In the middle of my trip last week, Google kindly reminded me of what I had been doing on this date not just one, but two years ago. And guess what? I was on a road trip on the same dates both years. Next year, I’ll get a reminder that I was on a road trip three years in a row.
The idea of taking another autumn vacation was hatched in late June, but I was actually thinking more of a European adventure the second half of September. But a series of events made me reluctant to commit to anything until late August and, by then, it was just too late to put together a plan for Europe.
San Diego is a great place, but it gets awfully brown this time of year after a long, dry summer without any rain. I wanted to see color. I needed to see something green.
Early September was incredibly busy—so much so that I pushed my original dates back two weeks into the first week of October. That meant little time for planning, so this would be another of my make-it-up-as-I-go trips.
My two main thoughts were to head either into the Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico area for some fall colors, or to head north to the more luscious Pacific Northwest. As I was doing laundry on Friday, my first full day of vacation, I was scoping out the possibilities for both. The weather forecast for the Four Corners region showed four days of rain, and the forecast for the Oregon and Washington region looked better.
I have to admit that almost from its inception, this vacation seemed to be more of a chore than fun. Inspiration was lacking, but it finally came on Saturday morning after playing on the computer one more time. A Facebook post in the Eastern Sierra & Scenic Hwy 395 group showed some amazing fall colors near Bishop. I opened my IHG hotels app on my phone, found that the Holiday Inn Express in Bishop had rooms available for the next two nights, and booked the room on the spot. I loaded up the car with my camera and freshly washed clothes, and hit the road.
Eastern Sierra and Bishop Creek
On the way to Bishop, I had to pass by Portillo’s in Moreno Valley, and it was lunchtime, so I stopped for my obligatory Italian beef sandwich. At the next table over was mom with a young infant daughter about three months old who was a bit fussy and crying on and off again. The mom turned to me, “Did you look at her and make her do this?” She said it in a fun way and I simply replied, “This face makes a lot of people do that.”
It took about seven hours to get to Bishop, driving through the 90° F / 32° C Mojave Desert with gusty winds pretty much the entire trip. After getting settled into my hotel, I drove along Bishop Creek—the place in the Facebook post that had the great fall color photos—and was initially disappointed. None of the leaves had turned yet. “Could those photos have been from last year?” I wondered.
California Highway 168 (CA 168) leads west out of Bishop along Bishop Creek and it climbs out of the valley into the mountains. As the elevation increased, so did the number of trees displaying fall colors. At the end of the road at Lake Sabrina (apparently pronounced “Suh-brine-uh”, not “Suh-breen-uh”) at 9,150 feet / 2,790 m, the colors were at their peak. It was also a brisk 52° F / 11° C.
After my photographic scouting trip for the next morning was over, I headed into town for dinner at Aaron Schat’s Roadhouse. I ordered the Reuben sandwich with an Alaskan Amber and both hit the spot after a long day of driving. The cook, however, needed to be sent back to remedial sandwich preparation school. Half the meat was sticking out one side of the sandwich, so when I picked it up, it nearly slid out of the sandwich altogether.
I set the alarm for 5:00 a.m. the next day, Sunday, so I could make the drive up to Lake Sabrina to capture the sun hitting the peaks above the lake as it rose. I was a little concerned that the mountains on the east side of the lake might cast a shadow on the mountains on the west side of the lake, and that proved to be the case. Still, it was good to be standing lakeside in the solitude of dawn. (I won’t say peaceful dawn, because there was a steady 20-30 mph / 32-48 kph wind coming off the mountain top.)
I spent the remainder of the morning exploring and photographing the colors along Bishop Creek and nearby South Lake followed by lunch at Jack’s.
Jack’s was an old-time diner where you could tell many of the patrons were locals enjoying their comfort food. I had their Jack’s Original Sandwich on toasted sourdough and, once again, the main content of the sandwich was off-center and ready to fall out the instant I picked it up. I was wondering if this was a trend in Bishop, and if there was some sort of sandwich-making deficiency going around town.
By mid-afternoon, I was ready for a little siesta, so I headed back to the hotel for an hour-long nap.
