Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Desert

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.

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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.

2 Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Trip

After deciding to abort my planned trip to Europe, my wife and I had a long discussion about how to approach my two weeks off. It would have been fairly easy to go back to work (I have been putting in a little time this week), but we decided to see if there were other options on the table. We ultimately settled on the idea of me taking the older two kids on a road trip for a week.

At only six days out, there wasn’t much time to plan. And awards can be expensive. But luckily I have a couple tricks up my sleeve….

Tip #1 – Understand how award space works

Last-minute awards can be a either a big ouch, or they can be a gold mine. It all depends on the loyalty program. Any revenue-based program (i.e. Southwest, JetBlue) will be a big ouch if you need to book a ticket a week out. Delta is usually awful as well. American is meh. United, on the other hand, is a stellar choice. In my experience, United tends to release a lot of award seats close-in. They are my go-to if we are looking for a last-minute award deal.

Not looking too bad for 4 people just a few days out

There is just one big hurdle: the utterly ridiculous close-in booking fee. It’s basically extortion. I can’t decide if I hate it more or less than hotel resort fees.

Booking tickets for the three of us from Arcata to Tucson would cost 37,500 miles and $241.80. Not fun. And not worth it. The space is there, but booking through United is a less-than-ideal option.

Enter Avianca Lifemiles

Avianca LifeMiles are a fantastic alternative. And we have a small pile of them right now from when I signed up for the Avianca Vuela Visa (SEE: Lucrative Offer! New Avianca Lifemiles credit cards). You can also get Lifemiles by transferring your Citi ThankYou Points to that program.

Avianca rolled out a short-haul award chart for the United State last year that divided the USA into 3 regions. All intra-region travel is only 7,500 miles each way, and this includes connections. We can head nearly anywhere in the west for either 2,500 or 5,000 miles less than what United charges! My only word of warning is that the system chokes on awards with more than one connection. And good luck if you have to call an agent (better brush up on your Spanish).

One critical piece of this puzzle is the fact that Avianca doesn’t charge extortion a close-in fee (but they do still charge an annoying $25 award booking fee). I managed to book our tickets out of our local Arcata airport (SEE: The Upstart Arcata-Eureka Airport), a rare treat for personal travel. It cost us a total of 22,500 miles plus $91.80 for the three of us.

Last minute tickets were going for $866 round-trip, so this yields a return of 5.3 cents per mile. In all honesty, we wouldn’t be taking this trip if it wasn’t for miles, so calculating redemption value is a bit silly. What really matters is that we are saving a lot compared to using United miles for the trip.

Tip #2 – Know when it is one-way rental season

A trip like this has been at the back of my mind for some time. Every spring, rental car companies will give you rock bottom rates to get their cars out of the desert, and every fall they will offer you deals to take them back. Why do they do this? Trust me, it has nothing to do with cutting you a deal on your family trip.

This annual cycle is summed up in two words: inventory management. Car rental companies need more cars in certain locations during different times of the year, so instead of paying top dollar to truck them from state to state, they’ll simply cut you a deal to move one for them.

So…in essence I am helping Alamo move a car from Tucson, where nobody wants to be in July, to Sacramento. Whether that is really a better summer destination is up for debate, but Alamo would rather have the car in California than in Arizona. For this I am paying a whopping $101 for an eight day rental.

Similar deals are available from Florida, where you can take cars at a discount back to summer markets in the Northeast. An even better tip: some systems won’t differentiate between the deals offered. On other words, even though the company says “rent in Florida and return in New York” and “rent in Arizona and return in California”, you can actually drive a car all the way across the country! I priced out a two week rental from Miami to San Francisco for $228!! I’ve paid that much for a four day work rental!!!

Stop. I’m getting all excited again. Let me finish up with our trip details…

Planning our time through the Southwest

The hotels easily fell into place for the trip. I have points with most major chains, and there were plenty to pick from at most destinations. The harder issue for me was maximizing value. Do I use the Hilton points? Or do I book with IHG? Or do I pay $55 cash for a nearby Quality Inn and save the points for a better use? I think I got the cost down to ~$100 cash for our 8 nights.

The plan is to make our way from Tucson to Sacramento day by day, averaging 3-4 hours on the road. Sightseeing stops are planned at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Saguaro National Park, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, Death Valley, and the Harrah Collection in Reno. I’ve also thrown in a couple of cheap resort hotels where the kids can spend a day in the warmth and water.

I’ve honestly never put together a trip so quickly. Thirty-six hours is probably a record. But I decided that I could salvage the vacation time, and this seemed like one of the best options. More importantly, I hope to make up for how utterly disappointed I left our two older kids after pulling the plug on our Europe trip.

Featured image courtesy of Kentaro Iemoto under CC 2.0 license.  

Stompin’ Around Saint George

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The view of Saint George and the Virgin River valley.

The Southwest U.S. is beautiful. I never gave visiting it much of a thought for many years, always envisioning brown desert, unbearable sun, dry winds, and a place completely devoid of trees. Yeah there is that Grand Canyon place, but neither of my couple trips included that, and everything I had imagined was generally confirmed.

A visit to Sedona, Arizona changed everything. I vacationed there last year with my brother-in-law, and I was completely caught off guard by how beautiful the desert now appeared. The vistas there are magnificent, and I began to see the Southwest in a completely different light. The desert can truly be a beautiful place.

Because of this new perspective, I was excited to be visiting Saint George, Utah. I have only previously passed through Utah twice: once through Salt Lake, and technically a second time while on the California Zephyr (Amtrak)….mostly sleeping during that porting. This was my first opportunity to see southern Utah.

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Located in the far southwestern corner of Utah, Saint George is literally just over the border from Arizona, and not far from the Nevada border as well. I was only staying for a couple nights, and would be working during the day, but I hoped to take at least one quick hike while in the area.

The surveys I was there to do took about a day and a half, which only left me with one evening to see some of the area. I used that brief time to take a quick walk up to the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. The route I chose provided a great view of Saint George and the Virgin River valley (first photo). I would have loved to be able to visit Zion National Park, a brief hour away, but that will have to wait until a later date.

It was a great work trip. The survey was great experience, and I got to see a new place. Win all around.