Travel – Disneyland (Part Four)

In this next installation of the five part Disneyland series I will discuss New Orleans Square and Critter Country which are two “lands” that were added several years after the park originally opened in 1955.  New Orleans Square is a lively and festive area located on the banks of the Rivers of America where two of the most popular rides, the Haunted Mansion and the Pirates of the Caribbean attractions in Disneyland can be found, while in Critter Country there is the exciting thrill ride, Splash Mountain.

New Orleans Square

New Orleans Square opened in 1966 and was part of Walt’s idea that Disneyland would always be forever changing and growing with new attractions.  At the dedication ceremony, Walt joked that creating New Orleans Square cost almost as much as the original price of the Louisiana Purchase but sadly this occasion was the last public appearance by Walt before he died in December 1966.  The almost three acre area located adjacent to Frontierland cost an estimated $18 million to complete and the design and architecture was inspired by the antebellum era of New Orleans with its classic ironwork and narrow streets filled with restaurants offering delicious creole food and small little shops selling all kinds of souvenirs.  Located on the second floor over the Pirates of the Caribbean show building there was once a large apartment that was built for the Disney family, look for the initials of both Walt and Roy Disney in the intricate ironwork on the balcony overhead.  Since that time, it has been used as the Disney Gallery store which also featured various ongoing exhibits of Disneyland and this area is currently available to special guests as the only “overnight” accommodations within the park; it is known as the Disneyland Dream Suite.

Orleans Street Jan 2002    Court of Angels Aug 2008 2
Le Bat en Rouge Aug 2006    L'Ornement Magique 1999

The next two photos are of the exclusive Disneyland Dream Suite

Dream Suite Jan 2008 2a    Dream Suite Master bedroom Jan 2008

The first attraction that guests will see upon entering New Orleans Square is the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, it was the last ride that Walt personally oversaw the development and construction and the attraction opened in 1967 three months after his death.  Pirates is a dark ride where guests ride boats through various scenes that feature a band of pirates that pillage and loot their way through small towns of the Caribbean while singing the attractions famous song, “Yo Ho, a Pirates life for Me”.  With success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie series, in 2006 the character of Jack Sparrow was added to several scenes within the attraction, the audio-animatronic figure is very realistic and a perfect likeness to the character as played by Johnny Depp in the films.  Also if you have any pirates or wenches in your group while visiting the park, don’t forget to check out the 2007 refurbished of Tom Sawyer Island which is now the current location known as the Pirate Lair.  (Travel tips: #1. Located on the path from Adventureland into New Orleans Square, look for Lafitte’s anchor, which has infamously been said to be the one used on his pirate ship in the Battle of New Orleans, but this could be one of those urban rumors!! #2. While in the boarding area of the ride, look for the sign overhead that reads “Lafitte’s Landing” which is also a reference to the famous pirate, Jean Lafitte, that once roamed the Caribbean.  #3. Located in the interior of the Pirates attraction is the adjacent Blue Bayou restaurant which is famous for their Monte Cristo sandwiches, be sure to make a reservation for this popular Disneyland restaurant prior to your visit through the Disneyland Resort Reservations line which can be reached at 714-781-3463 and reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance of a visit)  For more detailed information about the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, please click on the link.

Pirates entrance 1999

002 - Pirates of the Caribbean    003 - Pirates of the Caribbean - jail scene

Haunted Mansion exterior 100

Located on the other side of the Disneyland Railroad New Orleans Station is the Haunted Mansion attraction, one of the most popular rides in Disneyland and features a ride on the patented Omnimover vehicles, also known as “Doom Buggies”, which take guests through a not-so-spooky haunted house filled with audio-animatronic ghosts and a variety of other special effects.  (For more detailed information on this New Orleans attraction, please click on the link, Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, which was originally posted in October 2013)

Critter Country sign

Critter Country

Critter Country is located in the area of Disneyland that was formerly a part of the old Frontierland called Indian Village. The Indian Village was originally the site inspired by the Native Americans culture of the old western frontier and where there were daily demonstrations of their dances and other customs; it was also the original site of an attraction called the Indian War Canoes.  Indian Village closed in 1971, refurbished and expanded into a new re-themed four acre area that reopened in 1972 as Bear Country.  The Country Bear Jamboree became the main attraction in this area of the park and featured audio-animatronic bears and other animals that put on a fun musical show.  Also located to this new section of the park were the new Hungry Bear Restaurant and the renamed Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes.  In 1988, Bear Country was renamed Critter Country and a year later Splash Mountain opened and instantly became one of Disneyland’s most popular thrill rides.  Eventually the Country Bear Jamboree closed in 2001 and was replaced two years later by a new attraction called the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

Indian Village

Country Bear exterior    Country Bear interior

As previously mentioned, the Davy Crockett Explorer Canoes were originally located in the old Frontierland Indian Village.  The 35 foot long canoes hold up to twenty guests, not including the two cast member guides at the front and the back of the boat.  The ride takes guests on a circular route that travels 2,400 around Tom Sawyer Island and, since the canoes are free-floating in the Rivers of America, the length of the trip depends on how fast the guests can paddle, the attraction operates seasonally and shuts down with inclement weather and also does not run at night.

