The final leg of our Southeast-ish tour took us to Nashville, TN. The plan was to go to the Grand Ole Opry, but that was scheduled for Saturday night, when their regular radio broadcast is produced live a laPrairie Home Companion (RIP).
But first, we headed into Nashville, and oh boy, was it raining cats and dogs for most of that trip. In fact, most of the times I found myself driving, we went through a downpour of rain (that rarely actually hit Missouri, apparently…). So while we had grand plans to visit the Gilded Athena, among other sights, we ended up delayed due to weather and didn’t end up doing all that much.
It also took us…forever….to even get to our hotel, the Grand Hyatt Downtown. We were running multiple GPS systems in trying to figure this out, but long story short, Nashville decided to tear out a bridge that was directly in front of the hotel, and the hotel didn’t really warn us about how to handle this, so we ended up circling around quite a bit before we figured out where to unload, where to park, how to physically enter the hotel, and so on. It was a truly frustrating experience, compounded by the rain (not pictured above).
Ultimately, we figured out where we were going (it was a really nice hotel room, though, I’ll say that much…) and decided to venture downtown to see what was going on. We went to a restaurant that was pretty satisfying after so much frustration (note: Nashville is not in a dry county like Pigeon Forge is. Win.).
After that, we walked around and….um….there was a lot going on in Downtown Nashville that day. Seriously, it reminded us more of Bourbon Street in New Orleans with all the activity. I don’t know if the students were back in town partying at 2:00 pm on a Saturday, but there was a lot of “that” going on. It was a far cry from our experience the rest of the trip.
One thing Brooke looked up, that I was completely unaware of, was Goo Goo Clusters. Their store was set up such that you could buy the traditional Clusters (peanuts, caramel, nougat, chocolate), or you could design your own, or you could get different flavored bonbons (pictured above). It was a pretty neat, yet simple, experience, so both kids chose what they wanted in their personalized Cluster, then they could watch it being made in front of them. We also picked up a box of the original recipe version, as well as a bonbon mix. It was a good distraction!
We then hustled back to the hotel to clean up before the Opry performance. There were a lot of people there, but a neat thing is that they had a secondary stage outside (with some food trucks) with live music going on before the real thing began.
I didn’t have much of a connection to what, exactly, was going on with this, but Brooke was more aware of what Grand Ole Opry is. They’ve produced a radio show for years, and it’s now broadcast on Willy Nelson’s SiriusXM station live on Saturday nights. It’s mostly a traditional country music showcase featuring some regular musicians, as well as special guests that perform a 3 song set. It’s pretty steeped in tradition, as the original location was in an old church, the Ryman Auditorium, also in Nashville. The current Grand Ole Opry is a larger recreation of the Ryman, complete with church pews as the seating.
The concert was good! The music isn’t exactly my preference, but the kids haven’t been to all that many live performances like this, so it was a good experience for them. The girls having fun with their presumed bachelorette party behind us were also having a good time….much to our detriment…
The next morning, we took off for Marshall and made it home in good time! Overall, it was a good trip: perhaps not as memorable as what we did on the West Coast in 2022, but still, a nice time. We have decided to never take a vacation that close to school starting again, though, as that created more problems than we anticipated, and probably added to the stress we were trying to alleviate. Still, we’re glad we made the trip and knocked a few more National Parks off the list.
Spoiler Alert: we already have reservations for a house near Moab, UT next June. Onward, 2024!
The day we left West Virginia, we spent a lot of time on the road, but ultimately made it to Pigeon Forge in time for dinner. Our hotel happened to be next to a mini-golf course that had two 18-hole courses available, so after we ate, we checked out mini-golf (always a popular activity!).
We drove in on a Wednesday, leaving us with Thursday or Friday to hit Dollywood and Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Weather was supposed to be a little more on the rainy side, so we opted to hit Dollywood on Thursday and save Smoky Mountain for Friday.
On the one hand, this ended up being a great decision! We didn’t realize it, but school was back in session for much of Tennessee and West Virginia. That, combined with some spotty showers that morning, meant that practically no one was at Dollywood. As I said at the time, had we paid for the “Lightning Lane” equivalent, I would have been asking for our money back, because we were able to walk up to any ride we wanted and, sometimes, be the only four people riding it.
We hit every roller coaster we could at least twice, if not more. Even some of the smaller ride, we hit multiple times. Mind you, I don’t have pictures of many of these rides because Dollywood had a locker system set up and wanted people to leave their phones, purses, etc. in those lockers. We ended up paying for a day pass that was actually pretty slick, as you could have a temporary “log in” system to the lockers at multiple locations. Once you registered at the new location, the previous one would “log out,” opening that locker up for someone else to use. Since it was raining, we had hats, rain jackets, etc. with us, so I usually just tossed my phone in there, leaving few options for pictures.
The rides were good, but in comparison to Disneyland, a bunch of these roller coasters were giving me a serious headache. Brooke and I felt more “jostled” by the rides at Dollywood, where some were smoother than others, but a few of them tossed my head back and forth to the point that it was uncomfortable. At Disney, at least there was a 30-40 minute lag between rides, but since no one was at Dollywood, it was closer to hopping off one ride and getting right back on it again with little break in between.
There were Silver Dollar City vibes in various places, such as candle making, metal working, etc. They even had a “Fire in the Hole” knock-off called Blazing Fury that was practically the identical ride, complete with someone saying “fire in the hole!” toward the end.
We avoided treats for the most of the day and saved it for an all-you-can-eat family-style meal at Aunt Granny’s Restaurant, which is considered to be one of the best theme park restaurants around. I can’t say the meal was cheap, but as Calvin’s face above suggests, there certainly was a lot of food. It was all very good, but we didn’t put away much of it.
We only ended up spending one day at Dollywood, and given our experience at Disney last year, one day sure didn’t sound like enough….however, since there was no one there, I think we were all satisfied with a day’s worth of a visit.
