Behind the Scenes: Top 10 Posts of 2017

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Behind the Scenes: Top 10 Posts of 2017

10. Kawasan, Cebu - Philippines

Photo: Quin Schrock

Photo: Quin Schrock

Kawasan Canyoneering is super touristy, very crowded, and a ton of fun! We all want to get off the beaten path. Especially when we travel half way around the world to a place that we think is likely still somewhat undiscovered by mainstream travelers. But some activities are popular for a reason, and this is one of them. For 2-3 hours we were able to float, climb, and jump our way   down deep canyon walls flowing with Gatorade blue water - as long as we kept our life jackets on! And as if that wasn’t good enough, the tours all end at Kawasan waterfall. Yup, that one waterfall that everyone goes to with the bamboo rafts, and the hundreds of people just out of frame. 

9. El Nido, Palawan - Philippines

Photo: Quin Schrock

In the town of El Nido you will be bombarded by tour companies all offering the same handful of tours to different beaches and islands. To be precise, there are generally four options - imaginatively named Option A, B, C, and D. Because Quin and I knew where we wanted to go, and that we would need our boat to be flexible to insure that we got the photos we wanted, we skipped the organized tour circus, and went directly to the source. Down at the harbor we were able to find a captain who was willing to take us where we wanted to go, when we wanted to go, for approximately the same amount that we would have paid for a group tour. Once out on the water, we were able to simply point out islands that interested us. This was one of those islands.  I’m pretty sure the crew thought I was crazy when I tried to explain that we wanted them to angle the boat so that it was pointing directly at the island off in the distance. But in the end, sign language prevailed, and this shot was the result! 

8. Summit Lake, Washington - USA

Photo: Christian A. Schaffer

Photo: Christian A. Schaffer

If you’re short on time, don’t want to deal with all the formalities of the National Park, but still want a cool Mount Rainier experience, this one’s for you! I hike to Summit Lake every year, but this was the first year that I camped up there. It was a girl’s trip, and for the first time in a long time the objective wasn’t photography - it was about making new friends, and catching up with old ones. It was a clear crisp night, and we stayed up under the stars until the wind forced us all into one two person tent to laugh for a couple more hours about the bee stings, lost trails, and dog poop mines we battled to get there.

7. Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, BC - Canada

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This summer the Pacific Northwest had some of the worst wildfires I can remember. There were nights that I would fall asleep in my Seattle apartment with the window open and wake up covered in a thin dusting of ash. While some of the fires were natural, others were started by people interacting with the environment in irresponsible ways - and that was heartbreaking. 

During this period of time I was up in BC with Quin. We had a few days, and an ambitious list of locations that we planned to shoot while we were there. Our first stop was Joffree Lakes. Ironically the heavy smoke added a haunting beauty to the bright blue glow of the water, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of my favorite days from this summer. We went swimming, used the rope swing, and I fell off a log fully dressed into the lake in front of about 40 tourists. In other words, never a dull moment! Still, in the end, the smoke forced us to end the trip prematurely and head back down to the States. 

The wildfires this summer were a somber reminder of the important role that we play as stewards of the places that free our minds and fill our hearts with wonder. Wilderness is a necessity for the human spirit, and when it’s destroyed we all lose something intangible, yet irreplaceable.

6.  Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming - USA

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I actually had no idea what this place was called while I was actually in Wyoming, but a little internet sleuthing indicates that it’s likely Schwabacher Landing. This is an iconic spot for photographers visiting the area, and if you go at sunrise (which is definitely when you should go), you won’t be alone. But it doesn’t matter - just don’t go swimming until all the tripods have left for the day! You don’t want to be that person messing up everyones reflection. 

5. Park Butte Lookout, Washington - USA

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Sometimes the best adventures aren’t planned. And that was the case with Park Butte Lookout. Washington State is full of old fire lookouts. Most of them are inactive at this point. But a few like Park Butte have been restored, and are maintained by local hiking clubs for the public. We had actually been planning on camping up at a different lookout located in the North Cascades, but it was October, and an early season snow storm made that mission a little dicey - so at the last minute we decided to give Park Butte a try. 

Like many of the other lookouts in the area, Park Butte is first come first serve. To this day, I’m not sure exactly what that means. I’ve shown up to a lookout to find one other person already there, and been turned away. I’ve also been the first person to a lookout, and then had 12 people and 2 dogs decide to make their beds next to, on top of, and around mine. And pretty much everything in between. So when it comes to fire lookouts, my suggestion, as with most outdoor adventures, is to hope for the best and plan for the worst!

