Saturday, January 29, 2011

Night Hike and Family Campfire at the Headlands Institute

I want to eat some more s'mores! Photo by Frog Mom
As we dug with our fingers in the wet sand at night on Rodeo Beach, I didn't expect to feel quite that excited - and yet. After I raked out a handful of wet sand slowly, there it was in the shallow trench. A tiny speck of blue light that came on and off in the blink of an eye. I barely saw it before it disappeared. Bioluminescence it's called. I had never heard the term before but I'll never forget it. Glow-in-the-dark plankton - sort of.

Thanks to the clever family night hikes of the Headlands Insitute, I discovered new aspects of the Marin Headlands I had never thought about and I am so glad we went despite the early rain weather forecast. All it takes for a great night experience is a cool guide, kids willing to walk in the dark and the ability to use your senses against your better judgment.

Why the Headlands Institute?
I signed up for tonight's Headlands Institute program because my 2nd grader went to summer camp there last year and loved it. Impressed by the activities she told me about, I had no doubts an evening family program would be fun for our entire family. We pulled over in the parking lot of the Headlands Institute at 5.30pm and at the greeting table, Jen the naturalist looked at my daughter. She smiled and said, "I know you! Don't tell me your name." And sure enough she remembered her name. I was blown away. The naturalists sure get to know the kids during summer camps. My daughter was in heaven and this was the best start ever to an evening out.

Raccoon up in the tree. Photo by C.G.
 Creatures of the Night
Waiting for other families to trickle in, we had our first nocturnal animal encounter: a big fat bold raccoon. Aren't they all, though? Big and fat and bold. My husband pursued him around the building for a nice close-up portrait and eventually got what he wanted - up in a cypress tree.

All families checked in and at 5.45pm, we started heading out for our hike. The plan was to hike around the lagoon and be back for a roaring campfire and s'mores around 7.15pm.

The rules of the hike
It was dark by now and Steve, our naturalist, gave us one clear instruction. Tonight we would strive to complete the hike without any light. Of course, everybody had brought flashlights or headlamps or both. We put them away, switched them off and got accustomed to a limited nocturnal vision. Funny how we're so used to artificial light at night that we forget we don't necessarily need it. It was hard fighting our natural instinct to switch on a light - just any light.

Walking along Mitchell Road was challenging at first. When cars drove by, they blinded us temporarily and we had to wait for them to leave so we could find our bearings again. We heard fun stories about great barn owls nesting in cypress trees and about croaking frogs by the lagoon. We learned with mixed fascination and horror how female angler fish absorb their male mates after attaching them to their skin and slowly digesting them from the inside out. It was all fun and Steve knew how to explain difficult concepts to a young audience. Without us noticing, we finally descended the Coastal Trail down to Rodeo Beach. 
Rodeo Beach at night - really. Photo by Frog Mom

Noctiluca at Rodeo Beach
This was our bioluminescence experience. We asked Steve the optimum conditions to repeat the experience by ourselves and he said: low tide pulling out, no moon, preferably in the fall. Tonight we had the two first conditions checked and we weren't disappointed.

Twenty feet or so from the waves, we got on our knees and gently dug the sand. I took a photo of all of us, hoping that I'd be able to capture the white foam cresting the waves on the dark sand. I think the result is more of an "inspired by Soulages" photo as my husband says. If you look close enough, you'll see the shades of black I wanted to show and you may even discern the waves crashing hard closeby.

Dinoflagellate that exhibits bioluminescence.
Photo by Maria Antónia Sampayo, Instituto de Oceanografia,
Faculdade Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa

 However if you really want to know what we saw, I got this pretty photo of a photoluminescent plankton off Wikipedia. It was taken at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon in plankton-perfect conditions. Not at Rodeo Beach tonight. In the sand that's not what they looked like. I'll try to describe our experience.

Imagine being in a dark room and suddenly a tiny blue star flickers and goes off. Then another one. Then perhaps ten at once. You keep digging the wet sand, try your luck a foot closer to the edge of the water and several more appear, like a luminous curtain. It was just magical. My 5-year old was beyond herself. "Mom mom, it's like fairy dust." It was.

