The months of December and January rocked the communities of northern Ventura and southern Santa Barbara counties. A wildfire raged through the hills and communities, tearing through areas that hadn't burned in almost a hundred years. It burned 281,893 acres, making it the largest fire in modern California history, and its seventh most destructive, destroying over a thousand structures, including a large apartment complex several blocks from my home, and two people lost their lives. You'll still find signs around the cities declaring "Ventura Strong", "Santa Barbara Strong", and "805 Strong."
I'm on the search for the best tacos in Santa Barbara, and I started my quest at two of Santa Barbara's favorite taquerias: Lilly's Taqueria on Chapala Street and La Super-Rica Taqueria on Milpas Street. Both popular taquerias (you'll often find a line out the door at both) serve their tacos on soft corn tortillas, but I think that's where the similarities end. But who has the better taco in Santa Barbara?
San Francisco is a great food city. There's plenty of Michelin-starred restaurants helmed by celebrated chefs. Locally sourced ingredients feature heavily on most menus, and you can find excellent examples of cuisines from all over the world there. It's a city where like to spend money on food, and dining out is a form of entertainment. But is it possible to eat well and cheap in San Francisco?
Currently, my city is on fire. While wildfires are not a new thing for me (being a lifelong California resident), this one is unbelievably close; we're one block outside the mandatory evacuation zone. Electricity continues to flicker in and out, but we have water and gas. As of this afternoon, the fire has burned 45,000 acres, 150 homes, and one facility for people with mental health concerns and chemical dependencies. Grant Park burned, the botanical gardens burned, and a large apartment complex up the street burned to the ground at around 4 a.m. We've been up since three-thirty this morning awaiting news.
September is over and October is here. Autumn is in full swing: the colors of leaves are changing, the air is crisper, and every white woman in yoga pants is buying all things pumpkin spice flavored. After it was a million degrees in northern California at the beginning of September, the temperatures have finally fallen and I can start wearing sweaters again. Life is good.
I stayed close to home in March, mostly traveling back and forth between southern California and the San Francisco Bay area. Now that I've announced the big news to my family and friends, I'm ready to tell the world my big news: I purchased nearly eight acres of land outside Redding, California and will be building a house there over the next couple years. Making the first steps towards realizing a decade-long dream of owning land I can develop and farm is overwhelming, to say the least. In my best California vocabulary: I'm stoked.
October 2016 was an awesome month for travel. Here are the highlights and stats.
- Week long trip to Iceland, which included crossing off two items on my bucket list: hiking on a glacier and visiting the Icelandic Phallalogical Museum (thirty minutes of my life I will never get back *shudder*).
- One roundtrip transatlantic flight. Two airports visited: SFO and Keflavik.
- Day trip to Muir Beach and the Pelican Inn
- Two separate day trips to Santa Cruz: one to Fall Creek Unit of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park (pretty much my favorite place in Santa Cruz and California) and one to the city of Santa Cruz proper.
- Food highlights include the best cinnamon roll I've ever eaten, Icelandic hot dogs, hot chocolate from Chocolate at Santa Cruz, and milk chocolate almond toffee from Donnelly's Fine Chocolates.
In December 2015 and Memorial Day Weekend 2016, I was a member of two very different trips (one a gathering of college friends in a modern day woodsy fairyland castle and the other a birthday celebration for my boyfriend's mother) to the same place: Inverness, California. West Marin county is home to some of California's most beautiful coastline, rolling green hills with those happy cows from that very successful Californiacentric dairy campaign, and a nationally reserved seashore. Oh, and Tomales Bay oysters. Here are just seven reasons why Pt. Reyes should be your next weekend trip:
1. Beautiful beaches
I kind of think the photos speak for themselves. These are beautiful sandy and rocky beaches. We found a part of the beach that felt like our own private cove replete with caves and tidepools.
2. Cowgirl Creamery
Makers of the famous Mt. Tam and Red Hawk, as well as less known and seasonal cheeses, Cowgirl Creamery's dairy is located in Pt. Reyes. While you can find their cheeses in most grocery stores across the bay and they have their shop at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, there's something about buying their cheese in Pt. Reyes Station. This time around, I bought the seasonal St Pat, a spring cheese wrapped in nettle leaves.
3. Tomales Bay Oysters
I learned two things about oysters this weekend: my boyfriend's eleven-year-old nephew can shuck oysters faster and better than I can and you shouldn't eat them between May and August. They will be filled with milky, slimy not goodness: this is oyster spawning. *shudder* Every other time of year, absolutely take a trip to the Tomales Bay Oyster Company in Marshall, California and pick up a dozen or a couple dozen. My preference is the extra small or kumamotos.
4. Pt. Reyes Lighthouse
At the tip of the Pt. Reyes coast in the Gulf of the Farallones, is the historic Pt. Reyes Lighthouse. 300 steps down and 300 steps up, the lighthouse looks out to the Farallone Islands and is the edge of California. It is home to a beautifully crafted Fresnel lens and a clockwork mechanism.
5. Wildlife Viewing
I think I have waxed poetic about my love of the hideously adorable and gross elephant seals, but I can always say it again: I love these guys! The politics of elephant seal groups are fascinating and I could spend hours watching them.
Point Reyes is home to one of the largest Tule elk populations in California with over four hundred and forty elk. Majestic and imposing, spotting a Tule elk fills me with Bambi-like wonder and awe. This past weekend we spotted a well-antlered male with a harem of females. Right now is rutting season and the elk are traveling in large groups.
