Last month, we took a week-long road trip through the northeast. We stopped along the way in upstate New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Boston. I loved seeing the fall foliage and the quaint New England towns (Vermont, swoon). Here's a rundown of photos of where we went on our trip.
I've taken a lot of road trips in my life. I've mostly had a really awesome people with me on road trips, but once in a while, someone is a dud. Here are six tips I have for being a great road trip buddy.
Taste in Music:
One of my favorite parts of any road trip is music. After hours of endless driving, music is a welcome and necessary cure to the monotony of being in a car. In more isolated areas, radio stations can be limited, so it is important to bring back up. An excellent road trip partner will know how to choose the right music for the moment: no Belle and Sebastian at 3 a.m.
The best road trip partner has researched the route before leaving home. They can read a map, identify basic landmarks, and pay attention to road signs. They keep up to date on the thirty-five pages of directions from Google I printed out and stapled together in order. Most important of all, they know GPS’s fail.
I tire of trying to find one rock station in AM radioland. When we're in between destinations, a good road trip partner will be able to keep conversations going. Whether they are stories about the time one guy ate twinkies for a week and threatened to kill you or the one about eating a raw deer heart, a well-delivered story keeps me from paying too much attention to the fact my road trip partner doesn't know how to drive and my butt has been numb for two hours.
Can Cook, Identify Excellent Food or Bask in the Joy of Motel Six’s Bounteous Vending Machine Selection:
I love finding new and interesting roadside restaurants. While not every place will be a win, a good road trip partner should be able to identify a place which won’t serve me e.coli. Did they discover a bar hidden in the redwoods with an excellent Irish coffee? Can they turn leftover asparagus and gourmet salsa into a delicious dinner over a campfire? Excellent! It doesn’t serve to be picky on the road. Who doesn’t love Mrs. Amos’s cookies while waiting for the drying cycle to finish?
Flexible and Ready for Adventure:
Unexpected events will happen on road trips. I've experienced the range from a one-foot gash in my tire to impaling a bat on my windshield wiper. A good road trip partner will be able to handle challenges and remain calm.
Not only the ability to handle the unexpected is important, but instigating adventure. While there are times I have a specific destination in mind, it is the turn down the random road which brings the best discoveries. If it weren't for suggestions from a friend, I never would have discovered borax mines in Death Valley or an isolated black sand beach on California's Lost Coast.
Tolerate Endless Hours Alone With You:
When I'm on the road for a long time with someone, the lack of space gets stifling. A good road trip partner is someone who I can be around for hours on end without wanting to tear my hair out. And when you really can’t stand it anymore? You’re able to go off alone and it’s okay.
Freshman year of college at UC Santa Cruz and I was living on a floor with three students from Eureka. Whenever someone from San Jose would mention being from NorCal (I was from southern California and had no idea there was a SoCal/NorCal rivalry), these three would roll their eyes and say, "Uh-uh. Eureka is the real NorCal." Geographically speaking they're right: Eureka is much further north than the San Francisco Bay.
Northern California is known for beautiful forests, rivers, and let's face it, marijuana. Plentiful rain and sunshine, the rugged (read difficult to navigate and easy to hide) landscape, and isolation make it a perfect environment for growing weed. Though they are known as the Emerald Triangle, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties have far more to offer than just getting baked.
Over Labor Day weekend, we took a trip up the coast, through the Trinity forest, and over Interstate-5 to volcanic rock country. Here is what we found and why you should go there today.
The Mendocino Coast
The spectacular blue waters and jagged coastline of Mendocino county brings visitors from all over the United States and the world. I found Fort Bragg's glass beach to be rather disappointing, but the coastline is beautiful none-the-less. Further north from Fort Bragg are black sand beaches coupled with turquoise waters. Adventurous folk should continue to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park on the Lost Coast and check out Usal Creek Beach at the most southern end of the Lost Coast.
Mendocino Village and Fort Bragg
Mendocino Village will be popular with the older crowd with its boutique shops and art galleries. The village is adorable: wooden sidewalks, restored water towers, and colorful decorative signs.
