Northern California (3rd to 28th June 2010)

LA to Solvang (3rd to 8th June)

Los Angeles

After getting turned down for an extension of stay by immigration for a load of vague reasons, we decide to spend May in the UK so we can renew our visit in June. We leave our truck with the very kind Valerie and Peter in Palo Verde, Los Angeles and hope that we’re let back in the country. The guard at LAX is very happy to sign us back in for 6 months so we can get back on track with our tour. In some ways, it’s done us a favour as spring/summer in the USA is very late this year and a lot of the places we wanted to visit are only just getting clear of snow.

Valerie and Peter have very kindly offered to put us up for a few nights until we get back on the road. Their house in Palo Verde is lovely, high on a hillside with loads of windows so you can look over downtown LA and on a clear day you can see the Hollywood sign. Our hosts are so kind and hospitable, and we share some great evenings eating and drinking on the patio and watching the fledgling red tailed hawks that are nesting above. Peacocks roam freely round this hillside; in fact they are a nuisance to the residents with their screeching and pooping!

Downtown LA

While we’re staying in LA we take a trip out to see some of the town. The traffic is pretty bad, which is the norm round here. We head for Venice Beach, which reminds us of Camden by the beach, with the smell of dope everywhere. There are some weird and whacky people wandering around. Muscle Beach has a few gym queens working out. Another few hours along the coast (the traffic is bad!) we get to Santa Monica before we turn inland on Sunset Boulevard and drive through the amazing pads of Beverley Hills and Bel Air. The sun is out and it all looks very swanky.

We take the obligatory trip down Hollywood Boulevard to see the Chinese Theatre and the Walk of Fame. It’s a little seedy round here and there’s the usual Ripley’s Believe It or Not and a Wax Museum. We get a glimpse of the Hollywood sign on the hill before Rich heads on to the freeway, cuts everyone up and goes back to the house.


Refugio State Beach

We drive north from LA on Highway 1. The coastal gloom seems to have lifted a bit and we have a lovely drive into Santa Barbara which looks gorgeous in the sunlight. It’s so warm and the streets are full of people eating at pavement cafes amongst the flowering trees.

As we near Refugio State Beach we hit a load of foggy low cloud hugging the shore. The campsite is nice enough, perhaps more geared to RVs but we still have a fairly large pitch and we’re about 15 pitches from the beach. There are gophers all round the camp that poke their noses out of holes and pull blades of grass in. It’s sort of warm enough to sit out in the evenings but feels pretty damp. My hair turns in to a frizz bomb. The gloom lifts in the late afternoon and the sun comes out. The beach is lovely so we take walks along to the edge of the small bay. Surfers play in the waves and lots of people come to use the beach for the day. I spot a gang of dolphins just beyond the break and we track them along the shore. I never get bored of seeing them. We have a paddle in the Pacific, which is pretty cold, and misjudge the waves and soak our shorts.
A nice group of people camped behind us, Shannon, Brian, Melissa and Cami, invite us to sit round their camp fire. We have a good laugh over some beers until the ranger tells us to keep the noise down!


Our second day in Refugio, we decide to head out after breakfast and find some sunshine, which seems to sit only a few miles from the coast. We drive through Lompoc (famous for its cultivated flowers) before heading for Solvang, a Danish town full of quaint shops, cafes and windmills. It’s a little cheesy but we like it as its well looked after and doesn’t have tacky chain shops. I buy a Danish pastry in a bakery (well you have to) and we sit out in the glorious sunshine eating lunch.


There’s an old Spanish catholic mission just on the outskirts of town called Santa Ines. It’s a very peaceful site with the old mission building, lovely gardens and original bits of the Indian village from the 19th century. We see a huge black cat that looks like a small panther, but more likely to be a bobcat. Gophers pop up all over the place, as they do at the campsite.

Sequoia National Park (9th to 13th June)

Buck Eye Flat

It’s a 5 hour journey from the Californian coast to Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The weather heats up as we cross the Central Valley and we hit the 90’s. There’s nothing but dried out grass and cows for miles around. On the other side of the valley, Lake Kawashu is enormous and in a beautiful area backed by lush dark green hills. We start to wind up the foothills through Lemon Cove (full of lemon trees) and Three Rivers, which has a fierce raging river running through it.

