Friday, February 17, 2012

Our January California Trip

  It has been four years since we have traveled to California in the winter. For some years we made this trip almost every winter since our younger son lives in Irvine, CA. I am not sure how 4 years have gone by without a trip there, but it probably relates to the number of other places in the world that we have visited in the last years. At any rate, we made it this year.  We usually have a need to escape the Wisconsin winter. However, this year we have not really had a winter -- just of snow here and there, and some days in the 40s, even with sun. However, the day before we were to leave, winter decided to appear. One to two inches of light snow prediction was changed to 7-8 inches of snow prediction when a dry arctic front joined up with a moisture laden front coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. When we heard this prediction change on Thursday morning we quickly made reservations at the Airport Hilton in Chicago and called our limo driver to take us down to O'Hare on Thursday instead of Friday AM at 5:30 AM which had been our original intent. It was snowing for part of our drive down to O'Hare but we beat the worst of it. At O'Hare there were about 400 canceled flights on Thursday. By Friday morning the airport was cleaned out and our flight was on time but the freeways were a mess. We had made a very good decision and we made it out to CA easily. Click Read More to read about our route and see photos.

     We are in the habit of flying into LAX and renting a car; then heading north up Highway 1 along the coast. There are many little towns along the way that are interesting and beautiful. For example, in Pismo Beach, there is a small city park where the Pacific flyway of Monarch butterflies winter in the pine trees. This is not as large a  gathering of butterflies as that which occurs in Mexico but it is still impressive. They are hanging in large groups from the branches and on warm days some are flitting around. And some are mating. On weekends there is often a docent in the park who can teach you a lot about the butterflies. But on other days, there are educational billboards that fill you in.
     Santa Barbara and further north, San Luis Obispo are larger cities that have interesting sites to see, such as original old missions, and museums and coastlines.
      However, our destination is usually the Central Coast and Paso Robles and Morro Bay. On the second weekend in January there is a festival in both places which coincides with our interests. Paso Robles (Pass of the Oaks) is the center of an up and coming wine region. There are a few large wineries such as J. Lohr, and Meridien and many small boutique wineries here. In fact we have a distant cousin through my husband's mother's side of the family who is half owner of one of these wineries, Tobin James Winery. We always stop there.

 But there are also wine events on this particular weekend. One event is called Esprit du Vin and this year hosted a wonderful tasting on Saturday night at  Vina Robles Winery, a new one with a gorgeous tasting space. Our CA son and his girl friend came up to join us here and we spent the afternoon Saturday relaxing on the  patios surrounding the wineries, and enjoyed the tasting together in the evening. Then we went to Bistro Laurent in downtown Paso for dinner. This restaurant has been a local favorite of ours; we went for the chef's choice menu and were surprised by wonderful blendings of foods and wines. On Sunday our youngsters joined the Far Out Winery tour that also occurs on this weekend, featuring many of the boutique wineries on the west side of Paso Robles. This includes several boutique wineries that are wining all kinds of awards. One of those is Justin Winery which makes some reserve cabernet sauvignons that are beating the Bordeaux blends head to head in France.

St. Lucia foothills and distant  Morro Bay, Pacific Ocean

Vina Robles Winery, site of Saturday wine tasting.
      The other festival that occurs on this same second weekend in January is a major Birdwatching Festival centered in Morro Bay, over on the Pacific coast. We have signed up for this festival in the past even though my husband is not so much a birder. Being signed up for both the wine and the birding events requires a 40 mile jaunt over the Santa Lucia Range Coastal Mountains on Hwy 46, (Eric Seastrand Memorial Hwy, or Green Valley Rd), a very picturesque drive, but not one that should be undertaken hurriedly or under the influence of tasting those wonderful cabernets and zinfandels in the Paso area. One event we have participated in during past trips was an evening tour of Hearst Castle to see the several species of bats that reside there. Under the auspices of the Morro Bay Birdwatching Festival docents who have the keys to the Castle, we could not only learn about the bats, but we could pick some of the rooms including the wine cellar and visit them without any restrictions. That was a great evening several years ago. This year we did not sign up for the Birding Festival but we ran into the birders and through their guidance I still managed to add several life birds to my list, one of them an arctic loon, which has only been sighted 6 times in California. He was diving for fish in a small pool along the coast, right under the Highway 1bridge over the San Simeon Creek. My husband has learned to enjoy photographing the larger birds that we see, and this loon was a great photo op, so accessible, and totally ignoring all the snapping cameras on the shore of the pond.

Arctic loon, San Simeon Creek, CA
Elephant seal rookery, Point Pedras Blancas, CA
       Another almost secret point of interest along the coast is Point Pedras Blancas Beach just south of the Lighthouse, about 17 miles south of Green Valley Road, and south of Cambria and San Simeon. Since the early 1990s the elephant seals have used this beach as a rookery. Their numbers have been steadily increasing. The females come here to birth their pups and nurse them for a couple months. The males come to develop a harem of females with which to mate if they are dominant males, and the younger subordinate males come to try to sneak a mating here and there. These behaviors of these huge 2 ton sea mammals is fascinating. My husband and I can walk up and down along the bluff overlooking this active beach for a couple hours taking pictures and just enjoying the antics of these animals. The Friends of the Elephant Seals is a foundation that has raised enough money to make a parking lot and some educational signs here and on many days the volunteers from this organization are present to educate as well. For further information, see this website:
Dominant male in center of his harem

Subordinate male caught trying to steal a female

Mother nursing her black pup

Mating going on here!
     On Monday we left the Central Coastal region of CA and started driving directly east across the state. On the map I found Kern National Wildlife Refuge that was just slightly out of our way as we headed toward Bakersfield. We felt we had time to make this little jog in our journey. Kern NWR is all that remains of a large inland fresh water lake that existed here about 100 years ago. Climate and water usage has changed and the lake is all but gone. Only a group of diked impoundments remain here which are managed with varying water levels to simulate the dry and the rainy seasons in this southern end of San Joaquin Valley. During winter, there are large groups of wintering water fowl and waders here. The refuge has a 6.5 drivable road around the banks of the various ponds so that the birding is very easy. My husband could also photograph various flocks which he enjoyed. I didn't identify any new birds to me but I was able to identify several birds on my own that had only been pointed out to me in the past by experts. This was a pleasant interlude.
Black necked stilts, Kern NWR

Red shouldered hawk, Kern NWR

White fronted goose, Kern NWR
      We decided to drive a little different route this time, around the end of the mountains east of Bakersfield. This route took us through Red Rock Canyon State Park. The beautiful red formations are right along the highway. They were quite attractive to drive through. In many other states, this would be a National Park or National Monument, but the state of California has so many magnificent National Parks such as Yosemite, Sequoia, etc, that this one is only a State Park.  Here are some photos of the namesake for this park ie  Red Rocks.

      Then back on the road to our next destination which I will write about in a later post: Death Valley National Park. 

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