It’s noon and I’m lying on a lounge chair on a sandy stretch of coast-line. A blue umbrella partially shades me from the sun’s warm, energizing rays. Shrieks from joyful children splashing in the waves fill the air. My eyes are closed and a breeze blows across my body and I feel like I’m in the tropics. Yet, in reality I’m less than 240 miles from my home on the Central Coast of California.
Every summer, my husband and I pack our kids into the van and head to Laguna Beach for a summer vacation. With no costly airline tickets to purchase, a family-friendly hotel on the beach, and sunny 80 degree days and warm ocean waters, it’s proven to be the perfect hassle-free and economical vacation. And Laguna Beach happens to be the town where I grew up, so coming home each summer to share with my kids the beach life of my youth is a real treat.
We choose August for our yearly visit because we’re almost always guaranteed sunny skies and escape what the locals refer to as the “June Gloom” of the early summer months. August is the peak of high tourist season, but the hotel is located within a block of the downtown village, so we park our car and walk or take the shuttle buses.
My husband and I, both avid travelers in our BK “before kids”, days have adopted the motto that simpler is better. With that in mind, we found the perfect anecdote to complication in our accommodations at the Pacific Edge Hotel (formerly Vacation Village Hotel). The beach front hotel’s rooms are simple but many have full or partial kitchens, a big plus in saving on dining expenses. The hotel has two swimming pools and a kid’s game area with air hockey and video games.
Nestled in Orange County, fifty miles south of Los Angeles, Laguna Beach is a unique coastal town known for its stunning coves and storybook village charm. Originally founded as an artist’s colony by plein-air painters drawn to its natural beauty in the early 1900's, Laguna’s character reflects its artist’s traditions. It boasts three art festivals and the Pageant of the Masters, a live show that recreates famous portraits and sculptures using live models.
Our routine for the week is usually the same and last summer was no different. After settling into our room, my husband, Gary, walked across the street to the Ralph’s market to buy our food for the week. When he returned, we slipped into our bathing suits, grabbed armfuls of beach toys, boogie boards, and sun screens of various SPF’s and walked a few steps to the beach. A hotel attendant half asleep in the hot sun bounced back to life and set out lounge chairs, beach towels, and umbrellas for us while we chased the kids to the shore.
Jake and Jordyn ages four and six immediately took to the warm 72-degree water. Gary grabbed our boogie board and he and Jake disappeared into the white water. Later in the day when the tide rose and people, chairs, and umbrellas started piling up on each other like a LA traffic jam, we walked south to St. Anne’s beach where we found more space.
Later we cleaned up for dinner. One thing we love about Laguna is the restaurants. We decided to dine casually and walked across the street to Taco Loco. Locals crowded the small interior spilling out onto outdoor tables. A Bob Marley song filled the air and Jordyn pointed to a young man with dreadlocks. “Look at his hair,” she whispered. Later, she would tell a friend about the man with bread locks in his hair.
The simple menu offers delights like blackened shrimp and lobster tacos. I indulged in the blackened mushroom and tofu taco, and the kids enjoyed the nachos. The tacos are served with blue tortillas, and a chunky avocado, cilantro, and tomato salsa. We saved another favorite, Wahoos Fish Tacos, for later in the week. Wahoos, located two blocks south at Oak Street, features traditional Baja style fish tacos served with tasty black beans and rice.
The next day we walked in the golden glow of the morning light to Main Beach. A short quarter mile stroll along the shore led us to a waterfront children’s park. Kids of all ages scrambled on the swings and play structure while muscular, tanned athletic types spiked a volleyball on the beach courts. We followed the wood boardwalk that winds its way along the crescent-shaped strand and stopped at the historic white lifeguard tower circa 1950 to check the daily postings of air, water temperatures, and surf conditions.
Stairs at the end of the boardwalk lead up to Heisler Park. The paved trail meanders past Las Brisas restaurant, a summer favorite for the tourist-bus crowd. Its patio with postcard picture ocean views is the perfect place to relax for lunch or sunset cocktails if you’re willing to bear the wait. A stroll through Heisler park with its purple, yellow, and pink flowers swaying in the salty ocean breeze, public art work, and stunning vistas is a testament to why Laguna is referred to as the California Riviera.
