Archive for June, 2013
After Claire and the boys left, we had one more week in the USA. Our plan was to visit three national parks – Sequoia, King’s Canyon and Death Valley – before ending up in Las Vegas. The first two parks are contiguous, and the third not far away, so we thought we would have plenty of time to explore them all. However, when we acquired and studied a large-scale map of California, we realised that it was not that simple. For a start, the roads inside the first two parks are narrow, steep and twisting, making travel slow, especially with the summer traffic. Second, there are no roads from Sequoia/King’s Canyon across to Death Valley – the Sierra Nevada mountains are in the way! – so you have to do a major detour to get from one park to the other. As a result, we ended up visiting four national parks instead of three, and one national monument as a bonus.
Sequoia National Park
Although we had never visited this park before, we had seen huge sequoia trees on previous visits to California. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable experience to wander again among these giants, including the General Sherman tree, supposedly the largest in the world. We were particularly impressed by the trees that were fire-damaged, and had acquired a Tolkienesque appearance.
But Sequoia National Park is not just trees. The scenery is stunning, and we had amazing views when we climbed the 400 or so steps to the top of Moro Rock. Our greatest excitement was seeing a couple of bears fairly close to one of the trails. They were rather mangy looking, perhaps because they had not had enough food over the winter. They were also small, and probably young; we were quite glad that an enormous mother bear did not come rushing up to defend her cubs!
King’s Canyon National Park
King’s Canyon, adjacent to Sequoia, also has some large trees, including the General Grant, a rival for General Sherman. But the canyon itself is picturesque, with granite cliffs towering above the canyon floor. The highlight of the visit for us was a 4-mile walk that started at the Roaring River Falls and took us along the river (at the bottom of the canyon) to the Zumwalt Meadow, where we did a loop trail before returning to the car. The scenery was very picturesque, and we had more opportunities for wildlife spotting: another bear on the way out, and a woodpecker feeding its young on the return.
Yosemite National Park
We’d visited Yosemite twice before, in 1976 and 1993, and had not planned to visit it again this time. It is a great park, of course, but we wanted to focus on places we had not already seen. However, although Death Valley (next on our target list) is due east of Sequoia/King’s Canyon, there is no road leading directly there. You have to drive a long way north or south to find a road across. We decided to take the northern route, and that meant we had to drive through Yosemite.
The intention was just to drive east-west through Yosemite on the Tioga Road, but it was impossible for two photography addicts to refrain from photo stops. And since we were going through Yosemite anyway, we thought we might as well detour into the valley. This has changed a lot since we were last there 20 years ago: there is now a one-way traffic system, and parking is no longer allowed in the village (just as well, given the crowds there on a summer Sunday). Instead, visitors are directed to a massive car park, from which they can walk or take a shuttle bus to the village. We walked, had coffee on the way and did the short trail to the lower Yosemite Falls. On the way back to the car park, we had great views of the famous Half Dome Mountain, as well as the upper and lower falls.
The Tioga Road passes through the Tuolumne Meadows, and we were disappointed to find there were not many wildflowers this year. We were also amazed by how cold it was – we were now up to 10,000 feet above sea level, and shivered in the summer clothes that had been appropriate just hours earlier.
Devil’s Postpile National Monument
After leaving Yosemite, we headed south towards Death Valley. Looking at the map, we discovered that the Devil’s Postpile National Monument was only just off our route, so that was another place to visit. We arrived in the town of Mammoth Lakes just too late to take the compulsory shuttle to the monument, so our visit had to be postponed till the next morning. Meanwhile, we did a brief tour of the eponymous lakes, which are very picturesque.
Next morning the weather was very cold, with a strong wind and light rain. Waiting for the bus, which left from the ski resort, was not fun. However, the Postpile is down in a valley, so it was not quite so cold there. We saw this amazing collection of hexagonal rock pillars from the bottom and the top. It was in some ways similar to the Devil’s Tower, which we saw in Wyoming, all those weeks ago.
