Sunday, October 19, 2014

Roaring Camp and Santa Cruz

Time: Oct 12, 2014
Place: Roaring Camp and Santa Cruz.
Company: Bro, SIL, MIL, wife and daughter
Highlights: A short 2 hr drive led us to this Roaring Camp in Felton where we boarded a steam engine that took us atop the Bear Mountain. The steam engine is fascinating. The ride is a short 1.25 hrs round trip with excellent commentary. Definitely worth it, although a bit pricey.
Santa Cruz - our second time here in as many years. And just like last time, again the rides were mainly for Paavani, who enjoyed it just the same, as if she were sitting on them for the first time! 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Hanuman Temple & 17 Mile Drive

Time: Sept 20, 2014
Place: Hanuman Temple in Gilroy and 17 Mile Drive.
Company: MIL, wife and daughter
Highlights
Hanuman Temple at Mount Madonna is a very soothing and serene place. Even the drive is very scenic while climbing atop the mountain. At the temple itself, one can feel oneness with nature, what with the temple not having any walls and a soothing waterfall at the side.
Then visited 17 mile drive. I had last visited this same place as bachelor on Sept 2006. As then, it was not very impressive - instead a hyped up drive that doesn't count much when compared with just a drive on Highway 1. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Lassen, Shasta and Crater Lake

Time: Aug 29-31, 2014

Place: Lassen National Park, Shasta and Crater Lake

Company: MIL, wife and daughter

Highlights:

Day 1: Had not planned for Labor Day weekend since there was an impending work scheduled - which got cancelled at 3 pm! Immediately, started planning to go to Crater Lake. Searched for 'things to do', 'places to see' and planned the itinerary. Then, searched and booked hotels. Started packing by 6 pm, had dinner by 7:30 pm and left at 8:30 pm. After 170 miles, at about 11:30 pm, we reached the Classic inn at Red Bluff. Rested for the night.

Day 2: Breakfast was home-made food packed yester-night. Our first stop was Lassen Volcanic National Park, which was about an hour away. It was quite a surprise on all that this park had to offer. The road got elevated to almost 8000 feet within the hour and there were spectacular views. The first scenic spot was 'Sulphur Works' where there was a boiling cauldron of sulphur. Much to our surprise, it was a similar boiling cauldron that we had seen exactly during last Labor day long weekend in Yellowstone. Next stop was at Emerald Lake which was truly Emerald in color. Then there was Lake Helen which was very blue but we did not stop there. We also did not venture to the Bumpass Hell since we were short on time. We then continued on to the highest point on the road, which was the trail head of Lassen Peak trail. We did not venture on the trail but it was fascinating even to see the trail from the parking lot, with a steady stream of hikers on the massive mountain. It reminded me of the Kedarnath and Yamunotri treks. After a few clicks, we headed next to Summit Lake with a short stop at King's canyon. Tontu enjoyed at the lake throwing 'Heaviest stone in the world!' into the lake. Had a quick snack and then headed once more on the Hwy 89. Although there were few more places, we did not stop anywhere else except at Manzanita Lake but only to fill fuel. End of Lassen. Had entered with no expectations and it ended up making us more than happy!

Next stop was at McArthur-Burney Falls on Hwy 89. Although had seen pics of this falls, it did come as a nice surprise to see the massive falls, which resembled Jog Falls in Shimoga but this was shorter and wider. Some of the streams seemed to be falling directly from the rocks which looked great, as if like a curtain coming down in the theatre. Truly a natural wonder. A short 0.3 mile trek takes one all the way down to the base of the falls where one can even feel the sprinkling splash of the falls. Tontu had a whale of a time, climbing amidst the rocks and enjoying the falls to the fullest. After spending considerable time, we went to the cafe for a soft serve ice cream (ended up having a sundae) and it was almost 5 pm when we left the place. Truly enjoyed this place. 

Hwy 89 is a dead straight road from there until it reaches I-5. A beautiful road with amazing scenery. After we reached I-5 NB, took the deviation after a short time towards Klamath Falls. Kept looking out for Mt Shasta but could not find it. It was about 2.5 hrs later at about 7.30 pm when we reached Maverick Motel at Klamath Falls. The town seemed dead at 8 pm and the only open restaurant was Thai Orchid. Were very sleepy when finally we hit the bed at 10 pm. Had driven 270 miles today.

Day 3: Knew today would be a hectic day, so left at about 9 am after breakfast in motel. It was a short 1 hr drive to Crater Lake. The crowd was just building up. After a pit stop at Visitor Center, we went to Rim Village where there was an expansive view of the lake. The blueness of the lake was reminiscent of Lake Tahoe. After some snaps and quick short snack at the cafe, went to Watchman Overlook where there was a different perspective view of the lake. It was already 1:30 pm. We decided to head back (instead of going all around the rim). 

After a long drive, we reached Shasta dam. During the drive, we had beautiful views of Mt Shasta too. Mt Shasta looks like a picture perfect mountain. Shasta dam visitor center was closed by the time we reached (nearing 6 pm). Spent not too much time and then headed to Sundial Bridge. It was a different kind of bridge, in the sense that it was only meant for pedestrians and cyclists. Did not understand how exactly the sundial worked but Tontu had more fun in the river below. Then, had dinner at Priya Indian Restaurant in Redding and left at about 8 pm. After a 3.5 hr drive, reached home safely. Driven almost 490 miles in a single day.

