To complete our Eastern Sierra road trip, I felt it was only natural that we should call upon one of my favorite parks, which we would be “practically passing right by” on our way home, if we just took the Sonora Pass (Hwy 108) and drove a little way north. Famous last words. I remember hearing once that if you could take all the blood vessels and veins in the human body and lay them end-to-end, they could wrap around the earth nearly three times. I’m not sure if that’s true, but as we wound and wound around the hairpin curves of the highway I got the feeling you could pull it off with Highway 108.
Nevertheless, we were all quite pleased to see our “Big Trees” the following day. As you can see, they don’t disappoint. The largest tree in the park is the Aggasiz Tree in the South grove, which is 25 feet in diameter (yes, in diameter) at 6 feet above the ground. But anyone making their first trip to Big Trees, especially with children, should head directly to the North Grove, which is where the story of Big Trees begins.
In 1852, a man was tracking a wounded bear through the area when he suddenly came across what is now called the “Discovery Tree,” a slight misnomer considering what you’ll discover there now. Being 1852 and in the middle of the wilderness, there was really only one thing to do with such a discovery. So five men spent 22 days cutting down the giant so that sections of bark and a portion of its trunk could be sent as far as New York City (by way of Cape Horn) to be put on display. The exhibit was considered a flop, and the lesson to be learned from it was that those who were truly interested wanted to come to Calaveras to see the real trees for themselves, as they still do today.
It’s hard not to get goose bumps as you stand atop the massive stump that remains from the Discovery Tree, which marks the beginning of the North Grove trail. After climbing the stairs up to the top, you’ll see that a handful of minivans could be parked across the surface (thankfully they’re not). Don’t be surprised if you see a troop of Boy Scouts atop the stump as you arrive—but don’t be shy, there will still be room for your family to join them up there.
The North Grove trail is a level, 1.5-mile walk between giant sequoias and massive coast redwoods. Though the distance sounds short and the trail is actually wheelchair accessible, don’t be surprised (as we were) if it takes you 2 hours to complete the loop with small kids. If you’re exploring the loop with a baby or toddler, you might want to bring your stroller along, especially if you have the all-terrain or jogging variety, so that you can load up with plenty of water and snacks for everyone and avoid carrying your tired-out toddler the last half of the loop.
Before you start down the trail, be sure to use the restrooms at the parking lot since there won’t be any along the trail, and pick up your 50 cent guide to the trees that may be in a box at the trailhead and is also available at the Visitor Center. There are expensive bottles of water and sodas in a machine near the Visitor Center, but that’s it for food or drink. So bring your picnic, beverages of choice, and plenty of drinking water.
Highlights of the North Grove include the Empire State Tree, which is the largest in the North Grove with an 18-foot diameter; the Three Graces; and the “tunnel tree” that lies alongside the trail and even adults can walk through the interior of with stairs steps up from one end—your kids may need to spend a bit of time at this one. Don’t forget your camera.
After your walk through the North Grove, enjoy your picnic in the area adjacent to the parking lot, or venture farther into the park and check out the picnicking areas along the river. If you come in late spring or early summer, you may catch the Pacific dogwoods in bloom, which flourish here beneath the giants. There are several varieties of California wildflowers as well. In fall, you may be dazzled by the color of the changing leaves, usually best in late October. If you like cross-country skiing, you might check out the North Grove in winter.
If you’re interested in camping in Big Trees Calaveras State Park, watch for my next post.
For more information:
After we rambled on through Yosemite, catching waterfalls and wildflowers in their prime, we dipped down to Mammoth Lakes where we had the great pleasure of building a snowman on summer vacation (don’t miss my Mammoth tips & review on TravelSavvyMom.com—with video!). Then it was time to head north on our Eastern Sierra family road trip adventure.
As we drove along the almost lunar landscape of Mono Lake, we were faced with a tough decision: To Bodie, or not to Bodie? Bodie State Historic Park is one of the United States’ biggest and best-preserved ghost towns. While it sounds like a natural road stop for any family traveling along Highway 395 you should be forewarned, as we were, that “The Road to Bodie” is a 13-mile stretch that may take a few years off your tires. And when you get there, don’t expect to find flush toilets and shave ice. Or shade. As you can see, we decided to go for it.
The Road to Bodie (a.k.a. CA 270) quickly transformed to a glorified asphalt that somehow reminded me of hiking Hawaii’s Big Island. After 10 miles, it became an official washboard, dirt-rock affair which may have added another mile to the final stretch as we dodged and veered the jagged monoliths and marveled that horse-drawn carriages had ever survived passage here. I braced the baby’s head between my hands as he jiggled in his infant car seat. But it was too late, and too narrow, to turn back.
At last Bodie came into view. Our eyes popped, seeing buildings stretch for several city blocks, and dirt roads wending on up to the old mill on the hill. I could see now that the $2 self-guided tour book I’d purchased at the entrance was going to be more useful than I’d expected (proceeds support the Friends of Bodie). We found space in the dirt parking lot and quickly determined the stroller (with its thankfully rugged pneumatic wheels) would be the best option for keeping Baby Theo shaded and sheltered from the wind.
