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Old 7th December 2016, 10:33   #1
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Default To San Francisco & other parts of California

Well not really. While i do want to do a road trip from East to West Coast, that will be another travelogue. So I did go from NJ to SFO, but a big part of it was on the flight. And here's a recap of my trip over thanksgiving weekend.

After my recent trip from Utah I was looking at some photos of milky way from an area that looked like a desert. Upon searching more about it, I found that it was from Death Valley. I had recently started photographing the milky way and the thought of seeing it one more time got me excited. I searched a lot and realized that if I could plan a trip to California then it would serve two purposes – getting to visit different places in California and capture the milky way as was the case with other trips. This was in early October and since I didn’t want to go alone I started asking friends and colleagues. Eventually only one colleague got interested and that was how the trip planning started.

After going through so many permutations and combinations, the decision was to fly to Las Vegas and then drive from there to SFO all the way through Death Valley, Yosemite and then SFO of course. It took almost 2 weeks to decide on the hotels, routes, rental and finalizing other options. Since we were booking at the last min the rates were obviously going to be higher than booking earlier, but we didn’t’ want to miss this opportunity especially with the thanksgiving weekend that gave 4-5 days off. 5 days, 5 different places and experience. Everything was planned as per the book. Being in IT we thought we had put in lot of buffer and everything in the plan was perfect (or at least this is what we thought). But soon did we realize that most travel plans are far from perfect.

Below is what we had planned to cover in 5 days (approx 1200 miles)
Attached Thumbnails
To San Francisco & other parts of California-california-trip.jpg  

Last edited by aditya_rao : 11th December 2016 at 07:59. Reason: corrections
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Old 7th December 2016, 10:46   #2
Join Date: Jun 2013
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Default re: To San Francisco & other parts of California

Fast forward to day of travel (or day 0 as i would call it):
Little did we know adventure was supposed to start on day 0 itself. The flight was in the evening so we decided to call for a ride through Lyft to Philadelphia airport. The ride was 5 mins away, so we would reach more than an hour and 15 mins before departure. The 5 min wait time went on for the next 20 mins and we realized the driver had taken a longer route to reach. Finally, he arrived almost 20 mins late and after some app issues, we were on the way to the airport. When things have to go wrong they go wrong no matter what you do. So after being stuck in the traffic jam we finally reached the airport 45 mins before departure. We had checked in already, so we thought we should be still within the cut off. We went to the kiosk and had almost completed printing the boarding pass and as the final step we had to pay for the check-in bags. An error indicated that we had to check-in our bags at the main counter. That led us to the start of adventure. The staff at the counter indicated the cutoff time for the check-in bags was passed and that we could not check-in our bags. After almost 20 mins of requesting the staff, they managed to get us on the next flight, as they were not ready to allow the bags to come on the next flight. The next flight however meant that we had a connection time of only 5 mins between landing and departure. The second twist was that our bags would be checked-in till Phoenix and not Vegas, as they would not make the connection. So the airline asked us to file a report at Vegas after we reach (if at all we were to make it on time). Anyway we hopped onto the next flight after 2 hrs and landed 30 mins earlier at Phoenix, only to find out that there were no empty bays for the aircraft. So there we sat on the runway for 30 mins and by the time we docked and rushed to the other departure gate, we could see our flight being pushed back. Customer service gave us a flight for the next morning and a hotel for that night near the airport and that was how the journey started (which was very kind of them considering the situation we were into).

Day 1:
We had complimentary breakfast at the hotel and soon the airport shuttle took us to the airport where we checked-in our bags and were on the way to Vegas. The flight landed in an hoursí time and we went to the rental center to pick up the car. I had called the rental agency to tell them of the delay and asked them to hold the same car (Toyota 4runner) for which they obliged. However, when we went to pick up the car we found that the car was already given to someone else and that we had an option of choosing between a Dodge Journey and a Pathfinder. The journey seemed small and a less powerful car and although the pathfinder wasnít in great condition, after wasting an hour there looking for other upgrades we finally took it and started the drive towards Death Valley. I had earlier planned for a scenic route towards Death Valley but considering the time we had wasted decided to take the shortest route. After we started I realized I had forgotten my camera tripod in my own car at home and the other friend forgot his hiking shoes. After debating what to do, we decided to look for a camera shop where we can purchase a tripod and a shoe store where he could purchase the hiking shoes. Spending another hour looking for what we wanted, we found most shops were closed due to thanksgiving and the ones that were open didnít have what we wanted. We eventually went to a grocery store and took some crates of water, fruits, juices and other food stuff for the next 5 days and took off.

