Dan and Hannah and the Elephant Seals on the Pacific Coast Highway

es coastal cali map 3

After finding a bluff hiking jewel at Montana De Oro State Park near San Luis Obispo (See over60hiker blog for March 15, 2014), we drive north on the four lane route 101 from Pismo Beach.  We are in search of one more coastal bluff trail somewhere near Big Sur.

pch map 1

There are three popular routes to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco.  I-5 lies in the center of the state and makes for an express ride north or south.  Between the coast and I-5 is the quite direct 101 highway with a little more curves and a little less traffic.  Today we leave Pismo Beach on the 101, but once we hit Morro Bay we will take the third option, Route One, the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), north.

pch 6 farmland

It’s mid-January and the PCH passes through farmland on the way to Cambria.  Athletic couples bike the road which at this point has ample shoulder for comfortable riding.  Seems like a rite-of-passage kind of bike ride.  Something you always said you would do.  Some twenty miles later the PCH turns into a winding, harrowing, plunging and rising trek with shoulders a thing of the past.

Hannah on the Pacific coast

Hannah on the Pacific coast

Once at Cambria, some 250 miles south of San Francisco, the PCH becomes a two lane road, but we encounter little traffic on this Saturday morning.  We pass right by the entrance to the Hearst Castle since it is outdoor exercise in warm weather that is at the top of our agenda.  (We just don’t exercise outside in the winter in Maine because of our dis-affinity for the cold).  We see signs for the elephant seals rookery at Piedras Blancas, which is free to the public.

Elephant seals aplenty

Elephant seals aplenty

Rolling into a parking lot with forty cars and room for more at 10A, we discover the breeding grounds of up to 20,000 elephant seals.  Come late November adult male seals come to this part of the coast of California to establish who’s Da Man for the upcoming breeding season.  Eventually an Alpha male, often weighing 5000 pounds and up to 16’ long, emerges through battle and becomes Papa.  There is a subset of small “a” alphas that also play a role in the breeding season.

ES 5 seals and seashore vista

While most females are still out to sea after carrying their pregnant young for some ten months, they return in mid-December and form harems around the alphas.  Delivering their 70 pound pups, the moms nurse their young for four weeks.  During the fourth week, the females mate a few times, abruptly wean their pups who have quadrupled in size, and then it’s see you later alligator for the Mamas; they hit the road, or in this case the open sea, and family life is over.

(My cameraman is in fact an intern.  Hence the finger in the picture.)

ES 3 people watching seals

Fortuitously arriving during the mid-January breeding season, we take to the viewing platform some 300 yards long.  Basically the large seals lie around all day, flip sand on their backs, flop here and there, and get one helluva tan.  On this 75 degree day, the grunting noise from the competing seals punctuates the landscape.

es 7 lounging seals

Only since 1990 have seals been coming to Piedras Blancas.  One pup was born in 1992; twenty years later 5000 were born.  Heavily hunted in the 18th and 19th centuries for the oil in their blubber, the elephant seals saw their number drop to 50.  Today they number  approximately 175,000.

PCH 1A gorda sign

Thirty minutes of big, floppy seals is quite enough, for it is exercise that is at the core of our being.  So it’s north on the Pacific Coast Highway, a road that requires patience and a gentle California state of mind.  Fact is, it’s just slow going.  Climbing the serpentine roads of the coastal facing mountains of the Los Padres National Forest, we arrive at Gorda; fortunately we need no gas.

Look closely at the price per gallon of regular

Look closely at the price per gallon of regular

Earlier in the day gas at Pismo Beach was $3.79 per gallon.  Our WAZE GPS no longer works and, please, cell phones become useless electronic appendages.

California's Pacific Coast Highway

California’s Pacific Coast Highway

In many places the highway has such hairpins that we make turns at 20 mph or less.  The driver has little chance to enjoy the scenery while keeping in line on the narrow road.  But to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, the Pacific Coast Highway is real and it’s spectacular.  Crashing surf and shoreline vistas impress us to the west.  Being mid-January the traffic is light and we are usually the slowest one on the road anyway.  And then we are dead stopped for 25 minutes.

