Often I am asked which one is my favorite national park? Yellowstone? Yosemite? The Grand Canyon? It is hard to tell! It is almost like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. My response is that they differ from each other and they are great on their own merits for different reasons. For hiking I prefer the Grand Canyon because both the Bright Angel Trail and the South Kaibab Trail rank highly on my top five favorite hiking trails. And what can I add to Yosemite? It is referred to as the mother of all parks and I am not going to dispute that. However, it is one of the busiest national parks along with Yellowstone. Not only the iconic Old Faithful, but the majority of the world’s geysers and hot springs which are preserved in the vastness of the Yellowstone National Park.
Scenery along US-191 in Montana’s Yellowstone country
How to plan a visit to Yellowstone? What to see and do depends on how many days one plans to spend in the park. The options abound and it is hard to choose which attractions to explore. On a morning in the Spring of 2016, I was headed to Yellowstone not knowing if I would stay one, two, or three days. It all depended if I would be able to get one of the first-come, first-serve basis campsites and how many days would I be able to get.True to what I have written before, one of the joys of a road trip lies on the fact that it is not only about the destination; it is also about what we see on the road.
Having driven from Glacier National Park in northern Montana, on my way to Yellowstone I spent the night in Bozeman. After a couple of days of rain and snow, I woke up to a beautiful, sunny morning. The skies were bright blue and the views were simply amazing. Driving in scenic Yellowstone country is one of a kind drive! Since one of the campgrounds open in early Spring is Madison, I had to use the west entrance to get in the park. I drove south on US-191 passing by Big Sky and driving along the west edge of Yellowstone. Passing through Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana, this highway not only cuts through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, but it is perhaps the most scenic highway in the United States. A road trip along this highway is memorable, regardless of the time of the year.
It was my lucky day! I arrived at the Madison campground just in time to get one of the last campsites still available. The campsite itself was good and well located. However, it is a rather ‘busy’ campground. With a lot of RVs and trailers, it has a lot of traffic. Moreover, for the lack of shrubs or trees, there is no privacy or protection from the wind and the dust the comes with it; something that could not go unnoticed because it was a particularly windy day. In fact, the wind was so strong that a couple of tents in a site nearby had been blown away. Setting up the tent under strong gusty winds was a bit tricky, but I secured it with extra pegs. Yet, as I drove to Big Sky to meet a friend for lunch at the Lone Peak Brewery, all I had in my mind was whether or not the tent would be still there when I came back later.
My planned three days stay at Yellowstone did not include plans to hike because of the minimum three people for hiking. I would spend three days of sightseeing; and there is plenty to see in Yellowstone for days! Just driving through the many roads that crisscross the park offers the most spectacular views. Nonetheless, as the National Park Service publication warns, travel hazards and delays are to be expected. Driving cautiously and defensively is a must! Road congestion are not only caused by the number of vehicles but by the wild life in the park that has the right of the way. In the early hours of the day and before sunset, herds of bisons can take the entire road bringing traffic to a halt.
In a 2.2 million acres park with so many attractions, planning what to see based on how long one is visiting Yellowstone is essential. It is tempting to try and cover as much as possible. However, I would not recommend overstretching the list of things to do and attractions to see if time is limited. For a one day only visit, I think that it is intuitive to visit the Old Faithful area and walk around the geyser basin. The Old Faithful is undeniably the poster boy for Yellowstone. For a one day visit, one can add one of the other hydrothermal areas, such as Norris, West Thumb, or Mammoth. Quite frankly, they are my favorite features. With two or more days to spend at Yellowstone, one can explore one area of the park more in depth. That’s what I did! However, it is hard to concentrate in one area knowing that there are so many great features to see and areas to explore.
I had crossed the United States from New England to the Southwest and Southern California, and driven along the Pacific coast to the Pacific Northwest in roughly two months. Now it was time to head back east. I left Seattle to the Glacier National Park in Montana, knowing that the chances of camping and hiking were not that great due to wintry conditions. In Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, where I spent the night, I learned that some roads in the Glacier National Park were open. I also found out that a couple of campgrounds were open. Despite the uncertainties, I chose to take my chances. Driving across eastern Washington, through northern Idaho, and into Montana offers breathtaking views of mountains, valleys and lakes. If for anything else, if you love road trips, driving through that region is an experience of a lifetime.
