A much awaited part of our world trip, our longest road trip (yet!), was finally around the corner – 21 days in the Southwest of US starting in California on 13th (that’s the family’s lucky number!) Jun 2016. Certainly called for a pit stop after Yellowstone and what better than friends, food and fun to get us all set! Manish’s long-time friend Chandra, a classmate from school going back some 36 years and his wife Arundhati graciously hosted us at their San Jose home. A visit to the wine district of Napa Valley and wine tasting at the Castello de Amorosa, a meet-up and dinner with Manish and Chandra’s schoolmate Sujit & his family who were visiting the US (ironically we never met in India in all these years!) at SFO, and a visit to the haloed institution Stanford University were all part of the package.
We met and caught up with our college friend Radhika & her lovely family after 24 long years. And in the process got invaluable inputs on some beautiful additions to our itinerary.
On the morning of 13th Jun we set out to the Yosemite National Park located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. Yosemite has the distinction of being the first instance of land set aside by the US government to be preserved and for public use through the Yosemite Grant in 1864 and setting the precedent for the establishment of Yellowstone as the first National Park in 1872. Yosemite itself acquired National Park status in 1890 ensuring the natural beauty and wilderness of this area is preserved for us and the generations to come to enjoy, thanks to the concerted and tireless efforts of selfless people like Galen Clark, John Muir and Frederick Olmsted.
The granite arch entrance is an apt gateway to Yosemite’s world of granite and water. The landscape as we see it here is the result of millions of years of geological and glacial activity that sculpted the granite rock into amazing formations, gave birth to deep canyons, multiple streams, cascades, waterfalls and lush meadows.
After a stop for a picnic lunch by the Merced river under tall cedar trees, we headed to the core and most visited area of the park, the Yosemite Valley. We were not quite prepared for the traffic jam we found ourselves in, so decided to park at the nearest possible spot and walked to the Visitor Center. Great decision as it gave us the time we needed to browse the exhibits and watch the documentary on Yosemite. We came to highly value the (usually) 20 minute capsules in all the National Parks which are an excellent brief on the history and geology of the park. We then headed off to check-in to our tented cabin accommodation in the Half Dome Village, until recently known as the Curry Village.
That night (and the next 2) turned out like being in a freezer! It was so cold despite the month of June and we sorely missed heating in the tent. Needless to say we were up early the next morning and quick to walk across to the warmth of the coffee shop! Could not but wonder why we were paying so much for non-heated tents with shared shower and restroom facilities, no coffee or breakfast and housekeeping limited to change of towels 🙁
We set out to explore the sights of the Yosemite Valley using the park’s hybrid shuttle, an eco-friendly transport option with value-added commentary by the knowledgeable drivers. First stop for us was the Yosemite Falls with a short hike to the lower falls. With spray blown in multiple directions and bright sunshine it was a wonderful sight that inspired Mihika to try and capture the beauty on paper. As we walked further we started seeing the upper and mid-sections of the waterfall that were hidden from view earlier and could appreciate how tall it is.
Next stop with a change of shuttle was El Capitan, one of the two most famous granite formations in Yosemite, the other being the Half Dome located next to our place of stay. We first admired the two Sentinels that stand across from the El Capitan before walking through the grassy meadows to get a view of the gigantic El Capitan.
The afternoon was spent on two activities. The first was a Ranger-led walk and talk on the Black Bears of Yosemite. It was quite shocking to know that 37 bears, a little over 10% of the park’s population of ~350 bears, had been hit by vehicles on the park roads in 2015. And in 2016 there had already been half-a-dozen accidents even before the peak traffic & tourist season of Jul-Aug. The second activity was an exploration of the traditional Ahwahnechee village exhibit at the Visitor Centre. In a recurring pattern across the national parks we had visited so far, we learnt that native American tribes inhabited the Yosemite Valley for thousands of years, living in harmony with and an initimate understanding of the complex ecosystem that supported them, before European settlers discovered the place and ultimately displaced them. The evening saw us watching a documentary on the life and work of John Muir besides catching up on social media with the limited internet connectivity at the village reception.
The next morning we started early to drive up to the Glacier Point that offers panoramic views of the Half Dome, canyons, waterfalls and the valley. A couple of stops along the way at the Tunnel View point for its photo opportunities of the valley.
On the way down, we stopped by the Bridal Veil Falls vista point to see this fascinating waterfall up close and could see why it was given its name.
