Five days in the Sierras, four National Parks, and one great trip.
by callen60 on October 11, 2008
After reluctantly leaving Sequoia (chronicled in a separate journal) at noon on our second full day of travel, we headed north to Kings Canyon. We explored both sections of this park, the southern one containing Grant Grove and a next-door neighbor to Sequoia; the second and by far the larger section containing some of the nation's most spectacular backcountry.Later that night, we finished a twilight drive from Fresno to Yosemite, for a night at Yosemite’s Wawona Hotel. A welcome change in price and atmosphere from Sequoia's Wuksachi Lodge, this was our favorite accomodation of the trip. An even longer drive the next night brought us to Panamint Springs Resort on the edge of Death Valley. It’s hardly a resort, but it was a welcome sight at the end of a long, long day.This is hardly a recommended way to see the Sierras. We covered over 1,000 miles and had a great time in our little red rented Dodge Caliber, with four full days of beautiful places, and three nights of driving and talking. We easily could have spent the whole time in any one of the places we visited, but seeing them back to back (to back to back) was a neat experience.If you’re heading this way: be sure to leave plenty of time for driving mountain roads. There’s a reason that only one highway crosses these mountains. You can make good time in the valleys, through Barstow and Bakersfield and Visalia, but moving around the parks themselves is (thankfully) slow.Kings Canyon is empty, isolated, and beautiful. You have to make a long one way drive to get here, and not many people do. We arrived in mid-afternoon on the 2nd Saturday in June, under perfect clear blue skies. Hardly anyone was here, either on the road, at Boyden Cavern, at the campsite and ranger station, or at Muir Rock in the middle of the Kings River.Yosemite is soooo beautiful, and soooo crowded. I’d love to come back, and figure out a way to enjoy this spectacular place with a little more solitude. As usual, I think that would mean spending several days here, hitting the popular sights (Glacier Point, Tunnel View, Bridalveil Falls) first thing in the morning, and then heading off to hike. It reminded me a lot of Yellowstone: tremendous crowds that you can avoid with a little effort. For example, we arrived in the Valley at the classic Tunnel View, and after standing with the throngs and waiting a turn at the edge of viewing area, crossed the road and hiked a short distance up the hillside towards Inspiration Point. Suddenly we were alone. Another highlight was wading and swimming in the Tulare River, enjoying the cool water and the blue sky and gazing up at Half Dome and the rest of the amazing surroundings.You want empty? Death Valley in June is empty. We drove through on a Monday morning, hitting the highlights of this austere but beautiful place. Badwater, at 284 feet below sea level, sits at the bottom of this dry, hot basin, bordered on either side by mountains. June isn’t prime time for a visit, but we escaped the noonday heat and had just a taste of what this gigantic park has to offer.In the end, it was a sampler for a huge swath of country that you could spend years exploring. Mountains, desert, valleys, rivers, waterfalls—we’re both aching to come back with the rest of the family.
This park began with a tree: the General Grant sequoia, and the Grant Grove in which it stands were the nation’s third national park (following Yellowstone and Sequoia). The sequoia groves that dot the western slopes of the Sierras had been caught in a battle between settlers, the railroads, and those who saw dollar signs when they looked at these massive, thick, straight trees. In a legislative blur that’s still not completely understood, Sequoia was established in June of 1890, and a week later, another law set aside a perfect square surrounding the General Grant Tree and the larger sequoia grove it sits in. Both places are clearly the heritage of post-Civil-War America, where the giant denizens of these forests are named for the states of the Union and their Generals. Grant and Sherman are here (but not Lee); President and Congress trees—as well as House and Senate, (but no Supreme Court), and Michigan, Pennsylvania and other northern states (but no Alabama or Mississippi or their neighbors). Later legislation expanded General Grant National Park, but with the establishment of Kings Canyon NP, this appendage to Sequoia was actually made part of the new, northern park, making it one of the few that are not contiguous.We left Grant Grove on Saturday morning and continued on the Generals Highway, which runs through Sequoia to this section of Kings Canyon, connecting Sherman and Grant. The giant trees line both sides of the highways at many points, and we stopped more than once to wander among them again. We arrived at the Grant Grove section of Kings Canyon around lunchtime, finding a manmade grove of 1960’s era facilities, with a mediocre restaurant where we endured a slow and tasteless lunch. The whole area seemed in need of a serious redesign.The trees, however, are another story. There were more people here than at Sequoia, due in part to the later time of day when we walked through the groves, and probably because Grant Grove is only 90 minutes from Fresno. The Grove is about a half mile from the visitor center complex, up Highway 180 and off to the left. There was a pretty large parking lot, and it was mostly full, so we had plenty of company as we walked around the trails. The trees here are just as spectacular as in Sequoia or Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove, but they didn’t seem to be as close together. There was a lot more sunlight leaking in around their crowns and illuminating the forest floor. A few fallen giants lay on their sides, including one that had been sculpted on the inside and used as a shelter during construction in the park. We spent about an hour in Grant Grove, and then headed along Highway 180 to Kings Canyon itself. In retrospect, we might have simply passed through instead of stopping, given all the other experiences we had behind and ahead of us. It’s hard to be too harsh about stopping for time among the sequoias, though.
