Between Mountains and Desert

Travel 3 hours north of Los Angeles and experience the mountain and the desert scenery at the same time. Head to Lone Pine and Bishop, 2 small cities along the 395 Highway.

You can make a quick stop at the Red Rocks Canyon State Park.

Pass by the greenest road on your way to Cottonwood Lakes, Inyo National Forest. The scenery is far from what you can see in Los Angeles.

Make a stop at the famous Jerky place, the  Gus Really Good Fresh Jerky. I didn’t like jerky until I had beef jerky from there.

Gus Really Good Fresh Jerky

Found yourself walking on Mars when you hike White Mountain, one of the tallest peak in the US at 14,252 feet. White Mountain, also has a research station at the beginning of the trail and one small one at the peak, operated by the University of California, to evaluate the effects of altitude on physiology.

You can also hike flat in the Alabama Hills. Take a pose with the Turtle Rock and go around the arches. You can see Mt. Whitney through the Mobius Arch. The Alabama Hills was the filming location for a lot of western/cowboys movies.

Take up the challenge to hike the tallest mountain the lowest 48 US State, Mt Whitney.Mt Whitney. It’s a long 22 miles hike with a summit at 14,505 feet.

 

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Pinnacles National Park

The Pinnacles National Park, home of the condor, was born some 23 million years ago when volcanoes erupted. The remains of it is a unique landscape through which you can hike; rare talus caves and towering rock spires.

Leave you can at the campground and take the shuttle to the main trailhead,  The Bear Glutch Trailhead. The Condor Gulch to High Peaks Loop allows you to walk through the heart of the Pinnacles rock formations, particularly along the Steep and Narrow section of the High Peaks trail. On the way back add the Balconies Cave trail to see the lake and the caves.

From the West end of the park, you can use the Chaparral trail to see the amazing Balconies Caves. Flashlight required and be ready to truly emerge in a cave. I really thought I’m going on an expedition.  You can loop it back to the parking lot on continuing the trail to the high peaks.

 

 

 

Cali Road Trip

Ready for a Cali Road Trip …. Take the classic Highway 1 from San Diego to San Francisco.

In San Diego County make a stop at La Jolla

La Jolla is a beautiful hilly seaside area by San Diego. It has the most scenic hike by the beach at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. The hikes are easy and it gives you an amazing view of the Pacific Coast. You also need to stop at the Sunny Jim Sea Cave. Take the 145 stairs down to admire the cave and the view of the ocean. Then head to La Jolla Cove beach to admire the Sea Lions.

 

Newport Beach

  • Start your day at Crystal Cove State Park where you can hike and relax at the beach. The Palm Shaded Path at Heisler Park is the perfect hiking trail during hot summer days. You should grab breakfast or have Fish Taco at lunch at the beachcombers, the beachfront restaurant.
  • Spend a day at Balboa Island. Take the Ferry to Balboa Island. Wander around, enjoy the scenery and don’t forget to have a chocolate covered banana at Dad’s.
  • Walk on Balboa Pier located at Balboa Peninsula. Have Lunch at The Landing Restaurant; they have a great waterfront dining balcony.
  • At night, try one of those Bars:
  • Make a detour and go to Laguna Beach. The great beach and the small old town full of cafes, restaurants, and bars make it one of the best places to celebrate special occasions.
  • Stop by Long Beach. The Main Street, with its cafes and small stores, mixes shopping and relaxing.

 

Los Angeles

In Los Angeles, stop at Venice Beach and Santa Monica. Venice Beach is a must people watch stop with its muscle beach gym, skate park and its beachside walk full of shops and artists. The Venice sign on Pacific Ave and Windward Ave marks the separation between the beach and the streets that are full of, mostly French, restaurants; especially on Abbot Kinney Ave. Santa Monica Pier is a great family-friendly place with its wheel that stands at the end of the Pier. You can also do some serious shopping on 3rd street.

Between LA and Carmel, stop at Santa Barbara, Hearst Castle, and Big Sur

Santa Barbara is the perfect combination of beach, shopping, and wine tasting

Hearst Castle, William Randolph’s Castle is a must stop. The highlight of the tour is the amazing outdoor pool.

Big Sur is one of the most romantic cities in the US.

