Road Trip 2017 #14 – Bearizona

Mr Pict and I were aware that we had planned our family road trip around the things we though the children ought to see and that meant lots of National Parks and incredible landscapes.  Therefore, when we had a gap in the schedule after Slide Rock State Park, we thought we would let the kids decide where to go next.  They unanimously declared that they wanted to go to Bearizona.  We, therefore, left Sedona and headed to Williams and arrived at Bearizona fairly late in the day but, advantageously, as the air began to cool and most visitors began to depart.

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Bearizona is a wildlife park that comprises a drive-through safari area and a walk-through zoo.  We started with the drive-through safari.  We could have hopped on one of the tour buses but opted to take our own (rental) car through so as to ensure we all got the best views possible.  The concept is that this wildlife park showcases animals from the region and, therefore, presents an opportunity to see the local fauna up close but safely.  I think that theme might be stretched somewhat by the inclusion of Alaskan tundra wolves but we won’t quibble with small details.  As soon as we were through the entry gate, we started to spot critters with ease.  A mountain goat was basking and almost glowing in the sun and a little further on some mule deer were munching their dinner from a trough.  We also saw burros before we moved from herbivores to carnivores.  The wolves were milling around, mostly in the shade of the trees, but one white wolf was so close that it brushed against the door of our car.  The kids thought it was magical to be so close to wolves and I must admit it was pretty cool.  From the wolf enclosure, we moved into the juvenile bear area.  I had thought that we would find it hard to see the bears, that they would keep their distance from the road track.  However, despite them having a fairly large area in which to operate, we saw dozens of bears.  Furthermore, they were very active.  That was probably another advantage to having left it late in the day to visit.  A couple of bears were even being playful and were tearing up pieces of bark.  It was a bit of a wow moment to see black bears that close.  The adult black bears, by contrast, were much less active.  While we could still see plenty of them, they were mostly lounging around in various positions.  We also drove through two herds of bison – one white and one standard issue.  We have all encountered bison before (though the kids and I have yet to see them in the wild) but it is always lovely to see them.

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After the drive-through area, we parked up and entered the zoo area.  First up were beavers.  My 10 year old was really excited to see the beavers and especially because they were in the middle of eating dinner so he could see them using their strong teeth to chow down on carrots and other veggies.  I adore porcupines so I was glad to see them.  I love the way they walk with a rolling gait and their sweet, round faces.  My cat daft 8 year old was excited to see bobcats and thought they looked every bit as huggable as our own pet cats.  Lucky for him and for the bobcats, he couldn’t get near them for a cuddle.  I think seeing bobcats and snoozing ringtail cats might have been the highlight of the road trip for him though.  We also saw javelinas – the hairy wee pigs that live in southwestern deserts – and foxes, an American badger, and some playful otters.

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An area the kids really loved was the barnyard area where they could walk among sheep and goats.  The goats were incredibly friendly and the herd pretty much adopted my 8 year old and let him walk in among them.  Another goat seemed to take a shine to my 11 year old and even touched noses with him.  My son was instantly smitten.  We happened to be in the barnyard when the keeper arrived to feed the goats their dinner so she offered to let my kids help her share out the food.  They gladly said yes and were soon holding their hands out while goats and sheep munched straight from their hands.  They absolutely loved it.

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After a visit to the rear of the gift shop and restaurant to see the jaguar roaming around, it was time to leave Bearizona and head back to our Flagstaff base for our last evening in Arizona.  We had another early start ahead of us the next morning.

Road Trip 2017 #13 – Slide Rock and Sedona

On the seventh day of our vacation, we decided to drive south from Flagstaff and visit Sedona.  We had an incredibly stressful drive there as we ended up on a road that was barely moving.  It turned out the traffic jam was caused by a blasting zone on the road meaning the workers kept having to halt traffic in both directions.  Even when the cars were moving, they were doing so incredibly slowly because a convoy system was in place.  This was because there had been a landslip or massive rockfall.  The road was virtually impassible at that point and was near impossible to drive for its entire length.  The surface was appallingly uneven.  At one point, a ridge of rubble caught the underside of our rental car which caused me peak stress for the rest of the journey.  The powers that be really ought to have closed the road entirely because it was downright dangerous.

