Tag Archives: travel

Escape to Death Valley

When we set out on our mid-May, nine-day adventure in the Traveling Cat Adventure Vehicle, we headed for the Eastern Sierra because a very cold storm front was dominating everything more northerly.  Well, with just a few days left, we saw the storms and cold weather were now reaching Bishop so we decided to turn south and escape the storms by heading to Death Valley National Park.  With 95+F degree temperatures, we certainly escaped the cold front.

  

Coming into the park late, we struggled to find some dispersed camping the first night and ended up settling for a space at the Stovepipe Wells “campground” (aka, a parking space).  Over the next two days we got to explore some fantastic slot canyons up Sidewinder Canyon, checked out the Artists Palette Drive, hiked up Golden Canyon, camped out in Greenwater Valley, and drove the Traveling Cat Adventure Vehicle all the way to (and through) Titus Canyon.

Oh good grief that was terrifying: driving the 24-mile Titus Canyon Road in a 25 ft. Sprinter-based RV.  I’ve driven that dirt road decades ago in a compact 4WD and it was fun and uneventful, but I couldn’t remember what the entire road was like.  Mind you, we checked with the ranger beforehand for advice on appropriate roads but there clearly must have been some misunderstanding.  As it turns out, it starts out merely annoying with miles of washboard dirt road and the finale in Titus Canyon itself is easy and gorgeous but in the middle you have miles of narrow, very steep and twisty unpaved road with sheer drops on one side or another in a tall, heavy, long-wheelbased RV that teeters side to side over every little uneven track no matter how slowly you try to creep forward and the gravel gives way and the vehicle slips forward under the 10,000 lbs of weight when you try to stop your forward momentum.  And Titus Canyon Road is technically a one-way route!

At a couple of points, we had to stop to fill in some large potholes with rocks to keep the vehicle from tilting any more dramatically.  I regret not taking any pictures or video while in the truly scary stretches but at the time all I wanted is to just get through it without falling over or slipping over the side.  I’ll never do a road like that again in such a vehicle!

We survived though and Titus Canyon itself was marvelous.  In hindsight, it would’ve been more pleasant to park at the exit of the canyon and ride our bikes in (which is allowed).  A mighty dust storm punctuated our evening departure but we found a place to stop and sleep off a dirt road outside the park.

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Around Bishop

  

As part of our road trip up through the Owens Valley in mid-May in the Traveling Cat Adventure Vehicle, we spent a few days in the Bishop area.  I showed Darlene around Bishop (where I went to high school), we drove out to Mill Pond and up to Lake Sabrina and then ended up camping out for two nights in the Buttermilk area after going for a hike.  We also visited the Laws Railroad Museum and had a nice afternoon down at a warm spring along the Owens River.

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Laws Railroad Museum

After showing Darlene around Bishop (where my brother and I went to high school), I took her out to see the Laws Railroad Museum.  In some ways, it’s much the same as I remember from riding out with Glenn on our bikes for a day long adventure but it’s also much improved and expanded.  It’s now even more of a great place to visit while touring the Owens Valley and the Eastern Sierra.

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Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

      

Click through for pictures and video from our attempt to visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest (oldest living trees on Earth!) while on our Owens Valley road trip in the Traveling Cat Adventure Vehicle in mid-May.  Unfortunately, the remaining snow from this winter’s very heavy storms kept us from driving all the way and then we attempted to continue on our mountain bikes but it was just too much snow!  We stayed up there two nights though and got to watch the sunrise spread over hundreds of miles of the Sierra Nevada from the vantage of that fantastic Sierra vista point up there:

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Revisiting Manzanar

  

Darlene and I spent several hours at the Manzanar National Historic Site on our visit to the Owens Valley in the Traveling Cat Adventure Vehicle in mid-May.  I went to high school in Bishop in the 80’s, so I’ve certainly seen Manzanar before, but it’s quite different since I last visited.  They’ve converted what had become a county storage shed but was originally an auditorium in the internment camp into a very impressive and engaging interpretive center.  You can now see some of the belongings and artifacts of the people who were forcibly relocated there during World War II as well as hear recordings of their stories and enter restored versions of some of the camp buildings. It’s an incredibly well done exhibit and all the more relevant today with all of the new fear mongering going on.  It’s definitely worth half a day or more to visit.