Monterey Peninsula: Carmel and the 17-mile drive 

Carmel-by-the-Sea is a small beach city in northern California on the Monterrey Peninsula.  It is known to be one of the most beautiful small towns in the US with its small shops and art galleries. It is also the closest town to the 17-Mile Drive. The 17- Mile Drive route with its many lookout stops will show you amazing scenic natural treasures. This leisurely road winds its way through some famous beauty stops like the luxurious Pebble Beach, The Lone Cypress, The Point Lobos State Reserve or Point Joe.

 

 

San Mateo County: Half Moon Bay 

Small beach town to enjoy the beach and a walk along that beautiful Pacific Coast.Be Aware, you will encounter a witch house on your walk along the Coast!

 

 

Santa Cruz 

It has a beautiful Pier for some paddling or just relax.

Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz

 

San Francisco: Top 10 things to do 

  1. Union Square for Shopping and China Town
  2. Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square
  3. Golden Gate Bridge and Park
  4. Alcatraz
  5. Lombard Street
  6. Sausalito for Lunch
  7. Haight & Ashbury for Vintage Shops
  8. Mission District and Dolores Park
  9. Ride the Cable Cars
  10. Admire the Colorful Buildings: The Painted Ladies

 

Sonoma

Sonoma is the other famous wine county in the California North Bay next to Napa. You can spend a day in Sonoma and enjoy few wineries.

I started with Bella. You enter the barrel cave under the vineyards and you get to see the cave and taste some wine. For lunch, we headed to Chateau St Jean where you can have an amazing and affordable lunch with wine pairing in front of their vineyards. The scenery is breathtaking. Their charcuterie, cheese, and wine pairing were perfect. You can then walk around the castle, no tour needed. We then went to the must go Winery in Sonoma, Benziger where we took the Biodynamic Vineyard Tram Tour that took us around the  Biodynamic vineyard, did a lot of wine tasting and got to visit the amazing barrel cave.  One of the best tours.

Winery tours are all about taking time and enjoy the wine so I don’t recommend going to more than 2 or 3 wineries a day. See below some other great wineries suggestion

 

winery website
Bella http://www.bellawinery.com/home/
St Francis http://www.stfranciswinery.com/
Kunde http://www.kunde.com/vineyards
Ravenswood http://www.ravenswoodwinery.com/#about_us
Gundlach Bunschu http://www.gunbun.com/map

 

Wind Cave and Jewel Cave, SD

Wind Cave National Park, SD

Wind Cave is one of the South Dakota’s National Park, a few hours away from Rapid City. As you can guess, the park is known for its cave. It’s called the wind cave because somehow the wind is always blowing in the cave. It has over 100 miles of know passages and you can tour few miles of it as the Park offers different tours from the regular hour-long tour to the candlelight one. The cave ceiling is covered by box work calcite and the walls with white popcorn! The National Park has also some trails and is known for its wildlife, especially bison.  From the Visitor center drive towards Custer Park and Mt Rushmore, you will see a lot of prairie dogs, deer, and bison on that scenic drive.

 

Jewel Cave National Monument, SD

Jewel Cave is as the name indicates known for its jewel cave. You can take a tour inside of the cave to see the jewels in the rocks. It’s so beautiful. The cave has over 180 miles of passages and is still expanding with many adventurers volunteering to go into the cave and discover new passages. It is one of the top 10 largest cave passages in the world.

The Park has only a few small trails that you can take to discover the surface of the cave.

South Dakota, exploring new lands

Mt Rushmore is one of the must-see US Monument. I used that as an excuse to go to South Dakota and explore the region around Mt Rushmore. What scenery.

Day1: Wall, Badlands, and Deadwood

I land in the small regional airport of Rapid City rented a car from there and start my South Dakota Road Trip. 1st stop to refresh myself, the Wall Drugstore on the I90. During the whole drive on the I90, you will see signs for the famous Drugstore situated in Wall. The place was a famous stop for travelers that needed water while going through that deserted region.  The big Drugstore offers great souvenir shops and a restaurant with famous Buffalo Burgers.

After a good lunch and some shopping, I was back on the road to go to Badlands National Park.  Wall is a few miles away from one of the parks’ entrance.

Badlands, named that way by the French that had a hard time to cross that new deserted land, is one of the National Parks in South Dakota. Enter from the Pinnacles Entrance and take the scenic byway (SD240) to cross the park. The Park, like all National Parks, has a bunch of small trails that will allow you to discover the unique mountains recognizable by their red and yellow horizontal lines. Stop at few viewpoints to admire the breathtaking view of those mountains. Be aware, the viewpoints will be most likely very windy.

