A sandy walk up the Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley National Park

For my non-Twitter readers (wait, seriously, you don’t have a Twitter?), #FriFotos is a weekly themed collaborative hashtag where travelers contribute their best and favorite photos. This week’s theme is ‘sand,’ and while I’ve got thousands of pictures from the sandy beaches of my homestate, Florida, I thought it would be more exciting to share my brief recent experience at Death Valley National Park.

Niko and I made a short visit to Death Valley National Park on our way out of California. After weeks of San Francisco diners, mountain cabin retreats in Willits, and meeting the largest trees on earth at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, we jetted off towards Las Vegas for an evening of luxury – if you can count the Excalibur as luxurious. Niko had never been this far west before, so it was a treat to shuttle him around California, spewing out factoids and acting like I was a seasoned west coast traveler.

We stopped by the first ranger station to ‘register’ our car using my annual National Parks pass, and picked up a map to scope out what natural attractions we could stop by on our way towards Las Vegas. The only thing that wasn’t miles out of the way were the Mesquite Dune Flats, so we navigated our way through the desert towards them.

You really can’t miss ‘em.


Niko will be proud to hear me finally admit that I was a total brat during our visit to the dunes. Hot, bothered, and suffering from a desperate case of the munchies, I was a huge downer while Niko happily tromped through the sand. He pleaded with me to take a picture standing in the dunes (the top photo), and I was a major wench about it, miserably dragging my sandaled feet across the piping hot sand and faking a smile – but hey, it turned out pretty well in the end.

While I was wallowing in a pity-party about my lack of snacks, Niko ignored my blues and went for a little romp in the dunes. It was undeniably anti-climactic, but he insisted on jumping off one of the dunes into the sand. His failed attempt at an epic moment definitely quelled my negativity a bit – even though he inevitably tracked heaps of sand into the car afterwards.

Next time we head through the west, I’d like to spend much more time exploring Death Valley National Park. During my first visit to Death Valley, I was driving across the country with my entire family after a year of living in San Jose, California. The hottest temperature we recorded was a sweltering 123 degrees, and naturally, our van’s air-conditioning died in the middle of the desert. Literally everything we owned melted, from my mother’s red lipstick to my stick of deodorant. It was an adventure to remember, and one I’d totally love to relive.

Taking a hike to meet the largest trees on earth at Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park

There are few things that make me happier than being able to use my annual National Parks pass, so when Niko and I were heading down through California on our way back to the east coast, stopping by Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park felt like a no-brainer. Plus, after a wonderful weekend spent exploring in the woods of Willits, California, we were certainly channeling the spirit of outdoor appreciation.

Departing from the bay area, we hauled south towards Fresno until night fell and forced us to find somewhere to spend the evening. After driving into veritable wilderness, we pulled over at a mountain turnout in Squaw Valley and hit the hay – but not before encountering the largest bat I have ever witnessed. It had an unbelievable wingspan; I can still picture it swooping over the hood of our car as we navigated up the mountainside.

We spent the evening comfortably along the road, woke up the next morning to a breakfast of cheese sticks and chocolate milk, and then headed into the parks. We entered Kings Canyon National Park through the Grant Grove area, and made our first stop to hike towards General Grant. As we followed the easy trail towards the towering tree, we paused to pose in hollowed out sequoia stumps, and were tempted by signs that told us “do not climb trees.” (We’d never disrespect nature, but anytime I’m told not to climb something, I feel a slight itch to defiant.)

General Grant is over 3,000 years old, and boasts status as the second largest sequoia tree in the world. To be honest, we were impressed by every giant we encountered along the way; it seemed it would have been impossible to determine which of them was truly the biggest without the assistance of park signage and plaques. They were all beautiful.


Did you know? The General Grant Tree was declared as the “Nation’s Christmas Tree” by President Calvin Coolidge. To keep with tradition, the park holds annual Christmas serves at the base of the tree.

After scoping out our first giant sequoia, we journeyed further into the park, and seamlessly transitioned into Sequoia National Park. We pulled over on the side of one of the roads to go play in a snow patch; Niko had never actually touched snow before, so we made his first little snowman and threw a few snowballs at each other. Satisfied after stuffing my face with a tasty, fresh snowball, we clamored back into the car and continued exploring the park.
Driving along General’s Highway, we made our way past Stony Creek Village, Lost Grove, and the Lodgepole Visitor Center before finally reaching the main attraction: General Sherman.

