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Trip Report CA family trip Big Sur, Yosemite, L.A., San Fran June July 2012

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Hi Everyone,
We are back from our 12 day trip to California with 3 teenage boys. Some of our adventures include: a 6hr flight delay, lost keys, keys locked in our rental van in Yosemite, and delayed luggage!
The best priced flights I could find were to and from San Francisco from Memphis. I tried about 6 cities at least. We arrived at the airport on a Saturday afternoon to find out that because our plane had mechanical issues, we would be delayed 6 hours in leaving. We couldn't fly out until 7p.m. which meant we would have to stay in Salt Lake City, our transfer airport. All of the Delta workers were trying to find alternate routes for the passengers so we stood there 1 1/2 hours until she finally told us she couldn't find anything else with 5 open seats.

American Express Skymiles advice:
This may be completely obvious to some people but I didn't realize that if I didn't buy all 5 tickets in one receipt, we wouldn't get the priority boarding or free checked bags perks. I had heard "everyone in the cardholders party" description for it. Since our AMEX is technically in my husband's name first and mine is secondary, we had to go through a long mess to get our first bag free for all 5 of us and we still couldn't get all zone 1 boarding. Yes I paid for the tickets with skymiles amex but that doesn't really matter. It is a long story why I got three of ours on another day but I will never do that again. My husband and one son got to board in zone 1 while the other 3 of us waited. I gave him our biggest carryons to take with him before the plane got crowded. I had already learned that if I fly by myself I couldn't get the checked bag with just my card but now I will also be careful on family trips to purchase all 5 tickets at once together.

Delta didn't offer any meal vouchers; my husband had to ask for them. They gave us each $6.00 per meal for that evening and breakfast. That would be great if the airport had 1985 prices! The worst part of the delay was that it was my son's 13th birthday. The flight attendant gave my kids free snack packs on the now half empty plane though to help make up for it.

Comfort Inn Airport Salt Lake City
Flying towards Salt Lake City, we could see the fire plumes. We wondered what it could be and then we saw on the news about the wildfires. Delta put us up at the Comfort Inn Airport location. The front desk worker was really nice even though she was really busy. The hotel was pretty crowded with a conference. The hallways were burning up with no AC! We ate in their restaurant which was ok-typical cheaper hotel restaurant. The rooms were good and clean but a little worn out. There was even a cigarette burn on the bedspread but their rate is less than $100.00. We got two rooms since there were 5 of us.

The hotel shuttle van only holds 9 people so you have to reserve a spot. The 7 a.m. was full, so we had to catch the 6:30 a.m. one. We barely made it. Since we only had our carryons with us, we looked a little frightful I am sure. I only had time to grab our toothbrushes and pajamas when Delta told us of our new layover and took our checked bags. Of course, our flight to San Francisco was delayed 30 minutes more that morning.

Avis San Francisco
We finally made it and my husband took the rental car "monorail" that SFO has to pick up our van while the kids and I got our bags. SFO got the luggage out both times we flew in there. I used his corporate id to reserve our car rental. For one week's rental for a minivan, it was $620.00 which included our mileage. We switched the 2nd week for a smaller Chevy Impala which was $162 for 5 days. We saved money by switching out in L.A. to the smaller car.

Long lines at Avis
My husband said the lines were really long both times we went into SFO. Since he had a priority card or whatever it is called, he was able to walk straight to the vehicle and save a lot of time. The one caveat of that is that if you have a problem, you have to stand in line anyway. When we came back through at the end of the trip, we got a really dirty car but you hate to waste 45 min of vacation to tell them.

Hyatt House Hotel Belmont
I just wanted to mention this because this is where we would have stayed if we had made it the first night. It was $160.00 with AAA discount. The nice thing about it is that it has 2 bedrooms. We could have had a king bed in one room and 2 queens in the other plus a sofa bed and kitchenette for that price! It is about 10 miles below the airport so maybe not the most convenient. If you have 3 kids like me and get tired of trying to find a place with 3 beds this would be awesome! A lot of "suite hotels" just have a king and a pullout bed which really doesn't get you anywhere.

GPS useless
Our gps couldn't get a signal in a great part of San Francisco. Luckily I was old school and brought city maps and a California map. We knew it wouldn't work going to Big Basin Redwoods State Park so I printed those directions too. It was sketchy all over that area, including Monterey and Big Sur so don't rely on just it by itself.

