Phoenix and Surrounding Parks

February 26 – 29, 2016 – Back in 2004 we met on a road trip (on leap year), so what better way to celebrate than with a (plane/road) trip?  We wanted to get away from gray and windy Boise, and warm and sunny Phoenix seemed like the perfect destination.

The day started with a sunrise.
The day started with a sunrise.

Saturday morning we headed up towards the Grand Canyon.  There isn’t much near the southern entrance, so we stopped for lunch at a Mexican place, Plaza Bonita, attached to the hotel.  Since we were there just in time to catch the end of the breakfast service, we took advantage by ordering omelets with refried beans and home fries.  The food was surprisingly good, and in a few hours we were thankful to have had such a filling lunch.

You won't have any problems viewing cactus plants in Arizona.
You won’t have any problems viewing cactus plants in Arizona.

The weather was perfect for some walking, and we were hoping to be able to hike down part of the Bright Angel Trail.  However, signs near the visitor center warned would-be hikers that the first mile of the trail was still covered in snow and ice, and that hiking poles and winter traction would be helpful.  Needless to say that wasn’t quite what we were looking for, so instead we headed out along the Canyon Rim trail towards the South Kaibab trailhead.  We eventually hiked about 1.5 miles down the trail, to the saddle just past the first tie up for the mule teams.

Doing an early season hike may come with snow.
Doing an early season hike may come with snow.

The hike down was quite pretty, with sweeping views, and just a bit of snow/mule “presents” to avoid.  We got to watch a mule team coming up the hill, which was also cool to see.  Once we reached our turnaround point we paused for some snacks and photos, before venturing back up the path.  The way up is definitely a bit slower than the way down, despite our slow downhill pace as well given the sometimes slippery footing.  We made good time though, even with stopping to watch the condors soaring overhead.

Be sure to bring enough water for the hike. A warmer day or a longer hike would require more than a few nalgene bottles.
Be sure to bring enough water for the hike. A warmer day or a longer hike would require more than a few nalgene bottles.

Dinner found us outside of Flagstaff, and we quickly put our names on the wait list for Beaver Street Brewery.  They have good guacamole and chips, wonderful wood fired pizzas, the best salmon burger Louisa has ever had, and good beer.

Be on the lookout for California Condors around the canyon.
Be on the lookout for California Condors around the canyon.

On Sunday we decided to explore some parks near Phoenix, starting with White Tank Mountain Regional Park.  We got there fairly early and didn’t have any problem finding a spot by the popular waterfall trail, but it was definitely more crowded by the time we left.  The hike is smooth and pretty, with petroglyphs, a (dried up) waterfall at the end, and the option to add a mini look to the middle of the hike.  The views and walking area at the park are wonderful (lots of flowers and cacti) –  we would definitely come back here on other trips to the area.

You don't have to venture far from Phoenix to find tall cacti.
You don’t have to venture far from Phoenix to find tall cacti.

Next up was South Mountain Park.  This park is much more of a city park.  Yes, it’s on the outskirts, but…. I guess we’ve just never found the nice parts of Phoenix.  It was a quiet Sunday at the park, meaning no cars could drive up the road.  We went for a walk along the interpretive trail, but soon decided we’d rather get lunch.

There are some trails that provide a good view of the valley.
There are some trails that provide a good view of the valley.

Which brings us to the nice part of Phoenix.  We went to NYPD Pizza for garlic knots and Brooklyn Family pizza, with pepperoni, sausage, and fresh basil.  Everything was very good, the garlic knots weren’t as garlicky as I remember but still excellent, and the pizza was great.

We thought those photos of more than 2 hummingbirds at a feeder were a myth... until now.
We thought those photos of more than 2 hummingbirds at a feeder were a myth… until now.

The afternoon excursion was a trip to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, about an hour or so outside the city.  We had a few hours to explore the park before it closed, and happily admired the flowers, cacti, hummingbirds, and views (particularly along the upper trail).

