Shenandoah Valley wineries, gold rush history make Sierra foothills the place to visit!

View of Shenandoah Valley vineyards from Karmere Winery.

Our out-of-town guests Janet and Patricia sample wines at Karmere Winery’s tasting room, done in French chateau style.
Band entertains at Helwig Winery in the Shenandoah Valley.
Fiddletown’s Community Center features a giant fiddle over the doorway.
The old Imperial Hotel in Amador City also boasts a fine restaurant.
Old Wells Fargo stagecoach thunders down Main Street of Sutter Creek.

Shenandoah Valley wineries, gold rush history make Sierra foothills the place to visit this fall!

What do Plymouth, Amador City, Sutter Creek and the Shenandoah Valley in the Sierra foothills have in common? The answer is a heavy dose of early California and Gold Rush history, fine wines and stunning scenery – all linked by a scenic stretch of California Highway 49. These destinations, only an hour to 90 minutes from Stockton, offer all that plus changing fall colors of the Sierra as we head into late summer/early fall.

Let’s start with the most distant point, the Shenandoah Valley in Amador County, positioned at 1,200 to almost 3,000 feet above sea level, and offering those changing seasonal colors. The valley, composed of granite and volcanic soils, quickly became a growing wine-producing area during the California gold rush in the 1850s.

The Shenandoah now hosts over 40 wineries; many of them also feature wine tasting rooms in surrounding cities like Plymouth, Amador City and Sutter Creek. Our favorites in the valley include Helwig Winery, offering industrial-chic buildings on a picturesque hilltop. With valley-wide views and live music on Fridays and Saturdays, it’s a favorite first stop. Another is Karmere Winery, featuring an elegant French-château tasting room and offering the history of local growers who introduced Spanish, Italian and Rhône varietals to the foothills, resulting in renowned Sangiovese, Barbera, Tempranillo, Viognier and Syrah wines.

Turley vineyards offers single-vineyard Zinfandels and Petit Syrahs in a lovely setting accentuated by period-correct antiques. Dobra Zemlja Winery produces robust Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Barbera and Zinfandel wines – and features the valley’s first wine cave, a cooling 56 degrees, entered through a 19th century barn. Story Winery is intimate and offers inspiring views and vineyards dating to the 1890s, featuring Zinfandel, Mission, Barbera, Sangiovese and Primitivo grapes.

Plymouth, located on Highway 49 on the southwestern edge of the Shenandoah Valley, is growing in stature and offers historic buildings and shops along its compact Main Street. Of special note is the regionally-renowned restaurant, Taste, and recently opened boutique 16-room hotel next-door, Rest. We’ve sampled Taste several times, finding it memorable. Friends recently stayed at Rest, enjoying its afternoon wine-tastings and morning breakfasts.

Though no tasting rooms grace Fiddletown, this is one of our favorite hidden-gems of California gold rush repute. Located just a few miles from Plymouth and the Shenandoah Valley, take Fiddletown Road to the  several-block remainder of the once bustling downtown to see the old (name needed) blacksmith shop dating to 1859, the Fiddletown Community Center with giant old-time fiddle standing tall over the entrance, two red-brick buildings that housed historic Chinese retailers, and an 1850 rammed-earth adobe building housing the apothecary of Dr. Yee. Fiddletown, with no tasting rooms nor restaurants, thankfully offers a gem of a candy/confection store, Brown’s English Toffee, with a host of tempting sweets.

If you wondered about Fiddletown’s name, in the 1860s and 70s, it was a gold rush boomtown, but operated only when the seasonal creeks flowed. During the warm summer and fall months, when the creeks ran dry and placer mining could not be accomplished, miners took time off and just “fiddled around” – hence, the town’s quaint name.

Heading southeast on Highway 49, Amador City is one of the earliest gold rush boom towns and preserves much of its history.   A nicely-outlined historic walking tour offers glimpses of life in the 1850-60s era, and many of the town’s oldest buildings and mining sites are preserved.  As one of California’s smallest incorporated cities, it offers a compact footprint that is fun to walk and photograph!

Gold was first discovered in nearby Drytown in 1850, and soon mining claims and mines cropped up along Amador Creek; Amador City soon grew to thousands of miners, shopkeepers and restaurants/saloon workers.  In 1853, the Keystone Mine was formed by consolidating several smaller claims and produced over $25 million in gold; soon the main shaft would reach some 2,600 feet into the Sierra hillsides. Today the city boasts many historic buildings now home to overnight accommodations, boutiques, antique stores, a soda fountain, upscale bakery and dining options.

Just a few miles further on the old stretch of highway 49, you reach the largest of nearby gold rush towns, Sutter Creek. Walk the 10 block stretch of Main Street featuring the Hotel Sutter, the oldest continuously operating hotel in the state and a fine place for lunch or dinner. Other noteworthy eateries include Cavana’s Bar and Grill with good pub food and a classy oak bar and, around the corner, Gold Dust Pizza for fun family dining.

Main Street features several classy bed-and-breakfasts, cute shops and restaurants interspersed with more than a dozen wine tasting rooms. The old Sutter Creek Theatre, open most weekends with live entertainment and the historic Knight Foundry, recently reopened for Saturday tours, make Sutter Creek a special stop along the Gold Rush Highway, Hwy. 49. The Knight Foundary, the only water-powered foundry in the US, was in continuous operation since 1873 until just a few years ago. Sam Knight designed the water wheel which was used world-wide, powering early hydroelectric plants throughout California, Utah and Oregon.

For more information, Amadorwine.com to plan your wine tour; TourAmador.com for insight into activities, dining and lodging.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com; follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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Upgrading from tent or car-camping to a new or classic travel trailer

Classic lines of a new T@B trailer, owned by our friends the Lewises, at Redwood National Park.

A sleek Casita trailer, at Bryce Canyon National Park.
A-liner Ranger trailer, a hard-sided pop-up, at Death Valley National Park.
Classy old Shasta trailer, shot at Fallen Leaf Lake, CA.
Vintage Airstream trailer and its equally classy tow vehicle, Fallen Leaf Lake, near South Lake Tahoe.
Author’s ’64 Serro Scotty trailer with Yosemite Falls in background.

Is it time to upgrade from tent or car-camping to a new or classic travel trailer?

The classic silver Airstream, pulled by an equally gorgeous 50’s woodie wagon, rolls through the Fallen Leaf Lake campground, and nearby campers ogle as the polished duo make their way to a campsite near ours. We’ll learn later the owner is from the Bay Area and has lovingly rebuilt both the trailer and tow vehicle some 10 years earlier.

