And so arrived the day when we would leave the big city and head for the countryside, and wouldn’t you just know it, the sun was out, not a cloud in the sky and getting warm already. Typical ! I guess that makes it perfect weather to head out on the highway, looking for adventure and whatever comes our way.
We started our day with more homemade granola and chocolate muffins at the place on the corner of Powell and Sutter and prepared for the always entertaining game of collecting the rental car. The usual game is to guess what upgrades the guy is going to try to sell you. In this case, Holiday Autos ( www.holidayautos.co.uk ) had got us a deal with Hertz to collect from their downtown office, which was conveniently just up the road from the hotel. When the nice man from Hertz realized we had already bought all the possible options for upgraded insurance he was left with no choice but to try to sell us a bigger car. His main line of argument was that we’d never get the luggage in the car we’d booked. So he suggested we upgrade from a standard to full size saloon/sedan. This didn’t seem to give us any advantage, so the next option was a 4×4 for the same price as the full size sedan. Oh, go on then, just this once. At about $5 a day extra it’s hardly worth even talking about it.
And behold, a jolly nice new Toyota RAV4 was ours for 19 days, with unlimited mileage and insurance against everything except abduction by aliens. One downside – it had only just come back in, so they cleaned it but hadn’t filled up with fuel. In fact, the gauge was so low that the engine nearly cut out going up hills. Thankfully, however, both the hotel ( and luggage ) and the freeway were downhill, as was the closest available gas station as advised by the valet at the Westin.
So came the first of very many stops at gas stations, to fill up with motion lotion and stock up on essential freeway consumables like Pringles and Coke. We might have got something healthy like sandwiches as well, but those have been purged from the memory. Just round the corner was the access ramp up to I-80, and Kas’s first experience of my driving in the USA. Over the Bay Bridge and in to Oakland, a few bits of shuffling and I-580 beckoned us away from the suburbs and into farming country. No time to linger though, because we had an urgent appointment with the National Park Service ( www.nps.gov ), and more specifically with Yosemite ( www.nps.gov/yose ), home of the famous cartoon character called Sam, and life’s work for the guy who invented landscape photography, Ansel Adams. It was a slow ride up Highway 120 into the park, followed by a brief stop at the entrance fee to buy our NPS annual pass – a great idea for this kind of holiday, as one fee gets you into any NPS site, for any number of times for a whole year after the date of issue. And you can buy them at the entrance station to Yosemite. Formalities complete, so bring on the landscapes !
Nothing prepares you for the beauty you encounter as you enter the Yosemite Valley, not even the helpful NPS website ( www.nps.gov/yose/ ). Sheer granite cliffs rise up 4000 feet from the green meadows on the valley floor, waterfalls cascade over various precipitous drops, it’s just Spectacular with a capital S. If we had the cash we would jack it all in and move up here. We can fully understand why Ansel Adams never tired of the place.
However, you do get plenty of opportunity to look at the scenery as you drive in seemingly endless loops and sub-loops around the one-way system on the valley floor. Watch the signs folks, or you end up on a 10 mile loop to get back to somewhere which is 200 yards behind you. Either that, or just plan your route in advance.
First stop, late lunch and a wander round Yosemite Village. Eventually we decided that next priority was to find somewhere to sleep for the night, so we went to the free phones in the Park HQ and stood in line behind a guy doing the same thing. Our job was made much easier when he told us he had already called this one, this one, this one and this other one, and all are full. But he got a room at the Cedar Lodge just down the road in El Portal. That sounded good to us, we’ll have some of that, thank you very much. The price seemed fine and it looked close by, so two nights accommodation a mere 20 minutes away were ours.
This left us with a good 3-4 hours of decent, useable time in the afternoon. Neither of us was really dressed for hiking, and we hadn’t had time to read the free papers that the NPS provide, so we deemed hiking to be off the agenda today and headed off round the one-way system to find the road up to Glacier Point. From here, you can see a good proportion of the valley floor, although it is a long way down, and you also get the much photographed eye-level view over to Half Dome. As its name suggests, it’s a mountain that was dome shaped until the glacier in the valley cut half of it away, leaving half a dome and one humungous sheer cliff face.
A Park Ranger on the top was doing free 10 minute talks on the background of the park. It’s a great service that the NPS provides, and really helps to put the view into context. One aspect this ranger covered was fire. We had noticed on our drives through that there are some apparently quite large areas which are burnt. Some of these were caused by natural lightening strikes, and some were started deliberately by the Rangers, whose policy has recently changed from protection at all costs ( which results in lots of tinder dry detritus on the forest floor ) to an active policy of simulating what nature would do, including “controlled burns”, the purpose of which is to remove all that flammable material in a controlled way rather than the more dangerous and damaging uncontrolled way. Controlled burns also mean less possibility of severe damage being caused by inconsiderate oiks who insist on discarding cigarette butts and glass bottles into the bone dry undergrowth. Fire is natural, and the rangers are now trying to manage it so that they do more good than bad. For instance, did you realize that the tiny seeds of the sequoia are partly dependent on fire to initiate the germination process ?
There was still a bit of time left before wanting to go to the hotel, so we decided to try a short hike around and up to the top of Sentinel Dome, slightly back down the Glacier Point road. This proved to be a large circle, with a steep section at the end, and then a staggering view. A thoroughly fine place to sit with your loved one as the sun dips over the back of the High Sierra. Shame it was slightly on the cool side, but then you are a long way up. There is a very arty dead tree on the top which proved ideal for silhouette photos. And so it became dusky, and we decided it was a good time to find our hotel. Down to El Portal, passing the gas station, which was now closed for the night, and on to our hotel. It’s a traditional American motel style, with a number of two storey blocks and multiple parking areas. One block for check-in, one for restaurants/bars, and several for accommodation. The room was pretty good, and after a quick clean up we decide food is very much on the cards. The hotel had a kind of Mexican café, a bar serving a selection of other kinds of food, and a separate ( and quite posh looking ) breakfast room. We tried the Mexican café – the first of many Mexican meals on the trip – and enjoyed some good, very fresh enchiladas and a couple of beers, which were cold and wet. We were, by now, a bit knackered though, so the temptations of the bar were skipped in favour of bed.