Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hetch Hetchy - Yosemite's Garden of Eden - June 2010

"Hiking - I don't like either the word or the thing. People ought to saunter in the mountains - not hike! Do you know the origin of that word 'saunter?' It's a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, "A la sainte terre,' 'To the Holy Land.' And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them. " - John Muir

After 4 days of crowds and traffic in Yosemite Valley (coupled with amazing sights and wonderful experiences) we decided to escape on the last day of our visit and go somewhere that we hoped was totally different. We were looking for a bit of solidude, some new sights and hopefully some of the wildflowers that are supposed to be everywhere in Yosemite in the spring and early summer (but which were conspicuously absent in the valley and the other locations we'd been). We decided on Hetch Hetchy - the place that John Muir fought to save during the last years of his life. Before the dam was built there in 1913 Hetch Hetchy was another valley similar to Yosemite Valley itself. The dam that John Muir worked so hard to prevent for more than 10 years created the Hetch Hetchy reservoir - "the catch basin of John Muir's tears". Muir never lived to see the dam built and his beloved valley flooded which may have been a blessing for him. As it exists today it is still an incredibly beautiful place and the reflections of the mountains and granite domes in the reservoir are spectacular scenes. I do wish that I could have seen it as it existed in 1900. It must have been a very magical place. Today we will saunter through it...

Hetch Hetchy is about a 40 mile drive from Yosemite Valley. As you enter the park at the Hetch Hetchy entrance (it is a disconnected portion of YNP) you begin to be transported into a new and very beautiful world. The roads are lined with wildflowers and every turn brings new beauty.

Hetch Hetchy valley with dam and reservoir in distance

The path that we chose for our saunter follows the cliffs above the reservoir and goes past Tueeulala Falls (pronounced twee-la-la - I love that name) and then to Wapama Falls which at 1300' is as high as Upper Yosemite Falls and at least seems to have more water flowing over it. As we followed the trail through the tunnel on the other side of the dam the wildflowers began to appear. In the beginning sections the trail and surroundings were quite dry and the flowers were still a bit limited. 

The falls made by nature above the falls made by man

Water plunging into the canyon over the dam

Hetch Hetchy reservoir and Wapama Falls

Kolana Rock watches over Hetch Hetchy

Tueeulala Falls

Looks like we'll see some flowers...

As we went on we started to get into little wet gardens all around the trails from the many streams and runoff from the waterfalls. The wildflowers just exploded. One guidebook dsscription of Hetch Hetchy described it as "a riot of wildflowers in the spring". I don't know that this does it justice. By the time we were done I had counted (and photographed) 30 different unique types - most of which I had never seen and still haven't taken the time to identify. I just haven't felt the need as it seems like all this beauty really doesn't need to be named.

Further on we came to a beautiful spot where the stream runs over the rock and then down to the reservoir. We stopped and soaked our feet and soaked in the incredible views to Kolana rock keeping guard over the far shore and the mountains beyond the end of the valley. Sitting in this spot I was taken by the feeling that this was perhaps the most beautiful place that I had ever been. Truly a Garden of Eden.

As we went on the roar of Wapama Falls became stronger. Below the falls is a series of bridges where you can walk across through the "mist" (more like a torrential rain) that goes far beyond the soaking that the Mist Trail has to offer. It was a spectacular place and the soaking was welcomed as the afternoon had gotten quite warm.

We reluctantly returned the way we came, finding yet more wildflowers that we'd missed on the way out as well as new and beautiful vistas. I would love to come back to this place again and again and explore all of the vast area that we didn't begin to touch in one short day. We could not have found a better way to spend our last day at Yosemite. To the many nature and wildflower photographers here - if you ever have the opportunity, go to Hetch Hetchy - you'll be in heaven.

"These temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people's cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man." - John Muir

If you haven't already seen it the report from the rest of the week is here: A Few Days In Yosemite

The complete Yosemite photo album for the whole trip including Hetch Hetchy is here:

If for some reason 400 pictures aren't enough for you here are the Monterey and San Francisco albums

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Few Days in Yosemite - June 2010

It's now been almost three weeks since we were in Yosemite. This post would have come sooner but going through 800+ photos and deciding which ones to keep was harder than can be imagined. What a place! 

