2011 TAHOE & YOSEMITE
By Gerard J. St. John
It was difficult to decide on an itinerary for the 5-day Lake Tahoe segment of our vacation. Tahoe sits astride the California-Nevada state line in the High Sierra Mountains. Typical of the suggested itineraries on the Internet was one that suggested lunch and cocktails on the dock, an afternoon cruise of the lake, followed by drinks at the lodge. The online suggestions were off-target. Keeping our options open, we allotted one day to travel from San Francisco, and 2-days each at two spots on the lake. After that, we would head south to Yosemite.
Our first location, a Best Western in Roseville, California, proved hard to find. The difficulty was the result of poor communication on the part of the reservations clerk, who told Cathy, “We are located right on Interstate 80 in Roseville.” As the TV commercials say, “not exactly.” However, with the help of a friendly motorist and a knowledgeable cab driver, we found the place. Following the recommendation of the motel clerk, we had dinner at a restaurant down the street called the Claim Jumper. It was a franchise place; sort of like a sports bar but with a Wild West motif. The food was good but the bartender had no clue as to how to make a bourbon Manhattan. That seems to be a common failing in the Wild West. No wonder the old-time cowboys ordered sarsaparilla.
Our second day, Tuesday, May 24, 2011 was a clear, sunny day with the temperature in the low 50s. As we ascended east on Interstate -80, the countryside gradually became less populated and more hilly. At one point, our gradual climb seemed to reach the top of the hill when suddenly we emerged on a level plain surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The sudden transition to the High Sierras was breathtaking. Snow was a new element. So too was the brown bear that scurried across the highway ahead of us.
We kept our eyes peeled for signs directing us to the Donner Pass. The Donners were a group of approximately 87 pioneers who set out by horse and wagon to settle on the west coast in 1846. It was a tough trip. A shortcut turned out to be less than short, and the group plodded along behind schedule. Meanwhile, the Sierra winter was running ahead of schedule. The Donner party was trapped by a heavy snowfall in November. It was not until February 1847 that rescuers were able to reach them. In the meanwhile, nearly half of the group died of exposure or starvation, and some of the survivors stayed alive by cannibalism, eating the remains of those who had died. The road signs were confusing, pointing to a state park rather than the Donner Memorial. However, the confusion was quickly resolved and we soon found ourselves at the Donner Memorial and its small museum.
Like the Donner Party, the memorial park and museum have experienced tough times. Budget cuts have affected all of California’s state parks. There were precious few rangers, guides or caretakers. Although there was a nominal admission fee, it was paid on what amounted to a voluntary basis because there were not enough park personnel to collect the fees. On the other hand, there was a good deal of construction work going on at the site. Apparently, some new structures will be replicas of the buildings that were on the site at the time of the Donners.
The museum includes a short video that gives a summary of the Donner Party’s experience. One of the leaders of the party was named Breen. I made a mental note to mention that to Father Bob Breen when we got back home. (He was already aware of that fact.) The video did a good job illustrating the suffering of the party as they endured four months in the Sierra winter, waiting and dying until a rescue party was able to reach them. I could not help but compare the Donners’ experience with that of the Shackleton expedition in the Antarctic when their ship was destroyed and they hunkered down in the ice and snow for about five months without any loss of life. One big difference between the two groups is that the Shackleton crew was comprised of professional sailors who presumably would be more attuned to survival than would be the pioneer families who were unfamiliar with survival techniques and the inhospitable terrain in which they found themselves.
The memorial sculpture is a large stone block, 23 feet high, upon which stand three bronze members of a family, their eyes searching the western skyline for signs of a rescue party. The top of the stone block marks the height of the snow during the winter of 1846. The memorial stands on the site of the Breen’s house. From Donner Memorial Park we drove to nearby Truckee for lunch.
We were told that Truckee is becoming a very popular ski resort. I can believe that. The main street has that “old west” flavor that seems to be cultivated by the ski crowd in places like Telluride, Vail and Aspen. However, we were there to eat lunch, not to ski. We chose a place near the far end of the street. It was called “Squeeze In.” It was a narrow but deep property with a rough, old-time décor. There were old wood beams on the ceiling; and the plaster on the walls was scraped away in many places, exposing the orange bricks behind. Apparently the management encourages the customers to write on the walls because the walls were covered with signatures and comments. I searched the graffiti for my Philadelphia favorites “Kool Earl” and “Cornbread;” but soon gave up. Not surprisingly, I could not find scrapple on the menu either, even though the Squeeze In appears to be primarily a breakfast place. We settled for bacon and cheese sandwiches. They were just fine.
