Rafting the Tuolumne River

A fine river proceeds much like life, spells of quiet interspersed with wild bouts of feverish activity.

The Tuolumne is a fine river. From its headwaters in Yosemite National Park, the Tuolumne flows, eddies, dashes and cascades through the Sierras and some of California's loveliest landscape. For those whose focus is the water itself, the Tuolumne possesses a steep gradient, producing long rapids that will keep your hair on end (until it gets soaked) for, well, a long time. Rapids the likes of Gray's Grindstone, Nemesis and Clavey Falls provide an adrenal jolt that keeps on giving; shorter bursts like Little Niagara, Hell's Kitchen, Pinball and Let's Make a Deal provide additional fun, and prove that river guides have a deft and dark way with words.

The Tuolumne is also a Congressionally designated Wild and Scenic River, selected because of its "outstandingly remarkable values;" but honestly, dull legislative phraseology sells any truly wild and scenic place far short, and the Tuolumne is no exception. But here's the real beauty of a float down the Tuolumne. The land surrounding the river is largely road-less. I like my fellow man well enough, but I prefer my wilderness experiences bereft of tour bus droves. Short of boating down the Tuolumne, much of the river can only be reached with great difficulty or a long fall. And so the river is yours.

Swim With A WWII Minesweeper

There are two kinds of SCUBA folks: The kind that get a little high from the experience of swimming with nature, so they look for any excuse to don the equipment and head into the ocean. And the kind that want to explore of the mysteries of the deep, so they're more specific with their destinations. This recommendation is for the latter.

In the depths near Santa Cruz Island, one of the larger Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura, lies the wreck of the Peacock (also known as the Spirit of America), a WWII-era minesweeper that patrolled the Pacific to locate and dismantle Japanese-installed mines. While the ship made it through the war unscathed, its later life is murky, with tales ranging from it being used as a barge, a source of firewood, and as a floating bordello off the coast of San Pedro.

The ship's current incarnation is located 60 feet below the surface. Its wood hull has collapsed, and the remaining bits of steel have been overtaken by marine life. Due to its relative proximity to the surface, it makes for an ideal dive site for SCUBA aficionados. However, it's only accessible by boat, so divers will have to charter one from Oxnard, Ventura, or Santa Barbara to get there.

Walk With Sasquatch: The Bigfoot Trail

Whether or not you believe in the existence of Bigfoot -- and if you do, please offer me any kind of proof, as I desperately want to believe! -- you have to admit that the hairy fella must know some good hiking routes. And now, a new hiking trail is set to open in the big guy's honor.

The Bigfoot Trail is a winding route through Oregon and Northern California that has 32 different conifer species on the path. It starts at the Ides Cove trailhead in the exotically-named Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness, stretches north through another five different designated wilderness areas, heads through the patch of forest that Bigfoot (allegedly) hangs out in, before ending in Redwood National Park near Crescent City on the California coast. It's a 360 mile route, meaning it's for the serious hikers out there.

The route is the brainchild of hiking enthusiast Michael Kauffmann, who is in the midst of a Kickstarter project to fund its creation. (The project's already met its funding goal, but extra donations will be used for additional construction and preservation of the trail.) Construction of the route will begin in earnest this spring, but if you just can't wait until that long, go ahead and download the route, all of which utilizes public lands as "legal rights-of-way," and start the long trek early. And if you do come across Sasquatch, make sure to get a worthwhile video.

Looking for Peace and Quiet? California's Got Plenty

The National Park Service has a lot of departments, and one of them is the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division. The work they do is fascinating. Their bold mission, according to their site, is "to restore, maintain, and protect acoustical environments and naturally dark skies throughout the National Park System." One of the ways they're working towards this goal is through the massive undertaking of figuring out the locations of all that noise.

To figure this out, they planted a bunch of microphones throughout the country, compiled upwards of 1.5 million hours of acoustic monitoring, and used an algorithm to determine where the noisiest and loudest parts of the U.S. are located. Here are their very pretty results:

As you can see, if you're looking for peace and quiet in California, you're going to want to steer clear from the two big metropolitan hubs of L.A. and the Bay Area. The Central Valley area apparently isn't great for solace either. But check out those coastlines, the stretch of desert towards Las Vegas, or the tranquility of Northern California. At the very least, most of us have the good fortune of having quite a bit of quiet within driving distance, as opposed to those unlucky folks back East. Use this information wisely, Wanderers.

Fresh Powder Back In Southern California

This winter's been frustrating for any snowboarder or skier looking for fresh powder in the Big Bear region. Luckily for them, that trend seems to be coming to an end.

Over the weekend and into Monday, the area was hit by a storm that left seven to 10 inches of snow at the Mountain High ski resort near Wrightwood. Snow Valley ski resort, meanwhile, reported 10 to 12 inches of snowfall, while Bear Mountain and Snow Summit both reported six inches. (They're supplementing the snowfall with their own snow-making machines as well.) And this recent snowfall may be only the beginning.

The storm system that landed is supposed to remain in the region over the next few weeks, with snow showers starting this Saturday through next Wednesday, at least. Will this be the big snowfall that we've all been waiting for? It's too early to know just yet, but better take those boards and skis out of the closet, just in case. And make sure to check local conditions before making the trek, as well as local advisories regarding the use of chains on your tires.

Flowers Are in Bloom on Anacapa Island

Sitting off the coast of Ventura and Santa Barbara are the Channel Islands. The furthest island east, the smallest sliver on a map, is Anacapa Island which, if we're being honest, is a misnomer. What's been designated as "Anacapa Island" by the National Park Service is actually three small islets: East, Middle and West Anacapa Islands. In total, they have about one square mile of space.