The next day was a Friday, so we hit up Smoky Mountain National Park. This day, unfortunately, was rather disappointing. There were simply too many people, meaning we were stuck in long lines of cars with few opportunities to pull over and do much. I had to hop out of the car to get a parking pass (that’s how they limit entry there, as opposed to how they do it at Yellowstone where there is a pass you have to purchase to get into the park in the first place.
It also ended up being somewhat rainy, which isn’t too surprising given the climate of the area. We had rain jackets with us, so it wasn’t a huge deal, but it limited how much outdoor time we actually wanted to spend in the park. We hiked a bit to see some old buildings that were still standing from before the National Park was there, and we saw some exhibits like a grain mill that was still semi-functional, but honestly, we kinda stuck to the car.
I think by the time we were hitting Friday, we were kinda done with seeing the sights. Brooke and I still like the park, but I don’t know that the kids really got much out of that day. There were simply too many cars (and people in them….) to feel like we could get out and do much. It’s saying something that the lines at Smoky Mountain were worse than the lines at Dollywood, but again, perhaps because we did it on a Friday, we invited the situation onto ourselves.
For our last evening in Pigeon Forge, we ended up struggling to find a place to eat within walking distance of the hotel. There were a lot more people out and lines were long everywhere, but we eventually found a place. We hit the second 18-hole mini-golf course next door to our hotel to end the day, though, so I think that made up for an otherwise disappointing day!
One of the plans for this vacation was for everyone to learn to play poker. The house we rented had a poker table, where the top of it flips over to expose cup holders and a felt table top. I picked up a few rolls of coins so we’d have something to use, and Brooke printed and laminated a few “cheat sheets” with which hands beat what. We didn’t end up playing a ton, but we got a few hours of entertainment out of it. Meg ultimately won, though she didn’t really bet all that often, so that’s my excuse…
Since we explored a bit on Sunday, we reserved Monday to mostly just hang around the property. There was an old logging road that went for a few miles up onto the mountain that Brooke and I checked out, but the heat, humidity, bugs, and elevation change made it rather unappealing to go hiking. If we were there in the Spring or Fall, though, I think we’d be able to kill a ton of time just walking around and exploring the area. It really was a beautiful place!
We used the hot tub a few times, mostly in the evenings. The owners rigged up a neat pulley system to lift the lid on the hot tub (that had previously been used to butcher deer, we think). This way, Calvin could get the lid off by himself without our assistance. They also had fencing around the top of the tub so that no one could fall off the porch if they were sitting on the side of the tub.
We did take a hammock along, though Brooke only used it once. Again, we had intended to mostly just hang around the property for at least one day, just getting some relaxation in. We had Wifi at the house that worked surprisingly well (no regular cell service, though), but you had to be pretty close to the house for it to work. It was nice to just hang out for a day without having to travel anywhere!
For our last day in West Virginia, we visited Shenandoah National Park. This park was…..weird…compared to what we’re used to seeing. For one, it’s really a series of plots of “park” along a two-lane road, where you can pull over sometimes, but mostly, you’re just driving through a forested area. There were some overlooks, but nowhere near as picturesque as Colorado or Utah. As in, the overlooks we’re used to seeing to pull over, get out and take pictures….there existed, but there weren’t a ton of them, and they were overlooking a land mass that didn’t look that different than the Ozark Mountains, so it was a bit less impressive than we were expecting.
Also, a huge storm blew through the previous day. We were at the house when it happened, so it was cool to watch it come through, but apparently a lot of other communities lost power when our house didn’t (incidentally, the owners lost power and checked in on us to make sure ours still worked…and it did!). Well, the Visitor Center we went to in Shenandoah was still without power, though they had a generator to keep a few things working. However, they a). couldn’t process credit cards, and b). their exhibit was shut down, so we could really only go in to ask a few questions, but not really learn much about anything there.
We had found a 4 mile loop trail that was supposed to pass by a waterfall that was relatively close to the Visitor Center, so we found it and got started on the one longer hike we did on the whole vacation. It was, indeed, a loop, and there were a decent number of people out there on it. I wouldn’t say it felt crowded, thankfully, and we were able to get a parking spot relatively easily. The loop wasn’t too bad, nor was the terrain, though the temperature did start to rise a bit. The kids were a bit tired (as evidenced by the image above), but Brooke and I were fine.
I would have liked to do more hiking if we had more time, but it ended up taking an hour and a half to get from the house we were staying at to Shenandoah, and the actual drive through Shenandoah added another hour…which means we were now an hour north of where we started, and we had to drive that full distance south to actually get back home. Anyway, it ended up being a longer driving day than I think we were initially thinking, but we’re still glad we did it so we can check it off the proverbial list.
While we were there, we also made sure the kids got to walk along the Appalachian Trail….for all of 100 feet. At least they can say they’ve been on the AT before!
After all that, we were ready to chill in the A/C for a bit! We still played more poker that night and got in the hot tub, as it was our last night in West Virginia. The kids were happy to just lay down and rest a bit, though, and the house provided plenty of space to spread out. It ended up being a good place to stay, getting us rested up before the next few days in Tennessee!
Since last year took us all the way to the West coast for our family vacation, this time, we opted to head in the other direction. The original plan would have had us make it all the way to the East coast to hit North Carolina, but Brooke and I already went to San Juan earlier in the year and we had the foundation of our house re-done, so we scaled back plans just a tad.
Calvin was in Columbia with my parents for the week at an art camp, so we loaded things up on a Friday and took off to pick him up before heading out. We had decided to stay in Evansville, IN for the night because that got us closer to our destination, but would also set us up to see Mammoth Cave that next morning. The drive to Evansville was mostly uneventful, and we found Turoni’s Pizza and Brewing for dinner, so at least I was happy. While we were there, a magician was going from table to table doing some tricks, so we got a kick out of the dinnertime entertainment!
The next morning, we had an appointment at Mammoth Cave, but only had about 2 hrs of driving to get from Evansville to get to the national park. There were multiple tour options available, but we stuck with a cave tour that would last long enough but not too long because we were still making the rest of the journey that afternoon. There were some cool lantern-light tours we could have done, but those take around 4 hours and we didn’t have that kind of time!
