Archive for the ‘travel tips’ Tag

Eclipse Mania: Beating the Crowds   2 comments

I’ve decided to see this eclipse in Tennessee!

Eclipse day is drawing nearer, and I’m almost finished with my series on trip-planning for the big event.  Of course I’m assuming you are in fact going to see it.  You are, aren’t you?  Note that a partial is not even close to the same experience as a total eclipse.  You simply must be under the path of totality.  If you’ve never seen one before, you’re in for a real treat!

An unfortunate corollary to the very convenient path of this eclipse is that nearly everywhere along the relatively narrow path of totality will be busy and crowded.  Rooms have been booked for in many cases years.  Campsites are at a premium, and even the good spots to watch (such as Jackson Hole) will be very crowded.  Traffic is certain to be a headache.

You may wonder if it is worthwhile at all.  Why not just look at the videos and pictures that will be all over the web afterwards?  Don’t think that way!  Pictures cannot even begin to do justice to a total solar eclipse.  Read on for tips on handling the crowds and getting a good spot.

Where are you watching the eclipse?

Tips: Planning for Eclipse Day

  • Bottom line is, while you want to see it in an inspiring place, it cannot be so crowded that it negatively impacts your experience.  Your choice of viewing spot boils down to a subjective balancing act.  Where you strike that balance depends on your personal make-up.  Do you want as much peace and quiet as you can get?  Or do you see the crowds as a great opportunity for an eclipse party?

 

  • There is only one real sure way to avoid crowds, and that is to get out on the open ocean to see this eclipse.  The path crosses a good part of the eastern Pacific and even more of the Atlantic.  But if you’re not doing that, read on…

 

  • You have probably already reserved a place to stay, but what about a spot to watch the eclipse?  Do you have a backup (or two)?  Arrive in the area with plenty of time to scout one out.  In a previous post I detailed all the qualities of a good place to watch a solar eclipse.  But look for elevated places with good views of the sky and toward the horizon to the west (and east if possible).

 

  • Find at least one backup spot, just in case something (like weather) happens with your top choice.  Then for each of your spots, create at least one backup plan for parking and for how to get there.  I recommend bringing a bicycle in case traffic and parking turn out to be worse than expected.

 

  • Your backup spots should be in different areas weather-wise.  In other words get some local knowledge on the area’s microclimates and diversify on that basis.  Generally speaking this won’t work if a large front comes in, rather it’s for limited cloudiness, such as for thunderstorms.  A friend of mine has two sets of reservations, one in Idaho and one in Charleston.  Now that is a backup plan!

 

  • Get your top spot scouted out and commit to it.  Definitely monitor forecasts and satellite imagery in the day or two leading up to the event, but remember that weather is quite unpredictable more than 48 hours out.  In other words, don’t get caught over-thinking it and end up faking yourself out.  See next post for more on last-minute weather considerations.
  • For any total solar eclipse you should get to your spot as early as possible.  And for this particular eclipse that advice is especially important to follow.  If you possibly can, camp right where you’ll be watching.

 

  • Avoid driving on eclipse day.  If you’re not sleeping within walking (or biking) distance I recommend driving in the pre-dawn hours, shooting sunrise, and getting to your viewing spot in the very early morning.

Because by definition a total solar eclipse happens at new moon, nights around the event are starry. Jackson Lake is inside the path:

Tips:  Camping without Reservations

Hotel rooms may all be booked, but what about camping?  Is it also too late if you have no campsite reserved?  It depends on where you’d like to camp.  Don’t expect to score a spot at Jenny Lake in the Tetons or at a state park on the Oregon Coast.  But if you’re flexible you may not be completely out of luck.  All it takes is some creativity and persistence.

  • If you’re self-contained, with plenty of water, food, etc., you should be able to find a spot to stay overnight in one of the national forests along the path.  This is what the USFS calls “dispersed camping”, and the best part is it’s free!  There are limits and rules, so check the websites for the districts you’re interested in.

 

  • In addition most national forests, have 1st-come, 1st-serve campsites.  These normally have at least fire-rings, picnic tables, an outhouse, plus (usually) water.

 

  • The Bureau of Land Mgt. (BLM) also has dispersed and 1st-come camping available.  BLM units in the path of totality are located in Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming.

 

  • If you live close enough to the area under the path where you’ll be watching, and you don’t have accommodation yet, take a weekend (soon!) and drive around the area.  If you don’t live close, arrive as many days ahead as possible, combining your search for a viewing spot with one for a campsite.

 

  • You’ll be checking national forest and/or BLM land for dispersed camping.  Stop by the national forest district offices for info. and recommendations.  Find out about limits on lengths of stay, fire restrictions and leave-no-trace camping advice.

 

  • Pick up maps either ahead of time or when you visit the district offices.  In some cases you can download and print detailed maps, but never rely on Google Maps for this kind of thing.  They have nowhere near the detail you need for scouting and planning.  Draw the path of totality and confine your search for camping inside that path.  The goal is to camp within walking distance of a great spot to watch the eclipse.

 

  • Now it’s time to scout!  There’s no substitute for taking the time to drive the back roads.  Explore and get the lay of the land.

 

  • The kind of places that should interest you depend on how you’re set up for camping.  Obviously it’s best if you don’t have a large RV.  A small camper van or a pickup that you can sleep in the back of is ideal for dispersed camping.  You can also car-camp with a tent.  The Forest Service allows you to disperse camp up to a few hundred feet off the road.  Whether you camp in a vehicle or in tents, you need space to park so you’re not blocking the road.

 

  • Finally, remember that there will be many people camping anywhere they can fit.  The sooner you can claim a spot the better.

Extra Tip: The Private Option

Don’t limit yourself to public lands.  People with property along the path of totality will no doubt be out to make a little money.  Check Craigslist, but it may be better in this case to go low-tech.  Call the local chambers of commerce in the area to find out if they know of specific landowners who are renting out space.

Then drive around the area talking to locals with property for camping (or who are renting out rooms).  Make sure to stress the fact you are self contained and will only be sleeping there, not spending a lot of daylight hours.  Negotiate!

That’s all for now.  I hope you can use the advice I and others are offering to help make your eclipse experience a memorable one.  But mostly, I really hope you have decided there is no way you’re missing this eclipse.  Have a wonderful weekend!

Large swaths of prairie lie under the path of this eclipse.

 

 

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Visiting the Olympic Peninsula   33 comments

A rewarding sunrise from Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains highlights the peaks of the North Cascades in Washington.

A rewarding sunrise from Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains highlights the peaks of the North Cascades in Washington.

Back to my bread & butter, a travel-tip post on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, home to one of America’s best national parks.  I spent a week there in August.  I know I know, what took me so long to write about it?  I’ve been posting pictures for other posts, but it’s finally time to give my take on this beautiful place.  I’ve been there several times, but never as extensively as this one.  It is in my opinion the most diverse national park in the country.  Where else can you hike among flowers in alpine meadows, see glaciers, walk through a misty rain forest, or along a beach studded with sea stacks and brimming with tide pools?  Throw in skipping stones on a beautiful lake and a good soak in a hot spring and you have a pretty special place.

The crescent moon rises over the rugged Olympic Coast at Cape Alava.

The crescent moon rises over the rugged Olympic Coast at Cape Alava.

Places to Visit on the Peninsula

The best time to visit the Olympic Peninsula is anytime during the warmer months, mid-May to September.  April, even March can be nice, also less crowded.  You can have rainy weather at any time, but it is much less common July to mid-September.  Here are the spots I think are worth visiting.  I’ll start with the two most popular places.