The flora changes with the seasons up here and fall's rusty reds, mustard yellows and eggplant purples have changed to the less dramatic but equally beautiful pastels of spring. Right now the grassy hills have soaked up the winter rains and maintain their velvet green winter coats.
7. Outdoorsing It
Kayaking and stand up paddle boarding are popular activities in the Tomales Bay. While I didn't find the kayaking to be as good as Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, we did see a sting ray and the waters are much calmer than Elkhorn Slough. They also have a nighttime bioluminescent kayak tour.
Cycling, hiking, and camping are also popular in the area. Samuel P. Taylor State Park and several private campgrounds provide car camping. Backpacking camps are available in Pt. Reyes National Seashore and these hikes in are a great introduction to backpacking. Pt. Reyes was my first backpacking trip; a college friend and I, me decked out with a falling apart Jansport backpack, met up with two of his friends. Less than five miles, it eased me in and gave me what I hope will be a lifetime love of backpacking.
8. Location, Location, Location
Pt. Reyes is less than a hundred miles from San Jose and even closer to San Francisco and the East Bay. Not far from Napa, the Sonoma coast, or the lushly green Russian River (also home to Russian River Brewing Company), Pt. Reyes is a great first stop on a longer California road trip or a great jumping off point for a long holiday weekend.
9. Incredible Vacation Rentals
Yes, they will be expensive and you will need to plan months in advance, but the two vacation rentals I've stayed at here have been stunning. Gives you a lot more privacy and it's just fun to see what people build.
Not quite the wine country of Napa or some parts of Sonoma, West Marin does host vineyards, breweries, and even a meadery. Several vineyards to check out: Pt. Reyes Vineyard Inn, Corda Winery north of Nicasio, and Sean H. Thackrey & Co. in Bolinas. I have yet to check out Heidrun Meadery, but they have a radish honey mead that sounds fantastic.
San Jose has a bad rap for being the hum drum suburban back waste of the bay. It's an out of place central valley farm town catapulted into the twenty first century by the tech industry. Every where I look new Archstone style apartment complexes are being built by overseas real estate investors and rents for run down 60s apartments skyrocket. Yes, San Jose is those things and it's not vibrant, hip or young or artsy, edgy, and diverse. Nor is it stately and rich. It's your suburban mom wearing high waisted jeans buying gossip mags in line at Safeway. But that's only part of it.
While strip malls and generic everything appear to us on the surface, what is also there are the numerous east African markets, Vietnamese noodle shops, and the always bound to be delicious taqueria inside or next to a laundry mat.
One of my favorite San Jose spots is located approximately two miles east of my apartment. On the western boundary of East San Jose is Kelley Park. Home to the well preserved and free San Jose Historic Park, Happy Hollow Zoo, and Japanese Friendship Garden, Kelley Park is bustling in the summer months and the 18 hole disc golf course is at its finest in winter. Want to feed koi and relax in the shade of Japanese maple? You can do that. Want to visit a museum displaying the history of the Vietnamese community in San Jose? That's there too.
But really I just go for the disc golf.
Henry W. Coe State Park, located outside of the Morgan Hill/Gilroy area, is the largest state park in northern California at 89,164-acres. In the fall, the park's fall foliage truly shines and after even the limited amount of rain we've received this year, the hills were hinting at green. Though I've lived up in the SF bay area for nearly twelve years, I've always avoided Henry W. Coe because I thought it would be boring, barren brown hills with the occasional stand of trees to take shelter from the sun under. But Henry Coe surprised me with its stands of Ponderosa pines, silvery shimmering fields of native California grasses, and mountain vistas. Getting There
We went from San Jose south on 101 and exited at East Dunne in Morgan Hill. Take a left after exiting the freeway and take East Dunne up the hill and into a swank neighborhood bordering Lake Anderson. Be careful to watch street signs up here; it's easy to take a wrong turn and end up on a private road. This curvy, nearly single lane road up to the East Dunne entrance and visitor's center is fun for people who enjoy driving, but I wouldn't try taking your RV or motion sickness prone compatriots up there.
There are apparently other entrances, but this was the closest to San Jose and according to the website it has the most amenities.
While there are stands of trees, most of the trails are steep and exposed, so this is definitely not a park to visit in the summer, early fall, late spring, or the random month of summer that always happens in February. We hiked from the Visitor Center at Coe Ranch Headquarters along the Corral Trail to Springs Trail. The single track trails are well maintained as are the fire roads. There was a controlled burn earlier in the week and the ground was still smoking in some areas. The up and down was steady in this area, but not overly steep. Other areas of the park have some apparently gnarly hills that are great for mountain biking.
Overall I would love to go back to Henry W. Coe for a longer visit. There's backpacking camps and swimming holes that still need exploring.
We drive south from the Oregon Caves National Monument, our first stop was for fudge and a giant blue ox. At the amazing tourist stop in Klamath, California, we sampled several different types of fudge (can I just say that I don't get fudge? Like at all.), touched the testicles of a big blue ox, and stood in my first ever phone booth. This is one of my favorite road side attractioms I've ever encountered and every time I'm in the area I take my picture with Babe. I do think they could up the realism and pump artificial syrup and pancake smells into the air; it should seriously be made into an air freshener with a hint of pine. Never once when stopping here have I taken a tour of the "Trees of Mystery", but as it sounds like something ridiculous and cheesy I would probably immensely enjoy it.
