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Baby's First California Road Trip

By Tana Baer
March 16, 2018
Camping on a sunny day Joshua Tree
Meinzahn/Dreamstime
A road trip through California's national parks with an infant is a lesson in parenting. And life.

From miles of sand in the south to rocky coastal cliffs in the north, from the highest point in the continental United States to the lowest point in North America, California is the go-to place for adventure seekers and laid-back vacationers alike, no matter the season. But it was the wintertime that called me, a time when I could indulge my kind of adventure: desert camping. California has three main deserts: the Colorado, The Great Basin, and the Mojave. While winter nights in the desert can certainly be cold and windy, daytime temperatures are perfect for hiking and exploring the varying environments: sand dunes to high mountain peaks; bouldering to hot springs soaking. 

Oh, and one more thing you should know: My husband and I went camping in the California desert with our eight-month-old daughter.

THE PLAN: HITTING THE CALIFORNIA ROAD

Seven years ago, I hiked and camped around the US for a couple months with my then fiancé, Will, and one of our stops included Death Valley. It was September and the heat was intense enough to keep us from exploring much. We spent one night in our underwear out under the stars, drinking whiskey and playing card games well into the morning hours. Leaving before the sun was too hot and stopping along the way at Badwater Basin and the Devil’s Golf Course, we vowed to come back in December one year for Will’s birthday. We spent less than 24 hours in Death Valley, and yet it has remained ingrained in our souls; it's a place that inspires and sits with you.

Seven years, a marriage, and a baby, later, I bought us plane tickets on a whim and decided to surprise Will for his birthday. Although he’s an outdoorsy type who loves to travel, I knew that if I presented the idea of this trip, he'd say no and give me a variety of valid reasons. None of them would be enough to sway me. I didn't say a word until two weeks before we left. Excitement got the best of me and I let it slip. And so there we were, with our atlas laid out on the kitchen table, planning the route. We'd spend a night in Vegas, and then make our way to Death Valley. From there, we'd drive to the Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park, and finally the Imperial Sand Dunes at the very bottom of California. I found a small start-up company in Las Vegas that rents camping gear, Basecamp Outdoor Gear. We anxiously marked off days, itching to get out there and explore.

On a chilly December night, we met Basecamp’s owners, Joy and Niko, in a parking lot at the Excalibur. They brought to us two bins of supplies: a tent, sleeping bags and pads, chairs, a stove, backpacks, and headlamps. We felt adventurous; we imagined ourselves seasoned parents, ready to take it on. In truth, we had no idea what would happen. Eve, our eight-month-old daughter, slept about an hour in the last 21. She’s used to her nighttime routine: a bath and a massage with oils, followed by stories and rocking and a gentle drift-off into sleep, all beginning promptly at 6PM. She thrives on that routine, yet here we were, meeting strangers in a dark parking garage at 10:30PM local time. Routine? Nope. Winging it? Yep.

FIRST STOP: DEATH VALLEY 

After a night of fitful sleep in a hotel that houses a casino full of drunken gamblers, we fueled up and hit the road. First stop: our beloved Death Valley. While Eve slept soundly in her carseat, we entered the park by way of Death Valley Junction, and took our time descending into the valley, stopping to feed Eve with a view of Telescope Peak, which at 11,043 feet is the highest point in Death Valley. We set off exploring until the sun set in rays of pinks and oranges across the valley floor and arrived at our camping spot just as the full moon rose. It was chilly, but we were bundled up and happy. After tucking Eve into her sleeping bag, I joined Will outside and we chatted about how easygoing Eve was just two days in, despite the change in her routine. Things were good.

The wind proved to be unsparing, and we spent that first night shielding Eve from the sand. We awoke with our faces rimmed in dust, our nostrils caked and tongues gritty, but Eve was smiling and unfazed, and so off we set to hike the sand dunes at sunrise. In all, we spent three days exploring and hiking, before taking a slow, meandering route southeast to the Mojave Preserve.

