What is going right: Mob Programming Benefits (Part 1)

I want to call this blog post What is going right: Mob Programming Benefits (Part 1) because I know there are and will be more things going right because of Mob Programming. As of right now, I have been mob programming for just under a year. So for part one, I wanted to explain two of the major factors that are going right in mob programming.

  1. Idea sharing leading to learning
  2. Building strong teams

There is so much more that comes with mob programming, but I want to stick to just two for now. I plan to expand this list greatly but just want short and sweet post for now.

Idea sharing leading to learning

If you are not learning, you are falling behind. Learning should never be undervalued.

With mob programming, you are learning daily. You have the brains of 3, 4, 5 or more developers all being shared. Woody Zuill’s one sentence explanation of mob programming describes the learning perfectly, “All the brilliant people working on the same thing, at the same time, in the same space, and on the same computer.”

All the brilliant minds are developing ideas, they are sharing those ideas with everyone. Even if an idea is not entirely thought out it is shared. With all the other skilled developers around you, something great can be built out of your idea. Sharing ideas to boost learning is one of the biggest things going right with mob programming.

A great feeling I have gotten many times while mob programming has been stating an idea to a solution I had that did not solve the whole solution but only part. As soon as I described the idea to the team other members jumped in being able to solve the pieces I had struggled to solve. I learned how to solve the full solution by presenting my partial idea.

Sharing ideas to boost learning is one of the biggest things going right with mob programming.

Building  Strong Teams

I have had some of the strongest and most cohesive work teams due to mob programming. The idea of working with the same people 8 hours a day every day may scare some people. But the safe environment we create at work where ideas, even bad ones, are accepted and thoroughly thought through makes a good team.

By spending so much time with the same people, I learned a lot about them. I was able to learn what specialties they have so I knew where I could get specific knowledge if needed. I have even able to pick up on the idiosyncrasies of individuals, so I knew when the right time to coerce ideas out of them in a safe way was or when to be quiet and let them process ideas in their own head.

Spending so much time with everyone on a team built strong work and even personal relationships. We easily learned about each other and with each other. I know I was nervous in the beginning about spending day after day working with together in a team, but it really has been an amazing experience so far that I look forward to every day.


Stay tuned for more short “What is going right” posts.


The Basics of the Alexa Skill IntentSchema

In this post, I will describe the basics of designing and working with the IntentSchema for an Amazon Alexa skill. To provide some context, an Alexa skill can have multiple intents. Each intent is a specific action within the skill.

Imagine we have a calculator skill. The user can ask Alexa to add or subtract two numbers. The skill would be the calculator and the two intents would be adding and subtracting. The intent schema comes into play because we are allowing the user to add or subtract any two numbers. We use the IntentSchema.json to prepare Alexa to accept those two arguments. Note: The programming idea of an argument is referred to as a slot in the Alexa world, I will refer to them as slots for rest of post.

For our addition and subtraction intents, we would need to define two slots for both of them the first number and second number in the calculation. See below the intentSchema.json currently with only the AddIntent slots defined in it.


You can see in the json that we have two individual slots (firstNumber & secondNumber). Each has a name and a type attribute these are required for every slot that you define.

	"intents": [{
		"intent": "AddIntent",
		"slots": [{
			"name": "firstnum",
			"type": "AMAZON.NUMBER"
		}, {
			"name": "secondnum",
			"type": "AMAZON.NUMBER"
	}, {
		"intent": "SubtractIntent",
		"slots": [{
			"name": "firstnum",
			"type": "AMAZON.NUMBER"
		}, {
			"name": "secondnum",
			"type": "AMAZON.NUMBER"

Above is an example with both of our intents defined inside of the intentSchema.json Notice slots within the same intent must have unique names but slots inside of a different intent are within a new scope.

All slots must have a defined types. Amazon has some default types that you can use for your apps. These types are the most common:

 Slot Type  Description
 AMAZON.NUMBER  Able to recognize numbers and convert then to integers. Example: Two converts to 2
 AMAZON.TIME  Converts times into programmable values. Example: “Set alarm for seven pm”. Converts to 7:00 or 18:00 depending on settings
 AMAZON.DURATION  Able to change durations into usable values Example: “Set alarm for 45 minutes”. Converts to PT45M
 AMAZON.FOUR_DIGIT_NUMBER  Recognizes 4 digit number sequences like years and converts them. Example: “Wikipedia war of eighteen twelve” converts to 1812.
 AMAZON.DATE  Converts dates into usable formats. Example: “What is the weather today” converts to what is the weather for 2017-3-2

If you find yourself struggling with understanding what the above types do and how they handle user input. Make sample apps and look at what Alexa returns as the data. It is useful to see the real world conversions that Alexa does.

The intentSchema makes Alexa powerful because it can make your skills more dynamic, in that you can accept all types of input from the user. It is possible to build custom slots as well as lists to really build out your skill. I will make a post in the future about these advanced topics.

The Components that Make Up an Alexa Skill

This post will give the big picture on the components that make up an Amazon Alexa Skill. It will contain next to no code. But will introduce you to the pieces and terminology used in the Alexa world.

First, let us start what an Alexa skill is. The skill is essentially an action or function that your Amazon Echo device will perform. A skill is invoked by asking Alexa a specific phrase.

Examples of skills would be

  • Alexa, what is the weather today?
  • Alexa, where is my stuff?
  • Alexa, will it rain today?

At a very high level, each of these phrases invokes a skill where Alexa will parse the words. The words are then sent to a predetermined function (set of code) in the cloud based on what the phrase was, the function performs a series of actions, then a result is returned back to your Echo device. This high-level flow is the same for all skills. Let’s dive in and get into the details of how this process works.


The main components that make up Alexa Skill:

  • Utterances
  • Intent Schema
  • AWSLambda

Utterances (text)

As I said above you have to speak a specific phrase to your Echo device in order to invoke the skill. These phrases are called utterances. Utterances are contained in a simple text file. They are the phrases that Alexa is on the lookout for and if she recognizes a user’s phrase as an utterance she knows what action to perform.

