Pacific Northwest Explorations: Ferry Ride & Road Trip Part 1 Port Townsend & Sequim

Day 1

I’ve been wanting to return to and explore Washington State again ever since I spent a whirlwind week there on the back of boyfriend’s motorcycle nearly two decades ago. I recall that it rained nearly every day and was quite chilly, but somehow that didn’t dampen my spirits or my impression of the area. My boyfriend, a New Zealander, was quite fond of Washington because it reminded him of home—pristine, fresh and relatively underpopulated. Certainly, it was worlds away from the congestion, crowds and plastic vanity of Orange County, California where we both lived at the time. (Not that there aren’t gorgeous natural areas to enjoy in OC.)

I’ve been in Southern California for half my life and San Diego for nearly a decade. Yes, I live in one of the most beautiful, desirable areas in the country, (some would say, in the world), but that’s just the problem. Everyone is here and more are on their way. Don’t get me wrong, Cali-life has been very good to me. And it’s true, you can’t beat the weather, unless you go to Hawaii. I do love my warm, sunshiny days, but I also love mountains and time away from “civilization”. To feed my need for total nature immersion, I have to drive 8 hours to the Eastern Sierras—far too far for me. I’m craving a simpler life, closer to the nature, farther from the crowds, strip malls, traffic—you get the idea. If I could move to New Zealand, I’d do it in a minute, but unfortunately, that ship has sailed. While I’m going to pack my usual active adventures (hiking, biking) into this trip, it’s also a scouting mission for me. (As was my Prescott, AZ, trip. The trouble with these areas, a gallery owner in Prescott told me, is that too many Californians are moving into them, buying everything up, inflating housing values and creating traffic. She was a transplant from California to Prescott herself and she maintains that it has changed so much in ten years that she’s thinking of moving, but where to next?)

Where to next, indeed – that’s the conundrum. We can’t seem to escape ourselves, can we? In any case, I’m ready to escape, if only for a week or so.

First by plane, then by Bainbridge Ferry to the first stop on my PNW tour, Port Townsend.

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Vistas from the Bainbridge Ferry
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Golden light on the bluffs of Bainbridge Island

 

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Mountains on the horizon

 

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A road trip with promising views

In Search of the Rain Shadow

Another reason, I’m targeting the Port Townsend, Sequim and Port Angeles areas is because of the rain shadow phenomenon known as the orographic effect. Basically, as air is forced up the SW slopes of the Olympic mountains it condenses and vaporizes, resulting in copious amounts of rain. As the air descends the other side of the mountain, it warms and  evaporates, yielding dryer and sunnier climates than anywhere else in Washington State. Read more about this phenomenon and get the average rainfall of various PNW towns here.

Revisiting Port Townsend—somewhat disappointing

This little “artsy’ town has a certain rugged coastal charm, but I must admit that I didn’t find it quite as charming the second-time around. Famished from a long travel day, it was difficult to find an open restaurant at 7PM on a Monday. I walked in and ran out of a Mexican restaurant that had a terrible smell, filthy carpeting and grimy walls and counters. (Tip: Avoid Fiesta.) Settled on Sirens, a bar and restaurant with a great view from its outdoor deck. I’d been here many years ago. My salmon sandwich (just average) was delivered by a surly waitress who was obviously annoyed at the prospect of serving customers. The only other restaurant that was open other than fast food was a Thai restaurant. Next time, I’ll give it a try – heard good things about it. Lodging at the Port Townsend Inn was a disappointment as well. I went with “budget” because I got in late and wanted to walk to town. Rooms were dated and dingy. The mattress was lumpy and sagging. Camping would have been preferable. The indoor pool and jacuzzi looked decent and might be a draw for some. Many moons ago, I enjoyed a stay at the Swan Inn. and I see they’re still getting good reviews.

Day 2

After a poor night’s sleep, I went for a morning stroll and had a cup of Joe at Living Better Through Coffee, where I enjoyed spectacular views of the Puget Sound. Things were looking up.

