Sunset Beach and the Elkhorn Slough

We planned this trip to the Elkhorn Slough some time ago, after reading about the restoration efforts there.

Our first estuary experience in South Carolina last December whetted our appetite for more of the same and we wanted to experience the Pacific version of this delightful way to be on the water. What I didn’t know before visiting is that the agency I work for, USDA-NRCS, has been working the Slough for several years, contributing the the restoration in many ways.

Choosing to travel the weekend after Memorial Day, we hoped that some of the crowds may have thinned a bit. What we didn’t plan for was cold winds and highs in the 50’s! Of course, Mo used to live near the coast, so she was more accepting of the cold weather than I was. Finding a place to camp near the beach is hard, and finding anyplace to camp actually ON the beach with a view of the water is even harder. We settled on Sunset Beach State Park, just west of Watsonville. It was about 10 miles north on HWY 1 from where we planned to do our boating beginning at Moss Landing.

We left Jamestown by 10 or so, and got to the beach by 3 in the afternoon. The drive to the coast is becoming familiar, but we do like to skip around some of the major roads and check out the side roads. This time we traveled down 101 from Gilroy, which smelled fabulously like it’s famous garlic, and crossed the coast range via historic HWY 129. I didn’t find any historic sites to speak of, so will have to ferret out the history at another time. What did become apparent as we got closer to Watsonville, however, was the incredible bounty of fruit that dominates this area in the spring. Cherries everywhere, and as we got closer to the coast, the cherry orchards gave way to vast fields of strawberries, brilliant red in their ripeness against the green leaves. They are grown on raised beds covered with plastic, and in some cases those beds look more than 2 feet high above the center rows. Farm workers were everywhere, harvesting, bent over picking, and the surprising thing was that there were so many cars all lined up near the fields, fairly nice cars actually. We only saw a couple of places that had the white farm labor buses for the workers transport. As we crawled though Watsonville, the traffic was slowed by long lines of semi’s waiting to be loaded, and small farm trucks piled high with empty strawberry crates heading back to the fields. I bought a flat of berries for making jam that were the size of small apples, and soft, ripe, and sweet as anything I have grown in my own garden.
The web site for the park discusses the fact that it is surrounded by agricultural land, and that our campground was in the dunes. I think somewhere in the fine print, it actually said there was no view of the ocean. Not only could you not see the ocean, you couldn’t hear it either, and when we were relaxing by the fire, there was nothing to remind us we were at the ocean except the sand. The campground itself was nice, except I neglected to remember that there were no hookups. I am sure I must have known this when I made the reservation, but somehow I forgot, and as we looked around our space and realized we were drycamping, it was a silly moment. We had enough propane but our water tank was only 1/3 full, so Mo patiently carried gallon jugs of water and filled the tank with a funnel, while I put put away the DVD’s we brought for some light evening entertainment. No generator after 10 pm was the rule, and neither one of us is up to that kind of late hour for a movie! The other thing I hadn’t remembered is that Sunset Beach isn’t a dog friendly beach. We did read about the other state park just north allowing dogs and stopped to verify that with the park ranger when we decided to go for an early evening beach walk with Abby. He was great, and told us that we could take her down the stairs to the beach that say “no dogs” if when we got to the actual beach we only walked north and not south where the snowy plover is nesting. That made our beach time a little bit easier, we only had to drive a 1/4 mile or so to get to the stairs. There was another set of stairs near our campsite, but they were high and steep, and the distance down to the beach on the ocean side was a bit daunting. Ever climb sand dunes??
Whew! Another trail to an observation platform overlooking the ocean was closed for restoration of the fragile dune vegetation. We were grateful for the one beach where Abby could go, however, and managed long beach walks every day at one time or another.
The other surprise was the number of people in the campground, especially the number of children. I have never seen so many tents in my life in one place, and only after the weekend drew to a close did we discover that there was some kind of gathering going on, and when Sunday night rolled around everything got quiet and peaceful again, actually what we had originally expected. I still don’t know if that campground is always that full, but it was definitely full to bursting on Friday and Saturday. I was glad we had planned to be away during the day! We cooked steaks on the bbq for our first evening supper and it was great. Mo brought plenty of wood from Klamath so we had great fires morning and evening every day. The campfire pit was a big metal barrel, and at first we thought it wouldn’t be as good because we couldn’t see the fire, but later discovered how much heat that barrel puts out. With the previously mentioned cold and wind, that heat was very welcome! After walking around when the campground thinned out, we discovered a perfect campsite in the southernmost section, site number 25, on a hill with a view of the ocean. I would imagine that site would have to be reserved far in advance, because I think it is the only one with that view.