AddIntent what is 2 plus 2
AddIntent add 2 and 2

SubtractIntent what is 5 minus 2
SubtractIntent subtract 5 and 2

The first words you see AddIntent and SubtractIntent are individual intents within a skill. Skills can have more than one intent. And in the case above it has two intents. Essentially an add and subtract. Right now the skill is extremely basic and only capable of recognizing the above hard-codes phrases.

So that is very basic and we want our users to be able to add and subtract any whole numbers. For that, we need to tell Alexa to expect any number. We do that by still using our utterances but also combining that with and intentSchema file. Here is an example of an utterances file allowing for the addition of any two whole numbers.

AddIntent what is {firstNumber} plus {secondNumber}
AddIntent add {firstNumber} and {secondNumber}

SubtractIntent what is {firstNumber} minus {secondNumber}
SubtractIntent subtract {firstNumber} and {secondNumber}

Our utterances text file now contains placeholders instead of hard coded values, great! But how is Alexa supposed to make sense of {firstNumber} and {secondNumber}? That is where the intentSchema json file comes in.

Intent Schema (JSON)

The intentSchema provides meaning to our variables. Instead of variables, amazon calls them slots so I will refer to them as such. Each slot is filled by whatever the user says. If the user asked, “What is 10 plus 5”. Alexa would know that 10 refers to firstNumber and 5 refers to secondNumber.

Here is an example intentSchema.json file.

    "intents": [{
		"intent": "AddIntent",
		"slots": [{
			"name": "firstNumber",
			"type": "AMAZON.NUMBER"
		}, {
			"name": "secondNumber",
			"type": "AMAZON.NUMBER"
	}, {
		"intent": "SubtractIntent",
		"slots": [{
			"name": "firstNumber",
			"type": "AMAZON.NUMBER"
		}, {
			"name": "secondNumber",
			"type": "AMAZON.NUMBER"

By using the utterances.txt and intentSchema.json together our Echo device is capable of understanding whatever number a user says. Alexa knows to expect any potential number in our slot firstNumber and secondNumber because we match the same name and give it an Amazon.Number type.

I do not want to get too detailed right now into the intentSchema files but they are a powerful method for gathering dynamic user input for your skill. Expect more posts in the future getting into the more powerful aspects of the intentSchema file.

Amazon AWS Lambda

Now that we have Alexa understanding what a user says. We need to tie that together with our function in the cloud to actually do some processing based on what the user said. We create an AWS Lambda function for this.


“AWS Lambda is an event-driven, serverless computing platform provided by Amazon as a part of the Amazon Web Services. It is a compute service that runs code in response to events and automatically manages the compute resources required by that code.”

The lambda function is connected to our particular skill so the event that causes it to fire is the user says a specific utterance that Alexa was expecting. Alexa creates a json object based on the users phrase, the lambda function performs actions on data inside of the json object, and last it creates a json object of its own to send back to Alexa as a response. It is your responsibility as the developer to write a lambda function to do the processing and creation of json object to send back to Alexa.

This json object sent back to Alexa will contain the response for Alexa to repeat back to the user. This whole process happens very quickly. As long as your lambda function is efficient and does not need to do a lot of computing you should be able to get your response back within a second.

Currently, functions for AWS Lambda can be written in Node.js (JavaScript), Python, and Java (Java 8 compatible), as well as C#. Also, it is very noteworthy to know that as of right now Alexa skills can only be hosted on US East (N. Virginia) and EU (Ireland) regions. Lambda functions for other purposes can be hosted in many other regions but if you are creating one to be used with an Alexa skill it must be hosted in one of the mentioned regions.

To bring it all together there are three major pieces that make up an Alexa skill. We have the utterances, intentSchema, and the AWS Lambda function. Expect a more technical guide very soon on how to create your own Alexa Skill. If anything confused you in this article feel free to leave a comment and I can clarify.



Palomar Mountain Snow Hiking

Friday at work and no plans for Saturday. So I started asking around and seeing what coworkers were planning. I honed in on plans with Tom, snowshoeing up at Palomar Mountain! It had been pouring rain by Southern California standards for the past few days, so we were hoping for a good bit of snow on Palomar Mountain.

Palomar Mountain peak sits at 6138 feet. It is one of the closest mountains to San Diego that has the potential for real snow in the Winter months. Weather reports expected snow above 5000 feet, so we had ideas of lots of snow in our minds.

We set off early Saturday morning in Tom’s Subaru up towards Palomar Mountain. The drive out was amazingly green. With all the rain we had been having the valleys and hills were green with life. Yes, it was mostly shrubs and grass, but for Southern California, this is some of the greenest I have seen the valleys in a while.

We pressed on and made our way towards Palomar Mountain. We were a little disappointed at first as we came up the mountain road because we barely started to see patches of snow at 5000 feet and only solid snow around 5500 feet. Even then the snow may have only been 2 to 6 inches deep. We pressed on though and went all the way to the gates in front of the public parking area for the observatory. The observatory parking lot was gated off so there really was nowhere to park. We got out of the car anyway and enjoyed the crisp cold air on Palomar mountain for the first time that day.

From end of South Grade Road before observatory parking lot

The air was frigid, and the clothes I had on were from when it was still 60 degrees earlier that day back at home. I quickly put on my warmer clothes and began to romp around in the snow. This spot we were at was highest elevation point that is most readily available by a car. And even here the snow was not too much more than 6 inches thick. The second sad part was we were not even allowed to park here so we would have to go down in elevation before we could park. Which only meant less snow.

Still, we went down the mountain and ended up parking at the entrance to Fry Creek Campground. The campground is closed during the Winter months but still is a fun spot to explore. It is almost like a winter ghost town filled with camping sites. The snow just shallow enough where snowshoes would be a burden and just thick enough where it made it mildly difficult to walk without them. We decided to do our hike without the snowshoes and not even bring them with us.

We started walking up the snow-covered road into the campground. Our first stop was the sign designating all the camping spot locations, and we noticed a trail that went around the entire campground. We headed out the find the trail. It was a snow covered trail but ultimately not too difficult to find. The snow fell in a pattern where the snow was flat where the trail should have been. We followed the flattened snow around the camp.

