Hiking High ~ Eastern Sierras, CA

View from the summit at Virginia Lakes

Hiking high (as in elevation, not in how fuzzy my brain feels), is inevitable if you are in the Eastern Sierras. The Oh! Ridge NFS Campground where we are hangin’ out sits at roughly 7600 feet so it’s pretty much a given that you will be movin’ on up from there! Since altitude and I are not on the best of terms, I can be plagued with vertigo, headaches and nausea if I’m not careful.  Acclimatizing to this altitude has made all the difference in my hiking enjoyment, and we do love our hiking.

Eastern Sierra sunset

The Eastern Sierras are particularly special: 360º mountain views, crisp sunny days, deepest azure skies, striking fall colors, gorgeous alpine lakes, breathtaking sunsets. Hiking doesn’t get much better than this.

We did a couple of hikes early on to get us in the mood and get me acclimatized.  Parker Lake, with its golden quaking aspens along the trail and crystal-clear blue lake and Lundy Canyon Trail, with a great overlook sporting golden meadows, aspens, and a lovely waterfall were great starter hikes.

So, I think I’m prepared to stretch myself a bit further, to experience the true grandeur of the Sierras.  To ensure a safe hike and stave off altitude sickness, we have called upon our buddy Paul to call forth the Paiute “Great Spirit”, to guide  us on our journey.  Ok, I’m being a little silly but I love how Paul was captured in this photo so I just had to add it.

Paul calling forth the “Great Spirit” at Lundy Canyon Overlook

On a quest to further prepare myself, our next hike was Yost Lake.  With an elevation gain of 1800 feet and ~ 3.2 miles each way, it was fairly grueling from the time we set boots on the trail.  The alpine lake at the top was the prize and a great place to enjoy a picnic lunch, basking in the sun.

Yost Lake
Balancing act

Yosemite was calling us back so we decided a short hike in the park was not to be missed.  The recommendation given us by a couple of friends was Gaylor Lakes.  Located just inside the eastern entrance to the park, Gaylor Lakes trailhead sits at roughly 10,000 feet, with only a 500 foot elevation gain – easy, right?  Once again straight up we go and then straight down to the lakes.  Terry even said it was a b@!ch of a little hike, and when I caught my breath, I had to agree.

Gaylor Lake

For me, the granddaddy of our hikes in this area was to be Virginia Lakes.  Our traveling buddies Nina and Paul had already tackled it so I knew what to expect. Beginning at an elevation of ~ 9800 feet, it tops out on Summit Pass at 11,140 feet and is roughly 8 miles round-trip.

One of the many splendid Virginia Lakes

Nina and Paul agreed to come along for their second hike to the lakes (oh the beauty of youth!).  With a little trepidation (wondering if my body would remember it does not like these altitudes), we hit the trail.  Winding through aromatic pine forest and past five of the loveliest little alpine lakes, I decided to go for the summit.  Although a little windy and a lot colder at the top, I could not have been happier.  The views from the top were breathtaking!

Nina & Polly at Virginia Lakes
Terry & I on the summit

The Eastern Sierras have given us some of the best hiking we have done.  If you come, be prepared for a hiking high that will challenge and inspire you.  The beauty here is nothing short of heavenly.  But all good things must come to an end, and with temps dipping into the 20’s at night, it’s time to head south to Bishop.

Miner’s camp on Virginia Lakes trail

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Day Trippin’ on Two Wheels ~ Yosemite National Park (Part 3)

View of the meadow as we pedaled along Tenaya Creek

One last journey into Yosemite before we push further north so we thought we would day trip it on two wheels, as in bike around Yosemite Valley.  The weather was perfect, temperature ~75°, blue skies, and no haze, probably due to the nice breeze blowing through the valley.  As Terry pulled our bikes from the truck I felt like a kid.  It may have had something to do with Terry saying, “I  don’t think I will wear my helmet but you probably should”.  He knows me well and I’m not complaining, mind you, as I have not done much biking in the past 20 years and not sure why, because I was an avid biker before that (mental note to change that).