The facilities at Mammoth Cave were pretty good, with a big gift shop and ticket area. There was also a set of exhibits talking about geology and the various organisms one could find in the cave. Apparently, Mammoth Cave is the longest known cave system in the world, clocking in at 426 miles (and that number keeps changing as more areas are discovered).
There were definitely impressive aspects about Mammoth Cave, among them the size of the open spaces. Of course, there were definitely areas that got pretty narrow, and I absolutely bumped my head a few times during the tour. We were a part of a relatively large tour group, so it felt kind of slow getting through aspects of it, but I don’t think we got the sense that there were a lot of stairs, or climbing over boulders, or anything like that. The tour lasted for an hour and a half, but I don’t think we left it feeling tired or anything. It was very hot and humid outside, though, so we were glad we were at least wearing jackets, because there were plenty of other folks in there that looked pretty cold!
If I’m going to make comparisons (which I do…), I would say that Mammoth Cave was unimpressive in the “rock formation” department. There were things to see, but really, it just felt like we were walking through big, open spaces under the ground. This picture above represents perhaps the only traditional rock formation that I’d expect to see in a cave in Missouri. I know that’s just representative of the geological differences between caves in Kentucky vs Missouri, but still, I was surprised that there weren’t more things to see like we saw at Meramec Caverns in 2020.
After we were done at Mammoth Cave, we booked it to our destination for the next few days in West Virginia, but we didn’t get there until well after the kids’ (or Brooke’s) bedtime. We were in Eastern Time by this point, but it was pretty close to midnight by the time we got there and got settled.
The next morning, we were able to survey our surroundings a bit better! Brooke found a few houses between Airbnb and Vrbo that were (on a map…) centrally located to various outdoorsy things in the Appalachian Mountains, and she let the kids determine which of the houses we would stay in.
Of course, when we let the kids make that kind of decision, they tend to make really weird choices, so I was a bit apprehensive about this decision, but once we got there, it was actually fine! The house was down a gravel road that went past a few other properties, and this house was at the end of that line. It had 6 bedrooms and, as you can see above, it had been added onto at least a few times over the years. The kids liked it because of the number of bedrooms, and it also came with a hot tub (pictured on the front porch above).
Still, the house was pretty far from most things. There was a grocery store “in town” a good 30 minutes away, but going anywhere from this house definitely had to take time, no matter what we did.
We couldn’t argue with the view, though! It was beautiful there! There was a small creek running past, as well as a few outbuildings that were dilapidated to the point that the owners said “uh, don’t go in there…”
Later that morning, we went to check out the “highest point in West Virginia,” that just so happened to be located relatively close to the house. It was something to get us out to see what the surrounding area looks like in the daytime, but that wouldn’t overwhelm us on the first day out there. Also, this particular “hike” was less than a mile long, so it wasn’t a huge ask of the kids.
There was an observation tower at the top of the “highest point in West Virginia,” so we climbed up there, but the tree line was actually relatively close to the top of the tower, so while we got a decent view, it wasn’t completely unobstructed. After that, we walked around a bit more on the trail that was up there, but there really wasn’t much else up there to see.
After that, we went to the closest town, Franklin, WV, to get lunch at one of the few restaurants in town, AGK Italian Restaurant & Pizzaria, which was right next to T&K Market so we could load up on groceries for the next few days. For the rest of Sunday, we mostly hung out around the house!
The drive to San Diego took about 2 hours, putting us at our hotel right around 5:00. The kids and Brooke went and checked out the pool while I went and picked up dinner (we went with “TV Dinner” night again, which is a popular choice for the kids. I had chips and salsa. It was good.
The next day was going to be our last beach day, and being “Sunny Southern California,” we assumed it’ll be nice and warm! Joke’s on us, though, because the high was still 75 F (while it was still in the mid-90s in Missouri! HAH!), so while the Sun was indeed out, making us feel warmer, we still didn’t really want to get in the water!
We observed some surfers, though, which was cool! It definitely explained why they’re always wearing wet suits when surfing, though, as the water, while warmer than northern California, still wasn’t anywhere near “warm.”
The kids took turn burying themselves in the sand, I took a 2 mile jog along the beach, and Brooke read her book. This was just a public beach we found outside of San Diego (the relatively non-descript “Pacific Beach”), parked in a garage, and then headed back to the hotel to wash up before dinner.
For our last “real meal” of the vacation, before returning to fast food and gas station options, we went to Baja Beach Cafe, which turned out to be quite good. Meg had a cheese quesadilla and Calvin had a grilled cheese sandwich. Everyone was happy.
The next day, though, was a daunting one. The whole reason we went down to San Diego was so that we would “book end” the trip, where the kids saw Canada from across a bay, San Diego would hopefully allow them to see Mexico on the southern border (that’s them waving to Mexico from the car). As mentioned previously, US-101 actually ended in Los Angeles, so we really only went down to San Diego for some beach time, and to complete the journey of the west coast of the US.
The goal was to get to Albuquerque that day, but we ended up making it as far as Santa Rosa, NM. That was 933 miles and 13.5 hrs of driving. It rained, surprisingly, outside of Albuquerque for part of the trip, and it obviously got dark. The kids fell asleep, and hotel options were somewhat limited, so we pushed it, rolling into Santa Rosa at 11:30 pm that night. I’m not going to say it was a “seedy motel,” but as you can see in the picture below, seeds were definitely planted in the swimming pool.
The hotel was fine, ultimately. It’s not like we spent a ton of time there. The next morning, we got up bright and early, leaving before 7:00 am. Calvin got his Taco John’s lunch finally (we got way too much food there), then Sonic for dinner outside of Kansas City, before heading into Marshall around 8:00 pm that night, a total of 760 miles and 11.5 hrs of driving.
