San Francisco/Yosemite 2005

Below is the journal for our self-guided trip to San Francisco and Yosemite National Park, taken May 14-21, 2005. The journal is divided up by day, and most sections include links to related pictures taken with Ken's Canon Powershot A70 digital camera. This is a great little 3 megapixel camera. It has a decent 35mm-80mm (equivalent) zoom lens, and we got through the whole week on one set of four AA batteries. Plus, we can fit 150+ pictures in a single 256 MB flash card, which makes this camera great for light-weight traveling.

Ken works for Northwest Airlines, and because of that, he always gets free standby flights anywhere Northwest flies. For this trip, we used two "celebration passes" that Ken got in 2003 and flew in confirmed-space seats, like "real" passengers for once. The money we saved on airfare allowed us a lot of flexibility in our vacation plans.

Our trip took us from home (Minneapolis) to San Francisco and then to Yosemite National Park and back. The choice of destinations was partly arbitrary; initially we just looked on a map for some place that warranted the use of a confirmed-space ticket (i.e. someplace hard to get into when flying standby). After we decided on California, we decided to head for San Francisco because Ken's friend Robb lives there; and Yosemite because we've always wanted to see it.

When possible, we always try to travel off-season and pack as light as possible. That philosophy served us well in our last big trip (to Europe) and we decided to follow it here, too. For luggage, we each packed a single carry-on pack. The pack we chose is the MEI Voyager, a weatherproof nylon pack with a built-in minimal frame and hide-away harnesses and straps (so it looks nice enough to travel first-class). We bought the pack from California Outfitters.

If you'd rather slog through the entire set of pictures we took while on our trip (there are around 175 of them), you can check out the Gallery page.

Day 1 - Saturday, May 14

As usual, we packed the night before the trip, after dinner. By cutting a few things from our list and through the virtue of light-weight raingear, we were able to get everything into one bag each, plus Julie's purse.

We were scheduled on a 9:09am flight from Minneapolis to San Francisco, so we didn't have to be up incredibly early. Rather than paying for parking at the airport, we decided to take a cab, which was at our house at 7:30am sharp. A cab ride to the airport is $35-$45, so our break-even point is about a week at $15/day parking.

We had no problems checking in or getting to the gate, and we had plenty of time to get some breakfast before having to board. This would have worked out well, but as Ken went to Burger King to get a sandwich, he stepped on a broom that some cleaning person had left sticking into an aisle by a garbage can, and landed on his back. Wow. Quite a wake-up call. Fortunately, he wasn't hurt too badly.

We flew on a Boing 757, which is one of Ken's favorite planes. It's reasonably quiet, has a good amount of room in it, and best of all, does a very good job of managing pressure changes (i.e. no ear popping). We were seated just behind the wing, which is a decent place to be. The flight was nearly 3 hours long, but due to the time change, we arrived in San Francisco at 11:08 am. The flight had beverage service, but no snacks. We ate our own granola bars in between reading our books.

When we got off the plane, we didn't have to go get luggage (since we just carried on one bag each) so we headed right for the security checkpoint. Ken's friend Robb, who had volunteered to show us around for the weekend, met us right there, and a few minutes later we were in his car and headed out of the airport and on our way to Muir Woods.

On the way to Muir Woods, we first stopped for lunch at a mall, and then headed across the Golden Gate Bridge. Our first stop was at Vista Point, to take a look at the bridge. This place was packed full of tourists, including three or four tour buses, so there wasn't anywhere to park. Robb initially let us out and drove around in circles while he looked for a space. To our surprise, it was bright and sunny [ 1 ]. San Francisco proper had been overcast and almost foggy. It was also quite windy [ 1 ]. From our vantage point, the bridge upright closest to San Francisco often disappeared in the fog, while the one closest to us was easy to see [ 1 ].

