2014 March – Northern California: San Francisco Area, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite


Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
This was a planned road trip for us…the total driving distance is 23 hours+ from San Antonio, TX to San Francisco area – but with multiple breaks, overnight stays, sightseeing on the way – it didn’t turn out to be quite as bad!

Day 1, 2 & 3 – Drive from San Antonio to San Ramon, Northern CA

Left San Antonio on a Friday afternoon and drove six hours to Fort Davis, TX to the famous McDonald’s Astronomical Observatory (45 minutes detour to the south of I-10). During the day they have a solar viewing tour and a twilight program (that we unfortunately missed) … we managed to reach just in time to participate in the evening “Star Party”. We enjoyed hearing an informational presentation about the faraway galaxies, glowing stars, movement of planets and watching them all in the night sky, some through the naked eye and some through a number of telescopes that were set up all around there, with some very helpful guides explaining everything to us.

From there we drove to Las Cruces, New Mexico and stayed there for the night. Early next morning we drove via Phoenix to Pasadena, California, which is just a stone’s throw from Los Angeles. In as tempted as we were to swing by Hollywood and Venice Beach, we decided to give it a skip keeping in mind the hours of driving that we had done and that lay ahead…. Santa Clara, a comparatively short 6 hours drive from there was a pleasant drive along I-5. Along the way we saw several large cow slaughter houses that really stunk up the area …however, this was offset by blooming orchards and rolling vineyards that more than made up for it. It’s amazing how California changes scenery so dramatically as you go from the Southern desert part to the Northern greenery area.

Day 4 – San Francisco, CA

San Francisco is one of the more beautiful places in California, set on a hilly landscape, with the blue pacific waters on one side and an old world charm. Pier 39 & Fishermen’s Wharf are one of the major highlights there. Since public transport is so well managed there, we took the train (BART) from San Ramon where we were staying and got off at Embarcadero in San Francisco. From there both these places are quite walkable (or you could take a rickshaw) – we were additionally blessed with picture-perfect weather that day making our walk much easier. There are several stops along the way to Pier 39/Fishermen’s Wharf where you could just stop and enjoy the view of the (in)famous Alcatraz Prison, the cityline to one side, the glistening blue waters of the Pacific, the crab shop owners skillfully breaking the crabs and boiling them in water, the clam chowder soup in the sourdough bread – San Francisco, is after all the food capital of USA – more per person restaurants than anywhere else in the US. A short drive from there is the famous Crooked Street (along Lombard Street) – it was fun to drive down the street at 5 MPH with it’s snakelike turns and looking at the houses alongside wondering – what they do for parking?? But even more fun was getting up to the start of the street with the almost-90 degree steep roads (why do they put a stop sign at the top of the road??)After spending a few hours in the area, we headed to the Marine Highlands, just across from the Golden Gate Bridge. My vote was for Sausalito but I gave in to the idea of the Highlands views and did not regret it for a second. The view of the city, the Alcatraz island, the Golden Gate Bridge, the rugged coastline was indeed a feast for the eyes! Catching the sunset from there was just the icing on the cake. The breeze, the walk up and down the Bonita Lighthouse Point made the whole trip worth it. Oh, if we could only afford a house on the cliffs there!! Luckily, as we headed further North from there, we also got to drive through Sausalito, a picturesque town set by the ocean-side with multi-million dollar homes… too bad we did not have the time to take a stroll around there.

Day 5 – San Francisco to Lake Tahoe

We drove through Walnut Creek on our way to Lake Tahoe, just a little Northeast of San Francisco… cute little town with a very nice downtown.

The drive through Napa Valley, 1.5 hours East of Walnut Creek, was very interesting; we saw many vineyards neighboring each other. Famous wines like Robert Mondavi and Sutter Home etc have their vineyards in that area, lining the whole way. These were small, nice vineyards….unfortunately we ended up there at the wrong time of the year (March-2014) so there were no green grapes/leaves and all the vines were dead. That did not stop us from getitng some great tasting wine there and trying various samples along the way. We chose the maginificent Castillo di Amoroso, a very beautiful vineyard, set in a castle as our vineyard stop. The adults in the party could taste wine and the children are given some awesome grape juice to sample. There is a self-guided tour available with just the first two floors (courtyard and the tasting room). Or you could get the more elaborate guided tour that includes all 7 Floors, takes you through the vineyards and even shows you some wine making.

