Category Archives: California

Arthur Ripley Desert Woodland

April 4, 2017.

Photos on Google.

After the hike through the Poppy Reserve, I headed west to the Arthur Ripley Desert Woodland. I only knew this park existed because I noticed it on the map as I was plotting my route to the poppy fields. It was billed online as an “impressive stand of native Joshuas and junipers.” Sounded pretty cool to me.

I drove to where the park appeared to be on the map (no phone, no navigation, no Internet, remember?) but there wasn’t a parking area or clear signage. There appeared to be a place on the side of the road where people were parked adjacent to the park. And after driving past it twice I figured this must be the way to get in.

I was grateful to find a couple picnic tables under a sun shade where I could eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of the sun. It was hot. There was one other couple sitting there, deep in conversation about some office gossip. They kept lowering their voices as if I had any idea who they were talking about. I guess they weren’t on vacation, or they don’t know how to vacation.

After lunch I walked along the self-guided nature trail. It was an impressive stand of Joshua Trees. They weren’t densely packed like an old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest, but there were a lot of trees nonetheless. I would have preferred a nice, thick canopy to block the sun but I took what I could get.

Among the Joshua trees there were cactus, sagebrush, juniper and other desert natives. Not too much was flowering, in stark contrast to the poppy reserve. The juniper here was clearly different from the juniper that I was used to seeing all over Central Oregon. The California juniper are shorter and more scraggly looking than the familiar Western juniper. According to my informational brochure, trees can be either male or female: male trees bear the cones and female trees bear the berries. But there’s one catch: they can flip sexes during their lifetime!

Other fun facts from the brochure: Joshua trees create clones of themselves by growing rhizomes under the ground. New sprouts poke through the soil from the laterally running rhizomes. Joshua trees can also grow from seeds. And since they grow more like palm trees than juniper trees, they don’t form tree rings with each passing year. Therefore, it is very difficult to determine the age of a Joshua Tree.

This cute little park made a nice rest stop. But now it was time to carry on to the next oddball park on the list…

Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve

April 4, 2017.

Photos on Google.

The line to get into the park.

After a quick jaunt up Saddleback Butte, I headed west to the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve. The closer I got, the prettier the drive became. The fields on either side of me were colored a brilliant orange from all the poppy blooms. People were parked on the sides of the road trampling through the meadows to take photos. When I arrived at the park entrance, it felt like I was heading into a rock concert. I sat in traffic for several minutes before reaching the entrance booth to pay my park fee. And this was at 10 am on a random Tuesday morning.

The park wasn’t very big, but I stopped into the visitor’s center to get a suggested route for the best wildflower viewing areas. The volunteer highlighted a 5-ish mile loop that went up to a highpoint and back down again. That would do.

The park was crawling with visitors, but once I got a ways up the trail it didn’t feel too packed. The flower blooms were unreal. California poppies were, of course, everywhere. But among the technicolor orange, other flowers put on a show: owl’s clover, goldfields, lacy phacelia and many more.

As I walked the trails, I also noticed some wildlife. There were lizards and meadowlarks. There were signs warning about rattlesnakes in the fields, but none of them came out to see me.

As I finished up the loop, I found a trail that had hardly any people on it, so I took lots of photos and worked on my handstand selfies. The flowers were prettier, so here are some more flower shots:

This park is a lovely place to visit in peak season, but be prepared to arrive early and anticipate crowds. I’m glad that this area is protected, because the meadows outside the park were crawling with people who were not interested in staying off the vegetation. At least the park corrals visitors onto well-established trails, leaving the flowers to grow vigorously everywhere else.

But now it was lunchtime, and time to move on to the next stop…

Saddleback Butte

April 4, 2017.

Photos on Google.

I pulled in to the campground the night before so I’d have an easy place to stay. The wind was blowing HARD and I was grateful for the wooden sun-shades, which doubled as wind protection throughout the night. The campground was plunked in the middle of nowhere, in a strange grid of long, straight roads with little development nearby. Somewhere, maybe, there are plans to develop this area.

