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Exploring California’s Wonders

November 10, 2011—Professors Lydia Rodríguez, Department of Foreign Languages, and Francisco Alarcón, Department of Mathematics, share an account of their adventures in Northern and Central California with the hope of inspiring others to travel.

By Lydia Rodríguez and Francisco Alarcón

Sequoia NP

Francisco Alarcón and Lydia Rodríguez at Sequoia National Park

This year we decided to head off to California to uncover the mystery of the giants and the wonders it has to offer. After all, it is called the Golden State. Our mission was to explore Northern and Central California’s nature: Lake Tahoe, Sequoia National Park, Yosemite National Park, the hot springs of Calistoga, and the coastal redwoods.

We are teachers, writers, and cultural explorers presenting our adventures to educate in a meaningful and entertaining read. Whether exploring other countries or states on your own or with us in spirit, we hope to spark curiosity and inspire our readers to travel. Our expedition begins in Indiana, Pa.

Origin of the Name California

Before embarking on our journey, we began pondering the meaning of the name California. We came across numerous sites and articles discussing possible origins of it. Although there are many theories and speculations as to how California received its name, we like the one that references the Spanish writer García Ordóñez de Montalvo.

Highway One coast

A scene from Highway 1, along the Pacific Coast

It seems more apropos, given that the Spanish, as all sources confirm, baptized the terroir with its current name. The Spanish during the sixteenth century tended to be influenced by books on fantastic chivalry and religion to identify or misidentify the unknown.

California seems to have come from the knightly romance book of Ordóñez de Montalvo, Las sergas de Esplandián (Exploits of Espladán), which was published around 1510. In the book, Queen Califia ruled over a country of beautiful black Amazons with lots of pearls and gold. Therefore, when the Spanish conquistadores arrived at the mysterious lands of California, they thought they had found Queen Califia’s mythical island in 1535 because they found pearls and gold in the state. The Spanish immediately named the region before they had actually explored it. Otherwise, they would have found out that it wasn’t an island, and California might not have received its name.

Yosemite NP

Yosemite National Park

This yesteryear’s Spanish and Mexican territory became the allure of the United States government around 1835 and is now the attraction of many because of its abundant and diverse resources, its agreeable weather, and its stunningly varied landscape. California is the most populated state and ranked third biggest in territory in the nation.

Northern California is home to cooler climate and rain on the coast where fog builds up. Moreover, Northern California tends to be green and lush with vegetation, trees, and forests all year-round. Central California is mid-state, north of Southern California. It has a summer dry season and cool, foggy, rainy season. Central California’s boundaries vary according to the person who is analyzing the state. It suffices to say, the San Joaquín Valley forms part of the central state. Some divide the state only into Northern and Southern. There are two good cities to fly into when visiting Northern California, San Francisco or Sacramento.

Five Minutes of Fame in Sacramento

We flew into the state’s capital, Sacramento, literally meaning sacrament, or “Lord’s Supper,” named by Captain Joaquín Moraga in 1848 to support Fort Sutter and the gold rush (1848-1855). Unfortunately, we didn’t find any gold, but we found a wealth of cultural activities inside the city.

state capitol

The state capitol in Sacramento

The state’s capitol is located downtown; between J and L streets, the Capitol Park surrounds the capitol building. This lush green space contains more than one hundred labeled botanical specimens native to California and also trees and plants from around the world received as gifts. The park includes historical and cultural monuments such as a Vietnam War memorial, the World Peace Rose Garden, Sisters of Mercy, and many more.

A nice stroll through the park allowed us to appreciate the fine crafted architectural details on the state capitol building. We were informed by our guide that the front steps of the capitol, which have side views of the park, also provide a forum for public demonstrations. And to think that the serene beautiful park could suddenly burst into rage. Inside the capitol are the functioning bureaucratic offices and historical tours of the state building. Unfortunately, Governor Edmond (Jerry) G. Brown, Jr., was not available to see us (chuckle); however, we did get our five minutes of fame on Channel 10 ABC News Sacramento. Outside of the capitol building, a news reporter interviewed Francisco on the drop of the stock market and people’s retirement. The Dow Jones on that day, August 4, had plunged 500 points. That evening, we watched the five o’clock news while preparing for our first adventure.

