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."
There's another post dedicated to my love of Fall Creek Unit in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. I can wax poetic about the verdancy of the ferns, the towering heights of the second-growth coastal redwoods, and the rushing creeks forever. I love taking people to Fall Creek and manage to get out there at least several times a year, even though I don't live in Santa Cruz anymore.
Technically part of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, Fall Creek Unit is tucked away up the street from downtown Felton on the way to Bonny Doon. I reverently refer to it as the "Magical Fairy Forest." Towering redwoods, a creek running full year round, and historic lime kilns, it is a favorite of locals and trail runners. The hikes run on the short side, but they are perfect for an afternoon hike in the hot California autumn.
If you want a beautiful, cool walk in the woods without the crowds you find at Henry Cowell or Nisene Marks, then Fall Creek Unit is the place for you.
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.
What do you do when you think you're coming down with a cold? Rest in bed, put on Netflix, get a bowl of chicken soup? Maybe. Do you know what I do? I get my boyfriend out of bed at 7:30 am and tell him we're going on a hike even though my throat is sore and that soreness is working its way into my ears. Body aches? Check. Tickle in the throat? Check. But the sun is shining and I want nature.
I thought Henry W. Coe was beautiful in the fall with rolling hills and the foliage, but this late winter/early spring border time the rain creates hills with a neon Crayola spring green velvet fuzz. Grass is not just a well trimmed lawn. It's flowing green sprinkled with the silver locks of an aging death metal singer. Trampled with mud and soggy with run off from the impromptu creeks. Scratchy stiff stalks buzzing with bees.
Oh, the bees. As much as I value those black and yellow deliverers of honey and beeswax, they mildly terrify me when they are anywhere above the knee, which is why I screamed when my hand grabbed one from my hair. I will probably never live that moment down nor the later one when I requested my boyfriend remove a bee from my sleeve and had to look away when he did so.
The rain brought many surprises: washouts, bees, and seven salamander friends. In the redwood forest, I normally count banana slugs as a hiking ritual but Henry W. Coe is not their habitat; however, it is the home of salamanders. Initial salamander, we thought, must have been a rogue. Kicked out of the creek side congress, it sought higher and dryer ground away from the rain swollen torrents. But no, this was a community exodus. First among seven sighted salamanders, it was a leader guiding its compatriots to comfortably moist freedom.
The trail leaves the creek side and salamanders as you progress back toward headquarters. Meandering away and from the California black oak and ponderosa pine studded hillsides, run off cross-hatches the trail making what would be a rather mediocre dry weather trail into something fun and muddy.
Located in Soquel, California, Land of the Medicine Buddha provides several miles of walking/biking trails lined with Buddha statues, stupas, and redwood groves. Definitely think the trails here would be more fun on a mountain bike, but there were some interesting things to check out.
An hour long journey to an island twenty miles off the coast of southern California. The relative isolation and sixty dollar ferry fee deter many from visiting Channel Islands National Park, but this did not stop me. That hour long ferry ride through the fog, past the eerie orange derricks glowing distantly, was nothing compared to my previous day’s journey from my current city of residence, San Jose, to Ojai where I would be staying with my friend, her boyfriend, and their old burner couple landlords. I left my apartment before the sun came up. I learned people don’t want to say “good morning” to you before day break when you’re carrying just a backpack and smoking a cigarette. I lose my sunglasses from my short’s pocket. 7-11 is closed. Fuck, I need coffee, food, diet soda for my endless journey. How could 7-11 be closed? Aren’t they supposed to be open all the time? Instead, I buy a Diet Dr. Pepper at a 76 Station next to the freeway on ramp and a chicken corn dog. Breakfast of fucking champions.
Diridon Station. Downtown San Jose. Six thirty in the morning. I’m the first in line. People line up after me and I feel the relief that I’m in the right place. I’m the first in line and people are queuing up behind me like they’re supposed to. The sun comes up over Mt. Hamilton, flashing off the sides of the meagre San Jose skyline. Really, city planners? Who builds a downtown in the flight path of an international airport?
