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Monday, March 31, 2008

Classic East Bay Eateries

I love to experience restaurants. New and different foods are a delight to sample, but I'm not just there for a meal--I go for the atmosphere too. I like unique restaurants that go all out to make the surroundings unique. I'm a sucker for revolving restaurants, and other gimmicks, but I also appreciate more mundane mom and pop restaurants that have a long history--the kind of places the same people have been going to all their lives, and couldn't imagine being without. These are places that strongly establish local identity, that anyone from that city or that neighborhood knows well, but are unfamiliar to most out-of-towners.

When I head down to my grandmother's, she often indulges me and we head off to visit restaurants I have read about. We've been doing this much longer than I have been taking photographs of restaurants and food, or researching the restaurants, so my memory is spotty on some of them. But I plan to continually revise this blog entry as I visit more places, or revisit ones I haven't been to in some time.

Here, then, are some classic eateries I have visited in the East Bay, particularly in Contra Costa County.

Ole's Waffle Shop
1507 Park Street

20060901 Ole's Waffle Shop

When I posted the first version of this blog entry, I received an enthusiastic response from one of my long-time Flickr contacts, with one caveat--she couldn't believe that I didn't include Ole's Waffle Shop in Alameda. I had photographed the sign, but never eaten there. Now that omission has been redressed.

Ole's opened in 1927, although not originally at its present location, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, and the waffles served today are still made according to Ole Swanson's recipe. It moved to Park Street in the 1930s. After Ole's death, the restaurant languished until Bob Adams bought it in 1972 with a down payment of $100 (all this information from the Chronicle, 2/5/1999).


Today, there is still a counter, thankfully, as there was a line outside on the Sunday morning I visited. There are photos on the wall showing the history of the restaurant. About the only design element that looks vintage are the orange and yellowish wall panels, which probably date from the 1960s.

Bip's Broiler
3211 Encinal Ave.
Alameda, CA

20081116 Steak & Eggs

I read about this place in the East Bay Express, and headed off with my girlfriend at the time to find it. It's well worth seeking out. On Encinal next to the Encinal Shopping Center, it is wealth off of Park Street with its antique stores and crowds of pedestrians. While people wait in line for breakfast on the weekend at Ole's on Park Street, it's easy to find a table at Bip's Broiler, despite the fact that it is very small, and despite the fact that the food is both better and cheaper than at Ole's. The hashbrowns are particularly outstanding.

It hasn't been Bip's Broiler long, but the place is vintage, as it was the Burger Orchard for at least 25 years. The stools at the small horseshoe counter look to be at least that old.

Fondue Fred
2556 Telegraph Avenue

What could be more delicious or sociable than sharing fondue? It has always been a treat for special occasions in my family. This specialty fondue restaurant, tucked inside the Village Mall, has been around since 1958. It's a dark and cozy restaurant with dark wood tables. Fondue is the one dish I specialize in making at home, and I've eaten it at restaurants in Lucerne, Paris, and Quebec, so it's hard to impress me with fondue, and, well, I wasn't impressed. But still, mediocre fondue is better than no fondue at all, and the taste, price, and ambiance were all better than at The Melting Pot. I'd like to go back, only hopefully I won't have to drive next time, as parking is a problem.

20040818 Fondue Fred

Spenger's Fish Grotto
1919 4th Street

20060107 Spenger's Fish Grotto

In 1890, Bavarian fisherman Johan Spenger opened this Berkeley institution. Johan's grandson Buddy Spenger was the last of the family to run the restaurant. It was Buddy who made it into so much more than a place to eat fresh fish. He used the salvaged remains of two shipwrecks to cover the walls and floors, installed 500 antique guns, and acquired a 34-carat diamond ring formerly owned by a Hawaiian queen to display in one of the bars.

In the late 1990s, Buddy suffered a stroke, and retired. None of his progeny was interested in carrying on the family legacy, so the restaurant was set to close. But an executive from the McCormick & Schmick chain of high-end seafood restaurants who had grown up in Berkeley urged the company to purchase the restaurant. On her urging, Doug Schmick flew out to dine there, and subsequently, the chain bought the restaurant.

