024 - california
"We've been on the run, driving in the sun, looking out for number 1, California here we come..." - Phantom Planet
Redwood National and State Parks: August 23rd - 24th
With Henry running smooth again, we left Oregon and drove into California en-direct-route to the Redwood National and State Parks. Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park was the area we were headed for. Unlike other National Parks, the Redwood is a little different because it is divided into many different areas as well as attached closely to its surrounding State Parks. The Redwood trees can be found throughout. Jedediah Smith is an area in the very north, where there is a close cluster of many very tall (and the tallest) Redwoods, which is why we chose to see that part first. Upon our arrival, as we always do, we first headed to the campground but soon learned that it was completely full and also extremely expensive. Welcome to California. So, we decided to worry about our sleeping arrangements a little later and after a quick visit to the visitor center, we went ahead to explore the areas must-see Stout Grove.
We were able to park Henry for free at the nearest day-use area with our National Parks Pass, and were about a 3-mile, give or take, roundtrip hike away from the famous giant grove. We walked along the Smith River, down to its bed, over a temporary bridge across it, and just like that we were in the middle of some of the tallest trees in the entire world. Redwoods can grow incredibly tall (the tallest known being 379 feet high), towering over the Statue of Liberty or twenty elephants stacked on top of each other. Although it wasn't the first time for me to see these giant gate keepers, I was impressed anew. They are so tall, you physically must bend your neck uncomfortably in order to see their crowns. After a thorough walk through the quiet, sheltered grove of these giants, we headed back the same way we came in, picked up Henry and drove back out of Jedediah Smith to a nearby county park, where we found a cheap overnight spot without a problem. The best part, there were Redwoods all around us.
The next day we continued our drive south through sprinkled parts of the Redwoods National and State Parks, stopping here and there whenever we saw an impressive trunk. We spontaneously walked a trail, without knowing where it headed or how long it was, but many more tall Redwoods later, we eventually found our way back to the parking lot and with that back to Henry. That evening we turned into a campground at the Big Lagoon on Highway 101 and found an ideal spot with our very own lagoon access, where we spent the remainder of the day until the sun set behind the dune.
Highway 101: August 24th - 27th
From here our route was simple. Continue driving south on the 101, until we reach the turn that would take us even closer to the coast, on the 1. We passed through Eureka, unfortunately a town that somehow is a little forgotten. While the buildings and storefronts all have potential, the sidewalks were quiet, even on a Saturday morning. Nonetheless we grabbed a delicious chocolate croissant and cappuccino at a fairly hip and somewhat popular cafe before continuing our drive down the 101. Little did we know; our path from here was definitely not as simple as it first seemed.
About 30 minutes outside Eureka, with Mattia driving, I noticed Henry slowing down, Mattia getting nervous and holding on tightly to the steering wheel. Next thing I knew we were pulled over at the nearest exit on the emergency lane. Mattia had noticed Henry blocking up, his power steering completely shutting down, and with it the breaks, the gas pedal, and everything that keeps a car running. He had managed just in time to pull over in a safe spot, before Henry came to a complete stop. After that, we could turn the key, hear it trying to start, but failing to do so. It seemed like something was holding it back from igniting. And because it tried to start, we knew it could not be the battery. At this point, our reaction was to call Mattia's brother and our roadside assistance, Good Sam, however when both our phones went blank after dialing, we knew that wasn't going to happen. We had absolutely no cell-service. Not down the exit, not around the corner, nowhere in remote walking distance. Time 1:30pm on a Saturday afternoon.
We tried again and again to start Henry, we opened the hood, peeked in, but couldn't make out anything unusual. This was out of our hands, and we needed to call someone. After about half an hour, we noticed two bikers parked a little further down the exit, and I immediately began walking toward them, hoping that maybe they had a phone we could borrow with a different provider. Without any questions, the guy instantly handed me his phone, because he had perfect reception. I knew I had one call, so I called Good Sam’s, in the hopes that they could send someone or have us towed. Mattia in the meantime was chatting with the two bikers, Dave and Amber. The Good Sam’s representative first suggested to tow us to a Walmart parking lot, because all the garages nearby were closed (it was only 2pm at that time) and after all the Walmart’s of course denied the overnight parking, she then wanted to tow us four hours to the nearest Pilot gas station. Clearly still not an adequate spot for us to get help. I could not believe my ears, those were not even rational options. In total, I spent more than an hour on the phone, getting put on hold multiple times by the incompetent woman on the other end.
