Road Trip 2015: Chapter 9 ~ The Final Chapter

Day 19

My dad has travelled to several places throughout the world and he’s always said that of all the places he’s been Lake Tahoe is one of the most spectacular, so it’s been on my bucket list for years. Although it meant a significant detour, I really wanted to visit Tahoe. We arrived there in the early afternoon and were blown away by the amazing views. It is truly a magnificent place, but we only had the opportunity to explore a very small portion. The lake is quite large and the water is the most amazing colour. It’s nestled in the mountains, so the atmosphere is serene and relaxing. The plan was to spend a few hours on the beach and then begin our trek back to the coastal highway. We had only been there a short time, when it was unanimously decided that we would all happily abort our original plan to drive the rest of the Pacific Coast Highway, see the Redwood Forest and visit Fort Bragg, in exchange for more time in the beautiful Lake Tahoe. We were lucky enough to find a great campsite and ended up staying the night and most of the following day enjoying the lake. It is the most beautiful, clear, clean lake I’ve ever been to. We will definitely be back to Lake Tahoe. We stayed at D.L. Bliss State Park. The campsites were large and had flush toilets and showers (although not usable because of the drought conditions.) One thing that was different was the “bear locker” in each site. You were required by law to remove all scented items (food, lotions, soaps, chapsticks, sunscreen, etc.) from your tent and vehicle and place them inside your campsite’s bear locker. This was a bit of work, but well worth the effort.

We entered the Lake Tahoe area from the south and then headed up the west side towards Tahoe City. The campground was located just a bit north of the spectacular Emerald Bay. We were close enough to hike to Emerald Bay and did do a portion of it, but didn’t have the time to do the whole 4.5 mile hike each way. Instead, we spent the time relaxing on the campground beach and playing in the water. The water was cold, but nice once you got in and super refreshing. We all loved Lake Tahoe!


Days 20 to 22

The last 3 days were mostly spent on the road. We planned to drive about 8 hours per day and really only stopped for food and gas. We took I84 East to Pocatella, Idaho and then took I90 across to Billings, Montana. Just after Billings, we continued our journey east on I94 to Fargo and then straight up I29 to Winnipeg. We stayed in Twin Falls, Idaho at a really nice Best Western and then camped the following night in Billings at Yellowstone RV Park. It was a little more expensive at $36 (similar to a KOA), but had flush toilets, showers, pool, hot tub, laundry and of course, the crown jewel…..wifi! We had planned to stop for our last night just west of Fargo and then do a bit of shopping before completing the short drive home on the last day. By the time we reached our planned destination, it was still early and we were all feeling excited to get home. We weren’t expecting the shopping to be that great and all agreed it would be worth it to push through and drive the rest of the way home, so we ended up arriving home at 1:30 a.m. on the 22nd day. We had just driven through the “time change” in the last day, so we were still on California time and to us it seemed more like 11:30. 

The trip was fabulous, but we were all glad to be home. We were so fortunate to have had such great weather, no sickness or injuries, safe travels and a life time of great memories. We are so blessed!

Road Trip 2015: Chapter 8

Pacific Coast HighwayDay 17

The 17th day was spent driving up along the breath-taking Pacific Coast. We were on the road most of the day, but the hills, hairpin curves and incredible views captivated our attention, so it went quickly. Of course there were lots of photo opportunities, so we made several “vista stops” along the route.

The highlights of the day included our stop at San Simeon Pier where we spent about half an hour watching the otters play and the humpback whales hunt in the open water close to the shore/pier. I don’t actually have a pictures of the pier. I think Eden edited right out of the photos, but it really is beautiful and there is a beach at the base of the pier. (If you head east, up the hill, you can visit Hearst Castle. Tim and I did this tour years ago and the kids weren’t that interested so we didn’t do it this time.) 

Just a short drive north of the pier, we stopped to see the Elephant Seals basking in the sun along the shore. There are signs that direct you to them, but the area is only a few miles from San Simeon.

Big Sur area is also incredible. There were many spectacular things to see along the road, as we drove through this section of the highway. Our final stop before Carmel/Monterey was at the Bixby Bridge just south of Carmel. It is truly a beautiful bridge, but we didn’t get very many good shots. The drive north was very hazy and this made it really difficult to capture the beauty of the drive.

Besides the haze, I have always been a bit afraid of heights and must say having my kids and Tim explore the views from the unguarded cliff edges had me very uptight and anxious. To be honest, I didn’t expect to be so scared and was taken off guard by the level of anxiety I felt. We snapped a few pictures and a man took a few family photos before I escaped  and got back to the comfort of the van. The irrational fear of dying or losing a loved one over the cliff,  kind of ruined the moment for me.

We stayed in Monterey for the night, knowing that we would be paying top dollar at a hotel, but that finding a camp spot would be nearly impossible.

Day 18

We began the day by heading back to Carmel and doing the famous “17 Mile Drive”. Tim and I had done it before, but really wanted to drive it again with the kids. Of course, this is the drive on which you find the famous “Lone Cypress” resting on the cliffs by the sea. They say it is one of the most photographed trees in the world.

