Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wine Country Mini Vacay: Sonoma

Being the fabulous photographer that he is, Todd won a contest earlier this year featuring this lovely photo he took of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Photo by the fantastic Todd Sipes. Check out more of his work at toddsipes.net

Great work, love! The prize was a night at the prestigious Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, which neither of us had ever stayed at before. Even though we only live 40 minutes from Sonoma, I actually haven't spent much time there at all other than visiting a couple wineries, so we were ready for a new adventure.

Todd and I have the habit of over-scheduling our time on vacations and trying to pack in absolutely everything humanly possible into the small amount of time we will actually be there. We opted instead for a relaxing getaway, and didn't make any plans in advance to just see where the journey took us.

Let's live spontaneously!


On Sunday morning, we ate a tasty breakfast at one of our favorite local spots, Theresa & Johnny's, and made it up to Sonoma just after noon. We checked into the hotel, which is more of a luxury resort and spa than just a hotel. It's kind of a little heavenly oasis tucked away in a not-so-lovely area of town, with a long driveway leading up to the lobby lined with palm trees and roses and hanging baskets of bright flowers. Cushioned benches and wooden lawn chairs with tables made from the tops of barrels are speckled throughout the lawns so you can sit outside and enjoy the glorious California weather.



The lobby itself is huge, with a massive fireplace, beamed ceiling, and some really great mix-and-matched posh-yet-rustic furniture (very Wine Country). Different areas connect to the lobby like spokes on a wheel: the pool, the bar, the 5-star restaurant, staircases to guest rooms, etc. We checked in and found our room (which was small, but very nice!) complete with complimentary bottle of wine, and headed right out to enjoy the sun by the pool.

Photo courtesy of the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn's Facebook Page

The pool was set up surrounded by traditional lounge chairs which were segmented into groups of 2 with small tables, plus cafe tables/chairs off to the side, and even a raised area in the shade with cushioned outdoor couches for large groups. We claimed some lounge chairs, and were almost immediately greeted by a poolside server who brought us sangria and piña coladas right to our chairs. We also decided to order some lunch, and I enjoyed a vegetable hummus wrap while Todd had a mozzarella and tomato panini. Yum!



After some time spent at the pool, we decided to go drive through town and perhaps check out a winery. We settled on Patz & Hall, since we drove by and it looked fairly accommodating (and was the only one in our immediate vicinity). Every time I had been wine tasting before, we had just shown up, gone up to a bar, ordered the available flight, and spent time walking the grounds. This was totally different. First of all, we needed an appointment (whoops!) and they only did tastings at the top of the hour. Fortunately, we arrived just before 3:00pm, and they had room for us to squeeze in. We sat at the corner of a square bar in enormous comfy bar chairs and waited as the other chairs filled up as the reservations arrived. Once everyone was there, the tasting was more like a group lesson, where they would talk about the wine before we tried it, and we each had a little dish of truffle oil almonds and breadsticks. We tried 3 Chardonnays and 3 Pinot Noirs, and I found myself actually  being able to identify subtle flavor differences (traditionally, all wine sort of tastes the same to me). I'm getting better! Future sommelier in the making, perhaps?!




After our wine tasting excursion, we headed back to the hotel. We had some time before the 4:30pm complimentary wine tasting in the lobby, so we walked the grounds a bit, checking out the spa and mineral pools (with insanely priced treatments, oh my goodness!), the fitness center (8:00am free yoga class, anyone?!), and the boutique. Apparently they also have a golf course, but we didn't get that far. Instead, we headed back to the lobby and enjoyed the wine tasting, this time from Valley of the Moon.

We had some time to kill before dinner time, so we went back to the room to have some of the complimentary wine (are you sensing a theme here?) and coffee. Our original thoughts had been to maybe check out a restaurant in downtown Sonoma for dinner, but we decided to call down and make dinner reservations at Santé, the award-winning restaurant in the hotel.

Santé was AMAZING! We were absolutely under-dressed for a fine dining experience (not horribly so, but noticeably so), but that didn't dampen the experience. We were given a window table with plush armchairs and started out with (surprise!) more wine selected from a wine list iPad, and fancy types of bread with long names and descriptions that the waiters presented to us with 2 kinds of fancy butter. We split an appetizer of risotto that was to die for, and then had the beef tenderloin for two, accompanied by mashed potatoes and local vegetables, with two fancy sauces, all of which were amazing. Dessert was a peanut butter ice cream with a chocolate lava cake, and they sent us home with these little tiny cakes coated in beeswax. I may not have ever been so full in my life!

Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor

The next day, we ordered room service--waffles with strawberries and whipped cream with maple-pecan sausage on the side for me, pancakes and eggs for Todd--and did the whole "breakfast in bed while wearing fluffy hotel bathrobes" thing.


We checked out by 11:00 and headed into town to check out the square. For those of you who have never been to Sonoma, the downtown area known as Sonoma Plaza is a National Historic Landmark and is essentially a large, square park outlined with a road whose outer perimeter is rimmed with boutiques and galleries and cafes facing inward. You can walk around the whole square with the shops on one side and the park on the other, sometimes with little alleys that cut backwards through narrow corridors and open up into little coves of more shops with fountains in the courtyards and lights strung on the trees.

Photo courtesy of SomethingAboutSonoma.com

We parked Gandy (my Prius) at one corner and made our way around the cobblestone sidewalk, taking in the sights: a cheese factory, an old theater, a restaurant boasting gelato and burgers and whiskey on the awning, stores selling specialty footwear, a gourmet chocolate tasting room, to name just a few. Along the way, there are also some historical sites to visit, which was fun to run across on accident. Old servants quarters the remains of La Casa Grande complete with a carriage house with an antique cart on display, and the military barracks which were well-curated into soldiers' living quarters, a small museum featuring artifacts from Mexican/Native American history of the area, a gift shop, a small theater that played videos on the history of the park, and a spacious courtyard. We also visited the Mission, which is the northernmost Catholic Mission in the state of California (second northernmost is ours here in San Rafael!), and which dates back to 1841. Exhibits were set up inside the museum, and you could also go into the old chapel and the large courtyard that contained a huge fountain in the middle (dry, since we are, after all, in a drought), and a big prickly pear cactus in the back which served as natural protection for the living quarters of the women as well as a food source. We also saw a large tallow pot which was used for making candles, a beehive oven for baking, and even a grill.



Another one of our favorite stops in the Plaza was an art gallery that was showcasing photographs from a fantastic local photographer neither Todd nor I had ever heard of, Lisa Kristine. Her humanitarian photographs feature indigenous people from a variety of cultures, and are both striking and thought-provoking. I encourage you to check out her website here.

Photo by Lisa Kristine, lisakristine.com

The last thing we did was walk through the park itself. It has a Visitor Center, as well as a fragrant rose garden, playground, and City Hall right smack-dab in the center, rising up as a beautiful early 20th-century stone work of art. We spent some time literally smelling the roses and sat on a bench by the duck pond watching a turtle bask in the sun and a group of ducks get into an exciting duck brawl.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

We certainly didn't see everything there is to see in Sonoma and I'm sure there were important things we missed. But ultimately, this was an extremely successful mini vacation, relaxing and interesting and fun, and we will definitely be taking future day trips to check out more!

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Santa Cruz

Over the 4th of July weekend, Todd and I went to Santa Cruz. This wasn't a new destination for either of us; Todd had attended UC Santa Cruz during undergrad, and I had been on a couple occasions when I was in high school during vacations to the Bay Area. But it had been quite a while since either of us had been, and there were some touristy things that we wanted to see in addition to spending some time with Todd's super fun cousins that we only see at rare family gatherings.

Since we only spent Friday and Saturday in Santa Cruz, this will be a short post, but I feel it is worth documenting anyway.



Having a prized 3-day weekend off together, we woke up late on Friday, July 4th, and hit the road. We had a 2:12pm reservation (random time, right?) at Mystery Spot, and, having planned for holiday traffic, arrived in Santa Cruz with some time to kill. Todd decided to take me to the UCSC campus where he got his undergraduate degree, and showed me around the buildings where he used to attend class. I'd never seen this university before, and it was VERY different from where I attended college. At Dominican, we could walk across the whole campus in 7.5 minutes. UCSC has an entire bus network to get students from the various locations, which are divided into colleges. I still don't fully understand the system, but the campus was huge. They had adorable dorm buildings (which I bet would be fun for students to live in), tons of trees and nature and squirrels running around, and a fabulous view of the ocean. Since it was a holiday during the summer, we had the campus essentially to ourselves as we toured.