Coming from Idaho into Montana and heading northeast toward the Glacier National Park, the drive through the Flathead Nation territory is visually astonishing. The landscape stand like paintings in the horizon. Passing by the Flathead Lake I could not resist not to stop alongside the road a few times to take in the breathtaking views in the Flathead Valley. The Flathead valley gets its name from the Salish “Flathead” Indians who inhabit the Flathead Indian Reservation, which is located at the southern end of the lake. As I wrote in South Kaibab Trail – Grand Canyon, my exchange with a Hopi who spoke about his people and his ancestors was a turning point in the early stages of my road trip. In that article I described how my hiking and camping trip took on a more spiritual connection with the landscape around me. It was the moment when the soil and rocks underneath my hiking boots were more than a path; they were sacred grounds for American ancestral peoples.
I drove up the mountain to enter the Glacier National Park through the west side. I still had a couple a few hours of daylight when I arrived at the park but there were no personnel at the park’s entrance. I located one of the open campground in the Lake McDonald Valley where I could pick a campsite and self register using the registration drop box. Perhaps, due to the weather conditions there were plenty of great open spots. I set up my tent, collected firewood while a couple black bears roamed the area. With everything set up for the night, I went for a hike to the landing area at lake McDonald. The view was spectacular despite the fact that it was overcast, gloomy, and cold. The still water in the lake mirrored the snow covered mountains at the far edge of the lake in a serene, peaceful setting.
Lake McDonald Valley is the hub of activity on the west side of Glacier National Park. Once occupied by massive glaciers that carved this area thousands of years ago, the valley is now filled with spectacular sights, hiking trails, diverse species of plants and animals, historic chalets, and the grand Lake McDonald Lodge. The lodge was still closed for the season and except for a couple of fishermen at the landing on the lake shores, I had the lake to myself. Ten miles long and nearly 500 feet deep (152.4 m), Lake McDonald, the largest lake in the park, is a direct result of glacial carving. High peaks surrounding the lake all show evidence of the power of glaciers to carve even the hardest of rock. The powerful glaciers that carved the broad “u-shaped” valley that Lake McDonald sits in also carved smaller hanging valleys with wonderful waterfalls that are accessible by numerous hiking trails.
Hiking alone was not something that was advised. The guidelines for hiking at the Glacier National Park suggest hiking in groups of three people, as it is the case in many national parks. Besides the number of hikers guideline, the trails were mostly covered in snow with more storms in the forecast. When I returned to my campsite to stargaze by the fire, I noticed that I was no longer alone. A couple of guys had taken the site next to mine, although the distance separating the campsites are bigger than in many other parks that I have camped. It was not until the next morning that we spoke as they prepared to leave the park. They were from Minnesota, a place they recommended that I visit in the future. Perhaps because I told them that Minnesota is one of the only two states of the United States’ fifty states that I have not visited.
My campsite neighbors from Minnesota told me to try and camp in the east side of the Glacier National Park because the views were far greater than the views in the west side of the park. They had just camped in the east side of the park and they told me that it was sunny with bright big skies. Since the weather was getting bad that morning with sleet and rain, I decided to dismount camp and head over to the east side, where I was promised bright, sunny blue skies.
Located a half-mile west of the St. Mary entrance near St. Mary, Montana, about 33 miles northwest of Browning and less than 20 miles south of the Canadian border, St. Mary campground is the largest in the east side of the park and it was the only one that was open at that time. There was no vehicle restrictions, but driving up over the Logan Pass was a bit trick. In the few miles that separate Browning from St. Mary, I experienced all different types of weather conditions. First, sunny and clear in Browning. Then, flurries that turned into large snow flakes in the size of a golf ball, rain that turned into sleet and ice, and temperatures that dropped more than 20 degrees in just a few miles. Strong winds and densely foggy conditions made the drive up to St. Mary very dangerous. Not surprisingly, I was the only driver on the road to St. Mary.
