Western road trip Part 3: Oh, Oregon

View of Vista House in the Columbia River Gorge.
View of Vista House in the Columbia River Gorge.

It was all Oregon all the time on this roughly 1-week segment of the month-long road trip I took this summer. Tasty travel tidbits that week ranged from Umpqua elk and naked bike riders in Portland, to Hood River fruits and beers and Pendleton cowboys.

UmpquaAfter a blessedly cool couple of days on the Oregon coast, I headed inland via the lush Umpqua Highway (photo at right). Temperatures in the 100s awaited me in Portland. The drive along the Umpqua River — a flyfishing hotspot — was scenic but uneventful, except for a traffic-stopping herd of elk in a roadside field.

After reuniting with the significant other at PDX, it was time to sample all the artisan/locavore/craft-brewed goodies that Portland had to offer. In addition to the heat wave, the friend we stayed with alerted us to the nude bike ride going on the day we got in. Now, living in SoCal, there’s not much that shocks or surprises us about clothing choice or lack thereof. However, eating amidst buck-naked diners at a baked potato food truck was definitely a first (sorry, no photos).

Portland food trucks

Speaking of food trucks and all that is hip, the next day’s adventure had us visiting the very fun Division Street in SE and the fabulous Tidbit Food Farm cart pod— heaven on earth for foodies and lovers of all things crafted. Who knew there were so many varieties of tater tots?

And of course, the popcorn is artisan and the cupcakes saintly on NW 23rd Avenue (aka Trendy Third):

Artisan this and that on Trendy Third.
Artisan this and that on Trendy Third.

Later, we headed downtown so I could check out the Poler store, where I ended up buying a cool day pack. It’s a fun place to shop for hipster outdoor gear, tho this is not exactly the place to outfit yourself for your next ultralight backpack.

Blue checks out a local at Portland’s Poler store.

On our third and final day in the Portland area, we headed west to Astoria. After lunch at Fort George Brewery (IPA highly recommended!), we headed to Lewis and Clark National Park. This lush area is home to Fort Clatsop, the winter encampment site of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The excellent visitor center provides all you’ll ever need to know about the Corps of Discovery. We explored a reproduction of one their winter cabins, and then took a brief hike in the adjacent forest.

Replica at Fort Clatsop of the winter cabin used by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the early 1800s.
Trail at Ft. Clatsop.
Trail at Fort Clatsop.

Then it was on to the beach at Fort Stevens State Park (wow, this part of Oregon has a lot of forts). At this very cool spot with a huge expanse of sand at the mouth of the Columbia River, you can see a shipwreck on the beach.

Blue was happy as a clam at Fort Stevens.
Blue was happy as a clam at Fort Stevens.
Wreck of the Peter Iredale, which went aground at Fort Stevens in the early 1900s.
Wreck of the Peter Iredale, which went aground at Fort Stevens in the early 1900s.
This book at the Lewis & Clark visitor center came in handy when IDing the multitude of berries lining Oregon’s hiking trails.

The next day, after a quick tour of Sauvie Island (hello, u-pick blueberries!), we hit the road, heading east on the Columbia River Highway. This drive through the Columbia Gorge is a scenic alternative to Highway 84 and not to be missed. A 15-mile stretch known as Waterfall Alley is aptly named. My only regret is not spending enough time exploring — there are hikes to many of the 77 waterfalls along the way — but we had reservations in Hood River that night. That said, a stop at famous Multnomah Falls is a must:

Multnomah Falls is the biggest and most popular in the Columbia Gorge. And at 620 feet, only three falls in the U.S. are taller.
Multnomah Falls is the biggest and most popular in the Columbia Gorge. And at 620 feet, only three falls in the U.S. are taller.

Pacific Crest Trail hikers and fans of the movie Wild will recognize Bridge of the Gods, the distinctive steel toll bridge connecting Oregon and Washington that spans the Columbia near Cascade Locks, just east of Bonneville Dam:

Bridge of the Gods

A mere 68 miles from Portland, the cute town of Hood River is nestled along the Columbia River. Other than Bend, this is one of my favorite towns in Oregon and I keep vowing to spend more time there. The downtown area is lined with historic buildings, galleries, restaurants and outdoor shops, and a couple streets away sits Full Sail Brewing Company, one of my favorite beer pubs (why, oh why can’t I get their outstanding Pilsner in California??)

Downtown Hood River.
Downtown Hood River.
Pot and fires were big topics this summer in Oregon.
Pot and fires were big topics this summer in Oregon.

Thanks to windy conditions and its fortuitous location along the Columbia, Hood River has long been a windsurfing mecca. That sport has given way to kiteboarding and stand-up paddling. A beach at the marina is the perfect spot to exercise dogs and take in the sights:

The Columbia River, at Hood River's front door.
The Columbia River, at Hood River’s front door. That’s Washington state on the other side of the bridge.

layout of map mc 2010.qxd

The next day, we drove a portion of the Hood River “Fruit Loop,” a 35-mile scenic drive along Highway 35 through the Hood River Valley’s orchards, wineries, u-pick farms and rural towns. Farm stands are abundant, and I’m still savoring the last tidbits of cherry preserves I got at Smiley’s Red Barn (stop No. 5 on the Fruit Loop map, right).

