When I thought about my first hike in Arizona this past spring, I knew I was prepared for the environment. I had lots of water, sunscreen, and a wide brimmed hat, just like everyone reads about desert hikes. I also knew that it would be comparatively hot as I was coming from Colorado where spring is just a snowier extension of winter, to the Phoenix area where the temperature was in the low 80’s. Hiking in temperatures in the 80’s is not too bad, if you’re used to it but I hadn’t hiked in temperatures that high in months.
So when I decided to hike in Lost Dutchman State Park near Apache Junction, Arizona, I felt that I was ready for the challenge of a desert hike. What I wasn’t prepared for was how steep the trek would be and, maybe most surprising of all, how high the altitude would be at the top, 4,861′ which is only slightly less than the elevation of my home near Boulder Colorado. I was hiking the Siphon Draw Trail, which didn’t ‘look’ that tough on the map or even when I drove into the park, but I definitely misjudged this one. The first 1/2 or so of the trail is relatively flat with saguaro cacti all around and great views of the Superstition Mountains looming above. After a short while, the trail officially leaves Lost Dutchman State Park proper and enters the Tonto National Forest and the climb really begins from here. About every 30 minutes or so during the hike I could hear a steam whistle from a train that runs through the Goldfield Ghost Town. Normally man-made noises would detract from a hike, but here it added a bit of an old west feel to the area.
In most places that I’ve hiked steep grades are usually lessened by switchbacks, but there weren’t too many switchbacks on this trail! The Siphon Draw Trail is mainly a vertical trail! I only managed to make it to the area known as ‘The Basin’ and only then realized how tough of a hike this really was. The final mile or so has, according to the park brochure, a 2,000′ elevation gain over the last mile! That would make it the steepest hike I’ve ever done, but today was not the day for me to pull that steep of an ascent off. I may try it again some day and maybe make up that one mile, 2,000′ ascent.
Some say that the Mount Sanitas Trail is Boulder’s quintessential hike. The hike is 3.1 miles round trip and has an elevation gain of around 1,350 feet but to me, there are better hikes in Boulder and although the Mount Sanitas Trail is a great (short) workout, it is not the most scenic hike in the area, in my opinion. To me, the hike that should be on everyone’s Boulder must do list is the Mesa Trail.
The Mesa Trail has almost the exact same elevation gain as the Mount Sanitas trail, but it spreads that elevation gain over a one way distance of about 6.8 miles. It may actually be one of the flatest hikes you can do in Colorado since it parallels the mountains rather than climbing up them.
As far as scenery goes, there are few hikes anywhere in the country that can rival this one. The Flatirons are the rock formation that you see in every tourist magazine that features an article on Boulder. These five primary blocks of sandstone make for a spectacular backdrop for a day hike. In additon to the Flatirons, this is one of just a few areas along the Front Range where the pine forest actually comes all the way down over the foothills and onto the prairie below.
Another great aspect of this trail is its accessabiity. The trail has three primary trailheads: The South Mesa Trailhead, the Trailhead at the National Center for Atmospheric Reasearch (NCAR), and the Chautauqua Trailhead. Of the three, only the South Mesa Trailhead has a fee to park ($5). All three can be very crowded in the summer tourist season and on any weekend day when the weather is good. Go to NCAR if you want free parking and moderate crowds. The view here of the Flatirons is really good too but go to Chautauqua for the best view (the downside is the bigger crowds.) For a less crowded section of the trail, start at the South Mesa Trailhead. It is the least scenic of the three trailheads but it still has some decent views of the Flatirons, Boulder and even Denver off to the southeast.
The best part of hiking the Mesa Trail is that you have many options, and the hikes are all pretty accessible for most people. If you start at Chautauqua and NCAR, you can walk right up to one of the Flatirons and touch them within about 20 minutes after leaving the parking lot. Also of note is the many side trail options off of the main trail. If you’re looking for a longer hike, the side trails heading into the hills are nearly endless and offer you the opportunity to get a workout as good or better than the one you can get on Mt. Sanitas.
In my opinion, the Mesa Trail pretty much has it all: great scenery, the option for longer hikes while all are within the close proximity of the city of Boulder. For a great après hike food/beer option, check out the Southern Sun for a laid back vibe and great beer just down the hill from the NCAR trailhead.
Lake Powell is for those with power! Engine power that is. It is an enormous lake with extensive side canyons throughout, making any journey on the lake one that requires you to have a ski boat, houseboat, or jet ski to have the horsepower necessary to get you from one place to another. On a recent trip there with my wife, our engines on this trip would be our arms, as a kayak, rather than thehouseboat, would be the primary means of getting around the lake. In a lake the size of Powell, 186 miles in total length and over and 1,960 miles of shoreline, that meant that to get safely off of the main lake and into the side canyons took quite some time and immense amounts of effort. These side canyons are (in my opinion) the prettiest part of the lake and have interesting features such as narrow passages, high walls, calmer water, beaches to take out of and stretch your legs, stunning rock formations and surprises around every corner.
