Upon my husband’s safe return from serving overseas, we decided to take advantage of his leave time and go on one really long trip as a family. We chose California as our destination, set our budget, and set out on a 2-week adventure to see all that this great state has to offer.
The California Redwoods
If you have never experienced the Redwoods, this is definitely a bucket list item. These magnificent trees are found in the northern part of the state, and some of the largest of the giant redwoods are easily accessible by car. We decided to take advantage of the opportunity to introduce our kids to backcountry hiking and mapped out a 12-mile loop with a campground around the halfway point. We packed up a tent, 4 sleeping bags, clothes and some basic food, and set out on the Miner’s Ridge-James Irvine Loop Trail in Prairie Creek State Park*. Known as one of the most scenic hikes in the Redwoods, this loop starts off in the lush, green forest amidst the majestic tall trees. The forest floor is blanketed with ferns, and you think you’ve stepped into another world.
You’ll hike the easy to moderate Miner’s Ridge portion for roughly 5 miles before reaching the campground on Gold Bluffs Beach. You literally come out of the woods and step into the ocean, and it is a sight to behold! After 5 miles of hiking, my kids still had plenty of energy to chase the waves and build sand castles on this almost deserted stretch of coast. Good thing we packed a change of clothes, because they were FILTHY by the end of the day.
Now, the campground does have solar showers, but don’t count on the water being warm enough to actually use. That, and be prepared to share the bathroom with a spider or two, although they usually mind their own business.
We pitched our tent, had a dinner that wasn’t nearly as good as our neighbors who were grilling at the campsite next to us, and settled in for the night. I’d say we slept, but not much of that actually happened. As much as I love camping, next time I’ll remember to bring the air mattress.
My back will never be the same.
The next morning we packed up and continued on the loop towards Fern Canyon. This portion of the hike was really the highlight; it is GORGEOUS there. A word of warning, however; during the winter and spring there is no footpath in the canyon so you either have to take the high trail (and miss the scenery) or take your chances jumping the creek for about a mile or so. We decided we were tough and a little water wasn’t going to scare us off, so we set out into the canyon. This was all well and good until our daughter took a plunge into the icy cold water and ended up having to hike the last 5 miles in wet clothes. She was a trooper though, and at 7 years old she showed us how “roughing it” was really done. Lesson learned: always pack TWO changes of clothes.
Everyone in the family would agree that the 12-mile hike through this part of California was one of our favorite memories of the trip, ice bath and all. Make this a must-see stop on your next trip to the Golden State.
Hiking in the Prairie Creek State Park and camping at Gold Bluffs Beach get a 2-thumbs-up for being budget friendly. Our accommodations get a thumbs- down. Next time we will rent an RV.
* Military families should check into discounts at all state and national parks.
San Francisco is one really cool city. They have the Golden Gate Bridge (which my daughter pointed out is actually red), Alcatraz Island, the streetcars, Chinatown, awesome museums and more! With only one day to spend there we had to be picky, so we decided to buy the CityPASS* and get as much out of it as we could (CityPass is available for many major cities and gives you a package deal on many of that city’s major attractions and public transportation at one discounted price).
The CityPASS was worth the price just in the use of the city’s public transportation. We rode the streetcars and busses all day to all corners of town, and would have spent much more in parking fees or single-ride passes. The San Francisco CityPASS also lets you take advantage of several art, history, and science museums as well as the aquarium and bay cruise. We were able to squeeze in everything except the cruise (much to our disappointment) because we ran out of time.
On this particular vacation, it was all about getting the most out of our time and money (after all, the cost of a family of 4 traveling for 2 weeks can add up quickly). We wanted an inexpensive hotel that was close to all the city attractions. I like www.tripadvisor.com for help in choosing the best place to stay when I travel. We ended up staying at the Coventry Motor Inn. The name doesn’t sound promising, but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that we had a clean, comfortable room, free parking and WIFI, and a laundry service/dry cleaner (Marina TK Cleaners) 2 doors down! We happily dropped off a huge bag of clothes in the morning (remember our filthy clothes from hiking) and went on our way. Seriously, for 79 cents per pound, let someone else deal with that stinky mess!
Our day started with a walk on the water, where we took in views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, and had a surprise visit from POTUS as we crossed the street. No, really, his motorcade crossed right in front of us! It was wicked cool.
