Western road trip 4: Idaho, Wyoming

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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

Flash11Nov2015-147-Edit copy

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:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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: 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.

 

 

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

Evolution of a Santa Barbara sunset

Arroyo Burro Beach — aka Hendry's — was ablaze with color at sunset on Dec. 16.
Arroyo Burro Beach — aka Hendry’s — was ablaze with color at sunset on Dec. 16.

Last weekend’s sunsets in Santa Barbara were ridiculous. They’ve been pretty dramatic in SoCal the last few weeks, thanks to Santa Ana winds. I don’t know if there was an offshore flow/Sundowner going on in SB, but we stood in awe at Arroyo Burro Beach on Dec. 16, watching as the sky turned from blue to pink to a garish orange and magenta. Oh, and we were equally awed by an amazing acoustic show by Jeff Tweedy a few nights earlier at the Granada Theatre. We bow in his honor.

Here’s how the sunset progressed on Dec. 16…the colors intensified by the minute:

SB sunset 1
Here’s how things looked at 4:55 pm.
...at 4:59 p.m.
…at 4:59 p.m.
...at 5:03 p.m.
…at 5:03 p.m.
...Sammy, at 5:06 p.m.
…Super Lab Sammy, at 5:06 p.m.
....and at 5:08 p.m.
….and at 5:08 p.m.

If you’re wondering what time the sun rises and sets every day, the iPhone app I like is called Sunrise and Sunset. It takes your GPS location and gives you the aforementioned times, along with hours of daylight that day and allows you to search for sunrises/sets for other dates and locations. And starting tomorrow, the days get longer by a minute….summer, here we come!