After a few minutes at Vista Point, we got back on the highway and headed for Muir Woods. A little while later, we got off the highway and took a winding two-lane mountain road into the hills. Muir Woods was also packed, and both parking lots were full. So, we had to park on the side of the road a ten-minute walk from the park entrance [ 1 ].

Muir Woods is fantastic. It's really quite close to the city, but you wouldn't know from inside. There are supposedly over a million visitors per year to this park, but it's a quiet, actually kind of somber place once you get away from the entrance. We listened to a ranger [ 1 ] give a talk, and then hiked for a little over an hour on some of the shorter trails through the woods [ 1, 2, 3 ]. The trees you see here are coastal redwoods, and are distinct from the giant sequoias in Yosemite. They are taller, but not as massive.

When we were done in the woods, we hiked back to Robb's car, and started back toward the city. On the way, we stopped at Muir Beach and walked a little there (Ken wanted to touch the Pacific Ocean). We had an odd "California experience" at the beach, where at one end some shrieking women were swimming either partially or completely nude in the cold ocean water. No one really paid them any attention. It was surreal.

Once we were done at the beach, we headed back to our hotel, the Ramada Plaza Downtown, on Market Street. This looked like a pretty nice hotel in the pictures. In reality, the hotel was recently remodeled, but the neighborhood was on the wrong side of seedy. It made us a bit nervous (kind of like Marquette's campus west of 19th street), and besides that, we couldn't find any parking. To add to the mess, the front desk didn't know how to read our reservation and tried to overcharge us, and it took ten minutes and a near argument to get it straightened out.

However, eventually we got settled in and then we met Robb's wife Magda for dinner in the hotel restaurant before setting in for an "early" night at 9:30pm (due to the time change).

Day 2 - Sunday, May 15

On Sunday, Robb and Magda met us at our hotel around 9:30am. (One nice thing about the hotel was the BART subway station right outside the front entrance.) We had grabbed breakfast at Starbucks and were waiting for them in the lobby. Things were a little confused outside our hotel because the annual Bay to Breakers race was running right by it. Fortunately, our first stop, the Asian Art Museum, was close and we didn't have to cross through the race path.

We walked through the Asian Art Museum from about 10:00am until around 1:30pm, and caught lunch at the museum restaurant in the middle. We really enjoyed this. There were a lot of neat things to see, and Ken was especially captivated by the pottery. [ 1, 2, 3 ]

At 1:30pm, we left, intending to find a guided San Francisco walking tour that started at 2:00pm. Unfortunately, we underestimated how far away the meet point was, and we didn't make it (and we were pretty out-of-breath due to the hills by the time we stopped trying). Robb and Magda were kind of embarrassed, since they were acting as guides. We weren't too concerned. This is how trips usually go for us. :)

Instead of finding the tour, Robb and Magda [ 1 ] made one up for us. Our first stop was at Lombard Street, the so-called "crooked-est street in the world" [ 1, 2, 3 ]. After we walked down Lombard Street, we headed toward Coit Tower [ 1 ] to get a good view of the city. Any walk in San Francisco is long, unless you manage to stay on top of the same hill for the entire distance. In this case, we had to walk to the bottom of the Lombard Street hill, and then back up the other side. [ 1 ] Then, we turned to the right and walked up a pretty steep hill to get to the tower itself. You can see how steep the walk was by looking at this picture. [ 1 ]

The view from the top was worth it. We could see almost the whole area, including the TransAmerica Building [ 1 ], Alcatraz Island [ 1 ], and both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge [ 1, 2 ]. The view back to Lombard Street shows just how big distances can get in San Francisco (look for the squiggly street in the middle of the picture) [ 1 ].

