California Trip, Part II: Big Sur, Yosemite, and Santa Barbara

This post is a continuation of my last post, California Trip, Part I: San Francisco, about Matt’s and my trip to California a couple weeks ago.

On Monday morning, we left San Francisco and drove down to Big Sur, of which I’ve seen beautiful pictures and heard wonderful things.

Big Sur, view from Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park overlook

Big Sur, view from an overlook. Do you see the skinny waterfall in the middle of the photo?

I’d read (thank you, internet) that two of the best day hikes were in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park just off of the renowned Highway 1, so we drove there, paid the $10/vehicle day fee in the parking lot, and went for two brief hikes.

Matt at the overlook

Matt at the overlook

One was not even a mile long round-trip, appropriately called the Waterfall Overlook Trail, just out to a wonderful overlook and back to the parking lot. The water was an amazing azure-to-turquoise ombré, and the beach’s sand was untouched and serene.

Hello, Pacific Ocean!

Hello, Pacific Ocean!

There were many other tourists at the overlook too, even though we were there in the morning on a weekday, which speaks to both the popularity of Big Sur and the accessibility of this particular overlook.

One last overlook photo

One last overlook photo

We then went on a longer, five-mile loop hike through the redwoods just off the coast, called the Ewoldsen Trail. The redwoods were pure magic.

Redwoods in the magical morning mist of the Pacific

Redwoods in the magical morning mist of the Pacific

The trees felt prehistoric, ancient.

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, California

Matt in the redwood grove

Matt in the redwood grove

The trail followed a stream, then broke away up a long, dusty incline. We had the trail practically to ourselves. At the top, we were greeted by yet another dazzling overlook.

This photo sponsored by well-positioned rocks and a self-timer

This photo made possible by well-positioned rocks and a self-timer

The morning mist hadn’t quite cleared from the coast.

Matt on the trail

Matt on the trail

Matt and I attempted to make this hike a sort of trial run for the more intense hikes and climbs we anticipated doing in Yosemite National Park, so we rushed back down the trail toward the car to make time. On the way down, I managed to lose my footing (a theme, now?) and scraped up my left knee and the palm of my left hand pretty badly. I’m sure the other tourists in their sundresses and flip-flops were at least mildly alarmed at the sight (and smell) of me dashing down the trail, covered in dust and knee dripping with blood.

Admiring the coastal scenery

Admiring the coastal scenery

I took fewer photos on our Yosemite leg of the trip since bringing my camera along on the long hikes and climbs wasn’t practical, so many of the following photos are from Matt’s phone instead.

We continued our drive to Groveland, a small town outside of Yosemite National Park, to stay at the historic Hotel Charlotte, which was built in 1921. Each of the rooms has its own bathroom, which includes an adorable clawfoot bathtub. The owners were very kind and helpful, providing us with maps and advice for our trip to Yosemite. I was a disappointed that the adjoining restaurant was closed on Mondays, especially since the reviews are so stellar. The owners just completed renovations on the restaurant and bar, and it looked beautiful- lots of soft metals and reclaimed wood.

Our plan for Tuesday was to wake up super early, book it toward the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite, and climb Cathedral Peak. Matt had reserved a campsite for us for that night in Tuolumne Meadows, which is at a higher elevation than the famed valley area of Yosemite, so it stays cooler in the summer and has more of an alpine feel.

In reality, we woke up semi-early, in time to swing by the local coffee shop in Groveland and pick up breakfast, drove the steep and winding (and slightly terrifying) road up into Tuolumne Meadows, and arrived at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead at about 9:30AM. We stored all the food we wouldn’t be eating that day inside big, metal, locking bear-proof boxes that sat on the ground at the trailhead, and embarked with our packs full of climbing gear, food, water, and sunscreen- the essentials.

