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Trip Report Trip Report Part 1 - Carmel/Monterey, Yosemite and Sequoia (w/teens)

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My family (DH and me, plus 14 and 16 yr old boys) just returned from 3 1/2 week trip out west (we are from Virginia):

I will break up the Trip Reports by state and hope they are helpful.

We flew to SFO airport and rented a mid-size SUV, which ended up being a small Jeep and it was definitely too small. Lesson #1 - ASK for upgrade if they don't offer it. We had no 3rd row and even though we only had carry-on items, we were going to buy a cooler and knew we'd need the space.

Visited friends in Carmel Valley for a few days and some highlights (in no particular order):

* Hiked a great little hilly hike at Garland State Park. Great place if you're in the area - https://www.alltrails.com/parks/us/california/garland-ranch-regional-park.

* Monterey Bay - went to the Aquarium (busy but really impressive) and drove through town on the coast and it was stunning. Our good friend runs one of the Stanford Labs so awesome to visit him in his element. Ate lunch at a fabulous place called Happy Girl Kitchen Company that was an easy walk from the Aquarium.

* Pebble Beach - worth the entrance fee for the ability to drive inside there. Stunning coastal scenery, including a rock about 100 yards offshore that is FILLED with sea lions (maybe seals too).

* Drove through Carmel On The Sea - cute, super touristy and filled with fancy cars (Ferraris and such) that my kids loved spotting.

* Drive toward Big Sur -- the road was still not open all the way through so we went as far as we could. Unbelievable scenery - cliffs that fall away hundreds of feet. We had intermittent fog, which made it all the more spooky (and gorgeous). We stopped for a beer and amazing nachos at Fernwood Tavern - https://www.fernwoodbigsur.com/tavern.html - and sat on the back porch, which was really peaceful!

* Salinas Rodeo - if you are ever there during this time, GO! What a cultural experience.

Yosemite and Sequoia to follow:

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    Since we were staying almost exclusively in cabins/studios via Air B&B and VRBO, we borrowed an idea from a friend and bought a decent-sized cooler and a panini machine ... and like that Robert Frost poem, "they made all the difference ...".

    When we left Carmel Valley, we stopped heading north at a Wal-Mart (yuck) and bought our provisions!

    Then we stopped somewhere else before we turned East and had our first "In N Out Burger". The kids were thrilled!

    From Carmel Valley, we roughly went to Salinas, Gilroy (garlic capital), then got on Rt 152 (no highways here - all lovely secondary roads) and drove. There were lots of lettuce and other fields near the coast and then they petered out for a while.

    I was surprised (naiive) at how mountainous and hilly CA is. At one point on 152, we drove through what seemed like miles of golden colored hills - up and down - and then in the middle of the dryness, hit upon a huge lake!

    It was the San Luis Reservoir and I made DH stop at the Visitor Center. WOW - What a treat. We watched a video about the irrigation / water systems of California. I cannot do it justice but if you're ever in the area, do yourself a favor and stop. The reservoir was now at 100% capacity thanks to the hugh snowfall and subsequent melt but the woman working there said it was at 10% capacity the previous year. Frightening to think about.

    * We were a bit nervous because of the big fire that had already burned close to 100,000 acres in Mariposa and north. Had kept an eye on reports and roads were open so we went on.

    * Drove towards the Mariposa entrance and had to stop for gas and landed at The Oasis in Cathey's Valley - https://www.yelp.com/biz/the-oasis-catheys-valley. What a surprise (our trip was full of these). There were big maps of the fire area inside the little dumpy shop / soda joint. The owner easily moved between English and Spanish, depending on the customer. We sat at the soda counter and listened ... it was heartbreaking to hear these people who had been afraid of losing it all - homes, livestock, etc. I digress .. a farmer walked out with a milkshake that he had been waiting for (when you have to wait, you learn more) and I asked him how it was. He replied "fantastic" so I sat put while DH came in to pay. Not only were the milkshakes delish but the owner let me try my first ever tamale (two ladies were making them in the back) and we decided we loved this part of Ca.

    * After we left there headed to Mariposa, we drove through lots of burned-out land, which was sad. The little tourist town of Mariposa was not affected and we drove through it and on the road into Yosemite.

    * These drives are not for the faint of heart. Cliffs to the right and river to the left. Signs for "falling rocks" everywhere and it was all a bit unsettling for this east coaster but I learned to appreciate it.

    * After hours, we entered the park and went toward Foresta, where our cabin was.

    * Wonderful Fodorites had saved us from the mistake of staying 40 - 60 miles outside of Yosemite. VRBO listings can be misleading in that way and we ended up staying inside the Park in this little gem - https://www.vrbo.com/815550

    *Its a miracle we found it - - you go through the park entrance, turn left towards Tuolomne and go through 3 tunnels (amazing views) and then on a right hand turn, go left toward Foresta. After bumping along on dirt roads, we finally came to our cabin. It's hard to explain how bright the stars were when we sat on our porch at night!