Heading back to the hotel, we stopped in downtown Laguna. High end boutiques, bistros, and art galleries line Forest Avenue, the town’s main throughway. Our kids shunned the boutiques in favor of Wyland’s art gallery on Pacific Coast Highway next to the Hotel Laguna. “I feel like I’m under the sea,” Jordyn squealed while looking at the intense yellow, green, and red tropical fish in a Wyland seascape. Outside, Wyland’s original Whaling wall mural painted in 1981 covers the side of the building. Since then, he’s painted over seventy around the world with a goal of 100 by the year 2011. A stop at Haagen Daazs ice cream for the kids and the neighboring Starbucks for us capped off our downtown venture.
The sun greeted us again the next morning and after building sand castles with the kids, we walked to Thalia street beach, three blocks south. A trip to Laguna wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the local surfing beach. Goff, from Costa Azul Surf shop, who we met the summer before, was giving a surf lesson. With his bronze skin, rippled abs, and sun-bleached hair, Goff, at thirty-five embodies the true local Laguna spirit. “Killer, you’re pumping now,” he yelled to his twelve-year-old female student visiting from Connecticut. We asked Jake if he wanted a lesson. Eyeing Goff’s student tumble over the falls, he replied, “Maybe next year.” At $75 for an hour lesson (includes board and wetsuit), we were fine with waiting too.
For dinner, we ate at our favorite Italian Restaurant, Romeo Cucina. Located downtown, it was a ten minute walk from the hotel. Like the interior of an Italian villa, warm orange and muted yellow walls radiated warmth and a casual but stylish sophistication. The waiters, like the restaurant’s best wines, are imported from Italy and greeted us with a cheerful “Buon Giorno!” We ordered our favorite dishes, the gnocchi pasta and the farfalle with salmon and capers. The kids savored their pizza cooked in a wood-burning stove.
After dinner we caught the trolley to the Sawdust Art Festival in Laguna Canyon. It’s our favorite art venue because while the more traditional Festival of Arts reminds me of a rich snobby uncle, the Sawdust festival is its cool hippie cousin. Founded in the 60's as a revolt to the local art establishment, all of the participating artists reside in Laguna Beach.
We roamed across the sawdust laden floor eyeing brightly colored pottery, artwork, jewelry and clothing booths. While I got into the artsy spirit and was fitted with a toe ring, the kids wandered over to watch a glass blower blow hot, liquid glass into a giant bubble of swirling pinks, blues, and purples. Later we stopped to watch a potter throwing a bowl on his wheel. His strong hands pressed and molded the brown clay as it swirled in a blurred never-ending circle.
The night ended eating drippy ice cream cones on a bench in a eucalyptus grove on the festival grounds, a gentle waterfall gurgling to a creek below. We swayed to the music of a live jazz band and inhaled the woodsy scent of sawdust mixed with the soothing scent of eucalyptus leaves. The outside world melted away and I felt that we’d gone back in time to a simpler, easier way of life.
The tide was unusually low on our last day so walked on the beach a mile south to Woods Cove. We entered through a natural rock arch onto a rocky tide-pool filled wonderland. Crabs, sea urchins, and tiny snails filled small puddles and crevices. The kids splashed in a natural kiddy pool filled with sun-warmed sea water and a sandy bottom. A blow hole a few feet away blasted white streams of mist and water into the air.
Summer sunsets in Laguna are a cause celebre for locals and tourists. In the evening, we watched our last sunset on the beach. The sun, a bright orange ball, sunk quickly into the green-blue sea leaving behind a psychedelic streaked sky. The kids waved goodbye to the sun, “See you next year.” Indeed we’d be back again for another Laguna summer.
Information on Lodging and Restaurants:
Pacific Edge Hotel
647 South Coast Highway
Reservations (800) 843-6895
Rates: $170 for double room for 2 Adults/2 kids
rooms with kitchenettes are $219 weekdays/$259 weekends
Off-season rates are less expensive
Rooms in summer book a year in advance
825 South Coast Highway
Laguna Beach, CA
Reservations (800) 999-2089
rates range from $117-$274 summer
(many rooms with kitchenettes)
(Rooms in summer book a year in advance)
Surf and Sand Resort
1555 S. Coast Highway
Laguna Beach, CA
Oceanfront Rooms starting at $460/night
Taco Loco - 640 S. Coast Highway. Across from hotel (use light at Cleo Street to cross). Great lobster tacos and blackened fish tacos.