Over the last dozen years, we have studied both new and classic small travel trailers, those under 20 feet in length. Today’s retiring baby boomers and smaller families have discovered small trailers as an alternative to tent camping. For us baby-boomers now retiring, many have aged out of the desire to set up a tent and sleep on the ground. A side benefit, our little trailer is packed, ready to go and stored beside our garage – it’s easy, quick to “hit the road”!

Let’s consider why a small trailer, then we’ll share some of the options. Small trailers share special qualities; they’re easy to maneuver into tight campsites (many national park and national forest campgrounds, built many years ago, don’t accommodate today’s giant fifth-wheel trailers, often approaching 40 feet in length). Small trailers are easy to store (some even fit in your garage) and can be towed with many four-cylinder and six-cylinder autos/SUVs, yielding good gas mileage.

Several additional pluses come with small, retro travel trailers; they’re cool, and if purchased properly, they will retain much of their value over the years – they won’t depreciate as quickly as do the boxy, non-descript trailers that proliferate in campgrounds. Finally, these small trailers are hard-sided campers – your spouse will no longer worry about bears tearing through a tent.

Classic campers, generally those built in the 1950s to the 1970s, offer much of the same attributes, plus, they’re even cooler than retro trailers. Bought wisely and well-maintained, many of these classic trailers actually will appreciate, should you later desire to sell them.

For a twosome, or a family with several kids, modern retro and classic trailers can be found in the range of 13 to 20 feet, with room for up to four, even five.

Here’s a recap of our favorite new trailers, classically-styled. They include the A-liner, T@B, Casita and R-pod – offering standup room, sleeping for 2-5, inside cooking/eating facilities, and often a bathroom and/or shower.

Downside: they’re more expensive, in the $16,000 to $30,000 range (new), won’t fit in a garage (with exception of the A-liner) and a larger six cylinder tow-vehicle is required (resulting in reduced miles per gallon). Find a lightly used model and save.

They include:

A–liner trailers: A modern version of the tent trailer, with hard-sides for bear-proofing, sleeps four.

T@B trailers: Classic teardrop shape, owned by friends in Sacramento just purchased for a bit over $20,000, sleeps 2-4 adults.

Casita trailers, slick, fiberglass trailers with virtually all the amenities, sleeping up to four adults.

For true classics, Airstream, Serro Scotty, Shasta and other models can be found throughout the west. Check websites and Facebook sites of Tin Can Tourists and varied classic trailer groups for insight. Ready to buy? Watch your newspaper and put up daily searches on both eBay and Craigslist for “classic travel trailer” and see what pops up.

When you find the Classic you like, be prepared for some serious inspection. Water and dry-rot damage can be papered over; repairs like this can be expensive and time-consuming.

Six years ago, I found our ‘64 Serro Scotty trailer for sale in Oceanside, thinking it needed merely paint and tail-end rebuild. I finagled the price down to $900 – but soon discovered extensive dryrot necessitating a full re-build. After 700 hours of work, and another $4500 the trailer is finished, thanks to help from two handy pals and my spouse. I’d avoid a project like this again; easier to have searched longer and found a trailer either in better shape, or fully rebuilt, and paid $7000 or so.

Here’s a sampling of beautiful classics we’ve seen in recent years, offering quality, collectability and proper “coolness quotient”:

Airstream: Aluminum trailers with the iconic shape, starting with the tiny Bambi and offering a number of slightly larger trailers that can be towed with mid-size vehicles. They are the talk of a campground, generally the most expensive.

Serro Scotty trailers: Made in the late ’50s to the ’80s with basic construction (making them easiest to rebuild), they also offer the classic canned-ham profile. Our 64 Scotty Sportsman provides room for 2-3, featuring a double bed in back, small dinette seating for four that converts to another bed, and center cooking area with small sink and two-burner stove. We built a Porta-pottie into one of the dinette seats – strictly for emergencies!

Shasta trailers: Classic “canned hams”, Shastas were originally built in southern California, so lots of them throughout the west. They sprouted the Shasta wings in 1958, continuing through the mid-80s.

For more information: A-liner, aliner.com; T@B, nucamprv.com; Casita, casitatraveltrailers.com; a variety of classic trailer web sites offer insights into buying/rebuilding, including Tin Can Tourists, tincantourists.com and Serro Scotty trailers, nationalserroscotty.org. To purchase used, scan newspaper classifieds, craigslist and eBay for “retro trailer” or “classic trailer”.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, follow at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

Posted in Central California, Mountain West (Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado), Northern California, Sacramento/Capitol region, Sierra Nevada, Stockton/San Joaquin County, Teardrop and tiny travel trailers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stockton’s Christy and Alan Lenzi tour Jerusalem

The Lenzis at the entrance to the "Tower of David," part of the citadel on the old outer wall.

Dinner at the Armenian Tavern, the Lenzi’s favorite place to eat in Jerusalem.
Responding to adhan, the call to prayer, residents of the Muslim Quarter hurry through the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City toward the Dome of the Rock to perform maghrib, sunset prayers, which will break their daily fast during this first week of Ramadan.
A pile of colorful prayer rugs outside the Dome of the Rock.
Dome in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
Praying at the Western Wall, considered holy due to its connection to the Temple Mount.

Prayer notes tucked into crevices in the Western Wall by pilgrims to the holy site.

The view of the tombs, and the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, from outside the Old City's Southeastern wall.

Stockton’s Christy and Alan Lenzi tour Jerusalem

In May, 2018, Christy and Alan Lenzi of Stockton toured Jerusalem. Christy is author of Stone Field, a young adult novel, and works/studies at University of Pacific. Husband Alan is chair of UOP’s Department of Religious Studies. In preparation for a class about Jerusalem, Alan was awarded a UOP grant to travel to the city for 10 days. This is their story; they did their tour self-guided, though employed for one day a local guide named Gilad found via the Internet  — a  good investment.

Throughout their visit, note the Lenzis, day-time temperatures were often in the 90s, with pleasant evenings and nights. Jerusalem is built on a series of hills, hence, each day of touring required plenty of energy. They did not anticipate the need for cash, a requirement for using taxis. Jerusalem, from the Damascus Gate to the farthest point, is about a 25 minute walk. Much of the surrounding city was built in the 19th century. The city’s population is large, with 882,000 residents; the metro area, 1.25 million. Demographics are approximately 64% Jewish, 35% Islam, one percent other; the town boasts an Israeli mayor and a Palestinian mayor.

Located on a plateau in the Judean Mountains between the Mediterranean and the Dead Seas, Jerusalem is one of the oldest cities in the world and holy to three major religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Both Israel and Palestine maintain their government institutions there; the US recently moved its embassy there, from Tel Aviv.

