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?

A different kind of all-in-one

Little R, learning about animation at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Little R at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

I’ve never been a fan of all-in-one resorts. You know what I mean by that phrase, right? The places that tout they have absolutely everything you could possibly need during your stay, right there on property? Want good food? On-site restaurants. Want some culture? On-site museum. Want adventure? Check out the on-site pool or climbing wall or gym or wave pool.

While places like this certainly are convenient, they eliminate what I consider to be the most valuable component of travel: discovery. When everything’s “on-site,” nothing’s a surprise. And when nothing’s a surprise, at least IMHO, there’s not much reason to travel to experience it.

At this very moment, however, my family and I are experiencing a different kind of all-in-one. We’re spending a few days at the Presidio of San Francisco, a former army post that in recent years has been converted to a city within the city. Because the Presidio has overnight accommodations (we’re staying at the Inn at the Presidio) and other tourism infrastructure (such as restaurants and public transportation), it’s a great travel destination, too. And it’s perfect for families.

This afternoon we stayed “close to home” and explored things right around the inn:

  • We wandered over to the Walt Disney Family Museum and introduced the girls to the man behind the Mouse.
  • The big girls climbed trees on the great lawn out in front of the museum.
  • We tromped over to the Presidio Social Club, a fun but casual restaurant in renovated barracks.
  • We wandered back to the inn by starlight (a rare occurrence since this part of San Francisco often is socked in with fog).

None of these activities was more than 15 minutes from our tiny (21 rooms in all) inn, yet everything was separate. Put differently, we never left the Presidio, and we were out and about the whole day.

Tomorrow’s plan is even more eclectic. We’ll start our day at the House of Air, an indoor trampoline arena. Then we’ll explore Fort Point National Historic Site, which has guarded the Golden Gate Narrows for 150 years. After lunch down near the fort, we’ll come back to the Main Post (that’s what they call the area around the hotel) to learn about the archaeology in the area, hit some bowling at the Presidio Bowling Center, and throw down a fancy dinner at Arguello, a restaurant from renowned chef Tracy des Jardins.

We’ll wrap up our visit Friday morning by hiking to see sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy.

Even with all of these items on our agenda, we won’t even scratch the surface of all the things to do and see and experience in this national park (yes, this place is a national park). And that’s exactly the point; the Presidio offers the variety of an all-in-one without making you feel like you’re missing out on something equally awesome nearby.

“The Resort” in the Presidio is everywhere—the components are related but entirely unique. Add to this variety a hearty dose of authenticity and years upon years of history and you’ve got the makings of a great family trip.

Finding math in nature on the road

Math is cool.

Math is cool.

I never was good at numbers, but one of my fondest memories of math as a teenager was learning about the Fibonacci Sequence.

Ms. Sheehan, my teacher at the time, described this as a series of accumulating numbers in which the next number is found by adding the previous two together beginning with zero and one. The chain of numbers produced (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on) describe natural phenomenon from leaf growth to the curl of a shell. And once you are familiar with what that chain looks like (check out this video), it’s easy to spot Fibonacci just about everywhere in nature.

A recent article in Sierra magazine reminded me of this. The piece, written by an author named Mikey Jane Moran, makes a bold leap from Fibonacci to the importance of play-based learning, and the need to avoid screens. A snip:

“Tell your children to hunt for the curling Fibonacci shape outdoors and they will start to see the patterns everywhere, in the cowlick on their brother’s head and in spider webs—places where there aren’t really Fibonacci patterns. But the beauty is that they are noticing. Instead of staring at a video game screen on long road trips, they are looking at clouds. Walks may take longer as they stop to look at every little thing, but how can anyone complain?”

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know this notion of play over technology is a big one for me. Quite frankly, it’s nice just to see mainstream publications championing the same priorities for a change.

That said, Moran is right—finding Fibonacci in nature is DAMN cool, and something worth doing.

Whenever I head out with the girls, we try to look for Fibonacci and other phenomena like it. The hunt becomes a big part of our adventure; L and R look everywhere for examples, and the two girls compete to see who can find more (they are sisters, after all). As Moran suggests, the search (and subsequent success or failure) introduces a much-needed component of play into the learning-from-nature mix. The result is a wonderful way to experience new stuff.

The evolution of hiking chatter

R, in full hiking attire.

R, in full hiking attire.

As an avid hiker, I’ve spent a good tenth of my life ambulating on trails. Most of those hikes have been alone or with friends. In recent years, however, many have been with different companions: my daughters, L and R.

Naturally, the change in partners has resulted in some subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences, as well.

Specifically, the chatter is a lot different with my kids.