Wahoos - 1133 S. Coast Highway. Fish tacos. Four blocks south of hotel on PCH between Oak and Brooks St.
B.J.'s Pizza - 280 S. Coast Highway. Downtown on PCH (walking distance from hotel). Always crowded so expect a long wait.
Romeo Cucina - 251 Broadway Street. Great Italian food. A little more upscale, but kids are welcome.
Z Pizza - 30902 Coast Highway. 499-4949. Good order in Pizza.
Heidelberg Cafe - 1100 S. Coast Highway. Four blocks South of Hotel on PCH at Brooks Street. Casual outside seating. Muffins, coffee, and full breakfasts.
Zinc Cafe - 350 Ocean Avenue. Trendy European style cafe with outdoor seating in downtown area. Great food and coffee drinks.
Coyote Grill - 31621 Coast Highway. Great banana pancakes. You have to get in the car to get to this one in South Laguna. Wait can be long.
Local Attractions (mileage and distances:
25 miles. 40 minute drive.
41 miles. 55 minute drive.
San Diego Zoo
71 miles. 1 hour and 20 minute drive.
For this trip, we flew to the East Coast to study U.S. History. Jake was going into
5th grade and the curriuculum was U.S. History. This trip was especially exciting for me because I worked as an intern and then as a staffer in Washington, D.C. on a presidential campaign when I graduated from college. I couldn't wait to take the kids to my old stomping grounds in D.C.
Our itineray was as follows: D.C. - 5 days, train to Philadelphia - 3 days, train to New York City - 4 days, train to Boston - 4 days, rental car to Cape Cod to stay with relatives.
This trip was great for our kids' ages - 8 and 10. I wouldn't recommend it as a US History trip any younger.
First Stop: Washington, D.C.
Flew into Ronald Reagan airport. Good choice as it is the closest to town. A short trip on the Metro (no hour long shuttle ride from Dulles). The Metro is D.C. is fabulous and I mean fabulous! Clean, safe, easy to figure out. We set up tours months ahead of time and had tickets to the White House, Office of Bureau of Engraving (where they make money). and a Capitol Tour. If you want to a tour of the White House you need to do it AT LEAST 6 months in advance. I recommend even earlier if you know the dates you are going to be there. The rest of the tours aren't as difficult to get, but it's best to do them as far in advance as possible. The best way to set up these tours is to go through your local Congressional person's office. You can find out who this is on-line. This is a link to my congressional person, Lois Capp's site, but it has all the websites you need to set up tours you'd like. http://capps.house.gov/services/visiting-washington-dc.shtml
Places we went in D.C.:
White House Tour - it's now a self-guided tour. Not as good as the guided tours I remember when I lived there, but at least you can see the main rooms. I suggest reading up beforehand so you have a better idea of the history of the rooms before you get there. There are little signs posted. Also, and this is important. When we went, because of tight security, you were not allowed to bring anything in with you, no purses, umbrellas, backpacks, nothing, but you must bring your id (in your pocket). There are no lockers to lock anything up. Some friends of ours brought backpacks and purses and the dad had to wait outside and miss the tour to watch the items, so check if this is still the case.
Bureau of Engraving Tour - at the U.S. Treasury Department. The kids loved it. You learn and see how money is made. You actually see the printing presses running.
National Arhives - Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Magna Carta. Really cool and really crowded. Get tickets on-line ahead of time to beat waiting in the long lines.
Library of Congress - We didn't do a tour, but walked around on our own. They had a great display of Thomas Jefferson's personal library.
U.S. Capitol Tour. We arranged this tour ahead of time through our Congresswoman's office. The intern showed us the Capitol Rotunda and the Senate Chambers.
Georgetown - The metro doesn't go to Georgetown, but there's a bus that runs just to Georgetown that you can catch on one of the major streets.
Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Memorial, Korean Memorial, and WWII Memorial - are all in the same area. It was VERY Hot when we were there, so if it's a hot summer day, do these in the morning or late in the day and bring water and a one of those hand-held small fans that spray water. Our kids were miserable and after the Lincoln Memorial we had to drag them in the heat and didn't spend much time at the other memorials that day.
Washington Memorial - A must see. Again, long lines for this one in the summer months. Get tickets on-line before you go to avoid the lines. The tour takes you up an elevator to the top of the Monument. There a small windows with a great view of all the city sites.
Smithsonian Museums - Air and Space, Natural History. Free and wonderful and amazing. We all loved them.
We stayed at the Comfort Inn on New York Street. It was about a ten minute walk to the White House and about 4 long blocks to the Metro Station (10-15 minute walk)and was fine for the price. The rooms were really small. We didn't eat anywhere memorable, just inexpensive cafes.
2nd Stop Philadelphia - Took the train from D.C. to Philadelphia. It took about 1 1/2 hours and if you're from California, the trains actually run on time on the East Coast and are very efficient. It was definitely the way to go for us instead of renting a car because 1. Driving in big cities in confusing and a hassle and the parking fees are astronomical, 2. Our kids are much happier on a train. They can get up and walk around, go to the snack car, look out the window, etc. and happy kids make a happy mommy! I loved the train.
Being in Philsdelphia is a like being in living history. It was so cool. We went to Independence Hall for a tour and saw where they signed the Declaration of Independence. We also learned that actually, the original Declaration of Independence is there! and nobody is crowding around to see it. It's not the fancy one with all the signatures which actually came later, but the one of the real original ones - so look for it when you're there.
Vistor's Center - Great place to start. Has good movies with the history of Philadelphia and all the information you need for a good stay.
Liberty Bell - Fun to see it up close and learn about its history. The docents there are very helpful and eager to answer any questions. In fact, there are more docents in Philadelphia than anywhere I've ever been. It's great.
Benjamin Franklin's House - The house is actually not there anymore, but there's a whole musuem dedicated to old Ben. If you go at the right time, you can even meet him in the courtyard area and he'll amuse you with his stories.
Betsy Ross's House - Very cool. Take the tour and learn about Betsy. She was quite the rebel and made cannon balls in the basement of her house - bet you didn't know that. You will even meet Betsy on your way out.
Horse Drawn Carriage Ride - fun way to end the day with a tour of the town by horse carriage.
Thomas Jefferson's House - see where T.J. wrote the Declaration of Independence
We stayed at the Best Western in the heart of Philadelphia. It was great and decorated in the period. A quick walk to everything (like 2 minutes to Independence Hall). We took the Metro from the train station a few stops to get to the historical center of town. Word of warning: the Metro in Philly is NOT like the Metro in D.C. I wouldn't take it at night and would hesitate to even take it again during the day. We survived though.
Where to eat. They sell Philly Steak sandwhiches everywhere and they're definitely worth trying.
Stop #3 New York City
Took the train from Philly. Again, it was wonderful and fast. Hotels are very expensive in NYC, so I searched and searched for a budget hotel in the city near the train station and finally found the Red Roof Inn for $200 a night (other cheapest were $300/night). I was a little worried, but was pleasantly surprised and almost hate to give away my little secret. The location and property were GREAT. It was within walking distance of the train and on the edge of Korea town, but right around the corner from the Empire State Building and lots of great restaurants and almost right across the street from the Metro. The Metro is good in NYC. Not as good as D.C., but safe and clean at all times of the day.
Highlights of NYC:
Empire State Building - get tickets in advance to avoid the super long lines.
Statue of Liberty - again, tickets in advance on -line will save you hours of waiting. It was a heat wave in NYC, and very hot. We had tickets to go in the Pedastal, but there was about an hour long line, so we ended up not going. I would get in line for that as soon as you get there. There's food on the island.
Ground Zero - Small memorial musesum is very moving and worth the money. Be ready to cry.
Open to Bus Tour - big hit with the kids. Goes to various tourists sites and you can hop on off as you like.
John Lennon's House and Strawberry Fields part of Central Park across from his house - Strawberry Fields is a beautiful place to spend a half hour or so, very peaceful.
