This past weekend, the kids had two days off from school, so a couple of months ago, we decided to head somewhere to take advantage of Maggie’s Every Kid in a Park pass that allows 4th graders and their families free entry into National Park sites. I made a spreadsheet by entrance fee to figure out where we should go, and the answer was clear: the volcanic parks of northern California and southern Oregon. Within a reasonable drive lies three National Park sites that have volcanic history, plus one more that is for recreation. We structured the trip so that we would hit Bryan’s college campus at Chico, then one park each day for the next four days.
When I schedule trips, I look for opportunities to make it as inexpensive as possible. Okay, I mean cheap. Not stay at Motel 6 cheap (at least not with Bryan along), but for as little out of pocket money as possible. Both Bryan and I have separate Marriott Rewards credit cards that come with an annual free night, so that covered two of the four nights. Chico and Redding had a couple of Marriott properties each to choose from, but of course we look for ones that offer free breakfast. The Residence Inn in Chico was a huge suite with two bedrooms separated by a living room and kitchen area. The TownePlace Suites was a studio room, but had a kitchen that came in handy to fry up some quesadillas to take in the car for lunch.
Our other two nights were in smaller towns, so lodging was a little more limited. Klamath Falls had its fair share of Comfort, Quality, Holiday, and Best Western Inns, so I turned to Orbitz to help me sort them out to find the best value. Days Inn was a steal at $69 a night, and we found out when we checked in that it included free breakfast as well.
For our other stop, I had read a blog post about a resort with rooms made out of train cabooses (cabeese?). I decided to keep this part of the trip a surprise, and of course, my kids tried to get it out of me by repeatedly asking where we were staying that night. We had left late, had a long dinner stop in Redding, and arrived in the dark after hours. As I turned into the complex, the kids started asking where the hotel was, thinking this must be a mistake since it was a train yard, not a resort. I stopped at Caboose #18 and got out, telling the kids we were staying here. At first, they were upset, thinking this must be the ultimate in roughing it, and mom’s gone too far, booking this kind of accommodation to save some money. Well, turns out this was our most expensive room by far, and the kids flipped out when they saw how cozy it was inside! They were staying the night in a train car. I definitely earned some Mommy points with this one!
Originally, we had planned to do Crater Lake after Lassen, and then head back down to Lava Beds before ending up in Redding. However, the weather at Crater Lake was stormy on Sunday, and since it was much colder there than at Lava Beds, we decided that morning to switch parks for the day. It worked out well weather-wise, and also program-wise, because Lava Beds offered a ranger-led hike into one of the caves on Sunday, but not on Monday. Plus, since no one else signed up for the tour, we had the ranger all to ourselves.
Another tactic I have for saving money on trips is to limit ourselves to one meal out a day. This time, it was good that we had our own food since meals at the parks were limited or nonexistent, and we ended up having a picnic lunch each day. Usually I will pack food from home, even cold foods in a checked bag, but this time, what with all the caving equipment (bike helmets and headlamps) and cold weather clothes, I decided to save room in the checked bags and simply make a grocery run on our first morning in Chico to pick up some essentials for a couple of breakfasts, some snacks, and fixings for lunches. I didn’t include this receipt in our budget since we would have used the same groceries at home anyway. We were even able to pack the leftovers, mostly fruits and veggies, by freezing a carton of orange juice and almond milk in the freezer overnight at our last hotel.
I usually don’t have to worry about loading up on baggage because we fly Southwest, which allows each person to check two bags. We don’t go too crazy, though, because that means we are schlepping all those bags through the in betweens on a trip. It does mean we don’t have to worry about bringing food, or if everything fits on the way back, because I can check the laundry bag if need be. Our flight costs were covered by points earned from Southwest credit card signups and Bryan’s Companion Pass. We only had to pay $5.60 per person per leg. Plus, the number of points dropped during a sale, and I was able to easily rebook the flight at the lower points.
One anomaly on this trip is that the car I booked was supposed to be $98.30 for the weekend, but ended up costing $35 more at the counter. I had booked through an alert on Autoslash, which directed me to Priceline, where I booked a car using a Costco discount. When you sign up for alerts with Autoslash, they have you check mark all kinds of memberships you may have so they can find the deepest discount. I hadn’t even realized that Priceline would apply the Costco rate. When we got home, I chatted with Priceline to see if they could help me get my money back, but they directed me to take it up with Budget directly. I just received an email from Budget that they are refunding my $35.
Another little hiccup was that we were on the fence about visiting our last National Park site: Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. This park was devastated by the Carr fire just last month, with 39,000 of the park’s 42,000 acres burned. Most of the park is closed to assess the damage and keep visitors safe from hazardous trees and dangerous run-off from hills laid barren. Between getting a late start in the morning and the state of Whiskeytown, we decided instead to visit Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding. The museum was closed for the day, but the park had just enough to keep us occupied for an hour before we had to head down the I-5 back to Sacramento.
This turned out to be such a great trip. We saw some breathtakingly beautiful sights in the area and learned all about its volcanic history. The car ended up with over 900 miles on it by the time we returned to the airport in Sacramento, but each mile was well worth it!