I’m the first on the bus. I have no checked bags; my boarding is simple as possible. I set myself up on the top level, front of the bus on the right side. I have to sit on the right side, my talisman against motion sickness. I get set up: phone charger plugged in to a socket that never ends up working, seat in the upright position (call me weird, but I can’t stand my seat leaning back) and dig my first book out (this is a two book journey). I kill the first fifteen minutes texting my friend who has been on their own frustrating, endless journey on the other side of the country, cancelled flight after cancelled flight, but he must board his plane and I find myself dozing off as the bus cruises past the suburbanesque, post-agricultural town sprawl of San Jose. Change from 87 to 85 to 101, row after row of single story, single family homes, chain link fence marking off this is my territory, we can keep growing and growing there’s so much land until there isn’t anymore.
The journey is uneventful, exception being a stressful phone call with my mother. I’m not sure why I even qualify it, aren’t almost all phone calls with all mothers stressful? We stop once for a meal and I watch five overweight Russian women in the same exact pair of unflattering, black spandex leggings order vanilla milkshakes. If I took a photo, someone on the internet cleverer than I could make it a meme about things essential to America.
Six hours later it’s Burbank. I fumble my way through the Metrolink ticketing machine, thankful no one is standing behind me as I’m sure they would feel the same irritation that I feel when I stand behind twenty Giants fans trying to figure out what zone they need to go to and realizing, no, CalTrain machines do not take AmEx. Approximately an hour later, I’m at the Moorpark Metrolink Station. God forbid, the train goes all the way to Ventura. Thank fuck for Uber.
But sometimes Uber is an adventure. I get Rob, well, let’s call him Rob, who in the first two minutes of my drive not only needs to use the restroom but refers to Hispanic people as “illegals” and it hits me. I’m in SoCal. Oh god, I’m in SoCal.
Rob and I talk the politics of chickens and egg prices. He makes comments about “queers” in San Francisco when I mention my origins. Eventually, I get him slagging on Uber and we’ve found a topic that I’m only mildly uncomfortable with. By the time we get lost twice before he figures out where Main Street in Ventura is, I’m ready to jump out of the car and run to the overpriced hipster coffee shop so I can wash myself of his conservative filth.
Nearly twelve hours later, I am finally in Ventura. I need to kill an hour. I roam through the thrift shops, purchase a pair of gray skinny jeans, and chill out in the corner of the aforementioned hipster café with an equally pretentious but delicious lavender latte, charging my phone and awaiting my rescue by my friend. When my friend shows up, we walk, blazing up and chain smoking American Spirits. We catch up on our most recent joys and fuck ups.
In the morning, after achieving coffee and a ham cheese croissant, my friend drops me off at the harbor. I have no reservation, but they still have room on the first boat. I hand over my sixty dollars. The ticketing agent gives me the wrong slip. When I try to board, the guide collecting tickets yells at me. A senior crew member, seeing the look of clear astonishment on my face turning quickly to anger, calmly tells me to board and he would check with the ticketing agents. Turned out to be okay because ten minutes later the angry junior guide apologizes to me in a way that made it seem like he still thought it was my fault.
The boat ride out is smooth and uneventful. I normally suffer from serious motion sickness on boats, but I prepared with breakfast and plenty of water. A warning to all, even if it has been sunny and the weather forecast is warm: wear pants. Shorts with thigh high knit socks and a windbreaker weren’t really cutting it for me. My fellow passengers were pleasant in so much as they were quiet and didn’t try to talk to me.
Narrative time out for major exposition and lesson island history both natural and human. The five islands in the park, the largest of which is Santa Cruz Island, are home to over 2,000 species of plants and animals. Three of these two thousand species are endemic mammals: the deer mouse, spotted skunk, and Channel Islands Fox. My friend later tells me that the islands were never part of California and these species came over by rafting or seed dispersal. I get a ridiculous amount of happiness thinking of a little fox riding a raft across the 20 mile channel; in fact, I can’t believe Disney hasn’t made a live action film out of it. The mountainous terrain and sea cliffs of Santa Cruz Island are a look back at southern California before invasive species (French broom, ice plant, cape ivy, eucalyptus, 1970s track homes) took over the land. Quite adorable fact: each island has an endemic subspecies of Channels Islands Fox, several of which I saw on the island.
We disembark at Scorpion Ranch, a dilapidated collection of sheep ranch buildings from the over hundred year history of sheep ranching on the island (or so the informational placards tell me). The majority of the group peels off to the left for a $200 dollar sea kayaking trip, which I would have done if I had the disposable income and less distaste for kayaking. I select my destination: Smuggler’s Cove. Long enough hike at 8 miles round trip to take up most of my day, but leave time for one of the shorter hikes. Plus, I want to see any place that named after bootleggers and sheep smugglers.