      • Hurricane Ridge.  This area accessible via a twisting climbing road from Port Angeles is probably the most spectacular place in the park, and the Peninsula as well.  The views are astounding.  You can see into Canada, over to the Pacific Ocean, and out into the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.  The flowers peak in late July to early August.  There is a small visitor center and a few short trails.  If you drive the gravel road (doable in a 2WD) east to the end of the ridge, you will have more views.  And if you hike a mile or two out one of the trails here you can see Puget Sound and the North Cascades: awesome!
Mount Olympus and companions bask under a beautiful dawn sky as viewed from atop Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington.

Mount Olympus and companions bask under a beautiful dawn sky as viewed from atop Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington.

      • Hoh Rainforest.  Although this area on the west side of the Peninsula can get crowded, the trails have people dispersed in a hurry.  A few short nature trails give a good feel for the forest, and there is a very long trail that heads up the Hoh River, eventually reaching alpine meadows and views of the Blue Glacier. There is also a good visitor center.  Note that you’ll pay an entrance fee (currently $15) to access either Hurricane Ridge or the Hoh, but not for most of the other locations listed below.
Dusk gathers in the foggy forest of the Olympic National Park, Washington.

Dusk gathers in the foggy forest of the Olympic National Park, Washington.

      • La Push Beaches.  The coast near La Push is spectacular.  Several short trails head to beaches, which are popular for backpacking.  But you can also simply drive to Rialto Beach or First Beach.  It’s beautiful.  Do yourself a favor and take a couple walks along the beach.  Time it for low tide for some superb tide-pooling.  Pick up a tide table or jot down times from the internet.  Catch a sunset if at all humanly possible!
The beautiful Olympic Coast at First Beach near La Push, Washington.

The beautiful Olympic Coast at First Beach near La Push, Washington.

      • Ozette.  Actually if you have time do both Ozette and Cape Flattery.  The drive out there from Port Angeles is so beautiful.  Once at Ozette, which used to be a thriving if isolated community but now is not much more than a trailhead, you can hike out a few miles to Cape Alava.  This is the furthest west you can go in the continental United States.  It’s spectacular.  You can hike south along the beach then turn left and make a loop back.  It is about 9 miles for the loop.  The lake is a big one, very worth paddling on if you have a canoe or kayak.  I camped right on the lake and had some very nice starry skies (see image).

If you go to Cape Flattery and have time for a hike, you can head south along the coast on Hobuck Road.  It will give you a feel for how the Makah Native American tribe lives, and you’ll end up at the trailhead for Shi Shi Beach (pronounced shy shy).  Also, at Neah Bay, there is a very worthwhile museum focused on the native culture of the Makah and other coastal tribes.  Cape Flattery is spectacular, the northwestern-most point of the U.S. (excluding Alaska of course). On the drive out there, make sure and check out the beautiful beach at Salt Creek County Park.

Tide pool ornaments on the Olympic Coast.

Tide pool ornaments on the Olympic Coast.

The day's last rays of sunlight strike a sea stack off the northern Olympic Coast in Washington.

The day’s last rays of sunlight strike a sea stack off the northern Olympic Coast in Washington.

 

      • Lake Quinault.  Like many places on the Olympic Peninsula, this beautiful lake lies on American Indian tribal land.  It is bordered, however, by Olympic National Park.  There is a very nice lodge on the southern shore, plus a beautiful nature trail that winds through enormous trees.  The rainforest here is at least as lovely as that in the Hoh Valley.  Drive east past the lake for trailheads that strike off into wilderness.  There are rustic campsites up here, and BIG trees.
Lake Quinalt on Washington's Olympic Peninsula is a beautiful place for a sunset stroll.

Lake Quinalt on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is a beautiful place for a sunset stroll.

A pretty little waterfall nestles in a verdant alcove near Lake Quinault.

A pretty little waterfall nestles in a verdant alcove near Lake Quinault.

 

      • Lake Crescent.  This glacially-carved lake is the most beautiful lake in Washington, if you ask me.  Steep mountains rise from a curving lakeshore.  Many people just drive right by it on the way from Hurricane Ridge to Hoh Valley.  Don’t be one of these people!  A small beach at the west end of the beach is a good place for a picnic.  Roads head along the far northern shore from either end, and a hiking trail ascends to Pyramid Mountain for even better views of the lake.
Lake Crescent on the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington is calm under misty skies.

Lake Crescent on the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington is calm under misty skies.

      • Sol Duc.  This valley covered in beautiful forest is additionally blessed with a (developed) hot springs.  Though I prefer undeveloped hot springs, this one is nicely done.  A short hike takes you to Sol Duc Falls, a beautiful (but popular) cascade.  Reach this valley by turning south just west of Lake Crescent.
Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park.

Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park.

      • Overnight Hikes:  The two classic trips are up the Hoh River and along the coast.  For the former, start at Hoh Visitor Center and head up to the Blue Glacier. You can turn north at the ranger station to enter a lovely lake basin.  Then if you do a shuttle you can exit through the Sol Duc Valley.  For the coast, talk with rangers at the park’s wilderness desk for local information.  You need to factor in slower hiking times plus tides.  There are several possibilities including the hike from Ozette to Rialto Beach, along with Third Beach to Ruby Beach.  Many other backpack trips are possible in the park, including some that ascend quickly into great mountains and lakes from the east, Hood Canal side.
Life thrives along the rugged northern Olympic Coast in Washington.

Life thrives along the rugged northern Olympic Coast in Washington.

A huge leaf after overnight rainfall in the Hoh rain forest.

A huge leaf after overnight rainfall in the Hoh rain forest.

 

The rugged coast along the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington was a particularly serious threat to early shipping, and especially during bad weather.

The rugged coast along the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington was a particularly serious threat to early shipping, and especially during bad weather.

      • Dungeness Spit.  I would be remiss in not mentioning Dungeness Spit near Sequim.  A hike along the Spit is a different experience, reaching far out into the sound.  And it is flat as a pancake!  Sequim is a small town east of Port Angeles.  It benefits from a climatic phenomenon called the rain shadow effect.  It means the rainfall in Sequim is about 16 inches, while over in the nearby rain forests of the western Olympic Peninsula it exceeds 150 inches.  The Olympic Mountains effectively block storms coming in off the Pacific Ocean.  The air rises and cools as it hits the mountains.  Cool air cannot hold as much water in its vapor form as warm air can, so it rains and snows over the high country.  As the weather passes over the peaks and air descends toward Sequim on the Puget Sound, it warms and dries, holding the remaining moisture back – until it hits the Cascades further east.
Low clouds cover the entrance to Puget Sound, with the lights of boats.  Viewed from atop Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington.

Low clouds cover the entrance to Puget Sound, with the lights of boats. Viewed from atop Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington.

 

Onward from the Olympics

You can make your visit even more special by visiting Victoria in Canada.  Just take the ferry from Port Angeles and make sure you have your passport with you.  There are countless lodging options, but perhaps the nicest are the many beds and breakfasts.  You can also stay in one of the hotels lining the truly beautiful harbor.  Whale-watching tours are available, but you should also keep watch from the ferry.  Orcas are not uncommon.

Fog and mist moves in on the beautiful Elwha Valley on the Olympic Peninsula near Lake Crescent.

Fog and mist moves in on the beautiful Elwha Valley on the Olympic Peninsula near Lake Crescent.

From there you can take a ferry over to the San Juan Islands, getting a taste of the slower life there before continuing by ferry back to the Washington mainland north of Seattle.  Some years back my girlfriend and I took her Westphalia camper from Portland up through the Olympic Peninsula, over to Victoria for a bit of culture, then to San Juan and Orcas Islands for more beauty and nature, then home via I-5.  It was a magical trip, perfect for a two week vacation in summertime.

I hope you get to visit this special place some day.  Or return for more in depth exploration if you’ve been there before.  If you are interested in any of these images just click on them.  They are all copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission, sorry about that.  If you have any questions, please contact me. Thanks for reading and have a great week!

