Golden wonder: Any road trip in California has to take in its celebrated parks

Margaret Campbell hit the highways for the drive of her life

California blazing: images from earlier this year of the Golden State in flames might have dampened the enthusiasm of some for the ultimate road trip, yet most of the damage from the terrible fires this year is concentrated in the deep south of the state. The classic Californian drive is justifiably celebrated in Highway 1, which snakes north along the Pacific shore from Los Angeles to San Francisco. But there are alternatives. We decided to turn our backs on the busy coastal route, shrouded as it sometimes is in heavy fog; instead, we headed inland, quickly shrugging off the suburbs of the West Coast metropolis.

In comparison with its crowded cities, California's hinterland is pleasingly free of pollution and urban sprawl and the large and apparently empty spaces on the map contain a number of iconic, as well as lesser-known, national and state parks. Given the distances involved, a car is the only feasible way to travel: we hired a Chrysler Cruiser, an automatic. Drive, park, reverse: what could be simpler? Of course, the American habit of "undertaking", or passing on the nearside on freeways, was disconcerting, as was the rule giving priority to whoever arrives first at a "four-way stop" junction. But California has forgiving roads and fellow motorists.

From the coast, we headed north and east towards the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite. This region had been inhabited for thousands of years by Native Americans but was discovered by non-Indians only in the mid-19th century, when the gold rush brought thousands of prospectors to the region.

Within a few decades tourists were arriving en masse to see deep waterfalls, towering peaks and massive granite cliffs and in a remarkably prescient manifestation of environmentalism, campaigning for protected status soon began. As the Civil War tore North and South apart, President Abraham Lincoln made the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove the nation's first public preserve; two decades later, the Scots-born John Muir and other conservationists lobbied for extended protection, and in 1890 the wider region was designated a National Park. Amid these genetically modified Scottish Highlands is where backpacking was invented.

Today, 3.5 million people come here annually, with the majority spending their time in only a few specific areas of the park's 1,179 square miles. We approached from the west, climbing steadily along the Merced River from a valley of fruit groves, leading to thick pine trees and bare rock faces.

Whatever your expectations of Yosemite Valley, the reality is even more glorious. From the gentle woodlands draped over the river valley, a majestic array of natural towers soars towards the clear skies. Yet Yosemite was too full; even a National Park valley can have too much traffic. Public transport to the park is virtually non-existent. But at least private vehicle use within the valley is discouraged.

We parked the car and explored the area on foot and on the free hybrid electric-diesel shuttles that circulate through the park in summer. These provide access to dozens of trails that lead away from the valley, some to challenging hikes such as that to Glacier Point, others to accessible sights such as Mirror Lake. Another bus heads south to Mariposa Grove, where majestic sequoias have quietly dominated the forest for thousands of years.

The 50-mile Tioga Pass Road, Highway 120, crosses the northern part of the park, but is closed from late autumn to late spring. Traffic was considerably lighter than in the Valley, and we had hopes of spotting more wildlife, especially as regular road signs alerted us to the dangers of speeding. Deer grazed by the side of a campsite, but the park's 500 black bears were nowhere to be seen. A video in the visitor centre portrayed the dangers of over-familiarity with humans, as bears will break into parked cars and accommodation in search of food. Signs warn "a fed animal is a dead animal".

From the Tioga Pass Road we hiked along more trails in search of sequoias, returning to the car as we moved west to picnic on the Tuolhumne Meadows and paddle in Tenaya Lake.

Emerging at the eastern end of the Tioga Pass, Death Valley was our next destination, via Routes 395 and 190. The drive south took us past serrated mountain ranges and Mount Whitney, the US's highest peak outside Alaska. Turning east towards the Panamint Valley, the sparse traffic thinned even further, and a sense of isolation set in. Every half hour or so another vehicle would pass on its way west: otherwise we were alone in a vast ochre-pitted landscape, occasionally broken by rusting equipment on the roadside.

Our sense of isolation was augmented by one of trepidation as we descended towards Death Valley. Few pioneers are recorded as having died here, but the park's reputation and statistics are awe-inspiring: the highest recorded temperature in the Western Hemisphere (134F, in 1913), the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level) and over 3 million desolate acres of wilderness and sharply changing elevation. The $20 entry fee (valid for a week) was paid in Furnace Creek, one of the park's few service points. Next door to the visitor centre, a swimming pool shimmered invitingly in the 43C sun, but was, alas, reserved for residents at the Furnace Creek Resort.

To the west, Telescope Peak rises more than 11,000ft above the Badwater Basin, the dry salt lake that marks the valley's lowest point.

In spite of the heat, we spent some time exploring Death Valley, grateful for air-conditioning and puzzled by how vegetable and even animal life can survive in these arid conditions.

Our must-sees included the unpaved tracks leading to Artist's Drive, where multi-hued rock pigments have given the trail its name; the eroded folds and ridges of Zabriskie Point, immortalised in Antonioni's film, as mysterious in real life as on the screen; and the tour of Scotty's Castle, a Spanish-style villa built as a holiday home by a Chicago millionaire in the 1920s.

All the time, the fear of an empty petrol tank hung over us like a circling vulture. Help would have been hard to find: apart from the soaring thermometer, the valley's most striking aspect is the sheer otherworldliness, a sense of landing in a lunar landscape. On the long drive south towards the Joshua Tree National Park the roads are empty and exhilarating you can safely make the maximum of the 75mph limit. But the pleasure lies in much more than speed: the immense cloudless sky flanked by hills and valleys, the ultimate wide-screen road movie. The US military uses this expanse for training: tracts of the map are marked as off limits.

Two deserts meet in the Joshua Tree National Park: the Colorado and Mojave. While the immense landscapes are not so obviously dramatic as in Yosemite, the vegetation is abundant. The area is popular with hikers, astronomers, birdwatchers and geologists. Since the walking and climbing trails cater for all levels of ability, we hiked to Keys View to look out over the Coachella Valley.

Our inland tour of California ended at Lake Perris State Park, 11 miles east of Riverside, reached via Highway 60. The State Parks suffer in terms of scale when compared with California's National Parks, but there are some gems among the 280 in the Golden State. Lake Perris is a minnow, at only 8,800 acres. Its attraction lies largely in its recreational facilities: riding, boat hire, fishing and large picnic areas.

Stretching out car-weary legs at the sandy lakeside was the priority, but we then rented a boat and moved on to the water. After eight days of diverse landscapes and 2,500 miles on the clock, the dusty Cruiser had to be returned.

A short road trip will merely scratch the surface of California's extensive natural attractions, but even that is well worth the drive.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

You can fly non-stop from Heathrow to Los Angeles on Air New Zealand, American Airlines, British Airways, United and Virgin Atlantic; from next summer, Air France will fly daily on the same route.

GETTING AROUND

Margaret Campbell paid US$548 (274) for eight days' rental through Fox ( www.foxrentacar.com).

STAYING THERE

At Yosemite, the writer stayed just outside the park in a wooden cabin at the Tioga Pass Resort ( www.tiogapassresort.com; e-mail: reservations@tiogapassresort.com). Two-person cabins start at $242 (121), full board.For details on accommodation see www.yosemitepark.com.

PARK LIFE

A wide range of information is on offer at www.nps.gov; add the suffix /yose for Yosemite, /deva for Death Valley and /jotr for Joshua Tree.

For California's state parks, including Lake Perris, see www.parks.ca.gov.

Vehicle entry fees: Yosemite and Death Valley $20 (10); Lake Perris State Park $8 (4); Joshua Tree $15 (7.50).

MORE INFORMATION

www.visitcalifornia.com; 020-7257 6180

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