Amazing national parks, stunning coastline, incredible cities and beautiful buildings help make a trip through California something special.
I enjoy travels in Europe. After all, it has the magnificent Alps, exotic big cities, romantic little towns, beautiful old churches, and lots of castles. However, when some German friends visited us, we took them to some of the highlights of California. It is a tour you could repeat in 7–10 days, or more if you have the time and inclination.
We departed Long Beach for a somewhat long and uneventful drive to Oakhurst. That is about the same distance as from Frankfurt, Germany, to Interlaken, Switzerland. The next morning we entered Yosemite National Park and went to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoia trees.
Using my National Park Access Pass, I was able to follow a tour wagon along the old road through the Grove. At the top of the route, my wife and friends walked down the trail through the magnificent sequoias—Germans love to walk through the woods. Meanwhile, I slowly drove back to the parking lot, taking in the treetop views through my vehicle’s open sunroof. There are lots of trees in Germany and Switzerland, but nothing there can compare with the California Sequoiadendron giganteum.
We continued along Highway 41 and emerged from the curvy, tree-lined road at Glacier Point. I have seen the Jungfrau from Murren and the Matterhorn from the Gornergrat, but Half Dome from Glacier Point is equally breathtaking and spectacular. What a view! The Glacier Point area has been completely remodeled and is very wheelchair accessible.
Lodging in Yosemite is difficult; book as far in advance as possible. I was not able to obtain rooms at Yosemite Lodge, so I reserved two nights at Cedar Lodge, a few miles from the El Portal park entrance. Note: Yosemite’s room prices compare favorably to the high prices in Europe.
From there it was easy to drive into Yosemite Valley. While the morning was crystal clear, it clouded over, and a light rain began in the afternoon. Therefore, we parked by the Visitor Center and viewed the film Spirit of Yosemite.
Afterward, we took the wheelchair shuttle bus to the Nature Center at Happy Isles. A new wheelchair-accessible trail goes toward Vernal Falls, but I don’t know how far, because we returned to the shuttle to have dinner at the Yosemite Lodge Cafeteria. On the way back to Yosemite Lodge, we saw a bear through the vehicle’s window. Our German friends were thrilled.
The next morning was taken up with a hike along the new wheelchair-accessible trail to the base of Yosemite Falls, then across the meadow to the footbridge over the Merced River, along the river to Stoneman Bridge, and over to the Ahwahnee. We toured the hotel and looked at the grand Dining Hall, then had hot dogs and beer on the Ahwahnee Terrace. That afternoon included a jaunt to Mirror Lake, which I declined in favor of sitting in the sun and reading a book while taking in a magnificent view of Half Dome in one direction and Yosemite Falls in the other. Any day in Yosemite is a good day.
Our trip continued along the California Central Valley to overnight in Sacramento, about the same distance as from Frankfurt, Germany, to the heart of the Black Forest. Sacramento is comparable to European cities, since there is the renovated Capitol Building and the old section of town. We took our German friends to Sutter’s Fort State Historical Park, which they enjoyed immensely. They were fascinated by the character of Old Sacramento, especially its many shops.
San Francisco is well known to Europeans, and our friends were excited to see it. I booked two nights on Fisherman’s Wharf. For me, the wharf is a good location, and I was surprised to discover the trolley and the minibuses were wheelchair accessible. After a walking tour through Fisherman’s Wharf, we had dinner at Tarrantino’s with a view of the fishing boat harbor.
The next morning my wife and friends were up early and on the cable car to Chinatown. Of course, these cars are not accessible. After lunch we were off to Muir Woods. Our friends were awed by the California Coast redwoods, so tall and majestic. They were surprised to find such a peaceful and beautiful woods so close to the urban area of an exotic city like San Francisco.
We returned to Fisherman’s Wharf via the Presidio and Lombard Street, the steep, “crooked” street. Our friends were delighted by the sea lions at Pier 39.
We left our hearts in San Francisco and began our trek down Highway 1 to Long Beach. We stopped at Ano Nueva State Beach on the chance that a few elephant seals would still be present. A wheelchair-accessible tour costs $7, but it must be booked in advance.
We continued to Monterey, where we spent the night. Cannery Row is an interesting place, though not as John Steinbeck described it in his writings. Monterey has a first-class aquarium, and the sea otter exhibit is special. However, you should allow at least three or four hours to see the aquarium to warrant the $27.50 entry fee.
The next morning we drove the scenic coast road around Pacific Grove and entered the 17 Mile Drive. Our friends were astonished to see mansion after mansion in this beautiful golf-course and cypress-covered coastal setting. We exited the Pebble Beach community at Carmel’s white sand beach, where I am sure my friends would eagerly have spent many days soaking up the sun, as many Europeans are wont to do.
We stopped at the Carmel Mission, Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Rio Carmelo. The Mission Museum gave a wonderful representation of early California life and the cultural and spiritual heritage of this great state. In its own way, it is comparable to any church or cathedral Europe has to offer.
We had a picnic lunch at Point Lobos State Reserve. A new wheelchair trail provides excellent views of Sea Lion Point and Headland Cove. The drive along Highway 1 south of Point Lobos offers spectacular vistas and views. We even caught a glimpse of an occasional whale spout in the distance. Be sure to take a pair of binoculars.
Arriving for the night at San Simeon, we watched a few surfers catch waves and enjoyed a beautiful sunset over the ocean. I booked the 10:30 a.m. wheelchair tour at Hearst Castle. Although the building is formally named “La Cuesta Encantada” (“The Enchanted Hill”), William Randolph Hearst usually called it simply “the ranch.” Now it is commonly referred to as “Hearst Castle” or just “San Simeon.”
The wheelchair tour must be booked in advance because only four people are allowed on each one. We arrived a few minutes early and watched the film and viewed the exhibits at the Visitor Center. Our tour began with a ride to the castle in a lift-equipped bus. We had an excellent guide, full of interesting facts and information. Once at the castle, we saw Hearst’s indoor pool, under the tennis courts. Then we boarded a wheelchair-accessible golf cart for a ride to the outdoor “Neptune” pool, and the back entrance to the castle. After a brief tour of the kitchen, we exited the castle and were led around the exterior, through the gardens, and into one of the three major guest houses: Casa Del Mar.
Next we joined a larger group to see the ground floor of Casa Grande, beginning with the Assembly Room, then the Dining Room, the Billiards Room, and the Theater. That concluded our special tour, since there aren’t elevators to get to the upper floors. It was well worth the $24 admission; it’s free to those holding a California Disabled Veterans Park Pass.
I have seen all of Mad King Ludwig’s Bavarian Castles, including Neuschwanstein, and Hearst Castle is every bit as incredible as any of them. Our German friends were amazed that a private citizen could build and own such a magnificent estate, where Hearst entertained presidents and movie stars.
Our next stop was Solvang, a piece of Denmark in California’s Santa Ynez Valley. Solvang is a romantic little town with a European flavor. Our German friends got a kick out of comparing the prices of European items in Solvang shops to the prices they knew at home.
From Solvang it was a couple of hours’ drive down Highway 101 to Long Beach and the conclusion of our driving tour of California. Our friends had a marvelous time.
I hope you have enjoyed this description of our California tour and you are encouraged to take a similar trip yourself.