20060107 Spenger's Fish Grotto

And that's how I came to hear of the place. I was given a $20 gift certificate to McCormick & Schmick restaurants by Alaska Airlines for having flown with them on Christmas day. Spenger's Fish Grotto was the only restaurant listed on the back anywhere near me (although they recently opened a restaurant in the Elks Building in downtown Sacramento). So my grandmother and I had dinner there.

20060107 Spenger's Fish Grotto

It is an enormous, and magnificent place to behold. I highly approve of Buddy's decorating. They have many dining rooms, and more than one bar. As for the food . . . the seafood is very fresh. You can't go wrong with simply prepared fresh seafood. If you are looking for artistry and delicious sauces and the like, head off to some chef-driven restaurant, rather than a corporate notion of high class dining. For that kind of money, you can definitely eat something more interesting and delicious. I enjoyed my fish (though not so much the sauce with it), but the clam chowder was pretty lame--I would think a high-end seafood chain would have had to master that before expanding.

But even if the food there is not to your liking, it's well worth going for a visit--at least to have a couple of drinks in the bar and see the 34-carat diamond.

Hotel Mac Restaurant & Bar
50 Washington Avenue
Point Richmond

This is one of those places I have vague memories, and no pictures, of. I dined there with a host of relatives when I first moved to Northern California. I wasn't fully settled in my apartment yet, and I certainly didn't know my way around that well. I just remember driving through a lot of ugly neighborhoods, and then getting to a lovely old town center.

The restaurant is in a historic hotel, built in 1911, and on the National Register of Historic Places. We ate in a private dining room, which was also being used as a wine cellar. The waiter couldn't remember one of the desserts, and hemmed and hawed about it, before it finally came to him: tiramisu. Other than that, most of what I remember is our conversation and the clothing I wore--I have no recollection of what I ate.

Casa Orinda
20 Bryant Way

When I read about Casa Orinda, I was excited. Jack and Tommy Snow, from Montana (where I am from), opened a bar that became this Orinda institution in 1932. It was a den of vice in the early going, with gambling and prostitutes and bootleg liquor, but a deal with the sheriff insured they were always clean when there was a raid.

I guess I figured a place with that kind of legacy would be pretty casual, because I was terribly under dressed when my grandmother and I visited. I was, as is often the case when visiting these old restaurants, surprised by the high prices, but they corresponded to the elegant atmosphere and valet parking . . . and the fact that it was Orinda.

The place is an upscale western restaurant, dimly lit with large western paintings on the wall. The menu touted their famous fried chicken, which has been served there since the beginning, so that's what I had. I'm sure I enjoyed it, although I don't recall anything unique about it.

32 Lafayette Circle

This classic steak and seafood house with a neo-Tudor interior opened in 1959. It was a favorite of my grandparents, and when my cousin came out to visit a few years ago, this is the place my grandmother and I chose to take her. Some time I've got to check out the piano lounge.

The Squirrel's Coffee Shop
998 Moraga Road

2070325 Squirrel's Coffee Shop

Finding an affordable vintage diner in upscale Lafayette was certainly a delightful surprise for me. There's nothing fancy about this place. It has a short menu of breakfast and lunch items, and an old counter with stools. This is the sort of place I would make a habit out of eating at, if it were at all handy to me. I believe the breakfast featured in the photo is fluffy eggs with ham.

Nantucket Restaurant
501 Port Street

20050902 Crab cake sandwich
Crab Cake Sandwich

My grandparents took my mother and me here sometime in the 1980s, and when I moved in 1996 it was my choice for my first birthday dinner as a resident of Northern California. You have to drive down below Interstate 80 as it approaches the bridges to cross from Crockett to Valejo, and then park in a dirt and gravel lot, but the reward is waterfront dining, with several outdoor tables.

20050902 The Nantucket
Al Fresco Dining

The restaurant has operated under different ownership and slightly differing names over the years, but still maintains a venerable character.

Warehouse Cafe
5 Canyon Lake Drive
Port Costa

20080329 One-Pound Prime Rib
One-Pound Prime Rib

Tucked in a narrow valley up against the bay and railroad tracks between Crockett and Martinez, Port Costa is only accessible via narrow and winding roads. In this small town is a lovely old schoolhouse, church, hotel, and a big old warehouse building. In this building is a funky bar that serves 460 different types of beer, and is decorated with salvaged historic pieces and lots of kitschy decorations. I'm not sure what classification the enormous stuffed polar bear falls under.