Arriving at St. Mary visitor center, I was informed that camping was not recommended due to a major snow storm on the way that night with the possibility to continue on for the following days. However, the park ranger told me that if I chose to stay and camp for the night he would allow me as long as I had food supply for five to seven days. He explained that at that time of the year they do not rely on weather forecast so much because the weather conditions can rapidly change. He was not sure what was going to happen and the pass could be closed for days if the storm became a major storm. With all that in mind and the fact that except for black and grizzly bears, the campground was empty, I decided to turn around and spend a couple of days in Browning.
On my way down to Browning it was snowing heavily in the higher elevations with light snow in valley. The news the following morning was that three feet of snow had fallen in the mountains overnight. One of the reasons I wanted to stop by in Browning was to visit an old friend from my college days who was living in Montana and teaching at the Blackfeet’s school district. However, as I turned up in Browning earlier than I had planned, I missed visiting my old friend from New York. The day I arrived he was involved with organizing a field trip with his students to the great plains for the big event that was about to take place. Then he and his wife were heading to Helena to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Nonetheless, my stay in Browning was productive and educational. I learned a lot about the history of the Blackfeet and part of the history of the colonization and expansion into the West. It was a complete coincidence to have arrived in Browning just before the return of the buffalo to the plains. More than one hundred years after the disappearance of the buffalo from the plains, as a gift from the Canadian government to the Blackfeet nation the buffalo was being reintroduced to the Blackfeet territory in Montana. The event was being celebrated the following day after my arrival in Browning. Bus loads of school children were taken to the plains to witness the event. I would not have known about the magnitude and importance of the event if I had not overhead two journalists interviewing a Blackfeet chief at the Museum of the Plain Indians. He was probably in his eighties and he had many stories to tell. They were stories he heard from his grandmother and other elders when he was a child. They were fascinating stories that covered the period circa 1870 when the buffalo extinction took place.
On my way to Bozeman, the drive was relaxing. It seemed that I had the road all to myself and the sunset in the big sky resembled paintings on canvas. The only difference is that this was a gigantic canvas extended in the big open skies. I had made peace with the fact that the heavy Winter that had prolonged well into mid Spring became a spoiler to my plans. However, it did not mean I was going to interrupt my road trip. All there was to it, was that I had to adapt and change plans according to mother nature’s unpredictable ways. The Glacier National Park was the last of my destinations in the northern part of the country. I had decided that from there I would head south to Utah and into Arizona for the following couple of weeks to avoid the extended forecast’s prediction of rain and snow storms in the north. I was getting tired of hearing from locals that “this is unusual for this time of the year.” However, I still had to put up with at least one more week of rain.
After a couple of days in Seattle, Washington, it was time to get back in the wilderness. Surprisingly, the weather was better in the Olympic National Park than in the city of Seattle. I arrived at the Olympic National Park to temperatures above eighty degrees, and blue skies. Leaving Seattle around eight o’clock in the morning, it was a nice drive up to the Olympic rain forest. Having visited the Hoh Rain Forest in the years that I lived in Seattle in the mid nineties, I was in familiar territory. Great memories from past visits and a sense of ‘returning home’. A couple of miles before entering the park, I stopped for firewood and coffee. What a great surprise! It was the best cappuccino I got in over a month on the road.
I had not made a reservation for a camping site close to the visitor center adjacent to the Hall of Mosses, and I was lucky to get a permit to camp there overnight. With a camping permit, I drove around the campground hoping for a site by the water. After looping around a couple of time, I spotted a couple leaving from a campsite that had absolutely the best view. They told me that they were not camping there; they had just been sitting there having a picnic lunch. When they apologized for sitting at the site, I told them that I was so grateful for they having held the best spot by the Hoh River for me. Otherwise, it would have been taken. Location is everything!
