Posted by pdittman on October 18th, 2015 in '15 - SanDiego/Yosemite, US, Hiking/Trekking

We departed San Diego early, not long after 6 am, hoping to get a jump on some of the traffic we’d inevitably encounter as we headed northward toward LA.   That decision turned out to be both good and bad.  We missed any kind of traffic getting out of La Jolla/San Diego, but we were surely in some of the daily morning fog that hugs the coast – so, not much scenery along the coast through Carlsbad.   We did avoid some of LA traffic by swinging inland, but that really didn’t save us much.  CA traffic is what it is – there’s A LOT of people in California – and it seemed they were all on the road!

yosemite - condo

Eventually, we broke free of the morning rush, up and over the mountains and into “the valley” – with its impossibly straight and flat roads – nearly 200 miles of them – up through Bakersfield, Fresno, and Oakhurst.   Partway through the trip, we began driving through miles of orchards and other farm country, reminding us of the vast amounts of food that we consume – here, just a small piece of our food chain!   In Oakhurst, we stopped to gather some groceries for the week, then back on the road, weaving through the foothills, headed on to our destination at Yosemite West Scenic Wonders – a small group of condos located within the park, only about 9 miles south of the Yosemite Valley.

Monday Evening – Sentinel Dome

Dropping our gear, grabbing a bit of refreshment and packing some food, we immediately headed out for an evening picnic and the sunset from Sentinel Dome.

yosemite - plague

One of the (very) attractive things about the condo was its location – in the park itself.   Living in the east, it’s easy to forget how expansive the country and some of the national parks really are.   We saw it in Yellowstone – because of road construction, we had to detour – 100 miles!   Fortunately, no detours while we were in Yosemite, though the drive time to the trailhead was still 45 minutes – and this was close by!    And there are no straight roads in Yosemite (ok, well, very few) – as they wind along the sides of the valley walls.

yosemite - sentinel dome 1

At only 2.2 miles round trip, this hike was probably our shortest ‘hike’ ever, but one that certainly tops the reward-for-effort scales.   It was fall so the park wasn’t crowded, and traffic was light – even so, when we arrived at the trailhead, the parking lot was nearly filled – others with similar ideas to view the sunset.  It was abit disconcerting to see a cautionary sign about the Plague!  Really?!

On the trail, the footing was easy – more like a walk in the woods than our customary (rock-strewn) hikes in “the Whites”, so we covered the distance to the summit quickly, though stopping briefly to get our first taste of what would be many views of the valley and granite cliffs that are Yosemite’s hallmark and attraction.

As we reached “the Dome”, the entire world opened up – even though it was mostly cloudy, the visibility had to be upwards of 50 miles or more.  The views were stunning, providing 360 degree views of the entire valley, and the high sierras to the east.

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And from there, it only got better.  As the sun lowered in the sky, the clouds provided the perfect backdrop to reflect the colors – the sky nearly lit on fire.  For the next 20 minutes or more, we had a rare treat to a dramatic sunset:

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Treated to what draws millions of visitors to Yosemite each year! And when the show was over, we were quick to head off the rock and back on the trail. We had our headlamps, though the distance back to the car was short enough, and the footing sound, so that we didn’t need the lamps. Back to the condo for some rest after a long day of driving.

Glacier Point trailhead
Glacier Point trailhead, with Half Dome in the background

Tuesday – Panorama Trail

For our first full day in Yosemite – our plan was to follow the Panorama Trail – billed as one of the premier hikes in the park for both the view factor and, because of its length – 8.5 miles, diminished crowds.    Besides the wow factor, we chose this hike as a good intro/warm up – our plan for wednesday’s hike was a 14-miler.  Panorama trail is typically done and we did it as a point-to-point hike, which meant making arrangements to get to the trailhead.   Fortunately (and the web is an amazing place), we found a bus service – enabling one-way travel from the valley (the hub of all activity in Yosemite) to Glacier Point.

yosemite - panorama 1

At this time of the year, there are definitely fewer crowds – making for a more enjoyable park experience.  Even so, when we arrived at the bus pickup point in the morning, we discovered there were two buses going to Glacier Point – one filled with round-trip passengers, and another filled and solely dedicated to one-way trippers (us and 55+ of our “trail buddies”!).   Nearly an hour later (remember, Yosemite’s vast expanse?), which was filled with stories and administrivia from our bus driver (tour-guide wannabe), we arrived at Glacier Point.   Us hikers quickly scattered to our various trails.

A quick photo op from Glacier Point, and we headed down the path toward Panorama trail – destined to see less than a handful of other hikers for the first half of the hike.    The trail descends gradually from the Point, roughly following the south valley wall, almost immediately rewarding us with frequent and expansive views across the valley to our left.   The temperature was ideal, low 60’s, with some cloud cover, and we covered the trail relatively quickly, seeing only a few other hikers, arriving at the junction with Nevada Falls trail well before noon.

As we started following the Nevada Falls trail headed westward back toward the valley, the crowds began to increase dramatically – the Muir trail being a very popular (and relatively short) trail experience for many leaving from the valley itself.   For us, the experience was still pretty awesome – views of the valley, Nevada Falls, and Illilouette Creek and a much more “interesting” trail experience – more boulders and rock piles:

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We arrived back at the valley floor (Muir trailhead) and hopped on one of the valley shuttle buses back to our car. It was still early afternoon, so we decided to explore the valley a bit, taking a brief detour over to the Ahwahnee Hotel for an afternoon bite to eat on their patio.

