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After our trip in Yosemite, we opted to go see some of the beautiful lakes here on the way to San Francisco. Our route back to the coast as you can see from the map above involved leaving from Yosemite (A), heading over to the tufa-filled Mono Lake just east of the park (B), taking an unplanned trip down to the small mountain town of Mammoth Lakes (C), then heading back up north on the scenic highway 395 with a quick stop in the ghost town of Bodie (D), driving up to Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada (E), cutting over and starting to head back down the state along a major interstate for a change, turning off and heading west towards the coast through gorgeous wine country and gentle rolling hills to arrive south of Big Sur (F), and then heading north along the coast through the spectacular cliffs of Big Sur to Monterey where we spent our first night upon arrival here (G).

With all that said, let’s take a look at the amazing scenery along the way and the unexpected twists and turns that life brought us.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake is a location I’d been wanting to visit for years after seeing many beautiful photos of the otherworldly tufas posted online. What are tufas? Well they’re basically these big spires that form in the water.

I hear the best time to shoot them is at sunrise, but after leaving Yosemite and arriving here in the later part of the day, I figured we’d make a quick stop at Mono Lake to preview the tufas and scout the location for shooting sunrise the next morning. We pulled into the parking lot and parked, but I noticed that my car wouldn’t turn back on. hm, dead battery perhaps? I’d recently loaned my jumper cables to a guy back at camp a few days prior, and it was amusingly ironic to see that maybe now I’d need a jump. Oh well, here we are. Let’s go take a look at the lake and get a jump afterwards.

It was an amazing place… a big beautiful lake surrounded by mountains with these incredible structures standing tall right up out of the lake. Weird. I grabbed my filtered water bottle to drink from this lake, filled up the bottle, and took a sip.

GAK! Spit! Even filtered, that water is nasty! Right after trying the water, a tour group walked up behind me and the girl leading the group was explaining about the sodium bicarbonate in the water and how the water is super alkaline. lol… now you tell me! Like salty ocean water, the water here definitely isn’t drinkable!

Along the beach, you’ll find more bugs than I’ve ever seen. Seriously. There’s like this blob of black on the ground that when you walk through, it’s like this thick cloud of buzzing dots that float around. It’s the weirdest thing… zillions and zillions of bugs.

After a bit of time exploring the lake, we headed back to the car and got ready to jump it and see how it would do, but surprisingly enough, it restarted on its own! Off we went, driving back up the gravel road towards the highway, but the thing had no power. I could floor the pedal and the speed would continue to drop from 10 mph to 8 to 5 to 3 to 2 to 1 until it eventually came to a stop. Yeah, looks like we’re not going anywhere…

Car Repair Time

Fortunately there was cell service in the area (not sure this woulda been so had we skipped going to the lake and went directly to the camp site). We called AAA to get my car towed, but since there were four of us, they had to send a tow truck with an extended cab so that it’d have enough seating. It took a little while for the tow truck to arrive so we all sat down and relaxed. Sunset over the lake was beautiful and the conversations were wonderful. As it started to get darker, I set up my headlamps on emergency blinky mode and had them flashing towards the street to help the tow truck guy find us. He eventually came and took us to the nearby town of Lee Vining.

Through sheer awesomeness, we happened to meet the son of the owner of the repair shop we got towed to. He was really cool and friendly, opening up his shop to let us buy some food and drinks (which was much cheaper than the markets we went to earlier and closed right when we got there, by the way) and let us set up our tents in the gravel lot right behind his shop. All the hotels in town were completely booked, given that this area was just outside the eastern entrance to Yosemite and the NPS was running their “free park entry” special again this weekend so there were way more people than usual. Even if we could get a hotel, they woulda been super pricy. Instead, we got free lodging. Woohoo! Was my first time camping behind a gas station repair shop too. 🙂

The next day one of the shop guys took a look at my car and tested that the alternator was dead. The only mechanic in town was gone on vacation for a week so our only real option was to go to a bigger town nearby. The closest option was Mammoth Lakes south of here (in the opposite direction I wanted to go), but either way, we chilled there for several hours while he charged up the battery manually and then on battery, we headed south down to Mammoth Lakes.

