From Yachats to Olympia

23 06 2009

Chris and I just got back from another trip out to the Pacific Northwest, and yet again I am convinced this is the most naturally beautiful part of the country.  We hopped on a plane out of Austin on a Thursday evening, and after a five or six hour delay in Denver due to massive thunderstorms (allowing us to watch Game 4 of the NBA Finals), we arrived in Seattle around 2:30 in the morning.  Luckily, I had booked us a room at the Hilton Airport and Conference Center on Priceline (for a grand total of $58!) so we caught the shuttle to the hotel and crashed.  Around 9 the next morning my brother called and said he’d be there to pick us up shortly to begin our adventure down to the Central Oregon Coast.

No great adventure can start without full bellies, so we decided to stop first for breakfast in Olympia at an old favorite — McMenamin’s Spar Cafe.  My brother and I split an order of the biscuits and gravy, and I had an over-easy egg and hashbrowns on the side.  Who would have thought I could get one of the best biscuits and gravy I’ve had outside of Texas…let alone in the Pacific Northwest?  It was delicious.  The thick, dense biscuits were covered in a hearty sausage gravy and topped with crumbled bacon and green onions.  Upon first seeing the plate my brother and I both thought there was no way SPLITTING this dish would fill us up…but how wrong we were.  It was delicious and filling.  Chris got the chicken fried steak and eggs with hashbrowns.  The crispy fried steak was covered in the same delicious gravy and, according to Chris, fantastic.  Again, who would expect delicious chicken fried steak and eggs outside of Texas?  I tried a bite — it was indeed delicious.

After breakfast we made a pit stop at the local camping/outdoors store in Olympia for camp fuel and a few bag dinners, stopped by my brother’s place to load up his stuff, and then we headed down I-5 toward Oregon.  We cut over to Highway 101 through Corvallis, Oregon on 20.  At Newport, we stopped by a grocery store for a few more provisions then headed south on 101 until we made it to the Carl G. Washburne Memorial State Park.  They had one walk-in campsite left so we decided to take it.  Although the campsites were somewhat close together, the campground was beautiful, and there were so many big trees and slight elevation changes within the campground itself it didn’t feel too terribly crowded.  I also liked how the drive-in campsites were completely separate from the walk-in sites.  We dropped our stuff at the site, threw a wine bottle and

cork screw in a day pack, and walked over to the beach to take in the sunset on the Pacific.

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We walked all the way down the coast to some rocks covered with birds, then headed back and found a nice little spot to sit and enjoy the sunset with a little red wine.

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It was lovely.  When the sun was almost gone we decided to head back to set up camp.  We munched on chips and salsa as we got a nice fire going in the fire pit, then whipped up some bean and cheese burritos for dinner.  That really hit the spot.

That night I had maybe one of the best nights of sleep while camping ever.  Whether it was the sound of the waves on the coast all night, the softness of the ground in the campsite, the perfect cool temperature, the popping and crackling of the slowly-dying fire, the sound of the light drizzle on the tent in the early morning hours, or the fact that I was really tired from a long day of travel, I don’t know…but it was wonderful.  I woke up refreshed and ready to go.  However, the early morning drizzle turned into a bit more of a heavy drizzle, so we opted to hop in the car and head up to Yachats to look for a good cup of coffee…and find one we did.

We happened to stop into this wonderful coffee shop and bakery called The Green Salmon — great coffee and perhaps even better baked goods.  I was only going to get coffee, but after sampling Matt’s maple croissant, I had to order something too.  I got a cinnamon croissant and it was flaky (but did not just explode into crumbs when you bit into it), buttery, cinnomony, and delicious.  After coffee we headed back to camp and set out on the hike to the Heceda Head Lighthouse.  The hike starts out in the forest just down from the entrance to the park.  This part of the hike is easy and absolutely gorgeous.

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We encountered tons of salamanders in the path and found them quite difficult to see (they either looked like the ground or like sticks on the ground) — that, coupled with the fact that they moved incredibly slowly, kept us on our toes as we tried our best not to step on any.  After a few miles the trail crossed 101 and started into the woods on the other side of the road.  We quickly started going up and found ourselves high above the beach.

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A little bit further, and we were at the lighthouse.

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We spent at least an hour exploring the beach and the tide pools below the lighthouse.

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I had never seen starfish or anemones outside of an aquarium…so cool!