Waiting in line on the Pacific Coast Highway

Waiting in line on the Pacific Coast Highway

Once the Monterey County sheriff’s department sends us through on one lane, we see a jazzy sports car literally resting half over the cliff, 2oo feet above the rocky shore.  Fortunately, driving north we are always on the mountain side of the road and away from the sheer cliffs.

Later in our trip north of San Francisco. we will return to the PCH at Jenner, CA and our GPS will tell us that it’s 71 miles and it will take two hours.  In disbelief, we scoff.  Oh, but it does.  The twists and the turns make it turtle-like slow going.

PCH 5 ocean view

In the future we would only travel 100 miles per day on the PCH (and that’s still three to four plus hours of driving).  We’d take more time to hike its trails and explore its beaches so we are not car-bound for hours on end.

All the signs are pointing to a return to California.  And soon!

pch sign

Owen’s New Sibling Baby Pool by Molly and Tip

Owen Daniel Rawding’s little sister (my guess) or little brother is due in five weeks (May 2nd – My mother’s birthday!).  

Owen and his Omi

Owen and his Omi

After two rounds we can report the Top Ten and a few selected others.

1. Theresa Wills (Virginia)

2. Ann Jacob (Virginia)

2. George Ellis (Maine – skiing buddy of Dan and Hannah’s)

2. Karl Mink (New York – our nephew on the Kraai side)

5. Adrienne (Virginia)

5. Ann Fox (New Hampshire – Ann and I taught together in Kittery, Maine)

5. Linda Phelps (Florida – Hannah’s little sister from the College of Wooster, Ohio)

8. Deb Howe (Maine – CHAMP OF THE FIRST BABY POOL!)  She was the only one who predicted Owen!

8. Erik Maly (New Hampshire)

8. Laurel Crane (Virginia by way of Falmouth, MA)


Molly and OwenOther family members knocking on the door and one who has a long way to go.

11. Will Rothermel

14. Dan Rothermel (the dark horse, odds on favorite)

14. Robyn Rothermel

44. Hannah Rothermel


These are the Sweet Sixteen names still in the running (8 girls and 8 boys) in alphabetical order

Girls                                                                  Boys

 1. Caroline                                                     1. Andrew

2. Charlotte                                                  2. Caleb

3. Julia                                                             3. Carter

4. Morgan                                                      4. Isaac

5. Natalie                                                        5. Malcolm

6. Rachel                                                         6. Max

7. Rebecca                                                     7. Nathan

8. Sydney                                                       8. Zachary


Dan and Hannah Hike the Point Buchon Trail on the central California Coast

We learn the trail closes at 345P sharp.

We learn the trail closes at 345P sharp.

As we end the Bluff Trail hike at Montana De Oro State Park (over60hiker blog for March 15, 2014), we see a distant cottage that we will soon learn is the check-in station for the Point Buchon Trail along the bluffs of the Pacific Ocean.  With already two hours of bluff hiking in the books, we are ready for more cliffs and more white water waves on this private land of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company land.   Closed to the public for more than a hundred years, this trail was opened in 2007 to one and all.

PB 2 point buchon explanation sign

Walking a quarter mile on the paved Pecho Valley Road across Coon Creek, we climb to the Point Buchon Trail check-in cottage.  From 8A to 4P Thursday through Monday, the trail is open to hikers.  We luck out in a big way since we had no idea there was such a trail and it just so happens that today is Thursday.

Greeted by a California Land Management ranger, we sign a liability waiver with our names, addresses, and emails, which all seems quite reasonable.  Basically, we agree not to sue them if we act like idiots on the cliffs.

PB 4 three post entry to hiking trail

Fortunate to have one more bluff hike, we enter an area that is very well-maintained; private power companies have the financial resources to do far more than their state government brethern.  Wire fences bracket the trail.  What is described as grassy bluffs on the website are no such thing during this drought-stricken winter.  The range around the trail is parched brown on land that PGE leases to ranchers for cattle and sheep.  Bike riding is forbidden on the trail and these obstacle posts make that clear in an obvious way.

PB 6 D and H on bluff trail 2

In five minutes we are at the Pacific where we see a couple from the San Francisco area chilling on a park bench facing the ocean.  Taking each other’s pictures, we know how stunningly fortunate we are to discover these locations and have these adventures.

