Crater Lake: Into The Deep Blue

img_9463After 6 months on the road and several parks under our belts, there are certain qualities in a park that we know will heighten our enjoyment. Those are:

  • Limited crowds
  • Ease of travel within the park
  • A range of trails – in other words, ones that are good for families or solo (on the rare occasion one of us can sneak away for an adult only hike)

Crater Lake delivered on all three credentials. Despite visiting over 4th of July weekend we had no problem finding a campsite. And because the park is centered around the lake, navigation is easy. A road, which takes about an hour to drive, loops around the caldera with short spurs branching off for easy access to all the sights and trails the park has to offer. We enjoyed several of these, the first of which was the Watchman, which offered spectacular views of the lake and even a chance for a snowball fight in July.

Speaking of the lake, let’s take a few moments to drop some knowledge about Crater Lake. Did you know CL is the deepest lake in the U.S.? It’s actually a caldera that formed when a volcano collapsed in on itself. No rivers, streams, or creeks feed into it, the water that fills the lake is pure snowmelt which means it’s also some of the cleanest water you’ll find in the U.S. We all enjoyed dipping our water bottles in and having a taste. The clarity of the water is also remarkable, visibility goes to astonishing depths of, on average, 115ft. Clarity and depth of the water all leads to the most astonishing feature of the lake, its surreal color. The only thing that I can compare it to is the most brilliant sapphire you could ever dream of seeing – that was the color of Crater Lake.

OK, now back to what we did at this breathtaking body of water. In addition to the Watchman hike, we enjoyed taking a boat to Wizard Island, a volcano inside a volcano. There we hiked to the top and explored the “Witch’s Cauldron” which is the crater atop the Wizard Island volcano. The hike up was unique in that you are scrambling up huge chunks of volcanic rock with craggily junipers and vibrant wildflowers taking root wherever they can. All around is the magnificent blue of the lake, it’s a magical sight. To cool off after the hike all four of us took the plunge into the frigid water (how could we not?). Rick was thrilled that Liam and CJ showed up a group of college guys who couldn’t work up the stones to jump in themselves.

Rick was able to go on a few solo hikes, one of which he was upset not to see the bear whose tracks he followed up the mountain. However, we lucked out the next day and caught a glimpse of a bear galloping across the road. We were also treated to marmot and deer sightings, several beautiful waterfalls and meadows bursting with wildflowers. All in all, Crater Lake was a pleasant surprise. We hadn’t expected much, and almost skipped the park but are so happy we didn’t. No other lake will ever compare to the unique beauty of Crater Lake.

The Redwoods

img_9178Our last stop in California was Redwoods National Park. As with all our stops along the way it came with its own set of highs and lows…the highs including the limited crowds, beautiful mix of woodlands and ocean views, and the lows being that our car was broken into. Wah-waaaah

Our first night in the area we parked the car on a road outside Patrick’s Point State Park to watch the sunset, only to come back and find the passenger window shattered and my purse gone. Luckily, I had my wallet and cellphone on me so all the thief got away with was my passport and checkbook, a pain but not as bad as it could have been. We had the window repaired the next day and made all the required calls to the state department and our bank, we were quickly back on track exploring the area.

We found a cozy little county park with access to both the beach and a fresh water lagoon where we spent a few days exploring. The kids had fun collecting rocks on the beach and during a canoe paddle we stumbled upon a large herd of elk grazing in the marsh grasses on the banks of the lagoon.

Liam and CJ had a great time playing with two girls camping next to us. We went on a banana slug hunt together and found a plethora of the oddly colored gastropods inching along all over the forest. Somehow their bright hue made them less icky to look at then their slimy grey brethren.

We went on several hikes through the Redwood forests, the most notable being Fern Canyon – literally exactly what the name implies. A small canyon whose walls are covered entirely with different species of ferns. Part of Jurassic Park 2 was filmed there and immediately upon entering you could understand why the producers might have picked the spot, it certainly had a prehistoric feel to it.

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My favorite walks though were those along the rocky coast. We spent several hours exploring tidal pools or just sitting on ledges watching the waves explode into the large rock formations out in the water. We found sea anemone, gooseneck barnacles, hermit crabs and fish flitting about in the water.

The vandalism on our first day wasn’t enough to tarnish the area for me. It was the perfect mix of forest and ocean and I would love an opportunity to go back. Not to mention (as I write this in the 95 degree heat of eastern Oregon), the cooler temperatures!

NorCal

From Napa, we made the short drive to my friend Tommy’s house, which was located about an hour north of San Francisco near Occidental, CA. Tommy lives on several acres so it was nice to be able to park our rig out front without fear of offending the neighbors.

Tommy and his wife DeEtte graciously welcomed us into their home for a long weekend, acting as tour guides for the area. The kids had a blast playing with their son Jones, and Liam was especially smitten with Tommy who is an extremely talented science illustrator. Liam was in hog heaven with all the animal reference books floating around the house.

