Road trip: Sequoia National Forest (part 2)

Our last day in the cabin we decided to venture down the mountain, and then back up into another part called Balch Park. It was another winding drive through what seemed like the middle of nowhere, but this time we started to see some really big trees. At first we were just seeing stumps, and hoping it wasn’t going to be a depressing day in the woods. But eventually we got to a picnic area with a lot of full-grown sequoias.

One interesting thing about giant sequoias — they actually have tiny pinecones, about the size of an egg. They are really tightly closed, though, so it takes fire to open them up. That’s why a lot of trees have visible fire damage. They’re built to survive it.

After lunch we went on a little hike in the woods. Once again we kept seeing all sorts of interesting plants.

This one was easy — wild roses.

This particular area had some archaelogical sites where thousands of years ago people had used these basins in the rocks.

After lunch we drove on into Balch Park. You can see a lot more significant trees in that area. And you can even camp underneath them! (note to self for future trips).

I love that a lot of the trees have names.

Some of them were so big they were once used as shelters, houses, restaurants. I’m glad there was a little museum there so you could see all the historical photos of the area.

We were surprised to learn that giant sequoia wood isn’t even good for building. It was so brittle that some of it was used for stakes or pencils. It’s kind of unbelievable that people were so driven to cut them down anyway.

This one refused to be cut down!

The scale of the trees is just really hard to put into words.

We kept taking photos of the Yaris next to them for comparison.

There were cute little ground squirrels all over the place.

But after a long day of exploring we had to make the trek back to the cabin. The next day we drove to the Kings Canyon National Park, where we stayed in the Grant Grove area at the John Muir Lodge.

I can highly recommend this place. It’s really comfy and is right nearby the restaurant and visitors center.

Anyway, our first goal was to drive down the road a little bit and see the General Grant tree.

It’s a short, easy hike to get to it, and there are lots of other huge trees in the area.

The Nation’s Christmas Tree.

We could have gone to see the biggest tree, the General Sherman, but it was such a long drive that we couldn’t fit it in. Instead we cornered this park ranger and got all the information we could about giant sequoias.

He also helped us identify this strange looking plant. It’s called snow plant.

That night we ventured to a lookout point not too far from the lodge and ate blackberry pie with this view.

The next morning, our last day there, we decided to drive down into Kings Canyon. We’d heard the drive itself was as much a part of the experience as getting to the bottom, and that turned out to be true.

We took more photos of the intrepid Yaris on the way.

Eventually we made it to, literally, Roads End, where we went for another hike.

More interesting plants.

You could see these cool domes, where the rock had slid off forming a sheer face.

And at the very end of our trip, while Brigid and I made lunch on “Muir Rock,” our husbands decided to jump into the freezing cold water.

I can’t believe they did it, but it was pretty awesome.

Road trip: Sequoia National Forest (part 1)

First of all, I apologize for the site being down so long. I was just trying to update WordPress, and I ended up crashing the whole site, which took a while to put back together. On the plus side it gave me lots of time to go through all my photos from our recent vacation, so now I can post them!

Our trip was kind of a surprise. Our Minneapolis friends Brigid and Aaron were planning a trip to see the giant sequoias and asked if we’d like to come along. We took about half a second to say yes. Unlike the coastal redwoods, which we’ve already seen, the giant sequoias are some of the widest, and overall largest and oldest trees in the world. Seeing them was sort of a life list thing for us.

We also just wanted to hang out with Brigid and Aaron, who are expecting a baby in a few months. They are just as nerdy as we are when it comes to nature, and they make great traveling companions. They’re the only people I know that are willing to be squished in the back of our overfilled 2-door Yaris for an extended road trip.

I’m dividing my posts about the trip into two parts because I have so many photos. The first part covers the time we spent in a remote cabin in the Sequoia National Forest. Then the second part will be from Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, where we stayed at the John Muir Lodge. It’s kind of confusing, when you’re in the national forest, versus the national park, versus the national monument. Hopefully it will all make sense!

