I was very upset by all the delays that led up to this with her nonchalance at my sense of urgency at getting to the park in time.
So after the initial disappointment at the prospect of having to drive back to the visitor center to park and take the shuttle and the associated delays with that, I then thought on my feet and decided that I was going to solo the loop hike while Julie could stay behind and stay with the car while parked illegally or at least move around the lot until she could get a better and more legitimate spot…
- Day 1 (February 21, 2020 – Santa Rosa, California): “Noun 1 and the Noun 2”
- Day 2 (February 22, 2020 – Santa Rosa, California): “Bleeding Money”
- Day 3 (February 23, 2020 – Los Angeles, California): “Making The Worth”
Day 1 (February 21, 2020 – Santa Rosa, California): “Noun 1 and the Noun 2”
Stressing about getting out of LA traffic, the plan was to leave the house by 6am, which meant that we had to try to say our good-byes to Tahia last night and very early this morning (even though I’m sure she’d only be half awake by then).
We really packed at the last minute last night, and we weren’t totally ready when I awoke to my alarm at 4:30am.
So as much as I wanted to look forward to this day as a relaxation day, it was really more like a typical work day since this was when I would normally wake up to get ready for work.
Not only that, but I never really had a chance to sleep in since probably about two weeks ago since we had activities that required us to wake up last weekend.
Nevertheless, with so much to do on this day, a lot of what we wanted to accomplish on this trip hinged upon how soon we can get out of LA so we can have a smoother drive up the I-5 as well as the remaining freeways and highways to get to Sonoma.
Anyways, it wasn’t until about 6:30am when we finally loaded up the car and headed out into the LA rush hour traffic.
Fortunately for us, the I-5 traffic wasn’t too bad though it was certainly heavy at times, which was to be expected. But at least, we managed to make it out to about Hungry Valley at around 8:05am to accommodate a restroom stop for Julie while I took advantage of that time to fill up on gas.
I guess taking about 90 minutes to get close to the Grapevine was about as good as you can ask for considering we were navigating through LA’s gnarly rush hour scene.
We were probably as unprepared as we could be on this short weekend trip to the Napa and Sonoma Wine Country as I only realized after the fact I didn’t have casual street clothes of jeans and a T-shirt or something.
I only had hiking attire for anticipated hikes today and Sunday as well as something fancier for those times we’d have dinner dates. So hopefully the places we go to the rest of the time won’t have dress codes such that they’d deny me if I rocked up in hiking pants, a T-shirt, and Chacos with wool socks or something.
Such things are what happens when you leave things to the last minute I guess. But at least Julie seemed to have her stuff except for maybe one probiotic supplement. We always seem to forget something on trips like this.
Regardless, we continued on with the drive with the intention of maybe stopping for a lunch at a Chipotle along the way before making it up to Sonoma and the waterfall. Going into this trip, we did have low expectations regarding the performance of the waterfalls considering how little rain we have had since Christmas night.
We definitely anticipated a very bad fire season this Summer, especially when we saw how brown things already started to look as we descended into the Grapevine. Even though there were some signs of lightly green mats in the fields of this part of the California Central Valley, the fact that it was already looking like a weak Spring already this early was definitely a bad sign.
Regardless, we figured that this was the new reality as Global Warming and Climate Change consequences were things we could only react to and do nothing about. After all, the systems that we abide by to earn money still largely reflected a system by which you have to be an asshole.
That is, you have to be an asshole to other people in order to earn more than the next person (there’s always someone that loses in this scheme; to borrow from a Christian Slater line in Mr Robot).
Or, you have to be an asshole to Nature since the system rewards plundering its resources at the expense of its sustainability and long term health.
Or, you have to do both, which the Trumps of the world (like the PM in Brazil or in the UK) can certainly do and get away with it.
Regardless, as we pressed forward, our momentum on the I-5 was checked only by a few jerks on the road dwelling in and clogging the passing lane on the I-5, or truck drivers seemingly passing other trucks at the worst times (sometimes cutting you off before letting you pass as they’d start their passing maneuver way too soon).
This long distance driving inconsideration was something I only notice in California or on the I-15 to/from Vegas (again, where you contend with mostly inconsiderate Californian drivers who don’t understand that you keep right except to pass). Yet, I don’t see this issue as much elsewhere in the states and definitely not in Europe, where such road rules are respected.
Regardless, with the momentum we have gained, we actually made pretty good time as we were already somewhere near the east side of the Bay Area at around 11am (where we had already left the I-5 and headed west on the I-580 towards the I-680).
Somehow, we had missed the cheap gas and the Chipotle that we had targeted (recalling from our Spring Break trip to the Bay Area last year), and that kind of bothered me as I wasn’t sure if I was incorrectly remembering things or if we completely whiffed on the whereabouts of this place (was it off the 101? or the 99?). Indeed, I was questioning my recollections and my sanity by this as it seemed like something didn’t quite add up.
Nevertheless, we did have to pay $6 in cash at a toll station to go over one of the bridges on the far east side of the San Francisco Bay, but after that, we ultimately got to the Hwy 12, which was surprisingly very busy as I guess lots of Bay Area weekenders came up here to get into the Napa Wine Country.
We did have to get through some pockets of pretty bad delays from merging lanes to a traffic accident that looked like it happened not that long ago. But finally by about 12:55pm we found street parking on the outskirts of downtown Sonoma.
