Friday, June 29, 2012


We returned to the Mendocino coast, camping this time at the Caspar Beach RV park. Getting there from inland involved crossing the coastal mountain range - a strenuous chore under tow. We were constantly accumulating cars behind our bulk, and pulling over in the turnouts to let them pass, but each time caused us to lose momentum or brake hard, so I hope the courtesy was appreciated. The campground was OK, and we might have disliked it a lot if we hadn't gotten one of the best sites, on the end of the row, with a decent "yard". Most of the others were packed in like sardines and had tiny, shared yards.

Across the street from the campground was Caspar Beach, which was really nice.

The kayaking in this area is fantastic, and we went twice, once right from this beach, once from down the road at Van Damme Beach. The water was gin clear, kelp waved in the swells, rocks covered with mussels, barnacles and starfish, perched upon by gulls and oystercatchers. One ledge was home to a dozen or so massive sea lions. We had fun riding the swells as they surged around rocks & reefs, and as they rushed through narrow gaps and tunnels:

Definitely two of the best paddles we've had on our travels.

We also went for a nice hike, and I had a short but fun bike ride, but these pale in comparison with the quality of the paddling. Love the Mendocino coast!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Calistoga; Napa & Sonoma Valleys

We were happy to return to Napa Valley, with its rolling hills, endless rows of grape vines, and luxurious wineries. Even happier that our friend Sharon was camped there, and we'd get to spend a few days visiting and enjoying the bounty of the valley together.

We made camp at the Napa Valley Fairgrounds in the little town of Calistoga, nestled in the north end of Napa Valley. Although it was parking lot camping, it was good enough, and convenient to town, wineries, trails, and Sharon.

We got together for a dog walk and dinner at the elegant new Silver Snail, got caught up, and heard all about the resident mountain lion at large in the woods behind her camp! Exciting, in a I-feel-like-prey kind of way...

Chateau Escargot:

That tawny beast in front of the Silver Snail isn't the mountain lion, that's the ever exuberant Harley dog.

In the cool of the morning, while walking Toby, I heard the blast of burning gasses, and looked up to see a hot air balloon drifting overhead.

I found that there was a trail very near the campground - just a couple of blocks to the trailhead. The Oat Hill Mine Road was constant climbing for as far as I followed it in (4.5 miles), but it wasn't tortuous, boring road climbing, it was varied terrain, not too steep a grade, alternating through trees and meadows, and offering great views down the valley:

The way back down was a blast as always, and I veered off onto a narrow singletrack that I'd spied on the way up. This, as it turned out, made the ride a whole lot more interesting, as this trail was at times not more than 6" wide, clinging precariously to the steeply sloped hillside. It required intense concentration to keep the bike on trail, with potentially painful consequences for failure to do so. It was like riding a dirt-covered curb downhill for miles. I had to put a foot down a few times, but no falls, and good fun.

In the afternoon Nancy and I went to the mill where Sharon works on weekends, a working water-driven stone grist mill. Sharon hooked us up on the next tour, during which Jim the Miller gave us a very interesting and thorough explanation and demonstration of the grain mill. That evening over dinner at The Whale we planned to visit some wineries.

After getting some work done in the morning, we headed out after noon, picked up Sharon, and went to our first stop: Chateau Montelena. If this winery sounds familiar its because it was one of the two Napa vineyards who's products won top honors for their 1973 Chardonnay in a 1976 blind tasting in France, against the best wines of France. (The other was Stag's Leap for their cabernet sauvignon) We'd heard of this when we watched the excellent film adaptation of this story: Bottle Shock. We subsequently wanted to visit this historic winery because its success changed Napa Valley and helped catapult it into the wine mecca that it is today.

We found Chateau Montelena to have lovely grounds, the stately stone house overlooking a bucolic pond, chinese gardens, and it's vineyards.

The wines were very good, but also very expensive ($50 - $150/bottle), so we enjoyed our tastings and left empty handed.

From there we went down the valley a ways to the enormous Robert Mondavi estate. There we took a tour of the winery from a friendly young Californian lady ("Fer Sure!") We learned more California wine history, about soil types, grape vine horticulture, picking, pressing, fermenting, casking and bottling. And yes, we sampled a few of their products - the estate grown bottles that are not widely distributed.

