What to see in S. California: Joshua Tree, Sequoia and Yosemite!

Things back in Phoenix were dire. Reflecting our worst fears, the RV’s “time off” during our jaunt in Central America was apparently spent undoing all the expensive work we’d been getting done to it over the previous 4 months. A quick look under the hood indicated that rats had been at work on some of the wirings and tubes, and a turn of the key was rewarded with a rather lackluster response: the RV was going nowhere, fast.

It was apparent that this wasn’t simply a case of flat batteries: I’d made a point of disconnecting them before we’d left, and they still had plenty of juice. With this in mind, we bit the bullet and booked into an airbnb with a lovely lady on the other side of town. Managed by an elderly lady who seemed keen to learn about our travels, it turned out that this airbnb timeout was just what needed: some serious unwindulaxing.

When the rats strike, tape is your friend!

When the rats strike, tape is your friend!

Phoenix

We spent the next few days getting various mobile mechanics in to determine the latest problem afflicting the Hunk o Junk. On the third day, I managed to get hold of someone who had access to an old school scanner which was capable of decoding the RV’s antiquated computer. After consulting the computer (and spending hundreds paying other mechanics to fiddle round and generally make things worse), it turned out that the fix was a simple one: replacing the MAP sensor for a laughable $50, and I could do it myself. Sorted.

As soon as the RV roared once more to life, I gunned the engine and we were squealing down the Arizona highways toward the California border, eager to start exploring. First stop was Joshua Tree National Park, which by all accounts was a must-see.

Stopping off in the bustling desert metropolis of Ehrenberg, perched just across the river from California, we spent a couple of days recharging, cleaning, and preparing the RV for its next adventure.

Our last Arizona sunset

Our last Arizona sunset

Upon arrival at the southern entrance to Joshua Tree, it became quickly apparent that there was little chance of us finding a campsite inside the park. We took an enjoyable three hour hike around the Cottonwood Spring trail, then made a beeline for an area just to the south of the park. Here, we camped out amongst the thorn bushes and snakes for the night.

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Up until this point, I’d been trying to ignore the periodic pitter-patter of bright green coolant on the ground around the RV. Having observed the RV spew forth it’s supply of coolant via the overflow valve on many a hot day, I was hoping it was just something along these lines. But when I jimmied under the chassis to take a look that evening, it became quickly apparent that the coolant was in fact spewing forth from a completely different exit point. Some hasty research suggested that our water pump might be the next casualty on the the old rust bucket, and here we were literally in the middle of the desert. Good times.

Luckily, I’d stocked up on plenty of coolant in Arizona, and by taking it easy and avoiding getting the engine too hot we were able to make it through to civilization without abandoning our trip through the national park. The risk to the engine proved well worth it, with the landscape changing rapidly around us as we drove, from rocky mountains and green oases, to the barren wasteland of the Pinto Basin, then passing through the surreal Cholla Cactus Garden, and finally taking a series of wondrous drives and hikes through the boulder-strewn and Joshua Tree-dotted northwestern sector. Joshua Tree National Park definitely gave a lasting impression.

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After a long day and many stressful miles covered, we finally limped into Country Hills RV Park in Beaumont, CA. Two days later, I had Kirby the mobile mechanic over to check out the problem. Kirby confirmed that it was indeed the water pump which needed fixing, and I gave him the green light to get stuck in. During the pump installation process, our trusty mechanic encountered two very stubborn, rusty bolts (sounds like a familiar story!) who refused to budge. As a result, Kirby was forced to glue the faceplate of the water pump on, rather than bolt it, meaning we had to stick around for another night.

The next morning, I fired up the engine and was dismayed to see coolant gushing out of the engine…this time from the bloody radiator itself! I jumped on the blower with Kirby the trusty mechanic and he came on over to get to the bottom of the problem. It appeared that the radiator had been ruptured somewhere, and we were once again faced with a choice: remove the radiator, get it leak tested and welded for a large fee, or stick a couple of cans of K-Seal in the radiator reservoir and hope for the best. Kirby seemed to think the latter option was actually the most practical (but perhaps he was just trying to get rid of us), so we gave El-Cheapo the green light.

It seemed to work. We were soon back on the road, and chugging merrily onwards toward our next scenic destination: Sequoia National Park.

After a long drive across Southern California, we arrived at the fringes of Sequoia National Park. From here, it was straight up, with the narrow, winding roads into the mountains making for slow progress in the old rustbucket. I was keen to get to Potwisha Campground ASAP, on account of it being a first-come, first-served type of campground (an annoying pastime for most national park campgrounds in the US, unfortunately). But when we arrived it was surprisingly quiet, and we snagged an excellent spot amongst the trees, wild deer and hordes of ground squirrels.

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After setting up camp (which when you live in an RV involves stopping and putting the parking brake on), we went for a very pleasant stroll up the mountain via the Marble Falls Trail. The views were suitably impressive, there was no-one around, we caught a few glimpses of the scaly locals, and we didn’t get mauled by bears or cougars. Success.

