Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Sightseeing

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.

Feeding the Giraffe at the Sacramento Zoo!

I have a funny relationship with zoos. Growing up in Humboldt County, we visited the zoo in Eureka on occasion. The zoo is tiny, only a few acres in size. The biggest highlights were the river otters and famous Bill the Chimpanzee. At the time the zoo was free, as it had been since its inception. Now the Bit of ridiculous trivia: the Sequoia Park Zoo is the oldest zoo in California.

Based on this experience, I never really thought much of zoos. It wasn’t until my third or fourth trip to San Diego that I was finally convinced to go see the world-famous San Diego Zoo. The experience blew my socks off. I loved it so much that we went back the next time we were in San Diego. Kels’ grandma has a membership that lets her guest us in for free, and we love visiting the zoo with her.

Except now things have tipped the other direction. Every other zoo gets judged against San Diego. But the kids don’t have this same perspective, so this was an opportunity to enjoy a bigger zoo than our little one in Eureka.

General info on the Sacramento Zoo

The Sacramento Zoo is located south of downtown just off of Interstate 5. It is in the same park area as two other kids attractions: Fairytale Town and Funderland Park. You can get combo tickets for Fairytale Town and the Zoo if you desire.

The cost of the zoo isn’t all that high. Adults (13+) are $14.95 and kids (2-11) are $9.95. Senior (65+) tickets are $13.95. For the three of us I paid just under $35. If it had been our whole family of five, we would have had to shell out about $60. Not truly cheap, but neither is it an especially expensive family outing. For comparison, we paid an astounding $180 for admission and lunch at La Paz Waterfall Gardens in Costa Rica.

The Sacramento Zoo is not a huge zoo. Budgeting half a day will give you enough time to see everything. Summer hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Hours during our winter visit (Nov-Jan) are 10:00 a.m. through 4:00 p.m.

Heading left from the main entrance, we first made our way past the lemurs and primates. The kids enjoyed the orangutans and chimps, as well as the gibbons, which were even noisier than those at our little local zoo.

Further toward the back left corner of the zoo are the zebras and giraffes. There is a nice viewing deck from which you can watch the giraffes. This is also where you are able to feed them at certain times of the day.

Circling back around, we headed down what is pretty much the “main street” of the zoo, which features the big cats. As is typical for felines, they were all rather lazy that day and hard to spot.

Near the back of the zoo are most of the Australian species they feature, including kangaroos, wallabies, emus and some birds from down under. There are also red pandas in the same area. Our tiny Eureka zoo is fortunate enough to feature these as well, and they are one of the highlights there.

After spending 15 minutes at the playground, our final stop was the reptile house.

Things to do beyond seeing the animals

There are a few things you can do at the Sacramento Zoo that cost a bit extra. One is riding the Conservation Carousel, which my kids were super excited to do. They had never ridden one. Considering that the carousel features animals far cooler than the typical horses, I figured we could give it a spin for $3.

You can also ride a tiny Zoo Train with a guide that runs along the feline enclosures. This costs $4 per person, and I opted not to spring for it. The last two are the Serengeti Cyclone (a wind chamber) and the Kilimanjaro Climb (climbing wall) which cost $2 and $3, resepctively.

Our Giraffe Encounter experience

The carousel and zoo train are the sorts of things you can do other places. But feeding a giraffe is not something you can repeat as easily. I’m sure there are other zoos that offer this encounter, but this is the first one at which I’ve seen it.

The Giraffe Feeding experience consists of you handing a couple pieces of lettuce to the large male giraffe at the zoo. His long, purple tongue startled the kids.

The encounter costs $5, which may seem a bit steep for the amount of time it takes the giraffe to snake his tongue around your two leafy offerings. But it was a great moment for the kids!

Calling it a day

We decided to cut out around 12:45. We’d seen most of what the Sacramento zoo offered, and the kids were getting hungry. But first someone wanted to be the parent kangaroo.

We also found some interesting reading material as we exited through the gift shop. Considering my mother-in-law gave us a book titled “Where’s the Poop?”, I almost bought it just for her.

Conclusion

While I have probably been spoiled forever after having visited the San Diego Zoo twice, the Sacramento Zoo is a great option that has good variety of animals and is a bit closer to home. Plus, it doesn’t break the bank. It is a nice balance of size, animal variety, and cost.

Visiting the California Railroad Museum

During a long weekend in Sacramento with my older two kids, we visited the California Railroad Museum. It is located on the north end of Old Town Sacramento in a brick building (part of which is actually an old roundhouse, which is super cool).