In the afternoon we decided to brave the Yosemite Valley traffic to drive to the Tuolomne Grove off Tioga Road and not on the shuttle route. The attraction here were the ancient Giant Sequoia trees that are endemic to the region and found in 3 groves in Yosemite. The main and most visited Sequoia grove, Mariposa, is closed for restoration until 2017. Giant Sequoias are amongst the oldest living trees in the world, outlived only by the Bristlecone Pines, and many of them have lived through the most significant milestones in recorded human history! Here is another example of a tree that has adapted to its natural environment prone to forest fires – like the Lodgepole pines in Yellowstone, the Giant Sequoias also have cones that are opened up by fire to release seeds. The 1.6 mile walk to the grove was easy being downhill, the groans of uphill walk back were all but forgotten on sighting an Acorn Woodpecker that was tirelessly pecking away at the bark of a mammoth tree!
The third morning at Yosemite saw us departing the park (happy to escape the cold nights!) through the scenic Tioga Road, the last road to be cleared of snow for the Tioga Pass to be opened up to traffic in the summer. We stopped by the Olmsted Point to take a look at the “lunar” landscape, a peek down the deep Tenaya canyon and a glimpse of the Tenaya lake that lay further ahead. Another stop at Tenaya lake to admire the serene blue waters with its mirror-like reflection of the surrounding mountains and snow caps and we were on our way out of Yosemite and soon looking at the expansive Mono Lake as we neared the town of Lee Vining.
The places of interest for the day (4th of the trip) after leaving Yosemite were the Bodie State Historic Park and the Mono Lake. We drove along the Mono lake to Bodie, an abandoned mining town from the Californian gold rush era. It started as a mining camp in 1859 with the discovery of gold here by a group of prospectors including W.S. Bodey after whom the town is named. It grew and witnessed its peak between 1877 – 1880 before its decline in the late 1910s and eventual abandonment. It was fascinating to walk through the streets of this ghost town which has preserved the houses, shops and community hall in the state they were left in, including some furnishings and contents. The small museum contains family photographs of residents, tools used by the miners and payroll registers of some of the mining companies with beautifully handwritten (almost calligraphic!) lists of the names & roles of workers among other artefacts. The town witnessed a fair share of violence we learnt with brawls, shootings and murders not being uncommon!
We then descended down the Bodie hills and stopped by Mono lake, a huge saline soda lake to admire the hundreds of California Gulls along its shoreline and the curious formations of limestone called tufas. The tufas started emerging when water levels in the lake reduced following diversion of water to serve the needs of Los Angeles! The fall in water levels has adversely affected the ecosystem supported by the lake, in particular the migratory birds that nest here. Fortunately the Mono Lake Committee, an environmental organisation has taken up the cause of preservation of the lake and made significant progress over the last couple of decades.
Driving along Hwy 395, we headed to our destination for that night’s halt – June Lake village. The next morning we enjoyed the views and calm of the picturesque Gull and June lakes before heading off to the Earthquake Fault in the Inyo National Forest near Mammoth Lakes. We spotted a mule deer on the highway, the first one with antlers that we had seen. He quickly retreated into the forest.
Next up on the itinerary was the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, a detour from the town of Big Pine, added last minute as it was too tempting to pass by without looking at the oldest known living organisms dating over 4000 years in age.
Bristlecone pine trees do not grow very tall, unlike what is normally expected especially after knowing about the Giant Sequoias, but they thrive in higher elevations under harsh conditions where other plants cannot grow. They have shallow and highly branched roots and extremely durable wood that is highly resistant to rot and insects. The exposed wood of Bristlecones, on living and dead trees, erodes like stone due to wind, rain, and freezing, which creates unusual forms and shapes.
Leaving the windy slopes of the White Mountains where life has adapted to harsh climate, we descended down to the valley to visit a place where humans were forced to adapt to harsh climatic conditions during World War II. The Manzanar National Historic Site located between the towns of Independence and Lone Pine on Hwy 395 represents a little known part of American history. It is one of ten camps setup following the attack at Pearl Harbour where over 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry along the Pacific coast were incarcerated for stated reasons of suspicion but with no evidence ever found against any of them it is natural to wonder if it was just the face of racism showing itself. Acknowledging the wrongs and preserving the site with its story narrated candidly in the documentary screened every half-hour are great steps forward indeed.
After the dusty scorching winds and admiring the spirit of the Japanese community that had during its stay here altered it from barren land to little gardens and fruit orchards, we were ready to call it a day. We headed to the town of Ollancha with a tiny detour into Alabama Hills near Lone Pine to catch a glimpse of the locale that has seen the making of many an old Western movie.