After checking out UCSC, we headed over to Mystery Spot. Neither Todd or I had ever been, so we were excited to visit such a famous (and mysterious!) attraction. My goodness, was that place packed! It was good that we had made reservations in advance online, because they were completely booked for the day and were turning away people at the parking lot.

If you don't know much about Mystery Spot, Wikipedia describes it as a tourist attraction where: "The operators of the small site (which is about 150 feet in diameter) claim at that location the laws of physics and gravity do not apply and provide a number of demonstrations in support of these claims, where water seems to flow upwards, people seem to be standing in slanted positions etc."



Sure, it is some kind of optical illusion, and I went in with a hugely skeptical attitude towards the whole ordeal. But the tour was well-done, and they even gave quite convincing arguments against the skepticism. While I may not be convinced there's an alien ship buried underground causing strange magnetic reactions (just one of the outlandish theories), it was still a fun diversion.

Me, standing at an angle in the Mystery Spot

The rest of the evening we spent with Todd's cousins, enjoying cocktails and snacks on the balcony of their beautiful home. For dinner, we visited a brewery that their son worked at, and devoured some delicious burgers to live music. I loved getting to know this part of Todd's family better, and we even had some nighttime shenanigans that involved shopping carts, parking signs, and fireworks at the beach.

You can see their balcony in Todd's glasses!



I spent the morning recovering from our excursions the night before, but by midday we were ready to head out to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. I had loved this place as a teenager! Having not been back since, and because Todd had NEVER been (even though he lived there!!), I was very excited to go. Yes, I know it's touristy. Yes, I know it's way overcrowded on holidays. Yes, it's not the cleanest or most upscale attraction I've ever been to. But I'm a fun-loving kind of lady, and a day of roller coasters, sunshine, mini golf, and soft serve ice cream cones on the beach is my type of date! Plus, the Boardwalk is home to Ghost Blasters, which is my very favorite ride on the planet.

Parking was, of course, a huge nightmare. The lines to get into the Boardwalk parking lot were insanely long, and it cost $15 for the day. Instead, we found a metered parking spot about half a mile away via a pleasant walking path next to the river. Much cheaper, and much quicker! I suggest doing this if you ever go. We also happened to run into one of Todd's friends from Marin as we were crossing the street, which was totally random and unexpected!



The Boardwalk itself was (as predicted) wildly crowded. I had only ever been during the off-season, which is much preferred, in my opinion. The lines were long, but not devastatingly so (not like Disneyland or anything like that), and with our Costco deal, we were able to get all day ride wristbands as well as tickets to two attractions and some arcade money. As roller coaster enthusiasts, we started our day right with a big spinning roller coaster called Undertow: surprisingly smooth, but still thrilling. We proceeded to ride some other favorites, like the Sky Glider (basically gondolas...a great way to view the Boardwalk and beach) and the Giant Dipper, which is a wooden roller coaster that first opened in 1924 and is now a historic landmark. Of course, Ghost Blasters we saved for last; it's basically a low-budget version of Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blasters at Disneyland, though it was in operation long before Astro Blasters opened. I may be terrible at sports and baking and lots of other things, but good heavens, I dominate those laser gun rides! I beat Todd's score by double (yes, I am bragging, and no, he was not pleased).


After terrible food for lunch, and tasty swirl cones for dessert, we located a Dole Whip stand. UNBELIEVABLE! Dole Whip is one of the best things about going to Disneyland! I couldn't believe they had one! So of course I got a float...complete with pineapple juice. And oh man...it was not good. Not at all. I only ate half. It was a cheap version of the heavenly concoction you would find in Disney. Depressing. Don't order that if you go.

We decided to use some of our attraction tickets next. Our choices were a rock climbing wall, laser tag, a laser maze (think Catherine Zeta-Jones), mini golf, bowling, or Fright Walk (haunted house). We chose mini golf...and truly, the Boardwalk has an impressive mini golf course. Pirate themed, complete with a black light ocean cave and pirates that move and talk (think Pirates of the Caribbean ride), we were ready for a fantastic, if not particularly competitive, round. Unfortunately, there were just SO MANY people that we were backed up 3 or 4 groups for each hole and spent a lot of time waiting...so long, in fact, that we ended up giving the remaining tickets we hadn't used to the kids behind us so that we could start the drive home.