I have spent most of my solo hikes, for instance, daydreaming about winning millions in the World Series of Poker Main Event. In my 20s and early 30s, when I hiked a ton with guy friends, we spent the majority of each tromp talking about girls (as in, women we were dating, not 3- and 5-year-olds).

Now, of course, since I do most of hiking with my own kids, conversation ranges from the educational (“Wow, honey, that’s a madrone!”) to the inspirational (“I love the sound of the wind in the oak leaves”). Sometimes, especially when we come upon animal poop, it’s comical (“Dad, what does frog poop look like?”).

Still, I’m not sure any hike chatter can beat the game I played on a recent midday hike with Little R.

We were hiking in an open space preserve near our house here in Northern California. About halfway out on a two-mile loop, the kid was getting restless and I asked her if she wanted to play a game. She responded by creating a clue-based quiz about Disney princesses. The rules were pretty simple: She gave me clues and I had to guess which princess she was describing. I got a point for every princess I guessed correctly.

Over the course of that second mile, we went through EVERY princess, twice. She liked the game so much she insisted we continue playing back at the house. (I think “Ariel” was an answer nine times.)

Was the game my idea of fun? Not exactly; I can deal with Disney but something about the mix of Disney and nature just feels wrong. Still, I embraced it; considering how hard it is to get kids to embrace the outdoors these days, I’ll take whatever sort of motivation I can get.

I might even suggest the “Princess Game” on our next tromp. I’ll just have to study to improve my score.

Romancing a return to Cusco, Peru

My bride and me, on the Inca Trail (circa 2005).

My bride and me, on the Inca Trail (circa 2005).

More than anything, what I remember most about the time my bride and I spent in Cusco, Peru, are the headaches.

Those damn altitude headaches. That simply wouldn’t go away.

The year was 2005; the two of us were there on a “vacation” from a four-month stint of living in Lima while my wife, an archaeologist, researched her dissertation. The city sits somewhere around 9,000 feet above sea level. I, a chronic sinus sufferer, had serious problems with sinus pressure the entire time.

Still, this did not derail our fun. Over the course of five days, the two of us tromped all over the city, hiking from one archaeological site to the next (including Qurikancha and Saksaywaman), strolling through vendor booths near the Plaza de Armas, sampling coca leaves and choclo from a variety of different storefronts, and marveling at all of the hand-crafted art.

(Then, of course, we did a 3-day, 3-night trek to Machu Picchu.)

I’ve often thought about how much I wished our children were with us in the ancient Incan capital, how much they would have loved the colors and sights and sounds (and super-sweet cookies).

These fantasies—along with a promotion and travel deals from Expedia, a client, and LAN Airlines—have inspired a vivid daydream for a return.

In my daydream, we take the girls down for a week and stay at the JW Marriott El Convento Cusco, a hotel that incorporates pre-Inca architecture and is now arguably the swankiest property in town. From there, we fan out for daytrips around the city, showing the girls the giant boulders at Saksaywaman and the different architectural eras at the Quirkancha. We take our 5-year-old along for some Spanish immersion classes. We have the 3-year-old learn how to weave. And we eat ceviche. Lots and lots of ceviche.

Granted, the visit would be more of a family trip than a sexy, sultry getaway. But because my wife and I would be returning to a place that meant so much to us once before, it would be romantic in a totally different kind of way.

Expedia has a great new ad campaign that revolves around the concept of “No excuses” for taking the trip of your dreams. It’s time we stop making excuses and get back to Cusco with our kids. The trip likely won’t happen this year, but perhaps it’s time to start planning it for 2016. Who knows? By then maybe they can hike the Inca Trail, too. And maybe I won’t have any more headaches.

If you could take a romantic trip with your partner in the near future, where would you go and why?

Recalibrating expectations about family travel moments

R and L and a rare 'moment' during our trip to the Anderson Valley.

R and L and a rare ‘moment’ in the Anderson Valley.

I’m writing this post at 35,000 feet above the California desert, en route back to San Francisco after a (busy and) epic weekend in Las Vegas with one of my closest pals.

I was there to report a story about a trail system on the outskirts of the Vegas Valley. The objective: To hike as many of the trails as I could in one weekend. Because hiking is more fun with friends, and because my friend and I live in different cities, I asked him to join me. We had a blast.

Over the course of our 36 hours together, my buddy and I did what 30-something guys do. We talked about sports. We talked about women. We talked about work. We laughed. We listened to music. And we hiked. A lot. (In case you’re wondering, we didn’t gamble together, largely because he doesn’t gamble. I did all of my gambling after he went to bed.)

In short, the trip was full of what I like to call Bromance Moments—those moments during which I felt lucky to have such a good friend, and even luckier to get to spend some downtime with him.

