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Yosemite National Park

Growing up, a map of the world hung on my bedroom wall.  I put green stickers on the places I’d been and blue ones on the destinations I wanted to visit.  There was just one location that had both a green and blue sticker – Yosemite National Park.  I first visited the park with my family the summer before starting high school and after just a day in Yosemite, I knew I needed to return to climb Half Dome.   From the start of our trip, the park was one of the places I was looking forward to most and it was the perfect capstone to our three months in California.

Yosemite Valley

Due to a combination of things – waiting for the snow to melt and having to get back to Ohio for a wedding – we ended up in Yosemite over Memorial Day.  We knew that a holiday weekend in a park infamous for crowds would be rough but the payoff would be a four-day weekend with just one vacation day.

Spring is a great time for waterfalls!

A few years ago, they started requiring a permit to hike to the top of Half Dome.  Before implementing this system, on busy weekends there were 1200 people summiting; now they only give out 300 permits per day.  There is a preseason lottery – we both applied but neither got a permit.  The NPS released data on the 2017 lottery showing that over 10,000 people applied for a permit the Saturday before Memorial Day, meaning less than 3% received one. Fortunately, they save a few permits for day of lotteries.  Even though the odds were not in our favor, we got a Half Dome permit for Sunday!

Half Dome as seen from Glacier Point

Wanting to save our legs for the difficult trail the following day, we diverged from our typical park activity of hiking and tried out horseback riding … well mule-back riding! I hadn’t been on a horse since 2002 and I think my steed could tell.  I don’t know if I was especially bad at giving it directions or if Kip was particularly ornery but she wandered off trail to eat more than any other mule.  Zach, who grew up in proximity to horses, had a much easier time.

Zach and my mule Kip

The next morning, we woke early and headed into the valley.   I had heard of people starting the Half Dome hike anywhere from 2 am to 2pm.  We decided on a reasonable 6 am start time.  The first half of the hike follows the popular Mist Trail.  It was great to admire the two waterfalls without any other people around.  When we travelled back down that afternoon, the trail was unbelievable packed.  It was like walking through Cedar Point on its most crowded day.

Vernal Falls in the background

Half Dome rises 4800 feet above the valley below, roughly the same elevation gain as hiking from the Colorado River to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  I like to think of myself as a fast hiker and given that we are the people doing the passing the majority of the time, I must be.  But when I hike with Zach, he makes me feel like a slowpoke.  By the time we got the top, every other minute he had to stop and wait for me.  It seemed like he was immune to the elevation gain, altitude and mileage.

Struggling to keep up with Zach

The final stretch of the hike, the part that actually takes you up onto the dome, is the most terrifying part.  The rock is granite which feels slippery and the grade gets up to 60 degrees.  To help, there are cables to hold onto and wooden rungs about every ten feet.  People are going up and down and passing by each other takes some careful maneuvering.  After a few rungs up, I was ready to turn around but I preserved and continued on to the top.  Once I got the hang of things, it really wasn’t too bad.  I never felt unsafe, just worried that I would feel unsafe at some time in the future.

The cables

The 360 degree views from the top were magnificent. We drank our summit beers overlooking Tenaya Canyon to the east.  I was too worried about going down the cables to fully enjoy things at the top but decent was just as manageably difficult as the ascent.  The seven-mile hike back down was easier than going up but by the end my legs were shot.  The tiredness was overpowered by feelings of accomplishment, exhilaration and gratitude.  We finished off a great day by watching the Cavs win Game 7 of the Eastern Finals.

A great place for a beer!

The next day, my legs were still very sore so we took it easy by driving up to Glacier Point.  Even higher than Half Dome, from here we got more great views of the park.  We did a short hike to Taft Point where we saw two BASE jumpers take off.  I couldn’t get within a few feet of the edge, I can’t imagine jumping off it.

Crazy BASE jumper

Having learned from previously wasting time looking for parking inside the valley, we went straight to the furthest possible shuttle stop and took the bus in.  We rented bikes and I spent a good portion of my energy was spent trying to avoid groups of pedestrians who liked to walk shoulder to shoulder and take up the whole path.  My one complaint about the park was that, at times, it was incredibly crowded.  But we managed to find some more secluded areas and enjoy the majestic beauty in peace.

Crowd at the bottom of Lower Yosemite Falls

After only having seen one bear in the first sixteen months of this trip, we were blessed with three bear sightings in Yosemite! None were as exciting as our first time when we spotted the bear while hiking alone.  Every time this weekend, we joined an already formed crowd to watch the bear.  Still, a bear sighting is a bear sighting!

