The Budget Traveler's Guide to Disneyland
A theme park visit should be awesome. But it can also be long, expensive, and just a bit stressful. How can you make sure that, by the end of the day, “awesome” wins?
I spoke with Linda M., a member of the Disney Parks Moms Panel and a specialist in Disneyland, who knows the ultimate theme park inside and out. And, to make sure I brought back the very best editor-tested survive-and-thrive tips, I visited Disneyland with my wife and two daughters this past July (I know, it’s a tough job, but I took one for the BT team!). Here, the Budget Traveler’s ultimate guide to Disneyland.
“Booking a package is a great way to budget since you only have to pay $200 when you initially book your package,” suggests Linda M. “You can then make payments, in any amount and frequency that you choose, as long as your package is paid in full 30 days before your arrival date. I much prefer making small payments over time versus a lump sum all at once. Then, check the Offers & Discounts page of the Disneyland Resort Hotels website frequently.” Disneyland Resorts properties include Disneyland Hotel, Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, and Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel, and staying on the grounds provides the most convenient access to Disneyland, Disney California Adventure Park, and the restaurants and shops of Downtown Disney. “There are often new offers added for vacation packages throughout the year. If you book a package and a deal later becomes available that applies to your travel dates and accommodation type, you can usually apply that deal to your previously booked package to save some money.”
“Don’t miss out on freebies!” Linda M. reminds me. While Disneyland visitors must, of course, pay for admission, meals, and souvenirs, you should remember that the park does offer ample free stuff too. “Grab your complimentary 1st Visit, Birthday, or Celebration pins upon entering the parks,” suggests Linda M. “Walk through Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop and you’ll be handed a free chocolate square. Take the walkthrough Bakery Tour of the Boudin Bakery for your free sample of delicious sourdough bread. Bring your own autograph book to collect signatures from all the Disney friends you meet and you will have a free and unique souvenir to take home. And, of course, get those free cups of ice water at quick service restaurants when it’s time to hydrate.”
GET THE DISNEYLAND APP
“My best tip for first-timers is to download the official Disneyland app before you arrive,” suggests Linda M. “This will help give you a feel for how the parks are laid out as well as provide you with all sorts of tools to make your visit go as smoothly as possible. You can view attraction wait times, FASTPASS return times, locate your favorite characters, make dining reservations, and so much more. If it’s your kid’s first visit, get them involved in the planning process! My daughter is only 4 years old, but we love watching attractions and rides through videos online to get excited for an upcoming trip. Also, plan on getting a souvenir to commemorate their first visit. Mickey ears are a classic option, but something I always recommend to parents is to have your child’s silhouette done at the Silhouette Studio on Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland Park. These are so precious and will be a personalized keepsake of your visit that you’ll cherish for years.”
THE NIGHT BEFORE DISNEYLAND
Pack snacks, lunches, water, sunscreen, ibuprofen, adhesive bandage strips, and moist towelettes in a small backpack you either don’t mind carrying or that can fit inside a locker. (And, especially if you’re traveling with a multigenerational brood, remember to pack any needed medications.)
MORNING AT DISNEYLAND
Layer up. Wear layers and comfortable walking shoes and bring hats and UV-protective sunglasses. Morning and evening in Anaheim may be chilly any time of year, but it’ll almost always warm up considerably by afternoon.
Get early access. Arrive a half-hour before opening, leaving time for parking and to get a jump on some of the most popular rides, such as Star Tours, the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, and, for the younger visitors, Peter Pan’s Ride. Linda M. says, “Guests staying off-site who purchase three-day or longer theme park tickets have one Magic Morning entitlement (admission one full hour before the parks open to the general public) at Disneyland Park on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday. Those staying at a Disneyland Resort Hotel have Extra Magic Hour every day of their stay, including exclusive access to Disney California Adventure Park one hour early on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. We find these early hours to be invaluable as the crowds and temperatures are always low!”
Prepare your kids' for safety and comfort. If you’re visiting with children, photograph them that morning so that, in the unlikely event that you get separated, you can show park employees exactly what your child looks like that day. Linda M. also suggests, “Come up with a meeting place, such as The Partners Statue (of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse), in the area in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, or the flag pole in Town Square. Or, tell small children that if they are lost they should find a costumed Cast Member, who will escort the child to a Baby Care Center where they will be looked after until the parents can be located.”
