Road Trip 2017 #30 – Musee Mechanique

During our time at Fisherman’s Wharf, we visited the Musee Mechanique.  Housed in a dockside warehouse, this is essentially a museum of huge numbers of mechanical arcade games.  It is run by a family who have been collecting the games for generations and it is indeed an impressive collection.

One of the first items we encountered was a creepy thing called Laffing Sal.  This is a papier mache figure inside a glass case that was apparently designed to drum up interest in entering a carnival or sideshow.  When activated, it would move and laugh.  We chose not to activate it.  Ultimately, it was the weird creepiness of so many of the mechanical entertainments that most engaged me.  I rather liked that things were macabre and grotesque.  I cannot really explain why but I am a fan of horror movies so that may be a factor.  There were many such creepy things to be seen: a troop of freaky monkeys with dead eyes, dancing figurines with swollen heads and spindly legs, machines that acted out executions by hanging and guillotine (which my little kids adored), an organ grinder with a sinister overbite, and a drunk leaning on a lampost that looked like a Gerry Anderson puppet that had fallen on really hard times.






The kids thoroughly enjoyed all of the good old-fashioned fun.  These boys have grown up with technology like video games but they were completely entertained by simple pinball machines, whack-a-mole, love testing machines, and fortune tellers – including one that had been updated to feature the Hogwart’s Sorting Hat.  There were also self-playing pianos – something I have always loved – and peep shows, mutoscopes, and dioramas – including, bizarrely, one depicting an opium den.  In the centre of the museum, there was a huge diorama depicting a carnival complete with sideshow.  Mr Pict got very caught up in the nostalgia of the place.  He found lots of arcade games that he had played in his youth and, of course, had to have a go on each and every one of them.  It was a great place to spend a little time and a small gobbet of money.










Driving out of the city, we had a scary moment on one of its notoriously steep streets.  We had to halt at a stop sign while on some kind of extreme gradient.  We could barely see if there was anything coming from either direction on the cross street, which was one problem.  The bigger problem, however, was that Mr Pict – who I am so glad was the one who was driving – found he could not get the car to move forward when he put his foot on the accelerator.  Instead, the car insisted on rolling backwards.  We realised that – having spent most of our lives driving manual cars – we had zero idea how to manage a hill start in an automatic.  Mr Pict tried to find that catch point between brake and accelerator but it just wasn’t happening.  We were at a stand-still.  There were soon two cars lined up behind us.  This was pressure for two reasons: those drivers were getting frustrated because we were blocking their way and, if the car rolled back again, it would now smack into another vehicle.  Bum-clenching, jaw-tightening, stress.  I thought worst case scenario was that we were going to have to call on the police to help us out of the situation.  I was trying to google a solution when frazzled Mr Pict decided just to do a full blown Dukes of Hazzard move and accelerate to the max, straight into the cross road, where luckily we were not met by other cars.  I was so stressed that I could actually hear my own pulse.  We decided to avoid going up any other steep roads.  In San Francisco, that is a total ordeal.  We took the most circumlocutious route but we successfully avoided any repetition of that completely terrifying episode.

We were staying at a hotel near the airport so as to be as convenient as possible for our early morning flights.  By happy coincidence, we arrived to find that there was a happy hour event happening in the reception area, with free drinks and nibbles.  Free sangria was a welcome tonic for the stress of that drive out of the city and a pleasant way to end the fun of our 2700 mile road trip.

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Road Trip 2017 #29 – Foggy Morning in San Francisco

We did not have a great start to our final day of vacation.  First of all, we discovered that we could not do online check-in for our flight the following morning because our youngest son had been listed as an “unaccompanied minor”.  Secondly, we could not pull off our planned trip to the Muir Woods.  We expected it to be busy and were not surprised to find the car park was full.  However, on scouting for a parking space on the road, we drove for ages without spotting a single space.  When we finally found a spot, it was so far from the entrance to the National Park that we would have had to walk on the road for well over an hour.  The kids were absolutely not up for walking uphill for over an hour only to walk around another grove of redwood trees.  This was especially frustrating for me since this was the second time I had failed to visit the Muir Woods.  Third time lucky?  Maybe some day.  We abandoned the woods and headed towards San Francisco.