Highlights of Boston:
Walking tour of the Freedom Trail - Duck Tour - amphibious car/boat goes on the road and into the lake. - Cambridge and Harvard - Paul Revere's House - Old North Church -
Old South Meeting House.
Boston is easy to get around and a beautiful city. The L(Metro)is safe and easy to use. We stayed at the Midtown Hotel. The prices were reasonable and the location was perfect (right next to a L stop).
Plimoth Plantation - outside of Boston about 40 miles. It
ss a living museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts that reconstructs the original settlement of the Plymouth Colony,some of whom later became known as Pilgrims. Alongside the settlement is a re-creation of a Wampanoag home site, where modern Native People from a variety of nations explain and demonstrate how the Wampanoag's ancestors lived and interacted with the settlers. Nearby in Plimouth, MA, you can visit the Mayflower 2 and see Plymouth rock. The piece that remains is really small and almost makes you laugh since most likely you're expecting to see a big chunk of rock.
Cape Cod - I'm running out of room, so I'll be brief. We rented a car to go to the Cape (about 1 1/2 hour drive. Don't drive on a Friday or Sunday due to the traffic). It was a great side trip and we loved it. There are lakes and the ocean and it was a great place to unwind and just relax. We stayed with family, so I don't have any hotel recommendations, but there were a lot of cute weekly rentals. We took a drive to P town and loved, loved it there. Really pretty beaches and great clam chowder.
So, like I've mentioned, every summer, we take the kids on a trip that goes with what they're studying in school. This particular summer Jake was entering 4th grade and studying the California Missions, Gold Rush and California History. so off we went to check out as many missions as we could on our way to Gold Rush Country.
The closest mission is actually in our hometown, but we would save that one for when we returned. So, the first one we came to was the San Miguel Mission about 40 miles from our home. The Spanish missions in California comprise a series of religious and military outposts established by Spanish Catholics of the Franciscan Order between 1769 and 1823 to spread the Christian faith among the local Native Americans. 21 missions were established along the Camino Real (King's Highway) from San Diego to San Francisco and north to Sonoma. Each mission was a "day's march" from each other (about 30 miles - the march was on horseback).
The site for the San Miguel Mission was selected to close the gap between Mission San Antonio and Mission San Luis Obispo. It was a beautiful spot on the Salinas River called Vahca by the natives, Las Pozas by the Spaniards or "The Wells". The inside of the Mission was closed, so we spent about 15 mintues looking around the grounds.
Our next stop was the Santa Cruz Mission. It has some nice displays of what the rooms and interior looked like during the actual mission days and the visitor center had some interesting displays.
After a day in Santa Cruz, we headed up to San Francisco for a couple of days. We stopped at the Mission Dolores in San Fransisco which is downtown. We took the bus there not realizing that it's in a bad neighborhood (the hooker and druggy on the bus should have tipped us off I guess). It still felt safe enough during the day. The Mission itself is a beautiful little gem. The cemetery and gardens adjacent to it have been restored and planted with traditional native trees, shrubs, flowers, and plants from the 1791 period. The garden also contains an Ohlone Indian ethno-botanic garden and examples of Native American plants and artifacts. I discovered that Mission Dolores is the final resting place of some 5,000 Ohlone, Miwok, and other First Californians who built the mission. The cemetery proved to be a Who's Who in California history as I read the tombstones I noticed such notables as: the first Mexican governor, Luis Antonio Arguello and the first commandant of the Presidio, Lieutenant Moraga.
We stayed in San Francisco for a few days seeing the sights and took a boat to Alcatraz Island, a big hit with the kids.
From San Francisco, we headed up to Sacramento for a tour of the Capitol. Our friend Jack O'Connell is the Superintendent of Education in Sacramento and formerly a State Senator. He gave us a special tour of the Department of Education and entertained the kids with stories of laws he passed as a senator such as one that requires dogs riding in the back of open trucks to be tied up so they don't fall out. The kids thought that was a very nice law. After our tour of the Department of Education, Jack sent us over to the Capitol for a private tour. The kids enjoyed learning about the Capitol and seeing the Senate Chambers and learning about how laws are made. A quick stop at the Governor's office was a treat although the Governor wasn't in at the time.