Bear!

On our last day in the park, we headed into the High Sierras via Tioga Road.  The drive takes you over 10,000 feet, offering great views of snowy mountains, crystal clear lakes, green meadows and more granite domes.  We bagged our second dome of the weekend, hiking to the top of Lembert Dome.  Much smaller than Half Dome, it was also much less crowed, providing tranquility the rest of our time in the park was lacking.  To cap off the trip, we hiked up to an overlook of Gaylor Lake.  Most of the trail was covered in soft snow, leading to each step sinking you knee-deep in snow.

Slow moving through the snow

A few weeks ago, I bought a collection of John Muir’s work and have been greatly enjoying reading about his experiences in the Sierras.  He is a fantastic writer and I would highly recommend reading anything by him.  He is full of great quotes but I’ll end with one of the most relatable.  After a day spent at the top of Yosemite Falls, he writes, “My first view of the High Sierra, first view looking down into Yosemite, the death song of Yosemite Creek, and its flight over the vast cliff, each of one those it of itself for a great life-long landscape fortune – a more memorable day of days – enjoyment enough to kill if that were possible.”  This weekend was one for the books – each of my days spent in Yosemite was the most memorable day of days.

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Sequoia and Kings Canyon

Again, I find myself way behind. Writing about experiences we had a month ago. Usually I have no excuse other than extreme procrastination. This time around though, I was honestly busy. It seems like every time we visit Ohio we manage to pack in so much, and this trip was no exception. In fact, we managed to squeeze in buying a house. Well, getting the highest bid at auction anyway; we’re still figuring out the finances and doing paperwork.

Our house!

But enough about Ohio, I want to jot down a few of my thoughts on our time in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park before they slip my mind. I’ll keep it short since there are plenty of other blogs to be written and contractors to call.

The beautiful Sierra Nevadas

We spent a full weekend exploring each of the two adjacent parks. And, on the adjoining weeks, we stayed at interchangeable state parks in the area. Both campgrounds sat on a manmade reservoir about 20 miles outside of town and were designed for southern California agriculture. In many ways Kings Canyon and Sequoia are interchangeable parks. Both are managed as one unit under the National Park Service, boast enormous trees, and act as a gateway to the high Sierra’s. However, the two parks hold distinct personalities.

Zach and General Sherman – the world’s largest tree!

In Sequoia National Park, Liz and I donned our backpacking gear for the first time since Joshua Tree and headed to the park’s foothills. While Californians may call them foothills, they sure seemed like mountains to me. The trip provided solitude, great wildflowers, and views of snowcapped peaks. Ohh yeah – and a rattlesnake. One thing absent from the hike though was the parks namesake – Sequoia trees. To get to the world’s most voluptuous tree, we had to drive a few thousand more feet up the mountain.

Lots of wildflowers!

The next weekend, we headed North, to Kings Canyon. The park’s main attraction – other than more overgrown trees – is its massive granite walled canyon. Our first day in the park, Liz and I drove through the canyon to the road’s end and hiked Mist Falls. Again, we encountered a rattlesnake, although this time I was ready with camera in hand.

Rattler!

The second day, we took a short hike up Big Baldy and were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the surrounding valley before being engulfed in clouds. After hiking, I wanted to track down a bear in the deep woods, so we found a rugged off-road trail and drove until trail conditions forced us to retreat.

A foggy hike down

I really enjoyed our time in both parks and would recommend them to anyone looking to add more outdoor activities to their Yosemite vacation.

Spring in California

The past few weeks have been a busy for us! We got engaged, travelled back to Ohio for a week, and are in the middle of a marathon of weekends at California’s great National (and State) Parks. The blog fell out of priority but we’re trying to get back on track. To ease the pain, I’m going to zoom through the past few weeks in one post.

Lots of wildflowers in California!

Last year our company started holding a Fiscal New Year’s Eve party. Since we missed out on it the first time around due to hiking the Grand Canyon, we flew back to Ohio to attend the party and the other work events going on that week. We both left San Francisco Friday afternoon; I headed back to Cleveland, Zach spent the weekend in Salt Lake City for his cousin’s bachelor party. In a bit of unfortunate luck, my dad was running the Boston Marathon that Monday so I only saw my parents briefly before they left. Fortunately, I was able to have my grandparents over for dinner and wait out a tornado warning at my best friend Sammi’s house.

