The Johnson Boys Do San Francisco!

Jamie and Bode had a fantastic boy’s trip to San Francisco a few weeks ago. Earlier this year, Bode set the goal to read the Book of Mormon and has made reading the scriptures a part of his nighttime routine. He recently finished the Book of Mormon and is now part-way through the Doctrine and Covenants.

When the youth turn 12, they enter the Young Men/Young Women organization at church. It’s a pretty special time and I wanted to take each of them on a trip…but that never happened. So when Bode finished the Book of Mormon, *that* seemed like the opportune time for celebration.

Bode is an easy-going, happy-go-lucky fella but it also made trying to find a destination difficult because he really didn’t have any preferences (vs. Hadley who has a gazillion travel passions). He and Jamie finally settled upon San Francisco, and I found cheap flights for a one-night stay. They left early Friday morning, flew into Oakland, took BART into San Francisco, played hard all day, bunked down at the Argonaut hotel near the pier (a great Hotwire find), and put in another full day before flying out Saturday night. They were exhausted but had a blast.

The Past

Bode’s first trip to San Francisco was when he was three months old. Jamie was still at The Denver Post and he had a conference at the Half Moon Bay Ritz-Carlton. There was no way I was missing that so Bode and I jumped on-board for a luxurious couple of nights at the Ritz. While Jamie was in meetings and golfing with Yahoo and Google execs, Bode and I explored the gorgeous cliffs overlooking California’s coastline and Half Moon Bay’s charming shops.. I truly fell in love with that area.

For the third night, we went to San Francisco, arguably one of the best cities in the world. We walked EVERYWHERE with Bode in his stroller, rain often pouring down but Bode ever-happy and as snug-as-a-bug under his blankets. That night, we stayed at the Ramada San Francisco on our dime. When we arrived, there was chicken wire on all the windows and a lovely warning sign that that said, “There were known carcinogens and cancer-causing materials in the building.”  From the Ritz to THIS? Lovely!  I wouldn’t let my sweet baby touch anything that night and kept him in his carseat; we somehow survived.

The Present

This boy’s trip was extremely eventful (and without the threat of radiation, even!) They arrived in San Francisco on BART and proceeded to walk and walk and walk. Two blocks from the train station, they ran into a 1,700-pound pumpkin which was a sure sign God was watching out for them (according to Jamie).

Other sites included exploring Pier 39 and the 7-D Experience (they shot a lot of zombies), a historic video arcade (they played Jamie’s childhood classics Asteroids and Battlezone),  watched the seals sumo-wrestle on the platform, reveled in the street performers and a one-man band, and checked out the World War II submarines.

That afternoon, they took the ferry to tour Alkatraz, definitely the highlight of the trip. Jamie says he got some punishment ideas for messy rooms.

They eventually limped back to the hotel, their feet bursting with blisters. Jamie wanted to get some corn chowder and sourdough bread for dinner, so they watched the World Series on TV at the hotel restaurant. They wanted to do some more exploring but Bode was dead-tired so they compromised: Jamie suggested they walk to find dessert and Bode was rejuvenated with the prospect of Tim Horton doughnuts.

I talked to Bode at the hotel and he sounded like he was ready to pass out–and did so at 8 p.m. (9 p.m. MST), insisting Jamie turn off the TV so he could hit the sack. Jamie and I had a good chuckle about this. When most kids are always pushing bedtime boundaries, Bode has ALWAYS listened to his body and usually goes to sleep on his own. I feel his pain; I hate staying up late.

On Saturday, they had crepes for breakfast and Bode was given the choice of what they should do for the day so he opted to rent bikes and ride across the Golden Gate Bridge, another highlight! Or it would have been have a layer of fog not settled upon the bridge *right* as they were crossing it, obstructing any views of the Bay.

They continued biking to Sausalito as Jamie commented, “Mom would love this town,” which was sure nice of them to think of me when I was holed up at home recovering from knee surgery.

Bode and Jamie continued biking all the way to a small Redwood Forest but opted not to hit the larger trees because it was quite the hike and they were short on time and energy (they biked about 20 miles that day!) They hopped the ferry along with the gazillion other people with bikes, raced over to BART and made it to the airport just in time.

