National Park: Mesa Verde (CO)

After leaving the Grand Canyon, we made the relatively short drive (by our standards at this point in the trip) east through Arizona, quickly through New Mexico (with a stop for lemonade and Navajo Fry bread at Four Corners National Monument) and into Colorado for our visit of Mesa Verde National Park. We decided to give it one day, thinking it was a small park and we could probably manage seeing a good deal of it in that time. As soon as we stepped into the visitors center, I decided the place really needed a lot more time than that.

This national park is unlike any of the others I have been to in the west. Rather than having a main focus of nature, you have the focus of an ancient people and what they were able to build and the preservation of those structures which have stood the test of 1000+ years in some cases. It is amazing the societies the ancient Puebloans were building during this time in history.

While we were in the visitor’s center we had a chat with a park ranger, picked up a park newspaper and got in line to make reservations for the following morning. Reservations for tours are $4 per person per tour, but they are guided by park rangers who tell stories of the people and the structures. Our ranger was very good. After chatting with the ranger at the visitor’s center, we decided on one tour – the Balcony House. This tour requires you to climb up a 34′ ladder into the house, up another small ladder, then through a tunnel out to 2 more ladders and a cliff face. The kids had no problem and were thrilled by the prospect. The adults were a little more skeptical, but it proved to be no problem.

Here is what the first ladder looked like:
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Once you were up in the house, the views in the canyon were stunning. And this is where the stories of the ancient Puebloan People began for us. Balcony House was built in 1240ad and was one of the later structures. Timbers had been reused from other structures and they have dated them back to 1070ad (hopefully I have my years right….I might be off just a bit, but close). This was one of the newer houses built as the people left the area around 1300ad.

A look back to the ladder and towards the 2 Kivas and the cliff

We learned about the importance of their kivas, and how they were like our living rooms. This is where families came together to celebrate or make important family decisions. One of the final decisions made in these kivas was the decision to leave the area. As our ranger said, “if you ask any of the relatives of these ancient people, they will give the same simple answer – it was time to go.”

There is also some amazing ancient technology in the up drafts they developed to bring fresh air into the structure. We were in awe of the resiliency, ingenuity, and strength of the people who called this area home for 700 years.

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Working your way through this cliff dwelling you get to use the same “steps” as the early inhabitants, which is quite humbling.

Then up the ancient stairs the Puebloans used

After our tour of the amazing Balcony House, we decided to do a driving tour so we could see a few more things before we needed to head back down the hill to pick the trailers up and head towards Moab, Utah.

One of the first things we stopped to see was Square Tower House. This is a very short hike from the parking area down to the view point and gives a great view of another style of cliff dwelling.

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After that we drove to the view point for Cliff Palace. Next time, we will do this tour for sure. If you look closely at my picture below you will see a bunch of dots around it, and that is one of the tours going through. This is the cliff dwelling everyone sees in the pamphlets and pictures, and there is a very good reason for that – it is spectacular! From this view point you not only see Cliff Palace, but you see 8 other dwellings – some well hidden. If you have binoculars bring them, otherwise you will fight your kids over the nice big view finders they have stationed there (they will hog them, it is just a fact, but they will say you are, which you probably are too).

Cliff Palace

After we finished our driving tour, and all of the various activities for the Jr. Ranger Packets, we headed to the Park Museum to get the newest Mesa Verde Jr. Rangers sworn in.

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For this trip we stayed at a campground outside of the National Park, but next we come for a visit I will stay inside the park the the Morefield campground. We enjoyed our stay at A & A Mesa Verde, but the Morefield Campground puts you inside the park and gives you a different experience. We didn’t have a chance to check it out, but there is a village near the campground which give you plenty of amenities which I am sure we would have enjoyed.

This is a real gem in our National Park Service and one we will get back to for sure. The whole place is very humbling and inspiring and truly incredible. I would recommend it to anyone!

Campground Review: A & A Mesa Verde (Cortez, CO)

During our planning we figured by the middle of our trip we we were going to need certain things. Most national parks don’t have electric for you to plug into at their campgrounds, so I was thinking my batteries would be getting low (I am working on a solar option as we speak!). We also thought with the heat of summer in the southwest, we would want a place for the kids to swim and cool off. After deciding Mesa Verde was a stop on our tour, rather than looking at the campground inside the park, which didn’t offer some of the things we were looking for, we decided to look right outside the park. My travel buddy found the A & A Mesa Verde, so we decided to check it out.

