Dan and Hannah Hike the Ben Johnson Loop Trail in Muir Woods, California

MW map of area

On this mid-January day we put a bow on our nine days of coastal hiking in California.  It’s been Bluff Hikes up and down the coast: San Luis Obispo, Big Sur, Santa Cruz, and Gualala.  Though the snow and ice of Maine will snare us in its evil web tomorrow, this Thursday we will hike a mere three miles from the Pacific Ocean at the crown Jewel of the Redwoods, Muir Woods National Monument.

MW jet blue at night

We have “stolen” an extra day in California by leaving tonight at 11P on the evening red-eye from San Francisco to Boston.  Rather than fly today and miss hiking completely or fly tomorrow and pay for a motel room that we would use only til 4A in order to catch the 7A cross country flight, we are flying overnight.  Brilliant?  Yes and no.  The trade-off is a lousy night of sleep in the plane.  A small price to pay for another day in paradise.

Gas in Boonville, CA

Gas in Boonville, CA

Leaving the home of our friends Tree and Scott in Manchester, CA just after dawn, we drive inland by way of Mountain View Road heading to Boonville, CA some 25 miles away.  No lie, it takes an hour to drive this winding road to get to this one-horse town known for its wine festivals.  In need of gas, we have no choice but to put in an additional two gallons at $4.59 per gallon to tide us over til Cloverdale some 30 mountainous miles away.

MW 4 Muir woods sign with H

After Cloverdale, it’s a direct 80 miles down the six lanes of the 101 to Muir Woods.  Just three days ago we were caught in the Mother-of-All-Traffic-Jams on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day here at Muir Woods.  After sitting on the off-ramp for 25 minutes in five miles of car-clogged traffic ahead to the Pacific Coast Highway, we took the alternative six-lane 101 highway north to Santa Rosa, CA.

The trails of Muir Woods

The trails of Muir Woods

This Thursday we have no such traffic and cruise into Muir Woods.  Parking that can be non-existent on the weekend after 11A is ample and welcoming today.  Three years ago we hiked the Bootjack Trail for nearly four hours.  Today we are looking for another redwood-strewn  hike before we fly to the snowy tundra of Maine.

Taking to the boardwalk through the redwoods, we… But let me let my videographer tell his story.



MW 9AA Ben Johnson Trail with H

Named after legendary conservationist John Muir, the Muir Woods National Park has redwoods nearly 1000 years old.  When informed that this area would be named after him, John Muir said, This is the best tree lover’s monument that could possibly be found in all the forests of the world.  To that, Hannah and I add Amen!  My college roommate Big Steve used the word stunning to describe the spectacular in his life.  These redwoods are stunning.

Dan on the Ben Johnson Trail

Dan on the Ben Johnson Trail

Though this is the rainy season, after a mile on the boardwalk we take the fourth bridge over the now very dry Redwood Creek as the relentless drought of California rolls on.  On a quiet Thursday in January we choose the Ben Johnson Trail with its 1000 feet of elevation gain to celebrate our last day in California.  Called a moderate/strenuous hike by the trail guide, the Ben Johnson Trail is a steady climb under the redwood canopy.  FYI, Ben Johnson lived in a small cabin in what is now Muir Woods. In 1935, he built the trail that that bears his name.

MW 9F Han with trail sign

With redwoods here, there, and everywhere, the mile and third climb takes us 45 minutes of purposeful hiking.  In Muir Woods there lies the largest stand of ancient redwoods in the San Francisco Area; these trees are the tallest living things in the world.  We are grabbing last minutes on this California trail not knowing that this year’s icy and snowy Maine winter will take hostages all the way through April!

The Dipsea Trail

The Dipsea Trail

Turning south on the Dipsea Trail, we find the trails are well-marked.  Unfortunately we are leaving the redwoods behind as we hike through grasslands with pine trees bracketing the mini-meadows.  With the Pacific Ocean to our west, the Dipsea Trail is pedestrian and functional, but hardly stunning.

Dipping back into the coastal rain forest of redwoods, we descend rapidly back to the Redwood Creek and toward the visitor center.  With two hours of hiking in the books, we want more.  We are in denial that we are leaving paradise this evening.