Overview: It was a short yet fulfilling trip, especially because it was all planned out within few hours of departure. Was lucky to get hotel rooms at the last minute despite it being a long weekend. Lassen was a surprise joy visit, McArthur-Burney was pure joy and Crater Lake, Shasta Dam and Sundial bridge were all pretty much as expected. All in all, had driven about 930 miles in about 50 hrs. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

SFO Zoo, Beach and Peaks

Time: Aug 23rd, 2014
Place: SF Zoo, Ocean Beach and Twin Peaks
Company: MIL, wife and daughter
Highlights: Was told that San Francisco Zoo needs about 4 hrs worth of visit and it was pretty much sufficient. But since we entered at about 2 pm and zoo closes at 5 pm, we were short by about half hour although we tried to cover as much ground as possible. Tontu's favorite picks were the carousel and the train and the playground - not really anything related to animals in the zoo!
On the way to zoo, caught a glimpse of the wonderful beach right in front of the zoo, so headed there. It was called Ocean Beach. Tontu had a nice time with the sand and the waves.
On the way back home, went to the nearby Twin Peaks vista point. It was extremely cold and windy while climbing atop one of the peak. The view of the SFO was worth the wind and the chill.
All in all, a good summer day spent outside!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Muir Woods

Time: Aug 3rd, 2014
Place: Muir Woods and Golden Gate Scenic spot
Company: MIL, wife and daughter
Highlights: Had first visited this place as a bachelor in Sept 2006. Then tried visiting this place last year but got lost. Finally got successful this time. As on 2006, it was as chilly. But spent longer time - almost about 2 hrs. Some really tall trees and uniqueness. Did not venture out on any trails. 
Then headed to Golden Gate recreation area (last exit before entering Golden Gate from the other side of SFO) and took in some really great views of the Golden Gate. Chillier than Muir despite sunny day!!

Golden Gate

Time: July 26th, 2014
Place: San Francisco (Golden Gate and Crooked Street)
Company: Mother-In-Law, Wife, Daughter
Highlights: Same itinerary as March visit! But this time, it was very cold! The towers were completely filled with clouds.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Glacier National Park

Time: July 11-14, 2014

Place: Glacier National Park

Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights:

Overview – Totally forgot how we got hold of this location but the more we started researching, the more we liked it. Specifically the Going-to-the-Sun road with its numerous vista points, Logan Pass with the Continental Divide, multiple trails, etc. The glaciers were attraction too but the rate at which they were diminishing, we knew it was hard to see a glacier but still the place had lots to offer. This was one of the vacations which was booked way ahead in advance (2.5 months) which is not typical of our vacations. July 11th being our wedding anniversary, it seemed the right vacation at the right time, since this park is pretty inaccessible at any time other than summer months. After we had booked, we found out that this was one of the top ten national parks.

Day 1: Initially planned for working from home (since flight was at 5 pm) but thought better of it and instead took the entire day off. Left home at about 2 pm and was at the Oakland airport by about 3 pm (off-airport parking). For the first time ever, had booked a lesser-known Allegiant Air which flew direct from Oakland to Kalispell. A short 2 hour economy flight. Reached Kalispell at about 8 pm and then took the Thrifty rental car from on-airport Hertz (since Thrifty was closed after 5 pm). Had used the “Specialty - Wild Card” type of car, for the first time ever after learning about it and it was a great deal since I got the Chevy Impala. Regular Economy sized cars were way too expensive as compared to the specialty option. After about half an hour drive, stopped at a Pizza Hut for nice dinner. Continued thereon to city of West Glacier where we had booked a room at West Glacier Motel. Retired for the night.

Day 2: Had a nice sumptuous breakfast at West Glacier Restaurant, filled up the fuel (due to lack of availability inside the park) and headed to the entrance of the national park which is also the commencement of Going-to-the-Sun road. We had planned on things to do and as per plan, headed straight to Logan Pass which was the highest point on the road. The road is closed for most of winter and usually opens up in June-July timeframe after all the snow is cleared. This year, it was opened a week ago on 7/4. Our planning on the date was right-on.

So, despite all the attractions that started coming by on the Going-to-the-Sun road, we skipped them all and the road started ascending. The scenery was mesmerizing. It is a constant ascent. Soon, far-away snow starts coming nearer and nearer until you stop and start playing with it! The weather was perfect. It was in fact very warm – nearing 80s and all the snow was very quickly melting away. There were waterfalls on the road every other mile.

Even though we had planned for Logan Pass to be our first stop, we did stop at about couple of locations (The Loop and Weeping Wall) – for taking picture of the scenery and to play with snow. Finally by the time we reached Logan Pass it was almost 2 PM. Our first trail in the park was Hidden Lake Overlook which started from Logan Pass. To our dismay, much of the trail was covered with snow. It was continuous snow as well as with a gradient. At that altitude and with our pre-schooler daughter, the hike became hectic. We somehow managed to go at least to a certain altitude beyond which it was very difficult to continue. The warm weather also was turning chillier and hence we decided to head back. Nevertheless it was fun to hike in the slippery snow. It also gave Paavani to build a small snow man.

Next, we took some snaps at the Continental Divide – a great spot for geologists due to its importance. We also had plans of going a short distance on the Highline Trail too because of its spectacular views. However, due to extreme snow, this trail was closed right at the beginning. So had to abort the plan.

It was already 6 pm. So we decided to head to our night stay which was almost 2 hours away at East Glacier Motel in East Glacier city, outside the national park. Even though we had planned this trip in advance, all the hotels and resorts inside the national park were already booked out for the summer in April itself. The ones remaining were almost 300 USD per night. So did not have much choice but to choose a motel very far away. On the way, we stopped at Jackson Glacier overlook which was our first view of a glacier. Although it was very far, it was still spectacular.

By the time we reached our motel, it was already 8 pm. It was a nice different motel in the sense that it was more like independent cottages. Ours had complete kitchenette with double room and 2 TVs, etc. We relaxed, watched a movie and retired.