It was not easy to leave Hood River, but alas we had reservations in Boise that night, so after our brief Fruit Loop drive, we again headed east along the Columbia.

The landscape gets much drier east of Hood River, and we said goodbye to the Columbia River as Interstate 84 turned south. You get a taste of eastern Oregon desert around these parts, and there aren’t many places for pitstops. Our next stop was Pendleton, the biggest town in the region and a big taste of the Old West.

Pendleton boot

We stumbled on the amazing Hamley & Co. store in Pendleton’s well-preserved downtown. Western riding lovers will drool over the bronze bucking bronco statue, custom-made saddles and all manner of apparel.

Hamleys statue

That’s about it for the Oregon portion of the big summer road trip, pardners. Next up: Boise, Sun Valley and the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, then the Wind Rivers and Grand Teton in Wyoming.

Western road trip: The Coast Part 2

Trinidad lighthouse on the NorCal coast.
Trinidad lighthouse on the NorCal coast.

In the hopes of finishing my Summer Road Trip series before summer actually ends (didn’t quite make it), here’s Part 2, which covers the West Coast between Point Reyes and roughly Coos Bay, Ore. This trip segment through Bigfoot country was all about wild beaches, wild elk, purple beach critters, craft breweries and good and bad showers. You can read Part 1 here.

After leaving Point Reyes, I took three days to camp along the coast on the way to Portland. Wanting to drive through beautiful Anderson Valley, I opted to skip Highway 1 for a spell and took the 101 north from Marin County, which also shaved hours off the drive.

North coast

Unfortunately it was during the height of the Endless Summer of Heat, and the inland coastal valleys were baking. I scooted through Petaluma (cute), Sebastapol (meh, think I missed the nice sections), Healdsburg (love, even at 100 degrees), picking up ice for the cooler in Santa Rosa. Turning off Highway 101 onto State Route 128, I passed through the rolling golden hills of Anderson Valley.

The tiny town of Boonville is home to funky and fun Anderson Valley Brewing (Boont Amber and Hop Ottin’ IPA, yum) and “boontling,” a home-grown language all its own. Right outside the apple-centric town of Philo, Navarro Vineyards is an excellent stop. We discovered Navarro’s fine pinot noirs on a previous trip. This time, with a reserved campsite on the Mendocino coast, I had time for only a quick tasting and snagged a few bottles of recent vintage. And in the late afternoon heat, Blue appreciated the lovely, shaded, dog-friendly patio:


From Navarro, it was a short drive to the coast. I resisted a stop in Mendocino, forging ahead to MacKerricher State Park, three miles north of Ft. Bragg. The park occupies nine miles of the mostly uninhabited North Coast, and is home to sand dunes, wetlands and innumerable bird species and pinnipeds. It’s one of the premier places to view gray whales during their December to April migration between the Bering Sea and Baja California. A whale skeleton at the park entrance marks the meeting place for whale-watching tours:

Whale skeleton:MacK

The campground has more than 140 campsites in three separate areas, including 10 walk-in sites at Surfwood. I stayed in one of the East Pine sites near the sand dunes, and it was a quick walk to the beach. At the height of summer, this is a very busy family campground, even mid-week (read: if you’re looking for peace and quiet, consider off-season).

I generally liked this campground (tho my site was teensy weensy) and was just grateful it had clean, hot showers ($1 for 5 minutes!) but would have preferred something a little less jammed. It’s so close to Ft. Bragg, I skipped the campfire and ate dinner there. Ft. Bragg itself is a cool North Coast town, with the fine North Coast Brewing Company and many nicely-preserved historic buildings, but it was pretty deserted mid-week. Even the Spunky Skunk was closed:

Ft Bragg street

Instead of driving, you can walk from MacKerricher to Ft. Bragg via the Haul Road, an old logging route that is now a paved trail. This is handy for dog walking because canines are not allowed on the beach:

Haul Rd:MacK

Horseback riders on the beach at MacKerricher are treated to amazing views. All of this is about a 5-10-minute walk from the campground:

Horses MacKerricher

Waterfowl (and kayakers) love ocean-adjacent Cleone Lake, a freshwater lake that was formed when the haul road was built, blocking incoming seawater.

Cleone Lake

I practically stepped on these ducks right at the lake’s shoreline. I can’t believe they let me get this close:

Ducks:Cleone L

From the Mendocino coast, it was a long, varied drive to the next night’s camp, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The coast was stunning and went on. And on. And on. I’m not complaining. The weather was clear, sunny and warm, and the views beyond impressive.

