L. A. Road Trip

My wife, Linda, and I have traveled to California three times in the past. In 1999 we flew into Oakland and toured San Francisco and surrounding areas, including Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks. In 2013 we arrived in California after driving cross-country along U.S. 50 the entire way, starting in Ocean City, Maryland. On that trip we spent time around Lake Tahoe, and then we drove down through Owens Valley along the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, making our way to Death Valley National Park. Last year we made another cross-country drive, that time visiting sites in northern California, including Lassen Volcanic National Park and Redwood National and State Parks. This year, on our third cross-country drive, we reached Los Angeles.

La Brea Tar Pits
We had two major objectives for this trip: visit some of the iconic tourist destinations in Los Angeles, including attending a taping of the Jeopardy! game show, and visiting six national parks and one national monument. We timed our departure date from our home in Maryland to get us to Los Angeles in time to attend the Jeopardy! taping on September 28. We decided to make the drive in five days of driving approximately 554 miles per day with overnight stops near Knoxville, TN; Conway, AR; Amarillo, TX; and, Winslow, AZ. We were able to squeeze in a short stop at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, NM along the way.

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center was founded in 1976 by the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico. Its stated mission is "to preserve and perpetuate Pueblo culture and to advance understanding by presenting with dignity and respect the accomplishments and evolving history of the Pueblo people of New Mexico." The museum grounds and exhibits are well maintained and attractively presented. There are a number of static displays of Pueblo pottery and other artifacts; panels of photographs, illustrations, and text describing various aspects of Pueblo history and culture; and, large painted murals depicting Pueblo art. The museum offers traditional Native American dance programs and other cultural and educational programs, but none were scheduled during our visit. Non-commercial photography is permitted inside the center, but we were joined by several large school and tourist groups, making taking pictures difficult. Many of the exhibits are behind glass in dim light, creating even more challenges for photographers.

I have a somewhat large collection of rock, hard rock, and heavy metal music LPs and CDs, but I've never been a huge fan of The Eagles. Oh, sure, just like about everyone else, I have a copy of the Hotel California album, but it doesnt contain a copy of their classic song Take It Easy, which includes the lyric "Well, I'm a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona and such a fine sight to see. It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin' down to take a look at me." Since we were going to spend a night in Winslow, we just had to see how the town had capitalized on its 15 minutes of fame from that song, and capitalize it did!

Winslow, Arizona
Overall, Winslow is not an impressive town, being somewhat run down and depressed. The Winslow Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center is very nice, and it has a wealth of information and brochures about the area. The First Street Pathway Park, which starts at the Visitor Center, is six blocks long, has exhibits that represent Winslow's diverse history, and is a pleasant walk. At the intersection of Old Highway 66 and North Kinsley Street is Standin on the Corner Park, complete with a life-size statue of the Eagles Glenn Frey (co-writer of the song with Jackson Brown) and several souvenir shops. Of course, we had to pose for the obligatory photos of ourselves standin on the corner.

After leaving Winslow we arrived at our hotel in Gardena, a suburb of Los Angeles. Our tickets for the Jeopardy! taping were for the next afternoon at 2:15, so we spent that morning exploring Venice Beach and Santa Monica. The actual beach at Venice Beach is quite nice and expansive, complete with volleyball nets, paddle tennis courts, and the adjacent Muscle Beach fitness center. The "boardwalk", on the other hand, was a disappointment. It is a mile-and-a-half paved promenade complete with t-shirt and souvenir shops, eateries, tattoo parlors, and medical marijuana dispensaries. I thought that it was rather seedy and run down looking. The true boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland is much, much nicer.

Santa Monica, complete with the famous Santa Monica Pier, is a pleasant place to visit, but the pier is much smaller than what I expected, even with the amusement rides at Pacific Park. Besides the amusement park, there are a few restaurants and shops, but not much else.

Santa Monica Beach
After eating lunch at a beachside picnic table, it was time to head to the Sony Pictures Studio in Culver City and Jeopardy! After parking our SUV in the parking garage, we sat on benches with other audience members until we were escorted into the studio. Along the way we were greeted by the three members of the Jeopardy! Clue Crew. There's a small museum in the entranceway where photos are allowed, but once inside the studio all electronic devices have to be turned off and put away. Johnny Gilbert, the show's announcer, greeted all of us and told us what to expect, including when to applaud and when to remain absolutely silent. We watched the taping of two shows that will air at the end of January, 2017. During pauses in the show to allow for commercial breaks, Alex Trebek took questions from the audience and was quite pleasant. Linda and I have been watching Jeopardy! regularly since we were in college, so this was a fun experience.

The next day it was time for us to start to explore Los Angeles itself. We started with the La Brea Tar Pits and the companion George C. Page Museum. The tar pits are actually naturally occurring asphalt seeps that contain the preserved bones of many large prehistoric mammals, including wooly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, and dire wolves. Paleontologists are still actively working the area. The museum presents the story of the tar pits and has a number of reassembled animal skeletons on display. During the afternoon we drove to Griffith Park, where we got our first views of the famous Hollywood sign. We also toured the Griffith Park Observatory and watched the first planetarium show that either of us had seen in many years.

