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Yesterday, in Yosemite Valley

Yesterday was a beautiful spring day, with blue skies and temperatures that ranged all over the place, depending upon microclimate and elevation, as befits a diverse state like California.

(I told my wife that I was going to write this blog entry in my sleep, as an example of the “Stream of Unconsciousness” genre of writing.) :-)

I decided to travel Highway 120 to Yosemite, since it is more direct and would get me there faster. I stopped for a MacDonald’s breakfast-to-go in Oakdale and made my way to gradually rising land, where the orchards and farms of the Central Valley give way to the foothills of the Gold Country. Anyone who has seen the classic California landscapes of golden grasses punctuated with the green dots of scrub oaks can appreciate the few months of the year when those golden grasses are bright yellow-green with new growth. Range cattle (or, as one sign said, “grass-fed beef”) were contentedly roaming around munching the foliage.

The hard right turn to Chinese Camp (with historical marker about Mark Twain‘s and Bret Harte‘s travels) led on to Lake Don Pedro, which was very LOW! Just east of the town of Moccasin, I chose the Old Priest Grade Road, instead of the more gradual 120, to climb from an elevation of about 910 feet (280 m) to about 2450 feet (750 m) in just 2.7 miles (4.3 km)! Highway 120 climbs the hill in 6 miles (10 km). Old Priest Grade is two very narrow lanes (but ASCENDING the hill, you have the INSIDE, away from the precipitous drop into Grizzly Gulch (nice, huh? :-) ). Normally, I ascend the Old Priest Grade and descend the hill on Highway 120 – both give me the inside track. One year, Highway 120 was destroyed in one place by boulders rolling down the hill, and Old Priest Grade was the only way up and down the hill. Yesterday, I saw a large pickup truck pulling a larger trailer stopped about halfway up the hill. Do not try things like this! :-) There are pullouts, stocked with water for people whose radiators have boiled over, since summer temperatures in the area range from 90 to 100 degrees F. The next section of Highway 120 is called Big Oak Flat Road. The town at the top is called Big Oak Flat, followed by the town of Groveland, which even LOOKS like a wild-west mining town (now, tourist town).

At the gate to Yosemite, I paid $40 for a 1-year pass to Yosemite instead of $20 for the day (5 days, actually). The lady ranger said that she could not wait to be one year older – at 62, the fee is $10 for a Senior Pass that is a “lifelong admission and discount pass for US citizens or permanent residents who are age 62 or older.” As I mentioned yesterday, Crane Flat at 6192 feet had ample snow. The Nordic skiing area along the Tioga Road (120) was open, but Tioga Pass was still closed by snow. The snow left around 5000 feet, as I descended the hill. I stopped at an overview of the Valley and again at Cascade Creek, which gushes with water in April (1, 2). I met a man from Sonoma, who had received a visit from family from Michigan, including a grandchild that he had never seen! He was having a wonderful day. I continued my descent to the level of the Merced River.

I stopped at Fern Spring, which looks like THIS in April (or like this), and watched two young people trample vegetation, while being photographed by a third, in an area around the spring that the National Park Service had fenced off to prevent this very thing! People, don’t be slobs – if you can’t think clearly, at least READ THE SIGNS!

I then went to the Bridalveil Fall parking lot to photograph the waterfall (which looks like THIS in April) (1). After that, I ascended Route 41 and stopped at the reconstructed Tunnel View overlook. Although the new viewing area gives unrestricted viewing in many directions, the fact that some trees were removed means that I will never again take a view of the Valley, framed by pines, like THIS one, which hangs in my family room as a 16 x 20 print. From there I descended into the Valley again.

I stopped at the Sentinel Beach picnic area (which has facilities and is a great place for lunch), “beneath” Sentinel Rock. Sentinel Beach is a great place to photograph Upper Yosemite Fall (which looks like THIS in April) (1, 2). Sentinel Beach is the place where crazed hoards of “rubber rafters” and kayakers haul themselves out of the Merced River in those crazy days of summer. The beach is far less crazy in April.

Traveling on, I took photos of Ribbon Fall, one of the largest single drops in the world (there seemed to be less water this year) and Upper Yosemite Fall (1) as well as another view of Bridalveil Fall (like THIS one), and shots of North Dome (1, 2).

I stopped at Yosemite Chapel and took some shots from a different angle. I walked over to the bridge over the Merced and took some shots of the swollen river, backlit with sunshine on its ripples.

I then traveled to a bridge over the Merced River that allows photography of this scene at different times of the year on one side, and a view of Half Dome, reflected in the Merced, from the other side! I walked from there through Cook’s Meadow on the elevated walkway. Cook’s Meadow had more water than THIS this year, as well as nesting mallard ducks, and western redwing blackbirds (which lack the yellow stripe of their eastern cousins). As the sign says, “Meadows are really wetlands.” I moved the tripod to allow a man and two daughters, all on bicycles, to pass, shortly before the younger daughter crashed on the narrow walkway (hey, at least she didn’t go into the marsh). (Note added April 19, 2009: Although Cook’s Meadow is flooded in early spring, the flooding gives way to milkweed and Monarch butterflies later in the spring and summer!) Then I hiked on, to Yosemite Falls.