A UNESCO world heritage site since 1981, the city has been completely destroyed several times, besieged 23 times, attacked more than 50 times and captured and recaptured over 40 times. The part of Jerusalem called City of David was settled in the fourth millennium BCE; in 1538, city walls were rebuilt for the last time around Jerusalem, defining the Old City, divided into four quarters, known as the Armenian, Christian, Jewish and Muslim Quarters.

Despite being only roughly .35 of a square mile, the Old City is home to many sites of the highest religious importance, including the Temple Mount (with its Western Wall, Dome of the Rock, and al-Aqsa Mosque)  and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Just outside the Old City is the Garden Tomb and many other sites of religious importance. Many Jewish tombs from the Second Temple Period lie just outside the Old City, including the Tombs of the Sanhedrin, with 63 tombs cut into the red rock.

Just east of the old city in the Kidron Valley lie the Tomb of the Virgin, Absalom’s tomb, and Zacharias’ Tomb. Farther east at the foot of the Mount of Olives they toured the Garden of Gethsemane, with olive trees centuries old. The Mount of Olives itself is home to the Tomb of the Prophets, several churches, and thousands of graves.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher is open dawn to dusk, and an amazing place. The Temple Mount (Haram esh-Sharif, to Muslims) is sometimes open, but hours are sporadic. Arrive early. For visiting the Western Wall and Temple Mount, women need to wear head coverings, men a hat and slacks.

The ancient Jewish temple was destroyed in 70 CE, and has only one remaining wall, the Western Wall (avoid calling it the “Wailing Wall”). Generally, the Temple Mount is accessible to tourists, though only Muslims may enter the mosques. Modesty is paramount. Avoid public displays of affection. On Friday evening, thousands of Muslims streamed to the sacred site.

From Friday sunset to Saturday sunset is the Sabbath, when many Jewish-owned businesses are closed.

The Lenzis booked an apartment on AirBNB for the trip (nine nights, about $120 per night) up several flights of stairs, offering a pleasant terrace and nighttime views of city lights. With grocery stores located just outside the walls of the Old City, the Lenzis often bought food for a midday picnic. Other meals, enjoyable, were procured at local restaurants in walkable neighborhoods. To bone up for the trip, they read Dan Bahat’s ‘The Carta Jerusalem Atlas’.

Christy adds, “Museums of note include the Bible Lands Museum, which explains the archaeology of the ancient lands, and the Israel Museum, which includes a sculpture garden, the Book of the Shrine (Dead Sea Scrolls), and a huge outdoor re-creation of the Old City during the first century, focuses on Israeli and Jewish culture with noteworthy pieces from all over the world. Women should take a shawl, for the need to cover their head and shoulders. Men generally wear long pants, though male tourists sometimes wear shorts.” The Lenzis also visited the Islamic Art Museum and multiple houses of worship.

They flew San Francisco to Istanbul nonstop, then on to Tel Aviv and traveled the 40 miles to Jerusalem via shuttle – one cannot fly into Jerusalem. Language was not a challenge and for the phones, next time they would get a local Sim card. Israeli Defense Forces are numerous and frequently on patrol.

The Lenzis have lived in Stockton for 12 years, Missouri before. Alan received his doctorate from Brandeis in 2006. Christy is working on a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Studio Art at Pacific and published Stone Field in March, 2016. Her second book appears in fall 2019; she is writing a third.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com or follow him, recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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San Francisco and Oakland waterfront; showing off the Bay Area via public transportation

Historic Presidential yacht of Franklin D. Roosevelt lies at anchor next to the Oakland Ferry Terminal; it's open for tours.

Historic trollies offer quick transit on the Embarcadero.
Historic Ferry Builing, 120 years old!
Ferries arriving, departing at SF’s Ferry Building.
USS Pampanito in foreground, and Liberty Ship Jeremiah O’Brien, open for tours on Pier 45.

Share San Francisco and Oakland waterfront with guests; showing off the Bay Area via public transportation. 

You have guests from out of town and want to show off the Bay Area, but dread the bumper-to-bumper traffic and parking snarls. There’s a way around that, which offers you some of the most incredible waterfront views of both cities, no cost parking, historic buildings, delightful shops and restaurants with delectable food. Consider the public ferry system, the Embarcadero historic trolleys, even cable cars, to see the best of the Bay Area.

Our recent trip was on Monday, yielding smaller crowds than during the weekend (it’s doable, seven days a week). This is a day-long tour so plan accordingly. Head for Jack London Square on the east edge of Oakland and plan to park in the Square’s parking deck (get your parking ticket validated at entrance to the ferry, yielding free day-long parking). Walk two blocks to the old Produce District and the Oakland Grill, 301 Franklin St., for a bacon and spinach omelet, French toast, crab Benedict or other delectable meals. Then catch the ferry across to San Francisco (this trip is bike-friendly, with no hills and free ferry transport). Note the old Presidential yacht of Franklin D. Roosevelt is docked next to the ferry terminal.

The ferry departs the Oakland terminal with stops on the estuary at Alameda, then heads across the bay and under the Bay Bridge, offering wonderful views of the San Francisco skyline to your portside, and Oakland’s busy waterfront and Treasure Island to the starboard. The round trip ferry ride is a bargain ($14 for adults, half off for seniors 65+ and kids under 5 free).

Destination is San Francisco’s stately Ferry Building, 120 years old this year, revitalized about a dozen years ago and sporting wonderful shops, sit-down restaurants and a variety of grab and go eateries. The Hog Island Oyster Bar is a favorite for lunches, with a variety of seafood including oysters. Watch the ferries coming and going; you’ll also realize it’s a great place for people-watching.

With sunshine and temperatures in the high 60s, we chose to walk from the Ferry Building along the Embarcadero to Fisherman’s Wharf (you also have the option to take an historic trolley, imported from other US cities and foreign countries); we are planning to take the late afternoon ferry from Pier 41 back to Oakland.

Heading north along the Embarcadero at Pier 3 we found the Hard Water Café, offering specials on seafood chowder and Sauvignon Blanc – a tasty lunch for not a lot of dollars. Our trip took us the past the Exploratorium on Pier 15; with scores of exhibits it’s always an adventure for adults or kids. Explore the history and geography of the bay and other revelations that make San Francisco special.

We stopped at Pier 39 long enough to walk to its northwestern end, to see the sea lions that make the floating docks their home much of the year. This always attracts massive amounts of tourists, but our guests enjoyed themselves.

