Saturday, July 5, 2008

Family Vacation, Lake Henshaw, Day 5

The last local diversion on our list was to explore Palomar Mountain, the largest mountain in San Diego county; the road to which was just a half-mile from our cabin. The road up is not to be missed, as it provides gorgeous views of Lake Henshaw and the valley around it, as well as sweeping vistas towards San Diego and beyond on the other side.

Vista of Lake Henshaw

Vista from the other side, looking towards San Diego and the Pacific

Near the top of the mountain is a state park, open for picnickers and day hikers. We clambered among the boulders and a sadly disproportionate number of cut and fallen trees until the heat became unbearable again, chasing us back down the mountain before noon. Back at the cabin after lunch we escaped to the pool to spend the rest of the hot afternoon underwater.

We ended our vacation and final night at Lake Henshaw with another fine dinner of fire-roasted hotdogs and s'mores, and spent the twilight hour walking around the mostly empty cabins (number 17 looks very nice, although it's missing the view of the lake), working off the sugar high brought on by entirely too many melted marshmallows, and enjoying our last evening together before parting ways again.

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Family Vacation, Lake Henshaw, Day 4

It was time to seek out a touch of civilization—and air conditioning! After breakfast and another morning of bouncing around the boulders behind the cabin, we cleaned up and headed south to the town of Julian. Julian is famous for a few things, including being an old gold-mining town, being the closest thing to a city for miles around, having cell phone reception (!!), and last but far from least—apple pie. By the time we arrived, the first order of business was lunch. I had a hankering for Mexican food, and as if fate were listening, a billboard advertising Margaritas was draped across a restaurant called, apparently, "Margaritas" (or it could have been "Restaurant").

Margaritas… it's not just a name

We had decent Mexican food and (I had) a great margarita, and moved on to explore the town. Julians main businesses seem to be apple pie cafés and curios shops, so we explored a few and enjoyed a delicious slice of pie before heading back to the lake.

Back at the cabin, we chose to spend the afternoon exploring the local rocks and trees. We discovered three Indian grinding rocks (aka mortar and pestle) and we gathered a few leaves and some herbs from the kitchen to grind up in the ancient mortars for fun!

Ancient Indian grinding stone… in our own backyard

As evening drew closer and the air cooled, we walked down to the lake for the first time. Virtually no one was about except for a few picnickers and a set of fishermen, so we had the run of the lake 'beach' to ourselves. The kids enjoyed hours of chasing birds and bugs, battling for supremacy with sticks and swords, and otherwise finding every last muck puddle in the reservoir. We kept our eyes open for the Lake Henshaw Bald Eagles, but never did spot them. Apparently the pair have a baby now, which is very exciting indeed.

Lake Henshaw

Lake Henshaw

The day closed as mellow as it had begun, with a late pasta dinner and popcorn for desert.

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Family Vacation, Lake Henshaw, Day 3

Tourmaline digging was to be the activity of the day. The Himalaya Mines are not, in fact, here (nor are they in the Himalaya's), but are instead somewhere across the valley from Mount Palomar.

The kids were both very excited about the prospect of digging in the dirt to find fancy rocks, so I thought this would be a shoo-in for a fun way to spend the day. After a leisurely breakfast and showers for the kids (yes I know, what's the sense of bathing children who are about to go dig in the dirt—but out here, they're always about to go dig in the dirt, so at some point you just have to give up on the concept of 'clean'). I packed a picnic lunch and off we went.

The dig-site isn't far from the campgrounds; in fact, as I mentioned before, it's just at the end of a road inside of the RV park. It's actually just past the tent campgrounds, and so we drove down that way (too hot to walk the distance), parked in the shade and headed to the dig.

The way this works is the mining company takes truckloads of un-sifted dirt and literally dumps it in a pile for people to dig through. At a charge of $75 per adult (young kids free; older kids half-price), you can dig through tons of dirt from 10a–3p looking for all the jewels you can find. I'd heard a story the night before of someone finding a stone that once set was valued at several thousand dollars, so while my hopes weren't set on paying for the kids' educations, I thought we'd stand a chance at finding something memorable on the dig.

(photo from Himalaya Mine website—in the heat and excitement, I forgot to take photos. Oops.)

Upon arrival I realized this was going to be a short-lived experience. The dig is in the full sun, with the only shade provided by an awning the caretakers had set up for themselves. I chatted with Nick, who was managing the site, and he explained the fee structure but also offered that what might be better for the kids is to buy a $50 bag of "high quality dirt", which would have a much higher yield of stones in it, and to quickly get through that instead of planning to spend the whole day in the sun—something he already knew wasn't going to work for the kids. He even offered that if we got through that and still wanted to dig, he'd throw in an hour of digging in the big pile for free. Smart guy, that Nick. I bought a bag of dirt and we set off to sifting.

Nicks sister Becky showed us the ropes. She set up a lower stand to put the water tray on for the kids, and showed us how to dump some of the bag into the tray, sift the small stones and dirt out, leaving behind only the larger rocks. We had to diligently go through the smaller dirt and stones as well, looking for any tiny gems that may have fallen through. From there, we took the sifting tray to the water and washed the stones, throwing away the granite and looking for the jewels.

