Snow and coast drive, Sky dive and Hot air balloon ride

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The many number firsts I had in this trip bear testament to my neophiliac nature! This time during Thanksgiving, continuing the culture of making the most of long weekends in a holiday scare country,  I wanted to cover the famous places near Bay area (CA) – Yosemite and Napa Valley with my Cornell friends. Lisha suggested Sky Diving and it was too added to the list. Soon we made a rough plan to visit Yosemite for first 2 days followed by Skydiving at Hollister and Hot Air Balloon ride at Napa Valley. Due to the unavailability of apt camp sites and unpreparedness for cold, we limited Yosemite to a day trip and instead chose to drive through Big Sur the second day. I had a flight from Seattle to SF on Wednesday night. Expecting a huge holiday crowd, I reached airport 4 hours early and ended up exploring the not so crowded airport much to the suspicion of security personnel maybe. This was a much awaited trip due to the range of activities we would be trying. It also overlapped with the birthday of two of my friends. I landed at SFO around midnight and my friends picked me up. We went to their place at San Mateo. I had started suffering from a throat infection.

Day 1(Nov  26): Snow drive to Yosemite
We were 7 of us – Nivi, Sai, Smitha, Shubhangi, Dhiraj, Lisha and me. We got ready and left for Yosemite around 7 AM. Friends had booked a 7 seater Chrysler Town and Country for 5 days. We put the destination as Yosemite info center on the GPS and blindly followed it and I am glad we did. We started to head east, crossed the long San Mateo bridge and then to 580. I took the driving seat and enjoyed the drive between the scenic meadows playing games with friends. Actually, everyday I drove to destination in the day time and Lisha during the return journey. She was kind enough not to let me drive during dark which I wasn’t very comfortable with. After some time, we hit highway 120 where the actual fun started. It was a winding mountainous drive initially which reminded of drives to hill stations in India. Our first stop was at a Vista point which overlooked reddish mountains which I thought was similar to view at Grand Canyon. There started our craze for clicking pictures which never stopped till the end of the trip. Apparently Nivi had forgotten to carry a selfie stick and we teased for that the entire day. We saw snow on oncoming cars and became skeptical about the drive further since we didn’t carry snow chains and the car wasn’t a 4 wheel drive. As we drove further, surroundings started getting whiter and we reached a toll both which recommended snow chains. Fortunately, someone was selling them at the location and after a long wait we bought them and got it installed. It was a different experience driving with the chains. I wasn’t sure what speed to maintain since the car was experiencing heavy friction(short bumps) due to round metal lines across the tire. I chose to maintain the recommended speed and was careful. The drive was exquisite to say the least. Snow on the trees and the fact that the trees still had leaves made the view all the more magical. It was breathtaking and each turn on the road presented us with unexpected scenery. We stopped at various places enjoying nature at its best.

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I phone’s slow mo capture feature was made use of and the videos looked pretty cool. Soon we reached Yosemite valley and could see Half dome and El Capitan. I loved the views of El Capitan which was crowned with dark clouds and a splatter of snow on the top if its sheer vertical rock face.


The drive in the valley was splendid with tall mountains on either side with snow in various places. Upper Yosemite falls too looked wonderful. We removed the snow chains once in the valley and after frantically looking for a restaurant for lunch, we ended up having lunch in car after shopping for food in supermarket. My friends had packed some food too among which Bhakarwadi was my favorite and I kept munching them.  We decided to drive to Tunnel view for Sunset which allows for a scenic vista of Yosemite valley with El Capitan in the left and Half dome in the far right. I had recently updated my mac to El Capitan OS and it has the wallpaper of this tunnel view. Half dome was fully covered with clouds, in fact most of the sky was covered with clouds which obstructed the sun rays. We were expecting some dramatic colors on the rock face but had to be content with just the views of the valley. We choose not to wait till the Sunset and drove back on 140. The lady earlier in toll booth had suggested to take 140 for the drive back to avoid driving in snow on 120 during dark. 140 made its way through the valley in the absence of snow and suns rays painted some beautiful colors on the mountains. So we were glad that we saw best of both worlds. For dinner, we went to a restaurant called Shalimar at SF which turned out to be disastrous both in terms of taste and ambience. We went to sleep soon after celebrating Sai’s birthday. My condition had gotten worse and had gotten cold by now.