Trail sign in Fry Creek Campground

It was a little serene to be hiking a snowed over a trail that had no previous footprints on it. We were almost blazing the trail for ourselves. The fresh crunch of snow under each footstep was great. It became apparent that this trail was not meant to be used during the snow or rainy season as it went right through multiple waterways. We found ourselves hopping and jumping through a few water covered areas.

Stream crossing along the trail

A very surprising thing we noticed were ladybugs. Yes, ladybugs. I saw a large clump of red stuff on a tree. I had not seen anything like it before, so I went in for a closer inspection. The red stuff were dozens of ladybugs. They must be hunkering down for the winter trying to hold out through the cold temperatures waiting for spring. I never would have expected to see lady bugs up here this time of year especially so open to all the elements. They must hibernate this time of the year.

Ladybugs bunched up on a pine tree

After about a mile of walking on the trail and losing the trail a few times, we found ourselves at the very end of the campgrounds. It was a great spot to take a break and enjoy the solitude of having the entire campground to ourselves.

We had some great conversations together talking about work, politics, and even a bit of the future of technology. This definitely was a great thought provoking setting. As we rested and talked, it began to rain. Or so we thought it did. We had been standing under the trees and drops of water were falling on us. I walked around a little to enjoy the rain, and to my surprise, in the open areas with no trees, there was no rain. So it was not actually raining, but the snow stuck on the branches of the trees was melting, and it came down as if it was raining.

After a good rest and good conversation, we headed back. We did not head back the same way we came but decided to parallel a stream. We did not have a good idea of where it would lead us but if all else failed we would just follow it back up. Surprisingly though it led us to a road covered in snow. We followed the road assuming it would take us back to the campsites.

Indeed it did. We were actually back very close the entrance of the camping area in no time. We decided we did not need to hike too much more so headed back towards the car. It was an enjoyable hike walking on snow with no tracks and blazing our own trail at times. There was plenty of snow around to be fun and get your boots soaked and feet cold. There was even enough snow for some decorated snowmen that someone had made earlier in the day.

Snowman in Fry Creek Campground

That ended our exploration of a snow covered Palomar Mountain. It was a satisfying trip. There was plenty of snow to make the trip fun. And some good company never hurts.

Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves Borrego Springs

Part two of the Winter 2016 camping trip was the Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves in Anza Borrego State Park. This is one of my favorite spots to explore in Anza Borrego. One of the main reasons for that is you can really get some solitude. Only street legal vehicles are allowed in this part of the park, so you do not have to worry about dirt bikes or quads tearing through the area.


  • Get yourself to the S2 either from the 78, 76, or 79 depending on where you are coming from.
  • Take the S2 until right about mile marker 43
  • Take the dirt road on your left named Vallecito Creek for 4.5 miles
  • You will see a small sign for Arroyo Tapiado Wash you will make a hard left here
  • Follow the wash, and you will begin to see signs of caves and canyons shortly

Note: Putting Arroyo Tapiado Mud Caves into Google maps and having it route you works perfectly. It even navigates you very well on the dirt road portions. Also, the trail is sandy and has some spots where high clearance vehicles are preferred. We drove out there in two F-150s and a Subaru Crosstrek with no difficulty. We saw a Honda Oddessy on the trail as well. We were very surprised by that and would not recommend that, but hey someone did it.

When we made it to the Arroyo Tapiado, wash and saw our first sign of a cave we parked the truck and ran for it. We were at Bat Canyon looking to find Cool Cave. Before leaving for the trip, I loaded my GPS up with the routes of all the caves. I found the GPS download here http://ropewiki.com/Mud_Caves_(Arroyo_Tapiado). Some of the caves are much easier to see than other from the main wash so having them on GPS made them easier to find, and also we were able to put a name to the canyons and caves we were exploring.

As we made our way through Bat Canyon, we quickly spotted the cool cave. When I hear the word cave what often comes to mind is a big pitch black open space. For some reason, I think it is big opens spaces. Cool Cave is the exact opposite. It is a cave that you must basically shuffle your entire way, though. I have never been a fan of tight spaces, and this one was on the smaller side. I went back probably only 40 feet while Charlie went about 60 feet back into the cave. He did not see an end.


Entrance to Cool Cave in Bat Canyon


I know I was at the mud caves so I should be prepared to go in some small caves but damn this one was just a little too tight. The first thing I noticed though upon entering the cave was the drop in temperature. The caves are much cooler than outside in the open desert. It makes for a nice escape from the direct sun beating on you in the desert.


Inside Cool Cave


After making it back to the cars, we decided we would set up camp before exploring anymore. The last time we made a trip to the mud caves in 2013 we chose a camping spot far down the wash away from most of the caves. We had chosen that spot last time because it was a busy time and most other good spots had been taken. This time there was almost no one on the wash, but we still decided to camp ways down. We liked the idea of being away from everyone and having a spot all to ourselves.


Our campsite just before sunset


After setting up camp our friend who we were waiting for quickly joined us. It was getting into late afternoon at this point, and sunset was just about 2 hours away. We had to make a decision if we wanted to quickly jump back into our vehicles and explore some caves or finalize camp set up and play some games around camp. We opted for the later and begin finished setting up camp.

The first thing I decided to do was set up the model rockets to be launched. No one else in the group has had much experience with model rockets so when I said I would get this tiny balsa wood rocket up 1000 feet in the sky everyone looked at me like that would never happen. I loaded up the rocket and strapped in the biggest engine I had with me a C6-7. So 6 seconds of thrust then 7 seconds of delay before the pop and parachute comes out.

This was our first rocket launch of the day, and it did not seem too windy well at least no wind on the ground. So we pointed the launchpad straight in the air and hoped for the best. Bummer the darn battery launchers were dead. Seems old batteries were left in the launchers and had created some nasty corrosion. After a little bit of moping around camp, I got to thinking we would not be able to launch any rockets. I thought to myself “we don’t need the launcher, all it does is send electricity down the wires.” So I ripped the wires out of the “safe” battery launcher stripped the ends of the wires and grabbed a 9-volt battery I had brought along.

WOOOOOOSHHHH!!!! That rocket took off well like a rocket. It kept going, going, then went some more and then….gone. The faint black speck in the sky seemed to have disappeared. There is no way of telling but that rocket must have gone at least a 1000 feet up if not more. Our calculations on pointing the launch pad were a little bit off. It went FAR towards the West. There was no way that rocket was going to be found.

