Always seeking to lighten my load when hiking, backpacking or just traveling in general, I switched cameras from Panasonic Lumix (several over the years) to an Olympus OM-D E-M5 several years ago. The little Olympus is a mirrorless micro four thirds compact SLR that rivals full-size SLRs when it comes to image quality, and certainly beats them when it comes to weight. Although I loved my Lumix, I had a bad habit of breaking them, and was looking for something lightweight with interchangeable lenses.
Nearly two years later, I’m enjoying the Olympus, even though it’s not the most user-friendly camera in the world. I kind of don’t have the patience for all the dweeby programmable functions, so I end up mostly using the automatic settings. So far, I’m very pleased with the image quality and love the weather sealing (anticipating the next kayak dumping). It takes great landscape shots. The problem was the 12-50mm kit lens that came with the camera was just not enough magnification for wildlife and other outdoor subjects.
Luckily, Santa/domestic partner gifted me with a kickin’ Olympus 40-150-mm telephoto for Christmas, and now that I’ve had several months to play with it, I’m very happy. The equivalent of 80-300mm in a 35mm, this little Olympus 40-150mm is small but mighty.
The lens is fast and brings wildlife in close, capturing sharp images, and, at a compact 6.7 ounces, is super lightweight. I still can’t fit it in my pocket, like I could the Lumix, but I often keep it around my neck or slung across my shoulder, with very little added weight.
Not long after I got the camera, I bought a wide-angle 17mm Olympus pancake lens, which is great for landscapes, but doesn’t do much for zooming in on distant objects. I do love the landscape images I get with this wide-angle lens:
Once I got the little 40-150mm telephoto, it was time to start zooming in. I started with finches in my backyard:
Then it was on to the Rose Parade:
All in all, the Olympus OM-D M-5 is a great camera for shooting in the outdoors, and adding a compact telephoto lens provides sharp images without breaking (the compact) budget.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
Waterfowl (and kayakers) love ocean-adjacent Cleone Lake, a freshwater lake that was formed when the haul road was built, blocking incoming seawater.
I practically stepped on these ducks right at the lake’s shoreline. I can’t believe they let me get this close:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
I really lucked out with the weather, which was superb. And the sunset was spectacular:
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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:
Next up: the Umpqua Valley to Portland, then the Columbia Gorge and Hood River.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After many trips to the Central Coast over the years, in early December we finally hiked to the top of Bishop Peak — one of the Nine Sisters, the scenic volcanic morros spread out between Morro Bay and San Luis Obispo. Recent rains (finally!) have left the hillsides carpeted in green, foreshadowing a (hopefully) early spring, and contributing to stunning views from the trail.
At 1,559 feet, Bishop Peak is the highest of the morros, the lowest being Morro Rock at 576 feet. These are volcanic plugs that haven’t been active for 20 million years. The hike is 3.5 miles round-trip, with 950 feet of gain.
The trailhead is right in the middle of San Luis Obispo, but finding it was a bit of a challenge — every hiking site I checked seemed to have different directions. We took the route that starts at Highland Drive (see the end of this post for our trailhead directions).
The trail at first passes through a lush oak woodland. A little less than a mile in, we shimmied through a gate that points the way to Bishop Peak. One way to add miles (about 2.5) is to go right and do the Felsman Loop Trail.
Continuing on to Bishop Peak, the trail eventually opens up to widespread views. Along the way, we encountered rock climbers roped to Bishop’s rocky flanks.
The trail ascends gradually, with clear views of SLO, and rising just beyond town, green Cerro San Luis (1,292 feet), another of the Nine Sisters.
A series of switchbacks leads to two benches just below the summit, which is basically several piles of rocks which can be scrambled over to get even better views.
If Blue misbehaved — even tho she’s female and not human — we threatened to take her to the California Men’s Colony, which was prominent in the landscape below:
The trail is pretty exposed, so I wouldn’t want to hike it in summer. Even in early December, the sun was warm and Blue took a nap once we got to the summit.
To the west were pastoral views of Los Osos Valley, where turkey vultures soared.
We hung around the summit, then retraced our steps, enjoying views of SLO 1,500 feet below us, and encountering a lot of hikers, undoubtedly heading up to enjoy an early-winter sunset.
To find out more about the Central Coast’s Nine Sisters and hiking them, check out the Sierra Club Santa Lucia Chapter’s site. The way we got to the trailhead was to take Highland Drive from Highway 1, and follow Highland until it ends in a cul-de-sac. Park on the street and pick up the trail on the left side of the street, along a fence. Our trail track from the MotionX GPS app is below.
Actually, they were at the Goleta Butterfly Grove, on Ellwood Mesa, just west of Santa Barbara. We were there in December, the same time we caught those amazing sunsets. The flutter-bys migrate to Goleta November through February, and an easy trail leads to the eucalyptus grove where they congregate.
Adjacent to the Coronado Butterfly Preserve, the Goleta site is the largest overwintering monarch butterfly grove in Southern California. Considering how cold it’s been up north, who wouldn’t want to overwinter in sunny SoCal?