Caves were an unexpected bonus of our trip into the Sierras. I’d read about Boyden Cavern in AAA’s California TourBook as we planned our trip. A subterranean exploration sounded good to my daughter, so as we drove up Kings Canyon, we pulled off into a parking area that barely fit between the river and the mountains.This cavern lies in Sequoia National Forest, between the two sections of Kings Canyon National Park. To get there from Sequoia NP, you exit out the northwest corner, and then make a giant U-turn on Highway 180, which eventually dead ends in the middle of Kings Canyon NP. It’s almost 15 miles from ‘the Wye’ intersection just south of Grant Grove in the section of Kings Canyon that protrudes off Sequoia’s NW corner like a horn (part of this piece was originally General Grant NP). You can only get to Boyden this way, so if you haven’t paid the $20 entrance fee to Sequoia/Kings Canyon, you’ll have to do so on your way through the park. The cavern itself is a concession within the National Forest, and a relic from another era. The entire area is a huge change from Yosemite’s crowds and the lesser but still substantial throngs in Sequoia. Few people make the drive into Kings Canyon, and we found only a handful of cars in the lot. We shopped in the gift store for a while, waiting for the next tour to begin, which reminded me of the souvenir stores of the sixties and seventies I visited as a kid. Our group was six: the two of us, a young couple, a guide-in-training, and a vet who was observing him. The cave’s entrance is up the mountainside from the parking lot, a five to ten minute climb up a paved path. The nearly round, 10-foot wide entrance is closed with a padlocked gate that guides unlock. It’s a recent addition, added to protect against vandalism (a theme I’ve heard at far too many other caves, especially in my native, cave-riddled Ozarks).Boyden is part of a 5-mile-long network, but your tour won’t take you quite that far. We went back about 800 feet, more than enough to awaken my usually dormant claustrophobia (which I was able to subdue). The passageway is fairly broad, with the exception of one neck that isn’t too tight of a squeeze.The geology here is marble, and the formations in the cave range from ordinary to nearly spectacular. Curtains descend from the ceiling, layer cakes rise up from the floor, and drip castles are everywhere. It’s impressive to see what erosion can carve out of marble: I was surprised to learn that this cave is just one of many that riddle the mountains either side of Kings Canyon, and dot Sequoia as well, which holds over 200 caves.Like most caves, it’s a comfortable 55 degrees or so, making a fleece a nice option to have along. The walkway is paved, and there’s a handrail wherever one is necessary. The lighting is adequate, but not overbearing. At the back of the cave, our guide asked everyone’s assent before dousing the lights for a while to experience the cave’s natural darkness. That was a neat experience, but I was glad to have the bulbs come back on again.This cavern was carved by a ‘river’ that runs down into the rock, and drains out through the cave’s entrance. On the way back, the guides offered us the option of hiking back along the largely dry riverbed, which all four of us did. This required a little more ducking and care about placing your foot, but nothing serious.All in all, Boyden seems like a reasonable substitute for Crystal Cave, the highly popular attraction in Sequoia NP, for which tickets must be acquired in advance at one of the park visitor centers. You can just roll up to Boyden, and even if you’re just coming for the cave tour, the drive will be worth it.
In the vast Sierra wilderness, far to the southward of the famous Yosemite Valley, there is yet a grander valley of the same kind. It is situated on the south fork of the Kings River, above the most extensive groves and forests of the giant sequoia, and beneath the shadows of the highest mountains in the range, where canyons are the deepest and the snow-laden peaks are crowded most closely together.—John Muir, 1891This is a line of a park, perhaps a Yosemite squeezed into a tighter cross-section and thus without the broad valley floor. Without the crowds, too: it’s not easy to reach, but we were rewarded with spectacular views down the narrow river valley, its sheer granite rock faces rising above the river and the roadbed. Kings Canyon shares its southern boundary with Sequoia NP, and the two are administered as one unit. In fact, you can’t get (by car) to Kings Canyon without driving through part of Sequoia (its little NW corner, containing the General Grant tree and surrounding sequoia grove), and one $20 admission gives you a week’s access to both parks.This place is large, but only one road enters the park, and none cross it. The eastern boundary lies along the ridgeline of the Sierras, dotted with a series of peaks that push into five figures of altitude (including 14,491’ Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental US). The backcountry is said to be spectacular, with alpine lakes and magnificent scenery that must indeed be spectacular if it outpaces the small piece that we visited.Highway 180 leaves Grant Grove in this odd little disconnected section of Kings Canyon that began life as General Grant NP. The road is a 35-mile long spur that soon flanks the South Fork of the Kings River, terminating (appropriately enough) at Road’s End. The real journey begins not long after you pass Kings Canyon Lodge, an iconoclastic throwback of a place that maintains its first-generation gas pumps, cheap rooms, and decent ice cream without the need for any web presence at all. We pulled in after lunch, and woke the surly teen that eventually provided us with two overpriced but deeply appreciated cones. You may wish to stop for gas: no fuel is sold in either of these two parks, and it will be a while before you’ll have other options.You’ve climbed some to get this far, and a mile past the lodge, you get your reward: a terrific view down the canyon from Yucca Point, from which the road descends to the valley floor to follow the river. We encountered three German travelers here, providing each other with the obligatory service as each other’s trip photographers. The day was a little hazy, but the view was still worth lingering for.The road was recently repaved, as evidence by new guardrails and nearly spotless pavement. Kings Canyon is even deeper than the Grand Canyon—it’s 8,000 feet below the mountain ridges above—and you do feel as if you’ve entered