I’d heard that this lookout gets particularly busy, so I wasn’t so much hoping for the best, as I was expecting a ton of people. But when we arrived the lookout was empty, and it stayed that way through one of the best sunsets I can remember. Just as the sun made it’s final dip behind Mount Baker, a lone hiker showed up and asked if he could crash in the lookout with us. We said yes — of course. It had already been too good to be true! 

4. Mount Storm King, Washington - USA

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We can’t always control everything life throws at us, but we can learn to control our response. It’s no secret that managing emotions is easier said than done, and I rely on nature a lot to help me gain perspective when things aren’t going according to plan. Maybe it was the shorter days up here in the PNW, but as fall transitioned to winter this year I was feeling pretty melancholy. So at the first sign of clear skies, I packed up my backpack and headed for the Olympic Peninsula and Mount Storm King. 

This was a classic Washington State hike that had been on my list for years, but I’d always put off for one reason or another. The hike is a short 4.7 miles round trip, but with a 2,000 foot elevation gain and a few scrambles toward the top, it’s no walk in the park. The physical challenge was a great way to sweat out the pent up negative energy I was carrying around. But more importantly, the view from the top was a reminder that I am part of something bigger than myself. Never underestimate the healing power of the outdoors! 

3. Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada 

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Before my trip to Banff this past September, I had been once before. For one day. That day was over two year ago now, and it still doesn't feel real. I’d often wondered if the dream like quality of my memories from that first trip to Banff were due to the long days on the road leading up to our arrival, or if the mountains really were a little bigger, the lakes a little bluer, and the sky a little brighter. Now I know. Banff really is the type of place dreams are made out of - that is if you like to dream about mountain, alpine lakes, and epic roads. 

Hector Lake is stunningly beautiful, quiet, and relatively easy to access. Yet, in a world with  giants like Moraine, Louise, and Bow Lakes, most tourists simply drive right past it on the Icefield Parkway without barely more than a glance. Not Quin though. I was zoning along in the passenger seat when the car suddenly came to a jolting stop at a pullout on the highway overlooking a sliver of glimmering blue water in the distance. He turned to me, “lets camp down there.” Dubious, I nodded my head, “sure.” We headed off to inquire about overnight permits. And the rest is history. 

2. Tabacon Grand Spa Thermal Resort - Arenal, Costa Rica

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Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano is active, and laced with lava flows. As a result hot springs dot the surrounding area. One such hot spring is located at the Tabacon - my big splurge for the trip. While researching locations to shoot in the Arenal area, I found a photo of Tabacon that prompted the same question that many people had when I posted this photo - “is it real!?” 

In this case, I’d argue that the question is somewhat subjective. If by real, people mean “natural,” then the answer would be yes…..and no. The thermal water is natural, but when the area was incorporated into a luxury thermal resort, the waterfalls, cascading pools, and hidden bathing spots were designed to resemble what the area might have looked like before it was converted to agricultural land decades ago.  

“Real” or not, Tabacon is a truly special experience. But, if one of Arenal’s thermal resorts is not in your budget, no worries! There are also free options, including a portion of the Tabacon River that runs just outside the Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa. While this undeveloped area of the river may not be quite as picturesque, it’s still beautiful, and a lot of fun. After all, it’s not every day that you get to chill in a hot river!

1. Twin Lagoon, Coron - Philippines

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What can I say, these twins definitely weren’t identical, but they were both blessed with good genes! Coron is a major tourist destination in the Philippines, and for good reason. The water surrounding the small islands near Coron is crystal clear and full of life. But don’t expect to be alone! When I posted this photo, a lot of people wondered where the crowds of tourists were hiding. And it was a fair question. This shot of me climbing the stairs between the two twin lagoons was taken after waiting for about half an hour for a brief break in between tours. The truth is, whether it’s waiting for the right lighting, or for people to clear out of the scene, there can be a lot of waiting in landscape photography. But as long as the locations are this beautiful, I’m certainly not going to complain! 

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Chasing Waterfalls in Costa Rica's Guanacaste Province

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Chasing Waterfalls in Costa Rica's Guanacaste Province

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When I was five years old I loved everything creepy crawly. I didn’t play house, I couldn’t care less about Barbie, and there was no way I was going to sit still long enough to drink tea. All I wanted to do was catch bugs, look for lizards, and dream about far off places where there were bigger, better, creepy crawly things to discover.

Sometime between chasing down frogs and learning my ABCs, I met a girl whose dad was an entomologist at the University of Washington. As soon as I figured out what an entomologist did, I immediately decided that this girl was going to be my new best friend. Dr. Garcia traveled all over the world collecting insects, and his office was a menagerie of stunning insects. The walls were covered with moths the size of my face, royal blue butterflies, and rainbow colored beetles. I had found my calling.

