camping

McCloud Falls: The Three Tier Waterfall of Northern California

McCloud Falls: The Three Tier Waterfall of Northern California

I walk the short paved path to Lower Falls. Pushed into a narrow slot between basalt columns, Lower Falls is the smallest of the falls but has the best swimming area above and below it. Even in the early morning, people are out fishing right at the edge of the falls. I follow a stairway up to a picnic area to get an overlook of the entire area. Later in the day, we follow the dusty River Trail to a secluded swimming area. 

Where Unicorns Are Created Part Three: Rogue Valley to Oregon Caves National Monument

The rogue valley is remarkable for the singular memory of purchasing a flashlight from Wal-Mart, a trip at the time which felt monumental in its exoticism as all moments at Wal-Mart do; my most recent resulting in the purchase of a pair of aviators which simultaneously and joyously made me feel like a cop and a pedophile, and the near purchase of a Yo Gabba Gabba beanie. Trite tourist trinkets, paltry and jingoistic gestures toward local folk traditions. There fireworks, but I can't remember watching them. We sat by our fire (we must have purchased wood for the everyday price of loss of dignity), swatting mosquitos and swapping stories. Alex regaled me, as he did for most of the trip, with tales of mountains climbed, fourteen thousand footers in Colorado by the age of fourteen. The night passed quickly and our next morning we made the short journey to the Oregon Caves National Monument.

Located twenty miles east of Cave Junction, Oregon in the northern Siskiyou mountains, the Oregon Caves National Monument includes over 4,000 acres, a marble cave system, visitor's center, and restaurant. While writing this particular blog entry, I found myself asking: what is the difference between a national monument and a national park? Well, this is what I found out (and this is according to Outside magazine online): national parks are protected due to their "scenic, inspirational, education, and recreational value" and national monuments have objects of historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest. National monuments can protect wilderness areas or historic buildings, are typically smaller, and multiple cagenices administrate national monuments while the national parks are administrated by the Department of the Interior. And now you have more information than you ever needed on the difference between national parks and national monuments.

So how is Oregon Caves National Monument an object of historical, cultural, and/or scientific interest? While the caves were primarily preserved as a tourist attraction, they do contain fossils of historical significance. Discovered by Elijah Jones Davidson in 1874, several groups after tried to profit from the caves, but it was the advent of the automobile that increased its popularity after the 1920s. To increase tourist traffic, the Forest Service and the Oregon Caves Company built the Chalet, which housed female workers and overnight guests, and contained a restaurant and ticket sales office. More buildings were added over the next several decades and those buildings are now considered national historic landmarks.

The Oregon Caves National Monument has the best tour guides in the entire national park system. I have visited the site multiple times and each visit my guide has been knowledgeable, entertaining, and excited about their job. I have to say these guides make me want to be a park ranger.

Alex and I parked the car and made our way to the ticket sales office amongst the mostly Indian families. I forgot to bring my jacket and it is rather chilly in the caves. The only jacket they had on loan was a boy's medium jacket, which fit around me, but left me with hilariously short sleeves. We walked to the top of the hill where the tour starts and waited for our guide. Alex and I found our way in the front of the group, irritated with how slow everyone was walking up the steep, slippery steps inside the cave.

This is a hokey tour and that is what makes it enjoyable. The guide peppers the tour with quaint historical facts about bears dying inside and people stealing artefacts. These caves are not particularly spectacular in their formations; instead you are paying for a great tour, a couple of pretty stalagmites and stalactites and a chance to mercilessly mock fellow tour goers.

I am happy that people want to get out in nature and see the sights in America. In fact, nothing makes me happier than the idea of people visiting domestic locations and funneling money into the national park system, but when I have to wait for every tourist to huff their way up the steps and drag their whining children to the top then I have to come up with ways to entertain myself. And this is how Alex and I came up with the story of how unicorns are created.

A long time ago, unicorns were powerful intergalactic space creatures who ruled the universe, but they were hated by all the creatures in the planetary system because of their cruelty (we never got into great detail as to why they were cruel; I think it might have involved slowly gauging out other species' eyeballs with their horn). Eventually the unicorn dictatorship was overthrown by a group of rebellious narwhals and they sook refuge on the backwater of Earth.