The dawn of day 6 on the road saw us witnessing one of the most beautiful sunrises at just past 5 am as we woke up to get going to the Death Valley National Park.
A couple of black-tailed jackrabbits (aka American desert hares) sprinted across the road as we drove in as if to prove the abundance of life in the desert. Pretty soon we were looking at such beautiful shades on the mountain sides, it got us wondering if this was painted or real!
First stop was the Mosaic Canyon with a short walk into the canyon to see the beautiful marble like polished surfaces. It was difficult to imagine water flowing through the canyon in the heat though it was just about 8 in the morning!
As we drove down getting lower in elevation, the temperature reading continued to steadily inch up. We were soon at the point where we were at sea level and set to continue below sea level as we proceeded to Furnace Creek.
Next stop was at the Furnace Creek Visitor Centre for our intro and orientation on the park’s history and ecology. The documentary in its honest style included an emotional narration by an elderly lady of the native Timbisha Shoshone tribe saying they believed (like native Americans all across) they had been put in that particular place by the creator to look after and care for the land and how strange it was to be allocated a “reservation” to live on in their own land was theirs.
The landscape as we see it today is the result of a whole host of geological activities over millions of years, the last of which was a stretching of the Earth’s crust creating the slanted rock layers of the mountain ranges (that look very different from the fold or uplift mountains we are more familiar with) and the valley in between. The valley is starved of rainfall being in the “shadow” of three mountain ranges on the west which result in depletion of the moisture content of air as it crosses the mountains. And so we have the driest and hottest place here in the continent.
The much awaited highlight for the day was the fact that we could look at the highest & lowest points in contiguous US within an hour of being at the lowest point! At Badwater Basin we stood at the lowest at 282 feet below sea level with extensive “salt flats” stretching out and water vapour visible over the shimmering white surface in the distance.
And then it was time to head up to Dante’s View after a brief colourful journey through Artist Drive and taking in the amazing vistas from Zabriskie Point both of which give one the feeling of being in a gigantic 3D canvas.
From Dante’s View point one can see the lowest (Badwater Basin, 282 feet below sea level) and highest points (Mount Whitney, 14505 feet above sea level) of US on a clear day. Relieved at the perceptibly cooler temperatures here we spent some time walking around and admiring the views from different angles, spotting lizards and some birds before departing the park.
Day 7 – time to head to Las Vegas for a relaxed couple of days, especially considering that we had just entered a heat wave gripping parts of California, Nevada and Arizona for 4 days. ‘Finding Dory’ at the legendary Brendan theatre and the cool environs of some of the famed casinos of Vegas like Bellagio were the perfect getaway from the heat outside, but we did need to steel ourselves to go and see the Hoover Dam on day 9.
Day 10 was a long day with an early start as we had a lot of ground to cover before catching the sunset at the Grand Canyon. Our first destination situated in the state of Utah was an addition to our original itinerary based on our friend Radhika’s strong recommendation.
The Zion National Park is an amazingly beautiful place, it looks like a series of sandstone temples chiseled by a master sculptor! We learnt that water in the form of the Virgin river, a tributary of the Colorado river, working its way through the Colorado plateau after its near vertical uplift millions of years ago is that accomplished sculptor.
A shuttle bus tour through the Zion scenic drive saw us deciding to come back here to walk through the Narrows some day. We headed out onto the Zion – Mt. Carmel Highway to enjoy the scenic drive and saw some of the most spectacular formations including the Great Arch, the East Temple and the Chequered Mesa.
The drive outside the park heading towards the town of Page in Arizona continued to be scenic through canyon country with landscape alternating between the colourful hill formations of Death Valley and red sandstone formations of Zion.
Crossing Lake Powell we continued past Page and as it was past 4:30 pm we knew we were too late for a tour of the mesmerising Antelope Canyon. So we drove straight to the Horseshoe Bend trailhead. We walked through the sandy stretch of 1.2 km to arrive at one of the most beautiful sights we have ever beheld, created by the meandering Colorado river.
A most satisfied lot, we were on our way to the Grand Canyon National Park with our fingers crossed to make it there in time to catch the sunset. And we made it to the South Rim of the canyon in time to watch one of the most beautiful sunsets we have ever seen while trying to fathom the width and depth of the Grand Canyon! At its widest the canyon stretches 29 km and just over 6 km at the its narrowest!! And it is 1.6 km deep.
