Treasures of the Sierra Nevada

An American RV Trip
by Shane Boocock

I’d left my mate to do some grocery shopping prior to our departure from LA and prior to the delivery of our luxury recreational vehicle (RV). Finding out he couldn’t carry all the groceries and supplies two blocks, he simply trundled the supermarket trolley to his Hacienda Hotel room until I arrived a day later. As you can imagine, the looks he got as he wheeled it through the lobby where jaw-dropping.

We were on an anniversary road trip, all of 30 years ago since we first started hitting the concrete highways of America. In those days we camped out on our trips; today it was in the comfort of a 30ft (9m) El Monte RV. Our intended route was to follow along the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains up to Lake Tahoe and into Yosemite National Park.

What we hadn’t planned on was a late season snowfall. By the time we had reached Independence California, the snow flurries began. We pressed onto the towns of Lone Pine, Big Pine and Bishop. The snow flurries had by now turned to a snow blizzard as the white-out covered the high Sierras in a sheepskin-like blanket. We had left Los Angeles, an overgrown mangrove of humanity, by the I-405 freeway which merged into I-14 to the strange desert town of Mojave. Mojave is perched at the edge of a dry lake bed, a perfect place to mothball 100s of airplanes including giant 747s. ‘Mothballs’ in airlines terms means storage in US desert regions, where the air is dry. Planes are stored in places like the Mojave high desert awaiting their airlines owners to put them in service again.

About 60 miles east of Mojave is the small community known as Hinkley. It’s where Pacific Gas & Electric has a compressor station for PG&E’s massive natural gas transmission pipelines. The station uses large cooling towers to cool the compressors. The water used in these cooling towers contained ‘hexavalent chromium’ to prevent rust in the machinery. Since the water was stored between uses in unlined ponds, it ultimately contaminated the groundwater in the town. It was a legal clerk called Erin Brockovich who investigated the illness in the community and with her law firm successfully litigated against PG&E. When the film of her story was released it put the place on the world’s stage.

We were now back on the road again heading north, where but for the snow clouds we would have seen Mt Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States with an elevation of 14,505ft (4,421m). It is also the ending to one of the toughest running races in the world. The Badwater Ultra-marathon is a 135-mile (215km) race from the scorching deserts in the bottom of Death Valley to Whitney Portal.

Just outside of Bishop we pulled into Mills Pond State Park. The campground was full of burly hunters and fisherman with ATV’s on trailers getting ready for the long Memorial Day weekend. American flags fluttered in the wind as more snow coated the campsite. In this region streams and rivers are popular fishing spots and produce some good-sized brown trout.

At the town of Lee Vining we stopped for coffee and on instinct called into Bells Sporting Goods Store. Here we bought matching rod and reel combo sets for just US$20 (NZ$28). Another good buy we made at the store was wool gloves as they proved to be very necessary. Our next detour was to the ghost town known as Bodie, named after W. S. Bodey (his original spelling) who discovered gold there in 1859. The town is about 17 miles off the main highway and sits in a treeless saddle of land at an elevation of 8,375ft (2,546m). It is a true ghost town where dilapidated houses full of furniture still stand alongside numerous saloons, barns, sheds, stores, outhouses, schoolhouses and mines and rusting mining equipment. Once a thriving metropolis of 10,000 people in Mono Country, Bodie’s mines produced gold valued at more than US$100 million dollars. Tough as hand-hewn nails, the men who worked and lived here up until the 1940’s rightfully claimed their place in western history as much as the six-shooter and Bowie knife.

As the snow became heavier we pressed further north. Small towns along this eastern California corridor are farming communities mainly, with old-fashioned main streets that were neat and tidy with picket fenced houses and colourful gardens. Finally we entered Nevada and made our way to Carson City. From here State Highway 50 is the road to South Lake Tahoe where we had booked a campsite for two nights in Zephyr Cove RV Park.

The campsite was directly opposite a marina and offered full facilities including pull-through sites, electricity hook-ups, city water connections, laundry, showers, free Wi-Fi connections and a restaurant and bar. It is the type of campsite that is tastefully designed to take full advantage of the tall pine trees and big boulder strewn topography that Tahoe is famous for. It is not uncommon here to see coyote wander through the site.

At daybreak ice on the Lake Tahoe dock had not melted. It was 6.45am and we were stepping onto the Phrophet, a 45ft former ocean going boat. John was the skipper and after a quick briefing got us underway as Junior, his young deckhand prepared the live bait nets to catch minnows. After setting the nets we cruised into Emerald Bay, a famous attraction in the Tahoe region. John used two metre Shakespeare Ugly Stick fishing rods and Penn reels spooled with braided line. Each rig had a customised set of four or five spoons with a short leader to a small treble hook threaded through a minnow.

