We went on a wildflower scouting excursion to Joshua Tree a few weeks ago. The backcountry camping is great because you just have to hike over a mile away from any road, find a spot you like and set up.* We arrived just before sunset, hiked into the darkness and made camp. We woke up to a beautiful sunrise and, after breakfast, spent the day searching for wildflowers throughout the park. There were lots to be seen in the lower elevations and some were just sprouting in the higher areas. Getting a campsite can sometimes be tricky at this park since it’s so close to Los Angeles. Knowing you can just head out into the wilderness makes me want to visit every weekend.
*There are a few other rules, so check out the National Park site for details.
Spring is here which means it’s time to get serious about outdoor adventures. It’s already starting to get terribly hot here in Southern California, so we’re trying to take advantage of the local trips before summertime. One of the trips on my ever growing list was Catalina. The island is just an hour ferry ride away from the South Bay, making it easy to visit for just the weekend (or even the day really). Besides just a general interest in visiting an island that is just off the coast, I was very curious about the Trans Catalina Trail as a multi-day backpacking trip that was close to home. We decided a weekend visit was in order and opted to stay at the Parson’s Landing campground.
Parson’s Landing is about about six miles from Two Harbors, the southern bay where you can take a ferry to from the mainland. Unlike Avalon, which is a bit more developed, Two Harbors feels like a sleepy beach town. Now the thing about camping in Catalina is that besides making site reservations (camping is only allowed at designated campsites), you also have to buy locker keys to get water and a bundle of firewood. There is limited water on the island so filtering water isn’t usually an option, particularly in summer. Even though the whole thing feels a little bit like a scam, I just decided to look at it as a luxury to have our water and firewood delivered to our campsite.
The forecast for the weekend of our trip, booked months in advance, called for rain of course. This also meant that there was particularly stormy weather at sea, making for a bit of a wild ferry ride out to the island. The skies held while we hiked out on to the Trans Catalina Trail. The trail itself isn’t so much of a trail as it is a dirt road that rises steeply to the top of the island. Once at the ridge line, you can enjoy views of both coasts of the island. I could imagine this hike being not so pleasant during the summer months when it is warmer, there is no escape from the sun and the island grasses have dried. And of course, what goes up, must come down which is where you may find yourself inching down the fenceline trail. This trail is steep and rocky and all around a drag. There is probably some efficient way to hike this section but I certainly don’t know what it is. A few hikers passed us, as I was going really slowly, and they of course both wiped out on the loose rocks.
After finishing the fenceline portion, we found ourselves on one of the hiking only trails which was quite lovely and my favorite part of the hike all together. Being on a road the entire time was a bit dull. A single track trail, winding through open fields was a relief. And just like that we were at our campground.
Parson’s Landing is really spectacular. We snagged site two, which is one of the more secluded spots. All the sites are directly on the beach (unlike in Point Reyes for instance where you are on a cliff above the beach). There is a giant salt water container at the site though, evidently for fire safety, which is a bit of an eyesore. There were several fire rings set up around the camp with rocks stacked high to block the wind. We made our dinner and started a fire just as the sun started to set. We sipped hot cocoas by the fire before it started to rain pretty heavily and we jumped in the tent and spent the rest of the evening there, cozy and dry.
Magically it stopped raining by morning and we at breakfast on the beach. Normally we start hiking home just after breakfast as we often have a drive at the end of each trip. Being so close to home, even with the ferry ride, we were allowed a few hours to relax. I dug into a book (Nobody Is Ever Missing which I really enjoyed and recommend) and just listened to waves crash on the beach. It was perfect.
We hiked back via the coast road. This road is about a mile longer but as the name suggests, it runs along the coast, rather than over the top of the island. It was a leisurely hike with no elevation gain really at all. Though this route is not as secluded (you pass several camps along the way) I enjoyed it a lot more than the Trans Catalina Trail. I’m glad that we did both trails in the end but the best part about this backpacking trip was the camp itself by far, so might as well go with the easier hike. While waiting for the ferry we ran into several other hikers who had just completed the whole trail. None of them seemed particularly enthusiastic about it to be honest.
I really wanted to see buffalo on our visit but didn’t realize they are contained to another area on the island. If you don’t already know about the buffalo, they were brought to Catalina for use in a movie and then left behind to fend for themselves, and have multiplied over the years. Upon returning home, I learned the buffalo do a fair amount of harm to the island and aren’t in particularly good health. There have been several efforts to reduce the herd size (they’re now on birth control) but the conservancy that manages them has stopped short of removing the herd altogether. You can read more about the effects of the buffalo here. It is fascinating.
