Virginia City, Nevada…A Taste of the Wild West

Wild West Mining Town

          The historic mining town of Virginia City, Nevada is a great place to get a glimpse of life in the old west.  The nearby Lake Tahoe/ Reno area is one of four side trips within a few hours’ drive from the San Francisco Bay Area that visitors will want to include on their Northern California itinerary.  The other three are Yosemite National Park, Carmel-by-the-Sea and, of course, the Wine Country of Napa County.

South Lake Tahoe, California

South Lake Tahoe, California

          On a recent camping trip with family and friends to South Lake Tahoe we took a side trip to Virginia City, Nevada.  Less than 90 minutes from all the action at Lake Tahoe, the drive took us over the beautiful eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and out into the open desert of Nevada.  Once there you’ll find the streets of Virginia City lined with historic buildings such as Pipers Opera House, unique restaurants like the Mustang Ranch Steakhouse and interesting shops with western wear and souvenirs.  As you stroll the main street you can watch a Wild West shoot out, stop to sip a sarsaparilla at the Bucket of Blood Saloon and take a gander at a $65,000 gold nugget.

The Main Street of Virginia City, Nevada

The Main Street of Virginia City, Nevada

Mark Twain Slept Here

          After silver was discovered in the Comstock Lode in 1859, Virginia City literally sprang up from the desert, eventually reaching a population of 25,000 at its peak.  Plagued by extremes in temperature, devastating fires and declining output from the mines, Virginia City saw its best days come and go in less than 20 years.  One of Virginia City’s most famous inhabitants was Samuel Clemens who lived there from 1862 to 1864 and it was there that he first used his more familiar pen name, Mark Twain.

Bucket of Blood Saloon, Virginia City, Nevada

Bucket of Blood Saloon, Virginia City, Nevada

          No trip to Virginia City would be complete without a visit to Boot Hill, which is located at the northeast end of town.  Wandering among the tombstones you will find everyone from outlaws who were hanged to Civil War Veterans to pioneer families buried here.  Speaking of veterans, hats off to Virginia City for honoring its veterans, past and present, with banners on the lamp posts lining the main street!

Boot Hill, Virginia City, Nevada

Boot Hill, Virginia City, Nevada

Planning Your Trip

          Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area you will take Interstate 80 East to Sacramento, where you can stop and visit the California state capitol.  Continuing east on Highway 50 now, you will enter the foothills made famous by the ‘gold rush’ of 1849.  Midway between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe make a pit stop at the town of Placerville for a look at some of the old buildings dating back to the gold rush era.  Placerville was originally known as ‘Hangtown’ for the many hangings that took place there during this lawless period in California history.  Moving east into the Sierra Nevada Mountains you will eventually descend into the Tahoe Basin, arriving at South Lake Tahoe.

Virginia City, Nevada

Virginia City, Nevada

          The attractions and activities at South Lake Tahoe are limitless and include visits to secluded Fallen Leaf Lake, fabulous Pope Beach with it long stretch of clean, white sand, the historic Baldwin Estate and the casinos at Stateline on the California-Nevada border.  Hiking, biking, swimming, boating and fishing are all available here.  For campers and glampers, I recommend the nearby Fallen Leaf Lake Campground.  So, if you’re fortunate enough to have a few extra days while in Northern California, the Lake Tahoe/ Reno area is a great place to spend it and nearby Virginia City, Nevada will give you a taste of the Wild West.

Reno, Nevada...The Biggest Little City in the World

Reno, Nevada…The Biggest Little City in the World

     

Treasures of the Sierra Nevada

Northern California Gems

From the historic gold laden foothills to the alpine lakes and forests of the high country, there are countless places of interest to visit in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California.  Whether you enjoy recreation, sightseeing, relaxing or all of the above you will want to include a trek to this beautiful part of God’s creation on your next visit to the Golden State.  Join us as we explore four treasures of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Northern California.  Yosemite and Lake Tahoe are the two well known crown jewels of the Sierras and, while Bishop and Lake Alpine may have fewer visitors, we’re sure you’ll want to know more about them, too.  All four of these gems are an easy drive from San Francisco and well worth the trip.

