Lisa G Saw
Back in the nineties I used to live in Southern California and during that time I ventured further north on a few occasions, but never spent any great length of time in Monterey or Yosemite. I was really keen to return and enjoy exploring these areas better with one of my friends. The idea was to have three main bases: in Monterey, Yosemite and the Sonoma Valley Wine Region, so that it didn’t feel like a road trip, constantly being on the go and living out of a suitcase. To an extent we achieved this, but the problem with America is they have a lot of space! It’s hard to avoid travelling long distances in between the interesting locations.
Things got off to a rocky start before we’d even left the country! For someone who travels a lot you may well ask yourself how I could have managed to pick up my old passport and not my current one, especially since the corners on both the front and back have been cut off! Nevertheless, it happened! Since we were at Heathrow and not close enough to home to just nip back, things weren’t looking good for me making the flight. My friend had to travel alone to San Francisco, something she wasn’t wildly excited about, and I reassured her I’d get there as soon as I could! To cut a very long story short, I did make it there via Los Angeles about 8 hours later, arriving after midnight! What I have to say is how wonderful the Virgin Customer Services staff were and it was thanks to them that my mistake only cost me £170! It could have been a lot more!
I didn’t properly relax and enjoy our holiday until the following morning! We took the scenic coastal route down to Monterey in our hire car. Unfortunately, the clouds hugged the mountains and the coastline for much of that time, only breaking occasionally to reveal the blue sky above. Along the way we stopped off at Ano Nuevo State Park and enjoyed a walk through the reserve to see the mass of Elephant Seals that bask on the beaches.
The following day we went on a whale watching cruise and saw quite a few humpback whales, including a mother and calf and also two adults travelling alongside each other, periodically lunge feeding – bursting up out of the water with their massive jaws agape and engulfing a lot of fish in one go. I’d never seen it before, let along heard of it, so was impressed by the spectacle and their huge size. After our boat trip we walked around the harbour and enjoyed watching the sea lions sleeping, playing and swimming in the sea. But sea otters were what I was really hoping to see and luckily enough we got chatting to a local who told us that we could see a large number of them at Moss Landing. He wasn’t wrong. I could have watched (and photographed) them for hours, but eventually we headed back to town for an early dinner!
On our last day in the area we drove to Felton, just north of Santa Cruz, to see a couple of the wooden covered bridges and enjoy a ride on the Roaring Camp steam train, which trundled up the mountain through the giant redwood forests. It was a glorious sunny day and also a good day to do the 17 Mile Drive around the Monterey Peninsula in the afternoon, stopping off at many of their scenic coastal lookouts. Once again, it was the wildlife that captured my attention. At one lookout there was a mass of brown pelicans on one of the large rocks just off the coast with a raft of sea otters nearby and playing around at our feet were ground squirrels aplenty, darting around the rocks and rolling around in the sand. We continued further south from Carmel and got to enjoy some of scenic coastal drive along Big Sur, but unfortunately the day was running away from us and soon enough we were driving in the dark unable to appreciate the dramatic coastline. I didn’t mind too much as I’ve done the drive before, but I felt disappointed for my friend that she didn’t get to see more of it. However, we just couldn’t do it all…as hard as we tried!
Instead of driving directly to Yosemite we decided upon the lengthy detour further south to Sequoia National Park. It was something I’d ummed and ahhed about. But, since it’s home to the largest trees in the world, we figured it was worth making the effort to see these giant sequoias and they didn’t disappoint. There was one we could walk through, another we could drive through, we even tried to hold hands round the base of one and didn’t even stretch around half of it! We also enjoyed the steep walk up Moro Rock to enjoy the fabulous views across the park.
Yosemite National Park was our next main stay. We had five nights in El Portal, just near one of the entrances to the park, which worked out much better for us. It was far cheaper, had good facilities and it never took us long to get into the park. It was peak season, so the park was busy, but we managed to get around fairly well all the same, since we either walked or used the free shuttle bus. We did all the accessible walks and a few of the more moderate to strenuous walks, which gave us the chance to really explore a lot of the main parts of the valley. I particularly liked Glacier Point, which overlooks a lot of the main waterfalls - Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls, Vernal and Nevada Falls - and the impressive Half Dome, which you need a permit to hike. Since it’s a full days hike and involves getting up at the crack of dawn, it wasn’t on our agenda on this trip, though one day I’d like to do it. We returned to the point one evening just in time to see the last of the evening light shine upon half dome’s flat edge and then stayed on to listen to the warden’s free star-gazing talk, which was fascinating and very educational.
One of our more memorable hikes was around Mirror Lake. We were almost half way around when we were warned, by others walking in the opposite direction, that the path was covered in water and we’d get wet if we didn’t detour and take a higher route. When we reached the flooded area we ended up scaling the slopes, clambering up over rocks and under a few branches. It turned out to be more of an epic adventure that either one of us had counted on, and there were times I was wondering where on earth we were going, which wasn’t good considering I was leading the way. I tried to follow where others had clearly walked but there were times it wasn’t very obvious at all. We kept edging higher and higher. If ever there were a time I didn’t want to see a bear, that was one of them! As it turned out, for the duration of our trip I never saw a bear and I have to say it was a little disappointing!
We both particularly enjoyed the more strenuous walk up to the top of Vernal Falls. We hadn’t planned to do it, but when we were standing on the bridge looking up to it, it didn’t seem too bad or too far and my friend was keen to give it a go. I was a bit apprehensive since I knew it involved lots of steps and I wasn’t sure my knees would appreciate the route back down again afterwards. However, we egged each other on and gave it a go. It wasn’t actually as strenuous but far busier than expected. Since the path was quite close to the waterfall there were times we got very wet from the spray. But, it was worth all the effort as the view from the top was great and I enjoyed experimenting with the slow shutter speeds to capture the movement of the water over the rocks (seen in one of the photos). Thankfully, coming down was not as bad as I’d feared and I was glad we both made the effort.
The other thing of note worth mentioning was on the Taft Point hiking trail, when we unexpectedly saw a woman doing a tightrope across a small section of the canyon. There were actually three of them, but we arrived just in time to see the last one give it a go. Despite the fact she was wearing a harness, it still looked like a ridiculously crazy thing to want to do and my heart leapt into my mouth when she fell. Her ability to even get back up onto the rope after falling was very impressive. You couldn’t even pay me to try it!
On our fifth and final day in Yosemite we were actually due to drive east along the Tioga Pass to exit the other side of the national park. It was 1st July and well into summer, so it never occurred to me the pass might not be open! On our first day we discovered that in fact it was only open for one hour in the morning and afternoon only and you weren’t even allowed to stop along the route at any of the lookouts. Thankfully, though, after a few days of warm sunshine, much of the snow had melted and it was no longer dangerous to drive along the pass and the day we were due to leave was the first day the pass was fully open. For me, it was probably one of the best days of the trip. There were lots of stunning small and larger lakes with great reflections of the forests and snow-capped mountains in the distance. At Olmsted Point there was another chance to see Half Dome in the distance, from the north side. We also scrambled up a large mass of rock to enjoy the views from much higher up. We were away from the crowds at the lookout as only a dozen others did the same thing and we were all spread out widely. I even spotted a furry creature on the rocks, which I discovered later was a yellow-bellied marmot. Basically, it’s a giant ground squirrel about 50cm long. I was thrilled to have seen it and no one else seemed to have noticed it!
From Yosemite we headed south for only a short distance to access Mono Lake from the southern end. It’s a very old salt lake in the desert. What appealed to me were the unusual limestone tufa towers that originally lay below the surface of the water, but, as the water level dropped over the years, these unusual formations were revealed. From there we headed north towards Lake Tahoe, diverting once in the afternoon to explore Bodie, an old gold mining ghost town. The decline of the town over the years was as a result of the closing of the railroad, the gold mines and fire engulfing much of the town. About 110 buildings are still standing today. You can walk the dusty streets and peer through the windows of many of the town stores, the church, jail, saloon and even go inside a few houses. Abandoned old cars and machinery stand in the overgrown grass. It really does feel like a glimpse into a bygone era, which we were both fascinated by and loved.
There wasn’t the opportunity to fully appreciate Lake Tahoe with only time for one overnight stay, however, in the morning we did visit Emerald Bay briefly, apparently the most photographed part of the lake. Our next stop was in the centre of Sacramento, in the old part of town, which was another step back in time. With a raised wooden boardwalk, large windows and several balconies made with either wood or iron, I half imagined some drunkard to come hurtling through the swing doors of the saloon as we walked past it. Filled with tourist shops and eateries it didn’t quite have the feel of Bodie, but was an enjoyable diversion along our route.
For two people who aren’t great wine drinkers, spending our last days relaxing in the wine region might not have seemed an obvious choice. However, the decision was based on the appeal of the Calistoga 4th July celebrations, which included a parade down the high street with lots of floats, old cars, horse riders and dancers, then a visit to the fun fair in the hot afternoon sun. I was eager to ride on the ferris wheel – I can’t remember the last time I ever did that – and then in the evening we returned to the showground for the fireworks display, which was pretty impressive and a great way to end the day. Aside from a visit to the old petrified forest (where ancient trees that were once covered in volcanic ash have now turned to stone) and the Old Faithful of California geyser (that intermittently jets hot water into the air) we pretty much chilled out on our last few days. The long days of sight-seeing and exploring were catching up with us. We didn’t quite get our picture perfect stay in Guerneville that I’d been so looking forward to. Sadly, we only discovered upon arrival, the hotel had been very badly flooded a few months prior and we weren’t going to get our deluxe spa suite overlooking the neighbouring vineyard. Despite the bank holiday weekend we were able to find somewhere else to stay - a nice swanky hotel in the city for not too dear a price.
We headed back to San Francisco city on our last morning, stopping at the Marin Headlands to enjoy views of the Golden Gate Bridge, at the Palace of Fine Arts to walk around the lake and marvel at its architecture, at Lombard Street to walk and then drive the short stretch of this steep road, famous for its eight hairpin bends and finished with a walk around the very busy Pier 39 for a few last minute gifts and to see the sea lions that lounge on the jetty’s of the protected harbour. We had just enough time to visit one of my travel friends from my Borneo trip a few years ago, who lives in San Francisco before we had to head back to the airport.
Although we saw and did a lot in the two weeks, I never once felt rushed or too busy. I felt the pace was relaxed and we took each day as it came, not having too much of a plan, only a list of possibilities that we could pick from. As a keen photographer I undoubtedly will return again someday. I could spend a whole week in Monterey alone, photographing all the marine wildlife. I’d love to return to Yosemite too, probably at a different time of year and with the view to doing more of the strenuous hikes. But for now, I’ll look back on this trip and enjoy the memories.
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Northern California Trip