The ups and downs of our road trip to California (in lots of pictures and a few words)

“We forgot to do our highlights of the trip,” said my husband right after we crossed the border.

“Well, good thing we still have another four hours of driving ahead of us.”

We love road trips. Every summer we pick a destination, map out stops along the way, pile into our car and go. Sure, long driving stretches can sometimes be tiring but they provide a nice transition from the structured busyness of everyday life. A drive back works in reverse offering an opportunity to leave our vacation behind. That’s when we reminisce about everything we’ve seen and done and try to narrow all the experiences down to ten best. Not an easy task.

below sea level sign in Death Valley    view from Olmsted point on Tioga road in Yosemite

This year’s trip took us from 282 feet below the sea level in Death Valley
to almost 10,000-foot altitudes of High Sierra.

Point Dume beach in California    view in Dead Horse Point park in the morning

From the scorching heat of Utah’s desert to cool waters of the Pacific

view from Grand View Point trail in Canyonlands Isaland in the Sky    Sequoia National Park

From barren Martian-looking expanses to towering sequoias

street in San Francisco at night    Willis Creek in Grand Escalante

From the bustling streets of San Francisco to the wilderness of Grand Escalante

Turns out four hours isn’t that much time to go through four weeks of memories but here is our attempt.

Half Dome hike

This 22-kilometre trail in Yosemite required careful planning, applying for a lottery, and waking up before 6 am. It took us 12 hours to complete and featured endless sets of stairs and a final climb up the sleek granite surface of the Dome holding onto steel cables. But it was so worth it.

view of Half Dome in Yosemite

Half Dome offers beautiful views from every angle

hiking the Half Dome trail in Yosemite    hiking the Half Dome trail in Yosemite

The Half Dome trail features lots of stairs

hiking Half Dome trail in Yosemite    hiking Half Dome trail in Yosemite

Lots and lots of stairs

taking a break while hiking Half Dome tril in Yosemite

Are we there yet?

hiking the cables on Half Dome trail in Yosemite    hiking the cables on Half Dome trail in Yosemite

The final stretch was the most exciting

selfie at the top of Half Dome

Tired and happy at the top of Half Dome

The Narrows

This was our second trip to Zion. After hiking the Angel’s Landing trail two years ago, we decided to tackle The Narrows this time. As the name suggests, this trail follows Virgin River into the narrowest part of the canyon. I am using the word “trail” loosely because for the most part we were wading through water, sometimes chest deep. One downside is that it is a popular destination. Luckily, most people turn back after an hour or so. We walked all the way to Big Creek (about 6 miles or 10 kilometers one way) and by then had the canyon mostly to ourselves.

hiking the Narrows in Zion    hiking the Narrows in Zion

The Narrows is a popular hike but only at the beginning

hiking the Narrows in Zion

Hanging gardens in The Narrows

hiking the Narrows in Zion    hiking the Narrows in Zion

The further we went, the fewer people we encountered

The Narrows in Zion

The Narrows is one of the most beautiful trails we’ve ever hiked

hiking the Narrows in Zion    hiking the Narrows in Zion

Hard to believe water broke through all these layers of rock

Big Creek in The Narrows in Zion

Big Creek – our final destination

Big trees

Recently, after reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben and The Overstory by Richard Powers I have been mesmerized by trees. Not that trees didn’t fascinate me before but my appreciation increased tenfold. So, of course, I couldn’t forgo a visit to Sequoia National Park, home to some of the largest (General Sherman is in fact the largest tree by volume) and oldest (close to 3,000 years old) trees on the planet. Standing under these giants definitely puts your life in perspective.

in front of General Sherman tree in Sequoia National Park in California

General Sherman is the largest tree by volume, its footprint large enough to fit a small swimming pool

hugging a sequoia in Sequoia National Park

A mandatory tree-hugging picture

between two gian sequoias in Sequoia National Park

Feeling tiny

Arches and bridges

Utah with its arches, bridges and whimsical land formations is where nature puts its sculpting genius on display. Most of the arches are concentrated in Arches National Park (over 2,000 in fact), but there are a few outside the park as well. The Natural Bridges National Monument showcases some great examples of bridges. And if you want to know the difference between the two, arches are formed through erosion with the help of wind and ice, while bridges are the work of flowing water.

sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands

Sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands

pine tree arch in Arches National Park    skyline arch in Arches National Park

Pine Tree Arch and Skyline Arch

Broken arch in Arches National Park

Broken Arch doesn’t look very broken

Sand Dune arch in Arched National Park    Tapestry Arch in Arches National Park

Sand Dune Arch and Tapestry Arch

Landscape arch in Arches National park

Landscape Arch, the longest arch in North America

view of Sipapu Bridge in Natural Bridges National Park

Sipapu Natural Bridge

Our campsite at Dead Horse Point

My husband maintains that it was the best campsite of all times. I wouldn’t go that far but the site definitely had a lot going for it. The farthest walk-in site at the Wingate campground, it offered lots of privacy and was incredibly quiet, too quiet sometimes. Thanks to Utah’s warm temperatures we could leave the fly off and fall asleep counting shooting stars. The shelter provided protection from the sun, a big bonus in Utah where shade is hard to come by. And it didn’t hurt that Dead Horse Point State Park came with majestic views.

