As Hannah (February 2018) and Dan (December 2017) approach our 70th birthdays, we each came up with an idea how we wanted to celebrate 70 Big Ones!
Hannah’s idea will be reported in the spring of 2018, but I wanted to go to California during the off-season to visit five national parks and play pickleball along the way. Three of the national parks (Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite) we had never been to and two (Lassen Volcanic and Redwood) we visited in the mid-1990s when our kids were young.
Crowds and traffic, traffic and crowds. In the past when we traveled to California, we’ve avoided Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite because of either the crowds and traffic or the cold (i.e. winter). September seemed like an ideal month for this adventure; kids are back in school and the weather is still warm in California. We hadn’t realized that Europeans and Asians love to come to the parks in September and October.
To prepare for the trail, I would daily check each park’s website to see if there were any road closures, most likely due to the wildfires in the West. As it turns out, where we had motel reservations in Oakhurst, CA, at the southern gateway to Yosemite, route 41 to the park closed. Fortunately, a week before we were to arrive, that highway reopened.
Living in Maine, we fly non-stop from Boston to San Francisco for this central and northern California road trip. Our 725A ET Virgin America flight has us arriving in San Francisco at 1030A PT; that’s early enough for us to drive the 250 miles to Three Rivers, CA, the gateway to Sequoia National Park.
Get this! All that Virgin America offers for no charge are a round of soft drinks, coffee, or water; no pretzels, cookies, or chips. They do sell prepackaged meals that you order and pay for online. Wise to their games, we pack sandwiches and fruit for the trip. Whining aside, I still would choose their low $367 non-stop, roundtrip ticket over any snacks.
Flying against the prevailing westerlies across the United States from East to West takes six hours! We have a plan to survive that, too. One, we always get aisle seats across from each other so we can get up whenever we want. Two, we bring our iPhone earbuds, since Virgin America offers free movies, free cable TV, classic shows, even podcasts. Today, we hit gold with three 45-minute episodes of Pitch, the fictional story of the first female baseball player in the major leagues. Damn, it’s good!
Once at SFO, we search out our Enterprise rental car. For $440 for two weeks, we opt for the manager’s special, which means they can give us any vehicle they have, from a truck to an SUV to an economy car. Frugalistas that we are, we always choose the high gas mileage economy or compact cars; but if we end up with an SUV today, so be it. It turns out, we get the choice of a Toyota Corolla or a Hyundai Accent, both with excellent mpg ratings. Unfortunately, we blow it. I’ll explain below under Do’s and Don’ts’s.
Driving southeast from San Francisco through Modesto, Madera, and Fresno, we are stunned by the dry, straw-colored hillsides that are parched despite the drought-busting rains and snow of the previous winter.
Arriving at the gateway to the Sequoia National Park, we learn that the little town of Three Rivers is mom and pop small. There’s a market, one third of which is for beer and wine, a Pizza Factory, and a Subway; one chain hotel, Comfort Inn and Suites, where we stay. Not much more. But what the hey, we just need a king bed, a morning breakfast, and a poolside to sit by with a beverage, since 80s are forecasted this mid-September Saturday.
Ready to rock and roll among the giant Sequoias of the high Sierras manana, I have a few Do’s and one Don’t for travel preparations.
Do speak up with your spouse when deciding on a rental car. We didn’t and ended up with a Hyundai Accent, good on gas mileage, but with no cruise control. That’s not ideal for the 1700 miles of driving that we have ahead of us on our road trip.
Do check daily online the travel conditions within the national parks; wild fires and road closures happen suddenly.
Do get a nonstop flight, whenever possible.
Do get aisle seats across from each other so you can stretch your legs into the aisle as well as to allow yourself easy access to walk up and down the aisle itself.
Do stay at a motel that provides breakfast so as to save time in order to get early starts, especially for the uber-populaire national parks like Sequoia and Yosemite.
Do check to see if your motel room has a refrigerator and microwave; we don’t go out for meals when we travel so a place for leftover pizza or subs is crucial. As you might have guessed, we had no fridge or microwave for three nights at Three Rivers.
Don’t over plan. It turned out we stayed an extra day in the Sequoias to hike a suggested waterfalls trail by a fellow hiker, skipped South Lake Tahoe, CA entirely for Reno, NV because of snow in the mountain passes, and stayed an extra day in Eureka because Santa Rosa (our next stop) temperatures were to be in the 90s.