Posted on

A Room With a View: The Golden Gate

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge at midnight under a shining full moon it was a delightful experience. I don’t know how many times I have crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in years past; what I know is that this it was the first time it was enjoyable because traffic was almost nonexistent. It allowed me to slow down and take in the view. I was headed to what Google Maps indicated as the nearest rest area located about a mile on the north end of the bridge. The rest area in case was Vista Point in Sausalito which I discovered to be so popular for the view it offers that authorities were considering to close during peak hours to avert traffic jams caused by visitors. This surprisingly good news only came to add to a great day on the road. I was not too far from my next hiking destination Point Reyes National Seashore and stopping at Vista Point was going to be a quick stop. I had intended to continue on and find a place to stay closer to the park.

As I arrived at Vista Point I was surprised to see so many people around. It was past midnight and there were people who obviously had come there just to enjoy the view of the Golden Gate Bridge to the right and San Francisco’s skyline. It may have been a special full moon occasion! The skies were a little overcast and the moon mostly hidden by clouds occasionally reappeared in all its splendor. It was absolutely romantic! Or, at least for all the lovebirds who seemed to have made the trip with the sole purpose of enjoying the full moon. Despite the late hours, not only local couples embraced and kissed under the moonlight but groups of overseas tourists posed for pictures. It was quite festive! I had been to many rest stops in the past almost one month on the road, but Vista Point was certainly different. It was then that I realized that I was not going any farther that night. I moved my car to another spot from which I had full, unobstructed view of the bridge and the skyline of San Francisco and something that might have been a harbor. Having been to San Francisco many times in the past and stayed in a few different hotels I had never had a room with a view as such.

Golden Gate Bridge view from Vista Point - Sausalito, CA
Golden Gate Bridge view from Vista Point – Sausalito, CA

The sun was up and bright when I woke up the next morning! A group of people who I had seen a few hours earlier were still there. It looked as if they had come from a gala party with the men wearing tuxedos and the ladies wearing long dresses. If you live in the Bay Area area this may sound familiar and redundant, but to me it was something new or something that we see in the movies.

I was starving and before heading to Point Reyes I wanted to have breakfast at local restaurant in a small town as I had done for the past few weeks. My search displayed a few options and I chose to set my GPS to take me to the Hummingbird in Fairfax. The reviews were great and reading them only made me hungrier. I couldn’t wait to get there! On that Sunday morning I arrived in Fairfax impressed and delighted by the beauty of the landscape along the road and the charm of the town. After parking I walked to the cafe only to find out that it was still closed and it would be another thirty minutes before opening. I would have waited, except for the fact that the number of people already waiting on the sidewalk seemed to exceed the sitting capacity. I decided to walk around looking for another place and not too far from there on the other side of the street I spotted the Barefoot Cafe. Excellent finding! Not only the food was fantastic, it also had the first great coffee on the road in a long time.

Road scenery from Sausalito to Fairfax, California
Road scenery from Sausalito to Fairfax, California
Bikers in Fairfax, California
Bikers in Fairfax, California

While having breakfast I initiated a conversation with a local couple sitting next to me. I mentioned all the cyclists I had seen on my way into town and asked them if they were having a biking competition in town.

Bikers in Fairfax, California
Bikers in Fairfax, California

They reacted a little surprised looking at each other before saying that they were not aware of any biking event. They continued to tell me that Fairfax is know as a Mecca for bikers. They also told me that later on the day the number of bicycles would only increase. A few minutes later after I left the restaurant, I came across the Marin Museum of Bicycling and the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame. A couple of days later I learned that Fairfax not only is the a Mecca for bikers but it is also a haven for hikers. I was only thirty minutes away from the entrance of Point Reyes National Seashore and shortly I would be gearing up to set foot on a five mile trail to pitch my tent.

Destination: From Texas to New Mexico

Posted on

Yosemite: One of the Greatest National Parks

Yosemite! The long waited visit to the jewel of all parks was finally here!  The park had just been open for the 2016 season. It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday in late April and the entrance fee was being waived to celebrate National Parks week. What a fantastic combination! Although the free entrance did not impact me monetarily speaking as I had the annual pass for the National Parks, it took forever to get through the last half mile before going through the entrance gate.

Panoramic view with Bridalveil Fall and Half Dome in the back, Yosemite National Park
Panoramic view with Bridalveil Fall and Half Dome in the back, Yosemite National Park

Almost a month on the road had taught me to stay away from the big stars among the National Parks on the weekends, it not always worked that way. I was still on my learning curve as far as planning went. By now I had concluded that no matter how many travel blogs, books and information I had read before getting on the road, nothing could prepare me enough.

A freezing shower at Bridalveil Fall - Yosemite National Park
A freezing shower at Bridalveil Fall – Yosemite National Park

Perhaps it is an obvious and an understatement to parallel advertising material to a person’s profile picture: it is always the best shot! Brochures of parks and local, state, and national landmarks always have attractive pictures taken on their prime season in handpicked sunny days. Published information hardly brings the “bad” out. Of course they all warn of hazardous and dangers and point out to the things and activities one should or shouldn’t do.  Surprisingly, Yosemite National Park was exactly what the brochures and travel books described. The scenery looked exactly like the pictures I had always seen.

