The next morning, I felt surprisingly sore from the hike up to Glacier Point in Yosemite, but the plan was still to do an even longer (though significantly flatter) hike to Clouds Rest. Alarms were set, and after a most basic of breakfast snacks, I started to plot a course to the trailhead on CA-120. And that is when the day’s plans were re-evaluated – CA-120 travels through Yosemite National Park, linking East Sierras to California’s central valley. The problem with the road, it closes over winter, but, being the start of June, we expected that the road was going to be open – which it was when I looked at distances on Google Maps two days prior. This started a frantic search to see if Google Maps was wrong, or not – it wasn’t.

Moderately undeterred, we decided to take the longer route around to the trailhead, via CA-108. It was a significant detour, and with every mile costing money, I was keen to avoid un-necessary driving. But, at the same time, we needed to get to the other side of the mountain range to continue on to Death Valley anyway.

CA-108 turned out to be an even higher mountain pass, however, it is cleared more frequently, as it’s a regular road. The ascent was long, and would have been a noisy chore in Gunter (the motorhome I travelled around Europe in), this modern rental ate up the climbs without a sweat – though, I’m pretty sure I could see the fuel gauge moving down while we were driving up. There was certainly snow at the higher altitudes, but the road was completely clear, which made me curious about CA-120.

I was late to the party and only discovered this after the fact, but where CA-108 joins the US-395 south, there are several natural hot springs – next time, I guess. Now that we were across the Sierras, it felt like a whole new state, with a whole new feel – and a new (old) decade. We were now seeing advertising for guns, and Trump, both of which are a novelty after living in SF ­– and the trucks were bigger out here than ever.

We continued south along the flat-ish plains beside the rugged peaks just to our right. The Sierras didn’t appear half as dramatic from the west, so it definitely caught me by surprise. Eventually we caught a fantastic view of Mono Lake, which almost appeared like an oasis. We knew we had a large hike ahead of us, so we opted to continue on to Clouds Rest, and visit Mono Lake on the way back.

But, it turned out that where Google Maps said CA-120 was closed from the east, was not actually where the road was closed. Fortunately there was a sign right as we turned off US-395 warning us that it closed much sooner than we’d anticipated. Unfortunately, it meant we weren’t able to get anywhere near where we wanted to be to start the hike. Park rangers didn’t seem to think the road was going to open for another few weeks, so, we had no choice but to abandon Clouds Rest and make alternative plans.

This did mean we had plenty of time to go visit Mono Lake, and gawk at the strange tufa rocks that appeared to be growing like organic lumps from the surface of the lake. It was interesting, and there were probably more interesting places to observe the lake, but we wanted to go hike some mountains, so it felt a little lacklustre.

A ranger did suggest a short nearby hike to Parker Lake, which he said was quite scenic, so we made our way back into the foothills of the Sierras, and started our mini-hike. About 30-minutes into the walk, I remembered how stiff/sore my legs felt this morning, and realised that not being able to hike Clouds Rest was probably a blessing in disguise. I have no doubt that I could have pushed my way through the 25km hike, but I would have had to push hard.

Anyway, it was a gradual, but constant ascent up to Parker Lake, with the snowy peaks getting closer and closer as we walked through the trees. The trail eventually opened up, and there was a small body of water flanked by some rocked snow-capped peaks. It was pretty in its own right, but it wasn’t quite the same as the rooftop of Yosemite. It also really reminded me of one of the short hikes I did with my brother in Colorado – only this time, we braved the freezing waters for a quick dip.

East Sierra Hot Springs

A little further south, almost opposite Mammoth Lakes, there are a collection of small natural hot springs. I couldn’t get the park ranger to give me any recommendations, so had to resort to reviews on Google Maps. We decided to play it safe, and go to an easily accessible spring, with the option to move to another if we didn’t like it – and the lucky winner was Hilltop Tub, which now appears to be ‘Permanently Closed’ on Google Maps…

There were a few other RVs in the parking area, as well as several other smaller cars. We were taking a punt that it was going to be OK to spend the night here in this car park, and the sight of several other RVs seemed to imply that it was going to be OK.

It was a short walk from the car park to the hot tub along a narrow wooden pathway, which was surprisingly difficult to navigate with so much to look at. I was still amazed that there are mountains like this in California.

We arrived at the hot tub, which was a simple construction of large rocks, filled in with concrete. There were another two people already in the tub, with two more on their way shortly behind us. It wasn’t a large hot tub, but there was still plenty of space for everyone. It was actually amazing how many different nationalities we had, with only one American, a Belgian, some German/Austrians, a Greek and an Australian.

I love a natural hot spring, but when it’s surrounded by snowy mountains, and a fiery sunset, well, I’m not sure I’m imaginative enough to think of a way of improving it.

We managed to spend the night in the car park without being disturbed – other than the party in the hot tub that seemed to go on until just before sunrise.

I wanted to enjoy one last dip, and I wanted to time that for sunrise – which being early summer was quite early in the morning. I knew that there would be others joining, but for a while I had it to myself, and it was blissful.

Remember two paragraphs ago when I said I couldn’t think of a way of improving this view? Well, today one of the others who joined the bathing was an art nude model, who explained her art something like this – “when I see a beautiful view like this, I think, how can I improve it… I know, with a naked female form”. And she jumped around naked and posed as a photographer took photos of her in front of the sun illuminating the snowy peaks of the Sierras.

She actually photo-bombed my sunrise time-lapse… (it’s not really appropriate to share online, sorry if anyone got their hopes up for a little ‘high art’ nudity)

One benefit of getting up for the sunrise is being awake and active nice and early. We’d received a recommendation from the American last night about a nice lake (with the surprising name of Convict Lake) a short drive away, so that was the plan for breakfast with a view.

Alabama Hills

We continued to drive south, still feeling like we were in a completely different part of America, far from the bubble of life in San Francisco. It was still early, but the temperatures were quickly rising with the sun.

Before turning off to visit Death Valley, there was one last quick stop – Alabama Hills. It at once felt familiar, while also being completely foreign. The juxtaposition of boulders and desert, with snowy mountains in the distance was mesmerising. One of those peaks in the distance is Mt. Whitney, which at 4,400m happens to be the tallest mountain in mainland USA (so, excluding Alaska). There was definitely a thought about climbing it, but that’s something best left for a dedicated trip, not just a casual detour from a road trip – I’m starting to learn.

Anyway, back to Alabama Hills. It was a maze of boulders of all sizes and shapes, and exploring became addictive, wondering what was over the next crest, or around the next corner. It was kind of like Joshua Tree National Park – but without the Joshua Trees.

It wasn’t a surprise find, as we actively attempted to visit this beautiful elongated arch, but it was surprising just how large and prominent this arch was.

We could have spent much, much longer exploring, but it really was starting to get hot – and, what better time to start travelling to the hottest place in USA (and the world), Death Valley.