The must stop trails:

  • Fossil Exhibit trail to discover the fossils
  • The Door Trail: you can get inside of those mountains. It’s an amazing feeling. You will realize that the park and those mountains are mostly mud and not rock. It’s not possible to climb them like in Joshua Tree
  • The Window Trail: it’s a small trail that ends with a window to the mountains

The longest trail is the Castle Trail that is 10 miles. It’s a good trail to take if you are spending the whole day in the park. It is said that at night you can see the stars but this is less and less true with the pollution.  Make sure to stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to get your National Park stamp.

After few trails and a lot of viewpoint stop, I was back on the road to go to Lead and the historic town of Deadwood. 2 hours later, after a drive through the Black Hills Forest, I found myself in that little cowboy town ready to immerse myself in one of those old cowboy movies. Deadwood Main Street is full of souvenir shops, casinos and old saloons. Make sure to check out the Saloon #10. You will see Wild Bill, Calamity Janes, Preacher Smith, Potato Creek Johnny and Seth Bullock heads over the bar. Every night, the saloon offers a show around 8pm.

For the night, I drove to the Hotel near Mt Rushmore called the K Bar S Lounge Lodge in Keystone. This lodge is very cozy and you can actually see the president’s head from the backyard.

 

Day2: Mt Rushmore

Start your day by going to Mt. Rushmore. What an impressive monument. 2016 is the 75th anniversary of the completion of Mt Rushmore, what a better occasion to go and discover this majestic monument. The Sculptor Created by Gutzon Borglum is a must stop on a US Road Trip. The Mount is overlooking the whole Black Hills, SD area. It took Gutzon and his 400 workers 14 years to crave those 4 presidents, Jefferson, Washington, Roosevelt and Lincoln in the mountain. First, discover the heads by walking through the Avenue of Flags that has all the state flags and then you will have a full clear view from the Grand View Terrace. If the weather is nice, take the 1-mile Presidential Trail to have a close-up view of the monument.

The weather is foggy, I decided to not go to Crazy Horse and drove instead to my next National Monument, the Jewel Cave. Jewel Cave is as the name indicates known for its jewel cave. You can take a tour inside of the cave to see the jewels in the rocks. It’s so beautiful. The cave has over 180 miles of passages and is still expanding with many adventurers volunteering to go into the cave and discover new passages. The Park has only a few small trails that you can take to discover the surface of the cave.

For the night I stayed at the best lodge in the middle of Custer State Park called the Sylvan Lake Lodge. That Authentic lodge is right above the majestic Sylvan Lake and if you are a hiker like you will enjoy all the trails nearby. I personally did the Sunday Glutch 4.5 miles trails that offered a great view of the mountains and the lake.  The Lounge, with a fireplace, offers you a great relaxing area after a day of hiking and exploring.

 

Day 3: Wind Cave, Crazy Horse Memorial

From the hotel, the Crazy Horse Memorial is only 30 min away. That monument is one of the lesser known monuments in the area but it’s worth stopping by. It is the worlds’ largest mountain craving still in progress. The monument represents the brave Indian Crazy Horse. For now, the head is finished and for the next 10 years, they will be working on the hand. There is a small scale version of the monument in the visitor’s center so you can see how the monument will look.

From there take the more scenic longer Iron Mountain Road to get to Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave is one of the South Dakota’s National Parks, a few hours away from Rapid City. As you can guess, the park is known for its cave. It’s called the wind cave because somehow the wind is always blowing in the cave. It has over 100 miles of know passages and you can tour few miles of it as the Park offers different tours from the regular hour-long tour to the candlelight one. The cave ceiling is covered by boxwork calcite and the walls by white popcorn! The National Park has also some trails and is known for its wildlife, especially bisons.  From the Visitor center drive take the ) Wildlife Loop Road towards Custer Park and Mt Rushmore, you will see a lot of prairie dogs, deers and bisons on that scenic drive.

For lunch or Happy Hour stop at the Blue Bell Lodge right by Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park. Their Saddle Bar is to fall in love with. A little bit further down, if Mt. Coolidge Lookout Tower is open, check out the view at 6,023 feet and on a clear day, you can even see the Badlands, which is almost 90 miles away. To go back to the hotel, I took the Needle Highway which curves and winds through 14 miles of rock formations called “Needles”. It was truly a scenic drive.

