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A Room With a View: The Golden Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bikers in Fairfax, California
Bikers in Fairfax, California

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

Destination: From Texas to New Mexico

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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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Night Out in San Diego

On my second day in San Elijo, after spending most of the day hiking up and down the beach, I left the campground and headed down to San Diego around three o’clock in the afternoon. For about twenty miles I sluggishly inched south, literally! Traffic was moving so slow that it took about one hour to drive just about twenty miles. It’s good when time is not an issue but it’s irritating to witness the frustration and impatience of those who actually have to get somewhere on time. I was in no rush! Wess and Melissa were going to join me in San Diego about four hours later on.

I had asked them whereabouts should we meet and Wess suggested a brewery somewhere on Ocean Front Walk, but after reading the reviews and seeing pictures of the place, I thought that the evening called for something different. They were already on the road when I let them know where to find me.

Menu cover at MO's Bar and Grill turned prop for photo - San Diego, CA
Menu cover at MO’s Bar and Grill turned prop for photo – San Diego, CA

This was my last night in the area and the word was to have fun! After all, I would be spending most of the time away from cities and in most of the days ahead of me, I would be hiking and camping in solitude. Stopping in the San Diego area was meant to spend time with old friends; a vacation within the vacation! Fun we had! we had a great time and my friends realized that, in many ways, this was just another bar. Perhaps in a few small details, such as great music and more glitter!

Menu cover at MO's Bar and Grill turned prop for photo - San Diego, CA
Menu cover at MO’s Bar and Grill turned prop for photo – San Diego, CA

I had heard great things about MO’s Bar and Grill on Hillcrest and thought that a relaxed, old-fashioned upbeat gay bar was a better choice for the evening.  I had read that this was the happiest place on Hillcrest, possibly in all of San Diego!

After reading tens of great reviews and finding out that only one person had negative things to say, I knew this was the right place to bring a hetero couple for their first gay bar experience.  YMCA, the song, could be heard from the parking lot as I arrived. The energy in this place was great with a mixed crowd, great music and hysterically funny videos. I was in awe by the vibe of the place for a regular midweek day.  Although it was only Tuesday, it felt like a Saturday night elsewhere. Even the menu cover, which displays the caption “Fierce Gurl! Everyone Has a Little Drag in Them!”  was a novelty and became our photo op for the evening.

The night had not even quite started when Melissa volunteered to drive my car back to Vista. We all agreed that I should spend the night at their house instead of driving myself to the campground. I was unchained and free to have more than just a couple of drinks. And I guess that whatever happens in San Diego we just leave of the road! The following morning, after a few cups of coffee, I drove north exploring the coast. A friend who had lived in the area suggested that I visited Dana Point and Laguna Beach. My destination was the Yosemite National Park, but I wanted to drive along the coast to Malibu before resetting my GPS to Yosemite. Later that day I found out that the weather wasn’t quite going to be on my side in the mountains. The weather forecast for the Yosemite National Park included heavy snow and rain for the next couple of days. When I called the park’s information line for more details I was advised to check the weather forecast daily because in early Spring the weather there can be unpredictable, leading the roads to be partially or entirely closed. For now I would enjoy the sunshine in the coastline and its beautiful scenery.

Menu cover at MO's Bar and Grill turned prop for photo - San Diego, CA
Menu cover at MO’s Bar and Grill turned prop for photo – San Diego, CA
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Mud, Massage and Bonfire

The next couple of days were dedicated to relaxation and catching up with my friends; while they were at work after the weekend was over, I went on short day trips regrouping with them in the evening. For the past few days I had an upper back pain that wasn’t going away. Hearing me whining about my back pain, Wess offered to give me a “walk-over” back massage. That’s what I called it!