An impressive feat of natural wonder from the moment you lay eyes upon this robust, barky creation, General Sherman is the largest tree in the entire world – perhaps not the tallest, nor the widest, but indisputably the largest tree by volume (52,508 cubic feet, to be exact). The incredible plant dwarfed tourists as they approached the wooden barrier to snap photos of themselves. Luckily for Niko and I, there were plenty of other couples eager to trade camera duty to snap a shot in front of the General.

Standing near the tree was a truly humbling experience. I have always been such an admirer of trees for their wisdom and age, so being in the company of General Sherman and General Grant was a beautiful way to reflect on both the tininess of my own body, and the timelessness of the outdoors. These trees have seen generations come and go, they have remained steadfast in their place while countless fans flocked towards their roots to lay eyes upon their majesty. They’ve survived fires, droughts, destructive storms, and even the abuses of humanity.

After a starry-eyed hike back up to the parking area, Niko and I headed towards the park exit in awe of the enormous creatures we had just met. In the true spirit of being fully encompassed by the wilderness around us, our GPS failed to function, and we resorted to attempting to find the exit ‘with our gut feelings.’

Two wrong turns and a sketchy u-turn later, we found ourselves queued in a long line of vehicles. Roadside construction forced the main road out towards Three Rivers to be converted into a one-lane, one-way path. Our caravan patiently waiting for a pilot car to guide us, then slowly ascended down the steep mountain towards Lake Kaweah.

I spent the rest of the week dreaming of trees.

A perfectly wild, perfectly simple mountain cabin retreat in Willits, California

Up into the mountainside surrounding Willits, California, down a winding dirt road, and past a skinny wooden welcome sign, sits a trio of charming cabins amid a veritable slice of American wilderness.

Welcome to Still Mountain Retreat.

But I digress.

During my trip across America with Niko, we stopped in my old California stomping grounds in San Jose to visit a few climbing buddies. We only planned to stay a day or two, but after being invited to join our cohorts for a weekend escape up into the mountains, we quickly agreed to alter our agenda.

Our evening drive up to the cabins took us past throngs of bay area traffic, up beyond the wine-laden land of Sonoma, and into the most wonderful nook of paradise. The Still Mountain Retreat property is an expansive sprawl of thick trees, mossy rocks, and grassy fields – all of which are intersected by a gushing river. I can’t say I know too many people who can boast having a waterfall on their property.


Immediately upon arrival, we were treated with two creature encounters. Despite misting rain, we explored the area a bit, and quickly found ourselves gazing upon a young doe resting alone in the grass along the muddy path we were walking. No more than a few weeks old, this infant deer made my heart flutter with adoration. Not wanting to disturb her, we carried on and were soon enthralled by the sight of a fuzzy little vole. I instantly knew that this mountainous retreat was the place for me.

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Road Trip America – The Ahwahnee Boulders in Yosemite National Park

The bouldering in Yosemite Valley is scattered throughout a handful of areas, all of which bring different gradings. Camp Four was intense, with our entire crew getting shut down on a V0 – and these are boys that climb up to V9s. The Housekeeping boulders were moderately graded, with a few that seemed slightly underrated, but the best area for agreeable route ratings was easily the Ahwahnee Boulder crag.

The climbing sat across the street from the ritzy Ahwahnee Lodge, where fancy folk sought expensive lodging in a rustic, yet clearly high-class setting. I went to the bathroom in the lodge once, and almost laughed out loud from the perplexed looks shot my way as I paraded my dirty, smelly, sweaty self past throngs of middle-aged people totting decorative walking sticks and wearing pristine North Face jackets.

Ahwahnee Boulders held my favorite route of the trip: Beached Whale, a flowing V5 climb with a vicious top out. It was my main focus during our time spent at Yosemite, and I could kick myself for not sending the route when I had the chance. On our last day in the park, I hopped on the route and miraculously made it all the way to the finish, with half of my body beached on top of the boulder. I wasted two entire minutes trying to flop myself over the ledge of the boulder before my arms gave out and I had to wave a white flag.

