Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Seacliff and Twin Lakes State Beaches

If you are traveling to the California coast then chances are you are hitting the highlights. There are certain hot spots along the coastline starting with Eureka to the far north then Fort Bragg, San Francisco, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Morro Bay/Pismo Beach, Long Beach/Malibu and then San Diego. Chances are good that these are one of the places that come to mind when you think of the coastline. But there are wonderful spaces between the hot spots to visit! Two such places that we stopped off at were Seacliff and Twin Lakes State Beaches.
 So I packed up my daughter, her 3 year old son and my 13 year old son and headed north of Monterey to find out if this first beach was as cool as my research made it sound to me. Seacliff State Beach is in Aptos. Located about 35 miles north of Monterey and about 10 miles shy of Santa Cruz this beach features a ship that has been sunk at the end of the pier in order to create a reef for fish and a nice landing/nesting spot for the sea birds. (click on the small photos to see the larger versions!)
 Turns out is is VERY cool! Even my jaded teenager turned to me and said "Mom, this is the coolest beach you have ever taken me to!" and since I drag him to beaches all of the time that's saying something.
 And look who we found right at the shoreline.  Egrets are wetland birds but can be found near the ocean as well. Actually, there are times I've found them standing on kelp beds IN the ocean. This one seemed to barely notice my presence.
 What makes this beach special, other than the artificial reef, is all of the driftwood, shells and rocks you will find as you walk the shoreline.
 Normally the central coast will have either smooth beach sand or big jagged rocks so finding this beach with smooth "skipping" stones was a real treat.
 As I turned to walk to the underside of the pier the egret stretched his neck, suddenly very aware. Initially I thought it was me but soon the arrival of a dog, happily bounding on the beach, made it clear that the egret could care less about me and was a whole lot worried about the dog. 
 The underside of piers has been something I've loved since I was a little kid. It's like this great hidden world that just goes on and on. When I was little, growing up in Southern California, I would pick a dry, sandy spot on the beach under the pier and just watch the waves. Now I photograph them.
 I wanted to capture the way the high waves were crashing into the columns when my son tossed a rock into the nearby water startling a gull and making my image SO much more dramatic! (oh, and the 13 year old was all too happy with the effect!)
 We headed up topside to explore the deck of the pier. This looks like it would be a really wonderful place to spend the day and take in the sunset. With benches all along the edges you have a wonderful place to hang out and relax the day away. Our kids loved running the length and were mesmerized by the ship at the end.
 Gulls, pigeons, cormorants and brown pelicans dotted the ship with more flying off an on every minute. There was no easy overlook down into the reef but that didn't stop this from being a very cool view.
 Due to the hazy, foggy morning the sun shimmered off the sea and cast the birds into silhouette creating one of my favorite photos of the day.
 But just look over the side of the pier and you could see lots of sea birds, like this grebe, swimming around in the water.
 One of the most beautiful details that we noticed was the way the foamy water curled over into the crest of the wave. Just as beautiful from the top as they are from the front.
 Because of the weather we were treated to two very different views of the shoreline. If you looked south along the shoreline there was very little visibility due to the fog bank which created this wonderful ghostly effect.
 But all you had to do was walk to the other side of the pier to get a view of what the day really looked like!  This beautiful and bright view gives you an idea of how moderate the temperatures of the day really were.
 Since this was a week day the crowds were low, parking was easy to get and we almost had the beach to ourselves. There is a fee for day use but it covers all of the state parks you visit during that day.
 Sea foam is created when large amounts of "surfactants", molecules from algae blooms and kelp beds, get churned up in the big waves that come with winter storms. Makes it look like snow on the beach. While snow on the beach is common on the shorelines of the Eastern US, it's not here in California so that makes sea foam a pretty cool effect.
 From Seacliff we headed about 6 miles further up north to Twin Lakes State Beach. The fog gave the Walton Lighthouse there great ambiance but I'd love to go back again and see it on a clear day. If you want to actually walk the jetty out to the lighthouse you will need to go further north to Seabright State Beach.
 Now Twin Lakes State Beach is a special hidden treasure. Located on the southern edge of Santa Cruz it is the Santa Cruz beach experience without the crowds of the Boardwalk or Natural Bridges. Parking is very limited so that helps keep the crowds down as well. If there is no parking lot spaces available you can get a parking permit for street parking on the weekends from the Live Oak Parking Trailer located at the corner of 9th Avenue and East Cliff Drive between 10am and 5pm on weekends or holidays. We were there on a weekday so there was a space to park and almost no one on the sand.
 As with Seacliff, the foggy horizon didn't really effect the beach where it was bright, blue and beautiful. Different shore and harbor projects have left these broken pylons on the beach which create their own little ponds to discover and explore.
 Twin Lakes is a very long beach and it offers a lot of room to run and play which was important for our little guys. Lots of wet sand meant lots of ways to play as well!
 And while the day looked cold if you looked off into the fog bank just off shore, it was in the mid 60's and definitely warm enough for my teenager to play in the waves.
 One of the things we enjoyed most about this beach was the textures and details created by the different beach features. This "river" was created by the wetlands drainage from the Schwan Lakes Wetlands located right across the street. This is a great place to see wetlands birds but it also creates this great pattern on the sand at the beach as the faux river makes its way to the sea.
Both kids were simply fascinated by the little water ribbons created by this effect. Okay, the adults had fun with it too. The effect was just beautiful!
Right before we left for the day to head out for a late lunch and the drive home, we decided to try to make ourselves a sand "snowman". It sounds easier than it actually was! Due to winter storms the sand was really wet. It took some effort to make this little six inch tall figure but we were as proud as we would have been had he been six feet tall!

