A Travellerspoint blog

15 Epic California Adventures of 2015

View Southern & Central California - November & December 2015 on rachwells's travel map.

I know, I know - I am writing about a series of travel adventures that happened six months ago. Why did it take me so long to finally write and publish these words? Keep reading, and you will understand why.

Two trips. 16 days. 644 photos. 1,376 miles (back and forth) by car, by train, by bus, and sometimes on foot, passing through 11 counties, which resulted in at least 15 adventures. That's right - It's not really an exaggeration to say that I explored all over the place throughout Southern and Central California in November and December 2015, including with my sister/best friend/travel-partner-in-crime, Rebecca. Here it goes…

Day 1 - Backpacking in L.A.
A few changes of clothes, a small bag of travel-size toiletries, an iPad & camera, and a book I purchased at the airport - I arrived in L.A. with everything I needed for the next week-and-a-half strapped to my back. It felt great to be home and away from home all at the same time. Simultaneously free & ready to go anywhere, while also feeling excited to be back in one of my favorite places. And in that moment, from my perfect perch in Barnsdall Park gazing out at the Hollywood Sign, the Griffith Observatory, and my beloved neighborhood hangout Los Feliz, I just felt happy and grateful to be there.

Searching for an Abandoned Zoo in Griffith Park
This is exactly the type of thing I love to come across in my travels. When I found out that the structural remains of the Old L.A. Zoo is something you can actually visit within L.A.'s lovely, monstrously huge Griffith Park, I knew I had to go. So one morning after breakfast, I randomly decided to try to find it…on foot, without a map in hand. Not the smartest idea. I got lost on the eastern edge of the park, but hey, it was a nice, scenic detour.

Red Carpet Sneak Peek in Hollywood
After browsing the Amoeba Music store, I walked to nearby Hollywood & Highland to get a cup of coffee and to window shop. From inside one of the stores, I looked out onto Hollywood Boulevard, and there I saw a carpet in the middle of the street…a red carpet. I tried inconspicuously to figure out what was going on, and more importantly, for whom. Upon closer look, I saw the crew dismantling the set up, so whatever the event was, it had already passed. Nonetheless, it was exciting to see the partitions and the flurry of activity up close.

Culture and Art in Downtown L.A.
The last time I spent any time in Downtown L.A. (besides tons of train layovers in Union Station), I was in college doing research in the Garment District for a class project. This time, I was surprised by how much cool, fun stuff I came across in the city's core. First stop: The Last Bookstore, which is self-described as the biggest new & used books and record store in the state…it is quite massive and impressive. There's even a book tunnel/archway upstairs. After seeing lots of advertisement signs around town, I spontaneously decided to visit the brand new Broad museum, which features some incredible contemporary art…and massive lines to get inside; I lucked out as a walk-in, but I strongly recommend making a free advance reservation. At the (extremely crowded) Grand Central Market, I got a good cup of coffee, and I also passed a few other notable landmarks, including Angels Flight, the Bradbury Building and the L.A. Times office building.

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Diving into the (Chilly) Ocean in Santa Barbara
Still at a safe distance close to the shallow shore, I momentarily surrendered, allowing the salty waves to rock me back and forth. It was an amazing feeling to enjoy the crisp air and gregarious sunny skies of the lovely Santa Barbara coast. After a nice day at the beach, exploring the shops at nearby State Street, and eating a really good Brazilian brunch, my sister and I headed back towards L.A., saw a movie, ate dinner (barely awake at this point) and then crashed at her place in the Valley.

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Seeking Salvation near the Salton Sea
The very next day... My sister and I drove 200 miles southeast to see an art installation deep in the Southern California desert…almost to Mexico. You drive for miles and miles, and then Salvation Mountain is just there - like a mirage you can't believe really exists in such a remote location. The bright colors, the tunnels and secret passageways - it's quite cool, no matter your religious views. Until my sister reminded me, I had forgotten that Salvation Mountain makes a cameo in the movie Into The Wild. (Of course I re-watched the film when I got home.)

