The Yosemite and Sequoia Parks of Northern California

Introduction         

The trip to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks were the primary focus of our trip, but we also had planned to include a visit to the Hearst Castle at San Simeon and to also stay a few days both in Carmel/Monterey and San Francisco, California, as well.  In the last few years, we planned trips to many of the national parks.  Yosemite, which is actually the oldest park in the system, had never seemed to make it to the top of our list.  We had heard many great stories about Yosemite so finally we bit the bullet, so to speak, and decided to make the visit there a reality. 

             Kings Canyon / Sequoia National Park is about five hours south of Yosemite National Park.  It is in the Sierra Nevadas Mountains, and so traveling there through Fresno, California seemed to be an ideal addition to the our trip.  Sequoia National Park is home to the giant Sequoia trees, Ponderosa Pines and the huge cedar trees.  And, in fact, it was definitely well worth the visit as the trees in this park are among the most spectacular living things on earth and probably the oldest.  

                               Yosemite National Park                                                                        Sequoia National Park          

            While in northern California, we also wanted to visit the Hearst Castle, having read about and seen movies that portrayed the life of the ever legendary William Randolph Hearst...and if his name is not familiar to you, he is also recognized as the grandfather of the infamous, Patty Hearst.  If you do not know of Patty Hearst, then the castle is just neat to see and to learn how a few bucks could help build a dream.   We visited Carmel/Monterey to relax and see some of the places of interest we had been to on previous trips.  San Francisco, which has always been a favorite of ours, was a pleasure to visit once again...and this time was no exception, as we discovered some aspects of this great city that we had not experienced before.  

             But more about that later!!   The first thing we had to do was to get to California and as we all know that is becoming an ever more difficult feat to accomplish.  The airlines are packed and they are going bankrupt at the same time...is there something wrong with that picture?   Maybe there needs to be some additional charges that we the customer need to pay to make it possible for airlines to become solvent...like paying for the meals.... really! 

             But that is not a problem we can solve here.   Checking in at the airport, each piece of luggage was weighed individually and if any piece of luggage is over 50 pounds, well, you must pay $25.00 extra.   We did have an opportunity to remove some items from one piece of luggage to reduce its weight, which we successfully accomplished, but sitting in those seats wearing six pair of underwear was not exactly cozy.  And while I am sure that it is not true, it does seem that as we get older, our clothes weigh more...I can attest to that fact, as it is getting ever more difficult to carry the suitcases each year.

             And, I had to do that not only at each hotel or inn we were staying at, but also when we arrived in San Francisco and wanted to pick up our rental car.  This task was rather easy in years past, but today it is a chore to despise and fear.   What with airport sprawl, San Francisco is about the worst I have seen recently.  The rental agencies were about four zip codes away from the terminal.

            At the San Francisco airport we had to leave the terminal and go down to the lowest level to reach the garage, then we had take an elevator to the top to get to the tram, so we could go to the end of the line, where we took an elevator to the bottom of the tram system and then across to the garage where the rental car agencies are housed and then up to the floor for the rental agency of choice, all the while carrying or more like dragging our luggage.  I am tired just thinking about that routine...it took us nearly thirty minutes to make that complete trek from terminal to rental car.   

            But, we were on our way and planned to stop short of Yosemite National Park in Oakdale the first night, a small agricultural town on Route #120, the gateway to Yosemite.   It couldn’t have been too bad of town as it had a Starbucks Coffee shop, which led to a great recommendation for dinner.  It was a very pleasant country restaurant on the Stanislaus River in Knight’s Ferry, about fifteen miles east of Oakdale.  I personally know of two people who ate there, and we had a great meal.   

Yosemite National Park

            The next day we headed to Yosemite National Park where we were lodging at the Ahwahnee Hotel for four days.  The Ahwahnee Hotel is recognized as the favored place to stay in the park because of the service, its history, and the quality of its accommodations.   Yosemite Valley, where the hotel and other village facilities are located, is only seven miles long and maybe one mile wide, with waterfalls cascading over three thousand feet down the canyon walls.   Featuring some of the world’s most famous rocks...such as Half Dome and El Capitan, there is also sprawling meadows framed by oaks, cedar, maple, and pine trees in the valley.  Of course, there is much more to Yosemite, but the valley has been made visitor friendly compared with the rugged beauty that extends for scores of miles in every direction.   

