Coke Smith Photography & Travelogue

California Road Trip 2010!

 The Smith family in a field of Tidy Tips.  Thousands of acres of blooming flowers greeted our family in the Carrizo Plain during our Road Trip 2010! 


 Take a look at our Pbase galleries for more amazing images of Road Trip 2010!

The spring of 2010 is our last spring for the foreseeable future in my home country of the United States.  By June, we will be living in Asia for an indefinite period of time.  Although I’ve traveled the states for decades and have had the privilege of visiting every single state in the country, many on multiple occasions, I still had not seen or photographed many of the more charismatic species here.  So I decided to cram as many wildlife-watching, family-visiting road trips in to our short period here as possible!  Our first of which was to be a two-week sojourn down California’s north coast ultimately down as far as Los Angeles, where we had to take care of some business.

Our itinerary was as usual fairly ambitious.  On top of visiting family along the way, we wanted to stop off to see some regions of my old home state of California that I had not visited at all or well enough in the past.  The below is a list of the various parks and reserves we visited on this trip:

(Click on each of the below to see images of each region):


The timing of the trip was to coincide with my spring break from school.  Although I have taken many spring break road trips, I rarely experience “spring” weather.  This trip was no exception.  In fact, after a very mild winter in the Northwest in general, winter decided to slam in the west coast with a vengeance during all but the final days of our trip.  The inclement weather did not however stop us from having some wonderful outdoor adventures throughout the expedition.  During our 8-9 nights of camping, we experienced rain on every night except for the last couple.  But none of our planned activities were canceled due to weather although we did miss some species in the far north due to the cold no doubt.  We did miss a couple chipmunk species I was hoping to catch in the northern part of the state, but the final list of the trip was actually far better than I had predicted.  (See list at the bottom of this page)


 The Redwoods

Our trip started with a bullet drive down through Sweet Home, Oregon to see some family and ultimately to Arcata.  Along the route we did get some quality “redwoods time” in while stopping to trek and photograph the phenomenal forest in Jedediah Smith State Park along route 199 heading toward Crescent City.  There are really very few forest galleries anywhere on earth as impressive as the ancient Sequoia sempervirens forests of northern California.  These remnant forests are primeval!

 Albee Creek Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park


Albee Creek Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park


Jedediah Smith Grove in Jedediah Smith State Park.


Albee Creek Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.


Albee Creek Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.


Albee Creek Grove in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.


Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek State Park.


Maiden Hair Fern in Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek State Park.


Jedediah Smith State Park and Creek.


Roosevelt Elk in Fern Canyon in Prairie Creek State Park.


Sunset in Redwoods National Park.


Sunset in Redwoods National Park.




Little Cokie.


Never a bad picture!



Once in Arcata, we spent some quality time visiting my brother and his wonderful family.  We did manage to squeeze in some good wildlife time between concerts and church services. Yes!  We did attend church – my bro and sis are the musically leaders of a liberal church in Eureka.  I actually enjoyed the sermon this morning, the topic of which was something along the lines of Christians taking responsibility for the evils committed by the church over the years.  Very interesting and actually reassuring to hear Christians actually acknowledging the harm the church had done over the years and expressing a willingness to try to correct it.


Green-winged Teal at Arcata Marsh.


Western Grebe at Arcata Marsh.


Willet at at Arcata Marsh.


Marsh Wren at Humboldt Wetlands.


River Otter seen in the slough of the Arcata Bottomlands.


Larry, Katri, Rory and Som at Eureka Harbor!


In Arcata we did quite a lot of birding in the Arcata Marsh and Arcata Bottomlands regions.  Som, Cokie and I made it up to Prairie Creek State Park and Redwoods National Park for a day while Larry and Katri were working.  While in the region, we caught dozens of species of the expected birds as well as some of the more easily seen mammals such as Roosevelt Elk, River Otters, & Columbia Black-tailed Deer.  The weather was still pretty rainy and cold.



Mendocino Coast

Som our our Jacuzzi's deck - what a view!


Our next destination was to be “somewhere” down the California coast closer to SF, where we had reservations at a hotel in the city.  The drive was extremely stormy.  El Niño years tend to make the California coast very dicey for travel, and the storm was violent and spectacular.  While we slowly drove Highway 1 down the coast of California, there were periods of zero visibility punctuated by breaks in the storm that created an artistically sublime painting of one of the world’s most spectacular coastlines.  The storm actually enhanced this spectacular drive, which I had done in “good” weather so many times in the past.  We made it as far as Mendocino and decided to get a room with a view.  Our lodge actually had a Jacuzzi right on the cliff hanging over the pounding surf and raging storm!  Sipping our wine in the cozy hot tub watching the storm pound the coast and trying to see Gray whales cruise by is a memory that will last forever.


