All the hits: weeks twenty-one and twenty-two (both sides of the Juan de Fuca Strait)

The Olympic Peninsula

A cabin in the woods: Some good friends of ours hooked us up with a cabin on the Olympic Peninsula and we were excited to spend a weekend in the woods and out of the city. It was a marvelous couple of days where we did nothing but read and nap and watch movies.

Olympic National Park: We had been treated to snow-peaked mountains at various occasions during our trip (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon) and the Olympic Mountains in north-west Washington were equally amazing. After driving uphill for 45 minutes on the Hurricane Ridge Road, we found ourselves looking out upon a panorama of magnificent white-tipped peaks. We spent the afternoon walking mountain-top trails among dozens of black-tailed deer and adorable (but endangered) marmots. We even caught site of a few black bears (through binoculars). The sky was really clear and by looking north we could see Vancouver Island and Victoria in surprising detail while to the east, Mount Baker towered over the surrounding countryside. As the sun set, we drove down the mountainside and camped in one of the park’s many beautiful forested valleys.

The Ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria: Taking the ferry is almost always a great experience (weather permitting, but even then..), and we had another gorgeous day as we crossed the Strait of Juan de Fuca. While the beer was expensive, it was pretty sweet to drink a pint while sitting on the top deck looking out at the ocean and mountains in the distance.

Bonus: The Galley and Pub at the New Pleasant Harbor Marina (nice little spot in the middle of nowhere to have a coffee or beer and check our email).

Victoria, British Columbia

Friends: It’s always nice to run into friends on the road and unsurprisingly we have more friends scattered around Canada than the States. We spent a good week relaxing in and around Victoria reconnecting with some of these folks and will spend another week here before we leave the Island.

Goldstream Provincial Park: Our pal Seamus drove us to Goldstream with the goal of getting our photos on “the trestle”. Running alongside the park is a currently inactive rail line, and after a short but steep hike up to the rail line, we walked out onto the railway trestle 100+ feet above the creek and below. It was somewhat terrifying, but by staying in the middle of the tracks there wasn’t really anything bad that could happen. We enjoyed the view, took some photos, and then hiked back down again.

Disc Golf: While Amalia had played some ultimate frisbee previously, Ben had only thrown frisbees in the most casual of circumstances. But neither of us had ever played disc golf. Essentially, it’s golf with frisbees where the goal is to navigate your disc around different obstacles with the goal of hitting a specific pole or getting the disc in a basket. We played our first game with friends on a guerrilla disc golf course in the woods. It was awesome!

Sombrio Beach: Despite having driven up the coast all the way from Los Angeles, we had yet to find a place where we could camp right on the beach. When the opportunity presented itself, we couldn’t turn it down. After picking up food, beer, and a bunch of friends, we drove along the south coast of Vancouver Island to Sombrio Beach in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. The beach was beautiful, camping there was awesome, and staying up drinking beers around the fire while eating chili-dogs made the experience just about perfect. The coolest part is that, at the east end of the beach there is a small stream that flows down into the ocean. By following the stream inland for only a hundred feet, we suddenly found ourselves in a thin slot canyon with towering walls and the stream running along the bottom. By walking in the stream a bit, the canyon quickly reveals a spectacular hidden waterfall streaming down from above. It’s the type of thing we would never have discovered if not for some awesome local hosts.

Reading on the rocks at low tide: When the ocean tide goes out, the rocky tide pools left behind are something beautiful. Pulling a chair out onto the rocky flats and reading in the early morning sun brings a special kind of peace.

Shirley Delicious: A legendary gem of a café near Sooke. We stopped here on the way back from camping. The food was amazing and the overly-enthusiastic service was equally enjoyable.

Taking a dunk in the lake on a hot day: Our first week in Victoria was wicked hot and we were so excited when (after a lovely hike in Francis King Regional Park and giant sandwiches from Red Barn Market) we were taken by our friends JoAnne and Kelly to Prospect Lake for a swim. We probably haven’t done enough swimming on this trip (water is cold!) but lounging on the rocks snacking, drinking, chatting, and swimming made for a lovey afternoon.

Lotus Pond Vegetarian Restaurant: We’ve had no shortage of vegetarian food to be found on our trip, but it’s nice to find a pure vegetarian restaurant with an extensive menu of delicious Chinese food. Happily for Amalia, all the food was also onion-free. It was really, really good!! We have already made plans to return here at least one more time before leaving the Island.

Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Sites: We had such a great time visiting National Parks in the US that we decided we should try to do the same in Canada. The closest site to us was Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse so we headed there on our way to explore the rest of the Island. What a contrast. It became pretty clear pretty fast that Canadian Parks just aren’t being funded on the same level as their American counterparts. There were cobwebs and debris throughout the Fort, the Lighthouse was in better shape but not all the exhibits were functional, and there were only enough staff to manage the welcome centre (cuts to Parks Canada run very deep and have been so destructive to the workers). Despite that, we learned a lot about all the efforts invested in Pacific maritime defense (even if they were never required).

Bonus: Habit Coffee (good coffee but no wifi), Charlotte and the Quail (a lovely café beside a small botanical garden), The Drake Eatery (bar with great West Coast beer), The Jam (delicious brunch spot), outdoor concerts (drinking beer on a barge with live bands is great), Brickyard Pizza, Parsonage Café (great coffee and Ben had his first cold brew but also no wifi!).