Yosemite has been #1 on "life list" for many years and it turned into the first half of our "last great family vacation". Since our daughter is a junior next year presumably next years vacation plans are all going to involve colleges. This dream trip wound up being 5 days in Yosemite, a stop over in Monterey (including kayaking Monterey bay with the otters and sea lions) and finally a week in San Francisco. It was probably the best (and certainly the most jam-packed) vacation ever for us. But on to Yosemite...

It is difficult for a place that you've been dreaming about for so long to live up to expectations. In many ways it exceeded even those dreams as this is truly one of the most beautiful and spectacular places on earth and one that has to be seen in person to truly appreciate. The down side is that Yosemite Valley is an absolute zoo in the summer (and it was technically still spring when we arrived). Quite like Disney - except Disney knows how to handle the crowds. Sitting in traffic jams and standing in line for an hour to order a pizza are a regular part of the experience. That said, IT IS STILL VERY MUCH WORTH THE TROUBLE!!! I think the secret to visiting Yosemite is to go once, see all the "main attractions" with the rest of the crowds (there is a reason they are the main attractions) and then return many more times and visit all the other wonderful places in the park - the back country in particular - that are equally or more amazing. That "return many more times" idea is certainly one of my hopes. But no more negatives - on to a journey through the home of John Muir's inspiration.

Day One - Mariposa Grove and a Valley Tour

"It has been said that trees are imperfect men, and seem to bemoan their imprisonment rooted in the ground. But they never seem so to me. I never saw a discontented tree. They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do. They go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, traveling with us around the sun two million miles a day, and through space heaven knows how fast and far!" - John Muir

We spent the night before our arrival in Merced so that we could leave bright and early for the park and get a full day in. We took the long route so that we could come in the South entrance on Rt 41 and visit Mariposa Grove before heading into the valley. We wound up having to park in Wawona and taking the shuttle back to the grove since parking was already full by mid morning. We spent several hours wandering through the largest trees in the world - the Giant Sequoias. We'd been to Muir Woods before and seen the Coastal Redwoods (which are also Sequoias) and while they are taller the trees in the Mariposa Grove and simply gigantic! We wound up making a 5 mile loop through the grove and seeing many of the trees. It was a good hike and the sights were spectacular. The upper part of the grove was also much quieter as most of the crowds weren't up for the long hike and we thoroughly enjoyed the solitude.





Leaving the grove we headed into the valley. It was late enough in the day that the morning rush was over and traffic wasn't bad. Driving up Rt 41 was a pretty drive but it in no way prepared us for the sight when we turned the corner and got our first valley views. There is nothing that a picture can do to portray this - when you see it the breath is just sucked out of your body. It takes every bit of concentration to keep from just driving off the road into the view.

After regaining our senses from that, we headed through the Wawona Tunnel and emerged at Tunnel View. We only thought that those first views were spectacular. This spot - the view for Ansel Adams' famous winter photo of the valley - has to be one of the most amazingly beautiful views on earth. All of Yosemite Valley is spread out before you from El Capitan to Clouds Rest, Half Dome and Bridal Veil Falls. Good signs for what lies ahead...

Driving into the valley we were again assaulted by the sights. Yosemite Falls thundering above the meadows. Half Dome so close it seems you can touch it. El Capitan looming over the valley floor. Definitely a place that makes you feel very small.

Yosemite Falls

Half Dome

Valley Meadow and Yosemite Falls

Half Dome Meadow View

Upper Yosemite Falls

We checked in to our new home in Curry Village. The tent cabins are actually very comfortable with decent beds, lights and electricity (at least if you prepare correctly). Every tent cabin also has a bear locker outside where all food and anything with a smell (right down to toothpaste) has to be kept. Lots of bear stories being told by the staff and warnings about how to be prepared, however we only saw one bear during the week and that was outside the valley. Doesn't mean they aren't around though. 

