Frugal travel – recommendations for saving cash “on the road”

The Elk River in Canadian Rockies, not far from our ATC hosts in Baynes Lake, BC.

Frugal travel – recommendations for saving cash “on the road”; use “cheap travel” to extend your vacation time!

Seattle's Spaceneedle and city skyline, not far from our first house-sitting assignment on the base of Queen Anne Hill.

Let’s assume you have plenty of vacation time, or, are retired with lots of time – and desire to travel extensively. Here are suggestions for cheap travel allowing maximization of your travel explorations.

First suggestion: Focus first upon your region, state, the US and Canada. I’ve always been somewhat aghast at friends who notch their belts counting foreign countries visited, yet have only toured a handful of states in the wonderful US, and often skip both Canada and Mexico. Hence, visit your current region and country first – there is so much to see in the west and throughout the United States.

If you adopt that goal, you can see most of the west, or, all of our country via private auto. We’re into travel with smaller autos (ours, a Ford Focus and Ford Escape, 40 and 30 MPG, respectively), and lightweight and/or classic travel trailers (up to 27 MPG towing our teardrop trailer). Use the same approach for rental cars; smaller cars use less gas and cost less to rent. If you find you’ve chosen a rental car too small, you can always upgrade on the spot (and, frequently rental agencies will upgrade the size you have asked for).

On longer trips, don’t hesitate to ask friends or family along the way to host you for the night. Most of us maintain an extra bedroom/guestroom just for that purpose.  If you’re booking a motel, we’ve found websites like or allow us to reserve a night’s lodging from the road (often for that same night), saving 40 to 50% over a reservation made days earlier.

David and Nancy Marchant, Baynes Lake, BC, our lovely hosts for our first Affordable Travel Club visit. David cooked a lovely steak dinner, offered a sumptuous breakfast and insisted in giving us a local tour of their scenic country!

If you like to meet people and learn about local lore, consider joining a club like the Affordable Travel Club ( We have been members of ATC for three years; our yearly $65 membership allows us to email or phone one of the ATC’s 3,000 members nation or worldwide, get a night’s lodging and a sumptuous breakfast, tipping the host just $20 on departure. In addition to overnight accommodations with a lovely host – saving big bucks over staying at a chain motel – you learn so much about the community with hosts proud to share details.

The ATC also offers a bulletin board offering housesitting assignments. In the last two years, we have spent two weeks housesitting a beautiful condo on Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill, a month housesitting in Edmonds, Washington, near Puget Sound and affording us travel to many parts of the Pacific Northwest. This past spring, three weeks housesitting a beautiful home in Tucson, Arizona allowed side trips to many Arizona highlights. Sometimes these assignments come with plants to water or pets to feed, but zero cost for beautiful lodging is hard to beat.

We have three weeks housesitting coming up in Taos, New Mexico in April, and 2 1/2 weeks in June in St. George, Utah, a stone’s throw from Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. With most of these, we take along our tiny travel trailer, to camp along the way and on the way home. Traveling with small, classic travel trailers is another story in its own right; I will save that for another day.

Save on meals: At Seattle's Pike Place Market, we split a lunch salad and clam linguine at the Athenian Restaurant - plenty of food for two!

For meals, we take advantage of continental breakfasts offered by motel chains (and pack an apple, banana for mid-day snack), and travel with granola and a cooler full of milk and drinks for breakfast, drinks and snacks in route. If we’re dining out at nice restaurants, we often split a salad and main course – with America’s often huge portions – we’ve never left hungry and cut our bill by almost half. For a quick lunch stop on the road, two McDonald’s McDoubles and two senior coffees have never left us hungry – less than $5.

If you are traveling by air, consult Conde Nast Traveler ( or other on-line travel resources for best day/time of week and how far in advance to purchase airline tickets and save considerably over last-minute airline purchases. Conde Nast recently offered the best day to purchase airline tickets is Sunday, especially if booking more than 21 days in advance; the cheapest days to fly are Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

When flying, pack light, with a carry-on roller-bag and a back pack – avoiding paying for checked bags, the long line to retrieve baggage off the carrousel or, worse, lost luggage. Take snacks or lunch for your time in the terminal or on the flight; better food and cheaper than you’ll buy at the airport.

Grand Circle Cruise Lines 'River Harmony' at anchor on the Main River in Germany.

If you’re into luxury cruises (we’ve done several European small ship cruises with Grand Circle Cruise Lines), we go to Grand Circle’s web site,, search for Ways to Save, then Last Minute Travel Deals (“last minute” generally means you’ll depart in 6-8 weeks; we retirees have that luxury). In December, a 15 day adventure “Christmas Markets on the Rhine”, with airfare and three additional days in Basel, Switzerland, cost the two of us $7,078 total – well under the over-$10,000 regular pricing. Other cruise lines also offer “last minute departures” with significant savings

Some may call us cheap; I prefer “frugal or smart” (and, we travel in style more than most)!

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in your world!

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Bucket list travel updates in the Western United States for the new year, Part 2

Crater Lake's azure blue waters frame Wizard Island at the lake's southwest corner.

Western US travel “musts”, update your bucket list for the new year, Part 2

Over the last two weeks we have offered 12 ultimate travel destinations in California and half a dozen additional western state’s destinations, suggested month by month. Here are the final six suggestions for the western US:

Mount St. Helens thunders into the Washington sky on May 18, 1980.

August, the Volcano tour: Take in the “ring of fire” with Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park and Mount Hood, then cross the mighty Columbia for Mount St. Helens National Monument and Mt. Rainier National Park. There are just a few places I rate as “jaw-droppers” for stunning scenery in the west: Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Grand Tetons, Glacier Park – and Crater Lake National Park and Mount St. Helens rank right up there.