Splash Mountain opened in 1989 and is based on the 1946 Disney film “Song of the South”.  As the $75 million cost of the attraction’s construction went severely over budget, there was an idea presented at that time to refurbish the characters from the recently closed America Sings attraction in Tomorrowland.  Splash Mountain takes guests on an fun ride in flume logs as they gently float past several scenes recreated from the movie, the basic storyline is that Brer Rabbit is on a search for his special “laughing place” but encounters some trouble from Brer Fox and Brer Bear along his journey, until the exciting 53 foot steep drop that takes guests into the briar patch and concludes with a final scene of all the audio-animatronic characters singing the song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” in celebration that Brer Rabbit is safe!  (Travel tip: Located on the ride, shortly before entering the interior scenes of the attraction, listen closely for the sounds of snoring coming from Brer Bear’s cave, this is a tribute to the original entrance to the old Bear Country that had a bear named Rufus also snoring in his cave)

Splash Mountain exterior    Splash Mountain interior 1

Splash Mountain Brer Bear house May 2007

The most recent attractions added to Critter Country is The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ride which opened in 2003.  The Disney Studios has made several animated films based on the series of books by A.A. Milne about Winnie the Pooh and his friends from the Hundred Acre Woods and the ride features various scenes from the stories with colorful audio-animatronics and other delightful sights and sounds.  During the 1983 Fantasyland major refurbishment there was briefly a proposed Winnie the Pooh ride but it was never built and the attraction was eventually placed in Critter Country on the site of the former Country Bear Jamboree which closed in 2001.  Located just outside of the attraction, the Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore and Tigger characters are usually available to greet guests, take photos and give autographs, but be prepared because the line is usually long and very slow moving.  (Travel tips:  Look for the figure of Winnie the Pooh floating up and down attached to the string of a balloon, this mechanism at one time lowered “Teddi Barra” from the ceiling in the old Counrty Bear Jamboree attraction.  Also when entering the final scene of the ride, look backwards and over the doorway the vehicle just passed through are the three “trophy” heads of Max the buck, Buff the buffalo and Melvin the moose that were once used in the Country Bear Jamboree that were placed there as a tribute to the former attraction)

Winnie the pooh exterior    The Many Adventures of Winnie the P

Pooh ride 1000

This post completes the tours of New Orleans Square and Critter Country but be sure to check out the four additional posts in the Disneyland series.  Part One – The history of DisneylandPart Two – Main Street and Fantasyland, Part Three – Adventureland and Frontierland, Part Five – Tomorrowland and Mickey’s Toontown.

Travel – Disneyland (Part One)

Disneyland Castle before guests 1995

One of the joys of growing up as a child in Southern California was that our family has been going to Disneyland since the 1950s.  Many years later with my own children, I continued the family tradition of annual trips to Disneyland.  Over the last fifty years I have seen many changes made to the park and the attractions that have come and gone.  In this first of a five part series on Disneyland, I will discuss how this magical theme park started and how it has changed over the years.  Then, in the next four additional posts of the series, I will offer the history of each of the eight “lands” of Disneyland, Main Street and Fantasyland, Adventureland and Frointerland, New Orleans Square and Critter Country, Tomorrowland and ToonTown.

A brief history of Disneyland

There is a famous story about how Walt Disney was inspired to build Disneyland, the story goes that while during an afternoon visit to Griffith Park located near the Burbank Studios Walt took a seat on a bench while his two young daughters rode the merry-go-round.  Walt thought there should be a place where both children and their parents could enjoy spending some time together in an environment that would be both entertaining and visually appealing, so with this one thought came the vision for Disneyland.

Walt’s original plan was to build an 8 acre park located near the Burbank studios that would be a place for his employees and their families.  Those plans were put on hold due to the start of World War II, but Walt never forgot.  During the war and in the years after, Walt’s ideas for the park continued to develop and quickly a small park turned into something much larger!

By 1952, Walt had created a special department that was dedicated to planning his dream; it was called WED which were the initials of his name, Walter Elias Disney.  His team of employees were called “imagineers” because they were pioneering a new field that blended imagination and engineering to create the new park.  (The department eventually became WDI, a separate division of the Walt Disney Company, which is now based in Glendale, Ca and is currently still responsible for designing and building Disney theme parks, resorts and other venues around the world)

Finally in 1953, the first steps in building the park happened when Walt hired the Stanford Research Institute to make a survey to determine the best possible location for the future park.  Taking into consideration projected population growth and accessibility of projected future major freeway construction for easy access for visitors, ultimately a location was found in Anaheim and a 160 acre property was purchased for the site of the new park.

