Dan and Hannah Hike the Carpinteria Bluffs (southern California)


Albert Hammond got it, at most, 60% right this drought busting February of 2017.  You know, he’s the singer of It Never Rains in Southern CaliforniaClick here to be taken back to his yearning in verse.   Yet, even when it rains, southern California delivers for the outdoor-minded.  After stretching and meditating, Hannah and I walk from our cottage out into the light rain for our morning two and a half miles in the foothills just south of Santa Barbara.  The light rain cleanses, not soaks.

The morning precip returns me to our Arizona roots when rain was such an anomaly in the desert that Hannah and I would stare out into our backyard transfixed, to watch the hydro manna fall from heaven, even for just ten minutes.


In the high fifties, this first week of February in Summerland, the warmth of the rain conjures up memories of my choice for one of our two wedding songs – Summer Rain by Johnny Rivers.  Click here to be transported back to the music of our generation to our hilltop wedding in East Penfield, New York on July 1,1972. (By the way, Hannah’s choice was Crazy Love by Helen Reddy.)

Once back after our morning in the hills, we have coffee and Hannah’s biscuits, but no Sports Center, as is my routine with breakfast at home.  Nor do we have the Weather Channel, the perfect medium for obsessing – in this case, over monster snowstorms blanketing our Maine coast.  Turns out that our cottage just has basic cable; I mean basic as in only networks and reruns of Modern Family, Big Bang Theory and MASH.


Rather than channel surfing, I read up on what’s going on in the Santa Barbara area through the local free tabloids – Montecito Journal, Santa Barbara Independent, and the Carpinteria Coastal View News.

Today, mist to light rain eliminates any thought of Friday Pickleball at the outdoor Municipal Tennis Center in Santa Barbara.  So, we opt for Plan B, born in the Carpinteria Coastal View News.


Just four miles to the south of our cottage in Summerland lies Carpinteria, a small town of 14,000.   Known for it literally having the safest beach in the world, or so they claim, Carpinteria is home to seals and sea lions nesting below the nearby Carpinteria Bluffs.

With our grandsons, Owen (4.5) and Max (nearly 3), coming with their parents, Molly and Tip, in the weeks ahead, we are scoping out places to take the boys while their parents are off hiking.


Driving a mere six miles south on The 101 highway from our cottage, we turn off the Bailard Street exit and immediately arrive at the parking lot of the Carpinteria Bluff Nature Preserve.  On this upper 50F degree Friday afternoon, few others are here.


Our non-trail sandwiched between the bluffs and the railroad

With no guiding signs, we walk with faith toward the ocean for the bluffs.  California delivers when it comes to extraordinary bluff trails: Montana De Oro State Park outside of San Luis Obispo, San Simeon State Park north of Cambria, and the Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz.  Today we are hoping to add one more pearl to our necklace of bluff hiking gems.  (Click each park name above to read the blog and see the breathtaking photography of these rock star bluff hikes.)


With no signage telling us where to go, we take a sandy path towards the bluff’s edge.  Crossing the active railroad, we look over the edge to see 6 to 8′ rounded rocks in the sandy shore, but no seals.  With no discernible trail, we are sandwiched between 70’ cliffs to the ocean below us and twenty foot bluffs above of us.  Something is just not right; this is not a trail for visitors.

Discouraged, we head back and wonder what’s the big deal about this Carpinteria rookery!  Thank goodness, we checked this out so we wouldn’t make the mistake of wasting one of Owen and Max’s days in California here.


Still, something gnaws at us that we have missed something.  Ready to drive off, we approach a young man who explains that the seals are further north, beyond where the 12’ gravelly park path ends, on towards the pier.   No signs indicate any of this, but we take it on faith that this young fella knows what the hell he is talking about.


Highly motivated to find an afternoon’s fun with Owen and Max, we hike north on a sandy trail heading to the pier.  With others walking dogs, we all come upon a sign that directs us to a bluff overlook.  Seventy feet beneath us are three harbor seals, big blobs that blend into the smooth rocky shoreline with rocks as big as they are.  I defy you to pick out the seals among the rocks, even though I use my telephoto lens on my iPhone to get as close as I can.

We have an alternative for you to consdier.  If you come to California in January or February, go 150 miles north near San Simeon on the central coast, to see hundreds upon hundreds of elephant seals at Piedras Blancas.  Click here for that blog.


Successful in discerning that this is no place to bring preschoolers, we are about to win again as we meander through the town of Carpinteria on our way back to the cottage.  There, we check out the Carpinteria Beach State Park for beach fun for Owen and Max.   Learning that admission is $10 per day to the park, we are surprised, and pleased, when the attendant tells us to drive to the exit where we will find free street-side parking on Linden Avenue.  That beach is literally the same beach as the state park.

