My Favorite Hike . . . So Far

My wife and I have had the good fortune to walk and hike in some spectacular locations over the last ten years including England, France, and Italy. I have written a few posts about our treks in Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California. I maintain that some of the best scenic walks or hikes in the United States are in California: around San Francisco, along the Pacific coast, and in the wine country, just to name a few. If pressed to choose my favorite hiking experience to date, that distinction would have to go to Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Yosemite Valley is the most familiar destination in this region to so many visitors, but Yosemite National Park covers 1,200 square miles. First protected in 1864 by the federal government and the state of California, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and vast wilderness.

We were at Yosemite for several days during July, 2013. A close friend who lives in California frequently visits Yosemite to relax, hike, and take fantastic photographs — a hobby that has in recent years almost become a vocation. She was generous enough to be our guide, taking us to some of her favorite places to hike and witness the beauty of this amazing place. We stayed in a comfortable cabin about 45 minutes south of the valley near the village of Mariposa. For our first outing, we explored the meadows around the Merced River between Sentinel Beach and Cathedral Beach, which offered stunning views of the rocky cliffs of El Capitan and Cathedral Spires. The meadows with their lush riverbanks are large enough to provide some privacy and a good place to escape the crowds that gather near the camping sites and the more popular attractions in the park. We spent the early afternoon taking photographs and wading in the cool waters of the Merced River where it pools in the numerous bends as it winds its way through the valley.

Wading after hiking at Yosemite
Wading after hiking at Yosemite

On our second day, we spent some time at two of the most familiar waterfalls in the valley. Bridalveil Fall is the thin, tall spray that is visible on the right from the famous Tunnel View, the place where Wawona Road exits the tunnel and the place where most visitors get their first glimpse and photographs of the breathtaking vista of Yosemite Valley. There is a trail that leads to the base of the fall, where the water crashes against gigantic boulders and disperses a fine mist over an area about an acre in size. The best time to view the falls at Yosemite is the spring, when the melting snow creates the largest volume of water spilling over the soaring rock cliffs. Even in July that year the water was still running enough to make for a spectacular performance. We also walked up to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, and then treated ourselves to afternoon cocktails in the courtyard of the Ahwahnee Hotel, now called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. While sipping our drinks under the umbrellas, my eyes were drawn upward to the cliffs rising from the valley floor. Our friend identified the peak as Glacier Point, and I asked, “Can we get up there?” She explained that Glacier Point Road takes off from Wawona Road and leads to an observation point with a picnic area and restrooms. We decided that we would have enough energy by the next morning to explore the hiking trails around Glacier Point.

When we arrived at around 9:00, the crowds had not yet started to gather at this famous lookout point, which offers one of the best views of Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome rock formation. We wandered around the site, experiencing the valley from a completely different perspective than the previous two days. Similar to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, words fail to describe the spectacle. Even explorers like John Muir had difficulty. Our friend, who is twelve years our senior, challenged us to take the hike from Glacier Point up to Sentinel Dome, which rises about 900 feet from the trail head and peaks out at over 8,100 feet above sea level. “I won’t be happy unless I’m at the top,” I said. We strapped on our backpacks, which included our lunches, and headed up the winding trail through the evergreens toward the summit. When there were breaks in the trees, the views along the way were fabulous. The last hundred feet of the trail opened up to bare rock and was fairly steep. The reward for making it to the top was well worth the effort. Sentinel Dome presented far-reaching vistas in all directions: to the west down the valley to the Merced River canyon and to the north the massive expanse of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. At this elevation, the peak of Half Dome is in clear sight and is only 700 feet higher. I couldn’t resist hopping up on the large rock that crowns the dome for a selfie with Half Dome to commemorate the occasion.

On the peak of Sentinel Dome at Yosemite
On the peak of Sentinel Dome at Yosemite

To employ poor puns to the fullest extent, how do you top such an uplifting experience? On our way back down the trail, we stopped for lunch on some large rocks at an opening looking out to the east. We could just make out the remaining snow on the High Sierra peaks in the distance. Below our perch across a considerable expanse, we could see Nevada Fall making its contribution to the Merced River. At the brief intervals when there was no wind through the trees, we could just barely hear the distant roar of the water crashing down the crag to the huge rocks at the fall’s base. With tired legs and sore feet, we refueled on sandwiches and fruit, realizing that we were totally immersed in one of those wonderful moments where friendships, nature, and a deep appreciation of life converge to present memories that never fade. My wife and I continue to travel and look for opportunities to hike, especially at locations where we can enjoy beautiful scenery. Perhaps at some point I will have an outdoor encounter that impresses me even more than the morning at Sentinel Dome did. I truly look forward to it.