And starting tooday, romance will literally be in the air because, according to a docent at the Goleta grove, Jan. 20 is when “like clockwork” these butterfly beauties start their spiraling in-air mating flights. The lovefest lasts til about Feb. 14 — appropriately — and then after the females lay their eggs on milkweed plants, they skeddadle on their spring migrations to the Central Valley, Sierra, and Rocky Mountains.
Thousands of monarchs gather in Goleta but unfortunately, monarchs are in decline throughout the U.S. due to threats such as loss of habitat— especially their beloved milkweed. The Xerces Society is monitoring where milkweed still exists. All you green lawn lovers might consider replacing it with monarch-loving milkweed. Due to farming, suburban development, overuse of pesticides, drought, etc., this important monarch habitat is in severe decline. The New York Times did an excellent piece on this a few months ago.
From the monarch grove, it’s a short hike to Ellwood Mesa and we caught some great coastal views of Santa Cruz Island. From the bluffs, it’s a short walk down a path to the beach.
The beautiful 137-acre Ellwood Mesa site was once in danger of being developed for residential properties, but about a decade ago, a land swap between a developer, Santa Barbara County and Trust for Public Land protected the site forever. For that we’re grateful, and so are the monarchs, I’m sure.
Better late than never with this. I’m not a huge Rose Parade fan but every year there are one or two floats that catch my interest. This year, I wanted to see rescue dogs performing on one of the floats and a couple getting married on another float, so I headed on over to Colorado Blvd. for a bit. A couple other entries caught my attention, so here are what I considered some, um, standouts from this year’s parade:
I don’t know what the heck that dog on the earth mover is supposed to be representing. And I forget who’s float that was …..L.A. DWP? A float about underground service alerts? Maybe I should’ve listened to the TV coverage to find out.
This float represented a fairly new rescue organization called Lucy Pet Foundation, which was created by the former president of Natural Balance pet foods and the former Los Angeles SPCA director of veterinary services. The group does mobile spay and neuters for those who can’t afford it. Plus rescued shelter dogs did amazing tricks while on the float. So gets a thumbs up from me.
These Norwegian Fjord horses (below) were making a first-time appearance in the parade and everything seemed to go smoothly. They’re super cute and I can’t believe they do dressage.
The horses were followed, of course, by a cleanup crew.
And finally….my jaw dropped when I saw this float. Sea World, unbelievably, had a float anchored by two orcas. Did they seriously think they wouldn’t catch any flak for that, after the film Blackfish exposed the abuse of these marine mammals? Sea of Surprises indeed. That took whale-sized cojones.
I didn’t find out til later that a friend from PETA was one of the 19 arrested when they tried to block this float at the start of the parade. Now, I’m no vegan. I catch fish (and release them). I ride horses. I own a purebred (tho rescued) dog. But, as PETA points out, 21 orcas died at Sea World facilities between 1986 and 2010. Not to mention the trainers who were injured while ‘training” these stressed animals. The sheer arrogance of Sea World I guess was no shock, but seriously, folks, please see the Blackfish documentary and it’ll change the way you look at “performing” animals. Lowlights indeed.
Ribbit ribbit. The nonprofit conservation organization Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit on Nov. 14 against the U.S. Dept. of Interior over protection of the Southern California population of the mountain yellow-legged frog. The frogs have been on the Endangered Species list since 2002, and the Center says the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has yet to come up with a recovery plan to prevent their extinction.
The frogs, once abundant in the Sierra Nevada and Transverse Ranges of California, have dwindled due to disease, loss of habitat, pesticides and the introduction of nonnative fish — they’ve been chomped nearly into oblivion in high-elevation lakes where there are hatchery trout. By the 1990s, fewer than 100 frogs were thought to remain in isolated headwater streams in SoCal.
There have been attempts to restore their population. In June, 100 frogs raised in captivity — some at the San Diego Zoo— were released into the wild at the James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve in the San Bernardino National Forest. Some of the frogs are outfitted with radio transmitters so researchers can track their movements.
So, why should we as outdoor lovers and recreationists care about an amphibian cloaked in a nasty lawsuit? Well, for one thing, these slimy guys are part of the ecosystem that make life in California and the rest of the West so biologically rich. But to save them, it might mean sacrifice on the part of us humans. It may mean fewer stocked trout in the Sierra (hey, those puny native trout are more fun to catch anyway). And since 2005 it’s inconvenienced hikers in SoCal. Case in point: thru-hikers on the PCT have a 20-mile detour (see maps below) around protected yellow-legged frog habitat near Mt. Williamson in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Day hikers can still hike from Islip Saddle to Eagle’s Roost, the point where the PCT area closure is, but can’t continue on the PCT to Burkhart Saddle. I feel for thru-hikers, especially with the abundance of the dreaded Poodledog bush in the detour area, but I’ll bet old yellow-legs appreciates it. Ribbit.
I know, I know. A little late with this. But even now, in the third week of October, there are spots in California’s Eastern Sierra where autumn has painted groves of aspen, cottonwood and willows vibrant yellow, orange and red. Some experts say that there have been more reds in the Sierra this season….the result of warm, sunny days and cool nights that trapped sugar in the trees’ leaves and helped release red-pigmented anthocyanin. The color started early this year; we even saw aspens turning in mid-August. There’s a good fall color explainer on this Yosemite National Park page. These shots are from the second week of October. An early snowstorm before we got there improved our photo opps even more.