1998 - To Mono Lake, Tioga Pass, and Yosemite

It's been a long time since I did any real camping. Oh, over the last fifteen years or so, there's been three or four overnight camping trips to the local mountains ("local" defined here as within one hundred odd miles), but that's it.

As it turned out, though, I had a week off in August this year and no real urge to do a major "Road Trip" type of vacation, so I decided to do a classic camping trip to a place I hadn't been since 1983 - Tioga Pass.

Tioga Pass is the "back way" into Yosemite, coming up from Mono Lake and the little town of Lee Vining and entering the park on the eastern side (all the other entrances are on the west side). I'd been there for three "just before school starts" trips with friends back in the (very) early 80's and knew it to be a very nice spot, not too crowded, with lots of hiking in the area and great views of the stars come night fall.

This was going to be just a three day trip, but unlike most, it was not going to be on a weekend. Weekends are crowded in Yosemite (very crowded. Heck, weekdays are crowded, as you'll see) and the final day of the trip was meant to be spent at Yosemite. So I planned this trip to be Tuesday through Thursday, which would avoid the weekend people.


DAY ONE (Tuesday):

So comes Monday at midnight (or Tuesday, depending on your way of looking at it) and I'm getting ready to drive up the 14/395 to Mono Lake - and eventually, Tioga Pass. Why midnight, you ask? Well, the 14 and 395 go up through the desert, hot, dusty desert, just a stone's throw from Death Valley. It had been in the hundreds just in Pasadena - I didn't even want to think about how hot it would be, say, in Mojave at noon...

Besides, the campground I was headed to is tiny; a mere twelve slots. You want to get there very early to catch someone leaving or you'll never get a spot (most people stay there just overnight, on their way somewhere else - thus there's about a 50% pull-out each morning).

I'm packed and ready to go, but tired. I didn't get enough sleep the previous night and my attempt at a pre-trip nap failed miserably for various sundry reasons (there is a physical law out there somewhere which states I shall never leave on any long trip actually rested). Still, I'm eager, so off I head for the 14.

The 14 trundles its way through the "exciting" communities of Palmdale, Lancaster, Rosamond, and Mojave before joining up with the 395 just west of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. Once you hit the 395, all you pass through for the next hundred miles or so is a handful of towns with populations in the two-digit range. Finally, off to my right, I could see the dusty bed of Owen's Lake in the moonlight. Three more small towns, and I hit the "city" of Bishop, where I got gas, then began to climb up into the Sierras.

Bishop is at about four-thousand feet. Thirty-five miles later, I'm now going over "Deadman Summit" at slightly over eight-thousand feet. Seventeen years ago, it was sub-freezing as I passed this point, and the car's heater did not work (a wonderful surprise discovery of that trip). This time, it's somewhere in the thirty's and I have a working heater, so I'm not driving with hands so cold they can't grip the wheel. Still, it's getting close to six a.m. and I'm pretty much exhausted and looking for a place to stop, stretch, and wake-up.

Twenty minutes later, I find that spot at the Mono Lake Visitor's Center in Lee Vining (another of those two-digit towns on the 395. Lee Vining's Reason To Be is to be a last stopping off point for tourists getting ready to head up to Yosemite or down to Mono Lake). I pull off into the empty parking lot (heck, the Center won't open for another three hours) and walk over to the overlook of the lake with my camera. Luck has brought me here just in time for sunrise over the lake and I intend to get a picture or two.Mono Lake at Sunrise

Mono Lake is a heavily saline body on the edge of the Eastern Sierras. Environmentalists and the City of Los Angeles have been fighting over it for decades. You see, the Los Angeles aqueduct (star of Chinatown, amongst other things) starts in this area, not from the lake itself (it's about ten times saltier than the ocean) but from the streams that feed it. In the 40's, L.A. started diverting more and more of those streams into the aqueduct, the lake level started dropping - big surprise there - and by the 1980's, it had dropped over forty-five feet, was down to sixty-percent of its former surface area and had tripled in salinity.

This is not good.

Finally, the Mono Lake Committee got a court order that said, basically, L.A. couldn't let the lake level drop below a certain level. And L.A. had to turn the water back on to the lake.

