16 – 19 March 2017 at Lake Isabella/Kern Valley KOA
Lake Isabella KOA Pioneer Playground
Heading from Anaheim into the Sequoia National Forest and southern Sierra Nevada mountains outside Bakersfield, CA was a change of scenery. We gained about 4,000ft of elevation – most of which Sherrie did without tow/haul mode engaged all the while wondering why it was struggling to stay above 45MPH.
Lake Isabella is fairly remote and boasts mostly white water rafting and mountain biking trails nearby. The remoteness focuses your attention instead on the beautiful high desert mountainous scenery and enormous sky vistas. At night, there is no nearby light pollution and wide open spaces which provided an unparalleled view of the stars. Of course, that wouldn’t be complete without a campfire and s’mores.
Campfire at Lake Isabella KOA
The Lake Isabella/Kern Valley KOA is small and family friendly. They have a great playground for the kids. Our kids gave it all thumbs up and spent many hours playing in the folly western town, wagon, slide, and swings.
Isabella, being the mindful child she is, always asks if there is anything dangerous which lives where we’re visiting. Here, we discussed rattlesnakes and black widows. She knows of rattlesnakes from Yakima but we had to describe a black widow, sure she wouldn’t need to know. Of course, she was the first visitor in 3 years to find one in the park 🙂
Black Widow at Lake Isabella
As with most of our stops, the kids make instant friends with other campers. Here, they met Casey with whom you could always find Lucas racing their bikes around the campground. Luckily, Casey also joined us for s’mores on our last evening – his first time making s’mores!
We spent half-a-day visiting the Silver City Ghost Town, which may be the only thing to really do for a young family nearby. Overall, it was a very relaxing site and a nice change of pace from Disneyland. Real camping in the mountains under the stars.
From Lake Isabella, we headed back to Anaheim for work meetings.
Kids enjoying the open ocean exhibit at Monterey Aquarium
After a long morning of work and home school, we headed south for Monterey. Ever since I read John Steinbeck many years ago, this area has always held a special place in my imagination. Driving by Gilroy and smelling the garlic, through Salinas thinking of Mice and Men, walking down Cannery Row past Doc Rickett’s laboratory, and the lasting impact the Dust Bowl and Steinbeck’s description in the Grapes of Wrath left on the area.
In our visit last year we didn’t make time for the aquarium and this time we went specifically to visit the aquarium. While expensive, the aquarium is amazing and deserves its title as the best in the world. The aquarium itself is situated in an old cannery and is a unique juxtaposition between the over-fishing which doomed the canneries and a world-class ocean conservation organization. Not only is the aquarium itself spectacular, but enjoying the bevy of balconies perched off the pier on which the aquarium sits offers views into the bay itself, and it’s effortless to watch otters play in the water and the surf buffeting anemone-covered rocks.
Isabella and jelly fish at Monterey Bay Aquarium
During our two and a half hours we spent most of our time at the touch pools and enjoying the colossal and breathtaking open ocean and kelp forest tanks. The jellyfish were also a big hit – especially the moon jelly which were displaying krill in various degrees of digestion, the evidence of a recent meal.
After the aquarium, we headed to dinner at the Hula’s Island Grill – a great place with good drinks and happy hour all day Tuesdays! Sherrie enjoyed her Blue Hawaii and I had a Mai Tai while we all enjoyed coconut shrimp rolls, jalapeño bacon mac & cheese, and house-made french fries (with 5 cups of ketchup for the kids).
The #1 attraction in the Lake Isabella area is the Silver City Ghost Town located in Bodfish, CA. Aside from that most come to the region for the natural beauty and white water rafting.
The ghost town isn’t the traditionally abandoned townsite and scattered dilapidated buildings associated with so many others. Instead, it is a collection of mid-to-late 19th-century buildings collected and moved from other towns (some abandoned) in the area to this site. Together they represent primary functions in any town in that period, but individually they each have a unique story. There are about 20 buildings in different stages of decay or repair. Some have drywall inside, and others have bare planks. Some have been painted, some stained, some left dry. You can examine about half the buildings by standing outside the door or a window and looking in. The only buildings you can enter are the jail and the entryway to the church. Inside are arranged items from various periods all the way up to the 1950s and odd-looking mannequins.
