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Archive for May, 2011

After weather complications prevented us from seeing the Giant Sequoias, we made an unscheduled stop in San Francisco on Leg 4 of our Year Long Adventure.  This was Mom & Dad’s third trip to SF, and we were excited to get the chance to show the kids the city where we spent both our honeymoon and ten year wedding anniversary.

The iconic Golden Gate Bridge

Our first stop was north of the city, where we experienced the beauty of Muir Woods National Monument (read about it here).

The amazing Redwoods of Muir Woods

We contemplated staying our one night outside the city, but we instead decided to stay in the heart of the Fisherman’s Wharf area at the Best Western Tuscan Inn.  The cost to stay here was a little more than outside the city, but the prime location allowed us to walk to most of the places we wanted to see on our visit.

After checking into the hotel, we walked four blocks to Pier 39 to see the Sea Lions who gather on the floating docks.  The kids really enjoyed the antics and call of the sea lions despite the cold and windy evening.

We then walked down the wharf and ate dinner at Boudin Bakery.  Their specialty is sourdough bread, and they bake loaves in some amazing animal shapes.

Turtles, crabs, and bears...oh my!

Bread alligator

After some excellent seafood, we took a taxi up to Nob Hill to show the kids the Renaissance Stanford Court hotel where we spent our honeymoon back in 1997 and our anniversary in 2007.

Nob Hill is only a few blocks away from Chinatown.  From the hotel, we walked down a street so steep that it is hard to believe.  We did a little souvenir shopping and stopped for a  photo op on Clay Street.

At sunset, we caught the closest trolley car for a ride back down to the wharf.  This was another big hit with the kids.

Riding the Trolley

The next morning we walked a few blocks over to Lombard Street.  This is the famous “crookedest street in the world” built with switchbacks to allow cars to traverse the extremely steep slope.

Crooked street in the world

Preparing to walk back down

It was a rough hike up the hill to make it to the top of the street, but the view was worth it.  A quick walk back to the hotel and our 24 hours in San Francisco were done.  The kids really enjoyed the trip, and it was fun for Mom and Dad to share one of our favorite places with them, if only for a short time.

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Fourteen years ago we celebrated our honeymoon with a trip to San Francisco and Monterey, California.  This week we returned to San Francisco with our three children as part of our Year Long Adventure, with California being the 41st state we have traveled to in the last 9 months.  As we drove across the Bay Bridge, we discussed all the ways our lives have changed in those 14 years.  Other than the obvious three kids in the van, the thing that struck Dad the most was the change in our personal technology.

We were inexperienced and nervous travelers when we landed at San Francisco airport in 1997.  It was overwhelming to drive our rental car into a strange city with only a paper map to guide us to our hotel.  Our itinerary had been decided far in advance of our arrival, and once in San Francisco, we relied on brochures or taxi drivers to find our way around.  Mom owned the only cell phone, and we cannot remember today if we even brought it with us.  We had a desktop computer at home (Dad really did not know how to use it), but the thought of bringing a laptop on vacation was not something we could have fathomed.

Fast forward 14 years, and it is amazing how travel and personal technology have changed.  Our family  has traveled over 20,000 miles to 41 states in the last 9 months.  Mom and Dad each use our laptops most nights using the wireless internet provided free at the hotel.  We upload photos taken only hours before to a remote server and compose and publish this blog of our adventure.  Dad has been able to perform the basic tasks of his job remotely from hotels and/or our car using basic everyday technology, making the Year Long Adventure possible.

The main thing that has changed our travel the most is the advancement of cellular phones and in our case, the iPhone.  We rely on iPhone Maps to plan our routes (and to create Plan B when necessary) and guide us while we are on the road.  With the iPhone, we have no anxiety about getting to any of our destinations, no matter how remote they may be.  Our phones help us to find hotels, read hotel and attraction reviews, scout possible activities on the fly, take pictures and video, and keep us (especially our youngest) entertained.

