Spoiler alert: we never made it to Tahoe!
Day One: Travel & Sequoia National Park
Our adventure began early on a Saturday morning. I got everything loaded up in my truck over the course of the previous week so we were pretty much ready to hit the ground running. We headed north towards Three Rivers, California, where we’d be spending the first two nights, just outside of Sequoia National Park. As we arrived in the area later that afternoon, it was raining as we climbed the winding mountain road up to the higher elevations of Sequoia NP. We didn’t really have anything planned for the first day, just checking things out, and so we drove through the park up to Lodgepole and Wuksachi Lodge before heading back down. We did some hiking from Hospital Rock before having some Mexican food in Three Rivers, across from the Comfort Inn, our hotel for the next two nights.
Day Two: Sequoia National Park
The next morning we headed back up to the park and visited the Big Trees museum and hiked around the large grove/meadow area. Alex lost one of her hiking boot spike things and we had to turn around hike the entire trail again in reverse, even though it was a loop. We ended up finding it right at the beginning of the trail. If we’d have kept walking another 150ft from where we stopped and turned around, we’d have found it and saved ourselves an extra hour of walking through snow. Live and learn! After that, since most of the stuff was closed off due to snow, we headed back down to the foothills area. After another short hike down through the Buckeye Flat campground, we drove down to the day-use parking area across from the Potwisha campground. We found a neat trail that took us across a bridge, and to our surprise we found newts in some pools of water! It was awesome just seeing them all cruise around in their little pools. Some of them were balled up down in the shadows, but we couldn’t get a good pic of them with the glare on the water. About that time, we were getting pretty hungry, and so headed back to Three Rivers for the night. We ate at the Gateway, just outside the park boundaries and were witness to what appeared to be a duck rape. There was a female duck and a male, and a couple more just watching to make sure it happened. It was kind of disturbing, but it didn’t appear that anyone got hurt in the altercation.
Day Three: Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Forest, Hume Lake & Travel
Monday morning we packed up the truck and headed north. Normally we’d have driven through the park to get to Kings Canyon, but because of the snow, the road between the parks was closed. We ended up going on some little podunk road most of the way up to meet up with the highways that would take us into the park on the northern side. Eventually we made it, and hit the visitor center near Grant Grove. We went and saw the General Grant tree as well as ate some lunch before driving up to Hume Lake. We took a hike around the entire lake, avoiding large crowds of people either from the christian camp itself, or possibly from tour buses. That was quite an enjoyable walk/hike.
When we were done there, we headed back down the mountain, through Fresno and up CA-99 towards Mariposa. Surprisingly, during our drive down the mountain from Kings Canyon into Fresno, my truck averaged 40.1 miles per gallon, which was crazy since my previous record was 34.7 mpg. We made it into Mariposa where we had some pretty good burritos at Castillo’s Mexican restaurant in the middle of town, and then checked into our hotel. This was planned to be the last night in a hotel until we got to Tahoe, so we made sure to get our hot showers in, both in the evening and the following morning.
Day Four: Yosemite National Park
After a night of restful sleep, we headed into Yosemite along highway 140 in the rain. It was relatively warm heading into the park, even though it was raining. We stopped at the first waterfall we saw and hiked up as close as possible in the rain. It was amazing how much water was coming down Tamarack and Cascade creeks because of the rain. Eventually we’d find that all of the waterfalls in the park were basically running a full bore during our trip, but this first one was amazing, since we were able to get so close to its raw power. As we got further up into Yosemite Valley, the rain started turning into a wintry mix of ice/rain. We decided to find our campground and site so we knew where it was in case it got dark, and ate some lunch. We set up our small shade shelter and our chairs and had some sandwiches before heading back out to explore some more parts of the valley. We walked up towards the Happy Isles but turned back as the rain got insanely heavy and started soaking through our clothes. During that burst, there was lightning and thunder in addition to the rain/ice. It’s an awesome experience to heard thunder booming in the valley walls. Eventually we made it back to the camp site and started winding down for the night. We barbecued some hot dogs, and then tried to get a camp fire going. Because of the rain, it wasn’t happening, and only the kindling would burn, the larger logs didn’t seem to want to catch fire. After wasting about an hour or so trying to get it to work, we decided to give up and get ready for bed. This would be the first night I have camped since I was around 12 years old. We were excited, but also scared, since it was so stormy outside. That night the rain poured for a few hours, and I had no trouble falling asleep, even with the large drops of rain pelting the camper shell constantly. In a weird way, it was soothing. I quite enjoyed the camping aspect of our trip, although it would be cut short. I would definitely like to try again during fairer weather somewhere.