On Pier 45, we checked out the two World War II warships. The USS Pamponito, an attack submarine, and the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, the last surviving (of thousands built for service in the war) of the storied liberty ships are each open for tours.  The engine room of the Jeremiah O’Brien was used in the filming of Titanic a few years back, should you think it looks familiar. Then it was a short walk to the old Fisherman’s Wharf, where historic eateries and retailers compete with kitschy, gaudy shops across the street.

Just west of Fisherman’s Wharf, admire the historic old sailing and steam-powered ships at the adjoining Hyde Street Pier. If you have time, take a tour through the San Francisco Maritime Museum and walk along pretty Aquatic Park, home to two historic rowing/swimming clubs where you’ll always see die-hard swimmers in the Bay, year-round! Just a block away is the waterfront terminus of the San Francisco Cable Car system, for another optional adventure.

Beyond Aquatic Park, head west through Fort Mason and the Marina District, to the Palace of Fine Arts (stunning remains of the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and it’s future impacts on California). Crissy Field, the old WW I airfield, and the Civil War-era Fort Point (under the Golden Gate Bridge) lie just further west.

At end of a day of discoveries, hop one of the later ferries from Pier 41 back to Jack London Square for the most stunning of evening harbor cruises.  Should you still have energy, dine on the waterfront at one of a number of Jack London Square restaurants (Scott’s Seafood a favorite).

How to get there: The Jack London Square waterfront is 75 miles from Stockton, about 1.5  hours.  Take I-5 south to Tracy, I-205 west to I-580 to I-238, then go north on I-880. Exit to Jack London Square on Broadway, and follow signs to Jack London Square parking.

What to take: Walking shoes, bicycles if a cyclist, snacks, drinks, sunscreen and binoculars!

More info: Jack London Square, jacklondonsquare.com; (510) 645-9292; San Francisco Ferry, sanfranciscobayferry.com, (415) 705-8291; Ferry Building, ferrybuildingmarketplace.com, 415.983.8030; Exploratorium, exploratorium.edu, 415.528.4444; Pier 39, pier39.com, (415) 981-7437; National Maritime Museum and Hyde Street Pier;  nps.gov/safr, 415-447-5000.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com or follow him, recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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Old Sacramento, born again as the place to begin Sacramento exploration!

Western Pacific locomotive 913 prepares for a departure from the California Railroad Museum.

Members of the Sacramento History Society take to the Old Sacramento streets.
Old buggy takes visitors past the California Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento.
The Delta King Hotel and Pilothouse Restaurant offers lodging, dining and a floating museum on the Old Sacramento waterfront.
The zenith of American auto’s tailfins is celebrated with this ’59 Cadillac at the CA Auto Museum.
’65 and ’66 Ford Cobras at the California Auto Museum.

Visit Old Sacramento, born again as the place to begin Sacramento exploration!

We recently had several old friends in town for my spouse’s birthday, and had the occasion to tour several through one of the state’s seminal historic sites, Old Sacramento, located on the Sacramento River on the west end of downtown Sacramento.

When gold was discovered, in January, 1848, in Coloma (just 47 miles away), Sacramento was in the perfect position to become a boom town, serving as one of two inland ports to the Sierra mines (Stockton being the other), and soon would become the western end of the Pony Express, the first Transcontinental Telegraph and the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad. By 1860 Sacramento would become the second largest town in the west, behind only San Francisco.

Old Sacramento preserves almost 30 acres and is home to over 50 historic buildings. It’s the perfect place to explore the heart of the state’s Native American and Gold Rush history while exploring unique shops and sampling delicious eateries and drinking establishments. It’s both a walker’s and bicyclist’s paradise, with low and slow traffic and plenty of shady places to take a break.

A good place to start your tour is the Sacramento History Museum, 101 I St., which offers insights into the original Native American peoples who prospered in the area, years before Spanish, European and American settlers arrived. A variety of galleries, with docents dressed in period-correct costumes, offer insight into what daily life was like, 160-some years ago.

Just steps away is the California State Railroad Museum, 125 I St., one of North America’s finest and most complete rail museums. Appreciate the famed “golden spike” that connected the two segments of the transcontinental rail system, be amazed by a 1,000,000 pound steam locomotive, salivate in a beautiful dining car with elaborate China settings and delight in a swaying Pullman sleeping car.

Even better, enjoy the rail museum with an excursion train ride, running every weekend and Monday holidays through September. Forty-five minute round-trips explore a 6 mile route along the levees of the Sacramento River, with tickets available at the railroad museum.

Within a few block walk are the Old Sacramento Schoolhouse Museum, 1200 Front St., a replica of a traditional one-room school house featuring vintage student desks and other furnishings of the period. The Wells Fargo History Museum, 1000 2nd Street, re-creating a 19th-century Wells Fargo Express office and displaying gold rush artifacts as well as the telegraph station, is nearby.

Don’t miss a visit to the Delta King Hotel and Restaurant, aboard the historic 1927 Delta King river boat, built in Stockton in 1927 along with its sister ship, the Delta Queen. Our guests spent two nights aboard the ship, in one of 44 luxury riverboat cabins, and enjoyed dining in the old Pilothouse Restaurant. In its heyday, the Delta King would depart San Francisco in the early evening, and deposit well-rested guests in Sacramento early the next morning.

Just a half mile south is a favorite, the California Automobile Museum, 2200 Front St., displaying over 150 vehicles ranging from the early 1900s, to the muscle cars of the 60s and 70s, up to the high tech wonders of modern autos.

During your exploration, sprinkled amongst over 50 unique shops, plan your epicurean stops. Reliable eateries, from expensive to more than reasonable, include Fanny Ann’s Saloon, Fat City Bar and Café, Firehouse Restaurant (inside an historic firehouse), La Terraza Mexican Restaurant (with second floor veranda for people watching down below), Rio City Café and the Pilothouse Restaurant on board the Delta King. For mouth-watering baked goods, stop at Steamer’s Bakery and Café.

How to get there: From Stockton, take I-5 north 40 miles to Sacramento, exit on J Street and follow signs to Old Sacramento parking.

What’s nearby:  To the north, the Jedidiah Smith Recreation/Bike Trail and Discovery Park; just east, the Golden 1 Center (home to the Sacramento Kings), the California State Capitol and Crocker Art Museum, to the west, Raley Field (home of the Sacramento Rivercats baseball team) just across the Tower Bridge.

Where to stay: Overnight lodging is available in Old Sacramento on the Delta King and the nearby Embassy Suites (beside the historic Tower Bridge).  Other nearby motels and hotels can be found in downtown Sacramento.