Day 3: Again, had a nice breakfast at a local restaurant directly in front of our motel. Our first stop was at Many Glacier area. We had plans of trekking the Grinnell Lake trail at least a short distance but it was way too hot and there were too many flies and mosquitoes and what-nots that irritated our daughter that we did a u-turn after walking just few minutes. Yet, we enjoyed the nice scenery at Swiftcurrent lake and took some nice snaps. The magnificent Many Glacier Hotel with its chalet-like appearance is a pristine beauty. There were even some mountain goats grazing near the hotel.
We decided next to head to St Mary’s Falls hike which Missus had marked as not-to-miss. This was originally our day 4 plan but since Grinnell did not happen, we decided to save ourselves some time on last day. So after about an hour’s drive, we reached the trailhead. There was much adventure since there was no parking and we had to park a short distance away. Daughter was still against the whole hiking since she was terrified of the flies, and it was too strenuous. So we picked her up and started off, coaxing her all the while. Finally, she started walking and it became much easier. Most of the trek towards the falls is downhill. After about an hour’s walk, finally reached the falls. It was a glorious sight. We just sat there and looked at it for a long time. The color of the water turned aqua-green after the falls and it was an amazing sight. After some more pics, headed uphill back to the car. It was 5 pm by the time we reached the car and we headed back to the motel. Reached motel at 7.15 pm, relaxed, took a short walk and retired.

Day 4: Not-so-great breakfast this time. First stop for the day was Running Eagle Falls in Two Medicine area. This was a short 0.3 mile trek that led to a great spot – there was a nice water falls, a short wooden bridge that was installed just a few days back to cross the gushing stream of water, the water itself, etc. It was very pleasant and extremely soothing. Even Paavani enjoyed a lot at this place. If we had more time, perhaps we could have spent more time but we had a lot to cover today, so we left after about 30 mins.

We re-entered the Going-to-the-Sun road for the third time in as many days. This time, the drive was very relaxing. As many have mentioned, this road has to be enjoyed from both directions. This is very true. Enjoyed the scenery from the car itself. There was road construction going on at multiple places and vehicles were being stopped intermittently. Did not stop at any attraction but just chugged along slowly up the mountains to Logan Pass and then started descending. At Weeping Wall, there was a huge gush of waterfalls coming from atop the mountain onto roadside. Drove the car underneath for an auto car wash! 
That was a nice experience. There was one more spot at the base of the mountain where color of river was aqua-green. Took some snaps and finally reached our next destination: 

Trail of the Cedars in Lake MacDonald area. This is a nice loop trail on a boardwalk (not too many flies nor mosquitoes here!) that weaves through some of the oldest and tallest trees. As a backdrop, there is Avalanche creek and a small falls that gives the right effect for a perfect trail. It was a very relaxed walk amidst the cedars.

Then, we headed to the Apgar Loop road to gain access to Lake MacDonald itself. The lake was extremely serene and with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, it was simply beautiful. The water was completely transparent and we could see the lake bed very easily even though it was pretty deep. Had some nice “nature” time and by then, it was getting cloudy with thunderstorms and hence it was dark. This was our last stop in the Glacier National Park. Just as we made our way towards the airport, it started raining in torrents. We made good time and by the time we reached the Kalispell airport and finished off the rental car return formalities, it was almost 7 pm. For some reason, it seemed to take forever to reach Oakland. By the time we reached home, it was almost midnight. Thankfully, everything went well and we reached safe without any issues.

Summary: Glacier National Park in Montana is a beautiful place. It almost feels like the Switzerland, especially when seen from the airport, with its snow-capped mountains. The national park is famous for its immense number of trails. Sadly though, most of the trails are fairly long meaning over a mile. This causes an issue for those with small children. Yet, trails like Running Eagle and St Mary Falls are still within reach and thoroughly enjoyable by one and all. Anyways, trail or no trail – the park still has enough natural beauty to mesmerize everyone. This website was very helpful in planning - amongst many other. Another check mark to one of our dream vacations.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Pacific Coast Highway

Time: May 24-25, 2014

Place: Drive on Pacific Coast Highway from Monterey to Santa Maria and back. Includes Bixby Bridge, Big Sur, Pfeiffer Beach, McWay Falls, etc.

Company: Wife and Daughter

Highlights

Overview - Had not planned for the Memorial Day long weekend but yet wanted to utilize it. With a crucial project currently underway at work, I could not plan it ahead since I was not sure if I had to work over the weekend. But on Friday, it was clear that there was no need to work over the weekend. So, a tentative plan of a simple drive on the highly acclaimed Pacific Coast Highway turned into a reality, (amongst other nominated drives). But when I checked for hotel rates, I was stunned to see that none of the hotels were available for Saturday, and the cheapest one I could get hold of was in Santa Maria, which was almost 45 mins away from the end of the scenic CA-1 route (Morro Bay). Whatsoever, went ahead with it. Did not even book a rental car, and trusted on self's 2006 Honda Civic.

Day 1: Left the house at about 10 AM. With the long weekend traffic, reached Monterey at about 1 PM. Had lunch at a Thai and the road started skirting the ocean. The waves were magnificent. The beaches were beckoning but we stuck to the plan. 

Our first stop was Rocky Creek Bridge, which is not as famous as Bixby Bridge. But we had our share of fun. Immediately thereafter we came across Bixby Bridge. After some more poses for the camera, we took a pit stop at River Inn. Our initial plan was to cover as much of CA-1 as possible on Day 1 but considering that we hadn't even reached Pfeiffer Beach by 4 PM (and the fact that we wanted to be in Pfeiffer at twlight), we changed the plan of visiting Pfeiffer Beach on Day 2 twilight. So, we thought we might as well have some food and ended up having second lunch at River Inn. Then, much to our delight, River Inn boasts of a small river in the back, and although the water was very cold, it was nice to wade in it, sit on the chairs strewn over the river and relax. It was very soothing and truly wonderful. Finally, at about 5 PM, we left River Inn and headed to Pfeiffer. 

As it is known for, I missed the exit and then thankfully had marked down the fact that if I saw Big Sur Bakery, I was too much ahead. So, headed back and got the exit. But there was a Park Ranger who was not allowing cars to go since the parking lot was full. So, we found a spot on CA-1 itself, then started to walk the 2 miles to the beach. When we re-entered the road that led to the beach, the ranger was not in sight any more and passers-by said that we might as well take the car. Sure enough, there was sufficient parking lots empty to park the car now. 

