With the rain pouring down we headed east, back the way we came into San Fran over the San Fran – Oakland Bridge, through the MacArthur Maze (which is the name for the mental interchange on the eastern side of the bridge which splits traffic onto about 7 separate freeways) and on to the 205 Freeway towards Mariposa and Yosemite.
The drive was long (3.5 hours) and uneventful. The rain followed us the entire way and only relented briefly whilst we went out to scavenge something to eat in Mariposa. Mariposa is a town about an hour’s drive from Yosemite National Park which actually makes it one of the closest and quite ‘country’. It’s an old gold town, has a few saloons and everybody more or less drives a pick-up truck. It’s fairly highly elevated and surrounded by nice scenery, which develops into very nice scenery the further you go towards Yosemite National Park.
We had a couple of nights booked into The Miners Inn motel, which was conveniently situated on the main highway which took you into Yosemite Valley. The motel was ok, but as with almost all the motels we’ve stayed in, the decor is dated and walls are paper thin so you can hear everything going on in the place. The breakfast though was splendid and I enjoyed copious servings of waffles each day we were there.
Up bright and early we quickly nipped to the local gas station where the country bumpkin store clerk fleeced me for some tyre chains (sometimes in the National Parks, the wardens will demand that all vehicles at least have chains in their possession and failure to do so can get you a fine) and we headed east into Yosemite National Park.
The Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and The Stanislaus, Inyo and Sequoia National Forests all make up the Sierra Nevada (which is Spanish for Snowy Mountains), which is a 500 mile or so long span of mountains, rivers, wildlife and forestry which runs down the east side of California bar a few stops on the east side of the mountain range separates California from Nevada. There is a really good documentary on Netflix (or at least there was) about rock climbing in Yosemite and the social communities which frequent the park during the summer months. This however is winter and I can only imagine how different the place is compared to the summer months.
Rather disappointingly California is experiencing one of its worst winters in decades (you may have heard on the news about the large dam in Northern California which is in danger of breaching and 180,000 people have been evacuated) so a lot of the areas we would have liked to have visited were shut off.
We made our way along the wonderfully scenic drive which takes you to around 5000 foot up into the mountains and to the Visitors Centre which is based in the heart of Yosemite Valley. En route to The Village we quickly jumped out to experience the sights and sounds of El Capitan. One of the Park’s renowned climbing sites and viewing sights (see pics below) The Yosemite Valley Village is remote and isolated and half of it is shut down during the winter. The snow it gets with being so high up just makes it impossible to maintain adequate road conditions and can prove dangerous if they let people trek into the wilderness. If you want to do any of the hikes in the winter, and there’s a good cover of snow, you’re required to wear snow shoes. From what we could see in between the passing of the low lying fog, the scenery looks amazing. Cliffs just rise up all around The Valley; very sheer and dominating, with thunderous waterfalls launching down into the rivers below. There’s an uplifting fresh aroma which is provided by the many pine trees and enhanced by the cold, crisp air. It’s a place which shouts “Christmas!” at you very loud.
We bobbed into the Visitors Centre to see what we could realistically do. Activity wise there was a very short, 5 minute walk to a large water cascade and we could also enjoy what the centre had to offer. It had a museum like place which was dedicated to the history of Yosemite, explaining why and when it became a National Park and provided a great number of artefacts which belonged to one of the indigenous Native American tribes which lived there. We got talking to Ranger Sheldon in the centre and his infectious attitude and smile made us feel much better about the dreary weather. We hopped over to the theatre which showed a movie (in which Ranger Sheldon actually featured) documenting the history and wildlife etc.
After spending a few hours moseying about we jumped back in the car and sped along one of the roads which were open to see how high up we could get. By this point some of the fog had lifted so we got to see some wonderful views of the valley en route to a snow playing area. We got to about 6800 feet and jumped out of the car to throw some snowballs about, but as Milly didn’t really have any appropriate footwear, we couldn’t venture too far away from the car – and it would have been silly to do so anyway because we were in the back of beyond. You don’t want to get lost in -3 degree temperatures when there are bears knocking about.
We had hoped that the weather might have improved for the following day so we could bob back into the Park to see if visibility had improved so we could go for a wander and see the Park’s main attraction, Half Dome. Half Dome if a dome shaped mountain (the Park’s largest) and from the photos we’ve seen (and the aforementioned documentary) the sight of it looks breathtaking. Unfortunately though, the sun wasn’t shining on us and we concluded that it would have been a wasted trip so we took to the road and worked our way southwards towards our next stop which was in a town called Three Rivers.