On our way back, we took the Hobbit Trail fork to the beach (the fork is on the beach-side of 101 along the Heceda Head Lighthouse Trail).  The entire hike was around 6 miles and except for portions near the lighthouse, is easy.  The entire hike is incredibly beautiful.  As always happens with me in the Pacific Northwest, I am struck by the green, by the amount of life everywhere…not to mention seeing spruce, firs, ferns, moss, rocks, and sandy beach all in one place.  Amazing.

After the hike we had perhaps our one big food miss of the trip — the greasy eggs.  The plan was to have our late breakfast of tacos back at the campsite, so we cooked up some bacon on our little single burner, and this is where I made my big mistake.  I should have known better.  Even as I type this, I’m getting a little bit sick to my stomach.  For some unknown reason, I decided we did not need to pour out any of the bacon grease before cooking the eggs…so we just dumped 6 eggs into the grease and started cooking.  I can still see those eggs, floating in the grease…Matt had the great idea that we just add six more eggs, and maybe then there would not be so much grease.  So we added more eggs and cooked away.  They eventually firmed up and we mixed back in the bacon and added cheese, threw the mixture in tortillas and topped with salsa…but one bite and, as Matt put it, it felt like you put a thick coating of chap stick on.  Yuck.  But of course we ate them.  And then felt kind of gross for a while…

Once we finally felt like we could move around somewhat, we decided this would be a good opportunity to get in the car and see what we could see along 101.  I had read about the Sea Lion Caves (world’s largest sea lion cave, woo hoo!)  so we drove a few miles south and found the crowded parking lot, looked around at the cheesy signs, and decided to skip it.  Instead, we headed up to Devil’s Churn for a while and then Strawberry Hill.  Both spots were beautiful, and did not cost $11 per person.

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For dinner that night we did our bag meals (even though we had scrapped our backpacking plans, the backpacking dinners came in handy) by another great fire then enjoyed good old-fashioned smores.  Then we enjoyed burning marshmellows for a while…

After another great night of sleep, we packed up and headed back to the Green Salmon in Yachats for more great coffee and pastries, then kept on going until we got to the Oregon Coast Aquarium.  I love aquariums, and this one was very impressive.  First, they had otters, perhaps my favorite animal.  Look at this fat and happy guy!  Second, the indoor deep sea life display was awesome.  Most of the tanks had beautiful blown glass pieces that, together with some creative lighting, made for some impressive displays.  On top of that, so many of these creatures were just so beautiful and interesting…  I was also able to touch (pet?) starfish, baby sharks, rays, and anemone (that was perhaps the strangest to feel — they stick to you).  The shark display was also really cool — sharks along with the bizarre-looking flounder and other big fish swim all around you.

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Once we’d seen the entire aquarium (at a very reasonable $13.25 with a AAA discount, I might add), we got back on the road and stopped for lunch In Corvallis at American Dream Pizza.  While Chris’s and my pizza was only so-so (when you order by the slice it seems like they just throw some toppings on top of cheese pizza), Matt’s calzone looked pretty tasty.  I was also impressed by the photos of President Obama eating there on a campaign stop, and the roof-top table was a great spot in this cute town.  The weather was gorgeous — sunny but cool.  I bet Oregon State is a fun place to go to school…

We made it back to Olympia around 6 or so, got cleaned up, then walked over to Fish Tales for dinner.  Fish Tales is  a casual pub-style place with great beer and good food.  I had the fish and chips, Chris had oysters and chips, and Matt had the portabella mushroom burger.  Matt and I both enjoyed a couple of pints.

The next day, we headed back to our favorite spot — McMenamin’s — for breakfast.  This time I had the scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, green onions, and cream cheese.  Chris opted for the biscuits and gravy.  Matt went with a standard eggs, bacon, hashbrowns, and toast breakfast.  As usual, the meal was terrific.