campsite 36 at Wingate Campground in Dead Horse Point State Park

One of our all-time favourite campsites

shelter at campsite 36 at Dead Horse Point

The shelter was a great bonus in Utah’s heat

View from Dead Horse Point in Utah

The view of Colorado River from Dead Horse Point

view in Dead Horse Point State Park

The views at Dead Horse Point are incredible, especially in the morning

Sea lions and elephant seals

I wanted to see sea lions for a long time. Who would have thought our first close-up encounter will be in San Francisco. Pier 39 is a famous gathering spot for these sea mammals where they are known as “sea-lebrities” and their loud barking is mixed with laughter and squeals of delight. Huge crowds gather to watch them huddle or fight over a spot on a wooden platform even though there are plenty more available further away.

sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco

Sea-lebrities at Pier 39

sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco    sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco

Who wants a hug?

sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco

Thinker

sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco    sea lions at Pier 39 in San Francisco

Best buddies

sea gull with sea lions at Pier 39 in the background

Elephant seals were an unexpected discovery of the trip. I didn’t even know they existed until we followed the sign along Pacific Coast Highway 1 that took us to the viewing area. They lined up along the shore like huge logs. Some tried to get away moving slowly in a break dance fashion. They would then cover themselves in sand using their flippers and short trunks before falling sleep.

elephant seals off Pacific Coast highway 1 in California

Nap time

elephant seals off Pacific Coast highway 1 in California    elephant seals off Pacific Coast highway 1 in California

Those trunks is where elephant seals get their name

elephant seals off Pacific Coast highway 1 in California

A loner

elephant seals off Pacific Coast highway 1 in California    elephant seals off Pacific Coast highway 1 in California

Rolling in the sand is so much fun

elephant seals off Pacific Coast highway 1 in California

San Francisco

Cities don’t usually excite me as much as nature but I definitely left my heart in San Francisco. As we discussed the trip highlights, lots of suggestions were thrown around – everyone seemed to have their own favorite memory of the city: Golden Gate Bridge, a display of engineering genius that our older son, future civil engineer,  couldn’t forgo; Fisherman’s Wharf with lots of yummy seafood; a cable car ride with the most delightful conductor who recounted all the attractions we were passing in a singsong voice; dim sum in North America’s largest and oldest Chinatown; murals in the Mission District – a perfect display of street art and activism; the city itself with its hilly streets, mountain views and the smell of the ocean.

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge, an engineering miracle

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco    Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco

 Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco     clam chowder in sourdough boal at Fisherman's Wharf

Yummy food at Fisherman’s Wharf: oh, that clam chowder  in a sourdough bread bowl, I still think of you

fishing boat with Alcatraz Island in the background in San Francisco

Alcatraz Island always looming in the distance

cable car in San Francisco    riding a cable car in San Francisco

A cable car ride is a must in San Francisco

listening to wave organ in San Francisco

Listening to the Wave Organ

Chinatown in San Francisco    Chinatown in San Francisco

San Francisco’s Chinatown is the largest and oldest in North America

murals in Mission District in San Francisco   murals in Mission District in San Francisco

murals in Mission District in San Francisco

Murals in the Mission District: at the intersection of art and activism

view of Maritime Museum in San Francisco    Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco

Maritime Museum and Ferry Plaza Farmers Market

San Francisco view

Venice Beach

This was one of our older son’s favourites. And while I prefer wilder beaches with cliffs, caves and sea stacks, like Point Dume and Sand Dollar Beach, the energy of Venice Beach was electrifying. Definitely, my favourite of all the developed beaches we’ve visited so far.

Venice Beach

Venice Beach was one of our older son’s top highlights

Venice Beach    Venice Beach

Venice Beach featured graffiti and funky shops…

Venice Beach    Venice Beach

…skateboarders, fishermen and one fisher bird

sunset at Venice Beach

Plus beautiful sunsets

swimming in the ocean    swimming in the ocean

And lots of swimming

Point Dume beach at sunset

While Venice Beach was fun, I prefer secluded beaches like this cove at Point Dume…

Sand Dollar beach in California

…or Sand Dollar Beach along the Pacific Coast Highway

Balcony House at Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde in Colorado was a big discovery of our last trip west. We even changed our route to visit the park. A couple of hours wasn’t nearly enough so this year we made Mesa Verde one of the stops to learn more about Ancestral Pueblo people. Speaking of engineering genius, building whole villages into the side of a cliff with whatever little tools were available hundreds of years ago and the fact that these structures have withstood the test of time and weather is quite incredible. The highlight of our visit to the park was a tour of the Balcony House that required climbing ten-foot ladders, squeezing through narrow tunnels and walking up stone steps.

Balcony House at Mesa Verde

Balcony House, one of the many cliff dwellings of Ancestral Pueblo people at
Mesa Verde National Park

climbing a ladder to Balcony House in Mesa Verde    stone steps at Balcony House in Mesa Verde

The trail featured ladders, stairs…

crawling through a tunnel at Balcony House in Mesa Verde    climbing a ladder at Balcony House in Mesa Verde

…more ladders and a tight tunnel

Balcony House in Mesa Verde

Sandboarding in Colorado

Who said sleds and boards were for winter only? In Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park, sandboarding and sledding is a favourite activity for many visitors. So, of course, we had to try it. And even if we didn’t always go as fast as we wished to, the dunes themselves against a mountain backdrop were a magnificent sight.

sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Sand dunes in Colorado, quite a surprise

sandboarding at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado    sandboarding at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

Who said sleds and boards are for winter only?

sandsledding at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado    sand sledding at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado

And who said sledding is a children’s activity?

Great Sand Dunes National Park

There was, of course, a highlight too big for any lists – spending time with my brother and his family and getting to know my niece and nephew.

family jumping in the air

4 thoughts on “The ups and downs of our road trip to California (in lots of pictures and a few words)

  1. Pingback: The Best of 2018 | Gone Camping

  2. Pingback: The mountains are calling: Our trip to Yosemite | Gone Camping

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