Grand Canyon part 1: The adventures of Lukas

Meet Lukas. Lukas joined our family on Emelie’s first birthday and has more or less been a part of everything we’ve done since then. Although for over 2 years, Lukas didn’t have a name. Whenever anyone asked Emelie what her baby’s name was, she looked at them like they were crazy and said, “It’s a baby” or some variation of that. Lukas got her name (yes, her. Don’t let the name fool you. She is most emphatically a girl.) after our visit to San Fransisco and the Bay area. We stayed with Staffan’s cousin and his family, and their youngest son is named Lukas.

Though I don’t believe I’ve mentioned Lukas in our blog at all before, Lukas participated in just about everything we did. But it wasn’t until the Grand Canyon that Lukas had herself some real, and at times independent, adventures. So it was time for her to be featured in a post.

Grand Canyon National Park is a large park, and most of the roads are closed to private vehicles (something I think a lot of other parks could benefit from emulating). Visitors get around by using the shuttle system, which we found to be effective, efficient, and depending on your driver, even entertaining. The only part that was a little tricky was that we had to take Peter out of whatever stroller/backpack he was riding in and hold him in our laps. I’m not sure why, but rules are rules. It just made getting on and off with both kids and our stuff a less than streamlined experience. And as we shuttled from the campground to the head of the trail we planned to hike, one of us got left behind in the shuffle. “Where’s Lukas?” someone asked, beginning the conversation familiar to parents everywhere. “I thought you had her.” “No, I had my hands full with…” “Is she in the…” Double-checking everywhere when we all knew exactly where she was.

So we sat at the bus stop where we’d gotten off, one of us a bit teary eyed, and waited for about 30 minutes for that particular shuttle bus to loop around and come back. Thankfully Lukas was none the worse for the wear, and after a happy reunion and a few jokes from the funny bus driver, we were back on track.

Lukas got to see a lot that day. She seemed to really enjoy the Grand Canyon, and even posed for a picture along the way.

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And since Lukas really didn’t want to ride in the backpack with Peter, and Lukas’ mommy was a bit tired and grumpy that day, we found ourselves asking the “Where’s Lukas?” question a lot. She was left at several scenic overlooks, picnic stops, restroom facilities, and even got a little too close to the edge of a cliff once or twice. All in addition to her solo bus tour. It was a quite a day for little Lukas. And the poor thing had to do it all naked except for that bandaid on her arm. Life is tough when your mommy is only 3.

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Kingman – Blake Ranch

Our next destination was the Grand Canyon. But the drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon was a little longer than our typical day’s drive (Google maps predicted 4 hrs and 40 min). Adding in our stop at the Hoover Dam, we decided to stop for a night in between and chose the Blake Ranch RV Park in Kingman, AZ.

Their rates were really reasonable, even after they charged us extra for the kids. It’s not unusual for a campground to say that their nightly rate only includes two people. What is unusual, though, is to charge for extra people as young as our kids are.

We didn’t see or do anything in Kingman except our laundry. So this short post is basically just a campground review.

Campground Review – Blake Ranch RV Park

Price: $22/night, + $2 each for the kids. $26 total
Location: Convenient between Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. But there doesn’t seem to be too much to do in the area. Most of their guests are staying the night on their way to someplace else, rather than coming there as a destination.
Facilities: Nothing special, but adequate. They maintain an “adult park atmosphere” so there’s no playground, pool, or other family-friendly facilities. But the bathrooms and the showers are fine. Their laundry facility is a public laundromat, so the hours were a bit more restricted than we were used to, and it wasn’t only camping guests using the facility, but everything worked fine and the prices were reasonable.
Site-description: Gravel, gravel, gravel. A few small trees for shade and aesthetic value.
Neighborhood: Predominantly retired RVers.
Website: http://www.blakeranchrv.com/ 
Comments
: Electric service is only 30/50 amp and there are no ordinary outlets in the box. To use our smaller 20amp plug we needed to get an adapter. This had happened once before but then we had borrowed one. In this case we bought one. Also, the website boasts that the park is “quietly removed from nearby truck stop and restaurants”. I guess this statement is vague enough that it could technically be considered a truthful statement. The truck stop was very close but the noise wasn’t a problem.