PB 7 Han on trail

As a bluff trail, it is easy to keep a good pace and wide enough to talk side by side.  Along the coast we see rock islands that are connected by multiple natural rock bridges.  Spotting a western coyote, we see that it is the big brother to our sleek, fox-like Maine coyote.  Our coyotes feast on cats.  This western coyote needs Weight Watchers.

PB 8 Dan at see through shore rock formation

Point Buchon takes its name for the Spanish word for goiter. The Chumash Indian chief who commanded this region at the time of the Spanish arrival had an enormous goiter on his neck and was nicknamed El Buchon. As we all know, once we check Wikipedia, a goiter is a swelling of the neck due to an enlarged thyroid gland.

Unseasonably warm for January in the mid-70s, we have again found the perfect getaway for hikers over 60.  It’s honeymoon material for the active set, be they young or old.

PB 9A rocks in the water

Trails along the coast with crashing waves remind us of  the power of the sea.  Hannah and I are not sea-goers.  Sea-watchers yes.  Sea-goers no. Rocking in a small boat on the ocean, or indeed a boat of any size on any size body of water, is not our idea of a good time.  Fishing?  I am fine with catching fish, but sitting with a fishing pole in my hands for hours – not so much.

PB 9E cliff scene with Han

After some four miles of bluff hiking, we return to our motel in Pismo Beach, then later explore the beach town itself.

PB 9F Pismo temp

A mile and a half from our motel, we park in downtown Pismo Beach, a coastal town of 7000 known for being the Clam Capital of the World.  In the 1969 TV movie Dragnet 1966, Bill Gannon retires to Pismo Beach due to poor health.  After eight months of eating Pismo Beach clam chowder, Bill’s health returns, his teeth stop falling out, and he is reinstated as an LAPD cop. Explaining to Sergeant Joe Friday the reason for his restored health he states, “The clams, Joe.  The clams.”

PB 9H surfersWalking the pier that goes 300 yards into the Pacific Ocean, we look down to see ten- year old surfers learning their sport.  With an individual trainer, each gets on his board, maintains his balance and then doesn’t; and then gets right back on the board again and again.

PB 9J  chocolate crickets

In town we see these chocolate crickets, which I believe they are actually trying to sell.  Not tempted in the least, we wonder what it would be like to live in this coastal town for three months of winter.  Laid-back lifestyle, hiking up and down the coast, warm weather, zero snow!  And then we see our future here at Pismo Beach.

And we were married the year before in 1972

Karma?  I think so.  Hannah and I were married the year before in 1972

Dan and Hannah Hike the Bluff Trail at Montana De Oro State Park on the coast of California

MDO map 1

Heading north from Santa Barbara on The 101, Hannah and I hug the coastline for some twenty miles before veering inland past the towns of Los Alamos and Santa Maria.  With credit card points, we will spend the night at a Quality Inn in Pismo Beach 80 miles north; fortunately our room is available at 9A so we stow our luggage and seek out a coastal bluff trail.  Though January is both the off-season and the rainy season in California, the weather gods didn’t get the memo.  Today is our third day in the upper 70s without a cloud in the sky since we arrived from New England.

MDO sign 1

From Pismo Beach, it is a 45 minute drive through this residential and strip mall part of San Luis Obispo on Los Osos Valley Road.  Soon we are weaving through a coastal forest to the Montana De Oro State Park.  Though we see a sign for the park, we pass dunes between us and the beach for miles with no sign of a visitor center or admission gate.  Fear not.  The park headquarters at the old Spooner Ranch House lies at the end of the road.

MDO Han on road at bluff

Arriving at 10A, we meet two women who have just hiked three hours to and from 1300′ Valencia Peak.  That is a hike for next year; today we want bluff hikes with crashing waves and steep cliffs.  Lacing up our hiking boots, we walk 300 yards on a paved road that leads us to the bluffs above the Pacific Ocean.  With seven miles of coastline, Montana De Oro will give us two miles of bluff trail hiking this morning.

MDO Dan at bluff

Though it’s a midweek Thursday in January, we are not alone on this summer-like day.  Beach goers hang out at Spooner’s Cove while others are here and there hiking the Bluff Trail.  Though Montana De Oro gets half a million visitors a year, today there are no crowds and few trail bike riders.

