San Francisco Hiking

For those who enjoy hiking, perhaps the first places that come to mind for the activity are wilderness sanctuaries offered at national and state parks or through the U.S. Forestry Service.  Surprisingly, there are also some major metropolitan areas that provide hiking opportunities both inside the city and in the surrounding countryside.  Inner-city parks are great places to enjoy nature and leg-stretching.  Sometimes, just walking the streets can end up being a good cardio workout, especially when cities are built in hilly sections of the country.  One of the best destinations for hiking in the U.S. is the San Francisco Bay area.  The city is characterized by steep hills and valleys, and there is an abundance of parks and wilderness all around the bay.

Transamerica building in San Francisco
Transamerica building in San Francisco

The city of San Francisco is built on a peninsula in a grid pattern with a collection of over forty hills, some of which reach a height of nearly 1,000 feet.  There are plenty of books and websites devoted to urban hiking for San Francisco, and there are groups organized specifically for walking in the city for health, recreation, relaxation, social interaction, and learning about the history of the area.  There are even companies that offer guided walks, such as Urban Hiker San Francisco.  Most walks are a moderate challenge to people in fairly good health, and some of them have the added bonus of stellar views of the city.  For example, the 40-minute loop trails at Bernal Hill crisscross 26 acres of pathways, some of which lead to the summit with 360-degree views of San Francisco all the way to Daly City, Oakland, and Berkeley.

Once you get outside the city, there are loads of hiking options to the north, east, and south.  The California Coastal Trail is very popular and yields spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged cliffs along the California Coast.  There are also nice trails with beautiful bay vistas and distant views of the Golden Gate Bridge in suburbs such as Point Richmond to the east.  Located along the rocky cliffs to the south and overlooking the ocean, Lands End is easily one of the most popular spots for a scenic walk.  The trails are accessible from a parking lot just north of the world-famous Cliff House and directly in front of another major San Francisco attraction — the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a former swim palace built in the 19th century which featured the world’s largest indoor swimming pool at the time of its opening.  The waves crashing against the giant rocks on the beach at Lands End is like something out of a movie!

Land's End waves crashing on the beach
Lands End waves crashing on the beach

Looking for a more traditional hiking experience?  Just a short drive north of the city is Muir Woods National Monument.  Named for the adventurous naturalist who devoted so much of his life to preserving the wonderful natural resources of the west, this National Park Service property is home to a primeval forest of old growth coast redwoods, cooling their roots in the fresh water of Redwood Creek and lifting their crowns to reach the sun and fog.  The diversity of flora and fauna at Muir Woods is incredible.  The redwoods themselves dominate the scene, but the humble Steller’s jay, ladybugs, ancient horsetail ferns, and the banana slug hold their own beneath the canopy.  Plants adapt to low light levels on the forest floor, while whole plant and animal communities bustle in the canopy.

Muir Woods
Muir Woods

Of course, the bay is the true centerpiece of this portion of the Pacific Coast.  With an average depth of only 12-15 feet, this large body of water looks more like a massive inland lake than a gateway to the ocean.  The main body of the bay covers about 400 square miles.  Approximately 40% of California’s water systems drains into the bay.  Most visitors to the area probably take in the view of the bay from Golden Gate Bridge, but to truly appreciate its size, the perspective from the surrounding hillsides is best.  My personal favorite vantage points are along the east side at Richmond and from the north at Muir Woods.  Hiking is a great form of exercise, but what we see along the way makes the experience so memorable.  With that objective in mind, San Francisco is a hiker’s dream.

San Francisco Bay from Muir Woods
San Francisco Bay from Muir Woods

The Garden at Musée Rodin

Visitors to Paris will often want to include in their itinerary a side trip to the Palace of Versailles, which is about a thirty-minute train ride from the city.  The round trip isn’t so time-consuming, but actually seeing the palace and grounds takes a minimum of half a day, even more if one truly explores the garden, which is 800 hectares (over 1,900 acres) in size. Unfortunately, some travelers are on a tight schedule and hardly have enough time to see the major attractions in Paris, much less places outside the city.  There is no substitute for seeing the Palace of Versailles, which is quite magnificent and offers a visual representation of the wealth and power of the monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The garden is certainly spectacular and difficult to match; however, if there is a substitute in Paris that can serve as a rival, albeit on a smaller scale, the garden at the Musée Rodin must be near the top of the list.

