Pine Fresh

Part 3 of Across America, 15 Dec 2011


Or why you shouldn’t read this post.

How can a few words and a pile of coloured pixels do justice to Yosemite? They can’t. Go yourself (during low season). For those not yet bored with the Internet, I offer this bromide.

Half Dome

I stood alone amongst the pines and cedars. The cold air still, quiet and redolent of pine. This is what countless cleaning products have tried, yet failed, to capture: a wonderful lung-cleaning freshness. The whole valley seemed to be awaiting winter. The highest peaks sprinkled with icing sugar; the waterfalls freezing up.

At 6:30am I stood on a damp Broadway awaiting the tour bus. Yosemite Valley is 150 miles from San Francisco, the drive giving me an opportunity to see a little more of California. By the time I’d properly woken up, we were climbing through the chaparral on a small road. The colour had been drained from the landscape, leaving muted yellows, browns and greens.

With the Chief

As the first pine trees appeared, the Sun burned through the cloud. It was going to be a beautiful day. There was little traffic or signs of human activity in the pine forest. The only town of any size we past was Groveland, whose claim to fame seemed to be the Iron Door Saloon. Built around 1852, the saloon qualifies as seriously old for California, a reminder of how young it is. Trees in the town were decorated with silver foil and red ribbons: the effect was a little odd.

It was noon when we reached Yosemite Valley, stopping for the obligatory “tunnel view” photo (pictured). A small fire in the valley adding a layer of smoke. Passing the vast face of El Capitan and the frozen Bridalveil Falls, we drove down into the valley. From this point the tour was over: it was time to explore alone. As the valley is so enclosed and the paths well marked, I concluded there was little chance of getting lost. Freed from worrying about navigation, I struck out along a trail.

Demanding Raven

Despite the fact the Valley receives almost four million visitors a year, I was soon by myself. Clearly December isn’t a popular time to visit. A sign for the Yosemite Falls caught my attention, and I went to investigate. These falls had a little water, though nothing like the torrent of late spring shown on the information board.

There wasn’t much visible wildlife in the valley, despite the signs imploring me to “be bear aware” and watch out for pouncing mountain lions (tip, fight back when attacked). One of the few visible animals were the ravens. Their croaking calls echoed between the cliffs. Around the Yosemite Falls they landed right next to me, trying to get my attention.

I continued to explore the valley until sunset. The light was amazing as the Sun disappeared behind the mountains. The colours were intense yet muted at the same time. I sat beneath a tall pine until cold forced me to retreat.

Broken Mirror

Boarding the YARTS bus, I headed to my accommodation for the night. If I’d been in any doubt it was low season, it was soon dispelled by arriving at Cedar Lodge. There were over a hundred rooms, but I was the only one in the bar for dinner. That’s not entirely accurate, I was the only one besides the barman and a couple of rowdy locals. They were a women in her 50s and her similarly aged brother-in-law (seemingly divorced). They had a comedy fight and argument the whole evening. It was like a real life Jerry Springer show, without the chair throwing (though some beer mats were flung). At one point the women put her arm around my shoulder and asked if I was on her side, I made it quite clear I was on nobody’s side, much to the amusement of the barman. Every ten minutes or so, one of them would realise I was there and apologise, but I couldn’t help but smile at the childish silliness of it all. The burger wasn’t half bad either.

Reflecting Half Dome

The next morning I returned to the valley early. I decided to follow the Victorian tourists to Mirror Lake: known for reflecting Half Dome. The water level was too low to form a proper lake, but the encroaching winter had created some impressive ice. The water had drained away, leaving a shattered surface behind.

I spent the rest of the day hiking in the valley. Seeing deer, a lot of grey squirrels (much more timid than those back home) and the odd woodpecker. Three-thirty came around all too quickly: it was time to head back to San Francisco. I’d barely explored the valley, let alone climbed up the steep trails that overlook it. I must return another year and spend some real time. Perhaps I’ll even be lucky enough to see a bear.

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Tags: AcrossAmerica, California, Hiking, Mountains, Travel, USA, Yosemite