After spending the whole afternoon there, we headed towards Lake Tahoe which is a 3 hours drive through Sacramento, the capital of California. Lake Tahoe is absolutely fabulous looking – no matter what time of the year! Even though the temperature was in the low 40’s, the scenery, the surroundings, the snow covered mountains, the glistening blue water of the lake make the whole experience awesome! After making a brief stop at our hotel/casino, right on the banks of Lake Tahoe, we drove to Zephyr Cove, a short 15 minutes drive from downtown set in the Southeast corner of Lake Tahoe. It was a small beach that had a mini dock in the middle of the lake…the water was absolutely blue and clear, surrounded by evergreen treesaround the perfect white sand beach. After spending an hour there, we headed to the Emerald Bay that was about 20 minutes away, set in the southwest part of the lake. Emerald Bay was the highlight of our trip!! It had a several panoramic views from wherever you wanted to stop and take pictures. The drive around the lake could be a bit treacherous especially in the evening hours after sunset, but we made the most of it and hung around there until we caught the very beautiful sunset there.

Day 6 – Lake Tahoe to Yosemite

The hotel/casino was set in downtown Lake Tahoe, so dinner, after-hours entertainment was not an issue at all. But on this trip we were more focused on the hikes and the nature! Next morning, after a good night’s rest, we set off for our first hike – back in the direction of Emerald Bay. The first one we did was the Eagle Falls, an easy 30 minute hike that takes you high up the a vantage point from where you can see a large portion of the lake nestled in the trees. Because this was spring time (off-season), we ran into hardly anyone along the way. That also meant that all restrooms and water fountains along the paved paths were all closed. Further northwest from there, another 10 minute drive is the always gorgeous Emerald Bay again – last night we had checked it out in the evening sun, this time we did so in the morning sun and it turned out to be even more beautiful! We drove down another 5 minutes from there and then parked at Sugar Pine State Park, where we could take a 5 minute hike down the hill to the lake level itself. The waves there were gorgeous with the snow covered trees and mountains in the background. Even though it was near freezing, we managed to stay there for an hour relaxing .. but we did not dare to get into the water. The last hike in the area was the Fallen Leaf Lake that turned out to be the best of the lot. It’s a smaller lake set off to the side and lays on the road between downtown Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay area. Took us only 20 minutes to walk to the lake after making a slight detour but it was absolutely worth every step that we took along the way! Highly recommended.

After having lunch there, we set off for Yosemite – which is an easy 4 hr. drive from Tahoe. The last 2 hours were on very pretty windy roads – unfortunately some part of that took us through the burned part of the forest, the devastating fire of 2013-14. We entered through the West Entrance Cabin in Yosemite after passing through Mariposa, which is the closest from Lake Tahoe/San Francisco. The East entrance and bulk of the Tioga pass is closed from September to May until all the snow is cleared. As we headed to our cabin (because this was a last minute trip, we could not find a cabin/hotel in Yosemite valley) in West Yosemite, about 15 miles from the Valley, we stopped at one of the most famous vantage points in Yosemite – the Tunnel View Point. From here, especially during sunset, the views of the most prominent points of Yosemite El Capitan, Half-Dome, Bridal Veil Falls and Cloudrest Mountain are absolutely spectacular!! But the best of the lot was the cabin we rented in West Yosemite – part of the Scenic Wonders group. Our was one of the many cabins set amongst the majestic pine trees, with it’s own kitchen, fireplace, game room and every little thing taken care of by the cabin staff. Absolute icing on the cake!! This is where we settled down for the night after a hectic but adventurous day.