Rodin gardens from mansion balconey
Rodin gardens from mansion balcony

The Musée Rodin is housed in a mansion, formerly called the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras, now known as the Hôtel Biron. Auguste Rodin was a 19th-century French sculptor who is known for creating several iconic works, including “The Age of Bronze,” “The Thinker,” “The Kiss,” and “The Burghers of Calais.” The collection in the restored mansion is interesting for the novice and probably a treasure for artists and art historians, but almost everyone can appreciate the beauty of the garden.  Its size is minuscule compared to Versailles, but it is still impressive. The grounds are divided into a rose garden, north of the mansion, and a large ornamental garden, to the south, while a terrace and hornbeam hedge backing onto a trellis conceal a relaxation area, at the bottom of the garden. Two thematic walks are also part of the garden: the “Garden of Orpheus,” on the east side, and the “Garden of Springs”on the west side.

Rodin garden roses and shrubs
Rodin garden roses and shrubs

In addition to the abundance of plants, the garden is also decorated with some of Rodin’s sculpture.  Rodin started to place selected works in the garden in 1908, together with some of the antiques from his personal collection. Male and female torsos, copies made in the Roman or modern period, after Greek works, were presented in these natural surroundings. Other pieces were added after his death. The first bronzes were erected in the gardens before World War I. Since 1993, they have been regularly cleaned and treated so as to preserve their original patinas.

Rodin mansion 3

Anyone who has visited Paris knows the frustration of wanting to see more, to do more, than limited time will allow. Tourists have to be selective, discriminating, and reasonable about what they will be able to cover during the time they are in the city. Any attraction that offers more than one type of experience is probably worth including. The Musée Rodin fits that description with historic architecture and provocative sculpture but also a landscape that is in itself a work of art, offering the visitor an opportunity to rest and reflect.

Short Hikes Are Just Fine

Hiking is an outdoor activity that covers a lot of ground, literally and figuratively.  People who hike do so for a number of different reasons (exercise, health, nature appreciation, social interaction, competition, etc.), and they have so many options of how and where to do this activity.  Some folks only think of hiking in terms of backpacking and trekking out into the wilderness for days or even weeks at a time.  Others envision hiking as a journey that gets you from point A to point B, or they see it as a test of endurance and distance.  Hiking the Appalachian Trail comes to mind.

As with any form of recreation, there may be purists out there who maintain a set of standards or criteria for being called a real hiker.  I hope not, because we would certainly fall short.  When we hike, my wife and I are no longer interested in “pushing through the pain” to break any records of distance, speed, or difficulty.  We are simply enjoying the outdoors and the opportunity to see things for the first time while getting a little exercise.  As working professionals, we still operate on fairly busy schedules, so we often find ourselves carving out time to hike.  This may mean that we only have thirty minutes or an hour, and we often grab these opportunities while in route.  A perfect example was a one-hour excursion we took on our way from Phoenix to Tucson, Arizona, for a short up and back down hike at Picacho Peak State Park.

The drive from Phoenix to Tucson typically takes about two hours.  We left Phoenix at about 7:45 in the morning and arrived at Picacho Peak State Park at about 8:45.  We changed into our boots, pulled hiking polls out of the trunk of the car, grabbed water and hats and took off on the trail that leads from the parking area to the peak.  It is a very rocky but well-marked trail that zigzags up the west slope.  It is considered moderate in difficulty, which is a fair assessment.  With a few quick stops for me to take some photos along the way, we made it to the overlook in just over thirty minutes.  It was a sunny morning with temperatures in the upper 50s F, which was just about perfect.

We are not nearly young enough (admittedly a poor excuse), fit enough, or brave enough to climb rock faces, but we were perfectly satisfied to stop our ascent when we reached the overlook at the base of the jagged outcropping that forms the top of the peak.  The view was spectacular looking southeast out across the Arizona desert.  Of course, we took the obligatory selfie at this location and absorbed the experience for a few minutes before heading back down the slope.