After breakfast we hit the road for our next hike — the Hama Hama Trail in the Olympic National Forest (I’ve also seen Hamma Hamma and I’m not sure which one is right…perhaps the both are?).  It took us about an hour or two to get to the trailhead off of 101 on the Olympic Peninsula.  This hike was intense, but the reward was well worth it.  The trail starts out at a gentle but steady incline for maybe a mile, and then the serious incline starts.  It was probably two or more miles of up, and up, and up…I had to stop and catch my breath and let the burning in my legs die down a bit quite a few times!  There were even a few challenging spots over streams, alongside drop-offs, and up rocks (one where you had to use a rope — very fun!).  Near the top we started encountering patches of snow — much less snow than two weeks earlier, according to my brother (who, incidentally, has seen a bear both times he’d been out on this trail before — both in the past month — while I was a little anxious about a bear encounter, and it certainly seemed likely along this secluded trail, I have to say I’m disappointed now that we didn’t see one).  At the top of the mountains we arrived at Angel Lake, and while I’m trying not to sound like a broken record, I can’t help it — it was beautiful.  Waterfalls all around us, patches of snow on the ground and all over the higher peaks, a serene lake high above the trailhead…just breathtaking.

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The hike down was almost as challenging as the hike up — perhaps not as tiring on the hamstrings and glutes, but I nearly went down on loose rocks a few times (okay, I did go down once, but it was a quick down and bounce right back up), and after a while my legs felt like pure wobbly jello.  It was much easier to descend with my knees slightly bent the whole time so as to bob up and down as little as possible, but that was quite a workout.  It was, however, much quicker than the hike up and it seemed like we were down in no time.

On our drive back, we stopped at a burger place right on 101 in Hoodsport.  I can’t remember the name, but it’s a tiny little town and it was right off of 101 with lots of outdoor seating.  The burger hit the spot and the crinkle cut fries took me back to my childhood.

After this late lunch/early dinner, my brother drove us all the way back to our hotel by the Seattle Airport and Chris and I settled in for some relaxing before our day of travel the following day.  The Hilton by the airport has a nice outdoor pool and hot tub — perfect for our tired legs.  The next day we made it home with no real delays — our flight had to hold outside of Denver due to more thunderstorms, but we had such a long layover it made no difference to us (other than cause me slight anxiety).  We made it home by midnight and thus another trip to the beautiful Pacific Northwest came to a close.





Testing the Top Ten Hikes Part Two – The Enchanted Rock

14 05 2009

A couple of weekends ago Chris and I and Chris’s mom decided to head out into the beautiful Texas Hill Country for another of the “Top Ten Hikes” according to Texas Monthly Magazine.  This hike consisted of the Loop Trail around Enchanted Rock and then, of course, heading up to the top of the main dome.  According to Hiking Texas by Laurence Parent, the dome is part of an ancient igneous batholith that covers about 100 square miles of the central mineral region of Texas, and is one of the oldest exposed rocks in North America with an estimated age of one billion years.

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We left our house on a Saturday morning around 7 and made it out to Enchanted Rock State Park by 9.  It had been raining in the days leading up to our hike but the weather held out for us, and even cleared up and got quite warm.  Enchanted Rock is definitely not something you want to do in the middle of the summer — I can’t imagine how hot it must get climbing up the dome in 90+ degrees (which, on the rock, probably feels more like 120!).

I’ve been out to Enchanted Rock twice before — once for another day hike, and once camping out in the primitive sites you have to hike to.  Both times it was cold and rainy.  I was excited to see the area on a warm and clear(ing) day.  Though we missed the peak of wildflower season, there were still some wildflowers here and there, and the moisture on the ground from the rains made for some beautiful shots. 

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Some of the cactus blooms were beginning to open too.

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I’m not even sure what this is, but I thought it was pretty…

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The Loop Trail is an easy hike that loops around the granite dome (around 4 or 4 1/2 miles long).  It follows Sandy Creek for almost a mile and then turns around the dome with small inclines here and there. 

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Once you make it around to the north side of the main dome, you’ll encounter lots of smaller rocks that I think make for some beautiful shots.  

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After we finished the loop, Chris’s mom headed to the shade to rest while Chris and I scaled the main dome.  While the trek up the rock is not long, it is steep, rising abruptly a few hundred feet.  Once at the top, the views are spectacular.

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Chris at the top

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And of course, the obligatory shot of us taking a break after reaching the top…

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What I like about this hike is the Hill Country setting — it’s beautiful out here.  The hike is a good distance — easy enough for a day hike but you can make it more challenging if you want to (by picking up your pace).  It’s hard to beat the views from the top of the dome, and really, the dome itself is really cool.  I also like how close it is to Austin.  If I had a complaint, it might be the crowds.  While we did not pass many people on the Loop Trail, the dome was crowded with all sorts of people…people wearing sandals (with heels!!) or flip flops and jeans who I’m sure must have turned around half-way.  Despite the crowds, though, I like the fact that people are out enjoying Texas parks, so I won’t complain too much about that.

