Crater Lake and Yosemite

Continuing north from redwood country, we crossed the border into one of the few states of the lower forty-eight I’d yet to set foot in: Oregon.  Did you know that in Oregon it’s illegal to pump your own gas?  It was news to me.

The northernmost stop on our trip was Crater Lake National Park.  Crater Lake is an old volcanic caldera that’s been filled in by precipitation to become a freshwater lake, the deepest lake in America and ninth-deepest in the world.  According to some of the signs we saw there, it’s also (by some measures) the single clearest body of water in the world.  In the lake is an island with the intriguing name of Wizard Island, so called because its conical shape reminded someone of a wizard’s hat.

But our sightseeing wasn’t quite done yet after left Crater Lake behind.  As we headed back south through California our route happened to take us by what you might call the back door to Yosemite National Park, so we drove on up into the Sierras to eat a picnic lunch in Tuolumne Meadows.  (We’d already seen the better-known part of the park, the valley, on another trip a couple years ago.)

So, with this shot of a lupine on the bank of the Tuolumne River, I come to the end of my chronicle of this trip to the West Coast.  Tomorrow I fly back to Ohio, and the following day I’ll be on my way from there down to Georgia, where I’m starting my new job next week.  Until then, my friends!

BIG Trees

After leaving Monterey we continued north, past San Francisco (so socked in with fog that we couldn’t see the skyline from the Golden Gate Bridge, sadly) and on up into redwood country, where we visited both the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park and, later, Redwood National Park.  The Avenue of the Giants is the farther inland of the two areas, and it was interesting to see the contrast between that forest and the more coastal one.  Closer to the coast they must get more moisture (largely in the form of fog, I’d guess) because the growth of ferns and shrubs on the forest floor was much more lush and reminiscent of the temperate rainforests of Washington.  It was at Redwood National Park that I got my life Varied Thrush.  Hurrah!

Monterey Bay Aquarium

One thing I was really looking forward to on this trip was seeing the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I mean, that’s where the aquarium scenes in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home were shot, and while I knew the Monterey Bay Aquarium doesn’t really have any humpback whales, it still had to be pretty awesome, right?

It was cool, but seeing it once was enough (it was awfully crowded, for one thing).  If I ever go back to that area I’ll skip the aquarium and spend more time exploring Point Lobos.

Sea Otters

When this trip was in the planning stages and I found out we were going to Monterey, I thought man, it would be really cool to see a sea otter in the wild.  But you probably need to go out on a boat for that and we don’t have time for a boat tour of the bay.  Oh well, maybe if we’re really lucky we’ll get a glimpse of one from shore.

We got so much more than a glimpse.

Our day driving up Big Sur ended at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, a place I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone who likes wildlife and is thinking of visiting the coast of central California.  We had gotten out of our car and were walking out to a point that was supposed to be good for viewing sea lions when a man passing us going the other direction stopped to tell us that there was a pair of humpback whales off the north side of the point.  Well!  We skedaddled the rest of the way up the trail and sure enough, there were the whales, giving us good views of their backs and occasional glimpses of flukes every time they surfaced.  Sadly there wasn’t anyway to get good photos of them with the limited zoom of my camera, but we watched them until they moved farther out, then checked out what other wildlife was around.  Sure enough, there were sea lions and more harbor seals on the rocks below.  But what we really wanted to find were sea otters.

As we walked back, we kept scanning the kelp beds offshore, sometimes mistaking a bobbing piece of kelp for a bobbing otter head.  Finally, score!  A ways out was a group of otters.  We watched them through our binoculars, thinking, wow.  Two seal species, sea lions, whales, and now sea otters, all in one day.  It doesn’t get any better than this.  Or does it?

To our amazement, the otters seemed to keep pace with us as we moved further along the shore back toward our car, and they were actually coming in closer.  And closer.

And closer.

Soon we had picked our way out onto another conveniently-placed outcropping of rocks to watch sea otters foraging practically right beneath our feet.  We had front-row seats to behavior you see on nature shows on the Discovery Channel but never expect to witness in real life.  The otter closest to us would dive briefly, and come up floating on its back with a rock balanced on its chest and a pawful of what appeared to be sea urchins, which it would smash against the rock to break open and then eat.  It knew perfectly well we were there – occasionally it would glance up at us – but was comfortable enough with our presence to let us sit there and watch it for what must have been half an hour.  At one point the other otter it was with lost track of its location and spent a minute looking around and squealing unhappily, until it finally spotted its friend (or parent?) and swam over to reunite with it.  (Okay, I’m being a little anthropomorphic, but can you blame me?  They’re such charismatic, expressive animals.)

After this, seeing the sea otter exhibit at the Monterey Bay aquarium the following day was something of an anticlimax… more to come.

Seals at Big Sur

I’m back from the Pacific coast!  And I have a whole slew of photos and video clips to share with you.  Our first day of sightseeing was spent working our way up along the Big Sur coast via the Pacific Coast Highway.

We started out in Cambria, and in the morning after breakfast we went for a walk on the beach and discovered a group of harbor seals hauled out on some rocks.  It was hard to get decent photos of them, but believe me, they were cute.

There were signs warning against disturbing the seals, but they clearly weren’t the least bit disturbed by the people clambering out a little way onto the rocks for a closer look: a few glanced sleepily at us before returning to their naps, and one was curious enough that it actually flopped down into the water and swam across the space separating our rocks from their rocks, popping his head out above the surface practically at our feet and looking up at us.

We also happened to glance down at one point and notice that between the rocks we were standing on were some pretty awesome tide pools, full of sea stars and anemones.

A short drive up the coast we scored our second marine mammal species for the day: elephant seals!  Elephant seals used to be hunted extensively were actually believed to be extinct at one point, until a last remaining population was discovered on an island of Baja California.  Their numbers have since recovered and now they breed along the California coast.  At this time of the year only young males are on California’s beaches; apparently they come there to molt.  For “young” males, these were some really massive animals, many times the size of the harbor seals.  Every now and then a couple would rear up and start practice-sparring with each other, long snouts swinging in every direction.  One of the biggest ones was asleep practically right under the boardwalk.

A face only a mother could love.

But the day’s adventures weren’t over… to be continued!