Mr Pict and I were, therefore, super glad when we reached our first destination for the day and could finally get out of the car.  We were at Slide Rock State Park in Oak Creek Canyon.  While Mr Pict and I had been to Sedona before, we had never visited this state park so all six of us were experiencing something for the first time.  We were lucky to arrive as early as we did as the car park was filling up fast.  Indeed, when we left, there was a queue of cars all along the road waiting to enter.  We found where all the hundreds of people were when we reached the creek.  The place was absolutely heaving with people.  The lure of the water on such a baking hot day was understandable and Slide Rock turned out to be a fantastic spot for cooling down in the water.  It was the landlocked equivalent of a beach and I probably loved it even more for not having sand.

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We found a spot to set down our stuff and then straight away my four boys were wading out into the water.  The air temperature may have been extremely hot but the water was ice cold.  Since I was merely paddling, I rather enjoyed the fact my feet turned to glaciers as it cooled the rest of me down.  Being entirely immersed in such frigid water, however, was a whole other challenge.  The kids were moving tentatively through the water until, one by one, they slipped and fell with a splash into the water.  That was one method of acclimating to the temperatures I suppose.  Once they had been drenched, it was much easier for them to just let loose and play.

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This area is where the creek gradually descends down bumps and through shallow crevices across the smooth surface of sandstone.  There are, therefore, areas for very shallow paddling with sudden (but visually obvious) deep pools of water, there are shallow gorges through which the water crashes at speed, there are wide, deep pools for swimming, and the steep rocks on either side create opportunities for diving in.  It was like a natural swimming pool full of flumes and diving platforms.  Everyone had an absolute blast playing in the water.  Mr Pict and the older boys had several turns at leaping from the rocks and splashing into the pool below.  They also experienced the rush of coursing down the water filled chutes.  The littlest Pict meanwhile was delighted to befriend a group of butterflies who were resting on the silt between the hot red rocks and the chilly water.

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After a morning of exercise, we were ready for some lunch.  We headed into Sedona, parked up, and immediately found a charming Mexican restaurant called Oaxaca.  We welcomed the shade but even more so we welcomed the hearty, flavourful food.  Once more, I opted for a salad that turned out to be so immense I could not finish it.  Mr Pict and the kids all had more traditional Mexican fare, enchiladas and burritos, and declared that they were delicious.  They then shared some desserts as an extra treat.  After that tasty pit stop, we had a brief wander around that end of Sedona.  There were lots of interesting shops to explore if shopping is your thing.  Shopping is not my thing and it decidedly is not my thing when I have four kids in tow.  We, therefore, didn’t spend long in Sedona.  Besides which, we had somewhere else to go onto that day.

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Road Trip 2017 #12 – Sunset Crater Volcano

We left the Grand Canyon in mid-afternoon and took a different route back towards our base at Flagstaff.  You might recall that I love old abandoned buildings so when, somewhere near Cameron, we drove past an abandoned motel and gas station, I had Mr Pict do a U turn so I could go for a quick explore.  I don’t think the motel had been abandoned too long ago so real decay had not had time to take hold.  However, three of my boys and I had a brief wander around to stretch our legs and have a poke around.  We especially loved the artwork on the gas tanks.

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Our proper detour on the way back was to our fourth National Park of the vacation.  Sunset Crater Volcano is a cinder cone volcano that erupted a little before 1100 AD, which is the most recent volcanic eruption in that plateau.  I have been to many an extinct volcano and one active one (Vesuvius) so far but this was my first ever experience of visiting a lava field – albeit one that had solidified 900 years ago.  We took the  designated trail across part of the Bonito Lava Flow, a trail on the ash at the base of the volcano itself, and it was instantly like being in an alien landscape.  The rubbly, black volcanic rock was definitely different from regular rock (can you tell I suck at geology?) and the whole field – somewhat barren and monochrome – was at odds with the surrounding landscape of trees and fertile fields.  There were a few ponderosa pines growing and even the odd flower but otherwise it was a pretty desolate landscape and I really rather liked that about it.  We had a wonderful time clambering our way across the trail and the younger boys found dozens of lizards which kept them content.

