1998 - To Mono Lake, Tioga Pass, and Yosemite

Press To Go Back to Day Two

DAY THREE (Thursday):

I'm up depressingly early, crawling out of my damp (nearly soggy) sleeping bag (even without rain, overnight condensation in the mountains produces some pretty incredible dew), fixing my last breakfast, and throwing me and my stuff in the car.

It's off to Yosemite National Park I go, handing my twenty to the ranger at the pass, then zipping through the just-dawn lit landscape towards Tuolomne Meadows, Tenaya Lake, and the rest of Yosemite's highlands.

Dawn washes over Half-Dome...the other side of itThe sun clears the mountains as I hit the Meadows. The day is cloudy, but not overly so, and everything is damp and green - where it isn't granite and grey - as I drive along. Just past Tenaya Lake I reach a "scenic turnout" and stop to get a view of the actual Yosemite Valley - still a good hour, hour and a half drive away - from an angle most don't get a chance to. I snap a couple of pictures of the other side of Half Dome and it's off on the road again!

It's just after 8 am as I finally drop the rest of the way down into the valley proper and slowly head towards Curry Village.Bridalveil Fall The first thing I notice is that there's actually water in all the falls! Okay, that sounds silly, but this late in the season, most of the falls normally have dried up, or at least diminished to a trickle (even Yosemite Falls can get down to a damp leaky-faucet drip if the weather's been dry). But thanks, once again, to El Niño, all of the Valley's falls are running full tilt (if not at spring levels - but then, it's not spring, is it?).

Stopping at several spots along the road, I note that large sections of the Valley floor are posted off limits to tourists. Many of these are areas where the Forestry Service is trying to restore the original flora (a few million tourists can trample a meadow like nothing else), but others are areas where they're still repairing the damage (both to nature and the buildings) caused by the massive flooding a couple of years back. As an homage to that, along with lots of "Under Repair" signs, there are tons of signs saying "The Water Got This High On January 5th, 1997" - with "this high" being some mark way above your head.
One of the many meadows
I drive through the meadows, still full of flowers, and soon arrive at the Visitor's Parking area next to Camp Curry. I park and walk back over to the road to grab the bus that loops around the park. While sitting at the bus stop, I carefully count the number of pictures I've already taken on this trip, count the number I'm probably going to use in the Valley (not to mention on the trip home), and quickly deduced I'm going to need more film. A quick run to the Camp Curry store and I buy the last roll of APS film they have left, then get back just as the bus is pulling in.
Half-Dome from the regular side
I don't ride it very long as I'm getting off at "Happy Isles" to take the trail up to Vernal Falls. According to the map, it's not too long of a hike, and I've always liked waterfalls.

Well, the trail isn't too long, but it is all uphill - something that proves to be rather tiring. About two thirds of the way to the falls, there's a bridge where you can first actually see the falls and a fork in the trail. One - "Mist Trail" - leads up towards the falls, the other - "Fall Trail" - heads off east and up, to where I'm not too sure (at the time). So I go up the "Mist Trail."

At the bridge itself, however, I saw what have to be the most relaxed, layed-back squirels in existence. They thought nothing of people sitting right next to them - nor of leaping into the pack you just put down to steal the nuts within. Heck, after doing so, that particular squirel didn't even run off. It just walked about two feet, sat down, and started eating it's stolen booty!

Can you say "very, very used to people..."

Nearing the base of the falls, the trail continues to steepen, and now it's slick with, well, mist from those falls. Soon, the trail changes from "steep" to a long set of winding narrow - and very wet - stone stairs (not to OSHA standards, I might add). I start slowly clunking my way up them.

The view of the falls is spectacular, but it's actually kinda scary. Only a few sections of the stairs have any sort of guard/handrail and all sections of the stairs are cut into the side of the cliff face overlooking the base of the falls, the thundering Merced River, and lots and lots of very large rocks. Covered in spray, the stone of the steps is just this far away from being too slippery to walk on and each step is about twice as high as a more normal one, say, on your front porch. I get about halfway up (from what I can tell) and quickly decide that the real problem isn't going to be getting the other halfway up, but getting the whole way down. Let's just say I lacked confidence in being able to walk down those stairs from where I was, let alone from the top.

Approaching Vernal Falls (just above the bridge) Near the base of the stairs, barely visible, along the cliffside to the lower-right
Steep, wet, un-guardrailed steps up the Mist Trail Close Up of the Falls

(now here's where just a bit more research - or at least, bringing the map with me - would have helped. That "Fall Trail" whose destination I didn't know? It also goes to the top of the falls, abet, in a slightly more round about way. Had I know, well, continuing to the top and then taking it back down would have been much easier. Oh well, next time...)
On my way to the Village
So I slowly made my way back down the stairs. I now understand why most of the other hikers brought some sort of slickers because by this time I'm, if not wet, at least good and damp (one reason my confidence level was so down is, well, my glasses lack wipers. It was kinda like looking through beaded glass) and am taking each step down very carefully.

I make it, though - without plunging onto the rocks below, to be battered, crushed, and washed down into the Valley by the Merced - and a short (well, not that short...) walk later and I'm back at Happy Isles.

