Western States Adventure

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Well hey friends. :) It’s a weird year, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one who is missing more adventurous days. So if it helps, join me on a little virtual road trip to the West Coast and some other gorgeous destinations that direction.

In fall 2017, Lyssi and I did our first real big outdoorsy adventure, along with our bestie/sister Brie. Since that first thrilling and confidence-building journey, adventuring in the great outdoors has become a regular part of our lives. I hope you’ll do it, too. :)

So come along to Arizona, California, Oregon, Nevada, and Utah!

(Click on a picture in the mosaics to scroll through them full size.)

ARIZONA DRIVE

After an afternoon flight into Phoenix, we hopped in our rental and just started chasing the sunset west. Desert in the dark, California road signs warning of high winds, and, eventually, sprawling lights and speeding cars as we descended toward Palm Springs. One thing we didn’t really grasp ahead of time was the significance of “fire season” out west. A midnight drive through Los Angeles, a few detours for roads closed due to wildfires somewhere in town. When we hopped on the highway heading north, we saw orange blazes all over the hills in front and to the side. It was . . . strange. Heading north from Los Angeles in the dark was quite the way to whet our mountains-appetite, with steep winding ascents for miles. After a long night of driving and a couple hours at a rest stop, we passed through Sacramento and made the long drive up to Portland. Near the Oregon border, we drove up into green, green mountains and stopped to explore Lake Shasta. Around there, we began to realize the “haze” and “fog” we’d been seeing all day was just smoke from wildfires burning all over Oregon and northern Cali. Even closed in our car, it stung our eyes. Our second morning in Portland our car was covered in ash.

NESKOWIN OREGON & THE GHOST FOREST

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After a winding drive through woods of cedar trees, under a starry early-morning sky, we arrived in Neskowin at dawn. Walking out onto the beach to the sound of crashing waves was magical. We could hardly see around us, the mist was so heavy. As the mist rose and the tide slowly came in, a hundred ancient tree stumps covered in marine treasures sank slowly into the ocean. The “Ghost Forest.”

OREGON COAST DRIVE

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A smoky but incredible drive down the Oregon coast. Each bend in the road was incredible.

CALIFORNIA REDWOODS IN JEDEDIAH SMITH REDWOODS STATE PARK

Towering redwoods that remind humans of their relative smallness and just how young we really are.

SECRET BEACH NEAR BROOKINGS OREGON

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So this was a little treasure some research uncovered before our trip. It’s not really a beach, it’s the ocean crashing on the rocks in a little cove. It’s just that when the tide goes all the way out, there’s a spot where you can pull off to the shoulder of the road and venture down to a “Secret Beach.” It did not disappoint. More wonder in this little spot than just about anywhere I’ve seen.

CENTRAL OREGON

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Oregon wasn’t exactly what we expected. I didn’t realize it had literally everything. Deserts, giant cliffs, mountains, forests, lakes, rivers, ocean, and even painted hills. And then these massive rolling grassy plains that I didn’t expect to be as breathtaking as they were. They came right after a drive through a massive, mountainous forest with a stop at Mount Hood–a forest that made me feel like I had found Home.

SMITH ROCK STATE PARK OREGON

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Smith Rock State Park is one of the most other-worldly, shockingly epic places I’ve been or even seen in my life. In the middle of not-too-mountainous central Oregon, a short drive from where we stayed in the adorable city of Bend, Smith Rock’s giant volcanic ash formations rise hundreds of feet straight out of the ground, offering views for miles around and some pretty spectacular and spectacularly-nerve-wracking hikes. We did the aptly named Misery Ridge route. Our views were a little faded with smoke from the wildfires that knocked all the forest, river, and hot springs hikes off our itinerary. But it was still incredible. Honestly, the smokiness just made it feel more enchanting. A highlight of Smith Rock is Monkey Face, a 350-foot narrow rock tower that rock climbers frequent. If you find yourself in Oregon, I can’t stress enough: Smith Rock. Incredible.

CLIFF JUMPING AT STEELHEAD FALLS

If you like cliff jumping, waterfalls, or both, Steelhead Falls near in Terrebonne is an awesome spot. Seemed like a fairly private spot. Easy hike. Absolutely gorgeous and a lot of fun.

