Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Mountains (page 1 of 2)

Laying Eyes on Tahoe for the First Time

While I’ve visited much of my hone state (I only have two counties left!), there are a number of places that I’ve still not had the opportunity to see. A couple of these are a mild source of shame, as they are some of the most beautiful locations within California. And at the top of this short list was Lake Tahoe (SEE: One place I am ashamed I haven’t visited).

When I planned a last-minute road trip with our older two kids last year, Tahoe seemed like a great final stop before returning home. It wasn’t too far off the most ideal route between Death Valley and northern California, and it was a far more beautiful option than crossing over into the central valley. It would be a fairly quick visit, but at least we’d get to see the lake.

The first stop: Emerald Bay

After a morning spent driving up Highway 395 and a stop a Mono Lake (SEE: A New Favorite California Scenic Drive), we finally crossed through Alpine County and over to Lake Tahoe. Emerald Bay was the first stop. You know those classic photos of Lake Tahoe? Sorta like this one?

That’s Emerald Bay. It’s an utterly picturesque spot, and probably the most photographed point around the entire lake, as it is easily accessible from South Lake Tahoe. Parking was a bit tricky, as everyone is competing for a spot. We were fortunate to find a place not too far from Emerald Bay and then walked down the road.

Not only did we get to see Emerald Bay stretching out before us, but we also enjoyed lovely Eagle Falls. The kids and I crossed through the water a few times, which was frigid, but we were careful to stay clear of the sharp drop. It is a very picturesque spot. Just don’t get too close to the edge, as there was a death here recently, directly related to taking a selfie.

We took a brief walk along the trail heading south from Eagle Falls, but all too soon had to return to the car and head back into town.

An evening at the “beach”

After checking into our hotel and enjoying some Mexican food for an early dinner, we headed to the beach at the South Lake Tahoe Recreation Area. We walked the short stretch of sand (which is rather unlike ocean sand), and the kids enjoyed playing on the rocks and in the very gently lapping waves.

It started to get chilly quickly, definitely a drawback of visiting in early April. But, man, is Tahoe beautiful. The photos don’t do it justice. It was so much better to finally be there in person and see this gem of our state. We’ll have to come back for a summer trip where we can explore and enjoy the lake longer than half a day.

Our last stop was for ice cream. I found a great spot right at the Nevada state line called The Baked Bear. I’d never heard of the chain before (they have a number of locations in California and in a smattering of other states), but it is an excellent place. Pricey, but excellent. They make custom ice cream sandwiches where you get to pick your cookies, ice cream, and a coating or topping. Definitely a hit with the kids.

Conclusion

We’ll miss you, Tahoe. Hopefully we’ll be back to visit soon. Don’t we look like a bunch of ragamuffins? Obviously none of us cared to really brush our hair after seven days in the car (LOL).

This wrapped up our final full day of our April 2018 road trip (SEE: Southwest Road Trip Overview). I’m finally done with my posts, only a little over a year later. Blogging over at Points with a Crew has taken precedence, but even that is changing, as I’ve landed a new opportunity that I am very excited about. More on that later. I’m just glad I’m done. A couple more trips to finish, and I’ll be wrapped up with most of our adventures.

A New Favorite California Scenic Drive

*I’m still trying desperately to finish up the posts I planned from our Southwest Road Trip 2018. Almost there. Only two more!*

With our road trip winding down to the last couple days, the kids and I left Death Valley behind [SEE: 3 Highlights (and 2 Disappointments) Visiting Death Valley], heading west and climbing gradually out of this surreal place and back to a landscape we were far more used to seeing. The first part of the drive was solidly desert, but eventually we caught our first view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains as we neared Lone Pine.

Mountains will never cease to call my name. There is no landscape I find more enchanting. It should not surprise you that Switzerland, Norway, Patagonia, Nepal, and New Zealand are all among the places I wish to visit most.

What stunned me was the majesty of the peaks here in my home state. I’ve been to different parts of the Sierras multiple times, whether camping many years ago out east of Fresno, or hiking in Yosemite National Park with my family on a few occasions, or driving up to Reno for a conference. From the west, the change is gradual. The foothills mask how tall the Sierras are.

