Big Sur

Di Yin and I explored Big Sur on Sunday, August 14, 2011. Big Sur is a scenic, remote section of the California coast along highway 1, stretching roughly ninety miles from Carmel down to Hearst Castle. I say remote because there really isn't much there besides nature; there are few restaurants and shops. Big Sur is nestled between hills (the Santa Lucia Mountains) and the Pacific Ocean. We saw only a fraction of it this day; we drove less than half of it. Although we stopped at numerous pull-offs and vista points, we looked at only two of the many state parks along this stretch of road, and these two parks we only saw part of. Thus, this visit is certainly incomplete; I won't bother to list the many sites we skipped. Regardless, I feel I got a true and great taste of Big Sur.

I can confidently report that Big Sur is spectacular. Indeed, I found myself often choosing to take pictures at my camera's highest resolution because I thought I might want prints of many sights. Highway 1 is rightly called a scenic highway, a la Kings Canyon Scenic Highway from two weeks prior. The sights of nature are tremendous. The road builders were smart and, knowing that people want to stop and gawk frequently, built many pull-offs, sometimes as dense as every hundred meters. If a pull-off was full, we could take the next one and get nearly the same view. Although we didn't stop every hundred meters (that would be absurd), we probably stopped at least once every mile during most of the coastal sections of driving. We'd emerge from the car, gaze in awe, take pictures, and, if it was windy as it frequently was, retreat back to the car.

I'll let my many pictures stand as testament to the day. The rest of this post provides a brief outline of our day in order to make better sense of the pictures. The captions provide further details.

Di Yin, by the way, took even more pictures.

In the morning, we drove our usual route to Carmel, taking 101 to 156 to 1. Once past Carmel and into Big Sur, we stopped often. After a while in Big Sur, we made it to Big Sur Village (a small complex of some shops and restaurants), which we explored briefly, then stopped by the Big Sur Visitors Center, and, a mile or two farther on stopped at an even tinier complex of a couple of restaurants and lodges and a gas station. There we had good lunch at the Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant.

After lunch we continued driving south, again stopping at many vista points, until we reached Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. We were there to see McWay Waterfall. After viewing the waterfall, we headed north, stopping at Nepenthe for a good aperitif in a great setting. After relaxing for a bit, we headed north to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where we hiked a short way to Pfeiffer Falls.

Though Pfeiffer State Park was our last stop within Big Sur itself, we stopped once more on the way home: by the beach in Carmel to watch the sunset. We also made a small dinner-picnic from food we'd packed.

Thus concluded our great day. We returned home after more than twelve hours seeing beautiful sights, exploring the world.

Sun: Kings Canyon Sightseeing, Heading Home, and More BBQ

Here are the day's pictures. Di Yin took pictures too. The latter link goes to her first picture from this day (picture #218 in the album). The last picture for the day and album is captioned "Amazingly, almost everything dried by the time we were done with dinner, about 45 minutes later!" If you're in slideshow mode and see pictures of Hot City BBQ after that, you've cycled back to the beginning of the album and are viewing pictures from an earlier day that I already linked to. (Yes, I know it's funny that our trip both started and ended with a stop at Hot City BBQ.)

When you see a picture captioned "In the morning, we could see the sky through the car windows." (picture #218), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the next day's pictures in the following post.

We woke up Sunday morning in the car. Surprisingly, both of us felt okay. We both managed to find comfortable-enough positions. We slept our normal length of time. Sleeping in the car wasn't anywhere near as bad as I expected. Of course, it helped that nighttime temperatures were perfect for sleeping; we didn't have to worry about being either too hot or too cold.

We packed up our tent, air mattress, and various other soaked items that we'd left out all night. They were still soaked. We shoved them in the trunk after moving everything from the trunk into the back seat so those items wouldn't acquire the stench of the dampness.

Because our campsite's picnic bench was soaked, rather than eat breakfast there we decided to take our food to the nearby diner / market / visitors' center on this side of the park. When looking for a table, we ran into the couple we met the previous night. We joined them at their table and talked for a while as we ate. They were nice. They're Danish. The husband lives in Santa Barbara and works on wind power plants. We traded stories for a while.

They also told us more about the weather the previous day. They were hiking by a waterfall when it started drizzling. They turned around, making it down to their car just as it began pouring. The man, a fluid engineer, said at the time, "if it continues for more than a couple of minutes like this, we'll be washed out." And it continued and the road was washed out.

Breakfast, by the way, consisted of sardines or roasted zucchini placed atop whole wheat bread and accompanied by roasted mushrooms, bananas, and oranges. We tried to share with the couple but all they accepted was the fruit.