I brought a handful of rockets, so we still had plenty to play with. We some of the heavier cardboard and plastic rockets. Still with big engines but because they were so much heavier they did not go as high meaning we actually could see them float back down to earth and retrieve them. I think our best idea though was nighttime rocket launches. We strapped a few glow stick bracelets to one of the larger rockets and let it fly. It landed surprisingly close to camp and was retrieved in minutes.


Sunset in Anza Borrego State Park, Mud Caves


Evenings and nighttime in the desert are some of the best. As the sun goes down everything gets much quieter then the night comes to life! It gets so much darker in the desert bringing the night sky to life. Night time also means big fires and hanging out talking with good friends. We spent our night warming up next to the campfire exchanging stories and looking up at the night sky enjoying the stars. I had purchased this great used washing machine drum off someone who had welded legs to it. Above ground campfires are required in Anza Borrego State Park, and this was perfect. A large number of holes in the drum meant high airflow for the fire.


Our campfire blazing!


At nightfall we decided to go for a night offroading trip. We had not gone any further into the wash than our campsite. We decided a trip further up the wash was in order. We hopped in our trucks and made our way up. Our buddy with a light bar in front made for easy riding. We went at maybe 2 or 3 miles further up the wash until it got a little tight for the trucks. Maneuvering the turns and corners was possible but getting back out if we went too far was a little bit of a mystery. We decided to head back and get back to our warm fire.

Once it came time for bed I was excited. I got to sleep on my cot out in the open. All I had to do was open my eyes and I had the milky way shining above me. Little scary when I would hear rustling sounds around me but I made it through the night. Having a 5F degree sleeping bag kept me more than toasty throughout the night.

We all woke up early and well rested. The clean desert air makes for great sleep. Weather reports had stated it may rain today so we wanted an early start to hopefully be able to explore at bit before any major rain started. Nothing worse than being in a cave formed by rain while it is raining.

We headed down the wash and found Blind Cave. We did not know what to expect but started our way though. This cave was a little wider than Cool Cave but not by much. We pressed on. We pushed forward to what felt like maybe 150 to 200 feet into the cave. It is very difficult to determine how far you have gone in when you have no perspective of anything else. But after not too long we saw a light at the end of the cave. We crawled out the hole and found ourselves in a low point surrounded by 30 foot mud hills. All the water must collect in this spot and go down the hole forming the cave. We crawled back in the hole and made our way back. Seemed shorter on the way back, that always seems to be the case though.

We were able to do a little more exploring that day. Going down a few canyons. We went through Big Mud Cave which seemed to be more of a canyon rather than cave. The canyon had some covered wall spots but still nothing too cave like. While hiking through Big Mud Cave though it began to rain. Our trip was cut a little short due to the rain. We were in canyons and caves where rain runs and camped in a wash where the rain runs. All signs pointed to we should get the hell out of here.

We had not torn down camp before leaving to explore the caves so in the rain we quickly dismantled everything and threw it all into our vehicles. It was a little saddening having to leave so quickly and rush to get out of there. It was a beutiful park with tons of exploring left undone.

We will be going back to the mud caves again!


  • Never go in the caves alone, always bring a buddy, and even better have someone who is not going in caves know where you are going
  • Never go in the caves while it is raining or after their has recently been rain

Things to bring/plan for when going to the mud caves

  • GPS with routes of caves loaded onto it
    • http://ropewiki.com/Mud_Caves_(Arroyo_Tapiado)
  • Headlamps so you have two hands to stabilize you while in caves
    • Emphasis on plural, if one light goes out you do not want to be stuck without one in the cave
  • Bandana or Neck Wrap – it gets dusty in the caves
  • Lots of water – Bring too much water
  • Gas in vehicle – there are no gas stations out there


Palm Canyon Backpacking Trip

Charlie was coming into town so you know what that means, a camping trip needed to be planned! We decided we wanted to do a combination backpacking and car camping trip. Being late December we knew this is one of the best times of years to be camping in the desert. We ended up deciding on going to two different desert spots that we had ventured to before but it had been at least 3 years since we had last visited either of them.

Our trip would start with a one night backpacking trip into Palm Canyon just outside of Borrego Springs. This had been our usual backpacking spot in previous years that we had taken on new years so we felt this was very fitting.

We arrived at the trailhead; roughly 9 o’clock AM. The parking lot was just about empty. We did some last minute packing, got our packs situated, and made sure we had plenty of water. One of our favorite parts of this hike is the stream that flows through the canyon. We have in the past and would end up filtering water from the stream this time but it is always important especially in the desert to carry too much water.

Final check of packs before hitting the trail

The hike we were about to embark on should not be too bad 1.5 miles to the oasis, our plan after that was to follow the canyon up a bit more till we found a good spot to camp. We were each carrying roughly 35 pounds on our backs so we were not expecting too much difficulty.Following a defined trail through a wash and eventually into the canyon we set off on our adventure. Along the trail, you will find posted markers with numbers on them. These numbers correlate with descriptions found in the trail guide. They provide insights into what you are looking at and describe some of the history of the canyon and the Indians that lived in the area in the past.

Following a defined trail through a wash and eventually into the canyon. Along the trail, you will find posted markers with numbers on them. These numbers correlate with descriptions found in the trail guide. They provide insights into what you are looking at and describe some of the history of the canyon and the Indians that lived in the area in the past.

You will also find many cacti and loose rocks on the trail. Make sure to keep a sure footing and keep an eye out for the cholla cactus. Chollas are also known as “teddy bear” cactus. If you rub up against them the different limbs like to break off and hug your legs. So make sure to give them plenty of space.

Cholla (Teddy Bear) Cactus


Continuing up the trail we got to see big horned sheep. These animals can be quite elusive. This was my third time on this trail but the first time seeing sheep. The sheep are near impossible to see when they are not moving. Luckily one caught the corner of my eye as it was coming down the mountain. The only part that really stands out from the rest of the desert rocks is the white rumps of the big horned sheep. They do not seem to be scared of us at all. For good reason too their horns are huge. They were coming down from the steep mountains to graze.