North Coast beach

However, despite the majestic avenues of redwoods, the inland drive through Humboldt County (100 degrees or so) was a bit too warm for my taste. This guy didn’t seem to mind tho:


Frankly, with the road twisting and turning so much, a good part of my memory of it is a bit of a blur. I did make stops in Eureka (Target for a new towel, which I left behind at MacKerricher, and Lost Coast Brewery, for the obligatory T-shirt for boyfriend) and Trinidad, one of my favorite towns in California:

Trinidad harbor

I was eager to get to my campsite at Gold Bluffs Beach, but also a little worried about what my pit mix Blue’s reaction would be to the hordes of Roosevelt elk that roam the park and campgrounds. I found out as soon as I got to the elk jam at the park entrance:

Elk jam

After closing the windows during Blue’s barking fit — some of the elk turned their heads toward us so I knew they heard her  — I waited till the creatures passed, then proceeded the six-mile drive to the campground. The drive is along a wondrous route shaded by old-growth redwoods, which thrive in the ever-present coastal fog. Prairie Creek is one of three parks that make up Redwood State and National Parks, which protect 45% of the state’s coast redwoods.

Reservations are a must at Gold Bluffs Beach, which has only 26 campsites (mostly tents, yay!), and I was lucky to snag a site. At road’s end, it was thrilling to see the ocean and a smattering of tents under the bluffs and in the meadow along the beach. This is one of the finest places I’ve ever camped — isolated, quiet and stunningly scenic.

Gold Bluffs tent

Blue grazed on mounds of purple “wind sailors,” a type of jellyfish called vellela vellela that clog shorelines in the summer when the waters are warm. Surely an early sign of El Niño. Other wildlife included a fox, whose calling cards all over the campground and a visit to our campsite made Blue break out in into howls.

Blue:Gold Bluffs copy

I really lucked out with the weather, which was superb. And the sunset was spectacular:

Gold Bluffs sunset 1

The only downside of the Gold Bluffs campground was frigid water in the bathrooms. Cold tap water in the sink and showers, which barely spit out water. Luckily I was heading to an Oregon state park, home to the gold standard of campground facilities.

The warm and sunny weather continued as I motored into southern Oregon, stopping in Bandon for an ice coffee and to pick up that night’s campfire dinner from Bandon Fish Market. Into the cooler went a nice little slab of fresh coho salmon for $6, which made my day.

Salmon:Sunset Bay
Later that night…

Just north of Bandon, I turned west on Seven Devils Road and gradually lost sun and gained fog. My destination was the campground at Sunset Bay State Park, just southwest of Coos Bay. I knew I was in a different world as soon as I checked in at the entrance station. The campground operation was like a well-oiled machine, with multiple campground and yurt hosts rolling around in golf carts. And it was crowded with families. My campsite was on lush grass that made it feel like I was camping in someone’s backyard (some brown grass too, just like home!)

Sunset Bay site

I enjoyed the Sunset Bay campground, despite its camping industrial complex feeling. This is another one that I’d prefer to visit perhaps in the off-season, when the wee ones are back in school. Next I might try one of the eight yurts — one pet-friendly — which are the primo accommodations. One woman told me she made a reservation almost a year in advance and was lucky to get it. Oh, and I have nothing but praise for the shower experience, located in one of the finest, cleanest bathrooms I’ve ever seen. And — California, are you listening? — showers have hot water and are FREE.

From my campsite, it was a short walk to the beach and along the way I came across a ranger talk set amidst a grove of trees. The bay was fogged in and the water flat and gentle.

Sunset Bay beach

The next day, before heading north, I drove south a few minutes to Shore Acres State Park, a coastal gem that was once the estate of a lumber and shipping baron. Today, visitors stroll the seven acres of gardens at the former estate, planted with flowers from around the world. All the green lushness reminded me I wasn’t in drought-stricken California anymore.


Shoreacres 2

After a brief garden stroll (sans Blue — one of the only Oregon state parks where dogs aren’t allowed), I drove down to Cape Arago, yet another scenic Oregon State Park where colonies of seals and sea lions on Simpson Reef can be seen from a rugged headland overlook. A sign jolts you back to reality:

Cape Arago sign

Next up: the Umpqua Valley to Portland, then the Columbia Gorge and Hood River.



Western road trip Part 1: The Coast

Bixby Bridge:Big Sur
Bixby Bridge along the Big Sur coast.

Is there a better way to spend summer’s longest days than the quintessential American pastime: the Western road trip? I think not.

So it came to be that I spent a month (parts of June and July) traveling from coastal California into Oregon and on to Idaho and Wyoming. The roughly 3,000-mile loop was completed through Utah, then back to SoCal.

Big Sur drive

I’m splitting the trip into four posts. This one will cover the coast from SoCal to Point Reyes. Part two will detail coastal camping in Northern California and southern Oregon. Part three will encompass Portland, the Columbia Gorge and the drive to Boise. And part four will visit Sun Valley and the Sawtooth Range in Idaho, then the Wind Rivers and Grand Teton in Wyoming. Whew. Covered a lot of ground in a month.

Rather than just wing it with accommodations, I had reservations pretty much the whole time, including camping. Unless you like sleeping in your car in a Walmart parking lot, I highly recommend advance planning during the height of tourist season in the West. I started searches (and ultimately made reservations) through the reservation agencies ReserveAmerica and Recreation.gov and cross-referenced by using Hipcamp — an amazing site with a searchable database of California campgrounds — and CampsitePhotos, another extremely useful site that lets you look at photos of individual campsites at public and private campgrounds throughout the U.S. For now, you can only book sites through the above-mentioned reservation sites, but Hipcamp is working on becoming a one-stop shop for research and booking.