MDO 3 trail along bluff

In just five minutes we are at the top of the cliff with striking views of crashing waves to the north.  Montana De Oro means “Mountain of Gold” which comes from the golden wildflowers found in the park.  This year we see no such flowers as the land is parched and dry due to the ongoing drought.  With cliffs, sandy beaches, canyons, and hills, Montana De Oro has something for every nature lover.

MDO 4 bluff waves

Weaving in and out of the steep cliff peninsulas as we hike south, I am struck by the relentless snow white waves that keep coming and coming.  It is one spectacular view after another.  We have hit bluff hiking oro (gold).

MDO 5 han on bluff trail

Hiking in shorts and tee shirts, we get all the sunshine we can ask for while friends stomp through the snow of our driveway with our mail and to feed our cat Sadie.

On the trail we see a mother, her mom, and daughter.  We talk and eventually learn the nine month old’s name is Siena.  With another grandchild on the way, Hannah and I are looking for names to send Molly and Tip’s way.  Molly and Tip are old school in that they won’t know the gender of their baby until the bambino is born.  Playfully, they have come up with a baby pool, something similar to a March Madness bracket, for people to see if they can guess the names Molly and Tip will pick for our new grandchild.

MDO 8 beach scene great

Occasionally there is access to the beaches beneath the cliffs.  The bluff trail itself is entirely level some 60’ above the shore below.  Soon we see a young father, his Dad, and a 15 month old resting at a picnic table with their bikes parked nearby.  When we leave and Hannah realizes we haven’t asked the little boy’s name, she returns and finds that it is Kiernan.  If you are wondering about my leading baby’s names: Carly and Johnny.  You heard it hear first.  It’s going to be a girl.  Rachel?  Caroline?  Julia?  Quinn?  I’m grabbing at straws.

MDO 9 han on beach

After walking the beaches of Santa Barbara and Summerland, CA, we finally hike the bluffs above the relentless ocean for over two miles in what literally is paradise.

Up and down the coast, California is fantastic at reinforcing the danger of the public feeding the wildlife.  This gull expects a treat, but it will not be from us.

MDO 9D han with seagull

The trip back to the Spooner Ranch House takes the Pecho Valley Road for a little over a mile.  Rather than return, we spot in the distance what looks like more trail.  We will soon discover that the Point Buchon Trail lies just south of us on the Pacific Ocean.  Stay tuned. We are on our way.

Dan and Hannah Hike the Tunnel Trail in the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara, California

The Santa Ynez Mountains from our downtown motel

The Santa Ynez Mountains from our downtown motel

A mere ten minutes from our downtown Santa Barbara motel we turn left on to the winding Tunnel Road heading to the mountains and roadside trailhead parking.  It’s a mid-morning in January and the temperature is a Mediterranean 75F without a cloud in the sky.

TT fire warning sign at start of the trail

Climbing the weathered paved trail into the mountains for a good ¾ of a mile, we are looking for the seven-mile round-trip Jesusita Trail.

Spanish – the language of passion and melody.  I missed a golden opportunity to learn Spanish when I taught many Chicano kids in the Phoenix, AZ area for eight years in the 1970s.  Just say Jesusita (Hey-sue-see-ta).  It’s lyrical and flows off the tongue.

For a second day the trails are poorly marked.  We see one sign for the Jesusita Trail and then we are on our own.   With a hike of 1200 foot gain (i.e., from the lowest point on the trail to the highest there is a difference of 1200 feet), we are looking for a good three hour workout on our last day in Santa Barbara.

What we guess is the trail is a steep climb up a wide fire road.  That doesn’t sound right, but we see no alternative.  Straight up the hill we trudge. One half mile later the trail dead-ends at the base of one of the most beautiful transmission towers you have ever seen.  I’m kidding.  It is the typical erector set tower that is kin to the tacky, garish highway billboard.  We have no sense that the trail exits from this plateau.  With no intention of bushwhacking through the brush, we say no mas.

TT han inching up trail

TT han inching down from trail

The climb down from the transmission tower is worse.  The dry, loose stone trail has us slip, sliding away.  We brace our legs and inch side-saddle down the quote trail.  Hannah hugs the side of the trail knowing this can’t be good for her once broken left leg.  We escape and, as we did yesterday, look for a Plan B.