Recharged and ready to go, I headed north out of Bishop to Tom’s Place, a little bump in the road along Rock Creek. I followed Rock Creek Road all the way to Rock Creek Lake just to explore another area of the Eastern Sierra.
Before heading back to the hotel, I went back up CA 168 to Buttermilk Road (named because the road was so rough that regular milk carried in containers was “churned” into buttermilk along the way). This was going to be a good spot for sunrise photos the following morning. At least until I saw some unique animal tracks in the sandy road.
You can see my size 12 footprints beside the tracks. The sand was too soft for truly distinct prints, but my imagination took me to bobcat or mountain lion. The thought of either being around the next morning when I would be standing there in the dark did make me just a tad anxious. I snapped a few photos of the last daylight hitting the White Mountains to the east, and called it a night.
Monday morning, I pulled up to my spot on Buttermilk road only to find a van parked beside the road. It looked like it might have been out of the 1960s, but lacked the “If the van’s a rockin’, don’t come a-knockin'” bumper sticker. Something told me that the van was occupied, so I just gathered my gear, put on my LED headlamp, and walked to my location, eyes scanning the brush for signs of anything that wanted to attack me for a breakfast snack.
After getting my tripod and camera set up, I was just enjoying the morning calm in the high desert when I noticed that someone did, in fact, get out of the van. About twenty minutes later, he drove off into the sunrise.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky to the east which was great because that meant the sun’s first light wouldn’t be obscured or filtered as it hit the jagged rocks of the Eastern Sierra. As the light painted the peaks in a vibrant orange and as I was focused on getting the image, I heard this faint “Zzzzzzzzzz” sound coming from behind me and growing louder.
I didn’t notice that someone else had driven up in his car and now was flying his drone overhead, grabbing aerial images of the sunrise on the mountains. Instead of being assaulted by a mountain lion, I was being assaulted by the noise of the drone in the otherwise perfect early morning silence.
Each time I visit the Eastern Sierra, I fall in love with it just a little more. The rugged, sheer granite cliffs that rise up from the valley floor are a sight to behold, plus each foray up one of the mountain roads brings you very much up-close-and-personal with the mountains, forests, lakes, and creeks. It’s soul-cleansing.
The one consequence of my Facebook-inspired impulsive decision to head to Bishop was the fact that getting from Bishop to the Pacific Northwest was a bit more of a challenge that just driving up Interstate 5 (I-5) from San Diego.
I considered going over Tioga Pass into Yosemite National Park, but that would have just been too long of a trip. I’ve been to Yosemite several times, and I knew that I would just get distracted to take a photo at every turn. Without an reservations to stay in the park (and unable to get any—I checked), that wasn’t going to work for me.
Carson Pass further to the north would have plopped me into Sutter Creek or taking U.S. Highway 50 out of South Lake Tahoe would have put me in Sacramento. I opted to head up the west side of Lake Tahoe to Truckee, and then down Interstate 80. At Auburn, I began my journey north to spend the night in Red Bluff.
On my way around Lake Tahoe, I took advantage of my annual California State Parks pass and stopped at D. L. Bliss State Park to explore it a little. It’s just a few miles north of its more famous cousin, Emerald Bay State Park. It’s a gorgeous park that would make me want to break out my camping gear again.
Driving I-80 can be a bit of a challenge. So many trucks use it that they’ve worn a groove into the concrete pavement from their tires. That’s a lot of trucks and a lot of tires (and / or perhaps some poor quality concrete?). My car’s tires weren’t nearly as wide as the grooves, so I was constantly battling to keep from bouncing back and forth between the grooves. In some ways, the grooves reminded me of the wagon wheel ruts on the Oregon Trail that are still visible in some places even today.
Between Chico and Red Bluff, it clouded over and began to rain. It’s amazing how much you notice the smell of rain when you don’t experience it for months on end as we do in San Diego. It was delightful.
Just before stopping for the evening, I stopped at McDonald’s for dinner and, just like in Bishop, the sandwich-making deficiency continued northward. Both slices of cheese were half off the burger, sticking out well beyond the bun.
