I had envisioned the drive up the back (east) side of the Sierras to the eastern entrance to Yosemite to be impressive, but I really wasn’t prepared for what I encountered. The road was nearly perfect, traffic light, and the scenery astounding as the road climbed up to nearly 10,000 ft at Tioga Pass.
And then traffic, light as it was, came to a stop. The reason was the park entrance, and though the staff are quite adept at quickly handling any necessary transactions and answering questions, it does take a minute or two per vehicle and they only had 2 gates. In surroundings such as those at the top of Tioga Pass, however, it’s not a bad spot for a traffic jam.
Unfortunately someone always has to be the spoiler, and in this case it was a man on an annoyingly loud motorcycle who, also in the line to pay the entrance fee, decided he could filter his way forward like a normal traffic jam. Every time the line would come to a stop he would rev up, pop out into the other lane, and cut a few more places in line. I was beginning to fume at his insolence as I watched his progress in the rear view mirror and then, after he passed me, through the windshield, when a ranger walked up to him, guided him to the shoulder, and proceeded to write him a traffic ticket. As the line slowly went past their location I could clearly him angrily say that he had a right to filter through traffic, and the ranger calmly respond that he didn’t have a right to drive in the wrong lane or cut in the entrance line, and if he still wanted to enter the park he could go back to the end of the line and wait his proper turn. It was nice to see bad behavior actually getting it’s proper reward.
After about a 15 minute wait I got to the kiosk and found to my delight that they did indeed sell the interagency pass. For those who don’t regularly visit National Parks in the US, they do not offer a single day entry pass. Instead, most parks have a $20 – $30 weekly entrance fee as their lowest cost entry option. On a weekly basis this isn’t a bad deal, but for those who are only going to be there for a day or a few hours, or who are planning on stopping at multiple parks within a week or two timeframe, this can add up quickly. If you have any thought that you might go to another park within a year, most everyone is better off buying an interagency pass. For $80 it’s valid for a year and covers admission to nearly all federal lands – including National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests, Bureau of Land Management, National Wildlife Refuges, etc.. As a side benefit, it makes it much easier when you park at a non-staffed trailhead to go for a hike where a permit is required but you can’t tell if it’s a National Forest, BLM, Wildlife Refuge, …. as the single pass covers all of them. For those who are US citizens and over 62, it’s an even better deal at $10 for a lifetime pass – a cost and validity differential which certainly seems absurd to me at this point while I am under 62, but which I would happily by once I reach that age – assuming of course they don’t get rid of it by then.
Having entered the park, my first stop was Tuolumne Meadow. More than anything else at Yosemite it had claimed my interest, as many years ago I bought a Kelty “Tuolumne” backpack which has served me very well on many backpacking trips and which still sits, ready to go aside from food and water, in a closet by the front door. Having strapped that embroidered name on my back so many times before, I wanted to experience the place it was named for. On reaching it I took the first parking spot available, grabbed my camera and water bottle, and set off on a wonderful stroll along the high Sierra meadow. Hours before I had left the hot, dry, and dusty Mojave desert and despite the long drive my body seemed to shake off it’s dry desert survival skin and come alive amongst the flowing water, cool air, snow capped mountains and many shades of green of the higher reaches of Yosemite.
Eventually though it was time to meander on to see more of the park before nightfall, as the location of my reserved camping spot was such that getting back to the rest of the park would be quite awkward the following day.
Although I made liberal use of the pull offs along the way to enjoy the views, the Olmsted Point viewpoint and a walk along it’s associated trail to the more open viewpoint above Tenaya Valley provided the most stunning views from the roadside as well as the first sighting of the iconic Half Dome.
From there the drive went downhill, both literally and figuratively, to the Crane Flat area. Yosemite National Park is a massive area, and between the scenic fireworks of the high Sierra and the valley floor there are lots of places along highway 120 where if it wasn’t for the occasional brown sign, the lack of clearcuts or lumbering slash, or the intentionally slow speed limit one could be forgiven for thinking they had somehow left the park behind.
With few pullouts and a very cautious rental RV driver in front, I soon fell into a slow-motion parade of perhaps 15 vehicles where, with attention focused on trying not to run over the car in front, the scenery outside the windows simply vanished. I find it amazing how tiring it can be to drive in such situations whereas if I was the car in front I would find it an energizing activity, and as I began to have to fight off an urge to nod off I resolved to take the next pullout and go for at least a short walk to wake back up. That pullout ended up being the Tuolumne Grove, and the short walk turned into a very enjoyable ramble among the giant sequoias.
Having woken back up and enjoyed my time with the trees, I turned in to the approach to Yosemite Valley. Whether by chance or design, the approach road lulls one into a bit of a stupor among the rolling terrain from which the sudden sighting of El Capitan through the trees is a dramatic entrance to the valley.
Assuming that the best approach would be to go all the way in and then work back out, I carried on past several tempting pulloffs while simply enjoying the scenery around me. And then I found gridlock. After nearly 20 minutes of sitting still in traffic near the pines campgrounds, I decided I might just as well not be in the car and let traffic die down a little. I managed to point and signal to the other drivers around me that I was giving up, and they were nice enough to work with me so that I could worry my way into something resembling a parking spot off the roadway. I got out, had a bit of a walk, made and ate a dinner of sun-warmed curry on gorditas, walked my trash over to a trashcan, and when I looked at traffic realized it had only moved 2 car lengths in that timeframe.
After several minutes I managed to get back into line, and after about another half hour of crawling forward the entire line suddenly began moving at normal speed. By this time it was too late to be able to go back and visit the sites I had driven past, but I had thoughts that I could possibly make it to Glacier Point for the sunset so I turned off in that direction. As I passed the “no passing for 20 miles” sign behind yet another overly cautious rental RV I could tell I had no chance of making it there in time for sunset, and when Tunnel View viewpoint showed up a few minutes later I used it for a quick view and then headed back down to the valley.
My route led me past the Bridal Veil Falls trailhead, so I stopped there and watched the wind blow the water into a changing pattern of wet and dry, light and shadow as the first hints of sunset began.
When the falls went grey I decided it was time to bid the valley farewell and began the surprisingly long drive to my reserved campsite in Hogdon Meadows, which is right at the northwest entry to the park. The night was already well established by the time I pulled up at the campground entry kiosk and found my name on a list of other late arriving campers with the site numbers and a note to register at the kiosk the following morning after 9 AM. Quiet hours had not yet begun, and it was easy to find my spot as a dark clearing amongst the lights of an established RV and trailer community. Having stowed my food in the provided bear proof locker, I set to work doing the final touches of transforming the van into a camper – hanging the curtains, topping off the air mattress (which I had intentionally left underinflated so it didn’t risk popping at the higher altitudes), and figuring out just how to move things around so I could sit in the open passenger door, take my shoes off while my feet were outside the van, and then swing my legs in while shutting the door so I didn’t track debris into the “sleeping quarters.” That done, I quickly fell into a deep sleep against the background noise of two couples in the adjoining campsite playing a drunken card game.