We ultimately decided to check out this place called Girl and the Fig, which was a place that Mom and I went to when we first came here for a brunch or breakfast back in May 2016 (after driving early from Oroville and making a detour to Sonoma Creek Falls en route to home).
This was Julie’s first time here, and I was eager to see how she’d react here as she didn’t have much expectation about this place.
But as we walked past some horse pasture before walking alongside the San Francisco de Solano mission, and then into the downtown Sonoma area, she was pleasantly surprised by how charming it was.
We also walked by a historical park part of Sonoma, which was something that Mom and I completely missed the first time around (as we took the time to explore the city park in the square block in the middle of town).
Julie liked the seemingly old school structures on the store fronts as well as across the street, but we still had to get to the Girl and the Fig, which was the restaurant that we had targeted for lunch.
So that got Julie excited and willing to let go on her Plant Paradox diet a little (or at least some of the things deemed “non-compliant”) by indulging in some of the cheeses and red wines as well as any possible sugars they’d put into syrups or sauces that we’re sure to ask to put on the side.
We pretty much let the waitress take care of us as we really weren’t wine connoiseurs (nor did we know how wines would pair up with foods to supposedly bring out the flavors of the foods), and we ultimately splurged big time by getting The Works (choice of three cheeses from their salon du fromage with some cured meats, apples, mustards, and some nuts), the brussels sprouts, and some kind of liver pate (not a foie gras since this version was apparently more “humanely done”) as starters.
We were also giving into to trying a couple of different glasses of red wines with the one we liked from Mathis Grenache, which was so local winery that made their reds pretty tasty and sweet). The other one was apparently Les Petits Secrets, which tasted drier though it was something we weren’t that into.
As for the mains, we got a Duck Confit with two legs as well as a flounder dish, which were both recommended by the waitress. We were interested in doing the Crispy Chicken thights, but we kind of suspected that we were going to be having way too much food.
And actually, it turned out that we were already starting to get full by the time the mains came around, and by the time we finished the meal at around 3pm (it was a nearly 90-minute meal), we were totally stuffed and not really looking forward to dinner as I knew our bodies probably paid the price of overeating.
That said, Julie thought it was a good call to eat lunch here as it was definitely a good experience and whatever dinner spot that Julie had booked for us in Santa Rosa (where we were staying) would have a lot to live up to.
When we finally left the Girl and the Fig, we then walked back to our parked car along the suddenly emptied-out downtown Sonoma scene as most of the parked cars were mostly gone but the roads seemed to be much busier with road raging motorists as it might have been a kind of afternoon “rush hour” at this time.
It was quite warm out, which made us think that the temperatures had to be in the 80s or something, and I was thinking that it wasn’t going to be a good sign as to whether the Sonoma Creek Falls would be flowing.
Whether it was unusual to be having the weather this warm in the middle of February was a Climate Change thing or possibly a Wine Country norm was probably besides the point since there’s nothing we can do about it. But it definitely messed with our piece of mind trying to visit the only waterfall that we’re aware of in wine country.
By about 3:20pm, we got back into our warm car, which required us to actually turn on the AC (again something that I didn’t think was normal when you’re talking about mid February in Northern California).
Then, we tried to navigate through the streets of Sonoma, which induced some unwarranted honking by other impatient motorist determined to not let us into the traffic even though we signalled and intended to get into the traffic from our parallel parking spot well past the stop sign that that motorist was behind before speeding up and pulling her road raging behavior.
I guess that thing I said about being assholes to each other to make money also extends to road etiquette as well.
I don’t know what it is about Northern California, but it seemed to be a bit more angst to get behind the road up here than at home in So Cal, but then again, that could be just me since I generally take the train to work and try to minimize driving as much as possible on a typical workday.
Regardless, we had to navigate through more rush hour traffic at merging lanes and lights (as it seemed to take a pretty solid 15-30 minutes delay just to get out of the downtown area) before we’d finally find the Adobe Canyon Road and the turnoff leading to the Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and the Sonoma Creek Falls.
A good sign that the waterfall might have water was the sound of a rushing creek down below the lower parking space, which got me to try to convince Julie to come with me. But she was suffering from food coma from the huge lunch we had and decided to just chill out in the car and read.
Another surprising thing about getting out of the car was that it suddenly felt cool, which drastically contrasted the seemingly 80+ afternoon that we had felt in downtown Sonoma.
Thus, I headed up the familiar road, then went past the gate. One guy in a bike saw me with a day pack and some hiking gear and said “you look serious” which drew a chuckle from me.
Upon walking up the road (with a false detour earlier on leading to other tiny cascades before I had to backtrack), I then passed a waterfall pullout by the side of the road, and then walked another 100 yards further to the trailhead (or at least the lower one) that left the road and down an obvious trail that descended a short few steps before skirting Sonoma Creek.
The trail was for the most part flat and towered over by tall trees (I wasn’t sure if these were also coastal redwoods), but they all seemed to have blackened trunks, which was probably a result of the bad fires that happened here a couple of years ago that burned whole communities.
Still, redwood trees tended to be fire resistant so most of them still stood tall, and I got to see firsthand how such trees could grow so tall since forest fires were a natural part of the order of things in the forests.
After crossing a couple of bridges spanning side creeks (which also flowed), I ultimately made it at the surprisingly flowing Sonoma Creek Falls at about 4:30pm. By this point, I was thinking Julie was really missing out, and I wanted to text her about it so she could join me here.