A large sea stack and beautiful gold reflection from the sea highlight sunset at Cape Alava on Washington's Pacific Coast.

Beautiful gold reflections on the sea highlight sunset at Cape Alava on Washington’s rugged Pacific Coast.

The Cascades III – Mount Rainier, Part 3   19 comments

The oft-admired view of Mt Rainier from Reflection Lakes.

The oft-admired view of Mt Rainier from Reflection Lakes.

I visited Mount Rainier National Park in Washington this past August for a few days.  This is one of my favorite parks in the country.  When I was more of a backpacker I used to go up to Rainier and hike in the evening, getting an early start on the weekend.  I don’t mind hiking at night with a headlamp.  Sometimes you see some cool animals.  Well, maybe it’s not so cool to see a cougar at night alone!  I would spend the rest of the weekend off-trail, visiting pristine alpine meadows.  Alas, I wasn’t a serious photog. in those days.

There are many many waterfalls at Mount Rainier.  This one sits along a lightly traveled trail in the Paradise Valley.

There are many many waterfalls at Mount Rainier. This one sits along a lightly traveled trail in the Paradise Valley.

This last of the Mount Rainier series (but the Cascades series continues!) will pass on some travel tips.  Along with many visits over the years, I worked for one summer at Rainier a long time ago.  I actually lived at the park that summer and hiked nearly every day.  I was a pretty serious runner then and hit the trails on brutally steep routes.  My creaky knees remember every single mile.  But it was the best shape I’ve ever been in.  We also flew once per week around the mountain, counting elk.  It was a great summer.

So here are my favorite places to visit & photograph at Mount Rainier:

      • Paradise is by far the most popular place in the park.  It can be very crowded right around the visitor center.  But it’s a superb place to gain access quickly to subalpine flower-fields.  For the mobility-challenged, there are paved trails.  You can lose the crowds simply by hiking a couple miles out.  This is also the starting point for the hike to Camp Muir and the most popular route for climbing the mountain.
One of the many flowering subalpine plants at Paradise Park on Mount Rainier.

One of the many flowering subalpine plants at Paradise Park on Mount Rainier.

      • Staying on the south side of the mountain, Reflection Lakes is a great place to photograph the mountain at sunrise.  It is just to the left of the main road not far after the turnoff to Paradise.
The sun struggles to break through the fog at sunrise on Reflection Lakes, Mount Rainier National Park.

The sun struggles to break through the fog at sunrise on Reflection Lakes, Mount Rainier National Park.

      • If you want a great short hike, Snow Lake is just the ticket.  Drive a bit further east from Reflection Lakes and the trail-head is on the right.  It is only about 2 miles to Snow Lake; halfway up take a short spur to Bench Lake.  This gorgeous lake when calm has a perfect reflection of Rainier.   You can camp at Snow Lake.  By hiking in this direction you are entering the Tatoosh Range, a rugged line of peaks running along the south side of the park.
Snow Lake at Mount Rainier is peaceful in the early morning.

Snow Lake at Mount Rainier is peaceful in the early morning.

      • One of Rainier’s best Native American names is Ohanapecosh.  Keep going east past Reflection Lakes and down Steven’s Canyon to the southeast entrance.  Just before you get there, a trail on the left offers a great short walk along the lovely Ohanapecosh River.  An old-growth forest with huge trees grows along the stream banks.
One of the big trees the trail passes at the Ohanapecosh River.

One of the big trees the trail passes at the Ohanapecosh River.

      • Tipsoo Lake on the east side of the park is a popular place from which to photograph Rainier at sunrise.  Since I only have time for one or two over-popular photo spots on each of my trips, I have not photographed this one yet.  I’ll get around to it.  Google Tipsoo for beautiful images!
      • The White River Campground sits along an energetic stream at a great trail-head.  You can hike from here to Glacier Basin.  It’s a beautiful but fairly popular trail.  It is also the starting point for the climb up to Camp Schurman and the north ascent of the mountain.  In my opinion this is a better climb than Camp Muir, but I’m partial to glacier climbs.
One of summer's later blooming flowers is the beautiful blue gentian of boggy subalpine high country, here at Mount Rainier, Washington.

One of summer’s later blooming flowers is the beautiful blue gentian of boggy subalpine high country, here at Mount Rainier, Washington.

      • Sunrise is, like Paradise, a popular place to hike through subalpine meadows.  You have your choice of hikes, short to long, on a multitude of trails.  It’s not hard to leave the crowds behind here.  There is a visitor center plus walk-in campground.  This is the trail-head to gorgeous Mystic Lake on the north side of the mountain.  By the way, any time you want good back-country information at a national park, visit the back-country ranger’s desk, which is separate from the less useful visitor center’s info. desk. In many cases, Sunrise being one, the back-country office is in a separate, more rustic-looking building.
This furry critter is a hoary marmot and is a common sight (and sound) in the alpine meadows of Mount Rainier.

This furry critter is a hoary marmot and is a common sight (and sound) in the alpine meadows of Mount Rainier.

      • On the road up to Sunrise is the Palisades trail-head.  The road makes a big 180-degree switchback and there is a parking lot in the center of the curve. The trail heads out to Palisades and Hidden Lake (which make good day-hikes), continuing to wonderful Grand Park (overnight).  Although the trail is short on views of the mountain, it passes a number of beautiful lakes and meadows.  My favorite thing about it is the likelihood of wildlife sightings.  I’ve seen bear, elk, deer, and smaller critters on this trail.
Flowers crowd Clover Lake on the Palisades Trail at Mount Rainier National Park.

Flowers crowd Clover Lake on the Palisades Trail at Mount Rainier National Park.

      • Grand Park is an overnight backpack trip starting from the Palisades Trail-head.  It is shorter if you approach it from outside the park (google for directions). Grand is a huge meadow sitting high atop a mountain, and is a magnet for wildlife.  On one trip there, I approached the park at night.  The meadow was filled with elk!  I could hear them bugling a few miles away, and when I arrived there was a real party going on.  The male elk made it very clear to me that I was not invited.  I had to camp back in the forest; rutting elk bulls are not to be messed with.
Bull Elk

Bull Elk

      • Mowich Lake on the northwest side of the mountain is a wonderfully peaceful place to camp for a night or two.  Though you need to exit the park and drive awhile to reach it from the rest of the park, and the final approach is a gravel road, it’s worth it.  Mowich is the largest lake in the park and trail-head for a number of great trails.  You can stay over in a small tents-only campground.  The trail to Spray Park is awesome, climbing through great meadows with stunning views of the mountain.  Eunice Lake, about 2.5 miles from Mowich, is one of my favorite places to photograph the mountain from, especially at sunset.
Mowich Lake at Mount Rainier allows no motors and is accessible on an RV-unfriendly road, making it a very peaceful spot.

Mowich Lake at Mount Rainier allows no motors and is accessible on an RV-unfriendly road, making it a very peaceful spot.

      • Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground on the west side of the mountain is a great hiking destination.  You can reach it on a rough trail from the West Side Road, or on the Wonderland Trail.  There are flower-filled meadows along with tarns which yield great photos of the mountain.  The hike up to Pyramid Peak from here is steep but not too difficult a scramble.  On the other side of the peak is a great pristine alpine meadow.
One of the tarns (small lakes) in the meadows of Indian Henry's Hunting Ground at Mount Rainier National Park.

One of the tarns (small lakes) in the meadows of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground at Mount Rainier National Park.

      • Lastly, if you’re a backpacker, consider doing the Wonderland Trail.  It is 93 miles of outstanding scenery, a trail that winds its leisurely way around Rainier.  You will face plenty of hills, so plan to not make record time.  You won’t want to hurry, believe me.  It’s an experience you will always remember.
If you're afraid of heights you will probably not enjoy this suspension bridge along the Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier National Park.

