There are over 400 national parks in the United States and a variety of ways to enjoy them. Whether you plan to visit all of them or simply select a few bucket-list spots, a national park annual pass might be a valuable resource. We used an America the Beautiful pass for our travel this summer, and here are some things I learned that might be helpful when deciding whether it’s right for you.

  1. Check if you qualify for free entrance without a pass. There are several opportunities to visit national parks for free during the year and skip the pass altogether. More than half of the national parks and lands do not charge admission, so do your research before you plan your trip. Also, thanks to the Every Kid in the Park initiative, families with fourth-grade students will automatically have admittance to all national parks and government lands during their fourth-grade school year. For families with multiple children, that means multiple years of passes (or opportunities anyhow). Plus, the National Park Services offers free entrance days a few times each year. One is coming up next month on the National Park Services Day.
  2. Share the national park pass with a friend. The America the Beautiful pass can be shared by two separate people or households. As long as you are not planning to travel together in more than one car, you can split the cost and enjoy any park for almost the same cost as one of the more popular parks.
  3. Read the fine print. National Park passes cover entrance into the park for one vehicle carrying up to four adults and unlimited children. It does not cover amenities like camping, parking, permits, or special tours. If you’re planning to stay in the park, plan for extra uncovered expenses.
  4. Upgrade on the road. If you visit one park and decide to upgrade to an annual pass later, show your entrance receipt at an NPS fee site and they should credit it toward your annual pass.
  5. Purchase your pass online, but don’t lose it! If you know the parks you plan to visit, order your pass online ahead of time to save time in line at the visitor’s centers. This is particularly helpful if you are traveling in the summertime when national parks tend to be more crowded and lines can be longer. Keep in mind, online purchases through NPS may take upwards of 20 business days to arrive so allow plenty of time for it to arrive. You can also purchase passes online at LL Bean or REI locations around the country which may ship more quickly. Once you receive your pass, don’t lose it! They are not replaceable.

photo4I’d like to introduce another gifted sponsor, Kaylan Buteyn, an artist, and the former writer and photographer behind  the The Emerald Homestead and Kaylan Buteyn Photography. Today, she’s sharing a few tips for photographing children with us. Welcome, Kaylan, and thank you so much for sharing!


Hello friends and readers of Cloistered Away! I’m so excited to share a post on some simple photography tips with you–specifically tips focused around photographing your kids! I’m a photographer for a living but when it comes to photographing my family, I realize it’s not the easiest task. In this day and age when everyone has nice cameras and phones to capture their family, it can be easy to snap away mindlessly…taking photographs of everything! While this isn’t necessarily bad, I think the main thing I need to focus on at times is stepping back or removing myself from the situation (even if it’s mentally), and truly contemplating what I want to capture, why that specific moment is special to me, and how to frame the shot well.

Here’s three simple tips I try to use when photographing our family: 

1. Capture the entire story
Portraits of our kids are the basic thing most of us take, right? Their cute faces are what we want to capture. But I think photographs are so powerful for the story they tell, and sometimes it takes a different kind of shot to do that. When I’m loving a moment, or truly want to capture something, sometimes the best way to do that is widen my range of photos I’d normally take. While on a pizza picnic at the creek, why not get a wider landscape shot to include the scenery? And make sure you capture interesting behaviors, not only the ‘picture perfect’ moments. I love thinking of photographs as part of a collection, rather than trying to fit every detail you love about the memory into one great shot.
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2. Don’t be afraid to photograph the every day
Your house isn’t perfect? Mine never is. Your kid has a scrape on his nose? Happens to everyone. Your toddler crying and not willing to get in your photo? It’s ok. Really. I think there’s something powerful in capturing moments that aren’t the spectacular, typically photographed ones. Maybe your child does, but my kid certainly doesn’t smile all the time. But his sweet toddler crying face and crocodile tears with his marker mouth? Gosh, that image tugs at my heart and I want to remember it. On our day at the zoo, my son was really skeptical of those monkeys. I’m so glad I caught that look. Don’t be afraid to step in and photograph the real, the raw, the every day. They might be images you truly look back on and enjoy- giving you a well rounded look at your past.

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3. Include yourself!
I never used to be really passionate about taking photos of myself with my kid. Let’s be honest, most of us have some kind of reactionary cringe when we think about photos of ourselves, right? Or is it just me? Either way, I know that the photos I treasure most from my childhood are the ones that include my parents. My Dad and I snuggled up in our favorite recliner while we both read the paper? Yeah, that one. Or my Mom with her awesome 80’s hairstyle holding me tight? I love that one too. So even though it’s a chore and I don’t love photos of myself. You’d better believe I’m going to get in some for my kids sake. I even decided to use the 52 project for just that cause this year.



learning at home toddlers

For a while now I’ve had other moms ask, “how do you do it? I want to homeschool, but I don’t know where to begin! Help.”  In great effort to do just that, over the next few weeks, I’ll be featuring a series of “learning at home” posts. Each post will focus on a different age, including a my favorite age-appropriate resources and a few tips that I’ve learned along our [brief] way.

But first I need to say, one of the greatest lessons I have learned in homeschooling is that it, just like parenting, will take on the personalities in your family, so even if you’re using the same exact tools/resources as your friend, they will still appear different in your home. And that’s okay. So if you are interested in home-education, think less about what is the right or wrong curriculum or way to educate and more about what will fit your parenting/family style and the way your kids learn. This will help save you worry, time, and money.


Now, on to toddlerhood.

Toddlers can be one of the most fun ages! They’re newly walking, running, jumping, talking, and of course, experimenting. When Liam, my oldest, was a busy two, I remember thinking, “Will I ever stop telling him ‘no’ or redirecting him?” The answer is no, but fortunately I tell him ‘no’ much, much less now. (Wink.) Learning at home in these years doesn’t have to be an elaborate project. They are learning so much through their environment without you even planning it! In terms of structured learning, these years are more about exposure and experimenting. Here’s a few tips and resources:

KEEP STRUCTURED LEARNING TIME SIMPLE.  Short attention spans and high energy require easy, quick activities. Think:

+  homemade play-dough (make or play)

+ simple blocks to build together while listening to music

+ daily walks hunting for a ___ (rock, leaf, bug, … etc)

+ simple art activity from one of my favorites — First Art

READ TOGETHER DAILY. Read-a-loud time during these years truly does cultivate a love of reading and learning through books as they get older.

+  To create a habit, try to pick a time of the day when you can be consistent, like bedtime or nap time.

+  Read a variety of stories, but also use this time to introduce letters and numbers. I love this set of board books from the Metropolitan Museum in New York — an introduction to letters, shapes, and numbers and also great works of art.

+  Try local story-times at the library or a book or coffee shop. This can also be a great place to meet other young mothers and homeschoolers.

BEGIN YOUR OWN RESEARCH. Use these years to inform yourself about the various homeschooling methods and learning styles.

+ Talk with other homeschooling moms if you know any.

+ Read The Homeschooling Option. This is my favorite intro to homeschooling book. Lisa Rivero is a homeschooling mom and professor at the University of Wisconsin. She tells a bit of her story while informing the reader of various ways homeschooling can look. It’s also full of additional resources from organizations to more specific books.

DON’T DESPISE SMALL BEGINNINGS.  Starting small will help you build consistency. For toddlers, one activity a week — or even a month depending on your family circumstance — might be enough. That’s okay. Blessings to you and your family.