Yosemite National Park attracts millions of tourists each summer, but Conal Healy headed to the wilderness in mid-winter and lost the crowds
By Conal Healy
THE road was clear of snow and compacted ice, now it was just mist and trees.
Cloud and cedar, to be more accurate, but on this bleak pitch black winter’s evening there was nobody around to argue.
The place? High in a wilderness called the Yosemite National Park, on the Sierra Nevada Ranges in eastern California. The time? An hour past sundown.
By now we were three hours overdue and the directions to the hotel weren’t making sense.
The car was stopped at a junction and a decision had to be made. Do we take this turn, which might take us to the hotel?
Or, do we keep driving down the winding mountain road and hope there is another turn — somewhere — on the left.
To make matters worse, the needle for the petrol tank was at the three-quarter empty mark.
And there was no petrol station inside this huge park. Not for the first time I (internally) cursed for not stopping at Groveland to re-fuel.
Groveland was the last town before Yosemite – a park famed for its isolation. And here we were on an old mining road trying to make a decision on where to go.
The two kids in the back seats had picked up on the tension. Their bored bickering had stopped, the niggling had ended, the two of them were sitting quietly together.
Now that was disturbing in itself.
The children were waiting for the adults to come to the rescue, to make that correct decision that would take them to the safety of the hotel.
The kids were obviously scared of the wilderness just outside the car’s thin window, but neither of them were willing to admit their fear.
SAN Francisco was five hours back, and the run to Yosemite should have taken only three hours.
Blame it on a missed exit, blame it on Google driving directions, but here we were on a scary, tree-lined road in the middle of nowhere. In the darkness.
Already there had been signs warning about bears, of mountain lions and coyotes too. Back at the junction, the map was still being consulted. This could be the minor road that leads to a dead-end at the village of Foresta.
Or the car could have sailed past that particular turning — in the darkness — and this was THE road to the hotel at El Portal.
A ranger — at the park entrance at Crane Flat — told us to “turn left at the bottom of the hill”.
Since then we’d dropped God-knowshow-many-feet down the steep incline from the ranger’s station (a sign on the hut told we were 4872ft above sea level).
The road had snaked downhill, past roadside snow banks, sometimes we hit patches of black ice. Occasionally there would be gaps in the almost never-ending trees, but this inky blackness break only hinted of sheer cliffs and a rocky death.
On we drove, when did this “hill” end, I asked myself, just as we reached this now fateful junction.
FINALLY we dismissed the turning, slipped the brake and the car sailed on…continuing our trip deeper into Yosemite.
A few minutes later we did reach the valley floor, and there stood a sign to El Portal.
We breathed a sigh of relief. The tension within the car evaporated as we drove on, reassured that a hot meal, a comfortable bed and a soothing television was just minutes away.
The music kicked in, the chatting began, the kids separated and the fighting over who-touched-who started . . . normality had returned to the car.
YOSEMITE National Park is a very popular American tourist destination, about four million people make the trip to the mountain park each year.
In summer — the peak season — a hotel room within the park can cost $1000 a night. There are cheaper options including Curry Kitchen a tent village.
Most travellers try to find a room close to the park and drive in each day, or take the regular shuttle bus service. In addition to the mass of tourists clogging the narrow park roads, violent afternoon thunderstorms can shut hiking trails leaving travellers stuck in their cars – or at one of the park’s restaurant – looking at the lightning strikes.
On the plus side there are hundreds of miles of trails to explore – mainly through the green meadows and woodlands found across a roller coaster of different elevations.
The millions of people who do visit the park every year, usually enjoy — in the warmer, busier, months – rock climbing, hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, camping and — when the days turn cold — skiing, and snowshoeing.
Now in late November, we had the roads just about to ourselves. With skiers and boarders waiting for the first serious snows of winter, there were also none of the summer traffic jams to endure.
The early-Winter air was crystal clear, hazefree, with blue skies overhead. The days were cool, about 10 degrees, the night close to zero.
ALLOW plenty of time if you plan to visit Yosemite, even in winter.
The road twists as it follows the contours of the valley. Tall trees line the road, sometimes you’ll glimpse coyotes, deer and squirrels gathering their last stores of food before the long winter.
Filling the tank with petrol a local will tell you a bear story: “…And the huge grizzly sliced through the boot of the car trying to get to the meat in the cooler”.
Feeding the native animals is strongly discouraged in Yosemite, no matter how cute they appear. Sometimes the animal — squirrels, racoons and birds — become dependant on the food handouts and can’t hunt for themselves.