a deep, long trench. It isn’t a match for Yosemite Valley, which spreads out gloriously for a mile on either side of its river. Here, there are no lush meadows or slowly moving streams. Instead, the Kings rushes down the middle with young, fresh rocks jutting out all over the place, looking impervious to change except for the agent responsible for all this carving running smack through the middle of it.It’s about 15 miles to the park’s boundary, and 20-30 minutes drive from Yucca Point (and 30 miles/1 hour from Grant Grove). This is the center of ‘activity’ in the park, where the modest visitor center is located, along with the park store, some of the campgrounds, and the Cedar Grove Lodge that provides the only hotel accommodations in this section of the park (and only 18 rooms). We pulled in for a stop, chatted with the ranger, worked on a junior ranger badge, and listened to the elderly gentleman who sold us batteries in the camp store. As we suspected, he didn’t get a lot of customers (and would gladly have talked to us longer), but he couldn’t say enough about the park’s beauty, which he explored every chance he got.As we headed back to the car to continue towards Road’s End, we spotted a few deer grazing between the young pine trees between the buildings. Unlike the deer in Yosemite, they weren’t used to having humans around, and we had to move carefully to keep them in sight and get the obligatory pictures. We crossed back over the Kings River, stopping at Canyon View and another viewpoint for pictures and neck-breaking appreciation of the canyon’s depth. The glacial nature of the valley is fully apparent from the nearly perfect U-shaped profile above the river. We made a short hike to Roaring River Falls just to the south of the road, and in an unanticipated surprise, laid down on Muir Rock, a gigantic glacial oddity on the river’s edge. It was here that John Muir spoke often about the beauty of the Sierras, and the worth of preserving this area and the sequoias. It’s amazing to think about Muir and a crowd of people reaching this spot in the first decade of the 20th century: no paved road, no nearby towns, no park infrastructure. It must have taken a major expedition to reach this location with an audience in tow.I lay on my back and looked up at the sky and mountains, then down at the river. The only sounds were the running water and a little bit of wind in the trees. It wasn’t so hard to imagine Muir here, 100 years ago, imploring the beginnings of the Sierra Club to preserve this wilderness, and not sacrifice it to logging, cattle, or sheep. It took a long time to set this area aside. Muir's description of Kings Canyon as ‘a rival to the Yosemite’ wasn’t enough to preserve it. The Canyon survived plans to dam the Kings River and turn the valley into a reservoir, to log the area, and to expand access and build a ski resort. Despite nearly seven decades as a park, it has yet to see a fraction of the development that its other Sierra neighbors have experienced. Ironically, that’s due in large part to the stubbornness of the original concessionaire, who resisted all attempts to force him to build facilities here when he could be improving his holdings at Sequoia’s Giant Forest, which was already drawing crowds. It’s an odd turn on Muir’s belief that such places should be saved from the ravages of commerce: he feared the impulse that led humans to log these forests, and believed that we would "sell the rain clouds and the snow and the rivers to be cut up and carried away, if that were possible." In the end, commerce proved to be his ally. I’m sure he would have approved.
by callen60 on October 18, 2008
Another place championed by John Muir, it could be the world’s famous valley. There’s far more here, although the crowds that flock to this park concentrate on the valley floor. It’s not hard to see why: whether we gazed down and over Yosemite Valley from Washburn or Glacier Point, or looked down the full length of the Valley from Tunnel View, or stood in the Merced River and gaped up at the walls all around us, this place is so beautiful it’s nearly surreal.We spent less than 24 hours here, but we loved it. And we saw a lot. We stayed at Wawona Hotel, which I heartily recommend as an alternative to valley lodging in high volume summer season. You’ll do more driving, but it's relaxed and pleasant, with a different feel. There are attractions at this southern end of the park, too: the famous Mariposa Grove of sequoias is about eight miles away, and (like so many things at Yosemite) worth an early morning visit before the crowds arrive.From here, it’s a good 90 minutes into the heart of the park, but that hardly felt like wasted time. We turned up Glacier Point Road for the famous and spectacular view out over the Valley from the southern side. It shouldn’t be missed, and few people miss it. Retracing our steps, we finally turned east into Yosemite Valley, joining more folks at Tunnel View, site of the famous Ansel Adams photograph that is Yosemite to most people around the world.In the valley itself, we waded in the Merced River, fought crowds at Bridalveil Falls, visited the recreated Native American Village, gave ourselves a tour of the Awahnee, and felt torn between the amazing beauty of the surroundings and the people everywhere. Even with the crowds, it’s an unforgettable place, and it looked absolutely gorgeous under beautiful clear blue skies.Leaving the Valley, we saw a bear near Oak Grove, and then headed over the Tioga Road. This is a spectacular drive, which would be the highlight of any other trip that didn’t have to compete with Yosemite Valley. It continuously climbs to Tioga Pass, where you cross the Sierras and leave the park. There’s beautiful mountains, gorgeous meadows, alpine lakes, and the terrific view at Olmstead Point.Getting AroundThere aren’t many roads in Yosemite, and with over 4 million visitors a year, that means the pavement is crowded. There’s one route along the park's eastern edge, from the south at Oakhurst to Wawona to the Valley Entrance and then to Hetch Hetchy, where it dead ends. The other main entrance off Highway 120 puts you on this road north of the Valley. This same road gives access to a spur to Glacier Point on the valley’s south side, the dead end road in to the Valley, and then the Tioga Road past Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows and through Tioga Pass to the eastern side of the Sierras. That’s it for roads.A shuttle runs throughout the Valley, and is a necessity for getting around. If you’re tempted