Yosemite National Park with El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls

Yosemite National Park with El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls

Yosemite National Park

Arguably the premier national park in the United States, if not the world,Yosemite National Park is a destination that every traveler should have on their list of must see places.  To suit all manner of tastes, accommodations in Yosemite run the gamut from ‘tenting on the old campground’ to a $500 room at the elegant Ahwahnee Hotel.  Whichever you choose, once you’re settled in and have stopped gasping at the breathtaking scenery you can begin exploring this magnificent valley.  A river runs through it and at some point you should plan to float down the Merced River on a rented raft.  Along the way you’ll pass Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in North America and sixth highest in the world, and El Capitan, one of the world’s largest granite monoliths and a favorite of extreme rock climbers.  Bring your binoculars so you can look for them ascending the sheer face of this famous mountain.  Later as you explore the valley by car you’ll want to visit the base of Bridal Veil Falls and Yosemite Falls, both of which are easily accessible on foot.  History buffs won’t want to miss the Miwok/Paiute Indian Village, the Indian Caves and the several museums located in the valley.  A visit to Camp Curry, the original camp established at the foot of Glacier Point in 1899 and now a hub of activity is a great way to end the day.

The Mist Trail to Vernal Falls, Yosemite

The Mist Trail to Vernal Falls, Yosemite

Hikers usually congregate at Happy Isles before heading up this part of the John Muir Trail.  The first leg is the favorite Mist Trail to Vernal Falls, which is an ideal hike for families.  For those in good shape who want to continue on up the trail, Nevada Falls is the next level and farther yet for the truly adventurous is the world famous Half Dome climb, an exhilarating experience enjoyed by visitors from around the globe.  The 18 mile hike from Happy Isles to the top of Half Dome and back can be done in one day and I have actually done it twice.  The final cable ascent up the slick back side of Half Dome is a thriller and has become so popular that you must now get a permit in advance to be one of the 400 hikers allowed to make the climb each day.  If you’re not into hiking you can still drive up to the top of Glacier Point or to beautiful Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake.  Just to give you some sense of the incredible beauty of Yosemite, I once witnessed a bus load of tourists from Switzerland oohing and awing as they stood transfixed by the scenery surrounding them while looking up from the valley floor.

Half Dome, Yosemite

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

Bishop, California 

The one and a half hour drive from Yosemite to Bishop just 75 miles to the southeast will take you through Tuolumne Meadows, past Tenaya Lake and over the infamous Tioga Pass.  After coming down from the mountains into the little town of Lee Vining on the east side of the Sierras you’ll want to take a look at nearby Mono Lake and the otherworldly tufa formations that line its shores.  If time permits you can take a peek at June Lake and Mammoth Lakes before arriving in Bishop, the only city in Inyo County.  Calling it a city is a bit misleading, as it’s more like stepping into a little western town back in the 1950s.  Located in the Owens Valley with the trout filled Owens River flowing through it, Bishop is a magnet for sports aficionados from around the country and the nearby ski resorts and trailheads to the Sierras only add to the draw.  If you are lucky enough to be there on the 4th of July, you can join in with the locals for an awesome fireworks display at the Bishop Airport.  And be sure to have lunch at the popular Erick Schat’s Bakkery and Deli on Main Street.

Long Lake Near Bishop, California

Long Lake Near Bishop, California

Ever thought of taking a horseback ride up into the mountains?  Well, Rainbow Pack Outfitters (named for the Rainbow Trail) is a family friendly business located just outside of Bishop that can make your dream come true.  I took the four hour guided ride with family and friends up to Long Lake and highly recommend this as a way to experience the back country from the comfort of the saddle.  Some of the trail drop-offs can be a bit hair-raising, but the sure-footed horses know their way.  If all this isn’t enough to get you to Bishop, how about this!  Just an hour’s drive east of Bishop up in the White Mountains are the oldest known living (non-clonal) organisms on earth, the Bristlecone Pines.  Some of these trees are nearly 5,000 years old and were just getting started around the time the Pyramids were being built in Egypt.  While it is well worth the trip to see these national treasures, the road is steep and winding in places so large RVs and trailers should not attempt this climb.  And an hour south of Bishop are the Alabama Hills with their unusual rock formations which you are sure to recognize from the many movies and television shows that were filmed there.  With a combination of driving and hiking you can see the old stomping grounds of Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger and might even get a glimpse of nearby Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.

