A family road trip to Lake Tahoe, California
Frequent Flyer, travel writer and new mum - travel writer Helen Wright on the highs and lows of being a #travelmum on her year long adventures with her son Finn... and their first road trip
After a successful first long-haul flight with a baby in tow, we had finally landed in sunny California. Our first stop was Lake Tahoe, a famous US beauty spot with outdoor activities and fresh air aplenty. As a couple we’d travelled a lot before having Finn and roadtrips were our favourite type of holiday.
Our usual strategy was to jump in the car and cram in as many sights as possible, especially in the USA where wide roads and varied landscapes make the journey part of the fun. Over two-weeks we planned to spend time at Lake Tahoe and Mammoth Lakes as part of a 1000-mile round trip, which meant a lot of time in the car.
Not ideal with a baby, but we had a plan...
The first hurdle was getting Finn safely strapped in. Like many parents, I was shocked to discover our European-approved car seat could not be used in the USA so our options were to rent one from the car hire company ($140 / £107 for 14 days) or buy our own car seat ($85, £65).We opted for the latter and I’d pre-ordered a US-approved car seat from the Walmart closest to the airport. Once we’d collected our new bit of kid kit and made sure Finn was nice and snug, we were on the road.
Finn handled the first leg of the trip like a star and we arrived in Lake Tahoe to a bright blue sky and a view that didn’t disappoint. Sun glitter bounced off the lake in random spots as the wind nudged the clouds along. I was keen on taking Finn on as many activities as possible so our first stop was a hike above Tahoe South’s Emerald Bay and a climb to the rugged Eagle Falls.
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We were treated to a warm and sunny day at the lake’s edge but the higher we climbed, the beginnings of snow had begun to fall and we reached the peak to a flurry of delicate white powder. I admit I chickened out of carrying Finn in his carrier and assigned Simon the chief baby mover, but a recent caesarean section and a lifetime of clumsiness gave me license to pass the buck. There were points where we considered turning back and spending the afternoon by the hotel pool but the view was worth every step. At the top I was buzzing from the adrenalin of getting to experience a destination exactly how we would have before becoming parents, coupled with a rush of love for my future explorer as he snored happily against Simon’s chest.
Getting between destinations by car took longer than it would have before having a baby, as we had to schedule in stops for breastfeeding and letting Finn stretch out of his car seat. Where possible we timed the longer drives with his regular naps and when he did wake up, I hopped into the back of the car to entertain him until we found a good spot to stop and take a break. I’d been apprehensive about how the driving would be with a little one in the back but with a bit of planning and flexibility I discovered it was not only possible, but enjoyable too.
Tahoe North was equally as beautiful and we took advantage of the perfect weather to experience the lake first-hand. Taking it in turns to watch Finn in his pram, we took paddleboards out on the water. Sitting on my board and looking out at the 11-mile wide stretch of water I definitely found the peace and quiet I’d been searching for. With no noise, people, technology or baby gurgles, silence was the ultimate luxury and I took full advantage.
Back on the road we made our ascent to the mountain town of Mammoth, California. Tucked in the shadows of the mighty Mammoth Mountain this delightful town has coffee shops, craft breweries and gulps of fresh air to sit and breathe in. During ski season pro-skiers and snowboarders bring a flurry of activity to the slopes.
I’ve loved exploring with Finn so far but I admit I was initially frustrated Simon and I couldn’t tear down the mountain like a couple of fearless teenagers. My adventurous spirit hadn’t lessened since becoming a mummy but we weren’t quite up to tackling the mountain downhill with Finn just yet. Instead, we rode the gondola to the top and spent a few hours drinking hot chocolate and taking in the view. Finn giggled with delight as he got his first taste of real snow and that’s when I realised the pace may be slower now but the thrills are far greater.
THE PACK UP
The top three junior travel must-haves for a roadtrip:
THE LITTLE-PERSON SOUNDTRACK
As much as Simon and I would love to be cruising on the open road listening to our favourite tunes, if we wanted Finn to stay calm and entertained we had to have his favourite songs on standby. This album by CBeebies favourite, Andy Day and his bonkers band, proved a happy compromise. Kid-friendly rock songs, raps and catchy future-classics kept us ticking along. For longer drives, be prepared to hop in the back with your little one to provide human entertainment and ensure lots of stops to have a stretch and take in your surroundings.
The gloomy long-stay car park at the airport probably doesn’t scream SUN at you but once you’re off on your trip and things have brightened up you will probably need a sun shade or blind for your rental car. They aren’t provided so you will have to bring your own or buy one at your destination. These cool animal blinds roll up, making them portable and fun for your little one to stare at as you clock up the miles.
As much as it seems extra hassle to carry more toiletries in your already overloaded suitcase, some hotel-brand cosmetics may be harsh on your baby’s skin so it’s always wise to carry your regular baby soap and shampoo. We’ve used Burt’s Bees Baby Bee products on Finn since he was a newborn and have stuck with it because it smells delicious and is super gentle on sensitive skin. (Secret tip: Pick up what you can in the USA because it’s slightly cheaper there too!)
Perfect for sleeping through the night: In Lake Tahoe, we stayed at the family-friendly Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort As well as spacious rooms with fully-equipped kitchens, the resort has a private beach that overlooks the lake, free rental of kayaks and paddleboards and a pool to keep bigger kids entertained. The family-run hotel is the kind that welcomes the same guests back year after year and we felt totally at home. Once Finn was asleep, the peaceful sun deck and beautiful lake views made it a perfect spot to relax.
THE DREAM FEED
A baby-friendly place to grab a bite: Smoke yard Dubbed the ‘best BBQ in Mammoth’ and it got our vote too. A cosy bar/restaurant with a menu of delicious smoked meat and cheese, snacks and an extensive wine list, situated at the top of Mammoth Village. There is a decent kids menu too and outside seating with fire pits if the weather is on your side.
WHERE TO PLAY
Fun for little and big kids: Even if you’re not taking to the slopes on skis or snowboards, the Mammoth Mountain Gondola is on hand to carry you and the family to the top of the mountain for spectacular views and a chance to play in the thick snow. There is a restaurant and bar midway up and a ski school if your little ones fancy a lesson on the powder. Off-season, the mountain is a great area for hiking and biking with gentle hills and terrain for younger visitors. For more info go to Visit Mammoth
If you’ve got your own dribbling explorer in tow, follow our adventures here and if you’ve got any tips, tricks or advice to offer, drop me a line in the talkback comments section below. Just like skiing, my basic plan is to focus on where I’m going, stay on my feet and enjoy the ride.