TT tunnel trail sign

We double back down the trail to the Tunnel Trail sign.  What the heck?  Let’s give it a go.  It’s billed as a 9 to 11 mile hike so today we will not reach the summit of the nearly 4000’ La Cumbre Peak, the highest peak in Santa Barbara.  But 40 minutes up and then 40 back will give us a solid morning of hiking.  Goats have worked this trailhead to clear vegetation to minimize the fire danger.

Hannah takes to the switchbacks of the Tunnel Trail

Hannah takes to the switchbacks of the Tunnel Trail

In Great Day Hikes in Santa Barbara by Diane Soini we learn that the Tunnel Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the area.   A YELP review is encouraging – Great hike.  Took me about 5:30h roundtrip, but that’s b/c I did take lunch and take time to eat at the top.  A tough, sweaty 3h up, and a relatively easy 2h down.

Pacific Ocean from the TunnelTrail

Pacific Ocean from the Tunnel Trail

Immediately we fall in love with the trail.  Generally just wide enough for one, the trail has switchbacks that make the mountain ascent a challenge but very doable.  Hiking through the chaparral and brush country under a cloudless sky, I feel like we are in a desert landscape something similar to what you would find at South Mountain Park in Phoenix, Arizona.  In the midst of this terrible drought in California, every so often we see a yellow flower the size of a small button.

Dan hiking the Front Country of the Tunnel Trail

Dan hiking the Front Country of the Tunnel Trail

From the Santa Barbara Independent newspaper – Long-term water planners are now suggesting the state is in the worst water predicament since the 1880s.  Grabbing national headlines is the fact that 17 communities throughout California are now officially without water. Hydro geologists are tossing about the term “mega-drought”… 

It’s a serious, steady, challenging climb under a full sun.  With what we imagine is the summit always in view, we know that we will return next winter to hike the entire Tunnel Trail.

University of California at Santa Barbara

University of California, Santa Barbara

After some time by the pool for Hannah at our motel and a siesta for me, we take The 101 highway north in the late afternoon to see the campus of UCSB (University of California, Santa Barbara).  A good three or four miles from town right on the Pacific Ocean, this campus of 21,000 students reflects the melting pot that is California.  Caucasian students (39%),  Hispanics (29%), Asian students (23%), and American-Africans (4%) make up most of the student body.

Bike racks in the late afternoon

Bike racks in the late afternoon

We notice the campus is made for biking.  Bike paths cross the campus like an intricate morning spider web.  With signs promising a $181 fine for bike riders taking short cuts off the bike paths, I don’t see a single bike rider pedaling off any bike path during our hour on campus.

Recycling at UCSB

Recycling at UCSB

And aren’t these bins so California!  As a New Jersey kid I always thought that all the social and cultural trends began in California, jumped to the East Coast then oozed from the West and East into the rest of the country.  You do remember that California was the first to have “right on red” turns for drivers before anywhere else in the country.

TT york and sb temps

We are sold on the California coast.

Dan and Hannah and Owen during the Baby-moon

Owen and his Omi

Owen and his Omi


First let me explain what a baby-moon is.  Before their first child arrives, couples take a weekend away as a sort of “honeymoon” before they dive into full-time parenting.  In this variation, our daughter Molly and her hubby Tip are going to a West Virginia bed and breakfast for one last weekend alone before their second child is born in May.  While they are away, Hannah and I will rock the house with our 18 month old grandson Owen.

Yogurt never tasted so good

Yogurt never tasted so good

During this never-ending winter, traveling is a roll of the dice.  The day before we are to fly from Boston (Logan) to northern Virginia (Reagan) we learn that Jet Blue has cancelled every single Logan-to-Reagan flight.  Ticketed for the first Jet Blue flight on Friday morning at 615A, we wonder what the ten inches of Thursday snow will mean for our plans to fly south.  Crossing our fingers has worked in the past.

Besides confounding our travel plans, the snow has a financial cost.  We have a Comfort Inn room at a discount that is non-refundable, non-transferrable, and worth diddly do if we don’t show up.  We’ve prepaid for shuttle parking at Park. Ride, and Fly three miles from Logan.  And without our driveway being plowed by our friend Dave, we aren’t flying anywhere anyway.

