Archive for May, 2005

San Francisco, Pacifica, and Marin County, Calif.
Visited: May 31, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 201 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Go Fly a KiteWHAT IS IT?
The sprawling prototype for an urban National Park. The Site’s 76,500 acres include miles of ocean and bay coastlines, restored marshlands, historic defense structures, redwood groves, cliffside views, ridgeline hikes, Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco Presidio.

Golden Gate NRA is not to be confused with the more famous Golden Gate Park. Golden Gate Park is run by the city and county of San Francisco. It is the City’s Central Park, a long rectangle stretching three miles from the Haight Ashbury section of town all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The Golden Gate Park totals 1,000 acres and includes the SF Arboretum, the Conservatory of Flowers, the Japanese Tea Garden and acres of picnic space and ball fields.

The Golden Gate NRA is a much larger entity and is run by the National Park Service. It is one of our most visited National Park Sites. Over 16 million people visit each year, most without realizing they are on National Park Land.

BEAUTY (10/10)
San Francisco is our nation’s most beautiful city. Its hills ripple gently and its Bay, dotted by flowing sailboats, shines with stunning blue hues. Its skyscrapers keep to themselves and its bridges stand with absolute majesty. The Pacific Ocean, filled with brave surfers, roars violently along its coast. When the fog rolls in, the City becomes wrapped in mystery and only its highest points peak out. But on most days the sun shines bright, making the City feel so attractive and fooling the tourist into the false belief that the day is warm.

Every vista can be framed with the City’s famous landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island, both parts of the National Recreation Area. Every visual angle is more awesome than the last. The City splendor comes into stunning focus from across the Bay, in the Marin Headlines section of the Golden Gate NRA. From here, you can see everything. The City’s beauty becomes complete and unreal, wholly unbelievable.

The history of the Golden Gate NRA revolves around the City’s military past. The Presidio and Fort Baker were once large-scale military residences. Fort Point and Alcatraz were the west’s only third generation coastal defense bastions. Earthworks and battery fortifications line the Marin Headlands and the Pacific coast. The Fort Mason piers and warehouses provided services for ships and men leaving for the World War II Pacific Theater. Crissy Field played an early role in aviation history. The Sutro Baths were a Victorian-era resort.

The Park’s ample history is not overly interesting or significant. The Park service must concur, as it gives the Sites only cursory exhibit signs and no Museums.

CROWDS (10/10)
Pier fishermen. Thousands of tourists of all nationalities. Heavily tattooed joggers. Beautiful joggers. Tiny joggers. Large joggers. Triathlon training joggers. Roughly 1,856 joggers with iPods. Office workers walking during lunch break. Workers eating lunch in cars while staring at the Bay. A line of tourists riding Segways. Kids in strollers. Kids playing. Kids, kids, kids.

Twentysomethings playing croquet while sipping white wine. Wedding receptions. College graduation barbeques. Surfers and body boarders braving the waves underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Paraboarders. Windsurfers. Sailboats.

Dredlocked youths hiking. Dog walkers at Fort Funston. Schoolgroups visiting sick sea lions at the Marine Mammal Center. A YMCA group from Nevada. Immigrant Mexican chefs in full uniform taking pictures of the Golden Gate with their disposable cameras. Hang Gliders. Kite Flyers.

Every part of Golden Gate NRA teemed with life. The Park is San Francisco, its energy, its diversity, its outdoor spirit and its calm craziness.

Segway CityEASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5)
The numerous attractions at Golden Gate NRA are located within walking distance for millions of Bay Area residents and tourists. Amazingly, parking is not particularly difficult at most of the sites, especially in Marin County. If you wish to avoid the traffic in the City, the San Francisco MUNI bus system will take you everywhere. We suggest that you do not try to drive to Fisherman’s Wharf. Parking spaces might be more difficult to find on the weekends, especially at Muir Woods and the Warming Hut.

The first step towards enjoying Golden Gate NRA is to procure a copy of their excellent National Parks brochure. Not only does it effectively encapsulate the Park’s myriad options, but it is a superb and in-depth map of the Bay Area.

In San Francisco proper, you can get the map at: 1) Park Headquarters located in the Marina at Franklin & Bay Streets; 2) The Crissy Field Center open Wed-Sun and located on Mason St. west of the Marina; 3) The William Penn Mott, Jr. Visitor Center located in the Presidio Officer’s Quarters; 4) The Warming Hut, located near the base of the Golden Gate Bridge and 5) the San Francisco Maritime NHP VC located in Fisherman’s Wharf at Hyde and Jefferson Sts. 6) The Cliff House located at the corner of the Great Highway and Geary Blvd. the northwestern most tip of San Francisco.