PAINTED HILLS IN JOHN DAY FOSSIL BEDS

What can I say about the drives across Oregon?? . . . by the end of it, we had all but decided to move there. Anywhere in Oregon. It was all so beautiful! We drove from Bend straight down to Utah, and a good chunk of the first day we spent driving through John Day Fossil Beds (wow) and stopping for a while in the Painted Hills. It was like visiting another planet.

NEVADA DRIVE

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I did not expect the long, desolate drive across Nevada to be one of the best parts of our adventure. It. Was. Awesome. It started with a sign in south Oregon that said, if I remember correctly, “No Gas for 130 miles.” We were truly in the middle of nowhere. The occasional car would whiz by at 100mph, which meant that drivers didn’t have nearly as much time for passing in the opposite lane as they expected, and we were run off the road once by an oncoming truck. Once we got into Nevada, we drove for hours and hours on a long, straight highway lined with desert and ranches and Native American reservation towns and rows of mountains maybe 10 miles away on both sides. It was majestic.

Top five coolest life moments, for sure–doing 90 alone in the Nevada desert, we suddenly heard–I should say felt–this deafening BANG! Our car shook. What the hell just happened?!? We spun our heads looking for whatever just did that and saw a fighter jet that looked like it couldn’t be more than a hundred or so feet overhead. A second later, another bang shook the car and another fighter jet flew low overhead. It was one of the most exciting and thrilling and special moments ever. I bet the pilots get a kick out of doing that.

When darkness fell, we turned onto US-50, which is called “The Loneliest Road in America,” and for good reason. Vulnerable might be the word to describe that chunk of the adventure. I think we saw just one vehicle between dusk and midnight. But we also saw more jackrabbits and coyotes and deer than I’ve seen in my life. It was also like driving through a blizzard of bugs, unfortunately. And the strangest thing was that we seemed to be climbing. The air was starting to get very cold and sort of thin. Eventually the road began twisting and turning as we rapidly ascended. Eventually we made it to Ely where we turned in for the night.

Our drive the next morning was a bit of a shock. Turns out the steep twisty roads we’d driven in the dark were bordered by steep hills and drop offs, and we’d climbed thousands of feet into mountains we didn’t really know were there. Our daylight drive back down the mountains was a little slower and more cautious with no guardrails, and sort of thrilling to realize just what sort of scary drive we’d made the night before. 100% I would take another trip just to drive all around the state of Nevada.

ZION NATIONAL PARK

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Zion was indescribable. Our first legit mountain hike as outdoorsy adventurers–4 miles up, 4 miles down, 2000+ ft of elevation gain, through slot canyons and along winding and gusty precipices–took us to Observation Point and its mind-bending views. This little spot was one of the biggest perspective-giving places I’ve been in my life. Shortly after we got home, I wrote a little about why. Here you go: Observation Point, Zion National Park

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The next day we did Angel’s Landing. Have you done Angel’s Landing? If you have, you know what I mean when I say I have never been more sure we were going to die. But what an incredible and beautiful experience. Once in a lifetime. Long, steep switchbacks up to a lookout. What I saw when we reached the lookout literally made me sit down half-paralyzed. It took me a few real minutes to decide to go for it. All I could envision was watching one of my best friends slip. The next half-mile felt like an eternity, following a narrow ridge with 1000+ ft drop-offs on either side. Steep, slanted, sandy slabs where you hold for dear life onto chains. Stepping a little closer to the edge while you say a prayer, so another group of hikers can pass. Deciding which hiker holds the chain and which hiker just tries to keep their balance. Oh. My. Goodness. It was worth it and I want to do it again, but maybe without friends along to worry about or traffic to dodge. The summit of Angel’s Landing is spectacular.

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Our last big Zion hike was Canyon Overlook Trail, another kind of beauty.

Go. To. Zion. 100%.

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CLIFF DWELLERS ARIZONA

After we crossed from Utah into Arizona, we found a little spot to explore called Cliff Dwellers.

GRAND CANYON

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Just a way-too-brief stop at the Grand Canyon on my birthday.

