Charlotta Richter
Nature Photography & Blog
A little bit of everything - California Coast and Arizona Desert

In March 2018 I spent 3,5 weeks traveling parts of the Southwest and the Coast of the US. The journey was divided in a “city” and a “nature part”. Let’s begin:

Part 1:
San Francisco
Part 2:
South Lake Tahoe
Great Basin NP
Valley of Fire SP
Las Vegas
Saguaro NP
Cave Creek NF (Portal)
Tonto NF (Payson)
Mendocino NF
The Coast:
Highway 1

General Advice

Part 1:  San Francisco & Portland
San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge Clouds Bay Area
Golden Gate Bridge as seen from the Bay Ferry between SF and Oakland.
San Francisco
After arriving at San Francisco Airport in the evening I took  a BART train to  get in the city (9.95$ one way)). I arrived at Powell’s station after 30 minutes and walked to “USA Hostel San Francisco” at Post Street. It was already dark when I arrived, so I got a bit lost trying to find my way. It’s much harder to orientate when you’re only able to see 5m (20 ft) in front of you.
BART San Francisco
The BART trains are an easy way to get around the bay area without a car. (And they are pretty noisy.)
USA Hostel San Francisco:

Free hostel breakfast..
I had booked a 4 bed-mixed- dorm (35$ per night). The building has a lot of space. The rooms are well kept and clean. The toilets and showers are spearated, a little small but totally fine. The kitchen provides free breakfast (bagels, boast, oats, juice and pancake dough).
In the basement there are a lounge, a laundry and a “quiet” room. The front door is secured and operated by the receptionist when you show your room key. The hostel is in a central area, with a Trader Joe and multiple other shops and restaurants nearby.

Day 1: 9 hours of walking, 29 km (18mi)
The first day I took a city map from the hostel. Starting at 7:30 am it was still foggy and chilly. I walked along the Marina Boulevard and through Crissy Fields towards the Golden Gate Bridge. Only having this sunny and warm image of San Francisco in mind I was surprised how
foggy it stayed the entire day. 

Near the Marina Drive on the way to the bridge:

Perspective from Fort Point..

Crossing the bridge I felt the vibrations (probably from wind and traffic), and saw the wires moving.


Standing on the bridge, surrounded by fog.

After enjoying the view from the Marin County Vista Point I went back, heading towards Baker Beach.
Around the touristy areas everything is nicely signposted, so there's no chance of getting lost.

I had downloaded an offline map of San Francisco beforehand on Google Maps, which I used to locate myself on an analog city map I got at the hostel.
Seagulls near the Golden Gate Bridge.

I made my way to Golden Gate Park, and discovered turtles, coots, Canada Goose and a lot of ducks. All birds were very unbashful, and rather curious, just like the seagulls.
Golden Gate Park
The central place of Golden Gate Park.
The park is bigger than you might guess looking at the map. A lot of walks are next to a 2-lane-road. The park itself is quiet and clean.

Near the Japanese Garden (9$ entrance fee) in the central part of the park is the California Academy of Science (a nature science museum with an aquarium and planetarium).

On my way back, I stopped at Alamo Park
(a park on a hill) and the Painted Ladies. The park provides a nice overview at Steiner Street. The houses are all painted bright colors, having beautiful worked doors. It's the combination of scenery and the park made those houses quite known.

Alamo PArk Painted Ladies Doors
The 5 doors of the Painted Ladies all next to each other.

  Breakfas pancakes in the hostel kitchen.
After self-made banana pancakes I joined a free walking tour offered by the hostel. (Most hostels offer multiple activities every day, so make sure to check the schedule should you happen to stay at one.) A French guy who had stayed at San Francisco for 3 months guided us around the city.
We walked across Union Square, a central place with a lot of shops, heading to China Town.
Buildings at Union Square
Buildings at Union Square.

Passing the Chinatown Gate we wandered around the little alleys.

China Town San Francisco

Inside a fortune cookie factory.
You get a feeling of how present the Chinese influence still is, especially when you walk into on of the restaurants: I had to communicate my order by pointing at the item.
Sesame Balls: Each ball costs 2 dollars, and they are my biggest culinary discovery.