And I push myself up the steep hillside, then the next one and the next one for the next four miles. It’s pretty, the hills dotted with little yellow and pink flowers, and the weather perfect: cloudy and cool, but not cold and the steep mountains trap fog in the valleys between. I’m completely alone, huge crows excepting, and my mind meanders, passing the time until I reach my destination.
Smuggler’s Cove is a gentle horseshoe, a beach strewn with rounded rocks and bleached bird bones. But this is it: a simple, nice place to eat my stale roast beef Safeway sandwich and banana. I feel spoiled and oversaturated on the beauty I experienced everyday living in Santa Cruz; maybe I can’t really enjoy it as much as I should. I am more enamored with the idea of being there than the actual place.
I spend another ten minutes admiring the view of Anacapa, home of the last permanent light house built on the California coast in 1932, in relative solitude until a group of kayakers mar the vista. I had zero interest at this point in exploring the abandoned buildings. I think there were abandoned buildings, but my memory is as hazy as the western horizon. The afternoon sun was quickly burning off the fog and I wanted to make my way back to Scorpion Ranch.
Uphill, downhill, more uphill, then more downhill, I pass several groups puffing their way to Smuggler’s Cove. Three older people, probably in their late sixties leaning over hiking poles, one of whom is an old crotchety gent, let’s call him Russell, who decides while nursing a singular Budweiser on the ferry back, that he has to talk to me and we get into this long, convoluted conversation about the effects of texting, Twitter, Instagram, snap chatting all that 150 character internet shit which is ruining the upcoming generation’s ability to communicate in written fucking language, greet me and ask me,
“How is it?”
I reply, “It’s okay. I’m not sure how much it’s worth the walk.” And by the way, I know that was a fucking run on where I mention the ruination of the English written language.
Cavern Point Loop is a short hike accessed by the Potato Harbor trail through the Scorpion Ranch campground. Earlier in the day, one of the volunteer guides provided an interpretive walk, but I can’t get myself to focus long enough to ever listen on those and the guides always make some lukewarm attempt at humor that makes me uncomfortable. That and people walk really slow. I can get my information from park literature and those nifty informational placards with the topographic maps. It’s while I’m walking through the campground past the hammocks and tents that I see my first Channel Islands Fox: small and gray loping through the campsites trying to find shards of potato chips which the aforementioned guide earlier warned us would lead to our eternal damnation.
The trail hugs a gully between two hills and up again I go. I pass more hikers and visitors in this area of the island, as these are closer to the visitor’s center and the hikes are shorter. Halfway up the trail forks: to the left is Potato Harbor and to the right is the more direct route to the Cavern Point. Having already hiked eight miles and it getting hotter every minute, I choose the shorter, more direct route. At the top of the trail, the island rewards me with excellent coastal vistas and peeks of the sea caverns which that ridiculously expensive kayaking trip will take you to.
The trail curves, northward, eastward, west? I’m terrible with my directions. I see another fox; this one is hunting not potato chips but a small rodent in the brush. Down the steep hillside above Scorpion Ranch, I watch the people, the shifting clouds, and I’m down to my last layers.
Two hours from departure, the sun has burned off the fog and like many others I claim a spot on the rocky beach near the dock and pull my second book of the trip from my backpack. Burning a considerable portion of my chest, I doze and the children to my right chatter simultaneously in Dutch and English, conversing about really nothing in particular. I’m impressed. People are just chilling out.
It’s hot. I venture about five feet out into the water and watch the clouds float over Anacapa. I want to convince myself that I can see the mainland, but I know I can’t. During those many times, those countless trips from Santa Cruz and Ventura and back again in my Focus, the Jetta, the early 1990s maroon Dodge Caravan, inherited from my grandparents, I selected when I was four or five for a road trip to Wyoming, I always looked west, trying to see the islands. And now I’m there and I’m looking east at the mainland. I’m feeling trapped; there is only way off the island.
I admit relief when our boat pulls up to the dock. The hills are pretty and the beaches restful, but I am done with my island adventure.
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.
6:30 am on the west side of Santa Cruz. I wait in front of the house with the green garage door and the egret painted on it. Alex, the biochemistry doctorate student who is my then boyfriend's childhood best friend, is loading the up the last of his supplies for our week long Fourth of July camping trip.
I have met Alex only a handful of times, but the last time he was over at our house, the purple one with the red door downtown, after finishing plates of made from scratch chicken alfredo, he brought up he wanted to go camping.
