Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

 Can you spot the sand dunes at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains?

Can you spot the sand dunes at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains?

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These huge dunes look totally out of place at the edge of the snow-covered Rocky Mountains. Located in south central Colorado (about 2.5 hours from Colorado Springs and nearly four hours from Denver, they lie at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They are the tallest sand dunes in North America.

There are no official trails into the dunes and because of the soft, ever-shifting sand, possibilities for exploration are limitless. It is permitted to walk anywhere, and one popular target is the top of the tallest dune, which conveniently is only half a mile from the edge. Still, the journey takes up to one hour and it is often a case of one step up, half a step down. It is easier to walk along sand ridges, rather than up the side of the dunes. The surface temperature of the sand can rise to over 140 F in the summer, much too hot for barefoot walking, and very hard on your dog’s paws (bring booties). Note that this is one of the rare National Parks where dogs are allowed on hiking trails. It is written everywhere that you need to keep your dog ON LEASH. I know the dunes feel like a sandbox of epic proportions, but please respect that rule so we can keep coming here with our pups (most people had their dogs off leash…).

It is often windy on the dunes (it was when we were there) and it was not a pleasant experience. Wear long pants and non-mesh shoes (or walk barefoot if the sand is cool enough), a windbreaker and buff and tight-fitting hat, as well as sunglasses if you plan to hike the dunes on a windy day. It will make your journey much more fun.


You can also rent sand board or sand sleds to play on the dunes just outside the park (regular sleds or snowboards don’t work well on dry sand). Another amazing feature of the Great Sand Dunes is Medano Creek - a small stream fed by melting snow that is only about ten miles long and flows most strongly during spring and early summer. It starts in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, runs along the east edge of the dunes and disappears below ground in the valley.


It is also a great area for stargazing and there are often ranger-led astronomy programs in the park. A really unique experience would be to camp overnight in the dunes (when weather is calm and clear to avoid blowing sand or dangerous thunderstorms with lightning). You can pitch your tent anywhere in the dune field that lies outside the day-use area. You'll have a minimum hike of 1.5 miles over the dunes, but will experience a unique overnight setting. Don’t forget that hauling your gear up slippery sand dunes is quite the workout.

There is a limit of 6 people per party, and limit of 20 parties in the dune field per night; permits are first-come, first-served (gas stoves only; no campfires). Dogs are not permitted in the dunes backcountry.


Though not inside Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, Zapata Falls is a terrific little hike (0.8 miles) during a visit to the area and a fun place to cool off from the hot sun in the summer since you have to walk in the water to get there.


There are a few options for camping in the area. The Piñon Flats Campground is run by the National Park Service, with 44 sites that are first-come, first-served and 44 that visitors can reserve in advance.

For those traveling in 4WD vehicles, there are 21 campsites along Medano Pass Road within the park that are free and available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Outside the park, there is the San Luis Wilderness area, which was a state park until last year, where you can camp FOR FREE WITH 30/50 AMP power, sheltered picnic tables and fire ring in a gorgeous setting. Too good to be true? That’s what we thought, but we had a hard time leaving.


Mary Jane Canyon and some Moab updates

 Driving on Ranch rd/BLM 98 to get to Mary Jane Canyon. What a view!

Driving on Ranch rd/BLM 98 to get to Mary Jane Canyon. What a view!

 After about 5 minutes of walking on the trail, you have to get your feet wet!

After about 5 minutes of walking on the trail, you have to get your feet wet!

 And it just gets better.

And it just gets better.

 The sandstone is so red it's almost purple and when you walk in the water, it looks like there is blood around your feet.

The sandstone is so red it's almost purple and when you walk in the water, it looks like there is blood around your feet.

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 Finally found a quiet camping spot about 25 minutes out of Moab. With a gorgeous view of the  Fiery Furnace .

Finally found a quiet camping spot about 25 minutes out of Moab. With a gorgeous view of the Fiery Furnace.

 Silence. Finally. After days of constant OHV noise.

Silence. Finally. After days of constant OHV noise.

If you type Moab on the Home page search bar of the blog, you'll see a ridiculous number of posts pop up. We just love Moab and have been coming here every year for the last 5 years. The more helpful post for bike trails and general info that I wrote is this one and this one contains more photos or trails (all the info is still good, except that the coffee at Bike Fiend was NOT good this year, stick to Moab Coffee Roasters and the good cheap laudromat by the Village Market and Chili Pepper Bike shop is not a Domino Pizza and you are left with very few options for laundry... We ended up going to Moab Laundry (that we call the Gringo Laundromat, because it's pack full with travelers and it's ridiculously cheap and the driers take forever to dry... buuut, it's right by the City Market AND Gearhead (where you can fill your jugs with delicious spring water for free), so we can kill 3 birds with one stone.

Coming here every year for a while also means that we have seen the effects of more and more people camping on the public lands and that every year, we camp a little further away... Last year, we stayed on Dalton Wells Road since Willow Springs Road was packed and this year, after spending a few very noisy days on Dalton Wells with people riding and racing their OHV all day long in front of our bus, we moved further out of town.

There has been lots of discussions on Instagram lately among the vanlifers about the repercussions of sharing the exact coordinates of these free campsites (and other beautiful locations). Many of us feel directly responsible for drawing crowds there (and some of us truly are... I know I am for at least a few spots I first reviewed on Campendium). It’s a complex issue and many of us stand on the fence here. We’re not a select little group who should be the only ones to have access to this information. HOWEVER, as Kerri McHale (@asolojourner) says: “There’s surely enough info already out there to get anyone’s feet wet; even if every single one of us stopped geotagging today. (…) This land is open to everyone, and everyone’s free to explore it. We’re not putting up “no trespassing” signs; were just not putting up neon arrows to the road here”.

Of course, I will keep sharing these special spots with people I know. And I will keep sharing them here on the blog. I receive lots of messages from friends and acquaintances (and readers!) planning trips and never refuse them a piece of advice. However, I know these people and know they will not trash them. These places are our second homes, our refuges, as Kerri McHale says. She continues: It’s not good for everyone to crowd onto one pinpoint on a map—it changes the land, even when people *aren’t* trashing it. I’ve talked to many locals lately, who see places they’ve come back to for decades overrun and trashed. I once thought, “I don’t have that many followers…how could I really be affecting this?” But that’s kind of like saying, “I’ll just drop this one coke can on the ground. No one comes around here anyway,” isn’t it?