And accordingly, the valley is where most everyone comes to visit....about 20,000 visitors a day during the peak summer months.  As you can imagine this level of attendance makes Yosemite very crowded, with the trails especially filled to capacity during peak visiting periods.  I was told that during the summer you could be walking seven abreast on a park trail. That is very crowded and very bad for the maintenance of the trails.    

The park has a variety of accommodations for the public, but none more beautiful than the five-star Ahwahnee Hotel.   It is a special place to visit and it is a treat to stay there, but the cost may not necessarily be consistent with the amenities of the hotel.   Many visitors to the park, even those camping or staying in lesser accommodations will come to see the Ahwahnee, enjoying its splendor and at the same time getting away from the heat and/or crowds in the park. 

            In Yosemite Village, there is also a Lodge which provides a more austere setting but with excellent dining and cafeteria facilities.  Curry Village, set deeper into the valley, provides cabins and platform tents for those who like the more rustic life.   A bus system provides transportation to the services in the village as well as to the trails and the various sights in the park.  They operate on a ten to thirty minute time schedule depending on the current number of individuals wanting to use the system 

                           Yosemite Meadows                                                 Ahwahnee's Great Lounge

            Lila and I hiked the Vernal Falls trail to the bridge, but the Mist Trail which then would have taken us to the top of Vernal Falls was closed because of snow and ice.   We continued, however, on the trail to Nevada Falls for about another mile, but then turned back when the weather turned poor. 

Curry Village is the location in the valley where cabins and tents are today available for rent.   Originally, Curry Village was established in 1899 by the Curry family and where guests would stay especially to see the “Firefall”.  Believe it or not, Firefall, a spectacular event where burning embers were brushed off the cliff of Glacier Point in the darkness and the burning embers would glow as they fell to a ledge below, while “Indian Love Call” would be sung...all much to the delight of the guests.   

We hiked from Curry Village to Happy Isles.  Happy Isles are two islands in the Merced River that flows through the center of the Yosemite Valley, and where a rock fall exhibit and a Nature Center is located.  Bridges provide trail access to the islands and it was written about these islands in 1885 that “No one can visit them without for the while forgetting the grinding strife of this world and being happy”.   

            We hiked to Lower Yosemite Falls, but forgoing the hike to the Upper Yosemite Falls, a trail that experiences a rise in elevation of 2,700 feet, because we were tired, old and hungry.  But, we did take a “short” hike from the Lower falls back to the village that was so poorly marked that we walked back to the Ahwahnee Hotel before we knew that we had already passed the village.  

                                  Vernal Falls                                                 Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls

From Curry Village we hiked the Mirror Lake trail ...about four miles round trip ...but it gave us a fascinating reflective view of the valley with mountains set off in the background.   Even without the presence of a sunny day, the view of the valley cliffs with the offset mountains in the background provided a spectacular panorama in Mirror Lake.   

            The weather was cool and I liked that, but there had been more precipitation in the region since the beginning of April, than in the entire first quarter of the year.   And, during our visit it was no exception...it snowed up at the top of the canyon, but in the valley at 4,000 feet elevation it was primarily rain.  We were fortunate enough to have one great sunny day and the other days the weather was either cloudy or just some light rain falling.  On the day we were leaving the park, we visited Bridal Falls and between the sprinkles and the mist from the waterfall, we were soaked in very short order.   

            South of Yosemite Valley is the Mariposa Grove, which has a spectacular stand of giant Sequoias.  It is generally snowbound in the winter as it was during our visit.  As we walked through the grove snow was falling...a beautiful sight as the snow kept visitors to a minimum and we had the giant Sequoias all to ourselves.   We were not able to reach the grove using the most direct route (Highway #41 across Badger Pass was closed), so we had to drive via the alternate path through the towns of Mariposa and Oakhurst....about an hour longer in travel time.  The grove has become a favored visitor destination and unfortunately, during the summer the crowds and commentary from trams generally detracts from enjoying the true splendor of these natural giants.   

