We fell in love with White Sands National Monument (now a national park). Best we could tell, we had the dunes to ourselves.
Hiking the 2-mile Backcountry Camping Trail was great for gaining a sense of the parks’ magnitude and beauty. It also provided us with the surreal experience of exploring an alien-like environment.
The San Andres Mountains rise up along the park’s western border. Their size and contrast against the white gypsum give the allusion that they’re closer than they are… White Sands encompasses 228 square miles! No, you can’t walk across it.
Treading across the vast whiteness, amongst the ever flowing and shifting dunes, one can easily lose their bearings. It’s both exuberant and eerie, but always having a trail marker within sight was reassuring.
November was perfect timing for our visit… cool and gorgeous weather, perfect sky, and no people.
We played like kids and appreciated the experience fully.
Once again, the visitor center was looping an informative film on the park’s history, geology and ecology.
At 10,000 years, White Sands is a relatively young environment. The expanding (even onto surrounding highways) sandy tract was formed by gypsum deposits in the nearby mountains.
Northeasterly winds break off gypsum pieces and grind them into fine bits, dusting the basin continuously.
We’d already decided to return after dark for star gazing but learned that the park’s gates close at 6pm – no entry or exit after that time.
Alamogordo, New Mexico
We’d chosen Alamogordo as a base due to its proximity to White Sands and only became aware of all it has to offer upon our arrival. First up…
New Mexico Space History Museum
Tularosa Basin has been an epicenter for military research and testing since the U.S. entered World War II. It is home to Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range, both innovators in technology and aeronautical aviation.
As a Smithsonian affiliate, the Space History Museum preserves New Mexico’s role in space flight and tells the larger story of the U.S. space program, from the space race with the then Soviet Union to NASA’s ongoing mars program.
Not only are there numerous exhibits from each progressing stage of the U.S. space program, there are several educational videos and interactive displays.
You can even test your skill at landing a space shuttle using a simulator. Trey managed to crash, while I ranked “flown where no man has gone before.” I don’t recall if that was a good or bad thing.
The Museum and it’s International Hall of Fame where Ham, the first space chimpanzee is honored, kept us fascinated for hours.
Then there is the John P. Stapp Air and Space Park that surrounds the museum building. A lunar module capsule, land-speed vehicle, launching track, and rockets of all sorts cover the grounds overlooking the City of Alamogordo.
Wine & Pistachios
We didn’t realize we were back in wine country until we passed a billboard on the way to the space museum. The billboard advertised a winery further up the main road, White Sands Boulevard, but several other vineyards surround the area.
Tularosa Basin’s soil composition, altitude, and temperatures make it ideal for grape production. Spanish settlers and missionaries knew this and were the initiators of New Mexico’s wine tradition.
We sampled wines at Heart of the Desert and Arena Blanca wineries and bought a couple of bottles.
Arena Blanca is associated with the Pistachio Tree Ranch, or Pistachio Land, a 90-acre orchard and home to the world’s largest pistachio.
Pistachio trees benefit from the same natural conditions that make this basin ideal for grapes. A bag of roasted and shelled pistachios sustained us through the remainder of our trip. Very fresh and yummy!
Blake’s Lotaburger, a family owned chain, is a New Mexico tradition much like Texas’ Whataburger. Its fame expanded beyond New Mexico when it was featured in the AMC’s series Breaking Bad. We hadn’t yet watched Breaking Bad but were lured to Blake’s simply by its authentic and nostalgic burger joint vibe. It did not disappoint; the green chilies burger was nothing less than phenomenal!
We thought our last family visit had taken place in Reno with my brother and his family. No, one more Alamogordo surprise awaited.
Trey’s nephew lives in El Paso, which wasn’t on our path of travel. Happily, Jim contacted us and proposed meeting for lunch in between El Paso and Alamogordo. He suggested La Posta’s in Messila (Old Town Los Cruces).
Best Mexican food of the entire trip! And if anyone has read through these blog posts, they know we love Mexican food and ate it whenever we could… from Montreal, Quebec to the Redwood Forest.
It was wonderful catching up with Jim and we were so grateful for the opportunity to add one last reunion to this six-month trek.
Mescalero Apache Reservation, New Mexico (via Cloudcroft and the Lincoln National Forest)
Between I-10 and the Mexican border lies the infamous town of Tombstone, Arizona. It’s an easy drive from Tucson —about 75 miles—and the cutoff (Hwy 80) was on the way to New Mexico.
