We got to Missouri just in time for the 5 p.m. service. Wonderful praise and worship for over an hour, then we heard one of my favorite pastors, Jim Staley, speak about the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. A perfect start to our trip. We drove through St. Charles that evening. I could go back to St. Charles and see more of the cobblestone streets and beautiful lake views. We stayed at Sundermeier RV Park in St. Charles and in the morning of Sunday, July 27 we drove through St. Louis to see the Arch before heading out west.
Sunday was our longest travel day of the whole trip. Our next major destination was Colorado Springs, so we had to drive through Missouri and Kansas to get there. Luckily everybody was still excited about the trip so it was a good day to have to drive that far. :) We did stop every few hours at parks to stretch our legs and see local sights, but we didn't stop long at any one place. We made it to Colorado Springs just after dark.
Monday, July 28 we visited the Indian cave dwellings at Manitou Springs. Then we planned to drive to the top of Pike's Peak, but at the entrance we were told that a 30 foot RV couldn't drive all the way to the top. We could have taken a shuttle up, but we decided just to see it from the road. (Lesson learned #1: research ahead of time what you can and can't do in an RV at each destination before you decide to go there. But I will cover lessons learned like that in another post. :)) We saw enough of Colorado's beauty for Allie to decide it was her new favorite place and start writing a story about it :), then in the evening we drove over to Moab, Utah. We got the kids to sleep so that we could make time traveling after dark. That night we ran into some heavy rain and winds. We were thankful to finally see the sign for the park where we had reservations. We fell into bed and woke up the next morning to magnificent surroundings.
We spent Tuesday, July 29 seeing Arches National Park. It was breathtaking beauty. A MUST SEE if you are planning a trip like this.
There are lots of different trails to hike, but we chose one that was only about a mile, enough to stretch our legs and see the beautiful vantage point, but not enough to make us all cranky. :) The kids enjoyed climbing on the rocks. You could definitely spend an entire day just at Arches, maybe two depending on the size and ability of your family. It's really lovely. That's where I saw the first cactus of the trip, and when I walked over to see it more closely I smelled this amazing smell. It was the plants I had been seeing, called sagebrush. Mmmmm!! I love sage! I grow lots of herbs, including several types of sage, but I don't think we have sagebrush or desert sage around here like they have everywhere there. It smells so earthy and piney and wonderful.
That afternoon we drove over to Bryce Canyon and stayed the night at Ruby's Inn just outside the canyon. Ruby's Inn was definitely the most commercialized place we stayed. There's a hotel, shops, restaurants, kids' activities like gold panning because there's a lot of history in that area of gold mining, and of course, an RV park. That night at Ruby's Inn was the first time I thought, maybe I should have brought jackets and long sleeves for the kids. But who would have thought the desert in July would be chilly? Not me! :) I will cover that lesson learned in another post too. We braved the chill and saw Bryce Canyon on Wednesday, July 30. We walked out to an overlook and hiked around maybe half a mile. The scenery was gorgeous. Some areas had handrails and some did not, so you have to watch the kids closely and really warn them not to go near the edge. (read: I almost had nervous breakdowns a couple of times here with my, uh, brave children.) :)
The afternoon was spent at Zion Canyon, and I think it was a favorite for all of us.
Another family we met at Bryce Canyon had told us about the Junior Ranger program so Zion was the first park where we took the time to go to the visitor's center and get Junior Ranger books and hats, do the activities, and earn the pins. I would say that the Junior Ranger program is a MUST for a family visiting any national park. The books are really educational and appropriate for ages 5 and up. There are different activities for all different ages and abilities. They are created by each park so specific to the types of wildlife, flora and fauna they will see there and the history of the park. I learned a lot about each park by reading through the Junior Ranger books! The books are free and can be found at the visitor's center of any national park, then it's up to you if you want to do the activities and earn the badge. To earn a badge you have to complete the age appropriate pages in the book, usually do something else like hike through some section of the park that you and your family choose, and then meet with a park ranger for 5-15 minutes to discuss what you learned and solemnly promise to be a good junior ranger. :) The park rangers we met at the various parks were all wonderful!
That night we stayed at an RV park right at the edge of the park, so we were still in the beautiful surroundings of Zion. There were lots of friendly people, a playground and a pool that we got to enjoy before roasting hot dogs and Smores and cutting open a juicy watermelon. That night we sat around the campfire and talked about our awesome Creator God. It was a really nice night. I think that was almost more of a reason it was everyone's favorite than just the scenery, although it was amazing. :)
The next morning we got up and drove several hours to Sedona, Arizona. It was a beautiful drive and Rancho Sedona RV Park was another of my favorite parks. We stayed there two nights. Again we arrived before suppertime so there was light to set up camp and time to get settled in before going to bed. We pulled in next to a really friendly family, the weather was nice, it was another great evening. Before dark I took the oldest three to find the creek/swimming hole mentioned on the map and we decided we must come back the next day after exploring Sedona.
