We did it: all five of us made it out on the trail this weekend. And we weren’t even on vacation! It was the same trail Aliya, Maia, and I took almost a year ago and I was impressed by how much they remembered. From the reason some trees had holes all over them (wood beetles) to the stump with the most sap to the places to watch out for cow patties, they remembered it all. And it was really cool to have them lead the way and be the experts for their mama and big sister. Aliya, especially, was thrilled to be out there.
It’s easy to get caught up in our daily life. Work, school, doctors appointments, grocery shopping, meal prep…it really goes on and on. And the day-to-day of life in America becomes such a routine and feels like such a necessity to maintain, that we lose sight of or miss out on the things that we enjoy or make us happy.
Vacation is really a life-saver. It gives us permission to carve out time for ourselves and each other and let go (at least partially) of the constant stream of responsibilities. That’s why our family enjoys camping. It’s a perfect way to disconnect from the business of everyday life and screen time (email, social media, news, TV, etc.), and reconnect with the essentials. When the focus is shifted solely to spending time together, relaxing, playing, enjoying nature and being outside, eating, and sleeping…life almost becomes easy.
WARNING: This is a long-ass post. It does not delve into my philosophy on the importance of nature for kids, and getting out of the damn city (but I think you’ll enjoy it if you want to know how camping with three young kids was for us). ALSO: There are a bunch of photos at the end if you want to just skip to that.
Day 1: We found out about the Cold Springs Campground in Sunset and figured it was worth a try. Every year we have to balance convenience for camping with small kids and really trying to get away from civilization and crowds. The elevation and location in Sequoia National Park made it a likely candidate for crowd avoidance, and the presence of a picnic table, bear box, and fire ring sounded like the convenience factors we were looking for. Of course then we had to worry about temperature and weather, and taking a chance on how serious the bear threat was (which is always a fun gamble when you have three little bear-bait nuggets).
Packing is always stressful. I, on the one hand, am still trained for backpacking: where you only bring the minimum necessities. While Sarah respects that, she has her own idea of what’s necessary. Over the years we’ve met on the middle, but every year, including this year, we had our annual argument of what to bring or not bring. This year was unique too, because it was our first time camping with three kids. We had brought babies before—Keana’s first trip being at 4 months and Maia’s at 8 months—but adding a third kid in the mix is definitely a game changer. We hashed it all out though and found a compromise, one of those being bringing an extra tent (which I foolishly fought, as you will read about later). We also ended up buying a really warm, snuggie suit thing for Aliya, in case it was really cold. Again, it seemed a little a extreme, but better safe than sorry.
Packing took practically a whole day: shopping and some packing Sunday afternoon/evening, and packing up the ice chest and the rest into the car on Monday morning. We got on the road around 10:30 a.m. on 7/11, which was about the time we were shooting for. The campground was only about 100 miles from where we live, in the southern-most tip of the park, but we knew there was a good stretch of mountain road that was going to require some slower driving. Unfortunately, we missed the turn for our campground, but caught the mistake soon enough that it only added about an extra 30 minutes. It was no wonder we missed it though, because it was an obscure, residential road that lead into some serious backcountry just outside the park. We climbed up a very narrow, winding road through the mountains, and if we hadn’t double-checked the map, we would have seriously doubted we were headed the right way. Many parts of the road were barely wider than our SUV, with no guardrail, and a thousand-foot or more drop on one side. After about 45 minutes on this road, and over several very bumpy dirt roads, we finally arrived at our campground. It was 2:30 p.m. and the kids had just awoken from an afternoon car snooze.
The campground was quite beautiful. All the sites were surrounded by pines and ferns, and many of the sites were along the Kaweah River. One thing we didn’t like right off the bat though, was the presence of cabins across the river from some of the sites. The campground was pretty empty though, and we found a site by the river that was pretty secluded. When we got out of the car the air was fresh and the river was roaring, and we set to work immediately.
There’s very few moments of peace with three kids at any time, anywhere, but camping is special. While the outdoors absorbs some of the kids energy, there’s just more to do. But once the tents were set up, the fire was lit, and dinner prep was under way, there was a moment when I breathed deep the crisp, smokey air, took in the forest, rocks, and sound of the river, and found a moment of quiet and deep satisfaction. Our first dinner was a tried and true favorite from childhood: pocket stews. Hamburger, onion, carrots, and potatoes wrapped in foil and set directly in the fire. I salt and pepper the hamburger, embed a few hunks of onion in the patties, and place them on top of the vegetables. As it cooks, the meat juices drip to the bottom and surround the vegetables in animal dripping goodness. A hearty meal for hearty appetites at the end of a tiring day, and almost no clean-up.
At this point, our neighbor from two camps over approached and offered us some of his firewood. He had noticed we didn’t have much of a fire and felt the need to share. We happily took him up on his offer, and found out that he had been camping at Cold Springs for over 50 years. He was two when he first came, and he saw Aliya and told his wife, “That was me, 52 years ago!” His kids were now grown, just out of college, and I think he was a little more than a little nostalgic looking at our family.