After suggesting to her that maybe there is a garage near Eureka, a fairly large town, she finally managed to find one that would take us. Reminder: this was all still on the bikers’ phone. At this point she needed the exact coordinates of our location, the exit street name not being enough information for her. I tried to stay as calm as possible and luckily the biker’s girlfriend was so kind to pull up our location on her phone. The Good Sam’s representative assured me that a tow truck would be on its way, and I reminded her several times that we were not calling from our own phones and that we did not have cell-reception, therefore were not reachable after we would hang up. So, after everything was scheduled, we sent the bikers on their way, not wanting to hold them up any longer. Dave and Amber were so incredibly great already, giving us all the time we needed, being understandable, kind, and in the end, they even gave us their number in case something came up or to let them know we were fine. At around 4pm a Highway Patrol officer stopped by, but of course we guaranteed him a tow truck was on its way, in other words, denying any further help. But from that time on, we waited and waited. We waited some more, innocently thinking, the tow truck needs some time to reach us.
Time: 7.00pm. At this point we knew, something had to be wrong. Either the representative got our coordinates wrong, failed to find a tow truck, or something else must have happened, because a tow truck does not take 4 hours to reach a stranded car on the side of one of the major highways of California. We needed to make another call before it got dark. Hence, we required another passer-by's phone. The sun already began setting at this point, making us even more anxious. We definitely did not intend on spending the night on the side of the 101.
After about three cars passed us on the exit, ignoring our waves, the fourth made an awkward stop. I once again, explained our situation and a little concerned, they eventually handed me their phone. I called Good Sam’s again, and of course reached a different representative. I got put on hold repeatedly, and in the end was told that the tow truck got cancelled after they could not reach us on our phones. What the hell. How could this happen? If I was a cartoon, steam would have come out of my ears at this point. I could not believe it. We waited five hours for nothing. In the meantime, another car had pulled over, a young hippie couple wanting to help. The guy, knowing a little more than us when it came to cars, went to look under the hood, but was only able to give us his best guess. I was still on the phone with Good Sam’s, trying to schedule another tow truck. But after getting put on hold more often than I had the chance to actually talk to the representative, I hung up, my nerves gone. And because two State Park rangers had also stopped, questioning our situation, I sent the nice couple who lent me their phone on their way. They were very kind offering me water, beef jerky and granola bars, but somehow, I got the impression, they did not feel a hundred percent comfortable in the situation. The hippies also left at this point, not being able to do much else.
We once again explained our full situation to the two rangers, both telling us in the end that all they could do was lend us their phone as well. Fair enough. But at this point, because they were on the clock, I did not feel as bad holding them up, after all, they were at least getting paid for standing next to us. I once more dialed Good Sam’s, and as the third time is always the charm, I finally reached a competent and helpful representative. She asked more adequate questions, took all the information she needed, apologized many times for the previous two representatives and the mistakes they had made, and even took note to pass this incident on to her manager. By the time I ended my call with her, both Mattia and I felt a little better, and the rangers assured us, that they would drive by again later to see if we got picked up by the second promised tow truck. Time: 9.00pm.
We knew we had to wait another two to three hours until the tow truck would reach us, because the towing company had to first pick up a bigger truck. The truck, as promised this time, arrived at 11pm. The guy was exceptionally nice considering the time of day, agreeing with us to drop us and Henry at a garage in Fortuna that the rangers had suggested to us, rather than storing Henry in their lot for the night, and Sunday. If we would have stored it in the lot, we would not have been able sleep inside Henry, or access him at all for the time being. At the garage, which the tower also knew very well, we could at least overnight and spend Sunday inside our own home, until the garage would reopen Monday morning, instead of checking into a hotel adding extra costs. Lucky for us, at least the towing was being paid by our roadside assistance. The towing went quick and without any problems, and before we knew it, we and Henry were dropped in the parking lot of Rocha’s Garage in Fortuna, 15 minutes north of our breakdown point.