Horseback Riding with Rainbow Outfitters, Bishop, California

Horseback Riding with Rainbow Outfitters, Bishop, California

Lake Tahoe

Farther north up the mountainous backbone of the western United States is the other crown jewel of the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe.  Located on the border of California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America and the second deepest lake in the United States.  Completely surrounded by a stunning vista of mountains, Lake Tahoe is one of the most popular destinations for natives of the Golden West.  It would literally require a book to describe all that this gorgeous lake and surrounding region have to offer, such as scenery, recreation, and sports, as well as entertainment and gambling at the North and South Shore state lines.  While Squaw Valley was the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, it is just one of many world class ski resorts that dot the area.  It seems like just yesterday that I took my first shaky run down the slopes at Heavenly Valley when I was in high school!  While there are many motels and hotels available for visitors to the Tahoe area, camping is an inexpensive, fun way to experience the great outdoors…and there is just something about the smell of the pines up in this part of the Sierras!  I can recommend the Fallen Leaf Lake campground at South Lake Tahoe, where I stayed with family and friends last month and the nearby Camp Richardson beach, one of the most pristine, clean, safe and beautiful beaches I’ve seen in a long time.

Lake Tahoe, California

Lake Tahoe, California

There are numerous side trips that visitors can take while visiting Lake Tahoe.  Just 11 miles to the northwest is Donner Lake, where the ill-fated Donner Party spent the winter of 1846.  If you like history, be sure to visit the Donner Memorial State Park and its Immigrant Trail Museum and explore the sites where their makeshift cabins were built by the lake and at nearby Alder Creek.  About 60 miles east of North Shore Lake Tahoe is Reno, Nevada with its well-known casinos and entertainment.  Just 26 miles south of Reno is the historic old silver mining town of Virginia City, where Samuel Clemens lived for a time and where he first began using his pen name of Mark Twain.  While there you can visit Boot Hill and take a ride on the old steam train before stopping at the Bucket of Blood Saloon for a beer or a sarsaparilla.

Lily Lake Near Lake Tahoe, California

Lily Lake Near Lake Tahoe, California

Lake Alpine 

The fourth gem in our Sierra Nevada treasure trove is Lake Alpine, located between Yosemite (3.5 hours or 144 miles to the south) and Lake Tahoe (just 1 hour or 50 miles to the north).  If you’re looking for some of the same features as Yosemite and Tahoe, but without the crowds, this is a place you’ll want to check out.  A study in contrasts, Alpine County is known for its high snow-covered peaks and its low population (just 1,175 in 2012).  The nearby Bear Valley Ski Resort is responsible for a noticeable bump in the population during the winter.  This area figured prominently in the westward migration to California just before and during the gold rush of the mid 1800s and is the site of an old immigrant trail.  First explored by the likes of Kit Carson and John Fremont, Alpine County has retained its rugged wilderness ambience into the 21st Century.

Fishing at Lake Alpine, California

Fishing at Lake Alpine, California

Lake Alpine itself was formed in 1892 with the damming of Silver Creek by miners.  It has now become a year round destination for those who enjoy fishing, camping, hiking, biking and canoeing or winter sports such as skiing and snowshoeing.  One of the nicest features of the area is the nearly two miles of paved trails around the lake, making it accessible to wheelchairs.  Don’t let the name discourage you from going just up the road to visit lily covered Mosquito Lake, a favorite of fishermen.  The Ebbett’s Pass National Scenic Byway extends east of Lake Alpine heading towards Markleeville and is a beautiful, albeit winding, drive through some untouched sierra scenery.  At an altitude of nearly 9,000 feet, the pass is closed due to snow in the winter.  If you’d like to stay to stay overnight you can either camp or stay at the Lake Alpine Resort, a charming lodge that dates back to the 1930s.