The walk down from Coit Tower was more interesting, if not quite as difficult as the way up. To get down, we took a different direction through a San Francisco "neighborhood" nestled onto a hill, with wooden boardwalks and stairs instead of streets. [ 1, 2, 3 ]

Once we got back down to street level, we walked along the wharf for a while. Eventually, we decided we were hungry, so we all got a nice dinner at a restaurant on Pier 39. Afterwards, we went to look at the sea lions who have taken up residence near the pier (sorry, we don't seem to have any pictures), and then Robb and Magda headed home for the night. We walked around the wharf some more, browsed a few art galleries, checked out Ghiradelli Square [ 1 ] before taking a trolley back to our hotel for the night (we got back around 9:20pm).

Day 3 - Monday, May 16

Monday was our first day on our own. We got up fairly early, and made it back down to the Wharf around 9:30am, just after the San Francisco Maritime Museum [ 1 ] opened. We spent a few hours at the maritime museum, and then grabbed lunch before getting on a 12:15pm boat [ 1 ] out to Alcatraz Island. Along with our boat ticket, we purchased a guided audio tour of the cell block area, so that's what we did first [ 1, 2 ].

Once we were done with the cell block area, we walked around the island and looked at the overgrown gardens (originally tended by prisoners) and the huge number of sea birds that live there now [ 1, 2, 3 ]. Apparently, the island used to be pretty barren before the U.S. Army started using it around the turn of the 20th century. The Army and then later the Justice Department imported a variety of plants and paved large portions of the island in concrete. Once the prison was closed, the island became overgrown, and is now actually a better habitat for wildlife than it was before! Apparently, the old parade ground feels a lot like a cliff top to seagulls, and thousands of them roost there each year and raise their young.

Once we got back onto shore (around 3:30pm), we decided to walk to the Cable Car Museum, someplace we had intended to go to on Sunday, but never made it. This turned out to be a fairly long walk up and down a lot of steep San Francisco hills, but it was worth it. The concept of a cable car [ 1 ] is pretty neat. They don't have their own engines. Instead, there are continuous steel cables running in the roadbed, and the cable cars clamp onto the cables and are pulled along at up to 10 MPH or so [ 1, 2 ].

We had decided that just once on a vacation, we were going to eat at a fancy restaurant. Julie decided on Quince, because she read about it in a Northwest World Traveler magazine in an article about food critic "best picks" in various cities (guess she was bored on her flight back from New Orleans after NASPE). We had dinner reservations at 6:00pm, so we headed to the restaurant after getting our fill of cable cars. It was another long walk up and down a lot more hills, but we did end up getting there a little early (about 5:45pm).

To give you an idea what this place is like, Ken was initially disappointed when the customers next to us drove off in their Porsche that was parked just outside the door (he wanted to see it). His disappointment was tempered when he stepped outside and found a brand-new $155,000, 444-horsepower V-12 Aston Martin DB9 instead [ 1 ].

The food was great. The menu is built from what the chef can find from local farmers, and supposedly changes every day. There are always three courses, plus cheese and dessert. We decided to get our own first and third courses, and then we split a pasta course and a dessert (but we skipped the cheese course). We also split a half bottle of Brundlmayer Riesling, which was more expensive than we expected (picked the wrong item off the menu) but was really good. When Ken asked for coffee with dessert, they brought him his own french press to the table. Incidentally, we've never seen a restaurant serve half-bottles (really, small bottles) of wine before, but it works really well. It was the perfect amount for us, and we saw other patrons getting one type of wine with their appetizers and a different one with dinner, a half-bottle at a time.

We spent a relaxing and enjoyable two hours eating dinner, and finally decided to go so that we could walk back down to the Wharf before dark. We were a little embarrassed when the hostess didn't know what to do with our "jackets" (our fleeces, one a pullover!) and our bright red backpack when she retrieved them from the coat check. Guess she doesn't get that too often.

The walk back to the Wharf was fun. It was mostly (but not completely) downhill and took us through some really pretty areas of Pacific Heights. It did turn out to be a little longer than we expected, however, and we didn't get to the trolley stop until almost 9:00pm (about as late as we would have wanted to be wandering around in areas we didn't know). Once again, we were back at the hotel around 9:30pm.

