Astounded by Arches National Park

Arches National Park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks.  Arches is a great family park. The rock formations delight kids as well as adults, and many short hiking trails provide opportunities for everyone to get out of the car and explore the park’s features.  We had more time at Arches and thereby took advantage of every moment.

This is the eighth post in the – Homeschooling on the Road – marathon blogging series.

One of the highlights of our stay at Arches was the Ranger Program we attended in the evening, Archeoastronomy.  It was a fascinating talk on how the Native Americans utilized their study of the stars and planets to better understand their environment; when to plant and when to harvest. The ranger shared their stories and helped bring the stars to life.  We learned how Ursa Major changes over the course of a year and how cultures across North America tracked the movement of the sun.   Delightfully, our little man was eager to help out when called upon.

Arches National Park

Hikes We Enjoyed in Arches

We enjoyed many short hikes and two long hikes while we were in Arches National Park. Our favorites were the long hikes … the views were just astounding and the strenuous hike made it all the more memorable.  Walking along the fins was a surreal experience; it felt like we were walking on the spine of the continent.

Delicate Arch
Starting Point: Wolfe Ranch parking area
Length: 3 miles round trip
Open slick rock with some exposure to heights. The first half-mile is a wide, well-defined trail. Upon reaching the slickrock, follow the rock cairns. The trail climbs gradually and levels out toward the top of this rock face. Just before you get to Delicate Arch, the trail goes along a rock ledge for about 200 yards.

Double O Arch
Starting Point: Devils Garden Trailhead parking area
Length: 4 miles round trip
Beyond Landscape Arch, the trail becomes more challenging as it climbs over sandstone slabs; footing is rocky; there are narrow ledges with exposure to heights.

A hike out to Double O is not without caution.  We came upon several people who chose to turn back or had refused to go any farther, choosing rather to sit and wait for their party to return.

Arches National Park

Biological Soil Crust

One of the most fascinating ecological discoveries we made at Arches National Park was learning about the biological soil crust.  This dark, bumpy layer is a community of organisms (cyanobacteria, green algae, microfungi, mosses, liverworts and lichens) living at the surface of desert soils. These crusts hold sand grains together (preventing erosion), absorb water, give seeds a place to grow, and provide nutrients for plants (they fix nitrogen). Biological soil crust is very fragile. One footstep may destroy it. Since it lives everywhere, it is important to stay on trails and not “bust the crust” while at Arches. Biological crust grows in places throughout the world. See if you can find it where you live. 

Exploring Capitol Reef National Park & Canyonlands

Of all the national parks we visited last month, we spent the least amount of time in Capitol Reef and Canyonlands.  We just didn’t have the time and had to make a decision.  Each park was en route to our overnight destination and we thereby had time only to see the highlights and complete the Junior Ranger books.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef’s rich cultural history dates back to early hunters and gatherers and more recently Mormon pioneers who settled the area in the 1800s. Around 500 CE, Fremont Culture changed from food foraging groups, to farmers of corn, beans and squash. Petroglyphs etched in rock walls and painted pictographs remain as sacred remnants of the ancient Indians’ saga. Explorers, Mormon pioneers and others arrived in the 1800s, settling in what is now the Fruita Rural Historic District. They planted and nurtured orchards of apples, pears, and peaches.

If you visit Capitol Reef National Park and have the time, I would suggest checking out their Family Fun Backpack available at the visitor center.  The pack is full of pioneer games and tools to read a contour maps, identify night constellations, and improve your bird-watching skills. The Ripple Rock Nature Center is open in the summer months.  Here kids can explore spin wool, make cornmeal on a prehistoric grinding stone, and learn to identify fossils.

