In this blogpost we continue our adventure in the Yosemite National Park. If you haven’t read the previous post, may I suggest you take a look back to our last entry. Having two weeks to roam around in this park has provided me with so much to share. I just couldn’t do it in one post. I hope you find our experiences informative and inspiring.
The first thing we did on the first day we entered Yosemite National Park was go to the information center. We wanted to gather up some maps and other pamphlets, and we wanted to ask the ranger for any “must see” recommendations. So when I asked for recommendations, the ranger said “well how long are you staying with us?”. When I told her we have two weeks, she kind of got this surprised wide-eyed look and said “Wow! I never hear that. I alway hear, ‘I have two days in the park, so what should I see?’ ” She said we have plenty of time to see all the main attractions. “Don’t be in a hurry” she said, suggesting we take our time to enjoy the experience and soak in nature. Excellent advise from such a young ranger. Little does she know, I slowed down long ago. She did suggest a drive over Tioga Pass.
Grammi packed the picnic basket and filled the water bottles. I made sure the truck was loaded: chairs…check, folding side table…check, hiking shoes…check, hat…check, camera…check, backpacks…check. This will be our fifth day in the park and we’re anticipating a long day. I don’t want to forget anything. But even after going through my mental checklist I still have an uneasy feeling that I’m forgetting something. I often get that feeling but most of the time it’s unfounded.
Today’s plan is to drive the entire length of Tioga Road to Mono Lake. It’s about an 1½ hour drive if you don’t stop along the way. We plan to stop a lot. Tioga Road (highway 120) is an up and down, twisting, turning passage over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Crossing Tioga Pass at 9,945 feet, it’s the highest road in California. At some spots you’re driving right on the edge of frightening drop offs, as the road is cut into the mountainside. Seldom do you see guardrails. It’s a long way down! The road is closed during the winter. It opens after the snow melts, usually in late May or early June and then closes again in October or November.
We began by driving through lush pine forest before climbing up to glaciated granite domes and jagged snow-capped mountains. We past Olmsted Point and turned the bend to see the pristine Tenaya Lake where we stopped to walk to the waters edge. The subalpine snow-capped mountains reflecting off the calm water was reminiscent of scenes from an old 1930’s Heidi movie. I half expected to see a young Shirley Temple run past wearing a Dutch dress, wooden shoes and a traditional hat with turned up ear flaps. It was gorgeous and incredibly peaceful.
We then came to Tuolumne Meadows. At 8600 feet, it’s one of the largest high-elevation meadows in the Sierra Nevada. Closely located to the park’s east entrance, it’s a center of activity as you’ll find a visitor center, a couple lodges, campground, horse riding stable, and the starting points for numerous hikes. Meandering through the meadow is the Tuolumne River. We stopped at the visitor center to get our national park passport book stamp.
We continued our drive and exited the park at Tioga Pass, but the breathtaking scenery didn’t stop there. The road started a steep downhill grade curving into the Lee Vining Canyon.
The prominent Tioga Peak and Gaylord Peak towered above the highway. We stopped at both Tioga Lake and Ellery Lake. The view of those lakes with the snow on the mountains in the background was an irresistible scene. We just had to take a picture.
Finally we came around a curve and appearing down below was our intended destination. Lake Mono is a desert saline lake formed thousands of years ago. It is known for its many tufa towers that rise above the water surface. Tufa towers were formed from a reaction between the lake’s alkaline lake water and the calcium rich springs water seeping from the bottom. That mixing caused a precipitate of carbon and calcium compounds to build over a long period of time creating the underwater towers. As water levels receded the towers were exposed leaving us with an strange looking landscape.
Located on Highway 395, we found Lake Mono Recreation Area, a small park with a few picnic tables. There we sat and ate our sandwiches while enjoying the scenery. Afterward, we followed a dirt path to the lake. There’s a boardwalk for those reluctant the get their feet dirty, but that’s not us.
White foam floated at the waters edge. Millions of alkali flies lie in the mud along the shoreline. Getting to close caused swarms to fly up and surround us. A sea-like odor from the lake filled the air but was not overly pungent. Birds were feeding on the lake’s own species of brine shrimp. The clusters of tufa towers appeared as distant cityscapes. I am pleased we came to see one of the oldest lakes in North America. It was interesting and worth the drive. Actually, the drive alone is worth the time. I can recommend you check it out.
On the returned trip we stopped at Olmsted Point. There is a short hike to a dome where you can get away from the crowd and enjoy the views in solitude. Grammi and I were all alone there until the chill of a strong breeze convinced us to go back to the comfort of the truck.
We saw another bear, in a grass meadow, lying and chomping on flowers, carefree, basking in the sunshine. We spotted this bear just like any keen bear hunter would, we saw a crowd of people gathering and pointing toward the meadow. It was a relatively small crowd of a half dozen people or so when we first joined in, but it soon turned into a mass of camera wielding tourist blocking all traffic and creating the dreaded “bear jam”. The following day we saw that the park rangers put up traffic cones and no parking signs where we saw that bear.