All in all, a successful boy’s trip and now my goal is to help Hadley read the Book of Mormon so we can enjoy a girl’s trip of our own.

 

Summer 2.0

It was a busy summer! For Bode, he had Junior PGA Golf League, Little Shredders Mountain Biking and Sailing Camp (with Hadley).

For Hadley, she had Girl’s Camp (with yours truly as Camp Director), BYU volleyball camp, and not to be forgotten: pioneer trek. Our good friends, the Homers, were her Ma and Pa and they put her in charge of their family’s flag which turned out AWESOME! 


She enjoyed herself with the pre-Trek square dancing and had a great time on the trail. Their family was the first to round the final bend so who would be the crazy girl who RAN the last mile? In her pioneer skirt? After a few days on the trail?
She came in first but let’s just say she walked like a cowboy for the next two days. #C-H-A-F-I-N-G.

The kids and I put in approximately a gazillion hours of yardwork while Jamie did at least two gazillion. But we finally seeded it and have a lawn! This is the before shot; after will will be next summer.

When you’re bored…you grow (or draw) wings.
When we moved to Midway, I thought my dream of having a cabin in the mountains was realized…until we visited the Kuch’s cabin in Oakley that is only accessible via snowmobiles in the winter. This place is sheer magic.

There were some awesome hikes with friends, including this gorgeous loop with Rachel to Lackawaxen Lake and Bloods Lake.

Fat Kitty. Still Fat. Still fabulous.

And not to be forgotten: A glorious reunion with Jamie’s family in Yellowstone. Our brother-in-law’s family owns two cabins on the Henry’s Fork, a tributary of the Snake River. For three days, we Yellowstoned (with a gazillion other people), played games, ate delicious food, kayaked, SUPed, Jackson Holed and chilled on the glorious deck. 

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Next up is the final adventure of the summer: Summitting Mount Timpanogos.

Oh Canada: Alberta Edition

OK, so the Calgary version of our summer travels is a few months overdue but better late than never, right? Go here in case you missed Oh Canada: The Lakehouse Part I. 

Generally, the kids and I spend a few weeks in Canada but now that I’m working, we had to cram it all into two weeks, including four days of drive time. The good news is that even though I did the entire drive myself, our newish Honda Pilot didn’t break down even once!

The drive to Calgary from British Columbia goes through Banff National Park and one of these days, I’d love to spend an extended amount of time exploring. Moraine Lake has been on our bucket list since the car overheated at the turn-off last year…and the road was closed because all the lots were full (welcome to Banff in the summertime). This year was our second attempt and once again, the turn-off was closed so we did a loop around the Chateau Lake Louise and as we were driving back down, the road miraculously opened!

What a difference a few years makes.

We only had a few days in Calgary so spent lots of downtime with Mom and Dad that included Mom’s happy place: PEDICURES.

Biking with Dad in Fish Creek Provincial Park. Even at 77 years old, my dad still keeps up with me on our long rides but hills are getting harder so he bought a pedal-assist bike…and has clocked 1,000 miles in just three months. Today during our 16-miler, he raced past a teenager, shouting out, “You’re pretty fast but we’re faster” and later posted that it took him longer than usual because I was holding him back. 

And a visit to Calgary wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the mud pits. The good: The glorious 70-degree temps warmed up just enough to enjoy an afternoon hike to our secret mud pits/swimming hole. The bad: Right after Bode [intentionally] face-planted in the mud, he announced he accidentally spit out his gum.

We didn’t make it to Peter’s for their famous milkeshakes but REGRUB is a new favorite. Cheesecake. S’mores. Cotton candy. Birthday cake. Doughnut toppings. We fasted all day for their milkshakes and they did not disappoint.

Our time in Calgary was waaaaay too short but I was thrilled to spend a night at my favorite place on earth: Waterton Lakes National Park. Dad joined us a for a fun day in the park and we stayed the night at my mom’s cousin Judy’s farmhouse 20 minutes away.

It has been several years since we returned and I had envisioned how it would play out. Hike Bear’s Hump for epic views. Play in Red Rock Canyon’s natural obstacle course. Maybe even canoe at Cameron Lake.