Matt & my helmet hair at the base of Cathedral Peak (behind us)

Matt & my helmet hair at the base of Cathedral Peak (behind us)

Relatively early in our trek we diverged from the main trail onto the climber’s approach trail, which was less traveled and hard to discern at points, especially when it meandered on top of some very large, flat granite features. Cairns lit the way like lanterns. The trail eventually evolved into step after granite step. I felt exhausted from the combination of uphill and heavy pack, uncertain about our success. When we reached the bottom of the peak itself, the start of the climb, we stopped for some water and a snack.

One of my favorite pictures of the trip- Matt took this of me hiking back down from Cathedral Peak, the setting sun coloring the granite peaks pink in the distance

One of my favorite pictures of the trip- Matt took this of me hiking back down from Cathedral Peak, the setting sun coloring the granite peaks pink in the distance

We climbed the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak, which is a 5-pitch trad (short for traditional) climb rated at 5.6. Matt led each pitch, placing gear, and I followed, cleaning it. We deviated a little from the main route in order to follow a really fun hand-size crack section up the face of the peak. There were a couple of parties ahead of us, and a party of three behind us, so we had company the whole climb, but we didn’t feel rushed.

Our matching helmets make us look pretty cute, eh?

Our matching helmets make us look pretty cute, eh?

The summit of Cathedral Peak was quite small, maybe the size of a large dining room table.

Almost at the top!

Almost at the top!

We had expected a rappel station at the summit to assist in the descent (the climb up is just half the battle), but there was none. We searched around for several minutes, and found evidence of chopped webbing, maybe some chopped bolts, but nothing else. So I began to place my FIRST TRAD GEAR EVER ON LEAD while gingerly down-climbing from the summit of Cathedral Peak. Eventually the angle backed off and we were able to hike down.

On the descent. Cathedral Peak in the background, as well as a controlled burn in the forest

On the descent. Cathedral Peak in the background, as well as a controlled burn in the valley forest

John Muir completed the first ascent of Cathedral Peak via the Mountaineer’s Route (which we used to descend), about which he famously said, “This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California, led here at last, every door graciously opened for the poor lonely worshiper.” Thus the name- Cathedral Peak.

By the time we got to camp, set up the tent, and made dinner (ground beef, instant rice, taco seasoning, water, diced tomato, and cheese), the idea of waking up at 3AM to climb Half Dome seemed ridiculous. We decided to take Wednesday as a rest day, camp in the valley as planned on Wednesday night, and then climb Half Dome on Thursday instead. Our friends, University of Wyoming geology students, happened to be doing field work in Yosemite National Park at the same time we were there, so they met up with us at our campsite in Tuolumne Meadows to share a couple drinks before bed.

We had a leisurely breakfast at the picnic table, then parted ways. Matt and I went to a resupply/gift shop to stock up, then drove to our next campground to get set up early. It was considerably warmer in the valley than it had been up in the alpine meadows. We made lunch- mostly salami, cheese, crackers, and local beer- sat around, tried to jump start a fellow camper’s minivan (no luck; he called AAA), and reviewed our various pamphlets and maps. A little too buzzed to safely drive (hey, this was our vacation, after all!), we decided to hop on the park’s free shuttle to see some low-key (read: NO REAL HIKING) sites. We stopped at another store, hit up the Ansel Adams Art Gallery and gift shop, and did a slow-paced, relaxing one-mile loop hike on a paved “trail” to see Yosemite Falls which, at 2,425 feet, is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. Unfortunately, on the shuttle ride to the trail, the bus driver informed us that, due to the drought conditions in California, there was no water to supply the Falls, and thus no real waterfall to see. It was kind of eery to watch tourists take photographs at the base of this nonexistent waterfall, pretending there was still something to see.

We went back to our campsite, made a quick dinner, and were in our sleeping bags before 9PM. Matt’s alarm went off at around 3:45AM. We broke down camp, packed up all of our gear, drove to the parking lot nearest the Half Dome trailhead, filled up another bear box, and began hiking at about 4:30AM. This was a little later than we had anticipated, but we had plenty of company on the trail.