Fire and Rain
Tuesday was meant to be a driving day. Get from Point A to Point B as efficiently as I could. Still, there was one thing that I just had to check out along the way.
In April 2015, I drove through the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area just west of Redding, CA. That area was particularly hard-hit by the massive Carr wildfire that began in July and wasn’t put out until early September.
I left my hotel Tuesday morning in a nice, slow, steady rain and headed up to Redding. The fire came right up to the western edge of Redding and it wasn’t long before I saw the destruction and randomness of it all. Even with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning on in the car, the one thing that struck me the most was the acrid smell of smoke and charred wood. It was incredible that it was so strong even a month after the fire was out.
Some homes were reduced to rubble while others right next door were perfectly fine (or so it appeared from the highway). I spoke with one of the rangers at the Whiskeytown N.R.A. visitor center (which was closed for the time being—he was just doing maintenance around it), and he said that the area was hit hard. They’ve got to remove many of the burned trees, as they pose a hazard of just toppling over or having branches fall out.
Along the highway was a red canopy with photographs of missing pets hanging on the inside.
By the time I arrived in central Oregon, the rain had subsided and the skies were beginning to clear. I thought I might have a shot at getting a decent photo of Mount Hood east of Portland, so I headed off chasing the light just before sunset. Unfortunately, the one place that the clouds didn’t clear from was the mountain—I never saw it.
The Olympic Peninsula
My car’s crazy GPS navigation system had me island and ferry hopping across Puget Sound to get out to Port Angeles instead of taking U.S. Highway 101 out of Olympia. I took US 101 instead.
It was a typical gray day for the Pacific Northwest, but I didn’t mind it. The views along the Hood Canal made up for it.
There was one hotel that I was looking at staying at in Port Angeles, but it looked old and worn from the outside, so I opted to hop back onto my app and booked a hotel in Sequim. Sequim is a 15 minute or so drive from Port Angeles and the entrance to Olympic National Park, so it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience to stay there.
I headed straight for the visitor center at Olympic National Park so I could learn a little more about the park from the ranger and buy an annual national parks pass. (I even remembered my National Parks passport book and stamped it as a first-time visitor to the park!).
One of the more popular places in the park is Hurricane Ridge where you can get a sweeping vista of the Olympic Range. Getting there takes a bit of concentration on a two-lane mountain road that twists and turns for miles on end. Throw in the dense fog from driving through the low-lying clouds, and it makes for a fun experience. Luckily, I got above the clouds and had a great view of the mountains.
As I stood on one of the overlooks, a raven flew past in the otherwise silence and I was shocked to be able to hear the wind rushing through its feathers with each beat of its wings. I had never heard that before.
I also met a nice couple from Hamburg, Germany while standing in the chilly 37° F / 3° C air, giving me yet another chance to embarrass myself with my German speaking capability.
On the way back into town, I saw a black bear on the side of the road. (Sorry for the shaky, blurry cell phone photo through the car’s window below. I was too excited.) When I stopped my car, it stared at me for a moment before deciding to retreat into the woods, giving me a parting glance over the shoulder.
Crescent Lake is along US 101 on the way to the coast, and it’s definitely worth stopping at some of the view points if you can. Road construction had some of them closed and slowed the trip considerably. The road was down to one lane and I had to wait 20+ minutes for traffic from the opposite direction to clear (controlled by flag persons).
Perhaps I’m becoming more curmudgeonly in my advancing years, but at two of the overlooks I stopped at to take in the lake and its natural beauty, others stopped to do the same. No biggie in and of itself. But in both cases, both groups of people were speaking at a loudness level as if they were in the middle of slot machine alley in a Las Vegas casino. How can you hear the wind rushing through the feathers of a raven’s wings if you’re doing that?
Rialto Beach and The Hole-in-the-Wall
The Pacific Northwest is known for the rugged beauty of its coastline. Rialto Beach is part of Olympic National Park and is known for a couple of its rock formations—the most famous being the Hole-in-the-Wall.