So if you have read this far, let me share with you here one of Moab's best kept secret: Mary Jane Canyon. When the crowds are invading Arches and Canyonlands National Parks (and Corona Arch trail too now...), there are a few hidden gems that you will likely only have to share with a few other hikers if you are willing to drive a few extra miles (or 20). Last year, I told you about the Fisher Towers (still our favorite hike in the area!) and this year, we discovered Mary Jane Canyon. Unfortunately, we didn't get to go all the way to the end where the true gem is: a beautiful 30 feet high split waterfall INSIDE the slot canyon because we ran out of light. It is a long hike (9 miles/14 km round trip) mostly IN the water, so plan accordingly. It is however perfect on a hot day when the crowds are all at Grandstaff Canyon (aka Morning Glory, aka Negro Bill Canyon) to get their feet wet. Some people have reported being able to keep their feet dry by rock hopping, but it'll be a lot of work (and you'll likely slip and get wet or injure yourself). You CAN be in the water 90% of the time, but you will likely have to be walking in it at least 50% if you follow the trail that meanders in and out of the creek. We don't have Keens, so we simply used our regular sneakers with wool hiking socks and it was perfect. JF did it in his Chaco sandals and said it was not ideal because the sole became abrasive under his feet after a while. If you have weak ankles, brink hiking poles. The water was pretty shallow when we did it at the beginning of April (mostly ankle deep, some spots mid-calf) and cold but not freezing. We called the BLM field office in Moab beforehand since it had rained a few days prior, but they said they do not monitor the water level there, so I guess it is not as likely to get flash floods there. The water level does vary during the year and it is usually dry at the end of the summer.

Once you reach the trail head, make sure you take the right trail. The more obvious one is for Professor/Sylvester Creek, which is NOT where you are going. The trail to Mary Jane Canyon is just across the parking lot by a no camping sign. The best info I found about it is on this blog (with photos of the trail head). The canyon walls get higher as you hike further into the canyon, and eventually will reach upwards of 100 ft. I also read that there are several side canyons that allow for exploring tighter slot canyons.

 

Exploring Utah's Canyons part 4: San Rafael Reef

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 Little Wild Horse Canyon is so sinuous, you feel like water walking through it.

Little Wild Horse Canyon is so sinuous, you feel like water walking through it.

 Mathilde is always ready to rest. Ahem.

Mathilde is always ready to rest. Ahem.

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 So, so gorgeous!

So, so gorgeous!

  Canyons have been described as sensuous and feminine, womb-like in opposition to mountains and spires or hoodoos. You see, something unique happen when you stand in the belly of the earth. You want to run your fingers along the round walls, like a pregnant belly or a breast. You want to linger, to drift… you don't want to get out of that embrace, to reemerge  and reenter the world beyond that womb.

Canyons have been described as sensuous and feminine, womb-like in opposition to mountains and spires or hoodoos. You see, something unique happen when you stand in the belly of the earth. You want to run your fingers along the round walls, like a pregnant belly or a breast. You want to linger, to drift… you don't want to get out of that embrace, to reemerge  and reenter the world beyond that womb.

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In their book Utah Canyon Country, Kathy and Craig Copeland warn the hikers pretty clearly about Bell & Little Wild Horse canyons: The circuit linking the two canyons is a merry-go-round of enthusiastic hikers: kids sprinting away from their ambling parents, young couples lugging babies in backpacks, seniors cautiously shrouded head-to-toe in sun-barrier clothing, experienced trekkers sheepish about participating in such a carnival yet enjoying it too. (…) Hiking here is like joining a hikers’ pride parade. It’s an act of solidarity with your comrades: the people raising hikers-to-be. Not convinced? Then come here simply to marvel at the bizarre beauty of the San Rafael Reef. These canyons are so extraordinary they’ll command your attention while the party swirls on without you.

Little Wild Horse Canyon (2-4 miles round trip to simply explore the first section of LWH Canyon or 9 miles to do the loop hike with Bell Canyon, easy, dog-friendly but lots of people, VERY HEAVY traffic):

There were over 60 vehicles in the parking lot when we arrived at 3 pm on a Monday afternoon (granted, it was during Spring Break, but still!). We decided to go find a camping spot on Little Wild Horse BLM just a few minutes from there and waited for the crowd to leave. We started our hike in the canyon at 6 pm and had the place pretty much to ourselves. It was AMAZING. We hike pretty fast, but we were able to see a lot of Little Wild Horse Canyon and return by 8 pm. It is undeniably the most beautiful slot canyon we have seen when taking in consideration the minimal approach and how easy it is to hike it (no technical challenge at all).

Most people simply walk a few miles into Little Wild Horse Canyon and turn around (like we did), but you can also do it in a loop starting with Bell Canyon and returning through Little Wild Horse Canyon. I believe it would be doable the other way around too (but you might want to double check that in case there are obstacles) in order to avoid the crowd if you start very early from LWH canyon.

 

 Our beautiful (and very windy) campsite on  Little Wild Horse BLM .

Our beautiful (and very windy) campsite on Little Wild Horse BLM.

 

To also check in the same area:

Crack Canyon (7 miles round trip, easy with a few obstacles requiring some gymnastic efforts, dogs allowed, but has to be pretty athletic, moderate to low traffic)

Chute Canyon (4.5 miles round trip, easy, dogs allowed, moderate to low traffic)

I'm not going to keep you from paying $15 to go into Goblin Valley State park and spend an hour (or less) climbing on goblin-like rock formations (why on earth do they allow people to climb on such fragile formations, I don't know...), but if you do and you have bikes, go explore a much less crowded area of the park with really nice easy bike trails and ride The Dark Side of the Moon to get very close to the San Rafael Swell.

Recommended books:

Map (note that there is no cell signal in most of these places, so you'll likely need a paper map) : Canyons of the Escalante

Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante & the Glen Canyon Region: A Guide To 59 Of The Best Hiking Adventures In Southern Utah

Hiking from Here to Wow: Utah Canyon Country

Hiking the Escalante

Exploring Utah's Canyons part 2: Hole-in-the-Rock Road

 Approach hike to Big Horn Canyon

Approach hike to Big Horn Canyon

 The incredible colors and texture in Big Horn Canyon.