Day Five: Yosemite National Park
Waking up the next morning was amazing. During the night it got fairly cold, and I ended up needing to pull a second blanket over the top of my 55°F sleeping bag to stay warm. Alex slept in a 5° “mummy” sleeping bag and was warm and cozy all night. After peeking out the window, I realized that the rain had turned to snow overnight. When popping open the camper shell in the morning, I was presented with a small amount of snow throughout the campground. The weather for the day was expected to shift around from sunshine, to rain, to snowing as time went on. We got to the visitor center and auditoriums fairly early, and we were able to catch the first showings of the park movies with only one other couple in the theater. After that, we decided to make the best of the dry weather we were currently experiencing by hiking the Valley Loop Trail.
A visit to the deli provided some expensive lunch, since we forgot to pack food into my backpack before leaving the camp site (all our food was in the bear box), we headed out on the VLT in a clockwise fashion from the village. About 10 minutes before we reached Mirror Lake, it started raining quite heavily, and by the time we made it to the lake, we were pretty wet and miserable. We decided to not go around the full route of the loop because of the rain, and headed back down the hill towards the village. On the walk back towards our destination, the rain started coming down slower, or at least that’s what it seemed like, then I realized it was slowly becoming snow. It was right on the border of wet/freezing though, and so none of the snow was sticking to the ground, it immediately melted. This also had the effect of sticking to my pants and melting, and actually soaking through instead of just beading off like the rain was doing.
We finally made it to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel and being soaked and cold, searched for the shuttle pick up location. Unfortunately, we found it about 5 seconds after the shuttle bus left! Since the shuttles were on a 20-30 minute schedule, Alex took the time to call the adventure company in Lake Tahoe to book our snowmobile tour. The tour was scheduled it for 11am on Friday and then we jumped on the next shuttle bus, headed for the village. The driver dropped us off near the deli/restaurant again and we sat by the fire to warm up, laying our clothes out on some chairs to try to get them dry as well. We milked the warmth as long as possible, and even had some pizza for dinner instead of more hot dogs, but at 6pm they started closing up. Needing to find somewhere new to go warm up, we caught another shuttle bus down to the Valley Lodge. All we were searching for was somewhere warm to spend the next few hours before heading back to the campsite for bed. The lounge had a fire, but it was heavily monopolized by other patrons, and not being heavy alcohol drinkers, it didn’t feel comfortable hanging out there. I decided that since the lobby was pretty warm, even if there was no fire, we could spend a few hours reading our books there before bed time. While sitting in the lobby reading, I couldn’t get my mind off how cold and wet I was. I was distracted and couldn’t read much, so I started people watching as they came in to check into the lodge for the night. On the wall behind the staff was a wall of keys, and I realized there were quite a few of them hanging still, even as people were coming to check in. Out of curiosity, I went and asked the clerk how much a night in the lodge would cost. To my surprise, the manager who was talking to the clerk said they were doing walk-in specials for folks and it’d only be $125+tax for the night. I knew in my heart immediately that I wanted that, but I told him I’d go check with the wife to see if she’d be ok with the price. Alex heartily agreed that we needed somewhere warm to sleep for the night, instead of roughing it in the truck camper again, and so I checked us in for the night. We drove back to the campground as the meager sunlight was starting to fade and packed up all our stuff.
