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In August after visiting Mammoth Cave, we headed to Great Smoky Mountain National Park.  We purposefully didn’t visit this park on our cross country trip since we knew it was a destination we would visit once we lived on the East Coast.  The park is located along the Tennessee and North Carolina border and straddles the Appalachian Mountains.  It is one of the most visited national parks with ~20 million visitors in 2010 – twice that of the Grand Canyon!


We spent 4 days in the park and packed in as many sights as we could.  We drove Cades Cove Loop Road and saw a mother black bear and her cub in a tree, which halted traffic as everyone tried to catch a glimpse.  We also drove to Clingmans Dome twice, but were socked in by the “smoky” fog.  We also did a short 1.3 mile hike on asphalt to Laurel Falls, one of the most accessible and visited falls in the park, but also quite impressive.


But the majority of our time was spent on two back-to-back backpacking trips!

Spence Field Backpack

The first trip started near the the Cades Cove campground.  We backpacked 3.5 miles up Anthony Creek Trail to Bote Mountain Trail.  Then we continued 1.7 miles to the AT (Appalachian Trail) and the Spence Field Shelter.

We noticed the lush and dense east coast forests,

the bright white AT blazes,

and some unusual bugs! Katharine was brave enough to lend her hand as a scale.


Spence Field Shelter

Not sure why it wasn’t more crowded in August, but we shared the shelter with only one other adventurer, Linda and her pack mule.  She was a more seasoned Tennessee resident and had many stories to tell.  For whatever reason it was comforting having another person and a mule to keep us company in the open air shelter.  We weren’t visited by any bears, but could see the mice scurry along the rafters. A ranger called us a couple days later though because someone had to use his bear spray at that shelter the next day, and they were considering closing it.

The next morning we set out in the early morning fog.

We hiked an additional 2.9 miles down the AT to Russell Field junction.

Russell Field Shelter

Then we turned and headed 3.5 miles down Russell Field Trail and back to Anthony Creek Trail returning to our car.  We didn’t see many hikers or wildlife and our view was always blocked by the thick forest.  We didn’t take many photos on the return hike and were while we appreciated the greenery, we miss the above tree line views of the western US.

Wildlife! (Newt)

Dense Forest

So that ended the first 2-day backpack after 13.2 miles with 2,800 feet of elevation gain, which was probably more than enough for two out-of-shape backpackers.  In an ideal world, we would have ended the day and regrouped for the next adventure, but time was short so we drove 2 hours to Big Creek campground in North Carolina (on the far other side of the park).

Mount Sterling Backpack

Already feeling pretty tired from backpacking 8 miles down 2,800 feet that morning we hit the trail again late in the afternoon starting at Big Creek Campground. We hiked to Backcountry Campsite 37, (5.1 miles, 1,000′) along Big Creek Trail.  Postcard waterfalls and babbling creeks crisscrossed the Big Creek Trail.

We arrived with about 10 minutes to setup our tent, hang our packs, and then the summer rain came…

When it rains, it pours! We were instantly drenched while we waited for our Mountain House dinner to cook.  We watched as the ground failed to absorb the down pour and water began pooling under our tent.  After a couple hours of rain we passed out, fingers crossed our tent material would keep the water from soaking our down sleeping bags.

We awoke with dry sleeping bags and began drying out our clothes and rainfly.  We had a short 5.4 miles and 3,000′ to Mount Sterling so we thought we would wait as long as we could before packing the wet rainfly.  To our surprise, the humidity was so high the rainfly wouldn’t dry even after being stretched out and hung in the sun for a couple hours. 

We packed our wet gear and headed up the Swallow Fork Trail to Benton MacKaye Trail and found Backcountry Campsite 38 on top of Mount Sterling (5,842′).  Along the way we saw only a couple other young backpacking families and just a few small animals and colorful plants.  

Even though we were hiking along a mountain ridge the tall dense trees blocked our view of the surrounding mountain ridges.  It wasn’t until we climbed the 60 foot tall fire tower atop Mount Sterling that we got a sense for the vast Appalachian Mountain Range.

The next day we hiked out 6 miles and 3,500 feet down Baxter Creek Trail to Big Creek Campground.  Again we were treated to occasional streams and waterfalls in the lush forest, but no sweeping viewpoints.