Regardless, it was quiet and serene, and I was all by myself here. It just felt like such a nice surprise and yet here I was on a workday in Nature, which was the perfect detox to all the road raging it took to get here as well as all the work from my day job I had to endure since we got back to work in the first week of January.
After taking my shots and videos and heading back to the road, I did notice one car that was parked on the shoulder of the road higher up, and some girl that was walking down from that car with hula hoops and some music.
I didn’t think anything of it as I headed straight back down the road to let Julie know about what I had just seen, and when I got back to the car at about 4:50pm, I showed her pictures of the waterfall, and then she thought a bit about whether to do it or not.
When I mentioned that there was a waterfall parking pullout further up the road, I think that kind of sealed the deal in terms of us driving up there, and then shortening the already short hike even more.
Thus, by about 4:55pm, we were at the pullout closer to the lower trailhead, and then Julie changed her shoes, and we were on the Sonoma Creek Falls Trail soon thereafter (as I had to do it again).
By about 5:05pm, we were back at the falls after passing by the hula hooper filming herself doing some kind of routine along an open part of the trail. She must be local or well aware of this spot because it seemed like a fairly open spot on the trail that only locals in the know would know about.
Anyways, we quickly got our fill of this surprisingly nice and flowing waterfall before we headed back to the car and past the hula hooper again. My gut was telling me that I should go to the restroom to #2, but I was holding it in since I figured we were close enough to Santa Rosa by this point.
By about 5:15pm, we were back in the car, and then proceeded to drive into the somewhat moderate to heavy traffic along this road leading to Santa Rosa, where the traffic picked up at the traffic lights again.
We had never been to Santa Rosa before, but the theme I got from this experience was that any of the towns in the Napa and Sonoma Wine Country had lots of traffic and lots of people. And it made me wonder if the entire Napa Wine Country had gotten more crowded and commercialized over the years as the population centers further south in the Bay Area exploded and the publicity to go along with this further exacerbated things.
Since we don’t come up here all the time (or at all), I could only speculate on this. But I had to believe that this wasn’t always the case in the not-too-distant past.
By about 5:55pm, we finally parked at the reception at the Hyatt Regency Santa Rosa. It was next to or shared with some railroad, which made its parking lot layout a bit unusual as its entrance was right next and parallel with the 101 Freeway onramp.
Nevertheless, the valet guys here let us park at the reception checkin spot for about 10 minutes, which gave us time to get our stuff up into the room (passing by a wine tasting stand along the way) before we got settled into the room at about 6:05pm.
After doing a badly needed restroom break, we then got back to the car (where we had forgotten the keys and luckily no one droe off with the car), and then proceeded to park the car and have a brief moment in the room where we Facetimed Tahia and also showered from our long day so far.
Eventually by about 7:30pm, we left the room and headed to the Bird and the Bottle (another one of those Noun 1 and the Noun 2 named restaurants), and found parking at some doctor’s office where we weren’t sure if we could legitimately park here.
Even though our dinner reservation was at 8pm, we decided that we wanted to try to show up earlier so we wouldn’t have to eat so late. While we were glad to have made a later dinner reservation so we could fit in the Sonoma Creek Falls hike, we also needed the time to check in and get cleaned up.
Regardless, the food from our large lunch still sat in our stomachs, and as much as Julie wanted to eat dinner, I felt like I could have gone without it.
Anyways, we wound up sitting in a quieter part of the upstairs part of the restaurant. This was kind of more of a hipsters tapas place so it wasn’t like the typical sit down that I was associating with the fine dining in the Wine Country scene.
We ultimately wound up getting a crispy pork belly dish, a bone marrow dish, a roasted cauliflower dish, and a salmon dish.
They were all tapas portions (as opposed to full up raciones), but they were also very filling due to the fact that the meat and fish dishes were quite fatty.
I also tried the 7% alcohol kombucha, which was actually quite good and wasn’t as nasty as I would have expected something yeasty and beery to taste. It made us wonder if we could brew our own kombucha in a similar manner and let it sit for days or something so all the sugar would be eaten away and wouldn’t be as sweet as the typical kombuchas that we’re used to.
So after paying the bill (which ended up being half as much as our Girl and the Fig lunch), we left the restaurant very stuffed at 9:15pm, and we were bcak in the room at 9:30pm.
With little energy to do anything else, we just brushed and flossed, and then crashed in bed looking forward to at least sleeping in a bit for at least 8 hours or so for the first time in a couple of weeks…
Day 2 (February 22, 2020 – Santa Rosa, California): “Bleeding Money”
It was about 7am when I awoke to Julie’s alarm. I guess this was as much of a sleep in as I was going to get considering that we both had slept at around 10:30pm last night so we got well over 8 hours of sleep, which was better than any one night that I got in the last two weeks.
I felt like I could have slept in a little more, but I wanted to get caught up on the blogging and I figured that Julie had some kind of plan for today regarding the spa treatment, which forced us to adhere to a schedule.
By about 8:20am, Julie decided to have a breakfast at the Railroad Stop, which was a restaurant attached to the Hyatt Regency property in Santa Rosa.
The breakfast actually turned out to be quite good as we both got a Sonoma Benedict with the Hollandaise sauce on the side (that was apparently gluten free). Julie didn’t want her muffin, but I got mine with the eggs on top of it.