I had never been camping as an adult. Thinking back on it now, this is absurd. I go camping four or five times a year. Alex seemed like a competent individual who keep up a conversation so we compared calendars and came up with our itinerary.
Our ultimate destination was Crater Lake. On our way up we would stop at Lassen Volcanic National Park and camp at Castle Crags State Park near Lake Shasta. We would hit Crater Lake on our second day then camp at Valley of the Rogue State Park for Fourth of July. From there, our route would take us to the Oregon Caves National Monument, down the California coast through Redwoods National Park and Eureka, camp south of Eureka, then make our way to Fort Bragg via the Lost Coast, and make our final stop in Ukiah to stay with Alex's aunt. I had been to Oregon as a kid and may have even gone to Crater Lake, but I couldn't remember it so I was pretty fucking jazzed to see it.
I would be borrowing Alex's tent and sleeping bag. He would also be providing the rest of the camping gear. I got most of the food and we were taking my white Ford Focus. Gas would be split along the way.
The trip to Lassen is mostly a straight shot through the boring middle part of California. It's just almond orchard after dairy after dusty field growing dirt after another. Once you get started east towards Lassen the flat desolate landscape turns to rolling hills which eventually become the southernmost mountains of the Cascade Range.
I had been to Lassen as a child ( I have an aunt and uncle who own a ranch not far from it) and I remember the ice blue lakes frozen next to volcanic vents. This time around my initial reaction was to the sulfur smell and how few people there are. Sure, there are visitors crowding around the vents next to the main road, but these are small compared to the massive crowds at Yosemite or what we will see later at Crater Lake.
Alex and I don't want to hang out around the road, but we don't have time to do a very long hike. We've still got to get to Castle Crags to camp out for the night. We drive further into the park and see an informational sign for a waterfall about 2.5 miles round trip from the parking lot.
When you want to get away from most day tripper tourists in a park, select a destination of at least 1.5 miles from the parking lot. I have found this is generally the maximum most day visitors are willing to go for sight seeing.
The hike to Kings Creek Falls, now most of which is closed for renovation. is a gradual 700 foot descent over a mile or so at about 7,300 feet. We begin on a horse trail going through a relatively muddy meadow swarmed with mosquitos. It's pretty though. Big mountains in the distance, trees on steep hillsides surround us and the creek runs close by. At some distance, the trail splits between the cascade trail and the horse trail. We take the cascade trail, the part now closed for renovation, as there are rocks to scramble over and it looks way more fun.
It's a relatively easy hike with a great pay off, which makes it an incredibly popular destination for many day hikers, according to the National Park website, but we didn't see any other people while we were hiking. The waterfall rushes over a 50 foot basalt cliff into a shallow sheer walled canyon hemmed with ferns and moss. Alex and I took a few minutes to snap some photos and enjoy the relative solitude which we shared with hundreds of mosquitos.
Hikers can take this trail 2.5 miles further and join up with the Pacific Crest Trail.
"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.
"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.
"Come and experience Glacier's pristine forests, alpine meadows, rugged mountains, and spectacular lakes. With over 700 miles of trails, Glacier is a hiker's paradise for adventurous visitors seeking wilderness and solitude. Relive the days of old through historic chalets, lodges, transportation, and stories of Native Americans." --National Park Service
Glacier National Park is located in the northwest corner of Montana and borders the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. In fact, the park is part of a larger world heritage site known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park. Glacier encompasses over 1 million acres, two mountain ranges, and more than 1,000 species of plants and animals. Established in 1910, the park sees over 1 million visitors a year.
There is no doubt: Glacier National Park is remote. Our October 2013 road trip to Glacier was part of a larger road trip that included stops in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Utah. We approached from the west, coming from Spokane, Washington and crossing over the tip of Idaho.
From the West
Near the communities of Kalispell, Whitefish, and Columbia Falls, the West Entrance provides access to the Lake McDonald area, Park Headquarters, the Apgar Visitor Center and is the west entry point to the Going-to-the-Sun-Road. From Kalispell, take Highway 2 north to West Glacier (approximately 33 miles).
From the East
St. Mary, Two Medicine, and Many Glacier Entrances – Closest to the town of Browning, all three entrances can be reached by taking Highway 89 north from Great Falls to the town of Browning (approximately 125 miles) and then following signage to the respective entrance.
