Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Exploring (page 1 of 2)

Should you Visit Colossal Cave Mountain Park?

After flying on literally the most ahead-of-schedule United flight I’ve ever set foot on (SEE: My Kids Magically Fixed United), the kids and I arrived in Tucson late at night. The next morning included getting a rental car from the airport. I’ll not let you forget the screaming deal I found on a one-way for our adventure driving back to California (SEE: 2 Tips for Planning a Last Minute Trip).

Our first stop on our first day was Colossal Cave Mountain Park. I’d found the attraction in the brief searching I’d done to find out if there was anything else in Tucson worth seeing besides the Air and Space Museum and Saguaro National Park. Since we’d have a full day to spend, I figured we’d split the time between the museum and the cave.

General Info on Colossal Cave Mountain Park

The park is actually located outside Tucson a good half hour. The easiest access is by taking I-10 east until you reach Exit 279. A left turn will send you onto Colossal Cave Road. From there, you can pretty much follow the signs.

A large arch greets you as you enter the park. The road then turns really rough. It made me wonder what sort of shape the place was in and what the quality of the tour would be like.

The parking lot was a bit confusing. We got up to the top, parked, and then I wasn’t quite sure where to go, so we walked the wrong direction. The path to the cave actually takes you down a bit, and I totally missed the sign and entrance since someone had been stopped in front of it when we’d parked.

The path takes you down to the gift shop and the entrance to the cave.

You can pay for a cave tour ahead of time by booking online. Tours are capacity-controlled, and I’m sure they sell out during busier times. There was only one tour sold out for our day at the time I booked, and I got the 11:00 a.m. tour like I’d hoped for. From what I’ve read, though, you might want to book early as the Classic Cave Tours do sell out on popular dates and at popular times.

If you want to chance things, you can buy tickets at the gift shop like we did. The only issue is that you may have to wait for a tour if one has filled up, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do in the interim. I’d recommend booking online if you know you’ll be there at a specific time.

Touring Colossal Cave

One of the things that surprised me was how warm the cave was. In Oregon, the cave is typically a chilly 40 degrees. And it is wet. Colossal Cave is exactly the opposite. Although it was a fairly scorching 90 degrees outside (hey…don’t judge this Humboldt boy), the cave is a perfect 70 degrees.

It is also a dry limestone cave, which means the formations aren’t growing anymore. This has been the state of Colossal Cave for at least a few hundred years.

Our tour guide’s name was Savannah. She was engaging and humorous, which makes for a great tour. She had great knowledge of the cave and was able to relay much of the science of limestone caves and the history of Colossal Cave in particular.

When the tour guide mentioned how many stairs we’d be either climbing or descending, my first thought was, wow, that is a ton.” But over the course of the tour I realized that it wasn’t as strenuous as I’d anticipated. You walk a good distance, and the stair sections are fairly well broken up.

The kids were fairly interested during most of the tour. There were instances where they wanted to move on, but others where they really enjoyed what we were looking at. Some of the formations had names, either due to the unique shape of the rock, or the way they would cast shadows when the guide shined her light on them. This was the “witch of the cave”.

My favorite parts were definitely the Crystal Forest and the Drapery Room. The sad part, however, is that because Colossal Cave is a dry cave, the broken stalactites are no longer growing and will not repair themselves.

colossal cave mountain park

All we can do now is limit additional damage to the cave.

There is also a story of bandits that hid gold in Colossal Cave and then died in a shootout soon after. The gold is worth tens of thousands of dollars, and to this day no one has found it. The tour guide played this story up, although she had the gall to insist that we had to share a cut of the gold with her should we find it.

Other tours and activities at Colossal Cave Mountain Park

The bulk of people take the normal cave tour. However, the park offers a few other levels of cave exploration for the more adventurous types. There is a ladder tour that costs $35 and is 90 minutes long, taking you to places the Classic Cave Tour doesn’t. You have to be at least 12 years old and physically able to climb ladders and move through narrow spaces.  For comparison, the normal tour is about 50 minutes long and is all concrete path and stairs.

Adventurous types can also take the Wild Cave Tour that last 3.5 hours and costs $85. Groups are limited to 6 people and require a minimum of 2. Young adults of 16 or 17 can take the tour, but they must be accompanied by an adult. You should be physically fit and need to bring gloves (which you can also purchase there).

Besides the other tours, there is a gift shop, a small “cafe” (it’s basically a food stand). We considered eating here but ended up opting for a Mexican restaurant about 15 minutes away.