to drive your car and avoid waiting for the bus, don’t do it. Get there early, abandon your vehicle, and ride the shuttles all day. Otherwise you’ll spend time searching for parking spaces and growing frustrated that you’re not seeing anything. We stopped at Bridalveil Falls as we entered the valley at 11am, and spent 15 minutes circling the few hundred parking spaces before pulling into a questionable spot. The day use parking is just south of Yosemite Village. It’s so large it reminded me of parking at a state fair or a Big Ten football game; not an experience I’d expected at a National Park.The Valley Shuttle Bus loops through 20 stops from Yosemite Lodge past the Visitor Center, out to Day Use Parking, and then east to Curry Village. Past Curry, only the shuttle is allowed on a loop that includes the trailheads to Vernal Falls and Half Dome as well as Mirror Lake. A separate shuttle runs from Wawona to Mariposa Grove daily. A third covers the Tioga Road from Tioga Pass at the park entrance to Olmsted Point, with stops at Tuolumne Meadows and other trailheads. Parking lots here are small, so even though there’s fewer people up here, the shuttle still makes sense.Walking wasn’t as pleasant an option as I’d thought. We hoofed it from the Valley Visitor center to the Ahwahnee, after having trouble finding the bus and figuring it couldn’t be that far. It was, and it had far more in common with walking city streets than I’d imagined possible. Next time, I’ll find the bus and wait for it, and save my walking for the trails.Lodging OptionsThere’s a lot of people to house in Yosemite, so make your reservations early. The high demand keeps prices high, too. In the Valley and in the stratosphere, there’s the spectacular Ahwahnee, whose stone and wood arts-and-crafts design is worth a stop (and perhaps a drink on the patio). Rooms here (without breakfast) will run $482 a night in summer 2009 (throw in another $55 for a morning meal). At the other end in the valley, the cinderblock-framed ‘units’ at Housekeeping Camp run $76 a night, and the canvas tents at Curry Village are $110 a night with breakfast; $95 with no food. If you’re looking for an actual room, in the middle of the price range are the cabins and modest rooms at Curry Village, running $140-$180. These are in high demand, though. There’s also the more upscale Yosemite Lodge at the Falls for $207 a night. Outside the Valley, there’s Wawona Hotel for a more reasonable $140 with breakfast; $208 for rooms with private bath. There’s a lot of motels in Oakhurst, which is probably 2 hours from the Valley without killer traffic. I loved Wawona, but it is a bit of a haul to get to and from the rest of park. I’d be willing to put up with the drive, and the shared bath, for the quality of the experience.And there’s camping. There are 13 campgrounds in the park, along the Valley Floor, by Wawona, on the Tioga Road, and in the backcountry. Reservations are strongly recommended; in fact, they’re required at six of the campgrounds. Things are particularly tight in May and June, because not all campgrounds open at the same time. Reservations open four months out (i.e., you can book for June 15-July 14 starting on February 15).
After a mildly disappointing night at Wuksachi Lodge in Sequoia, staying at Wawona was exactly the experience we’d been hoping for. We arrived at Yosemite late on Saturday night, ending a full day that took us through three national parks and an awful lot of other countryside—including the surreal experience of descending from the mountains into sprawling Fresno, negotiating city traffic as dusk fell, and heading north and back up into the mountains under the stars.After a quick fast food meal in Oakhurst, the border town that provides much of the tourist infrastructure on Yosemite’s south side, we passed the park boundary and entrance sign in near-perfect darkness. After a few obligatory photos, we realized we still had another 8 miles until we could call it a day. A little later, we finished negotiating a final set of s-curves and pulled into the drive at Wawona. As we came around the bend, the white Victorian lodge came into view, looking every bit the part of the grand old structure we expected. Softly lit under dark skies, the long front porch brought to mind the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. I was grateful the tariff would be a lot lower than the Grand’s high rates.Our room was on the second story, around the left side, as you faced the front. Most rooms are in the main building, with more in Washburn Cottage and a few other later additions behind the hotel. The ubiquitous white paint, the cast iron bed, the small room size and the furniture all reinforce the hotel’s historic feel. Rooms come with and without bath, and we'd taken one of the latter (with my daughter’s permission), saving $80 or so. Our rate with breakfast and tax but without bath was $135. The shared bath was a short walk down the balcony, with two showers, and was about as convenient as any such arrangement could be. I loved the classic feel of the place. It began with the lobby, which seemed oddly poised somewhere between the 19th and 21st century, its dim, nearly gas-lit feel at odds with occupants’ constant attempts to find cell phone coverage. The dining room is off to the left from the front desk, and we enjoyed a great breakfast the next morning that was included with our room rate, and came with attentive servant from one of the many college students that staff such places the world around. Before heading off for a full day of exploring Yosemite (beginning by backtracking to nearby Mariposa Grove of sequoias), we wandered around the pleasant grounds, including an orientation to the park with the rangers at the Information Station housed in the neighboring old Hill Studio. A fountain fills the middle of the circle drive in front of the hotel, which seems marred by the cars that fill every bit of available pavement. Everything else at Wawona suggests a calm, unhurried pace. Even a golf course seems to fit here, suggesting an older time when the hotel was part and parcel of the destination, offering not only the park but also its own experiences. I’d love to stay here again on another trip to Yosemite. It’s not too convenient to the Valley, and much less so to Tuolumne Meadows and the other sights along the Tioga Road. But after having coped with the crowds that fill the Valley, an hour’s retreat to Wawona would be a small price to pay to restore a little of the quiet that’s easy to lose in the Valley’s crush.
