Dakotas Road Trip 2022: TR’s Maltese Cross Cabin (Theodore Roosevelt National Park)

It will come as no surprise that Theodore Roosevelt National Park is chock full of TR history. (Fun fact: he hated being called Teddy. I also hate being nicknamed, so I felt that.) You don’t have to go far into the park to find places to walk in Roosevelt’s footsteps, either. You can do it just steps from the South Unit park entrance – right behind the visitors’ center, where Roosevelt’s tiny Maltese Cross Cabin is situated. (This isn’t the original spot; the cabin has been moved.)

The anklebiters are no strangers to Presidential residences. We have an annual family membership at Mount Vernon, after all. But the Maltese Cross Cabin is a little more snug than President Washington’s grand mansion.

I loved the rich, knotty, grainy wood of the cabin’s exterior.

And the interior! So cool to think TR touched these very walls.

We checked out his desk and letter-writing spot and joked that he must have sat there to answer Uncle Dan’s fan mail. (Theodore Roosevelt is my brother’s favorite president. I like him too, but my favorite president is a bit more recent. President Obama forever!)

The table all laid out for a hearty meal after a tough day of galloping around the badlands on horseback…

And check out that stove! And the teapot – and waffle iron! How cool.

I will say that as cozy and inviting as the kitchen appeared, the bedroom – not so much. That bed looks uncomfortable, no?

We didn’t spend much time here – it would have been hard to do so; you could see everything there was to see in the span of five minutes. But what a fun little stop, a good way to stretch our legs before we headed out on another long drive, and a nice glimpse into the life of everyone’s favorite Rough Rider.

Next week: it’s time to head back south, but we have one more hike in TRNP on the way!


Dakotas Road Trip 2022: Petrified Forest Loop Trail (Theodore Roosevelt National Park)

The more time I spent researching things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the more must-dos I came up with. It seems this park is just jam-packed with iconic hiking trails – including the Petrified Forest Loop Trail, a ten (or maybe more?) mile loop that passes through expanses of prairie and a valley full of petrified tree stumps. Doing the full loop trail was not on the agenda this time – our small hikers are good for a maximum of four miles at a time – but according to the trail reports I was reading, the really cool petrified wood was located approximately 1.5 miles into the longer hike. Now, a three-mile out-and-back… that we could do.

The trail begins on the prairie. There are broad steppes in every direction – we saw a few wild horses grazing atop one of the buttes.

The trail reports cautioned that the prairie part of the hike was a little boring, but you had to press through it to get to the cool petrified wood. I disagreed – I didn’t think the prairie was boring at all. I kept thinking of Laura Ingalls Wilder in On the Banks of Plum Creek, describing the prairie as being full of little rounded hills, dips and hollows – it’s so much more than just a stretch of flat grass.

At least one person in our group did find the prairie section boring, though. Hiking is not Peanut’s favorite activity. I told her to channel her inner Laura Ingalls. That meant nothing to her, because she has not read the Little House books. (She did read the My First Little House series years ago, when she was a preschooler and kindergartner – but it had been a minute.)

Eventually, we reached a trail junction. Our research had indicated that we could take either the North or the South trail and end up at the petrified wood, but the South was a bit faster – so we went that way.

Just as Steve was starting to wonder out loud when we’d be seeing the petrified wood, I spotted some unusually shaped boulders immediately ahead of us. “I’m pretty sure… now,” I replied.

We walked over a little lip in the trail and then started to scuttle down the bare rock face into a valley that was dotted, unmistakably, with petrified tree stumps. It does not get cooler.

We wandered around the petrified forest for almost an hour, taking our time poking into every nook and cranny, examining every piece of petrified wood, and calling each other over to share in all the cool finds.

What a cool hike this was! I’ve found that when hiking with anklebiters, it does help to have a goal. The goal doesn’t need to be a petrified forest – it can be something as simple as a snack picnic at a good turnaround point. But it’s nice to occasionally be able to deliver something with real WOW factor, and the Petrified Forest Loop certainly had that. The kids were suitably impressed. And as we hiked back to the car (scanning for wild horses – saw some – and bison – another strikeout) I started mulling over a trip to Petrified Forest National Park, which I imagine is… like this, but on a grander scale. I can’t say that was high on my list of national parks to visit before, but after this hike it certainly moved up the ladder a few spots.

Have you ever found petrified wood on a hike?

Next week, we check out another one of TR’s Dakota residences. This one has walls!