We made our way down to Fisherman’s Wharf and over to Pier 39 to hit the Aquarium of the Bay (included with the CityPASS). It’s a small aquarium, but has some fun interactive exhibits like touch pools for the stingrays and sea stars. It packs a lot of awesome into the small space; we really enjoyed our time there and it was well worth the visit.
Next we decided to enjoy a picnic lunch next to the famous sea lions of Pier 39. It was enormously entertaining watching and listening to these rather obnoxious animals as they barked at each other, pushed each other off the pier, and generally made a fuss. The seagulls were almost as entertaining; you really had to watch your food or it could fall prey to a very assertive bird. They aren’t picky, either; peanut butter sandwiches and Cheetos are just as appetizing to them as they are to my kids.
Hopping on a streetcar, we headed to the California Academy of Sciences (included with the CityPASS). My son was particularly excited about the Living Roof (a roof of rolling hills covered in grass that help combat urban heat) and the Earthquake exhibit (we stood in a painfully long line to get into the “shake house”, where they simulate what a real earthquake feels like. It was neat to experience, but if I’m going to stand in a line that long I expect a roller coaster waiting for me at the end of it). We also enjoyed the rainforest and a cool movie about the Mars rover before heading out to our next destination.
After a quick stop for dinner back at Fisherman’s Wharf, we headed to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (included with the CityPASS). As something of an art buff, I really enjoyed finding some Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock in the mix. They had a great photography exhibit and an amazing mural made out of human hair. We only had about an hour to spend before they closed, but we enjoyed every minute of it. Even the kids saw some art they were able to appreciate.
Our day in San Francisco went by way too quickly; we missed Chinatown and several other attractions we would have liked to experience. This city is high on our list of places to visit again!
This portion of the trip gets a 2 thumbs-up for being budget friendly (we actually packed and ate a picnic lunch that day and brought breakfast food with us also). Our accommodations also get a thumbs-up for being clean, close to major attractions in the city, and super close to a cheap laundry service!
For more information on the CityPASS, go to www.citypass.com.
*Military families should check for discounts on the CityPASS.
This was one of the more interesting stops in our road trip. We chose to stay in Hollywood itself rather than the other parts of town because my husband was running the Hollywood Half Marathon and we wanted to be close to the race start and finish. Again, we stayed for one full day. His race was early morning and we planned to visit Universal Studios the rest of the day.
We chose the Days Inn on Sunset Blvd; the best combination of location and price for the 2 nights we were there. I will say that this hotel was clean and secure, and the staff was friendly; however, I clearly had no idea what Hollywood was really like. If I had, we would have stayed somewhere else (more about that later). All things considered, I was satisfied with our accommodations and we were close to all the touristy stuff in Hollywood.
So, in case you are one of those star-struck types that thinks Hollywood is all glitz and glam (or you’re like me and just plain ignorant), let me give you the real scoop: Hollywood is a DIVE. We arrived and checked into our hotel and realized we had the entire evening to enjoy Hollywood Blvd. (the Walk of Stars and the Chinese Theater), so we walked over and began to explore. We saw a lot of homeless people, drug addicts, and tourists, but no actual movie stars. We did find the Chinese Theater to be pretty cool and stopped to take a few pics of stars on the sidewalk, but that was about it.
The next morning my husband got up early to start his race and the kids and I planned to meet him at the finish line a bit later. The walk to find my husband turned out to be extremely educational for my children: my 9 year-old son actually tripped over a homeless man sleeping under a bus stop on the corner, we passed a group of teens getting high on the sidewalk, and I had to open their eyes to what a food pantry was when we passed one with a line going all the way down the street. I’m not really sure if I should feel good or bad as a mom that my kids had never seen a food pantry…but I digress. Back to Hollywood.
Thankfully, our day got much better from there. My husband finished his race (great job, hunny!) and soon we were on our way to Universal Studios Hollywood*. Our hotel was close to a metro station just one stop away from the theme park, so it didn’t take us long to get there.
Universal Studios Hollywood is pretty darn awesome. Truly, if you’re a fan of theme parks and movies, you can’t go wrong with this combination! The rides were thrilling (my kids particularly loved Transformers: The Ride), the food was decent (overpriced but rather tasty pizza), and the shows were really entertaining.
This is the set from the Waterworld Show At Universal. Really cool show with great special effects.
