December 13, 2012

A Western Winter Wonderland

It was bittersweet driving away from California a few weeks ago as my husband and I embarked on a 4,000 mile road trip to Chicago where we'll wait out our time until we leave the states for our round the world trip in January. California has been my home for almost five years and I immediately fell in love with it and the adventures it had to offer.

Sitting in Chicago now during the winter months has me thinking a lot about the fun winter activities in California. Not only could we continue our hiking and wine tasting getaways, but we could easily get to the mountains to ski and snowshoe. We had it so good!

After exploring a bit more of California and the west on our road trip, I wanted to share some thoughts on spending the winter out west and the four things I'd try to incorporate into the season if I were still there.

Death Valley

Death Valley's Zabriskie Point
One of the greatest highlights of our road trip was spending a few nights camping in Death Valley National Park. Any month outside of summer seems to be the right time to visit this expansive park. For winter fun that doesn't include snow, Death Valley is a great option. It has miles and miles of hiking and exploration along with beautiful vistas from all parts of the park.

White Sands National Monument

White Sands expansive dunes

A trip to White Sands in Southeastern New Mexico is definitely off the beaten path for most westerners, but so worth the journey.  A desert of sparkling white sand dunes and crystal blue skies await visitors to this hidden gem in the National Park Service system. Camping may be a little chilly here at night during the winter months so it's probably best paired with a trip to another destination in beautiful New Mexico.

Mammoth Mountain

Minaret Vista
A 45-minute flight from San Francisco lands you at Mammoth Mountain on the eastern side of the Sierras.  At a higher elevation than the Lake Tahoe mountains, Mammoth often gets more snowfall and is a skiers/snowshoers paradise. Mammoth is also home to Mammoth Brewing Company, a fun and lively place to taste some good brews.

Yosemite National Park

Snow shoeing behind Tenaya Lodge
It is no secret that Yosemite is one of my favorite places on earth. We were just there with our nieces and nephew and one of them asked me my favorite time to be in the park. Without hesitation I said the winter. The fresh, clean snow and fewer crowds draws me back each season. The park looks so different covered in a layer of white and quickly makes you want to strap on a pair of snow shoes and go exploring.

If you live in California, please know how lucky you are to have so much nearby...the rest of us are jealous!

October 27, 2012

Moving on to Conquer the Everyday...Not Just Weekends!

As some of you may know, Dave and I have had a dream of traveling the world for many years. It's finally becoming a reality!  We start our official itinerary in January 2013 and have a new blog to document our travels: Do What You Want Trips. We're taking our "do what you want" philosophy global and our fun will no longer be limited to the weekends!

Head on over to the new site and check it out. It's just getting going so expect to see more posts as our planning kicks into high gear.

Before we leave, I have a mission of finishing all my planned Bay Area posts on this site.  We'll see what I can accomplish in the next few weeks.  I hope you'll continue to follow our journey around the world and also continue using this site to plan your weekend adventures!

October 10, 2012

Hiking, Biking and Beer Drinking in Lake Tahoe

October is my birthday month and as an indecisive Libra, I choose to celebrate the entire month as opposed to coming up with one great adventure on my actual birthday.  Last weekend marked our second annual Lake Tahoe trip for my big day and like last time I left feeling incredibly refreshed and ready to tackle another year.

While it wasn't a goal at the outset, the trip was an efficient Tahoe weekend with limited back tracking and maximum time around the lake - fitting in two hikes, a bike ride and a picnic on the beach.  My year is off to a good start.

First Stop: Heading into Tahoe with a Hike near Donner Lake

Sweet relief washes over us as we exit Highway 80 at Donner Pass Road. Leaving the semi-trucks and crazy drivers behind, we coast along the Sugar Bowl ski area in search of the Pacific Crest Trail. Turning in at the Sugar Bowl Academy, we see the sign for the PCT and follow the road down to the parking area. We're planning a moderate, altitude-acclimating 4.6 mile round trip hike to the top of Mt. Judah for 360 views.

It's our second hike on the PCT and I officially sanction us "section hikers" as we start walking up the rocky switchbacks. After this hike is over, we'll only have 2,645 more miles to go!