All the hits: week nineteen and twenty (Portland to Seattle)

Portland, Oregon

Ben’s sister joined us in Portland and flew back from Seattle, so with her assistance we proceeded to have an amazing time in and around the two cities.

Park Place Café: This was where we spent our first morning out in the east-end of the city. Omar, who owns and runs the café, was super-nice, let us try his amazing baklava, and gave us lots of tips for things to do.

Oxbow Regional Park: While exploring Portland, the three of us camped in Oxbow Regional Park. The park itself is about 45 minutes east of the city, but the campground is at the very end of the park road which added an unexpected, but beautiful extension to our drive. The park road winds through the rain forest beside the Sandy River and pretty much every time we drove it we saw deer.

Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway: The first day Ben’s sister was with us it was rainy, so we decided it was a good day for driving and we head east along the Columbia River Gorge. The drive was very beautiful, with several *gorgeous* views (Vista House was particularly impressive) and numerous amazing waterfalls. We definitely hit our waterfall quota for the trip, stopping and hiking to five or six during the day.

Canteen: Our first meal out in Portland as a group was impressive. Canteen had some very tasty and healthy food that gave us the energy to spend most of the afternoon walking around Portland’s Sunnyside neighbourhood (which is very chill).

Kopi East Asian Coffee House: We stumbled upon this place while wandering and were intrigued by the idea of coffee flavoured with coconut milk, chicory, and makrut* lime. It was phenomenal. Just really, really good. We were all blown away. (*Many still refer to makrut limes as kaffir limes, but kaffir is actually a derogatory and racist term).

Portland International Rose Test Garden: This free garden has more than 600 varieties of roses, and it’s almost a little overwhelming. It’s amazing how many different sizes, shapes, and colours roses can come in. Walking through the garden is a spectacle of sights and smells. Portland has been nicknamed the City of Roses as they are pretty much everywhere. We passed many a traffic circle and road divider thriving with rose blooms.

Khao San: This restaurant serves small plates of Thai street food. Although some of the dishes would appear on a standard Thai restaurant menu, there were some really interesting flavours at work here, and the food was really special. We’ve regularly found pretty great food on the trip, but finding places like Khao San, where the food is a revelatory experience, happens much less often.

Salt and Straw: Regular ice cream is delicious. Vegan ice cream is also delicious. An ice cream joint that serves flights of regular and vegan ice cream is even more delicious. It was soooo good.

Bonus: The Observatory (awesome veggie burgers and exploration themed decor), Pip’s Original Doughnuts (small but so yummy), Voodoo Doughnuts (a great recommendation from Paige and had so many vegan options – see photo above), Powell’s Bookstore (just go, it’s epic), Tacos del Rio (great Mexican food in The Dalles), Portland Farmers Market (a really big market in the middle of Portland State University’s campus), the Pittock Mansion (beautiful views of the city), In Other Words Feminist Community Centre (cool bookstore and gathering space), Case Study Coffee Roasters (good place to hang-out when it’s absolutely pouring rain), Stella Taco (tacos is Austin were delicious, so finding an Austin-themed taco place hit the spot), Alberta Cooperative Grocery.

Pacific Coast

Cape Kiwanda: We spent the afternoon drinking coffee and walking the beach and cliffs of Cape Kiwanda by Pacific City. The Beach is really beautiful, and walking up the massive dunes into the state natural area presents stunning views of the coast, cliffs, and some amazing sea caves that let loose loud booms as waves crashed within them.

Cape Lookout: We had booked a campsite for one night at Cape Lookout State Park, but if we had only known was a jewel of a park this was, we probably would have found a way to stay longer. The campground is on a long peninsula that separates a marshy bay from the ocean. Driving towards the park we pulled off at a viewpoint where we could see the whole peninsula far down beneath us. Our site was right beside the beach and we drank beers while watching the sunset. We took a long walk along the beach the next morning, and if we could have stayed longer, I think we might have walked all the way to the end … maybe.

Cape Meares: So, this area is called The Three Capes and we stopped at them all. Cape Meares is cool because in addition to spectacular views, it has a lighthouse and Oregon’s oldest known Sitka Spruce which is also called the octopus tree. That’s because instead of one trunk, it has seven or eight all bending up into the sky.

Bonus: Lewis and Clark National Historic Park (we knew embarrassingly little about Lewis and Clark, but thankfully, there’s a historic park where we brushed up on our history), the bridge from Astoria into Washington, Friends Landing park near Montesano (pretty much everything in this park is wheelchair accessible and we took a nice morning walk on our way to Seattle), Obsidian in Olympia (awesome coffee shop and really, Olympia itself is pretty cool, it’s where Riot Grrrl was founded).

Seattle, Washington

Saltwater State Park: This is where we camped while exploring Seattle. The good news is that it’s really close to the city (surrounded by residential neighbourhoods), has a sweet beach, a cute river, and some nice hiking trails. Bad news is that it’s right under the flight path for planes taking off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. But, even though the jets were really, really loud, somehow both Amalia and I slept super soundly in the tent. The park is also notable for having an artificial reef offshore that is part of a larger marine sanctuary.

Café Flora: A couple of people had recommended this place for brunch. And while in a kind of out-of-the-way part of Seattle, it was well worth the trip. We ate in a large, beautiful solarium with a fountain and had an amazing vegetarian brunch.

Araya’s Place: Why aren’t there more vegan Thai restaurants with lunch buffets? This place was awesome. The food was good, and it was all-you-can eat at a reasonable price.

