Friday, June 29, 2012

To Death Valley

I made it, at 282ft below sea level, Death Valley!

I have always wanted to go to Death Valley since my very first visit to America in '95. Someone mentioning something like 45 degrees C in the shade sounded cool to me so it was one of my highest priorities for this trip. Doing as I do, I looked at a map and said that's where were are going, heading from Yosemite National Park across the famous Tioga Pass, to heights of 3,000m+.
Alpine Wonderland
Good driving
Was a cool plan, but it was still only spring and of course the road wasn't opening for a few more days due to snow. Meant the 2 hour drive to Death Valley turned into a full days driving 400 miles round over the nearest open pass. Did seem like a bit of a drag but it turned in to one of my favorite days. We left the lush forests of Yosemite transgressing into a snow covered alpine landscape then doping back down into the desserts East of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The driving way amazing. I think Americans must be scared of these twisting, curving and winding roads, maybe they prefer sticking to their super-duper-mega-highways. This was just a stunning example of a beautiful open road, the sorta place that TopGear would be doing car reviews and there we no other cars in sight either. Wish I could have had a Viper or Mustang, but the Crown Vic held its own!

East of the Sierra Nevadas

Lone Pine Campground
That night we stayed at my favourite campground, a small town site up in the hill behind Lone Pine Indian Reservation. A famous spot for western cinema with orange rocky summits, strange outcrops and actual tumble weeds surly featuring in almost every western film. Who knows maybe we might be attacked by Indians or held-up by Cowboys on the run while in town!

With plans to get to Las Vegas to reunite Amy with her sister by early afternoon, we made a early start, 6.30am. A good idea considering we were heading into one of the hottest places on Earth. The day lived up to all my expectations and was certainly worth the journey. The heat was already building, perfect I thought for our journey down into the Valley system to the lowest point in the US, at 282ft below sea level! Some amazing geology and geography was on display here, some random patches of sand dunes, rocks of unimaginable colourations, and vast salt flats. There was a few remains of human history in the area from past mining attempts, not many people about and even less wildlife and plants. And it was hot, I would have had it hotter, but none the less the most amazing dry heat I have ever experienced.
Skateboarding in Death Valley

Artists Point, Death Valley

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley
Arriving in Yosemite on Tuesday the 1st of May we rolled around a corner to be set upon the edge of the deep glacially carved valley. The way it first strikes you is not of tall mountains above but nearly the valley sunken into the Earth below us. This was our first National Park of the trip, so we bought a relatively cheap ($80) year pass for entrance into all National Parks in the US. Something Thomas ungratefully learns with time, unlike his home, you often need to pay entrance fees for parks, beaches and roads in America. Camping it was agian, with a new phenomea called a "Bear Box," a large metal box at each campsite that is bear-proof. The Park Rangers stressed that ALL food, liquids, toiletries, anything that smells, had to be out of the car and into the bear box. It seems Yosemite bears have become extremely clever and have figured out how to break into cars to get at the food!

Lower Yosemite Falls

With only two full days at the park, we spent the rest of the day first day walking to the grand Yosemite Falls, to Mirror Lake and had a nice wander around Yosemite Valley. We saw some deer wandering through the meadows, but other than that the wildlife was only the hippopotamus' waddling off their tour coaches.

Dinners over the trip generally consisted of a basic version of the normal food we eat: pasta, curry, Mexican were all regular features on Thomas' menu skillfully cooked on our little tramping gas stove, with two pots.  We learned that a good warm meal set us well for the cold nights ahead. As it turns out Thomas had a nice warm down sleeping bad, however I was traveling without. Being a gentleman, Thomas let me use his sleeping bag, leaving him with his silk liner and wrapped in clothes!

Our 5 hour hike planned for the next day, suggested by the ranger, went via two waterfalls, Vernal and Nevada Falls and avoided closed tracks due to snow. We didn't expect the track to be deserted as our previous tramps over the year in NZ, but to our dismay there was so many tourists, hikers, school groups, Asians with big cameras and even a couple of the hippopotamus'. Thomas taught me how to spot an amateur hiker, besides those in jeans, dresses or sandals, those in brand new, never worn boots, just stick out. Luckily after a few steep hills the crowds began to disperse and we were awarded with stunning views of the first Vernal Falls.

Double Rainbow at Vernal Falls
Thomas on the Mist Trail by Vernal Falls
The ranger warned us to bring rain jackets as we would be travelling on the "Mist Trail." We didn't know what to expect, but he was not kidding! We quickly learned the Mist Trail was a series of stone steps that went along side the falls, and thus spraying everything in its path. Thomas didn't bring rain gear, and thus ran on ahead at a fast pace, but I could hardly believe the gorgeous sight in front of me, so I took my time, and about 200 pictures, while getting completely soaked. Atop Vernal Falls we sat and took in the views and luckily at this point most of those amateur hikers had stopped, so we were graced with quieter trails ahead. The walk was steep, grueling in spots but rewarding as we reached the very top at Nevada Falls.