We should go to Vegas with the winning streak we are on.


Dan and Hannah Hike the Bluff Trail at the University of California, Santa Barbara

go quality inn

This is Michael. Can I help you?

Michael, this is Dan in room 110There are loud noises coming from the room above us.  Can you do something about it?

I’ll check on it immediately.

My iPhone lights up at 1:44A on this Sunday morning, our first night in California with some serious jet lag.  The voices of partying young women coming through the ceiling have awakened me again.  And the women don’t sound like they are going to bed anytime soon.  Then, not a minute later, I hear a knock on a door above me.  And then it’s quiet.

Thank you Michael, I whisper.  Peace in the valley.

GO map

Usually our experiences in motels are positive.  We get free breakfasts and always have a queen bed or more.   I do travel with ear plugs for just such occasions, but they are no match for these exuberant weekend voices.   Hoping noisy people in the next room will just stop has never proved to be a winning strategy for me.

GO 1 Gold is new Green

Sleeping til 530A (it is 830A in Maine), Hannah and I walk before sunrise through the sleepy coastal enclave of Santa Barbara.  Despite this year’s El Nino, the lawns are still brown.  As far as lawns go, gold is the new green.

Jasmine Cottage in Summerland, CA

Jasmine Cottage VRBO in Summerland, CA

Coming to Santa Barbara to escape winter in Maine and hike the bluffs and mountains along the Pacific coast, we make connections this Sunday morning with locals at the Unity of Santa Barbara spiritual community.   Later we check out a VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) home in Summerland, just four miles south of Santa Barbara, to see about being snowbirds (i.e., renting a house for a month next winter in the area).

GO 2 H at GB sign

Despite the threatening skies and forecast of mid-afternoon rain, we are determined to hike a bluff trail just north of Goleta, near the campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Using the description for the four mile Goleta Beach hike in Day Hikes on the California Central Coast as our guide, we find the trail a simple ten minute drive from Santa Barbara down The 101 south to UCSB and Goleta Beach.

The bluff begins at Goleta Beach

The bluff trail begins at Goleta Beach

Though Albert Hammond of It Never Rains in Southern California fame is usually right on, that’s not the case today.  It’s mid-50s and light rain.  Surfers and paddle boarders take on the swells from El Nino.  Weather-wise, this year El Nino is win/win: rain in California in an effort to bust their five year drought and warmer winter temps and less snow in New England.

GO 2B D at Unstable cliff sign

Leaving from the far end of the Goleta Beach County Park-ing lot with UCSB beaming in the distance, we will walk above the beach on a bluff and then around a campus lagoon.

GO 2AAA vulnerable tree

Immediately we notice that every fifty feet there is another sign cautioning hikers to stay back because waves are undercutting the bluffs.  Looking left to the relentless ocean and then right to the UCSB campus just beyond the bluffs, we wonder what is going to happen to the university in the next generation or three?  Check out this tree that is about to be given its last rites on the very edge of the cliff.

GO 2C H at fence warning

The trail through the cliff edge of campus is easy to follow with a road to our right.  Noticing the non-native invasive ice plants dug into the cliff sides, we later learn that the second quarter at UCSB has just begun; the light rain seems to have kept the students inside and we have the trail to ourselves.

By USCB campus

By the USCB campus

Skirting the UCSB campus towards the Marine Laboratory building, we see the campus lagoon.  As we pass the lawns and interconnecting sidewalks of UCSB with its coeds and co-dudes, I realize a lifetime of wanting the college life no longer moves the needle for me.

GO 4A bluff trail far end

When I was floundering as a teacher in Phoenix, AZ in my early 30s, I quit to return to Arizona State University to earn a Master’s in Exercise Physiology.  I loved the easy going routine of taking a class or two a day, being a graduate assistant in the Human Performance Lab, and teaching intro tennis classes – all with time to train for the Fiesta Bowl Marathon.  After three semesters, I earned my degree and still needed a real job: I returned to the classroom to teach middle school.

When I faltered again as a middle school teacher in Kittery, Maine in my late 40s, I bailed and returned to the University of New Hampshire for a PhD program in Reading and Writing Instruction.  Breakfasts at Young’s Restaurant in Durham, NH, leading Exploring Teaching classes, supervising interns, all with time to complete my PhD without working a second job.  Only years later did I realize our future son-in-law, Tip Rawding, was a student of mine during that time.

GO 6 cliff edge with warning

Having the required ticket punched to teach at the university (a PhD), for the next 12 years I returned to the comfort of the campus to teach at Eastern Connecticut State University and University of New England in Maine.  All the while, my public school colleagues were on the front line and doing the heavy lifting.

Supermen with their SuperOmi

Supermen with their SuperOmi

But that college life train has left the station.  I no longer swoon to be a student or teach at the university or, in fact, have the “want to” any more.  As we navigate the bluff, the UCSB students I see today have my blessings, best wishes, and fond memories.

