We crossed the state border into California on July 9. We imagined passing through a magic, invisible screen at this point and being instantly transported to a land of golden beaches, endless sunshine and temperatures ten degrees warmer; it’s called ‘The Golden State’ after all. We quickly noticed, however, that Northern California shares Oregon’s climate: warm but not swim-in-the-ocean-in-just-your-board-shorts warm and we had a few more miles of forest to go before we hit those Californian shores.
We camped the first couple of nights in and around the Redwoods National and State Parks, a string of ancient-growth forests. We drove smoothly along the ‘Avenue of the Giants’, an old part of Route 101 cutting neatly through towering trees, that grow unswervingly to heights of 300+ ft. The widest tree we encountered, you can actually drive through. It’s a bit of a cheesy, sightseer trap but it was humorous watching people trying to maneuver their giant pickup trucks through the tree for the perfect photo. Yes, the pick-up truck is the preferred vehicle in California too.
There’s something magical about camping in the forest like you might glimpse a mystical woodland creature in the shadows or you’ve just stepped into ‘The Woodland Realm’ in Lord of the Rings. It’s so peaceful, even though there’s often a lot of other campers around you; with your own space, you feel very alone. Only the sounds of bonfires crackling, wind whistling through the treetops and the river water running, break the silence.
In the late afternoon, we found a spot down by the river to swim in.
It was a meandering, scenic journey to the coast the next day. Being the only one insured to drive the car, poor Tim had to keep his eyes fixed on the winding road ahead, while I got to enjoy the views. I suffered the car sickness though!
We were aiming to stop somewhere along Route 1 but most of the campsites we came across were full. During summer, campsites fill up quickly which we weren’t very prepared for. We had thought we might be able to freedom camp more like we do in NZ but as we should have predicted, the U.S. is a little more strict on that. To find wild camping you really have to get off the beaten path.
Almost out of luck, just before dark and when I miraculously got ten seconds of service on my phone, we found Lawson’s Landing campground. Right on the beach at Tomales Bay, it’s primarily a fishing resort and a place for people to launch their boats but they had some free tent spots. It suited us for one night.
While we were setting up, Tim heard a hissing sound from the car…and noticed we had a flat tyre. Great. I was hoping to watch the sunset on the beach! Always a silver lining though…I now know how to change a tyre.
After a slight delay getting it fixed in a nearby town, Sebastopol, in the morning, it was onto San Francisco where we moseyed around Sausalito. A historic and artsy town north of the Golden Gate bridge, it’s strikingly similar to Wellington with its waterfront setting, colonial houses perched in the hills and limitless coffee shops. It’s pretty fancy too and attracts an elite crowd.
Unfortunately, we weren’t staying in Sausalito that night. Quite the opposite. To save pennies once again, we hiked to a free campsite in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It wasn’t as far this time and nowhere near as tough of a climb but we had a couple of hiccups.
Firstly, we forgot our cutlery so we had to share the use of a can lid to eat our dinner, being careful not to cut the sides of our mouth in the process.
Secondly, the fog: it’s thick and relentless and surrounds you completely, we could barely see two metres in front of us. A shame really as the views of Golden Gate Bridge and the city beyond would have been amazing.
The incessant fog meant the atmosphere was very damp. We had to set up the tent in a designated spot, right under some trees so we prayed for a dryish night. We weren’t in luck. The mist continued to sweep through all night, dressing the trees in a thick dew which, whenever there was a gust of wind (frequently), fell right on us. It’s safe to say we slept only a couple of hours that night, rising early to an almost flooded tent. Had we rebelled and pitched just to the side, not under the trees, we would have been perfectly dry. We packed up all our soggy gear and descended as quickly as we could, heading to the nearest coffee shop to warm up.
Luckily, the following two nights we’d booked into the Marin Headlands Hostel, in the same park. We’d been camping for almost two weeks straight at this point so really looking forward to an actual bed. The hostel is in a building that used to be the infirmary at Fort Barry, a former army post. We slept in what was probably a ward; a large 22 person dorm, which we had to ourselves on the first night. To be honest, it was a tad creepy as it’s the perfect setting for a horror film.
Despite that, it’s a great hostel and we’d definitely recommend it. It had a huge lounge, chill-out area, a yoga room, games room and free pancakes for breakfast.
We met up with Lauren and George in San Francisco. They’re on a three week trip in the U.S. so we, of course, had to meet up. We hit up the healthiest lunch at In-and-Out Burger and even got the “special spread”, for anyone who knows what that is! We wandered Chinatown, down to Market Street and then over to Haight Ashbury for some beers and dinner. We tried to see as much as we could in the one day we had.
And we’ve been traveling together since. It’s great to be able to share this part of our trip with them both.
After San Francisco, it was across to Lake Tahoe, with a quick stop in Pollock Pines along the way where we obviously had to get a photo.
Tahoe is a trendy town, built on the water and snow sports industry so busy all year round. We didn’t explore much of the town itself but spent a few hours on the lakefront sun bathing and people watching. In the late afternoon, we drove south to camp as we wanted to be close to Yosemite the following morning.
Yosemite National Park is incredible. It’s easy to see why 4 million visitors flock there each year but jeez, that traffic getting in! It was near impossible to find a car park and the drive into the actual valley was much longer than anticipated. But it was worth it in the end. We walked up to the lower part of Yosemite Falls, a fairly intense uphill hike with panoramic views of the valley. It was certainly hard hiking in such dry heat. Luckily you can drink the water that trickles down the rocks from the many tiny waterfalls along the route.
That night instead of camping in the park (those campsites book out months in advance) we drove out to Bishop, a mountain town on the Eastern Sierras with the tagline: “A Small Town with a Big Backyard”. It’s exactly right. The people were super friendly, country folk and you can get involved in just about any outdoor adventure you like.
We spent the following morning exploring the town and acclimatising to the massive change in temperature. Now we were hitting the mid-30s. Finally…the heat we were hoping for and it’s only going to get hotter.