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A week before we visited Yosemite National Park, Alex Honnold became the first person to free-climb the near-vertical 3,000-foot face of El Capitan. And just a day before we arrived, two other climbers — Leah Pappajohn and Jonathan Fleury — scaled Yosemite’s El Capitan without clothes.

And by “we” I mean, my 10-year-old-daughter and my sons, ages 12 and 15.

Great timing, huh?

Unfortunately, Honnold was long gone by the time we arrived at the foot of “El Cap.” Fortunately, Pappajohn and Fleury were. I didn’t know how I would have explained that one to the kids. (“But Dad, they’re still wearing ropes, right? So they’re not totally naked.”)

That’s Yosemite National Park in the summer. Always something to do, always something to see. I’m just reporting the bare facts.

For us, Yosemite meant taking in the iconic sights, but also wandering through the amazing sequoia groves with the help of an expert guide. If you’re thinking of coming to the park during peak season, you need to know about the “insider” way we avoided the crowds.

A visit with “El Cap”

I know what you’re thinking. Yosemite in June. But isn’t everyone there?

Yes, but it’s still an enormous park, which at 1,189 square miles is about the same size as the state of Rhode Island. An insider will know where to go to avoid the crowds, and that insider is a private guide from the Yosemite Conservancy, a nonprofit that supports this national park.

Pete, our conservancy guide, knew the best spots to see the famed El Capitan, the shortcut to Bridalveil Falls, the perfect meadow to stop for a picnic. He even knew the best place to see the climbers scaling the north face. While a line of cars waited on the other side of the park, we used his insider knowledge to save time and see the best places.

The main attractions, of course, were “El Cap” and Half Dome, the two monoliths. If you’ve never been to the foot of these landmarks, let me tell you, there’s no way to adequately describe them. The only thing that comes close is a photo, and only famed photographer Ansel Adams captured what I would consider their essence — the shadows, the smooth granite face and the elegant shape that inspired countless tourists from around the world and a clothing line or two.

There’s a meadow in the Yosemite Valley, right off Northside Drive near the raging Merced River, where you can watch the brave climbers challenging “El Cap”. Bring a powerful pair of binoculars so you can see them inch their way up the vertical face. Not to be melodramatic, but my two youngest kids, who are known to be a little chatty, were stunned into silence. This was some rock.

Circling the sequoia grove

The rocks aren’t the only big things in Yosemite. There are also enormous, thousand-year-old sequoias, and the best place to see them is a secluded grove called Tuolumne Grove. It’s a 2½-mile hike down into the grove, but well worth it. Among the attractions: a dead sequoia you can walk through, a massive fire-red sequoia named Big Red, and a California redwood felled by lightning and hollowed on the inside that the kids can walk through.

Pete explained the fascinating history of these trees — how they used to be common in North America until climate change forced them to retreat to a few isolated pockets, how some of the trees are up to 2,000 years old, and how they create their own ecosystem that’s home to a variety of beetle, millipede and spider species.

Visitors to Yosemite probably know there are redwoods here, but if they don’t know about Tuolumne, it’s unlikely they’ll ever visit. This is one of the smaller and least-trafficked of the groves, yet it is also one of the most visually arresting. Standing next to one of these giants, you feel a lot like you do when you’re at the foot of Half Dome or “El Cap.” There’s an almost reverent attitude you see in the other visitors, even the kids. It’s as if they innately know that these trees are among the last of their kind and must be respected.

Impressed as I was with the silencing effect that Yosemite had on my otherwise boisterous kids, it couldn’t last. On the drive back to the Rush Creek Lodge, the conversation turned to an unanswerable question: Will the nude climbers ever return? Also, why weren’t they arrested for indecent exposure? (Apparently, there’s no law against it in the national parks. Who knew?) And just as suddenly as the quiet had descended on our group, it all evaporated into laughter.

Timing is everything.

If you go…

Where to stay
If you want to avoid the traffic and long waiting lists for a campground in the park, check out Rush Creek Lodge, a new hotel on the east end of the park. Go to their poolside barbecue for dinner, which is the best value this side of the national park.

Where to eat
If you’re heading into the park, pick up a few sandwiches at Rush Creek’s general store. For dinner, we found a respectable Mexican dinner at Cocina Michoacana in nearby Groveland.Cover your eyes, kids! I think I see two nudes ascending El Capitan!


Published in Explore

Blink and you’ll miss Buellton, Calif., a tiny town a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles. And maybe that’s just fine with Buellton, one of those undiscovered destinations where everyone expects you to stay a few exits south, in touristy Santa Barbara, or just keep driving through to nearby Hearst Castle.

But, if you pull over, you’ll discover a place with a series of quirky, fascinating attractions that take a nice picture and a tasty, if not unexpected, cross-cultural experience.

I have to admit, Buellton’s presence was jarring to me when I drove south on California Highway 101. When I was a college student in Southern California, this town technically didn’t really exist. It wasn’t incorporated until 1992, a few years after I graduated. If you’re still having trouble placing it on the map, then think Pea Soup Andersen’s, the iconic roadside restaurant known for its split-pea soup. That’swhere Buellton is.

Just across the street from Andersen’s is the new Sideways Inn, named after the cult film shot right here. It’s part of a sprawling Flying Flags RV Resort, with its rows upon rows of impressive land yachts.

Buellton definitely has a road theme going on. Across the old 101, which runs parallel to the current 101 and right next to Flying Flags, you’ll find the Mendenhall’s Museum, a private collection available by appointment only. You can tour its vast collection of gasoline pumps, globes and road signs.

Elliott on FamilyTravel.com

Mark and Vickie Mendenhall, the museum’s curators, live on the property and personally give all the tours. I was particularly impressed with their California license plate collection that goes back almost a century and tells the state’s automotive history. You can easily identify plates issued during the world wars, as well as the state’s evolving self-image, from agriculturally-focused to the diverse place it is today. 