If you’re afraid of heights you will probably not enjoy this suspension bridge along the Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier National Park.

Plenty of other destinations tempt you at Rainier.  It’s up to you to find them (I won’t give away all my secrets!).  I would consider devoting the good part of a week at the park if you have the time.  Plan at least a few days for a good introduction.  Visit the park’s website for lodging and camping information.  This park gets busy on summer weekends, but it covers a huge area so don’t let that stop you. September is a fantastic month to visit, as the crowds have lessened greatly, the weather is generally perfect, and the wildlife is much more active.  Flowers peak in August.

Cloud Block

Please note all of these images are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission.  They are low-resolution versions anyway.  To learn about pricing options for the high-res. versions, simply click on the images you’re interested in.  If you have any questions at all, please contact me.  Thanks for your interest, and thanks for sticking with me on this rather lengthy post!

Hiker's Heaven: Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Hiker’s Heaven: Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Spring in the Pacific Northwest – Part II   5 comments

This is an impressive waterfall in Washington's southern Cascade Range, near Mount St. Helens.  Here you see it in full-on spring flood.

This is an impressive waterfall in Washington’s southern Cascade Range, near Mount St. Helens. Here you see it in full-on spring flood.

One Soggy Rose.

One Soggy Rose.

This is the second of two parts on what regions to visit and when in the Pacific Northwest.  The recommendations are particularly relevant for nature and landscape photographers, but anyone who plans to visit during spring or early summer will find it useful.  Since I’m going to just jump in where I left off, it’s best to check out Part I first.

POPULATED AREAS

Speaking of spring flowers (I was actually speaking of them in the 1st part!), let’s not forget the gardens and cultivated areas through the western valleys and cities of the Pacific Northwest.  The tulips bloom starting in April and there are several farms that welcome visitors.  The area around Woodburn is very popular; so popular with photogs. in fact, that I’ve stubbornly avoided taking one picture there!  I do love tulips, and there are plenty around town to photograph.  The roses for which Portland is famous bloom about the time of the city’s signature event, Rose Festival (go figure!).  This is late May into June.  A visit to Portland’s Rose Garden during a cloudy day right after rainfall can yield amazing flower pictures.

Neighborhood_Flowers_4-20-12_5D_003

At Portland's Rose Garden, spring showers linger into the season of bloom.

At Portland’s Rose Garden, spring showers linger into the season of bloom.

For people pictures, head down to the waterfront for the Rose Festival itself, or to one of the street fairs such as Last Thursday (Alberta Street, last Thursday of every month, May – October).  Or just go to one of our “hip” neighborhoods and hang out.  There is always something going on in this town.

The cherry blossoms and unsettled weather go along with Spring in Portland, Oregon.

The cherry blossoms and unsettled weather go along with Spring in Portland, Oregon.

Portland's Rose Festival is a great place to stroll around, enjoying the perfect weather and comfort food.

Portland’s Rose Festival is a great place to stroll around, enjoying the perfect weather and comfort food.

The street fair in Portland known as Last Thursday attracts thousands of artists, musicians and spectators.

The street fair in Portland known as Last Thursday attracts thousands of artists, musicians and spectators.

THE COAST

At some point in springtime, hopefully during the kind of off and on weather that the season is known for around here, you’ll want to visit the coast.  The greening up does not skip this part of Oregon, and spring storms can bring great wave action as well.  Extra-low tides are great for exploring (and photographing) the fascinating sea life in tidal pools.  The Oregon Coast is simply one of those places you should try your level best to see at some point.

Big waves pound the tilted layers of an ancient delta at Cape Arago on the central Oregon Coast.

Big waves pound the tilted layers of an ancient delta at Cape Arago on the central Oregon Coast.

And while you’re at it do the northern California coast and/or the Olympic Coast in Washington.  These are just as beautiful as Oregon, since it’s really just a continuation.  Have to admit I’m partial to our coast though.  For one thing, you’ll see no private property signs or fences blocking access to a beach in Oregon.  That would be against the law, since every bit of coast up to high-tide line is public property.  For another, the whole coast is beautiful, from one end to the other.  It’s one long continuous stretch of pretty little towns, capes and sea stacks.  The Olympic Coast is wilder though, being in a National Park.

The sun goes down as wading birds forage for tiny crustaceans along the northern California coast where a creek enters the ocean.

The sun goes down as wading birds forage for tiny crustaceans along the northern California coast where a creek enters the ocean.

Spring used to not be my favorite season around these parts.  I still don’t really like how long it can be. Enough already!  But with the flowers and generally good weather conditions for photography, with the lush green forest and filled-to-the-brim waterfalls, with all the days conducive to rainbows, I’ve come around to liking this season..a lot.  There must be some reason I tend to stick around the Northwest during this time of year.

A small barn in rural western Oregon, at day's end on a typical spring showery day.

A small barn in rural western Oregon, at day’s end on a typical spring showery day.

A perfectly symmetrical daisy blooms in Portland, Oregon.

A perfectly symmetrical daisy blooms in Portland, Oregon.

Of course we have beautiful (but much shorter) autumns.  And summer is filled with near-perfect days and breezy nights (generally too clear for a photographer’s liking though).  Come November now, I’ll be itching to get out of Dodge.  But spring and early summer are really when the Pacific Northwest shines.  The only problem?  There is much too much to do, and with the year’s longest days to do it in.  Spring is also the time to kayak and raft the whitewater on the smaller, undammed rivers.  It’s the time to climb (and ski down) the snow-clad volcanoes.  It’s time to join in the fun of outdoor festivals and outings.  It’s a time when you wonder if sleep really is overrated.

Thanks for looking!

A spring storm clears at Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon coast just in time for sunset.

A spring storm clears at Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon coast just in time for sunset.

Spring in the Pacific Northwest – Part I   8 comments

Portland, Oregon's Tom McCall Waterfront Park in springtime features blooming cherry trees.

Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park features blooming cherry trees in springtime.

Springtime in the Pacific Northwest can last a full 4 months!  That’s right, 1/4 of the year for a season that doesn’t even exist in some places, and in others (the far north for example) it is a couple weeks of melting snow and ice – it’s called breakup not spring in Alaska.  This is the first of a two-part summary of recommended times to visit and photograph the different destinations in this corner of the country.

The two years previous to this one we’ve had very long, cool springs, starting in fits sometime in mid- to late-February and lasting through the July 4th holiday weekend.  Clouds, storms, cool weather, sun, hail, snow in the mountains: you know, spring!  And well over 4 months of it!  But this year it didn’t really start until March and it appears to be over now.  We had some very warm weather (for May), then one more spate of cool, wet weather, then May went out and left us with gorgeous dry summer-like weather.  It looks like it wants to stay too.

The beautiful Falls Creek in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Beautiful Falls Creek in Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

For photography around these parts, you want to time it so that starting in mid-spring you are out as much as humanly possible.  That’s because a bunch of things happen one after the other.  So here is a brief summary of where to go and when during glorious spring in the Pacific NW.

EAST OF THE MOUNTAINS

East of the Cascade Mountains early flowers bloom beginning in March.  The weather and light is often interesting in early spring too.  But by mid-April, the flowers really start to peak in the drier eastern parts of Oregon and Washington.  This includes the eastern Columbia River Gorge, a dramatic landscape.  Perhaps you’ve heard of or seen images from a place called Rowena Crest (I call it Rowena Plateau, ’cause that’s what it really is).  Fields of yellow arrow-leaf balsamroot abound!

The sunflower-like balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) blooms in profusion along the dry rocky terrain of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

Sunflower-like arrowleaf balsamroot blooms in profusion along the dry rocky terrain of the eastern Columbia River Gorge in Washington.

A grass widow blooms in the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

A grass widow blooms in the eastern Columbia River Gorge.