Driving through the Redwoods National Park, I feel transported to a primordial forest enveloped in green and mist. It reminds me of that fucking terrifying movie Fern Gully, which is not nearly as good of an animated environmental film as Pom Poko, but far far more terrifying. Ferns carpet the ground and through the trees the slate gray ocean peaks through. The northern California coast is beautiful, isolated and wild. These seemingly endless forests open to the Humboldt Bay, a place in my mind that sticks out as depressing and marshy. It is capped by the college town of Arcata in the north and barracaded in the south by the dreary forgettable town of Eureka.
Eureka is made more forgettable because it should be memorable. I have been to Eureka numerous times and I don't ever remember doing anything here. I recall a memory of being bitchy to my friends in a motel here and I remember dirty gray buildings with tweakers shambling by. I know there's supposed to be a good brewery there, but the one thing we did on this trip was eat sandwiches on the hood of my car in a parking lot overwhelmed by the scent of rotting seaweed.
We kept driving. Further south on 101 is a turn off for California 254. Alex and I were trying our damndest to keep the ocean in our sight. We wanted to take the road less traveled, even though I'm not a huge fucking Robert Frost fan. We were going towards Honeydew, a little place with a post office and a school bus stop. There might even be a zipcode. We drove up steep hills on dirt roads and I sat in the passenger window and watched the trees flash by in a slow blur. An area known for its hidden pot and opium farms, this probably wasn't the smartest or safest idea, not that I ever expected a guy to be at the end of the road shotgun casually at his side.
The coast continues rocky, rugged, and foggy. Mendocino and Fort Bragg are small, ridiculously quaint towns on the coast. We stop for clam chowder in Fort Bragg and watch the fog roll in. Grudgingly we progress inward towards Ukiah, the county seat of Mendocino and what I thought at the time was a real true shit hole of a town. Smoky and disgustingly hot, Ukiah did not leave a great impression on me. To further exacerbate my hatred of it, Alex beat me at Scrabble by getting a triple word and triple letter score on the word zine. I'm not sure if that's a word. I don't even think people were using zine in 2008 anymore. Later, I returned to Ukiah and realized there is a great brewery in the downtown area and it's a much better place if it's not 90 degrees and has the air quality of a smoker's lung.
We drove the highways through Sonoma wine country out to the coast and along Tomales Bay, past Drake's Bay and across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Richmond District where we ate delicious Chinese food. Highway 1 south, hugging the cliffs past the Montara lighthouse, the waves of Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, and finally home to Santa Cruz.
The small Sierra city of Sonora, the only incorporated town in Toulumne County, was our favorite "city" we visited on our Memorial Weekend road trip. This gold rush town lies in the heart of the Sierra Foothills at the intersection of California State Highways 49 and 108.. Walking these streets allows the visitor to reminisce of days gone by; brick buildings, historic homes, and western flare (including the most hideous American flag poncho I have ever seen). The county seat and city closest to Yosemite National Park, Sonora, though small, is not lacking in amenities, grand buildings, and good food.
Sonora is central. It is en-route to Yosemite National Park and nearby are Mercer Caverns, Railtown 1897 Historic State Park, the slightly Disney-esque Colombia State Historic Park, and the colorful Black Oak Casino. We drove from Jamestown to Sonora on Highway 49.
Accommodations can be difficult to find for a holiday weekend, but we planned ahead and snagged a reservation at the historic Sonora Inn. Built in 1896, the Sonora Inn feels like an old building. The hallways are narrow and the building doesn't follow modern architectural layouts (our room, 246, was in between floors). The beds are comfortable, the water gets hot in the shower, the HBO is free, and you're centrally located; however, the hallways smell terrible (rancid corn chips), the walls are thin, the breakfast lackluster, and it's a little on the expensive side ($140/night) for what you're getting.
We were looking forward to having a nice sit down meal in Sonora after our drive and tour of downtown Jamestown. Sonora has a number of restaurants ranging from sandwiches to Thai to Taquerias. Based on the reviews in the literature we picked up from the Tuolumne County visitor's center, we selected Talulah's. Our hostess greeted us with a smile and "Do you have a reservation?". We noted that almost every table in the restaurant had a reserved sign on it, except the one directly in front of the door. Happy to sit down for our meal and not have to make another choice, we sat down and began looking at the menu. We started our meal with house made bread and olive oil. I ordered mango chutney glazed salmon with sauteed vegetables and brown rice. The boyfriend ordered Cajun pasta. The filet of salmon was large, but slightly overcooked with an overly sweet sauce, which I enjoyed. The vegetables were completely forgettable. The sauce in the boyfriend's dish drowned the pasta, sausage, shrimp and chicken. Overall, I found the food slightly better than mediocre with excellent service.
Sights and Architecture
Sonora contains a number of buildings which piqued my interest. Standing at the end of the main street with its quaint steeple is the red church, otherwise known as St. James Episcopal Church, built in 1859. Across the street from the red church is the most elegant dental office and quite possibly the world's largest street lamp. We continued our walk despite a sudden late spring downpour and made our way to the county courthouse, built from 1898-1900 and still occupied. We took some photos with bomb replicas behind the Tuolumne County Veteran's Museum. However, none of these piqued my interest like the large mysterious domed building looking over the city as a sentinel. We walked back through downtown, up a steep hill, and found ourselves in front of one of the most ornate school district buildings I've ever laid eyes on.
Known locally as the Sonora Dome, it was originally built in 1909 as an elementary school and housed the Sonora Union High School District until 2010 when costs to make it earthquake safe and ADA compliant would have been prohibitively expensive. It is now home to the Tuolumne County Arts Alliance. Looking inside, we saw mostly boxes of paperwork and old musical instruments.