The weekend was short but sweet, and definitely tons of fun. I think it's better to go to the Boardwalk when there will be less people so you can get more done, but otherwise, our trip to Santa Cruz was a fantastic success!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Las Vegas

Over the past weekend, I went to Las Vegas with a small group of girls for my soon-to-be sister-in-law's Bachelorette Party. The last time I was in Vegas was my 10th birthday, and it was a pit stop on a road trip to Texas for my brother's international soccer team's training before we went to Europe for the summer. This was obviously a much different experience!

They say "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," so in keeping with that tradition (though, trust me, there are no scandalous details worth omitting in the first place), I'm going to simply emphasize the highlights of the trip via photos instead of my more thorough travel blog approach.







Sarah and I both live in California, so we traveled together on Friday evening. We had spent some time before the trip getting together to make some crafty Bachelorette supplies for the weekend, as Sarah is the Maid of Honor and I'm the Matron of Honor for Ali and Cody's wedding.







We sat next to a really nice guy on the plane who was going to visit his girlfriend who works in Vegas. He was nice enough to share some mini bottles of booze with us! A nice way to get our trip started.






This is 4 of the 5 of us (Sarah was taking the photo from the front seat) on our way from the airport to the hotel. We stayed at the Vdara, which is a really clean, nice hotel on the strip. There is no casino, so it doesn't have constant cigarette smoke or smell bad. That was really nice!








Ali's mom had pink champagne, chocolate covered strawberries, and some other snacks sent up to the room when we arrived. What a sweet gesture!





Before we went out, we wanted to take some photos of the group, but the camera had a mind of its own and started taking pictures before we were ready! This is one of the funny candid shots. My arm is around an invisible Ali here.







We had matching tank tops that said "Bride's Entourage" in fabulous bling, plus "Team Bride" wristbands that went with the pink theme of Ali's wedding. 






Out on the strip! From left to right: Carli, me, Ali, Risa, Sarah






The next day (Saturday), we went to Mandalay Bay to check out the pool. The main pool is set up like a beach with palm trees and sand, plus other pools up in the VIP areas. We convinced some hotel guests to flash their hotel keys for us to get into the pool.






As soon as we walked into the pool area, we were invited to enjoy one of the VIP cabanas for free! The cabanas had their own small pools, plus lawn chairs, shade (thankfully!!), a little kitchen area, bottle service, food, you name it!





The water was really nice, and we had a great view to people watch. I needed a large hat and lots of sunscreen!






There was loud music playing, so in this candid shot you can see that I'm dancing haha.






Making new friends. Here we are standing on the bed that was in the cabana. Why do they have beds?!







But the beds are great for dancing on!



I would have to say the pool was probably my favorite part of the trip. I enjoyed eating delicious quesadillas, tons of fresh fruit, and drinking lots of pink lemonade!








That evening we got all dressed up and went out to dinner and a show. Walking down the strip in heels is an exciting adventure in itself!





Quick stop to pose with some kisses!






We ate dinner at Il Fornaio, which is an Italian restaurant inside New York New York. I had some gluten free penne alla vodka, which was really amazing! 






After dinner, we went to see the Thunder from Down Under show, which was absolutely packed with other bachelorette parties. It was basically like a real-live version of the movie Magic Mike, except none of the men looked quite like Channing Tatum. That was a sad moment for me. :-(






After the show, we headed back to the hotel and changed into outfits more suitable for walking around on the strip and continued with Ali's bachelorette scavenger hunt. Here our group is seen posing with two boys who sang Katy Perry songs, which was one of the items we had to check off.







My mom made the bottom of this dress using the same material that the bridesmaid dresses at my wedding were made out of!






We saw some really cool views of the strip at night. I don't have any photos of it, but we saw the end of the Bellagio light show, which was super.





During the evening, my thumb got stuck in the hotel room door. I had to get some first aid, administered by the hotel security guard, and was required to file an official report with the hotel.






On Sunday, we walked around and got to see some of the hotels. My favorite was the Venetian. It was like an adorable (and cleaner!) indoor Venice!






