Lost Sierra Road Trip

The stretch of the Sierra from north of Truckee to Lassen, or the “Lost Sierra” is one of my favorite parts of the whole state of California. Even better, it’s highly underrated and much more lightly travelled than the coast or other parts of the Sierra. Here’s my recommendation for a five day trip through this incredible area.

Lost Sierra Road Trip // tahoefabulous.com

Truckee to Downieville (60 miles, 1.5 hours)
Head north from Truckee along the scenic Highway 89 corridor – be sure to watch for migrating deer on the road because this is a very active wildlife corridor. If you want to start your day out with a hike before you get on the road, there are a couple of options very close to Truckee. There’s Emigrant Trail, which is a popular mixed use trail, so you’ll likely see hikers, mountain bikers and horses. It’s an out and back, so just walk until you feel ready to turn around. For a scenic loop of 5.3 miles, try the Sagehen Creek Loop Trail, an easy meander along Sagehen Creek that’s a good spot for wildflowers in the spring. Both these trails are right off Highway 89, so they’re very convenient for this route.

After about a half hour of driving, you’ll be in Sierraville, a gorgeous open valley that’s home to cattle grazing and hot springs. There aren’t any free hot springs open to the public here, but you can drop in at Sierra Hot Springs Resort if you’re interested. At Sierraville, you turn left to get on Highway 49 and head to Downieville.

Downieville is a historic gold rush and timber town that was slowly dying, but has been bouncing back with a growing tourism economy – especially mountain bike tourism and the efforts of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship. While Downieville is a mecca for mountain bikers due to the world famous Downieville Downhill trail and a fast growing network of new trails, there are plenty of other things to do. There’s fishing, gold panning, swimming, and even a little museum downtown if you’re into history. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses nearby around Sierra City, so there is plenty of hiking as well. I think that Downieville is worth staying for a couple of days at least to take in a few of the many activities available.

Downieville Downhill // tahoefabulous.com

If you’re at all interested in mountain biking, that’s something that you have to do while you’re here, if only to say that you did it! While I wouldn’t recommend the full Downieville Downhill route unless you are a strong intermediate+ rider, there are plenty of other options in the area. See my trail report of the Downieville Downhill here. Visit Yuba Expeditions bike shop in downtown Downieville to help you plan a route, book a shuttle, or rent a bike.

When I’ve stayed in Downieville, I’ve camped. I like the Union Flat campground. While it’s a few miles out of town, it’s right on the North Yuba River, which is  great for a post ride or hike soak. If you’re looking for something unique, you can stay the night in an old fire lookout! I haven’t got to do that yet, but some friends did and said it’s awesome. The Calpine Lookout isn’t far from Downieville and would be a great basecamp for a few days. There are also lots of little resorts, cabins, and vacation rentals in the area if camping isn’t your thing. For food, I’d recommend bringing groceries and camp kitchen set up to supplement eating out. There are a couple of restaurants in Downieville (literally a couple), and they’re okay, but a little pricey. Definitely support the local businesses, but eating there every meal would get expensive.

Downieville to Quincy (60 miles, 1.5 hours)
Head back east on Highway 49 from Downieville toward your next destination of Quincy. You’ll head north on 89/70 and pass through the small town of Graeagle, which is a fun place to stop. If you’re a mountain biker, there’s the awesome Mills Peak Trail, which is worth a ride, even if you’re exhausted from Downieville. See my trail report linked above with tips for shuttling or riding from the bottom. If you’re not into biking, you can drive up to the Mills Peak Fire Lookout (which is a working lookout and offer tours during the summer) and take in the gorgeous views of the Sierra Buttes and the Lakes Basin. A few miles of the road are unpaved, rough, and narrow, so I’d recommend high clearance and all wheel drive.

Gold Lakes Basin Lost Sierra // tahoefabulous.com

Graeagle has a bunch of little shops and restaurants, so wandering around the town is a good option. For food, I’d recommend picking up a to go order from the Graeagle Mountain Frostee and heading a few miles up the road to The Brewing Lair in Blairsden. This is one of my all time favorite breweries. They sometimes have a food truck and live music, so check their facebook for updates.

Mills Peak Fire Lookout // tahoefabulous.com

Quincy is one of the bigger towns in the Lost Sierra, and it’s located on the gorgeous Feather River. Similar to other spots in the area, there is lots of hiking, fishing, swimming, and rafting. It’s home to the High Sierra Music Festival, which is a must do for festival fans who want a more mellow experience. For mountain bikers, it’s also home to the Mount Hough trail, which I haven’t ridden yet (on my bucket list!), but I hear is awesome. There’s lots of campgrounds around Quincy, and plenty of resorts, RV parks, and vacation rentals for lodging.

Quincy to Lassen Volcanic National Park (71 miles, 1.5 hours)
Compared to more popular parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic National Park is practically deserted. While lacking iconic landmarks like Old Faithful or Half Dome, Lassen is worth spending a couple of days exploring the park. The National Park’s website gives a great overview of places to stay and things to do while you’re there.

There are literally dozens of day hikes you can do in the park, and in the summer, you can climb Mount Lassen with a reasonable level of fitness and some hiking experience. It’s also a popular backcountry ski destination, since there’s some level of snow all year. Like Yellowstone, Lassen Volcanic National park is home to thermal areas. The most well known area, Bumpass Hell is currently closed for a rehabilitation project, but there are many others you can visit.

Lassen Volcanic National Park // tahoefabulous.com

One of the coolest things about Lassen is how little light pollution there is. It has incredibly dark skies, making it a great area for stargazing. The Park even hosts a Dark Skies Festival in August, which would be an awesome reason to plan a visit.

Just a 45 minute drive from Lassen is the McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park. This park is home to the incredible Burney Falls, which is another one for my California bucket list. If you’ve got a couple of days in Lassen, a visit to Burney Falls is worth the drive.

Lassen Volcanic National Park is a little off the beaten path – which is why it’s so quiet, and the park doesn’t have huge infrastructure of the larger parks. While there are a few places to eat in the park, you’d be better off stocking up on groceries in Quincy or Almanor. While you’re staying in the park, be sure to be bear aware and store your food and garbage in the proper way.

The entire trip is about 190 miles and 4.25 hours of driving, not accounting for any scenic detours or side trips. While you could drive straight from Truckee to Lassen, I think that taking multiple days to explore the Lost Sierra is worth it – especially if you bring your mountain bike or fishing pole.

Mountain Biking the Downieville Downhill for Non-Expert Riders

The Downieville Downhill is one of the best known mountain bike trails in the US, and it’s for good reason. The trail is unique, challenging, and a blast to ride. The network of trails around Downieville is growing, thanks to the hard work of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, but the classic route is 15 miles with nearly 6,800 feet of descent.

Downieville Downhill for Non-Expert Riders // tahoefabulous.com

As a mountain biker in California, I’d been hearing about the Downieville Downhill for years, and really wanted to ride it. Before I rode it for the first time in 2014, I wondered if I could handle riding it, since I’d heard about how rough, technical and exposed it could be. If you look around the internet, you’ll find dozens of videos of people riding the trail, which do give a good overview of the trail. However, the vast majority of the people doing the POV videos are guys who are advanced to pro-level riders, which isn’t super helpful for determining difficulty if you’re less skilled.

So, how good of a rider do you have to be to ride the Downieville Downhill? I think that anyone with intermediate mountain bike skills can have fun on the trail, but if you’re a less than advanced rider, be prepared to walk some sections. The Downieville Downhill is mostly downhill, with less than 500 feet of climbing. Despite this, the ride is physically exhausting due to the technical and unrelenting nature of the trail. You’ll want to be in good cardio shape, take breaks as needed, and be sure to drink lots of water and eat plenty of calories. The first time I did the trail, I bonked and had a complete meltdown, so stay on top of your nutrition. The first time I rode the Downieville Downhill, 

As far as gear goes, you’ll need a full suspension bike to ride this trail. I’ve ridden it on both my 26 inch, 150 mm travel GT Sanction and my 115 mm travel Transition Smuggler, and I had a blast on both. Most people would probably prefer more travel than 115 mm, but with 29 inch wheels and modern geometry, my riding ability is the only thing limiting me on the trail. Though I ride with clipless pedals most of the time, I like flat pedals for the long rocky sections of the trail. Knee pads are also a must, and I usually wear my beefier ones for Downieville. I’d recommend a full face helmet and goggles, though plenty of people do the ride in half lids.