We didn’t want to do the buffet because that didn’t seem to be a good value. Plus, we knew that we were going to be eating a lot later on today at the next pair of restaurants that were more on the Napa Valley side on this day.
By about 9:05am, we were back in the room to do some last minute getting dressed and ready for the day. Then, by about 9:25am, we headed out on this chilly morning.
As we drove out, we followed the 101 freeway north towards a mountain road that cut across towards Calistoga to the east. We had never taken this route before, but regardless, we had gone at a pretty good clip, and by about 10am, we found parking at the Indian Springs Resort and Spa in Calistoga (after having passed through a fairly charming downtown part of Calistoga).
Once we parked, we walked to the reception area, where Julie paid for a day pass at the pool (at a very pricey $50 per person) as well as a couples massage. I found the day pass to be quite pricey, but Julie was under the impression that the Buddha pond required this kind of pass.
After we got dressed and walked towards the pool, we noticed that it was nothing but a pair of swimming pools that were fed by geothermally-heated water. It didn’t seem like we were getting a good value by spending $100 total just to spend less than 30 minutes here, and I didn’t think that we needed to make our money’s worth by spending it here when there were other things to do later on after lunch.
There was even one moment when Julie managed to drop her iPhone into the pool! I quickly reached down into the pool’s shallow corner (where the phone fell into) and picked it up, but then I told her to immediate turn off the phone. Whether the phone will have survived this episode remains to be seen, but I’m sure that kind of weighed in on her mind during this visit.
Regardless, we soaked for what turned out to be 20 minutes in the larger pool (while trying to let the phone bake in the sun for a bit; possibly her cover might have helped limit the damage since it covered up the interfaces and the vent I think), then we headed back to the spa area to strip down and wear a bath robe in preparation for the massage.
We then proceeded to do the couples massage which was something we hadn’t done since Thailand, I think (and those kind of hurt), while the last one we did prior to that was I think in Palm Springs many decades ago.
Nevertheless, after the relaxing massage was over, we then chilled out for a few minutes at the Buddha pond. There were no photos allowed, but it was basically a pond where some of the geothermal runoff went into it. It was surrounded by fan palms as well as one Thai Buddha statue (probably why they named the pond as such), and a bunch of lawn chairs and a few sheltered lounges to stare at the pool.
While we were chilling there, I saw what appeared to be some kind of eagle or condor up in the sky circling and gliding.
Eventually at around 12:45pm, we were back in the car after having had our fill of the spa treatment and the facility. We wound up spending about $445 for the entire experience, but I really felt like we wasted $100 on that pool pass, which we didn’t really use or get our money’s worth from it. That didn’t sit too well with me considering how much money we had already spent last night.
So let the money bleeding begin, I thought, as we weren’t about to go to any cheap places the rest of the day. At least when Julie turned on her phone, it appeared to still be working. Perhaps we dodged a bullet there, but we’ll see if there was any latent (i.e. long term damage) going forward…
Next up, Julie decided that we should continue south to the town of St Helena to go to this restaurant called Farmstead. It was popular and highly rated, and we also made a ridiculously late reservation of 3:15pm thinking that that was the only time slot available, but we wanted to at least see if we could stand by and eat a bit earlier than that.
Eventually at about 1:10pm, we made it to Farmstead, where we managed to score a parking spot, and then we checked in with the receptionist, who said we could get seated right away at a community table, which we had no trouble doing.
Then, we proceeded to place our orders, where Julie eyed a Dungeness Crab in spicy oil, I got some pork chop dish (which was the waiter’s favorite), and we both got a brussels sprouts dish since that was probably the only greens we’d be having on this visit.
It took a real long time for the food to show up, and the crab showed up first. So we took quite a while eating that, which was messy, but it was very fresh and good.
However, the brussels sprouts and the pork chops came much later together. The brussels sprouts were pretty good, but we found the pork chop to be a bit on the dry and tough side. Maybe it was left in the heating lamp for too long.
When the water came by to ask how the food was, we told them about how the pork chop wasn’t great, and he wanted to make up for it with a dessert. But we were getting late on time, and we ultimately asked for the check so we could leave sooner rather than later (as we were encroaching on a nearly two-hour lunch).
By about 3pm, we finally headed back out, but not before I noticed that we weren’t charged for the pork chop (so with tax and tip, the total was $72 though I could totally see us paying over $100 for this meal under more normal circumstances).
So the meal turned out to be cheaper than I expected, but I felt like we should at least tip the waiter over 20% considering it seemed like he went to bat for us when it came to us having a good experience, and we didn’t really have one given how slow the food came out and how bad the pork chops were.
When we started to face the Napa traffic and head out towards the Benziger winery (because Julie wanted to see what it meant to be “biodynamic”), we realized that the last departure of the popular tram tour was at 3:30pm and we were unlikely to catch the last one. After all, we wouldn’t get there until well after that considering that we had to drive up and over a steep and curvy mountain road before switching back over to the Sonoma Valley.
I guess that was another bad thing about the slowness of the experience at Farmstead as it ultimately costed us this tram tour that Julie wanted to see for herself. In hindsight, we should have done our research and cut our losses when we knew about the last tour time. Instead of leaving Farmstead at 3pm, we could have left at 2:30pm.