Through the main gate, we head for the first come first served Buck Eye Flat campground in the foothills of the park. We have to take a narrow winding road to get there which means there are no RVs here, just tents. It is a really beautiful site, with nothing but the sound of the raging river in the background. It’s around 85’f here. The pitches are amongst the trees and we find a nice spot with plenty of room. Each pitch has a big bear box for storing food and anything with an odour. You can’t leave anything fragrant in the car or tent; even cigarettes and windscreen cleaner (see “Bear Encounters” later in the travelogue). We spend the first two nights round the campfire chatting with Shaun, a young teacher travelling alone from Virginia.

Paradise Creek trail runs behind the camp and leads to the wonderful raging white water of the middle fork of the Kaweah River. The river is fierce and loud. It causes a cool breeze as it rushes past us. We cross over on a wooden bridge and follow a smaller trail that leads to a beautiful waterfall and pool. We get our shoes and socks off and have a paddle. The water is freezing but Rich enjoys throwing some over his head and cooling off a bit. We have the place to ourselves. A ranger runs a twilight walk on the same trail. As it’s getting dark he focuses on the other senses apart from sight. It’s interesting apart from Richy getting severely munched on by mosquitoes. We touch Manzanita leaves, fruit, bark and a piece of river smoothed granite, chew on acorns and Miner’s Lettuce, smell bay leaves and ponderosa bark (like vanilla essence) and listen to the river rapids. He explains that the Kaweah river has a very steep drop from top to bottom causing the fast flowing water. He also points out Poison Oak, which can cause a horrible skin rash.

Giant Forest

After a winding drive from the campsite we take the trail to the famous General Sherman Tree, the largest tree in the world by volume. All the Giant Sequoias are breathtaking but this one is vast. They think it is about 2,100 years old and has a 40 foot diameter. You can recognise a Giant Sequoia by its cinnamon coloured bark and its short branches start high up in the tree. Afterwards we take the Congress Trail through the Giant Forest sequoia grove. It’s hard to photograph them except for the bottom of the trunks which are often scarred by old fires. They need fire to dry up their cones and allow the seeds to fall out. The water is flowing fast through the grove. Walking back to the car I really notice the altitude again as we are at 7000 feet.
Another sunny day we drive up to the Giant Forest museum and take the 2-mile Moro Rock trail through the Giant Forest and climb, puffing, up the 400 steps to the top of the rock. We’re now 4000 feet above the canyon floor. The view is amazing. You can look down on the giant sequoias from here. We take the 2.3-mile Soldier’s Trail back to the car.

Crystal Cave

The Crystal Cave tour starts with a long wiggly drive down into a valley. The hike down from the car park is next to a lovely gushing waterfall. At the cave entrance we’re given torches and about 50 of us venture in (the power is out as some creature chewed the cable, hence the torches). The cave is lined in marble with stalactites and stalagmites in white crystal. Some of the formations look like big chandeliers. There are 2 big rooms in the cave. In one we turn all the torches off and stand in pitch darkness.

Bear Encounters in Sequoia (a hairy story)

We specifically came to this park to see black bears, but perhaps not at such close quarters!
Our first day in the park, we drive to a very high elevation and over a mountain pass. It’s cold up there, around 43’f and we’re in the clouds. Out of the gloom we see our first bear, a fluffy light brown juvenile running along the road. About 5 minutes later we nearly collide with a black mother bear and 2 tiny little balls-of-fluff cubs. They are absolutely gorgeous. On the road down, Rich spots a black bear just off the road and manages to get some shots of him. I also see a large brown bear further along the roadside. We’re very pleased with ourselves as we’ve never seen black bears. (despite the colour all the bears here are “black bears” – there are no grizzly bears here)

Lower down the hill, the sun comes out and we walk the Big Trees Trail at the Giant Forest Museum. This trail skirts the Round Meadow and is surrounded by lovely sequoias. In the middle of the meadow we see a big black bear and Rich has time to get his tripod out and take some proper photos.


