On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair …The Eagles
If you have never been on a road trip before, what would be your ideal first-timer destination? Could there be a better choice than California?
We have made nine road trips in the US to date; but our first remains in many ways our most memorable, and not just because it was the first. LA, San Francisco, the Big Sur, Yosemite, Joshua Tree … the list of iconic sights goes on and on.
For this week’s Friendly Friday challenge, let me take you back to this, our first US road trip.
Back in 1991 we decided that the time had come to be a little more adventurous, and extravagant, in our choice of holiday destinations. Until then we had focused mainly on Europe; although there had been a marvellous trip to New York in 1982, a year after we married, and a week in Egypt the previous year. Now we wanted to see more of the US. After briefly considering a packaged ‘Fly Drive’ holiday, we realised it would be cheaper and more fun to plan our own route.
These were the pre-internet days; so our research was done in guidebooks borrowed from the library where I worked at the time and using brochures which we ordered from the National Park Service. We pre-booked accommodation using old-fashioned snail mail, sending International Money Orders to pay deposits. Quite a few of our reservations were for Motel 6s; their central reservation centre made the process simpler, and their prices suited our limited budget.
There were visas to apply for, maps to be bought, US driving regulations to be studied and memorised … It was all very exciting and just a little bit daunting. And especially so for Chris who, as I had not yet passed my driving test, would be our sole driver.
My trip journal
Because this was such a special trip for us, I kept a more detailed diary than I had previously done. The following extracts cover just a handful of the many highlights from this very special road trip. The accompanying photos are not especially good scans of the best of our 35 mm slides!
Driving the Big Sur
We began our drive along the Big Sur. The road was very winding, with a notice at each bend very helpfully giving a recommended speed limit. The views were really spectacular but progress was naturally slow. It was later than expected when we pulled into a viewpoint called Willow Creek Vista. There we had our picnic lunch, admired the scenery and photographed the gulls and dramatic coastline. As we drove north during the afternoon we stopped off at two of the many state parks in the area. The first was the Julia Pfeiffer Burns SP, where we saw squirrels and blue jays, and took a short footpath that tunnelled under the main road to arrive at a picturesque little cove into which poured a pretty waterfall.
At the aquarium we were able to stroke rays, handle crabs and see the various habitats that make up Monterey Bay, such as the tide pools so beloved by John Steinbeck. From the outside decks we saw seals on the rocks, cormorants and a pelican. Steinbeck might be horrified at what Cannery Row has become; but I think both he and Doc Ricketts would be pleased with the aquarium.
Yes, Steinbeck might be horrified, but we enjoyed Cannery Row. It is touristy, but with a very pleasant atmosphere and we found plenty to interest us. We saw Kalisa’s (‘La Ida Café’ in the novel) and went in the Old General Store, aka ‘Lee Chong’s’. We ate lunch in a lovely café; took lots of photos; and visited the Information Centre in an old railway carriage near the site of Doc’s lab.
Año Nuevo State Reserve
This reserve is famous for the elephant seals that use the beaches, and although the mating season was over we hoped we would be able to see some. The warden explained that some had returned to the beach to moult and that we would be able to see them by walking through the dunes to the north. It proved to be a long walk and at times quite difficult in the soft sand, but when we finally emerged on to the beach the sight that greeted us was well worth all the effort.
It was like walking into a scene in a David Attenborough documentary, with numerous seals just at the foot of the dunes. One pup had even strayed on to the path and we had to make a detour around him. Their eyes, especially the babies’, were huge, and where they had already moulted their skin gleamed like pewter.
Several helpful wardens here guided us to good viewing points and told us a little bit about what we were seeing – when they could be heard above the deafening barking of the seals!
The Golden Gate Bridge
As we approached San Francisco we thought we were prepared for the road to get a little busier, especially when it met Interstate 280. However the shock when it changed from a small two-lane dual carriageway to one with six lanes each side (and us in one of the middle lanes) was considerable. We found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of other cars, all going faster than us, overtaking on both sides (as is allowed in the US) and all apparently knowing exactly where they were going – unlike us! Luckily a slightly larger scale map of the San Francisco area gave us some clues as to what the road might do and which lane we should be in; and we were swept into the city on the right route, passing some prettily painted suburban terraces.
The road took us through the greenery of Golden Gate Park and out on to the famous bridge which was dramatic but, thanks to the traffic, somewhat hair-raising. On the far side of the bridge we turned off into the vista point parking area.
We had decided to devote part of the morning to Alcatraz, despite having such limited time in San Francisco, as it seemed a sight not to be missed. We were not disappointed!
The ferry took us the short distance across the bay and we landed on the island. We started the climb up to the gift shop. There a reformed ex-inmate, Leon ‘Whitey’ Thompson, was signing copies of his autobiography. We bought a signed copy of the book as a gift for Chris’s father John; and Chris posed for a photo with the ex-bank robber.
Inside the prison we exchanged our tickets for a Walkman with a taped tour of the building. This proved a great asset in bringing its past to life as, in addition to background information, it had interviews with ex-prisoners and guards, and atmospheric sound effects. We saw various cells, including that of the famous Bird Man, the segregation row, the route of the best-known escape attempt, the dining hall, hospital etc.