Backcountry Faucet

This 3-day backpacking trip totaled 16.1 miles with 4,200 feet of elevation gain.  When we finished, the sun was shining, so we celebrated with a much needed dip/bath in the frigid Big Creek before heading to a nearby campground for the night.

We also found these strange hitchhikers on our tires.  Anyone know what they are?


We roasted marshmallows and reminisced about our last 4 days in the Smoky Mountain backcountry covering 29.3 miles and 7,000 feet of elevation.  It turned out to be more challenging than we expected (mostly due to being a little over zealous trying to fit too much in to too little time), but we definitely got a good taste of backpacking on the East Coast – a lot more rain and trees than we are used to!


Check out all of our trip photos:

Day 50-51: Great Basin National Park, NV (9/22-9/23)

In our quest to visit all the National Parks at some point in our life, we figured this was a good opportunity to visit Great Basin National Park.  It’s located near the Nevada Utah border, basically in the middle of nowhere.  The Great Basin itself is actually much larger than the park and includes most of Nevada and Utah along with parts of OR, CA, ID, and WY. It’s a unique area because the water does not drain into a ocean.  It is the largest contiguous endorheic watershed in North America!

As a small, not well known park, we were a bit surprised by all it had to offer including some nice high elevation hikes through aspen forests and around alpine lakes.






We also hiked through a grove of bristlecone pine trees which are some of the oldest trees in the world.  We had also seen these trees in the White Mountains of CA during some of our high altitude hiking training for Mt. Whitney.



Although it is a very dry climate, there was a steady stream running near our campground from the mountain snow melt.


The campgrounds were quite nice with several options, and we finally were able to enjoy a campfire.  On a side note there is only one place to get firewood in the Great Basin NP area and that is in the “town” of Baker just outside the park entrance.  There is a high school/college age guy with various locations you can buy wood from on the honor system.  Be sure to check all the roads leading into town since some of the bins may be empty.  There are also some well stocked stores that carry a variety of beer and wine.  We ate tons of marshmallows and drank until the fire was out and it was too cold to sit under the stars.



The next morning we were awaken by a gang of 20+ wild turkeys walking through our campsite.


Although it is a far drive to Great Basin NP no matter where you are coming from, there are enough things to entertain yourself for a few days and the scenery is beautiful, especially in the fall. There is also a cave that they give tours of, but we didn’t have time for it.


Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 51
  • Miles driven: 6,477
  • Miles from our old apartment in Pasadena: 551
  • Photos taken:  9,702
  • National Parks: 12
  • Miles Hiked: 166


We’ve been busy backpacking, which hasn’t allowed us to edit many photos or write up our trip reports… so we’re about a month behind now! We’re hoping to crank out a couple more trip reports before our last backpacking trip in Havasupai!


Day 30-32: Glacier National Park, MT (9/2-9/4)

Glacier National Park was one of the bigger parks that we haven’t been to, and we had high expectations.  Everyone we know that has been there has raved about the beautiful landscapes and abundant wildlife, so we were excited to check it out for ourselves.

We only really had two days to explore the park so we decided to day hike the Highline Trail (11.8 miles) along the Going-to-the-Sun-Road one day and the trail to Grinnell Glacier (11 miles) the other. Without the park shuttle running after 9/2, the Highline trail becomes more difficult to do as a through hike… it requires hitch-hiking!  Encouraged by park rangers that it’s totally legal and common, we gathered our gear, made a sign, and successfully and safely hitchhiked from ‘the Loop’ to the trailhead at Logan Pass.  This was a first for both of us, and we felt a bit silly holding a sign and smiling at empty cars as they passed by without stopping.  But after only 10 or so cars passed by, one pulled over and two nice climbers picked us up.  They said they had never picked up hitch hikers before, but we looked pretty harmless.  I’m sure we did with our well maintained hiking gear and smiling faces.  They also seemed pretty harmless as they moved the two kid’s car seats to the trunk of their SUV.  It was a short ride and before we knew it we were at the trailhead.

Of course as soon as we began hiking it started to rain, but we were prepared with rain jackets and pack covers, so a little rain wasn’t going to stop us.  After the first couple miles the rain turned to a drizzle and pretty much stopped, but the dreary gray clouds remained.