Like Virginia City, Nevada, Tombstone’s classic western scape is preserved and attracts tourists now rather than cowboys, miners, and outlaws.
Since we weren’t interested in souvenirs or saloons, there wasn’t much to do except walk around, bask in the nostalgia, and read historical markers.
In 1877, and after being told he was foolish and would only discover his own tombstone, Edward Schieffelin found silver in the surrounding hills. By the mid-1880’s, his small encampment had grown into the town of Tombstone with a population upwards of 15,000.
Trey’s best outlaw look
Allen St., Tombstone, Arizona
Yet, Tombstone is worth the detour whether you love the lore of the American West or are simply curious. In fact, it enticed us longer than we’d meant to stay.
The detour to Tombstone added 50 miles to the 200-mile drive to southwestern New Mexico, and it was already late afternoon. By the time we were again heading east on I-10, the sun was setting.
Cookies, it’s what’s for dinner!
After the deluge in Redwoods National Forest, we had no more camping plans. We also knew there’d be no kitchen access for the remaining eleven days of this adventure, so there was no need to tote food, other than a few snacks. Plus, we’d filled our bellies with a hearty breakfast at Cross Roads Restaurant in Tucson and felt satisfied enough to get through to evening. But, the long day and drive had us arriving in Silver City, NM just after restaurants had closed. Luckily Petit Écolier cookies, leftover from making s’mores, sustained us to morning. This wasn’t the first time we had cookies for dinner.
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument (Pronounced Hee-la)
The remnant cliff dwellings lay deep within Gila National Forest. After turning off Silver City’s main road onto Hwy 15, we started climbing and signs of civilization soon succumbed to a verdant wilderness.
The road mostly follows the Gila River while twisting around, over, and atop the ridges of mountains for 40 miles.
At the visitor center we watched a brief and informative video. The cliffside homes are believed to have been constructed by Mogollon (Mo-go-yone) Puebloans beginning in the 1270’s. But these original inhabitants had moved on by 1300, perhaps due to drought.
The Chiricahua Apache settled there in the 1500’s and remained in the area until the U.S. government forced their removal between 1870 and 1886. The last Apache to sadly leave this ancestral land were led by a defeated Geronimo (Goyahkla).
The Gila National Forest is spotted with ancient pueblo ruins, yet none as unique and Eden-like as the cliff-dwellings… seven caves high on a canyon cliff topped with fertile soil for growing corn, beans, and squash (the “three sisters”).
The middle fork of the Gila River runs below the caves and in early November appeared more creek-like.
Only five of the caves were used as living quarters. Cave number 6 appeared to be used for rituals while hard-to-reach cave 7 had no trace of human occupancy.
Unlike Montezuma’s castle, visitors are allowed into the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Being a weekday in November, the forest ranger and a volunteer were the only other persons inside the caves.
The ranger pointed out unique architectural details including a structure believed to be used for food storage, like a pantry.
We particularly enjoyed cave 3, the largest and coolest (as in temperature), and its view was fabulous.
Having the dwellings to ourselves was special and a memorable experience.
Anjaneyasana, Gila Cliff Dwellings NM
Cave 3, Gila Cliff Dwellings
We were able to spend amble time inside the caves to fully appreciate the area’s beauty, sense of safety, and peace.
For the return trip to Silver Springs we opted to continue looping the scenic byway—the Trail of the Mountain Spirits—into San Lorenzo then back west to Silver Springs.
This only added thirty miles to our trip, but Trey and I both agreed the more picturesque route was Hwy 15.
Silver City, New Mexico
Silver City is a friendly mining town nestled aside a mountain and a tad east of the Continental Divide. More modern than expected (not rustic) yet it retains a quaint, small town quality. We savored an authentic Mexican dinner at La Cocina and a hearty breakfast at the artsy Adobe Café. Highly recommend both!
Alamogordo & White Sands National Park, New Mexico (via quirky Hatch New Mexico…)
Leaving Tusayan before breakfast, we headed southeast toward Flagstaff. The Escape Mobile had traveled 5,037 miles since leaving Seattle, so it was time for her fourth servicing.
