San Diego Zoo Safari Park

One of the other highlights for our kids on this trip was a visit to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

I have always wanted to visit this place. I’ve seen many nature documentaries that mention the conservation and breeding work that is done here, and the huge open spaces they have for the animals. And Flora still has her mind set on working with animals one day, so I knew she would love this place. And Charlie, well, he loves cute furry things, so we can’t go wrong.

This place did not disappoint. We saw some truly beautiful animals, very close-up, in large areas that seemed to accommodate their needs much better than your average zoo. The grounds were beautiful, with plants on display as well, and the buildings were also interesting, made to look like authentic African or Australian or Asian architecture.

Highlights of our visit included seeing a Siberian Tiger up close in a training session (they train them to do certain behaviors in order to check their teeth, draw blood, observe their underbellies, etc for medical reasons), watching a cheetah run, seeing a Joey in a kangaroo mum’s pouch, hearing the lions roar, and seeing a baby elephant! It was amazing to see all the free roaming African animals on the tour through their larger habitat.

But the MOST amazing thing we did while at the Safari Park was a “Jungle Ropes Safari”, a zip-line and tree-canopy rope course. This was SO MUCH FUN! We all loved it and want to do it again, so we’ve already discovered where to go when we get home. I wish we’d gotten some photos, but we had to put everything in a locker before even getting suited up in our harnesses. So you’ll have to imagine the fun we had swinging through the trees on steel cables, climbing over obstacles, through tunnels, over swinging timbers, across rope bridges, and up and down ladders and over zip lines. We all had sore arms the next day.

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A Restful Day at the Beach

After our adventures at Legoland, we were pretty sure we’d need a day to lay low and recoup, so we planned a 2-night stay at South Carlsbad State Beach, which is literally a 10 minute drive from Legoland.

It was not much of a campground, but the views….

We had a spectacular day on the beach, watching whales spout on their way south, watching pelicans skim the surface of the waves, watching surfers, and even a couple of pods of dolphins frolic in the surf.

Charlie and Flora gleefully spent the afternoon sitting in the surf, chasing it, running from it, splashing in it, and enjoying the warm sunshine.

The tide was high in the morning, so we finished homework for the day before heading down to the beach.

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The central event of this trip, for Charlie and Flora, was a visit to Legoland. They begged for this opportunity, and well, we love Lego, so we thought we had better check it out. Well, it’s REALLLLLY expensive, from the entrance ticket prices to the hotel fees to the food/snacks/ice cream/trinkets they sell in the park. BUT, it was also really fun, and quite a beautiful place. We had a wonderful time, and the kids thought that everything was awesome. (see what I did there…?)

We spent 2 days in the park (just about right to do it all, minus the water parks that were closed for the season), and we stayed the night in between in the Legoland Castle Hotel.

This was my favorite thing in the whole park: watching a bunch of kids “drive” in mini lego cars, pretending to be testing for their “Driver’s License”. SO hilarious! None of them knew how to maneuver, which side of the road to drive on, or how to deal with oncoming traffic. I could have watched them for days!

There were dozens of scenes from the various Star Wars movies recreated in lego, and it must have taken YEARS for some of these amazing scenes to be built!

Then there were the lego cities.

This Deep Sea Adventure ride was particularly genius. You board a “submarine”, which sits in the water such that the part you sit in is completely submerged, so it looks as though you’re in a submarine. You search for treasure or artwork or gems as the thing you’re in is propelled through the watery course, and you push a button on your personal screen each time you find something. Meanwhile, there are actual sea creatures swimming by, like sharks and rays. Very fun, and a big hit with the kids.

Then there’s Castle Hill, where the restaurants and shops and rides are all themed.  They were playing awesome fiddle tunes and Renaissance music most of the time, so obviously, this was my fave part of the park.

The dragon is the “big” coaster, and the kids had to ride it a few times.

This was the ride where they give you laser guns and you shoot targets as it drives you through various scenes.  Charlie loved it.

This one, the Technic Coaster, jostled the bejesus out of us, so we only did it once.

