For the 4th year in a row, TUBS and I set off on a cross-country road trip.
For the fourth year in a row, my mind was blown by the amazing things we did and saw.
California is so scenic, so diverse, so wild; the two weeks we took barely allowed us to scratch its surface. We climbed the highest peak in the lower 48 (Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet), backpacked in Yosemite, spent time in Lassen, Crater Lake, and the Redwoods, toured Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, and cruised down the Pacific Coast Highway all the way to Los Angeles. Here is the story of another great trip with incredible sights, great people, and some truly amazing moments.
Itinerary: September 14-29, 2014
September 14: Drive out to Lone Pine, CA after work
September 15-16: Backpack Mt. Whitney
September 17: Ansel Adams Wilderness Area
September 18-19: Backpack Half Dome
September 20-21: Explore Yosemite National Park
September 22-23: Lassen National Park & Lava Beds
September 24: Visit Crater Lake National Park
September 25: Visit Redwoods National Park
September 26: Visit San Francisco
September 27: Visit San Francisco, Monterrey, and Hwy 1 Drive
September 28: Hang with my friend Ernie in Los Angeles
September 29: Drive back to Phoenix
We started out on Sunday, after work. We had the car mostly packed up, so we just threw the food and Mountain Dew in, and took off. Phoenix tried to trap us, there was a big backup on Highway 10, but it reluctantly let us go after 45 minutes in almost stand still traffic. With the music cranked up, we drove on until late in the night and managed to get about an hour south of Lone Pine. Highway 395 had a bunch of weird intersections that seemingly led to nowhere. After making the turn, the pavement would immediately stop and the gravel never looked like it would lead us anywhere. At around 2 in the morning we settled on a nice patch of gravel and hoped “Hillbilly Joe” wouldn’t notice us. He didn’t. Up and at ’em early the next morning, we headed straight to the Inyo National Forest office to retrieve our back country permit for the Mt. Whitney Trail. From there, it was a 12 mile drive up to the trail head at 8,000 feet. After the switchbacks and steep grade of the road, it was hard to believe we still had another 6,000+ feet to ascend to the top. That’s more than the Grand Canyon! A campground sat below the trail head, as did a store to pick up last minute supplies and a good hearty meal. They literally made pancakes there that could feed 3-4 grown men! It smelled amazing. Especially considering the next two days would be filled with ramen, pretzels, and granola bars. We finished packing our backpacks, weighed them at the trail head (35lbs-Me, 25lbs-TUBS), and then set off to climb the highest mountain either of us had ever ascended. To infinity and beyond! Or just the summit and back, I guess.
From the trail head, it’s about 3 miles to Lone Pine Lake. These first few miles are not all that difficult and provide great views of the granite outcroppings and sparse pine forest that make up this landscape. You can also see the Lone Pine valley far, far below. We hung out at the lake for a bit, though it seemed too shallow to take a proper dip.
Soon after the lake, the trail skirted a wonderful meadow. The lighter yellows of the grass made a wonderful contrast to the grays of the granite and bright blue sky. We continued climbing for a few miles until we reached Trail Camp later in the afternoon. This is by far the most popular place to camp and it was packed. From here, it was less than 5 miles to the summit and made for a much more manageable ascent. At 12,000 feet, it was darn right freezing- especially for us Phoenix boys! I threw on my long undies (look out ladies!) and we huddled around our stove cooking ramen. When the meal was consumed it was straight to the warmth of our sleeping bags. Later that night, a helicopter could be heard flying overhead. Of course TUBS snored right through it!
The next morning we headed up the toughest part of the trail: the “99 switchbacks” to trail crest. We managed alright and soon were hiking behind the famous pinnacles of Mt. Muir. It was here that we ran into a couple search and rescue guys. Apparently, the helicopter last night was part of that mission. When the injured fellow heard the extreme cost of the bill though, he suddenly decided he could make it down on his own! Another hour or so and we were sitting on the summit of the tallest mountain in the lower 48.
The Sierra Nevada Mountains to our West were gorgeous and glacial lakes were aplenty! The way back down was long and arduous as always, especially after we had packed our tent up and threw the heavy backpacks over our tired shoulders. I must say the people we met along this trail were all really interesting.
A lot of them were John Muir Trailers or JMTer’s for short.These are the people who hike the entire 210 miles of the John Muir Trail that ends at Mt. Whitney. One such older couple kept playing leap frog with us and we ended up having a beer and some food with them back at the trail head store. They were amazing! I had to buy a bumper sticker in the store as well and while searching for the right one I came upon a really interesting photo. There once had been a tornado on the summit of Mt. Whitney! How crazy must that have been? TUBS and I didn’t want to stick around and find out so we headed north in search of more adventures. And so the trip began with a bang!
Ansel Adams was an environmentalist, a photographer, and a legend. His black and white photos are recognizable worldwide. So of course, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to hike in an area designated in his honor. We parked at the Agnew Meadows trail head and took off for the day with a small pack with food and water. The wilderness area immediately proved why it was named after this famous photographer: it was stunning! Mountains, meadows, forests of red cedar and pine, pristine lakes; with so much color, it was hard to imagine why Ansel Adams always chose to capture his images in black and white. Nonetheless, I tried my best to imitate him, though I couldn’t resist taking color photos now and again. It was 6 miles out to Ediza Lake, my favorite place we visited.