One of the best examples of technology improving our travel occurred on Leg 3 when we were driving through Florida.  Mom was mapping when she realized that we would be driving right through St. Augustine.  From her trip research, Mom knew this was a city worth visiting, but she had not realized that we would be so close.  She used her phone to see what there was to do, found an Eco-Boat trip, read the reviews of the trip, and called to reserve a trip for the family all while we were still 20 minutes outside the city limits.  We then used the mapping feature to get us to our destination right on time.  We could have never pulled something like that off so quickly 14 years ago. (Read more about this adventure in St. Augustine here)

Remembering that feeling of driving into San Francisco just 14 years ago, Dad said that if you would have told him that day about the future of technology, it would have been more unbelievable than telling him that he would be back 14 years later with three kids age 11, 9, and 5.  Mom said she would have been blown away by both of these propositions.

The real question is: What will be possible in 2025?

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Ready to see the giant sequoias

As we drove from through the California valley past orchards of orange, lemon, and nut trees to the foothills and Sequoia National Park, we noticed a few stores along the way that had signs out front offering snow chains for rent.  Since it was the middle of May, Dad assumed that these signs were leftover from the winter.  Imagine our surprise when the ranger at the park gate said we had a bit of a problem.  Because it was currently snowing at the top and the winding roads on the mountainside were covered in ice and close to impassable, snow chains would be mandatory after a certain point on the main park road.  Unfortunately, the giant sequoia trees that we had come to see were located far past this point.  We continued on to the Visitor Center to rethink our plan, as the thought of driving on icy mountain roads with limited barriers was not very appealing.  Thanks to our iPhones and a strong wireless connection, we were able to hatch a new plan that would allow us to see giant trees the following day.

While still at Sequoia NP, we decided to take advantage of a couple of the hikes at the lower elevations where the roads were still passable.

We hiked the Hospital Rock Trail down to the Kaweah River.  The trail led to a location that was so amazing, it was hard to believe.  Giant boulders, roaring rapids, and incredible mountain views (video here).  Allison found a piece of a rare mineral, malachite, that she identified with her Rocks & Minerals book.

Andrew and Audrey found a giant red salamander as we were coming back up the trail.  While this hike was not something that we had planned on doing originally, we felt blessed to see this beautiful place.

Gorgeous scene just outside Sequoia National Park

The kids were VERY disappointed that we were unable to see the Sequoias, especially the “General Sherman”, the world’s largest living tree.  Instead of heading east as previously planned, the next morning we headed west in search of alternative giant trees.  We were only four hours away from Muir Woods National Monument, so off we went.  Having visited Muir Woods before, Mom and Dad knew that it would satisfy the kids’ thirst for giant tree viewing.  As an added bonus, we could spend the night in San Francisco, one of Mom and Dad’s favorite places.

The giant redwoods at Muir Woods are incredible.  Some of the trees are over 1000 years old and soar upward to heights of over 250 feet tall. Walking through this majestic forest is a peaceful, spiritual experience.

Looking up

In addition to the standard Junior Ranger program, Muir Woods NM offers a “Quest” for kids to help enhance their experience in the park.  Using the guidebook, you follow the trails through the woods and uncover clues to the location of a treasure chest and the combination to unlock it.  We found all the clues and located the treasure.

We began our journey searching for giant sequoias and ended up finding even taller redwoods.  A great benefit of traveling without concrete plans is the ability to change directions on the fly.  We joked with the ranger at the gate at Sequoia that “there are no problems, only opportunities”.  Muir Woods was our opportunity.

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When we were first planning our Year Long Adventure, one of the places we knew for sure that we would visit was the Grand Canyon.  Mom & Dad had both seen the Grand Canyon when they were younger, and our kids were extremely excited to see one of the true wonders of the world.

We arrived at Grand Canyon National Park a little after 6:00 PM, a little later than expected because of  our unplanned stops at Petrified Forest National Monument and Meteor Crater.  As we pulled into the main Visitor Center parking lot, we were amazed to be greeted by large elk meandering through the parking lot.

These elk were not bothered at all by the tourists a few feet away, snapping photos like the paparazzi chasing Lindsay Lohan.  Andrew was thrilled to see this young elk enjoying some of the tasty plants put in the flower beds.

Next we drove over to Grand Canyon Village to check in at the Yavapai Lodge East where we had reserved a room.  Just one week before, this was the only place in the park that had any rooms available. Even still,  in true YLA fashion, they were able to grant our on-the-spot request for a second night.

