We Angelenos love our cars (there are almost 8 million of them on our roads), but if you dig a little deeper, you can find many other fun ways to travel, particularly if you have a husband and son to entertain – and tire out. Here’s my take on anything but a road trip with kids.
Our family road-tested six different modes of transport as a way of connecting to the glorious outdoors and unplugging from our many electronic devices. The beauty of exploring the road less traveled was that our choice of transportation became an entertaining facet of each trip.
We traveled on foot and by van, vintage car, bicycle, houseboat and helicopter.
In a Van
Our first road less traveled was Interstate 10 from L.A. to Palm Springs. It was the first time I’d been to Palm Springs in years, and we arrived in style in a brightly colored, super fun JUCY camper van. It was a true Scooby Doo adventure, and my son, Jett, was in heaven, despite my initial reservations. “Sleep in a van? Really?”
JUCY (jucyusa.com), which has a local office in Hawthorne, rents vans that boast custom-built interiors that contain everything from two double beds to a DVD player, cooker, fridge and, yes, even the kitchen sink. With the extended roof (dubbed “the penthouse”), it can easily sleep four and has everything you might need, including cutlery and dinnerware. We stayed at the Emerald Desert Palm Springs resort (emeralddesert.com), which turned out to be the perfect base camp. This pretty resort has a pool, spa, tennis courts, gym and a golf course. Our bright green van was the star of the show – everyone wanted to look inside (“It even has blinds!”). Once we were safely parked, we climbed aboard the world’s largest rotating tramcar, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, for a breathtaking 10-minute 2,643-foot journey up the sheer cliffs to Mount San Jacinto State Park.
For an additional outdoor adventure, we explored nearby Chino Canyon, located on Agua Caliente tribal land. We hiked a one-mile loop through breathtaking Andreas Canyon, which inspired some of the hand-drawn scenery in “The Lion King.” Jett loved the colorful tour from a tribal ranger, who educated him on what he would have been foraging as a 6-year-old Native American in the area (climbing trees to get fruit and trapping and hunting small animals).
Living in L.A. means that my family and I do very little walking – even though we absolutely love it. For a short escape and some time on our feet, we hopped into the car and drove to Sedona, Ariz., for a four-night stay at the Sedona Rouge Hotel (sedonarouge.com). Sedona is home to a vibrant arts community, but what constantly catches your eye are the striking red rocks that fill the horizon in every direction.
Our plan was to do as much hiking as we could, bearing in mind we had a 6-year-old with us. We booked our guided hikes through the hotel and they were all child-friendly. If you’re a hardcore hiker, there are plenty of walks that will challenge the socks off you.
We easily hiked to local landmark Coffeepot Rock and Boynton Canyon, a moderate 3-mile route popular with beginners. Sedona boasts 15-20 “vortexes” within a 10-mile radius that are said to give off energizing powers – and boy, did I need those after two hours of walking! It rained during our stay, so we had to buy waterproof gear, but because our kid hardly ever sees rain, it made the hikes even more enjoyable.
Seeing Sedona on foot meant that we returned feeling super fit and healthy – and had an excuse to indulge in delicious food such as the cactus fries, rattlesnake meatballs and the best baby back pork ribs my husband, Rob, had ever eaten at the lively Cowboy Club and Silver Saddle. We ate s’mores around the fire pit at the hotel and heavenly chocolate cake and mocha mousse pie at the Heart Line Cafe. Utterly memorable. My family, waistline and feet all agreed!
Sailing is one of my first loves. As a busy mom, I barely have time for a bath, let alone a day’s sailing, but the water still calls to me.
If you attempt this adventure, make sure two or three of your traveling companions are strong and willing to get wet when handling the boat. During tie-up and leaving time, you’ll need a designated adult there to watch out for little ones.
To get some time on the water, we rented a 70-foot houseboat at the Cottonwood Cove Resort & Marina in Lake Mohave (cottonwoodcoveresort.com), from Forever Resorts (foreverhouseboats.com). It was an absolute dream but didn’t play out the way I had imagined. I had visions of us sailing around the lake, mooring and then exploring. But because houseboats are big and complicated to handle, we wound up staying pretty much in one place.