Book breakfast with a Disney character. Do you think your child would enjoy having breakfast with a princess? “Breakfast is the most widely available option,” says Linda M., “with character meals taking place in all three Disneyland Resort Hotels, as well as Ariel’s Grotto in Disney California Adventure Park, and my personal favorite, the Plaza Inn in Disneyland Park. Each meal features a slightly different character line up from princesses to Mickey and his pals. These meals are popular, so it’s important to plan ahead. Reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance online or by calling (714) 781-3463.”
Maximize your time with MaxPass. The best way to see “everything” is to tour the park as efficiently as possible. The new edition of Disney MaxPass takes that to a whole new level. Linda M. notes, “Now you can obtain a FASTPASS for an attraction from anywhere in the park. Plus, if you have a Park Hopper ticket, you can select a FASTPASS for an attraction in Disneyland Park while you are in Disney California Adventure Park. Talk about a time saver! One tip that applies to MaxPass and using the regular FASTPASS system: always be aware of the time when you can obtain your next FASTPASS. This time is clearly printed on your paper FASTPASS reminder ticket or on the Disneyland app. Once you are able to pull another FASTPASS, I suggest you do so immediately. This will save you time and allow you to maximize the number of attractions you can ride throughout the day.”
MEALS AT DISNEYLAND
On our July visit to Disneyland, my family and I packed snacks and a light lunch, and grabbed a nice off-hours meal (around 4p.m.) at the Mexican cantina in Frontierland, which, on the day of our visit, was the least crowded of the park’s lands. “I’m not sure if Frontierland is regularly less crowded,” says Linda M., “but I like the strategy of eating at non-peak meal times. This is always a great idea to ensure you aren’t fighting the masses. I also suggest that people scope out restaurants for seating areas that might not be immediately in the line of sight. Many eateries are larger than what they seem and sometimes you can secure a secluded and quiet table if you just venture around the corner or go upstairs. My favorite is Flo’s V8 Café in Cars Land in Disney California Adventure Park. Not only is the food incredible at this quick service option, but there is seating around back that is hardly ever crowded. Plus, when you eat back there you have an amazing view of cars racing by on Radiator Springs Racers.”
AFTERNOON AT DISNEYLAND
Look for “Hidden Mickeys.” The night before my family's visit to Disneyland, our cousin Dominic reminded us to keep an eye out for the “Hidden Mickeys” that take many forms in many places around the park. Linda M. shares Dominic’s enthusiasm: “Hidden Mickeys are everywhere and my daughter always delights in finding them around the parks! There are even guide books you can buy that point out all the different hidden Mickeys at the Disney Parks. My suggestion is to look closely at anything and everything that is circular in shape/design. More often than not, a few of those circles will form a Mickey. My favorite hidden Mickey is in the dining room scene of Haunted Mansion. Take a close look at the plates on the table the next time you take a ride on a Doom Buggy!”
Savor Disney history. Sure, you’ll love the thrill rides like Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, and Indiana Jones, but don’t forget to immerse yourself in some of the park’s history and classic mid-century kitsch. My family loved the Dumbo ride, the Enchanted Tiki Room (where audioanimatronic tropical birds croon), the iconic Snow White wishing well beside Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and, of course, Main Street. “My daughter happens to love just about every attraction at the Disneyland Resort,” says Linda M.. “Some of the classics like It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean are among her favorites. She doesn’t realize the history behind them, she just marvels in the Disney magic that is presented around every turn in these attractions. The history at Disneyland is one of the things that makes it special. After all, here, you can walk where Walt walked. You can order some of Walt’s favorite dishes at restaurants, ride attractions today that originally opened with the park in 1955, and marvel at all the joy and magic that this place still holds.”
Take a break. It may seem counterintuitive, considering how much time and money you’ve invested in your Disneyland visit, but taking a break midday is one of the best survive-and-thrive theme park strategies. “Absolutely!” agrees Linda M. “Taking midday breaks is a necessity for our family! As I mentioned before, we like to start early – sometimes as early as 7:00 a.m. So by the afternoon we are ready for a nap or some relaxing in the pool. After a short respite, we are usually ready to head back to the parks for dinner and nighttime entertainment. Additionally, we always stay at one of the three Disneyland Resort Hotels which means heading back to the room for a break couldn’t be easier – each hotel is just a short walk from the parks. The close proximity of everything at the Disneyland Resort makes visiting so easy and relaxed and I think this could be my favorite aspect of vacationing here.”