Although there’s lots of traffic in Yosemite Valley (almost all visitors hang out here), there are still plenty of bike paths and roads less traveled for 2-wheeling adventures.  Being on a bike in a place like Yosemite reminded me of what riding a motorcycle used to feel like in the higher country, no roof over your head to obstruct your views.  After taking the circuit to get different perspectives of Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls and Half Dome, we opted to head to Mirror Lake, taking the road less traveled.

Terry enjoying the picture perfect day!

Mirror Lake is a small seasonal lake on Tenaya Creek.  It is a stretch to call it a lake, more like a big pool.  What it is is the last dregs of a large glacial lake that once consumed most of Yosemite Valley and today is on the verge of becoming extinct.  You don’t come here for the lake, although many do for the swimming, as it is the biggest swimming hole in the park.  What you do get, however, are some stunning views of the mountains above reflected down into the waters, most notably Mt. Watkins sitting at 8500 feet.  We had to admit that these were some of the best views we had seen in Yosemite so far, and we had seen some beauties!

Mirror Lake with Mt. Watkins reflected in her waters

While checking out the great views, I stumbled upon a little cache of stacked rocks.  It looked mystical to me, with the sun warming them and the mountains looming overhead.  I learned that those visiting the area will add a few to the collection if the mood strikes and will continue to do this throughout the season. The snows begin to fly and the rocks come tumbling down, and the process begins anew when the warmer weather moves in.  These cairns, or what looked like a small temple of hoodoos, was a great little treasure to find along the way.

Stacked rock formations at Mirror Lake

After living in Yellowstone for a couple of years, hiking puts you on high alert for some predatory animals, like grizzly, bison, moose, elk with their young,  etc. You don’t find that here but what we did see on this hike was rather unusual – a squirrel minus a tail!

That’s right, lost my tail in a fight. You shoulda seen the other guy!
Laugh all you will! I’m outta here!

The last part of our trip on two wheels took us back to Yosemite Village and to the Ansel Adams Gallery.  It was a great way to spend a little time and there are some stunning pieces of his work, as well as those of other artists.

Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village

As we headed back out of the park, we both agreed that our trip would not feel complete unless we saw climbers on El Capitan.  We proceeded to pull over, got out the binoculars, and what did we see but four climbers inching their way up the smooth granite face.  SCORE – a perfect ending to a glorious day!

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She Walks Her Talk

Earlier this week we had the good fortune to reconnect with someone I had worked with during our time at Yellowstone National Park.  I believe she is someone who, in the purest sense, holds fast to her convictions.  She most definitely walks her talk.  

Beth and me

At the time we met, Beth was the Environmental Director for Xanterra Parks and Resorts at Yellowstone and I was quickly drawn to her as I too had a strong interest in the environment and wanted to learn more about ways to reduce our carbon footprint.  She was just the person to teach me and many others just how to do that and so much more.  She worked on sustainability and climate change projects while there and under her leadership, Yellowstone’s environmental programs thrived, receiving awards from the National Park Service all three years she was there.  I was blessed to be able to help her at one of the Yellowstone Park Foundation events.

Her heart held fast in California, where she maintained a home and had worked as a conservation leader for Yosemite prior to her time with Yellowstone.  She has returned here as the California Director for the National Wildlife Federation, a lofty job that we are certain she is up to, given her 20 year involvement with environmental issues.  Her focus is on conservation challenges for the state of California and how to best educate the public.

Beth kindly opened her home to us and we enjoyed a 3 hour visit over lunch. Even in her personal life, she embodies that of which she speaks.  Her menagerie of rescue animals includes 3 dogs, 2 cats, 3 toads, and I believe even her fish may have been rescued.  We are still talking about the wonderful visit we had, what great doggies she’s got, and are looking forward to seeing her again this fall.

Beth, Terry, and the star Dante (with Tioga under the table)

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The Hiking is Fine ~ Yosemite National Park (Part 2)

The temperature is soaring, mid-90’s most days, but hope is on the horizon with 80’s now showing up on the radar for this weekend.  Even with the hotter weather, the hiking is fine if you head up into the higher elevations, which is definitely not tough to do in this park, given the 800 miles of hiking trails.