Flagstaff was on the way to Phoenix, where we’d planned to spend the night, and it had a dealership that honored our maintenance purchase agreement. While waiting on our vehicle, we enjoyed a traditional breakfast at the Grand Canyon Café on Historic Route 66 in the quaint heart of Flagstaff.
Stepping into the café we’d entered a time warp… booths with mint-green Formica tabletops and individual jukeboxes, and a soda bar that spanned the length of the café. The owner told us they’d been continuously open for nearly 75 years. Sadly, the Grand Canyon Café has since permanently closed.
Montezuma Castle National Monument
Fifty-six miles down Interstate 17 we stopped at Montezuma Castle National Monument, the former hillside condo-like dwelling of the ancient Southern Sinagua people. The Sinagua were farmers and hunter-gatherers that thrived in the Verde Valley from the 1100’s through the 1300’s.
For unknown reasons, in the early 1400’s they abandoned their homes and the Verde Valley.
The visitor center is just off the interstate and the walk to the cliffside remnants is short and quick. Music of flutist Harry Seavey, who was on site, filled the air and added an authentic and surreal feel to our experience.
“There is a message in our hearts, a truth we all know. We feel it as we walk in a forest or sit in the desert. It is the message in the cry of a hawk and in the voice of a flute. It is our connection to life; the message that we are one with Spirit.”
~ Harry Seavey
Factoid:The monument bears the name “Montezuma” because it was originally mistaken to be built by Spanish Explorers.
Regrets: For some reason we felt pressed for time and did not venture the 23 miles to Tuzigoot National Monument, another Sinagua village located atop a ridge 40 minutes northwest of Montezuma Castle.
Nor did we detour from I-17 onto Hwy 89A to visit nearby Sedona, a funky, spirited community that I would have loved, I’m sure.
As we navigated around Phoenix’s maze of highways to a hotel near Arizona State University, the sun still shone from fairly high. We entertained ourselves by strolling the campus and chowing down on some chain Chinese food before vegging in front of the television for the night.
The most interesting part of the remaining 355-mile drive to our next destination, San Diego, was the shortcut to Interstate-8.
Arizona Hwy 238 cuts across the Sonoran Desert between Maricopa and Gila Bend. It was originally built to serve a hazardous waste facility that I don’t think was ever built. It appeared to solely serve as a desolate cut-thru that provides a genuine desert experience.
Saguaro cacti tower just off the roadway, which resembles concrete waves flowing through a sea of white sand.
Blowing sand was accumulating across the road’s lower points, and it seemed like the desert was determined to conquer the road.
After an initial hotel snafu in San Diego, we settled into a Four Points Sheraton using points and began planning the next two day’s adventures.
Missteps: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument & The Wave
I don’t remember what prevented us from researching our next steps, which were to explore Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and hopefully hike Coyote Buttes in the Vermillion Cliffs, also known as “The Wave.” It was either our full schedule and lack of regular cell service or laziness and naivety.
Either way, upon leaving Mount Carmel Junction we meandered along Highway 89 for 60 miles until we ran into a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) station and stopped to ask where in the heck we could find the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument.
We found out that we were already in it and had been for a while. At that time the Grand Staircase – a series of massive geological steps – sprawled out across 3,000 square miles of southern Utah and northern Arizona.
The downward steps stretched from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon’s northern rim. In 2017 the protected area was sadly cut almost in half.
We were also informed that there’s a lottery process for hiking “The Wave.” The sign-up and drawings take place in Kanab, Utah – a town we’d passed through forty miles back. Backtracking to the Kanab BLM Station we learned that only 10 hikers per day are allowed into the buttes, and that the “lotteries” take place each morning for the next day’s hike.
Should we stay or should we go? We contemplated this question over lunch at Escobar’s Mexican Food (authentic enough) and opted to try our luck and checked into a nearby hotel.
The next morning, we rose with the sun and walked back to the BLM office to stand in line. We were 7th out of 64 to register for the lottery, which was pretty good odds on a relative basis as the average day has well over a hundred registrants. But #7 was not lucky that day, so we checked out of the hotel, and after a breakfast at Nedra’s Too, we checked out of Kanab via Highway 89A South.
The ranger who on the previous day clarified Grand Staircase’s massiveness had recommended we stop at Le Fevre Overlook, a rest stop along Highway 89A about 25 miles into Arizona. It’s unassuming and easy to miss but worth the stop.
