168 hours (well, really 164) in California

I wrote a draft of this post on my flight from SFO to EWR. It’s hard to believe that the six of us flew the other direction a little less than a week before that for our big summer family vacation.

We packed a lot into the week, which mostly went well. We landed in San Francisco on Saturday August 24th, rented a Chevy Suburban (which we may purchase as our next vehicle — it’s got a spacious third row!) and drove to Monterey. While there (staying at an Embassy Suites), we ate on the water in Cannery Row, visited Carmel (where we stayed when I ran Big Sur nine years ago), ate ice cream at Ghirardelli, and went to the Monterey Aquarium twice (we had purchased a membership ahead of time). The kids loved the touch tanks and sitting in front of the open ocean exhibit with tuna, sunfish, and sharks. We got to see marine life in the wild, too, by hiking at Point Lobos. Lots of sea lions and otters swimming merrily on their backs.

That took us to Monday morning, when we got up and drove out to Yosemite National Park. I think of California as a densely populated state but inland there is a great deal of nothing (and no wifi through big chunks of it — something my kids lamented loudly). Our first stop was the Mariposa Grove for the giant sequoias. We survived our first 3-plus mile hike in the heat. Though the kids definitely whined, they generally did quite well with the hiking. And the trees are amazing — existing at a scale that is hard to capture in photos.

We stayed that night at the Ahwahnee Hotel (aka the Yosemite Majestic — unclear what its current name is; what is clear is that this hotel, like the Yellowstone one from last summer, had to be booked a long ways ahead of time). This lovely historic inn has high wooden beams in the ceilings, and great views of the Yosemite cliffs out the windows. We stayed in two adjacent rooms, and ate frequently at the Ahwahnee dining room, with its grand windows and chandeliers.

We would have been happy there all week, but longtime readers may recall that I really wanted to arrange for an anniversary dinner for my husband and me at French Laundry in Napa while we were in California. We are celebrating 15 years of marriage this Labor Day weekend. So I got on the French Laundry reservation system right when it opened on May 1st, but alas the Friday times I wanted were mysteriously sold out. So I took what I could — a Tuesday slot — and we figured we’d make it work.

This involved a lot of driving. We hiked Tuesday morning in Yosemite (Vernal Falls), then got in our Suburban and drove four hours back to civilization, north of San Francisco this time. We stayed at another Embassy Suites, greeted the sitter we’d booked though a Napa nanny service, and got to our dinner on time. Yes, the kids complained about this — all this driving for Mommy and Daddy to go out to dinner — but they were somewhat mollified with an evening of unlimited screen time and the ability to order room service, something I never let them do otherwise.

French Laundry was lovely, as expected. They’d printed up a special souvenir menu for us with a happy anniversary message on top. We ate truffles and Wagyu beef and butter ice cream, among many other delicacies. We got to take a quick look in the kitchen to see how all of this was prepared. Then we went back to our hotel and spent a little time chatting by the outdoor fire pit before heading to the room to send the sitter home and put the kids to bed.

Wednesday we got on the road to reverse our trip back to Yosemite. We explored a more northern section of the park this time, hiking around Lake Tenaya and then up the Pothole Dome scramble (the kids really liked that one — most of them liked playing in the lake too). We stayed at the Ahwahnee again and got the kids dressed up to eat in the dining room, though our reservation was so late (8:30 p.m.) that there was a bit much crankiness to enjoy the situation.

Thursday we did the Glacier Point section of the park, including a real stunner of a hike to Taft Point. It’s easy, rolling terrain through the woods, but then you come out on a rocky overlook. Weaving through the fissures, you go up to the edge, and look straight down some 4000 feet. Believe me, I was holding on to the little ones, though they were fairly mature about it. I said no joking and no horseplay, and there wasn’t. After that hike, we did a little walking around Glacier Point, and got ice cream to celebrate. Later that evening we drove out to El Capitan to watch the sun go down. We saw little lights on the cliff: climbers, camping on ledges overnight. I cannot imagine sleeping strapped to a sheer cliff face, but clearly people do it!

Friday we squeezed in one more hike, though this wound up being a bit much. We hiked from the Ahwahnee to Mirror Lake. Round trip it was about 4 miles, and though the terrain wasn’t too bad, the lake was fairly dry, meaning the scenery wasn’t quite the reward we hoped for. Also, about a third of the way into the hike, the 12-year-old fell while scrambling over a log and skinned up big chunks of his leg. This did not improve the situation, nor did the 90 degree temperatures. But we made it, and then got lunch, took one more look at El Capitan (and the climbers!) and drove out of Yosemite through a lot more nothing, before getting back to San Francisco and staying in a hotel near the airport (to leave first thing Saturday).