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A Week in O’ahu

As much as I’ve enjoyed the rest of Hawaii, I had yet to visit O’ahu and was always put off by pictures of busy Honolulu and Waikiki.  However, as part of Darlene’s “birthday month”, off we went – and while it doesn’t compare to Kauai or the Big Island, it was still quite enjoyable!

A short video montage of our week in O’ahu (under six minutes, 119 MB)

We rented a condo in Waikiki for four nights and then spent the remaining two nights at a place on the north shore.  We walked the length of Waikiki (and up to the top of Diamond Head and back), snorkeled at Hanauma Bay, spent a rainy day at the Pearl Harbor exhibits, visited some of the south and eastern shoreline, navigated Dole’s “world’s largest pineapple maze”and enjoyed more snorkeling in the north bay.

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To Universal Studios Hollywood

Darlene and I made a quick, three-day trip down to Universal Studios Hollywood last week — to see the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, of course!  While we were there, we also visited the La Brea Tar Pits and Griffith Park and tried to get to Mann’s Chinese Theater (but it was closed off for a movie premiere) – all places I hadn’t seen for 30-40 years and new for Darlene.

   

The main attraction was of course Universal Studios and we decided to buy their “VIP Tour” tickets.  These are guided, 12-person tour groups that start with early access to the park after an included breakfast.  You get an extended tour of the back lots (two hours rather than the normal 45 minutes) via a single-car trolley instead of the usual tram.  This back lot tour includes getting out and walking around some of the sets and potentially sound stages and working sets (depending on the activity that day) as well as visiting part of their props and costumes warehouse.  You get escorted “priority” access to the various rides and shows (bypassing the lines or enjoying reserved seating) and a really wonderful buffet lunch in a separate VIP dining area.  The VIP passes cost nearly three times as much as the normal pass but we had read reviews from a lot of folks saying it’s a fun and worthwhile experience and now we would agree.  Here’s someone’s detailed description from 2012.

We also took a nice tour of Paramount Studios the following day before catching our plane home.

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Ski Utah!

      

Here are the pictures and video from our annual week of skiing and tabletop gaming, this year back at the Cottonwood Canyons in Utah with a full house: Jon, Jim, Stan, Lewis, Tom, Bill, Kat, Darlene and myself. We were fortunate to get quite a heap of fresh snow early in the week and sunshine for the rest as we visited Alta, Snowbird and Solitude over five days.

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Five Days on the Sonoma Coast

Here’s some pics and video from our longest run yet with the cats in the Traveling Cat Adventure Vehicle – five days on the Sonoma coast from Bodega Bay to Fort Ross, coming back home on New Year’s Day.

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After another rough start with the cats (they still aren’t too keen on being trapped in the big, noisy moving house) and after cleaning up a messy episode with Pan, they eventually settled down for the journey.  We spent a couple of nights at the Bodega Dunes campground exploring the area on foot and finding a few geocaches by day.  On the following day we only ventured up the coast a few more miles and overnighted in an overflow area at Wright’s Beach.  We then continued on to visit Goat Rock to watch the crazy surf, check out the harbor seals at the mouth of the Russian River and hike out to the mammoth rubbing rocks.  We got to Fort Ross just before closing on New Year’s Eve and slipped in the exit gate to run around and check it out before they kicked us out.  On New Year’s Day, we started making our way back, watching for whales far off-shore as we made leisurely progress heading home via the Russian River valley.

The cats seemed to be doing well with slow speed travel and frequent stops and they definitely enjoyed a nice, extended lunch stop off-leash on some empty, grassy school grounds in Santa Rosa.  After five days in the traveling cat adventure vehicle, it was really going well and seeming like this was ready to work for extended trips.  Unfortunately, we had a bit of mishap just before getting home.  One of the solar panels came loose and started smacking around on the roof before we realized what was happening.  It broke free before I could get off the freeway and we ended up pulling over to assess the damage.  Before I knew it, Darlene was off running across the freeway to retrieve the lost panel and then we attracted a highway patrolmen who came over to scold us (and see if we needed assistance).  The noise and drama was all quite traumatic for Pan and a lousy ending to an otherwise promising start to future extended traveling cat adventures.  (And of course now I need to redo the solar panel installation.)