The trip was brief, relatively easy and a perfect escape. I can’t stress enough how lovely Parson’s Landing really is once you arrive. It’s a wonderful place to just totally unplug and get away. It really does feel different being on an island, being able to look back at the big city you live in and be completely separate from it. When we returned, even though we had done a fair amount of hiking, I felt entirely relaxed and refreshed. I’d like to return and check out some more of the island and perhaps go kayaking or snorkeling.
To celebrate our recent wedding anniversary (4 years! huzzah!) we headed out for an overnight backpacking trip in the Eastern Sierras. With the drought here in California persisting, there was minimal snow even at higher elevations. We left early, only to be halted somewhere in the desert when my car started shuttering and belching smoke out of the exhaust. Halfway between home and our destination it seemed as though our trip might come to an end before it had even begun. Not ready to let the adventure we had planned go, we managed to rent a car and several hours later we were on our way again, now quite a bit behind schedule.
When we arrived at the trailhead it was already late afternoon. In preparation for the colder weather, I had brought a zero degree sleeping bag with me and its bulk was packed awkwardly in the side of my pack. At the last minute I shoved our bear canister in the top of my bag, just barely cinching the top closed. I was anxious to get hiking as the sun headed downward, so it was with this uneven backpack that I started up into the mountains.
As we set out, the climb was gentle and my pack was relatively light but for some reason it was particularly unpleasant. The sun was shining in my eyes, somehow managing to creep around my sunglasses entirely. All of my excitement for the trip seemed to drain with every step. I was no longer looking forward to trudging up into the snowy mountains and testing my limits. It could have been the stress of the day, dealing with my car and how to get where we were going, or the altitude having an effect on me (we were already at 8,000 feet) but something dark started to drape itself over me. But I trudged on, trailing a ways behind Shawn.
At some point the trail turned and we were brought into the shade of the mountains. I was relieved to be able to see again but the ominous sadness still lingered. I searched my mind for where this melancholy could be coming from and what might be the cure but I could find no answer. I was hiking in beautiful scenery, with someone I love. I was not hungry or weary and I did not long to be somewhere else. The more I thought about it, the more I longed to be exactly where I was at that moment. With this realization my thoughts floated into a vortex of existential dread.
What am I doing with my life? Why am I not doing the things that I love? Why am I constantly plagued by daily stress? How can I be the person I want to be?
A wave of emotion washed over me. Something caught in my throat. I gasped, holding back tears and I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I stopped walking, pulled off my pack and struggled to catch my breath.
When I was in my early twenties I went backpacking in Europe. A different kind of backpacking clearly but still carrying all my possessions on my shoulders. I had graduated college earlier that year and had little idea of what direction I was headed in next. I had studied through the summers to graduate a year early and hadn’t stopped to figure out any sort of plan for my future. What does one do with a degree in fine art and student loans to pay? So I set off for Europe on what I hoped would be a grand adventure. Besides, planning the trip gave me focus, where I otherwise felt adrift. I don’t know that I was looking to “find myself” but I probably was in some sense, following the mythic ideal of self-discovery in far off places. I had made plans with friends to travel with me in different countries but at the last minute no one could actually go. So I went alone. Years later I remember one of my bosses saying how brave I was for going by myself, but more than anything I just felt lonely.
I arrived in Florence one morning after taking an overnight train and managed to get on a bus headed the wrong direction. I spoke no Italian at all and when I realized my mistake I panicked. I got off the bus with no idea where I was and started walking in what I hoped was the right direction back to the train station. The streets were empty and tears streamed down my face as I walked. I could not hold them back. I was just overwhelmed with this sense of being utterly alone and having no place. It wasn’t the only time I cried on that trip, feeling entirely lost even when I wasn’t lost at all. I kept questioning why I had traveled across the world to feel so intensely sad and lonely when I was perfectly capable of feeling sad and lonely at home.
The thing is though, looking back, much of the sadness I experienced on that trip is dampened by memory. At some point I figured out how to talk to people, to spend days with other travelers. I remember the highlights, the exciting moments, not the endless searching for where I should be and how I could fill my time. It took a while for me to shed the person I had been at home and get into a rhythm of transient life. I did not have any personal revelations but I found that I was capable where I initially I had thought I was not.
I think of this trip often when I am having a hard time on a vacation or adventure. That the bad times, though not entirely forgotten, recede into the background. Sometimes, even the most difficult of situations are still better than sitting around letting your life pass you by. At least there is some sort of experience there, not just a couch and a tv and the comfort of the familiar. Sometimes the hardest parts become a sort of talisman, a notch on your belt, to say you got through this even if it was just wading through the swamp of despair in your own mind.