Nevada Falls, one of the waterfalls (with water still flowing) we passed on the way up to and down from Half Dome

Nevada Falls, one of the waterfalls (with water still flowing) we passed on the way up to and down from Half Dome

A word about the trail- it was MOSTLY STAIRS. And not nice, carpeted stairs- but granite ones, with steps designed for a 6-foot-tall man with appropriately long legs. In a series of several moments (of which I am not proud), I *allowed* Matt to take some of the weight, in the form of water and climbing gear, from my backpack, which added weight to his. Something about getting moving that quickly and that intensely before sunrise made me want to vomit. I am sure I’m not alone in knowing this sensation, no?

Gotta love those redwoods!

Gotta love those redwoods!

Eventually the climbers’ trail deviated from the main Cables Route hike, so Matt and I split off left from the pack of hikers who had accompanied us thus far. After hiking about six miles with several thousand feet of elevation gain, I was tired, but there was still scrambling to do before the roped climbing could begin. As Matt can attest, I am the slowest at scrambling up rocks- not climbing, which is different, but scrambling, especially if the rocks are large, wobbly, and nerve-wracking. I believe that this was the point at which Matt seriously doubted whether we’d successfully complete the climb.

The climbing route we took up Half Dome is called Snake Dike which, according to Mountain Project, is 8 pitches of 5.7R. Matt again led each pitch, and options for placing gear grew fewer and farther between as we climbed. Toward the top, we chose to simul-climb. Instead of belaying Matt from a static stance like normal, in order to simul-climb, I climbed at the rate Matt did, keeping the rope relatively taut between us as Matt placed gear and I cleaned it. Simul-climbing is risky, but the climbing itself was easy (the angle was low), so we felt pretty comfortable with our choice.

Tiny me, big Half Dome

Tiny me, big Half Dome, lots to climb

The place at which the climbers summit is kind of on the opposite side of Half Dome from the hikers. After taking pictures, eating lots of beef jerky, and reapplying sunscreen, Matt asked a hiker, “Where is the Cables Route?” She looked at us like we were insane (we’d already taken off our harnesses and switched back into our hiking shoes) and pointed down at the way she’d come up.

HALF DOME SUMMIT.

HALF DOME SUMMIT.

The cables assist hikers up the last 400 feet of their ascent of Half Dome. Gloves are, understandably, recommended. After coming down the cables, I was so thankful we’d climbed the thing instead.

Yay for gloves! Cables to the summit of Half Dome in the background

Yay for (pink) gloves! Cables to the summit of Half Dome (and shirtless British gents) in the background

It was a 9.5-mile hike back to the car. The trail felt like it went on forever, especially the last couple of miles. Your knees grow numb from the incessant pounding. The fact that the last bit of the trail is paved, and packed with fellow hikers, didn’t really help. As an encouraging mantra, and looking forward to the end of our vacation, we kept saying to each other, “Beach and margaritas. Beach and margaritas.” We got back to the car at about 6:30PM, approximately 14 hours after we’d begun.

The plan from there was to drive to Santa Barbara, but we only made it to Fresno before stopping at a Holiday Inn Express and taking advantage of both their nice showers and their free-pancakes-until-midnight promotion. Upon walking in the front door, the man at the front desk immediately said to me, “Yosemite?” That obvious? Yep.

The next morning we woke up very slowly and painfully, sore and sunburned. After breakfast, Matt drove us down to Santa Barbara in time for some low-key surfing lessons with his cousin Kelsey. There is no photographic evidence of my first attempt at surfing, which is as it should be, to spare all parties of unnecessary pain.

A picture of me on the beach- NOT surfing

A picture of me on Santa Claus beach in Santa Barbara- NOT surfing

Eventually Matt and I made up for lost calories with plenty of blood orange margaritas, ice cream, and seafood- a good way to end a vacation, I think. We met up with Matt’s family and caught up on sleep. We even squeezed in some climbing at a local crag called Gibraltar Rock with Kelsey, despite our very sore muscles. On Sunday I made my way back to Laramie via the Phoenix and Denver airports, but not without flight delays and missed connections, of course.