SEDONA ARIZONA

If you ever go to Phoenix or the Grand Canyon, make the trip to Sedona. You’ve probably heard of it. It is so beautiful. Also, drive this route: 89A between Flagstaff and Sedona. You will not be disappointed! It’s gorgeous enough in itself, but our drive was especially beautiful as we wound back and forth in and out of sunshine and rainstorms.

ARIZONA DRIVE

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We kicked off our road trip with a long drive straight west from Phoenix through flat, hot, dry desert. And then we ended our trip coming back into Phoenix from the north, a much, much different drive. A long gradual descent of about 8000 ft. Mountains all around and big open sky. Our ~4-5000-mile adventure brought us just about every imaginable view. Thrills, hidden gems, climbs, lonely night skies, and dizzying heights. We saw a lot of world in a week and a half.

Remember, friends, that adventure is therapeutic and nature is healing and exploring the world opens doors you didn’t know existed. And sometimes it’s just an unusually long but surprisingly affordable road trip away.

Go adventure!

Love to you, fellow adventurers! :)

Santa Barbara Adventure

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“What isn’t clear is why people always say ‘goes without saying,’ yet still feel compelled to say the thing that was supposed to go without saying. Doesn’t that bother you?” – Shawn Spencer, Psych

When my adventure buddy asked me if I wanted to tag along to Santa Barbara, California, where she was headed for a 3-day certification program, it was an immediate omgYES for two big reasons: a) Travel, obviously. And b) Santa Barbara is where Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster run a psychic detective agency. At least in the TV show, Psych, one of my all time favorites. Unfortunately, they didn’t film the show in Santa Barbara, and the city doesn’t even have a commemorative Psych office. Oh well. It was fun to imagine. (Santa Barbara, if you build it, the PsychOs will come.)

I thought about coming up with a full itinerary to experience all the best things I could in the three-and-a-half days we’d be there, but in the end I decided to start with absolutely zero plans, and just explore, solo, seeing where each day took me. Turns out that is an amazing way to travel. I think the word is “wander.”

Here are a few of the magical moments I got to be a part of in sunny Santa Barbara:

 

THE BEACHES

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Santa Barbara’s east beach–great spot to just sit and watch the surf–calmer than some a lot of west coast beaches.

The sandy beach itself was never crammed full of visitors on the weekend I visited and was a great place to escape for some quiet.

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A completely empty itinerary allowed me lots of time to just stop and be still and relax and reflect and just be for a while. It was deeply refreshing, helpful, inspiring. After lunch on day 2 I spent the entire afternoon letting the surf knock me over and tumble me around and then journaling and dreaming in the sun.

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On the morning of day 3, the tide had risen so far that it left long, wide (cold!!) pools toward the back of the beach.

The sound of waves rolling and crashing was mesmerizing. It was like its own meditation. It’s an amazing spot to find presence.

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I’ve never loved the beach as much as I did on this trip. I found a lot of peace, and rest, and simplicity there. Thanks for the incredible place to just be, Santa Barbara.

THE TOWN

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The town of Santa Barbara is awesome. So many great little spots, lots of little holes-in-the-wall to be discovered. And its very Spanish architecture is so unique and beautiful! There’s a great view from everywhere, it’s easy to get around, and a great place to explore on foot!

A long stretch of the east beach is bordered by a long, narrow park of grass and palm trees. In the morning, it made for a peaceful walk. In the afternoon and evening, it came alive with community! People strung hammocks between the palm trees, meditated, practiced yoga, had hula-hooping parties. It became a sunny outdoor party, all to the sound of waves crashing a short jog away. It seemed that this mile long stretch of grass was Santa Barbara’s real beach scene, which made the less crowded sand a little more welcome for travel weary introverts in need of an escape.

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There is lots of good coffee to be found in Santa Barbara, which is a newer pleasure for me. I found a dirty chai at the Santa Barbara Roasting Company (if you’re a where-coffee-comes-from fanatic, go there!), a yummy iced latte at State Street Coffee (I understand there’s usually a line out the door here, certainly was when I visited, but wonderfully close to the beach), and the adorable little macchiato pictured below at Dune Coffee Roasters, whose sunny and cozy patio was the perfect landing spot for my day 1 afternoon of finishing a school essay.