Immediately we were rewarded with a few small stones and some very pretty ones at that. We even managed to find one very nice specimen on only the second or third pan, which was very encouraging. Unfortunately though, after about 10 minutes of this, both kids were overheated and retreating to the shade of the awning. I only managed to get them back into the sun a few more times for a few minutes at a time, which meant I was the one who did most of the sifting. So much for an event for the kids! Oh well, we got through the rest of the bag quickly and hightailed it back to the cabin for our picnic lunch. It was simply too hot out in the sun.

After lunch and a brief nap for the little one, we decided to try out the pool. As expected it was a bit rough, but trust kids to not care what a pool looks like. It's not exactly the glorious oceanside pool of the Sheraton with attentive waitresses offering $12 margaritas from the hotel bar, but the water was cool and clean and refreshing. Instead of bronzed bikini'd hotel patrons, our company was mostly 8-1/2 month pregnant men with Keystone Lite's in one hand and lit cigarettes in the other. Plus one kindly former swim instructor who delighted in playing with the children in the water, as her own kids had long ago grown and swam away.

As the sun dropped to the horizon, we headed back to the cabin for dinner. While the kids played outside I prepared a dinner of chicken, rice and green beans, which they enjoyed immensely. Behind the cabin, which the kitchen faces, is a great grouping of shaded boulders that the kids have enjoyed climbing on since our arrival. It's nice to be able to let the play outside with minimal supervision; something you aren't often able to do.

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Family Vacation, Lake Henshaw, Day 2

I have to admit, this place is turning out better than first impressions would have you believe. After starting the day with a breakfast of pancakes, eaten outdoors with a view of the lake (eaten quickly, as it was already approaching 90ºF), we took a short walk to the check-in desk to ask some questions about the various activities in the area. We were given more details about the Tourmaline Mine digging , (just at the end of a road inside the RV park; $75 per person – !! – but I've been told kids are free, so we'll see), about the lake itself, (boats and gas and oil are OK, but no people allowed in—'cause it's a reservoir. Logical), and about the where you might get a cell phone signal. We decided to start our adventure with a visit to the La Jolla Indian Reservation campground to try our hand at inner-tubing.

9 miles down Hwy 76 brought us to the La Jolla campgrounds. $15 day use of the park, and $8 per inner-tube, so $31 later we were headed to the water. We found a shady parking spot then walked up-river for a while, inner-tubes and lunch-cooler in tow, with the intention of tubing back to the car and eating lunch somewhere along the way. Well, that river was a-movin', and moving fast. We found a relatively calm bit, and hiked past that a ways so we could enjoy some mellow tubing. Unfortunately, even the calmest of rivers is surprisingly violent when your ass is stuck in a tube bouncing off rocks down the river with two little ones in tow. We only lasted a few minutes before the kids were getting tossed around and scared out of their wits, so that long ride came to a short end. We trekked back to where we'd left our cooler and nursed our bruised bottoms over a picnic lunch. We spent the rest of the day playing in tide-pools, splashing in the cool water and working on our tans. We did find one more calm area where we got some more use out of the inner-tubes though, so not all was lost.

By 5:00 we were heading 'home', with a stop at the Lake Henshaw general store to pick up some firewood. And this is where I sheepishly admit that the exceedingly white-trash washing-machine barrel actually makes a pretty good fire-pit. Besides obviously enclosing everything and keeping the sparks to a minimum, the edges make a perfect resting point for the hot dog and s'mores skewers. We spent the evening roasting hot dogs and marshmallows, enjoying the warm evening and our campfire food.

The kids found another group of children a few buildings over, and we spent the rest of the evening with them while the kids chased balls and each-other and the adults chased beers with more beers. By the time we made it back to the cabin, everyone was asleep within seconds of hitting the pillows.

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Family Vacation, Lake Henshaw, Day 1

The second part of our vacation is cabin-camping at Lake Henshaw, about two hours outside of San Diego. I knew I wanted to take the kids camping, but while tent-camping is great fun for a few days, trying to live with two little kids for six days in a 2+ man tent, cooking in the dirt, and taking cold showers was not my idea of a relaxing vacation nor a quality bonding experience with my offspring. So I started looking for cabins to rent.

The Lake Henshaw Resort seemed like a nice option, as it's on a lake (obviously) and far enough from civilization to be calm, quiet and relaxing, but less than an hour from a major city should we grow tired of dirt, bugs and fresh air.

As we were driving up Hwy 76, I started to think that I'd driven up this road before, and in fact, very likely had taken a photograph of the Lake Henshaw sign already. A bend in the road with sweeping views of the valley below confirmed it; this was the spot where Team Type 1 had first overtaken Team Vale in the Race Across America in 2006 (a cat-and-mouse game that would continue for the next five days all the way across the country), and I had stood at a particular bend in this street overlooking this vista shooting the team on the first of many impressive climbs, getting lucky in the process and capturing the first leapfrog of the two lead teams. And as we got closer, I became more and more sure that I'd seen Lake Henshaw before, and knew in fact exactly what it looked like.

