Canyonero!

Over a five day span, we visited Zion Canyon, Grand Canyon, and Bryce Canyon.

We only had one night at Zion, so we did a quick hike to the Canyon Overlook when we arrived Wednesday evening, and then hiked the Watchman trail Thursday morning before hitting the road again.

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Canyon Overlook at Zion.
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Wendy below the Watchman peak.
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The little flat formation on top is called the West Temple.

On the drive down to the Grand Canyon, we made a quick stop at the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. At 710 ft, it’s almost as tall as the Hoover Dam, and is slightly wider.

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Damn big dam.

When we pulled into the Grand Canyon park, we were shocked to see patches of snow on the ground! It looked like some parking lots had even been plowed recently. Before checking into our motel, we stopped at the Desert View lookout point. As famous as the Grand Canyon is, we were still amazed by the sheer size of the chasm.

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Desert View at Grand Canyon. The tower was built in the 1930s using stones from the canyon.

We spent Friday morning hiking the South Kaibab trail to Cedar Point, about 1000 ft down into the canyon. The drop from the rim to the river is about one vertical mile, and it was heavily suggested you not make the return hike in a single day.

 

 

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This is what happens if you’re too hardcore.
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Cedar Point

In the afternoon we caught the shuttle to various lookout points and walked along the rim trail. We learned that conservationists have been working successfully to repopulate the California Condor, though we were not able to spot any of these massive birds. We did however see about fifty elk (only almost hit one) as well as several mule deer.

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Cool lookin’ flora.

On Saturday we drove back north into Utah, making a quick stop at Horseshoe Bend, and then into Bryce Canyon National Park. We planned on hiking all day Sunday, following the rim trail and then hiking the Queen’s Garden and Navajo loop down into the amphitheatre. Unfortunately about 45 minutes into our walk, we got soaked by a thunderstorm.

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Horseshoe Bend in the Colorado River.
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Bryce Canyon. Notice the storm approaching at the left.
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Hoodoos!

After a break at our motel to dry off and nap until the rain died down, we returned to Bryce for a late afternoon walk.

 

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Erosion washed away the soil, but the roots held strong.

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Death Vegas

On Monday October 15 we made our way towards Death Valley. Luckily this included a stretch of driving on the historic Route 66, where we stopped at Elmer’s Bottle Tree Ranch.

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Wendy getting her kicks.

In most of North America, campsites start closing down in autumn as temperatures drop. In Death Valley, the campsites only open in October once the scorching summer heat starts to subdue. Our campsite was located in a pass on the western ridge of the valley and was our very first free campsite of the trip! The daytime in Death Valley is still rather hot in October, but the nights cool off quickly and the intense desert winds pummelled our tent throughout the night.

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The drive into Death Valley is pretty barren.
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Sunset from the hills by our campsite. Our van and tent are down near the bottom-left.

We spent the next day driving through the valley, stopping at the points of interest. It was amazing to see the salty dried lake floors, sand dunes, and colourful rock formations surrounding the valley. Feeling the intense daytime heat also made us question the sanity of anyone who has run, cycled, or toiled in Death Valley.

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Jean LeCastor visits Death Valley.

 

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Devil’s Golf Course
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Artists’ Palette – a colourful array of rocks from the oxidation of different minerals.

From the valley, we drove into Las Vegas for a single night of moderate debauchery. After checking into the cheapest hotel we could find on the strip, we strolled into the cheapest bar/casino we could find, which was the Stage Door Casino. Every seat at the bar has a video gambling machine installed, so we tried our luck at the slots and each quickly doubled or tripled our $5 investment. The friendly bartender hinted that our 2nd round of drinks would be comped if we at least pretended to keep gambling, so we lazily spent a few quarters on video poker before cashing out.

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View from our hotel room.

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Next we caught the raunchy circus show Absinthe next to Caesar’s Palace. The show pokes fun at Cirque du Soleil in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, as it is clearly directly inspired by the Québecois stalwart. Finally we took advantage of Las Vegas’ open container laws and wandered the strip with a tall-can, contemplating the odd phenomenon that is Las Vegas.

