Hi there! I’m Mark, a tour director, interpretive guide, and wilderness first responder. I help conservation travel organizations with ecotrip marketing and program management. For fun, I develop and lead experiential trips in California and the Pacific Northwest. My passion is getting people outside – let’s go exploring!
The 129-foot Burney Falls in northern California is one of the state’s most beautiful waterfalls.
The water does not simply pour over the top, rather the porous volcanic rock in the area encourages a dispersal of the water, resulting is multiple cascades that leap from the rock’s face along the entire height of blue and white waterfall.
The most popular vantage point for viewing is from the base of the falls, but this area can be crowded in the summer as heat-weary visitors find refuge in the coolness.
A short loop trail allows visitors to explore both sides of the creek above and below the falls. However, if you are up for a larger hike try hiking a couple of miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, which passes next to the falls.
The campground can be very crowded in the summertime, and the visitors, not the most quiet. If possible, try visiting during a down season or mid-week.
A whitewashed adobe fort sits within the busy, modern center of Sacramento, California. It is known as “Sutter’s Fort’ and is frequented by children learning about California’s pioneering history. But, it is not just for kids; older explorers can discover a thing or two as well.
The fort is named after John Sutter an immigrant from Europe who created a massive agricultural empire in California’s fertile central valley in the 1840’s. For roughly ten years he controlled all business interests and shaped the activities within the region. In a way, he was California’s first business entrepreneur. But, in 1848 that changed when gold was discovered at one of the mills that he owned along the American River; ‘Gold Fever’ was out. Within several years tens of thousands of gold seekers overran his lands, mills, and businesses. Ironically, Sutter became a pauper in the land where he once single-handedly ruled. It is in interesting chapter of the American West.
A reconstruction of his fort remains today. Outside, the fort has thick, adobe walls that are several stories high. Inside, dirt pathways guide folks around fire pits, canvas tents and wagons. All of the rooms are well stocked with artifacts and exhibits that help to tell the story from that time.
Check the calendar for events and special times when visitors can see modern folks who have dressed the part and provide a glimpse into life of the pioneers.
Unleash your inner train-loving kid at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento, California.
I could easily spend another afternoon exploring over 20 restored locomotives and railroad cars, but this is more than just a place about railroads, it tells the story of how trains transformed America.
After purchasing tickets you enter a large room with an impressive exhibit about the Transcontinental Railroad. This is an immersive, life-sized diorama that literally pulls the visitor inside to reflect on the arduous task of building a railroad over the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains. At the center of the experience is a beautiful locomotive. In front of the engine is a tunnel – a masterwork of art – that plays on the eye and appears to continue into the snowy and cold mountains.
After this exhibit is a second immense room filled with trains and cars – all restored. Woven between these great machines are smaller exhibits that give glimpses and perspectives of how trains influenced a growing free-society in the United States. The exhibits also look at the daily life of train workmen.
My daughter enjoyed a restored sleeper car, featured as part of the “Golden Age” of rail travel. Inside, the car was darkened, it rocked and swayed, complete with rail noise and passing light signals through the windows. It really did feel like being in a passenger car at night.
The roadhouse is filled with monster-sized locomotives and railcars. Don’t miss out on the postal car, where you can see the organization involved with delivering mail to remote communities along the rail line.
Upstairs is a children’s play area, and a sizable model train layout complete with bridges, tunnels and lots of trains for those who want to be eight year’s old again. Make sure to explore the adjoining area, where you walk over a train trestle and get a bird’s eye view of the entire museum.
Organization: Grand Opening Camping Festival at Little Basin
Date: April 20, 2102
Trip Facilitator: Mark Hougardy
In the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains is a beautiful area of redwoods that most people have never seen. Until recently the area was a retreat for employees of Hewlett-Packard. The area called, Little Basin is a new acquisition of the California state park system that has been annexed by Big Basin Redwoods State Park, yet run as a separate entity. In April of 2012 Little Basin, held a Grand Opening Camping Festival. I organized and facilitated a “Camping 101” event. Here are some photos:
Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is a diamond of natural beauty along California’s central coast.
This beautiful place offers a treasure of colors, dramatic landscapes, green forests, rugged coves, weathered trees, and grey fog to brilliant sunlight. It can be easy to see birds of prey overhead, flittering butterflies, quiet deer grazing, or the heads of sea lions and harbor seals popping up from the surf.
The air is clean here and provides the visitor a measure of restoration.
This wonderful place does have a strict limit on the number of visitors at any one time, limiting visitors to 450 people, so not to cause unacceptable damage to this great setting.