After watching the sheep for 15 minutes we decided to continue our way up the trail. It was also about here that we had our first stream crossing. We were amazed at the amount of water flowing through the stream. This was definitely more than previous years. We had received a substantial amount of rain the previous week, this definitely contributed to the higher water levels.

The water never gets too deep but the rocks can be very slippery or even move under your feet when you step on them. It is best to wear waterproof boots when doing this hike because walking across the stream is required. Due to the higher water levels, we also found ourselves at times walking through the stream itself. After the first stream crossing is also when the trail starts to become less defined. Immediately after the stream crossing is fine but about another 250 meters ahead and you may be scratching your head as to where to go.

The first creek crossing

Luckily the palm oasis should be in your sights now so all you need is some determination to get to the palms and you will find your own way there. It is worth it to make it into the palm tree grove. Make sure to look up and get a spectacular view. It is amazing to think that a desert could support a palm tree grove and that you would find so much fresh water.

It is here that we stopped for lunch. This is where a majority of the day hikers turn around. There are miles of canyon left but this first big palm oasis and the main attraction. It is also where the main trail stops. If you want to continue you are essentially blazing your own trail. You will be on your own trying to figure out which way is easiest and will get you over all the boulders. This increases the difficulty of the hike 10 fold over the previous section.

Looking up at the palm trees

Make sure the stop and enjoy the many waterfalls around the oasis. They are fun to dunk your head in or just listen to the rush of water. Enjoy the views too, looking east will give you a great view of Borrego Springs. I also thought it was fun to see how unkempt palm trees look. The palm trees are kept natural and none of the old brown fronds are sawed off. It gives them a very interesting bushy like feel. It helps to support many different forms of wildlife such as birds and insects to keep the fronds on the tree.

Charlie enjoying the views

We hiked further probably only about a 1/4 of a mile from the oasis but we found a nice spot close to the stream where we could pitch our two tents relatively close to one another. We figured why hike too much further with our heavy packs on. Let’s set up camp and explore the area while we still have some sun. Note: Being in a canyon means the sun goes behind the mountains early. A little after 2 o’clock and the canyon is now in permanent shade. Nice on a desert day but also means it starts to get cold earlier than you expect. Make sure to dry any wet shoes or clothing while you can.

After getting camp set up we began to explore a bit. Jumping from rock to rock and getting up high for some good views. Now it is tons of fun jumping around the rocks and trying to get up high on the canyon. Just be very careful. It is steep and all the rocks are loose. Plenty of cacti to get in the way as well.

Above our campsite looking down on oasis

It got dark and cold quick in the canyon. Luckily for us, the low was only mid 40’s previous years it has gotten into the 30’s and damn that is difficult to deal with when you have no fire. I believe fires are allowed but they must be above ground in some sort of container. Also no wood gathering. All these things combined do not work well with backpacking. One of our past years we actually carried dura flame logs and had a fire in a big coffee tin but lots of extra weight for not a huge reward. We figured if we got too cold we would just huddle in our sleeping bags and call it a night.

Once it began to get dark we sat around camping talking and sharing stories. We essentially had the canyon to ourselves. The sky began to fill with stars. Looking up provided an incredible amount of stars. Living in a city I never get to see the true magnitude of the night sky. We saw shooting stars, satellites, the milky way, and a few unidentified objects. Still wondering what those were…

Hanging out at camp enjoying the canyon

Before heading to bed we decided we wanted to go on a night exploration up the canyon. We strapped on our head lamps and set off up the canyon. We tried to follow the stream as much as possible on our way up, crawling over boulders and getting our feet wet again in the stream. The night brought out some new critters that we would have never seen during the day. Our first encounter was a frog. I thought Charlie had just kicked a rocked and that why it moved away from his feet. Then it started to jump and jump. This could not be a rock but a frog!

Soon after the frog encounter we crossed the stream and I saw something dart around in the corner of my eye. It darted under a rock, so we began to investigate. It was a desert mouse. We had spooked the poor guy, he scurried away and was never to be seen again. Our night hike was a success. We saw some critters and got to explore more parts of the canyon. One of the most notable things we saw in the canyon was the narrowing walls. As we went further up the canyon the walls became steeper and steeper.

Frog found in Palm Canyon


We woke up early, before the sunrise the next morning. We wanted to catch the sunrise and see the canyon light up. It was a spectacular sight seeing the red rocks burst with an orange light from the early morning sun.

After our early wake-up, we made breakfast and started to take down camp. We knew we did not have too far of a hike back to our cars but we wanted to get an early start so we could start part 2 of our camping trip. The Arroyo Tapiado mud caves in Anza Borrego State Park.

On our hike down to our surprise, we saw even more big horned sheep. This time we saw a herd of four. I am not sure but it seems they like to travel in groups. The day before we say two together and now we saw a group of four. The group of four was in almost the same spot as the two we had seen the previous day. It must be a popular spot for the sheep. If you are crossing the stream for the first time about a quarter mile from the oasis and you turn to face north. This is where we saw sheep both days. Our palm canyon trip was truely great getting to see sheep both days. I could not have asked for a better trip or a better group of people to go on it with me.

The oasis is a spectacular spot.It provides an amazing look at the southern California desert. Wildlife, cacti, rocks, palm tree, water all tucked away in a beautiful canyon. If you find yourself in the area or are looking for an easy day hike or entry level backpacking trip this is a great choice.

Saturday 11/13/2016 Motorcycle Ride

This is my very first post talking about a ride I did on my 1993 CB750 Honda Nighthawk. I have had my bike now for maybe a little over a month now. After a full carb rebuild, the bike is running in tip top shape. It ran well beforehand but now it has quite a bit more throttle responsiveness. Now off the stop sign or stop light  the bike does not wait a second or so before taking off. The bike is beautiful and was amazingly taken care of by previous owners.

On Saturday morning I decided I wanted to go for a longer ride something about 50 or 60 miles. And with that, I also decided I want to take it for an overnight camping trip. I packed up the bike ghetto bungied on a duffle bag and set out. I was a little nervous about the duffle bag and saddlebags flying off or shifting around but no issues at all during the ride. 1112160854_HDR.jpg

I was on my way to Indian Flats campground just outside of Warner Springs CA. I chose this spot because I had been there before couple years ago, but mainly because the roads I would take there I was very familiar with. I did not want to worry about directions and getting lost on my first big ride.