East Anacapa is the largest of the trio, and therefore offers the most to do for visitors. There's a visitor's center with history about the island, a light station from 1932 that includes an original lead-crystal Fresnel lens in the lighthouse, and a two-mile series of trails. Visitors can use these trails to view the native wildflowers which are currently in peak bloom. The giant coreopsis are the highlight. (The island is also home to the largest gull breeding colony in the world. Which is both a highlight and a fun bit of terror.)

You can get to Anacapa a few ways: Private plane or private boat, if you have the cash to spare. Or, if you're like the rest of us, you can get there via public boat. (A fare schedule can be found here.) If you're heading out there specifically for the wildflower bloom, you have until March or so if you want to see them at their fullest.

As always, call the visitor center before you go, if flowers are the goal. (805) 658-5730.

Play In The Snow at Lassen Volcanic National Park

Tucked up in northeastern California near the Nevada border is Lassen Volcanic National Park. While it doesn't get the hype that Yosemite gets, Lassen is its own unique wonder.

The centerpiece of the park is Lassen Peak, the world's largest plug dome volcano. The rest of the park is full of evidence of the churning hydrothermal activity happening deep below the surface, with boiling mud pots, scalding hot springs, and vents called fumaroles that allow steam to escape. It's also one of the few areas in the world where all four kinds of volcanoes can be found. Geologically, it's quite fantastic.

While roads through much of the park are closed for the winter, the National Park Service has temporarily opened a road from the northwest Manzanita Lake entrance. Visitors can drive the 10 miles to the park's Devastated Area, where two to three feet of snow has fallen. So bring your snow shoes, skis, sleds, blankets, hot cocoa, and whatever other materials you need in order to have yourselves a rollick in the powder. (Also, if you're not into snow, the 1.8-mile round trip hike around gorgeous Manzanita Lake, pictured above, is snow-free and open to visitors.)

Just be sure to check the park's current conditions before you go, as storms moving in the area can close down the road with little or no warning. If that's the case, though, you're only two hours away from Reno.

Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve Ready to Bloom

Every spring, the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve in the Mojave Desert turns into a landscape so lush and vibrant it could be mistaken for an artist's grand masterpiece. (Just take a gander at the above photo for a taste.) And, as this February 18 update from the Parks Department lays out, we're mere weeks away from the poppies blooming to their fullest:

The hills are covered with green, and a handful of poppies have already started blooming along the edge of the parking lot and along Lancaster Road. Filaree and loco week have also begun blooming, and some other small flowered species.

The protected reserve in the Mojave Valley contains the most consistent blooms of our state's flower, the California poppy, with this year's bloom predicted to be "very good to excellent." Generally, the field is in full bloom around mid-April, but will most likely hit their peak bloom a little earlier than usual this time out. That has to do with the lack of rain; less rain equals shorter blooms means fewer days to experience the explosive colors.

Due to the early bloom, this year the park will open its Jane S. Pinheiro Interpretative Center -- which contains wildlife and wildflower exhibits, a gallery of watercooler paintings, a video, gift shop, all the works -- on March 7th. The reserve is about 1.5 hours north of Los Angeles, just past Santa Clarita on the I-5, and costs $10 per vehicle for entry.

New Trails Coming to El Sereno's Elephant Hill

Elephant Hill in the El Sereno neighborhood of Los Angeles may seem like an unassuming bump in the concrete jungle, but it's been at the center of a lengthy battle over land use for the last few decades. Developers have been trying to turn the 20-acre hillside property -- nicknamed "The Heavens" by residents -- into houses since at least 1993. It wasn't until 2009 that City Council, with Councilman José Huizar from District 14 taking the reins, officially ended the battle by settling with developers for $9 million, thusly purchasing the land, with guarantees it would be soon designated as an open space park.

That promise partially came to fruition in 2013, when the Council sold a five-acre section of Elephant Hill to the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority for $495,000. Last Tuesday marked the official transfer of the five acres. What can hikers expect in the near future from Elephant Hill?

[A] walking trail and other improvements that will enhance the experience for countless hikers and residents in this otherwise urban area.

Works for us! And don't worry too much about the other 15 acres of Elephant Hill. That land's been designated as "open space" until the City Council finds other agencies like the MRCA to make a purchase. File this one under: Good guys win.

Over One Million Visited Death Valley National Park in 2014

Photo:NPS photo

Did you make the four-and-a-half-hour drive up to Death Valley last year? Then you were one in a million.

For the first time in a decade, Death Valley National Park reported that visitation surpassed the one million mark, with the entry gates registering 1.1 million visitors. (Documented, that is. Who's to say what mysterious hitchhikers, from this world or beyond, passed through the desert without signing in?) This surpassed the 2013 tally, which only had 950,000 people enter the park. December, in particular, showed a huge improvement in numbers from 2013, with 71% more people visiting the park in 2014's last month. If those numbers carry over, 2015 may push its way into the record books.

As far as why there was an improvement in attendance? The park offers a few possible answers:

Cheap gas, plus the renovation of the Furnace Creek Visitor Center with up-to-date exhibits and informational stations to aid park visitors contributed to the increase.

Surely, the new exhibits and informational stations are top notch. No doubt about that. We're not here to speak ill of the NPS. But, for our money, that first reason, and the increased traveling that comes with lower gas prices, has to figure in the most prominently. Which is to say: Plan a trip now while gas prices are still low.

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