When I was younger, I somehow escaped most of the annual “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essays when school started in the fall. But when they did pop up, I usually dreaded them. It’s funny, though, how things change as you get older. My family just returned from a 10-day road trip, and although I’m still suffering from the proverbial “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation!” exhaustion, I couldn’t wait to write about it. (It’s times like these when being the publisher of an online news outlet comes in handy.)
While our trip to Nevada and northern Arizona wasn’t in the neighborhood the Buzz usually covers, almost all of it took place within a day’s (or, more comfortably, about a day and a half’s) drive from central L.A., and the locations are easily accessible to local families by car, bus or, in many cases, train (yes, Amtrak stops in Kingman, AZ). So…because it’s summer, families are still on the move and enjoying their freedom from school-year busy-ness, and all of the destinations and activities mentioned below are not hard to get to from here, it does seem at least somewhat relevant to Buzz about it. That said…
For us, the journey actually began last fall. My 79-year-old mother has been travelling the world solo for the last 25 years or so, and many of the trips she has taken and enjoyed have been through the Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) organization, which specializes in educational travel experiences for active older adults. But in addition to Road Scholar’s mainstay adventures for seniors, it also offers trips specifically designed for grandparents and their grandchildren, as well as “intergenerational” adventures for curious families of all ages. So my mom decided it would be a great idea for her, my family and my brother’s family to take one of those trips together this summer. We agreed, and after much research and negotiation (among seven people ages 13-79, with widely varying interests), we finally settled on “Family Adventure: Exploring and Rafting in Western Grand Canyon,” a 6-day, 5-night experience centered near Peach Springs, AZ (the tiny Historic Route 66 outpost that was the inspiration for “Radiator Springs” in the animated “Cars” movies). And after a bit more research and negotiation, my family also decided to add a couple of extra days at either end of the trip for some additional exploration. Here’s how it unfolded:
Day 1 – L.A. to Las Vegas
It’s been more than 20 years since either my husband or I have been to Las Vegas (except for quick stops at the airport on the way to other places), my 13-year-old son has never been, and my mom is flying there from her home in Minnesota for the Road Scholar trip. So we decide to drive there a couple of days early to wander around a bit and see how it’s changed before picking up my mom.
Although we plan to leave home in L.A. around 6 a.m. to beat the worst of the mid-day desert heat, pre-trip chaos wins, and we don’t hit the road until about 9. When we reach Baker, CA around noon, the huge thermometer there reads 111 degrees (which is actually five degrees cooler than my car’s outdoor thermometer reading of 116). We grab some cool snacks and get back in the car, hitting Vegas around 1:30 p.m…just in time to find our way to Harrah’s for the 3 p.m. performance by comedic magician Mac King. It’s a fun and family-friendly show (my 13-year-old is just old enough to fully grok the slightly racy bits, which fly pretty harmlessly over the heads of younger audience members), and some of the tricks still have us scratching our heads days later.
We’re neither gamblers nor big resort travelers, but we do enjoy seeing how the other half lives occasionally, so after the magic show we do the full-on tourist thing and check into the Excalibur Hotel and Casino.
After a quick dinner, my son opts to stay in the hotel room for some last-opportunity Internet time, while my husband and I go out for a nighttime stroll along the Strip, which has been remarkably sanitized since my last visit in the early ’90s. The lights and general activity are still fun, though, and it’s a great place to take pictures. It’s also still amazingly hot – well over 100 degrees even in full darkness late in the evening, with heat radiating from every solid surface. A visit to a local Dairy Queen is definitely required along the way.
Day 2 – Hoover Dam
I’ve wanted to see Hoover Dam ever since reading a book a few years ago about the history of the western U.S. told through the history of water, water rights and dams in the area (it was utterly fascinating to me, despite the possibly “dry” topic). So we drive out to the monumental attraction, which offers tours of both the dam and its power plant. Unfortunately, it turns out there are no dam tours this month, due to elevator maintenance…but we do take the short power plant tour, and walk across the dam and back. It’s another great photo destination…with lots more very intense heat. (Note to selves: definitely go back when the dam tour is open…and maybe during a cooler time of year than mid-July!)