Silver City Ghost Town Church
There are about 20 buildings in different stages of decay or repair. Some have drywall inside, and others have bare planks. Some have been painted, some stained, some left dry. You can examine about half the buildings by standing outside the door or a window and looking in. The only buildings you can enter are the jail and the entryway to the church. Inside are arranged items from various periods all the way up to the 1950s and odd-looking mannequins.
All-in-all a unique place and a concept I’ve never seen before. Sherrie and I first thought about turning away because it seemed like a tourist trap but the site has some notoriety, and the kids would love it regardless – so we endeavored to explore. The cost was $20 for our family, and we took about 90 minutes to explore the town and attached antique shops. The gentleman running the place was knowledgeable and helpful. The town cat mostly aloof and sleepy on a warm afternoon.
Giuliana exploring Silver City Ghost Town
The kids took off exploring the town and scared of any potential apparitions which may materialize at any moment. Aurelia and Guiliana still think you call it a ghost town because it’s haunted. The site has many associated ghost stories, but we didn’t encounter any on the visit.
If you’re in the area and looking for something to do, I’d recommend it. It’s inexpensive, and young kids love it.
Sherrie was itching to go see something of San Diego while we were in the area staying at Santee Lakes. So, looking on Trip Advisor revealed the #1 thing to do is the USS Midway. A US steam-powered aircraft carrier now parked in San Diego harbor.
We had a great time visiting the flight deck, sitting in some of the planes and visiting below decks. Especially awesome was the admiral’s quarters with the war room. We spent 3 hours on the ship exploring – which is the best adventure for the kids.
It was a great memory and dove tails very well with the USS Missouri visit a couple of years ago. Isabella and Lucas still had memories of that previous visit.
Packing up the RV in Anaheim to pull away was less than smooth. We lounged around longer than we should have and then while breaking down, we had a lovely older couple sharing their full-time RVer stories and telling us of the gentleman’s miraculous health recovery. We loved chatting but realized the time, and we needed to get going! We made quite a mess while dumping (gray, not black, thank GOD)! The hose kept detaching, and there was wet sand all over the ground and thus our hands and then just all over us. Good times! Remind me to shower tonight. Yikes! We pulled away from Anaheim RV Park at 11:45 AM and hit the road!
We spent a wonderful week at Santee Lakes. We pulled into spot #232 at 2:30 pm. Check-in was a breeze. The recreation area is run by the water bureau and is a set of 7 lakes used to manage and reclaim storm and runoff water. It’s a fantastic place, and we regretted not spending more time there.
Our nighttime campsite in Santee Lakes – notice the bareness indicating our transient nature
It was our first real experience spent around full-timers who live there or spend most of their time, at the park. We learned we’re called “transients” (those who move between parks regularly). Interestingly, you can tell full-timers based on how much stuff they have on their porch (like potted plants, etc.) and bling (such as LED lights) around their RV. We met some wonderful people like Clive (originally from West Lynn, OR) and Teresa, his mother-in-law (from Ontario, Canada). Our children made fast friends with Megan and Ryan, their children and spent most of the day digging and chasing the plentiful lizards.
Sergio working outside in Santee Lakes
Our neighbor, Steve, also a full-timer was super helpful troubleshooting our leaking black tank flush. He gave us two washers and hose quick-connect. People have been so kind and helpful to us newbies as we learn the way.
They had a great pool. The first day we went to the pool too late after the sun went below the hills, and even a pool heated to 76 degrees is cold when the temperature drops. However, we found the best time at the pool was after 2 pm when it was hottest. We also met a couple who lives in Denmark half the year but spends the winters at Santee Lakes.
Homeschool at Santee Lakes
At night and even early morning, you can hear the coyotes – an active bunch at the lakes not only howling at night but roaming around your campsite in the morning. The sounds of their padded feet on the sandy soil easily distinguishable in the quite calm.