Our third and final day in Los Angeles took us to Hollywood Boulevard, where we walked the Walk of Fame that pays tribute to dozens of entertainment celebrities with their names inset into large stars on the sidewalks on both sides of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. We also visited TCL Chinese Theater, originally known as Grauman's Chinese Theater, where we saw the hand prints, shoe prints, and signatures of Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint set in concrete. Actor George Clooney's slab was right above theirs. After strolling the boulevard for a while and ducking in and out of souvenir shops, we got back into our SUV and took a personal driving tour of the Sunset Strip (including a drive-by of the Whisky-A-Go-Go, where The Doors were once the house band), Beverly Hills, and Rodeo Drive.

Arch Rock
Leaving Los Angeles the next morning we drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to Ventura and the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center. We wanted to get an orientation to the park before driving the short distance to the Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard. There, after lunch, we boarded the boat Vanguard for an afternoon wildlife cruise to Anacapa Island in the park. We were hoping to spot seals, dolphins, and possibly even a whale during the cruise. We actually saw several seals as we left the harbor in Oxnard, and then we saw quite a few more on one of the Anacapa Island beaches. We saw quite a few dolphins swimming along beside and in front of our boat as we were headed back to Oxnard, but it wasn't our day to see any whales. We also had views of the U. S. Coast Guard lighthouse on Anacapa Island and the iconic Arch Rock formation. Photography was really challenging from aboard the bobbing and rolling boat, especially while trying to hand hold my 150-500mm lens to capture photos of the seals. A tripod wasn't really a good option since it would have transferred vibrations from the ships engine through the deck to my camera. Despite the challenges, though, I was able to get a few usable shots.

One of Linda's and my favorite TV shows, before it was canceled, was the USA Network's Psych. The show followed the humorous crime-solving adventures of psychic detective Shawn Spencer and his best friend Burton Gus Guster as they worked for the Santa Barbara Police Department. So, naturally, we had to continue up the Pacific Coast Highway to visit Santa Barbara, which is quite nice. We spent some time walking around the harbor area, and then we found the police department. Afterward we toured Old Mission Santa Barbara, which was founded in 1786. The current building was completed and dedicated in 1820.

Now it was time to start heading back east and to our next stop, California's Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua trees aren't trees at all, but a species of yucca, and they're quite prevalent in the northern and western regions of the park. We started our visit at the town of Joshua Tree and the Joshua Tree Visitor Center near the west entrance to the park. We drove along Park Boulevard observing and photographing the Joshua trees and the other notable park feature, massive rocks and boulders. Joshua Tree National Park is a premier destination for rock climbing and bouldering, so it was no accident that we came upon and photographed a group of climbers at Quail Springs. After taking a detour down Keys View Road to Keys View overlooking the Coachella Valley, we returned to Park Boulevard and followed it around to the north entrance and the Oasis Visitor Center at the town of Twentynine Palms. The next morning we took our time driving south through the park along the Pinto Basin Road to the Cottonwood Visitor Center. Along the way we stopped for pictures at the Cholla Cactus Garden and the Ocotillo Patch. Upon exiting the park we continued eastward along I-10 to Tucson, Arizona and Saguaro National Park.

Rincon Mountain District
Saguaro National Park is divided into two units, the Tucson Mountain District to the west of Tucson and the Rincon Mountain District to the east. The morning after we arrived in Tucson, Linda and I drove to the Tucson Mountain District, where the namesake saguaro cacti are the most prevalent. After stopping at the Red Hills Visitor Center, we drove the unpaved, 5-mile Scenic Bajada Loop Drive. Then we spent the rest of the morning at the excellent Arizona-Senora Desert Museum, about 85% of which is located outdoors, with two miles of walking paths through various desert habitats. The animal enclosures, which house about 230 different species, are quite natural in appearance. I was able to see and photograph both a roadrunner (beep, beep!) and a coyote, as well as hummingbirds, butterflies, desert bighorn sheep, and a desert fox. The variety of desert plant life is astounding, and while a few were planted by the museum staff, most occur on the grounds naturally. The place is well worth a stop.

During the afternoon I was picked up at our hotel by fellow TPN member Bob Miller, who drove me to Saguaros Rincon Mountain District to photograph more of the desert landscape, including the sunset. We made a number of stops along the paved, 8-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive. While I got some sunset photos, it became more and more evident to me that my Sigma SD14 DSLR camera system was leaving me behind as far as digital sensor technology is concerned. I had a similar experience at Joshua Tree National Park when Linda and I went into the park after dark so that I might try to get some star photos. My camera's inability to handle low light situations with its limited ISO range, giving me images full of noise, was frustrating. I discussed the issues with Linda, and she came to the conclusion that it was probably time for me to upgrade my camera gear. So, after we got home, I invested in a Nikon D7100 DSLR and four new Sigma lenses with Nikon mounts (I couldn't give up on Sigma completely! After all, I had been using their cameras since 1995, and I really like the lenses that I've been using for the past few years). Bob helped me make the decision about which Nikon camera to buy, because he uses the D7100, which had been recommend to me weeks earlier by a camera club friend, who also uses one.