When it was all said and done, we’d traveled 5571 miles, hit 14 states, and did it all in 17 days. Would we do it again? Maybe?? It really wasn’t all that bad, and we spaced it all out over the right length of time, with a good break in the middle where we didn’t have to drive as much. I did need an oil change in the Outback pretty much immediately upon returning, and ended up buying four new tires, so I guess we should add that into the total costs on this vacation.
It was definitely the trip of a lifetime, though! We saw just about everything we’d want to see on a trip like that, had a lot of different kinds of experiences, and the kids can say they’ve been to a Disney theme park now, so that’s a win for them.
Alright, the moment you all have been waiting for: Disney.
Brooke picked up a book and used it to come up with a bunch of good ideas, the first of which was that we should stay at a hotel directly across the street from Disneyland. Unlike Disney World, where the only hotels nearby are part of the resort (and are, therefore, crazy expensive), Disneyland is in the middle of Anaheim, so while you could stay at one of their hotels on the Disney campus, you certainly don’t have to. And indeed, the hotel we stayed at was such that we could literally walk across the street and we’d be there, allowing us to come and go as we wanted, and leave our car parked at the hotel, only moving it to go wash the laundry before we left. We also ate dinner at a Denny’s the night we got there, for a reasonable price. We grabbed coffee from Panera or McDonald’s, both of which were only a few doors down. There were a lot of good options if you didn’t want to eat at the park.
The other thing we did was pay extra for “Lightning Lane” access, which was something like $20 extra per ticket, but it provided multiple benefits. Brooke and I both downloaded an app that stored our tickets on it (that way, we didn’t both have to be there at any given point). That app also came with a map of the park that could be zoomed into where you could see what the approximate wait time was at a given ride. Sometimes, the wait was only 10 minutes, but for some rides, it was as long as 70 to 90 minutes.
Some rides, though, have Lightning Lane as an option, which allows you to bypass that main line and get in a shorter one. Newer rides were designed with this in mind, whereas older ones like Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room weren’t. Also, importantly, you could only do this once per day per ride, so if you wanted to right Hyperspace Mountain (which, duh), then you can only “Lightning Lane it” once, and you have to wait through the regular line for the next time. So yeah, we did our best to “game the system a bit,” getting there right when the park opened, and trying to target the big rides early.
I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, though. We got there on Monday, June 13th and had tickets to the park for 3 days. The plan was to arrive at the hotel late that morning, grab a quick bite to eat, then go to the park and see what we could see, that way we’d have a full day there on the 14th (Flag Day!) where we could target the rides we really wanted to hit. Then, June 15th would be spent at California Adventure, before leaving that afternoon and heading toward San Diego to finish out the trip.
The first thing we did was hit up Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island (because, duh), and then we “Lightning Laned” Haunted Mansion (which freaked Calvin out tremendously). During the time we had the “LL” on, we couldn’t “LL” anything else: once we redeemed it, then we could apply it to another ride. (Also, side-note, you can split the tickets up, so if Brooke and Meg wanted to ride one thing, and Calvin and I wanted to ride another, we could do that).
Generally, we stuck together to hit most of the rides, sometimes twice. The morning of the 14th, for example, we saw Hyperspace Mountain had practically zero line, so we tried heading there first, but then we noticed that Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters had literally “zero line,” and it was right next door, so we hit up Buzz Lightyear first. By the time we were done, Hyperspace Mountain only had a 20 minute wait, so we canceled the LL we’d applied to it and instead applied it to Matterhorn Bobsleds, that way we could still LL Hyperspace Mountain again later in the day if we wanted to (read: we totally did).
A brief side-bar on Hyperspace Mountain. The day before, when we did Haunted Mansion, Calvin got scared. Dark spaces like that caused him to, oh, freak out a bit. So when we were waiting for Hyperspace Mountain, he worked himself up into a frenzy because a). it’s dark in there, and b). it’s a rollercoaster, and every Disney ride would say “dark spaces with sudden drops,” or something to that effect. We did everything we could to calm him down, but ultimately he started to refuse to get onto the coaster, so the attendant (who’d surely seen this 1000 times…) offered he could cross over to the other side and not actually ride it, waiting for us. He jumped at that chance immediately, so the three of us went on it (and it was awesome), and Calvin waited for us. Later in the day, though, after having ridden other, similar rides, he’d gotten more comfortable with the idea, so he did ultimately ride Hyperspace Mountain, and I think he wished he’d ridden it earlier so he got to ride it twice.
So yeah, the Lightning Lane thing was totally worth it. We got to ride everything we wanted to, and it was relatively seamless. They even canceled our LL for Splash Mountain because they had to shut the ride down, so it gave us a free LL that we could reapply, giving us an extra that we could apply without having it affect the total tally. Score!
By the time we were done with June 14th, we’d done just about everything at Disneyland that we’d wanted to. Honestly, for June 15th, we weren’t expecting much out of California Adventure, but there were a few things we were curious about. All of the Star Wars stuff is over in Disneyland, as well as the more traditional “Disney things” like Peter Pan, Pinocchio, etc. Pixar stuff (aside from Buzz Lightyear) and Marvel stuff are over in California Adventure.
Similarly to over in Disneyland, we tried to “game” the Lightning Lane system, zipping directly to the Incredicoaster as the first ride, while applying the LL to something else we’d want to see afterward, allowing us to LL Incredicoaster again later (narrator: they did). I think most of us decided that Incredicoaster was the best ride we went on between the two parks. There were other good ones, for sure (for example, Hyperspace Mountain was great…the first time….but the second time, some of the “magic” was lost. Incredicoaster was awesome both times). Incredicoaster is a relatively long roller coaster, so it lasts for a bit, but importantly, there’s a loop-de-loop.
Meg noticed this when we were in line for it. We had to “shush” her so she wasn’t too loud, as we didn’t want Calvin to notice…. 😉
Still, both the kids loved it. Calvin was definitely apprehensive, but this roller coaster wasn’t in a dark building, so he could see it from the outside, which helped quite a bit.