Fort Bragg, a bit larger and grimier, is just a few minutes north. As we walked the main road, women in vibrant silk bustled costumes walked the street: it was Paul Bunyan days. Ride on the Skunk Train through the redwoods. Or if you're more laid back, get a bite to eat at Eggheads, a Wizard of Oz themed restaurant. The No Place Like Home Burger with avocado, bacon, and cheese is a fantastic choice with endless cups of coffee. Just a block up the street is North Coast Brewing Company, home of Old Rasputin.
Los bagels in arcata
Los Bagels, opened in 1984, has two locations: one in Arcata and the other in Eureka. We visited the one in Arcata after staying at the rather shady and run-down Fairwinds Motel. Los Bagels has a wide variety of bagels and toppings. We tried the Izzy's Guac 'N Lox (lox, guacamole, and cream cheese) and the Seafood Combo (lox, hot smoked salmon, smoked albacore, and cream cheese). They were so filling that I didn't eat anything else the entire day. Try the Mexican Mocha to go with your bagel.
The Trinity forest
Drive Highway 299 through the Trinity Forest for epic views of mountains, rivers, and forests. The green hued Trinity runs through the dense forest known for sightings of Big Foot. Stop along the way for river rafting, hiking, and fishing.
The Joss House in Weaverville
Wonderfully restored, the Joss House is a prime example of the diverse history of California. The small historic park houses a Joss House, or a "god" house. It was a temple built by Chinese miners in the 1880's where they would make offerings and pray to the gods. It's a surprising find in this small western town.
The stop is worth it, but beware: the tour guide we had was a little intense and kind of racist.
Mama Llama is a solid coffee house in town which seems to be the only place where people under 45 can hang out.
Macarthur-burney falls state park
Living in California during a drought, it's hard to remember there's still running water in places. MacArthur-Burney Falls is one of those places. Over the Labor Day weekend it was ridiculously crowded. The bottom of the falls is packed with people and you can't get a view of the falls without someone's back in the way. But, it's worth it and it's good to see people enjoying the natural beauty the state has to offer. I would love to see these falls snow covered in the winter.
Check out more photos to see the beauty of the real NorCal.
California State Highway 130 is a route going from northeast San Jose (Alum Rock area) to Mount Hamilton where Lick Observatory is located. Originally, the highway was supposed to go from San Jose to Patterson and create a link between the bay area and the central valley. However, this would create increased light pollution for the observatory, which has been there for over a hundred years. The project was abandoned, but the road is still there: one way, each way.
As you drive up to Mount Hamilton, you pass by Joseph D. Grant County Park, which I have been to but don't really recall. There are some homes, but not many. The road is narrow, steep, and full of switchbacks. Around each of these switchbacks lies a danger: a cyclist. Okay, so cyclists are not dangerous in and of themselves, but it can be dangerous driving around them. It can get a little annoying, but I am so impressed with these people's ability to get up that steep mountain in the summer heat that I just stuff my annoyance down.
Once you arrive at Mount Hamilton, definitely check out the observatory and the telescopes. They're really cool. The views of San Jose are spectacular, especially in the summer when it is clear. Driving back down the other side of the mountain, the environment changes. Gone are the golden hills and are replaced by green, golden, and reddish shrubs and ponderosa pines.
There are no houses out here. Maybe once every five miles or so we would see a mailbox or a cattle guard. It was not until about thirty minutes into our drive that we saw any signs of civilization other than a mailbox. Water once ran through here; you can see the creek. And for how hot it was, there is still green in the riverbeds, so there must be ground water.
Eventually, you reach a valley, and you are no longer hugging the sides of the Diablo Mountains. You are surrounded by them, encompassed. At about forty-five minutes to an hour into the drive, you reach a fork. One way goes to Patterson, which is on the I-5, and other is Mines Road, which will take you to Livermore. We took Mines Road to Livermore because we really didn't need to go to the central valley.
Once you are on Mines Road, there are many more houses, mailboxes, and cattle. The road begins to hug one side of the mountains and a dry creek bed runs on the other. On the west side, on the other side of the hills, is Del Valle Reservoir. Mines Road brings you to the surface streets of Livermore, which we then took to 84 and finally back home to the San Jose area.