WHAT TO KNOW: Entrance fee to Death Valley is $25. Have a few days? Drive through the park in sections, stopping at every drive and hike available off the main roads. Dante's View is especially exceptional; there's a hiking trail from the parking lot and  unparalleled views of the valley floor 5,475 feet below. There are camping grounds and four lodging options within the park. We stayed at Stovepipe Wells campgrounds ($14) for its proximity to the sand dunes, but there are eight other designated campgrounds.

NEXT STOP: MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE 

Driving around this area allows one to fully comprehend the enormity of California. You can drive for hours and nothing changes; the expansive landscape makes you feel small in the way that only nature does and can. When we arrived at the Mojave in the early afternoon, the sun was descending, casting long shadows of the joshua trees, juniper, mesquite and cacti. We camped under a still very full moon and hiked around the Kelso Dunes the next morning. Eve was already a road trip pro. She slept soundly through the night (a first) and was perfectly content on the road, but she was happiest in the carrier, peeking over our shoulders and taking in the desert landscape.

WHAT TO KNOW: Hole in the Wall campground ($12): Bring your own water and be prepared for nighttime wind. Leave time to explore the nearby Kelso Dunes and Kelso Ghost Town. Hikes like Teutonia Peak (elevation 5,754 feet) passes through the world's densest Joshua Tree forest. If you’re just passing through, consider driving the I-15 Scenic Detour, where you’ll pass cinder cones and lava flows on your way to the Kelso Dunes. If you’re staying a few days, there are 13 designated hiking trails to choose from, varying in length and intensity. 

THIRD STOP: JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK 

We hadn’t given Joshua Tree much thought before our trip, even though we hadn’t been there before. We weren’t planning to stay longer than a day, and we definitely were not prepared for how much we'd both love it. In contrast to Death Valley, the largest national park in the continental US, this park is very manageable. We stayed two days, taking turns carrying Eve on our back while hiking, rock scrambling, and roaming around larger-than-life rock piles scattered throughout the park. Eve continued to be an incredible first-time adventure buddy, even getting excited when we’d pull out the carrier. Planning her naps was easy, as she’d sleep in the carrier or car. Yes, our first road trip may have been simpler without the responsibility of parenting, but the differences in the two trips were actually negligible. My twenty-something self might have been bored at the idea of taking a baby on a road trip, but thirty-something, new-parent me thoroughly enjoyed it.

A sucker for a good ruin, we ventured to the old Ryan ranch and imagined what it must have been like to be a settler. We camped at Jumbo Rocks ($15 per night), adjacent to Skull Rock Trail, an easy loop trail that meanders through boulder canyons and lined with jojoba, mesquite and other hardy desert plants. The trail showcases the geological marvel that is Joshua Tree National Park, a parcel of land two billion years in the making. One night while Eve was sleeping, Will and I scrambled up an enormous boulder that abutted our tent, listening as the moonlit desert came alive.

WHAT TO KNOW: Entrance fee is $25. There are eight campgrounds. Some, like Jumbo Rocks, are first come, first serve. Make sure to check out the Cholla Cactus Garden, an otherworldly gathering of cholla cactus. Joshua Tree has a number of great hikes and bouldering and rock climbing opportunities. Make time to hike Ryan Mountain (elevation 5,457 ft), and if you are strapped on time, venture to the top of Keys View for equally unparalleled views of Coachella Valley and the Santa Rosa mountains.

LAST STOP: IMPERIAL SAND DUNES 

From Joshua Tree, we meandered down Highway 111, past the Salton Sea and on toward the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreational Area. Hiking in the sand is a good workout; it's akin to moving in deep snow, and after three hours in the car, it felt good to move. At the top of our chosen sand dune, we were rewarded with a spectacular mid-day view: shadowed peaks against bright walls of sand stretched out before us. There were no trees and seemingly no animals. We were alone. Voices became muted, and the sun was unyielding and harsh. It’s an experience hard to come at home in New England, and we relished in it.