The next day (Happy Birthday Sharon!) we packed a picnic lunch and drove over the mountains to adjacent Sonoma Valley. Our first stop was at Kenwood, because Sharon had served a chardonnay of their at dinner the 1st night and we really liked it. Leaving there we drove south to the charming little town of Glen Ellen, to Benzinger, where they use Biodynamic, organic and sustainable farming methods. Sounds good, right? Turns out harsh chemicals and fertilizers make tastier wine! No, I'm sure it's just my poor we proceeded down to the town of Sonoma to visit Gundlach Bundschu, which we all liked much more. It was a fun afternoon of wine immersion, and we were all in need of a caffeinated beverage to shake off the cobwebs. We went to the center of town to find a cafe, and found that, plus a large crowd gathered for the weekly farmer's market:

We joined the throngs, browsed around, grabbed some fresh produce and food-truck grub. It was a long, fun day, ending with a grilled salmon dinner at the Snail, and goodbye for now.

It was great to see Sharon again, and spend some more time in beautiful Napa and Sonoma valleys.

And I'll leave you, for the time being, with this photo of a large and indignant crawfish I found stalking around near the pond at Chateau Montelena. He brandished his claws menacingly at my lens, and reminded me of President Nixon "I am not a crook!" (I am a crawfish!)

Yeah, he's lucky he wasn't there with 100 of his friends or he'd have part of my large and indignant lunch!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Half Moon Bay

It was a happy coincidence that our friends Howard and Jenny would be in Half Moon Bay precisely when we would be passing through on our way to Napa Valley. Considering that we are from Connecticut and they are from Australia, this is truly remarkable! So, we found a campground in HMB, Pelican Point, and called it home for a couple of days.

This park is an island in a sea of golfing greens. A paved pathway down to the beach doubles as golf-cart roadway, and protective fencing prevents pedestrians from taking a Titleist in the temple. The beach was a beautiful little crescent that, at low tide, connects to a seemingly endless stretch of sand. It turned out to be dog-friendly as well, and many local people brought their canine companions there to play. Toby had a blast and met a variety of new friends each time we went down. Our boy loves a good beach, especially if he can be off-leash.

Howard had caught himself a rare mosquito-borne virus while on some walkabout deep in the dingo-infested wilds of western Australia, and had the doctors in the Bay Area trying to figure it out. We imagine them scratching their heads, flipping through their old textbooks, going on webMD... Anyway, between his trips into the valley for tests we were able to meet up for a visit and dinner out. Their excellent and hospitable friends and hosts Bobbi and Wayne live in Half Moon Bay, as it turns out just about 1/4 mile from where we were camped! We went there and visited over snacks and gin & tonics, then popped into town to enjoy a very good meal at the restaurant It's Italia. For those of you not lucky enough to know them, that's Jenny & Howard on the left, Bobbi and Wayne on the right:

It was so great to see our friends again, and we hope to do so again in Maine this fall.

Also while in HMB I found a very fun little coastal trail that followed the edge of the bluffs along the bay. I scouted it myself the first day, then, having found it to meet Nancy's strict criteria of what-makes-a-trail-worth-riding, we both went out during our second day.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Our next camp was at the K.O.A. in Prunedale, where they are smart to call themselves Monterey KOA because no one would stay at the Prunedale KOA...

I was jonesin' for some exercise in the form of a mountain-bike ride, and found that nearby Fort Orb & Lagusa Seca Recreation Area not only has an extensive trail system, but is home to the Sea Otter Classic, an annual mountain bike race that hosts the largest consumer bike exposition in North America. It was a hot day when I rode there, and I sweated up hill after hill. But as it almost always is after a great deal of climbing, the return back down makes it all worthwhile. Trail #41, the "Goat Trail", had been noted by several reviewers as a "must ride", and now, having ridden it, I heartily agree. It was pitched downwards just enough to let gravity do the work, but not so much that exessive braking was necessary. Swoopy curves, rollers, banked turns and berms, through golden grasslands dotted with dark green shrubs and shade trees. An excellent ride. I went back a few days later to do it again.

There were lots of kayaking opportunities in the Monterey area - we paddled twice, once in Elkhorn Slough, a tidal estuary teeming with bird life, like this Willet:

We saw Willets, Whimbrels, Widgits, Whisks, Wingdings...

