Sunrise east of Oakdale, Sierra Foothills
March 25, 2016
I’m pretty sure I speak for many of my fellow naturalists and outdoorspeople when I say that while this season’s (yes, it is ongoing) rainfall and snowpack have been good, the much hyped and ballyhooed El Niño has fallen short of expectations. The way the prognosticators were predicting last autumn, we were expecting downpours of biblical proportions, maybe some ark-building. I’m old enough to remember the ’98 El Niño pretty well and it was an impressive year (aside from the floods and landslides). But we did get a bit of what some called a “March Miracle” as a series of mid-month storms hit Northern California. This helped to significantly augment the snowpack and add some more precious run-off into our reservoirs.
I was able to take advantage of having my weekdays off to head up to Yosemite to camp, explore and do some photography in the Sierra foothills and Yosemite Valley (3/15 & 3/16, what better way to celebrate the Ides of March). It’s a relatively quiet time in Yosemite anyways, but it was wonderful to enjoy the park on a Tuesday and Wednesday in late winter. I left the Bay Area before dawn and was treated to some wonderful scenes by the time I got to the foothills east of Oakdale (Highway 120).
I usually drive into Yosemite via 120, by force of habit as well as convenience. But I was looking forward to see how full Lake Don Pedro was after the winter storms. I confess it wasn’t quite as full as I expected, but it was so much higher than when I saw it last May when it was just a good-sized puddle. It was also important to keep in mind that there will be significant run-off in the next two months as the snow pack melts. (if you click on the trio of photos below, you can see them full-sized)
Lupines at Lake Don Pedro
Lupines & fog bank above the lake
Fiddleneck at Lake Don Pedro
Whenever I drive into Yosemite on an overnight trip, I’m constantly torn between wanting to stop every time I see something worth photographing (which is pretty damned often), and wanting to get to the park to maximize my time. Once I left Lake Don Pedro on the Tuolumne River, I minimized my stops. I whizzed through Groveland and then made a beeline for the Big Oak Flat entrance. I encountered snow along Big Oak Flat Road above 5,000 from the recent storms, but the road was well plowed and safe to negotiate.
Big Oak Flat Road at about 5,500′
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
It was interesting being back in Yosemite Valley. The previous time I’d visited was last July when I was about to embark on my John Muir Trail adventure. It was also very different since I was on a YARTs bus and all I was interested in was getting my wilderness pass and then getting set up at Backpackers Camp. On this trip, I got to be a little more of a tourist. I used to abhor coming into the valley because of the crowds of tourists. I’ve softened my take on the experience over the past half dozen years. I still try to avoid the park in the summer, especially on weekends. But there’s such beauty in the park and it’s very easy to find quiet and solitude, especially the further from the village you are.
Yosemite Falls and the Merced River
I reached Yosemite Village at about 10:30, in desperate need of coffee, which I found at Degnan’s Deli. A huge bonus is that they serve Peets. After buying a few other camp necessities (firewood and Milano cookies), I went to Upper Pines Campground to set up my camp. Since I’d been up since 4:30 a.m., I took a short cat nap in my truck and then finally forced myself back out to explore Bridalveil Falls. Because of the rains, I was highly focused on waterfalls.
Predictably, I ran into quite a few other visitors at the base of the falls and on the nearby trails, but I only had to hike a few hundred yards east of the outflow to find solitude on the Valley Loop Trail.
Valley Loop Trail
Wild mushroom along the trail
In all, I hiked about five or six miles, with a nice lunch break along the Merced River before heading back to camp to rest some more and brew up some more coffee on my camp stove. For a while, I thought I might just relax the rest of the afternoon and early evening, but I couldn’t sit still, knowing that the setting sun was probably putting on a show out in the meadows near El Capitan and Bridalveil. I was glad I went out again for photos, because the lighting and clouds dancing on top of El Capitan were memorable.
El Capitan in the early evening
Fading light in the meadow
The view west
And finally, there’s a strict rule enforced by park rangers that all visitors must take at least one photograph of Half Dome. After being put in a choke hold, I finally acquiesced and took this image. (ok, don’t report this on Facebook or Twitter, I wasn’t really put in a choke hold nor is there really a rule).
I had a wonderful evening in front of a campfire as the temperatures dropped probably into the high 30s. There was a half moon out, and the stars were brilliant in the cold night. Although I set up my tent, I ended up sleeping in the back of my 4Runner. With the middle seats down, it’s a comfy (and warmer) way to car camp. In the morning, I’d hoped to hike up the Upper Yosemite Falls trail, but had a few lingering foot and back issues, so I took the easy walk to Lower Yosemite Falls. I was fortunate to arrive just moments before a bus load of gawkers took over the viewing area and bridge.
Lower Yosemite Falls
On the way home, for variety’s sake, I drove the southern route (Highway 140) home. It’s also an incredibly scenic route since I had the Merced River out my window until well past El Portal and down towards Mariposa.
Merced River near El Portal
Redbud growing at El Portal
Past Mariposa I made a few more stops to photograph more wildflowers. Not only have the El Niño rains been kind to the water supply, snow pack, falls and rivers, it’s also been kind to the color green and to wildflowers.
Fiddleneck west of Mariposa