Week 14: Eastern California’s National Parks

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Week 14: Eastern California’s National Parks

It’s official; we have been gone for 3 months! And while the overall feeling is that it seems so much shorter ago that we said goodbye to friends and family, when we trace our steps in the last 3 months it has already been an incredible journey so far. The final quarter of the year will mostly have Central America on the agenda, but for now we stick to a bit more of the US.

Devils & downhills

After a hot spring morning bath (Sven), we gear up to tackle 2 highlights today: Devils Postpile National Monument and the bike park of Mammoth. To get to Devils Postpile we drive past Mammoth on to a downhill mountain road and into a valley. Devils Postpile is another location where the hexagon shaped rock (made as such by volcanic activity followed by the ice age) is pushed out and visible for all to see. We have seen similar impacts at Devils Tower (interestingly the name seems to be required for this phenomenon 😊), but this time you can also walk on top of them where you can really clearly see the hexagon shape.

The hike out is nice through pine forests and along the creek that runs by it, and of course the climb to the top makes it all the more fun. More importantly, we have hit cooler temperatures which makes hiking and being active again a proper pastime as opposed to the Deathvalley heat. The boys take another stab at the Junior Ranger activity which is a very well done booklet, which at the end gives them a very neat patch in the shape of… you guessed it: a hexagon! Certainly one of the better JRs we have seen around.

The afternoon is all about mountain biking; Mammoth has a massive bike park / ski area which just begs to be tackled. Only problem is that the park closed 2 weeks ago and the lifts will not open again until the snow season starts. But fear not, there is always a downhill that you can take by driving up the mountain as far as you can! While trails have stopped to be maintained, we are sure 2 weeks could not have done that much damage hence we spend a few hours riding down, then driving up, and riding down again in different compositions. Bo sits this one out as he is a bit under the weather, but really enjoys the driving and cheering others on, and Luc amplifies his skills some more while Sven even rides UP the mountain…

Yosemite National Park – Tioga road

As we parked our RV alongside the road up to Yosemite the night before, we have an early start at the actual park. Yosemite can only be visited with reservations this year due to COVID-19, and getting them is not easy. The actual permit system stops after September 30th, but we have no time to wait for that date so we do the next best option and book a campsite in the NP that serves as a reservation.

Coming from the east, the only road towards the Yosemite Valley is the Tioga Pass Road, which traverses the Sierra Nevada. The drive brings us back to memories of the European alps, and we understand why the Americans love this park so much. Our first stop is a hike up the Lembert Dome, of which the end is the most fun part as it requires you to scramble up a massive boulder without any clear path.  Needless to say the boys love the challenge, and the view at the top is stellar, even if the south is a bit more hazy from wildfires.

Next stop on the road should be the visitor center, but this is unfortunately already closed, so we head straight to Tenyaka Lake for a proper break. The fishing rod is pulled out (nothing caught) and bridges are made of driftwood, while we enjoy the view and a picnic lunch. The bravest of the bunch is Sven who dares to dive into the lake, which is less cold than we thought but still does not have the rest convinced. With a quick stop for the view at Old … we drive further down the Tioga Pass Road to Toulumne Grove.

Timing is everything of course, as we land exactly at the time of the ranger talk there, who explains about the main attraction here: The sequoia trees. The oldest living being of the planet – some can reach an age of over 3000 years, and a size bigger than a 27 story building! The grove here is quite small, but still gives a great feel for the trees and their size, as one has a proper tunnel going through it that could take horse and carriage back in the day. Another has toppled over and you can actually crawl through its entire log. The are the biggest trees in the world, and most of them grow in the state of California in several National and State parks (Sequoia of course being the favorite).

With enough hiking done for the day, we take the final drive to our campsite in Wawona, with a quick pitstop in the Yosemite Valley to pick up the Junior Ranger books.

Yosemite Valley by bike and hike…

The next day we have Yosemite Valley on the program, and what better way to discover a relatively flat valley then by bike? We park at the start of the valley and begin our loop towards the lower Yosemite Falls loop, as some mule deer cheer us on. The loop is still very quiet, so we decide to (illegally) ride our bikes into the loop which is nicely paved 😊. The fall is down to a trickle, so it is up to our imaginations to ‘see’ the fall thundering down the high mountain walls. We roll on to the Visitor Center for a round through the Indian Village, where the boys finish one of their assignments, drawing the rest of the roundhouse.

Then it is on to the furthest point in the valley, Mirror Lake… which has completely dried up making it more of a ‘mirage’ than a mirror, but of course a dried up lake makes for a great sand pit and rock pile to climb on! We continue the valley loop back to our RV, which is right at the … picnic area for lunch with a view of the river. This is the place to prep a separate route, as mom is going to scale the 5 mile (8 kilometer) climb up the mountain to Glacier Point, where the boys will pick her up after enjoying the valley some more.