While he’s doing that, I spot 2 bear cubs really close by, followed by a very large brown mother. We have a wonderful hour watching the cubs play and run up and down trees. The mother doesn’t seem too bothered by people, but we keep our distance. Another male turns up in the meadow, a large brown one and the mother gets a little twitchy and walks off away from us. Now we are delighted with our bear experience!

That evening two bikers pitch up next to us, Joel and Eric from California. They’re great fun and we enjoy a few drinks with them round their fire and a sing song to Joel’s little electric guitar. I head to bed and leave Rich and Joel with a bottle of Scotch! About 1:30am I hear some strange noises like someone crushing beer cans, then lots of torchlight and Rich shouting into the darkness. A bear has found a large bottle of Pepsi on the table just outside our tent that someone has left out and is busy chomping it to bits. Rich is very brave and scares him off and puts away the other bits they’ve left out. He comes to bed and falls asleep but I hear the same noises again and look out the window with my torch. There is a reasonably large black bear just outside the tent staring at me, so I shout “Go away bear” and growl at him until he slopes off. Needless to say, I don’t get a lot more sleep that night as the whole camp is having their own bear encounters now; there are shouts and torchlight going off everywhere.

The next day we hear that the bear tried to jimmy open the door of the car parked below our tent, and they have a nice dent. They had left half an onion in there for some reason. Evidently bears can smell an orange from over 3 miles away. He’s put his claws in the metal door surround at the top and tried to pull it towards him to smash the glass. A clever trick that he may have picked up in the East End! It’s only the bears in Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite who have learnt how to do this. Now we’re glad of the earlier warnings from the campground host.

That evening, we join Joel and Eric for a guitar singalong. We’re rubbish at the words of the old rock songs that Joel knows but we find a few we can all sing/howl to. Around midnight we see a large brown bear at the pitch next door. Some kids have left all sorts of rubbish out, including trays and pots of BBQ sauce. The bear is up to its ears in the stuff. We shine torches on it and shout but it’s not having any of it. Rich goes round the side of their tent and tries to scare him off but the bear bluff charges him from about a foot away, and scares the life out of him. All I can see is cigarette sparks flying, a shout of “f***ing hell” and Rich leaping out of the bushes and landing on his backside. He’s not hurt, and doesn’t need to change his trousers, but we’re all a bit shook up so we have to have a few more drinks. We decide to let the messy campers deal with the consequences; those bears have got big teeth and claws!


The following day we walk the Soldier’s Trail. On the way I am busy trying to photograph some trees when a black bear pops up in the middle of my shot. We make some noises and he ambles away. We follow him to a small meadow and Rich gets some nice sunny close ups. There’s no one on these trails; the park is busy but people tend to stay on the road. It’s so peaceful.

Back at the camp, we have new neighbours on all sides. A Japanese family, a retired American couple and Dan and Sam, a couple of bikers from Seattle pitch up, so we warn them about the bear problem. (though the couple then go out and leave their bear box open.) Generally things are clean tonight. Dan has a few beers with us and about 9:30pm we hear shouts, pots being banged and claxons going off over the other side of the camp. A large mother bear crosses the camp behind our tent with 2 cubs following her; not a great education for them. Things have kicked off early tonight. The Japanese dad is a little freaked out but he seems to have everything put away and the car cleared. As we go to bed, a couple opposite us hear the shouts and start loading stuff in to their car. I hope they know what they are doing and it isn’t food.
I’ve just drifted off to sleep when I get woken by a metal crunching noise like someone squeezing a tin can. Rich is sparko, it’s 1:30am, and I lie there and listen. It’s very close. Next thing there is a big pop and the sound of breaking glass. The car alarm of the people opposite goes off. I guess it was food in their car then! The alarm stops so I assume they’ve got up to investigate. Things go quiet then I hear more chewing noises. I can see the interior light of the car opposite and a big hairy shadow is going up and down inside it. The bear is in their car. I don’t understand why they didn’t get up and chase it off. Now it’s pulling all their stuff out on the road and having a party in there. This is all too close for comfort and I start to worry about our car. A little while later I hear the same metallic crunching noise right behind me. The bear is at the Japanese family’s car. There is another pop and the glass breaks. The dad comes running out shouting. This bear doesn’t seem to need much excuse to break in to a car and I am seriously worried about ours. I hold the key fob with the emergency alarm button on it and wait. A little later I hear the bear down near Dan and Sam’s bikes. He’s working his way round our tent. There is a creaking noise and the sound of metal bending but no glass breaking. I don’t know what he’s got into, but it’s not the bikes.

