West Coast e-Postcard #3

from Our West Coast Train Triangle
September 18 to October 18, 2010


Hi All --


The Road Sign says “Curves Ahead”, So What Did We Just Drive Through?

Pacific Coast Highway

At last report we were at the Oregon-California border. From the Olympic peninsula, we had been taking the Coastal Highway 101. Soon after crossing into California, Hwy 1 (CA’s Pacific Coast Highway) split off from Hwy 101. People mentioned that the beginning of Hwy 1 was the roughest. Sure enough, the first 26 miles were constant curves as Tim drove over ridges and around mountains. Signs indicated narrow bridges, falling rocks, curves ahead, and no RVs past certain points. A road sign stating “Congestion” meant there was a Rock City or other tourist trap ahead. There were lots of bicyclists on the non-existent shoulder, tempting fate. And we had not even seen the ocean yet. Luckily, Di had taken her Dramamine and Tim was steady on the road.

Bigger Trees and Errant Elk

Stout Redwood Grove

Finally, the view opened up onto the Pacific, with clear skies and endless coastline. At the beginning of Hwy 1, there were few towns but many interesting sights. Although we had seen some large trees in Oregon and Washington (like the tallest Sitka Spruce in Oregon creatively called “Big Tree” and the Grove of the Patriarchs in WA), we were now in redwood country. It started with the Stout Grove, where a dirt road led to a walking trail amid huge redwoods. Although you couldn’t drive a car through them, they were almost beyond belief. There is something about very tall trees over 1,500 years old that puts your life into perspective. We then pulled off Hwy 1 to travel the Avenue of the Giants, a 36 mile road lined with more enormous trees, some within inches of the road. We walked several trails and learned that the redwoods are fairly fire resistant but have shallow roots, so most fall due to windstorms. Even the fallen trees were impressive as they served as “nursery trees” for the next generation of redwoods.

In one state park there was reported to be a herd of Roosevelt elk. We stopped at Elk Grove, a signed elk lookout, and other reputed elk hangouts with nary an antler in sight. As we drove away, bemoaning our lack of elk photos, we saw a few cars stopped along the side of the road. Point Arena Lighthouse For those of you who have been to Yellowstone, this is known as a jam, in this case an elk jam. There they were, the elk resting next to a vacation home for rent, unaware that they were truant from Elk Grove. Or maybe just having the last laugh on the tourists.

Lighthouse Under Wraps

We were looking forward to the next night’s accommodations, the LightKeeper’s Room at the Point Arena Lighthouse. Tim had been taking photos of any accessible lighthouse on the coast and we could tell from brochures that Point Arena’s would be stunning. Well, maybe it was stunning, but as we drove towards it, we saw that the lighthouse was almost completely covered in plastic sheeting, with only the top glass area showing! The lighthouse was being repainted and the beautiful Fresnel lens was replaced by an electronic light (the original lens was in the visitor’s center). To add insult to injury, they had changed the tour hours and we missed the last lighthouse tour by 10 minutes. All was not lost, though; we stayed in a small room with great views of both the coast and the lighthouse in a poncho, walked the grounds, and took the first tour the next morning. And, upon request, you can see Tim’s many photos of the lighthouse at dusk, sunset, sunrise, and reflected in a door window….all dressed in plastic.

Wildflowers, Wild Waves and Wildlife

Pampas Grass

Once you are south of the redwoods, the hills of California in October are mostly brown and dry. Occasionally there were small patches of some very hardy and colorful wildflowers. However, there seemed to be ever increasing stands of tall, healthy looking pampas grass, with its feathery fronds waving in the wind. The pampas grass was growing on desolate hillsides as well as along the roadside, blocking some of the ocean views. This plant is considered an invasive species here, but it is growing in so many areas that would be difficult to reach, we don’t know how it can be controlled.