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Circus tent set up for Absinthe.
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A sophisticated nightcap by the canals of Vegas.

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Desert Daze

On the weekend of October 12-14, we attended the Desert Daze music festival. This is a small-ish festival that has been running since 2012, focusing on psychedelic, garage, and experimental-leaning rock music. Dan had been reading about the festival for a few years – they always have fantastic musical lineups – and he was extremely happy to be able to attend this year while in the middle of our road trip.

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As expected, the performances we saw were top-notch. Kikagaku Moyo had a serene, folk-tinged psychedelic rock show complete with electric sitar. My Bloody Valentine played our favourite tunes as loud as expected (we came prepared with earplugs) and finished their set with a 15 minute apocalyptic wall of guitar pedal feedback. A Place to Bury Strangers had incredible energy, with the frontman tossing his guitar into the air, smashing it in half, and then extracting whatever dissonant noise he could from the remains, all within the first song. Here Lies Man, one of the sets Dan was most excited for, put on a great show with their signature fuzzy bass riffs backed up by tight afro-beat style drumming.

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Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats
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Here Lies Man

Aside from the music, the festival was a gorgeous place to be. It had previously been held in Joshua Tree, but was moved to Lake Perris State Recreation Area this year. While it was less of a desert, the site offered a large beach and lake, grassy walking areas, and was surrounded by the dry, rocky desert hills of central California. Art installations were strewn throughout the festival grounds, and each of the stages included projections being manipulated live by video artists to accompany the music. There were also plenty of workshops and classes on offer – on Sunday morning we participated in heavy metal yoga!

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The only negative part of the weekend for us was that a lightning storm drifted into the area Friday night, cutting headliner Tame Impala’s set to three songs. Festival-goers were ordered back to their campsites as the storm approached, and some were stranded in communal areas as the rain and lightning hit hard. Some had a nightmare of a time trying to catch an Uber back to a hotel away from the festival, but we kept hearing stories of people opening up their personal tents (and beer supplies) to look after one another. The festival certainly had an ideal audience – kind, respectful, and enthusiastic about art and community.

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California Coast and LA

After leaving San Francisco, we drove down the recently re-opened section of the Pacific Coast Highway and camped at the Montana De Oro State Park. The waves crash quite violently at this section of the shore, and we were able to hear the ocean all night from our tent despite being about a kilometre away.

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Sea lion beach on the California coast. They’re alive, we swear.
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Sunset at Montana De Oro State Park.

On Monday October 8th we arrived in Los Angeles and checked into our motel in Marina Del Rey, not too far from Venice Beach. While there we chilled on the iconic beach (though did not swim in the frigid, surfer-filled waters), walked on the Venice boardwalk, checked out the trendy Abbot Kinney Boulevard, and wandered around the marina. We also enjoyed the local cuisine – Mexican restaurants and a Firestone Walker brewpub!

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Bird of paradise on Washington Boulevard on the walk down to Venice Beach.
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The beach!
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The canals of Venice, CA. We did not spot any gondolas.

We spent one day in LA outside of the Venice area, visiting Hollywood, the Griffith Observatory, and the La Brea Tar Pits. Hollywood was essentially what we expected – lots of tourists, lots stars in the sidewalk, and a lot of pressure to get on a celebrity bus tour. The Griffith Observatory offered good views of the Hollywood sign and LA, as well as astronomy-focused scientific exhibits free to the public. The La Brea Tar Pits were just as cool as they looked in the movie Volcano.

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The sign just isn’t that big.
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One of the non-astronomy exhibits inside the Griffith Observatory.
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The La Brea Tar Pits were bubbly and smelled appropriately of tar.

After spending much of the day on public transit, we gained an appreciation for why everyone in LA drives their own car. Overlapping bus systems with different fare systems and no transfers, and a metro that runs every 15-20 minutes on a weekday could understandably (and unfortunately) result in under-use by the local population.

 

Ban “San Fran”

Apparently it is frowned upon to say “San Fran”. Acceptable descriptors include “San Francisco”, “SF”, or “the city”, though the latter seems a little self-important, no?