by callen60 on October 17, 2008
We had one day to explore one of the most beautiful places on earth. We were all right with that; we thought it was better than zero. It was a nice illustration that you can have a full and satisfying day in a place that has enough to fill weeks. Neither my daughter nor I would argue that we completely ‘saw’ Yosemite, but we were glad we’d come.We arrived at Wawona Hotel at 10pm on Friday. We finally left Sequoia National Forest, the Chicago Stump, and our possible near-bear experience around 7pm, crossed through the Grant Grove section of Kings Canyon National Park, and then descended and reascended the Sierras. The descent was at sunset; the ascent at dusk and then in darkness. In between was Fresno, a surreal experience in sprawling urban America before re-entering the wilderness. It was interesting to enter a large urban area from far out on the fringes: the trip was like time travel, moving from sparsely occupied country, to the last old farms, to the edge of urban expansion and suburbia, and then the interstate.We loved Wawona, and after we’d indulged ourselves at the breakfast buffet in the classic old dining room (thankfully included with our $135 room), we packed up and set out to explore. We walked around the grounds of the hotel, and stopped at the Visitor Center in the old Hill Studio, where we got some tips on how to handle our brief visit in the park. We knew we’d be exiting over the Tioga Road (Highway 120), crossing to the eastern side of the Sierras and making the long drive south to Death Valley. This part of our trip had been in jeopardy for a while, as we waited at home through the spring to see when the road and pass would open to traffic (in 2007, it was May 11; the average is May 29, with a range that extends to April 8 and July 8!).Our first stop was the Mariposa Grove of sequoias, back down the highway we’d driven the previous night. I asked my daughter if she wanted to see this extensive stand of trees, and she immediately said yes. I was glad. The grove is nearly on the park’s southern boundary: the northbound entrance road ‘tees’ immediately after you pay your fee, with Wawona off to the west and Mariposa a mile to the east. We passed by that intersection at quarter to eight, with just a few cars trickling in. Here, as everywhere else, folks sleep late on vacation. And we were taking advantage in order to have the big trees largely to ourselves again. (If you’re staying in Oakhurst, this is an easy, early first stop for beginning your Yosemite visit.) The parking area is at the southwest corner, and can fill up at times as the day progresses. To guarantee yourself access in midday, don’t drive: take the shuttle bus from the south entrance of the Wawona Store. It will drop you at the gift shop just past the Mariposa parking lot.This grove is roughly a mile long by a half-mile wide, running southwest to northeast, with a more modest network of trails than in Seqouia’s Giant Forest. It slopes uphill to the northeast, and while it’s never particularly steep, it's not exactly flat, either. From the parking lot, there’s a 400’ elevation gain to the Grizzly Giant in the southeast corner, another 400’ to the Museum, and another 200’ to the Fallen Tunnel Tree. We stayed in the lower grove, and picked up a worthwhile trail folder at the self-serve racks for 50 cents, a good guide to the grove’s highlights and sequoia ecology (you can view a .pdf of an updated version here). Just below the parking loop is the Fallen Monarch, which may have been dead for hundreds of years, preserved (as all sequoias are) by the tannins in the wood. As we walked up through the grove, we came across our first deer. We were calm and quiet at first, as was the family who pointed it out to us. As it continued to munch ferns along the path, we realized that it was completely used to human presence in the grove; there wasn’t much we could do to scare it off. The more I thought about the crowds that would fill the grove later in the day, the more that made sense.We followed the paved tram path through the grove, veering off or taking trails occasionally. If you’re headed all the way back to the far edge of the grove, and the 1000’ elevation gain is too much, you might consider the ‘Big Trees’ tram tour that leaves from the gift shop and runs along this path. It’s expensive, though: $25 for a 75-minute tour (although seniors save a whopping $1.50).We were on foot, heading for the Grizzly Giant, 1800 years young. It is a rough-looking bear of a tree, with a huge horizontal branch coming out of its side that looks like someone stuck a more ordinary tree in the Grizzly as if it were a giant pincushion. Just past the Grizzly is the Faithful Couple, an impressive pair of sequoias that have actually grown together over the centuries. It’s a reminder of how closely spaced these massive trees can grow, and of how small their root systems are. If you look at the toppled trees here and in other groves, you note that they have no deep tap root or even any deep root structure.Our final stop was the California Tunnel Tree, another third of a mile or so into the grove. This isn’t the famous Tunnel Tree (now knows as ‘the Fallen Tunnel Tree’) whose drive-through hole attracted visitors to the grove, and perversely furthered the preservation of sequoias through the damage done to it. That tree fell in 1969 during a heavy snowstorm, and is perhaps another mile’s walk uphill from here. This tree was tunneled through in 1895, and still stands. You can’t ride a carriage through it anymore, but you can walk through it. It’s a testimony to the hardiness of the sequoias: such damage certainly shortens their life, but doesn’t end it. They can survive severe fire damage, which clears the underbrush and smaller trees and creates an environment in which young sequoias can thrive. We saw dozens of example of blackened, scarred, and even hollowed seqouias that were still living and growing. The classic example is the Telescope Tree in the upper grove, which you can stand inside.As tempting as it was to visit this tree and the rest of the upper grove, we knew the price would be an even shorter time in the rest of Yosemite, and larger crowds for whatever we did have time to see. Reluctantly, we headed back down the slope for our car, passing a growing number of people on the trails—and our friend, the hungry deer, one more time.