This campground lies just across the highway from the gates Mesa Verde National Park. After checking in with the brand new owners, we unhitched and headed over to the Visitor’s Center which was a 2 minute drive. The campground offers a well-maintained pool that is on the smaller side, an 18-hole mini golf course (it is really reasonable at $3/person), a nice “family room” like area with tv and foosball, playstructure, and their showers and restrooms are tidy and offer everything you need. There are also laundry facilities available.

Our campground had putt-putt, so of course we needed to play a round.

Each campsite came with nice level gravel pads, electric and water, and tables and fire pits. If you don’t bring a BBQ with you, they have several small charcoal ones for you to rent. We found the camping area nice and shady, with a bit of privacy, however the RV area where the big rigs and larger trailers park didn’t have much foliage. I liked the little pocket we were in and were thankful I didn’t have to hear generators.

The campground is about 10 minutes from the town of Cortez, Colorado which gives you easy access to supplies and restaurants. We chose to go into town for dinner as it was unusually windy that night (at least that was our excuse and we are sticking to it!).

This campground is a really nice alternative to staying in the park, particularily if you are needing more creature comforts. We would recommend staying here, especially if you can be near spots 24 and 25 (and in that little loop). Those were the spots we stayed in.

(Side note: I justed visited their new website and it looks like their name is changing from A & A Mesa Verde to Ancient Cedars @ Mesa Verde RV Resort.)

National Park: Grand Canyon National Park (AZ)

The Grand Canyon is an amazing place where nearly everyone feels humbled by the sheer size, the sheer depth, and the sheer power that created this massive canyon over time. The layers, the colors, the flora and fauna, the extremes all make this place what it is. Our drive in was one of the most remarkable, and we were treated, after a pretty rough day on the road, to an amazing sunset that just seemed to welcome us into the park. I might have been reading into it, but I am pretty sure it was trying to put me at ease and let me know everything was going to be ok. Or maybe it was just a typical southwestern sunset at the end of the day. I will never really know, but it was beautiful.

And this!

We pulled into our campsite at Mather Campground pretty late due to some circumstances outside of our control. Because of those circumstances, and repairs we needed to have, our exploration days became limited, but here is what we did achieve.

The first day we headed to the visitors center to have a look around, pick up the Jr. Ranger packets and to figure out what our plans were for the rest of our time at the Grand Canyon. We then spent the rest of the day recouping, doing some housekeeping, and stopping in to the grocery store for some odds and ends and ice cream. The grocery store at the Grand Canyon is one of the best I have ever seen at a National Park. Their food section is actually very slightly larger than the souvenir section, which was shocking. The food was also really nice stuff and we didn’t find it to be super expensive (compared with what we pay at home).

We spent the following day in Flagstaff trying to squash “The Lord of the Flies” attitudes out of the kids. A lot of nature and leniency by mom sometimes has them forgetting how to behave in public. We had the necessary repairs made, enjoyed a quick shopping trip at a brand new REI replacing shoes that had given up the ghost, stopped for a tasty lunch, and then hit another nice grocery store with things we like to eat and weren’t available at the Grand Canyon store. This was the day that fixed a lot of things and we could all take a deep breath.

After a deep breath and a good sleep we were off adventuring! We read in the park newspaper that they loan out Family Discovery Packs, so we headed straight for the Visitor’s Center to check one out. The pack comes stocked with plant books to identify the various flora, magnifying glasses, binoculars and all of the other tools needed to complete the required sections in the books. Some national parks have these packs and younger kids would have no trouble with them. This pack was far more extensive, and even though our 6.5 year old did pretty well with it, it was very challenging for him. I would say this would be best for kids no younger than 6, and I would probably a safe starting age would be 8 and up. The 9 year old got far more out of it. The coolest part is the kids earn a special certificate which allows them to buy a special patch for $2.00 showing they did extra work. It is a great program and is outside of their Jr. Ranger packets, which they will also earn their special badges.

And that is 1 mile straight down.