Because we had no other demands on our attention, some of these “moments” lasted for hours.

The whole experience got me thinking about the nature of these moments, and the extent to which Powerwoman and I experience similar moments with the girls when we travel as a family.

My conclusion: Yes, the moments exist. But they’re different. And, in our case, MUCH more short-lived.

I like to call these family travel moments Walley World Moments. The moniker is a blatant reference to the theme park in National Lampoon’s Vacation—the place where Clark Griswold and family spend the entire movie trying to visit. When the family finally gets there, after a litany of ridiculous experiences, there is this sense of true appreciation, that they’re all happy to be there together. The rest of we families experience that, too.

With young kids, however, Walley World Moments are short and sweet, the ultimate quickies. Whenever we do something as a unit, Powerwoman and I stop to recognize how lucky we are to do it together, then one of the girls becomes impatient or trips her sister or nags for a snack or whines about being tired and the family travel magic disappears.

I’m not complaining about my girls being girls (they are 5 and 3, respectively). I’m just stating a fact: It’s hard to hold on to moments of wonder when little ones can’t hold on to anything for more than a few seconds at a time.

This reality has forced us to reconsider how we look at family travel moments overall.

Instead of looking for days or half-days or hours during which we feel lucky to have such wonderful kids and be able to travel with them, we seek mere minutes—ephemeral epiphanies of appreciation.

We’re not lowering our expectations here, people. We’re just abbreviating them—in response to the current attention spans of our little ones. Over time, as the girls evolve into young women, I suspect my wife and I will expand our expectations accordingly. By the time they’re teenagers, perhaps we even will look forward to Walley World Moments that last long enough to thoroughly enjoy.

Until then, of course, we’ll take whatever moments we can get, whenever we can get them, and we’ll savor every second.

What sort of memorable moments do you expect when you travel with your kids?

A Walk to Remember

My Big Girl, drinking tea before the hike

My Big Girl, drinking tea before the hike.

My wife and I are avid hikers, and we’ve raised our girls to embrace the outdoors as well. Back in California, no day is complete without a tromp in the woods near our house. Here in London, though experiencing “woods” requires more of an effort, we get the girls out and about to breathe fresh air as much as we can.

This is one of the reasons why all four of us were so excited about spending Thanksgiving in the country (at Four Seasons Hampshire). It’s also why I didn’t bat an eye when L requested a hike after sundown one evening last weekend.

Our goal for the evening journey was simple: Hike well-marked pathways as far as we could in 30 minutes, then turn around, return to the resort and have hot chocolates in the library bar.

To guide the way, L took her ladybug flashlight; I bugged the concierge for a “torch” (that’s what they call flashlights here) of my own.

The walk started quietly; as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, L was focusing intensely on watching her steps.

Once we were startled by a braying horse, however, the mood lightened considerably. We quizzed each other on whether certain twinkles were airplanes or satellites or stars. We reminisced about our favorite parts of the day we spent in nearby Farnham (hers: Watching Christmas carolers; mine: Lunching in a 500-year-old pub). We even shared our favorite stories about the Baby, a.k.a., her little sister.

After 30 minutes—probably 1.5 miles in all—we turned around as planned. With the manor house looming on the horizon, L realized we likely were the only people hiking in the field at that moment, so she shared a perfectly normal (for a 4-year-old) request:

“Dad, it won’t bother anybody else. Can we please listen to Taylor Swift?”

Normally I have a strong No-Artificial-Sounds-in-Nature rule. On this night, however, because we were the only people in the field (and, of course, because she asked so politely), I relented.

L was delighted. She skipped. She twirled. At one point, she screamed along with words I hope she doesn’t understand for a long while (I think the song was, “Dear John”). And about halfway back—I kid you not—we spotted fireworks exploding over the trees on the edge of the property.

In that moment, my daughter described the fireworks as “magical,” “unbelievable,” and “amazing.” We now have been home a week, and she still uses those same words when talking about the hike.

To be honest, I do, too.

Those 60 minutes were the best 60 minutes of my Thanksgiving, and arguably the best 60 minutes I’ve had in a long, long time. These are the moments we as parents live for.

Could we have had the same experience at home? Maybe something pretty close. But being in a faraway, foreign place enriches every aspect of moments like that one, and the richer those moments, the better.

What Does ‘Family-Friendly’ Really Mean?

Daddy and daughters, enjoying the view.

Daddy and daughters, enjoying the view.

One could make the argument that the overall experience of family travel is dramatically different from the sum takeaways of, say, romantic or adventure getaways designed exclusively for grown-ups.

Still, just because you travel with kids doesn’t mean every vacation activity must revolve around them.

