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…)
We were back among the stately saguaro cacti of the Sonoran Desert.
Tucson, Arizona has a bit of a funky college town feel. That vibe and its 530k population reminded us of our home, Austin, from when we’d first moved there in the 1980’s. Austin’s population has since exploded and it’s small-town funkiness has faded somewhat, so we relished our time in Tucson.
We’d slept in after arriving late the previous evening. By the time we waited for seating at a popular brunch spot (see below), the sun had moved well west of 90⁰. Yet, we continued as planned… to hike among the enchanting saguaros.
Saguaro National Park – West
The city of Tucson divides Saguaro National Park into west and east sides.
West Side of Saguaro Nat’l Park
East Side of Saguaro Nat’l Park
While the city seems to be encroaching the parks’ borders, both are full of saguaro cacti, and have hiking trails and scenic loop drives.
We first headed to the western section, or the Tucson Mountain District, because it is smaller and recommended for those pressed for time.
Yet, it still provided us with a sense of wilderness hiking.
The Sendero Esperanza Trail begins just off Golden Gate Road near the Ez-Kim-In-Zin picnic area where we found plenty of parking space. The first mile stays within a valley and crosses through and around sandy washes.
The valley was lovely, with the trail winding through saguaro, barrel and cholla cacti.
Birdsong filled the air and critter holes dotted the trail’s sides.
Arizona Blue-Eyes, Saguaro NP W
Saguaro NP W Beetle
We saw several lizards and beetles and kept a lookout for road runners, snakes, and cactus mice.
As the trail began to climb the saguaros became more abundant.
We noticed how each one, with their varied appendages – twisting, pointing, displaying, signaling – seemed to have its own personality.
We loved hiking among them!
After a series of switchbacks, we reached a ridge and the intersection of another trail, the Hugh Norris Trail.
Instead of continuing down the Sendero Esperanza Trail, we cut left up the ridge that leads to Wasson Peak, (4,687’).
Although the summit was only about 1-1/2 miles away, the sun was now low in the sky. We had to turn back to avoid hiking after dark.
We returned to the Escape Mobile just after the sun had set and turned the western sky a gorgeous shade of burnt orange.
The silhouettes of our new friends, the saguaros, against the backdrop of an orange sky is a favorite memory.
Saguaro National Park – East
Cool, crisp air filled the Rincon Mountain District. The morning was beautiful and perfect for touring the east side of Saguaro National Park by bicycle.
Cactus Forest Drive is a one-way, 8-mile loop covering a tiny portion of the park.
But its saguaro forest, scenic overlooks, and optional ecology trail offer a taste of the vastness that stretches eastward from the road.
Access to this wilderness is by foot only so we stayed to road.
The ride is hilly, at times steep… you need durable legs and good brakes.
Fortunately, there are several areas to stop, rest, and bask in the desert vistas.
Our early arrival allowed us to take our time and return to our hotel to rest up for the evening’s adventure.
Lined Snake on Cactus Forest Drive
Kitt Peak National Observatory
“We must not allow the clock and the calendar to bind us to the fact that each moment of life
is a miracle and a mystery.”
From every direction, mountains spring up from the desert floor and surround the city of Tucson. There are five mountain ranges within and around the city’s perimeter, and even more on its outskirts, including the Quinlan Mountains.
At 6,877 feet, Kitt Peak is the highest of the Quinlan Mountains and is accessible off AZ Hwy 86, about forty miles west of Tucson. Kitt Peak lies on native land (Tohono O’odham) far from city lights; it’s also home to the world’s largest collection of telescopes.
WIYN Telescope (Wisconsin, Indiana, Yale, NOAO)
McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, Kitt Peak
In addition to daily public tours, they offer nightly sky/star viewing programs, which is what we opted to do.
With temps in the 30’s and the moon close to full, the conditions weren’t ideal for star gazing. Yet, we were thrilled with the experience.
Our guide, Sean, explained the purpose and capabilities of each telescope and was extremely knowledgeable. We watched the sunset and then identified stars and planets as they appeared in the darkening sky.
