Rumbling through the Yosemite Park on a quest to experience the unspoiled.
26.08.2011 - 28.08.2011 27 °C
It was mid afternoon when we left the Mono Lake and for once it looked like we might arrive somewhere at reasonable time. Even before we crossed the park border, the mountainous scenery provided plenty of opportunities to stop and enjoy the views. This became even more so once we were inside the Park, with picturesque alpine lakes and meadows adorning both sides of the road. Traditionally, we were massively unprepared and despite it being Friday afternoon during the main holiday season, we had no idea where / if we manage to find somewhere to stay that night. Not quite familiar with the layout and opportunities inside the park, our initial plan was to head to the Yosemite Village and try our luck there. Fortunately, we did not get that far. The Duke spotted a sign to the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge and we thought we might as well get a feel for how hard exactly was it going to be to find a place to stay. Apparently quite hard but somehow we managed to get ourselves into one of these tents with a double bed and a log-fire. Yes, I know. Not quite ‘roughing it’ but we were not exactly in a situation to be picky now, were we!?
This being the first time in Yosemite for us, we were quite new to the many features of the park. One of these were the black bears. Neither The Duke, nor I, have until then found ourselves in a situation where we were co-habiting a place with predators like bears, bobcats and mountain lions. This was the point, when I started to develop a healthy obsession with coming across any of the above. I say healthy obsession as it meant I spent the upcoming days with my eyes wide open, taking in every single detail of the park, even though the closest we came to a bear was reading about them in our information leaflet.
Bears were not the only thing new to us. It was also the bear-proof storage and rubbish bins distributed throughout the park. To our surprise, not only did we have to lock away our food in these containers, but also any other fragrant goodies our furry friends could mistake for food. So it happened, our shampoo and conditioner spent the first night apart from us, all alone in storage at the car park. All these preventative measures seemed much less over the top when we saw a picture of a car, opened like a can of tuna by a bear who spotted a grocery bag inside it. This was a way the rangers tried to reinforce the food storage rules. Nice touch.
The beauty of Tuolumne Meadows was the complete lack of all the modern cons we so easily learnt to rely on. The only place to get a dinner was in the lodge’s restaurant, which had a strict reservation system and people were seated at the table together with predetermined group arriving at the same time. Having been warned, we managed to squeeze our booking in and thus avoid potentially having to rampage through the food lockers in the middle of the night, surrounded by hungry bears.
It felt novel being all checked in and organised with few hours of sunshine still left. Having raced around the Gold Country for the previous few days, we abandoned our initial plans to take a walk to the visitor centre and instead, went for a stroll around the creek running past the campground. The sun was out and the mosquitoes were not so we did what every sensible adult in our situation would do. We found a warm rock by the creek, opened bottle of wine and relaxed. Enjoying the magnificent scenery around us, we completely lost track of time and before we knew it, the sun started to set. The mozzies followed in a quick succession so we decided to call it a day and retreat to the safety of the restaurant waiting room.
Dinners in the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge had the added benefit of people being forcefully co-located with a handful of fellow campers, taking away the awkward ‘Is this place free?’ line and always guaranteeing interesting conversation. To our advantage, everyone we met seemed to be a seasoned Yosemite and happy to share tips about good walks and general logistical questions. Even though these sometimes turned out to be plainly wrong, resulting in us turning up late for tours, almost missing dinner and getting stuck in the car for four times as long as we planned. Just as well we are not that big on the whole planning thing.
I already mentioned the lodge was free from majority of the modern cons. This included electricity and so with the only light in our tent coming from a couple of candles; it was refreshing finishing dinner at 9pm and having the following options:
1. Go to bed
2. Hangout in the communal bathroom (the only place with light)
We chose bed. And what a bliss it was! No distractions in the way of us enjoying just ‘being’. It reminded us of being little and tenting in the garden of our parents’ house with few friends (separate houses, different friends – doh!). No computer to turn on, no emails to check, no book to read. No wonder than we woke up in the morning and decided to try and extend our stay. It turned out we’re in luck and with a little shuffling of other bookings we could even keep the same tent.