Other rides there were cool, like the Guardians of the Galaxy (which is a re-skinned Tower of Terror), and the Pixar Pal-A-Round (which is “just a ferris wheel,” but the gondolas you sit in slide around more, so there’s a lot more movement), but by the time we were through California Adventure, I think we’d seen and done just about everything we’d wanted to. It had gotten hotter as the three day stint went on, so we were pretty tired and drained.
We headed back to the hotel (late….Brooke mis-read the check out time….), packed up the car, and headed back to California Adventure for lunch and a few more rides before leaving for San Diego! Below, I’ve typed in the names of all the rides we went on, mostly for posterity’s sake in case I need to look it up some day to tell somewhat what we did. It’s a pretty solid list – we hit just about everything at least once!!
We used Smith River as our “base of operations,” where we could head out and see other things in northern California. We had a few options for how to schedule things, but we wanted to give the kids a “beach day,” more or less, however we figured that Friday would be the better option, so we should see some stuff on Thursday, June 9th. Our first destination was Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, which is not a part of the national park, but still has a ton of redwood trees. These are things Brooke and I got to see on our Oregon Trail trip back in 2015, and we thought it was cool enough that the kids should probably seem them at some point.
We didn’t want to do anything too strenuous, lest we end up with a minor revolt, but we stopped in at a visitor center (there are multiple) and asked what would be a good option. We found a 2-ish mile section that would take us out near the trees, close enough to hug them.
The only “wildlife” we saw were tons of banana slugs. We had to be careful we didn’t step on any. The biggest ones we saw got maybe 6 inches long, so Brooke was absolutely thrilled about that!
Similar to Devil’s Tower, I’m not sure the kids were totally impressed by the size of the trees, but they humored us and posed for some pictures. I think we only passed maybe one other family while we were out there, so it was a pretty secluded hike, which is always nice.
If anything, some of the dead trees we saw were more impressive to the kids, such as this root system from a tree that had fallen over years ago. We’ve got another picture of the kids standing on a stump that’s absolutely gigantic, but I’ve got enough pictures here already, so this is the one you’re getting.
We only spent an hour or so out hiking, and the weather was absolutely gorgeous, so it was a good activity to kill some time while we were in the Pacific northwest!
After the State Park, we found a picnic table overlooking the ocean to have lunch at while we made our way to our next destination, Battery Point Lighthouse.
We’ve wanted to go up in a lighthouse for years. We’ve been near them and seen them, and visited one when we were in Puerto Rico, but we’ve never been able to actually go up in one and get that perspective. Brooke found this one and saw they had tours, and it was less than an hour from Smith River, so score! The other interesting thing about it was that you could only get to the lighthouse at low tide, as there’s a rocky path you have to cross to even get there, so it definitely depends on the time of day for when to go.
We ended up having to wait for a school group to go through their tours first, as they can only allow a limited number of people up at a given time. It’s a relatively efficient operation, though the four people conducting the tours were clearly overwhelmed by the high school students they weren’t expecting. After waiting about 30 minutes, we got to go in, paid for the tours, and then were shuffled through different rooms to learn about the history of the lighthouse. The cool thing is that this lighthouse still has people living in it, and it’s one of the oldest that has been in continuous operation and had a continuous tenant. The tour guides told us that it’s usually staffed by retirees who live there for a month at a time. The lighthouse was originally set to be fully decommissioned, but the Crescent City historical society took it over and is maintaining it now.
The tour itself didn’t take all that long, but it was cool to go up and see things from their perspective! The kids ended up liking this one a bit more, as I think the tour guides gave them a bit more attention than we were giving them…..
We got back home around 4:00 pm, so we went down to the beach for a bit, and then the kids came up and hopped in the hot tub. Again, the water is relatively cold and it was cloudier that day, so not particularly pleasant for swimming…
The next day wasn’t much better, but the kids were promised a “beach day,” so a “beach day” they would have! Really, the kids just worked on digging a hole, and spent nearly all day doing it. Brooke went up to find a laundromat in Brookings, OR, which was just across the state border, so I was down with the kids for part of the morning, and then Brooke took over for some of the afternoon when I took the car for a vacuum and car wash, and also check out a nearby liquor store to stock up on Northeastern US beers (nearly all IPAs, of course).
That evening, we mostly hung out in the hot tub, but we kept an eye on the hole Meg and Calvin had worked on all day, so when high tide came in around 9:00 pm, Brooke took the kids down to see if it would fill. That hole was still there the next morning! They did a good job!
By the time June 11th rolled around, it was time to leave Smith River and start making the trip down to San Francisco. This was a longer driving day, as we needed to go over 350 miles, but we had a few stops in mind. One of them was Meg’s substitute for not getting to do the sea lion cave, but before that, we had to drive through a redwood tree. So we did. 🙂
Meg decided she wanted to stop by Confusion Hill, which was…an odd place… It reminds me of a tourist trap like you’d find outside of Branson, where they’ve got some stuff there to do, but they’re really just trying to sell you kitschy souvenirs (incidentally, the one place we saw a US-101 sticker for our cartop carrier was there, so it’s a good thing we stopped!).
The thing Meg was most excited about was the “gravity house,” which no, isn’t a house where there’s no gravity, but it’s built (?) in such a way that it’s all sideways, so when you walk through it, you kind of lose your sense of orientation. We paid actual, United States legal tender, money to do this. In this author’s view, it wasn’t worth it…..but I digress…
Another 4 hours in the car later, we made it to San Francisco! Brooke found a hotel that was down near Alcatraz, which was to be the next day’s main activity. This was good because the hotel was centrally located and it had on-site parking.
However, when we actually arrived, that on-site parking was full. This was not good. Brooke kinda had a meltdown trying to navigate San Francisco traffic while we figured out what to do. Ultimately, I hopped out and asked the hotel desk clerk where we should go, they directed me around the block, we went and parked the car and it wasn’t a big deal.
