Sunday, 18 March 2018

California Winter Wonderland - Part 2

A view from the top of Eagle Point over the high Sierra Nevada mountains with half dome in view.
From looking at the pictures from part 1, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Winter really isn't Winter in California, but I can assure you that it was cold at night, right from the start of the tour.  That being said, the days were warm and sunny, and California hadn't really had much of a Winter until I arrived, but that was set to change.

Perhaps you can understand why I didn't cycle up there.
As I entered the second week, I did notice that things were turning decidedly colder, just at the wrong time really as I was headed into the mountains.  Just prior to setting up camp at Horsecreek campground (at the end of part 1), I had discovered that my intended route through the mountains was all closed-off.  To make matters worse, even the road up to General Sherman and the giant sequoia groves in Sequoia National Park was closed on the morning I was intending to go there due to heavy snow.

Luckily, however, the road did open, but it would have been suicide to cycle up there, so a change of plan was required.  I met a chap from North Carolina in the campsite who wanted to go up also, but was concerned about the cost of hiring snow chains - which were definitely required - plus the park entrance fee.  We agreed to share the ride and the cost, and then luckily we were joined by a Texan who also wanted to go and cut costs at the same time.  Expenses divided then, we were set to go and I was very glad I made it up there.  It really was quite an experience to see those immense trees, and the snow made it even more spectacular.

That is one big tree!
The closed roads meant that I had some thinking to do.  I could only really pick my way through the towns and cities in the San Joaquin Valley for 200Km or so to Merced and then onto Yosemite for what promised to be the most awesome place on an already terrific tour.  I thought better of it, especially as some of these cities didn't have the best reputations.  I had some Amtrak ticket vouchers from my canceled original trip, so I thought I'd use them and take it easy for a day.

Arriving in Yosemite Valley
From Merced there was the small matter of about 140Km to get up to Yosemite National Park.  I had timed things well, I made it to a hostel, just a few kilometres shy of Yosemite before another round of heavy snow came in overnight.  I spent the night in the hostel and the next day, waiting-out the worst of the snow.  I also really appreciated the rest.  I had camped every single night for 8-straight nights in progressively colder weather.

The roads were too bad to cycle in the last few kilometres, so I took the shuttle bus into Yosemite Valley, and luckily they accepted bikes.  Once there, I set up camp and began to explore the park.  It was pretty incredible, and also a bit weird being surrounded by huge granite walls everywhere.

Yosemite falls, the highest in North America, apparently.
I wondered around the lower part of the valley on the first day, catching great views of half dome and Yosemite falls.  I settled-down to camp that first night in the genuine cold.  Overnight, the temperature got down to - 8 degrees Celsius.  I felt a little cold back at the Horsecreek campground when it was - 5 C, so I prepared in advance and borrowed a blanket from the hostel for a more comfortable night and it worked marvelously.  As long as I was in my tent, I was fine, and in fact, got a great night's sleep, despite the risk of bears also.  All my food was safely away in the bear lockers, so that I didn't have any unwanted visitors sniffing around in the night.

When I woke up in the morning I knew I wanted to head up to the top of something and get a view from above, but I wasn't really sure where I was going other than to the top of Yosemite Falls.  Once I had made it up there, after a steep climb, I was joined by a chap from Washington who said he aimed to get to the top of El Capitan on the day.  That was a long hike, especially in thick snow, but because there was two of us, I felt compelled to join him.

Near the top of the waterfall, mostly frozen.  Occasionally snow and ice would break off causing a roaring sound to bounce off the walls of the valley.  It made for a fantastic atmosphere.
Once past Yosemite falls, it was clear that not many people had gone any further.  The snow was deep and we followed some footprints towards the turn-off for Eagle Point, the highest peak in the area.  Once we past this intersection to go to the top of El Capitan, however, the footprints disappeared and the trail disappeared beneath the snow.  We decided to trudge on, partly because there was two of us, the weather was good, and if in doubt we could always follow our footprints back to where we knew the trail was for sure.

It was difficult, and we set ourselves a time limit to get to El Capitan, or else we'd just have to turn back.  It was quite an adventure using contours on our map and a little bit of experience to try and trace where the trail should be.  In the fresh snow, we could also see what wildlife had been before us; deer, rabbits, bobcats, and more worryingly, huge bear prints.  Just as well there were two of us.

Turns out, though, that we didn't make it, it was just too slow-going in the snow and it took time to make sure we were on course, so we headed back to the intersection of the trail and where it lead off to Eagle Point.  The view up there certainly didn't disappoint, with the most gorgeous of vistas over the high Sierra Nevada mountains, awe-inspiring stuff.

The next day, I wanted to get a good look at El Capitan - a sheer face of rock famous for people climbing it - and get a view of the whole valley, which I had to do a bit of a detour to on the way out of the park later on.

I went for a short walk first thing in the morning, but before I set-off, a bunch of stoned fellow campers took time to shake my hand and tell me what a bad ass I was for cycling and camping in the wintry weather.  Marijuana had only just been legalised in California - about a week before I arrived - and I even got to sample some in cookie form the day before while I was hiking.  A very small cookie that packed a pleasant punch that kicked-in after about an hour and a half.  It was very nice of my hiking companion to offer me one and it did make for a humorous end to the day.

Anyway, it was a pleasant morning hike in very still, cold, but nice weather, affording excellent views down the valley and eventually the sheer face of El Capitan.

After the hike, I packed-up my things and left on the bike, but not before taking a detour to the famous "Tunnel View" of the valley.  It was probably a 10-15Km trip out of my way, but it was worth it, a view encapsulating much of the famous landmarks of the valley, and on another beautiful day, it was picture perfect.

The view without me spoiling it.
Yosemite was as awesome as it promised to be, and I had only to make it back to Merced for the end of my cycling on the trip.  From Merced, I took the Amtrak to avoid picking my way through all the cities in the very populated part of northern California.  First though, I spent another night in the same hostel to relax in the warmth and to return the blanket I had borrowed.

Sadly, on the way out of the stunning Yosemite valley.
I only had a couple of train rides amounting to about 4 hours once back in Merced, and then I had a couple of days back in San Francisco to relax, explore the city a bit and prepare the bike for the trip back to Melbourne.

I enjoyed San Francisco as a city, though I don't think I'd want to live there.  When I got back to Melbourne, I appreciated what a nice city it really is to live in.  The environment was better, it was a lot more relaxed, and it felt a lot safer.  San Francisco was an interesting place to visit, with lots of interesting sights and things to do, and even the homeless people - of which there were a lot - were kind of mildly entertaining, in a bit of a troubling way, as most of them were absolutely crazy, seeming to have a real issue with mental illness.

Perhaps it says something about my character that the first thing I wanted to see upon getting back to San Francisco was the sea lion colony that had made it's home on one of the piers in the harbour.  They really were extraordinary, probably about 150 sleeping, fighting, swimming, scratching, and yelling at each other with the backdrop of the golden gate bridge in the background.

Ironically, the weather on the day I left was the only cloudy day of the trip (it snowed on a couple of nights, but the days were always sunny).  But I still went to the Twin Peaks to get a look at the whole city.  On my way back I sorted-out a box for the bike and packed everything away. 

The city from "Twin Peaks".
It was a sensational trip, and I managed to fit a lot into two weeks; an extraordinary coastline, the biggest trees in the world, an iconic city, and some of the most unique and spectacular mountain scenery you could ever see.  Now in Australia, each day doesn't pack the same punch, but all tours have their unique qualities and touring around Australia will be an amazing experience.  Stay tuned for updates.

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