Pfeiffer Beach is one of a kind. It is extremely windy. So much so that you need to wear glasses to protect your eyes from flying sand. It is also extremely chilly. It also has Cabo San Lucas kind of arched rock formation. But unlike Cabo, we can sit on the beach and view the waves gushing through the arch. Apart from this, the sand on this beach turns purple as dusk approaches. It was quite remarkable to see that "purply" effect.

By the time we were done with the beach, it was 7:30 PM. In a bid to cover as much of CA-1 as possible with fading daylight, I drove fast and then realized that it really wasn't worth it. So enjoyed the vista points, as needed. After nightfall, I had thought the drive would be easy but unfortunately it was kinda difficult thanks to the set of winding roads and speed limit of 20 MPH. And it was a two-way road too. I wished I had got a hotel on CA-1 itself but had to wear myself out for the next 3 hrs on nightfall to finally reach Santa Maria. Once in hotel, had a good night's sleep.

Day 2: Left the hotel at about 10.30 AM. Reached CA-1 and our first point of interest was the vista point where there were about 100 Elephant Seals. It was a sight to see and very unique. Then, we were back on the 20 MPH mountain (Rugged Point, I believe) where the mist coming off the ocean turned into clouds and hence we were amidst the clouds at sealevel, which is quite unique. We then took a stop at Lucia but the restaurant was so crowded and it was so understaffed that we left without anyone bothering to stop us. 

Although we were very hungry, we thought we might as well finish off the next point of interest: McWay Falls. This involved a short trek too. But what greeted us was mesmerizing. We never expected to see such a grand view - it was as Heavenly as it could be. Our pre-schooler daughter too was so happy to behold the view that she said she was seeing the stars on the ocean - referring to the million sunlight reflections on the bobbing waves. Even the history associated to the site is stunning. With that done, we were very hopeful of lunch at Nepenthe (known for its good ocean-viewing restaurant seats) but even that could not be achieved since it was almost 4.30 PM and guests were no longer allowed to lunch. 

Starving, we decided to lunch again at River Inn and enjoy some time at the soothing river instead of hurrying through to the last planned point of 17 Mile Drive. So we took it easy thereon and left River Inn at about 6 PM. There was traffic but despite that we were able to reach by 9.30 PM - continuous drive with no stops. 

Summary: All in all, it was 584 scenic miles driven in 2 days. There were lots of vista point stops and we saw enough of ocean's beauty along the Pacific Coast Highway. Nat Geo link was very helpful for planning purpose. Truly hats-off for those who made this wonderful road possible. Just goes to show what a powerful combination it is when Man's brilliance works off of Nature's brilliance. And how thankful one can possible be to just experience this...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Del Valle Regional Park

Time: May 11th, 2014
Place: Del Valle Regional Park, Livermore
Company: Family get-together with colleagues
Highlights
A mother's day outing that started with a nice Thai lunch, a coldstone ice cream and some great time at the lake in Del Valle, especially made special because of the care-free and fun-loving attitude of the kids all around. 
Del Valle is a nice and simple park with the lake as prominence and a beach-like atmosphere. Even the road leading to the park is pretty scenic. Reminded me of the Hopkinton State Park which used to be one of the regular places I used to visit when I was in Marlborough.
A definitely good outing for a hot weekend-day within an hour's drive from East Bay.

Note: Considering the outing was a success, subsequent outings took place at this same place.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lake Elizabeth Fremont

Time: April 19th 2014
Place: Lake Elizabeth, Fremont
CompanyFamily and Friends
Highlights: A short 40 minute drive from our home led us to this nice park in Fremont, akin to our local (read Bangalore) Sankey Tank Park where my wife and I spent much of our courting life! But this time, it was more fun for the kiddo where she had the time of her life, going on the multitude of artistic swings and slides. The evening ended with a nice chaat!

Birthday Celebration at Moaning Cavern Park

Time: 16th April, 2014
Place: Moaning Cavern Park
Company: Wife, Daughter
Highlights: Well, we were introduced to the concept of zip-lining when we visited Cabo. But we could not experience it in Cabo. A chance encounter with a brochure in Oakland Airport in late 2013 where we saw 'Free zip line to celebrate your birthday' made us plan this for our birthday in 2014. It reminded us of the freebies we experienced as part of 2013 birthday celebrations
Moaning cavern park boasts of zip line, rock climbing, rappelling, cave walk, etc. Unlike last year, only one activity was free for the birthday person. Of course, we opted for zip line since it was the costliest of the lot which was offered for free. It was great fun albeit only for 40 or so seconds. Wifey also enjoyed a stint at the rock climbing. The cave walk down to 165 feet below (240 steps) was also exhilarating, filled with so much of rich history. Tontu walked a great deal of steps, more than our expectation.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Iron Horse Trail

Time: 12th April, 2014
Place: Iron Horse Trail
Company: Wife, Daughter
Highlights: There is this nice spawning over-bridge only for pedestrians near our house that each time we went on the road (in our car) that goes underneath this bridge, we used to say we need to go on it. This bridge was only for those on the Iron Horse Trail. Finally, we got to do this! Walked from Pleasant Hill BART to Walnut Creek (WC) and although it was almost an hour, we didn't even feel it! At WC, spent a nice time at the Civic park where Tontu enjoyed swing, slide and even a game of Frisby. A short walk in the downtown for an Indian snack and a stroll in the WC lib and we were on our way back. 