Dakotas Road Trip 2022: Elkhorn Ranch Hike (Theodore Roosevelt National Park)

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is comprised of three separate units: the South Unit, the North Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit. Staying in charming Medora, we spent most of our time in the nearby South Unit. The North Unit was a long drive away, so we quickly decided it wasn’t going to happen on this trip – maybe another time. But we did want to check out another part of the park, so on our second full day in North Dakota, we piled in our rental car and drive two hours to this small park unit.

Side note: the front grill and hood of our rental car became a grasshopper graveyard. Peanut was horrified and disgusted. Nugget was fascinated.

Elkhorn Ranch is famous as the Dakota badlands home of Theodore Roosevelt. While TR had a few different homesteads in the area – including the Maltese Cross Cabin (to be featured in a future post – keep reading!) – Elkhorn Ranch was his primary, and most-loved, home in North Dakota.

For no good reason that I can think of, I was under the impression that this hike led to an actual preserved ranch homestead that we could check out – like the Maltese Cross Cabin – or at least some interesting Old West ruins. But the ranch buildings are no longer standing, and the most a visitor can see is the suggestion of a floorplan. Not sure if it’s not really publicized that the ranch is no longer there, or my poor reading comprehension – the latter, probably. But note to would-be visitors: this is a lovely hike and the views at the end are rewarding, but there’s no ranch house anymore.

About those views…

The hike culminates in a beautiful meadow surrounded by quintessential North Dakota badlands buttes. Just stunning – and the aroma, I can’t even tell you. Let’s just say if you ever get the chance to stand in a meadow surrounded by sage and breathe in, do it.

Worth every minute of that long drive.

Next week: we channel Laura Ingalls, hike the North Dakota prairie, and find some really cool petrified wood.

Dakotas Road Trip 2022: Prairie Dog Metropolis (Theodore Roosevelt National Park)

When visiting the Dakotas, there are a few animals on everyone’s list to see – naturally. I was, of course, hoping to see American bison and pronghorn antelope. But just as much so, or maybe more, was I hoping for those round, fuzzy, adorable residents of the grasslands: prairie dogs. I wasn’t overly confident that we’d spot them; they’re so small and the prairie is so big. But I wasn’t reckoning on Prairie Dog Metropolis.

Prairie Dog Metropolis is exactly what it sounds like – a veritable city of the prairie’s cutest residents. Right off a main artery through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, there is a stretch of grassland that is dotted with hundreds of prairie dog burrows. I can only imagine the complex network of tunnels under the grass.

We pulled the car over and hopped out, being careful not to actually get close to any prairie dogs (in addition to not wanting to disturb them… they bite). But thanks to my wildlife camera and its ridiculous zoom, I got plenty of closeups. I’ll let (a few of) the many pictures speak for themselves.

I mean. You must be kidding me, right? They were so adorable.

Cuuuuuuuuuuuuute. Sorry I have no tips or interesting facts to share, just LOOK AT THAT NOSE!

Now, for the really important question. Who do I need to talk to, to get an apartment in Prairie Dog Metropolis?

Next week: we take in the biggest cultural spectacle in Medora.

Dakotas Road Trip 2022: Wind Canyon Trail (Theodore Roosevelt National Park)

When on a hiking vacation, one must hike multiple trails per day, right? After hiking the Coal Vein Nature Trail, we drove directly to another trail on my list: the Wind Canyon Trail, a winding path high above the Little Missouri River valley.

It’s not an especially challenging trail – being mostly flat – so the bang for hiking buck is outstanding. With hardly any effort at all in payment, we were treated to gorgeous vistas for the length of the trail.

I was a little worried about whether this path would work for us, to be honest. I have a couple of hikers in the family who are afraid of heights, so I always like to know what the exposure situation is before deciding on a hike. Despite the great views and the trail situated high above the river, this one did not bother my acrophobic family members. The river-side slope was gradual enough that no one felt exposed or had vertigo. Winning!

We were really hoping to see some bison on this hike. There were hundreds of bison tracks in the mud down by the riverbank, so they were definitely around – but we didn’t see any of them (this time; stay tuned).

But this hike was still fabulous even without the bison. I mean – how can you go wrong with those views?

Still on a search for bison, we decided to drive over to another spot that we thought might prove more successful – a small ranch house that provided the trailhead for a five mile loop, and was less than a ten-minutes’ drive away. We’d met an older couple on the Wind Canyon trail, who told us they had seen bison there that very morning.

We didn’t want to do the whole loop – not realistic with the small hikers – but we decided to walk down to the riverbank and see what we could see.