Eventually, and with some help from Sean and a pair of binoculars, we spied our galactic next-door neighbor, Andromeda. Using one of the telescopes (not heated, but at least sheltered from the icy wind) the night sky was even more wondrous!
The 12-mile drive from the highway up to the peak is narrow and winding… not a problem in the daylight. But the return drive down the mountain was harrowing. Because headlights interfere with the telescopes, only parking lights are allowed until you’ve passed a certain point.
Even with a near-full moon, it was extremely dark. As we strained to assure the Escape Mobile stayed on course we also kept an eye out for wildlife. We were instructed to continue driving slowly after turning on our headlights because wildlife hang out along the road, including a great Horned Owl around mile marker 8. We had hoped to see that owl.
After safely descending Kitt Peak and soon after turning east onto AZ Hwy 86… Wowza! That Great Horned Owl cut right in front of us! His wings spanned across our entire windshield blocking our view briefly and scaring the heck out of us. We weren’t sure if he was chasing after potential prey or exclaiming, “Here I am, you dummies!”
Blue Willow was a fun, funky, and delicious brunch spot. Fresh and local. They also have a great gift shop to peruse while waiting for a table… it is extremely popular with the locals!
Local dive, Franks, was great for a cheap, quick, classic American breakfast. No frills and that’s the way they like it!
Cross Roads Restaurant was advertised as some of the best Mexican Food in Tucson. We skipped the buffet and ordered off the menu.
Trey was incredibly pleased with his favorite… enchiladas con huevos, as was I with a southwest version of huevos rancheros. Two yums up!
Next Stop… Gila National Forest and Silver City, New Mexico
Excited to be in San Diego, a new city for us, we strategically plotted how best to spend our limited time. With actual set reservations beginning on the 28th, we would only get to dip our metaphorical toes into all that San Diego has to offer. Plus, we desperately needed to do laundry so cracked that out at the hotel on our first morning.
After laundry and an indulgent brunch at the Original Pancake House (the veggie omelet and German pancake that Trey and I split could have easily fed four), we drove to La Jolla and strolled the upscale beachside community while awaiting 2:30 pm kayaking reservations. We were thrilled at the prospect of kayaking through an ecological reserve, alongside sea cliffs, and venturing into sea caves. As we walked the shoreline we noticed the ocean’s choppy waters and high waves, so headed to the kayak rental shop early. Yes, all tours were canceled for the day and, based on the marine forecast, they’d probably be canceled for the remaining week.
Plan B on the fly… we drove back to the hotel for our bikes and headed to Mission Bay’s Ocean Front Walk, a six-mile bustling stretch of concrete chock-full of walkers, joggers, skaters, and bicyclists.
With condos stacked on one side and the vast Pacific spread out on the other, this ride was another memorable one.
We peddled south to the path’s end and then north to it’s other end, stopping atop a seaside cliff to rest and enjoy the scenes below.
Above Mission Bay Beach
Yoga above the beach
We struck up a conversation with a lovely woman who was originally from Rome but had lived in San Diego for going on twenty years. As her baby played around us, she offered suggestions for dinner and traveling into Mexico, which we had been contemplating.
One of our favorite aspects about traveling and living in we-will-figure-it-out mode is all the people that temporarily, and seemingly magically, enter our lives through shared moments. Strangers with perfect timing, uplifting the present with smiles, kindness, and guidance that always nudges us in the right direction.
This time, that guidance landed us in Old Town San Diego for an amazing Mexican dinner.
Darkness and fatigue prevented us from exploring Old Town as we would have liked, but we now know it’s worth revisiting.
A “Toe” in Tijuana
Having never visited Mexico, and being oh so close, we thought we’d make a quick walk across the border to look around and say we’d been there… you know, like our quick detour into Omaha so we can now say we’ve been to Nebraska. We’d already traveled in and out of Canada easily enough, and this was an opportunity to check another North American country off our list.
The next morning, and following the Italian woman’s advice on how to get to the border, we drove back to Old Town and caught the green-line trolley into downtown San Diego where we switched to the blue-line that delivered us, spot-on, at the border.