Unbeknownst to me, last year’s huge fire closed a large portion of the park, including my favorite hiking areas. Fortunately, Plan B in Waterton is just as glorious. We lunched at the Prince of Wales Hotel with some of the best views in the world (and I ran into my student writer Grace who just happened to be there for a family reunion).

Riding surrey bikes has been on my Waterton bucket list for ages but what I didn’t remember is just how hard it was…and how much we laughed at how hard it was. At one point, I jumped out to push the bike up the hill because it was such a killer workout. And we returned them 30 minutes early. Note to self: Sometimes reality isn’t as swell as what you envision.

But the stops along the way were memorable and I can’t wait for another visit to my favorite place on earth with my favorite people.

Fall Happenings in Midway

Day 4 of my knee-surgery-induced incarceration. We shipped the kids off to Grandma’s for a fall break at Hogle Zoo, Dave & Busters, and Fear Factory. Fat Kitty was my greatest supporter, refusing to leave my side and desperately mewing when I spent a half hour in the bathroom. A shower made me felt like a new woman and while I still need to rehab the knee, I’m hopeful we’ve turned the corner and am so grateful for my health. Friends have cooked dinners and Jamie has been a champ, bringing me fresh ice every couple of hours and after a particularly sleepless night, I called down to tell him I was awake and he appeared in my doorway with a warm peach muffin. SCORE!

The weather has been gorgeous this week, which makes being stuck at home a real bummer but now that I’ve weaned myself off my opioids, now is as good of time as any to get caught up on my long-neglected blog! Here are a few happenings:

Uinta Recreation

Need to rent an ATV, snowmobile, motorhome or waverunner in the Heber Valley? Uinta Recreation is the place to go! Jamie has been doing some web work for this awesome company and worked out to have payment done in trade.  On General Conference Saturday, we joined our friends the Homers and Fotheringhams for a gorgeous adventure in Wasatch Mountain State Park. Our friend runs a boat/recreation dealership so gave us a taste of the hundreds of miles of off-road trails as we climbed rocky precipices, flung mud, forged through puddles, and gawked at the last of the golden leaves under a sulky sky. Bode (our forever voice of reason) only told us to slow down twice so I’m calling that a win. It was truly one of my favoritestestest experiences since we moved here!

First Snow

“Suck it up, Buttercup.” Those were my parting words to my friend Lori when she commented the weather for last week’s hike didn’t look so swell. As we were driving up Guardsman Pass, it started raining and then it was complete white-out at the summit and our trail was covered in snow. But my gosh, how breathtaking is this?

We drove down the road a few miles just as the sun started peeking out and were greeted with sheer mountain grandeur on our hike. And then we drove to Park City where I introduced Lori to the mountain grandeur that is “crack bread.” Here’s to not sucking, Buttercup.

 Mountain Mornings

Our first snowy winter in Midway was unmatched but fall and foggy mornings = my second favorite season.

Fall Soccer

Bode wrapped another fun season of playing rec soccer–averaging three goals per game–with Jamie as coach. We went undefeated until the final two games and it’s so fun to see these kids thrive! And see that “kid” next to Jamie in the back row? He’s in seventh grade, 6’4 and weighs 230 pounds. I’m sure the football coaches are salivating.

Bode has also been keeping busy with coding, piano and catalyst math, his advanced math class that crams seventh and eighth grade math into one year. He gives seventh grade a “5 out of 10″ but is chugging along in his typical Bode way. He and Jamie are going on their father-son overnighter to San Francisco next week as a reward for reading the Book of Mormon. I’m thrilled for him. He’s a kid who demands very little and is grateful for everything…it’s nice for him to get some well-deserved recognition.

Hikes

Though the colors haven’t been nearly as spectacular as last year (thanks to that big snow year), we’ve had the chance to enjoy some beautiful hikes. Jamie took me on a date to Park City where we dined at Handle (best steak I’ve had in Utah) and spent the night at the Chateau Deer Valley. Hiking at Park City Ski Area wasn’t the best due to really bad air quality from forest fires but any day spent with my man is a win! 

On one of my Fridays off, a few friends and I drove to Brighton where we hiked three lakes in one day: Lake Mary, Lake Catherine and Dog Lake.