I stop to check out the Nature Center there (where I learn of my unknown animal's marmot origins), the building of which was once a fish hatchery, then head back to the bus stop.

My next stop is Yosemite Village: Abet, a brief stop. I stroll through the store there, pick up a couple of touristy things, and then I'm off again.
The Awanahe
Soon I'm on a bus pulling through the stone entry gates to the Awanahe Hotel's grounds. The Awanahe is one of the park's two luxury hotels (the other being the Wawona, outside the Valley) and is a gloriously beautiful building. Classic "this is a building in a forest" style with a touch of Craftsman and a lot of money. It still has the feel of the 20's it was built in (in many ways it is similar to the Grand Canyon's "El Tovar Hotel"). I tour the hotel, walk the grounds outside, grab several pictures, and soon return to the bus stop, ready for my next destination.
The Awanahe
That's going to be Yosemite Falls. By now (about one p.m.), though, it's starting to get very crowded. I get off the bus at the Falls parking area, start walking towards the falls and there are literally hundreds of people doing exactly the same thing. The area around the base of the falls is as crowded as any city park (during a festival!) and, after a few pictures, I leave.

Now, note: I deliberately planned to be here midweek so that I could miss as much of the crowds as I could. If it's this bad on a cloudy Thursday, I don't even want to think how crowded the Valley is on, say, a holiday weekend.
Yosemite Falls...and the crowds (picture deliberately taken to show as few people as possible)
Riding the bus back to where I left my car I decide that my time in the Valley has come to a close. It's getting even more depressingly crowded and - perhaps more importantly - if I want to get home before it gets ridiculously late (and if I want to stop any where else between here and there), I'm going to have to boogie. So after fixing myself a lunch, I climb back into my car and head off towards the Wawona exit and the 41.

Doing so requires looping almost entirely around the Valley floor again, then the 41 starts climbing the southern cliff face, bores through the "Wawona Tunnel," and meanders its way south through the Sierras. About an hour later I pass Wawona itself, and the "Wawona Hotel" - which looks nothing so much as like an enormous antebellum mansion on top of a very green grassy slope, right next to the highway. A few minutes later, I'm pulling off the main road and heading towards "Mariposa Grove," one of the redwood groves within the park.
Mariposa Grove
Mariposa Grove is a classic hunk of redwood forest: The huge trees, the fallen logs (with little signs telling you when and from what), and the meandering forest path leading you from tree to tree. There are quite a few people about - though no where near the levels there were in the Valley - but it remains a serene, beautiful spot. Still, I soon get tired of walking uphill (and that "meandering forest path" is all uphill), the clouds overhead have pulled together (with sounds of thunder in the distance), and so head back to my car.

Less than a mile down the road I hit the southern entrance (or in this case, exit) to Yosemite. I'm still in National Park sorta, though: The "Sierra National Forest," to be precise. And a couple of miles later I hit my last planned stop of the trip: The "Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad."

Hey, you don't think I could go an entire trip without something railroad related, did 'cha?

Actually, I had also wanted to make a stop at "El Portal," one of Yosemite's two western exits, and the end of the line for the now gone "Yosemite Valley Railroad" (it ran from Merced to El Portal for decades),Jenny railcars but it was just outside of the park. So I had a choice, either visit there and miss Wawona, the Mariposa Grove, and the YMSPRR (and be stuck with a much longer trip home), or visit there and be stuck with another twenty dollar entrance, or peg that as something for my next trip to the area.

"I'll take door number three, Alex..."

The YMSPRR is an old logging railroad that carried it's last log in 1931. Since then, about four miles of track have been restored for tourist use. You can either ride one of the cars pulled by the the railroad's 1915 "Shay" engine (a type of steam loco I've always found fascinating, what with all the gears driving the wheels), or on one of the "Jenny" railcars, the power for which come from old engines from Model "A" Fords.
The Shay pulls in...
I don't have time to actually ride the train (something I last did back when I was about eight), but I do have time to explore the shops/museum, and wait for the Shay to slowly chug its way back to the station ("slow" is a Shay's top speed). It finally steams to a halt (while I take pictures) and I steam to a start, heading on south on the 41 again.

I'm slowly dropping out of the mountains now, heading for the Central Valley. As I drop, the cloudy skies slowly clear - accompanied by temperatures not so slowly rising.

Soon I'm tooling through Fresno, and it's now about nine-hundred degrees (and that's less of an "exaggeration for effect" than I'd really like). I switch over to the 99 south and pretty much try to see just how fast a decade-old Civic can go. I make one quick stop in Selma for a Big Gulp (I have returned to the lands of the mini-mart) and basically just burn my way towards home, only two-hundred miles away now.

I reach the southern end of the Central Valley, just about to climb up into the Tejon Pass, with the sun just setting. As I climb it grows darker. Soon I'm descending into the L.A. Basin wrapped in full-night. A brief half-hour spin along the 210 and I'm in Pasadena once again. Dead tired, but home from a nifty little trip.

Leaving Yosemite Valley

All Linked Pictures Copyright of The Sites They're Linked To,
All Non-Linked Pictures Copyright 1998 - David William Johnson