Looking at Mount Olympus covered by snow on a clear day is an overwhelming sight. Getting to its summit is a dream of hikers and climbers. I thought I would attempt to reach the Blue Glaciers, but I soon found out that it would not be possible. When I tried to get information on how to get the wilderness camping permit, which should be obtained in person in Port Angeles at the Olympic National Park Visitor Center, I was told by the park ranger that they were not issuing permits for camping above Lewis Meadows. She told me that they had the more snow fall in that Winter than they had in any year of the past fifteen years. She also told me that the rangers had not made to the Blue Glaciers yet because most of the trails were compromised by washed out bridges, erosions, and fallen trees. She suggested me to get a camping permit from her, to camp at Lewis Meadows which is located along the river at 10.5 miles. From there, she advised me to try a day hike as far up I could safely get. Putting in perspective, the summit of Mount Olympus is at 17.3 miles on the Hoh River Trail. Obviously, the closer to the summit, the more difficult. In the Spring and early Summer, steep snow slopes are found along the Hoh River Trail between Elk Lake and Glacier Meadows. Until early Summer, ice axe and crampons may be required and good handling of map and compass is needed because parts of the trail may be covered in snow. The ranger told me that although we were already in the Spring, avalanche chutes were hazards making it a risky for even experienced hikers and mountaineers. Knowing that the best safety tool is common sense, I knew that I could only attempt to get to the Blue Glaciers. However, at the ranger station I was warned that not even that might be possible because the rangers had not been there yet. The ranger who I spoke with had not spoken with any hiker who may made it that far up.
I decided to go for a walk in the Hall of Mosses Trail, which despite being a loop trail just 0.8 mile long, offers spectacular views of gigantic trees covered in mosses. This area can be crowed because it is a short, ease trail that most of the visitors to the park are able to hike. Many visitors complain that it is too crowded and it takes away the magic of the forest. It is true that many visitors enjoy the fact that the trail is easily accessible and it is not a challenging hike either. However, it can get crowded! An early hike, around seven in the morning, is the best way to avoid the crowd. Unfortunately, some visitors ignore the fact that silence is important to enjoy the sounds of the forest, and one can get stuck with loud groups that can be heard from yards away. I was lucky! I only encountered a handful of people on the trail, perhaps because it was sunny and warm. Many people prefer to visit the Hall of Mosses on cloudy, foggy days. They say it is more magical. I have walked through the Hall of Mosses in cloudy days, foggy days, rainy days, and sunny days. Although I enjoyed every time I visited, under different weather conditions, I liked finally walking through the forest in a sunny day because the bright light filtered through the canopies highlighted the vitality of so many shades of green.
The Hall of Mosses Trail elevation is only about 100 feet, and after an initial elevation the trail flattens. The trail is lined with old trees, mostly big leaf maples and Sitka spruces draped in moss.Considered the only rain forest in North America, the rich ecosystem form the perfect habitat for several species of organisms that sustain the balanced environment of the forest. Fragile, yet rich! Its uniqueness resides in its life cycle where fallen trees become ‘nurse logs’. The Hoh Rain Forest receives up to 14 feet of rain per year.
My campsite’s location was superb! I fell asleep to the sound of the waters rolling on the shallow bed of the Hoh River. My tent was less than 10 feet from the water. After spending a couple of hours stargazing by the fire, as I laid down in the dark made me feel as if I were surrounded by the water or in the middle of the river. If I kept my eyes open, I could still see the stars through the tent. That’s how bright the stars appeared above. I knew that I the ten mile hike to Lewis Meadows ahead of me the next day was going to be difficult. I had to get a good night of sleep and be ready in the early morning.
Before leaving Oregon to Washington, I would make a day stop at Fort Clatsop. The fort that was the winter encampment for the Corps of Discovery from December 1805 to March 1806. Fort Clatsop is a unit of the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks where the trailheads for the Fort to Sea Trail and Netul Trail are located. And just to make it clear, because I have been asked before if I would hike the Lewis and Clark trail, one cannot hike such trail because the Lewis and Clark Trail voyage of exploration was mostly done via waterways. However, one can hike the trails that were created to access supplies to maintain the needs for the daily life of the fort inhabitants.