    * We arrived at 4 and eldest son, 16, saw that there was a program in Yosemite Valley (12 miles / 30 min) by Search & Rescue, so we ate a quick panini and headed out. The drive down to the valley was hairy at best but I got used to it. The PM views of Half-Dome from the road were stunning, and so was the traffic as people stopped to click pictures. Coming in, we saw El Cap to our left - hard to articulate and Yosemite Falls (I think). We found parking and headed out to the presentation and had not thought to take headlamps - big mistake). We realized how fortunate we were to be staying where we were -- we are not fans of big crowds inside of national parks. The presentation was fascinating and SCARY! The things people do --- go under ropes into water, step on trees to get to large rocks in roaring rivers, go out without telling anyone ... we saw and heard of parents who lost multiple kids, saw a video of someone drowning. It was horrifying but great for my kids to realize how important it is to heed signs! (Sorry for that diversion). Trying to find out car proved challenging as it was dark, there were few lights and we'd come out a different way (through the very well stocked store). We finally found it and headed "home". The stars were so bright back in Foresta that we easily saw the Milky Way.

    Day 1 - Headed out early to Tuolomne Meadows, where so many people had told us we HAD to go. The drive was fairly long and stunning, especially the last part. I caught my first real glimpse of the trees - both pines and redwoods, that were much larger than anything we have in Virginia! The views were stunning and there were few guard rails! I want to say it took us 90 minutes to get there and the campgrounds were closed because the summer melt was so recent. we stopped by the small but informational Visitor Center and decided to take the Lake Elizabeth Hike https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/california/elizabeth-lake-trail
    It was a gorgeous hike and we did not run into anyone on the way up (DH insisted on leaving home at 6 am). Even in late July, with the snow still melting, it was very very boggy at the top and we got EATEN UP BY MOSQUITOS. Lesson to self - bring big spray! DH and kids also did Lembert Dome Trail. They said it was gorgeous up there at the top.

    Day 2 - We decided to go the Yosemite Valley and do a flat hike. Even with our early departure from home, the valley was PACKED with people. We chose to do the Valley Floor Loop Trail (or about 12 mi of it) https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/california/valley-floor-loop-trail. We saw lots of people at the falls at the beginning and then again closer to El Cap but overall was an incredibly peaceful and gorgeous trail, with opportunities to get cooled off in the river. It was an unexpected treat.

    At the end of the trail, we kept hiking to see The Ahwahnee/Majestic Yosemite Hotel and it did not disappoint. We sat outside, had a drink, played cards and enjoyed the hot, but dry, temps.

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    Thanks so much for this trip report!! I grew up in CA and pur family vacations were always camping in our little 50's trailer. Yosemite was one of our favorites, especially Tuolome Meadows which was paradise back then.

    It s fun to hear a first timers impressions and surpirses! Glad it sounds like you had a great time. Looking forward to the rest.

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    Yosemite to Sequoia:

    Once again, saved by Fodorites, who told me to stay closer to Three Rivers. We drove out of Yosemite, and straight into the Central Valley, where we saw groves of almond trees and grapes. It was HOT (104) and dusty outside. We are very aware than probably 90% of the US-grown produce comes from here. Lots of appreciate for these people, especially those who bend and pick all day long.

    We stopped in Visalia for more provisions at https://www.yelp.com/biz/grocery-outlet-bargain-market-visalia-3?osq=grocery, which can best be described as a small Costco. What a great place ...

    One of the two big letdowns of our trip - our place in Three Rivers. For $260 I would have hoped for more than what we got - ugh. It was a studio with all carpeting, even in the kitchen. That wasn't the problem - the challenge was it was 104 INSIDE too ... as a 50 yr old woman, I nearly died! HA. The kids loved the fact that they could jump into the Merced River so they were happy.


    The drive from Three Rivers is apprx 16 miles long but took 45 minutes. I've never seen hairpins like that!!! We left "home" at 7, arriving at the General Sherman Tree area at 8. There were very few people and no problem parking. It was obvious that it was an extremely popular place -- the parking was big and the path paved. After we walked the "must do" trail to see the General Sherman tree (these massive giants are impossible to describe - it is nearly a religious experience walking among them), we followed another trail. For 7 miles, we walked / easy hiked among these trees, in their own environment. We picnic'd along a meadow and saw lots of mule deer (even one resting between two giant sequoias! We saw very few other visitors UNTIL we decided to leave ... holy cow it was like Disney and the United Nations all in one! There were throngs of people and many different languages (which we loved) and we had to fight our way out. By this time, the parking lot was overflowing and we fled ... to the Visitor Center. Parking was a nightmare there but we managed and watched a great movie on the bears of Sequoia. We then headed out, dodging cars parked on the side of the road.

    Eldest son and I loved the big trees more than anything else we saw or did ... they were extraordinary.

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    Enjoying your report. I grew up near the San Luis Reservoir and was at the 1962 dedication by JFK. Glad you stopped and learned more about our water system and agriculture.

    Salinas Rodeo: family friend was crowned rodeo queen this year. :)

    Looking forward to more of your report.

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    MichelleY -- thanks for the comments and for reading! You grew up in a beautiful part of the country!

    How fun re: Salinas Rodeo Queen. What day do they crown the queen? We missed her.

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