California National Parks
It didn’t take long for the windswept rugged Oregon coast to give way to the sunny rolling hills of Northern California. I sometimes forget how political boundaries often follow geographic ones. The sun was shining, it was a warm fall day, and the first glimpses of California seemed true to form. Mike, Carrie, and I were headed to Redwoods National Park, the first of five California parks we planned to visit.
That night we ended up at Gold Bluffs Beach campground which, as name would suggest, is situated right on the beach. It was the first night I’d paid for camping, but waking up a hundred yards from the ocean and hearing the surf steadily rolling in made it well worth it. We did a hike the next day through the towering Redwood forest and down to the popular Fern Canyon. While we had driven through the Redwood forest the day before, it was difficult to fully appreciate its scale until we started hiking amongst the ancient giants. The first half or our hike was dry, but on the return trip we weren’t so lucky. While we all had decent rain gear, it was no match for the steady downpour and we were all pretty wet by the time we got back to the vans. I quickly remembered how convenient having a van is in situations like this. Within 5 minutes I was dry and cozy in a sweatshirt and sweatpants. Having a shower pan to hang sopping wet clothes above without concern was clutch as well.
After drying out, we headed South toward our next destination – Yosemite. Mike and Carrie planned to stop in wine country then visit a friend in San Francisco, so it was a good opportunity for me to split off and try to take care of a couple van issues that had popped up. I had a worsening shake coming from the front end, and a Check Engine Light that had recently popped up. First, however, I decided to go check out the King Range. At least I had my priorities straight.
The King Range is an area of the California coast considered too rugged to route Highway 1 through. The road drops inland for about 50 miles, leaving what’s known as the Lost Coast. I made my way out along the continuously pitching and rolling road, and finally reached the dirt roads and wilderness area I was expecting. I’d heard that there were great mountain biking trails in the area, and my plan was to check them out for a day or two. After a few minutes on the trails though, I reluctantly admitted they were too wet to ride, and headed back to the van. Maybe tomorrow. There was one free campsite listed on the map, so I headed that direction. The road got pretty rough and steep, and I actually missed the turnoff to the “campground” the first time by. A steep overgrown path led down to a few deserted sites with zero evidence of recent use. No signs, no facilities, no campers. Quiet and ominous, tucked into the heavily forested shadow of a mountain. I figured it would work fine, but it was early enough in the day that I felt like going on and exploring further. And maybe finding something a little less reminiscent of a Stephen King novel.
The map showed a road traversing a high ridge, and I figured it might provide some better views so I headed that way. A sign warned “steep rough road ahead”, and it didn’t disappoint. Sure enough though, after a couple miles the road leveled out and the endless expanse of the Pacific revealed itself far below. I immediately spotted a pulloff that looked like an awesome spot to stay the night. There was no dispersed camping allowed in this area, but I hadn’t seen anyone for a good hour and I figured the chances of getting kicked out were pretty slim. Definitely worth the risk, I decided. Sure enough, it ended up being a great site. The next day was wet as well, so I passed on mountain biking and opted to spend the day sitting in bed looking out over the ocean and reading. Not that I’d been especially stressed or rushed, but a relaxing lazy day felt like exactly what I needed.
Eventually I made my way toward San Francisco to work on my van issues. The front end shake was easy enough – just out of balance tires. After pretty extensive searching, I also managed to find an independent shop that worked on Sprinters and could check the van out. Good luck getting any on the spot help from the dealers in that area – all of them were super booked up and said they couldn’t fit me in. The shop’s diagnosis was a bad EGR valve. I’d had some previous experience with the EGR system and it didn’t sound quite right. I decided to check into it a bit more prior to spending the money to fix it, and headed on. Luckily I had a friend in the San Francisco area and figured I might be able to use his driveway to do some diagnostic work. He didn’t have a suitable space, but hooked me up with a friend that did, and happened to be interested in camper vans as well – win win! I pulled the valve and did some basic checks on it, and it seemed to be functioning. Not that I could definitively say it wasn’t the problem, but I didn’t find obvious evidence that it was. I chatted with my super helpful mechanic back home as well, and decided I’d have to just wait and find a dealer with the appropriate tools and expertise to figure out the issue.