Our second paddle was in Moss Landing, where the Elkhorn Slough joins the Pacific. Here we paddled past a beach obscured by fat harbor seals...

...past a raft of more than 30 sea otters...

...and by a floating dock piled high with barking sea lions:

Who stunk, by the way. I'm from the Maine coast - I've smelled rotting sea life before, like barrels of ripe baitfish on lobster piers, or heaps of guano on some rocky rookery, but this made those odors seem like fresh roses in comparison. Nasty!

It was especially fun to be drifing along and have a sea otter pop up a few yards away and start munching on some crunchy mollusk it had just plucked from the bottom.

We took a drive into the town of Monterey to see what all of the fuss was about. Our campground host had clued us in to the bike trail that follows the waterfront, so we parked just out of town and rode in. We always like touring by bike, as we cover more ground, but can easily stop to explore an area on foot.

We first checked out Monterey's commercial fishing pier, where fisherman sold their catch directly to consumers, and where we could look out into the harbor to see seals, otters and sea lions amongst boats of every sort. The heavy duty moorings for large fishing vessels had enormous bouys, and upon each was perched at least one sea lion.

Our next stop was Fisherman's Pier, the tourist edition. Here countless seafood restaurants handed out clam chowder samples to the throng of gawkers, ourselves included. T-shirt and candy shops abounded as well. At the end of the pier, however, actual fish-related activites were happening. Charter boats returned with their patrons, trailed by flocks of gulls and pelicans. The mates carried the days catch, bright red snapper and fat silvery salmon, up to the fillet stations on the wharf. As they cut up these fish and flung the bits over the edge alert and agile gulls would dart out and catch these morsels before they hit the water below.

From there we followed the bike path to Cannery Row. Another tourist mecca, this shopping, lodging and dining zone was where the Pacific's vast sardine bounty used to be processed. I guess we got so good at catching sardines that we fished them into oblivion, and cannery row resorted to toursism. Several giant cement holding tanks remain, as well as many of the original wooden structures housing the canneries.

But it was Big Sur that brought us to this area. We loaded the bikes into the truck and headed south on Highway 1, and enjoyed the spectacular scenery - California's answer to Kauai's Na Pali Coast.

Wildflowers were exploding with color along the bluffs:

Enless surf pounded the rocky coast and sand beaches:

We ended our drive in Big Sur, at beautiful Nepenthe restaurant, perched 800' above the sea:

On the way back we rode our bikes down a short but very fun trail in Andrew Molera State Park, down to a secluded sand beach and back.

Love that Big Sur coastline!

And what would a trip to California be without local produce. The area we were in was harvesting strawberries and artichokes like mad, and the amazing stand in Moss Landing had all that and so much more. Avacados were 7 for $1! Best produce stand ever.

Friday, June 15, 2012

San Simeon

We had to leave the campground in Morro Bay because it was booked solid, but found a state park just 1/2 hour up the coast that had sites available for a couple nights. We headed up there to Hearst-San Simeon State Park and got a nice site up on a hilltop with, if you craned your neck just the right way, had a view of the ocean. Just $20/night, crazy cheap for California, with no services. Our little Honda 2000 provided quiet power when we needed it. We enjoyed staying there, and would have stayed longer if there had been availability. Our ability to dry camp is tremendously improved having purchased good quality new deep-cycle batteries for this trip around.

Our neighbors on both sides were super nice, and we had some nice chats with both. We also walked on the park trails, although we found an abundance of ticks. Abundance is too weak a word: the tall grasses were a tick metropolis. We came back from our hike through the fields and subsequently, disgustingly, removed around 50 (yes, fifty) ticks from ourselves and from Toby. We continued to find them on ourselves for around 24 hours, although we avoided the tall grass. It was vile.

A nicer walk turned out to be a boardwalk that snaked down to the beach. The pounding surf, billowing fog, and attractive stones in the beach made it a great place to spend time, although Toby wasn't allowed on the beach, what with being a dog and all.