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Guess which bridge!

On this visit to San Francisco, we did not stop at many tourist destinations. We were lucky enough to have some friends who live there, and other friends who were visiting at the same time, so we capitalized on the opportunity to catch up with everyone.

As a city, San Francisco is unreasonably expensive, so we stayed at a motel in South San Francisco where we had the privilege of parking within eyesight of our room, but close enough to the Bay Area Rapid Transit train into downtown.

On Thursday October 4th, we ventured south of the bay area to visit Salinas, birthplace of John Steinbeck and home of the National Steinbeck Centre. We had lunch in the restaurant at his childhood home, and then spent the afternoon at the museum, covering his prolific career and delving into the details of his most famous works.

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That night we ventured to the East Bay where we had a great dinner with Dan’s family friend Meghan and her partner Adam. The 1h20min drive back to our motel after dinner lent an additional appreciation of the grandeur of the bay area sprawl.

Over the weekend in San Francisco, we had some excellent meals, beers, wines, and whiskeys with our friends Ian, Matt, and Dale. The city has no shortage of good restaurants and breweries. On Saturday afternoon we saw Young Frankenstein for the first time at the historic Castro movie theatre. We loved the film, and it turns out Gene Wilder’s career extended beyond Willy Wonka, though his maniacal shrieks were familiar.

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We missed the sing-along, so settled for Young Frankenstein.

Grape Times in Sonoma

After working our way down the coast, we drove inland to Sonoma and spent two days checking out some vineyards and wineries.

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Unharvested wine.

We were not very familiar with the Calfornia wine scene, but some quick research suggested that Napa consists primarily large estate wineries with extremely expensive tastings. We therefore settled on the somewhat more quaint Sonoma region.

Sonoma had hundreds of small family-owned wineries, some with their own vineyards and some without. We also learned that due to a variety of microclimates within Sonoma, they are able to grow tons of different grape varieties aside from the popular Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.

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Vineyards at J. Rickards’ winery.

On our first day, we took part in a van tour along with some other tourists, allowing us both to forego the designated driver responsibilities. We tasted a ton of solid wines though not much was very distinctive. On the second day Dan drove us around to some wineries of our own choosing and tried some wines that were a bit more interesting. We agreed that our favourite of the trip was Pax Wines in the town of Sebastopol.

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Garden at Quivira winery.

As we were leaving Sonoma, we made a quick stop in the city of Santa Rosa to visit the famous Russian River Brewery, who for many years claimed the highest rated double IPAs in the world. We can confirm that their IPAs are still top-notch and their Belgian style beers are fantastic too.

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In Sonoma, we also tried In n Out Burger for the first time. Overrated.

 

Big Trees and Salty Seas

On Thursday September 27 we drove into the northern section of the Redwood National Forest, camping at the Jedediah Smith state park. We had seen some redwoods in Muir Woods near San Francisco in previous years, but the ones we saw here set a new standard.

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Making our way to our next campsite, we drove the Avenue of the Giants, which parallels highway 101 but meanders through more gigantic trees. We camped for two nights at Standish-Hickey state park. We reserved this site a few weeks ago due to the appeal of the adjacent swimming hole, but the weather turned cold and rainy not long after our arrival.

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The swimming hole at Standish-Hickey drew us in, but the chilly (and then rainy) weather kept us out of the water.

We passed the rainy Saturday by driving through a tree that’s older than Jesus, then driving the Pacific Coast Highway down to Fort Bragg, catching a movie, and visiting the North Coast Brewery (makers of Old Rasputin Imperial Stout). Dan swears he had no idea there was a somewhat famous brewery in the town.

On Sunday, we left Standish-Hickey, repeated our drive to Fort Bragg, checked out its Glass Beach, and then continued down Highway 1 to Sonoma County. We shared the driving so one of us could appreciate the coastal views while the other focused on the winding (and guardrail-lacking) highway.

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Glass Beach at Fort Bragg features some green, red, and white glassy pebbles. We may have strategically placed extra ones in the frame for this shot.
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Lighthouse at Point Arena.
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Looking south from Point Arena.

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