There is also a super short nature trail. If this is your one chance to be up-close-and-personal with some saguaro, I’d take it. Otherwise, I’d pass. There is a lot more to see and enjoy in Saguaro National Park itself.

Conclusion

My takeaway is that if you have access to other, larger and more interesting caves, you might want to pass up Colossal Cave Mountain Park. The tour was interesting, but not quite as long or engaging as the tours I’ve taken at the Oregon Caves. And nothing has beaten my visit to Carlsbad Caverns in terms of size.

But…Colossal Cave Mountain Park does have some things going for it, including the perfect temperature, and the fact that it is a dry cave, which is a bit more rare. It is also within an easy drive of Tucson, so it could be a great place to spend a half a day if you are already in the area.

3 Tips for Hiking with Kids in the Desert

During our time traversing the Southwest a couple weeks ago, we embarked on four different short hikes in the desert. Well…some of them you really can’t call hikes. Even in 100-degree weather, walking 400 yards or so out onto the salt flats at Badwater Basin in Death Valley still doesn’t qualify as hiking in my book.

But…it does to some. Including my kids. They weren’t ecstatic about my ideas and made their position on hiking quite clear. It took some significant coaxing and prodding to get them out of the car a couple of times. To them it was sooooo miserable that they wanted to stay in the car in 100-degree weather (yes, really).

After all my effort, I thought I’d note down a few tips in case you consider traipsing through the desert with your own brood.

Tip #1 – Reconsider the whole idea

I mean, really. You probably shouldn’t go. Unless you enjoy dragging whiny children over sand and rock for a couple hours at a time, this isn’t for you. Whether it is their supposedly hurting feet, or the fact that they didn’t bring enough water (in other words…they poured it all on the ground…or on a sibling), they will let you know.

At every moment you have to not just urge yourself onward but your children as well. It’s like they think they are going to die from a mere 90 minutes of desert exposure. Somehow the kids that were soooo happy to finally be someone warm suddenly think they are going to melt if they have to do something besides splash in the pool in 85 degrees.

Save yourself the pain and just stay home. It’ll be better for everyone involved.

Tip #2 – Bring earplugs

If you decide to go against your better judgment and still embark on this fun family outing ridiculous escapade, earplugs might be in order. It’ll prevent you from hearing the birds chirping, but you’ll also be able to enjoy the beautiful vistas in utter tranquility. Such was life at this moment in Sedona.

Ahhhh, peaceful Sedona.

But you might not need them anyway id the kids repeat themselves enough. By about the fifth time I’d heard, “I’m dying”, I had pretty much tuned it out. So I honestly don’t know if if was the fifth time or the twenty-fifth. I do know the first four times had included a quick check of each child: Blood? No. Signs of heat stroke? Negative. Out of water? Possibly, but typically not because they’re drinking it. Sweating? Yes, but that just means the cooling system is functioning properly.

Definitely no signs of dying. . Carry on.

Tip #3 – Just laugh

This was my one consolation. I finally realized how hysterically overdramatic their reactions were. Whenever I’d hear the newest reason as to why we couldn’t continue, I’d smile and keep slowly marching along. They’d always eventually follow.

I’d also chuckle when they’d use their water for things like making mud or dumping it on their heads. When they’d invariably run out, I’d happily sip my own. They’d just have to make it the last mile without refreshment.

Death Valley was the best. Although the temperature was pushing 100°F, we could literally see the car from where we’d hiked. And it wasn’t very far away. I’d had them hydrate before we got to Badwater Basin, and we each had a water bottle for our short outing. We were prepared for our excursion.

Yet it definitely wasn’t their cup of tea. This picture will forever make me giggle.

As for my own experience, I’d happily take a walk in full sun on a flat surface in a bone dry 100°F than an ascent at 80°F with any sort of humidity.

Ok…we did have *some* fun

In case you can’t tell this is mostly tongue-in-cheek, we did actually have some fun hiking in the desert. I definitely had to keep spurring the kids on at times, but it was a good experience for us overall. They don’t have quite the same appreciation of the scenic beauty of the locations we visited, but I am hopeful someday that’ll change. They’ll have to at least get used to it. Walking and hiking are two of my favorite things to do when traveling.

Of our four partial days of hiking, the kids enjoyed the red rocks of Sedona and our short trek to the waterfall at Red Rocks National Conservation Area the most. The latter hike didn’t start out all that pleasantly (as they had no idea what was at the end of the trail), but I was smugly satisfied sitting up on a boulder watching them happily toss rocks in the pool and enjoy getting close to the fall. I wish I’d had my camera out to capture the looks of horror when I finally told them we had to head back. Apparently they like the end goal of hiking, just not the process.

