Just about an hour and a half south of us here in San Jose lies the world famous Carmel by the sea. While we’ve visited Monterey, which is just a few miles north, we had yet to really take in Carmel.
The picturesque location of mountains meeting the sea shore gives no wonder to why it’s such a popular day trip for many in the Bay Area. We had been back in California for a couple months at this point, and I was really itching to get a good coastal hike. After some research I decided I wanted to go to Point Lobos State National Reserve and Briana planned a couple other stops for our time down there such as Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo (better known as Mission Carmel).
We arrived at the Mission just after noon on a very clear and somewhat warm Sunday. It was pretty busy, as it is an operating mission, but we managed to get parking easily enough and made our way in to see the site.
The campus is large, and a perfect example of a classic Spanish Mission: adobe plaster, warm colored brick, and ceramic tile roofs. Mission Carmel had a distinct charm and personality to it, one that I find perfectly characterized by it’s crooked window above the entrance to the church.
The grounds were well landscaped with numerous flowers and fountains. Throughout the compound there were also numerous rooms that we could visit that held various histories and artifacts related to the Mission and surrounding area.
The mission was established June 3, 1770. The mission served primarily to baptize the native Ohlone Indian population. It reached a peak of 927 members in 1794, but had dwindled back down to 381 by 1823.
The missions was secularized in 1833 by the Mexican government and slowly fell into ruin and disrepair until the Roman Catholic Church regained authority of the mission in 1863, with extensive restoration beginning in 1931.
Today the mission serves multiple roles as a museum, working mission, and minor basilica.
We also planned on visiting the Carmelite Monastery on our way to Point Lobos. I had thought this would make for a good starting point to our Point Lobos excursion. I was wrong – but it was still a nice stop.
The Monastery is mostly closed off to visitors. While you can visit, you will need to set up an appointment first. With that being said, you can walk around the grounds and enjoy the sea breeze.
Having parked at Monastery Beach, which sits across the street from the Carmelite Monastery, we made our way along the beach in search for the trail into Point Lobos. The maps online are very misleading, because it appears that you can enter the park via a trail at the far end of Monastery Beach – you cannot do this. As such, we walked about a mile up the road to main entrance to the park. It also turns out this is the only entrance into the park.
Parking costs $10, however, there is no charge for people just walking in as we did. When you enter the park, you are a little bit away from the actual coast. Because of this, we set off for Whaler’s Cove via the Carmelo Meadow Trail.
Whaler’s Cove is the largest cove in Point Lobos, and it offers stunning views the seashore. Upon arriving, we were treated to a fresh breeze and picturesque landscapes. We slowly made our way around the top of the cliff sides until we reached a boat launch.
Here at the boat launch, we were treated to a great surprise: a Sea Otter with her pup, eating crabs. We sat here and watched for nearly a half hour before proceeding on. It was mesmerizing to watch the wildlife here, and we managed to snap a few other pics of the local sea life.
From here, we proceeded up a trail along the cliff edge and continued on the trim around the coastal trail. Here you can find a small whaling museum to visit. The museum features stuff such as the equipment used by whalers, whale bones, and baleen.
Cannery Point offered a great view of the ocean (as did most spots). Artists sometimes will take advantage of the location.
We kept on, passing through Big Dome and Cypress Coves before beginning to head back. While we only saw half the park at this point, we were beginning to get tired and the sun was beginning to go down, and we wanted to get back home before dark (we didn’t).
So when we came to a trail junction near Headland Cove, we turned inward back towards the park entrance. The park was very well maintained, so these trails in the interior were well manicured, paved, or had wooden walkways.
The southern half of Point Lobos is considered phenomenal as well, as we plan on eventually making our way back to see the rest of the park. For those interested, you can also go scuba diving here and if you catch the park in the right season you can see whales and seals as well.
We’ve visited Pinnacles National Park previously about two years ago, but this time around we decided to take a slightly different route through Bear Gulch cave and then up to the High Peaks pass. Pinnacles is just under a two hours drive south of San Jose and makes for a great day trip, and we’d been itching to go since we arrived back in California.
The park itself offers more than 16,000 acres of dramatic spines of rock and and fallen boulders. And this time of year is a great time to visit because the weather compliments the location pretty well. In the summer it can get hot and the sun brutal. But spring is great because the recent rains have turned the landscape green and vibrant with wildflowers and the temperature allows for a comfortable climb.
We arrived at a seemingly inopportune time; as this is the best time of year to visit, the park can get crowded pretty quick, and with us arriving at noon we had to wait about fifteen minutes before we could get parking, but that was about our only set back.
We parked near the trailhead for Bear Gulch and began making our way towards our first destination – Bear Gulch caves. The path gently rose, through the well shaded riparian forest and rising monoliths of stone.
We could see numerous rock climbers taking advantage of the excellent climbing conditions here as we approached the cave. Just before entering the cave, we could feel a strong cool breeze blowing out from the entrance. The breeze was refreshing, but quite decidedly chilly.
The caves themselves are Talus caves, formed from rock falls in valleys and canyons, where the falling boulders would become wedged in the narrow spaces and form the roof and interior layout of the caves.