Downieville Trail Details // tahoefabulous.com
Trail Details via Strava
Trail Map via Strava
Trail Map via Strava

The Trail
Basically everyone does the Downieville Downhill as a shuttle. You can self shuttle, but I recommend doing the Yuba Expeditions shuttle. It’s much easier to arrange, a reasonable price ($25), and the proceeds from the shop go towards trail building and maintenance in the area. The shuttle will drop you off at Packer Saddle where you’ll jump right on to the first trail of the Downhill, Sunrise Trail. Sunrise Trail is a newer section that’s a mix of flowy dirt berms, rocks and roots. It can get pretty dusty during long dry stretches, but this is one of the easiest sections of the trail, even when blown out. Trailforks rates it as intermediate, which I think is accurate.

You’ll be on Sunrise Trail for about 1.6 miles and drop about 450 feet in elevation before it turns into Butcher Ranch Trail. Butcher Ranch is the trail you’ll be on the longest – about 6 miles with about 3,100 feet of descent and 1,200 feet of climbing. Butcher Ranch is a legitimate advanced trail, though, like I said before, intermediate riders can handle it with careful line choice and walking some sections. There are extended rock gardens with 6 inch – 1 foot drops, and these long technical sections always have me wishing for an uphill “break” by the end. Butcher Ranch bottoms out at a bridge over Pauley Creek at about mile 7.7. Take a break here, because you’re about to tackle the stoutest climb of the trail. (Though this spot can sometimes be really buggy!) You’ll climb almost 200 feet in under half a mile, which feels even worse than it sounds.

Downieville Downhill // tahoefabulous.com
A rollable drop on Butcher Ranch.

After the climb, you’ll get to a trail intersection with Second Divide climbing up and Third Divide heading down. The Downieville Downhill route has you heading down Third Divide at this point. Trailforks rates this trail as intermediate, but I think it’s definitely on the hard side of intermediate, especially as fatigued as you are at this point of the trail. This segment is about two miles with 1,250 feet of descending and is not nearly as rocky as much of Butcher Ranch. Third Divide has some long, flowy sections but isn’t a “flow trail” in the modern sense as there are more rooty sections and small drops, and not very many bermed turns.

Third Divide spits you out on Lavezzola Road, an easy fire road section you’ll be on for about 1.2 miles. The fire road section is a nice break, so relax for a bit. Lavezzola Road intersects First Divide at a pretty obvious trail head on your right. First Divide is the most rolling section of the Downieville Downhill, as you’ll climb about 1,050 feet and descent 1,460 feet over three miles. However, most of this ascent comes in small rollers that don’t even feel like climbing. There are a few stout climbs though! Trailforks has First Divide graded as an intermediate, which I think is pretty accurate. There’s nothing super technical on this segment, though there are some narrow sections with major exposure (like literally fall off a cliff and die exposure) that make the riding feel more challenging. You’ll also be feeling the cumulative effects of the long ride at this point and fatigue from the rollers. It’s also usually significantly hotter at this point in the ride. This is all to say, don’t underestimate this section! Also, watch out for poison oak if you do stop for a break here.

Downieville Downhill // tahoefabulous.com
A section with some exposure on First Divide.

Just before you hit the 15 mile point, First Divide will drop you back into town on to Main Street of Downieville. While you may be tempted to blow through stop signs to get back to your vehicle, don’t! Apparently, there are often officers waiting to ticket riders who ignore the stop signs.

After this long, difficult, but incredibly fun and rewarding ride, there’s nothing better than jumping in the North Yuba River which has its confluence with the Downie River almost directly across from Yuba Expeditions bike shop. The bike shop usually has beer from the Brewing Lair on draft, so grab one of those while your at it. Cheers with your riding buddies and celebrate the fact that you just conquered one of the best mountain bike trails in California!

P.S. If you’re looking for recommendations for places to stay or eat in and around Downieville, check back tomorrow!

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I receive a small percentage of the sale as compensation – at no additional cost to you. I promise to only recommend products that I use and enjoy!

Things to Do in Point Reyes, California

Point Reyes National Seashore is one of my favorite coastal California destinations. I mean, Greyson and I got married there, so of course I love it. Point Reyes is an easy trip from Tahoe, so when we’re feeling a need for saltwater, that’s usually where we’ll head. The fact that his parents live there and we have a free place to stay doesn’t hurt either!

Point Reyes National Seashore // tahoefabulous.com

The Point Reyes area has everything you could want in a coastal California oasis. There are breathtaking vistas, sandy beaches, breaking waves, wildflowers, wildlife, hikes for every ability level, a historic lighthouse, world famous cheese, farm fresh food, and much more. It’s only ninety minutes from San Francisco and even closer to wine country.

Point Reyes National Seashore // tahoefabulous.com

After dozens of trips to the area, I’ve amassed quite a list of recommendations, so here are just a few of my favorites.

Whales, Elephant Seals, and Other Wildlife

Point Reyes National Seashore // tahoefabulous.com
PRNS is famous for its varied and interesting wildlife. Depending on the time of year you visit, you might see whales, elephant seals, river otters, bobcats, weasels, harbor seals, tule elk, foxes, and dozens of species of birds. You will definitely see the happiest cows in California. If you want to learn more about wildlife viewing in PRNS, click here or visit the Bear Valley Visitors Center. Elephant seals are among the most charismatic of the megafauna at PRNS, and if you want to spot the huge nosed males that give them their name, your best bet is June & July or November through March. You’ll have a good chance of spotting some variety of elephant seal in Point Reyes every month except August, and even then you might get lucky.

Point Reyes National Seashore // tahoefabulous.com

If you are an avid birder, Abbot’s Lagoon is a popular location and nesting site for snowy plovers, and you can spot birds of prey like osprey, peregrine falcons, red tailed hawks, kestrels, and more throughout the seashore.

Point Reyes National Seashore // tahoefabulous.com

The ocean side of Point Reyes is a great place to spot the gray whale migration as they head back and forth between their northern feeding grounds of Alaskan waters to the warm shallow seas of Baja in the south. January is the best time to see them southbound, while March and April is when they head back north. I prefer the northern migration, because the mothers are traveling with calves, so their usually moving more slowly and closer in to shore. Since whale watching at the lighthouse is so popular, the park operates a required shuttle on weekends and holidays from Christmas to Easter.

Point Reyes National Seashore // tahoefabulous.com

Hiking, Biking, and the Great Outdoors
While Point Reyes is worth a visit year round, II love visiting in the spring. The hills are be green and the wildflowers are going off. While it’s usually impossible to completely avoid fog there, spring gives you a good chance for sunny days. Even days with some fog, it will often roll out for a few hours.

Point Reyes National Seashore // tahoefabulous.com

When it’s foggy, there are still great places to explore. My favorite hike for wildflowers is the Tomales Point Trail, a 9 mile out-and-back, fairly flat hike that also lends itself to whale watching and Tule elk spotting. Chimney Rock trail is another one known for wildflowers, and it’s only 1.75 miles round trip with barely any elevation change. If you’re looking for something with more of a climb, get to the highest spot on the point with the Mt. Wittenberg Loop. While the high point doesn’t have a view, there are spots along the way that will give you an incredible vantage on the seashore.

Point Reyes National Seashore // tahoefabulous.com

Despite being the birthplace of the sport, Marin County isn’t known for being friendly to mountain bikers. However, we often bring our bikes for a quick ride on the Estero Trail. It’s nothing gnarly, but you’ll get gorgeous views of the bay. Be sure to stop on the bridge and look for bat rays passing underneath! Watch out for cows. If you ride all the way out to Drake’s Head, you’ll get awesome views of the whole seashore.