Wandering the Banks of Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe, nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Placer and El Dorado counties, is a one-and-a-half-hour drive northeast from Sacramento. The lake is considered the third deepest in North America; its deepest point is 1,645 feet, and one-third of the lake lies in Nevada. It is surrounded by ponderosa pine trees.

Bertness and Alarcon

Alarcón with retired Mathematics professor Charles Bertness, left, in front of Donner Lake

In Tahoe, we caught up with IUP retired mathematician Charlie Bertness. Although there are many outdoor activities and events that take place in Tahoe during the summer, we chose to wander around the south shore banks of the cool water and take in one of nature’s striking creations. We ate in one of the shoreline restaurants and visited with Dr. Bertness.

Afterward, he took us to Donner Pass, where we gazed down at Donner Lake. The lake is about ten miles from Lake Tahoe. So tranquil and enchanting in the Sierra Nevada mountain range that overlooks the blue water lakes—the stillness of nature helps put all into perspective of past and present. Our day ended with hot coffee at Dr. Bertness’s house before returning to Sacramento. It was pleasant to connect with a former IUP professor in California.

The Giants of Sequoia National Park

Our next stop was to see the sequoia trees. Sequoia National Park is a four-hour drive southeast from Sacramento. It is the second oldest national park, after Yellowstone, and is located in Central California at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, elevating from the foothills of the San Joaquín Valley by 7,000 feet.

sequoia up close

Because of their specific climate and elevation needs, giant sequoias can be found only in Central California.

The essentials for hiking: a good pair of walking shoes, lots of water, sunblock, a good hat, and food. We spent an entire day at the park, from sunup to sundown. We hiked for miles on the trails that looped our travel through the dozens of giant sequoias as wide as our living room. We saw jaw-dropping sequoias and were humbled by the General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest living tree by volume. It is more than 100 feet around and taller than a 27-story building, so we were told. It was humongous.

The sun was intense, but nothing could stop us from seeing nature’s beauty and continuing to be wowed. Incredibly peaceful was the singing of the birds and the whoosh of the wind, while greenery brushed up against our legs.

Sequoias vs. Redwoods

The impacting feature of these sequoias is that they are found only in this part of the world.

Redwoods tall

Coastal redwoods are taller and more slender than sequoias.

The climate and elevation allows for their population. They can survive neither below 5,000 feet nor above 7,500 feet. In order to see them, people must travel to their habitat in Central California.

Their massive girth will impress anyone. There is a difference between the sequoias and the coastal redwoods, which we would see later on our trip.

The giant sequoias have a massive trunk, huge, stout branches, and cinnamon-colored bark. Also called the “Sierra redwood” and “big tree,” their scientific name is the Sequoiadendron giganteum.

The taller and more slender coastal redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, is more conifer-like in profile. It has red-colored bark.

The sequoias grow naturally on the west slope of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, while the redwoods grow naturally only in a narrow strip along the Pacific Coast.

More on the coastal redwoods later.

Sequoia NP is about a two-hour drive from Yosemite National Park, so we stayed overnight at a hotel in the small town of Merced in between the two parks. Our aching feet and legs were grateful for an eight-hour rest. We were glad we had made our reservations ahead because all hotels book up quickly in the area during the summer.

Waterfalls and Granite Domes of Yosemite

The next day at 8:00 a.m., we were headed to Yosemite NP. Yosemite is a World Heritage site and California’s first national park. The park is spectacular.

El Capitan

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park is believed to be the largest single piece of granite on Earth.

It delivers a king’s ransom of geologic wonders, including two of the tallest free-falling waterfalls in North America (at least this is what the rangers explained to us): the Yosemite Falls and the Bridalveil Falls. They are astonishing to see.

Yosemite has dozens of granite domes polished by glaciers, like the famous El Capitan.

El Cap, as rangers call it, is a massive sentinel of granite; it’s the holy grail of rock climbing. That particular day we didn’t see any rock climbers. If El Capitan is the largest single piece of granite on Earth, we wondered, how many kitchen counters would El Capitan make?

We stayed one full day at the park, so we needed to make the most of the trip. We opted for one- to three-mile hikes, taking the minibus to farther distances, such as the falls. After our full day at Sequoia NP the day before, our tired bodies thanked us.

Bridalveil Falls

Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite National Park is among the tallest free-falling waterfalls in North America.