The camp host stopped by as I was making dinner and asked me about my plans. I said I wanted to hike up the butte in the morning before taking off, when was check-out time? That made her chuckle a bit. It’s a steep hike up there, she said (or something like that), implying that there was no way I’d be finished before whatever checkout was. Maybe 10 am? 11?

Excellent, I thought, I had to prove someone wrong.

Saddleback Butte arises from a broad stretch of flat plain. Its saddleback shape is unmistakable; it makes a nice landmark for navigtaion. I had an excellent view of the butte from my campsite. I watched the setting sun cast Joshua tree-shaped shadows on the sand, then dreamed of an early start for a morning hike. The trail is about 2 miles one way, with 1000 vertical feet of climbing.

I started up the trail at 6:45 am. I had places to go and flowers to see. No time to dilly dally. The first mile of trail was almost flat. No, really. The surface was made of fine sand. Dense mats of flowering vegetation grew on both sides of the trail. Joshua trees and some scraggly shrubs popped up from the sand at irregular intervals. The sun was behind the butte so the entire trail was cast in shadow. Once the trail started climbing, though, I quickly warmed up.

Wildflowers of note included: yellow, white, and purple. Yeah, I know my flower ID is pretty bad, especially when I’m traveling in a foreign place. There were primroses, wild rhubarb, and lots of yellow flowers. There are so many varieties of yellow aster-shaped flowers that I’m not even going to try to figure out which species was blooming there.

The last half-mile was the most interesting. The trail got steeper and more rugged. Different types of flowers that didn’t grow just a few hundred feet below poked out from between the rocks. Atop the saddle, I could then see across to the other side of the butte. There was the sun, blinding and hot. A steady breeze and occasional patches of shade helped me stay comfortable as I scrambled up the last section. I made it to the summit in just under an hour.

The panoramic views from atop the rocky summit were beautiful. I sat and basked in the sun for a while, enjoying the peace and quiet. On the way back down, I took off my shoes and finished it up barefoot in the sand. It was quite lovely until the butte’s shadow receded and the sand became very hot. Time to toughen up these feet!

Vasquez Rocks

April 3, 2017.

Photos on Google.

Today I’d make just one more stop before driving to camp. I had to get across LA, so I hardened myself for several hours of sitting in freeway traffic. I was glad to finally see the signs for Vasquez Rocks.

At 2 pm, I felt the heat of the afternoon sun wearing me down. With no map to guide me, I wandered in the general direction of the rocks (the visitor’s center is closed on Mondays). I was surprised to see a sign for the Pacific Crest Trail! As I walked along, I started to hear voices (no, not like that) and hear cars. Apparently there were multiple parking areas and places to access the rocks. Families were walking in every direction, scrambling up the slabby rocks and wandering along the dusty trails.

There did not appear to be many official hiking paths, but cross-country travel was allowed anywhere. Well-worn use trails criss-crossed over the landscape like a giant web. On the one hand, it was fun to walk wherever I wanted. On the other hand, it was ugly to see the trampled vegetation everywhere. I scrambled up to a shady gully where I could relax, out of sight, in a shady area. I ate my lunch there and did some people-watching.

I found a path leading across a short ridgeline and followed it. Walking up and down, following the contour of the rocks, I looked for lizards, flowers, bugs and lichens. There was much to see. As always, the number of people nearby was inversely related to the distance from the parking area. I enjoyed the solitude.

The fun part was finding a route back down from my perch. A little rock-hopping and downclimbing later and I was back at the level of the parking lot. There was still some driving to do today so I couldn’t dally long.

This was a nice little park where I could have had spent more time. It would have been nice to be able to go into the visitor’s center and learn more about the geology and human history of the rocks. According to the signs, this area has provided the backdrop for several movies.

Another time… now onward to Saddleback Butte.

Laguna Beach and Laguna Coast Wilderness Park

April 3, 2017.

Photos on Google

After five days of intense movement workshops in Santa Ana, it was time to head home. Head home via the scenic route, that is. I planned for 6 days to get back, so I had the freedom to explore more natural places in Southern California. My first stop, based on a local recommendation, was Laguna Beach.

