As mentioned in my previous post, I went on a short road trip into the Sierra Nevada in early October. I needed to rest for a couple of days but instead of hanging out at the California coast where the weather was just mediocre at that time, I chose to drive to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park (although it was not on my original itinerary). Winter was approaching, and by the time I would have arrived by bike, mountain passes would probably be closed and night temperatures would definitely be below freezing. So, on October 1, I took my bike apart and loaded it into a small rental car. I checked the weather forecast and saw an amazing outlook with sun all day for a whole week. It was perfect to explore the High Sierra without breaking a sweat all day. 🙂

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I had a long way to drive before getting to my destination. My journey took me through the vast forests of the coastal mountains and then to the Central Valley of California. Along Highway 299 from Eureka to Redding, I passed through extensive cannabis-growing regions and some dodgy towns packed with what I can only describe as a certain species of hippie backpackers who are on the hunt for weed trimming jobs. I touched this topic in my previous post a bit already. Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with these seasonal jobs, but what struck me most was how filthy and dirty looking these people, men as well as women, are. I have been on the road for four months now, but there is always a chance to do your laundry at a coin laundromat or even at a small creek and to clean your body even if it is just a sponge bath with ice cold water. So I do not quite understand whether they are just so dead poor that they would rather save every single penny than spend it on laundry or they just do not care about their hygiene at all.

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Main Street in Weaverville, which was one of the more pleasant places on my way crossing the coastal mountains. 

The Central Valley is California’s single most productive agricultural region and one of the most productive in the world. It produces more than half of the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States. During my lunch break in Redding, I could feel that this region was about 10 deg C warmer than the coast. The vegetation (not much more than sagebrush) and humidity made it feel like a desert. To satisfy its agricultural needs, the Central Valley relies heavily on irrigation from both surface water divisions and groundwater pumping from wells. About one-sixth of the irrigated land in the U.S. is in this valley. That is quite a remarkable number. And as commonly known, California is hit by frequent droughts that cause long and severe environmental and economic risks.

I continued driving through Lassen Volcanic National Park where I caught a glimpse of Lassen Peak from the distance. It is the southernmost active volcano of the Cascade Range and one of the largest lava domes on Earth. After about 500 km and little daylight left, I finally decided to pitch my tent in Milford, a small desert town close to the Nevada border. It was freezing the next morning when I got up with the sunrise. I drove into Reno, and for the first time on my entire journey through North America, encountered large scale factories. For a second, I considered a detour to Tesla’s new “Gigafactory” (a massive battery factory) just outside of the city, but quickly decided not to. I was actually more interested in experiencing Lake Tahoe, which I had heard and read so much about.

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On Highway 44 with Lassen Peak (3,187 m) straight ahead.
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Amazing lake and meadow in Lassen Volcanic National Park just before sunset. 
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Morning light in Milford, CA with Nevada’s arid mountains in the background. 

Reno and neighboring Carson City, Nevada’s capital city, lie in the rain shadow of the mountains and hardly see any precipitation. When you drive up to Lake Tahoe, however, the landscape quickly transforms into a lush pine forest covering the foot of alpine mountains. Located at 1,897 m above sea level, Lake Tahoe is regarded as the largest alpine lake in North America. With a depth of 501 m, it is the second deepest lake in the U.S. after Crater Lake (593 m), which I also visited in Oregon a couple of months ago. Lake Tahoe is so clear that in some places objects can be seen vividly at 20 m below the surface. Unlike most bodies of water in North America, the lake’s water never reaches the ocean. Its only outlet drains into the Truckee River. That stream again flows into Pyramid Lake in Nevada, which has no outlet. Only one third of the water that leaves Lake Tahoe leaves via the Truckee, however; the rest evaporates from the lake’s vast surface.

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Amazing Lake Tahoe which is such a contrast compared to the desert less than 20 miles down the mountain.
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On a short walk along the shore of Lake Tahoe.

Eventually, I arrived in South Lake Tahoe, a resort town similar to Banff or Whistler in Canada. Despite my very limited exposure to this town, it seemed to be a bit less glamorous and more casual or down to earth. I was very lucky to catch some great views of the lake in the morning, because by the time I had my lunch, some serious weather was being brewed inside of the dark clouds above. I left town and drove down the mountain with the first snow storm on my trip. I was so lucky to be in my little Hyundai Accent which, after months on the saddle, felt like total luxury travel. To be honest, while driving on this trip, I often felt a bit guilty. I wondered whether I missed riding my bike or whether the way of travel in a motorized vehicle gave me that feeling. I remembered that I had the exact same thought in New Zealand while traveling in a campervan a few years ago. You easily cover five times as much distance in a day as you do on a bicycle, but it is hard to stop at some places and you can’t enjoy the moments as intensively. Things just fly by too quickly.

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Snow storm above the Sierra Nevada seen from the east, i.e. the rain shadow side of the mountains. 

I stayed in Lee Vining over night, and planned to cross Tioga Pass and enter Yosemite National Park in the morning. When I woke up, the dew on my tent was frozen. Winter was definitely knocking on the door. It was still a 100 km drive into the heart of Yosemite Valley. It took me a while to recognize the real beauty of this National Park due to the narrow mountain roads and the unexpected amount of traffic. I learned that Yosemite has only two seasons. Busy and totally packed. Campgrounds were booked months in advance but I was lucky to get a spot for all three nights putting myself on the waitlist each day. Unexpectedly, Yosemite was still crowded at this time of the year. I don’t even want to know what it feels like during school holidays.

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Entering Yosemite National Park at Tioga Pass (3,031 m)
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Alpine road along a granite ridge near Tioga Pass.

Besides visiting the famous vista points to admire the beauty of El Capitan and Half Dome, I wanted to hit some nice hiking trails. I started with some easy yet impressive valley walks through golden fall-coloured forests and finally did a more serious trek along Panorama Trail up to Glacier Point and back down again via the so-called 4-Mile-Hike. The latter took me all day and really challenged my legs as much or even more than a serious day of bike riding. As a result, the soreness in my legs remained with me for another two days.

Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite’s views of its granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, giant sequoia groves, lakes, mountains, and glaciers were amazing. I have never seen anything similar before. It is definitely a unique place. And I am glad that I added this little road trip to my main biking itinerary.

On my last 1.5 days, I drove back to Eureka where I returned the car and continued my bike ride heading south the Californian Coast (see previous post).

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Famous “Tunnel View” into the heart of Yosemite Valley. El Capitan on the left and Half Dome at the horizon. 
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Iconic “Half Dome” with its granite crest rising more than 1,444 m above the valley floor. 
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View from Glacier Point straight down into Yosemite Valley which lies almost 1,000 m below. 
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A happy hiker about the rewarding views after a 6 hour hike up to Glacier Point. 
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This rattlesnake was caught by surprise.
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Looking up at Half Dome from the valley floor near Mirror Lake. 
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Glacier Rocks of massive sizes along the trails in Yosemite Valley.