WHAT TO KNOW: The Imperial Sand Dunes aren't limited to hikes. There are ATV, dune buggy, and dirt bike rentals in Yuma, Arizona and Ocotillo, California. A number of films were made here, including "The Return of the Jedi," "Jarhead," and "The Men Who Stare at Goats," and it's easy to see why: walking around under the desert sun felt uncannily like a movie set. There are camping areas that are free as part of the Bureau of Land Management (public land). Bring your own water, campgrounds are primitive. There are also multiple campsites on Gecko Road, off of Highway 78.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN, AGAIN

We had planned on staying the night there, but the road trip bug bit us, so we loaded up and turned east toward Arizona. Our previous road trip was life-changing; it set a course of adventure for our relationship. Having a baby with us this go-around was simple, and felt remarkably like it had the first time. Later, when we pulled into the Grand Canyon, I glanced over at Will who was on his phone. He was switching between two browsers, one site for seasonal jobs and the other for used campervans. I smiled; I had kept this trip a secret so he wouldn’t find reasons to say no. Now, here he was actively figuring out how we could make this a lifestyle. The open road does things to you; for Will, it gives him a freedom and happiness he doesn’t feel anywhere else, and Eve’s squeals of delight in the backseat let me know she was happiest out here, too. It’s the same for me. This trip was meant as a birthday surprise, but as road trips usually do, it turned into something more: an affirmation of sorts, on how we wanted to live our lives and raise our daughter. This trip may have been a short ten days, but if our previous experience taught us anything, it will have a lasting impact. Who knows, we just might even find ourselves out here again, indefinitely.