I had to keep it dog-friendly, which can be a challenge. Other than the campgrounds, I’m not going to get into hotel details, but if you want to know where I stayed (and the copious research I did) hit the red Follow button to the right and email me.

Despite all the planning, glitches are usually inevitable. My trip was blissfully glitch-free, with the exception of the very start. Since I was hauling kayaks, I decided to take the household Subaru Outback rather than my small hybrid. But the usually trusty Suby decided to be finicky literally the night before I left, requiring a visit from AAA to secure the driver’s side door, which all of a sudden wouldn’t stay closed. Then it would close but couldn’t be opened, from outside or inside. A day-long service visit the next day scuttled my Big Sur camping reservation for that night, resulting in a night in Cayucos instead — not a shabby alternative but it meant more driving miles the next day. By Morro Bay, the newly-fixed door failed again but I figured out that the door would open when the driver’s side window was open.

Condors:Big Sur
California condors over Big Sur.

With a reservation in Half Moon Bay, I had to scoot through Big Sur fairly quickly on my first full day of driving. But the weather was gorgeous, the air was clear and there was plenty to see and stop for, including several California condors that halted traffic near Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. At one point there were eight soaring over the cliff. It was the first time I’d seen the big endangered birds, which were reintroduced to Big Sur in the late 90s.

Kitesurfers at Big Basin Redwoods State Park beach.
Kitesurfers (not condors!) at Big Basin Redwoods State Park beach.

One of the only sections of California coast I’d never been to is the stretch between Monterey and San Francisco, and wow, was that amazing, particularly the beaches between Capitola — new favorite town — and Half Moon Bay. Pescadero, San Gregorio, Big Basin — each beach prettier than the next. This is a spot I’ll definitely return to, maybe to kayak at Elkhorn Slough. Or perhaps take up kitesurfing.

Pigeon Pt. lighthouse , north of Santa Cruz.
Pigeon Pt. lighthouse, on the San Mateo County coast.

After a night in Half Moon Bay and dinner with a friend in Palo Alto (so happy to get my Delfina pizza fix!), my friend and I kayaked the next day at Pillar Point Harbor. It’s similar to paddling at Morro Bay, with abundant bird life but fewer of the ticky tacky trinket shops. And kudos to Half Moon Bay Kayak, which let us park near their rental stand to unload our boats and even let us use their wheeled carriers. Way to go, guys!

Cormorants on a rock jetty at Pillar Point.
Cormorants and friends on a rock jetty at Pillar Point.

After loading up the kayaks, I headed north along another beautiful stretch of sunny coast. That situation ended right around Pacifica and it was an interesting fog-shrouded drive to my hotel in Ocean Beach. It was the first time I’d stayed on that side of the city. The foggy dog walk that night felt like a creepy scene out of the movie Zodiac.

Dogs-eye view of Sutro Baths.

The next day, the fog lifted and it was yet another gloriously warm and sunny (so rare for summer) day in San Francisco. The clear weather called for a visit to Sutro Heights and Lands End in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area at the northwest point of the city. This area offers the best bay views — I saw a diving whale’s tale from the Coastal Trail near Lands End — and is one of the most dog-friendly spots in one of the country’s most dog-friendly cities. That said, not all sites allow pets, so be sure to check NPS regulations before you take poochy for a jaunt.

Dog-friendly Crissy Field.
Dog-friendly Crissy Field.
Crissy Field kiteboarder.
Crissy Field windsurfer.
View of Ocean Beach from Sutro Heights Park on a sunny S.F. day. Like Waikiki!
View of Ocean Beach from Sutro Heights Park on a sunny S.F. day. Like Waikiki without the crowds!

I had to tear myself from Tartine the morning I left S.F., but time was a’wastin’ — I had friends to meet in Point Reyes. This was my fourth trip or so to Point Reyes National Seashore, and as usual it did not disappoint. I missed out on kayaking on Tomales Bay thanks to funky tides and too much else to do, but a hike on the Estero Trail and visits to Drakes Beach and North Beach made up for it.

View of Tomales Bay.
View of Tomales Bay.

Dog owners: pay close attention to the pet rules here. Dogs are allowed only on certain beaches (Bluey stayed in the car at Drakes) and only on certain trails. This is for the benefit of wildlife, particularly northern elephant seals and the western snowy plover, which nests on this sandy peninsula.

Old boat on Tomales Bay.
Old boat on Tomales Bay.
Drakes Estero, from the Drakes Estero Trail.
Drakes Estero, from the Estero Trail.

A few more road trip tips: If your car is equipped with Bluetooth, be sure to load up some podcasts on your smartphone to help pass the time. Judge John Hodgman is a favorite. And I was so engrossed with Serial that I missed the turnoff to Inverness and almost ended up in Stinson Beach. Also, as summer progresses and the West continues to dry up like a beer keg at a frat party, be sure and check websites like NIFC for fire activity (click on Sit Report in right rail). I was lucky and didn’t encounter any, but there are presently more than a dozen burning in California and even the normally-damp Northwest is afire.

Next up: Anderson Valley, Bigfoot country, and camping the Northern California and southern Oregon coasts.

