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Solitude at Point Reyes

Getting up wasn’t ease! After backpacking to Glen Camp I fell asleep early, waking up only once and briefly in the middle of the night. The gentle sound of the waves breaking on the beach a couple of miles away put me right back to sleep. I woke up sore and my legs were so sore and tight that it took me a few minutes to start moving. I checked the time and was shocked to find out that it was past nine in the morning. Had I slept for more than twelve hours?

Walking out of the tent I found that the few campers I heard the night before had already left. Except for one who was getting her backpacking gear ready for the trail, the camp was practically empty. As we said hello, I told her that I could not believe that it was almost ten o’clock. She looked at me a little confused and told me that it was only six-thirty. “Wow!” – I said!  That made more sense because I can hardly ever sleep more than eight hours.

Something made cellphone reset the time to Eastern Time! After chatting for a brief moment, we said goodbye wishing one another a great day as she strapped her backpack on and off she went. As I walked back to my tent I saw her disappearing in the woods, leaving me all alone at Glen Camp getting ready to hike along the shore.

View from the Stewart Trail - Backpacking at Point Reyes National Seashore
View from the Stewart Trail – Point Reyes National Seashore

I was feeling really well and looking forward to hike at least ten miles. Since the trails along the shore at Point Reyes National Seashore are relatively ease, being sore shouldn’t be a problem. I knew that after my body warmed up I would be fine. While getting ready for the day’s hike, for the first time, I noticed that my left eye was itchy. I thought that I might have got some poison oak in my eye and before medicating it I sought relief by washing it with cold water.

It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies and it promised to be a great hike! I left the campground backpacking lighter than the day before, heading south on the Glen Trail, then west on Stewart Trail. Combined, the first stretch toward the shore was a hike of just over a mile and half before heading north on the Coast Trail. The strong winds from the night before seemed to have slowed down and the only sound was that of birds songs.

 

View from the Coast Trail - Backpacking at Point Reyes National Seashore
View from the Coast Trail – Point Reyes National Seashore

I hiked for over two hours and I encountered nobody! The trails were deserted. What I noticed the day before, remained true today; the trails had not been used as the Winter was barely over. The overgrown bushes made it difficult to spot the trails closer to the ocean. Nonetheless, that was a small price to pay for the absolute solitude and peace that I was enjoying.

Located north on the Coast Trail was Arch Rock. The two-mile path to Arch Rock was a combination of meadows and marshlands with their own micro ecosystem. Birds everywhere! As I neared Arch Rock a sign posted on the trail leading to the site warned that the access to the rock had been closed due to a fatal accident at the cliff. Yes, I was disappointed! Instead of getting to Arch Rock, I sat on the cliff and admired it from a distance.  From that point, I continued on hiking north on the Coast Trail.

 

View of the shoreline on the Coast Trail - Point Reyes National Seashore
View of the shoreline on the Coast Trail – Point Reyes National Seashore

 

Kelkam Beach - Backpacking at Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Kelham Beach – Point Reyes National Seashore, California

I had snacked a few times in the almost four miles hiked thus far, planning to stop for lunch and take a longer break at the beach. Kelham Beach was only about a mile north on the Coast Trail.

Kelham Beach - Backpacking at Point Reyes National Seashore
Kelham Beach – Point Reyes National Seashore, California

Just as I was getting back on trail I heard someone whistling and as I turned around I saw the girl that I had talked to at the campground a couple of hours earlier. She told me that she also had not seen anyone else on the trails. Apparently we had the coastline of the park to ourselves. A few more minutes of chat and off we went in opposite directions.

 

Lunch break at Kelham Beach - Backpacking at Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Lunch break at Kelham Beach – Point Reyes National Seashore, California

In the deserted, windy and cold beach I had my lunch consisting of canned tuna fish and a banana for dessert. After a half hour break I continued north on the Coast Trail to Sculptured Beach. The two and a half miles portion of this trail from Kelham Beach to Sculptured Beach is an ease hike with astounding views of the ocean. The cooling breeze made it a pleasant hike through the meadows with perhaps only about a quarter of a mile in a narrow wet path that was taken over by the swamp vegetation. Some of the grassy plants had long a sharp blades and except for a momentary doubt about whether or not I was still on the trail, the experience wasn’t too bad.

