A Test of Endurance: Backpacking to Sykes Hot Springs

“I need to figure out someplace to go this month over a long weekend. Any ideas?” I should know better by now than to ask my sister questions like this. Of course she has ideas. And they usually involve water. That girl is obsessed with waterfalls and natural hot springs. She suggested we try backpacking to Sykes Hot Springs in Big Sur. Lucky for us, we live close enough to one of the most beautiful parts of California that driving to Big Sur for just a weekend is totally feasible.

Now we are by no means experienced backpackers. But the trip seemed easy enough: 7 hour drive, camp the night, spend the next day hiking 10 miles to Sykes Campground, check out the hot springs, sleep, get an early start and hike the 10 miles back to the car. The grand plan was to get back to LA by 9 so we could go to the Tam o’Shanter to see one of our favorite bands, Waking Kate, play.

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We ended up leaving LA a little later than planned, but that was ok. Our only real objective for the day was to get to Big Sur and find a place to stay the night. And I am pleased to report the drive went off without a hitch, and we arrived in Big Sur by the late evening, maybe around 9pm? It was cold, but not too bad (we took this trip in late April). However, the weather reports for the weekend were looking bleak.

The morning proved the weather reports true: it was officially raining. It started out as just a drizzle, but by the time we finished packing, we were in a downpour. We somehow managed to get everything all squared away though, and after a quick stop at Big Sur Station to acquire a fire permit (required if you want to use a stove or start a fire of any kind while in the backcountry. Read fire restrictions here) and directions to the trailhead (located at the far end of the Big Sur Station parking lot. Overnight parking permits available at kiosks in the parking lot), we were ready to go!

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Luckily the rain let up just as we were starting our trek along the Pine Ridge Trail.The weather was decent, the sights were beautiful, and our spirits were high. That didn’t last though. It wasn’t long before the rain started again. And it didn’t stop.

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Within an hour we were soaked from head to toe, even though we were wearing rain gear. A rain jacket only repels so much water; eventually it couldn’t keep up with the amount of rain being dumped upon us.

Now this trail…I don’t know how we didn’t notice in any of our trip research that the Pine Ridge Trail is graded as strenuous. For a more experienced backpacker, or at least someone in really good shape, the trail probably wouldn’t be too hard. Sure there was a lot of elevation gains and losses, but there were also plenty of mostly level areas to help break it up. But we are not experienced backpackers. So the struggle was very real. And it was even worse in the rain. It took us around 8 hours to get to the campground. On the bright side, it finally stopped raining though.

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As you descend into Sykes Campground, you encounter a river- the majority of the campground is across the river. If you go up river a bit (to the right of the trail), that is where the river is the most shallow and easiest to cross. There is usually a rope set up to help hikers cross the river. The river is pretty swift moving, so be careful when crossing (it was also freezing cold). During times of heavy rains, the river is actually too dangerous to cross, so use your best judgment and maybe reschedule your trip if the weather has been too gnarly.

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We didn’t notice the rope crossing until after we forded the river on our own at a much deeper area. Live and learn.

Once you get across the river, the campground is a little farther up river (keep going to the right). Shortly you will see all the campsites lining the river. By the time we got there we were soaked, tired, freezing, starving, and every other miserable adjective you can think of. The temperature dropped to around 50 degrees, and we knew we had to get warm, fast. The fear of getting hypothermia was starting to become very real. Literally everything in our packs was completely soaked. EVERYTHING. At this point, we had no idea how to get dry or how to warm ourselves. I don’t think I have ever felt so completely helpless. we tried building a fire, but all the wood and twigs were too wet to light. It was time to break out the emergency blankets (thank you Mom and Dad for putting one in my Christmas stocking every year!).

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One of my favorite parts about the outdoors community is the sense of camaraderie. We are all out there for the same reason: a love of the outdoors and the thrill of adventure. A couple of backpackers just arriving to the campground saw our situation and realized we were in a bad way. They had extra dry clothes in their packs, and offered to let us borrow some for the night. One of the men even took a jacket off his back to lend us. If it weren’t for the kindness of these complete strangers, I honestly don’t know what we would’ve done. Essentially, they saved us.

So we made it through the night! The whole situation left us fiercely behind schedule, but we didn’t go through all that suffering to not see the hot springs. So we threw our original plans to the wind and went to find the hot springs before starting the hike back.