Also check out the Washington side of the eastern Gorge for great flower displays and sweeping landscapes – places like Catherine Creek and the Columbia Hills.  The flower bloom gradually moves west and up (in elevation) through May, with purple lupine and red/orange indian paintbrush joining the party.  One of my favorite flowers of the east is the beautiful purple grass widow.  It is very early (March) in eastern Oregon but a little later in the Gorge.  Another favorite of the dry parts, the showy mariposa lily, blooms rather late, throughout May.

Oregon's Painted Hills are made up of repeating layers of colorful and ancient volcanic ash.

Oregon’s Painted Hills are made up of repeating layers of ancient and colorful volcanic ash.

A small fry gambles in the spring pasture near the town of Fossil, central Oregon.

A small fry gambols in the spring pasture near the town of Fossil, central Oregon.

The Palouse of Washington state is a beautiful rural area of quiet farms.

The Palouse of Washington state is a beautiful rural area of quiet farms.

It’s worth trying to hit the dry, eastern parts of the Pacific Northwest (our steppe) sometime in April or May.  This includes the popular landscape photo destinations of the Palouse in Washington and the Painted Hills in Oregon.  Photographers should try to time a visit with some weather if possible, since clear skies are the rule out there.

I visited the Palouse this year in late May.  That was a bit late but really only for the flower-bloom in a few areas (like Kamiak Butte).  I had an injury and could not go when I originally wanted to, but it happened to work out perfectly.  The weather & light conditions at the end of May were superb.  For the Palouse, really anytime in spring through early summer is a good time to visit; any later and those famous rolling green fields lose their sheen.

Driving the rural roads of the Palouse in eastern Washington.

Driving the rural roads of the Palouse in eastern Washington.

The Palouse in eastern Washington is a region of wide-open spaces.

The Palouse in eastern Washington is a region of wide-open spaces.

Self-portraiture in the Painted Hills, central Oregon.

Self-portraiture in the Painted Hills, central Oregon.

THE VERDANT FORESTS

Anytime in mid- to late-spring (April or May), during or just after rains, visits to your favorite waterfalls and cascading creeks are very worthwhile.  This is because the warmer weather and intermittent sunshine, along with abundant moisture, really amps up the already green forests and fields of the Pacific Northwest.  The almost electric green of mosses and ferns, the thundering fullness of the countless waterfalls, all of this results in photographers snapping many many images of a kind of green paradise.

The rugged Salmon River Canyon of western Oregon is mantled in clouds and dusted with a late-season snowfall.

The rugged Salmon River Canyon of western Oregon is mantled in clouds and dusted with a late-season snowfall.

Oregon's highest waterfall is in springtime flood:  Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.

Oregon’s highest waterfall is in springtime flood: Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge.

The Columbia River Gorge is the most common destination (and features the most in pictures you’ll see), but really any forested area laced with creeks and rivers will do.  The Salmon River Valley near Mount Hood, the Lewis River Valley near Mount St. Helens, the North Santiam and Little North Santiam east of Salem, they’re all good!  In mid-spring (April into early May), look out for our signature forest flower, the beautiful trillium.

Dogwood Blooms along the trail in western Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Dogwood Blooms along the trail in western Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Ferns and a waterfall thrive in a dim grotto deep in the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon.

Ferns and a waterfall thrive in a dim grotto deep within the Columbia River Gorge of Oregon.

Stay tuned for the second part on this subject.  If you’re interested in any of these images, simply click on them to access purchase options for the high-resolution versions.  Then click “add this image to cart”.  It won’t be added to your cart right away though; you need to make choices first.  Thanks for your interest, and please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions or comments.

A small creek in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge rolls through a mossy forest.

A small creek in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge rolls through a mossy forest.

In the Painted Hills, a family of geese makes its way across a rare stretch of water in the otherwise dry eastern Oregon.

In the Painted Hills, a family of geese makes its way across a stretch of water, a rarity in otherwise dry eastern Oregon.

The Palouse IV: Travel Tips   3 comments

The vibrant green of the Palouse in eastern Washington after a spring shower.

The vibrant green of the Palouse in eastern Washington after a spring shower.

The Palouse in southeastern Washington is one of those areas of the Pacific Northwest that does not receive many visitors.  It is out of the way and not nearly as spectacular as the Cascades or the Coast.  But if you are into photography you really can’t do much better.  It is a slice of rural life in the drier eastern parts of the Pacific NW.  Perhaps it doesn’t belong at the top of your list during a first visit to the region, but it should definitely be considered on a second trip.

WHEN TO GO

The Palouse is best in spring and fall.  It is quite windy and cold in winter, and in high summer it’s a dry and often dusty place.  When I say summer I mean from July through early September.  June is really late spring in these parts.  The flowers, which are only found in certain areas, begin to bloom in mid- to late-April.  The bloom continues through May or early June.  The splashy yellow sunflower-like balsamroot peaks around early May.  Spring is a very green season, with the rolling fields taking on an almost electric hue.  Fall offers superb golden wave-like fields of wheat.

A patriotic barn in the Palouse of Washington state.

A patriotic barn in the Palouse of Washington state.

WHERE TO STAY

Despite its lack of big towns and parks, it is fairly easy to find a good base from which to explore the Palouse.  You can stay in the small town of Palouse, which is very central, but there are only a few motels.  You’ll find more choice in Pullman or Moscow, Idaho.  Realize that, depending on where you intend to photograph at sunrise, this will involve getting up VERY early.  Tekoa in the north is also a good base, with several places to stay.  Throughout the Palouse lie scattered  B&Bs to choose from, so google this.

Newly planted rows of wheat grace the smooth terrain of the Palouse in Washington state.

Newly planted rows of wheat grace the smooth terrain of the Palouse in Washington state.

For campers there are several options.  Towards the western end of the Palouse, you’ll find Palouse Falls State Park.  This compact little park has a big advantage in that you can photograph the stunning waterfall here at any time when the light is good.  Near the eastern end of the Palouse, there is a beautiful campground at Kamiak Butte.  This county park has a great hiking loop that takes you over the top of the butte, with flower-fields and views of the rolling fields below.  The problem with Kamiak is that the gates are closed at dusk, ruling it out as a base from which to make forays for sunset photos.

You can also camp at the Palouse Empire Fairgrounds 20 miles north of Pullman.  The Boyer Park RV camp 22 miles SW of Pullman is a good choice if you have a camper/RV.  They have showers and laundry there.  Wherever you stay, note that the region is fairly spread out, so prepare for some driving.  The great news is that the roads are pleasantly rural with little traffic.

In this view from Kamiak Butte in southeast Washington, the fields of the Palouse appear to form a green carpet over the undulating landscape.

In this view from Kamiak Butte in southeast Washington, the fields of the Palouse appear to form a green carpet over the undulating landscape.

WHAT TO DO/PHOTOGRAPH

There are not many traditional tourist sights in the Palouse.  There are a number of small, quirky museums and plenty of great barns and farms to see and photograph.  Check out Palouse Scenic Byway and Visit Palouse, and of course Trip Advisor’s Forums.  For photographers, you’ll notice almost immediately that it helps to get up in elevation a bit.  The easy approach is to head up Steptoe Butte or Kamiak Butte (the latter which you’ll have to hike to access the summit).  Tekoa Mountain south of Pullman is also a great choice.  But since you don’t actually need to be that high for good photographic compositions, you’ll find hills when you’re driving around which will get you high enough.  I’ve got a secret little hill that sticks up, but I’m going to keep that to myself for now, sorry.

Arrowleaf balsamroot bloom on the slopes of Kamiak Butte in southeastern Washington.

Arrowleaf balsamroot bloom on the slopes of Kamiak Butte in southeastern Washington.

