Solveig, my Toyota Dolphin, parked at Yosemite
After staying at some relaxing Corps of Engineers campgrounds in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada last week, I decided it was time to move on to a couple of the places in California that had intrigued me ever since I was a kid. Most of my past travels in California have been along the Coast and across the southern part of the state heading towards Arizona. So I'd never been to Yosemite National Park before, nor had I seen any of the California Gold Country.
I knew nothing about the campground reservation system at Yosemite, but apparently they release a new block of reservations each month, for five months in the future. Californians who regularly vacation at Yosemite know the drill. Families pick out the sites they'd love to have, and then on the appointed day, several family members will have Yosemite's campground reservation number on speed-dial and also on their computer screens, and they'll see who can get in first and make the booking.
Wow! I was really lucky, because I looked up reservations on-line and got one night at the North Pines Campground right when it fit into my schedule.
A couple of fan kiwis, the most delicious kiwis I'd ever tasted
I headed up to Oakhurst, one of the towns closest to Yosemite, and spent one night in an RV park so I'd be ready to drive to Yosemite early the next morning. On my way to Oakhurst, I stopped at a wonderful fruit stand where I bought some of the freshest, most delicious California fruits and vegetables I've ever tasted.
The next morning, I got underway by about 8 a.m., so I was in the park and enjoying the sights before it got very busy. I made all of the usual stops that people make as they drive into Yosemite from the south. Highway 41 gains elevation and the forest gets thicker. I don't know what the elevation is at the South Entrance, but it's high enough that, just inside the gate, you find the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. It's about a mile hike to see the first of these great trees, and further if you want to see them all. I liked even the parking lot, though.
From the entrance, it's about an hour's drive to Yosemite Valley, which is where most of the visitor-related activities happen.
Wawona Tunnel View of Yosemite Valley
Along the way, you go through the Wawona Tunnel, and immediately afterward you come out the north end, it's traditional to stop and be amazed by the scenery.
Yosemite is about 12,000 acres, most of it wilderness, but it's mostly pretty serious hikers and climbers who get outside Yosemite Valley to explore the rest of the park. People who drive in and stay at a lodge or RV campground usually just see the Valley, which includes Yosemite Village and Curry Village as well as the beautiful Ahwahnee Lodge.
There is also another valley, Hetch Hetchy, and some other outlying areas that have campgrounds open later in the year. Arriving in late April, some roads and activities aren't open yet.
View of the Merced River from a bridge near my campground
In Yosemite Valley, there are a variety of lodging options, from fancy lodges through walk-in campgrounds. I'd forgotten, but you can camp at Yosemite even if you don't have camping gear! There are a couple of tent villages where you can rent a platform tent or a sort of hut.
The campground I was in, North Pines, was one of the smaller campgrounds for people who bring their own tents or RVs. It was very pleasant, and I had an outstanding campsite that was shaded, close to the bathroom, and bordered on the Merced River, with no neighbors very closeby. (Loop 4 #500, if you're ever making reservations yourself.)
What a surprise, to run into Charlene Armstrong, whom I'd met last summer in Tucson
Once I got settled in my site, I ate some lunch and then headed out to spend the afternoon exploring. I took the free shuttle buses and visited Yosemite Village, where there is a great Visitor Center with films, exhibits, and plenty of self-guided trails and other sites nearby. I was amazed at the Visitor Center to find Charlene Armstrong, a woman who had been staying at the same RV park in Tucson where I was last summer while having my total knee replacement. It was great to get reacquainted with Charlene, who is now on the road full-time with her husband. I also visited Curry Village, some stables, a history area where old buildings and wagons are gathered, and, of course, a few gift shops, galleries and restaurants.
I had to get on my way the next morning, because I had only the one night reserved at the campground. There is a procedure for seeing if you can get a site due to a late cancellation, but it involves putting your name on a list and then returning to the reservation office at 3 p.m. to wait in line and see what happens. Even though I would have loved to stay longer, I didn't think I would deal well with trying to get out of the park and find another place to camp if I didn't get a Yosemite Valley campsite in the late afternoon.
El Capitan, one of the famous rock faces in Yosemite
I'm glad I moved on, because it really took a while to drive to my next destination. I took Highway 120 out through the north end of the Park, stopping for one last picnic in Yosemite before leaving. I drove up into the California Gold Country, along Highway 108, and stayed at Black Oak Resort Casino in Tuolumne. There is no RV park at the casino, but they let RVs park on an upper lot. It was very secure, with the casino's security office in the same parking lot, and it was an easy walk down to the casino itself where I ate a very good Friday night seafood buffet and won a few bucks on the credit they gave me for joining the Players Club. I spent a second night there, just because it was relaxing and free (although the $20 I dropped in the slots the second night was kind of like paying for my RV space.)
After casino camping, I headed out on Sunday morning, thinking I would drive only a short ways further north on Highway 49 into more of the Gold Rush area. I figured I'd stop and see the little historic towns. But it was a great day for driving. Not too hot, lots of beautiful sights to see. I got into some gorgeous foothills ranching and farming areas, with orchards and happy California cows everywhere. It was mountainous driving with occasional 12 percent grades and hairpin turns, but mostly it was just rolling hills. I covered a lot more miles than I'd expected. Along the way, I decided maybe I don't need to stop at every little Gold Rush town. Maybe I would just head for where the Gold Rush actually started and then head for the Coast.
Level II rapids on the American River, right in front of where I'm camped in Lotus
So I ended up at Ponderosa Resort in Lotus, California, which is along the American River, just down the road from Coloma, the site of Sutter's Mill, where the first discovery of gold was made. I arrived at Ponderosa on Sunday, and yesterday I spent a good part of the day walking over to the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Marshall was a business partner with Sutter, the founder of Sacramento. He built a lumber mill and then noticed some shiny flecks of gold, which eventually led to about 90,000 people coming to California to see if they could find gold, too.
The resort I'm staying at is a really good deal for me--$10 per night using my Resort Parks International membership. I'm pretty tired from my long walk yesterday, so I'm thinking I'll stay one more day here where I have good wifi, showers, etc. Then tomorrow I will start heading towards the Coast.
My shaded campsite near the American River at Ponderosa Resort