At the Visitors Center across the street, the woman suggested that we go back to Donner Memorial State Park and travel to Lake Tahoe by Route 89. That would take us by Squaw Valley, the site of one of the Winter Olympics competitions. Although I have fond memories of that Olympic competition, we were not in California to see ski areas. We chose the more direct Route 267 which took us quickly to Kings Beach, about nine miles north of Tahoe City. It was a scenic drive.
This was our first look at Lake Tahoe. It is a very picturesque setting, a large blue lake with snow-capped mountains in the background. Except for the mountains, it looks like a lot of other lakes that we have visited over the years. However, the devil is in the details. Lake Tahoe is approximately 22 miles long and 12 miles wide. It has an average depth of nearly one thousand feet – the deepest point is 1,645 feet. And it is cold. Drowning victims are rarely recovered; their bodies go straight to the bottom and stay there. Interestingly, the only outlet for the water in Lake Tahoe is found at Tahoe City, the site of our first Lake Tahoe reservations. The small bridge across the Truckee River at Tahoe City is called, “the fanny bridge,” a reference to the part of the anatomy that is prominently visible when tourists lean over the railing to look at the fish in the water below.
The lake towns made it plain that Tahoe is a lake for all seasons. In the winter, there are world-class ski slopes in the immediate vicinity. We arrived at the end of May, well after the ski season. In summer Tahoe, the lake is crowded with bathers on the beaches and colorful boats in the water. We arrived well before the beachgoers and the colorful boats. The wind-swept beaches were empty. The berthing positions were dotted with markers showing where the summer boats will be berthed. It was a promise of things to come. In the meanwhile, visitors could enjoy the natural beauty of the lake and the mountains.
Our Tahoe City reservations were at the Granlibakken Resort and Conference Center. Actually, it is on the outskirts of Tahoe City, but easy to find. Granlibakken is a Norwegian word which means a hill with trees. That pretty well describes the 72-acre property. It is fully developed with separate complexes of from four to fourteen units each. The basic design is redwood cabins. Our rental unit was very spacious, particularly the closet space. It was late, and we decided to have a light dinner of snacks in our room.
The following day, Lake Tahoe gave us something that we had not expected as we approached Memorial Day weekend – snow. The morning started clear and cold, but quickly became cloudy.
We had breakfast at the Granlibakken’s buffet. The dining room was crowded with people from the computer industry who were attending a conference at the center. It appeared that there were also a dozen or so, like us, who had nothing to do with the conference. The buffet was first-class. The food was good; and the staff made sure that the serving bowls were well-stocked; and that the food was hot. During breakfast, we decided that our itinerary would start with a drive north along the lake on Route 28.
It was a scenic drive. Hardly had we passed Kings Beach, when we crossed the state line into Nevada. While driving through Incline Village, Nevada, we stopped at a visitor’s center. The two women who operated the center were exceedingly helpful. They pointed out many places of interest in the Village, including a jewelry store where Cathy bought a pendant. The people from the Visitors Center also suggested that we continue our drive around the entire lake (about a 4-hour drive). We took their advice. It was a picturesque drive that took us through some places that we would see in greater depth later in the week during our two-day stay in South Lake Tahoe, the site of our second Lake Tahoe reservations.
If you look at Lake Tahoe in the normal map position, South Lake Tahoe is at 6 O’clock and Tahoe City is at about 10 O’clock. At about 3 O’clock, Route 28 merged with U.S. Route 50 West as it continued down along the east side (the Nevada side) of Lake Tahoe. In the other direction, Route 50 East runs to Carson City and other points in Nevada. At about 5 O’clock, we passed Zephyr Cove where we would board the M.S. Dixie II on Friday for our cruise of the lake. As we reached the 7 O’clock position, the road narrowed and became one of those winding mountain roads that you associate with the High Sierras. High above Emerald Bay is an observation area that they call “Inspiration Point.” In every direction, the vista was scenic. That is where we were when the snow started. Fortunately, we were only about 20 miles south of the Granlibakken – all of it downhill.
With the snow falling, we drove right by the Sunnyside Restaurant where we planned to have dinner. It was hardly a night for dinner on the dock, or even a hot rum toddy, overlooking the lake. By the same token, we were not inclined to have our dinner at the conference center, even though we knew that their food was excellent. We decided on The River Grill, next to the fanny bridge where Lake Tahoe flows out to the Truckee River. By this time, there was about four inches of snow on the ground.
