Week 38 – Yosemite, King’s Canyon, Death Valley and San Diego

Week 7 of our North America road trip and we’ve driven 11,663kms so far (that’s 2,203kms this week). In just one week we have gone from mountain top forests where the temperature barely climbed above zero, to remote desert where the temperature was in the 30’s, to yesterday where we spent the day at the beach. It’s amazing how diverse California is as a tourist destination. At the time of posting this my friends James and Jess will have just had their wedding back in Sydney and all the guests will be settling in for the reception. I’m not one to miss a party, especially a special occasion like this, but I guess that’s what happens when you leave for such a long trip. Life goes on without you (as it should) and you miss big events. I know we’ve missed plenty of things back at home while we’ve been away, but we’ve seen so much in our travels. In this chapter of our lives we roam about the globe with very little responsibility, but we will grow up one day… just not quite yet. On the plus side Anna has seen more of her family in the last 12 months than she had in the three years previous, and I’m so happy that we’ve been able to do that.

Map 7
Our drive this week (week 7)

Yosemite National Park is best known for its various waterfalls that come alive in spring and continue into summer as the snowcaps melt. By the time autumn rolls around most of the falls have typically slowed to just a trickle. To see the falls at their peak would’ve been something special, but from what we’ve heard, the traffic jams that occur in the park quickly take away from the mystique. Even in the off-season there were people everywhere so I could only imagine how crazy it would get. The fact they run a free bus shuttle service to ferry people around the main sites gives you an idea. We spent one day in the park driving in from Napa Valley and then out towards Fresno. We stopped at various places along the way and then went for a hike in the valley through the meadows and then to Yosemite Falls. We were fortunate that there had been some rain in the days previous so the falls had something to offer. My favourite part of the park is the lookout from tunnel view. It’s such a good vantage point to admire the Yosemite Valley. Don’t fret, Anna has some pictures for you. We only stayed one night in Fresno, but Gerrit looked after us again with a dinner recommendation at Dog House Grill. Pork ribs meal and a cheeseburger to share were excellent.

Next on our list was King’s Canyon and Sequoia National Parks but we couldn’t quite work out how we were going to structure our visit and pick accommodation because we had to cover so much ground and the nearby towns were quite a distance. I found a cheap deal for the big lodge in the King’s Canyon NP so we decided that we’d spend 2 nights there and use it as a base. A great plan in theory, but when we went to check in we discovered that the “cheapest room” option on the lodge website actually meant one of the nearby rustic wood cabins. I was worried when I heard that because “rustic” and “dump” are often interchangeable, but the cabin was cool. There was no bathroom, but it was only a 5 minute walk to the toilet and shower block. The temperature was below zero each night and the cabin wasn’t insulated but with both the gas and electric heaters going it was very cosy. Anna was worried about spiders and creepy crawlies but we didn’t see anything. Well we did find one nasty looking spider but that was when we were checking out thankfully. With what at first seemed like a fail on my part turned into a blessing in disguise, as it was nice to have a couple of nights away from the usual hotel room. There was no kitchen either, but the general store made a mean pepperoni pizza which took us 2 days to finish.

On our first day in the park we drove down into King’s Canyon for a look around and we went for a hike down the bottom. Accessibility is obviously a drawback for this place as there was hardly anyone there compared to Yosemite. The road down into the canyon was spectacular, not just for the twisty bits, but for the view at every turn. Some sections were built into the cliff. Geologists get all excited about the U shape of the canyon as opposed to the typical V shape. That’s because this canyon was carved by glaciers slowly moving down and smashing the rock, rather than the usual river. I can appreciate the uniqueness of it, but seriously every sign was raving about it. After our drive we decided to take another hike from the cabin to the General Grant tree. This is a giant Sequoia which is the second largest tree in the world (measured by volume). It’s estimated to be around 1,650 years old. It’s not so much the height that surprises you it’s the width of the trunk when you’re standing at the base of it.

The next day we headed south along hwy 198 into the Sequoia National Park. The drive was quite scenic but the highlight was definitely the General Sherman tree. This tree is the largest tree in the world by volume. Scientists estimate it weighs over 1 million kilos and it continues to get heavier each year. The top of the tree is dead but the trunk continues to grow thicker and thicker. The drive out of the park was very twisty and would’ve been great fun on the bike in the other direction. We eventually reached flat ground near the California orchard district and we realised we had no plan. We knew we wanted to go to Death Valley but we didn’t know if it was going to take us 1 night or 2 and what was the best way to get there. I guess the time in the cabin without wifi meant that we abandoned our responsibilities. We pulled into a Starbucks and spent the next 2 hours using the free wifi to develop a plan. That may sound like a long time but we decided on our route, what we were going to see in the park, booked 2 hotels near the park and an AirBnB for 3 nights in San Diego. After that we jumped in the car and headed for Ridgecrest which is a naval base town in the middle of the desert.