Our trails offered nonstop, stunning views we delighted in, and we were awed by the rock climbers tackling other granite formations at a distance.

Glacier Point was a wonder to behold—a scenic view of many rock mountains and waterfalls—and it was our last visit of the park. Then dusk had fallen, warning us play time was over. We headed back content to Sacramento, a two-hour drive northwest through a winding road on Highway 108.

The two national parks are definitely a nature lover’s dream. After the workouts at the national parks and the blistering sun, going to the gym is not required. Also, it is amazing how thousands of people from all over the world visit these national parks. It was like the United Nations in both parks: different people from many parts of the world and countless languages from all over the place.

We noticed that Sequoia NP is less crowded than Yosemite; the scenery is different, too. While Sequoia NP has monster trees that grow only in that particular part of the world, with its high mountainous altitudes, Yosemite has mixtures of tree species, amazing cascading waterfalls, and granite mountainsides. Nonetheless, both parks make a nice little getaway from the humdrum routine, and the beautiful green foliage is abundant.

The Flavors of Napa Valley

Our soothing moment with nature was followed by the swirl, sip, and savory flavors of Wine Country in Napa Valley, a one-and-a-half-hour drive northwest from Sacramento. We made our base in Calistoga, at the northern end of Napa Valley.

Napa Valley vineyards

The vineyards of Napa Valley

Napa Valley is a vino connoisseur haven, and the romantic tres chic escape to take a partner for one, two, three, or more days. Napa is well known for its wine making and tasting; however, its incredible climate and geography are conducive to other leisure activities, such as bicycling, hiking, shopping, culinary adventures, and spa treatments for those taste buds that say no more to the vino, “let’s change the pace.” We did our share of tasting in the well-maintained and impressive vineyards.

After a long day of wine tasting, we went to the Ad Hoc Restaurant in Yountville. Yountville is south of Calistoga, about a thirty-minute drive down Highway 29. The restaurant is owned by Chef Thomas Keller, who is also owner of the famous French Laundry Restaurant, not too far from Ad Hoc, and the Per Se Restaurant in New York City.

Ad Hoc Restaurant

Dinner included Snake River Farms Kurobuta Pork Short Ribs at the Ad Hoc Restaurant in Yountville.

We give Ad Hoc two thumbs-up on the four-course, exquisite meal. We were glad that we had made our reservations a month ahead; the place was jam-packed. The menu changes daily; there was no picking or choosing, rather preparing our palates for the culinary art pieces that we were about to savor.

That day our menu consisted of Salad of Baby Mixed Greens (chiogga beets, chopped hazelnuts, baby leeks, pickled carrots, creamy goat cheese dressing), Snake River Farms Kurobuta Pork Short Ribs, wild mushroom and garden squash casserole, crispy russet potatoes with charred tomato vinaigrette, Landaff cheese, and Peach and Almond Financier (caramel sauce, whipped crème fraiche) for dessert. In addition, we had the suggested house wine pairings, and they made excellent choices. We left pleased with glee to have had the opportunity to experience food from a renowned chef. Ad Hoc is a top notch restaurant worth the trip; we would recommend it to anyone visiting the area.

Pampered in Calistoga

Our temporary base, Calistoga, is known for its wellness and water commodities. The bubbly medicinal waters of the hot springs draw many health enthusiasts as well as curious those for a good pampering. We decided to try the pampering.

Mud bath

Bathing in mineral mud, prepared with clay, volcanic ash, peat moss, and minerals, removes toxicity from the body, according to a spa in Calistoga.

We were placed in individual, big Roman concrete bathtubs, where we were neck deep in mineral mud. The mud was a concoction prepared with clay, volcanic ash, peat moss, minerals, and who knows what else? It felt heavy, grainy, and hot and smelled sulfuric, but the treatment is supposed to pull out all of the toxicity from our bodies, according to the spa attendant.

After a thirty-minute soak in our mud baths, we were sprayed down with refreshing hot springs mineral water, and then we were placed in a giant hot tub with more of the mineral spring water. After this step, we were wrapped up in a giant blanket, like a big burrito, and left to relax another ten minutes in a low-light room.

Finally, our treatment ended with a soothing thirty-minute massage, and our bodies felt like Gumby. So relaxed and tender, we were ready for bed. The entire procedure detoxified us and relieved our aching muscles from all the hiking we did at the national parks.

