Yosemite through the words of my 7-year-old

The journal.

The journal.

Visiting Yosemite National Park has become an annual ritual in this family. We go (usually in spring), we hike, we commune with nature, we take a continuing education class or two, then we come home.

We’ve done this sort of thing just about every year for the last six. For almost all of those years, I was the one who did most of the writing—not only in my journal, but also for my clients, on my computer, both there in the park and here back at home. (I’ve updated a few guidebooks about the park.)

Last year, however, L got in on the action, too. As part of a broader effort to get her to journal, I challenged her to write about our multigenerational experience inside the park when we visited back in April 2016. She took the task very seriously, scribbling copious notes throughout our visit. Before we began, she agreed that at some point I could use her work in an article. That article published yesterday on the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia.

The piece, titled, “Yosemite, daughter-style,” comprises whole snippets from her journal—entire passages that describe slices of Yosemite in her words. I edited the copy only for style and grammar.

In the story I quote her on a wide range of subjects, from the road trip there to shufflepuck, our room at Evergreen Lodge to my father’s wacky way of ordering salad. I also tried to preserve her cadence—this totally unique voice that falls somewhere between innocent and totally irritated; a perfect mix for 7-going-on-17.

The process of flipping through her journal to find these passages gave me a newfound appreciation for everything we experience when we visit Yosemite. I hope her words have the same effect on you.

Three’s a charm for family travel coverage

Disco-dancing in Yosemite

Disco-dancing in Yosemite

Our not-so-little-anymore pod got some nice ink this week, with three separate family travel stories in two different outlets.

The first of the stories, a service piece, appeared in our local metro daily, The (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Press-Democrat, and spotlighted 10 tips for easier holiday travel with the kids. In addition to the tips themselves, the story included six pictures of the girls from various adventures over the last few years. Oh, and if you can think of any tips that I left out, please share them in the comment field.

The second and third of the stories, both of which appeared on the Expedia Viewfinder blog, comprised photos (and related captions) from our multigenerational trip to Yosemite National Park this spring.

To read the better of the two Expedia stories, click here.

For more pieces like these three, please stay tuned. Over the next few months I’ll have family travel articles in Family Fun magazine, USA Today’s Go Escape, the Expedia Viewfinder, Alaska Beyond magazine (that’s the in-flight for Alaska), and others.

The little things win again

Slinky!

Slinky!

Most people come to Yosemite National Park for the waterfalls, the iconic rock formations, the historic structures. On some level, we came for those things, too.

In the end, however, what my kids will take away most vividly from this year’s adventure were experiences that revolved around some of the tiniest creatures they saw all weekend: Caterpillars. Fuzzy little caterpillars.

The love affair began yesterday morning on the way to breakfast. It was early. We were tired. We rounded a bend on the walking trail from our cabin to the lodge restaurant and found ourselves face to face with a granite boulder covered with caterpillars.

L and R missed them at first, but my father and I simultaneously exclaimed, “Look, girls! Caterpillars!” I wasn’t sure how the kids would react, especially given their recent fear of bugs. Still, 20 minutes after we pointed out the creepy-crawlies, the kids were still playing with the slinky little bugs.

After breakfast, we drove into Yosemite Valley for that watercolor painting class. We had lunch. We marveled at Half Dome in the distance. We waved to The (hotel formerly known as the) Ahwahnee. We hiked to see Yosemite Falls. We played pooh sticks in the Merced (for the second consecutive visit). We squinted to spot climbers on El Capitan. Still, all the kids could talk about were the damn caterpillars.

Caterpillars, caterpillars, caterpillars. It was becoming an episode of that A&E show, “Obsessed.”

Yesterday morning, it was more of the same. I allowed L to “collect” one of the creatures on the way to breakfast; she kept it in a clear plastic cup with a lid. After we ate, we piled in the car to see another of the park’s one-of-a-kind features: Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

To make a long story short (I’ll probably blog about that next week), our outing ended sooner than expected. When we got back to the cabin, the girls went caterpillar-hunting again.

This time their interest reached a fever pitch. The two of them foraged for sticks and leaves to build a “caterpillar hotel” in which to house any creatures that happened to wander by. When they returned with supplies, R got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed the surface of the cabin patio “so it would be clean for the caterpillars.”

Finally, this morning, on our way back from our final breakfast here at the Evergreen Lodge, I granted their wish, and allowed each of them to harvest a total of six caterpillars as pets. Each girl put the bugs in a large plastic cup with a lid. Each girl foraged for sticks and moss and leaves and other “natural stuff” from the forest to include in their cups. And each girl has been gazing into her cup ever since.

Here in the rec room, where I’m writing and filing this post, I asked them to list their top three favorite things about our trip. No. 1 for both of them: The caterpillars, of course.

While my kids certainly appreciated all the big stuff they saw on our Yosemite trip this year, they LOVED these little things, and saw the bugs as a way to connect with Yosemite on their own terms, their own level.