Bear Gulch cave was a little bit larger than Balconies Cave (which we had previously visited) and was a little more challenging to get through as well. We enjoyed the challenge though. The primary obstacle was the water, as a small stream flowed through the cave and many times the stream crossed the path or even was the path.
Numerous waterfalls were inside the cave as we proceeded through the roughly half mile cave, and we steadily climbed up the rocks. The passages were quite narrow and ceilings low, so scrambling on rocks and wedging into tight spaces was a must. The most difficult part (for me at least) was getting through a small passage that could only have been maybe 3 feet high at the max and shimmying up a stepped waterfall.
After about thirty minutes we emerged from the cave, miraculously completely dry, although I suffered a few bumps on the head from the low ceilings. The caves are home to Townsend’s big-eared bats, and are closed throughout the year to allow them to raise pups in peace. Due to the narrow nature of the caves, they can also close due to rain.
Upon exiting the cave, we came to Bear Gulch reservoir. The reservoir is a nice lake, home to the endangered red-legged frog. While we could have stayed here for a while, as others were, we knew that we still had a long hike to go and only so much daylight, so we proceeded on up the path towards High Peaks.
The rocky trail winds its up way steadily up for several miles, passing through meadow, sparse woods, and ridge line. The floor falls away pretty quickly as you climb and you can begin to see the surrounding landscape.
Pinnacles National Park was originally established in 1908 by President Roosevelt as a National Monument and later converted into a national park in 2013 by President Obama. Pinnacles sits squarely atop the San Andreas fault, and as such the park and surrounding areas have been dramatically shaped by the seismic activities. The dramatic formations of the park are part of what remains of the Neenach Volcano, which erupted 23 million years ago, down near Lancaster. The fault has since moved the roughly half the rock 195 miles north to it’s present day location in the Salinas Valley.
After an hour or so, we began to near the High Peaks area. The spires of stone stand with a dramatic hue of orange and red against the green hills. Within another thirty minutes or so, we finally made it to the “top”.
This isn’t really the top of the mountain, rather it’s a convergence of several trails at a scenic overlook. Here, you can often see falcons and other birds going about their business. We had stopped here our previous time for lunch, but had to run down the canyon due to an abrupt lightning and hail storm. This time however, the skies were completely clear.
From this point, where you’ll also find a restroom if you should need it, you can proceed multiple ways. Our direction was through the High Peaks trail, which follows the ridge line of the mountain.
The hike through here is a lot of quick up and down, climbing very steep and narrow stairs. There are also several tight walkways to maneuver. Luckily, the park has installed railings to assist you through here.
You can also find tons of multi-colored lichen and slime molds on the rocks throughout the park.
As we were finishing our way through the High Peaks area, we came a stunning view of the resident Californian Condor. Brought back from the brink of extinction, all the birds present are descended from the original 27 birds that were left on earth. The breeding program has been a huge success and brought their numbers up now to 435. Pinnacles serves as a release site for the Condors and if you look closely, you can even see the tag numbers and find out who they are.
Most of the Condors were a little too far away from us to get a real good look at, but there was one in a tree near the trail that decided to pose well for us. The tag reads 00. This Condor was laid in the wild, and hatched (under care of researchers) in April 2015. You can find more information about the specific Condors here.
After spending probably twenty minutes watching the Condors (if not more), we steadily made our way towards the Condor Gulch trail. By this time, the sun was starting to get low, being that it was already nearly 6, so we knew we needed to pick up the pace to get down the mountain and make it back to the car before sun down.
Along this route, we encountered the numerous wildflowers present along the trail. There are also numerous bees in the area, due to the flowers. In fact, Pinnacles hosts the highest density of bee species in the world with 400 different species. Most of them are solitary bees though, not hive-dwelling, so you don’t need to worry about being stung.
Condor gulch made for a nice walk down as the sun set and the temperature began to drop. The flowers, fresh air, and gurgling streams made for a nice end to a pretty strenuous walk. We were pretty happy for the route we chose as well, because I don’t think we would have been quite as up for traversing the caves at this late a point in the day.
Finally we got to the car, as the Condor Gulch trail put us out right at the parking lot that we had left roughly 6 hours previously. Tired, but happy, we started our long drive back to San Jose.
If you plan on visiting Pinnacles, you should keep in mind that there are two entrances to the park. SR 146 approaches from both the east and west, but it is not a through road, and takes about two hours to get drive from one entrance to the other, so make sure you enter where you want to. We entered from the eastern side, which is just a little south of Hollister; whereas the western entrance is just east of Salinas.
Both entrances are good locations with full access to the park, though the western entrance will put you closer to Balconies cave, while the east entrance puts you nearer Bear Gulch cave. As well, you make sure you bring enough water, especially in the summer. If on a relatively cool day in spring such as our visit, we went through six bottles of water and could (should) have drunk more.
Regardless, Pinnacles National Park is an excellent spot to visit for hiking, camping, or even night hikes.
