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Budget-Friendly Ideas for a Weekend Getaway

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Budget-friendly ideas for a weekend getaway

Planning a weekend getaway with the family this summer? Keep costs down by choosing budget-friendly activities like these:

1. Parks: national, state, and local parks are all great budget-friendly options for families. No matter where you travel, there is likely to be a park or two nearby. Remember that members of the U.S. military are eligible to receive a free National Parks annual pass. We’ve used ours several times in the last year and are ready to renew it for another twelve months of adventures.

2. Ghost towns: not only are they fun to visit, ghost towns are also a great way to get kids interested in history. Each ghost town has a story, and learning about their rise and fall can help kids learn about about local lore. Also, ghost towns are perfect for photographers, both young and old. (Check out photos from our trip to the ghost town of Rhyolite.)

3. Small museums: large, comprehensive museums are a fantastic educational resource for families. However, smaller museums shouldn’t be overlooked and are often reasonably priced compared to their larger counterparts. Two small museums in Nevada that we enjoy are the Lost City Museum in Overton and the Clark County Museum in Henderson.

4. Scenic drives: besides paying for gas and snacks, a scenic drive can be an inexpensive way to explore. Check out this scenic byways guide from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to find scenic drives in your neck of the woods.

5. Military and local discounts: Even if special military rates aren’t posted, it is always a good idea to ask about military discounts before buying tickets or booking a hotel room. We’ve found that military rates aren’t always advertised. Also, many attractions offer discounts for locals, especially in tourist destinations like Las Vegas.

Please have a safe weekend wherever your travels take you.

Travel and fear

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Open Road, West Texas

Our summer travel plans are starting to come together. We’ll be going to not one but two islands we’ve never visited before, and we’ll be making a return trip to one of our favorite cities on the planet.

These destinations are firmly planted on the “beaten path.” They will be incredible, but we aren’t exactly exploring new territory. Don’t get me wrong: I’m so thankful that I’ll have the chance to spend time with my husband and daughter, and I think we’ll have a wonderful time. However, there’s something about heading off into the middle of nowhere, leaving the well-trodden trail, that is particularly rewarding. And it’s something I’m hoping to do again soon.

A couple of years ago, my daughter and I went with another mother/daughter pair into the vast West Texas wilderness. It was certainly an adventure as we dodged tumbleweeds and wondered when we’d see a gas station and convinced ourselves we may or may not be abducted by aliens. The middle of nowhere, unfamiliar surroundings, no cell phone service…my daughter and I were out of our comfort zone, and it was one of the more memorable trips we’ve taken.

So, as summer approaches and I try to make plans to fill my daughter’s school-free time, I find myself daydreaming about girls-only adventures with my daughter in the rural expanses of Nevada, Utah, eastern California, and northern Arizona.

There are so many places I’d love to explore: Cathedral Gorge State Park near Pioche, Nevada. Snow Canyon State Park near St. George, Utah. The ghost town of Chloride in Arizona. The historic, possibly-haunted Mitzpah Hotel in Tonopah, Nevada (about halfway between Vegas and Lake Tahoe). I could go on. These are the kinds of places that I love. I like the fact that these are not “typical” tourist destinations. And I love the thought of driving down an open road, without another car in sight.

But something makes me hesitant to embark on these adventures alone with my daughter: fear.

I can’t help but imagine everything that could go wrong. These trips don’t involve hopping on a plane and heading to some help-is-always-nearby, highly-populated area. Most of these destinations mean driving through areas with little or no cell phone service and hikes in lesser-known parks. For some reason, that makes me nervous.

And then there is the fear of the unknown. It is always easier to visit a place you’ve been before, to know what is coming around the next bend in the road. However, it’s the trips to the places we haven’t been before that become the most memorable.

Nothing good in life is without risk. I’m trying to remember that as I plan a girls-only trip for me and my daughter. I will be smart and well-prepared, and I will trust that everything will turn out just fine. After all, The Hills Have Eyes is just a movie, right?

Exploring St. Louis with kids

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Gateway Arch, St. Louis

St. Louis might be one of the most underrated family destinations in the U.S. With world-class museums, professional sports for every season, and a stunning monument to 20th-century design and engineering, St. Louis offers families a host of affordable entertainment options.

Where to Begin: the Gateway Arch

Perhaps the best place to start a St. Louis adventure is the famous Gateway Arch. At 630 feet, this monument’s grace ascent gives the city a skyline like no other. Visitors can experience the Museum of Westward Expansion before climbing into a pod-shaped elevator and making the journey to the top of the Arch. There, visitors can look out the small windows and see the city to the west and the Mississippi River and Illinois to the east.

Educational Adventures

No trip to St. Louis is complete without a visit to the zoo. The Saint Louis Zoo features over 19,000 animals, a zoo train, and a lively sea lion show. Surprisingly, admission to the zoo is free. Visit soon to see the zoo’s newest resident, a baby Asian elephant that was born in April 2013.

