Upper Grove Area, Mariposa Grove of Sequoias, Yosemite National Park.
The fact that my wife and I have slightly different sleeping habits1 is usually a serendipitous thing on vacations. While my wife sleeps in, I get my early morning photography/hiking out of the way. This has worked out to be a pretty good arrangement, as it's a pain to hike with a photographer who's actively photographing, and it's a pain to be a photographer who only hikes/shoots in the flat, horrible midday light when most people want to hike.
I woke up early our first morning and stepped outside. Having come through in the dark the night before, I had no idea we were camped under a massive forest of trees2. Coming out of the tent, I looked up to see the dawn light just poking through the massive canopy above. I wandered out of camp into our section of the vast open meadow of the Valley floor....and was amazed. Once out of the trees, the Valley opened up to me, the scale of the world changed abruptly, and I was suddenly, infinitesimally, small.
Morning Through the Canopy, Half Dome Sunrise, Sunrise over North Pines Meadow, North Pines Meadow Trail, Morning Light on Ridge.
I spent an hour or two wandering around the meadow, playing at being Ansel Adams3 as the light of dawn increased and the sunlight spilled over the ridges and lit up the Valley. If I had known then how busy the Valley would get later in the day, I would have appreciated the morning all the more. Regardless, it was nice to have a little solitude and reflection in before the hiking started in earnest. A bit like getting a sense of it, or saying hello to the place, if that doesn't sound to granola. I made it back to the cabin in time to catch my wife just rousting herself, and we grabbed breakfast amidst the glowing pines and some impressively aggressive California Ground Squirrels4. The bear locker was actually pretty convenient for keeping all our foodstuffs in and out of the way. The giant Boulder right outside our door that necessitated squeezing in and out of the door one at a time...less so.
Curry Village Tent Cabins, California Ground Squirrel with My Sandwich, Tent Cabin..with Rock.
We were to meet my family later on, we had most of the day to ourselves. We decided to ease into the hiking regime with a trip up to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequioas5 The Grove is up near Wamona, southwest of the Valley by some measure. On our way out, we stopped briefly to see (from the road) El Capitan6 and the whole of the Valley from the Tunnel View Overlook7. Even with a little delay8 it was an enjoyable trip up, winding through beautiful views we'd missed the night before. We finally arrived at the historic Wamona Lodge/Hotel. Ironically, here outside the valley is where we got our first taste of how incredibly popular, and thus crowded, Yosemite can be9. We waited with a huge crowd of German tourists10for the shuttle to the Grove. Having a little time with nothing to do gave me an excuse to indulge in a little observation of some of the local flora and fauna, including a patient Common Raven.
Tunnel View Vista, El Capitan, Tunnel View Landscape, The Wamona Hotel (antiqued), Common Raven, Horsetails, Covered Bridge.
Despite the crowds at the base and near some of the nearer well known trees, the hike up into the Grove was relatively isolated. While each of the named trees was well worth the stop, I really enjoyed the other sequoias and forest between them as much as the fenced off specimens11. The famous trees, though, are famous for a reason. Our lunchstop , off to the side of the trail, was accompanied by a seemingly endless variety of squirrels and chipmunks12, but fairly few fellow hikers.
Me at the Fallen Monarch, Fallen Monarch, The Grizzly, the Faithful Couple, Clothespin Tree.
We made our way past the tour groups to the top of the tail network just as a light sprinkle of rain started, and took shelter in a small facility until it passed. The upper grove didn't draw many of the tourists that day, so it really gave us the impression of being to get into the landscape instead of just going to and fro between a set of designated attractions. With darker clouds on the horizon13, we reluctantly started back toward the base. On the way down, we passed through fire-ravaged slopes, noting the blackened, but otherwise unimpaired Sequoias and the pioneering vegetation already taking over. We had a chance encounter with a colleague of my wife's, and a flight of White-headed Woodpeckers that defied the odds14, but otherwise just enjoyed the scenery. We made it back just in time to beat the rain. On the way back, the whole busload was abuzz about having seen Oprah, who was apparently at the Grove while we were there. The gentleman next to me seemed almost upset that we were not upset about missing her, and that for some reason I was excited about having seen a couple dumb birds15.
Fire Pioneers, Upper Grove Sequoia Stand, White-headed Woodpecker, Douglas Squirrel.