Adults and children had so much fun looking for the plankton that we reluctantly got up to continue the hike. Ah well, we'd be back another day. So we left and guided by Steve, avoided the decomposing carcass of a dead sea lion stranded on the shore. As soon as we were "in the wind", there was no mistaking the dead animal smell. "Eeuw!" went the kids. I took the opportunity to throw in a little life lesson to my 5-year old and explain this was the smell of dead animals. "It stinks" she said. Sure enough.

The second raccoon - or was it the same one?
Photo by Frog Mom
 Close to the Headlands Institute, we spotted two deer grazing on the grassy slopes between the buildings. "A mountain lion was seen reported last week on the ridge," said Steve. For being so close to a major metropolitan area, the Marin Headlands feels remarkably wild. We smelled the fire before we saw it and sat around the campfire to enjoy roasted marshmallows, Simon Says games and silly songs. Another raccoon came by, said hello and stayed in the bushes.

All in all, it was a great evening. Wish we could have stayed longer at the beach.

If you want to enjoy a fun family program out in nature, here are the details of the next family program at the Headlands Institute.

Life on the Edge at Point Bonita Lighthouse
  • Date: Sunday, February 13, 2011
  • Time: 9:30-11:30am
  • Description: Gather your family for a one-of-a-kind experience touring the historic Point Bonita Lighthouse. The 1/2 mile hike to the lighthouse is filled with stunning views and fun adventures through a tunnel and along a footbridge. Keep your eye out for seals sunbathing on the rocks below. Learn what it takes to be a lighthouse keeper and the importance that the lighthouse still provides for navigating ships. Meet at the trail head to the lighthouse at 9:30 am.
  • Cost: $10/person, pre-registration required
  • Accessibility: This is a moderate hike along unpaved trails. Carriers are recommended for children 4 and under. No strollers. Sorry, no dogs on this hike.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Perfect Family Campgrounds in the Bay Area

Camping starts with a tent big enough for your family. Photo by C.G.

My friend Erika emailed me on January 2nd, 2011: "My son has been asking to go camping. I'd like to reserve a weekend, but I'd like to get some advice from you first -- good places to camp, when and how to reserve. I know a lot of those things book up early, and we might be too late, since it's already the 2nd..." No Erika, it's not too late! Of course I'll email this blog posting to Erika first because otherwise, she might write back that it WAS too late.

Every year, I spend countless hours reviewing campgrounds, checking out new parts of California we'd like to explore and I've narrowed my campground search down to a science. From spring to late autumn, sometimes in the winter, our family camps as a means to discover new places on a budget. So here, I've selected my favorite picks for family camping in the Bay Area.

To enjoy a true nature adventure, I tend to go with at least state park standards (which because of budget cuts, sometimes means fewer amenities) but some county parks are amazingly well preserved and well-worthy of note. For that same reason, I haven't included any private campgrounds though I hear Costanoa is very pretty. KOA's and RV parks are fine by me but they lack the nature component (please prove me wrong if you can).

Today I'm covering San Francisco, the Santa Cruz mountains and the Wine Country. I haven't camped yet in the East Bay but I'm starting this year so I'll probably report back next year. As far as the Sierras, my favorite camping grounds, that's coming soon.

Before dusting off your tent (or investing in a 5-star family tent), you may want to check what I wrote about Camping with Children: the Basics. It will give you a few guidelines on gear and essentials. Ready? Read on.

San Francisco
The following three sites are so close to the city that I've included them in San Francisco. Perfect for first-timers, kids who get carsick quickly, or when you want to camp close to home but not in your backyard.

Rob Hill: this won't be your most memorable camping experience but it's smack in San Francisco, it was remodeled last year and you get to hear the fog signal under the Golden Gate Bridge. If transportation was better, it would almost be MUNI-accessible. Rob Hill is inside the Presidio, surrounded by eucalyptus trees and enjoys typical Presidio weather - meaning, unpredictable. Layer on! The season runs from April 1 to October 31 and you can reserve with a good ol' fax machine. Make this a group camping trip. Each site accomodates up to 30 pops and the campfire circle is beautiful.
Arriving at Angel Island. Photo by Frog Mom

Angel Island: ever heard of ferry camping? Take the ferry, lug your tent and gear to your site (backpack style or with bike trailers, wagons don't do too good on trails), pitch the tent and enjoy a sunset on San Francisco. Yes, Angel Island camping is classy but it comes at a price. The west side is infamously windy and if you forget your sausages, good luck finding a general store after dark! Read this urban camping experience at Angel Island and decide whether it's the thing for you. If you do, reserve yesterday already. Angel Island is easily in the top 5 of California campgrounds (well, I say so).

