Another beautiful day. We’ve been so lucky!
We set off early because the distance from Monterey to Yosemite is just under 200 miles (to the west entrance) and we expected it to take us about four hours. Our plan was to spend the first afternoon in the Park, drive to the east and stay the night there and then drive back through early the following morning and visit all the bits we hadn’t seen on the first day.
More, and different, sights met our eyes. Clearly it hadn’t rained in California for a very long time and everything was dry. Fields of crops, ploughing, fruit trees and vegetables stretched away on either side of us as far as the eye could see. And the only bits that were green were those that had been seriously irrigated.
We’ve come to expect road works and this one held us up for 20 minutes
When the last car from the other direction had passed us by, the pilot vehicle (as often happens) turns around, has a good chat with the ‘sentry’ on duty and leads our line through. On this occasion, they brought the guy a bottle of water and a snack (we were the first car in the queue) and they had a seriously good chat! It all takes a very long time – but who’s hurrying?!
Still more paddocks …
And some very well looked-after vines, growing in unbelievably dry soil.
We were continually astonished by the difference between the well-tended fields on either side of us and the completely neglected properties and fields interspersed between them from time to time. In such a productive region of the States, it seemed a pity that all the land couldn’t be put to work.
We began to climb and were soon surrounded by lots and lots and lots of dead trees. Clearly a forest fire had raged through here.
When we reached the Park entrance, we asked what had happened. Apparently, a year earlier, a hunter had taken an illegal firearm into the Park and a spark had ignited the dry vegetation. He was unable to contain it and thousands of acres were burnt. What a tragedy.
Once again we were amazed at the price. We paid $20 for our car which gave us permission to pass through the Park for a week. Astonishing value!
Eager to capitalise on early Yosemite tourism, two groups of entrepreneurs began to build stage roads into Yosemite Valley, one from Coulterville in Mariposa county in the south and the other from Big Oak Flat on the west. It was known as The Great Road Race, and each community hoped to entice Yosemite-bound visitors to their toll road. The Coulterville Road (near the present Highway 140) came in first on 17 June 1874. The Chinese Camp and Yosemite Turnpike (near the present Highway 120) was completed one month later. A trip from San Francisco by train and stage to Yosemite via Big Oak Flat in the 1890s took 32 long and dusty hours, including one night’s lodging. The round trip fare was $32.
We entered the Park on the Big Oak Flat Road. The road begins in the Sierra Nevada foothills at Chinese Camp and meanders through oaks and pines before climbing through conifer forests and meadows on its way to Yosemite Valley. This route has been travelled for more than 4,000 years, first on foot and then by mule, horse and stage. It’s called The Tioga Road and crosses the Park from west to east.
Our first stop was at the Information Station where we got a good map and advice about the best things to visit in the short time we had available. We asked whether the pine beetle had made it into the Park and he said he rather thought it had. What a tragedy.
His first suggestion was to take a 3km walk at Tuloumne Grove where we would see some Giant Sequoias, an important feature of the Park. We took a very short walk to the entrance to the walk but, mindful of how far we had to drive to get to the other side, decided to visit these magnificent trees at Mariposa Grove on the southernmost point of the Park on our way out the next day. It was a good decision. And they were clearly going to be big.
Here we read about the ancient footpaths that American Indians had travelled in summer from their foothill homes to the high country. Their long journey on foot took them through this area. Rich in deer, these areas were favourite hunting grounds and plentiful oaks made them important acorn gathering areas. The rocks they used for pounding acorns still exist along this route, reminders of their lives here.
We were now in snow country where plants and wildlife must cope with a high-mountain climate that brings winter snow that can remain until June. Here, the summers are short, cool and moist. Only specialised species can survive. The red fir is one such hardy tree that can handle snowloads that exceed 30 feet. This tree grows in pure stands in the Upper Montane zone.
The plants and animals of the habitat are uniquely connected. Interdependence is the only way to survive within this extreme environment. One important interrelationship involves fungus, flying squirrels and owls. Root fungi absorb food from trees while simultaneously improving the roots’ water and nutrient absorption. Truffle-like mushrooms growing from this fungus provide a good source for flying squirrels. In turn, owls prey upon the flying squirrel. In this circle of dependence, one missing link might threaten the survival of all.