Many, many thanks to Matt, who not only planned the vast majority of this trip, but also did all the driving and most of the motivating. Thanks also to Matt’s family for putting up with us as well as putting us up. We can only hope we were coherent and presentable for the majority of the time you spent with us.

And, finally, what a way to say goodbye to summer! Today is the first day of autumn here in Wyoming- no snow in Laramie yet, thanks for asking. Until that day, I’ll just keep remembering that California sand and sunshine.

Love to all.

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California Trip, Part I: San Francisco

Recently Matt and I went on our first vacation together in several years. You could argue that our “weekend warrior” trips are vacations too, but somehow weekends never quite fill that void in my heart that’s only really addressed by day drinking, eating a crazy array of foods at all hours of the day, exploring new places, wearing out the soles of my shoes, and sitting on a beach (under an umbrella, and a hat, and a pair of sunglasses, and while basically still clothed- gotta protect that pale skin, folks!). So, in line with that argument, our trip to California fits the bill.

Beautiful San Francisco Bay

Beautiful San Francisco Bay

Since Matt was still on summer break from graduate school, he drove down to San Francisco, and I flew in several days later from Denver. Matt’s brother Michael lives in the city, and after I got embarrassingly lost at the airport (this is not a one-time occurrence, sadly), Michael picked me up and we went into town.

I’d always heard that San Francisco is at its most moody during the summer- foggy, overcast, damp, and chilly- but the weather was pleasant for us. Admittedly, it helps that I love fog. It always reminds me of Carl Sandburg’s poem: “The fog comes/ on little cat feet.” And one of my favorite morning drinks is a London Fog: earl grey tea, foamed milk, and vanilla. It was only foggy the morning we went whale watching- but I’m getting ahead of myself.

On Saturday morning we awoke bright and early (a.k.a. after Michael had already gone for his morning run) to get to Chinatown for a walking tour. Chinatown was one of my must-sees for San Francisco, especially since I’ve yet to find a good Chinese restaurant in all of Wyoming. I was very excited to drink boba or bubble tea again.

One of many murals in San Francisco's Chinatown

One of many murals in San Francisco’s Chinatown

Due to the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires, almost all of the downtown architecture in San Francisco is relatively new. In a way, this reminded me of Hamburg, Germany, which was completely destroyed by bombings in World War II. The entire city is glass and sharp corners, not unlike San Francisco. After the fires, hardworking Chinese immigrants insisted on keeping Chinatown in the city despite reluctance from white Americans, so the Chinese paid for the rebuilding of Chinatown on their own.

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Mostly our tour guide spoke about how hard life has been for Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, how they’ve fought for recognition and for the freedom to practice their traditions, both religious and cultural, in America.

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We visited a Buddhist/Confuscius temple, walked down several alleys, saw a 93-year-old man sing and play a traditional Chinese instrument known as the erhu, and passed by the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory.

Erhu player

Erhu player, who was going deaf and played his mic’d instrument so loudly it drowned out the voice of our tour guide

After our tour, we grabbed some clam and herb pizza on the way to Coit Tower.

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I was impressed by how hilly the city truly is (I’ve been to San Francisco once before, but I was maybe 3 or 4 years old and don’t remember most of the trip).

Just a little hilly

Just a little hilly

Upon finally reaching the base of the tower, which is atop a large hill and staircase, we groaned when we saw the line of tourists waiting for their turn to take the stairs to the tower’s top, so we just enjoyed the view of the bay from the park below.

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Michael and Matt

Michael and Matt

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We walked around the city some more, then took an Uber to Mission Dolores Park to meet up with my Uncle Tom, Aunt Morgan, and two little cousins Catalina and Maxime. Lina and I ruled the playground, no big deal. Actually, cops do patrol the playground to ensure that every adult is “accompanied by a child,” as a sign proclaims. I don’t blame them; it’s a pretty awesome playground. Lina and I climbed to the top of a genuine boulder and had a small picnic up there.