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Family

Travel With Kids: Top 10 Hotel Tips

Before we had kids, my husband and I confidently agreed our motto would be "have kids, will travel." When our son was born, we hit the open road and flew the friendly skies with confidence. When our daughter was born, we carried on—and carried a lot more to accommodate our two tiny tykes. Then we had triplets and our travel moxie was put to the test. Could we really still travel with five kids under the age of five? Sure we could and indeed we did. Whether your family is big or small, here is some advice to ensure that your next check-in doesn't leave you wanting to check out! 1. SAFETY FIRST Remember that many hotels are built for business travelers, not baby travelers so, if you're bringing a little one along, consider bringing some of the baby-proofing "comforts" of home with you. Little things like outlet covers won't take up much space in your bag and will give you peace of mind as your crawler explores his new surroundings. For bigger kids, remind them that home rules apply for hotels too—don't open the door to strangers; don't leave the door open or unlocked; and as a reminder to you, don't leave the kids "home alone." As tempting as it may be to let the monitor be the babysitter, in the event of an emergency, it may be hard to return to your room and you never know when housekeeping (or anyone else) could come a'knockin'. When it comes to "kids clubs," remember your ABCs: Ask about Allergies, Background checks and "Checkpoint Charlie"—you should know what the visitation policy is for parents; the ratio of caretakers to children and who's watching the door, pool, etc., to ensure that your little one won't wander off for some sight-seeing of his own. 2. ASK AND YOU SHALL RECEIVE From high-end resorts like the Montage to the more affordable Residence Inn by Marriott, many goodies are there for the taking as long as you're not afraid to ask. Eager to please even the smallest of travelers, many hotels offer stuffed animals, coloring books, crayons, rubber ducks for tub time, and more. Some also have game rooms or libraries stocked with board games, video games, puzzles and books you can borrow during your stay. Forgot to pack pool toys? Ask for those too. If the hotel doesn't offer them as a giveaway or for complimentary use at the pool, there's a good chance someone else has left them behind and you can reap the rewards. If you're traveling with a baby on board, the Westin even offers Diaper Genies, bottle warmers, and booster seats. But remember, you don't get what you don't ask for! 3. BE SPECIFIC WHEN MAKING YOUR RESERVATION If you need a crib, ask for it before you arrive, not when you're checking in. If you need a mini-fridge to keep the morning milk cold, confirm it ahead of time. You should also ask about the maximum occupancy of the room you reserved; most hotels have a limit and it's best to know what it is ahead of time—especially if, like me, you hope to squeeze your entire brood into one room. While you're at it, consider requesting a room with a kid-friendly layout—an alcove, walk-in closet, or even a large bathroom can accommodate a crib or Pack & Play so you don't find yourself reading or eating in the dark after putting the little ones to bed. 4. JOIN LOYALTY PROGRAMS From Hyatt to Starwood, there are numerous perks programs just waiting for you to join. Membership is free, points are earned over time, discounts are often available, and, as they say, membership has its rewards. According to a Hilton Worldwide spokesperson, "With Hilton Honors, the more often members stay, the higher the status they'll achieve and the more perks they'll have access to whether traveling for business or leisure—including but not limited to space-available upgrades to a preferred room or suite; the option to choose from a host of MyWay benefits like one in-room movie per stay to entertain the kids, or a selection of free beverages, sweet treats, and salty snacks. We even offer late or express checkout to make packing up the family simpler." Sign up is quick and easy and with apps like CardStar or AwardWallet to help track your membership numbers, status and passwords, there's no reason not to just do it! 5. ALL YOU CAN EAT Well, it may not be all you can eat and frankly, it would be a shame not to get out of the hotel to enjoy the local fare, but you can and should take advantage of any freebies that are offered. Breakfast is included at most family-friendly hotels, including Country Inn & Suites, Embassy Suites, Holiday Inn Express, and Spring Hill Suites. The Doubletree is famous for warm chocolate-chip cookies at check-in and a spokesperson confirmed that if you ask nicely, they will even give you two. Many hotels let kids eat free (something they regret when they see our clan of five approaching!) and some even include weeknight dinners in your daily rate. We lucked out on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., when it was Taco Night at the Residence Inn; free tacos make for happy travelers, both tall and small! The Holiday Inn lets up to four kids 12 and under eat free at their on-site restaurants with a paying adult and if you book the Experiences by Marriott package, breakfast, lunch and dinner is included; in their words "we'll take care of feeding them and you can worry about what you want to eat." Be sure to read the fine print though; "kids eat free" has its limitations and poolside dining and room service typically top the list. 6. PLAN YOUR MEALS If freebies aren't included or Taco Night just isn't your thing, you may be tempted to order room service. And you should, just once. The thrill of it for the kids (and ease of it for you!) is worth the expense, but for most of us, it's a one-hit wonder. To ensure you don't blow your sightseeing budget on breakfast, lunch, and dinner, consider choosing a hotel with an en suite kitchen, like Residence Inn or Homewood Suites. It's easy to pack a few basics like cereal, peanut butter, jelly, crackers, and mac & cheese or, better yet, pick them up en route to the hotel or in the lobby "pantry"; the Hilton Garden Inn has a "Pavilion Pantry retail market offering a selection of microwaveable packaged, refrigerated and frozen food items and an assortment of beverages, snacks and sundries." Since you'll want to eat out a few nights, be sure to research family-friendly local joints before stomachs start to growl—or put the concierge to work and let her take care of the details. 7. PACK WISELY While we'd all like to take a break from laundry, it pays to pack light and do a load on the road—especially when you consider the high cost of checking bags and limited real estate in rental cars. Find out what your laundry options are before you go. Does your hotel offer laundry service? Is it worth paying a premium for?  If not, ask about a laundry room (many of the suite hotels, including the Hilton Garden Inn and Home2Suites, have them) or proximity to a local laundromat or wash & fold service so that you'll be prepared when Junior wets his pants or your princess tosses her cookies. A word of caution though, courtesy of Jamie Pearson, the well-traveled blogger behind Travel Savvy Mom, "If you decide to bring a Ziploc bag of laundry detergent with you, label it with a Sharpie and put it in your checked baggage. On the whole, TSA agents tend to take a dim view of baggies full of white powder." 8. BE AWARE OF HIDDEN COSTS Nothing mars a memory more quickly than sticker shock at checkout. Ask in advance about fees for parking, exceeding double occupancy, rollaway beds, cribs, and any other surprises that might come up. Also note that "all-inclusive" resorts may not be; while meals are typically included, many resort activities like water sports, kid camps, and those cute umbrella drinks that are oh-so-tempting may come with a hefty price tag. Last but not least, keep the kids out of the mini-fridge and away from the snack bar. While it was fun to watch Chevy Chase charge it to the Underwood's in Fletch, it's not nearly as amusing when the victim is you and the hoodlums are your own! 9. JOIN AAA Annual membership fees for the Automobile Association of America range from $58 for a basic membership to $129 for the premiere package. All members receive "great deals at major chains such as Best Western, Clarion, Doubletree Hotels, Embassy Suites, Hampton, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Quality or Sleep Inn, and more."  Other perks?  Travel guides, entertainment discounts and, of course, the rapid-response roadside assistance they are known for. If you'll need a car seat at your destination, joining AAA automatically enrolls you in the Hertz Gold Plus program, which will give you one car seat for free when you rent from Hertz. 10. DON'T SKIP "DATE NIGHT"! Let's be honest, it's hard to keep the flame alive when you and your partner are sharing the room with your offspring, but that doesn't mean it has to fizzle out completely. If you're heading to a warm weather destination, request a room with a terrace or patio and order room service after the kids are tucked in; dining al fresco is like going on a date without leaving your room. If you'd prefer to stay inside, dim the lights as the little ones snooze and tuck in for a movie or perhaps even a bubble bath—sans rubber duckie. Sometimes romance is as simple as a tub you didn't have to clean... Now that's a vacation!