Mountains and lakes surrounded us on all sides and then we came to Olmsted Point.
The signs told us that powerful geological forces shaped this landscape. Evidence emerges throughout this granite scene. Chambers of magma deep within the earth slowly crystallized 100-80 million years ago to form hard granite rock. Over time, erosion by rivers and extensive glaciers exposed and sculpted the rock. It looked as if it had been organised and then polished, but clearly this was not the case.
We were looking straight at Half Dome. To the left is the massive northwest face of Cloud’s Rest. From its summit (9,926 feet) the sheer granite face, one of the largest in the world, drops nearly 5,000 feet to lower Tenaya Creek.
These large boulders, appearing to have been randomly placed on the bedrock, are evidence of the most recent glaciation. The rocks either toppled down slopes onto the glacier or were plucked from the bedrock. They landed here as the ice melted away.
The vantage point from which we took these photos (called a turnout) was named in honour of the famed landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted and his son when Tioga road opened to automobile traffic in 1961. Olmsted senior was considered the father of American landscape architecture and was best known for his design of New York’s Central Park. He was chairman of the first commission to manage Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove which we were to visit the following day. He wrote a report recommending policy for the care and protection of Yosemite’s scenery and wildlife, which is considered a classic national park treatise.
Suzi and I both found the Park, and Olmsted Point in particular, very spiritual. It was definitely a place to ‘stand/sit and stare’.
It was hard to believe that the rocks on all sides hadn’t been polished by hand but that the forces of the glaciers had left these seemingly soft surfaces.
Leaving Olmsted Point behind us, we soon came upon Tenaya Lake, a beautiful sight when viewed from the west with the mountains behind and tranquil in the extreme.
Driving just a little further east we stopped to view it from the east as well. The sun was dropping down in the west, casting long shadows of the trees on the lakeshore edge.
And to all intents and purposes with a view like this, one could look at the lake and forget that the huge mountains were still right there – surrounding the valley.
One thing I haven’t mentioned in any of my previous posts is the little huts that are at every vantage point. They are basic but beautifully maintained and are often a lifesaver when one has spent a long time, simply sitting on a rock or by a lakeshore!
One of the things that struck us forcefully about the Park were the contrasts between stands of trees and sheer rock faces on which it was hard to believe that anything could grow.
At this point we drove on to the area called ‘meadows’ and another contrast awaited us. These moist meadows give way to black oak trees that provide nutritious acorns to deer, bears and woodpeckers as they did for early Indian people. We actually hoped that this might be a place where we might see a bear but we were disappointed again.
We’d been climbing throughout the park and were now reaching serious heights.
And as we came round a corner, there it was – snow on the mountain tops. It was good to catch a small glimpse of what was to come and what had actually already closed the Park for half a day since summer.
And it was really beautiful to see the snow on the hills and the deep blue of the lake below as we reached the Tioga Pass entrance and passed Gaylor Lakes. We had been so lucky with our dates and the weather. The road is closed westwards from here from November to May, right back as far west as Lucent Lake.
Finally we reached the western gate to the Park and saw the enormous Mono Basin open up before us. The sun was setting so we didn’t actually go to the scenic area visitor centre to the north as we were heading south on Highway 395 for our accommodation for the night at Mammoth Lakes.
And great accommodation it was at Sierra Nevada Resort and Spa, 164 Old Mammoth Road, Mammoth Lakes. It was about 27 miles south of the eastern Park entrance which wasn’t too far to go for the night so that we could set off really early the next morning. Suzi thought it would be a great place to come back to when she re-visits Yosemite in the future! But breakfast wasn’t included so we decided to pick some up on the way which turned out to be at the Mobil Garage just before the Park entrance. The sun was rising over Mono Lake and the set up at the garage was wonderful, not only with petrol but also with an extensive gift shop, plenty of groceries and cooked breakfasts.
As we retraced our steps from the day before we realised that we’d missed some sights on the rock faces out of sight from the car. I wish I knew the names of these two waterfalls which are obviously much more impressive when spring comes, judging by the amount of snow accumulating on the mountain tops above.
(And did I mention that, although the temperature at ground level was very hot, it was very cold indeed at 9,000 feet?)
