Golden California may have a reputation for its sunshiny people, its endlessly long coastline languidly winding from Mexico to Washington, the fruitful wineries that checker the central realms and the drought which is currently transforming the countryside into 50 shades of brown. But for us the best moments were spent exploring the many national parks and the quirky metropolis of San Francisco. Get your wheels ready because this land is definitely made for road tripping.
Yosemite, possibly the most beautiful place we ever did see, will always hold a special place in our hearts. For me this was my first visit but for Chris his third. I had heard about Half Dome and El Capitan which are a big deal for rock climbers, I knew there was a valley and some great hiking trails and blah blah blah, but still I was not convinced.
On our road-trip in Shelley, our 1970’s Chevy van, I had my heart set on breezing through this Yosemite place that everyone raved about before legging it across the rest of the state to see the Grand Canyon. Of course we had planned to do a few hikes and take a few pictures but the canyon was the main event. At 55 mph, the top speed we were game enough to go in our old van, making it this kind of distance in the heat was going to be a feat in itself. So we made a deal, if Yosemite was mind blowing enough to satisfy me I would agree to stay a little longer and skip the Grand Canyon.
And skip it we did.
After just a few hours in the park driving through the valley and looking up at the sheer cliffs, visiting the famous view at Glacier Point and seeing the most epic sunset of my life, the Grand Canyon was all but a distant memory.
Five days later and it still felt too soon to leave. Almost every morning we dragged ourselves out of bed at 4 am into the freezing cold, wrapped ourselves in every kind of clothing, hat, sock and blanket we could find (socks make for excellent gloves by the way) and drove the two hours to wherever the view point would be today, just to see the sunrise and scenery from a new angle.
Our days were spent plying more or less the same route between our camping spot at Crane Flat, Yosemite Valley and Glacier Point always finding new places to stop at that seemed completely different than the day before. Many hours were spent alongside tiny rivers photographing perfect reflections of white rock facades peeking through the autumn tones of the trees.
Yosemite is far from being a palm lined, white sand tropical beach, but it is an entirely different kind of paradise. Everyday was an adventure and mission of discovery and no doubt at any time of year this beautiful spot will take your breath away. There are so many different areas to be explored that in a few days you will barely scratch the surface. Hiking trails traverse the length and breadth of the park for the more adventurous which no doubt uncover great hidden spots but we were perfectly satisfied taking things at a slower pace and admiring the nature and changing light from the nearby the road.
Even when you leave the park, the Tioga Pass has many gems awaiting as well. Many stop here briefly on their onward journey but this area is just as beautiful as the inside of the park. So plan to stay a while and enjoy every inch of this natural beauty.
Oh San Francisco, Paris of the west, the city in the fog. Everyone who visits is enchanted by the endless variation found around every corner. The dodgy underbelly of the Tenderloin right alongside the metropolis of the downtown financial district, surrounded by Little Italy and its offerings of pizza and gelato on every corner and the Mission sprinkled with taquerias and colourful street art through to the gay-fabulous Castro and hippy-centric Haight-Ashbury.
And then there is the Golden Gate Bridge. Different from every angle as you explore the city’s waterfront or she may be hiding behind a thick layer of white. This is an iconic landmark that truly lives up to its reputation.
San Francisco has so much to offer, from the huge variety of world class food in fancy restaurants to its simple street food and market stalls peppered through the different neighbourhoods, to the colourful architecture ranging from Victorian perfection to slightly run down and grimy with less than pleasant smells rising from the gutters.
This city has seen a lot of change, for better or worse but it is unlikely to disappoint. We loved it so much we came back twice.
This is a stretch of road that is likely to be different no matter how many times you have visited. After having seen photos of the sheer cliffs and ocean outlooks we were expecting a rather scenic road, especially driving south when you are at times teetering precariously close to the cliff’s edge.
But as fate would have it we ended up spending most of our time on the PCH driving through the fog.
Around Big Sur we were given glimpses of amazing rocky outcrops and a few gaps in the clouds where whales and sea lions were frolicking in the water – enough to make us fully aware we were missing something amazing. At some of the higher points we may not have been able to see much below but it felt like we were on top of the world. Standing on a cliff face looking out above the clouds, a perspective you only get peering outside your aeroplane window.
This in itself was a special experience but a later visit, sans fog and clouds, showed the real rugged beauty waiting to be discovered on this part of the Californian coast. The ongoing drought has turned most of the region into a palette of yellows and browns. Against the jagged grey cliffs that drop sheerly away and the blue of the ocean, this place is sure to win you over.
Most people drive through in a hurry on their way between LA and San Francisco, but if you are willing to experience it slowly their are many hidden corners to be found along the way.
Death Valley National Park has some seriously bizarre landscapes on offer, it almost feels like you are on another planet. It is uncomfortably hot for most of the year and far from being classically beautiful like say Yosemite, but it sure is a strange sight to see. Undulating golden sand dunes change day to day. The vast mosaic of clay pans parched and cracked under your feet. Jagged cliffs enclosing the valley in a rainbow of reds and browns. All dry as bone. But just over the mountain you are stopped in your tracks due to floods on the road. What?!
The road is as if the tar was just poured down to fall where it may, with every bump in the landscape reflected in the road. In a wetter climate this would have made for an excellent waterslide.
Visiting the lowest point at Badwater, located at 86 metres below sea level is a big tourist draw, but for us the most fun was found in a small oasis in the desert (Freya) and skateboarding along the dead straight roads through the valley (Chris).
Smack bang on the border between California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe is a skiers adventure land by winter and a hikers paradise by summer. With crystal blue water and mountainous alpine landscapes, what’s not to like? Wake to the sun rays streaming down the face of the mountains and see it set over the lake.
Driving around the lake is perfectly manageable in one day but you could easily spend days exploring the back country where you will really see what this place is all about. The road between South Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay is likely the most well trodden path with stunning views around every bend. But choose a trail and walk a little further from the road and you will be completely alone jumping across rocks alongside smaller lakes with squirrels scurrying nearby. Oh the serenity.
Sequoia National Park are the kind of place that makes you feel really insignificant. These aren’t just any old big trees. The are absolutely massive. Winding through these enormous, thousand-year old trees that you can barely see the tops makes you feel about as small as that ant walking across your boot. These are some of the largest living things in the world and make for a great stop on your way through California.
We visited in early December when neighbouring Kings Canyon National Park is closed for the winter and many of the side roads in Sequoia National Park aren’t cleared of snow and ice. But there was no stopping us from admiring the giant trees. And because it was off season we were alone in the park. We mean: completely alone. Not a campervan, car or tourist in sight. It was so quiet at times we almost felt like we were trespassing.
If you’re into skateboarding, bring a board and enjoy the pristine, windy roads and feel dwarfed by the giant trees while carving some turns. It’s definitely the best place and time for it.
Be prepared to stop frequently as the road through the park winds in at one end and comes out on the other so you’ll only ever see each place once.