Descending through the redwoods to Redwood Creek

Descending through the redwoods to Redwood Creek

It’s 330P, and negotiating San Francisco traffic to the airport south of the city is on our minds.  Traffic, schmaffic. It will be there whether we hike or not.  Throwing vehicular caution to the wind, we select the Ocean View Trail as our closing hike of the week (See the blog for May 3, 2014).

Dan and Hannah Hike the Bluff Trail in Gualala Point Park, California

In traffic on 19th Avenue in San Francisco

In traffic on 19th Avenue in San Francisco

We made a mistake; it was a rookie mistake.  We paid, we learned (we think).

Here’s the scenario.  Leaving our Quality Inn motel in Santa Cruz, CA some eighty miles south of San Francisco at 830A on a Monday morning in mid-January, we time our departure to minimize the traffic as we pass through the City by the Bay.  Being first timers on this section of the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), we have no idea that the two-lane sightseeing coastal adventure of the past few days is now a thing of the past.  At this point the PCH has become a highway of commuters heading to San Fran.


Amazingly, as we approach the turn for the Golden Gate Bridge, the eight lane interstate (I-280) just dumps us onto a city street (19th Avenue); from there it’s twelve miles of go and stop and stop some more with at least 75 traffic lights.

G 2A map of Cali north coast

But that isn’t the big mistake, but it is part of it.  Once over the Golden Gate Bridge, we do choose wisely and zip along at 65 mph on the six-lane 101 north for 50 miles to Santa Rosa.  From there it’s 50 more twisty miles along the windy two lane routes 12 and 116 to Jenner, CA on the coast.  Once on the PCH our GPS says we have 71 miles to go that will take us two hours of driving to our destination north of Gualala, CA (pronounced Wah-LA-La).  Two hours for 71 miles!  Welcome to the Pacific Coast Highway ladies and gentlemen.

Pacific Coast Highway

Pacific Coast Highway

The mistake?  I think you can connect the dots from Santa Cruz to San Francisco to Santa Rosa to Jenner to ….   Too much driving.  The serpentine roads of rural California take hours to navigate.  Sadly it’s a vacation day without a hike.  That just should not happen.  That is a sin against all that is vacation holy.

The Corey House

The Corey House

Happily we arrive at the Corey House, the VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) of our friends Tree and Scott (neighbors of ours in York, Maine).  These two cross-continental travelers set this entire West Coast adventure of ours in motion.  Tree was the one who articulated how as outdoor people they didn’t want to spend the winter inside when temperate California waited with open arms.  After six nights in motels, Hannah and I are ready for the comfort of the sunset coast home of Scott and Tree.

Coastal town of Gualala

Coastal town of Gualala

The next morning after a homemade Tree breakfast, they chauffeur us to Gualala Point Regional State Park for the last of our five bluff hikes in California.  Scott and Tree are making this area a wonderful three month home away from home.  After we leave, they will go to town for a Saturday evening spaghetti dinner fundraiser at the Gualala Community Center.  They are on first name basis with Judith, the post mistress, and have a gym membership at Kenny’s in-town Physical Gym and Fitness Center.  They will run in the Whale Festival 5K in Mendocino, some thirty miles north up the coast.  In a vacation area, they are fast becoming locals.

Tree and Hannah

Tree and Hannah

Parking in an empty trailhead lot, we will skirt the Sea Ranch Community today as we hike along the Pacific Ocean.  Known for its distinctive, simple timber-frame construction, Sea Ranch is a  community of some 1800 luxurious vacation homes a few yards from the ocean itself.

Hannah and Dan above the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean

Hannah and Dan above the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean

On the bluff trail with Tree, Scott, and Bob, their Irish setter, we see more dry grassland as we have all up and down the California coast.  It’s relaxing with compadres like Scott and Tree who take care of us like family.  After our hike, Scott will stop at the Surf Market in Gualala and buy a bottle of Crane red wine for dinner.  Pretty routine stuff, right?  What you don’t know is Scott and Tree don’t drink.  They bought it just for us.

