades. We all enjoyed it as a family. It’s not long and it makes you really understand how magical this transformation is.
The covered pavilions have neat chalkboards outside each one! You can see the chimney from the grill on the right hand side.

We hope you will enjoy this area of the park as much as we did. We feel like Memorial Park is now finally a great spot for families, and we’re pretty excited about heading there more than once a month to play and relax.

Helpful Hints, The Great Outdoors, Travel

Road Tripping from Houston to Colorado with Kids: Southern Colorado

In the heat of summer, there’s really no better place than Colorado to escape the Houston heat. Previously, in this series, we talked about how we planned our road trip and how we started and ended it with Cadillac Ranch and Palo Duro Canyon. Next up, we finally get to Colorado and get a taste of the cooler weather and the mountains!

From Canyon, TX, after Cadillac Ranch, we headed northwest through Raton, New Mexico and up through Trinidad, the first major city in Colorado off I-25, the major artery in eastern Colorado. Trinidad is a historic little town worth driving around, and it’s the start of a really amazing scenic drive called the Highway of Legends. Because it’s just over 7 hours to Colorado Springs, we wanted to add a hike and a nice drive into the middle of the day to break it up. The nice thing about the Highway of Legends is that while it takes longer to do than going straight up I-25, the start and finish are both on I-25 so you can keep on trucking when you’re done. It was WAY worth the detour!

Stops on the Highway of Legends

  1. Trinidad Lake State Park: We actually did this one on the way back home, and it was HOT. There are a couple good trails for kids in this park, including Long Canyon on the south side of the lake and Levsa Canyon on the north side. Long Canyon is more wetlands and opportunity to see wildlife, and Levsa Canyon, takes you up for a nice view of the lake and a rocky but totally doable climb. It sort of reminded us of the TV show “Hey, Dude!” We liked it, but it would have been better in the morning or evening.
  2. Spanish Peaks: You get to drive right through and around this whole, beautiful mountain range, which even though it’s not the biggest, has a really amazing history and some very unique rock formations like the Dakota Wall that were new and interesting to us. It was cool and a little misty when we went through on our way up to Colorado Springs, and the drive was just gorgeous. And it gets chilly, even in the worst of summer!
  3. Lathrop State Park: This was probably the second best hike of the whole trip. Make sure to check if you need a reservation in advance – we did at the time we went, but it was easy to get online on the way there. One of the special features of the park is a “hogback,” which is a large, rocky outcropping that is a lot like a ridge. The aptly named Hogback Nature Loop Trail was a little challenging but totally doable with our 3 and 6 year old – we just had to hold hands and be careful on a few key parts! The views were spectacular and it was a great way to get in the hiking spirit.
Hogback Nature Loop Trail at Lathrop State Park – you get to go up in those cool rock outcroppings!

A Word About AllTrails

An invaluable resource if you plan on doing a lot of hiking, especially with kids, in Colorado is AllTrails. There’s a great website, and you’ll want the app on your phone for sure. There are just a couple important things to remember:

  1. If a trail says it’s “easy,” take it with a grain of salt. Easy is relative, and us Houstonians don’t get much elevation change beyond some stairs here and there. Easy can mean a paved trail, but it can also mean a rocky trail with scary drop offs and 650 ft elevation gain. Read the reviews and pay attention to the details! If you think you’re ready to dive into moderate-rated trails first thing, try a couple easy ones and just make sure first. I would consider our family relatively fit, up for adventure, and willing to try a challenge, but the easy trails were plenty for us!
  2. The names on AllTrails don’t always match the names in real life. You can record your own hike on AllTrails, and you can also name it what you want. Many of these hikes are in state and local parks that have their own names/trail maps, and we spent quite a bit of time matching up the AllTrails name to the official name to make sure we understood where we were and how to navigate.
  3. If a description mentions “highly trafficked,” it really is. Highly trafficked = super popular. If you’re trying to stay away from crowds, do these trails early, on rainy days, or find a different trail.

AllTrails is a hugely helpful resource to locate and narrow down the perfect hike for your family, but make an effort to read the reviews and double check the info with other resources.

Colorado Springs & Surrounding Area

After the long drive to CO Springs, we were ready to crash. We had booked an Airbnb in a residential neighborhood close to the US Olympic and Paralympic Training Center, and that worked great. We thought about booking closer to the Old Colorado City area, and we’re glad we did not do that, because it was more expensive and it really wouldn’t have mattered. Everything is so close, and we weren’t needing to be in a walkable area with restaurants, because it’s COVID and everything is takeout anyways. Manitou Springs was way too busy and touristy for us – it was too packed for comfort and as we drove through the traffic in the city center, we were glad we didn’t book there!

There are plenty of great breweries to visit in this town, along with some good food. Here were a few gems:

  • Beer to-go from Bristol Brewing Company: Located in a very cool place called the Ivywild School, the beer is delicious! There is food in the Ivywild School, but at the time we were there, it was closed.
  • Tacos from Dos Santos Tacos: This was the best to-go meal of the trip. Super easy to order online, and the family meal options were perfect for a family of 4. These are legit street tacos, y’all – and we are all picky because we’re Houstonians, right?
  • Food and cocktails to-go from Shuga’s: The cocktails were killer, but the kids’ bento was sort of weird. We should have ordered from the grownup menu because it was great!

