When Lyndsay and I first talked about travelling through North America two things we both agreed were must-sees were Yosemite and Yellowstone National parks.
I was lucky enough to have already visited Yellowstone fourteen years earlier. The memories I had from that trip fuelled our excitement for these huge parks. Moose and Bison herds roaming over the prairies that skirted the rivers, huge snow-capped mountains, and a wild backcountry home to mountain lions and bears.
After the amazing generosity of our good friends Mark and Lucy for putting us up for almost 2 weeks in their lovely flat in LA, we hit the road again. Setting our sights first on Yosemite National Park.
When we had first researched the park back in April it was with the idea that we would head there before going to Los Angeles, but after a quick weather check, we soon realised that was off the cards. The temperature in April for Yosemite was regularly hitting freezing, and with our distinctly warm-weather-only tent that had mesh for sides, we realised were not equipped for such cold weather camping.
Crossing from the hot, Californian drought-stricken flat lands to the Alpine mountains on the approach to Yosemite was a refreshing change of scenery. The views were stunning as we slowly climbed and weaved our way through the forested valleys and slopes until we hit the park itself.
Neither of us really knew what to expect from Yosemite. Embarrassingly, our only real reference point was the stock Apple desktop background of a huge granite mountain face that came with the software update of the same name.
Driving into the Yosemite valley surpassed all expectation that Lyndsay and I had. After passing through a tunnel, suddenly El Capitan stood before us. A granite face of godly proportions and beyond, the equally impressive Half Dome mountain. All along the valley granite walls with waterfalls pouring over them hemmed in the meltwater of Merced River which wound its way down the Yosemite valley.
We spent two days camping and exploring Yosemite but could have easily spent a week. Hiking up to the Vernal falls was a highlight, particularly the refreshing soaking we got on the way up from the waterfall spray. Another highlight was trying to pick out climbers scaling the massive El Capitan – the El Dorado for any climber.
Yosemite was the first place on our journey that we encountered a bear. The black bear in question was eating some tasty grubs in grassland by the side of the road as we drove past. Speaking to a ranger who appeared, she informed us that they had a ‘bear jam’, not a special condiment to encourage the bears, but instead a bear-induced traffic jam.
After two amazing days, we set off from Yosemite towards the next stop, Yellowstone, a two-day drive. We set our sat nav and headed off. Little did we know that the route the sat nav was taking us would almost kill our poor little 1997 Honda CRV.
We had grown quite fond of our little car. So much so that we had decided to name it. After much discussion, Lyndsay and I could not agree on a name. Lyndsay naturally wanted to call it Inca, whereas I thought J’Bradley would be more appropriate due to our cars ghetto roots, the mean streets of Orlando. In the end, we had agreed to disagree and called it Inca J’Bradley.
Inca J’Bradley had been a brilliant car, only needing a few hundred dollars spent on it, but this was to be its toughest test so far. The sat nav was taking us over a mountain pass that went directly over the mountains behind Yosemite. Being late May, most of the snow up the pass had melted, allowing the road to open for the summer. The drive up to the pass has to be one of the most incredible drives I’ve ever done.
When we entered the U.S. there were a number of classic road trip drives we wanted to tick off, but this wasn’t even mentioned. I cannot fathom why, as this one trumped them all. Weaving and undulating past wildflower meadows, pasture lands, alpine forests, glacial lakes, around hairpin bends and along valley floors we slowly climbed up and up. The signs by the side of the road indicated altitude and after going past six thousand feet, then seven, then eight, then nine, then ten, we were HIGHER THAN AN PEAK IN EUROPE????????. At almost 11,000 feet, with snow at the side of the road still up to 10 feet deep in places, we finally reached the top. It would be the way down that would test our poor car.
In the space of 25 minutes, we dropped 6,000 feet. Hairpin after hairpin came as our breaks got hotter and hotter. The steeper it got the more the car protested until the breaks finally failed, just before a hairpin bend with a big drop on the other side. Pulling the hand break as hard as I could we managed to stop just before the turn and pulled in to give poor Inca J’Bradley’s breaks a chance to cool. 20 minutes and a significant amount of break smoke later, we tentatively set off again and made it down the rest of the way without another major incident.
Like our drive from Chicago to Colorado, the drive from Yosemite to Yellowstone once again highlighted the vastness of this country. After descending from the mountains we drove across the desert for periods of several hours without seeing a thing.
Pulling into a convenience store that was the only sign of life for hundreds of miles, we got chatting to an old timer who had half a beard. I wish I had asked to take his photo as his commitment to this look was impressive. He had a full-on white beard and moustache on the left-hand side of his face and was completely clean-shaven on the right side. Strong look. We talked about our journey and our final destination of Anchorage, Alaska, and he told us he used to work in Barrow, the most northerly town in Alaska and spent winters working in mining, where it often was so cold that his pee would freeze before it hit the ground. He told us that we were crazy for attempting the Yukon road to Alaska in “that tiny thing”, referring to our Honda CRV. Back home in the UK, a Honda CRV would be considered a big car but here it was clearly not so large. Suitably scared that we were attempting the road to Alaska, dubbed as ‘a car killer’, we headed back on the road towards Yellowstone.
Yellowstone is one of the most unique places in the world. A huge super volcano that sits under the park has slowly been slowly pushing the land upwards over hundreds of thousands of years meaning that the entire park is perched far above the surrounding lands. This, coupled with the fact that the park is surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Rockies on three sides means that the ecosystem is completely unique.
Yellowstone was the first ever national park when it gained park status in 1872 and this has meant that human impact on the ecosystem has been carefully managed and limited, resulting in a place where you can see nature as it once was. Vast Bison and Elk herds roam the valleys, bears hunt and rummage for food, packs of wolves occupy the back-country. It truly is an incredible place.
Yellowstone is a major tourist attraction so as you would expect the number of people that visit means that it can get quite crowded around the main attractions like the geysers. The park has the highest concentration of geysers in the world and the crowning glory is the world renowned ‘Old Faithful’ that spits boring water 184 feet in the air with almost clockwork predictability every 35 minutes.
All around Yellowstone are geysers, some are small bubbling muddy holes, some are gaseous sulphur spewing vents, and some are huge peaceful pools with algae that form as beautiful coloured rings in the cooling waters at the pool’s sides
After two days exploring Yellowstone our time was up and we had to press on, North West towards the Coast and Seattle. We had been really taken with these two amazing parks and had loved exploring this different, natural side of America.
What had become clear to us is that, although in our opinions there are many things that are wrong with the United States, one of the things the country has got massively right is their national parks system. They have done their country a huge favour and set a great example to the rest of the world by being the first to create national parks, to appreciate wild places simply for being wild, and striving to keep them that way.