After breakfast, we began our main plan for the day (beside getting home): sightseeing as we drove up and out of Kings Canyon. We stopped at various points on Highway 180 ("Kings Canyon Scenic Byway") on the way out of the park. We must've stopped ten times along a fifteen mile segment of road. The views of the glacial canyon, meandering river, and spectacular tall cliffs were amazing. For details see the pictures.

The morning sightseeing completed, we stopped at Kings Canyon Visitor Center near the entrance to the park. I thought it was neat that all its information signs are in both English and Spanish. In the visitor center we watched a short intro video about the park that had great cinematography.

Next up: lunch. Walking across the street to Grant Grove Village, we got a nice waitress to open our can of salmon for us. Sitting on a bench, we ate it on top of bread or on top of potato chips. We also had a bit of fruit (but no vegetables--we'd finished all the ones we managed to cook Friday night). It was a light-ish lunch; we had plans for dinner...

After lunch, we visited General Grant Tree, the third largest tree by volume. We walked briefly around the surrounding sequoia grove but didn't get to see much of it--we had to start heading home in order to get back at a reasonable time. However, as we left the pair of parks, I insisted that Di Yin and I stop by two nearby overlooks that sounded promising. Once we saw those, we drove speedily home.

We stopped only once on the way home for an early dinner at Hot City BBQ in Los Banos. We ate there two days earlier on our way to Sequoia/Kings Canyon and liked it so much we were happy to eat there again on the way back. It was similarly good.

"Hot City" (a.k.a. Fresno) provided another nice benefit for us. We removed our soggy air mattress from the trunk and draped it over the roof of the car. Sleeping bags, blanks, pillowcases, and other clothes went on the hood and the trunk and hung out windows. I felt like we exceeded the bounds of the redneck scale. I don't think the owner was particularly happy about this sight in his parking lot--we had to park it in sight so we could watch and make sure no one took our stuff--but we explained the situation and laughed a lot and I think he ended up comfortable with it.

The air's dryness combined with the heat sucked the water from these items. We flipped them once in the middle of dinner and by the time we left, after about an hour, everything was perfectly dry!

Closer to home, we noted that Gilroy smelled more strongly of garlic than usual.

And thus concludes this trip report.

Sat: Sequoia

I took many pictures this day, mainly after lunch. Again, Di Yin took many more than me. Hers include some with more color of our morning adventures. The latter link goes to her first picture from this day (picture #83 in the album). When you see a picture captioned "In the morning, we could see the sky through the car windows." (picture #218), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the next day's pictures in the following post.

We ate breakfast at our campsite: sardines, roasted crimini mushrooms, and a sandwich of roasted portobello mushrooms on whole wheat bread.

Then the adventure began. We locked our keys in the car! (technically the trunk) Di Yin said something about it being an adventure and I said, "I don't like adventures." We met a nice Nebraska couple at the campground who gave us a lift to the ranger station where we learned the rangers have equipment to unlock cars. Thank goodness--no need to call a mechanic from outside the park who would take two hours to get to us. The ranger at the station made a walkie-talkie call. We walked back to our campsite to find a different ranger waiting for us. All in all, we probably lost only 40 minutes on this mishap.

Our problem resolved, we drove up and out of Kings Canyon and down into Sequoia. Gosh Kings Canyon is gorgeous! It drizzled a little as we left. In Sequoia on the way to our destination, we saw a black bear (a young one but not a cub) cross the road. At Lodgepole Visitor Center in the center of Sequoia, we bought Crystal Cave tickets for later and stopped to have lunch. (It was a long drive.) We assembled sandwiches of canned salmon and roasted zucchini on whole wheat bread, and also more roasted mushrooms. Yes we roasted a lot of stuff the previous night.

After lunch, we stopped by the Giant Forest Museum. It's a nice little museum about the life cycle of sequoias. We spent about fifteen minutes there.

Next up we drove to Crystal Cave, or, more precisely, drove to the parking lot from which we hiked to Crystal Cave.

Crystal Cave, sadly, was not as dramatic as east coast caves. Nevertheless, it was fun to see, and we appreciated that it was nice and cool. We had a somewhat annoying tour guide.

Later, we headed to the large sequoia grove known as Giant Forest. We passed General Sherman Tree, the largest sequoia by volume, then walked Congress Trail, perhaps the most famous trail in the grove. As always, for details see the pictures. Due to the trees' soaring nature, some people say the giant forest feels like a cathedral. It took longer than I expected. Supposedly the trail is only two miles long, plus an additional half a mile each way to get to it. Yet, we spent two hours in total walking through the groves. I think we might've accidentally veered off trail at times; the signage was confusing. Looking at the map, we might've walked parts of Alta Trail and Trail of the Sequoias too.