From the San Ysidro station the walk across the border is so quick and easy that I only realized we had traversed realities when buff, camo-wearing, AK-47 wielding Mexican soldiers began dotting the walkway. We moved swiftly with the crowd (because lingering to take in the moment didn’t seem prudent) until the bridge’s ramp deposited us into Tijuana.
[Sorry, no photos from Mexico, I think we wanted to avoid attention.]
Crowds, colors, eager taxi drivers, pharmacies, and street vendors overwhelmed our senses as we wandered, but kept in close proximity to the border. After about twenty minutes we were satisfied we’d been there long enough to legitimately state “we’ve been to Mexico.”
Earlier, we had noticed an exceedingly long line of people waiting to cross into the United States, and I assumed that the line for U.S. citizens must be close by and much shorter. Yes, that’s how naive we were. We were in Mexico; there’s no special express lines for Americans. We had no business venturing into Tijuana with that level of inexperience, and our proverbial “toe” became an all-day folly.
We were the only gringos standing in line, and that’s “gringo” in its fullest sense. There was one other obvious American, a 30-something guy who weirdly and suddenly appeared behind us, but he seemed to know what he was doing.
Four hours passed as we inched forward, evaded offers of “quick rides” across the border, and tried to appear less gringo-ish in our manner. Once inside the Customs House, the line divided and snaked through eight separate mazes toward an actual U.S. customs agent that would soon wave us through to home. Or so we hoped. The first two lines we were in closed just as we neared the customs booth. Forces seemed to be conspiring against us.
It was early evening before we re-boarded the blue-line trolley. Our departure from San Ysidro station was then delayed by a driver shift change and we watched as two other trolley’s pulled in and back out before we finally rolled northward.
Darkness was ascending by the time we returned to the hotel. The day, and our plans to visit the zoo and Balboa Park, were blown. Lesson learned.
San Diego Zoo
The next day’s drive over the Santa Rosa Mountains was to take two hours, allowing us time to first check out San Diego’s famous zoo.
Unlike our experience at the Toronto Zoo, the San Diego Zoo was full of happy, curious animals with a healthy, joyful vibe.
We explored every section of its 100 acres, including via the Skyfari Aerial Tram that provides bird-eye views of the animals.
Banded Iguana, San Diego Zoo
The Reptile House is entrancing, and we spent a much of our time awestruck by all the snakes.
Boelen’s Python, San Diego Zoo
Ringed Water Cobra, San Diego Zoo
We were also amazed at the variety and vivid hues of their birds.
The gorgeous day made for both happy animals and tourists, and these tourists loved the playful orangutans, adorable pandas, colorful birds, and big cats.
Guenon Monkey, San Diego Zoo
Polar Bear, San Diego Zoo
The zoo is part of Balboa Park… 1,200 acres just northeast of downtown that also includes multiple museums, hike and bike trails, and large swaths of green spaces. We would have loved to have ridden our bikes through the park, but that would have cut short our time with the animals.
Next visit to San Diego we’ll know to forgo ventures into Tijuana.
Note: We have since visited Mexico on two occasions, exploring the jungles and Mayan ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula and enjoying white sand beaches along the Riviera Mayan. We fell in love with Mexico… its beauty, people, culture, and food!
Drive to Rancho Mirage…
Soon after leaving San Diego, we made our fourth (and last) official left turn on this six-month trek around the United States.
We’d first visited the Grand Canyon in 1992, when our daughters were six and nine. With only a half-day, we spent most that time on the Bright Angel Trail for a three-mile roundtrip hike. Quite a feat for kiddos!
With this trip, our second, we’d hoped to hike into the canyon once again, but didn’t know if we’d be able to work in a full day’s hike.
Since leaving Carmel, we’d been traveling in “we will figure it out” mode, so had no camping or hotel reservations when we rolled into Tusayan, a town just a few miles from the park’s south entrance.
When the Holiday Inn Express offered a particularly low rate, we figured it out quickly… “Oh, can we actually have the room for three nights, please?”
