Spiritual Cleansing: A Visit to Redwoods National Park

Long, long ago, I knew I wanted to visit the majestic redwoods on California’s northern coast. These have always been my favorite tree, despite never seeing one except in articles or photographs. I followed those early stories about tree-hugging hippies illegally camping high in a massive redwood tree to save it from the lumberjack’s chainsaw. I connected to their efforts but despite the peaceful protest, felt we would needlessly and eventually lose a special creation of nature.

Since back then, I have admired this amazing tree yet combined with shame and sadness at how our human race so quickly decimated the vast majority of these stately trees. Coastal California redwoods have been there for almost 20 million years and fossils of trees related to these coastal redwoods go back to the Jurassic Era, some 160 million years ago. Yet it took man less than one hundred years—from around 1850 on—to nearly wipe out these old-growth forests through relentless and uncontrolled harvesting.

Protection finally began around 1918 when a group began acquiring large acres of untouched old-growth forests. By the time national park designation came in 1968, what remained of the world’s old-growth redwood forests was a mere 5%. Scientists estimate the original coastal redwoods range was about two million acres. What’s left is about 116,000 acres. Over 95% of the world’s remaining old-growth redwoods are in California.

The history of these unbelievably huge and tall trees is both interesting and depressing, and serves to emphasize what a special privilege it is to walk among them and experience the spiritual cleansing that comes from being in wild, untouched nature such as these redwood forests. 

In mid-November, even though not the best time to visit, I had two days and three nights to immerse into the woods. That time of the year is unpredictably cool but predictably wet. Between the fog that rolls in and nourishes the forest, and the fronts that come in from over the ocean, the area is, in concept, basically a rain forest. One realizes this in a few minutes after hiking into the woods and seeing the predominance of ferns and mosses around these gigantic trees and also covering the fallen tree trunks and limbs.

One of my favorite quotes says it all about how I feel when in a place like the redwood forests:

I believe in God, only I spell it n-a-t-u-r-e.

– Frank Lloyd Wright

Anytime I visit natural places where the beauty, scale, and sheer variety of life and form exists without evidence of human interference, trash, etc., I have felt closer to something spiritual than in any man-made edifice. It is unusual, however, to hike into a place so void of humanness both in sight and sound as it was hiking two long trails in the Redwoods National Park.

Redwoods N.P. - The Big Tree
Redwoods N.P. – The Big Tree

I have been thinking about what to write about these silent denizens of a very special forest in the week since I was there. To say I was moved to be in their midst does not convey the punch I felt. To reiterate, it was both humbling and sad to realizing the vast numbers lost before conservation took place is obvious, and I think most everyone would feel that as well.

From the rangers I learned that most who venture into these old-growth forests mention it being a religious or spiritual moment, or did not know trees grew as big as these redwoods, or found the absolute quiet of the deep woods both amazing and disarming. For me, I can add the amazement of unrelenting natural beauty at every turn and dip and rise along the soft paths. I have had some amazing hikes in my life, but the 10-mile hike the second day that took me ever deeper into the redwood forest may be the best I have ever trekked, if not the top two or three. 

Photographically, I have never tried to capture the essence of tree like these before only to fail. Their immensity alone makes for difficult shots and lack of context or scale. Between the woods bathed in low light and the inability to back up to catch the enormity in the viewfinder, I managed to catch a few hikers beside trees and a few selfies of myself, but even these do not relate what my eyes were feasting on.

I will return and planning to spend at least a week there next summer, but I expect, because of crowds, my isolated experience will not be so easily repeatable. A helpful ranger, however, helped me understand the better trails to go on next time and the secret for better enjoyment in season: out walk the tourists. Most who visit rarely venture more than a mile or two into the popular trails. With over 75 miles of gorgeous, soft-pathed trails (from fallen ferns and redwood needles) throughout the park, hiking past most visitors should be doable.