20080329 Warehouse Cafe

There's a dining area there, and on Friday and Saturday nights it is open for business as the Warehouse Cafe. It's a very limited menu, with a minimum charge of $12.95 for the all-you-can-eat soup and salad bar, a baked potato, and mushrooms. I had the $20.95 1-lb prime rib, cooked medium rare, which came with all of the above.

20080329 Warehouse Cafe

I've only had prime rib a handful of time in my life, but I would have been ordering it a lot more often if I had ever had prime rib like they serve at the Warehouse Cafe before. It was fabulous--so tender and juicy, and with a delicious and crunchy coating around the outside. I had half of it for dinner, and half for breakfast the next day. Lobster is also quite popular there, and they have a tank in the dining room with the live lobsters on display.

Pinky's Pizza Parlor
1379 South California Boulevard
Walnut Creek

20070407 Pinky's Pizza

Pinky's is an old hole-in-the-wall pizza place that opened in 1962, and is still cranking out the pies.

The Original Hick'ry Pit
1259 South Main Street
Walnut Creek

20051217 Reuben
Grandma's Reuben

This restaurant opened as Emil Villa's Hick'ry Pit in 1958. They are still serving up pie and smoked meats to large crowds--we had to wait for a table. Being that it's in Walnut Creek, it is a bit higher priced that what you would find for a similar restaurant in Sacramento, but it has a lot more character than most of Walnut Creek.

Skipolini's Pizza
2001 Salvio Street

20050820 Skipolini's Pizza

This is one of the youngest restaurants on this list, and I haven't even visited their oldest location, the one listed above in Concord, which opened in 1974. My grandmother suggested Skipolini's when I told her what kind of restaurant I was looking for, as it used to be a favorite of my uncle's. I found they had a closer location in Walnut Creek.

20080329 Slice

The Walnut Creek location has a beautiful mural of Mt. Diablo on the walls, and sawdust acovering the floors. There's a lovely closed-in, outdoor dining area as well. The veggie pizza we had the first time we were there didn't impress me, but the fully-loaded pepperoni and black olive pizza we had the second time was fully satisfying.

Sugar Plum Coffee Shop
1815 Colfax Street

20081025 Sugar Plum Skillet
Sugar Plum Skillet

According to the Contra Costa Times, this vintage diner opened in 1959. It's a cozy little place, lined with historic photos of Concord, from when it was a much more interesting place. I'm sure they do fine breakfast standards there, but I made the mistake of ordering huevos rancheros. Really, I should have known better than to order Mexican food at any place other than a Mexican restaurant when in California, where there are so many great Mexican restaurants.

20090628 Open-Faced Turkey Sandwich
Barney's Hickory Pit
3446 Clayton Road

Inconspicuously tucked away in a strip mall--what originally was probably touted as a "modern drive-in shopping center"--across the street from a Goodwill in a 1940s era building lies this unexpected gem. Barney's interior looks straight out of 1957, when the place opened. The exterior has changed, though, as a piece in the window put together for their 50th anniversary shows that they used to have a great neon sign out front.

The barbecue sauce was . . . well, certainly different than any barbecue sauce I've had before. My open-faced turkey sandwich was served on soft white bread, and my grandmother found out that they don't serve ranch dressing on their iceberg lettuce salad--all very 1957.

Bella Roma Pizza
101 Main Street
formerly 4040 Alhambra Avenue

I haven't been to the new location on Main Street in Martinez, but have visited the Alhambra location several times. This place was a favorite with my grandparents when my uncle and aunt were young. It was a favorite with kids, and with me too, for the Wurlitzer organ, driving many instruments and a bubble machines, and the miniature railroad that ran above everyone's heads. I presume these features are all at the new location to, but haven't had the chance to check yet.

20050729 Bella Roma Pizza

20050729 Bella Roma Pizza

JT La Beau's
436 Ferry Street

I don't recall much about our visit to this restaurant in downtown Martinez, except that they served Louisiana style cuisine, and had an energy surcharge, as we were there during the California energy crisis. I'll have to try and make it back soon so I can make a fuller report.