Tunes, trails and blooms at Joshua Tree

Namesake trees in Joshua Tree National Park, on the Barker Dam Trail

A little late with this post, so maybe file away the info for next spring, because before long it’ll be baking in Joshua Tree National Park — a wonderland of boulders, namesake J-trees and wildlife in the transition zone of the Mojave and Colorado deserts about 140 miles east of Los Angeles and 50 miles beyond Palm Springs. And keep in mind, if you do decide to go this summer and want to camp, some campgrounds at the park are closed until October.

Pappy sign

A show at Pappy & Harriet’s in Pioneertown was all the excuse we needed to visit the desert in mid-April — lucky for us also the start of wildflower season. Jenny Lewis put on a fabulous show under the stars at Pappy’s — for SoCal music fans, this is a must-visit destination — and we combined that with some R&R at Rimrock Ranch and hiking and photography at J-Tree.

The entrance to Rimrock Ranch.

If you’re a music fan, a bit of a desert rat AND love funky, eclectic places to hang your hat, Rimrock Ranch is the place for you. We rented one of the dog-friendly cabins and had the place pretty much to ourselves for a couple days. The owner, Jim, is an accomplished bass player and occasionally holds impromptu concerts with some pretty big names at the ranch. He’s also a big-time repurposer of found objects, and nothing seems to go to waste:

A wall of old bottles.
A barbed wire heart at the entrance.
The swimming pool!

Built in 1947, Rimrock Ranch once housed actors filming westerns at nearby Pioneertown. Jim Austin, who co-owned a surfwear company, eventually bought the rundown 10-acre property and has been renovating it ever since. There are several small cabins, and he also rents out Hatch House, an eco-friendly modern structure he built with recycled materials.

License plate wall in Hatch House.
License plate wall in Hatch House.
Ocotillo outside Hatch House.
Ocotillo outside Hatch House.

Oh, and for those on a budget, there’s a funky Airstream trailer (the purple-fur-lined interior is a must-see) that rents for about $62 a night:


Larger groups can rent The Lodge for about $230 a night:


But back to the real reason we were there (other than music): the desert, hiking and wildflowers. It’s only about a 15-minute drive to Joshua Tree from Rimrock and we entered at the park’s West Entrance, off Highway 62.

With not a lot of time, and a dog in tow (they’re not allowed on park trails and have to stay within 100 feet of picnic areas, roads and campgrounds), we kept the hiking to a minimum for this trip, but still managed to stretch our legs and take in some of the desert beauty that J-Tree is known for:

The view from Keys View.
The, um, view from Keys View.

Climbers love Joshua Tree, and for good reason. Ever wonder why the boulders there are so fractured and blocky? Chalk that one up to volcanic activity. A form of magma called monzo-granite (yup) rose from deep within the Earth, and as it cooled, horizontal and vertical cracks formed. Voila — a climber’s paradise:

Joshua Tree National Park
See the climber?



Joshua Tree National Park
A perfect climber cubbiehole.

It was cool enough to leave our pooch Blue in the car, so we decided on the one-mile Barker Dam loop trail, which passes through classic J-Tree habitat and is a perfect quick and easy hike. There’s usually a reservoir about halfway through the loop, but it’s completely dried up — thanks a LOT, drought.

Barker Dam Trail

Along the way, we passed numerous beavertail cactus in full fluorescent-pink bloom:


We saw some rock art, but I have a feeling it was of recent vintage:

Joshua Tree pictographs

After our not-so-grueling hike, it was time for lunch, and we ate at the Hidden Valley picnic area, one of the only spots where dogs are allowed:

Blue, Joshua Tree

On our way out of town, we finally stopped at Pioneertown, the old movie set where westerns were filmed back in the day. There’s not much to it, but it’s fun to poke around the old buildings…


…and try the camera’s sepia filter…yikes, not sure that works:

Pioneertown sepia

And, being the land of found objects (things do seem to preserve well in the desert’s dry heat), we came across some funky art installations:

Pioneertown typewriters

And with that, we rode into the sunset…

Pioneertown sign


Why did another mountain lion cross the road….?

P-32 in mid-February captured by a remote camera in the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains.
P-32 in mid-February captured by a remote camera at the western end of the Santa Monica Mountains.              Photo courtesy of National Park Service.

Why, to join his sister, of course. In March, I wrote about P-33’s risky crossing of Highway 101 from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Camarillo area in Ventura County. And now brother P-32 has made it, crossing on April 3 about one mile east of where P-33 traveled.

Both of the 17-month-old big cats are tagged and monitored by the National Park Service, which oversees the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area and has been tracking mountain lions there since 2002 in order to study how they manage to survive in such a fragmented habitat.

There’s no evidence that P-32 has actually reunited with his sister. In fact, he’s ventured further into the Simi Hills, crossing State Route 23 and coming close to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Who knows, maybe he’s a Republican. Sister P-33 meanwhile turned around at Route 23 and is believed to be ranging close to where she crossed the freeway, said the NPS.