After Chris and I came down from the dome, we headed back towards home — but stopped for lunch at possibly my new favorite burger place, the Alamo Springs Cafe.  This place was about 10 miles down Old San Antonio Road (just on the Austin side of Fredericksburg).  It’s casual, friendly, and the burgers were fantastic.  I had a burger with blue cheese, bacon, and mushrooms, onion rings, and a Fat Tire beer (probably not the most small-town Texas-y beer I could choose, but I think it’s a good beer and they were out of my first choice).  The burger itself was delicious, and they were very generous with the toppings.  The rings were sliced thinly and were fried perfectly with just the right amount of salt and pepper (which probably means they were fairly salty — I do like salt).  Chris had a cheeseburger with jalopeños on a jalopeño bun that had a touch of sweetness to it — according to him it was amazing.  Chris’s mom also got a cheeseburger and homemade chips.  Even the iced tea was great.  Next time I’m driving through Fredericksburg and I’m hungry, I’m definitely making a stop in Alamo Springs.

I only had my iPhone with me at lunch, so the photos are not that great…but I think it gives you a good idea of what I’m talking about.  Yummmm.

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Testing the Top Ten Hikes — East Texas, here we come.

9 02 2009

Chris recently came across an old issue of Texas Monthly magazine that featured an article on the “Top Ten Hikes in Texas.”  Never ones to shy away from ranking our favorite restaurants in a given city, our “top five” albums we’d take with us to a deserted island, or anything else capable of being ranked and, of course, debated, we decided that one of our goals for 2009 would be to do each of these hikes and see what we thought.  After reviewing the list, we decided the Kirby Trail in the Big Thicket National Preserve would be a good one to start with, due mainly to the fact that if we waited until it got any warmer, the mosquitoes would likely be so thick out there they may in fact carry us away.  So, in late January 2009, we loaded up the mule (our Forester) and drove east.

We left Austin around 6:30 or so on a Saturday morning and headed toward Houston, passing straight through along I-10 to where the refineries start popping up all around, on into Beaumont, then turned north along 69 toward Kountze, Texas.  Before this day I had never heard of Kountze, though I am told I have family from the Woodville area, another 30 or so miles to the north.  We arrived in Kountze around 10:30 and, after stopping to fill up with gas, headed straight for the Big Thicket National Preserve.

We stopped first at the visitor’s center — a nice building full of information about the preserve, books and souvenirs, clean restrooms, and friendly staff.  We talked with a ranger about the best places to camp, and he directed us to an area off the Sandhill Loop (part of the trail system in the preserve).  There are no campsites in the preserve, so you just have to go in and register for a back country permit and then head out.  While Chris read about the park, I enjoyed the calm and cool weather from the rocking chairs on the front porch.

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A nice touch.

We then got back into the car and drove another half mile or so down the road to the Kirby Trail trailhead and prepared for the 2.5 mile hike.  The hike is an easy loop that takes you through a dense forest of hardwoods and pines and a fascinating environment of Baldcypress swamps and baygalls.  The trailhead is easy to spot…

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Parts of the trail are like boardwalks over swampy ground.

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This is a Southern Magnolia…I’ve never seen Magnolia trees grow so tall and straight up like these.

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This is a Loblolly Pine, another of the common trees in the preserve.

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Here are a couple of shots of the baygalls we walked past…

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The little stumps poking out of the water are called knees, and are thought to help anchor the Cypress trees.

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We also encountered trees growing in all kinds of shapes and sizes, such as a rhinoceros.

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Or these…

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After we finished the loop, we decided to head back to Kountze for some lunch before heading out with all of our gear.  We went to Caroline’s Quality Bar-b-q, and it was a delight.  The little building is right on 69 and has exactly three tables inside. 