The only problem was, the garage had no idea we were there, and we had no clue if they would even take a look at Henry, come Monday morning. Henry had chosen the worst possible spot and time in the week to break down. It was our six-month anniversary on the road, which happened to fall on a Saturday, in a spot with absolutely no T-Mobile cell-reception. If all went well, Rocha’s would have time for us and take Henry right away. Worst come to worse, we would have to be towed further to another garage, which Good Sam’s thankfully had already paid for either way. Of course, we rooted for option 1, as we did not want to delay this any longer, and of course get back on the road, hopefully without a massive hole in our piggybank.
So, we spent the Sunday, walking fifteen minutes to McDonalds for food and Starbucks in order to work on our blogs for a bit, replaying the previous day in our heads and debating what that meant for our future. We knew we really wanted to finish off our trip with Henry, but what if the repairs cost a fortune or worse it was something that could not be repaired at all? We knew we had to wait and see what the mechanics would tell us first and foremost. If the costs of the repairs were below our pain threshold, and the broken parts something silly (maybe even to do with the previous issue in Oregon) or at least normal, we would of course continue our journey with Henry. If however, this ended up being something disastrous and expensive, we would seriously have to think about trying to sell Henry, or what was left of him, on the west coast. By all means, we did not want this experience to ruin the end of our adventure. We had one more month to go and we intended to spend that month in the same high spirits as the previous six, with or without Henry.
Of course, we also knew, situations like these are all part of an adventure like ours. With any vehicle (also brand-new ones), after driving it for a long time, things are bound to break or act up. Henry is 23 years old, we had just put a fair number of miles on him, driving him to Alaska, and now back down all the way to California. This was the very first time we had to get towed, in all the miles we covered. We did not once have a flat tire, which is pretty much a miracle when driving through the Yukon and Alaska. And we could not agree more that we were extremely grateful that this happened now and not before or on our way to Alaska. At that point, maybe it would have broken our spirits and held us back from going further north. At this point however, we were exactly where we hoped to be, and our trip was perfect no matter how this would play out.
As early Monday morning rolled in, we were standing in the reception area of the garage as soon as the doors were unlocked. And as it seemed our luck had returned, they had time for us right away. A crew of four guys pushed Henry into their bay and we were directed to wait until they had the diagnose as well as an estimated price for the repairs. I had just finished my first coffee when the mechanic called us back up to the front desk, telling us that the problem was fixed already, yes fixed. It had just been an ignition coil that had come to be disconnected. Cost: 140$. We couldn't believe it. The way our Saturday had played out was an absolute nightmare, thanks to Good Sam’s, but all for a quick half hour fix, most likely to do with the previous work we had done on Henry back in Oregon. This was the best possible news we could get. With the mechanics advice, we decided while we were already at the garage, we would have his serpentine belts replaced as well, just for good measure. And after another coffee and a AAA discount on our final bill, we were back on the road, no harm done. Our spirits higher than ever.
Thank you so so much to all the people that stopped for us on Highway 101, exit 674, Avenue of the Giants, Pepperwood, on Jordan Rd, Coordinates: 40.4395448, -124.0330257. We would, quite literally, still be there, without your unrepayable help.
Highway 1: August 27th - 29th
We successfully passed our breakdown spot on Highway 101, turning onto the winding rollercoaster of a road, Highway 1 an hour later. We turned into the most expensive State Park just outside Fort Bragg, where a dry site cost 45 dollars, dumping was an additional 10, and the showers started at 1 dollar per five minutes. But, we were happy we found a spot and that we made it without any further issues. Henry was back on the road, driving once-again like it was his only job. Because this no cell-reception seemed to be a theme in California, we went into town for chocolate and a Chai, and strolled up to Laguna Point back at MacKerricher, overlooking the wild pacific and the seals on its rugged boulders to finish off the day.