Day 4 - Tuesday, May 17

Tuesday morning, our plan was to sleep in a little, then pick up the rental car around 11:00am and head for Yosemite. Once again, our plans were foiled. Ken had booked the rental car at the "Convention Center" National Rental Car office. We assumed that it was right near the hotel since the hotel was only a block from the convention center. Wrong. It was a 20 minute walk from the hotel, in the wrong direction (i.e. into the 'hood rather than toward the business district). Ken won't make that mistake again.

Ultimately, this caused us to change our long-term plans. We had originally intended to stay Friday night (after getting back from Yosemite) at the same hotel, drop the car off on Saturday morning, and then take the BART to the airport. We decided instead to stay with Robb and Magda on Friday night, and pay the extra cash so we could drop the car off directly at the airport instead. This was probably for the best.

Anyway, once we got the car, we had no problems getting out of the city. We took the Bay Bridge out of downtown and in no time we were out of the suburbs and into the hills. The drive into Yosemite is fun, if a little nerve-wracking for someone who doesn't like cliff edges. There are lots of twists and turns, and a lot of great views. The drive is only around 200 miles from San Francisco, but it takes nearly four hours.

We got to Yosemite around 3:00pm and got to the valley around 45 minutes after that (you can't drive very fast on mountain roads). We stopped once at an observation point on the way into the park [ 1, 2 ] and then also spent some time wandering around the Bridalveil Falls in the valley [ 1, 2, 3, 4 ]. We actually got pretty lucky in our planning for this trip. It turns out that a heavy warm rain accelerated how fast the already heavy snow load melted, and the entire valley was flooded on Sunday and Monday. By Tuesday, the flooding had mostly gone down, but there were remnants of it about [ 1 ].

After getting our fill of Bridalveil and some of the easier-to-see sights in the valley, we headed to Wawona, where our hotel was. Wawona is on the south side of the park, about a 45 minute drive from the valley via another winding mountain road. We stayed in the historic 100 year-old Wawona Hotel, which is actually kind of quaint [ 1, 2, 3 ]. Our room did have a sink, but not a toilet or a shower. The toilet was down the hall, and the shower was in the basement. After we settled in, we got dinner at the hotel restaurant (the only place to eat within miles, anyway) and then read for a while and went to bed.

Day 5 - Wednesday, May 18

Our goal for Wednesday was to see the giant sequoias in the Mariposa Grove near Wawona. The grove is only a 15 minute drive from the hotel, which made it really easy to get to in Yosemite terms. We got a quick breakfast at the Wawona "general store" (muffins and orange juice) and Ken also bought a hat. It turned out that the combination of short hair, a growing bald spot, and California sun conspired to give him a pretty good sunburn on the top of his head.

Once we were adequately prepared, we got on the road and headed past the south park entrance to the grove. As usual, we set off on the "road less traveled" once we were there. This meant picking the path which did not have any people on it. One of these years, we'll learn. :) Actually, this plan did work out fairly well, but the first half hour of the walk was difficult, as it was steep and we were also having some difficulty getting used to the altitude. The walk started at around 5500 feet above sea level and then took us as high as 6800 feet above sea level and then back down again over the course of about five hours . We definitely got out workout for the day [ 1, 2, 3 ].

The Mariposa Grove isn't as "pretty" as Muir woods. It has a completely different feel to it. Part of that is because the terrain is much more difficult. Part of it is also that the park service allows fires to burn, since this is the only way that giant sequoias can reproduce (coastal redwoods have more than one way to reproduce, so they don't need it as much) [ 1, 2 ].

The highlight of this walk was probably the spur we took to Wawona Point, the highest point in the grove at a little over 6800 feet above sea level. On this walk, snow was still common [ 1, 2 ] anywhere above 6000 feet. The view from Wawona Point is spectacular [ 1 ]. We're not quite sure how this area was originally used. It's obviously a look-out point, but it's now in a deteriorated condition. The "landing" at the top of the point almost looks like a parking lot [ 1, 2 ], but there's no real way for a car to get up here right now. We theorize that cars were once let up here, but now it's just for pedestrians and rescue helicopters (there's a big H painted in the middle of the parking lot).