That night, we went to an Italian restaurant that wasn’t absolutely full (it was, after all, Saturday night in San Francisco). The food was solid, we only had to walk to get there, and it still allowed us to hit up Ghirardelli that night (which was something of a bribe to keep the kids in line…). We got some overly expensive ice cream (that took too long to get), as it was quite crowded, but still had time to grab some chocolates for the trip home. Score again!
On the way, we finally saw some seals. See, Meg? We didn’t need to stop at the sea lion cave! These were close enough. 😉
The way Alcatraz is set up was interesting. You can walk around most of the property, though some of is has fallen to disrepair, so you can’t go everywhere. Most of it is set up as a self-guided tour, where they give you a glorified phone that you can listen to through a speaker.
This part of the tour, though, got a bit annoying. One of our four tour devices wasn’t working, so Brooke and the kids started and I went back and grabbed one. Then, of course, I started listening, but now I was at a different part of the recording than they were, so they had to pause eventually for me to catch up. We’d also have to pause sometimes as large groups would have to listen to their recordings, as they were standing in a space that we were ready for, but couldn’t actually progress to until they moved on. It all worked, I suppose, and I’m not sure what else I would have done? It’s probably better than trying to pay tour guides to be out there and physically walk groups through every 20 minutes, as this method just lets the tours start in a rolling fashion.
The recording itself was pretty interesting, though. It was told from the perspective of some of the guards and some of the inmates, so you kind of got both sides of the story (certainly in a more “sanitized” fashion…). We were also impressed that the National Park Service had an exhibit up highlighting the issue of mass incarceration in the United States, so that allowed for a “teachable moment” we could have with the kids later on.
There were other written parts of the tour, and as Meg is our designated Tour Guide Reader, she had to read some of those bits for us.
I’m glad we did the tour, for sure, but I think Brooke was maybe a little disappointed. The tickets were relatively expensive for what we got (a self-guided tour and a whole bunch of people slowing us down), but we got a to-and-from ferry ride, so that was nice. It was a fine way to spend a morning, and we could check one more box off the West Coast Tourist Bucket List!
The last thing we did before leaving was hit up Pier 39, which was some kind of cross between shopping mall and amusement park? We grabbed lunch and then started the drive to our next destination, which ended up being an AirBNB in Oxnard, CA. Our options were kind of limited, and this stretch was really the only one we hit that had a decent amount of traffic. We wanted to stay in Santa Barbara, mostly because that’s where “Psych” is set (even though no aspect of the show was ever filmed there…), but hotel prices and AirBNB options were ridiculous, even for southern California. We found a place in Oxnard, though, that allowed us to spread out into a few bedrooms before we’d all be locked in a traditional hotel for the following three nights.
And where was that, you may ask? A hotel directly across from Disneyland! More on that, next time.
By this point, Brooke was using her specialized Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip travel guide to find things to do along the way. She picked it up in late May and skimmed parts of it, but hadn’t really looked at it too much because we wanted to remain flexible: find things we may want to do, but nothing that we’d plan an entire trip around. It was helpful in finding some things near places we thought we’d stay, but wasn’t organized as well as we’d have liked. For example, it had “northern Oregon” and “southern Oregon” sections of the book, but they weren’t all logically laid out in order as you’d pass them on US-101, so you had to bounce around a bit to find where things were organized. Not the end of the world, but could have been better.
One of the things she found was the Tillamook Creamery in Tillamook, OR, which is west of Portland. It seemed to hit a lot of the things we were looking for: a “halfway through the day” kind of stop; a self-guided tour; they made cheese, which all people like; and ice cream, which again, all people like.
There were a lot of people there! We didn’t see any literal tour buses, but it sure seemed like the place a bunch of elderly people would do as they traveled in buses to tourist destinations. The operations of the cheese factory were interesting, we got some free samples, and they had a few children-centric exhibits to check out (the kids milked a “cow,” for instance).
After that, we continued on to Florence, OR to stay the night. We stopped off at a beach to see Thor’s Well, which was kind of cool, but really only gave us 15 minutes to kill before we went into town for the night. We dropped off stuff at the hotel and went to Rosa’s Mexican Restaurant, and that was very nice. For once, we were at a hotel before 9:00 pm, so that was a plus!
The next day, again, we had to make it just under 200 miles until we reached Smith River, CA, which is where we were going to stay for another 3 days. That meant we had some time to kill, but more importantly, some opportunities to see and do some fun stuff. One option was a sea lion cave that Meg really wanted to do, but the timing of making that work would have meant some substantial backtracking, and we figured we’d see some other places along the trip (also, the time of year we were there wasn’t really the best time to see sea lions, apparently). Another option was renting a dune buggy to drive over some sand dunes.
First, some background. I watch quite a few car videos on YouTube, and one I ran across last year (after we knew we were doing this trip) was one from Driving Sports TV where the host drove a Subaru Outback like ours on some sand dunes in Oregon. Apparently, as I learned then, Oregon Dunes National Recreation area is “a thing,” where you can take your vehicle, ATV, buggy, or whatever and just drive on some sand dunes, including along the beach! Which sounded really cool!
Brooke saw some rental locations in the book she was reading, I called one up, and they had a few slots available relatively early the next morning as we were heading down to Smith River! As you can see in the satellite image above, the dunes we went to are relatively large and give you access to the ocean (we went to Spinreel Dune Buggy and ATV Rentals), but we only wanted to commit an hour to this part of the trip. If we did a two hour rental (or longer), then we could have taken a buggy to the ocean and driven along it, but alas, not this trip. We went through a safety training video and had someone draw on a map where we should go with an hour to spend: if we went past the hour mark, we’d have to pay for another hour, so we didn’t want to go too far.
It was fun! As I’m not a huge fan of heights, I was a bit wary of trying to drive up the big, steep dunes, but Brooke was more willing to give it a go (note: we didn’t die). I was more willing to drive faster in open spaces, so we both piloted the buggy in different ways, which was nice. We wore jackets because it was relatively chilly. It cost a decent chunk of change to do it, but it was totally worth it!