We were quickly distracted once we spotted a small heard of bighorn sheep grazing on the hillside.  Nathan tried to climb the hill but the steep grade, loose gravel, and the sheep’s ability to quickly climb prevented him from getting any worthwhile photos.  Later we saw a kid (baby mountain goat) and its nanny (mother) also grazing on another hillside.  We stopped and watched the little one gallop across the loose rocks as it tried to keep up with its mom.


We were really excited to finally see mountain goats and bighorn sheep (especially rams), but we weren’t close enough to fully capture the moment with our cameras.  We continued hiking though the mountains and enjoyed the trail despite the clouds.


Once we reached the Granite Park Chalet and we knew the views of the valleys and open hillsides were over and it was just a matter of hiking back down to the car.


After driving the Going-To-The-Sun Road toward the east we started searching for a campground.  Usually Katharine has every campground and hotel booked, but after Labor Day, the campgrounds in Glacier become first-come first-serve.  This style of campsite reservation doesn’t work well for us since we spend the days hiking and we only return to the campground to sleep.  We circled all the major campgrounds and they were completely full.

Luckily there was a primitive campground a bit farther from the main part of the park. Since it required driving a few miles on a dirt road and didn’t have running water, we figured it wouldn’t be too popular. Sure enough, there were several sites available when we arrived. Plus, the drive on the dirt road through a cattle and horse pasture was beautiful in the sunset.


The campsite was just our style; small, quiet, and had a great view of the mountains.


The next morning we headed to the Many Glacier area to hike to Grinnell Glacier. Finally we had a sunny day, but we quickly found the hike had little to no shade.  The first couple miles of trail traveled along side a few lakes, but then quickly climbed to various rocky shelves as it approached the glacier.


Suddenly we came to a small crowd fixed on a ram bighorn sheep only 30 yards away.  Nathan and another photographer climbed up the rocks to get a little closer.

You could see the sheep panting in the hot sun, but it continued to forage for food.

While Nathan was taking pictures Katharine was talking to hikers returning from the glacier who said there were more sheep closer to the trail around the corner.  We quickly ditched the other photographer and headed up the trail.  As the other hikers claimed, these sheep were much closer and more active!



These sheep weren’t too afraid of people as they jumped from ledge to ledge above the trail.  Some hikers were unaware of the sheep until they looked up at which point they usually gasped as they fumbled for their camera.


After we took 50+ photos of the sheep we decided to finish the last mile of the hike and check out the glacier, the real focus of the hike.

Grinnell Glacier


It was early afternoon and the sun was beating down on us so we thought we would dip our hot feet in the cold glacier melt water. It felt great for the first second until the freezing water felt like needles in your feet.  It took minutes to warm our feet up after just seconds in the water.  Sadly it took several tries to get this photo.


It was getting late in the afternoon and we still had 5.5 miles to hike out, and we had forgotten to eat lunch with all the sheep chaos.  We hiked just a short while until we reached a small rest area along the trail which has some rustic benches to sit and eat lunch.  After 5 minutes we were interrupted by three sheep passing through to reach a creek.


This of course led to more photos and less eating.  Amazingly these sheep approached us even closer than the ones before, forcing us to retreat because we felt uncomfortable.  It was a bighorn sheep extravaganza!


Finally feeling like we had enough sheep photos and noticing the sun getting lower in the sky, we started hiking quickly back to the trailhead.  Of course with the day cooling off, more sheep appeared and it became more of a herding activity than hiking.


Katharine and one ram startled each other as she came around a tree that it was eating.  Both of them jumped back and paused for a Katharine-Sheep showdown stare.  We slowly backed up and the ram did also until we had reached a safe distance.


Check out the sheep in the background

We enjoyed the rest of the hike down paying more attention to the flowers, rocks, and incredible glacier carved valleys.

Glacier park lived up to the hype with the incredible landscapes, flowers, and animals.  We couldn’t have been happier after two 10+ mile hikes in two days.

We couldn’t include all the photos in the trip report so check out more in the gallery below.

Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 32
  • Nights in a tent: 22
  • Miles driven: 4563
  • Miles hiked: 133
  • Bighorn sheep photographed: 18
  • Photographs of bighorn sheep: 312
  • Mountain goats: 15

We are currently preparing to start the Teton Crest trail (4 day backpacking trip) tomorrow! Here’s a look back at the last NP we visited in Washington.

Epic Trip Days 25-26: North Cascades National Park (8/28 – 8/29)

North Cascades National Park is the most remote national park in Washington near the Canadian border and we definitely noticed that it was less crowded. We enjoyed the beautiful drive out to the park, even stopping at a roadside farm stand for fresh berries and ice cream. Once we got to the park, the weather was pretty overcast but luckily not raining too much. We stopped at the visitor center, which was perhaps the best we’ve seen so far. The exhibits were great and the rangers were particularly helpful.

After the visitor center, we drove the scenic drive through the park on Rt 20. The mountains were definitely impressive despite the cloud cover, and the glacial lakes were a beautiful teal blue-green.


By the time we made it all the way to the Washington Pass at the far eastern end of the park, it was late afternoon. But we decided we still had time for a 4.2 mile hike to Blue Lake, which the rangers said often has mountain goats in the area. For the majority of the hike we were sheltered from the rain sprinkles by the lush forest, which also created great habitat for some unique mushrooms.


As the clouds parted, we reached the lake, which was really beautiful. Katharine took photos of the scenery while Nathan tried to capture the small fish rising (rather unsuccessfully unfortunately).


By the time we finished the hike, it was almost dark so we drove directly to our campsite on the western side of the park. We arrived after dark (as usual) and set up camp and ate a quick dinner before the rain really started. We had selected the campground (Fishcreek) because it is close to the trailhead for the hike to Sahale Arm glacier, which we intended to do as a long day hike the next day. However, around 2 am it started raining very steadily and when we awoke early in the morning, it was still pouring. We decided to go back to sleep and try to wait it out, but by 7 or 8 it was still raining. We packed up camp and drove to the trailhead to see if the weather was any better there, but no luck. We watched a few couples and groups start the hike (with varying degrees of preparedness and rain gear) but the clouds were dense and the hike would have been a long one (12 miles) so we decided instead to head back to Seattle and use the day to take care of laundry, errands, and other chores.  We later found out the immense amount of rain had cause a mudslide shutting down route 20, which we had driven the day before.  This summer the highway has been closed a few times to clear mudslides.

We definitely want to return to this park sometime in the future. Something about the mountains and lakes really intrigued us, and despite the gray weather, this might have been our favorite park in Washington.


Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 26
  • Nights in a tent: 19
  • Night camping in the rain: 3
  • Miles driven: 3513
  • Miles hiked: 110
  • National Parks: 8
  • Mountain Goats: 0

We are currently driving from Portland to Seattle. Here’s a look back when we were still in California…


Day 9: Lassen Volcanic National Park (8/12)

We took our time leaving Yosemite, making a quick stop at the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir region of the park, so we arrived at Lassen after dark (which is starting to be a trend for us). We spent the morning driving the main road through the park, checking out the impressive views and spending some time in the museum, which was excellent. In 1914 and 1915, Lassen Peak erupted multiple times including one particularly huge eruption that exploded the mountaintop and devastated a mile-wide section of the mountainside. B.F. Loomis captured the eruption in photos and, as the first major and documented volcanic eruption in the US, his photos captivated the public and made way for it to become a National Park in 1916. Today, the effects of the eruption are difficult to see because the area has recovered over time, but Lassen Peak is still considered an active volcano and there are many geothermal areas.

Lassen Peak


We really liked this meadow, so we spent a decent amount of time taking photos here, but had quite the experience with Katharine’s brand new camera. Here’s Nathan’s version of the story:

As many photographers know, you sometimes have to risk the camera to position yourself for the perfect shot- whether it’s dangling the camera over a cliff or grabbing a quick shot in the rain, it’s usually worth it. But I often remind Katharine to be careful with her camera, afraid she’ll drop it off a cliff or something. For the photo above there was a nice turnout in the road and many people were taking photos from the left side of the stream. As the other people left the area, Katharine and I wanted to get more of the serpentine creek in the foreground, and to do that, we had to cross the stream (10 feet across and a few feet deep) to a higher view point. We looked and decided the log jam nearby would be the best place to cross.  Katharine enjoys taking landscape photos, so her cameras are outfitted with our widest angle lens, so of course she would be the one risking her dry clothes and dignity by crossing the precarious log jam.  Since she needed her hands free to climb across, we decided it would be better for her to cross, then I throw the camera case with camera over the creek to her.