Our Highlights at Capitol Reef

  • Stopped at the visitor center and watched the park movie
  • Toured the the historic Gifford Homestead
  • Enjoyed a fresh baked fruit pie
  • Drove the Scenic Drive
  • Took the Junior Ranger pledge
  • Visited the petroglyph panel and historic schoolhouse

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park was impressive.  I think we were more in awe of the canyon here than we were of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  The pictures don’t even do it justice.  The park is divided into four districts by the Green and Colorado rivers: the Island in the Sky, the Maze, the Needles, and the rivers themselves.  Canyonlands National Park preserves one of the last, relatively undisturbed areas of the Colorado Plateau. Carved out of vast sedimentary rock deposits, this landscape of canyons, mesas, and deep river gorges possesses remarkable natural features that are part of a unique desert ecosystem.

As The Island in the Sky is the most accessible district, offering expansive views from many overlooks along the paved scenic drive, this was the only district we had time to explore.  The Needles District offers more of a backcountry experience, requiring some hiking or four-wheel driving to see the area’s attractions and The Maze is a remote district requiring considerably more time and self-reliance to visit.

Like Capitol Reef, Canyonlands National Park also provides families with the opportunity to borrow an Explorer Pack. These packs contain binoculars, a hand lens, a naturalist guide, a notebook and more.  In addition, the Canyon Country Outdoor Education program has developed numerous curriculum packages for grades 1-6.

Our Highlights at Canyonlands

  • Stopped at the visitor center and watched the park movie
  • Drove the Scenic Drive
  • Took the Junior Ranger pledge

Discovering Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon was a striking contrast to the landscape of Zion and Grand Canyon.  Famous for its unique geology, the erosional force of frost-wedging and the dissolving power of rainwater have shaped the colorful limestone rock of the Claron Formation into bizarre shapes, including slot canyons, windows, fins, and spires called hoodoos.  Our exploration of Bryce Canyon was highlighted by a moderately difficult hike into the canyon along the Navajo and Queens Combination Loop. I share our discovery of Bryce Canyon and how you can further explore this national resource from your home.

The loop begins at Sunset Point and goes down into Bryce Amphitheater through a slot canyon where large Douglas-fir trees are stretching to reach sunlight high above.  Inspired by Bryce Canyon’s “I Hiked the Hoodoos!” program, we engaged in a scavenger hunt along this hike in a quest for special benchmarks.  As avid letterboxers this adventure really appealed to us.  At each benchmark, the kids did a pencil rubbing of the benchmark in their junior ranger book.

Bryce Canyon National ParkThe Bryce Canyon National Park website provides a wealth of additional information for parents and teachers. The GeoDetective page provides several activities integrating earth history and physical earth science to encourage deductive and inductive reasoning through hands-on discovery learning.  Similar to the Junior Ranger program, the kids who complete the GeoDetective program are awarded with a special patch.  This is a huge motivator for my kids.  Teaching with Historic Places is one of a series of lessons that bring the important stories of historic places into the classrooms across the country. We are excited to further our understanding of Bryce as we work through many of these activities and lessons at home.

In addition to the science and history lessons in which we immerse ourselves, we always ask at the visitor’s center for a park newspaper or brochure in Chinese.  These informative guides are not always available in other languages at the smaller parks, but most of the larger parks have them. My kids enjoy highlighting the characters they know and learning characters for the names of the park and many scientific terms they wouldn’t otherwise learn in their foreign language studies.

 

Discovering Zion National Park

Of all the National Parks we’ve recently come to know, I would have to say Zion is one of my favorite.  It just seemed more accessible to us.   Zion is Utah’s first National Park and within the park boundaries, visitors can enjoy a multitude of hiking adventures suitable for all ages.

Follow the paths where ancient native people and pioneers walked. Gaze up at massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red that soar into a brilliant blue sky. Challenge your courage in a narrow slot canyon. Zion’s unique array of plants and animals will enchant you as you absorb the rich history of the past and enjoy the excitement of present day adventures.

We would have loved to hike the Narrows, but circumstances (most notably time and lack of advanced planning) prevented us this time around.  Instead, we enjoyed several shorter hikes including the Lower and Upper Emerald Pool Trails, Grotto Trail, Kayenta Trail, Weeping Rock Trail, and Riverside Walk.