The day before heading to Fort Clatsop, I spent a quiet day in Astoria, Oregon. My day began with an interesting, exciting surprise encounter at a café in Astoria. After looking online for a local place to have brunch, based on reviews and recommendations I decided to go to the Astoria Coffee House and Bistro. The coffee house was busy when I arrived and because I was by myself, the hostess asked me if I wouldn’t mind to sit at the bar because otherwise the wait time for a table would be close to an hour. Not only I agreed to her suggestion, I preferred to sit at the bar because I wouldn’t like to sit at a table by myself. Someone sitting across the bar caught my attention because of his attire. His outfit seemed to be from the 1920s or 1930s. Also, he looked familiar to me. Being so far away from home in New York, I did not think that I would bump into someone I knew and quickly the possibility that I knew that person. He was with to other people with whom he was having an animated conversation. His laughter was adorable and captivating. The bartender at one point leaned toward me asking me if I recognized the young man across the bar? As I responded that he did look familiar but I did not think I knew him, she said “yes, you know him! That’s Elijah Wood!” Oh my God! It was him! I was having breakfast a few feet away from my idol from the Lord of the Rings! And yes, I was dying to go ask him for a selfie, but I am too shy for that. Just when I was leaving the coffee house, he returned by himself and left again only to disappear in the quiet streets of a Sunday morning in Astoria. By the way; breakfast was fantastic and probably the best Bloody Mary I ever had.
On Monday morning I took my tent down, packed and left Fort Stevens to Fort Clatsop for a visit of the Lewis and Clark Fort and day hike of the Netul Trail and a portion of the Fort to Sea Trail. The visit to the fort was educational, rewarding, and relaxing. There wasn’t a lot of visitors on that day and the park was quiet and peaceful. Seeing firsthand the fort installations and learning about the challenges of living in the fort during the long Winters of the Pacific Northwest, sitting on the beds that Lewis and his expedition crew once occupied was an incredible experience. The fort which is kept in incredible conditions 200 years later, offers an insight in the history of the mission of exploration, study, and expansion of the continental United States.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition that began in May 1804 reaching the Pacific Ocean in September 1806, known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, was the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States. It began near St. Louis, made its way westward, and passed through the continental divide to reach the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. The Corps of Discovery comprised a selected group of U.S. Army volunteers under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend, Second Lieutenant William Clark. Having Clark in the expedition was one of the conditions imposed by Lewis to accept leading the endeavor presented to him by President Jefferson.
William Clark resigned his commission on July 4, 1796 and retired due to poor health, although he was only 26 years old. He returned to Mulberry Hill, his family’s plantation near Louisville. In 1803, Meriwether Lewis recruited Clark, then age 33, to share command of the newly formed Corps of Discovery. A slave owner known to deal harshly with his slaves, he brought York, one of his slaves, with him. The indigenous nations treated York with respect, and many of the Native Americans were interested in his appearance, which “played a key role in diplomatic relations”. Although Clark was refused a promotion to the rank of captain when Jefferson asked the Senate to appoint him, at Lewis’ insistence, he exercised equal authority, and continued the mission. Clark concentrated chiefly on the drawing of maps, the management of the expedition’s supplies, and leading hunting expeditions for game.
President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the expedition shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 to explore and to map the newly acquired territory, to find a practical route across the western half of the continent, and to establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it. The campaign’s secondary objectives were scientific and economic: to study the area’s plants, animal life, and geography, and to establish trade with local Native American tribes. With maps, sketches, and journals in hand, the expedition returned to St. Louis to report its findings to Jefferson. An interesting anecdote and aspect of the expedition is that when Lewis and his men reached the Pacific Ocean, only half of the expedition mission was completed. According to President Jefferson, the other half was to make sure that all the discoveries, diaries, and notes were brought back to him.
After two months on the road and hundreds miles of hiking, my hair and beard had grown and friends back home were starting to call me the ‘mountain man’ and ‘caveman’. I had shed any fat that I may have had in my body. At that point I had to make a stop at REI in Portland to purchase new hiking pants because my waist had gone down to a mere 26 inches. The planned road trip route was now in question due to the weather conditions in the Pacific Northwest’s National Parks. Before crossing the state line into the State of Washington, the last stop in Oregon was mainly cultural and recreational for me. The visit to Fort Clatsop fit in that category, but I could not resist the temptation to hike a few miles that day.
