Originally, Christy and I had planned to spend the next few days in Big Sur, on the California coast south of San Francisco.  In fact, I had made campground reservations at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park months earlier – prior to buying plane tickets or securing our permits for the John Muir Trail.  It was an area we both had wanted to visit for years.


Unfortunately, the day before we left for San Francisco, I found out that a serious wildfire was threatening the area.  Although the area wasn’t closed, reports indicated that air quality in there was poor, and officials were encouraging people to stay away.  At the last minute, I was forced to come up with a backup plan.  I did about 10 minutes of research, and found a single campsite available at Big Basin Redwoods State Park.  This park is a bit farther north, located in the mountains between San Jose and Santa Cruz.  I spontaneously made a reservation there, but kept our original one, too.  I figured we could just cancel whichever one we didn’t use.


By Sunday, the town of Big Sur was being evacuated.  That made our decision easy.  We received a full refund of our camping fees at Pfeiffer Big Sur, and headed for Big Basin Redwoods State Park.


We took the highway to San Jose, and then followed a narrow, winding road into the mountains.  The drive was beautiful, as we passed through a magnificent Redwood forest.  We arrived at park headquarters, which is located among massive Redwoods, a bit before noon.  That was far too early to check into the campground, so we decided to explore.  We headed down to the coast, and stopped in Santa Cruz to pick up lunch and groceries.  Afterwards, we went hunting for a beach.  After a couple of chilly, foggy days in San Francisco, we were eager to take advantage of the sunshine!  We didn’t really know where we were going, but we had a pretty good idea where the ocean was.  Eventually we stumbled across Natural Bridges State Beach.  We paid a $6 entrance fee, parked the car, and strolled down to the beach.


It was a dramatic spot.  The beach is nestled between a pair of cliffs.  Just offshore is an impressive sea stack with a natural bridge carved through it.  We had a picnic lunch there, while watching the surf crash against the cliffs.  It would’ve been a great place to waste away the day, if it had been a little warmer.  However, the sun was a bit obscured by haze from nearby forest fires.  On top of that, it was pretty windy.  After eating, I decided to explore, while Christy chose to relax on the beach.


I followed the coast north, below a line of cliffs.  By pure luck, we had arrived right at low tide.  Thanks to our exquisite timing, there were dozens of exposed tide pools.  I explored many of them, and spotted crabs, oysters, starfish, anemone, and mussels.  As I explored, I noticed that the tide was beginning to come back in.  I knew I was in danger of getting stranded, or worse, as the water rose.  I hurried back to where Christy was waiting, and we returned to the campground.


At headquarters, we had our choice of campsites in several campgrounds.  Big Basin Redwoods State Park has several smaller campgrounds, rather than one large one.  We chose a spot in the Bloom Creek Campground, and headed over there to set up camp.  The campground is a beauty, as it is located in a Redwood grove along a small stream.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get one of the better spots there.  Still, it ended up being a lovely place to spend a couple of nights.


After setting up camp, we drove back to headquarters, where we picked up a bundle of firewood for the rather ambitious price of $10.  Then, we did a short hike on a nature trail.  This wasn’t your typical nature trail though, as it wound its way among the largest Redwoods in the park.  There were many impressive trees, including the thickest, known as The Father of the Forest, and the tallest, which is The Mother of the Forest.  The Mother of the Forest towers more than 320’ high!


After our walk, we returned to camp, where we grilled steaks and potatoes for dinner.  Red wine and amber beer accompanied the meal nicely, and we enjoyed a small fire.  Then there was a competitive game of scrabble (Christy won), before we headed to bed.  I slept great, despite being awakened in the middle of the night by coyotes howling nearby.






“My brain is just a jellyfish, swimming in the ocean of my head”


From “Jellyfish”, by The String Cheese Incident



We were up at 6:45 the next morning, as we had a big day planned.  We feasted on breakfast burritos before leaving camp and heading back to Santa Cruz.  From there, we continued south to Monterrey.  In Monterrey, we found our way to the world-famous Monterrey Bay Aquarium, where we planned to spend the day.  Ever since college, Christy has wanted to visit the aquarium.  Even though we couldn’t drive farther south to Big Sur, we could still make it there.


We spent nearly 7 hours in the aquarium.  Prior to arriving, we were both mainly looking forward to seeing the Sea Otters.  Once inside, we headed there first.  The Otters, and their trainers, put on a show that drew quite a crowd.  It was fun to watch the Otters ham it up for the spectators as they did tricks and played with toys.  At one point, an Otter treaded water in front of our window and pressed his face up against the glass.  Hysterical! 