17 mile drive

The Lone Cypress

The views were spectacular, but none could compare to the site we saw when we pulled into one of the vista points along the highway.

One of the items on Shay’s road trip bucket list was to see some high end cars: a Ferrari, Lamborghini and Bugatti. We had told him there would be many expensive cars on the road, especially in California. He saw two Ferraris and 3 Lamborghinis. (Tim saw more, but Shay often missed them by the time he looked in the right direction.) Although it wasn’t on his list (he’d never heard of it before), he was also lucky enough to see a Maserati on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. We knew the chances of him seeing a Bugatti were slim to none, but he and Tim kept their eyes peeled. (I wouldn’t know a Bugatti if it ran over my toe.) So, we pull into this vista point on the 17 mile drive and what do we see parked in the lot (gaining much more attention than the beautiful scenic views)…..not one, but two Bugattis! Tim and Shay couldn’t believe it! We aren’t sure who the 3 guys were, but they all had Bugatti jackets and hats and what seemed to be British accents. They were really nice allowed Tim and Shay to take several pictures. Shay asked how much the cars cost and was told the new Bugatti is worth $1.5 million and the 1926 model beside it is worth $10,000,000! The guy told Shay, “If you put $5 a day in your piggy bank, you’ll be able to buy a Bugatti when you are about 1000 years old!” I’m not really a car person, but I can appreciate that seeing a Bugatti out and about (not in a show room) is probably a once in a life time thing and seeing a 1926 model is a true privilege. One of the highlights of the trip for the boys! (When we got home we googled it and learned that there was a Bugatti event being held a Pebble Beach when we were in the area. Obviously, these fellows were associated with it.)

As we were passing one of the beaches near Carmel, we noticed many people with their cameras out and they were clearly looking at something along the shore. We got out and once again were lucky enough to witness a “school” of whales hunting/swimming near the shore. It was so neat to watch them. On several occasions, they actually dove up to the surface in unison with their noses together almost like they were performing or playing. At one time, we counted a group of 4 jump out together. It was pretty cool!Whale Watching near Carmel

We pulled into San Francisco in the late afternoon. It was a cold day and although we had initially planned to do Alcatraz, we hadn’t confirmed our schedule and thus I hadn’t booked a tour. Alcatraz sells out in advance, so we knew we risked not getting tickets if we didn’t pre-buy. In the end, we were thankful we hadn’t bought tickets. I think we were all ready to slow down a bit. Tim and I had done the tour before and the kids were fine with missing it. We did go to Fisherman’s Wharf where we visited the Ghirardelli Chocolate store, took some pictures of Alcatraz Island and the Wharf, and then made the strenuous 4 block hike up the hill to the famous curvy road ~ Lombard Street. We also opted to skip the long line and take pictures of the cable cars instead of riding. This was the one and only cold weather we experienced. It was very windy and cool on the wharf, so our short stay was long enough to show the kids a few of the sights and then we were all happy to get back in the van and carry on. We left the city via the Golden Gate Bridge and managed to snap a few pictures en route.

One of the few disappointments of the trip was the amount of haze there was on many of the days…..especially those days when we were doing the coastal drive. The weather was great, but the haze just meant we couldn’t get really great clear views or photos. Too bad.

We only drove a few more hours before stopping to set-up camp in Placerville, California. We had a nice stay at the KOA there and were up and away in good time the next morning.

Road Trip 2015: Chapter 7

We stayed in the Los Angeles area for the following two nights. We had booked a room in Reseda, California which is just north of Hollywood. It was a good location for the attractions we wanted to take in and the prices were significantly less in this area. It was safe, the rooms were clean and the price included a simple continental breakfast.

Day 15: Hollywood Tours

I had pre-booked two Hollywood tours with our “Go Cards” prior to our trip. We wanted to do a third, but they didn’t take advanced reservations. We got up early and headed for the Warner Bros. VIP Studio Tour. It was excellent! All of us enjoyed it. The tour was very informative and although we didn’t have any actual “star” encounters, we thought it was really cool to see some of the props/sets from our favourite shows and movies. There was lots of memorabilia set up for both Batman and Harry Potter, as well as various other shows and movies. We got to see the various Batmobiles used in the movies. The kids got to go on the set of one of the shows they like to watch and we had a family photo taken on the “Friends” set. We sat on the couch in Central Perk in the exact same spot where the cast used to sit and listen to Phoebe sing “Smelly Cat!” So fun!