Though high school has had considerably less drama for Hadley and she’s doing really well with all of her classes, it’s tough to see her fumbling through it all without any clear direction or solid friend group. The one good thing about getting cut from the volleyball team is she has turned back to art and spends a lot of time painting (she is taking a painting class this semester and pottery next semester). She still enjoys photography and I just wish I could find someone who could really teach her to do it. For now, she enjoys our casual outings. After she had been sick for a few weeks, she and I snuck away to Cascade Springs for for a much-needed reprieve. She’s a lot like me—when she is outdoors she relaxes, unwinds and heals.

Final Fall Fling

The Church owns several private properties so when the opportunity arose to go to Aspen Lakes for the evening, we joined several friends for a fun night of canoeing, paddleboarding, ziplining, and obstacle coursing.

All this, just 30 minutes from our house. That is what we call a fall win!

Oh Canada: The Lakehouse 2018

The kids and I spent a glorious two weeks in Canada. The whole thing was a whirlwind: Hadley was on a 3-day Pioneer Trek just prior and had to return two weeks later for BYU volleyball camp. So, we packed up and headed to British Columbia, breaking up the 18-hour drive with an overnight stay at my sister-in-law Jane’s wonderful parents in Eastern Washington.

My brother and his wife have been renting the Mana Manor in Vernon for 15 consecutive years and the rest of us have been coming for five years. It’s not a fancy cabin and is in dire need of some overhauls but it’s convenient and is divided into four different two-bedroom units. I had asked if we could only do a 5-night rental instead of 7 and assumed it was a done deal when my brother reached out to the owner but through some miscommunication, we never heard back.

I found out the week prior that the kids and I didn’t have a place to stay. Fortunately, I ended up finding a great rate at a nearby Best Western. So, while the kids bunked with their cousins at the cabin, I made the 15-minute drive to my air-conditioned and clean hotel room to decompress each night. I’m a convert!

It was the smallest group yet. Poor Jamie was too overwhelmed with work and yardwork so couldn’t come; Ashton only came for a few days because she just had a beautiful baby boy, Raiden, and my niece Emily and her boyfriend just returned from Ireland so couldn’t take off work. My mom and dad have been unable to attend the last couple of years due to her health.

They were all missed but the smaller group didn’t deter us from having a grand ‘ol time; Pat and his wife were generous hosts as always.

We celebrated Bode’s 12th birthday with Timbits, a successful surf, smoked pork sandwiches and a strawberry cheesecake Blizzard ice cream cake from Dairy Queen. Presents included his first new bike, some golf clubs and books. How we love this sweet boy!

We had our traditional visit to Davison Orchards for killer peach, cherry and apple pies, fresh cider slushies, cut throat checkers and farm animals.

We all vastly improved in wakesurfing, Hadley in particular really clicked out there, dropped the rope and was surfing! I did my best ever, which still isn’t super great but the good news is I’m not regressing. Bode is slowly moving forward as well!

We marveled at my brother’s new toy, a wakefoil that had him surfing two feet above the water.

We had our annual dive-off. I had great hopes that family friend Todd would dethrone Pat from the title but he came up way short. I blame Pat for stuffing Todd with food just prior (an evil strategy).

The unicorn. Jade jumped on it in the lake. It popped. All that remained was its head.

Teenagers can be fun but not always. One of their redeeming qualities is they have zits the entire family loves popping.

Pat brought his stand-up paddleboard and we all had a blast paddling around the perimeter of the lake…except for when Hadley took it out, got caught in a scary wind storm and had to be rescued by a cute guy in a boat wearing a Superman shirt.

We brought our volleyball net so downtime was spent playing volleyball, some crazy-competitive badminton tournament and boulle.

Friends Tom and Kim have been through a lot this past year, including losing their beloved lakeside rental home to a terrible storm. But they’re always really generous and a part of our family when we come to visit. Todd brought his lakeside movie night to us and it’a favorite tradition!

And the perfect way to end a fantastic week at the lakehouse.