The bionical ride (basically a tilt-o-whirl)

Ninjago was a big hit, too, and not only did they have a cool ride where you have to use your arms to shoot elemental weapons at your enemies, but they had a really cool 3-D show that included smoke, mist, wind, and seemed like you were part of the action.


The Castle Hotel was really something. The whole thing, including every wall and door, is decorated to look like a lego castle. There are talking wizards and jesters all over the place, with indoor slides, a jail, and a courtyard with a playground and a pool (we didn’t use the pool – it was chilly!) There was a dance party in the courtyard that evening, and a special show for the kids at the restaurant (called the “Dragon’s Den”) Charlie and Flora LOVED this place. In our room, which was “Dragon and Knight” themed, we had stained glass artwork, several huge lego creatures, including a dragon, and the kids had their own room with bunks, a tv, a bin full of legos to play with, and a special nightlight that lit up the ceiling with stars. And when we arrived, they were given a scavenger hunt to complete. They had to go around the hotel and identify certain things in order to figure out the combination to a safe in which were special lego sets for them to keep. Pretty cool. All in all, it was a very memorable experience.

Day Two started with a buffet breakfast in the hotel. The kids ate SO MUCH FOOD!

Thanks, Legoland, for all the fun!

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Palomar Mountain…our bermuda triangle?

We had reservations at the Palomar Mountain Observatory Campground for the 2 nights before our big event: Legoland. Well, we didn’t quite make it up the mountain. About 3/4 of the way up this incredible road, winding through beautiful farms, we heard a loud noise, and from the shaking it was clear something had gone horribly wrong with the van. Again.

At first we thought it was a punctured tire, and then we thought something had gone wrong with the engine, but when we turned the car off the awful shaking, vibrating noise didn’t stop! Well, it turns out that the cooling fan had broken and was now imbalanced, so it created intense noise and vibrations when it ran. Brad was able to disable it pretty quickly, but now we needed to keep from overheating the van. We tried working our way up making frequent stops to cool down, but the switchbacks and elevation change were too much for the poor van. Instead, we went back down and found a campground in the valley near a car parts place that said they could have a fan for us the next day.

The campground was cute, with some ducks and goats and a cow, and we were pretty much the only ones there, and the kids loved running around and playing in the empty campsites.

Brad fixed the fan situation the next day and we were back on the road (I’ll let him tell the more complete tale…it was a lot of work for him): Long story short, the part the NAPA got for me was a wimpy generic “fan” that wouldn’t fit our van. VW wanted $450 for one from a dealer (plus a long wait), so I modified the old fan to get it back in balance and put things back together. In the photo you can see there was originally a ring around the outside of the fan blades, and ours shed several segments. Our “new” fan is now missing all of its segments but is back in pretty good balance again.

We tried again to get up the mountain, this time in weather that wasn’t quite as nice. Well, we made it up to the top only to discover that our campground was indeed closed (US Forest Service runs it, and well, the government shutdown…) and sadly, the observatory was also closed that day. So we didn’t get to see the observatory, but we did do a fun little hike through the woods, and saw some snow!

Back down the mountain we went, in search of a hotel near Legoland.

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Death Valley: A Dash to Panamint Springs (and a Tow)

When Holly’s last post ended, we were zipping across Death Valley in a van without a working alternator. We turned off all possible accessories and did our best to conserve battery voltage as we hustled back to our campsite near Furnace Creek. After much tense gauge-watching, we finally arrived. (Fun fact: A VW Eurovan can run on 11.3 volts.) I had a spare voltage regulator on hand, and set about swapping it in, in the hopes that it might get us on the road again.

When I pulled the old one, there were some signs that the alternator was in rough shape, but the new regulator seemed to do the trick — the van was charging again during some brief tests around the “neighborhood”. It would’ve been nice to have a new alternator to play it safe, but tracking one down in Death Valley was a challenge: There were no car parts places for 70 miles, and while we had a bit of cell phone signal, we didn’t have internet access to help figure out who to call. The mechanic at the small garage in Furnace Creek offered to ferry a part to me if I could find one in Pahrump, NV, but none of the parts places there had one in stock.

