The Perfect Preschooler Road Trip

The Perfect Preschooler Road Trip

Alberta vacays are a rite of being a Saskatonian whether you're a kid who dreams of a West Ed theme room, 18 and in it for the lower drinking age, or a parent planning your first family road trip. After all, at "just" a five-or-six-hour drive, our neighbouring province offers the closest drive in Canada to a major centre. If you're the parent of a preschooler, your child ideally occupies some of that drive with a nap but let's be real, it doesn't always pan out that way, so today I'm sharing my road trip essentials and bringing you along on my family's recent getaway which had soooo many high points in five days (alongside a couple of tantrums, but we'll just skip those.)

Now, Petra has enjoyed a weekend at West Ed on a couple of occasions but we hadn't dared the drive to Calgary yet because until very recently, she wouldn't pee outside and there are long stretches of prairie in that direction. So as soon as she learned to embrace her survivalist side, we decided to plan a trip down the 7, hitting up Drumheller, Banff, and Calgary. Here are some things I packed and what we did.

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I always have a mini backpack ready to roll for restaurants that might otherwise not be kid-friendly and I try to keep the contents fresh-ish. Staples are stickers, paper, crayons, interactive books like look-and-finds, and something to build with (a Ziplock of lego, Magformers, Play Dough... that kind of thing). I don't generally unpack this in the car but rather bring it into stops where I know Petra will be bored. Of course, on this trip, I left it in the first stop we made: A&W in Rosetown. Ugh. Luckily, my car essentials got us through and we picked up a great interactive magnet book from the Tyrrell Museum a few hours later which doubled as a souvenir.

We've kept screens out of Petra's life minus the occasional movie night at home and a video selfie on my phone here and there so, for both cars and planes, I've learned what works to keep her happy and have accrued a great little list. Most important is SNACKS. I grab whatever is in the pantry and throw it all on one side of a duffel alongside a couple of little, lidded, pyrex dishes I can toss a mix into whenever she wants. The mix options will always include a variety of nuts, dried fruit, crispy and salty snack, and seeds. Also in the snack section is a water bottle and a variety of fruits I can just hand back like mandarin oranges, apples, bananas, and a container of grapes. And, a few tea towels just in case. 

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On the other side of the duffel, I pack non-edible time-occupiers. I make sure to choose things that won't get dropped constantly (so Duplo rather than Lego), that don't require a lot of help (the stickers must be easily removable from their sheets), that isn't impossible to do whilst driving (drawing with crayons is out), and that are proven winners (no brand new toy that might prove frustrating). Things that make the cut include her dressable Minnie Mouse, colourful Look and Find books, magnetic create-a-scenes, reusable sticker activities, a selection of books she has memorized, and a couple of favourite small stuffies. Her Christmas list includes a few other things I think will be handy for road trips like a magnetic drawing board, a Simon, and a new Play-A-Sound pen for her Disney books (the most successful gift ever, given by my friend Lisa, but which is not made anymore and is only available on eBay and Amazon), and maybe a play tray though she's really got a system of her own goin' back there.

I remember liking Drumheller as a kid but nothing prepared me for seeing it again through my preschooler's eyes. The winding hoodoo foothills leading into town are absolute magic and Petra began a dinosaur scavenger hunt of her own as we drove down the main streets, shouting out her guesses as to the nomenclature of each statue we passed. I'd started using dinosaur names the week before in playing with her and we watched Ice Age as a family, which was enough to pique her curiosity in advance of this trip and get her familiar with the biggies. We first visited the Drumheller Tourist Centre because I'd read on TripAdvisor that there were 2 for 1 coupons for the Tyrrell Museum but FYI, that program has been cancelled. Good to note: there is an online discount of 10% when you purchase through Air Miles. While we were at the Tourist Centre, we took twenty minutes to climb the World's Largest Dinosaur and peer out his mouth overlooking the town. For $4/person, it's better than expected even on the way up, with "fossils" built into the cavernous walls and murals all around. The Centre also had a great little gift shop featuring geodes, petrified wood, books, and real fossils and we ended up coming back after our trip to the museum as the prices on natural wares were a little lower.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum was the big draw, of course, and the exhibits didn't disappoint. The journey through the various time periods is simply done so you know where you are in pre-history, every display is impressive, the interaction is suitable for any age, and there is SO MUCH to see. Highlights for Petra included seeing palaeontologists at work in the lab, walking through the lush prehistoric conservatory, the many dynamic displays with sound effects, a recreation of what a real dig site looks like, and the ice age section where she recognized the wooly mammoth and sabre-toothed tiger alongside creatures whose descendants are still alive today. It's fascinating to her (and in general) that extinction wasn't complete in any era and that sharks, birds, reptiles, and many bugs are relics from prehistoric times. Petra also enjoyed how hands-on the Tyrrell is and pressed every button, looked at every microscope, opened every drawer and door at her level, and touched any display that allowed. 