The incredible colors and texture in Big Horn Canyon.

 Feeling like we are in another world, alone in Big Horn Canyon.

Feeling like we are in another world, alone in Big Horn Canyon.

 Playing in a shallow section of Big Horn Canyon.

Playing in a shallow section of Big Horn Canyon.

Hole-in-the-Rock Road has the biggest concentration of slot canyons in Utah. It is 57 miles one-way and 4 x 4 is strongly recommended for the last 7 miles. There was LOTS of wash board on this route when we were there and driving it in our van wasn't fun. We decided NOT to drive the 50 something mile required to get to some of the canyons we wanted to explore and stuck to the canyons located on the first 15 miles of the road for that reason.

There are no route markers on most canyon trails (sometimes a cairn here and there). You need a map and some navigation skills.

As the Copelands put it in their book: Hiking, particularly when routefinding rather than heedlessly following a trail, reboots our connection with nature. It requires us to engage directly. And canyon country is the ideal place to venture into trail-less terrain.

These places invite exploration, but if you want to veer off the path, you should stay on the cattle trails to avoid destroying the fragile desert crust. Do not add cairns, do not write with mud on the canyon walls, keep your voice down (and teach this to your kids). Enthusiasm is beautiful, but this is not an amusement park. Be respectful of others who are likely to look for a more contemplative experience.

Big Horn canyon (5 miles round trip, easy, dog-friendly, moderate traffic): Big Horn Canyon is an interesting tributary of Harris Wash in a rarely explored part of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It was our best *discovery*. The wide range of colors, textures and formations took our breath away. The canyon deepens quickly, eventually reaching a depth of 400 feet, and forms slot-like channels of varying narrowness mixed with wider, flat sections. It has two forks and all could be seen in five hours though adjacent parts of Harris Wash, and especially some of its nearby side canyons, are also worth visiting.

 Squeezing through an unnamed side canyon we discovered while hiking in Big Horn Canyon. It led to a beautiful cathedral-like area.

Squeezing through an unnamed side canyon we discovered while hiking in Big Horn Canyon. It led to a beautiful cathedral-like area.

 JF using his elbows to slowly get down this steep section of the side canyon.

JF using his elbows to slowly get down this steep section of the side canyon.

We have a tradition to pick a birthday hike (or ride). I had picked Little Death Hollow, but it was closed since a cow was stuck in it and someone else had been charged by an aggressive cow… So back to the drawing board we went and decided to check out Zebra Canyon.

Zebra slot canyon (5 miles round trip, easy to get there/moderate, some stemming required in the canyon, canyon is not dog-friendly, high to moderate traffic): This is a very short slot canyon (200 m) that require some wiggling and stemming to get through. It often contains water and quicksand. When we did it, there was two 50 feet-long sections of mid-calf freezing cold water. The slot canyon is reached after a 2 miles beautiful approach walk down to Harris Wash. There are not route markers here and it can be confusing for many. Make sure you have a map.

 The birthday hike crew

The birthday hike crew

 Canyons invite exploration

Canyons invite exploration

 Walking in the wash to get to Zebra Canyon.

Walking in the wash to get to Zebra Canyon.

 Getting closer.

Getting closer.

 There was two 50 feet-long sections of mid-calf freezing cold water. I got feet cramps that were so bad I could not stand for a minute.

There was two 50 feet-long sections of mid-calf freezing cold water. I got feet cramps that were so bad I could not stand for a minute.

 Mara-give-me-a-challenge Roldan

Mara-give-me-a-challenge Roldan

 Being tall is not always a good thing when exploring slot canyons.

Being tall is not always a good thing when exploring slot canyons.

 Left: int the narrowest and most beautiful part of Zebra Canyon. Right: JF helps Mara down a steep section.

Left: int the narrowest and most beautiful part of Zebra Canyon. Right: JF helps Mara down a steep section.

 Right: looking at a bird's nest in an alcove. Right: me, stemming to avoid a section of freezing water.

Right: looking at a bird's nest in an alcove. Right: me, stemming to avoid a section of freezing water.

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In many of these canyons, you will see Moqui Marbles. They are sandstone balls cemented by a hard shell of iron oxide minerals. They tumble from the pale, cream-colored navajo sandstone beds, when wind and water wash away the softer rock. The children of the Indian tribe who lived there were known to play with these stones, particularly the smaller stones, and used them like children today use marbles, hence the name Moqui Marbles.

The curious rocks have inspired fantastical tales of fairies, meteorites and dinosaur eggs, but their origin is fairly mundane. Water flowing through sedimentary rock leaves behind minerals that glue together masses of sand, mud or other particles.
Collecting them is prohibited. Please be respectful.

In my research online, I actually discovered that some people are selling them on eBay as shaman stones having special powers. I’m pretty sure this is bad Karma...

To also check in the same area:

Devil’s Garden Hoodoos (stroll around, up to a few miles, perfect natural playground for kids, a few arches and funky hoodoos, 12 miles from Highway 12 on Hole-in-the-Rock road).

 Devil's Garden Hoodoos (on Hole-in-the-Rock Road, not to be confused with Arches NP Devil's Garden).

Devil's Garden Hoodoos (on Hole-in-the-Rock Road, not to be confused with Arches NP Devil's Garden).

 Metate Arch at Devil's Garden Hoodoos.

Metate Arch at Devil's Garden Hoodoos.

 Mara standing on an arch at Devil's Garden. This is an amazing natural playground. You have to stop there if you have kids.

Mara standing on an arch at Devil's Garden. This is an amazing natural playground. You have to stop there if you have kids.

Peekaboo and Spooky Canyons (4.8 miles round trip, moderate, not dog-friendly, heavy traffic): These are undeniably the most visited canyons on Hole-in-the-Rock Road and for good reasons. The approach is short and the experience is unique. However, you might have to wait in line to enter through Peekaboo… it’s that crazy busy. People usually hike up Peekaboo and down Spooky (DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS HIKE IF YOU ARE IN ANY WAY OVERWEIGHT, these canyons are so narrow that people got stuck). Spooky will force even the most slender lanky types to carry their packs over their heads, turn sideways and wiggle through. There are a few chokestones and short drops. If you are #ho shapeshifter, you can also attempt Brimstone Canyon located at the same trailhead (darker and more obstacles, great to check you immunity to claustrophobia). We hiked these almost six years ago with the girls and it was quite the adventure (read the whole story here!)