Bridalveil Fall - Yosemite National Park
Bridalveil Fall – Yosemite National Park

If we could only come up with a way to keep drivers from driving twice or more over the speed limit in the park! Signs warning that speed kills bears do not seem to halt the enthusiasm of Californian drivers! I know you are in your own backyard, but please stop getting upset with the tourists who are being respectful of the signs posted in your parks. No, it is not a phenomena that is restricted to California. I experienced the same habit in other areas of the country, but it is in California where that it seems to prevail. The only park until then where I witnessed the park police actually pulling drivers over and fining them for speeding was in Arizona at the Grand Canyon.

 

Stream down from Bridalveil Fall - Yosemite National Park
Stream down from Bridalveil Fall – Yosemite National Park
El Capitan - Yosemite National Park
El Capitan – Yosemite National Park

Spring had just arrived and snow could still be seen in shady areas with some trails still closed. As expected, camping was not available as they were sold out. It never hurts to ask, but I was well aware about the need to reserve a camp site months in advance and the answer was negative. I could either try and camp outside the park or I could return a couple of days later and give it a chance for the first come first serve basis. I also knew that wilderness hiking permits for certain camping areas had to be acquired in advance due to the quota of hikers allowed in the trails. Furthermore, I would prefer to not hike alone. With all these factors in mind, my first visit to Yosemite was not one that would include daring adventures. By the way, Yosemite is truly the perfect park for everyone. It gives every opportunity to the most adventurous climbers and hikers, and at the same time it is perfect choice for those who can not enjoy the gorgeous scenery of other parks due to their physical limitations. I had met people at other parks who could not hike to the must see landmarks to their physical abilities. At Yosemite a simple drive exposes the most stunning views, such as Bridalveil Fall, Half Dome, and its valleys and monumental granite formations  such as El Capitan.

 

Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park

My visit to Yosemite can be summarized as a “great walk in the park”. At the end of my visit I had concluded that this was a place where I would like to spend a week or so, and for that to happen it must be planned well in advance. I would not attempt to camp there in a couple of days as it had been suggested earlier that day when I entered the park. My next stop was Point Reyes National Seashore, a few hours away on the coast, where I would check-in the next day for a few days. Driving out of Yosemite and heading toward San Francisco presented me with one of the most beautiful, pleasant day on the road. Come down swirling roads in the mountains, then onto green rolling hills with picturesque quintessential old west hamlets, finally reaching down the valley at sunset was simply delightful. I wouldn’t be reaching San Francisco until close to midnight as I had already made a few stops with more stops to come. I was in no rush and I did not want to be the Oakland area at a busy traffic time

Earth Day at Sequoia and Kings National Parks

Posted on

Earth Day at Sequoia and Kings National Parks

Sequoia Tree at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California
Sequoia Tree at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California

Hiking and camping at Sequoia and Kings National Parks in California was on my itinerary. And what a coincidence that I happened to reach the area on the first day the park was opening for visitors in the Spring. It had been a long Winter and some of the roads were not clear of the snow yet. My thoughts of camping were erased when I arrived at the gates and was informed that camping was not allowed yet, and another big storm was on its way.

No better way to celebrate Earth Day than hugging a Sequoia! Well, a small one! On April 22, 1970, twenty million Americans took to the streets, parks and auditoriums to demonstrate and rally for a healthy, sustainable environment. Forty-six years later, on April 22, 2016, in my own way I was honoring this special day which was founded by Gaylord Nelson who at that time was a senator for Wisconsin. And no, I did not plan all along to be there on that particular day, but after twenty-six days on the road that’s how far I had made. Nonetheless, it was a remarkable coincidence.

Sequoia Tree at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California
Sequoia Tree at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California

I was expecting a long line at the entrance of the park, after all, I assumed that schools would bring busloads of children to celebrate Earth Day. I was wrong! Being the first day that the park was open for the season and with what had been an unstable weather pattern, the crowds weren’t there.  I quickly learned how unstable the weather is in early Spring at the Sierra Nevada and at the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Although in the early morning the skies were blue and there was no visible sign of a major storm, all I heard were warnings about a big storm rolling in.

The park was relatively quiet not only for being the first day it had open, but because a big storm a couple of days earlier was keeping people away. When I checked about the possibility of camping, the answer was not encouraging. I could find camping outside the park but I was warned that a storm was expected later that evening and the park rangers weren’t sure if the roads would be open the next morning or not. I was also told that if it was a really bad storm they could not tell me for sure how long it would be before clearing the roads and reopening them.

The hiking trail conditions were not great either and hiking solo was not recommended either. Except for short hikes closer to the landmarks at the park, venturing out on my own was not a good idea. Safety first! By mid-day it looked unseemly that a storm would roll in. It was a sunny, gorgeous day. What could go wrong? I could not resist the temptation to drive further in the park. The views were stunning and I did see a couple of hikers who seemed determined to find a camping spot. I thought that maybe I would find a camping area and pitch my tent.

Signs of Spring along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway and the South Fork Kings River, Sequoia National Forest, California Signs of Spring along the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway and the South Fork Kings River, Sequoia National Forest, California

Grizzly Falls at Sequoia National Forest, California
Grizzly Falls at Sequoia National Forest, California

Earlier that morning before the roads were opened for traffic because of lack of visibility earlier in the morning, I toured the sequoias landmarks. Although it was still a bit cold, the sun was out and it was a spectacular day. Blue, clear skies made it hard to believe in the warnings that I was given about lack of visibility and a possible snow storm overnight.