Wink's Restaurant
3835 Alhambra Avenue

20070705 Biscuits & Gravy
Biscuits and Gravy

This old diner has been around since at least 1961, and photos inside show that it was an old drive-in restaurant before that.

Riverview Lodge
I Street Wharf

On a fishing pier on the edge of historic downtown Antioch, this time warp of a restaurant was built in 1948. It burnt down and was rebuilt in 1961, but apparently they tried to recreate the look of the original, as the old wood floors, ceiling, and paneling all look more 1940s than 1960s.

The menu hasn't changed much over the years it seems--you can still get pan-fried frog legs. If you go, you are best off getting one of the most expensive dishes, like cioppino or lobster, which are fairly priced in comparison to other restaurants. The least expensive dishes, like a ground beef, onion, and pepper omelet for $15, are grossly overpriced.

Mac's Old House
3100 East 18th Street

20051007 Mac's Old House

While it's last on my list, Mac's Old House is probably my favorite of all these restaurants. According to the Contra Costa Times, Floyd "Mac" McKinney opened it as a bar in his own home in the mid 1950s. They have a beautiful vintage neon sign, a nice and cozy dining area, and quality food. Best of all, all of the food and drinks are inexpensive. So why have I only been there once? It's the location. But it is worth making a special trip for, even at today's high gas prices. I'm sure I'll be back sometime in the next few months.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Summit of Mt. Diablo from Mitchell Canyon Road


For this particular day on which my hiking buddy and I were determined to get out, I had hoped to hike on the coast, or to a waterfall in Marin County. But the tide tables indicated it was an inopportune day for a coastal hike, and despite studying a trail map intensively for more than an hour, I could not come up with hike to a waterfall that we hadn't already seen that would be long enough to satisfy me. I'm not going to drive for 2 hours each way to get in a short hike.

Finally I thought of Mt. Diablo. At the end of March, it was about the end of season for seeing Mt. Diablo at its best, blanketed with green grasses and vivid wildflowers. It only takes a week or two of hot weather for the hills to turn golden (or brown, to those who don't appreciate the austere beauty of Northern California in summer).

After Googling, I found the Mt. Diablo Interpretative Association's website, listing hikes by difficulty level. I chose "most difficult," because I'm used to National Forest websites listing anything that is beyond a casual stroll for a family hiking on a whim as "difficult." For regular hikers who plan ahead, these hikes can be quite easy.

But to my surprise, there were some hikes that did indeed sound difficult to me, including the one I recommended to Erik: 17 miles, 3400 feet of climbing. We've done 3400 feet of climbing before, although I was sore for 5 days afterwards. And I've hiked 17 miles on my own before, at Point Reyes. But I've never done anything like the combination of the two (I can't speak for Erik's hiking experience before he started hiking with me).

And this wasn't at the end of an intense hiking period, like September after hiking the Sierras all summer. Neither of us had done attempted a difficult hike since last October. But something about the challenge had me excited. I wasn't sure how Erik would react. But it turns out the hike excited him too, and he thought we should undertake it, unless, as he said, I was only suggesting it as a joke.

No, it wasn't a joke. I set about trying to match up the terse--perhaps absurdly so--directions from the Interpretative Association's website with the trail map in the park's brochure, downloaded from the park's website. But the trail names in the directions didn't always match those on the map. So I just made up some of it from the map, like Back Creek Trail looked nice, with a squiggly blue line running alongside the trail. I wrote it all down on a 3x5 index card (I tried to print out the map, but I need a new ink cartridge). I knew we would have to pay a fee to enter the park, so I hoped there would be a manned kiosk there, and they would give me a trail map.

I picked up Erik in the morning and we sped off on the all-too-familiar trip to Contra Costa County via I-80 and I-680. I didn't need any map to find the park entrance on Mitchell Canyon Road, as it wasn't that far east of my uncle's house. There was no kiosk at the entrance, just a place to deposit an envelope with $3 in it. We parked in about the closest space to the trailhead, and after Erik got back from the restroom, we started off. There was a map right at the beginning that I photographed, but there were strong reflections coming off of it, and I was having trouble getting the camera to focus, so I wasn't able to get a shot that would be of much use to us.