IMG_2624We forgot to take pictures while the camper was still popped, but you can still get a feel for the site.

Hoover Dam

Heading east from Las Vegas, our first stop was the Hoover Dam. An impressive feat of engineering, to be sure. But to be honest, we were disappointed by the Hoover Dam and in the end we didn’t stay long.

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It was difficult to find information about visiting the Hoover Dam online ahead of time, and even that which we did find wasn’t completely accurate when we got there. We walked across and looked around, but it was extremely windy that day and being outside wasn’t fun or easy for any of us. It was the kind of windy day when you can’t hear what the person next to you is saying.

So we headed for the visitor center. Except the visitor center isn’t free. It costs $8 per person just to go into the visitor center. Then there’s another set of fees if you want to take a tour of the power plant, leading up to the $30 fee per person to tour the dam itself. We weren’t prepared for it to be so expensive. Children under 8 are not permitted on the Dam Tour, so that was eliminated right away, but in the end none of it seemed worth the money. We’ve been to a lot of visitor centers as we’ve crossed the country. Most of them are helpful, but none have been worth $24 (the website says 3 and under are free, but the sign on site says under 3 are free. An important distinction when you have a 3 year old). So we walked around a bit more on top of the dam, rode an elevator to the top of a parking garage and got a better view (at least the elevator was free!), ate our packed lunches on a bench, explored the gift shop for a few minutes, and then piled back in the car to continue east.

Has anyone out there taken the tour? Or paid for the visitor center? Is it worth it? What did we miss?

IMG_2601Masses of concrete, desert landscape. 

IMG_2604New bridge in the background, to divert traffic from driving over the dam. The road that crosses the dam is now closed on the one side – you have to cross the river on this bridge from either direction to get down to the dam itself.

IMG_2605There are two of these, on either side of the state border. I was looking forward to them showing different times so that we could stand with one foot in each time zone. They didn’t and I was disappointed.That was when I learned that Arizona doesn’t switch to daylight savings time. In the summer, Arizona and Nevada are in the same time zone.

IMG_2619But at least we got to stand with our feet in two different states.

IMG_2620The best family photo we could muster with so much wind in our faces.

Viva Las Vegas

A little known fact about Las Vegas: there is a campground on “the Strip”. There’s a wall around most of it for security and sound-dampening, so if you’re not looking for it, you probably wouldn’t see it. But nevertheless, there is a large parking lot behind Circus Circus, and it’s run by KOA.

Really there’s very little about camping on the Strip that would usually be described as camping, outside of the fact that we lived in our camper. There is no grass, dirt, trees, or anything else that can be described as natural. When we tell people that we camped on the Vegas Strip, most of them laugh and seem slightly confused.

IMG_2597Our “campsite” with Circus Circus in the background
IMG_2599Pop-up campers were not so common here. Most of our neighbors were in RVs. 

But camp we did, for two nights. I had read somewhere that Vegas had been trying to redo its image into more of a family destination, and that there was therefore lots of family-friendly stuff to do. We had lists. They were outdated. Apparently the “family friendly” image didn’t work out so well, so Vegas is back to selling itself as an adult playground. I suppose if you’re good at something, it’s best to stick to that.

Not that there weren’t families there, and not that we didn’t find fun things that were family-friendly. We walked the Strip during the day (when the casinos don’t have strippers dancing in cages that are visible from the sidewalk), down to the Bellagio and saw the fountain show and their indoor gardens. Classy. If I were ever forced to stay in a hotel in Vegas, I’d chose the Bellagio (though I doubt I could afford it).IMG_2575

The fountain shows are impressive!

IMG_2576Emelie loved it except she didn’t want to stand too close because she didn’t like the sounds it made as it shot the water up into the air. If you look closely, she’s wearing her “ballerina skirt” over her sundress. A girl on the Strip has to dress up!

IMG_2591Indoor gardens with live classical music. Classy.

We drove a bit off the Strip to the Silverton Hotel and Casino to see their mermaid show. This was a hit with the girl-child, that’s for sure.