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley, which we reached later that day, was quite a contrast. In just a few hours, the altitude changed from about 8,000 feet above sea level to 200 feet below. And the temperature (according to our car) changed from 45°F (7°C) to 105°F (40°C)!
Death Valley has interesting scenery, and over the next 24 hours we took photos from several different viewpoints, and did a couple of short walks in the park. One walk took us through the accurately-named Golden Canyon, to a collection of rocks known as the Red Cathedral.
The highlight however was walking around an area known as Artist’s Palette, where mineral deposits have stained the rocks an amazing variety of colours. We stayed at a motel close to the Mesquite Dunes, and were able to see them at sunset and later by the light of the moon.
We ended our road trip in Las Vegas, a city we’d visited first in 1993, when we camped nearby with our children. We thought it would be fun to stay this time on the Strip, and see the changes which we knew had taken place over the past 20 years.
The hotel we chose was called the Luxor, and is a giant glass pyramid. Hotel rooms are around the edge, and accessed by what they call the ‘inclinators’: lifts in the corners that go up at an angle.
All of the big resorts are themed, and some of the most recent are designed to represent whole cities. One of the most impressive is ‘New York, New York’, which has a Manhattan skyline and a massive roller coaster running round the outside. Each resort includes several shops and restaurants, as well as a casino and hundreds of hotel rooms. While most are fairly brash and noisy, others are relatively quiet and elegant, with beautiful displays and even art galleries.
Las Vegas is famous for its shows, of which there are a vast number. We went to just one – Jubilee! at Bally’s. We chose this because it’s typical of what we imagined a Las Vegas show to be – singing, dancing and acrobatics, and dozens of showgirls wearing lots of feathers and not much else.
It was extremely hot in Las Vegas (temperatures well over 40°C). Walking along the Strip was quite a challenge, given the crowds and the heavy traffic; crossing roads often involved detours and/or going up and over walkways. All in all, we found Las Vegas fun, but tiring. We’re glad we went, but found two days there enough for us.
On 10th June Claire, Charlie and Oscar joined us for part of our USA road trip. They flew into San Francisco airport, where we met them. At the same time as they were flying in, we were swapping hire cars. Our big red car that had served us faithfully for five weeks and 5000 miles suddenly started complaining ‘Change engine oil soon’ – so we went to Budget at the airport and they gave us a new one, after some hassles and phone calls to Chicago. Interestingly, they gave us another identical car – just cleaner and with California plates. When we’d finished sorting this out, Claire and the boys had turned up, so we all set off together into San Francisco.
We had booked three nights in a motel in SF, and managed to explore the city fairly thoroughly in that time. A lot of that was done using an open-top tour bus, which showed us the highlights, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park (with an excellent children’s playground and a carousel), Union Square and Chinatown. We also did an evening bus tour which took us across the Bay Bridge. Another highlight for the boys was a ride an a San Francisco cable car.
However, a lot of our time in SF was spent at Fisherman’s Wharf, the main tourist centre. We looked round the tacky gift shops, watched the sea lions slobbed out on floating decks, and visited the aquarium. This had colourful jellyfish and a walk-through transparent tunnel with sharks and rays, and the boys were fascinated.
From the wharf we also went on a boat trip out on the bay, through the Golden Gate, and back past Alcatraz. Despite our dire threats, we did not have to stop the boat and deposit the boys on the prison island.
Before we left San Francisco, we were pleased to be able to meet up with Ian’s cousin Pamela and her husband Irving, who live not far away. We had coffee together, and enjoyed chatting about our last visit to SF, back in 1993.
The Coast Road
From SF we headed south to LA, mainly along the scenic coast road State Highway 1. There are some really picturesque stretches of coast here.
Our first stop was at Monterey, where we explored another Fisherman’s Wharf. They have sea lions there as well, and we had a meal with a great view of their basking platform. We didn’t see any sea otters, which was a shame.
As a change from sea lions, the next day we stopped at a beach where there were dozens of elephant seals hauled out. Most were just slobbed out, and some were flicking sand over themselves. Many of the males were sparring together, rearing up and showing their teeth and roaring very loudly.