Departing sunny San Francisco, I made my way toward Yosemite where Mike and Carrie were waiting. As they still didn’t have a functional phone, communication was somewhat difficult. They managed to email me what site they were in though, and I easily found them the next morning. We caught up and planned our route for the day. As Half Dome was closed for the season, we chose the hike to the top of Yosemite Falls then on to El Capitan. Not exactly a short hike, and one with plenty of elevation.
We got a characteristically late start, and all the scenery to stop and take in didn’t help. I’d figured that November hiking would be relatively cool, but boy was I wrong. The combination of warm temps, the sun reflecting off the rocks, and climbing a pretty steep trail became disgustingly hot. As the lightest layer I had was a long sleeve smartwool top, I actually had to take my shirt off shortly into the hike. We spent a few minutes at the top of the falls taking in the view, then headed on.
What had been a very heavily used trail turned eerily calm and quite above the falls. We only saw a European couple who passed us trail running. By the time we reached the last junction before El Capitan, it was getting later in the afternoon and Carrie was worried about making it there and back before dark. She was right, so we agreed to split up. Mike and I, needing the workout anyway, decided we’d run the rest of the trail to the top, then catch Carrie on the way back down. She’d do a much closer peak. The trail running turned out to be quite difficult for us. Fairly steep terrain coupled with deceivingly thin air meant that it was slow going. Eventually we arrived at the top though, and spent some time taking in the incredible landscape basked in the late afternoon sun. The way back down was much faster, although my legs at least were letting me know I was approaching my limit for the day. We finally caught up with Carrie, admittedly much later than I thought we’d catch her. It was near dark, and we finished the last mile slowly picking our way down by moonlight. Sure, we could have gotten out our headlamps, but it was much more fun to sing the Wisconsin tradition “By the Light of the Moon” together as we tried not to trip.
The next day we started with some much needed morning yoga in the campground, and midway through a coyote went trotting past behind our campsite – pretty cool. We did a valley floor hike that day which, while thankfully devoid of elevation, was significantly longer than we had planned. After that, we headed on toward our next destination – Kings Canyon. The route took us through Fresno, which luckily had a dealership that works on Sprinters.
They were able to fit me in right away the next morning, and I patiently waited for their diagnosis while Mike and Carrie headed on to Kings Canyon. Surprisingly, their diagnosis was also the EGR valve. Ok, I figured, that must be it. They didn’t have one in stock, and their cost was significantly more than what I could get one for, so I opted to just do it myself since I was familiar with the procedure. I paid their diagnostic fee, then picked up a valve from a local Dodge dealer. After scoping out the area, I found a pretty deserted parking lot that looked like the perfect spot to set up for a bit and tear into my engine. An hour later I had the valve changed and the code cleared, and took it for a test drive. Much to my despair, the van’s performance seemed the same and the code popped back up after a few starts. Damn!
I headed back to the dealer, very unhappy. The service advisor was at a loss, and his technician that had produced that diagnosis was in no hurry to offer any help. He speculated that the ECU needed an adaptation done for it to register the new valve. Although I’ve seen this done and it takes about 10 minutes, he refused to offer any help, saying the soonest he could get to it would be Tuesday (it was Friday). That was clearly not acceptable, so I decided I’d just have to continue on and stop at the next dealer I came to. Frustrating, to say the least.
I limped my way up the steep road to the Sierras, with little info on where Mike and Carrie had ended up. We’d agreed to meet in a general area, and the park wasn’t that big, so I guessed I’d be able to find them. The light was fading fast as I got into the park, but as I came to an overlook and got my first glimpses of the rugged sprawling valley I got the feeling I was going to like this place.
We had a pair of radios that we’d been using to communicate between vans, and I was periodically trying to radio them as I was coming into the park. While I didn’t imagine the odds of getting them was very high, I figured there was no harm. As I worked my way into the canyon on the snaking engineering marvel of a road, I suddenly heard Carrie’s voice crack across the radio.
Hello, anyone there?
Hey! Where are you guys?
