Gulf Coast, part 1: Mississippi & Alabama

Leaving New Orleans, our next destination was Daytona Beach, FL. But since that trip was over 9 hours of driving time, we broke it up and made a couple of overnight stops along the Gulf Coast.

We didn’t spend much time in Mississippi, essentially just driving across the southern tip of it. But the Mississippi highlight was this exit marker off of I-10.

When I was a kid, my dad traveled often for work. I always asked where he was going when he left for trips, and often the answers were strange words like “Chattanooga” and “Pascagoula”. I naturally assumed he was teasing me and making up silly words. These couldn’t be real places. Imagine my surprise when I got a little older and found them on a map. Those are real places?! As a teenager I had the chance to visit Chattanooga, fully verifying its existence. And on November 8, 2012, though we didn’t take the time to visit, this road sign fully verified Pascagoula. Silly, maybe, but worth a photo.

IMG_3178 croppedIt’s blurry, but it counts!
Also, Cracker Barrel. Ubiquitous.

We stopped for our first overnight at Hilltop RV Park in Robertsdale AL. While we respectfully thank the hosts for the unique experiences we had staying there, we would not choose to return. Here’s a campground review:

Hilltop RV Park
Price: $25/night, after some discussion at check-in about whether we had to pay for the kids or not.
Location: Not so close to anything, as far as we could tell. It’s not far from the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida border, in the southern tip of Alabama.
Facilities: Adequate bathroom/shower building. There was also a common room/kitchen area, but we never used it.
Site-description: Grass sites with small trees and new-looking picnic tables
Neighborhood: Snowbirds. Somewhat exclusively, already in early November. The RV park markets itself to retired couples who want to spend the winter in a more moderate climate but who perhaps can’t afford to winter in Florida. Hence the pricing confusion over the kids. They don’t have a policy forbidding children, but they were obviously not used to having them.
Website: http://www.hilltoprvpark.com/
Comments: Of all the nights we spent in different campgrounds around the whole country, this one is the only one that refused to check us in under my name, because I’m a woman. Since Staffan was usually driving, it was usually easiest for me to register us when we first arrived. Apparently the registration needed to be in my husband’s name, and I needed to show his driver’s license as well as my own, to verify that we are married.
There were a few other things that made this RV park a bit quirky. They may be very well-suited to their niche, but family travelers may want to find another option. It was an okay place to spend the night, but we were happy to get back on the road in the morning.

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Son of a gun, gonna have big fun (on the bayou)

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Full confession: the title of this post comes from a line of a song in the movie Steel Magnolias. It’s been a number of years since I’ve seen it, but I think they dance to it in the wedding reception scene. For some reason, this song I barely know pops into my head every time I hear the word bayou. So now you know.

It seems that every time we spend time checking out a new city, however much we enjoy it and find lots of interesting things to see and do, we find ourselves itching to get back out to nature. Our visit to New Orleans was no exception. After spending a day touring the city, although there were many sights still left to see, we decided to take our second day in New Orleans to go to the other national park in NOLA, a bit outside the center city. So we made our way to Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve and chose to hike the Bayou Coquille trail.

It’s striking how many different types of environments we had already explored in different parts of the United States, and yet the bayou area added yet another. We hoped to be able to see an alligator in the wild (at a safe distance of course), but November isn’t really the ideal month for alligators and we didn’t get to see any.

We had a great day exploring beautiful nature, and a picnic lunch in the sunshine. Because of the nature of the bayou, a bayou trail is mostly boardwalk. So it was a relatively easy walk. Most of it would have been accessible with the stroller, but carrying Peter in the backpack made it easier to go over bridges and up and down stairs.

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Trailhead, Bayou Coquille trail

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Plant life so dense you can’t even tell that’s water and not land

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Trying out the macro setting… I was pretty pleased with this one

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My favorite people in a beautiful place!

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We would recommend a visit to Jean Lafitte National Park to anyone visiting New Orleans. No visit to NOLA would be complete without experiencing this unique landscape that forms the foundation for much of New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s culture.

Info: http://www.nps.gov/jela/index.htm 

N’awlins

New Orleans is a city unlike any other we’ve been to, with a culture all its own. Since you could argue that this culture is built around alcohol and music, then for our purposes the music was in focus.

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We took a walking tour of the French Quarter and enjoyed beautiful architecture and waterfront views. We walked through an outdoor market and went to the Jazz National Historic Park (and stamped our national park passports, of course!)

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Beautiful characteristic wrought iron features and lots of flowering plants on porches and balconies.