I started by hiking the 1.5 mile Netul River Trail southbound from Fort Clatsop to the Netul Landing, which marks the final landing of one of the final destination branches of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The graveled trail that runs along the river is a flat, ease terrain which is used by most of the visitors to the fort. On that morning, I encountered a few of the visitors while hiking the Netul Trail which connects to the 6.5 mile Fort to Sea Trail, which is a lot more challenging trail. On this trail a higher hiking skills level is required as portions of the trail has abrupt elevations followed by sudden drops. In other words, it is full of ups and downs! The round trip to the sea is 13 miles. This was the trail used by the fort residents to reach the pacific on their fishing trips in the Spring and Summer when they stored food for the long Winter.
The Fort to Sea Trail winds past forests, coastal bogs, farms, an active military training center and crosses a mini-version of Portland’s Fremont Bridge before reaching Sunset Beach State Recreation Site. The crossing of U.S. 101 in via an underpass. With one end on federal land and the other on state, and with other land holders in between, the trail is a metaphor for what makes the Lewis and Clark park unique in the Pacific Northwest. The vegetation here is abundantly green and full of vitality. With part of its natural trees reintroduced to recreate the original habitat after the ending of the logging industry, the park’s forest is managed by both the National Parks Service and State Parks.
It was quite late in the day when I returned to the fort. I was exhausted because in order to complete the day’s 15 miles hike I had to keep a fast pace. However, I still wanted to get to the Puget Sound area in Washington, about four hours away if I stopped at least once for a thirty minutes break. Although I had no intention to spend too much time in Seattle, I wanted to visit a couple of friends in town. As I crossed the state line into Washington, there was still some daylight left and the driving conditions were good. At one point I came into a foggy and rainy area, reminding me that I had reached the Pacific Northwest.
From this point on, relying on weather forecasts was just as suggestion. Being close to a rain forest where weather conditions can and do change suddenly, and can display different patterns in just a few miles due to different altitudes and other variables, would almost certainly bring a few surprises. Nonetheless, I felt that I was prepared to adjust my plans and adapt to nature’s whims. Before moving to New York, I had lived in Seattle for five years and I was accustomed to the weather in the Pacific Northwest.
It was past ten when I arrived at my friend Raquel’s house about thirty minutes southeast of Seattle, where I would spend a couple of days catching up and taking a break from the woods.
A Winter wonderland in Oregon! Officially it was Spring, but not at Crater Lake National Park. The park was still closed allowing access to the public only in limited areas. The temperature was only twenty-nine degrees with snow still falling. Periodically, the fast moving clouds would allow the blue skies to be seen through the clouds. It would in a matter of minutes give way to snow and gray skies. The dome in the middle of the crater looked majestic in its insular silent isolation. Aside from a few people here and there, the wind which blew in intermittent whistling gusts was the only sound that broke the silence.
Located at the crest of the Cascade Mountain Range, Crater Lake National Park is, according to the park’s brochure, one of the snowiest inhabited places in America. Since the ranger’s service began tracking snow falls in the park in 1931, the 1930’s was the snowiest period receiving an average 614 inches of snow during that decade.
Overall, the average annual snowfall at the park’s headquarters, by decade, has been on a downward trend. The lowest snowfall per decade was registered in the 2010’s which averaged on 377 inches: the decade of the 2000’s averaged 455 inches per year. The 2014-2015 Winter/Spring season registered the lowest ever snowfall, receiving only 43 feet of snow. The consequences of declining snowfalls could be catastrophic to the ecosystem in the region. Besides feeding the Rogue, Umpqua, and Klamath Rivers, the very existence of the lake in the crater is dependent on water that comes from the sky. The lake in the crater does is not fed by rivers or streams and less snow and less rain could significantly change the landscape in the caldera at the mountain top.
Hiking and snowshoeing were out of the question as the trail surrounding the lake was closed. On the other hand, it was encouraging to know that the snowfall level was higher than that of the prior year. And as all camping sites where I could camp were relatively too far from the lake, it was time to wrap up my short visit to the park. After taking some pictures around the lake and visiting the coffee shop and the restroom, which looked more like a military underground bunker, it was time to get on the road before it got late and dark to drive down from the mountain top. Spending the night in Klamath Falls before heading to the coast on my way to Portland, Oregon was the best plan for the night.