The trails at the arboretum are varied and well-planned.
The trails at the arboretum are varied and well-planned.

We still had time in the evening, and decided to spend it in Tempe.  Beers, dates with rosemary smoke (i.e. rosemary sprigs on fire), and cheese curds (the dates were the star) were enjoyed at Pedal Haus Brewery before seeing Deadpool at the AMC next door.  And, of course, ice cream on the walk back to the car.  The Fluffernutter ice cream with Butterfinger candies was Louisa’s favorite.

It's not a trip to Tempe without climbing the butte.
It’s not a trip to Tempe without climbing the butte.

Monday was Feb 29th, and we spent it wandering around the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix before hiking up the Tempe Butte.  Since we were in Tempe already we thought brunch at Snooze could be good.  Good it was – the coffee was wonderful, the breakfast tacos were excellent, and the eggs benedict was fabulous.   We finished the day with a few flights, and dinner with beer and garlic fries and the sunset at Gordon Biersch in the Oakland Airport.

PAX South and Texas Trip

Jan 28 – Feb 1, 2016 – We took a long weekend to head down to the second ever PAX South in San Antonio, TX.  The weather was so perfect that we only wound up going to one full day (plus the Friday night concerts).  So what other exploration did we do?

We had a late night and early morning to start the trip.
We had a late night and early morning to start the trip.

The first night we got into San Antonio was a bit late, so we just went to the hotel.  We were hoping they had a bar with local beer (draft, please), but they only had bottles.  The folks behind the desk recommended 502 Bar, which turned out to be a bar with fantastic draft beer (bonus: it’s just a few miles from the hotel).

Yes, it can get cold in the mornings in January.
Yes, it can get cold in the mornings in January.

Friday was a beautiful Texas day, and it seemed a shame to spend it indoors.  Instead we spent about 6 hours of it in the car, driving to and from Padre Island National Seashore.  This route meant that we passed by Rudy’s right around lunchtime, so sweet tea, moist brisket, and lots of airy white bread were on the menu (Louisa likes the pickles and hot jalapeño carrots; Tony prefers to stick to the basics).  You know it’s good when Rangers, sailors, and EMTs all eat there for lunch.

We hadn't seen this many terns since leaving South Carolina.
We hadn’t seen this many terns since leaving South Carolina.

Padre Island National Seashore is beautiful, and perfect for beach walking.  We saw pelicans, seagulls, shore birds, and got to dip our toes in the water. For dinner we ventured over to an outdoor bar/food truck area just past the convention center.  The wood fired pizza was excellent, as were the shrimp and hush puppies.  We also tried mini beef tacos, which were very good flavor wise but a tad skimpy portion-wise (hint: stick with the pizza, it’s just that good).  Afterwards we went to the Friday night concerts.  Highlights of the concerts were hearing Bit Brigade play Mega Man, and The Returners.

Do make time to walk the Riverwalk while in San Antonio.
Do make time to walk the Riverwalk while in San Antonio.

Saturday was PAX day – make a strip, the convention hall, and Saturday concerts.  For lunch we went to Boudro’s for some table-side guacamole and fish entries.  Dinner was a repeat of the food trucks, with a focus on the wood fired pizzas.  We always enjoy going to PAX, and being at the second year of PAX South was fun.  It’s definitely more board game focused, and family focused, than other PAX’s we’ve been too, so a bit of a different (but still fun) vibe.  Other highlights of the day were a walk along the river walk, and drinks at The Esquire Tavern, home of the longest wooden bar in Texas.

When the weather is nice, Austin residents go outside to play.
When the weather is nice, Austin residents go outside to play.

Sunday was another beautiful day, the warmest of the trip.  We decided to head up to Austin for a hike along the Butler Trail.  What we hadn’t counted on was that, given the nice weather, every dog loving, stroller pushing, jogging/running/walking/soccer playing group, would also be up on and around the riverwalk.  It’s pretty, but a bit too crowded for our taste.