Full Tilt Ice Cream: More great ice cream. And more amazing vegan flavours. Also, classic arcade games. There were all kinds of really interesting flavours, but maybe the best was Ube flavoured ice cream. Ube is an Asian Yam that’s kind of purple. It might sound weird, but it is actually really, really good!! Amalia had a hard time sharing.

Bonus: Left Bank Books (amazing progressive bookstore right by the main market), Pine Box (a bar that used to be a mortuary that once held Bruce Lee’s memorial service), Plum Bistro (yummy vegan food).

All the hits: week seventeen and eighteen (in which we encounter giant trees and giant snow banks)

Northern California

The Bay Model: In a huge hanger just north of San Francisco in Sausalito sits The Bay Model, a massive scale model of the San Francisco Bay and its tributaries the size of two football fields. Before computers could handle this sort of work, the model was used to simulate the impacts that various developments would have on the waters within the Bay, as well as how salt water might move up into marshes to the north. One proposal modeled even saw parts of the Bay damned off to form fresh water reservoirs for the city. While all this work is now done by computers, the model continues to exist for educational purposes, its huge pumps circulating water and endlessly simulating the tides.

Point Reyes National Seashore: This was a bit of an afterthought following our early morning visit to Muir Woods National Monument (see below), but it turned out to be the highlight of the day. Located just over an hour from San Francisco, Point Reyes feels like a different planet. From the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) a beautiful 45-minute drive takes you past marshes, through forest, over rolling green pastures with the ocean on both sides, and finally, out to the lighthouse. Hundreds of Elephant Seals were causing a ruckus on a beach nearby, and we were lucky to spot a Peregrine Falcon. As we drove back, we took in stunning vistas of undulating sandy cliffs plummeting from the green fields to the endless beaches below. It would be easy to spend a week exploring this park and all it has to offer.

Mendocino: A picturesque little community that may look familiar to some as it played Cabot Cove in the television series Murder, She Wrote. There were lots of little boutique hotels, craft shops, restaurants, and lots of cute houses – but the surrounding scenery steals the show. Crossing the road away from town leads into fields of wild grass and flowers filled with birds. The fields then end as steep steps work their way down to the beach where caves and arches have been carved into the cliffs by the slow grinding of the ocean waves and tides.

Drinking a beer in the sun while watching the ocean waves crash onto the rocks or beach: It is THE best.

The Avenue of the Giants: This scenic byway follows the Eel River as it carves its way through old growth forest in Humboldt Redwood State Park. The trees here are much larger and more impressive than Muir Woods, and the area is much more remote. The drive is punctuated by a series of short-to-medium length hikes, several of which we enjoyed. The forests up here smell absolutely amazing.

Redwood National and State Parks: Approaching the parks, we were forced to stop in the middle of the highway as a herd of Elk tried to figure out whether or not to cross the road. It was kind of surreal to see dozens of these beautiful creatures just standing there. Redwood National Park also contains a scenic drive, the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. Again, we took many opportunities to stop and take walks into the woods and again, the trees and forest here were much more impressive than Muir Woods. Also amazing were all the rhododendrons growing wild in the forest. As we descended one isolated trail called “Damnation Creek” we passed several ecosystems and came across animals and insects of all sorts as we descended 1,000 feet to the ocean. While we stood on the beach contemplating the long climb back, we were surprised by a small head bobbing above the waves just off the shore. The curious eyes of a sea otter were trying to figure out what we were about.

Bonus: Fresh road-side cherries, Himalayan Kabob and Curry House in Windsor, wine country, Muir Woods National Monument (an easy day-trip from San Francisco, but it gets very busy and the Redwood experience is better further north), Manchester Beach, Glass Beach in Fort Bragg (we were here on Mother’s Day and saw a mother seal trying to teach her pup how to balance on a rocky island in heavy surf but the poor pup kept getting swept away), West Coast Knittery in Eureka, Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka (specifically, the Sharkinator IPA), Northtown Coffee in Arcata, Redwood Curtain Brewing Company in Arcata (delicious), Japhy’s Soup and Noodles in Arcata, Perlita’s Authentic Mexican in Crescent City.

Southern Oregon

Oregon Caves National Park: The only caves we’d seen on the trip thus far were the spectacular Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico. While not on our itinerary, we noticed that the Oregon Caves were not that far off our route and so decided to take the detour. It is a much smaller cave system that requires a lot of crouching and body-twisting. Unlike Carlsbad Caverns, the Oregon Caves have to be entered as part of a tour, and our tour was only eight people. So, with so few people and a smaller cave system, the experience was much more intimate. At one point, the Ranger leading the tour turned off all the lights and were were plunged into darkness. Very cool. Also, Amalia found a cave cricket.

Crater Lake National Park: If taking one detour, why not take another, so we headed from the Oregon Caves up to the rim of Crater Lake. Even in mid-May, the park is buried in a tonne of snow, and most days the upper rim is enshrouded in cloud. We were super-lucky that it was a beautiful and sunny day when we were there. The snow banks were massive, but the views of the lake were spectacular. While the road around the rim was still closed (doesn’t open until later in the summer), we were able to walk along the rim for a while and get some sweet views of Wizard Island. It was a short stop, but dramatic and totally worth it (plus, because of all the snow, we basically did everything possible within the park). Warm weather and snow makes for a good snowball fight too.