The recent journeys of these two big cats into the Simi Hills and Santa Susana Mountains is a critical step in the lion’s long-term genetic survival in SoCal, says the NPS. Providing a safe crossing of the major barrier that is the 101 may come in the form of a proposed wildlife crossing over the freeway at Liberty Canyon north of Malibu Creek State Park.

There’s been quite a bit of mountain lion news in the L.A. area recently, between the two cats crossing the 101 freeway, and another lion dubbed P-22 (even has his own Facebook page) who lives in Griffith Park and in mid-April was found holed up under a house in Los Feliz. He was eventually hazed out by wildlife officials and is being GPS-monitored once again in the nether reaches of Griffith Park.

P-22’s the famous cat whose photos were featured in National Geographic. He’s also on the second or third of nine lives, having survived a bout of mange contracted from ingesting rat poison. I had the dubious pleasure of researching an infographic on that topic:

rodent infographic041714

Trans-Topanga trek

Hikers heading away from Parker Mesa, back to the East Topanga Fire Road.
Hikers heading back to East Topanga Fire Road from Parker Mesa.

Well, this hike doesn’t exactly traverse Topanga State Park in its entirety, so “trans-Topanga” is a bit of a stretch. But stretch it does — between Topanga Canyon and a trailhead close to the Pacific Ocean.

Most L.A. hikers know of or have been to popular Parker Mesa, an overlook atop a bluff in Topanga State Park with sweeping views of Santa Monica Bay. Many make the 3.2-mile trek from the park’s headquarters at Trippet Ranch in Topanga Canyon, and probably an equal number slog up the much steeper 4.3 miles from the Los Liones trailhead a few blocks up from Sunset Boulevard in Pacific Palisades.

My pal L. and I decided on a slightly different alternative: start at Los Liones, hike to Parker Mesa, and then instead of turning around, continue on to Trippet, for a total of 6.8 miles. Of course, this requires two cars and shuttling between the trailheads. As eco-unfriendly as that may sound, it’s something I’ve been wanting to try since listing it as an option in “Take A Hike Los Angeles,” and the always-game L. was up for the shlep. And hey, at least I drive a hybrid.

Here’s the perfectly awful map I cobbled together, since my MotionX iPhone app failed to record the trek. The blue squiggle is our route, with Trippet Ranch at the top of the image and Los Liones somewhere near the bottom. “End” is Parker Mesa:

Parker Mesa

We met at the Vons on PCH at Sunset Blvd. and made the short drive to Los Liones. If you haven’t been there, it’s easy to miss — if you get to Paseo Miramar, you’ve gone too far. A little under a half-mile up Los Liones Drive, there are several parking areas on the right side. We parked L.’s car there and I drove us the 15 minutes to Topanga. Being the cheapskates that we are, we opted to skip the $10 fee at Trippet and parked on a nearby street.

We walked into the park and headed the short distance to Trippet Ranch. For those who might not realize it, 11,500-acre Topanga State Park is located entirely within L.A. city limits and, according to the park, “is considered the world’s largest wildland within the boundaries of a major city.” So guess what that means? You’ll have plenty of company.


It had been a number of years since I’d been to Trippet Ranch, and finding East Topanga Fire Road —  the route that would take us to Parker Mesa and beyond — was not easy. Here’s one of the information signs to nowhere:


After a bit of confusion we tracked down a ranger, who pointed the way to a junction where we could pick up the trail. Now, that’s better:


Starting at Trippet makes for a gentler climb than coming from Los Liones. It’s a mere 330 feet of elevation gain to the Parker Mesa turnoff from this direction, compared to a whopping 1,300 feet of gain coming from the ocean side of the trail at Los Liones.


There are lush canyon views from Trippet all the way to Parker Mesa. In mid-spring, hillsides were emerald green. About 2.5 miles in, a sign on the right marks the spur trail to Parker Mesa. Turn right onto the spur, and it’s 0.5-mile to the mesa, which, at an elevation of 1,525 feet, offers stunning views toward Santa Monica on a clear day, and not half-bad ones even on a less-than-clear one:


There’s a bench and plenty of room to spread out at the overlook, where there are 360-degree views of Santa Monica Bay, stretching from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to Malibu. It was a bit hazy the day we were there, but Catalina Island is visible on clear days.

After soaking in the views, we headed back on the spur trail to the fire road and took a left to the Los Liones Trailhead. White canopies of big-pod ceanothus umbrellas the trail this time of year:


About two miles from Parker Mesa, we kept our eyes peeled for the Los Liones Trail sign. There, we took a right and headed another two miles to the trailhead. It’s a fairly steep downhill, making us glad we took the way-easier climb in from Topanga. All in all, a successful traverse.

Los Liones trail sign vert


Why did the mountain lion cross the road?

Female lion P-33 at kill site in the western Santa Monica Mountains, where she fed by herself on a deer for about an hour before her mom and brother showed up.   Courtesy of National Park Service
Female lion P-33 at kill site in the western Santa Monica Mountains, where she fed by herself on a deer for about an hour before her mom and brother showed up.
Courtesy of National Park Service

Well, to get to the other side, of course. The “road” being the 101 Freeway, and the big cat being P-33, a 16-month-old who recently left her mother and was the star of some stunning photos from the National Park Service’s Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. (Beware viewing if you’re squeamish: there are images of a dismembered deer.) The NPS has been tracking her and her two siblings since they were four weeks old.