They hid in caves and slowly calcified creating stalagmites and stalactites. When these reach the maximum length and a stalagmite is about to meet a stalactite, then a unicorn is able to escape and makes it way out into the world. Their horns release a magical force allowing them to break atmosphere and return to the open byways of the galaxy.

We had to do a lot of waiting on this tour. The tour guide attempted to entertain us, but she only had a certain stock of stories and really needed to be saving them for the rest of the group. A very entertaining middle aged Indian man spent most of the tour sneaking up on members of his family and making a ghostly "spoooky" sound.

Oregon Caves National Monument is a must see if you are traveling through southern Oregon. It provides enough entertainment for adults and I think kids would be impressed. I remember it being relatively inexpensive and not too far off the beaten path. Plus, the restaurant serves some pretty good chowder, pie, and hot chocolate at the floor of a beautiful, forested mountain valley.

Next part: Oregon Caves National Monument to Ukiah, California.

Where Unicorns are Created Part Two: Castle Crags to Crater Lake National Park

After spending the night at Castle Crags State Park, Alex and I drove north towards Oregon. We stopped in the "city" of Mt. Shasta, which sits at the base of the majestic Mt. Shasta. I do feel that majestic is an overplayed word when it comes to nature, but I believe Mt. Shasta deserves that descriptor. In Mt. Shasta, we navigated through a marathon and picked up croissants and coffee at a local coffee shop. Unfortunately we did not have time to explore more around Mt. Shasta and it is my dream someday to climb to the top. Castle Crag State Park

Driving through northern California and southern Oregon is always a trip. I never find myself wanting to stop there until I get to Medford or Klamath because of the area's history. Combining counties from northern rural California and the southern Oregon, is the state of Jefferson. Jefferson is most famously known for a 1941 incident when a group of armed young men stopped traffic on Highway 99 south of Yreka handing out proclamations of independence. In recent years, the movement gained speed and popularity, particularly in the northern California counties.

On this road trip, we took Highway 97 from Weed northward, driving through the very pretty Klamath Falls. It is the county seat of Klamath County, Oregon and has a population of approximately 20,000. While the area is considered high desert, there is plenty of water with lakes and it is a great jumping off point for both Crater Lake National Park (approximately fifty miles north of Klamath) and Lava Beds National Monument (approximately thirty miles south in California).

From this point onward, the landscape is dominated by dense forest and as we gain elevation, the air gets cooler and crisper. Once we enter Crater Lake National Park we are surrounded by green and on right runs a deep river canyon. Oregon is always surprisingly green, more shades of green than your largest Crayola crayon box ever had. Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake National Park is Oregon's only national park and is absolutely deserves the designation of national park. An intensely blue picturesque lake surrounded by the nearly two thousand foot sheer cliffs of an ancient caldera of destroyed volcano Mount Mazama. At 1,943 deep, it is the deepest lake in the United States and the second deepest in North America. The lake is directly filled by precipitation in the form of rain and snow melt. Portions of Rim Drive, the road around the lake, can be blocked for nearly the entire year and summer is the best time to go due to snow.

After seeing how ridiculously crowded Steel Visitor Center was with the Bermuda shorted parents and screaming pig tailed kids, we drove up to the Rim Road and parked. The Rim Road perches you on top of the lip of the caldera and you feel like you are high above in the clouds; imagine Howl's Moving Castle but with a lot of fucking snow. From there you can see the entirety of the lake including the two islands, Wizard Island and Phantom Ship. Boat tours will take you out to the islands, but we wanted to see if we could get around the entirety of the lake before exploring more.

crater lake hayley snowThe Rim Road circles around the lake and I took the opportunity to enjoy the snow. As a native southern Californian, snow is a magical substance that occurs in mythical cold places home to Yetis and snowboarders. Whenever I see snow I become ridiculously excited, jump up and down and scream "SNOOOEWWWW". As you can possibly guess, I have never had to scrape snow off of a windshield or try to walk down a busy city street during a blizzard. Instead, I have endured years of endlessly perfect weather punctuated by extreme drought. I probably made a snow angel because that's what you do.

It was fourth of July and the Rim Road was not opened all the way around the lake. We were stopped by a sign battered by wind and snow, straight out of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. A sign that tells you something ominous, but life changing and exciting is beyond it. Having a campsite deadline, we did not have the opportunity to explore past this sign and enter into Mordor.