Knowing there won’t be a chance during breakfast, we grabbed ourselves a cup of coffee and using the communal trail maps and information leaflets plotted the day ahead. The plan was:
1. Lambert Dome walk
2. Continue to Dog Lake
3. Get back to the lodge and drive to the valley
4. 3pm Bear walk with the Ranger
5. Do some shorter walks from Yosemite Village
6. 8pm dinner back at the Tuolumne Lodge
Ha! Unbeknown to us, we were to fall victim of the ‘helpful advice’ of one of these seasoned hikers we were yet to encounter during the breakfast. This is how it happened: We were told the drive from Tuolumne Meadows to Yosemite Village takes 30 minutes; 45 tops. Right.
The walk to Lambert Dome was great and having spent the last day in high altitude, we were slowly getting used to the low level of oxygen in the air. Please note the word ‘slowly’, as we probably still looked and sounded like somebody was strangling us, but the more we walked, the easier it got. The ascent to the top of the Lambert Dome was not that hard but to conquer some of the steeper parts of the granite peak, I might have used my hands a couple of times to compensate for the not quite ‘daddy long legs’ proportions of my hinds. Once there, we were rewarded with breathtaking 360 degrees view of the park although in the absence of a safety harness The Duke was taking it all in from a safe distance away from the edge.
Thanks to setting off rather early, we hardly met anyone on our walk, which was quite promising as overcrowded paths was one of the concerns we had when planning this trip. After a while of enjoying the view we set off towards the Dog Lake, although once we got there we only stayed a couple of minutes and that was to put on mosquito repellent. I was not prepared to sacrifice The Duke to these flying creatures. If anything, we both knew he was destined for something bigger.
To get to the Yosemite Village by 3pm, we wanted to leave around 2 o’clock to allow plenty of time for parking and finding our way around. Having reached the Dog Lake before lunch, we figured out we had enough time to improvise and make a little detour on our way back to the lodge. Our map suggested there were Tuolumne stables and Soda Springs not too far away so we set off in the general direction of these sites. Despite the good signposting we occasionally got distracted by talking and on a couple of occasions we took what we believed was a short cut. Still, it was little bit of a surprise when the stables materialised in front of us, without us having to look for them. Our experience with riding is very much defined by me being scared of horses, but with the right animal, I was prepared to take part in a little (2h) tour. By right animal I mean very old, sedated or brainwashed into compliance. Unfortunately, the lunchtime tour was sold out and the afternoon tour was out of the question for us. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts.
From the stables it was less than a mile west to the Soda Springs. The springs of carbonated water bubbled from the ground with a path leading directly through them. An old wooden structure surrounded what seemed to be the biggest of the springs. Whilst some prophesise healing powers of the water, it was not recommended for drinking. That didn’t stop us having a little taste. Hmm. Don’t bother. It tasted like a rusty water. Whilst the springs themselves were nothing to take your breath away, the surrounding scenery was lovely and there was even a small river with big enough rocks to use as a picnic table. Lounging on a sun bleached rock in the middle of the stream and soaking up the heat, we slowly nibbled on dried berries and mixed nuts. This time without the wine. Aware the time was running out, we eventually peeled ourselves off the rock and set off towards the Tuolumne Meadows lodge.
Somehow, we managed to avoid the shorter trail and ended up on a twice as long path back. If we were not on a tight schedule, we could have taken opportunities of the many shorter trails signposted along way. But even without getting distracted, our path took us through stunning and varied scenery of peak vistas, meadows and river walks. Despite this little detour, we made it back just in time to collect our car and set off to the Yosemite Village. And this is where we get to the ‘helpful advice’ we received the very morning.
Even with almost half an hour buffer allowed for our drive, there was no chance we could have made it to the valley for 3pm. The estimate of 30 minutes turned out to be somewhat optimistic and almost two hours later, we victoriously arrived at the Curry Village. Not quite the arrival we envisaged but since we were there, we thought we find out what the Bear tour is actually about and see if we should come back the next day. Not quite understanding our question or more likely choosing not to, a well-fed looking fellow at the ticket office triumphantly informed us we were over an hour late for the tour and (in case we wondered) could not join the tour already in progress. This was, of course, a vital piece of information, had we not had noticed ourselves already. To prevent me from inflicting a mortal wound on him with one of my witty sarcastic remarks, The Duke took control of the situation and behaving like a true adult, rephrased our inquiry. This earned a response not dissimilarly insightful to the previous one (something about him not being able to guarantee we see a bear), upon which even The Duke had enough and we walked away. I sometimes wonder if The Duke ever gets altitude sickness from spending so much time on his high moral ground.
