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May 2013

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State Park Treasure Hunts

Geocaching combines technology and nature for outdoor family fun.

By Amber Conrad

Treasure, adventure, gold coins, cryptic clues and riddles await. This is not the theme for an adventure park ride or another pirate movie; it’s the theme for a weekend spent geocaching in state parks.

“Yo-ho!” sang an excited 6-year-old Lexi Hawbecker. “A-geo-treasuring we go!”

She swung her mom Sonja’s hand as she bounced along the trail at Pedernales Falls State Park behind her two older brothers.

I fiddled with the touch screen on my phone, but I wasn’t emailing or checking social media. Instead, I used the device to access topographic maps and global positioning coordinates as I hunted for treasure. Sure, I’d tweet about it eventually, but first there was a geocache waiting to be discovered.

Containers called geocaches are hidden around the world, waiting for people to find them. These containers hold toys, coins, prizes and logbooks. Some contain trackable memorabilia that are then taken and hidden in other geocaches in other locations; these items have specific numbers that are logged into a website and tracked. Geocaches are placed everywhere from the bottom of the ocean to the neighborhood park to the International Space Station.

In Texas, the state park system sponsors a geocache challenge. An official geocache has been placed in every state park. Participants of all ages can find a park’s geocache and then submit answers to the challenge’s questions to reach certain prize levels. More than 6,000 people have logged caches through the geocache challenge, with more participating without logging their finds.

Park geocaches are well-maintained and can usually be found just off a stroller-friendly trail. With geocaching, you can get a cute photo for the scrapbook as your kids discover treasure and use technology to learn about the outdoors.

Geocaching

The author, McKinney Falls State Park ranger Amber Conrad (left), joins the Hawbecker family as they hunt for a hidden geocache.

Tip 1: Geocaching is “busy mom”-friendly.

My friend Sonja Hawbecker is a mother of three and works at her family’s business in Austin. When she’s not carting the kids to after-school clubs and Scouts, she’s fulfilling many other duties. For Sonja, her husband Ken, sons Nick, 10, Travis, 8, and little Lexi, free time is spent on last-minute activities and the occasional nap.

“We try to do outdoors things, but sometimes the closest we get to nature is our yard and the trees in the parking lot islands around town,” Hawbecker admitted as we walked the trail.

Hawbecker’s not alone. It’s estimated that our kids spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors now. In some schools, recess and playgrounds have been taken out of the daily routine.

Geocaching is a good introduction into the outdoors because it allows you to take a little walk on a well-managed trail out in nature. You don’t have to spend all day at the park — many parks are less than an hour away from major metropolitan areas. On our trips, we usually picked up the kids after school for an afternoon park outing and were home in time for dinner.

“I was really impressed at how the kids took to the geocaching concept,” Hawbecker said. “We had a lot of fun and were able to talk about plants and animals while taking about half an hour to an hour to find a cache.”

Nick and Travis ran ahead of us on the paved trail, weaving under and around lower-hanging tree branches and jumping over roots. Haw­becker glanced at her phone and then directed the boys at the fork in the road as they bounded off in the appropriate direction.

Geocaching

The trappings of geocaching: backpacks, GPS devices, containers and small prizes.

Tip 2: There’s an app for this.

Hawbecker and I weren’t always so Zen about wandering through the Hill Country with kids in tow to find a little treasure in the middle of a state park. We first had to navigate through technology to get a map, or at least a clue, to start our adventure.

Having shunned the user manual for my 10-year-old hand-me-down geocaching brick before we set out that morning, we stared at the coordinate download text, willing it to reassemble into something we understood. We had read the inspirational TPWD geocaching challenge Web pages on my smartphone. We smiled at the pictures of kids with devices in their hands on a hike. But then we got to the pages of coded links for program and coordinate downloads.

I may be a child of the technology age and run tech support for my older co-workers, but I’m hardly a computer goddess. We didn’t know which digital package to choose, didn’t know where to put the files, and we didn’t know how much longer we were going to want to deal with this newfangled hobby. But then Hawbecker found a beginner video on YouTube, friendly official sites, helpful forums and an all-important app. I was suddenly back in my comfort zone and ready to find some treasure.

It’s a good idea to set yourself up with your computer and phone before you go out. Here are the steps:

1. Create an account at www.geocaching.com.
2. Download the app on your device.
3. Log in with your account info.
4. Find the cache name from www.texasstateparks.org/geocache and plug it into the app.
5. Go find the geocache.

The app was brilliantly simple: I typed in the cache name, and a compass came up on my screen with a huge arrow pointing to the geocache location. Below the huge arrow, the program told me how many miles (later, feet) until the cache and I were united. I handed the phone over to Travis, who had no problem following the arrow, sometimes walking in circles, eyes fixed on the screen as the location updated down the trail.

Geocaching

Payoff comes for the Haw­beckers as they discover a state park geocache and the rewards inside.

Tip 3: Bring something, get something.

For all the little treasure hunters in your crew, an immediate reward of trinkets and trivia awaits discovery in the state park caches. The containers are ammo boxes designed to withstand the elements with bright state park geocache challenge stickers stuck to their sides. These caches hold a logbook, a punch, park-specific trivia and trinkets. Write your name and the date in the log; the punch is used to make a unique shape on your geocache challenge passport, available from the TPWD website. The park-specific trivia is used to answer the question on the challenge passport proving you found the cache.

All this record keeping is great, but as Nick says, “There’s cool stuff in there, too.”

We were a few hundred feet away from the cache according to my phone, and the arrow led us off the paved trail onto a worn grassy path in the park. We walked single-file through underbrush and branches, figuring out after squeezing through the wilds that there was a convenient path we could have taken just up the trail.

The phone app said we were five feet away from the cache, then zero feet away. The kids spread out looking for their treasure chest. We searched behind rocks, we searched above us in the trees, we searched behind each other, and then three shrieking kids found it in a hollow of a tree trunk.

Families leave everything from kid’s meal toys to trading cards to favorite recipes in these caches. Geocachers can find trackable tags and the occasional coin in the park caches, and littler explorers can often choose from colorful stickers, puzzles, patches from Scout troops, magnets shaped like states, little Mexican pottery pieces and many other delightful prizes.

There’s an honor system among cachers. People take one trackable tag and leave another, take a coin and leave a coin, take a toy and leave a toy.

Hawbecker was interested in the recipes left by other families and decided to exchange her own at our next cache. I was interested in the trackable tags, and the kids were understandably infatuated with the little toys.

Geocaching

The Hawbecker family gets help from ranger Amber Conrad for a geocaching adventure.

Tip 4: The parks staff has covered all the bases.

The Hawbeckers and I were good to go with an app and learning from experience, but if you prefer formal training, the park staff has got you covered. Several state parks across Texas offer demonstration programs, where rangers teach the basics of geocaching and then lead the class on a treasure hunt in the park.

When we went to Lockhart State Park, the ranger there was happy to chat with us about our adventure. He even let us know where to take an alternate route to get around a muddy trail.

It turned out the cache had washed away in a rainstorm two days before we got there, but it was quickly replaced the next week when we logged the missing cache on the geocaching site tied to our phone apps.

The trails leading to caches are usually the park’s main trails, with the X marking the spot just a little ways off the path. Bathrooms and water are seldom far away.

As the Hawbeckers discovered at McKinney Falls State Park, some parks even offer special event caches. For Easter in 2012, park employees hid several little egg caches in the park, which together gave clues to get a special prize.

For more information on geocaching at state parks, visit www.texasstateparks.org/geocache.


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