The Funny Looking Animals & Epic Insect Migration tour

Somehow my wife and I ended up on a “Funny Looking Animals & Epic Insect Migration” tour on our way home from the Central Coast yesterday.

The day started with yet another visit to the elephant seals just north of San Simeon (for more on elephant seals, and why you need to go see them, click here.)

"I'm funnier looking than you are, pal!" "Prove it, buddy!"

Moving on, we traveled south to the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, where hundreds of thousands of Monarch butterflies migrate each year. Learn more about the grove here.

"I really do hate long flights."

Our tour concluded at OstrichLand USA in Solvang. $5 buys you entrance into OstrichLand and a bowl of food, which you hold while a dozen creepy ostriches peck violently in your personal space. Watch your fingers. Everything you ever wanted to know about OstrichLand can be found here.

"Feed me."

Have you been on any odd, spontaneous tours lately? If so, tell me about it.


Marriage proposals in epic conditions

I proposed to my wife almost three years ago to the date while cross-country skiing at Badger Pass in Yosemite. During a freak blizzard. Romantic, no?

There's just something about a blizzard that will always get a woman to say "yes."

After she said “yes,” I believe she said something like “we better get the hell out of here.”

To all you married guys out there, please tell me I’m not the only knucklehead to propose in such harsh conditions. Or am I? Crap.

Walk amongst giants at Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park is like no place in the world.

The park is located in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains. Created by Congress on Sept. 25, 1890, it is the second oldest national park in the United States (bonus points if you know the first).

Hike or drive?

You can reasonably experience the big trees and never leave the comfort of your car. The Generals Highway weaves its way through the park, passing many impressive trees. There are plenty of places to pull off to enjoy the scenery for a moment, and a few of the best specimens feature paved walkways.

Separating yourself from the throngs of daily visitors to the park is nearly impossible if you choose to drive. Though its famous national park neighbor to the north receives far more traffic, there may be times when you are competing for elbow room to view some of the more popular trees, such as General Sherman. Don’t worry, though. There’s no need to crowd around the base of the tree in order to take it all in.

Driving is a perfectly acceptable way to see the park if you only have a day.

But if you truly want to soak in the magic of this place, I recommend hitting the trail for an overnight stay.

You have dozens of quality routes to chose from, many of which will take you through some of the most beautiful groves in the park. Study a good map to get a feel for the area.

We began our trek at the South Fork Campground, located in the southwest corner of the park. From there, we hiked to the stunning Garfield Grove and beyond, before snow complicated our progress. You can find maximum solitude here.

You will need a permit to camp outside of a designated campground. Call the Wilderness Office at (559) 565-3766 to make arrangements.

And be prepared to take on gigantic sugar pine cones at 5:30 in the morning.

The Salton Sea: a perfectly weird getaway

The Salton Sea stinks. Literally. The moment you step out of your sterile air conditioned vehicle, you are confronted with an all-out attack on your sense of smell. Dead fish. Agricultural runoff. Stenches of questionable origin.

It’s hard to imagine this place was once a playground for the rich and famous. Here they congregated at places with names like Salton Sea Beach, Salton City and Desert Shores. You can still see the remnants of their accidental paradise.

Faded street signs identify Shore Gem Avenue, Treasure Drive, Flamingo Avenue and Yacht Club Drive. The  Salton Bay Yacht Club is nothing but eroded pilings. Its beaches are covered in a thick layer of tilapia, the result of algae blooms and subsequent fish die off.

Curbs and buildings have been reduced to rubble. Subdivisions were planned. Many of them never materialized. Denuded palm trees line once-majestic avenues.

The shores of the Salton Sea were long ago bustling with leisurely pursuits. For now, though, there is nothing but an eerie desert breeze, quietly carrying the ghosts of a thousand lost dreams dead fish.

Go to the Salton Sea. You shouldn’t even be online researching the topic. Circle the shoreline, leisurely. Take in boats buried in sand, random brush fires, trashed computers piled high. The former good life, down and out. Don’t miss it.


Thru-hike the PCT: ‘Best to do it earlier rather than later in life’

Jack Ross and his wife Barb must like each other. After all, they’re still married after a thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Jack was nice enough to answer a few questions about life on the PCT, deep snowpacks, solitude, readjustments to home, and more.

Eric Murtaugh: Why did you decide to thru-hike the PCT?

Jack Ross: I read a National Geographic article from the late ’70s long ago that described it. Then the topic always came up when we were backpacking with friends. It was always in the back of my mind.

Plus, I wanted to do something really big and challenging in my lifetime and hiking the PCT is really big! It wasn’t on Barb’s bucket list but she signed on anyway (and logged over 1,000 miles before dropping out due to injury).

Jack and Barb on the PCT near Mt. Jefferson in Oregon.

EM: Take us through the preparation and planning stage of a PCT thru-hike.

Continue reading

Catalina is for lovers

Actually, Catalina Island is for all types: lovers, haters, fighters, etc. What kind of headline is that, though?