by callen60 on October 19, 2008
Yosemite is a big place. It’s a 90-minute drive from Mariposa Grove to Yosemite Valley. Shortly before the turnoff to the Valley, you reach another to Glacier Point. It takes a half-hour to head down this road, which gradually approaches the rim of the glacier-carved rim. There are a number of turnoffs and trailheads, but we’d reluctantly pared our itinerary back to Glacier Point itself, passing on hikes to Taft Point and Sentinel Dome, or a climb from (or descent to) the Valley floor.You reach Badger Pass Ski Area after about four miles of climbing on Glacier Point Road. The road turns straight north here, with the parking area for Taft Point 3 miles ahead on your left. The road bears northeast at this point, running parallel to the Valley below. Through the trees, you can frequently see out to the rim of the valley and across. The day had suddenly turned cloudy, and we were a little concerned about arriving at Glacier Point under something other than the perfect blue skies we’d had earlier. With a mile to go, we stopped briefly at Washburn Point, about a mile south of Glacier Point. There’s a great view of the Half Dome and the east end of Yosemite Valley, and if the road and terrain stopped here, Washburn Point would be the most celebrated view in Yosemite (if not California, North America, or the world). But in another two minutes, we parked in the large lot and began walking out to Glacier Point. We had plenty of company; we hadn’t arrived here until nearly 11 am, and parking was limited, but not zero. Glacier Point is more of a complex than its name implies. From the parking lot, a path runs northwest past a set of restrooms (there were enough people here that both my daughter and I had to wait in substantial lines here on our way back to the car). In another 600 feet, you reach the base of the point, which then extends off to your left. Don’t hurry out there, though: directly ahead of you are views out over the eastern end of the valley. We spent almost 30 minutes here, taking panoramic shots, chatting with other visitors, and just laughing with each other about how spectacularly beautiful it was.You move away from the rim to ascend the remaining distance to the Point, which is nearly a quarter-mile. There are sets of stairs, but also a wheelchair-accessible path that runs to the west of the original route. In a few minutes, we were at the observation deck, which extends over 100 feet in split-level fashion, nearly dropping straight down to the valley floor beyond the stone wall. From here, you have a complete view of Yosemite Valley from east to west. It’s jaw droppingly gorgeous. Laid out in front of you are half a dozen waterfalls, the classic shape of Half Dome, and countless rocky peaks. Every place you look, a little concentration rewards you with more details. Looking down on the Valley with binoculars, we picked out the places we would visit next, found the Ahwahnee, and followed the course of the Merced River through the middle. Gazing across at the north rim, you could see the class u-shaped hanging valleys carved by glaciers, with streams flowing at the base of the u and cascading hundreds of feet downward. It was nearing the middle of June, and although the peak runoff was past, there was still water flowing everywhere you looked. It was tough to leave. We walked up and down the length of the patio, and lingered at the northern end for a while. We eased the pain of departure a little by popping into the concession building for ice cream.On a longer visit, I’d love to descend one of several trails that summit here. I’m guessing that a descent would not only be easier, but would allow you to face the gorgeous scenery. It’s a four-mile path (along of all things, Four Mile Trail), and I’m confident it would be worth the shuttle ride out, or even a return trip for your car.
by callen60 on October 20, 2008
As we left Glacier Point, the limitations on our visit to Yosemite were becoming apparent. It was just after 11, we were waiting our turn at the ‘facilities’ by the parking lot, and we were at least an hour away from the Valley itself. Neither of us was disappointed in the morning we’d spent among Mariposa’s sequoias, or atop Glacier Point, but we knew we’d be leaving Yosemite in about five hours and we’d already fallen in love with the place.We rejoined Wawona Road at Chinquapin and headed north, finally turning east after another five miles. We entered the famous tunnel that serves as gateway to Yosemite Valley, and emerged into a wonderland at Tunnel View. Thankfully, we found a parking spot, and dodged traffic to join the crowd along the sidewalk and viewing area on the north side. This is the site of Ansel Adams’ famous photograph, and everyone deserves a shot at replicating it. It was a great day, but even today’s conditions made you realize just how perfect the conditions were in Adams’ shot. It’s five miles down the Valley to Half Dome, and over those distances even a modest amount of haze shows up. The crowds were pretty thick, but largely good-natured, and we took turns trading portrait shots with some friends we recognized from Glacier Point. It took about 10 minutes for us to have a front row seat for the view, which we obtained with a minimal amount of elbowing and defense. I realized that Adams must also have been here at just the right time, with the waterfalls flowing in high volume over the valley walls.I knew that the trail to Inspiration Point left from somewhere on the road’s south side, so we crossed back and looked around for a trailhead. Eventually, we found something like a path heading up and back in the right direction, so we started climbing. It was pretty steep, and a mile and a half of this didn’t thrill my daughter, so we found the first open spot and turned to look back down the valley.What a difference a little distance can make. The small investment of time put us up about 50 feet, and completely removed us from the activity below. We had nearly the same view, but with more of the quiet and reverence that it deserves. I first read this advice in a ranger’s suggestions about Yellowstone (and then about Bryce, and the about Zion, and then…): 90% of the visitors never get more 50 yards away from the parking lots. Just get on any trail, and you’ll have a whole different experience.We sat on the rocks for while and took in the Valley, and made the decision to forego the rest of the trip to Inspiration Point and rejoin our fellow visitors down below. In a few minutes, we were at Bridalveil Falls, the next major stop on the south Valley drive. This place was packed, and parking was non-existent. After three circuits of the parking lot, I broke my own code of ethics and pulled into a non-spot. We sprinted for the short trail to the falls, only to find it packed like a subway stairwell at rush hour. In a few hundred yards, we emerged onto a platform under the spray from the broad, windswept falls, which showered us with a cool pleasant mist. I held my camera up over my head and took a few shots. This was a grumpier crowd than at Tunnel View, and we quickly retreated to the car. On a whim, we turned left off the road and toward the Merced River, eventually arriving at a parking lot where we abandoned our vehicle in a legitimate location. Pretty soon, we were at the river’s edge, along a section where it turned and ran at right angles to both valley walls. My daughter wanted to get in the water, so we threw our shoes on the bank and tried to find a way in that worked for someone holding camera, wallet, keys, etc. There wasn’t a good route here, but now we both were anxious to wade in the river, and headed a little further down to Sentinel Beach.This was delightful, a combination of families at the seashore and alpine vistas. Rafters floated by, grandparents sat in folding chairs in the river, kids splashed and swam and floated, and we stood and turned in circles for a few minutes, taking it all in.This was the highlight of our time on the Valley floor. We knew we’d want to leave by 4pm, in order to keep our upcoming trek over the Tioga Road and south to Death Valley from becoming an all-night affair. In the remaining time, we poked our head in the visitors center, bought t-shirts, toured the native village, and hiked down to the Ahwahnee for a glimpse of how the other half lives. Finally, we reluctantly headed to the car, and out Northside Drive to the Valley’s mouth. We pulled off at Valley View for one last look, and got our best view yet of this tremendous place.
