Vivian’s First Holy Communion

In May, just like her parents and grandparents before her, Vivian received in First Holy Communion, her third Catholic sacrament. She studied and prepared for this sacrament for the past year and was so happy to receive it at Santiago de Compostela. Her Nana flew in from Ohio to witness it and after mass, we partied at the park with our neighbors, two of whom had also received their First Holy Communion with Vivian.

Vivian wore a very special dress for her First Holy Communion – the same dress that I wore for mine in 1989 and the same dress that my Mom wore for hers in 1963!

Three Generations of Catholics, 1963, 1989, 2022

Before mass, we took pictures outside church and formal family pictures inside with a cheesy background.

Ready to Receive Her First Holy Communion
Three Generations, 2022
Sisters! (Before Lil Got Sick and Went Home!)
Mediterranean (??) Family Photo
Nana, Mama, and Vivian
Vivian’s Formal Picture

During mass, Vivian helped bring the gifts up to the alter.

Participating in Mass
Receiving Her First Holy Communion
Deacon Dan Diesel, Father Martin Vu, and Vivian

When we arrived home after mass, Vivian opened a few special gifts from us and her Nana.

Happy First Communion!

We are so proud of Vivian and were so happy to celebrate her on this special day!

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One Night in Vegas

Last Christmas, Dan gifted me tickets to see one of our favorite comedians, Jim Gaffigan, on The Fun Tour at Wynn’s Encore Theater in Las Vegas, NV. (For someone who claims to not like Las Vegas, this was going to be my third time there in 19 months!). Attending this show meant that we’d have to leave all of our kids overnight and I’d have to leave Irene overnight for the first time. Although I’m still nursing her, since she’s 16 months old, I knew that I could skip two nursing sessions and we’d both still be okay. I felt like it would be way too much to ask anyone to watch all four of our kids, so I found four families to help us out – each family took one kid. Our friends and neighbors who helped us escape for an overnight trip were amazing – they fed our kids, played with them, watched them overnight, took two of them to a school event, and took two of them to birthday parties. I planned everything out for each kid, packed everyone’s suitcases, bought plane tickets, made dinner reservations, and did a million other things to prepare for one night away. Then, the afternoon before we were supposed to leave, the show that we were scheduled to see got canceled because Jim Gaffigan contracted COVID-19. No!!!

Since we’d already done so much planning to make this one night possible, we forged ahead with alternate evening plans, purchasing tickets to see Bill Maher at The Mirage Theater instead and changing our dinner reservations to better suit our new entertainment plans.

Then we flew to Las Vegas, checked into our suite at The Venetian Resort, ordered a few cocktails and spent the afternoon at the pool, took a ride and were serenaded on the indoor canal’s gondola, ate a delicious steak dinner (and drank a $70 glass (not bottle)) of wine at Bouchon, saw Bill Maher’s funny and entertaining show, slept through the night (but still woke up at 7:30am), grabbed a pastry and coffee at the Bouchon Bakery, and flew home. All in 24 hours! Whew!

Gondola Ride Fun
Grand Canal Shoppes

Except…Dan didn’t fly home with me. Our short escape coincided with a business trip for him, so he stayed in Las Vegas to attend the ICSC conference for three days.

It was a whirlwind trip, but had a little of everything – a little relaxation, good drinks and food, new experiences, and entertainment. I admit, I wouldn’t have minded one more day to relax some more, but I was excited to get home to our four babes. In the eight years that we’ve been parents, we’ve managed to get away overnight five times now. At that rate, it will probably be awhile before we can do this again, but I am very thankful we’ve been able to escape at all with four small children!

Viva Las Vegas!
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The 2022 Birthday Season

Our official 2022 Birthday Season has come to a close. Irene’s birthday is at the beginning of the year and mine is at the end of summer; we are the outliers. Everyone else has their birthday within a five-week timespan in the Spring. (Also, fun fact: Vivian, Lillian, and William always have their birthdays on the same day of the week; this year, they were all on Wednesdays.) Because none of the kids have had a birthday party in three years, we allowed them to each have their own party this year. That meant that not only did I plan for home and school celebrations for three kids (and a husband), I also meticulously planned and hosted three separate kid birthday parties. I think that in future years we’ll have to come up with some alternative ways to celebrate because this level of celebrations and number of parties is not sustainable long term!

Vivian Turned EIGHT

First up, as always, was Vivian. The weekend before her actual birthday, we decorated our house and hosted her Taylor Swift-themed birthday party with eight of her closest friends. The girls ate kid-friendly food (Chick-fil-A catering!). I made “microphone” ice cream cone cupcakes for dessert. While the guests colored Taylor Swift coloring pages, decorated white canvas tennis shoes, and took photos, we played Taylor Swift trivia. And, of course, we listened to Taylor Swift’s music. I was so happy to see all of the girls, especially Vivian, having so much fun.

Party Fun

Vivian’s actual birthday was a busy one…school, gymnastics, presentations at school for Ignite Night, birthday dinner, and then, finally, as-requested, a Cookies and Cream Sheet Cake (baked by my Mom, who flew in from Ohio on her birthday). And of course there were also presents and singing!

Happy Birthday!

Vivian requested a special family beach day in honor of her turning eight, which we plan to do as soon as the weather is hot again.

At 8, Vivian is so smart, a voracious reader, a great writer, assertive, independent, confident, creative, organized, and a great big sister in our kid crew. Most nights, she falls asleep next to me with a book in her hands. She is my mini me in a hundred different ways, both good and not-so-good. It’s already so hard to remember her as a tiny baby – our first tiny baby – because she fits so well into her role as the oldest kid in our family. She truly is my heart beating outside my body.

8

William Turned FOUR

Shortly before William turned four, Dan took him to see Blippi the Musical as a special pre-birthday treat. Then, exactly one week after Vivian’s birthday, he celebrated his actual birthday – in Maui! Since we were on vacation, we improvised with a few of our birthday traditions. My Mom was still with us and she blew up and hung balloons in our hotel room. I set out a few small gifts that I brought for him (the rest I laid out on our kitchen counter for him to come home to after our trip). The night before his birthday, we went to a luau and everyone sang “happy birthday” to him, which he loved, almost as much as the giant cupcake they presented to him.

Birthday Balloons in Maui
Luau Birthday Celebration

After we arrived home from Maui, William had his first individual birthday party ever (the only other birthday party he ever had was a joint one with his sisters for his first birthday). Dan’s parents flew into town and all of William’s preschool and neighborhood friends gathered at a park in our community for a construction-themed birthday party. It was a classic park birthday party – Costco pizza, Chick-fil-A catering, store-bought cupcakes, and the only “activity” was free play on the playground equipment. The kids had a blast!

Happy Birthday, Dude!

At 4, William is still a big snuggler (all the kids are, actually) and Dan has become his person. He is inquisitive and asks very intelligent questions. He’s always wondering how things work. William is full of energy, as most four-year-olds are, and still loves trucks, dirt, cars, and tools. He’s more cautious than the girls, though, and says that he’s afraid of things like the wind and rain. I want so badly to teach him to ride his beloved bike without training wheels, but he’s not nearly as receptive to doing that as the big girls were. He wakes up early every single morning and plays hard all day long. He’s growing into a little boy, which breaks my heart a bit, but it’s so fun to see him learn and develop. He’s his daddy’s best friend and my forever boy obsession.

He’s 4 and Crushing It!

Dan Turned THIRTY NINE

Dan has one last year in his 30s! We don’t celebrate adult birthdays much in our family, but the kids wrote sweet notes to him in a journal we use for that purpose and I took him out to a nice dinner at a new-to-us restaurant in Laguna Beach.

Lillian Turned SIX

Two months before Lillian turned six, we bought annual passes to SeaWorld and spent a special family day there, per her request. I’m glad that we did this for her early because after that, she had to patiently wait for Vivian, William, and Dan to all have their birthdays before she finally got to celebrate hers. On her birthday, she celebrated with balloons and presents and at school, gymnastics, Wahoo’s for dinner, and Crumbl Cookies for dessert.