In Marin County, you can get the map at 1) The Bay Area Discovery Museum located near Sausalito; 2) The Marin Headlands VC located just west of the first Rte. 101 exit after the Golden Gate Bridge and 3) The Muir Woods NM VC.

All are open everyday except Crissy Field. This extensive list just scratches the surface of the overwhelming amount of recreational experiences available at Golden Gate NRA. The NRA’s perfect location allows for millions of people to enjoy its wonders every year.

Blessing the Sutro Baths CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy operates nine superlative bookstores within the borders of the National Recreation Area. We visited six of the nine and were blown away by their voluminous book selection and quirky individuality.

Each store had a different emphasis and specialty. Some of the more noteworthy items included framed Golden Gate Bridge blueprints (at Fort Point), vases made from recycled newspaper and magazines (at the Warming Hut) and Victorian porcelain miniatures (at the Cliff House).

COSTS (4/5)
Of the Golden Gate NRA’s 30+ separate sites, only the Muir Woods NM charges an entry fee. The only charge for Alcatraz Island is $16 per person for the ferry ride.

Three of the four walk-in campsites in the Marin Headlands are free. The spectacular Kirby Cove campsite costs $25 a night. That campground sits directly underneath the northern tip of the Golden Gate Bridge. If the fog rolls in, the foghorn blasts will make for a sleepless night. Make reservations for Kirby Cove well in advance. We had no trouble mid-week with the free campsites, but make reservations if you are coming on the weekend.

We saw no Rangers at any of the Park’s many Visitor Centers, only volunteers. As a result, a number of the Site’s attractions have peculiar hours and odd tour schedules.

Aside from Alcatraz and Fort Point, the Park itself does not offer many Ranger-led programs for the public at large. Those that are offered occur on weekends. The Visitor Centers have wonderful bookstores but few educational opportunities.

Golden Gate BridgeThere are, however, numerous private Museums within the Park boundaries. They include two hands-on science museums, the Exploratorium in SF and the Bay Area Discovery Museum across the Bridge in Sausalito. The Palace of the Legion of Honor, located just west of the Presidio, is a world-famous art museum that specializes in ancient and European Art. The Fort Mason Center, located in the eastern Marina, provides a wealth of lectures, classes and performances every month.

FUN (10/10)
The Golden Gate NRA effectively challenged our notion of a National Park. Our experience at the NRA was not unlike our time at grand national treasures like Yellowstone NP. We drove from Visitor Center to Visitor Center, hiked, stood at overlooks, breathed in the amazing scenery, camped and watched wildlife. Only we were never more than 10 miles from San Francisco.

We camped for free in the Marin Headlines, just across the Bay from the City. That night we drove within feet of a coyote. We watched the City lights brighten as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. Two mule deer fawns hopped in front of us as the Golden Gate Bridge foghorn serenaded us in the background. Before sunset, we had hiked down to an isolated Pacific Ocean cove where we watched surf scoters and cormorants and searched for starfish in tidepools. What a place.

The day before we drove along San Francisco’s famous scenic 49-mile drive. The route hugs the coastline and most of the drive is in the National Recreation Area. Each stop brought a new and interesting site, Golden Gate Bridge vistas, shipwreck sites, the Palace of the Legion of Honor Art Museum, military embankments, ruins of a Victorian Era bathhouse resort, surfers at Ocean Beach and finally Fort Funston, home to hang gliders and hundreds of dogs (and owners) out for their afternoon walks.

Buck at DuskWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
The Golden Gate NRA is one of America’s most remarkable national parks. The Park is beautiful beyond words. So many people use it in so many different ways because it offers such an amazing diversity of attractions. The Park makes San Francisco an accessible outdoors wonderland.

But perhaps the most incredible thing about the Golden Gate NRA is that it even exists. San Francisco real estate is among the most coveted in the United States. The NRA inhabits the City’s entire Pacific coast and much of its northern border alongside San Francisco Bay. Unlike Los Angeles and myriad other Pacific coast cities, in SF the prime waterfront real estate is not gated away and owned by millionaires. Instead, it is run by the National Park Service and everybody can enjoy it.

The thousands of miles of undeveloped acreage in the Marin Headlands are an American treasure, offering unparalleled views, hikes, camping and escape.

