Author Archives: Jennifer G

Muir Woods National Monument

If you hike, you know about John Muir. And if for some strange reason you don’t, research him now. He was basically the “father” of the National Park System and pushed for Yosemite. He was also involved with creating other parks such as Sequoia, Mt. Ranier, and Grand Canyon. His name is everywhere in northern California.

My daughter and I were excited to stand next to some Redwoods and decided to go to Muir Woods National Monument. This is a small-ish park just outside of San Francisco. If you’re headed to that area of California everyone will tell you to visit. And by everyone, I mean everyone. And everyone visiting WILL visit and the park will be crowded. They have instituted a parking reservation system to limit how many people can be there on any given day. There are ferries you can take as well (they also require a reservation) and then a shuttle bus to the park. Even with these reservations, it still gets crowded but not overwhelmingly so.

It really was a wonderful place. The trees tower over you making you feel very small. The moss and ferns make you feel like you’re in a different world full of fairies and tiny, little, cute things. The main trail is basically a big loop. You can make it shorter by crossing over one of many bridges but don’t do that. Instead, go left (most people will stay straight). You’ll get to a portion of the trail that goes up higher. Go there. It isn’t a hard hike. But not a lot of people were on it. We often had it to ourselves and it was wonderful. We heard an owl hooting but could not spot it. I like to think it was one of the rare Spotted Owls (it was most likely a Barred Owl but one can dream). Unfortunately, there was a tour group made up of teens. They proceeded to yell, scream (yes, scream – who knows why) and were very loud. They pierced our experience. They wouldn’t move on the narrow path and walked two-by-two making us get off the trail and onto vegetation. I don’t know why you’d go to Muir Woods and act that way but then they aren’t my kids.

Standing in a Redwood
So much beauty along the trail

Off of the main trail, there are other trails you can take that lead outside of the official park. I bet these are wonderful but we had other places to go so we didn’t venture down them. One day, maybe. As we turned to go back out of the park, there was a family stomping around an area that said, “Endangered vegetation. Please do not go off path and do not walk on vegetation.” They were having a blast doing it. They were in the water, flipping rocks, and disturbing everything. I couldn’t help it. I yelled at them to stop. I told them they were off trail and it was wrong. They just laughed. It bothered me so much. I probably embarrassed my daughter but she’ll live. It was a deliberate act.

I wish I had taken more like this but from farther back to show just how amazing they look.

I was sad to have to leave. We were there right around noon so my photos aren’t great. The light was bad and I didn’t want to use my tripod to get any longer exposures. If I would ever return, I would go first thing in the morning. Maybe even hike in to get the very first light. I bet it would be beautiful.

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Yosemite National Park

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Before heading to San Francisco for spring break, my daughter and I discussed going to Yosemite. It would be a four hour drive to/from the park and it seemed like a lot. My daughter wouldn’t be able to drive the rental car so it would be all me. We originally decided not to go. However, her father kept badgering us and asking why in the world would we go all the way to California and not go.

So we decided, yes, we’d go. It was the best decision. We woke up pretty early and were out of the AirBnB by 5:50 am. We stopped along the way for gas and coffee. The scenery was beautiful during the entire trip. Once we started driving up the mountains I knew we were close. I was excited.

If you haven’t been to the park, heed the warnings. GO EARLY! We were there by 9:45 am within the grounds of the park. The problem was there was view after view of mountains, El Capitan, Half Dome, etc. We would stop for photos along the way. We crossed over a magnificent waterfall and I had to stop and try to get a good photo (fail). Finally, I said, “No more stopping!” because I knew we’d never get to hiking. (Note: I stopped two more times). I have to say that at the moment I saw the view of El Capitan, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls together, I teared up. There was something powerful and overwhelming about that view. I tried to explain how I was feeling to my daughter and she felt the same way.

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Finally, we got into the valley. We wanted to make our way to the visitor center to see about hiking to Mirror Lake and maybe elsewhere. By 10:30 am-ish the parking lots were 90% full. Thankfully, we had a small rental and squeezed in a small area. We walked over towards the visitor center and our first stop was in the Ansel Adams Gallery. As a photographer, I had to go inside. There is no doubt he is one of the greatest artists to have lived. I saw one of his photos and was overcome with emotion. The worker here was so knowledgeable that he actually saved us a trip to the formal visitors center. Bonus!

We walked through the gift shop, got some tshirts, and headed back to the car. We drove towards Mirror Lake and, again, found a place to park. I don’t know how others missed the spot but I am glad they did. We started our hike. Did you know that way back in the day they used to drain Mirror Lake and put up a dance floor/area? We all agreed that letting it go natural is the best option. Obviously, the hike was amazing. It is an easy, short walk to the “lake”.

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The worker at Ansel Adams let us know that it is filling with less and less water and slowly growing back to a meadow. I was really looking forward to getting some reflection photos and was a little worried I wouldn’t. Finally, we arrived and my fears were unfounded.