Some ideas:

      • Drive the Palouse Scenic Byway and turn off at random dirt roads that strike your fancy.  Many of them loop back to the pavement.  Take along a good atlas (such as Delorme’s).
      • Visit Steptoe Butte.  This isolated hill lies in the heart of the Palouse.  The great thing about it is that you can stop on the road that winds its way up the butte at whatever elevation you wish.  This will allow you to pick your perspective for photography.  Or simply drive to the top for 360 degree views.
      • Visit Kamiak Butte.  To photograph at sunset and/or sunrise, you’ll need to camp here, because they close the gates at dusk.  Make the short hike to the top of the butte for both sunset and sunrise.  If its springtime the flowers are as fantastic as the views.
      • Visit Palouse Falls.  This is an amazing waterfall with a spectacular plunge pool.  You can hike to the bottom or do a short loop around the top.  There is a state park here which requires a Washington Discovery Pass ($10/day).
      • Walk around a couple of the small towns with your camera.  Try Garfield, Lacrosse & Rosalia.  Uniontown has a fence made of wagon wheels.  In addition, during your driving explorations, keep on the lookout for beautifully situated barns.
      • If you are in the Colfax area and want a nice quiet picnic spot, check out Klemgard County Park.  From Hwy. 195 heading south of Colfax, turn right (west) on Hamilton Hill Road, then right on Upper Union Flat Rd.  There are signs.  A short trail loops up through the small forest and there is plenty of open grassy space in this peaceful little park.
      • Drive along the major watercourses in nice light for great photo opportunities.  The Palouse River meanders through the countryside and is a lovely stream.  Even where it flows out of the town of Palouse it is picturesque (see image below). The Snake River is accessible in several places, but for me its size clashes with the more intimate nature of the Palouse landscapes.  The Pataha Creek valley west of Pomeroy along U.S. Hwy. 12 is beautiful.  Wind turbines add some interest.  Often in the Palouse you will be starved for subjects, the landscape is so spare, so windmills, barns, etc. are worth keeping an eye out for.
The Palouse River winds its way through the rural landscape of eastern Washington.

The Palouse River winds its way through the rural landscape of eastern Washington.

The Palouse is an understated yet beautiful and peaceful place to visit.  If you’re looking for action or adrenaline sports, look elsewhere.  But for history and photography enthusiasts, and for those who wish to spend time being transported back to America’s simpler times, the Palouse is one of the best places in the Pacific Northwest.

Please note that the images here are copyrighted and not available for free download, sorry ’bout that.  But if you’re interested in one of them you can either click the image or contact me with questions and requests.  Thanks for your interest!

A small farm with big broad fields sits under a big beautiful dusk sky in the Palouse region of eastern Washington.

A small farm with big broad fields sits under a big beautiful dusk sky in the Palouse region of eastern Washington.

The (crowded) California Coast   Leave a comment

A late afternoon winter's sun illuminates the rugged California Coast.

A late afternoon winter’s sun illuminates the rugged California Coast.

I’ll say right off that California is one of the most beautiful states in the U.S.A., and is arguably one of the most gorgeous places that I’ve ever been in the world.  But I wish I had been born earlier and could have experienced it in the early 20th century, no later than the 50s.  While I’m in the wishing mode, I’d actually like to have roamed around here in the missionary days.  Or trapping and exploring with Jedediah Smith!

The California Coast is the attraction to driving Highway 1.

The California Coast is the attraction to driving Highway 1.

Other than the desert, and the far NE and far NW corners of the state, California is really too crowded and developed for my tastes.  The coast has about three times more traffic and people than I prefer.  And so despite its physical beauty, it falls down on my list of favorite states.  It’s not in the bottom half, but it doesn’t quite crack the top 10 either.  Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon are the top 3, in case you’re curious.

An Anna's hummingbird feeds on flowers in a garden on the California Coast at Big Sur.

An Anna’s hummingbird feeds on flowers in the garden at Big Sur Coast Gallery.

The traffic and pollution in southern California are pretty bad, and the traffic in the Bay Area is a big turnoff as well.  I particularly don’t like the fact that in southern California both the air and immediate offshore marine environment are polluted.  Light pollution, the disappearance of stars from the night sky, is also a huge negative for me.  All that said, the high Sierra, the Redwood Coast, parts of the wine country (the Alexander Valley for e.g.) and of course the Mojave Desert are places I will return to again and again.  These are very worthwhile destinations for anyone who loves the natural world.  Mostly these places are not very crowded.

A garden on the California Coast draws hummingbirds with its blooms, even in winter.

A garden on the California Coast draws hummingbirds with its blooms, even in winter.

I am currently on the Monterrey Peninsula. I had traveled almost all of the California Coast before now but had missed out on the section north of Santa Barbara and south of Santa Cruz.  So on the way home to Oregon now, I am taking the opportunity to drive up this coast.

It’s a very beautiful piece of coastline: rocky headlands, crashing waves, mountains which plunge directly into the ocean.  It reminds me strongly of the Oregon Coast.  But here is the problem, as far as I can see.  If you want to travel a coast that has abundant natural beauty, along with quaint towns, picturesque lighthouses, etc., why not go to Oregon?  It’s less crowded, there is more of the spectacular stuff, and beach access is much much better than in California.

Winter waves on the California Coast near Big Sur hit the legs of the tripod.

Winter waves on the California Coast near Big Sur hit the legs of the tripod.

Granted, this time of year, between Christmas and New Years, I should not be surprised that it’s crowded.  Many people take off during this week, families with kids on school break especially.  But I’ve been on the Oregon Coast at this time of year, and it is nowhere near as busy as the Big Sur/Monterrey area.

I have seen so many folks from other countries, particularly Europe, while traveling this coast over the past few days.  While for Californians this is closer than Oregon (so I get why they are here), I don’t really understand why I don’t see so many visitors from other countries on the Oregon Coast.

Have a Seat

Those from other countries are planning this as a travel destination.  Of course they also want to see San Francisco.  But why not fly into that city and travel north?  I simply can’t understand why anybody would want to see L.A.  The San Diego area is awfully warm this time of year, compared to Oregon, so that makes sense.

I am sure this part of the California Coast would be much more calm and uncrowded during a different week.  When I was south of Big Sur, on Christmas night, the highway north was blocked by a landslide.  It was deserted, and I loved being perched high up on a cliff, camped while the wind and rain from an overnight storm buffeted my van.

An inlaid sculpture highlights one wall of the Carmel Mission in California.

An inlaid sculpture highlights one wall of the Carmel Mission in California.

The day after Christmas was beautiful, and the number of people on the road stayed low.  But over the next few days, and as I moved north, the car numbers increased steadily, until now on the weekend before Christmas in the Carmel area it is downright overcrowded.

When the road finally opened (I snuck through at night after the workers were gone) boy did the cars ever come from the north.  Just north of Big Sur I watched long lines of cars heading south, and was glad I got in a hike and otherwise enjoyed Big Sur before the rush.  It’s a little frantic around here, and I’m not used to it.  Now before you write a comment and point out that I am one of those visitors, I am already well aware of this.  I had to see this area at least once.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

I am going to post a strong travel recommendation.  I would never do this if I had a legion of followers.  I prefer that people continue to come here and leave Oregon alone.  But if you are considering a trip along the California Coast, reconsider.  If you started in Portland, Oregon and headed south to San Francisco, or began in the south and headed as far north as the central Oregon Coast, that would be an epic trip.  If you don’t want to do the one-way rental car, you could always return via the quicker Interstate 5 inland.

So that’s enough of my whining.  I will end by saying that it would be much much worse if the people were not so darn friendly here.  Most everyone I’ve met, travelers and locals alike, has been nothing but warm and friendly.  So there!  I’ll post some recommendations next time.

Near Point Lobos on the central California Coast, the sunset illuminates the beautiful groundcover that characterizes this part of the coastline.