By the time we got done with our five hour walk, we were pretty exhausted (at least, Ken was). We went back to the hotel and took it easy the rest of the day. Ken took a spontaneous nap, and then both of us took a shower before heading to dinner. After dinner, we read for a while again and then went to bed early (around 10:00pm).

Day 6 - Thursday, May 19

Since we were both feeling the effects of the Mariposa hike when we got up, this was supposed to be our day to take it easy. We got breakfast at the general store again, and then drove the 45 minutes back to the valley. What a difference a few days made - where on Tuesday it was overcast and dreary, Thursday was bright and sunny [ 1, 2, 3 ]. We headed first to the vistor center area and walked around both the Ansel Adams gallery (a disappointment) and the American Indian museum and interpretive trail (both interesting, but small). Once that was done (around noon) we grabbed a sandwich at Degnan's Deli and took a short break.

Then, we walked over to see Yosemite Falls, possibly the most popular attraction in the park [ 1 ]. The new handicapped-accessible path to the lower falls is really nice. It gets you up quite close to the falls [ 1 ]. We noticed a lot of debris by the bottom of the falls, which we presume is from the flooding earlier in the week [ 1, 2 ]. As we continued down the path, we got a chance to see the entire falls (upper and lower) together [ 1 ]. Together, the upper and lower are one of the tallest falls in the world.

After this, we decided to take the "moderate" trail to Mirror Lake. (Remember, we were still "taking it easy"). We figured that once we got to Mirror Lake, we could take the "easy" paved trail back to a shuttle bus stop. Well, first, the "moderate" trail didn't turn out to be so moderate [ 1, 2 ]. It took us three hours to get to the lake. Then we (well, Ken) forgot that part about "taking it easy" and decided to head around the lake.

We knew from the guide book that the lake only existed in spring and early summer, and dried up by later in the summer. We did not know that the same could be said for the trail, and we didn't find out until almost an hour into our hike. Near the top of the lake, we found the trail flooded [ 1 ], but we managed to find a way around it by walking into the woods. However, after this point, we started hearing from people coming the other direction that there was a lot of flooding on the other side of the lake. By this point, though, we figured that it couldn't be too much worse, and we were committed.

Ha! Were we wrong. By the time we made it to the far side of the lake, we were running into people talking about taking their shoes off and wading through water a foot deep. We didn't quite believe this until we saw it for the first time. Yep, we had to take our shoes off. However, we figured that was the worst of it (ha again!) and so we put our shoes back on. Then we went around the next bend and had to take them off again. Ultimately, we left them off and waded through the ice-cold meltwater for close to 15 minutes before the trail rose far enough to dry off [ 1 ]. Once we got over the initial annoyance, it wasn't that bad. The trail was mostly sandy, and the cold water kind of got our adrenaline flowing.

It turned out that we needed the boost, because we never did find the bottom of the lake and that easy paved trail to the shuttle bus stop. We just kept walking, and the trail kept getting uglier and eventually we ran into a road probably most of two miles from the lake. We figure that maybe the path we were supposed to take was in a flooded area and we missed it. Anyway, by the time we found the road, asked a passerby for directions and made it to a shuttle bus stop a half mile away, it was 6:00pm - that's six solid hours of hiking what could only charitably be called a "moderate" trail. So much for "taking it easy".

The only food place in the valley that was open was Degnan's Loft, for pizza. So, we had a pizza and some garlic bread, and eventually staggered to our feet and started the 45-minute drive back to Wawona. This wouldn't have been so bad, except that Ken had a headache, was driving into the sun, and we had something like five close run-ins with mule deer on that winding mountain road. Wow. Talk about excitement. We really went to bed early Thursday night.