The summertime can be very busy here and in the neighboring town of Carmel, sometimes causing traffic to become bottlenecked on the Coast Highway 1. Plan to arrive early for the best opportunities to see animals and avoid any late afternoon crowds.
If you can visit in the wintertime or spring when rains have restored the landscape.
The images in this short video were taken on the Winter Solstice when just a handful of visitors were on the trails and the low-angled light from the sun offered the grandest views and colors.
To learn more visit:
The Point Lobos Foundation
California State Parks
The Little Basin Cabins and Campground is a hidden location and perfect for escaping from the busy rush of Silicon Valley.
This former Hewlett Packard employee retreat is now part of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California and can be enjoyed by the public.
Our car pulled into the campsite where dappled light dotted an open space underneath massive redwood trees. A Jay stood like a sentry on the picnic table. We unloaded our supplies and scouted out two spaces for our tents. The Jay hopped into a tree and watched us closely. Our daughter explored the immediate area and found lost treasures of stick forts hidden among fallen redwoods. We pitched our tents, stored our gear and explored the larger campground.
Little Basin offers 12 cabins and 38 well-spaced campsites among the redwoods for families who need some time to camp, play and explore. The park offers trails, and more developed facilities such as a children’s playground, group mess hall and sports field. Each campsite includes a fire-ring and picnic table. Shower facilities are also available in the rest rooms. Ice and wood is available at the camp office.
As the sun lowered on the horizon we prepared our fire. My ten-year old daughter is granted the privilege of being the keeper of the fire, a responsibility she takes great pride in. Soon a bed of coals was ready to cook our dinner and we placed our foil pockets with veggies and meat in the coals.
As the sun lowered further the last lances of light shot between the great trees creating well defined walls between shadows and light. The sun disappeared, it was dark on the forest floor but overhead the clouds were colored with pink, red and purple.
We tore into our cooked pockets and enjoyed a cornucopia of flavors, it was a simple meal, but we relished it greatly.
In the evening the temperature lowered and we donned our jackets. The light from the fire illuminated our faces and the trees immediately around us. We talked some, but mostly just stared into the flames and let our thoughts wander. It was very relaxing.
Everyone was tired and we felt that it was very late. Someone announced the time, it was only 10:00 P.M. The TV show that we might have watched at home was not missed.
At night we heard some chattering of raccoons outside, they were checking to see if we left some food out, we did not, and they left empty handed. Later, something stepped through the leaves, carefully and deliberate, it was a deer. In the early morning soft rain pelted the outside of our tents and at one point it rained heavy for about ten minutes.
As morning broke we woke and enjoyed the quiet before others started their day. It was a few minutes of precious, even sacred time in the cool and stillness.
The fire was restarted and the camp stove turned on to heat some water in our old, beat-up, blue enamel pot. Soon we had water for coffee. We stood around the small fire drinking coffee and chased off any chill that might have been in the air.
The day began again and life was again renewed. A Jay, possibly the same one we saw the day before, sat like a sentry on a nearby branch and watched us closely.
Little Basin is a new addition to Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Boulder Creek, California. In this time of recession, Little Basin, is an experiment of sorts by the State of California and conservation organizations to allow Little Basin to support itself by being self-sustaining as a revenue generator while providing outdoor education opportunities to the public.
To learn more about Little Basin visit – http://littlebasin.org/camp/little-basin
To learn more about Big Basin Redwoods State Park visit- http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=540
A visit to Año Nuevo State Park along California’s central coast is a must for active families.
Seals can be seen at Año Nuevo throughout the year, but in the wintertime the beaches are packed as males battle for mates and females give birth to pups. The size of this gathering makes it one of the largest mainland breeding colonies for northern elephant seals in the world. What makes this place especially fun is that visitors can get up-close with these amazing creatures.
Elephant seals are curious to behold; at first glance they look like giant sausages on the beach, when they move it is similar to the way Jello moves when giggled. The males have large elephantine-like noses which gives the seals their name. Some of the males are huge – they can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and be 15 feet in length! If you are curious how heavy 5,000 pounds are, it is roughly the same weight as 16 football linebackers! These giant seals might look slow moving but when provoked these undulating masses of blubber can move a speedy 25 feet in several seconds.
Possibly the most unusual feature about elephant seals are their bellowing vocalizations. At best, it sounds like a deep guttural burp mixed with low-frequency popping noises. You can hear moms, pups, and males here.
The seals spend much of their life at sea traveling great distances, sometimes swimming an astounding 5,000 miles before resting on land.