EVENING AT DISNEYLAND
Stay for the fireworks. We enjoyed the nightly fireworks display, Fantasmic, from a table near Space Mountain, which at that hour was not too crowded. Linda M. notes that viewing the fireworks is not much of a challenge from just about anywhere in the park. “There are actually lots of interesting places the catch the fireworks. If you are watching the early show of Fantasmic!, you can stay where you are and watch the fireworks that happen almost immediately afterward from that spot. There is also this new dining option called the Tomorrowland Skyline Lounge Experience where you get to enjoy a little box of treats and a beverage on the balcony lounge of the Tomorrowland Expo Center. So on nights when fireworks are presented, you have an excellent, elevated view from this exclusive area. If you are staying at a Disneyland Resort Hotel, it’s possible to score a room with a view of the fireworks or if you are enjoying a meal at Catal or Tortilla Jo’s in the Downtown Disney District, the fireworks can be partially seen from those patios."
Enjoy short (or nonexistent) late-night lines at popular rides. "Experiencing short queues late at night is pretty normal," says Linda M., "but something most younger families aren’t able to take advantage of. For those with older kids who would love nothing more than to stay up late, this could be a really effective strategy. After (or even during) the fireworks, most families will exit the park. But if you are able to stay until closing time, you will be able to walk right in to a lot of attractions.”
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Thanks to ripstop nylon encasing 600-fill goose down, it’ll keep you toasty, and it’s machine washable and dryer friendly, so they'll have no problem rinsing away those plane pathogens once they're back on solid ground.Puffy Down Blanket in Fractal, $199; rumpl.com. 2. Travel Light (Courtesy Patagonia) We’re big fans of a hands-free bag, both for travel and for the everyday, so we were psyched to discover this tough little ripstop number from Patagonia. At just seven inches long by five inches high, it’s already impressively tiny, but it also folds away into its own case, which makes it a great choice for an already overcrowded suitcase. Even better, the case itself turns into an internal, zippered pocket when the pack's being used, so your valuables will stay protected when you're on the go. Add to that its vibrant blue hue, and you've got a real crowd-pleaser on your hands. Lightweight Travel Mini Hip Pack in Balkan Blue, $29; patagonia.com. 3. Guard The Digits (Courtesy cable-bite.com) In the grand scheme of things, a frayed cord may not seem like much more than a petty irritant, but exposed wires on phone chargers can be a dangerous proposition, causing minor shocks and even, in the extremely rare case, death by electrocution. These fun iPhone cable bites will protect your screen junkie and provide some cuteness at the same time, and they're just a few bucks a pop. Choose their favorite animal (we’re partial to the penguins ourselves), or grab a set and let them change things up as the mood strikes.Dreams Cable Bites, from $3; amazon.com. 4. Keep It Moving (Courtesy Jabra) For that traveler who’s looking to shut out the noise of the world, give them the gift of solitude—and good sound. Jabra’s wireless on-ear headphones have a slimmer profile than bulkier over-ear alternatives; they’re adjustable, but they best fit those with smaller heads (we found they don’t pinch at all, even when wearing earrings). They’ll keep the music going for eight hours at a trot, and they come with a cord so you can plug in and keep listening even if your playlist lasts longer than the charge. The Bluetooth pairs quickly and easily, the microphone works well for taking calls, and though they’re not technically noise-cancelling, the headphones do block out quite a lot of commotion. Most important? They produce remarkably robust, well-rounded tones—especially considering the affordable price point. Jabra Move Wireless Headphones, $50 (discounted through 1/5/19; regularly $100); amazon.com. 5. Protect Those Peepers (Courtesy Sunski) What’s a selfie without a set of shades? This pair from Sunski has frosted, translucent frames and polarized, mirrored lenses for a standout look, and they're feather-light and comfortable to boot. Like the rest of the brand’s offerings, they come with a