Fall leaves along the PCT near Donner Lake
The trail stays on the PCT for the first 2 miles and then veers left to connect with the Mt. Judah loop trail. I blame my slowness on the altitude and take ample breaks to look around the barren ski mountain.  Empty, stopped chairlifts hang above us and signs marking ski trails line the distance. In a couple of months, skiers and snowboarders will be flying down the exact spot where I'm standing.

We make the final push up to the top doing our best to lean into the wind and soon find ourselves rewarded with a fantastic lunch spot and viewpoint. Mt. Judah delivers.

View looking west from the top of Mt. Judah
Second Stop: Car(e) Free in North Lake

We're staying at the gorgeous Resort at Squaw Creek thanks to their seasonal specials (no way we could afford it in the winter). We decide to ditch the car for the day and rent bikes to take a stroll along the Truckee River - a resort employee-proclaimed "most amazing bike path in the world".

Unfortunately, my rented bike leaves me longing for my own bike which is sitting at home in the garage with a flat tire. Dropped chains and all though, we pedal onward heading into Tahoe City along what truly is a beautiful bike path.

Truckee River Bike Path near Tahoe City
We make it the five miles to Tahoe City and continue south along the path. A few minutes into the ride, we're rewarded with incredible lake views. Lake Tahoe is a quintessential mountain lake - crystal blue water sharply contrasted by the rising mountains surrounding its shores. We reach Sunnyside Resort on the West Shore just in time for lunch on their patio overlooking the lake.

The bike path leads us back through Tahoe City where we stop for the second year at the town's local Oktoberfest celebration. Tahoe Mountain Brewing Company has set up shop in the center of town and would also make a great stop during a ride.

Feeling warm from the sun and a few pale ale's, we head back to Squaw Valley as the sun starts to dip in the sky. The magic hour in the mountains is nothing short of extraordinary.

Final stretch back to Squaw
Third Stop: Climbing Higher for Even Better Views

On Sunday, we wake up early to miss the breakfast crowd at Fire Sign Cafe on the West Shore. With full bellies of their homemade cinnamon coffee cake, we hit the road in search of the Ellis Peak trailhead. The year before, we couldn't make it the seven miles up Barker Pass Road to the trail because of snow. We feel lucky this year that the snow has held off for one more weekend and we cruise on up to the dirt road parking area.

We've got six miles ahead of us this morning which will get us to 8,700 feet. I curse the altitude and my burning quads as we climb the first 800 feet. The trail is steep and rocky - a never ending incline until we reach the first major vista. The surrounding mountains look bare with no snow, but majestic as they loom over the landscape. The lake peeks through to the east and we continue on.

At the junction for Ellis Peak and Ellis Lake, we continue to the peak for one additional brutal climb to the top. We mistake the first path we see for the peak and climb the smaller of the two ridges. We quickly notice our error and I clumsily stumble down the rocks and make my way on a real trail to finally reach the top of Ellis Peak.

Lake Tahoe from Ellis Peak
Pictures do no justice to the serenity and beauty below. I feel extremely close to the sun and still present moon as I breathe deep.

A little crooked self portrait at the top of Ellis Peak
After we make it back down the mountain, we decide to continue around the lake to find a picnic area and exit Lake Tahoe near South Lake.

Last Stop: Baldwin Beach Picnic

Driving south, we have to trust our instincts in finding a good picnic spot. With no cell phone service or a map, we randomly choose Baldwin Beach. It ends up being the ideal capstone of an already great trip.

The beach is deserted except for a few small groups and we have a picnic area to ourselves. The $7 entrance fee seems a small price to pay for this peacefulness.

Baldwin Beach near Emerald Bay
Yes, my year is starting off really well.

If you go:

  • Mt. Judah - the hiking directions on Weekend Sherpa are spot on and make the hike mostly a loop. 
  • Resort at Squaw Creek - the resort still has Fall specials. This weekend (October 12-14) is the last weekend of their Harvest Festival. Friday night includes a free beer tasting and reception in the lobby.
  • Bike rentals / Truckee River trail - if renting a bike, get one with gears. You'll want them, I promise! You can rent bikes in the village at  Squaw or at bike shops in Tahoe City if you're not staying at a resort.
  • Ellis Peak - the trail is off Blackwood Canyon / Barker Pass Road, which is an unmarked road along Highway 89. No need to check out Ellis Lake, the peak steals the show.
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