Near Point Lobos on the central California Coast, the sunset illuminates the beautiful groundcover that characterizes this part of the coastline.

 

 

 

Ensenada City Guide II   4 comments

The Ensenada harbor hosts cruise ships, and on this night when fire works are planned, a fire boat entertains spectators on shore by spraying water.

The Ensenada harbor hosts cruise ships, and on this night when fire works are planned, a fire boat entertains spectators on shore by spraying water.

This is the second of two parts.  Scroll down for the first post.   Ensenada is not a big city.  I don’t know about the statistics, but it feels like a modest city or very large town.  I have always loved places of this size. Having been here a week, I am starting to see the some of the same folks.  They show recognition and are starting to wave and say Buenos Dias.  They probably think I’ve moved here. The citizens are good people here.

The Ensenada fish market shows off some of its more interesting offerings.

The Ensenada fish market shows off some of its more interesting offerings.

 The city center (el centro) is basically divided into two sections.  One is the waterfront, which extends a few blocks away from there towards the east.  This is the “Zona Turistica”, an area with signs in English, high-end shops, and restaurants with food that suit the palettes of Americans and other Anglo Saxon types.

The sun is kissing this jar of honey fo sale in Ensenada, Mexico.

The sun is kissing this jar of honey fo sale in Ensenada, Mexico.

The city’s prostitutes operate out of this section too, though streetwalkers are very rare. Instead, they hang out in strip bars and massage parlors. If you’re a man walking through this area, be prepared for local guys to offer you the services of young girls. I wonder why so many people assume that middle-aged white men want to make it with girls who could be their daughters, or even granddaughters. It’s very true in Asia as well, Thailand being infamous for it. Very disturbing.  All of that said, I very much enjoy seeing and photographing the pretty women of Mexico, both young and old.

Clowning around on the waterfront of Ensenada, Mexico.

Clowning around on the waterfront of Ensenada, Mexico.

The great thing about the tourist section is that, being the waterfront, locals use it heavily. Even when cruise ships arrive and disgorge their passengers, locals outnumber tourists.  This means there are taco stands, great local restaurants, and even a local coffee shop or two.  I’ve been frequenting a delightfully cozy little cafe in the same mall where Sanborn’s Cafe is located (look for their sign).  Called Cafe Italia, it’s mere steps north of the town’s Starbucks.

A young senorita smiles for the camera on a pretty December day on Ensenada, Mexico's waterfront.

A young senorita smiles for the camera on a pretty December day on Ensenada, Mexico’s waterfront.

Sadly, the Starbucks gets much more business, perhaps because it is streetfront on Lazaro Cardenas, the road that runs right along the waterfront.  My little cafe is sort of hidden away, but it’s worth finding.  Sanborn’s Cafe is a nice restaurant as well, with traditionally dressed waitresses.

Reddish madrone and granite make a pleasant color combination on a climb in Baja Norte, Mexico.

Reddish madrone and granite make a pleasant color combination on a climb in Baja California, Mexico.

Cruise ship passengers seem not to wander beyond the Zona Turistica.  Granted there is plenty to keep you here.  The malecon passes the fish market, which is alongside a row of seafood restaurants (convenient!).  You will be offered boat rides here, from whale watching to fishing trips.  There are the requisite tours that go to various places that I am not familiar with, but I have not heard of anything that really piques my interest.

Ogla, the waitress, dressed in nice traditional clothes, wants to know if I want more coffee.

Ogla, the waitress, who is dressed in nice traditional clothes, wants to know if I want more coffee.

 If you simply walk a few blocks further from the sea, you come upon cheaper shopping and a much more traditional Mexican vibe.  There is a Sears and a couple other department stores, but there are also many small shops where you can pick up clothes and other stuff at good prices.  I bought myself a sombrero, my very first cowboy hat, for only $17.  It’s very nice, and the same shop has high quality leather cowboy boots for much cheaper than you’d find them in the U.S.  Further down south, a little ways from the city center, American big box stores have opened (Walmart, Home Depot, Costco).

On the streets of Ensenada, Mexico, a dune buggy is freshly painted for Christmas.

On the streets of Ensenada, Mexico, a dune buggy is freshly painted for Christmas.

 In amongst the shops in the city center are a plethora of streetside eateries.  This is a big part of Mexican culture.  Walk down the street around lunchtime and pick a popular taco stand.  You’ll get tasty fresh-fish tacos for about a dollar.  And you will likely be serenaded by guitarists singing traditional Mexican songs.  Most everybody eats standing up in the shade of the stand.  Very often it is grandmothers making the tacos, and their grand-kids will usually be there if school is not in session.  Catch a Mexican when they are eating and you will always get a friendly attitude.  Food is the glue that binds people, especially families, together here.

Two good friends greet with a hug in Ensenada, Mexico.

Two good friends greet with a hug in Ensenada, Mexico.

 As far as nightlife goes, there are local favorites, such as Hussong’s Cantina a few blocks inland from the harbor.  Then there are the touristy places like Papas & Beer.  Dance clubs are also in this same area.  At about 10 p.m. on a weekend night, look for the lines to get in, young (and gorgeous) girls along with guys trying to be cool about it all. Policia are all about the area, but truth be told, this is a perfectly safe area, even at night.  Ensenada is not Tijuana.

The desert of Baja California Norte in Mexico is a seeming hodgepodge of odd-looking plants.

The desert of Baja California Norte in Mexico is a seeming hodgepodge of odd-looking plants.

Plenty of people from California take vacations down here in the summer.  But I really think Ensenada is by and large overlooked in favor of La Paz and Cabo to the south.  Many visitors to the Baja Peninsula fly to the southern resorts, and I can’t say anything bad about a quick and easy winter escape down there.  But if you have the time to drive down, or if you’re going by bus down the peninsula, Ensenada and the deserts of northern Baja California are certainly worth some time.

A young Mexican couple in love.

A young Mexican couple in love.

Moving on from Ensenada, you can head south via San Felipe over on the eastern side of the peninsula.  This involves some gravel road south of San Felipe, but it is very scenic and unpeopled.  And you get to see a lot of the Sea of Cortez, a more beautiful coastline I think than this part of the Pacific Coast.  You can always return north via the main paved highway, so as to visit Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Martir (see previous posts).  That’s all for Baja (I think). Hope you enjoyed it!

A fire boat sprays water into a colorful dusk sky in Ensenada, Mexico.

A fire boat sprays water into a colorful dusk sky in Ensenada, Mexico.

A Carnival cruise ship lies in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A Carnival cruise ship lies in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

Ensenada City Guide I   Leave a comment

Fishing boats and pleasure craft share the harbor at Ensenada, Mexico.

Fishing boats and pleasure craft share the harbor at Ensenada, Mexico.

I feel after being here a week (my second visit) that I can safely recommend some things for anyone planning a short visit to Ensenada, which is on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico a couple hour’s drive south of San Diego.  For someone planning to come for longer than a few days, perhaps I would need to stay longer, maybe a month.  That’s the way it works, at least for me.  I need to be in a place for awhile in order to speak intelligently about it, and then my thoughts are only good for a shorter visit than I had.  It’s something I recently discovered about travel.  Note that I don’t cover many of the standard attractions; do a quick internet search (e.g. Trip Adviser) for the standard sort of advice.

Everyone needs a hat: Ensenada, Mexico.

Everyone needs a hat: Ensenada, Mexico.

I’m finally posting some people pictures, though my last post actually talked about the people more.  Sort of a mismatch I realize, but it probably only bothers me, and not all that much at that.

A pretty girl on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico.

A pretty girl on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico.  Note the pay phone, a disappearing sight.