Celebrating our 4 year anniversary at the spot of our first date – The Melt 

Zach and I both arrived in Columbus Monday morning and began a work week full of activities. Between hanging out with friends and work events, we didn’t get much sleep. The highlight of the week was watching my sister Megan race on the Ohio State Crew team. Her novice eight boat won both races. You only get to see the boat for a few seconds as they row by, but it was exciting to see in person her hard work pay off.

Not the best spectator sport

Before we knew it, our time in Ohio was over and back to California we flew. We had a work week to kill before heading to Big Sur, so we hunkered down in Hollister, the largest city in San Benito county. We spent most of the week working and relaxing after our busy previous week. The weather finally warmed up, a little too much for my liking, so we enjoyed dusk runs through the very large campground (500+ sites). We saw more animals in the campground than we had any other week – loads of deer, many interesting birds, squirrels, a fox and a family of wild boar.

Fox

That weekend we traveled south to Big Sur – not a national park but a region full of state parks. Many of the best trails are closed due to frequent fires and landslides. The trails we hiked were great so I can’t imagine what the better ones are like! Unlike most weekends when we are in the middle of nowhere and left to cook for ourselves, there were some great restaurants in the area. We dined at the world-famous Nepenthe, overlooking miles of the Pacific coast. I discovered my new favorite beer, Lost Coast’s Great White, while watching the Cavs beat the Pacers at Big Sur Tap House.

Pfeiffer Beach

Since our campground in Big Sur was only an hour from a Starbucks, we spent Sunday night in the park and packed up early Monday morning. As long as our weekend accommodations are within a reasonable drive from an internet connection, we use this strategy to maximize our time in the parks. This work-week was spent at Sunset Beach State Park on the north shore of Monterey Bay. For those of us who live full-time in campgrounds, California has the worst State Park system. Almost none of their campgrounds have water and electricity hookups but still cost forty dollars a night. Sunset Beach was a beautiful park, and much cheaper than the other eighty dollars a night private campgrounds in the Monterey area, but after a week of washing dishes without running water, I was happy to move on to a site with hookups.

Finally the right weather and trees for the hammock!

Excluding Gateway Arch, Pinnacles is the newest National Park. In 2013, it was upgraded from a National Monument to a National Park, officially making California the state with the most National Parks. Unlike Gateway Arch, it actually deserves to be a National Park (read this for more of my feelings on Gateway Arch).  Our campground in Hollister was only an hour from Pinnacles, so one day after work that week, we headed into the park and explored Bear Gulch Cave.  It’s more of a tunnel than a cave but still a great way to spend an afternoon.

The trail to Bear Gulch

That Saturday, my brother and some college friends were racing the Wildflower triathlon which was not too far from Pinnacles. It was hot and hilly just spectating and I’m glad I wasn’t racing.  I will come out of my triathlon retirement one day but I’m not yet ready to return to the sport.  Matt did great, finishing 9th out of over a thousand racers. But, no surprise to anyone who knows Matt, it wasn’t quite as good as he was hoping. I didn’t get to see him much since he was racing for most of the day, but anytime with family is better than none.

Not our best picture, not our worst

The past week I had been fighting a cold, and just as I was getting over it, I came down with a sinus infection.  I spent the rest of the weekend blowing my nose and relaxing in bed.  I attempted to go for a hike but turned around a mile in, leaving Zach to finish it alone.  I was happy we visited the park earlier so I was able to see more than just the campground.  From Pinnacles we headed east to finish our our last few weeks of California in the Sierra Nevadas.

Engagement In Redwoods National Park

There’s no doubt that in the past four years together, Liz and I have been fortunate enough to visit plenty of well-known travel destinations. Among those places include two of the world’s most renowned wine regions – Napa Valley and Tuscany. Fortunately, even after our recent second visit to Napa Valley, neither Liz or I have grown to “appreciate” the allure of expensive wine. I don’t know the gratification that comes with being able to distinguish the subtle differences between a mass produced $15 cabernet or a reserved $60 bottle, but I believe I’m better off for it. It’s that lack of distinction between a cheap wine and a pricey one that most likely leads me to view Napa Valley as overrated. Sure, in Ohio I can’t get a glass of wine in a painstakingly crafted replica of an Italian castle. But, then again, in Ohio I wouldn’t be charged $30 for a small tasting.