From the overlook you can make out the distant cascading landscapes that inspired the monument’s name, gaining senses of both its beauty and magnitude.
Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim
Continuing south for just over eleven miles we cut down State Route 67 (also called the Kaibab Plateau Parkway) for the 43-mile drive to Grand Canyon’s northern rim. Being late October, the north rim’s lodges and campgrounds were closed so we had the drive mostly to ourselves.
Along the way, I spied a California Condor perched on the limb of a dead pine and we were reluctantly received by a herd of buffalo on the return trip.
A nip of winter was embedded into the breeze, but the clear sky and sun helped warm us as we strolled along the various paths and vantage points below the lodge cabins…
an environment and scenes that contrasted with what we would experience in the coming days on the canyon’s other side.
Drive from Grand Canyon’s North to South Rim
Leaving the north rim we had a four hour drive ahead of us… plenty of time to circle around the east end of the canyon and make it to the south rim before sunset.
But the drive, curving around and between the Vermillion Cliffs and Colorado River, is spectacular.
We stopped several times including at the unexpected site of abandoned rock dwellings sitting just yards off the road and scattered among mushroom shaped formations.
The legend is that a woman by the name of Blanche Russell was stranded there when her car broke down sometime in the 1930’s. She liked the area so much she settled there for a time.
Ten minutes down the road we stopped again to stroll across the historic Navajo Bridge that spans the Colorado River for 834 feet and parallels it’s replacement… a seemingly identical bridge that is actually wider and longer.
The “new” bridge was completed in 1995 to support larger vehicles while providing a safe alternative (the historic bridge) for those of us who want to walk over for the views.
With all the stops we lost our race with the sun.
It had set by the time we reached the south rim’s first overlook, the Desert View Watchtower…
but enough light shone over the horizon to paint the sky and reflect muted rays across the canyon.
A perfect welcoming gift to our stay on the Grand Canyon’s south rim.
Upon exiting Sequoia National Park we’d entered the Mojave Desert and the portion of this “great looping quest” in which I was most apprehensive… the desert.
I had preconceived notions about desert existence, mostly negative because my perceptions weren’t based on actual experience. So, I’d anticipated a colorless, desolate environment… unfriendly and uninhabitable. After all, the Mojave has a valley named “Death!”
What I discovered was just the opposite, a welcoming beauty, thriving and very much alive. For me, establishing a sense of grounding in the desert required no conscious effort – the desert rose up firmly beneath my feet.
Within Mojave’s arid landscape, where odd and varied creatures flourished, I felt my own belonging.
The desert’s embrace forever changed my perspective, it corrected it and taught me a lesson about the ridiculous power we give to our perceptions.
A cheap (because it was undergoing a noisy renovation) Las Vegas casino/hotel served as our basecamp while we explored what lies beyond the city’s fringes… the even more wild and wonderful. First up…
For a hundred years the Hoover Dam has risen 726 feet from the floor of the Colorado River.
It is an unyielding concrete monster, a sight to behold that attracts some seven million people a year… by car, boat, and helicopter.
Its proximity to Las Vegas—40 minutes southeast—enables this constant flow of people. Unfortunately, the flow of water for which the dam was built is not as reliable and, as in California, the effect of prolonged drought was visible through the river’s receding waterline.
We purchased tickets to tour the dam’s power plant… $15 in 2014, and well worth it.
Inside, 30 foot pipes snake through tunnels and rows of enormous generators churn out 4 billion kilowatt hours of electricity annually for the good folks of Nevada, Arizona, and California. The dam’s structure also serves to control flooding and reserve water for California’s fruitful valleys and its southern cities.
Valley of Fire State Park
Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park is located about 50 miles (an hour’s drive) northeast of Las Vegas. Its sculpted red rocks are stacked and scattered throughout the park’s 40,000 acres.
Only one road cuts through the park, just above its southern border. The road provides access to loads of popular hikes and fun formations, more than enough to keep one occupied for a day.
The rest of the park, the vast majority of its wilderness, is a sprawling preservation area, seemingly inaccessible except by foot.
Our arrival in the late afternoon limited our hiking options, but we had the park to ourselves.
Also, the sun’s low stance illuminated the red rocks and danced through canyons making our walks even more magical.
The half-mile trail to Mouse Tank led us down a canyon marked with hundreds of petroglyphs.
These uninterpretable messages hovered just above us, holding steadfast onto the secrets of an ancient civilization.