And now big sis has miraculously made it across the Ventura Freeway. She crossed on the Conejo Grade from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Camarillo area on March 9 sometime between midnight and 2 a.m.

This is hugely significant for mountain lions and the people who research them because a successful crossing of such a huge barrier like the 101 is a sign that there’s hope for maintaining the long-term genetic health of the population.


It’s all about connectivity of habitat for these SoCal mountain lions — being stuck south of the 101 leads to inbreeding and lower genetic diversity. A number of big cats have been killed trying to cross the freeway, including one recently at Liberty Canyon, north of Malibu Creek State Park. This is also where the only other known successful crossing by a lion occurred since the NPS started started studying them in 2002, and it’s where NPS is proposing to build a wildlife crossing over the freeway.

Some Angelenos may recall the famous mountain lion in Griffith Park known as P-22, who was made famous in National Geographic photos in 2013, and was thought to have crossed the 101 and 405 Freeways heading east. He wasn’t wearing a tracking collar and he’s likely not to reproduce because he’s believed to be the only lion there and is hemmed in by so many freeways on the eastern end of the Santa Monicas.

As a hiker in these mountains, it’s always in the back of mind that cougars are in the vicinity, so I’m vigilant the trail. The area where P-33 ended is pretty agricultural but I’m guessing she’s in the mountains north of the freeway just west of Wildwood Park in Thousand Oaks. That park, by the way, has some great hiking, including a nice loop hike to Paradise Falls. It seemed like lion territory when I was there, so I’m not surprised P-33 was attracted to it. Here’s hoping she’s not too hemmed in by suburbia (aren’t we all?), avoids cars and people, and lives a long, fruitful life.

Early SoCal springin’

Wild sweet pea
Wild sweet pea along the Sam Merrill Trail in the San Gabriels foothills.

Spring in February. A strange concept for us Midwestern transplants to Southern California, but hey, we’ll take it.

Despite several years of drought, hillsides still green up in late winter and wildflowers somehow persevere. But it seems way too early and dry for any flower displays, so the blooms I encountered during a late-February hike on the Sam Merrill Trail to Echo Mountain were totally unexpected.

Grassy hillsides line the trail to Echo Mountain.
Grassy hillsides line the trail to Echo Mountain.

More a conditioning hike than wilderness adventure, this trek in the hills above Altadena gets the blood moving with 1,400 feet of elevation gain over 2.2 miles to the top of Echo. Not even a mile in, I came across a single Wild Canterbury Bells plant. Not exactly a showstopping display, but a pleasant purple surprise:

Canterbury bell

This kept me on the lookout and I soon came across clumps of Indian Paintbrush seemingly growing out of the rock lining the trail:


Glancing down into the canyon, I noticed bushes of lupine:


A single clump of California Poppies clung to a hillside:


Although it was cool day, a certain canine wearing a backpack (empty) was glad to make it to the top:

Blue:top of Echo

For those who haven’t been on this hike, all that rusted cable, machinery and concrete foundation are ruins from the old Mount Lowe Railway, which operated from 1898 to 1936 and transported visitors to a resort at the top of Echo. Here’s an older photo from the site, looking toward the L.A. Basin on a moody day:

Top of Echo

Along the way on my recent hike, I unfortunately also noticed a more unpleasant sight: lots and lots of graffiti on the rocks along the trail, a sad reminder of how close this trail is to civilization. I’ve seen this here in the past, but not to this extent. An attempt to cover the tagging resulted in big blue blotches on the rocks. I didn’t bother taking photos, not wanting to glorify the boneheads who feel the need to desecrate nature.

At any rate, with wildflower season developing, it’s still a pleasant time to experience the SoCal foothills. You can keep track of local wildflower blooms through native plant nursery Theodore Payne’s Wildflower Hotline, an online update which starts up again this month and is posted every Friday from March through May. A great way to find our what flower it is you’re looking at is through the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area’s Wildflower Finder, an online search tool that IDs flowers by time of year, size, color, etc.


Brian Head…that other Utah ski resort

Brian Head slope

It always seems odd seeing billboards for Brian Head Resort along Interstate 395 on the way to Mammoth Mountain. Why on earth would someone detour to a dinky no-name ski area in southern Utah en route to a place that truly lives up to its name: Mammoth is more than five times the size of Brian Head, and the number of express lifts alone outnumber the total number at the Utah resort.

Brian Head condo view
The snowy view from our condo near the base of Navajo Mountain.

Um, well a couple reasons, first and foremost: price. It’s $35 for a weekday lift ticket at Brian Head, while costing a whopping three times more to ski at Mammoth. That’s for a regular season, single day ticket; both resorts offer a bit of a break for multiday tickets. We also got a great deal on a condo at Brian Head, a comfy ski in/ski out place right near the base of Navajo Mountain.

We viewed some amazing sunsets from our condo’s balcony:

Sunset from condo

Reasons 2, 3 and 4: We pretty much had the place to ourselves and rarely waited in lift lines. It was snowing when we arrived and conditions were optimal, with about six inches of fresh powder. Our only complaint was the visibility on our first day, or more like invisibility, due to fog and snow.