If you’re in town for just one day, stop by OstrichLand USA, a 33-acre ranch where you can view and feed these ostriches and emus. That’s right, feed. You get a dish of bird pellets, and the birds peck at them through a fence. Ostriches are known for being territorial and irritable, so the entire ranch is littered with warning signs, which of course I heeded but my children didn’t. (“No, honey, don’t feed the bird with your fingers!”)

Somehow, our digits survived.

One of the best parts of Buellton is its central location. From here, you can quickly get to some of California’s best beaches. My favorites: Goleta Beach Park, right next to the University of California, Santa Barbara, campus. Walk out on the pier for a terrific view and you might see a shark or two, like we did. And Jalama Beach County Park, a 45-minute drive from Buellton on mountain roads that twist and turn their way to an abrupt end. If you go, you have to try the famous Jalama Burger at the General Store.

Elliott on FamilyTravel.com

To get a better view, you have to get higher. We headed over to nearby Los Olivos for a hot air balloon ride with Sky’s The Limit, a regional operator. We’d seen their balloons flying over the wineries in Temecula, Calif., when we visited a few weeks before, and were dying of curiosity. What’s up there? On an early morning flight, we found out. Wineries, a bird’s-eye view of the beach, and Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch. Yes, this is where the Gloved One came to get away from Los Angeles.

From the sky, you’ll also see Solvang, a curious and unexpected place that all too often steals the spotlight from Buellton. And there’s a reason for it. Solvang is an American city that looks as if it belongs in Europe — specifically, in Denmark. People come here to marvel at the faux Danish architecture, sample Danish pastries, and pretend they are not in the United States. Which is kind of difficult in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record, but I guess that’s what you call “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Solvang is worth a look, and you’ll find a few good restaurants and a lot of great pictures there, but if you’re coming here it isn’t the main attraction. To really experience the northern part of Southern California — or as some call it, Central California — you have to get out. Head to the mountains or the beaches, and push the boundaries a little.

Or, to borrow a word the Buelltonites like to use, go sideways.

Where to stay
In Buellton, the Sideways Inn is a fun, authentic experience. It has a nice pool, and breakfast is included in the room rate. The nearby Santa Ynez Valley Marriottcaters to more of a business travel crowd and has an excellent on-site restaurant, which makes really good salad and sandwiches.

Where to eat
For breakfast, head over to Ellen’s Danish Pancake House (805) 688-5312 for the Danish pancakes. They’re oversize, thin, and not too sweet; you will want to order another plate. Go to Bacon & Brine in Solvang for lunch and order anything with a pickle. The pickles ruly are one-of-a-kind. Try the Hitching Post II for dinner. The artichokes there are amazing, and the steaks are cooked to perfection.

What to do
You mean, apart from ballooning and visiting the beach? How about picking fruit? We had a fun afternoon harvesting delicious blueberries at Santa Barbara Blueberries. The hiking opportunities here are also extensive. You can find more on hiking and other outdoor activities at the Visit Buellton site.

Published in Destinations

If you really want to see Alaska, you need wheels.

Most visitors come to the Last Frontier on a cruise ship or a plane. A motorcoach picks them up at the airport and delivers them to a hotel, to an airstrip or a national park, and they only see a small sliver of this state.

It’s a beautiful sliver, to be sure — but too small considering Alaska’s vast size.

Which is why my kids and I decided to go the other way. We rented a car in Anchorage and took to the road, driving down to Seward and up to Denali National Park. Yes, there’s still a lot for us to explore, and plenty that’s inaccessible by car, but the enchantment of Alaska’s open road is something you can’t experience from the back of the bus, off the deck of a cruise ship, or from Alaska’s impressive railroad.

My three kids and I are fortunate. Our family travel site is supported by Hertz, which set us up with a Ford Explorer, an SUV that can handle almost any Alaskan road. I should note that most car rental contracts, including Hertz’, don’t allow you to drive on unpaved roads, especially in the 49th state, where unpaved can mean anything from less maintained to downright dangerous.

Which brings me to my first piece of advice: Take the SUV, or at the very least, a four-wheel-drive vehicle. You never know when you’ll be trying to negotiate a steep grade in a national park or find yourself on a rain-slickened road, and you’ll want the extra control. Two-wheel-drive cars are for suburban commutes, but not for this place.

There are at least two things you can discover in a car — the road and the destination. And there are three roads that really stood out during our month-long tour of Alaska. First, the magnificent drive from Anchorage to Alyeska on Highway 1, with its breathtaking views of the Cook Inlet’s Turnagain Arm and the unspoiled wilderness of Chugach State Park. There’s also the intriguing drive south along Highway 1 and Portage Glacier Road to Whittier, through the narrow Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. And finally, there’s the ridiculously picturesque drive up Highway 3 to Denali National Park, and if you’re adventurous, up to Fairbanks.

Along the way, we discovered that the road was the destination. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Highway 1 from Anchorage to Alyeska

It’s a short, one-hour trek from Anchorage down to Alyeska, Alaska’s legendary ski resort. We made the trip in early September, when the leaves were starting to turn yellow and low clouds hovered low over the Cook Inlet. Coming from San Diego’s balmy 80 degree weather to the mid-40s was a shock. We recovered just in time to appreciate the stunning views of the mountains and bay.

The road winds its way south, with frequent turnouts for tourists like us to take pictures. Good thing, too. Without these opportunities, I’m sure there’d be more traffic accidents, with shutterbugs veering into the oncoming traffic in order to find the perfect shot.

Here, off the beaten path means access to almost everything the locals have. You can shop for groceries at Fred Meyer or swing by Gwennies for sourdough pancakes, and you don’t have to worry about a train schedule. A word of warning, though: Parking in Anchorage can be a real bear. Like a lot of tourist towns, they’ve figured out a way to maximize their parking revenue. It pays to park a little farther from downtown and walk off that pancake breakfast.

Alyeska is its own reward, from the impressive Alyeska Resort, with its incredible network of hiking trails, to my kids’ favorite, the Bake Shop (try the sweet rolls, they’re amazing). But the highlight is the drive. If you’re staying in Alyeska, as we were, you’ll be tempted to head back north a few times just to do it over again.