Reading the tide tables indicated that high tide would peak at 8:30 am. This meant that for our trip up the slough, we would have to be on the water 2 hours prior to that, and then we could come down with the outgoing tide. Of course, on the coast, at the 530am wake up time, it is cold and damp and foggy. Not exactly the best weather to get out in a boat, but of course fishermen do it all the time. We drank warmed up coffee and headed for our put in site at the wharf in Moss Landing. It was really quiet there, with just a couple other people around, and no kayaks on the water at all. The put-in there was easy, though, with smooth level sand just a few feet from the road where we unloaded the kayaks. Into the water, and around past the dock and under the bridge and the adventure began. The animals were amazing. The dock was covered with sea lions, the harbor was filled with harbor seals, swimming all around us, and sea otters were everywhere, watching us with curiosity before they would roll over in the water and continue their feasting on whatever they were eating. I took this all for granted on this first trip out. I had read about Elkhorn Slough and the animals there, and expected to see otters and seals and lots of birdlife, so didn’t think this was at all unusual. All the way up the slough the otters were surrounding us, and there were water birds of all kinds. The brown pelicans we expected, but were especially delighted to see three of our old white pelican friends coming down the water. There were snowy egrets and great egrets, white herons and blue herons, many kinds of ducks and lots of cormorants. It was an amazing paddle. We went about 4.5 miles to Kirby Park, which we found out later is the only place boaters are allowed to get out anyway. Decided to save the rest of the slough for Sunday morning, and after a little rest on the beach, we headed back down. The tide was going out and it was a really easy paddle, with little wind. Still cloudy and foggy, but a bit of sun broke through eventually. The most surprising thing, however, was the much lower number of mammals on and in the water. Most of the seals were gone and we didn’t see any otters at all. We realized then that we had been especially lucky with all the viewings, and also were glad that the tide forced us to go so early. As we arrived back at the put-in, it seemed that the kayaker gates flooded open. There were large groups from the Montery Bay Kayak Co putting in, a dozen at a time, and the harbor was covered with lots of brightly colored boats and people learning how to paddle. Boy, we got out just in time!
We spent the rest of the day enjoying our camp site, going for some walks, and exploring some of the roads around Watsonville, and visiting the Elkhorn Slough Headquarters. We even drove up to Santa Cruz to find gas that wasn’t 4.39 a gallon and were rewarded with 4.29 pg. Hmmm. How many miles was that??? We filled up the baby car so that if we needed to run the generator on the MoHo we could siphon some gas! ha!! might have been a good idea to remember we were dry-camping and have the gas tank full! Sunday morning we were both tired, and said, let’s wait till the afternoon tide, but then around 7 there was a break in the sky, and we decided to go for it. We drove the back road to Kirby Park, and this time continued up the slough to it’s end at the railroad bridge. We saw more pelicans, egrets, herons, and cormorants, but only one lonely harbor seal and no otters on this day. Another reason to be grateful for Saturday’s amazing experience.
We had originally planned to go home and make a big breakfast, but decided instead to explore Moss Landing. Both of us were fairly hungry by this time so we thought, OK, change of plans, let’s find food! Phil’s Fish Market was the perfect choice, where we had wine and fish and chips and went for another lovely walk on the beach, this one much cleaner actually, with surfers and very few people still because of the cold strong winds.
Home to a tremendously relaxing afternoon, even a real nap! Something I actually didn’t think I could do and instead I slept for a couple of hours. Amazing. We cooked our bacon and eggs and hash brown breakfast for a great dinner and then went for a walk up the dunes to watch the sunset. Another great night sleeping in the cool ocean air, a slow easy morning wake up, and we left for home around 10. Perfect timing to get back to the warm sunny Mother Lode hills by early afternoon. I’m not sure we will ever return to this place, since our list of to-do’s is pretty long, but it was a great experience.