There were a few things we took in during the drive to the valley and after arrival, we were sure we made the right choice extending our stay in the Tuolumne Meadows. A couple of days before our arrival to Yosemite, a wild fire broke out, which led to a closure of the highway 140 but also resulted in a thick smoke cloud obscuring the view in parts of the park.In addition to that, Yosemite Village was so overcrowded and hot due to the poor air circulation, that compared to the relaxing east side, we found ourselves a bit agitate just by being there. It was apparent, whilst Tuolumne Meadows was starting point for hikers and campers, Yosemite Village was also hosting thousands of families with children who came here to enjoy the beautiful scenery and take advantage of the many recreational facilities on offer.
Initially, we were thinking about setting off early the next day, driving to the village and doing the North Dome trail, from which the views of Half Dome are supposed to be spectacular. This was still a very tempting prospect, but we were more and more inclined to explore other options that involved less people and more Yosemite. One such alternative was to take the 30 miles long stretch of John Muir trail from Tuolumne Meadows to the Yosemite Village, returning back in one of the free shuttles. The problem was, we did not quite know how long and strenuous the walk was and if we could make it in time for the last bus. With the wildlife centre already closed and an old lady at the information centre not quite being able to find what we were looking for, we agreed to check the details when we got back to the lodge and spent the next half an hour randomly walking around the Yosemite Village.
It was nice to see that despite the masses of people everywhere, it was possible to find walks around the village that were fairly quiet. White granite cliffs on both sides of the valley provided stunning backdrop for our walk and we even came across a number of deers chilling in the meadows, seemingly unphased by the passing traffic.By sheer accident, we found ourselves outside the famous Ahwahnee hotel and could not resist having a snoop around the interiors. The dining hall, as well as all the other communal areas, was superbly decorated with Native American Indian style motives, letting us wonder what the private rooms were like. Not ones to miss a chance, out of curiosity we asked about a room and were kindly but firmly told to book around 10 months in advance. Booking not being one of our strong sides, we decided to give it a miss, helped by the $449 / night price tag.
Knowing we had almost two hours drive ahead of us, we started to walk back to the Curry Village. It was on this walk The Duke made two important discoveries:
- His jacket and passport never left the Napa Valley.
- He had a 20cm split down his trousers from tying up his shoe laces
Whilst the first finding was not that much of a big deal as we were happy to get back to Napa even if just for a day, the wardrobe malfunction was a different matter. Bending over, the Duke’s trousers noisily gave way and he was showing rather an indecent amount of his boxers and a leg. Recognising this was a good stuff for our blog, once I eventually stopped laughing I made him to pose for the camera and took a couple of shots. The things I do for you…. Successfully avoiding excessive flashing, we made it to the car and embarked on a voyage back to the meadows.
Our arrival was just in time and with ten minutes spare, we jumped into a shower before rushing to the restaurant to claim our places at the table. Just like previous night when we met an interesting lady from New York with Czech ancestry, this time we sat with an Australian gentleman who lived in the US for over forty years and had an impressive track record of travelling around the globe. So much so, he actually knew my home town of Český Krumlov and that they continuously refused proposals from McDonalds to be built there, in order to preserve the medieval look and feel many travel from afar to experience. The very same gentleman also shared his stories of walking around the Yosemite Park and suggested our John Muir walk could be bit ambitions if we wanted to make the last bus. This was confirmed by the girls at the service desk but not ones to give up easily, we headed back to our tent, determined to sleep on it.
One of the benefits of an early night is that getting up in the morning is somewhat easier. Not yet sure if we wanted to attempt the trail to the valley, we made a point of being one of the first people at the breakfast area. The more we thought about it, the more we were convinced that although we could probably make it to the Yosemite Village on time, it would be a race and we could not indulge in unplanned stops and detours. By the time it was our turn for breakfast, we settled on the following plan:
1. Drive to shuttle stop #7
2. Take the John Muir trail
3. Avoid Cathedral Peak
4. Make a detour to the Cathedral Lakes
5. Go up the Cathedral Pass
6. Walk around Columbia Finger peak to the Sunrise HSC
7. Pass Sunrise Lakes
8. Finish at Tenaya Lake
9. Find bus stop #10 or 9 (depending on time)
10. Take shuttle back to stop #7
At the breakfast table we were seated with a US/Japanese couple from San Diego. It was becoming a habit but once again, chatting away we completely lost track of time and ended up being one of the last people to leave. Just as well we were no longer heading all the way to the village. Meeting some great and interesting people was one of the highlights of our stay in Yosemite and California overall. Also our last table buddies showed great hospitality when they invited us to visit them in San Diego, and so as we were leaving the Tuolumne Meadows lodge it was an hour later than intended but with another contact in our pocket.