Sunrise Trailhead

Wednesday – Clouds Rest

This hike was intended as our grand day out in Yosemite.  Topping out at 9,931 feet, the Clouds Rest summit is nearly 1000′ above the famed Half Dome and boasts views that are arguably some of the best in the entire park.

The plan was to approach Clouds Rest from the north – accessing the Sunrise trail from Tioga Road near Tenaya lake.   As the crow flies, the trailhead was only about 20 miles from the Condo, but Yosemite being what it is, it was nearly 60 miles and 1-1/2 hours drive time – we were up and out early, arriving at the trailhead shortly after 8am.

Clouds Rest Elevation Profile
Clouds Rest Elevation Profile

It was a chilly morning, fortunately no snow or frost, but cold enough to see our breath.   Bundling up, we were off and made quick headway on the nearly flat trail.  But that didn’t last long.  At about 1.25 miles, the trail started to gain elevation, a bit gradually at first, then very steeply, over the next 3/4 of a mile, with many switchbacks long the way.  That got us over 9,000 feet, with only another 800 feet of elevation in the next 3+ miles, which we again, covered relatively quickly.  That is, until we approached the summit.

... and a whole lotta nothing to our left.
That’s Half Dome in the lower right, just below the horizon … oh, and a whole lotta nothing just to our left.

Read any description of the Clouds rest trail, and they’ll talk about the “knife edge” over the last few hundred feet to the actual summit.  I like this description the best (from Yosemite Hikes):

The top of Clouds Rest is a narrow ridge with a long, sheer dropoff on the north side (the side you can see from the Tioga Road). The dropoff to the south is less extreme, but it wouldn’t require special talent to wind up just as thoroughly and symmetrically dead by falling off that side. It’s best to visit Clouds Rest sober and during dry weather.

That said, the route over the ridge is more manageable and less dangerous than Half Dome’s cable route. If you’re slow and careful, you shouldn’t feel like you’re a freak gust of wind or a momentary lapse of concentration away from the bottom of Tenaya Canyon. And the very top of the peak opens up again to around fifty feet wide, which will feel like the Great Plains after the underpants-imperiling knife edge you’ve just crossed to get there.

Begin the acrophobe that I am, we stopped just short of the summit area, not quite getting to the “great plains” of Clouds Rest.  Though we were fortunate enough to have another hiker nearby willing enough to snap our photo.   No, there were no “a little further back, little further…”  Pretty much glued in place, with 1000+ feet of air just off the path.

yosemite - clouds rest

We quickly made our way down to slightly (safer and) lower ground, and stopped to have a bite to eat at the junction to a trail that headed to the south toward John Muir trail.  Sliced turkey, cheese chunks, and mini carrots, while sitting on fallen tree.  Good stuff!   Refreshed, we headed on our way, first gradually downhill, then again making our way through the steep switchbacks.  While descent is always tougher on the muscles than ascent, this route seemed much easier than the boulder hopping we’re accustomed to in the NH Whites – the footing was good and someone was kind enough to embed granite steps along the way. We readily made our way through the switchbacks.

Reaching the flat section, it was nice to be able to stretch our legs, picking up the pace for a “walk in the woods”. We returned to the car by about 2pm, but not before taking a very short side detour to see the beach at Tenaya Lake.   I imagine the beach would be crowded during the season, but on this day, it was empty but for a few cars off in the distance. Beautiful country.

Tenaya Lake
Tenaya Lake
Road to Merced Grove

Thursday – Merced Grove

Rain was predicted for thursday, so we didn’t plan on anything substantial.  We’d hoped to see the Giant Sequoia’s for which Yosemite is famous though unfortunately, Mariposa Grove – home to Grizzly Giant, a tree thought to be more than 2000 years old – was closed for a renovation project until Spring 2017.

We settled on Merced Grove, a quick out-and-back 1.5 miles with 500 foot elevation change to the Grove.   Again, customary for Yosemite – the 10-12 miles to the parking area took nearly an hour by car – never so simple.   No need to pack any food, this was truly a walk in the park.   And fortunately for us, we were out early, in the Grove by 10am, and back in the car by 11 – just as the rain really began to come down.

Yes, that's Jeanne at the base of that Sequoia!
Yes, that’s Jeanne at the base of that Sequoia!

Big trees and some amazingly beautiful country!

Friday – San Francisco

Friday was a travel day, departing from Yosemite and heading westward to San Francisco.  Of course, that meant travel (again) through the park, retracing our steps from the day before to pass the Merced Grove trailhead and heading westward from there through some (very) small towns, gradually re-entering civilization (and traffic)!

Dropping our gear at our hotel, we returned the car and hopped on the BART into downtown San Francisco to do a bit of exploring.  Getting off at Embarcadero Center, we followed the waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf, doing our best interpretation of tourists.   A wonderfully sunny afternoon, we grabbed an afternoon nibble in one of the many street-side bistros and doing a bit of research for our dinner spot, eventually settling on Hog Island Oyster Bar – as it happens, a very popular spot.   We shunned the opportunity for Wellfleet oysters (we didn’t travel across the country just to get local oysters!) – instead settling on some local oysters and chowder.  

A sweet end to a wonderful vacation.

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