Only the sunset, spectacular and fleeting, could force us out of the Valley of Fire and back toward the maddening lights of Las Vegas.
Death Valley National Park
We traveled northwest for 140+ miles to enter Death Valley National Park where my attitude and apprehensions about deserts were permanently altered. Death Valley’s mystique and it’s rolling, constantly changing landscapes captivated me.
We stopped often, awestruck by its colors and geology.
Near the center of Death Valley is Badwater Basin, a massive flat of salt exposed by rain runoff from the surrounding mountains.
The basin sits 282 feet below sea level, the lowest point in North America.
Its limited drainage results in artsy, salty shapes forming through heat induced evaporation. The salt configurations cover the basin creating an eerie, alien terrain.
We traversed over the salt and out into the basin and became mesmerized by the patterns. Before we realized it, we were about a mile in, which is nowhere near the basin’s center.
As intense heat began pulsing around us, we sensed our own vulnerability and soon turned back toward the parking area.
Wending through a painted canyon on Artists’ Drive was like bounding through a rainbow. The one-way nine-mile road is narrow with rocky hillsides rolling up, out, and along both sides.
The palette effect is from minerals (including hematite and chlorite) altered by volcanic eruptions five million years ago. Elements aluminum, iron, magnesium and titanium also add to the mountainous canvas.
Our other hike in Death Valley, was the Natural Bridge Trail, accessible about a mile and half down a dirt road that breaks off from Badwater Road.
It’s an easy one-mile round-trip trail into a narrow, high-walled canyon.
The trail crosses under the bridge formation and continues into a box canyon.
We had the trail to ourselves, or at least it was devoid of other humans. This gal, a Swainson’s Thrush, accompanied us from the rock bridge to the trail’s end.
As we neared the bird, it would take flight, landing 20 or so feet up trail where it waited for us to approach again. Over and over it repeated this routine, escorting us all the way into the rocky boxed area…
and then safely back to the bridge.
We also spied a reddish fox, the Desert Kit Fox, strolling alongside Hwy 190 as we left the park, but missed photographing him.
Like in Chicago and Portland, staying in or near San Francisco’s city center was cost prohibitive, so we again used points and stayed at an airport hotel. The commute into San Francisco was about 25 minutes but ran aside the beautiful San Francisco Bay. Finding parking was never a problem as there are plenty of public, but pricey, garages.
Alcatraz – Messages of Freedom and Justice
Alcatraz is part of the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. A ferry operated by a private company from Pier 33 is the only means to access the island. They run about every 30 minutes and you have to purchase fares for a specific departure time, but you can return whenever you’re ready.
That was a good thing as Trey and I became captivated by the island… its history and stories, and all the once hardened but now deteriorating skeletal structures juxtaposed amid beauty. (One only needs to look.)
We spent most of the day touring the former military outpost-then military prison-then federal penitentiary-now national treasure.
During our visit, Alcatraz was also serving as an art exhibit space. We were fortunate that our trip coincided with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei’s exhibit @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz.
The installation exhibit filled two work rooms, and began with the wonderful, welcoming face of a giant, intricate paper dragon, its body comprising the full length of the room.
The contrast of vibrant colors against decaying prison walls was surreal. As were the Lego portraits and brave words of individuals imprisoned for voicing or acting upon their truths…
including Mr. Weiwei himself who at the time was being detained by the Chinese government.
The entire island is open for exploring and we spent as much time outside as we did inside the various cell blocks, industry/labor buildings, and administrative offices.
The NPS has done a great job (as always!) in telling and preserving Alcatraz’s stories, from its notorious prisoners and attempted breakouts to those of the families and children of guards that were also Alcatraz residents.
Recreation of cell used in notorious breakout and subject of the movie Escape From Alcatraz
We learned about the Native American 19-month (Nov 1969 – Jun 1971) occupation of the island. The cross-tribe participants (including the late Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller) claimed the island as their own citing an 1860’s treaty.
In reality, the takeover was an act of rebellion for past and ongoing injustices carried out by the U.S. Government against its native people. The civil disobedience effort was successful at calling attention to those injustices and their continued effects. We were happy to find that signs of the occupation are well preserved and protected as part of Alcatraz’s rich history.
