California is a state shaped like a sock. In the toe is desert: the Mojave and Death Valley. From the “ball” of the foot, just above LA, up to almost the end of the ankle, the central valley runs through the middle of the state. This area is highly agricultural, growing half of the fruit, vegetables, and nuts produced by America. On the ocean-side of the central valley are the Coast Ranges, a line of mountains starting around Santa Barbara, and on the eastern side run the Sierra Nevadas. Around the top of the sock is almost entirely mountains: the Klamath Range, the Cascade Range, and the Modoc Plateau.
For the second half of our tour of California our goal was to head back south along the eastern side of the state, though the plateau and down the Sierra Nevadas. This would allow us to see Tahoe, Yosemite, King’s Canyon, and generally a much less populated portion of the state.
As we left Crescent City, Daniel and I headed north-east across the Oregon border and did a big U-turn through Grants Pass to get onto the I-5 heading south. There are no more redwood trees there on the eastern side of the state, but there is still heavy forest with lots of pine trees. There are very few people.
We drove through the town of Mount Shasta and admired its namesake peak. Then we got off the I-5 and took a winding route south-east. The area was lonely and wooded. We spent the night in a hotel in the tiny town of Chester.
In Chester we visited the town’s timber museum–which is basically a bunch of old timber equipment in a park. (This was by total coincidence too, we were just going for a walk and happened upon it.) Apparently the area has been dominated by the timber industry for the last hundred years. There is still a working lumber yard in town and as a result the entire place smells like sawdust, which is actually kind of nice. (They should make candles that smell like sawdust.)
The next day was more of the same scenery: lots of pine trees sprinkled with a few smaller orange and red deciduous trees. There are lots of small touristy towns in this area. We passed through the little town of Sierraville which is a destination because of its hot springs. It’s a small enough town that there’s only a single mom-and-pop hotel, so most visitors end up camping.
We also drove through the town of Graeagle (pronounced like “gray eagle” said quickly), which was a small place out in the middle of nowhere that has marketed itself as a destination for golfing and seems to have more visitor cabins than real houses. All of these little tourist towns were sort of charming, but I had to wonder how much business they actually got. Most of our route on this trip was through pretty unpopulated territory.
We stopped for lunch in Truckee, a small town built around ski tourism. To my surprise it was very busy. Restaurants were packed and it was hard to find parking. A few days later I read an article about tech workers from the Bay Area seeking pandemic refuge in the mountains, which explained it. Truckee is a surprisingly cute town, and I can see why it would be a destination for someone trying to escape city rent and crowding.
Continuing south we drove along the eastern side of Lake Tahoe, and then crossed the border into Nevada where we went through Carson City before heading back into California.
South of Tahoe is the Stanislaus National Forest. The geography here has fewer trees and more boulders than the northern part of the state. Stanislaus National Forest encompasses the Emigrant Wilderness, which is a beautiful and rocky area. I will say that the roads through here are pretty windy, so beware if you get carsick.
Just below the Stanislaus is Yosemite. Daniel and I spent a full day in Yosemite. I think the most impressive thing about the park are the big granite mountains that tower above the trees in sheer cliffs.
Sequoia National Park
After the redwood trees on the northern coast I convinced Daniel that he needed to see the other tree that California is famous for: the giant sequoias. (Thinking about it now, I guess CA might also be known for Joshua Trees, considering they have their own national park. Joshua trees look pretty sad though.)
It was in Sequoia National Park that I saw my first-ever wild bear. The bear was just a cub, and climbing a tree at the side of the road. I took a picture from the car, but Daniel wouldn’t let me get out to get a closer look “in case the mother bear comes back.”
Sequoia trees don’t get as tall as redwood trees, but they can be much bigger around. Sequoia National Park has some very old, huge trees. They are so tall and big around that, walking beneath them, they don’t even register as trees–it’s more like they are mountains. Daniel and I walked through the Giant Forest, an area of the park with lots of very old trees. There we saw the General Sherman Tree, which is the biggest tree on Earth by volume.
After this Daniel and I powered through the lower part of the central valley, passing lots of lemon and almond orchards, until we got back to our starting point near Santa Barbara.
Wrapping Up and Winding Down
The eastern side of California has a distinctly different feel than the coast. There are no big cities, and the geography is rougher. The people are different too, more conservative, more blue-collar, and more isolated. I think that as a resident of California (or any other state) it’s important to know your fellow residents and to understand their priorities and concerns. This allows you to understand and empathize with them . In a state as large, populous, and diverse as California this isn’t easy, but I think that it’s necessary. We are lucky to live in such a beautiful, varied place and I have enjoyed getting to see more of it and meet some of the people I share it with.