Prior to entering the city, we stopped at a vantage point to see the Golden Gate Bridge from up high.  The famous San Francisco fog was in dense evidence.  Initially it seemed like we would never actually get a glimpse of the bridge.  Then, like a spectre emerging from the mist, a couple of bits of distinctive ironwork emerged.



That was the aperitif.  Loaded back in the car, we headed across the Golden Gate Bridge.  The boys know the bridge not just as a distinctive landmark but also as a location for many movies.  They were, therefore, pretty stoked to be crossing the bridge.  They were a tad less stoked when we told them we were going to be crossing it again.  On foot.  I have never walked on the Golden Gate Bridge before.  I have driven over it and I have walked under it but I have never walked over it.  It was time to tick that item off the travel bucket list whether the kids liked it or not.  Plus, it was going to be the eleventh and final National Park of our road trip.  It was chilly on the bridge in that way that the damp cold creeps into your pores.  The kids pulled their hoods up and scowled.  The bridge was crowded.  The pathway was divided into a cycling lane and a pedestrian lane.  The tricky part, however, was that when bicyclists travelling in opposite directions met, one bike would end up on the pedestrian side to overtake and all the pedestrians, therefore, ended up even more smooshed into their designated lane.  Consequently, our walk across the bridge was at the pace of a very gentle stroll.  We had promised the kids spectacular views over the bay and city but, alas, the fog was still dense.  We could barely see the iron struts of the bridge let alone views.  The kids scowled even more.  In addition to their other gripes, the 10 year old did not like being up high.  Allegedly.  Finally, just as we were walking back off the bridge, the fog disappeared and we finally got a great view.  We could see the bay, with Alcatraz plonked in the middle, and the skyline of the city.  I am not sure the kids were convinced that it was worth it.











When we first booked our flights, our plan for San Francisco had been to visit Alcatraz.  Mr Pict and I had taken a tour in 2000 and loved it.  It was an incredible experience and one of the highlights of that particular vacation.  We knew the boys would love it so we went online to book tickets.  There were none.  None.  I guess to visit Alcatraz in July, one has to book a year in advance.  With Alcatraz out of the question and having reduced our time in San Fran down to a single day, we decided to concentrate on Fisherman’s Wharf.  First up: lunch.  Mr Pict and I had fond stomach memories of eating soup from sourdough bread bowls and the kids loved the idea of trying that so we headed to a chowder place.  The eatery itself was pretty basic but the food was utterly delicious.  Most of us had clam chowder but my 14 year old had crab chowder and my 10 year old had shrimp salad.  We all thoroughly enjoyed our food and were replete for the rest of the day because we had essentially eaten the crockery.


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Wandering along Fisherman’s Wharf, we stopped to watch a very impressive one man band perform.  He had an electric instrument, rock and roll twist on the traditional format.  The kids were keen to see the famous bay sea-lions at Pier 39.  Annoyingly, the sea-lions had decided to park themselves on a little floating dock that was as far as possible from the pier which made them difficult to see in any great detail.  Nevertheless, the kids were entertained by watching the sea-lions jiggle around, slipping in and out of the water, and wobbling over each other.






Road Trip 2017 #28 – The Birds and Bodega Bay

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I am a movie nerd.  I have successfully managed to inspire my sons into being movie nerds too, especially the middle two kids.  I have not indoctrinated them, of course, but my enthusiasm for film has transferred to them and now we can all enjoy watching movies together, analysing them, comparing them, and obviously being entertained by them.  As a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, I have given my kids a gentle introduction to his movies.  We started with ‘The Trouble with Harry’, then moved on to ‘Rear Window’, and then ‘The Birds’.  When I told them that we would be staying in the area where ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ (which they have not seen) and ‘The Birds’ were filmed, they were eager to go and visit the locations.  I was happy to oblige.  Mr Pict had accompanied me on the same mission 17 years before so was also happy to indulge us this time.