No visit to the Bay Area is complete without a trip to Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and Muir Woods. We recommend Golden Gate NRA as wholeheartedly as we would recommend a vacation to San Francisco.

TOTAL 62/80


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near Paicines, Calif.
Visited: May 25, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 200 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

The Pinnacles
Craggy rock spires that rise from the rolling chaparral-covered hills near the central California coast, evidence of a violent ancient volcanic eruption along the San Andreas Rift Zone.

BEAUTY (7/10)
Not until you near the top of the Pinnacles do you realize their defiant immensity. They rise steeply in sharp contrast to the desolate shrub covered hills below. Wildflowers line the trails up to the Pinnacles. Lizards scatter everywhere on the trail. Some try to outrun you while others wisely duck into the shrub brush. On top of the rocks, newly released California condors and numerous committees of vultures disconcertingly fly just overhead. Back down at the canyon floor, both the Balconies Caves and the Bear Gulch Caves Trail takes you through collapsed volcanic boulders that have formed claustrophobic but navigable tunnels.

You would be hard pressed to find evidence of any human life in the Pinnacles NM area.

CROWDS (6/10)
We arrived to an empty parking lot and made our entire Juniper Canyon ascent without seeing another hiker. Park documentation does warn that the parking lots fill on weekends but our weekday afternoon was filled with isolation. We passed a tired British hiker on the High Peaks Trail but saw no one else until we had finished our descent and marched along the canyon floor.

Hot Day Amid the Pinnacles
Pinnacles NM has two separate entrances, East and West. Despite being only four miles apart as the condor flies, no road connects through the Park. Pinnacles NM is a hiking-only site.

The East entrance is 30 miles south of Hollister, Calif. Take Calif. Route 25 south to Calif. Route 146 and into the Park. There should be plenty of signs. The West entrance is a narrow, winding 12 miles east of U.S. Route 101, near Soledad, Calif. along Calif. Route 146. Remember again, Route 146 does not connect with itself through the Park.

A flat five-mile one-way hike connects the two sides’ parking lots. From this trail, you can see the Park’s namesake pinnacles above. A more strenuous hike connects the two sides up and over the pinnacles. The Juniper Canyon and High Peaks trails are difficult but well worth it.

A small number of standard California hiking and wildlife identification books. There are a few site-specific condor-related titles for sale as well. Bring you own snacks and make sure to pack enough drinking water. Pinnacles NM gets hot.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $5 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass.

One Ranger greeted us at the door of the small Chaparral Ranger Station on the east end of the park. She answered all of our condor questions and helped us plan the day’s hike. Other than that, there wasn’t much to talk about.

No film, no Ranger talks and no exhibits at the Chaparral Ranger Station. The Ranger on duty indicated that the Bear Gulch VC situation was identical. Maybe it is best not to think about Pinnacles NM’s volcanic past. The San Andreas Rift Zone runs from Point Reyes in the north, through Los Angeles and ultimately into Mexico via Mexicali. The North American and Pacific tectonic plates are still moving, more earthquakes and volcanic madness are bound to happen.

Coastal Horned LizardFUN (5/10)
We did not have time to ponder the surrounding beauty; we could not let ourselves become mesmerized by the soothing countryside terrain and the angry rocks above. Instead, we focused on the wildlife that soon enveloped us. Namely, flies.

At all times, we resembled the Peanuts comic strip character Pigpen. If we dared stop, dozens more would find their way onto our skin. The 100-degree heat did not help the situation. The flies made us move much faster than our bodies desired. Sweat poured, muscles ached and the contents of our 3-liter water containers rapidly disappeared.

And then the vultures showed up. We love vultures, but still. Why must you circle just yards above us! We wondered aloud which one of us looked the tastiest or the most ready to drop. All of this ended up being fun, albeit in a morbid way.

Everything about Pinnacles NM sounded perfect: great hikes, stunning scenery, the chance to see a California condor, crossable caves and few visitors. In practice, it did not turn out that way. The heat was unbearable, shade non-existent and, my oh my, the flies.

TOTAL 36/80

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near Merced, Calif.
Visited: May 24, 2005
Second Visit: August 11, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 199 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website; Bookstore Website

Rainbow at Vernal FallsWHAT IS IT?
A stunning Sierra mountain valley immortalized by Ansel Adams’ iconic black and white photographs. The valley holds the largest concentration of waterfalls in the world. After the winter melt, the granite valley becomes alive with cascades.