 

In the summer, Tomales Bay is warm enough for swimming due to how shallow it is. Chicken Ranch Beach on the west side of the bay in Inverness is a good location, though it can get crowded on nice weekends. Parking is on the road only, so you might have to walk in for a bit to get to the beach. Tomales Bay is also a great place to kayak, since it’s usually so flat and calm. Blue Waters Kayaking rents kayaks and offer guided trips and lessons. You can kayak up to some secluded boat only beaches pretty easily.

apointreyes03

During the fall, there’s bioluminescence in Tomales Bay and you can go on night kayaking trips to check it out. Several local outfitters offer guided tours and provide the boats. I still haven’t done this yet, but it’s on my to do list.

Point Reyes National Seashore // tahoefabulous.com

Oh, and you can’t go to Point Reyes without visiting the three most famous attractions: the Lighthouse, the Boat, and the Tree Tunnel.

Point Reyes National Seashore // tahoefabulous.com

Eating and Drinking
Marin County has some of the best farm to table restaurants in California, and you’ll be able to find fresh, local produce, meat, and seafood wherever you go.

For quick sandwiches, burritos, and picnic supplies, I like Inverness Park Market. You can head right next door to the Tap Room for an excellent sit down meal as well. The Tap Room serves breakfast on the weekends – try the chilaquiles. For wood fired pizza, Cafe Reyes in Point Reyes Station is my favorite. If you’re looking for a meat-heavy option, there’s a tiny Marin Sun Farms butcher shop/restaurant just outside of downtown. Vegetarians be warned, there might be nothing on the menu that doesn’t have meat.

Point Reyes is famous for its cheese, and yes, the Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam Triple Cream lives up to the hype. You should also try local specialties Toma and Pt. Reyes Blue while you’re here. If you’re cheese obsessed, you can even follow the California Cheese Trail!

Point Reyes National Seashore // tahoefabulous.com

Finally, my favorite place in Point Reyes Station – Heidrun Meadery. Heidrun makes their mead champagne style, so it’s fresh, bubbly and not overly sweet. It’s definitely not your typical mead. Each varietal comes from honey made by bees exclusively collecting pollen from a specific flower. The varietals available vary season to season and year to year, but some favorites are almost always on the menu, like California Honey Blossom and Macadamia Nut. My current favorite is Arizona Desert Mesquite, which is a little weird but wonderful. Tours are by appointment only, but you can stop in to taste and buy during business hours.

Lodging
I’m biased, but my favorite place to stay is the Cottages at Point Reyes Seashore in Inverness, which is owned and operated by Greyson’s parents. It’s within walking distance to the beach, has a pool, hot tub & tennis court, some of the rooms are dog friendly, the prices are affordable, and it’s the lodging that is closest to the National Seashore entrance.

Point Reyes National Seashore // tahoefabulous.com
Photo by Marble Rye Photography

Other places we’ve recommended are Tomales Bay Resort, Osprey Peak Bed & Breakfast, Motel Inverness, and The Lodge at Point ReyesIf my budget was unlimited, I’d stay at the hipster’s dream the Inverness A-Frame:

“Blythe design co created this space as a personal sanctuary from our busy city lives and a place to recharge in a truly gorgeous cabin with the wilds of West Marin just outside our doorstep… This Bohemian Modern A- Frame is a two bed two bath spacious cabin located in Northern California in beautiful West Marin county. …Commune with nature, connect with loved ones or gift yourself a personal retreat with a view amongst a forested acre of bay trees, redwoods, and mature oaks….The A-Frame is a sanctuary for all to rest, recharge and create. Designed with a ‘slow’ pace in mind, our hope is that you enjoy every part of your stay; from making breakfast in our open kitchen, to choosing the perfect record to put on as the sun sets, or relaxing on the deck in the heated seats under a moonlit sky. When the weather turns enjoy watching the storm pass over black mountain cozy by the fire with a hot drink in hand.”

Someday.

There are also lots of AirBnB and vacation rental options, as well as campgrounds in the area.

Things to do in Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz is many things – a hippie college town, a laid back surf city, a growing hub for tech, a great location for foodies, and it offers just about every outdoor opportunity. Different neighborhoods of Santa Cruz have distinct vibes, and nearby cities and towns offer different feelings as well. Everyone knows the big Santa Cruz landmarks, like the Santa Cruz Wharf  or the brightly colored houses of Capitola, but I’m giving you some recommendations that you won’t find everywhere.

Things to do in Santa Cruz // tahoefabulous.com

Food & Drink:
While I’m in Santa Cruz, I have two must stops: Verve Coffee Roasters and The Penny Ice Creamery. Both are Instagram dream locations – Verve Coffee Roasters 41st Street location has a succulent wall, along with incredible coffee and their other locations are worth visits as well. At The Penny Ice Creamery, the toasted marshmallow topping tastes just as good as it looks.

Toasted marshmallow fluff topping. 🍦🍦🍦🍦#icecream #santacruz

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Even in the last couple of years, Santa Cruz’s beer scene has exploded. I used to be unimpressed with the town’s beer selection, but now I have a couple of favorites. I haven’t written reviews yet, but I really like Humble Sea Brewing Company in Santa Cruz proper and Corralitos Brewing Co. a little south in Watsonville. Sante Adarius has a Santa Cruz and Capitola location.

For actual meals, I’m going to recommend two different Hawaiian restaurants – Hula’s Island Grill & Tiki Bar and Pono’s Hawaiian Grill. Hula’s is more kitschy – think velvet Elvis paintings and mai tais served in pineapples. The Big Sur Veggie Burger is one of the best veggie burgers I’ve ever had and the Caesar Salad is similarly amazing. Pono’s is a little more traditional, with a good beer selection plus full bar, outdoor seating, and live music pretty often. Go traditional here and get a plate lunch.

West Cliff in #santacruz.

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Another place I love to eat is burger. – the period is part of the name. It has a couple of locations – both Aptos and Santa Cruz and an absolutely bonkers menu. You can get a burger with a grilled cheese sandwich for the bun (the Snooki), a burger made with mac and cheese (Johnny Marzetti), or including a donut AND bacon (Luther). I like a more simple burger, the Johnny Cash which still has fries, bacon, and blue cheese. Even if you just get a few of their sides, it’s worth a visit.

Activities:
My favorite thing to do in Santa Cruz is mountain biking at Wilder Ranch State Park, but there are other great trails right in the city like Emma McCrary and the ones in DeLaveaga Park. My second favorite thing to do is to walk along the multi-use path along West Cliff Drive and look for otters. Bring your binoculars, because I’ve seen whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions in addition to dozens of otters. West Cliff Drive ends at Natural Bridges State Beach, which is gorgeous and FREE, but usually packed.

Gray day in #santacruz

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Obviously, Santa Cruz is a major surfing destination, but surfing isn’t my sport, so I don’t have any recommendations that you couldn’t find using google. Climbing at nearby Castle Rock State Park is supposed to be great, but it’s still on my to-do list. There’s hiking in Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, and at Pogonip Open Space, if you want a more local flavor.

Another slightly off the beaten path activity is visiting the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum & Botanic Garden. The totally bizarre plants of the Australian Garden are my favorite, but you can definitely spend an afternoon wandering around the whole thing. We were even lucky enough to see one of the extremely rare white hummingbirds when we were there last. If you’re in Santa Cruz between late fall through early winter, go see the monarchs. They like to hang out in the eucalyptus grove in Natural Bridges State Park, and guided tours are available from mid-October through mid- January at 11 am and 2 pm at the state park.

I’m just scratching the surface of all of the awesome things to do in Santa Cruz. It’s one of my favorite California cities, and I can’t wait to get back. What are your favorite things to do in Santa Cruz? What did I miss?

Eastern Sierra Highway 395 Road Trip

While not as popular or well known as a Big Sur or North Coast road trip, a route down Highway 395 through the Eastern Sierra is just as spectacular.