Disneyland before development    Disneyland 1955

The building of the park would prove to be very expensive and to create funding for the project Walt developed the idea of the “Walt Disney’s Disneyland” television show.  It turned out to be a successful idea to not only gain the money from lucrative sponsors to build the park but it was also a wonderful way to present the park to the American public and gaining excitement for the project.

Walt presents Disneyland 1954

Construction for Disneyland officially began on July 21, 1954, it was an ambitious building schedule of less than one year to complete the new parkt for the projected opening day.  The 160 acre property needed to be cleared of orange tree groves and also 15 houses needed to be moved in order to create the space requirements for the new park.  Walt’s design for Disneyland called for five different “lands” within the park: Main Street, Adventureland, Frointerland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.  Each of these original Disneyland “lands” took elements from several previous and current Disney films and television shows: Main Street was inspired by Walt’s boyhood home of Marceline, Missouri and Adventureland was inspired by Disney’s True-Life adventure films, Frointerland was inspired by Walt’s love of the classic stories of Tom Sawyer and Davy Crockett (Davy Crockett television episodes were shown on the Disneyland television show starting in 1954), Fantasyland was inspired by many of the Disney animated films (such as Snow White, Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan to name a few!) and finally Tomorrowland was inspired by Walt’s interest in the future and this new “land” would showcase our emerging NASA space exploration .

Walt oversaw the park’s construction and progress continued at a steady pace with just a few minor delays and adjustments.  Finally, the park was ready for Opening Day on July 17, 1955.  On that day, Disneyland was officially opened to a select number of invited guests and the media for a Press Preview Day which was nationally televised on the ABC network.  Unfortunately, several mishaps happened during that day and it was not the anticipated success that Walt hoped for, the day became known as “Black Friday” within the Disney Company.  Some of the problems were caused by counterfeit tickets which increased the attendance to an unexpected 28,000 people (which was almost twice the number of people originally invited!) and there were severe traffic problems and delays for guests trying to reach the park.  Guests also encountered long lines waiting to see the attractions and food supplies ran out.  The weather wasn’t cooperating on that day and the temperature were unusually high causing the newly laid asphalt in the park to melt and another problem was that only a small number of water fountains were working.  Finally, there were numerous technical problems during the live broadcast and the press reviews of the Opening Day of Disneyland were very negative.

Walt was concerned about the bad reviews, but the next day approximately 50,000 guests attended the first day the park was open for the general public.  To show his support of Walt’s Dream, the first ticket was purchased by Roy Disney who was not only Walt’s brother but also his partner in the Disney Company.  Over the first year, the operational problems of the park were resolved, additional attractions opened and attendance continued to increase in size and ultimately Disneyland proved to be a huge success.

During that first year, the park had opened with only five “lands” which were Main Street, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Over the following years additional “lands” were opened and currently there are eight consisting of the original five plus New Orleans Square that opened in 1966, Bear Country (later named Critter Country) in 1972 and the newest is Mickey’s Toontown which opened in 1993.

Disneyland attractions have also come and gone over the years.  I remember rides like the Flying Saucers (1961-1966) and the original Carousel of Progress (1967-1973) naming just two of my favorite attractions that have been gone several years.  I also remember new rides being added to the park, like the Swiss Family Treehouse (1962), It’s a Small World (1964), Pirates of the Caribbean (1967) and the Mansion Haunted (1969) and Space Mountain (1977).  Over the years, during our numerous family visits to the park, we saw the Skyway ride dismantled (1956-1994), the new Fantasyland being rebuilt (1983) and the Star Tours (1987) and Splash Mountain (1989) attractions added.

To mark Disneyland 50th anniversary in 2005, the park underwent a major renovation to prepare for the special occasion.  Several events were planned during the expected 18 month-long celebration which officially started with an announcement on May 5, 2005. Some of the events held during that time included a special “Remember” fireworks show, the “Parade of Dreams” and a reunion of the previous members of the Mickey Mouse Club.  During the months leading up the official anniversary, people were requested to submit their photos where used to make special murals known as the “Happiest Faces on Earth” that depicted iconic Disney characters and these were scattered across the park. The Disneyland Castle was also decorated to mark the special occasion with a golden overlay and also fifty Golden Mickeys were hidden in the decorations of the park’s attractions.  Finally, to note the attractions that were there on opening day in 1955, one ride vehicle on each of those attractions was painted gold.

July 17 2005

50 Mickeys #19  Castle front a    Golden Mad Tea Party teacup

Walt Disney wanted his dream of Disneyland to continue grow and change with new rides and attractions being added continuously throughout the decades.  In closing this post, I want to end with the words Walt spoke on opening day at the dedication of Disneyland.