This isn’t all a vacation, although we try hard to balance, we work every day, and the kids keep up on their homeschool too 🙂
On Tuesday the 14th we went on the paddle boats and while it was at 10:30 am it was quite warm.
While in San Diego I’ve heard you have to try the Mexican food – so we went out to discover something awesome, and we found it at El Rancho in Santee. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! The tacos and enchiladas are great. We ate there for lunch both Tuesday and Wednesday.
While we spent most of our time at Santee Lakes and around the Van de Camp, we did get out to see the USS Midway on Wednesday.
Waiting for the bus to Disneyland at Anaheim RV Park
We went to Disneyland Paris for Isabella’s fifth birthday back in 2013 during their school’s half-term holiday. We had a very lovely time and stayed at a vacation resort Marriott for part of the time and spent the other half in a Disney property hotel. But . . . it snowed. Like the whole time. The kids were freezing and they had to go to the bathroom every 5.27 minutes and Lucas was terrified of all the characters and anything that resembled a living thing, which of course included nearly every ride with a diorama sort of arrangement. So I would say it was a mixed success! The temperature here in Disneyland CA was supposed to be in the upper 70s to low 80s the entire time so I already knew half the problem was going to be solved. Giuliana sported a pull-up just in case, Sergio bought us bus tickets that shuttle us back and forth from the RV park to Disneyland, and we slathered ourselves in sunscreen and took off!
All the kids in ToonTown Jail
When we arrived in the park, we had to have our annual passport cards printed which took quite awhile (cuz, well, six of them!) and then we were off! The kids chose as their first rides Indiana Jones, Splash Mountain, Teacups, and Alice in Wonderland. We took full advantage of the rider switch tickets for any ride for which Aurelia and/or Giuliana were too small. We made sure to keep the smaller kids occupied with things like Tarzan’s Treehouse or the Winnie the Pooh ride. Everyone was full of smiles! We had lunch at a New Orleans themed café and then later had dinner at Goofy’s Kitchen in the Disneyland Hotel. The kids had a great time there which is excellent because it was a $200 buffet. Excuse me, that was vomit in my mouth. At least it was pretty good overpriced food instead of terrible overpriced food?
Their first time on space mountain
The second day we chose to go back to Disneyland and spent time in Tomorrowland and Toon Town. The kids loved Hyperspace Mountain, the Buzz Light Year Blasters, the Cars ride, rockets, Star Tours, and more. They also adored exploring the cartoon land of funny houses, jokes, and tactile delight at every turn. We decided to head back to the RV for a late dinner around 8 pm which was actually far more exhausting and time consuming than it was worth. Lesson learned.
Lucas played musical chairs with the Mad Hatter and Alice
Giuliana on her favorite ride: King Triton Carousel
The third day, we all voted to go to California Adventure where we learned the California Screamin ride is awesome, the ferris wheel with the swinging gondolas is terrifying (at least to some), and Bella could ride on California Screamin after all because it’s not as bad as the ferris wheel. J We had lunch at Ariel’s Grotto where the kids had mac and cheese or angel hair pasta, Sergio had tri-tip, and I had grilled lobster salad. Yummmmmmmmy (but another $200)!
Giuliana loved the trolley through the Studios
We rode more rides including the Ariel attraction, Cars racers, Mater’s tow trucks, Luigi’s tires, and lots of Bugs land attractions and saw the show in the Bug Theater which was really awesome and surprised at every turn. For dinner, we headed over to Storyteller Café where the kids made pizzas, ate salmon, and had mac and cheese, Sergio had roast chicken, and I had a flatbread. We headed back to our trailer late again and collapsed into bed, glad we only had one more day of Disneyland ahead of us!