BEAUTY (10/10)
The Yosemite Valley is one of the most beautiful places in the United States. Its signature landmarks are numerous, stunning and contained in such a compact area; the Park feels more like a planned outdoor amusement park than a natural wonder. Its attractions carry names that are indelible to the American outdoor conscience, from the tremendous granite behemoths El Capitan and Half Dome to the graceful beauty of Yosemite Falls, North America’s tallest waterfall.

A small reconstructed village behind the Visitor Center indicates that Native Americans inhabited the Yosemite Valley for as long as 8,000 years. Aging exhibits display the crafts and ornaments of these people, but offer little more in historical insight. A small woman quietly sat among one of these displays weaving a new basket, similar to the ones behind the glass. We might have asked her, had we not been so taken by surprise.

An 1864 Act by President Abraham Lincoln granted the Yosemite Valley to the State of California as a public trust. The area encompassed by Yosemite NP was the first piece of land set aside by the federal government solely for protection and public enjoyment. As a result, the Yosemite Valley has been the inspiration for photographs, paintings, sketches and other art forms for well over a century.

Gab on Top of the FallsCROWDS (4/10)
Over 3,000,000 people pack into Yosemite NP every year, most of them visiting only the Yosemite Valley, home to all the marquee attractions. In addition, the tourists come primarily between the spring snowmelt and the first snow of the fall. Odds are it will be very crowded when you come to Yosemite Valley.

The large crowds are a double-edged sword. First the good: Everybody is happy and having tons of fun. Kids are excited and smiles are everywhere, you might as well be at Disneyworld.

Now the bad: The large crowds necessitate advanced planning, especially if you want to spend the night. There are no same day openings from April through October. You NEED to book a campsite five months in advance. Yes, FIVE MONTHS IN ADVANCE. Everyone from Rangers to tourists to the birds above repeated this planning mantra. Since we have not had to plan at any other National Park Site we refused to believe in Yosemite’s exclusivity. Now we believe. Book your lodge and hotel rooms well in advance too.

Do not expect to find you own secret hiking spot in the Yosemite Valley. All ten trails are full of people with varying levels of hiking skills and perfume amounts. Even the very strenuous Half Dome hike (up over 4,000 feet in 9 miles) is full of people, most of them greeting you with warm hellos. Michael first gained his love of hiking here, mostly because of the kind nature of his fellow hikers.

You can approach Yosemite Valley from three cities situated along California Route 99 and America’s agricultural center, the San Joaquin Valley. From the north, the Yosemite Valley is 118 from Modesto via Calif. Route 120. Merced is 78 miles west via Calif. Route 140 and Fresno is 90 miles south via Calif. 41. The Park is a feasible day trip from Sacramento (180 miles away) and the Bay Area (about 180 miles away, too).

Measures to make the park accessible to visitors (the shuttle bus, day use parking and advanced reservation campsites) did not help us. The shuttle bus is superfluous at best. Cars can and do travel on all park roads. The loop drive is all idling cars all the time. Our shuttle was packed with people but covered the slow roads at a crawl, two miles in 45 minutes.

Yosemite FallsUntil you get onto the trails, the Yosemite Valley experience is chaotic. Dust and construction line the pathways. Access paths and roads are unmarked. There are few Rangers and volunteers armed to help. We had no idea where to go and what to do. We were not the only ones. A British couple pleaded to us, “we’re just trying to figure out what’s here to do. Seems a bit disorganized, innit? Especially for being in America. Usually you guys have everything in order.” After we concurred with their judgment, they felt relieved. “Well then, it’s not just us. Good luck.”

We could not help but compare Yosemite NP to Zion NP in Utah. Both are situated in a valley, both have shuttle buses and droves of tourists. In contrast to Yosemite NP, cars are not allowed on Zion NP’s loop road. Shuttle buses run every 5 minutes and everything moves smoothly. Unlike Yosemite NP, Zion NP has numerous outdoor exhibits that explain what to do at the Park.

The Zion NP Visitor Center stands alone, a few steps from day use parking, and serves as a visual center and meeting place. The Yosemite NP VC is hidden in a cluster of independently owned restaurants, concessionaires and bookstores, collectively called Yosemite Village. The VC is also a two-mile walk from day-use parking.

Nothing about Yosemite NP is accessible or easy. You need to plan all aspects of your trip ahead of time. This flagship National Park deserves better.