I hope you enjoy the photos in the galleries below. I went a little crazy with the cameras (mix of Nikon and iPhone shots) but can assure you this is just a small selection of all the shots I took! If you are ever near the park, you will not regret stopping for a few days to wander amidst these giants who silently live out their lives (some to 2,000 years old) and quietly, spiritually, connect life and nature.

Click on any image below to begin a slide show.

Small Town Farmer’s Market

Arcata Farmer’s Market

Today’s walk through the Arcata, CA farmer’s market was under crystal clear blue skies and 60 degree/light wind weather. Always fun to wander aimlessly through a small town’s farmer’s market, and especially when it is in a completely different part of the country than home.

Held around the town’s downtown square (a perfect location), the locals were out in force including the young and old, homeless and well-heeled, dogs and kiddies. Delighted to see most of the booths were local produce farmers or honey merchants or bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. There were a few arts & crafts booths, but all seemed locally made goods.

Arcata Farmer’s Market

The gorgeous garden-fresh produce made me regret stocking up three days ago! I can only carry so much in the van, so I had to restrain, only picking up some unusual baby purple broccoli and one nice, plump kohlrabi. Since it was near my 10 a.m. breakfast time, I treated myself to local fresh coffee and a Nicaraguan vegetarian breakfast burrito, followed by a gluten-free pumpkin spice scone. Sadly the scone was bland despite the promise of its name, but the other two were delightful.

Despite the scone’s disappointment, hard not to be blissful sitting in the sun enjoying my breakfast. Great people watching of the interesting locals in this slightly rural, slightly retro small, northern California town, one twinged with a touch of hippie and earthy artisanal sensibilities.

If the temperatures were not enough to remind me I was not in Michigan, that gorgeous green grass was!

Click on any image below to start a slide show.

The Siren Song of the Sea

California Coasts PCH 1
California coast along Pacific California Highway 1

One thing I looked forward to when I got to California was the drive up the coast via Pacific California Highway 1.

It did not disappoint. At times it is a challenging drive with curves and extreme drop-offs (often without guard rails), but the scenery more than makes up for any driving inconvenience.

My decision to keep each day’s driving to 3-5 hours at most turned out to be a wise move. I quickly lost track of how many stops I made just to take in the view and snap some photos. I credit the abundance of pullouts and overlooks, each more beautiful than the last, and seemingly endless opportunities to stare at the amazing views. At some point I had to accept I had seen enough through the camera and drive on past some stunning views.

I am in northern California now, staying for a bit with some friends in Arcata. And I expect as I continue up the coast and go along the ocean in Oregon that there will be plenty more stops along the way to take in nature’s wonder where land meets sea.

Click to open any image below and start a slide show to see them all.

Waiting for the Knock on the Door

Stealth camping
Stealth camping, San Luis Obispo, CA

One of the few times (to me) in van life that’s on the margin is stealth parking on an urban street in hopes of getting a quiet sleep for the night. In California it is far more difficult than any state I visited to do this. Most of the usual choices for a night stopover when driving through somewhere (WalMart, restaurants, quiet residential streets, e.g.) are prohibited here by laws and fines with lots of posted signs, a ridiculous about of signs even on highways well beyond city limits.

In some places where I see numerous run-down RVs parked and obviously camped out for much more than one night despite the signs, I drive on. I always prefer places populated by active van lifers and RVers than those living in a parked RV. Thankfully, due to some apps I use, I can often locate places like the photo above from last night, places where someone’s posted a review of a successful knock-less night. But sometimes those places don’t pass my inner comfort critic, so I move on to something similar nearby.

Last night was an alternate spot, and a restless evening somewhat from outside noises but certainly from 1 a.m. brightly colored flashing lights. I can fully black out VanGeist where even if I have inside lights on, you cannot see in from the outside. Plus, my van more resembles a working trade van than an actual RV (partly from Winnebago’s design but mostly from my outside modifications for this generic look).