So we started out driving to Fresno, picked up some groceries (since we had to bring all our own food and bedding to the cabin), and then headed east into the mountains. We took a very curvy road up to about 7,000 feet to our Grouse Valley cabin. The best way to describe its location is probably the middle of nowhere, although not quite as remote as Mono Hot Springs was. The one-lane dirt road part was only about 5 miles this time…

We stopped along the road on the way there to admire the view and some flowers. We spotted some monarch caterpillars and these spiky looking plants.

The view up top.

The cabin itself is one of three on the property. We stayed in the caretaker’s cabin, which is code for ‘not as nice as the other ones.’ If we go back I would definitely stay in this one that has its own lake.

But the overall property was just beautiful.

Apparently, you can bring your horses with you on vacation. 

In the distance we could see cows grazing, and after a while they came over to investigate us.

They may have been upset that we were cooking a steak dinner.

This mule deer also came by a couple times.

In addition to horse and cow pastures and pretty lakes, the property also has apple and pear orchards and almond trees.

There was also a big field of yellow flowers right outside the cabin.

The sunset that first night was just gorgeous.

The next day we decided to drive to the top of the mountain for a better view.

It was just blue sky for miles and miles.

We couldn’t help but giggle at one of the peaks that looked like a butt. We dubbed it butt butte.

The next day we drove into the woods a little bit and went for a hike. The trails weren’t marked particularly well, but they also didn’t go particularly far.

We finally got to see some of those big trees.

These pine cones actually came from a sugar pine.

We kept finding all these cool wild flowers everywhere we went. Of course I’ve forgotten the names of most of them.

We found a little lake, and as we peered over the ridge we saw our friends, the cows.

We didn’t think they would be nimble enough to make it up the hill, but eventually they came and joined us.

The only scary part was on our way back, when we saw what we were pretty sure was bear poop.

But we never actually saw a bear. Many, many other animals, but no bears.

Part 2 coming soon!

Barney’s burgers

There are many fancypants places where you can eat in the gourmet ghetto, but we have a thing for Barney’s. It’s simple — they make damn good burgers and fries.

Case in point:

We went there last night and I had this delicious bacon-y burger, which I could only manage half of. Mike had an equally huge California burger.

They have a nice patio, so we sat outside. We split steak fries. They’re so yummy!

One funny thing I always notice about bay area restaurants — they give you an impossibly small water glass. At Barney’s it’s like a shot glass. But at least they always give you extra water in some kind of chic looking vessel so you don’t have to be too parched.

Loving: snails!

Northern California has a pretty thriving snail population. The other day I woke up on a rainy morning and there were snails on pretty much every surface of the front porch.

I am totally fascinated by them. I suppose I could probably gather them up and have them for dinner, but that just seems wrong.

It’s bad enough when you’re walking somewhere and you hear that unfortunate crunch under your shoe.

In other news, I bought a stuffed squirrel for the dogs and Reggie carries it everywhere like it is her new best friend.

“Step away from my squirrel.” 

I also put our sun jar out in the backyard for a little extra light, and I love how it glows back there.

And most importantly, Mike just got back from visiting our new little neice Grace. Apparently she likes the blanket I made for her.

Those cheeks!

My bay area top 10

I know my bay area travel guide is insanely long, so I thought I would do a shorter post on the essentials — what I would recommend you do if you only had a short time here. So here goes:

1. Golden Gate Bridge. Why? Because it just is San Francisco. If you’re lucky enough to see it on a clear day with sailboats all around, it is truly spectacular. As someone who lives here, I can tell you that it is as cool now as it was the day I got here. I would recommend seeing it from the Crissy Field area, or driving across to see it from Marin County.

2. The Ferry Building. Not just for the farmers market, which happens Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, but for the assembly of bay area foodie culture. Some of the best restaurants, food shops, and bakeries, are housed here. You can get coffee, breakfast, and a few gifts to take back with you. Plus, a clean bathroom!

3. North Beach. This may warrant more than one slot, but it is my favorite neighborhood in San Francisco, and you can walk there from the Ferry Building/Fisherman’s Wharf area. Tour Coit Tower for a view of the city, explore the Italian restaurants and beat culture on Columbus Street, check out the Zoetrope building, shop on Grant Street, then follow it into Chinatown. You can go to Lombard and see the crooked street, too.

