We began our journey from Southern California up the Pacific Coast Highway, probably one of the most famous and beautiful highways in the entire country. We spent a few nights beach camping in El Capitan State Park, just north of Malibu, where the kids turned into beach bums and we got beautifully tan. We continued up the coast highway to San Simeon, the summer home of the filthy rich media tycoon William Randolph Hearst. I had visited San Simeon when I was 16 years old and I was looking forward to touring it again after all these years. Tabatha had learned about the architect of the home, Julia Morgan, in school last year and she had some interesting facts to share about the house. San Simeon is perched high on the California cliffs, with insanely beautiful views of the ocean. It takes almost 15 minutes via a winding road just to reach the mansion, and Alex Trebeck narrates the history of the home during the bus ride to the top. I find the pool and the gardens around the house more spectacular than the interior of the home itself. The flowers are extraordinary and he’s filled the spaces with ancient Egyptian and Grecian staturary. The two pools might be the most famous, and most photographed, parts of the house. As you sit poolside, with the grecian staturary, the stillness of the blue pool water, the ocean breezes and incredible views, you feel the most supreme sense of bliss. If I had a time machine, I would transport myself back to that spot, in the 1920s, with a cocktail in hand and Cary Grant in the lounge chair next to me, discussing how fabulously fabulous we are!
About two hours north on the Pacific Coast Highway is Big Sur, one of the most photographed places in California, and possibly the country. During this part of the drive, the two lane highway hugs the cliffside and you have dramatic twists and turns as you drive with high cliffs on one side and dramatic drops to the ocean on the other! We camped in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, nestled among some huge Sequioa trees and just off the coast. We did several hikes through the wildflower strewn hillsides down to the beach. The kids would frollick along the beach, chasing the waves, searching for shells and driftwood and having a fabulous time. We also spent a day in Monterrey, having an incredible lunch on the famous Monterrey fishing pier. I think Micah tried every free sample of clam chowder offered to him by the different vendors on the pier. He is becoming quite the clam chowder connoisseur.
Pinnacles National Park is about a two hour drive from the coast and we took a day trip to hike there. The drive to Pinnacles took us through “Steinbeck country”, probably one of the most furtile pieces of farm land in the world. We passed through tons of farms and watched lettuces, oranges and lemons being picked. We hiked the western side of Pinnacles N.P. which proved to be very beautiful but very challenging. One trail took us down through a canyon, into a very dark cave system (thank God there is a flashlight on the cellphone!) and then up a steep incline to the top of the canyon. The four mile hike proved to be one of our favorites thus far. We tried a second hike, with an elevation gain of about 2,000 feet, but tuckered out about half way through due to the heat. However, we were able to see about eight to ten hawks sweeping through the canyon trying to find their dinner. We loved watching them fly on the crest of the wind and then swoop down into the canyon to pounce on small prey. Very majestic and dangerous birds!
Before heading to the eastern part of California to see Sequoia National Park and Yosemite National Park, we had about five days to kill so we stayed right outside Fresno, just near the edge of the Sierra National Forest at Millerton Lake. Millerton is a man-made lake which waters help irrigate the farmland throughout the very furtile Fresno farming community. The lake was rather low while we were there so we didn’t do any swimming in the lake, but the views around the lake were beautiful and the hiking trails were very nice. We had a lovely hispanic family camp next to us and they became fast friends. One early evening, as we were gathering kindling to start a fire, we heard a bit of a ruckus coming from their campsite. It turned out that their dog had come upon a rattlesnake and the snake had followed the dog back into their campsite. Someone had just shot the snake with a bee bee gun and stunned it. Having never seen a rattlesnake before, we all ran over to check this thing out. It was still thrashing rather violently so they took the grate off their grill, set it on top of the snake and held the grill down with their sturdy boots. Then one of the mothers in the group found a large rock and bashed in the snake’s head!! She then grabbed the snake, chopped off its head and skinned it. She had that snake skinned in less than two minutes. A few minutes later they found another rattler in their site, and he suffered the same fate. They then pan-fried the snakes and brought some over for us to try! The meat looked like a small piece of fish, and tasted like a mild and delicate piece of chicken. It was an extremely memorable experience for all of us!