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I wanted to press on a bit further along the road to the Wupatki National Monument to see the preserved pueblos built by the Anasazi and Sinagua people.  I think, after a full day of looking at landscapes, I was desperate for something to do with anthropology, ethnology, just humans.  Mr Pict was the sensible parent this time and suggested that extending our day any further might just lead to a mutiny from the children.  He was right.  The kids looked hot, grubby, tired, and hungry.  I really very much wanted to see the pueblos but reluctantly I agreed to be sensible.  We headed back to Flagstaff, had a nice home-cooked dinner, and the boys lazed in the hot tub while we read on the deck.

Road Trip 2017 #11 – Whelmed at the Grand Canyon

As far as Mr Pict and I were concerned, the showpiece event we had organised our vacation around was a trip to the Grand Canyon.  We had both visited before and been wowed by it and felt the boys just had to see this natural wonder for themselves.

We set off early in the morning (we don’t do lazy lie-ins when on vacation) and soon found ourselves driving through the Kaibab National Forest.  There were wildfire warnings along the whole stretch and some side roads were closed off to cars because fires were actively being fought along that route.  There was evidence of previous forest fires all around us too – trees with their bark turned to blistered charcoal, trees that were nothing more than long, thick stalks with no branches, singed scrub.  There was plenty of wildlife to spot too, however.  We saw deer and elk and I even saw a small mob of prairie dogs.

The Grand Canyon was our third National Park of the vacation but entering it felt like driving into a theme park complex.  The place was jam-packed and we felt lucky to get a parking spot at the Visitor Centre.  We have a National Parks passport which we get stamped at each National Park we visit so we did that and our youngest son signed up as a junior ranger and was given an activity book to fill out.  We also looked at some interesting exhibits about the canyon.  Then we headed out for a stroll to nearby Mather Point.  It’s convenient location means it is most people’s first view of the Grand Canyon and we were no different.  Mr Pict and I were excited with the anticipation of how the kids might react when they first saw the absolutely massive scale of the Grand Canyon for the first time.  Mather Point offers a breathtaking view over the landscape and provides a strong sense of the scale of the place.  From there, you can clearly see all the way across from the South Rim to the North Rim, can appreciate the beauty of all the colourful rocks, can see the mighty Colorado River look like a mere trickling stream in the canyon floor below, and comprehend the vastness of the mile deep canyon.  The kids walked onto the viewing platform area and …. they were whelmed.  They were not underwhelmed but nor were they overwhelmed; they were just whelmed.  Mr Pict and I deflated.  How could they fail to be amazed by this completely stunning landscape?

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The kids perked up when we moved along the canyon a little (in the direction of Cameron) and they were able to view the canyon without crowds of people  – we had the spot entirely to ourselves – and without barriers.  I think being able to get up as close to the edge as they felt comfortable doing (and two of my kids are daredevils in that respect) started to give them some sense of the scale.  It turned out that this was the same spot where, 17 years earlier, Mr Pict and his brother had freaked me out by appearing to stumble off the edge of the cliff into the canyon below.  Of course, what they had actually done was drop down onto a lower ledge but it was a pretty cruel trick.  I was, therefore, understandably on high alert with the four boys and their father being so close to the edge as they peered down into the abyss below.  Indeed, perhaps it was the dry heat plus an incipient cold, but I am going to blame stress and related high blood pressure for the fact that throughout our trip to the Grand Canyon my nose kept bleeding.  Still, despite the opportunity for elevated anxiety, I am glad we got out at that spot to take in the view as it allowed the kids to just relax and enjoy the scenery, to wander a bit, and do their feral things like chasing lizards and climbing trees.