Having let the two beaches hold our attentions for way to long, by the time we started to look for somewhere to eat (not easy to do when you have a choosy teenager and a picky 3 year old to feed) we were happy to take the first place we found along our way.

We stopped off at Jeffery's Restaurant on Soquel Avenue and, I will admit, we thought we'd made a huge mistake when we walked in the door. This place is ancient. The type of place where the servers are all over 40 (maybe closer to 60) and it smells vaguely of that musty smell you identify with Grandma's house. But we were starving and knew the kids were not going to make it much longer due to the late hour and energy expended on the beaches...so we stayed. And were we ever happy we did. My daughter ordered the pancakes for her and her son and they were golden and light and fluffy. My teen ordered the fish and chips and the fish was crispy and light, not the least bit greasy. I took a leap and ordered the Monte Cristo sandwich and...wow. Man, oh, man was that GOOD! Sweet and savory and creamy and wonderful. Perfection. The prices are moderate and the service was good. It gets 4 stars for food and 3 stars for the ambiance which, honestly, could use some remodeling. But if you can get over the old location then you will enjoy the food. As we sat there enjoying our lunch we noticed that several of the other customers were obviously regulars and everyone seemed to be enjoying their food as well. 

So if you are headed to the California Coast and find yourself in Santa Cruz or Monterey, hit these two beaches in between the two cities. It will be a fun day trip for the whole family.

As always, don't forget to click on the small photos to see the larger versions. And come check out the photos every day over at Instagram or Flickr and just this month I'm now featuring work on 500px so drop by one of those and say HI! See you here next week!


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Colusa Wildlife Refuge

All over the United States there are wildlife refuges that will take your breath away. In California the best time to visit is in the winter. California is part of the Pacific Migratory Flyway so, especially in winter, you can see lots of different birds in just a short time. Our nearest refuge that has an "auto tour" drive route is Colusa but there are plenty of refuges in California that have these tours and even more that have trails you can explore on foot. We were on limited time so we chose to go to the smallest of the auto tour routes for our afternoon.

Colusa NWR is located about an hour north of Sacramento. I'll be honest and admit we got a bit lost before we found the entrance we wanted so round trip we spent about 3.5 hours away from home. If we had had more time available we would have gone a bit further north to the Sacramento NWR that has a much longer route. However we were thrilled by our experience that day. (Don't forget to click on the small photos so you can see the larger versions!)