The hike up is a tough continuous climb with average time of 3-4 hours to get to the stunning viewpoint at the top. Always in for a challenge, and testing the limits of the fitness, mom scales this giant in a whopping 1:47, leaving many impressed, especially as the climb (as always) is done on Birkenstocks 😉! But of course this time also means a longer wait for the men to get to the viewpoint, only to be rubbed in that they ran into their first BEAR!!! Argh… most disappointing is our bear-rule; first to see it gets 3 scoops of ice-cream, the others only 2… or 0 of course if you did not see it at all ☹.

After soaking in that view of Half Dome and the surrounding mountains (the smoke clouds seem to clear a bit more) plus Yosemite Valley below, we decide to park the RV 1 mile down the road to have dinner with a view before making our way back to our campsite. To have ice-cream of course, or at least those that earned it!

Wawona & Mariposa Grove in Yosemite

The last feat in Yosemite is the Wawona area with Mariposa Grove. We wander through the historical site first but unfortunately there is nobody there and thus are all the buildings not open neither to check them out fully. At the Mariposa Welcome Plaza we are right on time for a Junior Ranger activity, where a ranger takes the boys out to the flowers and plants to look for the smaller animals; bugs! Armed with a magnifying glass and animal encyclopedia, they go and try to figure out what they are looking at. After the round they receive a small booklet in which they can draw their favorite bug, and as the season is coming to an end, they are even more lucky when the ranger decides to give them the magnifying glasses as well!

The highlight of the site however is the grove up the hill that has some very big Sequoia trees in it. Due to maintenance and Covid there are no shuttles up the road, so the choice is to walk 2 miles before you can walk into the grove or bike ride up. Now the climb is quite excruciating (especially when your legs still have another climb in them and you have a 5yo attached to your bike 😉), but of course it is the downhill on the way back that counts! The stroll through the grove shows the devastation of the mono winds that blasted through in January of this year, but thankfully the Grizzly Giant and its neighbor Tunnel Tree are still going strong! The joy of the downhill is of course immense, especially with a lot of people eyeing us with envy, so the decision was the right one.

With that adrenaline rush we leave Yosemite National Park, and drive out towards Californian civilization. Traffic get more congested, the landscape flattens out, and unfortunately gas prices do not go down so we opt to take a small detour to a casino for the night, where gas prices are decent (the night sleep is not, but we take it…).

Cesar E. Chavez National Historical Site

With our plans changing, we want to take a day to really get some miles out of the way back towards Arizona. We have a flight on the 5th of October out of Phoenix, so that is a firm deadline, and would like to take a breather in between. Most of the road is highway or interstate, which takes some getting used to after all the side road touring we have done, but once sucked into the stream, our Jerry drives like a charm.

On the way we stop at one of the newer historical sites, one dedicated to the life and achievements of Cesar E. Chavez, one of the leaders of the first unions set up in California for field workers. As our drive has taken us through the miles and miles of dusty fruit groves, we can only imagine what it must have been like over 50 years ago with no representation – resulting in no water, no restroom at work, hardly enough salary to eat, but no means of improving. A very interesting place again, right in the mountains set in a beautiful garden. The boys have their first go at the terms HUELGA (strike in Spanish), and receive their badge with flying colors.

After the break we hammer down the interstate, which in part drives right by THE historical route 66, to arrive in the Mojave Desert National Preserve at dusk. We park the RV right next to the Kelso dunes, ready to scale them the next morning!

Mojave Desert National Preserve

We are blessed with a clouded sky in the morning, which makes the scramble up to the top of Kelso Dunes a bit more bearable than we can imagine it being in the middle of summer with a smoldering sun beating down on you. As we are the first and only ones taking the hike this morning, the dunes are pristine and the animal tracks are a very cool addition to the hike as we try to guess what animal they are from. The views from the top are excellent, but of course the biggest reward (beyond the fact we took the boys’ monstertrucks up to ride the dunes) is the slide down again! On the way back we almost miss our sandals – we left them on the side of the path as we trudged through sand – but in the end come back to the RV in one piece.

In Mojave Desert reserve also lies Kelso Depot, a train depot from the old days, needed to have ‘helper steam engines’ to pull and push trains out of the valley over the Cima hill and beyond. It is now the visitor center which was unfortunately closed on our day of visit, but peering through the window we saw a ranger and he was so kind to provide us with information and Junior Ranger booklets! With enough to do and see on the way, we drive out of the reserve and on to Needles, California for a much needed break from traveling.

We are staying 2 nights on a fantastic campsite with a spot right next to the Colorado river, so the boys can swim and fish, and the parents can do some maintenance, cleaning, laundry and chill. Luc caught is first fish with his rod, making him super proud, and the day in itself was super relaxing, ready to take on the next part of our journey!

Next week: Arizona again and a necessary trip to Panama


Hi, Kim! Wendy and Greg here, who you and your boys met while hiking the rim trail of the Grand Canyon around 9/30. Then we saw you in the shuttle. We are the recently retired couple who were heading to Sedona the next day. Loved meeting you and your boys and love your blog! Look us up if you’re ever in the San Francisco Bay Area!

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