We spent the night at Pismo Beach, which was packed as they had a car show that weekend. It was interesting to see all the classic cars, and some quite weird ones, cruising the streets. Because of the car show, coupled with a graduation, most motels were full, but we managed to find an extremely nice (albeit expensive) two-room suite.
The next day we visited Santa Barbara, which has a pier and some beautiful architecture. We had intended to stay there, but due to university graduations, the town was full. So we pressed on, and had to go several miles down the coast (and pay well over the odds) before we could find accommodation.
The next stretch of coast passed through the Santa Monica National Recreation Area, which includes Malibu Beach. We found a beach nearby where Charlie and Oscar enjoyed themselves hugely playing at the edge of the sea and getting soaking wet. We stopped at Santa Monica itself, to visit the pier – once again it was crowded with people enjoying the sun.
We were fortunate to find a hotel in Anaheim which was just across the road from Disneyland, as close as it could be. We also discovered that since our last visit here (1993), they’ve added a whole new park, so now there’s original Disneyland and the new Disney California Adventure. The latter has themes based on more recent Disney/Pixar films, as well as some elements borrowed from other parks, such as MGM Studios in Florida. It also has more thrill rides than the traditional park. We decided to spend two days at Disney, rather than one, in order to explore both parks.
Although Charlie is an old Disney hand (this was his third Disney park in his short life), he was still amazed and thrilled by some of the rides, shows and parades, especially as he is very familiar with many of the characters. Oscar obviously had less idea about what was going on, but seemed to be taking it in and enjoying it.
We spent the first day (8am to midnight) in Disneyland, and the second day at California Adventure, until it closed at 10pm, when Sandie, Claire and Charlie went back to Disneyland for the last two hours. The weather was good – cloudy in the morning but then clearing to bright sunshine and warm temperatures. We went on as many rides as possible, including new rides featuring Toy Story, Cars, Monsters Inc and other recent cartoons. We saw the parades in both parks, though in both cases they seemed to suffer untypical glitches which made the parade stand still for long periods.
All in all, a great time was had by young and old and we were glad we had extended our planned visit to two days.
And then there were two…
Claire had booked standby tickets to fly home with the boys from Los Angeles airport with BA. There are three flights a day, so we all turned up for the first flight, to be told it was full. The same happened with the second flight, and we were becoming afraid it was going to be a replay of our experience in Cape Town. But luckily the three of them got on to the third flight, upgraded to premium economy, and had a smooth flight home. So then there were just two of us again, to continue for another week exploring California and Nevada.
Oregon was a state we’d never preciously visited, and we knew there was lots to see there. But after Portland, before continuing our exploration of Oregon, we paid a brief visit north into Washington State.
Mount St Helens
We wanted to see Mount St Helens, the volcano that erupted in May 1980. This involved going north from Portland into Washington State, and then driving about 50 miles along Highway US504 to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. On the way we got glimpses of the volcano, although unfortunately the weather was cloudy and the mountain was shrouded in mist. We did a number of short hikes, including one which illustrated the ‘hummocks’ left by the eruption. By the time we reached the Observatory, the weather had improved somewhat, and we were able to see at least part of the mountain.
Back into Oregon
After crossing back into Oregon, our first stop was the town of Astoria. Here we drove up Coxcomb Hill, to see the Astoria Column – a bit like Trajan’s Column, except that the decorations are painting rather than relief carving.
We then went to Fort Clatsop, part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park.
If you have never heard of Lewis and Clark, you’ve probably never visited Oregon. Back in 1804, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Captains Merriwether Lewis and William Clark to undertake a survey of the continent, as far as the Pacific Ocean. You cannot forget that if you are in Oregon. Just about everywhere in those parts has a statue of Lewis and Clark, a road or river named after them etc etc. At Fort Clatsop, they have built a replica of Lewis and Clark’s winter camp.