Eastern Sierra Road Trip // tahoefabulous.com

While you could spend months adventuring in the Eastern Sierra and not hit everything, you can do a more abbreviated trip and hit quite a few highlights. I’d take a week at minimum to do this route, but you could cut out some stops for a weekend version. Since the Eastern Sierra can get really hot during the summer, I’d recommend doing this trip in early spring, late fall, or even winter if you are a confident snow driver. I love camping in the Eastern Sierra, so all of my lodging suggestions revolve around camping – though many places have a variety of motels and vacation rentals in addition to my camping suggestions.

South Lake Tahoe to June Lake via Monitor Pass  (137 miles, 2.75 hours)
The most scenic route between South Lake Tahoe and June Lake isn’t the fastest, but it’s worth doing, especially in the fall. The aspens on Monitor Pass and throughout the June Lake Loop make the extra fifteen minutes so worth it.

On your way down, be sure to stop at the Mono Lake overlook, and take in your first glimpse at this practically alien lake. It’s also worth the detour or to navy beach and/or the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area Visitor Center to check out the tufa towers and learn about the natural and human history of Mono Lake.

#monolake panorama from #hwy395

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Just past Lee Vining, turn right and stop at the world’s best restaurant located in a gas station – Whoa Nellie Deli. The Mobil Mart is on the way to Tioga Pass into Yosemite National Park, so there’s usually an interesting crowd of climbers, locals and tourists. There’s even live music on Sundays and Thursdays throughout the summer.

At @junelakebrewing, my favorite #brewery in the #easternsierra.

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Be sure to take the June Lake scenic loop into town – the view just keeps getting better and better. See my detailed recommendations for where to stay, what to do, and where to eat and drink in my Things to do in June Lake post from earlier this week.

June Lake to Mammoth Lakes (20 miles, 30 minutes)
Mammoth Lakes has lots going on – no matter what the season. If you’re there in the winter there’s skiing or snowboarding at Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort or in the backcountry. In the summer, lift serviced mountain biking at the resort is world class! Don’t worry if you’re new to it, Mammoth Mountain has trails for all levels, and rental gear is available at the resort and in town.

After a long day of adventuring, you’ll probably be thirsty, so be sure to check out Mammoth Brewing Company! If you’re looking for restaurants recommendations, hikes, or other things to do in the area, check out my post – Things to do in Mammoth Lakes here.

For lodging, there are tons of options. There are even campgrounds in town! I had a good experience at Old Shady Rest, but there are quite a few options in the area. There is also dispersed camping in the area.

Mammoth Lakes to Bishop (42 miles, 45 minutes)
One of the best reasons to do this road trip during the milder weather is the abundance of hot springs! On your drive between Mammoth and Bishop, turn left at the old green church and visit Wild Willy’s Hot Spring. If Wild Willy’s is too crowded, there are quite a few others in the area, so look around.

Scenic drive in the #easternsierra.

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My favorite place to stay in Bishop is actually a little north of the town at the Pleasant Valley campground on the Owens River. This campground can be kind of mixed bags – we’ve had wind, loud RVs, and biting ants on one trip and a perfect rural oasis on others. One of the reasons that I like it so much is its proximity to the Happy Boulders. While not as famous as the Buttermilks, the Happy Boulders are more my grade (beginner).

The scene. #happyboulders #bishop #easternsierra #bouldering

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Head into town for two must try spots: Mountain Rambler Brewery and Black Sheep Coffee Roasters. The brewery doubles as a music venue and the best dinner in town. If you are in the mood for something quick or need sandwich supplies, I like Great Basin Bakery more than it’s more famous cousin, Schat’s.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest
Photo by Greyson Howard

An amazing day trip from Bishop is to visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. These gnarled trees can be up to 4,000 years old! During the winter, the gate is closed and you can’t drive all the way to the top, but it is a popular spot for snowshoeing and cross country skiing.

Bishop to Independence (42 miles, 40 minutes)
If you want to get taste of high Sierra hiking, but don’t want to commit to Mount Whitney or the John Muir Trail, I suggest hiking into Kings Canyon National Park via Kearsarge Pass from the Onion Valley trailhead. You can make it a day hike just to the top of the pass and back (~9.5 miles round trip with ~2,500 feet of elevation gain). You’ll be rewarded with amazing views of the Kearsarge Pinnacles and alpine lakes. You can also use this trailhead to launch a backpacking trip – like the famous Rae Lakes Loop.

If you’re going to hike Kearsarge, I’d highly recommend staying in the Onion Valley campground. You’ll be able to leave right from your campsite and start hiking. It’s at 9,000 feet so you’ll be able to get out of the heat of the valley, too. The campsites here are pretty small – so a huge tent might not fit in the space available. Some of the sites are a bit of a hike (<0.25 miles), so keep that in mind with your packing.

Entering John Muir Wilderness #jmt #latergram

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View from the top of Kearsarge Pass at 11,760′

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Independence to Lone Pine (16 miles, 16 minutes)
Just down the road from Independence is the town of Lone Pine, best known as the gateway to Mount Whitney. However, there’s more to Lone Pine than the town you drive through on your way to Whitney! The Alabama Hills around Lone Pine have a long history of filmmaking – from spaghetti westerns to standing in for the Middle East in current films to the setting of Tremors! This history is celebrated at the Museum of Western Film History in downtown Lone Pine, and it’s worth a stop.

On a more sober note, the Manzanar War Relocation Center was one of the 10 internment camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War Two. It’s now Manzanar National Historic Site and  “was established to preserve the stories of the internment of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II and to serve as a reminder to this and future generations of the fragility of American civil liberties. Manzanar National Historic Site is between Independence and Lone Pine.

Alabama Hills in the #easternsierra #hwy395 #roadtrip #camping

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While you’re in Lone Pine, you should definitely camp in the Alabama Hills dispersed camping area. You’ll be able to find solitude, but the roads are easy enough to navigate. Camp spots are located throughout alien-looking rock features and the night skies are some of the clearest I’ve ever experienced. Since camping is dispersed, there are no services, so be sure to bring your own water and practice Leave No Trace camping principles. As long as you’re in the Alabama Hills, stop by the instagram-famous Mobius Arch.

With that, that’s the end of the trip! Like I said, you could spend months exploring all the Eastern Sierra has to offer, and I hope this route inspires you to visit. All in all, you’re looking at about 4.75 hours of drive time and 250 miles travelled, not counting any day trips or detours.

Things to do in June Lake, California

June Lake, a small town north of Mammoth Lakes off of Highway 395 is one of my favorite places in the Eastern Sierra. It’s a tiny bit off the beaten path and often overshadowed by nearby Mammoth. Which often means it’s not nearly as crowded as other, more popular spots.

Things to do in June Lake California // tahoefabulous.com

Take a Scenic Drive
June Lake is located on the June Lake loop (Highway 158), a u-shaped road connected to 395. I’d driven by June Lake Loop probably a dozen times before I finally took the scenic detour – and it’s worth it, even if you’re just driving through. While it’s pretty either direction, I’d recommend turning in at the north end and driving south. This is the entrance further away from the town of June Lake, but your views will be more dramatic. The towering Sierra peaks are hardly noticeable from 395, but dominate the sky only a couple of miles in. There’s a reason that they call it “The Switzerland of California.” If you’re there in October, the loop has some of the best fall colors in the Eastern Sierra. Along the way, you’ll pass the lakes this area is famous for – Grant Lake, Silver Lake, Gull Lake, and, finally June Lake. The town of June Lake is situated between Gull and June lakes. The exit back to 395 is just a few minutes past town. Note: Highway 158 sometimes closes in the winter, so while there is access to June Lake, you can’t drive the full loop.

Lodging
There are all kinds of options for lodging in the June Lake area – from camping to resorts to vacation rentals. I’ve had two great experiences at the Oh! Ridge Campground and I’d highly recommend it. It has running water, flush toilets and easy access to a great beach on June Lake. I’ve also stayed at the June Lake Campground, which has convenient access to town, but it was really loud the one time I’ve stayed there. Reversed Creek Campground is very close to town, and Silver Lake Campground has great access to Silver Lake. While I’ve never stayed at any of the hotels or resorts, I’ve heard really good things about the Double Eagle Resort. There are also old school style cabins and lodges, like Fern Creek Lodge, which dates back to 1927. I’ve also stayed at a couple of vacation rentals in town, and there are plenty to choose from – I prefer VRBO for rural places like June Lake.