This out-and-back hike took just over an hour.  We were back on the road to Tucson by 11:00 and made it to the city to see some close friends for lunch at noon.  More often than not, this is our hiking pattern.  We have decided that short hikes like this one satisfy our need to get outside and stretch our legs, breathe in the fresh air, and sometimes enjoy spectacular scenery. Someday, when we are retired, we may have more time for longer hikes, but for now, the short ones are just fine.

Strolling Through Hyde Park

My wife and I were in London this past summer for a few days.  We had some scheduled work-related activities on the Sunday after we arrived, but our morning was free.  The day was overcast, as so many are in London.  We decided to spend the morning strolling through Hyde Park, one of eight Royal Parks in the city.  Seized by Henry VIII from the monks of Westminster Abbey in 1536 as a private hunting grounds for the monarch, this 350-acre property was not made available to the general public until 1637.  In the late 17th century, William and Mary purchased Nottingham House on the western edge of the park and renamed it Kensington Palace, which is where the royal family made its home.  During the 18th century, the park began to take on many of the features that distinguish it today, thanks to the efforts and creativity of Queen Caroline.  Two of the most striking landscape elements she introduced were Kensington Gardens and Serpentine Lake.

Hyde Park, London
Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, London

Through the centuries Hyde Park has been a site for national celebrations and a sanctuary of free speech, illustrated by the famous Speakers’ Corner, where anyone is allowed to stand up and openly speak on any subject, including grievances against the state.  Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and George Orwell are among the most famous orators who have expressed their views at Speakers’ Corner.  The park is also a haven for wildlife, and the Serpentine Lake offers a rich habitat for a wide variety of water fowl and other aquatic animals.  Of course, maneuvering through a patchwork of goose poop is an issue if you choose to get too close to the water!  As one might expect, the park is filled with statues, memorials, fountains, artwork, pavilions, walkways, and concessions.

Hyde Park, London
Water garden in Hyde Park, London

On the morning of our stroll, we entered the park through the Marble Arch on the northeast, next to Speakers’ Corner.  Immediately we were greeted with people taking advantage of the weekend with their exercise routines: running, walking, tai chi, yoga, martial arts, and more.  A major portion of this section of the park was currently occupied by the British Summer Time festival of music, but we made our way around it toward the large section of Serpentine Lake, intersecting with West Carriage Drive and crossing Serpentine Bridge.  We passed by the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain to reach the Lido Restaurant, where we bought some hot drinks to warm us up a bit — it was chilly morning for July.  We continued leisurely along one of the walkways within view of the lake and headed back toward the southeast part of the park to the Serpentine Waterfall and the enchanting water garden just beyond it.

Hyde Park, London
Water garden in Hyde Park, London

On the southeast corner of the park, we spent some time wandering through the Rose Garden, a spectacular oasis featuring roses mixed with herbaceous plants that were exploding with color while we were there.  We were joined by parents carrying babies in strollers and older children asking a thousand questions.  I have written on public gardens before, and this is absolutely one of the finest I have ever visited.  I cannot begin to imagine how much money the city, and perhaps the Crown, invests in this amazing display of natural beauty.  The vistas are breathtaking.

Hyde Park, London
Flower garden in Hyde Park, London

Like most of the major international cities, London is filled with attractions and history.  It would be foolish to suggest bypassing all of those places to take a stroll through the park. You have to see the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, etc.  At the same time, don’t cheat yourself by missing the opportunity to immerse yourself in the local environment, and public parks are a great place to do so.  Sure, there are tourists wandering around in Hyde Park — we were among that category.  But, there were also plenty of locals enjoying the simple pleasures of this treasured and historic resource.  The conversations we overheard between couples and companions and  among parents and children gave us a superficial but satisfying sense of being British just for a couple of hours.  We never want to miss those kinds of opportunities when we travel.