Yosemite Valley counters its lack of organization with an overwhelming glut of concessionaires. If you go hungry, cannot find the right book, Ansel Adams picture or souvenir then you have not looked hard enough. There are 12 restaurants in the Yosemite Valley, an Ansel Adams gallery, a well-stocked (if not pricey) backpacking specialty store, a terrific (and reasonably priced) supermarket, at least four bookstores and one store dedicated to all things black bear. Unbelievably, all these places were crowded on a pre-Memorial Day Tuesday afternoon.

COSTS (1/5)
Park entry is $20 per car.

There did not seem to be any Rangers at Yosemite NP, only volunteers surrounded by questioning tourists. We felt lost at Yosemite NP.

There can be no excuse, funding or otherwise, for a dearth of Rangers at Yosemite NP. The other Parks in the National Parks pantheon, Yellowstone NP, Mt. Rushmore N MEM and Grand Canyon NP all had sufficient staffing. Yosemite NP should not be an exception.

Yosemite NP feels like it is in the late stages of a transition from the classic National Park to a privately run nature-based theme park. The NPS presence is minimal at best.

NPS offers two tiny, decaying museums and an introductory film. We searched for the theater but could not find the entrance. We visited on a Tuesday in May along with tens of thousands of other people. There was only one Ranger talk that day. We missed it. In May, when the Park’s waterfalls are at their most stunning, there is never more than one Ranger talk per day. Yes, even on weekends.

Your tour-led Yosemite Park learning and discovery must be done through the Yosemite Mountaineering School, the Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts Division, the Sierra Club or the Ansel Adams Gallery. Most of their offerings are fee based.

Nevada Falls at Full BlastThe Yosemite NP brochure and newspaper rank among the NPS’ least helpful. You are on your own.

FUN (9/10)
Yosemite NP beauty is overwhelming. We found it difficult to believe our surroundings were real. Take time to breathe everything in. Bicycle around the Valley. Hike up the edge of waterfall on the Mist Trail. Stare forever at the countless plummeting cascades. Humble yourself in the awesome mass of El Capitan and Half Dome. Lose yourself in the energy of this magical place.

Even with its lack of Rangers and post-renovation logistical challenges, Yosemite NP remains a must-see American attraction. Were we disappointed? Well, yes. But all of our grumblings were drowned out by the roar of snow-fed cascades and the shrieks and laughter of visitors getting soaked as they got closer and closer to the subjects of their photographs. Have we seen anything more beautiful than the Yosemite Valley? Nothing comes to mind.

Looking for a free guided tour or a place to pitch your tent on a spur-of-the-moment camping trip? Keep looking. Yosemite NP is neither cheap nor user-friendly. Still, a full day in this magical place and a few miles up and into the mist of Vernal and Nevada Falls were all we needed to confirm the legendary beauty of the Yosemite Valley.

TOTAL 47/80

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near Fresno, Calif.
Visited: May 19, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 197 and 198 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Sequoia GroveWHAT IS IT?
Two large (736,000 acres), diverse (14,000 feet in elevation difference) and jointly run National Parks nestled in the Sierra Nevada wilderness of east central California. The Parks include most of the world’s giant sequoia trees, including the largest three trees on the planet. Other highlights include a canyon deeper than the
Grand Canyon and Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental United States. Superlatives aplenty in this mountain wonderland.

BEAUTY (10/10)
At Sequoia NP, immerse yourself in the shadow of these giant trees. Look at them, stare at them and listen to them. They have been living here for over 2,000 years. Climb atop Moro Rock and look down into the deep canyon valley. If you are as lucky as we are, all you will see is a soft blanket of puffy clouds. We were on top of the world.

At Kings Canyon NP, be awed by the canyon’s ethereal beauty. Stand next to the raging violence of the Kings River, too dangerous for even the most experienced kayakers and rafters after the snow melt. Hike amid the granite walls and peaceful forest past the aptly named Road’s End. Snow prevented us from going backcountry at Kings Canyon, but we would love to go back. Kings Canyon was our favorite part of the Parks and one of the most beautiful places we have ever been.

Sequoia NP became our nation’s second National Park in 1890. (Third if you count Hot Springs NP in Arkansas, which the NPS oddly does not). It was made a park, with the help of famed naturalist John Muir, in order to hold off the insatiable appetite of loggers. The Museum showcases still photos of proud loggers standing astride downed 2,000-year old trees.

These pictures are profoundly sad and a sobering reminder of our lust to utilize the earth’s unique treasures for our short term personal gains. The sick irony is that the nearly immortal giants’ wood, impenetrable to fire, insects, fungi and birds, is too soft to be used for building purposes. The majority of the downed giant sequoia wood was used to make pencils. Thank you John Muir for being a strong loud voice in an insane age.

