Seeing More than Doing, Driving Up the Coast of Texas

After a girls day in Mexico, we were ready to cool off along the South Padre coast. Perfectly along this drive between my friend Jenna’s home and the beach, was a National Park site (almost like we planned it, huh). The Palo Alto Battlefield was about to close, but we made it just in time.

As you probably know by now, I’m not super into the battlefields on my National Park stamp collection journey. But it was interesting to see the big light up map of the different borders of Texas being fought for. This Palo Alto battle was a vital event during the Mexican-American War and helped determine what would be Texas (and America) by the end. The battlefield itself was just a big field.

After this quick little stop we finally headed to the beach! It was getting late in the evening, but the sun was still out and the water felt great. Jenna and I swam for a bit, played in the sand, and had a great time people-watching. We stayed out enjoying the beach (my first to play in since a year ago in Belize!) until the sun started to set.

When it was time to head home, we made one quick stop for my favorite – ice cream! In Port Isabel, just over the bridge, there was a little square full of shops and an ice cream shop called Davy Jones’ Ice Cream Locker. I got the cookies and cream and it was the perfect cold treat after a day in the sun.

We picked up Mexican dinner on the way back to Jenna’s home and tried to find the effort to explore some nightlife. But after a full order of delicious nachos and the busy day in Mexico and the beach, we threw on a dumb Netflix movie and crashed early.

Having a lot of driving ahead of us, we got up early the next morning to get a good start. We drove along the eastern Texas border to the Padre Island National Seashore. After all the sun the day before, the rain surprised us by starting right around when we arrived.

It was a gloomy, cloudy midday at the National Park site, but there was so much natural landscape it was beautiful. The rain kept the crowds away and we got to check out the visitor center with a really cool turtle hatching exhibit. We got some shots of the vast coast around us and then decided we were done being rained on. We got back in the car for even more driving.

Rain is not fun for road trips, but we were driving through the wooded area of Texas. The two-lane roads were mostly empty so even though the weather wasn’t great, it was still a nice drive from the coast to the bayous along the Louisiana border. As usual on some of these trips to National Parks we lost GPS signal a bit, not even realizing we were in the middle of Big Thicket while looking for the entrance.

The Big Thicket National Preserve hosts nine different ecosystems that you can explore by foot and by water. Unfortunately, the rain had been steady all day and kept it up all through our time there. We’d planned for a fun hike on this trip, but the weather denied us some time to stretch our legs. As we’d become accustomed to on this final Texas National Park trip, we headed to the visitor center to learn what we could.

The coolest display was all about the pitcher plant, one of the four carnivorous plants found in Big Thicket. I’d never thought much of these kinds of plants besides the infamous Venus fly trap, but learning how they trapped ants and insects was morbidly cool.

We checked out all the displays on all the differing types of nature in this site, and then headed outside to check out the rocking chairs. To be honest, driving all that way and learning so much interesting stuff had us kind of bummed to be heading home without getting a chance to explore for ourselves. This will definitely be one of the trips I’ll have to make again, next time with clearer skies hopefully!

From Nature-Made to Man-Made, Crossing the Golden Gate

Before my friends and I could head into San Francisco, we needed a coffee stop to become more human. After camping for the last couple of days and getting some odd hours sleeping cramped in our little rental car, we needed the caffeine and a restroom.

We stopped at the Sausalito Bakery & Cafe, a couple minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge. After some coffee and a hobo shower (using the bathroom sink to clean ourselves up as best we could) it was time to try and get a good shot of the Golden Gate Bridge.

I’d done some research (of course) and seen the best place to get an overhead shot was the Battery Spencer. It was early morning and so, so cold! Because of the morning – or the cold? – the bridge was basically completely covered in fog. I knew this was a common occurrence in San Francisco, but it was really messing up my desired shots! Still they ended up looking pretty eerie.