When we were reminiscing about the trip, Tim and the kids agreed my acting debut in “Gravity” was their favourite memory. At Warner Studios, part of the behind the scenes tour demonstrates how a movie is pulled together from costume design to filming. Near the end, you have an opportunity to get filmed in front of a green screen using props from either Batman, Harry Potter or Gravity. We all went our separate ways and although I wasn’t too keen, I didn’t want to be a party pooper. I chose the “Gravity” scene mostly because I thought it looked easy and there was no line. Once in costume, I quickly realized two things. First, how the space helmet accentuated my overly small head and second how difficulty it is to act when nothing is really happening around you. (It’s all pretend when you are using a green screen.) You can watch yourself on the screen as they are filming the short clip and even though my “director/coach” was talking me through and telling me how to react, by my own confession, it was the sorriest case of acting you’ve ever seen. When everyone finished, we headed to the viewing area where you could purchase the videos/photos of your experience. I told my family how bad mine was, but everyone said the same thing. It wasn’t until my video played that we all almost died in hysterics. I was soooooo bad! In the words of my husband….”Well, let’s just say you’re no Sandra Bullock.” We had lots of fun and my acting expressions/moves became the brunt of many jokes for the remained of the trip. It was super funny! In all honesty, we later regretted not buying my video just because it was so hilariously bad. Fortunately, I think the visual of that awkward “Gravity” scene is forever ingrained in our memories.

After the Warner Bros. tour, we left Burbank and headed to Hollywood Boulevard. I had booked a “Behind the Scenes” walking tour through Red Line tours. It was a one hour walking tour and despite the record high temperature of 103 degrees, it was excellent. Through the tour, we learned about the history of Hollywood with stops at the Egyptian Theatre (where the “Hollywood” phenomenon all began with the first ever movie premiers), the Chinese Theatre (with the hand/foot prints of the stars) and the Dolby Theatre which is home to the Oscars. Did you know the Dolby Theatre is actually located in a shopping mall ~ who would have guessed? Of course, it was also interesting to see our favourite stars on the Walk of Fame and learn some of the history and interesting facts about them. Did you know that anyone can nominate a star, but the nominations are put through a selection process and the stars that are picked are approached to see if they actually want one. Many popular stars have actually declined and do not have stars such as Angelina Jolie, Clint Eastwood, Julia Roberts and George Clooney. They decline for different reasons and although I’m sure money isn’t one of them, it does cost the stars $30,000 to have a star placed on the Walk of Fame.

We had planned to take a “Hollywood Homes of the Stars” tour, but it was hot and we decided we’d much rather head to Santa Monica Pier for the evening. We had to have our tickets scanned before the 5:30 cut-off, so we headed over, got our wrist bands for the Pier midway and then headed south to explore Venice Beach. Venice Beach is really something to see. It is a totally different experience than Santa Monica Pier where there is more of an upscale feel. Venice Beach is hard to describe. The beach is beautiful and the boardwalk is lined with little kiosks and it has kind of an artsy vibe. People wander in and out of the t-shirt, skateboard and jewelry shops along the walk. There are also many people set-up along the beach selling their own handmade wares, henna tattoos and various knickknacks. Street performers and buskers are in abundance….some talented, but many not. You never quite know what to expect. We were captivated by one street performer, who despite his foul language, was hilarious and attracted quite a crowd. His “talent” was stepping on and lying down on broken glass. It wasn’t really the act of bravery that captivated his audience, but rather the hilarious delivery leading up to the actual performance. We also were witness to one of Los Angeles “Snapchat” highlights for the day. Police had cordoned off an area around a bicycle on which a swarm of wasps had made themselves at home over the course of the day. So weird! We loved Venice Beach and all the people we encountered.

After a few hours at Venice Beach, we headed back the few miles north to Santa Monica and enjoyed a full evening of fun on the Pier. The Pier is always really “rockin”’” with the midway rides and the various street performers lining the pier. The wrist bands are around $28 for adults, so again, it was nice to have this included with our “Go Cards”.

Day 16

Hollywood SignAfter several days of being on the go, we packed up the van, checked out of the hotel and decided to only do one attraction on our final day. We all felt a bit done. We headed back to Hollywood and did the Tour of the Homes of the Stars (by LA City Tours) that we skipped the day before. I had just done a similar tour in February with another company (Starline Tours) and must say I found this one to be much better. Our tour guide was very knowledgable and we had way better views of the homes. The tour in February had a very fast talking guide who was hard to follow and the tour mostly consisted of driving by and seeing the hedges that hid the homes. Many of the homes are well protected and hidden, as you’d expect, but surprisingly the tour with LA City Tours seemed much better. We got great views of several homes and upscale communities that we didn’t even pass through on the previous tour. We wanted to take the open top van, but with temperatures soaring, we opted for the 3 hour tour in the air conditioned van. It was comfortable and enjoyable.

Following the tour, we began our journey north. Although we still had a week to go, we had not booked any accommodations for the last leg of the trip. We weren’t sure what time we would get away from LA and didn’t want to rush our drive up the coast to San Francisco. Tim and I had done the Pacific Coast drive many years ago and we really wanted the time to enjoy it without being stuck to a schedule. The trouble with this is that you risk the possibility of paying more for lodging than you would if you were pre-booked. We only drove as far north as Camarillo, California and then decided to shop for a few hours at the outlet mall before settling at a hotel for the night. Again, the shopping wasn’t great, sales were marginal at best and with the poor exchange rate, it just didn’t make sense to do much shopping.

Road Trip 2015: Chapter 6

San Diego Safari Park

San Diego Safari Park ~ the sparring elephants were quite entertaining!

