January 21st – 9th February 2015 – Our ferry leaves Vancouver Island from Dukes Point in Nanaimo for a 2 hour sailing to Tsawwassen on mainland Vancouver. The Strait of Georgia is like glass on this clear, cold day with snow-topped mountains lining our route. As we leave the ferry and head for the US border, we are mesmerised by views of northern Washington’s shining, snow-clad Mount Baker situated in the Cascade Mountain Range, along with other surrounding peaks.
We are surprised not to be stamped out of Canada as we leave but the US border police issue us with a yellow ticket which means we are required to have a secondary inspection at another building, which proves to be a lengthy process. Many questions have to be answered about ourselves and our vehicle, whilst our route so far is tracked on a computer. We are eventually asked for finger and thumb prints and have our photos taken, so surely this must mean that we have finally been accepted, but for what length of time……..we have asked for 6 months. Our Land Rover is searched and we lose all our fruit and vegetables, plus eggs and rice. Our passports are finally returned however, and we have been given our requested time….this is good news and with so many places yet to visit, it’s exciting to be on our way to explore them!
Washington, named after George Washington, is the 42nd state and the only one named after a President. Mount Rainier, Washington’s highest peak in the Cascade Range at 14,411 feet, is considered to be one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes due to its enormous amounts of glacial ice that would produce massive mud and debris flows. The weather however, has changed to being grey, cloudy and very wet, which means that we sadly won’t be seeing any of Washington’s majestic mountains from now on.
We do however, make a stop at Mount St. Helens Visitor Centre at Silver Lake. The cloud lifts enough to enjoy the trail around this huge, natural lake, protected by surrounding hills and an important marsh and wetland area to thousands of migratory birds and other animals.
Another 1 hours drive inland could take us closer to Mount St. Helens, but the video recorder inside the visitor centre, is showing low cloud obscuring everything. This volcano suddenly erupted on May 18th 1980 killing many people and destroying a massive area with landslides and volcanic debris. In 2004, St. Helen had another dramatic awakening, rumbling once again to life and producing thousands of small earthquakes and more steam and ash eruptions. A new lava dome rose from the crater floor and the volcano underwent amazing transformation, as activity continued until February 2008.
We do however, leave Washington with a new set of tyres from a Firestone dealer in Tacoma. Great guys here, very interested in our Land Rover and our journey and who get the tyres that Bill wants and then fit them all in the same day. Four Firestone Destination Mud Terrain costs us $911 (including tax and fitting), still cheaper than Canada, even though our exchange rate here is not so strong.
We push on to Oregon. We have heard so many good reports about this state, its beautiful coastline, the mighty Columbia River winding through the Columbia Gorge where vineyards climb on both its cooler and sunnier slopes, and of course Mount Hood, an active volcano and Oregon’s highest point whose slopes we are told, just beg to be climbed, skied, snowboarded and hiked. As we near Portland, Oregon’s largest city, skies briefly clear and we have a short view of Mount Hood’s snow covered slopes, but winter is not a good time to enjoy Oregon’s sights as a thick, cold and clammy fog descends as we head towards its wild and rugged coast following the Umpqua River.
As we continue travelling south we notice many warning signs about earthquakes and what immediate action to take to avoid getting caught in a tsunami.
At the small fishing village of Winchester Bay, we turn off for the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, where the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America, extend for some 40 miles along the Oregon coast between Florence and Coos Bay. This desert-like landscape blends with forests, rivers, lakes and ocean, creating a diverse ecosystem for many plants and animals. It is here also, that the Umpqua River flows into the sea and the spring migration of grey whales and their calves can be viewed from prominent headlands.
The town of Brookings is the last before the Californian State Line and the world’s tallest trees are just waiting to be discovered in the northern Redwood National and State Parks. These giant redwood trees are spread over a large area and it can appear confusing where to visit, so a visit to the Parks headquarters provides us with useful information.
From Crescent City we take the unpaved Howland Hill Road through the Jedediah Smith Redwood State Park, with its towering old-growth redwood trees that get their name from their reddish-brown bark and heartwood. These coastal redwoods that grow in a narrow strip along the northern Pacific coast of California and southwest Oregon, thrive on rich soil from the Smith River flood plains and are kept continually damp, even during summer droughts, from heavy winter rains plus fog from the Pacific Ocean. Before logging began in 1850, approx. 200,000 acres of ancient redwood forest covered the coastal mountains of California. Today, sadly only about 5% remains, now fortunately protected by the National and State Parks.
To really appreciate these colossal trees, that are estimated to be between 600 and 1,500 years old, to feel the cool, moist air and feel the heavy silence, it is best to walk amongst them.