Nevada Fall at Yosemite
Nevada Fall at Yosemite

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

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.

A Moment in Time

People travel for a variety of reasons.  Even people who travel for pleasure don’t all have the same agenda.  We may be looking for simple relaxation, thrilling adventure, outdoor recreation, breathtaking scenery, cultural or historical education, stimulating enlightenment, or something altogether different.  Generally, we are looking for an experience that transcends our day-to-day lives.  We seek a opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes, to be somehow transported if only for a brief time.  And, we really don’t have to be in some romantic or exotic location.  It can happen so unexpectedly, not because of our plans but in spite of them.  It can also happen in an unlikely place — not at all where we anticipated “the magic” would occur.

Several years ago, my wife and I took a trip to San Francisco.  We stayed for about a week at a good friend’s house in Port Richmond, a neighborhood in Richmond, California overlooking the bay.  It was my first time to the west coast, so we acted like true tourists and visited Muir Woods, the wine country, various places in and around the city, and even took a drive down Highway 1 along the Pacific coast and spent the night in Carmel.  It was fabulous.  On one afternoon during our vacation, we met up with a young man who is a family friend who lives in the city.  He took us to some of his favorite hiking spots at Land’s End and other locations around the entrance of the bay.  We came back to the Port Richmond house and settled out on the deck overlooking the bay.  We had a few drinks and took the time to catch up with him as the afternoon drifted towards evening.  We were enjoying each other’s company and the comfortable weather so much that we decided to have pizza delivered instead of going out for dinner.

Sunset over San Francisco Bay
Sunset over San Francisco Bay

We continued to sit on that deck after the pizza was devoured and talked for hours.  As we sipped on drinks, we watched the sun slowly sink behind the top of the distant hills to the west beyond the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge and marveled as the lights of the bridge and its endless stream of vehicles began to glow with evening’s approach.  We talked and laughed about life, our memories, our hopes and fears.  We soaked up the beauty of the bay at nightfall. There was nothing spectacular about the meal, although the setting was certainly enchanting enough.  We were together, enjoying each other’s company, completely immersed in the now — the right then and there.  We had not necessarily planned for the day to end this way.  There was no remarkable event, no famous landmark, no fanfare at all.  Still, it was somehow wonderful, and I knew it would be impossible to replicate.  I took a photograph of the sunset from the deck to commemorate the occasion. Anytime I can stumble upon a moment like that, I get the sense that I have done more than travel.  I have taken a journey.

Walasi-yi on the Appalachian Trail

Near a place called Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia, the Appalachian Trail makes a steep descent south towards a place called Neels Gap.  The Trail crosses Highway 19/129 just a few miles south of Vogel State Park at a historic site called Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center.  The stone façade of the Center has been standing at Neels Gap since 1937. Originally a log structure, the building took its present form when it was rebuilt by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was a living quarters for corpsman working to reforest the Chattahoochee National Forest. It later served as a restaurant and inn until 1965, when it was abandoned.  By the mid-1970s the building was slated for demolition, but a group of conservation-minded locals lobbied successfully for its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Spared from destruction, the building served as an irregular store to hikers and tourists until 1983 when Jeff and Dorothy Hansen took over management of what became known as Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi. Although the store has changed hands several times, it still operates as a premiere full service outfitter on the Trail for thru hikers offering gear, large resupply options, lodging,  and an array of gifts.

View from Neel Gap
View from Neel Gap

Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center boasts a couple of interesting features.  It is the only place where the Appalachian Trail passes through a man-made structure.  It is also the home of what I call the tree of blown-out hiking shoes.  For years, hikers have been slinging their badly-worn shoes up into the branches of a tree located just outside the store’s entrance.  It caught me by surprise the first time I looked up and noticed what was hanging from the limbs.  I’m sure the tree stands as a monument to those who have passed through this section of the Appalachian Trail, whether they started in Georgia, Maine, or a thousand points in between.  Having one’s shoes included in the tree must surely be a badge of honor.  It almost serves as a footwear mausoleum, and perhaps a warning to those who think hiking the Trail is not so difficult.

Walasi-Yi Shoe Tree
Walasi-Yi Shoe Tree

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.