Thursday, 25 April 2013

Merced and on north to Sonoma wine country

On the way back from Kings Canyon, we stopped off at Merced for two nights, before driving north to Sonoma.  It's a great place to visit the parks from, being much less expensive than staying nearer, and with great food.  Went to Applebee's for good, inexpensive food, and sat at the bar, as it's a great place to hear the craich, and chat to the locals, who are always very friendly and chatty.  Found a great place for a cheap lunch, a Mexican supermarket, a block away, which served an amazing chicken soup, quesadilla and bottled water for $13.  Weather has been really hot and sunny, not seen a cloud for several days, and 29deg C.  Guys at the bar said that it would normally be more showery and unsettled at this time, so unusually hot.  Snow and heavy rain in the Mid West and 90'F in Fresno, near Merced!

North to Windsor, in Sonoma county.  We're not visiting the vineyards and tasting the wine, because last time we came, we found that they are extremely expensive to taste and buy, compared with supermarket.  We are going to make an exception with one vineyard on the way back, later in the week!  But this is a lovely area to cycle around and not far from the family.  We hired bikes from Healdsburg.  Trouble is hiring bikes around here is so expensive, but worth it for a day's cycle into the wine growing valleys - Dry Creek and Alexander.  We did this last November, after the harvest, so it was wonderful to cycle along shady roads, lined with fragrant rambling roses, with vines, some low, some standard, covered in bright, new green foliage. Vines as far as the eye could see.  Cycling in the shade became important as temperatures reached over 30' in the afternoon.  We arrived back in Healdsburg, after a 52ml circuit, in time for a beer at the micro- brewery, Black Bear Brewery, where we sat and chatted to an group of American women from New York, who, spotting my Ventoux top, told us that she had done the climb and other passes in the Alps. One of her favourite places to visit in US- Bolder and Breckinridge, Colorado.  Always a great place to chat and sample local brews, although you had to be careful of the %, some 8%!

That evening the temperature dropped dramatically.  We explored Old Windsor, and found a great Himalayan restaurant and then walked briskly back, shivering.  It's weird the weather the temperature changes around here, particularly as you get closer to the coast.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013


Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon
Really enjoyed our overnight stay at Wilderness Lodge, Hetch Hetchy, and would definitely go again, especially as it's the nearest point in Yosemite to the family.  Had elk carpaccio last night for starter, and it tasted really nice- not a strong as beef.

The journey from Hetch Hetchy to Kings Canyon took us all the way back to Yosemite and on to Tenaya Lodge, AGAIN!  Then a four hour drive to Grant Grove Village.  At least it was on fast roads, and the 160 mls passed quickly, with a hot drive in 25deg in the valley floor, cooling to 13deg as we started to climb to 6500'.  All the way ahead you could see the snow covered hills of the Sierra Nevada, and our destination.  Grant Grove Village is a Post Office, Store, Restaurant, Visitor Centre and that's it!  The John Muir Lodge where we were staying for two nights is a short walk away.  Fantastic, it's got the longed-for bath!  The area is even quieter and more closed down than Yosemite, but then it is at a higher elevation.  Most trails and roads are closed until the end of April, so we're a bit too early to do the scenic drive to Cedar Grove.  Trouble is it gets much busier later, but another month would have given us more options.  Best time to come for gushing waterfalls.

Grant Grove is named after General Ulysses Grant, who later became President, and was famous for his exploits in the Civil War.  John Muir Lodge is named after a Scotsman, John Muir, one of the first conservationists, who worked to protect the sequoias of Yosemite and Kings Canyon from logging.  He was instrumental in their creation as National Parks.  The John Muir Trail, like the Pacific Crest Trail, near where Andrew used to live, is a long distance footpath.

Early morning, we drove up to Panoramic Point before breakfast.  Vast views over the Canyon and on to the Sierra Nevada in the distance with peaks of 14000', covered in snow.  The silence was wonderful.  Back down for breakfast at the same place where we had dinner the night before.  Good value and great choice.  Would definitely recommend it and will return here.  Laid-back and unfussy, unlike Tenaya, where they were working hard for tips with a rigid service system.  Great accommodation and surrounded by stunning scenery.  After breakfast, we drove a mile down to General Grant Tree and Trail, a third mile trail through some of the tallest and broadest sequoias in the world, and right on the doorstep.  Gen Grant Tree has the greatest base diameter at 40.3' and is the world's third largest tree.  It is estimated to be about 2000 years old, and is as tall as a 27 storey building.  They say that you could build 40 average sized 5- room houses from its wood.  Along the trail is the Gamlin Cabin built by the Gamlin brothers in 1872, who had previously lived in the Fallen Monarch, also on the trail.  Now this really is something- a sequoia hollowed out by fire before it fell and then it became the home of the brothers, while they built their cabin.  Later it served as living quarters for a team of workers, and then stabled 32 horses for the US Cavalry, responsible for guarding the Park and the forests in the early days of conservation.  Amazing!
Sequoias only naturally grow between 5000 and 7000 ' on west facing slopes in the Sierra Nevada, and Giant Redwood, taller but not as thick set, are native to the thin western strip of coastline north of San Francisco.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Reunited with family and Yosemite

Reunited with the family and then off to Yosemite

Overnight stop in Chicago, great city to gather your senses. A few beers in a proper pub, The Public House, which also seemed to offer great food, although we went to PFChangs and a disappointing meal. Longer taxi ride in than we remembered, but still great to break the journey here. Have to be aware of the potential hazards of landing here in Winter.