After one trip in particular, instead of carefully preserved insects, Dr. Garcia came back with tales of lush forests, neon-blue waterfalls, white sand beaches, and Pura Vida. And thus, a new obsession started - Costa Rica. I checked out every book in the library, cut out pictures from my parents’ magazines, and put it at the top of my list of places to visit when I grew up.

But a funny thing happened: I grew up and I never went to Costa Rica. Sure, people change, interests evolve, but the truth is, I’m more similar to that six year old now than I’ve ever been. So I really had no good excuse. I'd traveled all over the world, but let Costa Rica slip through my fingers. Perhaps that’s why when Quin contacted me about working on a project down in Costa Rica, I jumped at the opportunity.  My childhood dream was about to become a reality!

Leading up to the trip, we didn’t have much of a plan. But we almost never do, and Quin lived in Costa Rica for two years, so I knew I was in good hands. From Los Angeles we flew into Liberia, picked up a car, and hit the road! Our goal was to see as much as we could over a long weekend, without driving more than a few hours from the airport. And waterfalls were the name of the game. 

Stop One: Rincon de la Vieja National Park

Our first stop was actually a happy accident. We headed to Rincon de la Vieja National Park looking for Caterata Oropendola (Stop Two). Rounding the last corner on the three mile (one way) hike through verdant forest and volcanic dirt, we stopped short in our tracks as La Cangreja Waterfall came into view. We were definitely in the wrong location. In hind sight it should have been obvious from the photos at the visitors center, but all's well that ends well, and we definitely weren’t complaining!

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Stop Two: Caterata Oropendola

Located just BEFORE the entrance to Rincon de la Vieja, the hike to Oropendola, is short, fun, and photogenic. There is an awesome suspension bridge leading down to the viewing platform, and stairs that actually descend into a swimming hole at the base of the waterfall. Take your pictures down in the refreshing water while you watch butterflies flutter though the canyon and rainbows form in the spray. This was one of the only waterfalls we visited that openly permitted swimming, so don’t forget your suit!

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Stop Three: Llanos de Cortez waterfall

On our second day, I woke up to the sound of tropical birds and raucous monkeys in the trees outside our lodge. We loaded the car up and headed toward Bagaces and the Llanos de Cortez Waterfall. After a 1km hike we arrived, and found that we had the entire place to ourselves! The solitude didn’t last very long, and we were glad that we made the effort to get there early. There is a small sandy beach area perfect for sun bathing while you take in the view. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, like we were, you can swim out behind the waterfall.

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Stop Four: Tenorio Volcano National Park

After our morning at Bagaces, we drove out to Rio Celeste. As we made our way down the dirt road to the Tenorio Volcano National Park, the fog rolled in, and we got our first taste of Costa Rican rain. I grew up in Seattle, so I’m no stranger to rain, but there’s something truly impressive about a tropical storm. The sheer volume of water that falls from the sky never ceases to amaze me. Drenched we trudged up the river of mud that doubled as the trial to Rio Celeste. I now understood why there were boots for rent at the trailhead. But the trail is relatively short (maybe a 20 minute walk), and before I had time to change my mind about the whole thing, we were there! The bright blue cascading water glowed through the mist filled air like a tropical lagoon, and I was so glad we hadn’t turned back. I couldn't help but think about the neon water from Dr. Garcia's stories - the legends were true! 

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Stop Five: Arenal & La Fortuna

La Fortuna is the gateway to Arenal Volcano National Park. You could spend days in this area exploring the two active volcanoes, but we only had half a day, so we headed to La Fortuna Waterfall. This was probably my favorite waterfall of the trip. The short trail down to the fall is beautiful, and comprised primarily of an elaborate staircase - picture a few hundred stairs winding their way through trees, vines, and the occasional chatty monkey. And then there’s the waterfall! Cascading straight down for approximately 200 feet, you hear La Fortuna well before you can see it. Standing at its base you can literally feel nature’s power as misty vapor blasts through the air. It’s a truly invigorating experience, if you don’t mind getting wet!

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Stop Six: Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa

Arenal Volcano is active, and still laced with lava flows. As a result hot springs dot the surrounding area. One such hot spring is located at the Tabacon Thermal Resort - our big splurge for the trip. While I was researching locations to shoot I found a photo of Tabacon and knew it was a place I had to see for myself. At the time, I didn’t realize  it was located inside a resort, and due to the last minute nature of that discovery, we weren’t able to book accommodations at the hotel. Fortunately, Tabacon has a number of different day use options, and we took full advantage of the opportunity.