After a few well placed steps Katharine made it across, then came the first camera toss.  I erred on the side of overshooting Katharine and the creek and landing in the tall meadow grass behind her, which it did and the camera survived no problem.  Katharine took a few photos (including the one above), and then successfully tossed the camera back. She underhanded it to me like a softball, but harder than I thought so I sort of juggled it after it hit my stomach with some force. So the camera survived safe and dry and now it was Katharine’s turn to cross back. I set her camera down to watch, but then I got a photo idea in my head of Katharine crossing the sun bleached wood log jam with the water mirroring her and the meadow and volcano in the background… this was going to be great.

I quickly ran down the side of the creek and crouched down to get the best angle… I adjusted my shutter speed and ISO and sat waiting for her to hit the middle of the natural balance beam. Just as she started to cross I noticed a black bag in my frame –  her camera bag was ruining my shot!  I quickly got up and ran to the bag, and like runner tagging up at first, I grabbed the camera bag while changing directions to run back to my photo spot before Katharine passed the halfway point.  As I turned and shifted my momentum in the other direction my hand with the camera bag whipped around.  The weight of the camera in the bag and my long arms surprised my fingers, and I launched the camera bag into the creek! “Noooo”, I yelled as I slid to the water’s edge watching the bag semi-float in the water.  Katharine looked up from her balancing to see me lunging and grabbing the small camera bag, but with enough speed and force to submerge the bag for a half second. I quickly un zipped the bag pulled out the soaked camera, removed the battery, and began feverishly drying off any water I could see.  Katharine was still standing on the log and was yelling and laughing “what is going on?!”  I tried to explain while I was knelt down on my wet knees with her camera in my hands “I wanted to get a photo of you crossing…and the bag…I threw it…I don’t know!”  Of course trying to explain why I sacrificed her new camera to get a photo of her crossing a log seemed silly now.  My adrenaline was pumping and Katharine was laughing at me “you threw my camera into the water…hahhaha.”  Luckily she could find humor in the situation, but I couldn’t bare to smile about it until I knew it worked again.  After letting it dry for a couple hours, we turned it on and thankfully everything worked!  Now all that is lost is my dignity (as well as the chance to get that picture of Katharine crossing the stream!), and Katharine is able rightfully to remind me every time we are near water “be careful you don’t want to throw your camera in the water!”


After the camera excitement, we did a short hike (3 mi) to Bumpass Hell, one of the most impressive geothermal areas in the park. It was named after Bumpass, a guy who discovered it and hoped to make his fortune from the minerals and tourism, but instead just lost his leg when he broke through the ground crust into boiling water while exploring it.

Looking down on the Bumpass Hell geothermal area


The fumaroles were constantly hissing and spewing hot air.

The yellow sulfur crystals made the area very colorful.

As usual, the thermal areas smelled like rotten eggs from the sulfur.

Since the boardwalk limited your path, there was no escaping when certain fumaroles put out an especially bad burst of hot smelly air. This made for some unpleasant moments.

On the hike to and from the geothermal area, we passed through some nicely wooded areas and a couple meadows with some birds (likely grouse) foraging in the lupine.


After the hike we took it easy, set up our hammock (a gift from Nathan’s parents) and stayed up to watch the Perseids. The meteor shower wasn’t quite as impressive as we hoped (or we just didn’t have enough patience), but we always appreciate the dark skies of the national parks and the opportunity to see the Milky Way.


Epic Trip Stats:

  • Days: 9
  • Nights in a tent: 8
  • Miles driven: 1054
  • Miles hiked: 47
  • Cameras thrown in the water: 1


We are currently driving to Lassen Volcanic NP after several days in Yosemite, but our first stop was Pinnacles National Park earlier in the week. (Updated Map)

Day 2 – Pinnacles NP (8/5/13)

On Sunday night we arrived to our campsite in Pinnacles National Park after dark, so in the morning we woke up and got to see it for the first time. We could see some of the reddish pinnacles (rock formations) from our campsite, so we quickly had breakfast and got ready for a hike to beat the heat. On our way to the trailhead, we came across a huge covey of quail and a fawn that surprisingly weren’t too shy, so Nathan got some nice shots.