On the eastern side, the peaks are much more sharply defined. And I love it.

Highway 395 – A new favorite scenic drive

We made our way to Bishop for the night, staying at another Holiday Inn Express. Although it wasn’t as nice as the last one (SEE: Holiday Inn Express Pahrump Review), it is a fine hotel if you’re passing through the area. The next morning our drive started again. It was an utterly beautiful day.

Highway 395 parallels the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, running from Victorville in the south on up through Reno, continuing into the far northeastern reaches of California and then on up into Oregon. The section we drove our second to last day was from Bishop up to Tahoe. The first part of the drive provided us with the lovely vista you see below. I’d happily drive all day if the scenery always looked like this.

At one point where the mountains were especially lovely, I decided to meander down a side road for a bit. If there is somewhere in California to move where you can get away from it all, this is certainly it. Hours from any airport or city, this section of the state is pure beauty.

Our drive continued up past Mammoth and June Lakes. How I wished we could stop a couple more times, but this was yet another day during which we were on a tight schedule. If we dawdled now, we wouldn’t get to see much of Tahoe.

Morning at Mono Lake

After about an hour we arrived at Lee Vining and Mono Lake. It was awesome to finally be able to set eyes on a location I’d only ever seen on a map for so long. Our first stop was the visitor center of the State Natural Reserve. We didn’t stay inside long, instead choosing to walk the trails behind the visitor center. This  lake is truly picturesque.

As a shallow, saline lake with no outlet, Mono Lake has an interesting ecosystem. Thanks to the tiny brine shrimp that live in its waters, the lake is a major stop for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that pass through. Like the video we watched of Death Valley, the one shown at the visitor center was equally as fascinating. It is even available on YouTube, if you’re interested. Once that was concluded, we headed out behind the visitor center and took a short walk on the trails.

There is a park down the road, close to the highway, from which you can embark on a short stroll to see some of the Mono Lake tufa. Created by mineral rich underwater springs that react with the lake water, the rocks are essentially limestone that precipitated and fused together into these towers over a period of time. As the lake level has risen and fallen through the years, some tufa are now stranded above the water line. These interesting formations are not unique to Mono Lake, but the examples here are excellent.

There are a few great areas to see the Mono Lake tufa, including the South Tufa Area, which is off the main highway a bit. We settled for a walk amid the towers at Mono Lake Park.

Finishing the drive through the Sierras

Our next pit stop was in Bridgeport where I got a cup of java at the 1881 Coffee Cafe. It’s a cute little place. From there we pressed onward along Highway 395, until departing to head sharply upward into Alpine County and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We got our final view of Nevada. At least until we reached South Lake Tahoe.

Highway 395 from Lone Pine nearly all the way to Topaz Lake is now one of my favorite drives in this lovely state in which we live. It tops the list alongside the local 100-mile loop through the Lost Coast.

 

Cheap United awards to the Rockies in early summer!

United is currently offering an award sale for a select number of outdoor-adventure destinations in the mountains, which could make for the perfect early summer getaway. Destinations include:

  • Aspen, Colorado (ASE)
  • Bozeman, Montana (BZN)
  • Gunnison, Colorado (GUC)
  • Jackson Hole, Wyoming (JAC)
  • Montrose, Colorado (MTJ)
  • Steamboat Springs, Colorado (HDN)
  • Vail, Colorado (EGE)

These prices are good for travel between June 9-27, 2018.

For itineraries less than 700 miles, you’re looking at a mere 15,000 miles round-trip. Anything longer than that is 18,750 miles. You do have to book a round-trip ticket to qualify for these prices. One quirk: United doesn’t take connections into consideration when determining the 700 mile cutoff, so a couple airports from Arcata qualify for the cheaper prices, even if they have a connection in Los Angeles (notably, Jackson Hole, Wyoming).