It was a picture perfect lake with mountains surrounding it and glaciers running down their sides. The clouds were the beautiful puffy white variety… it was simply perfect. We lunched here and then napped on its banks. I went on to explore Iceberg Lake and along the way came across a coyote snacking on a mole he caught in the grass. Afterwards, I jumped into the nice cold water a couple of times and we hiked back.It was an excellent day hike and someday I would really like to come back and spend some more time in this incredible area. Wiped out from our day’s adventures, we again headed north to the entrance area of Yosemite National Park. Hoping to spend the night near Mono Lake, we checked out the visitor center for information on nearby campgrounds. Maybe because we were already so filthy, or we just that look, the attendant immediately asked “You boys looking for free camping?” Hell Yeah! He directed us to Harley Springs, a campground off a dirt road out in the national forest. We had a great night around a campfire drinking Dew Vodka and eating some Pasta Alfredo. I did break a guys ax trying to get some wood for the fire, but he didn’t seem to mind. “Oh what a night!”
This morning was our first glimpse of America’s most iconic national park: Yosemite. We made the hour long drive from the East entrance area to the famous Yosemite Valley. There wasn’t anything extraordinary from the road, though I knew that beautiful vistas would be easy to come by once on the trail. When we entered the valley, our jaws dropped. Sheer granite walls rose thousands of feet up. El Capitan, one of the tallest faces in the world, is 3,000 feet from top to bottom. Even more astounding is Half Dome, which rises over 5,000 feet above the valley. That’s like instantly being transported to the bottom of the Grand Canyon!
It was this beast that we would undertake, after luckily snagging an overnight permit to climb it.Again, we through the packs over our shoulders and set out. The hike out of the valley was pretty damn tough. It was only 4.7 miles to Little Yosemite Valley where we would spend the night, but the mist trail was steep and difficult. Along the way, we skirted around Vernal Falls and then Nevada Falls. Both were beautiful despite the low water level of the Merced River. I would love to come back in Spring when they’re raging! Eventually we made it to Little Yosemite Valley, a nice campground situated among huge Ponderosa pines. We set up camp, ate some rice and chicken, and played a fun dice game called Blisters. It was an entertaining night.
Next morning it was time to conquer the monster that is Half Dome. The hike up was fairly easy for the most part, that is until you reach the sub dome and subsequently the cables. The infamous cables are the only way to ascend this smooth granite dome. Without them, we would all surely slide right off. The dome is so steep and so slick, even with the cables it’s a tough, and frankly scary, experience. On top you are awarded with the best view in the house. Granite monoliths poke out from every direction, and the entire valley lays out before you. It was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. And then came the descent down the cables. All I can say is it was much worse. After coming away from that alive, we had to celebrate. That night we drank some beers and cooked brats over a fire in a little campground outside of the park. We met some amazing Germans (Henrich and Janeka) and also a couple of pot farmers headed north haha. Who would’ve guessed we could have so much fun in a site called “Dirt Flat”!
We started today by driving up to Glacier Point and hiking up to Sentinel Dome. One of many granite domes in the park, this one was situated southwest of the valley and provided spectacular views. After the short jaunt, we walked down to Glacier Point and joined the swarming tourists. Like the information board said “Views, Views, Views” were everywhere.
The most iconic view of the valley was from right here, with half dome to the right and the less famous North Dome to the left. When we had enough of the people, I decided to hike out to Ostrander Lake while TUBS went to rest in the valley. His knee had been bugging him since the descent of half dome and we thought it might be best to part ways for the day. The hike out was easy and flat and I made good time. The lake was another beauty and I had to dive in a couple of times like always. When I had eaten my lunch and soaked up enough sun, I headed back to the trail head where TUBS was waiting. Then it was back to Dirt Flat for round #2 with the Germans. Beer, brats, and a fire kept the storm at bay long enough to enjoy another great night.
The next day we unfortunately had to leave Yosemite and continue our road trip. We made our way up to Carson City and caught the second half of the Packers terrible loss to the Lions. Our visit to Lake Tahoe was cut short by an incredible amount of smoke that had blown in from a nearby forest fire. Since we could barely see the lake, we headed to the casinos instead. We lost our money, but had a couple of beers in the process. I consider that a success! The smoke forced us to keep driving, so we made our way up to Lassen Volcanic National Park instead. There we had another amazing night with some fellow Wisconsinites. And guess what? More brats and beer! I love vacation!
We hiked out to an area called Bumpass Hell this morning. It contained several spots of hydro-thermal activity similar to that in Yellowstone, minus the geysers. It was interesting and had that wonderfully sweet smell of sulfur- Yum. Afterwards, we meant to hike up Lassen Peak, but found out, thanks to this asshole we dubbed Mr. Informer, that the trail was closed for maintenance. Instead we hiked out to Echo Lake and then climbed a cinder cone in the northeast part of the park. The cinder cone was pretty amazing- the summit had crazy vistas of the surrounding lava fields that had spewed out during times of underground activity. From Lassen, we took a back road and somehow eventually made it to Lava Beds National Monument. After a crazy drive through ruts and dirt, we crashed in the car happy to be safe and sound. The next morning we explored the interesting underground world of lava tubes.