Of course, to kick things off, we had to roast some marshmallows too. I prepped the dessert and Sarah put Aliya to sleep in her portable crib. When she rejoined us, and as the sun set and the temperature dropped, we finished up the s’mores, then brushed teeth. Maia said, “Okay, I’m ready to go in the tent now!” so we all headed to bed, Sarah, Aliya, and Maia in our 6-person tent, and Keana and I in borrowed tent. As I mentioned earlier, it was really good Sarah pushed for that extra tent, because “6-person tent” only applies to 6 relatively small adults in sleeping bags. Not two adults, two small kids, and a port-a-crib, plus clothes. No way. We are definitely a two-tent family at this point.
Keana was so excited as we tucked into our bags, and asked a hundred questions about camping in general, tents, fire, bears, and how cold it was going to be. Right after the flashlight went off, she said, “You sure were right Papa, it is cold here!” I smiled to myself at the similarities of 6-year-olds and teenagers. Both age groups seem to doubt you, as an adult, actually know anything at all, and seem surprised if what you say actually comes true. But in that moment, I thought it was adorable and I was super happy to be sharing a tent with my seeming-more-grown-up-every-day baby girl. She fell asleep by the third verse of “Hotel California.”
1:25 a.m. FREEZING F-IN COLD. Keana wakes me because she has to pee, and once we get out of the tent we are instantly stung by bitter cold. I do not get cold easily, and I was chilled through in 30 seconds. Once we got back in our bags we shivered, still surprised, until we gradually warmed back up. I was worried. How are Sarah and the two littler ones doing? Did Sarah bring enough bedding to keep them all warm? I remembered that snuggie we had just bought and hoped that it was enough, with the covers, to keep that little baby warm.
Day Two: We all slept in, for us anyway. It was about 8 a.m. and my face was cold. I didn’t want to leave my warm bag, but felt the need to get a fire going. Thanks to our neighbor, we had enough wood for a good morning fire. Sarah, Maia, and Aliya all snuggled together on the air mattress and were able to stay relatively warm, but were pretty uncomfortable. Aliya had to have her snuggy on most of the morning, just to stay warm outside, even with the fire. The pancakes and sausage got us going though, and after Sarah put Aliya down for her mid-morning nap, she and the other two explored down by the river as I sat watch in camp for bears. Luckily the bear boxes were bigger than we thought they’d be, but the rangers were pretty adamant about putting everything in there, even our car seats. The empty site next to us afforded us an additional box, just for our three seats. So, the bear threat seemed pretty real around there and I didn’t want to leave our little Aliya morsel unattended in the tent.
I took Maia and Keana on a little hike up to the ranger’s station to get tag for our car, and we enjoyed exploring, standing on the bridge that was about 50 feet above the raging river, and checking out the huge granite rocks on the way to the station. When we returned to camp, it was time for lunch and we enjoyed some salami, hummus, carrots, olives, and swiss. While the day went pretty well, Maia especially was having a really hard time. I think it was just too much for her to have so many variables. Both she and Keana were really worried about the river sweeping them away, and our vigilance about the bears had made them uneasy about whether or not they really could be bear snacks. All that and a not-so-great night’s sleep due to the cold made for some struggles throughout the day.
Around 2:30 or 3 p.m., everyone really needed an afternoon nap, so Sarah laid down with Keana and Maia to get them calmed, and I put Aliya in our little carrier that basically straps her to my chest. I decided to go for a little hike to the walk-in sites to see how they were, and check out the trailheads to Hockett Meadow and Tar Gap. Five minutes out, Aliya was asleep on my chest. The walk-in sites were pretty nice, just up the hill from us, and I found a stack of wood, from which I took several big logs. It wasn’t exactly easy carrying the wood, Aliya, and a water bottle, but I managed. I also noticed some big clouds rolling in and began to worry about rain.
After about an hour-and-a-half walking around, I roused the sleeping beauties because it was getting late and I wanted to get the fire going. For dinner that night, I pre-marinated, at home, some pork loin. It was basically a beer-brine with brown sugar, and I cut the pork into chunks for skewers. To accompany it, we had corn on the cob, and asparagus to grill. Unfortunately I forgot the skewers, but fortunately I had cut the pork big enough so it didn’t fall through the grill. It was delicious. Maybe a little salty, but so good. Who says camping can’t be a little gourmet? A little extra prep at home made it not only possible, but pretty easy as well. Again, another meal with almost no clean-up.
We had to roast marshmallows again, and once again, right after we finished, Maia was ready to head to the tent. Aliya was already asleep, and Sarah and I made a tentative plan to rendezvous back out at the fire to try and and squeeze in a some alone time after Keana and Maia had fallen asleep. Of course, Keana just wouldn’t go to sleep. I think she knew I was trying to sneak out, and she did not want to be alone in the tent. In my head I was playing out dramatic scenes of two lovers, just missing each other in the woods at night, each wondering if they were too early or too late. But I finally saw Sarah’s light out by the fire, and told Keana I would be back in a little bit. She conceded, mostly because of the extreme cold, and I headed out to meet Sarah. We sat for about five minutes then heard kiddy noises and figured we had better just call it. We decided to see how the night went, but if it stayed as cold as it had been the first night, we figured we had better just head home a little early.