 It was really foggy that morning so the Red-tailed Hawks were still on the branches. It needs to heat up a little before they can fly easily. When it's cold or wet it takes too much energy to take flight so they watch from their perches for easy prey to come near enough before they will swoop down and try to catch a meal.
 But the fog added a bit of fun texture to the scenes like these Greater White-fronted Geese waddling their way across the fields. 
 As I mentioned we got lost first. GPS will get you to the refuge but maybe not the front entrance. At this point it's great to have the map view or, as old fashioned as it seems, a real map, on hand. We took the first little sign we saw which actually led us to the hunters entrance which was not where we wanted to be. The upper part of the refuge is for the general public and the lower section is where you can get permits for hunting. So we went five miles out of our way down this long road...but there were definite pay offs for getting a bit off track. This egret was one of those rewards.
 Keep in mind that most of these photos are taken FROM THE CAR. I do have a 300mm lens which is a "long" lens but not a super long lens. So these birds are not far from us or the road. Easy to see.
 We got quite the treat when we came upon two Ibis facing off over feeding area. If the morning had not been so dark and foggy I would have been able to capture more colorful images since they are very iridescent birds but this was so sudden, and not a common sight, that I took what I could get! (click on the small photo to see the larger one where you get a better look at their colors!)
 Ibis are not confrontational birds so it's uncommon to find them putting on this display. I was thrilled to be able to see it! This only lasted 3-4 minutes but it was very cool to see them popping up and down into the air with wings spread wide. Thank goodness we got lost or we never would have seen this!
 We did find our way to the official entrance where there was a very large sign as well as a welcome sign as we approached the entrance. At this point there are restrooms as well as a white board that tells you what species has been seen in the park. And the views...oh the beautiful views. This is from the very first overpass that you take into the auto tour area.
 Right as you start there is an overlook deck where you can get out of your car and see the birds easily. But here is the tip. Park in the first parking lot and stroll over to the deck since there really isn't any parking, except handicap parking, near the deck. There is a ramp to make wheelchair access easy. After seeing the deep fog over the fields we were a bit worried about how much we were going to be able to see on the tour...we were worried for nothing. The water areas were totally clear.
 The draw for visitors this time of year is the Snow Geese migration. Thousands of these beautiful birds fly the PMF (Pacific Migration Flyway) so you can commonly see V's of them in the sky overhead. 
 You get a much closer look from the deck. Of course the outer water areas, accessible by footpaths, hold the larger populations of the birds, but it doesn't mean you can't see plenty right from the deck or the roads.
 We were on a limited time schedule so the short auto tour route was really all we had time to do. But, as it turned out, it was perfect. Sights like this Greater White-fronted Goose spreading his wings were breathtaking!

 The Northern Pintail Ducks were plentiful and definitely my favorite bird. Their coloring is just so elegant and beautiful. 
 Sights like Great Blue Heron's and Ruddy Duck's swimming in the beautiful ponds were just breathtaking. 
 The fog was still definitely a main player in the day making visibility short but we were still able to see quite a bit of "wonderful" from our car.
 Like this grand Great Blue Heron. He just looks so majestic to me huddled against the cold. A word about that. Dress in layers so you can put on a coat at that first stop. You will be driving with your windows down and it can be quite cold while you are on the tour. After the tour you will want to be able to remove your jacket so that first big parking lot comes in handy twice, even if you don't need the restrooms!
 The 3 mile auto tour loop takes you along the ponds and rivers of the upper Colusa NWR. If you are very lucky you may get to see the river otters that can be found here. We were rewarded with beautiful views but no otters.
 Parts of the refuge are quite "mucky" which is perfect for birds like the Cattle Egret. A smaller version of the one pictured at the beginning of this article, they hunt for the same type of food, insects and smaller animals.
 We rounded the last bend of the tour believing that we had pretty much seen what there was to see. It had been a great day filled with beautiful views, beautiful birds and even one deer that we saw scamper off into the trees...but we were not done yet.
 First we saw this tree and I couldn't believe my eyes. I have seen Black-crowned Night Herons before but never more than 2-3 at a time. So imagine my joy at finding a whole tree of them! (click on the small photo to see the birds more clearly)
And now imagine my shock at finding a whole nesting colony!! Over 100 of these gorgeous birds were in these stick-nest trees. Originally we thought that the huddled brown shapes (click on the little photo to see the bigger one!) were other birds like owls or hawks but I have learned that these are the adolescent herons which have not developed their colors yet. I have the photo in front of me right now and I still can not believe what we saw. Awesome...in every respect of the word. Awesome.

An Auto Tour of a Wildlife Refuge is the perfect way to get a taste of the amazing natural world or maybe just to get someone who is normally not a "nature" person out to see what is so cool about it. So if you have never been to one before look up your local refuge and see if they have an Auto Tour and go give it a try...you may just love it enough to go again and get out on foot to explore those areas you can't reach by car!

As mentioned before, there is another refuge a bit higher up with a longer auto tour and more trails and more decks where we can see more great views ...we'll be headed up there in early February and I'll share with you whatever it is we are blessed to find there!

See you next week!


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Day Trip To Monterey (or how you can do and see a lot for almost free!)