Out on the main part of the lake, boat traffic has to be monitored closely by anyone in a small craft, especially kayaks that lie low in the water. Not all boaters are used to looking for kayaks so you have to paddle defensively, just like motorcycles have to be defensive out on the roads. As they passed, some boaters slowed down a little bit, one slowed down a lot, and once did not slow down at all, nearly causing us to capsize. It must not be common to see a kayak on this lake because a few looked utterly shocked to see a kayak out there and a couple even looked impressed. However, I think most boaters seemed annoyed by the additional hazard that the kayaks presented. One boater was visibly irritated by us even being on the boat ramp unloading our kayaks. Lucky for us though, we paid the same fee to be there that he did and was even told by a ranger where to launch from.
We were here the week after Labor Day, just into the off season. The weather was still very warm as was the water but most of the people were gone, making being on the lake in a kayak during peak season hard to imagine. Aside from occasionally playing a bit of dodgeball with houseboats, jet skis, and ski boats, the experience of kayaking in the high desert landscape of Utah on such a large lake was a surreal and memorable experience. Paddling in the canyons, especially Lost Eden Canyon, was like boating through a maze and as you go deeper into the canyon arm, the water got flatter and flatter, making the paddling very easy. If there are two things that can make paddling easier it’s light wind and and small waves. There wasn’t much of either of those happening when you get off of the main lake and into the smaller canyons where the boats are fewer, the ones that are there are going slower, and the canyon walls are so high that the winds can’t get in.
Ideally, learning from this experience, having a kayak on this lake would be best if you use a boat with an engine to get you and your kayaks to the side canyons from a marina or boat ramp rather than paddling all the way to them, many miles in some cases. This way, you don’t expend the majority of your energy just getting to the mouth of the canyon arm. Once you arrive at the mouth, you could have many miles of paddling to get to the end (if you choose to go that far) and of course, many back. But if you choose to kayak without the support of a boat, you can still have a great time, and we did, just expect your natural engine to be sore for the next week after you get home!
Hiking the Tsankawi Trail in Bandelier National Monument is truly a unique trek. It is located in the high desert of New Mexico near the city of Los Alamos in the Tsankawi section of the park. This is a less traveled area than the more famous section of the park proper and it made for an interesting, unexpected side trip.
Part of the appeal of this area of the park, to be honest, is that there are far fewer people here. This means that you can really take your time exploring this relatively short 1.5 mile hiking trail. Not long after you leave the trailhead, you get to climb a wooden ladder (fun) to get up onto a ridge that leads you to the Ancestral Pueblo village of Tsankawi. There isn’t much left of the village itself but the area is littered with pottery shards, one of the very few places left where you can actually touch history. The pieces are small but you can clearly see the colored lines that were painted onto the pots.
After leaving the pottery shards of the village behind, it was onto some of the most unique aspects of any hike anywhere in the world. The Ancestral Pueblo villagers walked the same paths so often that they ended up wearing out the rocks to the point where it looks like a bobsled course winding its way through an Olympic venue. I can’t describe how totally awestruck I was by this and by the fact that the National Park Service still allows people to hike on it (thank you NPS).
I’m just going to keep the words at a minimum here and let all of the photographs speak. If you’re ever in Northern New Mexico and want a truly unique hike, without many people, some Native American history, and stunning high desert scenery, check this place out. It is such an interesting, and very easy walk.
If you’re looking for a great place to eat après hike, Tomasitas in Santa Fe is the perfect locale to refuel. The food is consistently outstanding and the location at the Railyard District is just minutes away from the famous plaza. Try the roast beef burrito and be sure to eat the sopapillas with honey butter. After that, consider finishing off the evening with a cold one at the Second Street Brewery, just right around the corner.
Many years ago, I made a pact with myself to climb one 14er (a 14,000 foot peak) a year for as long as I am physically able to. I managed to do this for a few years before life got busy and days in the mountains took a back seat. But now I have more spare time and have been hiking for most of the summer so the timing seemed right to start my goal over again. However, I wanted to do an “easy” one and with the help of a friend (hi Mike!) we chose Quandary Peak as the best possible option. Quandary is a mountain near Breckenridge Colorado, less than a couple of hours from where I live, near Boulder. The only problem with picking an “easy” 14er within driving distance of a major metropolitan city (Denver) is that you can expect a small army of hikers who are thinking exactly the same thing. So this would not be a hike in solitude but rather a hike more closely resembling a conga line to the summit. Foreshadowing?
