The great thing about vacations is you don’t have to have a schedule if you don’t want to. We got up late again today. There’s something really nice about sleeping in.
We checked out a restaurant in the Pietermaai area of Willemstad called the Scuba Lodge. Reviews told us the breakfast there was really good. When we arrived, we were greeted with seating that was mere feet from the ocean. There’s something nice about watching the waves crash in front of you while enjoying your coffee.
Despite the toast being hard, breakfast was really good. Some place we would definitely try again.
We decided to head back to Westpunt in the afternoon to snorkel at Playa Grandi. We heard Grandi was a great place to see turtles while you swim. We were greeted by many turtles, drawn to the area by the arriving fishermen who were discarding their trimmings over the side of their boats. The turtles are so graceful and did not seem to be afraid of humans. Though I didn’t try, it seemed you could reach out and touch the turtles.
Though I did my best to avoid the sea life, it seems they didn’t play by the same rules. I got stung by a jellyfish. Ouch!
Alicia, as we all know, she likes to talk to strangers. She struck up a conversation with Ard while on the beach. Ard worked for Sea Turtle Conservation Curacao. Ard was at Grandi checking on the turtles, making sure they were healthy and uninjured. Ard told us he was heading to another beach to look for more turtles. Ard had heard a turtle at the other beach had gotten stuck with a fishing hook and he was going to make sure no other turtles were hurt. Alicia asked Ard if we could come along to watch him look for the turtles. Ard was fine with it and said we could help him if we felt so inclined.
We headed for Santa Cruz Beach and me Ard and two other conservationists. Flowing into the bay in front of Santa Cruz Beach was an estuary leading to a lagoon. Ard’s plan was for Alicia and me to walk the estuary, making noise to cause the turtles to move toward the bay. Ard and the other conservationist would wait where the estuary met the bay and count the turtles as they swam past. Ard managed to spot five turtles, but he was not able to tell if they were injured because the water was so cloudy. Nonetheless it was fun to help. We are all about doing things on our vacation that are outside the ordinary.
We had dinner at Azzuro at Blue Bay. Azzuro was a fancy place that was on the jetty separating Blue Bay from the ocean. I had carbonara that was wonderful! For dessert I had some tiramisu that left a little to be desired. Tiramisu should be a little more than a martini glass filled with lady fingers and whipped cream.
Back at the apartment we got to Skype with the boys. Due to the time difference, it was difficult to catch them. Grandma told us the boys missed us a lot and they were delighted to talk with us.
After a few days with no bugs, we found a dead roach in our room. We were hoping it had just wandered in from the outside while we had the patio doors open. It made us contemplate going home early again. Being told of a $200 change fee put a quick end to that thought.
Back in the USA we take for granted certain things, like decent bathroom plumbing. For some reason, we weren’t allowed to flush toilet paper in this modern apartment. It seemed weird to us that they would rather we toss our used toilet paper in the trash. Wouldn’t the smell of old toilet paper be more of a concern?
Good thing there are two bathrooms in the apartment.
Woke up again around noonish and headed down to the beach for breakfast. I got a hard boiled egg with my breakfast that was without a yolk. That was somewhat strange. The coffee was very good for restaurant coffee. I guess they take their coffee seriously in Curacao.
We decided to head into Willemstad to check out the city. We arrived in the main port area of the city and found there was a cruise ship making a call. This meant that even though it was Sunday, most of the businesses were open. The waterfront was filled with the normal tourist shops offering t-shirts, ash trays, shot glasses, and other assorted wares emblazoned with “Curacao” on them.
We took a walk across the Queen Emma Bridge that crosses from the area of Willemstad called Otrabanda to the section known as Punda. The Queen Emma Bridge is a pontoon bridge that was originally built in 1888. The entire bridge spans St. Anna Bay and swings open on a pivot to allow ships to enter. Walking across the bridge, you had no doubt that it was floating, as you could feel it rise and fall.
While walking around Otrabanda, I found a Starbucks and gave it a try. There was something different about the coffee that I couldn’t quite describe. The flavor was different from Starbucks coffee in the US. I rather enjoyed the flavor.
I tried to find the police station in Otrabanda so I could make a trade for one of their patches. One of my hobbies is collecting patches from police departments in the places I visit. Unfortunately for me the police station was closed. It would be a quest to save for another day.
With no set plan, we didn’t know what to do. We decided to head up to the area near the airport to visit Hato Caves. The caves are limestone caves similar to ones you would see in many other places around the world. There were many cool formations inside and I managed to sneak some pictures despite being told they weren’t allowed. I’m such a rebel.
I’ve been to a few tour caves before and one thing they had in common was they were always cold inside. The Hato Caves were quite different. It was actually really warm inside them. So much so, that they had several large fans positioned around inside to keep the air flowing through them so they didn’t get hot. The tour guide said limestone is very good at absorbing heat, so without much earth above the caves, they get very hot.
Getting back into an air-conditioned car after visiting the caves was a welcome treat. We decided to head back to Blue Bay for a dip in the ocean to cool off. I once again brought my snorkeling gear with me. I headed about 200 yards out from the beach and swam around the edge of the breakwater. From the breakwater, I could see how the sea floor dropped off past it. The clear water faded into darkness.
After snorkeling we went back to the apartment to rinse off before going to dinner. We chose one of the restaurants at the resort called Pictures. I had a pepperonit pizza that was very good, despite the crust being like a cracker. I can’t believe I ate the whole thing. Alicia had what had to be the smallest beef tenderloin I had ever seen. The restaurant was open to the outside, so I made sure to wear bug repellant. Unfortunately, the bugs in Curacao seemed to be immune to Off, so I was constantly swatting them away.