Cokie enjoying the hot tub overlooking the bluff!


San Francisco

We made it to SF for a wonderful day of showing Cokie the city.  Great dim sum in the morning followed by trolley rides ($15 for four blocks!!!!!  Rooky tourist mistake), treks through the bowels of the city and a lovely afternoon near Fisherman’s Wharf and Fort Point made for a nice day in the city.  The weather cleared up a bit for us there.  We did get a couple more mammals in this afternoon – California Sea Lions at Pier 39 and some Western Gray Squirrels in Golden Gate Park.  All in all, a great day.


San Francisco's pyramid - the Prudential Building.


The fishing fleet at Pier 39.


Cokie and his Golden Gate Bridge beneath the real bridge!


Cokie and Som and Coit Tower,


Views of the West Side.


 San Francisco!


Sunset Beach State Park

Our next destination was to be Sunset Beach State Beach in Monterey County.  This was to be our base camp for our adventure in Monterey and the Elkhorn Slough Wildlife Reserve.  Our camp was great but the rain the cold made camping….”fun”….  We toughed it out and made the best of it.  Cokie and I got some great dune-time in while there.  This beach has some excellently restored native dune community with good examples of the native beach dune flora in full bloom.  In fact the severely wet winter California experienced produced some epic blooms in many of our destinations. 




Ano Nuevo State Reserve

On the way to Sunset State Beach, we made a quick three hour stop in good weather at Ano Nuevo State Reserve a few miles south of Santa Cruz to catch a look at the Elephant Seal colony there.  While there were no massive males pesent, we did get some quality time in with the many “weaners” (first year pups) lounging on the beach.  There were several females there as well.  Here we also saw a cute little Brush Rabbit scurrying below the bushes.  There was a Mountain Lion spotted that morning but we were not lucky (or unlucky) enough to spot it….


Elephant Seal "weaner" at Ano Nuevo.


Elephant Seal "weaner" at Ano Nuevo.


Elephant Seal "weaner" at Ano Nuevo.  Notice the "snot" which is basically a sealer for deep dives.


Elephant Seal "weaner" at Ano Nuevo.  Note the finger nails!


Elkhorn Slough

The next morning was to be one of the wildlife highpoints of our trip.  We spent two-three hours cruising the amazing Elkhorn Slough, located a few miles north of Monterey city.  Although I had been to Monterey dozens and dozens of times over the years, and actually drove right over the slough every single time, I had never stopped to take a look.  What a moron!  This is without a doubt one of the best wildlife hotspots on the California coast.  We spent the morning watching at close quarters rafts of sea otters (78 was our final count for the morning!), and groupings of California Sea Lions (280+) and Harbor Seals (150++).  The lighting was mostly incredible (if the boat was on the correct side of the subject that is…) and the conditions could not have been better.  We racked up over 40 species of birds as well.  Great morning!  We booked our cruise through Elkhorn Slough Safari (, who run a top notch operation with Captain Yohn Gideon and his naturalist knowing ALL of the critters and a heck of a lot of natural history.  I highly recommend their tour of the slough.


One of the 78 Sea Otters seen in the Elkhorn Slough during our one short morning!


One of the 78 Sea Otters seen in the Elkhorn Slough during our one short morning!


A mother and her pup!


Blonde is beautiful!


Elkhorn Slough young Sea Otter.


Brown Pelican in the Elkhorn Slough.


Brown Pelican in the Elkhorn Slough.


Double-crested Cormorant warming up in the Elkhorn.


Snowy Egret strutting its stuff along the Elkhorn.


The spectacular Brandt's Cormorant in breeding plumage.


A Harbor Seal and her pup snoozing the morning away.


The ubiquitous California Ground Squirrel.  This one was seen in Monterey.


Monterey & Carmel 

We spent the rest of the day hanging in Monterey and Carmel, searching for California Ground Squirrels, which are not exactly tough to find….saw dozens.  Our afternoon was also spent looking for Clint Eastwood’s house on the 17-mile Drive and strolling the mission and promenade of Carmel and picnicking along the Monterey coast.  We caught or first sightings of California Mule Deer in the dunes of the Asilomar reserve.  The evening was spent enjoying our base camp at Sunset State Beach and an amazing sunset! 


Sunset at Sunset Beach State Beach.


HArd to beat those eyes!



 Pinnacles National Monument

From Monterey, we made the short trip to our next destination, Pinnacles National Monument, where my main goal was to see California Condors in the wild.  We were not disappointed.  During the two full days in the park, we saw at least a dozen of these massive birds circling the high peaks of the park.  Our main trek was up to the High Divide trail head (about 8 miles RT) to hopefully get a good look at the birds.  We made the trek in good time and were the first ones on top of the peaks.  We immediately found a nesting pair of condors caring for a little white puff-ball of a chick that was the very first chick hatched in Pinnacles in over 100 years!  What a privilege.  While there we also had matures and immatures circling close by over our heads before they left for the surrounding areas around the reserve to search for carrion.  I recalled an episode of Art Wolfe’s Journeys to the Edge series when he was having Andean Condors circling his head and one of his assistants explaining that Art had amazing wildlife karma.  I could not help of think that Som, Cokie and I have some pretty damn impressive wildlife karma ourselves.  And we are on one tenth of Art Wolfe’s budget!



One of 12+ California Condors seen during our trek to the High Peaks Trail in Pinnacles.


 One of 12+ California Condors seen during our trek to the High Peaks Trail in Pinnacles.


One of 12+ California Condors seen during our trek to the High Peaks Trail in Pinnacles.


Our view of the Condor nest.  If you look hard enough, you will find the female returning to releave dad from nest duty!


While in Pinnacles, we added some nice species to our list.  A California Coyote was seen racing across the road, and we saw a couple Merriam’s Chipmunks bounding through the forest.  We also had a great encounter with a Botta’s Pocket Gopher in the campground!  While I have often seen the mounds created by this critter, I had never really seen the actually species.  We also saw some Desert Cottontails all over the campgrounds. This was to be an omnipresent species throughout the remainder of the trip.  We searched for the resident Bobcat but with no luck.  Goodness knows he had enough prey to hunt! 


One of dozens of Desert Cottontail Rabbits seen at Pinnacles.


One of the many Acorn Woodpeckers seen in our campsite of Pinnacles.


We enjoyed watching this little Botta's Pocket Mouse poke around near our campsite in Pinnacles.


 The wildflowers were in full bloom while in Pinnacles. These Mimulus were spectacular.


Views of the massive Pinnacles.


The oak woodland in Pinnacles.


Tule Elk Reserve

Our next day was mainly the long drive down to La La Land.  Along the drive, we did stop at the Tule Elk Reserve near Taft.  We did see the glorious remnant herd of elk there but couldn’t help but feel awful with the thought of hundreds of thousands of them being slaughtered for me at, fobs and fun by the Europeans who came there in the 19th century.   What a sight it must have been to see the southern central valley with Lake Tulare intact and the surrounding region populated by massive herds of tule elk, pronghorn antelope, packs of wolves, hunting grizzlies and many other species of now extinct critters.  Now the region is filled with oil fields and cotton fields….


The remnant herd of Tule Elk in Kern Country.


Los Angeles 

Finally in LA, we were greeted by a 7.2 earthquake!  Luckily for us the epicenter was about 100 miles to the southeast near Mexicali.  But it was quite an experience to see our hotel basically “jell” with undulations during the 2 minute trembler.  In LA, we mainly took care of business and showed Cokie some of the high points of the city – Hollywood, Beverly Hills & Rodeo Drive (well, that was mainly for Som….), La Brea Tar Pits (Page Museum) and Griffith Park and the observatory (which was open and FREE until late night!).  We actually had fun in the city this time.  Thankfully we were there on a Sunday and the traffic was very light.  We caught an epic lunch in Hollywood’s Thai Town – best Thai food I have had in the USA ever!  That is, of course, with the clear exception of Som’s Thai food.


The view of Los Angeles as seen from the deck of the Griffith Observatory.


The Griffith Observatory.


A skull of a Sabertooth Tiger at the La Brea Tar Pits.



Thai Town LA!!!


San Joaquin Wildlife Refuge

While in the region, we decided to check out a wild life hotspot that I had learned about through the amazing images seen on from many photographers who had photographed the wildlife of the reserve.  The one+ hour drive to Irvine’s San Joaquin Wildlife Reserve was well worth the effort.  While I did not necessarily add any species to our list, the lighting and the proximity of the birds was spectacular.  Some of our more impressive images came from this spot.  We basically photographed the heck out of the wetland critters there until sunset. 

An American Avocet in the good light of San Joaquin.


A Long-billed Curlew seen at San Joaquin.


Whimbrel in San Joaquin!


Black-necked Stilt.


Cinnamon Teal


Black-chinned Hummingbird


Desert Cottontail.


 Carrizo Plain National Monument

After two well-spent days in the LA Basin we made our way up and over the Grapevine and back in to the great central valley to our final camping destination, Carizzo Plain National Monument.  I was hoping to recapture some of my early childhood memories of vast fields of wild flowers that Kern County is famous for and I was not disappointed.  The excessive El Nino rains this year produced some of the best blooms in years for the region.  After our amazing experiences in South Africa’s Namaqualand region a few months before, I was a bit nervous that Som would be disappointed with dinky little Kern County and the Carizzo Plain.  But wow!  After experiencing two full days exploring the great plain and Soda Lake, Som told me that she thought the blooms here were even more impressive than in Namaqualand!


 Fields of Tidy Tips in the Carrizo!


California Poppies!



 This was our first San Joaquin Kit Fox!


My target species were the San Joaquin Kit Fox and Antelope Squirrel.  We spotted both species with ease!  We started our spot lighting near the Soda Lake Overlook and spotted our first Kit Fox in literally less than one minute!  While this (and one or two of his partners) was to be our only Kit Fox sighting, it was a quality encounter.  We got good looks over the two nights we hung out in his domain.  Antelope Squirrels (Nelson’s or San Joaquin are acceptable names) were very common albeit a bit skittish.  We had a difficult time finding one willing to be photographed but finally had the luck of running in to a borough with some young ones who were fearless and allowed us to photograph the heck out of them!  Along with our two target species, we also had some great sightings of Giant Kangaroo Rats, who were seen hopping all over the campsite and the Selby road at night.  We also saw Black-tailed Jack Rabbits and Desert Cottontails commonly in the region.  The solitude and vastness of the Carizzo Plain made it now one of my favorite places in the Golden State.  I hope to return there again some day.


 San Joaquin Antelope Squirrel pups!




A California Bufo seen along the road one night int he Carrizo.


Paracotalpa were everywhere!


 Giant Kangaroo Rats were a common sight along the road and in the campsite.


This little guy was our roommate!


 Selby Rocks


The California Ground Squirrel was the second species of squirrel in the park.


Seeing these oil fields reminded me of my childhood and the movie, "There Will be Blood"!


 Side-blotched Lizards were the most commonn reptile on the trip.


This Common Poorhill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii) was seen during one of our night drives.


Kern National Wildlife Refuge

Our final destination was Sacramento and my brother Robert’s pad.  On the way, we stopped for some quality birding in the Kern National Wildlife Refuge.  Great lighting and a wealth of bird populations! 


Northern Shoveler




Flocks of White-faced Ibises were a common sight at the refuge.



While in Sacto, we had a great time hanging with my bro’s family and eating killer Vietnamese grub at some of my old haunts.  We visited Lien’s temple and memorial, but I made a conscious effort NOT to reminisce too much while in our old city.  All in all we had a great time and it was not really all that emotional, although Sacto will never be the same for me – way too many difficult memories there.  We did get some wildlife time in with brief visits to Effie Yeaw Nature Reserve in Carmichael (Mule Deer and Wild Turkeys mainly), and Cosumnes River Preserve.  I enjoyed showing Cokie my old town.  He especially enjoyed visiting “the Govenator’s” office at the state capital! 


Woodduck!  Just where I left them 12 years earlier....


Wild Turkey in Effie Yeaw Wildlife Refuge in Carmichael.


California Mule Deer in Effie Yaew. 


Ethan's Big Game!


While we have one more hopefully phenomenal adventure planned before we make our big move to China, Road Trip 2010 will rank as one of the great ones in our memory for sure!




1. Elephant Seals

2. California Sea Lions

3. Harbor Seals

4. Sea Otters

5. River Otters

6. California Ground Squirrels

7. Merriam’s Chipmunk

8. Racoon

9. Roosevelt Elk

10. California Mule Deer

11. Desert Cottontail Rabbit

12. Scrub Hare

13. Coyote

14. Bocca’s Pocket Gopher

15. Townsend’s Bit-eared Bat?

16. Unknown rodent – Pinnacles

17. Tule Elk

18. Western Gray Squirrel

19. Nelson’s (San Joaquin) Ground Squirrel

20. Eastern Fox Squirrel

21. San Joaquin Kit Fox

22. American Badger

23. Black-tailed Jack Rabbit

24. Giant Kangaroo Rat

25. San Joaquin Pocket Mouse (?)

26. Oppossum

27. Columbia Black-tailed Deer

28. Northern Racoon

29. Douglas Squirrel

30. Eastern Gray Squirrel




  1. Red Throated Loon
  2. Common Loon
  3. Eared Grebe
  4. Pied-billed Grebe
  5. Western Grebe
  6. Clark’s Grebe
  7. Brown Pelican
  8. White Pelican
  9. Double-crested Cormorant
  10. Pelagic Cormorant
  11. Brandt’s Cormorant
  12. American Bittern
  13. Great Blue Heron
  14. Great Egret
  15. Snowy Egret
  16. Black-crowned Night Heron
  17. Green Heron
  18. White-faced Ibis
  19. Aleutian Cackler Goose
  20. Canada Goose
  21. Brant
  22. Greater White-fronted Goose
  23. Mallard
  24. Gadwall
  25. Northern Pintail
  26. American Wigeon
  27. Northern Shoveler
  28. Cinnamon Teal
  29. Green-winged Teal
  30. Moscovy
  31. Greater Scaup
  32. Redhead
  33. Surf Scoter
  34. Bufflehead
  35. Common Merganser
  36. Red-breasted Merganser
  37. Ruddy Duck
  38. California Condor
  39. Turkey Vulture
  40. Northern Harrier
  41. Red-shouldered Hawk
  42. Red-tailed Hawk
  43. Ferruginous Hawk
  44. Golden Eagle
  45. Bald Eagle
  46. Osprey
  47. American Kestrel
  48. Peregrine Falcon
  49. California Quail
  50. Wild Turkey
  51. Common Moorhen
  52. American Coot
  53. Semipalmated Plover
  54. Black-bellied Plover
  55. Black Oyster Catcher
  56. American Avocet
  57. Black-necked Stilt
  58. Greater Yellowlegs
  59. Willet
  60. Whimbrel
  61. Long-billed Curlew
  62. Marbled Godwit
  63. Sanderling
  64. Western Sandpiper
  65. Long-billed Dowitcher
  66. Glaucous-winged Gull
  67. Western Gull
  68. California Gull
  69. Heerman’s Gull
  70. Mew Gull (??)
  71. Forster’s Tern
  72. Pigeon Guillemot
  73. Mourning Dove
  74. Eurasian Collared Dove
  75. Rock Dove
  76. Barn Owl
  77. Burrowing Owl
  78. Common Poorhill (confirm with photo)
  79. Anna’s Hummingbird
  80. Black-chinned Hummingbird
  81. Allen’s Hummingbird
  82. Belted Kingfisher
  83. Acorn Woodpecker
  84. Northern Flicker
  85. Western Wood Peewee
  86. Western Kingbird
  87. Black Pheobe
  88. Eastern Phoebe
  89. Loggerhead Shrike
  90. Steller’s Jay
  91. Western Scrub Jay
  92. Yellow-billed Magpie
  93. Common Raven
  94. American Crow
  95. Horned Lark
  96. Violet Green Swallow
  97. Tree Swallow
  98. Barn Swallow
  99. Cliff Swallow
  100. Black-capped Chickadee
  101. White-breasted Nuthatch
  102. Bushtit
  103. Marsh Wren
  104. American Dipper
  105. Wrentit
  106. Mountain Bluebird
  107. Varied Thrush
  108. American Robin
  109. European Starling
  110. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  111. Wilson’s Warbler
  112. Western Tanager
  113. Spotted Towhee
  114. California Towhee
  115. Savannah Sparrow
  116. Black-throated Sparrow
  117. White-crowned Sparrow
  118. Lark Sparrow
  119. Golden-crowned Sparrow
  120. Song Sparrow
  121. Dark-eyed Junco
  122. Red-winged Blackbird
  123. Brewer’s Blackbird
  124. Western Meadowlark
  125. Great-tailed Grackle
  126. Red Crossbill
  127. House Finch
  128. House Sparrow




  1. Western Fence Lizard
  2. Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard
  3. Side-blotched Lizard
  4. Gopher Snake
  5. Unknown viper-like snake


 Take a look at our Pbase galleries for more amazing images of Road Trip 2010!