With all campgrounds still closed I stayed on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway which for most part runs along the South Fork Kings River, stopping at the Grizzly Falls. In this section the of the road there wasn’t any traffic at all. The few visitors I had seen seemed to have stayed behind by the visitor center and places such as the General Grant Tree posing for pictures. With just a half dozen cars on the road, I could enjoy the open views, stopping at most of the viewpoints. Astonishing views! All to myself and a few bears.

Although it felt like Winter, a few blossoming shrubs here and there was a reminder that Spring was finally arriving. Along the road where wildfires cleared the slopes, the meadows were carpeted with yellow, orange, and purple flowers.

Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, Kings Canyon National Park
Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, Kings Canyon National Park

 

Canyon view at the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, Kings Canyon
Canyon view at the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway, Kings Canyon

 

Grand Sentinel
Grand Sentinel
Roaring River Falls at Kings Canyon National Park
Roaring River Falls at Kings Canyon National Park

By the time I reached the end of the road and ventured on the Copper Creek Trail, the temperature had dropped drastically. Hiking along the creek was bitterly cold.

The view of the Grand Sentinel rising 8518 feet is impressive; sitting as the background image at the Zumwalt Meadow. Hiking out on the Copper Creek Trail and heading to the Roaring River Falls, I noticed that I could no longer see the summit of the Grand Sentinel which had been covered by clouds. The sun quickly withdrew and the temperature was dropping quickly.

I would not pass the opportunity to hike to the Roaring River Falls, where I finally saw other people. The person who I spoke with was a local who had brought some visiting family members to the park. He told me that we should get out of there as soon as possible because within some thirty minutes there would be no visibility at all. I am glad I bumped into him because by the time I drove by the Canyon Viewpoint there was no view at sight. Driving conditions deteriorated so rapidly due to lack of visibility that I considered stopping! But, where to stop? What if this continues for the next 12 hours or so? I imagined that as I would reach lower altitudes it would get better. Somehow it did, but not exactly how I expected.

Around the time I made to the Convict Flat, a campground that was closed, it wasn’t as foggy as it had been up to that point. However, sleet combined with rain and snow made it for an interesting mix to navigate the meandering road. Once again I hoped that the lower I went the better would get. Different altitudes, different weathers! I left the Sequoia National Forest thinking that things were getting better when suddenly they turned into the worst drive I had ever experienced. I only let a sigh of relief when I reached the 2000 feet mark. From there I could see the plains and although it was raining heavily, I was happy to be down from the mountains. Lesson learned! When a ranger tells you that their weather is as temperamental as a cat, trust him!

Roaring River at Zumwalt Meadow, Kings Canyon National Park
Roaring River at Zumwalt Meadow, Kings Canyon National Park

My plans and dream to spend time at Sequoia and Kings National Parks, camping and hiking for now had to be postponed. However, the experience was just as fantastic as if I had spent a week there. It was a teaser that only made me want to come back another time. A long road trip is fascinating. However, the downside is not being able to make reservations for camping because it is difficult to reach the locations on schedule. Many of the national parks I visited were stopovers. In some of the national parks that were open and operated on a first-come, first-serve basis for camping, I could spend a couple of days or so. It was getting a little more difficult as I continued north in West Coast. Although it was officially Spring, the heavy Winter was still lingering around. After all, the weather in Sierra Nevada and in the northeast mountains of California is quite unpredictable.

Posted on

From Dana Point to West Hollywood

Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California

One of the advantages of traveling alone is that there’s no discussion about where to go, when to go, and when and where to stop. If I see a place that catches my eyes, my attention and my imagination, I simply turn around and go check it out! It’s either a quick stop or a place to stay for a few hours or days. It’s true that in many occasions I think about who I would like to be there sharing that moment with me because I know we would have a great time doing this or that together. One of the conclusions that comes from being on the road is that a place is multidimensional as it is seen in different ways by different people who are at different stages in their own personal voyages. I have got recommendations from people who visited or lived at a certain location, but, as I visited those places, I did not have the same reactions and impressions I was told about. By saying that I do not intend to say it was not as good or bad as described. Rather, seeing and experiencing a place is personal.

Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California
Laguna Beach, California

Traveling north after leaving San Diego, drove through Dana Point, stopping only to get a cappuccino. Finding a place to park proved to be a struggle as the town was a bit “crowded”. My next stop was at Laguna Beach where I parked right in front of Coffee Klatch on South Coast Highway. An inviting, colorfully decorated coffee shop serving great coffee and pastries. After spending about half an hour at the coffee shop, I went for a stroll on the beach. Contrary to Dana Point, Laguna Beach was less crowded.

A couple of hours later I was traveling to Malibu where I had planned to find a place for a late lunch. No, I had no place in mind! When I am traveling by myself, unless I am meeting someone, I do an online search when there are just a few or no visible options. Otherwise, I like driving or walking around and let the curb appeal drag me in. Sometimes it is the smell of food, the colors of the walls, or the people who are already there that will make me go in. The deciding factor that will make me ultimately choose the place is how I am greeted by the host or hostess. So, with no plan or place in mind I crossed Malibu south-north on Coast Highway and it was on the north end of town that I found the place I would have lunch and spend another hour relaxing on their little private beach.