Back at the room, we decided to stay in and watch some TV. At the same time, we tried to cool the apartment down. Electricity is apparently very expensive on Curacao, so there were only air conditioners installed in the bedrooms. This led to a problem of the kitchen and living area getting very warm. The owner of the apartment was kind enough to leave an oscillating fan, but it didn’t do much other than move the hot air around. I got the idea of opening the door to the bedroom just off the living room and turning on the AC. I then put the fan in front of the door to blow the cold air out into the living room. This actually worked fairly well and the living room eventually got to a comfortable temperature.
Flipping through the channels on the TV in the apartment, I found many of the typical cable or satellite channels you would have in the US. They were, however, geared toward Latin and South America. I managed to find a baseball game! I had no idea what the announcers were saying, or who the players were because it was the Venezuelan league, but baseball is baseball.
After a while, we got a late hunger attack. We noticed a Pizza Hut on the map and decided to give it a try. We left Blue Bay for the drive to Pizza Hut a few miles away. It did feel a bit strange leaving the resort at night to go to a local place. But why did it have to feel strange? It seems we’re taught that it is unsafe to go out at night in foreign countries. That’s when bad things happen. If it’s not safe, then why do the locals go out at night? We don’t think twice about going out at night when we’re at home. In talking with other people who travel regularly, I’ve come to the conclusion that people are inherently good, and why should we feel any different about doing things that the locals regularly would.
On the way to Pizza Hut, we passed by a baseball field. It was 9 p.m., but there were still people out there playing. Jokingly, I said we should stop to watch or see if they’d let me join in. Alicia, ever adventurous, was up for it. Unfortunately, Pizza Hut was close to closing, so perhaps another time.
Surprisingly, the pizza from this Curacaoan Pizza Hut was really good. The white sauce had a different flavor from the Alfredo sauce they use at American Pizza Hut. They also use Gouda cheese in addition to the normal mozzarella cheese. I thought the flavor was much better than the pizzas they sell in the US.
Today’s lesson: Get a little out of the comfort zone and don’t be afraid to go out an about when you normally wouldn’t. Also, people in different parts of the world have different tastes, try the “normal” things, they might surprise you.
After the debacle that was night one, it was good to just get some sleep. We slept until after noon. Luckily the room stayed cool and comfortable. Sleeping in the heat and humidity just would not have made for a good night.
Making the most of our trip, we decided to stay at the resort for the day and see what there was to offer. We headed down to the beach, only a couple hundred yards away for lunch and a swim.
The restaurant had a good selection of lunches and I opted for the pulled pork sandwich. I was surprised it was not just an attempt to be “American” by slathering the pork with barbecue sauce. No, no, no. The pork had what I could best describe as a “Caribbean” flavor to it. I’m not sure how to explain it, but I could taste the seasonings used by the Caribbean restaurant back home.
After lunch we headed to the water to play with our snorkels (and my underwater camera). Only a few yards out from the water’s edge were a plethora of fish. I’m not an ichthyologist, so I can’t tell you what they were, but every color of the rainbow appeared to be well-represented. I had gotten a full-face snorkel mask specifically for the trip. I figured it would work better with my contact lenses, and would make for easier breathing. I was right. I could just breathe normally, without having to have a snorkel mouthpiece in my mouth. The only downside was the snorkel tube wasn’t very long, so I had to stay very close to the surface.
While taking a break from swimming, I instantly noticed something. We had picked a destination with very few Americans. Nearly everyone we met was from Europe – mostly the Netherlands and Germany. I guess with Curacao being a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, it’s a fairly easy trip for them. However, we did run into a group of guys from Philadelphia while at the beach. As it turned out, they were our downstairs neighbors at the apartment. They were very glad to get away from the cold and hang out in the sun for a while.
Things were already looking better. After all, the room was just a place to sleep and hold our stuff.
We took a drive to Westpunt on the (surprise!) west part of the island. Nothing is really too far away in Curacao, seeing as the island is about 35 miles by 7 miles. On the way, we observed more crazy driving from the locals. We took advantage of the convertible we had rented and put the top down. Wouldn’t you know it we ran into some rain on the way. Oh well, you only live once! It only rained for a minute anyway and we shared a laugh about it.
We found a little restaurant we had heard about online called Sol Food. The restaurant looked like it was in a bad neighborhood – bars on all the windows, people giving you side glances. When we arrived, we were a bit confused because our GPS put us in front of a house. The GPS was right, though. The restaurant was behind the house. Sunshine, the owner, built the restaurant literally in her back yard.
The food at Sol Food was great! I had some snapper with rice. The view couldn’t be beat either. The restaurant was on a bluff overlooking a beach, and we were able to watch the sunset.
Alicia, as usual, struck up a conversation with a Canadian couple during dinner. Actually, they lived in Canada, but he was from the United Kingdom and she was from South Africa. They were regulars at Sol Food, and visited Curacao often. I’m not one to talk to strangers, but I’m glad Alicia is because meeting new people is actually fun. Little did we know this couple would come into play later in the week.
On the way back to Blue Bay we stopped at a grocery store. I don’t know why, but I’ve never seen a grocery store in any of the places I’ve traveled outside the US. It seemed weird walking into a store that looked like any other supermarket back home, except the labels were in a different language.
We picked up a few provisions for the room and headed to Blue Bay for drinks and snacks on the beach.
At long last, I’m finally getting around to writing about my trip to Curacao. Strap in and enjoy the ride.
Friday, November 10, 2017 San Francisco, Calif. to Curacao via Miami, Fla.
Normally we go on cruises for our vacations. Cruises are fun – all your travel, lodging, entertainment, and dining are housed together in one self-contained metal container. However, after 10 years of cruising together, we wanted to try something else for our anniversary.