Regardless, we ultimately got to the Benziger winery at around 3:45pm and we went right to the tasting room, where we tried the Estate tasting, which was all local and biodynamic. We ultimately liked the Pinot Noir the best, but the person helping us actually allowed us to try a few extra bonus wines, including a port, a Russian River pinot noir (as opposed to the local one), and the helper’s favorite red wine.
We ultimately left by buying a bottle of the Russian River pinot noir as well as the Imagery Port, which waived one of the tasting experience costs, and at the end of it all, we paid about $105 in all. Again, it felt like bleeding money.
By about 4:45pm, we were back in the car, and then we proceeded to drive back over the mountain and back into Napa Valley. The next stop was the Bouchon Bakery since Julie had this craving to try their macarons again. But after having Pierre Herme macarons in Paris (which we thought was better than Laduree), I was a bit skeptical about this place’s macarons.
At around 5:30pm, we finally got to Yountville, where we parked and queued up for the Bouchon Bakery. I couldn’t believe how long the line was itching to get the large macarons here. But we figured that since we’re here, we mind as well see if it was worth the hype and the wait (and the cost).
After we finally placed our order and got the sweets, we paid probably close to $23 for just a half dozen large-sized macarons. Julie and I split a vanilla macaron, and we didn’t think it was very good. Actually, we thought it was worse than the Costco brand one that she had gotten before, and it made us wonder what the fuss was all about with this place. Maybe we were too spoiled with the genuine French macarons that it made this place seem like expensive junk by comparison.
By about 5:45pm, we left Yountville, and we then proceeded further south into the city of Napa. We ultimately got to this corner restaurant called Grace’s Table, where we had an 8:15pm reservation, but when we showed up at 6:10pm, we asked if we could get seated earlier.
They said that we could sit at the bar straight away, and that’s what we did.
So we ultimately ordered an organic beets salad (that also included avocado and Romaine lettuce I think, as well as some other veggies.
Then, we also got a Petra Sole Meuniere, which was similar to the Flounder Meuniere that we had at the Girl and the Fig yesterday.
Then, I got the lamb leg special, which was ok, but the Petra Sole was by far the best dish of our dinner.
I also got a non-alcoholic ginger kombucha, which was quite good though Julie knew that perhaps the most potent and honest ferments that we typically get was from the Fermantation Farm in Newport Beach. You never really know how genuine the stuff is when you see it coming from a tap at a restaurant.
After our meal, it appeared that the owner had a chat with us, where we learned that this place was Michelin rated for a category that hit a certain price range (i.e. more affordable $30 plates or something like that).
We then drove in the dark along the Hwy 12 (where drivers seemed to still be zooming along at high speeds) before heading west on the 116 and then finally onto the US101 north back to Santa Rosa.
By about 8:25pm, we finally made it back to the Hyatt Regency Santa Rosa, where we scored a parking spot (it seemed to be busier this night than last night).
And by about 8:35pm, we made it back to our room to crash, but not before I got our two glasses of complimentary wine, which were pretty tough to drink, especially after having the organic finer stuff at Benziger. Still, we ended off the night sharing a cabernet and a merlot (we liked the cabernet better, but still were a bit bitter or not-so-smooth).
And so ended this wine and dine and spa kind of day, but I couldn’t wait until we headed home (possible with a hike at Pinnacles National Park) because it really did feel like we overspent no matter where we stopped at, which ultimately made me feel like we were just bleeding money this weekend.
Indeed, we had been spending way more than I anticipated, and it could very well be one of the most expensive (if not the most expensive weekend) trip that I could ever recall…
Day 3 (February 23, 2020 – Los Angeles, California): “Making The Worth”
It was about 5am when both Julie and I awoke.
Given that we had a long drive ahead of us, I also needed to make sure that we gave ourselves enough time to pursue some hikes at the Pinnacles National Park (formerly the Pinnacles National Monument before President Obama gave this place full national park status in 2012).
It was still dark outside, and we knew that it would be quite chilly as the temperature outside appeared to be in the high 30s.
In any case, I had mixed feelings about whether it was worth pursuing waterfalls in Pinnacles National Park because we had been having such a dry Winter after some initial storms that really hit California between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
But now that we’ve been hardly having any rain in January and February, I kind of knew that the waterfall sightings would be on the disappointing side.
Nevertheless, I had never been to the Pinnacles before, and I had hoped that our early start would at least allow us to find parking in the east side of the park as well as to fit in some hiking before continuing our long drive home (as I still had to go to work tomorrow morning).
Anyways, as we were busy packing, when we looked back on this Sonoma, Calistoga, and Napa Trip, Julie reiterated to me about how this trip really scratched this itch that she had since her university days at USC.
She said that some administrator or counselor took her and some classmates out to the Napa area, and once there, that counselor disappeared to Calistoga.
So that piqued her interest, but she didn’t make it there on that trip. All she knew was that it seemed to feature mineral baths and spas, and the more she wondered about it, the more it seemed to grow this notion in her mind that it would be the holy grail of spa experiences (something that she was into).
In my mind, I tended to think of these resorts and spas as nothing more than expensive extravagances, but if anything, perhaps it might give us a rekindling as well as precursor of an upcoming Iceland return later in the year (barring coronavirus complications and any associative racism that I’m sure will ensue).
That said, now that she had the experience, did the geothermally-heated swimming pools and the couples massage treatment at the Indian Springs Resort in Calistoga, I think her itch had been scratched, and we both agreed that we probably didn’t need to do something like that in the near future (if at all).
