Waterfall at Hetch Hetchy

7 days, 983 Miles, A Castle, Elephant Seals, A Coyote, A Kringle, Beaches, Waterfalls and a National Park

A year and a half ago my family made the decision to leave all of our friends and family in New York and move out to the West Coast. I had lived all my life in New York except for the four years of college. My parents grew up in New York and my grandparents (except for one) were all born in New York. Even my great grandparents came off their boats into New York. So it was pretty radical for us to pick up and relocate. People asked us if we moved for work. But we said, “No.” Others asked if we moved to be closer to family. Same answer, “No.” We moved for a family adventure. We wanted to see different people in different lands. Now, California may not seem so different but it is. We were moving to see another part of the country and get to know it.

This year my son is in 4th grade. Thanks to a brand new initiative started by President Obama, he and my entire family get into any national park for free. Given this great opportunity and the fact that this is the centennial year for the National Park system, we decided to make spring break a road trip. For seven days we would see some of California’s state treasures, including the breathtaking Yosemite Park.

Our trip was magical. I don’t mean nothing went wrong or it was all perfect. It wasn’t. But it was an opportunity for the four of us to spend literally 24/7 together disconnected from the Internet and our electronics. We had no computers, no cell service and no WiFi. And we survived. Here is a summary of our fantastic trip with some details in case you too want to take the same trip.

Day 1 Santa Barbara, Solvang and Pismo Beach

We left Southern California and headed for Santa Barbara. My friend, Ellie, told me we had to stop at La Super Rica. She was right. It is an off-the-beaten-path gem beloved by Julia Child for homemade Mexican food with handmade tortillas created the moment they’re ordered. Among other things I had the rajas, which is grilled green chiles sautéd with onions and melted cheese. Sounds simple, but I tell you this is one of the best morsels of food I have ever had. I will dream about the rajas.

Traveling with children requires a special itinerary. In my family we set the schedule around food. My kids are happiest when they can get a special snack and visit a bookstore on vacation. The town of Solvang in Santa Barbara County was a perfect second stop on the way to Pismo Beach. It was a wee bit out of the way but totally worth it. Solvang is a Danish hamlet in the middle of nowhere. It has windmills and clogs and Dutch-looking buildings. We stopped at The Danish Village Bakery and Coffee Shop. The baked goods all looked amazing, but when I spotted the Kringle (like a Nordic pretzel stuffed with custard) I knew we had to get it. Another great choice. We had so much dessert we skipped dinner. That was a first for us. Solvang also had a fabulous independent bookstore where both kids bought a book to keep them busy for the rest of the journey.

Solvang Bakery

Solvang Bakery


This is a Kringle.


We ended the day checking into the SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel in Pismo Beach. It was late and after some initial hotel room excitement the kids went to bed for the night. Lacking electronics, I happily did, too.

View from SeaCrest Hotel Room

View from SeaCrest Hotel Room

Day 2 Architectural Graveyard

The SeaCrest offered a mediocre breakfast. But at the meal I met a nice lady who visited the areFullSizeRendera every year. She recommended The Architectural Graveyard at California Polytechnic State University, then Hoagies restaurant for dinner. We really didn’t have anything planned for the day so we took a trip to see Cal Poly and the graveyard. To get the graveyard one must take a 2.5 mile hike at a slight incline. The massive structures built out of steel and concrete were left there as part of a senior engineering design class at the college. In April (especially in an El Niño year) the wildflowers were rampant. After running through the flowers, a la Laura and Mary from Little House on the Prairie opener, we wandered through the structures. Some could be climbed, others were just amazing to behold. It is unlike anywhere I have been and probably one of my favorite portions of our trip.

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After a quick lunch we headed to the Morro Bay Estuary (where a river meets the sea) for a little bird watching.  This place is an absolute gem. My son took out his California bird guide, and we went hunting for birds. Turns out that area is a rookery (breeding colony on the tops of trees) for Herons and Cormorants, both of which we saw nesting. We headed onto Morro Bay Main street for a quick bowl of clam chowder, and then we were off to find the otters. Morro Bay is home to loads of otters that hang out in the kelp just off Morro Rock. The sunset was breathtaking as we made our way back to Pismo beach so we pulled over to watch the show. The kids weren’t feeling it so they relaxed in the car as we gazed over the water. All tuckered out at nearly sundown we rolled into Hoagies for a great low-key, family-friendly dinner before we all collapsed in our beds.