Home Sweet Tent - Bear locker outside door to the right

Glacier Point from Curry Village (outside our tent cabin) - 3000' up

We ended the afternoon by renting bikes and riding the bike path loop around the western end of the valley. This really is a great way to see the valley floor sights without the traffic or having to wait for the shuttles. Definitely a good idea for day one to get oriented. After our tour we headed over to the Curry Village Pizza Deck for dinner and a beer. Even waiting in the long lines didn't seem so bad as we were still just soaking in the experience. None of us had any trouble sleeping that night (or any other night for that matter) - we were exhausted and happy.

El Capitan

Half Dome evening light

?Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.? - John Muir

Day Two - The Mist Trail and John Muir Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls

?Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.? - John Muir

We had planned on our days being multi-activity but getting up early and getting going in the morning wasn't all that easy. By the time we had ourselves up, fed and headed out the morning was nearly gone. We took the shuttle to the Happy Isles trailhead and started out on probably the most popular hike in the valley. The crowds were pretty heavy but once we got past Vernal Falls it thinned out a lot. Our first exposure to Yosemite hiking provided a few surprises. First, the Mist Trail is paved! With asphalt! We figured that this must be mostly the bottom but it turned out to be a large part of the almost 7 mile loop. Even the section of the JMT above Nevada Falls had paving with is no longer maintained. I can't imagine what John Muir would have thought about this. The next surprise was when we got to the top of Vernal Falls and again at Nevada Falls there were bathrooms and running water. Maybe this is Disney after all. The hike was nothing short of spectacular though and we'd do it again in a minute! It was a hot day and walking through the mist below Vernal Falls was very welcomed. We were glad we had our pack covers and the waterproof camera since we got totally soaked! We were also glad that we decided to do this as a loop with the JMT and in this direction since walking down the hundreds of wet stone steps didn't look like it would be any fun at all.

Rainbow below Vernal Falls

View from the top of Vernal Falls

The trail from Vernal to Nevada was really nice and much quieter. The views at the top were again amazing. We had figured out that the dome that we were looking at looming over us all the way up was Liberty Cap but didn't realize until looking at the map later that we were also looking at the back of Half Dome. Makes sense since this is the beginning of the Half Dome hike (which is NOT on my list both due to the crowds and my acrophobia - no cables for me!).

Liberty Cap (right), Mt Broderick (lower center) and Half Dome (above center)

Nevada Falls

Stairway to heaven

Rock gardens

Top of Nevada Falls

The hike back down the JMT was nice and quite easy (particularly compared to the typical rocky trails we're used to in the Whites). The views from this side gave some nice new perspectives as well.

Nevada Falls from the JMT

That night we met up for dinner with Erich (BlueDog) who was just happened to be in Yosemite the same time we were. He had been doing a solo back country hike that was cut short by the exceptional late spring conditions (4--5 ft of snow above Tioga Rd) and had come back to the valley for a couple of days. During dinner we schemed on what we could all do together the next day.

Day Three - Tioga Road to Mono Lake

"Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God?s wild fields, we find more than we seek." - John Muir

We had initially decided with Erich to head up to his initial planned back country location - May Lake - and do a short hike in the snow in to the lake to check it out. We did a caravan to May Lake road with the plan that we'd continue on to Tioga Pass and maybe Mono Lake while he stayed and explored the May Lake area. The plan didn't exactly pan out as the road to the May Lake trailhead was closed which would have left us with an extra 2 miles each way in the softening snow to get in. Oh well, on to plan B. We basically kept driving 10-15 minutes at a time between the succession of "oh-my-God" views along Tioga Road.