On Chases Pond Road in York, Maine

On Chases Pond Road in York, Maine

Snow in the abstract might sound romantic to those living in California, Florida, and Arizona.  You see the storms crossing the northern part of the country on the Weather Channel, but you don’t feel our pain.  I certainly didn’t when we lived in Arizona.  Your weather was just a TV show in my mind.

Come late February the nasty three (the cold, the dark, and the snow) can get old.  Real old.  Senior citizen old!  Hannah and I no longer have the fire or the desire to shovel our 150 foot driveway from top to bottom when the snow exceeds 8”, as we have done for some 30 years.  Dave’s plow has been a welcome relief to our once strong backs and youthful exuberance.

NBM jet blue planes

As it turns out when the Friday alarm sounds at 245A, a quick check of my iPhone shows that the flight is on.  Driving on still wet and sometimes icy highways and city streets, we arrive at Park, Ride, and Fly in Revere, MA by 430A for the shuttle to Logan.  Since conditions require the de-icing of the plane, we take off twenty-five minutes late and still arrive in Virginia by 830A!  I can’t imagine where we’d be if we had driven the 550 miles through the storm-ravaged, megaplex of spaghetti (i.e., highways) in the Northeast.

With Owen at daycare and Molly home because of a snow day from her teaching position (Virginia is a hoot when it comes to snow days – 2 inches and all hell breaks loose), we three head to the gym; later Hannah and I nap to make up for our short night.

Amelia bracketed by Dan and Hannah

Amelia bracketed by Dan and Hannah

With three days and two nights ahead with Owen, we have plans for the zoo on Saturday and then the National Building Museum Sunday.  When the time comes Saturday, we pass on the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington with our friend Amelia since the temperatures are a Maine-like 30 degrees mid-day.  Hanging out with Amelia and our grandson Owen in his living room of balls, blocks, stacking cups, and puzzles, we are in the presence of a smiling eighteen-month-old who sees the world as his oyster.

The interior colonades of the National Building Museum

The interior colonades of the National Building Museum

On Sunday, we head off to the National Building Museum made for kids under ten.  Driving a simple twenty minutes from Virginia to our nation’s capital on a February Sunday morning of little traffic, we meet our friend Ellen who has taken the Metro within a couple of blocks of the majestic building that once housed the offices for the administration of Civil War Pensions.  After the Civil War, the United States Congress passed legislation that greatly expanded pensions for veterans, their widows, and orphans.

NBM play work build sign

Immediately it hits me that the idea behind this museum is brilliant.  Where can parents take preschoolers in winter, even if it is the northern South of Washington, DC, where it’s warm and engaging?  For a mere $8 for adults, $5 for seniors, and no cost for those under 2, the price is right as we enter a hall of wonders for the preschool set.  First we head to the Play, Work, and Build area on the second floor.

NBM Owen with tinker toy

In a room that seems to hold 100+ kids and parents, we find Lincoln Logs, Tinker Toys, and blue foam building blocks aplenty.  Owen goes immediately for the Tinker Toys.  For most of the next hour he holds on to it dearly.

(If you look closely, you can see the blue foam ball in Owen's right hand.)

(If you look closely, you can see the blue foam ball in Owen’s right hand.)

At the blue blocks Owen finds a foam blue ball.  Other kids, even parents, want it.  When he finally rolls it down the sloping chute, instantly another kid grabs it.  Owen looks quizzically.  The foam ball is gone and Owen just moves on.

NBM Owen w big blue blocks

Just after noon, we enter the Building Zone, a play area designated for 2-6 year olds; the number of kids are limited to around 20.  It looks like Owen’s living room of chaos and toys only on a grand room scale.  When we open the gate, Owen sprints for a truck.   Though he’s missed his morning nap, the shapes, sizes, and colors grab hold of his attention for the next hour.

NBM BZ O w four sided 2

NBM BZ w building blocks

NBM BZ building train tracks

NBM BZ big legos

NBM BZ O with Ellen 1

Hannah and Ellen at the Building Zone

Hannah and Ellen at the Building Zone

The National Building Museum is the bargain of a lifetime for the preschool set and their adoring grandparents.  It’s funny for the last year and a half of his life how Owen continues to be the cutest, brightest, sweetest grandchild in the world (tied for first with every other grandchild)!