Mammoth Lakes

We made it down there alright and had a really awesome guy who specializes in Subarus work on the car. Turns out Subarus are super popular in mountain towns! We got a replacement alternator the next day and in the process of refilling my fluids for me, he noticed a leak. Turns out it was a crack in the radiator. The radiator I had was plastic so trying the powder to clog the leak wasn’t gonna work. We had to wait another two days or so for a new radiator to come in and be installed. Long story short, it took nearly $1,000 to get my car repaired  so that I could make the drive up to Alaska.

While we were there, we grabbed a cheap hotel and spent some time exploring the town. Turns out I really liked the town there! It’s a small-ish mountain town at elevation and filled with lots of outdoor activities, something I find I really like. We didn’t go out and hike or ride the gondolas up to the top of the mountains or anything. Getting pretty tired by this point, to be honest. Instead we took it easy and relaxed while the car was getting repaired.

There was a convenient free trolley that runs around town and so we hopped on and rode it a bit, getting a tour of the city. Here’s some of the mountains in the distance we saw from the trolley window.

Mountains in Mammoth Lakes

Mountains in Mammoth Lakes

One night at the hotel, one of my friends stepped out for a smoke. He immediately came back inside, saying that there were two bears outside! I grabbed my camera gear and we all stepped out to take a look. We were on the first floor and the first bear had actually walked up the stairs to the second floor and was walking up on the second floor in front of the hotel doors! It then came down and walked around the parking lot and exited from the front driveway.

The second bear was right around the corner from us. It had knocked down a trash can and had been rummaging through it looking for food. Here’s a pic I snapped as it walked off behind the hotel, leaving a mess of the trash.

One of the bears at our hotel in Mammoth Lakes

One of the bears at our hotel in Mammoth Lakes

Bears are super common here in this town, but usually not a threat. They want food, not to attack people. Since they’re so common and looking for food, the dumpsters all have bear locks and there’s signs everywhere warning about bears. It’s just the norm here.

(As a quick aside, I love seeing all the creative varieties of bear locks you find! Everywhere from parks to campgrounds to cities, anywhere there’s bears, you’ll see bear boxes and bear locks. There’s no standard on what makes a good bear lock, so there’s a whole bunch of locking mechanisms from things that require long fingers to reach under a protective cover, to a lock that only a human could figure out how to undo, to barrels that require a coin to unscrew and open, and so on. Lots of cool ideas!)

The grocery store in town has a whole shelf devoted to Clif Bars! Woohoo! They’re my favorite energy bars for outdoorsy activities. Usually at most in stores you’ll see a shelf devoted to various types of energy bars and power bars, but it’s rare to see so much shelf space devoted to clif bars. Props to you guys!

Clif Bar Shelf

Clif Bar Shelf

When we went to a laundromat to do laundry, there was this wonderful sign posted up on the bulletin board. 🙂

Free Love sign

Free Love sign

With a repaired alternator and a cracked radiator, you can still drive your car, but you don’t wanna drive it long distances because the pressure in the radiator will cause all the fluids to leak out, your engine will overheat, and youll get blown head gaskets. I was quite glad the alternator went out so that we had a chance to find out about the cracked radiator. Woulda been much worse had that problem continued!

In any event, I was still able to drive around town. Outside the laundromat where we found that Free Love sign, there were water sprinklers going. My car was caked in dirt at this point from driving through parks and campgrounds, so I drove it next to the sprinklers that overshot into the parking areas and got a free car wash! Yay! Turns out it was a good idea in theory, but not so effective. The sprinklers weren’t powerful enough to push the dirt off and they left all these dots on the exterior of my car. Guess I’ll need a real car wash instead. 🙂

Anyways, once we got the radiator replaced and the mechanic also made a few changes like replacing my dirty air filter and fuel pump which’ll help me get better gas mileage down the road (woohoo!), we were off.

