Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Icehouse Canyon - San Gabriel Mountains

If you live in the Los Angeles or Orange County area, and feel you are a million miles away from an alpine escape, you thought wrong.  I think that the San Gabriel Mountains (part of the Transverse Ranges, which are noted for their east --> west orientation which differs from the usual north --> south orientation of the rest of California's ranges) often go overlooked and under appreciated, mostly due to their infamous and lovely cousin the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  I'm smitten by the latter, but San Gabriel has much to offer - including Icehouse Canyon.

This 7-mile (total) hike is an out and back, the "out" ending at the Icehouse Saddle - 7, 580 feet above sea level.  The trailhead is reached from a small parking lot that can be found north of Mount Baldy Village, and there is some signage (if I'm remembering right) that will guide you to the lot.

I am not sure what this hike is like during warmer months, but in winter, the hours just after dawn the entire landscape is veiled in a blue hue, and dusted in snow.  The first part of the hike is a very gradual incline, leading into more significant grades, including switchbacks later on.  I read a comment on another blog post about this hike that said that "If you think this hike is a workout, then you are really out of shape."  I thought to myself (even before the hike) "What an elitist snot." This hike will not wreck you, sure, but gaining 2,620 feet in elevation over the course of 3.5 miles is not the same thing as laying down. (end rant).  All that is to say, it is great day of using the legs, with the scenery and crisp air being the reward.

The path starts and ends with the sweet sounds of a creek.  Douglas firs, sugar pines, incense cedars and pines dot the landscape.  However, if you go in any month that dances around winter, be ware of ice on the trail.  Some spots are super slick, so if you don't have crampons, tread slowly, and bring shoes with good grip.

 A delightful day hike, and a true wilderness escape for the SoCal resident pining for the alpine.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Philippines - Day 6 - 9

Friday - Monday, 20 - 23rd November 2015


We spent our second day in Baguio by walking to Camp John Hayes.  It is a beautiful green-space area on the edge of the city, with loads of pine trees, cabins for rent, and a lot of recreational space.  We happened upon a sign for the “Tree Top Adventure” and then decided on a whim ot just go for a touristy thing, because it involved trees (my Achilles heel).

So, for a package which included a “canopy” ride, a funicular ride, and the “super man” ride, we paid just  about $12USD each.  They strap you in harnesses and give you a hard hat at the start, and then you have a 3-part “canopy” ride first, which has you sitting in a seat, legs dangling in mid-air and you ride through the canopy of the forest.  The funicular ride is what you think, sitting down in a small cable car and riding up into the hill sides through the trees.  The “super man” has you laid out flat, in mock imitation of flying like Superman and you zip backwards and then forwards through the canopy of the forest for about a total of 60 seconds.  We enjoyed ourselves, and we were somewhat the celebrity duo among the rest of the Filipino tourists in line, one even asked to take a picture with us.

After that we walked around a market that sold everything under the sun: tomatoes and rice to electronics and clothing.  It was a buzzing place too.

We called it an early night as we were to take a early EARLY morning bus on Saturday.


We took a 0500 bus from Baguio to Olongapo, getting to Olongapo around 1130.  We then walked to our accommodations, dropped our bags, and headed out to catch a jeepney into Subic.  So I at last got to ride the infamous jeepneys!  They are quite the colorful surprise, each seeming (as my dad put it) to have its own DNA.  The jeepneys are creations from US Military jeeps left here after WWII and many have been spray painted and designed with a wide variety of themes: Jurrasic Park, to Xmen, to “California Dreaming.”  Think a jeep meets a school bus, and you are about there.  You climb into the back, sit in a bench-style seat facing your companion riders, knee-to-knee and pay a small fee and get out on the stop you wish.  Just ask the driver if it is headed where you want or they will direct you to a different one to catch.  Often the name of the destination will be painted on the outside somewhere.

Anyways, a short Jeepney rice and then we walked over a bridge to Subic Bay.  Dad lived in Olongapo and worked in Subic over 30 years ago, so today was a walk down memory lane, going past some of his old haunts, and his old home, him noting all the ways the place has changed over the decades.

Sunday - Monday
We spent the final two days in Manila, doing a little unplanned sight seeing, no concrete plans.  We met a really kind cab driver who acted tour guide for us.  It is a HUGE city.  It has been a wonderful time traveling with Dad, and I have been so thankful for the time (and Mom being willing to keep up the home front in our absence).  Just 16 hours of travel home and will land home an hour after we take off.  Do love me some time traveling...

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Philippines - Day 4 & 5

Wednesday - Thursday, November 18 - 19, 2015


On Wednesday, our trike driver picked us up at our lodgings (Bogah Homestay) in Banaue around 0900 to take us to the hot springs in the Hapao Rice Terraces.  It is about a 1-hour trike ride from Banaue to get to the trail head, and then around 30-40 minutes of hiking (with some hills and stairs) to get to the hot springs themselves.  I recommend you go with a guide.