Apparently, the River Grill competes for business with other Tahoe City dining spots by hosting a “happy hour” every day of the week, coupled with discount meal prices during that hour. Maybe the snow was a good thing for us. We had no difficulty finding a parking spot close to the front door. Inside, we were directed to a table next to a window in the back of the room. That gave us an excellent view of the river and the grill’s patio deck, which was expected to be the main site of the Memorial Day festivities in just a day or two. The umbrellas were tightly closed and the tables and chairs were covered with four inches of snow. Irregardless, the burgers that we ordered were excellent. Equally important, by the end of the meal, the snow stopped falling and the sun was shining.
Thursday morning, the weather was partly sunny and generally clear. Our reservation at the Granlibakken included their buffet breakfast. That morning, the breakfast included huevos rancheros in addition to bacon, sausage and fresh fruit. Again, most of the people in the dining room appeared to be attending a corporate conference. We spotted two persons who seemed to be in our situation, and we invited them to join us at our table. Mary Nell and David were California people who knew a lot about the area. Their comments were very helpful. In particular, they told us about Bodie State Park, which was much like a ghost town located near Lee Vining, the eastern entrance to Yosemite. They thought that it was a very interesting place. Also, they told us that the Pacific Coast Highway was closed at Big Sur. That was a bummer. We had hoped to take the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco at the end of our trip.
After breakfast, we checked out of the Granlibakken and headed south, retracing our steps past Inspiration Point and through South Lake Tahoe. It was too early to check in to the Marriott’s Timber Lodge, so we made a quick decision to continue on into Nevada on Route 50 East. Being a fan of western heroes like Kit Carson, Carson City was an attractive destination. Nevertheless, we aimed for Virginias City, Nevada, an old mining town about 13 miles northeast of Carson. It was a good decision.
Virginia City is one of those old western towns – about five blocks long – built on a steep hillside. We were lucky to be ahead of the tourist season. There were parking spots available on the main street. Parking on the parallel streets would require a climb of about 45 feet to get back to the main area. Cathy quickly vetoed that. We found a parking spot on the main street. Cathy went ahead as I locked the car and checked out the stores in the immediate vicinity. When I looked up, I saw Cathy talking with a young man dressed in cowboy garb and holding a shotgun. He was part of an acting troupe that put on a shoot-out show in the center of town. It was the first day of the season for that show. We did not catch the show, but we did catch every jewelry store along the main street. We even saw the one where a portrait of a gambling house queen was encrusted with silver dollars. Another especially interesting aspect of the main street was that it was one of the early employment locations of a writer known as Mark Twain.
Typically, during our tours of interesting towns, we make it a point to visit Catholic Cathedrals and other significant Catholic Churches. The church of St Mary’s in the Mountains filled the bill in Virginia City. It is one block east (downhill) of the middle of town. The history of the church, as told by volunteers from the congregation, is fascinating. In the beginning, the church benefitted from the huge deposits of gold and silver in the mountain. John Mackey was a significant parishioner. He came to Virginia City as a miner; and eventually became a multimillionaire. Mackey’s heir, his son Cliff, disowned his daughter Ellen when she married a musician who was a Jew. In Mackey’s view, that was two strikes: (1) an itinerant music maker; and (2) a Jew. The son-in-law turned out to be better known than the Mackeys: Irving Berlin. There was also a story about a visit to the church by a granddaughter of General William Tecumseh Sherman. The granddaughter was paying her respects to the family heritage. General Sherman’s sister was one of the Sisters of Charity originally assigned to the church. More recently, a group of Cistercian monks was placed in charge of the church, and they nearly tore it apart, destroying its basic character. To raise funds for the restoration, the members of the church now sell bottles of wine under the “Mad Monk” label. We bought one.
On the way back to Lake Tahoe, we made it a point to fill our gas tank before leaving the state of Nevada. The price of gas in the Lake Tahoe area is much more expensive than it is at lower elevations.
Back in South Lake Tahoe, we checked in at the Marriott. We were told that there was a valet parking fee of $24 per day. There was no suitable alternative. Also, there were no laundry facilities in the room, but they were available on another floor. It worked out well but it would have been better had we known the rules from the start.
For dinner, we followed a recommendation from a guide book. We went to a place called Scusa Italian Restaurant. The results were mixed. Cathy and I both ordered eggplant parmesan. It was not quite what we expected. It consisted of two pieces of eggplant, sliced thin and cooked to a crisp in olive oil. Each piece was served with a different sauce. It was like eggplant fritters. I liked it; Cathy did not. On the other hand, we both liked the garlic toast that was covered with bruschetta, and melted mozzarella cheese.