We planned to fly to a tropical destination and spend a week there rather than moving daily from port to port. Originally we had planned to take a trip to Saint Maarten; however 2017’s hurricane season had different plans. In August, Hurricane Irma formed in the Atlantic and nailed Saint Maarten head on. The airport was heavily damaged and much of the island was destroyed. After some further research, we chose to give Curacao a try.
Curacao is an island in the southern Caribbean, part of the Lesser Antilles. Curacao is a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and sits about 40 miles north of Venezuela. Our research showed English was widely spoken, and they readily took American dollars – always a plus on vacation. After some hurdles, we changed our flight and lodging reservations.
On the day we were to leave we got up at 5 a.m. to catch the shuttle to San Francisco International Airport. Our shuttle driver did his best to get us to the airport in a timely manner, pressing the petal to metal, redlining the engine several times.
As usual, there was a long line at the airport to get through security. As usual, Alicia struck up a conversation with a random stranger. We talked to a nice Finnish lady who was on her way home. As Alicia and Finnish lady talked, I saw several salespeople from a company called Clear trying to entice travelers with being able to skip the line. All you had to do was give up all your personal information for a background check and you get to zip through security, all for one low annual fee.
I’ve been flying since I was a kid, and I’ve noticed a change in the way people dress to fly. Flying used to be something special. People used to dress nicely to get on a plane. Now, the uniform of the day looks like pajamas. When did the magic of flight, become something we take for granted?
Airlines even nickel and dime you for almost every little thing now! You have to pay for your bags to fly with you; you pay for snacks; you pay extra if you want to make your reservations over the phone; some airlines even make you pay to use the overhead bin if you buy a certain discounted ticket! Something special in the air indeed!
If that wasn’t bad enough, the airlines pack you on the plane like sardines. They’ve adjusted the distance between seats to the bare minimum, simply to fit one extra row in the planes. When I finally got seated, I had about one-half of an inch between my knees and the seat in front of me. At least I had room on the sides. We thought ahead and bought the seat in between us for the extra arm room.
The flight to Miami was nothing to write home about. I got within a few pages of finishing Mark Kelly’s book Endurance. All I had to do was spend six hours on a plane. He spent a year on the space station! One thing I did notice was how loud the plane was. We were on a 737-800 – Boeing’s quietest 737 ever – you could have fooled me!
In Miami we had burgers at Shula’s grill while waiting for our next flight. After eating, we discovered that Miami’s airport is huge! We walked for 15 minutes and still had not arrived at our gate. It was then we discovered there was a train that ran the length of the terminal. Why had nobody told us about that?!
While waiting for our flight to Curacao, I noticed a large group of very lovely ladies waiting around the gate. They all appeared to be dressed the same: black suit jackets and slacks. Who were these people? Alicia once again talked to strangers in line and we found out they were the Miami Dolphins cheerleaders! Lucky us! It turned out they were on their way to Curacao, where there is a USAF base at the airport. The cheerleaders were going to be doing a show for Veterans Day. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, Alicia persuaded them to take a picture with me once on the ground in Curacao.
We picked up our rental car and headed out to the mean streets of Curacao to find our accommodations for the week. As I’ve noticed in other countries – Mexico, I’m looking at you – speed limits and rules of the road are merely a suggestion. Drivers just drove wherever there was an open space for a car. I’m used to lane splitting on a motorcycle, but I’ve never seen it done by a car!
Once we reached the Blue Bay Resort where we had rented an apartment through AirBNB we hit the first, and hopefully only, snag of the trip. We found cockroaches in our room – GROSS!!! Not the way to start our Tenth-Anniversary trip. The apartment manager was not much help. She did not seem concerned there were roaches in their fancy new apartment.
By this time, it was close to midnight and we were starting to get hangry. We headed out to find food and to figure out what we would do. Fortunately, we found a little taste of home. We found a Denny’s.
This Denny’s was right next to a casino, and instantly looked really sketchy when we pulled up. Yeah, yeah. It’s a Denny’s. Isn’t sketchy part of the experience? Well, maybe, but I’ve also been to some non-sketchy Denny’s.
While sitting inside Denny’s, watching the sketchy people inside and outside, oh, and the armed guard by the door, we actually pondered flying back to Miami and spending the week there based on our first impressions of Curacao.
Alicia made some phone calls, and talked to some of the locals, and she talked to the apartment manager about the bug issue. We drove back to Blue Bay to meet with the manager again.
While on the way to Blue Bay, we got some more fine examples of the local driving. We nearly got hit by what looked like a drunk driver! That would have been such a downer.
Alicia spoke with the airline about changing our departure and found it would cost a lot. I called the Hilton about getting a clean hotel room and found out it would cost a lot. Maybe we’d just have to tough it out.
We spoke with the manager, who assured us, roaches had never been a problem, but they might have found their way in during some recent rains. She offered to move us to their upstairs apartment in the same building. We inspected the apartment and found it to be bug free.
At least there was WiFi. I chatted a bit with my friend Greg, no stranger to sleeping in foreign locales having recently gone to Thailand and Mexico. His advice, “Just roll with it and make the most of it.” An outside voice can often have a calming effect.
Sometimes you don’t have to go far to find amazing beauty. Often it is in your back yard.
I’m very fortunate to live very close to Redwood National and State Parks – more than 139,000 acres of old-growth Coast Redwoods situated on the North Coast of California. The parks contain 45 percent of all remaining old-growth Coast Redwoods. There are also miles and miles of rugged coastline and grassland prairies.
While on a recent day drive to Crescent City, I took a detour off Highway 101 before reaching the town of Klamath. The side drive, known as Klamath Beach Rd. follows the Klamath River into the forest. Klamath Beach Dr. intersects with Coastal Dr., which used to be a part of Highway 101, until the bridge over the Klamath River was washed out during the flood of 1964.