If one of Arenal’s thermal resorts is not in your budget, there’s also some awesome free options, including a portion of the Tabacon River that runs just outside the Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa. We simply parked on the street outside the Resort and wandered down to the steaming river. Go early to avoid the crowds.

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Stop Seven: Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve

Last but not least we booked it out to Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve. This reserve is one of the most renowned cloud forests in the world for its wide variety of biodiversity, important conservation contributions, and scientific research. Plus, it has an awesome red suspension bridge you can hike to! A number of trails will take you to the bridge, all of them lovely. We took one trail out, and a different trail on our return just to keep things spicy!

The national saying, Pura Vida, or “pure life,” is a sunny, feel good expression. I didn’t quite understand what it meant when I first heard about it back in my creepy crawly days. But now I understand that it’s not just a greeting, it's a way of life. A way of life born out of the unique beauty, land, and magic that makes Costa Rica unlike any other place I’ve been.

Special Thanks to Quin Schrock for helping create the content for this blog. 

Special Thanks to Quin Schrock for helping create the content for this blog. 

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Trekking Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash

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Trekking Peru’s Cordillera Huayhuash

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I jolted awake as the bus took another perilous turn on the dirt road that would supposedly deposit us at our start point for the Cordillera Huayhuash Circuit. Surprised that I could see my breath, I wiped away some condensation and sleepily peered out the window into the darkness. Everything was white. Confused, I turned to the seat next to me. Quin was still asleep, beanie pulled securely down over his eyes. I shook him awake. “It’s snowing. I thought this was supposed to be the dry season!?” Panicking, my voice betrayed a level of urgency more indicative of Chicken Little exclaiming that “The sky is falling!” Unamused by my early morning theatrics, Quin mumbled something, and pulled his beanie further over his face.

The Cordillera Huayhuash (pronounced ‘why-wash,’ with the second syllable rhyming with ‘rash’) occupied a space in my sub-consciousness before I knew its name. I’d fallen in love with photos before I knew where it was. And, I planned theoretical trips to the razor-sharp peaks, bejeweled alpine lakes, and rock faces in those photos before I knew they were all located in the same location - The Cordillera Huayhuash. Needless to say, expectations were high.

Miles of alpine eye candy stretching out under an impossibly blue Peruvian sky. That was the image of Huayhuash I had been cultivating for months. Snow flurries simply didn’t fit. Freezing, I closed my eyes and pulled my knees tight into my chest. I slowly started checking off the gear in my bag as if I were counting sheep: 2 bikinis, a snapback and sunscreen, a tee-shirt, flip flops for camp. . . . I sensed weather/gear in my near future. I closed my eyes again: 15 degree sleeping bag, down jacket, 2 long sleeve base layers, 2 pairs of pants, beanie, and my Keen Terradora hiking boots. Make that two pairs. Ok, I’d live.

I woke up as the few remaining passengers on the bus brushed past me. We had arrived in Pocpa, the last stop on the bone-rattling journey to The Huayhuash. Outside the sun was shining, and there was no sign of snow - perhaps the whole thing had been a strange altitude induced nightmare. Quin had already gathered our gear and was looking for our arriero (porter).

There are a few different ways to tackle the Huayhuash. You can join an organized guided trip through an agency, you can hire an arriero and mules to transfer the bulk of your gear between camp along the trail, or you can do the trek independently. After some back and forth, Quin and I had landed on the middle option. Neither of us relished the idea of lugging 10 days worth of food and supplies, plus photography gear, and camping equipment in a backpack on high altitude trails. But, we weren’t ready to relinquish our freedom to an organized tour. Gnarly headaches during our first couple days in Peru while we were still acclimating made it an easy decision - we paid for the arriero back at our hostel in Huaraz, and arranged to meet him at the bus in Pocpa. 

We sat in the dirt and waited until the last person at the Pocpa bus stop (and by “bus stop,” I mean literally where the bus had stopped) disappeared. And then we waited some more. The hours slowly drifted past. Occasionally someone from the village would wander by just close enough to stare at us inquisitively. Quin and I started to talk worst case scenarios. Maybe we should just start hiking? Do it independently. It was getting late, and if we didn’t start soon we’d miss our 10 day window.