Crater Lake is a place I would like to revisit some day. I want to swim in it, brave my seasickness and take a boat out to one of the islands, and hike around the pinnacles. There's a reason places like these were worshiped by Native Americans. They are magical and awe inspiring, far more soul reaching than an invisible hand.

Where Unicorns are Created Part One: Santa Cruz to Lassen Volcanic National Park

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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. kings creek falls trail lassen national park 2

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.

sulphur vent lassen national park

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.

kings creek falls trail lassen national park

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.

Maybe.

Someday.

Salt Point State Park: Pygmy Forests, Tafoni, and Pouring Rain

"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.

Getting There

As always, do not rely on your GPS. Print out directions as you will almost definitely lose signal at the end.

Gerstle Cove
Gerstle Cove
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.

Salt Point Coast
Salt Point Coast

Camping

Space

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.

Noise/Quiet Hours

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.

Amenities

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

Abalone Diving/Fishing

You could do this, but I don't know anything about it.

Mushroom Hunting

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.

Hiking
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.

tafoni
tafoni

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
Fisk Mill Cove
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.

Sentinel Rock
sentinel rock carving
sentinel rock carving

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.

Pygmy Forest
pine cones
pine cones

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Zebras, Swallows, Elephant Seals: A San Simeon State Park Adventure

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"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.

baby elephant seals
baby elephant seals

Getting There

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.

Big Sur Coastline
Big Sur Coastline
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.

Camping

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.

San Simeon Camping
San Simeon Camping

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.

Hiking

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.

Grasses along the San Simeon Trail
Grasses along the San Simeon Trail

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.

Log San Simeon
Log San Simeon
Beach and Tide Pools
Hearst San Simeon
Hearst San Simeon

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.

Crane San Simeon
Crane San Simeon

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.

Hearst Castle

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.

zebras san simeon
zebras san simeon

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.

Glacier: The Crown of the Continent

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"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.

 Getting There

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.

Our Journey

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."

On the road to Glacier.

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.

I'm on the right looking awkward as ever.

 

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 waters of Lake McDonald

The water was incredibly blue and clear. The mountains snow capped and surrounded by emerald green forests.

The water here was clear and bitingly cold.

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.

McDonald Creek

Seriously, the color of this water is surreal.

Getting closer to the water.

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.

My friend losing patience with my constant photo taking.

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

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.

Grizzly Bears fattening up for winter.

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

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.

Grinnell Glacier at approximately 7,000 feet.

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.

Many Glacier Hotel. Beautiful and slightly eerie.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Yosemite: Celebrate 125 Years at Tuolumne Meadows!

"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 There

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

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.

Rock studded meadows on the trail to Young Lake

Lembert Dome

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.

In front of Lembert Dome on our 2012 backpacking trip.

Young Lakes

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.

Young Lake and Ragged Peak

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.

Waterfall at Upper Young Lake

My friend sitting at the top of the waterfall

Delaney Meadows

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.

Delaney Meadows. Mosquitos abound.

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.

 

Death Valley National Park: Lowest, Hottest, Driest

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"In this below-sea-level basin, steady drought and record summer heat make Death Valley a land of extremes. Yet, each extreme has a striking contrast. Towering peaks are frosted with winter snow. Rare rainstorms bring vast fields of wildflowers. Lush oases harbor tiny fish and refuge for wildlife and humans. Despite its morbid name, a great diversity of life survives in Death Valley." -- National Park Service

Death Valley is the largest national park in the lower 48 states boasting more than three million acres of wilderness and hosts over 1000 different species of plants and animals. Home to the lowest elevation point in North America and the towering peaks of the Panamint Range, Death Valley is a land of contrasts spanning across two states.

Death Valley National Park can be divided into four distinct areas: Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Scotty's Castle, and Panamint Springs. On my spring 2012 trip, I visited Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Panamint Springs areas.

Getting There

On our 2012 trip, we approached Death Valley from the southern entrance after a short trip to Pasadena. On our way up we stopped in Baker, California for a gyro at the Mad Greek restaurant, a surprisingly good food destination for a town out in the desert. In Baker, we got on State Route 127 to Shoshone. Shoshone has a fairly nice motel, which turned a blind eye to our nearly 90 lb Rottweiler mix and also hosts a naturally fed, mineral spring pool. Down the road from the motel, this pool is a night time water source for bats and retreat for eerily quiet drinkers who sit in the corner sipping Jack Daniels. It certainly makes for an interesting swim.