Occidental and the surrounding area is a hidden gem in Northern California. Tommy’s house is situated just a few miles inland from Bodega Bay – made famous by the movie The Birds. We enjoyed a day playing on the rocky beach searching for starfish and sea anemone and eating fish tacos (what else do you eat in California?). We were also happy to have another family who was game to throw their canoe in the water and enjoyed a family paddle on the Russian River, where we saw harbor seals basking along the river and sunning themselves on the rocky beach where the river met the ocean.

This was the first “home-base” we’ve had since visiting my cousin David in New Mexico and was a much needed respite from the road. Thank you all again for sharing your local insights, showers, washing machine, company, and most importantly – the tequila!

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Wine Country

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After leaving Yosemite, we headed west to see my friend Tommy and his family in Occidental, CA. On the way, we decided to stop at Skyline Wilderness Park located in the foothills of Napa Valley. The park was conveniently located near downtown Napa, had plenty of room for the kids to roam, and offered our holy trinity: hot showers, electricity, and WiFi. After going close to a month without electricity and being forced to live out of our cooler, we especially appreciated the opportunity to have a working refrigerator for a few days. Never again will I take the unsung hero of the kitchen for granted.

Our time together in Napa was fairly short because Maggie left to go visit her grandfather in Buffalo, NY for a few days. Before she left, however, we were able to visit the wonderful Napa Farmers Market, paddle the Napa River, and enjoy a tasting at the lovely Cline Winery. Additionally, we met a German couple, Fabian and Dorte, at the campground who were living out of an RV for two months while they toured the West Coast. They had 3 children, 2 of which were Liam and CJ’s age. The kids had a great time playing with each other and digging for fossils even though they did not speak the same language. Giving kids license to smash things with a hammer and a screwdriver seems to be a universal crowd-pleaser. We were even able to entice them to come with us to see their first baseball game (the Napa Silverados) with promises of cheap beer and hot dogs.

When Maggie left for Buffalo she took the phone with her so the remaining 3 days went undocumented, but suffice to say everyone ate all their vegetables and went on long hikes whether they wanted to or not.

 

Yosemite and THE CROWDS

If Kings Canyon was a quiet park removed from the crowds, Yosemite was its complete opposite. Swarming with hordes of people, Rick and I often found ourselves quoting Edward Abbey and some of his more extreme solutions to preventing Slobivius Americanus from overwhelming our National Parks.

There were no available campsites in Yosemite, but thankfully we were able to find a site outside the park in the Stanislaus National Forest. Due to long driving times between where we camped and the different sections of the park, we split our time exploring Stanislaus NF near our campsite and battling the masses in the Yosemite Valley. Nearby, we enjoyed a short hike to Carlon Falls, which cascaded from a rock face as wide as it was tall into deep pools carved into smooth rock where the clear turquoise water collected. Rick and I had fun jumping into the icy central pool, while the kids splashed around in the smaller holes nearby.

In addition to Carlon Falls, we enjoyed afternoons cooling off in the river near our campground. Rick even managed to catch some trout using the kids’ nets – a feat he was very proud of considering there were some fly fishermen up river who came up empty handed despite all their gear.

Also nearby, was a swanky mountain resort, which I used most mornings to mooch off their free WiFi for work and even snuck in a shower at their posh bathhouse. They also provided live entertainment, which all four of us enjoyed one night. Rick and I got some drinks at the bar and sat back in large Adirondacks on the lawn to listen to 60’s rock covers while CJ twirled to Jefferson Airplane’s, White Rabbit. Rick wore his cleanest t-shirt so we went unnoticed by the paying guests…

Inside the park, we saw Yosemite Valley by bike, canoe and foot – anything to avoid driving through the mob. These were long days, rising early and packing up for the entire day so that we could secure a parking spot by 8:30 am. We saw our first bears of the whole trip – a momma with her two cubs, one cinnamon and one black high up in the trees while mom foraged in the meadow.

Our final day was spent exploring the most beautiful portion of the park, Tuolumne Meadows. Far removed from the Valley’s crowds, the road to the Meadows passes by alpine lakes and high mountain peaks. The meadow itself is an extensive swath of vibrant green framed by snow-capped mountains and accompanied by the pristine Tuolumne river that runs through it. We climbed a granite peak to look down on the meadow then wandered through the grasses where we spotted deer after deer grazing in the evening. If we ever return to Yosemite, we will be spending all our time at Tuolumne immersed in the beauty and solitude.

Kings Canyon & Sequoia

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Kings Canyon was a welcome respite after Memorial Day weekend, which we spent bouncing around from place to place – everywhere being booked with the holiday crowds. We entered the park with some trepidation, assuming we would have the same bad luck of the last 3 days and the campground would be full. Fortunately, we struck gold and miraculously had the campground virtually to ourselves for 4 of the 10 days we stayed.

