Exploring Yosemite

The last national park on our California itinerary was perhaps our most anticipated. Yosemite is one of those magically beautiful places that adorns travel websites. It’s been immortalised in famed photographs by the late Ansell Adams and hiking bloggers always sing the praises of its many nature trails. Right before we arrived the rare phenomenon of the fire falls occurred, further exciting us for the beautiful sights we would soon be experiencing.  

Tunnel View-a serious site to behold

As soon as we emerged on the other side of the tunnel we knew exactly what all the hype was about. You can look at as many pictures of tunnel view as you want, but there’s nothing quite like exiting the darkness of the tunnel and seeing all the wonders of Yosemite laid out before you. The snowy peaks of El Capitain and the Half Dome, the tumbling water of Yosemite falls, and the forest covered plains of the valley floor; all stretched out as far as the eye can see. It is a genuinely grand entrance. We stopped for a while and watched the sun melt behind the granite structures. There were lots of disappointed visitors who had been hoping to catch another fire falls, and I was amazed that anyone could feel disappointed when surrounded by such beauty. 
In comparison to some of the other parks we’d visited it was clear that Yosemite is quite well funded and a bit more commercialised. The park has a shuttle system that allows you to easily get around the valley. It’s especially useful for one way hikes-you can get dropped off at one end and picked up at the other. The visitor centre here is very large and has lots of impressive displays. And there are many accommodation options-the usual campsites, curry villiage,and a hotel-as well as several restaurants. 

The view of Half Dome from Upper Pines Campground

One of the bad things about travelling in the Winter month is that the shorter days mean that you really have to prioritise your time in the park. This is made easier by the other bad thing about travelling in Winter-lots of the hikes are closed. With this in mind we decided to pick three hikes to do. We chose

-The bridal veil falls hike

-The hike to the base of lower Yosemite falls 

-The Vernal falls hike/mist trail
The Bridal Veil falls hike is a short half mile (0.8 km) return walk. The trail is paved and takes you to the base of the falls. I found the walk to be disappointing as it ended quite far away from the waterfall. It is a good walk if you want to take some photos or if you have a low fitness level. It isn’t the most spectacular trail Yosemite has to offer but it did get us warmed up for the rest of the day.

Two happy hikers!

Next we hiked to the base of Yosemite falls. There is a shuttle bus to the trail head and from there it’s a one mike (1.6km) loop. We found this walk much more enjoyable. It took us through the forest and we got so close to the waterfall that we were being sprayed by it. There were lots of pretty views of the waterfalls and Yosemite creek, and exhibits along the way explaining the history of the area. I’d definitely recommend this hike!

The breathtaking Yosemite falls

The final hike was to the Vernal falls footbridge. This is part of the longer mist trail which brings you to the Nevada falls. While fairly short (1.6 miles/2.6 km round trip from the happy isles shuttle stop) this hike can be really steep! 

The Mist trail is steep! nps.gov

However the views are beautiful. There’s a bit of everything along this trail-you can see walls of granite towering above you, forest surrounding you and-of course-gushing waterfalls! It’s my favourite of the hikes we did in Yosemite. California was our first experience with hiking so we did find this trail to be a bit challenging, but it was so worth it! Reaching the footbridge was wonderful- vernal falls is so beautiful and majestic-and we found that we weren’t ready for this hike to end just yet! So we decided to continue to the top of Vernal falls and the Emerald Pool. We felt excited and reenergised and couldn’t wait to reach the top…but then within 0.3 miles of Vernal falls we were met with a sign saying the trail was closed in Winter due to risk of ice and rock falling. So I guess it was a little silly of us to not be more prepared. But we still really enjoyed the hike despite this disappointment! And hopefully you can learn from our mistakes. 

Vernal Falls from the footbridge

In conclusion, Yosemite in Winter is beautiful. It’s less busy, it’s easy to get a campsite in the valley, and there are pretty blankets of snow everywhere. It does have it downsides (Tioga pass is closed, you can’t climb the half dome, lots of trails are closed and you must carry snow chains), but you can always visit again in Spring! And then maybe Summer and Autumn Too 😉

 

One day we’ll hike the Half Dome!

Free camping on the Pacific Coast Highway 

The Pacific Coast Highway(also known as highway one, the Cabrillo highway, or Coast highway)is famous for its ocean views, its surfing opportunities, and its array of wildlife. It’s a road that attracts thousands of visitors, and we loved exploring it’s nooks and crannies. The hotels along this route can charge a premium for their location. But what if I told you you could stay along this road entirely for free? Yup, free camping is possible all over this beautiful stretch of road.

Imagine waking up to this view for free!

We loved our time along highway one. We got to watch elephant seals basking, hike beautiful coastal trails, and watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean. But while this road stole our hearts, we didn’t let it steal our wallets! In fact, after leaving San Francisco, we didn’t spend anymore money on accommodation until we arrived in Los Angeles! And we even did it legally.