Unfortunately, Tontu had a minor fall and a small cut on her lips, and with all the exhaustion of the walking and running, she slept off in her pram. We leisurely made our way back home. All through, it was a great experience walking amidst nature on this man-made wonderful trail. It is so important to have such trails! All in all, it was about 4-5 hr outing and a day extremely well spent!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Golden Gate

Time: March 23rd, 2014
Place: San Francisco (Golden Gate and Crooked Street)
Company: Relatives, Wife, Daughter
Highlights: A quick trip to SFO for sight-seeing to appease visiting relatives. Just went to GG and the Crooked Street. Walked on the GG bridge to the first tower. With spring in the air, it was refreshing!

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Aurora Borealis

Time: Feb 19 – 22 2014

Place: Fairbanks, Alaska

Company: Wife and daughter

Highlights:

Overview - A trip solely made to view the Northern Lights [NL]aka Aurora Borealis. Multiple reviews suggested that 3 nights in Fairbanks gives about 80-90% chance of viewing the Northern Lights. Hence, planned the trip for 3 nights.

There are a lot of things to do and places to go in Alaska but there was nothing much to do for us in February because we are not that much into dog-sledding or any other normal winter activities like skiing or snowmobiling especially in the freezing temperature of 20 below 0 degree Fahrenheit. Also, there are a number of things to do in and around Anchorage but since our main intent of the trip was NL and since Fairbanks was a better place than Anchorage for viewing NL, we chose Fairbanks as our destination. Looks like Alaska is a place which needs to be visited once in summer and once in winter to truly take in its variety of offerings in each season. Some folks pay the extra buck to visit during March or October to enjoy a bit of both but it still risks the NL view-ability.

This trip was on our thoughts since almost a year now but the right moment had never arrived. Although - considering that aurora was in its peak from 2013-2015 (peak happens only once in 12 years) we had to act fast. As a result, a lot of research and planning had gone into it. We came across a number of good sites such as the ones for aurora forecast by Todd and GI. There are also a good many Alaska travel agency sites such as Northern Alaska, Alaska Tours, 1st Alaska and even those offered by Alaska Rail Road. In addition to these, there were a number of websites like tripadvisor where actual visitors have given their two cents on dos and donts, and personal recommendations and driving tips in winter. The method of charging even a fuel car like an electric car was a new experience to me.

Flights to Alaska are very expensive. So with Google’s help, we were able to find the cheapest rate for only this set of days for this entire year(!) and booked it without thinking too much. On hindsight, despite all the exhaustive planning, the execution of the plan fell just short of satisfaction due to reasons given in Summary below. 

Day 1: Drove in self car to Oakland off-airport parking lot at 8 am. Alaska Air Flight to Seattle and then to Fairbanks. Checked in at Best Western Plus at about 6 pm, after a squirm-ish time with car rental guys who had not misplaced the car reservation. The hotel guys called up at 10.30 pm that NL was visible and we put on layers and layers of clothing to brave the freezing temperature. We headed out in the car to a remote place where there was no city lights and were delighted to see a dazzling display of the green lights over the sky. It definitely was the experience of a lifetime. With a happy-happy thought that we were able to accomplish the objective of the trip, we went back to the hotel at about midnight.

Day 2: Went to North Pole to see Santa Claus house (unfortunately it was closed) but took some snaps in front of the huge statue and some ice sculptures. Then drove over to Chena Hot Springs Resort. It was a mind-numbing drive over icy roads that took over 2 hrs to drive the 60+ miles. Got real scared when the car started going on its own at times! The resort itself was nice with smokes emanating from the naturally hot springs amidst snow-laden surrounding. But with a limitation of no-toddler within the pool, we had to satisfy ourselves by just taking some snaps here and there. Then, went on a ice museum tour in the same campus to actually see an ice sculptor at work. The daughter could not withstand the cold too long and hence had to get back in the warmth of the car. Drove back to the hotel and took a brief nap.

Had booked for a tour to view the NL from a remote lodge with 1st Alaska Outdoor School via Alaska Tours and they took us on a 40 min drive to a lodge with a panoramic view of the sky. Within minutes, the NL made its way and we could see it end to end. While the previous night was more active, this one had a massive view. Although it was mainly green, it was still good to see the lights moving across the clear sky. We stayed for about 2 hrs in the lodge, taking turns to brave the chill weather (-24F) outside and after having had enough viewing, headed back to the hotel.

Day 3: Took it downright easy. Played with snow. Went to Alaska University Museum to take in the beautiful view from the top. Mount McKinley was not visible in the clouds. Had an extremely spicy food at Pad Thai. Drove over on the Steese Highway to view the Trans-Alaska pipeline and take some snaps. Then headed back to the hotel to pack and get ready to leave the next day.

Day 4: Got up early, rushed to the airport and took the 9 am to Seattle and then (after the kid enjoyed the train ride and the play area in Seattle airport) the 4 pm to Oakland. By the time we filed a complaint for the delayed car-seat and then took shuttle and drove back home, it was 7.30 pm.

Summary – 

There was some dissatisfaction on 'value for money' considering the things we missed. The blame was on booking the flight tickets prior to planning 'things to do'. This usually works in most vacations but for this trip, it should have been ideally the other way around (plan the things to do first and then book the flight tickets). 
- The drive to Arctic Circle happens only on Fridays and we could not go on the tour since our flight was departing within a few hours from arrival of the trip (if taken, and if allowed with a toddler which I later found out was not recommended due to the dangers of the adventurous 16-hr day trip on a gravelly road). 
- If we had planned for one more day, we could have driven down to Anchorage (to explore and experience some glaciers, enjoy some more scenic beauty south of Fairbanks including Denali National Park, driven on Stampede Road, etc) and flown back from Anchorage. 
- If the trip had been postponed by a fortnight, we could have seen North Pole as it would have opened by then and also the World Ice Art championship displays

But the greatest satisfaction and gratefulness lay in being lucky enough to view the NL on two out of three nights. Maybe we could have seen on the 3rd night too, if only it wasn’t so cold! We got tired wearing layers and layers of tops and pants. It took almost 30 mins just to wear everything and get ready (from top to toe) – and do the same thing for the 3 year-old! The temp being in 20s and 30s the following week made it feel even bad! 