The kids voted for one more day in California Adventure where it was a little busier than the day before but still really quiet and easy to get on rides. They did a soft launch of the Food and Wine festival so we decided to go meal reservation-less and get the Annual Passport Food and Wine Festival pass for $40 which gave us eight small plates at the festival. Win! We ate at the outdoor food court for lunch (vegetable bowl, clam chowder, burrito, tamales, and quesadillas), devoured two large sundaes from Ghiradelli for a midday snack, and then used the pass for dinner. There were some delicious meals to be had there including bacon mac and cheese, white cheddar lager soup, chilled cioppino, bay shrimp louie salad, fried artichoke carbonara, and a raspberry chocolate tarte. Then we went on the Midway Mania Toy Story ride, rode the carousel once more, and headed back to the RV. We survived!!!
We didn’t hit the road until nearly 10 AM again since we chatted with the couple from the previous night while breaking down and then I had to take a call with some university and government collaborators of ours. During that hour, the kiddos played around and made a couple of friends. After Serg and I had managed the first dump, we were on the road!
We had sandwiches in a grassy park area near a massive truck stop in Coalinga and reveled in the sun that was now beginning to show itself. We spent longer there than we should have, so we hit the road again. Sergio was very nervous as he realized he was going to be driving through LA and then Anaheim during rush hour traffic. GASP! It didn’t go terribly, but it was also nerve-wracking. The biggest issue was that we were also low on gas as we were too nervous to take any of the city exits to refuel as we weren’t sure they would be trailer friendly or would have a freeway return. What if we got stuck?! Luckily, we made it to Anaheim with 15 miles worth of gas left and found a gas station that would work well enough. Anaheim RV park, where we decided to plant for the next five days, was just around the corner. Ah, joy, another back in spot!!! This one was much, much, much more challenging. It included moving around some picnic tables and about two hundred pull forwards, backup, straighten out, and try again. But we did it!
We made macaroni and cheese and realized our milk had gone bad. So, awesome. Scratch that, but quesadillas work! The kids were so excited to get to sleep and take Disneyland head on the next morning!
We woke up without the kids stirring all night at a very reasonable 7:05 AM. I mentioned I like sleep, right? I was kind of afraid sleep was a thing of the past embarking on this trip. Six people in a minimally insulated mobile hotel room? Scoffs. Turns out the doors work some minor wonders! Exhaustion probably helps, too.
Sergio made the kids oatmeal and our coffee, and as we were cleaning up and finishing getting dressed, our lucky feeling started going away. The snow began to fall heavily, and we had already accumulated over an inch in less than an hour. We stuck the kids in the Suburban with a movie and started going down the breakdown checklist. Sergio started raising the stabilizer jacks with the drill we brought and realized it wasn’t working anymore so manually did it with the included tool. That wasn’t too hard! I walked with another couple up to the KOA office to inquire about road conditions. They were a fellow self-employed couple who were headed to Vegas for a heavy construction equipment conference. I have the feeling we’re going to meet some awesome and colorful people on this trip! The good news is that Grant’s Pass was right on the edge of the storm and the roads south, including the pass, were pretty clear. We finished packing up the trailer doing all the things I mentioned the previous night in reverse. We’re figuring it out, or so we thought. We turned off the fridge, the LP gas, the lights, folded down all the tables, stowed everything away, and then actually said, “Hey, the snow on the slideout will squeegee off when we bring it in. No problem.” Ahem, yes it was a problem. When we pulled it in, I stood on top of the cooler to see if the slide out (now inside) was mostly free of snow and saw there was still an inch of snow. After laughing and debating how to solve the problem (hey, let’s just slide it back out and then broom it off outside didn’t work, haha), we decided I was going to stay on the cooler and use the broom to slide the snow to the sides, where Sergio would try to catch the snow in a salad bowl to dump back outside. I’m laughing while writing this! He caught some of the snow in the bowl, and the floor caught the rest, but I fairly quickly got it off the slide and pushed it back out so we could clean off the floor. Swept that all up (plus the gravel that SOMEONE tracked inside with their slippers), then pulled the slide back in. Laughed some more and added that experience to our mental checklist of things to do/not to do. Nothing like life to keep you humble!
