If you had to design the perfect valley you might start with a river – pristine water gently gurgling over stones, wide and flowing enough to ride a raft down, but shallow enough to wade across; there might be sandbars in your river, creating small pebbly beaches; you might run your river through towering granite cliffs that defy perspective, so that every time you look up you are surprised at how enormous they are; the sun might cast them in different ways as the day progresses;
Being the old romantic that you are, you might add glorious wildflower meadows to your valley, to sit between river and cliffs, opening out the valley to maybe half a mile across; your river might be held by natural dams in places, forming small lakes where the still surface water reflects a mirror image of the epic rocks towering above;
Part of your valley might consist of endless acres of forest, covering areas of the valley floor and climbing the less sheer sides of the sides; perhaps you would introduce a number of spectacular waterfalls, each with its own character, some cascading down a series of rapids, some just dropping from the side of your granite cliffs, and yet others creating an elegant soft dance as they descend; You wouldn’t forget the wildlife – wild deer might roam through the valley, along with everything from black bears to chipmunks; you’d probably put in endless walking trails, viewpoints and overlooks;
From Yosemite we took a scenic drive through an undulating glacially formed landscape to Lake Tahoe, a large inland body of water surrounded by picturesque forest. It is very much a watery playground for many land-lubbing Californians (and Nevadans, as the state boundary cuts through the middle of the lake). We were lucky to have a campsite pretty close to the water’s edge, and spent a good while unwinding on the beach.
Another almost full-day drive beckoned, through Sacramento, and back to the Californian coast. First stop back on Highway 1 was Point Arena lighthouse, which has been warding passing ships off nearby reefs since 1870. It was fascinating to learn the prism technology behind the original lens, and that the rotation of the light was made by the fall of a great weight that had to be re-wound by hand every 75 mins! Here, back on the coast, the weather was significantly colder, and the angry Pacific beat huge waves against the beaches and dunes.
Heading north towards Oregon took us through some of the largest trees and most spectacular forest scenery in the world. Massively tall Redwood trees used to cover much of the north-west of the States, right down past San Francisco. The forests stood against the elements for millions of years until White settlement of the west pretty much cleared them all in a hundred years. Luckily a small portion was saved, and these now form the protected area known as the Avenue of Giants, and the Redwood Forest National Park.
The Avenue of Giants is a scenic detour from the main highway, where the road meanders slowly through the colossal trees. It’s only when you stop and explore the forest, as we did at the Redwood NP, that you really get the scale of the trees – some as much as 370ft in diameter and the tallest ones consistently over 100m tall. Redwoods can also live on average 500-700 years, and up to 2000 years (!), so the larger trees alive today could pre-date the Roman Empire. Wandering through the Redwood forest was one of the most enjoyable things we have done – for the scenery, the calmness, and the sense of the power and balance of nature.
To quote Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, at a dedication ceremony in July 1969 at a grove that bears her name:
“One of my most unforgettable memories of the past years is walking through the Redwoods… seeing the lovely shaft of light filtering through the trees so far above, feeling the majesty and silence of the forest, and watching a salmon rise in one of those swift streams… all our problems seemed to fall into perspective and I think every one of us walked out more serene and happier.”