The following day, we took Henry to a carwash in Fort Bragg, boosting his confidence even more, and continued the stunning drive on Highway 1 with a stop in memorable Mendocino. As soon as we walked one of the main roads in the small town, I recognized the buildings from when I was there twelve years ago. Only now, I appreciated every cute house and every beautiful garden accompanying it. We again managed to find an overnight spot at a State Park on the coast near the town of Jenner, this time the second to last of their overflow sites. And once more, it was fairly expensive for a dry site at a State Park, but we could see the ocean from our spot and in the end were only a stumble away from the beach, so we did not complain further. We tried to level Henry as well as possible before setting up our camping chairs at the beach, watching the tide come in, its waves crashing fiercely but rhythmically against the dunes, every once in a while, a seal head would pop up, as the seagulls circled above us. In search for some cell-service we found a fantastic vista point, overlooking the ocean from above, where we eventually spent the rest of the evening until the sun set with a magnificent finale.
From here we drove the rest on the curvy but beautiful coastal highway, with a quick breakfast stop in a town called Tomales, all the way to San Francisco. Both Mattia and I had been to the city multiple times, the last time only a little more than a year ago. And because maneuvering in large cities has not proven to be easy, we decided to skip San Francisco all together. We did however include a brief stop at the Golden Gate Bridge, just because it is so easily accessible and never fails to impress anew. We initially intended to drive south on Highway 1 as far as Los Angeles, however after realizing how much more expensive and booked out camping spots on the Californian coast got, reflecting also the amount of tourists still in the area, we decided to head inland from here instead. In December of 2016, Mattia and I did a ten-day road trip from San Francisco to Yosemite, through the Death Valley to Las Vegas. And we both fell in love with Yosemite then. But because it was very cold around that time and a lot of roads were closed for the season, we were both very curious what else the Valley had to offer in the warmer months. So, we spontaneously snagged one of the last camping spots in Yosemite before Labor Day weekend and headed inland.
Yosemite National Park: August 29th – September 2nd
With another poor cell-reception overnight in the fruitful Central Valley, we arrived in the park right around noon the next day. When we visited the valley in the winter, we did the same drive, only it was pitch black then, as we arrived later in the night. So, this time around we were already greeted and impressed by the immense views driving in. After the third try we managed to find the correct booth to check into our campsite, and upon our arrival we witnessed a huge feeding frenzy on our neighbors’ site. The ranger had already been alarmed, and after shooing away all the ravens and fat squirrels, we did our best to help her clean up the exposed food. It is fair to say that this was completely the campers’ fault here. They did not store away their food, had wrappers, plates and everything else lying around, clearly attracting the animals. They can just be lucky it wasn't a bear that found their stash.
After setting up camp, we ate a quick lunch, and swayed in our hammocks for quite a bit. I took one of my best naps there, with the campground being quiet at this time of day, the only sound being that of the little critters around and the wind brushing up against the trees. Because the day was still young, we put on our sneakers and headed for the visitor center on foot. Once there we briefly strolled through the exhibits that now seemed familiar, before sitting down at Degnan’s Kitchen for a drink and caramel popcorn. We listened in on our table neighbor’s conversation about hiking the Kilimanjaro, and soon Mattia chimed in with his own experience.
The next morning, we decided to attempt the 4.6-mile steep hike to Glacier Point, instead of simply driving there. The hike was all uphill, a total of 3200 feet in elevation gain, but with views so incredible and rewarding it made it one of our most spectacular hikes so far. The further up we went, the more we saw of the Valley, of Half Dome, and El Capitan. While I love being in the Valley, it somehow makes me feel like I am sitting in the middle of a real-life painting, hiking "out" of the Valley is when the heights and grandness really get put into perspective. After 3-and-a-half-hours uphill, we finally reached the overwhelming Glacier Point, overlooking the entire Valley from above and really showing off the incredible Half Dome with all its might. At the top of course, because the point is so easily accessible by car, we were met with silly and also the most idiotic of tourists, climbing out to unstable points, just to take that one photo. We ate our lunch sheltered from the sun with a flawless view of Half Dome, slipped out of our hiking boots for half an hour, and with blisters already rubbed open, my legs wobbly, we took the same 4.6-mile trail back down. Going down was much easier however, with the wind accompanying us, giving us a weightless sense that we might just be flying at times.
