Category Archives: Family Travel

You’re stuck together, you might as well go places.

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

There is nothing particularly exciting about ditches. People don’t usually go out of their way to stand and ponder ditches, unless they’re the mothers of a soon-to-be-fourth-grader, looking for ways to make California history come alive.

I thought about this as we stood in front of one of the most important historic sites in California: the spot where the carpenter James Marshall found  a few pieces of gold in 1848 in the water of a mill trailrace. It turns out that a trailrace (or at least what’s left of it) is really just a ditch full of muddy water.  This historic spot is commemorated with a worn-out plaque which reads: “Here on a chilly morning in January 1848 a carpenter named James Marshall picked up the small pieces of gold that touched off one of the largest most frenzied mass migrations in history.”

There were no frenzied crowds of tourists or curious Californians visiting Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park on that summer afternoon, maybe they just hadn’t heard about the historic ditch. Or maybe they were all working and knew better than to visit Coloma in 100-degree heat. Go figure.

We braved the heat because I was determined to squeeze in a side trip to this important site, mostly for the benefit of my son who would be learning all about the California Gold Rush in his classroom in the fall. So we toured the historic park, and I reckon he learned a few things.

The town of Coloma grew around the area of the gold discovery site-the ditch-and nearly 70 percent of it lies within the historic park. Clearly, it’s not a bustling metropolis. Nowadays you will find some original buildings, a replica of Sutter’s Mill, the Gold Discovery Museum, and plenty of people cooling off in the American River on hot days.

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The blissfully air-conditioned Gold Discovery Museum and Visitor Center is a good place to start your tour of the park. There are plenty of exhibits to give your kids an overview of Coloma’s history, although there is not a lot in the museum that is interactive. But don’t worry there is a gift shop and penny press, in case the kids need the to whine for some souvenirs.

In the area near the museum, you can take a self-guided tour of the historic buildings. You can peek in and see displays of artifacts showing what life was like for the miners, storekeepers, and other townspeople of the Gold Rush era.

To get to the replica of Sutter’s Mill and the gold discovery site you can walk across Highway 49 to the south fork of the American River, or you can drive to the parking area (hey, it may be too hot to walk). There was a park ranger giving a talk near the sawmill when we went, and he was eager to answer questions and share information.

You can get back in the car and drive past the south end of town to see the statue of James Marshall pointing down to the spot (the ditch) on the American River where he discovered gold. Just take Cold Springs Road past the pioneer cemetery, then take the Church Road/Monument loop past the statue and then past James Marshall’s cabin.

Useful Tidbits

Although there are some stores selling snacks, there are not many food options nearby. You are better off bringing a picnic and parking at some of the picnic areas along the American River. It does get more crowded on weekends, since this is a popular rafting and swimming site.

You can get to Coloma on by heading south on highway 49 from the town of Placerville. Check website for current park and museum hours, and also for special events. Gold panning is still allowed on some portions of the American River and there are lessons available at Beakart’s Gun Shop across from the museum.


Photo Friday: Opening Day

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Team Kids Go West really likes baseball. For us, spring means sunshine, poppies, and baseball. We watch it on TV, we go play it with our Little League team, and we play hooky to go cheer our team at AT&T Park. (Don’t judge.)

It’s opening day here in San Francisco and we’re cracking open our boxes of Cracker Jack to celebrate. Here are a few baseball-inspired photos to get the party started. Go Giants!

Linking up to Delicious Baby’s Photo Friday.

Today’s Tip: Disneyland With Toddlers

Full disclosure: my first trip to Disneyland with a toddler was mostly a bust. My son was three years old when I decided we were ready for our first trip to Disneyland. He walked through the turnstiles, saw the hordes of people, heard the Disney band marching towards us-trombones blaring-and he cried. He covered his ears, asked to be picked up, and declared his trip to Disneyland was over.

So it was, that our first trip to Disneyland together involved a lot more tears and bribery through Mickey-shaped ice cream sandwiches, than the magical memories I’d hoped for. Here are the lessons I learned. Don’t laugh, I was a rookie mom.

1. Just because all the other toddlers are doing it, doesn’t mean mine will. I saw plenty of  bouncing, laughing toddlers float by me on the Pirate of Caribbean boats. They were apparently not the least bit bothered by the realistic pirates, skulls, and the cannon battles. So off we went  into the pirate’s lair. My son hated me the whole day after. In fact, he refused to go on almost all other rides-even the harmless Heimlich’s Chew Chew train (a green caterpillar cruising at 2 mph through giant fruit and yelling in a bad German accent) was too suspect for him to even attempt. I knew my child was super sensitive to most of the Disney movies at that age, why did I think going on the rides would be any different? I let peer pressure get the better of me. Just say no.


