Lassen Volcanic National Park

My husband absolutely loves the national parks!  As a child, his family drove all over this beautiful country in a retrofitted school bus, and visited as many national parks as time and budget would allow.  When Mark was a young man, he dreamed of becoming a park ranger, and we were so excited to find out that it’s still a possibility once we are both retired!  Now, we have hopes to visit all but the most remote national parks over the next ten years.

If you are looking for a clever way to keep track of the national parks you’ve visited, let me direct you to WayPoint Wanders.  I purchased this amazing scratch-off National Parks Bucketlist poster for Mark, and it was his favorite Father’s Day gift!  It’s not only a beautiful piece of art for our wall, but a wonderful way to showcase our goal to visit all 58 national parks.

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(I took the poster to Hobby Lobby, and asked them to mount it on foam board– which they did while I waited.  Then, I purchased an “off the rack” black frame, and voila!  We were ready to start scratching!!)

One of the lesser-known national parks is Lassen Volcanic National Park.  It’s located in northeast California, about an hour and a half east of Redding.  Lassen Peak Volcano is the show-stopper, and it was still mostly snow-covered when we were there in mid-June.

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The last eruption of Lassen Peak was in 1917, although the largest eruption was in May, 2015.  During this eruption event, ash was spread almost 300 miles away, and chunks of glowing lava could be seen tumbling down the side of the volcano in towns 20 miles away.

One important thing to note about Lassen Volcanic National Park is that the road connecting the north and south entrance is closed most of the year due to snow.  Even in mid June, the road was closed from Hot Rock to Lake Helen.  I recommend checking the park website for road closure information several days before you are set to arrive as this will greatly impact your ability to travel in and around the park.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Lassen is VERY remote, and there is only one place to stay inside the park.  We ended up booking an AirBnB in Cottonwood, CA which is about an hour to an hour and a half from both entrances.

 

We can’t say enough how much we appreciated our host’s attention to detail– it was the most well-stocked and thoughtful AirBnB rental we’ve experienced to date.  Not only were the accommodations clean and comfortable, but our sweet host left us drinks, snacks and a wealth of information about local restaurants/attractions.

The South Entrance:

Before we drove into the park, we stopped for dinner at Highlands Ranch Resort.  We ordered off the bar menu as it was still too early for dinner (dinner service begins at 5:00 PM), and our burger and fish tacos were delicious.  The restaurant has a lodge feel, and a huge deck and lawn with outdoor seating.

The restaurant was just a short drive past the south entrance, so after dinner we doubled back and drove in to Lassen Volcanic National Park.

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Right away we could see why the roads ahead were closed, because there was so much snow everywhere.

We stopped at the Sulphur Works to see the boiling mud and hydrothermal area.

While on a much smaller scale, these reminded us of Yellowstone.  Lassen has quite a few areas like this (and a geyser), but we were not able to access them due to the snow cover.  Up the road from the Sulphur Works is Emerald Lake and Lake Helen.  While almost completely frozen over, they were so, so beautiful.

 

We drove past Lake Helen, to where the road was closed.  It’s really amazing to see this much snow, in such deep drifts in the middle of June.

 

The North Entrance:

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Just past the entrance to the park, the Loomis Museum and Visitor Center is an easy stop for information and national park collectibles.  We left our car parked there, and headed off to explore the trail around Manzanita Lake.  It’s an easy mile and a half hike with jaw-dropping views.

 

After hiking around Manzanita Lake, we drove to the Camp Store for some lunch.  It’s a well-stocked store, with park memorabilia, snacks, drinks and soft serve ice cream.  We ordered the pull-pork and turkey sandwiches with potato salad.  There were surprisingly yummy, and hit the spot after a morning outdoors.

Even though the road was closed, and we weren’t able to drive as far as we wanted to, we did see beautiful scenery along the portion that was open.

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If we ever make the trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park again, we will plan to arrive in August.  By then, the roads are normally open all the way through the park and we will be able to make the hike to Echo Lake and explore Bumpass Hell.  This area is so beautiful, and we relished the opportunity to see an area so remote and untraveled!