The Oregon coast
We felt a bit like Lewis and Clark ourselves at our next stop, Fort Stevens State Park, where we caught our first glimpse of the Pacific on this trip. Exactly four weeks after leaving Chicago, we had finally made it to the west coast of the USA. Although bright and sunny, it was very windy, so we did not spend too long on the beach. But we did take pictures of the (very photogenic) wreck of the Peter Iredale, which ran aground in 1906.
Over the next few days, we travelled south down the Oregon coast. There were some really beautiful sandy beaches, but sunbathing was not an option! Although we had blue skies and sun much of the time, the wind blew constantly at gale force, making us reluctant even to walk far along the beach or cliffs. However, we made a lot of interesting stops along the way, some just photo shoots from viewpoints, and some involving walks, the longest about five miles. The northern part of the coast has the most dramatic scenery, with tall tree-covered cliffs and jagged rocks. South of Florence, there are dunes stretching for 40 miles; we climbed some of the biggest in an attempt to reach the beach, two miles away, but we lost the trail and finally gave up the struggle.
We saw hundreds of sea birds along the coast. One day we visited the Sea Lion Caves (largest sea cave in the USA); we saw a few sea lions in the cave, and many more lying on the rocks outside. Another day we hiked to Cape Lookout, and there Ian glimpsed a whale (Sandie was just too late); on our way back, we both saw a snake slither across our path.
On our wanderings down the coast we visited no fewer than five picturesque lighthouses, and (believe it or not) two cheese factories. (One produced French cheese, and offered wine tasting too – Sandie was in heaven!) We also did some shopping, and managed to get our hair cut. A variety of experiences!
High on our list of ‘must see’ places in Oregon was Crater Lake. This involved a long detour inland, but was well worth it. We have seen lots of beautiful places on our travels, but our first view of Crater Lake was quite literally jaw-dropping. The lake has formed inside the caldera of what was Mount Mazama, before it erupted 7,700 years ago. A later eruption resulted in what is now called Wizard Island, in the lake. The water is an amazing shade of deep blue.
Sadly, all of the hiking trails (including the one leading down to the lake) were closed, due to snow. So was the East Rim Drive, so we could not complete the circuit of the lake. But we were able to get stunning views from various points along the west rim, and the snow made the whole scene even more picturesque. It was impossible to stop taking photos, although we don’t think any of ours really do it justice.
Shakespeare in Ashland
The town of Ashland holds an annual Shakespeare Festival, which actually lasts most of the year (Feb-Oct). Plays (not all by Shakespeare) are performed in three different theatres every night. We thought it was time for some culture, and got tickets for Cymbeline in the Elizabethan Theatre which is modelled on the Globe. We’d never seen the play before, and it is clearly not one of Shakespeare’s best. But we enjoyed the production, and were impressed by the theatre and the staging. The weather had improved dramatically since we had left the coast, and it was great to sit under the stars.
In South Dakota (a few blogs back!) we visited Wind Cave and Jewel Cave. While there we read about the Oregon Caves National Monument, and decided it too deserved a visit. This required a lengthy detour, and we were not entirely sure it was worth it: although interesting, the cave was not (in our view) as impressive as some others we have seen. However, the room of petrified jellyfish was certainly worth a look.
And so to California…
Finally, on Saturday 8 June, we said farewell to Oregon and crossed the state border into California. We had to be in San Francisco by the 10th, but that still left time for a bit more wandering on the way south. We saw yet more volcanic mountains – a recurring theme of this part of our journey. We stayed overnight in the town of Mount Shasta, very close to the mountain of the same name, and had the best ever view from a bathroom window!
The next day we drove to Lassen Volcanic National Park. We had stunning views of the spectacular mountain, plus sparkling lakes, some partly frozen over. Bizarrely, there was lots of snow at the higher levels, yet the weather was really hot. Lassen was a surprise to us – we hadn’t heard of it until we began planning this trip, but it was very well worth the visit. As well as lakes and mountains, it has geothermal features, but you need to hike a three-mile round trip to see these. We were disappointed to find that the trail was closed due to snow.
