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The mountains are calling and I must go….a trip to Yosemite

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite

Looking up in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul. John Muir

On Mother’s Day 2011, I started losing consciousness while getting my blood drawn for chemo. A few minutes earlier, I had come close to collapsing in the waiting room. My son had asked me if I was OK.  I had lied and said I was fine.

But I wasn’t fine, I wasn’t fine at all.

A bad time followed. During the hospitalization, I thought a lot about the camping and road trips I had taken the year before. It was the only way I could stay sane. At one point, my sister had come into my room in the ICU and put her wet jacket sleeve against my cheek so I could feel the rain outside. That was as close as I could get to the trees and rivers, mountains and the ocean. I promised myself that if I got out of there alive, I would go back to wandering again…

The Merced River at Swinging Bridge, Yosemite

The Merced River at Swinging Bridge

Fast forward to September 2011. Out of the hospital. Finished with chemo and in remission. It was time to collect on the promises I had made to myself.

My friend and dance partner Paul and I had been talking about going to Yosemite together for almost a year. We both like photography, dancing, hiking and each other. Bear in mind, that up to the time of this trip, we had never spent more than two consecutive hours together. This concerned Paul, but it didn’t worry me at all. I knew it  would all work out.*

Our first decision was when to go. I wanted to put as much time between myself and chemo as possible but still have good weather and relatively long days. We wanted to avoid crowds as well. So we settled on mid-September, mid-week, Monday through Thursday.

Arch Rock Entrance, Yosemite

Arch Rock Entrance, Yosemite

The next decision was where to stay. Several friends had strongly recommended Yosemite Bug, a lodging establishment located on Highway 140 about 25 miles outside of the Arch Rock Entrance to Yosemite.  Reservations were made and we prepared to go which in my case means throwing whatever I think I’ll need in a cardboard box with the overflow going into a paper shopping bag. This, by the way, is how I pack for any road trip longer than one night. Paul didn’t quite know what to make of it when he came to pick me up, but – ever the diplomat – he just put my box and bag in the car with minimal commentary and we headed out.

With just a couple of brief bathroom and gas station breaks, our total trip time from Sonoma County was 4 1/2 hours total. We arrived around 1:30 pm and checked in. Our room wouldn’t be ready until 3 pm, so we decided to have lunch and unpack the car later.

Dining Room and Lodge at Yosemite Bug

Dining Room and Lodge at Yosemite Bug, where we danced.

The dining hall / lodge was empty except for the cook, Paul, and myself. The music was cranked up. Paul said it was a West Coast Swing and before I knew it, we were dancing in the dining room. We followed it up with an East Coast Swing. I hadn’t danced either since before my diagnosis and it was a very happy moment for me. The cancer and chemo damage had been so troubling that I hadn’t been sure I’d be able to dance again. I was quite rusty but it came back quickly.

Dancing done, we ordered lunch from the baffled cook, chowed down and took off for Yosemite. It was an auspicious beginning to our four day adventure.

The Yosemite Valley Shuttle System

One of the great assets of Yosemite is the free-of-charge Yosemite Valley shuttle system. Not all the buses run year round, so here is the seasonal schedule. We liked it because we could park centrally in or around Yosemite Village and then take a shuttle to our destination. The buses arrive frequently and we never had to wait more that 5-10 minutes for a bus to appear. It was a useful tool for getting to high impact areas with limited parking –  such as the Awahnee – plus it saved us aggravation in trying to locate the different attractions. Even in this off-season it was crowded at times and sometimes we had to stand.

Note: while most of the bus drivers were nice, some of them seemed really pissed off to be there and were very clear in letting the passengers know this. So if you end up with an angry bus driver, don’t take it personally.