The area at the foot of Mount Diablo is wonderfully bucolic, especially at that time of year. Green grasses, gently undulating land, gnarled oak trees just beginning to bud, a creek running alongside the trail, and wildflowers in bloom--not in mass profusion, but regular enough--all put me in a relaxed and positive frame of mind. There wasn't anything dramatic that forced me to stop and take photographs, but it was . . . pleasant. Even the dramatic mining scar on the hillside to the west of us had its own kind of beauty, suggesting to Erik a terraced landscape. I'm sure we'd both be sick if we knew of the environmental impact of the mining.

For all of the climbing that was involved, the old Mitchell Canyon Road was gentle at the beginning, and I wondered, out loud, a couple of times about when we would start to climb. That time came, sure enough. We saw a great abundance the wildflower Henderson's shooting star along the trail, but not knowing how long this hike would take, we didn't stop to take photos, even though I've rarely seen this wildflower in the past. Dawdling is a luxury for the descent, when you know you are going to make it back to the car before dark.

A while after we began to climb more steeply, I noticed the 3x5 note card I had written the directions on was no longer with me. I suggested to Erik that he run back and find it, but he was Bartleby-like in his response to that suggestion. Since the heavily trod Bay Area trails are usually well signed and full of people, I didn't worry about it.

Two women on the way down who saw us laboring on the way up assured us, "You're almost there!" I don't think they knew we were planning to go all the way to the summit, as we were nowhere close to there. We soon reached Deer Flat, 2120 feet, which they must have though was our destination. I did stop to take a photo of a flower there, with a caterpillar on the side of it.



We continued on a dirt road until just before a small parking area for the Diablo Valley Overlook. At that point, a single track trail, Juniper Trail, veered off. At last trail, rather than road. We soon came upon an earnest looking woman, accompanied by two earnest looking men. The woman earnestly informed us that what was before her were owl pellets, and she said something to one of the earnest men about being able to break apart the owl pellets with a stick. I nodded my head and kept marching.

I know my original plan, as derived from the website directions and the map .pdf, had us going to the Diablo Valley Overlook. But I couldn't remember if we went straight up to the lower summit parking lot on a trail on the east side of the lot, or took a more circuitous route to the south to meet up with Summit Trail--both ways are part of Juniper Trail. The latter way looked more interesting to me, so we took it.

It was a decision I soon began to question. Not only would the hike be longer this way, but we were heading downhill gradually--and any elevation we loss would have to be made up when we started climbing to the summit again. But it was a lovely trail with views of the East Bay to the south and east, and of the road to the summit winding through the park. Chemise chaparral densely surround the trail, with the occasional juniper mixed in. We crossed the newly created Trail Through Time, which sounded interesting, and eventually reached Summit Trail.

That's when we started climbing again, and steeply too. This was definitely the most difficult portion of the hike. We went up to the edge of the paved road, then east along a dirt road for access to some utility or something, then climbed up on trail again to Devil's Elbow, where there is a junction with North Peak Trail and a large map.

From there, it was a short, but still steep, climb to the lower summit parking lot.. There was plenty of unused room in this lot. We hiked up the road to the summit until it split into separated lanes of one-way traffic, at which point the summit trail resumes in the space between the two lanes. A dense cover of large shrubs or short trees covered us and blocked the view of cars.


Finally we arrived at the very small parking lot next to the 1930s visitor center. There were people in there cars with the engines idling, spewing greenhouse gases into the air and burning $3.50-per-gallon gasoline, just waiting for a parking space to open up so that they would not have to make the short climb from the lower parking lot.


We checked out the view from on top of the visitor center, and went inside of it as well. Just inside the door they have an area exposed in the floor where the true summit of Mt. Diablo is. I checked into buying a map while there, but balked at paying $10.75 for one.

After filling up with water from the drinking fountain, we started making our way back down. We returned to Devil's Elbow where I went over the map and told Erik the plan once we headed off on North Peak Trail, rather than how we had come: left on Prospector's Gap, right on an unnamed fire road, and left on Back Creek Trail.