Big Sur and another leveling story

Big Sur is a name that brings all sorts of things to mind, most notably the winding road famous for it’s magnificent views of the Pacific and the wild and scary and nearly vertical drop-offs from that winding narrow road to foamy seas below.

Another word association: Big Sur – Hippies – the 60’s. I had a friend who spent a few months doing the hippie thing in a van on a beach at Big Sur many years ago. I was too involved having children to take time out to be a hippie, but there is a vagabond in me that loved to imagine what it might have been like. In the late 60’s, Mo visited the same beach in Kauai that we hiked to last month, and said it smelled awful from all the waste and dirt of the hippies who were squatting there. No pun intended. So maybe the imaginary vision of hippiedom from afar isn’t quite the same as the reality was. But hippies were the ones who had a part in making Big Sur famous back then, and I remember hearing about it. The remnants are there as well, with young people wearing dreadlocks and tie-dye, still caring about things like sustainable living and healthy eating. Good things to care about. Esalen is there as well, another holdover from a different time, still operating and providing a place for meditation training among other self improvement kinds of things.

What I hadn’t quite understood about Big Sur, however, is how inaccessible it actually is beyond the highway. There are few beaches that you can get to, and the one that is somewhat accessible is often cold and wild and incredibly windy, at least both times that I have been there. The waterfall is wondrous, a thin silvery ribbon dropping over a cliff to the rocky beach below, but again, inaccessible. Signs saying “no beach access” are all around that lovely falls. The trail to Julia Pfeiffer’s old gardens is wonderful, part of the state park system, and leads to great views of the ocean and falls, but not a long trail at all, and it doesn’t use up much of a day. While perusing a local book store, I found a book called, “Day Hikes Around Big Sur“, and it made me wish that I had the time to stay there a bit longer and really explore. So many people talk about the magic of this place, and yet without taking time to immerse there, the magic is impenetrable, lovely, but somehow “out there”.
The views are magnificent, no doubt some of the most incredible vistas in this country. The air was brilliant and fresh and chilly while we were there this weekend, but the skies were clear with no sign of the predicted clouds. Perfect sleeping weather, but not so cold that the furnace had to be on the whole time. We took the chill off with our little electric heater and it was just enough. But our travels were about camping with our friends, appreciating the delights of campfires and games and laughter, and there was plenty of that for all of us.
The Big Sur Campground and RV Park was one of just a few choices in the area that had both RV sites and camping cabins for Maryruth and Gerald. We chose a cabin directly on the Big Sur River for them, and the closest site for our MoHo for us. It was a bit disconcerting when we arrived to see just how close everything was in the park, with very little space for our rig, especially with the slide-out. We had mentioned the slide-out, but the young boys who seemed to be running the show at this park were somewhat oblivious. I made reservations several weeks in advance and it took them three tries to get a confirmation letter to me that had the right campsite numbers and prepaid fees. They have computer access, but didn’t even use email to confirm reservations, and when we got there, they were still having trouble getting the numbers right.
The sites had water and electric, and big trees in between the rigs and the firepits. Mo and I managed to get backed in just close enough that we could open the steps and the side door without hitting the tree and still had enough room on the opposite side for our slide. We were fairly proud of ourselves, until we attempted to level. Nothing. Nada. No lights, no sound, no leveling. Since our last weekend we had so carefully stopped and practiced up and down more than a few times, this was a real disappointment. Neither one of us could figure it out. When Gerald arrived a bit later, he got into the guts of the rig, and actually found some loose connections that were certainly not a good thing, but none of them seemed to have any effect on the levelers. So, just like the old days, we found a couple of pieces of wood and carefully drove up onto them, trying to avoid the tree and the steps and just gave up on the levelers.
Supper was roasted in the new bbq I bought for our travels, just enough room for a nice meal for four, with an automatic lighting switch and a hood with a temperature gauge. I tried planked salmon for the first time and it was wonderful! Baked potatoes with all the trimmings, pineapple cole slaw, and fire pit warmed garlic sourdough bread made it all perfect. We all played cards into the evening, and with the very chilly winds were glad for the protection of the MoHo. The rig was big enough for all of us to sit comfortably with a real table, something we had missed in our 21 foot MoHo.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Mo woke up with an “ah ha”. “I’ll bet it has something to do with the steps!!!” Sure enough, first thing in the morning we pulled in the electric steps (which we had carefully taken off automatic so they wouldn’t keep going in and out when we closed the door) and yes! red light on!! levelers working!!! So, in addition to the brake on, key to accessory, your steps have to be IN for the levelers to go down. Needless to say, we were both quite tickled to figure out this one last little glitch in such a simple way. The rest of the trip everything worked to perfection. Maybe we actually have it all figured out, at least for the time being.

