Wednesday, July 27, 2011

To See the World, To Stand Among the Trees, and All the Living Things

Yosemite is for real. The embodiment of the national parks idea in all its glory. A source of refuge and recreation for millions, it is full of people but isn't crowded. Its focus is on nature, not what we have been able to add to it. It is what the Grand Canyon should be, and it is exactly what I had hoped to find here.

That said, I have intentionally put off visiting the most spectacular area of the park – Yosemite Valley – until my third day there. That way, the scenery will build in grandeur and hopefully come to a climax that day. Today was Act I: Tioga Road. I just passed through the park today, moving west over the Sierra to a hotel in Madera, where I will leave bright and early tomorrow (read: 5am) in order to secure a campsite at the Bridalveil Creek campground south of the valley. I’ll spend the day exploring the area around Glacier Point before camping out, entering the valley the next day, and concluding my visit on Friday with a visit to the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias.

Tioga Road
Today, though, was my first experience with John Muir’s “grandest temple of nature.” Ascending through the eastern Sierra before even entering the park, the scenery already began to take on an epic quality. Despite being at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet, the snowy granite peaks still towered over the rest of my surroundings.

Raging streams (unusual for July and a good sign for the state of Yosemite’s waterfalls) and pristine blue lakes appeared in succession. At each turnout several cars were stationed, but the areas were so vast that it was easy to still feel secluded.  

Upon entering the park, I passed through Tuolumne Meadows, a great alpine field usually open to visitors but closed today as a result of the record snowfall this winter, which is still melting at this late point in the season.

After passing the meadow and stopping at the visitor center (which provided far more information on wildlife and hiking possibilities than it did opportunities for souvenir shopping – definitely a good thing), I embarked on my major hike for the day – an ascent of Pothole Dome. Yosemite, and the area along Tioga Road in particular, is famous for its bald granite domes sticking up out of the otherwise flat surroundings – a result of the area’s glaciations and resistance to erosion. Such surfaces prohibit the laying out of clear and specific trails but rather force climbers to invent their own routes as the scramble up the treeless hills. Many of the domes have a steep side that, without too much trouble, could cause a person to roll off and later be eaten by a bear. Pothole Dome was one that I felt I could handle.

Pothole Dome: The stubby one in the foreground
It definitely looked easier than it was. Despite its relatively short distance and height of only a few hundred feet above the surrounding meadow, this hike felt much like the hike to Delicate Arch, which was rated by the park guides as strenuous. Today I even had the weather working in my favor – a pleasant 65 degrees, but that was a result of the 9,000-foot altitude, which was definitely working against me. In the end, though, I never really doubted that I’d make it to the top.

At the summit, along with impressive 360-degree vistas, I was greeted by the sound of the Barenaked Ladies’ “King of Bedside Manor” – my phone’s ringtone. Who would have guessed that, of all the places along the road, the place where I would have the best service would be atop Pothole Dome?

While I knew that Yosemite is known for its wildflowers, I had expected them to be past their peak by July. I was wrong. Thanks again to the record snowfall, spring came late to the Tuolumne area and the flowers were just now reaching their peak. Filling every open space were a multitude of colored patches that I had only expected to find when I got to Mt. Rainier later in the trip.

My other destination along Tioga Road was Olmsted Point. Reading up on the area before the trip, I had been assured by every source that this was a must-see stop. However, I never read far enough ahead to find out what I would see from there. As it turns out, Olmsted Point is the best vantage from which to view Clouds’ Rest (a high mountain within the park with a fun little 5,000 foot sheer drop off one face), and the iconic Half Dome. The presence of Clouds’ Rest in the view detracted somewhat from the grandeur of Half Dome, since the latter is far from the highest object visible there, but it provided a preview of just how incredible the views will be once I make my way into the valley.

Half Dome. View it full sized and try to spot the line of ants... I mean climbers... making the final ascent.
After having lunch at Olmsted Point, I rushed through the rest of Tioga Road so that I could get back to “civilization” to get some pre-Yosemite errands done before it got too late. The road out of the park runs down to the mouth of Yosemite Valley, losing nearly 8,000 feet of elevation and providing more teases of the valley in the process. At one turnout, I was able to catch a glimpse of Bridalveil Falls, which appears to be going full bore (although that can be deceiving as an indicator of the rest of the valley’s falls, because this one flows year-round).

The 600-foot Bridalveil Falls isn't even close to the tallest Yosemite has to offer.
Going around another turn, I may have just been able to see a piece of the Cathedral Peaks, but I tried not to look, so that I would be able to get the full impact of the scene when I see it from within the valley.

Leaving the park to the west, I had to travel another 2 hours to arrive in Madera (it won’t take 2 hours to get back, since I’ll be reentering through the south entrance). Along the way, I passed through an incredibly strange region of the state that I’ve lovingly nicknamed The Fuzzy Hills of California.

I have no idea what they were. Along the rolling hills was a golden wheat-like grain that was growing wild. In fact, it appeared the land was not being used for any human purpose. Eventually, the Fuzzy Hills gave way to farmland containing… drum roll… more corn. However, this corn was clearly superior to all other corn I had passed. Standing nearly 10 feet tall, the stalks looked healthier and more robust than the puny Kansas corn. All this did was remind me to get some fruit when I did my grocery shopping. If all the fruit we usually eat is grown in California anyway, it should be that much better to eat it before it had to be shipped across the country.

So now I’m ready for my great Yosemite adventure to begin in earnest. You should expect some irregularity in these posts, as I’ll need to find a place with both an outlet and Verizon 3G in order to update. You should also expect to see more Muir quotes popping up around this blog. I know that the title of this post is by Debbie Friedman, not John Muir, but I think it works. I can picture the two of them right now discussing the merits of Reb Nachman’s wilderness philosophy.

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