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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Yosemite National Park: Small animals and large trees

My next planned stop was Yosemite National Park, the oldest piece of land which was put under protection by a US State and was later turned into an official National Park.

The views on the way to the park were already quite stunning, but Yosemite Valley could easily top that with memorable mountain formation and large wooded areas.

Since it was late August and Yosemite Falls was dried up, it is fed by snow-melt and there was no snow left, I decided to hike around Mirror Lake, which of course was also dried up, but it still offered a nice view ;). The beginning of the trail looked like an official bear restroom, there were so many droppings around, that one had to be careful not to step in it. However, I didn't catch a bear in the act, or for that matter, a bear doing anything. Instead I spotted grey squirrels, a lizard and colorful birds. Later in the day we also spotted deer and a chipmunk. So from a wildlife perspective there was definitely something going on, even if it wasn't anything out of the ordinary.

Leaving Yosemite Valley I made a quick stop at tunnel view, which offered a spectacular perspective on the valley.

Before leaving the park completely, I stopped at Mariposa Grove, home to the famous Giant Sequoias. They can get several thousands of years old and only die when they are uprooted by a heavy storm. But even then they do not decompose, so the trees that fell over 50 years ago look like it had happened yesterday.

For that reason it is also possible for it to live on with huge holes in them, either man-made as in the case of the Tunnel Trees, the California Tunnel Tree being the only one left, or due to several repeated forest fires, as can be seen with the Clothespin Tree.

Since I did not have enough time to hike to all those trees on my own, the trail is listed with 3 hours and the last shuttle back to my car left within 2 hours, so I had to take one of the costly tram tours, however, I learned a lot about the trees on this tour, so in the end it was money well invested. Rumor has it that these tours will be shut down in the coming year(s) to better protect the trees, so if you visit too late you should definitely plan to bring enough time for this part of Yosemite.

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San Francisco: Up the Hill and down the Hill

In Sausalito, across the bay from San Francisco, I rented a bike and took the ferry to the city. On the way we slowed down so that everyone could take pictures of the famous Alcatraz prison, which I didn't visit, because tickets are regularly sold out 3-weeks in advance.

It sounded like a good idea at the time. Biking across SF, finding a couple of Caches and returning across the Golden Gate Bridge.

What I did not fully realize at the time was, that San Francisco was so extremely hilly!

Approaching the first Cache, which was located in Coit Tower, left me winded and I ended up pushing and carrying the bike up the street and up stairs! But the effort was well worth it. Inside Coit Tower one can see beautiful murals depicting different aspects of life in and around the city during the 1930s.

Next came a fun down-hill part to Pier 39, which is just packed with tourists, restaurants, shops and, hidden to one side, sea lions! What a ruckus they made!

Something everyone thinks off first when San Francisco is mentioned, or maybe second after the free love movement of the 60s ;), is Lombard street. So I collected my strength and pushed the bike uphill again... Driving down Lombard street, was an exercise in breaking, but still an interesting experience :).

After another speedy down-hill bit, I ended up at the Community Gardens near the Seafront. In a secluded little spot, a garden community has found it's home, and right in the middle of it, the oldest continuous Cache in SF :).

Riding along the waterfront, with an evil oncoming wind making my live difficult, brought me to the Golden Gate Bridge. But since I still had time, I rode on past it to China Beach and Land's End. I couldn't really enjoy the downhill part, knowing well that I had to bike that up again :(... But it offered me a nice alternate view of the Bridge.

After a long and arduous climb back up the hill again, I reached the Golden Gate Bridge and biked across it. Unfortunately, we had to use the westbound lane, so views of the city were obstructed by 6 lanes of traffic.

A short stretch on the other coast, which went first down- then up- and then downhill again, I reached Sausalito again and duly returned the bike.

Together with the morning hike, that had been a long, strenuous but also very entertaining day!

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pacific Coast Highway: From LA to SF and beyond

After leaving the ferry from Santa Catalina Island I picked up my rental car and started driving North. But rather than getting there as fast as possible, I chose the more scenic Route 1, which is also known as Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Sections of this Highway were first constructed in the 1930s and most of the bridges built back then are still standing today.

Since it was already late afternoon, I followed the PCH to Oxnard. On the way I passed many beautiful beaches and a lot of traffic...

Early the next morning I continued North, making a first stop in Santa Barbara to admire a gigantic fig tree, which is 138 years old! Next to the tree you can see a historic rail car.
The PCH then continued mainly inland through common countryside, which wasn't too remarkable. At Morro Bay, we reached the ocean again and the landscape started to become very intriguing. It reminded me a bit of the Swiss mountains, just with an ocean next to it.

After this picturesque stretch the road flattened out again and we came to a beach with a big Elephant Seal population and very inquisitive squirrels.

Then we came back into the hills again and in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns Statepark I saw a beautiful small beach with a waterfall.

But also the regular coastline offered spectacular views.
After so many natural wonders, I stopped in Castroville to marvel at something man built. The World's largest Artichoke!

I drove all the way North past San Francisco to San Rafael, where I met up with friends from Carnegie Mellon University and spent a relaxing Sunday.

Early the next morning I went to the Muir Woods, a State Park with a large population of impressive Redwood trees. In addition I also spotted a shy rabbit and a couple of grey squirrels.
Muir Woods is well known as a location for famous movies, such as Return of the Jedi and Vertigo.