The ride out was superb. The weather was perfect just little chilly which felt great while wearing the heavy touring jacket I have (Thanks Tom). The scenery was great as well. I had taken this route almost every weekend when I was camping with the Boy Scouts or heading out to the desert to ride dirt bikes. The 76 freeway is a grand route to take while riding a motorcycle. It was fun to see so many riders and even more for a decent amount of the 76 I was riding with a group of 5 other motorcycles.

I was soon at the 76/79 turn and got on the 79 headed north. I took the almost mandatory break at the turn off of the S2. I say mandatory because just about any time we were going out the desert we would park here regroup and stretch our legs. Having ridden basically non-stop from home up to this point my legs appreciated a little moving around. Catching the views from here was also a plus. I knew that there was not too much riding left till I got to the camping spot so I hopped back on the bike and continued on to Indian Flats.


As I rode down the road I saw the sign for Indian Flats while still going 60 miles per hour. It is a pretty easy turnoff to miss. Note to self if you are coming from the 76 up the 79 and reach the glider plane airport, you have already passed the Indian Flats campground turn off. So I turned around and this time made the turn. At this point it is a 7-mile single lane paved road (paved is a bit of an overstatement). It is paved enough just had to keep an eye out for potholes and occasionally stand up on the pegs when a big bump was up ahead.

I only met one or two cars along the way but the 7 miles felt a little longer than 7 miles for some reason. Probably because I had to keep my speed down for the most part. After riding into the hills for 7 miles the paved road leads you directly into the campground. There are 17 spots total and maybe about 6 of them were already filled. I set up shop in campground 11 because it was secluded and shady.


I set up my cot and sleeping bag, yes I did not bring a tent. I wanted to sleep under the stars. I was a little tired from riding out there so I went for a nice nap in the shade on my cot. Slept for about an hour feeling rejuvenated. It was 1 in the afternoon. I came to the realization that it would not get dark for another 4 hours and once it was dark I would not even be able to have a campfire because I did not have any wood (Hard to carry a night’s worth of firewood on a Honda Nighthawk).

What I wanted to do was RIDE! So I packed up everything back onto the bike and headed back out. First stop was a gas station, I just wanted to make sure I was all fueled up. So the 7 miles back to the main road and just a few more miles North and I was fueling up. I did not really have any plans as to where I would end up but I knew going back south on the 79 would put me in Julien. So Julien was my next destination. Back on the road riding through the hills and country was great!

Once in Julien I had forgotten how busy and cramped that town was. I had also forgotten how much of a motorcycle destination it was. There were lots of people everywhere and a HUGE line for the Julien pie company as usual. I did not want to stay in the crowded town so I kept riding. I knew Lake Cuyamaca was close so that was my next stop. I had not been to Cuyamaca in years so it was nice to revisit. The views on the way out to the lake were breathtaking as well.

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By this time I had to make a decision, should  I go back and hope to find a camping spot again at Indian Flats or head back home. I had everything I needed to camp but decided anyway that I would just head on home. I took a slightly different route back which led me through Ramona. Going down the hills outside of Romana was lots of fun. Then once at the bottom seeing the huge orange groves, you could even smell the citrus in the air.

On my ride, I had passed plenty of fruit stands. If only I had some more room on my bike I would have picked some up. But next time I ride out in these parts I will have to make sure to leave some room for picking up some farm fresh produce.

I was now pulling back into the main part of the city having to deal with stoplights and major roads. I enjoyed the ride, I put probably 150 miles of riding in that day. I still really want to go motorcycle camping in the near future and I am sure I will make a post on that. But deciding to keep riding instead of lounging around a campsite all day was my best decision!!


Arches National Park & Canyon lands National Park, Utah September 2016

This is a post to summarize my amazing whirlwind trip to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. My family and I took an extended weekend from Thursday to Monday in late September to visit these two parks in Utah. A great experience overall and a trip to finally check off my bucket list. I highly recommend doing both these parks and in one timeframe if you are planning on being in the area. From Arches, Canyonlands is a quick hour drive and well worth the different experience that Canyonlands provides. Canyonlands took us 2 days to explore well and Canyonlands we left many parts unexplored but were able to experience a lot in a single day.

Thursday started out with an early flight out from San Diego to Salt Lake City where we rented a car and started the 3-hour drive out from the city through the mountains and finally into the high desert. Arches sits at just over 4000 feet of elevation. The 3-hour drive goes by quickly and for us, it provided great views of snowcapped mountains and even some fall colors that I seldom get to see living in San Diego.

Upon arrival at Arches National Park, in late the afternoon we entered the park and saw a very busy visitor center. A quick stop at the visitor center to get some information from the rangers and we were off into the park. During our quick stop at the visitor center we also signed up for a ranger-led hike through the Fiery Furnace. Sign ups are done days in advance and sell out quick. I will talk more about the hike later. The entrance really is just a bit underwhelming since there are no arches actually in view. Incredibly tall walls of rock do line the roadway and are amazing but where are the arches? From the entrance, you drive up a windy road another 500 feet or so in elevation and are greeted by a valley with towers and one side and openness on the other. There are specific towers located in this area called the Courthouse towers. Definitely worth a stop to see from the many lookout parking areas along the road. We did not see any actual arches yet but we were determined to see some that evening.

Since we showed up late afternoon Thursday we did not have much time before nightfall and were not prepared for any night hike. Having sat in a plane and car all day though we needed to get out and hike something. We chose the ~1-mile round trip hike to Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint. From early on in the trail, you can get a glimpse of Delicate Arch in the distance. Even after getting to the end of the trail the Delicate Arch is still quite far away. It can definitely be seen but for any good pictures, zoom is needed. The short hike was nice but it left us wanting to see more arches, especially the iconic Delicate Arch up close.