On the way we saw some mountains and good sights finally entering into Death Valley. The destination was set to Furnace creek but sign boards indicated that Danteís view point, Zabriskie point were much near and it was nearing mid-afternoon (which meant we had only 2-3 hours before sunset). We managed to cover the last two points, Badwater basin and by the time we made it to devil's golf course, it was past sunset and already dark, so did not have much of a choice. We made it to furnace creek center and had some food, filled up gas and started back to the destination for the night which was Tulare. The driving time was around 5 hours, so we were hoping to reach by midnight. The roads in Death Valley were full of turns and curves, and since it completely dark, we could not make out what type of terrain was surrounding us. We stopped midway to see if the Milky way was visible. Itís winter so the milky way core is difficult to see in the northern hemisphere, but finally captured what looked like the side arc.
Here are some pictures from day 1

On the way to death valley
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_0919.jpg

To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_0936.jpg

Some small mountains on the way as we were nearing death valley
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_0949.jpg

Badwater basin as viewed from Dante's view
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1006.jpg

Badwater basin below the sea level
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1278.jpg

To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1297.jpg

Milky way when we stopped on the road while returning from death valley (too hazy though, and we didn't have a tripod, so this was taken by keeping the camera pointed upwards on the bonnet
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1320.jpg

another view of badwater basin
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1289.jpg

Last edited by aditya_rao : 11th December 2016 at 07:01.
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Old 7th December 2016, 10:58   #3
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Day 2:
We had breakfast and had couple of things lined up for the day other than sightseeing – tripod and shoes, snow chains and paying a visit to hertz. Why the rental car agency? On the previous day I had noticed that the pathfinder was losing power occasionally and I had to push to almost 4000 rpm to maintain speeds above 50 mph. Not sure what the problem was but this was happening on a flat road also. After we went shopping, the other guy finally got the shoes he wanted and after visiting hertz we were told they were a small center and we would have to go to Fresno to find a matching car (or keep driving till it stalls). Weighing all options, we decided to keep moving. We could not find the chains at 3 of the Walmart’s we checked at (the one that had, didn’t have matching ones). The next stop was paying a visit to the General Sherman tree (the oldest Sequoia tree and the one that was at one time the tallest).

Parking is always a problem at tourist spots and we had to go around in circles 4 times to get ta parking spot. The tree is at a short walk/hike of 15-20 mins from the parking stop and after an hour we were back to the car. It was almost sunset so we clicked few pictures and finally started towards Yosemite Valley. The earlier plan was to reach Yosemite by 3 PM to see the sunset and take one of the short hikes in the valley (so much for planning ). After sunset it took us couple of hours to reach the half dome village at midnight. We had booked the tents there so we were hoping it to be a good experience (although I have stayed in a tent in Utah and other self-camping sites). We had called the booking office to let them know that we we would delayed, but unfortunately the office hours were till 5 PM only. Worried that no one would be available to give us the tents, we somehow rushed to the reception to find people were still coming in at the site. We were told that they were giving us an upgraded tent with a heater. AT 0 degrees I wasn’t sure how the heater was going to help, but it was still better than nothing. We were given instructions on bear safety and how to empty the car and keep everything in bear proof locker and told how bears can track scent from a far off distance.

We had packed some desi food and the moment we opened the boxes, the smell spread out like anything. We had not eaten anything for the 5 hours of driving so we finished everything and locked everything in the locker. Yosemite is a good place to see the stars and Milky way (if visible). So after the so called dinner we headed towards Tunnel view (which looks great in day time). In the last few hours of driving I hardly had a clue of what I was driving through. It felt I was driving in circles, going up and down and round and round over and over. When we reached tunnel view a group of people had already gathered to take photos of the stars and were already in long exposure modes. After spending around 30 mins there we came back as it was not very clear and while the stars were visible, the milky way wasn’t very clear. We came back and slept hoping the bears would not be wandering around.