lifetime warranty—a strong selling point if you’re shopping for someone who isn’t particularly precious about their eyewear—and the company donates one percent of its sales to environmental nonprofits, so it’s a win-win for anyone with a green streak.Dipsea polarized sunglasses in frosted sky, $58; sunski.com. 6. Provide Instant Gratification (Courtesy FUJIFILM INSTAX®) In these digital times, there's little more appealing than the tactile pleasure of a physical photo, and when you factor in the immediacy of an instant print, you can't go wrong. Even the most jaded teen will get a kick out of Fujifilm’s latest Instax model, a chunky camera that produces square images ready-made for Instagram—once they're scanned in, of course. They can mess around in double-exposure mode, experiment with macro and landscape settings, adjust the light levels, and play with color via the filters that pop onto the flash and add a tint to the scene. But our favorite feature is the selfie mirror, right next to the lens. All they have to do is make sure they're in the frame, click away, and the camera handles the rest. (PS: It's really popular at parties too.)Instax Square SQ6, $130; fujifilm.com. 7. Teach Them About Beauty Sleep (Courtesy Oliver Bonas) It’s a lesson best learned at a young age: If you have trouble getting a good night’s sleep on the road, an eye mask is your best friend. This one is super-fun, a playful wink to emoji culture wrapped in a fuzzy faux-fur hug. Lined with cool satin and finished with a ruched band to keep it in place without pulling hair, it’ll help them get through that first red-eye like a champ.Faux Fur Eyes eye mask, $19; oliverbonas.com. 8. Grow Their Library (Courtesy Amazon) Bountiful reading material in one slender device: What’s not to love? Amazon’s new Kindle Paperwhite offers 8 GB of storage (double the memory of previous versions), a 300-ppi glare-resistant screen, and WiFi connectivity to download on the go—great for folks who get itchy when they don’t have a book on hand. This version is Bluetooth-enabled, so they can sync to an Audible account and listen instead, and it’s waterproof in six-plus feet of water for up to an hour, so they won’t have to stress over the odd poolside splash. Naturally, it comes with access to a huge collection of titles, including magazines, comics, and newspapers, but they can also borrow Kindle-compatible e-books from the library for even more budget-friendly reads.Kindle Paperwhite, $130; amazon.com. 9. Pack in Style (Courtesy ban.do) Form over function? Not so fast. Yes, this coated-canvas toiletries bag from ban.do is adorably logoed, but it also has plenty of pockets—inside, a clear PVC zippered pouch and two mesh pockets; outside, one big pocket on the back—so everything they pack will have its place, even when they’re stuck in coach. All set on the toiletries front? The youthful brand carries an array of similarly smart travel gear, from planners to passport covers to luggage tags to eye masks, so you’re bound to find something for them here.First Class Getaway Toiletries Bag, $15; bando.com.
10 American Fall Festivals Every Traveler Should Experience
Sweater weather is finally here, time for apple picking, pumpkin carving and wandering through corn mazes — welcome to fall festival season. Here are our 10 picks for the best ones around the U.S. 1. THE GREAT JACK O’LANTERN BLAZE Croton-on-Hudson, NY September 28-November 24, 2018; $27 adults, $20 children; hudsonvalley.org More than 7,000 wickedly designed, hand-carved pumpkins light up the grounds of Van Cortlandt Manor, a historic estate just outside New York City. Stroll through a stunning maze of Insta-worthy pumpkin art: intricate spider webs, flying ghosts and creepy skeletons, and of course the Headless Horseman. This year’s festival pays tribute to Ichabod Crane’s Sleepy Hollow and features a Medieval Castle, the Pumpkin Zee Bridge and a pumpkin carousel. Make sure to grab a fall treat: Apple cider donuts, fresh popcorn and pumpkin beer are for sale. 2. FALL FEST AT LINCOLN PARK ZOO Chicago Weekends, September 28-October 28 and October 8; free admission; lpzoo.org Get wild with the animals as the Lincoln Park Zoo gets the fall treatment with activities throughout the park including a pumpkin patch, corn maze, and pumpkin carving. Kids can tackle the bouncy houses, ride the Ferris wheel and the tractor-themed carousel, or take on the giant burlap slide. Join the Halloween festivities at the Annual Spooky Zoo Spectacular on October 28 with trick or treating, a haunted house, and arts-and-crafts. 