Crater Lake filled the collapsed Mt. Mazama volcano’s caldera some 7,700 years ago and is the bluest blue you’ll ever see.  The lake, 5 miles across, and 6 miles long, features two islands, Wizard Island, the larger, and Phantom Ship, at the lake’s north end. Tour the 33 mile Rim Drive, by auto, or by bicycle. Surrounding park and National Forest lands offer campsites and classy lodges for overnighting in any of the four volcano showplaces. Crater Lake is just 400 miles and 7 hours from Stockton, Mt. Hood adds another three hours, Mount St. Helens about three additional. They are awe-inspiring as well as “hot properties”!

The rugged Oregon coast is almost all public lands, so access is outstanding for hiking, camping and beach-combing.

September, Oregon Coastal tour: Oregon has set aside most of its coast in public trust, making access unbeatable compared to California or Washington. Heading north, stop at Harris Beach State Park on the northern edge of Brookings, OR (a town with an active fishing harbor, tourist amenities and great seafood). Further north, stop by Umpqua Lighthouse State Park (the historic lighthouse now part of a Coast Guard station), where gray whales, up to 53 feet in length, are spotted just off-shore. Pass scenic Haceta Head Lighthouse, and just south of Newport on Yaquina Bay, overnight at South Beach State Park, another pristine park, with hiking along the ocean beach and nearby harbor seals bellowing throughout the night! All of these towns offer plenty of motels and B&Bs for those not into camping.

Newport offers a dynamic fishing fleet, scores of shops and restaurants and the original, iconic Mo’s and Mo’s Annex Restaurants (on the harbor). Space precludes insight on other coastal towns headed north, like Florence, Yachats, Lincoln City and Depot Bay; each will land a special place in your heart.

Cape Flattery, a typical rainy day, on the Olympic Peninsula, is the US's most northwestern point for the contiguous 48 states.

October, Olympic Peninsula and National Park, WA: Make this a week-long drive trip, or fly into Seattle and rent a car and journey to the most northwestern point of the contiguous United States, Cape Flattery, on the Olympic Peninsula. South down the wild and untamed national park is Kalaloch Lodge, just south of Kalaloch Campground offering 170 camp sites right on the ocean. The Park also offers historic Lake Quinault Lodge and the Lake Crescent Lodges, both exuding history and cozy accommodations. On peninsula, prep for rain; it’s one of the wettest places in the US. From the peninsula, take the Bainbridge Island Ferry right into the heart of Seattle to cap your trip!

November, Grand Coulee Dam and Dry Falls in eastern WA: this is the “sleeper” of my suggestions. Some 13,000 years ago, near end of the last great ice age, ice dammed water inundating much of western Montana, reaching the capacity of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario combined. When the dam broke a 200 foot high wall of water thundered through eastern Washington, carving the Columbia River Gorge and creating a waterfall four times the size of Niagara Falls. See Grand Coulee Dam, the US’s largest concrete structure and hydroelectric plant, impounding the mighty Columbia. Just south, tour Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park and be awed by the massive former waterfall. The cosmopolitan town of Spokane, just east, is worth a visit in its own right!

Dry Falls in north central Washington was once four times the size of Niagara Falls.

The Giant Logs Trail in Petrified Forest National Park.

December/California and Arizona desert: December visits to S. California desert parks like Death Valley or Joshua Tree National Parks or Anza Borego State Park, or Arizona destinations  like Sonoran Desert National Monument south of Phoenix, Saguaro National Parks, Tucson, and Petrified Forest National Park in north-central Arizona promise balmy weather and other-worldly plantlife and wildlife. Plan early, since others have discovered these “beat winter” destinations!

January, Yellowstone Park in winter:Of all our trips over the last 10 years, a winter trip into Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful area was the most memorable. You’ll have park virtually to yourself; often bison and elk will outnumber humans! It does take a bit of planning.  You can reach West Yellowstone, the north entrance at Mammoth Hot Springs or south entrance near Teton National Park by car. Only in Mammoth Hot Springs can you drive miles into the park, including the Lamar Valley, home to wolves and other wildlife. From West Yellowstone or the south entrance, with internal roads closed, you must take either snow coach or snowmobile into the park, requiring pre-planning. I still remember our first evening at Old Faithful; on  a 10-below but clear evening, we watched the sun set behind Old Faithful Geyser as it thundered into the sky – seen by my wife and I, one other human and a lone coyote on the snow-covered boardwalk. Breathtaking!

Old Faithful Geyser erupts into a cold, clear Wyoming sky in January.

For the first six suggested western states travel destinations, see my blog from last week!

For more information: Crater Lake,; Mount St. Helens,; Oregon,; Washington,; Olympic National Park,; Grand Coulee Dam,; Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park,; California,; Arizona,; Yellowstone Park,

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in the west!

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Free admission, national parks, national monuments across the US!

Visitors to Yosemite gaze at Half Dome from Glacier Point.

Free admission, national parks, national monuments across the US for MLK holiday and three more dates…

Machete Ridge is backbone of Pinnacles National Park, just south of Hollister, CA.

National parks, monuments and other federal lands which charge entrance fees will be free on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Day.

Additional no-fee days in national parks include April 21 (first day of National Parks Week), September 22, (National Public Lands Day) and November 11 (Veterans Day).

On these days you’ll save, on average, about $25 per vehicle at the National parks including nearby Yosemite, Pinnacles, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Lassen National Parks in California.

Reach Tim at Happy national park travels!

Posted in Central California, Northern California, Pacific Northwest USA (Oregon, Washington, Idaho), Sacramento/Capitol region, San Francisco Bay Area, Sierra Nevada, Southern California, Southwest USA (Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas), Stockton/San Joaquin County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Update your travel bucket list for the Western US in the new year!

Kauai's Waimea Canyon, looking down from 4,500 feet into the lush and mighty "Grand Canyon of the Pacific".