The hot springs are around a mile down river from the campground, on the opposite side of the river. But don’t use the same river crossing. Eventually the other side of the river becomes impassable. Stay on the same side as the campground until that side becomes impassable, and then cross to the other side. From there, you can follow a trail through additional campsites until you reach the hot springs. There is quite a bit of boulder scrambling involved, so you’ll definitely want to wear decent shoes. We kept wondering how we would know when we got there, but the hot springs are pretty hard to miss. The air starts smelling like sulfur as you get close, and the pools definitely look like little pools.

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And they are AMAZING! Nice and warm, but not too hot. There are three different pools: the first one you encounter is the smallest, and fits maybe two people. Keep hiking a little and then you come across the other two. If you look down towards the river, you will find the biggest pool, fitting around six people. If you look up, you will find the medium sized pool, fitting around four people. That is the one we used. Since we hiked to Sykes on a Friday, and reached the hot springs early Saturday morning, the pools were nice and empty and we had it mostly to ourselves. However, the hot springs get crazy busy during the weekend, so plan accordingly. I guess some people like to enjoy the springs in the nude, but I sure wouldn’t. There was all kinds of debris and junk in the water, and all the rocks in the pools were really slimy. I was glad to have a bathing suit and water shoes.

The rest of the trip went pretty smoothly, and I don’t have much to report. The weather was beautiful, and the clothes we were wearing dried quickly. The hike was so much more enjoyable! Or at least it would’ve been, if we weren’t still suffering from the mishaps of the day before and weren’t in a race against the sun, trying to finish the hike before nightfall.

We ended up hiking maybe the last 1/4 mile in the dark, and practically collapsed from exhaustion when we reached the car. The biggest downside to being so far behind schedule? We still had to drive home that night, after spending all day hiking. And since both of my travel companions have poor eyesight (especially at night), I had to drive the entire way home without any help or breaks. Yikes. We didn’t get home till after 4am. I guess having everything go smoothly would’ve made the trip more pleasant, but our adventure makes a far better story!

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Find additional information about Sykes Campground and the Pine Ridge Trail here.

The Most Beautiful Taco Bell in the World

Taco Bell isn’t exactly known for being a fine dining destination, and is definitely not a place to go out of your way to visit. However, the Taco Bell in Pacifica (which is about 20 minutes South of San Francisco) might make you reconsider.

The food at this Taco Bell is exactly the same as any other Taco Bell. But you don’t go here for the food- you go for the location.This particular Taco Bell is located right on the beach and features a wrap-around porch with ocean view dining. Follow the steps down from the porch, and you will be in the sand. The outside patio even features a walk-up window so sandy-footed, bathing suit clad patrons don’t have to get all cleaned up to go inside.

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This is the view from the outside seating area. Nothing like your average Taco Bell, that’s for sure.

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The idea of eating Taco Bell on a beach was too wonderful to pass up. But apparently we weren’t the only people who had that thought. The place was absolutely packed, and we waited in line about 45 minutes to order our food (tip: the employees seem to give preference to the outside walk-up window line, so you’ll get your food much faster using that one if the line inside is outrageous). In addition, the employees moved really slowly despite the huge line, and were very unapologetic about it. I would go as far as to say it was by far the worst service I have ever experienced in any fast food restaurant anywhere. So don’t go here expecting great customer service. Go here because it is funny, a very different experience, and you can get pictures like this:

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Ocean breezes and Taco Bell: what a delightful way to spend an afternoon! My only regret is that we didn’t have enough time to hit up the beach after. I would’ve loved to soak up some sun with a Mountain Dew Baja Blast Freeze in hand…

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The Taco Bell in Pacifica is located at 5200 Coast Hwy, Pacifica, CA 94044.

Summertime Fun at Pier 39

Few things make me think of summer as much as a visit to a pier. The cool ocean breeze, the scent of salt water and fried food in the air, and the sound of street performers, merchants, and happy people all around you…yep, definitely summer. There are dozens of piers along the coast of CA, but one of my favorites is Pier 39 in San Francisco.