Sunday we woke to clear sunny skies again, and a bit of a chill to the air, but nothing that wasn’t easy to shake off with a light jacket. Mo cooked her classic campfire bacon and hash browns, and we kept it all warm on the little bbq and really loved that old fashioned hot breakfast. Spent the day exploring the roads, beaches, and waterfall, and found a magnificent restaurant for our celebratory dinner.

Nepenthe is just about 10 miles south of the RV park, with a restaurant that overlooks the ocean in both directions, high above the cliffs. The ambiance was wonderful, and even though it was a really nice place, we all felt perfectly comfortable in jeans, and a good thing because it was much too chilly for the light skirt that I brought to wear to dinner. Of course, the Big Sur prices were a bit shocking, but it was the view we were after, so everyone decided it was worth it. The food was excellent, and we had a wonderful celebration, at least it felt like a celebration, even though there wasn’t any particular event to celebrate except the loveliness of the area and the enjoyment of friendships. That’s enough, I guess.

I’m not sure when we will go back to Big Sur. It was expensive in every way. Our camp site was 43 per night, with the 5. charge for the dog, and the tiny canvas cabin for Maryruth and Gerald was 75 per night, even in the off season. It certainly isn’t a place for retired rv’rs to hang out for any length of time. A big surprise was that a very large number of campers were in rented RV’s, lots from El Monte RV, and most of them we talked to were from the Bay Area.

Seems like an expensive way to spend a weekend to me, especially with gasoline getting very close to 4. a gallon here in California. Most everyone was very friendly, and I think that’s an especially good thing considering just how close together everyone was in this tight little park. A very good thing about the park was the lack of night lights. It was dark and starry and wonderful. The bathrooms were heated and nice as well, and I even opted for a shower there instead of waiting for water to heat in our rig.

There are a lot of places in this country to explore, so it might be the last time for Big Sur for us, for awhile at least.

Florida’s Nature Coast

After being in Ocala Sunday evening through this morning we said goodbye to Bel and headed west across northern Florida. I had a hard time deciding where to stay this evening, because I had too many things planned for the time we really had to do what we want to do. I decided to let go of Indian Pass and Manatee springs and tried to get into Panama City Beach, but then decided instead to go to St Joseph State Park because it would be on the white sugar sand beach with clear water without all the people and it was closer and we could settle in by evening.