We were very pleasantly surprised to find that the Yavapai Lodge East was more like a nice hotel than the more “rustic” lodges we remembered from childhood.  Three days later, after realizing that we had left clothes in the dresser, we were even more impressed because Yavapai’s Lost and Found FedExed them back to us.

Our first day at the Park was filled with Junior Ranger Books, hikes along the rim, Ranger talks, and incredible views.  The main Visitor Center has a great 20 minute video, the perfect way to begin your adventure in the Canyon.

The entire family was truly amazed at the canyon views.  The size and scope of this place is really hard to grasp, and it takes your breath away each and every time you look.  Seeing the kids’ expressions when they glimpsed the Canyon the first time made it worth the trip.  Mom didn’t like people getting too close to the edge (even perfect strangers), so she really appreciated the railings at the observation points.

On the second morning, the girls and Dad woke up early and rode the shuttle over to the Bright Angel Trailhead.  The Bright Angel Trail is the 7.2 mile trail that winds down from the top of the canyon to the bottom.  This trail is 8-10 feet wide in most places, has no railing, and is the trail that the mules use to take families like the Bradys to the bottom of the canyon.  We had no plans of going to the bottom, but were able to hike down about a mile before we turned around and hiked back.  This trail offered more amazing views, but can be a bit scary if you have a problem with heights (Dad).

Mules on the Bright Angel Trail

Obviously Mom wasn't here. Don't get so close to the edge!

We really enjoyed our trip to Grand Canyon National Park.  While in the park, the shuttle system will get you around quickly to everywhere you want to visit.  With limited parking, this is a nice convenience, and you don’t experience the gridlock common at other major parks like Yellowstone.  Both evenings we ate dinner in the cafeterias in Grand Canyon Village, and utilized the General Store for on-the-go breakfasts and lunches.

Even the beer in the cafeteria is "Grand"

The crowds were not too large on this Thursday – Saturday in early May, and the weather was pleasant.   After the kids were sworn in as Junior Rangers, we stopped to see the IMAX movie in Tusayan, the town just outside the south rim entrance.  During the movie, you get to experience what it is like to raft down the Colorado river through the Grand Canyon, as well as learn more about the lives of the natives and the early explorers.  If you have the time, it makes a nice addition to the trip.

The Grand Canyon is something that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.  Pictures don’t even begin to capture the magnificence and grandeur of this National Treasure.

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After visiting Petrified Forest National Park, our next stop was a trip to Meteor Crater outside Winslow, Arizona.  Meteor Crater bills itself as the most well-known and best preserved meteorite crater in the world.  One word that describes this site is HUGE!

View from the top the the Crater

It is difficult to capture the scale of this 50,000 year old crater from photographs.  Although the meteor itself was only 150 feet in diameter, the crater it created is nearly a mile across and 550 feet deep.  They say that there could be 20 football fields on the floor of the crater with the crowds of 20 NFL stadiums seated around the sides.  (After hearing this, Jerry Jones started renovation plans of Cowboys Stadium.)  The Apollo astronauts trained here before one of the moon missions to study the features of craters.  On the floor of the crater is a fenced off area protecting the site where the meteor made contact. There is also an American flag and a wood cutout of a 6 foot tall astronaut to help emphasize the true magnitude of the crater.

Notice the tiny fenced off area in the center of the crater (right above the bush on left side of picture) denoting the impact zone.

Close up of the impact zone. American flag and 6 foot tall astronaut are on the right.

The visitor center is perched directly on the edge of the crater and has trails that lead to different observation viewpoints along the rim.  In addition to a movie explaining how the crater was formed, there is an excellent museum in the visitor center filled with interactive, multimedia exhibits.  Our kids enjoyed both the movie and museum, but their favorite part was definitely the view from the rim.  Both guided and self-guided tours along the rim are available.

View from the highest observation deck. It is extremely windy and made Mom really nervous.

It took about an hour to see everything.  Just a few miles south of I-40, our visit to Meteor Crater was a nice way to break up a long drive and experience something from out of this world.

Photo backdrop in the Visitor Center lets you pose on the crater floor.

