We finished some errands we had to do in the morning and packed a picnic lunch and the car with our camping gear. By about noon we were on the freeways, heading north out of the San Fernando Valley on I-5. We ate our sandwiches on the windy CA-14 and made it through Mojave, CA and onto the US-395 N.
We decided to stop at Fossil Falls, a place we had driven by in the past several times yet had not stopped. (This is, or was, a stop on the Caltech Undergraduate Ge 1 Field Trip.) Despite the heat (about 93 º F) we hiked the short distance from the gravel parking lot to the edge of the ‘fossilized’ dry falls, a carved cascade of smooth basalt descending perhaps fifty or one hundred feet, and admired the view of the dry riverbed below, stretching out hundreds of yards before us. It was too hot to clamber down the rock face, and we had better things to do than risk a broken leg, so we got what photos we could and switched drivers and were back on the road.
We made it to Tuttle Creek Campground, a BLM campground about 5 or 7 miles from Lone Pine. (If you use Google Maps, do not take Granite View to get there because there is a false road in their map data and Granite View does not connect to the campground. Instead go back to Horseshoe Meadows Road and go north a block to the sign designating the entrance to Tuttle Creek Campground (left or west). Also getting into town via Horseshoe Meadows Road and Whitney Portal road is more direct and easier to follow than the goofy robo-directions Google Maps provided when it said to take the Tuttle Creek Road "directly" (scenic route) back into town through the Alabama Hills.)
We selected one of the 83 sites near the rushing creek and set up our tent, while the heavy wind felt nice on a warm day, and we enjoyed the awe-inspiring view of patches of cumulus clouds sweeping into the majestic Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains on the slope above us, and the light of the setting sun coming through shifting clouds above the mountains across the valley from us, the Panamint Range, which forms the west side of Death Valley, and the east side of this part of Owens Valley, where we were staying.
We endeavored to stake down our tent as best we could (we guess about seven stakes total), with the air mattress filled and the sleeping bags and blankets placed in the tent to weigh it down, and then dressed up nice for a dinner at Seasons, a collared shirt ("rustic formal") cloth-napkin restaurant with good service and great food. This made it (short of about six weeks) ten years since we ate at Seasons to celebrate the beginning of our honeymoon in October of 2007. It felt very fitting and—to us, after a decade of saving lots of money and practicing frugal travel on trips—quite fancy. (Seasons is pretty reasonably priced, compared to typical sit-down fare, but quite pricey compared to our usual dollar per person per meal when we plan and cook our own meals.)
They served us fancy fresh bread and butter, while I gazed out the window at the clouds caressing Mt. Whitney, and ordered the special of the day (the french name escapes me): a sampler of three 3-oz. fillet mignon medallions (normally single 8 oz. steaks with one sauce for roughly the same price) with different sauces (bearnaise, black peppercorn, and a red wine sauce) with broccoli and a fancy swirl of real mashed potatoes, while Royal ordered the Pasta Seasons with alfredo sauce: a grilled chicken alfredo dish with sauteed fresh squash, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomatoes. The food was delicious, very filling and expertly prepared.
After brushing our teeth and taking out contact lenses (Tuttle Creek has no running water and just pit toilets) we took a lovely evening stroll through the heart of the town to the Western Film Museum (closed) before we got back on the road and returned to our camp site. The wind had blown our tent to the side several yards, stopped by a few of the stakes that had not been ripped from the gravelly ground, a rock, and a thorn bush! We determined that the heavy gusts of wind had snapped the short cord on one corner of the rain fly and sent the small plastic hook flying into outer space (or into the creek?). Luckily the tarp, tent, and rain fly on top all seemed to be in good enough working order for us to untangle from the bush and slide back into place and re-stake, and the air mattress had not been punctured. With our added body weight and calmer winds in the evening, we figured it might make it through the night just fine.
We clambered out of the tent and ate a breakfast of apples, chocolate chip oatmeal raisin walnut cookies, and frosted shredded wheat biscuits. We packed the tent and enjoyed the gorgeous views of the Sierras and the patchwork of blue and white sky and headed a few miles to the Alabama Hills Recreation Area. Since we had the brochure we also had a map, which showed us how to get to Movie Flat Road, a gravel road leading to the loop trail for Mobius Arch. That hike was great, and the lighting on the hills around us and the mountains behind us was astonishing. At one point, we turned a corner and there it was: the iconic Mobius Arch (famous to us as the image on the Annual Parks Pass some years again). The granite arch itself is small enough to feel personable, but big enough to want to climb on. It neatly frames a view of Mount Whitney.