Tusayan is a walkable town catering to tourists… it’s primarily hotels and restaurants aligning each side of Highway 64. A quick look at Gmaps showed that we were just a block from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. We rode over after breakfast the next morning.
As we’d done at most national parks, we first watched the informational movie. This one, Grand Canyon, The Hidden Secrets, is quite different.
It’s more of an over-dramatization of folklore involving cougars, hostile natives, and John Wesley Powell; not the historical account of the area’s geology and indigenous people we were expecting. We left a bit disappointed.
The Greenway Trail, a 6.6 mile pathway to the south rim, is accessible from the visitor center’s parking lot.
We were excited to ride our bikes through the pine forest to Grand Canyon Village, where we planned to peel off onto the South Rim Trail. At the time though, the Greenway Trail wasn’t paved. This wasn’t a problem until the path turned into gravel piled 2-3 inches deep. Our tires dug in and we went nowhere. Unsure as to whether the gravel lasted another half-mile or for the entire remaining 6 miles, we turned around and loaded our bikes onto the back of the Escape Mobile. (Note… current photos show the pathway to be paved, but I can’t find whether or not it’s paved for the full length.)
South Rim Trail
Cycling the 13-mile Rim Trail was exhilarating.
On the east side there are sections where the trial is only feet from the canyon’s edge, and the views are amazing.
We rode until we ran into the South Kiabab Trailhead and agreed it would be the trail we’d tackle the next day.
The Rim Trail’s west side is also a peaceful, worthwhile ride. It’s mostly wooded and snakes around lodges and campgrounds setback from the rim.
Back at the hotel we did some research to plan for the next day’s hike… in the morning, after purchasing snacks and sandwiches, we’d fill our backpacks’ water bladders, pack some extra water, catch a shuttle from the village visitor center to Yaki Point, and hike 3-miles down to Skeleton Point – the deepest turnaround spot advised for a one-day down and up hike.
South Kaibab Trail
All the prepping took time so it was early afternoon before we reached the South Kiabab Trailhead.
Although warm for October, it was a gorgeous day and we headed down the canyon’s wall with an excitement-induced quick step. The entire trail is steep, that should go without saying but I’m saying it anyway. It’s easy to get distracted by the surrounding beauty, lose a sense of your downhill pace, and over-estimate just how far you’re capable of hiking in a day. The Rangers’ motto, which they repeat often, is “What goes down, must come up!”
One of the trail’s steepest points is just below the trailhead… a dizzying series of short switchbacks that lead down to Ooh Aah Point, about a mile in. A half-mile farther is Cedar Ridge, the halfway mark to Skeleton Point and a great place for a snack, bathroom break, and photos.
It’s recommended that Cedar Ridge be your turnaround point if hiking during the summer months.
Although warm, we continued downward passing two couples at separate points that had Trey and me raising our eyebrows. They were heading back up, about our ages but not fitness levels, and as Trey noted, “They weren’t looking good!” We ended up passing both couples on the way back up. Not boasting, just noting that one should undertake only what their lungs, legs, and heart can handle.
Successfully arriving at Skeleton Point, we were glad to exhale and slow down to rest, eat…
take in the scenery, pose for photos…
and imagine hiking the remaining four miles to the Colorado River, which we could now see.
Yet with our late start, we didn’t linger too long as we knew it would take us double the time to climb back out of the canyon. We kept a decent pace, and were grateful when we returned to Cedar Ridge for a break, more snacks, and photos.
It was nearing the hottest part of the day when we headed up the final steep mile. We took our time and stopped often to enjoy the scenes that we’d scrambled by earlier.
Back at the trailhead we were dusty messes, but thrilled with the day’s challenge, and humbled by Grand Canyon’s grace and ruggedness.
Yippi-Ei-O Steakhouse in Tusayan is a fun and tasty choice to carb and protein-up the night before hiking into the canyon.
Reminiscence of the Texas steakhouses from our childhoods, Trey and I thoroughly enjoyed the food, great service, and cowboy ambiance. Oh, and the pecan pie was phenomenal!
