Revisiting Tuolumne Meadow

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Now that I am back home in Maine, I have some time to revisit the glorious first evening of our trip to Yosemite when we were fortunate to witness some amazing colors and clouds over the higher mountains in the backdrop. Afternoon thunderstorms have been known to unexpectedly pop up in this area, and on this occasion we were in the right place at the right time. The storm had begun to clear right before sunset, and as the twilight gained a hold on the scene, we enjoyed some deep and rich pastel colors. We fought off mosquitoes as big as small birds, but it was well worth the effort to experience such an incredible sunset. The four days Sam and I spent up along the Tioga Road and near Tuolumne Meadow wasn’t nearly enough time to truly see the landscape, so maybe someday we will return and spend some extended time exploring what was for us a unique and breathtaking area.

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Moving Day and a Bear Sighting

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Hard to believe it was time to leave the Tuolumne Meadow area, but our next destination wasn’t too shabby either! The Tioga Road was a truly remarkable part of the world that deserved much more time than we were able to devote to it on this trip, but now we were off to experience the wonder of Yosemite Valley and join the hordes tourists who flock there every year. The drive along the Tioga Road was as beautiful as ever, and even though it was the middle of the day with pretty harsh light, we stopped at Olmstead Point, an overlook and short trail that offers spectacular views looking back down the Tenaya Canyon toward the “other” side of Half Dome.

The further we got away from the Tioga Pass and Tuolumne Meadow, the more people we saw. This was not unexpected, but Sam and I had become spoiled by the relative solitude we had experienced while hiking higher up. As we made the left turn off the Tioga Road at Crane Flat, the traffic had stopped, and things didn’t look too good for getting to our Curry Village tent any time soon. This was no ordinary traffic jam though… a bear was doing his thing in the meadow off to the right, and people were milling all around, jockeying for position to grab a long distance and probably fuzzy snapshot to take back home with them as proof that they saw a bear. We skipped the opportunity to add to the melee, excited though that we could now say that we too had seen a bear. Speaking of bears, we took the warnings about respecting their desire for human food seriously, with Sam being especially fastidious about clearing out the car and making sure everything food related or scented was stored in our bear locker.

Our first experience of the Curry Village tent community was great, and we woke bright and early to explore the valley floor. Even in the height of summer, there are still a couple of hours to be had when the masses have yet to stir. The early morning light was impressive indeed, and the valley absolutely sparkled. I’m not so sure the owners of the van in the image above would have been so enthralled with the place though after seeing the damage a bear did trying to get to some water bottles they had carelessly left inside. I wonder just how much the ticket left on the windshield was going to sting?

Without opining too much, Sam and I were both quite dismayed, not only by the sheer volume of people in the park, but also by how careless, unaware, and downright rude some of them were. However, all the boorish behavior, sloppy driving, and littering of trails could never diminish the experience of seeing the magnificent Yosemite Valley… we just wouldn’t want to do it again in the summer.

A Room With A View

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As we approached the Tioga Pass entrance station for the last time, Sam asked if I would be interested in exploring the Gaylor Lakes Trail that started just inside the park. The original plan for our final morning in the higher country was to wander around the Tuolumne Meadow and climb Pothole Dome to get a wide view of what is probably some of the most beautiful country I have ever seen. As much as I was looking forward to seeing more of the meadow, Sam’s surprise invitation to tackle the Gaylor Lakes Trail seemed like an excellent way to squeeze one more good hike into our visit. After hiking the 14.2 miles to Clouds Rest the day before, I wasn’t entirely confident of my legs being able to withstand another climb, never mind one that would take us to higher than 10,000 feet! But Sam assured me we would be OK, and that the photographs he had seen from this hike showed pretty spectacular scenery…. what the heck, what’s another five miles!

We filled three water bottles each, lubed up with bug spray and sunscreen, and set out on the trail. My initial fears were justified… this trail was so steep I was doing my own personal switchbacks on the switchbacks. Slow and steady… that was my mantra as I kept my head down and tried to keep my pulse under 200 beats per minute. Sam blazed the trail at a pretty good lick, but after getting ahead of me by about 50 yards or so he always stopped to let me catch up and make sure I hadn’t collapsed. Tough climb… maybe because it was straight up, or maybe because I had already hiked 20+ miles in the past two days, but none of that mattered when we crested the top of the ridge and we caught a glimpse of the Gaylor Lakes basin.