If I go back to Vegas, I'd love to stay at the Venetian, and take a gondola ride and have a cappuccino in one of the cafes by the canal. 






We also went shopping at the large mall over at Caesar's Palace. I got to visit the Christian Louboutin store and pick out my Louboutins (they run super small, btw).






We ate at Earl of Sandwich for lunch (yum!) and afterwards stopped for cocktails at this bar that is essentially inside a giant chandelier at the Cosmopolitan. At least, they have all these draping plastic diamonds that make you feel like you are inside a chandelier!! 






So there you have it...my photo tour of Las Vegas! Cheers!



Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Yosemite

For Memorial Day weekend, Todd and I decided to head over to Yosemite National Park. Because of our work schedules, we usually only have Sundays off together, but the holiday gave us three whole days, so we wanted to make the most of it. I'd never been to Yosemite, and Todd hadn't been for almost a decade, so there were plenty of exciting adventures to be had.

Because this trip was a last minute decision, we waited until the week before to book a place to stay, meaning absolutely everything in the park was booked, including all of the camp sites (and there was no way I was going to stay in a tent anyway!). Our next best option, and literally the only thing available anywhere nearby, was Hotel Jeffery in Coulterville. The rooms were inexpensive, so we booked first, researched later. As it turns out, Coulterville is a historic old western town (apparently voted 4th best western town in the US?), and the hotel boasts equally historic clientele, including Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and John Muir. As I was reserving our room online, I saw that ghost detecting kits were available upon request (say what?!). The cherry on top...we were staying in a famously haunted hotel--home to 17 ghosts!

The famous haunted hotel

Downtown Coulterville

Excited to get this mini vacay started, we left on Friday night after we both got off work. The three hour journey from San Rafael to Coulterville took closer to 4 hours due to the dreaded Memorial Day weekend traffic and a surplus of drivers making poor choices. Multiple traffic accidents added to our wait times, and we even witnessed one happen right in front of us on the other side of the freeway. An SUV spun out and slammed its rear end into the divider; we thought for sure it was going to flip over the barrier and slam right into us!

Rolling up into Coulterville (population 201) at about 11:15pm was a surreal experience. The town itself is tiny, tucked away into an area accessed by nausea-inducing winding roads. The old western buildings looked eerie and desolate in what should have been a dead-silent night...except for the modern music blasting from the open saloon. It felt more like walking onto a movie set than anything else.

Right across from our hotel

Abandoned General Store

Coulterville's Museum

Because every town needs an organic bakery/fly shop!

The Magnolia Saloon is the oldest working saloon in California, and is attached to Hotel Jeffery. Since the hotel was closed, we checked in at the bar and were able to explore a little bit before getting settled. The saloon is decorated with all kinds of mounted animal heads and local historic artifacts, and the hotel itself is absolutely charming. They have a little visitors center that connects the hotel and saloon, filled with gold mining memorabilia, antiques, historic newspapers and postcards, you name it. Established in 1851, this three-story building with a wrapping veranda holds 22 guests rooms that are each decorated uniquely in fabulous antique furniture (no two rooms look alike). The floorboards are uneven in places and creak (just like in the house I grew up in...also historic), and our bathroom was located down the hall and around a corner (which took us a while to find). It reminded me a lot of Meadowlands at Dominican University.

Hotel Jeffery and Magnolia Saloon

Lobby of Hotel Jeffery

Inside the Visitor Center. That door connects into the Saloon.

Loving the old-school phone booth!

Our room was number 4, seen here on the left!

Day 1


After a fairly restless sleep (no, there were no paranormal encounters, just two drunk locals keeping us up through the thin walls), we woke up early to get our start into the park. There was substantial continental breakfast (all gluten, of course) spread out on the bar in the saloon, and it was a very peaceful (but kind of creepy) breakfast as we were the only people even in the building. Out behind the saloon, they had a great patio area with fountains and rustic tables, a small flower garden, and even an old white cat who tried to eat my food make friends with me.

We are ready for adventures!

We learned the hard way that Coulterville is not, in fact, "just outside the park." Well, maybe in miles as the crow flies, but in terms of driving, it took us 45 minutes to get to the park entrance, and another 45 minutes to get into Yosemite Valley, of course all on narrow, windy roads. Our first stop was Bridalveil Falls, which was a short hike but absolutely packed with people. We began to miss the solitude of our morning meal as the flocks of tourists pressed in on us.

