West Coast May 2008

Dates: May 20 - May 27, 2008

People: Mark and Sarah


  • 5-20 Olympic National Park
  • 5-21 Orca Whale Watching Cruise
  • 5-22 Mt. Rainier National Park
  • 5-23 Crater Lake National Park
  • 5-24 Redwoods National Park
  • 5-25 San Francisco (Zoo & Pier 39)
  • 5-26 Yosemite National Park
  • 5-27 Flying home


We left for the airport at 5:45am early. We made it through check-ins and security with ease, got some breakfast at McD's and had a good 40 minutes to sit at our gate. Our flight was good, the flight attendants even sang to us as they often do on Southwest. It was a long flight, 4 1/4 hours.

We got into Seattle at 10:15am and it was cloud and rainy. We had some fun when we went to the Alamo Car Rental counter. We gave the guy our info and he started showing us our supposed car, something like a Chevy Aveo. We asked about gas mileage and he said something like 28, and then he offered us something else. He said he had two Toyota Prius's that needed to head to California. Normally they'd go for like $30 a day more, but he offered one to us for $10 a day. Gas mileage: 55 miles/gallon. We decided the extra $10 a day was worth it if we could double our gas mileage on this trip. We picked up our car, a lime green Prius and were off. It was very different at first. There is no key. IT is this rectangular object that basically looks like a normal key fob. You put it in a slot and you depress the brake pedal and push the power button. And the car "boots" up. Driving the hybrid is fun, it has a display screen which shows you your gas mileage as you go along. When you stop at stoplights the thing is nearly silent. I walked outside of the car once and couldn't even hear it running.

It was raining hard coming out of the airport which made it hard between learning a new vehicle, learning new roads, and navigating through rain-covered windows. Otherwise, when the rains slowed it was a beautiful drive up to and through the Olympic Peninsula. The rains came and went. We made it up to Port Angeles and the Olympic NP visitor center around 2pm. It was rainy and foggy and unfortunately the guide their told us it wasn't worth driving up to Hurricane Ridge. I was still tempted to go but they said it was spitting snow flurries up there and they showed us a webcam from up there and you couldn't see anything because of the fog and weather.

So we drove to the west end of the park and visited the Hoh Rain Forest. It was really very neat. We did the Hall of Mosses trail and saw so many moss covered trees, evergreens and maples. From the rainforest we went out to the beach around Mora, Washington. Rialto Beach was also very nice. Large logs covered the beach and there were very large waves. It was very cool then. After the beach we ate at one of the recommended restaurants for the area called The Smokehouse Restaurant. They are famous for their smoked salmon, which Mark tried, despite the shockingly high price tag of $22. Actually their whole menu seeming very highly-priced even though it was a very informal place, with only a cook and a waiter working at the time. The poort gentleman who was waiting tables had about six tables by us in the main area, and another 15 guys at tables in a backroom. Needless to say, service was slow and he kept forgetting to bring us our dinner rolls and ketchip. The food was good but overall a somewhat disappointing experience.

We ended our evening driving back to our hotel in Sequim and made a WalMart run in Port Angeles on the way.

A map of today's main activity:


This was our early time-critical morning. We were up at 7:15am and getting ready to leave by 8am from Sequim. We headed to Port Townsend and made it there just before 9am after following some slow cars. We caught the 9:30 ferry to Keystone. It was a fun ride, bout 30 mins, and had some nice views. From Keystone it was a beautiful drive up Whidby Island with strong winds, open grass fields, and occasional views of the ocean water. The most spectacular views came at Deception pass which marks the northern end of Whidby Island and the southern end of Fidalgo Island.

We got up to Anacortes around 11am. It also was a really neat city. We checked in at Island Adventures in town there and they gave us directions down to their dock. We grabbed a quick lunch and took it with us down to the docks. They had us meet with the crew at 11:30 to start talking about the trip and get ready to board. The boat was called the Island Explorer Three. It had two levels and one-hundred feet of railing to watch for animals.