Death Valley can be approached from the west on State Route 14 and US Route 395. From the east, U.S. Route 95 parallels the park from north to south with connecting highways at Scotty's Junction (State Route 267), Beatty (State Route 374), and Lathrop Wells (State Route 373).

The National Parks Service warns: "GPS Navigation to sites to remote locations like Death Valley are notoriously unreliable. Numerous travelers have been directed to the wrong location or even dead-end or closed roads. Travelers should always carry up-to-date road maps to check the accuracy of GPS directions. "

Death Valley is not an area you would want to get lost in.

Places of Interest

Furnace Creek

Furnace Creek is host a bright shiny visitor center. The rangers here are incredibly friendly and helpful. They pointed us to what they thought would be the best areas for camping given our dog and car situation (we were driving a Volkswagen Jetta). Not sure what else is going on at the visitor center, but if you have questions about where to camp it's a great resource.

Zabriskie Point

According to the NPS website for Death Valley, starting December 1, 2014 through March 31, 2015, all access to Zabriskie Point and surrounding area will be closed for major rehabilitation work to repair unstable support walls and improve conditions.

Zabrsikie Point is a viewing point off Highway 190 and a short walk uphill. From the top is a breathtaking view of labyrinthine canyons of eroded, multi-hued rocks.

View from Zabriskie Point

Artist's Drive

One of the most startling rock formations I've ever seen. While I expected a colorful rock formation, this scenic loop drive through vibrant pastel volcanic and sedimentary hills is like stepping into a Technicolor set. Absolutely a must see for any visitor. This 9-mile one-way drive starts from Badwater Road and is only open to vehicles 25 feet or less in length.

Artist's Drive

Badwater Basin

Okay, here is where I have to say Death Valley National Park is just incredible. Badwater Basin is the lowest elevation point in North America and the second lowest in the Western Hemisphere. This salt water flat is like nothing you have ever seen before and if you come to the park and not see it, then you are missing out on the whole point of Death Valley. Located on Badwater Road after the Artist's Drive. NPS recommends not walking on salt flats in hot weather.

Salt flats

 

Stovepipe Wells

Continue driving up 190 and this will take you to the Stovepipe Wells area of the park. This is home to Stovepipe Wells Village which has dining, gas, and sleeping amenities, Mosaic Canyon, Titus Canyon, Salt Creek, and Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Smoothly rising dunes nearly 100 feet high from the surrounding Mesquite Flat, these dunes are relatively stable due to wind patterns in the park. Because of their easy access from the road and overall proximity of Death Valley to Hollywood, these dunes have been used to film several sand dune scenes including films in the Star Wars series.

Exploring the dunes with the dog.

This was not the dog's favorite place to be. In the late afternoon spring sun, these sand dunes were almost unbearably hot for the poor guy and caused him to run around like an Lipizzaner. While we were unable to explore for long, we walked in between the dunes noting the creosote bushes and other plants unique to the landscape. NPS recommends visiting the dunes in the late evening and night time, but watch out for rattlesnakes.

Creosote Flowers in Spring

Panamint Springs

The last area we visited in the park is the Panamint Springs area. Panamint Springs you can find Darwin Falls, Father Crowley Vista, Lee Flat Joshua Trees, Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, Aguereberry Point, and Eureka Mine.

Wildrose Charcoal Kilns

Not too far north from our campsite at Wildrose are the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns. These ten beehive-shaped structures are among the best preserved in the west. Built in 1876 to provide fuel to process silver/lead ore, they still smell of smoke today. The gravel road leading to the kilns is approachable by vehicles and there is a parking lot, but we approached it on foot from the campsite.

 

The Wildrose Charcoal Kins

Eureka Mine

Eureka Mine is located on the way to Aguereberry Point, which boasts views of the Panamint Range, Badwater Basin, and Mount Charleston. Eureka Mine was a borax mine operated by Pete Aguereberry, a Basque miner, from 1905-1945. It's a fun, slightly eerie place to explore with open mine shafts, broken down cars, and train tracks to nowhere.

Eureka Borax Mine. Danger!

 

Death Valley National Park might not be at the top of your list of places to visit in California, but it should be. The landscape is like no other; it is a park for every type of visitor with great hiking trails, long stretches of road for the biker and cyclist, and sights to see right from the car.