View from Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint trail, no zoom, Arches National Park

After the quick hike, we headed back the hotel in Moab. I would recommend staying in the “downtown” portion of Moab somewhere between W 400 N Street and E 300 S Street just for the fact that you can easily walk to the touristy shops in the city and the local eateries. We stayed a little further out from town which was not a problem but the convenience of being able to simply walk out of  your hotel into town would be worth it.

Friday we got an early start and did a hike that was high up on my list, Double O Arch trail. The nice part about this hike is that lets you see many arches including, Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, Landscape Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch in addition to Double O Arch . Every arch other than Landscape Arch and Double O Arch requires a small hike off the main trail nothing further than half a mile and all the arches are well worth the side trip.

On the start of the hike we took the short trails to visit Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch. Both close to each other and both barely off the main trail.

About a mile into the hike, you hit the “primitive” portion of the trail. This trail starts just after Landscape Arch. From all the arches I saw during my trip this must have been the longest arch. It’s unreal how the arch is still standing. Infographics along the trail say pieces of the arch fell off in 1991 but the overall arch is still intact. The Landscape Arch was beautiful sight and I was excited to get on the primitive trail and get away from the more crowded graded trail.


Many of the hikes in Arches have primitive trails, which essentially means you are following cairns to keep you on trail. They are also more difficult trails requiring some scrambling and paying attention to where trail goes. The very start of the primitive trails is the hardest part of the Double O Arch trail so if you can get past it there should be no difficulty going the whole way. The primitive trail is not too difficult but does require a goo sense of balance and the ability to lift your legs high and pull your body up. The rocks are not slippery and foot holds are worn into steeper locations.

The hardest part of primitive Double O Arch trail, but really not too difficult at all, Arches National Park

I mentioned cairns above and these really are fun trail markers. Cairns are piles of rocks and mark where you want to go. The rangers at the park did not want to displace wildlife and put in many staked signs or build out standard trails throughout the park, it just is not feasible with all the rocks and elevation changes. Many staked signs would also disrupt the wildlife. It is recommended that when on the primitive trails you mark out the next cairn in front of you before moving forward. It can be easy to get off trail if you are not paying attention. Watch out for visitor made cairns but there really is no way to tell so just make sure that if you haven’t spotted a cairn in 50 – 100 feet you may want to go back to where you last saw one and make sure you are moving in the right direction. There are usually other hikers you can use to help keep you on the trail and the trails are heavily worn so it is difficult to get lost. But just keep in mind you are looking for piles of rocks ahead of you not trail signs.

Cairn found on Navajo Trail, Arches National Park

The views on the way from Double O Arch are incredible and way worth the taking the primitive trail to get the full experience of the park. If we had stopped at Landscape Arch we would have never gotten this view. 360 views of the whole park and long distance views going out for many miles into the surrounding desert. Couldn’t have asked for a clearer day

View along Double O Arch Trail, Arches National Park

Continuing along the trail is not too tricky but again just make sure you are keeping cairns in mind. The worn down trail is not hard to follow but if you are not paying attention you can get a little of course. Do not blindly follow the person in front of you because you think they know what they are doing. Make sure you are following and spotting the cairns yourself.

More views from along Double O Arch trail, Arches National Park

The 4.2-mile round trip hike, if no side trails are taken, brings you to the beautiful Double O Arch. It’s hard to choose a favorite arch but this is definitely in my top 3. Since the trail out to this arch is marked as primitive it is not visited or as busy as some of the other arches in the park. This arch formed with one large arch and another smaller arch forming underneath it. It’s amazing that these are still standing and have lasted so long. It looks like these arches should crumble and fall at any moment but they have been holding up for 10’s of thousands of years. They will fall someday but by then newer ones will have also formed.

Double O Arch, Arches National Park

On the trail back we stopped at Navajo Arch and Partition Arch both well worth the small side hike to get to. Navajo Arch sneaks up on you. It is hard to imagine that you are hiking to an arch when you are on the trail. You are following along a wall of rock for most of the trail but all of a sudden an arch pops up and it’s a nice big one. This is almost the same for Partition Arch. They both seem to be holes in a wall that really are not expected to be there. It’s incredible that such a solid and thick wall could erode and break down in such a way to build these arches.

Navajo Arch, Arches National Park
Partition Arch with a great view through the arch, Arches National Park

The ~7-mile trip we took with all the side trails to other arches was a great day hike and really tired us out especially since we were not used to the higher elevation. Since in San Diego we are basically at 0 feet above sea level.

We decided to make it an easy afternoon where we would check out the lookout points on the way back to entrance of the National Park as well as stop at Double Arch, North/South Window Arches, and Turret Arch for quick easy less than half-mile hikes. All three of these arches are very close to each other and accessed from the same parking lot. If you want to see a lot of arches and have very little time this is the place to stop. I could not have asked for better weather. We had amazing blue skies treating us to great views of the park.

Saturday, oh my gosh another beautiful day in Utah, was spent in Canyonlands National Park at the Island in the Sky region. With only a day there we still experienced a lot. The park is made up of many shorter hikes (less than a mile) and then many long hikes requiring all day or even multiple days. We took the route of many shorter hikes to get a good broad experience of the park in the day timeframe that we had.

The day started off the day with an early drive out from Moab which took about an hour. We arrived at the park and went straight to the Mesa Arch trailhead. Yes, this park does have some arches but Arches National Park is still the location with the highest concentration of naturally forming arches in the world. Mesa is a quick less than a mile round trip hike with a spectacular arch at the end of the trail. The view through the arch is incredible. We saw a large number of photographers heading back to the trailhead when we were headed out. This must be a top spot for photographers to catch the sunrise with the beutiful arch in the picture.

Mesa Arch Canyonland National Park

A short drive continuing own to the end of the road in Canyonlands brings you to Grand View Overlook Point trailhead. This is a fairly easy 2-mile round trip hike with somewhat primitive trails but all flat with little to no rock scrambling. The trail takes you along the edges of the canyon with some spectacular and scary views over the edge. Don’t get too close!