Fog:Brian Head

But the next few days we encountered cloudless bluebird days and, I’d have to say the grooming at Brian Head rivals Wasatch uber-resort Deer Valley. Ahhh, corduroy, how I love you so.


Brian Head consists of two mountains: the beginner-friendly Navajo Mountain and the adjacent and more challenging slopes of Brian Head Peak. We did laps on the Giant Steps Express lift to an elevation of 10,920 feet, just below 11,307-foot Brian Head Peak, which is accessed only through backcountry gates. We stuck to the inbounds runs, which were nicely pitched and loads of fun.

That’s another thing about Brian Head: at 9,600 feet, the base elevation is the highest of any Utah ski resort. Take that, Park City (elevation 6,900 feet)! This keeps things nice and cold, perfect ingredients for powdery snow.

View of Brian Head Peak from run on Navajo Mountain.
View of Brian Head Peak from a run on Navajo Mountain.

I will say that navigating between the two mountains takes a bit of strategy in order to avoid having to take the free shuttles. But the trails are well-marked and we figured it out fairly quickly. We did lots of laps on Bear Paw from the Giant Steps chair and Ute was a favorite run from Chair 1 on the Navajo Mountain side.

On our day off from skiing, we planned to snowshoe at Cedar Breaks National Monument, just two miles south of Brian Head. A snowshoe malfunction nixed that activity, so we made it a photo outing instead. With snow piled high, access to the monument isn’t easy, but there’s a pullout along Highway 143 with a small parking lot and short trail to the North View Overlook.

Cedar Breaks view
View of Cedar Breaks Amphitheater from North View Overlook.

Gazing into the 2,000-foot deep Cedar Breaks Amphitheater is awe-inspiring. The three-mile-diameter canyon was created by erosion from rain, ice and wind, the same forces that created Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon and Bryce Amphitheater. You’ll see alot of dead trees in this part of Dixie National Forest. These are Engelmann spruce that have been decimated in recent years by spruce bark beetles.

We went back to the overlook to catch another amazing sunset:

Cedar Breaks sunset

It’s true that for most SoCalers, it takes a few more hours of driving to get to Brian Head compared to Mammoth, but I think it’s worth the drive. You can even hit Vegas (not sure that’s a good thing) and Zion National Park on the way. Just be sure to stock up on groceries in St. George or Cedar City on the way there. There’s no town to speak of once you get there, except for what locals call “the Mall,” a small strip mall near the ski resort that consists of a cafe and general store. We were glad to find Pizanos Pizzeria, a surprisingly good pie in the middle of nowhere.

Which is precisely the point: good, cheap skiing and pizza in a scenic spot in the middle of nowhere.

Paddling Alamitos Bay

Alamitos Bay pelican

Living in Southern California, you’d think finding a decent place to kayak would be a no-brainer. Ah, but not necessarily so, grasshopper!

Water, water everywhere, but oh so little safe and easy access. We usually paddle at Newport Beach’s Back Bay, which has an ecological reserve and is no slouch. But the subdivision views and near-constant traffic from John Wayne Airport get a bit tiresome.

So, we recently decided to take a chance on paddling Alamitos Bay in Long Beach. What a pleasant surprise. Even with the nearby ports — the busiest and most polluted on the West Coast — Alamitos Bay is something of a gem.

Pulling up to park near the intersection of Ocean Blvd. and Bayshore Ave., we were stunned that there was a nearly-empty parking lot and free street parking… and best of all, the put-in was mere feet from the car. Even on MLK Day (albeit in the middle of winter, such is life in sunny SoCal).

Steve kayak:canal

After finding a map online, we decided to make a loop through the canal around Naples Island, which was directly across from our put-in. It’s a pleasant paddle next to picturesque homes along the canal, but our loop ended abruptly when we were blocked by yellow construction floats.

Canal deadend

Unbeknownst to us, the seawalls that line the canal were getting a facelift. The city of Long Beach declared six years ago that the walls “were found to be in a significant state of disrepair” and after studying, and more studying, construction finally began in November and will continue until June.

So we headed back out to the bay’s main channel and paddled north, passing several restaurants and even a Ralphs supermarket along the way. There were other kayakers, some SUPers, and even people on some kind of bicycle-paddling contraptions.:

Bikes on bay

Thanks to that online map, we knew there’d be a waterski-only canal to avoid, and it was pretty obvious when we saw someone skiing donuts at full speed. We stayed far away and continued on to the “wetlands,” a generous term given to an area adjacent to field upon field of oil rigs. The array of seabirds was impressive — gulls, pelicans, cormorants, surf scoters, terns and egrets. But all that wildlife amidst the oil-industrial complex was jarring, to say the least.


After snapping a bunch of photos, we headed back to our starting point. Next time we’ll check out the moon jellies in Spinnaker Bay Canal, which is where the Long Beach Aquarium apparently gets its supply for its touch tanks. We’ll definitely pack the fly rods and hope for some halibut. And complete our Naples Canal loop, with its nifty new seawalls.