How did we camp for free?

The wonderful thing about the pacific coast highway is that a huge portion of it is within the bounds of Los Padres national forest. And if you want to camp cheaply in the US, the most important thing to know is that in most national forests you can camp anywhere for free! Nation Forests are free camping central. There are a few exceptions to this rule (look our for signs that say “no overnight parking”) but generally once you hit national forest you’re in free territory!

Just some of the many Elephant Seals relaxing on the beach

There are definitely some down sides to free camping. I can’t promise you even basic facilities like running water. But what you will get are amazing views, and some extra money in your bank account to enjoy your travels. Any roadside rest stop along forest roads is fair game to free camp in. You can park in the Big Sur visitor centre and hike into the forest to really camp in the wilderness (you need permits for some activities like lighting camp fires, and as always you should check in at the visitor centre and let them know when you’ll be returning). There are no bears around Big Sur so you won’t have that to worry about! The forest begins just south of Carmel and continues almost as far as San Simeon. And once you get passed San Luis Obispo it begins again, stretching passed Santa Barbara and almost as far as Los Angeles!

Point Lobos, one of our favourite spots along the road

If you like the idea of camping along the PCH but hate the idea of peeing behind a bush, there are still options for you! There are a few paid but still cheap campsites along the way. These include:

Andrew Molera State Park-$25 per night

Kirk Creek Campground-$25 per night

Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park-$30 per night

For more information and to reserve a spot at these campsites visit reserveamerica.com


Then all that’s left to do is enjoy the view!

Responsible Travel

The time we spent in California’s national parks was the most time we’ve ever spent enjoying the outdoors together. It was a wonderful change to spending our time in bustling cities, and we found that we loved hiking and exploring together. The American national park service is wonderful. They offer lots of in depth information and very successfully make these parks accessible to everyone, while still maintaining the wild and untouched nature of the parks. Unfortunately there are always people who feel that they can ignore the guidelines put in place to keep themselves and the park safe. We saw this multiple times in California, we’ve seen it here in Australia and we see it happening around the world in news reports. The people engaging in these dangerous and often illegal activities are ignoring our responsibility as traveller’s to do no harm in the places we visit. 

People put these ancient trees at risk

When we were in Sequoia national park we saw the biggest tree in the world, the General Sherman tree. The national park service have provided a walkway to allow people to view this huge and ancient tree without damaging its shallow root system. But while we were there one couple decided to jump over the fence and get a picture hugging the tree. It’s so sad that getting the perfect Instagram photo is more important than preserving these natural beauties for generations to come. Worse than this were the carvings covering the tree. It’s difficult to understand how someone could visit Sequoia and think that the park could be somehow improved by having their name scrawled everywhere.

Many preventable deaths occur in Yosemite

Respecting our environment is also important for protecting ourselves. When we underestimate our environment we fail to prepare for the potential dangers that we can encounter in the wild. It’s important to respect the fact that enjoying nature comes with its own risks. When you enter bear country you seal your food, when you visit the desert you stay hydrated, when you swim in the sea you stay weary of the tides. Recently four young Canadian men risked their lives by stepping off the boardwalk at a hot spring in Yellowstone national park. They posted videos of their activities online and a warrant has subsequently been issued for their arrest. They got off lucky-last week a man died after falling in to a hot spring in the park. So many deaths (of both people and animals) have occurred around the world in national parks and other wilderness areas that could have been easily prevented by following the rules. These rules may be restrictive, and I admit that a part of me also wanted a picture hugging the biggest tree in the world. But I believe it’s important to acknowledge that travelling comes with responsibilities. Because how can we justify travelling the world if we’re going to leave a wave of destruction behind us? 

Despite signs saying not to climb the pinnacles, many people do

Sequoia National Park- A Winter Wonderland

After spending a star studded night in Death Valley it was time to continue on to Sequoia national park! This park contains the biggest tree in the world and visiting in February was like entering a winter wonderland. 


Unfortunately these beautiful snowy views have their downside-most of the roads were closed and their was no way to enter the connected park, Kings Canyon national park. It’s a legal requirement to carry snow chains in the park during the winter months! Now, on the map Sequoia seems right next door to Death Valley…. But this is deceiving. 


In reality there are no roads that connect Death Valley’s west side with Sequoia’s East side. So the seemingly short trip takes about 5 hours. But don’t let that deter you! It’s a beautiful drive and a beautiful destination. 


So what could we see in Sequoia? Really just a small fraction of what the park has to offer. We explored the beautiful snow play area where you can sled to your hearts content. 


We saw the General Sherman tree and hiked the surrounding area. 


We found hidden waterfalls and learned about the Native Americans that once called the park home.


 And while the road to Moro Rock was closed we could admire it from a distance. 


 But despite the closures we had a wonderful day in Sequoia! I can only imagine how much there is to do in this park when all of it is open.