Sure enough, it was as I expected it—which didn't do much to quell my concerns. As we were getting closer, I kept remembering details about the place, and recalled not being terribly impressed at the time.

Let's just say that in the name "Lake Henshaw Resort", the "Resort" is a bit of a liberty. While I wasn't expecting room service, double-headed showers or 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets, I was expecting a few things that were plainly missing upon arrival.

I'll start with what I was expecting. In reading up on the resort and simply having some natural expectations of lake-cabin-camping, I expected a peaceful, quiet setting with a handful of neighbors, fire-pits, BBQ's, and fishing on the lake—with any luck, views of the lake. I expected the kitchen to be small and the provided utensils to be pretty low quality, so I brought a few of my own pans and a butcher knife. I expected a remote location, surrounded by hiking paths and fun areas for the kids to explore. The resort advertises a pool and a playground, so I knew those would be there as well.

The reality isn't that far from the expectations on paper, but somehow the arrival experience is pretty lacking. First off, the "resort" is right on the side of the highway, and the cabins are in fact just part of a much larger RV park with mostly permanent residents. It's "on" the lake, but probably a solid 10 minute walk to it—across the highway. While the highway isn't particularly busy, there was enough traffic on it even at 1am to be annoying.

View from the cabin

Laying in bed listening to the wildlife is wonderful; it being innerrupted every minute or more by a low-flying big-rig or drunk trying to break the land speed record was not ideal. And while the resort has a 10pm noise curfew, there seems to be no one to enforce it, as I actually had to get out of bed at 1am and tell the neighbors to shut the hell up as between their music, yelling and constant slamming of the screen doors, they had woken me up a few times and just woken up the kids, so enough was enough.

Cabin #11 (and #10)

I haven't seen the pool yet, so I'll reserve judgment on that until I do. But on check-in, the lady behind the desk said quite plainly, "well the website says we have a playground but really it's just a swing-set—haha" and points to a rusty swing in the full sun that looks like about the last place to let the kids have free reign.

the "playground"… riiiiiight

She asks if I wanted a fire-pit and if I'd requested one; annoyed, I told her I wasn't aware I had to request one, since that wasn't on the website and no one had asked when I made the reservation. She offered to try to get one over to me, which she described as an old washing machine tub that they gut and use to contain the fire. Effective, I'm sure, but somehow just a little more redneck then I was hoping for.

Firepit. No charge for the empty Marlboro pack.

The cabin itself is actually pretty nice. We paid for a "one bedroom suite" (and we'll file the use of the word 'suite' under the same category as 'resort'), which is basically a main room with a trundle bed, couch, small table and a pretty decent kitchenette, a bedroom with a queen bed, and a bathroom with a standing shower. Towels and soap provided.

The kitchen has a useful selection of pots and pans, but I'm glad I brought my own. It has a small gas stove which is always a bonus in my book, a very small sink that makes washing anything larger than a coffee cup a wet experience, a small fridge, and a coffee maker. Again the kitchen is quite useful and I'm pleased with it.

So again, overall it isn't bad but I was expecting more. I'm not impressed with the proximity to the road, the noise from the neighbors, or the distance to the lake. Oh, and while you can rent a boat for $35 a day to go fishing, there's no rental of fishing poles or other required gear. There is a stand for a portable BBQ, but no BBQ's provided. There's not internet or TV which was stated on the website so expected, but there's also no cell coverage out here (even though the AT&T coverage maps says there is). There are no hiking paths around here to speak of, according to the front-desk lady; I really have to drive to get to those. All of these details would have been good to know in advance and are things they should have had on their website. So hopefully this blog post will serve as a bit more information on Lake Henshaw Resort for future guests than they are providing themselves.

Today we'll start to explore the surrounding area, as there is inner-tubing at La Jolla Indian Reservation , hiking on Mount Palomar , Tourmaline stone digging at the Himalaya Mines and the town of Julian not to far away. So off we go… five days of "roughing" it, cabin-style.

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Family Vacation, SeaWorld San Diego

Following my four-week, round-the-world trip (which I still have to finish posting on, I know…) I took two weeks of to spend with the kids. I took them to SeaWorld for a few days, then for five days of camping at Lake Henshaw.

SeaWorld was wonderful, and the kids had a great time. They were having a deal where if you bought a one-day pass by June 25, you got the rest of the year free. So I bought the tickets online early and planned to spend three days there. No you don't really need three days to see SeaWorld, but with little kids in tow, it's nice to know you can just go for a few hours at at time. We watched countless shows of dolphins, whales, seals and otters, pet and fed manta rays, walked through a tunnel of sharks, and took in the view from the Sky Tower.

The Shamu show

View from the Sky Tower

And the best part of coming and going as you please from the park… we spent as much time as we wanted at the hotel pool.

View from the Sheraton hotel

Not much to write about; the photos tell the story.

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