Day 2(Nov  27): Coast drive on Highway 1 
After taking some medicines in the morning we headed south to enjoy the scenic coastal drive along the pacific ocean on Highway 1. Our first stop was at Lovers point in Monterey Bay. Clear beach water with a greenish blue tint enhanced the view and sea gulls added the charm. We then drove along Sunset drive to reach the starting point of 17 mile drive. 17-Mile Drive is a scenic road, much of which hugs the Pacific coastline and passes famous golf courses, mansions and scenic attractions. Non residents have to pay a toll to use the road. With views of pacific water, golf courses in their backyard these mansions looked royal. After enjoying the rough waters beating the coast we continued our drive on Highway 1 to Big Sur. Big Sur is a rugged stretch of California’s central coast bordered to the east by the Santa Lucia Mountains which rises abruptly from the pacific ocean in the west. It is traversed by narrow 2-lane, known for winding turns, seaside cliffs and views of the pacific coastline. This was one crazy joyful drive. We crossed an architecturally beautiful Bixby bridge to reach Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. We had lunch while waiting for the parking spot and took a short hike to view Mcaway falls. While the fall itself was very small the setting at which this was located was impressive.


This 80 foot fall lands on the beach itself and flows into the ocean soon after. We then went to see Pelton wheel expecting it to be in a working condition but were disappointed to see a small non-working science exhibition like model. On the way back we made a stop to watch sunset. Sun painted the surroundings orange and had been ages since I had witnessed sunset in the waters. I was feeling extremely cold even with layers of clothes on my body, so tried to cover myself as much as possible.


Along with other Cornell friends we had a tasty dinner at Anjappar.  At midnight we celebrated Shubhangi’s birthday and had delicious cake.

Day 3(Nov  28): Sky dive
This was the big day we all were waiting for. We had signed up for 18,000 feet tandem jump – the highest tandem jump in the world. After reading some posts online, I was very skeptical to dive with my cold but still decided to go for it nonetheless. Making jokes en-route we reached Skydive Hollister and were ready to venture on one of the biggest adventures of our life. After clearing some confusion during billing, each one of us were called by our respective tandem divers. We were made to wear the harness and all the required safety stuff. Some instructors told about few tricks to stay comfortable and safe during the dive and I listened to them keenly. Instructors had worn two GoPros on their hands (one which took pics frequently and other video).

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I requested to jump first so that I would not have to stay longer time in the cold in flight with the doors opened. But my instructor went first into the flight, so would be the last to jump. Soon 4 of my friends and I got in the flight with huge excitement and we sat with our divers facing back. The flight took off and with every gaining feet, our excitement increased too. En-route, our instructors started attaching our harnesses to their suits. One pair jumped at 8000 feet and another at 15000 feet. Soon we reached around 18k (I was tracking this with my sports watch) and it was now our time.

My friends started jumping one after the other. It was my turn in the end and we inched closer to the door. Sitting at the edge of the flight, it was quite scary to look at the ground from such a height. Soon we embarked and the first 1-2 seconds, I got the adrenaline rush. Within no time I was battling the air gushing at me. My instructor tapped me to signal to get into final dive position. Soon my eyes started getting watery and the water filled the goggles which partially blocked my view. I could feel the pressure building up in my ears and air creating ripples on my face. But there was no adrenaline rush and it wasn’t exactly like falling, but more like traveling at a high speed. I was waiting for the parachute to be deployed which would relieve my ears. At around 3500ft, the instructor deployed the chute and I could feel immense pain in my right ear. I clutched it with my hand and enjoyed the close up views of the ground. I saw my friends’ parachutes at a distance. It was fun, especially when the instructor did some circles. We were first ones to reach the land(interesting that we were last to jump and first to land). We landed safely on our hips and I had partially lost my hearing. Sai landed soon after and I asked him to provide some ear tests and I was glad that both my ears were fine.


Surprisingly I didn’t enjoy the dive much. It might have been due to the cold, or maybe because I didn’t have much under my control or because I didn’t have a clear vision during the descent. It wasn’t as great I had imagined it to be. I will know only if/when I jump again without having a cold. Some of my friends said that their instructors kept showing them the places, asked them to do whatever they wanted during descent and one of them even handed the GoPro to my friend. My instructor had been quiet most of the time, except for the few scary jokes before the jump. So, the experience depends on the instructor too. We got into a Limo and we were driven back to the office. It took me about an hour to get my hearing back to normal (after some slow painful valsalva maneuvers). We had lunch while waiting for photos and videos. We still had some time before the day ended and decided to go to Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz is a beautiful beach town with a boardwalk containing some games and amusement rides. We tried some rides, fun games and spent quality time on the beach. That evening we saw our skydiving videos and had fun teasing others based on their acts. Dhiraj’s and Lisha’s video had come out really well.