We headed out right at noon. We cruised through the islands, making our way to the US-Canadian border. We saw some harbor seals basking in the cloudiness just south of Blakely Island. The harbor seals varied in colored from white to gray to black. A few minutes later we caught glimpses of turkey vultures and bald eagles looking for lunch.

We continued through the various passes to make our way to the western side of San Juan Island. Here is the border between the US and Canada. The whales, however, were American for the day as they were pretty close to the shore of the island. The were traveling north in a "resting mode". The naturalist on the boat explained that half of their brains were asleep while they continued to travel. Every five minutes they would come up for a breath of air. Toward the end of our time with them, they began to wake up and we could see more fascinating behaviours sush as breaching and spy-hopping. This particular pod was called J-pod and is one of three that travel in this area. It is made up of about twenty-five resident orcas. THe largest male, know to scientists as JOne was called Ruffles - not for the potato chip but for the ruffle-like quality of his dorsal fin. He was usually the first to come up for air each time as he led the pod northward. The naturalist said that they estimated him at fifty-seven years old. His mother still traveled with the pod at ninety-seven years old.

After the whales it was time to head back to the dock. Bald eagles were plentiful on the return trip but we didn't see too many other animals. ONe of the highlights of the trip was a joke we learned from a little girl. "Why to seagulls fly over the sea? Because if they flew over the bay, we would have to call them bay-gulls." We docked just before six in the evening.

We then made our way slightly north of the dock to Mt. Erie. We drove up the mountain to see what views we could see. After taking some pictures we headed back down and then south into Seattle. We were hoping to hit the Space Needle around sunset.

After driving around beautiful downtown Seattle in the rainy overcast, we found a parking spot near Seattle Center. We soon learned that the Space Needle Observation Deck was closed for a private party for the evening. We looked around the gift shop and the outside carnival area, which was also closed. By this time we were ready to head to the hotel.

The hotel was located a little north of the downtown area. We made our way, looking for dinner along the way. We finally settled on trying "Taco Time", which seems to be a chain competing with Taco Bell in the northwest. THe tacos were decent and Sarah was thrilled to find they had "mexi-fries" or seasoned tator tots. We didn't last to long after dinner and hit the sheets for some sleep.

A map of today's main activity:


We were able to take our time this morning after a busy morning yesterday. We ate our continental breakfast at the hotel, packed up and hit the road. It was a nice drive through Seattle and we were able to bypass some traffic backups by taking the express lanes south through downtown. The GPS did a nice job of routing us down a couple of different highways and we made it down to the Mt. Rainier National Park entrance around 11. The weather however was as usual cloudy.

As we drove up into the park the cloud cover continued to get nearer and nearer to us. It was raining but the mist from the low clouds made visibility almost zero. Ultimately as we drove up the mountain we realized we'd not be able to see anything when we made it to the top. So we took our time along the road enjoying the many stops and the pictures to be had. We spent some time at the museum at Longmire and also got some great pictures at Narada Falls.

One neat part of Mt. Rainier NP was the massive amount of snow that was still up at Paradise. The farther we got up the road the more snow we found along the sides. Up at Paradise there was around 14 feet of snow and the ranger said they'd even gotten a new foot over night. Sadly the visibility was terrible. We went up to the observation deck and could not see past the nearest trees. We feared this meant Mt. St. Helens would have the same issues and a ranger looked at the volcano cam for St. Helens and confirmed this fear.

