In 2016, we launched our first Father’s Day camping trip, visiting an old favourite in Lake Placid, Meadowbrook campground. This year, we decided to venture further afield and visit a park that I had read was great but that we hadn’t had the occasion to visit. This trip even featured Heidi’s dad joining us and staying in his old scout tent that is older than I am.
Branbury State Park is located just outside of Middlebury, VT; one of countless interesting and beautiful Vermont towns that just seem to be everywhere.
The park is about a four and a half hour drive from Ottawa but we got to cover some interesting new territory so that was fine. We arrived without incident and looked forward to a beautiful weekend at the park. The park itself is split by the secondary road that passes through but we were high up on the hill in the site the furthest away from the road. We also had a beautiful waterfall in our backyard so road noise was not an issue at all.
In Middlebury, we enjoyed the Farmer’s Market and some of the sites in town; since school was out at the local college, things were pretty quiet and we had the run of the place. Like many towns in Vermont though, this place produces good food, good coffee and good beer!
The star of the weekend was truly the weather – we had gorgeous sunshine that allowed us to relax at the beach and do a couple of local hikes that were really fun.
This was another great Vermont park; I continue to find these so much more laid back than the Ontario Parks experience which can definitely seem a bit pre-packaged and higher strung. Since it is a bit out of the way, I don’t think that Branbury will make it onto our regular camping circuit but I would certainly like to return one day.
Although we were ‘staying around home’ for the holidays, way back in July or something I had spotted these interesting stand-alone cabins on AirBnb and felt I had to book them for some occasion. Since the prices didn’t seem to really change over Christmas, I thought they’d be a nice spot to ring in the new year and get out on the slopes at the same time. Although the downtime over the holidays was nice, after a while it seems like you’ve had the same conversation with family enough times, watched enough TV and definitely eaten enough.
We had a perfect day to drive up to Sutton after a half-day at work and arrived at about 4pm just as the ski hill was shutting down. We picked up the key to our Kabin and headed to the base of the ski hill where it was located. Some people were even just skiing home from the hill which made for a funny scene.
The Kabin was excellent – the ‘modular-type’ home was one of about eight that make up the community. It had everything we needed and obviously had made great use of space to create a cozy but spacious place for us to hang out. Before anything, the kids were anxious to hit the hot tub on the deck which was simply awesome. Each of the Kabins backs out on to a birch forest which is a nice touch of nature.
On our first day at Sutton, we put Noah in a lesson since he had never been on a snowboard before. Although his teachers (one teacher and one translator) focused a lot on slowing down and stopping, he really wasn’t too interested in doing much of that but seeing how fast he could get to the bottom of the hill.
We didn’t explore much of the mountain this year since we were skiing with the kids but it is a fantastic place for families who are just getting into skiing to go. For only $22, you can get a lift ticket for the ‘family zone’ which consists of a single chairlift that leads to about five or six runs that are all green-dots or blues. This was perfect for Ella who got on the chair for the first time and made her way down in fine fashion after I taught her the most elegant way to fall off the chair at the top.
Although it was relatively busy on New Year’s Eve, the resort was perfectly empty on New Year’s Day with the parking lot only about half-full. That, combined with about 10cm of snow that fell overnight made for a great day of snowboarding/skiing. On the second day on the hill, the kids continued to grow in confidence and Noah must have set some sort of record for the number of times he went up and down the magic carpet. Up the carpet, binding strapped, zip down the hill, binding off, back up the carpet….on repeat.
We tried to explore the town a bit, most things were shut down for the holiday so we will definitely need to go back since there seem to be some interesting microbreweries and restaurants. We had brought a large amount of food from home to cook in our chalet so that worked out really well. There was also a large IGA in town to stock up on any provisions.
Overall, this was a great spot to relax for three nights and break up our holiday for a bit. The wood stove and the hot tub were highlights as well as the fantastic weather on the hill.
For the second year in a row (see last year here) we spent our Labour Day weekend at Little River State Park just outside of Waterbury, VT. Once again, we had perfect weather for the weekend and it was such an awesome way to end off a summer of adventure before heading back to work and school.