Bucket list updates in the Western United States for the new year

Last week I suggested tuning up your travel bucket list with 12 ultimate destinations in California. This week, here are the first half of a dozen additional western state’s destinations, suggested month by month (next week, another six). Since we’re into the new year, I’ll start with February.

February, Kauai (and Maui): It’s not too late to plan a winter trip to Hawaii. After 16 annual trips to Maui, we finally visited Kauai this past September and it’s our new favorite. The “Garden Isle” Is the longest inhabited and oldest of the Hawaiian islands, yielding a tropical paradise of lush vegetation and rugged beauty. Tour Waimea Canyon, “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific“, where a ridge-back highway takes you to 4500 feet with most marvelous views down to the mighty Pacific on one side and the canyon on the other.

The next day, hike the storied Nepali Coast on the north end of the island or take a cruise along this wild, roadless 15 mile coast. Hike to the base of Hanakapi’a Falls, a highlight of the Jurassic Park movies. Take a kayak trip up the Wailua River to the base of Opaeka’a (Secret) Falls, tumbling 125 feet into a beautiful catch basin inviting swimming and wading.

Other options include the Kauai Coffee plantation tour, with 4 million coffee trees planted in the last 30 years replacing the island’s former sugarcane industry. Find monk seals reclining on beaches near the old town of Kapa’a, a town lined with old shops and interesting eateries. To the south west, find Spouting Horn where pounding waves enter lava tubes, sending water spouting 30 feet into the air.

Saguero cactus blossom in late spring to early summer outside of Tucson.

Lodging? Try Vacation Rental by Owner (, on Kauai and Maui we found beachfront luxury lodging for $105, average, per night.

March, Arizona desert: Stay warm in March with a tour of the Phoenix and Tucson areas. Phoenix offers golf courses and Major League Baseball’s spring training. In March it’s home to 16 MLB teams, where you can see the San Francisco Giants play the Cleveland Indians or 14 other teams. Tucson bisects halves of Saguaro National Park spotlighting the Sonoran desert. With towering Saguaro cactus, prickly pear cactus, creosote bush and electric green Palo Verde trees yielding a tall and remarkably lush desert environment like no other.

Tour to the northeast to take in Petrified Forest National Park, where millions of years ago sediments buried an ancient forest, leading to its petrification yielding hundreds of petrified, colorful logs and the formation of the stunning Painted Desert.

Azaleas frame the iconic Portland Rose Garden in spring.

April, Portland and the Columbia Gorge: Portland is arguably the most visitor-friendly big city on the West Coast (San Diego and Seattle might dispute that). Located at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, shadowed by lovely Mount Hood, it’s known for its bicycle paths, parks and bridges, coffee houses and microbreweries.

The city offers a fine light rail system, a beautiful waterfront and pretty Washington Park. It’s a town of gourmet restaurants and down-home eateries (don’t miss Voodoo Donuts), the lush Rose Garden, Japanese Garden, Portland Zoo and iconic Powell’s Bookstore. Travel east up the rugged Columbia River Gorge for lofty waterfalls tumbling from Mount Hood.

Bryce Canyon's Hoodoos balance precariously, result of eons of wind and water erosion.

May, Utah National Parks: Of Utah’s five inspiring national parks, Zion is closest to California. We suggest traveling just east and camping or moteling in Bryce Canyon National Park, where, at the North Campground you’re right on the edge of this scenic wonder. Then, take a day trip back to Zion to see the deep canyons and special places like “the Subway” and “the Narrows”, winding slot canyons carved like subway tunnels by eons of flowing water.

Continuing east you’ll find Capital Reef, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, each with their special geography and allure. Spend a few days in Moab, a town billing itself as the Utah adventure center, between Arches and Canyonlands. You’ll find Arches amazing, with 2000 natural bridges throughout the park, and the vast Canyonlands celebrating the deep canyons created by confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.

Visitors look out from Moran Point into the Grand Canyon's majesty.

June, Grand Canyon, South Rim: Go early to beat the crowds of mid-summer. I defy you not to tear-up when to stand for the first time at Mather Point and gaze into this 5,000 foot deep canyon of red, yellow, ochre and brown hues, stretching on for miles. You can trek along the south rim, visit Native American village ruins at Tusayan, a bustling outpost 1,000 years ago, and hike into the canyon for other-worldly views. If you’ve already seen the Grand Canyon’s southerly sights, visit the North Rim for a new set of jaw-dropping vistas.

July, explore the “Loneliest Road in America”: Hwy. 50, featuring Native American history, Pony Express stops and high desert scenery, crosses Nevada and reaches Great Basin National Park. The park celebrates Wheeler Peak, towering 13,063 feet, with ancient forests of Bristlecone Pine. The park’s Lehman Cave, one of the most spectacular caves in the western United States, offers underground tours that will delight the youngest to oldest travelers.

Wheeler Peak, with Bristlecone Pines in foreground, anchors Nevada's Great Basin National Park.

For more information: Kauai visitor info,; Maui,, Petrified Forest National Park,; Saguaro National Park,; Portland,; Utah national parks, and; Grand Canyon,; Great Basin National Park,

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in the west!

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12 must-visits in California; freshen your travel bucket list!

San Francisco's historic Ferry Building should be the start of your SF waterfront tour!

Freshen your California travel bucket list with 12 months of suggestions!

Sutter's Mill in Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, Coloma, is where gold was discovered in the state in 1848.