The drive into Death Valley was pretty close to how I imagined it. A simple 2 way road with very little traffic that connected some mining towns that are now all but ghost towns. The sand was lightly blowing across the road and building up around old cars and trucks that were dumped and wasting away in front of vacant houses or junk yards. You really felt the isolation on the long straight sections of vacant road. As we entered into the national park we came across a coyote roaming around, looking for roadkill I suspect, but we scored a few close up pictures before he scampered away. Once we entered the valley we went to see the sand dunes and then headed for Gold Canyon to do some hiking. We thought we had picked an easy trail but it turned out to be quite steep and difficult to navigate towards the end. We stuck with it for the exercise and we made it to the end. From here we headed to Badwater which is the lowest point in North America at 282 ft below sea level. Walking out on the salt flat made you appreciate just how deadly this place would be without an air conditioned car and ample water. One thing I didn’t realise about Death Valley is that the tourism side was driven by the Borax mining company when demand for Borax was declining. Pitched as a winter holiday retreat to Californians it was very successful. The day we were there is was 32 degrees and in summer it has reached 57 degrees… with no shade on offer!

The cheapest accommodation we could find close to the eastern side of Death Valley was for a place called the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. Now if you’re confused as to why there is an opera house built in the middle of the desert, don’t worry, so are we. When we were looking in Starbucks we decided that it sounded a little too Bates Motel and opted for the Longstreet Inn casino just on the Nevada border (yep it was as cringe as it sounds). We looked into the opera house and it is indeed as wacky as you’d expect. This lady must’ve had visions like in the movie Field of Dreams… If you build it, they will come. Although in this case no one came. I think the logic stemmed from the assumption that wealthy Californians would want high profile entertainment on their vacation, but I think visitors would’ve preferred a bonfire under the stars than a C grade opera performance.

Amargosa Opera House … just outside of Death Valley National Park

We finally got around to booking an AirBnB with a kitchen so that I could make curried sausages. I have been carrying around a container of curry powder since August so I thought it was now or never. After we dropped our luggage we headed for the local supermarket, El Super, to buy the ingredients. I guess I should’ve realised by the name of the store that the only sausages I was going to find were chorizos. Determined, we headed 2 suburbs over to Vons to buy the ingredients. I had to settle for pork sausages, not beef, but I think it came out pretty good. It’s my grandfather’s recipe and a family favourite. I hope one day I master it the way my mother has.

Ben’s delicious curried sausages

With the sun shining and the temperature hitting 28 degrees we decided that yesterday was the perfect beach day. It was a Friday so it wasn’t too crowded and we were able to score free street parking. We parked at Pacific Beach and then walked 2 miles along the ocean front walk to Mission Beach. We walked out along Crystal Pier which provided a really unique viewing platform for watching the surfers catch waves. The surf was pounding and when I went for a swim later I didn’t go out the back because it was too big for me. Most people in the water were on boards so I don’t think i was the only swimmer worried. We had a picnic lunch on the beach and spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun. After a busy week it was just what we needed. We stuck around for sunset and then drove up to the La Jolla district to gawk at the wealthy with their Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s. Oh how the other 1% live…

This morning we decided to have a car free day so we hopped on the bus and headed into town. I had a quick chat to James to wish him well for the wedding and then we headed to the harbour. We stumbled across a local craft brewing event which caught my attention, until we investigated and found it cost US$50 per person. I can drink a number of beers but I could never drink 50 bucks worth. We passed and followed the shoreline along walking past the USS Midway and the Unconditional Surrender statue (the sailor with a woman leaned back kissing her). People were re-enacting the pose for photos but Anna wasn’t having any of that. We made our way to the Gaslight historic section of town and found a microbrewery with happy hour specials. Anna felt sorry for me because we missed out on the beer festival so we popped in and had a beer. After, we headed up to Balboa Park which is near the San Diego Zoo. We noticed that the arrivals flight path is directly over the top of the park so we laid on the grass and watched the planes fly overhead. Each one was only 1-2 minutes apart and quite low as they past over us. Anna is still grateful that we haven’t been on a plane since August. After a while we walked throughout the gardens past loads of wedding parties having photos and then caught the bus back home. Left over curried sausages for dinner tonight. Yummo.

Over the next week we’ll head to Palm Springs, Joshua Tree national park and then onto Las Vagas.

Oh Anna published the October video on YouTube earlier this week. Click here to check it out.



Fail of the Week
When we left the General Grant tree for the hike back to the cabin it turned dark very quickly. We essentially knew where we were but the trail was quite difficult to follow in the dark and we lost it a few times. We stumbled into a camp ground and eventually found a road. We decided to follow that which did get us back, but it took us about 1.5 times as long to get back and we had zero supplies. Oops.

Meal of the Week
Anna was suggesting curried sausages for meal of the week until we went to The Taco Stand last night for dinner. The curried sausages quickly too a back seat to the Spicy Shrimp and pork tacos and the California burrito. All three were fantastic and there was a huge range of salsa and spices to accompany them. Best part was that it only cost $15 total. Oh and we managed to beat the crowd which was flowing out in the street by the time we left.


More photos


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