Kirby Cove: because it's right underneath the Golden Gate bridge, Kirby Cove is popular with San Francisco families. The proximity factor makes it a winner and you can dig your toes in the freezing water by the beach, before cracking up the campfire and s'mores. Camping under a bridge sounds weird, but you're still on national park land and the whole world envies your red bridge view. There. One tiny detail: if you don't like the sound of foghorns or fog, forget it. As one Yelper put it, "fog is manufactured right here."

Santa Cruz Mountains
Some of my favorite places to hang out, if only for the redwoods and morning fog. Within a two-hour drive range, there are campgrounds that are great for kids and easily accessible to everybody. You can basically come back from work on Friday night, enjoy the evening, pack up on Saturday morning, leave at lunch time and sip your afternoon high tea at the campsite. It should be called quick-camping.

Not all camping is created equal.
Photo by Frog Mom

Big Basin Redwoods: the grandmother of California state parks holds a special place in my heart. After a sluggish windy road, you finally reach a majestic grove of redwoods. Stop in awe and thank them for being the inspiration of all California state parks in 1902. Nothing less. Kids will love the self-guided Redwood Trail and ranger programs. If you need to tire them, hike to the Maddock Cabin site or Sempervirens Falls, they're cool. If they're able to hike to Berry Creek Falls, they're not kids anymore. As far as camping, expect an intimate 146 family camp sites and four group sites at Big Basin. The place is huge! But nice. However the big draw is the tent cabins, sort of the Santa Cruz Camp Curry, mesh and metal structures on a raised wooden platforms. No tent to pitch = less hassle.

Butano: I love Butano for the creek where kids can build forts and fairy houses, and for the lush redwood forest. Though there's quite a bit of up-and-down going on when hiking, it's a nice park where campsites are peppered below tall redwoods and it's not so big that you'll feel in a zoo. Due to budget restrictions, this campground is closed until March 30, 2011. More privacy for overwintering newts! 

Memorial Park: a park with as swimming hole in La Honda? and showers and naturalist programs? Sign me up anytime. Memorial Park feature top nature trails along the headwaters of Pescadero Creek that make for great family excursions. Sites are nicely spaced so you won't feel like you're pitching your tent on any of your 156 neighbors. Reserve early, another popular pick.

Roaring Camp's steam engine in the Santa
Cruz mountains. Photo by C.G.
Henry Cowell Redwoods: two gigantic draws for kids here. First, the redwood trail and the creek that runs through the park with shallow swim spots. Second, Roaring Camp! I know this has got nothing to do with nature, but the sheer sight of steam engines puffing up the mountains or down to the Santa Cruz boardwalk gives me the chills. What kid doesn't like trains? Check out their special events, they have fun ones. If you need to look at a map, you can walk from the Henry Cowell Redwoods ranger station to Roaring Camp and vice versa. It's that close. As far as camping, the sites are OK but not outstanding and there's no alcohol allowed. This season, the campground reopens on May 1st, 2011. Read the Frog Mom report.

Mt Madonna: One word to attract them all - yurts! Watch for the invasion of more Mongolian dwellings in the Santas Clara county parks as they're installing more soon. Now that Big Sur's Treebones Resort shares the Bay Area yurt market with Mt Madonna, Mt Madonna has become a prized destination and you'll have to wake up early to live the Central Asian nomad life. Note a minimum of 2 nights for yurts on weekends. The park would still be prized without yurts, mind you. Redwood trees, great views on the mountains from the trails, a herd of white fallow deer on the decline, ruins of a big estate, and a Buddhist monastery that serves vegetarian food nearby - Mt Madonna has a lot going on.

Marin County
I'm always struck by how green Marin is. No wonder they've got most of the dairy ranches over there. And nature like you wouldn't believe. Marin's great. Just cross the bridge, as they say in Sausalito.