Paradise Cove Beach Cafe - Malibu, California
Paradise Cove Beach Cafe – Malibu, California
Malibu Mai Tai at Paradise Cove Beach Cafe
Malibu Mai Tai at Paradise Cove Beach Cafe

The Paradise Cove Beach Cafe has character and lives up to its name. Paradise Cove is a stunning area that has been the location for quite a few movies and has a Hawaiian feel. The cafe has indoor and outdoor sittings with some tables on a sanded area. One of the perks is that if you plan on staying up to four hours and eat at the cafe, parking becomes a lot cheaper. Parking fees in the area are steep! The staff was welcoming and friendly and I only had to wait about ten minutes to get a table outside. As I had plans to be in West Hollywood by the end of the day, I chose to eat light, so I had the Paradise Shrimp & Delicious Crab Chop, which turned out to be a huge salad. It was superb! I ordered their Malibu Mai Tai and would have had more than one if I didn’t have to drive because it was just perfect! While I was having lunch I noticed that the restaurant was getting a lot busier with a varied crowd. As I get the check I asked the waiter about sitting outside by the water in their lovely wood chairs. He told me that I could sit there for a couple of hours but there was one rule: I had to open the beer I had ordered myself! Just outside a little gate to the beach there’s a small table with a bottle opener, and that’s where my beer bottle would be waiting for me. After paying the bill and opening the beer bottle I sat in one of the chairs outside basking in the sun for another hour.

Earlier that day I had made it a goal to get to West Hollywood and there was one place I had in mind to stop by: The Abbey! Having heard so much about The Abbey, I could not simply drive through the neighborhood and not stop by. Although I kept reminding myself that this trip was about wildlife, camping and hiking and not about cities, I could not resist driving through Sunset Boulevard! Surprisingly, when I set my GPS to take me from Paradise Cove in Malibu to The Abbey in West Hollywood, it told me that it would take almost two hours to get to my destination. Something is wrong, I thought! I reentered the address just to make sure that I hadn’t made a mistake, after all it is only 28 miles. Again it told me that it would take almost two hours! All I could do was trust the GPS as it had never been wrong before and I thought that maybe there was an accident somewhere on the road ahead. No, there was no accident! Just traffic! Two hours later I arrived at The Abbey. It’s beautifully decorated and obviously everything resembles a chapel. However, it was not busy at all. Only a few people in small groups around the bar where I sat and had a couple of beers and some delicious appetizers. It appeared that everyone there knew everyone else. A couple who sat next to me told me that a few hours later the place would be packed! After chatting with a few people who came and went, I realized that The Abbey would be really fun to visit with friends. By the time I finished eating I figured that it was time to get back on the road and a pick a place to spend the night. My next stop was Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, almost four hours drive from The Abbey. That evening I planned to get as close to the park as possible so I could get in early in next morning. The weather was perfect for driving!

Posted on

Desert Storm

Joshua Tree, "the tree of life" - Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree, “the tree of life” – Joshua Tree National Park, California

Driving through the desert southbound to Joshua Tree National Park the high winds in Las Vegas were explained. The sand storm could be seen in the distance becoming more and more intense the further south I drove. Traffic was very light, for miles practically nonexistent. At times the wind gusts would shake the car underscoring my driving inexperience in desert sand storms. I wondered whether or not it was a normal occurrence or an anomaly. One thing was certain; it made the trip undeniably stressful. The route took me through the Mojave National Preserve passing through Cima and Kelso. The latter,a ghost town and a defunct railroad depot in the San Bernardino County. The views are both stunning, dramatic and desolate in an environment that seems to have sat still in time! Crumbling structures being consumed in abandonment dot the roadside landscape. The Kelso Dunes, the largest sand dunes in the United States, is one of the landmark attractions in the Mojave National Preserve giving visitors ample opportunities for self-reliant and challenging outdoor activities. Certainly one more for my bucket list.

Mohave Desert - Joshua Tree National Park, California
Mohave Desert – Joshua Tree National Park, California

South of the Mojave National Preserve, on the historic Route 66 with a population of roughly 2,000 people, Amboy was probably where I should have taken a rest break and I didn’t. I probably continued to drive both because I wanted to get to Joshua Tree National Park as early as possible and because in all honesty, Amboy has that dreadful ghost town feel. As a matter of fact, it is advertised as the “the ghost town that ain’t dead yet”! Throughout my road trip my primary goal was to visit and hike at National Parks, but I kept a journal of scenery and towns that I saw along the way. They are places that caught my eye, imagination and curiosity; Amboy is one of them and falls on list of places to visit. However, the reason I should have stopped there is because it was the last sign of civilization that I came across until I was close to get in the north entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. At the first gas station, one of those that have only two pumps, westbound on Route 62, I stopped to get gas and use their facilities. The wind was blasting so strongly that it kept pushing my body against the car while I filled up the tank. A a couple of minutes later and inside chatting with the attendant, she told me that it was one of the worst sand storms they were having so far this year. Lucky me, I thought, not yet knowing what that meant for my plans for the day.

The Skull Rock granite formation - Joshua Tree National Park, California
The Skull Rock granite formation – Joshua Tree National Park, California

At the Joshua Tree National Park visitor center, I learned that Indian Cave, Ryan, Belle, and Jumbo Rock campgrounds were all full. The suggestion given to me was to drive to Cottonwood Campground about over an hour drive, which meant crossing the park in the north-south direction toward the south entrance by highway I-10. Knowing that camping at the park was close to impossible at that point, I decided to enjoy the day as much I could doing a short hike instead. I headed to Skull Rock, the iconic granite rock formation with the two eye sockets that resemble a skull.

