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:

Blue:Navarro

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:

Bigfoot

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

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.

 

 

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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.

Blue:Sutro
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.

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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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

 

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.

Alamitos-egret

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.

 

A trio of Central Coast hikes

Fiscalini:flowers
View from the Bluff Trail at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve

One of these days we’ll hike to the top of Bishop Peak or one of the other volcanic morros near San Luis Obispo. But our recent Central Coast visits kept us closer to the water, and there’s plenty of hiking there too. Here are three that are super easy, and two are dog-friendly: 1. Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, Cambria: It doesn’t get much easier or scenic than the 11 trails winding through this former ranchland owned for a century by the Fiscalini family. The ranch was eventually sold — thankfully spared from development — and turned into a preserve. Just look at the homes around this biologically diverse open space to see what could have been. I don’t (usually) begrudge anyone a seaside residence, but enough was enough in this case. The most popular trails are the unbelievably view-filled Bluff Trail, which, fittingly, runs a mile along the bluff and allows leashed dogs. Marine Terrace Trail parallels it on the inland side (and allows dogs off-leash, but they must not disturb wildlife), so a nice loop hike is to enter from Windsor Boulevard, take the Bluff Trail, and return on Marine Terrace. Trail maps and more info are available at the Friends of the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve web site. Here are some photos to whet your appetite: Several cool benches are located along the Bluff Trail:

Fiscalini bench1 Fiscalini bench2

Bluff Trail views are truly amazing. See what they mean by marine terrace?:

Fiscalini bluff

Blue at Fiscalini

2. Harmony Headlands State Park: Drive north on Highway 1 from Morro Bay and you’ve likely whizzed right past this small state park located about eight miles north of Cayucos. A small parking area on the ocean side of the highway is easy to miss but the park is signed so you’ll know you’re in the right place. The one-mile Headlands Trail leads across grasslands, past an old bunkhouse and eventually to Pacific views. In spring, the hills are vibrant.

Harmony Headlands

Like so much of the open space along the Central Coast, the headlands were once a rancho, eventually sold to cattle ranchers, and yet again the American Land Conservancy intervened to help eventually preserve the land as state park. The park is still surrounded by cattle ranching tho, as hikers are reminded by trail signs. We saw some clumps of California poppies, and in wetter years the hills are awash in wildflowers. I wish I had photos of the ocean views but unfortunately on a trek here last spring I had to cut my hike short in order to check on our Lab who we had to leave in the car (he was fine). Even though it was a cloudy day, it was warm, and, being a state park, dogs aren’t allowed on the trail, so keep that in mind if Fido is along. A map and brochure are available online at the park’s website.

Harmony sign

3. Estero Bluffs State Park: Another easy-to-miss spot just north of Cayucos and west of Highway 1, the Estero Bluffs are a great way to get sweeping views all the way to Morro Bay. You won’t see the sign for this trail until you pull off the highway. The park preserves coastal terraces and intertidal areas, and a seasonal stream bisects an informal trail along the bluff. Dogs are allowed on-leash south of the creek. We saw elephant seals along pocket beaches here, likely stragglers from the Piedras Blancas colony further north. A dead seal attracted a flock of turkey vultures as well. Beware of ticks; our dog Blue (check out her buns of steel below) picked one up here and fortunately we nabbed it before it did any damage. A brochure and trail map can be found here. Snaps from Estero Bluffs:

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Trail with a view: Los Liones to Parker Mesa

View

Hikes with a view in the Los Angeles area are as common as beach traffic on a sunny day, and the “front range” of the Santa Monica Mountains is probably the best place for full-on ocean vistas. One of the most popular — if not the most — is the trek to Parker Mesa in Topanga State Park.

There are several ways to access Parker Mesa. On Easter Sunday, I chose the trek up Los Liones Trail to East Topanga Fire Road, which is about 3.6 miles to the mesa and 1,300 feet of elevation gain. The first mile through Los Liones Canyon is mostly shaded, but once on the fire road, it’s mostly exposed, so can be a butt-kicker on a warm, sunny day.