Castello di Amorosa 

While staying in Calistoga, besides visiting Castello di Amorosa and Francis Ford Coppola Winery, we stopped by a state park for a short hike (to offset our wine consumption.) Driving in, we both had a feeling of déjà vu – the parking lot, the entrance station, it all seemed so familiar. After examining the park map, it became apparent that we had pulled off at the same park a few years earlier when looking for a hike. This wasn’t the first time this has happened to us either; last fall we found ourselves in the same shopping pavilion in the Seattle area that we had visited previously. It’s moments like these that make our world feel a little smaller.

Zach climbing a tree in Bothe-Napa Valley State Park

From Napa Valley, we turned north on the 101. We setup camp at Elk Prairie, a beautiful campground that boasted spacious sites, plenty of wildlife, and numerous hikes. The first night we kept it simple, opting for a short hike that departed from our campsite and took us through old growth redwoods.

Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world!

Saturday, however, we decided to kick it up a notch and drove up to the Klamath stretch of the Coastal Trail. As you might guess from the name, the hike parallels the Pacific Ocean, never venturing too far from the shoreline. About a mile in, a side-trail breaks off and leads down to a hidden, rocky beach. It was here, secluded on our own private beach, that I asked Liz to marry me. (She said yes!) Originally, my plan was to wait until Sequoia National Park, when we next planed to go backpacking, but the time felt right. We ended up hiking another few miles along the Coastal Trail before taking a break to call parents and tell them the news. That night, we went out searching for somewhere fancy to celebrate the engagement. I hadn’t made reservations since the area seemed out of peak season and I wasn’t sure I would be proposing yet. After being turned away at two fine establishments, we found ourselves at the town diner which turned out to be surprisingly good.

We’re getting married!

We spent the next week in the nearby town of Eureka-  home of one of Liz’s new favorite breweries – Lost Coast. At the time she hadn’t discovered their Great White witbier though, so we didn’t stop by. We did, however, make time to visit the mall and figure out her true ring size. My best guess was a size too large and we needed to mail it in for adjustment.

Giant banana slug 

From Northern California, we drove back down the coast to San Francisco to catch flights going our separate ways. Liz headed back to Columbus to spend the weekend with family while I headed to Salt Lake City for skiing and my cousin’s bachelor party.

Serafini Family Vacation in Lake Tahoe

By: Nathan Serafini

On Friday, March 23rd, Zach and Liz joined the rest of our family (Tyler/Whitney/Sage/June, Becca/Robbie/Zion, Mom/Dad, and I) in what might end up being described as the first Serafini family reunion.  We spent a week using the Cold Creek Chalet as our base camp as we explored the surrounding area of Lake Tahoe; skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, and general revelry occupied many of our daylight hours. Throughout the week we participated in psuedo-olympic trials dubbed the ‘Serafini Challenge’.  Each participant was responsible for creating a trial with the cumulative individual scores tallied at the end of the week.

In addition to the typical competitive shenanigans, our group also spent time exploring the expansive beauty the area offers.  The aptly named ‘Heavenly Ski Resort’ offered a picturesque view of Lake Tahoe and the snow-capped ring of peaks that surrounds it.  The location is right on the Nevada-California border and allows you to visit two states in a single run down the mountain.

Robby boardin’ in Heavenly

Snowshoeing was another winter activity we enjoyed during our time in Sierra Nevada.  We were fortunate enough to enjoy a perfect week with respect to the weather. The first 3 days were snowy and afforded opportunity to enjoy winter activities while the temperature was far from frigid.  Around day 4 most of the snow was melted and what was left continued to melt as the week went on. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the weather allowed us to enjoy the summer features of Tahoe as well.

Tyler snowshoes near Emerald Bay

Walking, disc golf, and enjoying each others company helped fill the remaining time.  I enjoyed the disc golf quite a bit and have continued playing since returning from this trip.  While the entire group was a little bit large for operating as a unit, we continuously were breaking off into smaller groups to take on the surrounding opportunities.  Some of the notable activities I participated in:

~A  walk alongside Fallen Leaf Lake(smaller lake south of Lake Tahoe)  with Tyler, Sage, June, Becca, Robbie and Zion. The homes surrounding this lake were beautiful and rugged at the same time.

Robbie and I near Fallen Leaf Lake

~A snowshoeing experience with Tyler and Whitney on the outskirts of Emerald Bay.  We this was during perfect temperatures nearing 50 degrees. T-shirts only, this was a great experience as it offered us ample viewing of the majestic lake.