I think this was my favorite of all the hikes through rice terraces.  The trail winds through some tree-shaded paths, and then along the terraces themselves, past the rushing irrigated water, and then along a swiftly-flowing river. 

We soaked in the hot springs for a while and then dried off by sunning ourselves on rocks near the river.  Rivers are Dad's favorite outdoor terrain, so the little boy in him truly came out in a fabulous way - he sat down right in the rushing stream and splashed in celebration of the natural beauty.   It was pretty great to observe.

We were sad for our last day of the terraces to come to an end.  Our trike driver took us back to our lodgings, we had a shower, lunch, and then got a ride to the bus stop for our night bus to Baguio (8-9 hours depending on traffic).  The experience was truly a riot, patrons brought all sorts of things with them on the bus, one bringing about 6 large bundles of bamboo reeds that were laid down in the aisle of the bus.  During bathroom stops you walked on top of the reeds and large bags of rice (which another bus patron was bringing with them) to get out. 

We arrived in Baguio from Banaue at about 0300.  The bus driver just parks and lets anyone who wants continue to sleep until around 0630, which we did.  Then we walked to our Baguio lodgings.

From there we took a rather aimless walk around Baguio, just to see what we could see.  A bustling city, but with a cooler breeze than Manila (since it sits at about 5,000ft elevation) and is well defined by conifer trees (Pinus kesiya?).  A lady at one hotel gave us a short list of "top sights" to see in Baguio, so we set off to check some of those off.  Some of the sights include the Baguio Cathedral, Burnham Park, Baguio Botanical Gardens, Wright Park, and Mines View Park. 

Baguio Cathedral

Baguio Cathedral

Baguio Botanical Gardens
View from Mines View Park
Wrights Park
As a final aside to wrap this post up, I have noticed that I am a giant among females in this country.  I might as well be a Viking Amazon, Zena Warrior Princess, or Hugemongosaurus Rex...I seem to tower above, and I'm not that tall at home.  I seem to also amuse locals by my preference for tea over coffee, my request for meals with no meat, and by the fact that I am in fact closer to 30 than 15.  Always happy to amuse locals (sincerely).

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Philippines Day 1 - 3

Sunday - Tuesday, 15 - 17 November 2015

We took a 0930 flight from Taipei to Manila, bidding Taiwan a fond farewell.

We landed in Manila around noon, and getting through customs/immigration was a breeze.  From there, due to what I’d read online, we got a white taxi into the city (be sure to verify that the cab is “metered” when you get in…or find a different cab). 

We were to take a 2200 night bus to Banaue that evening, famous for its UNESCO labeled rice terraces.  We’d contemplated doing a day trip somewhere in the Manila area until then, however since we were stuck with our bags, and because of what I’d read on several travel forums, we instead headed to the Mall of Asia.  The Mall of Asia as a leave-luggage service for free (ask your taxi driver to drop you off near the ice skating rink, if you exit the mall there and turn right you’ll see the leave-luggage service).  Our decision to kill time at the mall was based purely on logistics and the ability to be rid of our bags, but it was rather humorous to us since we both have very little affection for malls.

That being said, it was quite the entertaining cultural experience – everything from a top spinning competition in a mini-arena for youth, to a marching band parading by stores, and views of the bay from the outdoor sections.  We even went and saw a movie (in English fortunately for us).

We took a cab from the mall to the Ohayami bus stop, getting there around 2100.  We had reserved the tickets in advance, so just a show of the printed out voucher and we were given physical tickets with assigned seats.  

The bus was FULL.  And by FULL I mean not only every seat in the bus had an assigned patron, but they also folded out individual mini seats for people to sit in the aisle.  It was about a 9.5 hour bus ride, with 2 bathroom stops.  We slept more than we had expected, but word to the wise – do bring some warmer layers, the AC blasts the entire way and some others in the bus didn’t come as prepared as we did.


At 0730 we arrived in Banaue.  Before I get into the details of our tale here are a few thing I recommend for you when you plan your visit here:
  • Take the night bus.  You won’t sleep amazing, but it is very inexpensive and it beats driving yourself here. 
  • Hire a guide to follow this itinerary I found online.  I normally am not one to sign on for a tour guide – I pridefully like to figure things out on my own and like the freedom to go at my own pace.  But at the terraces it is well worth it. Not only because some section of the terraces you would never find without a guide, not only because the guide gives you a much richer understanding of the terraces and the local culture, but also because it is just a good thing to support the local economy.  I highly recommend the guide we used, and any of his friends/associates who also guided us.
  • Spend two nights and three days in the area.  A lot of people seem to come just for a day, and only see the main views at Banaue.  You’ll want to take in some of the lesser-seen, harder to reach sights, and you need to schedule some time in to just linger and absorb the view.
  • Book accommodations in advance.  Some seasons are particularly busy here, so just play it safe and book ahead: first night in Batad and second in Banaue. 
  • Bring a headlamp.  Both for the night bus (in case insomnia strikes, at least you can start and finish a book) and because it is a rural area, so artificial light is sometimes in short supply.

