Mountains high, deserts low. All awesome.

Trip Start May 07, 2011
Trip End Nov 09, 2011

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What I did
Went to San Diego Zoo car park
Drove to the Mexican border
Drove to Palm Desert via beautiful route 74
No room in any motels in Palm Springs except the one without electricity...
Found one in Banning. Wyatt Earp worked and lived here.
Monday: Drove to Palm Springs Aerial Tramway
Hiked the Round Valley trail in San Jacinto State Park
Ate delicious dinner in an Italian bistro in Palm Springs
Alison drank a beer and liked it!

Flag of United States  , California
Monday, May 30, 2011

Day 18 in California

Today we tried to visit San Diego zoo but didn't realise that it was a Sunday on Memorial weekend. We have not had a watch between us since starting our trip and have not been paying attention to the date let alone the day of the week. The queue in to the zoo car park was huge so we decided to go visit the Mexican border instead and maybe buy a watch. We might visit the zoo on the way back from our next road trip.

We drove down the I-5 to the border but didn't go over because we weren't sure whether they would let us back in again and didn't fancy the queue at the crossing. Instead we went to a shopping outlet complex and bought a watch so we'd know what the time and date are from now on! This completes our drive down the pacific highway. We've now driven the entire coastal road from the top of California to the bottom. The highlights were the barely inhabited parts in Northern California above San Francisco, and the Big Sur. Driving north to south is the best way since the car is always on the side of the road closest to the ocean or the cliff edge. Slightly better views in this direction we think.

We ate half a subway sandwich and then set off on our next road trip. This trip is less planned out but we'll make our way over to Death Valley in Eastern California, the Grand Canyon in Arizona and visit Las Vegas in Nevada. We stopped for fuel just before we set off and a really cool Lowrider drove up to the next fuel pump. It looked a bit like this except it was turquoise blue, really really shiny and totally awesome! (Says Alison)

We set off north on highway 15 then turned off towards Hemet and followed the 74 all the way across to Palm Springs. For quite a while we drove across a big flat open space. We commented on the big mountains that seemed to be far away but soon we found ourselves driving up them. There were some really spectacular views as we wound our way up the twisty road to 4000 feet. At the top the road worked its way around big boulders. The clouds were dark and heavy like it might rain at any minute but then we drove around a corner and saw more mountains bathed in glorious sunshine. The drive down the otherside was just as twisty and looked down into deep canyons and out over the Palm Desert area. 

Many parts of California have a similar topography to parts of the UK or Spain but the landscape is very different here. The way up the mountain, the side covered in cloud, was green and thick with vegetation. Once we reached sunshine and started driving down the other side all the grrenery disappeared and we found ourselved in baked desert with clear blue skies. This side of the mountain is made up of small granite rocks and small humpy shrubs. Very pretty. We were getting tired before the mountain pass by the spectacular views really woke us up. 

Palm Desert may have been a desert at some point but it's now a large town with thousands of palm trees and lush green golf courses. We drove through with the intention of stopping for the night in Palm Springs. We tried at least five motels but there were no rooms due to it being Memorial weekend. Well, there was a room available for $150, way way out of our budget range, and another available for $40 but they didn't take cards and I'm not sure they had electricity...

We decided to drive on to the nearby freeway and find a motel along the way. There are always hundreds of motels next to the freeways. America seems to be the land of the motel. Not finding a place in Palm Springs turned out to be lucky because we drove past a sign for an Aerial Tramway which goes to a national park at the top of a mountain. This sounded interesting so we'll try it tomorrow. Driving on also let us see a great desert sunset.

We stopped in a place called Banning. This place seems to be made up of a row of motels and a huge, tall Casino building which towers over everything. There are indian casinos all over California but this is by far the largest we've seen. As a young man, Wyatt Earp lived and worked in Banning as a stagecoach driver.

We ate the second halves of our sandwiches for dinner. It is amazing how little we have been eating on this trip. We seem not to need as much food. Perhaps it's the sunshine and fresh air.

Today didn't go at all as expected but turned out well. Also, we are still really glad we didn't get stuck with the Impala!

Day 19

Today was another brilliant day and probably our most enjoyable so far

We drove back to Palm Springs to ride the aerial tramway up to the top of Mount San Jacinto. We weren't sure what to  expect at the top and were worried it could turn out to be a really touristy waste of time and money. It turned out to be well worth the $23 though, giving very easy access to a pristine wilderness via a cable car ride with spectacular views. The tramway station was no more than 250 yards up a slight hill from the car park but nearly everyone stood at a bus stop and waited for a shuttle bus to take them. Amazing!

The tramway was finished in 1963 and takes you to 8516 feet. The journey up is 2.5 miles and takes about 10 minutes. The view of the mountain and desert below are amazing. The mountain has fantastic cracked, steep granite sides which look like they'd be great to climb if it weren't for all the precariously placed boulders everywhere.

The station at the top is very touristy with a few gift shops and a restaurant but once outside, you can walk very quickly into very pretty wilderness (52 miles of wilderness trails up here!). It's only 8500 feet and we'll be going much higher in South America. We were a little breathless for a few minutes but we adjusted quickly adjusted which is a good sign

The tramway leaflet suggested several trails including a 5 mile valley loop and a 0.75 mile nature walk. The valley loop is "only for experienced hikers with suitable equipment". We did this one first and did not find it taxing at all in our canvas shoes. It took us about four hours because we kept stopping to admire the landscape. 

The valley is full of trees, granite boulders, streams, little grassy meadows and singing birds. The smell of the place is amazing. There's a real mixture of alpine scents. Some trees have a warm baked smell of cinnamon while others smell of vanilla and butterscotch. The air is very dry and so is the ground. Walking slightly off the path results in a great crunchy feel as dry bark, wood and pine cones crumble under foot. It's like walking on dry autumn leaves but turned up to 11. 

Later in the year, most of the streams will dry up completely. Currently though, the streams are full and there are patches of snow still around. It was 10C at the top of the mountain and about 30C at the bottom in the desert. We brought warm clothes with us but didn't need them at all. The sun was very warm and there was only the occasional slight breeze

After the valley trail, we walked the short nature trail. This was a lot more crowded but still very pretty. We saw some women struggling around in high heels. Who comes to a national park and only bring heels? There was also a rather plump child lying on his back and refusing to walk another step. He was about 30 yards from the tramway station. We'd have left him behind!

This trip was very fun and very beautiful. We'll definitely be seeking out more walks and national parks.

We took the cable car back to the bottom and were hit by a wave of heat. The car was roasting! This place must be unbearable in the summer. The tramway was thought up in the 30s by an engineer called Crocker wanting to get out of the heat of the desert. The tip of the mountain remains snowy all year and must have looked very refreshing. 

Now that Memorial weekend is over, we easily found a room in Palm Springs. We booked in, had a quick shower and walked in to town for dinner. Palm Springs must be a very rich area. On the mile long walk to downtown from the motel, we must have passed about 20 house furnishing shops and 10 art galleries. 

Found a nice Italian restaurant where the owner cooks and his wife takes the orders. Best Italian food I've ever eaten I think. Very nice end to a great day!

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