Backpacking Dad’s Southwest Road Trip (Part 2): Las Vegas

This is Part 2 in a series of stories (and tips) from our most recent road trip. Read Part 1, on the Calico Ghost Town, here, and Part 3, on the road to Flagstaff, here.

We left Calico in the late afternoon, and settled in for the long stretch of I-15 ahead of us into Las Vegas. Although Emily and I are familiar with that part of the drive, it was the first time we had kids along with us, and we couldn’t think of anything we needed to stop to see. One possible exception was the World’s Tallest Thermometer in Baker, but as we drove past it didn’t seem to be lit up, so we didn’t make the stop. (As it turns out, the sign is in bad shape, the gift shop is closed, and the Bob’s Big Boy next door, owned by the same man, is also shuttered. I’m glad we didn’t take ten minutes to drive up close to see what was going on.)

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #4: Plan your meal stops ahead of time, at places where you would want to stop and look around anyway. If you wait to stop until you are all hungry, your choices will be limited to whatever truck stop restaurant happens to be open at the next exit, because when the kids get hungry, they stay hungry. And loud. And if that restaurant is terrible, or even worse, closed, you will all be miserable.

We rolled into Vegas just before dinner time, and checked into our hotel (another free night at an Embassy Suites because of points). We had decided to stay off the Strip, mostly so we could get another two-room suite instead of trying to crowd into a casino hotel room. We chose a hotel near the convention center, and it happened to be just a few blocks from a monorail station that connected the convention center to all the hotels on the Strip anyway, so we didn’t have to worry about driving around in Vegas for the night. We ate some dinner, then headed down to the hotel pool.

The pool experience was a little underwhelming. It was advertised as heated, but it was cold, and Adrian had to get out after a few minutes. (Erin, though, my little fish, jumped in and out of the pool for half an hour, leading a band of new best friends in her pool shenanigans.) I went outside to the hot tub, where I soaked as setting sun reflected off the casino towers in the distance. I hoped to bring Adrian in with me to warm up, but just as the pool was too cold for him, the hot tub was too hot. We left a little too soon for my soaking body’s liking.

Since we had the kids with us, we weren’t going to be doing much gambling, or drinking, or clubbing (so, none of the things people tend to go to Vegas to do), but we had all night, and all of the next morning to find things that would be fun for them, and for us.

Vegas for Kids

The first thing we decided to do was get a nice view of the Strip. So we took the monorail from the convention center down to the Paris Hotel.

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We walked through the casino (as smoky as I remember casinos being), and then went up to the top of the replica of the Eiffel Tower that is built into the side of the hotel. The view from up there was pretty great. I’ve been up to the top of the Stratosphere at the end of the Strip, but I don’t remember if its view is much better.

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The kids found a telescope someone had put some quarters into, and they spent some time looking down at the buildings, and trying to get a peak at “the castle” down the street. After that, they thought all the telescopes were free, so they went round and round at the top of the tower, checking all of them. Eventually I distracted Adrian with some picture taking.

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Although the view is nice, the line to go up to the top of the tower is long and slow-moving. It’s also not a free trip, and there isn’t much to do once you’re up there except look around at Vegas. When we came back down we decided to change tactics.

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #5: No matter how cool you think something is, your kids will disagree, so don’t blow your budget on experiences that you think they SHOULD have when you can get by with the experiences they CAN have. Maybe you’ll have money left for the experiences you both WANT to have.

The first thing we did when we came down from the tower was to get some ice cream. The kids had been up late the night before, and we were okay with them being up late this night, our only Vegas night, too, so the sugar rush wasn’t a concern. Also, punctuating an experience with ice cream is nice, and it was an indulgence in a city full of indulgences that we were otherwise avoiding.

Next, we walked across the street to the Bellagio hotel. This took longer than that sentence would indicate. The press of people outside on the Strip on a warm Spring evening was impressive, and we had to walk down the block a bit, with all of those people, to get to a crosswalk. Oddly, it was outside the casinos, rather than inside, that we were most challenged to shield the kids from the seedier side of the city. Up and down the sidewalk were the club-and-services hawkers, handing out small cards or flyers depicting Vegas’ promises. Sensibly, whenever a hawker would see a kid coming close, he would pause in his hustle, and we were never offered a card or flyer. But they were all over the ground, and Erin at least was curious when she caught one out of the corner of her eye. Emily quickly ushered her onward.

Stationed right at the crosswalk, two young women in their best showgirl regalia posed for pictures with tourists walking by. I thought about getting the kids to take pictures with them, but the thought of a very complicated conversation about what they were doing and why they were dressed that way deterred me. It probably would have been a great scrapbook picture, though.

When we made it across the street to the Bellagio, we settled in with our ice cream for the world famous Bellagio fountain water show.

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The show only lasted for a couple of minutes, but the kids loved it, and it was free, so I have no complaints.

We slowly made our way back to the monorail station, and eventually back to the hotel where the kids promptly fell asleep. Considering they had awoken in Bakersfield that morning, and all the things they’d done in one day, I didn’t blame them.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel instead of buying it at a restaurant, then we packed up the car and checked out. We had to get to Flagstaff, Arizona, but we weren’t in any hurry to leave Las Vegas. So we drove down the Strip to the Mandalay Bay Hotel, parked the car, and went inside.

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As we were planning the Vegas stop on our road trip, we had considered a couple of things the kids might like to see. One was the zoo at the Mirage, where Siegfried and Roy kept their white tigers. The other was the aquarium at the Mandalay Bay. Since Adrian was weeks deep into an obsession with the Octonauts, we decided to take them to the aquarium, Shark Reef.