Truly breathtaking. This is what I had envisioned when we had first decided that we wanted to explore the high country of Yosemite. Laid out before us all in one vista were green meadows dotted with huge boulders left over from glacial times, jagged and imposing granite peaks sweeping down to the bluest of subalpine lakes, bubbling mountain brooks, and all of this framed with a 360 degree backdrop of the snow-capped Sierra mountains. Going down into the basin was much easier than the climb up, but by now I was catching on to this hiking thing… in general, what goes up must come down, and what goes down must come up. I tried not to think about that though, and instead focused on the amazing scenery.

After skirting the middle lake, we followed the stream up hill toward the third, higher lake. As we climbed the hill we became reacquainted with our mosquito friends, as they seemed bound and determined to welcome us to their domain. As soon as we reached the upper lake, thankfully they lost interest in us and went back downhill to bother some other hikers. The upper lake was in the shadow of Gaylor Peak (11,004 ft), and on the other side we found ourselves in the still unmelted snow that blanketed the landscape. It definitely felt unusual to be walking on what was still deep snow, but both Sam and I agreed that this was waaaaay cool.

Not done yet, we climbed above the upper lake and headed toward the Great Sierra Mine – an old abandoned prospector’s homestead and silver mine that dates back to 1878. It was impressive to see how a home created entirely out of flat stones could stand so strong for so long in what must be a very inhospitable climate for probably 6 months of the year. As we sat high atop the landscape enjoying our lunch of Clif Bars (new favorite of mine), we admired the fortitude of the pioneering spirit who had lived and worked here so long ago. Imagine working hard in the mine all day and coming home to a view like this…

All good things come to an end though, and unfortunately we had to leave this stunning lunch spot and return to civilization. I won’t bore anyone with the details of me huffing and puffing up the hill again, nor will I mention the sounds my knees and ankles made as I gingerly made my way back down the other (steep, very steep) side, but I will say that this was probably my most favorite hike of the entire trip. This must surely be classic Yosemite high country, where the effort to explore is rewarded with sights and sounds that are polar opposite of what most of us experience in our normal daily lives. As we drove along the Tioga Road and passed by Tuolumne Meadow for the last time on our trip, I felt so very happy that Sam and I got to share this time and this place together. Maybe one day Sam will bring his kid here… that would make me very proud.

Tioga Lake, Yosemite National Park

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When Sam and I started planning this trip, we originally wanted to stay at the canvas tents of the Tuolumne Meadow Lodge. Apparently these are a hot ticket though, so we had to settle for a motel in Lee Vining, outside the park and about a 25 minute drive back to Tuolumne Meadow. Bummed at first, though we soon realized the benefit of our daily commute… having the opportunity to experience the remarkable beauty of the landscape along the highest part of the Tioga Road. Even though Tioga Lake technically is outside the boundary of Yosemite National Park, the mountains you can see in this early morning reflection are inside the park! The image in this post is just one of many spectacular sights from this incredible stretch of road – a road that cannot possibly have very many equals when it comes to natural beauty. Tioga Lake… not many commutes have views like this!

Tuolumne Meadow Sunset

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Long day. We were up before 4am to get to JFK for our flight to San Francisco, and as I write this I am still on east coast time where it is 2am. Traveling couldn’t have gone smoother, and by about 1pm local time we were on the road driving toward Yosemite.

As we made our way across the central California valley, even from one hundred miles away we could see some serious thunderheads on the horizon getting us excited about what we might see at our chosen first destination… Tuolumne Meadow. We passed up the opportunity to stop at many beautiful places along the Tioga Road so that we might get to Tuolumne before dark, and hopefully in time for some nice light playing with the storm clouds.

Sam and I both caught our breath when we first glimpsed the meadow, and we excitedly jumped out and started to explore. There was some stormy weather over Lembert Dome and beyond into the high country where Mount Gibbs and Mount Dana towered over the landscape, and with the sun behind us we were treated to a spectacular rainbow and some amazing late evening light.

In the brief but productive time we had here, there must have been fifteen or more deer happily grazing in the meadow, and the mosquitoes rivaled anything we have back home in Maine. As you can see though, nothing could spoil the remarkable sight before our eyes. Cannot wait to explore more tomorrow.