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Our next stop was Grandview and it was busy again.  I stayed at the top of the viewpoint while Mr Pict and the kids headed down a trail into the canyon.  Their report was that it was pretty cool being below rim level and I am sure it was but my fear of heights was just too crippling to let me walk down a narrow trail.  I was much happier just spectating and, oddly enough, felt more at ease once I could not see them anymore.  Even from my elevation, I could see the trace of a copper mine in the canyon floor, a pale patch among the warmer tones.  I got chatting to a ranger and it transpired that the trail the other Picts were taking was the one that mules took when carrying copper out of the mine.

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Safely gathered together again, our final Grand Canyon stop of the day was at Desert View, a point where the canyon starts to meet the Painted Desert.  It was pretty cool to see the landscape divided between the wide cracks of the canyon and the steep walls of a butte.  It was also at this point that we obtained some of the clearest views of the Colorado River wending its way through the canyon.  There is also a Watch Tower at this spot, a welcome little bit of added interest for the Pictlings.  The watchtower, which is essentially a folly, stands near the rim so has spectacular views over the Grand Canyon.  It was built by an architect named Mary Jane Coulter in the 1930s and was inspired by Pueblo buildings.  We first climbed up through the tower.  The interior of the building is decorated with murals in a variety of styles echoing the traditions of local indigenous peoples and I spent some time studying and enjoying these as I circled a central hollow on each floor and ascended each flight of spiral stairs.  The very top of the tower gave us fabulous views out over the landscape so it was well worth dealing with the heights.  There were also great panoramic views to be had from the observation deck.  The kids really seemed to enjoy the watchtower so we at least finally felt like they had engaged with being at the Grand Canyon.  I am hopeful that one day they will really appreciate how impressive the place is, one of the natural wonders of the world.

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Road Trip 2017 #10 – Woe at the Lowell Observatory

My husband took a photo of our kids at the Lowell Observatory that pretty much sums up our experience.

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This was not even the first time we had had a miserable experience at the Lowell Observatory.  Back in 2000, we had visited because of Mr Pict’s enthusiasm for astronomy.  We attended a lecture that was, it seemed, being given by someone with as much knowledge of the solar system and its workings as I possess.  And I know bupkis.  The scant nature of the lecturer’s general knowledge was even more exposed when she started taking questions from the floor.  A keen kid in the front row asked question after question and basically had to answer the questions himself because the lecturer could barely comprehend his question.  It was dull but more so it was excruciatingly cringeworthy.  We then took a tour of some historic telescopes through which I could see entirely nothing.  Not the powerful nothingness of infinite space.  Just nothing.  And then we left the Observatory and tried to get some dinner only to find that all restaurants in Flagstaff had somehow apparently run out of food.  It was such a miserable evening that it has now become our shorthand for referring to any sub-par travel experience: “Well at least it wasn’t Lowell bad”.

There was no way we were signing up for a lecture this time around.  Our first stop at the Lowell Observatory, therefore, was a room full of interactive exhibits aimed at children on a Space Academy theme.  Each kid got to create an astronaut name for themselves and that printed out a card with a barcode for them to then use on each screen.  They actually found that quite engaging though I would say the quiz questions were pretty tough and even I as an adult with pretty strong general knowledge struggled to answer some of them.

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We then headed outside to go and see the historic telescopes and actual observatory gubbins.  We queued up to have a look through the Clark telescope and I was actually able to see Jupiter so that was an improvement on my previous experience.  I could see the striped colours of the planet’s surface and two of its moons.  That was actually pretty cool.  The Lowell Observatory, founded by Percival Lowell, was where Pluto was discovered so it is a pretty important place in the history of astronomy – even if poor Pluto is now considered to not be a fully-fledged planet.  Sadly, I didn’t get to look through the telescope that had identified Pluto because it was away being restored.  Mr Pict and the littlest Pictling queued up to look through a few other telescopes and saw the moon and another view of Jupiter.  The rest of us just tried to stave off our growing boredom.

