Smaller Castle. Bigger Kids. Still Disneyrific.

Five years ago on our first ever long distance trip road trip (Route 1) we took the kids to Disney World. We had a fabulous time and the kids were the perfect age for enjoying the Magic Kingdom. Since then they have asked if we could return for a second trip, especially High Five who was only one and 1/2 at the time. So, we made a compromise that if we were ever near Disneyland we take them for a visit.

Our most recent road trip through California, Nevada, and Arizona brought us withing close proximity of Disneyland and it was time to make good on our promise. So, on what was supposed to be a relatively “non-crowded” Monday for Disneyland we spent 12 hours exploring the park and comparing it to the Magic Kingdom in Disney World.

Overall we had a really great time. However, as many people had warned us Disneyland is no Magic Kingdom and at the end of our visit we understood what they meant. First of all the park was crowded and stayed that way all day long. In fact it seemed to get worse in the afternoon and evening as yearly pass holders dropped in after school and work. In addition the staff at Disneyland are not at the same caliber as Disney World. During our visit we only interacted with a couple of staff members who were courteous or helpful. The rest were snippy, seemed bored with their jobs, and some were even rude. However, the biggest difference that we found was in Fantasyland. At the Magic Kingdom we had a blast in Fantasyland and found the ride lines to move smoothly and the area a great place for young children. In Disneyland the ride wait times in Fantasyland were 20 to 45 minutes long throughout the entire day. The area was crowded, the rides super packed together, and overall it lacked the Disney magic that other park areas have.

Even though there were some disappointing parts of Disneyland all in all it was still a great place to spend the day. Now that the kids are older we were able to take advantage of the more thrilling rides and didn’t have to worry about strollers, nap times, or stopping to rest. Instead on this trip we spent a great deal of time in Tomorrowland where we rode Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, and Star Tours multiple times. Star Tours alone is worth the large sum of money that it takes to get into Disneyland.

To our great pleasure the Younger Fives also really loved Big Thunder Mountain, which was also a favorite of ours when we were little. The whole family loved the ride so much that we rode it three times and would have ridden it more if the lines were shorter, or we could have gotten more Fast Passes. Just like when we visited Disney World the Fast Pass system definitely made our day much more enjoyable and helped us plan our visit.

Unfortunately there were no fireworks or parades on the day that we visited. However, we did get to watch Mickey and the Magic Map at the Fantasyland Theatre. The show was pretty good and even though the kids would have rather seen Fantasmic! it was still enjoyable. Overall our visit to Disneyland was a success. The kids enjoyed themselves and we didn’t have to make a return trip to Florida. This will probably be our last Disney trip as the Younger Fives are older and into more thrilling rides. However, it was nice to be able to let them experience a little bit of Disney magic one last time.

 

 

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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).

Subterranean Fun at Lava Beds National Monument

Our first stop after leaving Montana was Lava Beds National Monument. We have wanted to visit this fascinating park for several years now, but its location in the North East corner of California has always made it just a little too far out of the way. We came very close when visiting Crater Lake National Park back in 2015, but the extra distance south was just a bit too far for our travel weary kids. So, it was with great anticipation that we drove into the park on an absolutely gorgeous October day to check out some fascinating volcanic formations.

Our first stop was at Tule Lake where we enjoyed spending time viewing the many aquatic birds scattered across the water. We viewed Egrets, Pelicans, Grebes, Coots, and many Gulls. Unfortunately, we didn’t add any new species to our Family Big Year List, but it was super impressive to view the concentration of birds on the lake.

From Tule Lake we headed to the Lava Beds National Monument where we met with a park ranger and received our caving permit. Since we had been in a cave recently in Montana with the same hiking boots we had to use the Bio-Cleaning Station to make sure that our hiking boots weren’t helping to spread White-Nose Syndrome, which is a very serious disease that has been killing bat populations. Since humans can carry the fungus that causes White-Nose Syndrome between caves it is very important to take precautions when visiting multiple cave sites.

After getting our boots cleaned and our permit we were ready to check out the many lava tube caves (created by cooling lava flows 10,500 to 65,000 years ago) that are accessible to the public. We decided to start our visit at Skull Cave, which is one of several ice floor caves in the park. Historically ice has formed on the floors of these caves and has acted as a very important source of water for animals in times of drought. However, human impacts on the caves (people used to ice skate on the cave floors) and global climate change has caused many caves to loss their formations of ice over time. The ice floor at Skull Cave is now closed off the public, but the walk down to the bottom of the cave was still really exciting and super cold! The kids especially liked using their multi-colored MPowered solar lights to guide their way.

From Skull Cave we took a hiking trail that led to both Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave. The boys really enjoyed Big Painted Cave where they had to climb down into a pretty small opening to access the back of the cave. We then walked to Big Painted Cave where we were able to view petroglyphs (rock art) depicted on the cave walls by people living in the area over 6,000 years ago.

Overall we had a wonderful visit to Lava Beds National Monument. Not only did we get to experience some amazing caves and view really interesting volcanic formations, but we also learned more about the history of the Modoc people who lived in the area before white settlers and the United States Army forcibly removed the Modoc people onto reservations. The park has many great displays explaining how the Modoc people used the surrounding environment and about The Modoc War that occurred from 1872-1873. We really appreciated getting both a geological and historical overview of the park.

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.