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We walked across the meadow area and got closer to the stream that flows through the area. I could have stayed there all day. The granite rocks exploding up around us made me feel small and tiny. I couldn’t stop looking at them. My daughter really wanted to go look at the rocks along the stream but that meant wading through the water to get there. We took off our shoes and took a deep breath. That water was cold. There were boys on the other side of the stream and they were determined to get across it. It wasn’t too deep and some just took off running. Another group walked across. Their yells and hollering were quite funny. One yelled, “I can’t feel my legs!!!” They all made it though. I took in the scene of my daughter bent over examining the rocks. She wants to major in geology so this was special for her.

Eventually, we turned and walked back. As we drove out of the park, we stopped next to El Capitan. I don’t know if you’ve seen Free Solo yet (I have not – stressful!) but seeing it up close makes it even more amazing that he climbed it and did so quickly. It really blew my mind and I think that I am ready to see the movie now.

As we drove out of the park, I was sad. I love my Shenandoahs. I love the Rockies. But somehow Yosemite implanted itself in my heart and all I can think about is returning and spending years there exploring every inch of the place. The drive back didn’t feel like forever. We were high on beauty. After reviewing my photos I feel like I couldn’t capture the emotion of Yosemite. I guess this is one reason Ansel was so successful. You FEEL his photos and I didn’t do that. But I hope you enjoy them regardless.

Click to see the rest of my photos.

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Spring Break in San Francisco

My second favorite city (Chicago is first)

I always promised my daughter a senior trip. When she was little, I would say, “If you don’t turn into a punk, get good grades, and don’t get in any major trouble, I’ll take you wherever you’d like to go your senior year.” It paid off. My daughter is a wonderful young woman who has been a dream. Her first choice was Hawaii, but, unfortunately the funds weren’t there. It was just too much for right now. I gave her some more options and she settled on San Francisco. This made me happy because I love the city. I had been three times previous but always to teach salsa dancing at a salsa congress so I hadn’t explored the city too much.

We settled on our details, our AirBnB, our car and made plans. Her number one request was the Museum of Ice Cream – a new-ish place in the financial/shopping district. Everything else got planned around that. I’ll probably write about places more specifically but here are some things we loved.

The Big Bus Hop on-Hop Off tour.
Looking back, I would have made more time for this actually. It hits all the spots you want to go and makes it easy to get around. We upgraded our package to 2 days and received entry into quite a few other places. We took full advantage. With the bus tour we visited:

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum
I had no idea this place would be so much fun. Normally, this is not a place I’d visit on my own but since we got in free, we popped in and started our tour. We had the entire place to ourselves. We didn’t have to wait for anyone or take turns. It was a blast and I’m sure having it to ourselves helped the fun factor.

A famous sculpture in San Francisco at the Wax Museum
You get to have a photo with awesome famous people!

Aquarium of the Bay
This aquarium is right on the wharf near the boats to Alcatraz, the bus area, and all the other tourist stuff. Skip it. While we got in with our pass, I wouldn’t want to pay for it. It is rather small and it gets incredibly crowded. If you’ve been to an aquarium before, you’ve seen it. There’s really nothing too special.

Ripley’s Believe it or Not
I love this place. I went once to a location down in Myrtle Beach and thought it would be dumb. It was fascinating. I have no idea how much is really real or fake in there but it doesn’t matter. They had a very cool light show where we took some fun photos. They had one of those walls where a light flashes and your shadow stays on the wall. And they had a tunnel to walk through that the sides spin (you don’t). I couldn’t do it. My vertigo would have kicked in immediately but my daughter made it. Again, we had the place to ourselves which made it all the more fun.

Ripley’s had some really cool light exhibits
Ripley’s had a shadow capture wall. We did it twice to get multiple shadows. I loved this.

California Academy of Sciences
Go here! This place is a fantastic place to visit – especially with kids. They have an aquarium, a rain forest area, a planetarium, and more! The aquarium here is way better than Aquarium of the Bay. In fact, I think it is bigger and had some really neat exhibits. We really enjoyed the rain forest area. It is a circular walk way and you see birds, butterflies, and they had two macaws who were really loud. Then you can go to the top and see the living roof. We didn’t get to go to the Planetarium since they didn’t have a show that worked for our day.

What we did in the city that wasn’t related to the tour:

Lombard Street
While this is a stop on the tour bus, we walked here on our own. I had been there before and don’t remember it being so crazy. So many people. I can’t imagine trying to live there. It was fun watching people drive down the street – many had their phones out recording it. We stopped for photos here although I couldn’t get any good photo of the street itself. I would have had to been higher up and pointing down. Or been there at night for lighting.

At the bottom of the zig-zag looking down into the city. I think if you look down most any street in San Francisco you’ll have an interesting view of something. It’s exciting.