 

Day 4: Rapid City

It took me 1 hour to get back to Rapid City and before catching my flight I had enough time to explore the city. Downtown Rapid City is famous for its presidential walk. The sidewalk has a statue of each president every few feet. The neighborhood offers many shops and restaurants. Stop at the graffiti art alley and grab lunch at the famous Firehouse Brewery.

 

Badlands National Park , South Dakota

Badlands, named that way by the French that had a hard time to cross that new deserted land, is one of the National Parks in South Dakota. Enter from the Pinnacles Entrance and take the scenic byway to cross the park. The Park, like all National Parks, has a bunch of small trails that will allow you to discover the unique mountains recognizable by their red and yellow horizontal lines. Stop at few viewpoints to admire the breathtaking view of those mountains. Be aware, the viewpoints will be most likely very windy.

The must stop trails:

  • Fossil Exhibit trail to discover the fossils
  • The Door Trail: you can get inside of those mountains. It’s an amazing feeling. You will realize that the park and those mountains are mostly mud and not rock. It’s not possible to climb them like in Joshua Tree
  • The Window Trail: it’s a small trail that ends with a window to the mountains

The longest trail is the Castle Trail that is 10 miles. It’s a good trail to take if you are spending the whole day in the park. It is said that at night you can see the stars but this is less and less true with the pollution.

Make sure to stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to get your National Park stamp.

 

Austin

Austin is an amazing city to visit during events such as SXSW  Music Festival in March, the F1 Grand Prix in October or at any other time.

Austin is not like other Texas City. You do get that Southern Texas feeling, especially when you go to the bars, but just enough of it. The people are very welcoming to a big city and most of the population is young and outgoing.

Here is how you can spend a weekend in Austin

I stayed at an Airbnb on East Austin on S Congress  Ave. The street has Antique stores on one side like the Uncommon Objects that is one of the best antique stores, and Food Trucks on the other. On a Parallel street, East Cesar Chavez St., you have the 3 famous food trucks, Le Barbecue THE place for famous Texan barbecue meat. Make sure you get there before they open as the line can get long or the meat can sold out . Next, to it, you have the perfect donut dessert place Gourdough’s. I just wanted to try all of them from the Fat Elvis to the Funky Monkey.  A little bit further they have the Taco Truck Torchy’s Tacos, great place for a late night craving stop.

From East Austin, you walk 5 minutes and you cross the bridge that will take you to Downtown Austin. Visit the State Capitol. The building is mighty and so is inside. Take a tour, visit the different chambers and see the pictures of all of the governors hang on the walls over 4 levels. Next to it, you have the University of Texas at Austin.

At night, go to the famous 6th St. It is full of bars. Pick any Piano Bar and enjoy the beer and the ambiance.  In Austin, in every bar, you have a great band signing, all you need to do is to grab a drink and enjoy the music. This is how locals like to spend their outing nights.

You have to take a cab or the bus to go towards Barton Hills and get to Barton Spring Pool which is a natural pool where you can go skinny dipping ( or not). From there continue your route to the Zilker Botanical Garden and enjoy the many gardens it has to offer; Cactus Garden, Japanese Garden and the amazing Butterfly Garden.

From East Austin, you also need to take a cab to go to the French Place which is also the Art District. During the day all the galleries are open and offer unique pieces. At Night, the bars and French restaurants like Justine’s Brasserie live up the neighborhood.

If you are a F1 fan like me you have to go to The Circuit of the Americas outside of town. That Circuit is breathtaking. If you are lucky to be there during a F1 Grand Prix or another Car Race, the Cars noise is very impressive.

 

New Orleans in 3 days

Mardi Gras is on Feb 9th and that is one of the best time to go New Orleans and see its famous Mardi Gras Festival. Here is a guide on what to see in 3 days in that lively city.

I followed the great walking tour provided by Frommers for New Orleans in 2 days.

Day 1: The French Quarter 

It is best to stay in this neighborhood since it is the one with the most attractions and it is the place to be at night.

Start the day at Café du Monde. Don’t get scared by the line, it advances pretty fast. You must have a cup of café au lait (coffee with milk) and beignets covered in powdered sugar. You can also go around back, get your beignets to go, and walk across to Jackson Square to enjoy them from a park bench.

After that breakfast, start your Frommers walking tour. You will pass by:

  • Lalaurie Mansion aka Madame Lalaurie’s House of Horrors. You maybe saw that house in the show American Horror Story: Coven. That season was shot in New Orleans and when you walk around you can see different locations that you saw in the show.

