California holidays: Exploring the great outdoors of Yosemite and Lake Tahoe in a week
California holidays: Yosemite is an iconic national park in the USA on the bucket list of many
Waterfalls. I’ve seen a fair few in my time. The water cascades over rocks in an impressive display of nature’s potency, we get it. This one, in Yosemite National Park, USA, however, is something else.
Vernal Fall could be straight out of something from an Arthurian legend. The water doesn’t just crash from 317ft into the pool below so much as rise again at the bottom; returning to life in giant clouds of mist emanating from the water like a steaming witches cauldron.
A rainbow arcs across, too, during my visit, a multicoloured bolt cast forth, setting off the bright green of the nearby foliage. I try to walk on but my just keep being pulled back to the awe-inspiring scene.
It’s little wonder Vernal Fall is one of the top attractions of Yosemite (or that the route is dubbed the Mist Trail).
California holidays: Exploring the great outdoors of Yosemite and Lake Tahoe in a week
The 5.4 miles roundtrip trail is not for the faint-hearted, however – quite literally. To follow it all the way higher up to the second waterfall on the route requires a fair bit of scrambling, heaving oneself over huge stone steps and plenty of huffing and puffing. This is no mean feat in the heat of the Californian sun but it’s well worth it for the display of majesty at each of these beautiful waterfalls.
Nevada Fall is 594-foot high and also on the Merced River. Peering over the edge of it and looking at the spectacular vista quite takes my breath away – but that could also be from the exertion of hauling myself up to such a great height.
Pine trees stretch out before me, the river winding its way through rocks as the mountains rise above behind. I’d wanted the great outdoors – and here it is, in high definition.
The day’s excursion hugely benefits from our very friendly and knowledgeable naturalist guide. Taking the holiday with UK company Grand American Adventures, which specialises in small group holidays to the Americas, had definitely simplified everything. All transport and accommodation is taken care off and local guides organised in advance.
Guide Andrea simply meets us on arrival and takes us through our thrilling day-long hike through Yosemite. She answers any questions regarding wildlife – there are some stunning stellar’s jays boasting their iridescent deep blue plumage up at Nevada Fall – and is full of fun facts about the park (as well as being happy to take plenty of photos).
The fauna highlight of the day is a bear sighting. We’ve just finished chowing down on our packed sandwiches and apples when the cry “Bear!” goes up and one of the group dashes forth, camera in hand. And there, indeed, is a bear. She is wandering down to the river and across. The creature seems in no real rush, however, and idles as she makes her way over the rocks to the other side.
California holidays: Vernal Fall could be straight out of something from an Arthurian legend
Black bears are North America’s most common bear. To look at, this one could be straight out of a storybook and really does look rather cute. She is, however, not black. It turns out black bears can, in fact, be a range of six colours: black, red, blond, blue, chocolate and cinnamon.
Our guide informs us that they are generally not particularly dangerous and are often more scared of humans than we are of them. Another guide at the scene is keen to keep us away from the bear, however, and calls it a “nuisance” due to its overfamiliarity with humans.
We’re told they can become easily habituated to human food and can grow dangerous a result – which can lead to them being killed. As I look at the small bear scrambling onto the riverbank, her ear tagged by park rangers, I can’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy – have we not invaded her natural habitat rather than the other way round? Nevertheless, I put my demolished apple core back in my rucksack.
Still agog from all the natural wonders we’ve seen that day at the end of the hike, our group pile back in the Grand American Adventures van with chirpy Michigan-born tour guide and driver Julie. We’ve been out so long the sun begins to set as we drive back to the hotel.
We decide to hop out en route to watch the sky’s show. The group of Australians next to us have the right idea – they’re perched on top of their van swigging beer as they watch the sunset. It truly is a fantastic sight – a perfect golden globe as it sinks. In its last breaths, it has tinged the horizon pink and the darkening mountainsides around have been dusted with purple.
The Merced river glistens below as it threads its way through the valley. Orange and reds radiate from the orb, wisps of cloud decorating the deepening blue above. Then it’s a rich semicircle of yellow, then it’s a twinkling gold line… and then it’s gone, leaving a red, luminous glow in its wake.
