Where do I begin? As with Yellowstone, I had been wanting to see Yosemite since seeing the Ken Burns Documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea. However, I do not think I was prepared for what I was about to see and how it would change me. So, to back up a bit, I was working on a project in Roseville, CA and needed to fly out to do some field work. I figured that with air fair already paid for to California this would be a good opportunity to see Yosemite. So, after finishing my work on Wednesday I took Thursday and Friday off and spent August 25th and 26th in the park.
I left Roseville early, around 6:00 a.m. and headed South on Highway 99 towards Modesto. At Modesto, I took 120 East and slowly began climbing into the Foothills. The drive from the developed central vally into the grassy foothills was beautiful as "civilization" gave way to nature. I remember seeing real estate signs advertising "ranchettes" for sale, and I imagined how easy it would be to live here. Shortly after separating from highway 108 and passing through Chinese Camp the terrain started getting dramatically stepper as I passed by the Don Pedro Reservoir and started climbing into the high country. I passed through the quaint town of Groveland and soon crossed into the Stanislaus National Forest. I had forgotten how much I love the coniferous mountain forests with their rocky soil strewn with pine needles. The only experience I can remember having with this type of ecosystem, other than brief hikes in various places, is at Philmont Scout Ranch. I remember backpacking through this type of environment, though not as rich, and loving it. While the deciduous forests of the Ozarks are beautiful, nothing compares to this environment to me. The smell is intoxicating!
After a pleasant drive through the Stanislaus National Forest I passed into Yosemite National Park via the Big Oak Flat Entrance and stopped at the Visitor's Center. Driving through the forest made me realize how important our national forests are. Not only do these parks need protected, but they need a buffer. It would not do for the park to be protected only to be ringed by resorts and other development. Our national forests give us this buffer from "civilization" and are equally important. My other epiphany came as I wondered around the small visitors's center. Most people there were asking the rangers about hikes, obtaining backcountry permits, and planning various adventures. There were no large displays about the geology or animals, this was a place for people to plan adventure. I would learn over the next two days that there is a very real difference in the use of Yosemite vs Yellowstone. While Yellowstone is full of great backcountry adventure, I would say the majority of people there are sightseers. The main use of the park is families driving from spot to spot seeing the amazing, easily accessible, features of the park. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of sightseers in Yosemite Valley. However, there seem to be an equal number of people there seeking adventure. Climbing, Backpacking, Hiking; these are all common activities among visitors.
After leaving the visitor's center I was looking for some adventure of my own. I continued driving down Oak Flat Road but turned off at Tioga Road as I had decided to spend my first day in the high country. My breakfast was wearing off so I stopped at White Wolf Campground to get some lunch. As I was purchasing a sandwich I overheard a ranger giving a family getting ideas for an afternoon hike. After they had their plan I got some suggestions of my own. The hike to May Lake sounded like a good start. At only about 3 miles round-trip it sounded like something I could handle being that I was out of shape. I headed down a somewhat rough road to the trail head and hiked up to a beautiful mountain lake and campground. The lake was crystal clear and there were several one man tents pitched nearby. This was a somewhat developed campground and I could see backpackers taking showers, doing laundry, etc. The feeling of being on the trail came back to me from my youth and I longed to be able to head into the backcountry. After enjoying the lake for an hour or so I headed back down to the car to see what was round the next bend.
I soon came to Olmstead Point and Tenaya lake. I spent some time parked along the lake watching the climbers smear up the slab of Pywiack Dome above. I had started going to the local climbing gym (IBEX) with my friend and neighbor Andy in early August. Because I had just started climbing, I did not yet appreciate the history of climbing in this place.
I continued along Tioga Road through Tuolumne Meadows to the Tioga Pass entrance before turning around and heading back to Tuolumne Meadows. I stopped in the Visitor's Center and picked up a copy of John Muir's "My First Summer in the Sierra" and "Yosemite". I highly recommend the former for its well written tales of adventure. The latter is more of a description of the flora and fauna and is not as exciting. I also stopped in the gear shop / gas station and bought an ultralight cook set.