Anyways, this trip turned out to be just for NL and rest everything was for the sake of ‘passing time during the day’. Suffice it to say, that it was not hectic like most other vacations - which is how vacations ought to be in the first place!! Although slight repents on not having fully utilized the trip to see some of Alaska’s must-sees (hopefully one of the summers), the trip was for Aurora Borealis and thankful that we were lucky to see the Natural Light Show!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Muir That Never Happened

Time: Dec 1, 2013

Place: Mill Valley

CompanyDad, Mom, Bro, Sister-in-law, Wife, Daughter

Highlights: Planned to visit Muir Woods. Last time I was here was in 2006. Saw on few websites that the address was Mill Valley city. So went to Mill Valley downtown. But when checked there, we were told that we should have taken another exit. Meanwhile, there was a winterfest going on, with bubbles, snow slide, santa and so on. So spent an hour since Tontu was enjoying. 

Then followed GPS to a narrow, winding and 'No Thoroughfare' road and got stuck in the middle of the mountain! Had a tough time taking a U-turn on the mini-van, and finally consolidated our position near Old Mill Park, Mill Valley since Tontu was enjoying her swing and slide in the park. Saw on nps site the correct address for Muir Woods and realized that we were just 10 mins away. But it was already nearing 4 pm. Realized that it was not worth it any more, since even the Old Mill Park had very tall trees, thus giving the effect of a mini Muir Woods. Hence, went back home. Thus, "The Muir That Never Happened"!

This ended up as the third 'Valley' in one week: Death Valley, Napa Valley, Mill Valley.

Napa

Time: Nov 30, 2013
Place: Napa Valley
Company: Dad, Mom, Bro, Sister-in-law, Wife, Daughter
Highlights: Had heard a lot about Napa Valley since I first had visited SFO in 2006 but also had read that there is nothing great here, especially for a person like me who is not so much into wine tasting and wineries. Resisted the urge to visit even during 2012 SFO visit. But now, I felt the time had finally come. 
Unfortunately, it wasn't the right time at all. None of the wineries had any great scenic views. It had all dried up. Thankfully, the short walk in Yountville downtown was a face-saver and fresh.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Death Valley

Time: Nov 23-26 2013

Place: Death Valley National Park

Company: Parents, wife and daughter

Highlights:

Pre: In the first week of November, it was announced in office that the Thanksgiving week will be off for us. So hastily planned a drive down to Death Valley. Flight rates were too costly due to the holiday season, and any other place in the country would be too cold anyways. So Death Valley was ideal both in terms of timing [it is 70s in November] and cost-benefit [USD 200 or less for 4 days of rental car].

Day 1: Had booked the rental car from 11 am, so went to Hertz office at 11 am. To my horror, there was a huge line that went out of the small shop, and each customer was taking almost 20 minutes. Finally when I reached the counter, it was 12.30 pm and then I was told that there was no ‘Full-size’ car which I had reserved. Instead I was given a mid-size Corolla. I was heart-broken. A Corolla is not fit for 4 adults and a toddler on a 4 day exhaustive driving trip. I was given the option to change the car in any airport but there was no  airports nearby nor along the route. So, went with whatever we had and tried to manage. It was 1 pm when we left our home town Walnut Creek.

Had only 2 pit stops. First one was on the rest area on I-5 South and second was in Bakersfield in an Indian grocery-cum-eat-out shop. It was about 7 pm when we had tea and left the Indian store. By the time we reached our Super 8 hotel stay in Ridgecrest, it was nearing 9.

Day 2: We checked out from the hotel at 9 am. There are 2 roads from Ridgecrest to DV. The shorter one was closed due to a recent flooding in DV. Thankfully we didn’t miss the board otherwise we would have faced a road block 44 miles ahead! The longer route put us back by about an hour. We felt like we were driving forever, when finally we reached DV at about noon.

Exactly 24 hrs after we left our home and 540 miles of driving, we reached the first point of interest: Titus Canyon. We trekked through few yards into the canyon and after savoring the moment, headed to Scotty’s Castle, more for a picnic spot and restroom than for seeing the castle itself. After getting refreshed, we headed to Ubehebe crater. 


This was really a wonderful place to visit. We hiked up the crater for a few yards to take in its complete vastness and beauty. At 4.40 pm, the sunset and it started getting both cold and dark. So headed back to our next place of stay at Amargosa, NV: Longstreet Casino. During the drive, I saw board that we were 100 ft below sea-level. We finally reached about 6.30 pm and retired for the night. Thankfully they have a dining area within the casino itself since there is no other place to eat nearby.

Day 3: To leave early was very vital since we had a long list of places to see and also head back the 3 hr back to Ridgecrest hotel. Thankfully we managed to leave at 8 am. At 9 am we were on the Dante’s Peak. It had snowed recently and there were snow blocks still on the peak. The view was breath-taking, as the nps website had promised. 


Then we headed to Zabriskie Point. This place is too is very unique and visually stunning. It needs a short uphill walk from the parking lot. Our next stop was Furnace Creek General store for a quick bite of breakfast. Our next stop was Badwater Basin, which is 282 feet below sea level – the lowest point in North America. It was a heady feeling – the thought that we were below sea level. Spent some time walking on the basin and taking pictures.


Then, headed to Natural Bridge, which needed a 0.5 mile uphill walk. It wasn’t all that great but it was nice. Our last stop was Artist’s Drive and Artist’s Palette which truly is a palette considering the wide variety of colors on the rocks. That, we had decided, was the last spot we would see. We came back to Furnace Creek for quick bite of lunch and then headed back home to Ridgecrest. Exactly as planned, it was 3.30 pm when we left DV. Considering 4.40 pm was sunset time, we only had about 1.5 hrs of sunlight left, and it was vital to be back on the highway at night time to avoid any risks – even something as minor as a flat tyre or anything else. Again, as planned, we were out of the DV area by night fall. There were 2 mountains to climb to get out of the DV park, and both of them had winding roads and snow on summit. Finally we reached the same Super 8 hotel in Ridgecrest at 7 pm. Had a short and sweet dinner at neighboring Kristy’s, and then retired.

