Apr 11

To Yosemite and Back in Chevy’s Bolt EV

Bridalveil Fall

“Let’s go to Yosemite!” said Sheila, my wife, pointing to a San Francisco Chronicle photo of raging waterfalls in the fabled valley.  We checked our calendars. We had the time for a quick visit, two nights, allowing one full day of hiking. There was only one problem. We had just become a one-car family, and that car was Chevrolet’s new all-electric vehicle, the Bolt. Bolt with a B, not the hybrid Volt with a V.

The Bolt has an advertised range of 238 miles on a full charge. Yosemite Valley, according to Google Maps, is 204 miles from our Berkeley home by the fastest route. That should be within the Bolt’s range, theoretically. But after three years’ experience with our all-electric Nissan Leaf we knew that highway speeds and uphill stretches could dramatically reduce the actual distance yield.  We weren’t ready to take a chance on sitting stranded with a drained battery on some desolate upslope in the Sierra foothills.

Moreover, once we arrived, we’d need a full charge to get back home again. That charge would have to come from a Level 2 charger, minimum, which can refill the Bolt’s battery pack overnight.  Going to the Plugshare app on the web, I found two  possible stations in the valley with that capacity.  One is located on the wall of a little shed in the parking lot for the Yosemite Village store.  Another is in the back of the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, the former Ahwahnee.  Two other stations in the valley offered only 120-volt Level 1 charging, which might be good for golf carts but is useless for modern electric vehicles.

Neither the Village store nor the hotel charging site showed recent user check-ins.  That’s a bad sign suggesting that the stations may not be working or accessible. Thoughtless drivers of gas engine cars sometimes block electric charging stations.  Site management sometimes doesn’t maintain the equipment. Bottom line: we decided to look for lodging outside the Valley.

A lodge and resort with reasonable room rates located along the Merced River on Highway 140 seemed like a good deal, but its website mentioned nothing about electric vehicle charging, and it had no entry on the Plugshare app. But perhaps they had an accessible 220-volt outlet where we could plug in our portable charger? A phone call to the front desk reached a desk clerk who knew nothing about the topic, but suggested I call the manager later in the afternoon.  I asked to leave my number and have the manager call me back.  No, the manager doesn’t do phone calls.  Forget that place.

Tenaya Lodge now has eight Tesla superchargers, but that’s no help for the Bolt

Tenaya Lodge, in Fish Camp, is a longer drive to the Valley floor, but much more hospitable to the electric visitor. Late last year, the Lodge installed no fewer than eight Tesla charging stations. That shows a strong commitment to electric travel, but it didn’t help us because the Chevy Bolt can’t feed at Tesla chargers. The electric charging market is still fragmented between three incompatible plug formats: Tesla, ChaDeMo, and CCS. (There’s a potential niche market here for an adapter maker.)  The Bolt requires CCS.  However, Tenaya Lodge also has a combo Level 2 ChaDeMo/CCS charger, and Plugshare showed recent positive reviews.

A phone call to the lodge met with a friendly and cooperative staff member, who forwarded me to the head of the valet service. Yes, the CCS charger was working. There would be no charge for charging. I should tell the front desk when I checked in and they would handle it from there.

That was all the reassurance I needed. We booked two nights at Tenaya Lodge, at a rate not much higher than the electrically dead place on Highway 140.

But we still had the problem of getting there.  After considerable hunting on Plugshare and similar sites, I planned a pit stop in Madera, 158 miles out.  Madera is a bit of a detour but looked the safest bet for recharging. The Save Mart on Howard Road in Madera had a pair of Level 3 Fast Chargers with CCS connectors. Level 3 chargers can top up a Bolt in about the time it takes to have lunch. Recent check-ins gave assurance that the chargers were working.

The Bolt is smooth and comfortable on the freeway. We ran at the speed of traffic – mostly seventy or a bit more — on Highways 580/205/5 out to Manteca, and then south on the four-lane 99, passing endless lines of trucks. We found the Save Mart in Madera with no trouble.  The big fast chargers stood empty in front of the “Bakery – Deli” sign to the left of the storefront. The Bolt’s dashboard showed 59 miles left in the battery.

At the twin Level 3 chargers in front of the Save Mart in Madera

Moments after we pulled in, a Nissan Leaf pulled up next to us. A couple a bit younger than our retired selves got out and ogled the Bolt. They had seen us on the road and followed us in. They had tried to buy a Bolt, they said, but no dealer in this inland area carried them.  Their other car is a Tesla. They asked a dozen questions about the Bolt and we invited them to sit in it and check it out.  As I was plugging the Bolt into the charger, the man pulled out his Leaf charging card and activated the charge. Nissan, he explained (as I knew), offered free charging for two years for Leaf owners.  He was happy to pass the freebie along to us.  Chevy, are you listening?  Great idea!

After chatting more with our new friends, we headed into the Save Mart and bought some lunch. The market is similar to the larger markets here in the East Bay, offering a wide range of deli and prepared food items.  It only lacked a picnic table out front to enjoy them, but we made do.

At the Level 2 overnight charger at Tenaya Lodge

Forty minutes later the Bolt’s dashboard showed 145  miles on the battery. That should be plenty.  We unplugged and headed toward Highway 41 northbound for the last 56 miles.