Arriving at the beach a barefoot walk on the cold, wet sand was refreshing and soothing. I had hiked approximately seven miles and I was in no rush to return to Glen Camp. I had no reason to return to the campground before sunset. In the more than eight hours since I started my day, I saw and spoke with only one person. This was priceless!

Sculptured Beach - Backpacking at Point Reyes National Seashore, California
Sculptured Beach – Point Reyes National Seashore, California

From the Shores to the Mountains

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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

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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.

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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!

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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

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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
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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
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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

 

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Munds Wagon Trail

Munds Wagon Trail - Sedona, Arizona
Munds Wagon Trail – Sedona, Arizona

After arriving in Sedona, Arizona at dusk I did the scenic drive to acquaint myself with the surroundings while enjoying the dazzling views. The skies turned into a serene blue dashed with streaks of red and orange created by the fading sunset. Instead of finding a place to eat and continue on to the Grand Canyon, I decided to spend the night over and hike at least of the trails. The following morning I chose to hike the Munds Wagon Trail which is four miles in length one-way.

On the Munds Wagon Trail - Sedona, Arizona
On the Munds Wagon Trail – Sedona, Arizona

Perhaps because of the weather conditions on that day, few people were hiking. I heard and saw just a few of the all terrain and safari-like jeeps that tour through the Schnebley Hill Road that sometimes crisscross and intersect with the Munds Wagon Trail. I was fortunate to have been there early in the Spring because some hikers have noted that in the Summer the road is “infested” with jeeps. Luckily that was not the case that day and for most part the trail runs far enough from the road that the vehicles are rarely heard.

The weather was rather unstable that morning going from sunny to cloudy to rain and sunny again a couple of times. I had hiked for about two miles when it started to rain. For about one mile I hiked under the rain until the skies cleared and the sun came back. Throughout my eight miles hike that day the weather pattern switched back-and-forth several times. Prepared with a water proof jacket, plenty of water and food, the weather constant changes did not bother me at all. It did make it a bit challenging as parts of the trail became a little slippery in the more strenuous sections, although overall this is an easy and pleasant trail to hike.

Creek in Bear Wallow Canyon - Munds Wagon Trail - Sedona, Arizona
Creek in Bear Wallow Canyon – Munds Wagon Trail – Sedona, Arizona

The Munds Wagon Trail crosses the intermittent creek in the Bear Wallow Canyon, ducking in and out of trees and slick-rock washes opening up to incredible views of Mitten Ridge and Cow Pies.

Cactus Blossom on Munds Wagon Trail - Sedona, Arizona
Cactus Blossom on Munds Wagon Trail – Sedona, Arizona

Alongside the trail cactus blossoms nested in the rocks are reminders of the rich desert ecosystem contrasting with the red rocks. As you hike further in the views only get bigger and better! This is a paradise for mountain bikers who share the trail with hikers and indeed, I encountered more bikers than hikers.

Views from the Munds Wagon Trail - Sedona, Arizona
Views from the Munds Wagon Trail – Sedona, Arizona
Hangover Trail - Sedona, Arizona
Hangover Trail – Sedona, Arizona

I initially had planned to hike the in-and-out eight miles only, but on my way out I could not resist the temptation to do a portion of the Hangover Trail. I guess I felt quite gnarly and willing to test myself after having already done more than five miles. It might have been quite a bit more than five or six miles because, although I rarely hike off trails, this is a place where I felt that I could safely wander off the trail. There are plenty of rocks and plateaus or mesas that offer amazing views. There were also a few spots where I realized that I had lost the trail and had to go back to find it. The trail is marked by cairns that are distant enough from each other to make it confusing leading you to easily get off the trail without noticing; specially if it is raining and you have the trail all to yourself. Getting back on track is not difficult because the landmarks in the surrounding landscape rise in front of your eyes throughout the entire hike.

The Hangover Trail is a lot more demanding than the Munds Wagon Trail and a bit slippery on a rainy day. While the Munds Wagon Trail is a gradual uphill climb to a 1200 feet elevation, the Hangover Trail presents a more challenging abrupt climbs at some sections. I only hiked on for about a mile and a half when I decided to turn around to go back to complete the Munds Wagon Trail. At that point I realized that hiking eleven miles before leaving Sedona to the Grand Canyon was quite enough for what was supposed to have been just a stopover.