We decided to focus on Bodega and Bodega Bay since the kids had actually seen ‘The Birds’ and would recognise the locations.   When we reached Bodega, we drove up to the church and parked up.  The kids and I got out and wandered the few yards to the Potter House.  This is a private residence so, rest assured, we were careful not to be intrusive or to cause a commotion.  The house was built in 1873 and originally served as a schoolhouse and it served as the school building in the Hitchcock movie, the set of an important scene in the film and, therefore, featuring prominently.  Of course, we could not resist acting out the film but we wanted to be respectful of the local residents so we acted it out as if it had been a silent movie.  My kids are such ham actors.  St Theresa’s church can be glimpsed during that scene so we took some photos and reenacted some silent action scenes there too.





The movie creates the impression that the schoolhouse and church are right on the coast but, in fact, Bodega is a short drive inland from the bay.  We, therefore, jumped back in the car and headed to Bodega Bay.  The main focus of our visit to the town was the Tides Restaurant.  It plays a prominent role in the movie and is still identifiable as the key location, despite being remodelled a fair bit since the 1960s.  When I was last there, it felt very much like Bodega Bay barely tolerated the Hitchcock connection.  Apart from one leaflet, there was nothing that declared the place to have been related to the movie.  This time, however, it appeared that the town had embraced the movie as a tourist opportunity.  Inside the Tides there were ample references to the film, from stuffed ravens to a mock up of a building with smashed windows.  More opportunities for ham acting, in other words.  The kids bought some ice lollies and we stepped out onto the back deck to look at the bay.  We could see the spit of land opposite where the Brenner house stood (it was torn down immediately after filming), the road where Tippi Hedren drove out to that house, and the jetty where she rented a boat to cross the bay.





Once everyone had finished their iced treats, we jumped back in the car and headed along the coastal road to Salmon Creek Beach.  It was early evening by this juncture and the air was distinctly chilly.  There was no way the kids were even going to go for a paddle, let alone a swim.  However, we found a new way to keep them entertained.  The beach was covered with little huts that had been built out of driftwood.  They were really great, really competently built structures.  I don’t know who had erected them and for what purpose but I do know they would fare a lot better than I would if marooned on a desert island.  That inspired my kids to gather up driftwood and build their own structure.  We ran out of time before they got anywhere near completed but it kept them entertained for over an hour.  They also found a washed up, decaying cow carcass.  I am sure most people’s kids would recoil at such a discovery but my kids reacted like they had found buried treasure and studied the corpse, fascinated.  It’s possible I have exposed them to too much Hitchcock after all.



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Road Trip 2017 #27 – Armstrong Redwoods

After our morning in Calistoga, we headed to the nearby Armstrong Redwoods.  We were intending to visit the Muir Woods the following morning but thought that the Armstrong Redwoods would serve as a gentle introduction for the boys and would give them an opportunity to be a bit feral.  On a hot and sunny day, it was lovely to wander in the shade and cool of a grove of gigantic trees.  These type of sequoias are native to the Pacific coast and would once have covered a much greater expanse than they now do.  This species of trees are the tallest living organisms on the planet and it is possible for them to grow to be two thousand years old – though most are bright young things at just several hundred years old.  They can be 16 feet in diameter and can be over 300 feet tall.  It is impossible to convey the scale of the trees and my photography could not capture it accurately either.  I found it very peaceful to walk among these towering giants – well, as peaceful as a mother of four can ever feel – and looking up towards the canopy made me feel dizzy from the perspective.

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We visited the Colonel Armstrong tree.  At about 1400 years old, it is the oldest of the trees in the grove.  It takes its name, of course, from the man who decided to preserve this woodland and for whom the park is named.  The tallest tree in the park, meanwhile, is the Parson Jones tree.  It stands at 310 feet.



There is an easy trail to follow around the park and which led us past the most notable trees.  The icicle tree is one that has unusual burl formations on it.  Strangely enough, these burls – which are apparently incredibly heavy – grow in icicle shapes.  These are a way for the tree to grow downwards, I think, though I am far from certain.  People like to saw them off and use them to build furniture, though obviously the ones in the park are now protected.  The icicle tree is fenced off precisely because vandals have made off with its famous burls in the past.  We also found a few trees that had “goosepens”.  These are little caves inside the trunks of the gigantic trees.  The boys loved that they could all climb inside the interior of a tree.  It’s the type of place they would make into a gang hut if we had redwoods in our garden.  They got their name because apparently early settlers could keep their geese and other domestic animals inside the caves as natural enclosures.  The caves form when the trees are damaged, including by forest fires.  Since redwoods are fire resistant, they smoulder in unusual ways and I guess these hollows are the result if a tree already has a “wound”.  There was also a slice of tree with the rings marked for various historic events to illustrate just how many hundreds of years these redwoods can grow for.  There were also a number of trees that had fallen down and been left to become a different part of the ecosystem and massive stumps where trees had been felled.  These trees gave my boys ample opportunity to climb and jump.









