A Fresh Love for the Panoramic View

(16 days in)

When I was in my early teens I started seeing TV adverts for you, the great state of California. I mostly already knew that I wanted to visit someday, but these snippets of the people and their lives within the state lines really set my heart ablaze. From surfing to golf, from wine tasting to rock climbing, you seemed to have it all – including a Hollywood star (and somewhat personal hero) as a governor. I’ve now grown older, some would argue wiser (most wouldn’t) and I’ve spent 2 full weeks on your 163,696 square mile face, travelling your highways, freeways and dirt tracks. From your sun-drenched and drought-scoured south, through some of the greatest scenery I’ve seen in my entire life, and up to your admittedly still sun-drenched but maybe a little less drought-scoured north (kind of, definitely above the middle, maybe not much further). Through all of this in a Transit campervan (and a lot of mosquito bites) and I can say you’ve been everything I wished for and more. We still have 4 more days at the end of our round trip to get to know you a little better, and although I have so much more to see first, I’m already looking forward to it. So please allow me to recant some of our journey through the third National Park of the United States and one of my new favourite places: Yosemite.

But first 
Obviously we all know that when it comes to travelling, it’s rarely ‘the destination that matters but the journey by which you get there’. In this case, this meant a small campground northwest of Yosemite National Park, Acorn Campground. With its large lake it had quite the ‘spring break’ feel. This was added to by numerous boats that went sailing past and that one guy doing stunts on a jetski every half hour. We had left the Pacific way behind us at this stage and crawling slowly into the middle of the state brought an onslught of UV rays. The lake and surrounding area reached the highest temperature that I have ever experienced, 42 degrees Celsius (the hottest temperature from weather you understand, I’d be an even worse chef than I already am if I never turned the dial above 42). We cracked out our new foldable sunshade from Walmart, grabbed a couple of cold ones and felt smug until nightfall, only briefly dipping our toes in the lake when the heat gave us some leeway. Rising early the following morning, packing up our site and leaving no trace, we headed off to find out where we were going to stay that night (at this stage we had nothing booked at all, but we drove off with hope in our hearts…) (Editor’s note: Well, Pete did – I’m an eternal pessimist.).

Our stunning surroundings
As we reached the entry gate to Yosemite National Park, Megan was more than giddy with excitement. We have a few more of these parks planned on the road so we grit our teeth and bought a yearly pass to cover entry to all of them (this cost us two-thirds of our daily budget and we still needed gaspetrol). With 1,169 square miles (Editor’s note: I see Pete’s being doing some Googling) of forest and mountains ahead of us, we obviously had to roll through the one main road that the park had to offer. Almost immediately we came across Valley View, and it was all I could do to keep the wheels on the road. So I didn’t – we parked up and I made the first proper use of my mother’s digital SLR camera (these photos – along with others from our Californian adventure – are posted on our Facebook page if you’d like to take a look, and the one in question is the one after me standing in the lake looking like a doofus).

We marched on into the valley itself, where you can find most of the main campgrounds and the Reservations Office. Megan and I were surprised and only a little dissappointed with how many tourists and travellers there were in the park. We know that it’s obviously a huge attraction but we underestimated how many people would be in any part of it at any one time. This, compounded by the fact that a few of Yosemite’s surrounding camgrounds were still closed due to weather conditions over winter, meant that everyone and their mum’s were in this one area hoping for a place to stay.

Now it’s hightime that I dispense some of our first actual travelling advice, instead of just prattling on about us and where we are – if you’re going to visit Yosemite, the campground spots open 6 months in advance and have been known to sell out in as little as 30 minutes. This means that they MIGHT have reserve spaces and cancellations for on the day sale, which leaves you with a nerve-wracking semi-lottery to find out if you can camp in the valley itself. Essentially, people queue outside the Campground Reservations Office from about 5am onwards, until 8am when the office opens and takes names. At 3pm, a whole 7 hours later, those names are read out in order to see if you’ve been granted a space for that night. Those spaces come mostly from other campers cancelling or leaving early so it really is a wild guess as to whether you will have a site for the night or not. If not, you have to find a space outside of the park as it is illegal to camp inside if you have no booked space. So, back to the advice, BOOK EARLY OR TURN UP EARLY. We knew about this process but hadn’t quite realised the severity as we turned up at about 11:30am. We hastily put our name on the sheet and headed off, not knowing at all what the rest of the day held.

I’ll point you back to the previously mentioned Facebook page for the photos of our visit to the awe-inspiring, three tiered Yosemite Falls. Only partially spoiled by the other people that also wanted to climb the rocks and dip their feet in the freezing waters, we took in the wonderful surroundings before making the short walk back through the woods to the parking lot and participating in the sadistic pseudo-lottery that the park rangers had in store.

3pm struck and the tiny hut’s main door swung open.
“Right, good afternoon everyone, if you could follow me over here so we can talk, we’ll get this started.”
Obediently we followed Jack, an older gentleman who’s a volunteer for 2 months of the year and Megan is pretty certain she wants as an adoptive grandpa. He ran through the normal safety talk about campfires, check-in and check-out times and the bear boxes we had to store our food in if we wanted to avoid personal or vehicular damage (we did). Then his official colleague appeared from the side door with the blessed list that we were all waiting for. Luck was not only our side but apparently rooting for us at this stage, as even though we were horrendously late to signing up – we were informed that an average day has 10 cancellations and we were number 21 – and there were only 18 sites available, so many people didn’t show up again at 3 that we were awarded site number 14. With a gleeful smile and a wave of relief, we had our first site in Yosemite Valley itself, and right opposite Jack’s RV.

