Driving Up the Pacific Coast Highway

Getting from Long Beach, CA to our next assignment in San Francisco was the easiest, shortest move I’ve made in our whole 2+ years of traveling. So of course, we chose to make it longer and significantly more beautiful by taking the 1, or the Pacific Coast Highway, the entire way. This was a bucket list item for my fiance, so I let him pick all of our stops on the way up. Here are some highlights from everything we saw:

1. The Elephant Seals of Piedras Blancas

Getting out of our car to see the elephant seals was the first moment we realized that we were not in Los Angeles are anymore. It was COLD and WINDY, and I was NOT ready for any of it. I stuck it out though, and the elephant seals were pretty cute and amusing. But like every beautiful place in nature, it comes with a back story on how humans have altered it.

Elephant Seals in Piedras Blancas off the Pacific Coast Highway

Elephant seals are the largest of their species, and can grow up to 16 feet in length, weighing in at about 5,000 pounds. Like every animal today, they have been hunted, and their habitats have been destroyed, near to the point of extinction. They used to live in remote coves and beaches far away from humans, but in 1990 people started colonizing those areas. Now you can pull off the Pacific Coast Highway to see hundreds, sometimes thousands of elephant seals laying on the beach in Piedras Blancas. This used to be a rare sight, something one would expect to find in a National Geographic magazine. But now it is a total tourist attraction.

Though the photo doesn’t really do them justice, the seals were actually pretty lively creatures. They were boppin’ around, throwing sand on themselves and each other to keep cool, and sometimes having a small spat over where to they wanted to lay (which was often on top of each other).

2. McWay Falls

This was the fiance’s find on the trip, a secluded 80-foot waterfall in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. If you look really hard at the back of this GIF, you can see the waterfall coming down onto the beach. The falls are named after Christopher McWay, who homesteaded the canyon in 1870. Helen Brown, another settler in the area, purchased Saddle Rock Ranch from McWay and named the creek and waterfall in his honor. She also named the park in which the falls resides after Julia Pfeiffer Burns, a “true pioneer” of Big Sur. One of my favorite parts of pulling off on secluded stops on along the west coast has been reading plaques about the pioneers, which are mostly Lewis & Clark in the Pacific North West. But in Big Sur Area, it’s all about the Browns and the Burns.

The entire park is now closed, as well as surrounding areas, due to the Soberanes Fire that has been tearing through Big Sur for the past several weeks.

3. Pfeiffer Beach

purple sand beach in Big Sur

Also known as “the purple sand beach in Big Sur.” The sand really is purple, unlike the black sand beaches of Humboldt which are really just made of black rocks. The amethyst hues of the sand look like they came from fairy dust, but are in fact a result of the heavy minerals that inhabit it, mostly quartz and garnet. This is one of the most photographed parts of Big Sur. I also enjoyed it because it was the first time I could get on an actual beach on the coast (mostly due to our time crunch of having to get to San Francisco by nightfall). The extreme force with which the waves crash from the Pacific is exhilarating.

Some history of Big Sur’s settlers: The Browns were the first to own land that is now Big Sur, though no one quite knows how they came to be there. Julia Pfeiffer Burns was a daughter of the first settlers in Big Sur, Michael and Barbara Pfeiffer, who arrived at the area in 1869, when Julia was just under a year old. Julia lived as a single woman most of her life, leasing land from the Browns and living with her parents well into her forties. In her father’s old age, Julia managed the family ranch.

Julia married her husband, John Burns, in 1928, and together they ran cattle on Saddle Rock Ranch and rented a hot springs hotel, where Julia provided food and service to guests. Julia formed a very strong friendship with Helen Brown while living it what is now Big Sur, and it was this friendship that led Helen to name Julia Pfeiffer Brown park after her when she died. In the book Big Sur Women, Helen describes Julia as a hard worker who “loved people, picnics, dances, and whipped cream cakes.”

4. Advice for the Drive

Big Sur sunset

First piece of advice is – definitely do this! Driving up the PCH is so relaxing and beautiful. Seeing such a long stretch of untouched landscape without any phone service to distract you is good for the soul.