No matter how fit you are, high elevation has a way of taking you down a notch or two. Even though I had been hiking a lot over the summer, I noticed the lack of oxygen almost immediately after leaving the car at the trailhead, at 10,900 feet above sea level. The mountain introduced itself to us straight away by letting us know that this would be no “easy” climb. I was carrying a simple day pack with a few essentials like Vanilla Coke, trail mix, camera, aspirin, etc. and felt good that I had not overpacked. I was as light as I could hope to be, gear wise anyway. We hiked along pretty well for quite awhile before we ‘really’ started to notice the effects of the higher altitudes. It slowed us down tremendously but we were outside on a crisp late summer day and we were just taking our time getting up the hill, just happy to be up high again.
When I hike or spend time in the outdoors, I prefer solitude over crowds. Today, I had to accept the fact that there would be large numbers of hikers and there most certainly were. Recently, I have been doing a cruiser bike ride on Thursday nights in Boulder with a couple of hundred, mostly college aged cyclists. On these rides, I have noticed that most of the younger crowd is just out to have fun, and that they generally behave in a respectful manner. I have found that I enjoy being around their youthful energy. Unintentionally, this prepared me for being around a bigger crowd of like-minded people just like the ones I would see on the trail today.
We continued to make our way up the mountain step by step and as we did, a rumor of something unheard of began to filter down to us from hikers that had already reached the summit, that some guys had carried a keg of beer to the top and that if we didn’t hurry, we would miss out on having a a cup at the top. At first, I scoffed at the idea that anyone or any group of people would, could, or should carry a keg up a mountain when I could barely carry my light pack with snacks. But the more we passed other hikers with the same news, the more exciting getting to the summit was becoming. The anticipation of confirming the validity of the rumors was actually helping to take my mind off of the trials of the hike.
As we neared the top, we could hear a group of people counting, but we had no idea why. We could also see a fairly big group of people on the summit gathered around in a circle. So what we heard was that some guy set a goal to climb all 53 of Colorado’s 14ers in one summer, and this was his last one to complete what is a very monumental feat. His buddies decided to bring a keg to the top of the last 14er to celebrate his accomplishment. Truth really is stranger than fiction – when we reached the summit, there was said keg on top of said 14er in all of its silver glory, glistening like a trophy. Everyone who made it to the top, strangers alike, were offered a beer. Although it was very foamy and not my beloved Fat Tire (it was PBR I believe), it was the best beer I’ve ever had on a 14er (okay, it’s the only beer I’ve had on a 14er).
Now to the counting we heard from below, as it turns out the millinials were counting off the seconds that a few brave (read crazy) souls were doing ‘keg stands’. So this was to be a special ’14er’ keg stand where the goal was to last 14 seconds. Man after man tried and failed until a woman in her late twenties managed a 16 second keg stand. When they flipped her back up, she had tears rolling down her cheeks. Tears of joy? Beer in her eyes? Lack of oxygen? Tears of sorrow for not making it further than 16 seconds? Realizing there was no hospital nearby?! I have no idea, but whatever the reason…very impressive, and fun to be a part of.
And how did they get the keg up to the top? They made an apparatus out of PVC pipe and plywood with the keg strapped to it so that two people (or even four) could carry it up to the top (they must’ve been Engineering majors). They took turns carrying it up, but comparing their load to the load I carried, it looked much more impressive for them, not so much for me. This may explain though why everyone got a free beer at the top…so they could carry an empty keg back down instead of one with the excess weight of beer they couldn’t finish. Again, impressive!
My first 14er in many years and there was a kegger on the summit! Crazy. Awesome. Fun.
Let’s get this out of the way right away: Kona Brewing Company (KBC) has a huge advantage just by being located in one of the best places anyone could ever think to have a brewery, the Big Island of Hawaii. But this brewery is more than just a place that brews beer in an idyllic setting: it brews very good beer, has excellent cuisine, and the atmosphere is unrivaled.
It is hard to separate Kona Brewing from Hawaii itself. Both have so much in common. The ambiance of the brewery mirrors that of its surroundings very well with palm trees, tiki torches, and the relaxed Hawaii island vibe that comes with it. Breweries generally have a relaxed feel to them anyway but add a tropical twist to it and relaxed gets taken to a whole new level. If you’re wearing socks, you’re overdressed. If you’re staying south of the airport, this is a great place to get acclimated to island life after the long flight from the mainland.
On to the food, which was excellent. The menu has a number of different starters that you might consider to be standard pub fare but some items had a uniquely Hawaiian twist such as sliders on Taro rolls or nachos with Kalua pork. We chose wisely with the pretzel bites, which are made with spent grain dough and Wailua Wheat Ale as well as cheese sauce made with Fire Rock Pale Ale. It was excellent. For entrees, most of the menu was pizza and sandwiches but again, there were uniquely Hawaiian takes on most of the offerings. At our table, pizza and flatbreads were the most popular choices while I opted for an Imu pork sandwich which has Kalua pork, cabbage, cheese, and a house made Black Sand Porter BBQ sauce. All of the food items were outstanding!