Plenty of sage along the trail! I love the smell of sage – one of my favorite things ever.

Little Missouri! (Note: I am not keeping the name of this hike a secret, I swear. I forgot it, and despite extensive googling I can no longer find it. And that’s also why I am not devoting an entire post to this pretty walk. If you’re in TRNP, it’s in the South Unit and there is a white house and a small parking lot, and that’s all I can remember. Sorry!)

Here’s a pretty riverbank picture to make up for my poor memory.

Despite no bison, we enjoyed our riverbank sojourn. We watched two hikers who were hiking the full five-plus mile loop cross the river (they had a good-natured argument over whether to take their shoes off or not – one did and the other didn’t), and the boys practiced their fastballs and sliders.

I love to build a little unplanned time into a vacation and this is a great example of why – we didn’t intend to do this walk; it was a spur of the moment decision that worked because we didn’t have anything else to do, and it was a lovely interlude to wander around the riverbank and do some splashing.

Next week: we visit the park’s cutest residents! Check in with me then.

Dakotas Road Trip 2022: Coal Vein Nature Trail (Theodore Roosevelt National Park)

Our first stop on the Dakotas road trip agenda was Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota. Before the trip, I didn’t devote much thought to Theodore Roosevelt National Park – I expected it would be nice, and that I’d be glad to have visited, but beyond that I didn’t really consider. Just like with Joshua Tree, I ended up being surprised at how much I loved this park.

We stayed at a hotel in Medora, just outside of the park gates, and drove our rental car into the park each morning. TRNP is even more spread out than most national parks, so this was a perfect solution. On our first day in the park, we ignored the heavy cloud cover and chilly wind and made for our first stop: the Coal Vein Nature Trail. The coal vein is what it sounds like – a vein of coal running through this section of the park – and this vein is famous for having caught fire and burned continuously for twenty-six years. It’s not still burning, but I read that you can still smell it smouldering. (I couldn’t smell anything, though.)

The landscape was stunning! I would come to learn that there is a marked difference between North Dakota badlands and South Dakota badlands (which we would see later in the trip). The North Dakota version of the badlands was still green and verdant, with plenty of interesting plants to examine.

Like prickly pear cacti embedded right in the grass! Now there’s something you don’t see every day.

And there were plenty of varieties of juniper and sage – two of my favorite plants. I must have stopped ten times to sniff. And then ten more times to goggle at the gorgeous landscape spread out below us.

Strong start to the vacation! This first hike was one of my favorites of the entire week. But TRNP had plenty more riches in store for us.

Next week: the first day of our trip was a two-hike day as we explored another easy nature trail with stunning vistas.

Dakotas Road Trip 2022: First Glimpses!

After spending what felt like most of our 2022 travel days underwater, Steve and I were craving a good hiking vacation. We planned a family trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and were looking forward to that with great anticipation when news dropped of catastrophic floods that closed huge sections of Yellowstone – including the area where our hotel was. Of course, our first concerns were for the people and animals who lived in the park area and were impacted. But once the dust settled and the waters started to recede, we realized that our planned vacation was not going to happen, and we started looking around for an alternative. On the strength of a recommendation by a random mom at Goldfish Swim School, we decided on a quick shift in strategy and booked a rather last-minute trip to the Dakotas. (The last-minute nature would have an unforeseen effect: it turned out the Sturgis Bike Rally, which was not something I knew about, was going on while we were there. My takeaway – from now on, when booking a trip, I will check to see if there are any big events in the vicinity that might end up drawing unusually large crowds.)

We flew into Rapid City, but immediately turned northwards and headed to our first stop – Medora, North Dakota, home of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Settling in for three days of stunning vistas… and thousands of prairie dogs living in “Prairie Dog Metropolis.” Goodness, they were adorable.

It was a busy week – six national parks, countless trails, multiple atmospheric adventures – and I have so much to show you. So for the next few months, we’ll be road-tripping around the Dakotas together. Next week – first tracks in Theodore Roosevelt National Park!

Honduras Highlights: Turtles All The Way Down

It’s no secret that my favorite animals on the planet are cetaceans – whales especially, but I love dolphins and porpoises too. But my second favorite marine species – which I love almost as much – has to be sea turtles. And so far I’ve been on two dive trips and lucky enough to see sea turtles on both. In fact, in Roatan, we saw them multiple times.