Atop Moro RockCROWDS (4/10)
If crowds mean only people, then this rating is high. There were enough campsites for everybody and enough space to roam. The crowds were full of friendly, courteous and experienced hikers.

Our crowd rating reflects our experience with problem black bears. One, maybe two, camp invaders, made our first night a stressful affair. As of mid-May, the Potwisha campground had already seen 16 bear car break-ins. A bear victimized a car next to our campsite the night prior to our visit. Under strict instruction, we took everything out of our car and trunk, even scentless cardboard boxes, and stuffed it into a bear box. Just to be safe.

We think we heard bears near our tent during our sleepless night, but luckily, the Altima emerged unharmed and unexpectedly much cleaner. We just wish we had had a vacuum, then the job would have been perfect. Mental note, no more eating bagels in the car just before going into bear country. The three nights we spent at the Park were tense, restless affairs.

Sequoia NP has only two entrances. There is only one route into Kings Canyon NP; you must enter via Sequoia NP and Calif. Route 180.

Calif. Route 180 enters the Sequoia NP in its northwestern corner, the Big Stump entrance, near the General Grant Grove of giant sequoia trees. Fresno, Calif. is about 50 miles west of Grant Grove. The Kings Canyon NP entrance is 30 miles east of Grant Grove on Route 180. This stretch of 180 is open only during summer. The road is very steep and will take at least an hour to traverse.

Sequoia NP’s other entrance, the Ash Mountain entrance, is at its southwestern corner on Calif. Route 198. Visalia, Calif. is about 30 miles west of the Ash Mountain entrance along 198.

Road Down Kings CanyonThe Generals Highway connects the two entrances of Sequoia NP. The General’s Highway is narrow and takes innumerable twists and turns. Downshift often, check your breaks and don’t come here unless you have power steering. RV’s are not recommended. The General’s Highway is about 60 miles long but conditions make it at least a three-hour drive.

Roads cover only a small portion of the two Parks and nothing but the heartiest of travelers crosses the High Sierras. If you want to backcountry hike and camp, you are going to have to wait until late June, early July for all the snow to melt. Even though Mount Whitney lies within Sequoia NP’s boundaries, most climbers begin their ascents from the Sierra’s eastern face, the Mount Whitney Portal at Inyo National Forest.

Nothing to knock your socks off at any of the bookstores. The obligatory nature guides and usual NPS fare are for sale here.

There are no free trail maps at Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP. Any hiking beyond the well-marked, but still snow covered trails around the Giant Forest Museum or away from the very warm foothills requires the purchase of a more detailed map. The $3 price tag won’t break the bank, but it was enough to discourage us from buying one.

COSTS (2/5)
Entry is $10 per vehicle, free with the National Parks Pass. Campsites are a pricey $18 per site. New window and new door post-bear break-in should be covered by your insurance. We were lucky enough to enjoy the last free camping night at the Lodgepole campground. Located at 6,720 feet, winter nights get prohibitively cold. If you are willing to bundle up, winter camping is free. The $18 fee only applies to summer.

Tours of Crystal Cave are expensive at $10.95 per person, a higher sum than the basic tours at the World Heritage Sites of Mammoth Cave NP and Carlsbad Caverns NP.

Be forewarned, there is no gasoline sold in the Park. Fill up before you get here.

There are plenty of Rangers and plenty of Ranger Stations but few helpful Rangers. We asked five different Rangers what to do at their Park. All castigated us for not reading the Park newspaper (we had!) and treated us disdainfully. We just want to hike and have a good time, really we do. Eventually we shrugged their dismissals off and notched them to the “its about to be the busy season and the winter snow stayed late and there is too much still to do so go away” blues.

Read the Park newspaper for a summary of hikes and highlights of each section of the Parks. Sequoia Park is divided into Giant Forest, the Foothills and Mineral King; Kings Canyon is separated into Grant Grove and Kings Canyon and Cedar Grove.

Regularly scheduled Ranger programs begin late in June at Cedar Grove and Grant Grove. You might catch a Ranger-guided walk around Grant Grove on Saturday and Sunday afternoons before then. For some reason, there are no programs at all between May 31st and June 16th.

The Giant Forest Museum is a nice stop on a driving tour through the Parks. Interactive displays let you pretend to scale the mighty Sentinel Tree as you walk along its measured shadow on the footpath. Inside, step into a room as large as a sequoia stump and spin the big wheel to see what chances a sequoia seedling has to survive in the big bad forest. Even these regal giants start out small and vulnerable.