Neon Canyon and the Golden Cathedral (9.2 miles round trip), moderate, dog-friendly, moderate traffic)

Note that there are many more very interesting canyons to explore on Hole-in-the-Rock Road (Davis Gulch, Llewelyn Gulch, Reflexion Canyon, Willow Gulch, Fortymile Gulch, Egypt 3, Spencer), but many require a 50 mile drive on that often very wash boardy road (it was in very rough shape when we were there).

We camped at this BLM while exploring this area. 

 

Recommended books:

Map (note that there is no cell signal in most of these places, so you'll likely need a paper map) : Canyons of the Escalante

Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante & the Glen Canyon Region: A Guide To 59 Of The Best Hiking Adventures In Southern Utah

Hiking from Here to Wow: Utah Canyon Country

Hiking the Escalante

Exploring Utah's Canyons part 1: Skutumpah Road + Lower Calf Creek Falls

 Willis Creek

Willis Creek

 Willis Creek overarching walls

Willis Creek overarching walls

 Wavy walls inside Willis Creek Canyon

Wavy walls inside Willis Creek Canyon

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When we started traveling around the US 6 years ago, Zion and Bryce National Parks were the new Grand Canyon. Crowds were filling every trail and people that had never hiked in their life showed up on Angel’s Landing trail wearing flip flops and carrying a tiny 250 ml bottle of water they had just bought at the lodge. Now, mainly thanks to social media, Utah’s slot canyons seem to be the new Zion. Whereas we had enjoyed Peekaboo and Spooky Canyons with only a few other adventurous parties 6 years ago, the Escalante Visitor Center ranger told us to stay away from it because there were line-ups of people trying to get in and out. And many of them were not serious hikers, even less slot-canyon savvy.

We knew that Willis Creek slot canyon and Lower Calf Creek Falls would be busy, but we didn’t expect to have people literally crawl under us inside Zebra Canyon (I wish I was joking). It was just ridiculous. Granted it was Spring Break, but we never expected it to be THAT busy.

One of our best experience was at Big Horn Canyon, where we started early and had the place mostly to ourselves until we were on our return. It was also quite special since we *discovered* one of the side slot canyon and ventured inside it not knowing what we would find. It ended in a gorgeous cathedral-like cave. The experience is just not the same at all. Of course, nobody likes busy places, but a crowded slot canyon is just not fun. And can border on dangerous.

Mostly, people are not aware of canyon etiquette. They are loud (and their voice reverberates on the canyon walls and don’t give people space to enjoy the spectacular sections of a canyon. Don’t be these guys. This is not a race, this is an experience. Many are there to have a contemplative experience and don’t feel like chatting. Canyons invite silence and respect.

Here are short description of every canyon we visited (note that there are many more and in other areas of Utah too). These are all accessible from Route 12. To simplify things I have separated them in 4 different posts.

More info can be obtained online or at the Escalante Visitor Center for directions. ALWAYS stop at the nearest visitor center to get information about the state of the trail and the risks of flash floods.

When hiking Willis Creek, we camped on this BLM.

 It is easy to get good pictures in Willis creek: the narrow sections are not very long allowing ample light to come in.

It is easy to get good pictures in Willis creek: the narrow sections are not very long allowing ample light to come in.

 Willis Creek is very dog-friendly.

Willis Creek is very dog-friendly.

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From Cannonville (Skutumpah Rd):

Willis Creek (4.8 miles round trip, easy, very dog-friendly, high traffic): Many slot canyons are accessible only after a 2-3 miles hike in a usually pretty sandy wash (in full sun), but Willis Creek is an exception, which explains why it is so popular. In some books it is describes as the best bang for your buck experience, and I guess it is true if you are in a rush or you want an easy mostly flat hike with no obstacles to climb. However, unless you go very, very early or late in the day, expect to be with a crowd. From the parking lot, the trail quickly drops into the canyon, within 5 minutes, you will see sculpted Navajo sandstone walls rise on both sides. You will go into many sections of slot canyon that alternate with short sections of wash. This explains why it is easy to get good pictures in Willis creek: the narrow sections are not very long allowing ample light to come in. It is a 20 minutes drive down unpaved Skutumpah Road (from Cannonville, on Hwy 12). It is not big-rig accessible (you can leave your rig for the day at the Cannonville Visitor Center or at a nearby BLM).

To also check in the same area:

Lick Wash Canyon (8-mile round trip, easy, dog friendly, moderate traffic). We did it almost 6 years ago and didn't find it particularly interesting.

 Hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls

Hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls

 Hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls

Hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls

Right on Route 12, between Escalante and Boulder:

Lower Calf Creek falls (6 miles round trip, easy, very dog-friendly, high traffic): Note that this is not a slot canyon, but a hike that leads you along high sandstone walls (with a few petroglyphs) to a beautiful waterfall. The hike in itself is beautiful from the start. It is a great hike to do if slots canyons are vulnerable to flash floods. There are some sandy sections and some ups and downs. In warm weather, people swim in the pool at the bottom of the fall.

 Lower Calf Creek Falls.

Lower Calf Creek Falls.

Prescott, AZ

 Exploring the Granite Dells.

Exploring the Granite Dells.

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 Willow Lake seen from the Granite Dells.

Willow Lake seen from the Granite Dells.

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 Riding the Sundog Trail. Photo by Jason Liske.

Riding the Sundog Trail. Photo by Jason Liske.

 Photo by Jason Liske.

Photo by Jason Liske.

 Photo by Jason Liske.

Photo by Jason Liske.

 Photo by Jason Liske.

Photo by Jason Liske.

 Watson Lake. Photo by Jason Liske.

Watson Lake. Photo by Jason Liske.

 Our campsite at White Spar Campground and the trails nearby.

Our campsite at White Spar Campground and the trails nearby.

 Cold Brew Negroni. Recipe on my  Instagram account . So good!

Cold Brew Negroni. Recipe on my Instagram account. So good!