That evening, my sore legs became my worst enemy, but we still managed to walk to the Curry Village for Pizza, just as we did when we were here in the winter one and a half years ago. We ordered a Pizza that was way too big for the both of us, shared a table with a lonely Egyptian who seemed to drink his thoughts away (two large beers, and two tequila shots in the short time that we ate) and watched numerous people failing at opening the bear (and apparently also human) proof garbage bins.
In the morning, we drove back out of the Valley in the hopes of finding a spot nearby for actual Labor Day weekend and as we always do, we got the last and technically a 'reserved' spot, (thanks for the no-show), at the Summerdale campground. We chatted with the campground host for a while, her complementing us on our adventure and courage, and us gladly listening to her lifestyle choices of becoming a campground host. We spent a few hours down by a small creek, soaking up the glaring sun with a book and a bottle of wine, we spring cleaned all the Yosemite sap residue from Henrys floor, washed our carpets in the creek, and simply enjoyed the quiet day, once again without any cell-service.
Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park: September 2nd - 6th
Next stop, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park. With a brief stop in Fresno to do our laundry and to fill up on gas and groceries, we headed into Kings Canyon National Park knowing very little about it. We soon learned that all the campgrounds were full, it was Labor Day after all, so instead we got all the information we needed from the visitor center and headed for the nearest dirt road in the Sequoia National Forest part of the area. You see, it is not allowed to disperse camp in any National Parks, however National Forests are very open to it. And because the Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are connected mainly by National Forest land, we had absolutely no problem finding an overnight spot, free of charge, for that night. Even so, we found an exceptionally beautiful open lot at the end of one of the easily accessible dirt roads and decided to call that our home for the night. After the sun set, two vans joined us, but they left again as soon as the sun rose in the morning.
We left our spot a little later in the morning to drive fully into the canyon. And boy were we surprised. Because we knew so little about what to expect, we definitely did not guess such grand views. There is only one road that drives into Kings Canyon, which leads to a dead end. So, coming from Sequoia National Forest land, at a much higher elevation than the canyon floor, you are immediately greeted by vast views overlooking the canyon and its surrounding landscapes. From there the curvy steep road takes you further and further down into the gap between the mountains. From that moment on, we knew this park was highly underrated. We explored a few spots on our map, including the quick walk to Knapp's Cabin and Zumwalt Meadow, lush grasses bordered by the steep rock walls, but mostly we enjoyed the drive. The stunning road, first offering such grand vistas, then lunged down, snaking along the King River all the way to the Road's End.
Back at the top, we ate a hasty lunch before visiting the very famous General Grant tree. With a huge fire scar marking his voluminous trunk, the General is the widest giant sequoia in the world. At 268 feet tall, which is equivalent to 26 stories in a building, he has a 40 feet diameter and is estimated to be about 1700 years old. And he sure stands proud among his equally impressive friends. While the Redwoods, which we saw on the coast, are the tallest trees in the world, the Baobab's in Africa some of the widest (although outgrown by a short Mexican Montezuma cypress tree), the giant sequoias are the largest trees in volume. To sum it up, they are both tall and wide, and extremely old. They stand incredibly proud and magnificent, as they resist fire, earthquakes, and insects. Their wood is hardly usable by man. When they were first discovered in 1852 by non-natives, because it is so light, their wood could only be used for silly objects like garden spokes, toothbrushes and pencils. It sure was a remarkable experience to be able to witness such a giant. Just imagine, if these trees could speak, they would enlighten us to a whole other world, telling us things about the past we never knew. But even in their mighty silence they have impressed and inspired us greatly. All even more reasons to protect them so very carefully.