As you go around mountains and down to the ocean level, there is a continuous display of two signs, “Entering Tsunami Danger Area” and “Leaving Tsunami Danger Area”. Within the tsunami areas there are also evacuation route signs. Usually these involve steep unpaved roads or cliffsides. I guess if a tsunami were to hit while we were here, we’d have to just hold our breaths, because we’d never make it up the hills in time.

There are lots of homes and towns in the danger areas, and we are close to the San Andreas Fault, so some people like to live dangerously. Di would be a nervous wreck living here wondering if that noise was a big wave or the Big One!

As we drove south, the area became more populated. We stopped at Bodega Bay’s Visitor Center and heard that a couple of juvenile whales had been sighted. This was an unexpected surprise as whales don’t usually migrate through here until December. Juvenile whale off Point Reyes Lighthouse Di thought she had seen a whale earlier with binoculars (Di had the binoculars, not the whale), but there were no collaborating witnesses. At Bodega Bay we saw several sightings along with some seals on rocks. We are still not sure if it was one whale seen several times or several whales seen once. The whale sightings were nothing more than a water spout with a whale back and maybe the fluke (tail). But better sightings were in store. The next day, while walking to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, we saw a whale even closer. It played around near shore and hovered for a while just under the surface. Tim got some great photos!

We also saw (and heard) sea lions and a big buck elk. Wow, this was like being on Wild Kingdom! To round out the wildlife viewing, later on by Hearst Castle we saw numerous elephant seals (at a turnout called “Friends of Elephant Seals”). A few young males were mock fighting, but most were just lazing out in the sun.

Bay Watch

As we drove out to see the Point Bonita lighthouse, just north of San Francisco, we heard a roar of airplanes. Overhead were what looked like two small planes pursuing a bomber over the Golden Gate Bridge. Blue Angles over Golden Gate Bridge We had seen a video crew along the road and thought a movie was being made. Then the Blue Angels flew by in precision formation. Tim was snapping photos up and down. A ranger told us it was Fleet Week in SF; when aircraft carriers, along with other ships and planes arrive for air shows and parade of ships. It was tempting to stay here, but the crowds and potentially expensive hotels dissuaded us. And we had visited SF before. So, crossing our fingers, we attempted to take Hwy 1 through the city. It was a breeze. In no time we were out of town and on our way south.

Next was a quick stop at Santa Cruz wharf for salt water taffy and a souvenir shirt. There we saw a new (for us) water conveyance. Picture a large surfboard with a person standing on top and paddling. Looks like a quick way to end up in the water!

Monterey Aquarium

Then on to Monterey. That afternoon we walked the harbor and wharf, ate the requisite seafood dinner and strolled down Cannery Row. This is where sardines were canned for years and is the location of Steinbeck’s book by the same name.

We love to visit aquariums and Monterey has one of the best. We had advance tickets and got there early so we could check out some exhibits without the crowds. The jellyfish and seahorse displays were phenomenal. There were also areas concentrating in the bay sea life and maintaining sustainable seafood supplies. During our special behind-the-scenes tour, we got to feed the fish in the giant tank and see where the jellies are raised. We finished the day with a drive around Pacific Grove and Carmel-by-the-Sea and a visit to the old Mission San Carlos in Carmel.

Hill Castles and Beach Boardwalks

On our way south we did a quick walk to the McWay waterfall. It is unique because in low tide, it falls 80 feet directly on the beach and in high tide, into the ocean. We then stayed at the cute town of Cambria (see Believe It or Not, below). Hearst Castle What’s a visit to southern coastal CA without seeing Hearst Castle? We took the generic first-time tourist tour. All the tours involve a 15 minute bus ride up to the estate, as there is no visitor’s center up there. Besides the main home, there are several huge guest houses (as in 17 bedrooms), remnants of a private zoo, a large outdoor pool, a private theater as big as your hometown movie theater, and a huge beautifully tiled indoor pool. The dining room has a very long table set with formal dinnerware and bottles of Heinz and Del Monte ketchup. The family ate on fancy plates but liked the condiments we all do. Our tour guide had lots of information on the famous guests of Hearst (like Bob & Delores Hope, Cary Grant, Harpo Marx, etc., and their antics). We would like to come back during the December when the grounds are decorated and guides dress in garb of the 30s and 40s. Hearst Castle zebra Along the road back to Cambria, we saw a herd of zebras…..that’s right, zebras! They were descendents of the ones Hearst kept in his zoo. And it was our first time in a zebra jam.