This was at Spinreel before we went out on the buggies. I don’t know what Calvin was doing, but I made a GIF of it. Enjoy.
We left Spinreel and went to Coos Bay, OR, where we had lunch at 7 Devils Waterfront Alehouse. The food was good (I had fish tacos) and the beer was nice, too! We started stocking up on beer at this point to bring back to share with folks, as most of the beers up there, you can’t get in Missouri.
We drove for another 2 hours and stopped at a beach about an hour outside of our final destination. The house at Smith River wasn’t ready yet, so we stopped a beach near Myrtle Creek, OR to kill some time. We also started using our new Cliq folding chairs that Brooke found. I can’t get over how awesome these things are. We wanted something compact that we could take without sacrificing room in the car. Four of them fit in an approximately 6″x10″x20″ bag, which is nuts. Were they ridiculously expensive? Yes. Was it worth it? Also yes.
We made it to the house at Smith River by 6:30 that night. It’s something of a “resort cabin,” meaning the houses were all relatively close together and, because of that, they were all smaller than maybe we’d have preferred, but we got a room and the kids got a loft with two twin beds, so it was better than nothing.
Importantly, this place was right on the beach, so we could walk down the stairs and we were there. Again, it was kind of “shared space” in that anyone from our “resort” could walk down there, but it was a pretty secluded beach and we rarely saw other folks. Mostly, just people out for a walk. We didn’t even really see many families out there.
The sunset was pretty nice, too. Especially from a hot tub.
We spent the next few days using the house as a launching point for other adventures. More on that next time!
Luckily, then, we just had to shift things by one year, putting us on track for the next destination on the list: Disney(something). Brooke and I both went to Disney World in our youth (decades ago…..ug, we’re old….), and that experience becomes a whole thing when you look into costs (indeed, we decided we’d rather spend the money on plane flights to Puerto Rico than spend it on a week at Disney in Florida…).
Now, Disneyland, though, that sounded more reasonable: it’s a smaller park, it has fewer “sections” (there’s no Epcot or Animal Kingdom, for example), and lodging is far more reasonable and way closer, so parking is less of an issue.
So, Disneyland became the target: the question was what else we do to make it align with the “spirit” of our other vacations (e.g. mountains, driving, beaches….an experience). Well, as we tend to do, we just decided to do all the things!
We made the call to do the Pacific Coast Highway, which goes by a few names depending on which section you’re on. US-101 starts up near Seattle, WA and continues down to California, where eventually CA-1 takes over as the “PCH,” which then returns to meet US-101 again further South. Eventually, US-101 ends as it merges with I-5, effectively at Los Angeles, CA.
Obviously, this was going to take a lot of time, but thankfully, Brooke’s job now affords a bit more flexibility so she can be gone for a ridiculously long vacation. She got some books and plotted out the basics of how far we’d go each day, what the lunch/hotel strategy should be, and we did our best to book it to and from the West Coast, and then spend more time on US-101 where possible, including 3 days at a house overlooking the beach.
So on June 3, Brooke worked the morning while the kids and I finished prepping the house and loading some stuff up. We left just after noon that day with a goal of getting to Sioux Falls, ND. Had Brooke worked more that day, we probably would have just stopped at Sioux City, IA, but with timing, we opted to go further, get in later, but then have a bit more time the next day in South Dakota. After nearly 8 hours and over 400 miles, and a stop for dinner at an overcrowded Pizza Ranch, we made it to Sioux Falls right around 9:30 pm.
And then we promptly crashed for the night, only to get up and do it all again!
However, this time, we were going to stop at a few icons of a classic road trip experience to help break up the day a bit. The goal this time was to get to Billings, MT, as that would set us up where we could get to (or near) Seattle the next day so we could begin the real vacation.
We drove for about an hour before we got to Mitchell, SD, so we could see the Corn Palace. This is a place Brooke and I both experienced growing up in various capacities, so really, we were only subjecting our children to it because that’s what happened to us. I’m not sure they really “got it,” so much, but it was an odd distraction that they can hopefully look back on and think, “you know, I don’t really know why we went to that weird corn place.”
We then hopped back in the car (after getting me some more coffee and talking to a rando at the coffee shop about how expensive farming is now….his idea, not mine) and headed to Wall, SD to visit the infamous Wall Drug, another experience Brooke and I had decades ago. This one didn’t really live up to Brooke’s memory of the place, though, so she was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t much to do except walk through it and buy things we didn’t need. The kids got to sit on a jackalope though, so there’s that.
We ate lunch out of the back of the car (which was the intent – we borrowed Mom and Dad’s smaller, but good, cooler and tried to pare down what we’d actually eat and what we actually needed to keep cold). A brief aside, we used the cartop carrier, as always, but Brooke had us all pack as light as we could, so shockingly, we were able to see out of the back of the car nearly the entire time! This is a first for us.
The next leg was a 2 hr drive to Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. This one took us off I-90 a bit, but it was worth the trip. Brooke had been there before, but I’d never seen it. I think the kids were ready to be done driving for the day, so while I think they “liked it,” part of their attitude smelled of “why are we here again?” There were a lot of people there hiking around the Tower, many of which had been in Yellowstone, so we saw a lot of t-shirts (and I was, coincidentally, wearing mine from last year’s trip). I think we hoped there’d be a bit more of a National Park Service presence there to see some exhibits, but it was a pretty small operation and there were a lot of people, so we didn’t stay more than an hour.
On the ride out from Devil’s Tower, we had our first real experience with “late afternoon rain.” Nearly every day we were in the Northwest, rain hit, and to the point where it was difficult to see where we were driving. We weren’t on I-90 yet, but we could see plenty of dark clouds off in the distance. Calvin had been complaining about his loose tooth for a few days now, so he had a granola bar for a snack. Of course, on a two-lane road with threatening thunderstorms, he lost it 🤦♂️. We pulled off in the parking lot of a remote Reservation casino so he could spit it out onto the ground and look for the tooth. Brooke decided to not do that, so she handed him a dollar and we kept driving.