If you want to camp at Pinnacles National Park, you absolutely can. There is a campground, but only on the eastern side of the park, so you must approach from Hollister, not Salinas. The campground has 134 sites, so you shouldn’t have too much difficulty getting a place, but it may fill up during the spring season which is the ideal time to go. You can camp all year, but you may want to be wary about the summer and early fall as it can be extremely hot. In any case, you’ll most likely want to get a shaded camping spot if possible. There is a camp store that is well stocked for what it is, but you should still pack carefully as the closest supermarket is in Hollister, 32 miles away. There are also showers and flush toilets on site for you to use.
Cyprus is home to several prehistoric sites across the island, with Choirokoitia being one of the largest, and best preserved sites. It also just so happened to be pretty easily accessible. It lies just off the highway about halfway between Limassol and Larnaka and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We made our way out to the site during the time that Briana’s dad was visiting us. Just like our other adventures out to Tomb of the Kings and Kurion, this would also turn into a hike.
Being the middle of summer, it was really hot out probably somewhere in the mid to upper 90s so we made sure to bring a fair amount of water and we put on a little sunscreen. The site, like much of the island, is very dry, on the verge of being desert.
Upon arrival, we saw that the site was very well maintained with a visitor entrance, bathrooms, plaques, and some stone pavement. Entrance to the park cost 2.50 Euro per person, so it was not too bad a price.
The site lies at one end of a longer hiking trail that will take you to several neolithic sites including the Kalavasos-Tenta (another site you can see off of the highway) and the Byzantine church of the Panagia tou Kambou. However, considering the heat of the day and the fact that the hiking trail was several miles in length, we elected to just see the Choirokoitia site.
This worked out perfectly anyways as we still were able to explore the site itself for around two hours at a leisurely pace. The entire site makes its way around a hill, with several smaller sections to view. Near the entrance, manicured paths take you to various plaques that describe how the aboriginals of Choirokoitia lived on the land as well as about the wildlife, climate, and habitat of the region.
There are also several brick and plaster buildings that have been preserved and restored that you can view. These buildings show how family units would have lived, with each building serving as a room, arranged in a circular pattern forming a larger familial structure.
Moving on from here, the path turns more to a worn dirt trail and makes its way around the bend, overlooking what used to be a river. It could still be river, but it was hard to see if there was any water considering the drought. Regardless, in ancient times, the settlement existed due to it’s location next to the Maroni River.
Along this section we found the remains of ancient walls and early settlements. It is believed however, that this particular site was later abandoned in favor of a location further up the hill by a few hundred feet.
When we arrived the larger location we were struck by the enormity of the site. Numerous stone alleyways, rooms, and buildings stood embedded into the hillside. For preservation purposes, we were not allowed to go into the ruins themselves (which were covered by a tarp to protect from the harsh sun), but elevated walkways and ramps provided for ample viewing of the archaeological dig.
The structure itself feels small due to the fact that the people of Choirokoitia were between 4’11” and 5’3”. The 300 to 600 inhabitants only lived to 35 years on average.
For reasons unknown, the people of Choirokoitia abruptly abandoned the village around 6000 BCE. The region was not inhabited again for another 1500 years. Recent evidence in Limassol has pointed though, to the theory that the people simply moved further west – mostly likely in response to climate pressures.
At the top of the village there is a viewing platform that provides for a great view of the surrounding hills and valley.
All in all the site of Choirokoitia is a great place to see. It’s a little off the beaten tourist path that you’ll encounter near Pafos, but it’s no less amazing. If you want to visit, it is open daily from 8.00 – 17.00.
Yesterday we went on a short hike in Santa Teresa County Park. Santa Teresa is only about fifteen minutes away from our place making it an ideal spot to hike. In the winter it’s nice and green, and this year it is especially so with all the rain we’ve been getting. Kyle gets home from work pretty early and with the sun beginning to set later, we are able to go on short weekday hikes if we want. It helps a little with curbing our wanderlust and gives us some exercise and fresh air.
Here is short video just for fun.
The main reason I took/made a video this time was for some fun experimentation. I knew this would be a good place because we had already been there and it’s both a nice backdrop and not very crowded (I assumed this would especially be true during the week).
If you want to see more hikes in our area, check out our South Bay Hikes post (though it hasn’t been updated in over a year!- we’ll get on that soon) or see our North and Central America page for even more hiking posts from the bay area.
How do you climb the wrong mountain (or hill)? I will tell you. We only recently discovered just where we went! If you are curious because you’d like to do the same (not climb the wrong mountain, but do the same hike) we think we went right here. After a quick search, I managed to find one person who did the same hike as us and their photo had a link to these coordinates.
Kyle had really been set on the idea of climbing Mount Merapi while we were on Java, but unfortunately we found it to be unrealistic due to a mix of cost, time (which also factors into cost- as we had to allot working time), difficulty, and danger. Okay, only I was worried about difficulty and danger but I read a TripAdvisor review where someone said that their legs were jello for days after the hike and Mount Merapi is an active volcano! We had hoped that it was something we could do without a guide so we wouldn’t have to pay, but after listening to a few horror stories from our hosts about others who had given this a try, we decided it wasn’t a good idea. Still, we were really in the mood for doing some kind of hike.