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Port Townsend Town Crier
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Port Townsend, the Silent Type

Next, I stopped into PT Cyclery to check into the bike rentals and decide if I wanted to cycle a portion of the Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT) starting in Port T or continue driving through Sequim and Port Angeles. If you’re into vintage bikes, this is the shop for you. If you want to rent a bike – road or mtb, this isn’t the shop – very poor selection. After discussing various options, the gearhead at the counter asked where I was going next. I mentioned Port Angeles. He immediately started bad mouthing it. “Why go there? It’s a dump.” He relayed a story about how he stayed in hotel there and put his chair up against the room’s door handle for extra safety at night. Wow, that bad, really? (Yikes, I’m thinking.)

 Fort Worden Historical State Park       

Fun Fact: Officer and a Gentleman was filmed here.

I made a brief stop at Fort Worden Historical State Park, a former military base on the Puget Sound shoreline that offers hiking, 2 miles of beachcombing, a lighthouse, a conference center, camping and house rentals. There’s also a marine discovery center (limited off-season hours – was closed when I visited) and WWI-era bunkers to explore. I took in the coastal views and foraged for wild raspberries, before continuing on to Sequim.

 

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Yum-wild raspberries!

Sequim

I stopped in the Chamber of Commerce / Visitor Center first and spoke with the older clerk there. She asked what my plans were. Again, the minute I mentioned Port Angeles, she began to bad mouth it, suggested that I skip it. “What’s so bad?” I asked. She replied, “It’s the drugs and the homeless.” Yes, I’m getting that message loud and clear. After listening to her brag about the safety and desirability of Sequim, I headed over to Ben’s Bike Shop to check out their bike rentals. When I pulled into the Sequim Village Marketplace, a strip mall that could be anywhere in the US, I noticed a homeless person panhandling at the entrance. (Hmm, seems the problem is not limited to Port Angeles.) Since it was off season, the clerk at Ben’s Bike told me that they’d sold all their rental bikes and had none to rent. Interesting policy. Second strike out for bike rentals.

 Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge

The day was slipping by and I hadn’t had my nature fix yet. Luckily, the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge was on my way to Port Angeles. Extending five miles into the Strait of Juan De Fuca, the Dungeness Spit is the longest natural sand spit in the US. Its various habitats are home to 244 bird species, 18 types of land mammals, and 11 marine mammal species. Lots of opportunities to stretch the legs, take in some fresh air and perhaps get a glimpse of some wildlife. While I’d been here on my previous PNW tour (saw deer frolicking on the shore), it was worth revisiting. I have yet to make the 10-mile round trip trek to the Dungeness Lighthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. If you love this spot, you can apply to be the resident light house keeper for a week . How cool is that? May have to consider that for another trip. If you’re just visiting for the day, you’ll need $3 per car for the entrance fee.

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Illuminating reading on the trail, Dungeness  National Wildlife Refuge #hemigram

Back in the car, I braced myself for the squalor of “frightful” Port Angeles. Given my early conversations in Port Townsend and Sequim, my expectations were now rock bottom. I’d heard that Port Angles was a diamond in the rough – had no idea just how rough. I’d read about the drug abuse, associated crime and a growing homeless population and its lackluster reputation. (It didn’t make my previous tour, but it was high on my list for this one.) The draw, of course, is the incredible natural beauty that surrounds the town – this area is pure Pacific Northwest Wonderland as they say. It is the gateway to Hurricane Ridge and Olympic National Park, the Elwha River, Lake Crescent, Lake Quinault, rain forests, and a plethora of PNW adventures. Road cyclists may be familiar with the annual Hurricane bike ride in late August inside Olympic National Park, One of the most scenic bikes rides in the country, this 18.6-mile bike ride has over 5,000-feet of elevation gain at an average grade of 5 percent and is not is not for those faint of heart or knee (me – though I might be tempted to give it go one day. The descent scares me more). At the base of the Olympic Mountains and on the shores of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Port Angeles offers breathtaking views out to Victoria Island, Canada (a 90 minute ferry ride away) and flip-side views of the Olympic mountain range. With a population of about 20k, Port Angeles was hit hard by the recession and its economy continues to struggle. The timber industry was its original focus and it’s been a bit shifty ever since. As a deep-water port, Port Angeles continues to attract marine trades companies and the hope is that outdoor tourism will define its future. (If you’d like more than my opinion on Port Angeles, here’s a great Seattle Time’s article.)