Just a few random highlights: the bar at the Ahwahnee served giant pretzels with cheese sauce, and my 4-year-old wound up eating these for dinner more than one night. His diet consisted of those and banana bread and raisins for breakfast. Oh well — back to nutrition at home. I remain a big fan of Embassy Suites. Their multi-room options (we did a 2-bedroom in Monterey) are great for larger families, but we managed to fit OK in the 1-bedroom in Napa (a sofa bed + two doubles). Also, the included breakfast buffet just makes mornings easier.

I managed to continue my running streak. I used the hotel gyms at the Embassy Suites (2 mornings in Monterey, 1 in Napa) and at Staybridge near SFO (one early morning), and I ran outside in Yosemite on the other three days. I was a little wary of this since on Yosemite day #1 we went for an evening hike and came across a bear ambling his way through the woods. With six of us this was fine, but it reminded me that I might come across various forms of wildlife while running by myself at daybreak. I never did, though, beyond the birds, and it was nice to run in cooler temperatures beneath the soaring granite cliffs before the days started to bake. I often made it back before anyone else woke up.

Yosemite is a very well-maintained park with — I appreciated this — a lot of bathrooms. While it was somewhat crowded, once we were about a quarter mile away from a road, the crowds thinned out considerably! We scored the unexpected frugal benefit that the annual parks pass I purchased last August for Yellowstone was valid until August 31st, and since our last Yosemite entry was on the 28th, we got two summers of National Parks visits for the price of one. And now I know that I can get a free family pass after September 1 because we have a fourth grader. (Do you have a U.S. school-attending fourth grader? You can get one too! I will apparently be getting a free family pass every other year for quite a while. I’m already planning where else we can go…)

The kids did really well with flying and driving. This was mostly due to their devices, but I am not complaining. Even the 4-year-old can play Minecraft. We packed for a week that included hiking and French Laundry without checking bags. I still think I overpacked as the weather forecast changed a lot. On the Thursday/Friday I packed, the 10-day forecast said overnight temperatures would dip into the 30s in Yosemite Valley. Then that shifted about 20 degrees higher, so we never needed the wool hats, gloves, or long underwear shirts we brought.

The flight home was particularly nice. My husband travels a lot for work, taking many of his international trips on United. This level of frequent flyer status came in handy when we got to SFO on Saturday morning. It was a total zoo, but we walked into the Global Welcome Center where multiple agents were available and we all got upgraded (or “updated” as my daughter kept saying — I guess our software was buggy after a week on the road…) There are plenty of downsides to his travels, but it’s fun to occasionally get the perks.

The eastbound flight is a quick 4.5 hours. With no checked bags we went quickly to our car and drove the 80 minutes home. We left the hotel in CA at 7:15 a.m. PT, and arrived at 7:15 p.m. ET – so, 9 hours door to door. Given that this took 9 months 150 years ago, I always find this amazing.

You can see more pictures from the trip on my instagram account – @lvanderkam. I’ll be posting them all week! (Well, with maybe a small interlude for the first day of school…we are going to suffer getting the kids back on east coast time. They slept to 10:30/11 a.m. this morning!)

10 thoughts on “168 hours (well, really 164) in California

  1. This trip sounds really cool! I am impressed you continued your outdoor adventures after the bear encounter. Scary! Our family has outgrown one hotel room as well- I will check out Embassy for our next trip for sure.

    1. @Sarah – getting two adjacent rooms can work, but the Embassy Suites ones tend not to be 2x other hotels – so it’s fairly economical. And if 6 of us are eating breakfast too…not bad!

  2. “We left the hotel in CA at 7:15 a.m. PT, and arrived at 7:15 p.m. ET – so, 9 hours door to door. Given that this took 9 months 150 years ago, I always find this amazing.”
    I am so fascinated with how travel times have changed! I have been researching travel times and distances in Europe, too, and it’s amazing.

    1. @Maggie – it is! I read a book about the transit of Venus a few years ago – the first one they knew was going to happen was in the mid-1700s, and despite astronomy being fairly advanced, travel was not. Various astronomers decided to take measurements from around the globe in order to calculate things like the distance to the sun. Getting to far flung corners of the world required various scientists to leave a year-plus ahead of time.

  3. I loved reading about your trip to California, as that is where I was born and raised (living in Florida now). I love that part of the state, and we had a family vacation with three generations there when our son was in grade school–really, something for everyone to be interested in there. Also visited Point Lobos MANY years ago–what a cool place. Good luck with the time change/school schedule, too! Always a challenge getting back into school mode.

  4. That trip sounds amazing. I am glad you were able to plan your anniversary dinner, too. I will have to check our embassy suites and I’m very interested in planning a big trip next year.

  5. We had a similar San Diego trip and it was always power packed. We were looking forward to every adventure. Now why isn’t it like that when we get back home?!

    1. @Asha – San Diego is a great destination too. There are a lot of lovely ones in California. And as the kids pointed out, we didn’t even go anywhere near Disneyland!

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