When I arrived, it felt familiar: cool, windy, gray clouds overhead. Ah, yes, just like the Oregon coast. This was not the sunny California paradise I was expecting. Wearing shorts, sandals and a light long-sleeved shirt, I felt woefully underdressed. I pressed on, walking the beach to look for dead stuff, and testing out my new camera. I soon realized that I’d rather spend my time elsewhere, so after about a half hour of exploring, I walked into town to get coffee and hit the road.

On the drive back to the highway, I took a detour into Laguna Coast Wilderness Park. This place was located in a lush canyon that I noticed on the way to the coast. I stopped into the visitor’s center for a suggested route and the ranger pointed me to a 5 mile loop that climbed up to a ridgeline and circled back down to the center. Perfect.

Within the first 10 minutes, I stopped to photograph and admire at least 20 different types of flowers. The park was in bloom. The diversity of colors, sizes and shapes of flowers was breathtaking. So was the hike up the hill. This trail was no joke. Once it started climbing, it kept climbing. The trail was hard-packed dirt that was eroded in the middle, likely from mountain bikes. To try and mitigate this impact, the park staff seemed to think that filling the center channels with smooth rock was a good idea. So it felt kind of like walking up a waterslide covered in ball-bearings. In other words, an adventure. My mind was distracted by the pretty flowers and distant views, so I kept trudging along.

Although the park was adjacent to a major roadway, there were sections that felt utterly remote. What a special place for locals and visitors to go and get away from the densely populated areas all around it.

This was only the beginning. I’d make one more hiking stop today and then pull in to camp for the night. Where to next?

Santiago Oaks Regional Park

March 31, 2017

Photos on Google

Another day in California, another impeccably beautiful, sunny morning. With my phone having some sort of hardware issues that caused it to constantly turn itself on and off, I was driving with the aid of some hand-written directions in my journal to get to this park. When I arrived, I was dismayed to see a “PARK FULL” sign at the gate. At 10 am. On a Friday. This wasn’t an option, I had no backup plan!

I talked to the booth attendant, and he said I could park in the 10-minute staff lot and see if someone cleared out in the next 10 minutes. “Is this normal?” I asked. Apparently there was a large school group and some other event taking place, plus the normal amount of hikers, runners, equestrians and mountain bike riders. I slouched back in my car seat, waiting patiently for someone to exit the park.

After 10 minutes or so I walked back to the booth and the attendant waved me in. Yay! I’d get my nature time this morning.

I was handed a map with some trails highlighted on it. Presumably those trails had the best wildflower blooms today, so that’s where I headed. With a couple of hours to kill I picked a short loop to walk and set out on my way.

The trails were packed dirt and gravel, very well-traveled and baked in the hot sun. They cut through a heavily vegetated environment, with shade trees, grasses, shrubs, wildflowers, and blooming yucca plants. I’m not sure how to classify the yucca, nor am I sure how to pronounce it (YUCK-a or YOU-ka?). But the plants, with their alien-looking leaves and tall, flowering stalks, reminded me that I wasn’t in Oregon anymore.

Several people were out recreating today. One man warned me to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes. I kept both eyes out, to be sure, but I was disappointed to find not one single snake in the park. They must have been way out in the meadows.

The park was lovely in so many other ways. There were canyons, ridgelines, vistas, flat trails, steep trails, creek crossings, shady spots and sunny spots. Cactus grew alongside flowering shrubs and huge shade trees. I enjoyed the variety of landscapes and plants there. As I circled back towards the entrance, I was greeted by shrieks and screams from the various school groups. At least I knew I was heading in the right direction. In the parking lot, I paused to take a photo of a fun sign and then proceeded to make myself lunch.

As I sat in the car, munching on a sandwich and dreaming about picking those oranges, I wondered where my travels would take me next…

Upper Newport Bay Wildlife Preserve

March 30, 2017.

Photos on Google

After just one day at the Free Movement Festival, I was ready for some nature time. I took some time off in the morning and headed for a county park.

The Upper Newport Bay Wildlife Preserve was just what my body needed. I had irritated my left knee in one of the workshops and wanted to take a casual stroll to get things loosened up. Dirt paths led through this oasis of nature, squeezed in between busy streets, dense neighborhoods and all manner of urban development. I enjoyed the strong sunshine warming my skin. Flowers bloomed everywhere. Some reminded me of food crops: radishes and mustard greens, while others looked like sunflowers.