And then the rain started - turns out I hadn’t dreamt up the snow after all. Throwing on a jacket I pulled my pack under some shelter. Gasping for air from the effort, I plopped down next to Quin. Out of breath, we laughed at the absurdity of our situation. There was no way we could trek The Huayhuash independently at this point - we hadn’t packed for it. Our bags were prohibitively heavy. Reorganizing his bag Quin turned to me, “You’re going to have to leave one pair of Keens behind.” I smiled, “Which do you think will go better with the landscape? Pink or grey?” We laughed. The road we had been sitting on a few moments earlier was now a river of mud. Grey Terradora boots it was.

By this point, word that two Americanos were sitting on giant bags out in the rain had spread thought the village. Little kids stared and giggled, while old women peered out from behind doorways to get a glimpse. A pair of men wandered over and introduced themselves. I watched as Quin explained our situation in Spanish. Traveling with a person fluent in Spanish can be a real advantage in a remote, exclusively Spanish speaking town. Apparently these men knew our arriero. He was working the mines, and probably would not be back for hours - if not days. I watched intently as their conversation continued, convinced that sooner or later it would all click and I would magically understand Spanish. But no. 

As it turned out, the two men were guides, and they were leading an 8 day trek through The Huayhuash starting the next day. A million doubts, questions, and logistical issues flooded my mind. But really what choice did we have? I was in. After all, it was the best plan I’d heard all day! And so, the next morning after twelve hours of planes, fifteen hours of buses, two days of acclimation, and one day of sitting in the rain, I took my first steps on The Huayhuash.

Hiking at elevation is no joke. At 15,000 ft, a hundred yards with a daypack feels like a 10K on a bad day. Muscle recovery slows, sleep and hunger become elusive, and every time you catch yourself sounding like a chain-smoker after a hundred yard dash, you’ll silently apologize for wondering why the characters in Into Thin Air didn’t just walk a little faster. Altitude sickness is unrelated to your general level of fitness, and the only real cure involves descending to lower elevation. Which, all ego aside, is difficult when you’re trekking a circuit, with a group, on a strict schedule. Head down, I slogged up some of the longer passes memorizing every detail of my Terradora boots. The different textures, the “Keen” logo on the tongue, the twisted lace. Anything to distract myself. “One foot in front of the other” became my silent mantra.

But at night, when I squirmed into my sleeping bag, none of that mattered. Every day there was a new pass to conquer. And at the top of each pass there was one inescapable truth - The Huayhuash was the most beautiful mountain range I had ever laid my eyes on. Every step further into it’s depths felt menacingly remote and exhilarating at the same time. No hordes of hikers, no helicopters, no turning back. Just us and the mountains. And the fifteen mules, five horses, four guides, and eleven jubilant singing Israelis that made up the rest of our ragtag Huayhuash family. . . but mostly just mountains.

On the fourth night of The Huayhuash, we camped at some man made hot springs. You'd never guess they were there. Forty miles by foot from any sort of civilization. Waiting to hold your tired body in their warm embrace. But here they were, like a mountain mirage, daring you to question everything you thought you knew about remote alpine landscapes. I sat in the luxuriously hot water under a moonless sky, and slowly scanned the ocean of stars above for one of those rare twinkling ones meant for wishing upon. I found a promising star, but my mind was blank. I didn't know what to wish for. I was exactly where I wanted to be. And that is a very rare thing indeed. 

The last four days went very much like the first four. There is a certain rhythm to trail life that brings everything into focus. The smallest comforts are amplified, food taste scandalously good, and the world talks to you. Like most true adventures, this trip turned out to be less about capturing the beauty of a foreign landscape, and more about discovering and pushing past my own boundaries. Adventure is a path. Real adventure – self-determined, self-motivated, often uncomfortable – it forces you to collide with the world on its terms. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. And yet, even when it's not what I imagined, nature always finds a way to surpass my expectations. There are few things as uncompromising as nature. You take what it gives you. And then you thank it for the time it allowed you to have it. The Peruvian skies were not always blue, and the famous peeks were often obscured by clouds, but in the end, The Huayhuash was everything I needed it to be. 

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Connecting with Nature in Sonoma County

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Connecting with Nature in Sonoma County

I brushed wet, tangled, hair away from my face as I stumbled through the door of what I hoped was my hotel. Flustered, I looked at my phone one last time. No service. I was standing in what appeared to be a rustic, albeit elegant, restaurant perched precariously over a sea cliff on the Sonoma Coast. The restaurant host was starring at me. 

“Is this where you check in?” I sheepishly asked. I didn’t see anything resembling a place to sleep. “It sure is,” the host responded. “Our three cabins are just outside, down the drive.” 

Relieved, I smiled and explained that I didn’t have any service to check my reservation. He nodded, “No one has service here.” 