Madera sits at 272 feet above sea level.  Fish Camp at 5,062 feet.  When we arrived at Tenaya Lodge, the Bolt’s battery showed 44 miles left.  In other words, on this uphill stretch of nearly five thousand feet, the car used about 100 miles of battery charge to go an actual 50-odd miles, or roughly two battery miles for each road mile.  Without the pit stop in Madera, we would not have made it.

Recharging at Tenaya Lodge turned out to be easier than advertised.  We did not even have to go to the front desk and ask.  As we unloaded our bags from the car, a valet noticed that we only had 44 miles left on the battery, and volunteered to take the car and plug it in for us.  Why not?  Valet service is included in the room price.  The next morning, another man brought the car back.  For some reason, it only showed 194 miles on the meter, instead of the full 238, but we didn’t care, that was plenty to get into and around the Valley.

Sheila and I at Tunnel View vista point

The drive through the South Entrance of the Park into the valley floor is 35 miles of winding forest road at 35 mph.  Because of its low center of gravity, the Bolt is a dream to drive on curvy roads. No leaning. Tracks like a railroad.  In between glances at the scenery, I kept an eye on the battery meter.  When the road climbed, the charge level dropped at one point to 174 miles. When we went downhill, the battery filled up again.  Yosemite Valley lies at 4,000 feet, a net drop of about a thousand feet from the Lodge.  When we arrived on the valley floor near the Merced River, the meter showed 205 miles in the “tank” – more than we started with.  Try that in a gas engine car!

It felt good to cruise the valley in an all-electric vehicle. No tailpipe emissions.  Absolutely silent except for tire noise.  It would be a blessing for this much-abused valley if more visitors could move electrically and fewer relied on internal combustion of petroleum products.

Hiking on the Valley floor

We had picked a magnificent day. We could see snow in the higher elevations.  Bridalveil Falls and Yosemite Falls came thundering down at full throttle, as described in the Chronicle, sending up clouds of almost icy mist as they hit bottom.  The loop trail, on which we walked half a dozen miles, had some muddy spots but was otherwise in excellent condition.  We felt uplifted and humbled by the valley’s magnificence.  At hike’s end we drove back to Tenaya Lodge with 161 miles showing on the dashboard.

Yosemite Falls

Valet service brought our car back the next morning charged to 210 miles.  Because our return trip was mostly downhill and because the East Bay suburbs have an adequate supply of fast charging stations should we need one, we did not plan for a pit stop.  We did not need one.

We normally drive the Bolt in “L” mode, and we did so on this trip.  The L stands for low gear in a gas engine car, but not in the Bolt. Like other electrics, the Bolt uses no gears, and “L” here doesn’t mean “Low.”  The engineers at Chevy just haven’t figured out a better one-letter label.  In L mode, the Bolt recharges its battery so aggressively when decelerating that it actually brings the car to a stop. L  mode enables “single-pedal driving,” where you accelerate by pressing down on the accelerator, in the usual way, and you slow down and stop by letting up on the same pedal.  You only need the brake pedal for unexpected sudden stops.

As we descended from Fish Camp in L mode, the battery charge meter kept climbing.  It soon hit 238 miles, the car’s nominal full range, and kept rising.  When we coasted into Oakhurst, the first town outside the National Forest, at 2,200 feet elevation, the charge meter showed 261 miles.  I wondered whether we might be doing the battery some harm by overcharging, but no alarm bells went off.  The only change I noted is that when I took my foot off the accelerator, the expected  deceleration was almost absent and I had to touch the brake. We got all the way to Merced, elevation 171 feet, a distance of almost 80 miles,  before the charge meter dropped to 200 miles.  Cruising on the freeways at the speed of traffic, we made it home to Berkeley with 65 miles left in the “tank.”

El Capitan seen from the Valley loop trail

The Bolt has greatly extended our travel range, compared to the Leaf with its 80-mile range. Our Leaf carried us reliably to and from Pt. Reyes National Seashore, with a recharging stop in the town of Point Reyes Station.  But Yosemite was out of its reach.  Still, even with the Bolt, a fast trip to a mountain destination like Yosemite required careful advance planning for a pit stop with a Level 3 fast charging station.

Yosemite National Park has gone through a change of management recently. Hopefully the new crew will take measures to enable more electric visitors. A new electronic firm on the market, Evrus, is advertising an express charger that can charge a Bolt from zero to 238 miles in less than 25 minutes. A bank of those in the Valley could bring much-needed relief to this majestic valley’s environment.

An unexpected sequel to our return trip is what seems to be an expansion of the car’s battery capacity. When we plugged in overnight upon reaching home, the next day the range meter read 240 miles.  We drove about 150 miles around town in the next week.  Last night I plugged it in again, and this morning the range indicator said 265 miles.  A short drive mostly downhill toward the Berkeley Marina brought it up to 266 miles. The car’s dashboard also estimates minimum and maximum range, depending on driving style and environment.  With 266 miles as the average, the estimated maximum was 313 miles.  Apparently the long downhill trip back from Yosemite has somehow stretched the battery.

I’m thinking that if we took local roads, kept the speed at about 50 instead of 75, and headed straight for the Valley floor, we might be able to reach Yosemite without a pit stop.  Next time.

Bolt battery range meter a week after Yosemite trip shows 266 miles average, 313 miles maximum.

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