August 1 we spent walking all over Sedona. I have a good friend who used to live there so she had told me to visit Tlaqueplaque. It was in walking distance of our park so we walked there and through the streets of Sedona, eating at Sedona Pizza for lunch. That afternoon we came back to the RV park for a really refreshing swim at the creek. We met a really nice family from Israel who we ended up spending more time with in the evening and sharing information with so we could keep in touch.
We headed out of Rancho Sedona after two easy, relaxing days for the Grand Canyon. Grand Canyon is another one of those places you could spend a lot more time in than we did, but after seeing Bryce and Zion canyons, it was more of the same just bigger. :) I think the Junior Ranger program there was one of the best. Several times a day they offered a 30 minute presentation by a park ranger, at the end of which the kids got their badges. The park ranger was funny and really good with kids. We learned a lot from her presentation.
We left out of the Grand Canyon with the purpose of meandering along Route 66 for the rest of the day. We drove a portion of it from around Seligman, AZ into California through Needles. We saw a lot of cool sights along that drive, although the roads were really bumpy and not well maintained. We ate burgers and root beer floats at a diner in Kingman, AZ that was a classic Route 66 dive. Next to it was a neat little free museum about Route 66 and part of an old railcar the kids could climb up and read about. It was a good stop. Mr. D's Diner in Kingman, AZ. The rest of the drive until sunset was really interesting too. We stayed on Route 66 until we got to Joshua Tree Lake campground outside Joshua Tree NP in California. The old ranches, the desert, the Navajo trading posts were beautiful. As we were driving through this section we listened to The Rend Collective Experiment, a worship band with a real desert sound. You can check them out here
We didn't spend much time at the Joshua Tree Lake campground before heading to the Joshua Tree NP. The trees are interesting and it's the most desert scenery we saw, but it was probably my least favorite park. The kids enjoyed climbing on the rocks but we probably just spent an hour or two in the park before moving on. We drove to Riverside, CA, where Brian's Uncle Ray lives. We visited with Ray and Brian's cousin Alicia in Riverside in the afternoon and then finished our drive to the coast before sleeping at a campground in Huntington Beach. I love the quiet, simple, stress-free life at a campground. People are so interesting! There is a slower pace there and the smell of campfires that I love. :)
We all enjoyed the beaches around the Santa Monica area that we stopped and swam and played in. We walked down the boardwalk to the Santa Monica Pier. Then Allie wanted to drive through Beverly Hills and Hollywood, so we did that. It was not my favorite part of the trip. I would rather see God's natural handiwork beauty than rave over the lifestyles of the rich and famous. :) But it was interesting to see while we were there, anyway. We wandered up the coast a little more and stayed at a campground in Pt. Mugu, hanging out a little at the beach there before moving on.
If we had it to do over again, we might do the next leg of the journey a little different. We went to Sequoia National Park, then San Francisco and the redwood forest of Muir Woods, then over to Yosemite. I think if we had it to do over again we would do San Francisco/Muir Woods while we were on the coast and then head over to Sequoia and Yosemite. As it was, we ended up driving through some beautiful farms of California that we might not have seen otherwise. We saw miles and miles of orange groves, avocado trees, and vineyards. We stopped at one of the many farm stands in Valencia and bought some delicious Valencia oranges, grapes and avocados. Then we went to Sequoia NP and were amazed at the giants of trees. Sequoia was a beautiful park and I would definitely suggest going there, but find out ahead of time as much as you can about the park. We found out after entering that there were parts of the park we couldn't get to in a 30-foot RV and would need to either take a different route into the park (which we did, adding 1.5 hours to our journey), or take one of the few shuttles that runs through the park on a very inconsistent schedule. At some parks you even have to have a reservation to ride the shuttle. So, if you are taking an RV, Sequoia is one of those parks you want to do a little planning ahead of time for. Still, we enjoyed ourselves. It was a remarkable place.
The next day we drove over to San Francisco. After eating lunch at Alioto's on Fisherman's Wharf (a delicious restaurant with really good service and a beautiful view of the wharf- eat upstairs if you can!), we decided to do a duck tour of the city. I would highly recommend both Alioto's and the duck tour. We learned so much about San Francisco and saw the city really well! Our guide was wonderful. It was one of the highlights of our trip.
Just north of San Francisco is Muir Woods, a redwood forest national park named for John Muir. It's very peaceful and dreamy and quiet. There is a sense of awe and wonder at the giant trees and gently flowing creeks. It's another park I could have spent a lot more time in. Several miles of easy trails wind through the park. We spent an hour or so walking around after looking at the bookstore, which was also really good. Lots of good quality children's books about nature and national parks and John Muir. The kids earned badges for completing the junior ranger workbooks there, too.