As we enter the new year, take time to tune-up your travel bucket list. Let’s start with 12 ultimate destinations in California, with suggested month by month schedule (next week we’ll bring you suggestions for the western US). Here are California’s best, as well as a few alternates:

January, start the year with a tour of the Oakland/San Francisco waterfront: Begin at Oakland’s Jack London Square, park your car, take in the shops, then ferry over to San Francisco’s historic Ferry Building. Hop on the waterfront trolley to Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, Hyde Street Pier with a half-dozen historic sailing ships, adjoining San Francisco Maritime Museum and Aquatic Park. Further west, discover the Marina District, Crissy Field and old Fort Point (only pre-Civil War era fort on west coast) under the Golden Gate Bridge (info,,

February, follow the Gold Rush Hwy. 49: Start at Coloma (at the Marshal Gold Discovery State Park, where gold was discovered in 1848), and follow 49 south, taking in Placerville, Sutter Creek, Jackson, Columbia and Sonora. Don’t miss ghost towns along the way like Fiddletown, Tuolumne City and China Camp (

Wildflowers bloom after winter rains in Death Valley National Park; photo taken in February, 2016.

March, Death Valley National Park: In most years, February or March is the month for both comfortable temperatures and spectacular wildflower blooms. The lowest point in the United States, the desert offers hiking among golden canyons and vast Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, old gold, silver and borax mines, Scotty’s Castle and more (

The Hetch Hetchy Valley and Reservoir is a part of Yosemite Lake; Hetch Hetchy was dammed to send water to San Francisco, despite John Muir's strident protests.

April, Yosemite National Park: Everyone’s been to Yosemite, right? Even if you’ve been, take the 20 mile Evergreen Road off Hwy. 120 to access Hetch Hetchy Valley, the sister valley that John Muir tried to save a 100 years ago before San Francisco dammed it for its water supply. It’s equally inspiring despite the reservoir; walk across the 430 foot tall O’Shaughnessy Dam and take the hiking trail on the north side to huge waterfalls that rival Yosemite Valley’s (

May, Orange County Coast: South of LA, “California’s Riviera” is home to surfers and family fun with beach towns to explore like Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. Kids love Anaheim’s Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. From Newport Beach, take the ferry over to Catalina Island to extend the fun (visittheoccom)!

Lake Helen, still frozen in June, frames Mt. Lassen towering in background.

June, the volcano circuit: Explore the Pacific’s “ring of fire”, starting at Lassen National Volcanic Park (, where hot pots and fumaroles bubble and churn just like Yellowstone’s, then head north to Mt. Shasta; extend your trip into southern Oregon and take in Crater Lake National Park. These ancient volcanoes are surrounded by quaint towns and inexpensive lodging or camping options.

July, Northern California Coast: Beat the summertime heat and spend a few days on the northern California coast. From Bodega Bay, head north through Jenner, where the languid Russian River meets the Pacific, past old Russian Fort Ross and Point Arena Lighthouse on the rugged and desolate California Coast to Mendocino. Sea Otters, sea birds, spectacular views await (

The Point Arena Lighthouse is open for tours on the northern California coast.

12 men stand on a huge redwood stump in this photo from the 1880s, before some of the ancient groves of redwoods were protected in national and state parks.

August, Redwoods National Park: Visiting Northern California’s redwood coast, you’ll be stunned by the myriad of state and national parks set aside to preserve our “big trees heritage”.  Marvel at thousands of the tallest trees in the world, reaching over 300 feet, fast-flowing river canyons, rugged coastal views and ancient wilderness; a large part of the fun of this trip are the quaint, small towns along the Avenue of the Giants Parkway (

September, Pinnacles National Park and Big Sur:Pinnacles National Park, in the Gabilan Mountains south of Hollister, CA, offers the rugged remains of an ancient volcano – a volcano located 160 miles south near Los Angeles!  On the San Andreas Fault, the park is moving a few inches north each year, distancing itself from its mother volcano! Pinnacles offers a stunning landscape of rugged spines, deep canyons, eerie talus caves, streams and wildlife from deer, wild turkeys  and bob cats, to the majestic California Condor (  With a good map, take winding Nacimiento Road west through the mountains to drop you dramatically into Big Sur.

Machete Ridge is the backbone of rugged Pinnacles National Park.

October, Eastern Sierra: Fall is the perfect time to head over the Sierra to ghost-town Bodie, the eerie Mono Lake (strange tufa towers) and lovely Mammoth Lakes area. For high Sierra alpine vistas and small-town delights, this is the place (

Purple lupine frames Mt. Tallac on Lake Tahoe's western shore.

November, North Lake Tahoe: Explore the delightful small towns on Tahoe’s north shore, beginning with Truckee, Tahoe Vista, Brockway, Kings Beach and Incline Village. The lake, mountains and slower pace make for a fine vacation destination (

Hearst Castle is framed by reflecting pools like this, accenting its 165 rooms and over 100 acres of surrounding gardens.

December, take in San Luis Obispo and Hearst Castle: SLO is an exciting and quaint mid-California coastal town, and Hearst Castle, just north, built by William Randolph Hearst from the Roaring 20’s to the 1940s boasts 165 rooms, legendary art, pools, terraces and 123 acres of gardens, extravagantly decorated for Christmas (!

Alternates: If you’ve already checked off these grand places, several alternates: Joshua Tree National Park (east of Palm Springs), Anza Borrego Desert State Park with the nearby eerie, almost deserted Salton Sea (east of San Diego), Sequoia and adjoining Kings Canyon National Parks (east of Fresno), the San Diego Bay area and the Ventura coast and Channel Islands National Park.

Ranger shares details of the General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park, the largest tree in volume in the world!

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in the west!

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Family-friendly vacation or reunion destinations for the new year!

The Garing family celebrates a family gathering on the Natural Bridges State Beach near Aptos.


Family vacation or reunion: family-friendly vacation or reunion destinations for the new year!

Sun sets over the beach at Aptos, CA.