Grabbing a key from behind the counter the host started toward the door, back into the wind. I asked if there was a password for the wifi. “There is no password,” He replied pausing to unlock the cabin door, “there is no wifi.” Sensing my confusion he turned to face me as the door opened, “It’s for connecting with the nature, and the romance.” 

His tone indicated that I wasn’t the first to commit this faux pas at Rivers End - probably not even the first that day. “Of course!” I said catching my first glimpse of the ocean out the cabin window. “Very romantic.” I blushed, “I mean, it’s a very nice view. . . for connecting with nature.” He nodded, apparently satisfied that I finally understood, and handed me the key.

Then he was gone. I sat down on the bed alone with my thoughts, and my very own cabin on the water. 

My night at River’s End was the first night of a three day road trip through Sonoma County, just north of San Francisco and the Bay Area. I’d started that morning at The Barlow in Sebastopol. It was early, and only a few shops were open, but I knew I could spend a lot of time wandering around sampling the local food, art, and wine. I contemplated staying longer, but I had places to be, and miles to cover. So I grabbed some much needed coffee at Taylor Made Farms, and headed for the coast. 

The Sonoma coastline is not like other coasts. The air feels wild, and untamed. Salt-covered and shaped by the strong onshore winds, the trees appear as though they were modeled after a Dr. Seuss character. The land itself rolls gently west and then breaks off suddenly, forming dramatic sea cliffs that run for miles along the coastline. Highway 1 winds it’s way up, over, and around this rugged stretch of the Pacific, delivering a rollercoaster of stunning views around every turn - a road trippers dream come true. 

Almost the entire stretch of coast from Bodega Bay to Jenner is comprised of the Sonoma Coast State Park. Because it is public land, most of the coast is accessible by simply pulling off the road and following a trail down to the water. And that’s exactly what I did - one coastal park after another. I walked along the beach to the sound of crashing waves, marveling at the solitude I’d stumbled across such a short distance from San Fransisco. 

Standing on my deck at Rivers End I snapped a few photos as the early morning sky slowly brightened into another day. Below, the inlet was glass. Hypnotized by the serenity, and with no distractions, I watched two young otters playing in the otherwise calm water. Wishing I had more time—at least another night—I stuffed my belonging back into my suitcase. I wasn’t finished connecting with “the nature,” or “the romance” for that matter. But it was time to leave the coast and head for the woods. 

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That night I stayed at AutoCamp just outside Guernville overlooking the Russian River. A collection of luxury Airstreams positioned around architecturally stunning common area complete with bonfire, I found myself once again longing for another night. As the rain bounced off my metal roof, I flipped though a copy of Walden from the warmth of my bed. My eyes locked on a familiar passage. Familiar both because I’d heard it before, and because it so accurately captured my second day in Sonoma County.  In the passage, Thoreau noted:

We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.

I fell asleep wondering what Thoreau would have thought about this little community of Airstreams tucked away under the Redwoods. 

The tiny platform I was standing on moved under my feet as the tree it was attached to swayed with the wind. Widening my stance, I tightened my grip on the safety harness and took a deep breath. The tree rocked again. I thought about one of the placards I had read the day before at Armstrong State Reserve - something about Redwoods having unusually shallow root systems. Pressing closer to the trunk I closed my eyes and listen to the trees, but this time only heard screaming in the distance. The scream turned to laughter, and I opened my eyes just in time to see the last member of my zipline crew come gliding into the arms of our guide. 

Over the course of our two and a half hour adventure at Sonoma Canopy Tours, our group of eight had bonded over shared fears and treetop selfies. Drunk off adrenaline, 200 feet off the ground, we swapped stories. They asked what I was doing, who I worked for, and why I was ziplining by myself. I told them about my road trip, Sonoma County Tourism, and Instagram. “Sooo are you visiting a bunch of wineries for your trip?” They asked. I started to tell them about my tasting at Korbel Winery, but stopped. I thought for a long moment before answering: “My trip is actually not about the wine. It’s about connecting with the nature. . . and the romance.”

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Seven Sweet Stops Along the Road in Sonoma County

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Seven Sweet Stops Along the Road in Sonoma County

A few weeks ago I flew into San Francisco, rented a car, and headed north to Sonoma County. Within an hour I was cruising up Highway 1 and enjoying every minute of it. A road trip through Sonoma County is the perfect way to experience awesome views, food, and outdoor fun, while connecting with nature. Needless to say, I never had to drive too far to find the next adventure! Cruising around Sonoma, each day was full of new surprises, and just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it always did!  