So, when you get off the night bus in Banaue, your basic first step is to hire a trike to drive you to the Batad Saddle (where the road ends and you hike down to the village).  Or, if you booked your accommodations in advance like us, you will likely have a trike waiting for you, driver holding a sign with your name on it.  I had not realized that by booking in advance (at least at the homestay I booked, see below for more details on that) I’d have a trike driver waiting for us, so quite the amusing surprise, made me briefly feel famous (even though my first and last name were spelled wrong). Your trike driver may very well have some sort of connection to a tour guide, if he is not a tour guide himself.  So, don’t be shy to ask.

When we got in our reserved trike, the driver first took us to a little restaurant about a 5 minute drive from the bus stop, where we had breakfast (a brief bit of Wifi) and were approached by a tour guide (a friend of our trike driver) – Ayson Binnoy.

 From the breakfast place we hopped back in the trike where our Ayson + trike driver took us to a few fabulous view points of the Banaue terraces.  Riding in a trike is, for an American, a giddy sort of experience.  I shamelessly felt I was on a theme park ride. Think the batman motorcyle plus robin in the side car, hum the batman theme song in your head, and your part way there to the simply exhilaration of the experience. A trike is essentially a motorcycle with a  jimmy-rigged companion car that can fit (in a pinch) 3-4 people. Two with daypacks is much better however. They are incredibly capable vehicles, can navigate rocking roads and tight spaces with ease, and they get you seeing things from a different perspective quite literally – close to the ground, back to a childlike height.  You feel like a child again in the hard-to-explain entertainment of it all.

After the viewpoints of the Banaue terraces, we drove to the Batad Saddle.  It is a rather long, switchback road up, the trike working hard so we didn’t have to.  The walk down into Batad is easy though (just don’t think too much about the fact you’ll have to be climbing out of it on the return journey).  Our accommodations for the evening was reached after about 5 mintues walk on a foliage-buried trail.  I highly recommend that you stay here: the Batad Top View Point Homestay and Restaurant.  The owner, Grace Binalt Duntugan, is incredibly kind and she, without a doubt, offers you one of the best views of any lodgings you can have anywhere.  From her dining area / balcony you can see the entirety of the Batad terraces plus and eagle-eye view of the main village of Batad.  It is truly breathtaking.  Something you’d never dare dream of having your morning coffee to.

After a brief rest and lunch, we got a new guide - Scott (partners with Ayson and brother of Grace).  Scott took us to the high viewpoint of the terraces.  The narrow trail winds up and down tiny stairs with ferns grown over them, then along the terraces themselves. Although Dad and I weren’t exactly sure what to expect from visiting these terraces, we most certainly did not anticipate we’d actually be able to walk among the terraces themselves.

 We spent a lot of time both at sat the high lookout and then from the balcony of our homestay just trying to drink in the sight of the terraces more fully.  First, the very fact that these terraces are 2,000 years old, and that they are still planted and harvested without machinery, all done by hand, maintaining traditional ways.  These terraces are a bit of living history.  But there is also the quaintness of it all, you feel you are peering down into a “Once Upon a Time” scene, something out of a fairy tale.  It is too precious and too antiquated to be real.  Then there is the aesthetics of the design – each terrace a different shape, all woven together like an intentional mosaic.  The workers in the terraces, viewed from above, are so small you can’t help thinking this might be a Polly-Pocket landscape, things so delicate, so barely moving. 

Scott and Ayson were both very informative about how the planting / harvesting takes place and gave us a lot of insight into the culture here.  We stared on to the view as potential rain clouds roll in and pass on through.  This caused the vibrantly green mountains surrounding to subtly change hues, creating a rainbow spectrum of greens were you to create a time lapse of the scene.  Ayosha gave us a pre-meal snack of sugarcane and pomelo he had picked that were growing on the property – both delicious.   We ordered dinner at our homestay (including some rice grown right from the terraces!) and ate with the view of the terraces as the sun set.  Called it an early night as we were eager to sleep horizontal after last night’s vertical rest in the bus.  There was a symphony of jungle-mountain insects and birds that serenaded us to slumber.