Radiant fuchsia cactus blossoms - Joshua Tree National Park, California
Radiant fuchsia cactus blossoms – Joshua Tree National Park, California

The Skull Rock & Jumbo Rocks Trail was a good short hike for the day given the fact that the terrain is basically solid granite rocks and there was not a lot of sand being blown in the air despite strong winds. In a not too far distance clouds of sand could be seen rolling south of the Skull Rock site.

Granite jumbo rocks at Joshua Tree National Park, California
Granite jumbo rocks at Joshua Tree National Park, California
Inherently part of the ecosystem of the Joshua Tree National Park - Mojave Desert, Catilornia
Inherently part of the Joshua Tree National Park’s ecosystem – Mojave Desert, Catilornia

This trail is a two miles loop with an elevation gain of only 108 feet with a moderate degree of difficulty. The scenery is breathtaking! The terrain is rugged with a few jagged sections. However, contrary to the popular idea of a desert landscape, it is far from being barren. Astounding radiant fuchsia cactus blossoms standout along the way, contrasting with the pale sandy soil. Life springs out of small crevices in the rocks and bloom with intensity in a delicate and fragile ecosystem where every single element, no matter how small, plays a critical role the entire system and cycle of life.

Jumbo granite rocks in the nature trails of Joshua Tree National Park, California
Jumbo granite rocks in the nature trails of Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree National Park, California
Joshua Tree National Park, California

On my way to the south entrance of the park I made a few stops along the way at the exhibits, which are plaques describing the nature of the landscape and formations. The closer I got to the south entrance of the park, the windier and dustier it became. Without a tripod I could barely hold still to photograph the scenery around me. The amount of sand swirling around was insurmountable. It was then that I realized that even if there were campsites available at the Cottonwood Campground, I probably would not be able to pitch my tent as the force of the wind was such that it shook the car even when it was parked on the road side.

Since I had planned to spend a couple of days at the Joshua Tree National Park, by not doing so I was sort of ahead of schedule. Although I did not have a schedule, properly said, I had arranged to arrive in the San Diego area in two days. Basically I was heading out of the park without a plan, other than knowing that if I headed toward San Clemente there were a few State Parks on the shores where I could try and camp for the night.

Jumbo Rocks - Joshua Tree National Park, California
Jumbo Rocks – Joshua Tree National Park, California

Crater Lake: Winter Wonderland and Beyond

 

From the Shores to the Mountains

Posted on

South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon

South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

On my sixteenth day on the road I woke up to a cold morning and so sore that it took me a few minutes to get out of the sleeping bag. My legs begged me to stay in the tent, but my addiction to caffeine got me up and running for a hot cup of cappuccino at the Canyon Coffee House. With my abilities to think and function restored, I was ready to head to the South Kaibab Trail. Vehicles are not allowed close to the trailhead and the closest parking lot is about a half mile away on Desert View Drive. Shuttle buses are available to drop you off right at the trailhead located south of the Yaki Point on Yaki Point Road, but I chose to drive, park and hike to the trailhead. At busier times of the year or if you are camping overnight in the canyon the shuttle bus is probably a better option as the parking lot is quite small. And not everyone wants to hike an extra half mile on the way out.

View of canyon walls from South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
View of canyon walls from South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

I had planned to hike to Skeleton Point at three miles down toward the bottom. My round trip for the day was just going to be six miles, plus the one mile round trip from the trailhead to where I had parked my car. The South Kaibab Trail is two and half miles shorter than the Bright Angel Trail from the trailheads to the Bright Angel Campground by the Colorado River. While the Bright Angel Trail round trip is nineteen miles, the round trip on the South Kaibab Trail is only fourteen miles. Do not fool yourself! Part of the reason for the shorter distance is because of its steepness. The steepness of this trail is misleading as many casual hikers do not realize how far they have gone. Its trailhead elevation is also about 400 feet higher than that at the trailhead of the Bright Angel Trail.

Ooh Aah Point at South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Ooh Aah Point at South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

Comparing to the Bright Angel Trail, the South Kaibab Trail gets a lot more exposure to sunlight. The few shaded areas, depending on the time of the day, result from the canyon walls. The views are spectacular! Just about less than a mile in from the trailhead, Ooh Aah Point offers wonderful views of the open canyon. The weather was perfect! The day before when I hiked part of the Bright Angel Trail, the skies were a too little hazy but today the skies were clear and bluer. At the Ooh Aah Point I met Nav and Martina from London with whom I chatted for a while and we agreed to meet in San Diego a week later for drinks. Although there were more people on the trail, it was not overly crowded.

Just a little over half a mile from Ooh Aah Point, Cedar Ridge opens up to astonishing views. At this point it was windy but not as cold as the day before and certainly a lot warmer than just a couple of hours earlier. That’s how much the temperature can vary from top to bottom and fluctuate throughout the day.