Before getting to Three Rivers, we took a detour east into the Sierra Nevada towards The Kings Canyon National Park. Very similar settings to Yosemite, but less famous, there were a couple of things we could actually do in this park. One of them was visit one of its many giant Sequoia trees. These trees are the largest in the world and the one we went to visit was the 3rd largest. The Grant Tree it was named and it was massive. Take a look:
It was 40 foot in diameter, they estimated it to weigh around 1,250 tons and its 1,700 years old. There’s thousands of these trees all over the park – the next park we went to was actually called the Sequoia National Forest – and they’re all enormous.
The only other thing which they’d let us do is visit a lake called Hume Lake. It was a good 10 miles or so from the visitors centre and took us over some dodgey summits, where the fog was so thick that you could barely see the road in front of you, but you eventually pulled through it and were given one of the most breathtaking sights of this trip of the Kings Canyon Valley. We made it to The Lake and we were the only people there. It was deafly quiet and resoundingly beautiful. The sun began to poke through some of the thick clouds and we had one of those moments (of which we’ve had a few) where we just looked and didn’t speak.
After a bit of time exploring the lake we started to make our way back through the park entrance but were abruptly interrupted by some cheeky wild deer. Milly was nearly at the point of crying and I have to admit there was a small lump in my throat too…. quite an amazing sight to see in this picturesque wilderness.
We then headed towards our destination for the evening, the voyage of which was elongated due to the main road out of the park being closed due to snow. We arrived though in the lovely town of Three Rivers which sits on the edge of the Sequoia National Park. We made our way to Casa Mendoza, a nice Mexican diner, which was advised to us by the motel clerk and we weren’t unhappy with the food, nice burritos and tacos.
Morning came and the weather was looking much more to our liking. We took the short, 15 mile drive, up towards The Sequoia National Park to see what activities could be available to us here. We got to the main gate and saw that the Park Rangers had raised the snow threat warning which meant snow chains were mandatory. Unfortunately, we had already returned our rental chains which we’d got in Yosemite (unused) and we didn’t fancy spending yet more cash on wretched things. We decided to turn back and leave the park behind. There was no guarantees that we’d be seeing anything new or even that anything was open up ahead.
The Sequoia National Forest visitor centre lay not far from our route so we nipped into see what was available to us in the forest. There was a nice lady working there who was jolly but didn’t really have much knowledge about what we were asking. She also had a huge spot on her chin which I was aching to squeeze.
We decided then to make a journey through The Sequoia National Forest through towards the next destination on the list, Ridgecrest. This was a long 5 hour drive as we decided on taking the more scenic route rather than the quicker route along the freeway.
The route was mental. It tool you up even higher than we’d gone in Yosemite and it turned out that chains we mandatory here too. The weather was looking threatening and we entered some dark, dark clouds around 7000 foot up and prayed we’d be ok. There was snow and ice all over the road and with the temperature being -4 degrees and not seeing another car on the road for about an hour, you could understand us becoming worries. If we hadn’t had been in a 4×4 I doubt we would have got over the summit. Even The Beast was struggling at points with its 3.5 litre, V6 370, bhp engine.
Over the summit, we descended out of the clouds and the views that met us were stunning, yet again. We made a little stop in the township of Kernville, which was situated at the northern point of Lake Isabella then headed on past the lovely lake on highway 178 which took us out of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Once out of the range the landscape changed with the click of your fingers. From large green pines surrounded by dark grey granite to small dry shrubs and cactus in a baron yellow desert landscape. It was a new landscape for us on this long holiday, one that we’ve yet to see but the lack of rain and cold was welcome.
Also, from windy mountainous road which were shouldered with snow to long (very bloody long) straight roads, cutting through acres unused desolate desert, the change of driving conditions were also welcomed. So welcomed that Milly took the wheel for a while and put a few miles in to get us to Ridgecrest.
Ridgecrest was a weird town. It’s a large town with too much space for its own good. It’s in the middle of the desert and it’s like because they have so much space available, they use it. Big spaces in between houses or shops. It’s probably got a population less than Marple but it’s spread out over miles of land; dry, desert land. Just getting to the supermarket was a 10-15 minute drive and this was supposed to be ‘around the corner’.
The motel was proper dodgey. There were a bunch of rum looking fellas hanging about it downing cans and looking lairy and the bolt on the back of the door looked like it had been booted off. The owners were nice though, an Asian couple who clearly struggled with their English. The sign on the front door spelt: “Wel Come”. “Another note on it saying: For the Protacton of our gests…..”
Tired from a day of driving about, we had a chilled evening and read on about our next day which we hoped would bring us some better weather – in fact the weather was more of less guaranteed – as we were headed to one of the hottest places on Earth, Death Valley.