Eats
June Lake doesn’t have a ton of dining options, which isn’t surprising in a small town. However, it does have my all time favorite food truck, Ohanas 395. Ohanas is a fresh twist on classic Hawaiian food crafted with care and generous on the portion sizes. Greyson and I usually split two dishes – one regular and one small and that’s typically plenty. I love the Kahuna Chips – Hawaiian style nachos on kettle chips topped with kalua pork or huli huli chicken, sesame cabbage slaw, jack cheese, pepperoncinis and homemade bbq sauce. Their kalua pork is so good that it was better than any I got on the Big Island in June!

Another fun place to eat is the Tiger Bar & Cafe. It’s pretty typical pub food – heavy on the burgers and fries, light on the veggies, but good, if not good for you. Tiger Bar is historic – it was established in 1932, and it supposedly has California Liquor License #2 and is the longest legally operating bar in California.

Beer
June Lake is home to my favorite brewery in the Eastern Sierra – June Lake Brewing. I write in more detail about what makes the beer and the brewery so great in my June Lake Brewing post here.

June Lake Brewing // tahoefabulous.com

This area is also getting famous for it’s awesome June Lake Autumn Beer Festival. I went in 2016, and it definitely wasn’t your typical local beer festival. It’s put on by the June Lake Brewery crew, who moved to June Lake from the San Diego area and still have a ton of connections down there. While my local favorites (Mammoth Brewing Company, Mountain Rambler, etc.) were there, there were also a ton of farther flung breweries, many that I tried for the first time, like Pizza Port and Alpine Brewing Company. If you want to go, start planning early as tickets are very limited and in high demand – they sold out in early February for the 2018 festival happening on September 29th. If you happen to be in the area, sometimes there are extra tickets are available at the door. This is my favorite beer fest that I’ve been to – lots of beers, small enough that it’s not overwhelming, and a beautiful location and time of year.

Activities
There’s tons of stuff to do in the June Lake area, whether you stay in the loop or venture out a little farther. What there is to do in June Lake varies according to the season, but there’s something awesome all throughout the year.

In town, you’ve obviously got the lakes. For swimming, I like June Lake Beach, which is sandy with room to spread out and the water is clear and refreshing. Gull Lake has a nice picnic area and playground, and is great for a family picnic. June Lake is at 7,600 feet so the lakes are pretty cold, but definitely swimmable in July, August, and September.

The whole loop is well known as a popular fishing area. While you can fish in all of the lakes, Silver Lake is known for the best shore fishing, June Lake for early season catches, Gull Lake for bait fishing, and Grant Lake for trolling. Nearby, Rush Creek and Lee Vining Creek are typical fly fishing spots.

Tuolumne Meadows // tahoefabulous.com
Tuolumne Meadows // photo by Greyson Howard

Tioga Pass into Yosemite National Park usually opens between late May and late June, and it’s a convenient trip into the park from June Lake via this route. The drive is gorgeous, but steep and exposed, and it gets you into the much less crowded high, east side of the park. From this side, you’ll have easy access to Tuolumne Meadows, Tenaya Lake, Olmstead Point and all the typical Yosemite summer activities, like hiking, climbing, paddling, swimming, etc. There are far fewer services in this side of the park compared to the Valley, so plan ahead for food and water, gas, sunscreen, bug spray, and any other accessories you might need. Tioga Pass is usually closed by late October.

Olmstead Point // tahoefabulous.com
Half Dome from Olmstead Point

June Lake is home to a ton of hiking trails, though many are difficult to the steep elevation changes. Fern Lake trail is one of those short and steep trails, gaining 1,600 feet in just 1.75 miles to the lake one way. Once you make it though, the fishing is supposed to be amazing. On the easier side of things is the 2 mile Gull Lake Loop Trail. It’s right in town and doesn’t have much elevation change – perfect for kids or anyone who wants an easier hike. The Parker Lake Trail is a good middle ground. It’s 3.6 miles round trip with 650 feet of climbing, and you’ll be rewarded with a gorgeous lake at the end. Some friends have used this as an easy backpacking destination, and they said it’s great for newbies or if your time is limited and just want an easy overnight.

I also have to plug the June Lake Triathlon – it’s my favorite race I’ve ever done. It’s got a small town, local feel, but it’s still incredibly well organized and the field is big enough that you never feel like you’re out there on your own. The course is challenging, and so beautiful that you get distracted from your suffering. The whole town seems to get involved, whether they are volunteering at the event or on the road cheering you on. They offer sprint, olympic, and half iron distance races, as well as aquabike and relay opportunities- plus Mammoth Brewing Company beer and a home cooked meal at the finish line.

June Lake Triathlon // tahoefabulous.com
Photo by Greyson Howard

If you’re visiting in the winter, there are still plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy. June Mountain Ski Area is basically right in town, and though it’s owned by Mammoth Mountain, it still has a small town feel. If backcountry skiing or riding is your thing, there are guided tours available from Sierra Mountain Guides and through June Mountain. For non-adrenaline junkies, there is snowshoeing and cross country skiing nearby as well.

If you enjoy the outdoors, you’ll find something to do in June Lake. I hope you check out this awesome hidden gem, and enjoy it as much as I do!

Mountain Biking at Mammoth Mountain

I’ve been coming to Mammoth Mountain for lift-serviced mountain biking about once a year since I moved to Tahoe in 2010. Mammoth has diverse terrain, something for every level – beginner to advanced:

Mammoth Mountain Biking // tahoefabulous.com

“Mammoth Mountain Bike Park offers terrain for every ability level, boasting 3,500 acres and over 80 miles of single track. We offer the best beginner experience in the industry with the Discovery Zone, miles and miles of forested intermediate trail riding and are the leaders in building diverse and creative gravity fed DH and all-mountain expert and pro level trails.” 

mammoth 3

Though it might seem silly to drive the three and a half hours to Mammoth Lakes from Truckee when Northstar at Tahoe is just 20 minutes away, the quality and condition of Mammoth’s trails and terrain blow Northstar out of the water. If I’m paying $50 for a lift ticket, I want amazing, fun and well maintained trails, which Mammoth delivers. The views from some of Mammoth’s trails are among the top in California, too!

mammoth 4

Mammoth Mountain Trail Map from here.