As always, we rented a car for our travels, and this time made sure to get a small SUV.  Some of the roads around Lassen were quite bumpy and it was smart to have the extra clearance.  Sometimes, a car just isn’t high enough to take on the “road less traveled.”

Sequoia & King’s Canyon Nat’l Park

“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.”   John Muir

I’ve become a little lax in following actual rules since becoming a stay-at-home mom.   This past October, for example, I pulled the kids out of school for a couple of days so that we could jet out to our beloved California.  This has never, ever been done before in our household.  Mark and I are both educators.  We know how important it is to have butts in chairs all the days possible.  School is important.  Necessary.  But Mama gets lonely and a little bored at home all alone day after day…as evidenced by the many pictures of our cats in my Photos folder on my phone.

I convinced Mark that it was SUPER IMPORTANT to pause for a family getaway, and he agreed without too much of a discussion.  Maybe because of the cat pictures.  Or the way I enthusiastically greet him after work and follow him around retelling all the EXCITING  events of my day like a maniac.  Bless him.  He’s a good man.

We chose Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Parks because we didn’t have a lot of time, but wanted a big impact.  October is a great time to visit California– the weather is cooler and the parks don’t seem overrun with visitors.

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There isn’t a major airport near Sequoia/King’s Canyon, so we flew into LAX on a morning flight.  (It goes without saying that we got a great deal on plane tickets through Google Flights…it’s our go-to flight finder.  Our flights from Dallas to LAX were about $120.00 a piece.). The drive was roughly four hours, and once you’re in the mountains, the scenery makes the time fly by.

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One thing you should definitely keep in mind if you plan to visit Sequoia/King’s Canyon is that there are two entrances.  The North entrance is about a four hour drive from LAX, but it is open all the way.  The South entrance is under construction, and there are road closures and areas where the road is only a single lane.  We found very little traffic going into the park on a Friday afternoon through the North entrance, and even though it was a much longer drive, it probably saved us time in the long run.  When we left the park, we used the South entrance because we left in the morning.  The outbound lane moved along just fine, but the incoming lane was a traffic nightmare.

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The weather up in the mountains around Sequoia/King’s Canyon can be a little dicey in October.  The weekend we visited there was snow forecasted so we packed our hats, gloves and jackets.  Although we left before the snow, it was quite chilly and we needed everything but a heavy jacket.

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There’s lots to see in Sequoia/King’s Canyon, and as you might imagine, a lot of it involves giant trees.

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The kids were really in awe of the giant redwoods, and enjoyed walking the path around the groves.  Both of them, however, like to strike out on their own and bushwhack along trails and off the beaten path.

 

We pulled over quite a bit to hike around, and I bet this is what the kids will remember most.  The weather can change quickly up in the mountains, and at one point we had to call the kids back because fog was rolling in fast and thick.  By the time we got back to the car it was a complete white out.

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We stayed in the Wuksachi Lodge and Village in Sequoia and it was quite comfortable.  The lodge is not a Ritz Carlton, but it is clean and comfortable, with a ski lodge feeling.  One thing to note is that it’s quite a trek uphill from the parking lot to the lodge.  We had rolling carry-on luggage, and managed just fine, but there are luggage trolleys for those who have more to carry.  If you need assistance getting everything up to your room, just let the desk workers know when you check in.  They are happy to help those who need an extra hand.

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Finding food in Sequoia is a challenge simply because everything is so spread out.  There is a small store by the John Muir Lodge, and some snacks for purchase in the Wuksachi Lodge, so we brought our own snacks and drinks and stored them in the mini fridge in our room.  This wasn’t our first rodeo, ya’ll.

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Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the Wuksachi Lodge, and the food is quite good.  For dinner, I recommend making a reservation AS SOON as you check in because they have limited seating.  We did that, and got a decent reservation time, but others who did not had to eat dinner at 9 o’clock!   Also, be sure to request a window table, because the view will only enhance your delicious dinner.  We recommend the pot roast with mashed potatoes.  It.  Is.  Sogood.

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After two days hiking among the giant trees, and exploring the wild woods it was time to head out.   We left through the  South entrance and along the way we pulled over to watch a black bear meander through the tall grass.  She was beautiful!