We awoke to rooster crows, or rather the 3rd round of a symphony of rooster crows that chorused all around the valley below us.  We watched the sun rise, light creeping slowly over the tips of the mountain peaks to our right and bleeding light down the mountain peaks and hillsides to our left, flowing like slowly falling water.  I love early morning, but I so rarely take time to simply sit and watch light increase and then move across a landscape.  So rarely sit in silence to truly make note of how landscape changes with the changes in light.  What a Creator we have to design such displays for us to take in, a show that occurs every day all around the world, and yet I only once in a blue moon rally early enough and then sit still enough to notice.

Scott (our Batad guide) returned promptly at 0800 and took us on a hike down to the village of Batad, the portion that sits at the base of the terraces.  We walked past an elementary school and several homes on the way, all tucked in to the hillside.  The trail down and up is narrow, with many many stairs.  No person living in Batad could ever possibly be overweight – an errand to visit a neighbor or down to the terraces requires some significant “stair master” time.  

After reaching the village at the base of the terraces, we hiked onward and further down to the waterfalls that Batad is somewhat known for.  This trail was also narrow and a rather steep downhill grade.  Don’t let it intimidate you though, there are shady portions and rest huts (wooden structures with an awning that sometimes even sell snacks and drinks) on the way.

The falls in November were strong and spectacular.  Since we had left to get down to the falls around 0800 (hike from our homestay takes about an hour), we got to experience them quite alone.  The falls empty into a pool, so we had a swim and then sun dried on a rock near the river the falls / pool empty into.  On our hike back out, starting around 1030, we ran into several other hiking groups with guides.  So, word to the wise – ask your guide to lead you to the falls at a time such that you get there before 1000.

The hike back was all uphill, so challenging, but our guide went slow for us.  You could tell he could have easily gone double or triple time on the speed, but he had a good sense of when to offer a rest and when to keep going.  He’s a great guide, I highly recommend you seek him about when you are planning your trip to Batad.

We got back to our homestay around noonish and talked with Grace (owner of the homestay) for the remainder of the afternoon, looking on to the spectacular view.  She is a truly incredible woman, we feel blessed to have gotten to know her.

At 1345 we began the hike back towards the Saddle, where we’d set a meet time with our Banaue guide + trike driver the day before.  A 20 minute hike uphill out and a 45 minute trike ride got us to our Banaue accomodations for this evening.

Off to dinner and getting this post off with a bit of Wifi we found.  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Taiwan - Day 5 - Hualien Cycling

Saturday 14 November 2015

[Spending a little over two weeks traveling with Dad to Taiwan and the Philippines.]

Today was our last day in Taiwan, and we finished our visit most enjoyably by riding the Hualien City Coastal Bikeway.

We rented bikes from Giant Bikes.  They have a shop just to the left of the train station, where you can rent a bike for a whole day for NT $300.  From there you have a short ride through the city, maybe 20 minutes, until you reach the Coastal Bikeway (ask at the Information Center near the train station or Giant Bikes for a map / directions).

The ride through the city streets was extremely enjoyable, a sort of symphony of scents. I don't mean this in a bad way.  There is car and scooter exhaust, sure, but it is more all the little hole-in-the-wall restaurants and food stalls your ride past, each with an unique, wafting aroma of a different meal.  And today was grey skied, so there was the scent of rain in the air as well.  This part of the ride makes you feel a bit of a local - you join into the flow of scooterists and other cyclists and become part of the urban dance of commuting.  

Once on the trail, the ride is mostly flat with a few, mild, uphill slopes.  One way is about 15 km.  The trail is well marked with bike signs on posts and bike directional arrows on the really can't get lost, and if you stop and look lost, some local cyclist will kindly point you on your way without you even asking.

Bikeway sign with kilometer marker

The ride reminds somewhat of riding on Pacific Coast Highway in California except no car traffic, and has the feel much more of riding on a beach-walk promenade.  Some sections go right along the sand while others over bridges and under a canopy of trees.  Some truly stunning views of the Pacific Ocean.

Deterrent against a D-day type invasion from the sea
Felt with the fingertips, the water was quite warm.  The "sand" was course, more like finely ground pebbles with lots of stones of all shapes and sizes, incredibly smooth.  I may or may not have gotten rather swept up in stone hunting...because yes I am a well-adjusted adult, and yes this seemed the best use of time on our last day in Taiwan.

Skipping Stones
Stone Hunting

We road from about 1100 - 1415, with a short break for lunch along the we looked across the ocean we realized that just a few thousand miles across the water, we were looking right at home.

Just a few thousand miles across the ocean...looking right at home
We got the 1528 train (around NT $440) back to Taipei, arriving around 1737.  We checked into our hostel and then got a bite to eat at a noodle house before turning in for the night.

We are off to a new local tomorrow, part of which is rather remote, so might be radio silent for a few days and will be blogging in hindsight later on...just because I know I have so many readers (Mom) who will be eagerly awaiting the posts ;)