Southbound — San Francisco to Vegas

Muir Woods National Park

The second leg of my California journey began when I showed up on the doorstep of my friend Dennis who lives in the suburban Bay Area community of Walnut Creek. His home was my home for a couple of days while I saw some of the sites in and around San Francisco. With Dennis guiding the way, our first stop was Muir Woods National Park and its 200 plus acres of California redwoods, the tallest trees in the world.

The drive took us through Berkeley and up and down the hairpin turns of Muir Woods Road before we reached the park’s entrance. It was a rainy Wednesday afternoon, but neither the precipitation nor the occasional congestion of tourists on the trails detracted from the experience of walking through a wonderland of nature-made skyscrapers. Apart from the enormity of the trees, the first thing to catch one’s attention is the smell. It’s pungent and pleasing in the same way eucalyptus is, but earthy, woodsy, and musty.

Muir Woods National Park

Coincidentally, on the same day we went to Muir Woods, a video circulated on Facebook about the health benefits of “forest bathing.” A Japanese study found that trees emit a protective oil that is also beneficial to people. No running, rock climbing, or strenuous activity is required. Mere contemplation among trees, the video said, slows down heart rates, lowers blood pressure, and reduces stress.

My own unscientific conclusion is this: the taller the tree the better, so the best of all possible places “to bathe” in a forest must be the seven county expanse where Muir Woods is located. Five of the counties are in northern California, two are in southern Oregon, and combined, they form what is known as Redwood Empire.

Ferry Arch, Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco

The following day I swapped towering redwoods for towering buildings in San Francisco and a walk along the Embarcadero Historic District, where 47 piers extend from a concrete seawall alongside the San Francisco Bay. I started out at the Ferry Building Marketplace, where I had a delicious mushroom empanada at El Porteño, fed a few crumbs to birds milling about outside; and thumbed through many of the tempting-to-buy new releases on display at the Book Passage bookstore.

Pier 7, Embarcadero, San Francisco

The Ferry Building is the dividing line between even and odd numbered piers. The industrial, even numbered piers extend south of the Ferry Building. The odd numbers extend north leading up to the bars, restaurants, shops, museums, boating excursions, and myriad other amusements at Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. I went north to Pier 39, marveling at how each pier along the way has a distinct focus — e.g., office space, restaurants, museum, etc. My favorite was Pier 7. A so-called “simple finger” pier made with timber decking and ornamental iron railings, Pier 7 is beautiful in its simplicity.

Also beautiful in their simplicity were the many natural and agricultural wonders on my daylong trek back to Vegas, which began with a drive along Monterey Bay and ended with a full moon illuminating wide open desert skies in eastern California and Nevada. My first stop was the Salinas River State Beach, a narrow strip of land wedged between the Salinas River and Monterey Bay. Due to dangerous currents, the beach is used more for walking and horseback riding than swimming and surfing, and the day I was there, the river was much more lively than the bay. Two otters entertained those of us on the riverbank by diving for fish, surfacing to eat their catch, and after “brunch,” taking what appeared to be a bath followed by a floating nap.

Eberle Winery, Paso Robles, Calif.

From the park I drove east to Salinas then south through miles of geometric tapestries created by rows of grape vines and budding heads of lettuce before reaching a fork in the road. One way would take me to Las Vegas through Los Angeles County and the other would cut across the state to Bakersfield.

I chose Bakersfield and am very glad I did. The scenery along State Road 166 is stunning. It winds through the rolling hills and jagged cliffs of the Cayuma River Canyon before plateauing into vast fields of citrus trees in the San Joaquin Valley. 

State Road 166, Cuyama River Canyon, Calif.

About an hour the other side of Bakersfield is when the sun went down and the moon came up, allowing for the amazing scenery to continue, even in the desert in the dark of night. 

That big old moon gave me comfort and brought to mind this gem from Divine Sisters of the Ya Ya Sisterhood: “[A] summer moon will put up with inattention for just so long.” 


Northbound — Costa Mesa to San Francisco

Pismo Beach, Calif.

Finding myself living in Las Vegas (long story), I decided to make a trek up the California coast and back down again, beginning in Costa Mesa, home of a dear childhood friend who graciously put out the welcome mat for me four months ago when I first landed in the Pacific time zone. From Costa Mesa, I meandered north, stopping in Hermosa Beach to have lunch with a fellow education reporter from my writing days for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Next up was a nearly 400-mile stretch to the Bay Area in and around San Francisco to visit with fellow reporters from way back, from the 1980s when I was working for United Press International in Guatemala. The best part of my California journey was seeing old friends and colleagues, but the scenery wasn’t bad either. Here are a few highlights from the trip north.


The CAMP parking lot, Costa Mesa, Calif.

In Costa Mesa, a coffee shop called the Blackmarket Bakery very quickly became my office. It’s located in a wonderful cluster of restaurants, shops, and cafes called The CAMP, where the parking spaces say it all. Instead of numbers to be punched into a parking meter, each one has a zen-like message. Two of my favorites were “Follow New Trails” and “See the Forest.” And the pastries at the Blackmarket Bakery, especially a bread pudding made from chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, and molasses toffee cookies, are delicious.

Also worth checking out in and around Costa Mesa are the meandering marshland trails of the Newport Back Bayand Crystal Cove State Park, 2,400 acres of seaside wilderness that that includes 3.2 miles of coastline, a remodeled seaside colony from the early 1900s, and 15 miles of hiking trails, not to mention the vast selection of top-rated milkshakes at Ruby’s Shake Shack.

Newport Back Bay, Costa Mesa, Calif.


My next stop was Hermosa Beach, which packs a lot into its 1.5 square-mile expanse — most notably biking, bars, sunbathing, surfing, and, above all, volleyball. I’m guessing there are good eats in Hermosa at every turn. If you’re looking for a low-key sandwich shop with sidewalk seating, Gum Tree Shop & Café is a good place to go, and its turkey, tomato, and avocado sandwich with sweet chili aioli on sourdough proved to be a good choice for lunch. 

Leaving, Hermosa Beach, I headed north with no agenda other than to skip some of the main attractions — e.g., Hollywood Boulevard, Santa Barbara, Hearst Castle — and to keep an eye out for off-the-beaten-path destinations, which led me to the following gems….