San Francisco by Boat, Car, Bike, & Foot
BOAT Just before leaving Austin for this trek around the U.S., Trey and I struck up a conversation with a businessman at the downtown PF Chang’s bar. He was from San Francisco, so we quizzed him on what his #1 must-do-in-San Francisco recommendation was. “That’s simple!” he said. “You have to see San Francisco from the vantage point of its bay – sail out into the bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge.”
That’s exactly what we did on the “Privateer” through the San Francisco Sailing Company. The day was gorgeous, perfect for sailing! Plus, the unique views and perspectives we experienced were well worth the $60 ticket price.
We struck up a conversation with a couple sitting adjacent to us on the cozy sailboat and soon after regretted doing so. They were weirdly interested in us and toward the end of the trip, a bit too touchy and invading our personal spaces. We politely declined their invitation to join them at their home thinking that the boat’s sails were not the only thing they wanted to experience swinging that day. California!
The bay was beautiful though, and like our no-strings-attached friend at PF Chang’s, we highly recommend sailing around it to fully enjoy the San Francisco skyline and surrounding bridges and hills.
CAR Beginning in the late 1800’s and through World War II, the entrance to San Francisco Bay from the Pacific Ocean was deemed militarily vulnerable.
As such, a series of defense “batteries” were constructed along both the northern and southern shores. The remnants of these fortifications remain for intrigued tourists to explore. We selected the northern shore route because it allowed us to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, a new experience for Trey.
Once across the bridge, we followed Conzelman Road that curved around the hills’ edges and offered amazing views of the bay, bridge, and city.
Stopping at Kirby Battery gave us a feel for what guarding America’s western gateway was like during World War II.
It’s easy to imagine diligent soldiers scouring the ocean’s horizon for enemy vessels and the skies for foreign aircraft while bunkered behind sixteen-inch barrel guns. The never used guns are long-gone, but the bunkers and other structures are open to climb about, picnic on, or find a peaceful moment while taking in the serene beauty.
Continuing on Conzelman Road until it dead ended, we turned left onto Field Road which leads to the steep ledge of Bonita Point. The tiny Bonita Point Lighthouse sits atop a rugged crag and is accessible via a wooden suspension bridge – a good challenge for those wanting to confront a fear of heights.
The ocean and bay views are spectacular, but we enjoyed the scenes below the most… sunbathing seals and ocean spray rising from waves crashing upon black rocky ledges.
Heading inland on Field Road, we made our final stop back in time at Nike Missile Site SF-88…
where we walked above ground among retired missiles and below ground where missiles were stored and readied for launch.
The site closed in the 1970’s and is well maintained by the NPS. Just as the old battery sites had done, this retired missile site provided a good sense of life at a cold war defense site.
BIKE From The Embarcadero’s Pier 39, it is about a 5.5 mile ride (one-way) across the Golden Gate. The route takes you along the beach, by gorgeous waterfront homes, and through Presidio to the Battery East Trail.
The climb up to the bridge is steep, but there are plenty of overlooks to stop, rest, and take in the changing scenery… another great way to enjoy the cityscape.
As we climbed we noticed a thick fog rolling in at a fury’s pace. It quickly engulfed the bridge and we wondered whether we’d be able to ride across the bridge, and if so… would we be able to see anything? By the time we huffed our way to bridge level and emerged from the trees there was no trace of fog, not a single remnant.
I understand that is how fog is in the bay area… it is an entity in itself, choosing to come and go, disrupt and displease at will.
The ride across the Golden Gate was thrilling. The rails are high enough and the path wide enough that we felt perfectly safe and comfortable crossing over and back on the 1.7 mile bridge.
Along with sailing around the bay, I consider bicycling across the Golden Gate as a San Francisco must-do!
FOOT We fell in love with San Francisco. It’s a very walkable city if you don’t mind hills. If you’d prefer to avoid hills then stick to the shoreline areas of Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero.
With loads of fabulous restaurants, shopping, boats, nightlife and wildlife, they contain essential elements of the quintessential San Francisco experience.
We also loved walking through Pacific Heights, China Town, and Telegraph Hill.
Golden Gate Park was on our itinerary, but the streets surrounding it were impassable due to an annual bluegrass festival. Next time!
San Francisco Food
Breakfast – To offset the expense of eating out, we started most days with a cheap but hearty breakfast from Ed’s Diner in South San Francisco.