Next: Big Basin Redwoods, Monterey, Big Sur

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    We went to Mountain View to pick up an order I had done online at Walmart and it was really crowded and slow but we also got snacks and drinks for the cooler. We left there around 12 p.m. Unfortunately we got a late start because of the delayed flight into San Francisco. Also we were wearing our clothes from the day before if you happen to see photos later. :(

    The ride to Big Basin and then on to Monterey wasn't as bad as I thought. It took us about one hour from Mountain View to get to the state park. There were constantly guys on motorcycles speeding past us on the narrow curvy road which got on our nerves.

    The road is curvy and really on the edge of a cliff most of the way. But I believe the SF to Big Basin trip is a lot prettier and more interesting than the Big Basin to Santa Cruz trip (on the west side of the park). The forest can seem enchanted in places. If you are on Hwy 9 going to Big Basin from San Fran you are on the safer side of the road. I would be more nervous doing hwy 9 from Big Basin to San Fran because of being on the cliff side. But you can take one other highway near there I believe. For parts of hwy 9, the road is actually one lane with nowhere to scoot over, so you you have to be really observant around the corners. That is the worst part of it and it is only small sections. I do get dizzy easy and have dramamine and acupuncture bands with me when I travel, but because you can only go 20-30 mph and I kept looking far ahead, I was o.k.

    We stopped at an overlook off of hwy 9 along the way and took photos. The marker said Summit Meadows Trail and Skyline to the Sea Trail. We saw several stops on hwy 9 for these trails and overlooks. You can see really far away obviously. There are trails on the left and right. We walked down the one on the right and it was pretty. There are about 10 parking spaces there. You can see one on a Mapquest satellite map. It is a big grassy area with the parking lot above it.

    Big Basin was more busy than I thought it would be. It was hard to find a parking space actually. There is a store with snacks and tshirts etc. and supplies for campers. We walked on trails for about 2 hours (because we had already wasted time hunting in our luggage for hiking boots and jackets etc after our late flight issues). There are a lot of fairly level areas to walk on. They also have Ranger talks and walks throughout the day.

    We did the Redwood Loop Trail which is only 1/2 mile and the main entry trail. My husband is a great dad for three boys because he likes to climb and explore. Any trail we did took longer because they would venture off the path and explore or climb up trees if they could. We also paused a lot to take photos. This trail is level and easy.

    We also hiked a while on the Sequoia Trail which veers off from the Redwood Loop Trail. It has paths that go anywhere from 3.5 to 5.5 miles and is easy to moderate.

    We got back on hwy 9 to head towards Santa Cruz. This part of the road was kind of boring but easier driving-all two lanes with room. It looked like any road in east Tennessee. We passed Henry Cowell Redwoods state park about 30 minutes after we left Big Basin so they aren't too far apart. It took us about an hour to get to outskirts of Santa Cruz.

    We had originally planned on also going kayaking in Elkhorn Slough with otters and seals and my boys were really excited about it. The price for an individual kayak per person is around $30 which is as cheap or less than a ride on the 2 hr tour boat. But because of Delta, we couldn't get there in time. Unfortunately they are closed on Mondays so we couldn't do it the next day either.

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    La Quinta Inn Monterey
    This hotel was less than $140 (with AAA discount)a night and got good reviews on Tripadvisor so we stayed there two nights. It was really clean and the rooms were cheery. It was also really quiet and easy to get to places. The front desk was polite and got us a roll-away bed very quickly for our 3rd son. The bathrooms still need updating; they are worn out looking but I can accept that for a good price and cleanliness. They also have free breakfast with waffle machines.

    Sardine Factory Restaurant Monterey
    We ate here without reservations Sunday night. It is a really pretty place with 3 themed areas. The entry is like an old pub, the middle is like a dressy parlor, and the back is like a glass greenhouse/ gazebo with lights strung everywhere and plants. We sat in the last area. It was very pretty and calming after a busy day. We were worried about wearing shorts and tshirts but part of the diners were in touristy day clothes and part of them were dressed up a little. They probably put the dressier people in the middle.