3. DIA DE LOS MUERTOS (DAY OF THE DEAD) Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles October 26-27, $25; ladayofthedead.com This fall holiday, with its traditional colorful skulls and white faces, is often confused for Mexican Halloween. Instead, it’s a celebration of friends and family who have died, with festivities held in a cemetery. This year’s gathering honors Coatlicue, the Aztec mother of the gods, with traditional Aztec blessings, ritual dancers in full costume, music, and theatrical performances. Check out more than 100 altars created by the local community on display, the art exhibition, and the arts and crafts for sale. 4. OKTOBERFEST New Orleans October 5-6, 12-13, 19-20; $8; deutscheshaus.org NOLA is a city that likes to party, so it’s no surprise that their Oktoberfest is wunderbar. Feast on traditional German food including brats, schnitzel, Bavarian pretzels, or try one of 20 German beers and schnapps. Then get your groove on with traditional Oompa music and some good old-fashioned chicken dancing. Dachshund races and a schnauzer parade and costume contest are adorable must-sees. 5. HARVEST FESTIVAL AT EL RANCHO DE LAS GOLONDRINAS 334 Los Pinos Road, Santa Fe, NM October 6-7; $8; golondrinas.org Called the “Williamsburg of the South,” this 200-acre living history museum dedicated to the history of 18th- and 19th-century New Mexico offers a hands-on fall fiesta, Southwest-style. Join villagers dressed in period clothing as you stomp grapes for wine or press apples for cider, string chile ristras and roll handmade tortillas. There’s also pumpkin picking, mule-drawn wagon rides, traditional music and dance, and a market offering New Mexican crafts. 6. SCARECROW HARVEST Milton Ave, Alpharetta, GA September 29; free admission; alpharetta.ga.us The scarecrow gets major props in this Atlanta suburb when more than 120 of the colorful, life-size strawmen line the downtown streets. Pose with your favorite bird scarer, created by local students, businesses, and families, then boogie to live country music, chow down on barbecue, and let the kids enjoy the hayrides, bouncy houses, face painting, and storytelling. 7. AUTUMN AT THE ARBORETUM Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, Dallas September 22-October 21, 2018; $15; dallasarboretum.org Pumpkins, pumpkins everywhere — an astounding 90,000 of them — make up the amazing Peter Pan-themed village at the Arboretum. Pumpkin-created scenes include Tinker Bell’s home, the house of the Darlings, the Lost Boys’ hideout, and Captain Hook’s pirate ship. Don’t miss the Halloween bash on October 27-28 with trick-or-treating, face painting, a petting zoo, and appearances by the Neverland characters. 8. NATIONAL APPLE HARVEST FESTIVAL Arendtsville, PA October 6-7, 13-14, 2018, $10; appleharvest.com Just outside Gettysburg is Pennsylvania apple country, where more than 35 varieties of the fruit are grown. Sample as many as you can at this sweet festival, plus cider, apple sauces, jellies, pies, pancakes, sweets, and more. Tour the orchards, then check out more than 300 crafts vendors and the antique car and steam engine collection. There’s also live music and dancing, hay rides, a petting zoo, and pony rides. 9. SNALLYGASTER BEASTLY BEER JAMBOREE Washington, D.C. October 13, 2018; $40; snallygasterdc.com Cheers to beers! Lift up your glass as 120 of the world’s best breweries serve up more than 350 small-batch craft beers and ciders, including American and international brews, cask ales and Franconian lager, locally brewed beers, and more. Bring the kids: This is a family event with live music and food trucks plus face painting, temporary tattoos, and games. Proceeds from the event help support Arcadia, a nonprofit dedicated to creating a local food system in the D.C. area. 10. THE GREAT MISSISSIPPI RIVER BALLOON RACE Natchez, MS October 19-21, 2018, $35 for the full event; natchezballoonrace.com From the grounds of a historic Antebellum home, more than 60 colorful hot air balloons take to the skies over a beautiful backdrop of the Mississippi River. Brave souls can go for a short ride, the rest of us can watch one of the daily races from the ground. Enjoy live music, Southern craft brews, carnival rides and games, arts and crafts, and German-style food.