~Disc Golf with Lori, Don, Zach, and Liz.  This was a part of the Serafini challenge that I really enjoyed.  The surrounding landscape made the laid back sport feel even more relaxing.  Tyler placed first in this event I believe.

~Sidellis Brewery visit with Robby, Lori, Don, and Zach.  Very good beer with a wide variety of choices.

~Cold Water Brewery with Zach and Robby after some disc golf.  This brewery may have been my least favorite. A little bit too much of a restaurant vibe.

~South Lake Brewing Company with Zach and Liz.  This was a open layout interior that had multiple enormous wooden single slab tables.  The beer was great, the people were friendly, and it was a great chance to spend more ‘small group’ time with Zach and Liz.  

~A 4v4 snowball fight with dodgeball rules.  All the adults participated in this battle that occured right behind our rented home.

~A Mexican night at a restaurant called ‘Margaritas’.  This was hard to manage with the large crowd, but it was the only time that the entire clan was eating out at the same time.

~Spending time with my niece Sage and reading with her.  She is a special kid and I wanted to capitalize on the time I had with her that week.  Her sweet nature as a big sister is truly endearing, she is setting the same good example as an older sibling that I received from Tyler.  I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree!

Tyler, Becca, and Lori(Abue) play with June and Zion

~Wonderful vegetarian meal prepared by Tyler and Whitney.  Very flavorful dish and extremely hearty. I think everyone was happy to have a meal so healthy after eating out so often this week.

~Surprisingly fancy pasta bar prepared by Zach and Liz for the whole family.  They obviously work well as a team and delivered a great presentation and experience for their night to cook.  

Zach and Liz proudly display their feast

~Burgers in the sun at the California Burger Co. with Robby, Becca, Zion, Lori, Don, Sage, and June.  This was a particularly beautiful day and we sat out on the patio basking in the sun and the tunes of a talented acoustic musician.  Not to mention the Hawaiian Burger was something I would recommend to anyone in the area.

~Nightly board games that allowed everyone a chance to reconnect with each other and learn a little bit more about each other.

~A bittersweet final day after others had departed my parents and I (Lori and Don) drove the perimeter of the lake, walked through Tahoe city, and ate lakeside.  This slow day was the perfect cap to the week and gave the perfect time to reflection.

Just outside Emerald Bay

I still feel that I’ve only scratched the surface of the week.  It was truly one of the best weeks I’ve experienced…and I dare say I’m not the only one.  Spending time with family members you don’t always see is nice, but when the whole thing goes off without major incident it can be something special.  I had a great opportunity to learn more about my nieces Sage and June, my new nephew Zion, and my new sister Liz. I had the great chance to reconnect with Tyler and Whitney, who I haven’t been out to Oregon to visit yet.  Overall, it was the great kind of week that strengthens the foundation of the family. Happy to have made these memories with these people, and excited to see what memories any future reunions will bring.

Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park beholds many superlatives.  Badwater Basin is the lowest point in North America. In 1913, the highest recorded temperature in the world, 134.1 °F, was measured at Furnace Creek.  During our weekend in the park, we also experienced some superlatives of our own.  Friday night was the windiest of our trip, the constant rattling of Lucy keeping us up well past midnight.  Gas at Furnace Creek was $4.47, easily taking the cake on most expensive fill-up. Death Valley’s extremes accentuate its beauty, wilderness and potential for adventure and led to a great weekend in the park.

Death Valley sunset

From everything that I’d read, Dante’s View was a must-see of the park.  Unfortunately, the road leading to it is closed for repaving until May, so we were unable to hike to the great view point. Instead, we started the weekend with a trail through Golden Canyon.  Like the rest of the Death Valley, the canyon was filled with interesting rock, dirt and mud formations, leading to a slow pace with Zach stopping often to take pictures.

Golden Canyon

Unlike most parks where the most interesting activities (to us at least) are day-long hikes, Death Valley was full of ‘road-side attractions’.  Devil’s Golf Course, the former bed of an evaporated lake, is so jagged ‘only the devil could play golf on such rough links’.  After visiting the eroded salt rocks, I must agree.  At Badwater Basin, there is a sign nearly 300 feet up a nearby cliff labeling sea level.  We got caught in a windstorm at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.  I was left cleaning sand out of my hair for the next few days but it was a fascinating experience of the power of wind.