On our way up to Kalispell, we stayed the night at the Super Eight in St. Regis, Montana. St. Regis is a small town just over the border from Idaho on Interstate 90, which hosts several hotels and restaurants. There was already snow on the ground in October as we made our way up Highway 135, US 90, and around the Flathead Reservation to Kalispell. As we drove, billboards dotted the roads warning visitors and citizens, "Don't Do Meth. Meth is bad."
The drive is quite beautiful as we passed by the National Bison Range and Flathead Lake. Before getting to the park proper, we made a grocery stop in Kalispell, a relatively well developed city.
Places of Interest
Depending on the time of year, Glacier provides ample opportunities for beautiful drives, hiking, and outdoor activities. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived in October the Going-to-the-Sun road, which the park is famous for, already closed due to snowfall.
The park can be divided into the following areas: Goat Haunt (seriously spooky goats), Lake McDonald Valley, Logan Pass, Many Glacier, North Fork, St. Mary Valley, and Two Medicine. We were limited by time, the season, and the dog.
Lake McDonald Valley
Our first stop of the trip was Lake McDonald Valley, the hub of activity on the western side of the park. Situated here is Apgar Visitor Center, several campgrounds and the picturesque Lake McDonald. Dogs were not welcome in the area, so we had to leave the poor boy in the car and our time at this stop was limited.
The water was incredibly blue and clear. The mountains snow capped and surrounded by emerald green forests.
We drove up from the lake as far along the Going-to-the-Sun road as we could. The tranquil teal McDonald Creek with grey rock slabs like something out Picasso's Cubism period borders the road. I'm enamored with the colors and shapes of this creek.
Seriously, the color of this water is surreal.
St. Mary Valley
The drive from Lake McDonald Valley to St. Mary Valley is full of hairpin turns and grand vistas. Speed limits in Montana appear to be suggestions, especially in this rural of an area and during the park off season. We drove behind an RV that was topping 60 mph around curves that in California would be suggested at 15 mph. I suggest pulling over to the side at Goat Lick Overlook to spot mountain goats, one of the many animal species to be found in the park.
This trip imprinted on me why Montana is referred to as Big Sky Country.
We car camped at St. Mary campground. It was noisy and well developed; we were one of the few people in tents. We cooked some asparagus in salsa, ate leftover spaetzle and pig knuckle from our Portland stop, and drank hot cocoa in the quickly plummeting temperatures. This was our coldest night of the trip at around 19 degrees.
Many Glacier was the highlight of our trip to Glacier. It was here that we saw Grizzly Bears. They were far up the mountainside, fattening up for winter. With a mountain side and road between us, a large dog, and their occupation with ample food supply, we were very safe.
It was at Many Glacier that we finally had the opportunity to hike with the dog. We took a short hike around Swiftcurrent Lake on Swiftcurrent Nature Trail. From here you can view Grinnell Glacier and Many Glacier Hotel.
Grinnell Glacier is considered to be the heart of Glacier National Park. Named for George Bird Grinnell, an early American conservationist, it rests on the north flank of Mt. Gould. The glacier has significantly retreated over the years and has lost almost 40% of its acreage. Worst estimates state the glacier could be completely gone by 2030.
Grinnell Glacier can be accessed via trail from Swiftcurrent Lake. It's a 6 mile hike from the trail head.
Many Glacier Hotel
Many Glacier Hotel is a historic, Swiss chalet style hotel located on the eastern shore of Swiftcurrent Lake. Originally named the Glacier Park Lodge, the hotel opened on July 4, 1915. The hotel maintains its historic character in part by not placing televisions in guest rooms. In my opinion, it looks like something straight out of The Shining.
Montana's Glacier National Park is a gem of the national park system. It was definitely worth the two day drive it took us to get there. If you want untarnished wilderness, wildlife viewing, or want to stay in a beautiful, if slightly menacing, historic hotel with views of a rapidly melting glacier than this a must see to put on your list.
"Not just a great valley, but a shrine to human foresight, the strength of granite, the power of glaciers, the persistence of life, and the tranquility of the High Sierra." --National Park Service
What more can be said of Yosemite that has not already been done a thousand times by people much more eloquent than I?
The most well known of all the National Parks, Yosemite is one of the great destinations on the planet. While it does not draw in the highest number of visitors, that award would go to the Great Smoky Mountains Park, more than three million visitors a year come to see the enormous granite walls, stunning waterfalls, and tranquil meadows of this Sierra Mountain park. It celebrates its 125th year as a National Park in October 2015. Congratulations Yosemite!