Kayaking on Lake Burton

My wife and I took our Hobie kayaks out on Lake Burton recently, putting in at a shady little cove at Moccasin Creek State Park near Clarkesville, Georgia.  Lake Burton is considered one of the highest demand lakes in the country for real estate, and on its shores are fabulous homes owned by celebrities, athletes, and wealthy entrepreneurs.  Some of the two-storey boat houses are grander than most middle class homes in America.  The 2800-acre lake is nestled in the mountains of northeast Georgia, about 100 miles northeast of Atlanta.  It is one of several Georgia Power Company lakes created by a series of dams on the Tallulah River.

Kayaking on Lake Burton
Kayaking on Lake Burton

I have bragged on Georgia’s state park system several times, and Moccasin Creek is one of the reasons.  In addition to providing access to a beautiful mountain lake, the park is a perfect setting for camping, and the campground is one of the best I’ve seen in the state. It has a large pavilion, a big playground, a general store, a fishing dock, a boat ramp, and several boat slips.  Activities at the park include picnicking, fishing, canoeing, hiking, and geocaching.  There are good restaurants close by, and it’s a short drive from destinations like Helen, Georgia too.

We got out on the lake a little after 9:00 on a Saturday morning and stayed out for about 90 minutes.  One of the most enjoyable aspects of kayaking on a lake like Burton is the leisurely pace and close proximity to the shoreline afforded by these boats.  You get to see so much more detail than you would on a motor boat or jet ski.  Some of the houses we saw just in the small portion of the lake we traveled were incredible.  Of course, we also appreciate the exercise we get from peddling the Hobies.  We plan to explore more lakes in north Georgia on the kayaks, and there are quite a few from which to choose.

Gardens for Everyone

Thomas Jefferson purportedly wrote these words: “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.” Thinking of the word “garden” brings to mind so many different images and activities, probably because there are so many definitions and far too many types to list. A few examples will suffice: flower gardens, vegetable gardens, herb gardens, rock gardens, fairy gardens, cottage gardens, formal gardens, private gardens, and public gardens. It is this final variation that I turn my attention to so many times when I am traveling. Large cities almost always have botanical gardens that are usually enclosed and often charge admission to explore; however, cities also frequently have open access gardens that are situated among the towering buildings or incorporated into larger parks. London, Paris, and other European cities have magnificent public gardens that are as famous as any other attractions, drawing millions of tourists each year. The United States also boasts some splendid examples as well.

Public Garden, Boston, MA
Public Garden, Boston, MA

Perhaps the oldest public garden in the country is appropriately called the Public Garden located in the heart of Boston on the southwest side of the famous Boston Commons. Designed by George F. Meacham in the mid-19th century, the Public Garden now has paved trails that wind around the pond, under the trees, and through the floral displays that change with the seasons. We were there in September when the summer blooms were still dazzling. This park is enjoyed by so many people, both Bostonians and visitors to the city. It is a wonderful oasis between the famous historic district and the bustling urban center.

Golden Gate Bridge Park
Golden Gate Bridge Park, San Francisco, CA

Monuments and landmarks present a fine opportunity for the placement of public gardens. The Golden Gate Bridge Park is another example of a space that brings together locals and tourists. The abundance of moisture from the San Francisco Bay and the humid, foggy air sweeping in from the Pacific provides a near-perfect environment for a green-space. We spent several minutes wandering around this garden before taking a trek out on the most recognizable bridge in America.

Opryland Hotel Gardens
Opryland Hotel Gardens, Nashville, TN

Sometimes gardens that are owned and maintained by private entities are still made available to the public at no charge. Hotels, office complexes, and shopping centers usually have, at bare minimum, some level of landscaping. Occasionally these establishments go far beyond the obligatory curb dressing to create extensive gardens and observatories, such as the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. In tourist towns, several retailers may collaborate to install and maintain plantings, beds, boxes, and pots to attract shoppers to their doors. These private gardens are not only accessible to the public but are specifically designed to attract people passing through the area. I have seen some beautiful examples of this type of garden in destinations such as Gatlinburg (Tennessee), Sedona (Arizona), St. Simons Island (Georgia), and Santa Fe (New Mexico).