IMG_8972We spent an entire day exploring the canyon and discovering Zion National Park more intimately. The weather was perfect and we had the chance to see many wildflowers in bloom and wildlife sightings – including a Mountain Goat!  As we had done at Death Valley and Grand Canyon, the kids enjoyed completing the activities in the Junior Ranger book while we rode on the bus and during intermittent breaks throughout the day.

Zion National ParkZion National Park features stunning scenery, sandstone cliffs among the highest in the world, diverse plant and animal communities, and Ancestral Puebloan, Paiute, and Mormon pioneer history. It’s a wonderful outdoor classroom for homeschoolers and school groups. In addition to the Junior Ranger program, the park has also developed several FREE curriculum materials, Zion National Park Curriculum Materials, to help educators bring their students to Zion, or alternatively, bring Zion into your home or classroom.  We look forward to exploring the geologic processes in more depth with the aide of the lessons and materials developed by the park. 

Ranger Programs at Grand Canyon National Park

When visiting our nation’s National Parks, we always try to take advantage of one or more ranger led program, depending upon the amount of time we have available. At the Grand Canyon, we were able to take part in a guided hike in search of fossils, an evening program and book signing, and a condor talk.  I share with you the highlights of the programs in which we took part.

Grand Canyon

Fossil Walk

We enjoyed a delightful presentation by a young ranger who began by describing to us the geological processes that formed the Grand Canyon. She was an excellent presenter and captivated even the youngest of listeners.  Sweetie was very engaged in the talk and was eager to take notes to write a blog post of her own.  I’ll allow her to summarize what we learned, Dude! Can You Identify the Layers of the Grand Canyon? fossils at grand canyon

Condor Talk

The condor talk took place along the rim trail just outside the Kolb Studio.  The ranger spoke about the plight of the California Condor, North America’s largest bird, that inhabits northern Arizona and southern Utah, coastal mountains of central and southern California, and northern Baja California.  He touched upon the variety of causes that have contributed to the condor’s decline and to the successful efforts that have brought this majestic species back from near extinction.   To our delight, just as the talk was wrapping up, three condors made their appearance, rising up from the valley, as if upon queue. Sadly, I wasn’t able to capture this moment with my camera but Sweetie was ecstatic.

Junior Ranger Program

In addition to the ranger programs, when traveling with children, we always seek out junior ranger opportunities. The Junior Ranger Programs are activities prepared especially for 5–12 year old visitors to the parks, providing activity books (which are generally free) that direct children to areas they might otherwise miss, or to things of special interest to the age group.  To earn the ranger badge, participants are encouraged to take part in a ranger program. After completing the specified amount of pages for the child’s age group, the participant is awarded a patch, badge and/or certificate unique for each park.

fossil walk

Have your children explored the Junior Ranger Programs? What park has been their favorite?  Did you know there are Web-Ranger opportunities as well?

Exploring Death Valley National Park

The first park we visited during our 10-day road trip was Death Valley National Park on the border of California and Nevada in the eastern foothills of the Sierra Mountains.   Death Valley is a land of extremes and we enjoyed the contrasts.  Exploring Death Valley National Park led us to discoveries of Salt Creek pupfish, the mineral borax, and the historical meaning of the 20-mule team.  Today, I share with you a few of our discoveries at Death Vally and describe a fun science experiment you can do with your kids to explore the chemistry of borax. Devils Golf Course

It was evident that despite desolate appearances, Death Valley is one of the most impressive areas for birdwatching in the National Park System. There are several factors that result in Death Valley’s long bird list. As one travels from the low valley desert, up the canyons, through the pinyon-juniper woodlands and onto the high boreal peaks, climate and vegetation changes are obvious. This wide diversity of habitat leads to a high diversity of bird species.

yellow-headed blackbirdOne of our first adventures in Death Valley was the Salt Creek Trail.  It was here that we were able to observe the yellow-headed black bird for the first time.  We were surprised by his lack of timidity for he was only a few feet away from us and hopped about the raised pathway as we took the time to take his photograph.