Until now, this was the most complicated part of the road trip. I had reached a point of exhaustion and I was feeling a bit homesick. Perhaps the weather condition was making me feel a little anxious, because it was getting more and more difficult to find a national park that was open for camping and hiking. The distances to travel in a day to reach the next destination was getting longer and longer with nothing in between to make for a great stop. Undeniably, the landscape couldn’t be more appealing to the eye. However, with sorter Winter days, I could not afford to remain in one location for too long before getting dark. Even short distances became long because the driving conditions were not good.Traveling alone in Winter conditions requires a little more caution and coffee. The music and a cup of coffee were the only comfort to keep me company.
It was getting dark when I left Crater Lake and as I came down the mountain, the snow had given way to freezing rain. With a hotel reserved in Klamath Falls, I knew that I had a bed and a much needed hot shower waiting for me. The rain had stopped when I arrived at the hotel, but it was windy and cold. After checking in, I headed out to try and have dinner. It was already past ten and the only place still serving some food in town was an Irish tavern. The food was not anything to brag about, but it was the first time I had a hot meal in five days. Besides, after hiking all that I hiked in the past few days, I could absorb some fatty food.
The next morning I got up early and tried the breakfast that was included with my room. It was not a good breakfast! Everything seemed to be prepackaged food and even the coffee was not drinkable. Nonetheless, it was my chance to do laundry at the hotel that morning and reorganize the car. I knew that from that point on, I would need to make the winter clothes more accessible. A search about the destinations I had mind in the Pacific Northwest revealed that most of them were still closed. It crossed my mind to turn around and head south, but I was determined to make it to Seattle.
I left Klamath Falls knowing that it was going to be a long drive to Portland, Oregon. Trying to avoid the snowy day in the mountains, I decided to take Route 38 heading west to US-101 northbound. Before getting to the coastline, I stopped in Elkton to have a real, old American style breakfast for lunch. After a quick stop to watch some of the local wildlife, I drove west toward the Pacific shores again. Still without a hotel reservation in Portland, I was open to the idea of finding a place to camp somewhere between Dunes City and Florence.
Back home in New York, Eric was a little worried about this part of my road trip. We were constantly in contact with each other and discussing the weather conditions and the obstacles that I was starting to encounter. He continued to motivate me to push on and at the same time he wanted to make sure that I was safe, staying warm, and most importantly; having a good time.
It turned out that Dunes City was just a drive through at that time of the year. Nothing was happening there. By the time I made it to Florence, I had called Eric and he made a reservation for me in Portland. Now I would have to make to Portland no matter how late I would arrive there. Trying to find a place to explore and enjoy had become a waste of time.
It was around mid afternoon that I found, almost by accident, the Sea Lion Caves on US-101, Florence, Oregon. I had never heard about the Oregon’s Sea Lion Caves, which is one of the largest in the world. It turned out to be a great surprise on the road. It brought me back to a better mood and my visit to the caves made me forget the somewhat exhausting, worrisome last couple of days. Hundreds of sea lions were in the caves that day. Watching tens of them swimming the strong waves and trying to make to the caves or to climb on the rocks was a spectacular, rare event.
Feeling somehow energized I got back on the road toward Portland. The plan was to stay in Portland for just one night as a stop over because my next destination where I planned to camp was Fort Stevens in the mouth of the Columbia River, before crossing into Washington. I arrived in Portland under heavy rain and checked into the hotel just before nine that evening. It felt good to be off the road! It was time order some take out food, download the pictures, and recharge batteries.
For the rest of the morning and early afternoon, after hiking from the camping site, I spent a well deserved relaxing time at Sculptured Beach which is just one of the beaches in Point Reyes National Seashore. With waves reaching the shores and birds chirping on the cliff’s walls as the only sounds, I fell asleep laying on the sand. Around four o’clock I left the beach heading north on the Coast Trail for about a half mile to where it intersects with Woodward Valley Trail. From that intersection I continued hiking east on Woodward Valley Trail for two miles, which is in fact the entire length of the trail that connects the Sky Trail to the Coast Trail. From there, hiking just over a mile and a half going south on Sky Trail, making a slight left turn onto Baldy Trail would take me to Glen Camp Loop. That’s to say that my hike back to the campground was estimated to be approximately seven miles; the total hike for the day would be close to 15 miles. More importantly, I would arrive at the campground about an hour before sunset.