I guess she fancied a more remote and secluded experience with more Nature than what we ended up experiencing there, but the reality was that Napa Valley was too commercialized and crowded for such a secluded experience.
You’d probably have to go out of the way to a private retreat in order to truly get what she fancied, and I’d bet that would cost even more than the nearly $500 we paid for the couple of hours that we spent there.
Regardless, we were finally packed up and in the car by about 6:15am, which was a little later than the 6am departure that I was hoping for, and I hoped that it wouldn’t bite us in the ass later on when it came to the parking situation at Pinnacles National Park that I knew would be an issue if we didn’t get there in time.
That said, the drive south on the 101 was pretty smooth, and it even took us onto the Richmond Bridge on the I-580, which we didn’t have to pay apparently as they only collected the toll in the direction heading west but not east.
When we were near the Berkeley area, Julie fancied a gluten free doughnut indulgence recommended by Nom Nom Paleo, but it turned out that this place was closed.
She had this bad habit of having this spontaneous food cravings, and so I’d have to fret over changing course, especially after we would pass by such places and have to backtrack towards them, which would have been a major waste of time for a fruitless pursuit of food.
But I guess since we had skipped breakfast so far in the interest of time, perhaps I should relent on this position.
So we continued south alongside the East Bay until we got closer to Silicon Valley, where Julie then had me get off the I-580 near the city of Freemont just north of San Jose.
Unfortunately, she pulled another one of those last-minute pop-up interruptions and urges, and so we had to go on a bit of a detour backtracking north then east to this place called Gonuts.
I wasn’t keen on wasting time going backwards towards a different interstate (it was closer to the I-880) over this pursuit of food, but by around 7:55am, we would ultimately make it to the this hard-to-find donut joint.
This was where Julie picked up a half-dozen mochi donuts (a couple of them with chocolate frosting on them), which was one of her rare indulgences since gluten free donuts were quite rare.
I felt like we had lost another 30 minutes on this detour, and now I was really worried about whether this would burn us when it came to the parking situation at the Pinnacles National Park, which I mentally had in mind that we needed to get there at least by 9am or else risk getting shut out.
Once on the Hwy 25, there were long lines of slower drivers with no opportunities at passing so I was already fretting more about the parking situation, and my mind was calculating what we’d have to be doing if we couldn’t find parking and what hikes I would do in the limited time we’d be having there knowing that there was still lots more driving to do to get home.
Eventually by around 9:30am, we finally made it to the Pinnacles National Park East Entrance Visitor Center, where we queued up to pay the $30 entrance fee, and then I had to wait for Julie to use a portapotty there before we finally were able to drive towards the Bear Gulch Nature Center, which was where the ranger recommended doing this loop hike that took in the Condor Gulch and High Peaks Trails.
Sure enough, when we got to the Bear Gulch Nature Center, given all the delays that Julie induced on the way here, it turned out that the car in front of us took the very last parking spot.
So after the initial disappointment at the prospect of having to drive back to the visitor center to park and take the shuttle and the associated delays with that, I then thought on my feet and decided that I was going to solo the loop hike while Julie could stay behind and stay with the car while parked illegally or at least move around the lot until she could get a better and more legitimate spot.
And so by around 9:55am, I finally started hiking with one complimentary bottle of water from the Hyatt Regency Santa Rosa as well as my own stainless steep bottle that was already full going into the trip.
After looking at the signs and taking a much-needed restroom break, I realized that the loop hike actually started behind the road closure sign, which led to a separate parking lot at the end of the road in another 0.3 miles.
Instead of hiking on the closed road, I followed a gentle trail that went by some picnic tables before reaching the actual trailhead by the end of the road at 10:10am.
That was when I saw the Bear Gulch Cave Trail signs, and followed that trail, which climbed up among the pinnacles towards the cave itself.
At one point, I reached a junction where the path on the right went towards the so-called Moses Spring. There was a climbing wall up here as well as some trickling spring feeding some ferns though I wasn’t sure if this was the actual spring or not.
Regardless, when I saw that this trail climbed high above the closing of the canyon, I realized that this trail was going to make me bypass the Bear Gulch Cave itself so I backtracked and then pursued the lower trail leading right into the Bear Gulch Cave.
After passing by a large Hispanic Family taking their time taking photos at some trail tunnel, I then reached a sign where I had to unsling the pack and take out the headlamp at around 10:35am.
Then, I proceeded to go into the eerie confines of the Bear Gulch Cave, while ascending its steps.
I could hear waterfalls falling within the cave, but I couldn’t see any of them until I ascended up some narrow steps beneath some wedged rocks. Then, I saw some slanted waterfall that I finally take a picture of even in the low light.
Of course, as I was taking the pictures of the falls, I also had a hard time trying to continue climbing up through the Bear Gulch Cave because there were scores of people going down in the opposite direction (they seemed to be mostly kids or teens or something).
It was kind of annoying, but having been part of a large group last week at Heart Rock Falls, I guess I could now understand what it was like to be on the other side of that.
Anyways, the trail was too narrow to get past what had to have been at least over 30 people or so, but ultimately I’d make it up to the upper reaches of the cave, where there was a closed gate that prevented me from following some side waterfall, and I had to crawl under a low space in order to regain daylight.