Family

Save Big During “Learn to Ski & Snowboard Month”

New England. The Rocky Mountains. The Sierra Nevadas. Is this the year you finally learn to ski? January is Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month, and nearly 70 ski areas across the U.S. are offering specials to get beginners up on their skis and down the mountains. Research from the National Ski Areas Association suggests that beginning skiers often take up the sport because it allows them to spend time with friends and family. Does that sound like you? This year, beginner packages at participating ski areas typically include one to four lessons (depending on the location), a lift ticket, and rental gear. Here, we’ve rounded up some of the best beginner deals - all well under $100 - happening this month across the country. ROCKY MOUNTAINS SKI DEALS FROM $49 An array of Ski Utah resorts are offering beginner packages starting at $49, including lift ticket, beginner group lesson, and equipment rental for children and adults, with some blackout dates and restrictions. Participating resorts include Eagle Point (voted Utah’s best beginner ski resort by Liftopia), Deer Valley, Powder Mountain, Snowbasin, Solitude, and Sundance. At Idaho’s Silver Mountain, purchasing a $56 lift ticket (or a $41 youth ticket) nabs you a free beginner group lessons and equipment rental package. SIERRA NEVADA SKI DEALS FROM $49 Diamond Peak, Nevada, offers Learn to Ski & Ride packages for $49 from Monday January 22 through Thursday January 25 for ages seven to adult, including a beginner lift ticket, rental equipment, and a one-hour and 45-minute lesson. (There’s also a two-hour package for kids ages four to six.)Snow Valley, California, celebrating its 80th year, offers a Buy One Get One Free Beginner Lesson for ages 13 and up for $74, including a beginner area lift ticket, two-hour group ski or snowboard lesson, and equipment rental, valid Monday through Friday except holidays. ALASKA SKI DEALS FROM $44 Eaglecrest offers a mid-week Learn to Ski or Ride Package for $44 for ages seven to adult, including a two-hour lesson, lift ticket, and equipment rental. Weekend beginner package are $54. NEW ENGLAND SKI DEALS FROM $39 New Hampshire boasts nine ski resorts (Attitash, Bretton Woods, Cannon, Carnmore, Granite Gorge, King Pine, Pat’s Peak, Ragged Mountain, and Waterville Valley) with deals via Ski New Hampshire’s beginner package, including a lesson lift ticket, and rentals. Ski New Hampshire is also hosting a learn to ski and snowboard weekend January 27 and 28. Ski Vermont has organized a beginner program that includes Bolton Valley, Bromley, Burke, Killington, Mt. Snow, Pico, Okemo, Smuggler’s Notch, Stratton, and Sugarbush, offering $49 packages that include a lesson, lift ticket, and rentals. And Vermont’s Bring a Friend, Ski FREE!! Program is valid through March 25: When a beginner purchases a First Time Ski & Ride package, a friend or family member gets a free lift ticket valid for that same day. MID-ATLANTIC SKI DEALS FROM $25 Guess which state has the most ski areas? Wrong. It’s New York. This winter, the Empire State is hosting Discover NY Ski Day on January 18, with beginner ski packages starting at $25 all around the state. Other special offers are available at New York’s Bellaeyre, Holliday Valley, Hunter, Mt. Peter, Snow Ridge, Swain, and West Mountain.Pennsylvania’s PSAA First Time Program offers a $59 lesson, lift ticket, and rental equipment at participating ski areas, plus Learn to Ski and Snowboard/Bring a Friend special offers at Bear Creek, Blue Mountain, Jack Frost/Big Boulder, Liberty, Roundup, Shawnee, Ski Big Bear, and Whitetail.