While working on both programs we took off for a mile hike along the rim, and then down the South Kaibab Trail to Ooh Aah Point. While this trail is not a long hike (it is 1.8 miles round trip), there is a quite an elevation gain and loss, and people with a fear of nights might have a little trouble with it. The vistas are stunning but wide open with no rail or catch and it can be hard for some folks to overcome.

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Just as we got to Ooh Aah Point we came across the NPS Grand Canyon Trail Maintenance team doing trail repair work. This group of folks were working really hard despite the heat, but we watched in awe as they kept it up. For the kids, it brought home the fact, that these trails don’t make themselves and it takes a lot of hard work to keep us safe. It also humbled us because we really couldn’t complain about being hot on a 2 mile hike in our shorts and t-shirts. These folks are working in wool and polyester, big boots, giant backpacks and I hear their hats don’t really breathe either. We kept all of that in mind on our way up again.

While you are hiking here, make sure you take extra water with you. There are water bottle filling stations all over the park, and we made use of the ones at the trail heads and lodges – making sure they were full at the start of the hike and refilling when we finished. It is hot, you are at alititude, and exhaustion and dehydration can really get you quick. Make sure you also bring sunscreen and hats for protection as well. Have a look at the “Hike Smart” tips on the Grand Canyon website for your best experience.

After our hike we headed over to the El Tovar Hotel area for a Jr. Ranger talk called “Critter Chat”. The Ranger was the retired principal of the Grand Canyon School (for the kids of the rangers) and he was amazing! He sang a book to the kids (having memorized it and making up the tune) and even I was hopelessly captivated as he told us why the squirrels at the Grand Canyon are so amazing (and why we really should never feed them). This was probably my favorite ranger talk of the trip! After the ranger talk the 30-40 kids there all went through the ceremony to get their badges and we investigated where the best place for ice cream was (just down the walk 2 buildings!).

We also were able to enjoy part of a performance by a group of Native-American dancers and had a look around Hopi House, which displays and sells Native-American art. Hopi House, as well as several other features and buildings in the park were designed by Mary Colter.

Again, with the Grand Canyon as with other parks we visited on this trip, we barely scratched the surface of what the place has to offer. It gave us a good taste of what we will want to do when we come back for a visit in the future!

Campground Review: Mather Campground (Grand Canyon NP, AZ)

I had never been to the Grand Canyon before and it was on my short list of places I needed to visit. This trip provided the perfect opportunity for that. When we started our planning, a friend had suggested we go to the south rim and we check out the Mather Campground. When we looked at it, it provided us several things we were looking for: showers, laundry, decent campsites, and proximity to the visitors center and the grocery store.

Because this!

Mather Campground is a massive campground. There are flushing toilets and they have water spigots throughout the campground. Sites are somewhat private, but we found the campground to be very loud. I haven’t heard that many car alarms go off in one night in a busy city, and can only assume it has to do with the number of rental cars being used. There was also some strange screaming or parties in the middle of the night from some sites which was a little rattling.

Like the other large national parks, the showers are housed in a building at the entrance to the campground along with the laundry. They were pretty clean and there is a fee to use them. I can’t remember exactly the cost, but with the way we shower we washed both the Lad and myself in one charge. Laundry was quite expensive, and if you have clothes that need to be dried on low heat, I would suggest avoiding the dryers as they get super hot and will melt things (speaking from experience). Just outside of the campground is the grocery store and and a strip mall with a restaurant and a bank. You are very close to the visitors center, which was great.

Also like the other national parks, there is no shortage of wild life. The ravens woke us up each morning with their woeful, tortured cries, and this elk joined us for breakfast two mornings.

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We entered from the East Entrance, and made a quick wrong turn into the Desert View Campground, which is a smaller campground. Reservations are not accepted (first come, first serve) and on this trip since we were planning to get in late we wanted to make sure we had a spot. I saw a few open sites on our drive through, but we already had reservations. In the future I would try to stay here for a couple of reasons: 1) the campground is smaller and things seemed so much quieter, 2) the site is right near the Tower which we didn’t get to see on this trip and a visitor’s center. There are awesome views from the area, 3) there is a cell tower that gave me coverage (AT&T), which I really needed on this trip. This is just seemed to be a much quieter part of the park. That is more our style.