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Because it’s famous, not because it was really our scene.
It was mostly deserted during the day anyway.

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Miraculously she did not fall in the fountain.
But the temptation to touch the water was just irresistible.

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Still plenty of riverboats to be seen. Makes me think of Mark Twain.

But New Orleans is above all a musical city. We went to a free concert that was indoors, complete with a stage and seats for the audience.

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Don’t ask me who this was… I’m not sure we even knew at the time.
He told stories and sang original songs.

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Attentive audience

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Captive audience (literally)

And we found less formal performances, like this one on a street corner where we found some curb seating.

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The band name: The Drunken Catfish Ramblers, written on a piece of cardboard.
It doesn’t get much more New Orleans than that!

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Not just any curb seating… under construction curb seating.
After all the walking it was just nice to sit down! And yes, my daughter is barefoot. In the middle of a city. What’s your point?

And a slightly different style down by the waterfront where we stood up to enjoy the performance (well most of us, anyway).

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During our visit to New Orleans we stayed 2 nights at the West New Orleans KOA campground.

Campground Review: West New Orleans KOA
Price: $78 for 2 nights
Location: Convenient to the most popular New Orleans tourist areas, but far enough away to be dark and quiet at night.
Facilities: perfectly adequate but nothing special
Site-description: grass/gravel, well shaded with plenty of trees. Sites are a little close together.
Neighborhood: A good variety of guests, from families to retired couples, camping with tents, pop-ups and larger RVs.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/new-orleans/
Comments: Shuttles are offered to and from the French Quarter, and public transportation is also an option. We chose to drive ourselves, mostly because of complications with car seats and for the sake of flexibility, so we can’t comment on this service. But as in most cities, parking downtown can be expensive and hard to find, so it might be a great option.

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First Birthday on the Road!

Peter had his first birthday during our stay in Houston. Despite the amazing experiences we were having as a family, I’d be lying if I said my mom guilt didn’t kick in over not being able to give him a first birthday party surrounded by grandparents and other family. Mom guilt is a tricky, dangerous thing.

Our friends really stepped up and helped us make it a fun birthday. We had cupcakes and ice cream, and of course there were presents. He seemed to have a good time, though naturally he didn’t really understand what was going on. New toys, cake and ice cream, and a bit of extra attention… it’s a winning combination. He’ll never remember it, but someday he can look back at pictures and know he was loved and celebrated. And that’s what really matters.

Enjoy some pictures of the festivities!

Bday-Peter & Big Monkey

The guest of honor, not willing to be separated from Diana’s giant sock monkey

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Here come the cupcakes!

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Mesmerized by the flame, clearly with no idea why his food was on fire.

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Emelie got to blow out the rest of the candles.

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A careful little taste at first…

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Then a handful of icing…

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Not loving the feeling of icing between his fingers, he tried a hands-free approach…

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And seemed to decide that this was the best way to eat a cupcake.

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Big sister likes cupcakes too!

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Time for presents!

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Yay! A ball!

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And a fire truck!

IMG_2979And our friends got him his own little sock monkey friend to take with him!

Thanks Diana, Micke, and Nancy for helping us give our little guy a special day! Once again you were a second family for us. Thanks for loving our kids so well!

Uh… Houston?

We have a problem. With the camper. But we already talked about that.

But really, does anyone ever talk about Houston without pretending to be on a NASA mission? I guess maybe if you live there. I’ll do my best to avoid any further astronaut references.

Houston was another non-negotiable stop on our route. Three good friends live there (2 of them married to each other) who used to live in Sweden. We all worked for Young Life together, and it’s the kind of work where your co-workers are the people you share life with. They become like family. These members of the family moved back to Texas a few years ago and we missed them. It was a joy to once again be invited into their homes and to pick up right where we left off.

This was another stop that was focused more on being with people than seeing a lot of sights. There were conversations late into the night, a trip to an amazing Tex-Mex restaurant, and silliness at Target. Wonderful days, but not too much to blog about.

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Nancy and Diana with Peter outside the restaurant

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Micke ordered a truly terrifying drink… like a beer margarita? Only in Texas.

Peter & TheEnchiladas

This one’s called “Peter and the Enchiladas”. Photo credit: Micke Goteman

TexMex-Lindströms

And this one’s called “TexMex Lindstroms”. Also by Micke

The Target AvengersBeware the Target Avengers!

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I wish our stores at home had shopping carts like this!

SpiderWoman & Lizzard Dude

More fun in the toy aisle. Peter’s not quite sure what to make of these two. 