CruisesFamily

Top Tips for Cruising with Kids

Not long ago, cruising was synonymous with partying, romance, or exploring farflung destinations, often post-retirement. These days, there's a completely different way of looking at cruise ships—not just as playgrounds for overgrown children but for, well, your children. But traveling with kids is never as simple as tossing some clothes and a smartphone into a backpack, is it? Here, we share expert advice on everything from how to pack smart, keep the little ones safe, find reliable onboard child care, and which cruise lines are rolling out the red carpet for families. PACK SMART If you're traveling with a baby or toddler, get used to the idea of schlepping your own formula, jars of baby food, and diapers, which are not among the myriad products a typical cruise ship can sell you. And don't squirrel away all those must-haves in your suitcase—on embarkation days you may be separated from your luggage for hours and you'll be able to keep your little one happier if you have a tote bag stocked with food, wipes, change of clothes, etc. The good news is you may be able to leave your baby's portable crib at home—ask your cruise line (early!) if you can reserve one in advance. "To lighten your packing load, consider planning a laundry day at sea," advises David Molyneaux, editor of TheTravelMavens.com. "Most family-friendly ships will have washers and driers in the cabin areas—check the line's website." BOOK A SAFE CABIN Yeah, we all had a collective gasp when a toddler fell off a cruise ship balcony over the holidays in Florida. Of course you should brief all kids, from toddlers to teens, about keeping off railings, but Molyneaux suggests, "Even if it's only for your peace of mind, avoid balconies until your kids are old enough to know better." You can book an interior room for the whole family, or give older older kids an interior room and take an exterior balcony room across the hall for yourselves. Many cruise lines will offer family cabins, which can sleep up to four, and deeply discount the cost of the kids' berths—but Molyneaux notes that sometimes booking two adjoining cabins on a lower deck instead of a suite can save you money and get you more elbow room. (Disney even throws in an extra "half bathroom," with a toilet and sink, in most cabins. The ship will also have its own rules about how and when kids are allowed to participate in organized activities. Some lines allow elementary school-age kids to sign themselves up for activities and walk the ship's corridors unsupervised—but that kind of choice is really only yours to make. GET A SITTER Although some lines offer so many organized activities for kids during the day that some parents actually complain that they didn't see enough of their kids on their cruise, most couples will value some alone time, especially when the sun goes down. Some cruise lines offer private in-cabin babysitting at a premium—it can run you around $20 per hour. But if your kid wrinkles his nose at the idea of being "left with a sitter," you're in luck: Many cruise lines disguise evening babysitting as "late night parties," allowing parents to drop off their kids for around $10 per hour per child. (On Disney cruises, the party goes till midnight and it's free of charge). BOOK A FAMILY-FRIENDLY CRUISE When it comes to going the extra mile to put smiles on your kids' faces, these cruise lines are tops: Carnival If your kids can imagine summer camp at sea, that's Camp Carnival—complete with counselors to supervise daily activities and meals. The line divides children into three age groups from two- to 12-years old and employs counselors who have education or childcare experience; play spaces resemble nothing less than the playroom of your dreams (carnival.com). Disney No surprises here—Disney knows how to keep kids happy. The line is famous for its roaming characters like Mickey and Minnie, of course, but it also offers Broadway-style musicals, first-run films in 3D, and port-of-call activities tailored for kids like glass-bottom boats and up-close-and-personal dolphin encounters (disneycruise.disney.go.com). Norwegian Splash Academy sets the bar high—to entertain and educate children from six months to 12 years old (divided, of course, into age-appropriate groups, with parents required for the littlest ones). Whether your kid is into low-key arts and crafts projects or adrenaline-charged circus activities (including juggling and tumbling) taught by real circus performers, Norwegian's foray into family fun goes big (ncl.com). Royal Caribbean When you're reaching out to families, it helps to have some trusted names in your Rolodex, and Royal Caribbean has partnered with Crayola, Fisher Price, and DreamWorks to offer a blend of educational and entertainment options to its littlest passengers. From quiet play groups to full-on surf simulators, climbing walls, and the first carousel-at sea, there's something for every taste. Oh, and you may want to warn your little ones that they may bump into Shrek or Kung Fu Panda onboard (royalcaribbean.com).