Second piece of advice – figure out where you’re going to eat ahead of time. The coast is pretty barren save for a few private residences, and there is no cell service at all. So pick your lunch spot beforehand. We ate at Ragged Point Restaurant, which had average food but beautiful views.

Third piece of advice – get gas before you get to Big Sur. If you’re coming south, get gas in Carmel. And if you’re going north, I would stop at the cheapest spot you find. Gas is scarce and very expensive in Big Sur.

Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip

Last piece of advice – take your time. The road is has a lot of sharp bends and turns, and you will need plenty of time to look around and take in the views. Drive slowly, everyone else will be doing the same, and allow yourself to pull off and take some photos. There are many places that you can go back to and visit, but making an entire drive like the PCH twice is not exactly an outing you plan often.

Even if you try to speed through it, the PCH will stop you from doing so. So relax, and appreciate the now.

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Death Valley and the 2016 Super Bloom

You may have heard about the super bloom happening right now in Death Valley. But what really makes it so special? Well, first, it only happens once every decade. The last wildflower super bloom in Death Valley was in 2005. And second, it can only occur under near perfect conditions, which depend on: well-spaced rainfall throughout winter and spring, lack of harsh, drying winds, and sufficient warmth from the sun.

This El Niño year in drought-ridden California has been criticized for its lack of consistent rainfall. From our apartment on the beach, I see firsthand what El Niño looks like – a cloudy sky that rolls in from the Pacific in the early hours of the morning and then clears up by noon each day like clockwork. Sometimes it comes with an insane fog that reaches us even on the 14th floor of our building, making it impossible to see anything below or around our balcony. But still, not much rain. Here is what El Niño often looks like before noon:

El Nino California
El Niño from our 14th floor balcony
El Nino Long Beach California
El Niño receding from Long Beach

Yet despite the lack of rainfall we’ve seen in the greater Los Angeles area, there seems to have been enough to nurture this year’s Death Valley super bloom.

Death Valley Desert Gold
Desert Gold wildflower (Geraea canescens)

When we first heard about the super bloom, it was just barely too late to catch the peak of it. We made a day trip out on a Wednesday, just after a weekend storm had wiped out huge amounts of the wildflowers. However, they were still sprinkled throughout the park, and cast a very beautiful sheer blanket of yellow across the red rocky desert.

Although the majority of wildflowers spread across Death Valley were the sweetly fragrant Desert Gold, we were also able to spot patches of purple and white throughout our drive. Each time we came across a new splash of color, I hopped out of the Jeep and snapped a photo. There were usually three or four other cars clumsily pulled off to the side to snap photos as well. The wildflower patches would sneak up on us pretty quickly, and were impossible to pass by without taking a moment of awe. It seemed a miracle these little beauties could grow out of such dry desert soil.

Desert Gold and Notch-leaf Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata) Wildflowers
Desert Gold and Notch-leaf Phacelia (Phacelia crenulata) wildflowers

Despite the rare occurrence of this super bloom, the park was not too crowded that day. Perhaps because it was a Wednesday, or maybe it was due to the fact that the rainstorm had already wiped out so much of the bloom’s former glory. Either way, we were thankful for the free rein to move about the park without much foot traffic getting in the way.

Death Valley Super Bloom 2016
A “field” of Desert Gold and Desert Dandelions (Malacothrix glabrata)
Death Valley Super Bloom Desert Gold
The view off the side of Daylight Pass Road

Once we had taken in the wildflowers, we were still super stoked to see the rest of the park. Neither of us had been to Death Valley National Park before, and we only had a day to get through all of it (we’re pretty experienced by now at beasting our way through National Parks). With only a few choices to prioritize, we started our day trip with Badwater Basin.

Badwater Basin Death Valley
The lowest point in North America

We were excited to finally reach the lowest elevation point in all of North America, a basin 282 feet below sea level. The basin was absolutely breathtaking. It seemed like you could walk through it forever and still never reach the other side. What struck me most was the roaring of the wind if you turned your head in just the right direction – it sounded like a plane was landing right overhead. I imagined how frightening it would be to find yourself out in the middle of the basin alone at night, the only living thing for miles. I think I’d rather be in a jungle full of unknown creatures than completely alone in this wasteland.

