Today, I received a message from the Sierra Club announcing an upcoming PBS series that launches next week from award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns,  ”The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

In honor of the series (and to spread the word about the importance of protecting our national parks for future generations), the Sierra Club is giving away a trip to Yosemite and San Francisco as part of the 100,000 Champions for National Parks campaign. Their goal is to get to 100,000 names by October 4th - All you have to do is sign the statement of support for parks at www.sierraclub.org/parks. Tell them your favorite national park and your name will be added to the scrolling list of “Champions for Parks” on their homepage and you’ll be entered in the sweepstakes.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that there are a lot of great hiking trails near San Francisco and Yosemite. This area is a paradise for nature lovers. So help out the Sierra Club, support our national parks, and hopefully (cross your fingers) win a trip! Good luck everybody!

A short windy drive from the hectic college-life of University Avenue in Palo Alto lies the Monte Bello Open Preserve, perfect for a quick shop-and-hike. A couple weeks ago, Closet Granola and I visited Palo Alto to do a bit of pre-vacation shopping and some organic California lunch dining, but still wanted to squeeze in a quick hike. The solution: Monte Bello Open Preserve.

Since it was summer, the area was a bit warm for my taste…Hiking Diva does not like to sweat…it’s rather unbecoming. We were determined to power through it given that it was the most exercise we were likely to get. We squeezed in 6.4 miles in less than 2 hours. Parking in a lot off Page Mill Road, we walked 3.2 miles out on the Canyon Trail and then turned around and headed back. We didn’t have much of a plan, so an out-and-back hike was perfect.

The trail was about 50-50 exposed vs. shade, so the temperature was pretty comfortable in the shade and too hot in the sun. In the shaded areas, we were constantly harassed by bugs that I could have sworn were mosquitos. Closet Granola thought they were gnats or flies, and I didn’t end up getting any bites, but just to be safe, I would recommend Off or another bug spray. The mosquitos, my constant nemesis, were the least of my problems. On the way back, a huge tarantula-looking spider crossed the trail. It was hairy and ugly and creepy. And just when we thought there couldn’t be more pests and vermin, we stumbled upon a snake. Of course, I freaked out again, but thankfully there was no crying. Just lots of yelling, and back-pedaling as the snake slithered away. Mosquitos, spiders and snakes…I would rather have seen lions, tigers and bears.

I know I’ve been spoiled by Point Reyes and Yosemite, so take my review with a grain of salt. I just did not enjoy Monte Bello Open Preserve. There were no fabulous views of the ocean or waterfalls to picnic by. There were no cute deer or other wildlife to catch a glimpse of. There was just open space.

One of my summer interns is from Indiana and he thinks California is beautiful. When I asked him how California is different from Indiana, he said that California has hills while in Indiana, it’s just flat. Monte Bello does have some nice views of rolling hills, but to this California girl, it’s just not enough. Monte Bello Open Preserve (at least in the summer when it’s dry and there are no wildflowers) is a good alternative to working out in a gym, but it’s nothing to drive out for or write home about…unless your home happens to be in Indiana.

Overall Rating: Pumas

Rating system:

  • Heels: So easy you can hike it in heels
  • Flip-flops: Too long or hard to hike in heels, but flat flip-flops would work
  • Pumas: A nice stroll not much harder than walking in the city
  • Trailblazers: If you want to be nice to your feet on this hike, they’ll need some more serious protection and support.
  • Hiking boots: Pull out the ugly shoes and summon your closet granola. This hike is going to kick your ass.

Rating system:

  • Heels: So easy you can hike it in heels
  • Flip-flops: Too long or hard to hike in heels, but flat flip-flops would work
  • Pumas: A nice stroll not much harder than walking in the city
  • Trailblazers: If you want to be nice to your feet on this hike, they’ll need some more serious protection and support.
  • Hiking boots: Pull out the ugly shoes and summon your closet granola. This hike is going to kick your ass.

Tip #1: Grab lunch or dinner in Palo Alto downtown. If you live in the city, you’ll appreciate being able to eat outdoors in the summer.

Tip #2: If you’re sensitive to the Deet used in Off, check out Avon SKIN-SO-SOFT Bug Guard.

If you can only handle one hike at Yosemite, this is the hike for you. It’s short, it’s beautiful, and everyone has to see Vernal Falls at least once. At just 3 miles roundtrip for this out-and-back hike, it’s a lot of bang-for-your-buck. Unfortunately, everyone else seems to know this too, making this the crowded must-do hike for all tourists. During waterfall season, we saw plenty of PSR’s (Potential Search and Rescues) with their flip-flops and cotton t-shirts, we saw families with children of all ages, and we even saw those that were older and wiser walking this hike with their canes and an attitude of “it ain’t no thang”. If you’re looking for what everyone else is looking for, this hike is for you. If you’re looking for peace and serenity in the great outdoors, steer clear of this Disneyland of a hike.