“To all who come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”  July 17, 1955

Walt at Main St dedication    Disneyland dedication plaque

Be sure to check out the four additional posts in the Disneyland series.  Part Two – Main Street and Fantasyland, Part Three – Adventureland and Frontierland, Part Four – New Orleans Square and Critter Country, Part Five – Tomorrowland and Mickey’s Toontown.

Travel – Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve


Seeing the fields of the California poppies, those delicate orange flowers which bloom in the early spring, is truly a wonderful sight to see.  (After this harsh winter in the Midwest, I am definitely missing the sunshine and scenery of the state of my birth!)  The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is a great place to see an abundance of the colorful poppies.  The reserve is located in the western Mojave Desert, 85 miles from Los Angeles, and it is known for the beautiful fields of poppies that cover the surrounding gentle sloping hillsides.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe California poppy (eschscholzia californica) is a flowering plant native to the United States and Mexico.  The flowers bloom annually and the plants can range in height from 5 to 60 inches tall with blue-green leaves.  A single flower grows on each stem and each flower is made up of four orange petals that can measure almost inch or two inches long.  The early Spanish settlers of California called the poppy by the name of dormidera, which means drowsy one, because the petals of the poppies close at night opening again with the morning sunshine.  The poppy petals also close in cold weather or cloudy days.  The poppies normally bloom from mid-February to late May and the date can vary from year to year depending on the amount of rainfall prior to the blooming season.

The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve is a protected area of the Mojave Desert and is administered by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.  The reserve offers a great viewing area for the colorful poppies that grow with a mixture of other wildflowers that cover the gentle hillsides each spring.  The California State Park leaves the flowers in their natural state and does not water the flowers.  Also in order to protect and regulate the growth of the poppies, the California Poppy Reserve prohibits sheep and cattle from grazing on the surrounding hillsides and since 1994 controlled fires have been used to clear dead brush and invasive plants within the reserve.

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve – Travel information and tips

  • The Jane. S. Pinheiro Interpretive Center is a great place to start any visit to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve.  The center is opened seasonally and visitors can watch a short video, see several the displays on wildflowers, plants and wildlife or pick up maps and other information.  Also on display in the center are the wildflower pencil drawings and watercolor paintings of Pinheiro, she was a local artist who was involved in the civic affairs of the Antelope Valley and instrumental in establishing the California Poppy Reserve and the center is named in her honor.
  • There are over seven miles of hiking trails at the 1,760 acre reserve.  The Antelope Loop Trail covers some of the area portions of the trail are easy gentle slopes and some are more steep climbs over the hills.  Before starting out on the trails, check with the park staff for the best hikes for your abilities.
  • Picking or destroying the poppies in the park is a violation of the California State law.  Please do not collect any items; all natural elements of the reserve are protected including other plants, rocks and wildlife.
  • Please be aware that rattlesnakes are present in the area.  If you see one on the hiking trails, they are not normally aggressive and will not attack unless threatened. The rattlesnakes are important to the natural environment of the desert and are needed to keep the rodent population down because the animals would consume and destroy the poppies.


  •  The desert weather can be very unpredictable and temperatures can vary or change throughout the day.  Be sure to wear sunblock and bring a light jacket depending on the weather conditions.
  • Please do not bring dogs or other animals to the reserve with the exception of service dogs.  Horses and mountain bikes are no allowed on the trails.
  • For the Antelope Valley California Poppy Center location or directions, please check out the Antelope Valley California Poppy Center website through the following link,
  • For the current season’s poppy/wildflower bloom information call the Poppy Reserve Wildflower Hotline at (661)724-1180 or the Theodore Payne Foundation Wildflower Hotline at (818) 768-3533.


Travel – Sequoia National Park, CA

Sequoia National Park 1

Our family has visited Sequoia National Park several times over the past years and we have enjoyed it every time.  The majestic giant sequoia trees that grow within the park boundaries are truly a wondrous sight to see!  My husband and son have also taken the Crystal Cave wild tour three times with a group of different friends each year and they truly enjoyed the experience of spelunking and being able to explore areas of the cave that the general public are never shown.  (please see the end of the post for more information about the wild cave tour)

Located in central California, Sequoia National Park was established as a national park in 1890.  The park covers over 400,000 acres in the southern Sierra Nevada mountain range including the highest point in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney which has an elevation of 14,505 feet.  The Sierra Nevada mountain range was formed over 10 million years ago in a series of earth shifts and later over long periods of extreme cold weather glaciers developed and would move slowly over the granite rock to create deep valleys and ragged peaks.  These glacial forces also formed nearby Yosemite National Park.