The drive from Crater Lake to Ashland: The drive was surprisingly amazing since it was just a random route chosen by the GPS. Instead of dipping down into the valley where the major highway is, we drove across mountain plateaus, through fields and forests, beside lakes, and then plunged down into Ashland on a winding road alongside a river. At various points along the drive we were treated to fantastic views of the Crater Lake mountains and Mount McLoughlin.

The Growler Guys: At our first stop in Ashland, we grabbed a few beers and a pizza on the patio here. They have a VERY comprehensive beer selection, and everything tasted excellent.

Bonus: Joseph H. Stewart State Recreation Area (a gorgeous park and campsite – though Ben thinks this is where he was attacked by a tick), Case Coffee Roasters in Ashland, Green Leaf Restaurant in Ashland, The Web-sters knitting shop in Ashland, the Ashland Food Co-op, Harris Beach State Park, the Bell & Whistle Coffee House in Harbor, Arch Rock, Face Rock, the Cobra Lillies in Darlingtonia State Park, the Rogue Brewery in Newport, the Devil’s Punchbowl.

All the hits: week sixteen (in which we start our amazing journey along the legendary Pacific Coast Highway)

Los Angeles to San Francisco, California

The Pacific Coast Highway: This is one of those road-trip routes that has become legendary. Whether driving along the pacific coast on a day-trip or driving from Mexico to Canada, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) is a really fun drive. Starting from Los Angeles, it took a while to get out of the massive city, and much of the initial PCH runs along Highway 101 which, while offering nice views of the beach, cliffs and ocean, it is a real freeway and so turnoffs are few and the scenery tends to speed by rather quickly. But once we got clear of the 101 near Las Cruces, things really opened up. The whole drive to Lompoc and through Vandenberg Air Force Base was beautiful. When the highway gets to Big Sur, it’s winding along cliff edges and through old growth redwood forest.

The Visitor Center at the Santa Barbara Marina: Even if you’re just passing through, grab a coffee (the Santa Barbara Roasting Company is good) and go to the Santa Barbara Visitor Center (located above the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum). After a short elevator ride, say “Hi” to the visitor center staff person behind their desk, and then head out onto the Visitor Center’s balcony, grab a seat on one of the comfortable couches, and enjoy gorgeous views of the harbor.

The Elephant Seals and Sea Lions: There are various points along the coast you can stop to view sea mammals of various species. We took in the views of some Elephant Seals lounging on the beach just north of San Simeon, California and caught a bunch of Sea Lions floating en masse off the Santa Cruz pier.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium: We were a little hesitant about visiting just because tickets were expensive and we had been previously disappointed at the Kennedy Space Center. But, enough people had recommended the Aquarium so we decided to go for it. Within 15 minutes the experience was worth it. Everything was impressive, but there were two installations that stole the show. The first was the jellyfish exhibit where we were surrounded by crystal blue tanks filled with dozens of different kinds of jellyfish floating and swimming in hypnotizing patterns. The second was the open sea exhibit where a 1.2 million gallon tank contains a variety of creatures found in the open sea including hammerhead sharks, 350kg tuna, and sea turtles. The tank is visible through a 90-foot pane of glass (one of the largest single panes of glass in the world) and we probably spent an hour just watching the fish and turtles swim. Oh, also there there were exhibits for puffins, penguins, and sea otters, all of which are super-cute.

Bonus: Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove (we only saw a couple, but come at the right time and apparently this grove is crammed full of Monarchs), the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes (we only drove past, but this was the filming location of the 1923 production of The Ten Commandments and most of the set is still buried here), perched on the cliffs overlooking the ocean is an amazing campground just north of Kirk Creek in Los Padres National Forest, Pheiffer Big Sur State Park (we spent a night here and hiked through the forest to a nice waterfall), El Cantaro (a delicious vegan Mexican restaurant in Monterey Bay).

San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley, California

The food: There is so much amazing food in San Francisco it’s hard to know where to start. On our first day, we had a fantastic veggie burger at VeganBurg, and then, after exploring, we enjoyed an amazing dinner at Shizen Vegan Sushi Bar & Izakaya. It was packed when we got there, but only got busier as the night went on. After, we headed to Zeitgeist, a busy local bar with reasonably priced drinks and a large patio. As expected, brunch is serious business here, so we grabbed some delectable sandwiches at Ike’s Place and headed to Dolores Park to watch people and eat. Oh, the sandwiches come with free lollipops. Hellz ya. That afternoon we stopped for vegan nachos and beer at Gracias Madre to celebrate our friends Mallory and Lindsay’s wedding from afar. Later picked up some yummy Thai food from Lers Ros to eat with Dora as she celebrated being (basically) finished packing. We had quite an experience at Lers Ros which you can read more about here. In Chinatown, we had a fantastic vegan meal at Enjoy Vegetarian Restaurant. In Berkeley we discovered more deliciousness. Dora’s new corner store had an amazing craft beer selection, an instant noodles prep station, and home made samosas baked by the owners. Further on was the Monterey Market, one of the most amazing green grocers we’d ever seen. It was just isles and isles of vegetables and fruit. For dinner we had pizza from Sliver, one of which had garlic as the only topping (other than sauce and cheese of course). Garlic-only pizza is a revelation. It was pretty good as a cold breakfast too.