As darkness fell we drove into the heart of the park towards Yavapai Lodge where we were to stay and on the way were delighted to stop to let an elk cross the road with her little calf. The next morning we made our way to the Visitor Center and from there hiked the stretch along the canyon rim to the Geology Museum. We stopped at various places to admire the sheer grandeur, immense size and seemingly infinite stretch of red monuments. I must say we were disappointed at the haze hanging around which as we learnt soon enough, is not uncommon here due to air pollutants carried by the winds from the nearby urban centers and industries.
At the Geology Museum we learnt about how the canyon is a geologist’s dream with its visible historical record of the earth’s layers of rocks, the oldest (called Vishnu Schist) of which date from nearly 2 billions years ago and the youngest 200 million years. It was fascinating and frankly quite mind boggling to try and comprehend the formation of this landscape which has been a shallow sea at some points in time and a swamp at others, the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates, earthquakes, volcanoes, ice ages and all that have resulted in what we see today. It is so much more than just erosion by the Colorado.
We used the South Rim shuttle service to visit various vista points like the Mohave, Hopi and Powell points, sometimes walking through the trails connecting them. We admired the “Battleship” formation which we learnt had caves that were a favoured nesting place for some of the California Condors in the park and caught glimpses of the Colorado river flowing deep down in the canyon. Later that afternoon we attended a ranger-led talk on the critically endangered California Condors. These huge scavenger birds had come to the brink of extinction with only 27 surviving birds in the 1980s. Fortunately their numbers are now slightly healthier at over 425 after an intensive recovery program and the Grand Canyon has around 80 of them in the wild.
After the talk we took the shuttle to get to the Abyss and Pima points to look at the canyon colours come alive in the rays of the setting sun.
Day 12 – we start out early to catch the sunrise at Yaki Point and walk down the canyon on the South Kaibab trail to see it from a little deeper. It gave us an opportunity to see the Kaibab limestone walls up close and an intermediate view of the canyon.
The hike was a good way to wrap-up our canyon experience and we headed out to Sedona, a desert town that features red sandstone formations and regarded as one of the energy vortex locations. My interest in spirituality was the reason for visiting Sedona. The town’s most unique feature, besides the sandstone formations, are its numerous roundabouts, something we associate with the UK and Europe but not the US. We visited three of the four main vortexes that evening – the Cathedral Rock, the Bell Rock and the Airport Mesa, the last being a common vantage point to watch colourful sunsets.
Day 13 was a relaxed start (maybe the calming effect of the energy of the place!) with a mid-morning visit to the fourth vortex at Boynton Canyon. On our way we met a gentleman who greeted us and offered each of us a heart-shaped stone to carry home the energy with us. We felt blessed!
The agenda was the rest of the day was a drive through the historic Route 66, one of the oldest highways of the US, and an overnight halt at the old city of Needles before heading to our next destination the Joshua Tree National Park.
The Joshua Tree National Park would mark the culmination of Manish’s “U2 pilgrimage” starting at the ghost town of Bodie and through Death Valley in homage to their bestselling album “The Joshua Tree“. We were now going to see one of the largest congregations of the perennial Yucca that adorns the sleeve of the album in its natural habitat.
The Joshua Tree National Park is a transition zone between two different deserts – the Mojave and the Colorado and has features of both and supports a diverse ecosystem. There are two main varieties of the Yucca seen in the park, one ofcourse is the Joshua Tree and the other is the Mojave Yucca, a very beautiful looking plant.
We walked the Hidden Valley trail which is said to have been completely isolated for centuries and hence had distinctly evolved plant & animal species until one of the rocks concealing it was blasted through by cattle herders and the micro-habitat more or less destroyed by grazing and introduction of exotic / invasive species. It was very hot though it was still the morning and so the walk seemed longer than the one mile (1.6 km) it actually is. In the afternoon of day 14 we were en-route to San Diego on the Pacific coast and looking forward to the cooler days and nights ahead.
A major attraction for us in San Diego was the USS Midway, the longest serving aircraft carrier of the US (from 1945 to 1992) that has been converted into a museum. Docked in the Navy Pier at the San Diego harbour, this huge ship is extremely educational and carries many helicopters and aircraft used in the years of the Cold War and subsequent missions including rescue and relief. There are veterans who served on the ship at various points to explain the ship’s operations, aircraft launch and retrieval mechanisms on the seas using the extremely small airstrip, as well as the internal workings and a day in their life.
From the harbour we headed to the historic Gaslamp Quarter and onto the panoramic Coronado Bridge to cross over the San Diego bay to Coronado, the residence of many retired officers of the US Navy. Last stop for the day was at the Mission Beach before calling it a day.