Rocking the California coast

Rocking the California coast

Above the basalt cliffs, we hike in pairs, Tree and Dan, Hannah and Scott, then we switch it up.  With an Irish setter, the pace is relaxed which fits the mellow California feel of the day.  As we hike, Scott gives us a lesson in whale-ology (i.e., to marine biologists it is cetology).  Soon I spot five whales while Scott’s eagle eyes finds 17.

Hannah and Scott

Hannah and Scott

You have no doubt heard the expression, Thar she blows.   Though we see no whales breaching, Scott has us looking for the warm water spray from their spout on the horizon as they exhale and inhale.  The visible spray (“blows”) is whatever seawater that has collected into their nostrils.   Whales usually remain beneath the surface for three to ten minutes, but they can stay under for 30 minutes or longer.

G 7 D on bluff trail

Scott and Tree have come west to count migrating gray whales that are swimming often some 500 yards off shore southbound to Baja  California ; whales have their calves in the warm Mexican waters.  He registers his daily count with the American Cetacean Society, which has a large census center in Los Angeles.

Have you ever wondered how can you make a whale float?  Root beer, ice cream, and a whale.

G 8 crashing waves of bluff trail

Overlooking the Pacific we lunch on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a day when we are glad to have sweatshirts.  Though just a touch chilly here 150 miles north of San Francisco in January, it’s sunny and upper 50s by the water.  Just last night the Weather Channel has informed us of another East Coast snowstorm and plunging subzero temps.

Hannah and Tree

Hannah and Tree

For the most part we have the bluff trail to ourselves.  Tree and Scott are in the midst of their first month of three away out west in California.  On this day, they will have no way of knowing that this will be the coldest, snowiest winter in memory in Maine and throughout much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States.

Along the Bluff Trail in Gualala State Park

Along the Bluff Trail in Gualala State Park

The California coast has its hooks in me.  For Hannah, I’d say it’s a small itch.  But I hope it is one that she will want to scratch next winter!

Dan and Hannah Hike the Bluff Trail at Wilder Ranch State Park, Santa Cruz, California

WR Santa Cruz map 1

Traveling north on the Pacific Coast Highway from Big Sur, Hannah and I arrive in Santa Cruz (Holy Cross), California, some 80 miles south of San Francisco, in search of our next bluff trail. It might seem that we are on a quest similar to the one the surfers followed in the 1966 cult classic documentary, the Endless Summer.  In that film they looked the world over for the perfect wave.  We are not looking for the perfect bluff trail; no, we just want another one.  And then one more.

wr beach boardwalk 1

A beach resort town of 60, 000 on the north edge of Monterrey bay, Santa Cruz was one of the first communities to approve the use of medical marijuana (1992).  Later in the day we will walk the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which is an oceanside amusement park that would make Seaside Heights, NJ or Wildwood, NJ proud.  The Santa Cruz vibe warms my traveling soul and it all says Escape with a capital E.

WR WR map

Not more than a ten minute drive north from the downtown out the Pacific Coast Highway (Route 1), we turn left toward the ocean and the entrance of Wilder Ranch State Park.  It’s another picture perfect California Sunday in January.  With the State Parks in California typically charging $10 admission, what better way is there for us to spend a sawbuck or a Hamilton (pictured on the $10 bill) for a morning of uncrowded, outdoor activity?  By the way, the Wilder Family ran a creamery here for five generations.  A creamery is often the source of butter and, as you might imagine, cream.   Their land became a state park in the 1970s.

Though the bulk of the 700o acres of the park lies east of the coast highway, the Ohlone Bluff Trail is a stone’s throw from the parking lot.  By the way, the Ohlone Indians lived in the area for centuries until European diseases and the loss of their lands led to their inevitable demise.  A sadly familiar tale of Manifest Destiny.

WR 2 bluff trail

At 9A the parking lot is empty and we have nothing but blue skies above us.  Four miles of bluff hiking 70’ above the Pacific shoreline lies ahead for us on this Sunday.  With no hills or elevation gain at all, we hike at a crisp three mph pace loving the freedom of being away, so “Carol King” far away.