We also had the chance to go to church together at an outdoor church that focuses on outreach to the homeless community. The group worships together in a park, and afterward there are opportunities for those who need to to take clothes and other basic necessities that have been donated. They then share a meal together – not like a soup kitchen where the “haves” serve the “have nots” but rather sitting side by side and breaking bread together. It’s a beautiful ministry and it was a joy to join their community for a few hours.

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The congregation gathered, with bins of donated clothing & essentials on the side. 

EmelieFountain1Enjoying the fountain during worship. An added advantage to church in the park!

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Thank you to Micke for these beautiful pictures!

We slept inside a house for the first time since Orange County CA, and tried to make arrangements to get the camper fixed. After calling around to a few RV places, only one called us back. The estimated cost seemed unreasonable and the wait time would make it impossible to get back to Philadelphia by Thanksgiving. We decided that the 2×2 solution had worked well enough for a few nights. We would just finish the trip without repairing the camper. Nothing like a little added adventure!

Remember the Alamo!

The problem is I didn’t. Remember the Alamo, that is. I remembered that we’re supposed to remember the Alamo, but I couldn’t remember why. As we crossed Texas, we spent a night at the San Antonio KOA and decided to spend part of the day checking out the Alamo before heading on to Houston.

In between the time of our visit and when I’m actually writing this, I’ll admit that I’ve forgotten most of it again. I’ve had to “ask Mr. Google” for help with some of the details in order to be able to write a good post. Maybe the reason they have to tell everyone to “Remember the Alamo” is because otherwise it seems to be somewhat forgettable. Or maybe it’s just me. I’ve heard that one shouldn’t mess with Texas, and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.

There is certainly an appeal in the “heroic struggle against impossible odds” (as the official website thealamo.org puts it) and I can appreciate the sacrifice of people laying down their lives for something they believe in. I suppose as a non-Texan, it’s hard for me to understand the importance of a “Shrine of Texas Liberty” when Texas was independent for a relatively short time (9 years) before joining the United States, where it’s been a part of the Union for about 170 years now (thanks Mr. Google). My impressions from watching the video in the visitor center and touring the area is that it was a tragic loss of life by some passionate and potentially influential young men (including the legendary David Crockett), cause by some poor decisions, bad strategy and with perhaps just a bit of arrogance and pride added to the mix. I confess myself unimpressed by the Alamo, and I don’t know that I would recommend anyone to go out of their way to visit.

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The old Spanish mission buildings have pretty architecture

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Inside the “Shrine” area

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This tree may be the coolest part of the whole place!

It’s free to visit, though parking in the area is neither free nor readily available. The environment is an interesting contrast, as on the one hand there are strict rules for treating the area and its facilities as a Shrine. On the other hand, there is quite a commercial and over-developed gift shop, and the line to get in is slowed down by requiring everyone to pose for photos on the way in so that they can offer you a wide range of personalized souvenir options on the way out. Out of respect for the fallen heroes? Although the profits from the gift shop sales help keep it free to visit so it’s not all bad. Perhaps I’m just being cynical, but our visit to the Alamo didn’t exactly move and inspire us.

Our stay at the San Antonio KOA, however, was much less disappointing. Here’s a review:

Campground Review: San Antonio KOA
Price: $30/night
Location: located only about 5 miles from the Alamo and other downtown attractions, and convenient to I-35, this campground has a great location
Facilities: lots of facilities for the money, although we didn’t stay long enough to take advantage of most of them. One particularly nice feature is that the campground is adjacent to a paved walking/biking trail the follows a creek. I took a very nice little twilight jog after the kids were asleep. Bathroom facilities were modern and well-maintained.
Site-description: Grassy sites, well-shaded.
Neighborhood: Lots of kids, including school groups and scout troops at the time we were there. It’s definitely a family-friendly campground.
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/san-antonio/
Comments: We were pleasantly surprised by the natural surroundings considering how centrally located it is in a city. Just be aware that all those beautiful trees, grass, and creek areas are also home to quite a number of 6-legged friends, so plan accordingly.

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Problems in Fort Stockton

Texas is big. That may seem obvious, and we knew that but it wasn’t until we decided to cross it that we understood it from experience. To go from visiting our friends in El Paso to visiting our friends in Houston, given our self-imposed 4 hour per day driving limit, was going to take several days.

So why did we stay in Fort Stockton? Well, we looked at our route from El Paso to Houston, then looked at what was about 4 hours away from El Paso along that route. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. So we thought about stretching the day a little longer but there was continued nothingness. Fort Stockton is right along I-10 and is the only dot on Google maps between El Paso and San Antonio. Decision made.