After a summer of camping in the tent, we stepped up our level of luxury and rented one of the small, basic cabins that are available at the park. The kids enjoyed having their bikes at the park, hauling chopped wood back to the site from the woodlot and of course, relaxing in the hammock. Although we were in a different cabin this time, it was still adjacent to a huge cliff and for the third year in a row we managed not to lose any kids (or adults) off the edge.
We explored a bit further afield this time, taking in the farmer’s market in Montpelier, and travelling down the Mad River Valley for the first time. While trying out some new places, we revisited some of our favourites such as the Prohibition Pig and Green Mountain Coffee in Waterbury.
We also spent a morning at the Waterbury Flea Market which was plenty of fun and netted the kids a whole bunch of hockey and basketball cards from a friendly gentleman who just couldn’t help himself from giving them each more and more for the $1 they had to spend.
Our last full day of summer was definitely one of the most fun days I had all year. We awoke to a perfectly sunny day at our campground and after making breakfast at our site, we took off to explore the Mad River Valley, the area that runs south of Waterbury to the Sugarbush Ski Resort.
Vermont is famous for their ‘swimming holes’ that can be found all over the state – some of which are more legally accessible than others – and as we headed out, we scoped out a couple that might be fun. After that, we headed further south to the Warren Country Store, a general store that has been in business since 1839. I love these cool institutions that are scattered throughout the United States and the sheer amount of them that are located in the East is always amazing to me since in the west there are just not that many things that are more than 100 years old.
From Warren, we went north to the Lareau swimming hole, one of the most popular, and accessible swimming holes in the Valley. We spent hours here, jumping off the rocks once we had adjusted to the mountain water which while refreshing was still pretty crisp even at the beginning of September.
After an afternoon of sun and swimming we went across the highway to the American Flatbread Lareau Farm for a quintessential Vermont meal – all the ingredients from a small radius around the farm and a totally relaxed environment with a delicious meal included. Wandering around outside the restaurant with a craft beer, there were games to play, campfires going, a farm to explore and the beautiful backdrop of the mountains. Noah spent the entire meal in front of the wood-fired pizza oven watching the chef do his thing with the pizza peel. A giant ‘vermont creemee’ on the way back to the campsite was a perfect way to end the weekend.
The weekend was a wonderful end to a fantastic summer with the family – with lots of good food, time in the great outdoors and new adventures.
Remember last year’s trip to Achray Provincial Park? The one where we had perfect weather and an amazing weekend at this newfound (for us) gem?
I think it is fair to say that this year didn’t work out quite so well – although we were excited to snag our favourite site five months in advance (to the day, of course…) we arrived in the park at the end of a very dry, hot spell which had resulted in a couple of forest fires. As a result, a fire ban had just been put in place as we entered the park.
The real kicker was although we had a nice first evening, rain started to pour at about 9pm and really only let up for small stretches through the next two days. Although our tarp village made it bearable, the lack of a fire was noticed even more in the damp, cool weather. With no sign of the rain letting up, we were happy to pack it in a day early and head back to Ottawa.
Admittedly, Achray was a bit of a dud this year but we will certainly try and make it back next year, hopefully with a bit better luck with the weather.
From there, we headed to a place that few do – but a spot that had really captured my imagination in Val Marie, SK and Grasslands National Park. This National Park, only founded in 1981, is one of the least-visited national parks in Canada with just over 10,000 visitors annually. The reasons why aren’t hard to figure out – it is tucked away in southwestern Saskatchewan on the U.S. border and admittedly it is harder to sell people on the idea of viewing prairie rather than mountains. However, to me, the scenery was equally as beautiful and since one of the ideas of this trip was to show the kids the multitude of landscapes that make up this country, it fit the bill perfectly.
After enjoying the tranquility of Grasslands, it was time to cover some ground if we were ever going to get home. We took off the next morning and after a twenty minute conversation with the Homeland Security border guards where I thought they might invite us in for lunch because they were so bored and lonely at their remote outpost, we cut through rural Montana and entered North Dakota.