Day 3 – Las Vegas to Grand Canyon Caverns
The next morning, we pick up my mother at the Las Vegas airport and drive to Peach Springs, AZ, surprised along the way by an afternoon thunderstorm. (As we learn later, it’s now monsoon season (!) in the desert, and nearly daily late-afternoon thunderstorms – followed by spectacular sunsets – are a real thing at this time of year.) A few miles past Peach Springs, we reach our destination – Grand Canyon Caverns, one of the few still-operational and very genuine old tourist stops along Historic Route 66, which will be home base for our five-day Road Scholar adventure. And it’s everything you might hope for in a quirky old roadside attraction – motel, campground, restaurant (which is actually about a mile up a private road from the motel), cheesy dinosaurs and dino mini-golf course, lots of old vintage vehicles parked on the premises, and even a little “museum,” which is actually more of a storage room piled full of small relics of mid-20th century life. It’s fun to see everything in the informal collection (my husband immediately starts tinkering with an old telecomm circuit board he recognizes from a previous life)…but, at the same time, the more items from my childhood that show up in museums lately, the older I feel.
In the late afternoon, after the other trip participants (including my brother’s family) have arrived, the Road Scholar group meets for introductions and a schedule briefing. My family group numbers seven in all, so we form more than a quarter of the total 26-person group, most of whom are grandparents with a grandchild accompanying them, one of which is an aunt/nephew pair, and some of whom are other parents with children. (Among the group, there are about six 10 and 11-year old boys who become immediate BFFs. The five teenagers present, including my son and nephew, are more reserved, but as the week goes on, they, too start to bond.) Later, the trip leaders (very knowledgeable instructors from Northern Arizona University) transport us by van up to the restaurant for the first of our thrice-daily all-you-can eat buffet meals (don’t ask me how much weight I gained on this trip!)…and on the way back to the motel afterward, we stop to examine a huge tarantula making its way across the dirt road. Our trip leader explains that, as big as this one is, it’s actually a male, which is smaller than the female of the species. We’re glad that mama arachnid is nowhere to be seen.
Day 4 – Nature Walk and Caverns
After a huge buffet breakfast, we head out on a trail adjacent to the restaurant, and learn as we walk about the local flora and fauna. The trip leaders show us how the area’s native people (Hualapai and Havasupai tribes) extract and use fibers from the yucca, which parts of the juniper and mesquite trees come in handy, which kinds of animals leave which kinds of scat behind, what a packrat den looks like (and how it protects its inhabitants from predators like coyotes)…and how to hunt with an atlatl – a wooden throwing handle for a simple hand-held spear. We also see (and avoid!) some huge fire ant hills, with thousands of ants scrambling around, and learn that the black rocks lying around everywhere are hematite, which you often see – in polished form – in rock and mineral stores.
Later, after a buffet lunch, we line up for a tour of the eponymous Grand Canyon Caverns, which are accessed via a 200-foot elevator shaft adjacent to the restaurant and gift shop. The caverns are privately owned (part of the motel property) and were discovered in 1927 by a local woodcutter who accidentally stumbled on the opening on his way to a poker game. He came back the next day with friends, who lowered him into the cave by rope, and found what is now known to be the largest dry (no water and 0% humidity) cave system in the U.S. It’s a very pleasant 56 degrees inside, and we walk up and down, along paved pathways and stairs, for more than an hour before returning to the surface. (Ours was one of five different tours offered of the caverns – and if we ever return, I’d love to do the nighttime “Ghost Walk,” or the “Wild Tour” of newly discovered cave areas. You can also stay overnight – for a cool $850 – by renting the hotel suite (complete with bathroom and shower) that’s set up in the middle of the largest cavern.)
After the cave tour, we return to the motel and spend an hour or so on the time-honored summer camp activity of making tie-dye T-shirts. Then, after dinner, we gather again for an “ethno-botany” lecture, in which a local expert gives us an even more in-depth look at the native plants (yucca, cholla, prickly pear, red sumac, mesquite, juniper, etc.) and their uses by the native peoples. We get to sample juices, jellies and flours made from the plants (prickly pear is almost everyone’s favorite), and even the youngest kids are interested and involved in the discussion.
Day 5 – River Beach Day
The next morning, we pile into three vans and drive about 30 miles to the Colorado River, flowing through the western end of the Grand Canyon. It’s our first look at the canyon, and along the way we stop a couple of times to learn more about the local plants and geology (types of rocks, fault lines…and how the layers mysteriously seem to be missing about five million years of geologic record at one point). We also see a small waterfall, where many folks (including my mom) walk up the stream to soak themselves under the cool cascade (yes, it’s really hot down there!).