The next morning at 6am, people are stirring and the damage is being assessed. The people opposite are pretty distraught as their gear is all over the place and the car is wrecked. If you leave food in your car boot, they will just rip out the back seats to get to it. The Japanese man has lost a back window of his people carrier but not much damage to the metal. The bear ranger turns up and we run through the events of the last few days. He asks if the bears actually got hold of human food as this means they will probably have to shoot them eventually. It’s so sad and unnecessary as the bears are fine if you follow the rules and don’t give them an excuse to go on the rampage.

Kings Canyon National Park (14th to 16th June)

This park adjoins Sequoia National park and is described as Yosemite without all the people. It is the deepest valley in the USA. The road is long and winding through a stunning valley and ends at a dead end, which may explain why it is not so crowded.
Cruising down into the canyon there are waterfalls, granite outcrops and a river of white water, the south fork of the Kings River. (named after the Three Wise Men) We drop to 4000 feet and get to the Cedar Grove area where we pitch up at the deserted Canyon View campground. It’s a large camp set amongst the pine trees, alongside the river which you can hear rushing by. It’s so warm and peaceful. We get lots of visits from squirrels, jays and very large butterflies - but thankfully the bears give us a break.

We drive up to the Zumwalt meadow to take the 1.5 mile trail round the edge. The canyon is just beautiful, just like Yosemite but so quiet. Among the rocks Rich nearly trips over a little garter snake that makes him jump. Afterwards we walk the 4 mile round trip to the Roaring River Falls, a heavy flowing waterfall. The trail is through the forest alongside the river and takes in an old fire site. Rich has another shock when he almost treads on a reasonably big rattle snake. It crawls off in to the bushes so we manage to get a snap of him. There are some quite large lizards here too.

Yosemite National Park (17th to 24th June)

After a couple of nights in Fresno, a pleasant friendly town, we head for Yosemite National Park; a park full of rushing waterfalls, beautiful meadows and awesome glacier smoothed granite mountains. It’s about a 3 hour drive through some pretty countryside. The park is really busy and we get a little bit held up as we enter from the Wawona end of the park. Once we go through the tunnel we see the familiar Tunnel View of Half Dome, Bridal Veil Falls and the valley. There’s nowhere like Yosemite for views. The road skirts round the valley and heads towards Groveland and our campground, Yosemite Pines. The campground is nice and wooded and we’re pitched away from all the big motor homes. They also have showers, laundry and full wifi, how luxurious!

The park is pretty crowded but we get parked up on our first day in the meadow and stroll in the sunshine to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls. The views are stunning and we remember why we love this place so much. It’s our wedding anniversary so we head to Groveland to the Iron Door Saloon (established 1852) and sit at the bar amongst the stuffed bears and dollars stuck all over the ceiling. Some steak and burgers and a few glasses of wine/beer and we feel we’ve celebrated well.

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir

We’re up early to get to the 9:30am ranger guided walk at the dam. This is a quiet part of Yosemite and a pleasant change from the bustle of the main valley. After a long windy drive we walk across the top of the dam with the ranger and a small group. The dam leads to a tunnel that opens up to a rough trail of around 2.5 miles to the Wapama waterfall. The dam and the reservoir are rather controversial as they were built on national park ground in the early 1900s to supply controlled water to San Francisco. The valley looks a lot like Yosemite with its steep granite walls and waterfalls but the base is all flooded out instead of having a white water river running through it. It seems such a shame to flood an area of protected land. They are also looking at raising it another 50 feet in the future.
After scrabbling across the rocks we finally get to the waterfall which is fierce and tall. As you cross the bridge at the bottom you get absolutely soaked. It’s like someone hosing you down. I’m feeling pretty hot and sticky so it’s nice to get a dousing. Rich tries to get some photos and not get his camera soaked. Afterwards, we sit out on the rocks and have some snacks, while our clothes dry out. It’s certainly spectacular here, despite the flooding.