Los Liones map

If you’re seeking some alone time, this is not the trail for you. It’s a steady stream of mostly fit Westsiders on this scenic trek that starts near the Pacific Palisades enclave of Castellammare, just east of the Getty Villa. I have a friend who won’t even hike here, mostly because of what she claims is the, ahem, attitude of the trail’s users. I, a reformed ex-Westsider, find that a smile and a friendly hello usually elicits the same in return no matter what trail I’m on.

The “trailhead” is actually a series of small parking areas along Los Liones Road, the second street up from PCH along Sunset Blvd. I usually park in the lot or on the street across from the church about 0.4-mile up. For some reason, the sign marking the trail/canyon’s start is spelled Los Leones:

Sign

Ocean views are almost immediate. After climbing 1.5 miles through the canyon, the route turns left onto East Topanga Fire Road. This is a good place to catch your breath and take in the amazing views of Santa Monica Bay (top photo).

The fire road continues for about two miles and additional 720 feet of gain. Bay views continue on the left, and Santa Ynez Canyon on the right.

Canyon view

Unfortunately, development mars some of the canyon vistas:

Development

This pretty meadow about 2 miles in probably won’t be green for long, as summer heats up:

Los Liones valley

About three miles in, the turnoff on the left leads a half-mile to Parker Mesa overlook:

To parker Mesa

There are a few benches at the bluff-top mesa overlook and bay views stretching from Palos Verdes Peninsula to Malibu:

Los Liones in the spring is a wildflower delight, so this is a good time to go. The first 1.5 miles climb up switchbacks through dense chaparral. Big-pod ceanothus — one of the many species of California lilac found in the state — umbrellas the trail with a white canopy.

Ceanothus

The wildflower bloom in Los Liones seems to be just starting, and I’m guessing will peak sometime in May. Other spots of color I spied included…

Splashes of deerweed:

Deerweed

Lots of purple nightshade (yeah, it’s toxic so don’t eat!):

Purple nightshade

Invasive Spanish broom:

Spanish broom

And just-starting-to-bloom yucca:

Yucca

The National Park Service has a great website and app for identifying wildflowers in the Santa Monica Mountains.

You can make this a shuttle hike by leaving one car at Los Liones trailhead and one at Trippet Ranch in Topanga State Park. From Parker Mesa, the fire road continues about 3 miles to the park headquarters at Trippet. Coming in from that way is also a gentler climb than coming in from Los Liones — about 330 feet of gain.

Don’t forget, no dogs on this trail since it’s in Topanga State Park. It’s a hefty fine. And don’t forget to smile and say hi.

Morro Bay: Sea, sand and the Rock

Rock and dunes

The splendors of California’s Central Coast are many but they don’t include the over-touristed T-shirt shops that tend to populate some waterfronts. I’m talking to you, Morro Bay Embarcadero. Seriously — how much clam chowder in a bread bowl can a person eat? The cure for chowder and saltwater taffy overdose is simple: get out on the water and head to the Morro Bay sand spit.

Technically part of Montaña de Oro State Park, the sand spit is four miles long and separates Morro Bay from the Pacific Ocean. It’s an easy paddle from the Embarcadero along the Morro Bay waterfront to the spit. Once there, you can hike clear across dunes from the bay to open ocean. Since we’re a one-kayak family, one of us rents from Kayak Horizons, which has quality sit-insides at reasonable rates.

Morro kayak

In early March, we headed over to the spit on glass-smooth water. It’s a good idea to pay attention to tides when embarking on a kayak adventure to the spit. We paid attention and still went over right after low tide, occasionally getting stuck in the muck near the mud flats. Kayak Horizons lists tide times for Morro Bay on their web site.

But getting close to the mud flats is sort of the point of kayaking here. The marshes are part of the Morro Bay Estuary, a bird sanctuary home to more than 250 species of land, sea and shore birds. In other words, you do not want to forget binoculars and a camera. We’ve seen pelicans, egrets (see below), herons, and too many other sea bird species to list, along with sea lions and otters en route.