Holiday Decor and Palm Trees near Miracle Mile
Located south of West Hollywood and east of Beverly Hills - when I visited this area a few years ago, I saw the La Brea Tar Pits and the Craft and Folk Art Museum (which I highly recommend). This time, I wandered around the ginormous L.A. County Museum of Art (also known as LACMA), which is instantly recognizable on Wilshire Blvd when you see the dense maze of old-timey street lamps outside of the front entrance. Also, I had a feeling that the nearby shopping center The Grove would have some pretty holiday decorations, which of course it did. Thus, I got treated to a nice mixture of art viewing, early dinner at the nearby Farmers Market, and window shopping.

Full Circle - Barnsdall Park to Union Station
Back where I started...and also moving forward into the next phase of my journey. With a cup of hot coffee in hand, I lazily watched the remaining hints of daylight wane into the twinkling night skies of Hollywood. It was my last evening in L.A. for this particular trip, but I knew I would be back in only one month. It's a strange, magnetic pull - the relationship I have with Los Angeles. I always feel compelled to come back, and I love wandering around, within and to/from like a homely tourist. And round and round, the cycle continues. The next morning, like I've done so many times prior (and always immensely enjoy), I ventured to Union Station, where I boarded the train to lovely San Diego.

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Ghosts of Old Town
Do the shoes really shift positioning around the room? Did you hear an unexplained sound across the room, or feel an extra presence close by? A historic institution preserved in Old Town San Diego, the Whaley House is also the sight of alleged hauntings. Not just a private residence, the house also once served numerous town functions, including a court house and the first commercial theatre in San Diego. I loved viewing the 19th century home decor up close, and the friendly docents (dressed in period clothing) are very welcoming and approachable, happy to answer any questions.

Green Line Trolley Tour of San Diego
After visiting the Whaley House, I walked around the rest of Old Town San Diego, including stopping for lunch at Casa Guadalajara (because guacamole enchiladas is always a given) and browsing the colorful shops at Bazaar del Mundo. Next stop, cappuccino and a piece of tiramisu in Little Italy. Lastly, I did a quick sprint along Seaport Village where I got to see the lovely shoreline, the ships, and the touristy shops. All of these sights easily accessible on one trolley line - it was awesome.

Brunch in Pasadena - (Back in L.A., one month later)
Conundrum: What's the best way to spend a free day in L.A. when there's a chance of rain? Here's the solution I came up with: Old Town Pasadena. Accessible by Metro, filled with lots of shopping on Colorado Blvd, and walking distance to nearby museums, I knew I would keep entertained and have a convenient means of shelter from the elements. Though I love my usually fast-paced method of sightseeing, the inclement weather on this particular day provided a nice excuse to slow down and enjoy one of life's most amazing treasures: Brunch. Sitting at a modest table near the window, I slowly sipped my large coffee and savored every delicious bite of the Apple Walnut Cheese Omelet at Aux Delices, a wonderful French bakery/cafe.

Road Trip 101: Driving up the Coast
With tunes, coffee and Christmas candy, my sister and I embarked on one of our ultimate "Adventure Day" excursions. Actually, this particular journey spanned two days on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day driving up the 101 Freeway and Pacific Coast Hwy (PCH) with the aim to reach Big Sur.

Christmas Eve: Antique Shopping in Cambria
Halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, Cambria is a very cute little town near the Hearst Castle. The moody Central California coast dumped plenty of rain on us periodically throughout the afternoon, but the cloudy, damp, cool atmosphere added a strangely comforting feeling to the surroundings. After eating lunch at a nice restaurant (next to a much appreciated warm fireplace, by the way), we walked around the small shopping district, including one really huge antique store where we found some delightfully strange treasures. An awesome way to end the day, we checked into our hotel room (with a spot-on ocean view!) in the nearby town San Simeon (which is cheaper to stay, by the way). After walking across the street to spend some time at the beach, we returned to our hotel room, ate dinner and watched the looped TV re-runs of A Christmas Story.

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Cows and Seals near the Central California Coast
Just a few miles north of San Simeon, there is an outlook post where you can view the seals waddling along the shore. And if you turn your head 180 degrees…you see the cows grazing in the grass on the other side of the highway. Seals on one side of the road…and cows on the other. It's a funny visual.