There is absolutely no shortage of socially distanced things to do around Colorado Springs. We did visit Garden of the Gods and got really lucky because it was about to rain, so the place cleared out. We didn’t mind getting wet and we got the Siamese Twins Trail all to ourselves! Definitely do this early or when it’s overcast because it’s busy. Get a map at the gift shop. It was a good, easy, short hike.

Like everyone who visits CO Springs, we drove up to Pike’s Peak – going as soon as the park opened was a good call, as it wasn’t crowded. It was really cool driving up there, and you can send a family representative into the gift shop at the top to grab hot chocolate and donuts for everyone. The visitor’s center is a hot mess right now because basically the whole summit is under construction, so it’s not exactly a peaceful experience. The view’s great though, and who doesn’t want a donut from 14,000+ feet? During the time we were there you could drive all the way up, but as of the time of writing it appears that you must take a shuttle part of the way. I’m not sure we would have done the shuttle experience. Make sure to get your tickets in advance if you’re headed there regardless!

The most memorable trail was the absolutely breathtaking and a little challenging Mt. Cutler trail located in North Cheyenne Canon Park, where you can hike up to the top of the mountain. The trail is steady upwards but not overwhelming – our 3 year old was fine on most of it by himself. The trick is to HOLD HANDS with the ones you’re worried about falling off the edge, because there are many steep drop offs! Ours are risk takers, so each parent took a kid. It was well worth it at the top – you feel like you really accomplished something, and the view is amazing! Bring a special snack at the top to celebrate for sure.

The views were bananas off the Mt. Cutler trail! Bonus: there’s even a small stream at the trail head across the street to take your shoes off and play in when you’re tired!

Things we didn’t do but would next time:

  • Cheyenne Mountain Zoo: You need a reservation WAY in advance, so make sure you get tickets. You also get to see the Will Rogers Shrine of the Sun, so it’s a twofer!
  • Seven Falls: We actually saw the falls and bridges from Mt. Cutler, and it would have been cool to hike to them. It probably was packed, so that’s why it wasn’t at the top of our list.
  • MORE North Cheyenne Canon Park! It was not crowded and the views and hikes were perfect for our skill level!

Royal Gorge Bridge and Railroad

One day trip that was wonderful was the Royal Gorge. It’s over an hour from CO Springs, and it’s well worth it! A few tips:

  • You CANNOT walk over the bridge without paying to enter the park. It’s expensive! We sucked it up and paid the $70 bucks to walk over and back, which was cool but probably the free overlook in the parking lot would have been fine. It was fun to walk across, but we didn’t do any of the included attractions because we had a 12:30pm reservation for the railroad and it was not right next door.
  • There is a gondola that is included if you purchase a ticket to go across the bridge, and you can take that over and back, but the line gets LONG. Take it on the way there and walk back if you get there when it opens – otherwise the line is very unwieldy and you won’t want to walk all the way uphill and wait in like to take it back. It is super fun looking through the cracks between the wooden planks and finding your state flag on the bridge! We didn’t mind walking both ways!
  • The Royal Gorge Route Railroad was a great experience – plan a solid 20 mins by car to get there from the bridge + 5 mins of parking lot walking on both sides – and we were very glad we did it! There are many classes of service – just pick the cheapest one, because the way to travel is the open air car! You can order beer and wine and food in your seats and then walk to the beautiful open air car (standing room only) to enjoy the amazing views up to the bridge and through the canyon. The food isn’t great, but the beer flight included some good, local beers! We ate a packed lunch in the car on the way there so we only had a small snack.
The bottom is wayyyyyyyy down there if you look through the cracks in Royal Gorge Bridge!

Stay in Pueblo on the Way Back!

If you’re going more north than CO Springs and you are planning your long drive back at the end of your trip, the absolute best place to spend your last night in Colorado is Pueblo. South of Colorado Springs, you will have plenty of time to get a morning hike in prior to heading back to the TX Panhandle. It only took us a little over 5 hours from Pueblo to Canyon, TX, which was way better than the 9 it would have taken from Boulder (our first idea).

Looking for hikes close to Pueblo? Try the aforementioned Trinidad Lake State Park on your way out of town – it’s right on the way back. Or, if you want something even more memorable, venture into the Wet Mountains, about a 45 min drive west of Pueblo.

For our final leg of the journey and the blog series we’ll venture north from Colorado Springs to Boulder and the Rocky Mountain State Park area – coming soon!

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.

Now, plan the next leg of your trip from southern Colorado up to Colorado Springs, Royal Gorge, Pike’s Peak, and the surrounding area!

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!

Helpful Hints, The Great Outdoors

Geocaching: Free outdoor fun with kids in Houston!

A microcache we recently found – it’s a super small geocache often magnetically attached to something in the environment, like a sign or a metal pole.

