Road Trip Report: Days 12 and 13, July 23-24

It’s a Double Digest! Two issues for the price of one! Which really isn’t saying much, but should raise your suspicions that this might be insanely long. Honestly, I wouldn’t blame you for skimming it, or just skipping it all together.

Oh, and if you don’t know what a Double Digest is, you either didn’t read enough Archie comics as a kid, or you’re too young to remember them. Although they do still sell them in grocery stores, and I always wonder who’s still buying them.

Anyway, on to the show.

Day 12, July 23

I got an early start to the day, getting up at 6:30am and checking out around 7:30am. My goal was to get one of the walk-in campsites at Yosemite National Park, which was a three-hour drive from Reno. I stopped at a WalMart along the way to get some supplies, and then settled in for one of the most scenic drives yet, as I went south along the Sierra Nevada mountain range toward the state line.

The last thing I saw in Nevada was Topaz Lake, which is on your left as you approach from the north. It was stunningly beautiful, and had a hotel and conference centre that overlooks it.

Actually, scratch that. The last thing I saw was the sign advertising the Topaz Lake casino. Sigh.

If you can’t already tell, the casinos in Nevada annoy me. I don’t have a problem with casinos or gambling in general, but it’s a shame that the State of Nevada is known more for its man-made attractions than its natural beauty. I wish that they would limit how many gambling licenses they grant to establishments, so that there isn’t one on every corner of every street of every community. But such is life.

Interestingly, California is the first state where I was stopped and asked if I had any produce or live animals with me, whereas every other state line I’ve crossed is just something that exists on a map. From there, it’s on to Mono Lake and the town of Lee Vining, where I got brunch and firewood before trekking into Yosemite.

Highway 120 takes you into the park from the east. It’s seasonal (meaning it’s closed in the winter) and all uphill, with lots of stopping points to appreciate the view. Entering the park, you pay $20 for a seven-day pass, and as you drive through there are even more stopping points for lakes, picnic areas, hiking trails, etc.. You certainly don’t feel lonely, as there are lots of people travelling through the park.

As I mentioned earlier, I was hoping to get a spot in one of the walk-in campsites, since I hadn’t made a reservation. According to the website, the campsites fill up every day by around noon, and it was afternoon when I got into the park. The park ranger who checked me through the gate said that there was space at Tuolumne Meadows, but when I got to it there was a sign saying that it was full. After that, I wasn’t holding out much hope.

I passed the second site, Porcupine Meadows, and had resolved to just spend the day and then find a campsite after leaving the park on the west side. But on a whim I decided to turn around and check it out, and as luck would have it there were plenty of spots available. I’m not too fussy about sites so long as there’s level ground, so I took the first one that I pulled into, and $10 later I was all settled in for the evening. Good thing, too…the sites all filled up pretty quickly after I got here, and were lots of cars driving in and out all afternoon. It’s fascinating that the park works this way, with so many walk-in campsites and so many people who probably don’t find a spot for the evening. I guess they do what I was planning, and hope to find a site outside of Yosemite if they can’t get one in the park. Considering that it can take an hour to drive from one area of the park to the other, that’s quite a gamble. And yet, there were people looking around as late as 7:30pm, which just doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s a lot of effort for a very slim chance, and a lot of them were big RVs or trucks with full trailers, which suggests people who probably should have known better. There was even some crazy-looking vehicle that’s hard to describe…I think it was some kind of European army vehicle from the 70’s.

I mostly spent the evening just relaxing: playing my guitar, building a fire, and reading. Dinner was an extremely simple affair, consisting of turkey jerky and instant noodles. I had debated whether I wanted to bring any fresh meat with me (e.g. sausages or hot dogs), because I knew I wouldn’t finish them and didn’t want to attract any bears. Then I didn’t think about it at WalMart, so the decision was made for me. However, I kind of liked that I didn’t have to rely on anything other than my awesome JetBoil stove for hot food.

Tomorrow, I’ll pack up early and drive up to Yosemite Lodge, where I’m hoping to take the Glacier Point bus tour, or just drive it myself. I’d prefer the bus, so that I can just relax and enjoy the sights this time around, but I didn’t make a reservation. If not, no big deal. I’ll just enjoy my evening in Yosemite, and then move on to the next destination: San Francisco.

Day 13, July 24

I was up nice and early today, and surprisingly refreshed given that I was VERY cold overnight. I may have underestimated how cold it would get in the mountains, but it was still a brisk eight degrees Celsius when I got up. Probably got down to five degrees, and my sleeping bag is very much a “summer weight”. I compensated by sleeping in full clothing (double socks!) and laying my towel and extra blanket over top, but I never sleep well when I feel restricted. Also, I somewhat regret the air mattress I bought, which is shaped like a mummy sleeping bag. I have a tendency to move around a lot when I sleep, so I should have gotten something wider. Ah well.

Breakfast was interesting. I had purchased some freeze-dried meals earlier in the week, one of which was a “breakfast skillet” with eggs, potatoes, sausage, onion, and green peppers. And you know, it wasn’t bad at all. Boil some water, pour it into the pouch, wait for about ten minutes, and then eat. Sure, the consistency was a little bit mushy, but wrapped in a tortilla it was a decent breakfast and very filling. We’ll see how the other two meals I have work out. I think one’s lasagna, and the other chicken with rice. I’m only planning one more camping excursion, so it’ll be a toss-up on which one I go for.