There were large outcroppings of rock along North Peak Trail, and many more hikers than we had encountered previously. I believe it is part of the popular Grand Loop. At the end of the narrow trail is a saddle and a junction with Prospector's Gap Road. We turned to the left onto that, and passed another junction and another trail map.

Along North Peak Trail

Prospector's Gap Fire Road was quite a surprise because of how steep it was. We were descending at an angle that made it very hard to keep our footing. I told Erik, "I'm going to fall on my ass," and about thirty seconds later made good on that prediction. We both slipped a couple of times after that, but managed to stay on our feet.

The map had indicated that the first junction we would hit would be with the unnamed fire road, but instead we hit a junction with a narrow trail, which threw me. But we continued on. At one point there was a sign indicating Big Springs and an elevation of under 2100 feet, meaning we had already dropped more than 1700 feet. We went over to a creek there for a short while.

The next junction was with Meridian Ridge Road. There, trail signs indicated a distance of 11 miles back to Deer Flat if we continued on Prospector's Gap Fire Road, or a much shorter distance down Meridian Ridge Road to Donner Fire Road.

I wasn't sure what to do--this seemed like where we should be reaching the road to take over to Back Creek Trail. It was, after all, supposed to be the first road we intersected, but I didn't recall seeing that name on it at the map back at Devil's Gap. So we talked about it, and I spent a long time trying to read on my camera's LCD the map that I took the photo of back at the beginning, without any luck. I've mentioned other maps we had passed, but I had not bothered to try to photograph them.

My Lousy Map

Meridian Ridge Road definitely led down and to civilization--we could see houses at a distance, but I was worried because there was still a large ridge between us and the view of mining scars we had seen from where we started out--I didn't want to have to climb over that ridge. But eventually we set off on Meridian Ridge Fire Road.

This road was also extremely steep. While working to keep our footing, we discussed our predicament, and a couple of times Erik told me that he was pretty sure we would make it back this way within a couple of hours, although he also indicated that he couldn't say why he felt that way. At one point we saw two rabbits along the trail, and I asked Erik if that was an auspicious sign. Only the next day did I realize that of course seeing two rabbits on Easter Sunday is an auspicious sign.

A ways down, we could clearly see the end of the mountain up ahead--gently rolling green meadows, followed by suburban tract housing. And then our reassurance came--a junction with a trail and a sign indicating Back Creek Trail was only .59 miles away. As we approached Back Creek, I heard voices--the first people we had encountered in quite some time.

Along Back Creek Trail

Henderson's Shooting Stars

From then on we had no worries, and could once again take time for photographs. Our only "concern" in getting home was whether we could make it back to the car within 8 hours of having started out, which is what we had guessed the hike would take. Back Creek Trail crosses the creek several times, and late in the day was shadowed by the ridge to the east. The coolness of the shade and the creek were welcome after the steep downgrade on open fire road in the sun.

When we got back to a bucolic area much like the one we had started out the hike in, we saw another junction, this one indicating the way back to Mitchell Canyon Road. We headed off on that and ended up later walking in a large, green open space with the occasional oak, on Bruce Lee Road. It went past a large pond, and then ended up just above the Mitchell Canyon Staging Area, where we were parked. We could see a trail down below that led to the parking lot, and it would have been easy to scramble down the hillside to that trail. But there was an area where people had been doing that where branches had been placed to indicate that we should not take that short cut, so we went the long way, hiking to the south past rich outbursts of orange California poppies amongst the green grasses, until we were just a few feet from private houses, where the road doubled back to the parking lot. As we passed where we had been overlooking the parking area from above, we noticed that if we had turned left there, instead of right, we would have immediately hit a switchbacked trail to the parking area.

Near the End
Off the edge of the lot we saw two turkeys, the last interesting part of the hike. We passed a trailer that was a park information center now closed, where I suspect we could have gotten a map in the morning. I asked Erik if it had been open when he passed it to use the bathroom in the morning, and he said he thought it was. Finally, we got back to the car, having completed the hike in under 8 hours: 7 hours and 50 minutes. There was still enough daylight left that I decided to drive back home on CA 160 along the delta for scenic views and light traffic, rather than return on that massive scar, I-80. I'm still not sure exactly how far we hiked, although Erik and I both agree that it couldn't be nearly the 17 miles that we had originally planned on.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Point Reyes: Woodward Valley & Sculptured Beach

20080316 Sculptured Beach

I moved to Northern California in 1996, but didn't visit Point Reyes National Seashore until June of 2006. I tried to make up for that at the start of 2007, by making 10 visits to this diverse and scenic national park from January through April. But this year, high gas prices and increasing concern about putting too many miles on my aging car have forced me to curb my adventures at Point Reyes, and go only when my friend Erik can accompany me, to split the fuel costs.

