Travelogue: Yosemite National Park, CA (October 2005)

Inspired by a Sunset magazine article on spending fall in Yosemite, Ashley planned a weekend getaway to celebrate my October birthday. It was only a hop, skip, and a jump away from L.A., we reasoned. So we packed up the Forester and hit the road. We drove… and drove… and drove—in fact, Los Angeles is almost 6 hours from Yosemite. But we drove swiftly and made it inside the park before sundown. Highway 99, though less direct than Highway 5, offers a bit more scenery and helped with the drive; one of our favorite rest stops along the way is the Sun-Maid Raisins factory. The central valley grows most of the sun-kissed raisins and, in addition to having their packing factory there, they have a gift store which features tasty bites (the plump baking raisins are amazing!). After a quick pit-stop, we continued on our journey.
We arrived in the park, paid our $20 national park car fee, and picked up a guide to the valley. With the sun setting, we drove the last stretch of the trip and were diverted several times to the other side of the road as we passed through smoke from nearby fires. At first we were alarmed, but we soon realized that these were controlled burns. Smoky the Bear was apparently so effective in getting everyone to prevent forest fires that the natural cycle of burn and re-grow in much of California was disrupted; as a consequence, low brush would build up which led to a few massive fires, rather than several small ones. Furthermore, many tree species are specifically adapted to fire; the California Redwood has especially fire-resistant bark, and the giant sequoia requires fire to open its cones and release seeds. The low smoldering fires and the wood-smoke laden air heightened our anticipation as we passed into the final tunnel, just before Yosemite Valley opened up in front of us. This entrance never fails to impress. Looking down on the glacier carved valley, Half Dome is on the right, Bridal Veil falls in front of that, and the giant El Capitan looms large on the left. The setting sun had left the last twinges of purple light to filter through, highlighting the rocky structures. After taking it all in, we continued our drive down into the valley.
A coyote jogged out onto the road and tracked our progress for a time. He soon lost interest; shortly after that, we arrived at Curry village. They showed us a map of the tent cabins and we wandered out to find our plot, me with my headlamp (dorky, I know, but it left me with two free hands) and Ashley with her flashlight, carrying our stuff from the car. We were forced to throw away or store in lockers any food to prevent bears from trying to enter our car (or worse, our tent) to try and get at the smells. We debated where to leave our toiletries for a time before deciding to put them in the locker as well. The cabins were rustic to say the least. Canvas is stretched over exposed 2 x 4s with two single beds (which can be pushed together to make a queen); we had paid extra for a heater which we would leave off except when we needed to blast the room with heat (wonderful heat).
We dropped off our stuff, put on warmer clothes, and headed out for a bite to eat. We ate at the facilities near the cabin, sharing a pizza over beer, and sharing a large table covered in check-cloth with another couple. After dinner, we headed to the Yosemite lodge bar. The bar at the lodge has an open fireplace in the middle of a warm room; in the winter you can buy a s’mores kit and roast marshmallows over the fire. We had a night cap, munched on s’mores, and played cards while enjoying the fire’s glow.
I’ve always enjoyed the amazing number of stars that are so brilliantly visible from Yosemite’s valley so, on the way to back Curry Village, I pulled off the road in the middle of the meadow and stopped the car. Looking up was as stunning as I had remembered, and the view seemed all the more amazing in contrast to the night skies of Los Angeles. During full and half moons, I have taken midnight hikes though the meadows in the highlands of Yosemite; despite the lower altitude here, the moonless sky offered an unparalleled view of the milkyway. Waiting a few minutes, once our eyes adjusted, we even saw a shooting star and a satellite passing across the sky. Ashley had bought me a star-gazing book after I tried to impress her once by sharing my minimal knowledge of astrology when we were first dating. On this night, I reached to the back of my mind to share some of what I had learned.
The next morning we awoke early and make the short trip over to the base of the Mist Trail. This is one of the more popular hikes, as it affords such dramatic views of Vernal Falls after just a short hike up from the valley. However, most people stop at the footbridge near the bottom.
