Into The Park

I’m up early as I need to be at Yosemite Valley Lodge for 9.30 am to take the Two Hour Valley Floor Tour at 10 am. I collared a bus driver last night who drove the regular service from Mariposa to Yosemite Village to ask about roadwork warning signs I’d seen, warning of delays. He said they weren’t much of a problem, but maybe to allow an extra 10-15 minutes.

On getting up I look out onto my back terrace and it’s not raining but the sky is still very grey and completely clouded over. Maybe there is hope… After my in-room breakfast and check-out however, as I pack the car to depart, the rain starts again. It’s getting very heavy. Driving out back onto Hwy 140 E at 8.30 am, the heavens have opened. As I drive on through awesome scenery on a narrow road towards the Park entrance, it’s become a torrential downpour. Not good.

There are a load of road works and diversions in the Yosemite Village area and I have to stop and ask a car park guy at one point which way to go because the signs are so crap. I eventually find the Lodge just after 9 am. A torrent of rain is still descending from the sky. I get wet just walking a few yards from the car into the Lodge to pick-up my tour ticket.

The coach is full by departure at 10 am, which the driver comments is unusual because when it rains a lot of people don’t turn up for tours they’ve booked. Given how far Yosemite Village is from civilisation – it’s 30 miles and an hour’s drive to Mariposa – I find this odd as to why you wouldn’t turn up. I mean almost everyone must be there overnight (or nearby like me). I’m sure it’s too far for a day trip for a 10 am tour. Or maybe not?

Two Hour Valley Floor Tour

Anyway, we’re all aboard, but as we pull out onto the roads around the Park it’s clear – no pun intended – that we cannot see a goddam thing out of the windows. The mountains are just vague outlines due to the almost impenetrable mist of the rain spray. In some cases I can’t even see the top of a mountain, the cloud and rain are that bad. Nevertheless we are “invited” by the tour driver to get off the bus at El Capitan to “see” the peak. Fat chance of that. I decide not to wear my jacket as it will get soaked very quickly – the rain is still pounding down – and as the driver regales us with tales of the mountain I get very wet.

My rationale was that maybe my t-shirt would dry out quicker. I decide, to paraphrase Chef in Apocalypse Now, to “never get outta the bus” again. So at other stops when most of the people get off to get soaked again, I stay put. They can’t see a goddam thing anyway, so what’s the point?

El Capitan in YosemiteYosemite FallsViews around YosemiteViews around Yosemite

At one later stop the rain has abated and I do get out – and I’m nearly dry now – but the rain starts up again after a few minutes so I quickly get back on board. To say this is a shame is a massive understatement. Through the mist I get glimpses at times of the mountains and can figure out that this place is awesome and amazing. I resolve to come back one day and hopefully see it in all its beauty.

The Tioga Pass. A Problem. A Big, Big Problem.

But the real bummer here is that at the Park entry gate earlier – $30 fee by the way, bloody expensive just to get in even if the weather was nice – I mentioned to the Rangers as I paid and we discussed the bad weather, that I was going over the Tioga Pass after the tour. Whereupon they told me the Pass was closed to traffic. Shit. “Why?” I asked. “It’s 10,000 feet up, it’s a true mountain pass, and the rain down here falls as snow up there. So the road got blocked by snow in the past couple of days of the storm. We’ve no idea when or if it will open again this season. It’s very early for it to be closed though.”

I knew the Tioga Pass got closed by snow for many months over the winter but it usually doesn’t happen until November. Just my luck. I explain to the Rangers that I’m supposed to be in South Lake Tahoe tonight. We then have a long – but very helpful – discussion about my options. Which are not many. The bottom line is that there is no way over the top of the mountains  to get to I-395, east of the Park. This is the road that would take me to Lake Tahoe. I will have to go up the Park’s west side then try to cut across the Sierra Nevada further north. One of the Rangers strongly advises against using Hwy 120 W as “it would be very dangerous in this weather and I used know because I used to live up that way.”

The conclusion is that my only option is to backtrack all the way to Merced. Then blast up Hwy 99 to Sacramento and cut across to Tahoe. Oh dear. One of the Rangers says, “It should take you about 5½ to 6 hours but the Tiago route would be 4½ so it’s not that much longer.” Indeed, I think, but that’s not the point, is it? As helpful – and I really do mean that – as they were, I’m really screwed here but need to decide on a plan. I tried to put this out of my mind during the tour but now it’s decision time. There’s no point staying in the Park any longer, with no guarantee if the weather might break. I just need to get going otherwise I won’t be in Tahoe until midnight.

I overheard a potentially relevant comment by a guy on the Lodge’s Tour Desk to someone else earlier and I approach him to ask his advice. My problem outlined, his colleague chips in about not using Hwy 120 W as well, echoing what the Ranger said earlier. He said, “It’s very wind-ey”. I tell him I like driving wind-ey roads but I’m not sure in this weather. “It would be too dangerous today”, he says. So the ‘back to Merced’ plan is what I have to do. I do however get a great tip from one of them to cut a corner off near Sacramento by using Grant Line Road – wherever that is.

Back To Merced

Back out on the road again, the rain is still pouring down as I drive past the Rangers post and out of the Park. It’s 12.30 pm. Through the valley alongside the river again, the views are still awesome albeit I was hoping not to see them again so soon. Into Mariposa and there’s still a long way to go. The rain stops as I get near Mariposa and some blue sky peaks through as I approach Merced. I turn onto Hwy 99 N there. I did this stretch of road last year and I remember just how fast it can be. 65 mph is posted as the speed limit but the average is 75. In the outside lane, 80 mph was the norm.