We decided to head south from Rainier and give it a try anyways. We made our way south to Morton and caught US12 heading west. This is where our day got really interesting. The GPS was giving us a shortcut by exiting US12 at Winston Creek Rd. We'd even looked at a similar shortcut like this on the computer a few days back before we'd left home. Well we got a few miles down this road and then saw a no outlet sign. We weren't sure what to make of it so we went on. A few miles more and the GPS wanted us to turn right onto W. 2000 Rd. which was a steep dirt gravel road at its beginning there. We didn't like the looks of it and so we went on. The GPS re-routed us just fine. The GPS wanted to get us over to Koons Rd. but this never happened. We went another mile or two and the GPS said "Turn left here for Spirit Lake Mem. Hwy". Well at that point it was someone's dirt road driveway and a hundred feet back in we could see a gate. That wouldn't work so we went down the road further and the GPS showed we should loop around on the road and the road itself dead-ended into private property. Needless to say we finally gave up on seeing mountains today and made our way back up to US12 and over to I-5. We tried calling the Mt. St. Helens Visitor Center near Castle Rock to see things there but they closed minutes before we got there.

We headed down to Vancouver, Washington to check into our hotel. After a day of moderate disappointments things here at least went well. We have a beautiful hotel room and we were able to find dinner at Panda Express and a movie theater to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The Indy Jones movies was good for about the first 90% but began to fall apart at the end. We look forward to a beautiful day seeing Crater Lake tomorrow, though the weather says more rain and clouds.

A map of today's main activity:


We left Vancouver, WA early morning and made our way south through Portland. We decided to give it a shot visiting Concordia up there and even found it in the Nuvi GPS. We drove to the campus which was just a few miles off the interstate. Not very impressive, and not very big either. We took a few pictures and headed back for the highway.

It was a 3-hour drive down to Roseburg, OR. We were sad to see the weather reports were not great for Crater Lake this day. We decided to give it a try anyways. One interesting thing we found driving through Oregon is that all of their gas pumps are "mini-serve". This means a gas station attendant takes care of pumping your gas and even in some cases swiping your credit card. This was a bit of a surprise for us.

We drove east out of Roseburg heading for Crater Lake. It was beautiful driving as we gained elevation. We made really good time on this road and it was even 4-lane in parts. As we neared Crater Lake we noticed progressively more snow on the sides of the roads. We entered the park and the ranger told us the lake viewing was not good today. We headed up to the Rim Village anyways.

We'd seen in days prior that part of the Rim Drive was open but we found out today that it had closed once again. There were rock slides that closed the road and they were still waiting for engineers to see if the rocks had stabilized. Up at Rim Village the cloud cover was thick and visibility poor. There was upwards of 10 feet of snow on the sides of the road. We walked up to the lake view and at first saw absolutely nothing. It was very disappointing. However, after a few minutes some clouds lifted enough that we could see Wizard Island and just a small corner of the lake near us. We started snapping off some pictures. Mark down a small slope to a viewing area which gives an unobstructed view of the lake. The clouds lifted a little more and we were able to get some views of much of the western end of the lake. We never saw any blue sky up there and the cloud level never seemed to go much above our sight lines. We spent sometime in the Rim Village lodge looking around the gift shop and hoping the clouds would clear up just a bit. They never did.

We headed southest out of the park and began our drive down to California. We stopped at a "House of Pizza" still in Oregon and sat down for a nice supper. We also did one more fillup of gas before hitting the California prices. We drove the very exciting US199 Redwood Hwy through Smith River National Recreation Area except it was now dark outside. It was a very winding road that went for many miles. Some of the drive was on some cliffs overlooking the river, too bad we couldn't see all the sights along the way. We made it to our hotel in Crescent City around 10pm.

A map of today's main activity:


We started our Redwoods day trying to visit the main Park Headquarters in Crescent City but they did not open till 9am. So we decided to trek north along the road we were on in the dark last night. We went to the Simpson-Reed Grove and walked a 3/4 mile loop being awed by the Redwoods and taking lots of pictures. It was amazing to see many of them had been burned by fire but still stood strong. Apparently their bark is almost a foot thick and somewhat fire resistant.

We went next to the information center at Hiouchi. There was a great park ranger there who helped us to decide what things to see for the day. This man suggested to us the Howland Hill Road, Whaler Island, potential whale sighting at Klamath River overlook, and a WWII radar station down at Klamath.