Unfortunately, we were in a rush to get to a show at the Black Oak Casino and did not have time to see the historic courthouse. We'll have to save it for another trip to the Mother Lode.
We loved Sonora and I want to go back to see the historic opera hall, visit the museums we did not have time for, and check out the moaning caverns near by.
The theme of this week's posts was my Memorial Weekend trip to California Gold Country. Here are some of my best photos from our afternoon spent at Railtown 1897 Historic State Park:
The rusting engine in front of the park.
A steam engine in repair.
Steam engine No. 34
Early 20th century steam rail cab
The Hetch-Hetchy speeder
The fire brigade speeder following us on our trip
Getting ready to bring the speeder into the Roundhouse
Who doesn't need a free beer while getting a hair cut?
The Mother Lode. For me this name conjures an image of an intergalactic flying space turd. Kind of a horrifying image, right? But perhaps I watch too much Futurama. A Mother Lode is a principle vein or zone of mineral veins, typically gold, silver, or ore. In California, the Mother Lode is an area in the southeast Sierra Nevada extending from El Dorado County in the north and Mariposa County in the south. This area produced more gold than almost any other area in the United States in its heyday. Now it is an area that relies on tourism to bring in money and has a number of state parks devoted to the story of gold. Our journey centered on Toulumne and Calaveras counties. The majority of Toulumne county is taken up by Yosemite National Park. As we were venturing out on Memorial Day Weekend, and I already have a Yosemite trip planned for later this summer, we wanted to avoid crowds and experience the rest of the area. Toulumne county is small: it is home to approximately 55,000 people and has only one incorporated city, Sonora, which is also the county seat. In spite of its small size, Toulumne has a lot to offer the tourist, especially one who is a state park and California history enthusiast such as myself.
Getting to Jamestown, and the rest of the Mother Lode, is an easy drive from the bay area. It takes about two and a half hours in good traffic, plus there are a number of In 'N Out locations which are an essential to any California road trip. In fact, I only eat In 'N Out on road trips.
Directions to Jamestown from the South Bay
From the 237 east (we were coming from Mountain View), get on 880 north and take this to 680 north. From the 680 get on 580 east toward Tracy over the Altamont pass. Get on 205 east and take this to 120 east and follow this and the 108 toward Jamestown.
Jamestown is a census designated place in Toulumne county with a population of around 3,000 (though the population sign for Jamestown says there is only around 900). Antique stores, historic hotels and saloons line Main Street Jamestown. We wandered around here for about an hour, purchased an old set of Boggle which was in excellent condition and Girl Scout handbook from the 1960's at an antique store. There's also a legit gold panning store where you can sign up for gold panning expeditions. Honestly, downtown Jamestown was not really our type of place and an hour of wandering through antique stores was plenty of time, but the buildings dating back to the 1850s through the Victorian era are quite well restored.
The real reason for our visit, and pretty much any visit, to Jamestown was to go to Railtown 1897. Railtown 1897 is a California State Historic Park situated several blocks from Main Street Jamestown. We arrived too late on Saturday to ride a train, but we explored the other parts of the park.
Railtown 1897 is a state historic park commemorating the historic Sierra Railway Company started in 1897. The roundhouse at the park is only one of two operating roundhouses in the United States which maintains steam engines. These steam engines have been lovingly restored with the expert knowledge of volunteer mechanics and millions of dollars in donations from people like Clint Eastwood. Also at the park is a Blacksmith Shop and an exhibit of the movies and television shows these trains have featured in, including Back to the Future 3, Unforgiven, and Petticoat Junction.
On Sunday we journeyed back from Sonora to ride the train at 10:30 in the morning. The train ride costs $15 per adult and includes admission to the park, a thirty minute tour of the roundhouse (which is not accessible otherwise), and a forty-five minute ride on a steam train. The steam trains generally operate on weekends and during the week they run diesel trains. I highly recommend waiting for the weekend and riding the steam; it is definitely a unique experience. We had the especial privilege of riding Engine No. 3 which was featured in Back to the Future 3 and is an engine they typically do not use unless it is a holiday.
To start with, we went on the thirty minute tour of the Roundhouse. Our tour guide Ken was informed enough and a pretty good story teller, though we were afraid to ask him any particularly difficult questions because his knowledge did seem limited. This is not a tour for young children who just want to ride the "choo-choo". We had a number of families who started off with us and dropped off about five minutes into the tour. As train enthusiasts, we were fascinated by the engines that were in current repair and the history behind them. My particular favorite was the Hetch-Hetchy Speeder which was used to traffic people to and from the Hetch-Hetchy dam project.
Outside the Roundhouse is an actual operating platform that turns the trains around. On Saturday we got to see them moving Steam Engine No. 3 and a speeder into the Roundhouse. It was an incredibly cool and well timed performance by the engineers to watch. I am amazed that people have passed down the knowledge to keep these trains operating and maintained.
After the Roundhouse tour, hop on the train and find a seat in the back where the views are the best. We unfortunately were not able to find a seat in the back of the train and settled for a two person seat near the front of our train. The train ride is smooth and fairly slow as you make your way through oak studded hills passing ranches and creeks. The best part is when the steam escapes from engine and makes that classic train sound. When they reach the top of the line, the engine decouples from the cab and moves to the back of the train. The ride back to the park is faster as the ride is downhill.
Unless you are a freak for antique stores or want to enjoy a whiskey in a historic saloon, you can skip downtown Jamestown and go straight to Railtown 1897. Railtown 1897 is absolutely kid friendly, affordable, and will provide the special experience of riding a steam train. We saw a number of children, and adults, having a fantastic time.
