Sawtooth Canyon, aka New Jack City, CA

 Our beautiful free campsite! If you zoom in, you can see Mara climbing on the right most crag, in line with the top of the picnic table roof.

Our beautiful free campsite! If you zoom in, you can see Mara climbing on the right most crag, in line with the top of the picnic table roof.

 She's free soloing now. We're cool with that. Just kidding, mom.

She's free soloing now. We're cool with that. Just kidding, mom.

 The Valentine Wall, where we saw 2 tarantulas...

The Valentine Wall, where we saw 2 tarantulas...

 Cat on Love Potion 9 (5.7) trying not to get blown away on that arete. We arrived at New Jack City on a Thursday night, which meant we only had Friday to climb before the weekend crowd got here. It was a crazy windy day (35 miles per hour constant wind gust crazy), but we still climbed in a super fun gully right behind our campsite (Valentine Wall).

Cat on Love Potion 9 (5.7) trying not to get blown away on that arete. We arrived at New Jack City on a Thursday night, which meant we only had Friday to climb before the weekend crowd got here. It was a crazy windy day (35 miles per hour constant wind gust crazy), but we still climbed in a super fun gully right behind our campsite (Valentine Wall).

 Mara on Cupid's Fever (5.8)

Mara on Cupid's Fever (5.8)

 Mara on My Bloody Valentine (5.10 a) on the Valentine Wall.

Mara on My Bloody Valentine (5.10 a) on the Valentine Wall.

 Stout wondering what the heck his human is doing up a rock wall.

Stout wondering what the heck his human is doing up a rock wall.

 Mathilde on Jack be Nimble (5.8)

Mathilde on Jack be Nimble (5.8)

 The twins on The Boy Scout Wall.

The twins on The Boy Scout Wall.

 Mara leading Green Eggs and Ham (5.7)

Mara leading Green Eggs and Ham (5.7)

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 Mathilde on top of Jack be Nimble (5.8), on the Boy Scout Wall.

Mathilde on top of Jack be Nimble (5.8), on the Boy Scout Wall.

 Climbing on the Welcome Wall, right by our campsite.

Climbing on the Welcome Wall, right by our campsite.

We spent most of our days in our climbing harnesses, taking turns on the routes, just shouting next when a climber was done. The bus door would open and another eager climber would spill out, pausing what he was doing. We translated and cooked in our harnesses. We were a funny sight, but it was wonderful to have so many great routes right by the bus. This place is so great! These perfect campsites are available for free (Sawtooth Canyon Campground: GPS 34.6703, -116.984)

The surrounding landscape is breathtaking. Most campsites are very private. There are 16 sites, and the campground is opened all year round. Each site has a picnic table, grill and fire pit. There are vault toilets. No potable water or dump station available on site. If you come from Barstow (25 minute drive), you can fill your water tank with potable water at the Flying J gas station. There is a big Vons grocery store there too. You must pack out your garbage as there is no trash can at the campground.

You will have to drive around to find the best spots for signal. Site 2 had great Verizon signal. The sites just behind the rocks don’t have signal, but the ones further at the back seemed to have good signal too. It can get very windy, very quickly, so don’t leave awnings out or things outside that could fly away. The only downside of this place is that there is a lot of broken glass everywhere (watch out for your dogs’ paws). We also encountered two tarantulas during our stay. The site is used by boy scouts association on weekends, so we were happy to be further from the crowd (who sets up at the far end where there is a group campsite area).

There are tons of amazing rock climbing routes right behind the sites, so be aware that you might have climbers in your backyard (or on your site) if you chose a site by climbing routes (look for bolts on the walls). Site 2 is just by the Valentine Wall and the Welcome Wall and we climbed all the routes on these two walls. We then moved on to the Boy scout Wall (near the group campsite area) on warmer day (it’s in the shade all day). There are many more walls to explore and we will be back when the weather is cooler.

The Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California

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 One of the shortest approach walks we ever had to go climbing. 

One of the shortest approach walks we ever had to go climbing. 

 Our backyard for a week.

Our backyard for a week.

 Beautiful long routes.

Beautiful long routes.

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 It was the place we chose to stay to celebrate Mathilde's 12 yo birthday.

It was the place we chose to stay to celebrate Mathilde's 12 yo birthday.

 And JF's 40th!

And JF's 40th!

 The Sierras (and Mt. Whitney) looming just behind the Alabama Hills.

The Sierras (and Mt. Whitney) looming just behind the Alabama Hills.

 Hiking up to Lone Pine Lake from Whitney Portal.

Hiking up to Lone Pine Lake from Whitney Portal.

 Gorgeous Lone Pine Lake.

Gorgeous Lone Pine Lake.

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 We ended up moving to Tuttle Creek Campground to have good signal to be able to work (Verizon signal is bad and spotty in the Hills, AT&T was better).