Best view of Bridalveil Falls was from the parking lot. Seriously.

Parking was a huge challenge throughout the day. I knew it would be busy in Yosemite on Memorial Day weekend, but I didn't anticipate the tiny roads and insanely congested traffic. We were lucky to only have to circle once at the Bridalveil parking lot to find a space. Later in the trip, we saw a line waiting to get in that went back for miles, holding up all of the traffic in that area of the park!

After Bridalveil Falls, we decided to make the drive down to Wawona to see the giant sequoias in the Mariposa Grove. It was another 45 minutes (bleh) of twisting turns, but well worth the trip. Parking was a pain again, but we were lucky to find a spot up at the exquisitely lovely Wawona Hotel, which I would love to go back and stay at sometime.

Would have loved to have a drink on the lawn!

They had a free shuttle available to take people the additional 20 minutes to the sequoia groves, which we took advantage of but had to ride standing the whole way. The hike itself was not too intense, but very packed with tourists. After seeing the first main attractions (Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree) in the lower section of the grove, we decided to take the recommended "Lower Loop Trail" which met up back in the parking lot where we started. Fortunately for us, the trail was not very clearly marked...we actually went the wrong way and had to loop back. But the great part was, everyone else went the wrong way too! We were the only two people on the trail for most of the journey back, which enabled us to see some fun squirrels and birds going about their business without being scared off by the crowds.

In front of the Grizzly Giant

Bachelor and the Three Graces

California Tunnel Tree

After the hike, we checked out some of the other sights in Wawona, including the Pioneer History Center, where we could see old cabins and buildings including a blacksmith shop, bakery, Well's Fargo stagecoach station, jail, and covered bridge.

Stagecoaches

Stagecoach station in the village

Next we headed back to Yosemite Valley, with a quick stop at Tunnel View to take some photos of El Capitan and Half Dome. We had reservations at the Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room for dinner, and we wanted time to change into our more formal attire (dress code required for fancy dining!) and freshen up first. Unfortunately for us, the traffic was dead stopped for most of the trip. What should have taken us 20 minutes ended up taking an hour and a half! We changed in the car, and even then were late for our reservations.

View of El Capitan (left) and Half Dome (center) from Tunnel View

Up at Tunnel View

Photo doesn't do it justice...the waterfall looked RAINBOW!!

The Ahwahnee Hotel itself is gorgeous and very upscale. The dining room is very much like a Native American version of Harry Potter, and the food matched the setting. We started with brussels sprouts made with bacon, and then I had a French onion soup while Todd had coconut and lobster bisque. For entrees, I had prime rib and Todd had lamb. It was positively amazing food, and we were so stuffed we couldn't even find room for dessert...so naturally we ordered the Ahwahnee chocolate truffles to go!

Enjoying some wine with dinner

Love the chandeliers in this room!

Our bellies full, we took a stroll down a path through a meadow that was lined with privately owned cabins. The sun was just beginning to set, and the top of Half Dome was glowing golden. A nice lady was sitting out on her front lawn as we passed and came up and offered to take our photo since the scene was so perfect and we "looked so great." But as the sun goes down, the bugs come out, so after observing a family of deer cruising through the meadow, we headed back to start the long drive back to Coulterville.


Back in Coulterville, our saloon was hoppin' with a live band playing covers of 90s songs. There were a few exceptionally drunk locals at the bar, so we decided to stop in and have a drink. For $2.50, we got giant rum and cokes in red party cups and drank in the mediocre renditions of punk/rock songs from our youth. Not a bad end to the night, if you ask me!

Day 2


The second day we headed out even earlier to the park to try and beat some of the traffic. We found a great parking spot at the Curry Recreation Center, which is where we needed to go to rent a raft. Rafting down the Merced River was the greatest highlight of our trip. The 3 mile trip is pretty calm, with a few spots with mini "rapids," but is easy to navigate for even inexperienced rafters like myself.

Rafting adventure!

Beautiful view from the raft.

Our new favorite phrase: "I wish we were rafting right now!"

So relaxing!