The Big Trees Trail begins just outside the Museum. Unlike other trails in the Parks, this one is paved, accessible and does not require a map. Trailside panels give an overview of the Parks’ ecology as you stroll alongside a meadow lined with towering redwoods and sequoias. The open meadow allows sun to shine in and ensures good photos on at least one side of the walk any time of day.

FUN (9/10)
Only the thought of rogue bears destroying our car dampened our fun. OK, that is a pretty big damper, but heck, we had a lot of fun. Every hike we took we loved.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP is similar to its High Sierra neighbor, Yosemite NP , only more remote, without the hype and without the overwhelming crowds. Even on the weekend, Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP’s campsites were not full. We did not have to stress about rushing through the Park. We could take our time and could stay overnight. We had a great time.

Sunny Kings Canyon MeadowWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10)
We spent several days in Sequoia and Kings Canyon NP. Each day got better and better. We began our visit in the Foothills and worked our way up and into Kings Canyon and Cedar Grove. The drive east on 180 through the Sequoia National Forest follows the aptly named Kings River. This majestic force of water escorted us into the Canyon and all the way to Road’s End, where we have a feeling the real and rugged beauty of the Park just begins.

TOTAL 50/80

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Simi Valley, Calif.
Visited: May 12, 2005
NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site
Presidential Library Visted: 9 of 12
Local Website

Jelly Bean ManWHAT IS IT?
The Presidential Library, Museum and final resting place of our 40th president, Ronald Wilson Reagan.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The Reagan Library, in itself nothing spectacular, can lay claim to being the Presidential Library with the best scenery. Situated on a hilltop above California’s Simi Valley, the Library’s backyard offers unobstructed views of the Santa Monica mountain range, rolling hills and palatial estates nestled in the valleys.

We were told the Reagan Library is the highest Presidential Library, as well as the largest in size.

President Reagan passed away June 5, 2004. He was laid to rest on the grounds behind the Museum.

Why was this location chosen to house the 40th president’s legacy? Two contractors donated 100 acres of prime real estate to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Would you say no?

CROWDS (5/10)
One out of 17 people in the United States lives within an hour’s drive of the Museum. (!) We think most of those people chose to visit the Museum the same day we did. Vehicles lined the hillside drive up to the Museum since all of the parking lots were full. Courtesy shuttle vans drove back and forth along the road offering door to door service for those who preferred not to walk. Probably a good idea considering the advanced age of many of the Museum visitors.

Once inside the Museum, we had no trouble getting around. Most of the visitors, it seems, were guests at the many private functions taking place at the Library.

$90 DollEASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Library claims that over 16 million people live within an hour’s drive of the Library. They must all know short cuts around the freeways that we don’t.

On a traffic-less Los Angeles day (never), the Reagan Museum is 45 minutes from downtown L. A. If you are in L.A., take I-405 North, CA-118 (a/k/a the Ronald Reagan Freeway) west and signs will lead you to the Site.

We came from the Santa Monica Mountains NRA. A short drive north on CA-23 led us right to the Site.

The bookstore was packed with people and items to purchase. President Reagan’s visage finds itself on cards, limited edition porcelain, a high priced well-dressed action figure and a large jellybean mosaic. T-shirts and hats proclaiming “Peace Through Strength” commemorate the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan.

Books by and about Ron, Nancy and their kids are the only ones on sale. A few of them are even autographed. Books signed by the late president cost an astounding $4,000 per copy.

There are no books about the 80’s, the Cold War or Iran-Contra. If it isn’t a biography (about a Reagan) it isn’t here. Even then, you might be out of luck. Pulitzer Prize winner Edmund Morris’ authorized but controversial Reagan biography (because the author included himself in the story as a fictional character), Dutch, is not here. Neither is Peggy Noonan’s loving bio, When Character Was King, Patti Davis’ The Long Goodbye and Bob Colacello’s Ronnie and Nancy. These books all portray the president in a good light but are not for sale. The lack of books is especially astonishing given that the Store has more square footage than every other Museum exhibit room.

If, for some reason, you really wanted a talking Dennis Miller doll, there was a basket full of them (half-priced!) near the entrance. There is an incredible amount of knickknacks and keepsakes for sale. The only things you will not find at the Reagan Library’s Bookstore are books.