The weather was simply perfect. With temperature was in the mid seventies throughout the day, there was a pleasant breeze that carried scents of sea water, flowers, grass and the musky aroma of trees. However, something happened along the way that made me miss the sign to Baldy Trail! Instead, I continued on the Sky Trail veering west taking me back to the Coast Trail in the direction of Kelham Beach. That was a one and a half mile misstep that ultimately added a three miles round-trip to my day hike!
It was only when the sound of the waves and the ever stronger smell of salty water were getting closer and closer that I began to realize I had missed Baldy Trail. Turning around aware that at least one hour and a half was just added to my ETA at Glen Camp, I sped up my pace to avoid hiking in the dark. I managed to reach the campsite at dusk but the fast paced hike wore me out.
Glen Camp was not a popular site on that Monday, for I was the only person camping there on that day. Feeling tired and knowing that on the following morning I would be hiking five miles back to my car, I went to sleep early. My left eye was still itching with a growing burning sensation in the lower eyelid area.
Nonetheless, I slept well and deeply waking up at five the following morning. I dismounted the tent, packed and hit the trail. It was freezing! The temperature had dropped quite drastically in the past eight hours to only thirty-one degrees. The sun was still not hitting the trail under the trees and as I left Glen Camp . I wanted to arrive at the visitor center by or before nine o’clock. Therefore I kept a steady fast pace, stopping briefly only a couple of times to eat and rest. It was just about nine when I spotted my car.
Having completed approximately twenty-eight miles of hiking at Point Reyes National Seashore in two days, I was ready to spend the day driving. My next destination was about seven to eight hours away, if I didn’t stop too many times. I was almost certain that I had to find a hotel for the night because it would be too late to look for a place for camping overnight.
After three days without a shower it was time to enjoy the feeling of hot running water over my body. Perhaps I had come to that tipping point on the trip where I started to get great pleasures out of small, mundane things. Otherwise, such ordinary things were taken for granted in my until recent fast paced urban life. After all, a hot shower is only one more thing that we do in our daily routine.
Stopping for lunch, cappuccinos, downloading pictures, recharging camera and cellphone, and pulling over at viewpoints along the way kept me on the road much longer than anticipated. My arrival time at the targeted destination was now around nine in the evening. I was going to visit the Crater Lake National Park and Klamath Falls, Oregon was a good place to spend the night and get an early start the next morning.
The next morning I headed east of I-5 stopping Lassen Volcanic National Park. Depending on the weather conditions I would stay around or continue to Crater Lake. Although I decided for the latter, driving through the mountains toward Lassen Volcanic offered splendid views. As I returned to I-5 N, scenic Shasta Lake and the 14,180 feet Shasta Mount Volcano with the sun setting in the background through the cloudy skies of northern California made it for a long and pleasant drive.
The wintry landscape along with temperatures in the mid forties and upper thirties were a far cry from the Spring warmer days and brighter skies I left behind just a day earlier. I arrived at the hotel in Klamath Falls after ten o’clock and it was cold. At check-in I learned that there is no waterfalls in Klamath Falls. I was told that at a time in its past history most likely there were waterfalls around. I was also told that the restaurants in town close at nine. There was, however, a pub located in the downtown area that still might serve food until midnight.
After a much deserved and needed hot shower, I headed out in the hunt for hot food. At the pub I found out that the information given by the hotel front desk clerk was not quite accurate. The pub’s kitchen was basically closed, serving only a couple of “bar food” dishes. Although not my favorite, the fried macaroni and cheese tasted delicious and the extra calories were just what I needed at the moment.
It was April 26 and after spending eleven days in California I had made it to Oregon. I was on the road for twenty-seven days and I had just entered a new phase of the road trip. From this point on I knew that the weather would play a substantial role in determining my route in the Pacific Northwest.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.