For more info: California Automobile Museum, calautomuseum.org, (916) 442-6802; California State Railroad Museum, californiarailroad.museum, (916) 323-9280; Downtown Sacramento Partnership, downtownsac.org, (916) 442-8575;  Old Sacramento, oldsacramento.com, (916) 442-7644; Sacramento History Museum, sachistorymuseum.org, (916) 808-7059;

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com or follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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Five cool places to beat summer’s heat, close to home!

Lake Helen, with Mt. Lassen in background, often remains frozen into July!

Caples Lake, near Kirkwood on Hwy. 88, is a favorite fishing and camping destination.
Pinecrest Lake, just off Hwy. 108, attracts big summer crowds to its cooling waters.
Big Sur’s Bixby Bridge dates to 1937 and allows access to the rugged coast.

Five cool places to beat summer’s heat, close to Stockton and San Joaquin County!

Temperatures are forecast to regularly exceed 100 degrees for much of July and August in the San Joaquin Valley.  So, where can a family get away for fun, adventure and cooling vibes in our wonderful state? Here are five destinations, selected for fun, cooler temps and offering thrifty weekend or longer vacation options for either overnight camping or at lodges/motels. They’re all within two to four hours, and are listed geographically, going north to south.

Let’s start with a wonderful national park, relatively lightly-visited, just four hours from San Joaquin County. Lassen Volcanic National Park, east of Redding, is part of the “Pacific ring of fire”, a ring of volcanoes that surrounds the Pacific Ocean. Mt. Lassen achieved national notoriety when, in 1914 and 1915, eruptions belched ash 30,000 feet into the sky and blasted huge boulders for miles.

Start a tour at the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Center explaining various volcano types and how they shaped the surrounding landscape. Beyond the visitor center, scenery becomes increasingly interesting, with views of Lassen looming in the distance. Soon you arrive at Sulphur Works, an area of eerie hot springs and burbling mud pots.

Continuing up Highway 89, find Bumpus Hell; an easy hike takes you to this lively area full of thermal wonders. The Devastated Area will wow the kids, offering an easy hike past 25,000 pound boulders blasted off the summit of Lassen in 1915, landing three miles away and knocking down many miles of forest like they were matchsticks.

A lovely campground is located at the northwest park entrance, on Manzanita Lake with a stunning view of Mount Lassen. The lake offers marvelous fishing (catch and release only) and a beautiful campground with secluded campsites, showers, store and museum. Two places offer food in the park, the Kohm Yah-mah-nee Visitor Center and at Manzanita Lake. The Drakesbad Guest Ranch, accessed from Chester via the Warner Valley, offers overnight lodging, with trails to Devils Kitchen and Boiling Springs Lake.

Closer to San Joaquin County, the High Sierra along any of our easterly California highways is a cool option. As you rise every thousand feet into the Sierra, temperatures generally drop three degrees. Hence, if your destination is 7,000 feet, temperatures will likely be about 20-some degrees cooler than in the valley. Plus, alpine forests and lakes make for a psychological cooling-off, as well. Here are recommendations:

Hwy. 88, heading east of Jackson: On this lovely stretch, you’ll climb past Lower Bear and Bear River Reservoirs, Silver Lake, featuring the hallowed the Silver Lake Stockton Family Camp (founded 1921) offering fishing, hiking, biking, camping and cool mountain air. Higher above, find Kirkwood Resort, offering summertime fun including hiking, biking, fishing and lovely accommodations and Caples Lake. Stop at the Kirkwood Inn, an historic log-cabin bar and grill, for down-home meals and drinks.

Hwy. 4, above Murphys: Heading up the highway lovely options await, like Calaveras Big Trees State Park, the town of Arnold and the Arnold Rim Trail for stellar hiking and view-finding, Bear Mountain Resort, offering just about every family-fun option, lodging and nice restaurants, and just beyond, regal Lake Alpine, with camping and resorts. Just beyond, Ebbetts Pass, crossed by the Pacific Crest Trail, for dramatic hiking and 100-mile views.

Hwy. 108, above Twain Harte: Twain Harte, at 3,700 feet, offers a cute town with fine lodging and dining options, but the real fun and cooler temperatures start further east at Pinecrest Lake, at almost 6,000 feet (and, just below Dodge Ridge Ski Area, offering its own hiking and biking options during summertime). Pinecrest Lake has nearby resorts and restaurants; for higher Sierra scenery, continue 25 miles east to reach the Kennedy Meadows area, with numerous Forest Service campgrounds, fishing, hiking and biking options. Lodging and horseback-riding is offered at rustic Kennedy Meadows Resort, making this area one of our favorites.

Big Sur along the California coast: South of Monterey (with Hwy. 1 just reopened, after being closed by a huge land slide just north of San Simeon for more than a year), lies a favorite destination for both families and romantics. Cooled by the Pacific, Big Sur offers secluded getaways, rocky coastline, lovely resorts, classic campgrounds and marvelous restaurants.

You’ll find scenic campgrounds here; Andrew Molera State Park, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Lime Kiln State Park and Kirk Creek Campground, a Forest Service gem perched on the bluff overlooking the Pacific. Ragged Point Inn on a bluff above the ocean is a favorite, offering lodging and a fine restaurant. Elephant seals can often be seen at Ano Neuvo State Park (reservations required) and at the six-mile long Piedras Blancas rookery.

Special note: due to a forecasted devastating fire season, check with local authorities as to fire and/or smoke conditions (Yosemite Valley just closed due to nearby fire and smoke).

For more information: Big Sur coast, bigsurcalifornia.org, (831) 667-2100; Hwy. 4, Visit Calaveras, gocalaveras.com, (800) 225-3764; Hwy. 88, El Dorado National Forest, fs.usda.gov, (530) 622-5061; Hwy. 108, Tuolumne County Visitor’s Bureau, visittuolumne.com, (800) 446-1333; Lassen Volcanic National Park, www.nps/gov/lavo, (530) 595-6100; Silver Lake Stockton Family Camp, stocktonfamilycamp.org, (209) 227-0082.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com or follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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Big trees, gold rush towns, summertime resorts and high alpine lakes – it’s Highway 4 in the high Sierra!

Sunset view from Cougar Rock above Arnold (courtesy, Arnold Rim Trail Association).

Lake Alpine is a high Sierra gem, just above Bear Valley Resort on Hwy. 4.
Huge redwood trees reach over 250 feet tall in Calaveras Big Trees State Park.
Historic Murphys Hotel anchors quaint Main Street in downtown Murphys, CA.

Find big trees, gold rush towns, summertime resorts and high alpine lakes – take Highway 4 to the high Sierra!

Giant redwood trees, towns exuding gold rush history, resorts packed with family activities, high Sierra lakes and views – all strung like jewels along Highway 4. And, this summer wonderland is just an hour or two from San Joaquin County.