As I peeked out the back window through the smallest unzippered slit in the window cover I could make, I saw a commotion won the short block a bit. Two officers where shining flashlights over and in two darkened parked cars. After a few minutes, they got in their car and drove exactly one car length further on my side of the street, got out, and knocked on a car’s window. The occupant responded and was greeted by ”Get out of the car,” yet I could hear him say ”I thought it was okay to park here overnight.” More mumbling, more flashlights, but soon the car’s occupant went back inside and the police drove past me to the corner and turned at the next street.

I do not think they were cleansing the street of vehicles with people sleeping in them. Seemed more like they were looking for someone or something specific. I spent the rest of the night restless, tensing a bit when any vehicle passed by, wondering if they would stop and I would get the knock on the door. But night passed, and in the early dawn hot coffee with a breakfast burrito from just around the corner rewarded my perseverance to hang in there for the night.

This was the closest I came to a knock on the door in the middle of the night in well over two years of van traveling and street camping. I am doing more of that this Van Life 2.0 in VanGeist than I did in my Travato in 2019. So far, I have learned a lot about picking locations, watching for signs whether a spot is viable and above all, cultivating an inner sense to stay or go. Cool thing about being in a van is if the vibe is off or you feel uncomfortable even if not knowing why, you simply drive on to somewhere else.

Sometimes in life we seem stuck in a tensed state, metaphorically waiting for that knock on the door. Whether it is our internal mental fear generator that takes a few coincidences and weaves together an angst-riddled false conclusion or a series of body pains that tips our mind over into dark places, it is often difficult to break free from, or logically dispel, these phantom threats.

Being someone who worked through anxieties decades ago, part of what helped me was a cartoon I kept on my refrigerator. One person is seated, and other standing at a large wall graph with a pointer. The graph is a huge, jagged bell curve which she points to near the top of the curve and states ”This is what we worry about.” Then she points to the end of the bell curve where the line barely is above the base axis and says “And this is what we worry about that actually happens.” Something to thing about next time the worry gremlins tap you on the shoulder and want to get in.

Worth It

Rincon Beach - beachside 2

As I thought about driving the California coast from south to north, I hoped I could find places to camp for the night along the ocean. Sounds of relentless surf are so soothing and grounding yet not always easy to find such a place to overnight in a van.

In the wee hours before dawn today I left Los Angeles driving in a low fog that became a dreary, smoggy, chilly morning. Driving through Topanga Canyon was fun but would have been visually stunning had the fog surrendered to the sun, but Sol never made much effort to give me a good view of the hills and canyons. Fortunately, once on the coast and with some morning hours to burn off the fog and miles to churn heading north up the coast, the day turned to blue skies and sunshine.

While I may have more chances along the western Pacific coast all the way to Washington, yesterday I stumbled upon the RV fee parking at Rincon Beach near Ventura. This stretch of Pacific Coast Highway 1 is clearly quite popular since there were only two spots left unclaimed. Most days I overnight at free spots or sometimes a National Forest or other federal land where the camping fees are low. I avoid RV parks and rarely visit state parks, but today I decided this spot was totally worth it. Going online to pay what by California standards is an average fee, turned out to be two to three times more than I have paid for a camp site for one night.

Settling in shortly after 1 p.m., knowing I would have a whole afternoon enjoying sunshine, sounds of the surf, and time wandering the beach and playing tag with incoming waves helped muffle my inner critic’s whine ”Did you really just pay $44 for a one night camp site?” I lost that game of beach tag when a faster-than-I-was incoming wave spread over my feet with the shock of the cold Pacific Ocean awakening an ”Oh yeah, I forgot about that” memory jolt.

Since I looked out west over the ocean, I was hoping for a glorious sunset to close out my afternoon camping by the beach. While any sunset over water is beautiful, yesterday’s lack of clouds at sundown made for a simple evening light show. Still, did not dampen my serenity from spending a pleasant afternoon watching and listening to cascading waves of surf and sound. And as you might imagine, I slept like a baby last night with that lullaby in my ears.