Portage Glacier Road to Whittier

If you’ve never driven to Whittier, and you have an extra day, you really should consider going. Highway 1 extends farther south to Portage, past even more spectacular views of mountains and inlet. Then you hang a left and motor down a narrow, two-lane road past Portage Lake until you meet the mountain. It’s a $13 toll to pass through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel and reach Prince William Sound on the other side, but well worth it. At 2.5 miles, it’s said to be the longest highway tunnel in North America. And it’s the narrowest. At just one lane, it’s shared with train tracks and you have to time your journey just right so that you don’t have to wait for your turn.

We found Whittier shrouded in clouds, with lone espresso booths at the port catering to freezing visitors like us. This is a popular launching point for glacier tours, but as with the first road trip, the drive is also its own kind of destination. Along the road you’ll see abundant wildlife, including moose and eagle. Portage Lake takes such a beautiful picture. But go slowly, since it’s only a 40-minute drive from Alyeska to Whittier. Pull over often and savor the views.

Highway 3 from Anchorage to Cantwell

This 3 1/2 -hour road trip is among the most picturesque in the United States, if not the world. On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped peaks of Denali National Park, including Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America, with a summit elevation of 20,310 feet. But take that drive on a clear fall day, as we did, and you’ll see so much more. The foliage is more vibrant, with brilliant yellows and reds with the dark cinnamon undertones of the turning blueberries bushes.

Many visitors to Alaska make this trip in a motorcoach or by train. I’ve done it every way, and driving is still my favorite. Why? Because you get to determine where you go. Want to stop at the Talkeetna Roadhouse for a slice of pie? You can in your own vehicle. Want to visit my friends at Alaska Nature Guides for a hike up Curry Ridge in Denali State Park, for the best views of McKinley? Take the SUV.

Mostly, though, the road to Cantwell is mesmerizing in a way that no other road in America can be. Its two lanes run straight north into pure wilderness. The shifting weather — sunny and bright one minute, rainy the next with a slight possibility of snow — reminds you that you are no longer in the lower 48. This place is not for the faint of heart.

Driving Alaska’s roads is strictly defensive. A lot of the oncoming traffic is commercial: Trucks hauling logs, fuel or other supplies. The roads are sometimes well-paved, but often riddled with potholes that are the inevitable result of the wildly fluctuating temperatures. You have to be at the top of your game to drive here. And if you’re not, the car can help. Someone turned the settings on my SUV to maximum sensitivity, so that even a sudden turn would result in a warning to “rest soon” from the vehicle’s navigation system.

Rest? But I’m just getting started.

For some people, coming to Alaska is a bucket list trip, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. For my family, driving in Alaska was the bucket list trip, and I can’t wait to do it again.

With its iconic painted deserts and vast, seemingly endless roads, Arizona is the ultimate off-the-beaten-path destination. But visit the Grand Canyon state during the off-season, when all the visitors have gone home, and it’s a special kind of quiet.

Our Arizona odyssey started with absolutely no plan and took my family on a meandering route through Prescott, Williams, Sedona and Tucson. With the exception of one or two nights in a hotel, our accommodations were old school: We bunked down in my parents’ basement just outside Prescott, a place we’ve affectionately come to know as the Elliott Ranch.

The only thing we’d lined up was a set of wheels, thanks to Hertz, which sponsors my family travel site. You can even pick the model of your car, and for an adventure like this, I recommend you do. At Hertz, the choose-your-own-car program is called Ultimate Choice, and it offers a more personalized rental experience by letting you select a car in the class you reserved at no extra cost. Since I’m a Gold Plus rewards member, I also had access to an exclusive area at the Phoenix airport that features an even wider selection of vehicles. I went with a Ford Explorer.

Before I forget, here’s another important tip: Remember to buy insurance for your car, either through your rental company, credit card or travel insurance company. Arizona’s highways can kick up some pebbles, and I had the misfortune of getting hit in the windshield with one. Insurance covers that and keeps you from having to pay even more at the rental counter.

Getting lost in Prescott’s Dells

Arizona’s former territorial capital is known for a lot of things, including its famous downtown area called Whiskey Row, which earned the name because of its high concentration of Old West saloons. My kids, ages 10, 12 and 15, are not into that kind of thing, but there’s still plenty to do in town. Our favorite activity? Hiking the famous granite Dells, which are found in the city’s many parks.

The Dells look like enormous pale rock Easter eggs stacked one on top of another, and they’re usually near a lake, which gives an unearthly feel to the whole experience. We trekked through several parks, but our favorite was Watson Lake, with trails that meander past the lake and into the hills. The Dells can be a little intimidating. Wear shoes with a little traction unless you want to take a tumble. It’s also easy to get lost, since the path kind of ends in the rocks. Ask your phone to remember where you parked or you could spend an entire afternoon wandering the Dells aimlessly.

Pumpkins in Williams

A short hour-and-a-half drive away we found Williams, a small town that bills itself as the gateway to the Grand Canyon. But for us, it came to mean two things. First, pumpkins. The Pumpkin Patch Train, which runs through Oct. 29, is a fun way to spend an afternoon. Instead of riding the Grand Canyon Railway all the way to the end, you take the train a few miles out to a “secret” pumpkin patch, select the pumpkin of your choice and then decorate it. On our trip, we saw kids and adults dressed up in Halloween costumes. The train becomes the Polar Express train ride in a few weeks, just in time for Christmas.

The second thing we’ll remember about Williams is the Pine Country Restaurant, which will make it a must-stop destination the next time we’re in town. The enormous and tasty pies are the highlight. Our favorites included the coconut cream and the pineapple cream pies. If you can’t handle a whole pie, go for the banana bread, which is unbelievably moist and delicious. So, ride the train and eat the pie on this stop.