Samuel P. Taylor: the only time I camped at Samuel P. Taylor, it rained all night and my tent was badly pitched on a slope. Despite the conditions, I really enjoyed Samuel P. Taylor. With hot showers and beautiful redwoods, the campground is close to paved trails which makes it ideal for kids on bikes. Papermill Creek runs in the lower part of the campground. Though it's pretty cold for complete dips, the trail that runs along the creek is easy ands flat. Speaking of cold, the park is close to the coast and mostly shaded. Expect fresh nights and layer up!

Steep Ravine Cabins: perched on top of rocky bluffs surrounded by crashing waves, the historic and rustic cabins at Steep Ravine are notoriously hard to get. Well, there's only 10 of them so it's understandable. Expect big windows on the Pacific Ocean,  waves rocking you to sleep and the comfort of your hideaway on the coast. Fog will be invited too so gear up.

Relax, you're out of the city. Photo by C.G.
 Point Reyes, Coast Camp: right by the beach at the edge of the Point Reyes peninsula, isn't that camp a dream? Coast Camp is a popular campground with sheltered sites, a white sandy beach 5 minutes away, and incredible views. The hitch? Backpacking only. You cannot drive your big car and unload in the parking lot. You'll need to carry everything. Fortunately, the hike is really easy. It's only 2.7 flat miles from the trailhead - even strollers do it! P.S. Coast = fog, let's be clear on that. Read what Frog Mom has to say about Backpacking with Young Children. For a true backpacking experience, Wildcat campground at Point Reyes is 5.6 miles from the Palomarin trailhead but once you're there, it's breathtaking. Dark sandy beach, irridescent waves crashing on the beach under the moon light, and flat sites for comfy nights.

Wine Country
Ah, now we're talking. A tourism opportunity? Fortunately for the kids, there's more than wine in the northern wine valleys. Redwoods, creeks, lakes, mills or observatories are some of the perks of camping in Sonoma or Napa.

Hendy Woods: Anderson Valley, how I enjoy driving up and down this valley where apples still steal the show to grapes - and where the yearly county fair features shepherd dog trials and a real rodeo. So there, I love the ruralness of Anderson Valley and Hendy Woods State park is part of it. I've tried both the rustic cabins and the tent sites and my votes goes to the latter. Rustic cabins are nice and feel like tree houses but awfully noisy when you wrestle with your sleeping bag at night. A short hike will take you to the Navarro River where swimming and wading are popular activities in the summer. Read the Frog Mom reports here and here.

Bothe-Napa Valley: pretty much the only campground of the Napa valley so no need to be picky. Actually Bothe-Napa Valley offers some of the nicest hikes I know in that area and for kids, two major attractions. In the park there is a spring-fed swimming pool - which can become quite crowded on July 4th, I learned that last year. On the other side of the park a few miles down the road, you will find a working historic mill where kids can make their own flour. Read the Frog Mom report.

Hanging out at Bothe-Napa. Photo by Frog Mom
 Sugarloaf Ridge: Sugarloaf Ridge is a true gem. Arranged in two semi-circles around big oval meadows, the campground just lends itself to late afternoon soccer games or morning gazing at the surrounding hills. Sugarloaf Ridge also features small wading spots along the creek, an observatory, a nature hike (whose description has been lost) and a planet hike. If your kids are super-kids, bring them up to the top of Bald Mountain to see the Bay Area from Sonoma. It gets hot during the day so pack plenty of water. I did a spectacular night hike on July 4th to Bald Mountain last year. You can read a bit about night hikes on Frog Mom here.

Spring Lake: in Santa Rosa, Spring Lake is a favorite family hangout because of the swimming lagoon where you can swim  (with the ducks), the lake where you can rent paddleboats and burn off some energy, the paved paths that surround the lake and where you can ride your bike or push your stroller. Largely though, folks like that real pretty and clean, and that it's next to Howarth Park where a killer play area features a Western town, a prehistoric area, a Native village, a Rancho, a climbing wall and a train station. This isn't exactly backcountry, but the kids won't care.

Well, that covers a little and hopefully it's inspiring enough that you stopped reading the posting halfway through to start your reservations. Don't hesitate to shoot me questions or feedback in the comments.