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Pier 39 is filled with shops and restaurants, and there are always tons of street performers out in front of the pier playing music, dancing, doing magic, or demonstrating their artistic talents in some way. It’s like attending a free variety show (though the performers do appreciate tips!). There is even a carousel in the middle of the pier that kids (who am I kidding…adults too!!) will enjoy riding.

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The end of the pier provides the best views of Alcatraz you can get from the mainland, and you can also see the Golden Gate Bridge.

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Pier 39 even comes with complimentary wildlife viewing! Dozens of these guys hang out near the pier, and you can hear their barking from yards away.

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Look at those faces… they are just too cute!! I could easily spend hours watching them slide on and off of the docks, pulling their fat little bodies along with their flippers. It is cuteness overload.

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But of course no visit to a pier is complete without buying some saltwater taffy! The Candy Baron, located near the end of the pier on the first level, has tons of flavors to choose from, and you can fill a bag with any flavors you want (price is per pound). Hand selecting the perfect flavors is possibly even more fun than eating the taffy, even though by the time I got it home, I could no longer remember which flavors I had chosen. But that just adds to the fun, as every piece you eat becomes a mystery…

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Pier 39 is conveniently located near the harbor cruise docks, vintage trolley car stops, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Ghirardelli Square. It is just a few minutes walk between all of those destinations.

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For a complete listing of the shops and restaurants, as well as hours of operation, location information, and a schedule of events, check out the Pier 39 website. If you are looking for summery family fun in San Francisco, there is no better place to go!

Boudin Sourdough Bakery and Fisherman’s Wharf!

It seems like every trip I take to San Francisco ends up being a culinary tour of sorts. From fresh seafood in Fisherman’s Wharf, to Ghirardelli chocolate, to dumplings in Chinatown, the wide variety of food available in San Francisco will keep you feasting during every moment of your trip. Of course there are plenty of chain restaurants available, but I like to go to the places that are unique to the city by the bay. And so, I always end up at Boudin Sourdough Bakery, located in Fisherman’s Wharf.

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Boudin has been baking sourdough at this location in the wharf since 1849, and this bread is awesome. Since then, a restaurant and gift shop have been added to the bakery, but visitors can still watch bakers make the bread through demo windows, or take a tour of the sourdough museum and bakery.

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I usually get the soup in a sourdough breadbowl (which is absolutely fantastic) but when we were there this last time, San Francisco was in the middle of a freak heat wave. Definitely not soup weather. So I tried the sourdough garlic and herb pizza. And it was awesome!

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Of course one of the best parts of the visit is watching the bakers in action behind the demo windows… they make some of the cutest shaped breads! And everything looks and smells amazing.

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The bakery and restaurant is located in Fisherman’s Wharf, and it is easy walking distance to see some other cool San Francisco sites from there.

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The main cable car station is just a couple blocks away, but be prepared for a long wait to hitch a ride on one of these iconic San Francisco cable cars. The wait was over 45 minutes when we were there this past visit, and we couldn’t spare that kind of time, but if you can, do it. And ride it standing up, holding onto the hand rails outside of the car. It is totally exhilarating, and makes you feel like you are flying.

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These are some photos I took while exploring the wharf:

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There is so much to see and do in Fisherman’s Wharf. Tons of restaurants, shopping, and bars with live music. I have been all over this beautiful city, but Fisherman’s Wharf will always be one of my favorite areas, and I can’t go to San Francisco without stopping by.

For information on visiting Boudin Bakery at the wharf, click here.

The Original Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop

While the official “San Francisco Treat” might be Rice-A-Roni, to me, it will always be Ghirardelli chocolate. A San Francisco landmark, Ghirardelli has been producing some of the most delicious chocolate in the world since 1852. It has resided in its current location in Ghirardelli Square since 1893, and opened up to the public as an ice cream fountain and chocolate shop in 1964.

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Ghirardelli’s claims to fame are their chocolate bars and ground cocoa powder, but the reason I trek to Ghirardelli Square whenever I pass through San Francisco is for the ice cream. I have a deep addiction to chocolate sodas, and it is hard to find an ice cream shop that knows how to make them, and of those shops, no one does it better than Ghirardelli. (For anyone wondering, a chocolate soda is club soda, chocolate syrup, and chocolate ice cream, similar to a float. And more delicious).

