Motorhome travel: Cruising California in a campervan
Words and photos: Cameron McNeish
The Sierra Nevada of California must be among the sunniest and balmiest mountain ranges in the world. In half-a-dozen visits to the area, which lies just north and east of Los Angeles, I’ve experienced one single day of rain.
On every other occasion the sun has shone from a cloudless blue sky, lighting up the granite domes and peaks in an otherworldly glow that seems reluctant to dim, a light that appears to be captured by the white granite walls and released gently as day eases into dusk. It’s for good reason the Scots-born environmentalist, John Muir, nicknamed the Sierras as the ‘Range of Light.’
“The mighty Sierra, it seemed not clothed with light but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city…” he wrote, a man who had become so infatuated with the place that he lived in the range’s shadow for the rest of his life.
I can understand that obsession. On our 25th wedding anniversary my wife, Gina, and I, along with our two sons, Gordon and Gregor, spent two weeks backpacking through the Yosemite backcountry, climbing mountains, dodging bears, negotiating wild river crossings and understanding Muir’s belief that this place had a mystical ability to refresh and inspire. “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings,” he wrote, “The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves…”
Hiking the John Muir Trail
Two years later Gina, Gregor and I hiked the 220-mile John Muir Trail from Yosemite Valley in the north to Mount Whitney – the highest mountains in the contiguous states of the USA at 14,445ft – and then came back two years later to repeat the whole experience again!
In between I took part in an American television show called Anyplace Wild, as a token Scot who could talk with enthusiasm about Muir. We hiked and camped for the cameras in the Yosemite Valley and Tuolomne areas, and the highlight was climbing Cathedral Peak – a wonderfully rugged mountain first climbed by Muir on a Sunday. He likened the experience to attending church, hence the mountain’s name.
More recently my youngest son, Gregor, who had been on that first foray along the trail, thought he’d like to introduce his wife, Sarah, and two young daughters, Charlotte and Grace, to the delights of the Sierra Nevada so he suggested nana and papa should join them for a three-week holiday in and around Yosemite.
Of course we couldn’t resist the invitation, although I did have some reservations when he suggested we hired a mammoth RV for the trip, a behemoth that would sleep all six of us! I had no idea how I would adapt from my little Hyundai i800 campervan...
Our vehicle was a Ford E450 converted truck from Cruise America and it was 30 feet in length, which is longer than the current world long jump record!
It came complete with its own generator, a Ford V10 engine, 110V roof air-conditioner, a microwave oven and an LP gas/12V furnace and, much to my surprise, it was a doddle to drive. Despite its size, it still had the basic feel of a campervan, that awareness that you are slightly roughing it, unlike some of the huge RVs we visited that looked and felt more like luxury hotel rooms complete with walk-in showers, standard lamps, three-piece suites and colour television.
As well as the Cruise America RV we also hired an SUV, on the basis that we could park up the RV for a number of nights and use the car to get around. The combination worked well and we shared driving the two vehicles between us.
Upon collecting the vehicle in San Jose, our first stop was the local Walmart where we bought cheap duvets, pillows, some pots and pans and a pile of food. During our planning we discovered it was cheaper to buy the bedding and kitchenware than hire it from Cruise America and, while we were at it, we loaded up with charcoal for the BBQ and enough food and American craft beers to last us a few days.
San Jose to Lake Tahoe
Our first port of call was Lake Tahoe. The drive from San Jose gave us a chance to acclimatise to wide American roads and make sure the air-con was in good working order.
The temperature was alarmingly hot to begin with but thankfully cooled off slightly as we dropped into the Lake Tahoe basin, which sits at an elevation of over 6000ft.
Lake Tahoe straddles the California/Nevada border and since the Nevada side is wholly dominated by large gambling casinos – not really for us – we elected to camp for a few nights on the Californian side of the border, in South Lake Tahoe. Hiking, biking and swimming in the lake were our prime objectives. Fire rings on every pitch in the massive campground meant we cooked outside on an open fire most of the time, and the girls were introduced to the American delight of 's'mores,’ melted marshmallow on a stick.
We stayed at Lake Tahoe for four nights, delighting in the natural forests and off-road bike tracks that ran along the shoreline, while Charlotte and Grace went in search
of raccoons and Californian brown bears each evening. These beasts maraud the campgrounds every night in search of food and, on our very first evening, we came across a raccoon stealing rubbish from one of the bins!