Morro Bay Estuary

Morro Bay Estuary


Day 3 Elephant Seals and Hearst Castle

For day three we scheduled a visit to Hearst Castle. But before we left Pismo beach we stopped at Old West Cinnamon Rolls for their famous, well, cinnamon rolls. Sure, they are a bit sweet and excessive for breakfast but we were on vacation. On the way to the castle we stopped suddenly because we saw zebras on the side of the road.

With the zebra

With the zebra

Yup, zebras. Apparently they are descendants from William Randolph Hearst’s collection of wild animals. Then we stopped to see the Elephant Seals at the Piedras Blancas rookery in San Simeon. The beach was so covered with seals that my son didn’t even notice them at first. They lounge and throw sand and somehow get in and out of the water. We could have watched them for hours.


Elephant Seals

Finally we parked at the bottom of the hill from Hearst Castle and waited for our tour to begin. It is necessary to buy one of the tours to see the castle. Make sure to book in advance because they sell out and you don’t want to get all the way there just to see the parking lot. The castle is beyond extravagant. Our guide was a bit wordy and loved to tell a winding story, but he was also incredibly knowledgeable. I left the castle feeling like a dreamer. It’s just that kind of place.


After an eventful day we hopped back in the car and headed toward The Oaks Hotel in Paso Robles. The drive was spectacular, with rolling green hills and the most amazing cows. Were I to be a cow, I’d want to live somewhere between the coast at San Simeon and Paso Robles. Cows have acres of pasture to eat and roam as they please. I probably stopped 1,000 times to talk to the cows and take pictures. I love those cows.

The Oaks in Paso Robles looks like a La Quinta from the outside. Ordinary. But then you step into a hotel that is cared for like a beloved bed and breakfast. When I booked the room I asked for them to leave the kids a surprise by the bed. It didn’t matter what it was. My kids love hotel rooms and all the mysteries waiting behind an unfamiliar door (free soap! Conditioner!). Anyhow, this time the hotel staff left a basket chock full of goodies. The breakfast was extensive and included any kind of eggs you wanted made on demand by the chef.

Day 4 Mariposa and The Gold Rush

Right after breakfast we embarked on our three-hour drive through wine country and farms to Mariposa. Mariposa, California is a sleepy town founded as an outpost for gold miners. It doesn’t look like much has changed in the town, in a good way. The kids were ready for a treat so we stopped at Jantz  Café and Bakery in the village. My daughter got the behemoth and delectable coconut cream pie with real meringue that tasted like marshmallow clouds. The crust was light and buttery and insanely fresh. I had a fruit pocket (think Pop Tart) made form the same piecrust. They were so delicious we stopped back at the bakery on our way out of town the following day for four more pockets.

A The Restful Nest

Chilling at The Restful Nest

We spent the night at the Restful Nest Bed and Breakfast.

I’ve stayed in many B&Bs across the country. I have never had a better breakfast or one that was prepared by someone more thoughtful than owners, Lois and Jon. Breakfast consisted of two types of homemade sausage, stuffed mushrooms, thick cut bacon, muffins, several types of eggs, fruit plates, a Spanish tortilla with potatoes, cut vegetables with homemade hummus, and assorted other goodies. Lois and Jon made sure that every food allergy and preference was accounted for. They are lovely people. The room wasn’t fancy and the furniture has probably been around a while, but it was spotless. We were all sad to leave so soon.

Breakfast Feast

Breakfast Feast

Day 5 Welcome to Yosemite National Park


El Capítan and Half Dome with Waterfall

We had a great trip so far but I couldn’t wait to get to Yosemite National Park. We drove into the park from the west on route 140. The rock formations were imposing and majestic. The wildflowers blanketed the hillside with orange splendor. It was so magnificent it all looked a bit manufactured, like a grand movie set. We made our way east and then north in the park toward Hetch Hetchy, a reservoir formed on the Tuolumne River. This is an out-of-the-way area in Yosemite and many of the roads and trails in the park were still closed due to the winter snowfall. This made it feel like we had the park to ourselves. We parked and walked across the dam, through a long dark tunnel and onto the trail that followed the rim of the giant lake.

Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy

The park ranger told us to hike until we saw the second waterfall. This would be about five-mile walk round trip. It was a warm, sunny day and my daughter was dragging a bit. But then we made it to the second waterfall and the magic happened. The kids decided to slide down the rocks and into the mini pools of water. I happily watched as the plunged into freezing cold-yet-invigorating water.

Feeling refreshed we walked back to the car and drove the short distance to The Evergreen Lodge. The lodge reminds me of the hotel in Dirty Dancing, just a good old-fashioned family vacation spot. They have activities throughout the property including billiards, ping-pong, a rope zip-line swing, climbing elements, a pool and adventure games. Every night we rushed to the giant fireplace to enjoy smore’s with families from all over the country and the world. It felt oddly like being away but also being home. Full from dinner and sticky from our s’mores we turned on the gas fireplace in our room and drifted off to sleep.

Day 6 Yosemite Valley

Behind our room the woods was home to birds and animals galore. We awoke to find families of deer roaming and gorgeous Steller’s Jay birds. On the way to the valley we stopped to hike down to the Giant Sequoias in Tuolumne Grove. It is a 3-mile hike down and then through the forest. The hike back up is a little challenging but we managed. The trees are like statues or monuments. Massive and vulnerable, yet sturdy and strong. There is one tree you can walk through and one that has fallen and decayed so that you can tunnel through it along the ground.

Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake

We left the trees behind and headed to the Yosemite valley. Along the way we spotted El Capítan, Half Dome, and many wondrous waterfalls. Since the snow was still melting throughout the park there were waterfalls around every turn. One waterfall was as high as the Empire State Building. We parked at the Yosemite Village Visitor center and hopped on the bus to the trail for Mirror Lake. The hike to Mirror lake was easy and well worth the effort. The lake lived up to its name—it was as still as glass and reflected like a perfect mirror. After another long day of hiking and driving we settled back into The Evergreen for dinner, s’mores and bed.

Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake

Day 7 The Final Day

We grabbed breakfast to go out of the Evergreen convenience store and hit the road. Just wanting to enjoy one last bit of Yosemite, we left through the south entrance on Route 41.

Before leaving the park, we spotted a bushy coyote. We pulled off the road and he walked right up to the side of the car and just stood there. Time stopped, we had our moment with him, and then he wandered off.

On the way out of Mariposa County we stumbled upon Coursegold Historic Village. Walking through this unique shopping area with teensy-tiny historic buildings was like taking a walk in the 1850s. After a quick pause for coffee and Italian soda’s from Zanders, we were on the road again.

An emergency bathroom break took us off the highway into a McDonalds about 30 minutes north of Bakersfield. Before getting back on the highway we realized we were in McFarland, made famous from “McFarland, USA,” a terrific film that you should see. We drove up to the high school and they were having a giant track meet. Considering the movie is about McFarland High’s impressive running program, this was thrilling. My kids couldn’t care less, but I exited the car to snap some pictures.

McFarland, USA

McFarland, USA

The kids regularly watch “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” the Food Network show. We all love to eat and travel so it’s a family classic. When we travel we always try to find a restaurant that was featured on the show to stop for a bite. We uncovered a winner with Moo Creamery in Bakersfield. The place is a little hard to find (it’s tucked in the back of a parking lot), but when one enters she steps into an updated-but-retro version of Al’s Diner from Happy Days. The food was great—especially inventive ice cream flavors like cereal milk and maple bacon.

Final Thoughts

The California coast and our National Parks are spectacular gifts from nature. Most of the best activities and sights in our itinerary were free or inexpensive and access was easy. We encountered deer, zebra, coyote, cows and more cows, elephant seals, otters and loads of amazing birds. This trip exceeded all of our expectations. FullSizeRender-13

Taking a road trip with a nearly 13-year-old daughter is supposed to be rough. Girls that age are purportedly moody, and they have trouble venturing away from their friends and (gasp) WiFi. My daughter has her moments but she was an absolute delight on this trip. Throughout our week-long adventure my daughter and I walked with her arm around my shoulders and mine around her waist. She isn’t much of a hugger and that’s just fine. But it makes these moments when she initiates putting her arm around me like camp buddies that much more special.   walking arm and arm casey solvang

We all experienced a little sadness when we returned home. It was just that good of a trip. On to planning the next adventure.

I’m the shorter one relishing the moment.