Friday morning was cloudy and cold. We had breakfast in our room, and then Cathy went out to buy a winter jacket while I checked my e-mail in the lobby. We had reservations for an 11:30 a.m. cruise, leaving from the Zephyr Cove Resort Marina, about seven miles north of South Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side of the lake. What we saw when we arrived was an old green frame restaurant building, adjacent to a long dock extending out into the lake and a parking lot to the right. The “resort” aspect of the location was a group of cabins south of the restaurant that could not be seen from the road. The M.S. Dixie II was a three-level sightseeing ship with two enclosed levels and an open top deck. It was cold – and very windy – up top.
The “cruise” was a quick run due west across the lake to Emerald Bay, and a return trip along the same line to Zephyr Cove. We spent most of our time on the second enclosed level of the ship. Damned, it was cold and windy on the top deck! In the second level, it was a floating history lesson. About every ten minutes, the loudspeaker broadcast five-minute segments of information about the area over which we were passing. We learned: 1.) The dimensions of Lake Tahoe; 2.) The exploits of people like Col. John C. Fremont, Kit Carson and Tom Fitzpatrick; 3.) The effects of earthquakes and glaciers on the geology; 4.) The Viking settlers in Emerald Bay; and 5.) The unique trees such as the Ponderosa Pines and the Sequoias that were especially suited to the high altitudes and frigid climate of the Sierras. One interesting aspect of this last category was that the trees on the north shore had been stripped from the land for the needs of the mines and miners in Virginia City.
After the cruise, we went back to South Lake Tahoe looking for a place to have a late lunch. We ended up in a shopping center at a place called the Driftwood Café. It was late in the afternoon, and the lunchtime crowd had long since departed. Nevertheless, the manager was congenial and the chowder, quiche and sandwiches were just what we were looking for.
What is a trip to Lake Tahoe without visiting one of the casinos? We hopped in the car and drove one block north to the Nevada state line. There, we squandered at least eleven dollars in Harvey’s and Harrah’s Casinos. Apparently recognizing us as high rollers, a representative of the casino approached us and offered the payment of about $100 if we would go with them to the top of a nearby mountain and listen to the benefits of an investment in timeshare units in the area. It sounded like the Temptation in the Desert. We declined the opportunity.
Saturday morning was cloudy. The television said to expect snow. We had breakfast in our room and packed for the trip south. There was one thing on our illusionary itinerary that we had not done at South Lake Tahoe. Our daughter Monique told us that the “Heavenly Gondola” at Stateline was well worth the experience. The Marriott people graciously allowed us the extra time to ride the gondola before leaving the hotel’s parking area. The gondola’s entrance was adjacent to the hotel lobby. It was a fascinating ride that afforded an excellent view of Lake Tahoe from the top of the mountains. It was snowing lightly. Most of the local people were complaining about the snow. For them, winter skiing ended at about Easter. They were now ready for summer and were annoyed by the delay.
We too were annoyed, but for a different reason. A telephone check confirmed that the Tioga Pass into Yosemite was still blocked with snow and likely would not be open until July. In the meanwhile, we had reservations at Murphey’s Motel in Lee Vining, at the Tioga Road entrance to Yosemite. Maybe more important, I wanted to see the general area around the Marine Corps’ Mountain Warfare Center at Pickel Meadow and the Bridgeport Ranger Station where the remains of the carriage and wheels of Colonel Fremont’s cannon are on display. If the Tioga Pass stayed closed, we could always take Route 108 past Pickel Meadow and through Sonora Pass to get to the west side of Yosemite.
Route 50 West took us south to Monitor Pass and onto Route 395 South. Our route skirted Luther Pass, Carson Pass, Ebbetts Pass and Sonora Pass. About 18 miles beyond Route 108, we came to the town of Bridgeport. The Bridgeport Inn was a good place for lunch. Moreover, considering our uncertain itinerary, we would keep it in mind for breakfast if we had to retrace our steps the next day.
Hardly had we left the Bridgeport Inn, when I saw the Bridgeport Ranger Station on the left side of the road. I couldn’t wait to see Fremont’s cannon. Not so fast, Slick! It was Memorial Day Weekend, and the station was locked tight. I peered through the window in the front door and could barely make out the display case with parts of the wheels and pieces of the carriage hardware. It was as close as I was going to get to Fremont’s mountain howitzer. It was not the view that I wanted, but it will have to do.