Day 4(Nov 29): Hot air balloon over Napa valley
Since the cold didn’t desert me through the trip, Lisha would prepare hot soup for me every morning and made sure my water bottles were filled with boiled water. She also had made Kashaya for me the previous day. I am grateful for her kind gesture. We had to reach the location (Aloft Hot Air Balloon, Yountville) by 6:30 AM, so we got up pretty early this day. Hot air balloon rides were cancelled for two consecutive days due to bad weather. We called early morning and were told that there were no cancellations.  We departed pretty late in the morning but Lisha’s swift and safe drive ensured that we reached in time.  The town of Yountville was decorated with lights and it looked elegant. We reached the office, had some snacks and listened to the instructions. The take off point was right beside the office from a small ground. It was splendid to see the balloons being blown by the fans. Soon we got onto a balloon called Calypso and were ready to begin the flight.

I stood right below the burner which made me feel warm whenever it was ignited. Our basket was pretty small with 10 of us excluding the pilot. We took off gently and started gaining height. It was around the time of Sun rise and Napa valley looked magnificent. With vineyards below us, other balloons around us and mountains alongside, the view was breathtaking. Look down was a bit scary this time since we didn’t have any parachutes to rescue us. Getting soaked in the beauty and conversing with the pilot, I had an peaceful and enjoyable ride.

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After 40 mins or so we landed gently at a high ground and we were driven back to the office.

We had our breakfast and then drove to Castello di Amorosa for wine tasting. It was a huge castle which was built in mid 90’s based on 13th century architecture. We went on the tour of the castle and visited various majestic rooms. We then went underground where numerous barrels were stored. It was quite a scene. After the tour of the castle we were made to stand at a counter for the wine tasting. We tasted around 10 wines and I absolutely hated the taste. I never enjoyed any hot drinks before and I don’t want to actually. Unsurprisingly, I liked the plain grape juice the most and bought two bottles. We had lunch at a nearby town and drove back to San Mateo. I had hardly slept for more than 5 hours a day since the trip began, and thus decided to take a nap. We ended our trip with a dinner and grape juice later that night.

This was an amazing trip for multiple reasons. Apart from the fact that I tried so many new things, I had lots of fun with friends. Most of my earlier trips had been with family or unknown people. I was very well taken care of by my friends. I am glad to have such awesome friends in my life and hopefully will have more of such trips in the future.


Nikhil Navali

Categories: Adventure, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Labor Day weekend at Oregon

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We had off from work on Monday (Sept 7th) which gave us a long weekend to travel. As most of my Cornell friends are spread across Silicon Valley and Seattle, I thought of taking this opportunity to have a road trip and meet somewhere in between(Oregon). We finalized this about a week earlier and after spending hours on Skype, we decided to visit Oregon dunes and Crater Lake National park. I was eagerly looking forward to the trip, especially the ATV ride at the Oregon dunes. I rented a car(Ford Focus) for 3 days from Enterprise on Friday and planned to depart early morning on Saturday.

Day 1(Sept 5): Drive to Oregon Dunes and ATV ride
Woke up around 4 AM and it was around quarter to 6 by the time Karthik and I departed Seattle on I-5. The early morning drive was soothing as we encountered mist at some places and witnessed few beautiful landscapes. We stopped at Portland for breakfast and had Avalakki(which we had packed) at Washington Park. As the day progressed, the journey turned quite boring and it was around 1 PM when we reached Spinreel office.
A quick online search had put Spinreel on top for ATV rentals at Oregon Dunes. We had booked 450cc quad bikes for 4 hours which costed 228$(including 2$ Goggle rental) per person. Soon my friends from California joined us and 7 of us were ready for some action. We filled the forms and watched the instruction video. There were quite a few ways by which we could incur extra costs due to mishandling and I was thus quite apprehensive about the ride. We also wondered if 4 hours was too long. We were given helmets and goggles but I hardly wore the goggles. After few checks we were given a go ahead and we hit the dunes for an action packed 4 hours. The Oregon Dunes are a unique area of windswept sand that is the result of millions of years of wind and rain erosion on the Oregon Coast. These are the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America. Some dunes tower up to 500 feet (150 m) above sea level, providing numerous recreational opportunities.