You can stop at any of the sand bars or beaches for a picnic or a rest, and you can get fantastic views of Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and other great sites from the comfort of your raft. Plus there were tons of fish, birds, and baby ducklings to keep us entertained. I could have stayed out there all day!

 After our rafting adventure, we decided to take advantage of the extremely efficient free shuttle service the park offers and head to the Ahwahnee for lunch. We ate at the bar this time, and had tasty blended drinks and delicious sandwiches, followed by pie that I had been craving the night before but couldn't fit in my full belly!

The Ahwahnee

Once we were much too full (yet again), we jumped back on the shuttle and checked out the Visitor Center. This was also definitely worth the stop. They have fantastic exhibits on the history of the park, plus a great little museum with local Native artifacts, the Ansel Adams gallery, and a Native American village you can walk through. The art historian in me gives a nod of appreciation to these exhibits.

Posing with John Muir

After our cultural enrichment, we headed out for the hike to Lower Yosemite Falls. Again, it was insanely crowded. One thing I loved about the park is that there are kind of no rules...they let anyone really go anywhere, which I think is great as long as people are respectful of where they are. This is also annoying when trying to take photos because you can't get any good ones without dozens of people in them. At the waterfalls, people would climb up the rocks to get as close as possible, way beyond the designated viewing point. And it's totally fine with the rangers. This is great if you are feeling adventurous, but obnoxious if you are playing photographer.

Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls

Trying to get some decent photos

Climbing around in some rock crevices

Our next excursion was to drive out to Glacier Point to get some sunset photos. We picked up some sandwiches and kettle chips from the Village Store, and got an early start out to Glacier Point so we would have plenty of time. Good thing we planned ahead because we had the joy of sitting through a 90+ minute delay! Because parking at Glacier Point was full, they closed the road and detoured everyone into the Badger Pass parking lot (obviously closed for summer) and had a very strict system of waiting to let people up to Glacier Point until others had left. Once it was finally our turn to go, we raced the clock to try and make it in time for sunset, getting stuck behind literally the SLOWEST driver on the planet. In his defense, these are the most narrow and twisty roads we had seen, but we were on a time crunch! He had a line of 10 or 15 cars crawling behind him, unable to pass. I don't know if I've ever seen so many people experiencing shared road rage like this before.

We made it to the top just as the sun was setting, so we were able to get in some breathtaking photos. You could see all of the Valley below, including a little tiny Ahwahnee Hotel, and where our car was parked by the green rafts. The views of Half Dome, the Sierra Nevadas, and the waterfalls from up there can't even be described. As it grew dark and the stars popped out, you could see the lights dotting the sides of the cliffs where rock climbers and hikers were camping, and even a couple dots of light right on top of Half Dome! We stargazed under a moonless sky, using a cell phone app to identify different planets and constellations, and even got to wish on a shooting star.

Half Dome and the Sierra Nevadas

View from Glacier Point

Yosemite Valley, as seen from Glacier Point

Awww, look at the little tiny Ahwahnee!

The drive back to Coulterville that night was the worst kind of chore. We rolled in after midnight, exhausted and sore, our successful trip complete. The next morning, we slept in late and headed home before noon to beat the weekend traffic returning home. I think I never want ride in a car again.

My final thoughts on a fantastic trip/recommendations for future excursions:

  • Stay inside the park! Everything is so spread out inside Yosemite as it is, you will do tons of driving no matter what, so keep it to a minimum by staying at one of the hotels in the Valley.
  • Try and do main attractions like waterfall hikes as early in the morning as possible to avoid the crowds.
  • Use the free shuttle service because parking totally sucks.
  • Bug spray!!
  • Absolutely everyone ever should raft down the Merced River. It is so peaceful and gorgeous, and is the ultimate Yosemite experience.
  • Bring snacks because food is expensive and the wait to eat is long.
  • Just because an attraction is popular doesn't mean it's the best. My favorite things were the ones with the smallest crowds.
  • I didn't realize how many international tourists come to Yosemite. It makes sense, but it still surprised me. If I was an international tourist visiting California, I would think more along the lines of visiting LA, San Francisco, ocean beaches, etc.
  • Use the lack of cell phone service to really live in the moment and connect with nature.
Hopefully coming up soon: Yosemite in winter! :-)