Highway 4, from Murphys and east, offers a wealth of family fun primed for summer or fall. We started our tour at Murphys, long a favorite among gold rush afficianados. It’s Main Street is a star of historic preservation and offers many places to dine or spend an overnight. Favorite eateries include the historic Murphys Hotel and, just down the street, the highly-rated Alchemy Restaurant. A variety of quaint shops, B&Bs and wine-tasting outlets (Zucca Mountain Vineyards, Twisted Oak and Milliare are favorites) intersperse a pleasant five-block, shady walk. And, the popular Ironstone Vineyards and Winery is just a few miles above Murphys, offering fine wines and outdoor entertainment.

Heading east, plan a midday stop at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, home to scores of towering redwoods reaching up to 250 feet tall. Largest, in the park’s South Grove, is the Louis Agassiz tree, reaching over 250 feet in height and 25 feet in diameter. In the nearby North Grove find the Empire State Tree, almost as large. The park offers camping among the redwoods, cabins for rent and tours led by Rangers offering big tree’s insight.

Emanating around the town of Arnold, find the increasingly popular Arnold Rim Trail (arnoldrimtrail.org). Timed around full moons, popular docent-led sunset hikes take families up 900 vertical feet on a 4 mile round-trip hike to the top of Cougar Rock for marvelous sunset views spreading across the Sierra foothills. Be sure to take a jacket, headlamp or flashlight, for the tours finish with a descent in the dark.

Bear Valley Resort continues it’s summertime focus on family fun with a host of adventure packages and variety of lodging options. With an adventure park, hiking, biking, swimming, kayaking, kids activities, archery, outdoor movies, good food and live music, it’s a mecca for families.

The resort continues to offer it’s popular ‘glamping tent’ options, with expedition-style tents pitched with a stunning view into the Mokulumne River Canyon. The tents are fully furnished with queen bed, bedding, rugs, chairs, tables, lamps and heaters, perfect for couples or small families (with additional sleeping options). RV camping and hotel accommodations are also offered.

Shuttle service connects Bear Valley Village, Bear Valley Mountain and nearby Lake Alpine to assist visitors desiring to venture out into the scenic mountain country. The area is a boon for hiking, fishing, cycling, kayaking, rock climbing and camping.

Lake Alpine, just east of Bear Valley, is a high sierra jewel set at 7,388 feet, featuring fishing, kayaking and the Lake Alpine Resort as well as nearby campgrounds in the Stanislas National Forest. For a challenging hike, take the trail up to Inspiration Point for great sunrise or sunset views. From Lake Alpine, you can also head south on the Slick Rock 4WD Trail to reach both Utica Reservoir and Union Reservoir.

Inveterate travelers will push higher, to historic Ebbetts Pass at 8,736 feet. It’s reputed to be the first Sierra pass crossed by a non-Native American, when Jedediah Smith crossed the Sierra in spring, 1827. The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail crosses here, offering high altitude hiking options going north or south with the most alluring Sierra views.

How to get there: Take Highway 4 east to reach Murphys, Calaveras Big Trees, Bear Valley and Lake Alpine. Murphys is about 60 miles and 1.5 hours from Stockton.

For more information: Arnold Rim Trail, arnoldrimtrail.org, Bear Valley Resort, bearvalley.com, (209) 753-2301; Calaveras Big Trees Park, parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1146, (209) 795-2334; Lake Alpine Resort, lakealpineresort.com, (209) 753-6350; Visit Calaveras, gocalaveras.com, (800) 225-3764.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, or follow his blog, blogs.esanjoaquin.com/valleytravel. Happy travels in your world!

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Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands National Parks; side trip to Grand Canyon North Rim

Arches National Park's Balanced Rock stops thousands of visitors each week in this lovely park, home to over 2,000 arches and strange landforms.

Author and spouse Susan pose in front of Landscape Arch, spanning well over 300 feet with its delicate arch.
Arches Park visitors trek fo Sand Dune Arch on short, flat trail through slot canyon.
Our Horsethief Campground, maintained by the BLM just outside Canyonlands, was scene of several evocative sunsets. 
John Wesley Powell pioneered the exploration of this vast tract of the new nation.
A couple takes in the other-worldly view of Canyonlands, with the Green and Colorado Rivers in distance.

Tour to Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, with a side of Grand Canyon North Rim!

This is the third in a three-part series on the evocative national parks of Utah (see my blog for the previous two weeks). We’ve been blessed by our house sitting assignment in St. George, UT, allowing us a base camp to get started. We toured to Zion National park and Cedar Breaks National monument on day-trips, separate trips took us to Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and onto the final two Utah national parks.

If you’re doing a clockwise circuit of the five parks, as we’ve done, start at Zion, then Bryce and on to Capitol Reef. From there it’s roughly another 200 miles to Arches and Canyonlands, just 30 miles from one another. You can camp, or use the lively town of Moab, Utah as your base camp for these two parks.

Arches offers Devils Garden Campground (which can be booked in advance) and Canyonlands offers Island in the Sky and The Needles campgrounds, both first-come, first-served. The Bureau of Land Management presents a number of nearby campgrounds; we found Horsethief Campground, on edge of Canyonlands Park, almost as handy to Arches National Park and just $8/night. We spent three nights, took in the two parks and were treated to the most stunning of sunsets over the Green River Canyon.

In two days we hiked to 15 of Arches National Park’s 2,000 arches (yep, 2,000!); the visitor center helps plot your destinations in this amazing park. Treks to Turret Arch, South and North Arches, then Double Arch (at 144′ wide, 112′ tall, 3rd largest in park) were eye-openers. Later that cloudy, cool day, we climbed from the Arches campground to Tapestry Arch – and had it all to ourselves.  We continued onto Broken Arch, following three hikers – equally impressive – logging 3.5 miles hiking over all. That night we enjoyed spectacular starry night skies above our campsite.

Our second day, we started early to hike Arches’ Devils Garden area.  Our reward was the Landscape Arch; a 1.4 mile hike to this famous arch, tall, thin and spanning over 300 feet, attracts a large crowd.  Spur trails to nearby Tunnel and Pine Tree Arch both proved memorable.

Our final hike into Sand Dune Arch carried us through towering sandstone fins and slot canyons. By 2 PM we had covered three miles, and, avoiding hot mid-day sun, took a late lunch at The Spoke Restaurant in Moab (just three miles from Arches Park), where chicken wings, pulled pork and libations sated our appetite and thirst!  Moab is a busy town, humming with restaurants, motels, bike shops and canyon tour-providers!