And last but certainly not least, the beer. I tried a few different ones but really settled on two favorites: the Wailua Wheat which is a light wheat ale with a slight fruit flavor and hints of passion fruit (known locally as lilliko’i) and the Hula Hef which is a traditional hefeweizen with banana undertones (and I don’t even like bananas!). Both beers were extremely good! Other popular choices include Pipeline Porter which is made with local Kona coffee (my wife’s top pick), Longboard Island Lager which is a very ‘island’ kind of beer (my daughters favorite), and Lemongrass Lu’au which is a light blond ale with notes of lemongrass and ginger. All in all, a wide variety of beers with local influences in most, if not all of them.
KBC is also very involved in helping to protect the environment by partnering with organizations such as the Surfrider Foundation, Malama Maunalua, and the Blue Planet Foundation. They are also pioneering energy conservationists, they go to great lengths to minimize waste, they use solar energy to help power their brewery, source locally whenever possible and are very involved with the local community.
All in all, if you’re looking for some great beer, great food, and a super chill vibe, this is the place to go when your visiting the Big Island or you can buy their beers in many places on the mainland and at least get a taste of island life. Either way…you won’t be disappointed.
* Note – I have been intending on starting the Beer Trekker portion of the blog for some time now and this is the first in what I hope is a long series about the craft breweries that I am lucky enough to check out. Check back on Tuesdays for more beer related articles. Cheers!!!
The brewery closed at 9:00 and I arrived there at 8:30 to try one beer, get a feel for the place, and then get back to town. The brewery is not in the touristy area of the Plaza or the hip Railyard district (not that there is anything wrong with these areas). Santa Fe Brewing Company (SFBC) is located just a stones throw away from the interstate in a light industrial part of town. I heard a rumor that they even have a couple of foosball tables so I was hoping I could get a game or two in before heading home.
As I walked from the parking lot, there were several people outside having a good time, locals I could only assume. I walked past them and into the tasting room where I presumed there were locals firmly seated at the bar. Some places I’ve been, locals don’t always commingle with tourists, and I wasn’t sure if I gave off the tourist vibe or not. As I’ve mentioned before, I typically try not to behave like a tourist but more like that of a seasoned traveler and was dressed in simple khaki shorts and a tee shirt.
I ordered a hefeweizen from the bartender and sipped on it for a while and was very pleased with my choice. SFBC’s version of a hefeweizen was crisp with hints of banana and cloves, having only a slight bitterness to it. While I was still milking the first beer (only one since I had to drive), a couple of locals next to me started chatting me up, and I immediately felt like this was going to be a comfortable place to spend an hour or so. Then another friend of theirs joined in on the conversation and it went on for some time. One of the ‘boys’ bought me my second hefeweizen and a round of Java Stout shots for everyone at the bar. I couldn’t have walked into a better crowd of locals that were so welcoming to me being the ‘outsider’ on unknown turf!
I then managed to dovetail myself into a tour that was being organized for a group of distributors from out of state. I stayed at the back and chatted it up with the owner about distribution in Colorado and Texas, the current challenges of expansion, and even craft brewing documentaries currently on Netflix. We even tasted beer right off of the canning line.
All in all, I had a great time at The Santa Fe Brewing Company. The staff was friendly, the patrons were so generous and fun to talk to, the atmosphere was upbeat and down to earth, and for me…the Hefeweizen was outstanding. And I didn’t even get to play foosball 😡⚽️!
On a side note, there are craft breweries popping up all across the U.S., and in some very unlikely areas, mainly wharehouse districts and industrial areas. Some of these areas might scare the beer snob away, but these are some of the best new breweries that are up and coming. For example We met up with a family member in Los Angeles, CA at Golden Road Brewing. It felt like we made a wrong turn it was so industrial, but once we found it we thoroughly enjoyed it. Upslope Brewing Company is a smaller craft brewery in the industrial part of east Boulder, CO. One of our favorites, hands down was the Kona Brewing Company. Even though this larger scale brewery with restaurant makes it feel like your sitting outside any normal restaurant with many different beer choices, it as well is a bit off the beaten path to get to in a wharehouse area, but once you’re there you don’t think about it, and you’re in Hawaii of all places. Welcome to the new art of craft breweries, it’s an exciting time to be a beer fan. Don’t blink or you’ll most surely miss one!
From San Francisco out to the Farallon Islands, also known as the Devils Teeth, is a long trip even by day tripper standards. For most people, the trip out to the islands is all about the journey, with little or nothing to do with the destination. On our most recent trip (our third time actually, they say the third time’s the charm), against the wind – we were rewarded with the distraction of whales, lots of them. The journey out begins at a San Francisco landmark, Pier 39, bright and early at 8:00 A.M. The obligatory safety briefings greet you on the Kitty Kat, which is the boat belonging to San Francisco Bay Whale Tours, our guided whale watching tour company for the day. With Dramamine firmly entrenched in my stomach and only bland foods to boot, we were ready to head out into waters that our guide promised “might be a little bumpy.” I have learned that when a guide says things like that to you, they are normally giving you the tourist spin, intended to make you think “hey, I can handle bumpy”. I know better: we’re in for something more than speed bumps in a parking lot, nine foot swells we were told to expect…is that bad? Answer…why yes, yes it is!