After a round of disc golf and a sixteen mile bike ride, my friend and I continued to Santa Teresa County Park off Highway 101 in South San Jose. A 1,627 acre getaway from the sprawl of strip malls and congestion, Santa Teresa County Park provides miles of trails for hikers, bikers, and equestrians. We enjoyed a 2.5 mile hike through non-native grasslands and oak, with spectacular views of downtown San Jose and the rolling hills that evolve into Henry Coe State Park. Spring right after a rain is an excellent time to visit with moderate temperatures and wildflower displays.
"In 1812, Russian and Alaskan explorers and traders established Fort Ross at Metini, a centuries-old Kashaya Pomo coastal village"
Situated approximately 12 miles north of Jenner on Highway 1 and on our way back from Salt Point State Park, Fort Ross is a fascinating piece of American, and particularly Californian history, that I knew very little about. I'm not going to go into great deal about the history of Fort Ross, or really at all. That can be better explained by the literature on the Fort Ross Conservancy website. What I will tell you about is how much our group enjoyed the trip here.
We were not expecting much. Our group was rather moody after a morning rain woke us up at our campsite at Salt Point. After packing up in pouring rain, we drove south. Though members of the group were less than enthusiastic about stopping at Fort Ross, I urged us to do so and it turned out much better than expected.
At the edge of the parking lot lies a replica of a wind mill, recently created to celebrate the bicentennial of Fort Ross. We thought it was so cool that the signs were in Russian and English. Most impressive about the wind mill, and the rest of the construction of Fort Ross, is the lack of nails and the level of craftsmanship.
From there, I convinced the others to continue to the fortress down the hill. It helped that there was a paved walk way and the rain had stopped. The first building we stopped at was Rotchev House, a national historic landmark. The Rotchev House is unique; it is the only surviving original Russian built structure in the United States outside of Alaska
Moving on from the Rotchev House we checked out the blockhouses, there are two: one with seven sides and the other with eight. The blockhouse closest to the ocean provides beautiful views. On the opposite end of the fortress is the Russian Orthodox chapel. This chapel is the first Russian Orthodox structure in North America outside of Alaska. Outside the building is a bell etched with angels and Russian text.
The most impressive structure in the fortress is the Kuskov House, the administrator's house from 1817 to 1838. On the first floor is the armory and replicas of farming tools. When we were there, a volunteer was cleaning replica muskets and told us the history of Fort Ross. He probably could have talked to us all day and really knew his stuff, but the smell of metal cleaning chemicals turned me off. Upstairs are bedrooms, a spinning room, and the Voznesenskii Room, set up for the naturalist and artist Ilya Gavrilovich Voznesenskii.
Check out Fort Ross. It is an interesting piece of history that most people don't know about. I recommend not going when it is raining.
"At some point, you just get pretty overload and stop seeing anything, but this just rejuvenated my pretty processing." -Member of My Camping Group
Salt Point State Park, approximately 120 miles north of my apartment in San Mateo, can be just that: exhaustively beautiful with towering redwoods, aquamarine coves ringed by golden sandstone tafoni (I'll explain later what tafoni are), and meadows of wild grasses. Spring is the time to go: the even minimal winter rains we received this year were enough to make this landscape verdant, an electric spring green only previously found in your Crayola box.
As always, do not rely on your GPS. Print out directions as you will almost definitely lose signal at the end.
From the South (As in, you're coming from the Bay)
This is a beautiful and fun drive, especially for people who enjoy twists, turns, and cliff sides. Not particularly great for people who suffer from motion sickness, but I managed okay and I can get car sick when I'm driving.
There are several routes you can take and they all offer up their own unique enjoyments.
Route Through Bodega Bay (101 North to Highway 1 North from Rohnert Park)
This route will take you through hills that are likely featured on those happy cow commercials. Idyllic green pastures studded with meadows of wild flowers and iconic black and white cows line this twisting path. Bodega Bay is one of the larger outposts on the Sonoma Coast and is home to multiple seafood restaurants, galleries, and salt water taffy shops. It's not a particularly picturesque bay, but it's a nice place to stop and stretch your legs before the final leg of the journey. We stopped here on our way back from Salt Point and enjoyed fresh oysters on the half shell and slightly under-seasoned clam chowder in a bread bowl at the Fishetarian Deli.
Route Through Guerneville (101 North to 116 West to 1 North)
This is a great route to take and check out the Russian River from Johnson's Beach in Guerneville. Guerneville is a quaint tourist spot of about five thousand people tucked next to the Russian River and the redwood forests. It has some fairly good restaurants, is close to Sonoma county wineries, , and is home, of course, to the Russian River Brewing Company makers of Pliny the Elder and an amazing porter.
Each of these paths will take you past Jenner, where the Russian River empties into the Pacific, a town of about 100 people with several motels and an Indian restaurant.
We originally started as a group of 12. I reserved two camp sites to accommodate the number of cars we would have. As in all state parks, they limit the number of cars to two for each site. Each site includes the price of one vehicle, each additional vehicle is ten dollars. Eventually, our group dwindled down to six, but the campsites at Woodside Campground are small, so we were thankful for the extra space. The sites are well spaced and shielded from each other with thick trees and brush.
Quiet Hours: 8 am to 10 pm
We're a fairly loud, raucous group of mostly drunk people in our late twenties, early thirties and we did not appear to bother anyone staying up past the quiet hours. It helped there was another group being just as loud as us. And none of those people in RVs were running their generators past 10 pm.