This area in the Sierra Nevada mountains was originally home to the Monochee Native Americans who lived in the foothills but during the summer months they would travel into the high country and go through the mountain passes to trade with the other Native American tribes in the East.  Throughout the park, the ancient Native Americans have left behind pictographs and at the Hospital Rock area there are bowl-shaped indentations carved into the rocks that they would use as mortars to grind acorns which were a main food supply for the Monochee.

When the European settlers arrived in this area, a homesteader named Hale Tharp built a home in a fallen giant sequoia that he hollowed out and it can still be seen today on the Crescent Meadow trail.  Tharp became friends with John Muir, the naturalist and first president of the newly formed Sierra Club and together they saw the beauty in the giant sequoia trees and tried to preserve this region of California.  By the 1880s, the logging companies started cutting down the large sequoia trees but this proved to be an unsuccessful business venture when the lumber was determined to be unsuitable for building material.

Then in 1890, Sequoia National Park was established and the giant sequoias fell under protection and all logging ceased within the boundaries of the newly formed park.  Over the years additional areas were added to the park as it increased in size.  The most recent expansion was back in 1978, when the Sierra Club succeeded in preventing the Walt Disney Company from purchasing property to create a ski resort.  This area in the southern portion of the park known as Mineral King and it is a popular place and starting point for back-country hikers.

Most visitors enter Sequoia National Park by the southern entrance near the town of Three Rivers.  (Travel Note: Before proceeding into the park, stop and fill your vehicle with gas as there is very limited availability within the park)  Here in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range the scenery is mostly oak trees and yucca plants and as the road climbs through steep river valleys the scenery transitions into conifer forests of pine and fir trees.  Once visitors reach the higher elevation between 5,500 and 9,000 feet the giant sequoia trees start to appear and they are some of the largest living trees in the world, such as the General Sherman tree.

After entering the park boundaries, the road becomes the General’s Highway.  (Of course as written in previous posts, our family always stops to take a photo of the National Park sign and these photos are framed and placed on our travel wall in our home)  The General’s Highway continues to climb higher and the curving mountain road can be a very challenging driving experience so take caution and observe the speed limits.  The first group of sequoias trees visitors will see once they are inside the park are the “Four Guardians”.  (Travel Note: We advise visitors to stop safely and pull completely off the road to see these massive trees up close; it is a humbling experience to stand among some of the largest trees on our planet!)   For more information about Sequoia National Park, please see their website at

Sequoia National Park 2

Interesting sites to see in Sequoia National Park

Moro Rock / Crescent Meadow Road

Located in the southern portion of the park just off the General’s Highway is one of the most popular areas of the park and during the summer months it can be very congested so to avoid the crowds we advise going in the early morning hours.  The road is very narrow with limited clearance and it is not recommended for RVs or trailers.

  • Moro Rock – This large granite dome is located at an altitude above 7,000 feet and the 400 steep climb to the top can be very strenuous.  Once at the top, the views of the Great Western Divide on one side and the Central Valley of California in the distance on the other side are truly breathtaking!  (Travel Note:  The climb to the top is very difficult and is not recommended for visitors with health issues or fear of heights due to the steep drop-offs )

Sequoia National Park - Moro Rock

  • Tunnel  Log and Auto Log –  The Tunnel Log is a fallen sequoia tree that crosses the road with a section cut out for cars to drive through that measures 17 feet wide and 8 feet high, for vehicles that do not meet these restrictions there is a bypass road.  (Travel Note: The Tunnel Log is a fun photo opportunity but please use caution when you exit the vehicle to take pictures and be courteous to other park visitors that are sharing the road with you)  Located nearby is the Auto Log which is another fallen sequoia that once allowed visitors the unique opportunity to drive their vehicles onto the tree.  The tree is still there but it is now closed because the increased decay of the tree has caused unstable conditions to hold the weight of vehicles safely.

Sequoia National Park - tunnel log

  • Crescent Meadow – This High Sierra meadow is a beautiful sight to see at any time of the year, but in the summer it is especially lovely and filled with wildflowers.  The Crescent Meadow trail is an easy 1.6 mile family-friendly hike, which takes visitors past Tharp’s Log and the Chimney Tree.  The Tharp’s Log was the home of Hale Tharp who lived inside this hollowed out fallen sequoia tree, be sure to take a look inside.  Located nearby is the Chimney Tree which is a burnt out sequoia tree, visitors can step into the tree for an unusual look inside a giant sequoia and it also makes a great photo opportunity.  (Travel Note: When we visited several years ago we encountered a bear in this area of the park, so please be aware of the danger and use extreme caution)

Sequoia National Park - Crescent Meadow  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Giant Forest

Located near the center of the park is the Giant Forest area just off the General’s Highway.  The Giant Forest area and the Congress Trail is a wonderful opportunity for visitors to walk among several groves of giant sequoia trees.  It is truly an amazing experience to stand at the base and look up to realize just the massive size of these sequoia trees.  (Travel Note: The parking lot for the General Sherman tree and the Congress Trail can get very congested, especially during the summer months, so visit early in the day.  Also, please be aware that bears and other wild animals can be in this area of the park so use extreme caution)

  • The General Sherman Tree – Within a short distance from the parking lot stands the General Sherman Tree which was officially named in 1879 for the Civil War General William Sherman.  This giant sequoia is approximately 2,500 years old and it is the world’s largest living tree when measured by volume and mass.  From the base, the tree rises to almost 275 feet and over 36 feet in diameter.

