Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Death Valley Trip Wrap-up

 We had a wonderful time on our 2014 Spring trip to Death Valley. Although occasionally windy this time of year, spring is a good time to visit the California Deserts.  The nights can be quite chilly and afternoons surprisingly warm and remember to carry extra water.

Below is an interactive map showing where we camped, hiked, and the attractions we found particularly interesting. Feel free to scroll down and turn off/on different layers, as well as, adjust the size on the map below:
  • Campsites
  • Hikes
  • Points of Interest



China Date Ranch

China Date Ranch

This stop was an unexpected pleasure. We learned about it from brochures while registering for a campsite at Tecopa Hot Springs. It's an amazing oasis close to the Old Spanish Trail, which offers good hiking on a historic trail.  Yes, Kit Carson really did sleep here.
Artists' Drive

Artists' Drive in Death Valley

Although we had both been to Death Valley many times before, neither one of us had ever taken this one-way drive. The Artists' Palette cutoff is particularly worthwhile.  It offers a wide array of colored minerals created in a volcanic eruption much like paint on a palette.
Alabama Hills

Alabama Hills 

These rocky hills in front of Mt. Whitney and the Sierras are just outside of Lone Pine. It's not surprising these hills have been used for location shooting in several Hollywood Movies. We plan to return.

Morro Bay

This area is a favorite of ours. The long beaches, Morro Rock and harbor, as well as good restaurants, and many outdoor activities keep us returning. Plus we get to drive the Big Sur Coastline.

Be Awares

Tour Ticket Catch-22 at Scotty's Castle

If you want tour tickets for Scotty's Castle, the best way is to get them is online or by phone before you go.  Be aware that both WiFi and cell coverage is sketchy at best in most of Death Valley except for the Furnace Creek area. The tours themselves are supposed to be great.

Mad Greek Cafe in Baker CA

Everything changes, just not always for the better. Unfortunately the new management is more interested in squeezing money out of this place rather than offering good food and an interesting experience for their clients.


AAA Maps - Public Lands Campgrounds
(for Southern and Northern California)

New from AAA! We are delighted with them. These maps are a great for finding low cost campgrounds. Plus the info is packed into a small package usable without WiFi, cell coverage, or electricity. Not sure if these maps exist yet for other states.

Moon Outdoors
California Deserts Camping and Hiking

Love this series. Good accurate information in a low-cost small package usable without WiFi, cell coverage, or electricity.

Phone App

Salt pan at the lowest part of Death Valley

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Morro Bay and Big Sur

We cross over the Sierras at Tehachapi Pass and then through California's Central Valley, a large agricultural area made possible by the California Aqueduct (although with the drought this year farmers are concerned about how much water they'll get since much of it goes to SoCal).
Windmills at Techachapi Pass

California Aqueduct

We arrive in Morro Bay mid afternoon and find a nice campsite next to the beach at the Morro Dunes RV Park. We love our view of Morro Rock just outside our door.
Campsite in Morro Dunes RV Park

Nice view of Morro Rock

It's such a nice afternoon, we stroll over to Morro Harbor and walk around the Embarcadero area.
Morro Harbor

Eventually, we make our way to the The Patio, which is a separate part of Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant. In the past, we've really enjoyed their large BBQ'd oysters which are locally grown in Morro Bay.  However, with the nice weather over the previous weekend, the tourists have devoured all their oysters (Waaaaa!!). So we make due with local calamari and rock fish, which are excellent. After dinner we meet a couple from Vancouver BC. They also own a Leisure Travel van, so we are instant friends. We talk so much that nightfall is upon us before we realize it's dark and we forgot to bring flashlights. Fortunately, the Canadians are better prepared and we're all able to make it back over the creek to the RV Park.
The Patio Dockside

with views of the harbor

Sculpture dedicated to "Nick"

The next day turns out to be very windy. We start by meeting our friend Kendall to see her new home and have lunch afterwards. Since the wind shows no sign of dying down, we scrape our plans to hike the length of Morro Strand (the seven mile beach between Morro Rock and Cayucos). Instead we head for Shell Beach, just south of Avila Beach. Along the way we pass Cabrillo Peak, which along with Morro Rock is a part of the Nine Sisters a string of long extinct volcanic peaks.