During the afternoon we walked a mile long boardwalk checking out the surfers and potential tidepools. Di was anxious to investigate a tidepool, so we came at sunset during low tide. Not many creatures here, but we did see the living version of the sand dollars whose round flat shells are common.

LA Goes on Forever (It Seems)

Mission Santa Barbara

We awoke to fog so thick we couldn’t see the huge Morro Rock on the way to LA. In fact, at times we couldn’t even see the water. Although we zipped through SF, we had no illusions LA would be that easy. Relaxed by a quick stop at the Santa Barbara mission and lunch at a local taqueria (actually, Taco Bell), we headed for LA and its suburbs, determined to stay on Hwy 1.

Two and a half hours later, we left LA behind. Of course none of the traffic lights in the area were timed, and there were some rather dingy suburbs but we also saw the mansions of Malibu and never got lost. Tim was the model of patience and careful driving. Glad we did it but if we came back we’d take the freeway. Hmmm, last time we were on the LA freeway it was seven lanes in both directions all stopped. So maybe we need to reconsider.

San Diego – Our Kind of Town

After LA, the Coastal Highway merges with Hwy 5, so we took that on to Santa Diego. Our goal was to return the rental car and use mass transit for the rest of the trip. The transit system in Santa Diego made this easy. After dropping off our bags at the downtown hostel, we drove just a few miles to the airport, dropped off the car (incredibly dirty and with raccoon tracks all over the hood) and took a bus back downtown. San Diego's Little Italy The harbor was an easy walk away with the U.S.S. Midway, a submarine, the oldest active ship, the 3-masted ship (the Star of India, 1863), and other historic watercraft anchored. A longer walk took us to Little Italy (ahh, gelato, how I have missed you!) then back to the hostel.

As most of you know, we usually try to cheap out on accommodations when we travel, staying at hostels when we can. There are few hostels in the U.S., but in San Diego we found the 500 West Hotel. It was originally built as an Army/Navy YMCA for visiting service men. Now it has very inexpensive rooms in a great location and right next to the much lusher Weston. Yeah, the rooms are small and spartan, and you have to go down the hall for a private bathroom, but the location is perfect and the place is very clean.

The communal kitchen allowed us to make breakfasts and eat salad bar dinners. The West Coast is a notch more expensive than home. A simple omelet runs $8, a bottle of Coke for almost $2, and it is hard to find lunch for two under $20, so you save where you can. San Diego Zoo Travel hint: Stop at the Visitor’s Center of a town first for free maps, advice on where to eat cheaply or grocery shop, and buy discount tickets to the sights.

Armed with our discount tickets, we arrived via bus at the world’s largest zoo, found in San Diego (see attached image). Once inside, there were lots of ways to travel about included in the ticket price. You could take the 45 minute guided bus tour (we did), the cable car ride (Skyfari) to the other end of the zoo (we did), or the express bus that stopped at designated places. Instead of the last one, we chose to walk around (sometimes in circles) to make sure we saw everything. Besides being the largest zoo, it is also serves as a huge botanical garden with lots of tropical plants. So there were photo opportunities galore. Bears, hippos, rhinos, the colorful poisonous frogs, the always cute meercats, tree kangaroos, and a fabulous koala bear exhibit were among our favorites. There were several walk- through aviaries. We could see them from afar but could not seem to find a direct, non circular path to them. While digging in the zoo for a new building, they found 3,000 year old whale bones! Balboa Park, San Diego We saw it all and six hours later headed back to the hostel foot weary but 200+ photos in hand. The inscription on one zoo bench said it all. “It’s good to sit down”.