When backpacking in nature these moments of struggle can be compounded. There is some level of real risk, even if it is usually low. It is hard for me a lot of the time. I don’t feel tough. I feel slow and easily affected by things like low blood sugar and elevation. My fears can get the best of me. I hate this but it also enhances things in a way. I get such a feeling of accomplishment when I face the parts that are hard for me and get through them. I love car camping but I don’t get the same sense of satisfaction as when we go backpacking, it’s just easy and fun and a welcome change from our everyday life. The key is finding a balance between the parts that are actually enjoyable and the parts that are challenging.
So there I am, sitting on the side of the trail, struggling to catch my breath. Shawn stops and I tell him I’m okay, but in telling the tears come. No way to hold them back now. Why am I even crying? It seems too big a question to answer. The answer doesn’t make sense. I want to be here, outside, having these experiences, even the hard ones. I want to have the freedom to be the creative person that seems to have been buried under the rest of me that gets through the day, that pays the bills and does the dishes. I don’t know how to solve these things. I just know that they are there and at this moment I cannot hide from them. So I just sit and cry in the mountains over nothing and everything while Shawn waits patiently for me. Soon crying does that magic thing it does where it makes you feel better and I put on my pack and continue on.
We hiked another few miles until it started to get dark and very cold and the elevation a little too much for me. We set up camp and I forced myself, somewhat unsuccessfully, to eat dinner. Why do things taste so intense at high elevations? Why does it feel so impossible to put food in your mouth and swallow even when you are hungry? Finally we huddled up in our tent and though I did not feel good, I felt safe. I was warm in the zero degree bag, even though it was probably 20°F. I still woke every few hours though with All of the Lights blaring in my head. It wasn’t just stuck on repeat, it had the distinct quality of being loud, despite being physically silent. Plus I was starving, having not eaten much dinner but unwilling to go out in cold to retrieve any food from our bear canister. Still, there was something pleasant about being in that tent and suffering (a little), not with the sort of anxiety and fear that makes the night unbearable.
The next morning I was feeling better. We ate breakfast (oatmeal is my savior), broke down our camp and hiked into the snow. We passed a few other campers on the way but had the trail mostly to ourselves for the morning. The snow was soft and packed down on the trail from previous hikers. With the sun high in the sky, it felt more like an early summer day than winter still. When we finally reached higher elevations still we were treated to views of snow covered lakes and rocky peaks. It was a strange mix of the snowy beauty of winter and the warm temperatures of later season hiking. We set up another camp in the snow and cooked lunch. From our perch we could see others walk out onto the frozen lakes. The views and solitude were the reward for the struggle that came before. We made it.
As we hiked down I asked Shawn, half joking, if he thought our trip had been romantic. I had a breakdown on the way up then spent most of the evening feeling nauseous. True romance! Still, it sort of was. Not traditional roses and chocolates romantic, but an experience together. We both felt so lucky to have someone who wanted to do these wild trips together and still understood that it is often hard and sometimes not fun. It still feels so worth it though and I feel so fortunate to get to do what we do. It’s like a clean slate every time we head into the wilderness, sometimes that wiping clear can be a bit more jarring that others.
Part of the reason I want to write about the adventures we go on is not to say “oh look how cool this thing we did was” but rather to hopefully inspire some people go outside, to get out there and see the beauty and magic that is out there. I am not religious or even spiritual but there is an undeniable energy in nature that can have a great effect on you. I want people to experience that. And I want to be honest that it is not easy, that I struggle and that is part of what makes it special. You don’t have to be a hardcore hiker to accomplish something meaningful.
We went backpacking in the snowy mountains, I cried, I wanted to throw up and still it was awesome. I recommend it.
A few months ago, while visiting Oakland, we made an impromptu trip to Point Reyes National Seashore. The Point Reyes Peninsula is a curious geological area in that the landmass has moved north along the San Andreas fault over 300 miles. The peninsula is made up of the same granite found in the Tehachapi Mountains, a southern section of the Sierra Nevadas. The rugged coast offers stunning views and the chance to see unique wildlife such as elephant seals and the rare Tule elk. When we discovered there were places to camp on the seashore, we knew we would be back.