The elephant seals were once thought to be extinct. The seals have a lot of fat on their bodies, and at one time their fat was a hot commodity as a fuel source for oil lamps. In the 1800’s as whale populations diminished from over hunting a new source of prevalent, easy-to-obtain oil was sought. The large, slow moving (slow at least on land) elephant seals were an easy harvest. Their population soon plummeted and the seals were thought to be extinct on the California coast. Fortunately, a small group survived in Mexico; this population, thought to be less than 100 individuals, was eventually protected and their population slowly grew.
In the winter months, primarily in January and February, the males battle for control of harems and mating rights. When two males challenge each other they loudly slam their massive bodies into one another sometimes raking teeth across their opponents body. It is common to see males with bloody scars and lacerations on their heads and fronts.
During December through March access to the breeding area is only available through guided walks. These docent led groups consist of 10 to 20 people and are led every quarter hour. You can easily make reservations online. On the day of your appointment check in at the visitor center to confirm your arrival. Then make your way to the staging area, which is about a three-quarter mile walk. At the staging area you will be introduced to a docent who will guide you into the protected breeding area. This walk takes about an hour and a half. Afterwards, enjoy a walk back to the visitor center, or explore a nearby beach and trails.
The docent lead tours are held rain or shine. Bring layered clothes, a sun hat (or rain gear) and plenty of water.
Año Nuevo is located a 45 minutes drive south of Half Moon Bay, California.
To learn more and make reservations: http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=523
Winter can be a wonderful time to visit Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California.
We arrived at 10 a.m. (December 29th) and parked across from the old log building known as Big Basin Headquarters. The temperature outside was 44 degrees and the damp air was crisp. The morning clouds had dissipated and sunlight streaked through the forest canopy onto the ground below.
Surrounding the headquarters were goliaths – redwood trees that were 4, 5, and 6 feet across. One tree appeared to be 8 or 9 feet at the base. Even though I have visited here many times I am always impressed by the size and grandeur of these magnificent trees. But, today my family was here to see other sights – three magnificent waterfalls: Berry Creek Falls, Silver Falls, and Golden Cascade.
We made sure our water bottles were full before crossing over Waddell Creek and onto the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail that would lead us to the waterfalls. The winter rains had made the forest green with color. The forest was quiet, peaceful and restorative.
After an hour or so of walking through the redwoods, the sounds of rushing water could be heard. The creek next to us, Kelly Creek, was alive with water and small cascades. Everything around was green and moist. The redwoods towered above us. The only sounds we heard were our breathing and our footsteps on the ground made gentle gushing noises as we walked on the damp trail. The cleanliness of the air was a joy to breathe! Something small at the side of the trail moved ahead of us, it was a newt that was slowly traversing the fallen logs and fern fronds.
At the Timms Creek trail junction, a fallen redwood had created a natural bridge (shown). We rested and played here for a few minutes then continued on. Soon, a rock overlook along the trail let us peer down onto Kelly Creek – a myriad of small white cascades dotted the creek, large brown boulders sat among ferns and broad-leafed plants and a color chart of green moss dotted the sides of trees.
The trail descended and crossed over a small footbridge. In a few minutes, we rounded a corner – ahead of us were the Berry Creek Falls.
These 65-foot falls drop vertically – plunging abruptly into a valley of redwoods and moss. To say this is ‘picturesque’ is an understatement.
We enjoyed the view then continued to a viewing platform about three-quarters the height of the falls for a direct look (shown is the view from the platform). For ten minutes we had this view all to ourselves. Then several other hikers arrived, they deserved the same tranquility we just enjoyed, so we moved on.
The trail continued upstream for about twenty minutes. Small cascades danced in the creek and gurgles of water made curious sounds as pools emptied over steep rocks. Here we saw a huge, bright yellow, banana slug about seven inches in length next to the trail. We had seen several banana slugs on the trail but this was by far the largest. The sound of falling water was coming from just up the trail.
Silver Falls began to appear through the redwoods. These falls were slightly hidden by the mass of trees, but it was easy to see the white and frothy ‘silvery’ water as it poured over the top and dropped a wonderful 60 feet or so into a pool below. A series of stairs on the trail wound up the side of the valley to the top of the falls. At the top was a single cable handrail (shown in the photo). The trail was a little slick so we proceeded with caution.
In just seconds we were at the Golden Cascade. These were actually two cascades; at the base was a vertical fall of about 15 feet, just above it was a much more impressive drop. I am not sure about the height, but for perspective notice the person in the photo (top right, wearing a red vest).
