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A California Winter Road Trip Through Desert and Snow

A California Winter Road Trip Through Desert and Snow

UK photographer James Relf-Dyer takes the road less travelled through the diverse and wild landscapes of the Golden State in winter.

Posted 4 years agoby Lindsey Steele

Landscape photographer James Relf-Dyer loves showcasing the best of a destination and allowing his viewers to see a side to a place they may never have seen before. When we asked James to photograph California in the winter he jumped at the opportunity, here’s what he had to say.

1. If you could describe your time in California in three words what would those three words be?

Only three words? There’s too many to choose from. Okay, I’d have to choose: Unbelievable, memorable and diverse. Simply driving from place to place each day was absolutely mesmerizing as we got to see the landscape shift so dramatically and meet people that shared stories and tips, which made our time that extra bit special.


2. When you arrive in each new Californian destination, what’s the first thing you do?

Aside from finding the nearest place to grab a coffee (Americano, no milk, one sugar!) it would be to either check into my accommodation to drop off our bags, or if we’re chasing the light, head to our pre-planned sunset spot to seize the best conditions.


3. Where was your favorite sunset/sunrise spot and why was it so special to you?

It’s a toss-up between Mesquite Dunes and Battery Spencer in San Francisco for my favorite sunrise. There was something so magical about being the only one in the dunes witnessing the sunlight flood into the valley and illuminate the sands around me. The City by the Bay has its own charm which I absolutely love, in fact, it’s my favorite city. That whole morning was simply stunning; driving over the Golden Gate Bridge in the blue twilight, clambering up the footpath as the sun was just peeping over the horizon, and finally reaching the top as the bridge and the city behind began to glow. Sunset wise, Slot Canyon in Anza-Borrego State Park is up there. I’ll never forget the way the colors in the canyon lit up as the sun’s final rays hit them. Then finally, as we were walking back to the car, a full harvest moon appeared behind us - we couldn’t believe our luck. It was the most amazing spectacle to end the day.


4. What’s the one item you can’t go on a California road trip without and why?

Sunscreen. It’s called the golden state for a reason. And, of course, my portable charger that holds up to 10 full iPhone charges, it always saves me when I’m out exploring in remote areas such as Muir Woods and Death Valley.


5. What was your favorite thing to photograph on your trip and why?

Everything out there was a landscape photographer’s paradise. However, it was the epic landscapes that really showed off California’s sense of scale and beauty. The shots I really loved to capture were of a small figure looking out into the distance, giving the viewer some perspective and making them wonder what it might feel like to stand in their place.


6. What song has to be on your road trip playlist?

Very apt but “Life is a Highway” by Rascal Flats. That was actually the first and last song that we played on our California road trip - it summed up our trip to a tee and is an amazing driving song to rock out to on those long and winding roads.


7. What California #hiddengem did you discover on this trip?

Whilst we were in Mammoth we visited one of the many natural thermal hot springs. Best. Decision. Ever! The night before, we had dinner with my cross-country ski guide Miles who gave us the heads up on some special thermal pools that only the locals knew of. He kindly shared the secret location with us and told us a few way markers to look out for, the lone stump, the pile of rocks at the 15 mins mark - that type of thing. Cut to the next morning, Michael and I are hiking the freshly powdered track to our coordinated location. We followed our instincts and the visual markers (or at least what we thought they were) when we finally found what we had been searching for. Steam wafting in the crisp air, water bubbling away like a hot tub - these thermal springs were magical. We could’ve stayed for hours admiring the mountainous views, but we had to up sticks to our next place, Calaveras.


8. Why did you choose to travel to California during winter?

In a nutshell, it was to shed some light on what California has to offer to us Brits. I feel a majority of Brits see California as a summer destination and that’s it, but there’s so much more on offer here. There’s snow sports in Mammoth and Lake Tahoe, you’ll find the perfect winter sun temperature in Death Valley, and it’s still warm in the south to enjoy the coasts and L.A. life. Essentially you can still enjoy the summer lifestyle, but with many more incredible added extras that only winter can offer, especially for outdoor lovers.


9. Do you have a favorite winter activity that you experienced on the trip?

I loved the skiing at Homewood Ski Resort. The night before I hit the slopes, the Lake Tahoe area was coated in some fresh snow, which made for the most ideal skiing conditions I’ve ever experienced! What made Homewood special to me was that it wasn’t overly crowded like Squaw Valley (Ed. note: the resort has been renamed Palisades Tahoe) can get; there was no waiting in lines for ski lifts or queues out the door for food at the Summit Cafe. It made the day extra enjoyable as I could ski for hours, trying out as many slopes as I could. My favorite run was Lombard St, appropriately named for its hairpin corners and snaking route down the mountain. The views from Homewood were unequivocally the best in the area. You can enjoy sweeping views of Lake Tahoe and Nevada in the distance. You’ll find it hard not to stop every few seconds just to soak up the stunning panoramas.


It wasn’t an activity, but one of my favorite hotels that we stayed in was The Oasis at Death Valley. It was a welcome relief after a day spent in the desert, with its lush palms trees and spring-fed pools and of course an incredible restaurant with some seriously tasty dishes.   


10. What advice would you give to someone thinking about doing a road trip through California in winter?

Be confident in your own driving capabilities—California is a huge which is something I didn’t quite grasp until I was half way through my trip. Fortunately, I absolutely adore driving and have had a fair amount of experience of driving on the right-hand side of the road. Over the course of 42 hours we drove a collective 2,546 miles in 42 hours, in a variety of weather conditions. So my advice would be to try and trailer a road trip around how comfortable you feel behind the wheel.


11. Can you explain what it felt like traveling from the desert to the snow in a matter of hours?

It was unreal. I’ve never experienced so many terrains in a single 24-hour period. One standout moment thought was one late afternoon at Badwater Basin, the driest and lowest place in the US. We climbed the dunes of Mesquite over sunset, then the following dawn we drove through the dusty arid plains to Alabama Hills, where it was rocky rather than sandy.  We carried on to Mammoth where scenes of oranges turned to dazzling whites, as we had now climbed to 10,000ft and were surrounded by snow drifts and peaks.


Honestly, it felt like we’d visited three separate countries but no, this was all California! It was quite the body shock, but nothing that a few warm layers couldn’t fix. The world is your oyster here, just another reason why it’s my favorite state!


12. What was the most interesting thing you learnt about California and/or Californians on this trip?

After chatting to locals on route north, I learnt that Los Angeles County has a bigger population than 41 of the 50 states. On the flip side through, California also has wide expanses of land with less than one person per square mile. The diversity, geology and sheer scale of California was something that continued to leave me in awe. Oh and one more thing, Californians love and practically worship In-N-Out Burger - even more so than McDonalds. I mean rightly so, their burgers are delicious.


13. What’s next on your California wanderlist?

A Highway 1 and 101 loop, definitely. A road trip ticking off all of the coastal gems such as Malibu, Big Sur and Monterey then inland to Yosemite National Park to see the Sequoias, would be the dream.

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