Devil’s Golf Course 

Badwater Basin

Mesquite Sand Dunes

We decided to skip the Racetrack, a dry lakebed with mysterious moving rocks, and took a drive through Titus Canyon instead.  The Racetrack is Death Valley’s most famous attraction but our lack of heavy duty tires and recent vandalism to the rocks led us to skip it.  While I don’t know what the Racetrack would have been like, Titus Canyon was splendid.  The variety of geologic formations in the park is astounding.

Titus Canyon

To finish off the weekend, we hiked up Fall Canyon.  I hadn’t seen the hike while researching the park and wasn’t expecting much. It turned out to be a great hike, taking us up a narrow canyon to a dry waterfall.  Even after a year on the road visiting amazing places, I’m still surprised by all the incredible but unrecognized places in the country. In Ohio, Fall Canyon would be a highlight of the state; here, it’s not even considered a highlight of Death Valley.

Fall Canyon

Death Valley is the largest National Park in the Lower 48 (another superlative!) and our weekend visit was not enough to hit up all the must-do’s.  We needed more days in the park but it was time to get back to a place with internet and head to Tahoe for a week with the Serafinis.  I look forward to returning in the near future to see the highlights we missed and find more off-the-beaten path gems.

Los Angeles

Leaving the beautiful, wild and remote Joshua Tree behind, we headed to the beautiful, eventful and populated Los Angeles.  Our budget didn’t allow us to stay too close to the city so we spent our nights nestled in the San Gabriel Mountains, about a forty miles northeast of the city.  Our two weeks in the area was a pleasant mix of city life, outdoor activity and relaxing.

Lucy and a sunrise

While in the typically sunny southern California, our bad luck with weather continued.  Los Angeles frequently nears the top of best climate lists, but we had cloudy, windy, rainy and foggy weather.  I’m not complaining because most of the people reading this are wintering in Ohio and I believe in making the best of what you’re given.  But it is causing me to reflect on the great weather we had all last year and hoping for sunnier times ahead.

Foggy Los Angeles

We took a few trips into the city but the infamous traffic deterred us from too many visits.  The Getty Center overwhelmed us with their immense art collection.  Griffith Observatory provided great views of downtown and the Hollywood sign.  Santa Monica was great people watching but the two hour, forty mile drive home put a damper on the night.

Santa Monica Pier

Just because we live on the road doesn’t mean we don’t have to deal with the typical day-to-day responsibilities.   Most time consuming, obviously, is working 40 hours a week.  But there’s also the mundane – dishes, laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping.  There’s the self-care – visiting the eye doctor and dentist.  And there’s the trip related – finding and reserving campgrounds, applying for hiking permits, figuring out where we want to go. We used our two weeks in Los Angeles to get caught up on these.

Hollywood

Channel Islands National Park protects a collection of islands off the coast of southern California.  Overnight and day trips to the islands are available, but a whale watching tour fit our  schedule best.  As stated earlier, we encountered some rainy and cool weather; luckily the morning of our tour was cloudy but dry.  We happily spent our time on the top deck, while the unlucky were getting sea sick below.

Whale watching!

According to the captain, grey whales are usually quite predictable, so once one is spotted, you should be able to follow along and watch it breath and spout.  We saw nearly ten whales during the trip but were unable to spot each more than once or twice.   The highlight was a whale breaching we witnessed just before the trip ended.   Although from a distance, it was breathtaking to see the giant creature leap from the water.  Zach valiantly attempted but failed to get a good picture of a whale.

A whale’s tail

The dolphins on the other hand were plentiful and photogenic.  Twice, our boat was surrounding by a pod of dolphins, some following along very close to the bow.   They appeared so happy and playful and it was a majestic experience.  

Up close and personal with a dolphin

We had a busy, eventful two weeks in Los Angeles, but by the end of our time, we were ready to move on. Next stop, Death Valley National Park!

Joshua Tree

At what size does a pond become a lake? I’m not sure. I’m not sure if size even matters. I would Google it, but since the road to Death Valley doesn’t offer 3G coverage the question will remain a mystery, at least for the next few hours. What I do know, though, is that Joshua Tree Lake Campground takes a heavily liberal interpretation of the word ‘lake’. The manmade, fenced-in puddle is barely larger than a standard above ground pool. Still, the ‘lake’ constituted the largest body of water I saw for a week.

