When people think of visiting Croatia they think of two things: Dubrovnik and the waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park. With crystal clear blue waters and countless waterfalls, Plitvice is unbelievably beautiful and a must-do on any trip to Croatia.
What is the difference between national parks and national monuments? Why does it matter?
The primary delineation is the purpose of preserving the land. A national park protects land for its natural, scenic, and recreational value; they’re the crown jewels of our country’s land. A national monument may preserve historical, scientific or cultural objects of interest, such as military forts or fossil sites. More importantly, however, is not the differentiation between what is preserved but who gets to manage it and what the land can be used for.
I love me some lists. Color coding, numbers, Excel spreadsheets, bullet points, to-do lists, I love them all. The following is my 2016 list of numbers, best moments, highlights, and challenges from my year of travel and working remotely in 2016. Life changed dramatically from living in San Jose and moving to Ventura. I switched from teaching to working for a tech company. I started working remotely in October and I am still figuring that whole thing out. I wrote an article on sexual harassment in the national parks that I am so very proud of. I traveled more than I ever have before, and I'm hoping 2017 will bring even more adventures.
Paint the Numbers
Miles flown: Approximately 32,000 (counting my upcoming trip to Grand Rapids, Michigan)
Number of Flights: 19
Countries Visited: 4 (Vietnam, Iceland, China, and Sweden)
US States Visited: 2 (Michigan-soon and Nevada)
National Parks Visited: 6 (Pinnacles National Park (2 times), Pt. Reyes National Seashore, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Thingvellir National Park, Vatnajokull National Park, and Phong Nha-ke Bang)
State Parks: 10 (Henry Coe, Henry Cowell, McArthur Burney Falls, Weaverville Joss House, Tomales, McNee Ranch State Park, Mendocino Headlands, New Brighton State Beach, Natural Bridges State Beach, Ventura State Beach)
Glaciers Hiked On: 1 Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland
Times I Saw the Northern Lights: 1 in Iceland
Caves Visited: 2 (Bear Gulch Cave at Pinnacles National Park and Phong Nha Cave in Vietnam)
Waterfalls Visited: 5 (Elephant Falls in Vietnam; Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Skogafoss in Iceland; and McArthur-Burney Falls in California)
Museums: 9 (Joss House and Rosicrucian Museum in California; Phallological Museum, Viking World, and Reykjavik 871+/- 2 in Iceland; Vasa Museum and Royal Palace in Sweden; and War Remnants Museum and Vinh Long Museum in Vietnam)
Rivers: (3) Trinity, Mekong, and Sacramento
Camping Trips: 1 (New Brighton State Beach)
Disc Golf Courses: 5
Road Trips: 2
Best of the Best
Best Meal: dumplings on the side of the road with Jeff in HCMC
Best Coffee: Vietnam
Best Road Trip: Northern California
Best View: Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland
Best Hike: Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland
Best Domestic Destination: Trinity National Forest
Best City: Ho Chi Minh City
Best Airport: Las Vegas, Nevada. The design of the Las Vegas airport is light years ahead of most airports I've been to. They have different levels for which type of vehicle you are: one level for cars, another for buses, and another for taxis and Uber. So efficient! Plus, security takes no time at all to get through and the food is cheap compared to other airports.
Best Hot Dog: Tunnbrodsrulle from Stockholm, Sweden
Da Lat, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
McArthur-Burney Falls State Park
Traveling to Asia for the first time and hanging out with my cousin Jeff in Ho Chi Minh City. I fell in love hard with Ho Chi Minh City. The sights, sounds, smells completely engulfed me. The food was spectacular, which is not to say we did not have bad meals in Vietnam, but there’s an enormous gulf between the Vietnamese food in Vietnam and the Vietnamese food in the United States. Vietnamese food in Vietnam layers flavors and textures with fresh ingredients; the garnishes, the sauces, the broths, and the interplay of textures within one dish is like nothing you can get in the United States. The variety of street food, it’s quality, and the price made it so much fun to go out and eat our way through the evening. The coffee alone would be enough to get me to move there. Oh, the coffee, I feel nostalgia already...Should I book a ticket?
Getting to explore the caves of Phong Nha-Ke Bang was truly something else, the train ride from Hue had some of the best views I’ve ever seen in my life, and chilling out in Da Lat was a perfect way to end the trip.
Don’t be fooled, Vietnam is not an easy destination by any stretch of the imagination, but the people are friendly if reserved, the tourist infrastructure is getting better than it was before, and it’s quite safe for tourists.
Also, I turned thirty years old, I traveled to mainland Europe for the first time, and I got to eat so many hot dogs. Seeing a rainbow ending at a glacier next to a waterfall with ponies in the foreground. Yeah, that was pretty fucking spectacular.
2016 was the year of challenges and tragedy, as many of us have observed. My father passed away in February, and I am still grieving his loss. America saw the largest mass shooting in its history. The people of America voted in a racist, hateful Krampus Cheeto into the highest office in the land. Countless celebrities died including the extremely talented Prince, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie. And just a week ago, my previous home of Oakland witnessed the largest and most devastating fire in its history.
I experienced my second bout ever of waterborne illnesses in Vietnam; the previous time was over ten years ago on my study abroad trip to Costa Rica. Vietnam was also the trip of the bus breakdown and consequent bumpiest bus drive ever; my boyfriend describes this as the most physically uncomfortable as he’s ever been in his life.
Then, there was traveling through the airport at Guangzhou. Traveling through Guangzhou when sleep deprived, and later suffering from food poisoning (not me, boyfriend), requires a level of patience and pushiness that I’ve never had to deal with at an airport before. Do you like being herded like cattle with thousands of other people into a dimly lit unventilated hallway only to have people in uniforms scream at you in a language you don’t know? Do you like it when they cut randomly into the crowd and separate groups with a rope? Then, Guangzhou airport is for you. This was not the case with Wuhan Airport, so I consider this issue to be a Guangzhou airport thing, not an all Chinese airports thing.
Working remotely! Fuck, I never thought it would be that hard to find wireless internet in Western Europe, even the very much still developing socialist republic of Vietnam has better wireless internet than Sweden. Trying to work on trains in the United States, apparently not possible even with the advanced technology of hot-spotting and tethering. I'm still figuring out this working from home, working on the go, spending hours of my life on a computer instead of teaching children thing; it's definitely going to continue to be a challenge and you will hear more about the challenges in upcoming blog posts.
Coming up in 2017
- San Juan, Puerto Rico
- Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- Berlin, Germany
"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.