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Little Cat House on the Coast

After Thanksgiving day, Darlene and I loaded up the Traveling Cat Adventure Vehicle and headed down the coast south of Monterey.  My intention was for us to stay a couple of nights at the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park campground, but I forgot it was still closed from the impact of the Soberanes fire earlier this year.  D’oh!  So we kept heading south as the sun set (there’s no overnight parking allowed along the highway here), passing several alternate, full campgrounds until we found space at the San Simeon State Park campground.  We walked to the beach in the rain the next morning before heading out, stopped to let the cats out for a scary adventure when the rain let up later, caught a tour of “Nitt Witt Ridge” in Cambria and made it to Morro Bay by nightfall.  On Saturday night, the campgrounds were full so we found a nice out-of-the-way spot to boondock for the night. On Sunday, we visited the bay, the rock, the natural history museum and the Monarch butterflies before heading home in the evening up 101.

      

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Bavarian Road Trip

Earlier this month, Darlene and I were able to get away for a little road trip in Bavaria, the southern region of Germany.  Darlene used to work summers in Bavaria and so she organized a little ten-day itinerary for us to see some of the sights.  We flew into Frankfurt and visited several locales before flying back via Munich.  We ended up skipping Frankfurt entirely when our inbound flight was delayed half a day, but we had a day seeing castles in the Rhine River valley, two nights in Heidelberg, a day visit in Bamberg, two nights in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, day visits to Aalen and Augsburg, three nights in Oberau and the Garmisch-Partenkirchen area, a day visit to Hohenschwangau and then a final two nights in Munich.

Some highlights of the trip:

Visiting the lovely Heidelberg town and castle

Visiting the lovely Heidelberg town and castle

Visiting Rheinstein Castle on the Rhine River

Visiting Rheinstein Castle on the Rhine River

Walking around Bamberg

Walking around Bamberg

Exploring the enchanting walled city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Exploring the city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Hiking up through Höllentalklamm gorge

Hiking up through Höllentalklamm gorge

Ascending Zugspitze

Ascending Zugspitze

Visiting Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein Castles

Visiting Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein

Visiting Munich

Visiting Munich

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Bed and Breakfast and Elephants

Two weeks ago, Darlene and I enjoyed a weekend stay at the Vision Quest Ranch in Salinas, CA.  It’s a facility that keeps and cares for a host of 100+ various exotic and domestic animals.  Their prime business used to be training and providing animals for use in the film and television industry, but with the increasing use of computer-generated, all-digital animals, they’ve turned more to adopting at-risk or retired animals, doing more educational programs and training programs and transforming the facility into a fully, open-to-the-public zoo, “The  Monterey Zoo”.  This effort is still in progress and so they’re now only open for short, daily, guided tours while they build out larger, more engaging enclosures for their animals.  However, they also run a bed and breakfast service based on several cabin-like tents situated on the property and provide a number of up close encounters with various animals, particularly a couple of retired circus elephants who greet you at your cabin as your breakfast is served.

You can read more about the history of the facility, stories about their numerous animals and information about their various educational efforts on their web site.

A video montage of our visit.

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California Railroad Museum

For Darlene’s birthday this year, we went to Old Town Sacramento for the weekend and stayed on the steamboat-turned-hotel “Delta King”.  We spent a good part of Saturday checking out the fantastic California Railroad Museum which makes up almost all of the pictures in my gallery:

   

No pictures, but we also spent time wandering around Old Town and checking out the shops.  That afternoon we participated in another “escape room” and successfully solved “The Study” at Escape Sacramento and then, after dinner, went to a fun play put on by the B Street Theater in town.  (Take note: skip the Suspects Mystery Dinner Theater option on the Delta King – it gets terrible reviews on Yelp and TravelAdvisor.)  Sunday was filled with a long bike ride out and back along part of the 30+ mile bike trails along the American River.

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Death Valley Super Bloom

Death Valley is in the midst of a rare “super bloom” of wildflowers right now.  Darlene and I were able to drive down there for a brief overnight visit, camping along one of the backcountry roads.

   

Click through above to view my gallery of pictures.  For more info on the current status, see the week-by-week wildflower update for this year’s bloom.

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Walking with Polar Bears

I joined Glenn and Michele last week on another segment of their extended, six-month travels (Glenn and Michele’s Most Excellent Adventure™) – this time flying up to Churchill, Canada, to stay at a small remote lodge along the Hudson Bay and go out on guided walks to see and hug polar bears!  Well, not so much hugging really.  (But they do look so huggable!)

   

Click through for the full gallery of photos and video clips from the trip.