Big Balloons for Our Big Girl

Lillian also had her first individual birthday party – all of her previous ones were combined with a sibling or two. She requested a horse party and we indulged her by planning a party at a local horse stable. Fifteen of her kindergarten friends (plus Vivian) groomed horses, rode horses, and went on a barn tour. It was such a hit with all of the girls! After their horse adventures, we fed them Lillian’s favorite burritos and a three-layer naked cake that I made and decorated for her.

Saddle Up! Lillian’s Horse Birthday Party

At 6, Lillian is outgoing, brave, smart, a great reader, social, independent, a giggler, so kind, sweet, and our favorite “cutie cute cute cute cutie cute cute.” I just want to eat her up! She plays well up and down our kid lineup, moving from iPad games and pretend horse play with Vivian to super heroes and truck play with William. I’m in shock that she still isn’t three, so six is taking some adjustment for me. We love her to pieces.

6

That’s a wrap on our 2022 Birthday Season. We now have a 1, 4, 6, and 8 year old. Time continues to fly by faster and faster. I can only hope that I save enough of memories of the kids as littles to hold my heart over for a lifetime.

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Mahalo Maui

What sounds more relaxing than taking your four small children on a tropical Spring Break vacation? Almost anything! But, since we traded in relaxing vacations for parenthood a long time ago, we thought that we’d fly our crew (plus my Mom!) out to Maui for, if not a relaxing, than at least fun-filled, Hawaiian Spring Break. Dan had been to Maui one other time, as a teenager with his family, but the rest of us had never been there before, so we were excited to explore the island!

Getting There

We flew direct from Long Beach to Kahului. Flying out of Long Beach was the easiest part of our travel to the island. The big three kids did pretty well on the flight (Lil immediately took a 90 minute nap), but Irene, who was so tired, would not settle down and rest. It was a long five-hour flight. And then, when we finally landed, we were forced to wait more than 90 minutes for a gate to disembark the airplane. Dan had to go offsite to get our rental car, a 2017 Toyota Shithole, I mean, Toyota Sienna, which took a very long time. When he finally arrived back at the airport to pick us up, we excitedly rushed toward the minivan, inadvertently leaving behind two of our kids’ water bottles and the cooler bag with our food and Irene’s pacifier in it. After we were settled into the car and were on the way to the resort, we got it together and finally started getting excited for the week ahead.

Welcome to Maui!

Accommodations

We spent our week in Maui in a one-bedroom (the two-bedrooms were all sold out) ocean-view villa at The Westin Ka’anapali Ocean Resort Villas. Although a bit of a tight fit for our group of seven, it worked out well. William slept between Dan and me in the king bed, Lillian slept in a rollaway bed in our bedroom, Irene slept in her Pack n’ Play and SlumberPod in our bedroom, and my Mom and Vivian slept on the pull-out sofa in the living room. Our villa had a balcony, full kitchen, washer/dryer, and big bathroom. Our resort had a big pool with a water slide, a pirate ship kiddie pool, a hot tub, easy beach access, and a koi pond (Lillian loved getting close enough to the fish to touch them). In addition to the pools at our immediate hotel, we could also walk to the nearby Westin Nanea Ocean Villas and we could drive or take a shuttle bus to the The Westin Maui Resort & Spa down the road and use their pools and charge food/drinks to our room (which we did!). We really liked having so many pool and easy-to-use dining options and it was fun to mix it up and swim in different pools on different days. It was also nice that so many resorts were within walking distance and connected by pathways because for the first few days, the kids woke up well before dawn due to the time difference and so Dan took them on long walks around the area until the rest of the world (including me) woke up.

Kids on our Room’s Balcony
Exploring at the Main Westin Resort
Short and Sweet
Hawaiian Rainbow on a Hotel Walk

Water Play

We spent the majority of our time in the pools and on the beaches. That is why we went to Hawaii, after all. The kids loved the various water slides at all the pools and we were very pleased with all of the food and drink options at the poolside restaurants. One of the kiddie pools at the Nanea Ocean Villas was full of pebbles, which the kids loved playing in. The poolside Hale Moolelo restaurant at the main Westin property served my favorite drink of the trip – a pink tequila drink named after the biggest volcano on the island. And that warm Hawaiian ocean water – you just can’t get that in SoCal!

Sunny Days in Hawaii at the Westin Ocean Villas
Pool Baby at the Westin Nanea Ocean Villas
Lil at the Pirate Ship Pool at the Westin Ocean Villas
Beachtime in Hawaii

Attractions

On our first full day on Maui, we visited the Maui Ocean Center. This aquarium was big enough to entertain us, but not so big as to be overwhelming. It’s a bit pricey, and you needed reservations to visit it (which were plentiful), but we really enjoyed our time here. After our morning visit, we ate lunch at the Seascape Restaurant next door (which had great views, but not great food).

Maui Ocean Center

The only other “attraction” that we saw during our trip was an evening at the Wailele Polynesian Luau at the main Westin Resort. We all enjoyed the actual luau and the performance, but the food was the worst of our trip and, of course, it was so expensive (as all luaus are). Maybe the Old Lahaina Luau would have been better, but I think it will be a long time before we drop that much cash on a luau again (the last luau that we went to was on our honeymoon over ten years ago!). William and Lillian got up on the stage at the luau to learn some of the dance moves, which was super cute to see. And all of the guests collectively sang “happy birthday” to anyone in attendance celebrating a birthday, which got a big smile from William who turned four the day after we went to the luau.

Family Picture at the Luau

Hiking Adventures

We rarely take a trip and not go on a hike, so even though we were on a tropical vacation, we still hiked a few miles on a few trails.

Our first hike on the trip was at the beginning of the Road to Hana (someday we’d love to drive the entire road to Hana, but someday was not on this trip with four small children). Before arriving at our hiking destination, though, we stopped at at the Hookipa Lookout and Hookipa Beach Park to see a large group of sea turtles (so cool!).

Hookipa Lookout
Sea Turtles! (They Look Just Like Rocks.)

Our actual hike-of-the-day was to Twin Falls. It was only a 1.7 mile there-and-back hike on a mostly flat trail, but the kids still complained like they were climbing Mt. Everest. We had to cross the stream on our way to the falls and the girls elected to do so on foot, so their shoes were soaked for the rest of the hike (cue additional complaints). The watering hole under the falls was cold, but Dan, me, William, and Lillian all got in it for a swim under the waterfalls.

Twin Falls

After we returned to the starting point of our hike, we fueled up at the Twin Falls Farm Stand. The kids got to try fresh coconut water for the first time and they devoured homemade banana bread and pineapple smoothies.

Fresh Coconut Water

On another day, we hiked 1.3 miles on the Ironwood Cliffs Trail, north of our resort in Kapalua. We weren’t actually planning to hike this trail, but in our originally misguided efforts to reach Dragon’s Teeth, we ended up on this trail. It was windy, as it was right by the ocean, but it was beautiful.

Lil on the Ironwood Cliffs Trail with Molokai in the Background

We did finally find the right half-mile path to Dragon’s Teeth and so we explored that super neat geological formation (on recommendation from a random person I met at the pool).

Dragon’s Teeth

Just beyond Dragon’s Teeth is the Kapalua Labyrinth, which the kids loved running around.

Kapalua Labyrinth

Our final hiking adventure took us down a short, but steep and rocky trail, to the Nakalele Blowhole. The kids probably loved this hike the best because it was the most technically difficult. When we reached the ocean, we watched the blowhole continuously erupt and felt the ocean spray.