About a dozen miles farther down Route 395, there were signs for Bodie State Park. We recalled the comments of Mary Nell and David at the Granlibakken, and we swung left for the 15-mile drive to Bodie. It was just as they had described it – an old windswept mining town, weathered and dried out in the desert sun. It was just a shell of the town that was once home to a population of about 10,000 people. Some of the buildings were made habitable for use by the park rangers. Most of the residents left when the gold ran out, and many of those who stayed later gave up the ghost when major fires destroyed the town in 1879 and again in 1932. The last to go hung on until 1964. The California State Parks agency says that Bodie is “in a state of arrested decay.”
After the visit to Bodie, Murphey’s Motel in Lee Vining looked like the Ritz. Actually, it was a very nice place with a very reasonable room rate. What we liked best was the electronic sign above the highway, declaring that Route 108 (to Sonora Pass) was open.
At the recommendation of the proprietor of Murphey’s, we drove back north on Route 395 to have dinner at the Historic Mono Inn, overlooking Mono Lake. Apparently, this was the first night for the renovated restaurant which had been closed for more than a year. There were some obvious signs of inexperience and confusion among the wait staff, but the setting was outstanding and the food was excellent.
The only negative that evening was when we returned to our motel and found that the electronic highway sign now said that Route 108 was closed. Sunday would be a passing game. We drove north to the Bridgeport Inn, hoping that the closure would change, but Sonora Pass remained closed. North we went, even though we really did not expect Ebbetts Pass to be open; it wasn’t. North to Carson Pass; that was closed too. Luther Pass and Monitor Pass were also closed. We were almost back to Lake Tahoe when we drove west on Route 50, and then south on Route 49 to Route 120 and Big Oak Flat. From there, it was a 29 mile drive to the Evergreen Lodge – and we were still not in Yosemite Park. We had reservations for four days at the Evergreen.
Although there is a good bit of information about Yosemite in travel books and on the Internet, our itinerary was developed mainly from the road patterns in the park. At my age, I stick to the roads. There are four main roads in Yosemite: 1) Tioga Road, which is the only road that runs clear across the park; 2) Hetch Hetchy Road, which is north of Tioga and runs only as far as the reservoir; 3) Yosemite Valley Road, which is just south of Tioga and runs west – east to the end of Yosemite Valley, about one-third of the way across the park; and 4) Wawona Road (Route 41), which runs north – south from the Valley Road to Mariposa Grove at the south exit. We planned to spend one day on each of these road systems, and then make additional reservations based on our experience to that point. Our first day on the Tioga Road had already been snowed out. That meant that we would not see the Tuolumne (“Two-ole-uhm-knee”) Meadows and some of the highest peaks in the park. We had two days for the Valley Road, and one day for Hetch Hetchy, before going south to Mariposa Grove.
Monday and Tuesday were the Yosemite Valley days. I think of them as “Look up! and Look down!” Our senior citizen lifetime admission permit (the name of the card changes from time to time) got us into the park each day without an admission fee. Once in the park, we decided to take advantage of the tours sponsored by the National Park Service. You can cover the same ground on your own, but the NPS tours give a wealth of information and besides, it is hard to drive and look at the same time. In Yosemite, it can be hard to be on hand and on time at the designated starting point if you do not allow for the time it takes to find a parking spot. I circled the designated starting point twice before getting lucky when a car pulled out of a space just as I was passing.
The valley tour ($23 per person) was conducted in an open-air tram with about 52 people. The tour guide noted that it was Memorial Day, and asked how many of the passengers were veterans. Only a few hands went up. Once the tram was in motion, there were as many twists and turns as in an ice skating exhibition. It was hard to keep track of the compass directions. However, we soon became familiar with the geological names that we would hear repeated for the rest of the week: El Capitan, Half Dome, Tunnel View, Cathedral Rock, and the rest. Before long, my neck was sore from looking up. After the end of the tour, we walked about four miles along the valley floor toward Mirror Lake. At about 6:00 O’clock, we took one of the free shuttle busses back to our parking spot and called it a day.
The Glacier Point tour ($35 per person) was conducted in a tour bus. There were about 45 persons, including some hikers who left us at Glacier Point and walked back to the valley. The bus ride was a gradual uphill drive. It was only the second day that the Glacier Point Road was open to traffic. The higher we went, the higher was the snow on the side of the road. Finally, we reached a point where we were at the same altitude as Half Dome. The bus pulled into a parking lot, and we were told that we would be here for another 90 minutes. Signs directed us about 40 yards uphill to observation points. The views are spectacular.