Wess Abruzzo performing a Tantric Bone Setting Massage on me at the Glen Ivy Hot Springs in Corona, CA
Wess Abruzzo performing a Tantric Bone Setting Massage on me at the Glen Ivy Hot Springs in Corona, CA

The actual massage technique is called tantric bone setting massage which he learned in India during his time studying at the Shri Kali Ashram, a school focused on sharing and preserving the spiritual science of Tantra Yoga. The night before  Melissa brought up that they would like to take me to a hot springs spa as their treat if I would like that. I was in! On Sunday morning we headed to Glen Ivy Hot Springs in Corona, California. Not only we would be covering ourselves with mud, Wess decided that that’s where he would give me the tantric massage. Laying on a spot to the side of the mud pool under the curious watching eyes of other visitors, I was pampered by his feet. They common expression tells us “don’t let anyone walk all over you!”, but this was different and absent of words to describe the sensations. Not quite a true believer, I thought that if it didn’t fix my back at least I had an amazing tantric experience.

On our way back to Vista, we stopped at a Mexican restaurant that served great food and amazing margaritas. By then my back pain had gone from excruciating to bearable. I don’t know if it was the massage, the hot pool immersions, or the time I spent in the steam room. The fact is that I felt a lot better and I would let him walk over my body anytime! On our way back home they told me that his sister would be joining us and we would take the camper to a beach in Oceanside and have a bonfire if we were lucky to find a fire pit available. The place is very popular and the only minus is that the beach patrol police makes sure everyone is out of there by eleven. We got distracted by having such a great time that we lost track of time and overstayed long enough to be approached by the police who politely reminded us that beach was closed. How could we not forget the time being surrounded by the sounds of  waves, skies filled with stars and a shinning silver moon above us? As corny as it may sound, it was a poetic night!

Sunset at San Elijo State Beach, California
Sunset at San Elijo State Beach, California

On Monday morning, after getting my laundry done, I went to San Elijo State Beach where I had a campsite reserved for the next three days. After pitching the tent I spent the rest of the day at the beach. After going out for some food and coffee, I returned to the beach to catch the sunset. Surfers kept coming in as the sun shed its last rays of daylight. The water and the sea breeze were colder than I had expected, but again I had got used to hear that in the past few days it had been days it had been colder than usual for that time of the year.

The campground at San Elijo Beach was primarily populated by large families and the tranquility that I had experienced in other campgrounds until now was not present here. It was past midnight when the children around quieted down and I could finally enjoy the sound of the waves rolling on the beach and crashing against the cliff walls. I would suggest that this campground is perfect for families with children but I didn’t find it to be a good choice for me being own my own. My experiences were teaching me that campgrounds that are primarily families destinations are not friendly toward lone travelers. My opinion is that if you are traveling by yourself chances are you appreciate peace and quiet. Although every campgrounds state the rules and quiet hours, I found that such rules are largely ignored by the majority of families and park staff never seem to enforce the rules. So, be prepared to hear unsupervised children and teens running around screaming at the top of their lungs at late hours into the night. I must admit that I did not have a reservation and when I called to reserve a campsite, this was the only campground in the vicinity of San Diego that had availability. All the other ones which had great reviews were completely booked for the days I wanted.

Sunset at San Elijo State Beach, California
Sunset at San Elijo State Beach, California
Sunset at San Elijo State Beach, California
Sunset at San Elijo State Beach, California
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From Coast to Coast

I was thrilled as I made to the Pacific Coast on the fifteenth day of April, completing the first phase of my road trip. Under heavy traffic on late Friday afternoon, battling the sand storm that blasted along highway I-10 that followed me since my departure from the Joshua Tree National Park all the way through Coachella, California, I was approaching the coast. For the past two days I had been driving through the sand storm and I felt relieved when I cleared it as left behind the Coachella Valley and the landscape turned into green rolling hills. Eager to see the ocean, I drove west toward San Clemente to head south on the coast looking for a state park along the shoreline where I would attempt to camp. One state park after another was full and it was already dark and after ten when I checked to a hotel for the night just a few miles north of Oceanside, California.

Waterfront - Oceanside, California
Waterfront – Oceanside, California

On Saturday morning before checking out from the hotel I searched for a place to have breakfast and came across great reviews for the Breakfast Club Diner and decided to try it. Far too many times on the I had been disappointed with places that I chose based on online reviewers comments and suggestions, but not this time! From the service to the food, this place is superb! It certainly exceeded my expectations. Many reviewers commented on the large size of the servings and how great the food was, and I must tell you that not only the reviews were on point but if you are a good fork this is the place to go. The retro decor has an uplifting vibe and the mixed, eclectic crowd brings in a laid back, happy atmosphere to the place. I can’t think of a better way to start the day!