For tips on camping, check my articles:
Don't forget the liquid soap! Photo by Frog Mom

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Elephant Seal Season at Ano Nuevo State Reserve

Face off. Males fighting. Photo by C.G.
Each year from December to April, crowds flock to Ano Nuevo State Reserve south of Pescadero to catch a glimpse of the world's best deep water divers: elephant seals. Weighing in at 6,000 lbs a pop for alpha males, 60 lbs for newborn pups, these mighty swimmers mostly live underwater - up to 90% of the time. Each winter, colonies of thousands of elephants travel from Alaska to the California coast and set up camp on land at Ano Nuevo for romantic courtship, beach fights and baby showers. If you want to see this seasonal treat, there's only one way: reserve a guided walk now. My brother's family and us took our kids (10 months, 2.5 years, 5 years, 7 years) in late December and without exception, they all loved it. Come on, big seals flopping on the beach?

Point Ano Nuevo. Photo by C.G.
La Punta de Ano Nuevo was named on January 3rd, 1603 by Father Antonio de la Ascension, chaplain for the Spanish maritime explorer Don Sebastian Vizcaino. Comissioned to map Alta Calfornia by the Spanish Viceroy of Mexico, Vizcaino sailed a crew of 130 men on 3 ships and recorded ecological features from the San Diego bay up to Oregon. This is how Ano Nuevo got its name - one of the oldest place names in Northern California. Had Vizcaino's expedition landed that day, they would not have found any elephant seals on the beach. Not a single one. Grizzly bears were the kings of California on land then. Elephant seal pups would have been no match for the fierce bears. Surprisingly, elephant seals only started appearing at Ano Nuevo in the early 1970s. Almost 40 years later, the colony has grown from a few hundred to 6,000 animals in the park by early February each year.

The guided walk

Going to see the elephant seals. Photo by C.G.
As we arrived at Ano Nuevo's visitor center, we checked in with the rangers and received a trail map. Our group had already started but the ranger called the docent on duty we'd be joining 10 minutes later. We followed the easy sandy trail and arrived at the staging station, where seven people were observing marine mammal skulls. We introduced ourselves to the ranger. There were two other families that day, two people from San Francisco and their visiting relatives from South Africa with two tweens.

Immediately, ranger Phil included us in the group and we started off towards the sand dunes. The sand dunes is where the elephants seals can be seen. Ranger Phil was amazing with the kids, involving them in the elephant seal explanations and getting the message across in words they understood. I was impressed. We walked past the gate that indicates the restricted zone and past the "Wild Elephant Seals - stay back 25 feet" sign. "This must be the most photographed sign of California!" joked the ranger. Ha! We all took turns to photograph ourselves in front of it and proved his point.

Gee, what a snout! Photo by C.G.

The 25-feet part is for real, ranger Phil explained. Though enormous and gelatinous, elephant seals can be fast animals and if you are in the way of the object of their desire, you'll end up as beach burger. His advice? Buddy up with people around you and don't let kids get close. Parents, it's not OK to ask a toddler to pose in front of a 5-ton wild animal. Just sayin'.

We left the dirt trail to continue up the sand dunes, between thickets of low willow and lupine bushes. Brown pelicans flew overhead, out to the ocean. Soon we met ranger Chick stationed between two dunes. Twenty feet away, we saw our first elephant seal, a sleepy sluggish guy completely inland. "He has probably been kicked off the beach by another male," explained ranger Chuck. A deep gurggly sound came from the beach. "That's the male threat call," explained ranger Phil. As in: get-out-of-my-way threat call. You can listen to a recorded male northern elephant seal call here, it could remind you of your snoring grand-dad.

Elephant seal swimming off Ano Nuevo. Photo by C.G.

The threat call completely got our attention. Was it the anticipation before an action scene? The realization that we were entering a boxing ring? Whichever it is, we all moved more cautiously and surveyed every single bush as if they were about to jump at us. The route to the southern dunes was blocked by two elephant seals on the move so we headed to the northern observation platform first.

Ranger Phil was just explaining how elephant seals can touch their nose with their tail bending backwards when we reached the top of the dune and took in Ano Nuevo Beach. What a sight!