We pulled out just before 10:00 AM with the help of the 4WD and drove over the first pass easily. We stopped at an Albertson’s to pick up some lunch things – worst organized grocery store ever! – and Sergio took a work call. He’s been asked to keynote a conference in July at MITRE, which was exciting enough on its own but then I really got excited when I learned they wanted him to present on my nonprofit, Global Emancipation Network, for which he serves as the Technical Director. Squeal!
Sunset at RiverPoint Marina
RV Camp Site at Riverpoint Marina
We hit the road again and went up over a second pass and crossed over into California. We took turns driving and eventually pulled into RiverPoint Landing Marina Park. We started by debating whether or not we had to take the sway bars off the Equalizer 4-way weight distribution hitch and decided we didn’t have to, but being nervous newbies, we decided to do it anyway. Probably with amusement, another couple came out of their giant motorhome and asked if we needed help as Sergio and I began the dance of backing the trailer into a spot for the first time (yes, in the dark). I was driving the Suburban and Sergio was behind the trailer, both with walkie talkies in hand. I nodded enthusiastically, and the lady stood by my window helping me sort out which way to turn the wheel while the two men shouted directions through the walkie talkie to me. It was great! We got in without too much trouble, so I felt pretty good about everything. Night two in the books!
Sergio woke me up bright and early Saturday morning – accent on early (6:30 AM is brutal for this lady) – with a smile and cheerily asked, “Are you ready to go camping?!” After taking what I fear to be the last long and hot shower for a while (yes, there is a shower in the trailer but only 5 minutes’ worth of hot water), we frantically loaded all the last items in the car, bolted up the house, ran keys to friends and neighbors, and waved goodbye.
Our first stop was the Battle Ground, Washington rest area where we met my family for Rocky’s Pizza and a quick goodbye peek at our new “rig.” We’re learning the lingo already. J Then we hit the road again with our first destination plugged into Waze: Grant’s Pass, Oregon. The trip was estimated to take 7 hours, 20 minutes but you know, kids. And also RV. So a zillion of potty stops, not to mention gas fill-ups (hello, average 12.5 mi/gal fuel efficiency while towing!), and a Taco Bell run for dinner, we ended up towing for the first time ever in the dark. And the snow. In construction. But you know, it’s cool, it’s all part of the adventure! We both drove and learned how to use the towing brake and figured out lane changes and how not to bust a tire on a curb. We pulled into the Grant’s Pass KOA with minutes to spare as the office closed at 8:30 PM. They took pity on the newbies and moved us into a bigger pull through the lot by the office where we basically could just pull in and out without any maneuvering. Yay!
Sergio and I began going through our checklist, which included a million things, like: lowering the post, setting out the stabilizer jack blocks and lowering those, putting out the tire chocks, setting up the drinking water hose with the L joint, water filter, and pressure regulator, and setting up the electrical plug with the power conditioner and hooking it up. Did I mention it was dark and snowing? We got all the outside stuff done in about 20 minutes since we decided to leave the trailer hitched. We extended the single slide out, turned on the furnace to heat up the ice box, turned on the water heater, and prayed to the RV camping gods that we did everything right, and we wouldn’t roll away or blow up in the middle of the night.
The kids tornadoed into the trailer, and we eventually managed to wrangle them into pajamas and bribe them into bed. We finally got them quiet and possibly asleep around 10:30 and were just drifting off to sleep when I tried to turn on my heating blanket and realized hey, we no longer have electricity flowing. The interior lights can work off the battery, but the outlets do not function if the RV isn’t plugged in. That’s probably a good thing. Sergio had realized earlier that something was wrong when the kids OK to Wake clock suddenly lost power but chocked it up to an issue with the clock. The heating blanket definitely tipped us off to another problem. Serg buttoned back up and went outside to find the power conditioner had actually fallen off the hookup post, so the fix was very simple. Sweet, sweet blanket heat followed, and we collapsed quickly into dreamland.
