20 outdoor experiences in NorCal

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, January 5, 2006

Making a to-do list isn’t for everyone. Some of us like to wing it.

Others peruse a menu of potential outdoor recreation possibilities to get motivated toward a main course. After all, the outdoor horizons in Northern California are daunting: Beyond the seasonal winter sports, there are whitewater rafting and sea kayaking, mountain biking and road riding, hiking and caving, swimming and diving, camping and climbing.

The start of a new year seems like a good time to plan to enjoy our sweet spot of outdoor fun. Plus, you don’t want to wake up one day 20 years from now and wonder why you never hiked Yosemite, rafted a Class IV stretch of river or reeled in a king salmon, do you?

So our list, the Outbound 20, is just to get you thinking – and then involved.

Like Daryn Dodge of Davis. He’s working on a list that covers just one sport: big mountain climbing. For 2006, he plans to climb North Palisade and Thunderbolt Peak, two peaks near Mount Whitney that will allow him to check off two more goals on his list: the list of 247 prominent Sierra peaks.

He’s not alone.

Dodge says 60 people have completed the list, which is maintained at http://angeles.sierraclub.org/sps. Others are working on it.

So, if you have the time, energy or interest to only do, say, 20 things in NorCal this year – or in this life – what might they be?

Here’s our Outbound 20, compiled from reader suggestions, local outdoors aficionados and our own ideas. They are in no particular order, and admittedly incomplete. So make your own and make 2006 the year your list comes alive.

1. This one tops our list because time’s a wastin’ if you want to tackle the 33rd annual Echo-to-Kirkwood Race and Tour on March 11. Get out your snowshoes or backcountry skis, because you’ve got two months to get ready for this 13-mile course across the crest of the Sierra from the Echo Summit Sno-Park just off Highway 50 to the Kirkwood Touring Center on Highway 88.

The El Dorado Nordic Ski Patrol puts on the race/tour, which takes cross-country skiers about two hours to complete, and snowshoers four to six hours to finish. If you’ve got designs on this, visit www.ednsp.org for details. To get equipped and trained, talk to experts at your local REI store or the Kirkwood Cross Country & Snowshoe Center (www.xcskiworld.com/skihere/ destinations/Kirkwood.htm).

2. Up and down the state, the Sierra is full of hikes of all levels of difficulty. The jewel in the crown might be the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Canada to Mexico and is accessible from Sacramento. You can hike a portion of the trail as short as a couple of hours, but if you’re making a list, why not plan to hike a weeklong portion of the 2,650-mile trail. One choice: hiking the John Muir Trail, which begins in Yosemite and runs 211 miles to the top of Mount Whitney, or vice versa. (Or a portion thereof.) Visit the PCT Web site, www.pcta.org, for many links about the trail. Note: This is serious backcountry hiking, and you should be well-equipped and in shape, with a knowledge of backcountry etiquette and survival skills.

3. We can see the Sierra Nevada from the highway, so we tend to take for granted that we live within easy striking distance of some of the best skiing in the world. Skiing and snowboarding at Lake Tahoe-area resorts can mean anything from the gentle hill of Boreal Ridge to the precipitous drops of Kirkwood, with everything in between. We won’t play favorites, but we will mention that Bee staff writer Clint Swett says that KT-22, a run at Squaw Valley (home to the 1960 Winter Olympics), is among the most challenging in the world, reportedly named KT-22 because it took one skier 22 kick-turns to get down its sheer face.

4. Snow in the high country doesn’t need to stop fans of the backwoods – they just strap on cross-country skis or snowshoes and head out. Cross-country skiing can take you anywhere you have the energy (and maps) to access. But if you just want to get a taste, cross- country skiing at Castle Peaks, just across Interstate 80 from Boreal Mountain Resort, is a good place to start. The trails aren’t groomed (for that, try the commercial Royal Gorge, near Soda Springs, a bit farther west), but for the silence, the trees, the exertion and the towering rock of Castle Peaks above you, this area is close and rewarding. For more information, visit www.sierraoutdoorrecreation.com/ Members/Winter/Castle_Valley_ Peter_Grub_Hut_Castle_Peak.cfm.