Admission to the California Railroad Museum

The California Railroad Museum is managed by the State Park system. Adult admission is $12, while kids between 6 and 17 ring up at $6. Kids 5 and under are free.

The museum didn’t feel busy when we arrived, but there was a line of several people.

In the meantime, we decided to examine the small steam engine that greeted us.

The kids were excited. I don’t believe either have ever traveled by train, and they were very interested in seeing what trains were all about. After paying the admission, we decided we’d explore the place floor by floor.

First Floor

All the coolest stuff is on the first floor. Ok, that may have already spoiled floors two and three. But it’s true. You can’t really stick full size locomotives or railcars on the upper floors without some more serious engineering, so it follows that all of those at ground level. Which makes the first floor the coolest.

The first section focuses on the history of the railroad in California. Specifically, it highlights the Transcontinental Railroad. As a kid, this was a section of history I thoroughly enjoyed, and the fascination with the race to span a continent has not faded. I started to read every part of the exhibit.

California railroad museum

The kids quickly grew bored of this and ran ahead while I was engrossed in the details of the Central Pacific Railroad, the company racing eastward from California. If you’re not familiar with this section of American history, the Federal government offered financed the construction of the railroad by offering $16,000 per mile of track. The Central Pacific Railroad was the company constructing track eastward from California, eventually meeting the Union Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah.

The kids eventually arrived to drag me further into the museum. I seriously could have spent most of an hour in the first rooms.

The railroad revolutionized the economy in California by linking the Golden State with the rest of the country. The next area focuses on the development and impact of the railroad in our own state. One section in particular highlights Sacramento, including it’s role in the Pullman strike.

california railroad museum

Further along there are a variety of locomotives and railcars, some historic, others new.

You are able to walk inside several. One of the kids’ favorites was the bullet train.

I also enjoyed the mail car. There were park staff inside who explained how the sorters managed the mail as the train clicked along the track, picking up new bags and delivering sorted ones.

Dining and Pullman coaches

The most interesting cars at the California Railroad Museum were the Pullman sleeper car and the dining car. I’d read about Pullman cars and knew that they were the standard for sleeper cars in their time, but it was way cooler to actually experience one!

The general layout resembles Amtrak’s modern Roomettes. I may be dreaming, but the beds in the Pullman look both wider and more comfy. You lose the privacy of the modern version, though, as you only have curtains to block out your car companions.

Connected to the Pullman sleeper is an exquisite dining car from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe named “Cochiti.” It has quite the kitchen! No, the cook is not real.

Displayed in the car are a large number of china sets from various trains. Unlike air travel where every pound counts, train china was designed to be beefy so it wouldn’t slide off the table as the train swayed.

There was also a menu displayed. If only prices were still this reasonable. Caviar for $1.75, anyone?

We spent a good amount of time on the first floor, but eventually it was time to check out the other sections of the California Railroad Museum.

Second Floor

The second floor of the museum contains some exhibits on high-speed rail, the museum theater, and…the simulator. This was a big hit with the kids. Both of them were up for waiting in line to drive a simulated Japanese bullet train. This might not sound as thrilling as an airplane simulator, but it was still fun for them.

The goal of the simulator is to take the train from one station to the next. You get to release the brakes and pull out of the station, carefully managing the throttle based on what section of track you’re on.

Later, the simulator skips to full speed, which is approaching 200 mph!

Finally, you get to stop the train at the next station. The goal is to park it as perfectly as possible and at the end it’ll tell you how how far off you were.

I as so engrossed watching my kids that I completely forgot to take pictures. Sorry.

Third Floor

The third floor of the California Railroad Museum is geared toward both kids and collectors. There are a large number of model trains displayed in cases, including many of the pieces that you’d use to set up a really nice diorama.

Maybe alluding to the Empire Builder Amtrak service?

There are also several full dioramas featuring moving trains at various scales. We enjoyed watching these.

The last section is the children’s play area. You also get a good view of the first floor laid out below you.

At the very end we stopped for a bit and played with the toy trains. There were a bunch of other kids there and it was sorta wild, so my two ended up wanting to head out pretty quickly.

Conclusion

Our visit to the California Railroad Museum made for a great half day excursion. I enjoyed reading the history of the railroad in California, seeing a variety of rail cars, and watching my kids enjoy themselves. I highly recommend the California Railroad Museum as a must-see if you are ever in the Sacramento area!

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.