Speaking of birds, the spit is home to snowy plovers, which like to nest on the dunes, so certain areas are off-limits. Those spots are signed and roped off, and pretty darn scenic:

Dunes pano

Traipsing across the dunes at the Morro sand spit and hearing the open ocean on the other side always seems otherwordly to me. I almost expect to find the Statue of Liberty wedged on the beach on the side, a la Planet of the Apes:

Ocean view-spit

You can pack a lunch and make a day of it, staying mindful of the tides and making sure your kayak is pulled up high enough on the bay side. I brought a snack of apple, cheese roll and several Brown Butter Cookie Company cookies from Cayucos (original sea salt, my favorite). Wow, this is looking a bit like a scene from a Wes Anderson movie:

Lunch

There’s a great view of Morro Rock from the ocean side of the sand spit:

And of course it’s birds galore on the little-peopled beach, where the ocean is fairly rough and tumble:

Birds on beach

On the dune walk back to our kayaks, the light was getting really nice and brought out the great colors of the coastal sage scrub with the rock in the distance:

I wove my kayak between docked sailboats, keeping my binoculars peeled (wow, this does sound like a Wes Anderson film) for my landing spot at the public boat launch at the end of the Embarcadero:

Morro Bay boats

We worked up a powerful hunger padding and hiking. So it was off to Dorn’s for some, ahem, clam chowder. In a real bowl.

Some photos here were courtesy of http://stevehymon.smugmug.com/.

Cayucos pier weathers the storm

Cayucos pier-Edit

This is a good news, good news report. Back in September, I did a post about the efforts to raise funds for rehabilitating the rickety pier in Cayucos, along California’s Central Coast. I’m glad to report that: A. Enough funding ($230,000 worth) was received to begin the rehab work in November, which involved strengthening pier pilings with steel beams; and, B. The monster storm that hit California on March 1 didn’t damage the pier. Without that work, it’s likely the pier would’ve become a pile of toothpicks.

The photo above is from October, before the restoration work began. The pier was partially closed at that point, and closed entirely in December, which is how it’ll remain for at least a year. Help Save Cayucos Pier is taking donations for the $2-million repair work. According to a story in New Times, the work done so far was initial stabilization, just to keep the pier intact before a permanent fix can be made.

Elephant seals north of Piedras Blancas lighthouse on California's Central Coast.
Elephant seals north of Piedras Blancas Light Station on California’s Central Coast.

The storm wasn’t as kind to other area piers, including the Avila Beach Pier, which lost some boards from its boardwalk. The San Luis Obispo Tribune did a good roundup story on the damage. High wind and waves also did a number on the local pinnipeds. The Cambrian newspaper reported that many elephant seal pups were lost in the storm, and the colony at Piedras Blancas was forced to take shelter on a narrow strip of sand near the viewing area south of the light station.

The photo above is from a recent visit, post-storm, and not at the public viewing area. More on the seals with a prominent proboscis in a future post.

Tongva Park and the future Santa Monica

Tongva from street

I have seen the future of the oceanfront in Santa Monica and it is walkable, drought-tolerant and sustainable!

Tongva Park, which opened last September, is part of the overhaul of the city’s Civic Center area, adjacent to RAND Corporation between Ocean Avenue and Main Street. In fact, the property was owned by RAND, which relocated just south about 10 years ago. Sandwiched between the park and RAND is the Village at Santa Monica, a mixed-use, mixed-income development still under construction that will have hundreds of condominiums and rental apartments, as well as retail space.

The main path through Tongva Park, with the Weather Field art installment
The main path through Tongva Park, with the Weather Field art installment

So why would a blog about the West, the outdoors and the environment care about this new park?

  • Because it’s an extremely pleasant outdoors spot, and something that’ll make one of the most pleasant West Coast cities even more liveable.
  • And it’s only a block from what will be the terminus of Metro’s Expo Line light rail from downtown L.A., which is on track, ahem, to arrive in 2016 (keep your fingers crossed). Hoping beyond hope that this will alleviate somewhat the traffic nightmare that is endemic on the Westside.
  • Also, I love parks that blend seamlessly into urban surroundings (think Millenium Park in Chicago and the High Line in NYC). In fact, Tongva Park was designed by James Corner, who also created the much-loved High Line.
  • Plus, I’m a total Santa Monica geek who actually listens to City Council meetings on Tuesday nights.
  • And, of course, #itsmyblogandicanwriteaboutwhateveriwant.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the space — which used to be a parking lot — since I used to live in that area and worked on an infographic on the plan. I just couldn’t picture a park there. I got used to seeing construction and giant trees in pots waiting to be planted. My eyes popped when I saw the finished park a couple months ago. What a stunner.