We also did the Eye of the Alabama Hills hike and we were not sure exactly what small hole in the rocks we were looking for, and we think we found it (smaller than we expected?), but that did not stop us from appreciating the scenery in all directions, and enjoying the strenuous climb to get up the hill.
Since it was getting a bit sunny, we headed back down the dirt road to Whitney Portal Road and decided to drive west, up Whitney Portal road to see the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, where many people arrive to attempt high altitude hikes in the area, especially Mt. Whitney itself (tallest peak in 48 states, over 14,000 feet). The altitude at the parking lot is around 8,000 feet and even on an otherwise warm summer day (warm in the valley), the air is quite cool. The tall pine trees and damp earth tell you immediately how different this place is from the desert valley below. We took a short trail from the south side of the parking lot, near the picnic area, trying to see if we could get out beyond the trees to see the view of the valley below, but we were unsuccessful. We did enjoy the waterfalls, streams, even glacier-water colored (turquoise) pool, and the beautiful, apartment-building sized boulders that we had to climb on or under to make our way through the area.
Having thoroughly built up a wonderful hunger, we decided to just turn around and head back to the car. We took Whitney Portal road back down the mountain/hill, which leads right into the heart of town, and to Pizza Factory. We had been to Pizza Factory in Bishop on a hot day years ago and were glad to return and try every kind of pizza they could muster during the lunch buffet. (We estimated about a dozen kinds of toppings and sauces in total—not all at once.)
Having filled our bottles with ice water, we got back on the road for Big Pine, less than an hour north of Lone Pine. Royal napped the whole way while I listened to an audio book and she only awakened when we stopped at the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest Information Center, an unimpressive little covered kiosk or glorified information sign in a parking lot, at the place on the road where US-395 intersects CA-168, which heads into the White Mountains and eventually leads to Schulman Grove Visitor Center. Turning the corner for CA-168, we saw the sign designating the giant sequoia tree (a "Big Pine") planted over one hundred years ago. As a big, beautiful, bushy Christmas Tree (maybe fifty feet high), it was first rate. As a big pine tree in a desert valley of sage and creosote, maybe some poplar, it was a large prominent, cone-shaped landmark. As a giant sequoia however, it was actually pretty small!
We took CA-168 and went through the narrows (a short harrowing stretch of one-lane road with sheer walls and blind turns) and got onto the even more winding mountain road that lead us to Grandview Campground, run by the National Forest Service, with no running water and just primitive (vault or pit) toilets. Along the way, we enjoyed endless varying and astonishing views of the hills and dells of the White Mountains, which we were in, and the valley below, and the Sierras across the valley, and the clouds and skies above that. Words and even images fail to convey the three-dimensionality and physicality of the space itself.
At one pullout, we took a breath in the cool mountain air and listened to the birds in the pinyon and Utah juniper forest, for we had magically been transported from California, jumped over Nevada, and landed in Southern Utah! We think we heard several juniper titmice, with a different song to their counterparts, our Southern California oak titmouse—previous thought to be a single species, the plain titmouse, but split in two in the last decade or so.
The Grandview Campground was mostly empty, so we skipped pitching a tent and reserving a site and drove the five miles to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center. The facility (recently rebuilt in 2008 after an arson burned down the previous building) could not have been more pleasant nor the nineteen minute Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest video more informative: we learned about dendrochronology and how counting the rings in the core samples from the multi-thousand year old trees first showed that they are one of the oldest living things on the planet, with a certain (unmarked or unspecified) tree reaching over four thousand years—“Methuselah,” still alive in the vicinity. In addition, the scientists can align and compare the wide and narrow rings which allows different core samples (from dead trees too) to create an overlapping map of atmospheric conditions of the past ten thousand years—going back the last ice age!
We did the one-mile-loop Discovery Trail in the Schulman Grove, up the dolomite hill and through stands of old and young trees. Many of the young trees are very tall and bushy like a fir tree or Christmas tree, and core samples from these trees would show that they have been growing fast. The really old ones have grown remarkably slowly, creating dense, hard wood immune to parasites and fungus and with only a small strip of living bark and few green bristle branches. We also learned that you can look down at the trees’ root systems and can approximate the age in thousands of years by how much gravel and soil have eroded in these harsh, dry, 10,000-foot elevations: each vertical foot of exposed root might be a thousand years of weathering!
We enjoyed trying to guess how old some of the trees were and if we thought they were practically infants (less than a century or only a few centuries old, perhaps no taller than a human!) or if they were perhaps millennials or multi-millennials. We found a (presumably) multi-millenial dead tree with no green bristles on a plant-free quartzite-rock-covered hill that we called Cthuselah (Cthulhu + Methuselah) due to its twisty appendages reaching to the sky, like tentacles from a giant, ancient cephalopod.