The first time we saw a sea turtle, he was a massive beastie – about the size of a Volkswagen. Even the divemaster was gobsmacked. Sadly, my camera battery was dead and my camera was chilling in my bag on the boat, waiting for a charge back at the hotel. But the sea turtles obliged by showing up three more times after that – none as big as that first guy, but still plenty exciting for all that.

This one was very busy exploring the reef. Looking for snacks, probably.

Eventually he drifted off into the blue.

One of the highlights of our final dive (this time, because we’ll definitely be back to Roatan) was a visit from three sea turtles who circled around us for our entire safety stop. Our dive buddy Alex had a moment with one of them – almost swam off into the great ocean together.

Oh, sea turtles! Words cannot express how much I love you. Please join me on every single dive.

That concludes this short series of highlights from my digital nomad week on Roatan Island, Honduras! For the next couple of weeks, I will be taking off Friday travel posts and replacing them with holiday fun. Starting in the new year, Friday travel posting continues with something COMPLETELY different. Check in with me then to find out!

Honduras Highlights: Surface Intervals

In diver lingo, a surface interval is basically exactly what it sounds like: an interval of time that you spend at the surface between dives. On multi-dive days, you need a certain amount of time between dives in order to let the nitrogen bubbles dissipate from your blood. Between dive trips, it’s all surface interval – ha.

Our surface intervals on Roatan were mostly spent typing away on our laptops – it was another digital nomad week for us. Mornings were for scuba, afternoons were for lawyering. Not a bad life.

Especially when your afternoon lawyering is done at this beautiful place! We stayed at Barefoot Cay Resort, on the East side of Roatan. It was a beautiful, peaceful spot.

Most of the Barefoot Cay buildings are on a private island. It’s a tiny little island, and in the evenings before dinner Steve and I circled it over and over, getting our steps in (no days off for the Garmin watches!).

We stayed in a little bungalow right on the beach. There was a family of bats that stayed with us – cuddled up together in the eaves of our porch by day. Too cute! Speaking of cute, but in a totally different sense, I was obsessed with the woven pendant lights hanging from the trees near the resort’s restaurant, Silversides.

In the mornings, due to the high winds on the East side of the island, we were loaded into a hotel van and driven to the West side to do our dives. One of the hotel’s dive boats was docked by this gorgeous sandy beach, where our captain, Justin, and our divemasters, Danny and Ron, waited for us every morning.

The street was lined with dive shops. It’s easy to see what Roatan’s favorite activity is!

In between dives, we hung out on our boat – the Marea – chatting with Justin, Danny and Ron, and the other divers (and on one day, snorkelers) while we drove between dive sites or bobbed around waiting for the green light to hop back in the water.

During one surface interval, Justin drove us past the dolphins at Anthony’s Key, one of the biggest resorts on the island. Worth noting: this is not a holding pen. The dolphins are free to come and go as they please; those that were swimming around between the docks were there by choice, much to my relief. (Also, please excuse whatever is happening with the color in this picture. I don’t know why it’s all purple.)

Most days, we wrapped up our dives shortly before lunchtime and headed back to eat at Silversides before diving into work for the afternoon. But on our last day, our dive buddies Alex and Emily suggested that the four of us get dropped off at the Roatan Island Brewing Company for lunch – just to do something a little different.

We shared flights of beer, mango slices with dipping spices, crispy breadfruit – a Roatan favorite – and chicken quesadillas. Yum.

Definitely a fun way to celebrate adding twelve dives to our resumes!

Next week: back in the water for the biggest (literally) highlight of the week. Check in with me then!

Honduras Highlights: Dispatches from the Blue World

Over the past few years – starting in 2020 – we’ve dispatched Peanut and Nugget off to New York for a couple of weeks of grandparent fun over the summer. In 2020, we just stayed home in Virginia and worked, but in 2021, Steve and I snuck off for a “digital nomad” week in the Adirondacks – hiking and kayaking around our remote work schedules. This past summer, my mom called and asked if we were thinking of doing the same thing this time. We shrugged and said we would be happy to loan out the kids again, and started planning Adirondack paddles. Then one evening, as I was surfing the internet on my phone while sitting with Nugget at bedtime, it occurred to me – we didn’t have to go to the Adirondacks. We love it there, of course, but there’s no law saying that’s where we have to go when the kids stay with my parents in the summer. We’d been talking wistfully about scuba diving, after the fun we had getting certified in Costa Rica, and it hit me: we could go anywhere. We could go diving. I started researching potential locations and immediately narrowed the options down to two: Cayman Brac and Roatan. After some extra research, I decided – Roatan it was.