Back to our travels. Our next stop was New Mexicos White Sands National Monument. Linda and I spent the afternoon in the park, stopping at the visitor center and then driving along the 8-mile (one way) Dunes Drive. I went back again in the evening to get some low-angled light photographs and to wait for another sunset. We were both amazed at how white the gypsum dunes are, looking like giant snow drifts. Photographically it was important for me to compensate for the whiteness by overexposing my images to prevent the cameras light meter from rendering the sand in shades of gray.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Next stop: New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns National Park. I visited the park in 1997 following a business trip to El Paso, but I wanted to return so that Linda could have the experience, and I wanted to take digital photos in hopes of improving on the film shots that I had taken previously. Tripods are allowed in the cavern as long as you don't interfere with other foot traffic along the route. We took the self-guided Big Room Tour and spent a couple of hours underground. Later that evening we sat at the outdoor amphitheater at the cavern's natural entrance for the nightly Bat Flight program, during which thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats spiral out of the cave and fly toward the Pecos River to feed on insects. It is quite a sight.

The next morning we headed into Texas toward Big Bend National Park, but first we stopped along the way for a brief visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which I had also visited in 1997. After this stop Linda and I were tied with the number of national parks that each of us had visited, 51 out of 59. Big Bend would give us 52 parks apiece, including all of those located within the Lower 48. Of the remaining seven parks, five are in remote regions of Alaska, one is in Hawaii on Maui, and one is in American Samoa. There's a good chance that our final count will remain at 52.

Our Big Bend adventure started when we arrived at our motel in Study (pronounced stoody) Butte. After checking into our room, we drove the short distance to Terlingua Ghost Town, where we spent some time exploring the general store and driving through the ruins. Later we picked up excellent dinners at DB's Rustic Iron Barbecue, which is pretty much a glorified food truck. The prices are reasonable and the portions are huge.

Chisos Basin Road
The next morning we drove into Big Bend National Park and stopped by the Panther Junction Visitor Center to get oriented. Then we continued along the park road to Rio Grande Village. Of course, we stopped along the way to take pictures of the Chisos Mountains and surrounding Chihuahuan Desert terrain. Returning back toward Panther Junction we took a left turn down Chisos Basin Road so that we could spend some time at the visitor center, lodge, and gift shop, and to eat a picnic lunch. After lunch we drove back to Panther Junction and then headed down the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive toward Santa Elena Canyon. Along the way we stopped for photographs at several different scenic overlooks, including Sotol Vista, Mule Ears Overlook, and Tuff Canyon Overlook. When we left the park the next morning, we drove to Panther Junction once again and headed north out of the park toward Marathon, Texas.

Our final major stop before driving the rest of the way home was in Madisonville, Kentucky to visit our 15-year-old granddaughter Abby. It took us two days to get there and, along the way, Linda was pulled over for speeding on I-20 in Texas! Can you believe it? She was going 78 mph in a 75 mph zone! She was lucky and got away with a warning.

We picked up Abby after school and asked her to guide us on a grand tour of Madisonville. After guiding us past her house, Abby took us to the local shopping mall, of course (Did I mention that she was 15?). We spent a little time there and did a bit of shopping. She also directed us to the town park, where we walked around and took some selfies by the lake. We told Abby that we would take her to dinner at any place of her choosing, and she chose Tommy D'z Downtown Diner. The restaurant serves typical, but very good, diner food in large portions at reasonable prices. We took Abby back to our motel room, where we relaxed until her mother came and picked her up. It was a pleasant visit, and our first time in Madisonville, Kentucky. The next day we drove the entire way back to our home in Easton, Maryland.

During this trip we were away for 20 nights, drove through 12 states, visited the city of Los Angeles and surrounding areas, toured six national parks and one national monument, while driving a total of 7,198 miles. It was fun.

You can view more images from our trip in my TPN album L. A. Road Trip, or see the complete set of images from our trip in my L. A. Road Trip shutterfly page.

by Roger Maki

I have been a serious amateur photographer since 1975, shooting 35mm color slides for 30 years until I switched exclusively to digital in 2005.

Much of my photography is self-taught from reading and practice, although I have attended a few seminars and workshops, such as the one-day Nikon School of Photography. I also participated in a Great American Photography Weekend workshop with Galen Rowell in 1994 and another with Art Wolfe in 1996. In 2000 I attended a weekend workshop taught by Baltimore fine arts photographer Tony Sweet, and in 2004 I attended a workshop taught by retired National Geographic photographer James Amos. I was a member of the Newark (Delaware) Camera Club from 1976-1977, and of the Tidewater Camera Club of Easton, Maryland from 1987-2005 and 2007-present. Most of my photos are taken during family outings and vacations and on photo shoots with my photographer friends.

After using Sigma cameras and lenses since 1995, in 2016 I switched to a Nikon camera, but I still use Sigma lenses.

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