2. You will travel 7 hours, spend hundreds of dollars, and your child will want to ride the Monorail 5 times (and the Jungle Cruise 6 times). I quickly found that my very active three-year-old boy was not captivated by most of the Fantasyland rides, he would rather run around Tom Sawyer Island, ride the train, and pretend he was an explorer in the Jungle. I altered our ride plans after our first horrid day, and went with his natural interest in trains, dirt, and running like crazy through jets of water. Our day was a lot less filled with princesses and pirates, but a whole lot easier. You may not like where your toddler will take you, but just go with it.

3. There are crowds and then there are holiday crowds. I didn’t realize that the crowds during Easter week would make our visit three times harder. The seas of people, umbrella strollers, and noise were too much for sensitive little guy to handle. I wasn’t too fond of it either. If you don’t get to visit Disneyland often and have invested a lot of money into your trip, you don’t want to spend your precious time standing in line for the parking tram.

4. Plan or perish. I made a lot of mistakes on that first trip, but my lack of planning is what really did me in. The extent of my planning involved printing out a Disneyland map and checking out some of the ride descriptions on their website. I didn’t give too much thought to making a plan for our day. Because of our ill-fated first trip, I have learned a whole lot more about the best ways to enjoy Disneyland (at any age). Do your research, there are a lot of resources online to help you.

5. Nobody took my Mother of the Year award away from me. Sure, I made mistakes on my first trip, but there were things I couldn’t have foreseen. My son’s reaction was all his own, and maybe no amount of planning and preparation would have prevented it. Toddlers are lovable but unpredictable little anarchists. Do what you can to make your toddler’s first trip to Disneyland enjoyable, and if else fails buy him a Mickey-shaped popsicle. Then find yourself a shady bench.

Santa Rosa With Kids: Safari West

I’ll admit that after going to Safari West, I fail to be impressed by the other safari outings I go on. Well that’s because I haven’t been to Africa yet. I’m sure I’ll find that even more impressive. But until I can get myself and my son to Africa, taking a trip to Safari West in northern California is as close as we’re going to get.

Safari West is a privately-owned wildlife preserve primarily dedicated to the propagation and conservation of endangered species. It is home to over 80 animal species that roam the 400 acres of California foothills near the city of Santa Rosa. I am a mother primarily dedicated to finding every cool place within driving distance from the Bay Area. This little family safari excursion did not disappoint and of course I’m going to tell you why.Here are some things we loved:

We got to ride in a jeep. It was a real Jeep, that  trudged up and down hilly terrain, often making us feel as if we were going to tip over. That’s the good part though.

We got to touch an ostrich egg and we were also given the opportunity to touch dried animal dung. I opted to let that particular opportunity pass me by.

We got very close to some animals. The giraffes strolled past our window, and the herd of zebras ambled a few feet away. We even forgot that in the golden hills of California you’re not supposed to see a herd of zebras.

Look, Ma! I didn't even have to zoom in!

 

We learned a few things. For example, we learned that ostriches like to peck at shiny things inside Jeeps, and their tiny heads are a lot more intimidating than one might think. We actually did learn a lot about the animals from our guide. Just don’t ask me to teach you any of it, I didn’t take notes.

Some things to consider:

A tour will cost you quite a bit more than a trip to the zoo, but I found the price comparable to many other special tour or animal experiences at a zoo.

You have to be there early. So you can either leave at the crack of dawn to get there on time, or you can stay in Santa Rosa. There is lodging at Safari West, and it looks pretty cool to stay in the tent cabins. But since that was out of our price range at the time, we stayed at another motel in Santa Rosa.

You will be in the jeep for about 2 hours and that is more than many small children can handle, or enjoy. I went when my child was five (going on six) and he did just fine. A year, or even a few months earlier, and it would’ve been a different story altogether. You’re the best judge of how much your young child will be able to sit through.

This is not a zoo, but you will be able to walk up to some of the animals. You will see mostly birds, but also the giraffes and the cheetahs in enclosures near the entrance.

For information on prices and tour times check out their website.

Another Kids Go West approved kid-friendly adventure in Santa Rosa is the Charles M. Schulz Museum.


Santa Barbara Zoo

Honestly, I didn’t go to Santa Barbara to hang out with giraffes; I was only thinking about reading my book on the beach. But since my kid rarely shares my vision of a perfect weekend getaway, I added a few stops to our itinerary that would satisfy his vision as well. So we spent one morning at the Santa Barbara Zoo because kids love zoos (and my kid is crazy about them). Besides, the zoo is only a few blocks away from the beach, so I knew we could just head down for some afternoon napping in the sun afterwards.