After a little research, I decided Kendil Mountain/Kendil Rock would be a good place for us to go. The actual hike I was looking at did not seem too difficult and I even had a second hike just past it (Suroloyo Peak) planned for afterwards if that one went well. Our hosts at the homestay recommended that we take a guide but we just wanted to do some independent exploring, and for us this takes away some of the fun because we no longer have freedom to go at our own pace, do little side explorations, etc. Plus, obviously, guides cost money and we already spent a lot of our activity budget on Borobudur. There also didn’t seem to be any specific major risks associated with doing these hikes solo like there was with Mt Merapi so we asked for directions, hopped on a motorbike, and off we went.
Well, the first problem was that Kyle could not hear me shouting directions at him from the back of the motorbike. He took a few wrong turns and we got a little lost. We got a bit off the path. We stopped to ask a couple random people we encountered for directions but it didn’t quite work out due to language barriers. The maps didn’t seem to completely match up with what we thought we were looking at and Kyle and I had different ideas about which direction we should go. Kyle is more stubborn than me and he was driving so I eventually conceded and allowed him to just take us wherever he seemed to feel like going. He took us on what he thought (though I wasn’t quite sure about it) was the right path but then we came to a closed road on this path. We asked the two men guarding the road for directions but their English was extremely limited.
Well, Kyle thought we must be in the right place and that we should just hike up from there! I said something along the lines of, “Are you serious?! This is nowhere near the mountain we are supposed to be climbing! Even if we could somehow find the way, which I highly doubt we could, it would take a very long time to hike all the way to Kendil from here and there is no way we could make it to Suryolo Peak!” And he said something like, “This’ll take us there.”
Fine. So we parked the bike near these men and began to head up straight but the men pointed us to the right. We asked them again and they seemed to be telling us this was the right direction (only I knew better). We thought about motorbiking up this road but it would have been very dangerous because it was ridiculously steep. That actually would have been terrifying. Even walking up I felt worried about falling backwards. As we began our ascension, I hesitated because Kyle would be mad at the implications of such an assumption, as he often is in when I ask something like this, but I asked anyway: “You have the key for the motorbike, right? You didn’t leave it in the bike.. right…?” Kyle: “Of course n- oh, whoops!”
Well Kyle went and grabbed the key which he left in the ignition and we began up this road. Slowly it became more and more interesting.
We saw butterflies fluttering all over. We examined large colorful beetles. We stopped to look at interesting plants and flowers.
We also came across a couple pretty big spiders (you can’t tell from the photo, but this spider was as big as our hands).
There were also some mosquitos. We had some lengthy discussions about our (mostly my) concerns about dengue, Zika, and malaria on the way up. We kind of felt like we were going exploring a jungle (we kind of were?) so it seemed warranted.
As we climbed higher, we found some pretty great views looking off the side of the mountain. It was also pretty hot. I believe it was somewhere around 100 degrees so we got a little sweaty!
Through our climb we encountered a variety of paths- including road, stone, dirt, stairs, stone steps, mud, etc. We didn’t really know where we were going (reality: I didn’t think I knew where we were going and Kyle thought we were headed toward our original destination and I’m only mentioning this because I found it extremely frustrating during our hike that he maintained this idea) but we were on the right path to a peak for a while. Eventually, though, as we do, we got off the trail to the place-we-ended-up-going-but-to-which-we-didn’t-know-we-were-going-and-hadn’t-intended-to-go-as-we-didn’t-really-know-about-it (though once there, we thought we thought we knew about it because of the name but it wasn’t the same place we were thinking of anyway). Anyway, at some point we reached a more level area which appeared to be inhabited and weren’t really sure where to go.
We ended up going on this dirt path. We were kind of just exploring, but were also hoping the path would lead up to a peak. We took lots of turns and forks and took pictures on our phone and camera which we hoped would be helpful if we got lost.
I also took lead navigation for a while because I feel a strength of mine is my hyperawareness of my surroundings which allows me to better watch out for looming spider webs in front of us and gaps in land on the ground. I was pretty convinced a giant spider was going to get us.
The path got extremely narrow at times but I don’t have any photos to show it well, though, probably because those places were not the best to go around taking photos! At times, I also said things like “Kyle, I don’t think this is a well-traveled path. I really don’t think this is even a hiking trail! I think animals made some of these paths!” Still, we were both pushing to go just a little further, taking different paths in hopes we’d eventually see that a path that was leading to a peak.
After it began to sprinkle, though, it was time to turn around as I was getting worried that we would slip on these narrow muddy paths. This entire way was devoid of people, aside from a person near a single path we found somewhere in the middle which led to someone’s home. We saw they had constructed pipes to their house that went along the mountain and found it pretty interesting.
We navigated our way back to the area from which we found this path and found a man. Either we asked him something or he just looked at us and pointed. I don’t really remember, but anyway, we then began our way up this cobbled road. We encountered a few friendly roosters and as we made our way we up, we saw a sign! A sign! It read: “Menoreh Hill.”