Christmas Morning in Big Sur
We reached Big Sur early in the morning before the crowds of other tourists swarmed. First stop, the Overlook Trail in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which has a spectacular, cliffside panoramic view of the vibrant turquoise ocean and dramatic coastline. Also, I will never forget exchanging Christmas presents/stockings (items we picked up for each other at antique shops at previous points of our journey) in the parking lot at the nearby Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and then walking around amongst the beautiful redwoods. We kept driving northward, debating where/when to turn around, and of course, realizing that we were only 120 miles from San Francisco. I was the party pooper who nixed the spontaneous idea of staying another night on the road so that we could spend time in the Bay Area (because I had a flight to catch from LAX back to Dallas). Instead, we drove all the way back to L.A. from Salinas and had Korean BBQ for dinner.

Posted by rachwells 19:20 Comments (2)

Burning Old Man Gloom in Santa Fe

He stands 50 feet tall, his eyes glow in a creepy shade of green, he moans and flails his arms back & and forth, and every year, the city of Santa Fe burns him to the ground as the kick-off to a major festivity.

Since I arrived in Santa Fe a few days ago, the whole town has been buzzing in excited anticipation of the 91st annual Burning of Zozobra, which is like New Year's Eve, meets Independence Day, with a Southwest flair. Whatever troubles you have, it all gets ceremoniously consumed by flames, literally, because attendees can add their divorce decrees, or other types of written records to be destroyed with Old Man Gloom.

Along with 30,000 other people, I walked up to Fort Marcy Park last night for the big event. It was 55 degrees and raining (appropriately gloomy weather), but the audience, including myself, brought jackets and umbrellas to keep warm and dry. After some pre-show entertainment, the stadium lights went down and the audience shouted "Burn him! Burn him!".

Holding an umbrella in my left hand and my camera in my right hand, I watched the giant puppet protest its impending fate, moving its limbs up and down, as lights, fireworks and fire danced around him. Then, he started glowing yellow from the head, and flames quickly spread across its body. It was quite stunning to see so much fire consume and so quickly change the shape of such a massive figure. As the last of Old Man Gloom dissipated, a spectacular display of fireworks enveloped the night sky as the audience cheered.

It was one of the coolest events I ever attended, and the timing could not be more perfect. I know and appreciate that I have many blessings in my life, but that said, I've also gone through the most difficult times of my life seven years ago and again in the past two years. I know I'm a resilient person anyway, but now I also have a fun, positive memory to associate with the act of letting go of the past and moving forward in life. Sometimes ceremonies can provide a helpful pathway to healing, a means to put the gloom to rest. (Literally, I don't think I can stay stressed or upset for very long from now on when I remember the time I watched a giant puppet burn up.)

If you are visiting Santa Fe in early September, the Burning of Zozobra is a must-do event. One tip: After the event ends, don't even try to leave immediately. There are only two narrow exit points from the field back towards the town center, and it is not worth getting in tight quarters with overly-anxious people just to get out a couple minutes earlier. Instead, find an open spot on the field, and enjoy the people watching. Seeing skater dudes slam dancing to Pharrell Williams' song "Happy" kept me plenty entertained. There's also carnival-like booths along the perimeters of the fence. When I finally walked back towards the Plaza with the tail end of the crowd, it also was amusing hearing various excited partyers shouting "Fiesta!", which illicited more drunken shouts and chants.

What a fun way to kick off my first full day of my current trip to Santa Fe! It's off to a great start!

Posted by rachwells 21:44 Comments (0)

At the Intersection of Two Wild Rivers in New Mexico


Thinking about my past two days in Taos and the surrounding Northern New Mexico area, I can think of no better metaphor than the beautiful outlook point at the Wild Rivers Visitors Center, where you can view the meeting spot of the Rio Grande River (which famously extends to my native Texas) and the Red River, which is the namesake of a nearby ski town.