It’s impossible not to notice the joie de vivre a la Californian in this coastal town where surfers and cyclists are everywhere. As I was not to meet my friends Wess and Melissa in Vista until after mid-day, I had a couple of hours to walk around the charming waterfront. After days in the desert it was refreshing to see the ocean and breath in the ocean salty breeze instead of desert sand.

Oceanside, California
Oceanside, California

The old cliche tells us that a stranger is a friend we haven’t met yet! On my twenty days into my road trip, from coast to coast, I had visited an old friend in Texas, made a couple of new friends, and had great conversations with many people. Nonetheless, I was excited for reuniting with my old neighbors and friends from New York who have had their own share of adventure on the road. After graduating from school they went on a two year trip that included half of that time spent in Australia and months in India and Vietnam. I was anxious to spend time with people who shared common interests. The three of us share the ‘breaking away’ from a more traditional lifestyle and have been exposed to questioning and have also been laughed at for the same reason.

When I left home I didn’t think the trip was a big deal, but at this point a few friends had noticed that I had been on the road for a while and were sending me messages asking about my final destination; my final destination was, eventually, to make safely back home. People expressed other concerns:  Had I got a divorce? Did anyone close to me had passed away? Was I on a ‘soul search’ journey? Had I lost my mind? The answer was simply no to all the above. I simply had finally found the right time to tackle one of the items on my wish list. Some of them called me crazy and others told me they were jealous and wish they could join me. What really stood out to me was the fact that I have always hiked and for years posting pictures and comments about my hiking trips, but it seemed that no one paid attention because I was hiking close to home in the Hudson Valley. It was becoming clear to me that a lot of people don’t notice what we do until we overdo it, or we do it far away from our backyards. So, there I was on the other side of the country getting the attention of friends back home.

Wess, Melissa and I on the roof waiting for the sunset - Vista, California
Wess, Melissa and I on the roof waiting for the sunset – Vista, California

After getting to my friends’ house in Vista, sitting in their charming backyard and catching up and filling in the blanks since they had left New York, we kept saying that we were going to watch the sunset on the beach. From time to time reminding ourselves that we should get going soon until it was too late to make it there before sunset. Instead, we climbed and sat on the roof watching the sunset. I was more interested in being in their company and enjoy the conversation than getting in a car to go somewhere. Earlier in the day I had been trying to reserve a camping site for the next few days but being the weekend every state park on beaches along the coast were full. I finally found and reserved a site at the San Elijo State Beach, but the earliest day I could check-in was two days later on Monday for three days. For now I was going to hang out with Wess and Melissa.

From Dana Point to West Hollywood

 

Destination: From Texas to New Mexico

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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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Unplanned Detour

My next destination, or so I had thought, was the Joshua Tree National Park in southern California. The approximately 560 miles could be covered in about six hours or so depending on how many stops I would make. The problem is that I was late to leave the Grand Canyon and I wouldn’t arrive at the Joshua Tree National Park before six o’clock, lowering my chances to get a camping site that late in the day.

I had been on the road for about a couple of hours when I got a phone call from my husband who asked me where I was. As I told him that I was close to the Arizona-Nevada border, he suggested that maybe I should take a detour and go visit our friend Bob in Vegas. It seemed to be a great idea since I wasn’t going to arrive at the Joshua Tree National Park at a convenient hour. I asked him to contact Bob right away as I was quickly approaching the exit to Las Vegas, Nevada and a decision had to be made within the next twenty-five miles. Our friend lives in New Hampshire and has business both in that state and Nevada, often commuting between both states. By the time I reached the exit to Las Vegas I had not heard from either my husband or Bob; I decided to take the exit and head to Las Vegas regardless. I reckoned that if he wasn’t in town or able to host me I would take a hotel for the night. I was just about twenty miles from Las Vegas when I got two text messages: the first one from my husband asking me if I had seen the note from Bob and the second one from Bob to both of us letting us know that he had just landed in Vegas. However, he was letting us know that he had “snapped” his back and was on pain killers and “no good for anything”. My chaperone for the evening was “out of service”.

