Travel Time with Roger Tweed: Las Vegas and Yosemite – Part II

Travel Time with Roger Tweed

Last month I chronicled the first five days of my trip to Las Vegas, Kanab, UT, and Zion National Park through arriving at Yosemite National Park.  This month I’ll describe our adventures in Yosemite and the trip back to Sacramento.

After our first night sleeping in Yosemite Valley Housekeeping Camp (Unit A 250), Roch and I awoke on Monday September 19, bought muffins for breakfast along with beverages and trail mix at the camp store and then drove to the parking area at Yosemite Village. After checking with the Visitor Center on hikes to take in the Valley, we decided to hike the Valley Floor Trail and Mirror Lake Trail on Monday, and then on Tuesday we would take a bus from the Valley to Glacier Point where we’d hike down the 8.2 miles back to the Valley along the Panorama Trail (which includes the Mist Trail and parts of the John Muir Trail). We left the Visitor Center and started on the Valley Floor Trail, planning to hike as far as El Capitan. There is a beautiful view of Upper Yosemite Falls from the Village, with a good photo opportunity just in front of the Yosemite Post Office. From the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail you will be able to get shots of both the upper and lower falls. This trail will also take you to the spot where John Muir built his sugar pine house, and the view of the falls explains why he chose that particular spot.  After rejoining the Valley Floor Trail you pass the Yosemite Point trail head (a 2,900 foot climb to the point) and Camp #4 before crossing Northside Drive to hike along the Merced River.  To the south you can see Sentinel Dome and then the trail and the river bend around the “Three Brothers” (Lower Brother, Middle Brother and Eagle Peak) to the north.  Then, before you reach El Capitan, you can see Cathedral Spires and Cathedral Rocks to the south. After you have hiked about six miles from the village you are at the base of El Capitan. The massive rock face towers almost 3,600 feet above the valley, so pictures from its base do not do it justice.  We crossed the drive and went deep into the meadow to try to get longer shots.  Then we crossed the El Capitan bridge and waited for the El Capitan shuttle to take us back to the village and the car.  At the bridge there were a number of people using high powered lenses to view climbers making their way to the top of El Capitan. To the naked eye the climbers looked like dark specks on the very light granite face.

California Tunnel Tree (with your author), Mariposa Grove

California Tunnel Tree (with your author), Mariposa Grove

Back at camp we rested our feet before we would head out to Mirror Lake later that afternoon for another view of Half Dome.  As I was sitting in camp I noticed that the Huey helicopter that we had been hearing while hiking seemed to be getting louder.  I looked across the Merced and saw the chopper getting very low and flying close to Royal Arches. The helicopter had a line attached to its underside, and there looked to be a plank of some kind attached to the bottom of the line.  The Huey descended below the tree line, and when it emerged the plank was no longer attached to the line.  The Huey then gained altitude and left the valley through Indian Canyon, the gap between Yosemite Point and Royal Arches.  We were later to learn that the “plank” was a stretcher and that it contained the body of a climber who had died when his equipment failed while climbing Half Dome that day.  This was the 18th death at Yosemite this year, an unusually high number.

We decided to walk from camp past Curry Village to the Mirror Lake Trail.  It was a bit more than a mile from camp to the trail head, with another 1.1 miles to Mirror Lake. Mirror Lake is not really a lake, but actually a pond that swells during the wet season and almost disappears during the dry season.  It was thought to be a lake because Tenaya Creek flows right next to it.  A rock slide from Half Dome in 2009 has blocked the part of the trail that extends around the “lake”, but we were only interested in getting to Mirror Lake.  Because the winter snows had been so heavily laden with moisture, Mirror Lake was still wet.  But it was broken into sections and you could not see a full reflection of Half Dome.  There were also some large boulders protruding from the lake bed.  Looking up Tenaya Creek toward Tuolumne Meadows you could see Washington Column, North Dome and Mt. Watkins on the west side of the creek and Half Dome on the east side.  It had been assumed that North Dome and Half Dome had been carved apart by Tenaya Creek, but in fact the two peaks were simply higher than the glacial flows that carved out Tenaya Canyon and were largely unaffected by the glaciers that carved the Yosemite Valley.  We then took the trail back but this time caught the Valley Shuttle as it stopped at stop #17, getting out below Curry Village and saving us about half a mile of walking. For the day we had hiked 10 miles.