The ride out of the bay was nice enough, chilly (think Mark Twain’s description of the summer he spent in San Francisco) and a bit breezy but nothing to dampen the spirits. Depending on the type of weather, it can make seeing whales very easy or very difficult. For instance, fog can make it to where you can’t see from one side of the boat to another, high seas can make it tough to see over the crest of a wave, but flat water makes it easy. We would see no flat water today! On the way out of the bay, you get some great looks at Alcatraz Island and then the Golden Gate Bridge, even passing under the iconic reddish-orange American structure.
The guide was right and the ride out was definitely bumpy with several people unable to keep the contents of their stomachs where they belonged. Better them than me! I recently tossed chum to the fishes on a snorkeling trip in the Florida Keys and was embarrassingly the only one that did. Not today! The combination of Dramamine, ginger gum, and graham crackers kept everything where it belonged. The etiquette of getting ‘sick’ on a boat is to go to the back of the boat. Little did some tourists know this as they sat at the back on the return trip with their arms casually resting on the rails . 😝 You have been warned!!
The first whale sighting came after about two hours, just when it was feeling like the six hour journey might just be a day with no whales. Per the captain, the first person to see a whale, which had to be confirmed by everyone on board seeing it as well, got a free chocolate bar. I think the reward should be a free t-shirt but hey I don’t make the rules. So somebody’s kid was the first to sight a whale and won himself a Kit Kat (I’m not really sure if it was a Kit Kat but if your boat is named the Kitty Kat, that’s what the reward should be). So good for the kid for winning a chocolate bar but yee haw for the rest of us for getting to see a real live wild whale, a humpback it was. We would end up seeing somewhere around 25 more humpbacks by the time we finished.
A little further into the trip, we saw more spouts and were able to see the largest animal to ever live on this earth, a blue whale. Our naturalist on board was a marine biologist, Steve Wood, who pointed out that the whales with color themed names are actually named so for the color of their skin, gray whales are truly gray, and blue whales were one of the only mammals that have blue skin. This proved to be true as the first blue whale we saw had a very light blue skin tone. Having seen a humpback earlier, this whale was truly much, much bigger. I believe that a humpback is around 45 feet long while blues can be over 100 feet. To see the blue come up for air and then slink its massive body back down into the water gave only the slightest of hints as to how big it really was and we were truly privileged to see one in person. We would see two more of these big fellas before reaching the islands where we would turn around for the return trip back to San Francisco.
Maybe not for everyone on the boat but definitely for my wife and I was the chance to see the very rough Farallon Islands, which are 27 miles away from the Golden Gate Bridge. The islands are part of a large marine sanctuary and the protection it affords has helped the populations of seabirds, sea lions, whales, and even Great White Sharks recover to levels not seen for many decades. The islands themselves are beautiful in a very nasty way, with jagged teeth sticking up out of the water, the water surrounding them is black, and it has a feeling of remoteness that you can only find in very wild, protected places. The first time I saw these islands years ago, they were shrouded in fog, adding a certain mysterious quality to them. Today, the are basking in direct sunlight, exposing what you can definitely smell: bird shit by the tons.
There are also a few researchers stationed on the island and they have to deal with some of the most extreme conditions of any job out there. Isolation, extreme weather and water that has to be delivered to them from the mainland are all part of an honest day’s work for them. While we were idling just off shore, waiting for a minor bathroom problem to be corrected, a sailboat loaded with supplies was met by a zodiac from the island to restock the researchers stores. They are there to study the bird life, plant life, shark and seal populations but we’re here to see whales before heading back and while we were still idling just offshore, a gray whale popped up right in front of the boat. It was to be the last whale we saw on the trip and our third whale species. After four hours of fighting the winds and swells it was time to head back.
Going with the wind and swells back to Pier 39 took two more hours and most of us were primarily interested in just getting back to the dock at this point. So the ride did prove to be “bumpy” as evidenced by more than a handful of people getting seasick during the voyage. Seeing the whales though would have been worth it either way. They are incredible wild creatures and we felt so fortunate to see so many of them in one short six hour trip.
So about thirty whales, three species of them, and even a tufted puffin as an added bonus and we were very happy customers. Saving the whales appears to be working, let’s keep it going! Next up, Alcatraz!