Nakalele Blowhole

Food & Final Favorites

Every day we always talk about our favorite parts of the day. When we’re on vacations we have this conversation multiple times during the day. I hope that it reinforces the fun memories that we are making and it also reminds everyone that there is generally more good than bad in the days. In addition to the favorite activities that we did, as detailed in this post, we had a few favorite restaurants where we ate (we mostly used our villa kitchen for breakfasts and lunches):

  • We celebrated William’s birthday dinner at Pi Artisan Pizzeria in Lahaina (also on recommendation from a random person I met at the pool) and then walked through part of the old town afterwards. Side story from this evening: On the way to dinner, Lillian, whom I was sitting next to in the backseat of the minivan, said that her tummy hurt. Minutes later, she said that she was going to throw up. Dan pulled over to the side of the road near an intersection and I rushed Lillian out of the minivan just in time for her to throw up on the side of the road. At the restaurant, this happened again and she threw up multiple times in a grassy area on the side of the building. We don’t know why she got sick (thankfully, she was the only one) and it was short-lived, but I was so proud of her for calmly telling me that she was going to puke and then for making it out onto the grass every time. I told Dan that she’ll do alright in college – ha! She recovered fairly quickly after our dinner (which she did not eat, of course) and while we were walking through Lahaina, she caught a lizard, which she often does. The lizard hung out on her shoulder and then jumped on to her nose, which she thought was hilarious. That’s our Lil!
  • One afternoon, we ate lunch from a taco truck, Island Tacos, in a grocery store parking lot in Haiku and Dan and I both thought it probably was the best meal of our trip.
  • Dan and I slipped out for a late-night dinner date to Huihui and enjoyed dining al fresco. This restaurant is very popular, so you must make reservations well in advance.
  • We ate delicious fish tacos at the Beach Bar at Leilani’s on the Beach. The upstairs is reserved for fine dining (unnecessary for our crew!), but the downstairs is a more casual beach bar with a much shorter wait time.
  • Surprisingly, our only shave ice of the trip was from Island Vintage Shave Ice in Whalers Village.
  • Dan and I got away for one other dinner date – to the very popular Miso Phat Sushi. The indoor dining space is small, but the sushi was delicious (even though they topped some of it with a mayo-based sauce that was not listed on the menu).

We had a fun, adventurous, exhausting, memory-making, tiring, wonderful trip. No vacation with kids is flawless and everyone had moments that tested their patience and energy level, but we did it – we took four kids to Maui – and now we have experiences and memories to relive for a lifetime. We loved exploring part of this island and definitely want to go back again someday, perhaps when we can take the kids on some more thrilling adventures (like a sailboat to Lanai and drive up to Haleakala). Until next time, aloha and mahalo, Maui!

Last Hawaiian Sunset
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Final Holiday Push

Just when I used to think that the holidays were over, I started learning that, with kids, they’re only half over. After New Year’s Day, there’s Epiphany (for which I always bake a special cake), and then comes Valentine’s Day, followed by St. Patrick’s Day, and, lastly, there’s Easter. I don’t go crazy for any of these holidays, but I still always do a few things to make them memorable for the kids. Here’s what I did in 2022:

Valentine’s Day

Of course, there were Valentine’s Day outfits (William had Pajama Day at preschool, which is why he’s still in his regular pajamas for this picture).

My Four Valentines

And cookies (our favorite cut-out sugar cookies).

Decorating Valentine’s Day Cookies

And there were a few small gifts and tokens of love for each kid.

Valentine’s Day Gifts

The kids all celebrated at school and daycare, too. They are all very well loved!

St. Patrick’s Day

Prior to this holiday, we read a lot of books about it and, since my Mom was visiting us, she baked some marbled green shamrock cookies for us to eat. We celebrated St. Patrick’s Day the day after we returned from Mammoth, but, of course, I was prepared. A sneaky leprechaun left a trail of gold coins for the kids to follow to a pot of gold in the morning. They all celebrated in school. And, of course, there were outfits.

Green Cuties!

Easter

Normally, the kids would participate in some local Easter events and egg hunts, but we were in Hawaii the week before the holiday and arrived home just two days before it. Again, I was well prepared in advance, so we were able to have a fun and full celebration at our house.

We dyed eggs.

Dying Easter Eggs

Everyone was happy with everything that the Easter Bunny brought.

Easter Bunny Loot

Per our tradition, the kids hunted for the eggs that they dyed inside the house and plastic eggs outside in the yard.

Egg Hunting

We decorated the house.

Happy Easter!

And we went to mass.

After Sunday Mass

We spent Easter afternoon playing with new toys, playing outside, and visiting with friends who joined us for a very casual dinner.

And now we’re done and I truly rejoice! No more big holidays until Halloween! Now that’s something to celebrate for this tired mama!

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Mammoth with Mom

We just returned from a ski trip up to Mammoth Lakes, our first in two years. The last time we were in Mammoth was March 1, 2020, right before the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, we travelled there with one more baby and my Mom, who had retired from her job of over 25 years just six days before she flew out to California to join us on our trip. I’ve taken my brother and my sister to Mammoth on separate trips and I was glad to be able to take my Mom and show her a place that is so special to our family.

As always, I spent a lot of time planning, packing, and prepping for this trip. I booked all of our lodging and ski reservations, bought groceries and planned all of our meals, rearranged all of the kids’ schedules, baked with my mom so that we had some yummy homemade goodies to snack on, gathered and borrowed all the snow gear that the kids would need, arranged to borrow a Yakima cargo roof box from our friends, and so on. I completely realize that it is extremely privileged of me to say this, but my gosh, traveling and road-tripping and skiing with four small kids is so freaking exhausting and stressful, every single part of it. The only way that we can pull this off is with extreme preparation and organization, which nearly breaks me every time. Thankfully, my Mom came along with us, and, as always, was a huge help with everything while we were on the trip. Looking back, I have no idea how in the world we managed to go on a two-week road trip in December 2021 with the four kids and no help from my Mom!

Dance Party, Views, & Settling In

We drove up to Mammoth Lakes on a Saturday and got there in time to attend Woolly’s Dance Party in the Village. The kids had fun dancing on the stage and drinking hot cocoa. Irene also got to meet Woolly and his gang.

Irene Meets Woolly and Gang

While the kids were dancing and drinking, Dan unloaded our very stuffed SUV and settled us into our 3-bedroom suite in The Village Lodge’s Lincoln House. From our balcony, we had great views of the Village, gondola, and mountains.

Hotel Balcony Views

After dinner, Dan and I visited with our Baker Ranch friends and neighbors who were also in Mammoth and staying in The Village. It was nice to sneak away a few nights after the kids went to bed and only possible since my Mom was in the hotel suite with the kids.

Downhill Skiing

We had lift tickets and reservations to ski for two days at Mammoth Mountain. When we woke up on our first scheduled day to ski, it was so very, very, very windy outside. It was so windy that all of the lifts were shut down. All of them! We debated on whether we should attempt to cancel and try to switch the kids’ ski school reservations, but in the end, decided to bundle everyone up and forge on. The ski school was still operating and William and Lillian weren’t ready for the lifts yet anyways. We were told that Vivian would work on her technical skills on a hill serviced by a poma and when lifts opened, she’d immediately move over to them. The kids were all so excited to ski and even though it was very windy, it was not bitterly cold. Shortly after they started their lessons, a few lifts opened and so Dan and I got in a few runs. We picked a very happy and proud William up from ski school at noon and took him back to the hotel to spend the afternoon with my Mom and Irene.

William Skiing for the First Time
Happy on the Village Gondola
Windy Chairlift Ride

Dan and I made the best of the day, but it was definitely one of the worst days of skiing and riding for us. The snow wasn’t good, very few lifts were open, and then the lifts that were open closed again due to the wind. What can you do, though? We’d already spent the effort, time, and money and you can’t change the weather.

The girls had a blast in their all-day ski lessons and when we picked them up at the end of the day, Vivian was still not ready to stop skiing. Dan took Lillian back to our hotel and Vivian and I went on a few more runs together.

We took a day off from downhill skiing and then got back at it in much better weather. William and the girls, again, had successful and fun day on the mountain. At the end of his second lesson, William was comfortable on skis, could do a pizza wedge to stop, and was starting to learn how to turn. Lillian had advanced to riding the chairlift, stopping well with a pizza wedge, and was working on improving her turns. Vivian – wow – was confidently skiing blue/blacks, linking her turns without having to do the pizza wedge, and stopping with hockey stops. I told her that once she gets a little better (probably still a few more years), she’ll be able to drop down to half-day lessons and spend the other half of the day skiing with us. Since the weather was better on our second day, Dan and I got to ski most of the mountain (chairs 9 and 14 and the lifts/gondola to the top were still closed, though).

