Soak In Esalen's Hot Springs In Big Sur On The Cheap

The Esalen Institute in Big Sur is one of those places that defies labels. Overlooking the cliffs and surf, it describes itself as "not only a retreat center or an educational institute," but also "a world-wide network of seekers who look beyond dogma to explore deeper spiritual possibilities." In other words, it's a hippie-centric place to find your chakras, meditate, and maybe "re-find your center."

If you want to stay there for a workshop, it can be pricey. The cheapest accommodations are $405 for a weekend, and that's only if you're willing to stay off-site or in a sleeping bag. But, there is a way to use the hot springs for cheap. (And no, not by breaking in and donning a disguise that certainly would include a fake mustache and cane.)

You need to be a night owl.

See, every night between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m., Esalen opens its doors to the public for $25 a person. However, only 20 people are allowed to use the hot springs each night, so call in advance to get reservations. (During the summer months, reservations are available 5-6 weeks in advance and go quickly.) For more information, including the number to call, visit this page at Esalen's website.

A Journey (And Some Fly Fishing) Through Lassen Volcanic National Park

We forget how much of California is wild and vast maw. Head into California's far northeastern reaches and the world falls away. You'll pass over happy creeks, hypnotic orchards, and honor system fruit stands with signs hanging from barns proclaiming, "The best gift you ever found was in a barn." Everywhere is the aphrodisiac of pine. Also, from almost every vantage point along almost every road, snow-capped Mount Lassen looms: in the empty-wide sky, white clouds scurry toward Lassen for their own closer view.

It's as if you are driving towards promise.

Northeastern California is home to many wild and lovely things, and one of them is some of the world's best fly fishing. The lower Sacramento, Fall River, Hat Creek, the Pit River, the McCloud, Burney Creek: these are bucket list fishing holes. Name drop them to even the most casual angler and watch his eyes glaze over while his hands twitch, casting already for God's own wild rainbow trout.

Like many outdoor activities, fly fishing first provides opportunity for a breathtaking road trip, and the journey into California's northeast is no exception. A casual glimpse at any map reveals, to the north and east of Redding, the happiest preponderance of green: sprawling national parks (Lassen Volcanic), national monuments (Lava Beds) and national forests (Plumas, Lassen, Klamath, Shasta-Trinity, Modoc) that occupy space reserved in other parts of California for fast food restaurants and big box stores.

I traveled first along California Highway 36, through the towns of Paynes Creek and Mineral, and then along Highway 89. I passed over the aforementioned burbling creeks, with Mount Lassen filling my windshield like a serene Japanese painting as the road slowly rose and took on a steeper cant until my car stopped, panting at the southern entrance to Lassen Volcanic National Park.

A pretty ranger flipped open the entry window and smiled.

"Well today's your lucky day," she said. "The road just reopened this morning."

I had been driving past heavily snow shrouded forest for almost thirty minutes already, but still I said somewhat stupidly, "But it's June."

The ranger nodded happy acknowledgment.

"It sure is, but up here that doesn't matter. Some years this road is closed in July. I'm from New Hampshire. I thought we had snow. But snow in July..."

Not just any snow, but buttercream snow topped with a sparkly ice sheen. On this bright, sunny day the Park was a fairyland, made fairer still by a road impeccably cleared. It's with good reason that Highway 89 is designated a National Scenic Byway. I drove through a summer winter wonderland until I found a spot where I could pull off the road and wander through the snow.

Exploring Lassen Volcanic Park would take several lifetimes. It is 106,000 acres of surreal volcanic terrain surrounded by a cool green sea of conifer forest; home to our country's greatest labyrinth of lava tubes and countless hikes through bubbling, steaming, blurping volcanism. The easy hike into Bumpass Hell provides a great initiation, but not on this day. It was buried in four feet of snow.

So I found a pullout where the snow was actually melting in places, and I wandered off into the woods, meandering through conifer passageways hung with air I wanted to drink. In the forest, the sunshine became fairy glow and I could hear nothing but my own eider-softened footfalls, and when I stepped out into an open pasture a goose-pimpling wind rushed across the snow. But that was the only sound. I can tell you unequivocally. Silences do whisper and hum.

Time Travel to the Gold Rush at Bodie Ghost Town

Visiting ghost towns is generally a high-risk, high-reward gamble. (This doesn't include Calico, which is less of a legitimate ghost town, more of a theme park attraction.) Usually, they're far off the normal route that you'd take to get anywhere. And when you finally do navigate the various twists and turns to get there, you're left with nothing but a house or two in such disrepair that you don't really get a good sense of how life was back then.

Not so with Bodie, California.

The town began as a mining camp in 1859, when William S. Bodey discovered gold in the region. A mill was established in 1861, and the town boomed to nearly 10,000 people by 1880. Schools, churches, and houses stood alongside saloons, brothels, and opium dens. During its heyday, it was called the "most lawless, wildest and toughest mining camp the far west has ever known." But, as is the case with most mining towns, the townsfolk dispersed once the gold ran out. And in 1932, 90% of the town was burned down due to a fire allegedly started by a two-and-a-half-year old boy playing with matches.