The Mist Trail

Back in Yosemite Valley we park at the little chapel and catch the shuttle bus to the Happy Isles nature centre and start on the Mist Trail. This trail winds up the side of Vernal Falls in a steep, hour long climb. It’s pretty hot and we struggle a bit. Up the side of the falls we get completely soaked by the spray but it cools us down. At the top we sprawl on the rocks and dry out in the sun. Vernal Falls is huge and hard to comprehend until you are there. The walk down is a little easier despite the soaking. It’s a beautiful day and the water is going wild.

Tuolomne Meadows

We head out along the Tioga Road, which was shut last time we were here due to snowfall. Olmsted Point gives a very different view of Half Dome across the Tenaya Canyon. Tuolomne Meadows (pronounced toe-all-a-me) is very pretty with streams running through it. We see some sort of rodents (squirrels or pikas) playing in the grass. On the way back we stop at Crane Flat and take some photos of the resident bear there that keeps causing traffic jams.

Glacier Point

Glacier Point is on the other side of the park to us and provides a fantastic high lookout point over the Yosemite Valley, with great views of Half Dome and Vernal and Nevada Falls. On the drive up we see a lovely mother bear with 2 cubs. It’s a little cloudy today but still warm and the views are impressive.


On the way back we stop at Mono Meadow for a quick 1.5 mile hike down to a meadow. It’s proper bear territory but we don’t see any there. We do see a marmot though! It’s getting late as we drive back and the light is pretty in the valley.

Lassens Volcanic National Park (25th to 26th June)

We spend a couple of nights in Redding in the central valley. It is searing hot. Sadly, most of the road through the volcanic park is closed due to snow but it’s a lovely sunny day (and way too hot in Redding) so we head off up the hills for a nice drive up to the park. There’s a ranger talk on at 1pm about predators and prey. We drive as far as the Devastated Area, cleared during a volcanic eruption in the early 20th century, then head back to Manzanita Lake for a long hike round the edge. There are lots of birds, including duck chicks, and various squirrels and rodents. An osprey flies over with a large fish that he’s holding like a torpedo. The trout are swimming upstream at the edge of the lake to spawn.

Redwoods National Park (27th to 28th June)

The drive in from Redding is beautiful, following the valley of the Trinity River in bright sunshine. We travel from 100’f in Redding to 54’f in the fog by the coast! After spotting some Roosevelt elk we drive down Davidson Road and get on the dirt road to Gold Bluffs Beach campground. The beach is lovely, very quiet and remote, grey sand, grassy dunes, and drift wood everywhere. The camp has lots of space so we get a good spot right on the beach where we can sleep to the sound of the waves. The sun comes out and we spend the afternoon relaxing.

Tall Trees Grove (Redwoods NP)

At the Kulach visitor centre we get a permit for the hike to the Tall Trees Grove. The drive over to the grove is pretty and we have to let ourselves into a padlocked lane to get to the trailhead. It’s a steep walk down and an even steeper walk back up but the grove is like a fairy land forest, with really tall redwood trees (over 320 feet) and mossy bay and maple trees. The sun is shining in rays through the forest making it look magical, and so quiet. Back on the road and the fog has settled in again so we head back down to Highway 101 and look for Roosevelt elk. There are plenty around and we soon see 3 lovely males by the side of the road. In a field nearby are females and youngsters. They are quite big and have dark heads. As we get to the bottom of the bumpy beach road there’s a large male sitting in the bushes with a wonderful set of 8 point antlers. He doesn’t seem too bothered about us as Rich takes his photographs. That evening we share a campfire with Jonathan from New Mexico. The sunset is so beautiful as the clouds lift on the horizon.