Post Ski School Smiles on Day 2

After our full days on the mountain, we unwound in the hotel’s hot tub and the kids even went swimming (the pool was heated)

Winter Hot Tub Fun

Cross-Country Skiing

In between our days of downhill skiing, we went cross-country skiing over and around Twin Lakes. We had a surprisingly good experience with this activity in Colorado, but I still tried to keep my expectations low for our second experience; however, I did not keep them low enough. The girls did really well skiing (especially Lillian, who improved a lot since her first time cross-country skiing), but they weren’t excited about it. William complained the entire time and I stayed at the back of our pack with him, constantly picking him up when he fell, which is probably why I don’t rate this day’s activity very highly. Irene, again, rode in comfort in the pulk, pulled by Dan, which, until she fell asleep, she was not thrilled about. Whatever…we skied, we were outside, the weather was great, and the scenery was beautiful. You definitely can’t win them all!

Cross-Country Skiing

Scenic Gondola Ride & Interpretive Center

Finally, on the day that we were scheduled to depart, the gondola to the top of Mammoth Mountain opened. We really wanted to take my Mom and Irene to the top, as they’d never been there, so we purchased tickets and rode up to the top from Main Lodge. We were able to get a family picture at the Summit Sign (notice how little snow there was again this year – boo), take in the amazing and clear views, and visit the Eleven53 Interpretive Center.

Views from the Top
Irene at the Interpretive Center
Little Deer

Classics

While we were at Main Lodge, prior to our gondola ride, we had our picture taken next to the iconic woolly mammoth statue.

The Real Woolly

On our way home, we stopped at Erick Schat’s Bakery in Bishop, a tradition for almost everyone who drives up to Mammoth. My Mom is a wonderful bread baker and so I wanted to be sure to take her into this shop. We bought sandwiches, pullaway bread, and focaccia.

Mammoth to Maui

My Mom got a severe migraine, most likely due to the high elevation, as soon as we got to Mammoth and she left Mammoth with a horrible cold. Of course, that didn’t stop her from helping us so much with the kids. The kids loved being close to her and we’re so excited to see her more now that she’s retired. Next month, she’s coming to Maui with us. Hopefully that trip is a healthier one and she’s able to relax more. We had a lot of fun in Mammoth and we love winter activities, but we’re ready to trade the snow in for sun. If nothing else, there will be a lot less to pack!

We Love Mammoth!
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Irene is ONE

Ah…our sweet Reney Beany is ONE. My heart breaks and rejoices over this milestone. With babies one and two, the first year felt so long and so hard and I patted myself on the back for surviving it. But by the time baby four rolled around, time had sped up so much. Irene’s first year felt like a month in many ways. Her infancy flew by and everything that was so hard with the first few babies, seemed almost effortless (or, at least routine) with her. All the sleepless nights, nursing, pumping, making baby food, and changes passed in the blink of an eye and hardly seemed like a struggle. I held tight to Irene’s babyhood and soaked up every snuggle. With her, I didn’t mind those midnight nursing and rocking sessions. I still rock her to sleep for every nap that she’s home and every night and I still nurse her. Although she’s barreling towards toddlerhood, she will always be my baby – my last baby – and my heart will always skip a beat when I think about her infant coos, her head on my shoulder as she sleeps, the way her eyes light up when she sees me, her sweet voice saying “Mama,” her chunky thighs, and the weight of her in my arms. Every single day I choke back a tiny sob thinking about how insanely lucky I have been to have four healthy babies and how extremely bittersweet it is to see them grow so quickly.

We celebrated Irene’s birthday at home, just the six of us. I decorated with balloons and we ate ice cream after dinner at home. The day before her birthday, she had a smash cake photo session. The older three kids were excited to see her turn one and help her eat smash cake leftovers.

Irene is so very, very happy. Her lips are always smiling and her eyes are always sparkling. She is social and loves being around other people and kids (which is good, considering she was born into a big family). At one year old, she had just started taking a step or two, but hadn’t officially started walking yet. She eats anything and everything, plays well with toys, sleeps 12 hours at night, generally naps twice/day, is content in the car, still sucks on a pacifier while sleeping and in the car, and pretty much just lights up our lives. We love her to pieces.

ONE
She Loves Cars
1
Big Smiles
Standing
Smash Cake
Yum!
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Coronavirus Christmas, Year 2

Each holiday that passes, I wonder, “how are we still celebrating holidays in a pandemic?” Yet, here we still are. We are still masked. We are still encouraged not to gather in large groups. Events and activities are still modified to protect attendees. And so, Christmas 2021 was similar in may ways to Christmas 2020 (minus the lockdown and plus one new baby). It’s almost Valentine’s Day now, but I still want to record the fun that we had in California leading up to our second COVID-19 Christmas (which we celebrated puking in Colorado). After all, this was Irene’s first Christmas.

Christmas at the Irvine Spectrum
Elf Yourself 5K
Four Babies in the Christmas Tree Box
Treetop Honors Went to Lillian in 2021
Cutest Little Rudolph at the Preschool Singing Program
Letters to Santa at Preschool
Merry Kiss Me in Dana Point Harbor
Santa at The Grove
Christmas Crafts with Zoo Animals
Light of the World at Saddleback Church
Snow in Lake Forest
Night of 1000 Lights at Sherman Gardens
Candlelight Walk at Heritage Hill Historical Park
Enchanted Forest of Light at Descanso Gardens
Baby’s First Christmas
Posted in Baby & Kids, Holidays, Running, Sightseeing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Holiday Road Trip 2021

Since our Fall 2020 Great Western America Road Trip was such a success, we decided to venture out again for another two-week road trip, only this time we would explore a different route, travel in the winter over the kids’ 2021 Christmas holiday break, and do it all with a fourth child (an infant, no less) in tow. Once again, however, we traveled during a pandemic, and this time, while the COVID-19 Omicron variant was hitting everyone hard (thankfully, four out of six of us were fully vaccinated/boosted and no one in our family contracted COVID-19 while traveling).

Our trip took weeks of planning and preparation. I had documented a five page day-by-day itinerary with drive times, links to places and activities, plan B/C/D options, open hours for attractions, sleeping arrangements, check-in/out times, restaurant options, and more. I booked everything that I could in advance and put it all on our iCalendar. I baked cookies, bought food, bought and wrapped Christmas gifts, bought and organized snow gear, found someone to watch our house, cancelled activities for which we wouldn’t be home, and so much more. It was an incredible feat to plan, in detail, every part of a two-week vacation for a family of six. Then, I packed everything – winter clothes, winter gear, skis, sleds, presents, food, stroller, Pack ‘n Play, toys, books, water bottles, and, again, so much more. All the planning and packing was worth it the second we hit the road, though!

This blog post is long, but I don’t want to ever forget this family adventure. Here’s what I cover:

Our Route

On our trip, we visited some new-to-us places, some states we’d been to before, some states we’d never been to before, and some family favorites. We travelled in our SUV since our truck no longer fits all six of us. Thankfully, our friends let us borrow their Yakima cargo roof box to haul all of our gear around for two weeks. In total, we drove over 2,400 miles and 37 hours and stayed in five states (very similar to our 2020 road trip stats). Once again, I planned our trip so that we generally did not drive for more than five hours at a time. Unlike our last trip, we allowed iPads during the long drives, which had its pros and cons, but I guess that’s part of life in 2021 now.

Our Route

Stop 1: Calico Ghost Town, Yermo, California

Our first stop was only two hours from our home, but it broke up the long drive to our first overnight destination (Flagstaff, AZ). The kids learned a lot about ghost towns during our Thanksgiving trip to Death Valley National Park and so we took them to one that had some fun (touristy) attractions that we knew they’d enjoy. We arrived at Calico Ghost Town in Yermo, CA, before lunchtime, and immediately began walking down its Main Street. The ghost town is now a regional park operated by the county of San Bernardino. We peeked in a few shops (there were 14!) and the kids each crafted a ceramic necklace inside one of them. We toured the Mystery Shack (trippy!), walked through the Maggie Mine, rode the Calico Odessa Railroad, hiked up to a lookout, and ate lunch on the porch at the Old Miner’s Cafe. We stayed here longer than we were anticipating, but we saw and did it all and the kids had so much fun. When we finally did leave, Dan forgot to properly tie our stroller to the top of our car and it flew off as we were driving away. Luckily, the car only ended up with a small dent and a few scratch and the stroller was fine. Despite that little snafu, our trip was off to a good start!