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Caroline took our order at the cash register and we could immediately feel that great East Texas hospitality.  I ordered the three meat plate (brisket, pork ribs, and chicken) and Chris just got the brisket plate.  We sat down at the only empty table and within a few minutes, a different woman brought out two plates and asked which was which…after setting down the brisket plate in front of Chris she looked at me with a bit of disdain and said, “You gonna eat all this?”  I looked at my plate and noticed it was piled high with brisket and ribs (no chicken) and said, I’m gonna try!  She came right back with another plate and said “and who had the chicken?”  I raised my hand and she gave me another look…”you really gonna eat this?”  It was a LOT of meat, plus beans and potato salad.  I really wanted a good sampling of the barbecue, though, so I felt I HAD to order three meats (I had actually tried to get the sausage too, but they were all out).  I knew I had my work cut out for me.  The brisket was my favorite — they smoke their brisket for thirteen hours, and the flavor was deep.  I could cut it with my plastic fork.  They serve their barbecue with a thick, slightly sweet sauce that I enjoyed, though Chris prefers a vinegary sauce to dip the meat in, if any sauce at all.  The ribs were incredibly tender — meat fell right off the bone.  The chicken (I requested dark meat) was juicy and delicious.  I also thought the sides were fantastic (made eating all of the meat all the more difficult).  The beans had a nice sweetness to them, and the potato salad was light and fresh.  Needless to say, though I tried my hardest, I could not finish.  Caroline brought me a box for my leftovers (while there was no way I’d be able to take my leftovers on an overnight hike, I simply could not leave them on the table).  Here are my leftovers (and really, I ate a LOT!  the portions are really big!!).

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After lunch we headed back out to the Kirby Trail, but this time loaded up our packs and instead of looping back around, took a left at a bridge and continued on toward the Sandhill Loop.

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We took the Sandhill Loop and started wandering off the trail somewhere around the first or second “L” looking for a good spot to set up our tent.

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Chris marked the campsite on his GPS device…

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Happy with our choice, I set up our tent and we relaxed with some wine (yes, I backpacked with wine) and enjoyed the weather for a bit.  Dinner came from a bag…a Mountain House vegetable lasagna.  To be honest, we were quite pleased with dinner…it really was not bad at all, and nothing beats a hot dinner when it’s chilly outside.  Once the sun went down completely it got even colder, so we decided to turn in early.  Really early (I’m not even sure if it was 8pm yet).  We stared at the stars from the tent for a bit, then eventually drifted off to sleep.  By 2am, Chris was wide awake.  I suppose we had basically gotten a full night of sleep.  He woke me up and told me he was going to get out, make some coffee, and sit outside for a while.  I was not ready to get up (it was still cold and dark) so I stayed in the tent. 

I heard him rustling around a bit, then I noticed what seemed like a bright flickering light through the tent.  That did not seem right to me, so I called out to Chris and asked if everything was okay.  His response was simple:  “No…I think you should probably get out here.”  I jumped out of my sleeping bag, out of the tent, and into my boots and saw a fire!  Apparently, we had a bit of a burner malfunction, and when he tried to ignite the burner flames shot out of the entire canister (even though it worked just fine for dinner).  The burner fell over on its side as he jumped back to avoid burning his arm, and the fire spread to the leaves, pine needles, sticks, etc., all around…and quickly!  We tried dousing it with what little water we had left but that did nothing.  We threw a pot down on the burner but it did nothing to stop the flames.  I was really surprised at how quickly the fire spread and for a few seconds seriously feared we had started a forest fire (though, to be honest, it was probably only a few feet)!  Chris, thinking quickly, grabbed a big stick and cleared a perimeter around the fire so that it could not spread any further, and it finally began to burn out.  We stood and watched as the flames from the canister got smaller and smaller and smaller.  Once it was out, we looked at each other, then at our watches (it was 2:45 am).  It was the middle of the night, but we were wide awake…out of water…so no coffee…we decided to hike back.  Luckily it was not too difficult finding the trail again, and once on the trail it was an easy hike back.  We were back at the car around 3:15 or so, and back home by 7:45 in the morning.  This really was not how we had envisioned the camping trip to go, but it was still fun and we later got quite a few laughs out of the “incident.” 

Now, back to the top ten list.  The best thing about this hike and the preserve in general was the environment.  The mix of trees and swamp was pretty cool — I’ve never seen anything like it.  The hike itself was very easy, though, and there weren’t any grand vistas.  My biggest complaint, however, was that it did not seem remote enough.  Throughout the night we both woke up off and on due to the sounds of dogs barking, gun shots, and other unidentifiable noises.  We also seemed to be right underneath a flight path.  Civilization felt too close.  The only wildlife we spotted were birds and squirrels.  At night we only heard crickets and deer snorting.  It is, however, a beautiful part of the state, a part I had never seen, and a reminder that the Texas landscape includes so many different environments.  That in and of itself is pretty cool, and one of the reasons I love living here.