From Lassen we continued our journey south, and stayed overnight in the Napa Valley, a famous wine-producing region. Next morning we drove through the valley and visited some wineries, including one styled as an Italian castle, and another supposedly ‘German Gothic’ (but in our view resembling the haunted mansion at Disney). We did only one tasting, however, since they were expensive and we had limited time. We had to get to San Francisco airport in time to pick up Claire and the boys – but that’s another story!
Our goal on the west coast was Oregon, a state we’d never visited before, but on the way we passed through Idaho, which proved interesting in its own right.
Craters of the Moon
Our first destination in Idaho was the Craters of the Moon National Monument, which is a vast lava field created by volcanic eruptions about 2000 years ago. There is a circular drive through the lunar landscape, and some interesting walks past lava formations and giant craters. In addition there is a place where ancient trees made impressions of their bark on the lava as it cooled.
We next visited the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, where ranges of jagged snow-covered mountains line the roads. We did some hikes here, though some trails were impassable due to snow, even in late May. Others were free of snow, but involved scrambling over or round large numbers of fallen trees blocking the path. Even so, we managed to get ourselves to some interesting viewpoints where we could appreciate the grandeur of the mountains.
While in the mountains we stopped in two interesting Idahoan towns. One was Stanley, where we stayed overnight. It was a very isolated mountain town, with few scattered buildings, and we suspect it had changed little over the decades. The other was Idaho City, once a boom gold rush town and now just a faded remnant, more like a Wild West film set than a real place. It was interesting to wander round and get a glimpse of how things once were.
Arriving back in the 21st century, we visited Boise, the capital of Idaho. This is a smart modern city, with an impressive Capitol and many upmarket shops and restaurants in the downtown. It also has a spacious green park by the river, with a boating lake where we took a pedalo out for half an hour (we decided we’d been in pedaloes on five continents).
The Oregon Trail
From Idaho we pressed on into Oregon, driving 360 miles to reach our next destination. On the way we stopped at the Oregon Trail Interpretative Centre, where we learned a lot about the trials and tribulations of those who headed west in the 19th century to make new lives for themselves. We even saw the wheel ruts made by their wagons as they passed. It made our travels since leaving Chicago seem very simple and easy by comparison.
Columbia River Gorge
At the end of our first day in Oregon we arrived at the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. This where the wide Columbia River carves its way through the hills, leaving impressive cliffs, waterfalls and scenic overlooks to be explored. We managed to visit most of these, including the best-known Multnomah Falls (or ‘Multinomial Falls’ – statistician’s joke). Here we climbed up a series of steep zigzags to get to the top of the falls, only to realise that waterfalls look much better from the bottom!
We also visited the Bonneville Dam and watched fish climbing the fish ladder (very clever of them without legs). Our final experience was an evening dinner cruise on a sternwheeler paddle steamer, with good food as well as great views.
Mount Hood is the highest mountain in Oregon, an extinct (we hope) volcano just south of the gorge. We drove round it on a loop of roads, on a sunny day when the sky was blue and the snow-capped peak was clearly visible. We also drove halfway up the mountain to Timberline Lodge, a historic hotel on the lines of Old Faithful Inn, set at 6000 feet. From there the views were even more incredible.
Portland is the largest city in Oregon, and the largest we’d visited since leaving Chicago. It has a pleasant riverside walk along the banks of the Willamette River, as well as an interesting Farmers’ Market and Saturday craft market. It also boasts an enormous bookshop, both new and secondhand, and we managed to escape from there having bought only two books!
We were fortunate enough to arrive in Portland during their annual Rose Festival, and were able to catch the Starlight Parade on the Saturday evening we were there. This had 101 floats, and a lot of marching bands, including many from high schools. We found a fairly good vantage point near the start of the procession. It began to move at 8.30 and it was almost 11 pm when the final participants went past. We reckoned that half of Portland must have taken part, and the other half were watching! As Ian said, it was ‘more Langley than Rio’, but it was good fun, and there was a great carnival atmosphere.