They are delicious! It’s a dough filled with a very sweet red bean paste (first I thought it was chocolate), surrounded by a crispy fried crust covered in sesame seeds.
San Francisco Greenwich Street City Skyline 
Standing on Greenwich street under the Coit Tower. It's one of the most steep roads in San Francisco.
Following some stairs starting at the Coit Tower, we found ourselves at the Piers and Pier 39. There the tour ended.
Pier 39 is full of food stands and souvenir shops. Standing on the edge of the pier you can watch (and hear!) sea lions, laying on the boat wharf. In comparison to the other pier buildings, which are all the same style (white painted harbor buildings), Pier 39 really stands out.
One of the typical Pier-Buildings.
Sea lions at Pier 39

After a 5 minute walk along the shore I got to Fishermens Wharf. It’s dominated by old brick stone buildings and fish & shrimp restaurants.
I chose onion rings and a shrimp sandwich.

Lombard street: Though it’s not even the most steep road in San Francisco, in 1923 the serpentines were built to lighten the slope. Standing on the top of the street and the hill I had a nice overview of the city, seeing the square street pattern, Fishermen’s Wharf, the Coit Tower as well as Downtown.
Standing at the upper end of the winding part of Lombard Street.
General thoughts and advice:  
On the city: I was surprised how foggy and how steep San Francisco is. Being there you realize that the cities in the bay area just ease into each other, without clear borders. San Francisco itself is not a typical US city, and in my opinion that’s what makes it beautiful. The city is very walkable. With the BART train, the ferrys as well as the Cable Car it offers some unique public transport. The city consists of a lot of small buildings, all in a Victorian style – no matter how old they are. Parks and green areas are spread across the city. Of course you also got the beaches, the iconic bridge and a lot of other attractions that make it interesting to visit.

Standing on a junction, the street names are carved into the ground in front of you.
On nature: Within the city you won’t discover too much wildlife except the sea lions at Pier 39, the seagulls and a lot of dogs. But the area is nicely vegetated and already in early march everything starts to bloom. At the more rural edges of the city you can discover snowy ergrets standing in the water (look out for them on your way to/from the airport) or even hummingbirds.
On traffic: The first day I got confused with the 4-way-Stop-Sign-Junctions, not knowing when to walk. I learned that the rule is that pedestrians may always go first, no matter which car came first.
On food: Try something new in Chinatown or Fishermen’s Wharf. For grocery shopping use Trader Joes, Wholefoods or Safeway. CVP Pharmacy is good for snacks, treats or things like chewing gum.
What I left out: Alcatraz, Cable Car, ..
The next morning I started at the Ferry Buildung. It’s an old building full of alternative shops with organic food and thinks like olive oil, mushrooms or coffee. On Saturdays there is a big farmers market.

Nepalese Food from the farmers market.

Inside the ferry building.

Back home I had booked  an Amtrak-Ticket to Portland. The train station is located in Oakland and to get there I took the ferry (it’s possible to enter at Pier 39 or at the Ferry Buildung). A one way ticket costs about 7$.

On a clear day you can see Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge during the ferry ride. But that foggy day I only saw the basement of the Oakland Bridge when we passed it.

In comparison to San Francisco Oakland is rather boring and bedraggled. The marina is pretty nice though. There are tourists shops, restaurants and benches, as well as (clean) public toilets. On Sunday there’s a small farmer market.
            But walking into the city there are abandoned buildings, fallow land where buildings have been demolished as well as inhabited houses that have definitely seen better days. In some parts it’s kind of morbid.

I spent the day at Lake Merritt watching people.  [Sitting on the shore (Lakeside Dr /Lake Merritt Blvd) I got free Wifi from the Alameda County Superior Courthouse, while laying in the grass.]
The Amtrak station is near the marina. The tracks are leading straight through the city, so every now and then you will hear a loud train honk. The waiting room is also used as a sleeping spot by homeless people.