Thinking of family in 2018, I put out a call to Record readers and friends for their suggestions as to family-focused vacation and/or reunion destinations. Suggested criteria included a destination offering both kid’s and adult activities, nearby cabin rentals or motels, campgrounds and restaurants, all within a few hours of San Joaquin county. Budget-friendliness and proximity to water earned extra points. Happily, I received a number of creative suggestions; enjoy:

Shaver Lake: Carrie Sass, Stockton, noted four generations of her family had enjoyed family vacations at Shaver Lake in the Sierra northeast of Fresno. Carrie notes, “Watersports in the summer, great stream and lake fishing and close to China Peak Ski Resort in the winter for snow skiing, as well as several snow parks. The summer weather is perfect for hiking to small lakes and attractions like Rancheria Falls”.

Whale watching is popular in the Aptos and Santa Cruz areas along California's scenic coastline.

“Camp Edison, a Sunset Magazine award -inning campground and Dorabelle Campground (USFS) are both located on the lake. Small individual cabin rentals are found in Shaver Village in the heart of this little town, or Shaver Lake Cottages on the point by the lake. Fine restaurants are nearby – our favorite is the Trading Post”.  The lake is reached via southbound Hwy. 99 to Madera, then Hwy. 168; it’s about 2.5 hours, 127 miles from San Joaquin County.

Additional Sierra destinations: Several others suggested (north to south) Sly Park Recreation Area off Hwy. 50, Silver Lake (and the Stockton Municipal Silver Lake Camp) above Murphys on Hwy. 4, and Pinecrest Lake, above Sonora on Hwy. 108. All three destinations offer a picturesque high Sierra lake, swimming, fishing, hiking and a wide variety of camping and/or lodge and cabin rentals with restaurants nearby.

Shaver Lake and Camp Edison are popular as Sierra high-alpine lake destinations.

Christine Lewis of Fair Oaks, CA adds these insights for her favorite, “Sly Park is more family-friendly for older children (noting babies with diapers not allowed in Jenkinson Lake, a reservoir).  The area offers premium lakeside campsites with full hookups and a variety of sites for large and small RVs and tent-only sites including  group and equestrian sites.  A nearby boat launch with dock and boats with limited speeds make for great options for kayaking, canoes, paddle boards and small boats. Lots of hiking trails and horse trails; we were surprised to discover an active waterfall on a short hike from our campsite”.

Purple lupine frames Mt. Tallac high above Lake Tahoe's Camp Richardson and Fallen Leaf Lake.

Aptos beach-front: Tom Garing, formerly of Woodbridge, now Roseville, offers “we are beach people and family beach vacations make everyone happy. Renting a house on Beach Drive in Aptos has worked well for us, offering great access to and views of the ocean with whale watching spectacular this past summer. The tide pools at nearby Natural Bridges and, of course, the boardwalk in Santa Cruz are a must-visit. The grandkids took a break from sand and surf and visited a local farm to do some strawberry picking. Waking up to a day of kite flying and sand castles can never be boring!”. Aptos is about two hours and 110 miles from San Joaquin County.

Lake Tahoe: Several readers and my family offer historic Camp Richardson and nearby Fallen Leaf Lake’s Forest Service campground (camping options both at Camp Richardson and Fallen Leaf Lake), with two lakes, hiking, cabin rentals, bike rentals, horseback riding and the adjoining Tallac Historic Site, featuring the grand lake-front mansions of the Baldwin and Pope Estates and Valhalla. The Beacon Restaurant is next door on Lake Tahoe’s beach, busy South Lake Tahoe is just three miles away with all that glitz and Heavenly Resort and the casinos also beckon for nightlife. Camp Richardson and Fallen Leaf Lake are three miles north of South Lake Tahoe on Hwy. 89, about 2.5 hours and 140 miles from San Joaquin County.

Rancheria Falls is a popular hiking destination near Shaver Lake.

Stockton “stay-cation”: Sharon Nordstrom, Stockton, suggests a stay-at-home-vacation, “taking in the delights of Stockton. The Haggin Museum is the gem of Stockton, standing regally in Victory Park offering all generations a welcoming environment in which to browse its world-class permanent collection of fine art and galleries of unique historic displays.  Stockton’s history (as well as traveling exhibits) appeals to a wide range of tastes.  Enrichment activities for children and families include the first and third Thursday evenings of the month, where members and visitors enjoy wine, appetizers, coffee and desserts alongside live music, guest speakers and demonstrations”.

Sharon adds, “Victory Park offers picnic areas, benches, grassy knolls, geese and duck filled ponds, playground equipment and baseball diamonds – it’s a must-visit. Nearby Miracle Mile, downtown Stockton and the Deepwater Channel with the Stockton Arena and Stockton Ballpark make for a variety of additional dining and family activities”.

Thanks to readers for creative suggestions; and plan now for 2018 family-gatherings!

Vintage Haines-Houser harvester is part of local agricultural history at the Haggin Museum in Victory Park.

For more information: Shaver Lake‘s Camp Edison:, (559) 841-3134; Sly Park,, (530) 295-6810; Silver Lake,, (209) 227-0082; Pinecrest Lake and Tuolumne County,, (800) 446-1333; Aptos and Santa Cruz County,, (800) 833-3494; Lake Tahoe’s Camp Richardson,, (800) 544-1801; Federal campground reservations,; Haggin Museum,, (209) 940-6300; Stockton,, (209) 938-1555.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in the west!

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Anza Borrego Desert State Park: sunshine, stunning vistas and ghost resorts on eerie Salton Sea

Elusive Bighorn sheep in Anza Borrego Desert State Park (photo courtesy of CA State Parks)

Winter sun, stunning vistas make Anza Borrego Desert State Park and the ghost resorts on eerie Salton Sea a place to reflect upon.

View looking over the Anza Borrego Desert.