Sequoia National Park - General Sherman tree

  • The Congress Trail – The Congress Trail starts near the General Sherman Tree; look for signs that lead to the trailhead.  After the congestion in the parking lot and at the General Sherman Tree in just a few minutes this popular paved trail takes park visitors away from the crowds to enjoy a leisurely hike through a forest that contains some very large sequoia trees.  Notable sequoias along the trail are: The President Tree which was named in 1923 for President Warren Harding, The Senate Group which contains several sequoia trees that are over 1,000 years old and nearby several more sequoia trees called the House Group. Also along the trail visitors will notice signs of fire damage with several sequoia trees scarred by fires that occurred in this area over the years, a sequoia tree bark is very thick and contains tannic acids that is a natural fire retardant.  Sequoia trees also have a very shallow root system and along the trail is the Fallen Sequoia tree which shows visitors the exposed root system of a giant sequoia tree.

Sequoia National Park - Congress Trail

Crystal Cave

Crystal Cave Tour Information –

  • Located in the southern portion of the park just off the General’s highway in a remote area is Crystal Cave.  It is approximately a 1½ hour drive from either the Foothill or Lodgepole Victor Centers.
  • Guided cave tours are available from mid-May to November and visitors must purchase tickets at the Foothills or Lodgepole Visitor Centers.  (Travel Note: No tickets are available for purchase at the cave)
  • Tours do sell out quickly, especially in the summer months of July and August.  It is advised to purchase tickets in advance, but there are certain times of the year when tickets are available only on a same day of tour basis.  Call ahead for information or additional questions.  (Travel note: Tour schedules are subject to change at any time of the year due to weather and road conditions or park closures)
  • From the Crystal Cave parking lot to the cave entrance it is a strenuous ½ mile hike.  Please be advised that cave is not accessible by wheelchair or strollers and cave tours are not recommended for visitors with health concerns.
  • Tours are recommended for school age children or older.  Smaller children or infants may be frightened by certain aspects of the tour.  Please be advised that during the cave tour, the guide will turn out all the lights and there will be a moment of complete darkness.
  • Temperatures in the cave are a constant 48 degrees, bring a jacket.  Also, close toes shoes are recommended, no sandals or flip-flops.
  • Due to the remote area of the cave location, bring water or snacks because visitors will be hungry or thirsty after their cave tour and strenuous hike.  Please be advised to keep food items in a bear-safe container when not in use.

Sequoia National Park - Crystal Cave entrance

If you are looking for something a little bit more adventurous then the 45-minute cave tour, try the Wild Cave Tour.  As mentioned previously, my husband and son enjoyed this tour so much that they went three times over the course of a few years, always with a group of different friends and family.  I must advise, the Wild Cave Tour is very strenuous and should be limited to those participants that are in great physical condition and not fearful of tight spaces.  I am claustrophobic, so I have never gone on the wild cave tour, I know my limitations! (OK, please don’t call me a chicken!)

Wild Cave Tour information –

The Wild Cave Tour is a 4 to 6 hour tour limited to people 16 years or older and is only available on Saturdays from June through August.  Lead by experienced guides, the tour group is usually very small in size and it is an extremely popular tour that sells out very quickly.  For additional information and to register for the Wild Cave Tour experience, please call 559-565-425.

Participants in the Wild Cave Tour will explore remote areas of Crystal Cave not open to the general public.  Experienced tour guides will explain the cave formations in detail and also teach correct caving techniques and they will also discuss current cave conservation issues.  Over the evening, participants will go into some of the most remote and rarely seen areas of Crystal Cave and at certain times during the tour they will experience total darkness and complete silence only broke by the sound of water dripping through the cave.  We would advised participants to wear old clothes and shoes because they will get very dirty exploring the cave, climbing and crawling through extremely tight and narrow passageways.  An extra change of clothes to wear after the cave tour is also advisable because nobody wants to ride back to their hotel in dirty, dusty or muddy clothes.  Water and a snack for after the cave tour would be a good idea, too.

