Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Yosemite National Park adventures

Two days after arriving on the western shores of the US, my Patagonian hiking friend and Californian tour guide, Irby, planned to take me to Yosemite National Park. Probably being one of the most popular parks in the States (3.5 million visitors a year), I was initially resistant to the idea of joining throngs of tourists in a landscape that deserved to be peaceful and uncrowded. However, after many high recommendations from locals and Australian friends, I agreed.

The long drive out from San Francisco, took us through rolling golden grass countryside of the Oak Tree Plains heading towards grey skies to the west. The landscape reminded me of South Australia in summer.

We only got a brief taste of the crowds (most contained within the valley) as we joined a slow crawl through Yosemite Valley - set by the traffic, pedestrians and wildlife and the dramatic granite peaks. Many people use the extensive cycle/walking paths which meander around the valley floor in preference to the road, reducing car traffic a little. We gathered information about the hike options, the ominous weather forecasts and the bears and did a short walk to the foot of the dramatic Yosemite Falls through beautiful forest, before winding up to the higher plateaus of the park around Tuolumne Meadows. When greeted by torrential rain and hail and high winds soon after picking up our bear barrel (for safe food storage), and discovering that Irby was without wet weather gear or a tent, we sought shelter in the cosiness of Tuolumne Meadows Resort to warm up on hearty homemade fruit pie. Irby wisely suggested seeking warmer, drier climes in Death Valley, before returning a few days later to try again.

I'm glad we did return. Hetch Hetchy sounded like a more remote location for hiking and the weather forecast was more stable (we were snowed on when crossing Tuolumne Meadow on our return). Irby hadn't ever been there, which was another incentive.

Packing gear for a hike into bear country is serious business. Bear are attracted to anything with a scent - deoderant, toothpaste, lip balm, suncream, insect repellent, moisturiser and, of course, food. Nothing can be left in a car as bears will break in (even for an empty soft drink bottle). These things have to be stored in hefty steel food boxes in the carparks (with almost human-proof locks) or on your body, with bear bins as the only approved and non-fineable means of storing bear temptations overnight. This was good training for Alaska where bear-proofing will be much more critical. Perhaps as a result of our dilligence, the only bear we saw was from the car in a meadow.

HETCH HETCHY HIKE - 3rd, 4th June

Hetch Hetchy Valley's O'Shaughnessy Dam was completed in 1923 with much controversy and resistance. It supplies unfiltered drinking water (delicious) to San Francisco's bay area - 85% of its total needs as well as generating electricity (totalling 218mW). Many walks start across the dam wall, on the other side of a long and large tunnel hewn out of the granite.

With uncertain weather, we decided to do the return walk around the lake to Rancheria Falls. The icy, green-hued lake unravelled as we followed the trail near the base of the granite cliffs and the distances were deceptive. From early on, we could see our campsite, marked by a broad white brush of foaming whitewater but it took 4 hours to reach it.

The trail was stunningly beautiful and the lushness of the vegetation, cooled air and profusion of wildflowers was a pleasant relief after the baking heat of the desert. Our trail was shaded with lichen-speckled trees (not that we needed shade due to stormclouds) and the path, though uneven, was elaborately constructed from stone, like a rustic version of the Inca Trail. Although Yosemite is teeming with human visitors, this lakeside pocket was quiet and even quieter beyond the drenching Wapama Falls where few daytrippers continue. There, the path widened out in parts where wildflowers in blues, lilac, purple, pinks, yellows and oranges bloomed in profusion. While Irby plodded on under heavy pack, I played hare to the tortoise, getting left behind, taking photos of flowers, plants, creatures and vistas, then dashing to catch up.

Although we saw no bears, ground squirrels were everywhere and suprising translucent fire red newts (like geckos) enjoyed the damp puddles and shade around the waterfalls. A jerky robotic-looking mule deer passed through our camp the following morning - a delicate, beautiful creature straight out of "Bambi", the movie. We think we heard a bear at dusk, as we were walking the last stretch to the camp across the rock slabs to Rancheria Falls and the camping area. A surprised roar, it could have been one, or perhaps the Germans we found camped down by the river - a cold dip in the river perhaps.

The spacious campsite was idyllic and shared with 3 other tents. Sheltered in a pine forest and only a short walk to the falls, it felt cosy and perhaps offered Irby some psychological weather-protection from the thunderstorms brewing in the distance (which fortunately didn't come).

With more time and food, we could have completed a loop up into the mountains above the lake but along with our limitations, the thought of a hot shower after 4 nights without was too appealing. With some regret, we walked back around the lake (this time with bursts of sunshine which released the floral fragrances). Not racing the daylight, we had more time to enjoy the granite landscape and wildflowers and picnicked in the sun beside the cooling Wapama Falls.

Within 4 or 5 hours, we were back in civilisation - Pleasant Hill, home of the Irby's. Hot showers, clean clothes and a soft, soft bed.

For more photos see

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