Getting to Yosemite depends on what time of year you are going and which direction you are coming from. Always make sure to check road conditions before leaving to make sure the road you want to use is open. The National Park Service recommends not relying on your GPS, as GPS can be unreliable in the park.
San Francisco/Bay area Distance: 195 mi / 314 km Time:4-5 hours Take I-580 east to I-205 east to Highway 120 east (Manteca) or Highway 140 east (Merced) into Yosemite National Park.
Sacramento Distance: 176 mi / 283 km Time: 4 hours Take Highway 99 south to Highway 120 east (Manteca) or Highway 140 east (Merced) into Yosemite National Park
Reno & Lake Tahoe Approximately June through October, conditions permitting Distance: 218 mi / 351 km (Reno) Time: 5 hours Take US 395 south to Lee Vining; take Highway 120 west into Yosemite National Park (open late May/June through October, depending on conditions).
All year Distance: 315 mi / 507 km (Reno) Time: 8 hours Take I-80 or I-50 west to Sacramento; take Highway 99 south to Highway 120 east (Manteca) or Highway 140 east (Merced) into Yosemite National Park.
Los Angeles area Distance: 313 mi / 504 km Time: 6 hours Take I-5 north (or I-405 north to I-5) to Highway 99 north to Highway 41 north (Fresno) into Yosemite National Park.
San Diego area Distance: 441 mi / 710 km Time: 8 hours Take I-5 north to Highway 99 to Highway 41 north (Fresno) into Yosemite National Park.
Las Vegas June through October, conditions permitting Distance: 400 mi / 642 km Time: 8 hours Take US-95 North to Tonopah, then US-95/US-6 west to Highway 120. Go west on Highway 120 into Yosemite National Park (open late May/early June through October, depending on conditions).
November through May Distance: 495 mi / 797 km Time: 8-10 hours Take I-15 south to Barstow; Highway 58 west to Bakersfield; take Highway 99 north to Fresno. In Fresno, take Highway 41 north into Yosemite National Park.
Places of Interest
There is so much to see and do in Yosemite that is impossible to get to everything in one visit even if you stay an entire week. While the large granite walls of El Capitan and Half Dome are stunning from the valley floor, the sub-alpine meadows and crystalline lakes of Tuolumne Meadows are my favorite places in the park.
Tuolumne Meadows is a sub-alpine meadow located on the eastern side of the park. While it is definitively less crowded than the valley, it sees plenty of visitors and its campground fills up fast. Tuolumne, for me, is not so much a destination in itself but a gateway to the wilderness beyond.
This area of the park is studded with domes and Lembert Dome is one of the most impressive. It stands out from the meadows and is a short hike from the road. We passed by it on our backpacking trip to Young Lake in 2012. Beware of the mosquitos.
If you're planning a trip out to Young Lakes, there are three of them, and want to camp remember to get a wilderness permit at Tuolumne Meadow Visitor Center. It's important to get there early as the number of permits is limited.
To get to Young Lakes, take the Young Lake trail via Dog Lake. It's about six miles to the first of the lakes and along the way you will walk through alpine forests, sub-alpine meadows, and enjoy panoramic views of granite peaks. Remember to bring plenty of water and mind the altitude as this trail takes you above ten thousand feet and is fairly arduous. We got lost a couple of times going around a ridge and if it weren't for my knowledge of cairns, we would have continued going around in circles for a lot longer.
We camped out at the first lake of the Young Lakes. From here you can see Ragged Peak above the lake. It was incredibly beautiful, but the mosquitos drove us insane and the altitude was giving us each a headache. My friend had never set up his backpacking tent before, so that was quite a travail.
The next morning we hiked up to the next two lakes, which host some pretty abundant waterfalls.
Our trip was initially planned to be two nights, but neither of us slept due to altitude sickness and we decided to pack it in after exploring for a couple hours around the lake. On our way back we passed through the Delaney Meadows, which required creek fording (one of my favorite things to do). We came across a number of people hiking through this area, though most of our hike the day before had been in isolation.
When we got back to the car we were exhausted and ready for the four drive back to the bay. Strangely, a banana that we had left on the trunk of the car was still there. Oops.
Tuolumne Meadows is serene and beautiful, a much different experience in the summer than the valley. Just don't forget the bug repellant.