To orient those of you who are unfamiliar with Kings Canton, it is a sister park to Sequoia. The two are connected and share similar scenery with towering Giant Sequoias, steep granite cliffs, and lush mountain meadows. Between the two parks and the surrounding national forest land, there were an abundance of hikes which we barely put a dent in.

The hikes we did do were gorgeous and I hope to never forget the sight of those monoliths towering above us as we tramped through the quiet groves blanketed with ferns. To describe these trees as big would be an insult. They are gargantuan and majestic, they give the forest character standing as silent guardians over this special place. We stood in awe of both General Sherman and Grant the largest and 3rd largest trees by volume, respectively, in the world. We hugged, walked inside, and across the many other nameless sequoias we passed along our hikes. Enjoying many a picnic on the fallen sentinels that spanned through emerald meadows. We even drove through the famous Tunnel Log – a tight squeeze with the canoe, but we made it.

In addition to marveling at the stately sequoias, we saw many other beautiful sights. Nightly sunsets from our campsite rivaled the painted skies of Big Bend. Driving to the northern part of the park Rick and I were like kids giddy with excitement and wonder over the south fork of the King River. Never having seen a river moving with such volume and force, every section was white water foaming and crashing over boulders. I can’t mention the meadows enough, the dark forest would randomly open up into these lush green, sun-drenched meadows with small streams flowing through them, often unseen only heard by the pleasant trickling of water moving past the rocks and grasses.

We became obsessed with finding bears and began seeking out every meadow we could find (a bear’s favorite stomping ground). Several times we roused the kids early in the morning to cook breakfast on the meadows edge. We came close three times, but never saw any bears. We did spy plenty of deer, marmots, and even a coyote.

 

An added treat to the trip was seeing our friends Ashli and John, and their son Jackson who are also full-timing. The kids enjoyed an evening of roaming around the campsite and playing games, and we had a chance to catch up with Ashli and John’s travels since we last saw them in Texas.

Of all the parks we’ve visited, Kings Canyon and Sequoia has been one of our happiest for its solitude, beauty and expanse.

Returning to The Channel Islands

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About 7 years ago, Rick and I took a trip to the Channel Islands. We were only able to go over for the day but loved it so much we vowed to come back and camp one day so we could have more time to explore. We were able to make this a reality and are happy to report the islands were just as magical as the first time.

It was a bit strange leaving the “luxuries” and conveniences of the camper behind, but after making our annual Cumberland Island trip for the last 3 years, we knew the drill when it came to island camping.

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Liam helping to carry gear to the campsite

The kids loved the ferry ride over – we saw sea lions and the big surf made the boat ride feel like a roller coaster…Rick spent most of the trip hanging off the back, but he rallied quickly enough when we hit land.

We visited Santa Cruz, the largest of the 8 islands. In addition to housing unique species of plants and animals, and providing refuge to numerous marine animals, the Channel Islands have been home to the native Chumash people and various European immigrants who most recently used the islands for ranching.

We spent 4 days on the island exploring the trails. The scenery is very unique, the islands rise out of the sea from nothing, and the soft rolling hills are blanketed in long waving grass ornamented with clusters of wildflowers. It reminds me of places I went as a kid in the U.K.

If you chance to visit, our two favorite trails were Smugglers Cover and Scorpion Canyon. We were incredibly proud of Liam who hiked the 7.5 and 4.5 mile trails all by himself. Smugglers takes you across the island to a long rocky beach where we sat and watched huge turquoise waves crashing into the shore. We picked our way across the rocks to a tidal pool where brightly colored sea anemone and mussels were clinging to rocks. I half expected to see a mermaid perched on top of one of the craggy rocks protruding from the surf, belting out a tune from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid.”

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Island Fox hunting for dinner

In addition to the magical scenery, a successful conservation effort has brought back the Island Fox – a subspecies of the grey fox found only on the Channel Islands. The foxes are now so common they were frequent visitors to our campsite, particularly around meal time. Lefty – the one-eyed fox and Frank, were always close at hand when food was present. Numerous times they scared me as I had my head in the “Fox Box” and came out to find their furry faces next to mine!

As with all the parks, camping in them gives you a different perspective that you can’t get through just a day trip. The Channel Islands are not heavily traveled, but you have the island completely to yourself at 4pm everyday when the last ferry leaves. After putting the kids to bed, Rick and I enjoyed evening strolls to the cove where we could watch the sun set and were usually treated to a sea lion or two frolicking in the surf while the pelicans cruised down over the cliffs above to skim the waves.

Island camping is truly magically and one of the few times you can really feel like you are removed from the hustle and bustle of life. We are glad we were able to fulfill our wish to visit the Channel Islands again, but hope this won’t be our last trip as we still have only scratched the surface.