Thomas and Amy at the bottom of Nevada Falls

On our last night we took off in the car in search of a sunset view and after about 30 mins of driving we found a spot. Perched on rocks that felt as if they were hanging off the cliff and sipping on a Yosemite Pale Ale and we watched the gorgeous sunset across Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley. 

Half Dome at sunset

 Departing the next morning, we stopped at some Giant Sequoia trees. These trees are just massive, unimaginable giants of the forest and so appropriately placed in a such a dramatic beautiful landscape, created over time in the hands of nature!

Yosemite Valley

Friday, June 15, 2012


Getting into the country, Amy and I did a split covert entrance as imigration might not have liked the idea that I had ulterior motives to enter the country other than that stated on my visa. Crusing through undetected we now had to convince a taxi driver that we could fit 4 large bags, other small ones and a surfboard and three human beings into a Toyota Prius. He didn't think it could be done. I made it happen. For his none-belief, he got a bad tip! 
Getting right into it we collected our beast of an American car our Ford Crown Victoria aka "a cop car" which will lead us over the next month across the USA, West Coast to East. We had the first few nights in Santa Monica, staying at a friend's house that studied in NZ along with Amy. Made a good base for exploring the L.A coast without having to get too involved with that big old city. First stop for us just after lunch time fresh out of Tahiti was Santa Monica Beach.

Arriving here was the dream California arrival, rolling up in our mean wheels to a palm tree studded golden coast, glistening turquoise Pacific Ocean, sunshine beaming and just decent vibes all round. We couldn't believe we were really there. We dashed up to the Pier for out first American feed, Cheese burger, fires and a milk shake. The best I have had, serverd up by some friendly and chirpy African Americans. Still taking it all in, learnt walking bare foot doesn't work so well over here, as I got involved with some chewing gum. Didn't let it phase me! Straight back to the beach for a surf was what was in order. Ended up making friends with a dolphin, talked to two young locals and caught a few small California waves. Pretty stoaked about that.
Surfing at Santa Monica

Thomas at Huntington Beach
The following day we headed south down the coast just keen to see whatever came upon us. We found a few awesome farmer's markets where we got amongst some kettle corn, strawberries, asparagus and oranges. Nice little bounty! Was quite amazing how the whole coast is built up, in a very developed way it was quite lovely. Some of it much more exclusively than others but I doubt there is any cheap property for miles. Lots of cute piers and wharfs, shopping strips and lined streets of palms. Got to Huntington beach for another surf with some bigger waves but had some competition for them here. Made it as far south as Newport Beach in Orange County,  we were happy to see what was depicted in the TV show The OC was not exaggerated, in fact some people do live like that. Reality check, we're in America when you see a late teen handling a gun across the road while sitting at a red light in Long Beach, LA. But to even it out met some friendly whale watchers atop a cliff and saw some killer whales in action.

The California Coast
Heading north on Friday, a last look around Venice beach and finally decided on what skateboard to buy, big decision! Also last chance to turn down the offers from the people in green scrubs in front of "the doctor is in the building" sign, persuading you to get a medical Marijuana prescription. Went for a skate along the famious beach front board walk and headed for Malibu. Again very developed coastline but started to spread to some open stretches. In Malibu they pretty much build their houses right atop the beach. Stopped in to Santa Barbra for lunch. A really nice casual beach vibe here with a really cute central town area. Finally got off the big highways and onto the real Coastal Highway 1, a nice curvy open road that we followed up to San Francisco. But for the night it was Jalama Beach, our first night in our Walmart tent and air mattress. A windy night put it through its first test.

Happy Hour at Morro Bay
Stoked to play with my new Basketball and have the famous and yum Jalama burger before heading off. Heading north on another specular day making it for happy hour at Morro Bay. Very much getting away from the big busy Southern California here. Had some problems when we discovered all the campgrounds were full and had to venture up a seriously steep and windy road to a spot that might have some space. Ended up being a wicked as forest service campsite, a very basic but picturesque spot secluded up in the forest. 

By this point the coastline had become very rugged and exposed, with towering cliffs and some serious surf pounding in, still gleaming weather and a perfect driving road though. Following the coast was a real treat of seclusion and stunning scenery, a great precursor to the amazing landscapes that lay ahead for our road trip. We made it through the Big Sur coastline through Monterey and to Santa Cruz, where that place was just bustling. Roller coaster rides, motorbikes, beach goers the whole lot. We made it to Half Moon Bay for the evening, just south of San Francisco.
Thomas and Amy on the Big Sur Coastline

Santa Cruz

I started our day in San Fran with a surf in the famous frigid and wild waters of these parts, didn't find the 20+ft waves of 'Mavericks' surf spot but still got some grunty clean lines along with the crowd. Parking is a problem in cities, cost us $20 for the day. A day on foot, we must have walked 20kms in all. The financial district was very nice, then we found ourselves in a poorer part then to the posh financial guys homes on the hills. Over to the Golden Gate and a little wander round Fisherman's Wharf. Found salvation in a bar with, on our count, 68 beers on tap, nice to escape the mess of tourists and tourism that was just a debacle of a street! Out of the city and a bit of an adventure driving in the dark up, over and round the hills in Diablo State Park to find a campsite. A few hours drive the following day taking us to Yosemite National Park.......