We started then on the Howland Hill road which is at the north end of the Redwoods parks. This road was just recently re-graded and re-opened. It was a good dirt road that took you straight through some of the greater redwood groves. It was mostly a one-lane road which several turnouts and thick sections for cars to pass. About a mile into the road was Stout Grove. This was probably the most impressive redwood grove we saw all day.

We finished the drive on Howland Hill Road and this took us back to Crescent City. The park ranger told us to head south out of town on US101 and at the edge of town turn at Anchor Way. This takes you out onto a pier to Whaler Island. There are sea lions that hang out there on a few old unused piers. We did this and we didn't spot the sea lions at first. So we climbed up the small hills at the end of Whaler Island. Mark went all the way to the top and out to the end of the island. He didn't yet spot the sea lions, but as we found out later, caught just a small bit of poison ivy on his ankle from the hike. Sarah went up most of the way on the island and while she waited for Mark to finish his climbing she spotted a cat and kittens hidden in some bushes nearby. She also spotted the sea lions. They were on the northwest side of the pier, in the water. We took some good pictures of them while they were mostly sunning on the pier.

From there we started making our way south. We took the road out to Crescent Beach overlook and had some amazing views. Farther south on US101 is Requa Road which takes you out to Klamath River Overlook. This is where gray whales often will hang around in the warmer waters of the river pouring out into the ocean. We stuck around there 10 minutes or so but didn't spot anything.

We did lunch along US101 in the very tiny town of Klamath. They had a Subway in a gas station and this was about our only option. Luckily they had footlong subs for $5 so it was a good and tasy deal. From Klamath we followed US101 south more to just north of Ah-Pah where the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway breaks off. This route simply takes you through more of the redwood groves while still being a good 2-lane highway. Along this road was the "Big Tree Wayside" which is a gigantic redwood with a base that must have been 15-20 feet wide. Past the Prarie Creek Visitor Center is the Elk Prairie where we finally did see some elk.

Past there is the turn for Davison Road which we took, this leads down to the Gold Bluffs beach and Fern Canyon. At the beginning of this road is the Elk Meadow. A good 20 elk or so were laying down in this meadow when we passed. Davison Road had some very steep points at the beginning which had us a bit worried about it with our tiny Toyota Prius. The road was again just slightly larger than a one-lane dirt road. It was more hilly and windy than the Howland Hill Road. It did eventually spit us out at Gold Bluffs Beach and also a small ranger station where they took $6 for a state park day use fee. We headed to Fern Canyon and took the quarter mile walk back to the canyon. It is immediately evident where the name Fern Canyon is taken. Mark followed the canyon in a good quarter mile taking some good pictures. This was our last stop in the Redwoods parks.

We began our long drive south on US101 once more. Farther south past Eureka we found the "Avenue of the Giants" This was a road similar to the scenic parkway we'd taken earlier that gets you off the main highway and takes you past some stopping points to see more redwoods. This highway is good 2-lane paved highway that snakes its way along US101 but gets you to the real sights to see.

From there we drove and drove some more along US101. It was beautiful driving with all the hilly roads and scenic landscape. We did dinner in Willits where we found a "House of Pizza" to sit at for a while. We made it into Novato after dark and found our Econo Lodge Inn & Suites. It was a treat to have a suite with so much space and even a good chair and couch to relax on. This night was not without some surprise and disappointment however. As Mark was unpacking his "tech gear" he realized he had left the AC power adapter to his Nokia tablet PC at the hotel in Vancouver. Not much later Sarah realized her pajama pants were also left, coincidentally, at the same hotel 2 nights previous.