Day 4: This was just an all-day drive back home day! Initially had plans of coming back via the Pacific Coast Highway but it would be too much of driving. So, stuck to the shortest and fastest route – I-5 N. Still it took 7 hrs to get back to Walnut Creek – thanks to the 3 pit stops and the traffic at the destination. Finally when the car was returned to the rental center and we came home, it was 6.30 pm. That was the end of the trip to Death Valley.

Post: In 2009, when my wife and I visited Las Vegas, we had planned a one-day trip to Death Valley National Park. The only thing I knew then was that Death Valley had the lowest point in North America – below sea level. Then, during the visit to Grand Canyon, we changed plans on the fly and made an exciting road trip to LA instead. There was a part of me which always repented the fact that we did not visit DV. But now, after hours of research, I am glad we didn’t make a one day trip to DV. This place deserves a 2-3 days’ duration of visit. Even in this trip, we had stuck to just the main features of DV. Many places here need a 4 WD [high clearance] vehicles and roads need to be open. But we had shortlisted only those that we wanted to see. And this was the right timing, too. DV was mesmerizing in its uniqueness, although at times the roads reminded us of the Utah trip we had done last year. 

In all, we covered 1300 miles in 4 days, and one more memorable trip of 2013.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Santa Cruz Boardwalk

Time: Oct 26, 2013
Place: Santa Cruz
Company: Family
Highlights: A small research on the internet led us to Santa Clara boardwalk. This is a nice weekend outing with a rare combination of rides, casino, and many other entertainments on the beach boardwalk. Paavani enjoyed a lot with a multitude of rides for her age, and we enjoyed her enjoying. Once we felt she had enjoyed the rides enough, took her to the beach where she had even more fun with sea-gulls and sand. Headed back home - a 2 hr "sleepy" drive! Definitely a place not to miss!

Mt Diablo

Time: Oct 20, 2013
Place: Mt Diablo
Company: Family
Highlights: The address on Google maps gave the visitor center at the base of the mountain from where hikers hike up the mountain. So we had to head back on to North gate road to climb the mountain on road. It was a relatively steep and very winding road - one of the few treacherous one that I have driven in US. But more than the road, the tension was more on the dwindling fuel in the car due to bad planning on my part. There seemed to be 2 gallons of fuel at base but as I climbed, I got indications from car of low fuel and there was about 20+ miles distance for nearest fuel station. Due to this, we parked the car about 2 miles away from the summit and wanted to savor the moment as if we were on the summit. Spent almost an hour there contemplating if we had to scale up to the summit on foot or on car. Taking the risk, we went in car. Summit was good, with 360 degree view and a visitor center with good video/information about Mt Diablo's unique features such as the oldest rocks found in the summit (opposite to other peaks' features). Then it was time to head back. Did the whole mountain just on neutral save for couple of accelerations. Safely reached the fuel station 20 miles later. Really would have repented if we had not gone up to the summit. A nice outing, especially since the summit is only about an hour from home.

SFO and Pacifica Beach

Time: Oct 13, 2013
Place: San Francisco, Pacifica
Company: Family
Highlights: A trip solely dedicated to the visiting family members (Bro, parents, etc.). Visited SFO Financial District, showed my office, then went to Lombard Street. Then headed to Golden Gate. Went over it on both sides and then drove a little on the Pacific Coast highway until we spotted the first beach on the city of Pacifica where we spent some time seeing Paavani enjoying! Headed back home. A nice outing, although I was more of a driver than a tourist. Didnt mind much, since had seen these places already in 2012.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Yellowstone National Park

Time: Aug 30, 2013 – Sep 2, 2013

Place: Yellowstone National Park


Company: Wife and daughter


Highlights: 


Prologue: Yellowstone National Park was a long sought after destination vacation. But for many years, it was elusive plainly because of lack of easy accessibility. We had sat for hours together planning a trip to this park but always coming short of it due to one reason or the other. Nearest popular airport was almost 6 hrs drive away and flights to airports near to the National Park were either too expensive or had long layovers, and if all was fine, access roads were closed. Hence, we had given this place a slip for many long weekends. But, after much deliberation and thought, finalized on this destination for the Labor Day long weekend of 2013 from our new source location airport SFO - about a month in advance - even though we hadn’t shifted yet from Costa Mesa!


Day 1: Left our apt in Walnut Creek, CA in car to an off-airport parking lot. Could have taken the BART train but for the fact that our return flight was at a time when BART would not be running. Car drive was almost an hour. Shuttle was quick and short, took us to airport about an hour before the flight departure. Flight was on time and left at 4.37 pm PDT to Salt Lake City airport. After a long wait at the Hertz car rental, finally left SLC at about 8.30 pm MDT. Although had ordered an economy size car, I was given Mazda 5 which could sit 5+1, and hence very vast and comfortable for just the 3 of us. 

After a short 15 min drive, we reached Bountiful to have dinner at Taste of India restaurant. We ordered take-out for Tontu to survive on Indian bread for next 3 days. And then, left to Pocatello, Idaho for our night stay inn. Tontu seemed to have caught on a cold and had trouble during the journey sleeping and it took some pacifying. Finally, reached Rodeway Inn University at about midnight and retired. 

Day 2: After a typical breakfast in a bed and breakfast inn, we left the inn at 10 am and Pocatello at about 11 am (after some grocery and pharmacy shopping, again, to last for next 3 days). We reached Yellowstone National Park at about 3 pm and were at the first attraction – Lower Geyser Basin at 3.30 pm. It was a spectacular sight, seeing the seething hot water cauldron and the hot water fountain everywhere. 

