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Family Travel: Exploring the Redwoods & Yosemite

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Margot Black and her family decided to hit the road for a mini summer vacation, traveling from Los Angeles to the Sierra National Forest and Yosemite. At The Redwoods, they made their home in a wooden cabin, drove a beautiful Model T Ford through the forest, and took a ride on a vintage steam train.

After our last mini-vacation that took me, my husband and 5-year-old son to the coast, we decided to head inland and experience one of the natural wonders of our great country.

Our destination was The Redwoods, located in Wawona, which nudges the Sierra National Forest and is south of Yosemite Valley. This rustic resort offers year-round cabin rentals, set against the backdrop of imposing sequoias, granite monoliths and thick forests. Absolutely stunning.

We filled up our tank in Los Angeles and drove for five hours – on exactly one full tank of gas– along the 5 freeway, north out of LA, stopping only to stretch our legs twice, and so our son could run off some excess energy.

After all that free-wheeling, we checked in at wood cabin in The Redwoods. It was the first time this particular property had come onto the market; the previous owners had raised nine kids and 27 grandkids there, so we had more than enough room for our snug party of three (you could easily fit another two adults and a few kids very comfortably).

We had a outside deck, under giant shady trees complete with gas barbecue, which my Argentine meat-devouring beast of a husband made his kingdom (and that was fine by me). The cabin also boasted a fully stocked library of children’s videos and a healthy games cabinet.

The kitchen had every appliance you could wish for, making it feel like we were at home from the get-go. I loved that after a day of hiking or swimming we could relax in our pajamas and curl up on the sofa, or that I could wake up and pour myself a large mug of coffee in the morning, and not have to wrestle with a hotel buffet breakfast counter.

I have never rented a cabin for a vacation and quickly realized this was an ideal choice for a family adventure.

We were immediately struck by the forest’s beauty – after city life, it truly was a breath of fresh air and has so much to offer, not just families, but any one of any age. From the High Sierras, to the granite cliffs, sequoia groves and valleys, there’s never a dull moment. The Pioneer Yosemite History Center in Wawona is the place to go to learn more. Here, visitors can learn step back in time and enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride around Wawona, while learning more about this stunning region. Home to many species including peregrine falcons yellow-bellied marmots and black bears, there are strict guidelines to follow about how to store food and the merits of using the forest shuttle instead of your car – but it’s all designed to make your stay more enjoyable.

We decided to make it a memorable outing and rented a vintage 1929 Model T Ford car, and spent a day driving around Yosemite taking in views of the impressive glaciers and endless trees, some of which we hugged (it would be rude not to). We picked up our retro car from the Tin Lizzie Hotel, where we met the passionate car collector and owner David and his lovely wife, Sheran. After some quick instruction and photos we set off for the Park. I have to give my husband massive props for diving this stick shift vintage car like a pro, and can hand on heart say that it’s the only time in eight years I’ve ever seen him drive all day with two hands on the wheel!

Glacier Point is one of the must-see views in the park, providing spectacular vistas of the High Sierra and Half Dome (although my heart skipped a beat as my 5-year-old decided to walked high-beam style along a stone wall with a sheer drop on one side!). Later, driving through the Mariposa Grove (also located at the south gate), we gazed wide-eyed upon the giant sequoia trees, some of which weigh more than two million pounds and have been growing for nearly 3,000 years. These magnificent trees are the largest living things known to man; there are trees you can literally walk inside, they’re so big. The setting and the car were a winning combination – and we rounded off our day with a sunset barbecue (what else?).

Another highlight was the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad tour. Steam trains and engines – what more could a child (and his parents) possibly want? This four-mile excursion was a journey back into history as we sat on locomotives that once transported logs and lumberjacks through the Sierra National Forest. The steam trains have giant log seats and afterwards we panned for gold – our son still has the tiny flecks he found. The tour ended with live music from Sugar Pine, four local musicians, and a sing-along around the campfire.

We also dined out one night at the Wawona Hotel, where we enjoyed a delicious meal on the pretty veranda…after all the self-catering it was fun to have someone else cook (even my husband admits to grillin’ fatigue). The food was homely and tasty (pot roasts, bison burger), with a good selection for children including hamburgers and hot fudge sundaes (starters from $11.95, entrees from $20.95, and the children’s menu from $9).

One of our four precious days was spent hiking through the stunning Chilnaulna Falls Trails, which was an easy walk, although hot (it was summer, after all). Our trail took us by a 50-foot fall, a series of pools and breath-taking 100-foot cascade. You can see less from the lower trails (and there are harder walks for sturdier hikers) but later we had a lot of fun at the Swinging Bridge, a wooden and rope bridge that hangs across the park’s swimming hole. While there had been a huge line to get in to the park, here we had relative peace and quiet. If ever there was a reason to travel the road less taken – this is it! It was sparsely populated compared to other parts of the forest, and here, quick-thinking Europeans had stripped down to their underwear to take a dip in the icy water.  (Over the other side of the bridge, the well-prepared visitors, including two American couples who’d been vacationing there for 25 years, were better prepared.) We stayed with the surprised tourists and took the plunge, bathing in our underwear. Our son loved splashing around in the pool – it was lovely, freeing (freezing!) and fun. A once in a lifetime experience. In all, I can think of no greater reason to take the road less traveled than a weekend in Yosemite. We had some of the best family days ever. And all on one tank of gas.

Top Tips:

  1. Enter Yosemite National Park during off peak hours. We arrived Thursday at 2 pm, and there were three cars ahead of us. The next day, Friday, at 10 am, when we returned in our Model T, there were more than 50 cars ahead.
  2. Take the Yosemite Park shuttles whenever you can. It’s easier, saves gas, parking lots quickly get filled up and close and you can’t visit more remote parts of the park unless you use them.
  3. At the Redwoods, if you want to rent the same cabin the following year, rent it before you leave to ensure you secure your vacation home of choice vacation – they get busy.
  4. For the parks, and any activities you might book, double the amount of snacks you usually take, especially if you have children. Double the activities means double the hunger, and you’re not always near a market, snack shack or restaurant.
  5. At the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad, arrive early enough to avoid long lines for dinner, factor in time for the kids to run around, and bring lots of water. Post train tour, there was no water available, and after dancing around the campfire, our child was thirsty. Fortunately we found a nice family who gave us some of theirs.

By Margot Black for PeterGreenberg.com. Visit Margot on the Web at Blackinktravelwriting.com.

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