Roughly 100 structures survived the fire, however, including the bank, schoolhouse, Grand Central Hotel, and the Methodist church. The town's 1962 designation as a National Historic Site and State Historic Park helped to preserve the remaining structures and to give visitors a chance to learn about its history. Also, unlike other ghost towns, this one's only a tad off the beaten path. If you're heading up to Yosemite, this is a worthwhile detour for a short afternoon adventure. Entry is $5.

Pacific Crest Trail Hiked In The Winter For First Time

The Pacific Crest Trail is one of those "bucket list" items for die-hard hikers. The trail starts in the town of Campo, California, at the border fence with Mexico. It then heads a whopping 2,650 miles through California, Oregon and Washington before ending in Manning Park in British Columbia, Canada. The route traverses 26 National Forests, seven National Parks, five State Parks, and four National Monuments.

The average hiker takes roughly five months to complete the journey, and will usually leave in April or May in order to complete the trek by September. Why? Because winters get particularly brutal on the trail, particularly in the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges.

'Buy One, Sell One' Measure to Limit Federal Lands Introduced

Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of plans proposed to expand the amount of California land that the federal government has control over. (One of which is basically a formality, and the other which needs to go through rigorous debate.) But if Rep. Howard Morgan Griffith (R-VA) has his way, those expansion efforts may soon come to a halt.

This week, Griffith introduced a measure into the House Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry. The goal is to limit the amount of land that the federal government controls by forcing land management agencies to sell an acre of federally-controlled land every time a new acre is purchased. (Profits from the sales would head into the U.S. Treasury to pay off the public debt.) For policy wonks, here's how the main part of the measure reads:

(a) In General. -- For acquisition of land by the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture that would result in a net increase of total land acreage under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or the Forest Service, the Secretary concerned shall offer for sale an equal number of acres of Federal land that is under the same jurisdictional status.

This is followed by a few exemptions to the measure (essentially, the "buy one acre, sell one acre" plan happens unless the Secretary of the Interior or Secretary of Agriculture need extra land), but if passed, it would dramatically change the process by which land becomes National Parks and Monuments. As such, we'll be following any movement with the measure.

Street Artist Mr. André Admits to Tagging Joshua Tree National Park

Modern Hiker

In a celebrity-driven incident of vandalism in our national parks, the internet exploded with reports that famed French street artist Mr. André (born André Saraiva) defaced the geology of Joshua Tree. And now Mr. André has threatened legal action against L.A.-based hiking blog Modern Hiker, who first reported the appearance of his potentially illegal art.

It all started when a reader noticed a post on Mr. André's Instagram feed showing his trademark tag on a rock in the desert, captioned "#mrA rock." The reader alerted Modern Hiker's Casey Schreiner, who inquired after the location of the rock and asked Mr. André to confirm if the piece was created with permission on private property as "something that might show his fans and followers how to be a responsible street artist." Meanwhile, some outraged Modern Hiker's readers took it upon themselves to investigate and identify the exact location of the rock, as well as documenting its appearance over the course of the last couple of weeks.

Schreiner's line of questioning and an influx of criticism from the public incited an outright feud with the artist. This has all been well-documented in a Modern Hiker blog post which Schreiner continues to update as the situation develops.

On March 3, the backlash was severe enough for Mr. André's legal team at Stefanaggi Avocats in Paris to send a cease and desist letter to Modern Hiker, demanding that Schreiner "immediately cease to disseminate the defamatory information," and furthermore "erase the infringing links and its associated files" from his website.

However, in that same letter, attorney François Stefanaggi admits to the alleged defacement, attributing "an ephemeral creation" in Joshua Tree to Mr. André, who reportedly used "water-based paint" to place "his artistic signature" on a rock. Stefanaggi also claims that Mr. André subsequently "erased the inscription and made all mark of this short-lived performance disappear."

Mr. André's lawyer threatens to "pursue all available legal remedies" against Modern Hiker, including seeking damages for "publishing detrimental messages...with the intention to discredit [Mr. André's] professional works and harm his artistic reputation."

In a new post, Modern Hiker reprinted his own lawyer's response, and declaring that the site "has no intention" of removing its original story.

Responding to Mr. André's litigation threats, Schreiner's legal representatives at Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz, LLP in Washington, DC reminded Stefanaggi that "truthful statements are not actionably defamatory," and that Mr. André himself bears the burden of proving the article in question was "false in some substantial way." Furthermore, it says, "it is irrelevant...whether [Mr. André] voluntarily removed the inscription 'a few days later.'"

Channel Island Foxes May Come Off Endangered Species List

The Channel Islands are home to four different subspecies of foxes that are found nowhere else in the world. Weighing just four to six pounds, the foxes are about 25% smaller those foxes found on the mainland. But in 1999, the foxes were facing extinction.

A distemper virus had caused the population on Catalina Island, which had numbered 1,300, to plummet all the way down to about 100. On the nearby islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz, the fox population was being decimated by bald eagles. Without a conservation effort, the fox would certainly die out. To combat the possibility, the Catalina Conservancy, among other groups, stepped in with a plan of "relocation, vaccinations, captive breeding and release, and wild fox population monitoring."