A map of today's main activity:


We took our time this morning for once, enjoying the suite room we had in Novato. We got on US101 once more and drove into San Francisco, and for once, we had beautiful weather this morning. The drive over the Golden Gate Bridge was great, though ever so short. The GPS was helpful in navigating us down to the San Francisco zoo which was nicelylocated just south of Golden Gate Park and just off the Pacific coast on the west edge of San Francisco. While the zoo does have a main parking lot the street running north of the zoo also offers quite a large amount of free parking, which we partook of.

We got into the zoo at half price using our Toledo Zoo membership which is a reciprocal zoo of San Francisco's. We also noted a new feature they're trying at the zoo called Zoo Ranger. It is a GPS system geared for the zoo which will show certain videos and share information when you visit the various animal exhibits. It also has a map of the zoo and will always tell you where you're at, what animals are nearby, and most importantly, where to find the nearest food and bathrooms.

Just to give a quick review of the zoo ranger, it took several minutes to get used to working with it. I found it hard to enjoy the first few animal exhibits and listen to the video info and navigate the zoo ranger all at the same time. Later as I got used to it I found it nice using the zoo ranger to follow the zoo map as well as get a picture of the animals in each exhibit. Some of the videos were okay, others a bit cumbersome. It even has behind the scenes videos with trainers on how they care for the animals. For $6.95 it was certainly worth a try, even for the novelty of it, but certainly not an amazing knock-out device just yet.

The San Francisco zoo was very impressive. Their African Savannah exhibit is new and they take you right in the midst of the animals via two tunnels. We got great fews of the giraffes and others. Their grizzly bear exhibit was also the best we've ever seen. We were able to walk past several windows and open air fencing to follow the bears as they roamed their exhibit. Even the magellan penguin exhibit was well done, giving a 360 degree walkway around the penguins for ultimate viewing. They are currently building new hippo, bison, and rhino exhibits, which is good, as the rhino and hippo exhibits were easily the worst we saw. Overall we found the San Francisco zoo to be one of the best we've been to.

From the zoo we took a roundabout drive through San Francisco past AT&T park to the downtown area and the piers. We drove up the Embarcadero drive along the coast (which was packed with cars) and then proceeded to look for parking near Pier 39. This was a mess. Many streets were nearing gridlock level and most of the parking was very expensive. We must have spent 30 minutes trying to find the right parking lot and navigate traffic. We finally settled on a lot for $12 only a few blocks from Pier 39.

Pier 39 was also very crowded with people and the breezes off the ocean were getting cold. We walked to the end of the pier and enjoyed seeing all the sea lions in the water. We took a few pics of Alcatraz Island and looked for a place to eat supper. With many expensive options to choose from we ate at a small not-quite fast food, not-quite sit down place for some good fish and shrimp. We did a little shopping down at the pier but mostly just enjoyed the sea lions.

We decided not to head down to the Fisherman's Wharf as it was getting late and cold. We headed out of San Francisco on the Bay Bridge and then got another surprise: the check engine light on the Prius came on. We debated what to do for a few miles on the interstate and decided upon calling Alamo. Their roadside assistance person told us to head for the Oakland airport and do a car swap for another Prius. We embarked on navigating some of the side streets of Oakland at the GPS' guidance, not fun, and finally made it to the Oakland airport. We spent about an hour there waiting for the replacement car to be readied and then switching all our gear over to the new car. The process overall went well and we drove out with another Prius of a silver color. We made our way to our hotel out in Modesto with another Wal Mart stop along the way.

A map of today's main activity:


We headed out from our hotel early this day for Yosemite. The weather out in Modesto was great but their was rain showers in the forecast for Yosemite. It was a beautiful drive through farm country along US120. There was a steep climb along the highway as we neared Yosemite. When we finally made it to the park entrance the clouds covered the sky. We were delighted to find out however that the Tioga Pass Road was opened. Signs along the highway into the park kept reminding people it was closed. Apparently they just got the road opened up a few minutes before we arrived. The Glacier Point road was closed however. They suggested we do Tioga Pass early as it could turn snowy up there quickly. We started out on the road and the cloud cover at many points was right down on us hurting visibility. We did even get some snow along the road. For awhile we began to get really disappointed as it appeared we would have another day of clouds and no sights. At many of the turnouts we wondered what beautiful mountain sights we could be seeing instead of the wall of clouds. We drove the Tioga road as far as Tuolumne Meadows. They were basically a mushy pond at this point but some of the cloud cover had raised by then and we got a few pictures. None of the snow was very deep up there (no more than a foot) unlike at Rainier and Crater Lake where several feet remained.