LaLaurie Story:
“Two-time widow Madame Delphine Macarty de Lopez Blanque wed Dr. Louis Lalaurie, moved into this residence in 1832, and the two were soon impressing the city with extravagant parties. One night in 1834 fire broke out. Neighbors crashed through a locked door to find seven starving slaves chained in painful positions. The sight, combined with Delphine’s stories of past slaves having “committed suicide” and rumors of hideous live-subject medical experiments conducted within, enraged her neighbors. Madame Lalaurie and her family escaped a mob’s wrath and fled to Paris. After her death, her body was returned to New Orleans—and even then she had to be buried in secrecy. Tales of hauntings persist, especially that of a slave child who fell from the roof trying to escape Delphine’s cruelties.”

  • Tennessee Williams House – This is where Tennessee Williams wrote the famous A Streetcar Named Desire.
  • Esplanade Avenue

The French district has a lot of hunted places. For example the Andrew Jackson Hotel where school children haunt the place. They say an old woman’s ghost sits on hotel beds at Le Pavilion Hotel and dead doctors and soldiers roam the Hotel Provincial.

For Lunch stop by the Central Grocery to try the best Muffuletta. It is a sandwich filled with olive salad, Italian cold cuts, and cheese. You can seat inside or again go to Jackson Square and enjoy your lunch in the park.

Don’t forget to go to Marie Laveau’s house of voodoo shop. You have to buy a souvenir from that shop, whether it’s a voodoo doll or a candle.

Take a walk along Woldenberg Park (the pedestrian walkway adjacent to the river) toward the Moonwalk overlooking Jackson Square.

The MUST Bourbon Street at night

Bourbon Street gets loud and sometimes even gross but it is a must.

Start the night at the Bourbon St., Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, the oldest continually operating bar in the country. “Legend is that it was the headquarters of Jean Lafitte and his pirates, who posed as blacksmiths and used it to fence goods they’d plundered on the high seas.”

 

Day 2: The Garden District

Have Brunch at Commander’s Palace. That Victorian Structure restaurant has the best Sunday brunch with Jazz music.

Across the street, you have the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Established in 1833, this “city of the dead” is one of New Orleans’s oldest cemeteries.

Follow the Frommers Walking Tour of the Garden District.  This is the rich neighborhood of New Orleans and you can feel the lush while admiring the houses.

Don’t miss out the Miss Robicheaux’s Academy aka Buckner Mansion that you can see in American Horror Story: Coven. It is on Jackson Ave.

Then, head to Magazine Street. Explore the boutiques, antiques, and galleries along the street. Pick up the streetcar to go back to the French Quarter for the night festivities.

For dinner, you can go to Muriel’s restaurant in Jackson Square. The restaurant is said to be hunted and if you get lucky you can get a tour of the hunted rooms of the restaurant.

 

Day3: Swamp Tour

These are the 2 best options:

It is Approximately 1.5-hour tour by boat and they have the hotel pick up.

After the swamp tour, get back to the French Quarter to have dinner at Napoleon House. They have the best Po Boy Sandwich.

For the last night, you can get away from Bourbon Street and try an upscale bar like the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone where they have amazing cocktails.

 

Additional tours if you stay longer:

  • Plantations tour at Oak Alley

http://www.oakalleyplantation.com/plan-your-visit/map-directions

  • Haunted Places tours: the tours do not take inside the places.
  • The Algiers Ferry: The ferry takes you to the Algiers residential neighborhood You will find yourself in a 19th-century village full of cafes and pubs and you can stroll the Jazz Walk of Fame along with the levee.
  • Mississippi River Cruise

 

Lake Tahoe

If you love to ski, the best time to go to Lake Tahoe is obviously during ski season and this year there is a lot of snow. If not, go there during the summer time to enjoy the town and the lake activities.

The best part of Lake Tahoe is North Lake Tahoe. You can rent a cabin or stay at a resort like the amazing The Resort at Squaw Creek.  That resort has all the needed amenities and more like an outdoor heated pool and a skating ring.

Spend your day the Squaw Valley Ski, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics. It will be a very enjoyable ski day.  The ski town by the slopes is very nice to have lunch or just a hot chocolate.

Of course, don’t forget to go to the Lake Tahoe. During summer time, you can go boat riding on the Lake. During winter time, take the road along the Lake to go up the mountain and have a breathtaking view of the Lake.