Cedar Ridge at South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Cedar Ridge at South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

Hiking and contemplating the vastness of the Grand Canyon is a spiritual experience and it is impossible not to be moved by the force that carved the landscape and magnitude of its wild beauty. Although the landscape is relatively young, sculpted about five to six million years ago, rocks ages reveal 270 to 1,840 million years in the making: 1.8 billion years. Later that evening I met Michael, a Hopi native-American who shared some of his people’s rich history and their fascinating mythology. He told me that now they are a small nation but the “most important” because they are the oldest and that they originated from mother Earth. Curious about what I heard, later on I looked into the history of the Hopi people and found out that among the people who consider the Grand Canyon their place of origin and homeland, the Hopi are the only people who never left the area. Their religious practices are embedded in the landscape given to them by the deity Ma’saw when they accepted a covenant to earn stewardship of the Earth. It is believed that the Hopi people descend from the Puebloan tribes who inhabited the four corners area thousands of years ago. Deep within the Grand Canyon lies a sacred place: the Sipapu, which means “the place of emergence”. The Hopi people remains the most mysterious and mystical people of all Native Americans, considered outsiders by other Native American nations as they never signed a peace treaty. They carry on the story and the history of the Ancestral Puebloans.

South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona
South Kaibab Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

Michael and I talked well into the night while stargazing, sitting outside my tent. Listening to his stories and how after leaving the US Marines and becoming a Forestry Engineer he returned to his homeland to continue and carry on the Hopi’s traditions and cultural integrity, was an eye-opening experience. That encounter changed how I would view my journey from that moment on; it was no longer a sightseeing road trip. Thereafter, I gained the awareness that I was walking on sacred grounds and the connecting with people took a deeper meaning knowing that although I was travelling by myself I was not alone.

Sunset in the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Sunset in the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Sunset in the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Sunset in the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Posted on

Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon

Descending hike on the Bright Angel Trail view from the Upper Tunnel - Grand
Descending hike on the Bright Angel Trail view from the Upper Tunnel area – Grand Canyon, Arizona

I started the descent on the Bright Angel Trail about seven hours from sunset. I calculated that I would do an average twenty-five minutes per mile on the descending hike, but would probably double that time on the ascending hike. If I hiked down to the three miles point I would need approximately four hours to complete my round trip; that would not account for rest stops and stopping for pictures. Based on the Hiking and Camping Destinations pamphlet listing the trails, with the time I had for a day hike I could reach the 3-Mile Resthouse. The Resthouse, located three miles on the descent sitting at the 2120 feet elevation change from the top, has a round trip of six miles with an estimated time of four to six hours.

On the descent at Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
On the descent at Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona
View from the Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
View from the Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

The Bright Angel Campground elevation change from the trailhead is 4340 feet with a nineteen miles round trip. The minimum time recommended for the round trip is two days. Warning signs highlight that people who have attempted the round trip in one day have experienced health related accidents or have died. As it was early Spring, the average temperatures at the top were in the low 30 F degrees, rising at lower altitudes toward the river. Temperatures at the river level average about twenty degrees higher than at the top. About two miles into my hike it became very windy which made it feel colder than the actual 40 F degrees at that point. One of the brochures notes that the Bright Angel Trail is the “easiest” trail, “but still incredibly steep.” The sudden drop in altitude is felt at each step taken, which makes for a faster hike down with high impact on the joints. Hiking poles are essential here! Hiking out will take twice as long or longer as the gain in altitude makes it steadily steep.

Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

Captivating views, a relatively ease and surely fast descent mislead those who are not exactly what would be called experienced hikers, but tourists turned into accidental hikers who go too far down in the hike not realizing how much physical preparedness is required on the way out. ‘Far’ in this case is an absolute relative concept! Five hundred feet can be treacherous and challenging to too many people I passed on my way down. Posted warning signs and advises on pamphlets are not to be taken lightly nor ignored. In a jokingly way, the challenge of the trails in the Grand Canyon is well summarized on a t-shirt for sale at the gift shop which reads “Going In Is Optional; Coming Out is Mandatory”, or something along those lines. As I continued to descend I saw pain stamped on some faces and at the same time I saw guilt written on the faces of those who brought their elderly parents and grandparents down for a stroll. That’s what the viewpoints are for!

About half a mile down the trail became at least half crowded and by the time I reached the one mile mark I had the trail almost entirely to myself. It was also at that point that the wind was blasting against the cliff walls. Blowing gusts forced me to make some stops and exercise added caution as the wind was blowing and pushing against my back. I went an extra mile down from the 3-Mile Resthouse as I averaged about twenty minutes per mile taking one hour and twenty minutes on the four miles descent. Rested, I turned around to ascend as the sun was still high at three o’clock. I could comfortably reach the top in four hours or so enjoying the sunset and the landscape changing colors as a rosy sun lit the rocky formations in different angles.

Sunset at the Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Sunset at the Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona

The point where I decided to turn around was more or less between the 3-Mile Resthouse and the Indian Garden Campground and with calm winds it felt comfortable at 45 F degrees. By the time I climbed about two miles, the temperature continued to drop every hundred feet; or so it felt! As the sun continued to set by the time I reached the Lower Tunnel it was 27 F degrees, about five degrees below the low averages for season. Because of the low temperatures even as I got closer to the trailhead at the top, I still had the trail almost exclusively to myself. There was not more than a dozen people watching the sunset. The Spring and Fall provide the most comfortable hiking experience, as I learned from talking to the Grand Canyon National Park Service rangers and other hikers, although the temperature can vary dramatically. However, after some of them described how beautiful the canyon is in the Winter, I convinced myself to plan hiking to the Bright Angel Campground by the Colorado River in the Winter time. And I can’t wait ’til I hit the trail again!