5. Modern mountain biking was born a couple of decades ago when some Marin County guys decided they should be able to ride the trails that before could only be walked. They retrofitted their old street beaters and launched one of the most popular sports trends of the past 50 years. There are many places to ride in Northern California (though many of Marin’s trails are now off-limits), but the great treat everyone agrees on is riding the Flume Trail on Lake Tahoe’s eastern shore. Stretching south from Incline Village, Nev., the Flume Trail offers spectacular views of Lake Tahoe. The riding isn’t all that difficult, but if you have a fear of heights, this isn’t the ride for you. Find out more at www.theflumetrail.com.

6. If you want to ride your road bike, California has the roads. Pretty ones, spectacular ones. Plus, there’s our own Jedediah Smith Bike Trail along the American River in Sacramento. And then there’s a ride at another level: the Markleeville Death Ride, a ride for people who find physical punishment entertaining. This year’s ride is scheduled for July 8, ensuring altitude and maybe heat as riders push their road bikes over five of the Sierra’s highest passes (Ebbetts Pass, for instance, is 8,730 feet), traveling 129 miles in one day, with more than 15,000 feet of combined elevation gain. Now does the name make sense? Visit www.deathride.com for more details.

7. If “death” and “fun” don’t sound like a winning combo to you, try a much easier, but every bit as beautiful trip, by bicycling across the Golden Gate Bridge. Begin in San Francisco’s Marina district, cross the newly restored wetlands of Crissy Field, then cruise the gentle rise to the Golden Gate Bridge and across to Marin County, then down through Sausalito and out to Tiburon, where you can catch a ferry back across the bay to Fisherman’s Wharf just in time for sunset. At about 20 miles, it’s a good workout with some climbing and many gorgeous views per mile.

8. Rock climbing wasn’t invented in California, but it has blossomed here, and Yosemite is one big reason. Besides all the backcountry hiking, Yosemite has the tallest sheer granite wall in the country: El Capitan can take five days for climbers taking the most challenging routes up its 3,500-foot face. But you also can climb just the first 50, 100 or 200 feet and still get a sense of the majesty of this rocky giant. Visit www.rockclimbing.com to learn the ropes.

9. The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta holds the promise of Sherman Island, an area down Highway 160 from Sacramento, just north of Antioch. It’s one of the most popular windsurfing and kiteboarding sites in the world. Blessed with the same Delta winds that make Sacramento’s summer nights so wonderful, Sherman Island is ideal for the windy set. Visit the commercial site www.deltawindsurf.com for more information.

10. Closer to home, and considerably lazier in attitude, is a float down the American River in Sacramento. Or you can head farther up the American’s south fork and catch some decent whitewater. Or you can go for the biggie: whitewater rafting on the Tuolumne River. In the spring, this river runs out of Yosemite National Park with Class V rapids – only one level from Class VI, which is as big as it gets – with gorgeous canyons all around you … if you dare take your eyes off the water. Reader Jamie Low suggests Cherry Creek, a.k.a. the Upper Tuolumne, but warns it’s “not for the faint of heart.” For more information, contact one of the several outfitters that operate in the area, or check out www.tuolumne-river.com.

11. Whitewater kayaking is a sport that takes more practice than white- water rafting, but sea kayaking has an easier learning curve and a quick payoff. Once you’re in the kayak, you can go all over the place, including Richardson Bay near Sausalito or Elkhorn Slough just off Monterey Bay, a remarkable wetland paradise teeming with wildlife and bracing ocean breezes. Visit www.elkhornslough.org/ paddling for more information.

12. If ever there was a mountain that begged to be climbed, it’s at the head of our big valley: Mount Shasta. Though 14,162 feet is an obvious adventure, it’s not an easy one. The climb, on one of 17 established routes, can take one or two days depending on the route taken and the experience of the climber. The difficulties include the altitude, loose volcanic talus, and ice and snow fields. But the reward is an unparalleled view of Northern California and bragging rights to the most prominent mountain in the state. If you’re feeling ambitious, visit www.climbingmtshasta.org.