Ultimately, we made it to Billings, MT right around 8:00 pm MDT. We went to an Applebee’s for dinner to use a gift card Brooke had from Christmas, which actually was pretty solid because all four of us could easily find something to eat and not complain about it. Night #2 where we got to the hotel after 9:00 pm. At least this time we got beers and margaritas before bed…
The next day was June 5th….and we did nothing but drive. 12.5 hrs of driving. 853 miles. We were tired, but made it to Lacey, WA, which is just south of Seattle by (you guessed it) just after 9:00 pm PDT. That night, we went to Wendy’s so we could all get Frostys.
Another brief aside: this whole trip, Meg branched out in her eating quite a bit. She actually had a quesadilla and didn’t complain about it! She had chicken tenders and didn’t complain (much) about it! She went to Jersey Mike’s and had a veggie sandwich…and didn’t complain about it! So proud.
So, now we were on June 66h, and the goal was to make it around the northwestern part of Washington, as pictured below:
So obviously, we didn’t have to do that. We could have just cut to the West from where we stayed in Lacey that night. But that’s not what US-101 does, and if we’re doing the whole thing, then we need to do. The. Whole. Thing.
It took us 7 hours to make that trip, though we did stop at a few spots along the way, including Olympic National Park.
Honestly, there wasn’t much to see there? It was an oddly laid out park, in that some parts of it were a decent distance away from the main visitor center office. It’s like it was laid out in patches near Port Angeles, WA. Still, we hiked up to a water fall and experienced some shockingly cool weather, compared with the 95 F that Missouri was experiencing around that time (we missed out on a nearly 2 week long heat wave in Missouri. Our plants all survived).
We drove awhile until we got to Ruby Beach, which is one of many state parks along the Pacific to keep the beaches public. It was the first time the kids saw the Pacific Ocean! They also noted how cold the water is. We wanted to stop a few times like this to make sure they notice how the beaches change as we make our way down the Coast, so it seemed as good a place as any to stop.
Lastly, we arrived in Aberdeen, WA, where we stayed at an AirBNB. Part of this calculus was because our destination in Washington that we were originally going to stay at for 3 days ended up getting sold a month before we left, so our reservations weren’t necessarily guaranteed. That place had laundry services available, but the place Brooke had to replace it with didn’t, so we weren’t going to make it with the 6 changes of clothes each of us brought along for the trip. She found a house in Aberdeen that had a hot tub and a washer/dryer available, so we took the opportunity to just do that and spread ourselves out a bit for a night. We also went to Breakwater Seafoods & Chowder for dinner that night, which was quite good.
The next day featured a 6 hour drive! But we’ll save that for Part II.
So, the morning of June 3, we were on the beach for awhile in Destin, yet later that day, we were due to hit the rehearsal dinner a few miles from the condo. Again, traffic was ridiculous down there, so any trip back and forth wasn’t trivial. We hit the venue late-afternoon and, considering it was early June and we were all mostly dressed up, the temperature wasn’t all that crazy. Definitely warm, but not unbearable.
The venue was pretty cool! It was a building with plenty of space, and a kitchen (that we didn’t need), as well as another out-building where the bridal party could get ready the next day.
The rehearsal didn’t take all that long, of course, so we got some pictures, met the other half of the family, and kind of went through the motions so we’d be ready for the next day. After we were done, we went to a very nice restaurant called Marina Cafe for seafood that had a lovely ocean view. The dinner was mostly uneventful, but everyone had a great time!
The next day involved a lot of back-and-forth, as Meg and Brooke needed to be with the bridal party at points, so Calvin and I had to shuttle people back and forth, and get lunch to take to them while they were all getting their hair done. Calvin went to the arcade with Uncle Jimmy for a bit, so he was entertained well enough, whereas I just had to field text messages and load stuff up when requested.
The wedding itself was lovely, of course! The weather was (again) surprisingly beautiful, despite being in Florida in June. My one complaint was that there were quite a few folks off partying in the bay while the wedding was going on, which obviously no one could do anything about. The wedding only took 20 minutes or so, but being able to hear everything was a challenge at time. Still, everyone looked and felt great, and that’s what matters most!
Calvin didn’t have any duties for the wedding, really, but Meg was handing out bubbles to folks as they came in, along with the groom’s niece. She was happy to help out, but Calvin was just happy to wear a jacket and tie. And getting super cool sunglasses as a wedding favor was extra special. 🙂
The dinner was mostly standard fare, with the speeches, cake cutting, etc. Rachel’s speech was really good, as was the Best Man’s speech, which was a pleasant surprise compared with other weddings we’ve attended! Again though, the food was good, the cupcakes were good, and everything came out really well!
The reception moved outside for dancing under the lights after dinner was done! Steve and I had gone to Sam’s a few days prior to stock up the bar and, though lots was had that night, we still didn’t go through nearly as much as we bought. I can only assume that they’re still working on it post-wedding.
The next day, we all convened at the beach one last time before we took off. The rest of the family hung out another day or so, whereas we had to head back to Marshall so Brooke could start her new job in a few days!
We loaded up and headed out by noon-ish that Saturday and took off for Tennessee, heading on a different route than we did on the way down. The plan was “speed” this time, rather than a more lackadaisical fashion as we did on the way down. We made it as far as Franklin, TN that day, after stopping at a Panera for dinner (turns out both kids found things to eat there, so we need to add that to the list as a place to stop on road trips).
Sunday, we pushed it and made it home by mid-afternoon, giving us enough time to reset a bit and get some laundry started before Brooke’s new job started the next day. In the end, Yellowstone was probably more the vacation for 2021 whereas Destin was more of a trip, but both gave us a wide variety of experiences within a month of each other! In retrospect (as I’m writing this quite awhile after we actually went…obviously….), we’re glad we took these trips in May/June rather than now, because it sounds like just about everywhere in the US is inundated with tourists. Hopefully it calms down by next year when we go to the west coast!