Once I emerged, I then found myself at the top of what appeared to be a bouldery slot where the trail hung a right and climbed up some narrow steps wedged between a couple of fallen boulders. I got here at around 10:55am.
Then, I saw a sign that pointed in a couple of directions as well as an unsigned path that appeared to go back towards the other side of the Bear Gulch, apparently.
I was a bit disoriented after having gone through the cave so I kept looking at my paper map trying to figure out just exactly where I was. Where was that waterfall I saw on GoogleImages where a cascade would go around a bouldery lip into the depths of a cave in the presence of some steps?
I kind of knew that the waterfall and cave combo was somewhere around here, so I spent the next few minutes trying to explore all the side trails to ensure that I didn’t miss anything.
I even followed the other side of the Rim Trail towards the Moses Spring before I realized that it was taking me away from the cave so I backtracked and followed a sign that pointed the way back to the Nature Center (which I found confusing). As a matter fact, I swore that that trail, which went past a climbing wall that people were using, was the trail going back to the Moses Spring.
However, when I saw that it descended back to a different part of the Bear Gulch Cave, I had to explore a bit more just to see where it went.
It ultimately got me to an interesting part where there was a wedged giant boulder perched above the narrow trail leading to a stairs.
And as I got closer to the stairs, I finally saw that there was a waterfall at the head of this gulch. And the further up I went on the narrow ledge-hugging steps, I noticed there were people sitting near the brink of this thin waterfall.
This must be the one that I had seen on the GoogleImages!
Sure enough, as I ascended higher, it turned out that the trail took me to the dam responsible for the Bear Gulch Reservoir, which seemed like a real popular hang out spot for a lot of day hikers that had competed for parking spots earlier in the day.
Anyways, as I had a brief orange break while admiring the reservoir, it dawned on me that the waterfall itself below must have been kept artificially alive longer thanks to the presence of this reservoir, which would supply the water for longer than if it had just been an ordinary creek allowed to exhaust its water supply quickly.
So I guess the Bear Gulch Cave Falls can owe its longevity to this man-made dam. Otherwise, it would just be another ephemeral waterfall like Condor Gulch Falls (which I had hoped to see later on in this loop hike) as well as the Bear Gulch Falls itself, which was downstream from the visitor center.
Both of these falls, by the way, were in the Ann Marie Brown book, and they were the main reasons why I pursued waterfalling in the park.
Eventually at about 11:20am or so, I finally started off again as I left the reservoir and then pursued the Rim Trail towards the High Peaks Trail.
From looking at the map, I had a long way to go as I had only gone about 1.2 miles (not counting all the detours I took to ensure I thoroughly checked out the Bear Gulch Cave) out of the 5.3 miles of the entire loop.
After all, I don’t know when I’ll be back here, and I had to at least make the $30 entrance fee worth our while. This contrasted with the $100 extra ($50 per person) we had to pay for the geothermally-heated swimming pool at the Indian Springs Resort and Spa in Calistoga, which I thought was a rip off, especially since we were only in the water for perhaps 20 minutes.
But if we lingered in the spa just to stay in that pool (which had lots of chlorine), then we would have wasted our full day in Napa and not be able to do the Benziger biodynamic wine tasting, or the Farmstead experience, or the Grace’s Table experience, etc.
At this point, the scenery was a bit less concentrated than the Bear Gulch Cave and Reservoir area, and there were more sweeping panoramas of the Bear Gulch itself as well as some pinnacles in the distance.
Shortly after going past a small man-made arch or tunnel at around 12:10pm, the trail then started climbing up a series of switchbacks in earnest. Along the start of this stretch, I saw some kind of jug handle arch (or at least a budding one) that reminded me of some kind of swan pecking at its own neck, so to speak.
When I ultimately made it up to the Scouts Peak area at 12:30pm where the High Peaks Trail and the Juniper Canyon Trail junctioned, I joined a handful of people just looking west towards the western side of Pinnacles National Park.
Indeed, I could see the pair of parking lots of the western side of the park down below as well as more pinnacles rising against the ridge that I was on in a scenery that kind of reminded me of Bryce Canyon or Cedar Breaks.
I even noticed in the distance the coastal mountains that separated the US101 from the Monterey Coast and Big Sur further to the south.
So it dawned on me at this point that this High Peaks Trail essentially was about to skirt the crown of the Pinnacles National Park, and would be the main reason why there was no road that directly connected the east and west sides through the park.
Anyways, after having my fill of the panorma near the Scouts Peak, I then followed the trail about 0.7 miles that afforded me views both to the west as well as to the east and then back to the west or the north as this trail reached the Tunnel Trail junction, which I got to around 12:55pm.
Near this trail junction, I saw that there was a pakr ranger helping a couple of women take pictures, and I also started to see even more pinnacles formations that faced more towards the north (which I’d imagine were where the Balconies part was).
As I continued keeping right on the High Peaks Trail, I saw that the path finally started to descend though it did involve a bit ledge hiking with railings and etched rock steps along the way.
But eventually, the interesting parts started to give way to more conventional trail hiking as I descended towards the Condor Gulch Trail junction while getting more panoramas again.
Once I finally got to the Condor Gulch Trail at around 1:15pm, I then followed this descending trail past some people hiking in the opposite direction.
After going around a long bend, the trail then descended back towards the impressive pinnacles formations that I had just hiked through, which turned out to be part of the Hawkin’s Peak.