We were supposed to meet my family later on in the evening, so we made the long drive back to the Valley, stopping briefly at Tunnel View, and opposite El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls. At this point, the Falls were barely running, so there wasn't much to see. My family ended up being delayed so we ate (way too much) at the buffet dinner in Curry Village16. After they arrived late in the night, we said quick hellos and then settled in to sleep for the early morning Half Dome hike the next morning.
Half Dome Vista, Tunnel View at Sunset, Bridal Veil with Fall Color, El Capitan Landscape.
1I tend to view sleep as a necessary evil, and do as little of it as possible in favor of cramming as much vacation in to the vacation as possible. My wife is a big fan of sleep.
2At first I thought it was earlier than it was, simply because the trees were blocking most of the light.
3Which, as with most National Parks, is not a hard thing to be inspired to do. Achieving it, of course, is something wholly different.
4Even while fighting what seemed like a losing battle between a pair of well coordinated attacking squirrels accosting me while making sandwiches, the naturalist in me was still noting field marks for later identification. This is emblematic of the process, and sometimes shortsighted priorities of the casual naturalist. Other examples include “Wow, that rattlesnake scared the heck out of me. I'm going back to see if I can get a closer look.” and “ma'am, let me demonstrate the proper technique for walking past a 12 foot alligator.”. However, with bears in mind I had a moment of sheer panic when one squirrel almost dragged a half finished sandwich directly under our tent.
5Sequioas, while not quite as tall as their Redwood cousins, are the most massive trees on Earth. Pictures don't begin to capture the scale. Like most things, once something gets big enough, the human mind just slaps it into the “large and up” mental category, unable to really keep the true scale in our limited mind set.
6From our car, alongside the multi-lane Valley road, like proper American tourists at Yosemite. If they could find a way to generate electricty from small scale rotations, John Muir's what must be constant rolling over in his grave would power half of California if he knew how we all experience his hidden wonder these days.
7Which was the first of many moments the photographer in me cringed while the explorer in me revelled. The view from the Overlook, while nothing novel, is unbeatable, looking down the Valley past El Capitan to Half Dome in the distance, including Bridal Veil Falls. However, looking east at midmorning is a recipe for bad photography. I've often fought with trying to balance the instinct to automatically start sizing things up for pictures, with the ability to just enjoy the scene with a lens in between me and it. What use is a picture if you didn't really experience the place to begin with? I am still fighting with this. Bad light situations help, since there's no use taking the shot unless it's a one chance scenario.
8Sadly, half the roads were under construction, leading to dead stops. However, being stopped at the side of the road overlooking majestic vistas beats the clearest freeway in a workday commute any day.
9And we were there somewhat off-season. The falls don't (normally) run very much this time of year, so there's not as many people. However, that's a relative measure compared to more remote parks. “Not a lot of people” for Yosemite is still akin to ravenous hordes anywhere else.
10All of whom, of course, spoke impeccable English. Despite having a few German friends, and having been to Germany, all I can manage is to order a beer. Sort of. And that relies on a lot of sign language.
11If for no other reason than to see the trees in their natural setting rather than fenced off in a cleared area with dozens of tourists taking the obligatory “This is me with Big Tree” pictures. That being said, I I have a lot of “This is me with a Big Tree” pictures.
12While the Rodents were Of Usual Size, the pinecones were as prodigious as the trees. Even if we had been inclined to violate prohibitions about taking pieces of the natural environment from a National Park, there would have been no way to casually smuggle a pinecone the size of a watermelon out in one's pockets.
13We would later see this as the biggest example of natural foreshadowing, ever.
14Both of us had commented prior to the hike, what the odd would be to see either Kate's colleague or one of the “rare” bird species I thought I might encounter. To see both, in the space of five minutes, required astronomical luck. Not that either was the highlight of our day, just worth noting for the sheer odds involved.
15A completely opposite reaction (to random fauna sightings) came from the Park staffer at the shop near the shuttle stop. We asked about the ring-tailed cat we had seen the night before. She was very excited to talk about them, having only seen one once in all her years there. When we told her we'd seen one after being in the park about 10 minutes, I think we broke her heart a little.
16Which, disappointingly enough, did not involve curry. Apparently Curry was a reference to someone's name, not the wonderful foodstuff. I showed my dissapointment by doing my very best to eat everything else in the buffet. Nothing better the night before a long hike than to gorge one's self on bad food.