Coastal Dr. loops around the peninsula created by the path of the Klamath River as it enters the Pacific Ocean. The road turns into a one-way dirt road with stunning views of the ocean. On this day, the waves were high due to an incoming storm. On the return portion of the loop, I located a solitary folding lawn chair in a clearing containing an abandoned house that was slowly being reclaimed by the forest.
After spending a couple hours in Crescent City, I started back toward home. I stopped at False Klamath Cove to watch the surf and sunset. The immense waves crashing over the rocks dotting the coast just off the beach gave you a great idea of the power of the ocean.
I finished the trip by turning off Highway 101 again to take the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway. NBDSP is another former alignment of Highway 101 and passes through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. The road winds its way between towering redwoods and fern-lined cliffs. The south end of the parkway passes through Elk Prairie. I didn’t see any of the elk, but there was a nice layer of fog hanging over the prairie.
Though often overlooked because it’s so close, beauty is out there in your backyard.
There’s an ongoing thread over at Stromtrooper.com called the Motorcycle Picture of the Week. The rules are rather simple: post a picture of a motorcycle you own that fits the week’s theme. Each week has a new theme, and at the end of the week the participants vote on their favorite. The winner gets to pick the new theme.
This week’s theme was “Music.”
This is a mural titled “Arkley Performing Arts” by Randy Spicer. It’s on G St. between Fourth and Fifth Streets, facing the Arkley Center for the Performing Arts.
I was greeted by a beautiful orange sunrise over the Delta. Unfortunately, I didn’t dig out the camera. I packed up my camp and hit the road by 8:30.
I stopped for fuel in Rio Vista and headed north on Highway 84. A couple miles north of Rio Vista, on 84 is the Ryer Island Ferry. The Ryer Island Ferry is one of two Delta ferries owned and operated by Caltrans. The ferries run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, crossing the Sacramento River. I had read about these oddities and figured that I was so close, that I had to do it just because.
I pulled up to the ferry gate and the operator lowered the ramp. I rolled my bike onto the ferry called the “Real McCoy II.” It was a small ferry, with room for about six cars. I was the only passenger on this trip of less than 1000 feet. I wondered if it would be more cost effective for the state to just build a bridge, rather than run a ferry constantly. There must be some reason why the ferries still exist here.
The ferry ride itself was nothing special. Just sitting on the bike for two minutes as the ferry ferried me across the river. Once on the other side, the ramp lowered and the gate went up and I rode off, passing a couple cars waiting for the westbound run. I went down the road a ways and turned around to take the ferry back. The operator might have thought it was strange, but I’m sure this isn’t the first time someone has just gone back and forth.
After my detour, I returned to Highway 12 to continue on toward the Napa Valley. I had planned to take Highway 12 and then get onto Highway 128 and ride through the Calistoga area, but my written directions didn’t mesh with the GPS and I must have missed the turn. I stayed on Highway 12, heading toward Santa Rosa.
I hit the town of Sonoma and started to feel hungry, as I hadn’t eaten breakfast. For such a touristy, hipster town, it seemed unusually devoid of coffee places. Then again, this is wine country. I was on my way out of town and found what I was looking for. Almost as if it was fate, I saw a sign for a cafe with several motorcycles parked out front. I pulled into the parking lot and parked my motorcycle behind an old BMW R80 G/S … the original adventure bike. In true hipster form, that bike was adventure before adventure was cool. The cafe, Cafe Scooteria, was a neat little drive-up coffee joint where the coffee is made on a small trailer. But there’s also a seating area for those who aren’t on the go. The seating area is an old service station and is chock full of motorcycle memorabilia and old motorcycles. I sat next to an old Triumph and enjoyed a white mocha and a spicy sausage breakfast burrito.
Fully caffeinated and with a full belly, I continued on.
I passed through rolling hills with gentle curves, bordered on both sides by vineyards as far as the eye could see. I surely didn’t miss out on any scenery. I passed a few roads that headed east into the mountains. After reviewing the roads back home, a few of them would have taken me over the mountains on roads that were a motorcyclist’s dream, and put me back on my original planned track. I was running on a schedule though, and didn’t stop to check when I had the chance.
I arrived in Santa Rosa and turned onto Highway 101, a road I was very familiar with in a car. Highway 101 seemed to be an easy way to finish the ride. There was little traffic, and the highway’s gentle sweeping curves were much nicer on the bike. When I got to Leggett, I exited 101 to hop on Highway 271. 271 is the old highway that was built before 101 was expanded to a four-lane freeway through Leggett. At the end of the off ramp I crossed past with a guy who was likely one of the local “farmers.” He was easily recognizable by his flat-bill hat and lifted Toyota. For an unknown reason, he must have been trying to assert his dominance because he revved up his engine and took off down the curves as fast as he could. Whatever floats your boat, man. I’m not one to get into dick-swinging contests with douchebags. I was not impressed by him.
Highway 271 was tight and twisty, following the contours of the canyon. The road kept you on your toes with several patches of loose gravel that had fallen from the mountainsides above the pavement. After a few miles, I got back on 101 for the run home along the Eel River Canyon.
I finished up riding through familiar territory in the Eel River Valley. There’s something comforting about finishing up in familiar territory.
In all, today was my longest single-day ride since I began riding.
Day 6: 314.8 mi. Total Distance: 1345.82
Highways Taken: CA-12, CA-84, US-101, CA-271
The natural beauty of California never ceases to amaze me. The sheer size of geological features in the Cascades and Sierras is both awe inspiring and humbling. Californians are truly blessed with some of the best riding areas in the world.
The thing about adventures is that once you finish one, you want to plan the next. Before this trip, I had never gone anywhere near as far on a motorcycle. Still being a new rider, unfamiliar roads still worry me a little … and maybe it’s an irrational fear, or maybe it’s human nature to fear the unknown. I had no doubt that I could do it though. And it always helps to have good friends with you. Ted Simon said it best: “It is remarkably easy to do things, and much more frightening to contemplate them.”