            The Grizzly Giant, thought to be from 2700 to 3500 years old, is believed to be the fifth largest tree in the world.  We hiked within the grove, thankful for the opportunity to be alone with this treasure....since in the peak summer period it is not even feasible to park at the grove.   As we walked, we came across the Fallen Monarch, a huge tree that fell before 1899...there is a framed photo of cavalry soldiers and their horses standing on the fallen tree.   I could immediately tell that this was not a recent picture as the soldiers of the U.S. cavalry were wearing knickers, which they do not wear today.  It is amazing that in the last 100 years the tree has sustained only scant deterioration.

                          Mirror Lake                                                            Lila at Mariposa Grove

Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Park

            Because of our detour, by the time we left the Mariposa Grove it was getting too late to head directly to Sequoia National Park that day.  Since we had to drive through Fresno anyway, we decided to spend the night and drive on to Sequoia the next day.  Coming out of Yosemite and dropping from the 4,000 feet elevation, the weather in Fresno was downright warm.  And, as we left Fresno the next morning, the sun was shining through some intermittent rain.   A good sign and great weather for our two hour and thirty minute trip back up the Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

            But, that great weather was not to last, for as we entered Kings Canyon / Sequoia National Park we were by then at an elevation of 6,000 feet.  As we arrived at Grant’s Village in the Kings Canyon section of the park, snow was falling and the ground was covered...it was May and ...well, it was cool, so I am not going to complain.   We were not at our final destination as yet...since we needed to reach Wuksachi Lodge, approximately 23 miles into the Sequoia section of the park via the General’s Highway.  But, alas, the road was closed due to snow conditions. 

            Checking in at the visitor center, the ranger told us to wait for awhile and see if conditions change.   I asked how I could drive to the lodge with these conditions ...and the ranger indicated that I would need either a four wheel drive vehicle equipped with snow tires or any other vehicle would need chains.   So I decided to take the ranger’s advice and we hiked through the snow to Grant’s Grove about a mile from Grant’s Village along the General’s Highway, where the General Grant Tree is located.  Do you notice a constant here?   General Grant Tree is the largest of the Sequoia’s in that area of the park and is estimated to be between 1,800 and 2,000 years old.  It is 267 feet high and the circumference of its base is 108 feet.   It is considered the country’s Christmas tree and each year there is a celebration at that holiday.    

Recently, the General Grant Tree was dedicated as a living natural shrine to honor those who have died defending our country.  The Robert E. Lee Tree is the second highest tree in the grove; and as we walked, we also saw the Michigan Tree.   Trees were initially named after states but that practice was abandoned after it became impractical to name all the trees accordingly.  While in the grove we also walked lengthwise through a fallen tree that was carved out over 100 years ago.

                        Lila at the General Grant Tree                                  Alan Standing Tall

When we arrived back at the village, we again talked with the ranger about the road conditions...nothing had changed, so we decided to have lunch at the John Muir lodge, also in Grant’s Village.  After lunch, the road conditions had still not changed and a management decision was now required.   So I asked Lila, what we should do.  Knowing that as man of the house I make all the final decisions, I always select Lila’s decision....makes my life more comfortable.   We learned that if we were to have difficulties on the road, the Park Service fine is $100 for each tire without chains...or $200.    

It just happened that the little market in the village actually had tire chains....imagine that, chains that would fit my rental car.   I always wanted a set of chains that would fit a rental car, knowing full well that they would never ever fit any of my cars at home ....so we bought them.   They were a real bargain at $85 for the set. Had I bought them down in town it would have cost half the price, but then I would have had to haul them up the mountain myself ....I think I got the better deal.   Out in the parking lot we looked for a location with the least amount of snow as I would have to possibly get under the car to affect the rather delicate and complex procedure of putting on the tire chains. 

I opened the box, took out the chains and immediately did not know what I was doing...a feeling I often have.   Lila leaned down into the box and removed the instructions and while she read them to me I immediately came to understand what I had to do.   But, unfortunately there was no one around to help me, so I tried again by myself.  This time I figured it out and installed the chains as Lila reread the instructions to me five times.   

Feeling pretty good at this point, we headed up General’s Highway for Wuksachi Lodge...an elevation rise of another 1,000 feet.  As we drove onto General’s Highway, the snow had let up and at twenty miles an hour we limped along for the next twenty-three miles.  And, it was a good thing we had those chains as we encountered maybe one mile of light slush along the predominantly dry or just wet highway.  One hour later we arrived at the Wuksachi Lodge ...it was beautifully nested in among the pines, cedars and giant sequoias on top of the highest ridge around.