In the end, we decided to hit the road the following morning and get to the west side of the park if we could. We had reservations at Legoland in a couple of days and needed to start making some progress. Plus, getting out of the park would bring us closer to car parts if the need arose.

The next day started out well. The van was charging, and sprits were high. Things were going so well that we decided to make a stop at the old Harmony Borax Works to see the remains of the borax-processing plant there, and a pair of old borax carts.

Unfortunately, the alternator stopped working again shortly after the stop. We’d planned ahead this time: I had disconnected the always-on headlights to they wouldn’t consume power, and had done some rewiring to combine the camper’s auxiliary battery with the starter battery to buy us some extra range. We made a dash for Panamint Springs, near the west entrance to the park, monitoring the voltage as we went. We were confident we could make it that far, and thought for a while we might make it out of the park and back to civilization if things went well. Power consumption increased as we neared Panamint Springs though, so we played it safe and decided to stop there to re-evaluate.

There’s a campground and RV park in Panamint Springs, and we were able to get a site and settle in while we planned our next move. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any phone service there at all. We learned from the kid behind the counter at the general store that there was no way to get car parts or service there, and no bus service or car rentals that might let me go retrieve an alternator. In the end, after paying a small fortune to borrow the satellite phone at the general store, we decided to call AAA and have them tow us to Ridgecrest, CA, 75 miles away — the nearest town large enough to have auto parts and services. Less than two hours later, Al was there to haul us and the van out of the park. (And, as an added bonus, a roadrunner kept us company while we waited.)

We did’t have much of a chance to research motels, but asked Al to drop us at the Motel 6 in Ridgecrest — chosen both because it had coin-operated laundry services and a “year-round outdoor pool”. If ever in Ridgecrest, take our advice and avoid the Motel 6. We’ve stayed in some grim motels, but this one’s near the top (bottom?) of the list. They did in fact have laundry services though, which was a big plus. And, to be fair, the pool was outdoor year-round. The ice wasn’t quite thick enough for skating though.

A few quick phone calls and we were in luck! The local NAPA had an alternator in stock for our van! (It was lower output than the old one, but would get us back on the road.) It was too late (and too cold) to make any progress that evening, but I had them put my name on it. The next morning it was 27 degrees out when we got up, and not much warmer than that when I got to NAPA and started replacing the alternator, after dropping Holly and the kids at a Starbucks to hang out and do homework. But by mid-morning we were back on the road and heading in the direction of Legoland!

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Death Valley: Ubehebe Crater and an unfortunate series of events…

The night after our epic hike through Golden Canyon, I tweaked my back.  It was BAD…and by bedtime, I was out of commission. The next morning, I had such excruciating pain, I needed help getting dressed and standing up! I thought we were sunk, but after taking some anti-inflammatories, finding a comfortable position, and resting for the morning, I was back in business, and at least able to get around pain-free and do some walking.

We decided to spend that day sightseeing from the car and only do short interpretive trails. No big hikes today. Plus it was COLD! (around freezing when we woke up that morning, and super windy) So we headed north to Ubehebe Crater.

This place was really quite something to behold, but as I said, it was COLD! And WINDY! So we admired the crater for a few seconds, then piled back into the car to drive back.

My back was feeling better, and we thought we’d hit a couple of interpretive trails on the way back to the campsite, but…the car battery stopped charging. Brad has all manner of gizmos and one of them tells us the voltage of the car battery constantly as we drive.  Well, the voltage was going down quickly, and we had an hour’s drive left, so we high-tailed it back, hoping we wouldn’t be stranded in Death Valley, in the middle of nowhere! I’ll let Brad finish the story…

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Death Valley: Badwater Basin

After our epic hike through Golden Canyon, we drove a little south to visit Badwater Basin, the lowest point in Death Valley NP and also in North America.  The basin, which is covered in salt for miles around, lies 282 feet BELOW sea level. Charlie thought this was very interesting, and wanted to hike all the way out to the end of the trail to view the expanse of salt flats. He and Brad ventured out while Flora and I took a little time to relax in the van. They noted the interesting patterns in the earth and sand and salt, and how those patterns changed as the mixture of earth to salt also changed.