We ended up moving to Tuttle Creek Campground to have good signal to be able to work (Verizon signal is bad and spotty in the Hills, AT&T was better).

 For $8/night, this place was amazing. Site 53 at Tuttle Creek Campground.

For $8/night, this place was amazing. Site 53 at Tuttle Creek Campground.

 And we were very close to another climbing sector called the Candy Store, with fun short routes, perfect for a few climbs before sunset after a day of work/school.

And we were very close to another climbing sector called the Candy Store, with fun short routes, perfect for a few climbs before sunset after a day of work/school.

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 Very smoky sunset behind Mt. Whitney.

Very smoky sunset behind Mt. Whitney.

 Red smoky sunrise in the Alabama Hills.

Red smoky sunrise in the Alabama Hills.

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The Alabama Hills are probably the free camping spot that made boondocking what it is today. It's also a very unique location where more than 400 movies were shot (lots of cowboy movies, but a few Sci-Fi too... remember Tremors?). After having heard so much about this place and seen so many pictures, I was afraid to be disappointed. It is a super vast area where you can find a secluded spot between boulders and have climbing routes right in your backyard while looking at the sunset over Mount Whitney. Sounded too good to be true. Well, it almost is... if you need decent signal to work. But if you don't (we had 5 days off for Mathilde and JF's birthdays), it really is the perfect boondocking spot.

For the work week, we ended up moving 5 miles away at Tuttle Creek Campground where there is very good Verizon signal (and beautiful campsites) for $8/night.

As for climbing in the area, there are tons of sports routes. The granite is similar to Joshua Tree, there are lots of slabby routes with small crimpy holds. We loved The Tall Wall (Rotten Banana, Bananarama, Banana Split), the Hoodgie Wall (Ankles Away, Leonosphere) and had fun on the short routes in the Candy Store for quick afternoon climbs after work. We didn't make it to the Arizona Dome.

We went to visit the Lone Pine Film History Museum and had delicious burgers (skip the fries, get the beer battered onion rings) at The Alabama Hill Café (note that it is only open from 7 am to 2 pm every day, no dinner hours).

The grocery store in town is nothing great. It's pricey and the quality of the produce and meat is not great. You can dump ($5, no fresh water at the dump) and fill (for free, near site 50 by the out house) at Tuttle Creek Campground. You can also fill with water in town at the gas station near the city park.

The Mammoth Lakes area

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 Mulled wine is perfect for cold nights by the fire.

Mulled wine is perfect for cold nights by the fire.

 One morning, we woke up to snow!

One morning, we woke up to snow!

 Beautiful frost everywhere.

Beautiful frost everywhere.

 Rock tub hot springs.

Rock tub hot springs.

 Rock Tub hot springs.

Rock Tub hot springs.

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 Hot Creek is NOT a hot spring for swimming. See below.

Hot Creek is NOT a hot spring for swimming. See below.

 We rode many times at Mammoth Mountain even if the bike park was officially closed for the season (no lifts), the trails remained open. It is at 9,000 feet in altitude and it was pretty cold. That's the day it was 3 degrees C (35 F). We ended our day at the Mammoth Brewery. Delicious beer and food. Don't miss it if you are in the area.

We rode many times at Mammoth Mountain even if the bike park was officially closed for the season (no lifts), the trails remained open. It is at 9,000 feet in altitude and it was pretty cold. That's the day it was 3 degrees C (35 F). We ended our day at the Mammoth Brewery. Delicious beer and food. Don't miss it if you are in the area.

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 Devil's Postpile National Monument.

Devil's Postpile National Monument.

 Devil's Postpile seen from above (left) and another cool basalt columns formation from the area on the right.

Devil's Postpile seen from above (left) and another cool basalt columns formation from the area on the right.

 Exploring Obsidian Dome.

Exploring Obsidian Dome.

 Full moon rise over our camp.

Full moon rise over our camp.

 Rock climbing at Owens River Gorge.

Rock climbing at Owens River Gorge.

 The class 3 scramble approach to get to the crag at Owen River Gorge was quite something with big packs and a big dog!

The class 3 scramble approach to get to the crag at Owen River Gorge was quite something with big packs and a big dog!

 Our free campsite at Shepard's hot springs.

Our free campsite at Shepard's hot springs.

 You can see the bus in the distance.

You can see the bus in the distance.

 Perfect way to start the day.

Perfect way to start the day.

 Or to end it.

Or to end it.

 The Crab Cooker was our favorite of the 3 hot springs we visited. It was also the cleanest (it looked like it had just been emptied and scrubbed). It was only a 5 minute walk from  our camping spot at Shepard's Hot Spring . And yes, all this is on BLM land (and free!).

The Crab Cooker was our favorite of the 3 hot springs we visited. It was also the cleanest (it looked like it had just been emptied and scrubbed). It was only a 5 minute walk from our camping spot at Shepard's Hot Spring. And yes, all this is on BLM land (and free!).