Los Angeles Panoramic Splendor (Despite the Intense Smog)

Smog? Um, yeah
Smog? Um, yeah

Wow. Nothing shocks one quite like taking the beautiful, winding drive up to Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, CA, only to stand at the top for the amazing panoramic view of…intense smog. I had heard that during the early months of the pandemic shutdown the smog around LA cleared up! I can only imagine how beautiful these views would have been back then.

Despite that, Griffith Park is an amazing place. May linger another day just to explore it more and time to wander through Laurel Canyon and some other significant spots I recall from way back in my semi-hippie days. For now, this brief taste of the views, hills, and canyons around the observatory will have to do.

I took the drive up intending to stop and wander on foot, but all the parking around the observatory was $10 an hour, so wasn’t doing that. I did stay a little while in my illegal parking spot, but only about 10 minutes. On my drive down, however, I came across a large, free public parking area with several trailheads. So I parked and took a nice two-mile hike (half constantly up hill, the way back constantly down hill). Ironically, the hike led up to…the observatory! So got to spend more time there after all.

Early morning at the Griffith Observatory
Early morning at the Griffith Observatory

Killing Time, California Style

Yesterday I had some time to kill waiting on an Amazon email telling me my two Amazon Locker packages were ready for pick up. So I did what apparently most Californians do when killing time or getting out in the sun on a Sunday: head to the beach.

I first drove to Newport Beach, thinking via the Google Maps view I could find a place to park and gaze out over the ocean. Nope. Massive amount of people and crammed together houses and zero parking near the beach. Going to Google Maps again, with a new, discerning eye, I headed out Pacific Coast Highway #1 and stopped at Huntington State Beach. Had to pay $15 entrance fee (am learning you have to pay for almost everything you do in California to somebody), but it did give me a chance to dump trash, recycling, and empty my onboard #1 guy bottles (if you don’t get that code, don’t ask!).

Nice beach, with lots of locals out bicycling and wandering about. NOT crowded (that’s almost worth the admission price) and able to park VanGeist sideways so I could sit and look out the slider door. Cool stuff.

Enjoy the photo gallery below of the various scenes, especially notable being the fleet of sitting cargo ships up and down the shore. No doubt part of the massive fleet of stalled deliveries off the west coast. Hard to photograph, but they extended almost as far down the beach as I could see. I’m sure those unavailable black rims I’ve wanted for the van tires are probably in one of those containers on one of those ships and been there for months!

Winding Toward Sedona

Entering Sedona
Entering Sedona

If you find yourself going to Sedona from Flagstaff, AZ, take highway 89A instead of 17 to get there as I did last week on my way to Phoenix. One of best mountain drives I have traveled in a long time. The video below gives you a small taste, but falls short of the experience of the elevation and extreme winding roads. Unlike some rocky mountain passes where road edges tend to be shear drops, 89A on the way to Sedona is lush with trees and guard rails! Nice concept, these guard rails on steep-sided roads.

As for Sedona, I am about to make a lot of people I know disagree with me. I loved the geography and the landscapes but Sedona itself was wholly depressing to me. Yet another beautiful natural setting, culture, and town completely neutered by money and privelege. I have seen too many of these amazing locations lose their culture, diversity, and personality from developers and money coming to town and conducting real estate genocide. Too pristine, too clinical, and too soulless for my tastes. I know many who love this place and embrace it as what they believe is a spiritual and soul-enhancing place, yet I see it as merely another Rodeo Drive built in the desert.

That said, I would like to come back some time to explore nature outside the town boundaries. Fortunately there are several national forest campgrounds on the winding drive in, and some good BLM land for boondocking south away from Sedona. Both would make excellent bases while exploring.

Continuing the drive I had mapped out to get into the mountains and away from the interstates, I stumbled on the delightful mountain-side town of Jerome, AZ. Like something one might drive through in Europe and the Alps, Jerome’s downtown buildings all seem to hang off the mountainside along the narrow and always winding road through town. A delightful drive, although I wish to be a passenger and not the driver some time when I can come back to explore Jerome. Too narrow, winding, and always a sheer drop off the edge to do much gawking (and forget about taking pictures!) as I steered VanGeist along the route and successful avoided rolling down the 1,000’+ sheer drops.