What’s totally free, gets you outdoors, is fun for the whole family, is almost exactly like a treasure hunt, and can be done in Houston but also all over the world? Geocaching! This “sport” has been around over a dozen years, but don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it. We’ll tell you all you need to know to get started!

What is Geocaching?

When you geocache, you hunt for small containers hidden in the landscape by people that plant them in nooks and crannies just for you to find them. You find these containers using your phone, which takes you to the location, and then you use your treasure hunting skills (and sometimes a few hints) to find the exact place they are hidden. The kind folks that hide the containers do it just for fun – there’s no financial incentive, and the fun is to surprise and delight – and to see how many people can find it!

Geocaches abound all over Houston, so it’s the perfect thing to get your kids outdoors and in pursuit of a super fun goal.

How do I get started?

You’ll need a few key things if you want to have a successful geocaching experience:

  • Close-toed shoes, water, sunscreen, and bug spray: these caches are in the great outdoors, and sometimes they can be pretty hidden. You may find yourself in a forest, a field, in a neighborhood, or near a bayou – so make sure you’re really ready to explore!
  • The Geocaching app: this free app by company Groundspeak is available for iOS and Android. You will want to download the app on any phones that will be involved in the hunt. We made a family account so we can log all our finds on the same app, and we signed in on multiple phones. With a free account, you can access tons of easy and medium level geocaches. A paid, annual account gets you harder caches, but don’t do this until you get really good! There are plenty of free ones to choose from.
  • Your phone: You will need to access the app on your phone so you can choose a cache to find, navigate to it, see information about the cache, and record that you’ve found it, among other things. Don’t worry, you won’t be buried in your phone the whole time – it’s just a tool to help you get to your goal.
  • A pen: It’s fun to sign your name when you find a geocache, and most of them contain a list to do just that!
  • Small trinkets: The larger geocaches may have small toys or trinkets inside, so bring a few of your own so you can either contribute or swap them out. Good geocache etiquette requires that if you take something from a cache, you put something back in!
There is a list inside many geocaches so you can write your name and when you found it. It’s fascinating to see when it was last found. Some caches ask you to put where you’re from, and you’ll see people from all over the world that have found it!

Geocaching Lingo

Once you’ve got everything ready, you’ll need to know some geocaching vocabulary. This is an extremely popular hobby with a dedicated following, and like any specialized craft, there are plenty of new words to learn!

  • Geocache: this is the actual container you will find – “geo” because it’s located using GPS, and “cache” because the container has things inside it. Geocaches can be tiny (size of a kid’s finger) to the size of a shoebox, and anything in between. They are usually made of something very sturdy like metal or plastic, and many are magnetic because they are affixed to metal of some kind. There are also those hidden in the landscape under brush. Sometimes they are painted to camouflage with their surroundings. The goal is for the inside not to get wet, because there’s stuff in there!
  • Muggle: when you search for caches, it’s very important that innocent passersby not see you find it or place it back. These people are called muggles – if they do see you, they might get curious and take the cache or put it back in the wrong spot, which would ruin the fun for everyone. Watch for muggles and wait for them to pass!
  • DNF: In the racing world, this means “did not finish,” but in the geocaching world, it means “did not find.” When you try to locate a geocache but you just can’t find it, log a DNF in the app so others know it wasn’t found. Sometimes caches get moved or lost (remember muggles?), so this alerts others that it might not be there – or may be super hard to find.
  • TFTC (Thanks for the Cache!): You might see this abbreviation when you’re looking through the activity section on a cache – people write TFTC when they find a cache to to thank the person who originally hid it.
  • FTF (First to Find): This is the ultimate achievement in geocaching – being the “first to find” a geocache! They are being placed all the time, so you may very well get a FTF in your adventures.

How to Geocache with Kids

Pre-planning is key when geocaching with kids. It doesn’t take long, but you will increase your chances of success if you:

  1. Bring plenty of water and snacks: you don’t want to cut your adventure short because the kids are hungry or thirsty, so pack a bag like you’re doing some light hiking.
  2. Keep the explanation simple: Tell them they are going on an outdoor treasure hunt! They won’t get to keep the treasure unless you find a cache with trinkets, but it’s really rewarding and fun to find a geocache regardless.
  3. Find a spot with several geocaches: Sometimes caches are hard to find or not there anymore, so make sure to guarantee success and increase your odds. Great places in Houston include along the major bayous, larger thoroughfares (think Heights Blvd, Heights or Midtown Hike and Bike Trails), parks (Memorial Park and the Arboretum are great spots), and unique neighborhoods (Old Sixth Ward). The rule in placing caches is that it has to be free to enter so it’s accessible to everyone.
  4. Try, try again! Sure, it’s frustrating if you can’t find a cache, but keep hunting and you will be rewarded. On our last outing, we found 2 of the 4 we searched for. I’m pretty sure one was there and we missed it, and the other I think was legitimately missing. We have small kids so searching for a long time isn’t an option. Better to move on and get a quick win by finding a different one! You can always go back and try again another time.

We hope geocaching is as fun for your family is at is for ours. Hopefully we’ll see your name on a geocache around Houston soon!

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…