Surfing Down Sand Dunes

Our time in Death Valley National Park was pretty amazing. We slept out under the stars for two nights without a tent (considering all of the times that we have camped in the rain and snow this was a real novelty). We also experienced being at the point of lowest elevation in North America, and we watched the sun rise and set over some of the most gorgeous rock formations. However, our absolute favorite part of the trip was hiking out onto the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

We had an absolute blast when we visited Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado and were excited to find out that Death Valley has sand dunes of their own. In Colorado we were dressed in boots, hats, and rain coats, but when exploring the sand dunes of Death Valley we were able to slip off our sandals and enjoy the sand between our toes in t-shirts and shorts. We knew that the sand would get pretty hot by mid-day, so we arrived at Mesquite Flat early in the morning when the sand was still cool on our feet. By the time we left two hours later the our feet were already starting to feel what a huge impact the rising sun has on heating up the sand.

The best part about visiting sand dunes is that there is no single trail that you have to hike. It is really fun to watch each member of the family take their own path up the dunes. It is even more interesting to see how they get back down the other side. High Five loves to surf down on his stomach, while Five Ball enjoys running at full speed straight down. Five of Hearts has a much more graceful descent as she skips her way down each dune. By the time that we were done visiting the dunes we could have made our own mini sand dune with all the sand that was stuck to the kid’s bodies. Luckily we were able to take them swimming in the pool at the Furnace Creek Ranch. Sand dunes are super fun, but having water to wash up in afterwards makes things much more enjoyable.

 

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Walking Among the Ancients

Whenever we visit California we seem to find ourselves visiting amazing trees. We have played under and on Giant Sequoias in Kings Canyon National Park, felt infinitesimally small hiking through the Redwood forests along the northern coast, and this past week we felt like relative infants while visiting a grove of the world’s oldest trees at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest near Bishop, CA.

While Bristlecone Pine trees don’t have the girth or stature of Sequoias and Redwoods they are seriously old trees. In fact the oldest living tree on earth (called Methuselah) is a Bristlecone Pine that is 4,765 years old. Unlike most trees the oldest Bristlecone Pines are actually the most twisted and stunted looking. Bristlecones growing in harsh conditions grow more slowly thereby developing compact, resinous wood which helps defend them from insects and diseases. These trees are amazing at growing in harsh conditions with poor soil and little water. They have figured out how to get just enough of what they need to survive year after year.

It was quite the experience driving to the Schulman Grove (named fro Dr. Edmund Schulman who first discovered how old Bristlecone Pines trees are). In order to reach the grove you must drive up to an elevation of over 9,000 feet with amazing views of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. After over 30 minutes of driving straight up along a winding road we finally made it to the grove where we were greeted with the interesting formations of the Bristlecone Pines.

After checking out the visitors center we set out to hike the Discovery Trail and view trees that have been around since the Roman Empire was going strong. It was a very humbling experience to be in the presence of such ancient trees. The twisted formations and the colors are absolutely stunning and it was hard to stop ourselves from taking a picture of each tree. Now we just need to travel to the Arctic to visit the world’s smallest tree (the Dwarf Willow).

Among the Giants

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Visiting Redwood National Park has been a priority for several years now, and it was truly a pleasure to spend two days camping at the lovely Elk Creek Campground in the adjoining Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. It’s hard to describe the feeling of looking up and straining to see the tops of the towering redwoods all around, of having the cool fresh air wash over you as you hike through a fern-covered canyon, or spotting whales and seals from your picnic perch above the sea. We won’t even try, but we will give some glimpses into our favorite spots at Redwood National and State Parks.

 

Prairie Creek Trail
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Prairie Creek Campground
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Fern Canyon
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Lady Bird Johnson Grove
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High Bluff Overlook
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And no good trip to a national park is complete without participating in the Junior Ranger program. The booklet (available in both the national and state park visitor centers) was one of the best we’ve seen and had plenty to keep the Younger Fives engaged and learning for two solid days. Now that they’ve taken the official oath, they feel honored to do their part to protect and preserve these magnificent trees and their surrounding ecosystem.
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California’s Egyptian Oasis

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We’re often asked how we decide where to travel to next. Truth be told, one man has had as much influence on our travels as anyone: Rick Riordan. After reading the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series aloud as a family, Five of Hearts had her heart set on seeing Athens and Greece. Then, The Heroes of Olympus series hooked Five Ball on seeing Rome. We were fortunate to visit both places this past winter during our Train Odyssey, but Egypt (the inspiration for The Kane Chronicles series) remained elusive. However, driving through the Bay Area last week, we were thrilled to come across the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, an ideal place to experience in person the information we’ve learned about Egypt through the adventures of Sadie and Carter Kane.

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A dramatic entrance lined with papyrus plants leads into the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts in the western United States. To give our exploration some focus, we downloaded and printed their Passport to Ancient Egypt, which gave a great background for each exhibit, provided questions for the kids to answer, and had a place for a special stamp available in most rooms of the museum. The passport is also available for purchase (under $1) at the front desk, which is a more compact version for older children who don’t need as much space to write in their answers.

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The kids loved making their way through the various exhibits filled with original artifacts, and we liked how important Egyptian objects physically located in other museums were recreated (like the Rosetta Stone above) to help visitors still experience them. While not every artifact held the kids’ attention, there were plenty of kid-friendly features to keep them engaged. In addition to the passport stamps, each exhibit had special clues/ facts that were only visible when the kids shone a special light (provided by the front desk) on them. Between searching for the answers to their Passport questions and looking for the stamps and secret clues, the kids had plenty to keep them busy as they expanded their knowledge about ancient Egypt’s gods and culture.

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Our favorite exhibits were on the bottom floor of the museum, devoted to burial practices and the afterlife. The kids couldn’t believe the human mummies in the glass cases were real, and they examined many original artifacts dealing with mummification and the afterlife. The best part, though, was the guided tomb tour. The tomb itself is a recreated composite meant to give a sense of what a typical tomb would be like. While visitors can explore it any time the museum is open, we highly recommend the guided free tour usually offered once per day. The friendly and knowledgeable staff really helped us notice details we would have missed on our own, especially the significance of the murals and hieroglyphs in the inner tomb.

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We decided to wrap up our visit by exploring the grounds outside the museum. We found a shaded table and chairs for an afternoon snack, and then we explored the gardens, fountains, and temple that make up Rosicrucian Park. As we were leaving we spotted a strange sight (traffic cones and an over-sized dice), so we couldn’t resist investigating. We had stumbled upon a giant Senet game and wasted no time reading the directions and trying to move our pieces off the board through spaces such as the House of Rebirth and the House of the Three Truths. No one knows exactly how the game was played in ancient Egypt, but there were enough imagery on tomb walls and artifacts discovered to make a reasonable guess. We weren’t, therefore, too worried about following the rules exactly, which made playing more fun. Sure, we probably made some moves that would make ancient Egyptians shoot us looks of disapproval, but we felt honored to be keeping their tradition alive over 5,000 years after the oldest known boards were buried for use in the afterlife.

Redwood (and Rookery) Coast

The past few days exploring the southern section of Big Sur have been breathtaking. While camping under towering redwoods, we’ve walked to the ocean-side of the campground to see whales spouting as they head south toward Mexico and sea otters drifting through the kelp beds. And then there’s the elephant seals, harbor seals, and dolphins we spotted from various roadside viewpoints along the way. All in all, it’s been a visit to remember! Here are some highlights in pictures…

 

Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
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Limekiln State Park Beach
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Limekiln State Park History Hike
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Limekiln State Park Falls Hike
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