We have family that lives near Monterey but even before they moved there we tried to make it to the area at least once a year. Over this past year I've been actively searching the area for things to see and do. We are "Shoestring" travelers so, while there have been a few "splurge" activities, we really try to find free, or nearly free, things to do. This week I have a few fun things that you can go see and do on a "shoestring budget"!
Pacific Grove is one of those little towns that earns the word "Quaint". And not in a "Oh, they are old fashioned, backward and boring." type of  quaint. There is a movie theater there playing current movies, lots of great places to eat and lots of shops, including a Starbucks if you need your cup of Joe (other coffee shops there if you don't like that chain!). 
 But cute, colorful and quaint all fit the bill here. Yes, you are just a short hop to the famous 17-mile Drive from here. The "Drive" is also a wonderful thing to do but we had just a short afternoon and there were other treats in store for us right there in Pacific Grove.
 Like house "gawk". There are so many really beautiful Victorians in this small area that, if this is your idea of gorgeous homes, you will be torn as to which is your favorite house! (spoiler...this was mine!)
 Many of them have very bright colors but there are also several that are the height of elegance and style with more subtle paint colors.
 Some of those, including this beauty, were for sale! All you need is about a 2 million dollar budget and one of these restored lovelies can be yours!
 But not all of the homes are Victorians. We found this medieval stone fence around a more modern wood siding home.
 It even had this great stone and iron stairway which continued all the way up to the front door!
And this terra cotta colored beauty looked like it would be right at home in the Rapunzel village at Disneyland. Whatever your favorite style of home turns out to be the chances are good you will find one here to fall in love with!
 But if you come to Pacific Grove between the months of November and February then you really should make your way to the Monarch Butterfly Grove. They arrive in thousands to huddle together through the winter months.
 And you can't miss the groves location...just look for the bright pink Butterfly Grove Inn. Rooms are about $150 a night this time of year and how lovely would it be to grab your coffee and muffin and head down into the grove each morning?

 The grove is a gentle slope from the Inn down to the bottom with several benches where you can rest or just hang out and soak up the peaceful silence of the grove. Occasionally we have found a docent with a spotting scope so you can get a really close up view of the Monarchs.
 The butterflies tend to find sturdy branches where they can sort of "beehive" together. This maximizes warmth. It really is amazing when you realize that what you are looking at are actually hundreds of butterflies on one branch!
 It is quite the sight to see. If you are able to come in the beginning of the season, around mid November, you will see the bulk of the population. By the time we arrived, in January, the count had dropped to about a fourth of the original population.  
It would be easy enough to take a few moments and just pop in and pop out of the Grove but it's much nicer to slow down a bit more, hang out with the butterflies floating overhead and the squirrels hopping about in the grass and trees and just let the peace rejuvenate you. Oh...and it's all FREE. You can make a donation if you choose but this is really a community effort to keep this a sanctuary for the butterflies.
 We headed out to the Point Pinos Lighthouse and on the way we came upon a herd of deer. It is very common to see these deer in the neighborhoods, open green spaces, the cemetery and even the golf course.
 They are very watchful but not really afraid of people. They are pretty use to us and the locals are fairly use to them so they don't have the type of fear that deer you would find in the forest would have. That doesn't mean they are not wild. Get too close and you may well find out how hard they bite and how sharp their hooves really can be.
 The Point Pinos Lighthouse is the oldest working lighthouse on the West Coast. It's been there as a working lighthouse since 1855. While it's not a big station it is a very nice place to visit. Open from Thursday to Monday each week it only costs a few dollars to tour the museum inside and walk to the top of the tower. It doesn't cost you anything to walk the grounds. All fees do go towards the restoration efforts for this lighthouse.
You can see the Victorian era design on the actual cupola which tops the lantern pane section of the tower.
 The grounds are beautiful. On the tip of the Point it overlooks the ocean but it has it's own beautiful gardens as well.
 The small area is simply beautiful but keep in mind that it is only open from 1-4pm each day it is open so make sure you get there earlier than later. We skipped in around 3:30 and almost missed it!
 Are you a golfer? I'm married to one, daughter of one, sister of two and mother-in-law of one so the golfers LOVE this area! This is one of the views you will get if you golf in Pacific Grove.
 Now I know you are probably thinking that this is going to cost hundreds of dollars for greens fees but this course is the Municipal Course! This means it's actually affordable. Yes, THIS view is affordable!
 Let's say you wanted to go golfing this Saturday the 17th of January at 10am. Your greens fee would be $68. If you are a very early morning person, say 7am, you can get the same course for only $35. But maybe life doesn't begin till after 1pm.  A 1:10pm tee time would cost $39 and that includes shared cart fee. Yup...affordable!
 From the Lighthouse we headed to the beach. The first one we visited was the Point Pinos beach.
 Being right on the Point there are a lot of rocks to climb, dramatic waves and lots of sea birds to enjoy at this part of the coastline.
 But there is still plenty of sand as well and plenty of room to spread out a blanket or set out some beach chairs and hang out for awhile. You can also do a bit of beach combing. We found this "nest" looking formation and I found out that it's actually a seagrass that, during winter storms, gets ripped from the plant and tossed around in the current and waves till it forms a fiber ball like this. Now it's a home for sand flies but it's still a pretty cool find. 
 I love beachcombing. Finding the usual shells, and some more unusual ones, along with the seaweed and algae formations is fun. I loved this heart shaped pod.
 In the afternoon you will be able to do a little bit of tide pool exploring here too! These little crabs are everywhere. Careful, though....I stood in one place a bit too long watching these little guys and the water came up over my shoes...and the crabs followed! I was a bit trapped for a few minutes while I waited for the crab to crawl safely away so I could step away without hurting any of them.
Winter waves can be quite dramatic. If you are romanced by the waves like I am then you will love Pacific Grove in the wintertime.
 From there we headed to Lover's Point and Lover's Point Park. This very pretty park is a wonderful place to spend some time, enjoy the coastline as well as the beautiful Victorian Inns like the Seven Gables Inn. We have stayed here in the past and it is amazing. Definitely a splurge but amazing!
There is a small beach at Lover's Point and stairs that lead down to it. You will almost always see someone playing at the edge of the water and often you can catch the surfers waiting to catch the next wave.
 Lover's Point isn't the best place to see the sunset, however. The best place it back past the Point. Drive around to the spot in front of the lighthouse, grab your jacket (and maybe a blanket for your lap) and take a seat on one of the benches or just find a spot on a flat rock and wait for sunset to begin.