 Walking back to camp from the Crab Cooker tub.

Walking back to camp from the Crab Cooker tub.

One of the things your learn after many years on the road is that if you find a gem of a secret spot to camp in, you don't share it on social medias or camping sites/apps. Another thing that you learn is that if there is a long weekend coming, you stay put. Even if you would really like to go climbing at Owens River Gorge and take advantage of that long weekend yourself (because no, we do not make our work schedule and have full days off only on weekends). On long weekends, you stay around camp and explore less popular spots. For your own sanity.

There is a lot to do in the Mammoth Lakes ares. There is an awesome bike resort with lots of amazing trails. Mammoth Mountain closes mid-September, but the trails remain open for riders to enjoy. At 9,000 feet of altitude, it can get cold at this time of year. We went riding in 3 degree C weather (that's 35 F). There is also a great brewery (Mammoth Brewery), perfect for an after-ride brew and delicious meal.

There are also many hot springs in the areas, the most popular being Hilltop (aka Pulkey's) and Wild Willy's. These are often full of people. The thing is, most of the springs are bathtub size and can sit 4 to 5 persons at most (Wild Willy being the exception, there are a few pools there that can accommodate more people), so if you get there and they are full, the courtesy is to leave (not wait there or worst, try to squeeze in). Many of these are clothing optional too.

We really liked Rock Tub since it is right by the little parking area and you don't have to hike to find out if it's full or not. The first time we tried to go to the hot springs, on a very cold night after our bike ride, we found it full, so we turned around, checked out Hilltop and Wild Willy's which were also full... It's the reality of it... It's high season here and there are not secret spots anymore. So we came back the next day in the afternoon and lucked out as the man bathing there was just done. During the hour we were there, 3 or 4 cars drove in, saw that the tub was busy and turned around. The water gets pretty dirty from all the people (even if there is a constant flow in and out. There is a plug at the bottom, so you can empty the tub and let it fill back up. You can also bring a brush to scrub the slippery algea that covers the bottom if you want. Obviously, don't use any soap in the tubs!

We also explored Shepard's Tub and the Crab Cooker, that are *a bit* less busy. We ended up camping there for 2 nights and enjoying Shepard's Tub and the Crab Cooker morning and night. It was heavenly after a day of climbing! If you decide to go camp near a hot spring, remember that this is a public place and do not hug the tub (or park very near it). People will likely come and go every hour or so (and at every hour of the night on weekends!), so be warned.

Hot Creek used to be a hot spring in the 60's and 70's. We met a man at Shepard's who used to be a guide and would bring tourists there. He said there was a huge pool where there was always 50 to 60 people. It has been closed for 15-20 years because too many deaths happen there. He told us that most deaths were caused by people trying to rescue their dogs who had fallen in the blue pools of death (the beautiful Icelandic blue pool in the picture above) which is and has always been scalding hot. It is nonetheless a geological wonder where the cold water from the glacier meet the bubbling water from the underground volcanic activity. The ground is unstable in the area because of fumaroles and occasional geyser action also.

Devils Postpile (a National Monument) is an unusual rock formation of 60 feet high basalt columns. It looks like a tidy lumber pile created by OCD giants. They were formed when lava erupted in the valley nearly 100,000 years ago and filled the area to a depth of 400 feet. Then, glaciers overrode the fractured mass of lava. As you can see on the pictures taken from the top, the glaciers cut the hexagonal basalt towers, leaving behind something that looks like a tile floor. The John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail merge into one trail as they pass through the monument.

Obsidian Dome is not your typical cone-shaped dome, but more like a big pile of shiny black rock. It is indeed volcanic glass that was formed by an explosion (a Phreatic Blast) when magma reached the water table, turned the water to steam, cooled and then turned to rock. There is not much else to do there than to simply scramble up and look at the beautiful obsidian formations (be careful, it is slippery). Obsidian is the sharpest natural material known to man, obsidian rocks have played a significant role in the evolution of homo-sapiens' tool-making ability. During the Stone-Age and beyond, obsidian rocks have played a major part as primary cutting tools in many cultures.

Yosemite National Park

 Tioga Pass

Tioga Pass

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 Tenaya Lake

Tenaya Lake

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 Upper Falls

Upper Falls

 Lower Falls

Lower Falls

 Climbers near Camp 4.

Climbers near Camp 4.

What's so fabulous about Yosemite? It’s got dozens of incomparable meadows and more than a hundred lakes, plus waterfalls as tall as a 200-story building, trees the size of rocket ships, gorgeous mountains, 800 miles of trails and even a few beaches. It’s bigger than a handful of European countries and nearly the size of Rhode Island.