Having been to San Francisco a few times, you would think a trip to Alcatraz is something that I would have done already. Usually due to a lack of planning, I’ve never been. My wife Kimberly, has always wanted to go to “The Rock” but this is a place that’s harder to get to than you’d think. Often, you have to book months in advance and this time we (she) did. Even better, it was a night tour! Alcatraz is a must do on any tourists list of things to do in San Francisco. I tend to shy away from touristy places but I do think some can be better than others. This was definitely the case with Alcatraz Island. It doesn’t matter if your reason to come out to the Rock was to see the prison, to see a great view of the Bay Area, to see the birds, or all of the above. This is worth all of the advanced planning required to get there. For me, it ended up being all of the above. While on the island, the National Park Service does a great job of giving you the information you need on an audio tour while giving you the freedom to do it at your own pace. They also let you roam around the island (to most places) and that was nice as you had a chance to go on a field trip without a chaperone.
I was very interested in learning that Al Capone spent four years on the island and the audio tour, narrated by ex-prisoners and former guards, mentioned that Capone was different than the mobster we’ve all heard about in history and the movies. There were many great stories about escape attempts, prison riots, Indian takeovers, and the daily lives of those who spent time there. All told, we were on the island for a couple of hours and could have spent a little more time there but two hours seemed just about right. The tour of Alcatraz at night added an additional element of creepiness to the mystique of the place with its dim lighting and dark shadows. I wish there was an option to spend a night there to more completely experience the ambience of the place but two hours on this Rock will have to do for now.
San Francisco has everything you want as a tourist, but look a little deeper and you’ll also find a city that brings out the traveler in you. All cities have the obligatory destinations that you really do need to see. New York has the Statue of Liberty, Miami has South Beach, Seattle has the Pike Place Fish Market, and so on. San Francisco has quite a few of its own: Fishermans Wharf, Pier 39, cable cars, and the Golden Gate Bridge. All of those are a must see but I say get a bus pass and see the rest of the city…the real city and you’ll have an even better time.
Fisherman’s Wharf has some great restaurants and seafood is its greatest draw. Perhaps the most authentically Wharf food you can get is clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl. The city is legendary for its seafood and the sourdough is the best of any town around. The Wharf can be very crowded with tourists and the street shows that accompany them. If that’s your thing, you’re going to be entertained for hours with great food and live street entertainment. Visit the Wharf early in the morning before the hoards arrive, while the fog is still hanging around, and the sounds of seagulls and foghorns fill the air, while all of the seafood vendors are setting up for the day and the experience will be quite different…deeper. If crowds aren’t your thing but you’d still like to experience Fisherman’s Wharf, consider visiting Monday through Thursday before the vacationers arrive. It might not be quite as entertaining, but you will have more room to move around and take your time along the piers.
Near the Wharf is another must see attraction especially if you’re a first-timer, Pier 39. Pier 39 is quite similar to the Wharf but differs in that its emphasis is not as much on seafood as it on more traditional tourist fare like crepes, fresh fruit, and candy stores. The biggest and best Pier 39 attraction is without a doubt the sea lions that rule the docks near the end of the pier proper. The sea lions compete for space on the platforms and the competition between the males will end up making you feel sorry for the smaller ones. They continually keep getting knocked off by the big bad dominant male. I’ve seen significantly more sea lions there in the winter months than in the summer. In the early morning when the city is still just waking up you can hear them ‘barking’ from blocks away. If you’re a morning person and a runner, you can find dozens of people running along the Piers as well as people swimming in the Bay across from Ghiradelli Square near an ancient looking sail boat. Not for the faint of heart as the water is freezing.
After taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Pier 39 and Fishermans Wharf, a stroll southward along the Embarcadero will get you some exercise and a bit of elbow room as well. From here, and many places from within the city, you can see the landmark of the Coit Tower at the top of Telegraph Hill. If you’re up for it, head to the Filbert Steps which lead roughly from Levi’s Square 600 steep steps up to the top. The garden lined pathway is definitely steep but there are many places along the way to stop and catch your breath while looking back and seeing some great views of the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, and the Ferry Building below. Continuing up, quads burning, lungs bursting, notice the intricate gardens of fruits, flowers, palms and herbs that distract you from the pain of the climb, as well as some beautiful multi-million dollar homes. You literally walk right by them. At the top, you’re rewarded with one of the finest views in the city and you can now see the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island in the distance.
If you walk down the opposite side that you walked up, you’ll continue through the neighborhood known as North Beach towards Chinatown. Along the way stop by the Beatnik era bookstore City Lights Bookstore and check out this famous city landmark and maybe even buy a book. Just across Jack Kerouac Alley is another Beatnik hangout, Vesuvio, which is an eclectic place to hangout for a couple of drink and imagine Jack Kerouac having a drink, or two or three there.