Day Three: 6:26 a.m., my two-way radio beeps with a communication from Sarah. “Luke, you up? Maia and I have decided, we’re going home.” Yes, another freezing (literally) night. None of us had slept all that well and we all agreed another night just wouldn’t be that fun. As I asked Keana and Maia about it, they were both a little torn. It was interesting to see them struggle with the fact that it was a fun adventure to be out there, but they just weren’t comfortable enough there to fight going home. So we grubbed down and began packing up. It went relatively smoothly, the only real annoyance being the sap that had been dripping from the trees.
At around 11:45 a.m. we were ready to head out, but of course, had to stop for a pee break 15 minutes down the road. That pee break turned into lunch, but once we got that taken care of, the kids were all out for the count. The road back was even more amazing than it had been on the way in. Not only the view was breath-taking, but the fact that it was basically a single lane road for 20+ miles really took a lot of effort. I had the car in 2nd gear most of the way down and I was thankful at every one of the 200-some-odd turns that we had just had our car tuned up.
Amazingly enough, we made it all the way back home without another stop, and pulled into our driveway, tired and smelly, at around 3 p.m. Just a mere 52 hours after we left, we had returned. Our first camping trip with three kids under our belt, I think we all had a much better idea of what was possible and what wasn’t. Still, it was great to get out, get up to the mountains, get tired, get hungry, get filled, get cold, get warm, get dirty, and get smokey.
Keana wore her pajamas, her favorite Velcro shoes, and a rainbow fleece from her one-year-old days (so yeah, way too small, but she’s big enough to dress herself, right?). I wore my shorts and t-shirt from yesterday, grabbed her Hello Kitty backpack and stuffed it with a little bear, a bunny, and a water bottle (so yeah, the backpack was a little small for me, but Keana’s going to carry it, right?). She screams out, “We’re going on an adventure!” as we exit the house for a Sunday morning hike.
After a quick stop for some coffee we headed for Tilden Regional Park in the Berkeley hills. I opened the sunroof, baby held her backpack and looked out the window while the local alternative rock station played hits from all the way back in the ’90s. Soundgarden, New Order, and Social D provided our cruising soundtrack while I sipped my coffee and Keana ate her mini-stone wheat thin crackers.
We pulled off the road by the trail and, Hello Kitty backpack in tow, I carried her to the trailhead. She refused to get down. We’ve hiked on paved paths at Tilden before, and I’ve carried her in a backpack on dirt trails, but this was the first time I was trying to get her to hike on her own on a “real” trail. I tried to explain to her that’s why we wear shoes, to keep our actual feet from getting dirty, but Keana wasn’t buying it. So I carried her up the trail all the while trying different angles to get her to hike on her own. At various moments in our conversation I would ask, “So do you want to try it now?” and Keana would reply, “No. Papa carry me. I don’t want to walk.” After a couple hundred yards of hiking uphill carrying Keana, I was wishing that damn Hello Kitty backpack wasn’t too small for me to wear.
We reached the top of the hill and I had to set her down. At first she threatened to unleash a little two-year-old storm, but I quickly jumped in with a barrage of nature observations to distract her.
“Look baby, a rolly-polly!” I exclaimed as I pointed to the tiny bug moving across our path. It became aware of our focus and it curled up into its little ball.
“And listen! Do you hear the birdies? Where are they?” I asked. That was a good one because it was impossible to see any birds in the foliage so we looked for a long time.
And just like that, Keana had forgotten all about the dirty dirt she was standing on. I proposed we move forward and she said, “I wanna go home and see Mama!”
“But we just got here Baby. How about we go a little further?”
“No! I want to see Mama!” she yelled back.
“Okay, no problem, let’s head back,” I said secretly pleased we had even made it this far.
So we continued back down the hill I had carried her up, all the while singing, “We’re walking on dirt! We’re walking on dirt!” and carefully avoiding all the big rocks on the trail. Before we knew it, we were back at the car.
“I don’t want to get in the car!” She yells.
“But you said you wanted to go home, right?” I try to confirm.
“Yeah! I wanna see Mama!”
“Well, in order to see Mama, we have to get back in the car,” I try to reason.
“No! I want to hike home!” She yells back.
“Oh Baby, it’s way too far to hike. But if you want to hike more, we can head back up the trail.”
At this she’s satisfied and heads back up the hill, watching out for bugs and rocks. After a few moments she starts to say, “We’re going home to see Mama!” Hmmmmmm. Where did I go wrong in the little talk at the car? I had to let her in on what was really going on.
“Well Baby, we’re actually not headed towards home,” I say, “remember we headed back up the trail away from the car and away from home.”
“Well, which way is it?” she says. Pointing up the trail she asks, “Is it this way?” then pointing the opposite direction, “Or is it this way Papa?”
I had to laugh.
“It’s that way,” I say pointing back to the car.
“Okay, this way then,” and she heads back down the trail towards the car.
When we arrive back at the car she happily gets in her car seat with her bag of crackers and a book. I turn the radio back on, take a sip of my coffee, and point the car in the right direction, the direction of home.