              A Sequoia Grove in the Giant Forest                                  General Sherman Tree

The Wuksachi Lodge looks just like what a lodge should be in these environs...rustic, without the amenities we all take for granted like television and radio, but with a roaring fireplace, huge wood beams and huge windows overlooking the Giant Forest.  The only place to eat is the very pleasant lodge dining room...except if you personally brought food with you or purchased some at the small market located adjacent to the Lodgepole Visitor Center some five miles away.   

The following morning the snow was letting up and the sun just about to break through and light up this absolutely exquisite sight of snow covered trees resting on a blanket of snow.   After a fast breakfast, I removed the chains from the tires and we headed out on General’s Highway to the General Sherman Tree trail (Note: Sometimes it is very difficult to fully grasp the naming convention here at the park).  From the General Sherman Tree, which is the oldest and tallest tree in the park and maybe the world, we then headed off on the Congress Trail.  As we walked along that snow covered trail, I could not help but fall in love with the beauty that lies before us.  It was easily one of the wonderful days of my life.  Lila and I were so very fortunate to be in the park with the snow dressing the landscape and the trees and not having to share this image with anyone else.   

Later, we walked through the Lodgepole visitor center and visited the Sequoia museum in the park.   In the afternoon we hiked the Big Trees trail, walking through an assortment of giant sequoias set around a meadow that would soon have wildflowers sprouting throughout, but now it remained blanketed in snow.  The next day we went to Moro Rock as the road was finally opened by the park rangers and we drove the one and one-half miles to hike up 400 steps on the trail.  Initially, the steps were ice covered making them rather treacherous, but as we emerged into the sunlight out from under the trees, the steps were dry and the climb became easier... well not really easier, just safer. 

                                Moro Rock

            Well, we were about ready to say our goodbye to Sequoia National Park and we began our 7,000 foot descent out of the park through the foothills zone.   As we continued our one hour trip out of the park, we could see the snow line appear and disappear above us and then watch for the arrival of the wildflowers as we came closer to the park entrance.    

            After exiting the park, I did try to sell my almost new tire chains and unfortunately as it was a Sunday and the weather now approaching 70 degrees and we were at the end of the snow season, all I could muster was a smile and a decline to my great offer.   So we continued due west to the coast for a four and one-half hour trip that took us through the wine growing country just east of the coastal mountain range in Paso Robles.

San Simeon, California

            We stayed in a hotel adjacent to the ocean in San Simeon near Hearst Castle, as we had scheduled two tours for the following day.  The first, the experience tour was an overview of the castle and tour 2, provided an in-depth look at the private quarters used by the family.  The castle built by William Randolph Hearst, which is on the original land that he loved so much from his childhood experiences there, contains 115 rooms, three rather large guest houses all on 127 acres of land.  Hearst couldn’t begin his massive building project until he inherited the land upon the passing of his mother.  This project, the building of a dream began in 1919 and continued until 1947, when all work was abandoned due to health reasons.   

            His parents, George and Phoebe originally purchased 250,000 acres in 1865.   For his dream, William Randolph Hearst employed Julia Morgan, the first female architect in California for the project.  Marion Davies was Hearst’s girlfriend and the object of this grand building mission even though he remained married to his wife Millicent throughout his life.  Later, the Castle was the scene of many parties and visits by Hollywood stars of the era as well as political and royal figures.   

            I heartily recommend visiting the Hearst Castle if you are interested in the many artifacts that are incorporated into this noteworthy structure and the history behind its design or especially, if your spouse really wants to see it.   I could tell you many more details about the life and times of William Randolph Hearst, but will leave that for the many books that have been written about him and his family. 

            We also visited the town of Cambria; close by to San Simeon for dinner and entertainment.  A very picturesque section of Cambria along the water offers a boardwalk for walking and watching the sun set each evening.   Driving along the coast as we headed north toward Carmel and Monterey, we stopped to see the elephant seals that routinely come up on shore to molt, shedding their skins.  When we there in early May, it was the stage for the females and the juvenile seals to come ashore.   