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The ice cream shop is open late on weekends, but the place stays packed till the last minute. It was an absolute zoo in there when we stopped by around 10 p.m. on a Saturday night! The wait was long, and there was no place to sit inside the shop, but the ice cream sodas, floats, and sundaes are absolutely worth the mild suffering you must endure to get them.

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It is ice cream perfection.

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Even if inside the ice cream fountain is unpleasantly crowded, there is plenty of seating outside. The Ghirardelli Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop is located in Ghirardelli Square, which is comprised of specialty shops and restaurants, and is host to many events and live music performances. You could easily pass an entire afternoon or evening here.

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This factory/shop was opened during the gold rush, survived the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and is still standing today, serving up some of the best ice cream and chocolate treats you can find anywhere. By 1982, the government acknowledged the importance of the original Ghirardelli location, and added it to the National Register of Historic Places. As if you needed any more reasons to pay it a visit. A delicious treat and historic sightseeing, rolled into one!

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Original San Francisco location in Ghirardelli Square hours of operation, location, and additional information can be found here.

When Trash Becomes Treasure…

In Northern California, near the wine-country city of Mendocino, lies a beach that seems almost too surreal to actually exist. But it is real. The town of Fort Bragg is home to Sea Glass Beach- a beach where instead of sand, there is sea glass.

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When the town of Fort Bragg was destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1906, there was too much rubble and debris to burn, so residents began dumping their garbage into the ocean, expecting it to be carried away by the currents. But it wasn’t. Instead, the trash gathered in the bay and over time, the power of the ocean turned the trash into treasure.

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But in 1967 the North Coast Water Quality Board realized the dangers of dumping trash into the ocean, and put an end to it. Now, what remains of the former ocean dump doesn’t resemble trash at all. Rather, the old tail lights, beer bottles, lotion jars, prescription bottles, and soda bottles have become millions of pieces of sparkling sea glass, shimmering in the sunlight.

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The Northern section of Sea Glass Beach is protected by State Park Services, and therefore, visitors are not permitted to remove any of the sea glass. However, the Southern section is a public beach, and it is OK to take home a couple pieces as a souvenir.

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From Highway 1, turn west on Elm Street (Denny’s is on the corner) and drive a few blocks to Glass Beach Drive. There is a small parking lot, but you might have to find street parking. Follow the path down towards the ocean, and turn left when it forks. Soon you will see a staircase on the right leading down to the cove. This takes you to the public section of the beach, and admission is free.

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This really is one of those places you have to see to believe.

DSCN8897For more information on visiting Mendocino, Fort Bragg, or Sea Glass Beach, visit the Mendocino tourism website.

Phillipsville: Hobbits and Fried Food

One of my friends had memories of visiting Phillipsville as a child back in the 80’s. Back then, there used to be a short trail full of life-size scenes from JRR Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” constructed into the mountain, and my friend wanted to see if they still existed. As avid Lord of the Rings fans, we were all game to check it out!

Located in Northern CA along the HWY 101 just South of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, it was easy to find and perfectly situated to serve as a pit stop on our way to San Francisco from Redwood National Park. Information on the Hobbit Trail was hard to find however. We tracked down the location to this restaurant, The Chimney Tree Grill, which was perfect since we were all starving. We soon learned that the trail officially closed years ago, but some of the scenes are still visible from the road. So we parked our cars and went to see what we could find.

We started at the restaurant.

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I got these tasty deep fried jalapenos. Not to be confused with jalapeno poppers… these were just straight up fried jalapenos. They were good though!

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After feasting, we went to check out the restaurant’s namesake. The Living Chimney Tree is a hollow redwood tree (still living) that you can go inside and see all the way up through the top.

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Definitely interesting to see. And more importantly, it was free and right next to the restaurant, so we figured, why not?

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And then, it was time to find the Shire. You could see the beginning and end of the trail, but they were chained off and completely overgrown. There really wasn’t much you could see from the parking lot, but we were able to see a couple hobbit holes and the most frightening Gandalf I have ever laid eyes on.

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I mean yikes. Look at his face! It is the stuff of nightmares.

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Without a doubt, Phillipsville has got to be one of the most random and odd pit stops I have been to. So if you are in the area and are looking for a place to stop for food or a bathroom and want to see something more interesting than a fast food place, Phillipsville and the Chimney Tree Grill are a great choice!