Modern-day Fablehaven

Jamie grows two pumpkins every year. We usually keep one for our driveway and last year, we gave one away to our friend Clay who was celebrating the grand reopening of his business. While the pumpkin was in front of his store, Clay was approached by someone who wanted to put it on display in a very public place: at the entrance of his ranch. That someone was actually the son of a man who sold his tech company and made millions of dollars. He is the caretaker of his father’s 100-acre private estate that is the source of a lot of local wonder.

When Clay asked if this man could have the pumpkin, we said sure but with one caveat: “ONLY if we get a tour of the property.”

We finally got that tour a few weeks ago and it was M-A-G-I-C.

The kids love the book series Fablehaven, which is centered around a preserve for magical creatures with forests, groves, swamps and marshes. The preserve is protected by covenants that are ratified by all orders of whimsical life forms who dwell there in order to create a measure of security for the mortal caretakers.

This property is a modern-day Fablehaven. Longhorns. Yaks. Goats. Piglets. Peacocks. Ponies and horses. Sheep. Miniature brahman bulls and so many more exotic animals whose names I can’t remember. There was a river that ran through the property, six man-made ponds (some with canoes and paddleboats), putting greens with silly hula girl mannequins to scare off predators, tepees, waterfalls, rabbit island in the middle of one of the ponds that had an entire island of just rabbits and don’t forget the man cave with luxury vehicles. It was U-N-R-E-A-L. 

The night prior to our tour, we watched “We Bought a Zoo” and that day, we visited a family who lives it.

Valley of the Goblins

Though we are knee-deep in our 43 tons of rock with the goal to get the backyard grass seeded by early June, we booked an overnight camping trip at Goblin Valley State Park several months ago and despite what seemed like imperfect timing, it actually could not have been more perfect.

We’re limping across the eighth grade finish line (just two weeks to go!) We had just had one of our roughest weeks with Hadley (parents who whine about how difficult parenting their honor-roll teen who can be moody and disrespectful make me scoff; we’re deep in the trenches here with real struggles). But if there’s anything that brings me hope is pulling her out of her environment and into where she thrives–the outdoors! We were only able to book a one-night stay but that turned out to the be perfect amount. We woke up early on Saturday, drove a few hours south, had a full day of adventure, camped out, and made it back in time for 1 p.m. church.

San Rafael Swell Whenever I spend time in Southern Utah, I’m bombarded with memories of my many years as a Utah-based travel writer. What wonderful adventures I had backpacking and camping with Kristy, John, Dave, Ray, Telford, Karleen, Joseph and Jed. My photojournalist friend John traveled with me more than anyone. We had many moments together but none more memorable than getting stuck in Ding and Dang canyon; another story for another day.

The desert drive is desolate (despite Hadley’s “gazelle” sighting) until the San Rafael Reef appears in the horizon.  Early settlers used the word “reef” as a comparison to oceanic reefs and the difficulties of traversing through the 2,000-square miles of arches, deep canyons and rock towers.

Our family headed to Little Wild Horse Canyon, a gorgeous slot canyon in San Rafael Swell that is part of a larger loop back through Bell Canyon.  Little Wild Horse is the perfect introductory slot canyon that allowed us a few hours of adventure. Scaling the walls. Forging through water. Climbing boulders. Snaking through tight spaces. The weather was perfect and our souls were filled with exuberance to be exploring something so epic. I loved seeing my tween and tween become like little kids again!  We had planned to also explore nearby Crack Canyon but we emerged from Little Wild Horse around 3:30 p.m. so figured we would go check into our campsite and chill a while. The campground’s backdrop was massive gothic cathedrals, which Bode, Hadley and Jamie delighted in exploring while I rested my knee. We started a campfire (Jamie and his lighter fluid scare me), grilled up burgers, roasted potatoes and had delicious watermelon.