I’ll be honest: Going into this multigenerational adventure, the caterpillars aren’t exactly what I hoped my kids would take from this trip. But now, after 48 hours of Caterpillalooza, I think I’m OK with the girls’ newfound obsession; the fact that they’ve taken interest in any part of the trip whatsoever is a win—for all of us.

If nothing else, this experience is a reminder that sometimes, the littlest things on a family trip can make the biggest impressions and differences in our kids’ lives.

We’ve all heard that age-old saying that implores us not to lose the forest through the trees. In this case—not losing the caterpillars through the trees, forest, rock formations and waterfalls—the lesson is even simpler and more poignant. I plan to savor it while I can.

5 things I’ve learned in 48 hours of multigenerational travel

Grandpa Power and the girls, making art.

Grandpa Power and the girls, making art.

Considering how much we Villanos travel, it’s hard to believe this weekend’s trip to Yosemite National Park marks the first time my big girls ever have traveled with one of their grandparents. Perhaps that explains why they’re LOVING having Grandpa Power along for the ride. Perhaps it also explains why I’m getting such a kick out of watching my dad interact with the kids in our typical travel vibe.

Don’t get me wrong—assimilation hasn’t been painless. It takes my father FOREVER to get ready to go anywhere, and I already struggle getting my 6- and 4-year-old prepped for the day on time. Still, for the most part, the experience has been a delight. Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far.

  1. Co-parenting is non-transferable.

When Powerwoman and I are together with the kids, we are equal parents with equal responsibilities for discipline. When one of us is missing, it’s really impossible to have someone else just slide into that role. I learned this the hard way today—I needed my father to talk to L about using hands on her sister, and he did…just not the way I would have liked. I quickly realized I couldn’t blame him. He might be my dad, but he’s no substitute for the girls’ mother.

  1. I am a second-string storyteller to the all-star starter known as Grandpa.

I’ve spent the last six years thinking my stories were the best stories these kids ever have heard. They have demanded the stories everywhere when we travel: in the car on road-trips, in foreign bathrooms, even on hikes. Until this weekend. Over the last two days, whenever the girls have wanted stories, they’ve asked for grandpa. In the car. On trips to the bathroom. And on our hikes. It’s like I’ve been replaced by my mentor. And it hurts! (OK, maybe not really. But still.)

  1. It’s OK to bend rules on vacation.

Generally speaking, I can be a bit of a hard-ass about rules and routines. My dad, on the other hand, is about as loosey-goosey as they come; he never met a rule he didn’t try to bend. Though my instinct on this trip has been to enforce typical edicts such as one sweet a day and pre-bed at 6:45 p.m., I’ve relaxed the rules a bit and can sense the positive repercussions. The kids are happier. They’re listening better. And they’re actually appreciative. WTF?!?

  1. Grandparents make great babysitters on the road, too.

We live close enough to the girls’ grandparents that the kids get to see the old folks on a regular basis. Grampy and Grammy (my parents) and Pop-Pop and Tiki also are fantastic babysitters when Powerwoman and I need to go away or get a date night here and there. So far my dad has been an amazing child-minder at Yosemite, too. He’s overly cautious because of the new surroundings. He communicates well (via text). He even picks up the tab on snacks, just because.

  1. It’s natural to worry about those you love.

I’m used to being concerned about L and R when we’re having adventures all over the world. Here in Yosemite, I’ve got a new family member to be worried about: Dad. Will he twist an ankle on those rocks? Why is it taking him so long to use the bathroom? Can he drink coffee after 4 p.m.? Bandwidth isn’t a problem; I’ve got plenty of agita to go around. Still, it’s been an adjustment to spread the worrying around.

I’m sure I’ll learn another five things in the next 48 hours on this multigenerational trip. IMHO, that’s the beauty of family travel: You always learn something new.

The most family-friendly place near Yosemite

L, exploring a rope bridge.

L, exploring a rope bridge.

If you’re planning to visit Yosemite National Park with kids, you NEED to stay where we’re staying for the weekend: Evergreen Lodge outside of Groveland.

It’s not typical for me to make such bold statements here on this blog, but in the case of this lodge, there’s simply no other way to put it. With multiple play areas, an indoor rec room, two-bedroom cabins, a down-to-earth on-site restaurant, and activities for people of all ages, this place seems like it practically was designed for families.

Perhaps the only downside to this lodge is that it’s not *inside* the park; today it took us about an hour to drive from our cabin to Yosemite Village. Still, considering the beautiful scenery, even that wasn’t too much of a hassle.

The rooms

To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect when I made the reservation. A photographer friend of mine recommended it. I trust this guy implicitly. So I booked without thinking (on Expedia, of course).

I signed up for a “Family cabin,” essentially a two-bedroom suite. The bedrooms sit on either side of a common room. The configuration is perfect for families like ours because it affords us the opportunity to close the barn doors to the kids’ room when us grown-ups are still awake (and reading and/or writing blog posts in the common room).

