Wednesday, October 8
We sneak in through Yosemite’s back door.
Actually, Yosemite has at least five and possibly six entrances, but the “front” side of the park is considered to be the western side, in particular Yosemite Valley which is lower in elevation and closer to the more populated parts of California. It’s probably also what you think of when you think of Yosemite because that’s where most of the promotional photos are taken: picturesque waterfalls cascading down from gray granite peaks into a forest of pine that changes to various species of softwood in the valley proper.
But as it turns out the park is very large and has many facets. Our path in from Death Valley is much more remote, up interstate 395 and then hanging a left at Mono Lake.
Highway 120 (Tioga Road, closed December – May) climbs right up the steeper eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Yet again I put Bertha to the test hauling Cas up a high altitude alpine pass doing a passable Little Engine that Could impression (slow, but sure and steady).
This side of the park is much more rugged. There are no deciduous trees here and there are less amenities and visitors, a product of the shorter season. You would be wise to fill up on gas on 395 before making the turnoff on 120. Toiyabe National Forest is actually the first, steepest part of the drive up 120, before entering Yosemite proper, and by this time of year the Visitor’s Center on the eastern side of the park is already closed for the season.
Little did we know upon arrival that this is the last weekend most of the campgrounds in Yosemite will be open, and many locals come out camping for the last hurrah of the season.
After following the twisting but scenic Tioga Road for about 45 minutes, we stumble upon the first campground. It’s a first come first served rustic campground at 8,100 ft. called Porcupine Flat, which is extremely difficult to find information about online. Contrary to the name it’s not very flat, and the largest RVs allowed inside are 20 ft, and even then there are limited spaces. There are many sites still available at 1 pm, but the camphost thinks the lows for the next few nights will be in the mid to upper 20’s. That’s awfully uncomfortable without electric or a propane heater, and we have Julie’s geriatric cat to think about as well as our own comfort.
The next campgrounds are over an hour away, on the lower elevation western side of the park. What the NPS website doesn’t tell us is that they’re all by reservation. By the time we get there at 2:30 every single site is spoken for for Thursday night, so we’d get at most one night and by then the first come first serve places would all be filled up for the weekend. So it’s back to Porcupine Flat.
By the time we get back after 4 pm the campground has nearly filled. In fact, there’s only one site I think I can squeeze Cas into now and it’s quite unlevel, but I make it work, phew! Who would have thought it would be this busy here this late in the season.
With our limited daylight left there’s not time to go far today, but we hit the first mile or so of Five Lakes Trail, and quickly get distracted by all of the downed pine trees. Free firewood! We haul two armfulls back to Bertha for use tomorrow night.
Thursday, October 9
We kind of fail at the getting up early thing. I blame the cold, which hangs around inside the RV in the morning after the sun has come up and started warming up things outside. I’m not convinced it made it down to freezing, but it must have been close.
So, guess what Yosemite has? If you’ve watched my YouTube videos and read previous posts, you’ll know I love big trees, and this park has three strands of Giant Sequoias which I’ve never seen before. I persuade Julie that this is the hike we need to do today (she doesn’t argue hard) and then we’re off.
The Tuolumne grove is the closest to where we’re camping, on Tioga Road not far from the Crane Flat campground, but it’s still an hour and a half away. The hike is just over 4 miles round trip.
As Julie and I start walking, we ask ourselves if we’ll be able to recognize the trees when we see them, Yosemite in general has really tall impressive trees of all sorts and what if we miss them?
And then we see one. There’s no possible way to miss a Giant Sequoia in a crowd of pine, fir, and cedar. And let me tell you, they are massive. Giant Sequoias are one of the fastest growing trees in the world. By 500 years old, they’re almost at their full height, and from there the trunks just get wider. They can live to 3,000 years old or more.
Julie and I make the loop and peer up at them. These magnificent trees once covered a large part of north America, but now only survive in isolated strands in the Sierra Nevada. They require fire to survive, the heat cracks open the small, unassuming pine cones on the ground and gets rid of underbrush so the seeds can find bare soil to grow on.
We have a lunch on top of a fallen dead giant and are more or less alone on the hike. Mariposa grove is the largest and most popular of Yosemite’s Sequoia strands and has road access right up to it, so these smaller ones don’t get as much attention. That’s just fine with me.
