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California’s stupefying mountains, deserts, and moonscapes

Secondary Categories: CaliforniaGuide

California isn’t just a melting pot of foods, cultures, and histories, it’s also blessed with the kind of natural diversity most continents cannot muster. From the alpine, granite mountain of Yosemite to the Martian otherworldliness of Death Valley and everything in between, this epic 1,000-mile road trip will surprise you at every turn.


Leaving magnificent San Francisco behind, you’ll cross the Central Valley before climbing the High Sierras and entering the natural wonderland that is Yosemite. After a few days swooning over the towering spires, graceful waterfalls, and idyllic meadows, you’ll slip through the looking glass and into an inhospitable world that’s vastly different from the rest of California.


The contrast between the wet, green wonderland of the Western Sierras and the barren and inhospitable rain shadow of the Eastern Sierras can be explained by California’s prevailing weather patterns. Moist air from the Pacific rises, cools, and condenses when it encounters the natural barrier of the Sierra Nevadas, showering the western slopes with rain. By the time these weather systems have crossed the Continental Divide, there’s no moisture left.


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, successive generations of pioneers braved the harsh conditions of the Eastern Sierras in order to reach the promised land of milk and honey to the West. For the 49ers, whose influx began in 1849, California promised gold, while for the Okies in the 1930s, it was all about the fertile farmlands of the Central Valley. This eight-day California adventure will channel this pioneering spirit and allow you to relive their journeys – albeit in considerable style and comfort.


Awe-inspiring rock formations at Yosemite National Park. 

Feast your senses in peerless Yosemite


No temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life. Some lean back in majestic repose; others absolutely sheer or nearly so for thousands of feet, advance beyond their companions in thoughtful attitudes, giving welcome to storms and calms alike, seemingly aware, yet heedless, of everything going on about them. Awful in stern, immovable majesty, how softly these rocks are adorned, and how fine and reassuring the company they keep: their feet among beautiful groves and meadows, their brows in the sky, a thousand flowers leaning confidingly against their feet, bathed in floods of water, floods of light, while the snow and waterfalls, the winds and avalanches and clouds shine and sing and wreathe about them as the years go by, and myriads of small winged creatures — birds, bees, butterflies — give glad animation and help to make all the air into music.

The Yosemite, John Muir, 1912


But no words can fully do the valley  justice – not even those of the man who, on a clandestine camping trip in 1903, convinced President Teddy Roosevelt to establish the network of National Parks which we know and love today. (Read about that fateful camping trip in this fascinating Smithsonian Magazine article). Yosemite, the dazzling jewel in California’s splendid natural crown, has to be experienced to be believed.


Together with your local expert guide, you’ll explore your fairytale surroundings on foot. Hiking Yosemite’s mountains, picnicking in her meadows, and – if you’re up for it – swimming in her creeks and streams. Be sure to bring a spare camera battery because you’ll want to preserve your visits to Tunnel View, Bridalveil Fall, and Mariposa Grove for posterity. Not to mention the unforgettable Glacier Point sunsets.


At the end of each splendid day in the park, you’ll retire to the comfort of a king size bed and a hard-earned shower. For those interested in strategically splurging on exclusivity and extra comfort, the historic Ahwahnee Hotel, an opulent haven which was built in 1927 and includes Art Deco, Native American, and Middle-Eastern design influences, awaits.


Tufa limestone towers break the surface of saline Mono Lake.

See the contrast for yourself at barren Mono Lake and picturesque June Lake


Mono Lake and June Lake may be only 20 miles apart from one another, but these high-altitude bodies of water couldn’t be more different. Mono Lake (6,383 ft above sea level) is surrounded by treeless ochre landscapes as far as the eye can see. Located in a basin which has no outlet to the sea, its saline waters support a vast population of shrimp which attract two million migratory water birds every year. The lake’s high alkalinity, meanwhile, is responsible for the gnarled tufa towers (tufa is a kind of limestone) which rise from the surface like gothic steeples.