This April, the stone bridge over Yosemite Creek did not look the same as in another April (one of my favorite shots). THIS April, there was snow and ice in the stream and snow along the banks! The leaf buds were still forming, but the whole scene looked like late winter! I shot some verticals of Yosemite Falls (1, 2).

The hike back to my truck allowed me to take some GPS readings of points from which I shot photos on the walkway across Cook’s Meadow. (Yes, I am still a “geek” in “good standing.”)

I then attempted to go to a spot on the Merced from which I could photograph Bridalveil Meadow, on my way out of the Valley, only to be foiled by the constantly changing roadways in the Valley. It may be a plot by the National Park Service to discourage vehicular traffic (they should, especially the way some of my fellow Californians drive), but the traffic patterns have been different on almost every visit to the Valley! This time, I was lulled into a false sense of well-being only to be turned around 180 degrees and forced back to the south drive through the Valley, with opposing  traffic (two-way traffic)  (shudder!). :-)

The good news is: I saw about 8 deer feeding in a meadow on the way out, and I also made it to THIS vantage point (1, 2, 3, 4) on a blue-sky April day. Of course, there was a dude with a large-format film camera in an optimal place (1, 2), but he and I exchanged places after awhile.

The trip home, along 140, was spectacular! Early in the drive, the van speeding in front of me startled three LARGE blacktail deer (they looked almost as big as whitetail deer) which ran UPHILL instead of down and through his windshield. Then, the western redbud trees and lupine, all in bloom, were backlit at intervals along the canyon, as was the yellow-green new vegetation and foliage. I laughed when I saw all of the new construction along the Merced, remembering the time, just a few years ago, when the river SWEPT most of the evidence of human habitation, as well as a lot of Highway 140, down the river! For awhile, travel to Yosemite Valley by Highway 140 was JUST A MEMORY! I remember our first trip up the roadway after that flood and after the road was rebuilt!

(Note added on April 18, 2009: There is no flood control on that part of the Merced River. It is designated as a “National Wild and Scenic River,” so good luck, folks, and I hope that you purchased flood insurance, if available! There are “high-water marks” on signs throughout Yosemite Valley with the water level in one year of floods. The mark is about 10 feet off the ground in the churchyard of the Yosemite Valley Chapel and is a popular place for people to photograph friends standing next to the sign and well below the high-water mark! )

I awakened from my daydream to see stopped cars and a traffic signal that allowed only one-way traffic. The sign said, “Expect 15-minute delays.” (Bring a book! I shot photos of the canyon wall. :-) ) Ahead were TWO temporary bridges that routed traffic to the NORTH shore of the Merced and back to the south shore, around a LANDSLIDE that had taken out Highway 140! (Expect the unexpected on California roadways – another reason not to speed! That curve that you are speeding around may have another vehicle or a large fallen boulder in YOUR LANE on the other side!) The bridges looked like something that the Army Corps of Engineers would have laid down in World War II to let tanks cross rivers. The earlier warning about “No vehicles over 45 feet” now became clear!

The climb out of the canyon was lined with lupine and redbud and other wildflowers. I stopped to photograph some lupine. From there, it was all downhill :-) through the town of Mariposa (Spanish for “butterfly” – the “Butterfly Festival” will be the first weekend of May) and green pastureland that will soon turn brown. I reached the city of Merced, took Highway 99 north to 120, and traveled west to Livermore. The round trip was almost exactly 12 hours!

If you are local, take the drive along the Merced River in the next week, while everything is blooming and green!

One thought that crossed my mind on the way home was that some folks cannot slow themselves down to the pace of nature, even for one day. They speed through their lives, risking accidents and loved ones, missing the herd of grazing deer and the backlit flowering trees. I worked with and for a lot of these folks. I would feel sorry for them, but it is mostly their own choice.

Take the ride to Yosemite Valley, and when the Tioga Road opens up, travel that as well.

Enjoy the trip.

(Photos linked above are from earlier visits. I will place photos from the most recent visit on my site when they have been processed.) (Note added May 26, 2009: Done.)

(Note added June 5, 2009: Since I made this trip, I have spoken with two people who made separate trips to Yosemite Valley in May 2009. Both of them reported A LOT of water in waterfalls and running through Yosemite Valley. From the sounds of it, there was more water than I saw in April, which suggests a later snow melt in higher elevations than in some years. For the visitor, this might mean substantial water, even now!)

(Note added June 10, 2011: Since a lot of people are hitting Yosemite-related links in my blog right now, probably to prepare for a visit, I wanted to include THIS link about my April 2010 visit to Yosemite Valley by a “southern” route – Highway 140 through the Merced River Canyon. That photoblog entry has not been as popular as this one, but I did not want you to miss it. The link includes a narrative of that April 2010 trip and photos taken along the way. Enjoy!)

-Bill at Cheshire Cat Photo™

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