Roatan is the largest of three Bay Islands – Islas de la Bahia – off the coast of Honduras. It sits in the midst of a section of the vibrant, healthy Mesoamerican Reef. The reef is teeming with life all year long – everything from tiny nudibranchs and seahorses – to large pelagic species like whale sharks and hammerheads. It’s also warm, relatively shallow, and mostly free of currents: perfect for novice divers. Seemed like a no-brainer, so we quickly booked into Barefoot Cay Resort, a five-star PADI dive center, and booked our dive package.

We arrived at Barefoot Cay, checked in at the dive shop, and learned about what to expect for the week. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t looking promising; one of the main points that sold me on this resort was the ability to get to dive sites within a ten minutes’ boat ride from the dock. As it happened, we were there during the windiest month of the year – July – and it wasn’t safe to dive on the side of the island where our resort was located. Instead, we were loaded into a van each morning and driven to the other side of the island (where the wind was much lower and the weather better, thanks to a line of hills breaking the wind along the backbone of the island).

Instead, we dove from a resort-owned boat that was docked off this beautiful sandy beach and charming stretch of shops and dive centers. The island is surrounded by dive sites on all sides, so we had plenty of options for incredible diving. I won’t recap every dive in its own post – each one felt very different to me, but it’s a lot of blue pictures that will probably run together. But there were a few standouts that I just have to show you.

This was our divemaster, Danny. We were paired with another couple – who were on their honeymoon, just like our dive buddies from Costa Rica; we seem to attract honeymooners – and the four of us dove with Danny all week. Our Roatan dive buddies, Alex and Emily, turned out to be just as fun, funny, interesting and kind as our Costa Rica dive buddies, Garry and Donna. The four of us hit it off immediately and I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d rather spend the week diving with – or dissecting the dives over cocktails with every evening.

The first couple of dives were nice and shallow – a good way to get our fins wet.

Ain’t no party like a garden eel dance party, ’cause a garden eel dance party is underwater! Mandy’s Eel Garden was a highlight in a week of highlights. And the garden eels swaying in the gentle current – well, I never thought I’d use the word “adorable” to describe eels, but they really were.

The Mesoamerican Reef was incredible – gloriously healthy and colorful. Our new dive buddies, Alex and Emily, described the bleached coral in the Caymans, and assured us that we were lucky to be exploring such a vibrant reef in Roatan. (Don’t mind the blue/green tint of the pictures here – I am still getting the hang of underwater photography. The reef was a rainbow.)

Of course, the biggest highlight of any dive is getting to swim alongside the best dive buddy. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather dive with.

Trying to use my fins to white balance. It didn’t work.

Brain coral! So spooky.

Speaking of spooky, Danny took us on one dive to the El Aguila shipwreck. Let me tell you, swimming along through endless blue gloom and then a mast looms up in front of you is a vibe. I felt a little bit like The Little Mermaid.

The couple that wreck dives together stays together, right Steve? I love this picture. Look how hardcore we look!

The opposite of hardcore: this seahorse. He was actually very large for a seahorse – several inches, with a big pregnant belly – and bright yellow. Our dive buddy, Emily, described him as a Giant Cartoon Seahorse.

Also not hardcore: this parrotfish. We saw them all over the place, and every single one looked like a child’s squeaky bath toy.

We did not see any whale sharks (wrong season – they do turn up anytime during the year, but July is not their big migration time so they’re a rare sight) or hammerheads, much to Steve’s dismay. (We’ll just have to go back to Roatan – twist my arm.) But we did see a massive nurse shark sleeping on the seafloor. See the dorsal fin and long tail tucked away? Look closely.

One pelagic species we did see: spotted eagle rays, which flew past us as casually as you please. They were gone in a flash, but what a flash it was.

On one of our first dives, Emily spotted a conch. After she mentioned seeing one, I started seeing them everywhere.

A river of “goggle eyes” on our last dive. I started diving to face and overcome a fear of fish, so to rest peacefully in the water and take in this site – and find it impressive and moving instead of terrifying – was a huge victory for me.

We also made a game out of spotting as many Caribbean spiny lobsters as we could.

Tunnels, swim-throughs and tight squeezes. Steve didn’t really enjoy these, but our divemaster added them into a few dives because Alex and Emily did. (Important for everyone to get to do what they like!) I viewed them as a personal challenge: could I make it through a swim-through without freaking out? I was really proud of myself for tackling this more intermediate level diving.

These are just a few of the highlights Roatan had to offer! Next week, I’ll show you where we spent our surface intervals. Check in with me then!