With sunhats, water, and snacks, we set out to explore the streets of Bodie. At around 8,500 ft. elevation with nary a shade tree in sight, hit by the full force of the Eastern Sierra winds at high noon, I was suddenly reminded of an expression I’d often read in history books: “Died of exposure.” How this town, which began with a handful of miners in 1859, somehow supported a population of 10,000 just 20 years later is a true marvel.
It was not an easy place to live—in fact, someone died there nearly every day. Most deaths, however, were due to gunpowder-peppered disagreements among the salty miners, prospectors, gamblers, and outlaws who largely populated the town (that’s a Bodie-style hearse in the one-room museum you’ll find on Main Street). But there were also plenty of families in Bodie, as well, and I nearly stopped in my tracks as I ventured inside the Tom Miller home and found this antique baby “dining booster” parked on a kitchen chair.
The layers of linoleum also found in this house reveal the story of how the town rose and finally fell in the late 1930s. Bodie has been a California State Park since 1962. There are nearly 200 structures still standing in Bodie, and some 80 headstones remaining in the Bodie Cemetery. There are no hotdog stands, however, so be sure to bring plenty of snacks and refreshments for your crew.
All in all, we are very glad we went. Particularly since we made it out without a flat tire or broken axle. If you’re heading to Bodie with a baby or young children, I offer these additional tips:
Tips for your family’s visit to Bodie:
- A jogger or all-terrain stroller may help protect your child from the sun and wind, but it will limit your access to the few old buildings that are open to visitors.
- In the summer, expect it to feel hot in the sun and most likely cold in the shade (where you’ll find it along the old store fronts and in buildings), so dress everyone in breathable layers.
- If you need a breastfeeding stop, there are benches in front of the museum. While they’re shaded in the afternoon, it’s a pretty cold shade and not exactly private. Both good reasons to bring an extra baby blanket along.
- It’s windy. And dusty. You’ll be glad to have a lightweight windbreaker and sunglasses (also for the kids).
- Make sure your vehicle is in good shape and well-fueled before turning onto the Road to Bodie, as you cell phone likely won’t help you if you should need roadside assistance, and it can be tough “catching a ride out” for help when you have a family-size group, some of whom ride in car seats. (And I wouldn’t want to be left behind!)
- Stock up on extra provisions (O Pioneers!) at the towns of Lee Vining or Bridgeport before visiting Bodie, and be sure to carry your water and some snacks with you as you explore. Once you get started, it’s a long way back to the car.
- Bring the camera, and extra batteries or film. You could go crazy taking photos of this place.
View Bodie Historic State Park, California in a larger map
The park is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer months, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in winter—though subject to weather conditions. For more information about Bodie, including some of the legends and lore, and a great slideshow, check out www.Bodie.com. This post is part of Photo Friday at DelciousBaby.com.
While we hope to be back to Yosemite National Park for a longer stay later this year (as is our tradition), our recent road trip provided the perfect excuse to drive by way of Yosemite and, for the first time, stay as guests at the historic Wawona Hotel.
The Wawona Hotel is located near the south entrance to Yosemite National Park on Highway 41, and is a bit removed from the better known attractions in Yosemite Valley. The 40-minute very winding drive from the hotel to the valley does not make it a good base for exploring the valley over a few-day stay—especially if you’ll have kids tiring of the car.
View Wawona Hotel in a larger map
However, if you’d prefer to stay in a less congested area within the park, or would simply like to experience this lovely parcel of Yosemite History, staying at the Wawona is definitely a unique Yosemite experience. It’s a powerful feeling to climb the steps to the beautifully decorated hotel lobby knowing that American Idols such as Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and others have checked in at the same desk.
Summertime Events and Activities
While you’re there, you’ll want to visit the Pioneer History Center to learn more about the area and hike the Meadow Loop or Swinging Bridge Loop right from the hotel grounds. Equestrians (and wannabes) can stroll over to the Wawona Stables and take a 2-hour ride or a half-day guided ride to Chilnualna Falls (kids must be 7 years and at least 44” tall). Also, be sure to visit the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, just 4 miles south of the hotel. You can drive or take the free shuttle from the Wawona Hotel to the grove (a good option during peak times when the lot may be full).
On Saturday nights during summer months, the hotel lawn is abuzz with guests partaking of the old-fashioned outdoor barbecue buffet and awaiting their turns to take a horse-drawn carriage ride. Some Saturday nights, there may even be a barn dance to attend. That said, there are a few things you might prepare yourself and your family for before stepping back in time at the Wawona.
Any stay at the Wawona Hotel necessitates a visit to its grand dining room—not only because it’s a lovely feature of the hotel property, but because it’s also the only restaurant option for several miles. What’s more, it’s where your decadent breakfast buffet is served (included with all rooms, I was assured), with eggs every style, pastries, meats, fruits, pancakes, and all the fresh-squeezed orange juice you can drink.