We stayed three nights at Dymond Lake Lodge, one of three small “eco-lodges” operated by Churchill Wild, looking for polar bears and other wildlife during the day and enjoying the wonderful meals and the stars and the aurora borealis at night.  We lucked out with weather.  At this time of year we should have encountered daytime highs no greater than the teens or single digits (in Fahrenheit) even before any wind chill (as in seriously cold, the primary reason Darlene didn’t join us), but we lucked out with temps way up in the mid-20’s!  Yes, below freezing, but really relatively balmy!  Just ask the polar bears!

Speaking of which, we were able to see lots of bears and even watch an unusual encounter between two different mama bears and their cubs.  The guides are very good at approaching and reading the bears’ behavior and working to keep the experience safe for everyone, including the bears.

After several amazing days of walking out amongst the bears, we returned to Churchill for an afternoon of dog-sledding with Bluesky Expeditions and then a full day on an arctic tundra safari with Frontiers North Adventures in one of their massive custom-built “tundra buggies”.

A video montage of our polar bear encounters and other activities near Churchill.

Click through for the full gallery of photos and video clips from the trip.  Here’s a separate gallery of pictures from just the dog sledding excursion.

Michele wrote a great detailed post about our Churchill trip in her blog:

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Bolivia: Altiplano to Amazon

As an add-on for our trip to Chile’s Atacama Desert, we all wanted to be sure to get to see the amazing Uyuni Salt Flats in nearby Bolivia.  As it worked out, we were able to join up with BikeHike’s trial run of their new Bolivia adventure trip by taking a guided, three-day, 4×4 road trip from Chile over the Altiplano to the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia.  Darlene was also able to finagle a little additional time off from work to join us on this portion of Glenn and Michele’s Most Excellent Adventure™.

   

Click through for the full gallery of photos and videos from the trip.

A video montage of our time in Bolivia. (6:45 min, 131 MB)

Across the Altiplano: Glenn, Michele and I started out in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, and were driven up to the Altiplano and dropped off at the tiny, remote little border control building on the southwest Chilean/Bolivian border.  After successfully negotiating Michele and Glenn’s Bolivian visas (mostly about producing absolutely pristine US dollars for the visa fee), we were loaded into the apparently defacto standard Altiplano vehicle: a Toyota 4×4 Land Cruiser.  Over the next couple of days, we navigated a maze of dirt roads in the high altitude (15,000 ft) visiting a series of color-coded lagoons (red, green, white, etc) and a few miscellaneous sights and landmarks.  We overnighted in both a hotel made of stone and one made of salt and got to try our hand at herding llamas to pasture as well as trying to fire a slingshot without injuring ourselves.  We also spent the better part of two days criss-crossing the Uyuni Salt Flats and they proved to be as vast and amazing to behold as suggested in the photographs we’d seen before.

Crossing the Uyuni Salt Flats

Crossing the Uyuni Salt Flats

More of the Uyuni Salt Flats: After this initial introduction to Bolivia, we were deposited in the town of Uyuni in time to join Darlene and the rest of the BikeHike group flying in from La Paz.  Over the next couple of days, we would explore much of the area on bikes, starting with a tour of the mining ghost town of Pulcayo.  We biked back down to Uyuni, mostly following the route of the old mining railroad bed.  We biked across a few chunks of the salt flats itself – which proved quite daunting due to the vast, unchanging scenery.  We stayed overnight in a more rudimentary building made of salt on the slopes of the volcano Tunupa and enjoyed a ride out for sunset and stargazing on the salt flats.  On our second day, we visited a cave containing desiccated mummies and continued on to the island of Incahuasi, in the middle of the flats and home to hundreds of cacti.

Biking Bolivia's "Most Dangerous Road"

Biking Bolivia’s “Most Dangerous Road”

“Death Road” Ride: Upon our return to La Paz, we had an early start to go ride mountain bikes down along Bolivia’s infamous “world’s most dangerous road”.  They’ve since built a new, modern, paved highway to bypass the route but it was once very treacherous for being a dirt road cut into very steep mountainsides and forcing buses and other large vehicles to try to squeak by each other.  This route now makes for a gorgeous and easy downhill bike ride packed full of wonderful mountain vistas.  Unfortunately, we had to do the ride with one of several large tour groups and so you have to do things on their terms.  You’re forced to keep to a schedule that at times is pushing you forward (despite the desire to stop and enjoy the stupendous views) or making you wait (for organized photo portrait stops, despite the fact that everyone has cameras of their own, or while the staff clean and prep the bikes at the end of the ride, etc).  Amusingly, you’re also required to wear full downhill racing body armor and full face helmets despite a route that consists of first a paved highway and then a well-used dirt road and a gentle downhill slope.  Actually, the full face helmet was dangerous for how much it limited your ability to see around you.  I suspect the armor is both to drum up the “Death Road” adventure marketing as well as for insurance purposes – not that body armor would do you much good if you managed to ride off a several hundred-meter precipice!  Anyway, I think this excursion would be a lot more fun with your own group, going at your own pace and with normal biking gear.