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The aquarium isn’t large, especially if you’ve spent any time at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but it is a bit larger than San Francisco’s Aquarium of the Bay (though it only has one tunnel to walk through beneath the aquarium). The kids saw giant lizards, crocodiles, sharks, Amazon River fish, and an octopus. It was perfect for the amount of time they were willing to spend at an aquarium that morning, and for the amount of time we we willing to stay in Vegas before getting back on the road.

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The last thing we did before leaving the hotel to get on the road was grab some lunch. We ate from the deli case of a casino restaurant, sitting around a table in a lounge just off the casino floor that, from the look of it, would be filled with music, and drinking, and dancing later that night. For the time being it was just filled with us. Then, onward to Flagstaff!

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #6: If you are getting on the road in the middle of the day, right after lunch, make sure to grab something for lunch that will keep, is portable, and won’t contribute to the mess in the car. For instance, a sandwich container makes a great bowl for fruit or crackers in the car later, while hummus and pita chips will make you want to get the car detailed after the kids smear it all over their chairs. It also smells up the joint. Think about your noses.

Backpacking Dad’s Southwest Road Trip (Part 1): The Calico Ghost Town

This is Part 1 in a series of stories (and tips) from our most recent road trip. Read Part 2, on Las Vegas, here, and Part 3, on the road to Flagstaff, here.

We began our Spring Break Road Trip Extravaganza late on a Friday afternoon. The first leg of our trip was through California’s Central Valley, from the Bay Area to Bakersfield, a drive that we’ve made many times on the way to Southern California. We stopped, as we usually do, at the Apricot Tree to let the kids run around in the field next to the restaurant for a little while.

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It was still a little too early to eat, so we didn’t go inside the restaurant this time, but it’s a cool place for a meal if you like to be surrounded by classic lunchboxes.

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After the kids were done running around, we continued driving as the sun went down.

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #1: To make good time, drive in the dark. To have a good time, drive in the daylight. In other words, if there are many places to see on the way to your destination, drive during the day; if not, drive at night so the kids can relax after a long day of using their energy up in an environment that isn’t your car.

We drove through miles and miles of agricultural land and cow country (“Daddy, what’s that stinky?” Adrian asked through Coalinga, near a giant cattle ranch), and we rolled into Bakersfield after a quick stop for dinner.

Why were we in Bakersfield? Honestly, we just wanted to split our trip into driving blocks of 4-5 hours, and in this scheme Bakersfield was a good stop between the Bay Area and Las Vegas. I don’t have anything against Bakersfield, but I didn’t see much of it beyond the hotel and the gas station.

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #2: The Embassy Suites and Homewood Suites chains are both owned by Hilton, and you can use your Hilton Honors Points to get free nights at these places. If you travel a lot, and happen to use Hilton, this is a good way to use your points since a suite at one of these places is not much more than a regular room at a Hilton. Most importantly, these hotels have rooms with separate living room spaces and you can set up some air mattresses in them (which is what we do), or use the sofabed. These hotels also include breakfast, often a hot buffet or even cooked-to-order items like omelets or waffles. Other chains of business hotels probably also have suite-style rooms as well, so find out what your favourite business travel chain offers for families, and try to make use of your points.

One reason for breaking our trip up into increments like this was to make the most of our daylight hours for stops along the way. At about the halfway point between Bakersfield and Las Vegas is the Calico Ghost Town, an old silver mining town that has been preserved up in the hills above I-15. This would be a good place for a driving break, and lunch, and general touristy hijinks.

The Calico Ghost Town

As dusty and brown as any movie scene in any western, the Calico Ghost Town was a perfect stop for our gang of wagon-trainers.

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We ate lunch at the barbecue restaurant, sitting outside in the air while a tour group of French seniors organized their visit a few tables over. The kids took turns trying on my sunglasses in between bites of chicken and fries, while I sipped on sarsaparilla.

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We found some cutouts to pose with in front of what purports to be an old saloon. There were chairs located behind the cutouts to make it easier for kids to get their heads in the picture, but note the view of Adrian’s feet where his manacled hands should appear.

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Just up the road, a recreation of an old saloon offered the kids the chance to burst through swinging doors, as though they had just been deputized and were being called out to save the town from bandits.

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The saloon also gave me a chance to teach Adrian how to play poker, though we used the bottle caps in the trays instead of real money. I’ll wait until he gets an allowance to teach him how to lose at poker.

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Among the hills on the outskirts of town sits a building walled with translucent glass bottles. Try to guess what this building is used for. Did you guess that it was a pet accessory and treat shop? Wow. Good guess.

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If you’ve ever been to Santa Cruz, you are probably familiar with its famous Mystery Spot, a location in the mountains that seems to defy the laws of physics, where water runs uphill and perspectives are flipped about. There is a Mystery Shack in the Calico Ghost Town, where similar perceptual confusions are on display. Erin had a chance to make water run uphill (though in the picture you can see the actual direction it took), run up and down walls, and try to get out of the magical chair.

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The kids were also able to pan for gold dust in a long trough. Although Calico was a silver mine, no Old West experience is complete without panning for gold.

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We rounded out our visit with a ride on the mining train, and stops in various book and gift shops along the way. Erin had promised her school’s librarian that she would return with books from the places she visited, so we made sure to find a small one that explained some of the history of Calico. The kids also left with some plastic eggs with toy dinosaurs inside. I’m not entirely sure why. Finally, before we left, we took advantage of the facilities, then got back on the road. Onward to Vegas!

TRAVELING WITH KIDS TIP #3: Use these stops as opportunities to not only see some sights, eat food, or use the restrooms, but also to refill any water bottles you have with you. Don’t get stuck on a long stretch of road without anything to drink.

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