Family Vacation in Northern California

After five long years, my family FINALLY came out to visit me in San Francisco.  Since they were flying all the way across the country (a big deal for some of them), we made it a nice road trip by adding in Monterey, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe.  While it was a challenge for me to put together something that worked for three kids (aged 9 and 11), a grandmom (a fairly active 70-something), and four very different adults - the really amazing destination actually made it easy.  I mean- I am just so lucky to call this area home!!  I'll try to keep this short & let the pictures do the talking, but squeezing a 10-day trip into one blog post may take a minute or two!

First up they arrived in SF and we did the "touristy" stuff on day one.  Lucikly, it was a surprisingly HOT and sunny day in SF, so that made the open fire-truck tour, cable car ride, and trip out to Alcatraz really, really worth it.  The kids LOVED the fire truck tour - a serious contender for their favorite thing of the entire trip.  The commentary is fairly worthless (we could hardly hear anything), but it's seriously fun & cool - and you get great pics!  Check them out:

Next up, we walked over to Ghiradelli Square & hopped on the cable car for a ride up the hill to Lombard St.  The more active of us ran down to the bottom of the hill for the view looking up, but then we went back on the cable car up to the top of Nob Hill.  Sadly, it was Sunday Brunch, so our trip up to Top of the Mark was basically an elevator ride, but still worth the amazing views you get from up there.  (Tip:  if you have adults, a happy hour martini on a clear day is really a nice stop!)  We hopped back on the California cable car line to hit the Ferry building, but were interrupted by the Pride Parade (which I assumed would have moved on at that point in the day, but it proved to be a great little teaching moment for accepting differences, and mostly everyone loved it).  After lunch at the fabulous Ferry building, it was back to the hotel to rest before hitting the Alcatraz Tour.  Other than SOME in the family not listening to advice about taking the tram up to the top of the hill (it is a hefty walk uphill to start!), and others getting stressed out that our audio tours were not 100% synced up, it really is a great activity for everyone.  We ALL thought it was interesting & informative, the kids liked running into the cells, and oh yeah- AMAZING views back over the city.  A final touristy stop for dinner at The Stinking Rose (surprisingly good!!) finished up a really great day with SF's greatest hits.

Next up it was off to the beach, which strangely for this southern family meant getting COLDER - and it was even a really nice day!!  Just goes to show that for some people, 70-degree semi-cloudy weather is sweatshirt weather, for others it's bikini-volleyball weather.  Heh.  In any case, we lunched in Santa Cruz, ran around Carmel's city beach, and then hit the 17-mile drive.  The clouds really did descend as the day went on, but we managed to have a great time, and even saw deer along the way.  We also argued incessantly over whether the black bits bobbing in the ocean were otters or kelp... video evidence apparently proves they were otters.  In any case- lots of fun for the kids, with plenty of out-of-the-car time to balance out the fair amount of driving.

The next day was pretty evenly split between enjoying ourselves at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, and a long drive out across the vast central valley to get to Yosemite.  We took our time getting to the Aquarium, and therefore were almost late for the big otter feeding - be sure to check the schedule the day before if seeing this is important to you.  Since we were a bit late, we didn't have the best view, but the kids were able to squeeze their way to the front.  We then made our way over to the deep ocean feeding demonstration which one in our party said "This is the best thing we've seen so far!".  Honestly- this place may be small, and a little dated in some ways, but there is some serious quality to be seen.  Plus we were able to scope out some otters & such floating out in the bay - so lovely!  Then, after lunch in the cute downtown area (away from the awfully touristy Cannery Row area), we hit the road.  After the lovely hills outside of Monterrey, well, there's a whole lot of nothing.  The kids rode together for this section of the trip, so they at least had each other to entertain them, and the "adult" car had a world cup soccer match to listen to, but it's a solid 4 hour drive.  We in fact were almost late to our dinner reservation at the classic & beautiful Ahwahnee lodge, so our welcome to the glorious & impressive Yosemite Valley was a bit rushed & stressed, but the men in the family did love speeding along the curvy roads at twilight, so there is that.  A few notes on dining at the Ahwahnee - the room is drop dead gorgeous, and the food is mostly scrumptious.  Reserve well in advance.  It is quite the leisurely affair, however, and though we had two servers attending our table, none of us were particularly impressed with the service.  And finally- it's pricey.  By far the most expensive meal we had, with no real competitors - even compared with a nice finale meal in SF.  Still- if only for the lovely lodge and amazing twilight views of the surrounding cliffs - it was worth it!