It was great to see all the family again.  Lizzy and Andrew and Lily have moved into a larger townhouse in the same apartments.  Much more spacious with an upstairs for the bedrooms.  Not been in long but already settled in, with herbs growing on the balcony, Andrew's photos of seascapes and Lily on the wall etc.
A bit chilly but bright and sunny, and wonderful to see blue sky again.  Lily is a little poppet, with masses of golden curls and blue eyes.  Full of beans but noticeably concentrates on activities for longer periods of time.  Very talkative with babbling sounds, but clearly counts to three, says mummy, daddy, bubbles, flowers, balloons, and labels parts of her face.  She can tell you sounds that animals make.  With butterflies, she flickers her eyelashes!  She very quickly got used to us being around, and loves grandad's iPad !
On Saturday, we all went down to the sea, but it was too cold to play on the beach, so we watched Andrew take photos and kick a ball around, whilst we sheltered in a sand-dune!  Had a lovely lunch in Point Reyes Station, at one of Lizzy and Andrew's favourite food-stops.  Andrew and his mates have set up a website with details of walks and great cafes and they get together on a walk every two weeks.

After four nights with the family, and a morning walk up Mt Burdell with great views of the city, we set off on the long five hour drive, about 200 miles east to Yosemite, to the Tenaya Lodge.  About an hour away from main Yosemite area in Fish Camp. We managed a short walk to the base of Yosemite Falls, before checking in.  A 2400' drop waterfall, or group of three waterfalls was awesome.  But the weather was deteriorating as we drove up the valley, past El Capitan, a near vertical granite rock, which towers over the valley floor.  On past Cathedrals, and the Bridalveil Falls to Tunnel Vista.  From there we watched the rain steadily move up the valley.  Really beautiful and atmospheric.  As we approached Tenaya Lodge, we were told by a Park Warden that because a campervan had come off the road because of snow and ice, in a twenty car pile-up, they were checking that motorists had snow-chains or 4WD.  With only a short distance to go, we said we had, but then later found out that the Hyundai we had rented wasn't 4WD after all.  A little more alarmed when we overheard the receptionist tell a worried guest that it was a legal requirement to have snow chains in the car, or face a $500 fine.  We crossed our fingers that the weather would improve tomorrow.

After a freezing night, the roads were fine but icy in places, as we set off to the Happy Isles  Trailhead, to the start of the Mist Trail, leading to the John Muir Trail.  Recommended as one of the most stunning walks.  The Mist Trail rose quickly to a thunderous waterfall, with snow covering the walls, where the water had settled either side of the fall.  A very cold start, especially when walking under the gigantic sequoias.  As we climbed up, the path became treacherous and icy, and people were turning back, as did we.  We doubled back on ourselves and picked up the recommended winter route of the John Muir trail.  Three hours later we were out of the trees, on a sunny ledge, looking up at Half Dome, and Nevada Falls, in brilliant sunshine.  An unforgettable view.  They closed the Mist Trail because of ice, and the walk around the back of the falls was also closed.  Many of the higher level routes are closed until the end of May, including the ascent up to Glacier Point.  However, we still managed to clock up a decent five hour walk, with great views, before the long drive out of the Park to Tenaya Lodge for our second night.
The following day was below freezing in the morning but soon got up to a comfortable 14 deg by the afternoon.  We opted for a walk up through the woods to Upper Yosemite Fall, a climb of 2400'.  A lovely gradient all the way up, pausing at Columbia Rock to get close to the cascading water, with ice and snow where the spray had soaked the freezing rock.  The descent, the same route down, was tough, but views up the nearby sheer granite faces, and over to Half Dome and snow-capped mountains in the distance were superb.  Five hours later, approx 9 miles and we were back, with another long, tortuous drive out of the Park to our next destination.  That's the only down side- there is an unavoidable amount of driving to do, unless you stay in the Park.  We spent the night in a wooden lodge, in the Wilderness Lodges, at Hetch Hetchy.  It's taken Ian a month to finally say it correctly!  Hetchy Ketchy, Ketchy Hetchy etc !  Beautiful lodges set in the trees, in the middle of nowhere.  A bit expensive, but food and drink very reasonable, and a good general store.  Would come back again.  Shame we're only staying one night.
Breakfast at 7am and off on a drive to Hetch Hetchy reservoir and dam.  They call it the Little Yosemite, because of the stunning rock formations and waterfalls, which John Muir fought hard to preserve, but lost the battle when they built the dam which created the reservoir which, along with two others nearby, supplies water and energy to San Francisco and the surrounding area.  Water is distributed by gravity, without the need for pumps, which incredible when you consider the distances involved.  We returned to the Park entrance of Hetch Hetchy, and followed the trail to the Lookout, just a two mile walk but so quiet and scenic.