From there, we skipped the midway geyser basin to head to the Old Faithful. There was a wait time of 1 hr until we could witness the next eruption. So we grabbed a good lunch and some dessert at the local cafĂ©, and then got good seats for the grant natural ‘Old Faithfulness’! It was more of an anti-climax since it did not last too long nor did it erupt to gigantic heights to which it is capable. Nevertheless it was a wonderful sight. 

Then, we headed to the hotel on the east entrance. We could have covered the West Thumb geyser basin but since Tontu was too sleepy, we skipped it, leaving it for the last day. The road to east entrance skirts the Yellowstone lake and it is a very nice drive. We reached Pahaska Tepee Lodge at about 8 pm. 

Finding hotel in Yellowstone was one of the toughest tasks. We had searched so many websites and hadn’t found any nearby hotels until we found Pahaska Tepee on the Google Maps when we searched for ‘hotels near Yellowstone’. This is not the typical hotel, it is in the middle of nowhere, in fact in the middle of bear-area! It is in between 2 mountains, almost like a valley. The lodges are wooden and the one in which we stayed just had a bed and a bathroom. No TV, no wifi. Not much lights, and hence when you venture out of the room, you could see a zillion stars on a clear night! A very different experience and worthwhile. Retired for the night. 

Day 3: Tontu’s syrup did its job well and Tontu was almost free of cold. We got up late and left at about 11 am. The drive on the East entrance is mesmerizing. It passes through Sylvan Pass and climbs enormously on winding roads with breathtaking views.

More spectacular views came by in the way of Hayden Valley where there were a number of bison. There were some that even crossed us on the road many times during the entire day. It was good to experience a safari-like adventure while being on self-driven car. 

Our first stop was on the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone on the South Rim drive for a view of the Falls. With Tontu, it would have been time consuming to take the 300 step steep hike where supposedly the view is amazing, hence enjoyed the view from the viewpoint near the car parking. After a few clicks, we then went on the North Rim drive and enjoyed the views on all the three overlook points. It truly looks like the Grand Canyon (although not so grand)!

Next stop was Tower Junction where we had a short bite. A few steps of hike and we saw the Tower falls. After the view of the falls in the GC of Y, this seemed small and hence not-so-great. Then, we moved on to Mammoth Hot Springs. On the way, we saw a bunch of Elks. 

MHS smells strongly of sulphur. It has a bunch of viewpoints like the mud cauldron, dragon’s mouth spring, terraces, etc. It is fascinating to see a bubbling mud pond smelling strongly, and a small cavish opening making dragon-like sounds, spitting out hot water, not to mention water falling from naturally made steps. 

Last stop of the day was Norris Geyser basin. We did a short 0.25 mile trek to see the Steamboat Geyser which had a fairly good minor continuous eruption. Then we just glanced over Porcelain geyser basin from the entrance of the trek, and headed back since it was getting late, and the drive back to Pahaska was about 2 hrs. Realized that we should have planned better to stay nearer to West entrance since we were closer to this side of the gate. Once more we skirted the Yellowstone lake and zoomed over the Sylvan Pass. Reached about the same time as previous day, had dinner at the hotel’s dining room and retired. 

Day 4: This was going to be a long day, considering we had to reach home back in Walnut Creek. Got up by 8.30 am, left at 10 am. For the last time, passed through the Sylvan Pass. It was a rainy day, and we were glad that all our major attractions were completed. The only remaining one on our list was West Thumb Geyser Basin. We did a pit stop at Fishing Bridge and got ‘to-go’ breakfast to have it in the car, to save time. It was raining hard when we reached and hence had to run through it in our hoodies. It was a different sight altogether – cold rain meeting the hot geysers. There was definitely more smoke. We wanted to visit the Lower Geyser basin once more before we left the park, but due to rain, we skipped it. 

We left the West Entrance at 1.15 pm. We ran into couple of traffic jams due to accidents and hence had to skip the plan of having dinner at Taste of India in Bountiful again. Instead, we did a Subway stop-over at Malad city, and directly headed to SLC airport. By the time we reached SLC, it was 8 pm – a 10 hr drive, out of which Tontu had sat on the child seat for 6 hrs straight! It was about 420 miles of driving. Comparable to my Grand Canyon to Barstow driving stint in 2009. 

At SLC, we were asked to let go of our toothpaste during security screening. Surprisingly this did not happen in SFO airport! Once aboard the flight, we were told that they did not have permission to land in SFO and hence they made us wait inside the flight for about 1.5 hrs. Surprisingly, Tontu did not sleep the entire day, although she was sleepy at many times during the day. She only slept when the lights dimmed during take-off at 11.30 pm. We reached SFO at midnight and after a long wait for the shuttle, got back to our car. 1 hr drive back home again, and by the time we slept it was almost 3 am. Thats almost 17 hrs travel time! 

Key Notes: 
- 995 miles driven in the rental car, 100 miles driven in own car from home to airport parking and back. 
- The only time where we have landed in the same airport (SLC) twice for two different vacations (Utah and Yellowstone). In both the instances, we did not see SLC city by itself! During Utah trip, SLC looked very beautiful with snow-white blanket covered everywhere and now in it’s 90s it looked like any other place. 
- States seen during this trip: Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming. 

Epilogue: Finally, we could visit the elusive Yellowstone. It is the first national park of USA and it was a privilege to view and witness the geological natural wonder of this place. There are lots more to this than what we saw and enjoyed but then again, one can only do within one’s limitations. And within our own limitations, we enjoyed this place as best as we could. What next? ;-)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Walnut Creek

Time: August 21st, 2013 - 
Place: Walnut Creek, CA, USA 
Company: Wife and Daughter 
Highlights: Our 7th city of stay (after Marlborough, Woburn, Nashua, Irvine, Costa Mesa and Fremont) in US.