As you continue walking in a generally southern direction, you’ll eventually end up in Chinatown. There is something about Chinatown in San Francisco that just draws us in every time. The place is always buzzing with cheap souvenir shops, interesting restaurants, unique grocery stores, and more Chinese being spoken than English. After all of that walking and stair stepping, we were hungry for a snack and stopped at Delicious Dim Sum, a low budget, slightly adventurous looking restaurant. We decided to take a chance though and went in for some dumplings. The old lady working there spoke almost no English but with the help of another customer, we were able to order three pork dumplings which were outstanding…and only $2.50. Across the street, we saw what looked like an ‘interesting’ alley that also looked like something worth checking out. As we were admiring an alley coming down from the Coit Tower we walked past a bicyclist who saw me taking a picture and offered “the best part of San Francisco is the alleys” so when we saw this one we decided to take his advice. We were rewarded by stumbling into the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company where they still make the cookies by hand. They also, for $5 a bag, sell X-Rated fortune cookies which is something that can be tons of fun 😘!
For the last part of our walk through Chinatown, we stopped by the Eastern Bakery for some traditional Chinese pastries. We tried a butter cream pastry, so good and a sesame black bean moon, good but we liked the butter cream the best. All for just $2.95!?! Fun but it’s time to move on! Up next is a cable car ride and another walk, this time to the hippie district of Haight-Ashbury.
So is riding the world famous SF cable car a “tourist” thing to do? Hell yes it is but it is so fun. Hanging out the side of the cars feels like getting to do something you shouldn’t be allowed to do, which makes it even better. Never mind that it’s just a great way to get around, it’s fun too. We happened to be on the cable car while the driver was in training which made it even more interesting, especially when he didn’t apply the brake when he should have.
After finishing that ride we walked a few blocks to Haight-Ashbury and spent some time walking around hippie ground zero before strolling over to Golden Gate Park. This park surely ranks up there with New York’s Central Park as far as great urban open spaces go. On this day, instead of walking the miles of trails through the beautiful park, we stumbled on a collection of food trucks and live music. Now, San Francisco is legendary for its great food truck culture so why not give that a go too? We tried one called “The Chairman” which served Coca Cola braised pork with a couple of other sides that I couldn’t pronounce, let alone write. The food was so unique and tasty that it was hard to believe that it came from a truck.
With daylight fading, we hopped on a Muni Bus and tried to get over to the area around Lands End to take in an ocean sunset. We made it with a few minutes to spare and we were able to take in a great sunset from Point Lobos. The area around the point is worth exploring while you’re there. The ruins of the Sutro Baths are there to check out and the Cliff House, a restaurant and bar with an incredible view of the Pacific is nearby. We then hopped back on another Muni Bus to our hotel and can honestly say that we squeezed every bit out of the day you possibly could but we had a blast.
We experienced so much of what makes this city so diverse, and have been to San Francisco numerous times. This time we didn’t go to the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, or the Ferry Terminal. As you can see, San Francisco is a city that takes several days to explore, maybe even a lifetime.
The plane ride to Las Vegas was full of peppy 20 somethings on their way to a weekend of “fun” in Sin City taking selfies, pre drinking, dancing in their seats and playing card games as a preliminary bout to the main event (apologies for the boxing metaphor). It’s really why most people go there and I get it. Where else can you go to do things that are illegal in most states? But that isn’t why we’re here…my wife and I are here to do mostly un-Vegas activities.
The first un-Vegas thing we did was staying outside of the city. Our stay was in Kyle Canyon which was about 45 minutes from the airport where the brightest lights were from the moon, the stars, the headlights from the car, and maybe the glow from the Strip about 15 miles distant as the crow flies. The drive from the airport did seem a bit long but all of the suicidal jackrabbits on the highway forced you to pay attention. Unfortunately for one jackrabbit, the car’s bumper proved to be fatal. There were also wild donkeys on the road too but they were a little smarter than the rabbits and moved off of the road whenever the car got close. But staying so far away from the bright lights has certain advantages, the primary being just being able to relax where the pace of the place is slower compared to the craziness of Las Vegas. When it’s hot enough to melt your shoes walking the Strip, the temperatures are quite a bit cooler in the canyon, about 20 degrees cooler (in the summertime, 20 degrees cooler can make the desert summer just a little more tolerable).
The next morning, we headed to the Strip for a few hours of sightseeing. The Strip is an all out attack on your senses. First off, there are people everywhere, hoards of them. Most people do walk here and it truly is the easiest and best way to get around (there are taxis too but walk if you can). On your eyes, there is a constant barrage of signs, billboards, lights, and street performers vying for your attention as you stroll up and down the Strip. There is no rest for the bloodshot eye in this town! Your ears will get all of the sound it can handle as each hotel has music coming from outdoor speakers as you pass in front of their grounds. This is all good until you transition from one casino to another and the sounds just overlap into one confusing din of Top 40 hits.