Bitterly cold sunset at the Bright Angel Trail - Grand Canyon, Arizona
Bitterly cold sunset at the Bright Angel Trail – Grand Canyon, Arizona
Posted on

Grand Canyon South Rim

When I left Sedona, Arizona it was already too late in the day to try and arrive at the Grand Canyon National Park without a reservation for a camp site. As the north rim does not open until later in May, my plans were to visit the south rim and a few weeks later swing by the north rim. I was also fully aware that trying to get a camp site at the park was slim to none, but if I did arrive early in the morning maybe I would be lucky enough to land a spot in one of the campgrounds. So, that night I sought to stay close enough to the east entrance of the Grand Canyon to arrive the next morning as early as possible.

The Colorado River seen from the Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon South Rim - Arizona
The Colorado River seen from the Desert View Watchtower – Grand Canyon South Rim – Arizona

The following morning I arrived at the east entrance gate of the Grand Canyon National Park south rim and I was greeted by one of the most cheerful National Park Service rangers I had met to date. As I handed my driver’s license to her, she said “Oh! So you have been hiking in the Grand Canyon of the East?” No! – I replied, adding that I never heard of a Grand Canyon of the East. She recommended that as I returned to New York to check it out. It is located thirty-five miles southwest of Rochester, New York in the Letchworth State Park; proving that often we don’t know what is in our own backyard. Well, one more for the bucket list! When I asked her about the possibility of camping at the park, she replied that the Desert View Campground was already full and she had heard that the Mather Campground was also sold out but she could not confirm that information. Instead, she advised me to drive to  the campground which is located in the Grand Canyon Village. The Village, as it is commonly referred to, is located twenty-five miles from the east entrance of the park and it would take me more than half an hour to get there.

Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon South Rim, Arizona
Desert View Watchtower – Grand Canyon South Rim, Arizona

Although I was anxious to get there and find out whether or not I would be able to stay for at least a couple of nights, the ranger at the gate suggested that I first stopped by the Desert View Watchtower, which according to her is one of the most fascinating and breathtaking views in the Grand Canyon. Otherwise, she alerted me, “you will have to drive back twenty-five miles to see this astonishing view.” I said that I could always see it on my way back out of the park. Again, she pointed out that it may be raining on my way out of the park a couple of days later. She really wanted me to stop at the Desert View Watchtower! Despite my urgency to get to the Mather Campground to find out my fate for the night, I followed her ‘persistent’ advise. And I am glad I did! The view is indeed so incredibly beautiful and powerful that I almost forgot I was in a hurry to get somewhere.

Seen from the Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon South Rim, Arizona
Seen from the Desert View Watchtower – Grand Canyon South Rim, Arizona

 

Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon South Rim, Arizona
Camping at the Mather Campground – Grand Canyon South Rim, Arizona

Arriving at the Mather Campground I got the good news that I could have a camp site for two nights. I was thrilled! It was still mid morning and I could set up my tent, get a bite at the Grand Canyon Village, and pick a hiking trail for the day. It was great to get a good cappuccino at the Canyon Coffee House, sit down and download some pictures, recharge my phone and camera at the lounge of the Bright Angel Lodge. After considering the time left until sunset; the fact that I was a little sore from hiking the day before; and knowing that my choice for the day, the Bright Angel Trail, is quite difficult going down and even more strenuous going up; I knew that I could not go down more than three, maybe four miles. What I was planning was to still be on the trail at sunset and enjoy what I expected to be an unforgettable hiking experience.

Munds Wagon Trail

 

Posted on

It’s Better Outside

Firmly standing after strong winds. Passed the test!
Firmly standing after strong winds. Passed the test!

Still believing that the storm had been blown away; after all everyone kept around me kept saying that “the weather changes rather quickly here”, I drove to Amarillo to hang out at a coffee shop. Later on that evening I heard some loud noises coming from outside and I asked what was that? The wind! – replied Dan. The first thing that came to mind was the cliff-side meandering road in the canyon. I must admit that I got weary about driving back to my campsite. Then it dawned to me that this was the first test for the tent and to my tent pitching skills; I had no idea if it would be still standing when I arrived at the site. I drove back to the canyon with the reassurance that if the windy conditions on the road turned out to be threatening and I wanted to turn around or if my tent had been blown away, I had a place to spend the night in Amarillo. The good thing about driving by a cliff at night is that you can’t see how far down would you fall. As I was the only driver on the road from beginning to end of the trip that night, which pretty much told me that I should not be on the road, I was able to go as slow as I wanted. I made it safely and to my relief the tent was firmly standing! It had passed the test!

I went to sleep that night at the sound of the whistling wind thinking how cool this was. I woke up a couple of hours later chocking in a dust filled tent. The thin sand dust had filtered through my “breathable” tent and had made breathing quite difficult. Just in case a rattlesnake was hanging out by the tent with her buddies, with my headlights on I sat on the table outside for a while. It was better outside! The storm seemed to have passed. With the tent open to circulate the sand dust out, I kept an eye in the surroundings just to make sure no reptile or other creatures would invite themselves in for the night. I went back to sleep and woke up in the morning to a beautiful, sunny day. I was ready to hike to the highlight of the park: the must-see Lighthouse.