We have been wanting to spend time in Yosemite for a long time, but because you need to reserve a camping spot a very long time in advance and because there wasn’t cell signal in the Valley and that we could not be there during the week when we need to work, we never made it. We found out there is good signal in the Valley where the campgrounds are located, but the download was pretty bad… but it was on a busy Sunday afternoon, so it might be just fine during the week when there is less usage. So we only came in for a day to get a feel of Yosemite. I don’t know how I thought I could get a *feel* for such a special place in one day among a huge crowd of people (I don’t do well in crowds. At all.).

I believe that to really get a feel for Yosemite, you need to hike deep into it, to explore its wilder corners, to see half-dome from the top, to fall asleep and wake up on its ground. Walking in the Valley and hiking up to the very crowded Lower Fall didn’t provide this experience, and I knew it wouldn’t, but that’s all we could do this year.

I remember feeling a bit like that the first time I went to the Grand Canyon (after months of exploring Utah’s hidden slot canyons and less busy National Parks – at the time). It felt impersonal, it didn’t touch me until I walked down into the canyon before sunrise and could start feeling its immensity as the sun rose. It was the same thing for Zion. The first time we went there, we rode the shuttle, hiked a few shorter trails (the girls were little) and even if I could see its beauty, I didn’t fall in love with it until the next time we went and hiked all the way up to Observation Point very early in the morning without the crowd. And the third time, when I hiked the Narrows, again early in the morning.

We didn’t bring our climbing gear because it didn’t make sense to for only a day, but it was so impressive to watch climbers on these beautiful tall granite walls. Again, I expected to be moved by the fact that rock climbing really began here in the Valley in the 60’s with all the now iconic climbers living at Camp 4. I expected that I would feel something special walking through Camp 4, looking at El Cap and Half Dome, but I didn’t really. I mean, they are beautiful and impressive, but as a climber (a very occasional one), I guess I expected to feel something more… and maybe I would if I had climbed there. Just scrolling through my Instagram feed as we waited in line for over 30 minutes to get out of the park, I could see that many amazing *famous* climbers that I follow were there and climbing boulders and walls as we droved and walked past some of them…

If your schedule allows it, visit the valley on weekdays and spend your weekends exploring other parts of Yosemite. You can drive or take free shuttle buses to much of the valley, but most enjoyable way to get around in the Valley is probably by bikes. If you didn’t bring your own bike, you can rent one at Curry Village, near the east end of Yosemite Valley and look funny wandering around the valley on these big cruiser bikes.

There are four non-camping options in Yosemite Valley: the $500-a-night Ahwahnee Hotel, the Yosemite Lodge, the cabins and tent cabins at Curry Village, and the quirky tent/house hybrids at the Housekeeping Camp. Good luck getting into any of them in the summer without a reservation well in advance, though. Same thing for the campgrounds… The Upper Pines, Lower Pines and North Pines campgrounds contain 379 campsites between them. There is also the famous Camp 4, a tent-only group campground mostly used by climbers, where the rock climbing in America began.

Traffic can get severely backed up on summer weekends, particularly in the eastern end of the valley. Once traffic gets heavy, the park service will reserve lanes for official park vehicles (ambulances, shuttle buses, and the like), and though you can see why they'd want to do that, it does tend to compound traffic issues. Try to arrive before 9 am or after 4 pm to avoid getting stuck in traffic, and once you're in the valley, find a parking spot ASAP and then either walk or take the free shuttle buses to get around in the valley.

Most people enter the park through the West (near Fresno), but the drive from Mono Lake (East) through the Tioga Pass is beautiful. Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows are gorgeous and there are more hikes along the Tioga Road than in any other part of Yosemite, namely the very famous Cathedral Lake hike. The thing is, most hikes are either very long or very short in Yosemite (and the very short ones are very crowded and not that exciting in my opinion).

Because it was formed by glaciation, the valley walls are sheer and high, leading to world-famous cliffs: El Capitan, a mountain-climbing mecca, rises more than 3,000 feet (900 meters) virtually straight up from the Yosemite Valley floor, and Half Dome looms 4,800 feet (1,600) meters above.

Mono Lake

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Mono Lake’s “petrified springs”are spectacular examples of what nature can do with just a few basic ingredients. When calcium-bearing freshwater springs well up through the carbonate-rich lake water, a chemical reaction happens and solid limestone (aka tufa) is formed around a spring.

The towers are above the waterline now because the city of Los Angeles began diverting the streams that feed the lake in 1941, lowering the lake's level by more than 40 feet. Since a Water Board ruling in 1994, the lake has been gradually refilling to its 1963 levels; when it's done, part of this trail will be underwater again. So don't put your visit off for too long. Fortunately, tufa continues to form today where freshwater and lake water meet.

Mono Lake’s water contains 10% salt (just as a comparison point, the Pacific Ocean contains 3.5% and Lake Tahoe 0.001%). I was very surprised to find out that you can actually swim in Mono Lake (and yes, float!). It was too cold when we were there, but it would have been fun to try. You can actually snorkel to see interesting formations under water, but you’ll have to follow some precautions (like a wearing a very tight mask and applying Vaseline on your lips because of the very salty water).