How I Got Here
My whirlwind adventure began at 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning with a shuttle to the Dallas Love Field Airport, in order to catch a 7:40 a.m. flight to Albuquerque, followed by another shuttle to Santa Fe where I rented a car to drive northward towards Taos and Red River. (I've had similarly scheduled travel days in the past, including my recent trip to New Orleans, so don't worry, I know what I am doing, thanks to a little caffeine and lots of adrenaline/excitement.)

Big City Girl, Mountain Driving
Being a native of big 'ole Dallas, which is flatter than a pancake, I initially worried a little bit about mountain driving. I've done it before, and I knew I could do it. For me, doing advanced research on various routes and driving conditions always helps me feel more prepared and at ease before I go on a big driving trip. Thus, I ended up taking the "river road" (NM 68) to get to Taos, which had its moments of switchbacks and elevation changes, but I did fine and it was not scary, even for a nervous driver like myself. One quick tip: I quickly figured out that if a car behind you wants to go faster, you have two options: #1) find a safe spot to briefly pullover to the side of the road until the traffic passes (and there are a good number of these spots, even scenic ones!), or #2) if you are in a spot where you cannot easily/safely pullover, just keep going and the car behind you will pass when they are ready.

Texans in Taos
Meeting up with my Uncle Joe, also a native Texan, who recently moved to Red River, he very kindly showed me around his new hometown and surrounding area. Starting at the Taos Pueblo, we took a guided tour (which I highly recommend, by the way), which was led by a young man who had spent part of his childhood living inside the pueblo. We learned about the structural upkeep, how they govern themselves and other day-to-day customs of their lifestyle.

After the tour of the Taos Pueblo and exploring the premises, Uncle Joe and I did a couple scenic drives, including part of the Enchanted Circle and the Taos Upper Valley. The next day, we went back into Taos, visiting the Millicent Rogers Museum, Kit Carson Home & Museum, and shopping near the Taos Plaza, followed by a delicious lunch at a locally-raved restaurant called Orlando's.

Red River
And of course, I can't forget to mention the lovely town of Red River. Yes, a lot of people come to Northern New Mexico to visit Santa Fe and Taos, but there's much more to see and do outside of these two towns. A very small mountain town with a twang, Red River has friendly people, good food and activities in both summer and winter. (I think I remember seeing a zip line near the ski lift, which of course I made a mental note for next time.) My uncle and I had a great dinner at local restaurant called Texas Reds Steakhouse. I also can't forget seeing a deer cross while we were driving near my uncle's neighborhood. Clearly, I'm not in Dallas anymore.

What animals do you see at Wild Rivers?
Speaking of animal sightings...remembering back to the Wild Rivers Visitors Center, there was a white board where visitors could write what kinds of animals they spotted in the area. If you read closely on the top left portion of the board, one person wrote..."bear". Yikes!

Up Next
What's next on my agenda after hanging out in Red River and Taos? Driving down the "river road", the next leg of my current journey is a solo adventure in Santa Fe. More updates to come!

Posted by rachwells 22:52 Comments (1)

Strange Trails to Little Rock, Arkansas

This looks familiar, I sighed to myself while approaching the 141A exit from I-30 to downtown Little Rock after a six hour drive. The torrential downpour of rain snarled menacingly as my car's windshield wipers frantically whooshed back and forth at top speed. Rain is a complicated, recurring theme in my recent travels - both the reason for this current trip and why it almost got derailed.

Here is the backstory: Two months ago, I missed a concert at home in Dallas because there were tornado watches and other severe weather warnings all across North Texas, and I did not want to risk getting stuck in a bad situation. I was so bummed, so annoyed by the setback that I decided to do something about it. I looked up the band Lord Huron's tour schedule, and after researching travel deals, I decided to catch the show in Little Rock, Arkansas, which is only 300 miles from where I live and a place I never had visited. I love going to concerts, and I love to travel. It's a wonder I never traveled somewhere specifically to see a show! I felt excited, but I also kept quiet about this trip because I worried about jinxing it - after all, what if the weather acted up again? Well…

There were gorgeous, sunny skies all day long, all week long, actually, until the last five miles of my journey to Little Rock. I could barely see the lane lines on the freeway because of the water drops buoyantly ricocheting back up towards to clouds from where they came. By some miracle, I kept my cool and took the correct turns off the freeway, making it safely to my destination. Oddly, I think that all the rain that I experienced three weeks ago while visiting New Orleans actually prepared me for exactly this moment. Literally, I even brought with me the travel-size umbrella that purchased in Crescent City, and it came in handy as I walked along Little Rock's Markham Avenue in the cute River Market District, which has fun places to eat and shop. Yes, I had a total deja vu moment when I realized that once again I was exploring a beautiful city on foot in my soaking sneakers.

