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A Trip Through California's National Parks

Patrick Güller and Adrian Pirlet are members of the Helvetic Collective, a group of Swiss photographers and creatives with a passion for capturing dramatic natural landscapes. They linked up to discover California’s national parks; traversing water, forests and sandy dunes. The photos they took are so captivating, they'll have you lusting after your own adventure. This is the story of their trip.

 

Touching down after the 12-hour flight from Switzerland, we were officially in Los Angeles – jet-lagged but eager to begin exploring. Following a one-night stay in a motel in Port Hueneme and some much-needed sleep, we set off.

 

Jalama Beach 

 

The next day, we traveled up Highway 101 to Jalama Beach. In stark contrast to well-known counterparts at Venice and Newport, Jalama Beach is quiet and peaceful; untouched by chaos.

After a scenic hour-long drive between rolling hills and the Pacific Ocean, we were greeted by a deserted beach and a stunning sunset. Before spending the night in our car, we explored our home for the night, entranced by a silence that was interrupted only by the rhythmic crashing of waves merely 50 feet away.

 

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Lake Tahoe

 

The eight-hour drive to Lake Tahoe was broken up only by an obligatory pit stop in San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge. Another 200 miles down the road, we arrived at Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay – so named because of its remarkable blue-green waters. It proved the perfect place for us to refresh after a long day on the road.

After cooling off, we made our way to Bonsai Rock; a magical attraction where four trees appear to be emerging from solid rock. Contrary to their name, they are not actual bonsai trees – though they do look awfully like them. We spent the night there, recharging our batteries at 6,000 feet above sea level.

 

Mono Lake to Tioga Pass

 

From Lake Tahoe we headed south to Mono Lake, in the Sierra Nevada’s Mono Basin known for its unusual salt formations, known as tufa. These “tufa towers” - formed by the calcium-rich hot springs mixing with carbonate minerals in the lake water - emerge from the waters like mystical sculptures.

Early the next morning we hit the road again, headed towards Yosemite. We travelled via Tioga Pass - the highest of its kind in California - which takes travelers uphill through the Sierra Highlands and rewards them with stunning views of Yosemite. After a stop to take in the sweeping views around Gaylor Lakes and the obligatory visit to the Visitor Center for a guidebook and park maps, we were ready for Yosemite.

 

 

Yosemite 

 

We started our Yosemite exploration with a 14,2 km hike to North Dome and back. We were spoilt with unparalleled views Yosemite Valley, making the six-hour hike well worth it. We made it back to our campground just as the sun was setting. Sleep came easy.

The following day we set off early to catch sunrise at Olmstead Point with its close-up views of Clouds Rest - a thin, granite mountain rising nearly 10,000 feet in elevation. It’s cold before the sun rises - so be prepared with warm gear.

Following a quick rest in Yosemite Valley, we set off for Mist Falls via Mist Trail - Yosemite’s ‘signature hike’. Hikers have two options for Mist Trail: a 4.8 km round-trip to Vernal Fall, or an 11 km circular route to Nevada Fall. Be aware that this is a popular trail. Hiking off-season or early morning will help you avoid major crowds. But the swarm of tourists makes sense having seen the pay-off: stunning waterfalls creating rainbows in the sun’s rays - and surprisingly compliant squirrels posing for photos (see gallery below). 

 

A power nap later, we were ready for our final Yosemite sunset mission to Glacier Point, a 15.5 km round trip from the trailhead in Yosemite Valley. Glacier Point provides incredible views as two valleys converge, and we hiked quickly to make the sunset. We relied on headlamps for the descent – so make sure to pack lights for any sunset hike!

Before leaving Yosemite, the next morning, we stopped at the famous Tunnel View which overlooks the valley El Capitan, Half Dome, and Bridalveil Fall – and offered a perfect final sunrise to wrap up the Yosemite leg of our journey.

 

Sequoia

 

A 2.5-hour drive from Yosemite saw us arrive in Sequoia National Park, home to the world’s largest trees. We set up camp at the Lodgepole Campground on the banks of the Kaweah River. Lying amidst trees that have been standing for thousands of years, gazing into a clear, star-spangled sky, feels, in simple terms, like an otherworldly experience. This moment, this view – this is why we travel.

It was another early start the following day, as we made our way up some 6,725 feet to Moro Rock before the crowds accumulated. Luckily, hikers have just a beautiful, quarter-mile climb to the top. We enjoyed the sunrise over the Sierra Forest and striking views of the Giant Sequoia Forest. Then we headed to the General Sherman, the world’s largest tree at 83 meters tall and 11 meters in diameter. It might be cliché, but it’s remarkable how small you feel in the tree’s presence. The magnitude is simply humbling.

We took in more of Sequoia’s glory with a rigorous 10km uphill run from our campsite to the Giant Forest Museum. For solitude and trail running, the paths in Sequoia are unmatched.

From a rocky vantage point known “Little Baldy”, we enjoyed the blood-red sunset lighting up the mountains with fiery tones of pink and orange. The perfect ending to our time in the park.

  

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Death Valley

 

As the sun rose, we embarked on the 5-hour drive from Sequoia to Death Valley - one of Earth’s hottest places. Moving through the “dead” lands of the Sierra - dried out by the blazing sun - was a new experience. Having grown up in Switzerland, we are both more used to lush green fields and snow-capped mountains.

We began our time in Death Valley with a hike at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, hoping to enjoy cooler temperatures after sunset. Though beautiful, the temperature dip failed to arrive – so plan accordingly.

  

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After a toasty night at the appropriately named Furnace Creek campground, we set out for a sunrise hike at Dante’s View. The viewpoint is some 1800 meters up and overlooks the entire Death Valley National Park. It also finally gave us the cooler temperatures we wanted.

The highlight of our Death Valley excursion was undoubtedly Zabriskie Point, part of the Amargosa Mountain Range. A hotspot for visitors, the area is known for its mesmerizing eroded landscape. We spent our final hours here, soaking up the crystal-clear views of the Milky Way as night fell and a colorful sunrise the next morning.

 

Mojave/Kelso Dunes

 

Our last stop was the Mojave National Preserve, two-hours away from Death Valley. We spent our final day in California wandering the Kelso Dunes, which cover 45 square miles and stand 650 feet tall. The three-mile round trip to the top features some incredible views – but keep in mind that hiking in sand is no easy feat. After an exhilarating day at the dunes, we camped out for a quiet night under the vivid starry sky.

 

As we shook the sand from our clothes, packed up our bags, and reflected on the trip, we shared an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Someone once said that “traveling is the only thing you spend money on that makes you richer,” and we headed home to Switzerland feeling significantly wealthier.

   

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