COSTS (2/5)
Entrance to the Museum is $7 for adults, $2 for anyone between 11 and 17 and free for young Reagan fans under the age of 11. Seniors also receive a discount. Admission is $5 for those over 62.

If you are a member of AAA, don’t forget your card. We flashed ours and paid $7 for 2 adults, a 50% savings.

The Museum hosts Chamber Music Concerts and other special events throughout the year. There is no charge to attend these outdoor events.

Friendly volunteer docents are waiting around every corner. These women are lovely to talk to, but are usually unable to offer more than a surface explanation of the exhibits. “Why is there a portrait of Andrew Jackson in Reagan’s Oval Office?” The docent’s response: “Well, (Reagan) always said he admired something about (Jackson), maybe it was his go get ‘em attitude”

That Means You Dennis RodmanTOURS/CLASSES (3/10)
These same docents lead frequent tours through the Museum and its grounds.

The Reagan Library and Museum may be the largest Presidential Library but we found it to have the smallest exhibit space and least number of actual presidential documents on display.

Filled with clothing, costumes and personal effects, this Site felt more like a Hall of Fame or Hard Rock Café than an overview of two presidential terms. We found the Museum to be high on style; surprisingly short on substance.

President Reagan narrates the five-minute introductory montage and all of the audio exhibits. Reagan smoothly recounts the failed assassination attempt, his handling of the air traffic controllers strike and his contributions to the defense of the United States, namely the Strategic Defense Initiative. Listening to the president’s delivery and watching his performances on screen, it is easy to see why so many Americans approved of Reagan as the representation of America to the rest of the world.

The Museum is shockingly small and under whelming. The room that recaps his Presidency recounts the same three things as the film, SDI, assassination attempt and the air-traffic controllers. That is it! Outside is a portion of the Berlin Wall, ubiquitous at Republican Presidential Libraries.

A larger room showcases President Reagan’s home furnishings, his tuxedo’s, Nancy’s dresses, their TRULUV canoe and gifts from pro sports franchises. What happened political and culturally in the 80’s? Who knows and who cares.

What about the Iran-Contra Affair? Heavily increased Nuclear Weapon production? Spiraling National debt? Sorry. Those things are hardly mentioned. But neither are many of the brighter moments of Reagan’s Presidency. The curator of the Museum is an equal opportunity omitter.

He also has a sense of humor. A Dennis Rodman signed basketball sits in Nancy’s Just Say No to Drugs exhibit as does a signed picture of John Riggins in his infamous “loosen up Sandy baby” tuxedo. Most notable is the 2000 New York Times Book Review cover that adorns the SDI satellite exhibit. The article details the $60 billion spent on the project and the absolute lack of results. This is as close as the Reagan Library gets to criticism.

In fairness, the Museum does not gushingly praise the president’s terms in office either. Those eight years just sort of happened. If the Museum is your barometer, his terms in office were not nearly as impressive as his portrayal of George Gipp in Knute Rockne: All American.

Win One For MeFUN (4/10)
Well, we didn’t not have fun.

Do not come here to learn Reagan’s political philosophies or presidential actions. Sure, the titles liberal, conservative and communist are thrown around but nowhere are these loaded words explained by actual laws, decisions or events. Did the president never sign any documents, write memos or involve himself in decision-making? We cannot believe this to be true and wish there would have been at least one presidential primary document in the Museum.

Facts are secondary here to feeling. That is not a criticism. In fact, it does a lot to explain the president’s extraordinary popularity and continued veneration. Regardless of your political affiliation, it is impossible to leave the Museum mad. There are too many pictures of the president’s warm smile and debonair attire.

The Museum aims to recreate a fairy tale sense of 1980’s good feeling. When we entered the intro film, a docent said, “The film is wonderful because it takes you back to the good times of the 80’s.” Through ignoring history and showcasing signed memorabilia, glossy pictures and happy, caring faces, we were transported into a dazed world of gratitude and acceptance. The Museum succeeds.

The Reagan Library and Museum is an easy day trip from the Los Angeles area. Our average Presidential Library visit tops four hours. We expected to spend the entire afternoon in Simi Valley but exploring the Museum took less than an hour.

The only reasons to come here are to pay your respects at Ronald Reagan’s gravesite and to appreciate the Site’s expansive views of the Simi Valley.

In a few months, the Air Force One Pavilion will open. This ersatz hangar will give you the chance to walk through and explore an actual, now decommissioned, Air Force One Jet. The new exhibit will bring more reasons to travel back to the beautiful Simi Valley.

TOTAL 38/80

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