My Favorite Trails at Mammoth Mountain Bike Park

  1. Off The Top: This trail is my #1 everyone must-do trail at Mammoth Mountain. Ride the gondola to the very top of the mountain and prepare for amazing views! The trail itself is graded intermediate, but I think it’s pretty easy – nothing too technical, just exposure with some tight switchbacks (that are easily walked if you’re uncomfortable). This trail has views that are up there with the Tahoe Flume Trail. The steep mountain side covered in bare volcanic pumice means unobstructed views in at least 180 degrees. You can see the Minarets, as well as other stunning Sierra Peaks. If you’re a more advanced rider, take the Kamikaze cut off and bomb down the loose and rocky fire road, home to the Kamikaze Downhill race. Beginners and intermediate riders can follow Off the Top into the trees for a fun cross country trail of mostly smooth dirt, broken up by a few easy rock gardens. Take the fairly easy but still fun Beach Cruiser trail to a fire road, and you’ll quickly be back at the base. Watch for faster riders speeding by on the fire road and stay right!
Off the Top trail (blue section) via Strava
Off the Top trail (blue section) via Strava
  1. Brake Through: This is another fun intermediate trail, though it involves more exertion and climbing that Off the Top and is slightly more technical. To ride brake through, you get off the gondola at McCoy Station at mid-mountain. After exiting the building, turn left and follow the signs to Brake Through. You’ll climb a slight incline for about a half mile, before turning left at the well-marked Brake Through trailhead. The first half mile or so after the turn off has the most technically difficult rock sections of the trail. Brake Through weaves in and out through trees and exposed volcanic sections. The trail itself is mostly smooth dirt, with some loose pumice sections and small rock gardens. Towards the bottom, there are several intersections, but they’re well marked. Keep following Brake Through trail until it runs out (about 3.25 miles from the top) and hop on Downtown. You can continue on Downtown all the way into Mammoth Lakes, where you can catch the shuttle from the Village and head back to the bike park. If you’re looking for more of a challenge you can follow the signs to Shotgun – see more info below.
Brake Through (blue section) via Strava.
Brake Through (blue section) via Strava.
  1. Shotgun: This trail is more of a downhill trail than Off the Top and Brake Through. You’ll definitely want a full suspension bike with some travel to handle some drops and rocky sections. Shotgun is one of the “easier” advanced trails at Mammoth, but it’s definitely not for beginners. The best way to access Shotgun is from the Downtown trail which starts at the Mammoth Mountain base, and can be connected to from a bunch of higher mountain trails. There’s a very obvious sign pointing out the right turn onto Shotgun, and after a short, but butt kicking climb, you’ll have arrived to the fun part of this trail. The trail was fairly chopped up when I rode it, with lots of small drops and loose dirt and rocks, but it was still so much fun! I felt like I could ride it fast and aggressively (for me!) and take on features that I would normally chicken out on, because the trail is so well designed. It’s a short trail (~0.6 miles), and you end up in the parking lot of one of the ski bases that is closed in the summer. Ride downhill on the road coming out of the parking lot, and you’ll end right at the Mammoth Village shuttle stop.
Shotgun trail (blue section) via Strava.
Shotgun trail (blue section) via Strava.

4. White Bark: This trail is the most downhill trail that I typically ride at Mammoth, and it’s definitely challenging. There are steep wood features and decent size drops, but it’s a really short trail – so it’s a good one to get your downhill feet wet. If you feel like it’s over your head, you can get off it and back on to the fire road pretty quickly. It does tend to get pretty beat up, so it becomes more challenging later in the season.

White Bark Map // tahoefabulous.com
White Bark Map (blue section) via Strava.

Whether you are an experienced mountain biker, or want to try it for the first time, Mammoth Mountain Bike Park is a great destination.

Mammoth Mountain // tahoefabulous.com

My Gear Picks
Helmet: Definitely something with a full face. I have and love a Bell Super 2R, and the Giro Switchblade is also supposed to be great.

Pads: I always wear knee and elbow pads when I ride at the bike park, and I usually wear a more heavy duty pair of knee pads like the Fox Launch. For elbow pads, I go for something light, like these ones from G-Form .

Other: I like these lightly padded gloves – Giro Xena . For the bright mammoth sun and moon dust, I wear the Smith Squad MTB goggles with lenses on the darker side.

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I receive a small percentage of the sale as compensation – at no additional cost to you. I promise to only recommend products that I use and enjoy!

Big Sur Coast Road Trip

Back in February, I had some time off between jobs, and Greyson and I were able to go on an amazing road trip along the Big Sur Coast. We drove from Truckee to Big Sur, driving down Highway One as far as we could go. Until recently, the road ended near Gorda, due to the massive landslide, so that’s where we stopped. We stayed a few days in Big Sur, then drove up to Santa Cruz to visit friends and family before heading home.

Big Sur Coast Road Trip // tahoefabulous.com

This trip inspired me  to plan a three-day Big Sur Coast Road Trip itinerary – from Monterey, California down to Gorda and back. This road trip would work great as a long weekend, but now that I’ve experienced Big Sur during the week, I have to recommend that if you’re able to swing it.  I’ve always had a great experience in Big Sur in late winter, so I’d go then as well, but you’re more likely to get storms than a summer trip, but there will be fewer crowds. Quick note about Big Sur parks – some of the state parks are managed by outside vendors, so your State Parks Pass won’t work at all of them and you’ll have to pay an entrance fee. Bring your pass, but beware of that!

Big Sur Road Trip Route
Map via Google Maps

Day One: Monterey to Lucia
While you’re in Monterey, check out the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. It’s a major tourist destination, but for good reason. Spend some time on their deck – I’ve seen everything from otters to humpback whales. Cannery Row is pretty touristy, but fun to check out at least once. There’s actually a lot to do in Monterey, and if you have extra time, it’s worth adding on a day to explore – especially if you’re into John Steinbeck.

Big Sur Coast Road Trip // tahoefabulous.com

Head south on Highway One towards the tiny town of Lucia. You’ll drive through the thick redwood forest of northern Big Sur (don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to explore this area) before popping out in the more open oak woodlands characteristic of the central coast. It’s about an hour and a half drive to Lucia from Monterey, but be sure to keep your eyes out for whale spouts in the Pacific – we saw dozens when we were driving down in February. Less than 20 miles from Monterey you’ll arrive at the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge. There’s a large pull out area on the north side of the bridge, so it’s easy to stop and take photos. Otter related fact: Bixby Creek is where the last remaining population of southern sea otters was found in the 70s, when they were thought to be extinct!

Bixby Creek Bridge // tahoefabulous.com

There are a few lodging options near Lucia. I’ve camped at Limekiln State Park and Kirk Creek campground. Both are great and fill up fast, so be sure to get reservations ahead of time. Limekiln has a slight advantage with beach access, though. There are also some non-camping lodging options including the Lucia Lodge, glamping at Treebones Resort, and the super fancy Esalen Hot Springs retreat center.

Limekiln Park View // tahoefabulous.com
View from Limekiln State Park Campground

For meals, I’d suggest bringing a picnic dinner to eat on the beach or at a scenic cliff – charcuterie and sauvignon blanc on Limekiln Beach at sunset is one of my top ten meals of all time. If you’re looking for a restaurant, both the Lucia Lodge and Treebones have restaurants that are open to non-guests and Whale Watchers Cafe is a restaurant in Gorda.

Big Sur Picnic // tahoefabulous.com

Day Two: Explore Big Sur
If you’re up early, morning is the best time to take photos of the iconic McWay Falls. McWay Falls is one of only two California waterfalls to pour directly on the beach. It’s got to be one of the most photographed spots on the Big Sur Coast, but it’s worth the hike to the view point. While people occasionally do hike down to the falls and the beach, there is no developed trail and it’s an incredibly dangerous undertaking. Stick to the walk to the viewpoint, the view is still incredible and you won’t die. If you don’t make it in the morning, and you want to take good photos, come back in the evening.

McWay Falls Big Sur // tahoefabulous.com

McWay Falls Big Sur // tahoefabulous.com

The Henry Miller Memorial Library is about 15 minutes north of McWay Falls and is quirky spot that’s worth a visit. It’s part bookstore/part performance venue/part museum.

“The Henry Miller Library is a public benefit, non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization championing the literary, artistic and cultural contributions of the late writer, artist, and Big Sur resident Henry Miller.  The Library also serves as a cultural resource center, functioning as a public gallery/performance/workshop space for artists, writers, musicians and students. In addition, the Library supports education in the arts and the local environment. Finally, the Library serves as a social center for the community…The Library hosts events throughout the year, but particularly in the summer months (May-October), including music, lectures, book signings, and countless community events…”

Another worthy stop is Pfeiffer Beach – this is a big sandy beach with a very recognizable sea arch. The walk from the parking to the beach is kind of long, but this would be another great spot for a picnic. If you’re looking for a quick snack and amazing coffee, stop by Big Sur Bakery or at Big Sur Taphouse for a bigger meal. There are also a ton of unique shops filled with local items, perfect for gifts or souvenirs.

Big Sur Coast Road Trip // tahoefabulous.com

One of the best parts of the Big Sur Coast is that there are so many amazing view points. When you’re driving along, be sure to pull over and stop anywhere that looks appealing – you’ll be sure to see something spectacular. After your leisurely day exploring the coast, you’ll be ready to get a good night’s sleep, whether that’s on an inflatable mattress or in a super nice hotel bed. I’d recommend heading back towards where you stayed on night one since the drive is so short and scenic, but there are plenty of lodging options closer to the town of Big Sur.