IMG_2551Even mermaids have to decorate for Halloween!
IMG_2560There were breathing stations scattered throughout the aquarium so the poor girl could breathe every now and then. Here she caught one of the fish in her hands and is showing it to the kids… and tickling it? IMG_2566Blowing kisses to Emelie. We tried to get a picture of Emelie and the mermaid that has Emelie’s face in it. The mermaid even posed for us. Emelie would not take her eyes off the mermaid to turn and look at the camera.IMG_2567 IMG_2571That face says it all. The poor thing cried when the mermaid went away!

The M&M store had a free 3-D movie starring Red and Yellow, which turned out to have a bit of a Halloween feel to it and the sound effects in those 10 minutes gave poor Emelie nightmares for a few days. Oops.

IMG_3158She loved the glasses. And she was so funny trying to catch the things coming at her when the movie first started (before the scary sounds came).

But just experiencing Vegas during the day seemed to us to be missing 90% of what Vegas is. So in the two nights we were there, we each got a chance to go out and explore after dark, while the other stayed at “home” with the kids. I was more than a little bit nervous about going out on a Friday night by myself. A woman alone in the dark in Sin City? But the alternative was to miss it. So out I went. The first thing I realized was that it is never dark in Las Vegas. The light changes from natural to artificial, but it isn’t dark. The other thing is that no one looks twice at someone walking around in a t-shirt, shorts and sneakers. Not when all the other women walk around dressed like they’re going to the prom, drinking neon beverages out of enormous Eiffel Tower cups that make them unable to walk in their stilettos. I walked through a few casinos, and even gambled a few dollars here and there, mostly to have an excuse to sit down when I got tired of walking.

IMG_3156The Strip at night. It was so crowded it was hard to walk or even move sometimes. 

I felt completely out of place, and probably looked it too. Being there just made me sad, especially to realize how quickly money disappears into those machines and at those tables. And yet people sit there for hours. And the casinos are full. All of them. And there are plenty of them. All around me were people throwing their hard-earned money away, not to mention their dignity and self-respect. No, I am simply not comfortable in a place whose economy is based on gambling, sex and alcohol. And I’m ok with that.

On Sunday morning we went to church at Central Christian Church, a large church with a focus on ministry to people who are lost in that mess somewhere. It wasn’t my favorite church we visited, but I have enormous respect for their ministry to the people are around them who are struggling and hurting. We were much happier to put our money in their offering plate than into a draw poker machine.

There are few places that we visited along our trip where we felt finished when we left. So many times, as we got in the car to leave, we said, “When we come back here someday…”. But Las Vegas is one of the places that we “finished”. We saw what we wanted to see, we satisfied our curiosity, we had the experience.

Campground Review: Las Vegas KOA

Price: $97 for 2 nights. Not cheap. But cheaper than any of the hotels around us for sure.
Location: Right on the Strip, for better and for worse. Convenient to walk, although it’s a bit far to walk to the north end of the Strip. And not exactly quiet at night, as you can imagine.
Facilities: All the standard KOA facilities. A nice pool/hot tub area which we enjoyed. A good playground. Bathrooms were fine. They had laundry, though we didn’t use it, and good wifi connections.
Site-description: Paved, paved, paved. It’s literally a parking lot with large enough spaces for an RV, and water spigots/electrical outlets between sites.
Neighborhood: Diverse doesn’t begin to cover it.
Websitehttp://koa.com/campgrounds/las-vegas/
Comments: If you adjust your expectations to a “campground” on the Vegas Strip, you won’t be disappointed. This isn’t a visit to a national park and it doesn’t really feel like “camping” but it’s convenient. Besides, it’s all a part of the experience!

Zzyzx Rd

IMG_3155 croppedWhen was the last time you saw a 5-letter word using only the last 3 letters of the alphabet? No? Me neither.

It’s in the middle of the Mojave Desert in California, but the car ahead of us exited so apparently people go there.

Imagine my surprise when I asked Mr. Google about this word and it turns out it has its own Wikipedia page. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zzyzx,_California if you’re interested) And it seems I’m not the only one to take this same picture. Apparently it’s some kind of landmark on the way to Vegas. I didn’t know. I just thought it was the strangest road name I’d ever seen.

Californians may laugh at my ignorance, but now I know. And so do you.