 Speaking of peaceful...this place is so completely peaceful and very romantic. The birds settle down for the night, creating great silhouettes on the rocks as the color develops behind them.
The seals snuggle onto the rocks or play in the little tide pools as the water slowly makes it's way into shore filling up the holes.
Now this is where most people decide that it's time to go home. Sometimes they could be right...this might be as beautiful as it gets....or not...so hang in there for a little while longer. 
The little bit of color that had begun spreads up to the higher clouds  making the whole sky a stunning sight to see...but wait...just a few more minutes. 
 You may well be rewarded by a sight like this. About ten minutes after most of the group had left the area we witnessed the sky deepen and saturate with color like it had been, simply, set on fire.
 As we walked back to our truck we were rewarded once again. This time with this lovely view of the lighthouse.
 Since this was a romantic night out we headed back towards Monterey on Lighthouse Avenue and ended up at Hula's Island Grill. We started out with drinks. Eli's Rootbeer for the designated driver and a Dr. Funk for ME! With coconut rum, vodka, creme de banana, OJ and pineapple juice this was one fun drink!
 And after a wonderful dinner we ended it all with a Pot Brownie. Yup...a brownie in a pot. What were YOU thinking? After a good chuckle at the name we dug into this amazing treat! Like a lava cake this brownie was all molten in the inside. Yummy, gooey and wonderful...all topped with whipped cream..real whipped cream. You have the option to have ice cream on the side. I'll be straight up...it wasn't needed. BUT....it was SOOOOO good! Highly recommend it. If chocolate isn't your thing be assured that there are plenty of choices on the dessert menu! Check out the Menus and I think you will see just how yummy it all sounds...and is. I had the Luau Pork Sandwich with the sweet potato fries and it was amazing!

So take a moment to tally it all up. No charge for walking and driving the beautiful town of Pacific Grove. No charge for the Butterfly Grove. $2 per adult for the lighthouse. No charge for the beaches or parking or playtime. No charge for the amazing sunset or romantic atmosphere. So....$4 total for a wonderful, romantic, beautiful afternoon with my husband. Even dinner is affordable at under $20 per person and $10 for dessert..including drinks. We would spend more for 2 hours at the movies. What a bargain indeed!

Next week we will head inland to the beautiful Stanford University. Hope you can make it back here then!