Of course in March, the basin wasn’t very hot. But in the summer it can reach up temperatures as high as 134ºF, so hot that birds have been known to just drop dead mid-flight over the basin (Death Valley – Am I right?). It also has the greatest evaporation potential in the United States, as in a 12-foot-deep lake of water could dry up within a year in Badwater Basin.

Badwater Basin Death Valley
Walking through the salt flats

The name, Badwater Basin, became clear as we looked out across it. The whole area is covered in salt flats that look like a turbulent ocean of water. The basin is known to flood sometimes, but water never lasts long in the valley.

Badwater Basin Death Valley
A closeup of the “bad water”
Badwater Basin
A panoramic view of Badwater Basin

After a good hour and a half of walking into the basin and back, we decided to move on. With only a few hours of daylight left, we chose to head straight for Dante’s View. However, luckily for us, Artist’s Drive and Palette were on the way. Though we didn’t spend long there, it was a beautiful sight to see – the only color to grace the park besides the wildflowers!

Artist's Palette Death Valley
Artist’s Palette
Artist's Drive Death Valley
Artist’s Drive

After Artist’s Drive and Palette we had only an hour or so left of daylight. With the lack of traffic and a little bit of speeding, we were able to make it to Dante’s View before sunset. This was my favorite part of the park, as I’m a total sucker for good views. Maybe it was the lack of cellphone service that limited distractions, but I felt I could sit there for hours just having a think. I was pretty obsessed with all three books of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in college, and Dante’s View, overlooking the Black Mountains, bestowed upon me the mixed senses of foreboding and purpose I imagine Dante felt with Virgil, with so much vastness ahead to capture. My camera didn’t do the view justice, but the photos are beautiful nonetheless. We were even able to catch some mid-level elevation wildflowers – this time Desert Gold Poppies.

Dante's View Death Valley
The trail up to Dante’s View
Dante's View Death Valley
A panoramic shot of Dante’s View
Dante's View Death Valley
Desert Gold Poppies (Eschscholzia glyptosperma) at the top of Dante’s View
Dante's View Death Valley
Dante’s View at sunset
Dante's View Death Valley
Obligatory “I was here” Death Valley photo

After a day of blazing through the park, we headed out on our 4-hour trek back to Long Beach. It’s amazing how each National Park we’ve seen has been so remarkably different. It is impossible for me to say which of them I enjoyed more. I can only affirm that all of them have left me feeling astounded that such enormous treasures of nature can all exist together in one country. Each park takes me to another planet of miracles, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to experience the incredible diversity of the United States, both of nature and people I meet along the way. As my dad always says, “The world is a beautiful place.”

A Day in Yellowstone Park

Yellowstone National Park was a must see for my boyfriend and me as we road tripped our way back from Seattle to Cleveland. It’s pretty touristy, but with good reason – the diversity of life that furls and unfurls before your eyes is astounding.

Immediately upon entering Yellowstone, we were welcomed by a particularly slow moving traffic jam due to a Bison moseying down the road. And in the left lane – the nerve! I got a great shot of him nodding his head, apparently completely unphased by the cars passing him.

Our first stop in the park was Norris Geyser Basin. There were two basins total, but we only walked the entirety of one: the Porcelain Basin, named for it’s smooth, white thermal surfaces that have been shaped over time by acidic, boiling water. Pools of crystal blue, burnt orange, and algae green water were boiling in the ground all around us.

Apparently you can tell the temperature by the color of the surface – green means the water is around 100-113°F and orange indicates temperatures between 120-140°F. We were able to see the Whirligig Geyser erupt, but my favorite was the bubbling mud.

Yellowstone_Park

Of course you can’t leave the path or you risk getting scalded to death. Regardless, everything about the basin was new to me and truly amazing (Aside from the smell of sulfur. Sulfur is beautiful but stanky). It was surreal to see tiny streams trickle past that looked so very gentle, and know that they could kill you. As a Pisces and someone who has always felt a strong pull towards water, a quiet, reckless part of myself whispered a desire for the double demise of it, being consumed and boiled alive, entirely ended.