The lake’s alkalinity (pH=10) makes life impossible for fish. However, there is a type of brine shrimp that grows only in that lake and that is sold as tropical fish food.

The best time to take pictures is very early in the morning before sunrise (so you can get a vast array of colors). I am not that dedicated a photographer, but got there at about 7:30 am and the light was still beautiful and quite surreal, even if I am not super happy with how the pictures turned out... (I still wouldn't get up earlier...). The entrance fee is$3/person or free with a National Park Pass (or interagency pass).

Hiking to Parker Lake

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 Ansel Adams Wilderness. One of my all time favorite photographer.

Ansel Adams Wilderness. One of my all time favorite photographer.

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 The aspens are turning yellow in the Sierras already!

The aspens are turning yellow in the Sierras already!

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 Beautiful Parker Lake with Mt. Wood.

Beautiful Parker Lake with Mt. Wood.

 On the return, you can see Mono Lake in the distance.

On the return, you can see Mono Lake in the distance.

Parker Lake Trail, located in the Mono Lake area of the Eastern Sierra, is a very popular hike and for good reasons. It is a relatively short easy hike (3.8 miles round trip) that arrives at a gorgeous pristine alpine setting with towering Mt. Wood, Parker Peak (12,850 feet high) and Mt. Lewis. The lake is situated just above 8,000 feet. Make sure you bring lots of water and that you wear sun protection (including a hat) if you are hiking in the warm season. The first part of the trail climbs a bit and is completely exposed (if you are not acclimatized to altitude yet, you might find this gentle grade more demanding than usual). Dogs are allowed on the trail. It seems like it is a great fishing destination too!

Lake Tahoe area

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Ever since I can remember, Lake Tahoe has always been synonymous of adventure in my head. When I worked in outdoor retail stores, there was always a Tahoe Jacket or aTahoe something... I collected pictures of Caribbean blue beaches with a snowy mountain tops background on my Pinterest boards and kept hoping we could make it there before it got too cold... it was always next year... Finally, we made it (by crossing the border much earlier than usual) and it's beautiful, warm and sunny. We got to ride amazing trails (the Corral trail system in South Tahoe is amazing, don't miss Upper and Lower Corral, Armstrong connector, Sidewinder and for a longer ride, Mr. Toads wild ride). 

JF went for a long run on the Tahoe Rim trail and the girls and I set to go explore Tahoe most beautiful beach at Sand Harbor State Park. After driving for one hour, we found out that we could not get in because we had the dog with us. They would not let us in even if the dog would stay in the Westy and I would just get out to take pictures. Have you ever heard of such a stupid rule? I get that dogs are not allowed on beaches and trails, no problem. But not allowed to enter a state park and stay in the vehicle for 20 minutes??? I was NOT happy. This is the beach I had waited to photograph and visit for 5 + years... Oh and the entrance fee is $12...  So we turned around, very disappointed and headed 6 miles south to Chimney Beach, a free public beach where dogs are allowed. We were not expecting much, but we were sweaty and determined to swim in Tahoe. Well, Chimney Beach was awesome!! You have to walk down a half mile path to the shore where there are tons of little rocky coves you can choose from (you can either go left or right once you get to the bottom of the trail, just keep exploring until you find a private spot you like... if you go left for a bit, you will encounter a nude beach, just so you know!). We went right and found a beautiful crescent beach where we spend a few hours WITH Stout! And as you can see from the pictures, the water was as turquoise as in Sand Harbor. 

Lake Tahoe is very expensive and since we needed gas, groceries, laudry, etc., we decided to stay in Gardnerville, NV, where everything is much cheaper and accessible. We could have camped on the shore of Lake Tahoe for $36/night, but we stayed in a quiet Walmart parking lot in Gardnerville. Not exactly by the lake, but the lower altitude made for warmer nights and we stocked up on groceries before heading down the Sierras where it would take a while to see big grocery stores. There is a Grocery Outlet and a Raley's (great grocery store) 4 miles north from the Walmart in Gardnerville and a great cheap 24 hours Laudromat 6 miles north (Village Laundromat). There is another Walmart where you can spend the night in Carson City, but it's much busier and not as quiet (but there is a Trader Joe's right by and a Costco).

 If you are planning to enjoy the Tahoe activities for more than a few days, it might be a good idea to pick a campsite near the Lake (I'd say between South Tahoe and Sand Harbor State Park, on the Nevada side) and go for a weekly rate. Driving from Gardnerville to the Lake requires you go over passes and it is longer than Google will tell you, especially with a Westfalia with its original engine...