The best part of the strip has to be the hotels themselves. The architecture is stunning. It can be argued that the some of the hotels lack originality in wherever they draw their inspiration from but that makes them no less spectacular. The hotels often are made to look like scenes from other famous places while still managing to be large, functioning places to gamble, entertain, and sleep. You can go around the world without leaving the Nevada desert it seems. New York, New York has done a magnificent job of replicating the Manhattan skyline. Paris has a scaled version of the Eiffel Tower. The Venitian has canals with singing gondoliers that take you through a mini replica of Venice. The list goes on: the Luxor is like a modern pyramid of Giza, Excalibur is like a giant English castle, Caesars Palace is Roman themed, and the Bellagio has a water theme. There are just too many beautiful hotels to mention but try to see as many as you can. You’ll get lots of steps in on your FitBit which will help work off some of those buffet meals you’ll consume during your stay.
That night we attended Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at the Bellagio and gambled while waiting for the show to start, we played slots for about 20 minutes and won about $20 and then gave it right back to the casino, high rollers we are…not. The show was a water themed production which fit well with the overall concept of the hotel. The show itself has been in Vegas for many years and still draws very well. If you’ve not been to a Cirque du Soleil show before, they are very well done and entertain you for the entire time, unless you don’t like clown humor, then it’s entertaining about 90% of the time. The music is performed live, was equally as impressive and was perfect for the act it was supporting. After the show, we caught one the “Fountains of Bellagio” shows as we walked back to our car. These draw big crowds and was considerably cheaper than the Cirque show…free. Next up was the drive back to our hotel and more jackrabbit dodgeball.
The next morning was an early one, 4:15 A.M. after only a couple of hours of sleep. I know the couple of hours of sleep thing is par for the course in Vegas but for most people, their reasons are vastly different than ours. We were getting up to go kayaking on the Colorado River. We had booked a full day, unescorted trip and had to meet up with the outfitter, Desert Adventures in Boulder City at 6:00 A.M. sharp. After going over the cursory safety details and pointers, we hopped into a van which would take us to the put in point just below the Hoover Dam where we would begin our damn tour (I couldn’t help the Vegas Vacation reference at least once). We would be on or near the river for about the next eight hours.
If there is no wind, the paddling is pretty easy as you are going downstream with the current for approximately 13 miles to where you get picked up by the tour company. During the journey downstream, you get to take in the canyon scenery while gently floating along at a fairly leisurely pace. Aside from just being in the kayak, there are also many opportunities to get out of your boat to do some hiking. After about two miles, there is a popular slot canyon which is fed by a hot spring. The water is warm as you walk along the canyon floor and it feels goooooooood! Trouble for me was navigating the rocks where the mini waterfalls were. It proved to be much harder than it looked. I managed to fall off of the first fall (pun intended) and found each successive waterfall to be increasingly difficult. The falls were not too tough to get up but getting down, well that was a different story altogether. I guess there is a shoe for everything and we had the wrong ones for walking through slot canyons. When kayaking, Keen sandals are perfect since they can get wet but dry quickly. In a slot canyon they get rocks in them which is mostly just a slight nuisance but more importantly, they don’t grip the slippery rocks at each little waterfall. There aren’t very many slot canyons where I live and I was not prepared for this part of the trip. Next time I will be!
Later on, there was a much easier to navigate slot canyon called Arizona Hot Springs and the Keens were perfect this time. The short slot canyon was also spring fed (hence the name) and access to the pools was via an approximately 20′ ladder. Sandbags are used to create the pools but everything else is purely natural. Don’t get any water up your nose though, there’s s a brain eating amoeba in the water that could cause you some serious problems. I hear that if a brain eating amoeba got into some people’s heads, they would starve to death 😂. There were about four or five pools and each one got progressively hotter as you worked your way upstream. I found the next to last one to be just right for me to sit in.
Back on the river, we still had about eight miles to go and about four hours to get there. As easy as the paddling was so far, eight more miles would be a piece of cake. Wrong! The wind had come up from downstream and made the paddling extremely difficult. I had to stop several times from fatigue and I consider myself fairly healthy/fit. Needless to say, we didn’t do much sightseeing the rest of the way as we battled the wind to make it to the rendezvous point by the 4:00 deadline. There were times where the wind was blowing so hard that we weren’t even moving. Considering that we were paddling downstream, I found this extremely disheartening. We made it to the takeout beach with a few minutes to spare, only to learn that there were others who were behind us. For most of the paddle, I thought we were the last ones in the group still on the river but was so relieved to know that we weren’t.
Our last day was spent recovering from the past couple of days of “un-Vegas” activities. I did a short hike in Kyle Canyon before we checked out of the hotel and then we began slowly working our way back to the airport.
What I’ve learned about traveling is that no matter where you go, there is something for everyone. Most people would probably look at our trip and say what a waste it was to go to Vegas and not do the Sin City itinerary. Others avoid Vegas altogether. For us, we did the things a traveler would do rather than what a tourist would do. Either way, there’s something in Las Vegas for everyone.
By the way, the plane ride home was full of quiet, exhausted people (us included) who I’m sure all have fun stories to tell but can’t because of the “code”.