Lodge at Lake Alpine Resort, California

Lodge at Lake Alpine Resort, California

I hope you have enjoyed this whirlwind tour of four treasures of the Sierra Nevada and will be inspired to visit these mountain gems someday.  Take a tip from John Muir, one of the first visitors to appreciate this part of the country:

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.  Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.  The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite

Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite

San Diego, California

The Other Southern California City

          Rather than being thought of as that other Southern California destination, San Diego should be at the top of your list when visiting the lower half of the Golden State.  It has long been one of my favorite cities and I am fortunate to be close enough to get there at least once a year to take in its many beautiful sights and interesting destinations.  Surrounded by inland mountains, rugged canyons, nearby high desert and beautiful rock-studded hills rolling down to sandy beaches, there is no question that you are in the midst of a unique landscape while in the San Diego area.  The city is also blessed with an incredible natural bay and a coastline that rivals any in the world for beauty.

Downtown San Diego

Convention Center in Downtown San Diego

Mexican Food and Indian Casinos 

          Perhaps best known for its famous zoo at Balboa Park, San Diego has many other attractions that make the 120 mile trip (two hours drive time) south of Los Angeles worth the effort.  The Historic Old Town State Park and Mission San Diego give visitors a glimpse into the past and a delightful taste of the Spanish influence that pervades much of California.  Old Town features many well-preserved historic buildings and numerous restaurants with authentic Mexican food and Mariachi bands that will instantly get you into that special mood unique to Southern California.  At least three nearby Indian casinos that rival Las Vegas (which by the way is only a 330 mile, five hour drive away) will give you a chance to double your money at the same time as you experience a real live Indian Reservation.  A short trolley car ride twenty miles south of the city will land you at the U.S.-Mexican border, where you can follow the crowds and gingerly walk across the border so that you can say that you’ve been to Mexico!  But be sure to take your passport.  We do not recommend going beyond the border area at this time due to the current safety issues in Mexico.

The Red San Diego Trolley

The Red San Diego Trolley

San Diego Attractions

          Very much a Navy town, San Diego is also home to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot and several other major military bases.  The military presence is most evident around San Diego Bay and even after just a quick visit you will agree that San Diego does more than its share to help keep American safe.  You will instantly recognize the historic Hotel Del Coronado on Coronado Island, having seen it many times in travel magazines and posters or movies such as ‘Some Like It Hot’.  The San Diego region is also home to a couple of world class universities, several of which have been pioneers in scientific (especially medical) research.  The arts are very much alive in San Diego, with numerous museums and galleries sprinkled throughout the area and many opportunities to experience the performing arts, as well.  Downtown you will find the enormous Convention Center, Little Italy with its wonderful restaurants, the colorful shops at Seaport Village, and the historic Gas Lamp District.

Historic Old Town, San Diego

Historic Old Town, San Diego

Beaches and Mountains

          Don’t forget to visit Sea World where you can have an up close and personal encounter with dolphins and watch the Shamu killer whale show.  Oh, and be sure to take your swim gear and sun lotion so you can lie out on the pure white sand at nearby Ocean Beach and Pacific Beach.  For a spectacular bird’s eye view of San Diego, take a short drive out to suburban La Mesa and hike to the top of Cowles Mountain.  A fairly easy 1.5 mile climb, it should only take a couple hours up and back for anyone in reasonably good physical condition.   Kids will love visiting Legoland, a thirty mile drive north in Carlsbad, and golfers will enjoy visiting the Lawrence Welk Resort, thirty miles north in Escondido.

Hostel in Downtown San Diego

Hostel in Downtown San Diego

La Jolla Cove

          One essential stop anytime I visit San Diego is La Jolla Cove, just north of the city.  Street parking is free and you can window shop as you walk past art galleries, beautiful shops and historic hotels on your way down to the park overlooking the cove.  There you will find a special beach that has been set aside as a sea lion rookery, where humans can get fairly close to these amazing creatures from the sea.  One could spend hours watching the pups snuggling up to their mothers or the adolescents frolicking in the water or the big fat ‘Jabba the Hut’ look-alikes snoozing on the rocks.  For the adventurous visitor, La Jolla Cove is also a great place for kayaking and snorkeling.  For the rest of us, just strolling along the walkway overlooking the sea is quite enough.  The sights and sounds of the breakers hitting the shore will put you in a trance and deliver you far from the worries of the world.