 

Designated a National Natural Landmark, the 310 feet high Lighthouse formation was created by erosion
Designated a National Natural Landmark, the 310 feet high Lighthouse formation was created by erosion

 

Sighting of the Lighthouse from the trail leading to the formation
Sighting of the Lighthouse from the trail leading to the formation
Portion of the Lighthouse Trail on the final climbing up section
Portion of the Lighthouse Trail on the final climbing up section

The Lighthouse Trail is classified as moderate according to the park’s brochures. And it is! Except for some sections mainly at the end when you reach the formation. I noticed that most of the tourists who made it to the base were just snapping pictures from there before turning around to head back to the trailhead. The trail from that point on, if you want to climb up onto the formation is quite difficult. The other thing about this trail is that although it is moderate for most part, depending on the temperature and wind conditions can become difficult. It certainly was the case that day as the strong winds from the storm weren’t completely gone yet.

Others, the majority on that particular day, just read the trail information and warning signs posted at the trailhead from their cars and drove away. At the same time that one of the park’s brochures describing the the trails invites visitors to not “miss the park’s most popular trail to the iconic Lighthouse formation”, it also warns that “most heat-related injuries and deaths to people and pets occur on this trail”.

Under the bright sun at the Lighthouse Trail
Under the bright sun at the Lighthouse Trail

The Lighthouse is the “prima donna” of the Palo Duro Canyon State Park. However, one cannot see her before hiking a considerable portion of the trail. And yes, when it comes to sight, it looks just like a majestic lighthouse in the horizon.

After resting at the base of the formation for a few minutes, where I chatted with a couple from Utah who told me that that was as far as they would go because of their age and physical preparedness, I resumed my hike to the top. Only a young couple sat up on the second and highest plateau. The views from there were magnificent, while the wind was treacherously strong. I remained laying on the mesa for a while watching the fast moving white clouds rolling above me. My feet hurt and I knew I had 2.72 miles to hike back to the trailhead. For now I was just going to enjoy the view, hoping that the wind would not throw me down the canyon.

 

Posted on

The Grandest Canyon in Texas

Breakfast at the English Field House, Amarillo, TX
Breakfast at the English Field House, Amarillo, TX

After arriving in Amarillo, Texas and stopping at the local visitor center in the morning of April 4th., I was on my way to a local restaurant to have breakfast. According to a smiley and welcoming lady at the visitor center who recommended the restaurant and gave me directions, it was a little “tricky and hard to find” the English Field House. I was about to turn around and look for something else when I spotted the blue roof. I was told to keep driving and make a left turn when seeing a “hard-to-miss blue roof”. For some reason, I just know it’s going to be hard to find when I hear that it is “hard-to-miss”. Persistence paid off! It turned out to be a little farther away from the visitor center than she had made me believe, but the food was just perfect for what I was looking for. I wanted a family-style local restaurant, and I got it! The service was on point, the food was simply delicious, and the serving was larger than the State of Texas! The restaurant is very simple and decorated with air force insignia and other mementos.

 

Buena Vista
Buena Vista viewing point

I had come to Amarillo to visit the Palo Duro Canyon; a recommendation made by my new friend in Little Rock, Arkansas. Just a few camping sites were available and I was able to secure a spot for a couple of nights, giving me almost three full days to hike some of the trails in the park. Located in the Texas Panhandle Plains, the second-largest canyon in America has a wide variety of wildlife, history, and trails. In a rough terrain, loose rocks, steep slopes, heat, and occasional sand storms, Palo Duro has hiking, biking and equestrian trails. As I was checking in, I was informed that strong winds and consequently a sand storm was expected later on in the evening with lingering wind blowing sand for the next day.

 

On my first day in the canyon I set up the tent and went on to my first hike. I was marveled by the rugged beauty of the formations around me. In a place where four bioregions intersect, erosion that began with the formation of the canyon less than a million years ago exposes a geologic story of approximately 250 million years. Some of the oldest layers in the canyon are from the Quartermaster Formation, located at the bottom of the canyon, they are bright red claystone and white gypsum. The yellow, gray and lavender mudstone is from the Tecovas Formation. Ascending further up in canyon the sandstone and coarse gravel that are seen belong to the Trujillo Formation. The layer of rocks with sand, silt, clay and limestone are from the Ogallala Formation. The 120 miles long and 800 feet deep canyon displays dramatic views with astounding colors, becoming even more spectacular at sunset contrasting with intense blue skies.

 

View from the Givens, Spicer & Lowry Running Trail. This trail is moderately difficult with steep climbs and a total round trip distance of 11 miles.
View from the Givens, Spicer & Lowry Running Trail. This trail is moderately difficult with steep climbs and a total round trip distance of 11 miles.

 

Covered in a thin layer of a goldish dust
Covered in a thin layer of a goldish dust

Not knowing what the weather was going to be the next day, I decided to do my longest hike in the park on my first day; the Givens, Spicer and Lowry eleven miles round trip trail. I completed my first day hike in the canyon in just under five hours. The sun was setting by time I finished hiking the GSL Trail and the wind was now a lot stronger than when I began hiking the trail five hours earlier. I was covered in a layer of red sand mixed with sweat and could bite the grains of sand in my mouth. All I could think of at that moment was a hot shower before heading to Amarillo to have coffee with a friend and download my pictures from the day. I was thrilled to have found the canyon and excited in anticipation of my second day at Palo Duro.