This was my last view of San Francisco standing at the Oakland Marina.
Before entering an Amtrak train your ticket will be checked, and the conductor assigns you a personal seat. The seats are very comfortable with a footrest and changeable back. The seats are wide and the legroom is about 4*4 ft (1*1m). Some trains got Wifi, but on the route between Oakland and Seattle (“Coastal Starlight”) there’s none. The toilets are relatively clean, some with an extre “changing cabin”.
I entered the train at 9:30 pm, with 770mi and 18 hours in front of me. Being lucky, the seat next to mine was free almost the whole time so I was able to lay down on both seats. My earplugs (the train is loud), sleeping mask and travel pillow helped me to get some decent sleep. When I woke up I saw the sun rise over some hills.
From the train I mostly saw farm land, factories, sometimes smaller cities and streets. But the further away from bigger cities, the more beautiful the view becomes. The part between “Klamath Falls” and “Eugene” is stunning. The train tracks are no longer next to a highway, instead they lead their way along lakes, mountains, cattle fences and forest. I saw a view old huts and a rusty car standing in the middle of nowhere along the way. Crossing the mountains there's a point with no cell phone service.
I thought a lot  about the fact that humans  build this track at some point in history.

As in San Francisco I concerned the city by walking, taking the bus only once. I’m glad I took my hiking shoes with me, as well as some comfy sneakers. My feet still hurt in the evenings.

Waterfront Park and Hawthorne Bridge

My first stop in Portland was the AAA office (600 SW Market St) where I asked for 2 road maps. One of the „Western State Provinces“ and the „Central State Provinces“. They aren’t as detailed as the maps of the single states, missing small towns and some State Parks or National Sites. Being a member of the ADAC I got those maps for free after showing my member card.

Via Couchsurfing I got a sleeping space in the eastern part of Portland. This way I found myself in a lovely neighborhood full of flowers and roses.
Walking around the neighbourhood, I discovered a lot of cute, artsy houses.

Blooming has already begun when I arrived in Portland .

Wandering around the city I found my way to Powells Bookstore. It’s even bigger than I excpected it to be, but in the end it’s just a big book store. For me the quantity of books made it harder to enjoy the place, since I didn’t know where to start.

The historic district of Portland is full of brickstone buildings and lovely cafés, bakeries and coffee shops. If you are looking for a big variety of street food I recommend a food truck gathering Sw10th Ave/Adler street.
One of the many lovely details in the city are its sewer covers.

Advertisment in Portland.
Forest Park:                        

Forest Park is a huge city forest in the northwest of Portland. It’s a real forest full of trees, fern, moss and a creek.

I hiked the Lower Macleary Trail >Holeman Lane >Birch Trail >Wildwood Trail >Pittock Mansion >Japanese Garden

In the east side of the city I recommend a couple of locations:
Cargos” is a mix of an antique store and a lot of odds and ends, all in an asian or Indian style. 
The SE Division Street is full of shops, cafés (f.e. Salt&Straws ice cream) and bars.

Discovered in the “Urbanite” Antique Store
For a rainy day I recommend the “Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center”. It informs about the history of Japanese Americans during World War II (entrance fee 3§), as well as the OMSI (Oregon Museum of Science and Industry) (14,50$ general admission).
On the city: Portland is cleaner and easier to navigate in than in San Francisco. The inner part of the city is dominated by skyscrapers and old brickstone buildings. The prejudices about Portland are true and can be discovered in many ways: The density of Starbucks Cafés is pretty high, as well as the number of individual owned bakery, coffee shops and so on.
Another lovely detail are the names and dates carved into the pavement. I like the thought of "In 1911 someone named Wabb built this Pavement.

One misconception I had I learned about in Portland: It’s not the Columbia River running through Portland, it’s the Williamette River which connects to the Columbia River North of Portland.

On nature:
Half an hour drive out of Portland you can get to “the gorge”. Following the scenic drive next to the Highway I got an overview of the river at the Vista Point and saw a lot of different waterfalls (Bridal Veil Falls, Latourell Falls, Mutnomah Falls).

What I missed: Breweries


After my trip north I took the train back to San Francisco, where I met up with some friends. Part 2 begins..
Part 2: California Coast and Arizona Desert 
In South Lake Tahoe we spent one night in the 3 Peaks Resort hotel. The balcony there was decorated by huge icicles. Lake Tahoe only was a stopover to gather our stuff and to pick up some packages that we’ve ordered beforehand. (The hotel counter accepts and stores them. That’s really useful not living in the US.)