We continued our drive toward Sequoia National Park, noticing a Fire Lookout, first on our map, and then in the far away distance, standing alone on a very bulbous rock. Because I have always wanted to visit one, we spontaneously decided to disperse camp on the dirt road leading up to it and attempt the hike the next day. In the morning we drove a little closer, but because the road to the lookout appeared a little too uneven and bumpy for our poor Henry, we parked him at the nearest horse camp and walked the two and a half mile dirt road in the glaring heat from there. Without our previous knowledge, we were greeted to an open gate at the top, because this lookout is still one of the very rare one's still on duty. At the top, we met the ranger who 'lives' and works in the observatory 24 hours, 5 days a week. And with her 360-degree views from her home, we understand why. 147 plus/minus steps lead up to the prominent Buck Rock, at the top stands the most idyllic four-sided cabin, with Colibri’s dancing around it, views one can only dream about, and a quietness that is seldomly found. If it had not been someone else’s house, I probably would have stayed forever.
After our little morning excursion, we finally arrived at Sequoia National Park. We snatched a spot at the Lodgepole campground, ate chicken tenders, fries, and a burger for lunch at the accompanying deli, and boarded the free shuttle to the General Shermann tree soon after that. Upon waiting for the bus, we were surprised by four intruding visitors not far from where Henry was standing. A black bear mom and her three young cubs were wandering around the dumpsters between the campground loops, looking for food scraps. Luckily, the dumpsters are bear proof and after the failed attempt of one of the little ones trying to get into it, the bear family continued on.
We once again marveled at the grandness of the giant sequoias, feeling completely small next to the largest of their kind. The General Shermann measures 36.5 feet in diameter, 275 feet in height, at the mind-blowing age of 2200 years. We learned that these trees actually need wildfires in order to survive, as their cones open up with heat. And because the fire kills off surrounding shade friendly trees and all the buildup or fuels on the ground, the sequoia seedlings actually stand a chance. That evening we went to our very first ranger talk at the amphitheater of our campground, learning all about the pioneers, Hale Tharp, and how the giant forest became so well-known to non-natives.
The following day, we continued our exploration of Sequoia National Park, by walking around the beautiful Crescent Meadow to Tharp's Log cabin, we browsed through the Giant Forest Museum, and climbed up to Moro Rock, the sight from the very top, addictive like no other. And impressed by the previous night's talk, and the fact that we still had no cell-service, we returned for the Nighttime Critters ranger talk that evening.
Joshua Tree National Park: September 6th - 8th
From Sequoia we headed straight to Joshua Tree, the landscape changing very quickly after coming out of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. We were back in the desert, and it somehow felt like coming home. Six months ago, we drove into the desert for the very first time in Texas, and although we were now in the Mojave Desert rather than the Chihuahuan, there was a nice familiarity that came with the wide-open sand planes, the clear crisp blue sky, and the single road leading to our destination. We arrived in Joshua Tree National Park just as the sun was setting, coloring the landscape in soft watercolor pinks. It was a lovely welcome, and the scenery in the park changed to something very unique as soon as we spotted our first Joshua Tree. We found a last-minute spot at the first campground, and instantly began to hear the life in the desert. You see, while the desert and its inhabitants are absent during the glaring heat of the day, they emerge at night, and it’s no secret. The coyotes were howling in the distance, the Kit Foxes playing close by throughout the night, and the crickets were chirping away their own melody.
The next day, we walked in the silence and a matching heat to the Baker Dam, a striking one-mile loop that leads through an ever-changing desert landscape. It wasn't even noon yet, and the sun was in full heat, but somehow, I managed to accept the high temperature, and in response appreciate the warm breeze, the only noise around from the droning insects. We drove to the Keys View, exquisitely overlooking the Coachella Valley and the Salton Sea, where we miraculously found a spot with some cell-reception. We stayed for a bit, ate lunch and video chatted with my parents. In the afternoon, we drove the park road south, stopping at Skull Rock (exactly what you think it looks like), the very prickly and large Cholla Cactus Garden, and the Cottonweed Visitor Center at the southern entrance, before heading back north to find another camping spot for the night. Amidst the rock formations, we found our picture-perfect spot, overlooking the desert ahead of us, a Joshua Tree here and there, with a beautiful cotton candy sunset disappearing behind the mountains in the distance.