If you are looking for an isolated, hilly highway with great hugging turns and few other drives, Highway 130 is a great choice. I would probably go in the winter because it was scorchingly hot (I even got a sunburn just sitting in the truck.)
We drive south from the Oregon Caves National Monument, our first stop was for fudge and a giant blue ox. At the amazing tourist stop in Klamath, California, we sampled several different types of fudge (can I just say that I don't get fudge? Like at all.), touched the testicles of a big blue ox, and stood in my first ever phone booth. This is one of my favorite road side attractioms I've ever encountered and every time I'm in the area I take my picture with Babe. I do think they could up the realism and pump artificial syrup and pancake smells into the air; it should seriously be made into an air freshener with a hint of pine. Never once when stopping here have I taken a tour of the "Trees of Mystery", but as it sounds like something ridiculous and cheesy I would probably immensely enjoy it.
Driving through the Redwoods National Park, I feel transported to a primordial forest enveloped in green and mist. It reminds me of that fucking terrifying movie Fern Gully, which is not nearly as good of an animated environmental film as Pom Poko, but far far more terrifying. Ferns carpet the ground and through the trees the slate gray ocean peaks through. The northern California coast is beautiful, isolated and wild. These seemingly endless forests open to the Humboldt Bay, a place in my mind that sticks out as depressing and marshy. It is capped by the college town of Arcata in the north and barracaded in the south by the dreary forgettable town of Eureka.
Eureka is made more forgettable because it should be memorable. I have been to Eureka numerous times and I don't ever remember doing anything here. I recall a memory of being bitchy to my friends in a motel here and I remember dirty gray buildings with tweakers shambling by. I know there's supposed to be a good brewery there, but the one thing we did on this trip was eat sandwiches on the hood of my car in a parking lot overwhelmed by the scent of rotting seaweed.
We kept driving. Further south on 101 is a turn off for California 254. Alex and I were trying our damndest to keep the ocean in our sight. We wanted to take the road less traveled, even though I'm not a huge fucking Robert Frost fan. We were going towards Honeydew, a little place with a post office and a school bus stop. There might even be a zipcode. We drove up steep hills on dirt roads and I sat in the passenger window and watched the trees flash by in a slow blur. An area known for its hidden pot and opium farms, this probably wasn't the smartest or safest idea, not that I ever expected a guy to be at the end of the road shotgun casually at his side.
The coast continues rocky, rugged, and foggy. Mendocino and Fort Bragg are small, ridiculously quaint towns on the coast. We stop for clam chowder in Fort Bragg and watch the fog roll in. Grudgingly we progress inward towards Ukiah, the county seat of Mendocino and what I thought at the time was a real true shit hole of a town. Smoky and disgustingly hot, Ukiah did not leave a great impression on me. To further exacerbate my hatred of it, Alex beat me at Scrabble by getting a triple word and triple letter score on the word zine. I'm not sure if that's a word. I don't even think people were using zine in 2008 anymore. Later, I returned to Ukiah and realized there is a great brewery in the downtown area and it's a much better place if it's not 90 degrees and has the air quality of a smoker's lung.
We drove the highways through Sonoma wine country out to the coast and along Tomales Bay, past Drake's Bay and across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Richmond District where we ate delicious Chinese food. Highway 1 south, hugging the cliffs past the Montara lighthouse, the waves of Mavericks in Half Moon Bay, and finally home to Santa Cruz.
The 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.
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.
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 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.
The 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.
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.
The Mother Lode. For me this name conjures an image of an intergalactic flying space turd. Kind of a horrifying image, right? But perhaps I watch too much Futurama. A Mother Lode is a principle vein or zone of mineral veins, typically gold, silver, or ore. In California, the Mother Lode is an area in the southeast Sierra Nevada extending from El Dorado County in the north and Mariposa County in the south. This area produced more gold than almost any other area in the United States in its heyday. Now it is an area that relies on tourism to bring in money and has a number of state parks devoted to the story of gold. Our journey centered on Toulumne and Calaveras counties. The majority of Toulumne county is taken up by Yosemite National Park. As we were venturing out on Memorial Day Weekend, and I already have a Yosemite trip planned for later this summer, we wanted to avoid crowds and experience the rest of the area. Toulumne county is small: it is home to approximately 55,000 people and has only one incorporated city, Sonora, which is also the county seat. In spite of its small size, Toulumne has a lot to offer the tourist, especially one who is a state park and California history enthusiast such as myself.