On this loop trail we saw a family of squawky Clark's nutcrackers, gray with black wings and white heads. These stunning, social corvids can store and remember thousands of seed- and pine-nut locations in their territories, using the landscape itself and their genius hiding places as a secure pantry to make it through the winter. We also saw a rock wren hopping on its rocks, and heard numerous mountain chickadees in the trees.
The looming cumulus clouds swept in and joined the sunset in ushering us out of the mountain tops and back down the windy five miles to the 8,500-foot-elevation campground, where we found a quiet spot and set up our tent. The night was cool and we enjoyed the scenic sunset over the sage meadow between the two pinyon- and Utah-juniper tree-covered bases of hills where the campsites were located. Another chickadee greeted us from the tree above our tent and impressed us with a flash of black on white. We slept great that night and were prepared for the cold, a low in the forties Fahrenheit.
We woke in the cool morning to find some hoarfrost on the picnic table, so we ate a stand-up picnic breakfast. Royal ate some oatmeal raisin cookies and started packing up the bedding inside the tent and when I returned from the bathroom she started handing me folded blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, etc. which I packed into the car. We walked across the campground and deposited our $5 campsite fee, took down the tent together, and headed back on the road.
We switched the wide lens out for the long (telephoto/wildlife/birding) lens, relying on my iPhone for wide-angle photos and tree photos on this four mile hike. The Methuselah Grove Loop took us on a mostly level loop at around 10,000 feet altitude across sparse dolomite hills with almost nothing but the bristlecone trees filled with chickadees and jumping clickety-clack locusts, and through chaparral landscapes where we met a green-tailed towhee, a sort of large sparrow.
The heart of the hike was through the section of ancient trees (at 2–2.5 mile markers if you go in the “forward” direction) where Edmund Schulman and Tom Harlan discovered Methusaleh in around 1957. According to Wikipedia, “Methuselah is a 4,849-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva).... For many years it was thought to be the world's oldest known living non-clonal organism, until it was superseded in 2012 by the discovery of another bristlecone pine in the same area with an age of 5,067 years (germination in 3050 BC).”
I forgot to mention that we learned about how the study of these long-lived trees helped scientists calibrate and adjust carbon-dating to be much more accurate. We found all of this to be so amazing and inspiring. The grace and sturdiness and perspective just emanates from these gnarled and hardy trees. We did the best we could to capture some of the beauty of their large shapes against the contrasting mid-day light, but we did end up using the wildlife lens to capture cute chickadee photos, as well as to identify a Williamson’s Sapsucker, pygmy nuthatches, red-breasted nuthatch, white-breasted nuthatch, canyon wren, and the green-tailed towhee, so that felt like a win, a reasonable tradeoff in not having the wide lens on the camera.
We were pretty exhausted and a little sore from a long weekend of hiking, but felt refreshed and hungry as ever. Royal closed her eyes as I drove us down the winding mountain road back to civilization, where we found Copper Top BBQ in Big Pine, a mostly open-air operation with prominent smokers out front. We ordered the Big Pine Platter, a sampler of different meats: 5 oz. sliced Tri-Tip, 2 ribs, and smoked chicken breast, served with a Barbecue sauce, three dinner rolls (Kings Hawaiian), Sprite, and a side of Fire Roasted Green Chili with Beans. Just the hearty meal we needed to fill us for the four hour drive home, which Royal achieved with maximum gas efficiency in our ultra-efficient Chevy Cruze—about 50 MPG average on the way home! (Once we unpacked the car we were still so full from lunch that we just had cookies and ice cream for dessert and showered, transferred the photos, and went to bed.)
We finished seeing all 21 of the Alta California (US state of California) Spanish Missions over the period of many years. They were built between 1769 and 1833. Most are currently parish churches in the Catholic Church, but three are preserved as California State Parks.
Here is a gallery of the exteriors of the mission churches, so you can see how the mission style of architecture was brought to the New World (and especially what would eventually become the American Southwest, California and Florida) by the Spanish Fathers.
We left early from Los Angeles and mostly avoided traffic on the 405 and 5 N. After we got through Tejon Pass, we took a scenic, hilly route through the countryside and arrived on US-101, which was built on the historic El Camino Real, the King of Spain's Royal Road, connecting all 21 of the Alta California missions, with a one day journey by horseback separating each of them.
Our first stop was one of seven missions we hoped to see on this trip, Mission San Miguel (before the trip, we had seen 14 of the 21). We enjoyed the brickwork and the belfry near the front of the grounds. We sat in the car and ate a little lunch and then followed the brick fence past agave and prickly pear to the entrance to start our tour. We found the mission charming and photogenic, despite being small.