Day 12

We purchased discounted tickets online for both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park. They are affiliated and there is a reduced cost when you purchase tickets for both parks. (They are located about 40 minutes apart.) Tim and I had visited both parks back in 1996 when we travelled to California. We enjoyed both, but especially loved the Safari Park. It has changed a lot over the years and actually there has been so much added on that it didn’t even seem familiar. The animals were active and we especially enjoyed watching the elephants “spar”. Although my memory is not the best, I really don’t remember there being so many “á la carte” options. It was a bit annoying to be honest. They have jungle climbing ropes, a caravan safari ride, a zip-line, a hot air balloon type ride, a biking tour (and more), but all at significant additional costs (Eg. zip-line for $35).  General admission is $48, but everything other than the African Tram is at an additional cost. We spent a few hours walking around and then took the African Tram around the park. This is a must, as its very informative and you get a great view of the animals in their “natural” habitats. (Of course, they’re not completely natural, but the purpose of the Safari Park is to help prevent extinction and it plays a major role in helping to replenish endangered species, so the animal’s habitats are created to closely replicated their natural surroundings.)

It was hot and we decided to cut our day short and arrived at Oceanside Pier by early afternoon. We still had a few great hours to enjoy the beach. The kids had a blast riding the big waves with their boogie boards. In all honesty I found it hard to get great ocean pictures as we were always facing the intense afternoon sun.Oceanside Pier

Day 13

Today was a planned beach day. We really loved Oceanside Pier, but with so many beaches to choose from we thought that we should try something different. We ended up going to Moonlight Beach at Encinitas. It’s a lovely beach that sits in a bit of a cove. Again, the kids had lots of fun playing in the waves and I enjoyed relaxing on the beach.  Although I kept a close eye on the kids, I did feel a bit more comfortable with them having boogie boards strapped to their arms. Both our kids swim well, but swimming in the ocean is a very different experience and I felt a bit uneasy.  Boogie boards are certainly not life saving devices, but the ocean can be unpredictable and I felt better with them having the boards. Tim is a great sport and spent time lots of time in the water with the kids. I found it a bit cold and was happy to just wade in when I got hot and then head back to the beach to relax.

Day 14

We were so sad to be leaving the guest house today. We all felt very welcome and comfortable here. The host family was lovely and I know our kids would have loved getting to know their kids better, but our time with them was limited as we were always on the go.

We packed up and began our journey north up the coast. We used our “Go Cards” and spent the day at Knott’s Berry Farm Soak City. Although the day ended well, our visit to Soak City was a disappointment. The park was packed and when I say packed I mean …. busting at the seams. To make matters worse, it was the most inefficiently run water park we’ve visited and we’ve been to several. There was only one lifeguard per post and they were responsible for six slides. They had riders wait behind a chain and then allowed six new riders to enter together, once the previous group had left, completed the slide and safely exited at the bottom. When you entered, they quickly reviewed the rules and even asked each rider if they had read and understood the park safety regulations. Needless to say, the lines moved super slow. We only stayed 3 1/2 hours because of this. In that time, we left the wave pool because there were too many people, avoided the single tube slides because it was virtually impossible to get a tube. (Although they are “included” in the park entry fee, there is an option to rent tubes to use all day for $10. Clearly this is what most people do because the number in circulation to be used with your general admission is minimal at best.) Tim and Shay made it through the lines of four rides while Eden and I only made it to three. The pavement was so hot it actually felt like your feet were burning. The slides and facilities were good, but the management was poor ~ too many people, not enough guards and a poor system for getting slides through the lines. We’ll never go there again. As well, you need to pay $17 to park and the rental of the smallest locker was a whopping $14 for the day. Overall poor value, but because we did it with the “Go Card” we didn’t feel completely ripped off. Despite this, it was hot and still nice to be near the water 🙂

Road Trip 2015: Chapter 5

Days 9, 10 and 11:

By Day 9, we were ready for a bit of a break. We decided to pick-up some groceries and hang-out at the guest house pool.

On Day 10, we were up and at it early. We had planned to spend the Day at the San Diego Zoo. It was voted the #1 zoo in the world on Trip Advisor and is really quite spectacular. It’s huge and there’s lots to see, so it meant for a long day of walking. It was overcast in the morning, so the heat wasn’t too bad until the afternoon. We had pre-purchased our tickets online. (It is always better to buy ahead as the gate prices are generally escalated.) The zoo parking is free (Bonus!) and it was only a short trek back to the van for lunch. We took our own water bottles with us and were able to fill them up at the water fountains in the park. The animals were quite active and we were able to get lots of great pictures.

The 11th day was spent at Knott’s Berry Farm. Knott’s Berry Farm is an amusement park that is just south of LA. It was about an hours drive from Vista, but we were all ready for a day of fun. We had a bit of a lazy start to the day and didn’t get there until 1, but stayed until well after dark. We had a blast and the lines weren’t too long, so we got to do everything we wanted. We were so proud of the kids, as they rode on all of the roller coasters with us. Tim and I love rides and it was so nice to have the kids overcome their fears and join in the fun.