It still hasn't reached that level (probably be another ten, twenty years, in fact), but it is considerably higher than on my last trip - which just happened to correspond to the lake's historic minimum. Last trip, the lake was surrounded by a broad band of very adhesive black mud (it pulled off my shoe when I stepped in it by mistake and it took two people to pull it free), this time, it actually seems to be getting closer to the original shoreline in spots (though the ruin of the old marina is still a good twenty feet above the waterline).

Anywho, I got my pictures, wandered around for a bit (enough to wake up) and then headed up into the mountains, headed for Tioga.

Tioga Pass is only twelve miles up the road from Lee Vining, but it's also a good three-thousand feet higher. This makes for a pretty stiff grade in spots. It's also a little nerve-wracking because the road is clinging to the side of a cliff for much of those twelve miles, with a five-hundred foot drop, and not a guard-rail in sight. Still, it doesn't take long before you're nearing the top of the pass - or in my case, the Tioga Lake Campground, one mile east of the pass.

My CampsiteI pulled in, grabbed a spot as soon as someone pulled out, and promptly set up my sleeping bag so that I could get some rest, because I was - as I said - pretty close to exhausted by this point, walkabout at Mono or not.

A couple of hours later I discover that, in spite of the air temperature still being around 70 and patches of snow still dotting the area (and at my elevation too. Above me on the mountains that hem in the pass, "patches" does not do justice as a descriptive), laying in the sun is pretty darn hot. And the bugs are beginning to, well, bug me. And I'm feeling rather thirsty.

So I get up, stand in the shade, slather on the sunscreen/bug repellent, and get a drink.

Now I'm still not exactly what you'd call rested, but I'm awake and feeling in big need of a walk/hike (the two are pretty much the same where I am). First I finish setting up my sparse camp, then it's off back down the road to the Tioga Pass Resort.

Along the way, I stroll through the "Tioga Tarns Nature Walk," which starts at a small parking strip along the road. "Tarns" are small high mountain lakes, usually associated with glaciers in some way, that on flatter land would probably be referred to as "ponds." The whole area around where I'm staying (not just the Nature Walk) is a network of these tarns,Tioga Lake. My campsite is on that green bit near the water on the right, behind the treessmall (and not so small) streams, and some larger lakes (such as the Tioga Lake I'm camped by) created by dams. Caught within this net are patches of dark forest, emerald-green meadow, and just plain bare piles of rock, all of varying sizes.

On the road you're reminded that you're just a few miles from civilization, because vehicles going to and from Yosemite pass almost continually the whole day (and long into the night). Oh, not at city-traffic levels, not by a long shot, and no where near as many cars as you'll see coming in the "front way" to Yosemite. But it's still a rare moment where at least one car isn't in site on the road.

One of the many Tioga Tarns - clear, isn't it?Step off the road onto this short (half-mile) walking trail and in just a few steps, civilization disappears. Rounding the trail, you're instantly cut off from all view of the road and by some minor miracle of acoustics, even the sounds of the highway vanish. For the next twenty minutes or so, I slowly strolled under the forest, alongside several of the distilled-water-clear tarns and pocket-sized meadows, occasionally stopping to read the small "What Are You Looking At" information signs. Wonderful.

Soon, though, the trail returned me to the highway and I continued my jaunt down to the Resort, which was by this time basically just around the bend.

"Tioga Pass Resort" is a collection of cabins, a store, and (of all things) a cappuccino bar done up in classic "Logcabin Traditional" One of the many streams in the meadows...style. I head for the store and, after perusing the standard collection of tacky (and, I admit, sometimes kinda nice) vacation memorabilia, buy a drink and head back up the road to my campsite.

On the way back I note that the fisherman are out. The lakes and streams in the area are stocked, the drive is short, and the view is nice so Tioga Pass is a major fishing destination. By noon there's enough fisherman strewn about the edges of the lakes that some spots are actually looking slightly crowded.

(Fortunately, about 99% of them seem to be on day-trips so as the sun sets, they vanish)

Back at camp, I make my traditional camping meal of scrambled eggs with pieces of fried chicken mixed in (I call it "Burning a chicken at both ends") then, still feeling restless, head on out again on another walk.