Animals were everywhere. Butterflies dipped in and out of the flower fields. Bunnies hopped across the trail in search of shade. Squirrels played in the meadows. Lizards sunned themselves on the boulders. Land snails left tell-tale trails of slime across the dirt path. It was the total opposite of being in the city.

The park had several sitting areas with large boulders and a view of the bay. I sat and wrote in my journal, soaking up the sunshine, feeling the cool breeze coming off the water, and watched various people pass by on the trail. After a long, cold and snowy winter in Bend, I was thrilled to be basking in sunny Southern California. There I was surrounded by yellow blooms, smelling the salty air and walking around comfortably in a tank top. It was the medicine I needed to snap out of the winter doldrums.

My first experience with Orange County Parks was a positive one. The park was clean, well-signed, well-maintained, and obviously well-loved by the locals. I was ready to dive back into city life for day two of the festival.

Alabama Hills and Whitney Portal

March 28, 2017.

Photos on Google.

I rolled out of my tent to a splendid view of the Sierra behind me. The wind had died down enough for me to get a fire going, eat breakfast and plan out my day. I had 270 miles of driving to do in order to get to my destination, and there were a few stops I’d planned along the way.

Whitney Portal Arch

In the weeks before my roadtrip, I borrowed a couple of California hiking books from the local library. While most of the epic hikes were located high in the Sierra, there were a few interesting, short hikes that were low enough for me to access this time of year. One of these was a 1 mile scramble to Whitney Portal Arch.

I’d put a post-it note with rough directions to the trail head in my map book and took a photo of the route with my phone. Between these two pieces of beta I was able to find the unmarked parking area and set off in the right direction. Just a short walk along a trail brought me to a view of the arch, then I ambled cross-country to get over to it.

The nearby hills cast long shadows over the desert so I stayed bundled up in my down jacket as I trekked through the desert sand, avoiding snagging my pants legs on the cactus. I hiked up to the arch and then all around it, looking for the perfect perspective. In my mind, I had envisioned the arch framing Mt. Whitney inside from just the right angle. It was, after all, called Whitney Portal. But without ropes or a step ladder there was just no way for me to capture the image in my head. Nonetheless, it was beautiful and quiet. I enjoyed the morning sunshine and then picked my way back across the desert.

Alabama Hills

I backtracked away from the mountains and pulled into the maze of roads surrounding the Alabama Hills. This place was surely no secret. Cars and RVs were everywhere. Miraculously I ended up at another unmarked parking lot that would be the start of my second hike: the Arch Loop Trail.

The trail wound up, down, over and through undulating sandy and rocky terrain. Wildflowers were just beginning to come in, and carpets of tiny flowers turned the ground yellow. The Arch Trail connected with another unmarked trail that I followed to a parking lot. Another trail branched off in another direction, and on and on. This would be an incredible playground to explore with many more days to hang out here. I didn’t have that luxury, so I retreated back to the loop. There were lots of people scrambling around the biggest arch. I took a quick look and finished up the hike.

Fossil Falls

Back on 395, there was one more quick and easy stop: Fossil Falls. I drove down a gravel road that took me to a parking area with a picnic table and pit toilet. I would have sat and eaten my lunch here but the winds had picked up again and it was brutal just being outside.

Fossil Falls

I took the short walk to the overlook above the dry waterfall. It looked familiar. Blocky basalt columns and water-worn potholes sprung out of the desert cinder, seemingly from nowhere. I noticed some pretty, delicate flowers struggling to stay upright in the wind. I took one photo and when I reached for my phone again, it had turned itself off. Weird. I powered it on, waited, and it started to reboot again. This cycle continued several times before I got frustrated and sat down out of the wind. I relaxed in the sunshine, phone tucked away in my bag, annoyed that I couldn’t document this place. Before I left, my phone came on temporarily and I hastily took a few pictures before it died. Time to hit the road again, and there was no way to find directions to any other parks…

Without a phone, I thought. What do I lose? My camera. My navigation system. My address book and phone numbers. My email, text and social media. My calendar. I couldn’t just buy a new one. It was under warranty, and they’d ship a new one to me…at my home address. But I’d be on the road for nearly two weeks. So that meant I needed to think on my feet. Fortunately I had all my hiking information in my journal and on paper maps. When I could get my phone to work I scribbled down any addresses I needed and drew maps of driving directions to get from place to place.