Putting a pause on the bridge shot, we headed off in search of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which would be one of the stops we needed in our passport stamp collection. Looking for this area, we ended up crossing the Golden Gate Bridge three separate times. While this should be fun, it got us pretty frustrated. It turned out we were already in the area, so our sleep deprivation was at work.

The sun was coming out, so we headed to Fort Point, not only another National Park site, but also a great view of the bridge from below. This was actually a pretty cool fort because it was one big building of different rooms, rather than the usual plot of land laid out with several small buildings. It was located right at the base of the bridge, so it was also way more crowded than the previous forts I’d visited.

Along the coast, we finally got our Golden Gate Bridge shots! The fog had cleared, the sun was out, and it was an incredible sight to see. As with most big city icons, after a visit it’s usually easy to see why they remain such an impressive landmark. It definitely lifted our mood!

At this point we were way past ready for a warm meal, so we ventured into San Francisco for brunch. I’d read up on how long the wait lines could be on the weekends, so I’d picked a spot that looked good and you could make a reservation. Driving through the city, we passed a dozen or so long lines outside little restaurants, so I was glad we were able to walk right into ours, Fiore Caffe.

It was almost time to head out to to our departure flight in San Jose, but we had about half an hour left to check out the Castro District. Driving there was a great experience because of all the cute colorful homes and the insane hills you travel up and down. It’s full of great street photography and people watching!

Originally, we thought we maybe wanted some souvenirs but after spotting Dog Eared Books, I knew where to head. We passed the iconic Castro Theater on our walk and of course a lot of rainbows because Castro is legendary in the LGBT community for the first openly gay neighborhood in America. People were out and about, the colors were vibrant, and lots of shops had some pretty interesting items for sale (haha).

But if you know me, you know I love bookshops, especially if they have a resale collection. Dog Eared Books was worth the time. They had a very good selection and because we were at the Castro location, they’d curated it to promote interesting gay and transgender voices. They also had a substantial wiccan selection and feminism selcetion. I looked at books I’d never heard of before. I didn’t have much room in my carry-on backpack so I was able to leave with only a sticker.

This brief pitstop in the city was a great end to my Redwoods trip. After exploring nature, it was nice to come back into the manmade world and still feel in awe. I know I will definitely have to head back to San Francisco because I only scratched the surface of all they’ve got to offer!

There for the Trees, Obviously

It seems odd to be heading to the Big Lagoon in Redwood National Park, but after our morning hike we were ready for a bit of a cool down and some relaxation. I’d never been to a lagoon before, but this one just ended up looking like a little pond. I had imagined lush greenery and cool blue waters. The water was pretty cold though, so after a dip it turned into taking a nap in the grass.

It was getting late in the afternoon, so Austin, Jenna, and I headed to the showers so we could get some of the trip’s grime off us before one final hike. Yes, if you’re wondering, we would’ve liked to shower after our final hike, but since the campsites were full we would be backcountry camping in the area of the Tall Trees trail. Logistically, we were going to take it easy on our hike and try and remain comfortable for camping.

As mentioned in my previous post, you need permits to get to the Tall Trees trail and you have to drive a bit of rough road to get there. Having the code to get into this “private” area was so cool. Plus, we were finally going to spend some time with the actual redwoods! So much of Redwood Park is devoted to nature that isn’t exactly tree related. I was ready to finally walk among the tallest trees in the world!

This trail started at the top of a hill, so the trail itself had a bit of elevation and several switchbacks. But being in the trees that blocked the surrounding stuff out was amazing. I haven’t grown up with much woods in my life, so being in a huge forest with massive trees was definitely different.

Once we reached the bottom, we were in the “Tall Trees Grove” which was full of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen. We hadn’t run into hardly anyone, but now that we had hiked a couple hours we could hear campers not too far from the creek. It was lovely. However, we had not hiked down with our tent, so after some photos (of course), it was time to head back the way we’d come.