My GPS said that the drive from Porcupine Flats to Yosemite Valley would be about an hour, since the speed limit is mostly 35mph. There wasn’t much traffic when I left at 8am, so I really enjoyed the drive up and down the mountains and through the trees. Funny thing is, it felt kind of like driving in British Columbia, particularly on the Sea to Sky Highway before it was improved for the Olympics. The difference is that in BC you’re at sea level, and in Yosemite you’re something like 4,000ft above at the lowest point.

The Valley blew me away, because there’s a full-on Yosemite Village that serves as home to all of the park staff, and that can handle pretty much every need. In addition to the general store and visitor’s centre, there’s a medical clinic, a post office, a theatre (with something going on every night), and a garage. One staff member guessed that there are 3,000 people in the community during peak season.

There’s also a very well-design shuttle-bus system that will take you pretty much anywhere you want to go in Yosemite. A number of buses go from one end of Yosemite to the other on a loop, while one bus purely serves the village. The staff encourage everyone to use the buses, which run from early in the morning until late in the evening, and it makes a ton of sense.

Knowing this, if I were to return to Yosemite in the future I would reserve a room in the Yosemite Lodge (near the Village) for a few days, so that I could experience the village in the evenings. If I wanted to stay longer, I’d then shift to one of the camp sites at the other end of the park.

From there, it was on to Glacier Point. Rather than taking (and paying for) the bus, I decided to keep driving so that I could just continue on to San Francisco afterward (and so I wouldn’t be subject to the bus’s schedule). Besides, given all the ground that my car and I have covered over the past two weeks, it seemed wrong not to take it with me to the top.

The drive up was fantastic. It’s mostly one lane, but there are turnouts everywhere so that slower cars can pull over and let others by. I was not one of the slower cars, though again, I wasn’t pushing too hard. It’s more about having the freedom to drive without anyone in front of me and being able to see what’s ahead, rather than following someone into a corner.

You reach Washburn Point shortly before the top, and it offers a stunning view. But then I got up to Glacier Point, from where you can look down and see Yosemite Village in the valley below. The valley is at 4,000ft, and Glacier Point is at 7,200ft. All I can tell you is that I had a death grip on my phone while taking photos.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that AT&T has a strong signal at Glacier Point, so I booked my hotel in San Francisco from the top of the mountain, just so I can say that I did. And then it was time to go.

I was really, really looking forward to doing the Glacier Point drive in reverse, and it started out great as I zoomed up through the hairpin turns. Seriously, check it out on Google Maps. You might have to zoom in a bit, but you’ll see how Glacier Point Road twists and turns. It’s probably the best road I’ve ever driven.

Unfortunately, then I ran into tourist drivers in minivans…and the fun ended. We were going so slowly that for most of the descent I put my car in neutral and just used the brakes to control my speed. I have no issue with them going at a comfortable speed, but there were plenty of opportunities for them to pull over and let everyone else go by and they didn’t. That’s not very courteous.

Eventually, I reconnected with Highway 120, which is what brought me into the park and would now take me out of it. And for awhile, the 120 made up for my frustration with the Glacier Point descent…until it all happened again. On what could have been the most fantastic descent ever, on a winding road on the side of a mountain with a beautiful view, I got stuck behind a flatbed trailer and some other vehicles that were understandably taking it slow. So once again I put the Miata in neutral and died a little on the inside.

On the bright side, I’m going to have the best fuel efficiency ever on my next fill-up, because I must have driven 100km in neutral, and another 200km or so at constant, low speeds. But it’s not much of a bright side.

Amusing note: it’s not often that you find yourself descending 7,000ft in the course of one drive, but I did that today when I went straight from Glacier Point to San Francisco without stopping. And I did it one better last week when I went up to Mount Evans (14,265ft) and back down to Denver (5,280ft).

When I booked my hotel, I debated whether I wanted to be right in San Francisco or on the edge, since my experience in Minneapolis wasn’t great. I decided to not be scared off, so I went for right downtown.

The first thing you need to know is that San Francisco is expensive. I paid about $220 with taxes for tonight, while paying less than that for all three of the previous nights combined (two hotels and the campsite).

The second thing to know is that my GPS kind of let me down, for the first time on this trip. I questioned whether I should try to get to the hotel between 5-6pm, since it’s a weekday and I’d face rush hour. On one hand, I really wanted a hot shower after a brutally hot 40-degree drive from the park, mostly with the top down. On the other, I hate driving in big cities during rush hour. My GPS told me that there wasn’t any major delays, so I went for it. And that was great, up until it updated the 2-minute delay to 20 minutes just as I got to it. If that wasn’t enough, when I was finally downtown and headed for my hotel, the GPS suddenly lost its signal, so I didn’t know where to turn. I had to reboot it to get it going again, during which I passed the hotel and had to work my way back through San Francisco’s maze of one-way streets.

But eventually I got to my destination: the Hotel Whitcomb. It’s charming. Not the best place I’ve been, particularly given the price, but the bed is comfortable and the location is decent.

And that’s Day 13.

At this point, I’m definitely starting to tire. I’m in San Francisco, but I haven’t figured out what I’m going to do with my day here. I have, however, booked my final two hotels. I’ll head up the coast and stay in Eureka, California tomorrow night. Then it’s off to Crater Lake for more camping, and then Portland to close things out. I had planned to go to Seattle, but I’ve been there before and I’ll be there again in the future. It’s time to return to BC and figure out what’s next.

This means that my trip will wrap up on Sunday, July 28, a full 17 days after it started and a little shy of the 20 days I had estimated. I’m quite pleased with that, as I’ve definitely moved at my own pace. And all things, be they good or bad, must come to an end.