Eldorado National Forest, Crystal Basin, CA

 On our way down from the Lava Beds National Monuments, we stopped for a few hours at the Yuba River State Park. The river is an incredible deep blue turquoise and there are tons of secret spots along the river to swim and enjoy this area. It was late in the day and we didn't have time to explore, but still had a quick post sunset dip.

On our way down from the Lava Beds National Monuments, we stopped for a few hours at the Yuba River State Park. The river is an incredible deep blue turquoise and there are tons of secret spots along the river to swim and enjoy this area. It was late in the day and we didn't have time to explore, but still had a quick post sunset dip.

 Union Valley Reservoir (Sunset Campground) and our friends Catamaran.

Union Valley Reservoir (Sunset Campground) and our friends Catamaran.

 They took us sailing and it was so much fun!

They took us sailing and it was so much fun!

 We also canoed on the beautiful lake. There is already snow on the mountain tops!

We also canoed on the beautiful lake. There is already snow on the mountain tops!

 They brought us to another great spot in this area called Bassi Falls.

They brought us to another great spot in this area called Bassi Falls.

 Sticks are so overrated. I retrieve pinecones.

Sticks are so overrated. I retrieve pinecones.

 Bassi Falls paradise.

Bassi Falls paradise.

 Upper Bassi Falls is full of beautiful basins flowing into one another. Some of them made for great waterslides too!

Upper Bassi Falls is full of beautiful basins flowing into one another. Some of them made for great waterslides too!

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We came here to meet our friends who had spend the summer in the area sailing their Catamaran and just enjoying this beautiful wild part of the sierras. They had told us how much they liked this region before and we were excited to discover it. It really blew our minds. Sunset Campground is beautiful and located on a peninsula. Unfortunately, it will be closed for the next two years for improvements. Luckily, there are other campgrounds very close by, namely Wolf Creek that our friends really like. Do not miss Bassi Falls and Wright Lake trails in the Desolation Wilderness (JF went running there) if you are in the area. It is about half way between Auburn and Lake Tahoe.

Hike to 49 Palms Oasis, Joshua Tree NP

Hiking in a dry dusty desert for a few miles, then rounding a corner and seeing that beautiful green oasis is a unique experience. The air was much cooler and damp under the fan palms. We totally understood how finding the proverbial oasis in the middle of the desert could feel.

More Joshua Tree rock climbing and bouldering goodness

After the Thanksgiving crowd came and went, Joshua Tree is back to its normal quiet self, especially during the week, away from the main tourist destinations of the park. We have the crags to ourselves and it feels glorious!

One afternoon, the kids didn't feel like joining us, so JF and I took off just the two of us while they stayed back at camp with their friends and Jennifer and Karl. We were exhilarated to be climbing just by ourselves. I could actually hear the silence of that place, the bling-bling of the quickdraws dangling from JF's harness as he climbed, the swoosh of the rope as I quickly fed him some rope to clip. We each climbed two great routes in less than 2 hours, something impossible when you have to belay 6 kids on every route! 

When we came back to the rig, the 6 kids had completely cleaned the bus and had prepared a delicious feast for the both of us! How awesome! We were speechless!

Since we are back at Joshua Tree North BLM, we are only 15 min from Indian Cove (one of the main rock climbing sector in Joshua Tree NP) and we go there every afternoon. Yesterday, after trying to set up a route and deciding against it after the first bolt (yes, we are very careful!), we worked on some bouldering problems. Boudering is hard work, but oh so rewarding!

Hiking in Painted Canyon

This is the perfect introduction to slot canyons! The access is short and relatively easy (I would not recommend it to children 6 and younger) and it's only 45 min from Palm Desert (on Box Canyon Road). It took us only 3 hours to hike all the way out and back (the kids said it was too short!). It gave us just enough time to be back for a swim in the pool before sunset.

On risk taking and injuries

Left: scrambling up to the route. Right: trying to spot all the bolts... not an easy task in Joshua Tree!

Pretty awesome "waiting room".

(photo by Isabelle Lauzon)

It is such an empowering feeling to leave, just Jennifer and I in the Westy with all the kids piled up in the back and head to the crag. Joshua Tree routes are not easy to find and you never know what to expect. As I said in my last post, there are often bolts missing, big runouts (long distances without a bolt or protection on the route) and impossible to find anchors on top (which is not a problem for trad climbers who can install their own protections, but it can be a problem for us, sport climbers). So we felt pretty badass leading the kids through a fun scramble in a canyon up to the routes, then assessing the routes with them (trying to spot bolts and anchors), making the decision to climb or not depending on that assesment and finally climbing a different route further down. We came back to the Westy at moon rise (again!) and felt so full from another day at the crag together!