That night we decided to try the Curry Village Pizza Deck for dinner, but first we visited the tour information booth in Curry Village to buy our bus tickets for the next morning. We were told ours were among the last 14 one-way tickets (out of 96, cost $25) for the 8:30 bus leaving from Yosemite Lodge for Glacier Point.  The Pizza Deck is a popular dining spot in Curry Village.  A 4″ pizza costs $8.00 before adding toppings at $0.50 apiece.  Roch and I split a 4″ pizza with mushrooms and onions, and we each had a pre-packaged salad at $4.75.  Food is expensive in Yosemite Valley.  The salads were surprisingly good, and we would return here for dinner Wednesday night.  Housekeeping Camp was quieter on Monday night as the families with school-aged children had checked out that morning.  But the camp sites were mostly refilled, and everyone seemed to want to use their fire pit that evening.  Smoke again hung in the air.  We went to bed early since we had a bus to catch the next morning.

Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove

Grizzly Giant, Mariposa Grove

Tuesday morning we broke camp and drove to Yosemite Lodge.  Although the parking lot across from the lodge’s porte cochere is designated for tour buses, the Glacier Point buses would be loading at the porte cochere.  We were told to be at the lodge by 8:15, but it was after 8:20 when a bus with a Glacier Point sign finally arrived.  As folks gathered around the bus, the driver informed all that this bus was for the Glacier Point round trip ticket holders.  At about 8:30 a second bus pulled up, and after some consultation among the drivers, the second bus driver allowed the one-way ticket holders to board.  Both buses were filled to capacity, and off we went.  Charles, the driver of the one-way bus, did a running commentary as we made our way to Glacier Point.  His theme was fire and how it had shaped and was shaping the valley.  His major point was that slow moving, low temperature, ground level fires are nature’s way of clearing out the forest floor and keeping forest density at sustainable levels.  When humans initially intervened to suppress all fires, it allowed the piling up of the forest “duff layer” (plant debris) so much that duff that normally was inches thick grew to several feet.  Combined with unnaturally increasing the density of the trees in the forest, the suppression of all fires created the potential for more fast-moving, high temperature canopy fires fueled by thick duff and trees located very close to one another.  Ground fires serve as a natural cleanser of the forest while canopy fires can become catastrophes.  As we climbed Wawona Road out of the valley, Charles pointed out Ribbon Falls to the west of El Capitan.  Although it was only a trickle, Charles said that in his 33 years of driving for the park concessionaire this was the first time he had seen Ribbon Falls still wet in September.  As we crossed Avalanche Creek Charles mentioned that one of the reasons for the smoke in the valley was the Avalanche Creek fire that began on July 17, 2011 and was still active.  This is a low temperature, slow moving fire that the park fire crew is monitoring but letting run its course.  At 10 am we arrived at Glacier Point, visited the store, used the rest rooms, read the information about the two hotels (McCauley’s Mountain House and the Glacier Point Hotel) that stood at the site until they burned down in 1969, and then we went to the overlooks.  Although we were first fixated by the stunning view of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada and Vernal Falls, the observation areas also allow a stunning view of Yosemite Falls (upper and lower) and the entire Yosemite Valley.  I was able to identify the location of Housekeeping Camp from the bend in the Merced River and the location of Stoneman Bridge.  Tree canopy made it impossible to see individual camp sites from 7200 feet (3,200 feet above).  We were so caught up with the views that I didn’t notice that Overhanging Rock, the famous protrusion that was once a must for having photographs taken with groups of people standing on it, is now outside the safety railing. If Overhanging hadn’t gotten into one of my shots of the valley, I wouldn’t have noticed it at all.  It does have its own sign, but few notice it now days.  After taking pictures we started on our 8 mile hike back to the valley.

It was a very warm day (in the 90s in the valley), and a large portion of the 4 mile trail from Glacier Point to the Illilouette Bridge over the Merced is not shaded.  Much of the shade appears to have been removed by the fire of 1969, and the remnants of burnt trees are prevalent along the upper stretches of the trail.  But you are descending, and the trail is soil covered and soft.  About 3 miles down the trail you come to a very good overlook for Illilouette Falls (fed from Illilouette Creek).  This overlook is slanted toward the river below, and care must be taken not to let your momentum carry you too far down the hillside.  Although the falls was not very impressive, we were lucky to be seeing Illilouette Falls at all in September.  When you cross the bridge you have descended 1,470 feet.  However, you are now about to climb 700 feet over the next mile to where the trail meets the Mono Lake trail.  Hiking at this altitude and in such heat can be tough on easterners.  Even though I walk 20 miles every week, I found myself huffing and puffing as we rounded the switchbacks on this ascent.  We passed an unmarked trail that went off to the left very shortly after we crossed the bridge.  This is the trail to Panorama Point that affords a different view of Half Dome and Mount Baldwin than most people see.  Taking this trail will add 0.6 miles to your hike, but is supposed to be worth the effort.

