Friday, October 17, 2008

The Sierra's secret lodge

One of my favorite places to stay near Yosemite National Park is Evergreen Lodge, outside Groveland and at the front door to Hetch Hetchy. I love Evergreen because it combines the warmth and ambience of a 1920s lodge (that's how far back it goes) with updated style and comforts I like: spacious, modern cabins with DVD players, satellite radio.

There's a cozy bar that could tell a few tales if th
at pine paneling could talk. And the cafe offers a surprisingly varied menu. When my sister, Mary Kay, and I visited she had a craving for sauteed baby bok choy; while it wasn't on the menu, they managed to whip it up for her (she loved it). 

But what really distinguished Evergreen: it's the only area lodge with its own guide service and extensive recreation program. Want to hike or bike but don't know the local trails? These guys do.

Join a fall Bike and Hike to Rainbow Pools, take a Range of Light naturalist tour to see things from John Muir's perspective, or book a private Photography Workshop. And at day's end, enjoy a gourmet meal followed by a massage in Evergreen's open air cabana. Just don't tell everyone else, or Evergreen Lodge won't be a secret for long.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The colors of Death Valley

Call me crazy, but I just love the colors in Death Valley National Park. Yes, it's the driest and lowest spot on the continent. And I know, most people think of the desert park as a vast, beige wasteland. Not me. I know Death Valley's true colors, but you have to catch them at the right time. 

On a visit last winter, I found the park awash in color. In the early morning, I tramp through Golden Canyon with a group of friends, and the morning light turns the sandstone into walls of sparkles. It's an easy 1-mile hike, except for the loose footing on a few sharp ridges (luckily, our guide had advised us to wear good boots). The air is crisp and cool and the light is absolutely brilliant. We turn a corner to see dramatic shadows knifing into Red Cathedral—and the amateur photographers in the group snap away. 

I learn there's a lot that's green in this desert—so to speak. First, there's the Furnace Creek Golf Course; it's eco-friendly and has recently been designated an Audubon sanctuary for wildlife (it uses totally reclaimed water). And this year, the U.S. tourism industry's largest solar photovoltaic system is finished and it really shines. Built by concessioner Xanterra, the massive one-megawatt system can help to reduce the pollution equivalent of 5,100 cars.

After a leisurely lunch, we drive south of Furnace Creek to pull off at Artist's Palette in the late afternoon. Splashes of mineral deposits are scattered through a maze of small canyons here, and I wander away to explore one after another. The minerals seem to blaze in the low afternoon sunlight: teal, mustard, and bands of scarlet. It's quite the visual cocktail.

Our thirsts awakened, we end the day back at the Furnace Creek Inn. Perched on the terrace with fruity drinks (the kind that come with little umbrellas) in hand, we catch one of the most amazing sights of the day: a fiery sun slipping behind palms trees and distant mountains. Again, out come the cameras.

I'm happy (sort of) to rise at O dark:30, leave my comfy bed at the Furnace Creek Inn, and beat it over to Zabriskie Point just to watch the sun's first rays catch the tip of Manley Beacon, painting the pointy peak in hues of ocher, orange, and sunny yellow. Even I can't resist having my picture taken beside this amazing view.

So who wants to shiver under grey skies this winter? Shed that heavy fleece hoodie and head for sunny Death Valley National Park for camping, hiking, golf, or lolling at a luxury resort. It'll bring color to your cheeks—and your whole winter.

Falling for Lassen National Park

I love Lassen Volcanic National Park for some of the same reasons I love the image of movie star John Wayne. It's rugged, big-shouldered, and—set off by itself in California's northeast quadrant—it's kind of a loner. Call it the Quiet Man of national parks. After all, it gets a fraction of the visitors seen every year by its bigger cousin: Yosemite National Park. 

