On our family trip this year we ventured out into the desert for a week of hiking amidst giant boulders and jackrabbits. My husband and I backpacked in Joshua Tree National Park almost a dozen years ago, hauling our water, hiking to abandoned mines, enjoying the quiet vastness of the Pinto Basin. So we decided to go back with our 4 and almost-7-year-old.

Yeah, the second trip was nothing like the first.

We’d hike in the morning, hide out at the hotel during the heat of the day, then bring a picnic dinner into the park. There was whining, for sure. My younger would wake up at 6 a.m. with loads of energy and volume, but as soon as he set foot on the trail he would beg to be carried.

But we were prepared. We had read stories about desert animals, geology and artists. We had animal and plant ID pamphlets, and a Junior Ranger activity book. And I had a travel painting kit tucked into my pack.

I packed a set of Staedtler Watercolor Crayons, Strathmor Watercolor Postcards, a handful of paint brushes, and two little plastic pans for water (jar lids or bottle caps would easily do the job). I carried them in a small zipper bag and tossed it in our backpack when we went hiking. With watercolor crayons, you can draw out the shapes with the crayons, then go over it with a wet brush to spread the colors and blend them, and you can even try brushing water on the blank page and then drawing with the crayons over that. We don’t paint a lot at home (what can I say, paint plus toddlers is overwhelming) so this was all kind of new, but low pressure.

I wanted to have a quiet activity for when we needed a rest, but an activity that kept us in the moment and outside. My kids are never silent, but at least we could sit together while we talked about the color of the sky or which rock was their favorite.

The most meaningful and satisfying family vacations we have had are ones in which we found a way to stay engaged with the place we were visiting. By learning about the history of a place, learning about unique rocks or animals that we might see, we get to do more than just see a place, but examine it, be immersed in it. I don’t want to pay thousands of dollars just to get out of the car, snap a selfie, and drive on.

I am going to bring my watercolor kit on hikes or outings this fall, and see if the magic will work again. If painting in the desert was fun, with all its many browns, imagine how thrilling it will be to paint all the colors of a Hudson Valley autumn?

Raheli Harper