Coyote grocery-shopping on the beach. Photo by C.G.
 Though we were still early in the season, there were elephant seals lying on the beach, others wading in the water, a pup giving us the cute look. Cameras went crazy.

To top it off, a sorry-looking coyote crossed the beach looking for dead pups to eat. It was Discovery Channel Central here! Poor thing I thought about the coyote. Looking miserable and hunting for dead food to fatten up? I thought coyotes were predators, not scavengers.

Ano Nuevo Beach. Photo by C.G.
Tough life yes, but not as tough as the life of northern male elephant seals around us. For most of them, Ano Nuevo is a one-way ticket from the Aleutian islands. Between the great white sharks and killer whales in the water, heat exhaustion and male fights on the beach, many of the alpha males never return.

In sharp contrast, females live 7 years older and pick the male of their choosing. They are also the best divers, having been recorded 30 to 40 minutes a mile deep. But as far as moms, they aren't very caring. After pups are born, females nurse them 28 days on the beach and one foggy morning, they swim away and it's "Ciao baby! Time to go get your food." I guess it takes that to toughen them up and get them ready for the hard knock life ahead of them but still... 28 days isn't much of a pampered childhood.

Eventually we made our way to the southern observation platform, narrowly avoiding being blocked off by another Jabba the Hut contender, and trailed back to the visitor center. For a real life experience, check out this video of our trip edited by my brother Lionel (an awesome web designer and designated videocam-man on family trips).

To go to Ano Nuevo during the elephant seal season
  • Guided Public Walks are offered December 15 through March 31 and can be booked 56 days in advance and no later than one day before arrival.
  • Ano Nuevo Public Seal Walks can be booked online or over the phone at 650-879-2033.
  • The price for the walk is $7.00 per person. Children 3 and under are free, and do not need a ticket.
  • Walks last about 2.5 hours, and consist of a moderately strenuous 3 mile hike over sand and sloping terrain.
  • No pets are allowed.
  • Leave a picnic in your car so you can eat your lunch at the picnic tables before or after the walk.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Camping and hiking at Saddleback Butte State Park in the winter

Rise and shine! Glam camping at Saddleback Butte. Photo by Frog Mom

When I take my family camping, I want the experience to be unforgettable - even if it means bloody 70mph winds in the desert, freezing temps, rainy nights and roadside campgrounds. Now my charming brother, who just visited with his wife and two toddlers, will argue that I didn't know what I was doing; that I could have taken everybody nicely to the Yosemite in heated lodge rooms; that sunny beaches is what California is all about. But hey, where's the fun in doing what everybody else is doing? 
Happy rainy breakfast! Photo by C.G.

Just when we could have been cozy warm in national parks, I opted for a remote desert whose main claim to fame is a musical road designed for a Honda commercial. My husband was dying to go to the desert, the park website advertised "The desert experience - Like nothing else!" and Tom Stienstras's camping book rated the campground an 8. So we went. When we pitched our tent at Saddleback Butte State Park in Lancaster in the dark hours of December 27th, 2010, I knew I had achieved "unforgettable" by the look in my brother's eyes - and his "You really want us to camp in a parking lot?"

At first, Saddleback Butte was a tough sell. We had four kids with us, ranging from 10 months to 7 years and the weather forecast for the next day was "Rainy. Strong winds in the evening. High 20s at night." Cars were zooming by on 170th Street East, 100 feet from us. The campground was desert apart from a lone trailer. In the dark at dinnertime, we pitched the tents anyway. A sand campsite is a double-edged sword though. Stakes go in like butter but at 3am when the fly is flapping madly against the tent, you have to get up (or send your other half) to check all stakes again and collect whatever kitchen equipment is playing kite. 
Good news: humans allowed. Photo by Frog Mom

The next morning, we lit a fire to brighten the spirits and warm up but it started drizzling so we had to take cover away from the fire. Too bad, so sad my girls said. Drizzle turned to rain and my brother climbed on top of the sun shelter to fix a tarp so we could have breakfast in dry surroundings. Crafty but not enough for one of the two benches. "Let's go for a hike!" my husband and I then gleefully suggested. We'd driven 7 hours down I-5, easily the most boring highway in California, so we had better enjoy the park.