Enjoying a scenic overlook in Bolivia's Amazon jungle

Enjoying a scenic overlook in Bolivia’s Amazon jungle

Amazon Jungle and Grassland: After La Paz, we were on to the Amazon jungle, starting with a river boat cruise to our jungle lodge in Madidi National Park. Along the way, we stopped off at a farm where among other things they grow sugar cane.  We were able to put a little labor into squeezing out a bucket of sugar cane juice for everyone to sample, with a touch of lime.  From our jungle lodge, we set out to hike to our overnight campsite, near a macaw nesting area.  Besides lots of spiders and ants, our guides were able to scare up a  pack of wild boar.  I was a little anxious about overnighting in the Amazon as I’m very not keen on large creepy-crawlies and have already had my share in other tropic rainforests like Costa Rica and Australia.  As it turns out, at least this part of the Amazon was no more intense in terms of bugs and it was fine.  I do wish we could have spent a more leisurely time moving through the jungle though and seeing and learning about the rainforest (as I have enjoyed on other such hikes), instead of in the apparent rush we often seemed to be in.  I wasn’t even really able to pause to take any decent pictures along the trail.  We did enjoy a leisurely return trip to the lodge, floating down the river in the afternoon rain on a log raft constructed on the beach.  That night we went for a short jungle walk to see what we could find after dark.

Temo demonstrates his boundless affection for Michele. (30 second video)

The following day saw us return to town by river boat and then take an extended drive to get to a second lodge in the swampy  grasslands of Pampas del Yacuma.  First we were greeted by not-so-friendly caiman and turtles but then by a super-friendly and ever-curious coati at the lodge.  We ventured out again on a pair of boats to follow the river and see the many birds, caiman and capybara along the river… before the skies opened up for serious afternoon downpour.  (At least our boat didn’t pussyfoot it back to the lodge to get any silly rain gear.)  That night Glenn and I went out again with our guides Ishmael and Jorgen to see all the creepy eyes of the caiman reflecting back at us in the dark.  Plus we managed to catch several Amazon trout by expertly letting them leap into our boat.  On our fourth and last Amazon day, we went hiking in a plantation to hoot at howler monkeys in the trees and to catch meat-hungry piranha by the river side.  The tricky part seemed to be removing the hook from the menacing jaws of those little fish.

An alpine view near Mount Condoriri

An alpine view near Mount Condoriri

Our Last Day: After returning to the cool, high altitude of La Paz from the Amazon basin, we enjoyed a home-cooked meal at the home of a local resident while Glenn kept careful watch over a clearly demonically-possessed children’s doll. On our last day, Michele suggested a hiking destination for us all in the Andes: the glacier-laced Mount Condoriri.  The drive out there proved adventurous in itself, including trying to find a suitable box lunch among the raw meats and stacks of junk food in the street-side market.  We ended up hiking to an alpine lake at the base of the mountain and it proved to be a nice finish to a great little trip.

Recommendations: Our 4×4 excursion from San Pedro de Atacama over to the Uyuni Salt Flats was not particularly exceptional and I have no reason to recommend them (actually it seemed our driver was more knowledgeable and trying harder than our English-speaking guide).  For the rest of the trip, the BikeHike tour of Bolivia including the Uyuni Salt Flats and the Amazon jungle, this trip was very enjoyable despite being their trial run to shake out the “bugs” and find improvements to be made.  Definitely worth checking out.  But I want to call out special attention to Ishmael and the folks at Mashaquipe EcoTours for their splendid staff and lodges in the Bolivian Amazon basin as well as their efforts to benefit local indigenous families.  Lastly, thanks again to Trish and Jorgen for helping us (me, Darlene, Glenn and Michele) enjoy another great adventure!

   

Click through for the full gallery of photos and videos from our trip.

Michele has also posted several stories and pictures from the trip on her blog:

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