Big Sur to Monterey

We had planned to spend a few days in and around Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, but the weather was looking grim…so we left our campsite a night early, had a squishy walk around the nature trail in the morning, and headed north.

Thankfully, when we emerged from the park and started working out way up the coast again, the weather improved and we even saw a little sunshine!

We had a lovely picnic lunch at Point Lobos, where we did a little hiking, watched some scuba divers and some harbor seals, and learned about the whaling trade that used to be prevalent in the area.

We made it to Monterey after a surprisingly lovely drive along the dramatic coastline.

But we knew that the rain was following us…

We found a DRY! camping spot at Monterey Veteran’s Memorial Park, a little more than a mile’s walk from the city center.

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From Morro Bay to Big Sur

After one of our most restful hotel stays of the trip in Morro Bay, and a chance to do our laundry, we moved on up the coast, planning to make it to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park by the end of the day.

We stopped at an elephant seal rookery along the way and were amazed to find thousands of elephant seals right up on shore, just feet away from us! They were LOUD, and HUGE! It was truly amazing to be there and watch them interact with one another. It was mating and birthing season, and we were told that 2 calves had been born just that day, one only 2 hours before we arrived. The calves made noises that sounded like human screams, and it was hard not to laugh the they would open their mouths and emit muppet-like sounds. But the big boys of the group, they sounded menacing, and their deep gravelly voices carried a long way.

We stayed and endured the cold, windy, misty weather for a long time in order to take in this amazing site, then kept moving up the coast.

The coastline started to look quite dramatic when we neared the Big Sur park lands. We stopped long enough to hike a little way up to Salmon Creek Falls, a beautiful water fall in a rushing stream just near the road. Then we tried another trail nearby, but it started pouring, so we gave up and went back to the car to dry off and warm up. Fog had rolled in along with the rain, and the scenery was eluding us.

Well, it rained pretty much the rest of the day, and setting up camp at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park wasn’t too much fun. But at least we had a warmish, dryish place to sleep!

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La Purisima Concepción Mission

We had been on or around El Camino Real quite a bit in our southern California wanderings, but finally, we visited one of the historic missions on this famous route from Mexico up to San Francisco.

We left San Diego, drove like mad to get around L.A., and stayed overnight in Ventura. The next day, we took our time and wandered up from Ventura, through Santa Barbara, to Pismo Beach, and eventually to Morro Bay. That afternoon, we stopped to visit the La Purisima Concepción Mission just outside of Lompoc. This is one of only 2 of the historic missions that are actually state parks, and not owned/run by the Catholic Church. We had no idea how incredible this site was until we stumbled into the visitor center right as a volunteer docent was about to give a tour. What luck! This lovely woman took us around the site for almost 2 hours, and we got to see places we wouldn’t have if not on the tour. Much the site was rebuilt/restored during the 1930s as part of the CCC, including the church, the solder’s quarters, the priest’s quarters, the craftsmen’s quarters, the infirmaries. Periodically, they open the various buildings on special days to show remnants of everyday life and work, including olive oil pressing, lye soap making, tallow candle making, leather shop, blacksmith shop, carpenter’s shop, etc.  The restoration is meant to show how the mission looked during the 1820s, a few decades after it was founded, and after it had moved from it’s original location due to an earthquake that damaged the original buildings about 4 miles from the current site. They even had a few animals (heritage breeds), the same as they would have had in the time period, so there were some chickens, a turkey, some pigs, steers, a burro, and 2 horses. It was fascinating! We learned that the Spanish pushed up from Mexico in a bid to find otter fur, after learning that the Russians were after these pelts. Who knew?!? (we didn’t…)

After a visit to the mission, we drove to Pismo Beach in search of some Monarch butterflies. There is a grove of trees there where the monarchs gather each year on their annual migration. Sadly, we did not see any butterflies. But we did have a nice walk out to a beautiful beach, and then decided to make our way to Morro Bay for the night, by way of San Luis Obispo, where we had a delicious meal of Pho and some yummy ice cream treats for dessert.

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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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