Glacier Point sits roughly 3,200 feet above a valley that was carved out of granite by glacial action. The result is majestic. John Muir, the spokesperson of the Sierra Club, likened it to cathedrals of nature that inspire one with the power of God. In most instances, what we observed was not reverence for the awesome power of the almighty, but arrogance and a disregard for what was plainly there. At Tunnel View, a young father lifted his four and five-year old children over a safety barrier and placed them on the edge of a dangerous cliff so that he could take a dramatic photograph. In the meanwhile, the rest of us challenged ourselves as to whether we had the right to intervene. We did not know at that time that one tourist had died at a nearby point two weeks earlier, and that four more visitors would die in the same general area in the next month. Happy Father’s Day!
Evergreen Lodge is a village of small wood cabins. Originally, it was a camp for the workers who built the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. In the early 1900s, the Sierra Club led the opposition to the construction of the dam. The conservationists argued that a wilderness preserve should be immune to transgressions by encroaching civilization. Proponents argued that drinking water was needed by residents of San Francisco who were rebuilding their community after the disastrous earthquake of 1906. Congress backed the people who needed the drinking water and, in 1914 construction began.
The cabins in the Evergreen Lodge vary in size. Ours was about the size of a typical motel unit. In the center of the complex, a large cabin houses a community room that has telephones and computers as well as a large fireplace. There is a small general store and a decent-size restaurant. The Evergreen Lodge has a policy of seeking out staff from low income parts of the country and educating them during their time at the lodge. One of the waitresses who served us was from Camden, New Jersey. This would be her last year at the lodge. She loved the experience.
On Wednesday, the month of June was ushered in by clouds, cold and intermittent rain. It was only a few miles to the Hetch Hetchy entrance to Yosemite. The entrance is not an inviting place. There are a few drab buildings, but none of them serves the public. It is about a 6-mile drive along a winding, narrow road to the O’Shaughnessy Dam and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. A pedestrian walkway stretches across the top of the dam. About eight placards along the way provide tourists with information about the dam and the reservoir. At the far end of the pedestrian walkway is a tunnel cut into the rock. The tunnel leads to hiking paths which spread out over the area. As we walked out along one of the paths, a group of a dozen high school age hikers, lugging their camping gear, came trudging the other way toward the parking lot.
The travel books often describe Hetch Hetchy as a smaller version of Yosemite Valley. It did not strike me that way. It is smaller; but it also lacks the dramatic heights and angular granite configurations of Yosemite.
By the time that we walked back to the car, it was raining and windy. Facing a trip to Mariposa Grove in the morning, we decided to drive back to Big Oak Flat and fill the tank with gasoline. There was one closer gas station but the price of gasoline was astronomical. We also stopped at Groveland and picked up some items at the food market. When we got back to the Evergreen, the rain had turned to snow and hail. What a way to start the month of June.
Thursday morning was sunny and cool. Traffic was light as we entered Yosemite and followed the signs for Route 41 South. Part of our route was the road that we took to Glacier Point on Tuesday. On the map, the drive looked pretty short. However, the steepness of the terrain, and the repeated, winding switchbacks extended the distance and made the drive mind-numbing. We took a short break at Wawona, and then continued south. It was about 1 O’clock when we reached Yosemite’s south gate. About one hundred yards before we reached the gate, we saw a sign said that Mariposa Grove was only two miles east. We had planned to visit Mariposa Grove on Friday; but here it was. Why not today? We turned away from the gate and drove the extra miles.
There was a small parking lot on the hillside at Mariposa Grove. We arrived at a good time. There were plenty of parking spaces available. Many of the visitors walked through the grove, while others took a tram ($50 for 2 seniors). We took the tram. The tour was accompanied by a recorded narrative that was broadcast through an audio unit with earphones.
The giant sequoias are especially suited to the high altitudes and low temperatures of the High Sierras. Many of the sequoias exceed 300 feet in height. Generally, they live about 2,000 years. The tour focused on approximately six unusual trees, including one that had a tunnel carved right through the center.
After about an hour and a half, we were back in the car and exiting through the south gate. Interestingly, that was where we got our only copy of the National Park Service’s brochure on Yosemite. Apparently, they ran short of brochures at the main gate.