When we finally reach the river, after about 22 miles on a rough, twisty, dirt road, we pause for lunch and then everyone walks down to the water, wades in…and proceeds to spend the next couple of hours throwing buckets of frigid water at each other in a huge water fight. (This looks like it’s just a fun activity…but we eventually figure out that it’s really a warm-up exercise to prepare us for our next river experience two days later.)
When we get back to the hotel, we finish up our T-shirt project, have dinner, and then play a group game – with participants rotating and wobbling around each other – that teaches us how the planets revolve and constellations line up in the night sky. And that’s followed by the introduction of our third instructor, Karen Landis, a veteran local cowboy (yes, she says it’s a gender-neutral career term) who talks to us about the local ranch industry, what real cowboys do and how they do it.
Day 6 – Cowboy/Ranch Day
In the morning, we meet up with Landis again at the motel’s big corral. This time, she’s accompanied by another young cowboy and three horses. Our group splits into two, with half of us learning about the horses and taking rides around the corral…while Landis pokes some horns into a few hay bales, and teaches the rest of us how to rope the “calves.” This turns out to be a really fun and popular activity, and once people catch on, the kids (and eventually adults, too) start trying to rope each other for a bigger challenge. Landis expertly channels this impulse into a competition for the kids, and the team that has each of its members successfully rope another team member first wins a free ice cream later.
After lunch, we pile into the vans again, and Landis takes us to the ranch where she works, shows us how cattle are selected, grouped and weighed for sale, explains how cattle are used (no, it’s not all about meat) and also talks about how local real estate speculation and other factors are threatening the traditional ranching business.
That evening, we enjoy a private barbecue (buffet-style, of course) at the GCC restaurant, followed by a campfire and s’mores. (Ooh…free access to fire – just what our rambunctious 10 and 11-year old members need!)
Day 7 – Rafting on the Colorado River
The last full day of our Road Scholar adventure brings us back to the Colorado, where we meet up with boatmen from the Hualapai River Runners, who suit us up in super-snug life jackets, tuck our gear into waterproof dry bags, and take us out onto the river in big inflatable pontoon boats. With the super-capable drivers at the helm, we run eight sets of rapids, ranging from 2-8 on a 10-point scale…and even though some people are a bit nervous at first, everyone has a blast. (In addition to the expert drivers – ours refers to the river as his “office” – it also helps that we are now familiar, from the beach day earlier in the week, with getting lots of ice cold water dumped on us. This is especially true for those riding at the front of the boats, including my husband and brother, who are quickly and thoroughly drenched…again and again. My husband declares that this brave and soggy duty earns him the right to choose the restaurant at our next dinner out.)
Along the river, we stop three times. The first is at Travertine Falls, where we climb up (with the aid of our guides and three securely anchored ropes and rope ladders) a huge cliff alongside a vigorous stream. At the top, we find a stunning hidden cave with natural skylights and a big waterfall. A bit later, our boats make a second stop for a riverside lunch…and then a third stop for a short swim break, during which the younger and less cautious members of the group have great fun jumping off the river’s edge and somersaulting into the freezing water.
After about 4 1/2 hours on the river, with the last hour or so a leisurely ride through still waters and majestic cliffs, we arrive at a riverside heliport, where two helicopters make several trips to carry us all up and out of the Canyon, with a short ride along the cliffs for some added drama. All in all, it’s a spectacular end to a truly spectacular day.
Day 8 – Peach Springs to Williams, AZ
The next day, our Road Scholar group gathers for breakfast and goodbyes. My and my brother’s families pack our cars and head off to Williams, AZ, another old Historic Route 66 town near the south rim of the Grand Canyon, which has maintained a thriving tourist business along its old main street. We check into our motel, go out for lunch and a walk along the main street, and then spend some time enjoying our first real phone and internet access in nearly a week (you can’t stay away forever!). In the evening, we start walking to a restaurant for dinner, run into another family from our Road Scholar group, and invite them to join us. While we’re waiting for our table, my son and nephew decide to brave the huge Route 66 Zip Line along the railroad tracks a couple of blocks away (it still baffles me how my son, who is deathly afraid of heights in other situations, loves zip lines and roller coasters), and then we enjoy a great dinner with our new friends from Oklahoma, discussing our big trip and getting to know each other better.