We drove the Tioga Road back and then headed down the road into Yosemite Valley. At the first turnouts once more clouds were really bad. Finally, however, just before we reached the first tunnel the cloud cover seemed to have raised up and we got a view down the first parts of the valley to a waterfall (maybe Bridalveil Falls). Quite a few cars had pulled off there for pictures. We were expecting bad crowds being Memorial Day but it seemed the worst of the crowds had come Saturday and Sunday. When we finally made it into the valley and were put on the southern one-way road into the valley traffic picked up and peaked in the drive area that gives you the great views of El Capitan. We took several good pictures here and the clouds began to cooperate. We also got closer pictures of Bridalveil Falls from here.

We drove deeper into the valley taking some stops for pictures as we even saw a few patches of blue sky. We walked onto the swinging bridge and started to get some sprinkles then. We drove some more touring the camping areas and noting all of the bear signs. We finally parked the car in one of the main visitor lots near the Yosemite Village. From there we took the shuttle bus up to the visitor center and walked around up there. We took another shuttle bus took Yosemite Lodge. The buses are free and take you around most of the main areas around the east end of the valley. We finally did lunch at Yosemite Lodge, being then around 3pm. We had excitement in the cafeteria there when we spotted a squirrel making his way calmly from table to table picking up scraps from the floor. It was amazing how close he would come to people eating up the crumbs. A few guys finally spotted him under their table and they herded him out one of the doors.

From Yosemite Lodge we walked northeast up the trails to the base of Yosemite Falls and took some amazing pictures here. The Falls are the highest in North America and in the top 10 highest in the world. This was one of the best times of the year to see these falls with all the snowmelt coming down and they were really gushing.

We worked out way back on the shuttles towards our parking lot. We got off at Sentinel Bridge and walked along the roads to the parking. Along that route Sarah saw what looked like a black animal in the middle of the brush to our west. We thought it might possibly be a black bear cub, but we didn't approach any closer to investigate. When we made it back to our car it started raining harder. We began our drive out of Yosemite which went pretty quickly. Right at the intersection with the Crane Flat gas station we found a handful of cars parked along the road, people walking in the road, and even a few cars stopped in the road. We couldn't figure it out at first, but then Mark noticed a brown animal walking in the meadow to our left. So we too found a safe place along the roadside to park and found it was a medium-sized bear "grazing" in the grass meadow. Mark quickly tried to snap a few pictures as a park ranger had come and started shooing people away and into their cars to get traffic moving. By the time we'd made it out of the park the rain had stopped and we weren't too far west by the time the clouds began to clear out. It was nice driving through California farm country again. We saw lots of cattle, orange groves, cherry trees, and even a few cornfields. We made it up to Sacramento around 9:15 and began to get all of our things ready to fly out in the morning.

A map of today's main activity:


We left our hotel at 5am and made our way to Sacramento's airport. The drop-off for the rental car went very smoothly and they shuttled us to the terminal. There was a good-sized line for Southwest but it moved very quickly. I had a K mistaken for an X on my confirmation number so I had a little trouble getting my boarding pass. Luckily I had my Rapid Rewards number on my tablet PC and that solved the problem. The security line was incredibly long but moved quickly. We still made it to our gate with about 40 minutes to spare. Our flight left about 15 minutes late for unknown reasons. We made it into Chicago nearly on time at least and were very glad to meet up with the boys and Mark's mom once we arrived.

A map of today's main activity: