Monday, December 15, 2014

Piedras Blancas Light Station

I am fascinated by lighthouses and the lives of lighthouse keepers and their families during the days when civilization was many hours away from most lighthouses.  Plus the views are usually beautiful.  As a result, I try to visit lighthouses whenever I am near them.  

On my recent trip to the Hearst Castle I was able to include the tour of Piedras Blancas Light Station, located about 10 minutes north of the town of San Simeon.  The Piedras Blancas Lighthouse opened in 1875.  Originally 100 feet tall, the tower was damaged in an earthquake and the top 30 feet were removed in 1949.  Now the tower has a truncated look.  The Piedras Blancas Light Station Association has a long-term goal to restore the tower to its original appearance.  Piedras Blancas is known as a light station because the families of the keepers lived on site in nearby buildings.

Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

Pacific Coast from Piedras Blancas
Piedras Blancas Fog Signal Building

Access to the Light Station is only by tour.  As of this writing, tours are offered on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 9:45 a.m.  Check the website for the current schedule.  I think two hours is a bit too long for a walking tour, especially if you have children with you.  Our guide was very enthusiastic but stretched our tour to a mind-numbing 2.5 hours.  He spent far more time discussing the natural habitat and only about 30 minutes on the lighthouse.  Plus we visited the lighthouse at the very end of the tour when we had little capacity to absorb more information.  The other groups touring during our visit were long gone by the time we drove away, so other guides must have stuck to the schedule a little better than ours.

If you are a lighthouse enthusiast, you'll want to visit Piedras Blancas.  For those with a casual interest, there are other lighthouses in Northern California that I believe offer more interesting experiences.  For more information on visiting lighthouses in Northern California, see "Rick's Tips" numbers 35 and 36

If you would like to take a private tour from San Francisco that includes a visit to the Piedras Blancas Light Station, the Hearst Castle, and other coastal attractions, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at or (866) 326-4237 (toll free).

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Historic San Juan Bautista

San Juan Bautista was a major stage-coach stop on the journey between Los Angeles and San Francisco during the mid to late 1800s.  Today many of the old buildings have been incorporated into San Juan Bautista State Historic Park.  Visitors can take a self-guided tour through the Plaza Hotel, Castro-Breen Adobe, Plaza Stable, and Plaza Hall/Zanetta House.  The park offers a Living History Day on the first Saturday of the month.  Other events are scheduled throughout the year.

Plaza Hotel/Museum

Across the plaza is Mission San Juan Bautista, which is still a functioning church.  Founded in 1797, the mission was the 15th of what would become 21 missions established by the Spanish Franciscan fathers.  Mission San Juan Bautista was also where Kim Novak was pushed from a church bell tower in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.  Unfortunately for Hitchcock the mission's bell tower had been removed, and he was forced to build a substitute.  A visit to the mission includes a walk through the museum, church, chapel, cemetery, and garden.

Mission San Juan Bautista

Mission Cemetery
San Juan Bautista is located about 1 3/4 hours south of San Francisco off of US 101 and can be easily visited if you are driving the inland route between Monterey and San Francisco.  The State Park is open daily from 10:00 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.  The Mission is open from 9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. except on Friday when it closes at 4:00 p.m.  The Park and Mission each charge $3.00/person admission.  Lunch can be had at one of the many restaurants in the town of San Juan Bautista.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Pinnacles National Park

Earlier this week, I finally visited Pinnacles National Park.  Located 2.5 hours south of San Francisco, Pinnacles is the nation's newest national park.  Founded in 1908 as a National Monument, Pinnacles gained national park status in 2013.

The two most popular activities in Pinnacles National Park are hiking and rock climbing.  The park is home to over 30 miles of hiking trails from short, easy walks to strenuous, day-long hikes.  Rock climbing in Pinnacles is not for novices.  The rock is relatively weak and unstable.  Climbers should consult the park's website for more information before arriving at the park.

Bear Gulch Reservoir

The Pinnacles

Pinnacles has two entrances.  The eastern entrance is off of CA 25 on CA 146, about 25 minutes south of Hollister.  The western entrance is about 20 minutes east of Soledad on CA 146.  Please note that there is no road through the park. 

Bring everything you'll need to the park as amenities are minimal.   A store is located adjacent to the Visitors Center at the east entrance but has limited hours.

The campground is located just inside the east entrance of the park.  The west side of the park is for day use only.  Lodging and restaurants can be found in Soledad and Hollister.  Inn at the Pinnacles, a nice bed and breakfast, is located a few miles from the west entrance to the park.

Pinnacles can be very hot in the summer.  The best time to visit is in the spring when the temperature is cooler and the wildflowers in bloom.  Unless you want to spend a lot of time climbing or hiking, one day is plenty of time to explore the park's main attractions - the rock spires and other formations.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

A Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Primer

The latest edition of "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron's free newsletter is on visiting Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.  To learn more about these beautiful parks, click here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Yosemite Update - Mariposa Grove

The April 2014 edition of "Rick's Tips" covered Yosemite National Park.  I recently took guests to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias and learned that the tram tours through the Grove will be discontinued after this season.  You have until November 2 to take a ride through this forest of magnificent trees.  After that date, you'll have to hoof it.  

The park service has major plans to restore the Grove including construction of an accessible trail to the Grizzly Giant.  The Lower Grove will be closed from around May 2015 through November 2016 while the renovations are underway.  Full details are available here.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Yosemite Primer

The latest edition of  "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron's free quarterly newsletter is out.  This issue gives tips for visiting Yosemite National Park.  If you are not a subscriber you can see the newsletter below:

Welcome to "Rick's Tips," Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel's quarterly newsletter of fun and interesting things to do in San Francisco, the Bay Area, and Northern California. Whether you are visiting San Francisco or hosting visitors, Blue Heron can provide an unforgettable experience. Visit our website,, to learn more about our private, custom tours.

A Yosemite Primer
Yosemite National Park is one of California’s (and the country’s) great natural wonders. Located four hours (200 miles) east of San Francisco, many visitors to the city also include a trip to Yosemite on their vacation itinerary. The park covers 1,200 square miles of the Sierra Nevada, which makes it slightly bigger than the state of Rhode Island. Most visitors confine their visit to the eight square miles of Yosemite Valley. While there is much to see and do in the Valley, there are equally great attractions in the rest of the park. This newsletter is not a comprehensive guide to Yosemite National Park. Rather, it contains some tips for enhancing your Yosemite visit. For more comprehensive information, check out the park’s official website at

Getting to Yosemite National Park

If you are traveling to the park by car, there are two entrances on the park's west side, one entrance on the southern end of the park, and one entrance on the east side of the park near the Nevada border. CA 120 and 140 enter the park from the west. CA 120 is the shortest way to get from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley. This route contains one stretch of road that is twisty and steep, so many large vehicles prefer the slightly longer, and much flatter, route via CA 140. CA 41 is the way to the park’s southern entrance, which is the closest entrance to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. During the late fall, winter, and early spring chains can be required, so check road conditions in advance.

The eastern entrance to the park via Tioga Pass (CA 120) is closed during the winter. If you want to enter the park from the east during the spring or fall, check the road conditions as you plan your trip.

Vehicles longer than 45 feet in length are prohibited. Tall vehicles should check the heights of the tunnels along CA 41, 140, and 120 (from the west).

No gasoline is available in Yosemite Valley. Gas is available at Wawona, Crane Flat, and El Portal 24 hours per day with a credit card. Gasoline is also available in the summer at Tuolumne Meadows.

There is limited public transportation to the Yosemite Valley. Amtrak offers a bus/rail combination from San Francisco to Yosemite Valley. Greyhound provides bus service to Merced where you can connect to a YARTS bus to Yosemite Valley.

Blue Heron and other companies offer tours to Yosemite National Park. Most of these tours are day tours to Yosemite Valley. It’s a lot of driving for a few hours in the park. If you’re pressed for time and don’t think you’ll have another opportunity to visit Yosemite, you might want to consider taking a tour. Some companies, Blue Heron included, offer multi-day tours.

The closest airports to Yosemite Valley are in Modesto and Merced, but both have very limited commercial service. More frequent service is available to the airport in Fresno, which is about 90 minutes from the southern entrance to the park and 2.5 hours from Yosemite Valley. The majority of visitors will find it most convenient to fly to San Francisco (SFO) or Oakland (OAK) and drive to the park.  

When to Visit  


Summers in Yosemite Valley can be extremely crowded. Lodging in the park fills up well in advance. Lines at the restaurants are long. Day trippers have trouble finding parking. Fortunately, the park has an excellent shuttle that circulates through the Valley. Once you park your car, leave it and ride the shuttle. If you are staying in Wawona and want to visit the Valley, you can take a free shuttle that runs once a day between Memorial and Labor Days.

The small parking lot at the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias frequently fills up in the summer. You may want to park your car at Wawona and take the free shuttle to the grove.  


A fall visit lets you avoid the summer crowds. The weather is usually very pleasant. The main downside to a fall visit is that the seasonal waterfalls in Yosemite Valley are dry and those that flow year-round do not have much water in them.  


Glacier Point, the high country, and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias usually cannot be accessed by car during the winter. Cross country enthusiasts can ski to Glacier Point. Those who snow shoe can make their way to the Mariposa Grove. Badger Pass on the Glacier Point Road is usually open for skiing.

Winter is the quiet season in Yosemite Valley. You can still enjoy the beauty of the granite cliffs, and some hiking trails are open. Seeing Yosemite Valley covered in snow is a breathtaking sight.  


Spring is the best time to enjoy the waterfalls. The warming days melt the snow in the high country. If the winter was wet, visitors often cannot walk close to the bases of Yosemite or Bridalveil Falls without getting drenched. (That won’t be a problem this year.) Depending on the amount of the winter snowfall, the roads to Glacier Point, Mariposa Grove, and Tioga Pass will likely open in May or June.