Now, there are many places to go hiking and camping in California, it’s a huge state, with several national parks and large swaths of wilderness areas. Yet, there are a few spots that require reservations or permits that are nearly impossible to get. Usually these are sites with reasonable hikes at a particularly coveted location. One of those campsites is Wildcat camp in Point Reyes. There are several campsites in Point Reyes that all require hiking, biking, horseback riding or boating to the sites but for some reason this spot is booked every weekend for months in advance, especially if you’re looking to stay at sites 5, 6 or 7 which are closest to the beach. Luckily I have a very persistent husband who discovered the site was open on Christmas night so we reserved a space and headed out for the holiday.
We hiked in from the Bear Valley visitor center where we had to pick up our permit. The hike is almost a mile longer if you start here (6.3 miles), rather than at the Palomarin trailhead, but it seemed to make more sense to hike the extra distance rather than spend another 40 minutes in the car driving to the other trailhead. It’s a fairly easy hike, with the first half being wide and flat. Once you get off the bike trail, the hike gets a little harder and a little more interesting as you climb through wooded areas. There were tons of mushrooms everywhere.
We made it to camp just before sunset and as soon as we stopped hiking the cold really set in. We made our favorite backpacking dinner, vegan stroganoff, before snuggling up in the tent. The thing about winter camping, even in places where it doesn’t get deathly cold or snowy, is that the sun sets so early you spend a lot of time in the dark. Obviously you can hang out by the campfire in certain places, but in others the hours seem long and you may find yourself thinking it is very late at night when it is still only 9 pm. In any case, since it was just the two of us, we got in our sleeping bags, played cards and ate chocolates for awhile before going to sleep. It was a very cold night, with temperatures down in the low 30’s, but I cinched my sleeping bag up tight and was still cozy.
We woke up early and hiked down to Alamere Falls, a waterfall that flows directly onto the beach. There are several smaller streams emptying into the sea on the way and all the birds seemed to congregate at these areas. There were lots of raccoon tracks here as well. We saw quite a bit of wildlife on this early walk, several turkey vultures, some black tailed deer high on a cliff and even a seal bobbing along in the ocean alongside us.
After having a breakfast of oatmeal, tofu scramble and vegan maple sausages, we packed up and headed back. The hike out was a bit more strenuous, with a fair amount of climbing, but nothing terribly difficult. We ambled back and stopped for a long while to take photos of birds like the Townsend’s Warbler and the Ruby Crowned Kinglet you see above (thanks to the Merlin Bird ID app for helping me with those or I’d really have no idea).
This trip in Point Reyes was actually the longest distance that I’ve gone backpacking, 14.6 miles including the hike to the waterfalls, but I felt much better afterwards than I have on previous trips. Partially this is because there wasn’t a ton of elevation but I think mostly because I’ve pared down my pack since I first started. At some point I’ll do a post on all my gear but I have to say that the thing that has made backpacking more enjoyable is having a lighter weight backpack. There will always be an element of pushing yourself through pain and fatigue but it is much easier to appreciate your surroundings when you’re not struggling with how much your joints hurt or how exhausted you are. Carrying less weight makes the biggest difference here. I read this hundreds of times before I started backpacking and it really didn’t sink in until I tried it.
Post hike we headed to Souley Vegan for lunch, then made a stop at Timeless Coffee Roasters for treats. I can’t deny that part of the fun of a backpacking trip, even a short one, is how much more I appreciate a good meal afterwards. I love the solitude of getting away and rush of exerting myself, but it also makes the simple pleasures of regular life shine a little brighter.
A few weeks ago, on our way up to the Bay Area, we made a detour to visit Pinnacles National Park. It is one of the newest parks, just converted from a National Monument in 2013 and is quite small in comparison to some of the other parks in California. You could hike all the way across the park in a day if you wanted. The rocky landscape was formed by a combination of volcanic activity, movement of the tectonic plate and erosion. Red rock pillars jut into the sky and fallen boulders make caves throughout.
We wandered the trails through the park, making our way through the caves and up to the reservoir built in the 1930’s. There weren’t a ton of people out and we found most of them relaxing by the reservoir. There were quite a few rock climbers and it was exciting to see them high on distant peaks.
The place felt old and mysterious. We joked that we were stepping into Picnic at Hanging Rock. At the end of summer the place was still hot and sort of desolate feeling. Though it would be difficult to get lost in the clearly marked trails, you could imagine in an earlier time one of your party going missing.
There’s a feeling that this place is just crossing over from remote tourist attraction to a protected park. The campground was not very enticing, more of an RV spot than anything, though it oddly had a swimming pool. If we had more time, I would have liked to hike more of the trails. Still, it was fun to picnic there and climb through the caves, exploring nooks and crannies with giant boulders overhead.