I Love Weed (CA)

Far up North in California, resting beneath the shadow of Mt Shasta, lies the little town of Weed. Never ones to pass up a town with a funny name, my friends and I decided to stop by and pay Weed a visit on our way up to Oregon…

Not that you can really see it in the pictures, but this was my first time seeing Mt Shasta so I was pretty excited. Dang clouds. Though a shop owner we spoke to in Weed said the views are spectacular on a clear day.

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I love when stores take advantage of clever/funny naming opportunities!! Naturally we had to go in.

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The shop did not disappoint. It was filled with delightfully touristy souvenirs, emblazoned with Weed-related jokes and puns. Who can resist a baseball hat that reads “I Love Weed (California)”?

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For those who are interested in Weed as more than just a joke on clothing items, this shop does indeed sell supplies intended for the use of tobacco that you could use for enjoying the town’s namesake.

The bottom line, is if you need to make a pit stop on your journey through Northern CA, it may as well be somewhere with stunning mountain views and bad jokes all around you. A little humor sure helps during those long drives!

I will leave you with this picture of a magnificent iron dragon who guards the roads near the Oregon border. One of the many, many reasons I am a strong advocate for road trips!

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Enjoy Weed!

Pea Soup Andersen’s: California’s Best Split Pea Soup!

Velkommen to Pea Soup Andersen’s, home to the best pea soup in the state, possibly even the whole country! (ok, I have no evidence to support that, but as a lifelong split pea soup aficionado, I have yet to taste any that compares to Andersen’s).

A favorite stop of travelers passing through central California since 1924, Andersen’s now serves up over 2 million bowls of pea soup each year in their warm, welcoming, family-friendly restaurants located in Buellton and Santa Nella.

My parents brought me to Andersen’s as a child, and now, I can’t drive through the central valley without stopping for a bowl of all-you-can-eat split pea soup!
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Even if you are not a fan of split pea deliciousness, Andersen’s has a full menu to accommodate every taste. In my group of 6 travelers, only my sister and I ordered the pea soup, and the others all enjoyed their meals just as much as we did. Though in my opinion, if you order anything besides the split pea soup, you are seriously missing out. Not sure if you like pea soup? At least order a side bowl to go with your meal. You will never find better split pea soup than Andersen’s.

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Pea Soup Andersen’s Santa Nella
12411 South Hwy 33, Santa Nella, CA 95322
(209) 826-1685
Hours: Monday – Sunday 7:00am – 10 pm
(Adjusted hours on Christmas & Christmas Eve)
Pea Soup Andersen’s Buellton
376 Avenue of Flags, Buellton, CA 93427
(805) 688-5581
Hours: Monday – Sunday 7:00am – 10 pm
(Adjusted hours on Christmas & Christmas Eve)

http://www.peasoupandersens.net/

The Garlic Capital of the World!

The scent in the air announces your arrival before you even realized you’re there. The delicious aroma of garlic is all around you… welcome to Gilroy, the “Garlic Capital of the World” and home to the famed Gilroy Garlic Festival, held every year in July.

You don’t have to travel off the beaten path in order to experience all the garlicky-fun Gilroy has to offer though. One of the biggest garlic shops in Gilroy is located right off of the 101 freeway and provides everything garlic you could possibly want.

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Garlic World is an amazingly fun store. It even has the World’s Longest Garlic Braid! That, plus all the garlic arts and crafts on display, make Garlic World feel part museum, part grocery store. You can buy all sorts of garlic merchandise, and they sell garlic prepared in every way imaginable: minced, pickled, crushed, fresh, dried, stuffed into olives, cooked in sauces…

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And the best part is, they have a station where you can sample all the goods. Yes!! I came home with a jar of habanero garlic stuffed olives.

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But the real piece de resistance is the garlic ice cream. It sounds kind of weird, and in all honesty, it tastes kind of weird too. But you have to try it, if for no other reason than to be able to gross out your friends and family back home. The chocolate has a much milder garlic taste than the vanilla, but both leave you tasting garlic in your mouth for the next couple hours.

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So if your travels take you along the 101 freeway in central California, roll down your windows, take a deep breath, and spend a few minutes trying some of the best garlic in the world.

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Garlic World, 4800 Monterey Highway (U.S. 101), Gilroy, CA 95020, http://www.garlicworld.com/