Can I Get Drunk Here and Not Be Bothered?
Sure! While it is not legal to drink outside of your tent, because that would be in public and that is illegal, offensive, and outrageous behavior, we were able to drink plenty without getting bothered by anyone. Those of us with cards were able to imbibe in other substances without any complaints. Just be fairly quiet and don't be an insensitive asshole. If you're a real stickler for the law, then drink it in your tent or not at all.
Cell Phone Service?
Those of us with Verizon and Sprint had no coverage, but the one person with AT&T was able to get one bar. Don't rely on it. Turn it off and enjoy being detached from your electronic leash for a couple days.
The bathrooms were right across from us, which was convenient for drunken stumbling in the dark, and people were fairly quiet about using them in the morning. The toilet paper was fairly good quality and well stocked by staff. They were well maintained, but there is no soap provided so bring your own or don't care.
There are no showers here, so just plan on being grimy for a couple of days.
Firewood is available from the camp hosts, who were completely inept and had no idea how camp site reservations worked, but they could certainly sell you firewood. It was 12 dollars a bundle and two dollars for a bundle of kindling. It does not come in boxes or with ties, so bring the car down or your own box.
Things to See/Do
You could do this, but I don't know anything about it.
You could do this, but don't take more than five pounds per person and don't do it if you're not absolutely familiar with the species around here.
Gerstle Cove Trail
While Salt Point State Park does not offer a great amount of hiking, the hiking it does provide is varied and enjoyable. We spent an evening and one full day in the park. On our full day, myself, boyfriend, and a co-worker of mine went on a morning hike to Gerstle Cove. Gerstle Cove is a horse-shoe shaped cove of aquamarine waters surrounded by golden sandstone. The sandstone features the unique tafoni formations. Tafoni, an Italian word for cavern, refers to the divets, holes, and ridges formed in the sandstone through thawing-freezing cycles, salt weathering, and structural variation in permeability.
The trail from the campground to Gerstle Cove is mostly downhill through Bishop pines, coastal redwoods, cypress, pine and rhododendrons (that do not blossom until late April) which opens up to coastal grasses and rocks. There is a picnic area at South Gerstle Cove, which we did not use.
Fisk Mill Cove
Walking north from Gerstle Cove is the Visitor Center, which was closed at 1:30 pm despite the sign on the door stating it was supposed to be open. From there you can take a path down to Gerstle Cove where there are tide pools, which most of us found to be mediocre. This is a protected marine sanctuary, but we saw very little marine life compared to most areas along the central and northern California coast. There was one seal who was hanging out near a rescue Jet-Ski.
Going north from Gerstle Cove on the Salt Point Trail will take you to the Sentinel Rock viewing point. From there you get an excellent view of Fisk Mill Cove, another incredibly beautiful horse-shoe shaped cove. On the viewing platform are benches and the names of previous carved into the soft wood. It's not a particularly reassuring platform and I wouldn't go jumping up and down on it.
At the park's highest point, lies the pygmy forest; this is at the end of a fire road. Along the fire road, are informational placards about the native flora, which I always appreciate as a total California native plant nerd (talk about niche interests!). This road passes several large wooden water tanks and finishes at the forest. I've encountered these types of forests before in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and other areas of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The high acidity and lack of nutrients, as well as a hardpan layer, stunts the growth of cypress, pine, and redwoods in this area. It sounded cuter than it looked, but we still really liked it.
This was a great trip! It was just the right distance from home; we did not feel exhausted from the drive, but it was far enough away that we felt we were on a vacation. I might come in the summer next time, especially after having to take a tent and pack a car in the one downpour this spring.
"At America’s Newest National Park, the possibilities for discovery are limitless! Climbing and hiking among the breathtaking spires and rock formations that gave Pinnacles its name is only the beginning of what the park has to offer." -National Park Service
Pinnacles National Park, previously Pinnacles National Monument, was established 2013, making it the national parks system's newest park. Located on the edge of the Salinas Valley, this park features its signature volcanic rock features, a cave system, condor breeding grounds, rock climbing, and panoramic views of San Benito County and the Salinas Valley. Approximately 26,000 acres, Pinnacles National Park receives around 225,000 visitors a year.
Important to know: there is no road going through the park. You must choose either the east or west entrance.
From the San Francisco Bay Area for West Entrance: Take Hwy 101 south to the town of Soledad, and then take Hwy 146 east. Take care as you're driving through town; the highway takes a few turns. Follow Hwy 146 for 14 miles into Pinnacles National Park.
From the San Francisco Bay Area to the East Entrance: Take Hwy 101 south through the city of Gilroy to Hwy 25 south. On Hwy 25, go through the town of Hollister and continue about 30 miles to Hwy 146. Turn right on Hwy 146, then turn left into the Pinnacles Campground to check in at Pinnacles Visitor Center. From the campground, the Bear Gulch Area is 3.5 miles further into the park along Hwy 146. Take care on the Hwy 146; it can be windy and rough in places.
Places of Interest
I have been to Pinnacles more times than any other national park, but come to think of it, I don't think I've been there since it turned into a national park. What I love about this park are the rock features, caves, and the views. What I don't love about this park is how hot it gets; the sun is relentless in the summer time. Hint: go in the spring, go in the winter, go in the fall; don't go in the summer. In spite of my numerous trips, there are places in the park I have never been and others places I would love to see again.