After the hike, we started back to our campground, stopping for dinner at the restaurant in Grant Grove Village. We split the trout almondine, served with wild rice (quite good) and sauteed mixed vegetables, and a burger with fries.

I looked forward to returning to our camp to sleep on our air mattress with pillows, a perfect end to a good day. Alas, it was not to be. The first surprises heading back to the campsite, however, were good, interesting ones. On the road we passed something that looked like a black squirrel with white spots. It couldn't decide which way to flee from the middle of the road. Maybe it was blinded by my brights. We also passed a frog, ribbiting as it calmly crossed the road, and a lizard, who did an instant one-eighty when it saw us coming. Finally, we came upon a mess of broken rocks on the road. This was the first hint of badness. Nearby, two cars were pulled over. I imagined one was driving too fast, hit the rocks, and blew a tire.

As we approached the campgrounds, we saw lots of road work, many road crews and bulldozers and various stretches of roads that were reduced to one lane. These roads were fine in the morning. We saw lots of debris on the driveable part of the road.

At night, especially given the road changes, it was hard to find our campground. We couldn't easily spot landmarks or even read the signs that were occluded by the road crews.

Once at our campground, we found the road next to our parking spot covered with bark, rocks, and other debris. I decided it wasn't worth risking parking in our spot. We parked in the empty campsite immediately before ours.

While gathering flashlights to figure out what was going on, we ran into a couple at the next campsite. They explained that there was a massive rainstorm that brought down lots of stuff from the mountain. Enough stuff washed onto the road that the rangers closed the road into and out of the lower part of the canyon. Various streams and run-off pipes, unable to handle downpour, overflowed, sometimes onto campgrounds. The pipes were out, meaning no running water or flush toilets.

We soon learned that the inside of our tent was soaked. Our air mattress had a layer of water on top of it. This might be because our rain tarp wasn't firmly lashed down. The forecast listed only "a forty percent chance of showers and thunderstorms" with no mention of any sort of horrible downpour; we didn't worry about the rain. Given the storm's description and the havoc it caused, I doubt our tent would've survived intact even if it had been properly secured.

After some debate, we settled down to sleep in the car. We fell asleep while creatively debating what we were going to do the next day with our soaked camping equipment: how and where we were going to pack it, how and where we were going to dry it, and whether any of the damage will prove irreparable.

Fri: Hot City BBQ, Forestiere Gardens, and Kings Canyon Campground Adventures

I took pictures this day of course. Di Yin took many more, especially of our stop at Forestiere Gardens. The latter link goes to her first picture from this day (picture #1 in the album). When you see a picture captioned "In the morning, waking up in pleasant temperature and on a great bed!" (picture #83), you're done with her pictures for the day. I'll link to the next day's pictures in the following post.

I took the day off from work for this trip. We left the apartment 1.5 hours later than we planned, but that's okay because it's a vacation.

Our drive began along the same route we take to L.A.: south on 101 and then over 152 past the San Luis Reservoir. San Luis Reservoir was still pretty but, as with our last trip, the hills were still brown. The water level was noticeably lower now.

On a tip from a friend, we stopped for lunch at Hot City BBQ (officially Hot City Barbeque & Bistro) in Los Banos, part of California's central valley. It was an awesome tip! For details see the pictures. I'm glad we started this trip on a Friday; the restaurant is only open three days a week--had we left on a Thursday, we couldn't have stopped there.

Further across the central valley, we stopped in Fresno to visit the Forestiere Underground Gardens. Forestiere (the guy's last name) spent four decades excavating by hand dozens of acres. He did this to get a cool place to be in this hot region. It worked; it's ten or twenty degrees cooler underground than above. He used only ordinary tools, no dynamite or power tools. That's a lot of work! He knew how to excavate because he had previous experience digging subway tunnels.

He started with carving a bedroom, a courtyard, a kitchen, a living room, and a bath, and then just kept building. The result is surprisingly large. Many rooms over three levels! Although the architectural design is reminiscent of catacombs, don't think about the typical dark catacombs--he included many skylights, open-air courtyards, and plants, so it's quite a different type of space.

Nowadays people have other options for cooling off in hot weather--we saw a big water park (with long, high, twisting water slides) across the highway from the gardens.

The only reason Forestiere had time for this--for a while he only did it during his spare time--is he didn't have a family. He eventually quit his job farming and made the gardens an underground resort. He started giving tours.

I think this living underground is cool, as was his commitment to the project. Forestiere also did something else rather cool. He grew things (herbs, trees) underground. He grew lemons and oranges (mostly unusual varieties of these) and grapefruits, kumquats, quince, and more, sometimes all of these on one tree. He was good at grafting. I bet he closely followed the work of Luther Burbank. Most of the trees we saw in the gardens are the original ones he planted.