Not being able visit one of my two favorite places on Earth (the other being the Desolation Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada) as often as I would like has led me to feel much greater anticipation before the few trips I am able to make, and I was particularly excited about the prospects of this hike. It's rare that I can find a day that both Erik and I have off from work, that has a low tide at the right time for us to visit the beach, and that the forecast doesn't call for overcast skies. But it all worked out this time.

Leaving on a Sunday morning, instead of Friday like last time, we didn't have to deal with slow traffic, and were able to speed to Sky Trailhead in exactly two hours--45 minutes less than it took us to get to Palomarin Trailhead on our most recent hike to Alamere Falls. It was crisp when we set out on the trail, but the skies were blue, promising warm sunshine by afternoon.

Last year when we visited Sculptured Beach, we did a short and easy loop. This year I also planned on a loop that covered some of the same territory, but overall would be longer and involve more climbing, which I consider an advantage. Two additional advantages are that this route would take us along the Woodward Valley Trail, which I enjoyed tremendously last year on a solo hike, and that it would take me across stretches of trail I had yet to hike--furthering my quest to hike every mile of official trail in the park.

We headed up Sky Trail, which near the trailhead off of Limantour Road, is wide enough to drive on. Soon we passed a sign indicating that we were entering the Philip Burton Wilderness. We must have just been crossing a small section of it, because we didn't have to climb far (1.3 miles according to the trail map) before reaching Sky Camp--a fully developed, hike-in campground with a pit toilet, drinking water supply, picnic tables, barbecues, and even a large water trough for horses.

Sky Trail travels all the way from Limantour Road to the Coast Trail, just above the shore--a total of 6.4 miles. But there are numerous intersections with other trails, making a great variety of loop hikes possible. After this trip, I have tread upon all of it but a .3 mile portion between the junction with Woodward Valley Trail and the junction with Old Pine Trail. When we reached the former junction, I jokingly suggested to Erik that I should quickly hike that .3 mile portion and then double back, just to check it off my list. As it turns out, I might as well have done that, as we had more than enough time.

If I've sped through the description of this first 3.3 miles of the journey, it's because that's what we did hiking. We had the time to stop and take photographs, unlike most times we have tried to hit a beach just before low tide. But, while it was beautiful, nothing in particular jumped out at us. In the woods, there were few wildflowers, and certainly not any kind we hadn't photographed previously. We didn't see any deer, and didn't lay eyes on any later that day either, which is unusual. So we just kept plowing ahead.

I particularly enjoy Woodward Valley Trail, although I could not explain the name to Erik, since it travels along a ridge before descending to Coast Trail, and not through a valley. It passes through some aromatic vegetation, and through dead trees covered with pale green moss, which I find strangely beautiful, while giving splendid views of Limantour Beach, Drakes Head, and Chimney Rock as it approaches Coast Trail. The dead trees are a remnant of the Vision Fire that scorched the area in October of 1995.

20080316 Woodward Valley Trail

As soon as we hit the Coast Trail, we ran into other hikers. After checking the map, we started south to the spur trail for Sculptured Beach. Along the Coast Trail grew many wildflowers, including California poppies and Douglas irises. At the spur we made the short trip to the stairs down to Sculptured Beach. We were much too early for low tide, but headed off to our favorite area.

20080316 Sculptured Beach Phallus

At low tide, one can easily walk along the sand from Sculptured Beach for a few miles onto Limantour spit, past crowded Limantour Beach (crowded because you can drive to it, rather than hike to it). But going south from Sculptured Beach is more difficult, because of rocky outcroppings that jut into the sea. The first one, right near where the trail reaches Sculptured Beach, is easy to clamber up. Getting down to the beach on the other side of it, and getting back up on the return, are a little more difficult. Despite having managed it on last year's hike, we still had to search around to find a manageable point to get down.