Liz and a Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park stretches over a half million acres of the Mojave Desert. And, like much of Southern California, the areas water supply can’t meet its demand. Within the park boundaries, it’s prohibited to drink any of what little water you might find in order to give the wildlife a chance.

Plenty of water for cacti

After driving several hours through the barren desert of Eastern California on a stretch of road more sparsely populated than Nevada’s “Loneliest Road In America”, small, run-down plywood houses – each nearly identically built – began to litter the desert valley. Some sported a stable of rusted clunkers while others showcased sun-worn boats that likely hadn’t seen water in years. Later in the week, I read an article that reported child services taking custody of several homeless children living on a lot with 50 cats on the same street as our campground.

dsc_0709.jpg

A beautiful valley in the park

Although, the community as a whole was far from destitute. Amongst the smattering of abandoned trailers were lavish stucco retreats and land trust transplants. Not-so-hidden between these two extremes was a constant flow of vacationers. It was amongst the later that we dwelled – straddling the not-so-thin line between making Joshua Tree our home for a week and exploring the highs and lows of Joshua Tree National Park.

An after work hike

Throughout the work-week we made time to hike Ryan Mountain, scramble on massive boulder piles, place dead last in a local bingo-hall speakeasy trivia night, off-road dive, and became an unwitting voguer of an outdoor softcore photo shoot.

Great views!

The highlight of the week was our first backpacking trip of the year. The 18 mile loop – from the Boyscout Trail, past Willow Hole, through Rattlesnake Canyon, and back to the Boyscout Trail – took only a day and a half but left me feeling like I fully experienced the park. After a quick staring contest with a passing fox, Liz and I entered three of the slowest and most challenging miles of hiking we’ve ever faced. Navigating our way through a boulder field up and down unmarked mountainsides, it took us eight hours of climbing, jumping, and retracing routes before spotting our first fellow hikers in half a day. The three miles of scrambling claimed two Nalgene bottles (one shattered and one lost 30 feet down a boulder cave) before we wised up and secured our remaining water with carabineers – holding in place our diminished supply in the middle of the Mohave. After emerging from the mouth of Rattlesnake Canyon, we followed the national park road to the Boyscout trailhead and setup camp a few miles into the high desert.

Good luck finding a path through this!

The remaining hike Sunday morning was a cold stroll through a field of iconic Joshua Trees (actually a yucca plant – not a tree.) Next on the agenda was our typical Sunday morning routine; packing up the trailer and hitting the road. Next week’s destination – LA.

Westbound!

Last winter we followed I-10 across the southern United States, from Tallahassee to Tucson.  This year we took the more northerly route of I-40 and paid the price. Living in a trailer is great until it isn’t.  As we travelled from Memphis through Oklahoma City to Petrified Forest and beyond, we faced nights below freezing and days not much warmer.  The nine days brought us six states, two national parks, two ice storms and over 1600 miles of driving.

Lucy doesn’t like the cold

The first stop on our 1-40 journey was Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.  Frequently topping the list of least exciting parks, we weren’t expecting much.   The smallest park*, it is also the oldest in the National Park System.  In 1832, forty years before Yellowstone became the first National Park, Hot Springs Reservation was the first land to be designated for federal government protection.  The park is more historical than natural and, although I love history, I don’t care much about where rich people bathed in the nineteenth century.

Not your typical National Park

The highlight of our time in the park was Superior Bathhouse Brewery.  You may be able to guess from its name that it’s a former bathhouse converted into a brewery.  We also went on a hike that was on par with most in Ohio.  If you ever find yourself in Hot Springs, Arkansas you might as well visit the park. Otherwise, I would not recommend it.

From Hot Springs, we worked our way back to I-40 and continued on to Oklahoma City.  This was our first campground to have storm shelters but luckily our visit preceded peak tornado season.  Even so, there were some windy nights that left me worried Lucy was going to tip over.  In OKC, we also encountered two ice storms that caused many accidents on the highways.  For all the miles we’ve driven in the past year, we have been very lucky that two flat tires and a few blown fuses is the worst we’ve experienced.

Oklahomans don’t need much snow to sled

We didn’t let the cold and ice keep us from exploring the city.  We played a game of Frisbee Golf – our new favorite free way to spend an afternoon.   We tested our regular golf skills at Top Golf. The employees were surprised anyone wanted to play in the cold and we had the place to ourselves.  I’m looking forward to playing again in warmer weather once the Cleveland location opens.