We loitered there for a while, before moving on to the Jellyfish exhibits.  Although I’d been most eager to see the Otters, the Jellyfish stole the show.  We saw an endless variety of Jellyfish, in all sizes, shapes, and colors.  There were neon pink Jellyfish, and transparent white ones.  There were colonies of large Jellyfish, and small individuals that would glow in the dark.  Prior to my visit there, my knowledge of Jellyfish was limited to understanding that you didn’t want to swim with them.  What I hadn’t realized was how beautiful they could be.


Originally I hadn’t planned on bringing my camera.  To me, taking photos in an aquarium seemed too much like pictures from the zoo.  That feeling lasted right up to the first Jellyfish exhibit.  Once I saw them, I knew I had to at least attempt some photos.  Taking pictures in an aquarium is tricky – I was shooting through glass that wasn’t always clean, but did reflect light.  In fact, the lighting varied from mediocre to awful, but that didn’t stop me.  Against all odds, I came out of there with a few cool photos.


We didn’t spend the rest of the day with the Jellyfish (although I could have).  We visited some river otters, and saw some sharks.  We explored some artificial tide pools, and I saw penguins for the first time.  We took in a few lectures and a couple of movies.  At one point, we wandered outside, to see Monterrey Bay itself.  There we saw a variety of sea birds, Harbor Seals and more Sea Otters. 


By 5pm though, we were worn out.  Before we left Monterrey though, we decided to go for a run.  Well, I decided to go for a run, and I managed to talk Christy into it.  We changed clothes, and started right from the aquarium.  We followed a greenway up to Lover’s Point Beach.  We both continued beyond the beach, following a narrow walking path along the tops of sheer cliffs.  The views of Monterrey Bay and the mountains beyond were magnificent, despite the presence of smoke in a number of areas.  At one point, we passed a beach full of seals.  It was one final highlight to a great day in Monterrey.


I met Christy back at the car, and she mentioned that during the run, she passed a girl that had been her assistant cross country coach at the school where she teaches.  Apparently she had joined the Air Force after quitting teaching.  She was stationed in the area, and was on a training run of her own when Christy passed her.  It was the second bizarre coincidence to occur in 3 days.  Since these things usually come in threes, we could only wonder what would be next.


We returned to the campground a bit before dark.  That night, we grilled chicken breasts, and enjoyed mac-n-cheese.  I challenged Christy to a Scrabble rematch, and won this one.  I slept great again, as we were serenaded by an owl throughout the night.






We got up at 6:45 again the next morning.  This time, we feasted on blueberry pancakes and bacon.  Afterwards, I set off on a hike.  Christy decided to save the hiking for later in the trip, as she spent the morning running errands and relaxing at camp.


For my hike, I selected the Sunset Trail / Skyline Trail loop.  I began from our campsite at 8:30, following the road through the campground down to the bathrooms.  From there, I walked a path parallel to the main road, which connected with the nature trail.  The nature trail brought me to park headquarters, where I picked up the Skyline to Sea Trail.  The Skyline to Sea Trail is a major pathway, as it runs from the crest of the mountains all the way to the beach.


I followed it briefly, before reaching the Sunset Trail.  This path is less-traveled, but offered easy walking, despite a few gentle ups and downs.  Along the way, I passed a series of impressive Redwood groves.  Some of the groves were named, and were marked with signs.  The groves were magnificent, while the forested areas in between were merely pleasant.  After a couple of miles, I crossed West Waddell Creek on a bridge.  Shortly beyond, I reached a junction with the Timms Creek Trail.  Here, I had a decision to make.


I was tempted to continue ahead to Waddell Creek.  According to my map, that route would take me past several waterfalls.  However, it would also add a few miles to my hike.  Since I needed to be back by mid-day, it probably wasn’t a good idea.  Plus, there was only a trickle of water in West Waddell Creek.  Waddell Creek didn’t look any bigger on the map, and I suspected that the “waterfalls” would be rather disappointing at this time of year.


I took the shorter route on the Timms Creek Trail.  I have no idea what the name Timms Creek refers to.  The map doesn’t show a Timms Creek.  The trail actually runs near West Waddell Creek for part of its length.  I suppose Timms Creek might be a tributary, but if it is, it was dry when I was there.  Despite this, the Timms Creek Trail may have been the best part of the hike.  While the trees along the Sunset Trail were nice, here they were spectacular.  Plus, the trail didn’t appear to be heavily used.  In fact, I didn’t see anyone along either the Sunset or Timms Creek Trails.