The zoo is part of the huge Balboa Park complex which houses gardens, museums and artists workshops. We headed back the next day and walked about, visiting whatever was free. This included a small art museum (with beautiful tapestries and a Rueben); a huge, slatted wooden greenhouse; and a small village-like area where many artists had storefronts, producing their work on site. The most surprising and outstanding areas were the cactus and rose gardens. A cactus garden may not sound like the prettiest place, but the varying shapes and sizes of cacti were amazing. Also, there were quite a few in bloom. One had a flower with stalk almost as large as the plant itself. Another had a magnificent white blossom….a stunning contrast to the prickly plant. Across the way was a very large rose garden. Hundreds of hybrid rose bushes, all labeled and in full bloom, more colors than we’ve seen anywhere and some with wonderful fragrances. Sigh, another 100+ photo day. Too bad we can’t take the smells home with us as well (of the garden, not the zoo).

Three Countries and Disney in an Afternoon

Disney Concert Hall,Los Angeles

We finally packed our bags and headed out the next morning for the Amtrak station, taking the Pacific Surfrider to LA to catch our train home. We got into LA at noon so we had five hours to see the city. Armed with a map, we walked about seeing Los Pueblos (the Hispanic area) and had a Mexican lunch (not Taco Bell). Then a quick trek to Chinatown in search of an elusive almond cookie and a photo of the dragon gate entrance. The next stop was the Geary-designed Disney Concert Hall, a modern stainless steel building that looked different from every angle. Although there was limited access inside, we were able to walk all about the outside, including hidden stairways and gardens. It was just a few more blocks to Little Tokyo, a self contained area marked by a large pagoda (smaller and less touristy than Chinatown). The highlight (so to speak) was the exclusive Hello Kitty store. Then back to the Amtrak station and it’s all aboard the Southwest Chief.

Side 3 of the West Coast Triangle

Amtrak's Southwest Chief route

Back to our little sleepette for the 44 hour train ride to Chicago. Back to great food, bunk beds, very tiny bathrooms, and an even smaller shower.

Views along the way were of the multicolored New Mexico buttes, dry flat land of Nevada, and cornfields of Kansas. Our train car attendant, Victor, provided interesting historic commentary as we travelled. It was a relaxing way to end the trip. A short commuter train from Chicago to Hinsdale to pick up the car, then home.

California: Believe It or Not!

* Although CA has a 5 cent deposit on bottles and cans, they cannot be returned to the grocery store. You have to go to special centers with limited hours to return recyclables. Not tourist or environmentally friendly.

* Half Moon Bay, close to Monterey, calls itself the pumpkin capital of the world. You can pick up your Halloween pumpkin from a patch. All the pumpkins have been picked and placed in an empty field with all other vegetation removed. Somewhat strange looking.

Krasnewich Kids

* Cambria, near Hearst Castle, is decorated for Halloween all over with scarecrows at homes and businesses. The best one was the friar scarecrow (complete with brown robe tied with a rope belt and fake birds on its shoulder) in front of the Catholic church.

* Bicycles are so commonly used here that many busses have bike racks on the front bumper. You hook up your bike and hop on the bus. Trains also make taking a bike onboard easy.

* While walking in Monterey, we suddenly smelled a strong aroma of black licorice. It was the wild fennel that we saw growing there and throughout the state along the roadside. Some of the plants were taller than Di.

* Avocado is a topping option at Subways. Taco Bell has five kinds of salsa in packets including green salsa and roasted pepper salsa (yum).

The End

Well, we did almost 4600 miles of train travel, exactly 2932 miles of rental car miles (all driven by Tim), stayed in 21 different places (homes, lodges, motels, hostels, and sleepettes) and (at last count) over 3,700 photos (mostly by Tim) in 31 days. Except for a few miles, we’ve travelled all of Hwy 1 and 101 from top to bottom. At times it seemed like we were in a different country! It was a wonderful trip. Thanks for letting us tell you about it.

-- Di & Tim

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Tim and Diane's email address is Home@ttdk.com