20080316 Alien Landscape

From there I told Erik that I would head down to the south end of the beach, by which I meant to the barrier that had stopped us from going any farther south last year, to eat lunch and wait for the tide to go out. He soon joined me.

20080316 Sea Cliff in Spring

This barrier is a large outcropping with a hole in it, though which one could easily scramble over to the next section of beach. But in doing so, one would have to climb across dozens of California mussels, and we don't like to disturb the marine life. Erik was really anxious to get to that next section of beach, however, so after lunch he tried to find a way to climb over without disturbing the mussels.

Looking South

20080316 Framed
Looking North

By the time I joined him, he was already up on a spot that I could not determine how he could contort himself to reach. But that was the end of the road for him--he couldn't find the next spot to step forward, and decided to come back. He bumped his camera, and the lens cap fell off into a pool of water, but he said he thought he could retrieve it. I vacated the area below him and made my way back to the beach. When Erik finally joined me, he reported that he had slipped, and fallen into the pool, which was quite a bit more deep than he had imagined--his leg went in above the knee. He was unable to retrieve the errant lens cap.

20080316 Giant Green Anemone

There was still plenty of time before low tide, but we started exploring the tide pools anyhow. There were abundant anemones, but we weren't finding any star fish. I remembered numerous star fish in this particular section when we were there last year, and Erik recalled the same abundance. This time we could only find three, and one was inaccessible. But we still had fun exploring the caves along the coast and the holes carved in large rock outcroppings, and carefully hopping along the rocks in the ocean, which were covered with strange plants and tiny anemones.

20080316 Beach Cave

20080316 Looking South

As it started getting close to low tide, I was ready to abandon this area, and try my luck farther north, so I climbed back up that first barrier. It was a little tricky for me, so I put my camera up top, so that if I fell and hurt myself, at least nothing important would be damaged. Then I pointed out to Erik where I thought it was easiest to get up, and he made it right up without any problem.

20080316 Sculptured Beach

In all the time we spent on the south side of that barrier, we never saw anyone. But on the north side of it, there were now several people, exploring the tide pools, or just walking barefoot on the sand. We started working our way along the rocks in the ocean looking for tidal pool life, while gradually making our way towards Coast Camp. We encountered more success here--quite a few sea stars, as well as massive collections of California mussels, and a few goose barnacles. Erik found a sea star upside down and a ways up the beach, but apparently still alive, so he dropped it in a tide pool occupied by two other sea stars.

20080316 Comingled Species

His boot that had been filled with water was filled again, as a wave came in while he was taking a photograph. I too got a foot soaked, as I finally slipped on one of those rocks and my left boot landed in about 16 inches of water. I took off my boot and wrung out my sock, only to get soaked again when I was kneeling for a shot and a wave came in.

20080316 Mussel Beach

When we reached the end of the rocky area--now some time past low tide--we just turned to march straight up the beach to Coast Camp. This proved difficult though, as the wind was whipping and occasionally gusts were hurling sand into our faces. We alternated between walking forwards and backwards.


From Coast Camp we took Fire Lane Trail, and encountered masses of vivid wildflowers along the way, including tiny pink ones that were growing right on, and by the edge of, the trail. At the next junction, we took Laguna Trail. It took us to just short of where we had parked for last year's hike to Sculptured Beach, then veered off to the right past an environmental education center.

20080316 Poppy Loner

20080316 Coast Paintbrush

This meadow area was the only part that seemed remotely laguna like. At the end of it, the trail started climbing. Except for one brief downhill stretch (on which I just missed the opportunity to photograph a turkey vulture up close and in flight as it swept up in a clearing in the trees near me), the climb was persistent until the junction with Bay View Trail. This little portion of Bay View Trail just took us right alongside Limantour Road and back to the parking area for Sky Trail and my car.

20080316 Plant Thingies

All told it was a hike of a little over 10 miles through forest and meadows, along the beach and amongst the tide pools, all in bright sunshine under blue skies. Everything worked out so well, that I wasn't even bothered when I got home to find that I didn't any very good photos from the trip. It just gives me another reason to hike to Sculptured Beach again next year--as though I needed one.