4. Dim Sum in Chinatown. You really should eat Chinese food while you’re in San Francisco, and dim sum gives you a chance to try as many different things as you can fit in your belly. Here are some places you might want to try.

5. The Mission. This neighborhood is best known for Mexican food, especially burritos, but we like to go here for two reasons: Tartine bakery for morning buns and huge lattes, and Bi-Rite Creamery for the best salted caramel ice cream you’ll ever have. If there’s a line, wait in it. These are not to be missed!

6. Chez Panisse. Moving on to the east bay, you don’t want to miss your chance to eat at this legendary restaurant. If you can’t get reservations or can’t afford to go for a fancy dinner, opt for lunch at the cafe instead. It’s still a really special experience. And while you’re there you can check out the rest of the gourmet ghetto.

7. Bette’s Oceanview Diner. Bette’s is that place we take everyone who visits because it’s so consistently good. You do have to get there pretty early to get a table, but it’s so worth it. And you can always check out the 4th street shopping district while you wait. At Bette’s, the coffee is strong, and the food is creative, filling, and so, so good. Go for sourdough pancakes on Mondays.

8. Shopping in Rockridge. Berkeley is kind of scattered in terms of shopping districts, but if you start on College Ave. just south of downtown, you can follow it all the way to Rockridge in Oakland and find some great shopping and restaurants along the way. Rockridge is that neighborhood where you would definitely live if you could afford it.

9. Little Star Pizza. Of all our go-to restaurants, Little Star is probably our favorite. It’s actually deep-dish pizza, but with kind of a bay area twist (cornmeal crust, not too gigantic, house-made this and that). I think it’s fantastic, some of the best pizza out there.

10. Bakesale Betty. Let this be your excuse to come to the Temescal neighborhood (aka hipster paradise) in Oakland. Bakesale Betty is known for the tastiest chicken sandwiches, which you eat outside on vintage ironing boards.

Old Oakland

We made a fun little discovery last weekend. We decided to try a gastropub in Oakland that specializes in our favorite, Belgian beers. It’s called The Trappist, and if you are a beer snob, a foodie, or both, you will love it.

I had a Rodenbach grand cru, which I can never remember the name of, and a tasty pastrami sandwich. Mike tried the sausages with potato salad and red cabbage. My favorite part, though, was the sampling of pickled green beans. Usually when people make their own pickles I find them kind of meh, but these were phenomenal.

Actually, the best part of going there was discovering the neighborhood of Old Oakland.

It is just the cutest shopping and restaurant district. I can’t believe we didn’t even know it was there. And I can’t wait to go back and try some of the other restaurants there.

A day that was just meant to be

Have you ever had one of those days when you felt like the universe was just pulling for you to have a certain experience? That was our Saturday. We had a plan for a fun day — go to the Ferry Building market and check out goat fest, eat our favorite pizza at Tony’s, finally visit Alamo Square Park. And I thought if we had time we could check off another wishlist item: ice cream from Humphrey Slocombe.

First off, it was an absolutely gorgeous day. It felt just like summer, and I guess since summers are cool and cloudy here, spring really is our summer. I mean, I wore a tank top and flip flops all day. Unheard of!

So we headed to the market, but we just could not find a place to park. The place was teeming with tourists out enjoying the beautiful day, and we were getting so frustrated trying to find a metered spot that we just gave up and parked in a garage. Which turned out to be the totally right thing to do because it actually costs $4.50 an hour to park on the street and $7 to park in the garage all day.

Then we went to the market. But instead of waiting in the long line for Blue Bottle, we changed plans and decided to get breakfast at Il Cane Rosso (another wishlist item). Which was win #2 because there was almost no line, and the breakfast was amazing! The fried egg sandwich looks humble but it tastes so good.

And my soft scramble on Acme Bread was simple and perfect.

The goat fest was pretty pathetic, just a couple of booths, but right next to that was a stand with Humphrey Slocombe ice cream! Of course we had to try it, so we got the secret breakfast flavor, which has bourbon and Cornflakes. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does work. It’s not Bi-Rite good, but it’s pretty tasty.