Fallen Giant, Mariposa Grove

Fallen Giant, Mariposa Grove

All the way along the trail we had been catching glimpses of Nevada Falls, and finally just past the Mono Lake Trail intersection the view became a photo opportunity. The vantage point is a large grouping of boulders to the left of the trail. After this point, sections of the trail had streams of run off covering them, and the soil covering would give way to granite for the remainder of the hike. Here the trail begins descending in a series of switchbacks until it intersects the John Muir trail above Nevada Falls. Our feet were going to be pounded over the remaining 3 miles.  Arriving at Nevada Falls we found the area above the falls crowded with people in a setting that reminded me of the banks of the Niagara River above Niagara Falls.  Nevada and Vernal Falls are fed by the Merced River, so they do not go dry.  You can get very close to the top of Nevada Falls, but pictures from this point will not do the falls justice.  After taking a half hour break and marveling at Liberty Cap just to the north of where we were resting, it was back to the John Muir Trail and its intersection with the Mist Trail which would take us to Vernal Falls.

At the intersection of the Muir and Mist trails the signs tell you that it is 2.3 miles to the valley using the Muir Trail and 2.1 miles using the Mist Trail.  We wanted to see Vernal Falls up close, so it was the Mist Trail for us no matter the distance.  But what the signs don’t tell you is that the Mist Trail from that point to Vernal Falls is a long series of hard granite switchbacks as you descend approximately 1,000 feet to the top of Vernal Falls, followed by 600 granite steps as you descend the final 1,000 feet (over 1.5 miles) to the valley.  Just a few tenths of a mile into the Mist Trail we encountered a group of hikers coming up the trail who wanted to know how far they had to go to get back to the valley. We told them that the shortest way was to go back the way they had come, and a look of horror came across their faces.  It was clear they wanted no part of descending on the Mist Trail.  So we told them that the sign for the John Muir Trail to the valley was a few tenths of a mile ahead of them.  Half a mile later we encountered another group who asked the same question.  The younger members of the group turned around when we told them it was the shortest way to the valley while the older members were willing to add the better part of a mile to their trek just to avoid going back the way they had come. But we wanted to see Vernal Falls, and we were descending, so how bad could the Mist Trail be?

Half Dome from Housekeeping Camp

Half Dome from Housekeeping Camp

Finally the switchbacks ended and Silver Apron and Emerald Pool, the spillway and pool above Vernal Falls, were spread before us. These are beautiful and tranquil places.  As you emerge from the wooded area the trail is fenced on all sides of the granite that leads to the falls. Two hikers climbed over the fence earlier this summer and are now listed as missing persons.  One afternoon each week the Mist Trail is closed as the Park Service attempts to locate their bodies in and along the river below Vernal Falls.  From the brink of the falls there are no signs indicating the continuation of the trail, but we made our way along the south fence line and found an open gate that led to the 600 steps.  Even though we were descending, and even though most of the descent is either in the shade or the recipient of mist from Vernal Falls, these steps make for a very tough hike, especially after having hiked over six miles.  I found myself having to be very precise in my movements as muscle control was becoming an issue.  Once I turned around to look back up the steps and I sensed that I was toppling backward.  In other words, dehydration was looming.  Although I had brought along fluids, I had not brought enough.  But the many views of Vernal Falls were magnificent, and as we continued along the shaded trail we took frequent breaks and moderated our pace in recognition of our condition.  We suspected that the folks we encountered who wanted nothing to do with the Mist Trail as a route back to the valley had started out to see Vernal and Nevada Falls, had climbed the 600 steps to Vernal Falls and did not realize that they would have to climb an additional 1,000 feet before they would reach the John Muir Trail, the only other way back to the valley.  Both Roch and I felt that the degree of difficulty associated with the Mist Trail is not adequately conveyed by the Park Service to potential hikers.  Vernal Falls is beautiful, but I would warn anyone against taking the Mist Trail to see it.  Finally, we reached the Vernal Falls Bridge and with it a very large water fountain.  I can’t remember when I have tasted water that good!  Now refreshed, we made our way to the Happy Isles shuttle stop.  We had hiked the 8.2 mile Panorama Trail in just over 5 hours, and had hiked a total of 9 miles that day.