Last week’s column featured California’s two desert national parks, Death Valley and Joshua Tree. Both feature a mild winter climate and evocative topography; this week we’ll cover nearby Anza Borrego Desert State Park and the other-worldly adjoining Salton Sea.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park, due south of Palm Springs, is the second largest state park in the contiguous US, just slightly smaller than the huge Adirondack Park in New York. It’s bigger than the other 259 California State Parks, combined. And when including the strange and alien Salton Sea just east, 35 miles long and more than 20 miles wide, this is a huge and unique desert just ripe for exploration during winter.

After modest rains, the spindly Ocotillo plant bursts into red blooms.

The park is named for Spanish explorer Juan Bautista De Anza and the Spanish word borrego, for bighorn sheep. The park’s rugged desert, ringed by mountains and sand dunes, depending upon sparse rainfall, yields diverse wildflowers, exotic palm groves and a variety of cacti. Sharp-eyed visitors can see roadrunners, kit foxes, mule deer, Eagles and the elusive bighorn sheep. Additionally, chuckwallas, iguanas and rattlesnakes make the park home.

Park headquarters, visitor center and developed campground are located on the edge of Borrego Springs, a city with provisions for travelers, restaurants and motel options. This is the Colorado Desert, where, millions of years ago, the Colorado River met the Gulf of California. When tourists visit today’s Grand Canyon and wonder where all that dirt and rock went – the answer is Anza Borrego.

Start your visit with a tour of the mostly underground visitor center. It shares the history of the native peoples that populated the area hundreds of years before settlers arrived, explains the geography of the region, and offers an adjoining garden full of the plants you’ll find throughout the park.

The California Palm oasis, awaiting hikers on the Palm Canyon hike above the Anza Borrego Desert.

For an early morning adventure (to beat the heat) start at the park campground and follow the Palm Canyon trailhead. The mile and a half hike up a bone dry canyon, with about 300 vertical feet gain, reaches a point where you’ll hear running water and find a pretty stream and increasing vegetation. A narrow, rocky canyon yields more rushing water and, at the top, a beautiful California fan palm oasis (fan palms are California’s only native palm tree).

Stunning blooms along the hike through Palm Canyon.

At the start of the hike, you wouldn’t imagine, nor could you see, this lush oasis. Keep your eyes fixed on the bluffs and ridges above for views of the elusive Peninsular bighorn sheep, as well as a variety of desert plants including indigo bush, brittlebush, creosote, blue palo verde (with yellow flowers), chollo, barrel and hedgehog cactus and Mojave yucca. Our favorite, the Ocotillo, is a rangy plant that shoots spindly shafts skyward to 18 feet and, with just a bit of rainfall, bursts forth in bright red plumage.

In the park, visit the Indian Hills area, featuring pre-Columbian rock art and petroglyphs, as well as a number of Morteros, bedrock mortars used by ancient Native Americans. When night-time falls, Borrego Springs, a Dark Sky community, provides outstanding opportunities for reveling in a wondrous star-filled night sky.

Exploring on the east side of the park reveals the strange Salton Sea, a vast inland ocean formed in 1906 when a huge Colorado River flood sent waters raging into the Salton Sink. Unchecked for 18 months, floodwaters created a 25 x 35 mile inland ocean, 55 feet deep and 220 feet below sea level.

Flooded, abandoned business, stray dog, Bombay Beach on the Salton Sea.

After World War II, the advent of air conditioning and introduction of sport fish into the sea led to a half dozen resort towns springing up, all of them vying for Los Angeles crowds. Speculation blossomed and the lakeside resorts grew quickly – Salton Sea Beach, Desert Shores and Riviera Keys on the west side, Bombay Beach and others on the east shore.

Tropical storms Kathleen and Doreen slammed the Salton Sea area in 1976 and 1977. Heavy rains, with nowhere to go but into the sea, raised the lake level steadily higher, flooding much of the resort towns. Property values collapsed and owners fled, abandoning homes and trailers. Today their skeletons remain, marking these ghost resorts.

Trailer skeletons in flooded trailer park inundated in 1976/77, Bombay Beach along the Salton Sea.

Recent California drought has now reduced the lake level to the point where the few remaining homes with boat docks are high and dry and the future for the lake, increasingly saline, is bleak. Drive today through Riviera Keys, with scores of paved, named but vacant streets, multiple deep canals excavated with plans to line them with luxury homes and docks – a virtual ghost resort with only a few occupied and many abandoned homes.

How to get there: Head south on I-5,  take I-10 east and past Palm Springs, then follow Hwy. 86 south (the Salton Sea will be on your left), and Hwy. S22 west to Borrego Springs. The park is about a 9 hour drive from San Joaquin County.

Flood of 1976 swamped the trailer park in Bombay Beach.

Where to stay: Anza Borrego has a fine campground for both tents and RVs; several additional more primitive and back-country camps offer options.  Motels are found in Borrego Springs.

For more information: Anza Borrego State Park,; phone (760) 767-5311.

Contact Tim at, follow him at Happy travels In the west!

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What is your favorite family-friendly vacation destination?

Ashland, OR, was named by one reader as a favorite family vacation destination; it's home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a wealth of outdoor activities!

Family-friendly vacation destinations – what is your favorite?

We are seeking your own family-favorite vacation destination – for a newspaper article to appear during the holidays!

Relief Reservoir, just off Hwy. 108 and above Pinecrest, CA was named by other readers as a favorite family camping and outdoors activities destination.

With the holidays, families have the opportunity to discuss and plan a family vacation for the coming year. My own family, with two daughters, their husbands, three grandkids and we, the grandparents, have already begun the discussion.

So, we are seeking your recommendation for best family-friendly vacation destination. We’ll publish the best submissions right around Christmas time, so send them to me!

Please send a short description, 100 words or less, and a photo or two.  Please also include why you loved the destination, including attributes like: “it had appeal for all ages, kids to adults. Scenic, perhaps on the water. Fun activities for kids, adults. Good restaurants and lodging nearby. Affordable. Within a short drive of San Joaquin County” – that kind of thing.