Tomorrow will be a long day trying to get to New Orleans, and we may have some weather to deal with, but we need to get a bit more west if we are going to get home as I planned on Jan 2. Mo wants to look at a new motorhome in San Antonio, and we both want to spend a couple of days in New Orleans, so we need to get moving along. Sigh. This part of Florida lends itself to lazy beach days and dark starry nights, it’s really quiet and there’s lots to see and do that is part of the nature coast, especially the springs and rivers and beaches. I really hope that when I am retired we can come back here and spend the time it takes to really relax into this place and enjoy the water and the quietness and lack of people. I do hope that by the time we do get back here it will still have as few people as it does now. This is the Florida that I know and love that isn’t anything like the Florida that is in everyone’s mind. It is still quiet and empty with long stretches of roads through the forest that are even and straight and sometimes you see a car now and then and sometimes not. After all the hustle of living in California I just can’t get enough of these long quiet empty forested roads with no traffic. People don’t really get it when I talk about Florida this way, and sometimes I even think I am making it up, but today I was reminded that it’s real.

Quiet dark night on the beach on a narrow spit of land between the gulf and the bay, listening to the low sound of gentle waves.

Asheville and the Blue Ridge Parkway

I’m a bit late getting started on week two of our travels, been having too much fun, I guess. Last I wrote, we were in Nashville in the fog. At the moment I am sitting at the Bad Fork Valley Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville. Lots of “villes” around Tennessee and North Carolina. It was foggy this morning but right now the skiews are soft and shapely, with fluffy misty clouds and the classic faded blues and grays of the Smoky Mountains. Layer upon layer of shape and soft color that almost isn’t color at all unless you look closely stretch out to the southwest toward the late afternoon sun. Looking up close are thick piles of brown leaves on the forest floor and more layers of bare trees thickly blanketing the mountains. The rhododendrons beneath the trees are thick and glossy green covered with fat buds waiting for spring, and they look as though they have been pruned carefully by some crazy obsessive mountain gardener.

I have the chance to write at this moment because we are waiting for two wreckers to clear the parkway of a Hummer that went over the cliff yesterday. I took photos of the Hummer, and the amazing thing is that both passengers walked away, or up as it may be, up a very long and very steep mountainside. Everyone here is standing around watching and waiting for the road to open up again.

But I digress. Where was I?

This morning we woke to still more fog. After three days of fog and gray skies we were rather tired of it, but we started up the generator and heard the good news that the fog was supposed to lift and today was to be a record high day. We were a bit worried about the baby car so decided to take it to a AAA recommended repair shop across town and set off in the fog with the GPS leading the way. Found the station and left the car there, headed for a great southern spot for biscuits and gravy, and watched the fog lift.

The Biltmore is the big thing that everyone says you should do in Asheville, but after looking at the 55 per person price of admission we thought better of it. Some other trip we can do that. We decided to check out down town Asheville and then drive the Blue Ridge Parkway.
At breakfast we found one of those great city maps with the easy streets and pictures of all the things to do and found a walking tour of Asheville that was perfect.

What an amazing, beautiful, fascinating, lovely city. Superlatives don’t come close to describing how I felt about Asheville. It’s just so artistic and full of energy and creativity without being all snobby and full of itself. As one of the websites said about the city, it never succumbed to urban renewal and so has an incredible array of architectural styles throughout the city that are unique and representative of the period. We walked through what they called the Frontier Period, the Gilded Age, the Thomas Wolfe Period, and the Era of Civic Pride. The most amazing thing was that there were so many streets and blocks that were vibrant and alive and full of restaurants and shops and churches and businesses and every on of them seemed like “Main Street”.

I think the most magnificent was the old Federal Building with its huge skylighted windows and Christmas decorations. There was even a fresh market inside that building for the people who lived there. There were other really tall old buildings that were all new and clean looking in spite of their age that were converted to apartments for people over 62 with the rent based on their income. It was amazing to see lots of older folks downtown hanging out in their mobo chairs with their little dogs. One lady told us about the apartments and said she loved living there. It is a truly vibrant city full of art and energy and fun.

After walking downtown for a few hours we headed up the Blue Ridge Parkway. The road is actually 469 miles long but we only got in on the last part here in North Carolina. The Parkway is a great idea that is actually a National Park that is a roadway made just for touring and gentle beautiful travel. A book I bought is called the “Guide to America’s Most Scenic Drive” and I think maybe they may be right. Almost. Mo and I both still agree that Highway 1 along the California coast is the most scenic drive we have been on, but the difference is that this one is a National Park and is made just for cars and tourists, no trucks, and no commercial traffic is allowed. What a great idea that would be for Hwy 1, except there are towns on that road and I suppose that might be a problem.