(photos by Isabelle Lauzon)

The next day, Jennifer had a fall while leading a route that was supposed to be an easy 5.5 (we renamed it 5.5. My Ass!). And she sprained her ankle pretty bad. Three months ago it was JF that broke an arm in a mountain bike accident, then a month ago, Karl sprained his foot when he fell while lead climbing and his foot got caught... (and no! I am not next!). It is easy to assume that we partake in high-risk sports and that injuries are to be expected. It is in part true and we consciously choose to life an active life doing sports we love even if there are risks involved. Is there anything that is risk-free? Choosing to not be active also comes with a different type of risk (health consequences mainly). Also, a person might be a risk-taker in one sphere of its life and risk-averse in another one (one might bungee jump, but never invest in the stock market, for instance). 

JF is right where Jennifer was when she fell. It was about a a 5 feet fall and her ankle twisted when she landed in the crack (photos by Isabelle Lauzon).

Due to media-coverage, many non-climbers are aware of numerous climbing fatalities. When a non-climber looks at a rock face and thinks its crazy for anyone to climb, a competent climber might see an established and well-protected route on immaculate rock and rightly judge it not risky.

Of course rock climbing involves a certain amount of risk. But with risk comes rewards. We all know what it feels like to be afraid of something, but to overcome it, to succeed, that's one of the best feelings in the world (inspired by this short movie).

Belaying Alex on his first outdoor climb! It's an honour to introduce friends and family to a sport we love so much (photos by Isabelle Lauzon).

But still, the question remains (at least in our parents and siblings head!):

“So, why are you taking risks? If you look deeply enough, you’ll realize you take risks to grow and growth gives you experiences that make you feel alive. It’s important to recognize when your ego takes you off that path of growth. Take risks that are appropriate for you, learn what you need to learn, and feel alive and fulfilled in the process.” (from this great article). Read on for more excerpts from this article...

“Many climbers begin climbing in a gym. Mark Twight points out that in the gym, a climber expects to confront a minimal amount of fear and to have anxiety managed by others. We become accustomed to someone else managing these risks, which can lead to a false sense of security when climbing outside. In this way we tend to insulate ourselves from the situations we are engaged in. We’ve expected others to manage the risk while we were focused on having a nice, comfortable experience. The more comfortable and safe we make situations, the more separated we are from them.

Cars, these days, lock the doors, turn on/off the lights, and beep when we haven’t put on our safety belt. Decision-making has been taken away in an attempt to keep us safe. Does safety lie in gadgets making decisions for us or in technology that disengages us from the risk? Henry Barber’s maxim is “do more with less”. His approach puts him in close proximity to the risk with minimal insulation. He states that doing more with less [technology] requires creativity. It allows us to be the leader of our life and decisions, rather than succumbing to the sheep mentality. What we need to keep in mind is why we do what we do.”

Rock climbing in Indian Cove, Joshua Tree National Park

Belay glasses are the best invention since sliced bread! They are simply prisms that allow you to see your climber without having to lift your head up (it also magnifies so it looks closer to you). No more neck pain!!

Left: Jennifer leading a crazy 5.7 (called Feminine Itch, obviously named by a dirtbag woman!)... Oh Joshua Tree, you are always so full of surprises (major runouts, missing bolts, etc.)! You never know what you'll find once up there! Right: JF resting after the 5.10c section of this route! He did awesome!

We introduced Isabelle, Alex and Martin to rock climbing outside and they went up like pros!

Joshua Tree is a mecca for trad climbers! Undeniably one of the best places in the United States. However, when it comes to sport climbing, there isn't that many routes. Or rather, there are routes, but they are scattered here and there, and the only two spots where there are more than 2 or 3 routes require over one hour of approach walk, scrambling up ball bearing scree, washes and canyons.

We spent most of our days at Indian Cove campground where there are sport routes right behind the campsites. It was kind of weird to climb on someone's campsite while they were gone, but it was an ideal spot with no approach at all. 

Rock climbing Cryptic, Headstone Rock, Ryan campground, Joshua Tree

See that big boulder up there. That's where Cryptic is.

JF did it!!

Cryptic is hands down the most popular sport route in Joshua Tree (and in the overall top 10 of the park). Headstone rock stands proud and tall over Ryan Campground and simply begs to be climbed. However, the scramble up is quite sketchy with big drops, especially for short legs. It was a real shame to turn around, especially since there is almost always a line up for this awesome route (and that now, there was only a party of 2), so I stayed down with the kids while JF and Jennifer went up.

The kids found an amazing cave and bouldered in it (then turned it into a two storey house). I chatted with a super nice woman climber from Colorado as the sun was setting and I watched JF make it to the top of that crazy high boulder. The top platform is about 6 feet x 6 feet and you can sit on top to watch the moon rise, then rappel down. What a life we live!

Boondocking at Joshua Tree North BLM

The girls made a sun dial

Do you see how different the light is in the desert? The sun feels hot on our skin during the day and it feels glorious to lay on the hard cracked soil and soak up its warmth. The night air is crisp and smells of winter. The sky is wide open and the moon shines so bright we don't needlamps. It creates the best moon shadows I have ever seen! No wonder there has been scenes from Star Wars filmed right here!