They served an excellent version of Trey’s favorite, the traditional American breakfast. We would fill ourselves enough to skip lunch and then carry a snack bar and piece of fruit to make it to dinner.
Our one breakfast exception was Mama’s On Washington Square, a recommendation by my sister-in-law who grew up in San Francisco.
We were warned that it is small and there is always a crowd, so we arrived twenty minutes before its 8:00 a.m. opening time. That wasn’t early enough to keep us from waiting in line, but the owner-operated café knows their business and has perfected a system of getting people in the door, through an ordering line, seated, served, and back out the door with a full stomach and happy heart.
The freshness and quality of the food is tops! The menu is extensive so I felt a bit overwhelmed with being pressured to order quickly and not hold up the line. We also completely forgot to record or photograph what we ordered.
Dinner – This is it! My absolute favorite dish from our trip around the United States…
Crab Enchiladas from the Crab House at Pier 39. They were what I imagine eating in Heaven will be like. A melt in your mouth unique flavor, yet still enchilada tasting enough to be called an enchilada. The above photo is not an exaggeration, together the two enchiladas were the size of a Texas big-as-your-face burrito and I finished off each one then wiped the skillet clean.
Even Trey, who is not a shell food person, enjoyed the small bite I shared. He opted for the Fish & Chips, a very generous portion of perfectly fried and fluffy cod, served just as it should be.
R & G Lounge in Chinatown – Authentic, traditional Chinese. We Texans felt a little out of place and lost at first, but the servers were kind and helpful, and the food was excellent.
McCormick & Kuleto’s Seafood & Steaks, Ghirardelli Square – we failed to take a photo of our meals and neither of us recall the meal. We do, however, vividly remember the gorgeous bay views.
We watched swimmers doing their evening laps while the sun set behind the hills and turned sailboats into silhouettes.
Dessert was a Caramel Sea Salt Hot Fudge Sundae that we split from Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory.
Quaint Astoria sits on a peninsula barely east of where the Columbia River clashes with the Pacific Ocean. Outlined by Young’s Bay and River on its southern shoreline, with the mighty Columbia River comprising its north border.
Yes, water is the heart, soul, and breath of the community. Its sustenance, and existence.
Accessing Astoria from Washington State requires either a boat or crossing the massive Astoria-Megler Bridge, a cantilever through-truss design. As we drove the 4.1 miles across to Oregon, my thoughts turned to my sister. Many times, she had relayed her dizzying experience bicycling over the Columbia River while water rushed in one direction below and crisscrossing cars whizzed past her side. I was grateful to be inside the Escape Mobile.
Checking into our riverfront hotel just before sunset, we were greeted with an unrecognizable noise permeating throughout the lobby. Curiosity led us down a corridor and out a back door where the now recognizable barks overwhelmed our senses. Seals, hundreds of them, had taken over docks and landings sitting 150-ish yards away. Gladly, the barking did not disrupt our sleep.
With one full day to explore Astoria, we made the most of our time. First order was a must-visit to the Goondocks…
a row of Victorian houses made famous in the 1985 Goonies movie. While we easily found parking and walked up to the primary “Goonies’ House” to snap photos, increased tourist traffic and mishaps have since halted such practices.
Next, a walk around and up into the Astoria Column provided both a historical accounting and scenic overview of the area.
Styled after Rome’s Trajan Column (which Trey has since visited), its spiraling pictorials tell of the “discovery” of the Columbia River, Lewis and Clark’s expedition, and the arrival of John Jacob Astor’s merchant ship which was instrumental in establishing Astoria as a key outpost in North America’s fur trade, helping Astor to control much of that trade. How ironic, or perhaps “offensive’ is more fitting, that Astor’s descendants later dedicated the column as a memorial to the Chinook Indians.
The remainder of Astoria was explorable by bicycle via The Riverwalk…
a roughly 5-mile pathway following the Columbia River bank from the peninsula’s westernmost point, and turning into forested hills at the eastern end.
Along the way, The Riverwalk provides easy access to downtown shops and restaurants. Note, a trolley line follows much of the pathway.
During our bike ride, we enjoyed eating wild blackberries growing aside the pathway, watching the day’s catch being unloaded, the ever-present wildlife, and being entertained by Coast Guard drills while eating pizza.
Astoria is charming with a laid-back, fun vibe that balances well with the hard work and challenges that I imagine accompany living at the convergence of three rivers and an ocean. Also apparent was Astoria’s reliance on tourism.