Sedona really rocks

The Grand Canyon may get all the attention in Arizona, but Sedona’s rocks deserve at least a brief mention. Sedona is close to nothing, which is why it’s the perfect destination for an off-the-beaten-path kind of story. Our path was called Soldiers Pass Trail, a four-mile loop through the vivid red stone formations that bracket the town. We grabbed a sandwich at a nearby Whole Foods (hey, it’s Sedona!) and headed up the trail on a perfectly clear fall afternoon.

I don’t want you to think persuading kids to go hiking on a warm afternoon is easy. It takes a combination of promises (“How about ice cream afterwards?”) and threats (“If you don’t walk, I’m leaving you here.”). But Sedona’s sheer beauty ended up convincing them that the hike was worthwhile. Around every corner, there was another postcard-perfect picture to take, or more footage to capture. You can’t come to Arizona and skip Sedona.

Happy trails in Tucson

We circled around to Tucson in the Southeast corner of the state for our final stop. Since this was a lengthier drive, we checked into the Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort in the foothills overlooking the city. It’s a former girls boarding school-turned-resort with stunning views of Tucson and a nice perch to watch a setting sun turn Mount Kimball pink in the early evening. We’ll remember many things about the Hacienda, but the highlight had to be horseback riding in the dry riverbed below the hotel. Here, we had an unprecedented opportunity to see the Sonoran desert up close, with the enormous saguaro cactus, the desert flowers like the Blue Milkwort and lizards.

My middle son is an avid unicyclist, and as an encore, we drove out to nearby Sabino Canyon to practice his moves on the paved roads. We arrived just after 4 p.m. and hiked deep into the canyon, turning around at dusk. There were no trams running and hardly a soul out there on a weekday evening, so we practically had the place to ourselves. Sunsets in Arizona are the main event. The final rays dance across the pink and red cliffs, creating a brief but spectacular light show on the rocks.

It was both a fitting finale to this adventure and a siren call to come back and explore Arizona some more. And we will.

Published in Destinations

Oregon’s cool and mysterious coast isn’t a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of place. Only repeated visits allow you to discover why it’s one of America’s most underrated destinations.

And on our last trip through the Beaver State, something clicked.

Our family road trip took us through Lincoln City in central Oregon, and wound its way along two-lane roads to Pacific City, Cape Meares, and finally Portland. Along the way, we learned to golf, kayaked to the edge of the ocean, climbed an enormous sand dune, hiked along countless beaches, and then wrapped up our adventure with a riverfront stay in the Rose City.

If you begin your journey in Lincoln City, as we did, you’ll notice the Pacific coast starts to present itself in an unexpected way. Farther south, California’s coastline offers either cliffs or beaches, but somehow, Oregon manages to do both at the same time. Beach here, rock there. And over there, an estuary teeming with wildlife.

A terrific starting point is a quiet round of golf at Salishan Spa & Golf Resort. The course, bracketed by old-growth firs, presents a spectacular view of a chilly Pacific, and the morning fog burns off into postcard-perfect days during midsummer. If you’re there with young kids, as I was, you’ll probably want to take them down to the pro shop for a lesson and then to the beach to run around.

Just a few miles north, in the Salmon River, the kids and I did a deep dive into coastal Oregon by taking a guided tour with Kayak Tillamook. Our guide led us out just as the tide was slackening, which made paddling to the mouth of the Pacific a little easier. The estuary system became a United Nations Biosphere Reserve after several dikes were demolished a generation ago to restore the tidal waters.

But Salmon River saves the best for the last — a view of the Cascade Head and Three Rocks in a churning Pacific. From the water, it is truly a sight, and it rendered my normally chatty kids silent, in awe.

By contrast, my kids, ages 10, 12 and 15, were energized by what they saw in Pacific City: the enormous sand dunes and rock formations of Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area. You can climb to the top of these sandy peaks and discover even more about what makes the Oregon coast so special, like the vertical columns of Chief Kiawanda Rock surrounded by crashing waves. It’s a heart-pounding climb to the top, but once you’re there, you feel like you’re on another planet. This is unlike anything you’ve ever seen, or are likely to see again.

From there, we took the slow road north. The Three Capes Scenic Route is a 40-mile road trip that demands your attention. Some of the scenery is so remarkable that words fail me. Take pictures; your friends will think you Photoshopped them. My colleague Grant McOmie did an outstanding job describing what you’ll see in this video. Give yourself a full day to take this drive. Bring a picnic lunch and your swimsuit — and don’t forget to charge your phone so you can take lots of pictures.

We settled in a vacation rental near Cape Meares, on the northern tip of the drive, for a few days. Because of a road closure, Cape Meares is only accessible from Bayocean Drive. In order to get to the scenic Cape Meares Lighthouse & Wildlife Refuge, you have to go around the other side, a 20-minute detour. That’s worth doing at least once, because the lighthouse takes a lovely photo. You can also see the Three Arch Rocks National Wildlife Refuge (a park with a fascinating history) and take your picture next to Big Spruce, Oregon’s largest Sitka Spruce.

In Cape Meares, we rested for a few days. And stopping here really lets you take it all in. Even though we were in Oregon during the peak of travel season, we still had the place to ourselves. Every morning, I walked to Kincheloe Point with my 15-year-old son, an almost four-mile round trip. On several days, we were met with fierce headwinds, forcing us to lean into the gusts as we pushed toward our goal, obscured by billows of sand.

“It’s character-building,” he confided.

The Cape was a launching point for several excursions to the north, including a memorable trip to the Tillamook Cheese Factory (granted, a touristy thing to do, but I’m on the road with three ice cream aficionados) and a drive to Oswald West State Park, which has a beach you can only reach by hiking through a dense temperate rainforest. This was the northernmost coastal point of our tour, but perhaps the most impressive. It almost feels as if the sandstone cliffs that used to be out in the water have come ashore to merge with the beach. All you can do is stand on the shore and say, “Wow.”

From there, we headed inland, but still followed the water. The Willamette River, which runs through Portland and merges with the Columbia River, finally spilling into the Pacific, offered a bookend to our long journey. Along its shores, we checked into the Kimpton RiverPlace Hotel, which reminded us of Oregon’s nautical heritage.