That night we returned to the Camp Curry buffet for dinner.  During our hike I had developed a craving for chocolate milk and I also imagined making endless trips to the soda dispenser.  The chocolate milk did not live up to my expectations, but I think I got my money’s worth of sodas.  Neither Roch nor I were shy about making trips to the salad bar either.  Sleep came very quickly after we returned to camp.

Vernal Falls from Mist Trail

Vernal Falls from Mist Trail

Wednesday morning we drove north out of the valley to the Tioga Road and Tuolumne Meadows.  Yosemite is really three different parks in one, with Yosemite Valley encompassing most of the famous rock formations and waterfalls, Tuolumne Meadows (30 miles to the north of the valley) encompassing High Sierra peaks along with sub-alpine meadows, and finally Mariposa Grove (36 miles south of the valley) with its 480 mature Giant Sequoias.  We decided to visit Mariposa Grove on our way out of the park on Friday, and so Wednesday was the day for Tuolumne Meadows.  We stopped at the Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center and asked about short hikes, and settled on hikes to Gaylor Lakes and May Lake.  The Gaylor Lakes trail head is located next to the Tioga Pass entrance to the park, and was closest to the Visitor Center, so after a stop at the Tuolumne Meadows store and gas station it was off to Tioga Pass.  The store/gas station is located across from Tuolumne Meadows, which is situated along the Tuolumne River between Pothole Dome and Lembert Dome.  When we arrived at the trail head parking area, we found it under construction.  A Ranger at the Tioga Pass entrance told us we could park along the road outside the park entrance and then walk back to the trail head. Just then a car pulled out of the line of parked vehicles along the road side just outside the entrance, so we pulled in.  As we started up the one mile trail, it became clear that the entire 500 foot elevation gain was going to take place in the first half mile.  And starting out at 10,000 feet elevation made the climb all that much harder on two hikers who had already hiked over 19 miles the previous two days.  There were some very nice pictures to be had of glaciers on Mammoth Peak and Johnson Peak to the south above Dana Meadow as we made our way to the crest.  Middle Gaylor Lake became visible as we hiked over the crest, and at that point Roch made the decision to stay at the crest rather than have to hike back up from the lake shore below.  I took off down the trail and made it to the shore in six minutes.  I was able to see the twin peaks of Cathedral Peak from the north end of the lake, but it was too long a shot to capture the majesty of the most famous peak in this section of the park.  After making my way back to the trail I decided to see how fast I could hike back up to the crest.  To my astonishment, I made it in a few seconds less than the six minutes it had taken me to get down to the lake shore.  I was huffing and puffing, but I had made it.  Roch and I made our way back down the trail to the parking area, got in the car and joined the line to re-enter the park.  We stopped once again at the Tuolumne store and then we were off to the May Lake trail head, stopping at Olmstead Point (named for Fredrick Law Olmstead and his son Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. – Olmstead Sr. designed Central Park, was the father of American landscape design, and wrote the guide for use and preservation of Yosemite that was used as the guide book for the development of all National Parks) for views of Half Dome to the south and Tenaya lake to the east, and then at Tenaya Lake on the way.  As we started on the trail to May Lake clouds were rolling in.  Five minutes onto the trail and we heard a clap of thunder above Mount Hoffman.  We continued on for another five minutes, but with the third clap of thunder we decided that May Lake would have to wait, and we headed back to the car.  Granite trails are no place to be when lightning is around.  As we drove away from the trail head the only rain we would encounter that week began to fall.  But as we neared Big Oak Flat Road the rain stopped, and just before Big Oak Flat Road was the parking area for Tuolumne Grove with its 25 Giant Sequoias.  We hiked the one mile to “Big Red”, the first Giant Sequoia I had ever seen.  It is hard to capture the majesty of a giant tree in a picture, but we took pictures anyway.  Then it was a few tenths of a mile to one of the three “tunnel trees” in Yosemite.  The tunnel tree in Tuolumne Grove is dead but its tunneled-out base is still standing just as it was when its base was bored out to allow traffic on the Old Big Oak Flat Road to go through it.  Since we had descended 500 feet to reach these trees, we decided that we would leave Tuolumne Grove after seeing the tunnel tree.  So it was back to the car and then back to Yosemite Valley.  When we got back to the valley it was obvious that there had been much more rain there than we had encountered up north.  Roch and I decided to use the late afternoon/early evening to do laundry and visit the shower facility, both located at the camp entrance.  By alternating who showered and who started their laundry, we were able to get our showers and laundry done before 8:30, leaving us enough time to have dinner at the Camp Curry Pizza Deck.  There are 15 men’s shower stalls at Housekeeping Camp (I don’t know any details about the women’s section).  You show your shower pass and get a towel at the entrance.  The stalls have a dress/undress area inside their entry doorway.  The facility resembles the shower area I saw on the USS North Carolina, except the stalls are larger and the water is individually controlled.  There is plenty of hot water and water pressure is good.  The showers are open to anyone, but those without a shower pass pay $5.