As we drive back I look out at the increasing darkness seeping across the landscape. The tall castellated pines on the top of the mountains stand like sentries looking down at us. It strikes me this is not somewhere you’d want to find yourself alone at night. Thank goodness, then, for our hotel – the best of the four on the trip in my opinion – Rush Creek Lodge. It boasts a wonderful pool area which stays open until late and features fires at night to snuggle up next to. I’m also keen to try the smores on offer.
California holidays: Black bears can be black, red, blond, blue, chocolate and cinnamon
Yosemite is far from the only stop on our Grand American Adventures, well, adventure. After two days of exploring the thrills of Yosemite, we set off for Lake Tahoe. I admit I have very little idea of what to expect. The city of South Lake Tahoe is certainly not much to write home about and seems highly commercialised; the lake itself though – beautiful.
The largest alpine lake in North America, and the second deepest, Lake Tahoe straddles the state line between California and Nevada. We decide to climb mountain peak Mount Tallac to make the most of the scenery.
It’s an enjoyable – and slightly challenging – trail up first through pine forests and then open mountainside. My only complaint was that, in parts, the unevenness of the rocky path meant it was hard to look out at the view! Indeed, the vista was gorgeous. It’s two-for-one on lakes at the south-west end of Tahoe as there’s also neighbouring Fallen Leaf Lake. Both are a sparkling blue and encircled by pines as we ascend. I long to dive right into the cool water as the midday sun kicks in. On the subject of which, it’s definitely advisable to take at least two bottles of water – three if you’re going to to the top, it’s a 9.6 miles round trip with 3,323ft elevation gain.
We take our time with the climb though, stopping in the shade for breaks and frequently pausing for photo opportunities. You just don’t get scenery like this in the UK. The higher we go, the more the verdant landscape dwindles and becomes rockier. Patches of snow even start appearing, despite the late summer sunshine. It’s at this point we decide to turn back. Relaxation and a pint of the local stuff are in order.
Later, we join a sunset catamaran cruise – again all planned thanks to Grand American Adventures. We simply turn up and board – and the good news is, it’s all-you-can-drink alcohol. This is no Ibiza boat trip though. We motor off into the lake as the jolly captain tells us about the boat – which dates back to the 50s and comes complete with staterooms plus a cigar once smoked by Arnold Schwarzenegger – and we feast on canapés and fizz.
California holidays: A highlight of the boat ride is the visit to Emerald Bay, a peaceful spot
A highlight of the boat ride is the visit to Emerald Bay, a gloriously peaceful spot as the evening draws in. Located within Emerald Bay State Park, the bay is home to Vikingsholm Castle, built in 1929 by Lora Knight and considered one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in the United States. Lora seemed like a person well worth being friends with – she also had her own teahouse on Fannette Island, just a short boat ride from her home. According to the captain, there’s a rock there to touch for good luck – but it’s hard to believe him with that twinkle in his eye.
Another crowning moment of the trip is our afternoon in Monterey where we get free time to explore the coastal city before heading out on a whale-watching boat ride. We are treated to the spectacle of multiple humpback whales diving in and out of the Pacific Ocean, surrounded by frenzied sea lions and flying gulls. Our guide Julie tells us it’s one of the best displays she has seen!
For those keen to explore California’s urban life as well as the great outdoors, consider adding a few more days in San Francisco to the beginning or end of the trip. This is where the group meets and says its goodbyes.
As for travelling to and from California to begin with, I fly with United. It’s my first time with the airline and I decide I like them for two reasons. One: I miss my booked flight on the way out yet they happily move me onto another flight two hours later at no extra cost. Two: On my return flight when I ask the attractive male flight attendant for an extra blanket he brings me one and says “I hope this keeps you warm,” and somehow I feel like that’s really what I’m looking for in a man.
All in all, it’s a wonderful trip, jam-packed with fun activities and plenty of fresh air and walking. It’s amazing we’ve managed to fit everything in within just one week. There are lots of early starts so, while I don’t finish the holiday feeling particularly physically well-rested, I certainly feel mentally rejuvenated. The only problem is, everything in England just looks a bit small now.
Harriet travelled with small group adventure specialist, Grand American Adventures on their seven-day tour. The tour cost starts at £2,799 per person. Price includes six hotel nights, services of a professional tour leader and local specialist guides, all transportation by private vehicle with free Wi-Fi and six breakfasts and three dinners.
To book, visit www.
Harriet flew with United Airlines. United flies to San Francisco from London from £499pp and from £539pp from Manchester. Visit www.united.com to book.