Day 16 was reserved for a visit to the San Diego zoo (and this possibly was our last visit to any zoo) that is celebrating its centennial this year and doing some pioneering work with various organizations across the world on saving species from extinction.
The next evening we visited the La Jolla Cove to admire the congregation of sea lions, cormorants, sea gulls and pelicans who were basking in the warmth of the setting sun. And to watch a bunch of surfers riding / attempting to ride the waves.
Day 18 was our departure from San Diego and arrival at Santa Clarita, our base for the Hollywood city Los Angeles. Thanks to inputs from an old friend of Manish, we made a very meaningful stop at the immensely peaceful Meditation Gardens of the Encinitas Retreat of the Self-Realization Fellowship established by Paramahansa Yoganada.
Next stop was at the beautiful city of Laguna Beach in Orange County for a meet-up with my sister Thara and her family who had just arrived here for a road-trip vacation. Coincidentally they had planned to cover the same spots as we had done but in the reverse direction!
We were then on our way, negotiating the immense traffic of LA and making the most of the Carpool / HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane reserved for use by vehicles with two or more passengers.
The reason for us staying in Santa Clarita rather than LA was the Six Flags Magic Mountain, a theme-park whose roller coasters were a must-do for Mihika.
Day 20 was dedicated to LA starting with the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a look at the Chinese Theatre.
We used public transport (buses & the metro) to get to LA and around LA. It was a Saturday and hence the frequency of the trains and buses probably was lower than weekdays but that meant a lot of waiting in between for us. Took us a while to get to Sunset Boulevard for another homage destination of Manish’s – the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the quintessential rock/metal hangout for rockstars and their groupies. It continued to fascinate by appearing in Guns N Roses classic videos including November Rain, Estranged and Don’t cry.
Lemmy, the Motörhead frontman, was a daily fixture here when the band was not on tour. Rainbow, one of Manish’s favourite bands was named after this venue. Motley Crue, Alice Cooper, GNR, Poison, WASP, Ringo Starr, John Lennon – all were regulars here.
With the celebrity salutations done, it was time for a visit to the California Science Center, with interesting and interactive exhibits that we all found very engaging and instructive. We could have gone on but closing time was upon us and so we strolled out to the rose garden admiring the blooms before heading back to the metro station. Our last place to visit for the day was the Griffith Observatory to peek through the telescopes for a glimpse of the wonders of the universe. On the shuttle to the observatory we came too know of extremely slow traffic on the way up due to a Ringo Starr concert in the Greek Theatre. As we inched along wondering when we would make it, Manish gauged that we would not be able to make it back in time for the last bus back to Santa Clarita and so took the call to leave the bus and head back. The right decision it turned out to be in hindsight an hence ended our day in LA.
And the 21st day arrived and we were finally on our way to the scenic Pacific Coast Highway or Hwy 1 as it is popularly known. We joined this state highway that runs across most of the Pacific coastline of California at the city of San Luis Obispo. It was a cloudy day and our stop at Morro Bay for breakfast wasn’t giving us too warm a feeling. But that was more than compensated by the sight of hundreds of elephant seals at a designated viewing area. They were stretched out on the beach sand, mostly asleep, but some of them making loud bellowing noises and a few frolicking in the cold waters. We learnt that these mammals had nearly disappeared from the Californian coasts following extensive hunting for their blubber and so it is heartening for environmentalists that their population has now reached a healthy level.
We drove along the winding road as it wound its way along the unique coastline of cliffs and narrow rocky beaches. Little rock formations and isles were visible at many places not too far from the coast. We stopped at a number of vista points and admired the mystical look of fog hanging on the cliff sides with some flowers just beginning to bloom on the lower parts of the cliffs. The views especially around the area called Big Sur were simply beautiful!
Eventually the road moved a little inland after the town of Monterey and we continued on it until the approach to Santa Cruz and then branched off towards Saratoga. We were happy to get back to our friends Jagdeep and Vipin and Mihika delighted to be back with Riya and Saachi. It was the evening of 3rd July. We had arrived in good time to rest and ready to enjoy the 4th of July celebrations of the Saratoga community.
A bright morning on the lawns of the Kevin Moran park with enthusiastic citizens, some dressed as eminent characters of independent USA and sharing snippets of history with the kids, a band playing and a choir singing, it was just the celebration we needed after 21 days on the road!
This has been an extra long blog post as we decided to keep this entire experience as one cohesive piece. If you have read this far, thank you for staying with us!