We loved Tahoe but it was incredibly busy so we weren’t too sad to leave it behind, climb over the mountains and head south to the Owens Valley with two destinations in pilgrimage, a nod of appreciation to someone I had greatly admired.
I quickly found the Mountain Light Gallery, a grand building in Bishop’s main thoroughfare, and was very much looking forward to browsing the photographs, losing myself in the exquisite colour and drama of Galen’s work, but it wasn’t to be. I was disappointed to discover the gallery had closed down earlier in the year.
The building, which is still owned by Galen’s son, is empty – a shell with ‘For Rent’ notices in the window. There was an air of pathos about it, a mere emblem of past glories. By some fluke of fortune I met a man who had been the Rowell’s next-door neighbour in Bishop and he told me Galen’s son just couldn’t make the gallery pay. It would appear the work of Galen Rowell has dropped from the public radar – another forgotten hero.
My disappointment was tempered by the fact we were now heading to Yosemite Valley, something of a paradise for outdoor folk, via a high-level traverse of the Tioga Pass.
The Tioga Pass - California's highest road
This is the highest road in California and connects the Owens Valley in the east with the city of Fresno in the west.
The high point of the road tops out at 9943ft before dropping quickly towards the Yosemite Valley. The park that keeps on giving
We had booked into the Lower Pines campground, not far from the starting point of the John Muir Trail at Happy Isles, and it wasn’t long before nostalgia took a grip on us and saw us hiking uphill on the opening section of the JMT, along what is colloquially known as the Mist Trail.
Water vapour from the Nevada and Vernal Falls creates a damp fog, not unpleasant in the heat of the day, as you climb upwards out of Yosemite Valley on the stony track towards Little Yosemite.
Into Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park is one of the most popular natural attractions in the US. Its massive crags like Half Dome and El Capitan frown down on the forested valley floor and apparently about four million people visit the park annually. However, the vast majority of these people spend all their time in the six square miles of Yosemite Valley. Perhaps the 4,000-foot climb to get out of the valley and into the Yosemite backcountry puts people off.
On the Mist Trail most visitors only hike as far as the spectacular Vernal Falls before returning to the Valley, which is a pity in some ways because, beyond Vernal Falls, the feeling of wilderness is overwhelming – a glorious sequence of mountain, lake, waterfalls and flower-rich meadows.
Constantly I had to be reminded that this was a family holiday and not a personal hiking trip, but I did manage to escape for a few walks, revelling in the natural beauty and solitude once I had distanced myself from the valley crowds below.
On one memorable early morning wander in a side valley called Snow Creek I had stopped to check my map when I caught a glimpse of movement out the corner of my eye. Less than 20 metres away I saw the golden brown rump of a bear vanish into the trees, only to reappear a few minutes later. He was as curious of me as I was of him.
We played peek-a-boo for a few minutes – I was desperate to get a photo, and he was very wary of me before giving a loud snort of derision and hightailing it back into the woods! I knew I wasn’t in any real danger – it’s extremely rare for a Californian brown bear to attack a human, and I’d had plenty of experience of brown bears from other trips to the Sierras, but nevertheless I completed my hike back to the Valley on a considerably higher emotional plane.
Natural encounters like that have a mystical ability to refresh and inspire you. We are so removed nowadays from the sights and sounds of the natural world that any close encounter with a truly wild animal, particularly a large mammal like a bear, can make us aware of the simple magic of the moment, an instinctive recognition of the existence of order and harmony, and that can be exciting and curiously comforting.
And I needed that reassurance for the remainder of our holiday. I had made a deal with my two granddaughters – if they did a little bit of backcountry hiking with me then I’d spend some time in the shopping malls of Cupertino and San Jose with them before we flew home!
They’d kept their side of the bargain, it was now up to me to gird my loins, grit my teeth, clutch my wallet and head for the Californian boutiques and parlours of the shopping malls.
Camerson stayed at:
1900 Jameson, Beach Road, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150
Brown's Town Campground
219 Wye Road, Bishop, CA 93514
Lower Pines Campground
9000 Southside Drive, Yosemite Valley, CA 95389
This article was originally published in the July 2019 issue of Campervan magazine. Click here to buy a digital version of that issue, and browse back issues.