Locating a bus stop #7 was not a problem and leaving our car by the road, we courageously hit the path towards Cathedral Lakes. Soon we realised how misguided we were, thinking the trail would, with some infrequent exceptions, go mainly downhill. Whilst it was in the general direction of the valley, vast majority of the way to the lakes was uphill. Combined with the high elevation, our breathing was so loud we struggled to hear each other when either of us managed to accumulate enough oxygen in our lungs to actually utter a word. Fortunately, the spectacular scenery around us provided ample opportunities (excuses) to stop, relax and take in the surroundings.
First stop was at the Lower Cathedral Lake, which had the disadvantage of actually being ‘lower’. Our ability to enjoy finally walking downhill was severely impaired by the knowledge that sooner rather than later, we would have to climb back up again to re-join the path. Damn you common sense.Until that point we only met the occasional couple or solo hiker, which seemed rather disproportionately low compared to the number of cars parked by the bus stop #7. Soon we found out why. They all beat us to it and by now, the banks of the lake were covered by lounging bodies or spots ‘reserved’ by the Yosemite equivalent of pool-side towel – the backpack. Finding a spot on bare granite heated by the sun, we allowed ourselves to take a break and enjoy the serenity whilst consulting our map for possible short cuts to the Upper Cathedral Lake. Understandably, I was determined to find a way we could avoid treading on the same path twice. While the map failed us, I tried to convince The Duke we should walk in the general direction of the Upper Lake and eventually, re-join the John Muir trail. Not to mention that by this we were massively increasing our chances to spot some wildlife. Other than chipmunk that is, because chipmunks and mosquitoes were the only animals that we saw plenty of. Finally, he non-enthusiastically complied.
Truth to be told, the faded path we initially followed disappeared when we reached bare granite and we soon found ourselves in the most beautiful, but also non-marked river bed. Hoping we wouldn’t hit a cliff or similar obstacle, we pressed on and in less than half an hour hit the path to the upper lake. Although we did not see a bear or a mountain lion, I would like to think we walk past some but failed to spot them.
The scenery by the Cathedral Lakes was dominated by flowering meadows, plenty of trees and the sharp Cathedral Rock, which we decided to save for next time. Continuing on our way, the trail combined some serious ascents with brief stretches of flatness, no doubt designed to induce false sense of security in the non-suspecting traveller. Trees lining up the trail provided welcome shadow but large areas of direct sun were not uncommon, resulting in us making huge inrows into our supply of sunscreen and water. After walking uphill for what seemed like ages, the path turned right and one of the most spectacular views opened up right in front of us. We figured out, we were at the south side of the Columbia Finger Mountain, looking at the Matthews Crest and Cathedral fork. The visibility was clear and we decided to reward ourselves with a short break. Devouring the views, it was hard to leave again but both of us were quite conscious of the treacherous breeze camouflaging the impact of the direct sun on our skin.
From there, it was mainly downhill. Rocky mountain trail was soon swapped by a soft path copying a small creek, ending up on a home stretch through flowering meadow. The structure of the ground suggested during the spring and early summer, the meadow turns into a river bed and a marsh, until eventually drying up.What we suspected by looking at the map was soon confirmed, when we reached sign for Sunrise High Sierras Camp. During one of our meals at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, we learnt the camp was only opened three weeks this year, due to the large amount of snow and a very long winter. Still, they chose to open-up to, if not make money, than at least to reduce the loss. Apparently, to get a place in the camp, one has to apply upto a year in advance in order to take part in a lottery. We could see the attraction of staying in such place. To our delight, it was rare to bump into someone on the trail and even once we got into the camp, it gave the impression it was empty, which we knew was not the case.