From there I wandered on to Prescott, encountering more winding mountain roads after Jerome more like those in the Rocky Mountains, meaning frequent sheer drops without guardrails and not as fun as the winding, moutain-side drive going into Sedona.

This part of Arizona I stumbled onto serendipitously is definitely on my list of places to return and spend more time. Maybe even stay a night in the Jerome Grand Hotel perched high up the mountainside with an amazing view, and wander the unusual and unique shops in the town. Certainly would be a good, physical workout!

Click video to play (and see options along bottom). Click on any image in the gallery to open a slideshow.

Quartzite Time

Beautiful in its own way
Beautiful in its own way

If you happen to watch (or read) Nomadland, you glimpse part of Quartzite, AZ, probably the best known BLM camping area in the U.S. This is my first visit, and I arrived with preconceptions of what it would be like. After finding a spot, setting up, and wandering about a bit, I quickly realized my expectations were way off.

Quartzite is also a town where a surprising number of permanent homes and residents exist. With a population close to 4,000, a median age of 69, and median income a bit over $20,000, it seems primarily a retirement destination. Yet I do wonder if those in houses really live here during the summer when temps average +100 degrees and often well exceed that mark. In the RV and van life world, this is the mecca of cheap, long-term in-vehicle living especially suited to the winter season. Many such dwellers will live here in the winter, then migrate north into the Arizona mountains, then back to Quartzite the next fall and winter.

It is a stark place, yet has a beauty apparent after you settle in, stare out the van window for some quiet reflection, then take time to wander through the landscape. Right now it is quiet here, although after Thanksgiving when the snowbirds descend en masse I imagine quiet would not be a useful description. Vegetation and wildlife survive despite the struggle evident by the disfigured saguaro cactus and long-dead weathered trees. The landscape of mostly scrub bushes, gnarly trees, and more rocks strewn about than I have ever seen, are obvious hints little rainfall happens here and few days of relief from blistering sunshine. Whatever vegetation dies here lives on in another form, the wind, heat, and low humidity weathering and preserving remains, vestiges of former plant lives in fascinating shapes and extreme textures. I expected a typical desert, but there is far less sand and soil here than you might think. In the eon-long war waged here between sand and rocks, clearly the rocks won long ago.

As someone who enjoys rock hunting, Quartzite is a treasure trove where one could spend hours hiking without ever looking up, step after step leading your eyes to one cool rock after another. On this morning’s two+ mile hike, I over-weighted my down vest’s pockets to the point I worried about tearing them and had to jettison a few choices I picked up. Truth is, if I stayed here long, I would undoubtedly fill boxes of rocks to take home.

This stopover of three days happened between time in Phoenix to resolve a van coach heating issue and an appointment in San Diego next week for some seriously cool van upgrades. It gave me a chance to check out BLM Quartztite since my tentative winter plans may include spending several months here. Better to dip my toes first now before showing up unaware for a long stay later. Where I am now is in Hi Jolly Campground, one of the free, 14-day-max-stay areas. There are LTVA locations (long-term visiter area) where one can stay up to seven months at a stretch, and I will settle in one of those campgrounds for the longer visit. LTVA spots are $180 flat fee regardless of stay, but offer the luxuries of onsite trash facilities, water, and dump stations, whereas the 14-day free spots require one to leave and go into town for those supports.

On my walk this morning I slowly felt my notions of this landscape change from desolate and stark, to appreciating the beauty and variety it offers if one takes the time to immerse, open the mind and senses, and let go of any preconceived notions and restrictions defining beauty in nature. From the amazing textures of weathered wood, to the variety of rocks, to the living vegetation that is surviving despite the odds, this Sonoran Desert landscape is a wonderland in its own way.