Tram Tour of the Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley Floor Tram TourOn our first visit into the park, we met a couple on the shuttle who recommended the Yosemite Valley Floor Tram Tour. There are other tours available in Yosemite, but this one was indeed the correct choice for a park overview. We strolled into the Awahnee Hotel immediately after talking to our new friends and were able to sign up in with the concierge in the lobby for a trip the next morning. At $25 a person, it was an excellent deal. The tram stops twice as it travels through the valley, once near the Merced River and the second time at Tunnel View. Our enthusiastic guide, Ranger Virgie Baker, wove natural history, Indian lore and park legend into a fascinating two hour ride. By the end, we not only had a better sense of the background of the park, but we had enough of an overview to put together a basic itinerary for ourselves for the next few days.

The Falls – Vernal Fall and Bridalveil Fall

The Path up to Vernal Fall, Yosmite

The path up to Vernal Fall

We were lucky in our September visit that there was a fair amount of water in both the falls we visited. It is said, however, that if you want to be sure to see the Waterfalls of Yosemite in their full glory, it is best to go in the spring.

The trail to the footbridge at Vernal Fall is enjoyable but challenging. The path is well paved and passes along some of the most beautiful

The Merced River below Vernal Fall

The Merced River below Vernal Fall

scenery possible – raging waters, vertical walls of granite, trees and of course, the waterfall at the bridge. As an extra added thrill, we also saw a rattlesnake on the trail. The hike is also relatively short – about 1.6 miles round trip. On the other hand, we were on a steep incline for most of the way up and it was very hot and sunny which slowed us down quite a bit.  By the time we made our way back, the sun had gone down behind the granite walls and it was pleasant and shaded. For serious hikers, it’s possible to continue past the bridge at Vernal Fall and go ever upward to the top and further. For us, getting to the bridge was enough. There are restrooms and drinking water at the bridge.

By contrast, Bridalveil Fall is easy, easy, easy. Just a few flat minutes from the parking lot, it’s a lot of bang for your buck.  At some times of the year it’s possible to drenched from the spray coming off the falls, but that was not the case when we were there.

Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite

Bridalveil Fall

The actual viewing platform is quite small. Although there isn’t a lot of room to take portraits with the falls as a backdrop, we found that people were polite about taking turns. It could be a different story during the weekends or the peak tourist season. In spite of the signs asking people not to climb on the rocks, people were climbing on the rocks. Don’t do it. It’s stupid and risky.

We did not make it to Yosemite Falls. We were planning to go there after the Yosemite Visitor’s Center but it started to rain unexpectedly. As it was late in the day, we decided instead to scoot back to Yosemite Bug for a good dinner and our nightly ritual of hot chocolate on the deck. So it’s something to look forward to on our next trip.

Glacier Point

Glacier Point, Yosemite

One of the many beautiful views at Glacier Point

The couple whom we met on the shuttle our first day also recommended Glacier Point (good thing we ran into them, isn’t it? They planned our entire Yosemite itinerary while on their way to cocktails at the Awahnee). It’s a fairly long drive up to Glacier Point and very winding. However it is well worth it. The trip itself is beautiful and scenic.There are several viewing stations on Glacier Point Road. We stopped at Washburn Point and took some photos before continuing on. Be aware, however, that parking is limited at these viewing points. Once at Glacier Point, there are many places to take photos of the valley below, Half Dome and waterfalls. It is simply breathtaking. I overheard a tour guide telling his group that photographers will position their cameras all day trying to capture the light as it hits the granite walls and spreads across the vast sky.  Here are some sunset and other photos taken from Glacier Point from the website Yosemite Fun.

Dining at the Glacier Hotel

Dining at the Glacier Hotel. Click on the image for more information.

Glacier Point was the scene of the famous Yosemite Firefall, which took place from the late 1800’s-1968. This attraction evolved by accident when leftover embers from the nightly bonfires at the Glacier Point Mountain House (later superseded by the Glacier Point Hotel) were kicked over the side of Glacier Point. Visitors at Curry Camp below began talking about the sight and soon the Firefall became a nightly, ritualized event. The popularity of the Firefall was its undoing and damage to the valley floor from traffic and spectators was becoming harder and harder to ignore. The park service decided to call a halt to the Firefall and the last one took place on January 25, 1968. A year later, ironically, the Glacier Point Hotel burned down in a construction fire and was never rebuilt. Here are some web images of the Firefall in its heyday.