Leaving Las Vegas we were once again traveling in “we will figure it out” mode. Oh, we knew where we were heading, Zion National Park, but had no idea whether we’d spend the night there, nearby, or move onto Bryce Canyon. Sluggishness had delayed our departure so we didn’t arrive in Zion until 4pm… much too late to snatch a camping site.
Thinking the remaining daylight was all the time we’d spend in the park, we hopped on our bikes for a quick tour.
The Pa’rus Trail is a paved path that begins near the visitor center, wends around the campground and along the Virgin River for 1.7 miles…
…ending at the intersections of Hwy 9 and Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.
We continued up (and I do mean up!) Zion Canyon Scenic Drive for an additional five miles, stopping to take in the scenes of Great White Throne, Court of the Patriarchs, ant-like hikers clinging to cables along the West Rim Trail…
…beautiful passages of the Virgin River, and wildlife.
At the road’s end, we were captivated by the towering Temple of Sinawava—the 3000’ canyon wall that entices hikers into its chasm, The Narrows.
Alas, we had figured it out… with hands on our breaks and feet off our pedals we sailed downhill and then back to the nearest town – Springdale, Utah – to find a hotel and prep for the next day’s hike.
The Narrows was the most extraordinary, and probably our most memorable, hike of this six-month trek.
It’s not really a trail, or rather, the trail (Riverside Walk) ends after a mile, and to continue into The Narrows one must enter and follow the Virgin River upstream.
The water was frigid, but the heat and blood flow generated from traversing over rocks helped our toes acclimate pretty quickly.
Water and mineral stained canyon walls were capped with plant life and fall colors. We’d entered a seemingly mystical environment, surreal, but not without lurking dangers.
The river is unpredictable in flow and depth, and I once found myself suddenly waste deep.
As we slogged farther into the narrowing canyon its rock walls grew higher and more solid.
Time passed, but without a sense of our pace in the water, we had no idea of how far we had traveled. There were no mile markers, probably because it’s not a trail, but when we reached an intersection with another canyon that broke off to the east, Trey correctly estimated we’d hiked about a mile and a half since entering the river.
We followed what ended up being Orderville Gulch for only a few hundred feet before turning around and heading back downstream.
At 6pm, we left Zion National Park via Highway 9 and with senses of accomplishment and regret.
The Narrows was an amazing hike, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will stay with us forever; yet Zion had many gifts and trails we were leaving uncharted. As the majestic beauty of Zion’s eastern border folded out around us…
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.
We’d left Carmel-by-the-Sea for Yosemite National Park without plans for where we’d sleep for the next three nights. Securing a campground reservation had proven impossible, so our shaky plan B was to show up, stand in line, and hope there’d been a last minute cancellation.
As we detoured across California to avoid wildfires, the hours passed into late afternoon and we grew even less confident that shaky plan B was the way to go. Still, we progressed forward and climbed closer to Yosemite’s south entrance as the sun fell below the surrounding mountains. Three miles out, we came upon what appeared to be a forest oasis — a beautiful lodge.
It also appeared to be way outside of our budget, but it had spoken to both us. As we passed it, Trey and I looked at each other and in silent agreement, Trey turned the Escape Mobile around and headed back, “It can’t hurt to check it out.”
The Tenaya Lodge was definitely a splurge, but Trey and his baby blues secured a hefty discount, making it doable. Walking in without a reservation proved to us once again that, “The Universe is on our side!”
Yosemite National Park
With only two days to explore Yosemite we planned to cram in as much as possible. We hadn’t previously visited the park, but, based on everything we’d heard, we had high expectations.
Bicycles in tow, we twisted northward along Hwy 41 toward Yosemite Valley. I thought the scenery was nice, but wondered, why all the hype? That is until a sharp curve led us into a tunnel and we emerged on the other side to this view…
I wish there was a word for when everything you thought you knew gets thrust into proper perspective by unimaginable beauty and grace — those moments when you only feel humility and gratitude for the honor of the experience.