This wall of pinnacles was very impressive as I descended towards it, and I also started to notice some bird ‘caws’, which turned out to be condors nesting atop one of the pinnacles!
When I soon reached an overlook at the top of Condor Gulch at 1:30pm, I could see circling birds overhead, which I’d imagine were these rare California Condors.
Without an L-series lens on a Cannon DSLR, I couldn’t bring them closer in the viewfinder and take quick shots of them in action, so I did my best with the Sony mirrorless with 240mm zoom.
It wasn’t as quick, but it was decent enough provided I could keep them in the viewfinder.
As I looked downstream from the overlook, I could clearly see that the creek in Condor Gulch was completely dry so there was no shot of seeing any Condor Gulch Falls on this home stretch of the loop hike.
I guess that was the reality of the dry winter that we were having, but by this point, I was concerned less with finding this waterfall than I was with just savoring the Nature that was still clinging onto its existence around me.
Indeed, this was the whole point of having National Parks, and I definitely savored the moment before continuing on with the hike.
Eventually at about 1:55pm, I finally made it back to the Bear Gulch Nature Center Parking Lot, where Julie was about to get out of the car and let me sit in the car to drive off.
However, I told her that I still had to pursue the Bear Gulch Falls, which I knew was around a quarter-mile downstream from the Nature Center. So I promptly went in that direction while Julie was busy napping some more or doing restroom breaks.
So I started off by going past the Bear Gulch Nature Center before going past some more park buildings with conference rooms as well as a ranger’s office.
Soon afterwards, the trail that hugged the road joined up with the trail I was on, and I then found myself going past an employee residence driveway before the trail continued its descent into a wide clearing.
At this clearing, the Bear Creek appeared to go dry once again and then re-emerge somewhere near a footbridge at the mouth of this clearing before the trail then skirted by some rocks where I’d imagine the Bear Gulch Falls was supposed to be.
Unfortunately, this waterfall was also bone dry despite there being water further upstream and I could even hear the sounds of water further downstream.
But given the rocks here, I knew that the water was well beneath the surface and it would have to flood for there to be water flowing over here as a waterfall.
By about 2:10pm, I made it down to a footbridge with a “5” label on it, and that was where I saw the re-emergence of Bear Creek with a few more tiny intermediate cascades.
I had a feeling that there was no more chance at seeing any more waterfalls so this bridge was pretty much my turnaround point.
As I headed back up to the brink of the Bear Gulch Falls again, I couldn’t help but wonder how Ann Marie Brown got down to the base of the waterfall in her photo shown in her California Waterfalls book. So I looked around for any scrambling paths that might get me there, but it seemed like the only way to get down there was to do an unsanctioned scramble on a steep slope towards some trees and rocks.
I don’t think the park service would appreciate such off-trail scrambling, but at least I finally made it down there and saw where the shot was taken.
After having my fill of this waterfall’s base, I could see further downstream that the re-emergence of Bear Creek was quite close.
But with no water here, there was no more reason to linger longer other than to scout out the area, so I scrambled steeply back up to the trail and then quickly made my way back to the Bear Gulch Nature Center car park at about 2:35pm.
I hadn’t anticipated leaving Pinnacles National Park this late in the day, but at least Julie and I could finally look forward to returning to LA though we still had a long drive ahead of us just to get back to the I-5 from here.
Indeed, we finally left the car park at about 2:40pm, and after some idyllic driving through some remote farms along the Hwy 25 (and some Trump 2020 signs and American flags, which definitely reflects the demographics of where the “red” parts of America are at; another rural versus urban divide), we finally made it to the I-5 at 4:20pm near Coalinga.
Coalinga was interesting in that it had a huge state-run prison as well as a huge hospital next door. I guess this was where the serious offenders got shipped out to.
Anyways, the rest of the drive was about as smooth as I could expect for a Sunday afternoon broken up by annoying drivers who clog the fast lane instead of using them as a passing lane, but ultimately we made a booking to eat at Raffi’s in Glendale for some really good Armenian or Middle-Eastern food of a quality that you just don’t get at mom and pops that we’ve been at.
Unfortunately, we made our bookings at 5:30pm when we were somewhere near Valencia (as it only let us get within 40 miles to queue up in line), and by 7pm, that was when we finally parked at Raffi’s while still around 43 in the queue from 100 when we started!
It was still quite busy here, and we wondered if we were better off ordering take-out instead so we wouldn’t have to wait and pay for tip.
But suddenly at 7:20pm, we jumped the queue and our table was ready so we had to cancel our take-out order and just order at the table.
Eventually, we had our large dishes of the filet mignon kebobs, beef kafta, chicken kafta, Ghormeh Sabzsi, and Fesenjoon. We knew it was a lot of food, but we were going to take the leftovers home since we wouldn’t go through so much trouble to eat here again unless we were trying to break up a long road trip.
Anyways, we had to endure some pretty bad service, but we’d eventually leave at around 8:30pm, get through some fairly fast driving on the 134 to the 2 and then the I-5, and we were finally back at home at about 9:10pm.
And so ended this rather spontaneous and expensive foodie trip, but it still had the waterfalling surprises to let me revel in it and talk about it in this blog.
But now with Julie’s spa itch being scratched, we now looked forward to the next adventure (corona virus or other Climate Change-related calamities notwithstanding)…