Yellowstone_Porcelain_Basin

Our second stop was in the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, where we took the lower trail to view one of the canyon’s waterfalls from the top. After 10 switchbacks of trails that took us 600 feet into the canyon, we still weren’t halfway down it. The canyons rose up on other side of us like jagged yellow giants, and echoing around us was the constant, soothing rush of the falls and river below. We were lucky to be there on a clear beautiful day so that we could view the endless rainbow protruding from the falls’ base.

Yellowstone Grand Canyon

We continued on around Canyon Village, stopping at viewing spots with cute names like Inspiration Lookout, where a 73-year-old British woman and self-proclaimed daredevil helped us hop the gate that led to the edge of the cliff, which was closed off for repairs.

“It’s only a few broken steps and we’re old, we’re not stupid,” she explained as she swung her legs over the rail. “We know what we’re doing.”

So we hopped over with her and stood there a while, just looking out, occasionally making mouth noises to simulate the sounds of what it might be like to fall off various cliffs of the canyon.

Yellowstone National Park Canyon

The next stop, Hayden Valley, was perhaps the most exciting. At least my heart was racing when a buffalo only 15 yards away decided it didn’t like me sitting on the side of the road watching it and charged in my direction. Don’t worry, I hopped in our car right behind me and the bison chilled out pretty quickly. As for me, no comment.

Yellowstone_Bison

Hayden Valley, which I just kept calling Hidden Valley because it was sort of tucked away, is popular in Yellowstone because it’s known to be filled with wildlife. Seeing any large, uncommonly seen animal in its wild habitat is an eye-opening experience no matter what animal you’re watching. It felt the same way seeing bears in Alaska. There are no fences, and there is only a board of simple directions should you encounter the animal face to face, but no guarantees.

“People have died,” the Yellowstone signs read. This is their habitat and you are imposing on it (more so than usual), so be a good guest.

Though it wasn’t in our “itinerary” we decided to stop on a path to the Churning Cauldron, Black Cauldron, and Dragon’s Mouth. Dragon’s Mouth – a hot spring cave with steam coming out that roared and made waves on the small pool of iron-sulfuric water as though a dragon was lurking just beyond the darkness. The waves were sporadic and occasionally boiling water spat into the air.

It made me realize how eerie the entire experience of water in Yellowstone really is. Yellowstone sits on top of an active volcano, and cooling molten lava heats rock, which heats mud and water that each react in a different way to cause the varying effects we see above ground: geysers, hot springs, boiling mud pools, colorful sulfuric streams, and acidic valleys.

Yellowstone_Prismatic

When you hear a stream or a waterfall, images in your mind are ones of cool, refreshing currents. It might even make you feel like swimming. But the knowledge of Yellowstone’s water’s temperatures added lethal undertones to those sounds throughout the park. Waterfalls had geysers spouting steam along the sides of their basins. It was a little unsettling, but thrilling.

The spookiest and also most beautiful area of the park was Grand Prismatic Spring, a brightly colored pool of steaming hot water that, unlike the basin, geysers, and “cauldrons,” made absolutely no sound. In fact it seemed to mute the air around it, reminding me of the deadly poisonous fog from the second Hunger Games: Catching Fire. All around the lake, and all around you as you head out into the giant boardwalk loop are steaming hot, colorful puddles walled off from each other by thin lines of cooling volcanic rock.

Grand Prismatic Spring Yellowstone National Park

Pools in the area are so thick with steam that rolls over you soundlessly, heating and moistening the air you breath (and your camera lens). There is a nearby river of cooler water that the hot streams pour into, but any noise of it is silenced when you’re within the steam plume only a dozen yards away. I felt an obvious outsider in this foreign, alluring landscape.

We ended the evening by catching the last Old Faithful geyser eruption that would see sunlight. It lasted a good two minutes and was exactly on time. The geyser shot a heavy gush of water over 100 feet into the air, all of which dissipated into steam before ever touching the ground. Amazing.

Yellowstone_Old_Faithful

Giving cheers to Old Faithful’s reliable timeliness was the perfect way to end our perfect day in Yellowstone. On the drive out of the park, we decided to fill some of the extra time we have ahead on our way into Utah to make a stop at Jackson Hole. Because what’s a road trip without a little unexpected adventure? I’ll keep you posted.