The one thing I couldn’t live without: a camera. I bought one at Best Buy the next day, so that I could continue to document my travel in photos. Lucky for you, I’ve got lots more pictures to share along with my ranting and carrying on.

Hiking Mono Lake

March 27, 2017.

Google Photo album

Somewhere in California, I rolled out of my tent and discovered a fresh dusting of snow on the ground. It was freezing cold, and even my tough constitution was rattled so much that I just made hot water for tea and ate my breakfast in the car. It was day 2 of a 2-week roadtrip and I was just getting started.

I drove straight through the morning to my first hiking stop at Mono Lake. The Visitor’s Center was closed for the season but a tourist info place in town was open and I picked up a map from the lady working there. She recommended backtracking to the county park before visiting the more popular stops, so I did.

Mono County Park

mono county park

It was probably a few weeks too early to get much excitement from this little park. Everything was still dead and it was very windy. I strolled down the boardwalk, stopping every few feet to note the historical depths of the lake, which were printed on signs. Modern Mono Lake is recovering from an aggressive water diversion program by the LA Department of Water and Power starting in the 1940’s. The lake’s level dropped significantly, losing half its volume and raising its salinity by double. This rapid change in conditions threatened the fragile ecosystem as well as the local water and air quality. In 1978 the Mono Lake Committee has fought to bring back the health of the lake and restore the volume of the lake to a sustainable level. Today it is well on the way to recovery, and serves as an example of how to balance the needs of the growing urban population with the needs of the surrounding environment.

At the end of the boardwalk I pondered all this as I watched the sun reflect off the white-capped surface of the lake. Tall, alien rock structures called tufa rose from the area surrounding the lake and broke the surface of the lake itself. The only reason we can see these incredible formations is because the water level is so low. Tufa towers form when calcium-rich mineral water from lake bottom springs react with the carbonate in the lake water itself, forming calcium carbonate: limestone. The limestone creates tower-like shapes around the spring, and when the lake level drops, the tufa towers are revealed.

South Tufa and Navy Beach

tufa towers

To get a really cool view of these mineral deposits I headed next to the South Tufa day use area. A short trail dotted with interpretive signs taught me even more about the lake’s unique geology as well as the local bird and plant life. The wind blew frothy foam at the edges of the lake, adding to the layers of interesting textures at the water’s edge. I meandered along the trail as it passed by the tufa and played around a little with taking handstand selfie pictures. These were not easy to do, since my handstand skills were a little lacking. But with some patience and luck I nailed at least one of them, and then continued along my merry way.

sand tufa

As the trail looped back towards the parking lot I saw a sign pointing to Navy Beach. I decided to detour along this connector trail and ended up on a secluded beach with even more interesting geological formations: sand tufa. These extremely delicate structures looked like a stiff gust of wind could blow them into oblivion. But there they stood, far from the edge of the lake, sand castles created by nature. I felt like I’d stumbled upon a treasure, as there was no one else on this little beach.

Panum Crater

mono lake

I had time for one more stop so I drove to the trailhead for Panum Crater. There were two trails here: the Plug Trail and Rim trail. I began on the Plug trail, which was well-marked until it suddenly wasn’t. After several dead-ends in the crumbly lava I backtracked to the rim. I hiked halfway around to a lovely panoramic viewpoint of the lake and took a snack break. A couple came up behind me and decided to go back the way they came, but I wanted to see if the trail went all the way around (it did). There was a steep little climb on the other side but I still got back ahead of them.

To camp, perchance to dream

I had a lot more driving to do so I set a course for Bishop and looked for a suitable campground. It was windy as hell everywhere I went, so I just settled on the Tinnemaha Campground. No one was there. I chose a spot adjacent to a little stream with some trees and a view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. I parked my car on the windward side of the tent to try and act as a bit of a windbreak. On the bright side, the ripping winds dried out my soaking wet tent in about 10 minutes, so I had a cozy shelter to retire to after cooking up dinner.