Horizons Unlimited met all my expectations. I met a bunch of cool new people, heard wonderful stories of travel to near and far-off lands, and got some inspiration. But reality awaited, and I needed to go home.
Mariposa was a neat little town with lots of history. It has the oldest county courthouse in California. In fact, the county still uses the original one-room courthouse with all the original furniture from the 1800s.
As I do when I travel, I stopped at the local constabulary, in this case the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Office, and traded for a shoulder patch for my collection.
My original plan was to go all out and do one long day on Sunday morning after HU finished. I had to be home to take Alicia to the airport because she was leaving for a work trip. On Friday afternoon I came to the realization that doing a 450-mile trip all in one day with a fairly hard deadline was probably not the best idea. I didn’t want any potential delays to get in the way. Plus, I’d be by myself for the whole trip.
Good decisions …
I decided I would leave Saturday afternoon and break the trip up into two legs. I worked out a plan of where I would stay on Saturday night, leaving me nearly all of Sunday to finish a much shorter trip home.
I went to a couple presentations on Saturday morning. I listened to Christopher Baker talk about his travels in Cuba. I bought his book and got him to sign it. I then listened to Lynda Lahman talk about managing fear. The takeaway: Don’t dwell on the bad stuff, or it will happen.
I packed my camp up during breaks between presentations and I headed out around noon. Dave, Greg, and I had planned to ride into Yosemite Valley while we were in Mariposa, but it never happened. I couldn’t be so close and not do it, so I planned my route home to take me on a loop through the valley and back out on Highway 120. Even if I just did a lap of the valley, it’s still a wonderful thing. Thank you to my wife Alicia for the idea!
I said goodbye to the new friends I had made and headed out of town. Greg had gone to do laundry, and was not at the campground. I kept an eye out for his bike as I passed through town, but since I didn’t know where the laundromat was, I didn’t know where to look. I didn’t find him. A text message would have to do.
I rode out on Highway 140 toward the valley. Traffic was unusually light for a weekend, but I had no problem with that.
I rode into the valley and felt that same sense of awe I had the very first time I went to Yosemite. There’s something special about seeing things on a motorcycle.
I headed up for the obligatory photo at Tunnel View on the southwest side of the valley. This tunnel view vista is different from the one on Big Oak Flat Rd.; you can actually see all the landmarks of the valley: El Capitan, Half Dome, and Sentinel Dome. Unfortunately, the viewpoint is also very crowded. I squeezed the bike in to find a place to park. Luckily, a group of Harleys were just about to leave the parking lot. I parked my bike right next to the curb, because when you’re on a motorcycle, you can park just about anywhere. I snapped a few photos of the view with and without the bike and went back downhill.
I emerged from the trees at the bottom of the road to Tunnel View and was greeted with a vast expanse of the grandeur of the valley. Everything seems larger when you’re not confined to a steel box. The valley looks like a painting. I snapped a few pictures of the bike with Half Dome and headed toward the Village Store and visitor center.
Traffic in the valley sucks. People are stopping all the time, and there’s just a lot of cars all going in one direction because the road is a one-way loop. My “quick” lap of the valley turned into two hours, putting me a little behind what I had planned. Oh well ….
Climbing out of the valley, I suddenly felt a chill in the air. The valley floor is at 4000 ft, but the road out climbs up to about 6200 feet at Oak Flat before descending back down. I stopped to put on a sweatshirt under my jacket, then continued west.
I passed through hilly terrain much like on Highway 108 a few days earlier. I rode through small communities whose only current purpose appeared to be providing lodging for travellers to Yosemite.
Soon I reached Priest Grade. There’s two roads at Priest Grade – the current highway and Old Priest Grade Rd. On the east side, you start at about 2500 feet, and you drop to about 900 feet on the west side. On the old road, is steep and narrow, covering the drop in a little under 2 miles. It’s not uncommon to see vehicles with smoking brakes. The current highway stretches the drop to about 5 miles, making it easier on the brakes – or so you would think. The “new” Priest Grade road has more than 100 curves and hairpins – sort of a mini Tail of the Dragon – so it may not be that much of a brake saver. I took the new road. It did not disappoint.
At the bottom of the grade is a town called Moccasin and Don Pedro Lake. Don Pedro Lake is one of the many reservoirs in the area that provides drinking water to much of southern and central California. There’s a bridge that crosses the lake, and it was undergoing repairs. I noticed the edges of the bridge were no longer there. A K-rail will be the limit of your road today.
Highway 120 starts to become boring after this. By the time you’ve reached the town of Oakdale, you’ve hit the Central Valley. Curves disappear, as do hills. You’re left with flat, straight roads the rest of the way. The upside is your average speed goes up.
My destination was in the California Delta, a park called Brannan Island State Recreation Area. By the time I hit Oakdale, my GPS was estimating I’d arrive at about 6:45 pm. Sunset was at about 7 pm. That’s cutting it close to not have to make camp in the dark.
I took some side roads through farmland, smelling cows, and other assorted animals, and at one point green onions. There’s a lot of different smells in the Central Valley, but I can’t recall ever smelling green onions. I was pretty much the only vehicle on these side roads. Plus one for the shortcuts!
I came out on Highway 99 just south of Stockton. I slabbed it on 99 for a few miles and turned onto Highway 4, in the heart of Stockton. By this time, the sun was low in the sky, and it was an adventure in visibility with the sun shining directly in my eyes. I turned onto Interstate 5 to slab it for the next 10 or 15 miles.
I-5 needs some major work. The concrete is crumbling, leaving large seams and big missing chunks in all the lanes. I dodged semi-trucks and pulled off at Flag City in Lodi to make my final run toward camp. Oh lord, I’m stuck in Lodi again. A quick stop to grab some dinner, and I was heading west into the Delta.