Los Angeles Go Card Review:

When planning this vacation, I was really trying to figure out how to make it affordable with the Canadian dollar being so bad. After a lot of number crunching and research, I ended up purchasing each of us a Los Angeles Go Card from Costco. We bought “4 day passes” and basically this enabled us to visit as many attractions as we can in 4 days (within a 14 day period). The catch is that you have to use the card for entry before 5:30 p.m. To make the cards worth the money, you really have to take in more than one attraction in a day (at least once). For example, an adult 4 day card is $246.99 Canadian.

The attractions we plan to take in are:

The above equals $238.95 US ($309.91 Canadian). We are actually doing all three Hollywood tours on the same day. That means, we have one day at Knott’s Berry Farm, one day at Soak City (we can also walk across the parking lot before the 5:30 cut-off and spend another evening in the Knott’s amusement park if we want) and a third day doing the Hollywood tours. We haven’t decided what we are going to do on the fourth day. Our card includes entry to Six Flags, Universal, Santa Monica Pier as well as about 3o other attractions. You can see this was a great option for us. Just in the three days, we’ve already saved about $63 per person ($251.68 savings between the four of us) and this is not including the attractions we take in on the 4th day. You do have to weigh this out based on what you want to do, regular gate prices (and advanced online) and how many attractions you can fit it. It may not always be economical. I think the biggest savings was reflected in the Costco price in Canadian dollars, as the price was not that much more than the US price on the Smart Destinations Web site (Go Card). They don’t actually sell a 4 day pass on their site, so it would be somewhere between the 3 and 5 day cost, keeping in mind that these are US prices. So you can see that $246.99 Canadian is a pretty good price. With the current conversion rate, the $190 3 day pass converts to $246 Canadian, so essentially you are getting the fourth day for free!Smart Destinations

It’s always important to do your own research and determine what works best for your family. For us the “Go Cards” proved to be a huge savings.

Road Trip 2015: Chapter 4

Day 8: California Here We Come!

After checking out of the hotel, we stopped by an outlet mall to do a little shopping. We picked-up a few things, but with the dollar being so weak, there weren’t many deals good enough to make it worth shopping.

By early afternoon, we were on the road and headed for Vista, California. We rented a pool side guest house from a family through VRBO. The pictures on the website reflected a cute little pool house with all of the basic amenities. It’s always a little nerve racking when you rent through sites like VRBO or airbnb because there is always the fear that the pictures make it look way better than it is or that the property is located in the middle of a very bad area or worse yet, you are renting a place that doesn’t even exist! It “feels” a bit risky, but the pay off can be fabulous. It is suggested that you don’t pay with cash and that you speak directly to the owner, as a safe guard. Also, read the reviews…they speak volumes. (You usually have to pay up front and that can be scary. We paid with Visa as there is some insurance through our card.)

We were so excited when we arrived and found that the quaint little guest house was even better than the pictures revealed. The property is located at the top of a hill and we have great city views. We felt super safe and almost a bit “remote”. They have a gate yard and we were able to park on the property which was a huge bonus. It was very clean and the owners gave attention to even the smallest of details. It was extemely economical and offered great value. The decor was warm and cozy and beautifully decorated with a cottage feel. We loved not only the house, but the host family was very friendly and welcoming. 

The guest house is small, but super quaint and perfect for crashing at the end of a busy day. In the listing it says it accomodates up to 3, but the family was fine with one of the kids sleeping on the floor. We had our camping gear with us, so it was nothing to set Shay up on the floor and he was really comfortable there. His entire set-up slid right under the bed, so we didn’t have to pack it up during the day. Eden slept on the couch. For us, the size was not an issue, but it would be perfect for a couple. We are totally self-contained with a full kitchen and access to the pool. We booked 6 nights here and are really enjoying having a “home base” for the week. Vista sits about 30 miles north of San Diego. It is located close to the coast and is a pretty central location for visiting San Diego and other attractions along the southern coast.

Vacation Planning Tip:

*Finding a place with a full kitchen is really important when you are trying to travel on a budget. For extended vacations it really makes sense. I can’t really say that we have eaten super healthy, as we do end up purchasing some convenience foods that we would not normally purchase at home. (Who wants to slave over a hot stove when they’re on vacation?) However, it allows us to stick to a pretty tight budget of $50 US dollars per day for food. That may not seem like much, but it is actually quite attainable. We brought some food along with us and purchase groceries every few days. Unlike home, you are not purchasing any extras, only what is needed for the next day or two. We always have breakfast at “home”, pack a lunch and then dinner really depends on what we’ve been doing and when we get home. Because it begins to cool off and get dark pretty early in Southern California, we’ve been home in time for dinner almost every night. We’ve really only gone out once so far on this trip and that was in Vegas for Tim’s birthday. Even with that splurge, we’re actually still about $75 under budget right now. This nice thing about being able to cook at “home” is that you have extra money in the budget for those nights you want to eat out. It all balances out in the end.