We have a delicious bowl of soup for lunch in the Palm Cafe at nearby Orick, whilst the friendly waitress tells us all about the small community here struggling to keep their town alive. Before we leave, she hands us a paper bag with a little message written on it and slips a 2015 calendar and a copy of their menu inside as a momentum for us.
From Orick we walk the Lady Bird Johnson Trail that winds its way between more old growth giants in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. We see a herd of Roosevelt elk in a field, one of the most commonly seen mammals in the Redwood Parks and it’s good to know that protection of their habitats is allowing their numbers to increase once again.
We decide to take Highway 1 and follow the steep and winding, scenic route that runs down the Californian coast. At Cabrillo Point a trail takes us to the top of sheer, crumbling cliffs with views of the Cabrillo lighthouse and pounding surf along a wild and rugged coastline.
After our bracing walk, a little cafe in the nearby attractive town of Mendocino serves us more welcome bowls of soup made from locally grown organic vegetables. Lots of lovely houses along this route built high on the cliff tops with fantastic sea views, as it changes from blue to silver once the sun slowly slides down below the horizon and clouds and mist begin to appear. It’s the weekend and it’s becoming difficult to find anywhere to stay and rooms are at weekend prices. However at Sea Cove Lodge we are given a good discount on a small room with just about a sea view and we are told that many whales were spotted today…..very nice, helpful guy. We haven’t got far today but the beautiful weather needs to be enjoyed rather than driving a great distance!
Another sunny day and many people heading out from the cities for this stretch of rugged coastline and its many sandy coves. Our road has been cut through pine forests that once would have reached the edge of the cliffs. At Fort Ross we stop at a viewing point and see our first whales way out at sea, their spouts clearly visible and also chat to a guy who pulls up beside us with an English bulldog puppy. An avid surfer, we learn many interesting things from him about his surfing experiences, this coastline and the different waves, seals and even the great white sharks that he has seen as they head out into the ocean for Hawaii.
As we lose the trees, steep, rounded hills slope down to the sea and at Petaluma we meet Aram and Jill who also enjoy the freedom of travelling the world. Jill writes a useful Travel Tips blog and maybe Aram will be writing another book! Thanks for all your advice on what to see…..great talking to you guys and enjoy your travels!
As we near San Francisco, campsites become more expensive but we can’t leave without seeing the Golden Gate Bridge and so drive to the top of Marina Heights, where all those famous pictures are taken. Alcatraz Island and Downtown San Francisco are visible in the distance through the haze.
Guided visits to Alcatraz we are told, have to be booked well in advance, so we head out over the bridge where paying our $7 for this privilege becomes quite complicated. To avoid traffic queues, there are no pay booths as you enter the bridge, payment has to be made either beforehand online, or within 48 hours of crossing. However when we try to do this later, it refuses our payment as it will only accept numbers of registration plates from a US state. Let’s hope we don’t get a ticket!
So it’s dark and we have had enough driving for one day when we finally find a small motel in Castoville, a well-kept little town in which many Mexicans have made their home. It is also the artichoke centre of the world with huge fields dedicated to growing this plant!
We continue down Highway 1 hugging the coastline along California’s famous Big Sur. A deep blue and turquoise ocean with surf pounding the rocks, miles of sandy beaches and secluded coves hidden under rocky headlands. Wild flowers are beginning to bloom and the air is heady with the scents of pine and dense herby shrubs……..roughly 85 miles of stunning scenery and we have found the sun! We see more whale spouts out at sea……wonderful to think of these huge creatures slowly making their way south and not that far away from us. When they make their return journey with their calves, we are told they swim closer to the shore.
Shortly before San Simeon, we arrive at Piedras Blancas and walk the short trail to the beach which today is full of Northern elephant seals, pregnant females and mothers with pups as well as enormous males laying prostrate at the edge of the surf, awesome creatures with their huge dangling noses and massive blubbery bodies. The Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery began near the lighthouse in 1990 and today it has become the largest mainland elephant seal rookery. Northern elephant seals spend most of their lives at sea, but come ashore to breed, give birth, moult and rest. The males began arriving here in December to establish their territories, whilst January and February are the months for the pups to be born. Seagulls patrol the beach to clean up the afterbirths. The mothers will nurse their pups for about a month and are then ready to mate once again.
San Simeon State Park has a welcome campground but with toilet facilities only, as the showers are closed due to acute water shortage. There are only a handful of other campers here, including Mat who is returning home to Fairbanks in Alaska after cycling down to Mexico……a very interesting guy with many fascinating stories to tell of his past and present travels.