Nearby June Lake (7,654 ft above sea level) is more conventional in its charms. Often referred to as ‘The Switzerland of California,’ this is a land of shimmering waters, stately pines and babbling brooks. Your lodge for the night (the Double Eagle Resort) is a special spot overlooked by 13,657-foot Carson Peak and located only a short cast from a glistening private pond that teems with trout. The lodge also boasts fantastic walking opportunities, a host of watercraft for your exclusive use, and a spa and fitness center.


Ponder the unconventional appearance of our planetary elders, the Bristlecone Pines.

Discover the survival secrets of the oldest living trees on the planet


After a spectacular two-hour drive down the Eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada range, you’ll come to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, home to the world’s oldest living trees. Unlike their giant Western cousins the sequoias, bristlecones are squat and gnarled. At first glance, the bristlecones might even be described as unremarkable – but you dismiss a 4,800-year-old plant at your peril.


A recent New Yorker article by Alex Ross explains just how incredible and important the bristlecones are. I’ll give you a decent taster of his beautiful piece, but I really urge you to read the whole thing.


About forty-five hundred years ago, not long after the completion of the Great Pyramid at Giza, a seed of Pinus longaeva, the Great Basin bristlecone pine, landed on a steep slope in what are now known as the White Mountains, in eastern California … A seedling appeared above ground—a stubby one-inch stem with a tuft of bright-green shoots … Bristlecones rise agonizingly slowly. After four or five years, the seedling on the steep slope would have been just a few inches higher…


“Once a bristlecone has established itself,” however, “it can last almost indefinitely.” The trees grow so far apart that fires are not much of a threat and their wood is too dense to fall prey to mountain pine beetles and other pests. Bristlecone’s longevity has caused them to have an indelible impact on how scientists understand the past:


Minute changes in the tree-ring record make bristlecones an exceptionally useful source of data about changing conditions on earth. When rains are heavier than normal, the rings widen. When volcanic eruptions cause global cooling, frost rings make the anomaly visible…


There’s something ineffable about being in the presence of trees which have helped to change how we understand the Bronze Age and, more recently, to confirm the impacts of global warming.


The magnificent Milky Way galaxy illuminated over Death Valley.

Experience the mind-boggling extremes of aptly-named Death Valley


It’s easy to be beguiled by the records. Death Valley in the Mojave Desert isn’t just the hottest place on the planet (the record of 134°F was set on July 10, 1913, at Furnace Creek, home to the park’s Visitors’ Center). It’s also the driest (located in the rain shadow of four successive mountain ranges, the Valley averages around two inches of annual precipitation and 1929, 1953, and 1989 saw no rain whatsoever) and the lowest (Badwater Basin is found at 282 feet below sea level) spot in North America.


Feel alive in surreal Death Valley National Park. 

But beguiling Death Valley is even more than the sum of these parts. The deep natural depression ringed on all sides by steep mountains features technicolor canyons, surreal rock formations, swooping sand dunes, and eerie ghost towns. In the capable hands of your expert guide, you’ll explore the area’s fascinating geology – learning more about the sliding boulders and lunar landscapes – and history, with trips to Leadfield ghost town (one of a dozen or so abandoned settlements in this godforsaken land) and, when it’s open again, Scotty’s Castle, the flamboyant winter home of Chicago millionaire Albert Mussey Johnson that is now a fascinating museum.


Despite the harsh conditions, you’ll have the option to stay in air-conditioned comfort (choose between the rambling 1927 Mission-style Inn at Death Valley and the family-friendly Ranch at Death Valley with its charismatic saloon). Wherever you choose to rest your head you’ll be guaranteed vast night skies and the opportunity to play 18 holes at the world’s lowest golf course (214 feet below sea level.)


After eight magnificent days on the road, you’ll arrive at Los Angeles having taken the mother of all scenic routes.


Channel your inner pioneer on this wild exploration of California’s remarkable mountains and deserts. Upsize the experience by adding a four-day Yosemite hike to the mix. Or go full-circle and return to San Francisco via the Pacific Coast Highway, America’s most fabled (and gorgeous) stretch of asphalt.


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