Nearby Canyonlands National Park offers the most impressive canyon vistas yet on our journey. Until 1869, the huge Green and Colorado River watershed was uncharted on U.S. maps; John Wesley Powell, a geologist and one-armed Civil War major, set off in May, 1869, with four boats and nine novice boatsmen to explore the Green and Colorado rivers –  to make their fortunes and chart “the great unknown”.

When he reached the rivers’ canyon country in July, Powell noted the party had entered a “strange, weird, grand region” of naked rock, with “cathedral shaped buttes, towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance”. He would finish the harrowing journey three months later with two boats and six men and a tale of exploration that would capture the nation’s imagination.

We visited the northeast “Island in the Sky” section of Canyonlands; overlooks such as Grand View, Buck Canyon and Green River evoked the spirit of Powell as he contemplated this alien territory 149 years earlier. Mesa Natural Bridge, the Whale (a 500 yard hump-backed sandstone formation shaped like a huge orange whale) and the blue, red and pink colors of the vast Green River and Colorado River Canyons that converge here are not soon-forgotten.

In nearby Horse Canyon, ancient Puebloan people’s ruins can be toured, with stone homes and food storage built into a ledge far-up the canyon wall.  Pictographs left by the ancients are also found throughout many of Canyonland’s dry washes.

If your schedule permits, return on a southerly route to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. With only about 10% the visitation of the southern rim, it, too, is a spectacular destination! On the approach, you’ll likely see some of the 400 herd of bison that make that part of Arizona home. Your return to California will also take you past Pipe Spring National Monument, Mono Lake, and, If you like, a final night camping on the edge of Yosemite – plotting future travel explorations!

For more info: For Utah travel insights, visitutah.com; Arches, nps.gov/arch, (435) 719-2299; Canyonlands, nps.gov/cany, (435) 719-2313; Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or 877.444.6777.

Note: Two free travel-related programs coming up this week: Tuesday, July 10, 6 PM, award-winning Record photographer Cliff Oto presents a program on improving your photo skills; on Thursday, July 12, 6 PM, Record travel writer Tim Viall presents “The nine national parks of California”, both hosted at the Quail Lakes Clubhouse, 3808 Quail Lakes Drive, Stockton, and, both are FREE.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

Posted in Mountain West (Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Spectacular Utah: awe-inspiring Bryce Canyon and Capital Reef National Parks

Hoodoos by the thousands, carved by water and wind for eons, line Bryce's canyon walls.

Natural Bridge in Bryce Canyon NP.
Ascending The Wall trail amongst rock escarpments and strange Hoodoos.
Tourists hike up Grand Wash in Capitol Reef NP.Bryce Canyon.
Spires climb skyward from Capitol Reef National Park in Utah.

Watertank holes, up a dry wash from Grand Wash in Capitol Reef NP, is site where I slipped and fell into the larger of the holes, dunking my iPhone!

Southwest Utah: spectacular Bryce Canyon and Capital Reef National Parks

We’ve spent 2.5 weeks housesitting in St. George, Utah (through membership in the Affordable Travel Club), and done day trips to Zion National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument.  The other four of Utah’s stupendous national parks lie just a bit further east.  Here are highlights of several.

Bryce Canyon National Park: Approaching Bryce from the west, we skirted Red Rock Canyon, rocks ablaze in the same color, noting an 8.6 mile bike trail paralleling much of that scenic area (find time during your visit to double back to this beautiful state park). Arrive Byrce early in the morning, if camping, and make for the North Campground (first come, first served) at 7800 feet.  This large campground is right on Bryce Canyon’s rim; wonderful views and the campground amphitheater are just steps away.

Mormon settlers Ebenezer and Mary Bryce homesteaded the area in 1862 in nearby Pine Valley where Bryce constructed the Pine Valley Chapel, the oldest Mormon Chapel in continuous use in Utah.  After moving to Paria Valley, next door to Bryce Canyon, he noted the compelling canyon behind his homestead was “a tough place to lose livestock”!

Make your first stop the North Entrance Visitor Center, for a 25 minute Bryce Canyon movie explaining the canyon’s formation, seasonal changes and visitor highlights. Then, tour the length of Hwy. 63 along the canyon rim, 16 miles south to Rainbow and Yovimpa Points. Here we stopped to admire incredible views, which repeated in succession at Aqua Canyon, Natural Bridge, Farview Point, Swamp Canyon, Bryce Point, Inspiration Point and Sunset Point.

Find time to dine at the Bryce Canyon Lodge, opened in 1926 by the Union Pacific Railroad, with lodge rooms and 15 outlying cabins and a large, homey restaurant open at 5 AM for early morning hikers. The breakfast exceeded our expectations; exceptional service was also delightful.
In the evening, hike the Rim Trail, just 150 feet from our campsite – with evening light, you’ll get both best views and marvelous photos!

Bryce offers compelling hiking, both along the canyon rim and down into the canyon. Thousands of Hoodoos will wow you (strangely-shaped pillars of rock in multi-hued colors of white, red, yellow and blue, left standing after millennia of erosion).  Take the Queens Garden/Navajo combination loop starting at Sunset Point, a 2.9 mile trek descending 600 feet from the Rim Trail down into the canyon.
Ranger programs offered daily at 7 PM include presentations on astronomy in the parks, native fauna, like Utah prairie dog colonies, hundreds of mule deer, pronghorn antelope (fastest animal in world, behind the cheetah), mountain lions and bears, early pioneers and other topics. Kids always love ranger talks, no matter the subject.

Capitol Reef National Park is just 120 miles from Byrce. Some 65 million years ago, a huge upheaval in the earth’s crust warped a 100 mile-long “Waterpocket Fold”, creating an abrupt “reef” of colorful red, yellow and white domes, cliffs, monoliths, canyons and arches, etched by the meandering Fremont River. This made for a fertile crescent in Utah, quickly discovered by Mormon pioneers in the 1860s.

The park’s single 70-site campground can fill early; several Forest Service campgrounds just 12-18 miles up Hwy 12 offer pretty campsites at about 8000′, only $6 with our American the Beautiful federal senior discount! Early the next day, we made Capitol Reef’s campground early and had our choice of sites.

Visit the nearby Visitor Center, where rangers will offer tips on best hikes and sights, then tour the scenic road to Capitol Gorge and then onto Grand Wash. Here a shady hike presents about three miles overall, along a flat canyon trail with sandstone walls rising colorfully hundreds of feet. I ventured up a side trail, skirting the edge of several naturally-carved water tanks, with 3 – 4 feet of clear water, and managed to slide into one, dunking my new iPhone (happily, it still works).