Would I take the kids hiking in the desert again? Absolutely. And we I would love every minute of it.

Wandering through Old Town Sacramento

Having made numerous drives to the foothills of the Sierras to visit family, I’ve passed through Sacramento many times. However, I’ve never actually stopped and truly visited our state capital. My last pass through Sacramento involved arriving on a bus from Reno and catching a train to San Francisco after United canceled my flight. Not a very fun experience.

old town sacramento

It was definitely a lot more fun getting to see the historic section of Sacramento a few weekends ago with our older two kids. We spent some time wandering the streets during our first afternoon in the area, followed by a second visit the next day to see the California Railroad Museum and walk the area some more.

General info on Old Town Sacramento

Old town Sacramento is sandwiched between Interstate 5 and the Sacramento River. I wondered what impact the freeway would have on our experience, but it honestly wasn’t too bad. It is elevated and shielded well enough.

The main section of Old Town Sacramento is  roughly 4 blocks by 2 blocks. You can lazily walk the whole circuit in 20 minutes. There are plenty of neat old buildings and shops to browse, like in any historic downtown.

Parking is fairly easy, but you will have to pay. We spent $4.50 the first day at a metered spot in one of the lots on the south end of Old Town Sacramento. The second day I footed the full $10 at the garage that sits underneath the freeway, which is enough for as long as you’d like to visit. Parking is one of those things I hate paying for and try to avoid. But sometimes it’s not possible.

Walking the Tower Bridge

After wandering around for maybe fifteen minutes, I decided to take the kids to the bridge first before hitting some shops on our way back. The Tower Bridge across the Sacramento River is at the south end of old town, and it affords some pretty cool views of the area.

The bridge is over 80 years old and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a vertical-lift bridge, and I believe it is still operational.

From the bridge we got great views of Old town. Everything right up on the river is significantly elevated due to the flooding sometimes experienced by the Sacramento River. If you want a fascinating read, check out this article on the California Megaflood, a disaster that no one every talks about.

There is actually a hotel right in the middle of Old Town Sacramento: the Delta King, located in the historic riverboat bearing the same name (which you can see in the photo above). If you have the money to shell out, consider booking a stateroom as part of your visit. Not sure you could get any cooler than that!

After a jaunt across the bridge and back, it was time to hit up a few of the shops.

First up: candy, of course

With these two kids addicted to sweets, it makes perfect sense that the first shop we visited was Candy Heaven. I made a point of telling the kids that we were “window shopping”, if that is possible with candy.

I’m not sure if it is typical for Candy Heaven, but they offered each of us two free samples from any of the bins with a certain color tag. To the kids chagrin, these were generally the smaller of the candies. I had to remind them that the store was giving them to us. For free. After probably 15 minutes of scouring every corner of the store and deliberating, they finally settled for a couple pieces of assorted hard candy.

Later, we ended up getting a couple caramels as a snack in a different store. This was after a visit to a toy store as well, that had a neat old arcade and some trains clattering above your head in different areas.

Food Old Town Sacramento

We didn’t eat in old town our first evening, although there were a good number of places to choose from. Our second day we hit up a pizza place called Slice of Old Sacramento. As far as pizza goes, it was good. Price was fair. Pizza is one of the few things that I’ll judge a bit harshly, so I’m sure most would enjoy it. We passed up another place called Annabelle’s Pizza and Pasta based on its poor reviews.

I made good on a promise to get the kids ice cream on our second day. There is a great little place that is part of Candy Land (not Candy Heaven) on complete other side of Old Town Sacramento. the kids promptly shared their ice cream with each other. No germaphobes in this house.

There are a number of other cafés, bars, and ice cream places to choose from, including a Mexican place and a Chinese establishment. So you really have your pick.

California Railroad Museum

The California Railroad Museum is located on the northern end of Old Town Sacramento in a large brick building. Part of it is actually an old roundhouse, which is extra cool. There are several locomotives and railcars on the first floor, a good number of which you can explore.

The museum is part of the State Parks, and admission is $12 for adults and half that for kids 6 to 17. Children under 5 are free. I’ll cover our experience at the railroad museum in its own post.

Conclusion

The state capital of California is definitely worth visiting for a couple hours. Make it a solid half day or more if you visit the California Railroad Museum. You could easily combine some time in Old Town Sacramento with a morning at the Sacramento Zoo, or maybe touring the state capital, if your kids are up for an completely full day of seeing the sights.

