Educational fun at the California Interpretive Center

This article produced in partnership with TravelNevada

The warning bells of a backseat scuffle were unmistakable. “Turn it down, Aiden!” “Make me!” I couldn’t blame my daughter, Sam, for getting impatient. The tinny electronic music drifting from Aiden’s tablet game had been giving me a headache, and we were still a long way from Salt Lake City. Mike and I were in awe of the rugged desert landscape along I-80, but every time we tried to point out a red-tailed hawk or another range of snowy mountains, the kids didn’t even bother looking up from their screens. This was the first we’d heard a peep from them since we left Sacramento.

It was time for a break. We all needed some fun things to do. I remembered one of my friends from the gym talking about a hands-on western history place they’d stopped near Elko, Nevada, and Mike had pointed out a billboard for it on the way. “Ok everyone, we’ve got a mission! Keep your eyes peeled for the California Trail Interpretive Center!”

Emerging from the digital

The kids actually put down their screens when they saw the white tops of covered wagons in front of a stone-and-aluminum building that drew an admiring murmur from Mike, who’s been into “green” architecture lately. By the time we pulled off the highway and into the parking lot, the kids had their hats on and their shoes tied. There was life in them yet. I was starting to worry they were USB-powered.

We walked up a long plaza that Sam realized was a map of the Great Basin. She shouted, “Race you there!” and ran into the building, Aiden a step behind. Mike rolled his eyes. “I wonder how much this is going to cost us.”

We were so surprised when the friendly lady at the front desk told us that admission was free. “There’s a kids’ program outside today,” she added, “pioneer chores and games.” We rounded the kids up from the gift shop and started them through the exhibits.

Touching history

First of all, if you go (and you should go, especially if you want the kids to never complain about having to sit in a car for a road trip again), you should know this place is huge, with a lot of displays to read and things to do. We already knew we’d have to stop in again on the way back just to catch everything. Sam was nearly in tears after the film about the Donner Party. She hadn’t realized there had been children trapped in the mountains. I hadn’t, either. I think we all emerged from that exhibit feeling thankful that we were alive and together—and that we could drive across the desert instead of walk.

We ended up with enough time to participate in the kids’ program they were running. Aiden assured me that if we used a washboard instead of a washing machine at home, he would personally do all the laundry. That was actually the only time either one of them asked for their electronics; Sam wanted me to take a video of her throwing a tomahawk “so I can Instagram it, Mom.” Then she handed the phone right back to me and started chasing her brother through the life-size model Shoshone summer encampment behind the building.

Before we left, one of the volunteers handed us auto tour guides on the California Trail for Nevada and Utah so the kids could follow along in the back seat, and Sam bought a book about the youngest member of the Donner party. There was peace in the car the rest of the trip, and, wonder of wonders, not an electronic beep to be heard. Aiden was so engrossed in following the trail that he didn’t even turn his tablet on.

The kids have demanded we make the California Trail Interpretive Center a required stop for all future road trips. Fun without a glowing screen involved? Yeah, I think we can make that happen.

Plan your next road trip stop at the California Trail Interpretive Center!

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