After being basically stranded in a town for several days, we were eager to get some miles behind us. However, the road we were taking up, 395, was really beautiful and it was late in the day, so we decided to pull off north of Mono Lake and grab a campsite so that we could continue the drive the next day in the sun. It was a great decision.

For example, up along the way we took a quick detour to go see the abandoned ghost town of Bodie.

Bodie Ghost Town in the distance

Bodie Ghost Town in the distance

They wanted $7 per person to enter the park. Not per car, per person! WTF? Um, no thanks! I asked why they charged so much and they said it was because they had to maintain it. Maintain an abandoned ghost town? heh, if you say so… 🙂 We weren’t that interested really, so we turned around, taking pics from a distance along the way. One of the rangers saw us stop real quick to snap some pics and tried to look really tough by stepping out of his post and giving me the evil eye. I smiled and waved and drove off. Peace!

Lake Tahoe

As soon as we got to Lake Tahoe, I was instantly turned off. South Lake Tahoe is a massively touristy area. Just too much. Too developed. Too many people. To much hubub. If you’ve started to notice, I’m starting to like more of the quiet beauty. Don’t get me wrong, places like Yosemite Valley and South Lake Tahoe are beautiful, but I’m starting to get a bit overloaded and am finding more solace in peaceful beauty. Meadows, babbling brooks, the sound of waves lapping on the rocks… yes please! 🙂

We stopped by the McDonalds there. I happen to find McDonalds disgusting and nasty, but my french friends adore the stuff. It’s among their favorite foods. They have it often in France and they loved it here as well. It’s even cheaper here in the States with the exchange rate and also tastes a bit different apparently. I consider McDonalds to be among the worst food available. It’s not so well regarded in the States, but in France, it’s considered to be quite awesome apparently.

In any event, the McDonalds had some excellent maps of Lake Tahoe including topo maps, satellite imagery, designated campgrounds and hiking trails, population densities, lake depths, and so on. While my buddies ate their mickey d’s, I grabbed my phone and researched places to go and things to see while carefully looking over all 4 maps they had framed on the walls. I love quality maps! After a bit of time spent getting a feel for the area and finding out what places were more secluded yet amazingly beautiful, we headed off to drive the loop around the lake.

Our only overnight time there was spent at the Bayview Campground overlooking Emerald Bay. Here’s a few pics from there.

Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe from the Bayview Campground

Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe from the Bayview Campground

We’d hiked out to go collect some firewood and this is the view we found from the edge of the campground. Lake Tahoe is the big body of water in the distance. Emerald Bay is the little inlet you see here closer to the camera.

After finding an abundance of dry firewood, we brought it back to camp, broke it up into smaller pieces as necessary, and had ourselves yet another nice fire.

Getting the fire prepared at camp in Lake Tahoe

Getting the fire prepared at camp in Lake Tahoe

We had cell service at this campground, a rarity, so I took some time to call friends and family and catch up a bit.

A paddleboat coming into Emerald Bay at sunset

A paddleboat coming into Emerald Bay at sunset

As the sun set, a paddleboat would make its rounds coming in and out of the bay and I snapped a quick shot on my phone. It’s superhandy to have a camera with you most everywhere you go!

The next day we tackled the Lake Tahoe loop. Unlike Mono Lake, the water here is very drinkable and delicious! Not only that, it’s renowned for being incredibly clear!

The west side of the lake is pressed right up against the mountains which are a popular destination in the wintertime for skiing and snowboarding. It was funny to see ski lifts on the green snow-free mountains. I wonder if you can ski on grass… 🙂

There’s also a beach there you can stop and play at. One of my friends had been eager for a while now to swim. We swam in a river twice back in Kings Canyon, but that was the last real swimming that we’d done. The Yosemite lakes we mostly drove past. Mono Lake turned your skin white with all the salt in the water and while you can swim in it, it’s probably not the most enjoyable experience. Lake Tahoe, on the other hand, was an awesome destination for swimming, so we took some time off to go relax on the sandy beach and the cold water.