Another free option in Forest Park is the Saint Louis Art Museum. From ancient Egyptian artifacts to paintings by modern masters like Paul Cezanne, Georges Braque, and Andy Warhol, the museum’s comprehensive collection can help inspire young artists and their parents.

For families who prefer science to Cezanne, the Saint Louis Science Center is a fun and educational option. Cross the pedestrian walkway and watch the cars zip by on the highway below, or watch a movie on the five-story screen at the OMNIMAX theater.

In addition to its impressive museums, St. Louis also boasts a well-deserved reputation as a sports town. During warm summer nights, families can take in a Cardinals baseball game at the 2006-reincarnation of Busch Stadium.

Relax and Refuel

Once you’ve experienced the art, culture, wildlife, and sports of St. Louis, you’ll need to recharge with something scrumptious. Fans of Italian food should visit “the Hill,” a predominately Italian-American neighborhood known for its wide array of old-school Italian restaurants. Local favorites include Cunetto’s House of Pasta and Charlie Gitto’s.

After dinner, consider a stop at the St. Louis staple Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. Known for their so-thick-you-can-turn-the-cup-upside-down “concretes,” this ice cream shop is a must-visit for kids (and their parents) who have a sweet tooth.

St. Louis is a fantastic budget-friendly summer destination for families. We have visited many, many times, and we always find new things to try.

Helpful Planning Resources:

Gateway Arch: gatewayarch.com
Saint Louis Zoo: stlzoo.org
Saint Louis Art Museum: slam.org
Saint Louis Science Center: slsc.org
Ted Drewes Frozen Custard: teddrewes.com

How to Have an Awesome Day at Springs Preserve

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Springs Preserve

Ask any Vegas local about family-friendly activities, and Springs Preserve is likely to be one of the first places they mention. With garden trails, a unique playground, desert animals, and history exhibits, the park goes above and beyond to teach kids about Southern Nevada.

Thinking of adding Springs Preserve to your Las Vegas itinerary? Here are a few tips to help make your visit as fun as possible.

Visit in the Afternoon

Obviously, this isn’t the best option during the summer, however spring and fall are perfect seasons for an afternoon visit. From what I’ve observed, Springs Preserve seems to be most crowded in the morning. By early afternoon, most of the families with young kids have headed home for nap time and the park seems much less busy. (We also noticed this during our last trip to Disneyland. Lines for the rides seemed significantly shorter during the afternoon as opposed to mid- to late-morning.

Try the Cafe

If you’re at the preserve around midday, consider trying the Springs Cafe for lunch. Run by the Culinary Academy of Las Vegas, the food here goes beyond the standard kid-friendly fare (truffle pizza, anyone?). Take a look at their current menu before you go to see if the cafe offers options that will work for your family.

Find the Flash Flood

We normally don’t seek out flash floods, but in the case of Springs Preserve, you’ll want to find the rushing water of this dramatic exhibit. Housed in the Origen Museum, the flash flood room does an excellent job of demonstrating just how powerful and dangerous this natural phenomenon can be.

Flash flood exhibit at Springs Preserve

Don’t Forget the Discounts

When you purchase your tickets, remember that Springs Preserve offers military and Nevada resident discounts. If either or these apply to you, don’t forget to bring your military i.d., Nevada driver’s license, or other proof that you qualify. This is a great way to save money on your visit to the park.

If you have any additional Springs Preserve tips you’d like to share, feel free to leave a comment. Happy trails!

Exploring the Historic Railroad Trail at Lake Mead

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Historic Railroad Trail, Lake Mead

Thanks to a recommendation from Oh Mah Deehness!, I decided a recent spring Saturday would be the perfect time to try a hike at Lake Mead’s railroad trail.

I’ve heard there are several cool tunnels along the trail. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to even the first tunnel.

But that’s life with a strong-willed kid whose attention span is a mile long.

Even though we didn’t come close to completing the trail, there were plenty of things for us to see along the way.

Historic Railroad Trail, Lake Mead

Spring is a perfect time for this hike, not only because the weather is great, but also because the wildflowers are in bloom. We also enjoyed some great views of Lake Mead and got to see an interesting bit of history. Along the way, we saw a sign pointing out several concrete plugs that rested next to the trail that had once been used in the construction of Hoover Dam. That’s certainly not something you see every day!

Historic Railroad Trail, Lake Mead

So, you may be wondering why we didn’t make it to any tunnels despite the fact that we were having a great time. Well, five-year-old E. wanted to stop and examine everything. Every wildflower, every view of the lake, every interesting rock. She also wanted to record her findings in her journal. She made plenty of nice sketches of her surroundings: the flowers, the boats docked in the lake, the mountains. I was happy to let her take her time…although eventually we had to call it a day and start heading home.