The weather was unusually warm in Prescott for this time of year, so that meant we could comfortably camp (0 degrees nights and nice warm days) and most of the bike trails were rideable. Our original plan was to go on a BLM camping spot on Thumb Butte Mountain, but there was snow and mud on the steep climb to get there, so we turned around and went to White Spar Campground. For $10/night, you get a big asphalted lot with a picnic table and fire rink and access to a bathroom. There is no water on site at this time of year, but it’s easy to go dump and fill at Affinity RV for free. AND there are lots of bike trails that start right from the campground (Twist and Shout, Apple Blossom, Goldwater Lake). We rode a lot during our stay here and checked out many different areas. The number of bike trails here is just incredible! I think the favorite was Badger Mountain and Sundog and we also liked the new trails at Spence Basin (Tunnel Vision), but there were many more that we liked. Prescott has over 250 miles of beautiful trails. The Trailfork app is the best app to use for this area, as well as the PMBA website for trail conditions.

On the other side of town, there are two reservoir lakes (Watson Lake and Willow Lake) surrounded by the Granite Dells, a landscape reminescent of the Alabama Hills (where you can ride some pretty technical trails), and completely different from the area where we were camped.

 

McDowell Meltdown 2018

 Our set-up for the race near the Competitive Loop (4 Peaks).

Our set-up for the race near the Competitive Loop (4 Peaks).

 Jason leading the pack of Intermediate Single Speeders.

Jason leading the pack of Intermediate Single Speeders.

 Antonio after his first lap.

Antonio after his first lap.

 Diedra at the start (women intermediate 40-49)

Diedra at the start (women intermediate 40-49)

 Mara on her first lap.

Mara on her first lap.

 Ben closing the gap!

Ben closing the gap!

 Mara at the finish!

Mara at the finish!

 Mara came in third (over 14 girls) in her category (13-14 yo girls)!!

Mara came in third (over 14 girls) in her category (13-14 yo girls)!!

Last year, the McDowell Meltdown was JF and Mara's first ever bike race. You might remember that they had registered just for fun. This year, they came in a little more prepared (but not super well-trained since they both got a nasty bug over the holidays). They still did great and had a good time. 

Some of you have asked why Aisha and Mathilde did not do the race. The answer is that they simply didn't feel like it. They might or might not ride the other races in a few weeks. Our girls are free to choose, of course! As for me, I'm not interested in racing (nor am I in racing shape!).

We had never stayed at the McDowell Mountain Regional Park campground (we rarely pay for campsites), but this was well-worth it since they could pre-ride the course during the week and because there are also tons of trails that you can ride right from your campsite. We explored some trails, but there are still lots we haven't had a chance to ride. There are all types of trails, from wide sandy washes to steep rocky trails.

The sites are huge and well-spaced, they all have power and water ($30), but make sure you reserve in advance online because they fill-up pretty quickly at this time of year. If the campground is full, there is an overflow where you can stay for $20/night with no services, but access to showers and dump station.

Ending the year in the Strongholds

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Don't you just love it when you are with people with whom everything is so easy and simple and fun? I've said it before and I'll say it again: these guys feel like family! We spent a wonderful laid back weekend with them in the Dragoon Mountains, also called Cochise Strongholds. I've written on the blog about this place a few times already, so if you want more practical info about the camping or rock climbing, just search the blog with the hashtag cochise. 

We just love this place. There is an incredible sense of peace in these mountains. I love watching every sunrise and sunsets from the top and see how the orange light plays with the dry grass. Some people have compared it to some areas in Australia and even the African Savannah. I cannot help but think about Cochise and his troops who hid in those mountains for 2 years...

P.S. There is a pretty cool story about that van… We bought it from a gut that had imported it from California in 2000, used it, crossed Canada in it with our big St. Bernard to move to the Yukon, and sold it in 2005 to our friends Antonio and Pascale when I was expecting Mathilde (we camped in it with the twins in the Yukon, BC and Alaska – the first time they were only 2 months old!). Antonio and Pascale were moving to San Diego for Pascale’s postgraduate study, so the van was going back to its original home. Many years later, while he was working on the van, Antonio came across the manufactured date… which happened to be on his exact birthday. Not only the same year and the same month, but the same day too! How cool is that! So Tony the van, turned 40 on the same day as Antonio! And they are both off to many more adventures!

San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico

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 That beach was so nice and clean. The only downside were the stray dogs. Traveling to Mexico with an non-neutered dog might not have been our best move... a tad bit stressful.

That beach was so nice and clean. The only downside were the stray dogs. Traveling to Mexico with an non-neutered dog might not have been our best move... a tad bit stressful.

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 We loved seeing our girls navigate a new culture and be so open and so eager to discover new things.

We loved seeing our girls navigate a new culture and be so open and so eager to discover new things.

 That place was great, and by that I mean that (one of) the shower had good pressure and hot water (without any risk of getting an electric shock from naked wires), there is TP in the (clean) bathroom, our palapa's second floor is solid enough to hold the 5 of us. If you've never camped outside the US or Canada, you might find this place pretty run down and trashy. Hey, we have water and electricity on our beachfront site for 25 USD per night and are walking distance from town. That is 5 stars in my Mexican camping book!

That place was great, and by that I mean that (one of) the shower had good pressure and hot water (without any risk of getting an electric shock from naked wires), there is TP in the (clean) bathroom, our palapa's second floor is solid enough to hold the 5 of us. If you've never camped outside the US or Canada, you might find this place pretty run down and trashy. Hey, we have water and electricity on our beachfront site for 25 USD per night and are walking distance from town. That is 5 stars in my Mexican camping book!

 Full moon rising over the Sea of Cortez. 5 million stars!

Full moon rising over the Sea of Cortez. 5 million stars!

 Cooking under our palapa.

Cooking under our palapa.

 Sunrise over the Sea of Cortez.

Sunrise over the Sea of Cortez.

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 We went to visit the Valle de Los Gigantes, where the world’s biggest cactuses live. These cactuses are called the Mexican Giant Cardon. Some of these live more than 2000 years and measure over 20 meters! It was a pretty special experience to walk among these true giants. If you ever go, make sure to stop for a chat with Miguel who will warm your heart with his stories and his big Mexican smile.  