Calico Ghost Town Main Street
Mystery Shack Tour
Calico Odessa Railroad Train Ride

Stop 2: Flagstaff, Arizona

The drive from Yermo, CA, to Flagstaff, AZ, was long (almost six hours without stops). Originally, I thought we might visit Bearizona, but we drove through Williams long after the attraction closed for the day. I had also made dinner reservations for us at the Silver Pine Restaurant, but we missed those, too, and instead, we grabbed Wendy’s for dinner after a gas stop somewhere along the way. Irene, especially, was getting tired of the long drive, so I rode in the back seat to try to keep her happy as we finished the day’s drive and pulled into Flagstaff.

We arrived at the Little America Hotel after sunset (we’d also lost an hour due to the time zone change, and that seemed to make the drive and day feel even longer). Everyone was tired, but initially excited, about the snow on the ground in Flagstaff. As we lugged all of our things inside the hotel (this task would get very, very tiresome over the duration of the trip), the kids “played” in the snow. Really, what happened is that they touched the cold, hard snow and freaked out when it was…get this…cold. Lillian, in particular, lost her mind over this stunning revelation. Once we got settled in our room, Dan helped her get snugged up in her pajamas and robe while I took the other three out for a walk around the hotel grounds to see all the Christmas lights. This hotel has a spectacular holiday event, but the expensive tickets sold out fast and I also knew that we probably wouldn’t have time to attend it (and I was right). In conjunction with the event, they string Christmas lights up throughout the hotel grounds, and so that’s what I took the kids to see while Lillian was calming down and warming up. I had also researched an option for us to walk around and view the Christmas lights at the Flagstaff Visitor Center in the historic downtown, but after the long day we’d had, lights at the hotel were the best we could do.

Little America Christmas Lights
Warmed-Up Lillian

That night, the boys slept on a pull-out sofa, the girls slept in a king-size bed, and Irene slept in her SlumberPod in the bathroom. The next morning, Dan took the kids to the on-site playground to play and then we packed up the car and headed east on I-40. The Little America Hotel is great for families and had an outdoor pool/hot tub, playground, and a nearby hiking trail through the pine forest, so it would be a great place to stay again when we eventually make it back to Flagstaff. We all agreed that we definitely want to come back to Flagstaff someday to spend more time exploring the town and area.

Stop 3: Petrified Forest National Park, Petrified Forest, Arizona

We had a “short” two-hour drive to our next destination – Petrified Forest National Park. We used our National Parks annual pass to gain entrance to the north side of the park, which is the side with the most views of the Painted Desert (and the side with the least petrified wood). I picked up Jr. Ranger booklets for the girls at the Painted Desert Visitor Center and then we went on a 1-mile hike on the Painted Desert Rim Trail to and from the Painted Desert Inn. The views were beautiful and the kids loved the snow along the trail (their reaction was very different than it was the night before!). After our hike, we drove through the north side of the park and then went back to the Visitor Center and ate lunch at the Painted Desert Diner (I had the Navajo taco, which was delicious).

Painted Desert Views
Snow on the Painted Desert Rim Trail
Painted Desert Inn

Since we only had time to explore the north side of the park, we’d love to return someday and explore the south side with more of the petrified forests. We were surprised that we didn’t actually see any forests in the Petrified Forest National Park and to learn that much of the petrified wood is actually underground. We’ll have to learn and see more another time. On this day, though, we had miles to go before our next stop at the end of the day and it was time to get back on I-40.

Stop 4: Santa Fe, New Mexico

As we drove through New Mexico and Albuquerque, the huge, bright, full, moon rose over the landscape. It was a sight that I won’t forget. Once again, long after the sun set, we arrived at our hotel for the night – La Fonda on the Plaza in historic district of Santa Fe. We hauled all of our stuff into our hotel suite and then walked through the beautifully lit Plaza. It was then that I finally relaxed enough to let a hint of happiness run through me. Planning a two-week road trip for six people, packing, traveling, feeding, and taking care of everyone had been exhausting and stressful. Finally, though, I started to settle into our vacation and enjoy it. We ate a New Mexican dinner at the Plaza Cafe and then walked back to our hotel suite. I had booked a one-bedroom suite with a fireplace and so we cozied up in our pajamas and had someone light a fire. That night, Dan, Lillian, and William slept in the bedroom in the king-size bed; Vivian and I slept in the living room by the fireplace; and Irene slept in the bedroom in her SlumberPod.

Nativity Scene at La Fonda on the Plaza
Historic Santa Fe with The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
Santa Fe Plaza

The next morning, we woke up…covered in soot. Everything that was in the living room – all of our luggage, food bags, and Vivian and me – was dusted in grey ash. The fireplace was also “historic” and did not have a damper. We had left the balcony door open the night before to keep the room from getting smoky, but I closed it right before falling asleep because it was freezing outside. We wiped off the dust (and, later, I left a full review of this “engineering issue”) and checked out of the hotel. Despite the dusty morning, I did really like this hotel and would recommend it. While Dan loaded up the car after we checked out, I grabbed coffee and a few macaroons for the kids at The French Pastry Shop, outside of which we had parked our car overnight. Then, we were off again!

Stop 5: Pueblo, Colorado

Four hours after setting off in the morning from Santa Fe, we stopped in Pueblo, CO, for lunch. We ate outside overlooking the Arkansas River at the Brues Alehouse Brewing Co. It was a beautiful, warm day and while we waited for our lunch, the kids and I walked along the riverwalk.

Riverside Lunch

Stop 6: Gaylord Rockies Resort, Aurora, Colorado

We made our final push through south central Colorado to Aurora, a suburb of Denver, and checked into one of our favorite resorts, the Gaylord Rockies Resort, in the late afternoon. My sister and niece, who live nearby and would be joining us for the next three days, were already there waiting for us. The resort was decorated beautifully for Christmas and we were all excited to settle into one place for the next four nights. We had reserved a family room (like we did last year) and a double queen room right next to it, so we had plenty of space for our group. I had brought colored Christmas lights and I decorated the kids’ bunkbed with them, which gave our family room a festive flare, also.

As soon as we unpacked, we went to the Arapahoe Springs pool and lazy river. We spent part of every day here during our stay. The weather was so nice and the outdoor pools and lazy river were heated, so we had the luxury of floating around the lazy river under the Colorado sun in December. Of course, we also spent time in the hot tubs, too, when we needed a little warm up. Since our three big kids can independently swim, they were able to go down the small outdoor water slide, which they loved (being able to independently swim is a slide requirement) and Vivian was finally *just* tall enough to go down the big indoor water slides, which she loved. The pools here are awesome and make staying here totally worth the price.

Water Slide Fun

In addition to the pools, the resort had a huge holiday event with so many fun winter and festive activities and we did it ALL – snow merry-go-round, snowdrift miniature golf, ice bumper cars, snow tubing, ice skating, scavenger hunt, stories with Mrs. Claus, and an augmented reality experience.

Everyone enjoyed the snow merry-go-round.

Snow Merry-Go-Round

William convinced Dan to buy him a ticket for the snowdrift miniature golf, which was the one activity I had not already purchased tickets for in advance. He was not happy when the last hole held on to his ball and he went into the golf structure head first after it.

Snowdrift Miniature Golf

Both big girls drove the ice bumper cars and had fun.

Ice Bumper Cars

Although our big three kids and their cousin all went snow tubing, only Vivian and Lillian really liked speeding down the tubing hill.