Our stop in Fort Stockton would have been just a campground review (we’ll get to that) if not for a little extra excitement that came as we set up Home Sweet Pop-up for the night. A cable in the mechanism that allows us to raise the roof (and holds it up once we’ve raised it) snapped. One of the corners couldn’t be raised with the hand crank and couldn’t support it’s own weight. Poor Staffan spent the whole evening working on trying to fix it but lacked the proper tools and equipment to do so. Eventually we solved it by Staffan lifting the disabled corner while I cranked up the other 3. When they were at full height, we supported the corner with a 2×2 that Staffan had cut to just the right height. It would get us through a night or two until we could get to Houston, where we could sleep in our friend’s guest room and try to get the pop-up repaired.

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Trusting that 2×2 to keep the roof from crashing down on our heads

In the meantime, as Staffan was working hard to make sure we had someplace to sleep, the kids and I ate dinner at the on-site “restaurant”. The food was okay, but the whole place had more of a church fellowship hall kind of ambiance and didn’t feel much like a restaurant. We were thankful for it, though, because we couldn’t cook in the camper while it was being worked on.

Our visit to Fort Stockton was thus mostly stressful, but we got to see more of the town than we would have otherwise as we drove around looking for what we needed to fix the camper.

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Princess Emelie reads a book for her little brother in the Fort Stockton sunshine

While in Fort Stockton, we stayed at the Fort Stockton RV Park. Here’s our review:
Price: $24/night
Location: convenient to I-10, and if you’re heading east, pretty much your last option for many, many miles
Facilities: adequate, but most things could use a little freshening up and modernizing
Site-description: gravel/dirt/grass with small trees that provide a little bit of shade
Neighborhood: We didn’t see any other families. It doesn’t seem designed for long-term stays, but for most it’s probably a place to stop and sleep on the way to somewhere else.
Website: http://www.ftstocktonrv.com/
Comments: The office is connected to the restaurant and has strange open times. This was inconvenient for us because we needed local help finding stores to get what we needed, and also because Peter left his favorite car in the restaurant when we ate dinner. He had just gotten it as a present in El Paso but he loved it. When we missed it, they were already closed for the night, and weren’t open in the morning until almost lunch time. We had lots of desert to cross so waiting wasn’t an option and we were forced to leave it behind. I hope another child got to enjoy it while waiting for his or her dinner!

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Campsite photo

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I would not plan to use the picnic tables unless they’ve replaced them. They seem to be made from unfinished plywood, weathered so that the plies are separating, held together but a rusty metal frame. Splinters with a side of tetanus? No thanks.

Trick-or-Treat!

The first real American Halloween for our kids! It was such perfect timing that we were staying with our friends, so we were in a family-friendly neighborhood and had another family to go trick-or-treating with! What a fun night!

The hardest part for our little princess was deciding which princess costume to choose. No surprise, Cinderella won in the end. Since we correctly assumed that Peter would fall asleep after only a short time, he got to wear adorable pumpkin pajamas for his costume.

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So we gathered all 6 kids, took some pictures and then we were off.

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Our rookie trick-or-treaters got a few lessons and tips from the veterans and soon got the hang of ringing the doorbell, saying trick-or-treat, receiving their candy, and (usually) remembering to say thank you.

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A few houses were a little too well decorated, though, and when there were flashing lights, spooky sounds, or any kind of smoke machine, the candy just didn’t seem worth the risk. “It’s okay, mamma, I already have some candy in my bucket.” On those occasions, the pappas went along for a little extra security.

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Peter didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about and dozed peacefully in the stroller for much of the evening. When it started to get a little too late, and a little too dark, we went back to the house and helped hand out candy to the older kids who were still out and about. Eventually, Cinderella’s magical night had to end (though thankfully earlier than midnight) and it was off to bed imagining what costume she would choose next Halloween. Who knows when the opportunity to go trick-or-treating will come again, but when it does, she’ll be ready.

IMG_2925Sampling the fruits of her labors with a mouth about as blue as her dress

 

Old El Paso

Southbound again to another border town. El Paso is very rarely on recommended road trip lists and responses when we included it in our itinerary ranged from confusion to fear for our safety. No one shared tips for things to be sure to see, but we got a few suggestions of places to avoid. Admittedly, El Paso would probably never have made our list if not for a big claim on our hearts: friends. Good friends. The college-roommate-in-each-other’s-weddings-fly-to-Korea-to-visit kind of friends. Through an unfortunate combination of army stationings (probably not a real word) and international missions, we went from sharing a room to rarely living on the same continent for years and years. Our road trip route passing through El Paso was not optional.

