So, a long time ago, I asked RTA for help in planning my roadtrip in the US. I ended getting some amazing advice and promised to return and write a report. Well, I think I've taken the saying "better late than never" to the extreme, but here it is. This is the first of three parts. I hope you enjoy!
We landed at LAX a little before 4pm, cleared customs with an unfriendly CBP agent and picked up the shuttle to the car rental location. Unfortunately, getting the car itself wasn't that easy. First, they wanted to charge us extra because we were (less than an hour) early, even though we would be returning the car earlier than that time. Second, my regular card did not work. Another card did, but carried a heavy currency exchange fee. Third, we picked up the keys and headed to the parking lot, but our car was not where it was supposed to be. Queue again to get to the counter, to be told we needed to go to a different special counter. Queue once more and they switch our car because they couldn't locate the original one.
Fantastic, we have the car! Let's put our stuff in the trunk and head to Santa Monica Pier for a few hours of laid-back late afternoon tourism. LA's traffic could have been better, but eventually we got there, a bit after seven. We strolled in the pier and watched the sunset. Then, for dinner, we decided to have an American start of our American adventure with burgers at Pier Burger.
It was now dark and, because we wanted to have a good night of sleep, we decided to leave straight to Santa Clarita, where we had our AirBnB booked. It was in a residential neighborhood and it took us a while to find the right house in the dark. Eventually we found it and our gracious hosts welcomed and showed us around the house. We had a shower and fell on the bed like logs.
It's early morning and our host prepared us an amazing breakfast, with pancakes, yoghurt, fruits, etc. She told us they had come from Eastern Europe with their young child and that they were very happy. She was very proud of their son, as he was getting very good grades in school. After we finished breakfast, we said goodbye and, equipped with our trustworthy Rand McNally atlas, we left towards our first major roadtrip destination, Yosemite National Park. However, we would first need to stop in Bakersfield to get supplies.
We quickly rejoined CA99, then took the CA41 to enter Yosemite NP via the south entrance. This part of the trip was marked by the sad yellow landscape. We got to the entrance of the park, of which I highly regret not taking any photos (a common theme in this trip), got our Annual National Park pass and drove up to Wawona campground, where we had booked two nights. We were pitching our tent, when a friendly ranger greeted us and invited us for a ranger-led session later at night. But before that, we headed to Glacier Point, where we would be watching the sunset.
It took us a few minutes and loops around the small parking lot of Glacier Point, but we got a spot. At Glacier Point, I saw one of the most memorable views of my life. My brain could not process what my eyes were seeing. Do you know that feeling you get when you see a bad green screen in movies or tv? When your brain is telling that is not real... Well, that is the best way I can describe my reaction. It was such a mesmerizing and unreal view that my brain was firing the same green screen "fake" signals, but at the same time knowing it was real. Unfortunately, no photo I took does it any justice.
While there, a friendly lady told us that the sunlight looked really good on our faces and asked if we wanted her to take a photo of us. We accepted the offer and we are glad we did, because of how well the photo came out. I'm just sorry we didn't have anything better than my phone's camera, which applies to the whole trip. Then, we watched the last remnants of light hit Half Dome and not long after, it was dark. We returned to Wawona, had a quick bite and it was time for ranger-led entertainment.
The session was great! The ranger was clearly very passionate about the park (and Wawona). She gave an overview from biology to history, especially John Muir and his central role in it. Then, she took out a guitar and we had a great sing-along around the campfire. It was a great first impression of NPS rangers, which would only be reinforced over time, the more NPS places we visited, the more rangers we met.
Despite being a bit tired, I was so excited that I had no trouble getting up early to beat the crowds to the valley. We got there sometime around 7. It didn't take long to see wildlife, such as deer and squirrels having their own breakfast.
We did the Valley Loop trail, as we had been advised it is one of quietest trails. We saw the beautiful meadows, woods and rocky formations of the valley. We also wet our feet in the Merced river during a break for lunch. It was also there that we noticed there were people climbing El Capitan. Little did I know it's a major thing with serious history.
On the minus side, some of the woods were burned, which wasn't that pleasant. We then headed to Bridalveil Falls. This was late summer, so most of the falls were either dry or running low and indeed that was the case for Bridalveil Falls. Nevertheless, we could still see why it has that name. Finally, we headed to the famous Tunnel View, another place from where we could absorb the beautiful landscape of successive peaks and formations on either side of the valley and its beautiful forests. A great end to a great day.
Unfortunately, we only planned for two days (1 full + 2 halfs) in Yosemite. In hindsight, that was obviously too short and I would have extended it for at least a couple of days. We also wanted to check out the Mariposa Grove before we left, but, unfortunately, it was closed. So, we decided to get an early start to Lake Tahoe, our next destination. On our way to exit the park via the north, we stopped a few times to check out short trails and roadside beauties.