That was a name I knew. It turns out, the whole thing is not as straightforward as you’d think, though. The map our hosts had provided with showed something called the Menoreh Hills (plural) but it appeared far on the map and I when I had looked into it online it also looked like it was an unrealistically far distance for us to go to which is why we had nixed the idea of going there. So this couldn’t be that, right? We could see our place from the top of the hill and weren’t far at all. I had also researched other hikes in the area and come across Menoreh Hill (singular), but everyone’s photos involved going and standing/sitting on this tall platform which you could reach via ladder (like this one, though this blog states Menoreh Hills plural, also). This advertised tour for a Menoreh Hill trek also does not resemble the trail we took. We definitely did not go to Kendill Rock or Suryolo Peak either. After some further research, expanding now to social media, I did find a couple other people (again, pretty sure locals) on Instagram who did get to this same place and they tagged their photos #menorehhills. (The other person I found through a quick google search- from which I got the coordinates in the intro, was from another site.) For this hashtag I found a variety of different views, a few which displayed photos from the path we took and some which clearly did not. My conclusion is that there are a bunch of Menoreh Hills. I mean Menoreh Hills is plural, but what then, is the Menoreh Hill or do they just call each of them Menoreh Hill? From our past hikes we are used to different peaks and hikes being given different names even if they are a part of the same mountain range which is part of what made it confusing for us. Also, when I try typing in Menoreh Hill or Menoreh Hills on Googlemaps, I’m not given anything.
Anyway, we continued up and came to this area which appeared to have a couple houses. This made us question if we were in the right place. We walked around and encountered a very sweet and friendly dog. It looked like it wanted to play with us.
We also saw a young boy and then we heard a family inside their house as we looked around. Soon we found another sign leading up.
We climbed up some final muddy stairs and reached the top and I have to say, I ended up being quite happy with this alternative route we took.
The view was amazing. I think I may even have preferred to do this hike had I only known. Who knew our essentially random wanderings would lead up to this?
We took some time to just stay there and really enjoy our view. We were the only ones around and there was a little hut for us to sit in which I enjoyed until I saw a big spider weaving around the wood pole next to me. I also noticed one sitting on the backpack. How long was it there??
We pointed out various landmarks visible beneath the light fog and enjoyed some snacks. We had a nice view of Amanjiwo Resorts throughout most of our hike. At somewhere between $600 and $1600/night, the hotel was out of our price range (lol!) but it does look pretty impressive. It offers a number of suites, including one which offers you your own private pool and garden! There are some other nice hotels there, too, though, including one inside the Borobudur area (Manohara) where we had meals a couple times.
We rested our legs while watching as the dark clouds rolled closer.
I said to Kyle (or something like this), “We need to get going or we are going to be slipping and sliding down those stairs until we are both a muddy mess!” He agreed and we took just a couple more minutes to enjoy our view before heading down.
It began sprinkling just as we finished our way down the muddy stairs and it rained on and off on our way back. It did make us more cautious on the way down as a whole, though but it was also quite lovely!
Kyle also picked up a couple more snacks for himself on the way back. (I did not partake.)
We saw very few people through the entire hike, and didn’t see any other hikers. Aside from the man who pointed us in the right direction and the boy with the dog, we saw some people working on a building to the right of the trail at the very beginning of our journey and then a woman hauling up groceries. On our way down we saw a woman and her child.
Once we made our way back to the motorbike we hopped back on, headed back, and then we each took a shower! Later we realized we were able to see the peak and platform from our place. While it started out a bit rocky, this turned out to be one of our favorite hikes we’ve done!
The taxi driver who found us on our walk to the Cedars of God offered to take us to our next destination: Qadisha Grotto.
Due to construction, our driver was not able to get very far so we decided to walk down the mountain ourselves (it’s not terribly far and this was my preference anyway).
While it was hot, it was downhill and the we had a constant view down into Qadisha Valley.
After a little bit we rounded a corner and saw signs pointing in the direction of the caves.
We followed them and found ourselves walking cliffside among lots of yellow flowers.
When we reached a gate going into a cave, we thought we had made it, but not quite. The entrance to this area was filled with noisy flies so we ran through. We exited, walked further, and found another little cave to walk through. Then, we walked through a more man-made tunnel.
Eventually, we came to what appeared to be the Qadisha Grotto. The water here serves many of the nearby villages and also produces electricity for Tripoli City. It looked like there was a small restaurant just outside of the caves, but we couldn’t tell if it was operating. A man asked us for our tickets. We didn’t have any so we bought them. He told us they cost 10,000LBP/person even though we read that they cost 5,000 online. His English wasn’t good, and I wasn’t positive if that was what I had read so we didn’t feel like trying to negotiate. We also didn’t want to turn around at that point so we decided to pay the 20,000LBP ($13.20). He asked us if we had a light (we forgot one, but Kyle had a flashlight app on his phone) because the electricity (to the lamps/lights which guide/show you) sometimes would go out.
I have always liked caves: the smell, the chill (sweet relief in summer), the dampness. One of my favorite park attractions: Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney has it down and it always made me want to live in a cave.
We made our way through and were able to explore it pretty much by ourselves. I believe we passed one other couple who was exiting as we were making our way inward, but that was it.
We admired the limestone formations in the cave and took our time. I think it was all a bit more dazzling (and sparkly!) in person. While we enjoyed our tour at the Natural Bridge Caverns in Texas, it was also nice to explore independently and at our own pace.