But that may change somewhat with the latest news from Lassen: this month's opening of the new Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center. The center's name means Snow Mountain (in the Mountain Maidu language), a fitting moniker for a park whose main summit, 10,457-foot Lassen Peak, is capped by the white stuff for much of the year. 
The new visitor center (9-5 daily) boasts an auditorium showing a new park film, a staffed info desk, exhibits, food services, and an after-hours backcountry registration vestibule. Not only is it a big step forward over past facilities, but it's a handsome building.
So visit now, when the center is new and fall crowds are light. There's so much to do here: camping, hiking, fishing; and it only takes about one tank of gas to get here from the Bay Area. The park is a living exhibit of volcanic action; the fumaroles are hissing, the mud pots are gurgling. Now, you'll have the park's network of trails practically to yourself. But go soon, before road access to the park is restricted by late autumn's snows; after that, you'll need skis and snowshoes to see much of Lassen. One tip: before leaving home, check the park web page and status of the main park road.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Seeing stars in Santa Cruz

"Hold a sea star, think like a scientist!"
That's the motto at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz, California. It's part of the Long Marine Laboratory of University of California, Santa Cruz. And with its strong emphasis on research, low-key exhibits, hard-to-find location, and tiny gift shop, it is a bit different from other aquariums. But the distinction is lost on kids, who seem to love it as much as Monterey's more famous aquarium, as I learn when I drop by with my friend Elaine and her 3-year-old, Milena.  

Its the first Tuesday of the month (free day), so we sail past the ticket desk (admission $6, $4 seniors, students, or kids ages 4-16). Milena skips straight to the touch tank where a nice docent helps her pick up a purple starfish (excuse me, sea star). She spends long minutes ooh-ing over the range of star colors and textures before getting distracted briefly by long strands of kelp (which make great, wet whips, we soon learn). 

Little Milena moves over to the sea anenomes, but first pauses to spend some time neatly stacking up the blue, nesting footstools which allow little ones to step up to the touch tank. Repeatedly.
"If only I could get her to tidy up her room that nicely!" notes Elaine,
with some amazement.

Meanwhile, I drift over to gaze at the Dynamic Planet display—a globe lighted from within that sends images of clouds, hurricanes, and earthquakes (and subsequent tsunamis) cascading across the Earth. It's hypnotic. And somewhat alarming to me (I live in the Bay Area's seismic fault zone—oh well).

"Oh, look at the babies," coos Milena. Well, I think, there are babies all over this joint—the word is out to the stroller brigade about just how kid-friendly this place is. But Milena is talking about the jellyfish she's staring up at in a tall, circular tank. Pulsating white globes fill the tank, and seeming hundreds of them are quite small—about the size of a fingertip. We stare, captivated, for what must be an eternity in a 3-year-old's time frame (1.5 minutes). 

Finally, it's off to Milena's must-see stop: the huge, climb-on-top sculptures of elephant seals in front of the museum—a cute pup, a hefty female, and a Jabba the Hutt -sized male seal. The autumn sun is shining, a crisp breeze is blowing in off the adjacent Pacific, and I gratefully plop myself down for a rest atop the biggest sculpture. I don't think Jabba will mind a bit. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Welcome California travelers!

I'm a travel writer. I have trotted all over the globe, crisscrossed the Western States, and gotten paid to do so. Lucky? Don't I know it! Now I'm focusing on my home state: California. For a writer, this state is the Mother Lode: rich in experiences, beauty, vivid history, and fascinating characters.

I know what you're thinking: "I could be a travel writer, and hike those trails, sip those Cabernets, and rest-test those downy hotel mattresses!" Sure, and I hope you'll add your comments and ideas to my destinations and outings. But make me your backup. I've got years in the business and I've trekked to places you may not have had time to check out. Oh, and I know fun, crazy, interesting travel people, and I'll introduce them along the way.

My goal is to help California travelers. To save you time and research, to help you plan weekend getaways and outings. I do my homework, check things out, and expect value for money. I like my trips to be family-friendly, cost-conscious, creative, and as green as possible. I like good deals and good meals. If you do, too, then check back often! 

COPYRIGHT Lora Finnegan 2008-2009

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