Road Trip 2015: Chapter 3

Day 7: Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam and Las Vegas

The seventh day of our trip was action packed and long. We planned to make quick stops at both the Grand Canyon and Hoover Dam en route to Las Vegas. We started the day by making the short 10 mile drive to the Grand Canyon Village which is located along the south rim. We all agreed that we just wanted to have a quick look and move on. We parked the van and hiked from the Visitor’s Center to Mather Point. Although we had to pay the park entry fee the night before ($30 per vehicle), you do not have to pay to do the self-guided tour of the rim. There is a walk way around the rim and the 30 minutes we spent on the short hike was more than enough considering the temperatures were over 42 degrees (108). The view was incredible and the size of the canyon literally too big to comprehend.

Hoover Dam is located just outside of Vegas (45 minutes from Planet Hollywood where we were staying.) Again, we had no desire to do the full tour of the dam, but did want to stop and show it to the kids. Tim and I had visited the dam years ago and it really is something to see. This attraction costs nothing if you avoid the paid parking lots and skip the tours. We first entered from the Nevada side and stopped in a free parking lot off to the right just after the check stop. You can then climb the stairs (or ramp) up to the bypass bridge. The bridge has a walkway and offers a perfect vantage point to view the dam. We then got back in our van and drove over the dam. It’s pretty hard to see from a vehicle, so we parked and walked back to get a view looking down from the dam itself. Again, the size is quite incredible. There is paid parking right after you cross the dam, but just beyond are several free lots. The walk from the parking lots wasn’t that far (about 5 minutes) and was down hill/stairs, but in the heat it really seemed like the walk that would never end. By the time we reached the dam, the kids and I were completely done. The heat was unbelievable. Tim overheard someone say the temperature was 118 degrees (48 celsius) on the dam. Tim does much better in that kind of heat and seemed relatively unbothered. He kindly offered to make the hike back up to the van and then drive back down and pick us up from the dam.

By the time we reached our hotel in Vegas, we were all ready for a dip in the pool. The kids were blown away by Vegas, and Tim and I were both amazed by how much it had changed since we were there several years ago. It is like sensory overload. After a swim, we had a much welcomed shower and headed out for dinner. It was Tim’s birthday, so we splurged on a nice dinner even though we were travelling on a limited budget. After a lovely dinner, we walked the strip for a couple of hours and turned in around 11. I was down for the count before my head even hit the pillow. Tim tried his luck at the casino, but failed in his quest to hit the big one on his birthday. After a good nights rest, we all woke up feeling very appreciative of common amenities like beds and water, after spending a week tenting.

Road Trip 2015: Chapter 2

Zion National ParkDay 5: Rexburg, Idaho to Leeds, Utah

After a leisurely start to the day, we finally hit the road around 10:15 a.m. We had pre-booked a camp site in Kanarraville, Utah, but the lady said just to pay when we arrived. The drive time was estimated to be about 7 1/2 hours and we were excited at the prospect of setting up camp in a park that had laundry, drinking water, flush toilets, showers and wi-fi.  When we arrived, we were disappointed to learn that she planned to have us pitch our tent on the front lawn in front of the office. Tim was less than impressed as this was obviously not a designated site as there was no picnic table, parking space or fire ring, but rather a small patch of grass between her flower beds! Perhaps if this had been explained when I pre-registered we would have just “passed” on this option. The Red Ledge Campground looked like a nice enough campground, but we found it a bit misleading with regards to the tent site. Had she offered us a discounted price for the patch of grass, we may have been less perturbed, but no such luck. Since we had not paid yet, we politely declined and moved on. This made us a bit apprehensive because we were in a very touristy area and knew that finding another spot may not be that easy. Luckily, we had picked-up some brochures at a Visitor’s Center and found something comparable in Leeds, Utah.

The Zion West RV Park offered all of the same amenities, but we did end up paying more. The site was $20 + $2 for electrical + an extra $5 each for the kids. So at $32 American dollars for a tent site, it wasn’t cheap, but certainly allowed us to get some laundry done and enjoy a nice warm shower. The facilities were super clean and well maintained. The campground is sitting right at the base of the mountains in a dessert-like environment, but there are plenty of trees for shade.  I would highly recommend it. 

Day 6:  Zion National Park

Tim and I did a very similar route on a road trip we took back in 1996, so although we were both very excited to do this trip again with the kids, I must say visiting Zion National Park for the first time was probably one of the attractions I was most excited about. I happened to find Zion last summer when I was researching “the narrows” for my Manitoba Stay-cation theme. I was completely captivated by the images I found and it peaked my curiousity enough to follow the links and find out the source of the beautiful pictures. As soon as I discovered that “The Narrows” was a popular hike in Zion National Park, it quickly got added to my bucket list of places to visit. Being a national park, there is a park entry fee of $30 per vehicle which seems super reasonable based on the amazing day we had. The pass is good for 7 days, which makes it an even better deal if you are staying in the area longer.

The Virgin River is a seemingly small river that flows through the park. Despite its size, the river has eroded the most incredible canyons through the red rock of the mountains. Zion truly has some of the most incredible and mesmerizing scenery I’ve seen. It is breathtaking and leaves you almost saddened by the knowledge that there is no possible way a picture will capture the true impact of this geological marvel. The combination of red rock, high plateaus, maze of deep canyons inside “the narrows” and striking rock formations are beyond explanation. You really must see it to believe it.

Despite the 39 (103) degree temperature, we all agreed the conditions were perfect for our visit. I was feeling a little nervous about hiking “the narrows”, but knew we had to at least attempt it and just go as far as we were comfortable. After getting off at the last stop on the shuttle route, at Temple of Sinawava, you take the 1.1 mile Riverside Walk to where “The Narrows” begin. (The shuttles are free with a park pass.) Hiking “the narrows” involves hiking up the canyon in the river, against the current. It is really important to check the conditions prior to embarking on this as there is a risk of flash floods. Luckily, there was only a 5% chance of rain and very low chance of flooding on the day of our visit. The flow of the river was only 30 cubic feet per second which is relatively slow and easy to navigate. The narrows remain open as long as flow is below 150 CFS, so we really lucked out. On top of that, the intense heat made the river hike incredibly refreshing as opposed to the “hypothermic” affect it can have when temperatures are cooler. Much of the hike is in the shade of the canyon walls, so wading in the cold water without the sun to warm you up could definitely be cold. The river bed is completely covered with rocks, so it is really important to plan ahead and wear proper foot wear. Some people wore their runners in, while others tried to make passage in their bare feet. Yikes! We brought water socks and for the conditions, they were fine. There are shops inside and outside the park where you can rent shoes for hiking of “the narrows”. A walking stick is highly recommended and we rented them from one of the outfitters for $7 each and were really thankful that we did. Although we didn’t find the hike too difficult, it was strenuous and you really need to watch your footing. The walking sticks made this much easier. Our kids (11 and 13) also found the hike very manageable. The entire hike is 16 miles and you need a permit to do the last part. You can walk up-stream as far as you want and then turn around and come back. We made it as far as Orderville Canyon and then decided to veer off from “the narrows” and hike the smaller slot canyon. We hiked about 25 minutes into Orderville Canyon before turning back. This was our favourite part of the hike as the passage was quite narrow and required a bit more skill at some points. Shay loved this and was eager to be first to test the depths and footing. For a majority of the hike of The Narrows, we were in water about knee to mid-thigh deep. In Orderville Canyon it got as deep as our chest in some areas. Because of the intense heat, at no time were we cold. The water felt great. Although we personally did not encounter any wildlife in “the narrows” a fellow hiker was carrying a small water snake he’d picked up in the canyon. After only a small panic attack, I overcame my fear and trekked on, but admittedly somewhat less relaxed than before. We ended up hiking up the canyons (Narrows and Orderville) a total of 3 hours before turning back. We expected it to take a little less time going back, as we knew we would not be stopping to take pictures along the way. We also managed to pick-up our pace as we were more confident…in fact, a little too confident I guess, as I slipped on a wet rock and banged my knee in an attempt to save the camera. Although my knee got quite scraped up there were no cuts or broken bones and the camera miraculously escaped injury as well. (I was pretty nervous about taking our good camera on the hike, so insisted that I carry it the whole time so that I’d only have myself to blame if there was an accident.) It only took us an hour and a half to hike back to the beginning, so it was a 4 1/2 hike plus the 1.1 mile hike back to the shuttle. Needless to say our feet were sore. Some girls on the bus said they did not enter Orderville, but hiked to the end of “The Narrows” and back in 7 hours. According to them, the water was deeper the further in you went. The hiking shoes that you can rent probably have more padding/support on the bottoms and would help prevent sore feet. If we were to do the entire hike, we would rent the shoes next time, but our water socks were fine for what we did, but all of us did have sore feet by the end.

After hiking for about 5 1/2 hours, we didn’t have much steam left, but did decide to take the shuttle back to Zion Lodge and do the one hour hike to the Emerald Pools. Although this was also beautiful, not much could top the views in “the narrows.” One of the highlights was the two baby deer that crossed the walking path no more than 4 feet in front of us.

If you plan to visit Zion, make sure to do your homework and plan ahead. You don’t want to be bogged down carrying a heavy backpack, but you do want to make sure you take along some snacks and lots of water. There are filling stations at various locations throughout the park, but you still need to be prepared for the conditions and a long day.

We enjoyed our time in Zion so much, that we ended up staying much longer than anticipated. We didn’t end up leaving the park until around 6:30 p.m. By this time, we were all hungry and tired. We did the unspeakable and stopped at McDonald’s for dinner. We picked up some food and hit the road, as we still had a 4 1/2 drive through the mountains to Grand Canyon National Park. As we left the park, we were lucky enough to spot several more deer on the road side and a family of mountain goats just a few feet from the van.

We arrived at our pre-booked site at 12:45 a.m. and proceeded to set-up the tent in the middle of the desert by nothing more than the beam from our flashlight. Luckily, we’ve had lots of practice and can now set-up our tent and make the beds in less than 15 minutes. The night air was cool and refreshing which made for a good night’s sleep. (I didn’t sleep as well as the others, but I think it is just my age. After the big hike in Zion the day before, my body felt like every inch was in pain. It was hard to find a comfortable position and I spent most of the night tossing and turning….in very slow motion.) Despite the aches and pains, it was a fantastic experience and a day to remember!