Leaving the Valley towards the north, you join Big Oak Flat Road, which heads towards the junction with the Tioga Road at Crane Flat. If you continue past the turn to Tioga, you’ll leave the park at the Big Oak Flat Entrance, where you can either turn west towards civilization or north to eventually re-enter the park and head to Hetch Hetchy Valley.Hetch Hetchy was John Muir’s great defeat: the water interests of the swelling San Francisco area overcame his resistance, and damned the Tuolumne River following Congress’ authorization in 1914. I’d love to visit this site, and offer my own hopes that efforts to remove the dam will finally bear fruit. But on this visit, there wouldn’t be time.There was plenty of time to think about it, however, as we sat stalled in our first Yosemite traffic jam on the hills to Crane Flat. After about 15 minutes, things cleared for good, and we stopped at the gas station at the junction—but not before sighting one last bear for good measure.The road climbs steeply as you leave the Valley, where the elevation is roughly 3400’. Big Oak Flat Road runs right up the hillside, hitting 4800’ in about three miles, for about a 9% average grade. Things level out, obviously, near Crane Flat, and then Tioga Road bends back to the east, and finishes ascending a near-plateau on the north side of the Valley.This is a spectacular road, through forest for the first part, and then in to beautiful, open alpine spaces. It was quite an accomplishment to push a road through this region, and it remains one of only a few highways that cross the Sierras. This is the southernmost, and the last half of the trip re-enters the mountains, providing the most spectacular scenery along this 65-mile drive.Olmsted Point is about 35 miles from Crane Flat. It looks down Yosemite Valley at the back of Half Dome, and although it doesn’t provide a vista over the entire area, is still worth a stop. We hiked out along the granite surfaces at the end of the short trail just after 6pm, with no other company joining us in leaving the viewing area by the parking lot. We were a little nervous about abandoning our car, since a rather aggressive marmot kept popping out and heading for our vehicle, and acting as if he was waiting for us to head down the trail a ways. We’d read a few horror stories about their appetite for rubber hoses, and penchant for getting atop your engine block, but the car started fine when we returned.In another mile we reached beautiful Tenaya Lake, nestled in among mountains on nearly every side. The road skirts between one set and the lakes’ north western shore. In five more miles we reached Tuolumne Meadows, the only ‘developed’ area along Tioga Road. There are minimal campgrounds and picnic sites at a few other places, but Tuolumne also has gas, rangers, a store and restaurant. In this area, granite domes just rise up out of the grasses in places. There are trailheads into some spectacular backcountry, and access to the Pacific Crest and John Muir Trails that run through the rest of the Sierras.Five more miles brought us near Tioga Pass, nearly 10,000’ high—the highest altitude roadway in California. This is the park’s eastern boundary, and the road begins a steep descent of 3000’ to the town of Lee Vining on the edge of Mono Lake. The roadway is carved directly into the mountainside, and it’s steep, but there are wide shoulders and plenty of room. The views are spectacular along here, as you pass between peaks and lakes. I wished I wasn’t driving, but someone needed to look around the next hairpin curve.We were back in more typical country, with another three and half hours of driving ahead before reaching Death Valley. This drive down the eastern side of the Sierras was a beautiful and lonely one, especially pretty at sunset. We’d passed the northern- and western-most point on our trip, and we had one more national park to go, but we were definitely turning towards home.
There are an awful lot of character-free lodgings, and far too many in places where a visitor has every right to expect something different. Death Valley hardly seemed a place to expect something typical, whether a generic low-end motel room, or equally character-free high-end lodging. As we pulled into Panamint Springs, we would have settled for nearly anything without complaint. This was the longest haul of our day’s end journeys, a trip that began that morning in Wawona at Yosemite’s southern end, took us in and out of that park’s gorgeous valley, and then up over the Tioga Road and the continental divide and down to US 395 along the eastern edge of the Sierras. It was a terrific trip, through a largely empty piece of California that was a revelation to me, with high desert, volcanic landscapes, and rugged mountains; remote enough that a panicked, xenophobic America used it to inter Japanese-Americans during WWII, a world away from their homes in the Bay Area.After passing through Lee Vining, Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, and maybe one other ‘municipality’, we turned off 395 at Lone Pine to angle down to Death Valley. What had been a remote trip turned into an extremely lonely one. Now dry, Owens ‘Lake’ was on our right, a testimony to Los Angeles’ seemingly unquenchable thirst. We passed two cars in 60 miles, what must be a new low for an hour of driving. My daughter was recounting the stories from Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, refreshing my own junior-high memories with her more recent recollections. Stories of how people settled an austere landscape and then disappeared seemed amazingly relevant. Hungry for human contact, we checked in with the rest of our family via cell phone right as we crested the last ridge before the park, then passed the park entrance sign and ominously lost contact.By now, it was well past twilight, and we were descending the far side of that range over a steeply pitched set of switchbacks. We encountered our second and final fellow traveler somewhere in the middle of one of those curves (both longitudinally and horizontally). Now I was really anxious to get off the highway, and as we came around the last bend, we saw what proved to be the ‘lights’ of Panamint Springs.It was 10 pm, and the temperature was still in the 80’s. The lights of the restaurant were still on, the gas sign was dark, and a sole customer dawdled over the remains of a meal. I asked him whom we ‘d need to talk with about our reservation, and with an air of resignation, pointed his thumb over his shoulder and said, "That’d be her." As he pulled his belongings together, I realized he’d been waiting to claim our room in case we didn’t arrive.As the