But lane discipline is absolutely awful in the US and worse than I’ve ever seen it today. Idiots get in the outside lane and just stay there doing 60 mph, oblivious to any other drivers. They hold everyone up and force others to undertake in the middle lane. By now I’m motoring along nicely but notice the skies ahead darkening and the cloudline getting ever lower. Soon it’s on the horizon. This looks like a big storm brewing.

A Storm Is Brewing

And then suddenly it hits with no warning. Within seconds visibility is almost zero and from 80 mph I’m doing 50 mph and wondering if even that’s too fast. I cannot see more than a few yards ahead, the rain is like something I have never experienced before. It’s just like a blanket of thick fog. The ferocity of the rain is incredible as well, I can’t remember anything like it ever. After 20 minutes or so the storm abates to drizzle and I take Exit 284 on Grant Line Road, having consulted Google Maps at Yosemite. Eventually this takes me onto Hwy 50 E, and a sign that says South Lake Tahoe. The end is in sight!

With 4 lanes both ways and just a bit of drizzly rain, it’s looking good… And then the rain slowly increases in intensity, 4 lanes becomes 2 lanes, and the rain gets heavier still. The mist and low cloud thickens. 2 lanes each way then becomes just one and it’s practically dark at 4.30 pm. The visibility by now is almost non-existent again. It’s unbelievably bad weather. Thankfully the traffic is very light so I can maintain a decent speed even though the driving conditions are terrible.

Highway 50 then starts winding up through a valley with a river to the right. It would be an amazing view if only I could see it properly! I make a mental note that I need to travel this way in the future when hopefully the weather will be better. But another mental note makes me think driving in this now is really, really hairy. It’s half an exciting drive, half shitting yourself. One slip or slide and I could be either in the ravine to the right where the river is running or driving into a car coming the other way.

Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada

I keep climbing and the elevation markers at the roadside keep getting higher: 3000 feet, 4000 ft, 5000, 6000, 7000… There’s another sign as I pass over Echo Summit, which is at 7382 feet. The weather conditions are a torrential, driving rain that is like a fog. It’s surreal, there’s no other word. I really have never experienced rain like this, it’s a really, really dense mist appearing like fog.

Over the top, I start to descend. Round a bend in the road, and then… an impenetrable grey blanket to the right which I guess would normally be an amazing view of the Lake Tahoe region – maybe something like this – but I see f*** all. It’s a tricky road descent in the wet, with lots of twists and bends. I’ve got to make sure I keep my distance and hope people following me do the same. The descent has caused what cars there are on the road to bunch up together. Eventually the road starts to level out and soon the city of South Lake Tahoe comes into view. I’m still at 6500 feet mind and it’s now bloody cold, only 40 degrees F, and still raining.

Stateline in Nevada

I drive through South Lake Tahoe and cross the state line into Nevada into the appropriately named city of Stateline. Truth be told, there’s no discernible transition from South Lake Tahoe to Stateline, they merge into one urban sprawl. My hotel, Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, is in Stateline. I drop my bags at the valet office and go and park up in the cold and rain, return to check-in and get to my room. I made it. What a journey.

I arrived into my room at 6.30 pm which, everything considered, is not too bad. It’s only a couple of hours later then I had scheduled. I do however feel crap, quite tired. After a while I wander down to the casino floor to check everything out. I have a beer to try and chill out. I’m not impressed with food options at the outlets in here though. I decide however that I’m not driving anywhere, or even walking outside, I’ve just had enough for today. The hotel guide does however say there’s a walkway under the road to the hotel opposite, Harveys, and they have a Hard Rock Café (it’s since been turned into something else). So I decide to go there for dinner.

A Hard Rock Café

When I get there though, it’s absolutely freezing inside. The air con temperature is way too low. I know that casinos do this to keep the punters awake but this is ridiculous. Within minutes I’m almost physically shivering and I’ve not ordered anything yet. But there’s a live band doing a soundcheck, and whilst they sound a bit iffy, I decide to stick it out. I order food and a rack of ribs arrive a while later but they are very average. Why do so many chefs not take off the ribs’ back membrane? Ugh.

The band start playing as I eat but they really don’t seem to know what they want to be or what they’re doing. Various band members are on and off the stage after every song. They start with 5 blokes, then add a lady singer, then there’s only three of them murdering Clapton’s version of Crossroads – it’s very, very bad, trust me – followed by 4 of them cocking another famous tune up… need I go on? Get the picture?

The lady singer, when she’s onstage, has not got a strong enough voice for a start but she’s often buried low in the mix too. Then there’s a singer/guitarist who has got false pretensions of his own brilliance with his wanky guitar-hero posing on stage. He also engages in some highly unnecessary swearing during his between-song interactions with the audience. Prick.

I’d like to have stayed longer to see if things improved but by this time I was actually shivering and I had to leave otherwise I’d have turned into a block of ice. As I left I made my feelings known to the manager, but in a positive way. He told me he has no say over the temperature in the restaurant as it’s controlled by the hotel. He says they keep complaining about it and that he and his staff are constantly cold as well, but nothing can be done about it. So I told him I would have stayed longer if it wasn’t for the cold and that was the only reason I was leaving. Not true maybe but I thought maybe it might help him sort out what is clearly causing a problem to his business. I did my bit! To bed and some warmth…

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