Readers challenge: Send your favorite family destination, with the reasons why (100 words or less) and a photo or two (if you have them) by December 18 to We’ll publish your top selections right around Christmas time!

California Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento: Readers suggested Sacramento as a destination, for its wide-ranging attractions for young and old.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at  Happy travels in the west!

Posted in Central California, Mountain West (Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado), Northern California, Pacific Northwest USA (Oregon, Washington, Idaho), Sacramento/Capitol region, San Francisco Bay Area, Sierra Nevada, Southern California, Southwest USA (Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas), Stockton/San Joaquin County | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Parks offer balmy temps just hours from Central Valley!

Desert wildflowers burst forth in Death Valley National Park in February.

Three evocative desert parks, just 2/3 day drive from San Joaquin county…

Wanting to beat these cold, frosty holiday mornings? Get your dose of balmy days with three world-class desert parks, offering daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s, wonderful hiking and exploration opportunities, all flush with history and unique ecology. Best of all, they are all within an 8 or 9 hour drive from San Joaquin County.

Harmony Borax Works wagon-train in Death Valley National Park.

Two are US national parks, while the other is the biggest California state park, larger than the other 259 state parks combined! All offer days of adventure, whether you’re staying in motels or camping, and are perfect for frugal travelers.

Nearest to Stockton is world famous Death Valley National Park. It frames a land of extremes, the hottest, driest, harshest and lowest lands in the United States. During the California gold rush, a wagon-train of 49ers attempted to shortcut across the forbidden valley – after one miner perished, the group looked back and said “goodbye, Death Valley” – forever affixing the name.

In 1873, silver was discovered near Panamint City, elevation sea level, whose population quickly swelled to 5,000 residents. After silver played out within a five years, prospectors discovered “white gold”, borax, mined and refined at the Harmony Borax Works in the 1880s (the facility well preserved in the park). Their 20 mule-team wagon-train would haul 36 tons of refined borax, and 2000 gallons water for the mules, 160 miles to the nearest rail-head.

Railroad to nowhere: the old Rhyolite Railroad Station lies abandoned in the old ghost town on east side of Death Valley. The town became deserted about 100 years ago when the gold ran out and an economic recession sealed its fate.

Gold was discovered on the east side of the park in 1904, leading to the last great American gold rush. Gold drew thousands of people to the mining district and town of Rhyolite, but financial failure lead to the end of the era by 1912. Visit the town for a remarkable remnant of this once huge, luxury town with such a short lifespan.

Highlights within the park include Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a vast sandy desert and nearby Golden Canyon, where a short hike off Highway 190 takes one to a truly golden canyon best viewed around sunrise or sunset. Be sure to make your way to Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest and saltiest land within the United States.

Within the park are picturesque campgrounds and lodging at Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells Village and Furnace Creek. Furnace Creek offers both the most upscale overnight accommodations and, to our minds, the most scenic campground.

Susan and author Tim Viall stand in Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea-level, the lowest place in the USA.

Visitation to Death Valley explodes with the late winter/early spring wild-flower bloom. Depending on rain fall and temperatures, the bloom is spectacular to mind blowing, lasting 2 to 4 weeks. We were there a year ago in March, at the tail end of a spectacular bloom of yellow, orange and purple wildflowers throughout much of the park (best to watch the park’s website for the most impressive bloom weeks).

A bit further south lies Joshua Tree National Park, a park of strange plants, alien landscape, and wonderful hiking, biking and climbing opportunities. Enter the park from the northside, adjacent to Twentynine Palms, the town offering overnight lodging. The northern part of the park, higher in elevation with more rainfall, allows the Mojave Desert to prevail – the habitat of the parks name-sake, Joshua trees.

Eerie Chollo Cactus Garden offers acres of these alien plants in Joshua Tree National Park.

As one moves south through the park, dropping steadily in elevation, the Colorado Desert takes over, with 20 foot tall, spindly Ocatillo plants with bright red flowers, brittlebush, smoke tree, Mojave Yucca and the strange Chollo cactus – creations we never envisioned. The park is studded with other-worldly rock formations; a favorite hiking and camping destination is the campground at Jumbo Rocks, where most campsites are tucked into the oddest of rock formations and kids can climb to their heart’s delight.

The park offers nine picturesque campgrounds with almost 500 developed campsites; most are first-come, first-served, though reservations are available for Black Rock and Indian Cove campgrounds during the busy season.

Inside the park, be sure to take in Keys View, at almost a mile in elevation, with a stunning view of distant peaks and the San Andreas Fault cleaving the valley below. Worthwhile are the short hike into Barker Dam, built in the 1900s to capture rainwater and now an oasis for birds, as well as the old Lost Horse Mine which produced over $6 million worth of gold in its heyday from the late 1800s to 1931. Keep an eye for exotic species such as chuckwallas, greater roadrunners, desert iguana and tortoise and stately bighorn sheep on the bluffs above (rangers offer tips for best viewing).

35 foot-tall Joshua Tree populates the Mojave Desert at the higher elevations in Joshua Tree National Park.

From Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego State Park and the alien Salton Seaare just south and west. That’s a story for another day; watch a coming feature.

The sun rises over Jumbo Rocks Campground in Joshua Tree National Park.

How to get there: For Death Valley, take Hwy. 99 south to Bakersfield, then Highway 58 east, north on Highway 14/395 then Hwy. 190 into the park. It’s about 480 miles and nine hours. For Joshua Tree, Take I-5 south to the Los Angeles area, then I – 10 eastbound, then north on Highway 62 to the park’s north entrance. It’s 460 miles and about eight hours.

For more information: For Death Valley, or call 760.786–3200; for Joshua Tree,, or phone (760) 367–5500. Camping can booked through or (877) 444–6777.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in the west!