Ensenada, like so many places, grows on you.  Many people from San Diego or elsewhere in SoCal maintain a house down here.  And many of those end up retiring down here.  So it is slowly becoming more popular.  Sure, Loreto to the south on the Peninsula, along with other places in Mexico, are more popular retirement destinations.  Ensenada, after all, has a seedy side.  And there are not really any good beaches nearby.  But it is a superb place to have a boat, and the fishing is excellent.  It is also a very safe place to be in Mexico, which is pretty important these days.  And for an American, being so close to U.S. soil is downright convenient.

A man selling honey on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico laughs at a friend ribbing him.

A man selling honey on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico laughs at a friend ribbing him.

There is one little piece of Ensenada that I was missing, that is until I found one last night; that is, a brewpub.  On a recent walk near sunset (my favorite time to take a walk), I ran into a great microcerveceria, or microbrewery.  It’s called the Old Mission.  I was skeptical about the quality of their brew, but they proved me dead wrong on that score.  It is the first in Ensenada.  La Paz, Tijuana, Mexicali, they all have several brewpubs.

A plain wall and window are given a bit of color in Ensenada, Mexico.

A plain wall and window are given a bit of color in Ensenada, Mexico.

A good brewpub is something we take for granted now in the Pacific Northwest.  But in Mexico you cannot buy microbrews in the stores.  Tecate is like Budweiser, and that company even manages to keep out competitors like Pacifico (which is my favorite mass-produced beer in Mexico).  You can find Pacifico in cans, but the best kind, that is, in thick-glass returnable bottles, is rare indeed.

A glass lamp and the setting sun combine to make a miniature lighthouse in Ensenada, Mexico's fishing harbor.

A glass lamp and the setting sun combine to make a miniature lighthouse in Ensenada, Mexico’s fishing harbor.

The microcerveceria, which has only been open about a year, is a very well built place, with soaring ceilings made of good ol’ Oregon Doug fir beams.  It cost the owners a bundle to import them.  They serve good pizza, and a variety of very good Mexican dishes and pasta.  They serve a couple great IPAs, plus a few ales, including a brown and a red.  And unlike in the U.S. (at least the ones I’ve been to) this brewpub sells mixed drinks.  Prices are quite reasonable, what with the good exchange rate between American dollars and pesos.  A margarita goes for about $2.50, while pints are in the $3.00+ neighborhood.  Sadly, $1 beers are pretty much gone in most of Mexico.

Men selling honey (miel) in Ensenada, Mexico pass the time in a card game.

Men selling honey (miel) in Ensenada, Mexico pass the time in a card game.

This post has two parts.  Tune into the second of these tomorrow!

A walk up a desert wash on Mexico's Baja Peninsula reveals some nice surprises, including palm trees.

A walk up a desert wash on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula reveals some nice surprises, including palm trees.

Zion National Park: Travel Tips   6 comments

The Kayenta Formation at the bottom of Zion Canyon is easily undercut by the Zion River.

Zion is a well-known National Park in southwest Utah.  It’s centered on a spectacular red-rock canyon on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau.  The canyon walls are near vertical (even overhanging in places).  The vertical relief from the highest point (over 8000 feet) to the lowest point in the canyon (3700 feet) is about 5000 feet (over 1500 meters).  So hiking here can involve some sweat.  Coming in from the west, via St George, Utah, you’ll approach through the beautiful valley of the Virgin River.

The Virgin River in Zion Canyon reflects early evening light.

Most people seem to fly into Vegas and rent a car, then race across the Interstate 15 to the park.  Undoubtedly this is a cheap and quick option, but flying into Salt Lake City and looping down through Capitol Reef N.P., Grand Staircase, Bryce N.P., and then into Zion would be my preference if I had the time (two weeks minimum).  You could also do the 5-hour drive from Salt Lake to Moab and do Arches and Canyonlands.  Then loop west toward the above destinations.  Figure three weeks for that trip, though many would be able to do it in two (or even one week for the quick-hitter tourists).

I entered this time from the east, part of a large looping roadtrip which started Sept 25th by driving from my home in Oregon to northern Idaho.  Then it was Montana, Wyoming, NE Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, across southern Utah, and here I am in Dixie.  I bet you thought Dixie was in the southern U.S.  Well that’s true, but they call this part of Utah Dixie as well.

Zion is a bit like Yosemite.  In both parks, you can hardly go without seeing the main canyon.  But while Yosemite Valley and Zion Canyon are both spectacular and well worth spending some time in, they are also very popular (i.e., crowded).  You should try to spend part of your time hiking the trails.  The shorter trails like Emerald Pools are beautiful but also a little crowded.

The longer trails are more fun I think.  Angel’s Landing, for example, while it’s popular, is nonetheless quite spectacular and not too difficult or long.  Observation Point on the other side of the canyon is a tougher climb (over 2000 feet vertical).  Echo Canyon along this route is simply amazing.  Also, consider a detour up Hidden Canyon.  I highly recommend Observation Point.

I strongly recommend driving over to the east side of the park, through the incredible Mt. Carmel Tunnel.  There are several likely off-trail areas to hike in this area.  If you don’t try to pretend you’re a world champion free climber, and only go far enough to easily retrace your steps, you’ll be fine.  Remember the general rule of thumb in federally managed areas: always obtain a backcountry permit if you plan to camp overnight away from the roads.

Another option if you want to lose some of the crowd is to visit the northern part of the park.  There are two roads.  One heads up Kolob Plateau from the town of Virgin, not too far from the west entrance.  There are several trails from this road.  One classic hike is to take the West Rim Trail one-way from Lava Point (the highest road-accessible point in the park) all the way down past Angel’s Landing into Zion Canyon.

I haven’t done this one yet, because you need a shuttle.  But I again see parallels with Yosemite; namely the John Muir Trail from Toulumne Meadows all the way down to Yosemite Valley.  The West Rim Trail is quite a bit shorter than this route though.  At 16 miles you can do it as an all-day hike or a leisurely overnighter.  You can also do an out and back hike on this trail from the canyon floor, past Angel’s Landing and onward up the West Rim until you need to turn back.

A rapidly warming day greets the sleepy campers in Zion National Park in Utah.

The other access point to the northern part of the park is off Interstate 15 (exit 40) and up Kolob Canyons Road.  A good all-day hike from this road is the LaVerkin Trail to Kolob Arch.  This arch is one of the largest free-standing arches in the world.  Both of these areas, along with the east side of the park, are at higher elevations than the main canyon.  So if it’s that time of year you might run into snow.  Kolob Plateau is highest.

A prickly pear cactus displays its version of fall colors in Zion National Park, Utah.

In addition to all of the above, there are a plethora of canyoneering routes in Zion (canyoning for all you Europeans).  If you’re experienced, plan by picking up a guidebook and 7.5 minute USGS topo maps.  Tom Jones’s book is excellent (not that Tom Jones!).  Take all the necessary canyoneering gear.  If you’re not a canyoneer, come close to it by hiking “the Subway”.  You’ll need a permit from the visitor center (or make reservations online) to hike this awesome (and popular) canyon off the Kolob Terrace Road.

The quieter east side of Zion National Park, Utah.

When you arrive, obtain local info. on which springs are flowing (to plan your water needs).  The N.P.S. wilderness desk at their visitor center is pretty decent in this regard, but local guides are good backups.  Also realize that  logjams can create extremely dangerous conditions on normally pedestrian canyon routes.  If you are not an experienced canyoneer (or are solo), there are plenty of guides in the area.  Google and get recommendations.

In Zion Canyon, Utah, the Virgin River flows out of the Narrows.

Zion is an incredible National Park, deserving of all its popularity.  But do yourself a favor and don’t just stay in a tourist hotel in Springdale and ride the shuttle to all the popular spots.  Try to get off the beaten track.  Take a hike!  You’ll be glad you did.

Near the Big Bend in Zion Canyon, the Zion River winds past Great White Thrown.

The night gathers inside Zion Canyon in Utah, the Great White Thrown far above.

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