While flying across Highway 2 to Minot, another one of those funny road trip moments happened that you end up remembering as much as the trip itself. All along this stretch there were roadrunners along the highway and they would typically zip into the ditch as we approached. However, there was one guy who made a bad decision and zigged when he should have zagged and he hit the front of the van full-on. After bouncing off the bumper, and then the windshield he catapulted high above the van and I could see his bowling ball of a body land in my rear-view mirror as I tried to process what had happened. As I got out to check the van I was happy to see that there was no damage beyond the roadrunner legs stuck in our front grille and the giant streak of red blood that extended from the front of the hood to the top of the windshield that would stay there the rest of the trip. For the rest of the trip, the kids could not stop talking about this and Noah would check at each stop whether the legs were still hanging out the front of the car.
Our time in Minot and through northern Minnesota was fairly uneventful – we stayed at a beautiful campground about an hour out of Minneapolis but our next stop in Wausau, Wisconsin also proved to be exciting for the kids. We have never taken on one of the Great Wolf Lodge waterpark hotels but when looking for hotels in appropriate places, a smaller version had popped up in Wausau that seemed as good as anything else so we gave it a shot. The kids had an absolute blast from the time we got there in the waterpark – playing for hours and Ella surprising me with her bravery going down every one of the slides.
Downtown Wausau also proved to be a pleasant surprise as we had a great meal at the locally-famous Mint Cafe.
While in Wausau, I realized that Green Bay was only about a half-hour detour from our route the next day as we planned to get back into Canada to spend the night in Sault-Ste-Marie. The chance to visit Lambeau Field proved too great a draw and we spent a good part of the day in Green Bay taking a tour of the field and eating at famed fast-food restaurant Culver’s. (the In n’ Out of the Midwest!) It turned out that we were also there for the first day of training camp which added to the excitement and the crowds.
Although we had hoped to camp one more night on our trip, we could not find anywhere to stay through northern Michigan and so we landed back in the Soo before our drive home. From the Soo, it was familiar territory until we pulled into our driveway just short of 9000km travelled and with some great memories of a very special vacation.
After ten days in Alberta, we may not have been quite ready to hit the road again but it was time to get going and our first day took us through Drumheller, one of the kids’ favourite spots in Alberta. There is nothing quite like this area of Alberta that I have seen anywhere else in the country. The hoodoos and landscape are amazing but it did provide an auspicious start to our drive home.
Although we didn’t do the Royal Tyrell Museum this time I would recommend it to anyone who is visiting Calgary or able to make the drive out. We did however make time to visit ‘The World’s Largest Dinosaur’ and walked up the admittedly wobbly steps to the top to take in the view from his mouth. We also stopped at the hoodoos east of Drumheller which are really one of the coolest things to see in Canada. It is hard to imagine sometimes that this landscape is less than a three hour drive from the mountains we had stayed in the week before that are so lush.
Out first night on the road, we stayed in Dinosaur Provincial Park. This is a place I had wanted to stay for quite some time – it has the highest concentration of fossils anywhere in the world – and the valley is fascinating.
However, I think it is safe to say that despite the uniqueness of the area, this night of camping was a bit of a disaster. When we arrived, it was scorching, about thirty degrees with no escape from the sun because of minimal tree cover in the campground. The sites in the campground are really close together, especially compared to some of the other excellent sites we had in other areas. We ended up boxed in, with an arguing couple on one side who ran their air conditioner all night. The second thing was the bugs – we had experienced basically no bugs the whole trip but this place made up for it. They were INSANE – the size of small sparrows and everywhere. After doing the self-guided fossil tour which got us out into the valley to explore, we hunkered down in the tent to avoid these mosquitoes.
Typically, this area of the country is pretty dry – the landscape is essentially a desert with farmers relying on irrigation for crops. However, at some point in the night it started to rain, and this rain turned into a crazy thunderstorm although there had been no indications that one would start. It sounded like it was right on top of us and we escaped to the car. At that point, we realized that being in the river valley, all of this rain was coming down towards us and the dry creekbed behind us that had been about eight feet deep when we arrived now filling up rapidly. I am no expert on flash floods but I guess this is how they happen!