We spent Easter at Millerton Lake and the kids were excited to discover that the Easter Bunny had found them on the road after all. They had eggs to find inside the Airstream and our lovely neighbors had some eggs for them as well. It was great fun. On Easter we decided to drive into the Sierra National Forest to hike a trail that would lead us to a waterfall. When we left the campsite it was almost 90 degrees, so Justin was in shorts and sandals and we were wearing light clothing. As we started driving into the hills, we noticed the temperature started to creep into the 60s. As we got higher into the hills, which were now becoming mountains, the temperature was getting into the upper 40s. We stopped to look upon a beautiful lake, and the temperature was 45. We all tried to pretend that we weren’t that cold. As we climbed up higher to get to our trailhead, we then started driving through snow. Not just a bit of snow, like huge snow drifts! And once we got to the trailhead, it was literally buried in snow. You could not see where the trail was!! We would have needed snow shoes! We couldn’t beleive that in 45 minutes we had gone from 90 degree heat to snow drifts taller than us! Watching Justin try to navigate even a small part of the trail in his sandals was pretty funny. We decided no hiking would be done that day. Just a bit further up the road was China Peak ski area, and we had lunch there, in our shorts, watching the skiers come down the mountain. It made us wish we had brought our ski gear instead of our shorts!! We all had a good laugh at how silly we had been not to prepare more, and I learned that I would need to check elevation gain and trail information better before setting out!
From our memorable time at Millerton Lake, we drove a few hours to Sequioa National Park, which has the largest living tree in the world, called the General Sherman. Sequoia is a massive park and we stayed right outside the park, in the southwest corner. Upon entering the park, we would have about an hour and a half drive up to the Giant Forest, through a very steep and winding road. The river that followed the road was raging as all the snow was melting and it made for a spectacular drive. A huge amount of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, they boarder one another, was closed because a great deal of the parks were still covered in snow. Considering this was the off season, the park was still very crowded, and I can’t imagine what it will be like during the heart of summer. We did a ton of great hiking trails in Sequoia, saw some incredibly beautiful, old trees and tried snowshoes for the first time. One of our favorite hikes was climbing the 350 steps to the top of the granite dome of Moro Rock, where you have wonderful views of the forest canopy below. It was very peaceful to hike into the snow covered trails to see the huge sequoia trees. The short trails around the very popular General Sherman and General Grant Trees were very crowded but once you got a few feet away and started walking in the snow, we rarely saw another person as we were able to explore the “lesser known” trees. Very beautiful and very humbling. We rented snowshoes one of the days and had a wonderful time blazing our own trail through the deeply forested areas. We all got the hang of the snowshoes pretty quickly and it was so much easier hiking with them and we were able to cover a lot of ground and have a lot of snowball fights along the way!
After a very long day of hiking, as we were making our way back down the steep and winding drive out of Sequoia National Park, we got a flat tire! Luckily, Justin was able to find a rather flat patch on the side of the road to stop. Considering we’ve gone over 40,000 miles on the truck, a flat tire was bound to happen and Justin had the tire off and the spare put on in just under an hour. We were all impressed by his skills! Luckily for us, there was a Goodyear a few towns away and we were able to get a new tire the next day! We were very lucky that this didn’t delay us in any way!
After five days in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, we drove a few hours north to Yosemite National Park. Yosemite might be one of the most famous National Parks in the U.S. and we knew it was going to be a highlight of the trip. Being the last week of April, large portions of the park were closed, but the things we were most excited to see, namely the Yosemite Valley area was open. And it was full of people! Every day it felt like a blessing when we found a parking spot and it was easy to navigate the park with the great shuttle system that they provide to hikers. The Yosemite Valley is truly spectacular. I can see why so many people fought hard for its protection and you feel an inner peace when walking around, once you can get away from the cars, buses and crowds of people.