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We were supposed to be going on a guided tour of constellations at 8.30.  We, and a whole load of other people, gathered at the designated spot and waited.  And waited.  The kids’ boredom had shifted into disgruntlement.  I too was getting increasingly cheesed off with standing around in the darkness.  Finally, some time after 9, our guide turned up.  It emerged that they had cancelled the 8.30 tour because it was not dark enough (as astronomers, shouldn’t they know when it gets dark each night?) and we were, therefore, joining the 9 o’clock tour.  Which was also late.  Suffice to say, I was not in the best of moods when we set off on this tour and the kids were grumpy and tired.  The idea of the tour was that the guide would use a laser pointer (which was admittedly impressively powerful) to draw out the constellations in the sky, like star dot-to-dot, while explaining the cultural history of the constellations.  It should have been just the ticket for engaging the kids and me in astronomy since it was less about science and more about mythology and anthropology.  Alas, it was turgid and amateur.  The guide turned out to be doing her summer job as she was normally an 8th Grade science teacher.  It was the problem of skimpy general knowledge again.  We hung back in the crowd and found an opportunity to slope off in the darkness and leave.

I don’t think we will ever go back to the Lowell Observatory again.  I am fairly confident I won’t.  Percival Lowell spent a long time at his telescopes trying to find martians plus Pluto got downgraded from proper planet status.  I think he may have cursed the place.  It’s definitely cursed for me.

Road Trip 2017 #9 – Walnut Canyon

After the astronomy and geology science of Meteor Crater, we headed off to do something that was very much more my cup of tea: Walnut Canyon.  It was another place that Mr Pict and I had visited in 2000 and it was a place I was keen to return to as it had left a strong impression on me.  I was also keen to ensure that the kids had some sense of the history of the indigenous people of the region during our road trip around the Southwest states.

Walnut Canyon is the site of pretty sheer cliffs in which, 800 years ago, a group of indigenous people made their homes.  They created dwellings in the face of the canyon from natural hollows in the rock, sheltered by overhanging rocks, and successfully eked out an existence hunting, gathering, and even farming.  It is an astounding achievement that they managed to flourish there because even now – with modern access and trails – the place is pretty remote, inaccessible, and terrifying to anyone who (like me) experiences a fear of heights.  It is not clear what led these local people to relocate to the canyon nor is it clear why they left. They only lived there for about a century.

The National Park visitor centre is positioned at the top of the canyon so we spent a fair bit of time in there preparing ourselves for the hike in and out of the canyon.  I have a new appreciation for cold water fountains and air conditioning so we took advantage of those before we headed out into the heat.  There was a small but effective education area for the kids.  They especially liked being able to feel the pelts of local mammals, from bears to skunks.  Just outside the building, they encountered some actual wildlife as there were lizards basking themselves and our youngest son made friends with a squirrel who followed him around for a while.

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The descent into the canyon was easy.  The pathways have been upgraded since our previous visit and feel much more stable underfoot and, though narrow, there was enough room to pass people without fearing being knocked off the edge, which was lucky since the canyon was very busy.  The scenery was breathtaking and as soon as we dropped below rim height we could see some of the cave dwellings in cliffs across the canyon.

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Before long we had reached the dwellings that were accessible on the trail loop.  At this point, I assume to preserve the authenticity of the place, the pathway was very narrow and there were no railings or fences.  This presented my kids with the opportunity to freak me out.  Even when they had ample space on the path – given we were walking single file – they would walk perilously close to the edge.  I, therefore, had to transform into Bad Cop Mother and constantly police and chastise them.  Our middle two sons were in a cranky mood as it was.  They had this notion in their heads that the whole walk would be boring since they were certain (despite being told otherwise) that they would not be allowed inside any of the dwellings and that the whole purpose of the trek was therefore pointless.  Seriously annoying.  The 10 year old perked up when we reached the dwellings and he was proved wrong.  The 11 year old, however, stubbornly refused to emerge from his cocoon of annoyance.  At one point he even declared, “I do think this is cool but I am in a bad mood”.  Sigh.  Sometimes as parents we just have to have faith that as some point our offspring will appreciate and value the experiences we are giving them no matter how resistant they are at the time.