Lodging options inside the park range from tent cabins at Curry Village to very comfortable rooms at the Ahwahnee Hotel, one of the grand National Park lodges. DNC Parks and Resorts operates all lodging within the park. Its website,, provides complete information on the options available. Lodging in Yosemite Valley consists of the Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, Housekeeping Camp, and Curry Village. The Lodge seems to book out the furthest in advance. Sometimes rooms at the Ahwahnee, which are expensive, and tent cabins at Curry Village, which are cheap, are available for last-minute bookings.

The Wawona Hotel is a Victorian hotel close to the Mariposa Grove and south entrance to the park.

DNC also operates Tenaya Lodge, about 15 minutes outside the south entrance to the park.

Lodging in the high country is available at the High Sierra Camps, White Wolf Lodge, and Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. Accommodation is fairly basic and fills up very far in advance. Think about booking a year ahead of time. A lottery is held for reservations at the High Sierra Camps.

The National Park Service operates campgrounds throughout the park. Thirteen campgrounds accept reservations through The remaining campgrounds are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. During the summer, these campgrounds are frequently filled by noon.

Information on lodging outside of the park and on private lands within the park boundaries is available at


One doesn’t visit a national park for its great food. In Yosemite Valley, dining options range from a cafeteria at The Lodge and pizza at Curry Village to the beautiful dining room at the Ahwahnee Hotel. You can see a full list of dining options at DNC’s website, If you are staying in Yosemite Valley, try to eat one meal at the Ahwahnee Dining Room so you can enjoy the 34 foot high ceilings, log support beams, and floor to ceiling windows. “Resort Casual” attire is required. Reservations for dinner are recommended and can be made through the DNC website or Open Table. Some of the restaurants and snack stands are open only from April to October.

At the south entrance to the park, you can eat at the Wawona Dining Room. If you enjoy fine dining and don’t mind driving 45 minutes along CA 41, try Erna’s Elderberry House in Oakhurst. This Relais and Chateau property serves delicious food in a refined setting. You can also stay at the adjoining Chateau du Sureau.


There is so much to do in Yosemite that this newsletter does not have the space to cover everything visitors can do in the park. Hiking is one of the principal activities. Trails abound in Yosemite Valley, the high country, and around Wawona. You can hike through all three groves of Giant Sequoias: Mariposa, Tuolumne, and Merced. A less crowded and relatively easy trail is along the shores of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

Yosemite is world famous for its granite cliffs. Experienced rock climbers can’t resist the allure of climbing El Capitan. The DNC website has information on rock climbing lessons.

The Valley is flat and great for biking. Rentals are available at Curry Village and the Lodge.

A nine-hole golf course in Wawona is open during the warm weather season.

Horseback riding, river rafting, tours, nature tours, and guided bus tours are available.

During the winter, visitors can ski at Badger Pass along the Glacier Point Road. The road is closed to vehicles beyond the ski area in the winter but is open to those who enjoy snow showing or cross country skiing. Ice skating is available at Curry Village during the winter. More information on activities is available at and

Yosemite National Park is one of the most beautiful places on this planet. In 1864 President Lincoln granted the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias to the State of California for their protection, the first time ever that land had been set aside solely for its beauty. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant, making it a great time to enjoy this beautiful National Park. Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel offers one-day and multi-day tours to Yosemite from San Francisco. For more information contact us at (866) 326-4237 (toll free), (415) 337-1874 (local), or

Friday, April 25, 2014

Best Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco

A few years ago, I posted about my meal at Lolo, an innovative Mexican restaurant in the Mission District.  Earlier this week I had a chance to eat at Lolo's new location at 974 Valencia Street.  The food is just as good as at the old location and the interior design equally quirky and interesting.

This meal started me thinking about which restaurants serve the best Mexican food in San Francisco.  The city is home to hundreds of taquerias serving tacos, burritos, tamales, and simple Mexican food.  Everyone has his or her favorite, but none of these are places where I would want to go with friends to have a good dinner.

While I certainly have not been to every Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, I recommend Lolo and Nopalito to anyone interested in innovative Mexican cuisine.  Nopalito has two locations, the original at 306 Broderick Street in NOPA and the newer restaurant at 1224 9th Avenue in the Inner Sunset.  I've only been to the latter.  Here the food is refined, the service is friendly, and the space encourages one to have a leisurely meal.

The San Francisco Chronicle awards three stars to four Mexican restaurants:  the two Nopalito locations, Mamacita in the Marina District, and Padrecito in Cole Valley.  I will need to visit Mamacita and Padrecito to see if I agree with the reviewers.  Lolo is not reviewed by the paper.

Zagat's top rated Mexican restaurant is Papito (26 points), which serves French-influenced Mexican food on Potrero Hill.  I agree that the food is superb.  However, the space is small and not conducive to having a leisurely dinner.  Three restaurants receive 25 points:  Don Pisto's in North Beach, La Taqueria in the Mission District, and Lolo.  I've not been to Don Pisto's so will need to check it out.  La Taqueria has been getting rave reviews for its tacos and burritos for years.  The only time I tried to go the line was way too long for me.

This is one person's take on the Mexican food scene here in San Francisco.  If  you have a favorite Mexican restaurant in San Francisco or the Bay Area, leave a comment.