As a child, I looked forward to flying alone from Florida to New York for the summer. It meant a few blissful weeks spent with cousins I rarely saw, and precious time with my grandparents, who I knew would be waiting for me at the gate. This year, I put my own children, ages 6 and 9, on a plane by themselves to see their grandparents. Getting them on the two-hour flight was relatively easy; waiting for them to land took a bigger toll on my nerves. But they arrived safely, and yours will too. Here’s what to expect when your child is flying alone domestically: WHO’S A “MINOR”? Airlines generally consider a minor to be between the ages of 5 and 14. Some airlines, like Southwest and Alaska, cap the age at 12, but you can request and pay for unaccompanied minor status for your older child regardless. SOLO FLIGHTS FOR KIDS ARE PRICIER That solo flight is not cheap. Every airline adds a surcharge. Some are relatively small: Southwest charges $50 per flight, per child, or $100 round trip. JetBlue’s program costs $100 per child, per flight, or $200 round trip. EACH AIRLINE HAS A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT POLICY You will book the flight differently on all airlines. Delta is unique in that you book the flight by phone using their Unaccompanied Minor phone line, which adds a level of comfort knowing there is a dedicated support staff for your questions. Most other airlines allow you to book the flight online; you just indicate the child is flying alone when prompted for the status of the passenger (adult or child) or when prompted for the passenger’s birthday. AIRLINES DO THEIR BEST TO KEEP YOUR KID SAFE You tell the airline in advance who will be dropping off and picking up your child, and ticketing agents ID the designated adult on both ends to let them through security and to the gate. (Unfortunately, they often only let one adult through.) The airlines will also give your child a bracelet or lanyard to indicate they’re unaccompanied, along with an envelope with their flight details. The flight crew typically places unaccompanied minors in the front of the plane to keep an eye on them, but prepare your child to be on his or her own during the flight and to go to by alone to the bathroom or ask for help if needed. A WELL-PACKED CARRY-ON WILL KEEP YOUR KID HAPPY Pack books and games to keep your child occupied and happy, and if you’re sending them with a tablet, charge it and/or pack a charged external battery. Buy food at the airport in case there is no substantial meal on the flight. Be sure to point out where they should place their envelope with all of their flight details, and include a list of important phone numbers just in case. And show them what’s in their carry-on before you say goodbye. BE PREPARED FOR A LONG TRAVEL DAY It will take a lot of time. You and the adult on the other end will be meeting your child at the gate, which means you’ll have to go through security both times. On the departure end, you’ll arrive at least an hour before just as if you were flying and you’ll need to stay until the plane is in the air, so don’t expect a quick goodbye. On the arrival end, allow at least 30 minutes to park and get to the gate, more if you’re in a major airport. CHECK THE FLIGHT ARRIVAL BOARD OFTEN Arrival gates change, and you could be waiting at the wrong one when your child deplanes. SOME INTERNATIONAL AND CONNECTING FLIGHTS DON’T ALLOW SOLO KIDS Each airline treats these cases a bit differently, so read each airline’s FAQs carefully. DON’T DOWNPLAY THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT OF SAYING GOODBYE Letting your child fly alone might be harder than you imagined. My daughter clung to me before her flight, my son didn’t even wave goodbye. And until they landed safely, my stomach was in knots because my most precious cargo was out of my hands, high in the air. It can be terrifying if you think of it this way. So try not to. Send them to the family members they rarely see. You’ll be forging lasting memories—and an early sense of independence. LEARN MORE Visit each of the major U.S. airlines’ websites for more information on their unaccompanied minor programs.