Goblin Valley

Before dusk, we drove to the main portion of Goblin Valley State Park. The crowds of the day had petered out so we were practically all alone in the maze of twisted, stunted “goblin” hoodoos.  The park is divided into “First, Second and Third Valleys” and the best way to explore is to have no plan at all. Jamie won Dad of the year by playing hide-and-seek with the kids  in the ultimate outdoor playground. I conjured up their imaginations as we saw shapes and forms in every hoodoo: goblins, Jaba, mushrooms, Fat Kitty, clouds, spaceships and whales.  I was initially sad I didn’t take a video of Jamie scaring Hadley in tag but this progression is downright hilarious: We ventured over to the Third Valley and gazed in awe at the cathedral buttresses’ commanding presence. As we hiked back near the Observation Point, we perched on an overlook as the ebbing sun set the valley on fire.  Jamie answered Bode’s questions about great places and events in history. Back at the campsite, we roasted s’mores, read from the Book of Abraham about the stars, how we have always existed as “intelligences” before we were spirits and the eternal nature of our souls.  Then, I went on to sleep horribly all night. I love everything about camping except for restrictive sleeping bags and pads (despite Jamie’s best efforts to buy the latest and greatest) and noisy neighbors. When the sun rose the next morning, I noticed Bode cuddled up near me with HIS SLEEPING PAD ON TOP OF HIM. We all need to be like Bode. We packed up early while Bode and Hadley set out on one last adventure. They had fallen just short of summitting the buttress behind our camp. Cautious Bode gave up after a while but Hadley emerged triumphant! Which is how we all felt after a much-needed weekend of adventure, laughter and healing.

New Year’s in Zion

We have lived in Utah over a year and have not explored Southern Utah at all. We spent last New Year’s Eve in our beloved Colorado so this year, I was NOT going to be stuck here without plans (we would later get invited to two parties) but I’m glad spent our long weekend with good friends, Dave and Rebecca, in St. George who make us look like homebodies. They adventure almost daily, just returned from a trip to Kenya, are going to Hawaii next month and then to Australia and Fiji later this year. You’d think with those itineraries they would be extremely wealthy and while they do well, they’re also minimalists and have very few material possessions. It’s all about priorities, folks.

Snow Canyon State Park

When we arrived, we hiked the Hidden Pinyon Trail in Snow Canyon State Park, a wonderland of ancient lava flows and red Navajo sandstone.  This 7,400-acre scenic park’s majestic views of lava-capped ridges was our perfect introduction to the desert.

Zion National Park

When I was a Utah-based travel writer many years ago, some of my favorite adventures were in Zion National Park. Angel’s Landing. Observation Point. Backpacking the West Rim Trail. Truly, it’s like no place on earth and I was saddened to see just how overrun it has become. In the peak season, shuttle buses run to help with the congestion and lack of parking but on this busy holiday weekend in the off-season, there were no such options. Dave is the ultimate trip planner and insisted we had to wake up at 5 a.m. to get a parking spot. We whined and complained but he was correct–by 6:45 a.m, all the parking was full. It was a COLD morning so we stayed snuggled up in their van until the sun warmed the red rock cliffs. Sadly, Jamie had a rheumatism attack all night long so stayed behind to sleep.

Angel’s Landing is the most iconic hike in the park (besides the Narrows) and my kids were both dying to do it…but Dave’s youngest daughter was wary of scrambling on the vertigo-inducing precipitous cliffs with only a chain to hold onto. We instead opted to hike to Scouts Landing, which took us to the base of the Angel’s Landing and though I’m sad we couldn’t knock this one off the kids’ bucket list, we were just happy to be there. And I was particularly happy my knees withstood Walter’s Wiggles’ steep switchbacks and the descent.

 

Walter’s Wiggles

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

Following our hike, we took a lovely southeast detour to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park’s shifting sea of soft red sand.  Formed from the same iron oxides and minerals that give us spectacular red rock country, the tired kids came to life–racing, jumping and rolling down the rippling arcs of rust-colored sand.

New Year’s Eve

The LDS Church is true all the time but especially true in St. George. Because it was New Year’s Eve, we only had one hour of meetings as opposed to three + a speaker didn’t show up so we got out early. We took our family to tour Brigham Young’s Winter Home, followed by a hike. We were looking for something low-key because it was the Sabbath and stumbled upon the coolest area in St. George, the Red Cliffs Desert Preserve with slot canyons, an arch and the coolest sandstone formations that felt like we’d be dumped off on Mars.

New Year’s Eve was just as memorable. We had full-contact fondue and Rebecca had pulled together some fun Minute to Win It Games. I had gained the reputation with their daughters as “the fun one” so they fought to have me on their team, which they later regretted.