The wonderful places to walk: Although it was super-windy, we came up the PCH and stopped at Golden Gate Park to see the beach and the old dutch windmills. This park is huge, and there is so much to do, you could easily spend the day. Afterwards, we spent some time walking around the Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, an old hippy-haven where every second store seems to be a smokeshop. The Mission District is full of great places to explore. It’s become a lot more gentrified (along with all of San Francisco), but every street has it’s own character and there are interesting shops everywhere. Wandering around downtown San Francisco, we stopped at the Contemporary Jewish Museum which was designed by Ben’s uncle. They had a real cool exhibit on local Rock & Roll legend Bill Graham. Then we walked up to North Beach to the top of Telegraph Hill, and took the elevator to the top of the Coit Tower for amazing views of the city, the old Alcatraz jail, and the Golden Gate Bridge. Descending back to the harbor, we walk down the Filbert Steps – a walk that passes through many gorgeous gardens, and beneath trees frequented by the local parrots of telegraph hill. We could see and hear them squawking about. So exciting. Once we had moved our operations to Berkeley, we were blown away by the plant life there as well. Peoples’ gardens are spectacular with so many giant flowers and succulents. Fennel grows wild and the air smells amazing. On our last day, we stopped at The Interval (a coffee shop and bar located in the headquarters of the Long Now Foundation – an organization dedicated to considering the future on a much longer scale), and then walked along the bay to the Wave Organ, an art installation that creates different sounds based on the waves and tides.

More friends: Ben’s friend Dora and her partner Ryan were moving the weekend we were in San Francisco, so we volunteered to help. We tried not to distract her too much, but got to spend a bunch of time hanging out. She was super generous and let us crash in her old place (right by the awesome Mission district), and then out in front of her beautiful new place in the much quieter Berkeley. The other bonus about having friends in places is that often they have kitchens and cooking in a real kitchen after being on the road for weeks is soooo nice.

The bookstores: There were so many great bookstores in San Francisco. Some of our favourites were the Bound Together Anarchist Collective Bookstore, Borderlands Books (a science fiction and fantasy bookstore and café), City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, E. M. Wolfman General Interest Small Bookstore (in Oakland), and Moe’s Books (a giant bookstore in Berkeley in which Amalia wanted to live in the store forever).

A Verb for Keeping Warm: Amalia has been knitting her first sweater while we’ve been on the road, but needed some space to wash it and block it out. Luckily, the lovely folks at this small Oakland knitting shop were super-kind and let her work there as well as leaving her knitting to dry for a few days.

Note: Camping on the southern California coast is expensive ($45 USD a night). So are day-use areas ($10 USD per day). Be prepared. The good news is that, visiting any one park gets you access to any other state parks during that same day (including the day you’re checking out of your campsite).

All the hits: week fifteen (from the desert to the beach)

The Deserts of Southern California

Mojave National Preserve: We headed back into the desert after leaving Las Vegas, and turned off the interstate into Mojave National Preserve (named after the desert in which it exists). A long scenic road winds south through the park, passed all the Joshua trees, and we were on the lookout for camping. We followed the signs and soon found ourselves on a dirt road. It seemed a bit strange that the campsite would’t be on a paved road (most national camp sites are), but a passing Ranger confirmed we were on the right track and so on we went bumping along the increasingly rough road as it led up into the hills. Eventually we did find the campground and pulled into a site that, while a little windy, offered a spectacular view of the valley, desert, and sunset. While we were impressed, Dodgy (our van), hadn’t enjoyed the drive as much. Hanging from its wires like a cartoon eyeball, one of the headlights had broken off its brackets and popped out. Ben got creative with some rope and we were able to anchor the light back in place temporarily. The next day, we continued on our way, but one wrong turn out of the campground and suddenly we were in a maze of backcountry dirt roads. While the GPS did it’s best, it didn’t know the difference between a semi-maintained backcountry road and a poorly maintained road meant for off-road vehicles. We did our best and, an hour or so later, got ourselves back onto pavement and out of the Park – with our jury-rigged light still in place and just enough gas to get us to a station.

Joshua Tree National Park: Joshua Tree isn’t unique for the trees (Mojave has lots too), but it is unique because it overlaps two bordering deserts (the Mojave and the Sonoran). The difference between the two deserts is mostly elevation (the Mojave is about 3,000 feet higher than the Sonoran) and, of course, that means lots of different plants and cacti. Joshua Tree is the more visited and accessible of the two parks, and has some amazing teddy bear cholla and octillo forests. We took a few hikes, including one on local geology, and got the headlight fixed in a nearby town.

Palms to Pines Scenic Byway: Another gorgeous drive, this one through the mountains east of Los Angeles. A steep set of switchbacks leads up a mountain outside of Coachella, and then the road follows the summit with spectacular views before dropping back down into a populated valley where we grabbed a more major highway into Los Angeles, the city of Angels.

Bonus: Salvation Mountain (a large, weird, and colourful alt-christian monument built by one man).

Los Angeles, California

Good friends of Ben’s had recently moved to Santa Ana (just south of Lost Angeles but part of the urban sprawl that covers this part of the coast), so we stopped for the weekend to visit. Mike and his partner Seiko were super-awesome hosts, and we continue to crave more of the traditional Japanese dinner that Seiko made us.