Baby's First California Road Trip
From miles of sand in the south to rocky coastal cliffs in the north, from the highest point in the continental United States to the lowest point in North America, California is the go-to place for adventure seekers and laid-back vacationers alike, no matter the season. But it was the wintertime that called me, a time when I could indulge my kind of adventure: desert camping. California has three main deserts: the Colorado, The Great Basin, and the Mojave. While winter nights in the desert can certainly be cold and windy, daytime temperatures are perfect for hiking and exploring the varying environments: sand dunes to high mountain peaks; bouldering to hot springs soaking. Oh, and one more thing you should know: My husband and I went camping in the California desert with our eight-month-old daughter. THE PLAN: HITTING THE CALIFORNIA ROAD Seven years ago, I hiked and camped around the US for a couple months with my then fiancé, Will, and one of our stops included Death Valley. It was September and the heat was intense enough to keep us from exploring much. We spent one night in our underwear out under the stars, drinking whiskey and playing card games well into the morning hours. Leaving before the sun was too hot and stopping along the way at Badwater Basin and the Devil’s Golf Course, we vowed to come back in December one year for Will’s birthday. We spent less than 24 hours in Death Valley, and yet it has remained ingrained in our souls; it's a place that inspires and sits with you. Seven years, a marriage, and a baby, later, I bought us plane tickets on a whim and decided to surprise Will for his birthday. Although he’s an outdoorsy type who loves to travel, I knew that if I presented the idea of this trip, he'd say no and give me a variety of valid reasons. None of them would be enough to sway me. I didn't say a word until two weeks before we left. Excitement got the best of me and I let it slip. And so there we were, with our atlas laid out on the kitchen table, planning the route. We'd spend a night in Vegas, and then make our way to Death Valley. From there, we'd drive to the Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park, and finally the Imperial Sand Dunes at the very bottom of California. I found a small start-up company in Las Vegas that rents camping gear, Basecamp Outdoor Gear. We anxiously marked off days, itching to get out there and explore. On a chilly December night, we met Basecamp’s owners, Joy and Niko, in a parking lot at the Excalibur. They brought to us two bins of supplies: a tent, sleeping bags and pads, chairs, a stove, backpacks, and headlamps. We felt adventurous; we imagined ourselves seasoned parents, ready to take it on. In truth, we had no idea what would happen. Eve, our eight-month-old daughter, slept about an hour in the last 21. She’s used to her nighttime routine: a bath and a massage with oils, followed by stories and rocking and a gentle drift-off into sleep, all beginning promptly at 6PM. She thrives on that routine, yet here we were, meeting strangers in a dark parking garage at 10:30PM local time. Routine? Nope. Winging it? Yep. FIRST STOP: DEATH VALLEY After a night of fitful sleep in a hotel that houses a casino full of drunken gamblers, we fueled up and hit the road. First stop: our beloved Death Valley. While Eve slept soundly in her carseat, we entered the park by way of Death Valley Junction, and took our time descending into the valley, stopping to feed Eve with a view of Telescope Peak, which at 11,043 feet is the highest point in Death Valley. We set off exploring until the sun set in rays of pinks and oranges across the valley floor and arrived at our camping spot just as the full moon rose. It was chilly, but we were bundled up and happy. After tucking Eve into her sleeping bag, I joined Will outside and we chatted about how easygoing Eve was just two days in, despite the change in her routine. Things were good. The wind proved to be unsparing, and we spent that first night shielding Eve from the sand. We awoke with our faces rimmed in dust, our nostrils caked and tongues gritty, but Eve was smiling and unfazed, and so off we set to hike the sand dunes at sunrise. In all, we spent three days exploring and hiking, before taking a slow, meandering route southeast to the Mojave Preserve. WHAT TO KNOW: Entrance fee to Death Valley is $25. Have a few days? Drive through the park in sections, stopping at every drive and hike available off the main roads. Dante's View is especially exceptional; there's a hiking trail from the parking lot and unparalleled views of the valley floor 5,475 feet below. There are camping grounds and four lodging options within the park. We stayed at Stovepipe Wells campgrounds ($14) for its proximity to the sand dunes, but there are eight other designated campgrounds. NEXT STOP: MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE Driving around this area allows one to fully comprehend the enormity of California. You can drive for hours and nothing changes; the expansive landscape makes you feel small in the way that only nature does and can. When we arrived at the Mojave in the early afternoon, the sun was descending, casting long shadows of the joshua trees, juniper, mesquite and cacti. We camped under a still very full moon and hiked around the Kelso Dunes the next morning. Eve was