Hits and Misses in the California High Desert

(Fear not, loyal reader… after a brief hiatus when celebrating Christmas and the New Year with our families took priority over blogging, we’re back. We WILL continue sharing our trip and we’ll hopefully finish before memories start to fade. Thanks for sticking with us and for your patience!)

Our last night spent in California was a stop at the KOA in Barstow, in the high desert enroute to Nevada. The scenery was beautiful and despite the desert climate, the campground has successfully kept shade trees alive in each of the campsites. Much to Emelie’s delight, the pool was still open, though even she was quick to admit that the water was a bit cold for swimming. To her credit, she stayed in a lot longer than the rest of us wanted to.

IMG_2493That’s right ladies! He cooks, too!

IMG_2492The trees add both shade and a bit of privacy. Functional and pretty!

IMG_2491Beautiful desert sunset
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The campground was a short distance from the Calico Ghost Town. After having driven past several similar “ghost towns” and judging them to be tourist traps and not worth the price of admission, we decided to give this one a chance. We were leaving California, after all, and it seemed reasonable to spend a little time exploring the remains of one of the mining towns that brought civilization to this fair state.

So we braced ourselves for a tourist trap and were prepared to pay the price of admission that was listed in the brochure. We headed there right at opening time in the morning, since we planned to drive from there to Las Vegas later in the day. What we’d failed to anticipate was that we were visiting a ghost town in mid-October… and Halloween is apparently their favorite holiday. Go figure.

We were there on a Friday morning just before their big Halloween Festival weekend. Since the festival officially began on Friday, the admission prices were increased. With a deep sigh, we paid the price of admission and headed in. Most of the place and most of the employees were fully occupied with festival preparations. Ordinary buildings and exhibits were transformed into haunted houses. Emelie still gets scared and refuses to watch most animated movies. There was no way we were taking her into a haunted house. And besides, what we wanted to see were the preserved mines and buildings, and they weren’t going to be visible anyway. The only places that really were open were the stores, of course, selling all manner of overpriced useless items. There was a little train that you could ride, which of course cost extra, but we had to do something while we were there and the kids loved it.

IMG_2495Largest silver mining camp in California, 1881-1896

IMG_2507We climbed up the hill and got this overview of the town

IMG_2499One of the few “exhibits” that was open, the old fire hall with this old fire truckIMG_2501They were also prepared for a bucket line in case of fire. I guess when you’re mining in the desert you can’t be too prepared.

IMG_2503Because no tourist trap is complete without things to put your face in to take pictures. I think my favorite thing about this picture is that her knees are sticking out where the hand holes are.

IMG_2517Apparently decorating for the festival is primarily comprised of covering everything in a weird net-thing and tying skeletons to every post. Are old looking nets scary? Or do they throw them on the guests later after dark? That would be scary.

IMG_2519 Here I come to save the day! Trains are always fun!

IMG_2520An unusual kind of train car. But there we are!

All of this to say that we were a bit disappointed with our visit to Calico Ghost Town. It may be a better family experience at other times of the year, and even the Halloween Festival may be more fun when it’s in full swing. (They kept saying that it would be crowded and lots of fun later if we would stay longer.) But there is fun to be had just about anywhere when you’re on an adventure with the people you love.

Campground Review: Barstow/Calico KOA

Price: $32/night
Location: Beautiful location, but not close to anything except Calico Ghost Town. A reasonable distance to break up the drive from San Diego to Las Vegas.
Facilities: Great pool (though cold in October) and playground facilities, bathrooms adequate, but over air conditioned and freezing cold inside.
Site-description: Desert sand and gravel, shaded with trees
Neighborhood: Predominantly the retired RVer crowd, but a few other families when we were there
Website: http://koa.com/campgrounds/barstow/ 
Comments: There aren’t many options for camping in this area. Calico Ghost Town also has a campground, but it costs more than the KOA and doesn’t look nearly as nice… no trees, for example. If you find yourself at the KOA watch out of the cacti. There was a decorative cactus garden near the bathroom, and despite our warnings, Emelie’s curiosity got the better of her. That evening was spent with tweezers, a headlamp and a very unhappy girl. She kept complaining about how much it hurt, even after we cleaned her up, so Staffan decided to go touch the same cactus to see if she was exaggerating. He decided she wasn’t.