Western road trip 4: Idaho, Wyoming

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Kayak-view of Squaretop Mountain from lower Green River Lake in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

Holy crap. It’s been more than six months since my summer road trip and I’m finally getting around to my post on the last leg — from Ketchum, Ida. to the Wind Rivers and Jackson, Wyo. Right now this area is under a ton of snow, but we experienced everything from record-breaking heat to thunderstorms, double rainbows and bluebird skies, along with superb kayaking, great food and not-so-great fishing.

TetonsFor those not keeping track, I took a month-long West Coast/interior mountains road trip in late June and early July and chronicled the California and Oregon coasts in Road trip part 1 and part 2, and Portland and the Columbia River Gorge area in part 3.

 

I would’ve posted something sooner, but a certain equine has been monopolizing my time lately. No complaints tho. Flash, Gelding Azteca of SoCal (not exactly Spirit, Stallion of the Cimarron, but close) has been a barrel of fun

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That’s him at right…in California, not Idaho or Wyoming…but somehow I think he’d feel right at home on a Sawtooth Mountains ranch.

Speaking of the Sawtooths, these central Idaho mountains reminded us so much of our beloved home range of the Sierra Nevada that we trekked about 45 minutes there every day during our week-long stay in Ketchum.

View of Sawtooth Valley between Ketchum and Stanley.
View of Sawtooth Valley between Ketchum and Stanley.

Yeah, we got real familiar with Highway 75, which stretches about 60 miles between Ketchum and Stanley — a smidge of a town that has got to be in the most spectacular setting in the country (be sure to check out Stanley Baking Company’s amazing oatmeal pancakes). With mountains on both sides and the Salmon River winding along its length, the scenic byway is stunning pretty much the whole time and simply jaw-dropping as you go over Galena Summit, at 8,701 feet. And there’s plenty of recreation along the way, including numerous trailheads and several world-class drive-to lakes. That’s Pettit Lake shown below, with what we think is/was Bruce Willis’ house along the shoreline.

Steve kayak:Pettit L

Well-kept ranches abound in the Wood River Valley, and with Sun Valley Resort just up the road, Ketchum is kind of a rustic Aspen, but with more cowboy hats than fur coats. It makes the perfect base for outdoor adventures, with the Big Wood River, Warm Springs Creek and Trail Creek all within a fly cast. The Sawtooth Valley is the headwaters of the renowned Salmon River.

Palomino on ranch near Stanley.
Palomino on ranch near Stanley.

One day, we rented bikes at Sturtevant’s in Ketchum and rode them along the Wood River Trail to Sun Valley, stopping to fish along the way before checking out the iconic Sun Valley Lodge. The trail is a first-class example of how the county recreation district has its act together. The 32 miles of year-round paved trail has numerous river access points and connects Sun Valley and Ketchum to Hailey and Bellevue further south. And then there’s the 19-mile Harriman Trail further north near Galena Lodge. I don’t know of many areas that have their outdoor recreation shit together to this extent. It’s impressive.

Ketchum
Downtown Ketchum.

At any rate, after several weeks of stifling heat in Oregon — and even in Ketchum for a few days — a couple storms rolled through and left us with (mostly) bluebird skies and puffy clouds. And — this being early summer not long after the spring snow runoff — there were swarms of mosquitoes. On our first hike in the Sawtooths, an easy 4-mile-roundtrip to Fourth of July Lake, I made the major tactical error of not bringing a long-sleeved shirt (too hot!) and leaving my bug juice in the car. I paid the price with itchy skeeter-bitten arms that were swollen like Popeye’s for the rest of the trip.

Sawtooth Lake flowers

Sawtooths daisiesBut the upside to all that moisture was green, green meadows and tons of wildflowers, a welcome sight to us drought-weary Southern Californians.

And speaking of Fourth of July, is there any better place to spend it than a small town in the West? We’d spent the last few Independence Days enjoying the holiday in Bend, Ore., a tough act to top. I’d have to say, Hailey (Ketchum’s more down-to-earth down-valley neighbor) ranks right up there. After the Old West parade down its main street during the day, we returned that night for the rodeo — Idaho’s version of Friday Night Lights.

Hailey rodeo crowd

Hailey rodeo

Over the next few days, we kayaked, hiked and fished throughout the Stanley Basin and Sawtooths (tho scenic, we done got skunked on that front).