Still lots of snow in the Sierras

Yellow Bellied Marmot

First major stop - Olmstead Point. This has to be one of the best viewpoints in Yosemite (saying a lot). Nat and I took the short hike down to the point while Erich did some rock scrambling across the road and Jamie hung out enjoying the views. Before we left we took the opportunity to get in a Seek the Peak promo photo 

Half Dome and Clouds Rest (left) from Olmstead Point

You can see the line of people going up the cables on Half Dome

Erich (top) on the slabs

Tenaya Lake in the distance from Olmstead Point. Polly Dome (left), Tresidder Peak (right) and snow (under my feet)

The Seek the Peak crew

Erich still wasn't planning to keep going so instead of leaving a car and riding together the caravan continued past the Tioga Pass entrance when we finally realized that we were just going to all stay together for the day and switched to one car. The stops along the way included Tenaya Lake, Tuloumne Meadows and Tioga Lake. The scenery the entire way was just breathtaking.

Tenaya Lake

That water had to have been cold. I never found out for myself

Tuolumne Meadows and Lembert Dome (left)

Still lots of snow in the meadow

Tioga Lake

Now that we'd finally decided to make it a day we headed down the other side of Tioga Pass to Lee Vining and Mono Lake. The drive down was spectacular and I was happy that Erich was driving so that I could enjoy the views instead of being white knuckled on the road. We stopped at
the Whoa Nellie Deli at the Tioga Gas Mart for lunch which turned out to be awesome. Hard to believe finding a great restaurant located in a gas station. Check out the menu on the web page. Thank you Yelp! We stopped for the Mono Lake views from above and then headed down to the visitors center. The told us the best place to go to see the tufa was at the South Tufa area and off we went again. It was quite an amazing drive since we had come from mountains covered with snow only 1/2 hour away and were now driving through hills in the desert! Someone told us that the mountains here next to Mono Lake are the "youngest mountains in the world" and are still forming.

Heading down Tioga Road toward Lee Vining

Mono Lake

Supposedly the youngest mountains in the world

The walk around the South Tufa area was amazing. Mono Lake is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world and the tufa is very interesting and beautiful. Tufa is limestone that is formed by the precipitation of carbonate minerals from the water. Looking over the tufa, across the lake, through the desert and to the snow covered mountains beyond was just surreal.

Heading down the South Tufa trail


The drive back to the valley was beautiful too and seemed totally different since we were seeing everything from a new angle. We didn't stop every few minutes this time and only made one stop get get the view from the opposite end of Tenaya Lake. For a day without hiking (which we couldn't have imagined in Yosemite) it couldn't have been more amazing! Definitely want to get back to this part of the park someday and get into the back country.

Tioga Pass entrance station. Almost 10,000' without leaving the car!

Tenaya Lake

Day Four - Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome

"Another glorious Sierra day in which one seems to be dissolved and absorbed and sent pulsing onward we know not where. Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality." - John Muir

We tried to convince Erich to hang around for one more day but he headed back to San Jose on Wednesday morning. We headed out in the morning for a drive to Glacier Point and a hike to Sentinel Dome and Taft Point. These are generally listed as two separate hikes (both short) but the Pohono Trail connects them in a loop (or so we thought). The hike to Sentinel Dome is only 1.1 miles each way and has to be the best bang-for-the-buck hike anywhere. It's an easy hike including up the side of the dome (not too steep) and the 360 views from the top are absolutely breathtaking (OK, I keep using that description, but this is Yosemite after all). On the way we came across what may be the only cairn (or trail blaze of any kind) in Yosemite - at least as far as we could tell. Amazing to not have this after being used to the blazes and cairns seemingly every few feet on New England trails.

Yosemite's lone cairn

Sentinel Dome

"Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world." - John Muir

Mt Starr King - western version

El Capitan from above

North Dome and Basket Dome

One of the attractions at the top is the remains of the Jeffrey Pine made famous in the Ansel Adams photo from 1940. The tree fell in 2003 but the remains are there and it still makes a beautiful subject.