National Parks: Cayonlands and Arches (Utah)

While we were in Moab, we wanted to get out and see two of the closest national parks to where we were staying at the Canyonlands Campground. We were in a prime location to check out Arches and Canyonlands.

We started with Canyonlands!


Love the camera stand they have! I have never seen that at another national park yet, and it is just so handy!

During our day in Canyonlands National Park we spent all of our time in the northern area of the park called “Islands In the Sky”. The drive from Moab was between 45 minutes to an hour. We got up extra early to get there so we could get a couple of hikes in before it got too hot. Our plan was to hike the Grand View Point Trail first. This is a very easy 2 mile round trip hike that gives you amazing vistas and a look into a pretty amazing crater.

An amazing crater!

Our second hike was up The Whale Rock Trail. This is a 1 mile round trip hike with a little bit of elevation gain, but gives great views of canyons. The kids were happy we were finally letting them climb all over the rocks! They loved being way up high, like they were on top of the world.

On top of Whale Rock

After a stop at the visitors center to fulfill our Jr. Ranger duties and explore all of the exhibits they had, we headed out for one last hike of the day to Mesa Arch. This is probably one of the most beautiful arches. It is so delicate and to catch the sunrise through it would be amazing (we saw the pictures, but were not up quite early enough to see it in person). The Mesa Arch hike is only a half mile round trip, and well worth the effort.

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The heat got the better of us, so we went back to the campground for food, rest, and swimming before starting it all over again the next day!

We saw Arches National Park next!

We had a similar plan, with a very slightly later start time, since the drive is really only about 5-10 minutes from the Campground to the gates. We started our morning bypassing the visitors center (I had picked up the Jr. Ranger packets for Arches a few days earlier, so we were set) and headed straight up the hill to the Park Avenue hike. I really like this one because, even though we were early and it wasn’t as hot as it would get, we were in the shade and it felt wonderful. This hike is classified as a moderate hike, but the kids had no problem with it. There are some stairs, but it wasn’t too bad. It is 2 miles round trip, and I would say at the time we were there 80% of it was shaded. As we hiked we were losing our shade.

And amazing landscapes

Our second hike was just up the road a bit. On our last trip to Arches we hiked into Double Arch, which is a super easy hike in and is only a half mile round trip. It is great for kids, so we decided to head back there. The scramble up the the arches can be a little challenging for some, but we all scurried right up the sides. The kids spent over an hour climbing and playing in the shade of the arches.

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We really enjoyed this time letting energy burn, but we could feel the temperature rising, and decided to get back in the car for the rest of our driving tour through the park before heading back to the visitors center to finish the Jr. Ranger packets and enjoy their wonderful exhibits.

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We really love this area and the time we spent here. It will be fun to go back in the future and explore all of the places we weren’t able to get into on this trip. We barely scratched the surface.

Campground Review: Canyonlands Campground (Moab, UT)

There is something special about Utah’s national parks for me. I consider myself a mountain person. I love water and rain and trees and green. When I get into any of Utah’s national parks, I feel like I am home for some reason, which is strange because they are red, and there is no water (or very little when we have been there) and the trees are not comforting to me like our forests. Maybe it is the thinner air since we are at elevation. Maybe there is a magic spell. Maybe the rocks are talking to me. Whatever it is, after Zion I was really excited to see 2 more of their wonderful national parks – Canyonlands and Arches.

After visiting the amazing Mesa Verde National Park, we packed up and drove to Moab, where we had reservations at the Canyonlands Campground, which is right in town. Last time we stayed in the area we stayed at Moab Valley RV, which is a little bit outside of town and we liked it at the time. My concern was shade though and I checked around, and decided out best bet was Canyonlands Campground.

Upon check in, the folks were very friendly, good humored, and accommodating. All around wonderful folks. As with most RV Resorts, the privacy was lacking, and camper etiquette was not great, but spots were clean and level and we had electric and water which was wonderful. The campground not only has RV spots, but also tent areas and cabins, so you get different types of campers here. The folks that run the campground take a lot of pride in place, and you can see it all around. Big cottonwood trees kept things cooler than otherwise (it was still hot…let’s face facts, it was summer in Utah, what did I expect?), and dropped a sticky sap like substance everywhere. It washed off fine, but was a bit of a mess.