Shopping courtyard garden
Garden at a shopping courtyard in Santa Fe, NM

Places of worship are also a good source for gardens that can be enjoyed by everyone.  Usually maintained by a small band of devoted gardeners in the organization, these spaces welcome visitors and encourage them to take a few moments to be still, contemplate,  meditate, or pray. Some of these gardens are small and simple, but still lovely.  Others are huge and elaborate, attracting thousands of visitors each year. Some are not free and open to the general public, such as the Gardens of Vatican City, although guided tours are available. The Gardens at Temple Square of the LDS Church represent an over-the-top horticultural exhibit that is enjoyed by anyone who wants to pass through the church’s massive complex in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Temple Square Gardens
Gardens at Temple Square, LDS Church headquarters, Salt Lake City, UT

As an amateur gardener, I have a deep appreciation for the integration of beautiful plants into the built environment. Public gardens address a basic need that so many people have of staying connected to nature. They are also a haven for birds and other small wildlife that share real estate with humans. They filter the air, enrich it with oxygen, and lace it with their perfumes. They tantalize our eyes with various shades of green and a wide array of vibrant colors. Public gardens tempt us to pause, relax, and reflect. The familiar phrase of “stop and smell the roses” is a cliché for a reason.  It’s based on a fundamental human need to slow down and appreciate very simple pleasures.  Take the opportunity to do so the next time you pass a public garden.

Raccoons Are So Cute . . . and Deadly

What could be more adorable among wild animals than a raccoon?  With that signature black mask that looks like a small child dressed for Halloween and that distinctive striped, bushy tail, these waddling mammals are quite often photographed and recorded on video as they make their way through suburban neighborhoods, and even large cities, looking for an easy meal. Considering how adaptive they have become to residential areas and how broad their diet is, most meals are probably fairly easy indeed.  They are mostly nocturnal, spending the hours after dusk raiding trash cans or prowling around for frogs and crustaceans.  Watching them rub their faces or stand on their hinds legs with their front paws extended forward, observers are lured into thinking that raccoons are practically tame and even friendly.  Plenty of people have made pets of young raccoons, and as long as their diet and other environmental conditions are strictly controlled, they are probably harmless for the most part.  Nevertheless, the raccoon is not a domesticated species — it is wild.  Here lies the problem.

Raccoon at pond
Raccoon at pond

In captivity, raccoons can live up to 20 years; however, in the wild they rarely live more than 3-4 years.  That’s quite a significant spread.  They have very few natural predators, and humans are not as nearly interested in their pelts as was the case several generations ago (alas, Daniel Boone and Fess Parker have been dead for a while).  They are hunted for sport, but not widely.  What accounts for the difference?  Disease and infection are the greatest threat to longevity for raccoons, and because they share environments with humans, they are a greater risk than most people realize.  YouTube is full of videos of raccoons wandering around in backyards, playing in sandboxes, or even swimming in pools.  How cute!  How dangerous!!

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an entire section of its website devoted to risks associated with close encounters with raccoons.  In addition to rabies, giardia, and leptospirosis, raccoons also spread the Baylisascaris infection from a specific type of roundworm.  The roundworm eggs are sometimes found in the feces of raccoons, and if ingested, they can cause a deadly infection.  Raccoons need water for digestion, and they also feed on amphibians, so they are naturally drawn to water, even swimming pools.  Frogs often gather along the waterline of pools and in the skimmers, which offers a feeding opportunity for raccoons.  They are creatures of habit, so once they start visiting a pool and find food, they will likely return.  Another habit they have is pooping in water, and they will often do so in the shallow walk-out sections of swimming pools.  If the feces is infected, it can introduce roundworm eggs into the water.  And the real kicker is this: chlorine doesn’t kill the eggs or the parasite!

It is simply not a good idea to attract raccoons to where people live, especially by intentionally feeding them.  Young children have a tendency to place their hands and objects in their mouths, which puts them at significant risk if they are playing in areas where raccoons are roaming around freely.  As cute as they are, raccoons are something you want to see on a hike through the forest, not in your backyard.