The Beaches: Mike and Seiko took us on a tour of the local beaches and towns. Los Angeles and Orange counties are definitely places built for drivers as it’s difficult to get anywhere without a car. Luckily, we could all fit in their vehicle and Dodgy got a much deserved break. Despite the smog, the weather in L.A. is pretty perfect, combining the sunny heat of the desert with the moisture of the ocean. Both of us felt an instinctual relief with the sight of the sea and all the lush plant life that depends on water. We enjoyed four beaches: Laguna Beach with it’s rocky outcroppings, Newport beach with it’s sandy beach, quaint (but expensive) beach houses and pier, Huntington Beach which is popular for surfing, and Long Beach where we got to take in the massive Queen Mary (an old ocean liner permanently tied up to the dock).

Hanging with friends: We had a wonderful time with Mike and Seiko, exploring a bunch as well as just relaxing in their awesome apartment, drinking, and hanging out with their two gorgeous and adorable cats, Lemon and Ash. At some point on our trip, we decided to wait for the Pacific coast before eating sushi again. So, with that goal in mind, we headed to Sushi on Fire as a group and had a delicious meal. We also had some good beer and food at the Belmont Brewing Company which is right on the beach.

Downtown Los Angeles: As stated earlier, most of this part of California is just urban development, so it took an hour of highway driving to get from Santa Ana to downtown Los Angeles. The only reason we knew we’d arrived was because the buildings were so much older (and okay, there were some skyscrapers). Downtown L.A. is actually pretty cool. Grand Central Market had a bunch of great vendors and then there’s The Last Bookstore – probably one of the coolest book shops we’ve found on the trip (super tall ceilings, multiple floors, and a horror section located within an old bank vault – what!?). After a drive through Chinatown we stopped at Skylight Books which has an amazing selection of super-radical books. Then we headed up to the Griffith Observatory to get a sight of the Hollywood sign, but the Observatory itself is pretty sweet. For lunch we had some amazing Thai food at Bulan Thai Vegetarian, headed to Venice Beach for some coffee but it was super windy so we didn’t stay long before heading up the Pacific Coast highway through Santa Monica (which also seemed cool) and out of town.

Bonus: Rose Bakery Café (we had an amazing veggie replica of a fast food burger).

Side note: Gas prices in California have, so far, been substantially more expensive than the rest of the country. Cheap gas costs the same here as in Big Bend State Park in remote southern Texas.

All the hits: week fourteen (Canyonero edition)

Eastern Arizona

Petrified Forest (and Painted Desert) National Park: Two amazing landscapes in one, the painted desert and petrified forest showcase some incredible features of Arizona’s eastern desert. The painted desert is an area where erosion has exposed layers of earth of many different colours. Some parts of the desert are many different shades of red, while others are blue and purple. On the long drive through the park we got to experience so many different landscapes and, with clouds constantly passing overhead, waiting a few minutes would result in all the colours shifting. Further on, when we were hiking the Blue Mesa, we found ourselves in the middle of a rain/hail storm. While windy and cold, the effect of the storm on the colours was surprising. The oranges and blues and purples became more vibrant, even in the subdued lighting.

Progressing through the park, we came across more and more petrified wood. Millions of years ago, a unique sequence of events caused massive trees to fall into a river and become completely saturated with water. Then, as time passed, the biological matter in the tree was replaced with various minerals causing the entirety of these trees to become magnificently coloured rocks that look like tree trunks. In some parts of the park, they were pretty much everywhere. The area’s Indigenous peoples even used to build with them. We finished the day cold and wet, but in awe of the amazing power and beauty of nature.

Las Marias: Following our trip to the painted desert, we were tired and hungry. It was Sunday and so many area restaurants were closed, but we stumbled into Las Marias, a small Mexican restaurant in Winslow, Arizona. What a surprise. The food was super-affordable and amazingly delicious.

Walnut Canyon National Monument: We wanted to ensure Ben’s parents got a better look at cliff dwellings, so we headed to Walnut Canyon National Monument just outside of Flagstaff. A unique site with hundreds of dwellings, many of which are located on a kind of island in the middle of the canyon. We descened from the visitors center and walked a narrow path around the island, peering into some dwelling and stepping into others. Along the way, we were also treated to some very nice views of the surrounding canyon walls worn into spectacular patterns by the wind.

Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments: On our way to the Grand Canyon, we decided to stop at Sunset Crater National Monument while the weather was good (it was supposed to rain), but the weather held, so we continued to the adjoining Wupatki National Monument. Sunset Crater features a fairly recent (but extinct) volcano that is part of a larger range of volcanic activity in the Flagstaff area. The San Francisco Peaks (the remains of a former stratovolcano) are just north of Flagstaff and were regularly visible on our hikes in the area. Peaked with snow, they are the highest point in Arizona and look a little lonely. Sunset Crater Volcano was much smaller, but boasted an impressive lava field upon which we were able to walk and explore – very cool. Driving north we were presented with several impressive pueblos. The Wukoki pueblo was interesting in that is was three stories high and built upon a large rock outcropping that gave it a expansive view of the surrounding countryside.

Bonus: Homolovi State Park (a nice campground out in the middle of the desert with little in the way of shelter, amazing views, and some ancient ruins to explore)

The Grand Canyon and Zion

The Grand Canyon: Everything we had done since Ben’s parents arrived had been a kind of buildup to our visit to the Grand Canyon – viewed as the climax of this segment of the trip. Ironically, we were so busy getting settled at the campsite that we didn’t get to see the Grand Canyon until the day after we arrived. But the next morning we walked down from the campsite to the edge of the canyon and spent several moments just absorbing the sight. It is truly spectacular and really hard to even conceptualize in person, never mind describe with words. It is massive (ten miles across and disappearing into the distance in both directions), it is beautiful (so many colours, peaks, and valleys), it is amazing. We spent much of the day walking along its edge, obsessing over all the different views, rock formations, and the small glimpses we got of the Colorado River, far away at the bottom. The Grand Canyon, unsurprisingly, has a unique geological history – the result of millions of years of compounded sediment, raised up as the Colorado Plateau, and then eroded by the Colorado River.