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The bathrooms were clean and had everything we needed. Showers there were great. Best of all (by the kids standards), they had a pool, which we enjoyed every night. They also had a nice play structure, which was great when the sun went down, but was very hot in the middle of the day.

The campground is just down the road from a nice supermarket where we were able to restock. Here is a little secret: you can buy ice cream at the gas station right in front of the campground, or you can walk 2 blocks to the Moab Brewery and indulge in some very fine, freshly made gelato. We made two walks down and it was worth it every time! They also have some delicious freshly brewed root beer too (we didn’t taste the real beers, but a lot of folks were imbibing and seemed happy).

The overall convenience of the campground location by this point in the trip was fantastic. It fulfilled every need we have.

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This was the perfect location for our last days of the trip. From here we headed home, with an overnight stop in Boise at the Boise-Meridian KOA. We enjoyed our stay here and would stay with them again, no question.

Tips & Tricks: Boredom

My husband has taught me many things in 10+ years of marriage. Somethings I had never considered before, others were things I wanted to learn, and then there are things I learned about even though I wasn’t really interested.

About 6 months ago we had a discussion about boredom. Our son is one of the older kids in his class and mentioned he was bored by a few things. That makes him a bit wiggly, and my husband suggested boredom is actually a really wonderful tool. When we become bored, our creativity takes off.

Being someone who can always find something to do or think about, this didn’t really occur me at the time. During our trip, I saw it first hand. I wanted to make sure we had things to help get us through a day and we used them for sure, but the kids tired of them and became bored. What happened next was remarkable.

We were in Yosemite, and their creativity took off, or maybe we just have HGTV on too much at the house. They found all sorts of sticks and rocks and lichens and were designing their own houses.

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They used little bits of garbage (we like to say “finding and using resources” around here though!) to create tables and beds. They used pine/sequoia/fir cones as trees.

This is the dining area and the garden

They made main houses and gardens and guest houses and helicopter pads. The trees are my absolute favorite! They used tree needles as carpet and fencing.

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They worked together for hours, discussing and planning. Nothing was impossible. Helicopter pad? Sure! Why shouldn’t our house have one! When they were finished, they called us over and I stood in awe of their creations. They stood there beaming! And then came, “so mama, are you going to love it or list it?” We might be cutting back on tv time!

Everything was found on the ground – that was one rule. The second rule was it all had to be put back when they were finished, since we were in a national park. We were only taking the pictures with us.

Don’t tell my husband, but he was right, and with that I pass along this tip: let your kids get bored sometimes, especially outside. Let them have to figure out what to do. Let their imaginations go wild. You might just be surprised what happens.

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Activity: California State Railroad Museum (Sacramento, CA)

After spending a few days in Amador County, we decided to head for one of the “Cities by the Bay” to catch up with my husband and another friend and her family for a night. We wanted to make a stop for some fun along the drive and our friends suggested we check out the California State Railroad Museum. This was right up our alley!

I was a little worried about trying to find parking for an over-height vehicle pulling a trailer in historic downtown Sacramento, but it turns out I didn’t really need to as there was a sign for RV parking as we approached the museum. A decent pay lot (that I wouldn’t want to hang out in at night, pretty sure they use it in movies and tv for murder-mystery body drop scenes) had good size spots for us and it was only 2 blocks to the front doors.

Tickets into the Museum were quite reasonable at $10/adult and $5/child. We only had 2 hours to spend there, but could have stayed much longer. There was a lot to see and to play with!

On the main floor are all of the big engines, history about railway life, the building of the railroad that went coast to coast, and “Turntable”. One great thing for the Lad was walking along a replica historic platform and train station and to see what it was like.

They gave you a chance to look inside some very fancy passenger cars from the golden age of train travel to see what it would gave been like.

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The engines were absolutely massive and made us feel so small.

We were able to walk through a Postal Train and check out the inside of 2 engines which taught us how they were different and how they were operated a bit differently from each other. It was very interesting.

We had a look at old signs from the different lines and were able to read about their histories when we went upstairs.

Upstairs was especially impressive with the history they told, but also in the collection they had of railway toys. This was definitely a favorite of ours.