Our next stop was the Tenaya Lodge located at a place with the picturesque name, Fish Camp. It was only about two miles but we almost missed it. It was a sparsely populated area. We were starting to turn around to retrace our steps by a few isolated buildings, when I saw the Tenaya sign at the top of the hill ahead. The Tenaya is a modern hotel, with a very large lobby, three restaurants and a deli. Like most modern hotels, it also has a workout room and an indoor pool. In the lobby area was a computer that could be used by guests to access the Internet.
We had dinner at the casual restaurant, Jackalopes. It was loud, crowded, and quick moving. We were in the mood for soup and sandwiches. Maybe it was nostalgia for Philadelphia, but I ordered a cheesesteak. It was okay, but it could not compete with the ones that Willy Murphy sells in his saloon back home.
On Friday morning, we got to try another of the Tenaya’s restaurants. The aptly-named Sierra was the location of the Tenaya’s breakfast buffet. We were seated next to a window, looking out over a small patio area. The food was pretty much the typical buffet selections. It was inevitable that we would compare it with the buffet at the Granlibakken in Tahoe City. We agreed that the Tenaya was second best.
Our main topic of conversation during breakfast was what our itinerary should be this morning. The weather was increasingly cloudy with rain expected. Our original plan had been to spend the morning in Mariposa Grove, but we had done that yesterday and you can only take so much of staring at big trees. Similarly, we had little appetite for a ride back up that switchback road to Yosemite Valley. A waitress overheard our conversation and suggested that we drive south to the town of Mariposa. We decided to give it a try.
Mariposa is located on Route 49, about 35 miles south and west of Fish Camp. We drove through to the north end of town before stopping at a visitors center. The first of the recommended stops was the historic museum on the other side of the highway. The museum contains a good bit of memorabilia of Colonel John C. Fremont. At one point, Fremont owned most of the land in central California. Unfortunately, the collection did not include Fremont’s cannon. On the other hand, there was a glass punchbowl that belonged to him.
From the museum, we went to the Mariposa courthouse. The court was closed but we were allowed to go up to the second floor courtroom. It is a small courtroom: about 8 rows of public seats, two small tables for the attorneys and a very small round table in between. Immediately behind the seat of one of the attorneys was an old iron stove. Now there is a court that knows how to turn on the heat. It is also a court conscious of security. The guard on duty was Bob Garrett, a former Marine, retired from his job with the police department of another California town. Semper fi, Bob!
At the south end of town was St. Joseph’s Church. It was a small, no-frills church that you might have found in Bodie during its hay-day. We walked through the town for more than an hour. At one store, Cathy found a silver neck chain to go with the pendant that she bought at Lake Tahoe. On our way back to Tenaya, we filled the gas tank at the town of Oakhurst.
That evening, we ate dinner in the Tenaya’s Sierra restaurant. Our entrees were broiled salmon and eggplant Napoleon. They were very good.
We checked out of the Tenaya on Saturday morning, June 4, 2011, after a buffet breakfast in the Sierra restaurant. The day was cloudy with rain. The rain continued for almost all of the 3-hour drive south to Paso Robles. By that time, we were out of the high mountains and into the rolling terrain of central California. We drove south on Route 41, and then west on Route 46 to its intersection with Highway 101. Our destination was the Adelaide Inn, the name of which reminded me of the Broadway show Guys & Dolls. In that show, Adelaide was the girlfriend of Nathan Detroit (think: Frank Sinatra). Unfortunately, we did not have a route number for the Adelaide, but only a street address – Ysabel Avenue – which told us nothing. We were worried that we might not be able to find Ysabel Avenue. When we reached the complex intersection of Route 46 and Highway 101, I concentrated on going straight ahead. I looked to my right, and there was a large sign that said, “Adelaide Inn.”
Apparently, the people who own the Adelaide also owned property in the next block, including what is now a Best Western Motel. Between the two motels, and adjacent to the Best Western, is a diner named “Margie’s.” Margie’s is the kind of place that has prices slightly higher than usual, but the portions of their food are enormous. In Philadelphia, the Famous Fourth Street Deli comes to mind. Margie’s chicken salad and hamburgers lived up to expectations.
We were also in time for the Saturday vigil Mass at Mission San Miguel the Archangel, about seven miles north of Paso Robles. The mission is a small, narrow church, reminiscent of the Mission at San Juan Capistrano, except that here, the lectern is on the right wall rather than the left. It was a contemplative Mass. Afterward, there was a short period of silent meditation. After the Mass, we drove around the mission area. It was a generally depressed area.