In many ways Portland follows the narrative path of the coast. It’s a place where urban and rural almost coexist, just as the cliffs and beach seem to come together on the coast. On our first evening in town, we found ourselves at Nordic Northwest, the Scandinavian heritage center, for its midsummer crawfish dinner. It’s a short drive from downtown Portland, but you feel as if you’re on a farm.

Portlanders seem aware that they, like their own coastline, are mysterious and maybe a little inaccessible — and they seem to like it that way. You can’t parachute into here in a few days and understand it. Soon, they know the warmth of summer will give way to the fog and rain that this area is known for, and the summer tourists will retreat, but that’s just fine. Maybe that is what makes this place so special.

If you go …

Where to stay
Along the coast, the Salishan Spa & Golf Resort in Lincoln City has comfortable rooms that overlook the ocean. I recommend a vacation rental as you head north along the coast. They’re affordable and almost always offer excellent beach access. In Portland, besides the Kimpton RiverPlace Hotel, check out the Duniway Portland, a boutique hotel that’s close to everything and has comfortable rooms. Or consider splurging for a night or two at the Nines, a former department store converted into a luxury hotel.

What to do
Besides soak in the amazing coastline? Lincoln City has a noteworthy downtown with artisanal shops that sell collectibles. If you’re an aviation geek, check out the Tillamook Air Museum, inside an enormous hangar built to house K-class airships used during World War II for anti-submarine patrol and convoy escort. Don’t forget to check out the Guppy, an odd-looking aircraft parked just outside. In Portland, you have to check out High Hopes: The Journey of John F. Kennedy, at the Oregon Historical Society. You’ll find some rare and never-before-seen memorabilia from the 35th president.

Where to eat
This trip was all about the desserts. Along the coast, our favorite stops were the coffee stands. We became addicted to the spicy chai lattes and pastries served roadside. In Portland, check out Nordic Northwest for breakfast if you like Swedish pancakes. (And who doesn’t like Swedish pancakes?) Best donuts in town? We couldn’t stop eating those Blue Star Donuts. Don’t leave town without ordering a Passion Fruit donut.

Published in Destinations

 Arches. Bryce. Canyonlands. Capitol Reef. Zion.

The mere mention of their names evokes images of Technicolor desertscapes, vermilion cliffs and vivid sunsets. They are Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks.

“Is that an anvil up there?” asked my 11-year-old daughter, as we passed under a particularly tall rock just outside our first park.

No, there wasn’t. Or a piano. Or a road runner with a silly grin. But if you’re looking for a cultural touchstone for these five attractions, try Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, and the dramatic desert backdrops that looked so unreal, they had to be a cartoon.

Only, they aren’t.

My daughter giggled. She’d made her two brothers and me look, taking our eyes off the mesmerizing vistas before us at the gates of Zion National Park. When we read about the Five on Utah’s tourism website, we had to try it. OK, I talked my kids into doing it, but when I showed them the pictures, it was easy.

Our rules were simple. For each park, we’d find the top-rated hike on Alltrails, our favorite hiking app. We’d spend at least one day in each park, more if possible.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park: Where angels fear to tread
We accessed all the parks by road, picking up our Hertz rental in Phoenix and then driving up through Las Vegas. Our first stop: Zion National Park, located in the southwest corner of the state, where the the number-one trail is the deceptively-named Angels Landing.

This is an absolutely insane hike, and I’m convinced that angels had nothing to do with it. The trail starts as a narrow, steep path and then graduates to a sheer rock face where you cling to a chain in order to scale the mountain. When I saw the last part, which led up to a plateau high in the clouds, I instinctively turned around. But my three kids, who are more adventurous than I am, led the way — and somehow, we made it without tumbling into the abyss. (Note: I would not recommend this path for young children.)

Dodging giant ants in Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon National Park was a 2 ½ hour drive from our Vacasa rental in St. George, through still more canyons, vast and desolate rock walls that stir the imagination. You don’t have to be a science fiction fan to recognize these limestone formations, tall and unearthly. They look like insect hives from the film Starship Troopers. Only, they are real. As we descended into Navajo Loop, the most popular trail, the kids swapped their cartoon fantasies for sci-fi nightmares. This is the legendary forest of stone that almost defies description. Yet no giant ants emerged from the rocks. Instead, we found one stunning picture after another.

A wrinkle in the earth at Capitol Reef
We hit Capitol Reef National Park on our drive from St. George to Moab. It’s at about the halfway point, the perfect place for an afternoon hike to stretch your legs. And this was some stretch. Capitol Reef is home to the Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile geologic monocline, also known as a wrinkle in the earth. We decided to explore the Hickman Bridge Trail, which was just starting to cool down on a cloudless November day.

True to its name, Capitol Reef looks as if it was drained of ocean water only recently. You can see rock formations that look reef-like, and layers upon layers of rock. It’s called “capitol” because of the pole domes of Navajo Sandstone that look like capitol building domes. Even though this 1.8-mile trek is classified “moderate,” I found myself huffing and puffing near the top, as we rounded the bend to find the natural archway towering 300 feet above the Fremont River.

Our rental Cadillac came with SiriusXM, where one of our favorite stations is The Joint. I mean, what else would you listen to when you’re driving to Zion, right? But the sounds of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Toots and the Maytals defined this trip, as did the Reggae-inspired names of the parks, like Abacá, Zion, and, of course, Capitol Reefer. Kids these days!

A grand view at Canyonlands

National park number four: Canyonlands National Park. And inevitably, the return of the Looney Tunes references. To call Canyonlands the Grand Canyon in miniature would be a disservice. This park is different, yet the same. The narrow cracks in the earth are darker and somehow more dramatic than in that other famous canyon. And when we hiked out to Grand View Point Trail, we discovered the other difference. There are no railings to keep kids, dogs and clueless adults from plummeting off the edge of a cliff. My middle son asked if he could Photoshop either an anvil or a grand piano into the pictures. I said, “Just come home alive and you can do anything you want.”