The zoo had plenty to see and do to keep us busy for over two hours, but you could certainly spend more time if you have younger kids. The exhibits were all well maintained and accessible for kids. Here are some of of our favorites:

1. The Eeeww Exhibit (Insects and Reptiles)

I have grown to love hissing cockroaches and salamanders because I have a boy who makes me touch all the creepy crawlies, so we enjoyed our stroll through this indoor exhibit to check out some of the world’s most unappreciated creatures.

2. The Penguins

Kids really enjoyed trying to read the name tags on the wings of the warm-weather Humboldt penguins as they swam around their exhibit. There was plenty of room to see the penguins from lots of different viewpoints.

3. African Veldt

The giraffes in this exhibit have the best view of the sparkly Pacific Ocean, and they seem pretty happy about it. Or maybe, it was because we visited while people were lining up for the giraffe feedings.

4. Tropical Aviaries

We walked through indoor and outdoor aviary exhibits and got a close-up view of many birds.

5. Asian Small-Clawed Otters

The energetic otters draw a large crowd. The exhibit has new otter pups, so there’s the extra cute factor as well.

When you go:

The zoo is open 10-5 everyday except Christmas. Current admission is $12 for adults and $10 for children. Check website for updated information. Parking is $5, but there plenty of the Santa Barbara visitor trolleys that stop right in front of the zoo.

Take the Kids to the de Young Museum of Art

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The de Young Museum of Art in San Francisco houses over 25,000 works of art, but most kids will only appreciate a few of these during their visit. That’s fine. It doesn’t take a lot to foster a love of art.

I’ve been taking my son to the de Young since it reopened in its new building in 2005, and we have found new reasons to enjoy our visit each time.

The Works of Art

There are eight major galleries in the museum; housing works of art ranging from Mesoamerican ceramics to Contemporary American art. In other words, there are plenty of opportunities for kids to find a piece they like. Sometimes my son gravitates towards the masks in the Art of Africa gallery, while other times he is drawn to the Superman painting in the modern art wing. You can rent the family audio tours, or just view the art at your own pace.

The Osher Sculpture Garden

Who says that you have to be inside the museum to appreciate art? When he was five years old, my son loved to run around the apples in the sculpture garden and eat cookies at the cafe tables outside. Heck, you wouldn’t even have to pay admission if you just wanted to stroll through the sculpture garden. There will, however, be an additional cost for bribery through cookies.

The Observation Tower

Even if your child isn’t inspired by the works of art, he may be taken in by the views of Golden Gate Park and San Francisco from the observation deck in the North Tower. This is my son’s favorite part of the museum. He comes for the views, while I sneak in some art. There’s no rule for how to get kids to like art museums. Again, there is no admission cost for anyone to take an elevator ride up to the tower.

When You Go

When visiting art museums with kids, it’s always a good idea to go at their pace. Luckily, you won’t feel so bad that you only see half the museum, since the admission is free for children under the age of 12.

The museum hosts special family art programs on Saturdays. Check website for more information. On Friday nights, the museum is open until 8:45 and has some art-making activities for all ages.

 

Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens

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I would like the Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens to be in my backyard. But since I don’t live on 240 acres of oceanfront land in the tropical isle of Kauai, I’m going to settle for a visit from time to time.

Na Aina Kai was a private garden until it was opened to the public, this includes the Under the Rainbow Children’s Garden which was created for the owner’s grandchildren. This children’s garden is kiddie heaven: with water features, a maze, and super-cool play structures. I picked this as the one garden I was going to visit with my son (you have to tour a garden while in the Garden Isle, after all), and booked the Children’s Garden Family Tour. You can only visit the garden with a tour, and the family tour is the only one you can book with children who are under the age of 13.

During the first hour of the tour, we were guided through the formal gardens and the children were handed a paper bag to put any garden treasures they found along the way. They filled their bags as we walked through a hedge maze, under the rainbow shower trees, and around the beautiful green orchid hanging from a tree. The children were also given the opportunity to feed the poi fish. Oh, and we saw teeny, weeny frogs too.

The second half of the tour was spent in the Under the Rainbow Children’s Garden. Here the kids got to roam free. They played in the water around the 16-foot bronze Jack and the Beanstalk water fountain (bring the swimsuits). Then they wandered through the Gecko-shaped hedge maze, climbed and slid from the treehouse play structures, and played in the covered wagon and railroad train. The adults, well, they sat back and wished they were five years old again.

Useful Tidbits:

Book these popular tours ahead of time, since days and times are limited. The family tours are on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 9:30 and 1:30; Fridays at 9:30. Admission prices are currently $30 for adults and $20 for children. Yes, it’s pricey but it was well worth it. The tour groups are small and your kids will have access to their own private kiddie heaven. Check the website for current information.

The Queen of Christmas Merriment

I don’t know if you noticed, but I like to go places with my kid. Come rain, or come shine, or come the holiday season, we go places. In fact, I’m so good at going places, that I have cleverly made that our family tradition. This smart mami gets out of shopping, baking, and making wreaths by getting out of the house. I know, I know, they should make me queen.