We take Mat’s advice that the last remaining stretch of California’s coastline does not get any better than the Big Sur area and turn inland on to State Route 46 soon after San Simeon.
This road takes us through the beautiful San Joaquin Valley, California’s top agricultural producing region, bordered by rolling, emerald hills….home to cattle ranches which then give way to a huge wine producing area. Well tended vineyards stretch for great distances, with beautiful wineries set up on the hills approached by long drives often lined with trees, their buildings and homes influenced by Spanish architecture. Near Shandon, farming seems to consist of nothing but nut trees, particularly the Pacific Almond, the rows of trees just seeming to go on for ever.
A local store has variations of just about every kind of nut for sale….roasted, salted, hickory, cajun etc. etc. Jars of pickles, olives, honey and jams, wine and salsas and amazing fudge fill the shelves. The walls are adorned with huge pictures of Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and there’s an old vehicle packed with just about everything that people needed in times gone by, as they left for the dust bowls of California as in Steinbeck’s books – The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden…….definitely worth a stop and it’s impossible to leave without a treat!
Moving on through The Lost Hills, the landscape is dotted with hundreds of nodding donkeys….an unusual sight to see so many together!
On the outskirts of Bakersfield we discover Orange Grove RV Park which we certainly rate high amongst our nicest campsites. The large, quiet and well spaced out camping areas are literally between rows of orange trees, laden with fruit. To prevent wastage, the hosts provide us with a long picking implement and a carrier bag and we help ourselves to some of the best oranges we have ever tasted……juicy, sweet, no pips and never been sprayed! A couple opposite us with a large camper appear to pick a bag every day but tell us they are great for juicing. She sounds quite incredulous when she discovers that we don’t have one of those useful pieces of American equipment. “You don’t have a juicer?” she says in amazement and we laugh. Now where I wonder could we make room for that!
It’s easy to understand why we end up staying here for 5 nights because not only are the oranges a bonus but large doughnuts and coffee are provided free of charge every morning, the restrooms are also spacious and kept very clean and our camping neighbours are all very friendly. Moby continues to attract a lot of attention and is constantly photographed. We step outside one morning and there is a lady with her camera poised…..”Can I take a picture of your rig, it’s soooo cool! ” I suppose we do appear a bit of a novelty as we are dwarfed by all the other huge rigs, most of which look like luxurious second homes. Many of the people look to be of retired ages and some who stop to talk are well into their seventies…..79 years old one guy tells us and he and his mates all have their rigs and enjoy travelling together. We do admire them and am sure it keeps them young and of course, they do have an amazing country to explore!
We have a day of rain but am sure the farmers are wishing for more, as California has long been suffering drought conditions. We have seen many signs reminding people of the water shortage.
From the orange groves we head out east on Highway 58, stopping at Tehachapi to look at its very impressive murals painted on the walls of various historic buildings and to have lunch in Tehachapi’s Original Apple Shed, today a restaurant, bakery and gift shop.
‘Beekay Mural’…..Tehachapi’s latest mural on the side of the Beekay Theatre. Locals waiting to buy their tickets.
“People of the Mountains – The Nuwa Tribe’ mural. Village scene from before contact with the white man.
‘The Red Front Blacksmith Shop’ mural.
‘1915 Street Dance’ mural. A street dance showing local residents past and present to commemorate Tehachapi’s first electric streetlights.
It’s an interesting town, where long before California became a state, the Tehachapi Pass was used by the native Nuwa people as they arrived to settle in the nearby valleys and hills. Today, Highway 58 carries travellers through the pass and is a major east – west corridor.
If you are a train enthusiast, then before leaving Tehachapi, you must drive approx. 8 miles out of town and visit the famous Tehachapi Loop, considered to be one of the railroad wonders of the world. This single track main line climbs out of the San Joaquin Valley and winds its way up the Tehachapi mountains through 18 tunnels and over many bridges. When it reaches the Loop, it’s fascinating to watch how the line climbs in a spiral over itself, gaining 77 feet of elevation.
We continue on Highway 58 to Barstow on the edge of the Mojave Desert and cross the bridge over the Mojave River which is completely dry.
It’s taken longer than we thought when we finally arrive at Yucca Valley, near to where we plan to visit southern California’s Joshua Tree National Park. We have seen these fascinating trees before in Arizona when we took the desert drive to to the western end of the Grand Canyon. However, numerous people have told us that the mountains of jumbled rock and exposed granite monoliths amongst these trees, create a very special desert landscape and so we look forward to our visit.