Sentinel Dome at Sunset

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Sam and Lori had climbed Sentinel Dome on our family visit to Yosemite last summer, but Jack had been feeling a little under the weather, so I stayed back at the lodge with him on that occasion. They came back telling stories about what a cool hike it was, so this time around I wanted to see for myself. Sam needed no encouragement to do it again, so after dinner we headed up onto the Glacier Point Road to start our hike.

Relatively easy, we were at the top within about half an hour. The 360 degree views were amazing, and as the light faded the whole place took on a magical glow. We must have spent 90 minutes up there enjoying the cool breeze, the incredible landscape, and the tiny but remarkable wildflowers that were doing their best to survive. Of course I photographed the famous, though now dead, Jeffrey Pine that still rests on top of the dome, and I also had a great time checking out all of the glacial erratics that were deposited here thousands of years ago.

The return trip to the car was bathed in the most beautiful golden light, and on three different occasions we were fortunate to encounter foraging deer right on the path. Throughout this trip it has seemed as though every time we made a hike it became a new favorite… and although Sentinel Dome was not as strenuous or grand as some of the others, we really enjoyed the time spent there.

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Wildflowers on a Mountain Road

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As we cruised up the Glacier Point Road toward Sentinel Dome, a couple of small meadows right off the side of the road filled with beautiful wildflowers caught our eye. The early evening light created little pockets of color that begged to be explored and photographed. The Glacier Point Road climbs as high as 9,000 feet, so at that elevation these the little beauties get a pretty late start to the summer.

I wish I knew more about the local flora so I could name these (Shooting Stars?), but am going to have to settle for just showing them here. I found it challenging to use the camera viewfinder to truly do this scene justice, but at least we have a sweet reminder of how pretty and alive this part of the forest was. In amongst all of the magnificent and rugged grandeur of Yosemite, these delicate little swaths of intense color were a striking contrast to the immense scale of the park. This was another side to the changing seasons of Yosemite that we were quite fortunate to witness on this visit.

There are Waterfalls in Yosemite

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There are waterfalls in Yosemite…

…but it is also very crowded. I realize that Sam and I were merely adding to the throng, and I understand that national parks were created to make such beauty accessible to everyone, but I hope that we at least carried with us a better appreciation of why somewhere like Yosemite NP was created in the first place. Deep breath… am letting it go now.

Here are some views of the iconic, but none the less beautiful, waterfalls that are located on the valley floor. Unusually heavy snowfall this past winter has meant that they are still flowing with impressive power yet delicate grace… even this late into summer.

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.

Yosemite… the high country

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So, we have just finished the first leg of our trip… after spending three nights near the shore of Mono Lake in Lee Vining, we are moving down into Yosemite Valley to stay a couple of nights in Curry Village before heading back to San Francisco. We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in the high country around the Tioga Pass and Tuolumne Meadow area, but needless to say we did not have nearly enough time here. There is so much to explore and experience, and from a photography standpoint the opportunities for seeing new things and enjoying the spectacular mountain light are endless. It would take a lifetime to really understand the power of this landscape, and even that might not be enough.

Leaving Mono Lake…

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Staying in Lee Vining gave us the opportunity to visit Mono Lake. We were lucky with the light on the first evening we visited, but things didn’t really come together when we returned last night. The afternoon thunderstorms that brew over the Sierras didn’t quite cooperate with their timing, and we were left skunked with rain instead. Mono Lake is a fascinating place, and as with much of this area, we would love to have had more time to explore. As we head down into the zoo of people in Yosemite Valley we will be out of contact with the blog for a couple of days, so here’s a few more from our time spent at Mono Lake. This is a very often photographed location, but there is still something special about being there in person and trying to make your “own” images of what truly is a special place.