As we crested the hill on Route 138 through Central Oregon, the torrential rain storm quickly turned into to a blizzard. The decision to bring the front wheel drive Mazda with no chains instead of the Subaru was starting to look like a really bad decision. We were still 20 miles from Crater Lake National Park, the days destination, but it increasingly felt like we weren’t going to make it. After some frantic decisions we turned around, unable to make it to the first of four National Parks we had intended to hit on our west coast road trip. Foiled. We’d spent the two previous nights in Bend drinking extra strong IPA’s, visiting the local greeneries, and stuffing our faces with great food. While planned for months, the trip ended up being poorly timed. Just as the remnants of a typhoon in Japan drifted to the U.S. West Coast we had packed up the car and left Utah for our road trip, bound for Oregon and Washington. Our entire time in Bend was spent hiding from the rain; the clouds never lifted enough to see the sky. We knew leaving Bend it would be snowing the in the mountains, it was just unfortunate to be snowing that hard, for that long. First re-route of the trip.
The weather showed no sign of letting up, at least not for a few days, so we headed to the Oregon Coast instead of waiting it out near Crater Lake. The trip had been planned on a budget, so the idea was that we’d camp in National Forests, backcountry National Park campsites, and a few days in a hotel. But the majority of our time would be spent in a tent living the primitive life. We waited out the rain in a small coastal Oregon town, playing on the rocks that stretch along the shoreline, and exploring the beach. When the weather finally cleared, we began the route 101 trek to Redwood National Park.
The drive down the Oregon and Northern California coast is nothing short of mesmerizing. Blue-grey water laps onto the gorgeous sand beaches that melt into the lush fauna and flora that line the massive black rock shorelines. Huge boulders protrude up from not just the beaches, but also from 50-100 yards into the vast ocean. Mountains, rainforest, sand, and ocean, all in one beautiful package. At first we decided to stop at each pull-off or picturesque viewpoint, but we quickly realized that it would extend our trip by 7 hours easily.
Our arrival to California’s Six Rivers National Forest was dampened by constant storms, but after a bit of searching, we found a dispersed site tucked away beneath huge pines and a few broad leaf trees in the height of their fall colors. The overly saturated forests exploded with color and life, making all the mud and rain worth it. While I didn’t spend more than a night in this breathtaking national forest, I’d recommend swinging through – it truly is amazing.
We finally reached our first National Park, Redwoods, just as the rainstorm began to pick up again. The rain only added to the spectacular beauty that is Redwoods National and State Parks. Walking through the forests you feel like you are walking through the Ewok village. The bright green of the canopy blocks the direct sun, leaving only small rays of light that break through the leaves and branches to spotlight the forest floor. Fallen red needles blanket the trail and surround floor creating a bright outline around the massive Redwood trunks. The tops of these massive trees are no where to be seen. You feel so small standing among such giants. The forest doesn’t even seem real.
One of the most amazing things about the Redwoods is their proximity to the coast. We reserved a back-country spot at Flint’s Ridge, a primitive camping area along the coast set up high on the ridge only a few hundred feet above the ocean. Days were spent walking among the giants. While the Sequoias are bigger trees as far as girth, the Redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, sometimes reaching heights of over 350 feet. The extreme height mixed with the overall color and fog of the forest creates a surreal landscape.
Leaving Redwoods National Park was hard, I wanted to stay indefinitely, but at least we were heading to Sequoia next, so I could still get my fix of massive trees. A stop in Fresno for some fish tacos perked our spirits and gave us energy for the drive. After pitching a tent in the national forest between Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon, we spent three days exploring groves of the largest some trees in the world; second only to the Tule Cyprus which is found in Mexico. The largest Sequoia, which is named General Sherman (Tioga-Sequoia brewing makes an awesome beer named after this tree), has a massive diameter of just over 30 feet. After you try to hug a Sequoia, your view on tree hugging will never be the same.\
Conveniently, Sequoia is just a bit south of Yosemite National Park, the next stop on our road trip. Staying with our tradition of finding back routes and avoiding highways, we found a side route that took us on steep and winding back roads through the California high desert. The arid treeless desert that lines the outer edges of the national parks seem like another world compared to the landscape within the park borders. It is amazing what elevation can do to a climate and a forest.
Finding a free campsite near Yosemite proved to be one of the biggest challenges of the trip. Yosemite is one of the most popular National Parks in the world, so while we did hit it during the “off-season” it was still bustling with people, and since it was almost winter, most of the campgrounds had closed for the season. But as usual, National Forests to the rescue!! After over an hour of aimless searching down forest service roads, we finally found what turned out to be one of the best camp spots we found on the trip. Located just outside the west entrance, we had access to both Yosemite Valley and Tioga Pass, the two most popular roads within the park. While dirty after multiple days of camping, we decided to go out on the town, which ended up being a small lodge hidden off of Evergreen road. Rustic, tucked away in the woods, and inexpensive beer- our kinda place! Three days of our trip were spent in Yosemite. There is a reason this park is one of the most popular in the country. Towering walls, unique geological anomalies, expansive forests, and an abundance of rivers create an awe inspiring landscape. With so many things to see, it is hard to fit this entire park into your schedule, even with three full days. We drove as much of the park as we could, all while listening to John Muir’s “The Yosemite” on audiobook. What a mind blowing experience it is to see his words come to life. We took several hikes, one ineach of the three main locations, Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, and Tioga Pass. Having taken our final hike in Yosemite Valley late in the afternoon, just before dusk, we managed to be the only remaining people on the trail. With no one else on the trail, we were lucky enough to witness a coyote, who didn’t notice us as he was slinking up the side of a river bed. He moved with such grace, moving as one with the stone, rock and water under his feet.
It was getting late into October and you could feel the weather changing as nature prepared for the winter ahead. Snow passed through on our first day, which closed Tioga pass; the pass the runs West to East across the north end of the park. The pass meanders and rolls through some of the most breathtaking mountains in the park, even hitting elevations of almost 10,000 ft. It closes completely during the winters, which usually start near the end of the month of October. We knew we were cutting it close with our timing, but we’d heard Tioga was amazing, and we had reservations to stay at Benton Hot Springs in Nevada, just a few hours from the East Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite, so it was imperative we made it across before it closed for snow permanently. As luck would have it we made it across the pass, even getting a full day of sunshine before the incoming storm hit the next day, closing the pass for the season.
Even after you leave the park, the views continue well into Nevada and beyond. We arrived a day early to Benton and were unable to get a place to stay, as it was a one horse town that included the hot springs. We ended up in Bishop, CA for a night where we checked out some local breweries, shops, and music before we ended the trip the next day in our own private hot spring pool campsite. If you happen to be near Benton Hot Springs, CA you should absolutely stop and soak. They have a B & B with hot springs, or, you can rent a private campsite that includes a hot spring pool, picnic table, and fire pit that overlook Boundary Peak, which at 13,147 feet is the highest point in the state of Nevada. The perfect ending to an amazing road trip.
We woke with the sun and headed out through torrential rains as we made our way back to our own little paradise, Ogden, UT. Road trips are an amazing way to experience the country we are lucky to live in. We are even luckier to have such an amazing National Park and National Forest system that preserves our natural wonders while letting us explore some of the most spectacular places in the world. Help keep our public lands public – call your representatives and let them know you want public lands! Save our Public Lands! Then, after you pronounce your love for our lands, take a National Park Road Trip and do some adventuring