My family always had a travel trailer while I was growing up. It was classic late 70s with the interior having those hallmark orange, olive green, and brown fabrics and wallpaper. My parents slept on the pull-out sofa bed, my siblings had the bunk beds in the back, and I was the “lucky” one who slept on the convertible table cum bed. The good thing was space was bigger than anyone else had. The bad thing was that I couldn’t go to sleep until everyone else was ready for bed – and yes, I was the one who always sought sleep the earliest and wanted to wake the latest. I also have a fond memory of my mother getting into the cabinet above the bed early one morning to take out coffee and filters for herself and my dad to ease into the day. A pile of napkins landed on me and gently ringed my face, making for a great photo op and an interesting way to wake up.
We used to take an annual family vacation with another family to a place called Rainbow Falls State Park in Washington State during the July 4th weekend when they hosted the Scottish Highland Games. We could participate (pretty sure I still have a stack of ribbons somewhere!), and there was always a closing ceremony where the Scots would march through the campground playing the bagpipes, dressed in their finest kilts and traditional clan garb, and we’d celebrate the winners over the campfire. Those are some of my warmest childhood memories. We also made a few bigger trips, like the time we drove to Mt Rushmore and back, hitting Yellowstone and other epic sites at the same time. I remember seeing Crazy Horse in its early stages, and the Mt. Rushmore visitor’s center was much smaller than it is now. We also went to British Columbia and Alberta, crossing over the Canadian Rockies, and visited Banff and Jasper National Parks and saw my great-grandparent’s homestead near Calgary, Alberta. My parents used to go out more frequently with my older brother when he was in drum and bugle corps; after three more kids had come along a decade later, those trips were fewer and farther between. I don’t blame them. ;-)4
Sergio’s family traveled quite a bit between some incredible trips to Europe, including the UK and Italy, and often went to California to visit their close family in the San Jose area. Once they started the restaurant, travel slowed down drastically, but they all retained their sense of wanderlust and cravings to explore the world.
Picking up our new trailer – an MPG 2800BH
Sergio and I have tried to recreate for our children some of the best things we remember about our own childhoods, including picnics in the backyard woods, summer Otter pops, gobs of travel, and plenty of laughter. When Sergio and I started talking about what we wanted in our next house several years back when we first moved to the UK, we both those of those things. Then we started really going down the rabbit hole and set our hearts and minds on buying a travel trailer and dragging the kids along to see as much of the world as we can while they still like us.
We’ve spent much of the past two years researching what type of trailer we should buy, floorplans, crunching numbers of towing capacity and payload, and saving for the day we can finally do it. Well, that day has come! After *much* deliberation and countless trips to RV sales lots and seasonal shows, we settled on a new 2016 Chevrolet Suburban LT with “luxury package” (read: heated leather seats baby!) and “sun and fun package” (read: DVD player for my sanity). A model with the max trailering package was crucial as that raised the towing capacity up to around 8000 lbs and the payload capacity about 1600 lbs. It also gave us an integrated trailer brake, tow/haul mode, automatic transmission cooler, and the 3.42 axle ratio v. the standard 3.08 axle ratio. We had to locate this unicorn Suburban in just two days as we realized after looking in fear at our upcoming travel schedules, one or both of us would be gone for the next two and a half months, leaving child care a tricky situation. We decided that since we homeschool the big two kiddos and Aurelia is only in preschool, it was the perfect time to take our circus on the road! That gave us only THREE DAYS to select our trailer and tow vehicle, pick them up, and leave home.
We took a three-hour class on how to operate the RV at Tacoma RV where we purchased it on Friday afternoon after frantically picking up the Suburban at 1:30 and signing license docs in Enumclaw. What a day! Luckily we have good friends and neighbors, and an incredible babysitter, who jumped in to help take care of the kiddos while we dashed around trying to execute our harebrained scheme.
Miracle of miracles, though, we actually flipping did it. We loaded the trailer until 11 pm on Friday night and finished up over a couple of hours on Saturday morning. We were quite the spectacle in our cul-de-sac as we just left it all hitched up overnight (um, we were possibly afraid of “fixing” what wasn’t broke!) and we had some neighbors out watching on with amusement and peppering us with questions over our nutso plans. We love our neighborhood – shout out to HPE!!!
Here goes one of our most insane, most incredible adventures yet!