It would have to be a particularly full, bold word, one that rolls off the tongue, such as flumgustered or hyperevoluted. Well, I guess there is wonderstruck, but no; I was flumgustered to tears, my conscious was hyperevoluted as I grasped the immense power of nature’s mass and force.
We had a full day of exploring ahead, but the “Tunnel View” beckoned us to stay. So spying a trailhead above the parking lot, we headed up Inspiration Point Trail for a higher vantage. The 1.3 mile path provided even more magic: flying squirrels soared across the trail in front of us; mosaic pine tree trunks enticed us upwards…
and massive madronas painted the pathway with white blooms and redbrick limbs.
The path to Inspiration Point is steep but the views are truly inspiring and worth the climb.
By the time we left the Tunnel View area and arrived in Yosemite Valley we were famished, so we shared a generous bowl of chicken rigatoni at the majestic Ahwahnee Lodge.
Our bicycle tour was delayed further as we stuck around the Ahwahnee parking lot to gawk at freestyle climbers inching their way up Washington Column.
With its 12 miles of pathways, Yosemite is perfect for exploring by bicycle.
The remaining afternoon was spent peddling the length of the valley, crossing historic stone bridges…
…and stopping for short hikes through meadows and up to Lower Yosemite Falls, which was almost a trickle.
Free climber up Lower Yosemite Falls
The afternoon’s highlight was spotting a momma bear and her cubs loading up on ripening apples in preparation for the approaching winter.
California was in extreme drought, this was evident on the drive from Carmel, and it was obvious throughout Yosemite Valley.
The Merced River was barely flowing and the mountain creeks feeding it were bone dry. That, however, did not take away from the beauty of Yosemite.
The sun’s descent was progressing as we re-secured our bicycles to the back of the Escape Mobile — a timing that we hadn’t planned, but was perfect for sidetracking up Glacier Point Road.
The drive-in-and-out road is just shy of 16 miles (each way). It cuts up from Wawona Road (Hwy 41) just south of Tunnel View, and twists deep into the wilderness. (We spotted what appeared to be a wolf on the drive up, and a coyote on the return trip.)
The sunset panoramas were spectacular as was the view of the valley below. From the height of Glacier Point one easily sees how and where ancient monster glaciers cut through mountains to carve out the valley.
We hadn’t anticipated the bonus of the setting sun’s colors reflecting off the eastern rocky cliffs.
We stood mesmerized, flumgustered, until we noticed stars beginning to dot the darkening sky.
We secured ourselves among boulders a safe distance away from the mountain’s ledge and watched as the stars slowly painted the sky. We also noticed mysterious lights appearing one-by-one on the face of half-dome… climbers tethered to its ledges for the night.
As blackness fell over us, we hoped to see the milky way. However, due to a significant decrease in temperature coupled with the realization that we had no flashlight for the half-mile rocky trek back to the car, we decided to follow another couple down from the observation deck. (They had a flashlight.)
We’d already fallen in love with the giants of Redwood National Park, but had yet to experience the noble Sequoias.
A planned short hike through Mariposa Grove turned into an all-day 8-mile journey.
With soft intent we strolled through the grove, communing with the giants along the way.
The grove was declared as “Mariposa Grove” after a couple of white dudes, Galen Clark and Milton Mann, happened upon it in 1857.
However, evidence of indigenous people occupying the area dates back 3,000 years; Grizzly Giant would have been a mere sapling.
The Universe is on Our Side… Again
A reversing incident in Yosemite had somewhat destabilized our bicycle rack. So before heading to Kings Canyon National Park, Trey tightened each bolt and balanced the rack securely enough to make it the 60 miles to Fresno. (We had assumed that Fresno was the closest city large enough to have a proper bike shop.)
We’d traveled only 14 miles, to the tiny town of Oakhurst, when the rack’s arm flailed backwards and dangled our bikes sideways a few feet above the pavement. We immediately pulled into a parking lot and checked for phone service. Two bars allowed me to search for the nearest bike shop.
Gmaps seemed to be confusing our location with that of the nearest bike shop, so I looked up and around for assurance. Right there in the same parking lot, and directly in front of where our bikes had nearly crashed to the road, was Yosemite Bike & Sport. It wouldn’t open for another 10 minutes, but we walked over to the store front anyway to check out the shop while we waited.