Historic Railroad Trail, Lake Mead

historic railroad trail, lake mead

Be sure to read up on this hike and Lake Mead in general prior to your trip. Have fun!

Visiting the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in Winter

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Finally! I can’t believe it took me this long, but I am now able to cross off “Grand Canyon” from my travel wish list. An American icon and a truly miraculous natural wonder, the Grand Canyon is only a four-hour drive from Las Vegas. Yet it wasn’t until our second year as Nevadans that we visited this popular National Park.

Take a peek at a few of our photos:

Grand Canyon, south rim, in winter

Grand Canyon in winter

Grand Canyon, south rim on a chilly day

Hopi House, Grand Canyon National Park

Hopi House, Grand Canyon National Park

It’s always fascinating to visit such a famous place. I’d seen photos and heard about it so much that it almost felt like I’d been there before. It’s interesting how your expectations compare to the reality.

The Grand Canyon was exactly what I expected it to be, yet it was also awe-inspiring. Comprehending it’s size and depth was difficult, even in-person.

Have you visited the Grand Canyon? Did it meet or exceed your expectations?

Making the Most of 24 Hours in Palm Springs

Palm Springs, CA

Week-long vacations are great, but our family ends up doing a lot of quick, one- or two-night trips. With work and school schedules, it’s difficult to carve out 7-10 days to travel. We would rather go on a quick road trip than not go at all, which has lead us to explore places like Houston and Seattle in just a few short days.

Our trip to Palm Springs was no different. We spent a mere 24-hours in the Coachella Valley. Here’s how we made the most of our time exploring the area:

Day 1: Morning
We hit the road and drove from Las Vegas to Palm Springs in about 4.5 hours. We stayed at the Renaissance Esmeralda, which is located in Indian Wells.

Day 1: Afternoon
We arrived at the Renaissance Esmeralda, and I immediately knew I’d picked the right hotel. The grounds were immaculate, and I loved seeing lots of colorful, blooming flowers in the middle of winter. (Believe it or not, Las Vegas gets pretty cold in the winter. The Coachella Valley is consistently warmer than Southern Nevada.)

Beautiful grounds at the Renaissance Esmeralda in Indian Wells

The resort is absolutely beautiful: airy and light and luxurious. Although our assigned room had a balcony, we upgraded to a pool-view room for an additional fee. It was worth it. This is the view we enjoyed from our room:

View from our room at the Renaissance Esmeralda

After we arrived at our room, it took about 30 seconds for five-year-old E. to see the pool from the balcony and decide that she wanted to join the fun. Although it was late afternoon by this point and starting to get a little chilly in the shade, the pool was heated and didn’t feel too bad. Besides, there isn’t much that can deter a kid from swimming.

E. and her dad went swimming while I sat poolside and had a drink. Eventually the sun set, and we decided to call it a day and get ready for dinner.

Day 1: Evening
I hadn’t scoped out any restaurants prior to our arrival, so we did the “drive around and look for a place to eat” routine that night. We headed to Palm Desert, the town just west of Indian Wells. We drove through the little downtown area filled with shops (most of which were closed for the day) and restaurants. We decided on an Italian restaurant and enjoyed some pasta before finding a frozen yogurt shop and then heading back to the hotel.

Day 2: Morning
Another hotel guest had mentioned to me that the breakfast place at the Renaissance Esmeralda was pretty good, so we decided to give it a try. I’m so glad we did! The breakfast buffet was outstanding and included a juice bar, omelete station, waffles, and fresh fruit. We sat out on the patio and enjoyed the beautiful weather. It was a great spot to discuss our plans for the day.

After breakfast, we took a quick walk around the resort grounds and then gathered our things and checked-out. Afterall, we had some exploring to do!

Day 2: Afternoon
Our main objective before heading home was to explore the Living Desert. This is a zoo that features desert animals from around the world. We saw everything from giraffes to panthers. We also enjoyed a camel ride, for an additional fee. It was worth the money for one lap around the camel enclosure.

Camel Ride

My view from aboard our camel

Living Desert was really the highlight of our trip. We don’t have a real zoo here in Las Vegas. It’s strange to think that something that was a staple from my own childhood is more of a rare occasion for E. We need to get her to a zoo more often even if it requires a drive to San Diego or elsewhere.

After our visit to the Living Desert, we began to make our way home…kind of. We stopped for lunch on our way out of town in downtown Palm Springs. We decided to try Maracas Cantina. I ordered something there I’d never eaten before: a mango salsa and brie quesadilla. It was just as delicious, of course. (How could it not be? Brie is the best!) After we ate, we walked around, checked out some of the stars along the sidewalk, and then drove back to Las Vegas.

downtown Palm Springs

I hope our travels will take us back to Palm Springs again. This isn’t the most kid-friendly place we’ve visited, but Living Desert is certainly worth a visit, and the city is filled with resort-style accomodations that are great for families.

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