Liberty Cap, Mt. Baldwin, Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls from Panorama Trail

Liberty Cap, Mt. Baldwin, Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls from Panorama Trail

Thursday was our last day in the valley, and we decided to take it easy and drive to the scenic points we hadn’t had the chance to stop at earlier in the week.  First stop was Bridalveil Falls parking to get a close ups of Bridalveil Falls (like Niagara, Sapphire Valley, NC, and Telluride, CO, Yosemite Valley has a Bridalveil Falls. I’m sure there are others). The sun had just peaked over Leaning Tower peak making close up shots difficult.  I scrambled over some very slick rocks to try and get the glare out of the shot without much luck.  Then it was up Wawona Road to Tunnel View at the south end of the Wawona Tunnel (the longest highway tunnel in California).  Tunnel View is about 300 feet above the valley, and affords a magnificent view from El Capitan to Half Dome.  The Glacier Point bus driver had recommended taking pictures from Tunnel View in the afternoon, and it was just past noon when we arrived.  We were not disappointed.  Then we drove back down to Southside Drive and parked at a scenic pull off for long shots of El Capitan to the north and Bridalveil Falls to the south.  Then it was on to the Swinging Bridge parking area.  From the bridge over the Merced (it doesn’t swing, but it does bounce a little when folks walk on it), there is a great view of Yosemite Falls.  Some people were wading in the Merced off of Sentinel Beach just up river from the bridge. After photos we spent the rest of the afternoon in camp preparing for our departure in the morning, and getting ready for dinner at the Mountain Room Restaurant at Yosemite Lodge.  The restaurant is situated just below Columbia Rock and has a wonderful view of Yosemite Falls.  I had the Prix Fixe offering that night of flat iron steak served with cheesy polenta and green beans, Caesar salad, and a berry cobbler with ice cream for $34.95.  Each course was excellent.