The hotel room in the lodge was pretty large, and very comfortable. They had the heater blasting as we got in, so it was nice warm. Alex also found some oscillating fans in the closet, which was nice because I have difficulty sleeping without some kind of fan noise. We laid out ALLLLL of our wet clothes on various surfaces to dry, set the fan to oscillate back and forth across the clothes, and quickly fell asleep.
The next morning, we woke up to a winter wonderland. There was easily 2-3 inches of fresh powdery snow on the ground, though it didn’t really stick to the roadways so driving wasn’t difficult. Since this was our last day in the park, and knew we had to make it up to Tahoe before too late so we weren’t driving on mountain roads in the dark, we just did a quick driving tour of some stuff on our way out of the park. We stopped at Bridalveil Falls, which was extremely crowded, and then a few other roadside stops to check out the scenery. Once we were satisfied with what we saw, it was onward and upwards to Lake Tahoe! The drive there started out easy enough, with a climb up Big Oak Flat Road to Highway 120. Google maps routed us on a very confusing combination of roads, but eventually did get us to Highway 88 towards the Tahoe area. At this point, it was starting to rain again, which wasn’t surprising. We started climbing the mountains and the rain turned into a light freezing rain, and then snow flurries. At a certain point, I decided that we should probably put the cables onto my tires so we wouldn’t lose grip, and so we stopped on the side of the road to get them installed. Well, this is where our adventure started turning into a nightmare. I didn’t install the cables correctly; the inner cables were too loose and the outer locking mechanism was too tight. After a couple of false starts, I thought I had them settles properly, but after about a quarter mile, we stopped again as the snow was really starting to fly because my truck started throwing a bunch of random lights. I found the cables were coming off on the side and thought that was a bad sign. I had to try and get them attached properly if we were going to make it anywhere. A fellow traveler heading back to the Carson City area gave us some tips, and suggested we follow him. After getting the cables on properly, we continued on our way, but I was still wary about what I was seeing on the dash, and I noticed the brakes weren’t acting normal. I was concerned and decided to turn around. It just wasn’t worth it trying to make it over the mountain pass in the storm that was now blowing through. I informed our fellow traveler that we were just going to turn around and head back down.
After letting some traffic pass, including a CHP officer, I attempted to make a U-turn and head back down the mountain. Well, the turn started fine, but little did I know, my rear brakes were not functional, and so I promptly slid into a snow bank. The CHP officer saw this in his rear view mirror and turned around. He got out a tow strap, and we strapped it to my hitch drawbar and he tugged me out without much effort. After pulling over to the side of the road to get the strap off, we started heading back down the mountain. Eventually we got out of the snowy section and back into the rain, so I stopped and to pull the tire cables off for a faster/smoother ride. It was about this point that I realized that something was really wrong with the brakes. The dashboard was throwing errors about the brake fluid being low and the traction control was disabled, with no way to re-enable it. By this time, it was about 6pm and there weren’t any business open. I was hoping to just make it down the mountain far enough that we could find somewhere to stay for the night and head to a repair shop in the morning. As I rounded a bend, I saw a tire and brake shop, and noticed that there were some people milling around. Thinking it was open still, I pulled in and talked to a friendly guy who agreed to look at my brakes. He climbed under the truck and confirmed what I was hoping did not happen. The brake line on BOTH rear wheels was sheared off right at the caliper. He said it was just spitting brake fluid on the ground, which makes sense why the truck was throwing that error code. There was no way we were going to make it much further with the brakes in this state. I guess the shop wasn’t actually open, because the guys that were helping/watching were just tinkering with their own cars in the garage, but they were super nice and willing to help anyway. The man who climbed under the truck offered to clamp the brake lines with some vise-grips so that I could make it to a repair shop that could fix the problem. I accepted his offer and without getting his name, thanked him, gave him the measly $5 I had in my wallet, and we continued down the mountain. Once those brake lines were clamped shut, and more brake fluid was put in the reservoir, the truck stopped complaining, and we made it down the road to the town of Jackson. We found an O’Reilly Auto Parts and bought some brake fluid just in case we lost any more, and tried to eat some dinner at Burger King. At this point, the adrenaline/stress were both extremely high and we had a hard time eating the mediocre food. Once we were done eating, I checked the brake fluid again and saw that it was holding steady, and so decided to keep going down the mountain to try to get to a bigger town with a Chevy dealership. I decided on Madera, as that was the town with the dealership closest to the highway, and we were on our way. Driving down that two lane highway in the dark/rain with no rear brakes was stressful, to say the least, but we made it in one piece. I figured the best way to maintain my speed was to shift the truck into manual mode and use engine braking to keep from going too fast without having to hit the brakes. It worked perfectly and I probably only needed to actually use the brake pedal two or three times on the whole drive into Madera, when traffic lights didn’t change in time for us to coast through. Once we hit CA-99 everything was smooth, with minimal need to slow down with the brakes, and we just cruised to the Americas Best Value Inn in Madera about 9-10pm. We checked in and got a little bit of sleep before continuing our adventure the next day.