However, the best part of the day, HANDS DOWN, was the Studio Tour. It was SO. MUCH. FUN. Okay, maybe I’m a complete nerd because I was giddy to see the Delorian from Back to the Future, and the town square where they shot the clock tower scene. I was totally stoked to see the cityscape where The Avengers “last stand” fight scene was filmed. Seriously, I was beside myself. The only thing that would have been better is a Star Trek scene, but hey, a girl can’t have everything.
LOOK!!! It’s the time machine! Don’t act like you’re not impressed.
Then right at the end of the tour, you get to experience King Kong 360 3D. Holy awesomeness, Batman! I would have waited another hour in line just to experience THAT again! I mean, King Kong is EVERYWHERE, and, and…well, I don’t want to spoil it. Go experience it for yourself; you will NOT be sorry.
The studio tour was our last ride of the day, and we headed back to our hotel after that to pack up and head to bed. That pretty much sums it up for Hollywood, CA. Off to a rocky start for sure, but there’s nothing like a good theme park to make you forget reality for a while!
The “touristy” section of Hollywood gets a thumbs-down from this crew; however, Universal Studios gets 2 thumbs up! While Hollywood was not a budget buster, it was also not the most budget friendly of our stops. The hotel was overpriced due to the location, and I would not stay there again simply because I have no desire to stay in downtown Hollywood EVER. AGAIN.
*Military families should check into discounts at Universal Studios Hollywood.
We actually scheduled 2 full days in this awesome town, and I wish we could have stayed longer! No matter your age, San Diego is going to have something for you to enjoy.
We arrived in town in the early afternoon with plenty of time to look around. We found a great place to stay, the Old Town Inn, which happened to be really close to the zoo and other attractions.
Let me stop and brag on this little hotel for a minute: Old Town Inn is a real gem. The staff is amazingly friendly and helpful, the rooms are clean and comfortable, the location is great, and they even have a selection of DVD’s you can borrow to watch in your room. All for the best price of any hotel we stayed at on this trip. If you’re planning a trip to San Diego, I highly recommend this place.
Ok, so we dropped off our stuff and headed over to explore Balboa Park: 1,200 acres of walking trails, gardens, museums, theaters, and of course the world famous San Diego Zoo. This place is gorgeous; I mean WOW. There’s so much beauty that you find yourself dizzy trying to look from the gardens to the architecture to the art. We enjoyed the street artists and one rescue group that was selling parrots; we didn’t buy a parrot (despite a real effort by my kids), but we did get to pet a few. We strolled past a large koi pond and into the botanical gardens to take a few pictures, and then went into one of the art museums (I try to expose my kids to culture in small doses here and there while we are on vacation; makes me feel better about the theme parks, and I figure they might even come to appreciate it one day). Finally, we headed over to a playground and let the kids run around for a bit. It was an awesome (and FREE!) way to spend an afternoon in San Diego.
Our next 2 days were spent at The San Diego Zoo* and Sea World*. The San Diego Zoo is fabulous, of course. And enormous. It really lives up to its reputation. Great effort is made to create animal habitats that are as authentic as you would find in the wild, and food for the animals is grown right there as well. It is an animal sanctuary and a botanical garden in one.
The best part of the zoo (aside from the animal habitats) is the variety of ways you can explore the area. You can walk it of course, but you can also take a bus or a sky gondola. They have 2 bus systems: one is a tour bus that gives you a slightly different look than you’d get on the walking path, and the other is an express bus where you can go from one stop to another, just to save your feet from all that walking. The gondola is a great birds-eye view of the zoo and a lot of fun. We did the gondola and tour bus, but not until we got lost several times on foot. Side note: take a map when they offer it to you. Trust me. Wear good walking shoes and bring your camera for this world-famous and totally amazing zoo experience.
We spent our second full day in Sea World. We LOVED Sea World. Mommy loved the shows, my daughter loved the dolphin pool (okay, mommy loved that part too), and my son loved the rides (especially The Manta). He loved The Manta so much, in fact, that he rode it 6 times: 3 times with me and 3 times with my husband. I have to admit it’s one AWESOME ride, and I would have ridden it a fourth time had my stomach been up for it. Queasiness aside, The Manta now ranks up there as one of my all-time favorite roller coasters, right behind Space Mountain in Disney World.
The shows in Sea World are fun, exciting, and…wet. Sit in a splash zone, and you can expect to get completely soaked. It’s all worth it, though, to get an up-close view of Shamu and all the amazing tricks the animals do. In addition to the shows, make sure you visit all the different animal experiences; you might even get to feed a dolphin (and for the right price, you can even get in the water with them)!