Travel – Hearst Castle in San Simeon, CA

Heast Castle - aerial panorama shot

Hearst Castle was the home of newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst and the magnificent mansion he had built is located on the coast of Central California halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  I had the great opportunity to visit Hearst Castle several times over the years.  The first time I visited was in the 1960s and as a child I was amazed at the size of the house and I thought it was absolutely fascinating to see the herd of zebras roaming over the mountains that surround the property.  (Yes, I said zebras … Hearst had a small zoo on the property!)  Later I visited with my son when he was small and again several years later with my husband for a unique evening tour which was a very unusual way to see Hearst Castle at dusk with the sun starting to set over the Pacific Ocean.

Hearst Castle is located near the small town of San Simeon about 43 miles from San Luis Obispo.  The estate is known as La Cuesta Encantada (“The Enchanted Hill”) but Hearst usually called it simply “the ranch”.  Hearst Castle is both a National and a California Historical Landmark and despite the relatively isolated area, the site attracts about one million visitors each year.  Tours are available daily and there are several different ones to choose from including the evening tour mention above, more information about tours can be found at the end of this post.

A Brief History of Hearst Castle

William Randolph HearstGeorge Hearst originally purchased the 40,000 acres property in 1865.  The estate was located along the coast of Central California and had beautiful vistas of the Pacific Ocean as seen from the hills of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range.  The property remained largely undeveloped with only a Victorian house built for George, his wife Phoebe and their son, William Randolph Heart.  There were also stables and some outbuildings and the younger Hearst loved horseback riding and taking rustic camping trips on the estate.  George died in 1891 and Phoebe, died in 1919. Their son, W.R. Hearst inherited the ranch which at that time had grown in size to include 250,000 acres.

Julia MorganAs early as 1915, Hearst had contacted an architect named Julia Morgan to discuss plans for a home that he wanted built on the estate.  He selected a site that was five miles inland and located on the top of a hill with an elevation of 1,600 feet.  Hearst had explained to Morgan that he wanted something permanent built on the site because he loved the location which had spectacular views but was tired of camping in tents.  The original plans for a modest and simple home quickly began to grow into a much larger Spanish Revival mansion.  By the summer of 1919, Morgan had the site survey completed and had drawn the first plans.  Later that year construction began with the three guest cottages known as Casa del Mar, Casa del Monte and Casa del Sol.  When those were near completion construction then started on Casa Grande, the main building, which is 60,645 square feet.  Construction steadily continued on the estate until 1947 when Hearst stopped living there due to his failing health.

Hearst Castle - constructionHearst Castle includes 56 bedrooms, 61 bathrooms, 19 sitting rooms, a movie theater with 127 acres of gardens, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts, an airfield for guests to arrive by private planes and at one time the world’s largest private zoo. Morgan was a competent civil engineer and created a gravity-based water system that would transport well water from a location on the property to a reservoir that was built less than a mile from the main building.  In addition, a private power plant was built on site to supply the electricity for the estate since at the time Hearst Castle was being built homes powered by electricity was a new technology.

Hearst was an eccentric art and antique buyer and he furnished his home with a collection of items gathered on his many trips to Europe and his warehouses were bursting with inventory.  Hearst would buy entire ceilings and facades of old European buildings on these buying trips and Morgan was challenged to fit them into the design of the estate and as a result the architectural style is a variety several different periods and the floor plan can be rather chaotic.

Hearst Castle - Hearst in the Dining RoomDuring the time that Hearst owned the property, especially during the 1920s to the 1930s, he entertained lavishly with guest lists including Hollywood actors, directors and prominent political people.  Guests would arrive by private planes or on Hearst’s private train that traveled from Los Angeles.  Guests were free to use the estates facilities during the day while Hearst worked on his publishing and entertainment businesses, but at night they were expected to dress formally for dinner.  Card playing, billards and films shown in the private theater were the main entertainment in the evenings for Hearst’s invited guests.

In 1947, Hearst left his beloved “La Cuesta Encantada” due to failing health and he never returned.  He moved to a home in Beverly Hills and died on August 14, 1951 at the age of 88 years old.  He was buried in the Hearst family mausoleum at the Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, California.  In 1957, the Hearst Corporation donated Hearst Castle to the State of California with the provision that the Hearst family would be allowed to come to the property whenever they wished.  They usually stayed at the old Victorian house that was originally built by George Hearst, the house is located on the lower portion of the property and is screened by a grove of eucalyptus trees to offer privacy from the visitors to Hearst Castle.

Information About Visiting Hearst Castle

Since 1958, when Hearst Castle was first opened to the public there have been tours of Casa Grande, the guesthouses, pools and gardens.  The new Visitor center is a great place to start a visit to “The Enchanted Hill” and is where visitors can purchase tour tickets.  While you are waiting for the tour to start, there is a gift store and also a place to eat.  Don’t miss the movie in the Visitor Center Theater that is included with the tour, “Hearst Castle – Building the Dream”, before boarding the bus for the 5-mile ride up the hill to the estate.