The road west in the Delta was another exercise in trying to see. The sun was even lower, and directly over the center of the road. The builders of Stonehenge couldn’t have lined it up more perfectly. Maybe I should pull over and sacrifice a virgin or something.
I made it to Brannan Island just as the sun crossed the horizon. I wouldn’t have much time to locate a campsite and get set up. I circled the park once looking for the right spot before settling on one right next to the entrance gate. I figured I’d be getting up early and getting on the road. Might as well make for a quick exit.
I got everything set up and sat down on the picnic table for a dinner under the light of an LED headlamp. Canned chili and pistachios with Diet Pepsi – the dinner of champions. I topped it off relaxing with a cigar in the dark.
I found it a little strange camping solo after spending most of the week with Dave and Greg. However, there was something to be said about sitting there alone with just the sounds of the Delta to listen to, and a sky full of stars to stare at.
Just before turning in, I realized I should have looked around a little more before deciding on a campsite. It was a 200-yard walk to the closest bathroom. During the walk, I found several empty campsites in much closer proximity. Convenient isn’t always better. Hopefully I wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature.
Day 5: 210.8 mi. Total Distance: 1031.02 miles
Highways Taken: CA-140, Big Oak Flat Rd., CA-120, County Highway J9, County Highway J7, CA-99, CA-4, I-5, CA-12, CA-160
We woke up to a cold and windy morning in Mammoth Lakes. Once again, I was up with the sun.
While making my coffee, Greg came out of his tent and told me we needed to discuss today’s ride. The previous night, we had made plans to ride down to Panamint Springs to see “Star Wars Canyon.” Star Wars Canyon is a narrow canyon near Death Valley where military jets from Edwards AFB, China Lake, and Nellis AFB make low-altitude passes following the canyon’s curves. There is a vista point off the highway at the edge of the canyon, and the planes pass by at eye level. It was to be a short day, as Panamint Springs was only 153 miles – a 3-hour ride – away.
Greg told me he had looked at the weather forecast for Tioga Pass, since we would be crossing tomorrow. The forecast was calling for snow overnight, and Greg was concerned snow would close the highway, and we’d be stuck taking a much longer route to Mariposa on Thursday. I checked the weather forecast myself, and saw there was a 50 percent chance of snow in the pass.
We had two choices: continue to Panamint Springs and chance it – risking a ride just shy of 400 miles, taking Highway 395 south to Kramer Junction and then taking Highway 58 west to Highway 99 in Bakersfield; or forget Panamint Springs and cross Tioga Pass today. We decided the longer trip on Thursday was not worth it, and chose to cross Tioga Pass. We made a plan to cross the pass and camp in the Yosemite Valley for the night.
We packed up and headed into Mammoth Lakes to fuel up. We stopped at a Shell station, which was out of the ordinary because Dave and Greg typically, and religiously, stop at Chevron stations. After fueling up, I saw Greg had parked his bike by the store entrance and was taking a picture of it. He soon showed me why. Earlier this year, Greg had taken a motorcycle trip to Baja, Mexico, and had returned home through Mammoth Lakes. Greg got caught in a freak spring snowstorm and stopped at the Shell station. Greg showed me a picture of his motorcycle parked in the exact same place with the ground covered in snow.
We headed out and turned north on Highway 395.
After leaving Mammoth Lakes, it became fairly windy on the highway. As we approached Lee Vining, it was getting difficult to ride the motorcycle straight due to the crosswinds. I had looked at the weather report earlier and saw 25-30 mph sustained winds were forecast, with gusts up to 50 mph. I didn’t have an anemometer, but I’d guess the forecast was pretty spot on. I did what I could to keep the bike going straight — loose grip, light pressure on the bars on the left side toward the wind, and leaning my body toward the wind. It worked to a point, but my bike still wanted to veer to the right. Nevertheless, I carried on.
We made a right turn onto Highway 120 just south of Lee Vining. A short way up the road, Dave and Greg stopped on the side to take a picture. The vantage point gave me a great sense of the size of the Sierra Nevadas. Sitting at the base of 10,000+ft peaks will surely make even Andre the Giant feel small. It was also a little intimidating – we had to go up there! I’m sure the early settlers to the area thought the same thing. At least I had a road to get me there!
We started up the pass, and I soon lost sight of Dave and Greg, as usual. There were lots of other motorcyclists out on the road — Highway 120 is a popular route for them. I was perfectly fine, riding at my own pace and letting the faster folks pass me by so I could take it all in. I was taken aback by the amazing views of the mountains, and the sheer drops off the edge of the road. The road was fairly steep, but I don’t recall seeing anything as steep as the 26 percent grade in Sonora Pass. The winds continued through the pass, rocking my bike during turns, but I found my happy place and did my best to counteract them.
I passed by a resort that had been crushed by the record snowfall of the previous winter. Nobody ever thinks of snow as heavy until there’s a lot of it. Nature never ceases to amaze me with how something small like snow can cause so much damage. I passed by Ellery and Tioga Lakes, where cars full of tourists had stopped to take pictures, their jackets and other clothing flapping in the blustery winds. Mountain passes are typically windy places. The narrow opening between peaks acts like a funnel, channeling air through, compressing it and speeding it up, until it can spread out again on the other side.
I reached the top of the pass, where it must have been about 40 degrees. That’s to be expected at 9945 ft – the highpoint of California’s state highway system. I felt bad for the poor parks employees at the fee station who had to stand there in the cold.
The top of the pass is an entrance point for Yosemite National Park. Most people think of Yosemite as just the valley, but there are many other beautiful parts to the park. I had never been to any of them other than the valley.