After a strenuous 1.5 hour hike, I joined the PCH for a last time to drive back in the direction of San Francisco.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Santa Catalina Island: Under Water and Above the Trees

Santa Catalina island is just a short one-hour ferry-ride from Los Angeles and thus it is a very popular destination for vacations and day trips. My reason for going there was scuba diving. Santa Catalina is part of the Channel Islands which are well known for their Kelp Forests and wildlife.

In Avalon, the largest city on the island, an Underwater Dive Park was established in 1964 to protect the flora and fauna as well as facilitate diving. And so a large stair was recently built which makes this one of the easiest shore dive destinations I've seen so far.

Right after descending I spotted the Kelp Forest, which looked amazing, especially swimming in between the huge kelps was very interesting.
There were also many fish around. The Garibaldi, the official state fish of California, was omnipresent.
We then continued along the shore towards deeper waters and were visited by two huge Sea Bass, each almost two meters in size!
After 52 minutes the first dive was over and we rested for another 52 minutes before starting the second one.

On the second dive we visited some of the wrecks which can be found on the ocean floor. We were diving along, when I suddenly spotted something shark shaped, which I hadn't encountered before. It had a spike or horn in front of its fins and was laying very still on the ocean floor. I later learned that this was a Horn Shark, one of the few Sharks who can breathe while laying motionless on the ocean bottom, and thus it is resting during the day.
Our dive guide also spotted an Octopus, which was hiding inside one of the wrecks.
After 52 minutes it was time to leave the water again. But I wasn't finished for the day yet.

At 8pm we met again for a night dive. That was a very special experience, because with all the kelp it was sometimes difficult to see the other diver's lights! But fortunately, I always found my group again. ;)
At night we spotted dozens of Lobsters who were scurrying about and I also spotted a small snail with it's housing, which I haven't seen so often before.
Unfortunately, we were joined by an inexperienced diver on this night dive and so it ended after only 36 minutes...

Coming to Santa Catalina Island was well worth it. A fantastic experience in very easy diving conditions. I can highly recommend this site to any diver, who isn't afraid of coldish waters (the thermocline dropped to 17° Celsius, the main temperature was 24° Celsius).

The next morning I went for a short Hike looking for a couple of Caches, where I spotted the lines of the Zipline Ecotour. This looked very intriguing to me and so I quickly returned to my room, packed my bags and booked the next tour :).
They had five lines with a maximum length of 335 meters! It was very cool to glide over this interesting landscape and more than 90 meters over the trees. However, after bungy jumping this Spring, the thrill factor of Ziplining didn't really register ;). Nevertheless, it was a cool thing to do.

While exploring Santa Catalina I also discovered signs of the economic downturn, where even well known figures needed to look for new jobs ;)
More pictures can be found in my California web album.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Hollywood: Following the Stars ;)

When I looked out the bathroom window in the morning, I saw the most photographed location in Hollywood, so I immediately took out my camera and took a picture ^^
After a short breakfast I t started exploring the Walk of Fame. Since I was doing a Multi-Geocache, I was paying particular attention to all the Stars in the road, but I still ended up walking back and forth twice until I found all the information. On the way I came across many famous sites, such as the TLC Theater:
I also discovered that the Space Invaders had already landed in Hollywood,
and even placed a couple of convenient trap doors to capture humans, but maybe someone should have told them not to make it so obvious ;)
After a busy morning it was time to head across town to catch the ferry to Catalina Island, of which I will write more later.

More pictures from Hollywood can be found in my web album.

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Movies on a Plane

Flying from London Heathrow to Los Angeles took eleven hours. So I had enough time to catch up on movies I missed at the cinema ;).
I saw:
  • The Lego Movie (brilliant!)
  • Winters Tale (not as detailed as the book, but still a very good adaption)
  • Her (very thought-provoking, with an unexpected ending)
  • The 100-year old who climbed out the window and disappeared (funny and entertaining)
  • Police Story 2013 (not as good as Jackie's earlier movies, but still entertaining)
What I didn't do was sleep a lot, so I was thoroughly tired once I reached the Hostel. Unfortunately, I was assigned a "party"-room, where everyone stayed up late but frequently came through the room to use the restroom, so the night wasn't as relaxing as it could have been.

Nevertheless, it was an interesting start into my vacation :)

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mallorca: Scuba Diving, Geocaching & Board Games :)

Our traditional board game week in Summer brought us to Mallorca, where we rented a nice house in the North-West part of the island, far away from the main tourist sites. So we were able to spend  a lot of time relaxing and playing board games.

But after a couple of days we wanted a bit more adventure, so team Breena and I went Geocaching. First we visited the former Military site Furete de Illetas where we saw many abandoned buildings and completed an interesting tour through the area.

Next we went to another Military Zone where we completed several Caches (Zona M I - IV, Deep Darkness) and spent a lot of time in bunkers :).

We can highly recommend these sites as they were very interesting and the Caches not too difficult (despite their rating).
We ended the day by visiting a close-by Event where Migido celebrated his 3'000 Cache find, and so we met Quadmaster the owner of most of the Caches we visited that day :).

Next day I had an appointment with Sébastien, who I originally met in French Polynesia, for a scuba dive at El Toro, one of the marine reserves around Mallorca. The dive was very nice, we saw a lot of fish and a large school of Barracuda!

After those two days we needed a couple more days of relaxing around our pool ;)

More pictures can be found in my web album.

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