Mono Meadow, Yosemite

We sat on these two stumps and had a great lunch in serene Mono Meadow

The location of the former hotel is commemorated by a sign. The dining room overlooked the view and meals must have been an unforgettable event. Nowadays, visitors have to make do with a souvenir shop and snack shack, both located in a chalet style building near the parking lot. Hot dogs, ice cream, drinks and packaged snacks are available. It was surprisingly shabby.

But we had brought a picnic and drove down a few miles, finally stopping for lunch at Mono Meadow. It was peaceful and deserted. We did not take the trail, choosing instead sit on a couple of stumps near the parking area. It was a lovely place to relax and enjoy our midday meal.

Bear in mind that the road to Glacier Point is usually closed from November to May. Here is the list of all the Yosemite winter road closures.

The Awahnee and Wawona Hotels

Awahnee, Yosemite

The Awahnee Hotel

Yosemite has many lodging options, but the most memorable are the Awahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley and the Wawona Hotel near the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.

We visited the Awahnee on our first day in Yosemite. This 80 year old luxury hotel nests in the valley surrounded by Yosemite’s looming granite walls. Filled with tourists and hotel guests, the Awahnee was bustling and busy at the dinner hour. Paul bought some souvenir magnets at the gift shop and we wandered the lobby and the outside grounds. Starting at several hundred dollars a night, the Awahnee would not be the first choice for the budget minded traveler, but the setting, location, and amenities are unimpeachable.

Wawona Hotel Yosemite

We had our picnic on the lawn at the Wawona Hotel

A few days later we had an opportunity to visit Yosemite’s other hotel, the Wawona. The shuttle to Mariposa Grove was located nearby and when we returned from our visit to the Grove, we moved the car up to the Wawona Hotel parking lot and had lunch on the Adirondack chairs on the big lawn. It was simply spectacular to sit there, although it would have been even more spectacular had I been swathed in white tulle and holding a parasol or perhaps a croquet mallet (and sporting a coquettish smile). Although many years have passed since that era in the Wawona’s history, fortunately, the hotel and grounds have retained their Victorian demeanor.

The Open Veranda at the Wawona in Yosemite

The Open Veranda at the Wawona

Only half of the Wawona’s rooms have private bathrooms. The rest of the rooms share  bathrooms and showers located on the outside verandas. We were quoted a starting price of $149 for a non-bathroom room. That said, there is a charming old world feel about the Wawona, modest and low key. I told Paul that this was definitely the Yosemite hotel to go to with a mistress – you would be far less likely to be spotted here than at the flashier, more centrally located Awahnee. Although with a mistress, I would suggest getting a room with a private bath instead of sending her down the veranda to the bathroom in her leopard print lingerie and marabou feathered high heeled mules. Paul thanked me for the observations and said he would keep all of that in mind the next time he found himself in Yosemite with a mistress.

Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

California Tunnel Tree at the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

California Tunnel Tree

The Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias was our last scenic trip as we were heading out of Yosemite. It’s quite far from the valley, so we left from the park’s south exit onto California State Route 41 to get back home. Populated with approximately 500 Giant Sequoias, the Mariposa Grove is a fascinating opportunity to see some of the largest living entities on earth. We took the Mariposa / Wawona Shuttle from the Wawona store. Even though the trip is only six miles, it takes about 20 minutes to get there by bus. The parking lot at the Mariposa Grove fills up quickly and at that point the road to Mariposa Grove is closed. By taking the shuttle, visitors are guaranteed entrance to the Mariposa Grove. There is generally plenty of parking at the Wawona store (next door to the Wawona Hotel) but there had been a lightning strike the night before and a large part of the parking lot was cordoned off.  We were directed to park alongside the road and that worked out fine.

