Finding a Family Legacy in the National Parks

Arches National Park, UtahEditor’s Note: In a post for an ongoing series, Dr. Harley A. Rotbart, a Parents advisor, will be guest blogging once a month. He will be offering different advice, tips, and personal stories on how parents can “savor the moment” and maximize the time they spend with kids. Read more posts by Harley Rotbart from this series.

Back when Great Sand Dunes National Park was still just a national monument, and our graduate student daughter was still just in kindergarten, the National Parks system became our partner in parenting. Our family “collected” national parks. We spent spring breaks, summer vacations, and fall breaks photographing our three kids standing astride the welcome signs outside dozens of national parks and monuments, from Arches to Zion, Badlands to Yellowstone, Capitol Reef to Yosemite.

It was in the parks that our kids learned about fragile cryptobiotic soil and the tundra, the desert and Death Valley, petrified forests and ancient redwoods. They heard rangers talk about fossils, geodes, and glaciers; they watched bison, wolves, bear, elk, moose, ptarmigans, and caribou in their natural habitats. They saw an owl capture and eat a mouse, salmon swimming upstream to spawn, and eagles fishing for those same salmon in the same stream. Along the way, they heard stories about Native Americans and the mysterious Ancestral Puebloans, about dinosaurs and wooly mammoths. But the lessons our Junior Rangers learned far exceeded those the park rangers could teach them: They learned about life.

It’s become a cliché to talk about life lessons gained through childhood experiences, but the ones our kids learned in the national parks were anything but cliché. They were only 3, 5, and 7 years old on our first visit to the Sand Dunes in southwestern Colorado, the home of the highest dunes in North America. The base of the dunes rests at 7,500 feet above sea level, and the climb from the base to the top of the highest peak is another 750 feet. On hot sand with unsure footing, boots and sandals are usually abandoned for stocking feet. The climbing is tough even for fit adults, but our 7-year-old son was determined to make it to the top with Mom, the parent with good knees. His sister, the 5-year-old, wasn’t as sure, so we encouraged her to stay behind with her little brother and me to play in Medano Creek at the base of the dunes. The creek “runs” in a wide splay that resembles a wading pool more than a flowing body of water, the perfect milieu for building sand castles. She had to choose: Climb the hot sand on a hot day to a faraway peak few young children ever reach, or wade and splash in the cool stream.

Our daughter had always been a little fearful about trying new things. Sleepovers at friends’ houses, tennis classes in our neighborhood park, overnight class trips, and even the monkey bars on the school playground all started out scary. So we were more than a bit surprised when, a little tearfully, she opted for the climb. She seemed determined not to let her big brother outdo her or claim bragging rights alone this time. I trained my binoculars on the threesome as they started the climb, zigzagging along switchbacks that changed with each windstorm of the year. There were lots of pauses along the way for snacks and water, but in just over four hours they made it to the summit, where the weathered guest book waited for triumphant climbers’ autographs. I couldn’t make out the kids’ facial expressions through the binoculars as they stood at the peak with their arms raised, but there was no question about their jubilation as they rolled, surfed, and pranced down the steep sandy slopes on the way back.

That night, while the boys played nearby, we sat at the campfire with our daughter, cold packs around her mildly blistered feet, and talked about what her climb meant in the big picture of her young life. Her sense of accomplishment and the pride she felt for conquering her familiar little fear demon showed her that nothing could stop her if she put her mind to it. No obstacle, no challenge, no barrier, no self-inflicted ceiling should stand between her and her dreams. That was the Sand Dunes lesson she learned and never forgot. In the 18 years since, she has had many, many small Sand Dunes moments, and a few really big ones, where the achievements of that day on the dunes sustained her.

It was also in the national parks that our oldest became a role model and nurtured his leadership skills and ability to inspire. He developed a sixth sense about how his sister and brother were feeling about our wilderness exploits, when it should be their turn to lead, and when they had had enough for the day. In doing so, he learned to consider, respect, and advocate for the needs of others. He also discovered his fear of snakes and his propensity to see bears while everyone else saw big rocks. Our youngest didn’t play in the creek forever, either. After more than enough years watching his siblings undertake adventures he was too little for, his turn finally came. Delicate Arch at Arches National Park will be known forever in our home as “Sammy’s Arch” because at age 7, he led the rest of us on the very challenging (and somewhat treacherous) hike. He did this with a mixture of pride, fear, and (ultimately) profound relief at shaking off the “baby” burden from his shoulders.

The national parks have become a lasting legacy for our family. Our now-adult kids still tease us about the legendary 11-hour bus ride in Denali, laugh about the mama bear who charged the obnoxious tourist, and sing Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” whenever we’re in the car together. If you’re looking for your own family legacy, or just ready to plan your summer vacation, visiting is a great place to start.

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart is Professor and Vice Chairman of Pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital Colorado. He is the author of three books for parents and families, including the recent No Regrets Parenting, a Parents advisor, and a contributor to The New York Times Motherlode blog. Visit his blog at and follow him on Facebook and Twitter (@NoRegretsParent).


Image: A photo collage of Arches National Park in Utah via Shutterstock.

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  1. by Kathryn

    On April 8, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    A great post. I only hope we are able to start a legacy with our family that promotes learning and a sense of self worth. Getting out doors more would be great as well.