“I wonder what memories and stories we’ll create over the next two weeks,” I said to Sarah on our flight to San Francisco. Each road trip begins as a blank piece of paper, waiting to be written on, drawn over and coloured in. Each one ends with a catalogue of memories and albums, providing us with entertainment for years after. They have become more than just holidays. Each one becomes its very own complete short story that has unfolded in front of our own eyes. Each one has become a learning experience that enables us to improve upon our journey next time.
By sharing what we’ve learned, if other people want to do similar trips, they can take on board the information to use if they wish. So here is a list of things that we have learned from our 2017 California Road Trip and other trips. Some of it will relate just to our own personal preferences. Other bits will be genuine, sound advice that will help everyone embarking on our type of holiday.
1. The Tioga Pass. If you are doing a road trip around California taking in Yosemite National Park, do not underestimate the importance of the Tioga Pass. If you intend to approach Yosemite from the east and the Tioga Pass is closed, you will have a journey of at least five hours to get around to the nearest other entrance. Due to snow, the Tioga Pass is closed EVERY winter. There is no fixed annual date for when it reopens. Some years it reopens in the spring. This year, after one of the heaviest snowfalls on record, it didn’t open until June 29th. As we were staying at Mammoth Lakes to the east of Yosemite, if we had done our road trip at the beginning of June, we would’ve had serious problems.
2. If you are from a small island like the UK (as we are), no matter how much you think you have mastered the scale of the distances involved in getting from place to place in the USA, you will STILL underestimate it and leave yourself with more driving to do than you thought. It is a mathematical rule that can control you and make you constantly play “catch up” if you’re not wise to it. Except on the odd occasion, you don’t really want to be exceeding 200 miles per day. I usually find that 150 miles per day is a good enough distance which allow you to make progress while. giving you time to see places.
3. If you are road-tripping, NEVER let your petrol/diesel tank go UNDER half-full, and NEVER let your bladder go OVER half-full. You will not be able to achieve this all of the time, but if you set this as a target, it will help you enormously.
4. Yosemite Valley and Yosemite National Park are not the same thing. Our accommodation at Mammoth Lakes was only an hour’s drive from Yosemite National Park. It took a further hour and a half to get to Yosemite Valley itself which is deep within the national park. This was a miscalculation on our part, but not a problem as the scenery throughout was breathtaking. Yosemite Valley is crowded, and most places worth seeing involve some kind of hike. If you take children for a day trip, there will be tears. It is probably better to book a hotel in the valley for a few days at least. They get fully-booked very early and they are expensive so be warned and plan ahead. Staying in one of these, however, will save on the hours of travel to get there.
5. Death Valley is similar to Yosemite in that hotels in or nearby are expensive and get fully-booked early. If you stay at a hotel IN the valley during the summer months, you can expect temperatures to be +50C in the day time. If you book somewhere outside the valley and travel in, it is only likely to be around 40C. We love heat, and wouldn’t be deterred by 50C as long as we weren’t in it for too long, and if we go again we’ll try to stay at The Furnace Creek Hotel in the valley itself.
6. The Shady Lady Bed and Breakfast, Nevada. This where we stayed as a base for our Death Valley trip. Although it is over the border of California into Nevada, it is only just. People are put off going there for two reasons. Firstly it used to be a brothel and has retained its original name, decor and fittings. This is no more than a gimmick. Secondly, it comprises of a few mobile homes a bit like static caravans, isolated and miles from anywhere in the Nevada Desert. Don’t let this deter you. It is actually a FANTASTIC place to stay. If we are ever around the area again we will make a point of trying to book it. The owner, Paul, is an extremely pleasant and helpful fella who deserves the best reviews. It’s a MUST place to stay.
The Shady Lady Bed and Breakfast
7. Personally, I didn’t find Yosemite Valley as enjoyable as the surrounding Yosemite National Park. Outside the valley there are no crowds and the scenery is beautiful. If I ever went to the valley again I would insist on staying in a hotel inside, to make the days worthwhile, as I didn’t feel it was worth the combination of travel time and the crowds.
8. San Francisco can be cold in the summer. It wasn’t until a month or so before our holiday that we realised just how cold San Francisco is at summertime. While surrounding areas bake in the 30s/40s Celsius, the city doesn’t seem to get much above 20C and at night time a drop to 10C combined with the windchill factor means that most people require some warm clothing.
9. To us, San Francisco was not the city of love that we’d expected. It was no better than any other city. Maybe we missed something.
10. Alcatraz Island. Sarah loved it. She’s always wanted to go there and it was a holiday highlight for her. For me, it has never called me. If it doesn’t call you, like me, it probably won’t be a highlight. I’d rather have been doing other things. If you want to go there, you need to book tickets well in advance.
11. Sequoia National Park is a very nice place, but not good for a day trip. Again the distances involved to get there and travel within it, for us, were not justified.
12. We journeyed from Death Valley to Baker as a way of avoiding harder routes in order to make quick progress. We don’t know if it was quicker or not, but by sheer accident it took us through the breathtaking Mojave Desert. It was a real treat – the surprise of the holiday.
The Mojave Desert
13. Mono Lake and Mammoth Mountain were real highlights for both of us. We went to the top of the mountain in a gondola (like a cable car). Mono Lake is such a calm and peaceful place with very unusual features. Visit them if you can.
14. On reflection, it would have been a better plan to have flown in to Las Vegas and made it a one-way trip to San Francisco, flying back from there. One-way trips do incur extra car hire charges for the return of the vehicle. It would probably have added $200 to $300 to the car hire bill, but we would have done fewer miles. Las Vegas isn’t far from Death Valley, so that would have been our first place to visit.
15. If you are from the UK and used to driving a car with a manual gearbox, the transition to both driving on the right and driving an automatic will handicap you as a driver initially. You need to be aware of this and make allowances. If you can, practise for some time in the car rental parking area. If you pick your car up from an airport, the chances are that you will be thrust into high-speed and busy traffic conditions almost immediately. It’s not as easy as some people might say and you’ll really need to concentrate. You wouldn’t want to ruin your holiday before it’s even started.
16. When you pick up your car, you will have the option of hiring a SatNav (they call it GPS in the USA). Get one and use it. Trust me.
This was our third US road trip. It’s only because we have both been seriously ill that we have decided to live for the moment when we can. Each one gets better because they take practice and confidence to gain full benefit. There is so much more that we would love to share, but this is just a blog – not a book. Despite the hours of planning we put into our road trips, there are some things that can’t be controlled. I told Sarah before this holiday that I wouldn’t be coming home until I’d seen a bear. I didn’t see one. As I am writing this, we are somewhere over Canada on the flight home.
Please visit our website http://www.markdpritchard.com for details of our book, I’M NEVER ILL (A journey through brain surgery and beyond…).