Important note: You do have to either be a United MileagePlus credit cardholder or a MileagePlus premier member to take advantage of these prices. If you aren’t either of these, you’ll pay the standard 12,500 miles each way. If you haven’t picked up the United MileagePlus Explorer card yet, consider the current inflight offer for 50,000 bonus miles and waived annual fee.

Is there award space?

An award sale is only good if there is actually space for people to book. I did a bit of research, and it appears there are a decent number of seats available. I actually stumbled onto the sale by looking to book an award to Jackson Hole. I hadn’t received an email and was scratching my head at the odd 7,500-mile price. Now it all makes sense!

Book by May 21 if you’re interested!

Driving the Sea to Sky Highway in British Columbia

This trip is a bit dated, but I figured I’d walk (or drive) down memory lane and describe the fun day my wife and I had together when we were visiting Vancouver last winter. 

As a Christmas gift to my wife, I planned a short getaway to Vancouver, British Columbia over New Years 2017. After enjoying Capilano Suspension Bridge and  Bright Nights in Stanley Park, we finished with a spectacular drive on our last full day in beautiful British Columbia.

All of our nights were spent in Vancouver, so this was our starting point. Vancouver has one of the best settings of any city I’ve ever visited. With the sea and Vancouver Island in the distance to the west and snow-capped mountains to the north, the city has a beautiful backdrop no matter the angle. It also has amazing outdoor recreation opportunities. You can be in the mountains within only a few minutes of the city.

Driving the Sea to Sky Highway

The stretch of highway heading north from Vancouver is aptly named the Sea to Sky Highway. And even in winter it is totally worth a drive.

We took off mid-morning from Vancouver, heading through Stanley Park and over the Lion’s Gate Bridge. After passing through the suburbs on the north side of the city, the road turns north at Horseshoe Bay. This is where the views begin. For nearly 30 miles, the highway is rarely more than a stone’s throw from the ocean, flanked by mountains on the east and with a backdrop of snow capped peaks to the west.

We would have stopped more along this stretch had we known conditions were going to be as nice as they were on the rest of the drive. We pulled over at a park just before the Sea to Sky Gondola. Given that it was a beautifully clear day, I was quite bummed that the gondola itself was closed due to high winds. I wanted to soak in the view of the snow capped peaks of British Columbia stretching to the north. But standing at the side of the road in the icy shade would have to do.

Stopping in Squamish

A few minutes later we were in Squamish, where we made a brief pit stop. Squamish markets itself as the recreation capital of Canada. Random fact: the company I work for has a client whose son chose to go to college in Squamish for exactly this reason.

We ate some lunch in the car after meandering away from the highway for a couple minutes. I then took a very brief walk along the river. Don’t let the picturesque photo fool you. While the view was lovely, the wind was ripping, and man was it cold. Kels stayed nice and toasty warm in the car.

As we continued our trek north from Squamish, the road began to climb. The sun was fully out and heating the asphalt, so I became less worried about ice on this stretch. We made good time and the trip took a little under an hour.

Arriving in Whistler

We were nearly to Whistler before we finally started driving over snow. It was packed in patches and sloppy in others. I knew whatever tires our California-rented Corolla had wouldn’t allow much room for error, so I was extra careful. I made a right at the first major intersection we came upon.

The end of the road for us was the resort area on the south end of Whistler known as Creekside Village. We hopped out of the car to wander around for a bit.

We did stop in at the convenient Starbucks for a warm pick-me-up. Strangely, the barista that took my order was from Australia. His accent was very obvious. Then I realized all the baristas were from Australia, which was even more weird. They even had name tags with their hometown on it. I didn’t have the nerve to ask how and why they were all here, and if they were part of some sort of Starbucks barista exchange program. Their Canadian counterparts would surely be enjoying the land down under during the height of summer (I sure did a few weeks later).

We then walked up toward the lift to take a little look at the slopes. I greatly enjoy skiing. My wife does not. When we went skiing in Quebec the previous winter, she did one run down the “easiest way down” and then decided she better stick to the bunny slope.