Hungry after our walk outdoors, we ate a mundane meal with indifferent service in a nearby town.  It had looked like such a promising place to eat too so that was disappointing.  Still, it filled a hole and stopped the children from getting hangry and it set us up for our final trip of the day: Bodega Bay.


Road Trip 2017 #26 – Calistoga

It is not often that, when travelling as a family of six, there are opportunities to be spontaneous with the itinerary where accommodation is concerned.  However, for a variety of reasons, we decided to stay north of San Francisco for an additional night.  We had to change rooms within the hotel we were staying at but otherwise our plan came together.  This change of plan meant that we didn’t have to rush around on the fifteenth day of our vacation and nor did we have to factor in a long journey to the next destination.  Instead – after the very long drive the previous day – it meant we could stay local and undertake short journeys only.

We were staying in between Santa Rosa and Calistoga so decided to go and explore Calistoga.  Mr Pict and I had been there before as part of a route through Sonoma wine country and redwood forests.  I had eaten the single most scrumptious cake of my life – a chocolate mousse cake – in a redwood forest back in 2000 and hoped we might stumble across the store where I had bought it.  Alas, I did not find the store so could not repeat my edible experience.  Something we could repeat, however, was a trip to the Old Faithful geyser.


The geyser had certainly built up as a tourist attraction in the intervening seventeen years.  It was very basic back then – just the geyser and a paddock of fainting goats – but now it had been turned into a lovely spot to relax in.  It was even possible to bring a bottle of wine and enjoy a luxury picnic there.  That was not something we did, of course, but I could imagine it being a splendid spot for just such an afternoon of nibbling and quaffing.  Old Faithful is a geothermal geyser that was apparently released into activity by some chap drilling for a well in the late 19th Century.  It earned its name because it reliably erupts every 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the season.  When we were there, it was going off every 20 minutes and each blast lasted about 8 minutes, the water shooting tens of feet into the air and creating rainbows in the sunlight.  Our kids had never seen a geyser before so it was really cool to have them experience one that erupted so frequently.




The boys also loved that there were friendly animals they could interact with and feed.  There were llamas – one of which flopped onto the ground just like our three-legged cat does – and Jacob’s sheep with four prominent horns, and the famous fainting goats.  Tennessee Fainting Goats are a breed that goes rigid when in a state of panic and often fall over as a result.  Really they should be called Toppling Goats since they don’t really faint.  Last time I visited, I remember thinking it was a bit mean to have a small herd of these goats right next to a geyser.  If startled every time it erupted, the poor wee beasties would be going stiff and falling a few times every hour.  This visit, however, we learned that they quickly become used to their environment so were no longer phased by the geyser at all.  While this meant that we didn’t get to see them do the thing they are renowned for, we felt happy for the goats that this was the case.  With their bug eyes and diminutive frames, the goats are pretty adorable anyway, even without the collapsing antics.






We decided to chill in those surroundings for a while since we had declared we were having a lazy (or lazier) day.  We borrowed some bocce balls from the ticket desk and had a few games.  Bocce is essentially the same game as boules or petanque so we all knew what we were doing and – none of us having much skill – could play as equals.  We played as teams and got quite competitive.  It was great fun.  There were also games of noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe) set up on shaded tables, and we just enjoyed chilling out in the shade on comfy seats, watching the geyer and the goats.