We enjoyed a well-deserved snack in this tranquil place then continued on our hike back to the car. Although it was an hour before sunset it was close to dark when we arrived at the parking area. These are some deep valleys and the trees are very, very tall. It can become dark quickly in the redwood forest.
I like to visit between rainstorms when the weather grants a two to three-day rest between showers allowing the trails to harden up a little. Seeing these waterfalls in the winter (and spring) are spectacular. The summer is a great time to visit too, but the streams have less water and sometimes can become just a trickle of water as fall approaches.
On our wintertime day hike, we passed only 14 people on the trail! The loop took us about 6 hours to complete and required roughly 11 miles of hiking – it is strenuous. This is a hike for families with older kids.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park was established in 1902 and was California’s first state park.
Big Basin is located a one hour drive from Saratoga, California and roughly half an hour from the town of Boulder Creek. The entrance fee is $10.
To continue your own explorations of Big Basin Redwoods State Park visit:
Families can find solace and fun along the rocky shoreline, living dunes and restful lodging at Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California.
The word Asilomar means ‘refuge by the sea’ and this beautiful place represents its name well.
The State Beach area offers many sandy coves to explore, fascinating tidepools and rock bluffs. The two-lane Sunset Drive provides a number of car turn-outs for those wishing a quick look. However, to maximize the experience take the entire family out to explore the one-mile trail that hugs the shoreline. Do not be surprised to see the head of a sea lion or harbor seal popping to the surface looking inquisitively back at curious humans.
At the southern end of the trail visit a beautiful beach area, or cross the road to enjoy a half-mile meandering boardwalk through picturesque dunes. Immediately a visitor recognizes the dunes look different from other coastal areas; it does because only native plants grow in this protected area. Once the native plants that grew here were almost lost, but through many years of replanting and stewardship the dunes today are an ecological masterpiece of native plant restoration.
A forest of beautiful Monterey pine trees greets visitors as they exit the boardwalk. Here sits the conference center and grounds with: a lecture hall, meeting rooms, overnight lodging rooms, and dining facilities. These structures fit nicely into the landscape and are dotted throughout the trees. Many of the buildings were designed by the famed architect Julia Morgan; she embraced an architectural style “to bring people back in touch with nature, and thus restore balance, health, harmony and happiness.”
Deer are a common sight along the side paths at the conference center.
Brochures about the Coast Trail, the Living Dunes, and Julia Morgan’s Architecture can be obtained at the Front Desk of the conference center.
Sunset Drive can be very busy with sightseers during the summer and on weekends. The morning and sunset hours can be especially beautiful along the beach.
Reference: Julia Morgan’s Architecture Brochure
To learn more about Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds visit these web addresses: http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=566 http://www.visitasilomar.com/
Along California’s central coast is a wonderful family destination called Natural Bridges State Beach.
The park derives its name from naturally formed arches that were carved from the sand and mudstone cliffs. In the early 1900’s three arches were visible, but over the years wave action undercut the formations causing two of them to fall. The third, and last remaining arch is visible today (shown).
Most people think of summer as being the best time to visit the coast, but November can offer clear skies, warm sunshine, very comfortable temperatures, and beaches generally free of crowds – even on weekends. At noon on this weekend day only two-dozen people were visiting this 65 acre park.
But the park was being visited by hundreds of non-human visitors.
In just a quick five-minute walk inland were hundreds of monarch butterflies! A stroller accessible boardwalk near the visitors center leads to a monarch preserve hidden in a grove of eucalyptus trees. Here monarchs flit overhead and offer great opportunities for humans to see and photograph these beautiful butterflies. In the side photo is a winsome looking monarch that flitted down and landed near the boardwalk. An interpreter at the preserve said that an estimated fifteen hundred monarchs were currently visiting.
Every autumn, generally mid-October, the monarchs begin arriving at Natural Bridges State Beach. This is just one of several hundred locations along California’s coast where the monarchs stay for the winter. The coast offers them shelter from the cold inland temperatures of winter.
Especially fascinating is the monarchs arrive at the coast after traveling hundreds, even thousands of miles.
North America is home to two-distinct populations of monarchs. The continental divide along the Rocky Mountains provides a natural barrier that the monarchs rarely cross. The monarchs from southeastern Canada and the eastern United States migrate to their wintering home in Mexico while the monarchs in the southwestern Canada and the western U.S. migrate to areas along California’s coast. When they arrive they bunch together on branches sometimes forming large clusters. In the spring, as the weather warms, the monarchs begin traveling north looking for milkweed. The milkweed plant is the food source for monarch butterflies.