Parked alongside the road by the river.
I think you’re close, do you see a big white van?
No… oh wait, there you are!
Ok, so we probably didn’t need the radios as there was exactly one road going through the park, but it was funny we both had the same idea. I vented about my frustrating day, and we stayed the night right there along the side of the road next to the river (or, down by the river, if you prefer).
The next morning we started an overnight hike that took us further up the valley to the Middle Paradise camping area. We happened to be visiting the final weekend the park was open for the year (or, at least that the road and facilities were open), and the crowds were pleasantly absent. That night we scavenged wood and built a fire, excited to have found somewhere that was still allowed. The mountainous terrain was rugged and raw, with steep glacier carved canyon walls rising on either side of our valley campsite. Later that night, a bright moon rose quickly over the nearby Southern ridge. Due to how close the ridge was, Mike and I realized we could simply walk about 20 yards toward the ridge into its shadow then watch the moon rise again!
We headed back down the valley in the morning, needing to get moving to stay on schedule and hit our next destination for the night. We were planning on making the short drive into bordering Sequoia National Park, and doing another overnight that night! After a quick stop at the ranger station to confirm our route and register for a permit, we made our way down to the Redwood Canyon area where our route started. It was late in the day by the time we got going, but luckily we only had a couple miles to do. Camping under Giant Sequoias was definitely a unique experience.
The next day we completed an early loop back to the car, seeing quite a bit of Redwood Mountain Grove – the largest grove of Giant Sequoia trees on earth! The park had done a controlled burn of the grove that summer for the first time ever, which made it quite a unique time to visit. We spent the rest of the day hitting some of the popular spots in the park. At the end of the day Mike and I somehow both had energy for a run, so we headed out on a remote trail for a few miles. Neither of us has spent much time trail running, and it was quite a fun experience. It’s close to dark as we near the end of the run, and the thick California smog filters the sun leaving only the reddest natural light I’ve ever seen bathing the landscape. It’s hard not to be a little sad about the source of the beauty, but the forest is stunning, surreal. We get back just after sunset and struggle through a few cold showers in the van. The water heater has stopped working, but there are no other showers open in the park and all three of us are overdue. At least cold showers make you naturally conserve water.
We spent another day in the park exploring some of the other groves before heading south again. Our final destination in California is Death Valley, but we each had some other items to attend to first. Mike and Carrie headed to LA to visit family, and I stopped in Bakersfield where there was another Mercedes dealer to look at the van. I was anxious to see what this dealer had to say, and hopefully get this problem put to rest. They didn’t sound convinced that the EGR valve was the problem, and indicated what the previous dealer had told me sounded highly suspect. After the requisite two hours of diagnostic time (ouch), their analysis was that the Mass Airflow sensor was bad, and it wasn’t anything related to the EGR valve. Frustrating. They seemed confident in their diagnosis though, much more so than the previous dealer. The tech had swapped in a known good sensor, and the problem was fixed. Fine, I decided, just order the part and fix it. Unfortunately they wouldn’t let me take the van for the night without paying a separate diagnostic fee, so I ended up getting a cheap hotel for the night. Stupid corporate policies.
I picked up the van the next day, and $673 later the problem was fixed. I finally had good power again! If only I hadn’t wasted over a grand due to the previous dealer’s incompetence. With at least some faith restored, I headed into the desert toward Death Valley to again meet Mike and Carrie. They were still without a phone, but we’d started to get this meeting up thing figured out.
I got into the park, vast and desolate, and found them at the visitor’s center where they’d conveniently just arrived. We scoped out a few hikes, then headed down to a more remote area where dispersed camping was allowed. The road consisted mostly of midsize rocks that our vans violently bounced over, at little more than walking speed. After the requisite 2 miles from the main road though, we spotted a suitable clearing and promptly pulled in for the night. A few drinks helped us settle down after the rough ride. We spent the evening sitting outside, looking at the vast arena of stars overhead, and learning to tell time from their position. Something about the desert always gets me. The vast sprawling landscapes that you can’t quite grasp the scale of, the solitude, the darkness. It feels so different from other places, and always draws me in.