Other times the high sugar, high salt, preservative-filled junk food is a danger to the health of the wildlife. Visitors have to be aware that Yosemite is a wilderness area and there are risks from the park’s more dangerous inhabitants — bear and mountain lions.
DRIVING through Yosemite it’s easy to see what draws so many tourists each year.
The scenery is stunning — mountains shoot straight up from the valley floor. Green swathes of forest stretch before the eye.
Giant streaked-blocks of granite sit graciously, dusted white after an overnight snow shower.
Below, the rivers run clear, but are sluggish. Pools of standing water are frozen, acting like mirrors to distort reflections of trees and mountain peaks. Above, enormous sleets of rock defy perspective – these are Mother Nature’s original skyscrapers.
In Yosemite Valley stands massive Half Dome, a cracked block gnawed by a glacier, that rises 4733 feet (about 1442.6 metres), to dominate the landscape. Across the way, on the 3593-foot (1095-metre) vertical wall of El Capitan you can spot the tiny figures of rock climbers. During their ascent, which may take days, climbers sleep in slings hanging from the cliff.
Given the height elevation of Yosemite from 2000ft to 13000ft above sea level – you can go up one part of the park into a winter wonderland.
The snow-covered forest floor shines in the intense winter light. An overnight shower produces trees shrouded in white. In the still air, flurries of dry snow fall from tall cedar trees.
At a roadside lookout we stopped to take postcard photographs against this traditional Christmas backdrop, below us was The Big Meadow, a once-glacial lake which filled with silt. It now sits in splendid isolation, a patch of grass green in a forest of dark pine trees.
As the kids started another snowball fight, the car radio gave the weather report for the next few days and announced the mountain passes within the parks which would now be shut probably until spring, four months away.
On top of the list was the road to Wawona and Mariposa Grove, in the southern part of Yosemite, the home of the Giant Redwoods. I realised we’d left it too late for a drive down to see the 2000-year-old sequoias trees. Well, I figured, they weren’t going anywhere.
Next time we’d see them, when we go back to Yosemite.
■ The mountains and granite domes of the Sierra Nevada began to take shape about 500 million years ago, when the region lay under an ancient ocean.
■ The seabed consisted of thick layers of sediment, which eventually were folded, twisted, and d thrust above sea level. At the same time, molten rock welled up from the Earth and slowly cooled beneath the layers of sediment, forming granite.
■ Over millions of years, erosion wore away most of the overlying rock, exposing the granite. While this continued, water and then glaciers shaped and carved the face of Yosemite, leaving massive peaks and bare granite domes.
Wild life: What to do
What should you do if you meet a bear?
■ Yosemite is home to 300 – 500 American black bears. Although usually referred to as the black bear, very few are black, and they are more likely to be found in a variety of colours ranging from black to brown, blond, or cinnamon.
■ Do not underestimate a bear’s ingenuity, strength, or reach. Should a black bear approach, act immediately: Yell, clap your hands and bang pots and pans together, throw small stones or sticks toward the bear from a safe distance (the intent is to scare the bear, not to injure it).
■ Never approach a mother with cubs. She may attack in defence of her young.
■ Do not leave food in your car. Never leave food unattended. Eat it, discard it or use a food storage locker available throughout the park.
■ Store all food and related supplies, including any item with a scent, regardless of packaging, in a food storage locker. This includes items that are not food, such as canned foods, bottles, drinks, soaps, cosmetics, toiletries, perfumes, trash, ice chests (even when empty) and unwashed food items and utensils.
What should you do if you meet a mountain cat?
■ Never approach a mountain lion, especially one that is feeding or with kittens. Most mountain lions will try to avoid confrontation. Always give them a way to escape.
■ Don’t run. Stay calm. Hold your ground, or back away y slowly.
■ Face the lion and stand upright. Do all you can to appear larger. Grab a stick. Raise your arms. If the lion behaves aggressively, wave your arms, shout and throw objects at it. The goal is to convince it that you are not prey and may be dangerous yourself. If attacked, fight back!
■ The chance of being attacked by a mountain lion is quite low compared to many other natural hazards. There is, for example, a far greater risk of being struck by lightning than being attacked by a mountain lion.
Yosemite fast facts:
Cost: Effective June 2018 the park entrance fee will be $35 per vehicle or $30* per motorcycle. An annual park pass will cost $70.
Where on earth is this?
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