The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is located on the Oregon Coast, stretching approximately 40 miles (60 km) north from the Coos River in North Bend, to the Siuslaw River, in Florence. Spinreel features one of the Oregon’s largest and best dune-riding area and I can confirm this from the first hand experience. We could take our offroad vehicle to the beach and on the dunes. The dunes were spread across few miles in length and about quarter mile in width and there were 12 layers each with varied heights and slopes. We were excited to see other quad bikes, motorbikes, 2/4 seater vehicles going up and down the steep dunes. Beach was open for only an hour more so we decided to hit the beach first. The ride to the beach was bumpy and curvy which gave us nice practice handling the ATV’s. By the time we reached the beach most of us got comfortable in handling the vehicle and we rode along the coast and enjoyed the shoreline with blue Pacific waters soothing our eye. We went back to the dunes and attempted going from lower heights. We were advised to keep the ATV straight during the uphill as moving across the slope would increase the possibility of tipping over. Also as a safety measure as to avoid collision with others, we were advised to always stop once reaching the top before proceeding to look for oncoming vehicles. Each vehicle also had a long flag which would help getting noticed in steep locations. Surprisingly, most of us could manage the ups and downs quite comfortably in a short time.

We decided to cover all the 12 dunes, but harmless disasters awaited us. The dunes were steep and narrow at some places and the afternoon Sun removed all the moisture from sand which made them very loose and difficult to maneuver. I was the first one to take a fall. I tried to go down on a steep location and somehow felt that the bike would tip over. To avoid tipping over, I jumped out. My shoes were filled with sand attempting to get the ATV out of the steep. We continued covering dunes and it was great fun to ride it on different terrains. Soon people started getting their ATVs stuck in the sand at steep locations and required man power and smart maneuvering to get to flats. We went for refueling after 2 hours of ride. I wore my cycling gloves and got my GoPro this time. It was after the refuel I enjoyed the most. As most of us were comfortable riding by then, we climbed and down the steep dunes with considerable speed. Earlier, en-route to the beach, I had seen few narrow trails disappearing into the trees, and they looked pretty adventurous too. I suggested this to my friends and they all agreed to join me. It was a totally different experience navigating the narrow trails with tree roots on the trail and branches over our heads. The speed and the curvy nature of trails added to the excitement and I kept doing this for around an hour. It was about 4 hours and after having some fun on steep side of the first dune, we went back to the Spinreel office. It had been the most action packed 4 hours of my life. A minimum of 4 hours is ideal for first timers and I thoroughly enjoyed each and every minute.
We went to a nearby lighthouse for the cloud covered sunset and made our way to North Bend for the stay for the night.

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Day 2(Sept 6): Crater Lake National park
We left around 9 in the and it was almost 4 hours drive to Crater Lake National park. We reached Crater Park information center at around 2 PM and after some brainstorming, picked a location for hike to get a good view of the lake. One could drive along the rim of the lake, which would require about 2 hours. We decided to drive along the western rim, hike to a summit and then to a cove(if time permitted) to touch the water.

We saw the lake for the first time when we reached the Crater Lake Rim Village Cafe and it was breathtakingly beautiful. The magnanimity of the lake sunk in only when we saw the lake with our own eyes. The blue water in the crater amidst tall mountains looked totally different from the pictures. Contrary from my belief the huge ditch wasn’t formed from any meteoroid colliding the Earth. The lake partly fills a nearly 2,148-foot (655 m) deep caldera that was formed around 7,700 (± 150) years ago by the collapse of the volcano Mount Mazama. We could also see one inactive volcano(called Wizard Island) near the western part of the lake. Having had a shallow lunch at the cafe, we parked the car near a viewpoint to hike to a peak called Watchman peak. I witnessed the honest efforts of the people in maintaining the cleanliness at such crowded places. A biker ran and almost risked his life trying to stop a tissue paper getting into the lake from the steep side. I was surprised by his effort and respected him and million others who helped maintain the lake pristine. The hike to the peak was a 1.2 mile round trip with a fire lookout on the top. The peak gave an elevated panoramic view of the lake and surroundings and close up view of wizard island. We could see a distant snow peaked mountain, pointed Mt. Thielsen and various other terrains. We also could see different shades of water in the lake. We got down after the beauty around us sunk in.