We enjoyed seeing flowers in the middle of winter.
We enjoyed seeing flowers in the middle of winter.

Instead we drove about 45 minutes to Balcones National Wildlife Refuge.  There were fewer people here, and plenty of spots.  We did the loop up to the top, the walk is fairly easy (there is an uphill, but not too long).  We were still adjusting to the heat and humidity, both of which were a bit high for the time of year.  Fortunately there’s a handy, shaded bench halfway up the hill. We ended the day (and the trip) with dinner at Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden, followed by a less crowded walk on the Butler Trail.

Weekend in San Diego Roundup

January 9-11, 2016 – So what did we do on a long weekend in San Diego? Balboa Park is the perfect spot for a morning stroll.  We parked over by the zoo, and had no trouble finding a spot – even in the middle of the afternoon there was plenty of parking on that side of town.

Good planning is important for getting around the city.
Good planning is important for getting around the city.

San Diego has fantastic food.  We enjoyed the egg and potato dishes at Hash House a Go Go, but it was so loud inside that it felt like we were at a concert (literally – we had to yell across the table).  We got the food to go and ate a picnic lunch in Balboa Park, which was much more enjoyable. There are fantastic dessert coffee drinks at Cafe Bassam.  The space is funky inside, with lots of found objects on the walls and tucked into nooks and crannies.

Yes, there are hummingbirds that also call the city home.
Yes, there are hummingbirds that also call the city home.

We drove by the mission of San Diego de Alcala, the first mission in that area.  We checked out the mission through the gates, and decided we really wanted to have a leisurely afternoon drink. Enter Benchmark Brewing Company.  They’re located in a small office complex.  Don’t let the nondescript entrance fool you, there are picnic tables and a funky factory vibe inside, and some very good draft beer.  We enjoyed their IPAs more than their darker beers, they seemed more balanced overall.

Joshua Trees are a type of yucca plant.
Joshua Trees are a type of yucca plant.

Joshua Tree National Park is a day’s drive from San Diego.  It is a beautiful park, we drove in a little bit and parked and took a walk though a dried riverbed.  We also did the trail by Skull Rock.  If you’re looking for food we recommend you go back to the south entrance; we got Chinese food in Twentynine Palms, but would recommend you try the pizza at Pie for the People in Joshua Tree itself.

Don't let the blue sky fool you, we ran into a downpour just minutes before the photo was taken.
Don’t let the blue sky fool you, we ran into a downpour just minutes before the photo was taken.

Mission Trails Regional Park has hiking trails going up the hill, but if you’re not in the mood for a brutal hike (like we weren’t) you can walk along the closed road, and enjoy the views and the creek.  It started to rain, so we cut our walk short, but this is a really beautiful park particularly at sunset.

Be aware that some of the paths outside of Torrey Pines may be flooded at unusually high tides.
Be aware that some of the paths outside of Torrey Pines may be flooded at unusually high tides.

What would a trip be to San Diego without sushi (assuming you like sushi)?  Ahi Sushi has great sushi, very fresh, fair prices (helped by the strip mall location), and good service – perfect for dinner after a trip to the Mission Trails Park.

Yes, California has flowers in January.
California has flowers in January.

We parked across the street from Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, which gave us a pretty walk along the water until we got to the cliffs.  We walked along the road and then up another short trail which gave us a fantastic view.  There’s also another shorter trail that leads to a bench and an overlook by the ocean.  If we had more time there are trails curving all over the park, and it would be a great spot for a walk.

Bruneau Sand Dunes

October 31, 2015 – Bruneau Dunes State Park is about 1.5 hours south of Boise, past Mountain Home.  There are some fantastic Mexican restaurants in town, including Los Pinos.  We tried the breakfast burrito, chile rellenos, and the sopas – the sopas and the green chile salsa were the clear favorites, though everything was very good.

The sand dunes themselves make for a nice hike; we got about halfway up before heading back down – next time we’ll come with sandals and be prepared for the hike up.