Getting to Jamestown, and the rest of the Mother Lode, is an easy drive from the bay area. It takes about two and a half hours in good traffic, plus there are a number of In 'N Out locations which are an essential to any California road trip. In fact, I only eat In 'N Out on road trips.
Directions to Jamestown from the South Bay
From the 237 east (we were coming from Mountain View), get on 880 north and take this to 680 north. From the 680 get on 580 east toward Tracy over the Altamont pass. Get on 205 east and take this to 120 east and follow this and the 108 toward Jamestown.
Jamestown is a census designated place in Toulumne county with a population of around 3,000 (though the population sign for Jamestown says there is only around 900). Antique stores, historic hotels and saloons line Main Street Jamestown. We wandered around here for about an hour, purchased an old set of Boggle which was in excellent condition and Girl Scout handbook from the 1960's at an antique store. There's also a legit gold panning store where you can sign up for gold panning expeditions. Honestly, downtown Jamestown was not really our type of place and an hour of wandering through antique stores was plenty of time, but the buildings dating back to the 1850s through the Victorian era are quite well restored.
The real reason for our visit, and pretty much any visit, to Jamestown was to go to Railtown 1897. Railtown 1897 is a California State Historic Park situated several blocks from Main Street Jamestown. We arrived too late on Saturday to ride a train, but we explored the other parts of the park.
Railtown 1897 is a state historic park commemorating the historic Sierra Railway Company started in 1897. The roundhouse at the park is only one of two operating roundhouses in the United States which maintains steam engines. These steam engines have been lovingly restored with the expert knowledge of volunteer mechanics and millions of dollars in donations from people like Clint Eastwood. Also at the park is a Blacksmith Shop and an exhibit of the movies and television shows these trains have featured in, including Back to the Future 3, Unforgiven, and Petticoat Junction.
On Sunday we journeyed back from Sonora to ride the train at 10:30 in the morning. The train ride costs $15 per adult and includes admission to the park, a thirty minute tour of the roundhouse (which is not accessible otherwise), and a forty-five minute ride on a steam train. The steam trains generally operate on weekends and during the week they run diesel trains. I highly recommend waiting for the weekend and riding the steam; it is definitely a unique experience. We had the especial privilege of riding Engine No. 3 which was featured in Back to the Future 3 and is an engine they typically do not use unless it is a holiday.
To start with, we went on the thirty minute tour of the Roundhouse. Our tour guide Ken was informed enough and a pretty good story teller, though we were afraid to ask him any particularly difficult questions because his knowledge did seem limited. This is not a tour for young children who just want to ride the "choo-choo". We had a number of families who started off with us and dropped off about five minutes into the tour. As train enthusiasts, we were fascinated by the engines that were in current repair and the history behind them. My particular favorite was the Hetch-Hetchy Speeder which was used to traffic people to and from the Hetch-Hetchy dam project.
Outside the Roundhouse is an actual operating platform that turns the trains around. On Saturday we got to see them moving Steam Engine No. 3 and a speeder into the Roundhouse. It was an incredibly cool and well timed performance by the engineers to watch. I am amazed that people have passed down the knowledge to keep these trains operating and maintained.
After the Roundhouse tour, hop on the train and find a seat in the back where the views are the best. We unfortunately were not able to find a seat in the back of the train and settled for a two person seat near the front of our train. The train ride is smooth and fairly slow as you make your way through oak studded hills passing ranches and creeks. The best part is when the steam escapes from engine and makes that classic train sound. When they reach the top of the line, the engine decouples from the cab and moves to the back of the train. The ride back to the park is faster as the ride is downhill.
Unless you are a freak for antique stores or want to enjoy a whiskey in a historic saloon, you can skip downtown Jamestown and go straight to Railtown 1897. Railtown 1897 is absolutely kid friendly, affordable, and will provide the special experience of riding a steam train. We saw a number of children, and adults, having a fantastic time.
"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.
"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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.