Cliff jumping at Crater Lake:
We were tempted to see and feel the water as it looked so blue and clear. We went to Cleetwood Cove which is the only place to get to water and located North of the lake. The trail was 2.2 miles round trip and we had only a few hours before it got dark. We started descending. Observing the people coming up with difficulty, and the steepness, most of us wondered if we would make it back without much sweat. This place was also the dock for boats offering rides in the lake. Though the boats were small I wondered how they got them in water in the first. Karthik joked if they had assembled it after ordering from Ikea.

I went ahead and reached the end of the trail only to witness something adventurous going on. Two girls were at the cliff and jumped into the deep blue waters one after the other. It was from quite a height(20-25 feet) and the lake floor bed was not to be seen. I was taken aback by their bravery and awesomeness. Though I was not ready and confident of attempting it initially, I soon felt like jumping. My friends warned me of the dangers and I mentally started to check off the possible dangers one by one: 1) Cold – I went down and checked the water. Though it was cold, I was quite okay with it because of my experiences with chilled waters in the Himalayas and North Cascade. 2) Waves – I noticed that lake was not calm and observed turbulence in the water. I asked the girls about it and they said it was fine. 3) Swimming – Once in the water, I had to swim to the shore. I have hardly swum in water without knowing its depth, let alone in such a big lake. Also, since my leg fracture, my swimming had been not so normal as before. I was not even confident about making it back to the surface once I was inside. Considering the worst case I asked the girls again if they could help. They said they would try pulling me out if anything happened. 4) Swimsuit – This was the scariest part. I was wearing cotton clothes and the girls had swimsuits and another guy who jumped after them had proper swimwear. I was not sure if I could take the impact or the cold.

I soon saw a guy with casual clothes jump and reach the shore safely, and this really boosted my confidence. His friend jumped next and I went to the edge of the cliff. I thought of jumping soon after the guy cleared the waters but before he reached the shore so that he could help me if I needed. Without thinking much, I took the plunge. I still remember the fear I had looking at the approaching water before hitting it. The impact didn’t hurt much, but once in the water I just thought about coming to the surface. I did come up soon and swam to the shore. I reached after few strokes and was ecstatic to make it out alive. It looked doable then but it was the most scariest thing I had done in my life. The girls were still at the shore and asked me to take a dip and look at the blueness of the water. I followed the advise and observed the pitch blue water. I still couldn’t see its depth, apart from the rocks on the shore. I had seen Casey jump in the “Make It Count” video and I had done something similar to it. I thanked the girls and guys without whose presence I wouldn’t have taken the plunge. The girls told me that they had read about the cliff jump and had come prepared for it. Lisha jumped after some time and reached the shores safely. I went to jump again but actually I took more time to jump the second time than the first. I didn’t feel much once in the water as I was accustomed to it.

We were getting ready to go back. I noticed that my friends had taken only photos of my jump(a friend took a video too but it didn’t capture it clearly). I hence decided to jump again but this time only for a video. I jumped and after hitting the water, I felt like my skin on my fingers was peeling off. I swam till the shore without knowing for sure and was glad to know that my fingers were safe but somehow I felt the skin on my hands and feet turn loose. It was only then I realized that I had pushed my body too much. My friend offered me his dry extra t-shirt and jacket. I soon changed and we started the trek back hoping everything would be fine. The walk was not that tiring since I kept recalling the jumps and enjoyed the evening sun paint different colors on the rocky mountains. Jumping off a cliff into the blue waters was an experience like never before. I changed to dry clothes, turned on the car heater and began the journey to reach Roseburg. On the way we stopped in between hoping to see Milky Way, Even though we saw lots of stars and a shooting star we couldn’t exactly view the Milky Way clearly.
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The next day was spent in driving back to Seattle with a break at Indian restaurant at Portland for lunch. During this journey it was the first time I tried Cruise Control and it was amusing. It was refreshing to meet Cornell friends and try out amazing activities. The car journey was uneventful as we were only 2 of us in the car, but the drive was nice. The rental experience from Enterprise was convenient and pleasant.

Nikhil Navali

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