At last, through the arches
Arches National Park waited for us in Moab like a bookend to an incredible adventure. And it was worth the wait. We checked into the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Moab Hotel, a property that wakes you up every morning with the smell of coffee and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, and set out to explore our final of the five national parks. There is only one must-see trail in Arches, and that is the Delicate Arch trail, a three-mile there-and-back hike to the arch. And by “the” I mean the one displayed on every Utah license plate.

Even though we were visiting Arches at the low point of the off season, it seemed as if everyone wanted to be on this trail. (Maybe that advice about traveling in the fall to avoid the crowds doesn’t apply here.) Fortunately, the climb takes you on a wide, flat area where you don’t have to share the trail with the rest of the world. From there, however, it leads to a narrow path that hugs the mountainside, which is said to get crowded in the summer and iced over during winter. And then, the reward: the stone icon, which stands 46 feet high and 32 feet wide, the largest free-standing arch in the park, according to park officials.

Here, all the jokes about roadrunners and Rastafarians dissolved into silence. The children just stared at this monument, created by millennia of geological events, in disbelief. So did I. I’m not sure if the good people of Utah, or anyone else for that matter, truly understand what they have in these national parks. They are breathtakingly beautiful, historically important, and worthy of preservation.

This article first appeared on AwayisHome, Christopher Elliott's  account of his family’s open-ended, around-the-word adventure. 

Published in Hike

You know Colorado, right?

World-class skiing, snow-capped mountains, frigid temps.


Yet, during a recent family trip from our mountain home to another part of the state, we were reminded of how much more there is to explore. 

Cheyenne Mountain Resort

Rocky Mountain Divide

The famous Rocky Mountains run through the middle of the state, dividing the mountainous highlands from...well, essentially Kansas.

The Front Range is what the locals call the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and there is no uncertainty about where those hills end and the Great Plains begin.

The line of mountains looks like a long wave about to crash on a smooth beach. And it's a crowded beach. More than three fifths of Colorado's happy population live in the flatlands (albeit tucked up against the base of those majestic mountains), including the capital, Denver, and the hip college towns of Boulder and Fort Collins. Also in that list is the historic and sometimes overlooked Colorado Springs, the state's second largest metropolis.

Garden of the Gods Colorado Springs

So Much To Do In The Springs

The Springs, as locals abbreviate it, isn't absent from the national consciousness, strictly speaking, but it is surprising how its vast and diverse array of activities can remain a secret to most outside the state. Many know it for being the home to the stunning U.S. Air Force Academy and the U.S. Olympic Training Center, for its iconic view of Pikes Peak (where Katharine Lee Bates was inspired to pen "America the Beautiful"), and for the U.S. Air Force North American Air Defense Command or NORAD (actually inside Cheyenne Mountain, to protect it from a nuclear strike!).

And while it recently had some recognition for its move-worthy amenities and lifestyle with US News & World Report ranking it the 2nd most desirable place to live in the U.S., it is currently getting more well-deserved love as a tourist destination.

Families Take Note!

But families in particular should stand up and take notice of Colorado Springs. Per square mile, there may not be a more beautiful, diverse, affordable, family-friendly place.


Homebase for our Colorado Springs adventure was the Cheyenne Mountain Resort. Located on 200 acres, with golf, spa, a 35- acre lake with loads of water action, and plenty of hiking trails nearby, it was a grand location from which to explore. 

Your family can sit around a beach bonfire, go paddle boarding at sunset, or play Marco Polo in the pool. There's also a Kid's Club to consider and special programs offered during summer and school holidays.

Natural Beauty

Of course the whole place started with natural beauty. Approaching the city from the east, you'll see Pikes Peak looming over it, just as the mountain's namesake, military explorer Zebulon Pike did in 1806. After the area was settled, it became famous for its healing climate and spring waters (of Manitou Springs). That attention in turn made visitors notice the exceptional aesthetic beauty that is still the soul of the place.

The Pikes Peak Cog RailwayGarden of the Gods, the Cheyenne Mountain ZooSeven FallsNorth Cheyenne Cañon, are all must-sees on the Colorado Springs canvas.

Colorado Springs beauty

Of course natural beauty often inspires creative beauty, and Colorado Springs is a testament to that aesthetic connection. The Air Force Academy grounds and chapel are a stunning blend of modern architecture and design sprouting from the dense coniferous forest. And if all that doesn't inspire the kids, there are planes, gliders, and skydivers overhead all day long. 

The Broadmoor Hotel is worth a visit, even if you're not staying. The grounds and buildings are breathtaking, and the activities in and around will keep you busy for easily an afternoon or more. The founder of Colorado Springs, William Palmer, built a castle, called Glen Eyrie, in the western foothills near Garden of the Gods that is today open to visit, tour, and relax for high tea (it is a castle, after all). And perhaps most inspiring are the Anasazi Cliff Dwellings above Manitou Springs. The dwellings were actually relocated from southern Colorado over 100 years ago to save them from further destruction by artifact poachers, but there is no better testament to Necessity as the mother of art and Nature as her muse. 

Springs airport

All of these things are within 20 minutes of each other, making a visit more about experiences and family time than travel time. Particularly convenient is the Colorado Springs airport. If you can fly there from your home city, you'd likely save money on Frontier Airlines, or justify the extra cost of avoiding the time-sucking Denver International Airport. On a recent flight to Phoenix from Colorado Springs, our family timed our trip from car door to gate in less than 15 minutes, with a stop to check luggage!

 heli tour of Pikes Peak

If you go

Check out Colorado Springs Convention & Visitor’s Bureau for great family activities. 

Family lodging

You can find a place for any budget in Colorado Springs, but check out these options that add some character, history, and entertainment into the package.

 Cheyenne Mountain Resort

Cheyenne Mountain Resort

Located near the Broadmoor Hotel, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and North Cheyenne Cañon Park, this family-friendly hotel feeds kids 10 and under for free and offers packages to keep them busy while you golf, swim, hike...spa! It's also surprisingly affordable. 