The sun was definitely setting, and we’d planned on setting up our tent in the dark, but Jenna had us on a mission to hike back up and out before all the light was gone. Even with some steep spots of elevation, we made it back up in less than an hour. We’d turned on our lights only five minutes before we were done, so we basically accomplished our goal.

Setting up camp though, seemed like a tiresome ordeal. We hadn’t had a great night’s sleep previously, we were all pretty amped from our vigorous hike, and as we were scouting for a location to set up our tent, we wondered if it was worth it. The time of sleep we’d get would be almost equivalent to how long it would take to set up and break down camp. We scrapped our plan and decided to just go ahead and get on the road while we were still wide awake.

This would prove to be kind of awful, because all the motels along our drive were completely booked or super expensive. We didn’t realize how much traffic had headed to the California coast to escape the big Carr wildfires. Plus it was summer, prime time for camping and road trips. After getting too exhausted to keep driving, we finally pulled over and grabbed a few hours sleep in our cramped car. The plus side is the sun was rising soon and we had gained more time for a stop in San Francisco!

Best Kept (Non-) Secret at Redwoods

After a little bit of a restless night’s sleep – I had to pee but had done so much bear research I’d scared myself into getting out of the tent in the middle of the night – it was time for our first full day at Redwood National Park! Since we were at the northern edge of the park, we first drove the Newton B Drury Scenic Parkway.

Jenna, Austin, and I had woken early to make sure we made good use of the sun and this meant our car was pretty much the only one on the road. I’d heard about terrible traffic along this road, but driving it right at sun up was awesome! We stopped whenever we felt like and got some quick shots of the more “touristy” spots.

We passed by the “Trees of Mystery” which we kept off our itinerary but did make a quick stop at to get some pics of the great Paul Bunyan and his ox. Also, I totally fell in love with a bear statue (which would also be the closest we came to a bear all weekend). At the end of our drive, we stopped to check out “The Big Tree.”

This is supposed to be the thickest tree in the park, so that was pretty great to see. Honestly, all the trees were so huge it was insane. I had never seen trees this large before, and to see a whole forest of them made me happy. We were visiting Redwood National Park during it’s 100th year of operation, but these trees are obviously hundreds of years old. (Research says millions of years old and that is mind boggling – haha!)

Next stop was the visitor center to get our Passport stamps and permits for the private trail we’d be tackling later in the day. Before that trail though, our agenda had us heading to Fern Canyon, which I’d heard great things from the locals the evening before. I went in knowing we wouldn’t have time to do everything on this quick trip, so I was glad one of the things we’d picked was getting talked up. Spoiler alert: it did not disappoint.

Even though I’d done the research, you never quite know what to expect, and a trail of ferns did not seem as exciting as the trees we were supposed to be enjoying. We headed out on this hike a little unsure of the route, but it was populated enough we followed in line down wood planks over creek waterways. It seemed we were hiking through a mostly dry creek bed, which was full of ferns and other greenery up the sides. It was gorgeous.

The further down we went, the trail lost a lot of people because the wooden planks had stopped. Halfway through you had to commit to danger (and the possibility of water) to keep going. We were on the hunt for some “falls” Austin had seen on the map, but the water was mostly in small streams it was hard to imagine us running into actual falls.

I was glad I wore my hiking boots because I definitely slipped on at least a dozen rocks, meaning I stumbled into the pools of water quite a bit. There were also a ton of overturned trees we were having to scramble over, so it was super fun! I will admit I did get stabbed by a broken tree branch, resulting in a gnarly bruise, but also adding to my excitement. I’ll say it a million times – I live for the experience!

We made it to the falls, which was pretty much just a dripping, wet wall, but it was still worth it. The hike was so much fun, not too strenuous, and for several stretches it was just the three of us. I think a lot of people stop halfway, but I suggest you keep going! The whole trail system is made for adventure.