Rolling over the crest of a hill, I caught my first glimpse of downtown Port Angles and its port in the distance. My first impressions were…To Be Continued…

Bernardo Summit Rewards: 360 degree views of Lake Hodges and beyond

A popular spot for mountain bikers and hikers, the San Dieguito River Park in Escondido is squeezed between the I15 freeway and a couple housing developments. It’s not wilderness, but it still makes for a decent, suburban excursion and nature fix.

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As I mentioned in my Cruising Lake Hodges post, the main mountain bike route on the Coast-to-Crest Trail is beginner friendly. The Bernardo Summit trail is not—it’s rated difficult due to loose rocks and steep technical sections. In other words, it’s way out of my mountain bike skill league so I left it undone on my last visit, vowing to come back and hike it. Note don’t let the words summit and mountain deter you. We’re only talking about a ~1k ft in elevation gain here.  But that elevation is enough to deliver views that do not disappoint.

If you’re like me and want to bypass some concrete “hiking” and walking under the freeway, you may want to start your hike at the bicycle/pedestrian bridge (the world’s longest stressed ribbon bridge) which crosses the variably wet/dry section of Lake Hodges. After traversing the bridge, take the trail to the left heading towards the Lake. Before long, you’ll hopscotch on a couple rocks across Felicita Creek, a small perennial brook, and round the bend from there. Look for the summit trail splitting off to the right (the sign for it is facing the other direction). It’s a gradual, steady climb – mild to moderate and absolutely runnable – you just need to watch your footing on the loose rock sections. (I find it easier, more fun and less painful to run up vs. down.)

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At the last and steepest section, you’ll encounter a fenced-in water tank – not very pretty, but don’t be discouraged. last climbYour final ascent will be rewarded.

I highly recommend this hike for the best views in the park and a good workout. If you’re not up for incline, you can keep going straight along the North Shore trail to Del Dios Community Park and eventually, past the Lake Hodges Dam. Note it’s an out and back.

 

 

 

Hiking difficulty: Mild to moderate+ depending on your fitness level

Elevation change: ~1,000 ft

Distance: ~6.2-7.2 miles roundtrip, depending on where you start

Mountain bikes and leashed dogs allowed

Free entry

 

Hiking trail #307: Outlook excellent on Spruce Mountain, Prescott, AZ

If you hike around Prescott, you’ll notice that they name and number their trails, which is nice. The only problem you may encounter is when a local gives you a hiking tip by the number only and happens to be off a digit or two. Could be the Prescott way of telling you to “Go take a hike.”

Anyway, I found the high-country trail that leads up Spruce Mountain, which isn’t hard to find if you know the trail’s name and number. It’s the Groom Creek Loop Trail #307. Some (Prescott National Forest Service peeps) say that it’s “one of the most attractive trails in the Prescott National Forest. Despite the misleading moniker, there are no Spruce trees on the trail to Spruce Mountain, but that’s okay—it’s a lovely shady trek through Ponderosa pine, Gambel oak and Douglass fir. I chose the trail to the left as it was a hot day and this side of the loop is pleasantly shaded. On a cooler day, I’d go for the loop. Perhaps start with the opposite, more exposed side (on the right) and come down the shady side as it gets later in the day.

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The trail begins with a gradual climb and easy terrain, ramping up to a steady climb with rockier and rootier terrain near the top. You definitely have an opportunity to get your heart rate up if you’re so inclined (pun intended). The trail is runnable—the deer I startled on the way up concurs.

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Views from the Spruce Mt Trail

On top, you’ll find a picnic area with an outhouse and a fire lookout tower. If the lookout-in residence is accepting visitors, you might just be lucky enough to soak in the panoramic views of Prescott’s lakes and forest from the tower’s vantage point as I did.

