“The story is, a man came up to Yosemite and the ranger was sitting at the front gate and the man said, “I’ve only got one hour to see Yosemite. If you only had one hour to see Yosemite, what would you do?” And the ranger said, “Well, I’d go right over there, and I’d sit on that rock, and I’d cry.” – Nevada Barr / Dayton Duncan, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”
2020 has been a trying year – a lot of trying to do this, trying to do that, but Mother Nature decidedly said “NOPE.” In January, we started the deep dive into researching our next big vacation, to Portugal and Spain. As the plan came together, and we booked the planes, trains, and hotels, we started hearing more and more about this novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Soon, the President was on TV, promising us: “You have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.” From there, you know what happened: 15 cases turned into 1,000, and the tally in subsequent months has ballooned to over 10,000,000 infected (and 239,000+ deaths) in the U.S. Adapting to a new world has been crazy, sad, and worrisome, while also trying to juggle staying positive, productive, and grateful for where we are and what we’ve been able to do.
As for the trip, we were supposed to fly out in May, and it really became clear how bad things were getting when the airlines canceled our flights and governments started shutting down borders. As this was happening, my TV show job started winding down earlier than expected. Soon enough, the whole crew was laid off.
With a lot of uncertainty ahead, Janine and I started seeking refunds from the flights/hotels/excursions we had booked. The requests seemed pretty straightforward, since travel restrictions made it impossible for us to even get to Portugal and Spain. Fortunately, most companies holding our money were understanding of the “I’m now unemployed, and we can’t get there” messages, and all but one promptly gave a refund. I don’t normally call out businesses but, in this case of exceptionally-awful customer service and hardheadedness, it’s worth saying Hotel Sol e Mar in Albufeira, Portugal is literally the only place that flat-out refused to give a refund while I was unemployed. We turned the issue over to the Portuguese government’s Consumer Protection Office but, no surprise, the communication has been slow during the pandemic.
In the subsequent months, just like so many other people, most of our time has been spent at home. In August, wildfire smoke from the massive “Bobcat Fire” near L.A. kept us indoors, all day, everyday, with the windows sealed shut. As the days trudged along, anxiety and misery were creeping in, so we started exploring relatively safe options for a weekend escape from L.A. We decided on a quick trip north, to check out the Central Coast cities of Salinas, Monterey, and Carmel-by-the-Sea. We found a secluded vacation rental (a converted barn), and booked it right away. Days before the trip, a massive wildfire started burning just 5 miles from our rental. We kept an eye on the fire and smoke maps (fire.airnow.gov) and, once we saw the Salinas-area reach the “hazardous” air quality rating, we knew the trip was off the table.
With the arrival of autumn, we, yet again, started exploring options to do JUST SOMETHING… ANYTHING… We happened to look into visiting Yosemite National Park just as reservation slots were opening up, so we decided to give that a try, and here’s how it went….
The drive to Yosemite takes about four-and-a-half hours from Los Angeles. Passing through Bakersfield and beyond is always a reminder of how huge the agriculture industry is in Central California. Groves of almond and orange trees continue for miles and miles. Milk processing plants are on both sides of the highway, and the cows – so many cows in massive, industrial pens – stink up the air. Along the way, a dust devil, probably 20 feet high and 5 feet wide, swirls next to the highway.
Eventually, we start heading east toward the mountains that line the horizon. Navigating the foothills and continuing north, we finally arrive in Mariposa, which is our home base during this quick trip. It’s about an hour from Yosemite and is an interesting, one-stoplight kind of town. Right away, we notice a greater disparity than we’re used to between people who heed the current public health guidelines regarding COVID-19 and those who don’t. Most people in the grocery store wear masks; a few families completely disregard the mandates. We walk past a nice-looking restaurant and see through the picture windows that every table inside is filled. Since people are eating, of course, only the waitstaff is wearing any PPE. Based on what we know, what the science has revealed, we opt to eat at one of the restaurants that’s adapted to outdoor dining. There’s a brewery/restaurant down the road, and a burger and beer turn out to be a great way to end of this travel day.
It’s way too early for my alarm clock to be going off. Ugh. At the same time, we’ve been meaning to visit Yosemite for a long time now, so it would be a waste to not make the most of this opportunity.
We ready ourselves for the day and head out. Other than the brightly shining stars, the sky is still black. Along the hour drive to the park, the sky slowly lightens, transitioning to a soft blue, and the sun’s rays begin to reveal brown wildfire smoke hovering above the mountains.
The piping hot coffee isn’t doing much for me, but I do wake up a little bit when the park entrance comes into sight. It’s unstaffed right now (it’s too early in the morning), and the self check-in instructions aren’t very clear. We did print out our pass, so we’ll stick that on the dashboard for now and figure whatever else we need to do later.