Now the holiday season is well underway, and we are going places. Oh, we have plans to see twinkly lights, and dancing Nutcrackers in tights this December. We will head down to the city (San Francisco, to be exact) and stand in awe of the giant gingerbread palace in the fancy lobby of the Westin St. Francis Hotel, the doggies up for adoption in the Macy’s window display and the congregation of weird Santas in Union Square.

Every family does the whole holiday tradition differently, but this is our thing. Years from now, I hope my kid remembers that sometimes I made lame attempts at baking gingerbread men, and that sometimes I made more successful attempts at finding the darn best light display in town. Hopefully, he’ll forget the Santa with the dog collar and fishnet stockings.

I’m not the only one dreaming of Christmas this week, head on over to Mother of All Trips, the original Monday dreamer always has something good to share.

Today’s Tip: On Winter Driving

Those long car trips with kids can be a big fat drag. When you add snow, ice, road closures, chain controls, and that bumper-to-bumper California traffic, then you have a recipe for a meltdown (yours, of course). I am not a safety or driving expert, but I can share some tips for how I have learned to make the long, snowy drives more bearable, and a whole lot safer.

1. Know the weather and road conditions before you get in the car.

If you’re expecting clear skies and roads, then skip ahead to tip number 2. If you’re expecting blizzard conditions, then you have more to consider (while you drink a soothing, calming tea). You may consider postponing the trip for another weekend, or delaying the departure for the next day. Unfortunately, most people make reservations for lodging that can’t be changed at the last minute without a cancellation fee. If you decide (or are forced to) to change your trip plans because of highway closures, call the hotel to see if they will let you change your reservation without penalty.

2. Carry the right equipment and supplies no matter what the weather forecast says.

Weather conditions change quickly, so sunny skies are not an excuse to be unprepared. Carry chains if you need them. Take along food, water, blankets, maps, and flashlights. And always let someone know where you’re going and what road you plan on taking.

3. Make a pit stop before you begin the climb up to the summit.

The traffic may be flowing, the roads may be clear, and you may be ready to get there already, but make a quick pit stop before you continue your journey to family ski nirvana. Fill up the tank with gas, have the kids take a potty break, and get some food. Believe me, I have been stuck up on a mountain highway for hours, waiting for an unexpected accident to clear up. That’s when I see people climbing through 5 feet of snow at the side of the road, looking for a spot for their potty break. I’m not painting a pretty picture, right?

4. Don’t drive at night or while fatigued.

There’s nothing worse than getting in the car on a Friday night, after working all week, and driving through a snow storm. If you’re tired, don’t get behind the wheel.

5. Timing is everything.

Driving up to ski areas in the winter can mean heavy traffic, regardless of the weather conditions. If possible, you’ll want to travel early in the morning, even if this means leaving work or pulling the kids out of school early. If your trip coincides with a school holiday vacation, then use the extra days to your advantage. You can leave early on a Saturday morning instead of a Friday night, or you can avoid the days before major holidays.

So it’s a lot to think about, I know. But it’s all worth it to see your happy skiers race past you down the hill. Well, kinda. 

What do you do if your car starts to spin, or you get stuck in the snow? I may or may not have some experience with that. If you’re looking for driving tips to help you handle snowy, icy road conditions, then this article has some excellent suggestions. No idea, if I’d actually remember what to do if my left rear wheel started to skid though.

 

Linking up to Talking Trekaroo’s Spotlight Thursday for other family travel news.

Ty Warner Sea Center

The Ty Warner Sea Center is the aquatic branch of the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, and is located right over the Pacific Ocean on Stearns Wharf. It is a small aquarium, but what it lacks in size, it makes up with engaging and accessible exhibits.

At the shark touch-pool, my son got to touch a harmless swell shark. The tidepool tank had viewing windows that were accessible to even the youngest toddlers and an underwater tunnel for them to walk through as well.

Older kids enjoyed some of the computer-based exhibits throughout the first floor of the center. We also spent some time with some other aquarium youth volunteers as they pulled up samples (of mostly seaweed) in netted cages attached to ropes. They were all great about answering questions and giving information about specimens they had for viewing under video microscopes. 

The second floor of the aquarium was a special exhibit called Superpowers, about animal adaptations, which included another touch-pool opportunity. The 39-foot model of the gray whale and her calf hangs in the main entrance, right over the gift shop.

Useful Tidbits: Admission for just the Sea Center is currently $8 for adults and $5 for children ages 2-12. You can also get a Santa Barbara Nature Pass and get admission for the Sea Center and Natural History Museum for two days. Parking is free for the first 90 minutes with validation from the Sea Center. Check the website for current information.