After four years of traveling extensively with at least one child (and two years traveling with two of them), Powerwoman and I have become firm believers that every family trip should include at least two or three activities and outings that we would do even if we didn’t have kids in tow. Sometimes, we might hit up a happening hotspot. Other times, we might check out a historic church or archaeological site (my wife is an archaeologist).

Saturday, here on Oahu, we dragged the kids on a 2-mile round-trip hike along the paved Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail.

The girls did fine for the first half-mile or so. Then the heat got to L. Upon her request, I carried her for about a quarter-mile. From there, we put her in the stroller and I carried R. This meant that one of us was carrying a child for the duration of the hike.

For some, the additional burden of schlepping 25-45 extra pounds might have detracted from the overall experience.

But for us, having the kids with us while we took in sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean and the windward side of Oahu made the hike even more epic. We watched waves. We spotted little red-headed birds. We marveled at turquoise waters. At one point, we even spied Molokai and Maui in the distance (this was particularly exciting for L, who is fascinated by Hawaiian geography).

Sure, by the time we got back to the trailhead, the girls were ready for a big lunch and long naps. And, yes, they might have been a bit more tired than they would have been otherwise. But considering L was still raving about the views at dinner, I’d say the experience made quite an impression.

These impressions, this sense of wonder, is the main reason Powerwoman and I travel with our kids. We know they can get these experiences doing typical family stuff; we also know they can get them doing certain grown-up stuff. Working to achieve a balance between these two approaches makes vacations more memorable for all of us.

A Primer to ‘Get Your Kids Hiking’

Alt's new book.

Alt’s new book.

My favorite kinds of family trips are those for which we spend a ton of time in nature. Day hikes, camping—you name the outdoorsy activity and it’s on my list. In this case, you could call me a Louvite, which is to say that I ascribe to the beliefs and research of Richard Louv.

This also explains why I loved Jeff Alt’s forthcoming book, “Get Your Kids Hiking: How to Start Them Young and Keep it Fun!” In the book, the Cincinnati-based author offers tips and tricks on age-appropriate ways to include your child in all aspects of a hike, checklists of what to pack for any type of hike and advice for hiking with a special needs child. In short, he presents the Appalachian Trail of books about family travel outdoors.

I recently caught up with Alt to ask him about his work. Here are some highlights of our chat.

Q. Why is it so hard for parents to get their kids to embrace the outdoors?
A. There’s a fear factor that’s been instilled; within my own family ranks, we have families that literally are afraid of the outdoors. Also, as parents we’re all so busy now, and handing your kid a Smart phone or a gadget is easier and instantly quiets them down. So there are bad habits that have formed.

Q. What are the biggest challenges around building family vacation around being outside?
A. The biggest challenge is finding something age-appropriate. Some people might feel limited if their children are just starting to walk on their own or the kids are too heavy in a child carrier. My philosophy is that from birth to age 3, you can do whatever you want, so long as you can carry your child. Whatever you decide to do with your kids in terms of hiking, I wouldn’t recommend extreme weather hiking. And nothing too strenuous.

Q. Gear is so expensive these days. How can a family take up hiking without breaking the bank?
A. Gear can be expensive, but in general, hiking is probably the cheapest form of family time and entertainment available. If you think about it, you can acquire everything you need from second-hand clothing store. Child carriers, clothes, things like that. Finding long john underwear for your kids is harder; sometimes brand like Patagonia is the only choice in that department. Also, when they start to hike more, then you want to look at a good pair of running shoes with a decent sole on the bottom. If you have more than one child, buy things in neutral-colored clothing so that your young son can wear what your daughter wore.

Q. What’s the most important lesson to teach kids about life on the trail?
A. My first goal when I take my kids out is to make sure they know we’re not required to get anywhere or do anything. I follow their lead. If they want to walk for an hour, we do that. If they want to skip rocks across a creek a quarter-mile from the trailhead, we do that. I call this ‘child-directed hiking.’ My goal as a father is to make the whole experience so much fun that they want to go again and again. If they seem engaged on a hike, I know the hike has been a success. Another key lesson is to make sure they know that they should take nothing from the woods but memories and pictures.

Q. How old is old enough to overnight in the backcountry?
A. Personally, I don’t recommend hiking overnight until a child is old enough to carry some or most of their gear. Another potential problem with getting kids to do overnights too soon: You run the risk of putting your child into this forced road march, which could turn them off to the point where they won’t go again. I recommend base-camping and day hiking from there. Before you leave on your adventure, I recommend taking walks with the equipment you’re going to wear so that you—and your kids—can get used to it. Make sure the only surprises are what they’ll find on the trail. This will make everyone happier in the end.

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