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This display kept the lad busy for close to an hour. He wanted to keep the 4 lines represented in this diorama moving as much as it would let him. It was fantastic how it would change from day to night, the air balloon would go up and down, and one train had a camera mounted on it so you could see on a tv screen what the train saw, especially as it traveled through tunnels.

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For even younger kids (younger than 6), there was a great play area with Thomas the Tank Engine and Brio train sets. My guy was way more into the electric sets he was playing with before. I realized my dad has some of the same cars as the ones on display, so we are going to have to dig those out!

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I wish we had more time to explore not only the Railroad Museum, but also the historic area that surrounds it. There is so much to see and do, so we will head back on future visits for sure! You should check it out!

Not a real post..but a favor!

Hi friends!

I have just entered the “Share the Experience” photo contest, and I am wondering if you might be willing to help me?

I have entered 2 photos into two of the categories, if you think they are good, I am hoping you might vote for them. It relates to the blog, because these have been taken while we were on our road trips! See, I haven’t gone completely off topic.

The first one is this one:

http://www.sharetheexperience.org/entry/19573387

It was taken at Yellowstone National Park at the Museum of the National Park Ranger. I have entered this into the “History Category”.

The second is this one from Yosemite:

http://www.sharetheexperience.org/entry/19573351

I have entered this into the “Let’s Move Outside” category, which falls in line with the First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to get kids outside and moving to combat childhood obesity.

Thanks for any support you are willing to give!

Now back to our scheduled program! On Sunday the California State Railway Museum review will go live!

Campground Review: Watchman Campground (Zion National Park)

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After our night at Kershaw-Ryan State Park, we set out on the short drive to Hurricane, UT. It was 106 degrees that day and we had some errands to run in town before setting off for Zion national Park and Watchman Campground. The drive into the park from Hurricane was absolutely stunning. This was my first visit, and I was in awe the entire drive.

We got checked in and made our way to our site, which I quickly fell in love with and wished we were staying longer. I had shade, was near the bathroom, and most surprisingly, we had electricity, which had me rejoicing as I was struggling with an isolator issue and batteries that were very low for the first part of the trip. The sites were good size and I felt like I had decent privacy. It was one of the few places where people were not constantly walking through our site, which was nice. The campground was set up in a really good way to prevent that (we noticed a huge lack of camper etiquette during this trip, which was a bit disheartening). Each site had a fire ring, which due to burn bans were not allowed to be used, and a picnic table. We also had water at our site. This was the first national park we have been to with power and water.

The bathrooms in our loop (the B loop) were updated and clean, however there were no showers at the campground. For our one night, this was not an issue though, and we didn’t have time for them. We were very close to the entrance with Springdale just outside the gate (and a shuttle service and bike path can take you in easily so you can leave your car behind, and it is a short walk) and the visitor’s center where you can catch the shuttles up the valley. There are certain areas where you can not drive without a special pass due to the volume of traffic. It is only shuttle busses, which were fantastic and ran very frequently. We got settled in before racing to catch the shuttle up to the lodge for an evening Ranger talk.

The next morning we got up early, hitched up and took the cars and trailers to the Visitor’s Center parking, and hopped on the shuttle to try and get a hike or two in before the heat became too much. Check out was at 11:00a and we didn’t think we would be back in time, so this was a great solution and so easy. For our hike we decided on the Emerald Pools hike, which is at the same Shuttle Stop as beautiful Zion Lodge. We were going to do a short hike to the first pool, and then hike back out and get back on the shuttle to head up to the Riverwalk Hike. The kids had different ideas, and we ended up doing the whole 3+\- mile hike to the 3 pools. It is a beautiful hike and great for kids. We were in the shade a lot on the way up, but it did get pretty sunny and hot on our way out. Getting there early was a good idea and make sure you bring lots of water to drink.

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The Virgin River is such a beautiful river. I found the color of the water just stunning.

With the heat coming in and the fact we were planning to drive to the Grand Canyon that night, it was time to head back after a quick lunch, rehydrating, and finishing up the Jr. Ranger packs.

We put our newest Jr. Rangers in the cars and started our drive, which took us through a section of the National Park we hadn’t seen on the shuttles. We were only able to drive through it, not taking time to get out and see things, but it left me with a sense of longing. I will go back one day and explore the park more and I will spend a few days doing it at least. It is an amazing place, and definitely needs more than 1 day.