Day 7 - Friday, May 20

Friday was our last day in the park. If we had thought we were tired and sore on Thursday morning, we were really tired and sore on Friday morning. We had no choice but to take it easy. We checked out of the hotel and grabbed breakfast at the general store one last time, intending to get to the valley around 11:00am. We figured we'd leave by 3:30pm or 4:00pm, putting us at Robb and Magda's between 7:00pm and 8:00pm. Our idea was that we would ride the shuttle bus to anywhere that looked interesting, get off, walk until we got a little tired, and then get back on the shuttle bus.

It was bright, sunny and 70 degrees until about half-way to the valley (about at the high point of the route). Then, out of nowhere, a choking fog descended. It was like something out of a movie. We went from an easy drive in sunlight to 20 MPH in what felt like darkness. We literally crawled into the valley along with all of the other cars on the road. Then, to make things stranger, the sun came out again. It turned out that only part of the valley was shrouded in fog. The rest was mostly in sun. We really did get to see Yosemite in most of her moods, occassionally more than one at the same time.

Our next surprise was how crowded the valley was. We assume this is because it was Friday. We were really glad to have been here both mid-week and off-season up until this point. Parking wasn't that difficult to find, but the shuttle bus to Happy Isles (our first destination) was really packed full. Besides that, it lasted most of 45 minutes, quite a bit longer than we expected. Anyway, we made it to Happy Isles in one piece.

Once there, we looked at the nature center and the rock-fall museum. In 1996, an 80,000 ton (yes, ton) chunk of granite fell off a cliff near here. Instead of sliding like usual, it fell. When it landed, the resulting 160 MPH shock wave toppled trees, demolished the Happy Isles snack stand, and killed one hiker [ 1, 2 ]. Wow. While we were here, we took some time to walk on the isles themselves and up a path along the Merced River [ 1, 2 ].

When we got done with the Happy Isles, Ken wanted to see the campgrounds, so we spent some time strolling through the Upper Pines campground and then the Lower Pines campground. The views out your tent door are spectacular [ 1, 2 ] , but we're told that it's just extremely crowed in the summer. A walk out the back of the Lower Pines campground brought us to an incredible vista [ 1 ] with a waterfall on it. We spent the rest of our time in Yosemite trying to find the bottom of the waterfall, eventually ending up in Curry Village near the rental cabins [ 1 ].

After that, we waited for a bus at Curry Village, found our car in the daily use parking lot, and headed back to San Francisco. We hadn't eaten lunch (intentionally), so we stopped for an early dinner at Denny's in Oakdale around 5:00pm. When we paid, the cashier asked us whether we had gone to the Chocolate Festival, and this was our undoing - because at the very next intersection after leaving Denny's, we were looking at the Chocolate Festival and missed a turn. This cost us 20 minutes (10 minutes each direction) because there aren't very many highway identification signs on California highways.

We got to Freemont around 8:30pm, and had no real problems finding Robb and Magda's apartment, thanks to their bright yellow car being parked out where we could see it. We chatted for a while, had a yummy fresh fruit salad and then went to bed.

Day 8 - Saturday, May 21

Saturday morning, we got up and showered, and then Robb and Magda made us omlettes and toast. We sat on their porch for a while and savored a very fine Bay Area morning. After breakfast was done, we all took a walk for an hour or so at the park near the apartment.

We got back from the walk around noon, and then we packed up the car and headed to airport to return the car and catch our plane. Since we had plenty of time, this whole process was uneventful, even though the shuttle train at the airport was broken and people were crabby because of it. We grabbed a sandwich for lunch and read our books, and boarded the plane around 3:15pm.

We had a 757 this trip as well, but this time it was only about half-full, so we had plenty of room. The ride was a little bumpy, but not too bad, and we landed early. We caught a cab and were home around 9:30pm, giving us plenty of time to unpack and then sit around and read (since we were still on west coast time). Not a bad ending to a fantastic trip. :-)