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Once we left the park boundary, we stopped for lunch at the Gateway Restaurant and Lodge in Three Rivers.

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I can highly recommend the fish and chips lunch, and if the weather is decent, ask to sit outside beside the river.  It’s the perfect way to end a journey into the woods with those you love.

As always, I would love to hear from my readers!  If you have questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to comment below.  Thank you for following along!

Muir Woods National Monument

“And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”  John Muir

I like to think of the Golden Gate Bridge as the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,  so Muir Woods National Monument and all that lies north of San Francisco is obviously the magical land of Narnia!  It’s truly one of my favorite places in all the world, and there is SO much to explore.

A quick history lesson:  John Muir is the “father of the national parks.”  He lived in the 1800’s, and traveled all over the United States, studying nature and advocating for the preservation of land as national parks.  This is a MUCH abridged version of a super interesting dude, and I encourage you to read more about him, especially if conservation and nature are your jam.  How fitting that Muir Woods be named after such an important man!

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Muir Woods National Monument is just across the Golden Gate Bridge and to the west.  It’s only about a half hour drive from the GGB, and a worthwhile way to spend half or all of a day. The road into the woods is SUPER bendy, so if you’re prone to carsickness, I’ve found that opening a window to the chilly breeze makes a big difference.  But my goodness!  It’s a beautiful drive, and the air is just fresh and full of oxygen!

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You’ll want to arrive early, because the parking situation at Muir Woods is atrocious.  We normally time our arrival for 15 minutes before the park opens, and have always found a place to park.  If you wait to mid-morning, or even worse, afternoon, you’ll be walking a half mile to a mile before you even arrive at the entrance to Muir Woods.  And remember that fresh air?  Well, once the tour buses arrive, it’s not so fresh.  More of a “death by diesel” situation, where you want to take shallow breaths through the mouth as you cross the parking lot to the main entrance.

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Another reason to arrive early is because there is nothing so heavenly as wandering through the massive redwoods in the early morning quiet.  You’ll be able to hear the river in the background, and the wildlife is still out and about, getting ready for the day.  The way the sunlight streams through the trees, spotlighting small sections of the forest floor, as the mist is burning off is really beautiful.

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The main trail in Muir Woods takes you down along one side of the river, across and then back.  There are quite a few turn around points over the river, so you don’t need to commit to the whole circuit, but I highly recommend going back as far as you can.  Spend all the time you want to spend in this “cathedral of nature” before the crowds arrive, soaking in the magnificence of these incredible trees.  It’s like going to #church!

 

If you’re traveling with kids, they will LOVE exploring the hollow trunks and fallen trees.  There are lots of neat nooks and crannies for them to examine, and the size of the redwoods makes a huge impression on children.

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You’re probably wondering when I’m going to bring up the subject of food.  Well, right now would be the time!  About a month before we headed out to Muir Woods for the first time, I happened to be watching Food Network’s show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and they had a segment with Tyler Florence.  He was visiting Muir Woods National Monument, and shared his love for the grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup at the Muir Woods Trading Company.  I can attest to the fact that they are delicious and satisfying!  I also recommend the honey cornbread.  It’s.  So.  Good.

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After a bit of lunch, it’s always a good idea to go for a hike!  When deciding on a trail, you may want to talk to a ranger or park employee to get some input, or do a little research online.  There are quite a few trails off of the main path, but we have only explored two of them.  If you are looking for a GREAT hike, and have some time, I recommend the Canyon View Trail just off the path beside the Visitor Center/Trading Company.  There are several maps of Muir Woods, and here’s another.  The Canyon View Trail will take several hours if you go at a leisurely pace, but the payoff at the top is worth it!

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When you come up above the forest, and stand on the rock, you can see as far as the Bay. It’s really incredible.

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What I love about nature, and specifically Muir Woods, is that it levels and elevates man, stripping away all of the nasty ways we get tangled up in our “rightness.”  We are simply mankind, gazing upward together, feeling gratitude for a moment.  I find it impossible to hold on to defensiveness or judgement while walking among giants.  Being filled with awe leaves no room for scraping and clinging to what we think is “ours.”  I leave refreshed, with my heart wide open to the world beyond.