You win some, you lose some. Or in my case, you lose them all.

We watched The Rookie. Jamie and I went to bed shortly after midnight while the kids all stayed up until the movie was over. Sweet Bode would later tipdly knock on our closed door for family prayers, only to have sleepy Jamie growl “kill him.”

Because every New Year should begin with a death threat. Here’s a “killer” 2018.

Family travel: Central California’s Untouched Grandeur

I’ve been busy wrapping up an article about our trip to Central California for fall break. It truly was a breath of fresh air after what feels like a year of non-stop stress.

Not-so airy? The long drive to get there.

Las Vegas is my least favorite place on earth but the kids have never been there. It marked the halfway point so we gave into Hadley’s pleas and made a quick detour. As we were cruising along The Strip, we noticed the car was making funny noises. Now, some of you might remember the nightmare-that-was-last-summer, my Honda Pilot’s steady demise and the thousands of dollars in repairs we’re still paying off as it sits in our garage, undriveable. And if our Pilot is sitting on our garage waiting for us to pay off last summer’s bills while we scrape together enough money to get a newer one, that means it was Jamie’s car we were driving that was having problems.

Oh, the joys never end.

Fortunately, it was only the water pump that went out and was relatively easy $600 fix. Three hours later, we were back on the road, which made for a REALLY long, miserable drive that made me wonder “is this really worth it?”

Thankfully, Central California was that and so much more.

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Central California: A Wonderland of Untouched Beaches, Castles and Dunes

We leaned into our strokes, our kayaks carving across Morro Bay and onto the flanks of Morro Dunes Natural Preserve. In a flash, Hadley and Bode were gone. It took them a few minutes to resurface and I chuckled as I saw them jumping, rolling and skiing down each peaked dune. Since entering middle school, I’ve mourned that their childhood is slipping away but for this eclipse in time, they were kids again.

My family traveled to San Luis Obispo County along the coastal Highway 1 for fall break. When I told people where we were going, they queried “San Luis Obispo…where?”

Located halfway between San Francisco and Orange County, this untouched region in Central California is  known for the dramatic Hearst Castle with the Pacific to the West, 100+ wineries in the San Joaquin Valley to the east and a smattering of quaint coastal villages in between. With the recent announcement of United Airlines’ direct flights from Denver to San Luis Obispo (SLO to locals), it’s more accessible than ever.

San Luis Obispo and the Madonna Inn

From the moment my friend Jennie told me her parents honeymooned at the Madonna Inn, “the quirkiest, pinkest hotel in the world,” my bucket list was formed. This outlandish landmark hotel in San Luis Obispo looks like the Mad Hatter was set loose in Casa Bonita with 110 themed rooms, a world-famous waterfall urinal and an onslaught of hot pink everything–carpets, marble, lamps and leather booths and their fluffy Pink Champagne Cake made with Guittard pink chocolate. Not everything here is sensory overload; located on 1,000 acres of coastal hills, you’ll find a serene horse pasture, the Secret Garden bursting with flowers and a European-style pool with a 45-foot waterfall.

Our mantra was Go Big or Go Home so we blew half our travel budget to stay in the rooftop Sky Room, a two-story muted-blue family suite with textured white clouds and a carved staircase to the second level that looked down on flamboyant chandeliers. The real show-stopper was the bidet in the bathroom; potty breaks have never been so…refreshing! This 50-year-old kitschy inn shows signs of its age but guaranteed, it’s one stay you’ll never forget.

Not far away, you’ll discover a gem among the historic Spanish California missions.  Named after Saint Louis of Anjou, the bishop of Toulouse, the Mission San Luis Obispo is a must-see for history buffs.  We stopped by the famed Bubblegum Alley in the heart of downtown San Luis Obispo for bubblegum graffiti that is every germaphobe’s worst nightmare and left our own sticky mark on this collective work of art.  The city is home to Cal Poly and downtown SLO’s tree-lined streets, unique cafes and the Thursday night Farmer’s Market cater to that cool college-town vibe.