After that we walked around north beach and checked out some of the adorable shops. I had to use a lot of restraint not to buy a bunch of stuff at Therapy. Once we’d worked up enough of an appetite we headed to Tony’s.

Incredibly, there was no line, and the hostess said what they had available was two seats at the pizza counter. We were like sure, why not?

Not Tony, but this guy was nice, too. 

Turns out the pizza counter is right in front of the wood-fired oven, where Tony himself is making pizzas and answering any questions you might have. It was too cool. Mike loves making pizza, so he got to ask about various things. I wanted to know where the honey they use comes from. The bee hives on the roof, of course!

Last time we were there I wanted to try the fries, which someone down the bar had ordered. So we got those, and they were some of the best I’ve ever had. They toss the hot fries in honey and pancetta, then sprinkle parmesan cheese on top. You wouldn’t dream of putting ketchup on these.

We also went for a classic margherita pizza out of the wood-fired oven. It was just like the one I had in Naples.

For comparison’s sake, this is the pizza Erin and I had in Naples.

I also liked the way they presented the bread at the beginning of the meal. You get three dipping options and three little pots of toppings to go with slices of focaccia that come in a San Marzano tomato can. Pretty clever packaging.

After that lunch we were pretty much floating on a cloud. We headed over to Alamo Square Park and just laid out on a blanket. About 4,000 other people had the same idea.

This couple was too cute.

It was great, though, and it just felt like the whole day was meant to be.

What we’ve been up to

It’s beautiful out today, but the last couple weeks have been very rainy. It’s like our winter waited until Spring to arrive.

I just finished reading the Hunger Games. I thought it was a little kooky, but good in terms of suspense. I think we’ll probably go see the movie — I love Jennifer Lawrence.

Is anyone reading the 50 Shades trilogy? Why is everything a trilogy?

The dogs used the crappy weather as an excuse to cuddle. This lasted about 5 minutes.

I used some downtime to makes lots of little crocheted bowls. I just think they’re so cute!

We tried a couple of new restaurants. After our discovery that currywurst is becoming a thing, we went to the Rosamunde Sausage Grill in San Francisco. It’s not currywurst, but it does have a really nice selection of sausages and toppings.

The Haight St. location is absolutely tiny and people were crammed into every available inch of space. But the woman manning the grill managed every order without getting overwhelmed.

We tried the beer sausage, the merguez (spicy lamb and beef), and the wild boar. If I’m remembering correctly, the wild boar was actually my favorite. Who knew?

Then another night we had a groupon for Home of Chicken and Waffles in Oakland. The place is a little shabby inside, but the food was a-maze-ing.

It really felt like a grandmother’s recipe for classic soul food. We tried the mac ‘n cheese and some greens, too. Everything was delish. Then afterward we walked around Jack London Square a little bit, which we really haven’t done before. I’d like to check out their farmers market some weekend.

This weekend we heard there was going to be a Goat Fest at the Ferry Building. Goat cheese samples and tiny goats to pet? Yes, please!

San Diego

For the last part of our trip we headed down to San Diego. Though it was pretty chilly, we went to the beach (Mission Beach) so Mike could get a surf lesson.

The other guys in his group were actually traveling members of the Rock of Ages cast. I can’t imagine how you could spend much time in that freezing cold water, even with a wet suit, but Mike said it wasn’t bad.

I just hung around the beach and tried to soak up the sun.

For lunch that day we took a recommendation from one of Mike’s coworkers and went to South Beach Bar & Grill for fish tacos.

Though I don’t think they needed the cream sauce on top, I really liked the teriyaki marinade on my mahi and the salsa fresca. I’ll have to remember that when we make fish tacos at home.

For dinner we went to Toronado, which is known for its beer selection. I don’t have any photos of the food, which was really good comfort food type of stuff, but Mike did snap a photo of their huge list of Belgians. I’m not a huge beer drinker, but I do really like Belgians.

We felt like Toronado was the kind of place where we’d be regulars if we lived there. Overall, though, I didn’t connect with San Diego the way I did with LA. People always say such great things about SD, so I expected to love it. I think maybe we just need to spend more time there (when it’s warmer!).