The road ahead winds though the park, following the curves of a river. It’s randomly lined with MASSIVE boulders, fallen over the centuries and millennia from the tall mountains nearby. I can’t even begin to imagine the rumble and path of destruction left behind when these fall from such great heights.
With no real destination in mind to start out the morning, we decide to turn off at the Swinging Bridge trailhead. That sounds fun, only there is no swinging bridge! In fact, the wood bridge looks really solid and well engineered, so I’m guessing the name is a relic of the past. Brrrrr, it’s cold. It’s in the high 40s (F) right now. This was tolerable in the midwest, but I’m not used to it anymore, so I dig out my thick coat, gloves, and winter hat from the car.
Other than the bridge and creek below it, there isn’t much to see in this general vicinity, so we stop by the stinky pit bathrooms, then continue on. Just before sunrise, we stop at Cook’s Meadow. The air smells like a campfire burning, no doubt from the wildfires in the park. While hoping the smoke doesn’t end up ruining our views, the neatest thing happens: the sun casts a shadow of a mountain peak through some of that haze in the distance. Wow! You might get this same sort of look on a lightly foggy day, but this feels like a rare moment. The beauty continues, but changes, as the sun begins peaking over the mountains, and the shadow begins to fade. Waking up so early was a challenge, but this has already been well worth it...
Once the sun clears the mountains, we turn around, cross the street, then start down a 1 mile loop called the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail. Unfortunately, the waterfall is bone dry during this time of the year, but the sounds of the forest (leaves rustling, woodpeckers knocking on trees, squirrels chirping) is an amazing relief from the traffic we hear 24/7 in Los Angeles.
This is our daily soundtrack. If it’s not cars and trucks, it’s jets taking off. Lately (2020, of course), the ambience has also started to include backfiring BMWs (is making your car sound like it desparately needs a tuneup now a thing?) and two loud Lamborghinis (their friends probably would have been more impressed if they bought a house instead). You know what’s super cool these days? Electric cars.
Along the trail, Janine excitedly whispers “Hey, there’s a deer!” I turn to look, and a buck with giant antlers is casually walking in our direction. He spots us, stops, we size each other up and, defeated (haha), he moseys on past us. This deer seems way too comfortable around humans but, at the same time, we probably responded like most other people in this scenario by staying calm and quiet. If it’s another animal, like a bear, that’s gonna require a much different response…
After this walk, we get back in the car and continue the initial exploration. We stop at the El Capitan Meadow, which offers a stunning, wide view of the famous mountain peak for which this meadow is named. A couple people nearby are peering through small telescopes, so I get out my camera and start scanning. Wayyyyyy up, what looks like dots with the naked eye turns out to be climbers scaling the wall. At least five people are up there right now – some are actively climbing and some are resting on their portaledge platforms.
At least one person is navigating the famous Dawn Wall. Only three people have ever successfully free climbed (unaided ascent but using safety ropes) this rock face – a climb long thought to be impossible.
The red arrow shows the location of a climber which, at full resolution, appears as a tiny speck on El Capitan’s massive Dawn Wall.
Next, we head up and up winding roads, on a path that will basically take us to the back of El Capitan. Along the way is the Tuolumne Grove, which has a couple dozen giant sequoia trees set among the sugar pines and white firs. Having been to Sequoia National Park, these ginormous trees, many of which are thousands of years old, are incredible and worth seeing at any chance possible.
This hike is 2.5 miles round-trip. It slowly takes you down 500 ft., and you can feel the resistance in your legs (especially knees!) along the way. Once you’ve checked out the grove, it’s time to huff and puff your way back up the trail, but the effort is worth it.
Back in the car and continuing further east, we make a quick visit at the Olmsted Point scenic overlook (putting into perspective how far we’ve driven into the park), followed by Tenaya Lake and a picnic area, to eat our packed lunch. We’ve worked up an appetite from the hiking, and a turkey sandwich has never tasted better.
It’s been a long drive to get here, so we start working our way back west. The Soda Springs trail is nearby, so we check that out. In the 1800s, naturalist and conservationist John Muir spent some time here, and this area’s ties to Muir and the Sierra Club are important to the history of Yosemite’s history as a national park.
Carbonated water continually bubbles up from the springs. Due only to potential contamination, drinking the water isn’t advised. I did want to taste it but refrained, unlike the time I licked the wall in a salt mine in Poland (it tasted just as expected).
Soda Springs in Tuolumne Meadows
From here, we wind our way back down to Yosemite Valley, then to our home base in Mariposa. Dinner is at a so-so pizza joint, followed by some craft drinks at a tucked-away saloon. Masks-be-damned inside this establishment, so we take our drinks to a picnic table outside. A group of local weirdos have staked out a spot nearby, and they bring us into their drama involving a woman who keeps mumbling our way. “Sorry… She’s not with us,” the misfits unconvincingly tell us. We soon call it a day and ready ourselves for another early morning start.