That being said, I can’t think of a single “sight” we went “seeing” unless you count the fajita drive-thru place or looking out the bedroom window after dark at the lights from Juarez, Mexico. Our visit to El Paso was all about sharing everyday life with our friends for a few days and wishing we could do it more often.

I don’t know much about crime statistics or better or worse neighborhoods in El Paso. It was a bit spread out (as cities in Texas seem to be in my limited experience) and required lots of driving, but otherwise we had a very nice stay in El Paso and never felt unsafe in any way.

IMG_2891Taking detailed notes and dressing extra girly at a Boy Scout ceremony

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Emelie and Aaron are about 4 months apart and became fast friends

IMG_31706 kids under 7 all looking at the camera? You’re witnessing a minor miracle friends!

Alamogordo NM/White Sands National Monument

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I had never heard of White Sands National Monument before we started planning our trip through New Mexico. Maybe it’s because I’m from the East Coast and I had never heard anyone talking about going there, but this gem of a park was not on our radar until we started looking for a stop-over to break up the trip between Albuquerque and El Paso, TX.

Our visit to the park began at the visitor’s center with a short video explaining why the sand is white, the animals that live in this unique environment, and an overall history of the region. Then we headed deeper into the park to experience the phenomenon for ourselves. The reflection of the sun off of the white sand is particularly strong, so sun protection is important. We chose one of the many roofed (shaded!) picnic tables to eat our packed lunch, but the kids were too eager to get out on the dunes to eat a whole lot that day.

We were staying at a campground in nearby Alamogordo (see campground review below) that had sleds available to borrow for trips to White Sands. Since we live in a place that generally has about 6-7 months of snow each year, sledding isn’t exactly exotic for us, but it seemed to be the thing to do at White Sands so we gave it a shot. The white gypsum sand has a different texture than the sand we’re used to. It feels more like baby powder or flour. But it isn’t slippery. So while it was exotic to sled down a sand dune, it didn’t go very fast and much of the time we were pushing ourselves down the hill with our feet. Maybe we were doing it wrong? It was fun and we took a bunch of pictures, but we also realized pretty quickly that this was not an all-day activity.

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So we grabbed the park map and picked a few hiking trails. One was the Dune Life nature trail, a stroller and wheelchair accessible boardwalk with regular placards talking about different aspects of plant and animal life in this unusual habitat. It was a short, easy walk and we learned a lot.

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Lizard tracks spotted from the nature trail

But we were also up for more of a challenge. So we drove to another trail head and exchanged the stroller for the backpack carrier. We found a loop trail that went up onto some dune ridges and wound around showing different examples of plant and animal life. We quickly realized that there really isn’t any footwear that is well-suited to such a trail, and it wasn’t long before the whole family was barefoot. Staffan, who generally prefers hiking barefoot anyway, particularly enjoyed this rare occasion when the rest of us also ditched our shoes. As much as we enjoyed sledding near the picnic area and the boardwalk nature trail, getting away from the road and crossing the dunes with the sand between our toes was definitely the best way to experience the park, in our opinion. It’s not a strenuous hike, but definitely something we’d recommend. The park also offers moonlit hikes and stargazing, and maybe someday we’ll go back with older kids who can stay up a little later to experience that.

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During our weekend in Alamogordo, NM we stayed at the Alamogordo Roadrunner Campground. The campground seems to have changed quite a bit since we were there, including new ownership and becoming part of KOA, which they were not when we were there. The rates seem to have gone up a bit as well, but here’s a review based on how we experienced it:

Price: $29/night. We stayed 2 nights
Location: a relatively convenient 15 miles from White Sands National Monument. Just a short distance from the main road through Alamogordo, which offers a variety of stores and restaurants.
Facilities: sturdy concrete picnic table/benches, a light at each site. Bathroom/shower facilities were clean and reasonable.
Site-description: gravel sites, relatively close together
Neighborhood: there seemed to be a number of families that were living there long-term, which is a different environment than an RV park catering to shorter stays. This is probably a lot different now, though, if it’s a KOA. The staff was very friendly and helpful!
Website: http://www.roadrunnercampground.com/
Comments: The opportunity to borrow sleds for free for our trip to White Sands was very much appreciated! I hope they still offer that! Sorry, we forgot to take a picture of the campsite.