Tom took this one of Lina & me atop the boulder

Tom took this one of Lina & me atop the boulder

I told her, “Hey, that policeman was making sure your dad was here with a kid.” She looked up at me, half-bitten sugar snap pea in hand, and replied, “What kid?”

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After the playground, we headed to Dosa, an Indian restaurant in the Mission, for a mid-afternoon snack. We ordered everything off their small bites menu, and it was all delicious. Think spicy kale chips, fried chickpeas and chicken, sweet and savory chutneys. I also had a pretty spectacular beet cocktail.

We parted ways with my aunt and uncle and my sleepy cousins, and went for a short hike up to Mount Davidson to get a good view of the bay.

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That night we went out to a fancy bar that purportedly had a live jazz band, which ended up being a sort of wedding band specializing in soul music and love songs from the 60’s. The bouncer wore a buttoned-up vest over his collared shirt, and the bartender had a mustache like that of the Robin Williams/wax museum version of Teddy Roosevelt, but more steampunk, and more curly at the edges. Lots of wax, or whatever it is hipster guys are putting in their facial hair these days.

The next morning was our whale-watching tour, which was expensive, but ended up being totally worth it. I highly recommend signing up for one if you ever go to San Francisco. The special up-close view of the Golden Gate Bridge was an added bonus.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Unfortunately for me, my propensity toward motion sickness has seemed to increase over the past several years, and being on a boat, even a nice, flat catamaran like the Kitty Kat (yes, that is the name of their boat), reminded me of such. I felt fine for the first couple hours, and was even impressed with how normal I felt, for a while. By the time we got to the Farallone Islands, I was popping ginger candy like it was, well, candy.

So many sea birds!

So many sea birds!

The first notable animal we came across was, sadly, a dead, discolored, and very bloated bottlenose dolphin. Actually, the person who had originally spotted it had thought it was a leatherback sea turtle due to the yellow tint of the dolphin’s skin. The naturalist warned us, over the microphone, that children and those of the squeamish persuasion would be better suited looking in the opposite direction.

At about fifteen minutes into our boat ride we saw our first whale, not even out of the bay yet.

A faraway humpback whale, still in the bay

A faraway humpback whale, still in the bay

Most of the whales we saw on our tour were humpbacks, who arc out of the water’s glassy surface so beautifully, spray their misty spout, and plunge back down, but not before waving with that mermaid-esque split tail.

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They also like to alternate lifting their fins out of the water, like waving hands.

"Heeellllooooooooooooo"

“Heeellllooooooooooooo”

The naturalist said this behavior had something to do with the bacteria and barnacles growing on their skin. I like to think they were just saying hello, but I don’t speak whale.

They were so close to the boat!

They were so close to the boat!

I was also impressed with the amount of sea birds we saw, especially on the Farallone Islands, which are actually just a few big rocky caves covered in bird poo and a couple of research buildings. The stench did not allay my nausea, in case you were wondering.

Fish poo-scented Farallone Islands

Fish poo-scented Farallone Islands

On the trip back, we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge.The clouds had lifted so that the whole of the bay was sunny and clear.

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Thanks for the photoshoot, Michael!

Thanks for the photoshoot, Michael!

After disembarking, Matt and I shared an obligatory order of fish tacos on the pier.

Mmm fresh fish tacos

Mmm fresh fish tacos

I tried my best to balance out my nausea by concentrating on my hunger, and we headed back to Michael’s house to change into land-appropriate attire. For dinner, we ate at a delicious Chinese restaurant that specialized in dumplings, appropriately called Shanghai Dumpling King. I insisted we order a bok choy dish so that I could say I ate at least one vegetable in San Francisco. (Oh, sushi’s not a vegetable?)

On Monday morning, Matt and I got an early, pre-sunrise start on our drive to Big Sur, and then Groveland, California, just outside Yosemite National Park. Stay tuned for Part II of my blog post for gorgeous pictures of Big Sur, and harrowing tales from Yosemite.

Up next, glorious Big Sur

Up next, glorious Big Sur. Yes, I actually took this photograph.

Love to all.