Beached Whale was interesting not only for the quality climb, but also for its funky location. The boulder sat tucked away in a breezy corridor, where the temperature instantly dropped about ten degrees. The air was cooled by an enormous waterfall that slid down a rock face far off in the distance.

The other climbs in the area were fun and had beautiful lines. Niko found his favorite V3 of all time, which I feebly attempted to climb – as you’ll see in the first picture below. Juan also had a mighty fine time on one of the boulders (middle photo below), and of course, I threw in a couple’s shot just because it’s such a rarity to get Niko to cooperate for one.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the Turkey Hill Heirloom Tomato Festival! As always, stay tuned for more climbing, eating, adventuring and morning fresh fun.

Road Trip America – Welcome to YOSEMITE, baby.

Every climber shares a united dream: climbing at Yosemite National Park in California. After ditching Moab a few days early due to relentless rain, our crew shifted gears and headed out to the land of El Capitain — with a new addition in tow, our new British buddy Paul, who traveled with us from the Lazy Lizard Hostel in Utah throughout our entire time spent in Yosemite.

We were a few weeks shy of the seasonal opening of the Tioga Pass, so we were forced to scoot north, then west before entering the park. From the moment you pass through the Ranger’s Entrance Station into the great land of Yosemite, there is a deep, undeniable connection to everything around you. The gushing Merced River, the curled baby fern blossoms, the snarky blue Stellar’s Jays that tended to cock their heads in apparent disapproval of everything we did.

Not a bad first impression, eh? As eager as we all were to get our hands on some Yosemite granite, we couldn’t help but pull off at a scenic overlook to admire the stunning valley. Check out iconic landmarks El Capitan and Half Dome off in the distance. Believe it or not, that group shot was entirely candid – Paul’s hand on hip and all. On our way back to the car I made friends with a little mammal buddy, who kindly posed for a few shots.

Whether you’re a climber, hiker, photographer, or simply enjoy the natural wonders that our country has to offer (and has graciously protected thanks to fellows like John Muir), Yosemite National Park is truly a destination that you absolutely must visit within your lifetime. My parents took me on a few weekend trips to the park while we lived in San Jose, California, and I regret not taking full advantage of my blessed situation. I could have been climbing these sweet spots a decade ago, instead my twelve year-old self complained all weekend about how I would have rather been hanging out with friends – ugh.

This trip, I vowed to make up for lost time and took full advantage of the park. We hiked, climbed, ate, conversed and explored our way through the valley for a week. All the important stops were made: splashing around Yosemite Falls, climbing and sleeping at Camp Four, spotting bears in meadows, traversing no-trespassing areas in Curry Village, spotting Half Dome, hiking to the base of El Capitan, bouldering in front of the Awhwanee Lodge – and everything was documented for your viewing pleasure.

I must have taken about a million shots of the waterfalls, but can you blame me? From hundreds of vantage points throughout the park, the falls kept peeking out from the treeline, just waiting to be photographed. I’ll share more when I give you a full post about wading through the frigid streams fed by the falls, but for now enjoy two photos from Curry Village. The first is of a dogwood blossom, which quickly became one of my favorite trees. The white ‘petals’ are actually modified leaves, which house the true tiny yellow flowers in the center. The second photo is just two ladybugs doin’ the dirty – couldn’t help myself.

There you have it: an introduction to Yosemite National Park. Didn’t get your fix of granite, creatures, climbing and nature? Fear not, this entire week will be filled with tales and photos from our time at Yosemite. Enjoy!

A Rainy Afternoon of Climbing at the ‘Ninja Training Camp’ Cave in Moab, Utah

Like a bad luck talisman, our Tallahassee crew seemed to have brought rain to the dry landscape of Moab. The crummy weather eventually drove us out of Utah a few days earlier than expected, but first we made a stop at a mysterious cave to do some roof bouldering. I later learned that the cave is called “Ninja Training Camp,” which always makes me giggle a bit.

We were led to the cave by Max, another summertime Moab resident who worked at a cafe in town. The cave sits tucked away from the road down Potash, past the routes at Wallstreet. I was a little weary of the rain, but my interested was immediately piqued by the unusual path taken to reach the cave: we had to cross through a giant drainage pipe to make our way towards the climbing area.