We take the first Shell Beach exit off of Hwy 101 and then wind our way through a residential area to the trail which runs along the shore between Shell Beach and Avila Beach's Fossil Point. This area which is especially popular with kayakers to explore sea caves.
Cabrillo Peak

Fossil Point by Avila Beach

Hikers waking through cave

View of Shell Beach from hiking path

By the next morning, the wind has died down leaving crystal clear skies. It's too nice to leave right away, so we take a short walk on Morro Strand beach.
Morro Rock

Sand dunes and beach northward towards Cayucos

Peter walks along the Morro Strand Beach

After a nice walk on the beach, we finish packing up and set off for Big Sur. Although we've made this drive many times in both directions (so many times in fact,  I can almost recite the landmarks by memory), I never get tired of this magnificent drive along the rugged coastline. It's not surprising  to find parts of this spectacular drive featured in car commercials. To begin with, the road is fairly flat passing the towns of Cayucos, Cambria, San Simeon and even beyond Hearst Castle past Peidras Blancas Light Station.
Hearst Castle high on a hill

Generally flat road at first

Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

After the lighthouse, the terrain and the road become more challenging, especially when we get stuck behind a large lumbering RV.  The driver is having a great deal of difficulty staying in his lane and negotiating the tight turns.
Yup - many curves ahead

Narrow winding road etched into the side of a cliff

Lumbering RV's can be a hazard

Still the scenery is worth the hassle. I feel fortunate for us to be able to make this drive on such a beautiful spring day. For lunch, we pull off at Ragged Point and buy sandwiches at the outside deli.
View of Big Sur coastline from the road

Ragged Point

Outside Deli

We eat our lunches at an overlook behind the deli and enjoy the expansive views up the coast.
Lunch with a view

Back on the road, there's no sign of the giant RV. Whew - he must have pulled off for lunch too. Continuing on up the coast, it's easy to see why this road is often closed by landslides during powerful winter storms. Caltrans has done their best to keep the road open, including installing heavy steel mesh to prevent rock falls and the new rock shed at Pitkins Curve, a particularly dangerous area. This curve was once closed for over 6 months one winter due to a massive landslide.

Winding Pacific Coast Hwy through Big Sur

Mesh to catch rocks

Rock shed at Pitkins Curve

These dangers are easy to forget as we negotiate curves along the steep cliffs overlooking the sparkling blue Pacific .

Along the way, we pass the Esalen Institute, Big Creek Bridge, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Esalen's heyday was during the Human Potential Movement in psychology during the '60s and '70s when important leaders in the movement gave talks and workshops. In those days it was relatively inexpensive to wander around the grounds and use the hot springs. Esalen even used to open the hot tubs after midnight for free. Not so anymore. To do anything at Esalen these days is costs a bundle. So much for high ideals.

The Big Creek Bridge is one of two beautiful bridges. The other is the more famous Bixby Creek Bridge. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is well worth a stop to hike the short trail to see McWay Falls.
Entrance to Esalen Institute

Big Creek Bridge

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

Since it's mid week during off season, we decide to camp at Pfieffer Big Sur State Park. During summers, this park is so popular that it's almost impossible to get in without reservations.  This time, we're in luck and find a great site in a quiet loop next to the river.

It's been many years since we've last camped here. Back in the day, this place was crawling with colorful hippies on mind expanding substances. Times have changed, now the campground is populated with families, people from out of state, and foreign visitors. We are one of the few "locals."
 Dec 2013 Pfeiffer burn

Campsite along Big Sur River

Magical Big Sur River

Since it's only mid afternoon, we have time to hike up to Pfeiffer Falls. It's not a hard trail, but it is relatively steep in places and tends to be rocky.  On our way up to the Falls, we met a couple who didn't look prepared for hiking. The woman was "plump" and dressed for lunch in a city, including hauling around a large colorful purse. She was interested in our trekking poles. We told her they do indeed making hiking easier especially on uneven ground and up/down inclines.  After we passed them, we both shook our heads and wondered how far they would get.  Surprisingly we met up with them again at the end of the hike. They did made it to the Falls, although they both looked ready for an "Advil Evening" (what our local swim coach calls an evening after a hard workout).
Rocky trail

Pfeiffer Falls

Small stream alongside the trail

Oak canopy overhead

Native Douglas Iris in bloom

Old man of the forest

The sun is setting by the time we return to camp. On the way, we meet a couple from Oregon with a beautiful hand made Teardrop Trailer. The husband is a retired fire chief from SoCal now living around Eugene. He built this trailer over about a year's time and it is truly a work of art.
SUV pulling teardrop


Cozy sleeping area

The next morning gives us yet another beautiful day. We are joined at breakfast by very friendly ground squirrels and curious crows.
ground squirrel

Morning light on Big Sur River

Crows hoping for a hand out

Back on the road, it's a relatively short drive to Carmel/Monterey and home. We pass the Big Sur Lighthouse which has tours on Wednesdays, but Peter is anxious to get home. Considering the tour is over 3 hours long, I have to agree with him. Another time.
Big Sur Lighthouse

Approaching Rocky Point

Rocky coastline with pricey homes

Lower cliffs closer to Carmel

Last look at Big Sur from Rocky Point

Hwy 1 through Carmel/Monterey

Ahhh... we're almost home as we pass familiar landmarks.
Corralitos Market

tunnel of trees

We're baccckkk!

We're greeted by David, happy dogs and Spring in full swing.
Wisteria in bloom

Hummers feasting at sunset

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Recently retired and ready to enjoy life to the fullest!