Day 7 – Yosemite Valley

There are several hikes in Yosemite Valley (where most of the action is) – these are rated from easy to moderate to strenuous. For our first full day in Yosemite, we chose an easy and a beautiful hike to Bridal Veil Falls – this was just before the entrance to the main valley. In summers these falls get pretty full of water but since we were there for Spring, there wasn’t much water in the falls yet. It was fun taking a slight detour from the paved pathway, and jumping on large rocks along the creek while taking in the panoramic scenery. The hike was an easy 15 minutes but we may have taken twice the time because of various photo stops we made along the way. Once we reached up by the waterfall, it was very peaceful sitting on the rocks watching the waterfall shimmer down the magnificently large rocks.

Drive from the Bridal Veil Falls area to the actual Valley is just about 10-15 minutes. There are 3-4 major hikes in the valley – we decided to start with the ones leading to the majestic Vernal Falls. The hike to the Lower falls was moderate and took us about an hour. Pets are NOT allowed on the trail – wish we had known in advance, we took our dog along and got yelled at by the Ranger. Once we got up the the base of the falls, it was a relief for the hike to end, but the scenery was nothing great – just a bridge going over the falls and the real falls further away. So we decided to then take the hike to Upper Vernal falls that was classified as strenuous…this was even more steep and exhausting for all of us. Unfortunately, the signage there wasn’t very helpful…there were not too many mile trackers that could inform the hikers about the distance covered/remaining. We had faced a similar problem at the start of the trek too as we were looking for the point from where the trek started. There were no restrooms on the way (closed for winter); do remember to bring lots and lots of water though. The walk was mostly set at an inclined paved road that later turned into granite steps, these are very treacherous (very narrow, steep, slippery, wet ) and very tiring. After the exhausting trek to the top of the waterfalls it was very rewarding because it exuberating and beautiful. Having the feeling of the falls dropping from a height of 600 ft as you tower above them was exhilarating. Just before the water cascades down, it forms a large pool at the top known as the Emerald Pool, where we indulged in a little more rock/creek jumping and lots of relaxing. The huge pieces of rocks were fun to lay upon for a nap and to breathe the fresh, cold, humid air of the over looming waterfall below us. At a distance we could see the magnificent Nevada Falls, supposed to be one of the more precious gifts of Yosemite. Since that was another 4 hrs hike from there so we decided to give it a pass. On our way down, we realized that although the walk up to the falls was very exhausting, the walk down was scarier as there were no railings and one wrong step could take you several feet down.

Day 9 & 10 – Drive from Yosemite Park to San Antonio via Tucson, AZ

On our way from Yosemite to Tucson (a 12 hour drive), we stopped at Mariposa Grove near the South Entrance of the park. This is the largest collection of Giant Sequoia trees in Yosemite – a grove of 500 trees as opposed to 20 in the west part of the park (Toulomne Grove) – absolutely magnificent site with the ancient trees reaching for the sky.

We continued our drive back, stayed the night in Tucson and then drove 12 more hours the next day to San Antonio. We were stopped at a Border crossing, by border patrol but other than that, this tail-end part of the trip was uneventful but strenuous.

Do’s and don’ts:

  1. Pets on some trails in Yosemite are not allowed because some areas are bear and or mountain lion habitats– be sure to check signs before you tag your pet along. We got a major yelling from the Park Ranger but luckily no ticket!
  2. Take plenty of water and snacks on hikes, especially if it is off-season. No water fountains or restrooms were available during that time!
  3. Yosemite park is spread out over 700,000 acres. Although there are some gas stations available in the Valley, that may have limited hours, its suggested to get gas before you enter Yosemite Park. Also please be cognizant of the fact that phone service is available only in some areas.
  4. If you decide to book cabins in Yosemite, book them well in advance – we compromised by staying in West Yosemite (which was as beautiful) but all the “action” is in the Valley – the cabins there, are booked months in advance.
  5. In San Francisco, make sure you catch the awesome sunset at Marin Headlands. Its – usually windy there so jackets are recommended.
Our 5 Favorite Spots:

  1. Lake Tahoe Hikes
  2. Yosemite Valley – hike to Vernal Falls (Intense though)
  3. San Francisco – Pier 39 Area
  4. Napa Valley
  5. McDonald’s Astronomical Observatory

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