WR 3 D on bluff trail

Being passed by a team of female cross country runners from one of the four local high schools this early morning, we first hike above Sand Plant Beach, then later on the bluffs above Strawberry Beach.  Sandy trails snake down to the ocean’s edge, but on this 50 degree mid-morning there are no beach-goers.

WR 4 H on bluff trail

There are certainly more bikers on the trail than hiker/walkers this Sunday morning.  While the bluff trail is nine miles round trip, bikers and hikers have access to 35 miles of trails among the Douglas firs and coastal redwoods in the mountains of Wilder Ranch State Park.  Passing two surfers scouting out the morning waves on our way to Three Mile Beach, we are getting all the vitamin D (from the sun) that we could want.

WR 9C Biker on bluff trail

It’s an easy bike or car ride from town so this trail can be a daily bit of exercise for the locals.  The terrain is so level that we catch an easy hiking rhythm while we talk.  Weaving in and out the peninsulas along the coast, we find the sandy soil pleasingly easy to our soles.

WR 8 bluffs and waves

Harbor seals and otters swim these coastal waters.  As with much of the Pacific California coast, one can see migrating whales and dolphins.  You can spot whales by the “blows” you see (i.e., the stream of warm air being forced out of their lungs through their spouts).

California provides 50% of our nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts.  (The nuts part of that is such an easy shot for haters of all things  California!)  A private farm juts into the park where we see artichokes and Brussels sprouts growing (There is an S on the end of Brussels despite it rarely being pronounced.).  For the life of me, I can’t imagine paying good money for Brussels sprouts.  Or eating them!

WR 9F migrant farmer housingMigrant farmer housing lies on the private land near the state park.  With the artichokes and Brussels sprouts nearly ready for picking, families will return here in hopes of making a better life than what they had south of the border.  A dream they share with us all.

Currently California farmers and growers find themselves without enough laborers to harvest the crops.  The lack of immigration reform and the tightened border security are leaving California farmers high and dry.  American citizens are not lining up for these backbreaking jobs.  Even the tacit use of illegal immigrants in much of the state still does not provide enough labor for America’s hunger for fruits and vegetables.

WR 9G car with eyelashes

After sadly watching the Denver Broncos beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game, we walk the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.  Later this car winks at us.  We are both in on the secret that California is the land of dreams.

We think it, dream it, believe it, do it as the Unity song encourages.

Dan and Hannah Hike the Bluff Trail at Andrew Molera State Park, Big Sur, California

AM map of big sur

Snaking north on the Pacific Coast Highway, Hannah and I do not pass a single burg, not a village, or even a hamlet.  A few cabins in Gorda with its $5.99 per gallon regular are the closest thing to a settlement that we see.  Today we have set our sights on a bluff hike in Andrew Molera State Park in Big Sur.  FYI, Andrew Molera was a rancher in the 1930s, whose family donated the park land to the state of California.

While there is a “town” of Big Sur, the Big Sur region is considered to be the 90 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway from San Simeon (Hearst Castle) to Carmel.  Once a hippy heaven back in the day, its Big Sur Folk Festival in the late 60s had musical heavyweights like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  Now along this stretch there are no chain hotels, supermarkets, or fast-food restaurants.  The mountainous terrain and environmental restrictions have kept Big Sur relatively unspoiled.  As a result, homes can be north of $2 million.

AM trail map

After four hours of the PCH’s hairpins, we have just five minutes more through the heavily forested mountainside from the Big Sur gas station/convenience store to the entrance of the Andrew Molera State Park.  On this Saturday noon time, the parking lot is packed; and why wouldn’t it be on a day that is 75 degrees and a location just some 20 miles south of Carmel and Monterrey.  For $9 admission for seniors, we park and lunch out of our rental car’s trunk on oranges, apples, trail mix, and motel muffins.

AM 1 first sign

Informed that the seasonal bridge over the Big Sur River is out, we un-shod and de-sock and dip our feet into the 6 to 10 inches of 47F water.  With no choice, there is little complaining by the hikers and beachgoers that we see as they cross the 25’ of flowing stream.  (At the end of the blog is a short video on Hannah re-crossing this stream.)