The free in-park shuttle took us directly to the trailhead and we got off the shuttle with everybody else to check out what the big fuss was about. The trail is very well-maintained and wide to accommodate the crowds. We walked alongside the creek on a paved road at a gradual ascent. Every once in a while there was a steeper climb, totaling 1000 feet in elevation gain to get to the top of the falls.

After a ways of uphill climbing on the paved path, we came to a bridge. The bridge was lovely with gushing water flowing down the mountain. It is said that more people die on the Mist Trail than almost anywhere else in Yosemite. Once you see the currents flowing beneath the bridge, you’ll understand why.

Past the bridge, the path becomes muddier, rockier, and definitively more wet. Here, we pulled the rain jackets and gloves out of our packs and prepared for the worst. At the base of Vernal Falls, I tried to snap a few pictures before the camera got drenched, but it’s very tough to do during waterfall season. If you can handle the cold, hang out for a few minutes. This was one of the prettiest scenes in Yosemite - with the gushing full waterfall hitting the rocks below, sending mist everywhere, and a rainbow to prove its magical status.

After Closet Granola waited rather impatiently for me to finish taking my pictures, we climbed the rest of the way up the Falls. It’s very slippery and wet, so we took it rather slow and used the rails to ascend. On the final ascent, the path is only wide enough to handle one person, so there were times when we were plastered against the side of the mountain as we waited for someone coming the other direction to pass.

At the top of the climb, we looked down the falls into the valley below. It’s a very different perspective up there! We brought a picnic and ate up there (with the crowds). Beware of the squirrels…they’re aggressive and hungry and not afraid of you.

After lunch, we decided to call it a day and hiked back down rather than going all the way to Nevada Falls. My knee couldn’t take any more hiking after the beating it took on the Upper Yosemite Falls Hike the previous day. This may mean that we’ll never see Nevada Falls since it’s unlikely that we can deal with the Disneyland crowds on this hike again.

Overall Rating: Hiking Boots for traction on wet rocks and water proof protection against the falls, Trailblazers for difficulty

Rating system:

  • Heels: So easy you can hike it in heels
  • Flip-flops: Too long or hard to hike in heels, but flat flip-flops would work
  • Pumas: A nice stroll not much harder than walking in the city
  • Trailblazers: If you want to be nice to your feet on this hike, they’ll need some more serious protection and support.
  • Hiking boots: Pull out the ugly shoes and summon your closet granola. This hike is going to kick your ass.

Tip #1: A rainjacket is a must. They call this the Mist Trail, but a more apt name would be the Drenched Trail. I recommend the Marmot PreCip Rain Jacket.

Tip #2: If your knees are hurting (like mine were), the return trip can seem like an eternity in hell. Bring trekking poles. You’ll thank me later.

As a native Californian, I had been to Yosemite as a little girl. I was far too young to remember any of it, and I’m sure that whatever I had seen or visited were the typical tourist traps where you park your car, get out and take some photos. But Closet Granola, the true outdoorsman, had not yet visited California’s most prized outdoor wonderland, so this trip was a highly anticipated weekend excursion.

We arrived in Yosemite on Friday (I with only 1 hour of sleep due to a crazy deadline for work) to dreary weather. It was raining and cold and foggy and gray. But I’ll save the Friday happenings for a different blog post. Suffice it to say that Saturday had to more than compensate for Friday in order to salvage this vacation. Therefore, I let Closet Granola choose the hike for Saturday…and he chose a killer, the Upper Yosemite Falls Hike, a 7.4 mile out-and-back hike with 2,700 feet in elevation gain. That’s pretty much like climbing the Empire State Building TWICE…and then a little bit more tossed in for good measure. We even tossed in a little more mileage by parking at the Day Use lot near Yosemite Village and walking past the Lower Yosemite Falls before getting to the trailhead for the Upper Yosemite Falls.

The climb up occurs in three stages - a series of switchbacks through partly shaded but mostly exposed area, followed by a straighter path with views of the waterfall and a cooling/drenching mist, ending with yet another series of switchbacks that seem to go on forever. On the first set of switchbacks, there’s a nice outlook of the valley and Half Dome. We also saw deer there and a very annoying man from LA who fed the deers (against park rules) and very blatantly tried to pick up two girls who looked half his age. It’s a hike, not a feeding zoo and not a meat market.

Anyway, I digress…On the second part of the hike, there are few flat or downhill sections. Whenever I go downhill on a hike like this, I get sad because I know that not only do I still have to climb the thousand feet or so left, but now I have to compensate for this downhill. Argh! On this section, though, you get a good view of the waterfall and the valley below. We could see faint traces of a rainbow over the valley underneath Half Dome…pretty much perfection. Closet Granola says that I’ve been spoiled and that I only think a hike is worth it if there are “rainbows and unicorns”. Perhaps I’m a bit spoiled, but there weren’t any unicorns on this hike and it was the prettiest hike I’ve ever been on. It blows Cataract Falls, Alamere Falls, and Point Lobos away.