The East Side
North Chalone Peak is the highest point in the park at 3306'. The trail up to the top is not well used, but it is very well maintained. This is definitely not a trail that you would want to do in the summer. There is little tree cover and you gain 2,000 feet in elevation. The trail is around 9 miles from the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. It takes you through Bear Gulch Cave and Bear Gulch Reservoir. At the top you are rewarded with excellent views of the Salinas Valley, as long as the fog hasn't rolled in already.
The High Peaks trail is my favorite in the park. It has the most interesting terrain, including a point where stairs are carved into the mountain. Start from Bear Gulch Day Use Area, take the High Peaks Trail through the High Peaks and descend through meadows of chaparral grasses to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. This is 6.7 miles and gains 1,475 feet in elevation.
Bear Gulch Cave/Reservoir
Bring your flashlight! A short walk will bring you to the Bear Gulch Cave and on the other side is the Bear Gulch Reservoir. These are talus caves (caves created by boulders) and a breeding ground for Townsend's big eared bat. This is the largest colony between San Francisco and Mexico. The cave is completely closed from May-June for pupping season, but other times of year it is either partially or completely open.
The West Side
The west side of the park, while easier to get to, is also less developed than the east side. The best thing to see on this side of the park is the Balconies. The Balconies include a talus cave and cliffs. I would definitely not try to go through the Balconies Cave when it is raining as we tried to do. We didn't get much further than about ten feet deep in the cave when we realized that we were probably making a poor life choice. Instead, we went up a trail that took us along the cliffs. It was actually quite enjoyable in the light rain. Much better than being in blistering, endless sun.
There are other things you can do in the park, such as climbing or birding. There are apparently condors here but I have never seen one in the five times I've been to the park. I have never rock climbed here, but I've heard the climbing is great and Pacific Edge gym in Santa Cruz regularly organizes outdoor climbing trips there.
This baby of the park system is a wonderful place to visit. Most of its sights can be seen in a day and it's super close to a major highway, making it an ideal family destination. Unlike many of the other national parks, Pinnacles is ideal to visit in winter and has wildflower blooms in the spring.
"I love the sea and I love the mountains and the hollows in the hills and the shady places in the creeks and the fine old oaks and even the hot brushy hillsides . . . I would rather spend a month here than any place in the world.”- William Randolph Hearst
While Hearst was a controversial figure in journalism and politics for much of the late 19th and early 20th century, and his extravagant wealth and aggressive personality was in the inspiration for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, his perspective on the central California coast is to be admired. An undeveloped and often overlooked area, outshone by the sandy, sunny beaches of the southern coast and the mystical, looming redwoods of the north, and of course the jewel of the California coast, Big Sur, this section of coast has much to offer the traveler: Hearst Castle, elephant seals, Morro Bay with its similarly named monolith, and a string cozy, quaint beach towns.
Hearst San Simeon State Park, located between Cambria and San Simeon, is one of the oldest parks in the California park system. Established in 1932, it consists of over 3,000 acres of vast wetlands, riparian zones and the unique mima mound topography. Found at the park's beaches and further up the coast at Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve, elephant seal rookeries.
From the North
From Santa Cruz we took the scenic route along Highway 1 through Big Sur and the Ventana Wilderness. There are other ways to get there, but they aren't nearly as beautiful. Be prepared for hair pin turns, sheer cliffs, and road construction. I like to make a stop at Piedras Blancas State Marine Reserve where you can observe the complicated politics of elephant seal harems.
From the South
From Los Angeles area take US 101 to San Luis Obispo then get on Highway 1 North. This is also a beautiful drive at times, taking the traveler along the Santa Barbara coast line and wine country. Stop in at the kooky Andersen's Pea Soup restaurant for the eponymous pea soup with accompanying cheese, onion, ham, and bacon.
There are two campgrounds at the park: San Simeon Campground and Washburn Campground. San Simeon is the larger of the two, closer to the highway, and allows for RVs. Neither campground currently has showers or flush toilets, but there are chemical toilets and running water. Each site has a fire ring and a picnic table. The sites at San Simeon Campground are huge and fit our four tents and three cars.
The sites are packed in and the campground is noisy. We were definitely one of the more raucous groups at the campground; most of the other campers were family groups. We were the people having a few drinks and there was the famous vomiting incident of San Simeon which inspired several children to become teetotalers for life.
The campground is very close to the beach, there were great trees for hanging a hammock and overall we enjoyed our camping experience here.
Places of Interest/Activities
There's not particularly a whole lot of things to do around here except go visit Hearst Castle. We walked all the trails in the park within a couple of hours and hung out at the beach. Mostly this was a way for us to experience the beautiful drive and hang out with our friends from Los Angeles. The trails that are there take you through some nice wetlands and I enjoyed exploring on the beach, which is more driftwood and rocks than sand. If you are used to the sandy beaches of southern California, this might not be your idea of beach.
San Simeon trail is a short hike through the riparian zone and wetlands with a few trees and grassland. In the winter season visitors will be able to view monarch butterflies coming through on their migration. We were here in June so we did not see any butterflies.
There was a peaceful clearing along the trail that we sat at for a while on a large log. It's not a terrible hike and is for most level of hikers. Part of it is a wooden boardwalk, which is nice for those who are very low key nature enjoyers or require an accessible hike.
Beach and Tide Pools
As I mentioned above, this is not your typical white sandy beach. At first look it can look a little dirty and is close to the highway, but if you walk past the entrance it is actually quite nice. Our first we enjoyed a beautiful sunset. Be careful of the snowy plover area where they lay their eggs.
I enjoyed a sunrise walk to the beach our first morning there and photographing the sea plants, rocks, and swallows who build their nests underneath the highway bridge. If you walk north along the beach you will find more rocks and tide pools with sea anemone, urchins, and snails.