Then we started the hike towards Bear Gulch Cave and Reservoir.


Rock tunnel on the hike


The hike was a short 2 mile loop, just enough to get our legs warmed up. The cave is seasonally closed to protect the bats that live there, but it was open most of the way when we were there, which was great. It’s pretty impressive, and has some quite dark areas so headlamps/flashlights are required.



We had fun climbing through the caves and around the rocks. It’s definitely a highlight of hiking in the park.





After emerging from the cave, we continued on to the Reservoir. It made for a picturesque snack break, and it’s a great place to photograph some threatened Red-legged frogs (that now seem to be recovering after being re-introduced to the reservoir area).




The final portion of the loop goes along the Rim Trail, with wider views of the landscape and the Pinnacles themselves. Overall, it was a great warm up hike for our trip and we really enjoyed the solitude. We didn’t see a single person on the hike.



Afterwards, we packed up our tent and car to start the drive to Yosemite. On our way out, we stopped at the visitor center where a gang of turkeys was gathered, again not bothered by the people checking them out. Then some deer came to join the party. Eventually the camp host shooed them away from the visitor center and swimming pool area, so the deer and turkeys headed up the hill together.

Although we had a very short visit to Pinnacles, we were really glad we were able to add it to our itinerary. It’s definitely worth a visit, but since it’s a pretty small park, it seems like a day or two would be enough to get the experience. Next time we’d like to see some of the California Condors that live there!


Here’s a map of the short hike we did through Bear Gulch Cave.

View Hiking Tracks – Natekat Epic Trip in a larger map


Trip Stats:

  • Days: 2
  • Nights in a tent: 1
  • Miles driven: 384
  • Miles hiked: 2
  • Wildlife: Quail, deer, frogs, turkeys
  • Caves explored: 1


We headed to Dana Point with Nathan’s parents to try to observe bioluminescence organisms with the Ocean Institute.  It was a new moon and the weather was cooperating, but in the end the night cruise turned up a bit disappointing display of bioluminescence.  There is always some bioluminescence, but to really get the ‘wow factor’ you need a bloom of organisms that make the water glow instead of just a few sparks in the water.  The fog quickly surrounded us making it hard to see any faint horizon line at night.  We then got a little sea sick as the boat turned parallel to the waves and rolled back in forth in the fog. We were quite happy to make it back to calmer waters. On the way out to sea they pointed out some curious animals that are active at night including a few different types of birds and some new seal babies. The trip was a little expensive for a night cruise in the fog, but the crew was knowledgable, and if there was a way to predict that there would be a bioluminescence bloom happening on a particular night, then we would definitely recommend it.

Several weeks later, Katharine was camping at the beach north of Malibu (Thornhill Broome Beach) with two of her friends who were visiting LA. The waves were huge and crashing with quite a lot of force on the steep beach. As the sun began to set, we noticed that the waves seemed to be glowing and once it was fully dark, it was an amazing, indescribable show. The white water portion of every wave would glow in a very brilliant blue/green, then dissipate as the waves settled. It was probably a once in a lifetime experience; we talked to other campers who had been there for a whole week and only saw it that one night. Unfortunately Nathan wasn’t there to see it or capture it with his camera. Kim managed to get these photos of the waves and our tent with her camera; it’s a bit blurry, but it gives an idea of how bright the glowing was.


Other photos from the Ocean Institute boat trip:



Back in late April, (yes, we are behind on our posts) we headed to the Channel Islands for another attempt at kayaking in the island caves.  Our first attempt was last spring with a bunch of coworkers and Nathan’s parents, but the swell was too high so we couldn’t go in the caves.



Although we had a great time on that trip, we really wanted to get the full cave experience. So this time we figured we would hedge our bets with two days of kayaking with Aqua Sports, which meant camping on Santa Cruz island for one night. This time we also just went with Nathan’s parents since the logistics were more complicated with camping.