Now, Yosemite National Park is seriously one of the greatest American treasures, and you could easily spend a week there and still not see everything.  On our quick schedule- we had two nights.  We were staying by the southwest entrance to the park, in El Portal, about a half hour drive over to the valley village.  We had discussed the possibility of a trail ride, a tram tour + hike, and other possibilities.  Sadly, since we were visiting at SUCH a high-demand time, I didn't call quite early enough to reserve a horseback ride at a reasonable hour for so many of us.  (Note- I had tried to reserve rooms at the Ahwahnee six months in advance, and they didn't even have enough availability for 2-bedded rooms for our pre-July-4th arrival.  BOOK IN ADVANCE!)  However, when the kids got a peek at our private pool, we realized that lots of hiking/exploring was NOT in our future.  The private pool was part of the "Master Suite" at the Cedar Lodge and it was amazing.  The "suite" was really a full 3-bedroom townhouse, complete with kitchen and three full bathrooms, with a massive patio, full-sized pool, along with our own hot-tub - all 100% private, yet on property of the hotel, and just across the road from a great swimming hole on the Merced river.  Completely perfect spot for a larger family or several couples travelling together.  So- for our big Yosemite day, we decided on a do-it-yourself tour, with a drive up to Glacier Point for a picnic, followed with a relaxing afternoon in the Merced river and our pool.  The views from both the Tunnel view stop and up at Glacier Point were spectacular - it really is a MUST see for any nature-lover.  Lots of fun rocks to clamber on for the kids, but plenty easy enough of a walk for grandmom.  The drive up/down is not for the faint of heart, but luckily we avoided any car sickness, and had a wonderful relaxing day in the river & pool.

Our next day was going to be the biggest drive yet - we had to get from Yosemite Valley up to Lake Tahoe.  After endless debates, I decided to cut through the park to the Tioga Pass, and then drive straight up through Nevada before going back up into the mountains to the lake.  The other way just seemed like it would be mountain driving the whole time, and the Nevada route seemed to cut about a half hour off the trip.  Everyone was SO GLAD we chose to go over Tioga Pass!  Firstly, we really got to see a LOT of Yosemite, and of course - it was beautiful.  We saw remaining damage from last year's big Rim Fire, old-growth forests, peaceful lakes, lovely meadows, and yes- lots more mountains.  It is two full hours, but completely worth it.  After going through the dramatic pass, you hit the cute little village of Lee Vining, just off of Mono Lake, which itself was just lovely.  