We hopped back on I-40 and spent a night in Amarillo, TX and Albuquerque, NM before arriving in Petrified Forest National Park.   Nestled in the Painted Desert, the park is filled with petrified logs.  Two hundred million years ago, a nearby volcano erupted, covering the surroundings in silica based ash.  The silica seeped into the logs and thanks to some permineralization magic, the wood was turned to quartz. Pretty crazy world we live in.

Looks like wood, feels like stone!

We drove the 27-mile road through the park and hiked every maintained trail!  That sounds more impressive than it was – there are only five trails in the park for a total of six miles.  In addition to the petrified wood, the views are quite spectacular.  Even though they’re over a thousand miles apart, Petrified Forest reminded me a lot of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

Quite a view!

With only 250 miles to drive on Sunday, we stopped at Walnut Canyon National Monument, a few miles outside Flagstaff.  It was a nice place to spend a few hours before continuing on our quest to California, where we’ll be spending the next 11 (!!) weeks. Our trek across the country was pleasant but I’m looking forward to doing more exploring and less driving in the coming months.

Walnut Canyon

And now a rant:

*When we visited Hot Springs, it was the smallest National Park.  As I was verifying that fact for the blog, I stumbled upon the news that last week we gained a new National Park.  For some unfathomable reason, Congress passed and President Trump signed a bill to designate and rename Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to Gateway Arch National Park. That’s right – the Gateway Arch in St. Louis is now a National Park – on the same level as Yellowstone and Yosemite.

I clearly am a fan of National Parks and think that the Gateway Arch makes a great National Monument or Memorial.  But it should NOT be a capital NP National Park.  At only 192 acres, Gateway Arch is nearly thirty times smaller than Hot Springs.  National Parks should be big, natural, and wild.  There should be hiking and biking, flora and fauna, mountains and oceans, deserts and forests. One could spend weeks exploring a park like Glacier and not see it all.  I haven’t been to the Arch, but I think it would be a stretch to spend a whole day there.  This change dilutes the title of National Park from something reserved for the best land America has to offer to a label given to any old man-made structure.

There has been a surprising lack of news on the topic and no official announcement from the National Park Service.  I’m hoping this is some sort of miscommunication and the park gets changed back to a more appropriate name.  Until then, I’m keeping the Gateway Arch out of my quest to visit all the National Parks.

On The Road Again

After spending most of the past few months in Ohio visiting family and celebrating holidays, the time finally came to hit the road again. As you might expect, February isn’t the most amenable time to live out of a travel trailer. So we headed south, looking for warmer climates. What we found instead was rain. Lots and lots of rain. For all the good fortune we had last year with weather, this year seems determined to change that.

We didn’t let a little water deter us from our planned stops though. First up was Lincoln’s birthplace near Hodgenville, Kentucky. Since Liz kinda has a thing for Lincoln, there was no way we were going to avoid this detour. This certainly wasn’t the first time we found ourselves near attractions capitalizing on the late presidents fame. In Illinois, we passed a town boasting to be where Lincoln got his start – the old Illinois capitol where he practiced law. In Washington DC, we walked past the Ford Theater where Lincoln was shot, and up to the Lincoln memorial where his larger-than-life figure now looks out over the capitol. In Kentucky though, the president is memorialized with a peculiar stone mausoleum that protects an era-appropriate log cabin – once thought to have been his childhood home.

Lincoln’s Symbolic Birthplace Cabin

Further south, we met our first national park of the year – Mammoth Cave. This was my third time to the park and our third cave in the past year. Still, a visit wouldn’t have been complete without a cave tour. Opting for Frozen Niagara – an early tour that explored less than half a mile of the world’s largest cave – left us with enough time for a short hike and a long drive to Memphis.

A picture from the hike because caves are difficult to photograph

While we spent most of our time in Memphis sipping on Pike Place roasts in various Starbucks, we also hit up a few local joints including Memphis Made for a flight of beer and The Dirty Crow for a round of dive bar trivia. Since Memphis is best known for its blues music, we visited the old Sun Studios building, a small recording studio where world-famous names like B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley got their start.

A picture of the Million Dollar Quartet hanging where they stood

Saturday, before packing up the trailer and continuing on to Arkansas, we headed back to Shelby Farms Park, where we played a round of frisbee golf earlier in the week, for a 5k race. While rain most likely deterred many from competing, it certainly didn’t stop Liz, who placed 1st of all female runners and around 5th overall.

Need to make an award corner in Lucy