The only dinosaur-themed place Drumheller lacks is a hotel. Someone should get on that! We chose the Quality Inn as its reviews were good and there weren't any other amazing options; the stay was nice with good service. My only complaint is that the breakfast (included, btw) featured disposable wares right down to the bowls. Ugh. Cut to me, travelling with a whole set of dishes next time. We made up for it with lunch at the Chopped Leaf, a chain that offers both real dishes and lots of vegetarian options.

We skipped hiking the badlands because Petra was getting sleepy but Drumheller is home to some unique trails so next time we're through, we'll make the time.

The 2.5 hour drive to Banff late that afternoon took us through Calgary and provided a solid nap for Petra. We checked into the Elk + Avenue Hotel on the main drag and went for a walk that ended at a classic kid-fave: the Spaghetti Factory. "Banff is so touristy now," says everyone all the time, but that's kind of the point, even way back in the late 1800s when it was founded! You've either got to love it for what it is, or not go. In that spirit, we let Petra turn over every snow globe in the souvenir shops, walk atop every road-flanking rock, pose with every towering store mascot, and try on toque after toque at the mountaineering outfitters. She was just as much an attraction as anything else with her blue eyes and little ringlets; tourists fawned over her and took photos as she waved back. Petra enjoyed her ambassadorship, saying "Hello and welcome to Canada!" with gusto. Once again, that's what Banff is for.

We never bring a stroller on vacation, rather packing our Ergo carrier. But as it turns out, Petra no longer wants help and is a slow but steady hiker, which suited the Bow Falls trail just fine. Our backpack full of goodies from both my trail mix stash and the IGA across from our hotel (grocery necessities were snap peas and baby carrots), we spent the morning in nature and in no rush. The falls are beautiful and it's close to town so you can pack a lot more into your day if you like.  

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It's hard to pick one favourite highlight but that afternoon's picnic atop Mount Norquay might win. We lucked out in nabbing two of the red Adirondack chairs that have popped up all over the country for Canada 150 (the only two I saw in Banff, at that). With a little deli lunch of baguette, Borsain, hummus, and crudites, I don't think I've ever felt more fortunate than I did then, looking over that beautiful valley with my family. I hope you too will live this moment the next time you're in Banff. 

The next morning, we took a Gondola ride up Sulpher Mountain for which I did not dress appropriately. Warning: it's super windy and chilly no matter the temp on the ground! Put your hair in a pony, grab some gloves, and maybe don't wear a little jean jacket that doesn't come close to containing your baby bump. No matter, the views from the glass-enclosed carriage on the way up were splendid and the 2km walk from the Interpretive Centre to the lookout was easy despite my hair whipping wildly around my face the whole time. I laughed a lot. Back at the Centre, there was more than I recalled from when I was younger: a fantastic deli, a tavern, interactive displays, info on wildlife, a restaurant, all accessing the incredible 360 degree views.

Our day was rounded out with an indoor adventure at Western Canada's oldest National Historic Site, the Banff Park Museum. It's charming and interesting, and free, which you can't argue with. Of course, I should mention that the entry to Banff is free until the end of 2017 as all National Parks are enjoying open house status in celebration of Canada's 150th birthday.

Calgary was our destination the next day and we popped into Chinook for a quick reconnaissance mission and I'm glad we did since we'd planned to spend the next day at the mall. That hour was enough. Not as much fun to shop when you're pregnant, I guess! So we headed back to my brother-in-law Chris's house. His wife Nicole, who is also expecting a November baby, had put together the cutest welcome basket for us including magazines, toys for Petra, Baby Brother/Big Sister tshirts, and snacks. I've never done that for a guest but plan on stealing the idea because it sure makes one feel welcome! They topped it with a lovely dinner, snacks over a game of Kaiser, and breakfast the next day, all thoughtfully vegetarian. 

If you've never been to the Telus Spark, let me just say it alone is worth the drive to Calgary. I've taken Petra to science centres in many other cities and the stations that the Spark offers are comparatively diverse, age-divergent, well-executed, and all in perfect repair. From circut-making and experiments in human physiology to print-making, button-creation, and a styling centre, Petra could have easily spent the whole day there, doing. One tip: the dome theatre is a bit of a let-down. We chose to see a show about extreme weather expecting it to feel like an IMAX but in reality, you have to crane your neck back a lot which I found more annoying than immersive. It also took out a chunk of our exploration time. If you do buy tickets for a show, know that not all seats are created equal; choose ones that are further up the theatre.

After some more visiting and a quick pop-in at Ikea, we were homebound. And as good as it is to get out, it's always nice to come home. Hope this inspires a few ideas for your next family road trip!