Knowledgeable guides take guests on informative tours of William Randolph Hearst private estate.  There are several different tours that explore the various rooms of Casa Grande as well as other areas of the estate.  The three different tours are described below and also the seasonal evening tour.  All the tours visit three of the most photographed areas of the estate, the Gardens with beautiful flowers and lovely statues, the Neptune Pool which is a large outdoor pool with views of the Pacific Ocean in the distance and the Roman Pool which is a lavish indoor pool.

Heast Castle - Gardens 1 Heast Castle - Gardens 2
Hearst Castle - Neptune Pool Heaset Castle - Roman Pool

We would highly recommend making advanced reservations since it is a long drive to Hearst Castle and tours do sell out especially during the busy summer months.  Visitors can reserve tickets online up to 56 days in advance at the Hearst Castle website,

The Grand Rooms Tour –

This tour is highly recommended for first-time visitors.  The tour length is 45 minutes and takes visitors through Casa Grande, the largest house of the estate, and the rooms included in this tour are the Assembly Room, the Refectory, the Billiard Room, the Theater, Gardens, the Neptune Pool and the Roman Pool.  These rooms and areas of the estate were where guests gathered to eat and be entertained.

Hearst Castle - Dining Room Hearst Castle - Billard Room

The Upstairs Suites Tour –

This tour is 45 minutes and takes visitors into the upper floors of Casa Grande to see rooms such as: W.R. Hearst’s private rooms and opulent guest rooms – the Doge’s Suite, the Library, the Gothic Suite as well as the exterior Gardens, Neptune Pool and lastly the Roman Pool.  Be sure to look out the windows for amazing views of the beautiful gardens with the coastline and the Pacific Ocean seen in the distance.

Hearst Castle - Library The Gothic Study at Hearst Castle

Cottages and Kitchen Tour –

This tour is 45 minutes and takes visitors into to two of the three guesthouses on the estate, also visited are the large Kitchen and the Wine Cellar in Casa Grande, the Gardens, the Neptune and the Roman Pool.  While construction of the estate was ongoing for several years, Hearst and his family usually stayed in the Casa del Monte and the other cottage on the tour is the Casa del Mar.

Hearst Castle - Guest House 2 Hearst Castle - Kitchen

The Evening Tour –

This 1 hour and 40 minute tour is available every spring and fall during designated evenings.  The Evening Tour allows visitors to see Hearst Castle as the sun is setting over the Pacific Ocean.  The stage is set in the 1930s as if visitors are attending on of Hearst’s famous weekend parties for Hollywood and Political guests.  Living History Docents dressed in period clothing roam about the estate as visitors tour Casa del Mar and the several rooms of Casa Grande, such as the Assembly Room, the Refectory, the Kitchen, the Library, the Gothic Suite, the Billiard Room, the Theater, the Gardens, the Neptune Pool and the Roman Pool.

Hearst Castle at night 1 Hearst Castle at night 2

For more information about dates and times of the tours and additional details about visiting Hearst Castle, please see their website at

Interesting information about Hearst Castle   

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, when I first visited Hearst Castle during the 1960s I have a distinct memory of the zebras grazing on the hills surrounding the estate.  It seems that Hearst had one of the world’s largest private zoos on the property.  Below is information regarding that period of the history of Hearst Castle.

Animal Hill –

William Randolph Hearst owned a private zoo located on the property, this was not uncommon for wealthy men of the time who owned these private zoos with exotic animals to impress and entertain their guests who visited their large mansions in the countryside.

At the estate in San Simeon, Hearst kept some of his wild animals located in cages just north of the main buildings. Here in this area of the estate in cages of various sizes were several different species of animals, such as black bears, grizzly bears, lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cougars, chimpanzees, orangutans, monkeys, macaws, swans, storks and an elephant.  The animals’ diet and exercise were carefully overseen by a veterinarian and staff.

Hearst also kept a small herd of 300 fallow deer which roamed the surrounding hills of Hearst Castle.  Other exotic animals that grazed on the property were the American bison, Rocky Mountain elk, Alaskan big horned sheep, several different types of African and Asian antelope, camels, llamas, kangaroos, ostriches, emus, four giraffes that were kept in a small pen located near the road and of course those famous zebras.

In the late 1930s, as Hearst was experiencing financial difficulty he halted the construction on the estate and in the process of cutting expenses over the next several years he decided to sell or donate many of his exotic animals to public zoos.  Two years after Hearst death, most of the animals were gone.  By the time that the State received Hearst Castle from the estate, the only animals that remained were elk, goats, sheep, deer and zebra.  Today, only a few of those animals survived but a herd of zebra is all that remain.

Hearst Castle Zebras