Day 9 – Grand Canyon Railway to the Grand Canyon
In the morning, we walk over to Williams’ train station and board a vintage first class coach on the Grand Canyon Railway. The train takes a little over two hours to travel the 60 miles to Grand Canyon National Park, and is a very pleasant ride, including a continental breakfast buffet, knowledgeable and chatty conductor who narrates highlights of the journey, and a strolling cowboy guitarist, who gets us all singing along to old standards. (In addition to being a fun way to travel, as our conductor explains, the train also provides a public service by keeping its riders from driving to the Canyon, thus keeping at least a few extra cars out of the Park.)
After arriving at the Grand Canyon train station, we take a while to be awed at the classic south rim views, and then we split up for a few hours of exploration. A few of us go for a hike below the rim to visit mother nature, while others opt for lunch in the old Harvey House restaurant, and learning about the more human history of the area, including its exploration, architects, buildings and development.
Around 3 p.m. we gather to re-board the train, and settle in for the relaxing trip back to Williams (this time including a snack buffet and a crew of horse-borne “bandits” who chase us down, board the train and “rob” the passengers).
Day 10 – Williams to Kingman, AZ
In the morning, we say goodbye to my brother’s family (they’re heading back to Vegas to drop off my mom at the airport), and we hit the road back to Kingman, AZ, which we had passed through, but didn’t explore, on the way to Grand Canyon Caverns. This time through, we check into the El Trovatore Motel, which is another true relic of Historic Route 66. If you like luxury accommodations, this won’t be your kind of place…but if you enjoy stumbling into living relics of the past, with vintage charm (and a bit of grime to match) along with some additional layers of current quirkiness – which we love – this place is terrific. It was built in 1937, and looks like it has at least half a dozen long motel room buildings, only two or three of which are currently in use for tourists. The current owners have covered the facades of the buildings with classic cartoon images and what they claim is the longest-anywhere Route 66 map mural. The rooms themselves have old-fashioned kitchenettes, at least some of the original 1930s tiling in the bathrooms (very familiar to those of us with 1920s and ’30s houses in central LA), and are all named after vintage celebrities (we were in the Humphrey Bogart suite). The place is wonderfully picturesque, with a monumental old neon sign, and makes a perfect last-night stopover.
Day 11 – Kingman, Oatman…and Home
In the morning, after breakfast, we stop at Kingman’s Powerhouse Museum, in the town’s original electric powerhouse building, which includes both a nice little Route 66 historical museum and a small electric car museum (of particular interest to my electric-car-owning husband). There are also a model train museum and a Mojave Museum of History and Arts in Kingman, but we don’t have time to see them on this trip.
Back on the road again, we sidestep the freeway and stick to the old historic Route 66, which twists and turns its way through some great desert and mountain scenery until you get to the town of Oatman, AZ. Oatman is an old mining town that now survives as a “living ghost town.” The original old ramshackle buildings today house souvenir stores and eateries, and descendants of the miners’ old burros now roam the streets freely (well nourished by tourists who buy alfafa cubes to feed them). Clark Gable and Carole Lombard also reportedly stayed in the town on their honeymoon, and you can climb the crooked stairs in the old Oatman Hotel to peek at their honeymoon suite. It’s definitely worth a stop if you’re in the area…and you can’t help enjoying the burros (one of whom blocked the road a few miles before we hit town, ambled slowly up to our car and tried to nibble the window trim).
After a quick root beer float (they seem to be an almost daily necessity in the desert heat), we hit the road again, hop onto the I-40 about 25 miles south of Oatman, and head back to L.A. We’re home in time for dinner…tired but grateful for our wonderful trip.
[One final note: While we really enjoyed and would highly recommend the portion of our trip led by Road Scholar, which added a lot of interest and value to the overall experience (and no, I am in no way being paid to represent or write about them here), many of the major activities we participated in – staying at and touring Grand Canyon Caverns, hiking, having water fights in the Colorado River, the day-long Hualapai River Runners rafting trip, and the helicopter ride – not to mention our Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Williams/Grand Canyon Railway/Grand Canyon, Kingman and Oatman side trips – can be done by anyone at any time. Just head out to Nevada and Arizona, and it’s all there waiting for you.]