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It was a little rough trying to choose between so many delicious looking places to try, but one we found ourselves at, literally by spontaneously deciding to ditch our plans and walk down a different alley, was The Nook. The food was very good, the spot was GREAT.

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If you ever visit Santa Barbara, go walk through the old Courthouse, make sure to stop in its old courtroom with the fantastic artwork, and climb up the tower for the best views of the town. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.

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With an honorable mention to the pizza we got on our last night at Lucky Penny, I have to tell you (maybe in all caps) about the best food I found in Santa Barbara. TAQUERIA EL BAJIO. Oh man oh man. I could go there every day. It seemed like a more authentic/less touristy little place, in a neighborhoody part of town. I went there for lunch on day 2, and it was so mouth-wateringly exactly-perfect that I made my adventure buddy go back with me on day 3. Fresh, yummy, juicy, and just all-together need-to-go-back. Thanks for being my taste-buds highlight of the trip, Taqueria El Bajio! I’ll be back!

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Oh man the trees.

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Walk a lot in downtown Santa Barbara if you find yourself there. The parking is plentiful, convenient, and cheap, so park your car and get trekking. Especially walk up and down State Street. Such a pretty street and so many spots to explore.

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(P.S. If you’ve ever seen Psych, they did a pretty good job of recreating the feel of Spanish-built, sunny, laid-back Santa Barbara. I intend to go back.)

THE MOUNTAINS

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So here is a treasure that it seemed most visitors miss. A short (and steep) drive from town is E Camino Cielo, a long road that runs miles from well west of Santa Barbara all the way past and on to the east. Exactly as lonely as you’d like beautiful scenery to be.

It is NOT the scariest road I’ve been on, if nerve-wracking drives are not your thing. But you do very much feel like you’ve found your way above it all.

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Yes, that’s the road you see running along the mountain. Spectacular drive.

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The variety of colors and textures was amazing.

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The 360 views were incredible. You’re in the Santa Ynez mountains looking out over the ocean, Santa Barbara, and other nearby coastal cities. Spin around and you’re looking miles and miles out over Los Padres National Forest with its massive desolate-looking mountains.

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And sunny California is sunnier-California at that elevation. The sun feels like your next door neighbor. Bring sunscreen and a hat if you’re going to make a day of it.

There are so many perfect spots to hop out and explore and just take in the views.

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Lots of bicyclers struggling up and zipping down the steep mountain roads, and lots of hang gliders taking off from the top and gliding out over the hills behind Santa Barbara.

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In the picture above you can see Santa Barbara with its renowned Stearns Wharf jutting out into the ocean. To the right of the wharf is Santa Barbara Harbor. Far in the distance you can see one of the islands of the Channel Islands National Park. I so wanted to get there. Someday!

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“Camino Cielo” translates “sky road.” Accurate.

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THE OCEAN

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Visiting on a weekend, I felt like Santa Barbara’s ocean had the ideal balance between popular and quiet. On the actual beach, and especially out on the water, it was never crowded, but you were also never felt totally out on your own. There was a carefree feel to it.

Stearns Wharf was basically a little city on a big dock. Lots of little places to stop, and a lot longer a walk than you’d expect. Lots of fishing, too. And lots and lots of wildlife. I sat and watched a little sea lion friend play around the wharf for about ten minutes.

Thank you to the Paddle Sports Center at the Santa Barbara Harbor for making one of my dreams come true! I got to kayak for a while out on the ocean and it was so beautiful and so much fun!

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If you visit, consider getting a kayak or paddle board and getting a good ways out onto the water. Sitting on the ocean surface, right down level with the water, you start to see and feel the ocean breathing. You rise and fall and rise and fall and it is so, so, so magical.

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Santa Barbara is one of my chillest memories in the world. It’s the perfect place to go without an itinerary. It’s sun and sand and waves and mountains and tacos and a beautiful town to explore.

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And as always, shout out to the world’s greatest adventure buddy. We only got little bits and pieces together down by the water and up in the mountains because she was so busy with her certification, but I’m thankful for all the little moments we got to stand together on the beach.

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“To travel is to live.” – Hans Christian Anderson