Back at Adelaide’s, we noted that the laundry machines were located outside the motel buildings. In the absence of heavy rain, that was not a drawback.
On Sunday morning, it was raining when we awoke. Margie’s Diner got us off to a well-fed start, and we drove east to Gary Eberle’s Winery on Route 46. Eberle played defensive tackle for Penn State’s 1964 football team. On the wall was a large picture of a slender athlete in a Penn State football uniform. He did not look like a defensive lineman. A few feet farther down the wall was a more recent photograph of Gary Eberle the businessman in a blue pinstripe suit. In that photo he had the bulk of a defensive lineman.
The quick tour of the winery was interesting. The gleaming chrome tanks where the wine is fermented had the appearance of a modern kitchen. From there, we went down into the temperature controlled caves where the wine is stored in wooden barrels. I was surprised to learn that the winery outsources its bottling operations. When the wine is ready to be bottled, a large truck pulls into the driveway. The truck has all of the bottling machinery. When the bottling process is completed, the truck drives away and the winery has full bottles ready for shipment. Our guide said that drive-in bottling operations are common in that part of California.
From the winery, we drove west on Route 46 to the sunny town of Cambria on the Pacific Coast Highway. The town was a distinct contrast to Philadelphia’s Cambria, the Cambria Boxing Club at Kensington and Somerset Streets; a place lovingly referred to as the “blood pit.” California’s Cambria was a quaint little town set back across the highway from Moonstone Beach. We walked along the surf for about one-half mile. There was a lot of driftwood on the beach.
We then drove north, past San Simeon and the Hearst Castle to a place called Piedras Blancas, “White Rocks.” This is a gathering place for elephant seals. Over the approximately half-mile beach, more than one hundred enormous seals flopped in the sand. Similarly, many motorists pulled into the parking areas to gawk at the seals and take photos. We walked the length of the protected area, and then drove south toward San Luis Obispo.
The Mission San Luis Obispo, like the Mission San Miguel, is one of the original California missions established in the early 1800s. Unlike any of the other California missions we have visited, this one hosted a Greek picnic, replete with gyros and other Hellenic snacks. Mission San Luis Obispo was much better off economically than San Miguel. We spent more than an hour wandering through the mission and its museum. Although the Greek food at the picnic was appetizing, we decided to have our dinner at a restaurant along the Pacific coast.
We drove north to Morro Bay, where an enormous rock formation rises out of the water. After a short drive around the waterfront area, we decided to stop at Tognazzini’s Dockside Restaurant. It was pretty much the kind of place that you find at most seashore locations, with a basic seafood menu. The grenadier fish and the seafood pasta got high marks. Not so the clam chowder.
On the way back to Paso Robles, we planned our last day in California. Our goal was San Francisco but we knew that the Pacific Coast Highway was closed at Monterey. We called ahead for reservations at the airport Holiday Inn in San Francisco.
On Monday, June 6, 2011, it was sunny and mild as we headed north on Highway 101, fueled by scrambled eggs, bacon and sausage from Margie’s Diner. Our first objective was the town of Gilroy, which bills itself as the Garlic Capital of the World. We stopped at the Gilroy visitors center. The garlic festival would not be held for another three weeks. Following their suggestion, we went back to Highway 101 and stopped at a place called Garlic World. The inventory of garlic products was impressive.
Cathy wanted to go across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. It sounded like a good idea but it was foggy and starting to rain, and the road signs were not exactly clear. Highway 101 dumped us off in San Francisco without much direction to the Golden Gate. The way that we circled around the streets of San Francisco reminded me of the way that we once circled the streets of Washington, D.C., looking for the bridge to the Arlington Cemetery. Eventually, we found the right street, crossed the bridge, and turned right, downhill to Sausalito. The town has changed since we last were here.
Picking up on a travel book recommendation, we searched out an out-of-the-way location of a place called the Fish Restaurant. It reminded me of one of the lobster pounds in Maine, with indoor tables and signs saying, “cash only.” Unfortunately, the full menu was not available until 5:30 p.m., a 45-minute wait. We were hungry. We decided to see what other restaurants were available.
About one-half mile down the road, we noticed Saylor’s Restaurant on the right side of the road. It appeared to be a traditional restaurant, but on the inside, its décor was distinctively Mexican. We were early, but it soon became obvious that many of the locals favored this restaurant. It was like a neighborhood. The staff was friendly. The bourbon Manhattan was just okay, but the food was excellent. We ordered red snapper, salmon and clam chowder. It was outstanding. It was a great place to end our California vacation.