waitress/front desk person steered him down the road to Stovepipe Wells, we took the key to our ‘cottage’. All the rooms here are in separate stone buildings behind the restaurant. Ours was at the far western end of the line, which arced back along a dusty stony road that ran between the other dozen rooms. Nothing about the layout suggested luxury, but it did feel exactly like the outcome suggested by its location on the map.Inside, the room was functional, but not much more. A small bathroom with aging, chipped tile; a pair of double beds, spare motel furniture from another era, and most importantly, an overhead fan and a working window air conditioner. The room was adequate, and we were glad to have it—other options are few and far between in Death Valley, where the major hotel closes for the summer. Nonetheless, the spartan accommodations made me feel a little closer to the line between safety and exposure than I’d been in awhile. I kinda liked it.A few other guests sat in front of the cabins. They must have been enjoying the few cool moments available during a June day in Death Valley. We stepped out on the front steps and looked at the stars, read for a while, and hit the sack. About six, I noticed a few glimmerings under the window, and poked my head outside. I could tell that the Sun was just about to rise over the mountains to the east, and waited five minutes or so to watch it light up the Valley and begin another day of sizzling temperatures. We’d hardly unpacked the night before; so getting started in the morning didn’t take long. We passed on breakfast at the Springs, figuring we’d make the most of our morning in Death Valley and pick up something at the stores in Stovepipe Wells. As we left our desert oasis, we noticed the price of gas: what was then a record $4.42 a gallon in June 2007. We’d paid our $110 lodging tab the night before, so we took a few pictures and headed further into the park.You could do a lot worse than this place: I bet it would be easy to find nothing at all in the way of motel accommodations. This place isn’t built to handle a lot of people, especially in the summer time. If you hung out here for a few days, I bet you’d come back with more than your fair share of stories. At the least, I’d be willing to see.
After watching the sunrise from Panamint Springs, we headed further east into Death Valley. Given how quickly the temperature shoots up after sunrise, I was surprised we didn’t see any of our fellow guests up and about. It’s still comfortable in Death Valley at 7 am; but you can tell it’s going to be a scorcher. We headed down the road, now able to see the stark surroundings that we missed on our nighttime arrival. There was one more ridge of mountains (the Cottonwoods) to climb and descend: Death Valley owes its shape and elevation (or lack thereof) to one accident of geology, and its dryness to another. Spreading tectonic plates, one headed west to the Pacific and the other east to Nevada, left Death Valley in the middle, a deep trough sagging below sea level. To the west are four mountain ranges, including 11,000’ high Telescope Peak on the western edge, providing a sharp, adjacent contrast to the depths of Badwater (400’ below sea level). Each of those ranges progressively dries the air as it rises and passes over the ridges, so that the air masses that eventually reach Death Valley are amazingly devoid of moisture. This basin drains an area the size of New Hampshire, but hardly ever accumulates any water at all. So it’s amazing that flowers ever bloom here. We missed the wildflower season, but encountered a different kind of beauty, in the sand dunes of Stovepipe Wells, the salt-encrusted badlands of Devil’s Golf Course, the colors at Zabriskie Point, and the blue, blue sky over all this sand, rock and heat.As we headed in and past Stovepipe Wells, a series of signs progressively marked our descent to sea level and beyond. We didn’t stop to explore the sand dunes, which lie off the road to the north. We passed them at about 7 am, as we munched on the prepackaged cinnamon rolls and OJ we’d picked up at the store. We arrived at the Furnace Creek complex, the park’s center, about 7:45, beating the ranger by 15 minutes. We dawdled in the parking lot, finding the car already too warm to sit in without the AC on. The oversized temperature gauge beneath the station’s overhang was already nearing 90. We were there to pick up a junior ranger guide, and to wrestle with how to exchange it for a badge when my daughter was finished. We couldn’t backtrack to Furnace Creek, since we needed to be in Vegas for our flight home. The helpful ranger suggested that we mail it in, and we headed south to Badwater and Devil’s Golf Course.Having only a fraction of a morning meant we skipped a lot. I would have like to hike the short Golden Canyon trail, and 8 am would be the time to do it. Although we were up early, we weren’t the only ones at Badwater, but there were only one or two other cars. The view up and down the valley here is impressive, and emphasizes the extent of the area that would drain into Death Valley, if only it had any runoff. Behind you is a steep bluff, and if you look carefully at the face, you see a small sign marking the elevation of sea level, 282 feet above you. The elevation changes here are dramatic. The mountains that bound this place are not far away. As you stand at Badwater, the lowest site in the US, about two miles behind and to the left is Dante’s view, over a mile above sea level. Telescope Peak is directly in front of you, about 10 miles to the west.Distances here are large, and the park’s sites are not close together. This park is over 100 miles long, running southeast to northwest. It’s 50 miles from Scotty’s Castle to Furnace Creek, and another 72 from there past Badwater to Shoshone. We stopped to gawk at the crusty ground at Devil’s Golf Course, where it looks like the earth has just been oozing salts around the edges of some awkwardly shaped, ancient linoleum tile that’s slowly curling up in the Sun. I’ve never seen ground that looked so lethal, both chemically and physically.We retraced our steps to Furnace Creek, passing the Inn that closes as spring gives way to summer. We rejoined Highway 190, joining busloads of tourists from Vegas at Zabriskie Point to look out over a series of multicolored sands onto the Valley. It was odd to find ourselves in the midst of people once again, after all the emptiness of Death Valley and eastern Sierras. The temperature was nearing 100, the clock was nearing 10:30, and we reluctantly climbed back in the car and headed for Vegas.
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