On our first day at Yosemite, we went to see the famous Yosemite Falls first. Due to the large amount of rain and snow they had this past winter, all the waterfalls at Yosemite were flowing very fast and very high. When we viewed the Lower Yosemite Falls, the amount of mist pouring off the falls was so great that after a few minutes looking at it, we were pretty wet. Having a desire to see even more, we decided to start hiking the Upper Yosemite Falls trail, a 7.6 mile (round trip) trail that takes you 2,600 feet to the top of the falls. You are gaining 2,600 feet in elevation in just 3.8 miles!! When we started the hike, Justin had a strong desire to reach the top. I thought he was crazy! I did not think the kids could tackle a hike such as this, and I thought we’d get a few miles in and just turn around and head back. As we started to climb the numerous switchbacks, Tabatha almost stepped on a snake, and kinda freaked out, but we kept going. Then Micah fell, and cried, but he got back up and kept going. The payoff was big on this trail…. once you got about a mile up, the views down into the valley were spectacular. About two and a half miles up, you reach a point where the mid-point of the Upper Falls come into view and as we approached, the mist and wind was so high that we got soaked. It was so cool to climb over wet rocks with the fall mist pelting you! It really cooled you off when you needed it most. Once we reached this point, I thought for sure we’d head back down but we heard someone say that it was now only a mile to the top. We all looked at each other and thought, we can do another mile. All of us except Tabatha, who had this angry and crazed look in her eye. She channeled that rage and kept climbing. As it turned out, we didn’t have a mile left to go! We had another mile and a half to go, and it was the roughest mile and a half I have ever hiked. At times it was so steep that you were climbing straight up rocks. Had the views not been spectacular, we would have given up. We almost gave up. We all thought about it… many times. But we made it, we made it to the top!! Not only we were so proud of ourselves but the view of the water plunging down the rock face was humbling and awe-inspiring. You can understand the power of water and the power of nature. We spent about a half hour at the top and then had to make the long descent back down!! By the time we reached the top, we had run out of water, so the hike down, though easier, proved to be difficult without any water and I was happy that I have Life Savers in our pack to give us a sugar kick on the way down. We met a lovely young couple from Australia on the way down, and we ended up chatting with them for the last two miles of the hike, which made the time pass much easier. We started hiking Upper Yosemite Falls at 1:30pm and ended the trail at 7:45pm, just at the sun was starting to set. It took us 6 hours and 15 minutes. The National Park Service website says it takes 6-10 hours to hike the trail, so I think our time was pretty good! I also learned that the hike is compared to walking up the entire Empire State Building! I was so proud, especially of the kids, that we were able to do this hike. It was probably the hardest thing we’ve ever done. When the kids got their Junior Ranger badges and told the Ranger that they did the entire hike, she almost didn’t beleive them and was extremely impressed!!
We decided to take the next day off and rest at the campground but Day 2 at Yosemite proved to be just as great. On day 2 we decided to hike to the top of Vernal Falls, which is only 2.4 miles and only 1,000 feet in elevation gain. After our day at Upper Yosemite, this was going to be an easy one. Vernal Falls is anything but easy! The hike was beautiful and the last mile you hike through steps cut into the rock face. Again, the mist off the falls was incredible and by the time we got to the top of the Falls, we were soaked. I had to wring out my shirt to help it dry! We all sat on the large rock at the top of the falls and sunbathed for a few minutes until we were all dry! Again, the plunging water over the falls was humbling, hypnotic and stunningly beautiful.
Our time at Yosemite was beautiful and magical. There were a lot of suprises too. When walking to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel for a cocktail, we came upon a deer grazing on the trail. As we slowed down to watch it, we realized we were surrounded by about twenty deer, all laying down in the tall grass relaxing. We saw a few snakes along the trail that proved to be harmless but kept us on our toes. They were black with one orange stripe down the center and I thought they were pretty cool to watch. We also camped next to the coolest family who were originally from Italy but lived on a catamaran in French Polynesia. Their eleven year old son Pablo became a favorite and we shared a campfire one night and a lot of laughs. We also had a family of beavers living in the creek by our campsite and around 7pm each night they would come out to eat and gather branches for their den. Watching the family of three beavers became a highlight each night.
Our time in the Eastern California National Parks was amazing! We thought they would be pretty but they proved to be spectacular!! We know that this visit will be just our first as you can’t stay away from places that are this insanely beautiful!!