Driving and hiking in equal measures, and some bears; two complete amateurs on a Californian road-trip.

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This summer I was lucky enough to spend just over six weeks living in and exploring California. This blog post covers the last 10 days of the trip where a good friend and I hired a car and explored what California has to offer.

The first day of the road-trip was relatively uneventful. We drove south on Highway 1 from San Fransisco, past countless beutiful beaches, coves and cliffs. A highlight was certainly artichoke bread from Pescadero which we picked up on the way, and quickly demolished. After Monterey, we turned inland to our first overnight stop in Carmel Valley, which turned out to be on the hills overlooking Carmel valley so we spent the evening eating pizza looking over the valley as the sun set.

Day 2 of the road trip was a long one, with three hefty drives crammed into one day. The first was the iconic drive along the coast through Big Sur. It says something about the subsequent drives that this world-famous drive was barely in the top five best drives, but beautiful nonetheless. After a hefty lunch we turned inland and were confronted with flat open plains, rising temperatures and small-town America, and it was just as strange and amazing as it had been described to us. Finally, we reached the Sierra Nevada mountain range, driving up into Camp Nelson as the sun descended. We stayed in a little wood cabin which looked like it was lost in time and the next morning tried a hike up amongst the Giant Sequoias which were impressive and peaceful until a bear ran across our path about 20 metres ahead. Safe to say we quickly descended the hill, and continued our drive.

Day 3’s drive led us through Sequoia National Park, to see some more giant trees. It was well worth it, driving amongst the Sequoias felt truly magical, and allowed us to see General Sherman (Right), the largest tree in the world by volume. Our brief drive through this national park seemed far too short, and I would love to go back and explore the trails amongst the Sequoia groves.

Day 4 would be the only day we would spend in Yosemite Valley. Planning our visit at our overnight stop in Oakhurst the night before, we quickly realised that to do it justice, we would need to do a pretty hefty day-hike. So we set off at 6.30am to drive into Yosemite and followed the four-mile hike trail up to Glacier Point, where you can peer down over the railings at a 3,000 ft vertical drop. On the slow descent down the panorama trail we had our second bear encounter. We saw a mother and two cubs coming slowly up the path towards us. Again, we turned around and went the other way, but meeting three Americans who were working in the park, they assured us we were fine, and proceeded to put on some loud music and make plenty of noise to scare them off. Suddenly bears didn’t seem so scary after-all. Several miles of walking later, and after a brief hiccup involving many sandy steps, we made it back to the valley and set off for a dusk drive across the tioga road to Mono Lake. For me, this was the most spectacular drive of the trip, climbing to over 10,000 feet, at one point looking back to see half-dome of Yosemite Valley silhouetted against the red-orange sky.

Waking up at Mono Lake House the next morning and eating breakfast on the edge of Mono Lake, Day 5 was our ‘rest day’. Except our host was excited about our exploits in Yosemite and recommended a nice hike for us. So after a lazy morning we drove back towards Yosemite and walked up to a group of three remote glacial lakes at 10,600 feet, in possibly the most remote place either of us had ever been. When you bumped into someone up here that you didn’t just say a cheery hello, you stopped for a chat.

Mono Lake was a fascinating but sad place to stay. Water was diverted from the rivers that feed Mono Lake via aqueducts from 1940 to provide drinking water to Los Angeles hundreds of miles away. This has caused the lake to slowly drain resulting in a rise in salinity and widespread ecosystem damage. Despite this sad story, things are improving, and reading about the mitigation efforts, combined with our experiences in the National Forests and Parks of the Sierra Nevada gave us a taste of conservation in Calfornia, and in this particular case at least, I was impressed. There was a clear sense of openness, of compromises and of transparency alongside an open articulation of the values the underpinned the conservation efforts. Their relaxed attitude to bears and efforts to “keep them wild” demonstrates their commitment to sharing the natural environment with all living beings.

Our final stop before heading back to San Fransisco was the popular Lake Tahoe. This meant driving north and briefly crossing into Nevada where we passed a casino almost as soon as we crossed the border, as well as cheaper fuel, so we filled the car up. Tahoe involved another hike up a hill, with yet more spectacular views, but no bears this time. We also found time on the morning before we left to do a quick trail-run, a challenging change of pace. After a sizeable breakfast, we drove reluctantly out of the Sierra Nevada mountains and joined to six lane highways leading into San Fransisco. Dropping off the car, our last overnight stop was in the heart of the city, metres from Dolores park.

Walking through the Castro district that evening, adorned with rainbow flags we passed LGBT themed bars and Harvey Milk’s camera shop (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the film called Milk, it’s great!). The fact that San Fransisco, a self-proclaimed “gay capital”, was originally founded by Catholic missionaries, with the beautiful Dolores Mission just a few blocks from the Castro, seemed somewhat ironic, given that Church’s at best mixed record on LGBT rights. But now a rich Catholic heritage and a vibrant LGBT scene appear to co-exist seamlessly, a sign of changing times, perhaps.

Overall, I found California a friendly place. The locals seemed liberal and progressive, and there was a belief and pride in what they do which I think the UK could learn a lot from. However, the cost of living in beautiful cities like San Fransisco also has social consequences, and much like in the UK, the very visible homelessness was a constant reminder of the ongoing challenges. Then of course, there’s the weather, which is in stark contrast to the grey and rainy Saturday in Manchester from where I’m writing this. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend a visit.