Way down in the valley from Taft Point.

We have not been as aggressive about our hikes in Yosemite, which is ok with both of us as we are taking more time to wrap ourselves in the heart-stirring views along the way.  A hiker whom we crossed paths with in Kings Canyon NP told us a must was Yosemite’s Glacier Point at sunset, to watch the changing hues reflected from Half Dome.  This was to be our destination, with a couple of short side hikes along the way.

At the trailhead, which splits off left to Taft Point and right to Sentinel Dome, we veered to the left, to the “Glacier Point without the guard rails”. Unlike Glacier Point, which can be driven to, this overlook must be hiked so you have to earn the view.

That’s one big fissure!

As you approach Taft Point, you will see five fissures, giving the appearance of some mythical monster having attempted to claw his way to the top from the valley 3000 feet below.  Be careful here as one false move and you can kick your butt goodbye!

Once you gingerly hop around the gaping holes in the ground and make it to the lookout point (which does have a guard rail thankfully), you are rewarded with the more prominent views of the Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls. We arrived early afternoon, not the best time to take photos of the valley, as it was a little washed out and hazy.  Even with haze this hike proved to offer some of the more spellbinding views we had seen yet.

Hey Gaga, I’m on the edge!
My big strong he-man tryin’ to impress his woman!

When you tire of all the raw beauty, you can connect up with the Sentinel Dome trail or the Pohono Trail, the latter of which we opted for to add a couple more miles and some uphill to our day (thank you honey!).  If you are really feeling great or just plain crazed, you can tackle all 13 miles of the Pohono Trail, for an elevation gain of ~3700 feet!

Enroute to Sentinel Dome (Yosemite Falls in background)
Sentinel Dome

Spectacular views of the valley awaited us as we wandered along the bluffs and into the forests.  As we continued to switchback up and the forest opened, Sentinel Dome made her appearance, as promised.  From here, we head back to the trailhead; hop in the car; and drive to Glacier Point for a picnic dinner and a cool sunset.  Our total hike for the day was roughly 6  yummy miles of views, views and more views.

Half Dome and surrounding peaks nearing sunset

Just a mere 1/4 mile hike will bless you with panoramic views of Yosemite Valley and all her surrounding peaks, including Mt. Lyell, highest peak in the park, standin’ tall at 13,120 feet, proudly sporting a small glacier.  Half Dome stands in the forefront ready to dazzle you with her changing lights.  She taunts extreme hikers with her sheer cliffs, as well she should, as she can claim the bragging rights for the toughest hike in the park.  On a scale of 1 – 10, I have read she is an extreme 11.  A 4800 foot elevation gain should speak for itself!  The last 400 feet of this sheer vertical granite wall must be done with cables, pulling yourself along as you contemplate your mortality!  Without these it would be impossible and is not permitted when there is any sign of precipitation.

Mariposa Grove Museum, sitting among the giants.

Another area for exploring is that of the Mariposa Grove, the forest of giant sequoia.  To walk among the giants here is pretty special but once you have been to Sequoia and Kings Canyon, we had to agree that these at Yosemite may have to take a back seat.  We decided to make this an exercise hike, opting to traipse through the forest to Wawona Point, a moderate 6-mile hike. Probably the most charming character we met at Wawona was a raven, who was determined to befriend Terry.  He just was not taking no for an answer, coming back time and again, each time alighting just a little closer, showing us he had no fear.  We both suspect he was desperate for a handout!

Terry’s buddy

In this magical place where the hiking is fine, it is time to call it a day.  As we head out of the park, darkness envelopes the mountains and creeps down into the valley.

Nighttime blankets Yosemite

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“The Incomparable Valley” ~ Yosemite National Park (Part 1)

“I have seen persons of emotional temperament stand with tearful eyes, spellbound and dumb with awe, as they got their first view of the Valley from Inspiration Point, overwhelmed in the sudden presence of the unspeakable, stupendous grandeur.”  ~  Galen Clark, guardian of the Yosemite Grant

Stunning vista from Tunnel View (Bridalveil Falls to the right).