We went to visit the Valle de Los Gigantes, where the world’s biggest cactuses live. These cactuses are called the Mexican Giant Cardon. Some of these live more than 2000 years and measure over 20 meters! It was a pretty special experience to walk among these true giants. If you ever go, make sure to stop for a chat with Miguel who will warm your heart with his stories and his big Mexican smile.  

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 After visiting the Valle de Los Gigantes, we drove another hour south to the little village of Puertecitos where a friend told us about some hot springs. The village entrance was a pretty sad sight of slums and old trailers. The place was empty. I guess that most people living there are fishermen who were gone during the day. When we finally found someone to ask about the hot springs, we found out it was only accessible at low tide, 4-5 hours later, which would have meant driving the hour and a half back to our campsite in the dark, so we turned around. 

After visiting the Valle de Los Gigantes, we drove another hour south to the little village of Puertecitos where a friend told us about some hot springs. The village entrance was a pretty sad sight of slums and old trailers. The place was empty. I guess that most people living there are fishermen who were gone during the day. When we finally found someone to ask about the hot springs, we found out it was only accessible at low tide, 4-5 hours later, which would have meant driving the hour and a half back to our campsite in the dark, so we turned around. 

 Some areas are as sad as the road side faded shrines in some of the steep curves along ruta 5. 2008 hit hard here. There are so many abandoned  buildings in different states of construction, big colourful gates announcing resorts that only existed in the minds of overly enthusiastic builders. So many makeshift shelters and a few expat gated communities sprinkled here and there for good measure. 

Some areas are as sad as the road side faded shrines in some of the steep curves along ruta 5. 2008 hit hard here. There are so many abandoned  buildings in different states of construction, big colourful gates announcing resorts that only existed in the minds of overly enthusiastic builders. So many makeshift shelters and a few expat gated communities sprinkled here and there for good measure. 

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 San Felipe was pretty much what we expected (minus the crazy wind that blew pretty much all day long for 4 days straight and forced is to wear all the clothes we had brought one on top of each other). It's laid back and perfect for a week off. However, there's just so much sitting on the beach, reading in a hammock, playing cards and eating tacos I can do before going crazy (well, maybe not the taco part). 

San Felipe was pretty much what we expected (minus the crazy wind that blew pretty much all day long for 4 days straight and forced is to wear all the clothes we had brought one on top of each other). It's laid back and perfect for a week off. However, there's just so much sitting on the beach, reading in a hammock, playing cards and eating tacos I can do before going crazy (well, maybe not the taco part). 

 For a bunch of antsy pants like us, there isn't much to do. No trails to hike or bike (a campground neighbor went for a run and got bitten by stray dogs), no waves to surf, no wall to climb. We walked to town a few times a day, but ended up stuck in the Westy because of the wind for many hours a day. 

For a bunch of antsy pants like us, there isn't much to do. No trails to hike or bike (a campground neighbor went for a run and got bitten by stray dogs), no waves to surf, no wall to climb. We walked to town a few times a day, but ended up stuck in the Westy because of the wind for many hours a day. 

My head is full of the pictures I didn't take. The harsh living realities of so many people, the trash everywhere, the striking contrasts between the expat houses and the locals’. It's always disturbing, and I hope I never become insensitive to it. As soon as we crossed into Mexicali, we were in a different world. The honking, the smells, the poverty, people selling stuff at every intersection, from tortillas and neon cotton candy to airplane models and cheap copycat go-pro cameras, Mexicans sellers got you covered. You need an alternator? Ramon is selling some from the back of his pick-up. Dreaming of a fuzzy leopard stirring wheel covers? That guy is coming to your car window with his selection. Guys would show up at our campsite, invariably presenting us with the same fare someone else offered us a few hours priors: *almost gratis* bracelets and hammocks. The weathered down musicians coming to our tables at night in the restaurants, dragging their old amplifiers behind them (everything has to be loud in Mexico, especially the music!)...

As we drove back to the border through the desolate suburbs of Mexicali, I was reminded of a conversation a friend had a long time ago with a Buddhist monk. She was telling him that her brother was dying of cancer while she was living a happy healthy life and how unfair this was. After a few minutes of silence, the monk simply looked at her with his wise eyes and said: Who said it would be fair?

We were dealt a pretty awesome hand while many are struggling pretty hard to get enough food to eat for their family. Life isn’t fair, indeed and traveling is quite humbling.

 

 

 

The Grand Canyon or hiking across one of the Seven Wonders of the World for his 40th birthday

 Hike to Ooh Aah Point with friends.

Hike to Ooh Aah Point with friends.

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 JF showing Antonio where the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim will take him the next day.

JF showing Antonio where the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim will take him the next day.

 Looking down into the Canyon from Ooh Aah Point.

Looking down into the Canyon from Ooh Aah Point.

 One of the many morbidly obese squirrel...

One of the many morbidly obese squirrel...

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 It was pretty smoky in the canyon, which made it a bit more challenging to breathe.

It was pretty smoky in the canyon, which made it a bit more challenging to breathe.

 Waiting for JF and Martin to emerge from the big hole after their incredible Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim feat.

Waiting for JF and Martin to emerge from the big hole after their incredible Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim feat.

 Just a tiny part of the many switchbacks Martin and JF hiked on their 74 km long day.

Just a tiny part of the many switchbacks Martin and JF hiked on their 74 km long day.

 The champions!

The champions!

 More and more, Aisha and Mara sleep in the tent or the Westy so they have their little corner.

More and more, Aisha and Mara sleep in the tent or the Westy so they have their little corner.

 Our beautiful campsite in the National Forest near the South Entrance of the Grand Canyon.

Our beautiful campsite in the National Forest near the South Entrance of the Grand Canyon.

 Life at camp with the boys.

Life at camp with the boys.

We had visited the Grand Canyon 5 years ago with the girls and it was still one of the highlights of our first year on the road, mostly because of our memorable hike into the canyon in the dark to watch the sunrise from Ooh Aah Point

Last year, JF had decided that he wanted to run/hike the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim for his 40th birthday, that is from the South Rim to the North Rim and back, a 74 km feat with a crazy elevation change of 3,368 m. It was quite a challenge! I was glad his cousin Martin was joining him. Our friends Antonio and Pascale (and the boys!) came all the way from Tucson to spend the weekend with us. It was really cool to see the boys reaction to seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. We had a beautiful day of hiking with them to Ooh Aah Point and many beautiful discussions as usual.

