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California holiday

On leaving England, Chris and I had over 2 weeks scheduled in California. Chris arrived on his inconveniently timed but cheap Lufthanza flight at San Francisco a few hours before I arrived. Our friend and fellow botany nut David Deutsch met us at the airport and whisked us to his home in Vallejo, on the far side on San Francisco bay from the city itself.
David spent a few days taking us to local places of interest such as Mt Diabolo (a nice 3000ft freewheel cycle down on my bike- having been driven up to the top!), Muir Woods, and Berkeley Botanic Gardens. David was under a good deal of stress with a messed up lawsuit against some awful next door neighbours, and hassles with a shipment of plants from a plant hunting expedition in New Caledonia, which was heading for Maimi on the date a hurricane was due. On top of this, he was arranging a special 50th birthday surprise for his partner Gary- a trip to Amsterdam (Gary thought they were going to Philadelphia). So while we appreciated David and Gary's hospitality, we didn't want to distract them too much. So we organised a hire car for a week (as much as we felt we could afford), and before we picked it up, spent a few days doing our own thing in San Francisco.

San Francisco is only an hour by ferry from Vallejo, the only inconvenience being that the last ferry home was 9.45pm, so late nights were a problem. I had a bike, and wanted to do some bike tours in the area, but Chris seemed very uninterested in hiring one, which was a bit annoying! I had been looking forward to mountainbiking in Marin County, but it never happened ! We did catch up with friends- including Andy and Caroline from Sheffield, and a friend of Chris's from Barcelona, who were coincidentally in town at the same time. We also caught up with Rick, and visited a very impressive new art gallery in Golden Gate park with him. We spent plenty of time drinking coffees at the wonderful Cafe Flores in the castro, where Sheila, a friend of David's, worked.

Eventually, the day came to pick up the hire car. The rental was cheap, but the insurance was 150% of the rental price. A week cost the same as insurance for a year for my UK car!
Having got the car, we spent an entire day buying food and equipment for our camping trip ( Wal-mart may be a company of dodgy ethics, but it has stuff at half the price we could get stuff for in New Zealand).  Then we headed for Sequoia National Park to realise a minor ambition of mine: to see the largest tree on Earth. We drove for hours across the horrendously smoggy Central Valley to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and camped at a National Park campground at 2000ft. A fairly steep and windy road rose steadily to the 7000ft mark, where the park information centre and museum was situated. We had enough time to look in the museum before it shut, oo and aar over some pretty big sequoias, and do some short walks before dark. The highlight was a black bear and cub, met in the early twilight only 20m away on the trail.
I'd brought my bike, so Chris drove down and I had a 20km freewheel back to the campground, passing from tall, damp sequoia forest to dry evergreen oak and Yucca woodland over the 5000ft altitude drop.

We spent another night at the campground, and visited the General Sherman tree and many other seemingly equally enormous trees over the next two days. They really are majestic and cathedral- like. Its a shame so many were destroyed by logging in the nineteenth century. I also enjoyed seeing the Yucca whipplei growing wild near the campsite- I've grown this for years, its one of the most spectacular plants in cultivation, with a spiky rosette of bluish leaves, and eventually a 15ft spike of creamy flowers (though we were too late in the season to see this).

Driving on to Kings Canyon National park, just north of Sequoia National Park, we found ourselves almost alone. In contrast to Yosemite, this spectacular gorge in the Sierras was deserted. Some bad weather spoiled the view on the way up the gorge, but the following day was beautiful. We did some short walks in  the valley, and I nearly stood on a snake which was sunbathing on the path. Driving back to the visitor centre near the park entrance, we visited the General Grant sequoia, the 3rd largest, and walked along a ridge with cloud coming up one side and sun on the other- a superb mixture for atmospheric photographs!

As we planned to head to Yosemite the next day, which meant a dog- leg thru Fresno, we decided to get a cheap motel there. We found a cheap one- a $28 room. It was like the worst cheap motels in American films- ripped curtains, holes in walls, railway line running right by the window, musty smell etc. At least the hot water worked, the sheets were clean, and we didn't see stains from squashed bed bugs!

The next day we drove up to Yosemite. As soon as the road to Yosemite overlook opened, we drove up to the road end, and stood at the edge of shear cliffs which dropped 1500m to the valley floor, with great views of half dome. I took the opportunity to cycle down to the valley, a great freewheel which took nearly an hour.
The valley floor was a zoo of tourists, despite the lateness of the season, possibly because of the superb weather (as well as it being a weekend). We camped at Camp 4, the famous rock climber's campsite. I needed to borrow some cooking spices for dinner, which I did from our neighbours (Kevin and Robyn), and was soon invited to join them on a climb of 'Nutcracker' (a classic 5.8 rock route) the next day. Wonderful! I had my rock boots and harness (just in case of such an invite). The route was awesome- sustained excellent climbing for five pitches. The crux was on the top pitch- Kevin failed to pass it (being fairly tired from the rest of the climb), so I got the chance to lead the crux pitch, my favourite combination of hand-jams and mantleshelf moves. The sun was scorching, the views world-class, the company good. A great day!
Setting off back to Vallejo, we just had time for a quick visit to Hetch Hetchy valley, a similar (but less spectacular) valley to Yosemite which had been flooded to provide water for San Francisco.

Altogether a very successful trip, though it would be nice to have a month or three to climb at Yosemite, tramp some back country trails and climb Mt Whitney, and maybe go paragliding in the Owens valley..... Next time!!!

More USA photos


Golden gate bridge
Preston & half-dome
Yosemite valley overlook
A classic route in Yosemite