After that, it's pretty wide open, deserted ranch-land for a few hours, before you get to Carson City.  Easy driving though, and to get back up to the mountains is a really nice road that puts you right at the Nevada lodge of Heavenly Mountain Resort - easy peasy!  Plus we had plenty of time to find our rental house, explore the mountainous back-yard, hit the grocery, and have a tasty dinner in South Lake.  We had planned the trip in order to spend July 4th on Lake Tahoe, and the options for how to spend that day were endless.  We ended up leaving Grandmom at home to relax while the adults & kids headed up the gondola at Heavenly to run around with amazing views over the lake.  We did a hike, rode another chair lift up to the top, and elected to try out one of the ropes courses available.  We had originally really wanted to zip-line, but even though we got in line a full half hour before the ticket window opened, and were only about 20 people back in line, the first available time slot for the zip line was already 1:30 in the afternoon by the time we got to the ticket window.  By the time we got up to the top, we realized the zip line was really only one long ride, and the second chair lift you ride gives you nearly the same experience, and exactly the same view.  In other words- the zip line is completely skippable.  The ropes courses, however - those we didn't pre-purchase in a combo ticket and we probably should have.  It was awesome (for most of us - one in our party realized they have a very health fear of heights, but thanks to the help from the guides on course and some excellent coaching from dad, they made it through one of the courses - hooray!)!!  Another thing to note about enjoying Heavenly's summer activities- it's pretty expensive, unsurprisingly.  An apple at the lodge was almost $3, for pete's sake!  But, like I said, the views from up there are pretty unparalleled, and the kids did love all the fun stuff to do up there.  We elected to have more pool time after our exertions, and then just cooked out and enjoyed the amazing fireworks from the comfort of our neighborhood pool.  We did attempt to go down to the lake shore to watch them, but, well, that seems like it would be an all-day adult-only situation.  The crowds were MASSIVE, and about every other person we saw walking was holding a cooler.  We were much happier up in our hill-side neighborhood, even if there were some trees between us & a clear view of the show.

Almost finished!  After our great July 4th, we dashed down the mountain to do a quick "family float" rafting tour on the American River.  The four-hour trip would've been too early or late for us, and probably too difficult for grandmom's abilities, but this two-hour option was perfection!  The guide was great, and we all had a fun time cruising down the river (no category four rapids to worry about, and we practically had to jump in to get wet!).  We used American River Recreation (, but there are tons of outfitters on the American.  It's perfectly located between Tahoe and the bay, so it was a great way to split up our drive.  Even though it was Sunday, we also elected to make another pit stop at the Jelly Belly candy factory, located about an hour outside SF.  This FREE tour would've been amazing, but since the factory wasn't operational, it was only ok.  You do get plenty of samples of jelly beans, and it IS a fun tour, even with the factory quiet, so I can only imagine how great it would be during working hours.

Now, back in SF, we had two full days left to explore all that we hadn't seen before.  We hung on to our rental cars for those days, which gave us the freedom to zoom all around town.  We started with a truly fantastic breakfast at my favorite neighborhood spot- Brenda's Soul Food.  Then we had a tour of the finer side of things - fancy mansions!  We saw the Mrs. Doubtfire house, Larry Ellison's house, the Lyon St stairs (aka, "billionaire's steps), and the Painted Ladies, among others.  I didn't take many photos of this stuff, well, because I see it all the time!  We then drove over to the coast for a pretty overcast hike at Land's End (one of my favorite spots in the city!).  Tons of fun for the kids - even if the views weren't as good as they normally are!  

The rest of the afternoon was spent hanging out in Golden Gate Park, checking out the Fillmore Street Festival, and then enjoying dinner in Hayes Valley.  For our final day - we headed back across the Golden Gate to the justifiably famous Muir Woods.  The parking lots were packed, even on a Monday, but with some excellent stalking, we were able to get spots in the lot, and not miles down the road.  Also- once you get past the entrance and off to the back of the park, you leave most of the crowds behind and really get to admire the majesty of these gorgeous old giant trees.  We ended up even pushing Grandmom to join us on one of the longer loop trails, so we were really by ourselves for a bit.  Oh- and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife - we were incredibly lucky to catch a river otter making his way down the stream that runs through the park.  Simply amazing!

After lunch in Sausalito, we headed back to the hotel/home for some relaxation before our big finale dinner at the venerable old House of Prime Rib.  This place is a total relic from the 1950's, with the menu consisting of: salad, your choice of cut of meat (carved table side), creamed spinach or corn, potato (mashed or baked), and yorkshire pudding.  There was more choice on the dessert menu, but everything was simply awesome.  The atmosphere is somehow fun AND elegant - and certainly not nearly as stuffy as I expected.  All in all, we were all pretty tired, as it was a very full 9 days of touring, with decent amounts of driving, but it was a really fantastic family trip.  Now I just have to figure out where to take them all next time!  :)