Road Trip 2015: Chapter 1

After weeks of planning….its finally here, our 2015 road trip! This trip was really difficult to plan and I spent endless hours scouring the web for accommodations and attractions that were within our means. Travelling in the states when the dollar is so bad, really makes it necessary to budget carefully. In the end, I think we have quite a trip planned with lots of spectacular sights to see and adventures to keep it fun!

Days 1 to 3: Winnipeg, MB to High River, Alberta

The first 3 days of our trip were spent at a family reunion in High River, Alberta. We arrived around dinner time on Friday night, just in time for a family wiener roast. The weekend was packed with visiting and everyone had a great time re-connecting. My mom’s side of the family has had several losses in the last few years, so it was great to gather on a more positive note.

Most of the reunion events were held at the George Lane Memorial Campground. The facilities were great and the group camping easily handled the 100+ people in attendance. We wanted to camp with other family members at the reunion and this  meant we needed to bring our gear along on the road trip. The Canadian dollar has gotten so bad over the past few months, that we decided to do a combination of camping along with the other accommodations we’d already booked to help offset the poor exchange rate.

The campground is situated next to the Highwood River and the kids had lots of fun riding the mini-rapids on their boogie boards and skipping rocks in the shallow depths near the campsite. Shay did some fishing, but didn’t get so much as a nibble.

Although we have tented for years, I must say I was a bit apprehensive about tenting on this vacation. It meant we had to pack all our gear and take the chance of encountering poor weather each night we set up.  However, we agreed that tenting would certainly help make our 23 day vacation more affordable. We decided to take only our basic gear and leave everything that wasn’t necessary, at home. To make the set-up easier, we left our queen sized air mattress at home and purchased two more of the self-inflating mats. This made a huge impact on the set-up and pack-up times. Without the hassle of blowing up the air mattress and setting up the gazebo and camp kitchen, we had our tent set-up and beds made in 23 minutes. (I think it might actually be shorter than checking into a hotel and unloading the luggage.)

Day 4: High River, Alberta to Rexburg, Idaho

We got up early Monday morning to the sound of light rain…every tenters worst nightmare. We skipped making breakfast and packed-up as quickly as we could . With the tent only slightly damp, we dismantled the camp and were on the road within an hour.

It was a long day of driving, but the scenery was spectacular during much of the journey. We enjoyed the beautiful rocky mountains as well as a variety of other landscapes. There were lots of photo ops which Eden and I both loved! Between the odd bit of construction work, bathroom breaks, stops to fill the gas tank and the scenic bypass we added near the end of our trip, the anticipated 9 1/2 hours became 11 1/2. The kids were great and despite the length our spirits were high. Eden’s road trip playlist kept us going!

The highlight of this drive was definitely Mesa Falls which was located on a scenic bypass just of Highway 20 near Yellowstone National Park. The falls were spectacular and well worth the extra time (about 45 minutes) and $5 entry fee.

I had spent about 80 hours researching this trip. With the dollar being so bad, it took me longer to find affordable lodging and the most economical way to purchase attraction tickets. One of the resources I discovered was Our first stay in Rexburg, Idaho was found through this site. The site allows you to search a location and then find free and low-cost sites that suit your needs. One thing I found was that camping in or near small towns is generally cheaper. If possible, avoid the touristy areas and prices are much better. Beaver Dick Park was located 5 miles west of Rexburg. The park is situated next to a river (forget the name) and is very well maintained. The sites are well-developed, with gravel parking pads, grass tent sites, fire pits and picnic tables. There are several sheltered picnic areas and the park is really quite lovely. Although you can’t make reservations, we came prepared knowing that there were only vault style toilets and no running water. We had a lovely site and Shay was able to do a bit of fishing while we were making breakfast and packing up. Overall this was a fabulous campground for $5 per night ~ clean, well-maintained and scenic. Although there was no water and the toilets were only vaults, there were several bathrooms scattered through the small park for convenience. I would highly recommend this campground, but be aware of the limited amenities.

*We passed through a small town called Ennis, Montana while travelling south on Highway 287. It is just north of the Montana/Idaho border. Although we didn’t have time to stop, I would definitely take some time to explore this little town if we’re back this way again. The town store fronts had an “old west flare”, but not in a tacky way. It seemed really quaint and worthy of checking out. It was nestled near the mountains and really piqued my curiosity. Too bad we were already running behind schedule and had to pass through without stopping.

Teen Room Project #3: Canopy

I think Eden has always had some form of a canopy in her room. For this room, she had her heart set on a simple tulle/white light canopy over her bed. Of course, she had no idea how we were going to pull this together, but a good idea of how she wanted it to look.

We were able to upcycle the former hoop style canopy she previously had and create our own version of the lighted canopy. Although this is mostly finished, it may need more tulle/bulk to get the desired look. We will also need to conceal the cord, but that will have to wait until her new mural is completed. She is happy with it, but I’m not quite sure this will be the finished look ~ once some of the other projects are complete we can assess if the current contraption looks substantial enough. To me it seems a bit small for the space.

Click on a picture to go to full screen and read the captions.