Headed to Redwood, Seeing the NorCal Coast

My friend Austin had Alaska Airlines vouchers that he needed to use by the end of August, so it was time to make a trip back to the west coast! He’d been to Seattle and I’d been to Portland so we made a compromise and made plans to head to Redwood National Park in California. Funnily enough, our flights would take us briefly to Seattle and through some of the coastline of Oregon, giving us a bit of a win-win!

Our first stop in Seattle only provided us a three hour layover. Most people would stay at the airport, but I was not about to waste a whole half a day of vacation time sitting on a plane or in an airport. We thought we’d check out Angle Lake, which was just one stop over on the Link Light Rail. Well, first we thought we’d change the plan last minute and check out Rainier Beach because it was pretty close. Surprise, this did not work out – haha!

After leaving the residential area of Rainier Beach (couldn’t even see Mt Rainier), we got back on track to check out Angle Lake. A short walk through a little scenic neighborhood and we arrived. Unfortunately, we weren’t close to the public access, but we probably wouldn’t have gotten in anyway. It was a nice way to stretch our legs between flights and see a pretty sight. And that totally counts as a visit to Seattle, right? Yeah, probably not.

Onto another short flight to Medford, OR and it was time to pick up our car and meet up with my friend Jenna, who’d taken a different flight. The air was pretty smoky from the wildfires that were only an hour’s distance. We got our groceries and got on the road to California!

This was my second time driving toward the west coast this year, and it is just so damn beautiful. You have big fields of flowers, eerie mountains in the distance, and a wide coast with cliffs and giant rocks. Everything is in shades of blues, greens, and purples, except for when the sun comes out and then everything is cast with a soft glow. I know I’m waxing poetic over here, but I never was a huge fan of beaches until I explored the pacific northwest coastal areas.

We got to Crescent City, which is the main city in the northern section of the Redwood National Park. We stopped at a bodega for some local beer and crossed the street to the skate shop, Local Boys, because it seemed like a cool place. I love these little “adventure” towns because in the local shops you can find people who know all about the hiking and good nature spots, as well as find art and jewelry made by local artisans.

We checked into our campsite (booked in advance and the last one available), set up our tent, allowed Austin a mini panic attack when he thought he’d gotten poison ivy, and headed back out to the coast. We wanted to catch sunset before having dinner and enjoying some brews.

It wasn’t too busy for sunset on the Crescent Beach Overlook, so we enjoyed it and got some great shots. Then it was time for my favorite excuse for hiking trips – PB&J! Having not actually hiked our first day, we all got full so fast. Then we tried to enjoy our beers that was pretty hard considering everything. It’s hard to enjoy (or feel a bit of buzz from) your beer when you don’t have ice, you just ate too much, and you spend 20 minutes opening them without a bottle opener. Haha!

It got dark quicker than expected, but we hung around chatting until we had to turn on our headlamps. As always on camping trips, the sky out in the middle of nature is so awesome. You can see a billion stars and you don’t mind when it hurts from craning your neck back so long to keep staring. We got into our tent, wished no bears would bother us, and passed out ready for our full plans for the following day.

National Mall, Having a Ball

On our first full day in Washington D.C., we had plans to play tourist! After lacing up our comfortable walking shoes and grabbing a breakfast which included homemade poptarts at the cutest diner, Ted’s Bulletin, we made our way to all of the nation’s capital’s hot spots.

Conveniently, D.C. has something called the National Mall, which lies right in the heart of downtown and holds almost all the monuments and memorials on a massive four blocks of lawn. Our goal was to hit them all!

We started with the White House and planned on working our way counter-clockwise through the gardens. These were all famous from our history books, such as the iconic Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. For me, I had the added bonus of collecting all the National Park site stamps for every one of these monuments, basically doubling my collection in the span of a few hours.

I won’t list them all, but I’ll tell you my highlights. The Lincoln Memorial was impressive, both smaller and bigger than I’d imagined it somehow. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was really great – I was surprised to have never seen or heard of it before. And oddly enough, the Korean War Memorial was strangely impressive; it was weird to see big statues of soldiers scattered through a field imitating real war.

