The drive to Yosemite takes longer than expected, winding through the desert into the mountains. The bends so tight and narrow the speed is limited to 20mph in parts, with sheer drops to the side. I don’t dare to look down instead concentrating on the road, frustrated at the automatic transmission which decides to shift up the gears any time I pick up the tiniest bit of speed.
By the time I arrive it’s well after midday and the signs are already up warning visitors there’s no camping available within the park. I buy a pass – yep, unfortunately the national parks here are not free – which gives unlimited access to all the National Parks for the next year. At $80 it’s a worthwhile investment if you plan to visit more than just one or two of the parks here. There’s a list online of which ones this will grant access to.
The place is rammed. A whole different world to what I expect. There’s traffic, traffic! The car parks are full, people are everywhere, prams, school trips, bikers filling every space on the turnouts. I manage to find somewhere to stop, reading the guide they’ve given me to work out where to go. I just need to get away from the main traffic route I think to myself, but everywhere here is the main traffic route.
A slightly bizarre scene – looking out across the valley with half dome in the distance
One of the benefits to this set up is how much of the park you can see without ever needing to put on a pair of boots and actually hike anywhere. When I first dreamt of taking this trip I imagined spending days in each of the parks, exploring all the trails they had to offer. But thanks to the infrastructure it is entirely possible to visit and see a great deal of the place in a surprisingly short space of time.
Yosemite is in short, wow. The landscape is vast and spectacularly carved by the glaciers which once cut through the valleys. Unlike the mountains of Glen Coe these are sheer cliffs carved out of granite, with giant waterfalls pouring into the valley below. A short walk on the 4 mile trail from Glacier Point takes you away from the crowds and into the forest, the path breaking from the trees every so often to reveal spectacular views across the valley. The trail goes all the way from the valley to the point on a tough switchback trail, with a shuttle bus at either end. I stay on the path for 20 minutes or so, turning back when the trail starts the descent into Yosemite Valley. Even this far, as it nears the section where it starts to descend, I turned a corner, the wind hits you and the trees break revealing this amazing view across the valley.View from the 4 mile trail off Glacier Point
Unfortunately there are plague warnings about these little guys throughout the park, but he was a cute little poser
Wild flower meadow in Yosemite National Park. Many of these areas are closed to the public to allow the ground to recover.
A bird circling high above Yosemite valley
The view from Glacier Point towards Half Dome
By the time I get back to the car it’s almost 5pm and with only a few hours until sunset I decide to set off towards the Sequoia park to the south, hoping to find a camp ground on the way where I can spend the night.
I drove well into the evening, past countless No Vacancy signs, finally finding a camp ground with spaces only to realise it’s $30 a night to set up a tent. Seriously!? Refusing to fork out so much to sleep on what is basically the ground – I’m a weegie with the blood of a Yorkshire man after all – I keep driving, the sun starting to set over Lake Kaweah. The day has been unreasonably hot and I’m caked in a layer of sweat, suncream, and dust, my legs black, my hair a mess of curls and dirt. I can’t imagine what I must look like. I debate going for a swim in the lake, but when I make my way to the shore the water is thick with weeds and in the light I can’t make out how deep it goes.
In the back I flip the seats down in an attempt to make a bed, hoping this will be more comfortable than the first night. I realise too late I’m running out of water and all my food has either melted – even my cheese sandwich resembling something closer to a cheese toastie – or in the heat disintegrated to beyond questionable. Outside the bushes rustle and rattle with the sounds of god knows what beasties lurking in the shadows. I can’t stand the heat of the car, the air thick and hot, but I can’t stand to be outside either.
I lay for hours, hot, unable to breathe, unable to get any rest, giving in every so often and turning on the AC to get some relief. The cool air like heaven in this miniature hell I’ve made for myself. I open the window just enough to let some air in and lie fanning myself with the park brochure from earlier. Eventually I pass out, too exhausted to do anything else. I’m tormented by the heat even in my dreams, waking as soon as it gets light, beyond exhaustion, dehydrated. It doesn’t even occur to me at this point it might have been unsafe to sleep in a car in this heat.
I drove to the nearest town, finding a petrol station open, they sell water and I buy another few litres not caring they’ve charged me $4 for what is essentially tap water.
The drive to the Sequoia’s is fairly easy, and only half an hour from where I’ve camped (about 3hrs from Yosemite). I make the dreaded mistake of driving on the wrong side of the road for the first time, only realising when a car pulls out ahead and I think they’re driving on the wrong side! Slightly embarrassed. But at least safe.
Once you enter the park the road climbs through the forest gradually entering Sequoia territory. The higher I drive the more trees there are. The forest thinning out to make way for these great giants, prehistoric and haunting. My frustration of the morning melting away as I continue to climb through the forest. It’s hard to get any perspective with a photograph, the best substitute I have a blow up giraffe, a gift from work. I’ve been carrying him around all week like a weirdo. The crazy Scottish girl and her giraffe.
I didn’t have a banana, or a person for scale
The signs warn me there are bears here and as I go off the trail tempted by the groves I can see in the distance, I’m all too aware of how small I am in this giant forest, how easy it would be to stumble across something more sinister without noticing. Many of the trees are scarred, blackened from forest fires, some continuing to grow, hiding their scars beneath the new growth. Even the General (Sherman), the largest tree in the world, continues to grow each year.
I could easily climb inside the trunk of one of these giants
A burnt out Sequoia in the early morning light
General Sherman, the largest tree in the world by mass. The way the base of these trees curl makes me think of an elephants feet.
A short hike up from the visitor centre takes you to Sunset rock, the wind up here is lovely and warm the stress of the day before long forgotten. The rock is shaped in such a way that it takes me a while to notice the other hiker, almost hidden by the contours of the rock, one reading, one cooking. The only sounds the wind blowing through the trees. I don’t want to leave. But the road is waiting.
A short hike up from the visitor centre, and a whole different world
My plan from here was to drive to the Redwood Forests in Northern California. It’s an 8-9 hour drive away and I couldn’t face the distance after the previous night. After a few hours spent exploring the park I set off once more, hoping I can cover at least half the distance in what is left of the day. I stay inland, driving back up through Sacramento finally making it to Red Bluff at nightfall.
I’m visibly tired, and when I turn up at the motel dirty and hungry they take pity on me. The lonely Scottish girl. I ask for the cheapest room they have, the owner explaining they have a nice room for me, it’s more expensive but not to worry about it. I can’t really process what he’s saying taking the key relieved, thanking him, I can finally wash the dirt from my body and sleep. I’ll realise later they’ve only charged me a fraction of what the price should have been.
The bath turns black from all the dust and dirt. I’m not used to this lifestyle. Back home I’m closer to a borderline OCD clean freak, with a strong attachment to my GHDs. I find the ice machine and drink the beer which has been waiting in the boot of the car since I left Portland. The bed feels like heaven. I don’t even have the energy to watch TV instead passing out, no alarms set, no schedules. I barely make my check out the next morning, woken by the cats outside meowing for food or attention.
At this point I’ve driven so far and exhausted myself to the point that I no longer care about keeping to a schedule. I’m on the home straight, with less than half the distance to cover and four days till I need to be back in Portland. I’ve extended the rental by a day, giving me till Monday to cover the last 600 miles. I pack up the car, leave my key at reception, and set off. Refreshed, relieved, and ready to discover the great Redwood forests of Northern California.