The Broadmoor

The Grande Dame of Colorado Springs hotels boasts a massive property with all sorts of amenities, history, and breathtaking view from its high perch. It'll cost you a bit more, but this is the life of the finer things.

The Great Wolf Lodge

WARNING: This North American chain is a self-contained family zone. With a massive indoor water park, restaurants, performances, and activities, Great Wolf will tempt you into never leaving the grounds. You must not let that happen. Our preferred strategy is one to two nights at Great Wolf and at least three more in a property that embodies the character and charm of Colorado Springs.

Did you Know?

  • Astraphobics, take heed: Colorado Springs is one of the most active lightning strike areas in the U.S., which is why the electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla sited his laboratory there to study electricity.
  • There really are no bad times to visit the Springs, and if you happen to be there in late October, the Emma Crawford Coffin Races are a great excuse to visit the funky, kitschy Manitou Springs (as if it requires an excuse).
  • Colorado Springs boasts 243 sunny days a year (2 out of every 3 days, on average,) and that's not counting partly sunny days!
Published in Destinations

Silicon Valley draws me like a powerful magnet, with its Mediterranean climate, irresistible culture of innovation and iconic technology brands that have defined a generation. It pulls in my whole family, which, like many Americans, lives in a world defined by Apple, Facebook and Google.

But, if you’re coming to San Jose, Calif., to see these companies, you might short your circuits. Sure, you can drive by the campuses of these tech giants and take a selfie of the Android statue at Google or next to the “One Infinite Loop” sign at Apple. You can buy merchandise at a gift shop or stop by the Apple store and pick up a new iPad. But tech tourism, as a recent article in the local newspaper noted, isn’t exactly encouraged by the secretive Silicon Valley companies.

If you visit San Jose, as we recently did, and if you look hard enough, you might discover even more than you expected — a place with a fascinating history of entrepreneurship and a forward-looking culture like no other. And in the process, you might also discover why tech companies don’t want to become tourist attractions.

I didn’t have to ask my kids, ages 10, 12 and 15, if they wanted to see Silicon Valley. I knew they did. My oldest son, Aren, is our resident techie, who can figure out how to do anything on a computer and is a fan of the TV show Silicon Valley. My younger kids are avid users. Did they want to see the Facebook campus? You bet.

It didn’t happen.

Elliott family at Google

We wandered aimlessly around the Google campus in triple-digit temperatures, looking for the Android sculpture, until they begged me to return them to our air conditioned rental car. A contact at Facebook, who held out the promise that we could get on the campus, canceled at the last minute. The closest we got to becoming bona fide tech tourists was parking in a guest spot at One Infinity Loop and visiting the Apple store. When we tried to see the company’s headquarters, the receptionist almost laughed at us and said unless we knew someone, this was as far as we could go.

Well, so much for that.

The experience pushed us to make the best of the situation — you know, to innovate. And we did.

As it turns out, there are two museums where technology and discovery are celebrated. One is the Tech Museum of Innovation in downtown San Jose, an interactive science and technology center that offers a look into the soul of Silicon Valley. Every exhibit here, from the medical imaging equipment to the nanotechnology displays, oozes with futuristic flair. It made the kids ask themselves about the future, not the present. What will life be like down the road? What part do I play in it?

My 10-year-old daughter, who already has her eye on medical school, spent a good half hour “dissecting” an digital cadaver on a new machine that is meant for biology students.

For a look back at what made Silicon Valley great, you have to check out the Computer History Museum in nearby Mountain View. It’s dedicated to preserving the technology that too often finds itself in a landfill — obsolete gadgets that were important stepping stones to the smartphones and tablets we use today. The museum is home to the largest collection of computing artifacts in the world, including computer hardware, software, documentation, ephemera, photographs, oral histories, and moving images.

My oldest son and I were mesmerized by the vintage computers and the exhibits that explained their place in computer history when we visited. The two younger kids? Not so much. They only seemed interested in the latest and greatest, when it comes to technology. But that, too, offered a glimpse into what makes Silicon Valley tick.

Actually, I’ve known about this place for a long time. I spent a memorable summer working for my uncle’s coffee factory in Mountain View. On our lunch break, we would watch planes take off from Moffett Field. I don’t recognize the place now, but I do recognize the people. There’s a certain attitude that I call standoffish optimism. Instead of “What have you done for me lately?” they ask, “What can you do for me in the future?”

Nowhere is this future focus on display more than the campus of Stanford University, where we ended our tour of Silicon Valley. Stanford is a master-planned university with its imposing Art Deco, Spanish and Greek revival buildings. My son and I spent hours wandering the campus — we were fortunate enough to have found accommodations at the Clement Hotel, just across the street from Stanford — and had a chance to meet and talk to students.

I don’t think the folks we met would be offended if we said they seemed preoccupied, as if a part of them was here in the present and another part was off in the future, thinking about the next thing. Students experimented with drones and futuristic toys on the Quad. It felt a little like Starfleet Academy.

It was then that I realized why Silicon Valley’s most influential tech companies don’t want to become tourist traps. Innovation isn’t confined to a single institution or company. It is all around you in San Jose, Mountain View and Palo Alto. Maybe it’s something in the air or a contagion that has infected the population. That can’t ever become a tourist attraction, and it’s why Silicon Valley will always be the world’s most elusive tourist attraction.

If you go…

Where to stay

There’s no location more central than the Fairmont San Jose, a luxury property just across the street from the Tech Museum of Innovation. If you’re staying a few more days, check in at the Staybridge Suites in San Jose, which is really close to the airport and has excellent laundry facilities. And for a real upscale experience, try the all-inclusive, all-suites Clement Hotel in Palo Alto.

What to do

On the Stanford campus, check out the Cantor Arts Center. Don’t miss the exhibition on corporate design, which influenced Silicon Valley in so many ways. For a day of fun, head over to California’s Great America in Santa Clara, which has a mind-boggling selection of roller coasters, each one scarier than the one before. Don’t forget the Winchester Mystery House, which set a standard for Silicon Valley eccentricity that this place has tried to live up to.