Family

Fall Festivals in America's Cool Small Towns

NATIONAL APPLE HARVEST FESTIVALBiglerville, PA; October 7 & 8, 14 & 15; $10; appleharvest.com For 50 years, the National Apple Harvest Festival has been celebrating the sweet, crunchy fall favorite with hands-on arts & crafts, demonstrations, music performances, and, of course, great food stands serving up (take a deep breath…) apple butter, apple cookies, apple bread, apple cotton candy, apple fritters, apple pie, apple dumplings, apple turnovers, apple cakes, apple cider, apple guacamole, apple salsa, apple pizza, and apple pie moonshine. If that’s not enough to satisfy you, take an orchard tour, visit the petting zoo, and see antique cars and vintage steam engine displays. And the whole shebang is in beautiful Biglerville, PA, an easy road trip from Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington, D.C., and just 10 miles from historic Gettysburg, where we love the Federal Pointe Inn, an Ascend Hotel Collection Member, with rooms under $150/night. SIEGEL’S COTTONWOOD FARM PUMPKIN FESTIVALLockport, IL; September 23 to October 31, $15, ourpumpkinfarm.com An easy road trip from the Chicago area, Lockport, IL, plays host to this incredible celebration of everyone’s favorite Halloween fruit. Wander a 15-acre corn maze if you dare, explore more than 30 attractions, including Duck Races, Zip Lines, a pick-your-own pumpkin field that Charlie Brown’s friend Linus would certainly approve of, a haunted barn, train rides, a “giant mountain slide,” zombie paintball, and, of course, play areas and pony rides for the little ones. Two major attractions each year are the Pumpkin Weigh-Off and the self-explanatory Pumpkin Drop & Smash (which - if you’re wondering “how high?” and “how big a smash?” - involves a crane). Aloft Bolingbrook, a few miles from town offers rooms for well under $150/night. VALLEY OF THE MOON VINTAGE FESTIVALSonoma, CA; September 22 to 24; entertainment on the Plaza is free, with food and beverages for sale; valleyofthemoonvintagefestival.com In California’s wine country, an easy road trip from the San Francisco Bay Area, fall is the time for harvesting the incredible grapes that grow in the renowned vineyards that supply the world with some of its finest wines. And while that may evoke images of pricey bottles, the good news is that the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival, founded in 1897, throws a party on Sonoma’s historic Plaza that is anything but expensive. Bring a picnic, a blanket, and some cash to try some wine and beer tasting, local foods, and enjoy watching a parade, listening to great music, browsing the work of amazing area artists, and soaking up the atmosphere of a truly cool small town that has retained much of its Spanish Colonial flavor thanks to decades of forward-thinking preservationists, funky boutiques, great restaurants, and, of course, the stylish wine-tasting rooms that line the Plaza. Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn is a bargain at well under $200/night, and if you’re up for a bit of a splurge, the El Dorado Hotel & Kitchen, right on Sonoma’s Plaza, is a beauty any time of year (but they’re already booked solid during the Vintage Festival).

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