On the Sunday, Martin and JF left camp at 4:30 am and had only told us that they estimated it would take them between 12 to 16 hours to complete their adventure. So, the girls and I arrived at the Canyon Rim as the sun was disappearing. Lots of people were still coming up from the Bright Angel Trail before darkness fell. A worried friend was calling a name down into the canyon, the shuttle buses were packed with day trippers going back to their cars and hotels. Quickly, night fell and we could barely see down into the canyon, the bright half-moon illuminating only a few sections of the trail. Two rangers walked down with flashlights and came back 25 minutes later with an exhausted man. The girls and I got our hopes up every time we saw two headlamps down below on the trail, we tried to listen for familiar voices, knowing quite well that after 73 km, it was very likely that the boys didn’t have the energy to talk anymore. We were almost alone at the trailhead now, an eerie feeling in a place so busy during the day. A woman waiting for her friends sat nearby and started playing the flute. We sat in silence with the warm wind on our faces, listening to her melodious complaint.

We waited some more, danced and did jumping jacks in the moon shadow to stay warm, talked about fear and the ball that settled in our stomachs as time went by. After 3 hours of waiting, we finally heard from them (they had a pocket of connexion in the canyon). They were exhausted, but OK, and only 3.5 km away. We jumped in relief and joy and craziness took over as the building anxiety dissolved. It was hard to keep quiet but we wanted to surprise them! Finally, we saw one headlamp and a familiar shape. The girls were sure it was JF, but I couldn’t recognize his gait… and well, there was only one headlamp… it couldn’t be them… But as he neared the last switchback, we could see clearly that it was an exhausted JF, leaning on his poles as he painfully climbed the last stretch. The girls ran down the trail, screaming their joy and congratulations. We had never seen JF that exhausted! Martin was right behind (he had lost his headlamp). They had spent 15 and a half hours in the Canyon going from the South Rim to the North Rim and back (74 km). What an accomplishment! They both agreed that the last 20 km were too much before falling into bed, without dinner or celebratory beer.

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.

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.

Umpqua National Forest, Oregon

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 Harvesting Oregon grapes, which isn’t technically a grape at all, but a bush in the barberry family.

Harvesting Oregon grapes, which isn’t technically a grape at all, but a bush in the barberry family.

 Also harvesting Salal berries. I love the taste of these berries (a complex mix of blueberries and blackcurrant).

Also harvesting Salal berries. I love the taste of these berries (a complex mix of blueberries and blackcurrant).

 If you press the stem side of a salal berry, the other side opens up and creates a beautiful fruit flower!

If you press the stem side of a salal berry, the other side opens up and creates a beautiful fruit flower!

  Salal berry gimlet   1 ½ oz London Dry Gin 1 oz lime juice 1 oz salal berry syrup  Shake 20 sec with ice, strain over fresh ice.

Salal berry gimlet

1 ½ oz London Dry Gin
1 oz lime juice
1 oz salal berry syrup

Shake 20 sec with ice, strain over fresh ice.

It was quite something to drive through the very smoky part of the Umpqua National Forest being escorted by a pilot car (with signs saying: Active Wildfires, DO NOT STOP). It was hard to get accurate information online about the air condition (it changed fast and the sites were not up to date) and we thought we could camp near the Umpqua River Trail and bike part of it (it's an epic trail), but most of the campgrounds were closed because of the fires. We came across this little gem of a campground just as we were starting to feel a bit discouraged. The air was so cool and fresh by the falls! Oregon is full of incredible places.

We ended up staying there 2 nights and except for a few people driving in to see the falls, stay 10 minutes and leave, we had the whole place to ourselves. We had hoped to go to the Umpqua Hot Springs, but the access road was closed and it was cooking hot anyways. 

Ruby Beach and South Beach, Olympic Peninsula, WA

 South Beach

South Beach

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 Trying to take pictures of whales is quite frustrating...

Trying to take pictures of whales is quite frustrating...

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 Reflexion of the orange sun from the forest fire smoke on the ocean.

Reflexion of the orange sun from the forest fire smoke on the ocean.

 Ruby Beach

Ruby Beach

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 Tons of green anemones.

Tons of green anemones.

 Exploring the tide pools at Ruby Beach

Exploring the tide pools at Ruby Beach

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 Look at all these sea stars!

Look at all these sea stars!

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 Hermit Crab.

Hermit Crab.

 Kelp crab

Kelp crab

 The sea star population was decimated a few years ago by a virus called sea star wasting disease. This sea star is dying. It has lost a limb already, a sure sign of the disease.

The sea star population was decimated a few years ago by a virus called sea star wasting disease. This sea star is dying. It has lost a limb already, a sure sign of the disease.

 The good news is that in the last year, we see lots of baby sea stars, like this tiny purple sea star, which means the population is growing back.

The good news is that in the last year, we see lots of baby sea stars, like this tiny purple sea star, which means the population is growing back.

From the Hoh Rainforest, we headed to the Pacific Coast of the Peninsula to Kalaloch Beach. We had made a reservation for an ocean front site there, but the site was too small for our rig and there was only 3G signal which was not good enough for work. The ranger sent us 3 miles down the road to South Beach campground where there was 4G LTE and some open sites. The campground is nicer and more treed at Kalaloch, but South Beach is right on the ocean. It looks more like a big parking lot than a campground, but at $15 per night, we didn't complain! And what was the first thing that we saw once we got off the bus? Grey whales jumping! We had no idea that South Beach is one of their stop on their way back to Baja where they go back to calve and nurse in the warm lagoons. They return in early Spring on their way to arctic feeding ground in Alaska. Somehow, across 4000 miles of ocean, they navigate precisely, on a predictable timetable!

We thought we had lucked out incredibly with our timing... until we found out through Ranger Meagan on the tide pool outing that for the first time this year, 200 whales stayed here all summer... things are changing for sure... She also told us that about 3 weeks ago, she was part of a rescue mission to help a whale that was life stranded on the beach. It took almost 48 hours for the crew to help her back to the water since the tides were not in their favor. They used a a pulley system to turn the whale so she could face the water and finally, it worked! 