Snow Tubing

As for ice skating, well, our older girls were slowly warming up to it and building their confidence (it was only Vivian’s second time ice skating and it was Lillian’s first time ice skating) when, as I was slowly skating near the center wall close to them, a man came erratically flying around the corner behind me, completely out of control, and slammed hard into me, knocking me flat on my back. My left elbow experienced a direct hit on the ice, sending shooting pain and then numbness up and down my arm. Although the man who hit me quickly got up and skated off, I could not get up – I was dizzy and breathless and stunned. Eventually, other kind souls helped me get up. The ice was cleared for cleaning and so that was the end of our skating adventure. My arm hurt for six more weeks, but multiple x-rays and doctor appointments determined that there was no real damage.

Ice Skating, Before the Fall

Everyone loves a good scavenger hunt, so that was a hit, along with the augmented reality experience, which was also part scavenger hunt.

Merry Snoopy Scavenger Hunt

One evening, the cousins listened to Mrs. Claus read a story while they ate cookies and drank hot cocoa. While they were doing this, poor Irene was puking. At first, we thought she’d just eaten too much cheese earlier in the day. When she puked [all over me] a second time, we figured she had a small stomach bug. After her second puking episode and a solid night of rest, she was completely fine. Little did we know, though, that this bug was lurking around and just waiting for the perfect time (Christmas!) to attack the rest of our stomachs.

Stories, Cookies, & Milk with Mrs. Claus

In addition to all of the activities at the Gaylord Rockies Resort, we also enjoyed seeing the beautiful holiday decorations and lights in the Grand Lodge and throughout the property.

Stained Glass House
Photo Prop
Outdoor Lights!
Kuckelman Caboose in the Grand Lodge
Rocky Mountain Views
Posing with Nutmeg, the Gingerbread Man
Wild Horses

While we stayed at the resort, we ate at its restaurants and cantina, except for our on our last night. Instead of eating in, we went to my sister’s house in nearby Roggen. It was so nice to relax in an actual house for the evening and not in a hotel room. She and her husband fed us a delicious lasagna dinner; the kids played, saw their cattle, and built a gingerbread house that we had bought at the resort; and I washed two big loads of our laundry. We said “see you later” to their family because we planned to meet up with them in the mountains in a few days.

Gingerbread House Success

Stop 7: Frisco, Colorado, Rocky Mountains

After shoving all of our belongings back inside and on top of our car, we left the Gaylord Rockies Resort and turned west to begin our long loop back to California. It was Christmas Eve and the kids were excited, as it was snowing in the mountains where we were headed (their first big snow of the season, too – perfect timing!). First, though, we stopped by a Walmart in Commerce City to stock up on groceries and, since there were (very dry) FREE Christmas trees sitting outside for anyone who wanted one, we grabbed one and added it to the pile on top of our car (we just beat out a senior center nabbing the rest of the lot). We drove through the snow to our condo rental in Frisco.

SNOW!

We unloaded our car and carried everything up, up, up, up the many stairs to our condo in the treetops. We settled into the condo, decorated our free Christmas tree with homemade ornaments that the kids had colored, and ate our traditional spaghetti Christmas Eve dinner.

Decorating Our Vacation Tree

We lit a fire (which involved Dan bumming a working lighter off a neighbor), cozied up in our Christmas jammies, set out cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer, and put the kids to bed. Shortly after they fell asleep, Santa came!

The Stockings (from Grandma) are Hung on Christmas Eve

It all sounds so lovely, doesn’t it? It was. Until 2:30am when Vivian came into our bed and said that her tummy hurt. There wasn’t much room for her in our bed, so I snuggled up with her in her bed in her room…until she started puking. I was next, followed by William and Lillian. It was so awful. Last night’s spaghetti dinner was not at all good on its return visit. No one could keep a drop of anything down. The kids were so thirsty and they kept taking sips of water and then puking again. I could not get out of bed (except to puke). Dan, petrified that it was going to hit him next, brought Irene (who felt fine) to me a few times to nurse. He took care of everyone, constantly cleaning out puke bowls and keeping the kids cozy. I had put our condo address in Instacart before our trip and he used my phone to order Gatorade, paper towels, and additional supplies and have them delivered to our door. I texted my sister, who was supposed to drive out to the mountains in the evening and join us, and she and her family were having the same “festive” day as us. No one ate any food or treats, went to church, opened gifts, or experienced an excited Christmas morning. By the late evening, the puking had stopped long enough for the kids to finally open their gifts from Santa. Since my sister and her family had spent their day sick, they cancelled their trip to the mountains to spend more time with us. It was certainly an, um, memorable Christmas. Thank God, though, we were all starting to feel better by the evening (just in time for Dan to start his bout with it).

Merry Christmas 2021

The day after Christmas I had planned a full day of skiing at Breckenridge. I had prepaid for (very expensive) lift tickets, kid ski rentals, and kid ski lessons. We had also hauled our ski gear halfway across the country with us. Of course, after our day of illness, we could not go. Thankfully, I was able to get a full refund on our ski day, but we were all bummed to be missing it. Instead, after Dan and I worked together to put chains on the car (which I promptly took off a few miles down the road when I realized they weren’t necessary), he stayed at the condo to puke all day while I took the kids to Breckenridge to ride the free BreckConnect gondola (free, after you pay $20 for parking) and go sledding at Runway Sledding Hill, next to the small town airport. The kids loved the gondola ride, but very quickly decided that sledding in heavy snow was not for them. After 1-2 runs, the three littles were crying hysterically and ready to go back to the car. Vivian, though, was having fun sledding. I left her to her fun and hauled the others back to the car to calm them down and warm them up.

Gondola Ride
Sledding

As I’ve done on other vacations, I had our weekly Gobble dinner box shipped to our destination (in this case, Anna’s house) and we started cooking and eating our dinners from the box on this night. Finally, since Dan was feeling better by the evening, we had all officially endured and survived the Christmas 2021 Stomach Bug.

On our last full day in Frisco, it was sunny and there was a break in the snowfall. We went to the Frisco Nordic Center, rented cross-country skis, and ventured out on the trails. I grew up cross-country skiing, but this was everyone else’s first time participating in this activity. Our expectations were very low and we were pleasantly surprised how well the morning went. Dan pulled Irene behind him in a little “pulk” and the rest of us skied on our own. In order to keep moving and keep Irene happy, Dan skied ahead of us went on a longer looped trail. Irene eventually fell fast asleep in the protected pulk. The three other kids and I skied about 1-2 miles and they all enjoyed it. It was a really fun activity and we hope to do it more often in the future!

Little Cross-Country Skiers
Frisco Nordic Center

After skiing, we quickly grabbed lunch from Wendy’s and then checked in for our afternoon sleigh ride. Two pules pulled our sleigh through the snowy forest to a clearing where we had hot cocoa and listened to live music. It sounds very idilic, and it was, but the kids were also cold and tired and that put a little damper on our fun. Surprisingly, we had a better time cross-country skiing than riding in the sleigh. Nevertheless, it was still a fun and memorable experience.

Meeting Our Mules Before the Sleigh Ride

We ate another one of our Gobble meals for dinner and prepped a second one to package up and eat the next evening. As darkness fell on our last night in Colorado, I looked out many of our condo windows at the thick snow blanketing us and the many pine trees surrounding us. I did this often each night that we were in Frisco. Everything looked so quiet outside. I could see colored Christmas lights in a condo across from ours. I love the peace the comes on dark, snowy winter nights.

Snow Much Fun

Stop 8: Colorado National Monument, Fruita, Colorado

Packing up to hit the road again required so much effort (especially since I only had one good working arm due to the ice skating fall a few days earlier) and it’s not something that I hope I remember. What I will remember, though, is that I don’t think I ever want a real Christmas tree again – that thing was a pain in the ass to take down and clean up after. We stuffed our car to the brim and then set out west on 1-70, following the Colorado River. Dan had never been west of Frisco and I had never been west of Vail/Beaver Creek and wow…there is some beautiful scenery beyond the big ski resorts. We eventually stopped at the Colorado National Monument, near Grand Junction, but technically in the small town of Fruita. We drove along the Historic Rim Rock Drive to the Saddlehorn Visitor Center, but it was so snowy that the visitor center was closed and there was nothing to do (or see, due to the low clouds). I had hoped to go on at least one short hike, but that was impossible to do with all the snow. We took a few pictures and saw what little we could see before driving back down to Fruita and continuing our drive into Utah.