Carving near a hotel as we were nearing the sequoia national park
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_0938.jpg

mountains visible on the way
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_0978.jpg

To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_0970.jpg

starting point for the general sherman tree trail
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1019.jpg

General sherman tree
To San Francisco & other parts of California-tree.jpg

sunset while existing the park
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1102.jpg

stars from tunnel view in yosemite
To San Francisco & other parts of California-stars.jpg

Last edited by GTO : 12th December 2016 at 10:01. Reason: Spacing :). Thanks for sharing
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Old 7th December 2016, 11:29   #4
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Day 3:
We woke up to a sunny morning. The night was quite cold and the heater didn’t do any good as expected. Luckily I had bought snow trousers along with couple of jackets and multi-layer clothing, so somehow it was manageable. When I came out of the tent I realized where we were. Surrounded by mountains, half dome and the other mountains were just behind the camp. The view was great and we quickly got ready and went to the restaurant for breakfast (btw Wifi is available there). After a quick bite we decided to check-out rather than park and take the bus. The buses were running at intervals of 20 mins, so we thought we could do some smaller hikes and take the bus when we were near multiple spots. We went to the village store and finally got a parking spot in the parking near it (the store parking is only for 30 mins as per the staff).

The visitor center was few mins walk from the parking and so were couple of other spots. So we enquired at the visitor center and decided to do the lower Yosemite falls, mirror lake and the half dome viewpoints. The weather was looking good for the remainder of the day and snow was predicted at 5 PM. Our initial plan was to go to lake Tahoe but we dropped in favor of atleast seeing Yosemite at our own pace rather than hurrying up. Our departure time was 3 PM, so we could do the hikes at a leisurely pace and have food and get out of the valley. After finishing up the hikes, we came back and started back. So far so good. It was starting to turn cloudy and we realized that it was in preparation for the snow at 5. At 3 PM we started from Tunnel view with a slight drizzle hoping that we would be out of the park heights within an hour (first mistake). The moment we crossed tunnel view and entered the curvy section, the droplets turned into ice and snow and that was when we realized that we had been made by the weather. Within 5 mins we could see cars line up in the show and some had also started to slip and skid. Ours was a 4WD, so we thought with the little snow we should be able to get out somehow. After 5 more mins we heard few cars had bumped into each other further ahead and behind us as well. We walked up and down and heard that the roads were closed and only those with snow chains were allowed. Some desi folks had come in FWD cars (mustang, charger etc.) and after a while even the Jeep Wrangler guys were not ready to move an inch, citing the heavy snow.

So now there were almost 50-60 cars stuck in the middle of nowhere and a call to the park rangers gave us an update that the snow ploughs would be brought in by night and there was no definite time for them to arrive in our area. We had flashlights, knives and other emergency equipment except for fire starter. A quick check on the fuel gage indicated that we had more than half tank of fuel, so the idea was to keep the engine running for 5 mins every 30 mins with the heater on, if we have to stay throughout the night. After couple of hours someone suggested that we should head back into the valley as that was only 10-15 mins away in the other direction. We thought of putting on the snow chains and one of the guys in the cars ahead said he can help as he has experience with them. But then our snow chains were of the large truck type and not the best ones for the SUV. And another van had started to slip on similar chains, thought it was not a 4x4. We dropped the idea and finally agreed to do what the other were planning – head back. Slowly most of the cars started to turn back and then after few meters we saw the flashing lights (which meant some rangers had arrived on the spot). We were hoping for it to be a snow plough but it turned out a bmw had bumped into another car after slipping, so they had brought the two truck. We stopped to check with the ranger on the options and he suggested that Rt 140 was open and had very minimal snow and it was clear most of the way out of the valley and anyone wanting to get out should go that way.

So while it was almost 40-60 mins more than the route we had planned, that was our only option considering the snow and the darkness around. Most cars maintained a steady pace of < 5 mph and after almost 2 hrs were on a dry road. We stopped in a small town to fill up gas where it had started to rain. We reached the next checkpoint at Modesto by 11 PM and hoped the ordeal was over for good.

view from the half dome camp
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1142.jpg

mountains in yosemite valley
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1238.jpg

some snow visible on the mountains
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1240.jpg

half dome visible near the visitor center
To San Francisco & other parts of California-y1.jpg

on the way to mirror lake
To San Francisco & other parts of California-y2.jpg

yosemite falls from a distance
To San Francisco & other parts of California-y3.jpg

Last edited by GTO : 12th December 2016 at 10:02. Reason: Spacing :). Thanks for sharing
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Old 8th December 2016, 08:03   #5
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Day 4:
The rain subsided by morning and it was sunny again and after a very minimal breakfast at the hotel we started for the day 4 of the trip which was to cover the pacific coast highway (State Route 1). The plan was to start from Monterey, visit Carmel-by-the-Sea, 17 mile drive, Bixby creek bridge, Big Sur and visit Santa Cruz (mystery spot) on the way back to SFO. The day went mostly well, except that when we reached Big Sur we found out that the park was closed (not sure why, but the timings said the visitor office was open till 4 PM, but there were signboards on the road couple of miles before the entrance stating that the area was closed). So probably it was closed for the whole day or week. Considering the distance to Santa Cruz we knew mystery spot would be closed by the time we reach. So we stopped on the way for the sunset near bixby bridge and finally started back for SFO after it became dark. Reaching SFO took us 2-3 hours and we since we had not had any Indian food for the majority of the trip, we decided to look for one as we enter SFO. We found a small place called Little Delhi and the reviews seemed positive. So we headed there using the on street parking, which by the way was a bit scary due to the large number of homeless people roaming in the area. The restaurant staff said it was 50-50 with car safety, so we had to eat quickly. We reached the hotel before 10 and hoped for a good night sleep (for the first time in 4 days). Hotel parking was chargeable but was locked, so it was better than on street parking. We then headed to golden gate bridge and twin peaks, but didnít find the views at night as appealing as we had imagined. But there was nothing much to see at night and since it was nearing midnight, we decided to go back and take rest

sea view from monterey, there's some vignetting due to a filter that got stuck on my lens (i broke the filter but the rings are stuck on it)
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1347.jpg

pacific views from 17 mile drive
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1443.jpg

To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1477.jpg

sunset on route 1
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1708.jpg

cars zipping by on route 1
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1747.jpg

another view of the pacific ocean on the 17 mile drive
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1613.jpg

bixby bridge (to much sunlight was there so had to make it a bit dark)
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1663.jpg

Last edited by aditya_rao : 11th December 2016 at 07:14.
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Old 8th December 2016, 08:51   #6
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Day 5:
This was our last day on the trip and since it was mostly roaming in SFO, we hoped it would be relaxing. After having breakfast, we negotiated with the hotel staff to keep the car in their parking till evening (that was when we would leave for the airport). The hotel staff agreed to our request based on the fact that it was a Monday and there were few cars in the parking. The plan was to take the car to golden gate bridge and lombard street and then keep it at the hotel parking. We started for golden gate bridge and planned on spending an hour and half there. When we reached, most of the parking slots were taken except for a car that was backing out. So we managed to take the slot and headed to the parking meter for the payment.

The maximum time one can spend there is 2 hrs (for parking purposes). City buses are seen running every 15-20 mins (not sure of the exact frequency). We took a few snaps from the point near the parking and then headed for the view point next the road. Next to it is a pedestrian path (shared with cyclists). We took few photos from the viewpoint and then headed for the bridge. It was windy though not that cold, but we managed to walk half of the bridge before deciding to return. Walking the whole length would have been anyway tiring (unless we didn’t have anything else to do for the whole day). We came back with 3 mins left on the parking. The next thing was to back into the city and drive through Lombard street (or crooked street as it’s called). But after checking the map for other places we thought the since Labyrinth’s end is nearby, we should head there first and then drive back into the city. It took about 15-20 mins to get to the point on the map. We actually reached Point Lobo and the USS San Francisco memorial and thought that was labyrinth’s end, but realized later on that we had missed the actual point where the stones are lined up in a pattern. The view was nice though at Point Lobo with the ocean waves hitting the narrow coastline (not exactly the sandy coast but that’s like the end point). Am not sure why it’s called Lands’ end Labyrinth’s, as it does not look like the westernmost point for all of west coast.