Another marvel we enjoyed along this trail was the opportunity to observe the endemic Salt Creek pupfish (Cryprinodon salinus salinus). The pupfish of Salt Creek have a difficult life, but it was not always so. Ancestors of the Salt Creek pupfish lived in streams flowing into a huge freshwater lake that filled the bottom of Death Valley more than 10,000 years ago. Lake Manly, as it is known today, was the end of a drainage system that at the time included water from as far west as the Sierra Nevada Mountains. As the climate became more arid over time, the Ice Age lakes and rivers dried up and the pupfish were stranded in permanent water holes scattered across the desert.

Salt Creek pupfishToday, those isolated ‘islands’ of water vary drastically from freshwater warm springs and marshes to Salt Creek’s seasonal briny stream.  To survive in the different habitats, the original pupfish species evolved into ten distinctly different species, each with their own shape, markings, habits, and survival strategies.   Sweetie drew a pupfish in her journal as a part of the Junior Ranger Program.  We mailed our completed books to the park ranger upon our return home, however, as our travel plans did not permit us to return to the visitor center that day.

I like to call these specimens ‘pupfish’ because they play like puppies. ~ Dr. Carl Hubbs, father of Western ichthyology

In addition to the ecology of the valley, early settlers to this region took advantage of the areas rich natural resources. Stories of gold strikes in the newly acquired territory of California had been published in an official notice to Congress in 1848, sparking the California Gold Rush, enticing more than 250,000 people to join the search for riches over the next four years.  Mining continued in Death Valley for 150 years.

20 mule teamCrude shelters and tents once dotted the dry, flat lake bottom. Here, workers refined borax by separating the mineral from unwanted mud and salts, a simple but time-consuming process.  For more than a century, the 20 Mule Team has been the symbol of the borax industry.  The status is well-earned; mule teams helped solve the most difficult task that faced Death Valley borax operators – getting the product to market.  The teams covered 165 miles of forbidding terrain, traveling south through Death Valley, out Wingate Pass, then across the desert to Mojave.

The term  borax is used to refer both to a mineral and to a refined compound. The mineral takes the form of colorless to white soft crystals, which can sometimes have hints of brown, yellow, or green. The substance is also known as sodium tetra-borate and it has been known to humans for thousands of years. The mineral is a chemical compound of the element boron, and the chemical formula is Na2B4O7*10H2O.  A fun activity to try at home is to grow borax crystals in much the same way as you would make rock candy (sugar crystals).  It would also be interesting to research how borax has been used historically and how uses of varied between cultures.

Growing Borax Crystals

Growing borax crystals can teach many different chemical concepts, such as a saturated solution and crystallization.  The basic instructions for growing crystals are show here.  Using this as your control, you may consider varying the solution (what you dissolve the borax into) to see how it affects crystal growth.  Perhaps humidity and ambient temperature play a role in the growth of crystals? 

Materials Needed

  • wide-mouth glass jar
  • a pipe cleaner
  • pencil or chop stick
  • string
  • hot water
  • borax laundry booster

Procedure

As you wait for the water to boil, bend a pipe cleaner into a desired shape (heart, star, circle, etc.).  Then tie a string around your pipe cleaner shape so that you can suspend it in your jar by tying the other end to a pencil or chop stick that will lie across the top of the jar.  Once the water is hot, fill the jar with it, measuring carefully to see how much water you use. For every cup of water, add three tablespoons of borax and stir well until it’s completely, or almost completely, dissolved. Suspend your pipe cleaner and leave overnight. Check it in the morning to see what grew.

Borax is a pretty common household substance and is thereby a great resource for different kinds of science projects. Borax is relatively safe and is very non-reactive, but it is toxic if swallowed, so it should not be used by very young children and it should not be used near food. It also can be irritating to skin and eyes, so you may wish to use regular household gloves when handling it and avoid getting it near your face.