Friday morning we awoke to find Mule Deer feeding by the river bed next to our camp. We finished packing, gathered up our bed rolls and put everything (including the rented chair) in the Grand Marquis to turn in at the warehouse.  I took one last picture of Yosemite Falls and Half Dome from our camp, then after getting our release from the warehouse it was off to the Wawona Road and Wawona.  We passed the 8:30 Glacier Point busses on Northside Drive, and our drive on Wawona Road went very quickly. Wawona is at 4,000 feet elevation, just like Yosemite Valley, so half the trip is spent climbing out of one valley and the other half is spent descending into the next valley.  We stopped at the Wawona store for breakfast items and fluids, checked out the gas station we’d be using before leaving the park, and then walked up the hill to the Visitor’s Center at Thomas Hill’s Studio.  19th Century landscape painter Thomas Hill’s studio is located on the grounds of the Wawona Hotel, and contains some of his works and other artifacts. At the Visitor’s Center we learned that Merced, CA (where we would pick up CA-99 for Sacramento) is 87 miles from Wawona, confirming that we would need to buy some gas before leaving the park.  As we came down the hill to the parking lot a school group from the Sierra Unified School District was exiting their busses, so we hurried to catch the 9:30 shuttle from Wawona to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias where the Nature Walk was scheduled to begin at 10 am.  The shuttle covers the 4 miles to the grove in about 20 minutes, stopping once at the park’s South Entrance.  The shuttle stops at the Mariposa Grove store, and we ran through the parking lot to get to the trailhead where the ranger had just begun to address a group of about 6 people.  By our second stop at the famous Fallen Giant, our group had grown to 14, and would eventually grow to 31.  The Fallen Giant is a massive fallen tree that is documented to have fallen over 300 years ago. Slowly, as precipitation removes the tannens from its bark, the tree will disintegrate with help from carpenter ants and ground fires.  Giant Sequoias are the largest trees (by volume) in the world.  They are also some of the oldest living things on earth.  Giant Sequoias do not have a tap root and instead have a long and wide diameter root system developed to be compatible with the shallow (6 inches or less) soil atop granite bedrock.  A mature giant sequoia will consume as much as 800 gallons of water a day.  In a protected grove like Mariposa, the Giant Sequoia’s enemies are snowfall and fire damage.  Only five giant sequoias are known to have been cut down in Mariposa Grove since 1890.  Of these one was cut down (illegally) by a scientist who wanted more cones to study, and two were cut down by the Park Service due to damage which put them on the verge of collapse.  The other two were cut down for unknown reasons early in the 20th Century.  Although resistant to fire (due to high water content and thick protective bark), fire does damage the giant sequoias at their base and can hollow out the insides of the trees. This does not kill the trees, but may result in making them structurally unable to stand, especially when snow collects in the canopy of a damaged tree.  Because of their shallow root system, heavy snow on canopies can topple undamaged trees as well.  Ground fires serve to clear out non-fire resistant trees that would otherwise compete with the Giant Sequoias for sunlight.  Giant Sequoia cones are symbols of the National Park Service, and appear on the hat bands and belts worn by Park Rangers.  The tour lasts 90 minutes and winds its way to The Grizzly Giant, the 26th largest tree (by volume) in the world.  The Grizzly Giant is estimated to be between 1,800 and 2,400 years old (by diameter estimate), and is somewhat stunted in height with very thick branches (some 7 feet in diameter) abnormally low on its trunk for a mature tree.  It is thought that the stunted height is due to fire damage (there is a large scar on its base) and the large diameter branches are thought to be the result of a genetic mutation.  The Grizzly Giant is also famous for being the location of a meeting between Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir.  With the Nature Walk now over, we proceeded to the California Tunnel Tree for pictures.  This standing and very much alive tunnel tree has tannens dripping out of the arch of its tunnel onto the unwary who pass through or pose in the tunnel.  Roch and I then proceeded to hike to The Faithful Couple, two giant sequoias whose bases grew together but whose trunks remained separate above.  Just above the Faithful Couple we passed Mather Grove, giant sequoias planted in 1930 in memory of Stephen Mather, the first Director of the National Park Service.  The now 81 year old trees are mature, but still have a long life ahead of them.  Then it was a 1.5 mile hike back to the Mariposa Grove store and the shuttle trip back to Wawona.  It was 1:40 when we got back to the car, and after putting 3 gallons of gas in it (at $4.62 per gallon), we were off through the Sierra National Forrest on CA-41 through Fish Camp and Oakhurst, then onto CA-49 through Bootjack and Mariposa to rejoin CA-140 to take us west to Merced and (hopefully) cheaper gasoline before we would get onto CA-99 to head north to Sacramento.  Driving through the National Forrest we saw a sign for an Historic Railway.  This is the Sugar Pine Narrow Gauge Railway, which is an old logging road which used narrow gauge “Shay” locomotives.  Two of the largest shay locomotives ever built are preserved here, and are used for rail fan trips during the warmer months.  I plan on visiting the Sugar Pine Railway the next time I’m in the area.

The Three Brothers (from left - Eagle Peak, Middle Brother, Lower Brother) from Valley Floor Trail

The Three Brothers (from left - Eagle Peak, Middle Brother, Lower Brother) from Valley Floor Trail

We drove along CA-140 through endless fields and groves of the Central Valley.  Many of the fields were marked with large yellow signs with blue block letters saying “ALMONDS” or “DRIED PLUMS”.  I guess we don’t want to refer to dried plums as “PRUNES”.  Route 140 and the Santa Fe rail line it parallels are a long line stretching through a seemingly endless sea of agriculture.  We did indeed find cheaper gas at the Route 140 Gas Stop (under new management) just outside Merced.  We also found that the dashboard wasn’t lying when it said that the outside temperature was 103 F.  Shortly after our gas stop we came into Merced (an MSA of a quarter million people), and then we were on CA-99 heading north to Sacramento.  The 99 freeway parallels I-5 from where they split in Red Bluff in the north until they meet at Wheeler Ridge south of Bakersfield.  At Atwater I saw signs for the Castle Air Museum.  I wish I had known we were going to pass the former Castle Air Force Base (now the Atwater Airport), because I know that among the large aircraft collection there is an RB-36W.  There are only 4