Dinners are a cloth napkin, multi-course affair, so bring a respectable shirt and some alternative to your hiking boots. Also be prepared to wait a full 30 minutes for your table on busy nights, so in other words don’t show up late with tired and hungry kids. It is worth the wait for the perfect medium-rare flat-iron steak, however, and there is great live music in the lobby while you wait on velveteen seats. If your kids aren’t charmed by the ambiance of the waiting area, take turns watching them run free on the lawn outside. There is a children’s menu. And crayons. And if you come with a picky eater just ask for a side of fruit salad (though not on the menu, they’ll accommodate).
Rooms and Amenities
The rooms at the Wawona Hotel, though authentically furnished and true to detail but for the energy-saving compact fluorescent lightbulbs, come with a few drawbacks for typical family travelers with young children.
- For one, the rooms are small. With the understanding that we would be sleeping 4 in beds, there was one double bed (and I mean “double,” not queen), a matching single bed, and a rollaway parked at the foot of the single bed in front of our door. When unfolded, the rollaway effectively blocked the exits of two people from their beds, which wasn’t actually a problem for us since there wasn’t a fire that night. The baby nearly slept in the closet, though it was too full to consider.
- Out of 104 rooms, 50 have their own bathrooms. If you feel it is worth the upgrade to have your own water loo for your brood, understand that you’ll likely be able to listen to your neighbors recounting their days’ activities as you sit on the toilet—from the gap beneath the connecting (but locked) door beside you. If you have a baby, or a volume-challenged toddler, or an issue with stage fright, you might actually be more comfortable in a less expensive room without a private bath and using shared facilities.
- While one does not go to Yosemite to watch television or listen to the radio, the absence of a telephone in the room was a big downer when I needed to contact the front desk—after putting on my pajamas—in a separate building.
More Words to the Wise
The grounds, while spacious and lovely for strolling between the eight whitewashed wooden buildings and one of the Sierra’s first “swimming tanks,” are set back away from the parking. A good thing really, except when you have a great deal of items to unload from your car, including all the things you might expect for a family road trip with 3 children under 6 years. Though we had no need for an ice chest or three car seats in our room, these are not items to be left in the car when overnighting in Yosemite’s famed bear country. It may be well worth asking for a porter to assist you (before your husband insists he can make due on his own with the help of the jogging stroller).
The Bottom Line
Still, there’s a certain giddiness that comes from planting oneself in an Adirondack chair on the veranda outside your hotel room and staring off into the trees of Yosemite National Park. As with most lodgings in the park, you can’t help but feel privileged just to be there, and darn lucky to have gotten the reservation in the first place. The Wawona, much like one of its illustrious guests named above, seems to meet you with a firm handshake and greet you on its own terms. If you’re ready for the full experience, and now understand what that will be, I say go to it. And get the flat-iron steak.
Would I stay there again? As a matter of fact, when my kids are old enough to do the trail rides and better appreciate the menu options, I would like to stay at the Wawona Hotel again. When I do, I’d like to bring along a grandma and book two rooms as a “suite” (an option to mention when booking one room with and one without a private bath). At least that way I’ll be able to join the conversation on the other side of the bathroom door.
You may have noticed, if you haven’t been away on your own family adventures just yet this summer, a lag in my blog posts and articles of late. If you know a thing or two about me, you can probably guess why (new baby, planning travel, traveling with baby + 2 kidlets, hosting 6 out-of-town relatives and showing them San Francisco…). I’m happy to say I have lots of great tips and sights to share from our recent excursions.
I’ll start with a terrific road stop for anyone traveling to Yosemite National Park with young kids by way of Highway 120. From where we live in the Bay Area, it’s about half-way to Yosemite Valley and comes at the perfect time for lunch after leaving home at a leisurely 10 a.m. And lunch is just the first excuse to stop at the Oakdale Cheese Factory, where a grilled Gouda cheese sandwich is made to order for a mere $2.99, and plentiful picnicking supplies, including 30 varieties of cheese, salamis, crackers, and cold drinks can be found in the Cheese & Specialties Store.
Got a squirrely toddler in the backseat? No problem. Lush green lawn sprawls out between picnic tables and shade trees, with plenty of room for little travelers to run and burn off their popsicles (also at the store). What else might you need for your visit? Yep, they’ve got multiple family-size restrooms to boot.
But what will your kids remember most about the Oakdale Cheese Factory? Think goats. And llama. And bunnies. And fish. There are plenty of animals to meet and hand-feed during your visit, with 25 cent feed machines ready where you need them (even for the fish in the pond).
Of course, while you’re there you may want to watch a demonstration of how the cheese is made, or learn more about the Bulk family’s Dutch cheese-making heritage, or just drool a little at the window to Cheese Paradise, and you are welcome to do so. That is, of course, why many people stop at Oakdale Cheese.
But if you’re traveling with small kids, rest assured the Bulk family will be just as happy to see your brood frolicking outdoors on the lawn. As will the goats. And the llama. And the bunnies. And the fish.
Oakdale Cheese Factory
Located at 10040 State Hwy. 120, Oakdale, CA
Open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
View Oakdale Cheese & Specialties in a larger map
More road trip tips and inspiration to come. And don’t forget to head over to DeliciousBaby.com to check out this week’s Photo Friday.
Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning guide Travels with Baby
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