The first day in the valley
With the previous day’s agony fresh in our minds we rocked up to the Reservations Office at 7:30am, keen to get our names down and spend our second night in the valley. There were already 10 people ahead of us and knowing the average number of cancellations, our worry began anew. Either way, we focussed on what we wanted to do that day – a drive to Glacier Point and Tunnel View. For a third (I wish I could say final) time I will direct you to the Facebook page for these photos, but I can easily say that it was well worth the 50 mile round trip along the crawl of a main road, with views of Nevada Falls, the Reservations Office and the snow capped mountains that John Muir rightly thought would need protection way back in 1890. During this we had a spot of lunch and an ice cream, then headed off to a short hiking route over Sentinel Dome, stopping off at another key viewpoint called Tunnel View (where I realised that I should really start charging more of the spare batteries that I have for the camera).

(Editor’s note: Pete’s completely skipped over Sentinel Dome here as he got the timeline confused in his head – we’ll ignore the fact it was only three days ago for our sanity.  Anyway, Sentinel Dome is well worth the 2.2 mile, mainly uphill hike if you’re ever in the area.  Sure, Glacier Point is stunning but you almost feel like you’ve cheated by driving there – plus it’s full of other people just like you who are there for the exact same reason but whom you still have an unreserved hatred for.  Sentinel Dome offers absolutely stunning 360 degree views of the park after a short but fulfilling hike which puts quite a few of the tourists off, and much like ascending the Rockefeller Center instead of the Empire State Building, it allows you a view of the Half Dome that climbing the Half Dome would not.)

All too soon it was time to yet again participate in the park’s purgatory practice of handing out good or bad news. We were number 11, but I was optimistic (Megan was not). Again, Jack came bounding out with his clipboard and began the safety briefing. And again his colleague came out and started reading out the names.

There were 17 cancellations on that day and myself and Megan were awarded site number 9. We had miracously secured a campsite inside Yosemite Valley for the second night in a row without previous booking. What’s all the fuss about?

(Editor’s note: If you do know you want to visit Yosemite well ahead of time, I would highly recommend booking your campsites in advance if possible.  As Pete’s said, we were extremely lucky in that we got an on-the-day space in Yosemite Valley two days in a row, but we could quite have easily not have.  If we hadn’t got these sites, we would have had to drive out of the park to find a dispersed camping site in the surrounding National Forest (free camping is exactly that in NFs, and in most of them you can even pull into a lay-by for the night if you’re really desperate).  Not to mention that the whole waiting list malarkey was super stressful, and meant you couldn’t be out exploring for the entire day!)

Out of the valley and into the meadows
We woke on the Tuesday with less stress than we’d had for 48 hours as we had that night already booked in one of the outlying campgrounds, Tuolumne Meadows. This campsite, as well as four others, had been closed up until that day so we were lucky to have a found a place at all (let alone not have to go through the whole painful process with Jack again). Upon checking in we were made aware that there was a sow (Editor’s note: Pete’s being smart(!) but this is the correct name for a female bear) with three cubs currently living in the campground. As excited as Megan was for this developement, we were also encouraged not to interact with them should we come across them. They were not tagged or tracked, and if they try to interact with humans it’s our job to scare them away and keep their fear of humans strong – this sounds harsh, but wild animals are wild animals and in order to ensure that they remain such and don’t feel comfortable tapping people for food, they need to feel that humans pose a threat to them.

After another stunning drive, we parked up, had a short nap and refuel and went out for another hike, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bears or the wildflower meadows that the area is famous for. Our luck had run dry as it was too late in the year for the majority of the flowers to bloom and the bears evidently were not having a picnic in the woods that day. But nonetheless, we felt good about ourselves and had some great shots (final time, Facebook, sorry) to share with you all.

(Editor’s note: As we were leaving we were informed that there were actually two mother bears with six cubs between them living in the campground.  How on earth we managed to spend 3 days in Yosemite – 24 hours of which was in close proximity to 8 bears – and not see a single one I do not know, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.  Fingers crossed for Yellowstone!)

Tombstone tourist time
Our last stop in this, my current favourite state, was an old ghost town by the name of Bodie. A preserved site, it was founded by a W. S. Bodey after he discovered gold way back in 1859. Through the years this little thriving town produced gold valued at more than 100 million dollars from stamping and smelting in its prison-grey mine. We’d both always wanted to see an old Western ghost town and although this place had been a community all the way up until 1942, the crooked wooden houses and faded red barns didn’t dissappoint. We wound our way through the self guided tour, kicking sand out of our shoes every 5 minutes and, although the mine itself is closed to the general public, I yet again had a chance to try out my SLR skills. We then headed up the hill to the town’s cemetery, mostly to get a few shots for a good friend and taphophile, Mr S. Cooper. We also read that although the town is named after its founder (I’m sure that some of you will have noticed earlier) it’s actually spelt incorrectly. And also, he is not buried in this cemetery, as after the discovery of gold in the area he decided to stay through winter with a Native American companion. This would prove his undoing as he was killed by the weather, without profiting at all from the find. His bones were discovered the following spring. But that’s not all – his remains were ‘misplaced’ after burial, so it is believed he lies somewhere further up the hill than the cemetery but who really knows.

Obligatory ending
This brings us just about up to date, I’m sad to say. We had a brief stop in South Lake Tahoe but not long enough to drink in the retirement village feel and are currently in a small town called Elko in Nevada. Again this is just a stepping stone on our larger trip to Salt Lake City and then on to another of the great National Parks, Yellowstone. Taking absolutely none of our own advice we’re heading into it as blind as we did Yosemite and praying that we’ll find somewhere to stay, but either way I’m excited to be seeing Old Faithful and maybe a wolf or two (I hear they come in packs…).

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