The Museum of Ice Cream
This place really has nothing to do with the history of ice cream. I mean, it does if you ask some of the workers there. They are all knowledgeable about ice cream. The place is dedicated to cute and fun. We walked in, got an ice cream sandwich, and started the tour. We visited a diner, a room full of magnet letters on the walls, a cotton candy room, and more. Everything was delicious and pink. PINK. You move at your own pace and spend as much time as you want in each room. Want seconds? No problem. Want photos? No problem. We had a ton of fun and I’d do it again. At the end of the tour, they had a “Sprinkles” pool. You could go down a slide in a bath of sprinkles. This was my daughter’s number one option when going to San Francisco and it was a great choice.

Everyone ends up looking pink due to the massive amounts of pink on the walls and everywhere else.
Sliding into the pool of sprinkles

Alcatraz Tour
I will write about this in a separate post. For those who think, “Oh that’s such a tourist thing to do.” I mean, it is, but it is way more than that. The history and stories are fascinating.

Alcatraz Island

Ghirardelli Square
A visit to San Francisco isn’t complete until you visit Ghirardelli. Plan to exercise either before or after because you’re going to want to order something tasty at the chocolate factory. I controlled myself and only got a hot chocolate. My daughter ordered a brownie and a milkshake. Everything was delicious. Just a note: There is a separate store for Ghirardelli down the square a bit. If the gift shop is crowded when you order, just leave and walk towards the rest of the shops. There is a whole other location that is much bigger. And don’t forget to grab the free chocolate they hand out.

We also visited Muir Woods National Monument, Yosemite National Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, and other parts along the coast. I’ll write about these separately.

Overall, we had a wonderful trip. I wasn’t there for photography and it shows in my photos. My focus was spending time with my daughter and not having her wait around all the time while I tried to get photos. She was pretty good about the times I did and I appreciate that. We created memories. She’s off to college in the fall and I’ll treasure this trip.

Cool Spring Battlefield

Sometimes I debate with myself if I should share a place or not. Many of us photographers are not disclosing locations of photos because those locations can be overran with people hurrying to get a photo. I do hikes that I don’t share but I decided to go ahead with this post. Why? This is conservation land that is protected and I want people to know what is possible. This wonderful nature preserve sits next to Shenandoah River and is in Clarke County.

Shenandoah River as it runs through Clarke County, VIrginia
Shenandoah River

Cool Spring Battlefield sits on land that, just a few year ago, was a golf club. When a friend told me about it ages ago, he said, “you know, the old golf club.” Well, I am not a golfer so I wasn’t sure. I did some research and located the area and headed there last year. I loved it. The care of the land is under Shenandoah University. They use it for learning but are also allowing the land to grow back to its nature habitat. There are paved trails that were once for golf carts and some unpaved trails. And the place is huge. I only went a little ways my first time there. This time, I wanted to go to the end. It was well worth it because there is a section that climbs quite a ways and you have a beautiful view of the rolling countryside located on the opposite side of the river.

Beautiful View

I went pretty early in the morning and was blessed with a mostly empty park. The peacefulness was needed and I enjoyed the silence. While walking, I passed a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron. I was sad to have disturbed it. I attempted a photo but it was just a bit too far away and behind some tall grass so I couldn’t get a good focus. More on the herons later… As you reach the far end of the trail you’ll hear a waterfall. While it is not very large, it is pretty. I’m excited to return to photograph this waterfall in the spring and then again in the fall. I think the scene will be even better! It started to snow pretty heavily while I was attempting photos of the falls so I eventually had to stop. The flakes kept landing on my lens and I couldn’t wipe them away fast enough.

Waterfall at end of former golf course

The trail continues on past the waterfall. There is a ranger/park sign structure with a sheet of paper and pen. You are required to sign your name and state where/how far you’ll be hiking. This is a safety requirement and everyone should comply with it. The River Trail eventually meets up with the Appalachian Trail. I’m definitely going to be returning for that section of the hike.

If you like birds, one of the highlights of the park is the Great Blue Heron Rookery located across the Shenandoah River. It is quite a beautiful sight. When I have been there, the sky has been gray so they look like vampires hanging out on the branches with their nests. I counted 13 along with several nests. It is a sure thing that you’ll see herons when you visit this park. As always, please respect them and give them their space.

Heron Rookery with great blue herons and nests
Heron Rookery

What I love about this place is that it is a wonderful example of land conservation. Closer to me, in Loudoun County, Goose Creek was a golf course. I saw just last fall that it closed. They will be building houses on the land now and have already built a storage unit. This golf course ran right next to Goose Creek (duh) and it, too, could have been conserved instead of being turned over to more development. Granted, Cool Spring was a historic area due to the battles that took place during the Civil War and that probably went a long way in protecting it from development. However, this is a great option for future golf courses that go under. Let the land grow back naturally and preserve the trails for runners, bikers, hikers, etc. I found out, after emailing a word of thanks to those who administer the land, that there are thousands of acres of land protected around the former course and across the river. I think it would add up to close to 4,000 acres. That is remarkable.

If you decide to visit Cool Spring Battlefield, please respect the rules. Your dog stays on a leash. You Leave No Trace. No fires. Respect the land and stay on trails as much as possible Let’s keep the land pristine and beautiful.