It had gotten surprisingly hot on our trek around the National Mall, so after the last memorial, we were glad to head to grab a bit of eat at the Jazz Garden that was in front of the Smithsonian. We were a bit early for the jazz to start, but just sitting there in the shade, sharing a pitcher of sangria was super great. We had seen so much, read so many quotes, been both inspired and disheartened by history.

After a bit of a nap and freshening up, we decided to hit up an Ethopian restaurant, Dukem. Almost all of us (myself included) had never had it, so it was a great new cultural experience. I had a tray of sambusa, which was very delicious! And, you could’ve guessed it, I made everyone walk to get the local homemade ice cream (Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams) after dinner. Yum!

We met up with the bride and groom after their rehearsal dinner for some amazing mint juleps at the Willard Hotel downtown. Coming from a pretty casual group of people, we were all feeling pretty fancy having gotten all dressed up to have drinks at a really nice hotel bar that was located in downtown D.C.  Also after the delicious foods and the introduction to the best mint julep I’d ever had – there was no way the night could’ve gone wrong. Celebrating our long-time friend and his pending nuptials was just a fantastic bonus!

How to Balance NPS Stamps and Friendship

Ah, where to begin on my adventure to Washington D.C? Since we were headed there for a friend’s wedding, a big group of us decided to hit up our nation’s capital for a long 5-day weekend. I felt a little awkward “making” my friends embark on my quest for National Park stamps, but they were all for it! I was glad I’d been able to take charge of the schedule so I could make sure friend time and National Park time was fair. I mean, you can’t take a trip to the nation’s capital where there are almost forty stamps to collect – and not let me try for them, right?!

My flight got in late morning Thursday, so after arranging a drop off for our bags, we headed to the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument. It wasn’t too far from our AirBnB, and had been recommended (besides being a National Park site I needed to snag). I was nervous that everyone would enjoy something that was mainly for me – but lucky for me, I have friends who are into history!

This home was where the Women’s National Party had started and conducted most of their meetings when they had met to discuss women’s suffrage. Seeing the same house in all the old pictures as the same as the one I was currently standing in was pretty great. Besides that, there are a ton of old banners still preserved from their marches as well as hand-drawn political cartoons displayed.

That was the only planned National Park site for the day (the other two on the itinerary were closed due to fire system upgrades). Having two stamps taken off my plate right off the bat, was actually kind of great. Since these two were impossible this trip, I knew I’d have to make it out to DC again the future. And because I knew I’d be back, my mission to finish the list in one long weekend became a lot less necessary.

If it happened I got the rest, great. If not, still great! This freedom allowed me to de-stress and enjoy more activities that weren’t NPS related.  So we had time after Women’s Monument to pass by the Capital building and walk over to the Library of Congress. At the Library, we saw some of Alexander Hamilton’s personal letters and also got a peak at some academics researching with the actual books in the Library.

Most of the rest of that first day was spent reconnecting our big group of old friends. Reconnecting with everyone basically means food and alcohol. And laughter, of course. We had lunch at Busboys & Poets, which had great food (every one of my friends there was a meat eater and still enjoyed the vegan nachos!) and even cooler paintings on the walls.

Later, after getting a bit of time with the groom, our friend Derek, we headed to Barcelona Wine Bar. This spot was chosen because it was Tracy’s birthday, but it was also one of the best hot spots in DC! The wait was long, but the wine was great and we were all just happy to be together -and on vacation! When we finally sat, the tapas were awesome and we began making our next plan.

A few of us had heard U Street was a cool spot with lots of bars, but it was pretty dead for a Thursday. Most bars were also showcasing the Stanley Cup finals, so it wasn’t quite ready for our ready-to-party group vibe. We headed back to the AirBnB to wait for a few more friends’ flights to get in and couldn’t believe it’d only been one day!

Stay tuned – there’s still a lot of DC adventures coming!