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One of many vines growing in strange patterns alongside the track

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The next morning, we broke camp (which when you live in an RV involves switching off the parking break and accelerating away) and headed into the heart of Sequoia NP. The going was tough in the RV, but as we made our way higher and higher into the mountains, the views more than made up for it. So high up were we, in fact, that it began to snow, despite the fact that it was the middle of summer.

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Spot the shit RV

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At the top, we strolled through the incredible thousand year-old sequoia groves and marveled at the world’s largest trees. The falling snow made for a suitably epic wilderness feel, the visitor center was actually pretty cool and surprisingly informative, and the General Sherman tree (the greatest of the world’s largest trees) was suitably awe inspiring. Surrounded by such massive neighboring trees, it was perhaps difficult to appreciate the sheer scale of the General Sherman until you stepped beneath it. According to the national park service stats, this tree is a whopping 1,487 cubic meters (52,000 cubic feet) in volume, has a trunk diameter wider than most city streets, and is taller than a 26 story building. Considering people used to crap their pants when they walked out onto our 25th floor apartment balcony in Toronto, that’s pretty high.

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The world's widest Tule Tree...we were just there in Mexico not 6 months earlier!

The world’s widest Tule Tree…we were just there in Mexico not 6 months earlier!

It's kind of difficult to hug a tree this big

It’s kind of difficult to hug a tree this big

As the snow began to thicken, we topped the pass and headed sharply down towards summer once more.

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Back down amongst smaller organisms, we made straight for our next big destination: Yosemite National Park. That night, we stayed in an RV campground just outside the park in the bustling metropolis of Oakhurst, stocked up on food for us and oil + coolant for the RV, and made our way back up into the mountains the next morning.

The weather was atrocious, but that merely made our surroundings all the more dramatic. After a couple hours of driving, we arrived at the lookout over Yosemite Valley, and were completely blown away by the sheer scale of the place. Yosemite had been pretty high on our list of places to visit in the US, and with good reason – to my knowledge, there are no other places on earth where the landscape has been shaped in such a way as to provide such a surreal mix of towering rock domes, sheer waterfalls and winding valleys.

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We spent the next 3 days in Yosemite, camping out in the damp, dark, but otherwise accommodating Upper Pines Campground. The weather during the whole time was a trifle depressing, but it did little to dampen our spirits – such a feat would have been difficult to achieve, considering our surroundings.

On the first day, we checked out the Bridal Veil falls and cruised around the valley. Day 2 saw me whipping up a storm in the “kitchen” for Liivi’s birthday, then taking a very nice walk and surprise birthday picnic at famous Mirror Lake, and finally walking along the valley trails to check out the Lower Yosemite Falls.

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On the third day, we decided to take on one of the more challenging hikes in the region. We spent much of the day slogging up the cliffs and gullies towards Upper Yosemite Falls, but were adequately rewarded as we got to the top: the views were incredible, and the viewing platform literally perched right above North America’s tallest waterfall. After taking in the sights and enjoying a precipitous picnic, it was time to descend…much to the dismay of our rubbery knees.

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The next day, it was time to pack up our things and head back to civilization, stopping off below the infamous El Capitan before making our tearful farewells. Our next destination was the unmissable Big Sur, which would see us riding some hard miles back across the width of California once again, to the rugged Pacific coast.

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4 days later, we arrived in Monterey, the last major urban centre before hitting Big Sur to the south. Monterey was actually a really cool little city in it’s own right, boasting a waterfront teeming with seals, otters and other aquatic life, and displaying a rich colonial history. We spent much of the day exploring the city, then realized we needed somewhere to sleep that night and made our hasty way south.

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Ah, the cities of Sand and Seaside. They really gave those names some serious thought

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With the sun setting in suitable west coast splendor, our hopes of finding somewhere to rest our heads that night were rapidly diminishing. Every state park or campground we could locate on the map was full to bursting, and as darkness descended we made our way further and further into the rugged wilderness.

Finally, after driving half the night through some seriously windy coastal roads in a 24 foot, 5 tonne beast, we arrived in some National Forest Service land far to the south. This had been our last resort, considering how far into Big Sur it was located, but it was lucky we knew of it’s existence, otherwise I would have literally been driving all night. After a steep ascent, we found a half-reasonable spot to park up, made a hasty late-night dinner, and went straight to bed.

The next morning, we work to some pretty epic views. Making the most of the fact that we drove around in a mobile house, we enjoyed a scenic breakfast from the comfort of our “dining room”, had a chat with our similarly nomadic Aussie neighbors, then began exploring Big Sur.

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Highlights of the day included the collection of iconic bridges spanning many of the precipitous drop-offs along Highway 1, a suicidal lady who had clearly just broken up with her boyfriend and who tried to jump in front of the (thankfully slow-moving) RV, the sheer ruggedness of the coastline offset by the intense turquoise of the sea, and the curiosity of McWay Falls. These falls used to spill directly into the ocean, but a massive fire, large landslide and highway reconstruction project all conspired to supply enough sediment to create a beach where once there was none. The result was a rather surreal sight.

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With Big Sur conquered, we backtracked our way north and set a course for San Francisco. Southern California had not disappointed, and we were itching to get a taste of what the north had to offer.

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