I was amazed at the awesome scenery of this portion of the park. Many times I said, “Oh my God,” and “Wow,” in my helmet. Lush meadows and granite domes abound. Yosemite is much more than the valley, and Tuolumne Meadows along Tioga Rd. is a beautiful place.
We stopped at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center to stretch. Tuolumne Meadows is a vast meadow, wedged between Lambert Dome on the east and Pothole Dome on the west. Hikers and tourists criss-crossed the road. RVs had to be dodged. We decided we would head into Mariposa for lunch, then return to the valley to camp at historic Camp Four.
We continued west past Pywiack Dome and Tenaya Lake … onward past picturesque Olmstead Point, where the road is literally cut into the side of a granite dome. From here, I was able to catch a glimpse of the valley’s iconic Half Dome – a view I have never seen before.
We carried on down the windy road, where the pavement – made with aggregate consisting of granite quarried inside the park – sparkles in the sun like diamonds. I turned on my video camera in hopes to capture the glimmering bits in the pavement. Someday this phenomena will be gone, as there were several places where the road had been covered by ordinary black asphalt.
We passed Big Oak Flat and turned toward the valley. On the right were hillsides I remembered being covered with trees just a few years ago. The trees were no more, erased from the landscape by fire, leaving a vast view of an empty valley.
As I approached the tunnels leading toward the valley, I caught a glimpse of El Capitan and Half Dome from the road. There’s something special about seeing them from the back of a motorcycle, a feeling you don’t get when confined inside a car with a roof on it. Motorcycles provide a panoramic view of the world around you, making you feel you are a part of the scenery instead of simply viewing it.
We rolled into Mariposa and stopped for lunch at Happy Burger, which boasts “The Largest Menu in the Sierras.” Surely enough, the menu was about 8 pages long with numerous items on each page. We placed our orders and made use of the WiFi. While watching the order window, we all gazed upon the glory that was someone else’s steak sandwich – the thing looked amazing — and wondered why we had not ordered such a delicacy. A decision was made to come back again during our stay.
After Greg put out a message out on Facebook about crossing Tioga Pass today, and where we planned to camp, we decided we would just check into the campground at the Mariposa Fairgrounds a day early to secure good spots. Once again, making good decisions has come into play.
We went to the fairgrounds and set up camp on the grass lawn. I was looking forward to sleeping on soft ground instead of the hard campsites we’d been at before. While I did have an air mattress, anyone who’s owned one can tell you that they all deflate through the night. Comfort prevails.
We set up our camp and introduced ourselves to the other early birds. We were all pretty tired, so the night ended early. Wouldn’t you know it, just after we went to bed it started raining and carried on for a few hours.
Tioga Pass was closed in the morning … snow.
Day 4: 138.9 miles. Total Distance: 820.22
Highways Taken: US-395, CA-120, Big Oak Flat Rd., CA-140, CA-49
I slept pretty well, but Dave and Greg said they didn’t due to noise. Greg said “never again” to this KOA. I pointed out that a campground we stayed at in Oregon a few months prior was right next to I-5 and wasn’t as loud as this one. We went into Placerville and fueled up with a plan to ride to Sonora and get breakfast.
Dave tried to put air in his tires, but in true Murphy’s Law fashion, the inflator at the gas station didn’t work. Dave decided to wait until the end of the day and use Greg’s inflator (which was buried at the bottom of one of his panniers).
We left Placerville on Highway 49 and soon met up with a couple BMW riders. Dave and Greg took off, following and keeping pace with the BMWs. I kept them in sight, but soon they pulled away.
We stopped in Sonora and had breakfast at a place called Jeb’s Hill Country Cooking. The food was really good. I ordered a corned beef hash breakfast, but a few minutes after ordering I was told they had run out of corned beef hash. I opted for a Portuguese scramble — eggs, peppers, potatoes, and linguica — instead. We chatted with the waitress, whose boyfriend rode a GSX-R. I looked around the restaurant and found a picture of Half Dome that was very similar to one I had taken on a previous trip.
Next stop … Sonora Pass.
Sonora Pass is the second-highest highway pass in California at 9624 feet. The terrain gradually climbs in elevation leaving Sonora, and you’re presented with some great twisties as you climb. Once again, Dave and Greg took off ahead. I was having fun just doing my thing.
I soon came across the Donnell Vista Point and decided to stop in, since Dave and Greg were ahead of me and I wasn’t about to catch up. What’s a few minutes to take in a cool view and maybe get some pictures? Well, surprise surprise! I pulled into the vista point and Dave and Greg were there! How about that?! I walked around and took some pictures of Donnell Lake. Greg flipped off the camera when I turned it towards him.
We continued east and soon reached Dardenelle. It was odd that this area was relatively flat, especially knowing that a climb was ahead of us. I could see the mountains in the distance, and knew we still had to get over them. The scenery was amazing nonetheless — this large valley surrounded by tall mountains.
Soon we reached a sign indicating a 26 percent grade. Twenty-six percent! That’s 26 feet of rise for every 100 feet of horizontal travel. It works out to an angle of 14.57 degrees. If you draw it out on paper, it doesn’t look all that steep. Most roads that go uphill or downhill will have a grade of 6 or 8 percent. To make a comparison, a 6 percent grade is an angle of 3.43 degrees. These angles don’t actually sound very large, I’ll try to simplify to make it something to visualize the slope:
Let’s change the rules of baseball. Instead of a level field, you have to run up a ramp from home plate to first base when you hit the ball. It’s no longer running 90 feet, it’s now running 90 feet uphill. If you were to built that ramp from home plate to first base at a 6 percent grade, the end of your ramp would be about 5 feet 5 inches above first base. If you were to build the same ramp at a 26 percent grade, the end of the ramp would be 23 feet 5 inches above first base!
Sure, there are steeper roads out there in the world, but this was the steepest I’ve ever been on.