The other thing that we found out was that being a Monday it would not be so difficult to get parking in the city and most places have got free parking for 1-2 hrs (some have 30 mins also). So we finally decided to take the car instead of taking public transport or Uber. The next stop was Lombard street which was another 15-20 mins’ drive considering the traffic. We first drove down the street and then decided to park for some photos. We found a 2 hr free parking in the next block and then walked down for some photos. If you stand at the starting point you can see the street road going downhill. Parking is difficult in some areas as the roads are at an incline and you need to park at 90 degrees. So essentially the car is tilted on one side and one door opens with extra force while the other will bang on the sides if not held properly.

After crooked street it was Coit tower on the list. Coit tower has got 30 mins free parking and sometimes cops keep looking for people going beyond the limits as they are frequently coming in for checks. The elevator to the top cost $8 per person. Since we had 30 mins we decided to go on the top. You can get a panorama view of SFO from Coit tower, there are windows in a 360-degree view fashion, and this covers all sides of SFO. You can see the piers, Golden Gate bridge, Alcatraz etc. from a high position. We didn’t go to Alcatraz as we didn’t have lot of time left. It was afternoon by the time we came out of Coit tower, so some lunch was necessary. We found a small restaurant nearby and then we were off to Pier 39. We reached Pier 39 and decided to park there (Parking there is 15$ flat rate after 4 PM), so we decided to visit the pier before heading back to the airport. We visited Pier 39 and then Pier 14 as well and then came back for a final pack up of the luggage and open items that we had left as it is from day 1. We could hear the sea lions at Pier 39 but due to low light could hardly take any photos at after sunset. Pier 14 provides good views of the bay bridge at night. And that basically brings me to the end of the trip (almost).

We packed up everything and cleaned the car to an extent and then made our way towards SFO airport. On the way we stopped for a quick re-fuel for gas and then went into the hertz return area at the airport. Hertz has one full level for its returns whereas other rental agencies share another floor. The returns process was quick and within 5 mins we were on the way to the air train. We had come almost 2 hrs before the scheduled departure. Considering the adventure, we had on the first day we didn’t want to take any risk.

We had packed some items for dinner at the restaurant so after check-in, ate the food we had packed and then headed for the departure gates. Waiting at the airport it was looking at other destinations on the internet, thinking of where i should go next and then i saw a photo from Alaska and that's when i started planning for the next holiday

night view from twin peaks
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1756.jpg

golden gate bridge in the morning
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1771.jpg

another view of the golden gate bridge
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1912.jpg

view from coit tower
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_2031.jpg

night view from pier 14
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_2115.jpg

bridge view while walking on it
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1832.jpg

view from point lobo
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_1896.jpg

coit tower
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_2027.jpg

inclined street
To San Francisco & other parts of California-img_2023.jpg

Last edited by GTO : 12th December 2016 at 10:03. Reason: Spacing :). Thanks for sharing
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Old 12th December 2016, 10:04   #7
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Default Re: To San Francisco & other parts of California

Thread moved from the Assembly Line (The "Assembly Line" Forum section) to the Travelogues Section. Thanks for sharing!
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Old 14th December 2016, 10:50   #8
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Default Re: To San Francisco & other parts of California

Great write-up. Yes, the west coast is on my bucket list, and I'll likely rent too, rather than drive down there from Iowa. I'm sorry the Pathfinder gave you issues, the power loss sounded like a classic CVT problem they've been having. The part where you got stuck up in freezing rain and snow was interesting. Couple of tips: Freezing rain is way worse than snow because it forms black ice really quickly and you really cant see it on roads. Best check weather a few hours ahead and plan your day accordingly. And even an inch of snow can wreck havoc if someone hasn't driven on snow before. It seemed like a lot of drivers out there did not.
That said, you must have gotten places to stay for pretty cheap, given this isn't the season for people to visit Yosemite.
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