Grizzly Giant in the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias

Grizzly Giant

The Grove itself is serene and dotted with Giant Sequoias. We walked as far as the Tunnel Tree and the Grizzly Giant, which is about 1.6 miles round trip, with a 500 foot elevation gain. There are other hikes in Mariposa Grove with further attractions, but we kept it simple this time.  There is also a one hour tram ride available, but we were getting short on time and wanted to get back home before dark, so we passed on that opportunity and headed back to the shuttle.

Useful fact: There is a gas station located between the Wawona Store and the Wawona Hotel.

Yosemite Bug

Spa level deck at Yosemite Bug

This outdoor deck at Yosemite bug was where Paul and I had our hot chocolate in the evening.

The best part of our trip (outside of Yosemite itself) was our stay at Yosemite Bug. Paul admitted to having been a little dubious when we first arrived but by the time he left, he was a fan. Unlike the Wawona, I don’t know if it would be a good idea to come to Yosemite Bug with a mistress. Mistresses are notoriously finicky and fly off the handle easily (due to their deep seated feelings of inferiority) and she might get mad at you for choosing this casual venue. But for everyone else, it’s a nice place to stay. I have written a full review of it for entitled “A Gourmet Oasis in a Rustic Setting“, so you can read about the nuts and bolts of Yosemite Bug there.

Useful fact: The only gas station between Yosemite Bug and Yosemite is on 140 in El Portal next to the mini mart. There are no gas stations in the Valley.

Cafeteria in the lodge at Yosemite Bug

We loved the food at the cafeteria in the lodge at Yosemite Bug

Nuts and bolts aside, we loved the food at the cafeteria and the fact that we could purchase bag lunches for $6.50 to take with us to the park.  Bags of ice are free.  Having our lunch in the cooler meant that we could stop wherever and whenever we wanted to eat. The other meals were also great. Breakfast and lunch were always the same menu,however dinner was a rotating menu with vegetarian and vegan options. Paul is a vegan and by the end of the trip I was ordering the vegan meals too – they were so well prepared that I began to believe that vegetables weren’t so bad after all!

Garden Dining Room in Yosemite Bug

We enjoyed eating in the Garden Dining Room in Yosemite Bug

Yosemite Bug also has a community kitchen stocked with basic appliances and dishes. Guests are welcome to store their food in the refrigerator and prepare their own meals. While preparing hot chocolate in the evenings, I was always surrounded by a busy hub of young people speaking in every foreign language and accent imaginable. One evening I helped an English girl figure out how to turn on the oven and explained to her how to roast pumpkin seeds in Fahrenheit.

Useful fact: The closest grocery store is in Mariposa, ten miles away. There is a mini-mart in El Portal, on 140 between the Bug and the park. Groceries are also available at several locations in Yosemite.

Room at Yosemite Bug

The rooms were cozy and the beds were comfortable at Yosemite Bug

We loved our cozy room with the comfortable, shabby chic furnishings and lots of windows. In the evening we would sit on our deck or on the spa deck below the lodge/dining hall and listen to the crickets while the sky turned dark. Yosemite Bug is not the fanciest of places and it certainly had some “issues” but all in all, it was a magical place to return to at the end of the day and definitely worth a return trip.

BTW: the quote in the title is from John Muir.

*And indeed it did work out. Paul and I had a wonderful time traveling together, not a difficult moment between us, just as I predicted.  I want to thank him for the beautiful photos he took.  I used three of his in the writeup about Bridalveil and Vernal Falls. He is a great traveling companion and friend and we’re still dancing.

Slideshow of Yosemite Bug

Slideshow of Yosemite


4 Responses to “The mountains are calling and I must go….a trip to Yosemite”

  1. Paul Sconfienza says:

    You made our trip come alive! What an awesome talent you have!! I can’t wait for our next trip.


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