already a road trip pro. She slept soundly through the night (a first) and was perfectly content on the road, but she was happiest in the carrier, peeking over our shoulders and taking in the desert landscape. WHAT TO KNOW: Hole in the Wall campground ($12): Bring your own water and be prepared for nighttime wind. Leave time to explore the nearby Kelso Dunes and Kelso Ghost Town. Hikes like Teutonia Peak (elevation 5,754 feet) passes through the world's densest Joshua Tree forest. If you’re just passing through, consider driving the I-15 Scenic Detour, where you’ll pass cinder cones and lava flows on your way to the Kelso Dunes. If you’re staying a few days, there are 13 designated hiking trails to choose from, varying in length and intensity. THIRD STOP: JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK We hadn’t given Joshua Tree much thought before our trip, even though we hadn’t been there before. We weren’t planning to stay longer than a day, and we definitely were not prepared for how much we'd both love it. In contrast to Death Valley, the largest national park in the continental US, this park is very manageable. We stayed two days, taking turns carrying Eve on our back while hiking, rock scrambling, and roaming around larger-than-life rock piles scattered throughout the park. Eve continued to be an incredible first-time adventure buddy, even getting excited when we’d pull out the carrier. Planning her naps was easy, as she’d sleep in the carrier or car. Yes, our first road trip may have been simpler without the responsibility of parenting, but the differences in the two trips were actually negligible. My twenty-something self might have been bored at the idea of taking a baby on a road trip, but thirty-something, new-parent me thoroughly enjoyed it. A sucker for a good ruin, we ventured to the old Ryan ranch and imagined what it must have been like to be a settler. We camped at Jumbo Rocks ($15 per night), adjacent to Skull Rock Trail, an easy loop trail that meanders through boulder canyons and lined with jojoba, mesquite and other hardy desert plants. The trail showcases the geological marvel that is Joshua Tree National Park, a parcel of land two billion years in the making. One night while Eve was sleeping, Will and I scrambled up an enormous boulder that abutted our tent, listening as the moonlit desert came alive. WHAT TO KNOW: Entrance fee is $25. There are eight campgrounds. Some, like Jumbo Rocks, are first come, first serve. Make sure to check out the Cholla Cactus Garden, an otherworldly gathering of cholla cactus. Joshua Tree has a number of great hikes and bouldering and rock climbing opportunities. Make time to hike Ryan Mountain (elevation 5,457 ft), and if you are strapped on time, venture to the top of Keys View for equally unparalleled views of Coachella Valley and the Santa Rosa mountains. LAST STOP: IMPERIAL SAND DUNES From Joshua Tree, we meandered down Highway 111, past the Salton Sea and on toward the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreational Area. Hiking in the sand is a good workout; it's akin to moving in deep snow, and after three hours in the car, it felt good to move. At the top of our chosen sand dune, we were rewarded with a spectacular mid-day view: shadowed peaks against bright walls of sand stretched out before us. There were no trees and seemingly no animals. We were alone. Voices became muted, and the sun was unyielding and harsh. It’s an experience hard to come at home in New England, and we relished in it. WHAT TO KNOW: The Imperial Sand Dunes aren't limited to hikes. There are ATV, dune buggy, and dirt bike rentals in Yuma, Arizona and Ocotillo, California. A number of films were made here, including "The Return of the Jedi," "Jarhead," and "The Men Who Stare at Goats," and it's easy to see why: walking around under the desert sun felt uncannily like a movie set. There are camping areas that are free as part of the Bureau of Land Management (public land). Bring your own water, campgrounds are primitive. There are also multiple campsites on Gecko Road, off of Highway 78. ON THE ROAD AGAIN, AGAIN We had planned on staying the night there, but the road trip bug bit us, so we loaded up and turned east toward Arizona. Our previous road trip was life-changing; it set a course of adventure for our relationship. Having a baby with us this go-around was simple, and felt remarkably like it had the first time. Later, when we pulled into the Grand Canyon, I glanced over at Will who was on his phone. He was switching between two browsers, one site for seasonal jobs and the other for used campervans. I smiled; I had kept this trip a secret so he wouldn’t find reasons to say no. Now, here he was actively figuring out how we could make this a lifestyle. The open road does things to you; for Will, it gives him a freedom and happiness he doesn’t feel anywhere else, and Eve’s squeals of delight in the backseat let me know she was happiest out here, too. It’s the same for me. This trip was meant as a birthday surprise, but as road trips usually do, it turned into something more: an affirmation of sorts, on how we wanted to live our lives and raise our daughter. This trip may have been a short ten days, but if our previous experience taught us anything, it will have a lasting impact. Who knows, we just might even find ourselves out here again, indefinitely.