    It is pretty expensive. Our meals averaged about $40 a person with drinks. They have a very fancy wine list with bottles over $2,000.00. They have won awards for that.
    Since my son's birthday was spent in the airport, I ordered him the Swan Sorbet. They actually freeze ice in a swan shape, put a LED light under it so it glows and put dessert on top. It was $7.00 and so pretty! The waiter added a piece of chocolate cake to it for his birthday. The service was the best we probably have ever had. Our drinks were always refilled after about 5 sips. They checked on us constantly. Unfortunately I can't remember our entrees now but it was all good. We liked everything.

    Afterwards we walked to the ocean and Cannery Row. Hardly anyone was about. It wasn't what we expected. It was a few shops and a few bars-nothing we couldn't have missed. It was really cold and windy by then. We left after about 20 minutes.

    Monday morning we headed out to all of the beach state parks along the Pacific. We decided to do 17 mile drive. I just had to get some photos of the Lone Cypress while I had a chance. We are also from Augusta, Ga and grew up going to the Masters Golf Tournament so we had to drive through Pebble Beach.

    We enjoyed it and actually spent 1 1/2 hours on it. We stopped a lot for photos. The boys enjoyed bird rock. It is a large rock covered in white bird poop. The Spanish Links Golf Course if filled with retro 1960s houses. Unfortunately, we got turned around in Carmel trying to get from there to Hwy 1 so be careful of your turns. We rode through Carmel and it looks really cute and neat with all of the downtown stores.

    I had an idea to go to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park and then make our way back once we judged how much time we would have instead of risking staying too long at one place and not making it to McWay Falls or somewhere neat because of it. This might have been a dumb idea. Since we took too long on 17 mile drive and got a little lost, it was 11 a.m. once we started down the PCH.

    Garrapata State Park (7 miles south of Carmel)
    We just had to go ahead and stop here. You have wide views of the mountains and you can get down to the beach also. There are a lot of strange colorful plants on this hillside. There are trails to the ocean but just narrow footpaths. If you take the one to the right after you get down the stairs, it is not nearly as precarious as the other one. It is a really interesting walk down. Be careful. We got to the bottom and found starfish, sea anemones, oysters and mussels of some sort. We stayed there checking out the area and taking photos until 1:00 p.m. When the tide came in, it really came in fast! If you like to explore, check it out.

    We ate here and waited about 25 minutes for a table for lunch. They completely ignored me for 3 minutes at the podium while they talked before they acknowledged me which was pretty rude. Unfortunately, we got the worst seat in the house. We were on the 3rd row next to the concrete seat wall where guests wait. We were in the sun as only half our table was covered. I don't mind the sun but it was a pretty hot eating condition. Our view wasn't so great and the food was soso. He said their special of the day was barbecue ribs which was funny. We would never leave Memphis and eat ribs in California...funny! The hamburger was good but not big enough for a man or a teenage football player.

    Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
    We parked here and went up a mountain trail near the parking lot. Ever the explorer my husband took the boys up a creek bed with a small waterfall. It was filled with storm debris but the trees overhead were spiky and interesting. They wasted about 45 minutes there.
    Next we walked across the road to McWay Falls. One note here California...don't let people get away without paying the state park entrance fee. A lot of people parked on the highway and never paid and CA needs the money!
    McWay Falls reminded me of that old Howard Jones song, No One is to Blame from the 80's. "You can look at the menu but you just can't eat, you can dip your foot in the pool but you can't have a swim." Well, we could only look at the pretty water and waterfalls but you can't touch it-so frustrating, especially on a warm day!! I didn't realize that a family had a house right there. You can still see their terrace and foundation. How cool would that have been. We also hiked to the area above the falls but that trail ends with a sign campers only. It was neat though. We stayed there at least 1 1/2 hours.

    We had originally hoped to see Limekiln, but decided we would run out of time, so we started our return to Monterey.


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    I had read about Pfeiffer Beach and how it is unmarked. I looked it up on Mapquest and wrote some descriptions about finding it. It is near the Big Sur Post Office but the PO is in a tiny strip mall type thing so it is easy to miss. The only thing at the turn is about 7 mailboxes and some kind of warning sign. We turned there and luckily about 100 yards in there was a sign "Pfeiffer Beach 2 miles." We started second-guessing ourselves because there were a lot of shacks and scary houses with 3 old cars in the yard. My teenager joked that it was an internet ruse to trap tourists and that there wasn't a beach there at all. This road is one lane most of the way so look out around the corners. There are periodic turnouts to wait for someone to go around you. Needless to say it seems a lot longer than 2 miles.