The key to reaching the Hole-in-the-Wall is that it’s really only accessible at low tide (there’s supposed to be a very rugged, very thickly forested overland trail that I didn’t try to check out). Low tide that day was at 3:09 p.m. and, because of my work as a volunteer at Cabrillo National Monument, I knew that you really want to show up at least an hour to an hour and a half in advance of the low tide time.
That’s particularly important here because it’s about 1.7 miles / 2.6 km one-way from the parking lot to the Hole-in-the-Wall, and you’re walking that on loose pebbles, stones, and sand. It’s not a fast walk, but it’s a truly scenic walk, that’s for certain.
The one thing that none of the online reviews or other information told me was that there was a small stream that you had to cross to get there. On the way out, I simply took off my shoes and socks and waded across it (about 8 feet wide and 6 inches deep). On the return, the tide was out and the stream fanned out along the surf line, and I thought that I could hop this. Wrong. Apparently, no more hopping for this guy, especially with about 30 lbs. / 14 kg of camera gear and tripod on my back. I sunk in ankle-deep, shoes and all.
Cape Flattery is the very northwestern tip of land that sticks out into the Pacific Ocean and Strait of Juan de Fuca so, having been to the most southwestern bit of land in the Lower 48, Border Fields State Park (about 22 miles / 36 km from my house), it was only natural that I visited the other corner on the West Coast. (In fact, I almost named this post Corner to Corner.)
It took nearly two hours to drive to Cape Flattery from Rialto Beach, and I arrived just before sunset. It’s a 0.6 mile / 1 km or so walk from the small parking lot to the scenic overlooks on a trail that’s improved but still has some rough patches (exposed tree roots, uneven footing on steps). My legs were a little mushy from all of the walking on the beach stones earlier in the day, so I used my trekking poles to give me added stability. They were good to have. It’s all downhill from the parking lot (about 200 feet / 60 meters in elevation change) which means it’s all uphill on the return trip.
The trail runs its full distance through a very dense forest, so you’ll see some little forest creatures like chipmunks running around. I was a bit concerned about the larger creatures with claws and black furry coats.
By the time I got to the viewing platforms, it was about 20 minutes before sunset. I had the entire place to myself—just me and the seals and birds below the cliffs. I didn’t linger long after sunset because, even with my LED head lamp, navigating that trail through that dark forest, all uphill, was going to be a challenge. (Think of the dark forest in the Wizard of Oz where our hapless trio are hastening along saying, “Lions and tigers and bears… Oh my!” It was the “and bears” part that had me worried.)
Between the walk on the beach and the hike uphill, my legs were Jell-O by the end of the night. I blame that on living in a single story house and working on the ground floor of our building. Perhaps I should invest in a Stair Master.
Accessing Olympic National Park
Make no mistake about it, Olympic National Park is huge. The unfortunate (or fortunate thing from preserving the natural environment of the park) is that there are no roads that run across the park from one side to the other. You can only access the park from certain points along the perimeter.
One of the things that I would have liked to have accessed were some of the rain forest sections on the southwest corner of the park, but they were about a four-hour one-way drive from my base. I’ll have to make that a priority on a return trip.
The drive from Sequim back to San Diego would take three full days of driving, so it was time to head south on Friday. I wanted to put a lot of miles behind me on this first day, because I had notions of playing in California on the way back.
I left Sequim, Washington and it rained all the way until I pulled into my hotel parking lot in Yreka (pronounced, “Why-reek-uh”—I had to ask). Traffic in Portland was nuts, even at noon.
Saturday morning, I left pretty early to head to McArthur-Burney Falls State Park and Lassen Volcanic National Park. On the way, I’d pass by Mount Shasta but, like Mount Hood, even though it was pretty clear and sunny all around it, it had its own weather system hiding it from view.
McArthur-Burney Falls was one of the places on my “to-go” list if the opportunity presented itself and, with my California State Parks Pass, I’m learning that this state has some really nice state parks.
Just after turning the corner into the entrance and on my way to the visitor center, there were half a dozen or so deer (all female) crossing the road. Even the park staff were watching pretty intently as they took their time going to their destination.