Driving through terra incognita and having one’s bicycle rack deconstruct directly in front of the only bike shop within in a 60-mile radius is magical enough. Right? Well, not this day. As we approached the store’s display window we couldn’t believe what we saw… our exact bicycle rack sat new, fully assembled, and ready for use. (And no, it wasn’t a common brand or model.)
After four days of non-stop escapades in San Francisco, Carmel-by-the-Sea was the perfect travel oasis!
Carmel, which it is commonly referred as, was ideal for rejuvenating while basking aside the Pacific…
resting through peaceful strolls (and daily naps)…
and reconnecting to ourselves and the Universe through the surrounding beauty and serenity.
After a murky, foggy, twisty drive down Hwy 101, we arrived in Carmel exhausted and a bit stressed. Upon stepping out of the Escape Mobile, we immediately felt the city’s calming energy relax over us and welcome us with this view…
Once settled into our hotel, we walked to the nearest restaurant, Casanova for an amazing Italian dinner complete with romantic ambiance…
another welcoming gift from the Universe…
Morning arrived with temperate ocean breezes and a gorgeous cloudless sky.
So of course, we walked straight to the beach where watched a pod of dolphin fishing along the shore…
and a scattering of humans out for their morning walks.
Carmel-by-the-Sea is small and picturesque, a perfect town to explore by foot and bicycle so the Escape Mobile remained parked for the duration of our stay.
We bicycled to the southern edge of town to the Basilica of San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission, the second of California’s 21 missions.
The Carmel Mission was dedicated as a basilica in 1797, and is the fourth and last basilica we visited on our six-month U.S. tour. It was also the most humble – the one we sensed as the most authentic and sacred.
The grounds and structures are modest and peaceful and while we arrived too late for a tour, Trey and I enjoyed the special gift of watching the setting sun’s light play off the basilica’s chapel and gardens.
Near Carmel Mission, there’s access to parks, beaches, and several hiking trails including some that climb up and along the rocky shoreline. Since we were on bicycles, we opted to enjoy the views and laugh at grazing sheep instead.
Everything about this area is charming!
We loved exploring Carmel’s art galleries, streets, and its unique mix of architecture and styles, from streamlined cliff-side mansions to adorable tiny cottages.
Even our hotel was cute…
Our second morning relaxing at the beach was cut short after cutting my foot on a piece of driftwood buried in the sand.
It wasn’t a terrible cut, but bad enough to avoid exposing it to sand and ocean bacteria. Following a generous slab of antibiotic ointment, a wrap, and elevating it for an hour, my foot was well enough for the next venture… the wine circuit.
Nearby Carmel Valley is home to thriving vineyards. Conveniently, many wineries also have tasting rooms in Carmel-by-the-Sea. We spent the afternoon sampling wines and bought five bottles: a red blend and Barbera from Silverstri; a Pinot Gris and Pino Nior from Manzoni; and a rosé from Dawn’s Dream.
Carmel Valley wines are excellent! We are not aficionados, but it’s our opinion that they can hold their own against California’s top rated regions.
In addition to Casanova’s mentioned above, we enjoyed several other great food experiences. For dinner, Flaherty’s Seafood Grill was recommended by some fellow travelers from Australia and did not disappoint. Jack London’s Pub has since closed, but its onion rings were some of the best we’ve eaten.
And Em Le’s for breakfast was as quaint as is was good, but sadly it has also since closed.
Out of necessity, out last morning in Carmel was spent doing laundry and packing & shipping wine home to Austin.
A fire along CA Hwy 140 required us to change our route and add a 70-mile detour through Fresno in order to access or next destination…
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.
Beginning in Red Lodge MT, and continuing for the preceding 45 days, we’d followed the first appearances of fall colors across the west and down the Washington and Oregon coastlines. Random wisps of cool air and pronounced temperature differentials had been nipping at our backsides, nudging us forward just ahead of autumn’s arrival.