We ended the day back here in the Wal Mart parking lot with toasted cheese sandwiches and a glass of chardonnay sitting in our lawn chairs in our ready made patio in view of the Wal Mart sign as we watched the sunset. We even have a lovely park right behind the parking lot that has a greenway paved path all along the river here. Free parking with a patio and a park. Sure can’t beat that one!

Flagstaff to Albuquerque

We are on I-40 again, approaching the New Mexico border. I should have known that Mo and I couldn’t get through the desert without doing a side trip or two. At Holbrook, we took off on the old Route 66 to go to the Painted Desert. The most amazing thing we found unexpectedly was Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood Company.

It was amazing, with a huge lot filled with logs of every shape and size, and inside the shop aisles upon aisles of petrified wood, jewelry, huge tables made of stone and amethyst geodes, and even a pond and a waterfall. On the walls up high were all sorts of Route 66 memorabilia, photos, old license plates, coke bottles. The place was just too much fun. We bought some “mother road” refrigerator magnets, a book about the Petrified Wood national park, and an ironwood road runner for Mo’s collection.

Continuing into the park, we ambled along the quiet roads completely enjoying the silence, the distant views, and all the shapes and colors off the old betonite clay deposits that were a major factor in the process of petrification. Since silica is the main mineral that transforms the wood to stone, a good source of silica is needed in the waters that buy the wood to preserve it. Ahaha, volcanic ash! Huge piles of ash from all the volcanic activity in Triassic times 225 M years ago. The piles of ash, full of silica, helped create the stone. Then the ash weathers to heavy clay after millions of years, gets colored by iron and manganese and creates tourist opportunities for people like me and Mo.

It really was a great little park, though, with nice trails and beautiful views. Another nice part was that they allowed dogs on the trails which doesn’t often happen in a national park, so of course Abby got her morning walk.

It was a nice side trip and now we are back headed east. Last night was really comfortable after we settled in, even though it got down to 20 degrees. We were warm and cozy with the little electric heater that we use so we can save on propane. It’s also much quieter than the big heater.

We just crossed into New Mexico, and there is pink rock and golden mesas topped with dark green juniper. I am always amazed at how the landscape changes so much at state boundaries. This one is a great example. We moved from the huge flat plains of Arizona where you can see for 120 miles to the mesas and arroyos of New Mexico in just a couple of miles. Georgia O’Keefe country, pink and gold and juniper green.

Evening in Albuquerque. We settled in to our campground in plenty of time for daylight setup which was really great after our experience last night! Funny thing that the rv campground is right next to a Camping World which any RV’r knows is like REI for hikers. Super fun. So we shopped there a bit and I found the perfect chili pepper lights for the awning. I love the stupid little light thing, and Mo said, “no flamingos, but I suppose I could tolerate chili peppers”. So I have been hunting chili peppers. Of course, I probably won’t put them up until we are going to be somewhere longer than a single night, but you wait, pictures will be forthcoming.

We unhooked the baby car and headed downtown to the “Old Town” of Albuquerque, settled in 1705, just a young baby city compared to 400 year old Santa Fe, but still old by US western standards. It had a real pasea and town square, which Moana really loved. That was her favorite part of traveling in mexico and we enjoyed this one as well. Not as big as the square in Santa Fe, but still fun, although pretty quiet since it was a Monday night. There are Christmas lights going up and the luminaries everywhere which is so enchanting in New Mexico nighttime.

The restaurant was in an historic home.

Lots of history here and really great service and good food. The waiter brought me exactly what I wanted, in pieces ala carte instead of those groups of things that are always way too big. I had some kind of Spanish chili relleno that was different, and sopapillas with green chili soup. Perfect. Oh yes, the marguerita was perfect as well.