 The Amaroni is a cousin of the Negroni. Instead of the more in-your-face Campari that might not be love at first taste for many, this is a great introduction to the world of Negroni. AMARONI 1 oz gin (I used Hendrick's, but use your favorite Negroni Gin, Plymouth is a good choice here) 1 oz Carpano Formula Antica sweet Vermouth 1 oz Mia Amata Amaro (or your favorite amaro, Averna would be a good mild introduction, Ramazotti would be more along the same lines as the Mia Amata). Orange peel for garnish  Stir with ice for 30 sec and strain on new ice. Garnish with orange peel.

The Amaroni is a cousin of the Negroni. Instead of the more in-your-face Campari that might not be love at first taste for many, this is a great introduction to the world of Negroni.
AMARONI
1 oz gin (I used Hendrick's, but use your favorite Negroni Gin, Plymouth is a good choice here)
1 oz Carpano Formula Antica sweet Vermouth
1 oz Mia Amata Amaro (or your favorite amaro, Averna would be a good mild introduction, Ramazotti would be more along the same lines as the Mia Amata).
Orange peel for garnish

Stir with ice for 30 sec and strain on new ice. Garnish with orange peel.

The Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, WA

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 On the Spruce Trail

On the Spruce Trail

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 Uprooted Sitka Spruce

Uprooted Sitka Spruce

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 On the Hall of Mosses Trail

On the Hall of Mosses Trail

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The Hoh Rainforest is located in the Heart of the Olympic Peninsula in the Olympic National Park. It is one of the most diversified national parks in terms of landscape. It is mind blowing to stand in the hot rain forest and to think that Mount Olympus and the Blue Glacier are a mere 18 miles away. We saw many people leaving for long treks on the glaciers and the girls were asking when we could come back and do it too. Another long hike to add to our ever-growing list!

From the Visitor Center (and the campground), there are 3 main hiking trails. The longer Hoh River Trail on which you can hike as long as you want and two shorter trails that offer spectacular views (where the photos above were taken), The Hall of Mosses trail (0.8 miles) and The Spruce Trail (1.2 miles). I highly recommend you hike both, but if you can only pick one, do the Hall of Mosses.

We came here on the Sunday of Labor Day long weekend thinking there was no way we would have a spot (all the sites here are first come first serve, so no reservations). To our surprises, there were still a few sites left that were big enough for our bus. Loop A is much less treed and offers sites on the river. We chose to be there for solar. Loop B and C are in the moss covered trees (Loop C has pretty tight turns, check it out on foot or with a tow vehicle first). And great news, there even was connexion on many sites in Loop A (very hit and miss 4G LTE, but good enough for JF to work).

I had no idea that the Olympic Peninsula used to be an island. In fact, ice-age glaciers have carved the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, separating the Olympic Peninsula from nearby land. Years of isolation means that there are over 20 plants and animals that are found nowhere else on Earth!

 It was so hot in the rainforest that I wanted a tangy refreshing drink. So I created this.   The North Vanagon   1 ½ oz Hendricks Gin ½ oz St-Germain ½ oz Grand Marnier Juice of 1 ½ key lime ¼ oz simple syrup 5 drops of Bittered Sling grapefruit and hops bitters  Shake with ice and pour on one big cube of ice.   

It was so hot in the rainforest that I wanted a tangy refreshing drink. So I created this.

The North Vanagon

1 ½ oz Hendricks Gin
½ oz St-Germain
½ oz Grand Marnier
Juice of 1 ½ key lime
¼ oz simple syrup
5 drops of Bittered Sling grapefruit and hops bitters

Shake with ice and pour on one big cube of ice.

 

Neah Bay and Cape Flattery, Olympic Peninsula, WA

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 How fairies are born

How fairies are born

 Hike to Cape Flattery

Hike to Cape Flattery

 View at the tip of Cape Flattery

View at the tip of Cape Flattery

 There are many caves at the Cape.

There are many caves at the Cape.

 The beautiful rugged waters of Cape Flattery

The beautiful rugged waters of Cape Flattery

 Hobuck Beach

Hobuck Beach

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 Green anemones in the tide pools

Green anemones in the tide pools

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From Neah Bay, it is a short 10 minute drive to Cape Flattery, the northwest tip of the Lower 48. The hike to get the to the tip where the Cape is located is only 1.5 mile through a beautiful Coastal Forest. Since Cape Flattery is on the Makah Reservation, you need to get a permit to hike the trail ($10 per vehicle for the year). We got ours at Neah Bay's General Store. 

As for camping in the area, the options are limited. Hobuck RV Resort has 10 full hook-up sites with a seaview (but pretty close together) for $40/night. There is also a field down the road where you can camp for $20/night (access to shower and outhouses, but otherwise dry camping). It might be a good option on the off-season, but since we got there on the Friday before Labor Day, it was a zoo. The only other option was a new RV park called Hide-away RV park (that looked more like an RV storage lot than an campground), but they had full hook-up sites for $30/night (and a few dry camping spots for $20) and it was a short 100 yard walk to the beach. It was much more quiet there.

Keep in mind that the drive to Neah Bay from Port Angeles is pretty twisty and bumpy (frost heaves), so lock your cupboards and secure everything and take what you need for motion sickness. Take your time and enjoy the scenery!

There is a beautiful hike that can be done as an overnighter (you sleep on the beach!) to Shi-shi Beach or as a long day hike (it is part of the Olympic National Park). With Mara being injured (and with the amount of cars along the trailhead), we decided to keep it for another time.

Also, on a different note, I will publish cocktails here in some posts (you can find them in the cocktails category), but I won't publish them all (it's a traveling blog after all!), but you can access them all either on Instagram or Facebook with the hashtag redbusdrinks (#redbusdrinks). My friend Catheline is translating many of them and publishing them on her beautiful site (in French only).

 My Manhattan  2 oz rye whiskey  3/4 oz  @oddsocietyspirits  Italian bittersweet Vermouth  1/2 oz rosemary honey syrup 3 dashes orange sage bitters   Stir with ice and strain. Garnish with a rosemary sprig.

My Manhattan

2 oz rye whiskey
3/4 oz @oddsocietyspirits Italian bittersweet Vermouth
1/2 oz rosemary honey syrup
3 dashes orange sage bitters

Stir with ice and strain. Garnish with a rosemary sprig.