Anyway, Catalina is about 22 miles offshore from Los Angeles. It’s accessibility makes it an easy weekend destination for about a gazillion people.

Getting there

You have a few options when it comes to getting to Catalina.  You can buy a ticket and take a boat from Dana Point, Long Beach, San Pedro, Newport Beach, or Marina Del Rey.

Or you can hire a helicopter. Or fly your plane to the Airport in the Sky. Or swim.

The latter three options would boost your “lover” status instantly.

The boats will take you to either Avalon or Two Harbors. Most people go to Avalon, but Two Harbors has its moments.

Things to do

This is but a small sample of activities on Catalina.

1. Snorkel: I love snorkeling. I used to snorkel in our small backyard pool when I was a kid, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Look mom, I’m totally breathing underwater right now!

Turns out snorkeling in the ocean off an island is even better.

There are a number of quality places to snorkel around the island. The easiest places to access are in Two Harbors and Avalon. The Lover’s Cove Undersea Gardens, just south of Avalon, is a protected marine sanctuary, and is a great place to start.

And obviously, if you’re dive certified, the diving is just as good.

I'm a snorkeling fool!

2. Kayak: Ocean kayaking in Catalina is easier than most places because there is little to no surf to deal with on much of the island, especially near Avalon. Put in, paddle out, and take your time exploring the coastline.

I’ve heard of people getting bumped off their boats by great white sharks.  That would be interesting, eh?

See, I told you Catalina is for lovers.

3. Hike: The hiking isn’t spectacular, but it’s still fun.  There are a lot of nice vantage points along any given trail.

The 37-mile Trans Catalina Trail takes you from one end of the island to the other.

Camping is available on the island if you plan ahead.

Be sure to pick up your hiking permit from the Catalina Island Conservancy. Otherwise, they’ll send the bison after you (see No. 9).

4. Rent a golf cart: A rental golf cart on Catalina is perhaps the ultimate telltale sign of a tourist. But who cares? Whipping around the island on a cart is a fun way to explore Catalina.

5. Fish: There are plenty of fish in the sea, as the old saying goes. But if we’re talking about real fish, there are plenty of those, too.

Fish from shore, or rent a skiff from the Two Harbors Dive & Recreation Center.

There are also a few fishing charter companies to choose from. They’ll show you where the fish are hiding out.

6. Go on the semi-sub tour: The semi-sub doesn’t go far, and as its name implies, it doesn’t even get completely submerged. But come on, how many times in the past year have you cruised the ocean in a sub?

(If you’re the one guy in the Navy reading this and you just got home for a nuclear sub deployment, give me a break, pal.)

For a few extra bucks, you can fire a food torpedo at the fish. Sit back and enjoy the frenzy. Food torpedo, people.

7. Dress up like Jimmy Buffett and sign autographs: It would work.

Golf cart with a view.

8. Run a marathon:  The Catalina Eco Marathon looks brutal.  We only did the 10K version. The first half was all uphill. The second half was downhill on a dirt trail. Challenging, and highly recommended.

We saw marathon runners limping across the finish line, full of dirt and sweat,  looking like they were about to die. Good times.

9. Find the bison: Bison made their way to the island by swimming underwater on one breath for the entire duration of the trip. It is amazing what a determined herd of bison are capable of.

The other story I heard is that the bison were brought to Catalina as part of a movie set. This doesn’t sound nearly as reliable as the first story, though. Who would bring bison to an island to film a movie? Weird.

Hiking Catalina is so-so.

Tide pools at Terramar

“It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.” — John Steinbeck

Getting there

The tide pools at Terramar are located at the western end of Cerezo Road in Carlsbad, California. Walk down the stairs and take a right.

When to go

Tide pools are best explored during a minus low tide when the surf is small.  Check the tide tables.

Greyhound: The biggest mistake of my life

Once upon a time, I made the biggest mistake of my life.

I willingly purchased a one-way Greyhound ticket from Rockford, Illinois to San Francisco, California.

And then, after several weeks of absorbing all that San Francisco had to offer, I made the second biggest mistake of my life.

I willingly purchased a one-way Greyhound ticket from San Francisco, California to Rockford, Illinois.

My first thought upon arriving in San Francisco after a 52-hour bus ride was “I need a shower, and I need a shower now.”

Something, anything, to wash the Greyhound filth from my skin. I felt disgusting.

What I had just experienced was mesmerizing.

The child molester on the run.  The sobbing Vietnam vet. The toothless man trying to sell me acid.

The obese, smelly woman taking over my seat. The couple in front of me almost making love in the early morning hours. Sheriff’s deputies violently arresting a man as he stepped off the bus.

The old woman sitting next to me picking her feet, cackling like a diseased crow. The drunk parolee with a huge knife in his bag. The ceaselessly crying babies.

All this, and I was only 12, 13 hours into my journey.

Yet time and time again, one painfully long layover after another, I boarded the old rickety bus headed towards oblivion with no end in sight.

How about you? How many hours straight did you endure the torture of a Greyhound bus ride? What happened along the way? Would you do it again?