The lake is massive. We barely saw another soul; turns out, many families were already back home getting ready for the start of the new school year. The lake has a one-boat-per-cove policy, which means you really do have total privacy. When we wanted to move around, we rented a smaller boat for the day ($125 for three to four hours, not including gas). A weeklong stay on our boat, which could sleep up to 12 (there were five people in our party) came in at around $680 per person. We prepared and ate all our meals on the boat, saving money on eating out.
Because I was insistent that we were there to unplug, all our devices were thrown into a shoebox for the week. We had so much fun exploring the coves, swimming, sunbathing and cooking barbecue on the deck that nobody missed their phones. Success!
In the Air
It’s always been a dream of mine to travel by helicopter because it seems like such a luxury. I read once that singer/musician Sting hasn’t been stuck in traffic since the early ’80s – only helicopters will do for rock stars!
We were in Las Vegas for a few days and were eager to show Jett the Grand Canyon. It’s on his kiddie bucket list (the one I wrote for him), and to cut out the driving – and all the stress that driving entails – we decided to spring for a helicopter ride booked through Papillon (papillon.com) instead. I’m glad we did, because as we flew over Las Vegas, we could see all the buses and cars on the roads, and were grateful to not have a four-hour drive there and back.
This was an easy taste of grand adventure, and highly recommended if you are time-pinched, as we were. We booked a four-hour tour that included touchdown at the awe-inspiring canyon, where we enjoyed a quick family picnic and had plenty of time to take photographs.
I’m pretty sure that Jett still has no real idea what the Grand Canyon is and might not even remember it, but he still talks about the helicopter ride. So, I considered our spur-of-the-moment rock star helicopter splurge a total bull’s-eye.
I never thought I’d experience anything as beautiful as a day touring Yosemite in a vintage car. We left our modern family wagon at our lodgings and drove to the Tin Lizzie Inn (tinlizzieinn.com), which is run by husband-and-wife car enthusiasts David and Sheran Woodworth, to pick up our ride. They hire out vintage vehicles, and the 1929 Ford Model T we rented made us feel as if we were starring in an old movie.
Before we set off, David gave us some quick instruction, and your own adventures will be smoother if you take someone who understands old cars. I couldn’t have driven this car as well as Rob did, so (thank goodness) he did all the driving. It’s the only time in almost 10 years of marriage I’ve ever seen him drive all day (except for when shifting) with two hands on the wheel.
We drove to Glacier Point, which boasts spectacular views of the High Sierra and Half Dome, and parked for a while to wander through the park. (My heart skipped a beat as Jett decided to walk high-beam style along a stone wall with a sheer drop on one side!)
We continued our drive through the Mariposa Grove and were in awe of the giant sequoia trees, some of which weigh more than 2 million pounds and have been growing for nearly 3,000 years. The car and the setting were a match made in heaven so, naturally, we rounded off our day with a sunset barbecue.
On Two Wheels
I’ll admit I’m not a natural on a bicycle, but there are so many wonderful cycling adventures that are family friendly, it seems silly for me to dismiss it out of hand.
If you’re looking for something to connect you and your family to nature, then the Mt. Rushmore Family Tour from Bicycle Adventures (bicycleadventures.com) could be a perfect fit. The cost for two adults and two kids is around $2,300, so it’s pricey, but the setting is awesome and the itinerary is packed.
This tour takes you along South Dakota’s Mickelson Trail, which has been labeled “America’s number one bike trail” by Bicycling magazine. This spectacular trail is also known as “Big Mick,” and it will take you past magnificent buffalo grazing in the Badlands before heading to Hot Springs, where there’s time enough to splash around in the pools and water slides (perfect for kids). There’s also rock climbing (if you have the energy after all that biking). Then your guided cycle ride continues onward, taking in Sylvan Lake, the Flintstones’ Bedrock City and Crazy Horse Monument, the largest sculpture in the world.
Finally, the glory of Mount Rushmore appears looming over the skyline, before your final leg takes you through the dusty town of Deadwood, which was once home to Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane. This fabulous family bike ride takes six days, and your overnight stays are in classic lodgings that match the pioneering nature of the tour.
Spend a few hours on a bike before you go so that you don’t spend your vacation saddle sore, and check for kid discounts when you book.
Every form of transport we tried on these family adventures threw up something unique, magical and memorable. So, next time you’re planning to travel, don’t just think where: Think how.
Margot Black is a storyteller with more than 15 years of experience, and an L.A.-based traveler, wife and mom.