Honest, there's a trail here...This time, I'm heading for an old abandoned mine about two miles away. The trail is steep in spots and occasionally vanishes beneath a stream, but it passes through beautiful blocks of forest and meadows filled with flowers (the whole area is covered with wildflowers, even this late in the season) and I'm enjoying myself. Soon, I'm approaching the entrance to the mine, just a short walk across the edge of a snow bank that starts far above me on the mountain-side and blurs into a stream right below the trail.

MarmotAlmost to the mine now, I see a flash of motion below me in the tumbled rocks and turn to see what, at first glance, looks like an incredibly big hamster (later investigation at a the nature center in Yosemite shows it to be a marmot). I snap a picture. It turns, annoyed, and waddles behind a rock.

The entrance to the mine is a dark hole in the cliff face and forms the start of a large fan of tailings, tumbling into the valley below. A small collection of rusting metal is all that remains of the hardware the miners once used here and the mine itself issues a small stream. I continue on, planning to reach the old mining camp site a little ways further.

The mineSoon I realize that it's a little ways further than "a little ways further," because I've done that and there's still no camp in site. Moreover, which direction the trail leads from the tiny ridge I'm now on is at best problematical: Faint and unencouraging tracks lead out in several directions and after following one that peters out after just a few feet, I decide that it might be best if I head back now.

Okay, another reason is that my body is now going "you know, you haven't slept but an hour or two in the last thirty-six and now you're playing mountain-climber at an elevation of nearly ten-thousand feet - you're going shut-down in a few minutes so I suggest you do it where you can sleep for a while."

Before heading back, though, yet another flash of motion catches my eye down around the trailside flowers and I see two, then three hummingbirds. I stop to watch them for a minute.

At the end of that minute I realize that they have antenna - and soon after note an unusually high number of legs for a hummingbird. At this point I note that they are actually moths of some sort, flitting about from flower to flower in exactly the same fashion as a hummingbird, the front lobe of their wings blurred to invisibility, making the remaining lobe look exactly like a bird's wing.

Later I collar a Ranger and ask him "what are those hummingbird-like moths?" Perhaps unsurprisingly he informs me that they are "hummingbird-moths" (creative name) and that I'm rather lucky to see one as it's late in the season for them and they're usually nocturnal.

About forty-five minutes later, a very tired David drags into camp, puts on another layer of sunscreen, and collapses onto his sleeping bag to rest and read.

Here come the cloudsLate afternoon, after half a book on dinosaurs and two or three more sunscreen applications (mostly for its bug-repellant qualities), the sun drops behind cliffs to the west and clouds appear over Mount Dana to the east, and the distinct blur of rain forms on the mountain's slopes, heading my way.

I get things under cover - which mostly involves putting the non-waterproof items back in the car - and plop myself, my book, and some cold fried chicken in the front seat of the car (sounds messy, doesn't it?), and sit back to watch the storm (and do some more reading).

The rain last several hours, splitting it's time between a light drizzle and a heavy downpour. I'm beginning to think I'll have to spend the night in the car (I have a tent, sorta, but I don't sleep in it. Too cramped) when it starts to taper off, then vanishes completely. That was at about 8 p.m.

Half an hour or so later, I decide that the rain may be through for the evening and step out of the car to see if it's clearing. It's more than clearing, it's clear. A crystalline clear without a cloud in the black sky, but with a sky filled with more stars than I've seen...well...since the last time I was at Tioga. And arcing overhead was the glowing band of the Milky Way, so bright it was a definable object in itself, and not just a slightly thicker collection of stars.

I set my sleeping bag back up, while trying to stare upwards at the same time. Soon I note a bright pinpoint of light silently drifting northwards through the stars: A Satellite. Seconds later, I note another doing the same, about half the sky away. I crawl into my bag for the night and continue to stare up at the sky.

And I continue to see more satellites. Most seem to be in polar orbits, but I note a few crossing from west to east. About half are hard points of light, the others almost flashing (probably as they rotate). I had to have seen at least thirty that night before I finally drifted off, which is way more than I expected.

An uneventful night's sleep now occurred.


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