The rest of the ‘path’ to the cave was relatively mild, winding through sandy patches and rocky areas before leading us to a giant pond that sat as a natural protector before the looming cave. I barely climbed, opting instead to play around the pond and assume my usual role as photographer. The routes in the cave primarily ran along cracks in the roof, with a few sloped ledges thrown into the mix.

The rain came and went in short bursts, but the cave stayed fairly dry and provided a nice little shelter for our group. Most of boys were transfixed on the climbing, but a few of us strayed off to explore the little landscape that surrounded the cave, pond, and stacks of boulders that sat above. We brought one of our hostel companions, Dan Hebb, along for the adventure, and he quickly disappeared into the wilderness while we remained at the cave.

To the right you can get an idea of what the area looked like. It isn’t the best photo, but it was pretty challenging to capture the entire scene. I tried to get shots of the whole cave while the boys were climbing inside, but pesky trees kept blocking my views.

Aside from climbing, the boys enjoyed throwing large rocks off the top of the cave into the deep pond below. We almost convinced Jeff to jump naked into the pond, but my promise of $20 wasn’t enough to persuade him to take action. In all honesty, I’m glad he chickened out, because that stagnant water must have been loaded with icky water germs.

We only spent a few hours at this miniature crag, as the Moab locals had to get back into town for their respective job obligations and such. I really enjoyed taking pictures from that big drainage pipe. The first one of Ryan turned out fantastic with the silhouette and funky lines, and the photo below provided a great illustration of our time in Moab: lots of climbing, and beautiful scenery.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite photographs taken on this little excursion. As I mentioned before, I was absolutely smitten with the pond that sat in front of the cave. It was teeming with water bugs, and I was determined to find this odd amphibian that Max kept claiming lived in the area – my searches were unsuccessful, but I ended up with this great shot of the pond’s reflective qualities. Enjoy!

Road Trip 2011 – Wild Times the Lazy Lizard Hostel in Moab, Utah

Growing up in the wealthy suburbs of South Florida, the idea of a hostel was a mere fantasy for me. The idea of communal accommodations remained intangible until we visited Jeff and Ryan in Moab and stayed at the Lazy Lizard Hostel. It was truly one of those I’m-never-going-to-forget-this life experiences.

The hostel offers a variety of lodging options. You can rent a private cabin, stay in a dorm-style room above the main building, or camp out in the back. Pitching a tent is the cheapest option, so naturally we took that path – but make no mistake, camping in the quieter zone of the hostel hardly spared us from the insanity that ensues on a nightly basis at the Lazy Lizard.

The people we met were outrageous. There were Chelsey and Josephine, the beautiful hitchhiking ladies from Seattle, and Mike, my fellow Palmetto High School alumnus – what are the odds of running into a classmate in a funky Moab hostel? Not to play favorites, but one of the most significant people we met was Paul, the British climber who ended up accompanying us to Yosemite and spending a week with our crew.

I can’t forget about Lynne, the Lazy Lizard housekeeper who drank like a camel, swore like a sailor and even tried her hand at hitting on Niko. After a few hours of pounding boxed wine and gin, I excitedly followed her into her room to watch her feed her rat family. My drunken stupor ignored her warnings about the overprotective mama rat, who eagerly took a chunk out of my index finger when I shoved it into the cage to pet the rats – another Lazy Lizard mishap to add to the collection.


Our ultimate night of debauchery, the evening where I earned my rat bite, included the best thing that’s happened to Niko’s head in years: a very drunk Chelsey agreed to give Niko a male version of her fabulous lesbian haircut. It honestly could have ended in disaster, but Niko’s mane was shockingly tamed – minus his new little rat tail that we keep meaning to fix.


I would be a liar to claim that the Lazy Lizard was an outstanding facility for quality accommodations – if you’re looking for a quiet night’s stay or lavish lodging, this is not the place for you. However, if you’re keen on waking up with caterpillars on your tent, walking through the rain to find a liquor store, meeting outlandish characters from around the world and collecting experiences that you’ll never forget, do yourself a favor and spend a few nights at this ridiculous establishment.

Have I mentioned that this is the place where Jeff and Ryan are spending their entire summer while they work as rafting guides on the Colorado River? Imagine the novel’s worth of stories they’ll have to share once they’re done residing at the Lazy Lizard, if they make it out alive.