We stayed within walking distance to Old Town in Sacramento(we stayed at the cheaper Vagabond Inn -about half the price of other hotels - and it was fine) and enjoyed walking on the old fashioned streets. A trip to the train museum was a wonderful start and being in Old Town was a great historical introduction to the Gold Rush. We ate dinner at Joe's Crab Shack. It was a busy, family-friendly, energetic restaurant, a little pricy, but fun.
After Sacramento, it was on to find Gold! We headed up to Placerville. Our first stop was Coloma, and Marshall's Gold Discovery State Park and the site of the discovery at Sutter’s Mill that triggered the California Gold Rush. There's a nice Gold Discovery Museum there that's definitely worth spending time. The site has a reproduction of the mill where Sutter discovered gold and there's a signpost at the actual site along the American River. The kids also got to do some real gold panning near the Visitors Center.
The next day, we wanted to see a real gold mine, so we opted for the smaller Gold Bug Mine in Hangtown. The kids liked Hangtown because it has a life-size pretend man hanging from one of the buildings in the middle of town. The town Hangtown is also mentioned in the Gold Rush book, By The Great Horn Spoon, that was required reading for Jake's 4th grade class. We all sported miners helmets as we embarked on a self-guided tour with audio headsets. The kids loved the mine and seeing what it was like for the miner-fortyniners.
We stayed at the Placerville Best Western and it was a perfect location and accomodations for us. It had a pool to splash around in at the end of the day, and workout room that my hubby and I took turns visiting, so everyone was happy. There's also camping along the American River.
The next stop on our journey was a trip down Highway 49. We stopped at various gold rush towns like Angel's Camp where we discovered the saloon where Mark Twain first heard the story from a half-drunk miner friend that would become his first published humor fiction piece “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. Angels camp is now the home of Jumping Frog Jubilee. We also stopped in Murphy, a charming town, for lunch. Our final destination was Columbia State Park. The only state park that has the distinction of being a real, working town.
Columbia is a must see for Gold Rush Country enthusiast with kids. It's a real living historic town. The main street has a blacksmith shop where you can watch him at his trade. Costumed docents wander the town answering questions. A must do is a stagecoach ride through town. Don't be surprised if a bandit along the way stops your coach and demands all your gold. You can also see the effects of mining on the landscape and pan for gold. We stayed in town at the Historic City Hotel. Don't leave town without letting the kids try Sasparilla (old fashinoned root beer) at the Saloon. Sasparilla can also be bought at the General Market to take home (it's the only place in the Gold Country that we could find it).
Our final stop on the way home was the San Juan Baptista Mission. I think it was our favorite as it was restored nicely and retained a lot of artifacts from the original mission. The open sweeping views from the back also gave me a real sense of the vast openess that once surrounded the missions. The museum was worth the price and the present museum rooms were once the padre's living quarters and workrooms for the Natives.
So call me a nerd. As a teacher, I know that nothing beats actually expeiencing the curriculum, so I decided even before the kids were born that we would go on trips each year that went along with their curriculum. This was our first educational vacation. Jake, our oldest, was going into the third grade and would be studying about Native Americans. We decided to go to the Grand Canyon and to Mesa Verde National Park. I had done the same trip when I was younger and couldn't wait to take the kids. We drove there from the Central Coast and stopped for a night in Palm Springs (about six hours with stops for the kids) then we went to Phoenix to stay with relatives (4 hours) and 2 more hours to the Grand Canyon from Phoenix. Another route to go is to drive to Williams and take the train to the Grand Canyon.
The kids loved the Grand Canyon. We went in July and the weather was perfect. I booked rooms at the Bright Angel Lodge and Cabins a year in advance. The price wasn't too bad since it's a National Park and the location was fantastic, right on the south rim. One benefit of the location is you wake up in the morning and virtually have the park to yourself for a few hours. The train from Williams arrives around noon and that's when the throngs of tourist come to the rim.
Just down a ways from our room on the south rim was a great place to view the Condors that live in the Canyon. They have nest just below the rim and if you bring binoculars you can watch them fly. It's amazing.