Drifting into the bay it didn’t take long for one of our group to be hooked up with a strong fighting lake trout. For a good four hours everybody caught fish of a decent size and we ended the day with more than enough for the frying pan back in the campground. Here the fishing was as good as you get in one of the best known lakes in California.

The next morning we were on the backroads out of Lake Tahoe heading over State Highway 88 across the backbone of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We were heading for Yosemite National Park, one of the best known parks out of 390 in the National Park System. The esteemed conservationist, John Muir, once described Yosemite by saying, “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of nature I was ever permitted to see.”

On our way we leap-frogged through small towns in Calaveras County, made famous by that other great American writer Samuel Clements, better known as Mark Twain who wrote the short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. From Chinese Camp we started climbing in altitude on State Highway 120 as we again crossed over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From the Big Oak Flat entrance the road switch-backed and dropped in altitude as snow flurries coated the rig. Finally we emerged from a tunnel and there was Yosemite Valley in all her glory with Half Dome rising like a giant bell tower in the distance.

In the valley we had booked into the Upper Pines campground for a night where black bears still roamed freely and where bear-proof containers are provided to keep campers’ food from being ransacked. The campground lay in a thicket of forest where the smell of pines permeated the air. As we sat by the fire having a drink, other families were preparing the usual campground rituals; lighting fires, stacking wood, barbequing dinner and in small groups discussing what they had planned for the next day. There is never a shortage of things to do in Yosemite.

If you’re looking for natural beauty in all things big and small, from towering granite cliffs and giant sequoias to diminutive wildflowers and chirpy chipmunks then take in the treasures of the Sierra Nevada; its moods, views, sounds and smells will remain with you forever.

FACTS: If you ever want to just visit one place with the family then Yosemite would be it. There is a huge variety of accommodations from tent, trailer and RV campsites, to rustic tent cabins to four-star diamond luxury lodges. Add activities from hiking on hundreds of valley routes and high sierra trails, to mountaineering schools, rafting, fishing, guided tours, biking, outdoor lectures and of course wildlife spotting.

Tips on American Recreational Vehicles (Motorhomes)
• Get acclimatised to the RV; adjust the mirrors, seats and switch on the headlights.
• Buy a Rand McNally Atlas and obtain free campground directories and state maps.
• Drive on the right-hand side and watch out for blind-spot on right hand turns.
• Beware of sea breezes on high bridges or open roads that turn your vehicle into a giant sail.
• Our RV had no central locking – make sure all doors are locked when parking up.
• Petrol prices ranged from US$2.90 (NZ$4) to $5.15 ($7.25) a gallon in mountain towns.
• For an extended stay buy an America the Beautiful: National Parks & Federal Recreational Lands Pass – Annual Cost US$80.00 (NZ$115.00).
• Campground fees: From US$ 10.00 (NZ$14.25) to US$35 (NZ$50) in private campgrounds.
• RV rental cost: US$144 per day (NZ$205) before discounts. Starter kit US$39.95 (NZ$57), Bedroom Kit US$50 per person (NZ$70), Kitchen kit US$125.00 (NZ$180). Additional RV expenses per day amount to: US$45.00 (NZ$64) not including sales taxes.
• There are numerous bears in both Lake Tahoe and Yosemite. NEVER leave trash or food outside unless it is in a bear-proof container. Do not leave vehicle windows open at night.

El Monte RV is privately owned offering RV rentals from hundreds of different locations across the United States. They feature the largest number of RV models in the motorhome industry. T: 562 483 4980, W: www.elmonterv.com
Handlery Union Square Hotel, San Francisco, 351 Geary St., San Francisco, CA 94102, T: 415 321 7564, W: www.handlery.com
Hacienda Hotel, LAX, 525 N.Sepulveda Blvd., El Segundo CA 90245, T: 310 615 0015, W: www.haciendahotel.com
Tahoe Sport Fishing, T: In California 530 541 5448, T: In Nevada 775 586 9338, Toll Free in America: 800 696 7797, W: www.tahoesportfishing.com
Zephyr Cove Resort RV Park & Campground?760 Highway 50, Zephyr Cove, NV 89448, Spring Rates: RV site US$43 (NZ$60) a night. Summer Rates: RV site US$65 (NZ$91.50) a night. T: 775 589 4907, W: www.zephyrcove.com
Yosemite National Park
Entrance: US$20 (NZ$28) per vehicle
RY Camping site: US$20 (NZ$28) a night
Rustic Tent Cabins: US$50 (NZ$70) a night
T: 209 372-0200, W: www.nps.gov/yose

Shane Boocock flew to Hawaii courtesy of Air New Zealand and onward to Los Angeles courtesy of United Airlines.