And also, I am pretty sure I saw Channing Tatum and (his wife at the time) Jenna Dewan on the main path in Muir Woods a couple of years ago, which is pretty much a celebrity endorsement of this post!  🙂  Happy hiking!

San Francisco, CA

“San Francisco itself is art, above all literary art.  Every block is a short story, every hill a novel.  Every home a poem, every dweller within immortal.”  

                                                                                                                   William Saroyan

I first visited San Francisco in 2011, and fell in love.   I’d never seen anything like it in terms of architecture and style.  It’s as quirky and colorful as you imagine it to be!  The drive into the city from the airport is a buffet for the eyes as everything is SO different from where I live.  The buildings, the shops and the people are a gorgeous feast that awaken my artistic thirst.  I drink it in happily, and fall in love all over again!

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Flights from Dallas typically arrive at SFO around 10AM, so we drive directly from the airport to have lunch.  Let me recommend The Blue Mermaid (in the Argonaut Hotel) for a great spot to dine.  They have a nice patio (with heaters if it’s chilly) and the service is top notch.  Blue Mermaid has an award winning crab chowder, and it is so delicious!  I order a bowl of it and a side of garlic/parmesan French fries every time-  it’s my standard order.  Oh my goodness.  So yummy!  The Argonaut Hotel is lovely, and if you eat at the Blue Mermaid, you are welcome to visit the hotel restroom to freshen up after a morning of travel.  The Blue Mermaid is right by Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.  The area is REALLY touristy, but also a fun place to walk around.

Another really great place to walk around is China Town.  I’m sure there are several tours that include China Town, but since we ALWAYS rent a car, I can’t recommend one.  What’s really wonderful about China Town is that you leave just about everything “American” behind once you pass the boundary.  My husband is a Diet Coke drinker, and we could not find a single bottle in all of China Town!

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Exploring the shops and markets was such an adventure and we left with jade rings and figurines, origami Christmas ornaments, and neat gifts for the kids.  I highly recommend a stop in China Town!

Another really interesting place to visit is Fort Point.  Basically, it’s a fort built under the Golden Gate Bridge.  What I loved about this museum is that you can walk all around the fort- even up to the top where you see the underside of the bridge.  Just know that when the fog horn sounds, you’ll jump out of your skin!  It’s.  So.  Loud.

 

On the way to and from Fort Point you’ll pass Crissy Field, and on the Fort Point side of Crissy Field is a  Warming Hut and Cafe.  Not only will you find something lovely to nibble and sip, but they also sell unique gifts, books, and posters.  Definitely worth a stop.

Over the years we have visited Coit Tower, the Embarcadero, the Presidio, the Full House house and Lombard Street.  All are worth at least a drive-by depending on your level of interest.

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No lie.  Driving in San Francisco is a hair raising experience.  The city is so incredibly hilly, and there are times you feel as if you are driving straight up or straight down.  This is not the time to be driving a stick shift!

After wrapping up a glorious day in San Francisco, you’ll be primed and ready for a drive across the Golden Gate Bridge.  I definitely recommend making a stop to walk along the bridge, if you have a chance.  It’s quite an amazing experience, and you will feel a deep sense of awe at what man has built.  Even if it’s a foggy day, make time to stop.

Just past the bridge on the north side, is an exit that will take you up to a lookout point where you can see the bridge and the whole city on a clear day.  It’s definitely worth the time, if you go when there are not a million cars trying to get up there.  We’ve learned that mornings are best.

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Driving across the GGB going north is free, but be aware that if you re-enter the city via the GGB, you will have to pay a toll.  Always ask your rental car provider for their policy on tolls.

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Take your time exploring San Francisco, or pack it all into a half day-  either way the flavor of this city will soak into your heart and stay there forever.  There are lots of reports out there about the decline of this majestic city, and I can reluctantly agree that we have seen some of that over the last 8 years.  However, we’ve never experienced anything that frightened us or put us off to returning, so my best advice is to simply practice safety precautions as you would in any other unknown place.  So open your heart, explore the hidden streets and share in the experience of this amazing city!