know before you go
Visiting the California Republic, it turns out, is no small undertaking. D had naively thought it would be enough to book flights and rent a car, and that the rest would take care of itself. In this no-hassle fantasy, we would get up every morning, pick a place, and go exploring. The reality is that not only does one need to obtain permits and make reservations well in advance, but some places are also nearly impossible to visit even with adequate forward planning.
The first place on our must-see list, as it is for many visitors to California’s national parks, was Yosemite, which was described by one of our friends as the most scenic area in the 48 contiguous states. Camping in Yosemite requires a reservation and some of the park’s more popular hikes, such as Half Dome, require an additional permit. Camping permits for the following year typically go on sale in November, and the park website advises would-be visitors to set their alarm clocks for the start of the reservation season because many campsites fill up within minutes.
As we did not confirm our travel dates until just recently, we had to make do with the leftover scraps. There was one campsite with availability during the days we wanted, but it was located far away from the Yosemite Valley and received uniformly terrible reviews from everyone on Yelp and TripAdvisor. Instead, we wound up piecing together a 3-night stay that has us pitching our tent on three different plots in two different campsites.
Half Dome was an even greater disappointment. It’s not enough to purchase the extra permit. The hike is so popular that the National Park Service has implemented a random drawing, requiring prospective hikers to pay a non-refundable lottery fee just for the chance at buying the permit. Registration for the 2013 lottery opens March 1st and the lucky winners will be announced in early April. Unfortunately, the cables that have made Half Dome available to the masses do not open until late May — after we fly back to the East Coast, so we won’t even be able to compete in the lottery this time around.
The Half Dome cables are not the only thing that will be out of commission during our visit. After hours of research, D had finally come up with an itinerary that made sense and enabled us to visit all of the places we had set our hearts on. There was only one problem: one of the roads we intended to use to cross the Sierra Nevada traverses a high mountain pass and, as a result, remains closed until the middle of the summer. Fortunately we know more native Californians than inhabitants of other places to which we’ve blindly planned extensive visits, and one of them was able to suggest an alternative itinerary that avoided the closed road.
Despite these setbacks, our home leave planning is proceeding apace, and now that we have confirmed the last of our flights for this summer, the trip is beginning to feel real, though we still need to work out the logistics for various places, including Lake Tahoe, Death Valley, and Inyo, which also employs a permit lottery for access to the Mt. Whitney zone.
The kind of advanced planning required for visiting America’s most popular tourist destinations takes some of the charm and spontaneity out of travel, but it’s a necessary sacrifice and one we’re happy to make.