Swimming in the lake here was really enjoyable. Here’s a few random video grabs that I got while there… just some clips that I may or may not use in the final video compilation.

Here’s a shot standing on the beach, looking out towards my fellow beachgoers, the water, and the mountains.

Wanting a simpler shot without so many people, I did a quickie of the waves and the beach with the mountains in the background. A beach ball happened to roll through my frame during the shot, powered by the kick of the waves, much to my amusement. 🙂

This is a lake you can swim in with your eyes open and see. You can’t see all that far, but you can still see reasonably well. There’s been a big push lately to keep pollution and chemical dumping to a minimum to help maintain the clarity of the water. For example, one of the first guys to come to the lake did a test and found he could see down 100 feet. Over the years, measurements have been made and they’ve noticed that the clarity has been decreasing. Eventually they could only see 90 feet. Then 80. It’s still pretty clear today though. Thank goodness for people who care about the earth and do their part to help it stay natural and beautiful. 🙂

Heading West to the Ocean

After our time in Lake Tahoe, we started heading west, out of the Sierras and back down closer to sea level. Coming out of the forests, we finally hit a major highway where typical driving speeds are around 65-70 mph rather than the 20-35 mph I’d been used to on mountain roads. It took a while to readjust to highway speeds.

West of us was San Francisco. South of SF was a beautiful area of coastline called Big Sur. I wanted to enter the area from the south and drive up the coastline a bit towards SF. No sense in going straight to SF, going south to Big Sur, and then backtracking all that distance when there’s a bunch of coastline to explore!

Coming out of the mountains was quite an experience. You see, as you start heading south and west, the land goes from mountainous and bold to flat and with gentle rolling hills. As we got closer to the area south of Big Sur, we found lots of areas with winerys, beautiful farmland, and loads of yellow wheat fields. The open roads and flat lands were a sharp contrast from the mountain land we had spent the previous few weeks in.

Flat flat land on the way to Big Sur

Flat flat land on the way to Big Sur

There were also a bunch of signs up about the dust bowl and how the government had been destroying the land here and making it unusuable for continued crop growth.

Driving through rolling yellow hills

Driving through rolling yellow hills

Arriving at the Coast

Approaching the cloud-covered coast

Approaching the cloud-covered coast (that's ocean water underneath the clouds)

After driving for many hours and putting lots of miles behind us, we eventually made it to the coast and started heading north from there. Originally I wanted to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway (the PCH) from Los Angeles to San Francisco, but I couldn’t just skip all the beauty of the famed Yosemite NP, Sequoia NP, Mono Lake, and so on. Some of these places I’d been wanting to see for years! and besides, there’s plenty more coastline to experience up through NorCal, Oregon, and Washington!

In any event, we made it back to the coast, just south of one of the most famous sections of the California Coast: Big Sur.

Our exploration into Big Sur would happen primarily over the next two days or so. After all this driving, our primary focus was to find a suitable place to sleep for the evening and get refreshed after a good solid drive. Turns out all the campgrounds along Big Sur were booked. We continued heading north, leaving the area, and headed for the town of Monterey.

Here we were able to find hotels for $120+/night. Even split 4 ways which really helps save on money, that’s still quite pricey. All I really need is a plot of dirt. Throw down a pad and a sleeping bag and that’s all I need! Sometimes not even that! Sleeping doesn’t have to cost so much, y’know?

That evening we stopped by a market to grab some food for cheap and I asked the store owner if he knew of any places nearby where we could camp. He pointed me towards a veteran’s memorial park which interestingly enough had a campground on site as well. I pulled in ready to get a campsite. The guard on-site was there at the entrance and told us that this campground was full too. Tired, I simply explained that we just need a place to sleep for the night. Nothing special. Is there anything else available? He smiled and told us that they actually had a number of overflow campsites available. Hooray! Paying the $27 fee for this campsite (which is a bit high for a campsite.. usually they’re in the $15-20 range in this area), we drove up, set up camp, and hit the sack for the night. Time to rest up and get ready for some sweet exploration of Big Sur!! 😀

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