Big Sur to Monterey
One of the best known restaurants in Big Sur is the ultra-fancy Nepenthe, but one of the best kept secrets in Big Sur is the fact that Nepenthe has a less ritzy breakfast and lunch restaurant called Cafe Kevah. Cafe Kevah’s menu is smaller (and less expensive), but you can eat out on their amazing deck – one of the best views on the Big Sur coast. I’d call it a good trade off and recommend waking up early enough on your last day to make it to breakfast here.

After a leisurely breakfast, head north to the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Point Lobos is a spectacular part of the California State Parks system and a can’t miss stop on the drive between Big Sur and Monterey. Guided walks are available every day, or you can just wander around and see the sights. When we were there, the water was so clear in some coves that we could see the baby harbor seals swimming around. We also saw a bunch of sea otters – including a tiny baby tied up in the kelp! You can even SCUBA dive and snorkel in Point Lobos – more information here.

Point Lobos State Natural Reserve // tahoefabulous.com

Point Lobos // tahoefabulous.com

Extend your last day with a final stop in Carmel by the Sea. This tiny and ritzy town is always worth a visit. Wander around the cute downtown and pop into a restaurant for lunch – chances are wherever you stop will be delicious. Monterey is only about a ten minute drive from Carmel, so savor your last glimpses of the ocean. With that, your road trip is complete!

I hope you like this new blog feature, and check back next week for a more inland, but just as epic road trip.

Car Camping Road Trip Necessities

On the scale from ultralight backpacking to yurt glamping, I prefer to do my road tripping on the luxurious side. There’s a time and a place for cutting down your toothbrush and sitting on the ground, but, for me, road trips are not it! I’ve done a lot of car camping and road trips, and I have some great suggestions to make your time on the road and in your tent as comfortable as possible. I found options at lower and higher price points, so you can get a pleasant set up, no matter your budget.

Road Trip Must Haves // tahoefabulous.com

Sleeping:
Being comfortable while sleeping makes a huge difference to your quality of life on the road, and I think it’s the most important area to splurge on. I love having a big-ass tent. Greyson and I are both tall people, and, while we can both fit in a two-person tent, it’s a tight squeeze. We have the Big Agnes Tensleep Station ($449.95) and the footprint ($50.00), and it is incredible. The tent is tall enough to get dressed in and there is enough room for both Greyson and me, and our bags. It also has a large vestibule, so you can take off wet and muddy gear, but stay dry. The tent is easy to set up – though it definitely helps to have two people, it can be set up by one. It has plenty of guylines, so you can stake it out and make it stable in high winds, despite its height. It doesn’t pack down very small and is heavy, which is the only real downside. For four-person tents under $200 from reputable brands, you could look at the highly-rated REI Co-op Camp Dome 4 or the Kelty Salida 4. For sleeping, I want something long, wide and cushy, and the insulated Nemo Cosmo in long and wide is perfect ($139.95). It also has an integrated foot pump for easy filling. For comfort under $100, try Kelty Weekender ($59.95), ALPS Mountaineering Comfort Series Airpad ($39.99), or the old reliable close-cell foam Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest.

Car Camping Must Haves // tahoefabulous.com

After more than 5 years, I’m still really happy with my Sierra Designs Zissou ($144.95). With water-resistant down, it has the benefits of down without the drawbacks in wet weather. For warmer weather, Greyson prefers a backpacking quilt-style sleeping arrangement, even for car camping, like the Enlightened Equipment Revelation ($255). With quilt bags, you can cinch up the sides and bottoms when it’s chillier, or use it like a blanket on warmer nights. If you opt for synthetic, affordable and reliable sleeping bags are easy to find. There’s the Mountain Hardwear Bozeman Quilt ($69.27) or the REI Co-op Trail Pod ($89.95) or the Marmot NanoWave ($89.95), which also comes in long. I didn’t use a sleeping bag liner until our honeymoon, and now I can’t imagine camping without one. I have the easily-washable and light Sea to Summit Expander Travel Liner ($34.95) which is on the cheaper end of liners. If you tend to sleep cold, you could get the Sea to Summit – Reactor Extreme Thermolite liner ($59.99) which can add up to 25 degrees of warmth! You could even use it as a standalone ultralight bag in really warm weather. Don’t forget a pillow! You can just bring a pillow from home for the cheapest and easiest option, but I have and like the NEMO Fillo ($39.95). A cheaper travel pillow is the Cocoon Ultralight Pillow ($25.95).

Car Camping Must Haves // tahoefabulous.com

Eating:
I’ve found that having a nice and easy to use kitchen set up makes us much more likely to cook and less likely to cave in to eating out. First up, a really nice cooler is worth the money. We are so impressed with our YETI Tundra cooler ($249.99). Stuff stays cold for so long! At a lower price point, the old school Coleman Steel-Belted cooler has good reviews and holds a ton ($94.99). For cooking, nothing beats the Coleman Classic 2-burner Stove, ($32.99) for both price and performance. If you want something that packs down smaller, there’s the Jetboil Genesis 2 ($239.59). We also have a Jetboil Flash ($99.95) that we use if we’re just heating water for coffee in the morning. On the cheaper side, the MSR PocketRocket ($44.95) is a classic for a reason – it works and, while not quite as easy to use as a Jetboil, it’s quite simple.

Car Camping Must Haves // tahoefabulous.com

I like the ease of an all in one camp cookset, like the GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Camper ($139.95). For a smaller cookset, look at the Snow Peak Personal Cooker ($29.95). You’ve also got to have utensils, and nothing beats a Titanium Spork ($9.95). You can also go super budget with this reusable GSI plastic spork ($1.75)

Car Camping Must Haves // tahoefabulous.com

Miscellaneous:
If you’re not spending more than a day in each of your stops, and you have a lot of time on the road, you can probably get away with charging your phones via a car charger. If you’re spending a few days exploring a destination or you have bigger things (computers, cameras, gps units, etc.) to charge, you’ll want a battery system. No matter what, this isn’t going to be cheap, but it’s better than camping out in Starbucks for hours! We have the Goal Zero Yeti 150 Portable Power Station ($199.95), which can charge up to five devices at once, via USB ports, regular plugs, or car chargers. You can recharge the power station from a wall outlet or via Goal Zero solar panel ($125.49).

Once you’ve settled in to your campsite for the night, you’ll want to be comfortable and entertained. While a lot of developed campsites have picnic tables for seating, dispersed or primitive camping lacks that amenity. Plus, a chair with a back is so much more comfortable! I’m not a fan of the ultra light or small packing camp chairs – if I’m bringing a chair, it needs to be the real thing. The REI Co-op Camp X chair ($39.95) is perfect. It’s roomy, has cup holders, and they seem to last forever. I’m also big on having a hammock whenever possible, and I’ve had no complaints about the ENO DoubleNest Hammock ($52.46). Don’t forget the Hammock Suspension System ($29.95) – you won’t be able to swing without it.

Car Camping Must Haves // tahoefabulous.com

Hopefully, you’ll be stopping for outdoor meals in gorgeous places on your road trip. I’ve found that having a water-resistant picnic blanket for these occasions is a must have. We’ve given the Nemo Victory Blanket ($79.95) as a gift, and the recipients love it. It’s truly waterproof (non just resistant), and you can even stake down the edges if it’s windy out! There are much cheaper options out there, like this one ($9.99) or this one ($21.99), but they aren’t going to be fully waterproof.

Camp games are a great way to entertain yourself and to make friends with your neighbors. I’ve played Spikeball ($55.99), Bocce Ball ($29.95) and Ladder Golf ($37.49) while camping and had a blast. Get waterproof versions of playing cards ($8.99) or games like UNO ($9.95) for durability and to protect from spills or sudden storms.

Finally, we love our solar powered, inflatable, multi-color Luci Lanterns ($19.50). While they might just seem like a silly gimmick, we truly use ours a lot. They don’t take up very much space at all, charge quickly (we put ours on the car dash while we drive), and the white is bright enough to read by. The multi-color function is fun for the wilder nights and for entertaining kids. If you just want white light, you can get the Original Lucy ($17.95) for a little cheaper.