This year at Natural Bridges the monarch population is low compared to previous years when an estimated ten thousand would arrive. When I first saw these monarchs twenty years ago the branches were weighted down by massive clumps of monarchs. Although the number the monarchs are less this year they are still an impressive sight.
Mark Hougardy, of GlyphGuy LLC, is proud to have supplied California State Park volunteers, Junior Rangers, and enthusiasts with over 10,000 high-quality patches that represent the second largest park system in the United States.
This year (2009) is challenging to the existence of many State Parks in California as the state wrestles with a looming budget deficit and possibly closing over 80% of the parks!
Maintaining the California State Park brand will be key to keeping the park system in the minds and eyes of visitors and voters. We hope that our patches will continue to represent the image and quality deserving of California State Parks.
My family recently participated in a multi-family school camping trip to Portola Redwoods State Parks in the heart of the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. We led nature hikes and presented outdoor cooking demonstrations.
Rain clouds floated overhead in the sky but they did not dampen the enthusiasm for a weekend in nature.
As families arrived children poured out of the cars to join classmates already playing in the campground. The children quickly found the remains of a fort and began to make it their own. Several fallen redwoods surrounded the camping area. These tall giants were up to four feet in diameter and more than one-hundred in length. They provided a convenient ‘fence’ for the children. Some of these logs had shattered when they fell creating long shafts of redwood bark – convenient building materials.
While observing the children one mother in the group commented, “Kids are more independent when they are outdoors.”
Several children – pretending to be mountain lions – were stalking human prey ready to pounce as their moms and dads walked by. The sounds of kids playing and laughing filled the campground.
The adults unloaded their equipment and soon a small village of tents rose underneath the tall redwoods. A short time later smoke from the campfire was wafting through the giant trees as families began preparing for a ‘pot luck’ dinner.
For families still arriving their senses were welcomed by the scent of damp forest duff, the aroma of food and the sounds of happy children and community.
We helped to make dinner an educational event by cooking with a Dutch oven. The Dutch oven is a cast-iron pot used by westward moving settlers in the 1800s. One child was especially curious about this odd looking pot. When encourage to measure ingredients and manage the coals (with supervision) he eagerly joined in. Everyone ate well that evening.
Raindrops began to dot the tents as children brushed their teeth and bedded down. The gentle rain steadily increased throughout the night and eventually tested the weatherproofing of all the tents.
In the morning everyone woke to a pristine world. The rain provided a much-needed bath for the forest after months of dry weather. As sunlight beamed into the damp woods rarely seen colors greeted the eye. In one instance the moss growing on the inside hollow of one redwood was an iridescent green. Within several minutes the bright colors were gone only to impress the viewer with another special sight several trees away.
After breakfast, I lead a nature walk to Tip Toe Falls. This short but visually-rich trail provided opportunities for exploring: redwoods, jumping rocks to cross a creek, visiting the falls, observing clusters of Lady Bugs, listening to chattering birds and rescuing an eight inch Banana Slug from being stepped on. The park’s nature center provided a good place to conclude the hike. Everyone was surprised to have been away for over three hours.
In the late afternoon the children continued to fortify their fort and defend it against imaginary creatures.
The second evening families worked on dinner, the Dutch oven demonstration drew increased interest from both adults and children. The chili was a cool evening winner.
After dinner I guided a nature walk. One child stopped on the trail and pointed to a spotted salamander. Everyone observed this primal looking creature then let it continue on its way.
On the final morning the parents enjoyed their coffee around a small fire – a few minutes of quiet before the kids woke.
In several minutes the solitude was broken by children emerging from their tents. They made a beeline to their fort. The results of their engineering work were becoming apparent – in addition to a tee-pee shaped fort was a seven-foot long piece of redwood bark had been transformed into a well-balanced teeter-totter. Log ramps allowed the kids to move quickly up the side of fallen redwoods. Some rope had been tied to the end several logs to create a simple pulley for moving wood and supplies. Evidence that young children also became more creative outdoors.
During breakfast several kids grumbled that they had to leave later in the day. As one-second grader finished eating he ran to the redwood fort. His Dad called from behind, “Come drink your hot chocolate.”
The second grader immediately stopped and turned to his elder. Although frustrated by dad’s interruption, his tone was respectful, “No Dad – I can drink hot chocolate any time but I can’t always play out here.”
It was a very revealing comment about the power of nature.
The child turned on his heel and ran fast as a deer to the fort, eager to spend another few precious minutes in nature.