California (Northern)


Half Dome


Yosemite National Park in northern California is truly a place to behold.  With giant granite cliffs thousands of feet high, huge waterfalls (3 of the 10 highest in the world) and hiking trails that take you up, up and away, Yosemite has earned its place as one of the premier National Parks in North America.  For the real adventure traveler without technical climbing interest, the most challenging – and rewarding – hike in the park (and one of the most beautiful in the world) is to the top of Half Dome, the monolith that has no parallel anywhere else on the planet.  From the valley trailhead it is 8.2 miles and 4800 feet up to the top. Starting from the parking area, the roundtrip excursion is an 18 mile, 10-12 hour hike.  Quite a “walk in the park”!  But the distance and altitude gain do not begin to tell the story of the beauty and challenge of this hike.  I have made this hike five times and on each occasion my primary feeling at the end of the day was one of gratitude for the opportunity to be involved with this spectacular part of nature.  (Secondary feelings included fatigue, triumph and the strong need for a hot tub and a beer.)

There are five distinct parts of the climb to the top:  1) from the trailhead to the top of 317 foot Vernal Falls (1.3 miles, straight up some 600+ “steps” after a long, slow vertical incline), 2) from Vernal to the top of 594 foot Nevada Falls (2.1 miles, up a series of switchbacks), 3) a gradual rise through a flat area and then up through a forest (3.1 miles, to a fork in the trail), 4) “The Hump”, not very far but a very tough climb with some steps carved into the mountainside and some scramble over granite (“only” 3/4 mile, but seemingly straight up), and, last but not least, 5) “The Cables” (see the two pictures on the next page), the last 600 ft to the top of the world at a 45 to 60 degree angle.  Stage six, if you can call it that, is the 8.2 mile return, down 4,800 feet to the trailhead and from there back to your car.

Starting early on this monster hike is a must.  Actually, many people “cheat” by camping ¾ of the way up and making the last climb to the summit on a good night’s sleep.  But camping sites are limited and the “real” way to do the hike is to get on the trail by 5:00 am, (in the dark by flashlight in the spring and fall) and to the top by 10 or 11 am.  This allows reasonable time to pace yourself, enjoy the tremendous views from the summit, and still get back for Happy Hour at the world famous and historic Ahwahnee Hotel (and believe me, it is really happy hour when you complete this hike.)  There are several good reasons to start very early on this trip:  1) to take advantage of the cool morning temperatures and dark/shade before sunrise, 2) to avoid “traffic” on the trail as this is a very popular hike and 3) most importantly, to be able to encourage people who are still going up when you are coming down – being able to say, “Good morning!  How’s it going?!  Beautiful Day!!” when people still on the upward journey are struggling.  The people who thought they got an early start at 7:30 am are incredulous when they meet you on the trail and you say, “Beautiful view from the top; you’ve only got about another two hours to go!”  Encouragement (not gloating) is a must on this trip, but you are only in position to give it if you start the hike with flashlights in the pre-dawn morning.  The Half Dome hike is a very real hiking challenge in a truly spectacular location. The hiking aficionado may well want to consider having this hike on his or her important outdoor “To Do” list.

San Francisco


There are a number of areas within several hours drive of San Francisco that make this wonderful city not only a national treasure in and of itself, but also a gateway to fun and adventure.  We’ve already spoken of the splendors of Yosemite, a four hour drive to the southeast.  Lake Tahoe with skiing and casinos, Napa and Sonoma Valleys with world class wineries, eateries and mud baths, and Mendicino with rustic old B & Bs on the rugged Pacific coast are all within easy striking distance of San Francisco.   But my absolute most favorite excursions from San Francisco are:

The Muir Woods.   A short half hour drive north over the Golden Gate Bridge, the Muir Woods, with its giant redwood trees, is a spiritual place for me.  Walking the ¾ mile from the entrance way to the fourth bridge in the forest can be crowded so I recommend going early in the morning or late in the day to avoid the hordes of tourists.  I recently arrived at 7 am with my youngest daughter and when we left at 8:15, we were still the only car in the parking lot.  The redwood trees are one of nature’s most beautiful creations and there are not many of them left.  There is a splendid five mile (ten, round trip) hike from the Muir Woods through the forest, over a ridge and down to Stinson Beach.  There are also several hillside hikes coming up from the valley floor and very few people venture on these trails.  For the first 14 years of each of my daughter’s lives I wrote them letters (in bound books) telling what they were doing, what was going on around them, who were their current friends, etc.  I wrote four times a year and I now have two full volumes for each kid.  One year, three of the four times I wrote I did so in the Muir Woods.  It is truly a place for reflection and inspiration.

Point Reyes National Seashore.   Another hour north from the Muir Woods is the Point Reyes National Seashore.  Near the Visitor’s Center is a very interesting 20 minute walk showing the epicenter of the famous 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, right along the San Andreas Fault.   From this trail is a very easy four mile (eight, round trip) walk through the Bear Valley to Arch Rock, on the ocean.  For more exercise, there are several trails up to the top of a ridge that runs parallel to the Bear Valley and provides wonderful forest cover, also ending up at Arch Rock.  Separately in the park is a long road past several beaches to the Point Reyes Lighthouse.  At 6 am, there are deer aplenty on this drive and, again, it pays to keep clear of the tourist hordes by going early or late (though the lighthouse is only “open” for a limited amount of hours, being in the area is as interesting as being able to get into the lighthouse.)  There are several very interesting B & Bs in Inverness, a small town on the edge of the park and great places to spend a couple of relaxing nights while hiking in the park.

Big Sur/Esalen.   Two hours south of San Francisco is the Monterey Peninsula with its world-class aquarium, 17 Mile Drive (with the famous Pebble Beach golf course), and the tourist hamlet of Carmel-by-the-Sea.  All are well worth a visit.  But my favorite place is another 40 miles south of Carmel, after a wonderful drive along the Big Sur section of Hwy 1 and a mandatory lunch at the Nepenthe restaurant, to Esalen, a “hippy style (my term) conference community” literally hanging over the Pacific Ocean.  While most of the rooms at Esalen are reserved for conference guests (they have 2-day and 5-day conferences on a wide variety of eclectic topics), it is possible to book a room if all of their conference slots are not sold out.  Three meals a day are part of the conference/room rate and the meals are definitely vegetarian/organic in orientation with most of the food grown in Esalen’s gardens.  In addition to the very, very interesting, diversified group of people that tend to inhabit Esalen, the highlight of an Esalen experience is spending time in their famous hot-spring tubs, looking over the cliffs to the breaking Pacific waves below.  Clothing is said to be optional, though I’ve never seen anyone with clothing on in the tubs.  Two nights in a row I watched the stars and spectacular moonsets into the Pacific Ocean from the tubs. I realized that while I had seen innumerable sun and moon rises and sunsets, I could not recall seeing a moonset.  Esalen is a unique and simulating place – for the people, the setting, the tubs and the overall ambiance of the place.  I will definitely return here in future years.