We didn't have to drive much further north on US-101 before we arrived at the town of San Juan Bautista, named for Mission San Juan Bautista. The town had a charming feel and the historic center of town, with the mission flanking an open fairground and the state historic park preserving the old western buildings on two of the sides, leaving the fourth side open with a view of the fields and valley below. This was one of our favorite missions to see, with a beautiful chapel inside, complete with wider wings and more arches in the interior, and a beautiful white façade and belfry. It is a real stand-out and in a charming, scenic little town as well.
We stopped and asked about getting barbecue sandwiches but the tiny store where we stopped said it was under different ownership and they hadn't bothered to change the sign. Disappointed we got back on the freeway and drove to the town of Gilroy and stopped for an afternoon dinner at Taqueria Cancun, which was surprisingly clean, very affordable, and enormously filling: we ordered a pork chile verde taco and two tostadas (the second was only a dollar more).
We were grateful for a very filling and affordable meal and made our way northwest out into the hills and mountains of Sanborn County. It got colder as we went into the shadowy canyons and higher altitudes. We knew the campground would close at sunset and since it was November, we knew we had to get there fairly early in the afternoon to find a campsite at Uvas Canyon County Campground.
Aside from the tall sycamores and oaks and otherwise beautiful mountainous canyons, the only other interesting site on the drive in was a private community called Sveadal, dedicated to promoting and perpetuating their common Swedish heritage, especially with their Annual Midsummer Celebration in June. It looked like a sort of place where groups could arrange to have a retreat and it was indeed a beautiful setting.
We set up the tent as it got darker and climbed inside to stay warm. We went to bed early but unfortunately the campground was not completely empty and some neighbor had a really loud barking dog but things calmed down as it was really too dark and cold to do anything interesting at this time of year, in terms of enjoying the outdoors, as people like to do when they camp, so most of the campground just tried to sleep through a cold evening.
As we packed the tent and exited the campground we were greeted by a small group of ten turkeys, enjoying the shadows of the morning in the canyon. We stopped and got as many photos as we could, and we were surprised that they weren't too skittish when we followed them around with the camera.
We enjoyed the beautiful drive across the countryside and into San Jose. The angular light and banks of fog combined with the lush green grassy hills to create a memorable magical morning. This was standard California scenery at its finest.
At one point as we hurtled down the highway we saw a quail jump onto a fence and then it was instantly pounced upon by a hawk, who began tearing it apart for breakfast. It was a little bit much to take in while driving and although we were shook up, we managed to avoid swerving out of our lane.
We met up with some of Jared's family, who had planned to spend the weekend in downtown San Francisco and had just arrived at the San Francisco airport. While they took an Uber across town to meet up with us we drove to a parking garage and walked a few blocks to meet with them at Mission Dolores (Mission San Francisco de Asís). We did the tour of the mission, the cemetery, and the wonderful Basilica next-door and had a little bit of time to chat and catch up.
We walked a few blocks to grab some goodies at Tartine Bakery, then parted ways while the tired travelers took an Uber to their hotel in the heart of downtown San Francisco. We met up with them a few blocks from their hotel at the famous bakery and chain in San Francisco, Boudin Bakery. Here we got some butternut squash soup (very autumnal, with sweetish spices but not too sugary) in a sourdough bread bowl, as well as beef chili. When some of the rest of the group made it, they also used the chance to get some hot food on a cold day.
We parted ways and drove north across the Golden Gate Bridge across the city of San Rafael to see the mission there. The San Rafael Mission is very small but they also have a beautiful church on the same site. We enjoyed their historic mission bell, which looks exactly as you would expect. It matches the 1904 commemorative bells that line the route of the El Camino Real (now mostly coterminous with the US-101 running between Los Angeles and San Francisco).
We went to China Camp State Park at about dusk, and stopped at many of the overlooks to enjoy the electric blue water and even follow some more turkeys around. In one group of turkeys we found nine and in the other eleven. If you are keeping track that is thirty turkeys on my birthday! What a fun present. We also saw many other kinds of birds especially down in the water, and heard frogs in the wetlands area close to the campground.
We set up our camp while it was still dry and carried the air mattress from the car up to the site that we had reserved. As campsites go it wasn't super cheap, but as places to stay within driving distance of San Francisco, we got a real deal and I am sure it was quieter than the hotel where Jared's family stayed!
We got out fairly early in the morning to explore China Camp State Park and saw yet more turkeys, perhaps a dozen in a large group, pecking at the ground and using their special turkey trails to go up the hillside, crossing the road very carefully and orderly.