Day Seven: Car Parts Stores, Dealership Repair Shop & Travel Home
Friday morning, waking up in Madera, we were pretty hungry. The hotel supplied a basic continental breakfast with toast, orange juice, oatmeal, etc. and then we packed up and continued to the Chevy dealership in Madera. After speaking with the service consultant, Lance, I decided to have them do an inspection on the brakes, even if they wouldn’t be able to fix the problem. I was feeling a little more confident since we drove over 100 miles from up in the mountains to the hotel the night before using only front brakes. Eventually they got a chance to look at the truck and confirmed that the brake lines were severed. They didn’t have the parts needed in stock, and offered to order them and replace the brakes by Tuesday. Since we really didn’t want to spend another 4 days in the central valley without a vehicle, I asked him if there were any alternatives. He suggested that if I could supply the parts, they could perform the labor. At that point, I started researching where I could get the brake lines, and found that both Autozone and O’Reilly had the parts I needed, and both were within a 5 minute walk of the dealership. Of course it was raining again on this day, but we persevered anyway. We walked to the Autozone first and found that they had the part in stock only in their Fresno location, which was about 18 miles south of where we currently were. They could have them delivered, but couldn’t guarantee they’d show up before 3pm. I was afraid that wouldn’t have been enough time for the dealership to install them, so I decided that I could go pick them up and bring them back. I had them put the parts on hold, but on a whim I decided to check in with O’Reilly’s as well to see what they had. Again, I was told they didn’t have them in stock, but they were available in Fresno. At this point, we were frustrated, but at least we could possibly rent a car and drive down to Fresno to pick up the parts. It was about 12:45pm and the clerk at O’Reilly offered us one more suggestion as we were about walk away. She said they had a truck coming at 1:30pm and could have them on it. With there being less than an hour between then and now I happily obliged and paid for the parts. We were really hungry at this point, and some western bacon cheeseburgers were calling our names from the Carl’s Jr. in the same parking lot. We had ourselves some lunch, watched a crazy heavy thundershower roll through, and then walked back over to the O’Reilly’s around the time the parts were supposed to come in. The lady confirmed they did show up, and we took them triumphantly across the street to deliver to the service department at the dealership.
Three hours later, the truck was ready to go and I had paid my $420 stupid tax. We jumped on the highway and headed home, stopping in Bakersfield for some Subway for dinner and to top off on gas at the Costco gas station. We made it home about 9pm, greeted and fed our cats, and then fell asleep.
Overall, I highly enjoyed the trip. Other than the very stressful last two days, it was a fun and exciting trip. I would definitely recommend visiting these places in the winter, but make sure you’re either more prepared to drive in snow than we are, or avoid the higher elevations entirely. Yosemite in the winter is magical, and Seqoia/Kings Canyon are amazing any time of year. If you visit these places, you will not regret it. Alex and I will have decided that Tahoe is dead to us, at least until we move to Utah and can approach it from the eastern side of the Sierras.