            The ocean road north (via US #1) is a spectacular drive between the Santa Lucia Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean.  The road from San Simeon to Carmel provides for exotic scenes of twisting roads nestled between shear cliffs falling to the water and will challenge any marriage or relationship.  It took days for Lila to relax and once again enjoy this marvelous journey that we were engaged in. 

                  The Pool at Hearst Castle                                                          Elephant Seals

Carmel / Monterey, California

            We planned a few days in Carmel / Monterey because our experience with previous visits had been so positive.   Not planning any specific sightseeing events, we did stop briefly at the very touristy Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row in Monterey and made a decided visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  The aquarium is a wonderful scientific and learning process in action, where visitors have access to many hands-on experiences as do the multitude of school children that visit there each day.  Their exhibits are generally associated with sea life in the Monterey channel and contain 700 species of marine life in more than 200 galleries.  They do have a one million gallon tank that is home to sunfish, barracudas, tuna, sharks and sea turtles.   

            We also drove the famous 17 Mile Drive along the Pacific Ocean between Camel and Monterey that includes the well known and quite expensive Pebble Beach and Spy Glass golf courses.  There are also three other golf courses and the most remarkable homes within that community, some with an incredible view of the ocean.   Lila and I did purchase some land along the coast while we there and it is currently in the process of being shipped to us...we cannot wait.   

            After three days of gawking and eating it was time to drive north to San Francisco....an easy drive if the thousands of other cars were not there with us.  But we prevailed and within a few hours we reached our destination.

                Cypress Tree on the 17 mile Drive                                    Monterey Bay Aquarium

San Francisco, California

            As I mentioned earlier...visiting San Francisco is always a special treat for me and this time was no exception.  We stayed in an historic hotel, the Hotel Majestic that was built about 100 years ago in the Pacific Heights section, that had been recently restored...it is only about eight blocks from downtown.  Great location, wonderful hotel and excellent rates.   

 What has changed in the city is that there was essentially no on-street parking available and the off street parking was at a premium...that is a price premium.  For example, at dinner one night the valet parking was $14.00.  At a parking garage in town the daily charge was $2.50 for each 20 minutes up to $25.00.   Certainly pricey, but enough of that and on to our sightseeing details..... 

            Lila and I did drive down the famous section of Lombard Street where the road tacks back and forth to a very steep descent...great fun and the kid in me enjoyed it as much as I did over thirty years ago.    And, I make sure that I visit Lombard Street every time I am in San Francisco.  We also went to Coit Tower, high above the city where you could look out over San Francisco Bay and the Embarcadero.   Coit Tower was built in honor of the firefighters who gave their lives in the fire of 1906 that destroyed the city.  

            We also visited the famed Alcatraz Prison, now a memorial and a tourist attraction.   The boat ride was neat and learning / viewing the history of the notorious criminals of that era was quite exciting.  It made the many movies that were the subject of that prison ever more vivid and real.   We also rode the cable cars once again and either we sat on the outside seats or stood holding on as the Powell Street cable car completed its run.  Again, the kid in me had a great time...I had not known that the San Francisco Cable cars are the only “moving” National Monuments.   

            Our hotel was located within five blocks of the San Francisco Japantown and so Lila and I visited there for the first time.   It is an enclave of stores, restaurants, parks and markets that make you feel like you are in a small village in Japan.  We walked through the stores and experienced sushi for lunch.  As we walked around the Pacific Heights section up ad down the hilly streets, (it seemed like we were always going up though)  we went past Lafayette Park and saw some of the great homes that had been built in years past for their spectacular view of lower San Francisco, the water front and the Golden Gate bridge.  Of interest to trashy novel readers, we did see Danielle Steele’s house that is in this section of San Francisco. 

            Our visit to this great city was made ever more perfect by the opportunity to have dinner with friends, Larry and Ginger, whom we had met on our Scandinavian trip and with Terry, whom we had met on our trip to Antarctica.    It was so neat to once again share a great evening with our old travel buddies. 

            Well, our trip was almost over and we still had the tire chains and the incredible memories of the parks we had visited.  Our trip home was routine not withstanding the delayed flight, our inability to get our luggage in a timely manner and the fact that our limousine pickup never showed. 

                The San Francisco Cable Cars                                                Alcatraz