The early morning ride to the island (via Island Packers) was rough with a very high swell between the California coast and the islands (causing many people some sea sickness), so we were not too optimistic about the kayaking condistions.  As we entered the channel’s marine sanctuary we were greeted by a humpback whale with her calf, which distracted us from the lurching boat for a bit.


As we arrived at the island we were lucky to find very calm water (protected by the island) and low tide, giving us nearly perfect conditions!


We spent the day kayaking in and out of caves with our own personal guide Andy who is very knowledgeable about the ocean conditions, caves, and island history.



The water was so clear we saw hundreds of sea stars, urchins, a few seals, and even an abalone!


We must have explored a dozen different caves, so many that it became difficult to remember them individually. Some caves were actually more like tunnels that you could paddle all the way through while others just went straight deep into the island.



A couple of the caves extended hundreds of yards into the island and it felt a bit disconcerting when the ceiling began to lower and the light from outside disappeared. We had headlamps but weren’t always prepared to battle the ocean swell inside a dark cave while trying to avoid brushing up against the sharp barnacle-covered walls.


Every cave had its challenges and we were extremely glad to have a knowledgeable guide with us who could judge our abilities and check out the safety of the caves before we would venture in.  Set waves can quickly rush into a cave reducing the ceiling height from 6 feet to 2 feet in a matter of seconds.  Also timing was critical when riding waves through small gaps with rocky bottoms. But Andy kept us mostly calm and confident, and made sure we were always having fun.


The pictures just can’t quite capture the feeling of going in and out of the caves, it was a really unique experience

After 4 hours of kayaking we had covered a few miles of coast and returned to the launch. We had a quick lunch before hauling our camping gear a mile to the campsite.  There is a nice clearing with large eucalyptus trees that shade many campsites that you can reserve on the NPS website.




We setup camp and walked up and along the ridge-line of the coast for sunset.



Camping on the island is close to backpacking because there is no electricity, campfires, or cars.  Luckily the island does have bathrooms and fresh drinking water.  Nathan’s parents got a taste of our traditional Mountain House freeze dried meals we are used to eating while backpacking.  By 10 pm everyone in the campsite was asleep except Nathan and his mom, who spent the evening playing with the headlamps and long exposure photos.



The next morning Nathan spent the morning chasing island foxes around trying to get the perfect photo.  Although the foxes are wild they are used to people and have very few predators. Campers spend a lot of time chasing off the foxes and keeping them out of the food.



The next day we started kayaking earlier heading out along the coast toward Potato Harbor.  The tide was much higher keeping us out of a lot of the caves but the wind was at our backs making the kayaking a breeze.  At one point though, Nathan’s dad was struggling to keep up and after a 1/4 mile of frustrated paddling we finally noticed he had snagged a 20 foot long piece of kelp and had been dragging it all this time!


We stopped at lunch at Potato Harbor, a beautiful cove that looks more like a tropical island with white sand a clear shallow water than what you’d expect in SoCal.  Around the corner we kayaked near a sea lion rookery and watched the curious sea lions swim under our kayaks and play with each other.  We have some videos of our kayaking trip which include some underwater video of the sea lions playing under our kayaks, we’ll have to post that soon.


As we headed back after another beautiful day of kayaking, the wind changed direction and pushed us back.  It was a successful, memorable, and exciting weekend! We highly recommend it as a unique must-do activity for any one in LA!


Per usual we took many photos on our Mt. Whitney trip, 719 to exact.  Of course many of the photos help tell the story while others are just visually stunning and some are both. Here are some of our favorites.  Click on the photos for best viewing.