A Day Exploring Orlando

Last weekend I flew to Orlando on a whirlwind trip to attend the Family Travel 4 Real Life conference. The event is held twice a year, and it was my first time going. More on that later.

I gave myself an extra day to get to the conference since you never know what United is going to pull when you fly out of Arcata (SEE: Our First United Horror Story). The ticket was booked using Merrill Lynch “miles” (actually flexible points worth up to 2.0 cents each toward travel), so I wasn’t beholden to United award availability.

My connection time at SFO was 35 minutes, which is asking for trouble. Amazingly, I made the flight no problem, literally walking off one plane and onto the next. If I hadn’t, I had a back up plan in place.

Waking up in Florida

I arrived late and got to my hotel after 10:00 p.m., but didn’t get to sleep until after midnight (still on California time). I didn’t set my alarm, so I slept in until 8:37, which is ridiculous. Until you realize that is only 6:37 back home.

It was late enough that I missed breakfast, however, at the Staybridge Suites. I guess I could have headed downstairs un-showered, but I wasn’t going to do that to everyone. An hour later I checked out and hit up Starbucks, and then figured out what I wanted to do for the day.

Looking at my options

Orlando is home to a TON of stuff to do. They have Disney World, of course, as well as Universal Studios, water parks, and other attractions. Without my wife (or future kids), though, I saw no point in heading to Disney for the day. It would be pretty costly, and I doubt I could make the day worth it since I had to be back at 5:00. Plus, I am finding more and more that I dislike crowds, and Disney parks are the epitome of crowds.

Another option was the Kennedy Space Center. But at $50, I didn’t really want to spring for it, even though I was extremely interested. It would be pushing noon by the time I got there, and I wanted to be checking into my hotel around 4:30 in time to meet up with the group  and head to dinner.

Settling on a cheap easygoing day

So, I figured I would instead split the day between the beach and a quick visit to downtown. I was already paying for a rental car, and this seemed like a fine way to both enjoy Florida and save money. Unfortunately the car ended up costing me much more than I anticipated (SEE: The ONE rental car mistake I often make).

The beach at Cape Canaveral was the closest, at about a 45 minute drive. The weather was glorious. A cold front had passed through during the night, and the temperature had dropped an easy 15 degrees since the time I landed the night before. I’m not sure how long it rained, but I slept through all of it.

My time at the beach consisted mainly of walking through the surf, taking pictures, and trying to relax and let my mind rest. I’d had a long chunk of work sandwiched between two trips, which meant I worked over the weekend.

The Atlantic Ocean in Florida is *so* nice compared to the ocean at home. The water is actually pleasant instead off frigid. This may start changing my mind when it comes to destinations.

Back into the “city”

Lunch was Cold Stone (yes, lunch), and then I headed back toward the city. Orlando has a good amount of sprawl, and it took longer to get to downtown than I anticipated.

Orlando isn’t really a “city” per se. I mean…it is, but it is nothing like New York, Los Angeles, Denver or even Calgary or Montreal. It has a totally different feel to it. I’m not sure what I can compare it to from my previous experiences.

I parked in a garage and took a walk to Lake Eola. There wasn’t much in particular I wanted to do, but I try to find parks in a new city as the first place to explore, as long as they are close to the urban area.

My remaining time consisted of a leisurely walk around the lake. I snapped some photos of both the city and the huge geese at the lake.

Off to the pre-conference dinner

I headed back to the other airport hotel (a Club Carlson hotel booked on points) directly across the street from the Hyatt Place where the conference was located. I met up with some of the other attendees and we headed out to dinner at a barbecue place.

Dinner was a good distance away in Winter Park, but we’d been told the barbecue place was good. Turned out it was Cinco de Mayo, so we ended up getting some fusion cuisine. A brisket taco and conversation with fellow travel hackers was just the beginning of a great experience.

Sydney, Australia in 13 photos

Two days of my little trip down under were spent enjoying Sydney. As Australia’s largest city (20% of the Aussie population lives in Sydney or its suburbs), there is a lot to see. I barely scratched the surface. Here are my favorite photos:

Circular Quay

Opera House from Royal Botanic Garden

Eastern Sydney Harbour from the Sydney Tower Eye

Sydney Harbour Bridge

St. Mary’s Cathedral

Manly Beach

Sydney CBD from the Opera House steps

Entry to the NSW State Library

The iconic Sydney Opera House

Royal Botanic Garden

Western Sydney Harbour from the Sydney Tower Eye

Coastal cliffs east of Watson’s Bay

Flying in to Sydney Kingsford Smith airport

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