1. The Barlow - Sebastopol

The Barlow is a unique 12-and-a-half acre, open-air marketplace in Sebastopol. Stop here for local food, art, and wine tasting. There are so many little shops, all with homemade goods and yummy food. The biggest problem you’ll have is deciding where to eat first! It was early when I visited the Barlow, so most shops were still closed, but I grabbed some much-needed coffee at Taylor Made Farms, a muffin at the Village Bakery, and some juice from The Nectary. All delicious.

2. Sonoma Coast State Park

Long sandy beaches below rugged sea cliffs, a craggy coastline with natural arches, and secluded coves make Sonoma Coast State Park one of the most scenic attractions in Sonoma County - if not California. The Sonoma Coast State Park spans 17 miles and is comprised of several beaches separated by rock bluffs and headlands. Pull over anywhere along this beautiful stretch of coast between Bodega Head and Vista Trail, and just start walking. You won't be disappointed!

3. Goat Rock Beach

Probably my favorite beach along the Sonoma Coast, Goat Rock Beach is located between Goat Rock Point and the Russian River near the town of Jenner. Like a number of other beautiful beach parks along this stretch of coast, Goat Rock Beach and surrounding land is part of Sonoma Coast State Park. There are miles of trails that run along the ocean bluffs, as well as up into the rolling hills. Down near the rivers mouth, there is often a local colony of seals to watch from a respectful distance. 

4. Rivers End

If you have time to spend the night along this portion of the coast, then River's End is a special place to do it. Perched over the water, River's End boasts expansive views and gourmet food. In addition to the restaurant, there are three private and cozy cabins, all with unobstructed water views and private decks.

5. Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve

It is impossible not to be impressed by Sonoma's Coastal Redwoods. The trees themselves remind me of mythological characters with personalities of their own. Spend the afternoon among these ancient giants in Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve. The reserve has a number of accessable trails that wind their way through the forest.

6. AutoCamp Russian River

If you have ever wanted to stay in a luxury Airstream, then this is your chance! Relax in custom-designed suites with all the modern conveniences of a hotel room. Play games in the communal lounge, make new friends around the bon fire, or take a classic beach cruiser out for a ride. AutoCamp is an awesome experience, complete with private patios and camp fire pits. If you have the opportunity, it's absolutely worth the splurge.

7. Sonoma Canopy Tours

I can’t think of a more unique way to experience the Redwoods than on a zip line adventure with Sonoma Canopy Tours. The elaborate system of zip lines, suspension bridges, and rappels that Sonoma Canopy Tours has rigged in the Alliance Redwoods combines stunning forest views and fast-paced fun. Plus, they managed to teach me a thing or two about the amazing Redwood ecosystem along the way!

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The Kalalau Trail - To The Beach & Back

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The Kalalau Trail - To The Beach & Back

I’ve always had this feeling that I would never do much of anything if I waited until I was ready. Conventional wisdom says we are never truly ready for anything, so we might as well do it now. Stomach growling, thoughts clouded by sleep deprivation, itching the bites all over my face—I was about to put that theory to the test. 

Arriving on Kauai the night before, I was the last of our six person squad to show up at the hotel. We were sharing one bedroom, and it was standing room only. I slept outside on the patio. No tent. The mosquitos noticed immediately - and apparently put flyers out for the party.

Now, at 5am, tires rolling in the dark toward the Kalalau Trailhead, my only thought was trying to find a suitable dozing position. But crammed in the trunk between six full backpacking packs, loose camping gear, and shrinking wiggle room, sleep was out of the question. I focused on the Trail.

Kauai’s 11 mile Kalalau Trail leads from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach along the Na Pali Coast. It ranks as one of those “must do” hikes for those who live to hike the world. Far from the longest, highest, or even most remote, it is never the less formidable. Traversing five valleys, the Trail terminates at Kalalau Beach, providing the only land access to this rugged and relatively untouched stretch of Kauai’s coast. And it’s dangerous.

According to a quick Google search, the Kalalau Trail is “one of the most dangerous trails in the United States." Perhaps even world. Maybe a bit hyperbole, but the Trail’s threats are many. It’s streams, which the journey requires crossing on multiple occasions, can swell to very dangerous levels with little or no warning, washing unsuspecting hikers out to sea. Rocks, crashing from cliffs, injure distracted hikers and campers below. It is exposed, narrow, and slippery. And if the Trail doesn’t kill you, the deadly riptides at Hanakapi’ai are churning in wait. 

Back home I’d made an executive decision. Mom and Dad didn’t need to know the Trail’s name. No need for them to worry. Now from my increasingly uncomfortable position in the trunk I had second thoughts. I shimmied my cell phone out  just as the tires came to a stop: No service. Too late. I’ll tell them when I get back. 