Another part of the effort was lowering the number of predatory golden eagles on the island. It was a two-pronged attack, one effort to capture and relocate the golden eagles (a protected species), and another to kill feral piglets that roamed the islands and initially attracted the eagles. This culling was not without controversy, and the basis of T.C. Boyle's novel When the Killing's Done.

But now, a mere 15 years after the effort began, the foxes may come off the endangered species list. One final study and discussion regarding their status has to take place before the final removal. If the removal is given the go ahead, it would mark the quickest recovery of an endangered animal species ever.

And now, for your enjoyment, some more photos of these cute, cute foxes!

Proposed Expansions to Joshua Tree, Death Valley National Parks

If you've ever had the pleasure of driving through Joshua Tree or Death Valley National Parks, there's a sense that the landscape in front of you is never-ending. But if a new piece of legislation is approved, the land is set to become even more never-ending.

On February 9th, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced the California Desert Convservation and Recreation Act of 2015 into legislation. If passed, the bill would have a dramatic impact on the conservation of the California desert. The details:

- 4,500 acres added to Joshua Tree National Park;
- 39,000 acres added to Death Valley National Park;
- 22,000 acres added to the Mojave National Preserve;
- Six new Bureau of Land Management wilderness areas, covering a total of 250,000 acres, will be established;
- Creation of the Mojave Trails National Monument, covering 965,000 acres of land;
- Creation of the Sand to Snow National Monument, covering 135,000 acres of land from the Coachella Valley (sand) to the peak of Mount San Gorgonio (snow).

In addition to the additional acreage and monuments, the bill proposes a number of changes to renewable energy harvest in the region, with new rules detailing how the federal government will establish solar zones, as well as how future transmission lines will transport clean energy without damaging the wilderness. It's a big deal, is the point.

No word yet on when, or even if, the bill will move out of committee.

Safety in Numbers: Group Hikes in Los Angeles County

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

While hiking in and around LA, it's not uncommon to see people on the trail -- even rough trails -- wearing just flip flops, carrying a small bottle of water, without even a bag. As I've strapped on my hydration pack and taken a sip out of my bite valve, I've wondered if they're even carrying ID, or where they've stashed their car keys. Where is their compass? Are they going to be okay out there, all alone, even if there's two of them?

All the trail work that's been done in the last couple of decades has made our open spaces much more accessible to the public, no matter how unprepared people may be. These days, you'll not only witness these unequipped hikers, but also hear reports of them being searched for and airlifted out of our urban parks (Runyon Canyon, Griffith Park) and remote mountains, canyons, and waterfalls.

On the other hand, some people might be so intimidated by the wilderness that surrounds us -- and not know where to go, or how to get around once they get there -- that they don't dare attempt it on their own at all. Fortunately, for over a century, the Sierra Club (founded by legendary naturalist John Muir in 1892) has provided a safe way to explore our wilderness areas, led by competent guides who can identify dangerous issues and know how to deal with them.

We've come a long way since the Golden Age of hiking, when the sport was a formal affair replete with Victorian suits, gowns, and parasols. A number of options other than the Sierra Club have emerged since then. If you're looking to meet new people, or want to walk a trail without worrying about navigating yourself, there are plenty of options throughout Los Angeles County -- some groups without membership dues or bylaws, and some that have codes of conduct.

Here are a few notable hiking groups where you can find safety in numbers, suited to your interests and personality:

Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein

The New Twist on the Establishment: Sierra Club 20s and 30s
This 122-year grassroots organization has kept up with the times by launching niche groups that don't require membership dues, including "Sierra Singles" outings and a section of the Angeles Chapter dedicated to active adults in their 20s and 30s. Although SC2030 is a specialized group that focuses on younger people, it doesn't actually restrict participation based on age, and its leaders don't check ID. But there are other rules that must be followed.

According to outings chair Jose Mendez, their first priority is always safety -- which means they will turn around in inclement weather or on an unsafe trail. They will also turn away people at an improper fitness and experience level or those sporting insufficient gear. If you're not comfortable hiking solo, are looking for a free social experience, and are willing to keep with the group pace (going only as fast as the slowest hiker), the Sierra Club's two hike leads (one in the front and a sweep in the back) will make sure you come back alive. Reserve a spot on one of their hikes on their website or in their Meetup group.
Difficulty: Beginner to Advanced

The Desert Oracle Is Your New Favorite Guidebook

The Desert Oracle is a new print quarterly, and it's amazing. I could try to come up with the perfect 100 words to sum up its contents, but I'll let its website speak for itself: "A pocket-sized field guide to the fascinating American deserts: strange tales, singing sand dunes, sagebrush trails, artists and authors and oddballs, ghost towns and modern legends, musicians and mystics, scorpions and saguaros!"

Despite having a website, the quarterly's contents are only available in an honest-to-goodness printed-out pamphlet form. It can be picked up in a handful of shops strewn throughout the desert, or you can purchase a one-year subscription for a measly $15. It's worth it.