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L in Spruce MTN outlook tower

Distance: ~6.5 miles, if you do the loop it’s ~8 miles

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Elevation gain/ loss: ~1,400 ft (starting elevation is about 6300 feet and the top is 7693 ft)

Getting there: ~15 min drive from Prescott, AZ: Take Mt. Vernon Avenue south for 6.4 miles. It becomes Senator Highway and passes through the small community of Groom Creek. Look for the trailhead on the left side of the road.

Notes: Free parking. MT Bikes & Dogs allowed.

Stay tuned for my top picks of places to stay and eat and for more of my active escapades in and around Prescott.

Hiking:

Constellation Trails

Granite Basin

Panorama & Petroglyph Trails

Spruce Mountain

Mountain Biking

Prescott Valley to Prescott via the Iron King & Peavine Trails

Goldwater Lake

Restaurants: 

The Barley Hound Gastropub

Farm Provisions

Granite Basin Recreational Area, Prescott, AZ

Just a stones throw from downtown Prescott (an easy 6 mile drive), Granite Basin is a gorgeous section of the Prescott National Forest. Here, you can choose from more than a half dozen hikes.

 

Normally, I’d opt for the higher ground and head up Little Granite Mountain, but the day I visited was a scorcher. I chose an easy out and back on one of the lower creek-side trails, hoping that the ponderosa pines would shelter me from the blazing sun. Even with the shade, it was still HOT, too hot for hiking.  And since I’d already beat myself up on the mountain bike at Goldwater Lake that morning, my mojo was a bit sapped too.

Granite Basin is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including snakes, lizards, coyotes, foxes, mountain lions. I didn’t see any of these critters most likely because they were all in siesta mode as I probably should have been too. Thinking back on it, a hammock under a shady tree by the lake with a refreshing beverage would have been made for an idyllic afternoon.

It was a pleasant hike, but not particularly scenic per se, except for the start and finish at stunning Granite Basin Lake. And I must say, it’s a bit tortuous on a hot day to look at a beautiful lake and be prohibited from jumping in it. Guess that’s mostly the case in Arizonia…Bummer, I guess you can’t have everything.  I did spend some time on this hike day dreaming or hallucinating (not sure which) about my Eastern Sierra’s splash in Valentine Lake.

I’d like to come back to this area sometime when it’s cooler to explore some more and take in the views from Little Granite Mountain. And next time, maybe I’ll bring a hammock for that post-hike siesta too.

Granite Basin Sign

More info: Granite Basin Recreational Area, Prescott National Forest

Fee: $5 day use (Wednesdays are free.)

Use: Hiker, mountain bikers, horseback riders

Amenities: Restrooms & picnic tables

Granite Basin Campground: Yavapai Campground

Stay tuned for my top picks of places to stay and eat and for more of my active escapades in and around Prescott.

Hiking : Thumb Butte

Mountain Biking: Prescott Valley to Prescott via the Iron King & Peavine Trails

Goldwater Lake

Kicking up my heels in the historic district of Prescott, AZ and beyond

In case you were wondering what downtown historic Prescott, Arizona is like—it’s charming, clean, friendly and fun. Lots of historic buildings, galleries, shops, restaurants, hotels and old time saloons. I’m sure glad my road trip took me here. I had a blast exploring the area—hiking and mountain biking in the nearby Prescott National Forest by day and kicking up my heels on the saloon dance floors by night. As a solo woman traveler, I felt completely safe my entire trip. (Though it appears some don’t—lol. The concealed carry handbag in the picture below was featured in one of the store windows.)concealed carry handbag

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Nightlife – yes! Live Music – yes! Dancing – yes!

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Ready for my night out on the town in the lobby of the historic Hotel St Michael, Prescott

 

Stay tuned for my top picks of places to stay and eat and for more of my active escapades in and around Prescott.