Astoria Food experiences…
A bit of a foodie city, there were several on-budget options. Five stars to T Paul’s Supper Club for dinner, Street 14 Café for coffee and lunch, and the chain restaurant Pig N’ Pancake was a breakfast favorite for locals and tourists.
Fort Clatsop – Lewis and Clark National Historical Park
Fort Clatsop is just south of Astoria so we saved this historical site for the morning of our departure. The fort sits where the Lewis and Clark expedition settled in for winter, awaiting and planning for their return east.
All structures are replicas based on surviving journal entries. A footpath leads to the Lewis and Clark River and follows the shore 1-1/2 miles to Netul Landing (Netul is the river’s original name).
US Hwy 101 Coastline Drive – Part Two
Mesmerized with our first Oregon coast drive, we stretched the 2 hour and forty minute trip to Lincoln City into most of the day; stopping at numerous overlooks…
touring Tillamook Cheese Factory…
Tillamook’s exceptionally clean packaging area
and traipsing between homes to access a public beach…
Lovely day best expressed through photographs:
We arrived in Lincoln City at sunset, without hotel reservations, and famished. Trey had spotted Puerto Vallarta Mexican Restaurant as we entered town — best Tex-Mex fix since Pittsburgh, margaritas included of course.
Lincoln City’s Sailor Jack Inn stands out as one of our more memorable sleeping experiences; notable in a unique, funny, and lets-not-do-that-again way. It was a cheap motel with a million dollar view.
Slinking carefully into bed, we drifted to sleep easily to the sound of crashing waves. I’m sure the margaritas were helpful, too!
Woke the next morning to clear skies, and another Pig N’ Pancake breakfast fueled our bodies for the drive inland to Portland.
We departed Black Hills National Forest with the sunrise and via the infamous community of Deadwood, South Dakota.
Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming
After breakfast wraps and coffee at Wild West Espresso in the also infamous ranching community of Sundance, Wyoming, we detoured 27 miles from Interstate 90 to Devil’s Tower, our nation’s first national monument under the Antiquities Act.
We were greeted by grazing buffalo and longhorns – sights we had not seen since leaving Texas.
We were officially in “The West” and it was exhilarating! That feeling was amplified at our first glance of the massive igneous rock protruding from the horizon – Devil’s Tower, or Bear Lodge, one of its many native names.
The tribes of the northern plains consider Devil’s Tower sacred and regularly conduct ceremonies or leave prayer clothes and offerings at its base. Visitors are reminded to respect and honor these traditions. As we strolled around the tower’s base on the Tower Trail, we sensed a hallowedness among the rocks and colorful cloths tied around tree limbs and branches. The feeling was no less, and perhaps greater, than the feelings we experienced within the great ornate basilicas we had visited.
This church however was formed from and by the earth, rises 867 feet above it, and hosts a diverse group of plant and animal species. Its great columns cling tightly together in their battle against the elements and gravity. That’s what it looked like to me anyway. Kiowa legend states that the rock had been sculpted by the claws of a great bear – it’s easy to see that, too.
We had heard from a ranger that golden eagles were in the area and we spotted one fly over and around the tower’s top a couple of times, but the eagle was too quick for us to snap a photo.
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, Montana
We arrived at the Little Bighorn battlefield as a park ranger began recounting the story of the U.S. Army’s 1876 effort to end the centuries old independence, cultures and customs of the northern plains’ native people.
Thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho had joined forces in a valley east of the Little Bighorn River where they outnumbered and overwhelmed General George Custer’s regiment of 262 men. It was one of the northern plains Indians last successful battles in preserving their identity. We had been starkly reminded of their eventual defeat while driving through the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations on our way to the battlefield.
The young ranger confidently relayed the battle scene while pointing out specific hills and slopes that laid out before him and the crowd that had gathered. He was Crow and a U.S. government employee.
Lacking the time for a guided tour, we walked along Battlefield Road and walking paths surrounded by tombstones that had been placed where bodies had been found.
Last Stand Hill and the Indian Memorial are easy walks from the visitor’s center.
We left the monument feeling somber and wishing we had been able to spend more time there.
As it was, we had two more hours left of the seven and half hour drive to Red Lodge, Montana.
This is a record of Trey & Martha's 2014 U.S. travel adventures