During the spring, those standing at the bridge could easily be soaked by the spray of the steeply dropping falls and it becomes clear why this is known as the mist trail. We had plans to continue well past this first lookout and follow a loop trail. Past the lookout, the trail cleared of people considerably.
And as we approached the base of Nevada falls our senses were overwhelmed: the mist dewed on our skin and a sound of a continual thunderclap filled our ears. There was considerably less flow than at the peak of spring, which meant that one could more easily approach the base. Ashley and I did so gingerly, and it was wonderful being so close to something so powerful.
We continued up the trail, following a staircase that had been cut into the rock and pausing occasionally to look back, down into the valley and over the falls. We stopped at the Silver Apron for a snack and had to be a little, well, squirrelly with our food to keep it from a squirrel (one who had clearly already stocked some energy away to help him though the winter).
We stopped for a light lunch, and then hooked up with the John Muir Trail. This legendary trail is named for the amazing naturalist (and Ashley’s distant relative), John Muir, and runs 211 miles from Mt. Whitney to Yosemite. We stopped well-short of its end, breaking off after only half a mile. Nonetheless, it was fun to imagine the winding trail
Our path followed the ridge across from the falls and eventually met back up with the mist trail before leading us back though the trees to where we had parked.
After cleaning ourselves up back at the camp, we made our way to the Ahwahnee Hotel, stopping for opportune photographs, to look around the grounds before the sun set and before our dinner reservations for later that night. Good friends of ours were married here the year before and, once again, it was clear why they would want to be. From the meadow in the back of the lodge, the mountains jet up in at near vertical rises and one can see Yosemite falls in the distance. On this visit, the trees were glowing with leaves of gold and rubies.
The inside of the lodge was the basis for The Overlook Hotel in The Shining and, for anyone who has seen the movie enough times, immediately evokes recollections of a haunted Jack Nicholson. In person, however, it is much less creepy and the images quickly pass. Native American art is featured on the walls and large fireplaces warm the common areas.
One of the amazing things about Yosemite is that one could backpack and never see another person in the high-country, or he could stay in one of the finest National park lodges in the country, communing with countless families over brunch or along one of the busy roads in front of El Capitan. On this trip we were constantly straddling those lines, in part by staying at Curry village but eating at the Awahnee. The dining room is a beautiful example of lodge architecture: huge tree trunk pillars support a high-beamed ceiling. Our table was excellent, near the main windown at the back of the room, and the meal was very good, though not as regional as I would have liked. On a subsequent trip to Yosemite, we went to the Awahnee for brunch and were especially impressed by the bounty; all you can eat oysters, and shrimp, along with delicious egg dishes and pastries make the $35 price tag worth it. And even if one didn’t take in a meal at the lodge, the grounds are a must-see sight.
On our third and final day, we did our best to maximize our time in the park. Lunch was a picnic in the El Capitan meadow from where we could watch the climbers on their multi-day vertical climbs to its top. Only when looking at a climber on El Capitan’s face, recognizing just how ant-like he or she appears in context, does the scale of the rock become truly apparent. It’s unbelievable. We took our time driving out of the park, stopping frequently for short hikes off the side of road and encountering new views of the amazing scenery and its resident flora and fauna—including a grazing herd of deer.
Our last stop was to visit the Giant Sequoias in Mariposa Grove on our drive out of the park. Though Yosemite isn’t home to the same volume of sequoias as in some other parts of California, the small collection of trees that stand a short drive from the south entrance are no less impressive. Scattered throughout the grove are the amazing sequoias which grow up to 23 feet wide and over 350 feet tall. In addition to just plain huge trees, the park has several “celebrity trees; for example, a tree with a tunnel through which people used to drive their cars, and another, felled tree, with which the 6th Calvary is famously photographed.
Yosemite is without doubt one of my favorite national parks, and a true national treasure. Costs have recently gone up for entering any of the national parks, but if the money goes to support maintaining treasures such as these, it’s money well spent. Yosemite has something for everyone, and for every mood. Though I’ve visited several times, there is still so much more to see. And every time I go, I see something new, find a new trail, or renew my interests on old trails. Simply put, I can’t wait to go again!
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