We took a short walk on the Bright Angel Trail that leads down (eventually - about 9 miles) to the Colorado River. Remember to take water and keep in mind it's easy going down, but a lot harder to get back up. Their are day mule trips you can take, but kids need to be 8 years old. Another fun thing we did was to take the free buses all over the park. We took it all the way to Hermit's Rest(7 miles) stopping at various lookout points to get views of the Canyon and the river below. The buses are air conditioned and the kids enjoyed the ride.
Another recommendation for kids while staying there is to do as many Ranger Programs as you can. They are FREE and our kids loved them. They talk about the geology and history of the Canyon. When you enter the park, they will give you a newspaper. It lists the ranger programs for kids. Once you attend a program, your kids will receive a booklet on becoming a junior ranger during their visit. It's a lot of fun for them and my kids both became junior rangers.
Bright Angel Lodge and Cabins website: http://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/Bright-Angel-408.html
Prices are about $111/night for a historic cabin
$142 for a rim cabin
There are about 7 properties on the South Rim to choose from including the historical and rustic/elegant El Tovar. All of them looked decent to me. We ate at the restaurant adjacent to the Bright Angel Cabins. The food was good and the prices reasonable.
Mesa Verde National Park
Our next stop was Mesa Verde National Park. This is a must see on your list of things to do with kids. We drove from the Grand Canyon to Colorado and stopped at 4 Corners National Monument. This is where the states of Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado all meet. There's an actual slab with the names of the four states with a platform above to get a picture of each family member in a different state or you can lean over with your hands and feet in each state. There are Native American booths surrounding the site for a quick snack or for some inexpensive jewelry and souvenirs.
Another stop we made just quickly since we were there was a brief drive down the road to Monument Valley. The rock formations were amazing and looked like something out of a movie set only to find that they have been the settings for many movies.
We finally arrived at Mesa Verde. It was worth the drive to see my kids' faces when they laid thier eyes on the first cliff dwelling, "Clff Palace." It's truly a remarkable sight. I could feel what the first settlers, two cowboys, Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law Charlie Mason, felt on December 18th, 1888, were riding across the mesa top looking for stray cattle and looked across and through the blowing snow "a magnificent city."
Our days were spent exploring the multitude of cliff dwellings, walking among the rooms, listening to rangers speak about the Native Americans lives and how they survived while standing in the very rooms and courtyards where they lived. One dwelling has a Kiva, an underground ceremonial room, you enter via a ladder. Sitting in the room I could almost hear the chants of the medicine man and imagine the spirtual practices of the people.
Our favorite adventure there was a tour of Balcony House, or the "adventurous tour". It involves climbing a 32 ft. ladder, crawling through a 12ft.-long tunnel, and climbing up a 60ft open rock face with two 10ft ladders to exit the site. I was up for the adventure, but I was a little worried about the kids. I could remember surviving it when I was a child, so I said "what the heck." The kids did great and my daughter, Jordyn, who'd already earned her junior ranger badge for Mesa Verde by the time we did the tour got to lead the tour. They kids loved the adventure (we each took a child and stayed close to them on the ladders) so much that they asked to "do it again!", so we returned the next day and did the whole tour again (I swear it was better than Disneyland).
On our way home we stopped at the Petrified Forest. It was really interesting. The drive is deceiving however. Once you exit the highway and enter the park it's about an hour until you actually get to the petrified rocks. The visitor center is nice and has good displays.
Tips: Many of the dwellings can only be accessed with a Ranger Led Tour. You can stop at the Ranger Station on your way to the dwellings and purchase your tickets ($3 per person). We stayed in park at the Far View Lodge. It sits on a high shoulder of the Mesa Verde near the Visitor Center, offering panoramic vistas into three states. It’s simple there. No TVs. Nothing fancy, peaceful. We didn't miss having a TV at all. The only drawback was the food situation up on the Mesa wasn't so good. I don't know if they had a lack of personnel, but the cafeteria style places near the hotel were out of everything. There was an expensive restaurant right at the hotel, but we didn't eat there. We ended up driving to the town of Cortez (about 30 minutes) down the hill for some great Mexican food. Cortez is another option for economical lodging. I personally liked staying on the Mesa.
Far View Lodge website:
Room for 2 adults and 2 kids about $125 night
Camping also available on the Mesa for about $21 a night
For more info on the park: