Yosemite, Devil’s Postpile, and the Mono Basin

September 28, 2017

My parents came to visit Michael and I in Nevada for a little over a week, and in their typical style, they managed to stuff a lot of visiting and sightseeing into their travel time. They instilled in me a love of the outdoors, as they always took my brother and I camping, and we always went to local and state parks for picnics, hikes, canoeing, sledding, and whatever else we wanted. We spent a lot of time outdoors when I was a kid, so I think that’s why now I feel most happy when I’m on a trail in the woods. Anyway, my parents came from Salt Lake City and a circuit of National Parks in Utah before coming to the Carson Valley to visit Michael and I. We took them to Virginia City and Lake Tahoe, both of which they enjoyed, and then we all drove to Mammoth Lakes to our Airbnb condo, where we stayed near Yosemite.

While planning this trip, we tried to find places in the park to camp or stay in a cabin, but everything was so expensive we gave up and stayed outside of the park. This may not have been ideal for the gas tank, but the drive over Tioga Pass is actually quite beautiful. If you have to stay on the East side of the park in the Mono Basin or in the Mammoth Lakes region, the drive is over two hours. It’s long, but you will have gorgeous scenery, and you will pass right by the trail for Cathedral Peak and Tuolomne Meadows, both of which are big draws for the park. We recommend stopping at Olmsted Point for a magical view of Half Dome. The mountains there are spectacular. Do keep in mind that Tioga Pass is usually closed by November, with good reason: snow. We actually had snowfall in mid-September while my parents were visiting–remember, mountain weather can be wacky. Yosemite gets a lot of snow, especially in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the road is far too treacherous to take at such times. Be aware of this aspect of the road closure when snow falls if you choose to stay on the East side of the park.

When we first drove into Yosemite, we really didn’t have a good plan. We had a few ideas of places we wanted to see, but all we knew is that the Valley was the place to see the most stuff. Though we left very early in the morning, we made the mistake of stopping to take photos a lot, and then we stopped at Bridalveil Falls to hike up to see the falls. The hike in to see Bridalveil was short and paved, but if you aren’t used to the elevation there are parts of the trail that might be tough for older folks. Either way, the hike is worth the short time. Even though we were there at the end of summer, the falls still had enough water to be a delight. Of course, after all our goofing around at the falls, the Valley was packed solid with cars. Being a Saturday did not help. We do not recommend going to any of the National Parks on a weekend if you can avoid it, but Yosemite especially is very busy. Crowds seem endless. Everywhere we went we had to deal with the constant stream of visitors who were vying for the same trail space which could barely accommodate us all.

So, we drove around in the Valley for a long time, scouting parking spaces which never appeared. Eventually we decided it would be better to get out of the Valley and try another day when we could arrive earlier. Thus, we headed up to Tuolomne Grove, the suggestion of the ranger we consulted at the visitor center near the Tioga Pass entrance. With the Mariposa Grove still closed for renovations, we had to visit the next best grove of Sequoias, and Tuolomne was apparently the better of the remaining two. (What we really wanted was to take my parents down to Sequoia National Park to see at least the General Grant Grove, which is the most northerly grove of that park, but it was too far to drive. That was probably my parents’ biggest complaint—everything out West seems to be a long drive.) Off we went to the trail, which we discovered was also paved all the way down to the grove of trees. The trail now dedicated to visitors used to be a road, so for those in wheelchairs or needing to use strollers, you will be glad to hear that you can access this grove at least partially.

Do keep in mind that the hike down to the trees is a 500-foot elevation loss, which means that going down will be easy, and then you have to walk back up. My mother had some trouble with this, as the altitude is between 6,500-8,000 feet, and going uphill was not easy for her. If you are not used to higher altitudes, this can cause you to be out of breath, so plan extra time for breaks. Nevertheless, we went down to the trees, and they got to see the Sequoias. The first of the trees you see on the way down, to the left side of the trail, is apparently 1,800 years old, and is the oldest in that grove. The tree is rather impressive, and somewhat like Sequoia National Park you get to see a tunnel tree and a couple of fallen Sequoias, one of which is hollow and you can stoop over and walk through it. A short trail about half a mile takes you around the grove to see all the trees, but this loop trail is dirt, uneven, rocky, and studded with roots. It is not negotiable with a stroller or wheelchair, but you can still wheel around some of the trees which are next to the paved area. I did not feel the hike uphill was difficult for me, but I am used to climbing mountains now. If you’re in decent shape, this uphill walk is at a relatively low grade, but it is a mile to get to the top from the loop trail. Figure in another half mile on the dirt trail just to be safe. While on our way down to see the trees, we actually saw a young bear in the woods. It was a safe distance away, and a rather large crowd of people stood on the trail to watch it. We had fun snapping fuzzy photos, but were glad to not see a mother bear anywhere.

Speaking of bears, Yosemite has a very active black bear population. In fact, the entire animal population of the park seems quite used to humans now, and they are fairly secure in the knowledge that humans will not harm them in the park. This is both good and bad. I am of the mind that wild animals are not to be fed by humans when they live in wild places, especially if we are feeding them human food. Such behavior teaches the animals to rely too much on human food, which is usually not healthy for them, and then they become dependent on humans, which can lead to lots of other problems. One particularly bad aspect of feeding animals comes in when you have larger, more dangerous animals like bears becoming too comfortable with humans. In the recent past, bears have had to be put down because they become too interested in taking food from humans, and then they are too dangerous. It’s really better to leave the animals alone, don’t share your food with them, and stop teaching them that human food is an option. When bears maul humans, that is bad.

I suppose the good part about the animals not being afraid is that they won’t run when you want a picture, and you can stop and observe the deer, squirrels, birds, and other wildlife without worry they will run away in fear. They casually stand and look at you while they go about their business, and it can be fun to watch. Just keep your food to yourself, and all will be well. (Of course, the other reasons for not feeding the animals has to do with disease. Hanta virus, plague, and other diseases can be shared between rodents and humans–squirrels and chipmunks are very much in this category. Stay healthy and keep your hands clean. Wash before you eat when at the parks.) In any case, animal sightings will probably be prevalent anywhere you go in the parks, so enjoy them! They are a delight to watch, and Michael and I took lots of pictures of animals doing cute things we normally don’t get to see.

After the hike to the grove, it was already nearly sunset. Fortunately, we had found a nice spot in the Valley to stop for a quick picnic beneath El Capitan, so we didn’t feel too deprived of seeing things that first day. Off we went, back to the condo so we could get to bed early and head out for the Valley in the morning. As we came up on the mountain pass, we stopped at Olmsted just as the sun began setting. It was freezing there because of the cold front we had just experienced, but the view was totally worth the chill. I stood on that mountain in complete awe of the pale grays and whites of the granite as they turned pink, gold, and orange. The sky behind the mountain turned to fire, and it was probably one of the most memorable moments of our time at the park. I recommend seeing the sunset from there if you can. You can run up the rise of rock next to the parking lot and see 360 degrees around, an unforgettable sight.

In the morning, we drove into the park for our second day. This time we drove straight to the Valley, where we arrived before 10am, and found parking with ease. From the parking lot near the Yosemite Lodge we were able to take the free shuttles around the Valley. My parents decided to go to Yosemite Falls, and Michael and I went for the tougher hike up to Vernal Falls. The shuttle ride took us at least 15-20 minutes from the parking lot, and then from the stop at the Mist Trail we had to hike another mile or so before we got our first sight of the falls. Once on the trail to Vernal Falls, you have options to go up and take the loop trail to Nevada Falls, though that adds another three miles to the already three miles of hiking up and back from Vernal Falls. This hike is actually rather strenuous, as the grade uphill is quite challenging at times, but the real tough stuff happens as you hike along next to the falls itself. A rock stair makes using the stairmaster at the gym look like child’s play. This is not for the faint of heart, nor for those with medical issues. You should really be in decent shape to make this climb, as the rocks you must climb are of varying sizes, sometimes a height close to an adult’s knee, and for a span of this climb it is slippery from the spray. Wear good climbing shoes, and if you are afraid of heights, there is a portion of the stair which takes you along the cliff’s edge. A guardrail is provided for the topmost portion only, and it is a long way down. I read on a sign that there are 600 stairs, and this is after you hiked a mile uphill on a paved walk which can be quite steep at times.

If I haven’t scared you away from the trail yet, you will certainly find that when you reach the top of the falls, you will see a lovely view of the valley below, and once again you get a view of Half Dome. While this is rather satisfying, I actually felt the best viewpoint from the trail was from about halfway up the stairs, where you get a double rainbow shining off the spray of the falls. That was really the reward of this hike, in my opinion. Of course, I challenged my fear of heights again on this trek (my fear of heights is rather acute, so I do my best to expose myself to safe climbing options to get over it), so it felt good to have made it all the way up to the top of the trail. My fear gripped me for a short time, but I powered up anyway and felt quite pleased with myself after the whole hike was said and done. After the hike, we took the shuttle back to Yosemite Village to meet my parents for food. We had delicious burgers at the restaurant next to the village store, and then we wandered over to the Ansel Adams gallery. I was surprised to discover that at least a dozen original, signed photos by Adams were hanging in the gallery, and they were for sale. What a treat to see the iconic images of such an incredible artist up close, and many of those photos were unfamiliar to me. Even more special was to have just come through the areas of the park which I got to see in the photos, showcased in Adams’ grandiose style.

After the gallery, we dallied in the Indian village on display outdoors, which was one of my father’s wishes, and then spent some time in the visitors’ center. Though it may seem like a waste of precious time, I actually enjoy going to the visitor centers at the National Parks. They always have tasteful displays of points of interest, local history, geologic information, and animals of the region. One can learn a great deal about what you are seeing in the park if you take just a few minutes to wander the visitor’s center. In fact, I learned that Abraham Lincoln signed the legislation which brought Yosemite into being as the first Federally-protected public land, mostly due to the desire to protect the groves of Sequoias in the region. John Muir was instrumental in this work, as were many others who shared a love of the outdoors and preserving the land from the scourge of logging and mining. I learned quite a bit about Native American life which was utterly decimated by the Europeans who invaded the area, as well as to learn about the volcanic activity which shaped the land where we stood. Also interesting was being able to give names to some of the animals we had seen in the park, and it was fun to look at the topographical map of the Valley which showed the many trails one can take.

Though I really wanted to visit the museum and take a walk through the Valley to get some better photos of El Capitan, my stomach decided I was making other plans. For some stupid reason, I was suffering from a bout of a stomach bug, so we ended our second day at Yosemite without seeing Glacier Point or venturing nearer to Half Dome. Well, we still had one more day planned to see the park, or so we thought. By the time we got back to our condo later, my body felt like it had been run through a ringer, and all I could think about was bed. We were all tired, though, as none of us has been used to early mornings, even though my parents were still mostly on New York time. Off we went to bed with the plan to get at least one night of good rest, and then we thought we would see about plans in the morning.

When I finally awoke, it was late. My belly felt better, but still not quite back to normal. No one else really felt like making the long drive back into Yosemite, so the decision was made to check out Devil’s Postpile and possibly Mammoth Lakes. We didn’t get out of the house until the lunch hour, but Devil’s Postpile was only a short half-hour drive. Since it’s a National Park, we were able to use our park pass for access, and then we drove down yet another mountain pass to a valley below. Yet another stunning view was to be seen from the mountainside as we zig-zagged down to the parking area where we could find the trailhead. Real flush toilets awaited us in the parking area (a rare find in many parks of the Southwest, as it seems most are fond of the pit toilets), and then off we went on the short jaunt to the fascinating rock formations created by volcanic activity hundreds of years ago. The postpiles are made up of fairly symmetrical shapes of long basalt columns. One can view them from below and also you may climb the set of stairs to the top of the columns and walk across the interesting mosaic of stone lined up like a spine across the earth. If you take any other paths through the valley, you are bound to find more of these postpiles, both buried and unearthed, sometimes sticking up out of the ground like the vertebrae of a massive dinosaur. It reminded me of Berlin-Ickthyosaur State Park, where we saw all those incredible remains still buried in the ground.

After a couple of hours of wandering the park, we chose not to walk the long paths to the waterfalls, as we had just done that the day before at Yosemite, and we really didn’t feel up to the long hikes. Rainbow Falls is worth seeing, we were told, and is quite beautiful. We were also told the path is fairly level, but it’s a five-mile hike round trip. Minaret Falls sounded easier at a shorter three miles’ round trip, but then we discovered the trail heads up the mountain and gave it up. We just didn’t have the energy for that. Still, we were quite happy with the lovely view as we walked the paths in the valley, where a clear stream baubles over a rocky landscape through a green meadow in the alpine wilderness. When we went back up the mountain by car, we enjoyed the spectacular view of the valley below, much like those views we saw from the road along Tioga Pass into Yosemite. As we drove away from the park, we saw a sign for an earthquake fault, and we stopped out of sheer curiosity. Sure enough, a large fissure resulting from most likely the same volcanic event which formed the Devil’s Postpile could be seen. As with all parks in California, we found a placard of information about the fissure and its formation, took some pictures, and hopped back in the truck again.

For one last little bit of fun, we took the loop around June Lake, which we had been told is quite lovely. It was indeed lovely, as the lake is nestled into the mountains and features a cute little tourist town with brightly-painted shops in its downtown. We then followed the road to Silver Lake, where we discovered a picturesque smaller lake with a fabulous granite mountain reflected in its surface. Ducks waddled up to us in hopes of being fed, and were quite unafraid to come right up to our feet. When we didn’t offer them anything, they waddled back to the water and swam away. Whilst we wandered at the lake’s edge, we discovered a lovely campground with what looked like rather quaint cabins for rent, and right next door was a full RV park. Behind the RV park we discovered a path leading toward the edge of the mountain, and several mule deer grazing, again, unafraid of us. We didn’t follow the path because it was getting dark by this point, but it looked like it might make for a fun little adventure.

Fortunately, my parents had gone out earlier and shopped for the makings of soup for the crock pot we discovered in the cupboards of the condo, so we didn’t have to worry about cooking when we got back. This was fortuitous, as we all felt exhausted again. The soup rejuvenated us somewhat, and then we sat around chatting until we all got yawning and needed to hit the sheets. For Michael and I, it would be our last night at the condo. Our dogs needed to be kenneled in order to travel more easily, as the National Parks do not allow dogs on many of the trails. Without our RV, we did not want to worry about leaving them in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Airbnb home. Luna simply gets too anxious about being left alone, and we couldn’t take the chance that she might destroy things in her fear. Thus, we took our time to get up and make a nice breakfast, packed our bags, and got going back to Minden. My parents took their last day in the region to see Mammoth Lakes, which they later told me was worth the trip. Apparently the lakes are quite high altitude, at about 9,000 feet, and there are trails to take in the wilderness for those willing to encounter snow and ice.

All around, I feel glad I got to see iconic Yosemite. Somehow I was unaware that Yosemite was the first official National Park, and I am happy to be learning so much about our park system and its history. As we travel from park to park, I learn a bit more of the history of the land, the inception of the parks, and who was involved in making them what they are today. It all seemed to have begun with the Sequoias, though, which I find rather amusing and ironic, as my own fascination with the National Parks also began with Sequoias. After seeing photos in a magazine all those years ago in my early childhood, I was hooked. I have been dreaming of seeing those trees ever since, and I finally got my wish. I enjoyed seeing the trees in Yosemite, as even the young Sequoias are still majestic and surreal in their size, but Sequoia truly was my favorite of the parks we have seen to date. We shall continue our travels to see more, and both Michael and I have a list of those we really hope to see one day. When we do, we’ll share, and we hope to inspire others to do the same.


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