Now, thinking about steep roads and vehicles with manual transmissions, what is one thing you would not want to do on a 26 percent grade? Right. Stop. If you stop on such a steep road, you’re going to have a hell of a time going again. You have to feather the clutch just at the edge of the friction zone, while finding the right engine speed to give the bike enough power to move forward (upward?) and not stall. Oh … and you have to do it with a hand or foot on the brake so you don’t roll backward.
Well, somebody (not going to mention Greg’s name) decided to stop on this 26 percent section to take a picture. It was quite a feat getting going again after stopping to wait for him.
Despite all the steepness and windiness of the road, the views were nothing short of spectacular! From some spots you could see into the deep valley below, or into the Great Basin, which lies east of the pass. The downside is you can’t really look at the views as you’re riding. You need your entire attention on the road!
We all stopped at the top of the pass — 9624 feet, right on the Tuolumne-Mono County border. We took the obligatory pictures and walked around a bit to stretch our legs. I walked a little way up a nearby hill to get a view of the east side of the pass and the basin beyond it.
The Sierra Nevada is an interesting mountain range. And maybe writing about that will explain what happens after you crest Sonora Pass. The Sierra Nevada is for all intents and purposes made of a single block of rock known as the Sierra Batholith. Think of it as a door laying on its side with its hinge on the west. If you were to open that door and look at it, you’d see on the hinge side, the door gently rises, but there’s a steep drop at the end. This is pretty much how the Sierra Nevada formed. Many millions of years ago, the block of rock that makes up the Sierra Nevada started to lift on the east side. This continued on for millions of years, leaving a mountain range that gradually slopes up on the west side, but quickly drops on the east side.
Back at the bikes, it felt like being at the top of a roller coaster. There’s nowhere else to go, but down. And Sonora Pass did feel like a roller coaster. Looking east, the road makes a left-hand turn out of sight and you can see it’s already starting to go down. Greg told me this: All that elevation we gained going up the pass from Sonora we lose in 10 miles. While this is not entirely accurate, it gives you an idea of the topography of the Sierra Nevada. Sonora (which we’ll call the western end of the pass) has an elevation of 1785 feet, and the road from Sonora to the top of Sonora Pass climbs 7839 feet over about 65 miles. On the east side the road drops 2824 feet in 10 miles from the summit of Sonora Pass to the USMC Mountain Warfare Training Center. If one was to draw a straight line from the top of the pass to each end, the line from Sonora to the summit would have a slope of about 2.28 percent, while the line from the summit to the MWTC would be more than twice as steep at about 5.35 percent.
I’ll tell you, the road down from the pass did not seem as steep as the one going up. I’m not really sure how to explain this. Maybe it was cut differently.
Once through the pass, we stopped at the intersection of Highway 108 and US Highway 395 to figure out how much farther we’d go. Our tentative plan for the next day was to make it to Panamint Springs in Death Valley to visit “Star Wars Canyon.” We decided Mammoth Lakes, 71 miles south, would be a good stopping point where we could pick up provisions and find a place to camp. While discussing this, an officer from the California Highway Patrol stopped to chat with us. I’m pretty sure cops can sniff out their own quite easily. Via a strange coincidence, the officer was very familiar with where we were from because he used to work in Crescent City! It truly is a small world.
We slabbed it on Highway 395, passing through Bridgeport, Willow Springs, and Lee Vining. The winds picked up as we got closer to Mono Lake. The thing about the Sierras is all that air that goes up one side, has to come back down the other. Since the east side is so much steeper, the air falls much more quickly, leading to very strong winds on the east side. I’ll get more into the wind later. Crosswinds are not one of my favorite things to deal with when I ride, but I managed just fine.
We turned onto Highway 203 and headed west toward the town of Mammoth Lakes. I had been to Mammoth Lakes a few times as a child. My dad took my brother and I there to see Devil’s Postpile. Back then it was a small down with a few hotels and resorts and some shops here and there, as far as I can remember. I always remembered that it seemed weird that none of the restaurants (even the McDonald’s) were open for lunch and then closed until 5 pm.
I was surprised when I rolled into Mammoth Lakes to see that it has grown substantially. There seemed to be a lot more commercial properties, and high-end resorts everywhere you look. There was also a lot of traffic!
We stopped at Vons to pick up food for the night. For such a small town (The population is about 8000), this had to be one of the busiest grocery stores I had ever seen. Every checkstand was open with five to ten people waiting in each line. I would imagine that with the town population and the high number of people who come to visit the area for all its outdoor activities, this is a common thing at this store. Dave and I went in first, while Greg waited by the motorcycles to figure out where we’d camp. Somehow, despite Dave and I going in at the same time, I checked out and Greg went in and made his purchase all before Dave was able to get out. He must have found the slowest line.
Camp for the night was the Twin Lakes Campground. Adjacent to the campground were two lakes, so I can’t figure out how it got its name. In addition to the lakes, the campground sits at the southern base of Mammoth Mountain. All the campsites by the lake were taken, so we circled around looking for a suitable site, finding a large site in the northeastern corner with a great view of the mountain.
It was windy at the campground and the temperature quickly dropped when the sun went down. Dave and I gathered some fallen tree branches and got a fire going, which was nice, but then the winds kicked up and put it out. Dave was able to get the fire going again, but some of the wood was just not dry enough to stay lit. Greg and I walked out on a nearby trail to get a clear view of the sky. There was not a cloud in it! Due to the altitude, there was little air to hide any stars, and we were greeted with a thousands of pinpoints of white light and a wonderful view of the Milky Way. We even caught a glimpse of a few satellites passing overhead, and I saw a meteor streak through the sky. Soon, the cold got to be too much, and we decided to head back to camp.
We turned in early that night to get out of the cold. My tent did a good job of keeping the wind out, and my sleeping bag worked well to keep me warm.