Upon his death, his land was sold. His brother bought ten acres to preserve his work. The rest of the land and the attached caverns on the land was filled in. Probably fifty rooms were lost. Supposedly a few houses in the nearby areas preserved their rooms as cellars, but it's sad the majority is now lost.

Both Di Yin and I enjoyed this excursion.

After the underground gardens, we continued heading to Sequoia / King Canyon, two National Parks joined at the hip.

The campground we wanted to go to near the parks' northern entrance was full, so we had to drive an extra hour to Moraine campground in Cedar Grove in the heart of Kings Canyon National Park. I hadn't intended to see much of Kings Canyon this trip--the trip was mainly for Sequoia--so this was quite a change.

The drive to into Kings Canyon was impressive. I'm glad we were forced to do it. We stopped early on at a viewpoint. Other than that, I only took pictures from the car during this drive--we wanted to make it to our campground before dark so we could have an easier time setting up. I took a lot of pictures on Sunday when we consciously decided to sightsee along this road.

Once at our campsite, as usual we had trouble starting a fire despite the special easy-fire-starter log we brought. We needed to fan the fire for a long time to keep it alive. I'm apparently better at fanning with the right rhythm and strength than Di Yin, but it's a lot of work.

I'm glad Di Yin packed emergency sandwiches. We ate them for dinner; we didn't have to wait for our fire to get going in order to eat. We used the fire to cook the vegetables we'd eat for breakfast and lunch the following days.

As for camping, it was great. There were some mosquitoes but they went away within an hour of our arrival. The temperature was perfect. We needed pants but not a jacket in the evening. The night was a bit cold but comfortably so. Topping it off, we slept on an air mattress with pillows! (We inflated it using a car power adapter.) It was great. We should always camp like this.

Sequoia & Kings Canyon

Di Yin and I visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks from Friday, July 29, 2011, to Sunday, July 31.

Before this year, I hadn't heard of Kings Canyon. When planning this trip, I thought of Kings Canyon as that park next to Sequoia that we're not going to bother visiting. However, we ended up in Kings Canyon because all the campgrounds in Sequoia were full. I'm glad we did.

Indeed, my memory of this trip is dominated by two sights: the impressive Kings Canyon gorge and the astonishingly massive sequoia trees. I'm even tempted to say the former was a more awesome experience. There's an incredible number of mountains surrounding Kings Canyon. I did not expect these, let alone expect them to be a highlight of the trip. Kings Canyon should not be as under-rated / under-considered as it is.

Advertisements for Sequoia and Kings Canyon mention their wide expanse, from warm/hot foothills to cool forest to cold high mountains (the Sierra range), its astonishingly massive trees (Sequoia), its geological features, especially the wide glacial valleys / gigantic glacial canyon and spectacular tall cliff (all in Kings Canyon) but also a lovely meandering river and alpine lakes. This park system is the second oldest national park (after Yosemite). Like Yosemite, its history is dotted with controversies and changes to land management. Some of these changes were recent. For instance, in 1996 the center of Sequoia--its so-named Giant Forest--contained many buildings (~300), roads, parking lots, and even overhead electricity lines. Now many buildings have been demolished, leaving approximately 10.

On this trip I learned a lot about sequoias. Although some of what I learned is in pictures or picture captions, I consolidated the rest into this blog entry. Sequoias, though related to redwoods, grow in different climates: redwoods mainly grow near a coast whereas sequoias grow on mountain slopes between 5,000 and 7,500 feet above sea level. They both can live a long time, though sequoias live longer. Some are more than three thousand years old, meaning they predate the establishment of Rome! Most languages and writing systems we know of didn't exist when they started growing. It's mind-boggling.

And here's your botany lesson for the day, courtesy of the National Park Service: sequoias are resistant to fire as well as many insects and tree diseases. Indeed, they need fire because fire is when they reproduce--it causes them to open their cones and release their seeds. The seeds grow well in the burnt ground. Also, due to surviving many fires, sequoia tree rings are often a mess of curves and scars.

On this trip, we missed a few sightseeing areas I heard good things about: Moro Rock / Tunnel Log (drive-through) / Crescent Meadow (all near each other in the center of Sequoia); Tokopah Falls (elsewhere in the center); General Grant's Grove (in Kings Canyon) (we only got to walk a small section of it); Panoramic Point / Panorama Trail / Buena Vista Trail Peak (all also near Grant Grove Village in Kings Canyon). Finally, we missed a whole distant swath of Sequoia known as Mineral Kings, nor did we do anything in the foothills aside from driving through them.