My perception of California has been, up until now, pretty one sided. California in my mind was Hollywood, Santa Monica Beach, Napa Valley and the Golden-Gate Bridge; in other words; beautiful cities and beautiful people.
But, after being in the state for a few days, it became clear that The Golden State is one of the USA’s most diverse.
Within 24 hours, we were at the lowest point in the country, Death Valley (-282 ft), and trekking up through the 48 States’ highest point, Mount Whitney (14,505 ft). They are less than 50 miles away from each other.
Death Valley – it is easy to see how it earned its name. Just getting up and down the hills to arrive into the valley, our car almost overheated several times; we had to stop every few minutes on the intense climbs at extreme heats just to cool it off!
Once we were back on the flat, driving along with the windows down, the heat and wind combination was like someone blowing a hair-dryer into our faces. Chapped lips, dry eyes… we were drinking at least a litre of water per hour…
In our water-guzzling, sun-screen lathering state, I am always amazed at the resourcefulness of animals and plants that have adapted to survive in these incredibly harsh climates. But, in one of the most hostile environments on the planet, the landscapes are parched and bare, and the few creatures that do manage to survive here are quiet and still beneath the scorching sun.
The next morning, we woke in the foothills of Mount Whitney, in the southern Sierra-Nevada, where waterfalls gush from rocky crags, dense, lush vegetation fills every inch of fertile ground, bears, big cats, deer and myriads of birds all live and thrive. What an amazing contrast!
It became clear pretty quickly that we were not prepared to summit the mountain, and so we took a fantastic hike up to one of the mountain’s many lakes.
Following the mountains north, we found ourselves in the Sequoia Forest with the most majestic trees I have ever seen. It is interesting that scientists are still only just figuring out the life cycle and optimal living conditions for these trees: they actually never die naturally! They are sometimes toppled in storms, but most often forest fires weaken and eventually eat away at the trunks until they die.
So in an attempt to protect them, the park stopped all fires; both natural and man-made. But soon, they saw a decline in the number of young trees. Eventually, they realised that small forest fires are the only way the seedpods will dry and be opened, releasing their seeds… So the fires are back… but under the careful watch of Ranger Rick ☺
Yosemite National Park is breathtaking – literally, when you hike up the hill for hours :). We did one of the most challenging hikes we have attempted – the famous Half Dome.
Scaling an, at times, 80 degree wall after four hours of steep ascent, was one of the most exhilarating, exhausting moments on our trip so far.
And the views from the top were just beautiful!
But as we headed back West, down from the Sierra Nevada range, the effects of the drought that we had been hearing about became devastatingly clear. Empty cattle barns, fields parched gold, dried up lakes…
The only green fields that seemed to be worth the investment were, quite ironically, vineyards.
Now in its fourth year, this catastrophic drought is forcing farmers to either pay water usage fines or leave their fields unplanted. State agriculturalists are getting desperate, and even considering doing a mass move of California crops to Arkansas…
But one very clear way that we see California’s environment truly benefitting its residents is the countless wind farms across the state. Driving through turbine forests along the highway was quite something!
And, one more thing about California… the traffic… As we drove north, headed up into Portland, it took us five hours to get out of San Francisco onto the freeway… but the Golden Gate Bridge was worth it… just about!
Now that we only have seven states left to visit, we are starting to be able to pick our favourites. And, with its absolutely incredible diversity, beauty and amazing national parks, California is definitely high on the list.