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.
It is appropriate to start this post on Muir’s beloved mountains, with one of his most famous quotes. We use it often when referring to what happens when you enter that other famous Y park, Yellowstone…”while cares will drop off like autumn leaves”. A long-time friend who is a ranger in Yellowstone teased us about perhaps changing our favorite Y park to this one, Yosemite. But I assured her that while it is spectacular, it can never replace the special place that Yellowstone has in our hearts.
We headed to Yosemite after the relative quiet of Kings Canyon/Sequoia, expecting large crowds and uncertain of our destination, but hoping to get lucky with a campsite outside the park and then a back-country permit the next day. Unfortunately, we could see smoke from a nearby new forest fire as we approached, so we once again feared obscured views of the famous valley.
But as we drove in, the sheer granite walls surrounding Yosemite Valley towered above us in sharp detail, with the smoke merely adding color to the background. I can’t imagine what this valley must have been like in Muir’s time, without all the roads, construction, and people. Even now, Muir’s mountains are breathtaking and you feel you should just stand there in silence and stare at the various peaks.
But we needed to find a place to lay our heads. The Forest Service campgrounds on the way in had all been small and full (although an interesting guy had offered to allow us to share his site at one of them as we drove in). As we drove through the valley, to our surprise, we spotted a vacancy sign at one of the valley lodging facilities with the odd name of Housekeeping Camp.
We stopped and snagged one of three remaining units for two nights and thought ourselves lucky to get a place while having no reservations. When we drove into our site, you suddenly start to wonder what your stay might be like…crowds of people, often with large groups gathered around a campfire, music booming from various electronic devices, kids riding bicycles through the camp, dogs, cars jammed into every nook and cranny, and facilities that look a bit…rustic (that may be too nice a word).
The units are two back to back rooms with three thin walls. The fourth “wall” is a large shower curtain-looking partition, which also serves as an entrance. Each room has a bunk bed, a double bed, one small shelf and one light bulb. There is a picnic table inside a small privacy fence area that separates you from the next block of two camp units about 5 feet away. Togetherness is the phrase that comes to mind (if you are of a positive mindset). I was feeling some other thoughts, although people around us seemed to be enjoying themselves and ignoring the cramped feeling I was getting. The room cost $98, plus, for a few dollars more, you rent sheets and pillows if you don’t have them. The restroom was nearby along with a shared shower house. Signs warning of the potential for Hanta virus and plague (from fleas of the many rodents in the region) added to the surreal nature of this camp experience. I compared this to my many times staying at the aptly named Rough Rider cabins in Yellowstone, and suddenly they seemed like luxury accommodations. I guess many people enjoy this closeness and the imagined step-up from tent camping, but I felt sorry for these visitors, for Muir’s legacy, and for the stunning landscape of the valley, that this is the way so many people experience this sacred spot. We debated the pros and cons of this type of lodging – the number of units, their price (seemed high for what you get), the crowded conditions, etc. These are difficult choices – allowing affordable access for the masses to this incredible valley versus providing a lodging experience that might be more in tune with the sense of reverence that such a landscape evokes, a choice that would likely be more exclusive. Is that an “elitist approach”? I don’t know. People certainly seemed to be having a good time, but, is it in tune with the spirit of the place, its history, its majesty? I guess I came away disappointed that the National Park Service has not done a better job of providing clean, comfortable, and site-appropriate facilities in one the gems of the park system.
The next morning we headed out before sunrise to watch the valley come alive in the morning sun. The usual colors of the morning sky had an assist from waves of smoke from the wildfire just outside the park boundary.
This is the huge advantage of lodging in the valley – the ability to be there at sunrise and sunset and still be able to access your lodging without a long drive. The sky turned orange red as the sun peeked over the famous peaks. We were alone in the meadow, another advantage of viewing the world at sunrise.
For reasons mentioned above, and the added smoke we saw at sunrise, we decided to forfeit our second night at Housekeeping Camp (with only the loss of a $10 handling fee). We packed up and headed to the back-country office to get a permit for hiking the high country. Being third in line when they opened helped us secure a permit for an area near the famed Tuolumne Meadows. As we drove high into the Sierras, we realized the smoke was following us, which would make hiking less than ideal at these elevations (9000 ft+). We made the difficult decision to forego our back-country permit (we turned it in at another back-country permit office so someone else could use it) and to try to find a campsite in one of the campgrounds just outside the park boundary. Again, we got lucky and ended up with a lakeside campsite in a Forest Service campground less than a mile outside the park.
It was on a beautiful lake with 13 primitive campsites and very convenient to the park’s high country. Once we set up the tents, we drove back into the park with our stove and freeze-dried food for a dinner with a view.
As luck would have it, the veil of smoke seemed to stop before reaching all of the high peaks, so we had an amazing view after our hike up Lembert Dome, a popular destination, but one devoid of fellow hikers this time of day.
We ended up having one family from Belgium pass us on the mountain, but, aside from hundreds of migrating yellow-rumped warblers, we ate our dinner with nothing but the spectacular scenery and each other as company. To me , this is the best way to experience this majestic park.
The next day, our last in this whirlwind tour of three parks, we wanted to hike up to one of the classic mountain lakes. We started by driving out to Olmsted Point where we heated up water for coffee, tea, and oatmeal. The view was what we had hoped for the previous morning – looking out toward Half Dome. The skies had cleared up in the high country, but we heard all day from people coming from the valley that it was still shrouded with thick smoke.
The area around Tuolumne Meadows is not as crowded as Yosemite Valley, but is still a place where it can be tough to find a parking spot at a trail head. We opted for the trail to Cathedral Lakes. One guidebook said “if you only do one hike in the high country, do this one”.
The trail starts at about 8500 ft and winds upward to the lower lake at an elevation of 9200 ft. It is about a 7 mile round trip hike. We saw plenty of other hikers along the route and on the eastern shore of the lake which is a wide, flat, granite outcrop.
There are many places to capture a beautiful reflection of nearby Cathedral Peak in a pool on the rock or in the adjoining marsh. We decided to hike around to the other side of the lake for lunch since we did not see anyone on the far shore.
Melissa never misses a chance to take a dip in mountain water, no matter how cold, so, once again I was convinced to cool off in a gorgeous pool at the far end of the lake. This particular pool probably had the best view of any spot we have ever dipped our toes in. Not far beyond our swimming hole (well, really just a splashing hole due to temperatures and water depth) the lake water left its calm existence and plunged down a waterfall, exposing a view off to the mountains and valleys beyond. Megan managed snap the shutter at just the right moment to capture that quintessential expression we often have when first squatting down in a mountain stream.
After a relaxing lunch, we headed back down the trail and off to our campsite to pack up. It had been an amazing trip, full of quiet beauty, crowded tourist spots, cold water, smoky skies, and majestic scenery. These mountains are truly spectacular. Muir wrote “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” I can only imagine what it was like to have tromped over these granite domes before the crowds descended on the now iconic places of Yosemite. Melissa and I are thrilled to have finally made it, and we hope to return and hike the backcountry without the threat of clouds of smoke obscuring the peaks. The “other Y park” is definitely special.