We drove from our campsite to the washrooms to try and escape the downpour, only to find a river flowing in front of the entrance that prevented us from entering. We were not the only people to abandon our campsite because although it was four in the morning, about a half-dozen of us were sitting in our cars in the main lot. It is hard to describe how much water was coming down but a river had essentially taken over the parking lot and I remember having the thought at a certain point that the road out of the valley was going to get washed out and we’d be stuck. The scene was so chaotic that I would have loved to grab some pictures but it was so dark except for the lightning strikes that there was no way to do so.
Eventually, after about an hour in the car, the rain started to ease and we ventured back to our campsite. The creek had now overrun its banks and it became clear that our campsite was in much better shape than some of the others that were drowning in water. We had the thought to try and grab another hour of sleep but as soon as we got in the tent, another couple of sharp cracks of thunder hit and we abandoned that idea. After throwing all the wet gear in the roofbox, we were out of the campground before sunrise and desperately seeking coffee. That marked the end of our Dinosaur Provincial Park experience.
In summary, what a beautiful and unique area of the country but I am pretty sure we will not seek this place out again after that experience. Regardless, even with the craziness and overall miserable nature of the night, I am sure it is also one that our family won’t forget that we spent together – and that’s one of the things that makes family vacations so great.
When growing up in Alberta, it was easy to take the Rocky Mountains for granted. They are always there, they aren’t going anywhere, and as a kid it was easy to downplay their sheer magnitude and beauty as we would drive through a couple of times a year on our way to Victoria or another destination. Moving out East, unless people have been, there is a general sense that the Rockies must be pretty impressive but that they can’t be too much different than the ‘mountains’ out here.
I was reminded this summer of how false that is and how truly amazing the Rocky Mountains are. As part of our prolonged driving trip, we tacked on three days to do a loop through Banff and up highway 93 toward Jasper. For sheer scenery, I would put this up against anywhere. The fact we had beautiful weather to enjoy it made it even better.
Banff, and the Rockies, is all about being outdoors so camping is the ideal way to visit. It is also much, much cheaper than the overpriced accommodation that abounds in the summer. We were very fortunate to score a beautiful site in the Two Jack Lakeside campground that is run by Parks Canada. This is a relatively small campsite that is located about 10 minutes outside of Banff. Booking for these sites starts in January for the whole summer and we were lucky to find a cancellation that allowed us to stay. For reference, we stayed on site #8 and if you do have the luxury of being picky, I would suggest staying on that side of the campground as sites have a bit more privacy and are located a little further apart.
As we checked in to our site, we were provide of warnings of both bears and wolves in the area. Although a bear warning is pretty standard in the Rockies, I think this is the first time I have stayed in a campsite that was having a problem with wolves. Although we had no issues, the campground was subsequently shut down to tent campers about a week after we left because of persistent problems with one wolf.
We enjoyed our location on our first afternoon, hiking around Two Jack Lake and relaxing at our fire while a bunch of deer filled in behind our site.
The next morning, we headed into Banff and although it is a pretty touristy, there were still many things we wanted to show the kids that I had experienced as a kid myself. We did a loop around the golf course before visiting the famous Banff Springs Hotel and having a picnic lunch on the grounds there. In the afternoon, we visited the Cave and Basin Historic Site and wandered some of the shops of the main street before heading up to the Banff Upper Hot Springs to relax in the warming, mineral-rich waters. For dinner, we visited a Banff institution, the Grizzly House Fondue Restaurant. This place has not changed since I visited as a child, and probably since many years before that but it was great and lots of fun.
On our third day, we had to pack up our gear and head for home, or my parent’s place at least, but we chose to do so via Highway 93 which runs north towards Jasper. This highway is amazing with beautiful views everywhere you look. After a great roadside picnic lunch, we were greeted by a black bear in the ditch – who was in turn greeted by crazy tourists that were trying to take a selfie with it. Although that aspect does seem a bit like a theme park, there is still something really cool about spotting a bear in their natural habitat.
Exploring the campground
Cave and Basin
Our quick trip to Banff and the Rockies reminded me of how much I miss it, and will certainly ensure that we concentrate on making the effort to get there more often.
a work in progress – our adventures here and there