On the long drive back home we pick up firewood at a little convenience store/gas station and have hotdogs over a campfire for dinner. It’s a hard life, but someone’s got to live it.
Friday, October 10
Today we drive all the way to Yosemite Valley for some hiking. The trees in the valley are starting to turn yellow, and it’s a beautiful winding drive… until we get to the flashing lights.
At the junction to head into the valley, there are police cars parked. The turnoff for highway 140 is blocked with cones. We’ll later discover that it’s closed due to a wildfire (the Dog Rock Fire) that has also cut off power for all of Yosemite Valley – the Visitor’s center, campgrounds, and shops are all being run off of diesel generators, which must be pretty pricy. The showers are not being run on generators, which means we won’t get to have one until we leave here, yikes. As of now, the fire is not expected to force an evacuation of the park.
Today’s goal is to see waterfalls, and this time of year that pretty much means we’re hiking up to see Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, the only two with water right now.
Our route to get to them is a little convoluted, there are a couple ways to do it. We opt for the longer route that loops around so that we never walk on the same trail twice. At shuttle stop 16 we get off and climb up a paved trail to an impressive looking bridge. Vernal Falls is right upriver of the bridge to the left, but instead we take the longer and less trafficked right fork onto the John Muir trail which is mostly switchbacks. This trail allows horses, and we see evidence of their recent presence, but never see a horse in person.
John Muir climbs right on past Vernal to an impressive overlook of Nevada Falls. The back side of White Dome is also readily visible from here, a rounded peak of granite which can only be climbed by special permit. That trail uses chains and is considered to be quite strenuous, much like Angel’s Landing was at Zion.
Julie and I sit at the overlook and have our lunch. A Steller’s Jay hops down and peers at us expectantly. It’s pretty clear that he’s use to getting fed. We resist his charming ways and enjoy the ample sunshine and light breeze. It’s a comfortable temperature here in the valley, not too hot and not too cold.
Later on, the trail crosses right over the mouth of the falls on a bridge. The water is clear and very cold, and it’s cut swirls and hollows into the rock that it’s flowing over. What a neat place. From here it’s all downhill.
Off of the John Muir trail, the descent changes from switchbacks to steps. Hundreds of them, and some of them quite steep. They lead down past the Nevada Falls offering several picture taking opportunities, then dive off into the woods. Farther down, the woods gives way to the Emerald Pool. An interesting water feature, one side of the small lake is large tumbled boulders, and on the other side is a continuous large slab of smooth rock. Swimming isn’t allowed, not that I would have this time of year anyhow. But it’s a good place for a snack break. Then it’s back to the Steps.
After one particularly harrowing set through a narrow gorge, the steep rock walls give way on the right to Vernal Falls.
We’ve arrived here at the absolute perfect time of day. The late afternoon sun is shining directly on the sheer wall the falls is tumbling over and lighting up the grass that hugs the slope we’re walking on. The falls roars into a basin of rock below, and sends rainbow mist over the pine trees on the other slope. As we watch, shadows creep up the falls, we’re losing daylight. Luckily we’re almost done with the loop and it doesn’t take long to get back to the bottom.
Wow, what a day of hiking. How long was it? Well that’s a good question, and one I still don’t have a good answer too. According to the maps, it was somewhere around 6 or 6 and a half, Julie’s exercise app proclaimed it more like 8. But however long it was, the new pair of tennis shoes I bought for Amazon still feel comfortable, I think I can consider them broken in now.
Saturday, October 11
My vacation time is nearing an end. Today we pack up the RV and head back east on Tioga Road out of the Sierra Nevada. I want to get Cas all cleaned and polished before arriving at our next destination: Sparks Marina RV Park in Sparks, NV. It’s the place we’ll be calling home while we work at Amazon the next 10 weeks.
Heading out of Yosemite and back to interstate 395, we make one last stop.
Tenaya Lake is a clear, cold, and sizable alpine lake that Tioga Road scoots right along the side of. It’s a hard place to take a bad picture of, and an easy place to spend a day lazing around. We see kayaks in the water, folks with hammocks strung up near the shore, and picnics aplenty. There is a trail that goes all the way around the lake and up into the mountains behind it, but there’s not time to do it all today.
But that’s okay. One of the best things about being a full-timer is that I can always come back here again someday and see more. America has a lot of wonderful places to experience, and I’ve still only scratched the surface. Until next time, Yosemite.
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