Décor in the rooms is country and clean. Both bedrooms have fans and wall-heaters, and the common room has ample seating (probably even enough for a family of six or eight).

Oh, and unlike other cabin-oriented lodges, this place has housekeeping service every day.

The eats

There’s only one restaurant on-site at Evergreen, and because the lodge is about 45 minutes from the next closest restaurant, there’s a chance you’ll eat here more than once if you’re a guest. The good news: The place is pretty good, so long as you don’t mind higher-than-usual prices.

The restaurant itself is broken into three different sections. The biggest of the bunch looks and feels like a formal eatery, complete with white walls and hushed voices. You also can get food in the tavern, which has a much more casual, first-come-first-served type of vibe. Finally, the restaurant recently added a back patio. In the summer it’s open air; in the winter or spring, it is enclosed with heat lamps. This is a great place to eat if you plan to let your kids run around the adjacent play area (more on that in a moment).

Food is above average—maybe even a bit healthier and more eclectic than you’ll find elsewhere in Yosemite. Grown-up dishes include a selection of small plates featuring a kale and farro salad, as well as entrees such as lobster risotto and elk burger. The restaurant also offers a pretty extensive kids’ menu, and all portions (including kids) are large, which helps you stomach the jacked-up price points (hey, they have a monopoly out here).

A tip: Skip dessert with/for the kids and take advantage of the nightly s’mores hour, held by the outdoor fireplace from 7-8 p.m.

The activities

One of Evergreen’s strong suits is the activities program, which includes a host of guided trips and excursions into Yosemite National Park and some of the surrounding communities. We won’t be participating in any of these activities this trip because most of the offerings are full-day jaunts and my kids aren’t ready for that kind of commitment yet. Still, I can’t wait to come back when they’re older and give the activities desk a try.

Some of the options that appealed to me:

  • A five-hour drive and hike excursion to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Wapama Falls.
  • An eight-mile round-tripper through Granite Gorge and along the Tuolumne River to Preston Falls.
  • Rafting day trips on either the Tuolumne or Merced rivers.

I also like that the lodge rents bicycles and jogging strollers by the hour, half-day, or day, providing a great resource for families to get out and explore the Evergreen Road back toward 120 or TK road out to Hetch Hetchy reservoir.

(By the way, there are a bunch of free activities, too, such as movie nights, bingo, yoga, and a session during which kids can dissect owl pellets to see what the bird had been eating.)

The family focus

Without question, my favorite thing about this lodge is the way it gets real in its offerings for kids. Whoever designed the place clearly understood that when kids are on vacation, they like to bum around on playgrounds. Proof: There are at least four incredible outdoor play structures, and one unbelievably awesome rec/game room.

My girls are OBSESSED with the outdoor play structures. The one closest to our cabin has a 12-foot-tall rope ladder and an oversized chess board. One down by the registration desk has a rope bridge, a suspension bridge, another rope ladder, and a zipline. A third play structure has a fort and another zipline.

There’s even one for little kids, composed of a sandbox, teepees, and more.

Inside, the rec room is every kid’s dream come true, complete with shufflepuck, giant Connect Four, foosball, and pool. Near the book nook, there also are giant pillows and a Steph Curry-sized stuffed bear.

(We didn’t go in the pool, but the pool area is modern and inviting. There’s even a bar and a cafe there, to keep the grown-ups happy.)

I honestly think that if I didn’t drive my kids into the national park for adventures there, they’d be perfectly happy spending every moment of every waking moment here at the lodge. As a family travel writer, I safely can say there’s no bigger compliment than that. Which is precisely why we’ll be back.

Which are your favorite places to stay in Yosemite National Park and why?

Different take on a family trip to Yosemite

Me and R, near Lake Tahoe in 2015.

Me and R, near Lake Tahoe in 2015.

T-minus four days until I take L, R, and Grandpa Power on a multigenerational trip to Yosemite National Park, and everyone over here is getting pretty excited for the excursion. L is excited to have a reason to miss school. R keeps talking about hiking to waterfalls. The two of them also have been totally geeking out about the plein air painting class we’re signed up to take.

My father – a.k.a. Grandpa Power – is pretty stoked, too. This trip will mark the first time my girls have been on vacation with any of their grandparents.

I guarantee nobody is as excited about the trip as I am. As part of my assignment for the Expedia Viewfinder travel blog, I’m going to give all three of my traveling companions Moleskine journals and encourage them record their own impressions of the trip. They can write or draw, whichever they prefer. And when the trip is done, I’ll go through their journals and pick the best passages for inclusion in a separate post.

Something about this different take on family travel has me nearly BURSTING AT THE SEAMS. I’m trying desperately to keep this plan a secret from the girls but couldn’t help myself from telling my father in an email tonight. Hopefully the three of them will appreciate and enjoy it as much as I know I will.

I’ve spent years chronicling family travel from my own POV. It’ll be a treat to get different perspectives.

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