On our second day, we descended into the canyon. Our initial hope was to get a permit to camp at the bottom, but the campground by the river is in high demand and is completely full within days of becoming available for online reservations. And the canyon is so large and deep that you are told not to even try hiking to the bottom and back in the same day because you will not make it. We made it about half way down before turning back. While we thought about going further, as soon as were were walking up hill again, we all agreed we had made the right decision. The hike itself was a nice break from the all the gift shops and tour busses on the rim. While beautiful and breath-taking, the canyon is a tourist trap of sorts, and hiking into the canyon is really the only way to escape the people. Afterwards we celebrated with beer, ice cream, and showers.

We spent our third day driving east along the rim of the canyon (through small flurries of rain, snow, and hail) and stopped often to take in more amazing views. Every stop offered something new and breathtaking to absorb. Finding views that showed more of the river gave us a better sense of just how deep the canyon is.

Zion National Park: We hadn’t planned the last few days of Ben’s parents’ visit ahead of time, but, following many recommendations, decided to take the long way around the canyon and visit Zion National Park. We entered the Park from the eastern entrance which is not the main entrance most people come through, but is the grandest way to enter the park. We descended thousands of feet to the Virgin River valley through spectacular rock mountains on a small twisting road through tunnels and sharp switch backs beside steep cliff faces. Camping in the park is limited, but we found space in Springdale, a town that has sprung up just outside the southern entrance to the park. The south-western part of the park is the most popular and where most of the hikes start from. Much is accessible via the free park shuttle and we spend a lot of time riding the shuttle, learning about the park, and getting off at different stops to walk some of the shorter and easier trails.

Unlike the Grand Canyon, Zion is a much more engrossing and interactive experience. You can explore so much more without committing to a multi-day hike, and some of Zion’s mountains, canyons, and cliff-faces are also impressive. The two most popular hikes (neither of which we did) are the Narrows (where you hike up the Virgin River canyon in the water (because you are walled in by sheer cliffs on both sides) and Angel’s Landing (where you walk up a narrow path way with thousand-foot drop-offs on both sides, only a chain to hold onto, and dozens of other hikers pushing past you or getting in your way). The narrows was closed, and none of us felt like pushing through the crowds to risk Angel’s Landing (have we mentioned that Ben has been hiking mostly in loafers… so silly). While eating lunch on the first day we were treated to a rare sighting of a California Condor. We definitely want to return to Zion and more broadly, Utah. It was so beautiful, and there was so much more to do.

Bonus: The drive from the Grand Canyon to Zion National Park (a long but beautiful drive, part of which cuts through the Navajo Nation which includes rolling hills, impressive gorges and amazing rocks)

Las Vegas, Nevada

The drive from Zion National Park to Las Vegas: Ben’s parents were flying out of Las Vegas so, for better or for worse, we were gonna be there for a couple of nights. But first we had to get there, and while part of the journey involved some sprawl, much of the drive (through northern Arizona and through the Lake Mead Recreational Area) was really beautiful.

Veggie House: Despite the garish entertainment and casinos, Las Vegas does have some great food. Veggie House is a vegan Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. The food was really good and really fresh and Ben had one of the best desserts of his life there – uncharacteristically, he was fully against sharing.

The Bronze Café and The Center: The Center is an LGBTQ community centre in downtown Las Vegas and is a really nice space which also has an amazing café. Mostly vegan, the sandwiches were really yummy and the desserts were half-price so we got lots!!

Writer’s Block: A pretty amazing bookshop/book publishing house we came upon which has a wonderfully curated selection of books, a great philosophy section, and the ability to adopt fake birds … not sure about that one. Also, there was a big fluffy bunny.

Downtown Container Park: Completing our impressive experience in downtown Las Vegas (which is not where the big casinos are – because they are technically outside of the city of Las Vegas), we visited an urban container park. Similar to the development we stopped at in Albuquerque, this had a much nicer vibe, a larger variety of shops and restaurants, and an awesome playground in the middle. Ben bought some cactus jerky which was an experience. Oh, and by the entrance to the container park is a giant mechanical praying mantis that shoots fire out of its antennae (that’s characteristically made appearances at Burning Man).

Bonus: The Hoover Dam (lots of tourists, but it’s still pretty impressive), basking in 35 degree weather by a pool (because really)

 

All the hits: week thirteen (family edition)

Phoenix, Arizona

Taliesin West: Ben’s parents flew into Phoenix to join us on our trip for two weeks. After we picked them up from the airport and had breakfast (for us) and lunch (for them), we embarked on a tour of some of the many Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Phoenix. He spent a lot of time here in later life so, as a result, ended up building a lot here too. While many of the buildings were private residences and hard to appreciate, the main feature of the day was Taliesin West, the architectural school Wright designed and built in the hills north-east of the city. We had booked tickets for the main 90-minute tour and it was very thorough – we got to see the inside of many of the buildings and had a very knowledgable tour guide (though he wasn’t very good at hearing or answering questions). Having seen several other Wright buildings on our trip, it was fascinating to see how he attempted to integrate the buildings with the surrounding desert landscape.