Tongva’s seven acres are laced with walkways through hillsides studded with a palette of native, drought-tolerant plants. Garden-lovers will geek out at the online planting plans. The highlight of Observation Hill at the top of the park is two steel Slinky-shaped observation decks overlooking the ocean.

Tongva Park's Observation Hill is dotted with plants adapted to the seaside location.
Tongva Park’s Observation Hill is dotted with plants adapted to the seaside location.
Observation deck at Tongva Park, on a marine-layer day.
Observation deck at Tongva Park, on a marine-layer day.

Here’s a view of the observation decks from Ocean Avenue:

View from Ocean Avenue of Tongva Park's observation decks.
View from Ocean Avenue of Tongva Park’s observation decks.

The park’s benches have nifty tables built into them:

Tongva bench

A wall near the restrooms is filling in with vines in a lattice pattern:

Tongva wall

Water feature near the Main Street entrance, across from Santa Monica’s City Hall:

Tongva water

Locals may wonder what will become of the iconic Chez Jay, next to the park. The tiny, historic eatery is still there and in fact was designated a local landmark by the city, so hopefully it’ll persevere. There are plans for a walkup window, but I’m not sure where they stand at this point.

Chez Jay

Here’s a short video of Weather Field No. 1, 49 stainless steel poles with anemometers and wind vane:

A median down Ocean Avenue in front of the new “village” was recently planted:

Ocean Ave. median

Tongva Park makes a nice side trip if you’re on the bike path, or if you’re hanging out on Main Street or the Third Street Promenade. There’s also a playground with a climbing wall for the kiddies.

The park really connects this part of downtown Santa Monica to the oceanfront district. Another project that promises to be an attractive addition is the Colorado Esplanade, a pedestrian-friendly promenade that will connect the Expo station at 4th and Colorado to Ocean Avenue,  Santa Monica Pier, and Tongva Park. There’s a nifty interactive timeline on the city’s website that details all these projects, for all you fellow eco-geeks out there.

Oregon beer on the go

Pelican yurt

This was one of my favorite sights during our Oregon road trip last summer. A beer yurt! How great is this? An only-in-Oregon moment, for sure.

We were on the coastal portion of our trip, following a week in Bend. The yurt was at Pelican Brewery in Pacific City, at Cape Kiwanda. We worked up an appetite dune-scrambling on the cape…an absolute stunner on a coast of stunning spots.

That’s the tippy-top of Haystack Rock, just off the cape…

Cape Kiwanda, Oregon
Cape Kiwanda, Oregon

Here’s Haystack Rock in its entirety…

Haystack Rock, Cape Kiwanda, Ore.
Haystack Rock, Cape Kiwanda, Ore.

Dune walking works up a powerful appetite for beer…

The dunes at Cape Kiwanda, Ore.
The dunes at Cape Kiwanda, Ore.

Following our dune climb, we had an outstanding lunch with an awesome view at Pelican Pub and Brewery. A few of their brews are award-winning, and this has gotta be one of the most scenic spots to sip.

View from dunes at Cape Kiwanda, Ore.
View from dunes at Cape Kiwanda, Ore.

But since we had to drive back to our hotel in Lincoln City, we did not imbibe. So the yurt was sure handy for picking up their seasonal brew, Surfer’s Summer Ale, which was enjoyed at a later date.

Pelican beer

I was working on this post when a friend who recently moved to Portland alerted me to an outstanding resource for Oregon beer lovers, the Willamette Week’s Annual Beer Guide. My friend also pointed out that his local Trader Joe’s sells Pelican’s Kiwanda Cream Ale and their Silverspot IPA, which he deemed delicious, as well as brews from 10 Barrel Brewing, our favorite from Bend. So jealous I can’t get those beers at my local SoCal TJ’s. Lucky Portlanders.