13. Not all of the adventures to be had in Northern California happen above ground. There’s quite a bit of spelunking (caving) to be done, and it’s not all in remote Modoc County. Reader Bruce Forman, who knows California like the back of his hand, recommends caving at Black Chasm Cavern, near the Amador County village of Volcano, or Mercer Caverns, with its eight rooms of crystalline formations, near Murphys. Visit the commercial operator site www.caverntours.com.

14. If caving makes you claustrophobic, Northern California has its fair share of open sky, and plenty of companies willing to pick you up in a plane, fly you to 10,000 feet and push you out the door. Falling like a rock is not everyone’s idea of a good time, but if you think of gravity as your friend and have faith in parachutes, sky diving in Byron may be just the thing. There are sky-diving operators all over the north state, but Bay Area Skydiving in Byron offers views of Mount Diablo and San Francisco (and on a clear day, Sacramento) in the distance. Visit www.bayareaskydiving.com for more details.

15. People who’ve never gone bird-watching think it’s about sitting quietly and occasionally catching sight of a wee finch. But bird-watching at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex is like people-watching at Grand Central Station. About half of the Pacific Flyway migratory waterfowl mass here every year during the winter, in an area of 35,000 acres near Colusa, 68 miles north of Sacramento. Their seemingly infinite numbers make the sky thick with swirling clouds of wings and mating cries from dozens of species of ducks and geese, herons and egrets. Visit www.fws.gov/ sacramentovalleyrefuges.

16. Horseback riding is now mostly for sport. While it might seem like the horse does all the work, anyone who’s spent a day in the saddle can tell you otherwise. But once you know what you’re getting into, there are many NorCal equestrian possibilities, from Golden Gate Park to the high Sierra. One enticing option is horseback riding near Point Reyes National Seashore, where you can hire a horse or bring your own, and stay at any of several country inns that provide stables for your rides. The scenery is incredible, the tone genteel and the equestrian history fascinating. Visit www.fivebrooks.com to find horse hires in the area.

17. Sometimes, outdoor recreation means being a spectator. One such thrill is whale-watching off the North Coast. These much-loved ocean creatures are protected here and are not shy about swimming near observation craft. You can watch from the shore, but why not get down to – OK, slightly above – their level? There are numerous operators taking boats out to see the enormous creatures. Visit www.sfbaywhalewatching.com, whose boats regularly head out through the Golden Gate to the Farallon Islands.

18. If you’d rather catch something other than a glimpse of the water, deep-sea fishing expeditions are available. Trips out of lovely Bodega Bay can take you crabbing, fishing or even, if you’re bold – and don’t mind being cold – abalone diving (in season). If you come home empty-handed, the area has great seafood restaurants and bars where you can salve your humiliation. Visit www.usafishing.com to start.

19. And don’t forget the obvious: Just north of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, Marin County offers some of the most dramatic moderate hiking in the world. The Dipsea Trail takes you from the ancient redwood groves of Muir Woods, up across the nearly mystical undulations of the Marin Headlands and down to the crashing waves of the Pacific at Stinson Beach, all in less than 10 miles. There’s plenty of elevation gain, refreshingly cool breezes and remarkable vistas the entire length of the trail. Check out www.localhikes.com/Hikes/ SteepRavine_7362.asp.

20. Finally, since you live in California, you might want to try your skills at this state’s quintessential cool sport, but beware: Surfing the Pacific isn’t easy, and in Northern California it can be a very chilly proposition. But for anyone with a sense of adventure, hopping on a board is the ultimate in sporting romance, as exhilarating as it is challenging. Our coast isn’t like Hawaii’s, or even San Diego’s, but a wet suit – and a tolerance for the cold – will help. The Santa Cruz area is farther south, which is good, but Pacifica is a lot closer, and accessible to beginners. To get in the mood and to get a grip on what’s involved, visit www.surfline.com. Hang 10!