In Carson City we stopped by to shop at Walmart. I bought a camping mattress, as well as 2 camping chairs.
On our way to the Great Basin National Park we saw a group of 5 Pronghorn Antelopes, and I also had the chance to photograph a herd of wild horses.
Just like last summer I drove the Highway 50: Even in the middle of the day the road is very lonely, with only a few cars passing. The landscapes changes from snow covered mountains, into wide valleys with shrubs and grass, into another valley.

Great Basin NP: During our stay (mid of March) everything was shut down to a minimum. The visitor center was open and also the only place to get running water. The Wheeler Peak Drive as  well as the Baker Creek Drive were closed. Only the Lower Lehman Creek Campground was open (and rather full). Even though there was no running water we had to pay the full price (some CGs halve the price due to no service in winter). To make a fire we snaped off old brittle aspens, and broke them in smaller pieces (without a saw!).

That night I slept in my tent with an outside temperature of 23° F (-5°C). Thanks to my new sleeping bag I was fine.

The next morning the road to the visitor center was blocked by a group of turkeys, which calmly made their way across a meadow.

Valley of Fire State Park
: The valley of Fire SP near Las Vegas and Lake Mead is famous for its red rock structures, which seem to glow in the evening sun. The daily entrance fee is 10$. Originally we planned to camp there, but the 2 campgrounds (70 spots) were already full. So we just spent the day there, driving around looking at rocks. Instead of sleeping in the park we camped at the Echo Bay CG in the Lake Mead Recreation Area (20$ per night). It’s 15 mi away from the south entrance and off season only a quarter of the camp spots were taken. In the night we discovered “light pollution” coming all the way from Vegas. The sky was bright red.
Valley of Fire State Park
  During our drive to Vegas we 1) saw this Phainopepla and 2) accidently hit a Horned Lark.

Las Vegas: Though I’ve been there before, Vegas was still special in its own way. Rising out of nowhere in the middle of the desert, with all its hotels, colors and neon light advertising. The city itself becomes an attraction, even if you aren’t into gambling. We used two days there to wander through antique stores, look around “ Brass Pro Shop” with its outdoor gear, and walk the city at night. I recommend taking the time to go inside some of the big hotels. This way I found 2 galleries in between the restaurants and shops. One by Vladimir Kush who has a mystic and fairytale-like style, and one of National Geographic presenting nature photographs by various photographers.
Standing on a balcony of the Venecian.
     High Roller

Found in on of the Antique Stores
 Saguaro National Park: In the Sonora Desert
The Eastern Saguaro NP itself doesn’t have a campground of itself. Instead it’s possible to camp at the Gilbert Ray Campground (10$ per night) outside the NP near “Old Tuscon” (a western movie setting which can be visited). The NP is impressive. You are surrounded by a forest of Saguaros and other cactuses. The ecosystem is very unique and one of its kind.
Cactuses Blooming

During our stay I saw a lot of Gela Woodpeckers flying around. They build breeding burrows inside the saguaros, leaving a holes outside the cactus. Some of them are literally perforated. I also saw a lot of Thrashers around our spot.
 We drove around a lot, especially the Bajada Scenic Loop, hoping to catch a woodpecker nicely sitting on a saguaro. But every time I left the car to get closer they flew of.

Our rental car at the Bajada Loop.
Additionally I spotted Gambel´s Quails, as well as a dead snake. During a short hike near the campground I was able to photograph a Coopers Hawk (it’s an uncommon bird species, so that was a nice surprise when I identified the bird afterwards).


 Gilbert Ray Campground

Nearby is the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It’s a zoo which only shows local desert animals. For the 25$ entrance fee they offer a flight show (hunting Harris Hawks), a reptile as well as an amphibian house (I petted a tortoise). Some of the taller mammals are beavers, otters and bighorn sheep. Paying extra it would have been possible to pet some skates. There are a lot of volunteers whose work I appreciate, but all in all the experience didn’t grew up to my expectations.