Yosemite National Park, referred to as “the incomparable valley”, is probably best known for its grand waterfalls and distinctive granite cliffs.  It offers so much more, as John Muir so beautifully told us in his poems and letters written so long ago.

Reaching across the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Yosemite encompasses 761,268 acres (1200 square miles), roughly the size of Rhode Island.  It has such amazing gifts to offer up, deep valleys, soaring granite cliffs, spectacular waterfalls, clear rushing streams and rivers, stunning meadows, giant sequoia, vast wilderness areas, and biological diversity – the stuff a nature lover’s dreams are made of.  If not for the efforts of renown conservationist and naturalist John Muir and others, 3.5 million annual visitors to this national park today would not be able to enjoy her wonders.

Bridge over Merced River (from Happy Isles Nature Center)

In 1889 John Muir, becoming evermore concerned about the damage being caused by sheep grazing in the High Sierras, launched a campaign with the help of Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine, to persuade Congress to preserve these lands.  Their persistence paid off and on October 1, 1890, Yosemite National Park was established.

Earlier still, in 1855, homesteader Galen Clark wandered upon the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia.  So mesmerized was he by these giants, his personal fight to preserve them from logging soon extended to include Yosemite Valley.  His efforts gained support and the Yosemite Grant was drafted and submitted to Congress.  In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill and Yosemite became the first territory ever set aside by Congress for preservation and public use.  Today Galen Clark has a mountain range, the Clark Range, named after him, which can be seen from Glacier Point.

Some of the original inhabitants of the Yosemite Valley were the Miwok Indians. Looking out over the valley, they named it Ahwahnee, “place of the gaping mouth” and later called themselves the Ahwahneechee.  They were followed by Europeans in the mid-1800’s, who quickly set out to displace these native tribes.

Of the 3.5 million who visit here yearly, most do not travel further than the 7 square miles of Yosemite Valley.  If you do nothing but this, there is still much to see.  Some of the more prominent features (but certainly not all-inclusive) that can be seen from Yosemite Valley are:

  • El Capitan (very popular with the rock-climbing set)
El Capitan
  • Half-Dome (can be climbed by permit only from ~ May through October – better views from Glacier Point)
Half Dome
Yosemite Falls (not all is captured in this photo)
Vernal Falls
Nevada Falls (upper right)
Bridalveil Falls
Ahwahnee Hotel
  • Ansel Adams Museum
Except for the Ansel Adams Museum, which we plan to explore later this week, we were able to see all these stunning sights.  Even with our two weeks here, we would never be able to take in all of Yosemite, so we have already decided we will save the eastern part of the park, Tuolumne Meadows, for a later date.
The elegant Ahwahnee Hotel
The Ahwahnee Hotel is a definite must-see, its stunning architecture set against a backdrop of towering granite cliffs.  It was originally built for the wealthy traveling to the park who were looking for more comfort and opulence than that provided by other lodging.  Since 1927, the Ahwahnee Yosemite tradition is the reenactment of Renaissance finery at the famous Bracebridge Dinner.  At this seven-course Yuletide feast you are taken back in time to the 17th century, with jesters, musicians and a court of over 100 players to entertain you for four hours.  I have read that this night of frolicking and festivities will only set you back about $425 (certainly not in our budget).
Terry just down from Vernal Falls

A hike up to Vernal Falls was in our budget (cause it’s free) and provided some quick exercise.  Only about a 1.5 mile hike but with an elevation gain of ~1000 feet and no guard rails to the top, it made for some heart-pounding moments.  It brought back memories of our time touring ruin sites in Mexico, climbing down from the pyramids.  In the past decade more than a dozen people have lost their lives foolishly swimming above the falls.  We watched nervously as many elderly folks with canes tried to make the crowded journey to the top – yikes!

Stay tuned for more photos and stories of this incomparable valley as we hike some of her trails.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”  ~ John Muir

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