First, a nice man at the visitor center cleaned my shoes off for any remains of white nose syndrome, a disease that has been devastating the bat population. I had no problem with this, as my shoes came out looking brand spanking new. Exactly as they sound, these “tubes” used to contain flowing lava that supplied the area’s ancient active volcanoes. They were a lot like caves, though instead of having stalactites and stalagmites, they had either smooth walls or little droplets of dried lava! We had a lot of fun crawling through the different tunnels and exploring these remarkable features.
From Lava Beds National Monument we drove up to Oregon to visit Crater Lake National Park. A caldera lake that fills only through precipitation and snow melt, Crater Lake is the deepest in the United States. At 1,943 feet, New York’s famous skyline could be completely submerged in these chilly waters.
We climbed up to two lookout points along the lake’s massive crater, including Garfield Peak and the Watchman. Both provided amazing vistas of the lake. We could even see Mt. Hood far off in the distance! Afterwards, it was time for an icy dip. Their is only one area where swimming is allowed in Crater Lake. Called Cleetwood Cove, it requires a steep 1 1/2 mile trail down to the water’s edge. Despite the waves, I jumped in. It was down here we also met an amazing man from Boston. Him and his wife were on a 6 month long trek around the U.S. In his early 30’s, they had originally saved up to buy a house, but then decided to use some of that money on an adventure they will never forget! After tackling the caldera’s edge to get back up, we ate dinner and drove on into the night. We drove through Rogue Valley, home to the Rogue brewery in Ashland, OR, a beer I had tried earlier this year and loved. A bunch of rogue deer were in the road after every turn, but I dismissed them as young bucks under the influence!
The next morning, we woke up to the sound of raindrops pattering on the windshield. It was time to explore the redwoods today and a little rain wouldn’t be stopping us! Under the mammoth trees, everything else seemed to be dwarfed. Skyrocketing 350+ feet in the air, redwoods are the tallest trees in the world. They can live up to 2,000 years old and are only found along the coast of northern California and a small portion of Oregon. We walked among the giants, cranking our necks to get glimpses of their faraway canopies. I thought of the old pioneers, way before the days of chainsaws and machinery that made commercially logging these trees possible.
What did they think?
Probably something along the lines of “Fuck it, these suckers are way too big!” When we had enough, it was time to search for a nice hot shower and a few steaming hot plates of Asian buffet. We ate sooooo much food, but afterwards felt completely rejuvenated. It was good to have a warm set of clothes on and a stuffed belly.
The rain had continued all through the night, but it stopped almost as soon as we got going. Our first stop of the day was a drive-thru tree in Leggett, CA. Carved in the old days before anyone thought better of it, the Chandelier Tree (as it was so eloquently named) measures 21 feet in diameter and is literally big enough to drive through. It was so nice, we had to do it twice… and then two more times after that. We honestly got a kick out of it. Later, as we we got onto Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, the sun decided to come out and it turned out to be a perfect drive. We cruised for hours, “sipping on Dews and enjoying the views”. For lunch, we picnicked on a beautiful beach where I just had to battle the waves for a bit. We drove onward and managed to catch the tail end of the sunset in Point Reyes National Seashore.The next day we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and were into the famous City by the Bay. Down at Fisherman’s Wharf, we snagged tickets for a midday tour of Alcatraz.
On “the Rock” we listened to an awesome audio tour and saw the cells that housed some of the worst criminals in the U.S. Dinner was at a nice restaurant down in Chinatown. It was seriously a 4 course meal! The next day we walked a beach with a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge and then checked out the Palace of the Fine Arts- a remnant of the 1915 World’s Fair held in San Fran. We had planned on staying for much longer, but San Francisco was a damn expensive city and we were beginning to tire out. Instead of sticking around, we decided to ditch town and head south!
The drive south of San Francisco was incredible. We passed little sandy towns where surfers packed the beach and hippies strolled the boardwalks. In between were incredible views of the rocky coastline.
We stopped in Monterrey and had some octopus and squid tacos. Strolling along Cannery Row showed what most of America has turned into- a tourist trap with T-shirt shops and overpriced crap. I wonder what Steinbeck would think of it now. The rest of the day was spent driving so the next morning we were able to find a bar in LA in time for the 10am Packer game. It just so happened the place was a dedicated Bears bar. Thankfully, we crushed them like always so it was a good time. After the game we met up with my buddy from college, Ernie. It was great seeing him again- it had been way too long. We spent the day, and most of the night, drinking, eating, and having fun. He has a really great group of friends so we partied with them in the yard of their apartment complex. His mom works at a carniceria, so the meat kept coming; and boy, was it good!!! It was absolute perfect way to end another fantastic trip. The next morning, we finished off the drive back to the oven that is Phoenix. It had cooled down a bit since we left, but I was soon missing the cool, crisp mountain air.
Now back to the real world until our next trip… whatever that may be!