Steve fish:Stanley

The week’s highlight hike was the 8.5-mile roundtrip to Sawtooth Lake, which sits at an elevation of 8,430 feet just southwest of Stanley. Right from the start at the Iron Creek Trailhead, we ran into alternating rain and thunder and had to calm our frightened pit bull, Blue, who hid under a rock along the trail:

Blue/Sawtooth Lake

But luckily we persevered, and despite the weather (which cleared after we got to the lake) and 1,700 feet of elevation gain, it was well worth it. Postcard-perfect Sawtooth Lake is one of the most popular and most photographed in the Sawtooths, and for good reason:

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Sawtooth Lake

When planning this trip, we were unsure how accessible the lakes in the Sawtooths would be, but it was well worth lugging the kayaks all the way from SoCal. During our week there we also paddled at beautiful Alturas Lake and at Redfish Lake, with its funky old-time resort. (Hint: bring your own lunch).

The kayaks take a rest on the shore of Alturas Lake.
The kayaks take a rest on the shore of Alturas Lake.

After a week, it was time to head to Wyoming, and we had to tear ourselves away from Ketchum. If we didn’t have reservations in Pinedale, we’d probably still be there. Our spirits lifted on the drive to Wyoming, though. Miles and miles of hayfields eventually led to the geological wonderland of Craters of the Moon National Monument, a wild landscape of desert scrub, lava fields and cinder cones.

View of the Great Rift, a 52-mile-long series of fissures that last erupted 2,000 years ago.
View of the Great Rift, a 52-mile-long series of fissures that last erupted 2,000 years ago.

Along the way, we passed through funky towns like Arco, Idaho, the “first town to be lit by atomic power” (the mysterious-looking Idaho National Laboratory is nearby). And the photo gods blessed us with alternating bands of storms and amazing clouds:

Dark sky:Idaho rd

After countless photo stops, we finally made it to Wyoming. Following a quick stop in Jackson (the Disneyland of the Rockies, IMO), our base for a few days would be Pinedale, a no-frills western town just about the polar opposite of Ketchum. We totally lucked out as it was the weekend of the Green River Rendezvous, a celebration of all things Mountain Man (no sign of Leo, The Revenant or any man-eating grizzly, tho this guy showed up at a state fish & game wildlife display):

Grizz display:Pinedale

And of course, there was a parade:

Pinedale parade

We’d been wanting to visit the nearby Wind River Range for a long time and figured Pinedale would be a good base. We got a basic taste of the Winds, but the best way to experience these wild mountains is probably by backpack or horse pack trip, so we’re filing that away for the future. We got a history of the area after a visit to the Museum of the Mountain Man (of course), and did a day trip to Green River Lakes for more kayaking and fishing. The lakes are the headwaters of the Green River, the main tributary to the Colorado River.

Green River
Green River, en route to Green River Lakes near Pinedale, Wyo.

Trout were rising on the river as a storm rolled in, but nobody rose to our bait.

Green River fishing

We were treated, however, to an amazing double rainbow:

Wyoming rainbow

We skedaddled from that fishing spot after: A. the rain started; B. we heard gunshots; and C. a driver passing by told us he’d just spotted grizzly cubs not far from our turnout.

After a few days in Pinedale, we ended the trip grandly, at Grand Teton National Park. We lucked out yet again, meeting up with Canuckian friends on their own road trip from Ottawa to Vancouver. We spent far too little time in this amazing park of spectacular scenery and even more kayakable lakes.

Steve kayak:Jackson L
A peaceful paddle on photogenic Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park.

We camped a night at Jackson Lake’s Colter Bay, one of the few times we made last-minute camping reservations. And the only time we got rained on while camping during the entire trip. After a fun presentation about grizzly bears at Jackson Lodge, we squeaked in dinner before the rain started, grilling fabulous fresh kabobs from Jackson Whole Grocer.

On our way out of the park the next day, we stopped at photogenic Jenny Lake and the adjacent lodge:

Jenny Lake

And so, after a month on the road, it was time to head back to California. Logan, Utah would be our next stop, then St. George and on to SoCal. I’d love to say we drove off into the sunset shown below, but this was one of many in the Sawtooths, a fitting end of another perfect road trip day:

Sawtooths sunset

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.

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.

 

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/.