Harris Hawk
                                                                               Cooper's Hawk >

The Gila Woodpeckers are very shy and fly away as soon as someone comes close

The Western Saguaro National Park consists of only one 8mi loop drive, with multiple hiking trails that make the rest of the park accessible. Compared to the eastern part there are not as much saguaros.

Cave Creek National Forest:
Following the I10 and the Highway 80 (direction of Douglas) our next stop was the Cave Creek National Forrest. It’s near the small town of Portal, where lodging and one café is available, but not much more. The forest with mediterranean vegetation is named after one of its creeks, which disappears every now and then (that’s caused by the sandstone underground).  Near the entrance is a small information center (wifi available). An asphalted road winds up in the mountains, connecting the 3 campgrounds of the park. Soon it changes into a gravel road, leading to a zoological and botanical research center.
 South Creek


The area is known to be a birding area (if you’re interested in that visit the Cave Creek Ranch). My personal highlight was an Acorn Woodpecker.When we arrived two Campgrounds were open, and we were lucky to get one of the last spots. The evening was clouded, windy and rather cold.
Inside Brass Armadillo Antique Store
 Phoenix: Driving through Phoenix in the afternoon is a struggle, because the I10 that leads through the city is overcrowded. If you´re looking for an activity, visit the Brass Armadillo Antique Store. It has 2 locations in the the city and is worth a stop.

Tonto Forrest: The next night we slept at the Houston Mesa Campground (24$/night) in the Tonto Forrest. It’s a huge campground with 3 or 4 hosts, running water and showers (3$ / 6 minutes; but only use quarters). The campsite are nice with a fire place and the possibility to broil.

Cooking at Houston Mesa Campground
Entering I got a brochure about how to react when facing a bear (it´s “bear county”). During the night I listened to coyotes howling.
The campground is located 5 minutes outside of Payson, where we grocery shopped at Walmart.
 Montezuma Castle: The Montezuma Castle National Monument is a small area, where a short pavement leads along a cliff where the buildings of early Indians remain.
Near the NM is a little antique store in the town of Camp Verde (573 Main Street). It’s full of saddles, horse equipment, license plates and tools.

Now comes the insane part of the journey: Having about 5 days left with no particular plan, we decided to drive to the Coast. Except the one day in San Francisco I never have seen the Pacifik before, so that’s on me.
We had 1.017 mi in front of us. Our first stop was Barstow where we went to the “ Barstow Tanger Outlet”, just to get out of the car after 8 hours of driving. There we changed from the I17 N on to the W58. That road goes a long way on the Sierra Nevada Plateau, until it leads down. At 10 pm we made it to the I5 N, where we spent a short night on a rest area sleeping in the car.  
Sunrise at I5 N.
 Our Campspot at Middle Creek CG. The Highway 20 W, which connects the I5 N with the Highway 1, is a beautiful winding road, that led us along hills and along Clear Lake.
Near the Clear Lake in Upper Lake we decided to look for a Campground in the Mendocino National Forest. The Middle Creek Campground is right next to a wide creek and its ballast bed. The campspots are rather open, but we didn’t mind being surrounded by ground squirrels and turkeys, as well as Acorn Woodpeckers and Lizards. In the evening we listened to tree frogs, which were located somewhere at the river bench. It was nice place to rest for a day

The Coast:

The Coast of MacKerricher State Park.
Camping: We chose the area around Fort Bragg and the MacKerricher State Park. The park itself got about 70 campspots, divided on different campgrounds. Starting in April you can reserve spots beforehand, otherwise it’s first come first serve. We camped there on the Easter weekend in March and had no problem finding a good spot. There’s running water and showers (1$ for 5 minutes). The pacific is a 10 minute walk away. Camping costs 40$ per night. The permit also counts as an entrance fee in other state parks around the area. When we visited MacKerricher SP day use was free.

40$ is the typical price for a campground in this area. You could in a national forest nearby (8$ - 15$ per day), but then you have to take the burden to drive inland at least for 15-20 miles.