Green: After a long day of driving around Phoenix, we were all famished. As stated earlier, finding vegan and vegetarian restaurants on the trip has not been difficult, and our awesome Phoenix hosts Ari and Erin immediately suggested Green Restaurant for dinner. Walking distance from their house (and the cute pool house in the backyard we called home for two nights), Green was basically vegan fast-food – and attempted to fill the cravings for “bad” food more easily satisfied for meat eaters. The food was delicious and filling … and then we were shown to the vegan desert place next door where we proceeded to eat even more. It was a delightfully gluttonous experience.

Heard Museum: The Heard Museum also came highly recommended by many people, so we were eager to check it out before leaving the city. The Heard contains a massive collection of south-western Indigenous artifacts and art – both ancient and contemporary. One awesome feature of the museum is that it offers regular free tours of the different exhibits. Even better than the phone tours that have become so popular, having an enthusiastic guide helped to provide context and a deeper understanding of the many works and galleries.

Bonus: Desert Roots Kitchen (fresh and yummy vegan food), Lola Coffee (great coffee place Ari took us to and where we made new friends – hi Wayne!), First Christian Church (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright)

Cottonwood, Arizona and area

Mingus Mountain Scenic Road: We decided to take the scenic route from Phoenix to Cottonwood (where we would be camping for a few nights), and boy these scenic byways rarely disappoint. The road wound up into the mountains through beautiful forests (yes, in Arizona) and, when it began winding back down towards Cottonwood the view really opened up. Far in the distance you could see the red rock cliffs of Sedona. Perched on the side of this mountain is the former mining town of Jerome. While we didn’t stop at any of the many shops or bars, it seemed like a pretty cool place (as long as your okay with heights).

Dead Horse Ranch State Park: So, as it turns out, Arizona is not all desert. In fact, a lot of it isn’t. Dead Horse Ranch turned out to be a gorgeous campground in a lush river valley with lots of trees and water for birds. We snagged a nice isolated spot, and in addition to checking out the local sights we spent half a day hiking the Park which transitions from riverside paths to marshy ponds to desert mesas. On our hike we saw lots of birds including a great blue heron and two bald eagles who, for a moment, shared a perch in a dead tree.

Montezuma Castle and Well National Monuments: These two national monuments are close to one another and provide some interesting things to see. As cliff dwellings go, Montezuma was large and well-preserved, but there is no way to get close enough to see inside or get a better sense of its scale. Bandalier National Monument is still our favourite for exploring Cliff Dwellings (though Walnut Canyon (below) comes close). At the Well we discovered that it was only very recently that scientists identified where the water source comes from (there is a deep layer of muddy water at the bottom that obscured many efforts to reveal the water’s source). The trail allows you to descend down to the level of the water in the well, and then over and down to where the water seeps out through the rock and into a canal built by Indigenous peoples. In addition to lots of lizards and some ducks, we also spotted another Great Horned Owl and its tiny babies.

Tuzigoot National Monument: Probably one of the more excavated of the pueblos we’ve come across, Tuzigoot allows visitors to climb up to one of its higher levels and take in some amazing views of the surrounding valley. It was so close to our campground that (if not for all the trees) we probably could have seen our tent. We also almost got to see a Rattlesnake. Apparently, they frequent this monument and one was spotted on the trail … but it slithered away before the Ranger could find it.

Sedona, Arizona

All the rocks, mountains, and cliffs: Sedona is the name of a town in central Arizona. As a town, it has the worst kind of touristy shops and strip mall developments. But you have to go to Sedona because of where it is – smack in the middle of a breathtaking red landscape. In every direction red cliffs and towers climb out of the valley. The formations are impossible to do justice to in either words or photos. To find yourself looking upon these majestic mountains of rock is a singular experience. We wish we had more time here to hike. There are trails everywhere – starting at the ends of residential streets or way out of town.

Cockscomb Trail and the climb up Doe Mountain: We chose the Cockscomb trail because it was a good length and less popular because it’s a short drive out of town. The hike was really satisfying, offering many views of Doe Mountain (which it circles) and the other formations walling up the surrounding valley. The wild flowers were abundant and we didn’t run into too many people. Towards the end of the hike we crossed another trail that led straight up to the top of the mountain. My mom bravely set aside her fear of heights and we all ascended the steep climb together. Totally. Worth. It. The top is a flat mesa that could be explored, and the views from it would even more amazing than from the ground.

Tamaliza Market: After our long hike we stopped at this Mexican take-out restaurant for tamales. We had had some in Tucson and, while they were good, they weren’t this amazing. But at Tamaliza they definitely know what they’re doing. The tamales were totally delicious. I want one now just writing this.

The drive from Sedona to Flagstaff: It is amazing just how varied the geography and ecosystems of Arizona are. We left Sedona for Flagstaff, driving up the Oak Creek Canyon. The drive along the bottom of the canyon was beautiful with the water streaming by and trees climbing cliffs to either side of us. Then we climbed out of the canyon, all the way up to the rim and into a forest of massive pine trees. From the top there was a cool viewpoint where we could look down at the road we had driven up and then continued our drive through the Cococino National Forest all the way to Flagstaff.

Bonus: ChocolaTree (yummy food and scrumptious deserts that Ben was “forced” to eat because of his birthday)