Sea Lion Sanctuary at La Jolla Cove

Sea Lion Sanctuary at La Jolla Cove

Accommodations

          Accommodations in San Diego run the gamut.  You could easily spend hundreds of dollars a night at one of the snazzy hotels downtown, but for value minded travelers there are many other options.  There is a great hostel in the Gas Lamp District downtown (see our link to Hostelling International).  You can book a bed in one of their dorm rooms for as little as $28.00 a night and easily walk from there to many of the venues in the downtown area.  One of my favorite value accommodations in San Diego is the Padre Trail Inn (www.padretrailinn.com) just two blocks from Old Town and the same distance to a major trolley transfer station that can take you almost anywhere for $2.50 one way or $5.00 for an all day trolley/bus pass.  My recent stay at the Padre Trail Inn, which I booked directly through their website, cost about $60.00 a night and included a continental breakfast of coffee and muffins.  While not fancy, this inn met all of my requirements, including safety, cleanliness, service, convenient location and value…and if that wasn’t enough, their friendly, helpful staff members make it a slam dunk that I’ll book with them again on my next trip back to San Diego.  Someday, though, I am going to splurge and stay at least one night at the historic old La Valencia Hotel at the La Jolla Cove!

Padre Trail Inn, San Diego

Padre Trail Inn, San Diego

 

Hostels in the San Francisco Area

The Golden Gate Council of Hostelling International-USA

          The Golden Gate Council of Hostelling International USA (HI-USA) held its Annual Member Meeting on January 10 at the World Affairs Council in San Francisco.  Executive Director Danielle Brumfitt hosted the meeting, which included an update on the seven hostels located in the San Francisco Bay Area and an additional hostel located near the capitol in Sacramento.  Her presentation underscored one of the many reasons that membership in HI-USA is such a bargain.  At rates for groups or individuals far below the average for this region, members have an opportunity to enjoy some of the most beautiful and interesting sites the Bay Area has to offer.  Imagine staying at a lighthouse overlooking the Pacific Ocean or in highly rated venue in downtown San Francisco without breaking your budget!  See below for a complete listing.

Jeff Greenwald Addresses Golden Gate Council

Jeff Greenwald Addresses Golden Gate Council

          Featured speaker, Jeff Greenwald attracted a large crowd, which he regaled with stories from his years of traveling the globe.  His presentation, “Confessions of an Accidental Ambassador” kept the audience laughing, but at the same time drove home the important message that all travelers are personal ambassadors to the world, a philosophy which is shared by Blue Orb Travel as outlined in our Overview.  Greenwald is the author of numerous books and articles and is the co-founder and executive director of Ethical Traveler (www.ethicaltraveler.org), a global alliance dedicated to human rights and environmental protection.

          If you haven’t joined HI-USA yet, check our link on the left for further information.  Your membership not only supports a wonderful organization, but becomes your ticket to bargain stays at some the most interesting locations around the world.  Founded in 1958, The Golden Gate Council of HI-USA is dedicated to helping ‘all gain a greater understanding of the world and its people through hostelling’.  I can’t wait to try out some of the award-winning hostels the council operates in Northern California!

Hostels in the San Francisco Bay Area

HI-Marin Headlands  (marinhostel.org)

HI-Pigeon Point Lighthouse  (pigeonpointhostel.org)

HI-Point Montara Lighthouse  (montarahostel.org)

HI-Point Reyes  (pointreyeshostel.org)

HI-Sacramento  (sacramentohostel.org)

HI-San Francisco City Center  (sfhostels.com)

HI-San Francisco Downtown  (sfhostels.com)

HI-San Francisco Fishermans’s Wharf  (sfhostels.com)