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Downtown Stockton shines for the holidays!

City of Stockton's 60' Christmas Tree is lighted nightly at the Weber Point Event Center (photo courtesy of Visit Stockton).

Plan a visit to downtown Stockton, aglow for the holidays and offering lots of family choices!

The City’s huge Christmas tree, downtown and the waterfront bedecked with holiday lights, movies at the Cineplex, a classic movie at the Bob Hope Theatre, the Haggin Museum aglow  and a host of delectable and new restaurants bursting upon the epicurean scene – holidays are the perfect time to travel to resurgent downtown Stockton!

The Cineplex's Janet Leigh Plaza is also brightly decorated for the holidays (courtesy of Downtown Stockton Alliance).

Come in the evening and enjoy the City’s huge 60’ Christmas Tree in Weber Point Event Center and the holiday lighting in the Cineplex’s Janet Leigh Plaza. The Regal City Centre Cineplex, with 16 screens and IMAX, hosts holiday movies playing on its sixteen screens. The Cineplex also hosts the annual Christmas CanTree, a 20’ tall Christmas tree made of canned goods, a benefit for the Emergency Food Bank.

Highly anticipated is the release of the next episode of Star Wars; the Cineplex will feature this ever popular science fiction saga of the eternal struggle between the Jedi and the Dark Side in 3D, IMAX, or digital formats. On December 9, downtown will celebrate with the event “Choose Your Destiny! “at Cast Iron Trading Co. and Channel Brew.

For a classic movie for the entire family, visit the Bob Hope Theatre, 242 East Main St., on Sunday, December 17 when Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen star in the 1954 classic “White Christmas”. Doors open at 1 PM with Santa and Mrs. Claus in the lobby along with the Stock¬ton Portsmen Barbershop Chorus singing all your favorite Christmas carols, beautiful artwork displayed and complimentary snacks and soft drinks provided. Dave Moreno plays the Mighty Morton theatre organ starting at 1:30 pm; the movie plays at 2 pm.

The Stockton Portsmen Barbershop Quartet will lead Christmas songs in the Bob Hope Theatre prior to the December 17 movie.

The classic movie White Christmas plays at the Fox/Bob Hope Theatre on December 17.

“White Christmas”, the classic released in 1954, tells the story of two WWII song-and-dance partners who gather entertainers to help their former commanding general through hard times. Tickets are $4 – $8 and are available at the Bob Hope Theatre on the day of the film with no additional fees (the box office opens at 1:00 pm), or buy tickets in advance, online or at the Stockton Arena box office (additional fees may apply). info,

A long-standing Mexican tradition observed at this time of year is Posadas, a candle-lit procession symbolizing Mary and Joseph’s journey through Bethlehem. Organized by the Mexican Heritage Center and Gallery , the first stop is the towering historic St. Mary’s Church (the oldest brick building in Stockton), ending at the Center on Market Street. The Posadas is set for December 22, while the Nacimientos exhibit is open to public December 12 – January 5 (info,

Downtown offers scores of unique shops and the Holiday Stockmarket occurs on December 8. This popular crafts and market fair takes over the grand Stockton Civic Memorial Auditorium, featuring a variety of vendors selling items perfect for gifts and decorations, as well as food and live music (info,

Decorated sleigh and tree are typical of holiday decorations at the Haggin Museum (courtesy of the Haggin).

While technically just beyond the downtown district, plan a visit to the Haggin Museum, 1201 N. Pershing in Victory Park. The museum is alive with holiday décor including shimmering trees, joyful Santas, and poinsettia. The newly renovated galleries and temporary exhibition spaces feature a new exhibit, American Impressionism: The Lure of the Artists’ Colony opening December 7, 2017 and continuing through March 4, 2018.  A collection of lyrical landscapes, ranging from snow-covered hills to sun-filled harbors and seascapes, penetrating portraits, and still-life paintings, it documents the history of American art dating from the golden age of American Impressionism, the 1880s through the 1940s.

Additional events round out a busy holiday season at the museum; including their 1ST & 3RD Thursday events featuring complimentary wine and snacks at 6:30 pm. every 1st & 3rd Thursday evening, when the museum is open until 9 pm.

Huge vintage Caterpiller tractor is decorated for the holidays (courtesy, Haggin Museum).

2ND Saturdays for Families, December 9, 1:30 to 3:00 pm, offers families with kids ages 5 – 12 hands-on fun, “Creating holiday-themed crafts to decorate your home”. 2nd Saturdays for Families events are included with museum admission and all materials are provided. Reservations not required but seating may be limited; it’s available on a first come, first served basis.

A special museum treat comes on Thursday, December 21, 2017, 7 PM, when the Sacramento Renaissance Choir performs 15th and 16th century music, the choir under the direction of Dr. Lee Lovallo (Haggin info,

A growing restaurant scene is unfolding in downtown. Near the Cinema, Belle Vista (west end of the old Hotel Stockton) and Misaki (part of the Cineplex complex) are favorites. New or recent additions to downtown include Channel Brewing and Cast Iron Trading Company (both the NE corner of Weber and San Joaquin St.), the Deliberation Room (19 N. California St.) and Nena’s (in the Waterfront Warehouse, 445 W. Weber – check all the boats lighted for the season in the Stockton Marina just outside) and Delta Bistro and Lounge in the University Plaza Waterfront Hotel (110 W. Fremont). All offer avant-garde dining choices and host holiday events (see their Facebook pages). Old stalwarts like Casa Flores, Cancun, On Lock Sam and Yasoo Yani also beckon holiday visitors.

Get your holiday spirit on by visiting downtown Stockton in the next month!

For additional downtown events and programs, check out Visit Stockton, and the Downtown Stockton Alliance,

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in the west!

Posted in Central California, Northern California, Stockton/San Joaquin County | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment
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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in late 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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