B-36s on display in the world, and I have seen one at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH.  I would have loved to have had the chance to see (and hear) one of those mammoth 10-engine planes in flight, but they were retired from service the year I was born.  If you’d like to get an idea of what they looked and sounded like, the Jimmy Stewart movie “Strategic Air Command” features the B-36 in several of its early scenes.  The Castle Air Museum is another item on my list of things to see when I am next in the area.  As we continued north we entered “American Graffiti” territory.  Although filmed mostly in Marin County (Mill Valley, San Rafael, and Redwood High in Larkspur), Sonoma County (Petaluma), San Francisco (Mel’s Diner), and Berkley (KRE AM), the story takes place in the Central Valley (one working title was “A Slow Night in Modesto).  Coming from the south you pass through Turlock (in the movie one car load of cruising girls say they are from Turlock) and then in Modesto there is even an exit for Modesto JC (John Milner (Paul Le Mat) attends “JC”). George Lucas was raised on a walnut ranch in Modesto.  We hit the larger cities after 3 pm on Friday, so traffic was pretty rotten, even coming to a halt several times in Lodi.  I know of at least one time when traffic was moving in the 70 – 80 mph range that a car in the left lane slowed way down as we approached, and drove that way for several miles.  I figured out that seeing a white Grand Marquis approach with two males in the front seat, the driver must have thought we were the Highway Patrol.  Once the freeway expanded to three and then four lanes northbound traffic really got going.  Then it was time to leave the 99 freeway for US-50/I-80 Business heading west to I-5.  Traffic was once again stop and go heading into Sacramento, but from I-5 it was just a few minutes to our exit and we were back at the LaQuinta on Jibboom Street.  It was officially 100 degrees when we arrived in Sacramento.  At check in, the desk clerk recommended Monterey Bay Cannery, a seafood restaurant just down the street, as a dinner choice.  Except for the faltering air conditioning in the section where we were seated, it was excellent.  I ordered fried prawns with prime rib from the specials menu, which were excellent, especially for $18.95.  Our waiter seemed to be waiting on all the tables in our section, and he was working his tail off.  He gave us 10% off our bill because of the troublesome AC (temperatures weren’t all that bad), but we more than made that up with his tip.

Roch’s flight was leaving at 6:00 am, so he was taking the hotel shuttle at 4:30. I availed myself of the free breakfast once more, and then checked out at 9 and drove to the airport for my 11 am flight.  Gas at the airport ARCO was still a few cents lower than near the LaQunita.  The Grand Marquis had gotten 19 mpg on the trip from Merced.  We put 600 miles on the beast.  I took the shuttle to Terminal B and made my way to security.  In Sacramento’s Terminal B security is at the top of a stairway/escalator.  This does not work very well for the folks getting off the escalator when there is a line at security.  The Sacramento Airport does not appear to have made any alterations to its facilities to accommodate the more intensive screening procedures implemented over the past 10 years.  This did cause a problem for Alaska Flight 610 which was going to Maui.  At least 20 of its passengers were stuck at security several minutes after its final boarding call. But everyone managed to get on board before the official flight time.  I didn’t know that 737-800s were certified for a four-five hour over water flight, but this one must have been.

My flights from Sacramento to Denver and then from Denver to DCA were uneventful, although after our flight left Denver the pilot came on the PA to explain that one of the landing gear had re-extended because a temperature sensor had determined that it was too hot to remain in its bay in the wing.  I couldn’t see it, but it apparently remained extended until it had cooled off enough to remain retracted.

Please excuse the length of this piece, but Yosemite is a place of such majesty and beauty and there were just so many things to describe that brevity would not adequately convey what I experienced.  I’m not sure that I have adequately captured my week in Yosemite despite the lengthy tome.  If you have been to Yosemite, I am sure that you understand.  If you have not been to Yosemite, you need to make plans as soon as possible.  Like me, you will be captivated and want to return.