With just enough morning light too see without headlamps, I slipped on my hiking boots. They were brand new - and it struck me that this might not be the most prudent time for their first test. Running the laces through my fingers, I considered the countless times I’d advised people to break in their boots before attempting any sizable hike. Let alone a backpacking trip, on one of the World’s deadliest trails. Adding it to the mental “Too Late List,” along with the text I didn’t send to my parents, I finished lacing my boots. 

“Did anyone bring mole skin or bandaids?” I asked to no one in particular. “Nope.” Another “Too Late List” addition. Packs on, we took the obligatory six person selfie at the trail head just as the sun crested the horizon. 

There are a few ways to tackle the Kalalau Trail. You can hike 11 miles to Kalalau Beach in one push. Or you can take your time, explore the valleys, visit some waterfalls, and spend the first night at the designated "Six-Mile Campground." We chose the latter. 

Two miles in, the Trail delivers you to Hanakapi’ai beach with the option to hike an additional two miles up Hanakapi’ai Valley to Hanakapi’ai Falls. We hid our packs deep in the surrounding forest and headed up valley to the waterfall. Like many Hawaiian waterfalls, this one lives at the back of a beautiful valley, surrounded by verdant ferns, cool mist, and an emerald pool. I recalled seeing photos from when my parents were there decades ago, and it felt good that a place hadn’t changed. After pausing to take a few photos, and fuel up on dried mangos, we headed back toward the beach to rejoin the Kalalau Trail. 

Arriving at the Trail’s Six-Mile Camp mid-afternoon, I was struck by the lackluster site, especially compared to the morning’s stunning scenery. Located at valley bottom in the midst of thick vegetation, there were no views. Given our quick progress—and the stark lack of panorama—I floated the idea of continuing on to Kalalau Beach. 

Waking up to the view is my backpacking soul staple. And I was feeling surprisingly fresh after 10 miles. But chaffing and blisters had taken their toll on the group. Reminded, I glanced down at my feet – they felt great. I’d completely forgotten about my brand new boots. No blisters, no hot spots, nothing. 

We hit the Trail again at sunrise. The Trail’s second half is where you will find the infamous “Crawlers Ledge.” It, and a few other particularly narrow steep sections of the trail, are notoriously slippery when wet. Slippery enough to consider getting down on all fours and. . . yup, “crawling.” 

On a boat tour cruising the same section of coast a few months earlier, our captain idled under Crawlers Ledge to point out a number of hiking polls sprinkled across the sheer cliffs. Apparently panicked hikers had abandoned them to the tumultuous water below. The captain wrapped up the stop with an animated story about the woman’s body his crew pulled out of the ocean a few years earlier—undoubtedly a fall from Crawlers Ledge. I’d taken in his story with a grain of salt. But now, as Crawlers Ledge revealed itself from a much different angle, ‘don’t look down’ became my mantra. Luckily it hadn’t rained in days, so we passed the exposed cliff without incident. Honestly, if it weren’t for all the hype, I doubt I would have remembered to worry at all. 

A few valleys later, we ran into a couple collecting fruit. They were stark naked and brimming with hospitality - we were close. We reached Kalalau Beach shortly after, and spent the rest of the day soaking in as much paradise as possible. We set up camp in the shade overlooking the beach, freshened up in the waterfall, roasted marshmallows, and played cards under a blanket of stars so bright it hurt to stare. We only had one day. But one day is all Kalalau needs to hook you forever. Some places feel new no matter how many times I've seen them. Maybe it's because the world is always changing, and the light is always shifting. Or maybe it's because I am. All I know, is that there are some places like Kalalau that you have to experience for yourself. And as soon as you do, you know - somehow, someday, you'll be back.

We said goodbye to the beach before the sun was up and started the 11 mile trek back. The return lacked the excitement and anticipation I enjoyed on the way in, but the time and miles passed quickly. Sweat-salted and sunburned, I unlaced and removed my boots in the same place I had put them on two days earlier.  After 26 miles, multiple fumbled river crossings, and a lot of dirt, rocks, and mud, my boots no longer looked new, but I wasn't complaining. 

The car rumbled toward what I hoped was shaved ice. From the confines of the packed trunk, I located my phone and typed out a text while I waited for the service bars to emerge: “Hi mom! Sorry I didn’t text before taking off. Made it back to civilization. Talk to you soon!” I felt my phone immediately vibrate: “Please tell me you didn’t do the Kalalau Trail.” 

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