While waiting for the visitor center to open, I struck up a conversation with two German women from the Bodensee region of southern Germany. Then I went over to the general store to check out what it had, and the two women working the counter were from San Diego.
One of the interesting things about the river that leads to these waterfalls is that, for the majority of its upstream travel, it travels underground through the porous volcanic rock until about a mile before the falls when it comes to the surface.
Beyond the falls, the rest of the state park has small cabins for rent, plenty of camping spaces, and Lake Britton.
Lassen Volcanic National Park
The drive between McArthur-Burney Falls and Lassen Volcanic National Park is along California Highway 89 (CA 89) and passes through some range land and national forest land. As I turned one corner, I was excited to see half a mile or so down the road half a dozen or so large animals in the road.
At that distance, I hoped they might be deer or elk, but as I approached, I was disappointed to see that they were only cows that had wandered onto the highway. Still, they blocked both lanes and another car and I had to wait for them to clear the road.
About two miles down the road, there were two cowboys on horseback moving about a dozen other cattle across a field. I wanted to stop and yell, “Hey, if you’re looking for some cows….”
Like Mt. Hood and Mt. Shasta, Lassen Peak was being equally elusive, hiding behind a layer of clouds, but that didn’t stop me from driving through the park.
Did you ever drive through a mountainous region and see the little and not so little rocks that have fallen onto the highway? As I was driving along, I saw a little mini rock slide happen right in front of me. None of the rocks were much bigger than a golf ball but, still, it was unnerving to watch that happen right before my eyes. It would have been particularly frustrating if one of them hit my windshield—I just had it replaced ten days earlier because it had a large (30 inch / 75 cm) crack in it from a stone kicked up by a truck.
When I got to the 8,511 foot / 2,594 meter summit near Lake Helen, it was a brisk 35° F / 2° C and a couple of snowflakes could be seen falling from the sky.
Of course, being on a volcano, you know that there’s geothermal activity going on beneath your feet and you really get to see that first-hand at the Sulphur Works. It was fun to see the little kids pinching their noses to stem the sulphur smell.
I’ll have to admit that this was just a scouting trip for me. I really didn’t have the time to do the park justice this time around, but it definitely would be worth going back to.
Oh. Once I got on I-5 southbound near Red Bluff, I looked in the rear view mirror and what did I see in all of its late-afternoon glory? Mt. Shasta. Grrrr. It was 90 miles behind me, and there was no way I was turning around. The light would have been gone by the time I got near enough to take any photos.
The Final Leg Home
I learned a lesson about using my IHG hotel app and the rewards program one night too late. As I looked for a hotel south of Sacramento to spend my last night on the road, I checked for the first time how many reward points it would take to get the room for free. It was only 15,000 points, and over this trip and a couple of previous trips, I was at 32,000 points. I booked my last night on points and stayed for free. (I could have likely done that for the previous night, too, had I been more familiar with the rewards program. Lesson learned.)
I stayed in Westley just outside of Modesto on a night where the wind howled all night long. It had to easily be sustained winds of 35-40 mph / 55-65 kph. The winds continued into the next morning and, fortunately, they were directly behind me for most of the trip, so driving wasn’t that big of a deal.
It’s amazing how two hours of driving in Los Angeles traffic can obliterate a week’s worth of relaxation in the mountains.
I did stop at the Buena Park Portillo’s on the way back to San Diego just to bookend my trip and to take a pause from the L.A. traffic.
This was a good vacation, but it wasn’t a stupendous vacation. I’m not sure why I viewed it more as a chore going into it (and even during bits and pieces of it), but I did. Even inspiration for taking photos was lacking and I had to almost force myself to take the camera out. Once I did though, I was in the moment and enjoying it. Sure, the weather could have cooperated more, but you can still take good photos in bad conditions.
Yes, this ranks up there as one of my more ambitious trips in a while. The run down:
Total distance traveled: 3,550 miles / 5,714 km
Total driving time: 71:02 hr.
Fuel consumption: 29.7 mpg / 7.9 L/100 km
Average speed: 51.3 mph / 82.6 km/h