So, given the cost of the sport plus the trek to get to any decent ski resort, I don’t really go often (a total of 3 times in a decade). But one day we’ll have to come back to Whistler and enjoy a day or two on the slopes. The place looks and feels amazing. I’m not surprised it is one of the top rated ski resorts in North America. Others say it is the best in the world.

Returning along the Sea to Sky Highway

The drive back was just as pleasant. We stopped several times along the way to take in the scenic vistas.

Canada makes me want to move there every time I visit it. But then I remember their politics.

What mountains.

My wife’s signature photo style where all or part of the sun is in the frame.

We made another pit stop in Squamish so I could grab a coffee. We enjoyed the views of the water again as we continued southward, the sun slowly sinking towards the southwest.

Then it was back over the Lion’s Gate Bridge and into Downtown Vancouver.

Conclusion

Driving the Sea to Sky Highway is one of my favorite memories of our trip to Vancouver. It was a wonderful midday outing. Going into it, I didn’t know if we would make it to Whistler or not, but I am glad conditions were nice and we got to take a look around.

We did make it to Canada a second time in 2017, visiting Banff National Park and Calgary, Alberta (SEE: Banff, Alberta in 14 photos). This was also a major travel hacking win (SEE: Staying at the Fairmont Banff Springs for $99.18).

Until next time, Vancouver. This time we’ll have kids along for the journey.

First Use of the Amex Business Platinum 50% Points Rebate

Back in February I decided to pull the trigger on applying for the Business Platinum card from American Express. This was the first premium card that I had ever applied for, and deciding to swallow the $450 annual fee took some careful consideration. But with a $200 offset (I was able to cash out the airline incidental credit as gift cards and sell them), it seemed worth it. Plus the card was offering a bonus of 100,000 Membership Rewards (MR) points.

One of the biggest perks of the Business Platinum card is that it gives a 50% rebate on flights when you use the “Pay with Points” option. This has recently been decreased to 35%, but I have a year to use the benefit due to when I got my card (SEE: Reminder – Last day to sign up and get the 50% points rebate on the Amex Business Platinum). By paying with points, you don’t have to worry about award space. You just use points to pay for a cash ticket.

Normally, you only get 1.0 cent per point out of your MR points using the “pay with points” option. But the 50% rebate perk of the Amex Business Platinum card essentially gets you 2.0 cents per point. This makes booking revenue flights with “pay with points” a much better deal.

Note that you do only get to pick one airline each year for which you can use this perk on economy flights, but the benefit works on all premium cabin flights.

Visit Montana? I think yes

With barely 48 hours of mulling the idea over, I pitched a Montana trip idea to my brother-in-law. We have a friend who is interning in Kalispell this summer, and more who live near Missoula. I figured we could fly to Kalispell for several days, visit them, and see Glacier National Park. Award space was basically nonexistent, so I used “pay with points” option. This allowed the plane tickets to be completely free, plus it gave me a solid redemption value for my MR points.

Less than a day after that, the entire trip was all booked. Flights are 100% covered, and the hotels are 90% covered (I booked one points & cash night).

To top things off, I got a fantastic deal on a rental car using Autoslash, plus I can use Arrival miles to cover the majority of that cost. My brother-in-law will cover the cost of driving to Medford and parking at the airport, so all said and done we’re down to maybe $70 each plus food. It’ll be a super cheap 5 day vacation.

What to do in Kalispell

We obviously want to visit our friend Sage while we’re there. We also hope to spend 2 days in Glacier National Park. He has the weekends off, so hopefully we can see the park for a couple days. I’ve heard only good things about Glacier National Park, and I cannot wait to visit!

On Sunday or Monday we’ll visit our friends near Missoula. For various reasons we need to play things by ear, but that is a-ok by me. Tuesday we’ll fly back to Medford, and then drive the 4 hours home.

Conclusion

I hadn’t planned on taking another vacation so soon, but hey, that is one of the beauties of using points and miles. Even last-minute travel in the height of summer can be made affordable. If I didn’t have a stash of points, we’d be paying about $2,500 out of pocket for the 5 night trip. Now we’re looking at $400 or so, split between two of us.

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