Notice the sign way up the mountain side.  It says “Sea Level”.

On our drive home from visiting Badwater, we enjoyed a gorgeous sunset.

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Death Valley: Golden Canyon and Red Cathedral

On our first full day in Death Valley N.P., we opted to do a loop hike through Golden Canyon and Gower’s Gulch, sometimes referred to as the “Badlands Loop” route.  It was about a 6-mile hike by the time we had finished, and the kids were pooped, but did great and really enjoyed it (except for the long incline in the middle…) Luckily, the pit toilet at the start of this trail was one of the few that was open and maintained during the shutdown.

This was one of the sites we know they did some filming for Star Wars, so the kids kept a lookout for familiar views.

After clambering through some narrow spaces and climbing a bit, we arrived at Red Cathedral, a wall at the end of the canyon made up of deep red colored rock.  We were able to climb up to a high point and view the valley beyond the canyon, although it took some courage and some steady footing!

After carefully making our way back down from our perch, we turned up the trail and made our way over to Gower’s Gulch.

Charlie wasn’t too fond of the incline as we had to traverse over a ridge.

Gower’s Gulch

Our trail opened up at the mouth of the gulch to reveal an amazing view. Great finish to a spectacular hike. One of the best we’ve done as a family.

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From Desert Oasis to Death Valley

We left the lush oasis of Palm Springs on Jan. 30th to brave the wilds of Death Valley National Park. We were excited to spend New Year’s Eve there and catch a glimpse of the night sky in a place that is known to afford great stargazing without lots of light pollution. What we didn’t realize was how incredible the daytime views throughout the park can be as well.

We read up on all the sites in the park where Star Wars was filmed (the original!), and we decided to hike a few of those areas in hopes of catching a glimpse of a bit of Tatooine. On our first night there, we stayed at a boring and sparse RV park since it was privately owned and we could make a reservation (this was during the government shutdown, and NPS campgrounds were not taking reservations). Anyway, to pass the evening in this not-very-interesting campsite, we hunkered down in the van and enjoyed an evening of Star Wars and popcorn.

We decided to stay near the Furnace Creek area for our first couple of days, since there were many sites nearby that were of interest, and we were so happy to learn that the visitor’s center there was open! Turns out that a local nonprofit (a historical society, I think) was providing grant money to fund the staffing of the visitor center during the government shutdown, so there were rangers to talk to, exhibits to see, stuff to purchase, and clean bathrooms to use! We spent a little money in the gift shop and made  donation to show our appreciation.

No fees were collected during the shutdown.

The high temperatures were only in the 60s while we were there…

On our second and third nights in the park, we were able to snag a spot at the Texas Springs Campground, just up the hill from the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. It was the nicest campsite we’ve had so far on this trip! We had views over the valley and across to the Panimint Range (darn – we didn’t take a photo of the daytime view!) and at night, we were treated to spectacular stargazing.

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UC Riverside Botanic Gardens

I was missing trees and green things that aren’t sharp and pointy.  We’d been in the desert for about 2 weeks and we were about to head to Death Valley. I needed to see some trees (not palm trees) and lush foliage. So, I searched the ol’ google maps for a garden, and UC Riverside showed up as a little over one hour’s drive from where we were staying.

So we took the day and drove to Riverside.  Lo and behold, we found ourselves a truly amazing garden, with the added bonus of several miles of trails to allow us to get some movement into our day. I HIGHLY recommend a visit if you are in the area.  This is a beautiful place. (And FREE admission!)

The trails wind through several different types of ecosystems, and we started with the North American desert, displaying an astonishing array of cacti.

There was also a rose garden (with roses IN BLOOM AT NEW YEARS!)

and a tranquil, jungle-like dome structure filled with tropical vines and palms and banana trees (or that’s what they looked like to me).   sidebar: Flora is sporting blue tips on her ponytail…and I think it works.

Then we walked through a rocky hillside, into an herb garden and a grove of oak trees, then through the Australian area and a palm grove. It was a fun way to spend a few hours and have a picnic lunch.

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