Joshua Tree… check. Death Valley… check. Next on the list of California’s Gold was the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Specifically the Alabama Hills, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park, and Yosemite. Our first stop would be Lone Pine California, the gateway to the Alabama Hills, and Mount Whitney.
The drive from Death Valley to Lone Pine was a little dicey. First, we had to climb out of the valley. There were frequent roadside water spigots for the expressed purpose of refilling overheated radiators (nice blast from the past). There were also signs warning against the use of air conditioning in order to prevent engine overheating. I figured I’d better obey if for no other reason than to prevent an ‘I told you so’ moment later. It was a hot, white-knuckled, climb out of Death Valley followed by a cooler but even more white-knuckled decent into the Owens Valley.
The Owens Valley sits in stark contrast to the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west. As the crow flies, it’s about 15 miles from Lone Pine to the peak of Mount Whitney. The difference in elevation between the two is 10,778 vertical feet. The geological phenomenon known as the Alabama Hills lies in-between.
The Alabama Hills are administered by the BLM, and offer free first-come-first-served camping among exquisite granite rock outcroppings. After spending one night at the Diaz Lake Campground (a county campground just south of Lone Pine) we went out in search of our free BLM camping spot. Unfortunately, it seems like the Alabama Hills secret is out, and every reasonably accessible camping spot in the area was indeed occupied. This was in the middle of the week in the off-season.
Luckily we had a backup plan. There are several BLM and National Forest campgrounds in the area that provide affordable camping, with the added benefit of dump stations, water, and the security of staying in an official campground. We ended up paying $8 per night to stay at the Tuttle Creek BLM campground, still very close to the Alabama Hills.
The Alabama Hills are a well known Hollywood filming location. Notable movies include Iron Man, Django Unchained, Gladiator, and Gunga Din (timely reference). There’s a Film History Museum and a Film Festival held every fall.
We didn’t do a whole lot while staying in the Alabama Hills, mostly relaxed at our campground. It was windy pretty much every day, and when it wasn’t we got eaten alive by mosquitoes. Even with those minor annoyances, the landscape and solitude were worth it. We hiked to Mobius Arch one day, which was nice. Another day, Tim rode the Alabama Hills loop mountain biking trail. It was the sandiest trail he’d ever ridden, not a lot of fun but nice scenery and some good exercise. Jackie took some time alone to visit Manzanar, the WWII era Japanese American internment camp.
We celebrated Easter in the Alabama Hills. Since Lone Pine only has a small market, we spent about 40 bucks on baskets and ended up with very little to show for it. One of the big downsides of the area was the heavy expense of grocery shopping. Not sure how the locals do it. Daddy spent Easter with food poisoning of his own doing. He needs to start being more careful when working with raw chicken.
From the Alabama Hills, we started making our way to the west side of the Sierras. We stayed two nights on the beach of Lake Isabella on the far southern tip of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The price was right at zero dollars per night with our interagency pass. The town of Lake Isabella also had a Vons, so we were back in business with groceries. Of course, free camping in California also brings nutjobs living in molester vans. One parked right next to us. It takes all kinds.
After our stay at Lake Isabella, we drove down the Kern River Canyon towards Visalia in California’s central valley. The central valley is a toilet bowl, but a necessary stop if one wants to visit Sequoia, Kings Canyon, or Yosemite National Parks. We would visit all three. We stayed one night at the Visialia KOA which allowed us to shower, and do some laundry. Weirdly, the swimming pool didn’t open until May 1st even though April high temperatures are regularly in the mid-90’s. Visalia also brought us back to civilization where we could shop for cheap groceries at Walmart. Also, we got In-And-Out Burger for the first time. Very good burgers, but maybe a bit over-rated. Not sure it’s worth waiting in line for. The fries suck.
Cheap is relative in California. I bought a new Kindle e-reader since I had recently sat on, and broke, my old one. $5 electronic recycling charge on that. 10 cents extra per can of beer/pop. 10 cents per grocery bag. Don’t get me started on gas prices. It all adds up.
The whole reason to spend time in the central valley was to visit the nearby national parks. First up was Sequoia National Park which was utterly spectacular. As advertised, the trees are big. Pictures don’t do them justice. In fact, the largest tree in the world (not by height or girth but by volume) can be found in Sequoia. Unfortunately named after a war criminal, the General Sherman tree is 274.9 feet tall, with a maximum diameter of 36.5 feet. There’s a lot of civil war naming going on due to America’s western expansion of the late 1800s.
While General Sherman was impressive, the sheer number of huge trees was even more impressive. Almost as impressive were the huge old growth pines interspersed with the giant sequoias. A recurring downside of California National Parks are the crowds. Again, European tourists dominated. Some faked a lack of English skills in order to disobey signs warning to stay away from the trees. I was on to them, but of course, kept my mouth shut.
Sequoia National Park’s less popular neighbor is Kings Canyon. I’d like to call it a hidden gem, but I really can’t. We visited because we were in the area and it was convenient. It was nice, and if it were located in Oklahoma it would be one of the greats. The problem for Kings Canyon is that it’s located right between the juggernauts of Sequoia and Yosemite. It is a deep canyon. My wife tells me it’s deeper than the Grand Canyon, but I can’t verify that. It’s certainly not as dramatic as the Grand Canyon. It was a nice day trip, but as far as National Parks go it was a bit underwhelming. Kings Canyon does feature Sequoia trees, and we did visit the 3rd largest tree (by volume), which was neat. If our kids didn’t suck at hiking, Kings Canyon might have been neater.
Our final stop in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was the iconic Yosemite National Park. Yosemite combines all of the great features of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, and then kicks it up a notch with friggin’ huge waterfalls. We visited the Yosemite valley, a wide meadow with jagged granite walls pierced by waterfalls on each side. Having recently watched ‘The Dawn Wall’ on Netflix, seeing climbers high on El Capitan was a treat. We saw numerous waterfalls including mighty Yosemite Falls. We saw Half Dome, though not up close. As we were leaving we made a detour to the Tunnel View overlook where we could see the whole valley and all of the previously mentioned features.
It’s worth noting that we weren’t able to stay in any of the National Parks we visited. Reservations are generally booked 6 months in advance, so spur of the moment travelers are shit out of luck. We were however able to stay within a reasonable commuting distance to each park. In the case of Kings Canyon and Sequoia, we stayed at an Army Corp of Engineers campground at Lake Kaweah near Visalia. In the case of Yosemite, we stayed in the small town of Mariposa at the local fairgrounds. Both were overpriced, but the only game in town.
What’s more to say. The central valley sucks, and the Sierras are awesome. From here we’ll make are way toward the coast of northern California. Redwoods anyone?
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