Coastal Redwoods: ‘So Old, Yet So Full of Life’

Our impurities had been dispelled and we were rejuvenated ready to head to Redwood Country on Highway 101, the Redwood Highway. The four- to five-hour drive from Calistoga to Eureka was as pleasant as it was gorgeous. We took the scenic drive that travels along the Eel River and through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The road twisted and turned around giant trees. We stopped and gawked at the different redwood groves to admire the outstanding displays of virgin redwood trees and numerous dedicated parks.

Redwood trunk

This redwood, known as the Grandfather Tree, is 1,800 years old, 265 feet tall, and 24 feet in diameter.

We learned that the coastal redwoods are the tallest living trees in the world, and they are often more than three hundred feet high. The oldest dated coast redwood is 2, 200 years old, which is pretty close to the time Jesus Christ walked on this earth. My five-foot-two stature is an ant size in comparison to the size of those giants. We were seeing something so old, yet so full of life. They stand tall, proud, and majestic with their thick trunk and evergreen branches. We felt minuscule at their base. If these giants could only speak, they would talk to us of the prehistoric times when dinosaurs roamed. Further north on Highway 101, the vastness of the redwoods and other large trees continued.

Sasquatch Sighting?

While at Trees of Mystery, we believe we caught a glimpse of a huge, nine-foot hairy, human-like creature that ran swiftly amid the forest. It could have been our eyes blinded by the sunlight streaming through the trees; though, it is said that this area, is the home of the legendary Sasquatch, or Big Foot. We are still perplexed and unsure of what we saw.

Humboldt County: Agate Beach, Patrick’s Point, Trinity Harbor

We visited different beaches, various rivers, and state parks in Humboldt County. Patrick’s Point and Agate Beach were outstanding.

Patrick's Point

Patrick’s Point is a state park in the heart of Redwood Country, right on the Pacific Coast.

Patrick’s Point is a state park in the heart of Redwood Country, right on the coast, where the Pacific Ocean meets the land. We hiked through the dense forest stretching over spectacular panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. We made steep hikes up rocky cliffs, such as Wedding Rock, that were well worth it. Wedding Rock offered breathtaking ocean vistas of the waves crashing into the rocks ashore.

One of Patrick’s Point’s trails led us to Agate Beach. It was excitingly dangerous hiking where the steep path goes to the wonderfully pebbly beach. The beach is covered with wave-polished stones, seashells, and driftwood. We walked along the side of the coast feeling the pebbly sand rush in and out from under our feet and watching the hypnotic, chilly waves wash onto land.

Agate Beach

Agate Beach in Humboldt County is covered with wave-polished stones, seashells, and driftwood.

Patrick’s Point is about six miles to the south, along the Pacific Ocean cliffs’ end of the Trinidad Harbor. The harbor is now a summer resort and a sports fishing harbor; however, it was once a supply port for Trinity miners during the gold rush of the 1850s. Though, credit must be given to the Spaniards, who discovered the location in 1595.

Humboldt County was relaxing with its 60 degree cool weather; it was as if stepping back in time. The environment is laid back and slow paced, nothing like Sacramento’s cosmopolitan hustle and 100 degree blazing weather.

We returned to the state capital via Highway 1, the Shoreline Highway. The Pacific Coast paved the entire way back; it’s the scenic route and guaranteed to please. Our time was measured, and the clock was ticking to return to Pennsylvania.

The California Grizzly

Our trip wasn’t to the exotic unknown; it was an exploration to a few of our nation’s beauties. The Golden State is mountains, deserts, oceans, rivers, forests, farm lands, rural towns, and urban cities. California has it all, a diverse ecology and a true multiculture of peoples.

California grizzly

Rodríguez poses with the extinct California grizzly bear in the state capitol building in Sacramento.

As we left California, we reflected on the Spanish empire that once was, and, although it is a has been, the names, the culture, the language, the food, and the inhabitants of California all reveal, and remind us, of the greatness of that empire of its time.

As for the grizzly bear, which has been extinct in California since the 1920s but once numbered perhaps as many as ten thousand in the state, it was adopted and emblemizes power and tenacity. The first Bear Flag made its appearance in 1846 during the explosion of the Mexican-American War, and in 1953 the California grizzly bear was made the official state animal of California.