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Anyway, we all (maybe even the 11 year old) enjoyed exploring the dwellings, most of which were open to visitors.  It was actually quite easy to imagine people living in the spaces, cooking food, laughing together, bringing back food from the rim level farmland, mothers shouting at their children to stay away from the edge of that ruddy path …. Each little recess also offered us some very welcome shade and cool because by then the sun was high in the sky and the air temperature was oven-like.  What comes down, must go up when it comes to canyon hikes.  We started the return walk and realised just how long the ascent was going to be.  Walking uphill in immense heat is pretty exhausting and gross.  We stopped for rest breaks wherever there was a patch of shade available.  On some corner turns, we could see the visitor centre sitting nest-like at the top of the canyon and for a long time it seemed like it was never getting any closer.  By the time I made it out of the canyon, my mouth felt like dry dust and I was so glowing that you could have toasted marshmallows on my cheeks.  That fountain’s ice cold water was like the best drink ever in the world ever.

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Road Trip 2017 #8 – Meteor Crater

One of the things Mr Pict really wanted to do on our vacation was take the kids to see Meteor Crater.  He and I had visited back in 2000 but, as an astronomy nerd, he is always looking for opportunities to engage and enthuse the kids in the subject of outer space.  We, therefore, set off early on the fifth day of our vacation to make the most of cooler morning temperatures and arrived at Winslow just as Meteor Crater was opening to visitors.

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As its name suggests, Meteor Crater is a place in Arizona where, 50,000 years ago, a meteor measuring about 150 feet in diameter and weighing several thousand tons collided into the earth at 26,000 miles per hour.  Don’t ask me how scientists know such things when nobody was around to witness or record the event let alone measure it.  They do their scientific stuff and they know and I just learn the precis of their findings and trust their knowledge and understanding.  The result of the impact was a giant crater several hundred feet deep and 4000 feet in diameter.  An introductory video illustrated the scale by showing that 20 (American) Football games could be played inside the crater with room for 2 million spectators.  In the museum, we were able to see and touch one of the large fragments of meteorite that was left behind after the impact and explosion, which was rather cool.

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The museum area had definitely improved since our last visit.  It was much more engaging and the kids were able to absorb information through interactive displays. They learned about earth impacts in ancient and modern times, including photos of meteorites that had fallen through people’s roofs and the famous images of the Tunguska Event, and that all the pock-marks on the moon’s surface are the result of similar collisions.  They also learned about Meteor Crater’s use as a site for training astronauts and for studying outer space geology.  There were experiments in magnetism and a game whereby they could “design” a meteor and see what its impact would look like on a particular planet.  Our youngest son celebrated when he managed to completely destroy Earth and Venus.

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We stepped outside and were able to properly view the Crater.  I am sure the local indigenous population had a name for this vast divot in the ground but, if they did, we didn’t learn it.  We did, however, learn that it was first recorded as Franklin’s Hole and later it was named Coon Butte.  My children decided that they much preferred either of those epithets to the bland and obvious Meteor Crater.  At the very beginning of the 20th Century, a Philadelphia mining engineer named Barringer took out a claim on the land in the hopes he could locate and mine the iron from the giant meteorite.  He was disappointed but his efforts apparently resulted in much learning.  The evidence of this mining activity could still be seen within the crater – only just so with the naked eye but better with the available telescopes.  Other telescopes were trained on interesting features within the Crater, from a small boulder on the rim that turned out to be the size of a house to a barely discernible pin prick on the crater floor that turned out to be a model of a 6″ tall astronaut with an American flag.  This was useful in really conveying to the kids how colossal the crater was.

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Our visit to Meteor Crater was very interesting and I am glad we took the kids to see it but I just don’t get that excited by science or outer space.  The highlight of my trip to Meteor Crater was that I saw a mountain lion on the side of the road.  Much more exciting.