Anyway, some other sights we explored while we were there:

The border fence. Unfortunately the park right near there was closed.

We did go across the bridge to Coronado and walked along the beach for a while. Part of the beach is on the naval base and there’s an airport landing strip so close that planes just zoom overhead.

We got some history lessons in Old Town San Diego.

For lunch that day we had the most amazing tacos from Tacos El Gordo in Chula Vista. I can’t even explain what was so good about them, they just were.

My favorite were the spicy pork tacos (far left in the photo above). They’re made from meat that’s shaved off a big rotisserie, kind of like a gyro.

I’ve never had so much love for a man in a hairnet.

Our hotel was pretty close to the Torrey Pines State Reserve, so we explored that a bit.

The geology along the beach was some of the most incredible I’ve ever seen. The beach was just covered with all sorts of interesting looking rocks, some with shells stuck inside, some lava rocks, some petrified wood and sandstone.

Not that we needed to do anything to appear nerdier, but we had a really good time just picking up all the rocks and trying to figure out what they were.

Curlews looking for goodies.

Our last adventure was to the Green Flash Brewery, which was recommended by a lot of friends. We thought we were just going for a tasting where maybe a few other people would be there, but it turned out to be like a huge happy hour party.

I was feeling a little sheepish, as I was wearing slightly ripped cargo pants and a fleece jacket amongst people still in their work clothes, but I think it’s the kind of place where everyone fits in. And, as a bonus, they had food trucks outside. Score!

We tried a couple different types of pierogies with a garlic dipping sauce that were really good.

The perfect end to a foodie-centric vacation, I’d say!

The OC and Catalina Island

For part 2 of our trip, we went to Irvine to visit my sister and her boyfriend. And of course Vladmir.

He has decided to take up crafting.

And the elusive Jezebel.

Some of Mike’s coworkers, who have an office at the Orange County Register, took us out to lunch at a Venezuelan restaurant. I’d never had arepas before. They’re basically sandwiches with slow-cooked meat inside.

We also had plantains on the side, which came with sour cream and crumbled cheese for dipping. I don’t have a photo, but we all ordered frothy juice drinks that were really yummy.

Oh and I can’t forget that we went back to Sam Woo’s for Chinese food. This time they brought us a 5.5 pound lobster (!!) and four of us managed to eat the whole thing.

Mmm, pot stickers.

But what we really wanted to do while we were in the area was visit Catalina Island. You have to take a ferry there, which takes about an hour. We got lucky and found a groupon for half-price tickets.

It leaves from Newport Beach. Arrested Development fans may remember this area from the frozen banana stand stuff. I was totally going to get one for that reason, but then I realized I did not actually want to eat a frozen banana.

There’s always money in the frozen banana stand!

Though it was pretty cool that day, we at least had sunny weather.

We were thinking of going parasailing when we got there, but then we noticed this.

Yes, that’s a submarine that you can actually ride in. Well, it’s a semi-sub that only goes down 100 inches. But we had to do it!

So we took the 45-minute underwater tour. You basically buy shots of fish food that you shoot into the water and swarms of fish come up to the windows.

At one point we saw this mass of glowing jellyfish that was pretty cool.

Catalina’s pretty overrun with tourists (and surprisingly, spring breakers), but it’s also really beautiful.

After lunch we went on a little hike up to the nature center.

On the way we saw a woodpecker on this tree that was absolutely stuffed with acorns.

Then we came upon this little rock maze.

At the nature center we learned that someone brought bison to the island a long time ago for a movie and they have been there breeding ever since. Weird!

It was great to just relax in the woods up there. And Mike had a good time bird-watching.

One funny thing about Catalina — everyone who lives there drives a golf cart. Or some kind of miniature vehicle. We saw two vintage mini Land Rovers that were so cute.

At 4:30 it was time to get back on the ferry and head back.

After that we did some damage at the mall in Costa Mesa. We have really tried to be thrifty about clothes the past couple years, but after a while you have to restock. Right, mom?

More coming about San Diego…