After spending a long time at the top soaking in the views we headed down to take the Pohono trail to Taft Point. We found a trail sign at the junction below the dome pointing to Taft Point and headed off in that direction. We quickly lost the trail and after wandering around and trying different approaches for over 1/2 hour finally gave up! Definitely a down side to the lack of blazes and cairns. We considered doing the out and back to Taft Point (which is from the same trailhead) but decided it was late enough that we wouldn't bother and we headed out to Glacier Point. This is another of those must-go-to attractions that every Yosemite tourist visits and it is obviously with good reason. The views into the valley are dizzying. It was amazing looking down from the lookout point railing and staring straight down several thousand feet to Curry Village below and beyond to all the valley floor.

Curry Village from Glacier Point. Our tent cabin is just to the right of the pool

Glacier Point Panorama

Merced River winding through the valley

Leaving Glacier Point we stopped at Washburn Point and were treated to yet another unique perspective on the valley including a view to the east and south that puts Vernal and Nevada Falls into a singe frame (maybe the only spot to see this) and provides a panorama of the Sierra. Leaving there we immediately found ourselves in a traffic jam with cars stopped in the middle of the road on both sides - many with their doors open and no occupants. That means only one thing in Yosemite - bears. There was a mother with two young cubs probably 20 yards off the road in the woods. The cubs were playing together and chasing each other up and down a tree. Incredibly cute. It's had to believe how incredibly stupid people are though and watching them head off into the woods to get closer for a picture I could only imagine what could have happened if Mom had decided her cubs were in danger. Thankfully they wandered off and the traffic cleared before any such incident.

Half Dome and Clouds Rest

Nevada and Vernal Falls

That night we decided to head over to the Ahwahnee to see the "Yosemite luxury locale" and have a drink on the porch (the only nearly affordable thing to do there). Unfortunately we wound up in the exiting visitor daily traffic jam and it took close to an hour to get the one mile to the hotel. That was enough of driving in the valley for me and curtailed our plans to drive to El Cap Meadows to watch the climbers later (saved that for tomorrow). The Ahwahnee is beautiful and has a very interesting history. We enjoyed our short visit and felt glad that we were staying in our little tent cabin.

Day Five - Time to Escape!

After more that enough of crowds and traffic jams we decided that our last day had to be an escape from Yosemite Valley. We were hoping that we could find somewhere that the expected spring wildflowers were blooming since we'd seen virtually none in the valley. We finally settled on Hetch Hetchy which is only an hour or so drive out of the valley but gets very few visitors and is supposed to be very beautiful. There were also several hints pointing to this being a good place for wildflowers. That turned out to be a huge understatement and Hetch Hetchy turned out to be our favorite place in the park! In order to do it justice I've given it a separate trip report. It is definitely somewhere that I'd like to return to many times again. On our way out of the park we stopped to watch the climbers on El Cap from the meadow. I simply can't fathom people spending 3 to 4 days hanging off the side of that 3000 ft rock face making their way up.

Climbers on El Cap (arrows)

Out on a ledge

They are all somewhere in the middle of THAT!!! 3000' to the top

After our wonderful day in Hetch Hetchy (trip report HERE) our Yosemite journey was at an end. Five days of ups and downs (both physically and emotionally). I'm not sure what I expected from this visit but it was both more and less in many ways and nothing I could have anticipated. I hope that we will be able to return - maybe many times - in different seasons and to explore the many, many places that could take a lifetime. John Muir did not exaggerate in any way about this place. It is no wonder that he spent so much of his life here. The rest of the trip was fantastic but it is this place that will stay with me forever. The images are burned into my brain and I think into my soul. You truly can't appreciate the magic here unless you experience it in person. I hope you are all able to make it there someday!!

"Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be- still kind. Your animal fellow-beings, so seldom regarded in civilization, and every rock-brow and mountain, stream, and lake, and every plant soon come to be regarded as brothers; even one learns to like the storms and clouds and tireless winds. This one noble park is big enough and rich enough for a whole life of study and aesthetic enjoyment. It is good for everybody, no matter how benumbed with care, encrusted with a mail of business habits like a tree with bark. None can escape its charms. Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree." - John Muir

The complete Yosemite photo album (which I managed to cut down to 400 from the original 800) is here:

For the best information out there on Yosemite hiking with fantastic pictures and trail maps check out this site: Yosemite Hikes