We had a cold breakfast in the car and the rain picked up as we stopped a few minutes away at the buildings and docks of the fishing village, commemorating the last of 26 Pacific Coast Chinese fishing villages, where they mostly used nets to catch shrimp. We learned about Frank Quan, who just that summer (August 2016) had died at the age of 90 and still lived at the park until his death. Decades ago, when the park was created to preserve what was left of the village, he was allowed to stay and live there.
We drove north to the town of Sonoma, in Napa Valley. Here we saw a number of historic sites, including Mission San Francisco Solano, now a State Historic Park, with great exhibits that are more frank than the Catholic-Church-owned missions about the terrible devastation wrought by the diseases brought by the Spaniards, and how the Native Americans were basically forced into labor and had their culture mostly replaced by Spanish Christianity.
Across the street from the mission are more buildings in the Sonoma State Historic Park and exhibits dedicated to the time in California history when it was briefly under the flag of the Grizzly Republic. There is an interesting gift shop that sells replicas of the original sloppy, almost cute, grizzly bear flag.
We also saw Vallejo House, an awesome ranch where Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, an important figure in California history, lived and worked the land. It was rainy but the greenery and old-timey architecture made an otherwise dreary day into an interesting and relaxing day.
On the way out of town, we stopped at Schellville Barbecue and got a single sandwich which we split: the Triple Crown, with pork and two kinds of beef, as well as delicious french fries.
We were stuffed for the drive back south over the Golden Gate Bridge to San Francisco, where Jared's family had worn themselves out by visiting the Legion of Honor Museum and seeing the art there in Golden Gate Park.
We wasted nearly $20 getting sundaes for ourselves at Ghirardelli Square, and seeing their demonstration set up for how chocolate is made. Royal got a salted caramel and I got a mint bliss.
Eventually we were able to meet up with Jared's family for dinner, first parking near the Boudin Bakery where we ate the day before, then walking to a nearby Mexican restaurant that was much too busy, and walking another mile to meet up with the rest of Jared's family at another Mexican restaurant called Cadillac. The food was delicious and the service was great and there was more than enough food to go around. We did not order anything but even eating other people's food there were still leftovers for us to take and we were double stuffed.
We drove back out of the city and over the Golden Gate Bridge and down the highway to sleep at China Camp State Refuge, and luckily the rain had abated somewhat while we climbed into the tent. We had to punch in the access code to get through the locked gate, since it was past sundown, but everything went smoothly and we were back in bed.
We woke up at our campsite at China Camp State Park and packed out the sleeping bags, pillows, and blankets into the car while there was little rain, so running down the hill with them was not too much of a problem. A few minutes later we saw a few turkeys walking through the campground and Jared even met a little newt in the bathroom, who was presumably also trying to escape the rain and moisture. We also saw some quail but they escaped into the bushes before we could get the camera.
We managed to pack and fold up the tent and tarp despite the torrent. These we would later have to sweep and hang out in our courtyard at home because they were so muddy and soaked.
We drove south to Mission Soledad, a very small mission not far from US-101. It was a plain mission and they had preserved the foundations of the walls of several buildings, and they had a lot of plans to renovate or even rebuild old buildings of the compound. The little church itself is in reasonable shape but what we found most interesting, besides the setting amongst fields of lettuce and cabbage, was a table created out of many ceramic tiles that showed each of the twenty missions as well as quails and monarch butterflies, all very Californian.
We drove south on US-101 to a certain point where we took a very isolated route away from the freeway. Not far from the active Fort Hunter Liggett Military Reservation, Mission San Antonio de Padua itself is quite large, very pastoral and feels like what it must have felt to be at the mission one hundred years ago. The overcast autumn weather, the surrounding rugged landscape, and the remoteness really put a mood over the whole place. This was truly one of our favorite missions and is in pretty good shape, with beautiful façades, bells, tiles and rooflines, a well-kept courtyard, and active Franciscan monks studying there. They are doing more renovation work but it is in pretty good shape any way.
The rain started as we left and it continued raining on the drive home, as we took US-101 to California 46 to Interstate 5. There was no rain from about Bakersfield to the Tejon Pass, but once we made it over the pass and into the Los Angeles Basin and San Fernando Valley (the Pacific side), the rain picked back up again. We were able to go grocery shopping on the way home and unpacked the car and ate leftovers of Mexican food and fresh cookies, recovering a little from our long trip and getting ready for a relaxing Thanksgiving week in Southern California, our first in 12 years! (That's a dozen Thanksgivings kindly hosted by Jared's family, in Mesa, AZ.)