Edges of Island in the Sky trail to Grand View Point

The trail continues along the edges. One of the things that stood out to me the most was the fact that the trail does not have a posted end. But you sure will know when you are at the end because there is not another footstep further that you could take without taking what looks like a 500-foot vertical drop. It’s not like you’ll actually be able to do any more hiking without turning around. This is a popular trail, visited by many. We got a good spot on the edge of the trail where we could eat our snacks and be at the very edge of the Island in the Sky. We were lucky enough that on the way back a 10:30 AM ranger talk was just starting. The ranger gave details on how Canyonland formed as well as Arches. The biggest thing to understand from the whole talk was that this has taken hundreds of thousands of years to form and is ever changing. What you see today will not be the same as what you will see a day from now, week from now, month from now, and especially thousands of years from now.

The unmarked end of Grand View Point trail

Our Canyonland visit did not stop there, we made one more visit to Whale Rock trailhead. A super quick 1-mile round trip trail to the top of a large rock called Whale Rock with breathtaking 360 views of Canyon Lands National Park. The hike is almost entirely primitive with a good bit of rock scrambling at the end. But since it is only a half mile to the top of the rock its a quick and easy way to get to an amazing vantage point.

The start of the trail up to Whale Rock in Canyonland National Park

I cannot emphasize how beautifully blue the skies were that day and how incredibly far we could see in any direction from the top of Whale Rock. It seemed surreal to be able to stand on top of the rock and see for miles in all directions. It took all the worries away and left me feeling small on top of a huge rock sitting on top of a huge world. This would have to be my favorite view seen during the whole trip.

On top of Whale Rock in Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is a park where you cannot get the full experience in just a day but you can explore many features of the park. It is much less visited compared to Arches but something well worth the day side trip. I hope to in the future explore more of Canyonlands; maybe doing a backpacking trip into the secluded wilderness of the park. I can compare the park to a miniature Grand Canyon but really it is more than that with a lot to offer to even someone who only has a day to spend there. This is a lesser-known national park you need to put on your list to visit.

We headed back to Moab but since we still had a lot of daylight left we needed to come up with something to do. We decided to spend the afternoon exploring the canyons of Moab on a Razor 4 seater ATV would be the perfect way to get deep into the canyons, and I mean deep, ~20 miles into the canyons. As a rider of dirt bikes for years, I can say the Razor was fast fun and handled the bumpy, rocky, sandy terrain way too well. It really was built and made for this sort of desert terrain. We followed Chicken Corners Safari Rte turning into Hurrah Pass and continued on through some of the rockiest and bumpiest trails I have ever been offroading on. The views on top of the many mesas were gorgeous. We passed a lot of camping spots along the way of Chicken Corners Safari Rte which peaked my interest for possible spots to stay in for the future.

View along Hurrah Pass Moab with our rented Razor 900cc ATV

Sunday  we spent our time back in Arches National Park. We knew we needed to see the iconic Delicate Arch from close up so we started our morning pulling up to the Delicate Arch trailhead. The 3-mile round trip really is not too difficult. It is marked as primitive because of the nonstandard trail but can easily be done by a novice hiker. There is no rock scrambling involved but this is not a graded trail so it is marked as primitive. The hardest part is the climb up a massive rock but the elevation gradient of the rock is not too high and if adequate time is taken it is not too difficult to tackle. Even though the hike is only 3 miles round trip expect it to take a 3 hours total if you are not used to the elevation and not used to climbing uphill. We started early in the morning and got to Delicate Arch within 45 minutes but we took few breaks and kept pushing through the uphill parts. The pace we kept may not be ideal for all.

The trail is primitive but compared to Double O arch it is easy to follow especially since it is so popular. We made it to Delicate Arch at about 9 AM and there were not too many people there already but by 9:30 and 10 more and more people were showing up. Lots of people were taking pictures and getting underneath the arch for the perfect candid picture. I got lots of great pictures in this morning time frame, but signs and people told us that afternoon is busiest and best time for pictures. I can definitely see this as true since the sun will be in a much nicer position for solid pictures and less shadowing to dampen the photos but it was almost nicer to arrive at the arch without a huge crowd of people being there.

View of Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

The second half of Sunday was spent on a ranger-led hike through the Fiery Furnace. I highly recommend doing this hike. You have to sign up for the hike at the visitor center but only 25 people can sign up per time slot. We signed up Thursday when we arrived and the first available time was not until Sunday! So sign-ups are a couple days out but if the next available hike fits with your time frame sign-up! The hike is $16 dollars per person which is much cheaper than what the outfitters in Moab will charge you. The rangers will attempt to scare you a bit before signing up because the trails through the Fiery Furnace are very primitive so rock scrambling, jumping, and good balance will be needed. These trails can be considered harder than the one to Double O or Delicate Arch but still very doable by the average hiker. It really is not as hard as they play it out to be. Permits are needed to hike in this location on your own so I would highly recommend going with the ranger because of the nature of the hike. It woudl be very easy to get lost in the walls and caverns of the Fiery Furnace if you are not with a guide that knows where they are going.

Heading into the Fiery Furnace, Arches National Park

The hike starts at the Fiery Furnace trailhead and makes a small elevation drop to get to the base of the Fiery Furnace. The reason for the name is not actually that the area where the hike is super warm but rather the spires look like fire when the sun hits at the right angle (generally sunrise). Inside the Fiery Furnace it is actually very shaded and protected from the heat. The hike takes you through sections with 100 foot high walls either side that out of nowhere open up to grand views. The landscape around you changes quickly and often within the Fiery Furnace.

Make sure to watch out for areas with pooled water or areas that look like water could pool. These pools are known as Ephemeral Pools and can contain a plethora of life. Even when the pools are dried out, eggs of certain animals may be resting in the dried out hole waiting for a rainstorm fill up the pool and have their life begin.

The Fiery Furnace ranger-led hike takes frequent breaks so it may not go at the pace that you would normally go. But this is necessary since there will be 25 people total on the hike of varying skill levels. It takes you through more secluded areas of the park visited only by few others. The hike gives you a different perspective of the park that you cannot get from the other trails. I highly recommend this hike! This was the last and one of the most fun hikes of our trip. It was a great way to end a grand trip to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.

Monday consisted of heading back to Salt Lake City and getting on a plane to San Diego the even bigger city. Another early day and unfortunately it was our last. No hiking or national parks today just the drive back to Salt Lake City airport and a plane ride back home. The trip was a great success. I now have another check mark I can put on my bucket list.