There are nearly three million acres protected in the portion of the Sierra Nevada that includes Yosemite National Park. The valley floor offers one perspective on this vast and diverse territory, and a drive through the High Sierra offers an entirely different landscape. There are lakes and meadows and dramatic rock formations worthy of moonscapes to capture attention, all before wending back to the classic view over the valley. Within the past few days, the face of El Capitan has been changed by rock slides; every minute captured in Yosemite is once in a lifetime.
We chose to visit Yosemite after Labor Day, hoping to miss heavy summer traffic. I assume we did that, but it’s hard to know; it seemed packed to us. There is shuttle bus service in Yosemite Valley to ease congestion issues, without which one can imagine total gridlock. September brought other issues with it as well: there was record-breaking heat, vistas were smokey, fires blocked access to Glacier Point Road, water in streams and waterfalls diminish in the fall, and there were bugs. Lots and lots of bugs. I’m sure that visitors who hike into back country have a much richer experience of the park than we did, and probably even see more wildlife than the mule deer who walked unperturbed past photographers (look closely…).
Nonetheless, we felt like we didn’t miss a thing. We saw classic Yosemite, beginning with the Valley floor which sits beneath the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome. We visited Inspiration Point four times, but were able to see Bridalveil Fall from that location only once. Didn’t matter; it’s all still gorgeous, and early in the morning, before the hordes descended, was best.
The Majestic Yosemite
When arriving into Yosemite National Park through the Arch Rock Entrance on El Portal Road, one is not sure what to expect. There were hints of grandeur along the way, but we were arriving at dusk and wanted to get to our hotel, saving the park overview for later.
We had booked the necessary “near to a year” in advance for The Majestic Yosemite Hotel, formerly known as the Ahwahnee, (the name given to Yosemite Valley by the Ahwahneechee people, its first residents. At present there is a trademark dispute over the name, which sort of explains the new Majestic identification.) First opened in 1927, it is thought to be the National Park system’s premiere hotel, not close to our usual choice for sleeping space, but it was our anniversary. Good excuse.
The hotel sits at the base of granite cliffs, and as large as it seems, it is small in relation to its surroundings. If you can force yourself to leave the dining room or patio, a walk to the river is a wonderful way to start the morning.
The anticipated 4 hour drive from Sequoia National Park to the south entrance of Yosemite National Park was nearly doubled by detours caused by fires. We had booked several nights in the southernmost part of Yosemite, anticipating park excursions from that location, but were thwarted by fires, and restorations in the sequoia groves which closed them to visitors. As is often the case, initial disappointment turned to its own kind of pleasure.
Big Trees Lodge, known until 2016 as The Wawona Hotel, is a National Historic Landmark, and is loaded with Victorian-style charm. The cottage complex where we stayed was built in 1876-77, and retains the big porches and large lawns that encourage lounging without agenda. Fires had been raging for several week quite close to the nearby town of Wawona, and we could smell the burn and see pink-tinged skies. At night, very tired firefighters came to the hotel to eat quickly, sleep lightly and rise early to refuel their trucks at the bottom of the driveway. There were signs of appreciation for their efforts in nearly every yard in town, acknowledging them as the heroes they are.
We spent our last morning there walking to The Pioneer Yosemite History Center, constructed as a small frontier town. The smokey morning mist provided a lovely setting for imagining frontier life as extremely pleasant, unlike its certain reality.
I like to walk in the woods and think they are all lovely, but they are certainly not all the same. Sequoia National Park is a prize, created in 1890 as America’s second oldest national park, to protect the area from logging. Thank you Congress.
I thought I had seen sequoias before, but I hadn’t; I’d seen redwoods. Redwoods are found in their natural habitat along the Pacific Coast, while sequoias grow naturally only on the west side of California’s Sierra Nevada range, usually in elevations of 5000-7000 feet, per the National Park Service brochure. There are other differences as well, but to me the massive trunk of the sequoia, with its roots visibly branching out from its base, is their most obvious identifying feature. There are other tree species that are taller and live longer, but in total wood volume the giant sequoia is the world’s largest living tree. It is impossible to appreciate their size without standing next to them. They are amazingly impervious to most insects and fungi and their thick bark saves them from most fire damage. The main cause of their demise is a shallow root system, which makes them susceptible to toppling.
A walk in a sequoia grove is a conjuration of the supernatural and immersion in a magic spell.
I can’t say I’ve spent much time on many islands, but the one I have remains my “go to” for an infusion of natural beauty and pleasure. Rather than the usual post of “here’s the water, here’s an old building, here’s the storm”, I’ve played with Snapseed and changed the scenery. I still love the place.
Travel is a privileged experience in every way. While I’m always grateful for the opportunity to step away from what is my “normal” life, travel has also been known to unleash bouts of envy in me when glimpsing the lives of others. Our Canadian Rockies adventure introduced me to a new and unexpected side effect: niceness.
When planning our trip, I somehow missed that we’d be visiting during the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation. It meant, among other things, that our entry into national and provincial parks was free, a nice surprise. And throughout our nearly three-week drive, we kept saying wow, this is nice. Nice places to eat, nice things to see, nice people everywhere. There are even highway overpasses just for wildlife, so they can cross in safety. Nice. And in Banff we saw a window sign which suggested to us that maybe it’s always like that in Canada.
This overall sense of pleasantness led me to ponder the effect of ready access to natural beauty. I do not live in a beautiful place, and wondered how much being surrounded by such grandeur contributes to personal contentment on a daily basis. I think the answer is quite a lot. Canada seems to know this, and takes pride in protecting its wonders for the pleasure of its people and visitors.
I admit it’s easy to fall in love on a gorgeous day, in perfect circumstances. It was summertime, high visitor season, and local economies dependent on good service to tourists offered their best. There was no language barrier. Maybe I was over reacting, but I think it understandable that I spent our entire trip being both envious and grateful. We’ll be visiting Canada again. Nice.