Vajentic Family Western Odyssey: Week 2, Day 9 (Sunday, July 21)

Before leaving Las Vegas, Sharon wanted to try her luck with a slot machine.  While the boys and I waited for the valet to bring the car around for us to load up, Sharon popped back inside the casino to try her luck.  Unfortunately, she did not win. However, we still left Las Vegas as winners (at least if only count our net gambling proceeds).  On the way out of town, I took some pictures of 'Leaving Las Vegas' so that I could be like Sheryl Crow or Nicholas Cage.  Our destination this day was the Evergreen Lodge on the northwest side of Yosemite National Park.  Since it was a hot day in the middle of July, and we were on a quest to visit as many National Parks as possible, I thought it would be a great idea to drive straight through Death Valley!  We visited a drive-through for some lunch in Pahrump, NV, before heading into the arid valley of death!  Ever prepared, I even bought some bottled water to take along in case the car overheated. Sharon and I had taken an excursion to Death Valley from Las Vegas the previous December, and I never would have dreamed I'd be driving back into the park a mere six months later.  However, here we were, driving through the familiar Death Valley Junction, CA, into the park and on to the Furnace Creek visitor's center.
Ben = not having much fun
  Death Valley is so spread out that it is impossible to see as much as you might want in one day, especially if you are simply driving through to get someplace else, as we were.  Highway 190 goes all the way through the park, so outside of stopping at the visitor center, our Death Valley experience was going to be limited to getting to the other side.  What an interesting, eerie drive!  It feels like what I would imagine it might feel like driving on another planet.  Its awfully lonely.  The salt flats are impressive, and they have the effect of leading one to become aware of one's own insignificance, similar to the feeling of standing next to the ocean.  It's strange to see so much beauty in something so desolate.
Climbing out of Death Valley, with salt flats in the distance
  It took us quite a while to drive through the whole park.  On the way out of the western border of the park, the road begins to climb steeply in elevation.  Joshua trees were everywhere as we exited the park.  By this time, we could see the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada.  We drove down into a valley between the two mountain ranges, and headed deeper into California.  I was beginning to get worried about gas.  Even though I left Las Vegas with a full tank, we were starting to get low, and had not passed a gas station for a long, long time.  Fortunately, we made it into Lone Pine, CA in time to fill up on $6/gallon California gas!  Lone Pine is just at the base of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in California.

View of Mt. Whitney through somebody's yard
  Evidently, many spaghetti westerns were filmed in this area, known as the 'Alabama Hills'.  It's a quaint little valley town, with a neat main street that offered many storefronts that looked like they were straight out of Unforgiven.  After consulting Trip Advisor, we picked a local place to have lunch, but probably should have went to Subway or McDonald's.  The food was not terrible, but the service was really bad.  We even had to wait ten minutes to try to pay our bill at the counter, and I seriously considered walking out without paying.  However, I didn't want to get shot by Sheriff Clint Eastwood, so I grudgingly paid.  U.S. Hwy 395 runs north from Lone Pine to the eastern entrance of Yosemite at Tioga Pass, which is only open in the summertime.  This 3 hour drive is actually quite scenic, with its continuous climb in elevation and the craggy peaks of the Sierra Nevada just to the west.  Somewhere along this drive, about 30 minutes after we left Lone Pine, Ben realized that he left, at the restaurant, his stuffed big-horn sheep that he had picked out from the Death Valley visitor center.  One might have thought his dog had died, as he mourned for his lost stuffed friend and tears streamed down his cheeks.  In a brief moment of insanity, I actually considered turning around and going back for it, but I didn't want to get stuck in the mountains after dark, so we bravely pressed on!  As we neared the entrance to the park, we got a nice glimpse of Mono Lake, and then turned west.  Immediately, the views were breathtaking.  We saw a couple-hundred foot waterfall on the ridges of Mt. Dana, which rose into a glaciated leviathan in front of us.
Cool mountain stream just outside Yosemite
  We had to drive all the way through the park from east to west to get to our lodge, and this was just fine with me as the late afternoon sun gleamed off the mountaintops and crystal blue lakes.  These granite and glacier-carved mountains were unlike any I had ever seen.  We came upon the Tuolumne Visitor Center, stopped to stretch our legs and use the facilities.  Fortunately, there was a gift shop, so we were able to get Ben a replacement stuffed animal.  We poked around the shop for awhile, and then got back in the car to head toward the lodge.  Along the way, we drove by Tenaya Lake, a stunning, alpine mirror-like body of crystal blue water with tall pines giving way to smooth granite on the far side.  It was a long day of driving, and although we were all enjoying the scenic natural beauty afforded by the drive through the park, we were also all beyond ready to get out of the car.  We pulled into the Evergreen Lodge around 6:30 p.m., and I could tell right away that this was a place that I was going to like--a lot.  In accordance with our developing tradition, Ben and I went to check-in, while Sharon and Dominic waited in the car.  We found our cabin, unloaded and settled in to make it our home for the next few days.  I could easily have spent an entire two weeks at this one location.  We went up to the lodge restaurant to get some dinner.  I had cod salad and key lime pie.  
Arrival at Tioga Pass!
Majestic granite












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