We do a canyon hike the next day, and explore a few slot type canyons along the route. It’s cool terrain, and walking miles up into the tiny canyon stuck on the edge of the valley really starts to give a sense of scale to the place. That night we opt for a campground near the Mesquite Flat Dunes. Mike is set on a moonlight hike over the dunes, which sounds fantastic. We wait till the moon is coming up, then head over. Again, we take headlamps but have no need for them. The still mostly full moon bathes the sand formations in a cool steady glow. Not enough to make out all details of the terrain, but enough to get around, enough to pick out the highest ridge we can see and agree – we have to go to that one.
It is our last night traveling together. The next day Mike and Carrie have to start heading back to real life in Wisconsin. Carrie starts a new job soon, and they want to get back for Thanksgiving with their families as well. We sit for a while and survey the moonlit terrain. It’s calm, serene. Eventually we admit it’s time to leave, and head back to the campground. One advantage to staying in a campsite, however, is the lodge bar across the street. We head over for a few drinks to cap our final night together. It has been a lot of fun traveling together. Since I first met these two about 3 years ago, we’ve gotten to be very close. This trip has been by far the most time we’ve spent together, and we’ve gotten along surprisingly well. As I’ve now sold my house that was close to theirs and plan to travel for an extended period of time it sort of feel like we’re breaking up. Weird.
The next day we do one final hike together – Mosaic Canyon. It’s one of the more popular hikes in the park, and it shows. We also make time for a quick and overdue road bike ride. Because of the tight timeline we’ve been on, there hasn’t been much of that. We finish up and say our goodbyes. We joke about it, “nice knowing you, have a great life”! It does make me sad though.
They are heading east, and I’m sticking around another day to hike Telescope Peak – the highest point in the park. It feels weird to suddenly be on my own. Due to their tight timeline, we’ve been following a pretty rigid schedule to fit in everything they wanted to see. I’ve been doing very little planning, mainly just following along. Now, I can suddenly do whatever I want, spend as much time doing it as I want.
The only remaining thing I feel like doing in the park though, is hiking Telescope Peak. I decide I want to do it as a sunrise hike, because, why not. The only other one I’ve ever done was Mt. Fuji in Japan, and that was incredible. I make my way from roughly sea level up into the mountains and finally up a dirt road advertised as 4WD only. It’s easy finding a campsite at the 8,133 foot trailhead overlooking the miniature valley floor below. My alarm goes off at 3 AM, and I am not motivated to get up. I force myself out of bed though, powered only by the knowledge that I’m always glad I did these things after the fact.
Navigating the trail by headlamp makes me a bit uneasy at first, but I’m soon comfortable and making quick progress. It’s quite windy, and broken clouds move across the sky illuminated by the dim setting moon. I reach a saddle where the wind is extremely strong, and I have to crouch as I walk to keep stable. Another hour and it’s starting to get light. I reach the peak ahead of schedule, and settle behind a windbreak to try to stay warm without much success. The sun finally rises as I have my arms pulled inside my jacket for warmth. Clouds litter the sky and obscure the sun, but it’s still beautiful. It’s quite the site to look down on Badwater Basin, elevation -282 feet from the 11,049 foot top of the park. The vertical relief, as it’s called, is one of the highest in the country.
Because of the cold, I don’t stick around long. As I’m heading back, it starts to rain, then snow, then rain again. I look back and the peak I just departed is socked in clouds. It rains off and on the rest of the hike back. I’m very glad to have gotten an early start and made it up before the weather turned. I’m back at the van by 9 AM, shoveling food into my mouth. I make the slow drive back toward the central area of the park, stopping a couple hours for an essential nap along the way.
As much as I liked Death Valley – it was my favorite park so far – I was anxious to get moving again. Odd how that is with me, even if I really enjoy a place, I seem to feel the need to move on after a few days. It will be interesting to see if that feeling persists as this trip progresses. My next destination is Southern Utah, where I hope to relax and explore for a week or more. I have no real plans yet, which is an odd feeling after traveling with Mike and Carrie for a few weeks. It’s a good feeling though. It feels like freedom.