California road trip with Avis – Part 2

Woodpeckers, bears and Back to the Future

Tioga PassEntering Yosemite National Park from the June Lake area was most efficiently done via the Tioga Pass entrance to the park (otherwise it’s a 6-hour detour). The highest point of the pass is over 9,000 feet, so it was great to start our drive at the top with a cheeky game of snowballs and a little freaky to arrive in Yosemite Valley a few hours later where it was 30°C. Tioga pass is a stunning drive at this time of the year, with snow stretching from the shoulder beside your car (roads had been cleared) up to the very top of the mountains. It was early summer though and the thaw was in progress, so the blanket of white was punctuated with numerous vivid colours as the plant life, rocks and streams began to show. This road only opens when the National Parks Service deem it safe to navigate, so it’s imperative to check their website for the latest update and have a plan B in place. In our case the road was only open for one hour, morning and afternoon, with essential repair work taking place at other times. Slightly risky to plan this route into the trip but boy was it worth it.

Yosemite Valley itself is a paradise on earth. Surrounded by huge granite monoliths like the Half Dome and El Capitan, the melt water from the dizzy mountain heights cascades down in giant waterfalls. We loved the upper and lower Yosemite Falls but the others like Bridevil are no slouch (get too close to them you’re going to get wet). All this water contributes to the other water features like the tumultuous Merced River (very cooling by its banks) or the Mirror Lake, the opportunity to get that reflection shot I always dreamed of taking. Then there’s the plant life and animals. You don’t have to be an expert to appreciate the enormity of the towering sequoias (one so big they cut a roadway through it), or the deer, chipmunks, woodpeckers and bears (to name a few). Fortunately, our bear encounter in Toulume Meadows was close enough to be thrilling but not scary, as the bear was absolutely absorbed digging for something and totally disinterested in us (phew)! The drive in and out of the park is conveniently punctuated with vista spots to stop and take in the views, there’s also a free shuttle service within the valley that allowed us to take it all in and let someone else do the driving.

One of the beauties of having a car is that you can detour to those out of the way, hard to get to places that are often missed. In our case we spotted that Railtown 1897 was an easy detour from our route to San Francisco and we could also squeeze in a ride on one of their steam trains. The Sierra Railway has appeared in over 200 movies but by far the most famous is locomotive 3, possibly most recognised for its role in Back to the Future III. The staff (many volunteers) were all dressed in period dress and made this a fantastic diversion for us.

From Railtown we headed to San Francisco where we decided to stay out of the city, park up the car for a few days and use the other forms of transport available to us.  From the suburbs we enjoyed the efficient and cheap (if slightly characterless after the steam trains) BART train service. Then it was back to a form of transport full of character, the iconic cable cars clanking up the imposing hilly terrain (Nob Hill was a must ride for us) of the city. I got the exhilarating opportunity of riding on the outside of the cable car, standing on the external running board. Quite a pleasant surprise I was allowed to do it in an otherwise very safety conscious country. Old style transportation doesn’t stop there and the beautiful streetcars (trolleybuses to us) ply up and down the Embarcadero (waterfront) adding to the special character of this great city. We jumped off at Fisherman’s Wharf to enjoy the street performers and the seals, pelicans and cormorants that enjoy basking in the sun at Pier 39.

Golden Gate BridgeGetting up close or even walking over the Golden Gate Bridge are as synonymous with this city as Tower Bridge is to London. It gave us the opportunity for another great trip and try out more forms of transportation. We took the bus from the city to the bridge (alleged to be painted by a team of daredevil climber/painters who slap on 1,000 gallons of orange paint a year). Sorry San Fran but it looks rust coloured to me (not actual rust), however even a shortish walk onto the bridge offers great views of the city skyline (fortunately we had a clear blue sky day).  We got back onto the next bus and took it to Sausalito, a quaint seaside town just a few minutes ride away. A walk along the front to the Gate 5 area was rewarded with a number of gaily coloured and elaborate houseboats.  From the central marina of the town we caught the Golden Gate ferry back to the ferry building and were treated to grandstand views of Alcatraz, which we’d thoroughly enjoyed visiting the day before. Top tip for Alcatraz, you must book in advance, we were here at the end of June and the next available ticket were into August.

Time to warm up the car again and head for LA.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Avis.

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Steve Aldridge

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