Hiking : Thumb Butte

Granite Basin

Mountain Biking: Prescott Valley to Prescott via the Iron King & Peavine Trails

Goldwater Lake

Restaurants: The Barley Hound Gastropub

Farm Provisions

From Prescott Valley To Prescott: Mountain Biking the Iron King and Peavine Trails

Years ago, the Prescott East Railroad trains ran through here to the Iron King Mine and towns of Poland Junction and Crown King. Today, you can take in the area’s quintessential southwestern scenery and spectacular granite rock formations by  horseback, two (or 3) wheels, or by two feet. It’s ~4 miles down to the Peavine Trail connection and then you can continue on for another ~6 miles to arrive at Watson Lake, Prescott (~20 miles RT).

The Iron King  path is by far one of the easiest, smoothest, most family-friendly mountain bike “trails” I’ve ever encountered. Apparently they went to great lengths to convert this rail to trail and create its excellent surface. First they undercut and evened out the trail to eliminate the “washboard” effect and then they topped it with a blend of coarse and fine gravel. The path is so smooth and flat that a kid on training wheels or a tricycle could ride it. You could take a wheelchair on it (electric or person powered – if you were up for it) too. It all translates to fun times and cool scenery for all.

For me, the most scenic sections of the ride are in the middle where the Iron King and Peavine trails intersect and along the gorgeous Granite Dells and Watson Lake at the Prescott end.

 

 

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Check out the video below of a hiking trail in the Granite Dells.

 

 

Keep an eye out for resident javalina, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions. I didn’t see any of them and only saw 2 other cyclists during my sunset pleasure tour. (Not sure if the hot weather (90+ degrees) – was keeping people away or what. I expect when the housing development in Prescott Valley completes, this will get much heavier use so enjoy some solitude while you can.

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Getting there: The Iron King Trail begins in Prescottt  Valley west of Glassford Hill Road, north of Spouse Drive – at the base of Glassford Hill. Unfortunately, that’s also where a new housing development is going in so the first mile or so is a bit of a bummer. Truth in advertising picture below. (Heavy sigh.). The Peavine Trail begins at the south end of Watson Lake in Prescott. Take Hwy 89 to Prescott Lakes Parkway, then to Sundog Ranch where you can park along the road .

Stay tuned for my top picks of places to stay and eat and for more of my active escapades in and around Prescott.

Hiking: Thumb Butte 

Granite Basin

Mountain Biking: Prescott Valley to Prescott via the Iron King & Peavine Trails

Restaurants: Farm Provisions

Barley Hound Gastropub

Exploring Trona Pinnacles, a Natural National Landmark Near Ridgecrest, CA

If the other-worldly landscape of Trona Pinnacles seems strangely familiar to you that’s because it’s been the setting of many films, including Battlestar GalacticaStar Trek V: The Final Frontier, Disney’s Dinosaur, The Gate II, Lost in Space, and Planet of the Apes and numerous car commercials.

 

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This unique geological landscape in the California Desert Conservation Area consists of more than 500 tufa spires, some as high as 140 feet, that rise from the bed of the Searles Dry Lake Basin. Composed primarily of calcium carbonate (tufa) from deep beneath the lake, the pinnacles vary in size and shape from squat and thick to tall and thin. The tufa here date back 10,000 to 100,000 years ago, forming over 3 ice ages. There are distinct in their age and elevation and are referred to as the northern group (youngest), middle group (110 spires and highest tower), and southern group (200 formations and up to 100k old). If you’ve been to Mono Lake, you’ve seen more recent formations. The expanse of desert in every direction and the stark mountain ranges on either side create a dramatic landscape.

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trona cave

Trona native
Ran into a local

You can drive around the area or hike around it. Temps are triple digit in the summer so be prepared.

Getting there: ~ 20.0 miles east of Ridgecrest. Via a 5 mile BLM dirt road (RM143), usually accessible to 2-wheel drive cars, that leaves SR 178, about 7.7 miles east of the intersection of SR 178 and the Trona-Red Mountain Road. Note: The road may be closed after heavy rains.

Note: This is BLM territory so camping in this barren, impossibly hot, desert landscape is free. It’s also a great spot for offroading & ATVs.

Not sure I’d drive hours to see it, if it’s on the way as it was on my way back from my Mt. Whitney adventure, it’s worth it.