We only had one full day here, and after putting in my hours with work we set out to drive up the coast a ways. Just a few miles north was the turnoff to Hearst castle, which we'd heard a lot of good things about, but can only be seen by paying for tours, and we decided to see the (free) wonders of nature rather than the costly wonders of man. So we proceeded another several miles up the road to a turnout looking over a beach used by elephant seals. This was awesome! We'd never seen these beasts before, and it was great to watch them. At this time of year these were all juvenile males, on the beach for their annual molt. The adult males and females are on a slightly different schedule, and were out spending their 10 months at sea, somewhere between California and Alaska.

The silvery-grey ones have molted and are just waiting for the mood to strike them, or to get hungry enough, to go to sea. They don't eat for the months that they are on the beach. The brown ones have arrived more recently and still have their old coat. Most of these guys weight something between 1 - 2000 pounds. An adult male can be as much as 16 feet long and 5000 pounds! We'd have had to been there in mid-winter to see them on the beach. It was great to see these juveniles lounging and sparring on the beach and in the shallows, bellowing a noise like an under-water-open-mouthed belch. Quivering blubber + pendulous snozz + gurgle-burp = one spectacularly ugly animal!

After we'd stared at elephant seals for a long while we continued north until Highway 1 got real twisty and climbed upwards, cut like a narrow shelf into the mountian-sides. There we found a pulloff to a gated abandoned road which headed up higher, a series of switchbacks through meadows, looking out over the neverending expanse of the Pacific. We hiked up with Toby until we came to another gate, enjoying the exercise and views.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sand, Surf & Sun: Ventura & Morro Bay

We drove north through/around LA, trying to avoid the worst of the traffic. Everywhere else we've been, Saturday morning is a good time to drive through a city, but not LA, where even then we had stop & go traffic. But we put up with it and got through it, eventually breaking out of the fray when the 101 sidled up alongside the beach just north of Ventura. A short ways up the road from there, as we were admiring the beaches and the surf, we noticed a long string of RVs parked on the roadside right next to the beach. There were too many of them in a row for them to be day-users, so we knew they must be camping. We impulsively pulled off at the next exit and backtracked on highway 1 to investigate. Sure enough, this was a state beach "campground", consisting of RV-length parallel parking spots, no hookups, just yards from the seawall protecting the road from the sea. We found an empty spot and, with not a little bit of maneuvering, squeezed in.

The pounding surf drowned out almost all of the road noise, and all but the most raucous of generators. Pelicans flew by almost constantly, skimming the water with their wingtips and getting lift off of the air pushed up by waves rearing up to break. Porpoise swam by. Surfers caught the perfect wave...

Ourselves, we just walked the sand beach - Toby loves himself a good beach:

We only stayed at this roadside/beachside campsite the one night, although it was cheap and couldn't be closer to the sea. It was also noisy, although the constant surf was noise of a natural and relaxing variety, the highway, commuter train, and most of all generators, were not so nice. If we were surfers we'd have settled in for a while as the wave break was nearly perfect, but we're not so we didn't.

Instead we pushed up the 101 another coupla hours, onto Highway 1 and to Morro Bay. There we stayed at a private park which was fairly nice, with wooden half-walls between sites, making it easy to fence-in a big dog-yard. Just a few hundred feet from the campground was one of Morro Bay's nice sand beaches, plus the towering presence of Morro Rock:

We enjoyed our stay in Morro Bay - liked the town, liked the area. The town has a tourist element, but it's a real working town with a fishy waterfront. We walked, beachcombed, bird-watched, kayaked, and bicycled.

We especially enjoyed our first encounter with sea otters, which we found frolicking in the kelp just a few yards off shore near Morro Rock.

They were rolling themselves up in kelp to anchor themselves during nap time. Then they'd rub their tails between big webbed feet, and hold their heads up with their paws. If that wasn't comfortable, it looked like they'd hook their claws into their jaws to hold their heads up. Very adorable creatures.

Also lounging on the warm rocks in the sun were dozens of ground squirrels, which apparently get fed by us humans, as they exhibit no fear and approach within inches to check for tidbits.

On one of our walks down to the beach we were amazed to see an egret stab into the undergrowth and come out with a young ground squirrel in its beak, which it then dipped in water to lubricate, and swallowed!

We had a nice paddle in the harbor, weaving amongst the fishing and pleasure boats, watching pelicans and cormorants feed, and sea lions jostle for space on an overloaded floating dock:

Loving this central California coast! More to come as we head north up the Big Sur coastline.