We passed back into the Park really quickly and easily with our week-long passes and continued to retrace our steps.
When we reached Tolumne Grove again on the west, we turned left onto Big Oak Flat Road so that we could visit the view of El Capitan, Glacier Point and Tunnel View. This road runs along the Valley floor and through Yosemite Village so it was considerably busier than the road we’d travelled the day before. We were delighted to see the Fall colours again, intermingled with the coniferous trees.
We rounded a corner and there was El Capitan, towering over the surroundings. We walked into the meadow below to get a better view of ‘him’ without the majestic trees blocking our view. El Capitan is famous for its massive bulk of largely unbroken rock and its sheer, vertical face soaring 3,000 feet into the air. This monolith is composed of a particularly durable granite, allowing it to withstand the pressures of glaciers and erosion. We knew we’d get an even better view from Tunnel View, so we moved on into Yosemite village itself.
The Village was heaving with people and all sorts of activity. But this didn’t deter a doe and her two fawns who were happily grazing the leaves of a tree.
We stood very quietly for several minutes, and they became quite relaxed in our presence.
And inquisitive too!
Getting out of the village again and back onto the right road proved quite hard and we found that the roads beyond the village weren’t accessible. So we went round the (mostly) one-day loop in order to get to Tunnel View. Here we got the view we wanted, of both El Capitan and Half Dome together, facing each other across the Valley.
The very existence of great cliffs like Half Dome and El Capitan has inspired questions about how they came to be. American Indians tell of a woman and her husband who argued and fought. The displeased spirits changed them into stone, Half Dome and North Dome, forever to face each other across the Valley. How these cliffs were formed has challenged geologists for over 100 years. They think the granite of Yosemite’s walls solidified over five miles underground. As the overlying rock eroded away, the granites rose to their current exposed level. Nature’s dynamic forces continue sculpting this exposed rock.
Having now crossed the park from west to east, re-crossed it from east to west, gone half way across from west to east to visit Tunnel View, we now turned south and then turned east again to see Glacier Point.
The sign says that people have been coming to Glacier Point for generations to see one of the most spectacular views on earth.
And the view of Half Dome is truly nothing short of spectacular from this vantage point. John Muir was a Scottish-American naturalist, author and early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States. He died in 1914 but of this view he wrote, ‘It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter’.
Suzi, who could well have chosen to study geology instead of micro-biolog, was enchanted and devoured all the geological information on offer.
Glacier Point was at the end of this particular road, once again closed in winter, so we retraced our steps to the final sight we wanted to witness, the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Mariposa Grove can be found just south of the southern entrance to the Park at Wawona Visitor Centre and on Highway 41 South, in the direction of Fresno.
Giant Sequoias dwarf even the largest pine and fir trees that live among them. They are descendants of an ancient line of trees and can live for over 2,000 years.
Their trunks can be over 26 feet wide and they can grow to a height of 379 feet. The largest Giant Kauri tree in New Zealand has reached 168 feet and is 13 feet wide and we know how big that seems. Redwood trees in California can grow to 360 feet with trunks 20 feet wide. But these Giant Sequoias dwarf them all.
As symbols of longevity and strength, the Giant Sequoias played a major role in the creation of what is now Yosemite National Park. Throughout the National Park System, thousands of rangers wear uniform belts and hatbands embossed with images of the cones and foliage of these significant trees.
President Lincoln signed the bill that set aside the Mariposa Grove, along with scenic Yosemite Valley, in 1864. In the years following this action, a fire started in the grove and a 100-year history began of protecting these beloved trees from fire. While the intentions were good, those caring for the trees were contributing to the loss of what they cared about so much. Through research and experimentation, they discovered that fire actually promoted reproduction of these Giant trees. It clears away the competing firs and cedars and exposes bare mineral soil for the tiny seeds to take root.
Yosemite Valley, with the Mariposa Grove, inspired the National Park idea. The cliffs, waterfalls, wildlife and beauty of this place continue to inspire people around the world. Suzi and I were so grateful that we’d had the time to visit at least some of its marvels.
We left the Park, but not our memories, and returned to spend the night in Carmel. The beds were really comfortable and it was the quickest internet access we’d had. But the breakfast was a joke and we wouldn’t recommend it.