Near Canyon Rim Trail

Stop 9: Moab, Utah

We checked into the SpringHill Suites in Moab after dark. Once again, we unloaded all of our stuff and settled into our suite. We had a kitchenette, living room with a trundle sofa, king-size bedroom, and a bunkbed room. The room offered a great setup for our family of six. The living room and main bedroom overlooked the Colorado River. We ate the Gobble dinner that we had prepared and packaged up the night before and then took a dip in one of the many outdoor hot tubs.

We scheduled one full day in Moab to explore and hike in Arches National Park. Luckily, we were visiting during low season, so we didn’t have to waste any time in traffic or waiting for other people to move out of our way and we were able to see most of the park during our visit. We started our explorations at the Arches Visitor Center, and, after seeing the exhibits, we walked around the short Nature Trail right behind the building.

Nature Trail

Then, we drove up (literally) and all the way to the end of the main road in the park. We hiked two miles to Landscape Arch and also saw Pine Tree and Tunnel Arches (well, Vivian, Irene, and I did – Lil threw a huge tired fit and so Dan and William took her straight back to the car after seeing Landscape Arch).

Landscape Arch
Pine Tree Arch
Tunnel Arch

We lunched in the car and then hiked ½ mile to the Lower and Upper Delicate Arch viewpoints.

Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint

Before the sun set, we managed to hike ½ mile to Double Arch and Vivian and I quickly ran around Balanced Rock. There are over 2000 arches in the park, so we hardly made a dent in seeing them all, but we definitely saw the highlights. The girls worked on their Jr. Ranger books and through them, we all learned so much about the formation of the arches.

Double Arch
Balanced Rock

We ended our very active day with leftovers for dinner and another dip in the hot tub.

After eating our free hotel breakfast and then checking out of our hotel the next day, we squeezed in one more quick 1-mile hike to the Courthouse Wash Rock Art on the periphery of the park. Then, it was on to our next destination!

Courthouse Wash Rock Art

Stop 10: Bryce Canyon, Utah

We drove 4.5 hours from Moab to Bryce Canyon. We stopped for lunch after a few hours and ate at Mom’s Cafe in Salina, UT. We actually arrived in Bryce Canyon while there was still daylight, so we quickly drove into Bryce Canyon National Park and to Bryce Point, which is as far as we could go due to snowy road closures in the park. Then we checked into the Best Western Plus Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel. This was the best hotel in town at less than $150/night! We stayed in one of the largest rooms with two queen beds and a sofa. The town was pretty quiet since it was winter and our dining options were limited, so we crossed the street from our hotel and ate at the Ruby’s Inn Cowboy’s Buffet & Steak Room. This restaurant gave me major flashbacks to my days waiting tables at Ponderosa Steakhouse. I cannot say that dinner was particularly good, but no one went home hungry.

The next morning we drove back into the park and stopped in the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center. The snow was already starting to come down pretty hard!

Bryce Canyon Visitor Center

Our options for hiking were very limited due to the weather. We went on two very, very snowy hikes, though – one 1-mile hike from Sunrise Point to Sunset Point on the Rim Trail (which only Vivian, Irene, and I actually did) and another 1-mile hike to Mossy Cave.

Sunrise Point
Sunset Point with the Hoodoos
VERY Snowy Mossy Cave

The snow was falling so fast and so heavy when we left the Mossy Cave trailhead. Our car does not perform well in snow and we quickly got stuck attempting to drive up a small hill. Our car tires had no traction on the unplowed road. Dan hopped out of the car to put chains on the tires, which had me in a panic because visibility was so low and our car was not even completely off the road. All of a sudden, Dan jumped back in the car just as a snowplow drove by us. He quickly put the car in gear and managed to follow the snowplow as it cleared the way. Whew!

Stop 11: Las Vegas, Nevada

We left Bryce Canyon (we’ll definitely have to come back in the warmer months) and began driving towards Las Vegas, the last stop on our road trip (and yeah…didn’t I say in 2020 that if we didn’t go back to Vegas for 20 years, that’d be okay with me?). Las Vegas was a stop on our trip in order to break up the long the drive from Utah to California. We stopped for lunch at Silver Silo Bakery & Espresso in Cedar City, UT, and drove into Vegas after nightfall when the city was lit up. We drove straight across the Strip and parked in a lot near The Linq. Then, we surprised the kids with a ride on the High Roller Ferris wheel. Nearly everything else that we did on our trip, we’d told the kids about in advance to get them excited and to build anticipation, but this activity was the one thing that we kept from them because they requested that they have one “surprise.” I had remembered seeing this Ferris wheel the last time that we were in Las Vegas and when I realized that this road trip would also include a stop in Vegas, I booked a ride as a fun kid activity. The ride was a little over 30 minutes and we got to see the Strip in all it’s neon glory. All of the kids enjoyed it, except poor William, who was scared. It was a very windy night and you could feel and hear the wind, especially as we ascended higher and higher. He is not at all a fan of wind. Still, I recommend this as a great kid-friendly Vegas attraction.

High Roller Ferris Wheel
Vegas Views

After our ride we checked into our hotel for the last night of our trip – the JW Marriott Las Vegas Resort & Spa. Dan grabbed takeout for us from a hotel restaurant and we all ate in the room and then snuggled up in the two queen beds – it was New Year’s Eve, but no one stayed up until midnight.

On the first day of 2022, we, for the last freaking time, packed up all of our stuff and loaded the car in preparation for our drive back home to California. On our way out of Las Vegas, we stopped at Dig This so that the kids could operate mini excavators. William had seen this place showcased on an episode of Blippi and he loves all things construction, so we knew that this would be an extra fun activity for him. All three big kids had a blast and so did Dan, since he sat in the cab with William.

I’m an Excavator!

There was one last thing that I wanted to pack into our trip – a quick stop at Seven Magic Mountains – again, just outside of Las Vegas. I had remembered driving by this outdoor art installation in 2020 and wanted to see it up close. It was still very windy outside, and, really, it was just a bunch of painted and stacked rocks, so we didn’t stay long.

Seven Magic Mountains

After that last stop, we finally, after two weeks, drove home, only stopping once to eat lunch at a Chipotle. What an adventure! We made so many memories and I’m curious to know what the kids retain about our trip over the years. It was so special to have Irene with us on this trip. I absolutely love having a big family (even though it’s a ton of work) and experiencing this life and world with them. We definitely learned some things during this trip to apply to future trips…like, I don’t think we’ll be including quite so many destinations in future road trips (at least while the kids are so little) – it was just too much work to be constantly packing, unpacking, loading, and unloading. Overall, though, this trip was a pretty amazing way to end 2021 and ring in 2022!

Happy New Year!

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Thankful for this Life in Death Valley

In early April 2020, just as the world was grinding to a halt, we were supposed to go on a Spring Break trip to Death Valley National Park. Obviously, that trip was cancelled, but we were still interested in visiting and exploring this rugged area. I re-booked this trip 1.5 years and one additional kid later and we finally traveled to the park during Thanksgiving week in 2021. Our rescheduled trip was fun, exhausting, interesting, active, and dirty!

Eating, Sleeping, and Driving in the Park

We stayed in a new one-bedroom casita at The Inn at Death Valley. This was the largest place for our family of six to stay in the park (and, the nicest!). In addition to a bedroom with two queen beds, the living room had a sofa sleeper. The bathroom was large (no tub, though), there was a nice outdoor patio, and there was a kitchenette (very small fridge, sink, coffee maker, and microwave). We also had our own golf cart to use to move around the resort (of course, the kids loved this!).