    The walkway is so pretty with overhanging trees. The beach itself had large rock formations in the water. I took my tripod and planned on getting some good photos. Unfortunately, the wind is very very strong there. You would probably need 10 lbs in weights for your tripod at least. Also the wind blows the sand all over so protect your lens. My husband and sons got in the water for about 15 minutes and climbed up the rocks. The water was so cold it was all I could do to stand in it for 2 minutes to take their photos. My feet hurt for 2 more minutes after I got out while they "thawed out." My 15 yr old had climbed to the top of the large rock before I knew it. There are a lot of crevice handholds to find. My kids had fun sliding down the large sand wall. We were there around 5:30 - 7:30 p.m. right as sunset begins. Unfortunately, no sun came near the "keyhole" in the large rock. Maybe it would in the morning. I know February is the best month for that but I hoped it would light up a little in the summer. The surf is pretty strong there to photograph and there is a creek running back towards the parking lot. My kids played in the neat trees around the parking lot. The bathrooms are atrocious!! They are splattered holes in the ground basically. I held my pee for hours instead of using it - ugh why can't California state parks have clean bathrooms and soap like other parts of the country?


    Even though the sun was starting to set, we went to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park next. We parked and finally found the waterfall trail. There is a Mountain Lion warning on the sign as you start...eery as the sun is setting. It says they go after kids the most so keep them close. Of course mine are larger than me now. There are some large Redwoods as you start the trail but not further in. It was very dreamy looking in the sunset. Due to some storms a few years ago, the regular way to the falls is still blocked with debris so you have to go the long way. We didn't know what we were in for. It is a steep trail the whole way. We thought we would do a short hike before dark but it took us a while. There are some overlooks and another trail to a "valley view." If you read something about an easy hike along the creek to the falls, that is the one that is still closed. The one we took is between 1 and 2 miles round trip and took us about 1 1/2 hours roundtrip with a little looking around. It is almost all uphill until you are near the falls then you go downhill to them and then uphill back to the rest of the trail. We got done right at dark. Every noise made me think of mountain lions.

    We went back to Monterey and just got fast food drive thru for our hotel. We had scrambled and climbed over a lot of trails and rocks that day and were worn out.

    Unfortunately we didn't get to Point Lobos which was highly recommended. Hopefully we saw some cool similar areas but I was really upset about that. If I had to skip something, I would have skipped Pfeiffer Big Sur because the waterfalls were puny anyway and the trail was scenic but not better than Point Lobos judging from photos. But we burned off our lunch!

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    We just thought Nepenthe was ok too. I wouldn't go back.

    We loved Sardine Factory. We got the ice cream bon bon's for dessert. It came out all smoky looking(I suppose some kindof dry ice effect). We didn't see any of those light up desserts, but that would be cool too.

    Be glad your GPS didn't work. It would have sent you on a goose chase to Big Sur. Part of Big Basin is on the ocean, but the part that everyone goes to is where the trees are. GPS and Fodors book, both directed us to the ocean resulting in a real screw up.

    It's a shame you missed Elkhorn and Mcway. They are awesome!!
    I hope your Yosemite portion of the trip is much better. This sounds like a disaster, so far. We had one like that last year.

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    <<<McWay Falls reminded me of that old Howard Jones song, No One is to Blame from the 80's. "You can look at the menu but you just can't eat, you can dip your foot in the pool but you can't have a swim." Well, we could only look at the pretty water and waterfalls but you can't touch it-so frustrating, especially on a warm day!! I didn't realize that a family had a house right there. You can still see their terrace and foundation. How cool would that have been. We also hiked to the area above the falls but that trail ends with a sign campers only. It was neat though. We stayed there at least 1 1/2 hours.>>>

    <<<It's a shame you missed Elkhorn and Mcway>>>

    They didn't miss McWay Falls. They did miss Point Lobos.

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    Thanks sf7307 so funny

    spirobulldog "the best laid plans of mice and men...often go awry" We had a great time just messed up by a late start and a little more tired b/c of it

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    As a consolation for Elkhorn, I am taking the boys canoeing in the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia where we will see gators and other creatures haha:)It is close to home and familiar to them but still fun.

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