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On our way to visit two more natural wonders, we were “getting our kicks on Route 66″ between Albuquerque, NM, and Holbrook, AZ.  We spent the night in Holbrook, NM, a town off 1-40 and the Old Historic Route 66 which was a happening stop in the 1960s as American families traveled West.

Our first stop the next morning was at Petrified Forest National Park located about 20 miles east of Holbrook.  This park is home to one of the largest and most colorful concentrations of petrified wood in the world and also the “Painted Desert”.

In Year Long Adventure tradition, we began our visit to the park at the north end Visitor Center watching the introductory movie and picking up Junior Ranger Books for the kids.  There is a 28 mile road that travels north to south through the park, taking you through scenery that at times makes you feel like you could be on another planet.  Centuries of uplift and erosion have created a badlands topography of many mesas towering over acres of flat grasslands.  These mesas are made up of many layers of different colored rocks and minerals that have created the “Painted Desert”.  Many colors cascade across the landscape as the sun moves across the horizon.

In the center of the park are the ruins of Pueblo Puerco, an ancient settlement which once contained up to 100 rooms.  A short walking trail leads among the ruins where some petroglyphs can be seen.

Toward the southern end of the park is where the large areas of petrified wood are found.  Thousands of years ago, this area of the country was a tropical rain forest with huge trees up to 200 feet tall.   Over time and through a chemical change that was difficult to understand, many of these trees that had fallen were petrified.  Many of these trees have become colorful explosions of quartz and crystals.  At many points along the drive, the Park Service has created walking trails which wind among these huge pieces of the petrified wood.   At one point we found a tree lying next to the path that was still over 40 feet long.

It is against the law to take anything from the park, and they explain at the visitor center that over 1 ton of petrified wood and rocks are stolen from the park each month.  Luckily for those wanting a souvenir,  there are about a dozen rock shops outside the park that will sell you any kind of rock, crystal, or petrified wood that you could want. (Not sure where they get their inventory since it is illegal to take it out of the park.)

Despite the extreme conditions, wildlife does populate the park.  As we arrived at the South Visitor Center, we were greeted by two Pronghorn on top of one of the mesas. 

We toured the Rainbow Forest Fossil Museum inside where the kids got some great one-on-one instruction from Ranger Michael, who then swore them in as proud Junior Rangers.  The kids were thrilled when he let them hold a 200 million year-old fossilized tooth!

This park is truly amazing, and much different than we expected.  If you ever find yourself in Eastern Arizona, you really should make a point to visit.

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We awoke in Roswell, New Mexico, ready for more adventure.  To break up the long drive that day, our plan was to stop in Albuquerque and visit Petroglyph National Monument.  Located on a mesa of volcanic rock, Petroglyph National Monument stretches 17 miles to the west of Albuquerque.  It is on these rocks that ancient pueblo dwellers and early Spanish settlers carved images that we know today as petroglyphs.

We started at the visitor center for a trail map and the always popular Junior Ranger Book.  There are two different areas where the petroglyphs can be viewed.  We chose the Boca Negro Canyon, a short drive from the Visitor Center.  The first trail, Mesa Point, was quite a steep climb, weaving through giant rocks and ending on top of the mesa around 700 feet higher than the parking lot.  Along the trail we were able to clearly see many petroglyphs on the rocks.

Climbing up the paved portion of the steep trail.

Our favorite petroglyph. We thought it looked like a lizard holding a lollipop.

Once we made it to the summit, we were rewarded with incredible views.  The kids worked on their Junior Ranger Books and gave new meaning to the term “outdoor science lab”.

School in session atop the mesa.

While on top of the mesa we saw some pretty cool lizards and a rock squirrel stopped by to check us out.

After a short rest, we slowly made our way down the trail (much scarier than climbing up) and were able to check out the two shorter trails along the base which also featured some closeup views of the petroglyphs.

The kids really enjoyed the hiking and the petroglyphs.  They were quite proud when they realized how high they had climbed!  We would recommend the trip if you ever find yourself in Albuquerque and are looking for a neat outdoor activity with your family.