Day 1: Charming Cambria and a Castle on a Hill

I like my oceans like my mountains: wild, untouched and au naturel. San Luis Obispo’s quirky coastal villages and large stretches of the Pacific Ocean devoid of development are in stark contrast to the glitz and glam of California’s big cities. A local proudly told us, “This area is what Santa Barbara was 30 years ago and we want to keep it that way.” Even the tourists are different here and mostly consist of Californians or visitors passing through while driving the Pacific Coast Highway.

We only had an afternoon tour of the Hearst Castle scheduled so our plan was no plan of all. We drove north on California State Route 1 and soon stumbled upon Cambria, a seaside village nestled in the pines that was brimming with a brigade of 400 whimsical scarecrows for the Cambria Scarecrow Festival. And these weren’t just my genre of straw-and-farmer’s-clothing scarecrows. These were masterful works of art–Rip Van Winkle and cyclists with motorized wheels–a testament to this Victorian community that is teeming with artisans, unique shops, eateries and bed and breakfasts.

All the beaches in the 20-mile segment north of Cambria are part of Hearst San Simeon State Park with thirteen different beaches from Santa Rosa Creek on Moonstone Drive in Cambria to the southern Big Sur Coast. Many of them are hidden gems including Moonstone Beach’s brown sandy coves where you’ll find tide pools and semi-precious jasper stones of all colors. We followed the ridgeline, winding down to the beach where the wild spray elicited sheer glee. For land-locked kids, it doesn’t get much better than this. 

Hearst Castle is a National Historic Landmark perched above the clouds atop The Enchanted Hill. Built by publishing magnet William Randolph Hearst, this 165-room castle is a must-visit destination with various guided tours available. Our jaws were agape as we marveled at the opulence of his personal art collection and stunning architecture. The Refectory was reminiscent of the Great Hall of Hogwarts and its very own home theater broadcast (you guessed it) Heart’s news specials.  As we strolled the 127 acres of terraced gardens and fountains with wraparound views of the sunny Central Coast it was no surprise this is one of California’s most visited state parks.

A mere four miles north of Hearst Caste on Highway 1, the Elephant Seal Rookery is home to about 15,000 Northern Elephant Seals that migrate thousands of miles twice each year where they breed, birth, molt and rest between trips. We chuckled at the laziness and middle-school drama between the seals but after learning about the perilous conditions they endure for 8-10 months in the ocean, they’ve earned it. Teenagers? Another story.

We drove south and checked in to the newly redesigned and renovated 456 Embarcadero Inn & Suites, home for the next two nights. After the ostentatious Madonna Inn, this 33-room boutique hotel was a refreshing juxtaposition and we were delighted to learn its ties to Colorado–the owner spent a number of years in Durango. Our spacious two-bedroom family suite overlooked Morro Bay and the town’s quaint shops and eateries were all within walking distance. We fell asleep that night to the lull of the waves and the harbor seals barking at the yellow, gibbous moon.

( 456 Embarcadero Inn & Suites’ Ideal Location)

Day 2: Morro Bay’s Magic

Morro Bay is best known for Morro Rock, an ancient volcanic mound that stands sentry over Morro Bay State Park, home to lagoons, trails and a bird-rich saltwater marsh.  The next morning, we met John Flaherty of  Central Coast Outdoors for our half-day guided kayaking tour. Locally renowned for his kayaking, biking and hiking tours of San Luis Obispo, Big Sur and the Central Coast, we were in good hands.

After a thorough skills debriefing, we navigated around sea otters to a heron preserve with crows wheeling overhead.  John pointed out the crustaceans’ indentations in the mud flats. “Morro Bay is one of the few estuaries left in California,” he divulged. “Thanks to the many state parks along Central California’s coastline, these areas have been preserved.  That’s what makes it truly special here.”

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A Return to Colorado: Jet Boat Colorado Edition

I wouldn’t say I “feel the need for speed” but as we raced across the Colorado River with Jet Boat Colorado, I sure did like it. A lot. 

I had never heard of jet boating until a friend went to New Zealand last year and posted a video of her 45 mph adventure through narrow canyons as their boat barely skirted the banks of the river. I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to try it out myself until I learned Jet Boat Colorado offers Coloradoans the same adrenaline-charged adventure as our Kiwi counterparts on a slice of the Colorado River outside of De Beque, a historic community nestled near the Roan Plateau and Grand Junction.

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