Two hours after eating dinner at an Italian restaurant called Iriana's, I walked two blocks from my hotel to the Revolution Music Room, and I got to enjoy an amazing concert. Lord Huron's songs have made frequent appearances on my music playlists when I have taken a road trip in the past year or so. But it is a different experience to watch the band play those songs live and to simultaneously reminisce the travel memories that you associate with those tunes. Like driving through the desert on your way to California while listening to "Ends of the Earth", or enjoying random road trips in East Texas with your sister, who was the one who introduced you to the band's music in the first place.

And now I have a new, cool travel story to tell - about the time that I embarked on a crazy 300 mile solo road trip for concert redemption after inclement weather gave me a frustrating, but ultimately amazing journey. I guess the rain, in spite of how much it drives me crazy sometimes, isn't always such a bad thing after all.

Posted by rachwells 21:09 Comments (1)

Drenched but Happy in New Orleans' City Park


Okay, granted, there were some grey clouds in the sky, but I thought I was 10 minutes away from the weather clearing up enough so that I could kayak in the Big Lake, overlooking the New Orleans Museum of Art's outdoor Sculpture Garden, the St. John Bayou, and the rest of the gorgeous park. As I was walking around admiring the scenery and taking photos, I felt a few drops, and then all at once, a torrential downpour of rain. As I sprinted across the park, only one panicked thought kept streaming through my mind: Camera. Camera. Camera.

The one day where I did not bring my rain jacket (because I read there was only a 20% chance of rain) ended up being the one time that my photo taking gadget was left completely exposed to the elements. Reaching a nearby, indoor park restaurant called Morning Call, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I successfully was able to turn on my camera, which must have survived just long enough in my semi-rain-resistant travel purse during the quarter-of-a-mile dash to dry shelter. My favorite Edgar Allan Poe t-shirt was not so lucky. I was almost completely soaked, from head to squeaky shoes, which gave me a good laugh when I saw my reflection in the mirror while freshening up in the restroom.


After getting over the initial shock about the sudden change in weather, I sat down at a small table near the counter, and I ordered a bowl of jambalaya with a large cafe au lait. Hey, bad weather is not a setback - it just means it is time for a nice, relaxing coffee break in my world! Thunder boomed and downpours of rain cascaded heavily outside across the park. I just took my time eating my delicious food. The waitress very kindly and thoughtfully waited until I finished my main meal before bringing out the hot, fresh beignets that I ordered for dessert. Delicious.

During my late lunch, I reflected on how I spent the earlier part of my day exploring City Park, which at 1,300 acres, is among the largest city parks in the country. The breezy palm trees, the grand live oaks, the Spanish Moss and the bayou, the lush botanical gardens…what a gorgeous place it is, and I got to see quite a bit of it while the bright, beautiful blue skies charmed the amazing scenery of the park.

Not too long after I finished my meal in the restaurant, the water works turned off outside, leaving the sky in a shadowy overcast. Deciding not to take my chances, I took the next streetcar back to the French Quarter where I was staying. It already had been a good, successful day of exploration, and I did not want to give the weather any funny ideas about surprising me again…even worse, during mid-paddle. (Yes, I wanted to kayak that day on the lake, but it is a good thing if I now have an excuse to someday return to New Orleans to have more fun!)

Based on my limited amount of time in New Orleans, I would describe the city's weather this way: There is a 40% chance that the weather could change at any time, so be prepared. Lesson learned. The next day, I bought a travel-size umbrella and I tied my rain jacket around my waist, even if it was 85 degrees outside. My exploring plans for the rest of the trip (and my camera) were not going to be dampened any inclement weather.

Posted by rachwells 21:50 Comments (0)

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