With the unanticipated deluge that forced us out of the Redwood Forest, fall had officially won the race and taken over. Its conquest coincided with a planned eastward turn into the mountains toward Nevada…
the first of several detours that had us zig-zagging across, in and out, and down the state of California for the next month and a half. (See our California path on our “About” page.)
From Arcata, we followed the Trinity River via State Highway 299.
The river, changing leaves, grazing elk, along with a mix of rain and mist enhanced the gorgeous drive across northern California to Redding.
Trinity River, off Hwy 299 Northern CA 2
Still soaked and with an extra day, we stopped in Redding and checked into a hotel. After showering, we hauled our camping gear into the room, sorted and dried everything including our tent, which we pitched atop the spare bed.
Yelp and a hankering for comfort food led us to Nello’s Place for a cozy Italian dinner – one of our most memorable dining experiences in quality, service, and for being exactly what we needed when we needed it.
Funny how what first appears to be a mishap ends up being a beautiful gift. These magic-of-the-Universe moments occurred often on our trip, just as they do in life.
In frustration, we tread through life’s darkness and around its rough edges as best possible only to end up somewhere completely unexpected, almost like an award for making it that far. It is only then that you recognize the past’s challenges as beautiful puzzle pieces laid out behind you, perfectly placed together.
One only needs to take the time to notice.
Over the last shared bites of Nello’s cherries jubilee, our favorite dessert experience on the trip, we expressed our deep gratitude for simply being in that moment, and for the obstacles that had led us there.
North Lake Tahoe, California
To avoid driving around Lassen Peak’s mountainous roads in a thunderstorm, we headed south from Redding along the Sacramento River and into the Central Valley. The sun and blue skies soon appeared highlighting the valley’s olive and pistachio orchards…
Barely an hour into our drive, the geography had completely changed. We found this to be true in most areas of California — if you don’t like the scenery, just drive an hour in any direction.
The clouds and rain returned after steering eastbound again into the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
But, the weather was forgotten upon setting eyes on Lake Tahoe’s vibrant blue hues. We were captivated and regretted having less than 24-hours to enjoy them.
That is until frigid air blew in with a storm foiling our plans to bike, and keeping us inside our small rented cabin for the evening.
All was good as our rustic cottage was comfy and adorable, and looked out onto Lake Tahoe.
Escape Mobile parked at Rustic Cottage Resort & Motel
We watched from the warmth of our cabin as wind gusts and waves knocked around boats docked along the shoreline.
Driving across the Mount Rose Highway the next morning, we were stunned to find a light snow had dusted the mountain and roadsides. Snow in September, another first!
Family Reunion – Reno, Nevada
Because Reno is the home of my brother and most of his family, a visit to the biggest little city in the world had been on our must-do list since our trip’s onset We loved catching up with our family! And touring Reno…
Truckee River cutting through central Reno
Galena Creek Bridge near Reno, NV
a progressive, beautiful city surrounded by mountain vistas, and not at all similar to what Hollywood tends to project.
We spent an afternoon with my brother exploring the terrain and historical sites along State Highway 341, also referred to as the Virginia City Scenic Drive. We climbed along mountain edges, passing wild horses, and into the infamous silver-mining town of Virginia City.
Take away the paved highway cutting through town, along with all the cars and motorcycles, and Virginia City appears closely to what I imagine it did in the 1800’s. With its redbrick buildings, colorful storefronts and covered wooden walkways, Virginia City offers visitors a taste of living on the outer edge of law & order in the old west.
Our visit happen to overlap the Street Vibrations motorcycle rally. Like in the Black Hills during the Sturgis rally, new and classic Harley’s lined Virginia City’s main street, augmenting the fun outlaw vibe.
Reno is a lovely city, and our visit with family was too short.
California Quail in my brother’s backyard
It was difficult to say good-bye; this was the last of many reunions on our trek and we still had two months of travel ahead.
Up Next… back to California, the Wine Country
Whiskeytown Lake, CA
Trinity River, off Hwy 299 Northern CA 2
This is a record of Trey & Martha's 2014 U.S. travel adventures