Saturday, July 30, 2011

Here Be Giants

My fourth and final day in Yosemite. Marked by a return to the peaceful solitude that I enjoyed in Tuolumne Meadows and at Glacier Point but that was sorely lacking yesterday, today I visited a side of the park that was completely different from any I had seen before – the trees of the Mariposa Grove.

On this short day, I was once again pleasantly surprised to wake up having not been eaten by a bear in my sleep. My alarm went off at 7:30, although I laid in my sleeping bag for another half hour, hoping that if I waited long enough it would no longer be cold when I emerged from my cocoon. Although that turned out to be a bit of wishful thinking, I was better prepared for the cold today than yesterday: I had slept with gloves on, and made use of the emergency blanket (otherwise known as a Bar Mitzvah favor) that I had brought with me.

Again with the pancakes and bacon, breakfast was especially nice, since I got the chance to warm up around the wimpy camp stove as it cooked. After breakfast, as I was packing everything up, a couple came over and asked if one of the adjacent campsites was empty temporarily or permanently. I told them I didn’t know, but they were welcome to take mine. Good deed for the day done.

Finally, it was time to bid adieu to the Bridalveil Creek campground. From beginning to end, I was very happy with the place. It was quiet, but didn’t feel like I was camping out in the backcountry all by myself. It was close enough to all the major attractions (except, I suppose Tioga Road, but I had that covered already), but still kept enough distance that the area wasn’t crowded. Yesterday, I drove past Camp 4 in the valley, another walk-in campground that I had originally considered several months ago. That place is just a mess of tents, with 6 people crammed into each site whether they know each other or not. A popular jumping-off point (no pun intended) for rock climbers, I imagine it’s not exactly a quiet peaceful locale after dark.

Bridalveil, on the other hand, was populated by a lot of families. A family of 3 spent both nights in the site next to me, and I had the pleasure of hearing their precocious 3-ish year old count the number of times words appeared in his books, attempt to list all the elements of the periodic table (he’s got the first 2 down cold), and throw the occasional cute tantrum. It was nice having kids around, and even nicer to see that the family still exists as a unit that takes vacations together. There was one family of 4 across the road from me where the 2 boys (middle school aged) were –shockingly—not getting along. So while the mother played the responsibility card to one of them, the father had the other one take a walk with him so they could talk about what was going on. That’s the kind of parenting I wish I saw more of in public places.

Anyway, I made the 45 minute drive (from Bridalveil Creek, everything is a 45 minute drive, which isn’t so bad) south to Mariposa Grove – one of the first protected areas of the park and therefore one of the earliest inspirations for the rest of the national parks movement. I went there to see the big trees, and big trees did I see indeed. Many were so tall that I had to take off my hat to see their tops. And that’s just in the parking lot.

Traveling into the grove is really just like hiking into a forest, complete with primitive trails and so-so markings, where a trail map really is essential. The biggest difference between this place and the hikes I took as a boy scout was that this forest was punctuated with the oldest and largest living things the planet has ever known.  Oh, and that to get from the parking lot to the middle of the grove involves a climb of nearly 1,000 vertical feet. If I knew that, I would have hiked to the top of Yosemite Falls yesterday as a warm-up.

Let's play Spot the Sequoia! Can you tell which one it is?
Many of the most famous and distinctive trees in the grove, like many sequoias elsewhere, are named. The first named tree I came upon was the Fallen Monarch. This was by far the biggest log I’d ever seen. After gazing in awe at the diameter of its trunk at what used to be its base, I walked the length of the tree, just to get a sense of how tall it was. At the end, it appeared to have been sawed off, so I tried to count the rings. It almost looked like someone put a protective coating on the end, because I could clearly feel the ridges that marked each ring. Turns out that this was a natural feature of sequoias, and that this thing had actually fallen over 300 years ago, and was incredibly well-preserved on its own.

Next, I got to see some standing trees, including a group of 4 sequoias called the Bachelor and something I can’t remember. Looking at them felt like I was looking at a family of dinosaurs that were just standing by the side of the road.

Next up was the largest, oldest, and most famous tree on my route – the Grizzly Giant. Not sure where the Grizzly part came from, but it’s definitely a giant. Its lowest limb is 7 feet in diameter, larger than any other non-sequoia in the park. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but it’s well over 2,000 years old and is nowhere near the end of its life.

My next tree was the only remaining tunnel tree in the park (I think my father killed the other one years ago). You used to be able to drive a car through it, but for some reason now the National Parks Service frowns upon that activity, so you have to settle for walking through it. Or walking under it and stopping to get a picture. So even though the opening is wide enough for a car to fit through, people go through single file.

The good news about the tunnel tree is that everyone turns around at that point. So after that, I had the grove to myself. I think I saw half a dozen people for the rest of my time in the park. At an unnamed but still rather impressive specimen, I finally took the obligatory picture of myself in front of a monstrous tree.

From there, it really became a hike. They don’t advertise that sequoias like living on the sides of mountains and you’re basically climbing one of those to see them. I know that’s how it will work tomorrow in Sequoia National Park, but there’s a road that climbs the mountain for you. For some reason, in Yosemite I had the impression they all lived in a meadow or something.

Along the way, there were thousands and thousands of pine cones. Big cones, small cones, regular cones (but no ice cream cones. Rim shot!). On the surface, it’s amazing that the sequoias produce the smallest cones of any tree in the park, but when you look closer, they definitely have that prehistoric alien look that you’d expect from a tree that could rise up and destroy Isengard if it wanted to.

My turnaround point for the hike was to be the Clothespin Tree – a tree that has been so damaged by fire that there’s a big old hole right in the middle of the trunk. Apparently this weakens the tree and makes it more susceptible to wind damage, but it’s still producing seeds and doing all the required sequoia-ish things. From there, I made the arduous 1.1 mile downhill climb (even though I could have sworn there was a sign that said it was only going to be 0.6 miles. That sign lied to me.).

Leaving Yosemite behind, I headed back over the Fuzzy Hills towards tonight’s hotel near Sequoia National Park. Oh! Here’s another thing I learned today: I was shocked to hear this, but the area I’m in is not in fact called “The Fuzzy Hills of California,” but I was close. It’s called the Golden Valley, which I guess makes almost as much sense, if you disregard the dissimilarities between hills and valleys.

Tomorrow, after giving the car a much-deserved oil change, it’s out to Sequoia for the day, where I’ll see more of these giants (and larger ones too), along with some other fancy stuff.

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