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.
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