The Duke organised a water re-fill and we deciding to stop for lunch. Finding a bonfire picnic place with view over the meadow we feasted on …….. yup, dried fruits and nuts. From there, it was less than a third of the way left. Surprisingly steep path led up the mountain from the far end of the camp, even though that was the last serious ascent we did in Yosemite. To get to the Sunrise Lakes, we followed at times steep trail downhill, until we could see the highest of the three lakes. From being almost alone throughout the hike, suddenly the traffic of fellow walkers multiplied by a few hundred percent. Sunrise Lakes can be reached via a strenuous but relatively short walk from the Tenaya Lake bus stop and car park, making it a popular destination for Yosemite drive through visitors. Still, it was by no means crowded.With all of the Sunrise Lakes being set in beautiful surroundings, our by far favourite was the lowest of them all. We followed the path leading directly along the bank of the lowest altitude lake, until we reached a structurally questionable crossing made of logs and stones, cutting across the outflow of the lake into the river. This called for a photo break and demonstrating my agility, The Duke took a couple of good shots of me posing on the rocks.
Once we passed the lakes, we knew our walk was nearing the end and the next stop was the Tenaya Lake, where we planned to take a bus ride back to our car. Talking to people at the Tuolumne Meadows lodge and looking into our map, we knew coming up was a stretch of very steep descent (ascent if you are coming from the Tenaya Lake) that earned this trail the ‘strenuous’ classification. We were not disappointed. After a while of gentle downhill stroll, we hit an almost horizontal drop to the valley. You could almost use a ladder to scale it down but in the absence of one, steps were carved into the rocky surface with gravel steps filling the gaps in a snake-like serpentine downhill. Glad we were heading in the ‘right’ direction, our respect for those we met up the hill grew. Especially so for that guy who was not hiking, but running up the path and still looking unnaturally fresh. Some people, eh.
With the very last mile before the Tenaya Lake being completely flat, we speedily overtook a number of fellow hikers and around half past four gloriously arrived at the bus stop #10. Throughout the day, we were toying with the idea of taking the couple of miles long walk around the south bank of the lake to the bus stop #9, but given the advanced hour, we decided otherwise. Shuttle arrived within 10 minutes of us turning up and so it happened, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, we were reunited with our overheated car. After making feeble attempt at rubbing off some of the dust we accumulated during the day, we boarded our beast of a car, once again ready to undergo the drive to the Yosemite Village.
Without intentions to actually spend any great deal of time there, we wanted to take a last look at the El Capitan in the late afternoon sun. On the way, we met a number of fire patrols monitoring the area, although by then, the highway 140 was reopened. It being Sunday afternoon, the village was nowhere near as packed as the previous day so we had the chance to find a good spot by the road to pull up and take a short walk around the river with a view of the El Capitan. Satisfied, we then set out towards the park exit, taking highway 41. The Duke behind the wheel with me navigating, we briefly contemplated stopping at the Mariposa Grove. But given the late hour we pressed on until we reached the park exit. Traditionally, our most generous estimate of the journey was exceeded due to some road work and low speed limits and when we after few hours drive finally reached a decent-sized town, it was already 8 o’clock.
Too hungry and dusty to shop around, we stopped at the Days Inn by the main road in Oakhurst. The Duke met a fellow German at the reception and jointly managed to secure a small room discount, courtesy of German breakdown cover. Unfortunately, this motel turned out to be one of the worst experiences of the holiday. The archaic air-conditioning unit in our room was barely health and safety compliant and leaving it on, we were risking permanent loss of hearing caused by the loud rumbling coming out of it. Our alternative was to turn it off and slowly succumb to the tortuous heat wave. Even opening the windows did not solve our problem, as the prime location of our motel by the main road meant, we were treated to a constant stream of noisy traffic and even louder air con in the room next door, not greatly compatible with a good night sleep. Weighing up our options, we decided to risk death by overheating and disrupted sleep in favour of preserving our hearing. Showering off a couple of kilos of Yosemite dust, we slowly started to look like respectable adults again and half an hour later, we were all dressed up and ready to patronize the only restaurant in the area still open. This took care of the second disappointment of the night. Eventually abandoning an unfinished plate of mediocre pasta, we got back to our motel room and utterly exhausted, took about a minute each to surrender to a night of sleep, somehow managing to ignore the noise outside and tropical climate in.