Eventually I joined the Skyline to Sea Trail, which is heavily traveled.  I headed upstream along Kelly Creek, passing through more Redwood groves.  After a short distance, I reached a sign for an “alternate” trail.  The map showed the alternate running along the opposite side of the creek for a ½ mile, before rejoining the main trail.  Which way should I go?


I think you can learn a lot about a person by the choice they would make in this situation.  What does an “alternate trail” imply?  A harder, less-traveled route?  Maybe.  My guess was that the main trail followed the obvious route, but the alternate developed because there was something really cool to see on the other side of the creek.  Based on that philosophy, I decided to go that way, knowing that I might regret it.


The alternate route was more rugged, and less-traveled.  It wasn’t until I was near the end that I was rewarded.  There, I passed through the most incredible Redwood grove of the hike.  The trees there absolutely towered over me.  I couldn’t believe that I would’ve missed them if I’d simply stayed on the main trail.


Once back on the main trail, I endured a fairly significant climb out of the valley.  Along the way, I passed several groups of hikers.  At the top of the hill, I encountered a large group of teenagers on a backpacking trip.  From there, I took a series of trails directly back to the campground.  I arrived at our campsite at 12:30, only to find it deserted.  Where was Christy?  I found a note.  Apparently “check out” was at noon, not 2pm, as I had believed.  Oops.  The note stated that she would be waiting for me at the bathhouse.


I walked back down to the rest rooms, and found Christy waiting for me in the rental car.  Apparently, a ranger had arrived right at noon, and told her she had to vacate the campsite immediately, or receive a $250 fine.  I laughed out loud at that!  The State of California could fine us as much as they wanted, but it wouldn’t matter.  The only way I’d pay it is if Governor Schwarzenegger himself showed up at our house to collect it! 


I took a quick shower (25 cents for 2 minutes) and jumped in the car.  We headed out, and I ate lunch while Christy drove fast on a winding, mountain road.  We went back over the mountains, and dropped back down to San Jose.  From there, we took a back road to Merced.  We arrived in Merced a bit before 4.  We were supposed to pick up Bob at the Amtrak station at 4, but he called us, saying that the train was running a little late.  So, we drove all over Merced, looking for a place to get ice cream.  We were just about to settle for a shake from the In and Out Burger, when we stumbled across a Cold Stone Creamery.  Nice!  We ate entirely too much ice cream, and drove back over to the train station.  Bob was waiting for us there, as the train had only been a few minutes behind schedule.


Bob had flown in from Charlotte that morning.  From San Francisco, he’d taken the commuter train (BART!) to Richmond, which is near Oakland and Berkley.  There, he boarded the Amtrak train to Merced. 


We left Merced around 4:30, and headed for Yosemite.  We stopped for gas in Mariposa, which was a good move.  20 miles later, we passed a lone gas station gouging their customers for $5.55 a gallon.  I think I might’ve given them the middle finger as we passed by.  Just before Yosemite Valley, we turned off, picking up the highway heading north.  An hour later, we passed through Tuolumne Meadows and over Tioga Pass.  Beyond the pass, we dropped down to Lee Vining, on the shore of Mono Lake.  From there, we headed south, down to June Lake, where we had camping reservations. 


The scenery along the drive was nice, but the best part was that we were able to take it in.  There wasn’t any smoke lingering in the valley or the high country.  Apparently the wind had shifted at some point during the last few days.  We could only hope it would stay that way!


The June Lake campground is a bit unusual.  It’s a forest service campground on a pretty lake, but it’s also in a town.  The town of June Lake is small, but it wasn’t the typical “middle of the woods” forest service campground.  However, being close to civilization offered some advantages.  It was dark when we arrived, and nobody wanted to get groceries or cook.  So, we headed into town to explore our options.  We quickly discovered that we had two restaurants to choose from.  After about 30 seconds of debate, we settled on the Tiger Bar.  The atmosphere looked festive, and we weren’t feeling particularly picky.  I got Mexican food and beer from a local brewery.  The beer was good, but the food was fantastic!  It never ceases to amaze me how the restaurants that look like total dives can have the best food.


After dinner, we returned to the campground and settled in for the night.  We were all exhausted from our travels, and we had big plans for the next day.  We planned to visit Yosemite Valley, do some short hikes, and visit some of the world-famous waterfalls there.

Continue reading about our trip as we visit Yosemite National Park.

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Please remember to Leave No Trace!