Golf Cart Rides

There are limited dining options at the resort and in the park and the options that are available were experiencing staffing issues and were also very expensive. I packed and brought along everything we needed each day for breakfast (fruit, cereal, milk, yogurt, oatmeal, coffee creamer) and lunch (bread, bagels, cream cheese, turkey, PB&J, veggies) and lots of snacks (crackers, protein bars, homemade cookies, applesauce, microwave popcorn, and more). If you plan to go to Death Valley, you must do this – the grocery store options in the park are also very limited. Every day I brought a cooler bag and a dry goods bag along with us in the car so that we could snack and each lunch wherever we roamed.

Because Death Valley is so remote, gas is also very, very expensive. There is zero competition and if you need to get gas in the park, you will pay a lot for it. We paid $6.85/gallon! We have never in our lives paid that much for gas (and I hope that we never do again).

Expensive Gas!

Day 1: Driving to Death Valley

Despite all of my extensive preparation, it still took us awhile to load up the car with all of our luggage and kids. And then, 20 minutes after we finally left the house, William said he had to pee (which is a tactic he uses when he wants to get out of the car) and it was lunchtime, so we stopped to each lunch in Corona. We were not making good time.

After lunch, we were able to get a little further down the road to Baker, CA, before someone claimed that they needed to pee again. While we were in Baker, we stopped to visit the World’s Tallest Thermometer. I’ve driven by this attraction for almost 19 years without ever stopping. Now that I’ve seen it up close, though, I won’t ever need to see it again.

73 Degrees at the World’s Tallest Thermometer

Because we are not in Daylight Savings Time right now, we didn’t get to The Inn at Death Valley until after the sun had already set. We checked in, unloaded our car, and settled into our casita before venturing out to find some dinner food. As I stated above, our options were very limited, so we ended up eating burgers, $18 hot dogs, and chili at the Ice Cream Parlor at The Ranch at Death Valley, just down the road from our hotel.

Playing at The Ranch Before Dinner

Day 2: Exploring the Park

We always do and see a lot on vacations. There’s no point in even trying to rest or relax when you have four small children. So, on our first full day in the park, we hit the road running (or, well, hiking). First, we walked on a 1/2 mile trail around Harmony Borax Works and learned about borax mining and the famed 20-mule-teams. As you can see from the picture below, it was a windy morning!

Harmony Borax Works

We drove through Mustard Canyon on our way out of Harmony Borax Works. Then we stopped by the Furnace Creek Visitor Center to learn more about the park, get maps and brochures, and pick up the girls’ Jr. Ranger activity books. We also had to show a ranger our annual pass at the Visitor Center and get a placard for our car because there are no entrance pay stations in the park.

71 Degrees at the Visitor Center

With a park map in hand, we drove down Badwater Rd. to the lowest point in North America – Badwater Basin. We walked out on the salt flat and even tasted the salt (Vivian put way too much salt on her tongue and had to quickly spit it out!). A mountain loomed behind us and indicated, halfway up, the sea level line. Eight years ago, Dan and I summitted Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous U.S., and now we were visiting the lowest point with our four babies in tow.

Badwater Basin
Badwater Salt Flat

The kids were pretty tired after visiting Badwater Basin, so we drove around for awhile hoping that they would nap (half of them did). We stopped at Devils Golf Course and drove along Artists Drive.

Devils Golf Course

Then, with four tired children, we embarked on a 1.2 mile hike to Natural Bridge. Based on how active our day had been so far and how tired our kids were, you would have thought that this hike would have been a disaster, but, in fact, it’s just what the kids needed. They ran and hiked and climbed and explored and literally kept repeating “I LOVE hiking.” Whew.

Natural Bridge

After we finished the hike, we did finally go back to our casita so that Irene could take a proper nap and the other kids could go swimming. We ended our evening with a pizza dinner at The Last Kind Words Saloon, stargazing at Harmony Borax Works, and popcorn and movies in our casita.

Day 3: Detouring to Nevada and Exploring the Park

On Thanksgiving morning, we left the park and drove into Nevada to visit the old ghost town of Rhyolite. This was a gold mining town that boomed and busted in the early 1900s. Afterwards, while I nursed Irene in the car, Dan and the kids checked out the Goldwell Open Air Museum next door to Rhyolite.

William in Rhyolite Near the Abandoned Train Depot
Running the Labyrinth at Goldwell Open Air Museum

We ate a BBQ Thanksgiving lunch in Beatty, NV, and then headed back to the park in California. The littles fell asleep and so we stopped at the Keane Wonder Mine to give them some more time to sleep before our next hike. The girls and I checked out the mine (which was a successful gold mine) while Dan stayed in the car with William and Irene. At the end of the day, I told everyone that visiting the mine was my favorite part of the day – there was no one else there and it was so quiet and it just felt special to be outside in a national park seeing parts of history with my girls.

Keane Wonder Mine

We squeezed in a .8 mile walk on the Salt Creek Interpretive Trail before heading back to our casita so that Irene could again take a proper nap and the big kids could swim in the pool. The day before, Dan had taken them to the pool and while there, he introduced them to a sauna, which they thought was so neat. They were so excited to show me the sauna today after our dip in the pool.

Salt Creek Interpretive Trail
Pool Time

We ate our Thanksgiving dinner in The Inn Dining Room (well, on the patio). It was a pre-fix menu that was extremely overpriced and so-so tasting, but hey, it was Thanksgiving and we all ate turkey together, so we were able to check that off the list. After we’d ordered our food, I mentioned to Dan that we were never offered a drink menu or asked for a drink order and Dan said that they probably saw us with four small kids and assumed that we were Mormon. Ha! With four kids, we needed a stiff drink!

Happy Thanksgiving

Day 4: Riding Horses and Hiking in the Park

The girls and I started our morning off with a 1-hour (3 mile) horseback ride through the desert in Furnace Creek. They were so thrilled to be doing this! Technically, kids were supposed to be at least six years old to ride, but they let me make a reservation for Lillian even though she was only 5.5 years old. Lillian rode the horse perfectly and completely on her own – I was so proud of her and she was so proud of herself! The girls and I were at the beginning of our line of riders, right behind the lead, Max, who was an awesome guide. The ride was very dusty, but it wasn’t hot, and I just got such a kick out of the girls having such a good time.

Horseback Ride

While the girls and I were horseback riding, Dan took the littles up to Dantes View to get a better view of Badwater Basin. He also drove them through Twenty Mule Team Canyon (which he did again with us in the afternoon).

Dantes View

When we all reunited, we ate a picnic lunch at The Ranch with ice cream from the Ice Cream Parlor for dessert. We walked around the Borax Museum and let the kids play on the playground next to The Ranch’s pool.

Death Valley Railroad Car at the Borax Museum

Elbowing our way through the crowds (similar to the crowd level at Badwater Basin), we then walked to the top of Zabriskie Point to view the badlands.

Zabriskie Point

Afterwards, we drove around the badlands, across from Zabriskie Point, and hiked 3.3 miles through Golden Canyon to Red Cathedral. The kids did so well on the hike – I wore Irene the entire time (and even nursed her in the carrier while hiking for awhile), Dan carried William for probably only one mile, and the girls hiked every inch of it themselves. The kids loved climbing and exploring and as we ended the hike and emerged from the canyon, the sun was just setting.

Golden Canyon with Red Cathedral
Hiking Through the Slot Canyon
Hiking Family of Six

Day 5: Swearing in New Jr. Rangers, Exploring the Park, and Eating in Panamint Springs

After four days and nights, we packed up our filthy car to begin our trek home. We drove into the park on 190 from the south, but planned to leave via Panamint Valley Road through Trona and then south on 395. Before we could leave, though, the girls first had to turn in their completed Jr. Ranger books at the Visitor Center and get their Jr. Ranger badges.

Jr. Rangers

On our way out of the park, we stopped to see the Historic Stovepipe Well and play in the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

Playing in the Fine Sand at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

And then, finally, we ate lunch at Panamint Springs and left the park, slowly (like, really slowly, due to freeway accidents and traffic) making our way back home. Everyone arrived home tired and dirty, but full of so many fun memories. I’m so excited to see what the kids remember about this trip as they age. The girls truly remember so much about our adventures, so I know that this unique Thanksgiving trip will always capture a small part of their childhood memories. For now, I am so thankful that we were all together and had the opportunity to explore such a unique place.

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