Thursday, 4 October 2012

Yosemite, Napa Valley and Mt Rainier: Big walls, expensive grapes and trash TV

Yosemite. Another one of the US National Park biggies.  And, like many of the 'desert parks', defined by rocks but not your wishy-washy-eroded-by-a-bit-of-wind-and-water rocks, but huge kilometre high granite walls carved out by the relentless force of glaciers.

We camped at one of the highest points, Tuolumne Meadows, a sea of meadows and forest amidst smooth domed islands of granites.  We hadn't worried about bears for days but were back on high alert: California's bears have figured out the rich pickings available in vehicles, 1000 are 'beargled' each year - just one paw inserted in the top of the door rips open the entire side to access the loot. On guard at the campground, we weren't expecting one to sprint in front of our car (he crossly safely but I have definitely lost all pretence that I could outrun one).

El Capitan
The nighttime freezing temperatures (we camped at over 3000m) were a welcome relief from the Death Valley heat.  In early morning, we tackled the main valley; its proximity to the major urban centres of California made it the busiest park we encountered.  But, as always, the 'car park effect' worked a treat and we hardly encountered anyone on our 14 mile hike to the back of Half Dome (you can guess the shape of that enormous lump of granite). Crowds do make for creature comforts though so pizza and shower followed.  On our drive home in the dark, we spotted the head torches of climbers settling down for the night mid way through their multi-day climb up some of the kilometre high walls (they sleep on portable ledges strapped to the face and poo in tubes, a bit too rustic even for us).  Next stop: wine country.

Their summer residence
Napa valley, near San Francisco, first started growing vines in the late 19th century. Prohibition pretty much killed the industry and it took until the 60's before they could produce decent wine again.  And it turned out to be very decent indeed, winning gold medals on the international stage at the 1976 Paris Wine tasting competition (snooty European judges needed blindfolds to get rid of their anti-Yank prejudices) and so launching California's wines onto the world stage.  

We camped in the heart of the valley with our American friends, Kathy and Tracy who we met kayaking in Greece. Mark sufficiently impressed various winery tasting room hosts with his vino knowledge to get us some tastes of the good stuff.  And the good stuff was very good but came with hefty price tags: making us realise how good local BC wine - similar quality for around half the price.  It was good to relax for a few days (although 5am starts are fun, they're rarely restful) and we finally perfected our s'More technique (non north americans: google it).

And so to the final weekend.  No bookings made, northern Oregon campgrounds were full so we had our first night in a proper motel complete with microwave dinner and trashy TV (turns out a reality show about constructing fish tanks is actually quite addictive).  Our Nat Geo map showed one more National Park on our way home, the mighty Mt Rainier, a dormant, but definitely not dead volcano.  Plenty of camp spaces, we got in one final hike, back on what felt like familiar ground: pine trees, alpine meadows and glaciers.  A final drive, three border crossings in four hours (to give back our hire car) and we arrived home.  Piles of stuff to unpack, no car, but some awesome photos and instant plans for the next trip.  Roll on ski season!

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