   

Road Trip America – Climbing Wallstreet in Potash near Moab, Utah

I’ve climbed a good number of crags around America within the last two years, but none were as unique as the routes at Wallstreet in Utah – they’re literally located along the roadside. A few routes even required belayers to stand directly in the road. Needless to say, things got interesting.

The climbing was so enticing that I was easily convinced to finally give (outdoors) rope climbing a try. I choose a slab wall that Ryan had free soloed up, seemingly with ease. The climb quickly taught me a lesson about slab climbing: I’m not so great at it. The prospect of slipping and grating my face along the positively sloping rock was a mental road block that I couldn’t get past – as was the no-hands-trust-your-tiny-foot-holds style of climbing. I think I’ll stick to overhangs.

Across the street from the climbs, the Colorado River rushed and rippled past us with frigid water that looked almost good enough to jump into. This was easily one of my favorite crags I’ve ever photographed. There were beautiful climbs, unique landscapes, and even a few creature buddies.

If I had to pick a highlight of the day for the boys, it would be the 5.8 trad crack, called 30 Seconds Over Potash, that Jeff led. It was pretty intense watching him muscle his way up the route in true Jeff fashion – which means he just powered through the movements with minimal technique and maximum strength. Once he finished placing gear and anchored in, he let the other boys top rope the route while practicing their gear placements.

Perhaps the best photo from the day was snapped on a 5.11c that Ryan, Jeff and Niko spent a chunk of the day working. This route was literally located on the street, the belayer had to stand directly in the road. There were multiple times when we had to shout up for the climber to pause while the belayer pressed up against the rock to let a semi-truck pass by. Ryan gets the photo of the day with his no-hands chalk up, complete with his tongue out against the wall.

Road Trip America – Climbing ‘Beached Whale’ V5 at Ahwahnee Boulders in Yosemite National Park

Behold, my future conquest. This mediocre-quality photo is my mental commitment to sending what will soon be my first V5 ascent. The route is Beached Whale, a beautiful overhung problem sitting across from the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite National Park.

I’m posting this photo in an effort to create some sort of hype that will push me not to give up on the climb.

For those of you who speak beta, here’s the route breakdown: you start hands crossed on two slopers (one has a slight finger-tearing crimp), and a high right heel with your left flagged under. You then bump out left to a decent ledge, match and throw up a higher heel, then bump out left again to a better ledge where you match again. After a little funky footwork that leaves you with a heel up on the lower ledge, you bump out over that middle prow to a solid ledge on the other side, and trust your heel while you match your hands. Now for the tricky part: bump up right to the prow, and cut your feet to throw a heel up on the left side of the ledge. Then it’s a hardcore mantle upwards to complete the top out.

After two days spent working the problem, I’m a mere top out short of sending Beached Whale. The granite rock has been destroying my palms and fingertips, so today is a much needed rest day. Tomorrow this V5 will be mine. Send strong vibes and words of encouragement – I’m seriously going to need it to complete that scary top out. The problem starts on a little rocky area, then the landing drops down under the roof, leaving me terrified about falling.

I can do this, right? How glorious would it be to send my first V5 out in Yosemite? I can’t pass up an opportunity like this. I will top out – and there will be video.

Road Trip America – Urban bouldering in the rain at Central Park in Denver, Colorado

The first two days of our time in Denver were entirely rained out, putting a damper on our plans for a full week of hardcore climbing. By the third day, we were growing restless. On Thursday, we wasted a few hours loafing around in McGoo’s house, and happened upon a link for a Denver park that housed amazing artificial boulders.

The site warned that the park was nearly always overrun with throngs of kids, making it hard to take the climbing seriously. We decided to rough out the rain and headed to the supposed climbing in Central Park anyways. Our decision paid off, because the playground was a ghost town due to the dreary weather – we had this unbelievable park all to ourselves.

Aside from the sculpted boulder formations, this park was a Dr. Seuss fantasy land with miniature purple hills, zany metal sculptures and plenty of things to swing, spin and fall off of. Despite the rain, we all had a blast. One of my dad’s graduation gifts came in handy when the rain started falling a bit harder: He gave me a camera cover for taking shots in the rain, and it was ideal for this situation.