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We stopped in Roswell, New Mexico, to spend the night between destinations on Leg 4 of our Year Long Adventure.  Roswell’s claim to fame is a purported crash landing of an alien space ship in the summer of 1947.  According to Wikipedia, the event was ignored at the time and all but forgotten until the late 1970s, when conspiracy theories circulated concerning a possible government cover-up of the incident.  The city today markets itself today with an alien theme, and many of the businesses on Main Street show their full “Alien Pride”.

If you do find yourself in Roswell, make sure to eat at The Cattle Baron Steakhouse.  You will be glad you did.  Both the food and service were excellent, and we all thoroughly enjoyed the meal.  The kids were a little disappointed that the restaurant makes no alien references, unlike some others in town.

Sorry, kids.

The answer is still "no".

No alien references, just great food.

On the campus of the New Mexico Military Institute, we even spotted Roswell’s version of the Cotton Bowl – the Wool Bowl!

Please become a fan of our Year Long Adventure Facebook Page if you’d like to read more about our crazy journey through the 48 contiguous States.

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Leg 4 of our Year Long Adventure has begun! The focus of this trip is on the natural beauty of the Southwest, so we will be visiting as many National Parks as we can while traveling through this region.  Day one of our journey took us on a long drive from our home base near Dallas, Texas, to Carlsbad, New Mexico.  As we left Dallas, it was pouring rain and 47 degrees, quite unusual for early May.  We had warmer weather when we left on Leg 3 in February!

We spent a pretty uneventful 10 hours making our way to Carlsbad.  It was amazing to see the vast number of windmills in West Texas stretching in a line as far as the eye can see.  The kids were truly impressed.

The next morning, we drove to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a 30 minute drive south from the town of Carlsbad.  Upon arrival, we obtained our Junior Ranger booklets and purchased tickets for the afternoon “King’s Palace” tour, the least strenuous of the guided tours.  Detailed descriptions of the different guided tours are available online, so you can pick the one which best fits your interests and limitations.

There are two ways to enter the caverns. One is a walk through the natural entrance and down a steep, winding trail that takes over an hour to get to “The Big Room”. The second option utilizes a high speed elevator that descends over 750 feet in less than a minute, arriving fifty yards from the same chamber as the natural entrance.  We took the elevator.

Our first stop was to take the self-guided tour of “The Big Room”.  This is an area inside the cavern that is literally a BIG room.  A 1.5 mile winding trail takes you through the room filled with amazing geological wonders.  Words cannot truly describe the place, and pictures do not do it true justice either.  It does not seem possible that this place is real.

We finished the self-guided portion of the tour in time to grab a quick lunch in the underground dining area before our Ranger-guided tour of “The King’s Palace”.  This tour took us to another four rooms of the park with all different types of formations.

Stalactites and stalagmites - do you know the difference?

Drapery formation in the "Queen's Chamber"

Carlsbad Caverns were discovered by a teenage cowboy in 1901.  He spent years exploring the caves with a homemade lantern made from an old coffee can filled with kerosene, and he named these rooms and all of the formations inside.  You can read more about fascinating story of Jim White here and here.  Today the Park Service has added many lights among the formations to enhance the wonder of the place.  One of the highlights of this Ranger tour is when they turn out all of lights in the cave for around 5 minutes so that we could experience true total darkness.  Our daughter Audrey was very proud to be selected as the volunteer who pushed the button to turn off and on the lights.

Audrey posing with the button that turns off the lights.

As we expected, the tour was very informative.  We learned all about the different types of natural formations in the cave and how they form.  One of the more interesting parts was hearing stories of the early years after the cave was discovered, but before the Park Service took over.  In order to publicize the caverns, everything from weddings to Chamber of Commerce meetings were held inside.  Part of the original “Journey To The Center of the Earth” movie was filmed in one of the chambers.  Unfortunately, people unknowingly damaged many of the cave formations, so paved trails were added and new rules enforced to preserve it for future generations.

Walking on the trails

We really enjoyed our opportunity to explore this incredible natural site and highly recommend it to all.  Bring a jacket because it is 55 degrees underground year round.  We were surprised at how busy it was on a Tuesday in the first week of May.  Advanced reservations for guided tours are suggested as they fill up quickly.  Our kids once again enjoyed the Junior Ranger program, and they were thrilled to receive both a pin and a patch upon completion.

Being sworn in as Junior Rangers

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