We had a nice (long) walk down, as well.
We had read that the Jeita Grotto outside of Beirut is far more grand but unfortunately we were not in Lebanon long enough to venture there as well.
Info: Hours: The caves are closed from mid-December to mid-May. The rest of the time it’s open from 9:30am until sunset (though I’ve read the hours can be a little irregular). Cost: It’s supposed to be 5,000 LBP/person (but they may try to charge you more). It’s also supposed to be cheaper for children. How to get there: Follow signs to L’Aiglon Hotel (or look up its location on GoogleMaps and find it) and you will see signs directing you to the grotto from there (about 1.5km away).
One of the primary reasons I wanted to visit Lebanon was to see the Cedars of God – the famed Lebanese Cedars.
The Cedar, which once covered nearly the entirety of the Mt. Lebanon range, has now been reduced to small fraction of it’s original expanse with only a few remaining groves in the nation – the Cedars of God being the oldest.
The Cedars are mentioned of importance across numerous cultures and religions. They gain their name from the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the forest was protected by the Sumerian god Enlil, who lost a battle to humans. Though other Christian stories say that God planted the trees himself. The Cedars are referenced over 100 times in the Bible and were used to build Solomon’s Temple. The trees are also of significance to Pagans and Druze.
The trees were held in high esteem by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Israelites, and Turks. The wood was considered of high quality and is attributed to the Phoenicians being the first sea-faring trading civilization. The Egyptians used it in some papyrus while numerous people used it for holy buildings and offerings. In all cases though, the trees were cut down and used without being replaced. The most notable cutters were the Phoenicians, and then later the Turkish for train fuel.
Today, only a few groves remain, although the Lebanese government has now enacted measures to spread the tree’s range to its once former glory. Interestingly, they are promoting natural reforestation, as opposed to replanting, so that the forests will be more wild than planned.
We began our way to the Cedars by walking from our AirBNB in Bcharre. We intended to grab a taxi, but as we had no phone or way to get a hold of one beforehand – we were prepared to make the hike up to the forest. Thankfully, a taxi pulled up beside us just a few minutes into our walk and we got in, which saved us from a 10 km hike with 800m elevation gain.
The drive took about fifteen minutes and $20, during which we steadily climbed the mountain and watched Bcharre and the Kadisha Valley shrink below us. At one point, the taxi driver pulled off to the side of the road and took our picture overlooking the valley. We then jumped back in the car and made our way to the entrance of the Cedars of God. The taxi driver kept insisting that he would wait outside for us and that it only took 30 minutes to see the forest. He then offered to come in and give us a tour (because he was also a tour operator).
We tried to turn him down, but he kept insisting. Briana managed to get him to understand that we did not want him to give us a tour, though he would still wait for us (we wanted to visit the Kadisha Grotto after). We also stated that we would be about an hour or so, although we kept telling him we’d rather do two. Entry into the forest was by “donation”. There is no set fee, so you can donate however much you want. We paid 1000 LBP (~$0.66) each to enter. From there we descended a stone stairway that then led into the grove.
The fresh air was quite freeing, and cool fragrance of cedar and flowers floated through the air. The entire grove was blossoming with numerous flowers as millennia old cedar towered above. The path wove it’s way down a gully, and then made a few switchbacks as it moved it’s way uphill.
We came across the oldest tree in the park, estimated at 3000 years old. It was very large and gnarled.
We came around a turn and found ourselves at an old church. I wish I knew what the name was, but we found that most the plaques in the forest were devoid of any information. However, we ventured inside and found a stately chamber. Although it was dark, we could still see the glitter of gold on the art work.
Walking out of the church, we then made our way down a path that led towards a large central grove with a few stone ruins and some central trees.
One tree in particular was roped off and at first I really didn’t understand why. But then Briana said there were carvings and I took a closer look up at the tree and noticed that numerous sections of the trunk had been carved to look like Jesus. The carvings were phenomenal and you could easily look at them for a long time.
From there we then proceeded on through various winding paths through the forest for about another 45 minutes. The flowers were in full bloom. We would have liked to spend longer within the forest, but we had the taxi waiting for us and the grove was admittedly small. Ultimately, we spent about an hour and fifteen minutes within the forest, but you could easily spend another hour if you take your time.
Our second visit to Kuala Lumpur was far easier, and more enjoyable than our first time. It’s not that we didn’t enjoy KL our first time, but that we were in such a great and central location our second time. Our AirBNB was on the edge of Bukit Bintang, with a great view of the KL Tower, Petronas Towers, and Bukit Nanas.
Bukit Nanas had attracted our attention when we were first here, but we just weren’t able to make it there then. Our second time around though, it was literally just a two minute walk from the front door.
Bukit Nanas, formerly Bukit Gombak, is the only virgin tropical rainforest remaining within the city of Kuala Lumpur. City planners decided to preserve the jungle and turn it into a public forest reserve. It is essentially a large and elongated hill, at the top of which resides KL Tower. At the main entry, you can find a visitor center with a mini museum.
