You’ll find a realmsofwhere record-setting 56 pictures below. We loved Yosemite so much there was no way to get it down to 55. Happy scrolling.
In short, we were blown away by Yosemite. Both of us. From the beginning, to the end. We spent almost a week in the park, favouring campgrounds in the High Sierra over those in the Valley, but more about that later. On our first approach, driving east, as the road climbed up into the open alpine skies, we stopped over and over again. There’s nothing quite like this anywhere else on earth — gigantic granite monoliths, domes, cirques, slopes and boulders hunch over clear blue lakes and rivers; sequoias, oaks, pines and cedars blanket the hillsides up to the tree line, then suddenly stop; high plateaus sparkle under brilliant, cloudless azure skies. This, we quietly agreed, may very well be the best place in America. And we hadn’t even got to Tuolumne Meadows yet.
Tuolumne Meadows, A Dome, A Lake
At the sprawling bright green meadow that serenely spreads itself into the high country in the Sierra Nevada mountains, we set off on a hike up nearby Lembert Dome. On day one at these altitudes (10,000 ft, give or take) the heart beats a little faster than you’d like it to, the lungs seem a few breaths short of a comfortable sigh. I secretly like to think it was the scenery that got our hearts pumping and took our breath away, but concede that the altitude may have had a little to do with it.
Continuing on to a lake high up in the mountains, we were pleasantly surprised to have it all to ourselves for the two hours we spent there. The lake, officially called Dog Lake for some obscure reason, was home to no dogs that I could see or hear, however during a quick swim in the chilly waters I did find a recently-deceased but wholly intact eastern ribbon snake lying submerged in the clear water. I held it aloft (at the end of a stick — no way was I going to touch it for fear of the bowel-emptying fright I would have got if it suddenly pulled a “fooled you! I’m still alive” slither on me), and renamed the lake Snake Lake. National Parks officials are notoriously slow to catch on to such things; at the time of writing I believe they are still calling it Dog Lake even though I have proof.
The High Sierra has its ups and downs. Topographically, yes, but I refer here to the temperature, which would soar into the 90’s during the day, and then plummet into the 20’s in the dead of night. I learned this the hard way on our first night, when my “40 degree” (it’s being generous when it calls itself that) sleeping bag went from “a little breezy” as the temperature hit 45, to “inadequate” as it slipped below 40, to “curl yourself up into a ball if you can’t take a little chill, you wimp” as it skidded down into the low 30’s, finally to “holy smokes is this night ever going to end” as it touched 28 degrees during the predawn freeze. At some point in the night my left leg had apparently endured some kind of spasmodic subzero-temperature extended knee thrust, because, to add insult to injury, I’d managed to poke a toe hole in the bottom of my sleeping bag, allowing even more air in.
By and large the sun came up, but by then I was already hunched over a crudely-constructed fire, not caring as rogue flames singed the hairs off my outstretched knuckles. When Meg finally crawled out of her elegant down bag with all the trimmings and asked me how I slept, my mouth didn’t move but my teeth clattered out the words, “I didn’t. And the first hike we’re doing today is to a sporting store to get me a better sleeping bag, I don’t care what it takes.” Fortunately, it didn’t take much — there was a store at Tuolumne Meadows inside the park and it met my needs. I have slept soundly every night since, in case you were wondering.
Comfortable and rested, we were free to explore more of the absolutely, utterly, completely jaw-dropping, breath-taking, eye-opening, heart-widening scenery of the High Sierra biome. Tuolumne Meadows, under a blanket of snow for 8-10 months of the year, now was alive with grass and brush and wildflowers. We got a taste of the spectacular Glen Aulin trail and wanted much, much more of it — but having stopped to fish probably one too many times along the way, soon enough we had to turn back if we were to make it back to the car before dark.
In the late afternoon alpine sun, when the granite mountains become white-golden cotton and the trees shine and bristle in a thousand shades of green, we wished each day for just one more minute of twilight, one more shadow-shift of sunset — and that’s the thing about Yosemite, there’s something about it, something it has already given you that makes you want it even more. The law of diminishing returns is suspended here. We wanted more of Glen Aulin (about which, more later on), more of the sunset, more time in Yosemite.
In the afternoon, we took an odd pleasure in simply being something we hadn’t been on this trip for a long time: hot and dusty. But we knew what was coming later on that night, so in the long shadows of the setting sun, we set off into the hills to collect as much firewood as we could fit into the trunk of our car. The frigid nights and mornings demanded it.
One Day in the Valley
The steep road down from the High Sierra into the Valley floor took us about an hour and a half; we wished it had taken double that. There are tunnels and gullies and bends and vistas and forests and mountains, and the farther down you descend, the tinier you feel: dwarfed by the granite giants — El Capitan, Sentinel Rock, The Three Brothers, and of course Half Dome, we were awed. The largest granite monoliths in the world rise out of the earth all around you, streams and trees glisten in the sunlight.
At the human heart of Yosemite Valley is Yosemite Village, a row of buildings with rustic wooden facades: a post office, a general store, an Ansel Adams photo gallery, a visitor center — complete with scraggly-bearded hikers sitting on stone walls picking listlessly at the strings of old acoustic guitars, and throngs of others about to begin or having recently completed some hike or other. For all this, the area around the parking lot and visitor center is a human zoo, an overcrowded tourist procession — particularly on a Sunday. We were eager to leave the crowds behind, so we set off on a hike not really planning it out or knowing exactly where we were going, but supremely confident that we couldn’t get too lost, hemmed in on all sides by giant stones that we were very unlikely to find ourselves accidentally on the other side of.