Cellphone service is nonexistent at the campground. We had better luck finding service in the park. As we drove along the mountain roads, occasionally our phones would start chiming and dinging. We would pull over at the closest turnout in the hopes we had service. The most reliable service, though, was in the Yosemite Valley. Having no future reservations and not knowing where we’re going next, we need service to do the time consuming research to book our next few stops. So on our sixth day in the park we packed a lunch and drove to the valley. We found a shaded table near the Merced River at Cathedral Beach Picnic Area were we sat to do our work. We worked for nearly four hours in this beautiful setting taking a break to eat lunch and to watch a small bear cut through the picnic area. We made progress but there is still more to do. Deciding we would leave the remaining work for another day, we packed up and went to the market and gift shop in Yosemite Village. There we bought a few grocery items and souvenir hat and tee-shirt.
The next day, our seventh day in the park, we took another long drive to the Wawona Area. This area near the south entrance, is another area of activity. The Mariposa Grove is nearby with more of the massive sequoia trees. We decided not to hike to the grove. As I said in the previous post, the park shuttles are not operating this year, thus adding another 4 miles round trip just to get to this trailhead. We chose instead to explore the Pioneer History Center and to hike to the swinging bridge.
The Wawona Swinging Bridge spans the South Fork Merced River. Bordered by boulders on both sides, the river provides pools and rock slides for swimming. The bridge is attached to the rocks and bounces up and down when crossing, urging one to hold on tight to the cable.
Grammi and I stayed a while to dip our toes in the cool stream. Gazing at the water cascade over the rocks and swirl around the pools had a mesmerizing effect. We watch a family ride tubes over the smooth rocks. I’m not sure how they could tolerate the cold water but they looked to be having fun.
At the Pioneer History Center we crossed over a covered bridge to see reconstructed old historic buildings from Yosemite’s past. Cabins made from notched logs, shake shingles and stone fireplaces presented an imagine of what life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains was like.
An open barn with several horse-drawn wagons were on display. Seeing an old chuckwagon conjured a visions of cowboys lining up for a plate of beans while working the range. However, this particular chuckwagon was used to feed hotel guest during a breakfast ride into the meadow.
We ate our lunch in front of the Wawona Hotel. Consisting of 50 rooms this National Historic Landmark was established in 1856 as one of California’s first mountain resort hotels. The majority of the rooms open to a giant veranda were guest can sit and absorb the quiet natural surroundings. There is a lounge, swimming pool, riding stables and even a nine-hole golf course available to the guest. The hotel is closed for the 2020 season for renovations.
We took another day, our eighth day in the park, to sit at a picnic table at Sentinel Beach and work on our itinerary. Another work location that I’m sure is the envy of all cubical occupants, a sandy location in an otherwise rocky Merced River, where families come to play and splash in the water. We accomplished a lot that day booking ourselves out ahead for the next four weeks. It takes some of the uncertainty out of the near future and allows us to relax a little.
Some of the most memorable times we had in the Yosemite area was at the campground. Lazing around and relaxing in this lovely setting was a real treat. We drifted down the creek in the tubes. We napped under the shade tree. We sat around the campfire roasting marshmallows and chatting with our neighboring campers. We met Jake, a friendly fellow that lives full-time with his two dogs in a fifth-wheel. He mostly stays in Thousand Trails campgrounds and moves to a new location every three weeks. Jake loved to build and tend the campfire.
In the site next door to us was Mike and Tish. They’re a younger couple, both retired from the U.S. Navy, now living the dream full-time in their RV with two cute French bulldogs. Grammi and I really enjoyed their company as we spent a few late nights (if you call 9:30 late…and most nights I do) around the campfire sharing experiences and telling stories. They leave the same day we do and are heading north just like we are. We are planning a possible meet up with them in a few days. Hopefully it works out and we’ll have another exciting adventure to share.
On the morning of our departure we drove through the park toward our next destination. It was one last look at the grandeur and our ninth and final trip into the park. We traveled over Tioga Pass and out the east gate, passing the same scenery we saw earlier in the week. The truck handled the drive over the high road without a struggle, but I’m not sure I can say the same for grammi. She may have turned a shade or two paler when I drove near the edge. She could barely stand to look out the window at the sudden drop just inches away. We stopped at a pull-out to take a picture of the truck and camper with the lake and mountains in the background. Maybe we can use it as our new photo heading.
I can’t say enough about our time at Yosemite National Park. It’s jaw-dropping beauty left us speechless. It was the perfect combination of exhilarating adventure and quiet, relaxing meditation. Our campsite by the water was wonderful. We met some very nice people. So…it was hard to say goodbye. But our adventure continues as we tow our camper over the hills and around the bend to places yet unseen.
Until next time…happy days and safe travels.