Tomorrow’s journeys will take me all the way to Santa Ana, with some hiking stops on the way…

Eureka Dunes

March 28, 2013.


The Eureka Dunes are the second largest sand dunes in North America. We arrived under a full moon around midnight. Getting out of the car was a shock; the air temperature was about 50 degrees. Time for the puffy coat.

Full moon

We set up camp at the first campground we saw. Three other sites were occupied. This was the most remote campground we’d found at the park. After quietly setting up our camp, we packed our bags and started walking towards the dunes.

Hiking under a full moon was an eerie yet beautiful experience. Here we were, in a place we’d never been, exploring it for the first time with no map and a vague impression of hills and shadows. We knew the highest dune was 700 feet tall, and that’s where we were headed. As we walked along the base of the dunes, we tried our best to sidestep the small desert plants growing there. Keeping our eyes on the highest visible point, we turned around occasionally to track our progress and relative direction from camp.

Walking up the gentle ridges and slopes made of sand was arduous work. The sand slid beneath our feet, making every step feel like three. It was difficult to judge steepness and distance with the dim light. I quickly warmed up and shed layers as we proceeded up the hills. Although my core was warm, the sand was ice cold so I had to keep moving to heat up my feet.

eureka dunes.JPG

Atop the grandest sand dune, we stopped to look all around us. There was a ridge leading out towards the opposite side of the dunes that looked like it might be a little taller, so we ventured out there. Several bumps later we arrived at the end of the ridge, which dropped down to the dry lake basin several hundred feet below. Here we determined our turnaround point, where we sat for a long time. The adjectives needed to describe how I felt in those long moments have yet to be invented. It was at once surreal, mysterious, serene and blissful. We snacked on gummy dinosaurs as we tried to express to each other just how awesome it was to be there, in the moonlight, together. I’d say this was one of the most unusual and memorable hikes I’d ever had.

Eventually we figured we had to get back to camp, so we walked back, trying to avoid any unnecessary hill climbs as we did so. We investigated several clumps of plants and noticed the funny illusions the moon shadows made as we walked. Back in camp, I fell quickly into a deep and satisfying sleep.

Seeing the Dunes for the First Time

The next morning we woke up to bright sun reflecting off the mounds of sand outside camp. We reluctantly got up after only a couple hours of shut-eye, and I promptly made a huge breakfast. We dallied a bit around camp before going for a short daytime hike in the dunes.


The highest point? Been there, done that. Instead we took time inspecting the vegetation, looking carefully for endemic plants and unique flowers. We noticed lots of animal tracks from birds, mammals and reptiles. Instead of heading for the large dune like everyone else, we explored some of the smaller sand piles–arguably more tiring during the morning heat. It was a pleasant way to kill time in the morning. I was astounded by the views in all directions. I could see the single dirt road leading into Eureka Valley, as well as the rippling striations in the surrounding mountains. Footprints led in several different tracks up the sand dunes, with many people walking along the tracks we made last night.

Take a look at the wide open spaces at the Eureka Dunes:

Hiking around Eureka Dunes was the exclamation point that punctuated our trip to Death Valley. We headed out before noon and mentally prepared for the long stretch of driving ahead. We made a quick stop at Scotty’s Castle, which turned out to be a great place to sit and eat a picnic lunch.

Beyond that, we drove almost nonstop through stunning Central Nevada, where we stopped at Mill Creek Recreation Area to camp. This free, tent-only camp was one of the loveliest I’d ever seen. A thin stream babbled along behind our campsite. There were clean pit toilets available, nice fire rings and picnic tables. Plus there were mountain views in every direction. We were the only ones there that night.

I was utterly inspired by Death Valley. This beautiful and desolate place should be on everyone’s bucket list. If you do go, make an effort to get at least a little off the beaten path. Just be sure to bring a gas can with a few spare gallons.

See photos from the Death Valley trip on Google Photos.

Continue the story…