The last main attraction that was on our itinerary before heading home was Yosemite. We stayed at the Mariposa/Yosemite KOA about 15 miles outside the park. It was a great little KOA with a nice playground, pool, and pizza place. (But the showers were awful, in case you're planning a trip. Plan to take your showers on a different night than the night you stay there. But I will cover that stuff in the next post about Lessons Learned & Logistics. :)) Anyway. . . Even though I have heard of Yosemite my whole life, I had no idea how HUGE and diverse that park was. It has its own post office, school, and little village. Since the drive to get into Yosemite is really long and winding, I guess the park rangers and other works there actually live there so it's like a town. Yosemite has mountains, redwoods, rivers, meadows, even beaches. You truly could spend a week just at Yosemite. There's a really good shuttle system that can run you all over if you just want to park and let someone else do the driving for awhile. We took the shuttle to El Capitan, the tallest mountain peak. The shuttle driver was really helpful and told us about a good beach area right by El Capitan that was easy to get in and out of in an RV and let the kids play. So we picnic lunched and the the kids played in the beach at El Capitan.
After several hours at Yosemite, we headed out through Tioga Pass. The elevation at the peak of this pass was 9500 feet so it was really COOL. A welcome reprieve to this pregnant woman in her last trimester. :) I loved the views, the coolness, and the rain we experienced here. We had to pull over and get out to experience the temperature change. When we got back in the RV and headed back down the mountain, we actually saw snow in some areas and it began to hail. The kids were amazed to see snow and hail in August! I loved watching them gaze out the window in awe. We saw a double rainbow that evening too.
We did probably 90% just eating groceries in the RV, so at this point we had had our fill of bologna sandwiches and hot dogs :), so an hour or so after leaving the park we drove through a little town called Bridgeport, CA and saw a cute little restaurant/inn called Bridgeport Inn. It was over 100 years old. We decided to stop and try it. :) Delicious food!! And the prettiest bathrooms. :) If it had just been Brian and me and no RV I would have loved to have stayed there overnight.
We stayed at the Lake Tahoe KOA that night and got up early the next morning to see Lake Tahoe before heading across Nevada. Lake Tahoe really was beautiful like I had heard. It looks like a postcard. :) We drove to Inspiration Point overlooking Emerald Bay and got out and looked around for maybe an hour but this day was more about traveling across Nevada. So that evening we got just into Utah before we pulled over to sleep. We did see the Bonneville Salt where I guess cars drive to break speed records (??) just at a really gorgeous sunset. We stopped and stretched our legs and the kids played in the sandy salt for awhile.
We had seen southern Utah before, so the parts of Utah we saw on the return drive were different. We had gotten up early and started driving before the kids really woke up for breakfast that morning, so about an hour into the drive we had gotten through Salt Lake City and on the other side, between Salt Lake and Park City, we saw a sign for "No Worries Cafe". Sounded good. :) It was wonderful!!! One of the best meals I had eaten on the trip. REALLY good coffee in cool mugs :), and I got the Chipotle Breakfast Sandwich. It was HUGE but I ate every bite. The service was great. I would definitely recommend No Worries Cafe just 15-20 miles east of Salt Lake City.
We pretty much just drove that day too until we got into Wyoming. Since we had been through Colorado and Kansas on the way in, we decided to take a slightly more northern route and see the southern parts of Wyoming and Nebraska on the trip home. We had no idea what we would see there. I had no idea I would see so much CORN from this point all the way back home! Miles upon miles of corn fields in Wyoming, Nebraska, Missouri and Kentucky. I thought we grew a lot of corn in Alabama. :) We stopped in Cheyenne since it was the capitol, and were pleasantly surprised at the neatest little FREE kids' park next to a FREE botanical gardens. Go to Cheyenne and see the Children's Village and Botanical Gardens. We could have spent an entire day here, too. Instead we spent a couple of hours, ate our picnic sandwiches, and headed on down the road into Nebraska.
In Nebraska we decided to check out the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island. It was very reasonably priced and very educational. It's called a "living history" museum, so it's like stepping back into history. The museum is set up like a prairie town, and the workers are all in costume like they are from the 1800's. We stopped a lady to say hi because the girls were intrigued at the "fancy lady" and when I complimented her on her hat she told me I could get one at the mercantile the next time I was there for my sundries. :)
We drove all the way to Kansas City that night. I don't remember doing anything interesting this time in Missouri, but once you pass through St. Louis you're immediately in Illinois for a bit before getting into Kentucky, so we stopped at a couple of places in Illinois. Bentonville has a cute town square and antique shops. Then right before you get into Kentucky there is a little town called Metropolis that is the Home of Superman. We had to stop and see Metropolis. :)
Our last night of camping, Brian found one of the best KOAs of our stay at Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky. It was wonderful. We got settled there right at sunset and we took paddleboats out on the Cumberland River to watch the sun setting. Besides paddleboats, they have two playgrounds, an indoor and an outdoor pool, putt putt golf, and of course, great views.
We drove through Nashville on our way home and did our grocery shopping at Trader Joe's and Costco before going home. I knew that once I got home, I wouldn't want to leave for anything until I had to, so I wanted to be stocked up on groceries. :) Which I would recommend doing if you have the time.
But I will cover all of those traveling tips in part 3, Logistics and Lessons Learned! Stay tuned!