Big Sur River

Big Sur River

Taking the Creamery Meadow Trail we hike for the fourth day in a row in California under cloudless skies in the mid-70s.  The trail to the beach is sandy dirt that is easy on the feet, level and winding through a savannah similar to what we have seen in the grasslands of the Everglades.

Heading to the Pacific

Heading to the Pacific

While the park pamphlet recommends hiking this loop trail by starting with the inland Ridge Trail first, we choose the direct route to the water with its crashing surf and with the ocean extending to the horizon.  In less than twenty minutes we are at the beach with families and surfers giving it their best ten seconds.  (Does that sound like a shot at surfing?)

AM 7 arrive at beach

The bluff trail is clearly marked and spreading before us to the south.  Passing ten to fifteen hikers over the nearly next two miles of the Bluff Trail, we have brief, smiling conversations and then move on.

AM 8 bluff trail sign

The trail is narrow and distinctive, winding its way through the very dry grasslands above the shoreline.  Below us at low tide beachcombers can walk for two miles along the sandy shore easily getting around the rocky outcroppings.  The park pamphlet warns with CAPITAL LETTERS of the danger of misjudging the tides.  The bluff walls are no easy climb and often inaccessible.  The number one rule of the coast is Never turn your back on the ocean! 

AM 9B shore line with D

Transported into another country and time here in California, we have no responsibilities, no deadlines, no “to-dos,” just hiking and hanging out together.  Hannah loves her sun and I am equally enamored today with the pristine coast with no houses on the cliffs or any cell services.  At no point on this hike do we feel we may get lost.  The trail is well-laid out, easy to follow, and popular.

AM 9C H on bluff trail

On the East Coast there would often be mansions (euphemistically called “cottages”) on the water’s edge.  In New England, there would be laws (decrees from the King of England) from the 1600s giving rights to the low tide line to land owners effectively keeping the public out; the modern day landed aristocracy would have the ocean views to themselves, as is now in danger of happening in York County, Maine.

AM 9D bluff trail with sea

After nearly three miles of hiking from the parking lot in a little over an hour, we descend the steep side Spring Trail to the ocean shore through coastal scrub and grasslands.

AM 9E trail into mountains

Meeting a couple from Australia with an extreme sports camera that records their every step as they run the trail, we linger by the water’s edge; we are torn between just catching some rays on the beach and the fact that we have 2+ hours of mountainous hiking still ahead before the late afternoon January sunset.   We turn for the hills.

AM 9F beach waves

We look ahead to the climb ahead of us with oaks and redwoods in the distance.  As my friend Mitch says, these are Adirondack switchbacks (i.e., straight up!).  Climbing from the shore we have a serious 1000 feet of elevation gain ahead of us.  There is no shade and no mercy, but also no driveway with snow.

The "switchbacks" of the Panorama Trail

The “switchbacks” of the Panorama Trail

It’s amazing how willing hikers coming down the mountain are to give you the information they think you want.  As an entre to conversation, I ask everyone, Which is the top most peak? (which they incidentally have just come from).  They see my sweat-stained face, big smile, and just give me what I obviously want!  With their best intentions, they say, It’s just over the hill there, or You’re close.  Brimming with hopefulness, I am to blame.  Fact is, we are not close and it takes an hour to climb a mile and a third.

On the Ridge Trail heading back to the trailhead

On the Ridge Trail heading back to the trailhead

Though slow going, we are under a full sun as we arrive at the end of the Panorama trail.  There a bench in the shade provides us with, you got it, a panorama of the ocean to our left and the mountainous terrain of the rest of the Andrew Molera State Park across the Pacific Coast Highway.

But it’s all downhill from here (in a good way!).

AM 9J H on trail back

The Ridge Trail is wide, shaded, and our energy level returns.  Within the canopy of the forest we rarely see the ocean.  Taking the side Hidden Trail down the mountain to the River Trail, we are nearly done with our three plus hours of hiking over these eight miles.

Just 100 yards from our rental car, we ford the Big Sur River one more time.  Again, Hannah impresses.