An afternoon in Palo Alto

And we think our generation invented technological nomadism!!

First abacus and old computer chips

Playing Ping!

Left: PET the first Commodore with tape! Top right: the first Apple II. Bottom right: my first computer: a Commodore 64.... Hours and hours of video games with my dad!

The self-driving Google car! So exciting! The only vehicle in which you can actually text and drive! It was even nicer to see one on the road in traffic 5 minutes after we left the museum.

We really enjoyed the Computer History Museum. One of the highlights was playing with the Atari Pong game and seeing the Google self-driving car. There are quite a few of those on the roads around here (they still are prototypes, not sold yet). All the adults enjoyed some nostalgia from seeing devices they grew up with - which brought back fond memories of long gaming sessions with friends and relatives.  When's the last time anyone seen an Atari 2600 or Commodore 64? It was my first computer! I spent countless hours playing games on it with my dad! And who can forget those handheld football games (Coleco!).

There are all sorts of cool displays all the way back from 2,000 BC to the mainframes of the 1960s, Cray supercomputers, to the early Altair 8800, and even an original Apple 1! It clearly is more of an adult museum, but Martin made it quite interesting for the kids by explaining to them some of the exhibits, like the Babbage machine and the ancient calcultators, the punch cards for census.

If you are interested, there is a Groupon deal for 6 tickets (Kids 12 years and younger are free). It is a must see when you are at the heart of the Silicon Valley! Palo Alto is home to Facebook, Pinterest, Google, Intel, Tesla, HP, Skype, Paypal, SurveyMonkey and so many more! That is where it all happens!

Then we went to have dinner at an awesome restaurant called Lyfe Kitchen. This chain has been created by Mike Roberts, the former global president of McDonald's, teamed up with Stephen Sidwell, who helped found the meat substitute Gardein, and Mike Donahue, McDonald's USA's former chief of corporate communications, to launch LYFE Kitchen three years ago. So, as you'd expect, Lyfe aims to bring a fast-food sensibility to healthy fare: you order at the counter, go sit down to a comfortable table in a beautiful zen minimalist atmosphere (unlike McDonald’s) and your food is brought to your table in 3 to 5 minutes. The prices are very reasonable. I got a lime ginger chia water (with fresh mint and strawberries floating in it) for $1.50, a side of baked sweet potato fries with chipotle aioli for $3.50. Everything was delicious, from the Crunchy quinoa salad (with edamame hummus and arugula) to the thai red curry bowl and the fish tacos. Aisha was quite excited to see vegan faux-chicken fingers on the kids menu with the sweet potato fries! It’s a mostly vegan restaurant with lots of gluten-free options. The only meat and fish they serve is organic and grass-fed (and sustainably produced). They also serve great local beer on tap.

The chain now has 18 locations and ambitious plans to open 250 more within the next five years. Every dish on the menu is under 600 calories with less than 1,000 milligrams of sodium, and the average check size is $4 to $14, according to the company. Butter, trans fats, white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other food additives are barred from the menu, and locally sourced ingredients are used when available. There are no more excuses to eat at McDonald’s when in a hurry!

Then, we went to walk in downtown Palo Alto and stopped for ice cream at Cream for the kids and then to Scoop, a microcreamery (how cool… just like in microbrewery). Scoop uses liquid nitrogen to create their ice cream which makes for a very smooth treat. We loved everything we sampled: vegan mango and strawberry sorbet (the instant freeze from the liquid nitrogen turn the strawberry piece into a gummy bear texture: awesome!), the sweet potato and pecan one, the macha tea…

Downtown Santa Cruz

Java was terrified of this little boy...

Santa Cruz is a cool town. A very cool hippy-surf-bum town.... There is great food here too, Café Gratitude, Penny Ice Creamery, Verve Coffee roasters and more that all cater to all types of food intolerances you could have. Bike shops and surf shops are everywhere. The beaches are right there. What's not to love about this place?

In the Redwoods

This is the Frémont Tree, a burnt-out, hollow redwood tree. We could all fit inside it. It was pitch black in there (but we could see high up into the trunk with a flashlight). It was an incredible feeling. I stood into a tree!

As you enter a redwood forest, you are hit right away by its majestic beauty, a sense of reverence and awe. Then, you breathe the fresh forest air. The Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park is a special type of temperate rain forest, an old-growth coast redwood forest. These trees can grow beyond 300 ft tall and live to the mature age of over 2,000 years. It was stricking to see a slice of a redwood in front of the visitor center where major historical events have been marked on the tree lines (from 105 when the Chinese invented print to 1934 when it fell, this tree has seen a lot of history, Shakespeare's birth, Magellan's voyage and so much more). No wonder we feel their wisdoms when we walk in the forest! There is a feeling a protection, an embrace, not unlike what one experiences in a slot canyon...