We made our way to visit it in the late afternoon (be careful, it closes at 5pm) and really enjoyed our time. Our main interest was the canopy walk, which is a sequence of bridges and platforms suspended in the jungle canopy which you can walk across the park on. It provides great views of the jungle below.
A storm was rolling in as we walked through, and as we descended the canopy walk into the jungle, the rain began to set in. We came prepared though with umbrellas and we enjoyed our times in a real rain forest. Trails run throughout the park, and are quite easy to navigate – some are paved and others are just dirt. As well, the park is home to monkeys, monitor lizards, birds, and snakes – though we saw none, most likely due to the storm.
While we didn’t have the time to fully explore the park, there are also various gardens and pavilions. We did get the chance to walk through the bamboo forest though, which was enjoyable.
It should be kept in mind though, that mosquitos are abundant in the park. I normally don’t find the need to wear insect repellant, and most of KL is well controlled, but if you want to take a hike here, you should consider having a bit of protection. Also, rains in KL can be torrential at times, as we experienced a few days later, so while it may be fun to explore the jungle in the rain as we did, be prepared in case you hit a sudden flash flood.
Bukit Nanas provides a great nature reprieve in the concrete jungle of Kuala Lumpur. If you find yourself in the area, it’s well worth checking out. To get there, just head to the KL Tower and you’ll see the signs.
With our gas tank nearly on empty and the sun beginning it’s descent into the ocean, we made our way back into Cat Ba town from Hospital Cave. But we had one last destination before returning to our room: Cannon Fort. We knew that atop the mountain overlooking the town lay a fort and some spectacular views of the island, so we knew we had to check it out.
We made our way down the waterfront street of town, and turned up the hill opposite the pier. As the road began to curve to the left a turn opened up the right and we took it. Almost immediately, there was a big sign saying “Cannon Fort” and a steep road going up. If you are inclined to do so, you can make the hike up to the fort from town in about 30 minutes. But we had a bike, so we gunned the throttle and headed up the mountain. The road made it’s way through the winding paths and eventually put us at the very top, which was an old helicopter pad – now converted to a makeshift parking lot, van drop-off, and (oddly) older women’s aerobics exercise spot.
We took a few minutes to marvel at some of the views this spot had to offer then proceeded on to what appeared to be the beginning. We passed a large howitzer installation set inside a deep pit, and a shell display and came to the East Observation Post. Here we paid our 40,000 Dong admittance each (~$4 combined) and began our tour of the facility.
We started by looking through a set of binoculars, which gave us a great detailed view of a few islands of Lan Ha Bay and the floating village off to the east of Cat Ba. Monkey island was also well within view and we gave it a good look (no monkeys to be seen sadly). We descended past the cafe that resides at the top, and made our way down a path that ultimately disappeared a few hundred feet in. We turned around and made our way up, at which point a bunch of children came running up to us and gave us high-fives and took our pictures. They didn’t seem to really speak any English (many of the children here speak pretty good English) but they sure seemed enthusiastic.
We finally found our way through to the rest of the “museum” and began to truly explore the cannon fort. The entire top of the mountain holds the remains of the military installation originally built by the Japanese in WWII. Narrow trenches meander through the hills taking you from one point to the next. The French and Vietnamese also used the fort for their purposes during the many subsequent wars.
We explored a U-shaped tunnel, that served some sort of purpose (obviously) though we could not figure out what. We also came across a small museum displaying relics from wars past as well as local art that could be purchased.
More wandering through the jungle paths brought us to a second gun installation, this one “manned” by life-size mannequins. Descending into the pit, we were then able to walk through some of the deep trenches and come to the munitions storage alcoves. It would certainly be easy to get lost among the maze of trenches here. But we found our way back to the gun and climb out of the pit.
Proceeding on down, we came to the West Observation Post. There were no binoculars here, but it wasn’t necessary. What we found instead were spectacular views of the small cove before Cat Ba Town, as well as the town itself. The sun was setting, and we could see the dozens of boats and floating restaurants sparkling on the bay. We stayed here for a bit before we began to make our way back towards the bike. We actually did not really know how to get back properly, but we found what looked like a path and climbed our way out, where we found ourselves a few hundred feet down the road from the helicopter pad. So we made our way to our bike and then proceeded to ride down the mountain road once again.
With a full day behind us and the sun setting, it was a great end to the day.
We started off our Cat Ba day by eating a meal at the Buddha Belly in Cat Ba town, in preparation for our hike to come. We then returned to our AirBNB, gathered our things, and rented a motorbike for the day from our host for 120,000 Dong (~$6) before making our way up the hill towards the town center, getting two liters of gas for 30,000 Dong (~$1.50) and continuing on the road. We followed the main road for about 20 minutes (we took a few stops for pictures along the way) and then came upon the park headquarters and main entrance to Cat Ba National Park. We parked our bike in the parking lot adjacent to the entrance and paid the entry fee of 40,000 Dong (~$2) each and a parking fee of 5,000 Dong.
Normally, you can get a guide from the entrance, but this being the off-season, it didn’t seem like there was anyone there who would assist us – not that we wanted a guide, though. The person manning the entry gate told us, without prompting, that we would just keep going and there would be a sign that would point us to the trail.
