Camper van trek to Yosemite

2 people, 1670 miles, 6 days

by Dylan H.


But I would drive 500 miles and I would drive 500 more

I’m a photographer and my buddy Drew is a writer. We were both on the verge of burnout and needed a little vacation away from Portland, Oregon. We packed our bags, loaded up the camper van, put our bikes on the back, and started our journey south. On our first day, we took too long packing up our essentials and needed fuel before hitting the road, so we started with a breakfast one block away from home.

The plan was to connect two photoshoots, one in Yosemite and the other in Lake Tahoe, with a road trip through California and Nevada. We’d have time to listen to podcasts, music, and books on tape. We’d get to camp in areas we’d never been. Little did we know that we’d end up sleeping at a nudist resort, gambling until sunrise at Tahoe’s casinos, and waking up in the middle of the night certain a bear was making its way through our cooler.

Day one took us through the two-lane mountain highways of Oregon. Neither of us had seen the beautiful Crater Lake and we almost made the detour. But not this trip — it ended up being 18 miles out of our way and we had too many hours of driving ahead of us. We made it to Weed, CA before we realized we really needed to stop for milkshakes. Small town diners cannot be beat.

When the incredible sunset hit us on the freeway, we recognized that there was no way we’re making it all the way into Yosemite that night. So after a few stops along the highway for coffee, energy drinks, and snacks, at 2 am we parked outside the Yosemite gate, and set up our van for the night.

Six am rolled around and our alarms started going off. We still had an hour or two of driving ahead of us and my photoshoot was at 9 am. We made a quick cup of coffee and heated up a can of chili. Very fancy.

Drew had never seen Yosemite and I had only been once. The drive into the park at sunrise was magical. I didn’t want to tell Drew, but he was freaking out over how beautiful it was and he hadn’t seen 1% of the beauty we were going to drive into. He was steadily snapping photos out the window as we ventured on.

We crested a hill and were suddenly overlooking Yosemite valley. Half dome and El Capitan rose in the distance. We saw a pull-off and joined the other early risers for a quick photo.

The clock was ticking and I made my way to my client’s cabin to start our shoot. The couple had flown in from the east coast; it was their first time in Yosemite. It’s always fun to see people experience this place for the first time. The sense of awe is so real. They were eloping, so we drove to the tiny church at the bottom of the valley to meet the officiant.

We walked to a quiet spot in the middle of a meadow and they started their wedding ceremony. It was an incredibly beautiful moment. The officiant had them take a few seconds to close their eyes and just take in their surroundings. Such a powerful place, surrounded by granite cliffs in all directions.

The ceremony was full of emotion and the photos were turning out incredibly. The rain in the distance gave off nice light. After the ceremony we took a few portraits before heading up to Glacier Point, one of my favorite viewpoints. The rain was really coming down by this point and we had to shoot quickly.

We pushed through and kept shooting for almost an hour. We were cold and wet, but the photos were still looking great, and when we were done, we said our goodbyes. Shoot number one, done.

I found Drew, who had spent his morning exploring the valley. We made a quick stop at the general store before tiring of the masses of tourists and deciding to get to Tahoe. We took the East Yosemite exit over Tioga Pass. I had never been this way, and the beauty was stunning. It felt like the sunset went on for hours. We kept stopping to take photos over and over, each time thinking we’d seen the best light.

On the way out we stopped at the Tioga Pass Resort; the cabin felt like we were in The Hateful Eight. They had free coffee for anyone who stopped and we learned that it was the last weekend they were open before they closed for the year. Snow comes early in those parts.

We drove into the night, but made it to South Lake Tahoe, and found a campground. We made up our camp and quickly went to sleep. Multiple times in the night Drew and I woke up when we heard noises outside. Surely, it was the bears that we’d been warned about! But it turned out it was nothing but our imaginations.

The next night we day we drove up to Reno, NV to pick up another photographer who would be joining me on the next photo shoot. We grabbed some food and coffee, commenting on how cool Reno was becoming, and then set off for Tahoe.

That night was our night to party. Drew had never gambled before so we spent the drive teaching him the rules of blackjack, the odds of each hand, and how to properly play. We hit the casino and to our amazement all came out winners!

The next morning was an early one—we had a 12 hour photo shoot ahead. This wedding was a much larger production, and it was almost midnight when we were finished. We decided to make another run at the casino and, while it wasn’t as financially successful, we had a good time.

The next morning we dropped our pal off in Reno and I decided to google “hot springs.” My body was aching from the constant travel and work. I saw on the map that we could swing past the Sierra Hot Springs.

When we arrived, we it turned out to be a clothing optional hippie camp. This was the highlight of the trip for me! It was the most calming experience to watch the sun set and the moon rise over a high desert valley from a pool of 110 degree water.

The next morning we woke up, had one last soak, and then jumped back in the van for the final leg of the journey. A few thousand miles, countless hours of windshield time, and many new experiences. It was a solid week, one I’ll not soon forget.



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