We entered the park and drove down through more wooded hills, some of them destroyed by fire. Suddenly around the last bend the famous Yosemite Valley was in front of us, looking exactly like all the photos but at the same time much bigger and grander.
We drove down into the valley and joined the road that loops around the valley floor. We saw great views (and took countless pictures) of all the famous sights – mountains such as El Capitan, the Three Brothers and Half Dome; waterfalls such as Bridal Veil and the Yosemite Falls; and the Yosemite River itself. Despite the large number of other people also exploring, in some places it was quite possible to get away from them and appreciate the scenery in relative solitude.
Yosemite – continued
After our morning’s tour of the valley, we drove up to Glacier Point, stopping for a picnic lunch en route. There we could look down on the valley, as well as looking across the nearby mountains to the whole Sierra Nevada range, in many places still covered with snow.
In the afternoon we returned to the valley, stopping at different viewpoints. We took a closer look at the Bridal Veil Falls (getting drenched in spray); and we walked to Mirror Lake with its classic view of Half Dome, as captured by Ansel Adams.
After breakfast we checked out and drove back to Yosemite National Park, but this time turning away from the valley to drive along the Tioga Road. This road, open only in summer, took us up through the Sierra Nevada mountains to the north of Yosemite Valley.
We saw a good variety of scenery including the Tuolumne River (racing over boulders on its way down to the valley) and a lovely glacial lake, hidden away among pine trees and with patches of snow still on the banks. Another halt was at Olmstead Point, a better-known viewpoint, with several coachloads of tourists. Despite the extra crowds, it was another worthwhile place to stop, with a view of Half Dome from behind (to contrast with its appearance yesterday from Mirror Lake) and some dramatic grey glaciated rocks and boulders.
Eventually the road took us out of the national park; but the scenery was still dramatic, as we climbed ever higher through the Sierra Nevada on the Tioga Pass. On their eastern side the mountains were steeper and less green, dropping down into the hot, bleak (but beautiful) Owens Valley.
Beyond Highway 395 a bumpy dirt road led down to the shores of this spectacular lake, where we sat at a picnic table in the hot sun to eat our lunch. Then we followed a short path through the outcrops of tufa (stalagmite-like salt columns) to the lake-side. The scenery was really breath-taking. The salt made the water a brilliant turquoise, as well as building the dramatic tufa columns.
Beyond the lake were the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains; and above a huge blue sky scattered with wispy clouds. To add to the atmosphere there were only a few other people around. This was ample consolation for having had to leave Yosemite.
Bristlecone Pine Forest
At Big Pine we turned east and took a smaller road that climbed up into the White Mountains, and an even smaller one towards the north, climbing even higher! This took us to the Bristlecone Pine Forest. These trees are the most ancient living things on earth and they certainly look their age. Some are over 4,000 years old, and all are twisted and bent by the wind, so that they really justified the guidebook’s description of them as ‘living driftwood’, and were really photogenic.
Joshua Tree National Monument
As we got out of our beautifully air-conditioned car the heat hit us (we were later to learn that it had been 102F in the shade that day – and there wasn’t a lot of shade!)
The heat was of course very dry, and we were able to walk around for a while and take lots of pictures of the strange Joshua Trees themselves, the unusual rock formations and the surrounding desert. But we ate our picnic in the cool of the car!
What with the heat and having relatively little time here, we didn’t tackle any of the trails in the park. But there was plenty of interest within easy reach of the well-made (and very quiet) road. Our second stop was at Hidden Valley, with more photogenic rocks and a wide variety of cacti.
Joshua Tree – continued
However we soon drove on to the third, and most spectacular, halt, at Keys View. Being quite high up it was a much more pleasant temperature here. A short walk from the parking area brought us to a view of the whole Palm Springs Valley and the Santa Rosa mountains beyond. It was very hazy (caused by smog drifting up the valley from LA) but no less dramatic for that.
Our final stop was at the Cholla Cactus Garden where there was a group of Bigelow cacti, also called Teddy Bear cacti because from a distance they appear soft and fluffy (they aren’t!)
We parked in a large car park near the beach and walked along the sea front, known as Ocean Front Walk. This was another place that was exactly as we’d imagined, just as described in all the guide-books; crowds of people, mostly young, mostly posing, with skateboards or roller-skates, slogan t-shirts and deep Californian suntans. There were also, of course, a fairly high proportion of tourists like ourselves. We saw fortune-tellers, kite-flyers, hair-wrappers, pavement-artists, as well as a lot of stalls selling Ray-Bans, t-shirts and even hats for dogs!
Of course we visited many more places than this during our busy two week road trip; Hearst Castle, old gold-mining towns, Palm Springs, San Diego … Every day brought new adventures, wonderful scenery or fascinating towns and cities, lots of history and the constant excitement of discovering what would be around the next bend.
We were hooked on road trips and would be back for many more; but this first one holds a special place in our hearts.
I visited California in 1991