Regular readers of this blog will know that I love to poke around in cemeteries.  It is one of my favourite things to do.  Having not had any other opportunities to do so, therefore, I decided we should visit the Pioneer Cemetery in Calistoga.  We used the Google Maps app to find the way and were led into a state park.  We parked the car and wandered through woods until we emerged into a clearing.  The clearing was where a church had once stood and where some graves remained.  Unfortunately, I quickly realised that we were in the wrong cemetery.  How could that be?  It turns out that Calistoga has two Pioneer Cemeteries.  We had chosen the wrong one when we used the sat nav app.  Still, it was not an entirely wasted trip since the youngest Pictling found some great climbing trees and the 10 year old finally found some lizards he had been hoping to see for the entire trip.



Back in the car we hopped and along to the correct Pioneer Cemetery.  By that juncture, however, I had lost the interest and reached the tolerance threshold of two thirds of the group so only the 10 year old and I got out for an explore.  The cemetery was built on a steep slope so the graves were arranged in terraces, almost like tiered paddy fields.  This way of organising things was handy as it meant that it was easy to map out different sections of the cemetery.  There was a useful map at the entrance that labelled each section and an alphabetical list of all those interred with a number corresponding to the relationship between their grave plot and the map sections.  If only all cemeteries were this organised!  We knew who we wanted to find so we studied the map and headed off.  Two of the survivors of the Donner Party are buried in the cemetery, sisters Lovina Graves Cyrus and Eleanor Graves McDonnell.  They were among a group of settlers who got trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains by snow in 1846 and who famously resorted to cannibalism to survive.  The sisters had been 12 and 14 at the time of the tragedy.  Their father was among those who perished when they set off to fetch help and their mother was one of those who was eaten*.  We found Lovina with ease but could not find her sister, despite the fact she should have been in the same small square of cemetery.  We found another nearby grave marked with the surname McDonnell so assumed that Eleanor perhaps had no grave marker.  Not to far away, we found the grave of Eli Philpott.  He was a stagecoach driver killed in the course of a robbery not far from Tombstone, Arizona.  A posse headed by the famous Earp brothers went out in search of the murderers and apparently this whole event was one of the catalysts that led to the gunfight at the OK Corral.  We were going to have a pootle around some of the many Civil War graves in the cemetery but we were conscious that everyone else was waiting for us so instead we had a quick stroll, encountered more lizards, got our legs badly scratched by thorny vines, and headed back to the car in order to head off for the next location for the day.



  • If you are interested in the story of the Donner Party, I recommend reading ‘Ordeal by Hunger‘ by George R Stewart.

Road Trip 2017 #25 – Yosemite

Fourteenth day of our road trip and we visited our tenth National Park.  The entrance to Yosemite is just north of Mammoth Lakes so we were able to arrive pretty early in the morning.  We were still at a high elevation at that end of the park and the mountains we passed had snow drifts tucked into their crevices and there were chunks of ice floating on the surface of the water.  We wound our way along the road, past rock faces lashed with small waterfalls and fast running creeks glimpsed through the trees.  Every time we turned a corner, we were met with a new, beautiful, striking vista.  One scene reminded my husband and sons of Rivendell, where some fancy elves live in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies.  We also saw the famous sights of El Capitan and Half Dome but only from the car.  There was no free space to park anywhere close that would have given us the opportunity to get out and have a look.





Yosemite has been protected land since the time of Abraham Lincoln  – and thanks in large part to my fellow countryman, John Muir – and it really does have that feeling of wilderness to it.  It is also incredibly vast.  We had lots of choices for places to hike to and in the end we plumped for the Yosemite Falls.  It was an easy walk that led us through woodland.  The route was paved the whole way but the younger boys and I chose to wade through some shallow water anyway, just for fun and to cool our feet.  It was not long before we could hear the strong rumbling of the waterfalls and a little further on we could feel the spray even before we could catch sight of the falls.








Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in the park and falls, in two drops, a total of 2425 feet.  Our walk brought us to the bottom of the lower falls where we could watch the water pounding into the pool and flowing out into the creek, hear its roar, and be cooled by its spray.  Despite the noise, despite the crowds, there was something restful about watching the falls, something mesmerising about it.  We spent some time taking in the view of the falls.





I wanted to cram in a visit to the Ahwahnee Hotel, as it’s interiors were used as the inspiration for some of the decor in the Overlook Hotel, the setting of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’.  As a big fan of the movie, it was a big pull for me.  However, Mr Pict was keeping a better eye on our timings than I was and pointed out that we still had a very long drive ahead of us.  Sadly, therefore, I had to accept that on this occasion I would have to abandon the film nerd bit of our visit to Yosemite.