There are some of my suggestions to make your next car camping road trip a little more luxurious! I didn’t hit everything, so what did I miss?

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I receive a small percentage of the sale as compensation – at no additional cost to you. I promise to only recommend products that I use and enjoy!

Mountain Biking Wilder Ranch State Park in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz, California is an awesome place. It’s got the relaxed vibe of a beach town, with the amenities and cuisine of a bigger city. It’s surrounded by the Santa Cruz mountains, but you don’t even have to get out of town to be immersed in a redwood forest. In addition to all of the great beach activities, the Santa Cruz area is a hot spot for mountain biking. While newer trails like the Flow Trail in Soquel Demonstration State Forest and Emma McCrary Trail in Pogonip, get a lot more publicity (and a lot more riders), there’s an underrated gem of a trail network within easy riding distance of town – Wilder Ranch State Park.

Mountain Biking Wilder Ranch // tahoefabulous.com

Wilder Ranch was one of the original places to mountain bike in the Santa Cruz area. Greyson grew up riding here almost every weekend in the 90s! The network is a little more old-school than something like the Lithia Trails in Ashland, Oregon or the Hammerfest Trails in Parksville, British Columbia. Don’t worry, the trail building isn’t stuck in the 90’s. They’ve built some new switchbacked single track, so there’s less climbing up exposed fire road, while leaving old school favorites like Old Cabin and Zane Gray untouched.

One of my favorite things about Wilder is how many classic coastal California terrains that you can pack in one ride. You can go from coastal bluffs to oak woodlands to wide open ocean views to thick redwood forests and back in under ten miles! Because there are so many trails in this network, it can be hard to string together a route without a guide. So here are a couple of my favorite routes that gets you on the best of what Wilder Ranch has to offer. Note: mile markers are approximate and intended as a general guide based on my rides. I started all of these rides in the parking lot inside the state park. Any of these routes can be done by an intermediate rider, and most could be ridden by a beginner- some sections of Old Cabin and Zane Gray might be tough for a newer rider.

Wilder Ranch Mountain Biking // tahoefabulous.com
Trail Map via Strava

Wilder Ridge & Zane Gray:
This lollipop route is about 6.5 miles and 850 feet of climbing and will get you good views and one of the most technical singletrack sections in Wilder. From the parking lot, head past the stables on the Wilder Ranch Connector. After a half mile, you’ll make a sharp left onto Wilder Ridge Loop (fire road). This is the trail where you’ll do most of the climbing. The climb is fairly challenging – you gain ~450 feet of elevation in about 1.5 miles, and it’s mostly fire road or double track, plus, the steepest pitch is at the very top. After the steepest part of the climb (~1.9 miles into this route), Zane Gray Cutoff is on the left. The first part of Zane Gray is wide open, bluff riding – be sure to pull off onto the overlook for gorgeous ocean views, but the trail quickly turns into shale-y, challenging riding. There are exposed corners (no banked berms here!) and shark fins ready to catch your pedals. There are even a few small drops. The whole cutoff is under a mile, but you’ll descend ~320 feet in that time. Zane Gray will basically turn into Wilder Ridge Loop (single track), but stay left if you’re unsure. This is a fairly easy, rolling single track section, but watch for erosion ruts and there are some short steep climbs. At about 5.2 miles, the Wilder Ridge Loop single track will merge back with the fire road, and you’re almost back. At 6 miles, don’t miss the sharp right back towards the parking lot (like I did on the above screen shot!), and before you know it, you’ll be back at your car. This route took Greyson and I about an hour of riding time, and we definitely weren’t pushing our speed. It was a great late-winter tune up ride for us. See Strava route here.

Wilder Ranch Mountain Biking // tahoefabulous.com
Trail Map via Strava

Englesman, Old Cabin, Eucalyptus, Twin Oaks, Zane Gray, Wilder Ridge
For a longer loop that really hits all of the highlights, try this almost 12 mile route with about 1,560 feet of climbing. You’ll start on the Wilder Ranch Connector for a half a mile and then take the left fork up Englesman – NOT the sharp left onto Wilder ridge loop or right onto Englesman Loop, confusing, I know. At 1.4 miles, you’ll want to bend left onto the Englesman Reroute trail. This is really well built single track that’s fun to climb. You’ll get your heart pumping, but I never feel completely burnt out. This section is about 1.1 miles and 263 feet of climbing, but I think it feels easier than that. At 2.5 miles, you’ll on the the Englesman Loop double track/fire road for less than half a mile. Turn right to get on the classic Old Cabin trail. This trail drops you into an incredible redwood grove. You can bomb down switchbacks surrounded by giant old growth, and, if it’s a hot day, it will be much cooler in the little canyon. Now that you’ve gotten that super fun descent, you’ll have to climb back out of the other side of Old Cabin, about 260 feet. Old Cabin dead ends on Eucalyptus at 3.8 miles. Turn right and climb another 200 feet on a mile of exposed fire road. That’s definitely the worst part of this loop. Ride down the fire road until 6.2 miles and turn left onto Rodrigo for more single track. At 6.4 miles, make a sharp right on to Bobcat for 0.2 miles. Bobcat will dead end at Twin Oaks, and turn left. Twin Oaks will end with a little uphill at mile 7.3 and out you on Wilder Ridge Loop. Turn left and keep climbing, about 100 feet to mile 8. Here you’ll make a left on to the techy Zane Gray Cutoff, described in more detail above.  At 8.9 miles, Zane Gray dumps you out on the single track section of Wilder Ridge Loop (stay left). You’ll hit the Wilder Ridge fire road at 10.6 miles, and after that it’s just the sharp right back on to Wilder Ranch Connector at 11.4 miles, and back to your car. We did this in 1:51 riding time, but we took lots of scenery and snack breaks – overall it took 2:24. See my Strava route here.

Wilder Ranch Mountain Biking // tahoefabulous.com
Trail Map via Strava

Englesman, Wild Boar, Old Cabin, Eucalyptus, Twin Oaks, Wilder Ridge
This route gets you to Old Cabin and some great views, but is shorter and climbs a little less, 9.5 miles and ~1,300 feet of climbing. Similar to above, you’ll start on the Wilder Ranch Connector for a half a mile and then take the left fork up Englesman, and 1.4 miles, you bend left onto the Englesman Reroute trail. At 2.2 miles, turn left onto Wild Boar. At 2.7 miles, Wild Boar turns left and turns into Old Cabin, the redwood grove classic with a fun descent and a punchy climb. Old Cabin will end on Eucalyptus fire road at 3.6 miles. Turn left and keep climbing! You’ll top out on Eucalyptus at 4.8 miles – with Old Cabin you climb almost 450 feet in under two miles. It’s a stout climb. At the top, you’ll find the namesake eucalyptus tree grove with some picnic tables. It’s a great place to stop, catch your breath, and enjoy the view and a snack. Drop down the fire road – which can get pretty rutted, so watch out. At mile 5.9, you’ll go through a four way intersection, and you’ll continue going straight, which will put you on Enchanted Loop.  At 6.1 miles, hit a fire road and turn left. Continue straight at mile 6.3 on to Wilder Ridge Loop fire road for only 0.1 miles, where you’ll take the left fork at mile 6.4 back on to single track – Twin Oaks. This single track spits out on to Wilder Ridge Loop fire road at mile 7.5. The sharp right on to the connecter comes at mile 9, and then back to the parking lot. We did this with a moving time of 1:24 and a leisurely 2:15 overall. See my Strava route here.

A note about Wilder: All of the trails at Wilder Ranch are mixed use, so be sure to yield to hikers and horses. I’ve never had a bad encounter with an equestrian at Wilder, but I try to spend the most time on  trails that tend to see less horse traffic, like Old Cabin, Zane Gray and the single track parts of Wilder Ridge Loop. You’ll need to walk your bike through the historic ranch part of the park, but it’s very well signed and for a pretty short distance.

If you’re looking for a mellow but fun day away from the crowds, check out Wilder Ranch State Park!