Honestly there’s really nothing NOT to love about Sea World, unless you hate marine animals and rides. But if that sounds like you, then definitely don’t go. You’ll hate it.
Our last San Diego mention has to be Hodad’s. My husband is always on the hunt for a great place to eat, and Hodad’s was our clear family favorite for this portion of the trip. Located in Ocean Beach, this place has been featured on several foodie shows and serves, according to my son, the BEST. BURGER. EVER. CREATED. I have to agree, it was a pretty darn good burger.
Their motto is: No Shirt-No Shoes-No Problem. Yes indeed. Surfboards hang from the ceiling and license plates cover the walls. You want good food in a relaxed atmosphere for a great price? Then this, my friends, is the place to eat. However, don’t expect a breakdown of nutritional content on their menus; just enjoy your monster burger and run 10 miles tomorrow. I promise you, it’s worth it.
After 2 and a half amazing days in San Diego, it was time to head north towards home. We had one more surprise stop in store for the kids, though, so keep reading!
This entire portion of our trip gets 2 very enthusiastic thumbs-up! Our hotel was clean and budget-friendly, and both Sea World and the zoo were affordable due to some great military discounts. We had a great time and can’t wait to go back!
*Military families should check into discounts at both Sea World and the San Diego Zoo.
Disneyland: The Happiest Place on Earth
When we pulled off the interstate for a “lunch break” and stopped at a hotel, our children were totally oblivious. We got out of the car, parked, and began walking across the street, and they assumed we were looking for a place to eat. Then they began to notice their surroundings and my son saw a building that looked a lot like Space Mountain towering over the trees…and our cover was blown. Enter surprise last stop in California: The Happiest Place on Earth, aka Disneyland*.
Now, if you have ever been to Disneyland or Disney World, you know that this is going to leave one nasty, bloody gash in your bank account. Budget friendly it is NOT. However, if you are a lover of ANYthing Disney (and we are) then you know that every penny you spend on the experience is going to be worth it in the pictures and memories for years to come (and after you go broke from being there and the bank takes your house and your car, that’s all you’ll have left anyway).
In our minds, you really couldn’t “experience California” without a stop in Disneyland, so there we were. Our mission: to ride every single ride in both parks (Disney’s California Adventures is right next door) in a day and a half. Did we do it? Well, almost. We certainly gave it our best effort.
Of course, we started with our family favorite: Space Mountain. If I had to choose one roller coaster as THE RIDE every person should try before they die, this would be it. Not too crazy, but enough surprises, hills, and curves (all in the dark!) to really thrill you. We spent the rest of that day in the Disneyland park enjoying the traditional rides and magical experiences. I will say that in my opinion, Disney World’s sister park Magic Kingdom is a bit more impressive, if for no other reason than Cinderella has a WAY better castle than Sleeping Beauty. Seriously, Princess Aurora got totally gipped. However, Disneyland is certainly a blast and definitely worth a visit. It is, of course, the “original” Disney theme park, and a truly amazing vision brought to life.
The next day we hung out next door in California Adventures, where they have cool rides like Cars Land and my other favorite Disney ride, Soarin’. When visiting any Disney theme park, be sure to grab a FastPass for the more popular rides first thing in the morning (it’s like a reservation to get in a faster line for that ride later in the day). That way, you won’t spend your entire day waiting in lines.
This theme park was cool to visit at the end of our California trip because it is basically themed around everything we had just experienced: the Redwoods, San Francisco, Hollywood, and San Diego are all featured in the park and on the Ride Soarin’. My kids were like “Heyyyy! We just went there!”. It felt good to know that we were able to show our kids the best that California has to offer and they could experience it in reality and not just from theme park props. Really good theme park props, but props nonetheless.
Our crew certainly squeezed every last drop of fun out of that portion of the trip and I can’t think of a better finale to our stay in California.
We collapsed at the end of that day, exhausted and happy, with my children covered in grime and snuggling with their new stuffed Disney character of the moment. It was pure bliss.
The next day we headed home from what was truly the most amazing adventure in the Golden State. Thank you, California!! You sure know how to show our family a fabulous time!
Disneyland, of course, gets a thumbs up for always delivering the most magical experience anyone could ask for. We won’t talk about the budget… ahem.
*Military families should check into discounts on Disneyland park passes at their local tourism office.