Of course, being a grandparent to Owen and Max and being able to travel in retirement has a lot to do with my letting go.  Au revoir mon ami, l’universite.

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 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 Say Good-bye to Dan’s Mom

Santa Barbara palms

Santa Barbara palms

It’s a sunny January day in the 80s in Santa Barbara, California.  Though it is the rainy season in the Golden State, there has been little rain for months, really years.  The hills and fields are parched and baked a dusty brown.  The drought is epic and serious; the very modest silver lining is that conditions are ideal for hikers like Hannah and me.

After hiking the beach at high tide in Summerland ten miles to the south, Hannah and I are resting at our Quality Inn motel prior to an afternoon hike to Inspiration Point in the Front Range of the Santa Inez Mountains near Santa Barbara.

Hannah at Summerland beach near Santa Barbara

Hannah at Summerland beach near Santa Barbara on another cloudless day in California

Then my sister Patty calls with news that Mom’s doctor has given her permission to stop eating and drinking; in addition to lung cancer, Mom’s body is no longer absorbing nutrients anyway.  I learn that without food or water people can last one or two weeks, maybe more; especially someone as fit as Mom who was still going to the gym six days a week at the age of 92.

Now Mom is in northern New Jersey and I am some 3000 miles away on the coast of California.  What is a good son to do?

Mom at 92

Mom at 92

My impulse is to return immediately to New Jersey on the next flight out of LAX, the Los Angeles airport some 70 miles to the south.  The dramatic gesture!

USA map

Is it selfish for me to stay in California on a hiking vacation while her life is rapidly closing?  I am unsure and unsteady.  My core beliefs about meaningful relationships and friendships bang up against these first instincts.

Our local York coffee shoppe

Our local York coffee shoppe

For me, I believe that love is shown by a lifetime of moments together, breakfasts and dinners, road trips, and making soup and biscuits for another, not the showy once-a-year appearances, beautiful flowers, or expensive gifts.  It’s listening when another’s heart is heavy.  It’s going out for coffee to just talk.   It’s playing Words With Friends on the computer on a daily basis to stay connected.  It’s checking in regularly.  It’s celebrating a small victory or large, be it making the team or having the girl of your dreams say “yes” to a first date.  It’s the long line of moments that cement relationships and make them real.

For me, grand gestures of love are overrated.  It’s the day-to-day, consistent interest and care for another that builds strong relationships.  Mom and I have a 66 year backlog of such love, such regular times together.

Still, what does a good son do when his mother has chosen to take such a definitive final step on her life journey?

And then as the universe and God so often do, my sister’s husband Glenn provides the simple advice that parts the clouds and lets the sun stream through.

He says, Ask her what she wants you to do.   Brilliant.  Rather than tie myself in knots of duty, guilt, and misplaced obligation, I can ask her.

Still of very clear of mind, Mom responds to my question whether she would like Hannah and me to come back East to be with her now by emphatically saying, Absolutely not.  That would be nonsense.

The bluffs of Montana De Oro State Park, California

The view from the bluffs of Montana De Oro State Park, California

And that’s that.  Hannah and I will continue as planned up the Pacific coast to hike the ocean bluffs near Pismo Beach, Santa Cruz, and Gualala, California for the coming week.  I know there are no guarantees that Mom will be alive when we return.  Yet I know I have had 66 bountiful years as her son.

I am at peace, for our relationship is strong.  I respect her decision.  I trust her.  I don’t want to be so arrogant to think that I know better than she does whether I should return or not.

Each morning at 630A Pacific time I check in with her by phone, for she is up and about at 930A on the East coast.  We talk and she still wonders what we are doing and where we are.  I fill her on hikes at Montana De Oro State Park near of San Luis Obispo and the bluff trail at the Wilder Ranch State Park near Santa Cruz just south of San Francisco.

Bluff trail near Santa Cruz, California

Bluff trail near Santa Cruz, California

Each night I read to her over the phone from Garrison Keillor’s Homegrown Democrat, a book she loves as a lifelong Democrat herself.  Mom lives what Democrats believe: promoting the common good, serving others, being generous of heart, being optimistic, and living with hope.    We stay connected and she knows she is loved 3000 miles away.

Homegrown Democrat

As fate or the universe or God would have it, Mom is alive nine days later when I arrive in New Jersey at her senior living apartment.  That first night her three children (my brother Richard, sister Patty, and I) sit with Mom as she lies in bed.  We toast her life, tell her how beautiful she is and how much we love her, sing to her, and say good-bye to our mother.  She believed in us throughout our lives and took control of her last days.

She passed peacefully three days later.

Mom (eight days before she died)

Mom (eight days before she died)