Where to eat

Head over to San Pedro Square Market, San Jose’s urban center, for a selection of the best restaurants in town. We had a memorable pizza from Pizza Bocca Lupo — just like the kind you get in Naples, Italy.

Published in Destinations

Wrap those travel dreams and savor the gift of experience, knowledge and memories that last a lifetime.

Here are five ideas to consider:  

Tahiti fire dancers - Windstar

Island Lovers.

Let the trade winds sweep your cares away when you explore the islands of French Polynesia aboard a four-masted sailing yacht. A great getaway to experience with your teens, adult children or extended family, Windstar sailing ships deliver explorers to an island paradise where blue lagoons and pristine coral reefs provide epic snorkeling, scuba diving and Jet Ski options. Kayak and paddleboard off the back of the ship’s sports deck. Learn about local cultures during hiking, kayaking and museum-centric shore excursions. Later, relax on a small island (motu) where you can sip coconut drinks, listen to the nimble sounds of a ukulele drifting in the distance and cool off in the sapphire-colored sea.

Contact: www.WindstarCruises.com. 

Ski Steamboat

Snow Lovers.

For those who relish the white stuff, the gift of travel to Colorado Ski Country will be a high altitude hit. At more than 21 resorts throughout the state, kids under various ages are offered the opportunity to ski free. For example, kids under five always ski free at Arapahoe, Aspen Snowmass and Loveland. Steamboat's Kids Ski Free and Grandkids Ski Free programs enable children 12 and younger to ski free the same number of days as their parent/grandparent with the purchase of a 5-or-more day adult lift ticket. Other resorts offer lift ticket deals as well as lodging, lesson and gear discounts.

Contact: www.ColoradoSki.com; www.Colorado.com

Colorado Dude Ranch

Horse Lovers.

Choose a ranch vacation and you’ll have the opportunity to learn horsemanship in an authentic and scenic setting. Opt to ride in open meadows, on mountain trails or in the sun-drenched, desert southwest. Will your family members choose to participate in a real cattle drive? Are you up for a horse pack trip into the backcountry? Will your youngsters be eager to learn the skills required for team penning and other arena games? Or will you be happy to relax during daily trail rides and around the campfire come nightfall. The options are yours at working dude ranches and guest ranches across the country.

Contact: Duderanch.org; www.Top50Ranches.com.

 big league tours

Baseball Lovers.

Are you a fan of Fenway? Have you been to Yankee Stadium or Miller Park? If the mere thought makes you smile, a Big League Tour might be a perfect fit for your family. Word is you’ll hang out with MLB players, get on to the field, inside the dugouts and catch a batting practice in the venues that continue to infuse allegiance to the game. Tours and vacation packages make it possible to hear the crack of the bat in your favorite cities or an entire region. Pair a tour with a trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, NY. to learn more about the history and cultural significance of the game through memorabilia and interactive exhibits.

Contact: www.BigLeagueTours.com; Baseballhall.org.

 kids in the national park

Nature Lovers.

Celebrate our freedom and the beauty of our land with a visit to one or more of our 392 national parks. With so many historical and natural wonders to discover, consider heading to the National Park Service’s web pages, specifically designed to help regular and first time visitors plan a meaningful trip. There you research park activities as well as camping, back country, lodging and educational options. Across America, each day there are special events, institute and field schools as well as volunteer opportunities. Check for fee free days and Junior Ranger programs for the kids.

Contact: www.nps.gov/pub_aff/plan_your_visit/index.htm




Published in Cruise

night sky

Escape the bright lights of the city and introduce your family to the night sky. Here are five places to experience a star-filled landscape:

1. Arizona skies. 

Expect stellar stargazing as well as the chance to tour the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, which was the first city to be designated a Dark Sky City by the International Dark-Sky Association. See the telescope via which Pluto was discovered in the 1930s and peer through the century-old Clark Telescope. Head south to Tucson, often noted as the astronomy capital of the world. Check in to the Westin La Paloma, where families can learn about the celestial world in the foothills of Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains. A “cosmic concierge” will provide an educational preamble while you enjoy fireside s’mores. Bolstered by your new information and the fresh night air, go forth to identify the sea of constellations above.

Contact: lowell.edu; flagstaffarizona.orgwestinlapalomaresort.com

2. Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah. 

Home to some of the darkest skies in the country, this scenic landscape was the first to receive the International Dark Sky Park certification. Massive natural bridges form star-filled windows through which you can observe the skies as the Pueblo people did some 800 years ago. Among the most spectacular sights is the river of Milky Way brilliance observed rising over Owachomo Bridge.

Contact: www.nps.gov/nabr/index.htm

3. Death Valley National Park, Calif. 

The park’s 3.4 million-acre expanse and the region’s clean, dry air combine to provide an ideal vantage point for observing shooting stars, meteor showers and constellations galore. The conditions have earned the park Gold-Tier Dark Sky status. The area shares a strong commitment to avoid light pollution and keep the night sky visible. Stay at the Ranch at Furnace Creek and join the Las Vegas Astronomical Society for Star Parties on selected evenings.

Contact: furnacecreekresort.comnps.gov/deva

4. Waikoloa, Hawaii. 

Relax on the beach by day and learn about the Pacific sky after the sun sets. This Hawaiian island is home to one of the world’s most important observatories and inspires the hotel’s interactive kids’ camps. During Cosmic Night, your youngsters will gather with astronomers for educational stories of the night sky. Each week, they’ll also have the option to join “A Camping We Will Go” and can learn to pitch a tent, stargaze, play flashlight tag and sample s’mores.

Contact: hiltonwaikoloavillage.comifa.hawaii.edu

5. Costa Rica. 

Discovered by Magellan in the 1520s, his namesake dwarf galaxies are best observed mid-December through April. And Costa Rica, the home of pura vida, is one of the few places in the Northern Hemisphere where it’s possible to view the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Visit the Arenal volcano region for stunning vistas or relax in a jungle resort, where guided walks through lush flora and fauna are paired with observations of the night sky.

Contact: visitcostarica.com

Published in Explore
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