It was in the visitor's center that I learned there was a forest fire along highway 140 and in the gear shop that a climber said they had topped out on a route and saw a fireball to the West. Before I had turned off onto Tioga Road I had seen signs indicating that they were doing controlled burns and there had been a slight haze from the fires, but nothing like what was about to happen. As I drove back down Tioga Road and turned left on Big Oak Flat Road towards the valley the smoke started growing thicker. Not horrible, but noticeable. As I drove into the valley I made the loop once to get my bearings and then headed for the main dining hall to get some dinner. This is when things got crazy. I fond out that the dining hall, gift shop, and the lobby of the lodge were running on generator. The entire valley was without power. I still do not know if they cut power to the valley intentionally or if it was knocked out by the fire. I did learn that the fire was from a motor home who's propane tank exploded along highway 140 outside of El Portal and that half of the town of El Portal had been evacuated. My hotel for the night was in El Portal. There were tons of people getting dinner, but it was slower than normal because of the fact that they were running on generators. They were unable to run some of the equipment so choices were limited. I ate as quickly as I could and then went to the lodge to see what the situation was. Over half of the people were checking out and leaving and the others were making due with flashlights as the rooms had no power. I drove towards El Portal to determine the situation at my hotel. Turns out it was still open but also without power. It took 45 minutes to check in and by that time it was dark and they had run out of flashlights to hand out. I felt more relieved at having a room secured, and I had purchased Colin a toy headlamp at the gift shop that came in handy, so I headed back up the valley to do some stargazing. There were gorgeous stars, but with the haze from the fire they were not much more spectacular than a midwestern country night. I headed back to the hotel, toy headlamp in hand, and went to bed.
The next morning I woke up and the hotel had power. Other than the haze in the valley and the buzz in the air from the excitement things were kind of normal. We all knew that just down the valley there was a wildfire and that was threatening homes and was being fought around the clock, but those who had chosen to stay went on with their sightseeing.
This fire would come to be known as "The Motor Fire" and would not be contained until September 5th after burning 5,231 acres. Thanks to YouTube we can see the beginning and the aftermath here.
I started my day with a Cliff Bar and Banana breakfast and then headed to Bridalveil Falls, stopped to photograph El Capitan, walked to the base of Yosemite Falls, and then grabbed some lunch. After lunch I decided I was going to hike the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls. I parked at the Happy Isles trailhead and started walking toward the Mist Trail. There was a group of four young backpackers heading out that were going out for two weeks and doing the entire length of the John Muir Trail (211 Miles). This was the first time I had heard of the John Muir Trail and I was envious of their upcoming trip. I began hiking the Mist trail as I daydreamed of heading into the backcountry. The asphalt trail climbed up the side of the canyon to a bridge below Vernal Falls. This was a good spot to rest, photograph, and get water. From here the trail steepened as it climbed to the base of Vernal Falls. At the falls the trail became a set of steps carved out of the rock (by the CCC no doubt) that climbs to the side of the fall with narrow ledges and old pipe railings. Once on top, you can get right up next to the waterfall for some great views! I was already exhausted, but wanted to see what was up the trail. Just above the falls was the emerald pool, and then the trail pushed up through the woods toward Nevada Falls. I fully intended to stop at the top of Vernal Falls, but my mind kept pushing my body to continue. I could not stop until I saw what was around the next bend. I finally threw in the towel at the base of Nevada Falls, as the climb was steep and I was exhausted. I had only hiked 3.5 miles, but had gained 1,100 ft in elevation! I headed back down the way I had come and back to the dining hall for dinner. I had hoped to also hike to Mirror Lake, but had run out of day. I made one final loop in the valley before heading towards Glacier Point. I stopped at the tunnel view turnout for a breathtaking view of the valley. Someday when I bring Laura and Colin I want this to be their first view of the valley, as it is wondrous!
I had a nice drive to Glacier Point and even saw a female black bear on the way. I arrived just before dusk and spent about an hour and a half up there marveling at the views of the valley, the alpenglow of the mountains, and the crispness of the air. From up there you get a view of Vernal and Nevada Falls that really puts into perspective how far and high I had hiked that day. You also get an incredible view of the backcountry beyond that gets your imagination racing about the possibilities. The view of Half Dome is incredible! Have to hike that someday. The view of the valley transforms from one of a lush green respite to one that comes alive at night with the lights of the tourists. I spent time up there reflecting on all that I had seen and it solidified my connection to this place. I was given a glimpse, but that glimpse is not enough. I have to return and spend some time in Yosemite. Not a vacation in the valley, but some real time in the backcountry getting to know this incredible place. I went to Yosemite with curiosity and ended up leaving a piece of my soul.
I could have laid down on the ground and spent the night, but reluctantly I had to leave. My flight was leaving Fresno at 6:00 a.m. the next morning and I was 3 hours away. On my way back down from Glacier Point the reality of the fire came back to the forefront. Two of the campgrounds along the road were closed because the firefighters were using them for rest. They were running round the clock shifts, and I passed three crews of 5-6 trucks each on the way down. These guys are true heroes. Doing dangerous and tiring work in order to save homes, lives, and the places we love. Once I reached the Wawona Road I could see the fires burning the hills in the distance. Very surreal.
On my way out the South Entrance I drove to the Mariposa Grove. Though it was dark I could see a glimpse of the Giant Sequoias. Not enough to take in their grander fully, but enough that gave me one more thing to look forward to next time. The drive out of the mountains was bittersweet. It was a beautiful drive out of the mountains, and I was heading home to my family, but I was leaving behind one of the most amazing places I had ever been. Someday I shall return.