On the final ascent, the switchbacks were daunting after all the progress that we had made, but thinking it was the final stage really helped. Closet Granola kept threatening to turn around since he was worried that I would turn this into yet another night hike with a new moon (see Eagle Lake hike), but his fears were unfounded as we made it off the trail without our head lamps. At the top, you’ve basically climbed out of the valley and you’re standing at the top of the ridge where the waterfalls flows over the side. There’s a small trail that goes to the Falls Overlook. It’s quite steep and feels like you could fall off if there was a strong gust of wind, but we were undaunted in our quest to take photos and got ourselves out there. The views aren’t as stunning on the top as on the way up, but knowing that you’ve accomplished 2700 feet in elevation gain makes it worthwhile.

Once you’re on the top, there’s only one thing left to do. What goes up, must come down…and so we did. I thought the hike up was painful, but it was nothing compared to the hike down. The rocks were very slippery due to the mist coming from the waterfall and it was just a lot of downhill on a rocky terrain. My knees started hurting (as did Closet Granola’s) really quickly and then after that, it was a very, very long hike back. And I was so looking forward to the downhill!

This was possibly the hardest hike I’ve ever been on, even more than Big Basin despite the shorter distance. I was very proud of myself for making it to the top and back to the bottom. We passed a dozen people on our way back down, so they were still on the trail after dark. We also saw a lot of people without water and without the proper equipment, so I am very lucky that Closet Granola always ensures that we’re all good in that department. Although I probably look like a PSR, I am glad to not be able to claim that title just yet. That’s the new term I learned while in Yosemite…PSR = Potential Search and Rescue.

Overall Rating: Hiking Boots

Rating system:

  • Heels: So easy you can hike it in heels
  • Flip-flops: Too long or hard to hike in heels, but flat flip-flops would work
  • Pumas: A nice stroll not much harder than walking in the city
  • Trailblazers: If you want to be nice to your feet on this hike, they’ll need some more serious protection and support.
  • Hiking boots: Pull out the ugly shoes and summon your closet granola. This hike is going to kick your ass.

Tip #1: If you have trekking poles, bring them. The trail going downhill is vicious on your knees. I just went to the doctor today and she says I’ll be out of commission for a while.

Tip #2: A rain jacket is a must on this hike unless you like the feel of wet clothes sticking to you and you like to flirt with the idea of pneumonia. I bought the Marmot Precip Rain Jacket from REI for this trip and was so glad I had it, although I don’t recommend buying it in white like I did. It looks good, but it really did dirty very easily. It’s also on sale during REI’s Anniversary Sale.

Tip #3: Don’t be a PSR.

It’s my favorite time of the year for hiking…waterfall season, so Closet Granola and I decided to go chase waterfalls in Marin a couple weekends ago. Although lesser known than the ever-popular Alamere Falls in Point Reyes, the Cataract Falls trail is much closer and easier to get to from the city AND it boasts views of the waterfall for pretty much the entire hike, so it has an excellent cost-benefit ratio Alamere Falls, however, has the advantage of ocean views. Tough call.

This hike starts off flat near the lake, but rather quickly we came to the bottom of the falls. For the next 1.5 miles or so, the trail follows the waterfall straight up almost 1100 feet. There are a lot of stairs to help out, but the narrow trail isn’t too difficult for beginners, and nowhere as difficult as the Matt Davis trail. The trail is also dog-friendly, but the narrow trail doesn’t lend itself well to a pack of dogs and we didn’t happen upon any pampered pooches.

The beautiful trail was lush and very green, but had few wildflowers. The waterfall was set against a background of green and we found many places to stop and have our picnic. Every step of the hike, there’s a different view of the falls, ones with massive drops and ones with smaller ones. I absolutely fell in love with the Cataract Falls and this hike just shot up to top 3 on my list.

At the top of the falls, most people turn back, but we continued on to Laurel Dell and then kept going until we got to Bolinas Ridge. We crossed the street and climbed up the ridge. At the top we could see back to San Francisco and Oakland.

On the outbound part of the hike, we took very few pictures because we thought we would do this on the way back. But on the way back, the sun started to set and we were nowhere near out of there. So we started trail running, and since we had hiked all the way up, this meant we were trail running straight down. After a few minutes of “hoofing it” as Closet Granola so kindly put it, I rolled on my left foot and twisted my ankle. Ouch!

Well, it was a lot harder to get out on a very painful ankle and it was way after sunset by the time we did. We swore we would be back one day to take more photos. In the meantime, you all should get out there before those falls dry up.

Bonus: The drive out to this hike literally goes past “our restaurant”, Cafe Sorella in Fairfax. A delicious pasta dinner is mandatory after this hike, even if you’re in pain from a twisted ankle.

Overall Rating: Trailblazers

Rating system:

  • Heels: So easy you can hike it in heels
  • Flip-flops: Too long or hard to hike in heels, but flat flip-flops would work
  • Pumas: A nice stroll not much harder than walking in the city
  • Trailblazers: If you want to be nice to your feet on this hike, they’ll need some more serious protection and support.
  • Hiking boots: Pull out the ugly shoes and summon your closet granola. This hike is going to kick your ass.

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