Just before noon, we crossed the Oakland bridge and took Highway 580 and then Route 120 to the Yosemite National Park. The feeling was more like driving in mid-western America than in California. Things got more interesting after we started climbing the Sierra Nevada. We were now turning the curves of state Route 120, along creeks, inside the dense forest, with the temperature surprisingly rising together with the elevation, as the imminent heat wave was kicking in.
We checked in at the Yosemite Cedar lodge with the option to hit the pool or watch the seventh and last NBA final between Oakland and Cleveland. Unanimously, we chose to watch the game and then go to dinner at the lodge’s restaurant. With 90°F at 9pm, we walked to the nearby river for some father-son chatting and star gazing.
The Yosemite valley is the crown jewel of the Yosemite National Park and the reason why I started taking pictures. It was Ansel Adams and the iconic shots of the Half Dome that I saw in my teenage years that got me hooked to my photography passion. We started early to avoid the big crowds – there was a traffic jam warning on the radio the day before – and did not regret it. We got the chance to see El Capitan without the usual crowds, trekked for about ninety minutes to Mirror Lake, drove back to the Glacier point and, with the exception of ascending the Half Dome, we did what anyone can possibly do during a one day visit in the Valley. Honestly, I did not know what to expect – certainly not the myriads of mosquitos that hunted us down at the Mirror Lake – from such an over photographed site, but I certainly do understand why Ansel Adams spent so much time here, chasing the light and the shadows falling on these impressive monoliths. The views are spectacular and inspirational. I could definitely do without the crowds, but this is the price to pay when you are in such a rush.
Time to move south, along the west leg of our road trip. We followed Route 120 west, through amazing forest scenery. The Tioga Pass in closed in winter and even with the temperature at 100°F in mid June, there was a lot of snow scattered around the road and on the peaks. After the Tioga Pass, we descended to Mono Lake and took a south turn on highway 395. The landscape changed rapidly from alpine to desert, with vast land openings and naked mountain slopes. I have never before witnessed such a dramatic change of landscape in such a short distance. We were of course on the opposite side of the Sierra Nevada, which is unreachable by the ocean clouds. Time for some ZZ Top on the loudspeakers.
We reached Bishop by 6pm, a small town with nothing really interesting to do. The swimming pool in Bishop Travelodge was pathetic, adding to the worn down ambience of the town. Main street is where all the shops and restaurants were located and where the community band played some music in the evening. That’s the flip side of America, only a couple of hours away from the cool coastal towns or the ski slopes of the Sierra, all in the great state of California
The next morning we took Highway 395 south and turned east on Route 190, immersing deeper and deeper into the vast openings of the Californian desert. The mercury kept rising of course. It was the hottest day of the year, not the ideal time to visit the desert. After a quick stop to buy 6 liters of bottled water, we descended into the Death Valley, with the car’s thermometer indicating 122°F. Groovy.
I stopped the car at the Stovepipe Wells to pay the park fees and fill the tank. The heat was truly unbearable, nothing I had ever experienced before. The blowing wind made things even worse. One minute was the maximum time I could stay out in the heat without feeling really uncomfortable. We got some snacks and sandwiches for lunch and headed north to the Ubehebe crater, an area in the Valley that is as close as it can get to the moon. Now, this is the first time I ever got scared on a trip. With 50°C on the thermometer, no mobile phone signal and my two kids in the car, my mind started going through the options of what I’d do if the car broke down. Fortunately, it did not and the kids were excited by the fact that they experienced such heat.
We turned south again, towards Furnace Creek, to visit the abandoned Borax mines and finally checked in at the Ranch, one of the two lodging options in this hellish place. At sunset, we paid a visit to the Mesquite Flat sand dunes, but the heat was still unbearable. I could not help thinking what the life of the Borax miners or the locals – yes, there is a local Indian tribe – would be under the summer heat, how many lives this environment has claimed.
On our way out of the valley we climbed to Dante’s point, to get a spectacular view of the valley. From the top you can see at the same time the lowest and highest altitude points in the continental US, Badwater at 86m below sea level and Mt. Whitney at 4’421m, part of the Sierra Nevada.
Next: Route 66 and Los Angeles