The drive north was indeed long.  Long and boring.  Boring largely because it was relentless.  The landscape outside the car was actually fairly interesting, so it was not like the cabin fever boredom that sets in when driving through featureless desert.  There were rolling hills, golden grasses dancing in fields, and clouds in the sky.  Actual clouds.  I think they were the first clouds we had seen on our entire road trip.  Our route took us up and down steep mountains, on twisting roads, through areas devastated by wildfires with trees turned to charcoal.  What we did not pass was anywhere we could stop to eat.  By late afternoon we were ravenous but the only towns we passed through were too tiny to have a grocery store or place to eat.  This was not good planning on our parts.  We had water and the kids had access to some snacks but we were hungry enough that the cranky moods were kicking into gear.  The long stretches of nothingness somehow seemed longer because of our hunger.  We passed through Calaveras County, a place I had heard of because of Mark Twain and his jumping frog.  Having heard of it, I had some hope we would pass through a place big enough to at least have a convenience store we could grab some sandwich fixings from.  Alas, no.  We must have been in the depopulated part of the county.  We kept on trucking.  Finally, we reached civilization in the form of a truck stop.  We ate there – nothing special but we were grateful all the same – and then headed to our sleeping quarters for the evening, a hotel just north of Santa Rosa.

Road Trip 2017 #24 – Around Mammoth Lakes

After Bodie, we headed back towards Mammoth Lakes to see the local sights.  Our first stop was Mono Lake.  Mono Lake is a saline soda lake that is apparently even saltier than the sea.  Water from the lake was diverted to Los Angeles which substantially lowered the water level, increased its salinity, and exposed the tufa.  There was some sort of controversial and maybe debunked finding of non-carbon based life discovered in the lake – but that is science and I know nothing about that.  We opted to pull over at a park and take a walk down to the lake.  We should have done our research because there was no access to the water from the park.  Instead there was a boardwalk that led us down to the shore line to see the tufa.  It was a pleasant but frustrating short stroll, frustrating because I had wanted to see more of the landscape than I was able to see from the boardwalk.

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Next up was Hot Creek Geological Site.  This is a creek that tumbles down from the Sierra Nevada as very cold water but at the spot we visited, near Mammoth Lakes, the creek meets a magma-heated geothermal spring and heats up, bubbles, and steams.  From the car park, we could look down over a short wall to the creek below.  The pools immediately drew our eyes not just because they were steaming but mainly because they were a vivid, bright turquoise.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings decided to stay at the top while I took a walk down to water level.  Theirs was actually probably the better vantage point for viewing the pools but from ground level I could observe the creek water bubbling and little fish darting around.  I could also smell the distinctive smell of sulphur.





The kids were eager to go for a dip in some water so we took a drive through the lakes that give the town its name and finally reached Horseshoe Lake, one of the few lakes that permits paddling and swimming.  What we had not anticipated, as we drove up the mountains, was that there would still be snow on the ground at Horseshoe Lake.  The air temperatures had been so baking hot that it just seemed improbable that there could still be snow that had not melted but snow there was.  Our kids loved it.  It is not often that one gets to wear shorts and t-shirt in the snow after all.  The whole area had a weird, somewhat eerie quality to it because of the hundreds of dead trees.  Apparently an earthquake had led to carbon dioxide venting through the surface and killing off the trees.  Sounds like a safe place to let the kids play, right?  My kids decided they would act out the plot of ‘The Lorax’ given the setting.  I mean, what else would one do when surrounded by devastated truffula trees?  So there was a dramatic performance, snow to play in, but no swimming.  Despite the intention being to go for a swim or at least a paddle, as soon as they dipped a toe into the water they thought better of it.  It was freezing.  This should have been abundantly clear from the fact that dogs were playing in the water but the only humans out on the lake were in canoes.

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The whole Mammoth Lakes area is stunning and has a lot to see and do.  Mr Pict and I both agreed that we wished we had spent more time at Mammoth Lakes and sacrificed our time in Las Vegas – though we might have regretted not taking the kids to see Las Vegas.