We got on US395 next to Mono Lake and by the time we got to Tahoe, it was a bit after lunchtime. This time around we stayed in a hotel, as we wanted to have a nice comfortable bed to replenish energies. There was also another reason to be happy, a private hot tub, something that I hid from my partner when I booked it and which made for a nice surprise. So, we checked-in and headed out to see the lake. We weren't that impressed by it. Maybe we didn't go to the "right part"... Anyway, we decided to get early dinner and return to the hotel to take full advantage of the room's amenities.
Today's destination is Lassen Volcanic NP. We checked out of the hotel and had breakfast at a nearby café. Then, we hopped on the car and not long after... check engine light. The closest rental office was now Reno and we went there to see if we could swap the car. Weirdly, the office was smaller than a photo booth. The lady there vehemently refused to do anything about it, saying that it was LAX's issue. Hmm, ok, no worries! There were signs telling us to have faith.
We arrived at Lassen a bit after lunchtime. The blue crystalline lakes, green and gray rugged landscape and the meandering road made for an incredible experience driving in the park.
We parked the car and took the short Bumpass Hell Trail. Whilst I had seen photos of Bumpass Hell when planning the trip, I was struck! First, by the beauty, with the light blue of the hot springs contrasting with the yellowish of the ground. Second, by the smell. It was the strongest rotten egg-like smell... ever. And while I tolerated it, it did not get any easier with time. But it was worth it, as the hot springs, fumaroles and especially the boiling mudpots were really surreal. On the way back, I caught a little guy admiring the surrounding landscape too.
We also checked out Sulphur Works before we made our way to Manzanita Lake campground, our accommodation for the night. It was about an hour before sunset and I treated myself to a nice Oregonian IPA, while my partner started to pitch the tent. After we finished pitching the tent, we walked from our camping site to the lake. There, we sat on a large tree stump by the water and observed a picturesque sunset over the lake.
Wake up, quick breakfast and put everything back in the car. Today's destination was one of the landmarks I was very eager to see. Yes, Crater Lake it is. We left Lassen Volcanic NP and it wasn't long before Mt Shasta appeared, first on our right, as we drove towards Redding, and then straight ahead, after we joined the I-5. Unfortunately, it will have to remain for another trip. Soon enough, we were crossing state lines for the first time (well, we did cross into Nevada, but I don't count that one). Actually, we didn't cross one time, but multiple, as we had to do several takes to get the state line crossing video right. And then one more time to stop by the sign and take photos next to it. A lot of fun!
Quick stop at Klamath Falls to grab a quick bite, replenish ice for the cooler, buy things of which we had run out and importantly, send messages and photos to family & friends back home using some café's wi-fi. It wasn't long before we were back on the road and entering Crater Lake NP. We went straight to our campground to pitch the tent, before doing any sightseeing, since we wanted to avoid doing it later in the cold and dark.
We took the Rim Drive around Crater Lake and it was stunning! I had very high hopes and they were definitely matched. At a point, due to road works, we were stopped for what seemed an eternity. Luckily, it was still quite a while until sunset. It was quite windy, but we nevertheless stopped at every viewpoint. At one of these, we offered to take photos of a (ridiculously photogenic) family, so that both parents could be in the picture with the kids. They returned the favor and we started to chat. They were super friendly and wanted to know what we had seen thus far and whether we were liking it. They were happy when we replied we were loving it!
The sightseeing part of day concluded with The Pinnacles, but before going to bed, we checked the Mazama Village Store and got our first (and very cherished) souvenir, a Crater Lake license plate, which is now part of our National Parks license plate collection.
Day 7 started like most, pack up and back on the road. We were once again stopped for a while because of road works and we took the opportunity to have breakfast. Our next stop would be Bend, where we would be taking a tour of the Deschutes Brewery. On the way, we passed by a store that read on the side "GUNS AMMO LIQUOR BEER WINE" and I thought that it could not get any more stereotypically American than that.
It was a very calm and relaxing drive to Bend, with my partner taking the wheel for most of it. We got to there early and decided to do laundry. By a stroke of fortune, the laundromat we ended up going to was right next to "The Lot", a small square with lots of food carts and a central bar that had a couple dozen taps of local beer. Absolutely amazing! It was also fun when the waitress asked for IDs to check our age and we gave her our passports. She froze for a second and told us it was the first time she was ever given a passport for that.
After lunch and getting our clothes back, we headed to the Deschutes Brewery for our tour. At the end, we were served a few samples. They were so good that we ended up buying some a dozen bottles (and a beautiful t-shirt), many of which were flown back home. In the tasting room, we ended up striking conversation with a lovely retired army man. He told us a few stories, like of when he was stationed in Europe. He was currently doing a roadtrip of the country with his wife. He advised us to take advantage and travel and see the world as much as we can, as he was sorry he had only started doing that after he retired and not sooner. A good advice, which we were already following.
We still needed to make our way to Portland, where we would be spending the night. But instead of taking the direct route from Bend, we would be taking US97 and then US197 up to The Dalles and then follow the Columbia River to Portland. The stretch along the river was really pleasant. There is just something unique to the Columbia River. And seeing the infinitely long cargo trains on the opposite side of the river chugging along added to the whole experience. Most definitely worth the detour!
This concludes the first of three weeks and therefore the first of three parts of this report.