An hour later, we found the Saddleback Butte Peak Trail (there's only one trail from the campground so no pain here) and off we were. Saddleback Butte is known as the closest Joshua Tree experience you'll get out of Joshua Tree National Park proper. Indeed, Joshua trees were scattered in the campground (we'd noticed that the previous night) and were the only vegetation higher than us. It was cool and I loved their prickly pretzel shapes. However the peak ended up being the best feature in the park albeit a total wind magnet.

Joshua tree at Saddleback Butte. Photo by C.G.
To give you an idea, Lancaster is located in Antelope Valley, west of the Mojave Desert. There's a reason sun shelters in the campground double up as wind breakers. If not for the 3,651 feet Saddleback Butte sticking out, you'd be looking at a regular high desert: relatively flat, endless, and dry. Winds slam at you like they're coming straight out from the ocean. Naturally, winds fight their way up the mountain and at the top, it's like standing behind ten plane turbines at full power. But what a view! Kuddos to the California parks who were well-inspired to preserve Saddleback Butte back in the 1960s - and preserve a breathtaking bird's eye view on the desert.

Climbing in the wind. Photo by Frog Mom
Barely 2-miles long, the way to the peak is easy on the sand and challenging on the rocks. That means we had a grand old lazy time for 1.5 miles and then broke out total quads power for the last 0.5 mile. Climbing was not the biggest concern though. The wind was. We had to hold hands with the little ones so they wouldn't get toppled over by windy gusts on rocky patches. I even had to check my footing as I was carrying my 2-year old nephew and didn't want to offer him a free roller-coaster ride.

I did some research since and wasn't surprised to find that super wind farms are making their way to the Mojave Desert. It seems to be the biggest weather phenomenon in the area. I wonder how the pilots at the nearby Edwards Air Force Base deal with that. Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention that. We heard the army planes all night. Yet another perk of staying at Saddleback Butte State Park: it's aligned with the landing field  of Edwards AFB. It totally adds to the "I'm in a remote location" feel. These grey planes fly low and loud like big fat bumblebees.

Picnic time is always good news. Photo by the camera's timer!

Finally we summited. It's a grand word for a short hike but it was still called a peak and I don't summit every day so it feels good to say it. We used our hands to get through the last rocky stretch to the top, immortalized the rocks from up there, and moved away from the windy situation. Lunch time was dangerously close and we were carrying one backpack worth of food so we took the next logical step. We took cover from the wind on the other side of the peak and whipped up sandwiches with rye bread from that Moscow and Tbilisi bakery store at 20th and Geary and Ikea gravlax (please excuse extreme weakness at Ikea's frozen food section). The result wasn't bad. Only drawback: after my husband unwrapped the salmon, his hands smelled like fish all day. Views were grand, the wind didn't blow in our face, and my brother didn't mention the parking lot except to show my nephew that "it is really far, can you see it?" It did look really far.
Watch this kids! Photo by Frog Mom

On the way down, my nephew didn't like the wind gusts at all so my brother and his wife jogged down the trail with the kids, their own way to experience slow living out in the desert. Once on the sand, spirits brightened up and we played around with tumbleweeds whenever possible. How could we not? They're so big and light and they tumble so well. It's terribly tempting.

Back at the campground, we did the unthinkable. We chickened out. We packed up to go sleep in a warm hotel room that night. True to my motto, it was unforgettable. It was the Fort Tejon Holiday Inn Express right on I-5. Grand old view on the highway, surrounded by two gas stations. Now it really felt like sleeping in a parking lot, except with central heating. Way to go for roadside lodging!

Don't let that deter you from going to Saddleback Butte State Park. When the weather's warmer, it'll be great. Just know a few things before going so you're not caught totally unaware:
  • Be ready for fierce winds. It's a fact of desert life.
  • Do drive on the musical road, it's a riot. At 55mph you hear the first minute of the William Tell overture (or Lone Ranger theme). You can do it several times without any shame and kids love it.
  • Go in April or May and enjoy the amazing poppy-covered hills of Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve.
  • Don't expect double espressos at every corner cafe. This isn't Santa Cruz.
  • If tumbleweeds get stuck under your car, they can stay there long. It's OK to avoid them on the freeway.
Have fun, it will be unforgettable!