SUNDAY The alarm clock startles me again. I’m groggy, but we’re here for a reason, so it’s time to get moving. We get cleaned up, pack our lunch, load up the car, and head out. Unfortunately, compared to yesterday, we’re about an hour behind schedule, so we book it to the park.
We arrive as light fills the sky, but before the sun starts rising above the mountains. This gives us a great photo opportunity at one of the more popular scenic spots, Valley View. This perspective offers the Merced River in the foreground, El Capitan to the left, and Half Dome to the right. Watching the sunlight slowly spread on El Capitan’s Dawn Wall is mesmerizing, and this is the kind of experience many of us should be having more often.
I’ve documented this moment in every way I can think of. Janine patiently waits nearby, with her arms folded. We give each other a nod, knowing it’s time to continue on. Yesterday, we headed north, and today we head a little south, up and up and up to Glacier Point.
Along the winding roads (and Janine white-knuckling the steering wheel), we pass some burn areas. Many charred tree trunks are toppled, and some still standing seem like charcoal pillars, ready to collapse into a pile of ash at any moment. The destruction is disappointing to see, yet we know natural fires are also important for forest health and renewal.
We reach Glacier Point, some 3,200 ft. (980 m) above the valley floor below. From here, cars look like toys smaller than Micro Machines, and the Half Dome peak demonstrates its prominence among the landscape. The wildfire smoke partly obscures the view but, fortunately, what we are seeing is a huge improvement compared to what park rangers were posting on social media a couple weeks ago.
Glacier Point is literally the end of the road at the top of this mountain so, from here, we head back down to the valley. Along the way is Washburn Point, where we stop to take in the view and snap some pictures. Half Dome just isn’t nearly as impressive from this angle, but what it does give us is a much better view of the Vernal and Nevada waterfalls far below that peak. In fact, we are so far away from these massive features that I have to point and explain to Janine where to see them without the aid of my camera.
Vernal Fall (red) and Nevada Fall (orange) are barely visible in the wide view from Washburn Point.
Our ears start pop during the 3,000+ ft. (914 m) descent, and we ask ourselves “Where to next?” Fortunately, the park has a great app that uses GPS, so we’ve been relying on that while technically still “off the grid.” As Janine drives, I start researching the waterfalls we viewed from way upon high. Both are more of an arduous trek than we’d prefer right now, so we opt for the Mirror Lake trail. The photos on the app look amazing, showing a beautiful, still body of water in the shadow of Half Dome. This is going to be awesome!
Looking for parking near the Curry Village camp, we encounter an “authorized vehicles only / do not enter” sign and turn around. The best option we see is parking next to a meadow. Looking at the map, it now doesn’t seem like we are anywhere close to the trailhead, but it is what it is. We walk through Curry Camp, past the cabins, then whaddyaknow? We walk by a parking lot beyond that “do not enter” sign. Could we actually have parked here and saved some time and effort and strain on our aching joints? Along the way, a woman walking our direction asks us “Are we almost to the parking lot?” Yes. Yes, you are.
It’s tempting to embark on the Vernal Fall trail, rather than the shorter Mirror Lake one we chose. At the same time, signs near the trailhead recommend how much drinking water per person you should be carrying. That would have really been nice to see way back, by the “do not enter” sign, so we just stick with the original plan.
Mirror Lake is considered an easy hike, and it helps having the option of either taking the trail or walking along the little-used road. We saw two cars along the way, which was odd, but you can drive to the lake if you have a handicap placard.
Once we see a sign for Mirror Lake, we wonder “Okay, well… where the heck is the water???” Oops. After a couple long days, I just didn’t read and plan enough. The lake disappears into the sand near the end of summer. Thus, there is no beautiful reflection of Half Dome to see; there is only dust and sand and boulders.
Welcome to Mirror Lake…
Despite the disappointment of this particular trek, on the way back, the forest provides a nice, peaceful stillness, other than the occasional rustle when the wind picks up. While taking in the calm of the forest, we look to our right and spot a coyote trotting through the woods. It skirts past us, then down the road behind us, encountering a couple just rounding a bend. The animal clearly isn’t expecting them and lurches, seemingly unsure what to do. As the people get out their phones, the coyote sprints by them, then disappears back into the forest.
From here, that about does it. We stop at the El Capitan Meadow again for some pics, then back to Mariposa for dinner. Although virtual, I have a meeting in the early afternoon tomorrow, to review an upcoming episode, and need a solid internet connection for video streaming. That means it’s going to be yet another early, early start for us. Still, just a quick couple days in Yosemite offered some magical moments, and now I’m hooked, hoping to get a chance to eventually see what the place offers in all four seasons.
“Exploring: Yosemite National Park, California” (2020) Written by Justin Kilmer, Edited by Janine Kilmer
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