We followed a horse trail because horses always seem to know where they’re going. It led us behind a few rustic dwellings, up a hill, around some rocks, then down the other side… By now our skin was close to melting point, we quite literally couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and we had passed exactly no one of the aforementioned crowds — a solitude wished for, but ever so faintly unsettling — and weren’t too sure where we were headed until we crossed another path and saw a sign for something called Mirror Lake. It sounded like a good bet — being generally in the direction of Half Dome, we assumed it was a lake that gave off a clear reflective view of the iconic dome, and we were right. Only, we were about 3 months too early (or too late). Mirror Lake was all but barren, a dry pan with only a small trickle of water in it, which, as we later learned, is typical in the height of summer.
We had lunch in what is sometimes Mirror Lake, and then started to make our way back. Yosemite Valley in August is a hot place to be. After some more hiking around, generally lost but not in any kind of danger, we made our way back via Lower Pines, where what started off as “I dare you to get in” ended up in a cool-off bliss session in very chilly water under very hot skies as we wiled away the afternoon.
Meg’s Big Idea
Anyone who knows Meggy will know that what happened the next day is a sure sign that she is a changed person. Was this the same wife who, a few years before, had tearfully thrown in the towel on a day hike in the Drakensberg? As we drove east to our beloved Tuolumne, I could sense her about to say something, then stopping herself, taking a breath, thinking some more, and then finally taking the short sharp intake of air that signals something profound is about to accompany the exhale. The brave new Yosemite-immersed, nature-loving hiking enthusiast in the passenger seat said it.
“Let’s leave our campground, ditch the car for a night, and camp out in the wilderness tomorrow. I want to see more of the Glen Aulin trail.”
I acted cool, I think, agreeing before she could change her mind, that yes, this was a fine idea. We picked up wilderness permits for the following night, then spent the rest of the day leisurely hiking up to Cathedral Lakes.
For a few miles it’s nothing but steep ascent and at times you find yourself sweatily wondering if this incline will ever end, and what the point of it all is, and if there will ever be some kind of view to take in. And then suddenly it happens. The path flattens out. The forest fades away. The skies open up. Under the giant granite pinnacle of Cathedral Peak, the terrain plateaus into a vast, verdant field of wildflowers. A tiny canyon winds its way through the plateau; its stream empties into the bright blue Upper and Lower Cathedral Lakes, at an elevation of some 9,500 ft. The water was cool, the rocks were baked under the sun, it was a fine place to lie down and rest awhile.
We were back at White Wolf with plenty of daylight left to sort out what we needed to bring with us and get the rest of our belongings in order for our final night in the Yosemite wilderness.
A Night Out
With everything we’d need for the night on our backs — tent, food, sleeping bags, sleeping pads (and of course fly fishing equipment) — we set off for the 6 mile hike to Glen Aulin, passing some of the great scenery we’d taken in a few days before, and loving every minute of the new discoveries as we made it past our previous apex.
We pitched our tent near the edge of a small cliff, in a clearing of trees, and left the fly sheet off — it was a crisp clear night and the stars were out in the zillions, dimmed only by the impolite glow of a nearly full moon. From inside our tent we listened to nothing and watched shooting stars streak across the cold Californian skies. New Meg looked over at me and said, “We should do more of this.” And she’s absolutely right. This was undoubtedly the best night of our trip, and the accommodation didn’t cost a penny.
Feeling uncannily sprightly in the morning, we (I think I have to attribute this one on Meg but for now let’s stick with “we”) decided to hike beyond Glen Aulin, deeper into the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River, setting ourselves the goal of making the 7 mile round trip down to Waterwheel Falls before turning back, collecting our tent and belongings, then hiking the 6 miles back up to the road where we’d left the car with full gear. For breathtaking views of the canyon, we walked a little beyond the majestic (but not quite in full force at this time of year) Waterwheel Falls — and in doing so, put 8 miles of tread onto our shoes that morning.
With the exception of perhaps three hikers coming the other way, we were all alone. Following the Tuolumne River into the canyon, we found a multitude of waterfalls and crystal clear ponds to swim in, streams that cascaded down slippery rocks into granite pools where eager brook trout would rise to dry flies, with mountains and alpine landscape in the background, a bold, deep canyon ahead, and not another soul for miles.
Back to Civilization?
Fourteen refreshing miles later, we were back at the car, covered in several layers of natural filth, with sore feet and shoulders, but otherwise on top of the world. We had new accomplishments to check off, the bucket list was again diminished, we had reached the end of a long stretch of sleeping outside, with no hot water, no cell phone signal, no electricity or any other comforts we so often take for granted at our disposal. It was time to get back into civilization for a while, time to clean up and sleep in a bed… but where? Leaving Yosemite behind us, we entered the town of Lee Vining. It probably has a lot going for it, but we cared about one thing only: cell phone signal. It was mid-afternoon, we were happy, dirty, tired, in the middle of nowhere — and we had no plans. It was time to start making some calls.