May 23, 2015 – Yosemite National Park
Here in California, we do things a little differently. In January, we almost literally had zero rain and mild temperatures. Now in the springtime, a month before summer, we’re walking around shivering in sweaters and jackets, and the high mountain roads (Tioga and Sonora) have been opened, closed, and reopened…several times, due to snow. And the forecast for the next week is for a continuation of the pattern.
The photo triptych above shows a sequence from my hike on the Upper Yosemite Falls Trail on Thursday. Image on the left, during my ascent, a classic Yosemite Valley view was from about 10 a.m. Middle photo was on the way down at 12:30, on the right (1:30) the clouds really took over the valley and I finished the hike in a downpour. I know that all the cool weather, late snow and rain are good for the state, and while they do little to help the drought, at least they extend the snowpack, extend the waterfalls of Yosemite, and very importantly, shorten the wildfire season. But my narrower, more narcissistic view is to wonder how all this will impact my John Muir Trail adventure in mid-July. I feel sympathy and empathy for those poor JMTers who are starting early. I’m sure by July the pattern will change (it has to, right?) and I’ll be fine. Otherwise, I’ll lobby for a reopening of Squaw Valley and do some skiing.
Photos: Wednesday morning – The drive into the mountains…
Up before dawn for the drive, I stopped for photos above Lake Don Pedro along highway 120. The reservoir is fed by the Tuolumne River and is still dreadfully low.
One more stop to shoot some flowers along the roadside before the steep ascent up Priest Grade. I always have to temper my desire to stop for photos with the desire to get to my ultimate destination. Especially when trying to get to a place like Yosemite. I made one more stop at a vista point that used to look out over beautiful forest east of Groveland. For the ensuing generation(s), it will be a view to the devastation of the 2013 Rim Fire and will give those driving this stretch to slowly watch the landscape try to recover.
Even with my stops along the road, I got to Hodgdon Meadow Campground and was able to check into my spot early. I dropped off my gear and supplies in the bear box and drove towards the valley to do some sightseeing. Although the crowds in the valley can test one’s patience, especially someone like myself who has underdeveloped patience genes, I have to tell myself that there’s a reason Yosemite Valley is on the must see list for most every tourist that comes to the park from around the world. It is spectacular. When coming in on Big Oak Flat Road, the first glimpse of the valley with Half Dome in the distance takes your breath away. It does it to me every time and it either drives me to tears of joy, or to uncontrollable giggling, or both.
After dawdling at the village for lunch and visiting some amenities I’d never looked into: museum, cemetery, visitor center, I did some logistical fact-finding for my JMT in July (a few questions for rangers at the Wilderness office, transportation information, and location of the backpackers’ camp). A few more photos and then a drive back to Hodgdon to set up camp and relax for the rest of the afternoon and evening.
Although my evening at Hodgdon Meadows was generally nice, the proximity to other campers who are less evolved and experienced in camp etiquette is a supreme challenge. Again, it exposes my lack of patience. The most egregious was the late arriving young man in the adjacent site who, in the darkness, made enough noise to wake the dead, kept blinding me with his flashlight, and then used an entire bottle of lighter fluid to get his campfire lit. Each time he squeezed the bottle into the open flame, the surrounding forest brightened as the flames came to life. I kept expecting at any moment to see the young man running around, engulfed in flames. I also kept wondering how many more puffs of my cigar I would take while deciding whether to assist him by dousing the flames, or whether I would just let social Darwinism proceed without my interference. Thankfully, I never found out.
Thursday – Upper Yosemite Falls hike
After a cold night – it was colder than most of my night on the John Muir Trail last year – I had a quick breakfast of oatmeal and Highwire Coffee before heading back to the valley for a hike. At first, I thought I might try a hike up Tenaya canyon, but I opted for Upper Yosemite Falls. It’s hard to resist a view of those falls and I wanted to be sure I’d have a strenuous day on the trail. I am still in training, after all.
For all the crowds of mid and late morning, I always find it surprising how few people are out before 8:00. I drove into the valley at around 7:30, grabbed a sandwich at Degnan’s Deli (a solid decision) and then parked at Yosemite Lodge. I was on the trail just before 8:30. Although the clouds above the north rim of the valley were fluffy and white, to the south and east, they were significantly thicker and grayer. But given that the forecast for Wednesday – 80% chance of rain – was dead wrong, I stayed optimistic and paid little heed to the clouds. Besides, I was prepared for inclement weather: several layers of clothes and rain gear.
This was my fourth time hiking this trail and I always seem to either overestimate my ability or underestimate its difficulty. I was thinking that since I’ve been training with a full pack and doing a good amount of running, I’d easily manage the climb with my smaller day pack. No such luck. Although it’s strange that I had more issues with the first two miles and it seemed to get easier on the climb to the side of the waterfalls.
Right around the time I reached the traverse that takes me to the first view of the falls, I had a feeling that the weather was going to deteriorate. Blue sky was losing the battle and the clouds to the east and south were getting thicker. I got to the top of the falls before 11:00 and took a much needed lunch break. In the past, in my desire to get on trails early, I’d tell myself I’d be fine with energy bars, a couple of pieces of fruit and some Gatorade. But now that I’m older and wiser (haha!), my decision to stop and get a fresh made ham and swiss sandwich seemed like genius. I think I enjoyed it more than my dry aged ribeye from the night before.
Since it was still morning, it wasn’t freezing and the rain had held off, I decided to continue on the Yosemite Creek Trail in the direction of Tioga Road and the high country until noon. Most people head to the waterfall overlook, but since I’d been there twice before, I wanted to find new terrain. It was a good choice.
It was while lying on my stomach photographing the yellow wildflowers along Yosemite Creek, about a mile past Yosemite Falls, that the rain started falling. Since my noon turnaround was near, I began heading back down. It took me two and a half hours to get back to the bottom. The hard part was negotiating the slippery granite blocks on the first steep sections of the trail. I slipped to my hands several times and had one hard fall that damaged my knee a little, but I was able to shake it off and made a conscious effort to concentrate on my foot placement on the trail.
Once I got past the waterfall traverse and had better footing, I made good progress the rest of the way. The steady rain turned to a downpour once I got off the trail and made my way from the trailhead to my truck. I was dying for a cup of coffee. In an enlightened move, they serve Peets at Yosemite concessions. While driving back to the village, I was shocked by how much water was pooled on the roads and in the parking lot. At this point, I thought it might be advisable to break camp and drive home rather than stay an extra night. I made the final decision when I realized that the storm was widespread, not just in the valley. I didn’t relish the idea of camping at Hodgdon Meadow in the cold and wet, so I quickly packed up my gear and drove home.
So although my trip was shortened by a day, I was happy to get home – safe, warm and dry – and with the knowledge that in less than 8 weeks I’ll be heading back to Yosemite for JMT II.