Oregon-California Road Trip

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley
The view from inside Yosemite Valley.

We drove about 3 hours east from the Bay Area to the Sierra Nevada to visit Yosemite National Park. One of the most famous and popular national parks in the US, Yosemite is best known for its giant granite rock formations, but there are plenty of other attractions in the big park too.

Our first destination in Yosemite was to head right into the valley. We took route 120 into valley, and the road can be quite winding in places. Heading into the valley, we were greeted by the granite rock formations and tall waterfalls, and also a wave of heat. Yosemite Valley is already quite hot, reaching into the mid thirties Centigrade. However, the air is dry, which makes the heat a little more bearable. Speak of dry, that whole region of California is pretty dry, and on the way into the park we saw some trees that have wilted seemingly due to drought. The trees in Yosemite itself were still green though, but it seems like the region can use a bit of rain.

Yosemite National Park waterfall
One of the tall waterfalls (I think it’s Yosemite Falls) inside the Yosemite Valley.

Even though there was a lack of moisture, the waterfalls of Yosemite Valley were still flowing. We hiked to the lower part of Yosemite Falls, which is the tallest waterfall in North America with a total height of 739 meters. The fall is composed of three parts. The lower part which we saw up close was already nearly 100 meters, but one has to step away to see the entire fall that start at the top of the valley.

Lower Yosemite Falls was the only place we walked to in the valley. Being one of the more popular national parks, Yosemite has a lot of amenities, one of which was free shuttle bus service in the valley. We took the shuttle around to see the visitor center, the food store, and to the grand Ahwahnee Hotel. It was good to sit in the air conditioned shuttle when it was so hot outside. There were a lot of people taking the shuttle, but a lot of people walking and biking as well. Yosemite has a reputation for crowds during the summer months, but we found it to be okay. There were no traffic jams and we didn’t have trouble finding parking, but maybe because we were there during weekdays.

Yosemite National Park Ahwahnee Hotel
The grand dining room of the Ahwahnee Hotel. This hotel was probably booked up months in advance.

After making our rounds in the valley, we drove back out towards Glacier Point, which is the most famous viewpoint in Yosemite. On our way out of the valley, we stopped by the Tunnel View viewpoint to get that classic view of Yosemite Valley that is shown on all of the brochures and advertising material for the park. It’s definitely an impressive view seeing these two to three thousand feet granite structures rising almost vertically at the sides of the valley.

Yosemite National Park Tunnel View
The classic Tunnel View of Yosemite Valley

Getting up to Glacier Point involved taking Wawona Rd. south and then taking the seasonal Glacier Point Rd. up to the top of the southern side of the valley. While the views from down on the valley floor were pretty good, the view from Glacier Point and the nearby Washburn Point were breathtaking. From the top, you can really get a sense of the imposing cliff side that surround Yosemite Valley. Other than clear views of the valley below a couple of the tall waterfalls, Glacier Point also allows for visitors to see why the iconic Half Dome on the other side of the valley is called Half Dome. Unlike inside the valley, the temperatures at Glacier Point were quite comfortable, and it just goes to show how the temperature can vary with elevation.

Yosemite National Park Washburn Point
The breathtaking view of Yosemite Valley from Washburn Point, with Half Dome serving as the centerpiece
Yosemite National Park Glacier Point
The Hanging Rock at Glacier Point. One can also clearly see some of the park facilities inside the valley.
Yosemite National Park Olmsted Panorama
A panorama from Olmsted Point on Tioga Road. You can see Half Dome in the center right of the picture. (Click to Enlarge)

The drive up to Glacier Point ended our first day in Yosemite. On our second day, we took Route 120, also known as the Tioga Road, all the way through the park. Along the way, we stopped by Olmsted Point which offered a view of Half Dome from the north. After that, we traveled to the visitor center at Tuolumne Meadow. The sub-alpine meadow there is quite different than what we saw in valley, and it was certainly worth the stop.

Yosemite National Park Tenaya Lake
Stopped by Tenaya Lake to take in the views

Eventually, we reached the eastern exit of the park at Tioga Pass. At Tioga Pass, the elevation is over 9900 feet/3000 meters, and is the highest elevation I have ever been to. I didn’t feel much at the 7000-8000 feet elevation of Crater Lake or Glacier Point, but I felt the altitude effects found as we approached Tioga Pass. It was nothing serious, but I could tell the air was thinner and I was taking more breaths to compensate. The area near Tioga pass had a small but pretty lake surrounded by mountain peaks, all of which were over 10000 feet tall.

Yosemite National Park Tioga Pass
Tioga Pass is the highest elevation I’ve ever been to.

Mono Lake

To the east of Yosemite National Park in the eastern Sierra Nevada lies a large lake called Mono Lake. Compared to the nearby Tioga Pass at Yosemite, the temperature at Mono Lake was a lot higher, and the climate feels much more arid. Things are quite different on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada and the area around Mono Lake seem like a desert.

Mono Lake Tufa
The intriguing tufa formations at Mono Lake.

Back to the lake itself, Mono Lake is a shallow, saline soda lake that have no outflows. The lake is quite scenic with the peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the backdrop, but the lake is also known for its intriguing tufa columns and the wildlife at the lake. The tufa columns are a type of limestone formation that are commonly associated with saline lakes, and Mono Lake has a lot of them, especially in the South Tufa area. Some of tufa columns are two-three stories tall, and they are certainly an interesting sight. As for the wildlife, there are no fishes in the lake due to its high salinity, but there are a lot of brine shrimp in the waters and a lot of alkali flies near shore. These little creature are food for migratory birds, and Mono Lake serves as an important food and rest stop for some bird species. On the trip, we saw birds nesting in the tufa columns, and we saw a lot of alkali flies congregating on the shoreline.

Mono Lake Alkali Flies
Mono Lake has a ton of alkali flies on its shorelines. Good thing they don’t bite.

Reno, Nevada

The last notable destination on our trip was Reno, Nevada, located three hours north of Mono Lake. Like Las Vegas to the south, Reno is also well-known for its casinos, and its proximity to Lake Tahoe in California also meant that were many outdoors activities available. Reno, known as “the Biggest Little City in the World”, is the second largest city in Nevada (behind Las Vegas) and has a sizable urban area, but the central casino area on Virginia St. wasn’t that busy at all, and some of the casinos have closed down or have been converted to other uses. We’ve been to Las Vegas before, and Las Vegas had a lot more people walking around. The hotel was inexpensive though, and that’s why we decided to stop by. We contributed to the casino economy by donating $10 to the slots and having the casino buffet for dinner.

Reno, Nevada
Reno, the Biggest Little City in the World

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It was great to be able to travel down the western US with my parents again, and I think we all enjoyed the trip. The trip was a bit tiring due to the amount of driving involved, and maybe next time I’ll plan the trip so we don’t have to drive as much in a day. We went to some great locations this time, and I really enjoyed seeing the different scenery from both natural and man-made monuments. There are still a lot of awesome places in Oregon and California that I haven’t been to, and hopefully I’ll have a chance to travel in the region again soon.

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