The main reason why people come to camp at Hearst San Simeon State Park is its easy access to the state and national historic monument: Hearst Castle. Hearst Castle is expensive and requires reservations through most of the year to tour. However, there is a free museum in the lobby which we checked out. It features the history of the Hearst Family, their relationship with architect Julia Morgan, and artifacts the family collected through the years. Our favorite part of Hearst Castle were the zebras we saw from the side of the road. My boyfriend was completely astonished, having no clue the Hearst family collected exotic animals. It's definitely not everyday you see zebras roaming the golden hills of California.
Hearst San Simeon State Park is not a quiet campground get away and there's not much to offer in terms of hiking, but it's proximity to Hearst Castle makes it a great place to stop for the night. I enjoyed the beach and tide pools, as well as hanging out with my friends for a night. It was great as a central meeting place for people coming from different ends of the state. Overall, a good escape from the daily grind.
"This landscape testifies to nature's size, beauty, and diversity - huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns, and the world's largest trees." National Park Service
Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks are sister parks in the southern Sierra Nevada. On the National Park website, they are lumped in together and I have a hard time remembering which sites are in which park. Home to the world's largest trees and some of the deepest canyons in the world, these parks are often overshadowed by their more famous neighbor Yosemite.
There are also marmots.
The National Park Service warns travelers not to rely on GPS as they are not reliable in this area.
Getting to Sequoia/King's Canyon is not a difficult enterprise, especially in the summer. In the winter be prepared to be bring snow chains and know that roads are suspect to closure. There is no through highway connecting the east and west sides of the park.
Highway 180 east from Fresno enters the Grant Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park, then continues 30 miles east to the Cedar Grove area. Highway 180 ends 6 miles east of Cedar Grove.
Highway 198 enters Sequoia National Park from the southwest via Three Rivers.
Places of Interest
The park can be divided into five distinct regions: Foothills, Mineral King, Giant Forest/Lodgepole, Grant Grove, and Cedar Grove. Mineral King and Cedar Grove areas are only accessible in the summer, but the other three areas are open year round. I've explored Giant Forest/Lodgepole and Grant Grove areas in both summer and winter. In this post I will be focusing on Giant Forest/Lodgepole in the summer.
This region of the park is home to many of the world's largest trees. It makes up the largest area of the park and is an excellent area for hiking of all levels, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. The National Park Service recommends the Giant Forest Museum (summer only), General Sherman Tree, Sentinel Tree, Moro Rock, Tunnel Log, Crescent Meadow, and Crystal Cave. Being the winner I am, I have not been to any of these sights. Crystal Cave and Moro Rock have been on my to do list for a while; I will definitely be checking them out on my next visit.
Alta Peak Hike
A couple of years ago I obsessed over the website summitpost.org and peak bagging. It was on this website that Alta Peak caught my eye. Described as a relatively easy, accessible, but fairly high peak at over 11,000 feet, it seemed like a perfect warm up to something bigger. It still remains the highest mountain that I've climbed.
While Alta Peak can easily be done as a day hike, my climbing partner and I were coming from the San Francisco Bay Area and wanted to take our time with the hike. Our main concern was the elevation difference between our starting point, Santa Cruz, and our destination, so we planned our trip as an overnight backpacking trip. If you are camping in the backcountry you need to stop at Lodgepole Visitor Center and get a $15 backpacking permit. During the quota period (May 22, 2015 through September 26, 2015), rangers limit the number of backpackers per trailhead. From here we drove to the Alta Trail head at Wolverton.
There are plenty of water sources on the way in the guise of streams. Make sure you bring plenty of water and a way to purify water from natural sources. I typically go with iodine tablets which take about thirty minutes to purify, are small and light, and easy to use; they do have a funky taste to some people. The trail is fairly steep on the way up to Panther Gap, which is the first great vista along this trail.
From Panther Gap continue up the trail. The trail hugs the side of a mountain and it's a long way down. At one point I lost my balance and tripped, nearly tumbling 6,000 feet down. There are plenty of rock formations, wildflowers, and birds. I kept thinking this would be a great place to go rock climbing, though I'm not sure if I would want to haul all the gear up there.
By the way, this area of the park is not where you will find the giant trees. The sub-alpine meadows, granite rock formations, and distant snowy peaks remind me of Yosemite.
At around five miles in we came to Mehrten Meadow, a beautiful wildflower filled meadow at 9,140 feet. We set up camp close between the trail and a burbling creek. There are few places I can imagine more idyllic for a campsite. We ate a dinner of jerky, a couple of backpacking meals, and hot cocoa. The temperatures drop quickly at this altitude even in the summer so make sure to bring layers.
The last two miles were steep and challenging, crossing over icy snow, rocky terrain, and sneaky marmots; they don't want to be seen, but we spotted a couple. Crossing icy snow was a new experience for me and Ryan walked me through it. On our June trip, the last part of the trail was covered by snow and we carefully made our way up to the top.
After trudging up the snow, we were rewarded with a panoramic vista of the Kaweah Range and Pear Lake. They are absolutely stunning and absolutely worth it.
We snapped a couple of photos at the top, got bothered by bees and attempted to spot a marmot or two. My favorite part of the hike was the controlled butt slide I took back down the trail from the top. So much fun!
Between the giant trees, grand vistas, and jagged peaks, Sequoia/King's Canyon is a must see for a peak bagger, day tripper, or car tourist. I can't wait until I can go back for Moro Rock. And marmots.