Although I had had no intentions to stop in Vegas during my road trip and had no other reason to go there other than visiting Bob, I was then too far out of my way and it was too late now to turn around. I made a reservation at the MGM Hotel and a few minutes later I checked in to the hotel. It was my break from the road and camping. I am not a gambler and in years past I had been to Las Vegas too many times for conferences and got tired from it. In my opinion Las Vegas is not a place to go by yourself, so this was going to be my downtime, relaxing and letting my body rest from the recent days of hiking.

Excalibur Hotel Casino at night - Las Vegas, Nevada
Excalibur Hotel Casino at night – Las Vegas, Nevada
A psychedelic picture on the wall of my room at the Mandalay Bay - Las Vegas, Nevada
A psychedelic picture on the wall of my room at the Mandalay Bay – Las Vegas, Nevada

After walking around that evening I realized how exhausted I was, so I decided that it was time to get back to my hotel room and go to sleep. The following morning I woke up feeling very sore and made the decision to stay an extra night in town. I just did not feel like getting back on the road that day. I found out that the hotel was sold out so I had to look for another place to stay that night. Good news! As I looked for a hotel I found out that I had accrued enough points through my Expedia card and I could have a room as a reward night in a few hotels; I chose the Mandalay Bay.

Relaxing moment at the Mandalay Bay - Las Vegas, Nevada
Relaxing moment at the Mandalay Bay – Las Vegas, Nevada

Having worked in hospitality for many years, I must admit that the Mandalay Bay wowed me from the moment I walked into the lobby. The check-in was flawless and I even got an upgrade! From the decor of the room and cleanliness to the view and the size of the bathroom, all made me a happy customer. The bed was so comfortable that I just did not want to go anywhere else.

I had an early check-in and had plenty of time to check the amenities offered at the hotel. Going to the gym was simply out of the question. With more than seventy miles hiked in the past ten days, sitting by the Beach Mandalay Bay pools seemed like an attractive option. I had read about the “adults only” pool and that’s where I was headed to, but when I asked which direction to go I was told that the adults only pool is not open everyday. To my disappointment it was going to be open the next day after my check-out time. I settled for a spot on the man made beach with its artificial waves. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating. It was growing increasingly windy and the sun was a bit shy with the temperature barely in the low seventies. However, it was the loud, screaming children who got me out of the beach. I don’t think I had seen that many children in one place since I left kindergarten. That was a surprise to me as I had never thought of Las Vegas as a children’s retreat!

View from my room at the Mandalay Bay - Las Vegas, Nevada
View from my room at the Mandalay Bay – Las Vegas, Nevada

Back in my room it was time to wander around and find a place to eat. An Irish Pub in the hotel’s complex got my attention. It was dark and cozy! After having an amazing burger and a Guinness, knowing that I would not do anything else that evening, I stopped at the casino in the hotel and played in one of the slot machines just to kill some time. While waiting for the elevator going back to my room I reached for my phone to check the time and realized that I had left it at the machine where I had been playing. Turning around I realized how large the room was. I had no idea about which machine or section I had been sitting at. I asked one of the staff who look like undercover security people and she said that it would be really hard to figure it out and asked me to go talk a security person who was nearby. I showed him the cash out receipt that I had printed from the machine which helped him locate the section where I had been playing. As we were walking to the zone the machine was located he received information that someone had just turned in a cellphone to the security desk. It had been found! Thrilled with my phone back in my hands I headed to my room trying to not get into any more trouble. Opening the screens on the phone I came across something rather bizarre: the person who found it took a faceless selfie. Did she try to leave me a hint telling me that she had gone through my pictures?! I am just grateful for her having turned it to the security desk regardless of her reasons to leave me a selfie. I was starting to miss camping and sleeping in my tent; it was time to leave Las Vegas!

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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