Off the Munds Wagon Trail - Sedona, Arizona
Off the Munds Wagon Trail – Sedona, Arizona
Early Spring Blossom - Munds Wagon Trail - Sedona, Arizona
Early Spring Blossom – Munds Wagon Trail – Sedona, Arizona
Munds Wagon Trail - Sedona. Arizona
Munds Wagon Trail – Sedona. Arizona
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Hiking the White Sands in New Mexico

White Sands National Monument - New Mexico
White Sands National Monument – New Mexico

I walked in at the White Sands National Monument‘s visitor center with many questions and high expectations about hiking the dunes. But, just how white is the White Sands when everything else around has a terracotta color? Just to make sure, I implied that I knew that camping is not available at the monument in a inquiring manner. It’s one of those comments that I make when deep inside I’m hopeful that I’m wrong. Not this time! All I had read about the monument was right. No camping! Hiking! Oh, yes!

I knew that this was a one day visit and I wanted to hike the longest trail in the park. The park ranger I spoke with couldn’t have been friendlier and more helpful. Perhaps, however, my appearance suggested that I should or could  not go hiking the longest trail. She first tried to tell me that there are nice, short trails. But after I told her about my trip and my goals she agreed that the longest trail would be more enjoyable and suitable to my purposes.  “There will be less people in that hiking trail and the dunes are much higher” – she noted.

Alkali Flat Trail - White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Alkali Flat Trail – White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

As I drove the two miles to the trailhead, I overshot it because I was looking for the promised quieter area with not many people and dogs around. Enchanted by the surroundings I just kept on driving until I realized that I had arrived at the end of the road. I turned around, this time paying attention to the hiking trails signage along the way.

On the Alkali Flat Trail at the White Sands National Monument - Alamogordo, New Mexico
On the Alkali Flat Trail at the White Sands National Monument – Alamogordo, New Mexico

Frankly, I was discouraged when I found the location because I could barely find a spot to park the car. A larger crowd than I expected covered the sand surrounding the first 100 yards from the trailhead. It looked like a playground where dogs were having a great time. But, as it is the case with most hiking trails, after half a mile into the hike the number of hikers drop drastically.

Alkali Flat Trail at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico
Alkali Flat Trail at White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

I was also a little intrigued when she told me that the dunes would be much higher on this trail, reaching 60 or 70 feet high. Lots of ups and downs, but the name of the trail was Alkali Flat Trail. Just to be sure, know that the only thing flat in this trail is the word “flat” on its name. Be prepared for a great hiking!

As I hiked the first quarter of a mile and went up and down a few dunes, suddenly I was all by myself! I almost broke down in tears overwhelmed by the beauty around. I had not felt that way in a long, long time. Not at least while hiking. What I like about hiking dunes, especially when they are white dunes, is that you can look at or take several pictures of the same frame and they will always look different. Shades and shadows continuously changing the landscape around can be mesmerizing. Depending on how the clouds cover the sun, and the density and speed of the clouds, the scenery scintillates and flashes before your eyes creating a spectacular light show. No, it’s not boring! Someone asked me once if I didn’t get bored by “walking on sand” for miles and miles. No, I do not get bored!

White Sands National Monument - Alamogordo, New Mexico
White Sands National Monument – Alamogordo, New Mexico

There was a chance of rain for that afternoon. I made sure I had the appropriate hiking gear which included a water proof hiking jacket. I particularly like having my hiking poles with me at all time, and this is a trail that requires hiking poles if you set yourself up to hike the five miles loop.

Except for a few moments during which the clouds got a little thicker and darker, the weather was excellent and the rain never came. For at least four and a half miles I hiked in complete solitude, only seeing a few people when I was close to finishing the five miles loop.

Alkali Flat Trail loop - White Sands National Monument - Alamogordo, New Mexico
Alkali Flat Trail loop – White Sands National Monument – Alamogordo, New Mexico

The White Sands National Monument offers other activities which include guided full moon walk, among other events. If you plan a visit I would recommend checking their website for scheduled events. Most likely I will plan a return trip to coincide with a full moon cycle. Many years ago I did a similar hike in the company of a small group guided by a ranger at midnight in a rain forest at the Iguazu Falls in Argentina and it was a spectacular experience. I imagine that the White Sands is equally, Although in a completely different environment and ecosystem, I imagine that the White Sands is an extraordinary location for hiking under a full moon light.

 

The Questioning!

 

Destination: From Texas to New Mexico