Originally, we thought we would be hiking the Lookout Tower Trail which is a very popular trail as it provides great views, a decent hike, and at a reasonable length. The guy at the entrance also assumed that this is the trail we were wanting, luckily he was right. While we did hike this trail (we think), we did took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up climbing to Ngu Lam Peak instead of the Lookout Tower. This was no disappointment, though.
Upon entering the park, we came almost immediately upon the Specimen House. We decided to go in and take a look – and use the bathroom.
The house was pretty interesting, though a little bit in disrepair. There are two floors of rooms, each containing preserved animals endemic to Vietnam. Each room had it’s own theme: birds, reptiles, mammals, insects, and fish. While very interesting, it was also a little bit creepy. I would have liked to know a bit more, but unfortunately nothing was in English. On the first floor is a giant relief map of the island that is worth a few minutes checking out.
We exited the house and then proceeded on down the small paved road. We passed by small homes with front gardens.
A few people were working the plots, and an old lady was selling drinks to hikers. We also passed by many dogs just lazing around in the dirt.
We continued on the road for a bit, wondering where the trail was going to be, and finally came to the end of the road, and the start of the trail.
The road culminated at what appeared to be a restaurant / bungalow. It appeared to be empty, but during peak season, we imagine it could be full of hikers taking a break or sleeping through a long trek. You could get food or drinks here. We ultimately didn’t get anything until our return (mistake, we were thirsty the whole way and hadn’t brought any water).
We climbed a few steps and then proceeded off to the left of the Lookout Tower Loop Trail. Almost immediately you dive straight into the jungle, climbing over twisted roots and navigating dangling vines. We visited in very early March on a somewhat cooler day, but in the summer the humidity and heat of the forest could certainly be too much to handle for some. But for us, the climb just had us take off our jackets a short way in.
Nearly the entire way was a pure climb up rough stone steps. There were barely, if any, flat parts. Luckily, the path was pretty clear and it isn’t difficult to get lost. But be prepared to take breaks as you climb so that you don’t exhaust yourself. Good shoes are also a must, especially if there has been a recent rain. The limestone rocks are very jagged and very sharp. It would be very easy to trip, or twist an ankle and fall. A fall on these rocks will almost certainly result in some nasty cuts and injuries. Luckily we had no problems along the way.
The climb up is pretty straight forward, although there are a few turns that veer off in directions that we weren’t sure about. But when in doubt climbing a mountain, you can’t really go wrong with “up”. So we continued to climb up. In places, the trail devolved into just a scramble of jagged rocks that required all hands and feet to navigate. About an hour or so into the climb we came to a spot that gave us a little bit of confusion – the trail seemed to veer off to the left and right, but both ways were up. We heard voices off to the left, so we chose left. This may have actually been the wrong direction, as we never actually made it to lookout tower, but instead we got to Ngo Lam Peak. At ~550 meters (~1705 feet), you get some great views.
Near the top, a few steep stone staircases presented themselves and allowed us to climb out of the tangled underbrush and break through the canopy to spectacular sights. At the top of stairs and rocks, there was an observation tower (not the lookout tower) that made for a wonderful panoramic view of the park. We sat here for a few minutes enjoying the views before we noticed that there was yet another peak just a little bit further up the trail.
With a little convincing, I managed to get Briana to accompany me to the top of that peak. Here we were presented with even more great views, situated about a hundred feet higher than the previous peak. We sat on the ridge and rested for a few minutes.
I saw a cool little perch a ways over and took a (dangerous) climb over to it. I was very carefully climbing my way along the edge of cliff face, with roughly a 300 foot drop on my left before it began to slope out to the floor about a thousand feet down. Once at my perch though, I got a nice view, and a couple good shots. When I was ready, I carefully made my way back to the ridge and then we proceeded on down the trail.
Ultimately, we spent around an hour at peak, it’s really not too difficult to do so. But if you visit in the summer, be warned that the peak is completely exposed. So make sure to wear sunscreen and bring water. Also, pay attention to any storms that could pop up, as the peak is sure to be a magnet for lighting.
Our descent went rather quickly, but was just as difficult as the way up. Descending had to be done very carefully, and required a lot of assistance from trees, railing where available, and at times just turning backwards and literally climbing down.
At one point, there was a lot of rustling off tot he left, but we could never quite make out just what it was we were hearing. We thought we saw a bushy tail or two, but the forest creature(s) were elusive. We had thought about trying to go up the trails that we had passed on our way up, but our legs were pretty tired, and we were very thirsty, so we just went down instead.
Along our way back we passed several more dogs out relaxing in the sun, and later a dog interested in some monkeys (caged for rehabilitation) we passed by at one point. We heard some commotion as we went past this area and think one of the monkeys may have reached through the cage to provoke the dog.
Finally we came back down and arrived at the little bungalow again. And here we bought ourselves a lemon green tea. It was very good, and just what we needed.
We did explore another area which did not involve any steep incline on the way back.
The climb was good, and it was a great journey through the jungle. It’s certainly not easy, and if you have knee problems you may want to avoid the hike – but if you can handle a little workout it’s certainly worth the trip.