Lone Pine Lake

Olympus 14-42 @25mm, ISO 200, f/10, 1/400 sec

Trailside Meadows

Canon 24-105 @105mm, ISO 100, f/8.0, 1/640 sec

Consultation Lake

Olympus 14-42 @ 14mm, ISO 200, f/9.0, 1/320 sec

Whitney in the Moonlight

Canon 24-105 @24mm, ISO 800, f/6.3, 60 sec

Looking East From Trail Camp

Canon 24-105 @24mm, ISO 800, f/6.3, 33 sec

Trail Camp from the Switchbacks

Canon 24-105 @50mm, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/400 sec

Trail Crest from the Switchbacks

Canon 24-105 @ 24mm, ISO 100, f/8.0, 1/800 sec

John Muir Trail Junction

Canon 24-105 @105mm, ISO 100, f/8.0, 1/400 sec

Looking Over the Edge of Whitney

Olympus 9-18 @9mm, ISO 200, f/9.0, 1/400 sec

Trail Camp Stream

Olympus  9-18 @18mm, ISO 200, f/11, 1/400 sec

Trail Camp Sunset

Canon 24-105 @24mm, ISO 200, f/6.3, 1/160 sec

Trail Camp Sunset

Canon 24-105 @45mm, ISO 250, f/6.3, 1/125 sec

Looking Toward Whitney from Trail Camp

Canon 24-105 @24mm, ISO 800, f/5.6, 30 sec

Trail Camp Marmot

Canon 24-105 @105mm, ISO 200, f/8.0, 1/640 sec

Looking Over Mirror Lake (Katharine is on the right)

Canon 24-105 @24mm, ISO 100, f/6.3, 1/640 sec

The gallery below has a few others as well, mostly ones included in the trip reports posted previously.

As our final training for Mt. Whitney we headed into the White Mountains, which are east of the Sierras, right across the Owens Valley from Mt. Whitney. Although it was a pretty long drive for just a weekend trip, it gave us a chance to get some real altitude experience. White Mountain Peak is at 14,246′ and is the third highest peak in CA, but since there essentially is a fire road leading to the top, the hike has a very gradual accent. Thus most people consider it one of the easiest 14-ers to summit (apparently even unicyclers have done it), but it’s still a 14 mile hike with 2800′ of gain and at such a high altitude it can be tough.

So once again we drove out Friday night after work and arrived quite late at Grandview Campground (8500′) and went straight to bed. For Saturday we just planned to hang around and acclimate, so we slept in and then started the slow drive to the trailhead (which would also be our campsite for the night) at 12,000′.

Driving through the White Mountains

The first thing we noticed when we got to the trailhead parking lot was all the flat tires… even a Jeep with off-roading tires had a flat! We were lucky and didn’t have any problems.

That’s going to be a pain to change after a 14 mile hike…

Soon after we arrived, it started raining so we just hung around and tried to take photos of the dramatic lighting without getting too wet.

Rain over the Sierras


We were hoping for clear skies to see the Perseids meteor shower since there is very little light pollution up there, but unfortunately the weather did not cooperate and it was cloudy all night, even raining quite a bit. We did get to enjoy a pretty nice sunrise though…


Since we didn’t stay up to see the stars, we were able to get an early start Sunday morning (for us – ate breakfast, packed up the tent, and on the trail before 7:30!) which was good because it’s better to get off the summit before afternoon thunderstorms hit. The hike up felt long, but considering we started at 12,000′, we made good time on the trail. We definitely appreciated the gradual slope though.


And along the way we saw tons of marmots which distracted us from the hiking (and slowed us down since Nathan had to photograph every single one!)


About 2 miles into the hike, we passed the UC Barcroft Research facility, where they study the effects of altitude on animals (like sheep and apparently they even tag squirrels for their studies!)

Check out the radio collar

The rest of the trail was pretty uneventful, just a gradual climb but with spectacular views across the Owens Valley, and then we finally got to see the peak.

White Mountain Peak

The final mile to the top was quite a bit steeper and felt tough at such high altitude, but we eventually made it to the peak just as a storm started making its way toward us. We took a few quick pictures and decided to head back down.

Storm brewing from the summit

The hike down was uneventful, but we did feel some drizzles and quick bit of hail as we hiked essentially between two storms.


After we made it to the car, we treated ourselves to a hot meal and started the drive back out. On our way we made a couple short side trips to see the groves of Bristlecone Pine Trees – the oldest living creatures in the world. Clearly an exciting stop for Katharine! Although the afternoon rain did sort of put a damper on things, so we didn’t spend as much time there, opting instead to drive home in time for dinner.


It was quite the weekend adventure for us, but more importantly gave us experience sleeping above 11,000′ and hiking above 14,000′. Luckily for us, we don’t seem to be too sensitive to the altitude, which gave us a lot of confidence heading into our Mt. Whitney trip!

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