The campground itself is set in the park’s pretty Fruita Historic District, settled in the 1860s by pioneers and planted with a variety of still-producing apple, peach and pear orchards. Take a break at the historic Gifford House, which sells tasty pies and other edibles. Nearby orchards allow one to pick your own fruit.

Bryce and Capital Reef and the state’s other national parks are part of the Colorado Plateau, an area spanning four states. It was formed 20 million years ago when the earth’s crust uplifted a huge plateau several thousand feet above surrounding landforms. Eons of water and wind erosion of underlying limestone and sandstone have created the stunning geography of these national parks. Next week, we’ll finish our Utah tour with tips on touring Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

Special Note: On Thursday, July 12, 6:00 PM, attend my free travel presentation, “Touring the nine national parks of California”, at the Quail Lakes Clubhouse, 3808 Quail Lakes Drive, Stockton. You’ll receive tips on when to visit, what to see and how to get there!

For more info: Affordable Travel Club, affordabletravelclub.net; Bryce Canyon National Park, nps.gov/brca; (435)834-5322; Capital Reef National Park, nps.gov/care, (445) 425-3791;   Utah travel insights, visitutah.com; Camping, recreation.gov, or 877.444.6777.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, star attractions in southwest UT.

Hoodoos, the lofty spires along Cedar Breaks red rock amphitheater, are visible and remind us of the hoodoos that make Bryce Canyon such a popular attraction.

Another view of Cedar Breaks lofty amphitheater, offset by cloud formations.
Cedar Breaks National Monument’s red rock amphitheater is three miles across, and almost a 1/2 mile deep. From the observation points on the rim drive, well above 10,000 feet, temperatures can be cool during summer!
View in Zion National Park, where the Virgin River has carved out a lofty canyon full of wonderous sights!
Water cascades from the brow of Zion’s Weeping Wall, just a short uphill hike from the park’s shuttle bus.
Zion tourists huddle under the Weeping Wall alcove, where shade and constant moisture drips keep the temperature well below that in the valley, below.

Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks National Monument, just north and east of St. George, UT.

We’ve been in St. George, UT, the past two weeks (staying at a beautiful home garnered through a house-sitting assignment), touring nearby attractions like old town St. George, the stunning Snow Canyon State Park and taking in the Broadway show Matilda the Musical at the memorable Tuacahn Amphitheater nestled in the red rocks south of Snow Canyon. We’ve hiked daily in the Banded Hills just southeast of the home we are staying in. But our plan is to visit loftier destinations, including nearby national monuments and national parks.

I have long been a fan of our national monuments, often the equal of our national parks. National monuments present monumental views, wildlife viewing and marvelous photography opportunities with more modest entry fees and a fraction of the tourists drawn to national parks.  Our hosts and several other locals tell us not to miss Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Hence, a Friday tour takes us the 75 miles to Cedar Breaks National Monument. Cedar Breaks web site offers a host of information and “what to see” suggestions, noting that two years earlier, the monument feted just 890,000 annual visitors (as we will discover, Zion National Park hosts almost five times that traffic each year)..

A pretty drive takes us through Cedar City and up several canyons to the national monument. We watch the outside temperature drop from the mid-80s at St. George drop to the high 50s – that’s what the park’s observation points will do, ranging from 10,300 to over 10,600 feet in elevation. Take a jacket; many fellow visitors cut their time short, not prepared for cool temperatures.

Cedar Breaks National Monument encompasses almost 7000 acres, centered on a vast red rock amphitheater three miles across and almost a half mile deep. The amphitheater is more eroded but similar to Bryce Canyon National Park and Red Canyon in the Dixie National Forest.

The monument is home to ancient Bristlecone Pine, with some specimens reaching over 1600 years, and sub-alpine meadows spread out from the amphitheater rim. Mule deer, marmots golden-mantled squirrels, porcupines and other animals make this home. At this elevation, the air is usually clear, you can see 100 miles and nighttime stargazing is a big attraction. On the amphitheater wall you’ll find excellent examples of hoodoos, those tall, spindly spires created by erosion, which make Bryce Canyon such a compelling experience.

Clark’s nutcrackers, violet-green swallows and ravens are birds frequently seen. Wildflowers generally blanket the canyon rim beginning in June, and we saw larkspur, Colorado columbine and scarlet paintbrush along our short hikes. Longer hikes are also available, decending into portions of the red rock amphitheater.

It’s the amphitheater that generates the “wow” factor. Located at the west end of the vast Colorado Plateau, it covers the west side of the smaller Markagunt Plateau, the same rock that forms part of Zion National Park. Earth’s uplift, followed by erosion, formed the canyon over millions of years from the shale, limestone and sandstone once part of the lakebed of ancient Lake Clarion that once inundated this area.

Early the next Monday (thinking we would beat summer crowds), we were off to Zion National Park, just 44 miles from St. George. Zion is noteworthy for its vertical cliffs carved by the Virgin River in shades of red, white and blue hues, owing to iron and manganese shading the limestone. Lush valleys fed by the river make an other-worldly contrast; unlike Cedar Breaks NM, where you are mostly looking down, in Zion, you are usually looking skyward. Craning-your-neck-skyward, that is.

Alas, approaching from the park’s south entrance, we found the park’s parking lots posted “full”, with visitors queuing up at the park entrance through Springdale. Hence, we parked just outside the park, walked through the pedestrian entrance where our America the Beautiful Senior Pass (now, just $20 for life) saved us the entry fee. We then waited about an hour to get on the free shuttle that takes you up into the valley carved by the Virgin River and the park’s main attractions.

From the shuttle, we disembarked and hiked the Lower and Middle Emerald Pools Trail, steep with several hundred vertical feet elevation gain, but fairly short, then the Grotto Trail above the Virgin River, then back to the free shuttle. Another short ride and we hiked the short trail to Weeping Wall, a pleasant, misty and drippy respite on a day that pushed temperatures into the upper 80s by Noon.

If you have the time and energy, don’t miss the hike to The Narrows.  This section is the narrowest of the canyon, with walls towering thousands of feet, in places only 20 to 40 feet wide.  Choices of hikes range from short to long, much of the hike wading through the generally placid Virgin River. But, heed weather forecasts and potential for flash floods; days after our first visit two years earlier, violent thunder storms created flash floods in Zion, killing six tourists who were trapped in a slot canyon.

We finished our day at the brew pub near the South Visitor Center, where a snack and cold drinks quenched our thirst. What else can we explore in Utah?

For more info: For St. George, visitstgeorge.com; for Utah, visitutah.com; Cedar Breaks National Monument, nsp.gov/cebr/; Zion National Park, nps.gov/zion; camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov.

Read more from Tim’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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