Preparing for our camping fire. We gatherd the wood at Navarro Beach.
MacKerricher State Park: The Park is located right outside Fort Bragg [Gas, Safeway, Fast Food and a whole lot of hotels right on the shoreline]. There’s an accessible seal watching point, multiple beach accesses and hiking trails along the coast. The seals are the highlight of the park, as they lay in front of the coast on cliffs (bring a binocular!). They can’t only be seen from the watching point, but on different areas of the SP Coast. From the Seal Watching Point it’s possible to climb down to the tide pools. During low tide we discovered multiple species of sea star, sea urchins, sponges algea and “sea plants”. It’s a lot of fun wandering around and discovering things. Sleeping in my tent I enjoyed night temperatures around 5°C (40°F), listening to the waves crashing on the shore.
It’s a good location to set your base when exploring the coast, or to enjoy a day trip there.
The way to the seal watching point.
A look into a tide pool.
Harbour seal at MacKerricher State Park.
The area & Highway One:
In the morning everything was covered in dew, and without the sun it was rather uncomfortable cold (no problem with some warm cloth and a self-brewed “camping coffee”’ ;)). The view on the Pacific is a little foggy, but clears up as soon as the sun comes out. The Highway is curved along the shoreline, almost always presenting a stunning view.
 Point Cabrillo Light station.
Public Coastal Access is provided with road signs along the way. The route really offers to take the time and start a little exploration.
Driving south on Highway 1 starting in Fort Bragg we did following stops: Jug Handle State Reserve, Point Cabrillo Light Station,
Navarro Beach .

Jug Handle State Reserve

The other day we visited the Avenue of Giants, a parallel road to the Highway 1 which leads through a forest of redwoods. It belongs to the Humboldt Redwoods State Park (8$ day fee using picnic areas, camping 35$ per night). Walking around those impressive, old and huge trees, made me feel small.



On nature:

Additionally to its stunning views, the area has a big variety of animals.



Flying back home
Our last stop was in Sacramanto, where we gathered and packed our stuff for the upcoming flight.  

During the trip I really enjoyed the mixture of city, culture, nature, wildlife and seclusion. It’s nice to wake up with the sun, only thinking about where to go and what to eat. In the evening when I climbed into my sleeping bag, I was always  exhausted but happy.

States: OR, CA, NV, AZ, (NM)
Driving: 4218 mi (6800km)
Number of Pictures: 5,748
Temperatures: From -5°C (23°F) Great Basin up to 30°C (86°F) Arizona


Striped Head Sparrow

Stellars Jay

Horned Lark


Red Winged Blackbird

Gila Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker


Ruddy Turnstone



Canadian Goose


Turkey Vulture

Ground Squirrels

Pronghorn Antelopes

Wild Horses

Harbour Seals

Sea Lions


Parks and Citys:
San Francisco
South Lake Tahoe
Great Basin NP
Valley of Fire SP
Lake Mead Recreation Area
Las Vegas
Saguaro NP
Cave CreekNF (Portal)
Tonto NF (Payson)
Mendocino NF
MacKerricher SP
Sleeping Bag: Ajungilak/ Mamut Denali MTI 5 seasons (It’s excellent for sleeping at temperatures around the freezing point, but for warmer temperatures the warmth is a little too much.)
: The North Face West Wind 2
: Duffle Bag XXL & Osprey Kite 36

: Canway camping stove, 1 small cooler box, Camping Knife
Camera Equipment:
Canon 7D Mark II
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USAM
Thule Covert DSLR Rolltop Backpack

General Advice:

Food: Be aware where you are driving, where and how long you will stay there and where the next grocery shop is located. Things like meat and dairy products can be found pretty much anywhere, but it’s good to fill up the basics foods that won’t turn bad too fast before entering a very rural area.

My recommendations on fast food are: Arby’s (highest meat quality), Jack in The Box (don’t get me started on onion rings) and Carl’s Junior

Where to look for Wifi: Walmart; fast food restaurants like McDonalds, Burger King, Jack In The Box; at some National/State Park visitor centers; public and central places in bigger cites (either “city wifi” or public buildings)

Music: Having a big variety of offline music is the key of a good road trip, as well as listening to the radio from time to time.