By Sam Burkhart
Standing at the top of Sentinel Dome overlooking the grey granite of El Capitan to the west and Half Dome to the northeast, and with Yosemite Falls cascading from atop the northern plateau and into Yosemite Valley below, it’s easy to be romantic about this place. This is what John Muir was protecting when he started the Sierra Club, this is what Teddy Roosevelt was preserving when he expanded the national park and this is what the original climbing dirtbags came to Yosemite for. It’s only my second day exploring the world-famous national park but I understand what they were thinking. This place is special.
My Yosemite adventure began a couple of days earlier, after a three-hour drive from San Francisco, past orchards that looked straight out of a Steinbeck novel and through charming Gold Rush towns. After an unsuccessful stop in Twain Harte to pick up our fishing licenses (we ended up getting them online later), we arrive at Pinecrest Lake Resort where the rustic cabins provide easy access to excellent fishing, kayaking and boating opportunities on Pinecrest Lake. I find a spot on the beach and crack open an Otra Vez (prickly pear and pineapple ale) from Sierra Nevada brewery and sip it as the sun goes down.
The next day, we are up early to meet our guide, Rick Mazaira, for a morning of fly fishing on the south fork of the Stanislaus River. The river is picturesque as it serpentines through the Stanislaus National Forest, but fishing conditions aren’t ideal. The river is running high and fast. After a quick lesson in roll-casting, I take to the water. It’s all I can do to keep my footing as the current rushes past me on its way to the larger San Joaquin River and then into San Francisco Bay. I take Rick’s advice and move like a sumo wrestler through the water.
“Don’t try to scamper,” he says. It may not look pretty but it keeps me from dunking as I move from pool-to-pool in search of elusive rainbow and brown trout. Between my sumo-like movement and my Zen-attitude, I figure I’m bound to catch something, but after a couple of hours in the water I’ve felt only nibbles, which may have actually been near snags, and I’ve lost two flies to actual snags, which may have been enormous fish. At least I’m still dry.
We soon hit the road. On the way to our next destination, Evergreen Lodge, we drive through areas destroyed by the 2013 Rim Fire, the third-largest in California’s history. The effects are shocking; whole mountains turned to scorched earth, charred pines half-standing like tombstones to their own remains. Thanks to the firefighters, Evergreen Lodge was saved from the fire, an oasis in the burning inferno. And what an oasis.
I check into my cabin and make a beeline for the saltwater swimming pool and hot tub, the place to be at sunset (or any time of day, for that matter). The soak is necessary. I join my group for dinner (pork belly) at the main lodge and then find a viewing point to soak up the night sky. It’s early to bed—the next day we are hiking in Yosemite.
We depart Evergreen Lodge, following the twisty-turny two-lane blacktop of Glacier Point Road. Once the road leaves the valley floor, it climbs quickly to 2,300 metres and it’s a long way down if you miss a corner. California black oak, ponderosa pine and incense cedar line the roads and even in May there is snow. Lots of snow.
There are more than 1,200 kilometres of hiking trails in Yosemite National Park, certainly enough to satisfy the most avid hiker. Our planned hike for this day was a moderate trek from the Sentinel Dome Trailhead up to the top of the dome, then along the ridge to Taft Point before circling back and finishing the loop where we started. It’s a 3.5-kilometre circuit.
At the trailhead, we are introduced to our guide, Jay, from YExplore Yosemite Adventures. He is a professional photographer and long-time dirtbag, but it’s his first time on this particular trail this year. Equipped with gaiters and hiking poles, he looks like the real deal.
“It’ll be interesting to see how much snow is on the trail. We had a pretty good snowpack this year. You guys will be my guinea pigs,” he says.
I look at my comrades. I’m up for an adventure, but I can tell no one is looking forward to being a guinea pig. We leave the road behind and make our way out of the trees and onto the bald-head of the dome. There are some touch-and-go moments when melting snow and steeper-than-expected granite make for slick footing, but everyone reaches the top. It really is stunning. Mount Conness, Mount Hoffman and a half-dozen other impressive snow-covered peaks are visible in the distance.
After admiring the vistas, we start making our way southwest toward Taft Point. It’s across Sentinel Creek and about three kilometres away. We’re back in the trees and the snow is thick on the ground. There is no longer any visible trail and since we are running out of time, we decide to skip Taft Point (bummer—think legs dangling off a cliff and more stunning valley views) and make our way back to the trailhead. Hot, tired and wet up to the thigh from sinking into melting snow, we are now also lost. Well, maybe not lost. We know which way we need to go, but we don’t know the best way to get there and we still have to re-cross the creek. Hiking becomes bushwhacking as we follow the creek uphill towards the road. Eventually, we find a decent snowbridge and scurry across the creek and then trudge the last couple-hundred metres to the meeting point.
Two days in Yosemite is like two minutes at an all-you-can-eat buffet: it’s not nearly enough time to get your fill. When you go, give yourself a week to get out of the valley and fully experience this special place for yourself. nps.gov/yose/index.htm
3 Essential Yosemite Hikes
Soda Springs/Parsons Lodge (Easy): This out-and-back leaves the Lembert Dome parking area and follows a 2.4-kilometre-track through the Tuolumne Meadows and over the Tuolumne Bridge. There is a bubbling soda spring here (hence the name) as well as a historic log cabin. Both are worth checking out. Give yourself an hour to do this modest, flat and scenic hike.
Elizabeth Lake (Moderate): This hike leaves the Tuolumne Meadows Campground and climbs quickly for the first mile. You’ll gain about 270 metres as you hike the 7.4-kilometre trail. The prime attraction here? Elizabeth Lake, with its stunning mountain backdrop. It is worth the short climb to get here. Give yourself five hours for the round-trip.
Mount Hoffmann (Difficult): Mount Hoffmann is the geographic centre of Yosemite. That should be enough to make you want to climb it. Thankfully, there is a trail. Start at the May Lake trailhead and follow the trail past the lake and up the mountain. You’ll gain 600 metres as you ascend the rocky slope, but the scramble is worth it. Once at the top, you’ll have views of Half Dome and Clouds Rest. Give yourself four hours for the up-and-down.
Where to Stay (When You're Not Camping)
Pinecrest Lake Resort
Pinecrest Lake Resort sits at 1,700 metres of elevation on the edge of Pinecrest Lake. The relaxed, laidback atmosphere is perfect for resting trail-weary bones. Feeling energetic? Rent a kayak and explore the shoreline of this snow-fed lake. pinecrestlakeresort.com
This oasis of beauty and tranquility borders Yosemite National Park, so whether you use it as a basecamp for adventure or it is your final destination, this is the ultimate in Yosemite accommodations. evergreenlodge.com
Located about an hour from Yosemite, Mariposa is considered a gateway town. The Mariposa Lodge has spacious rooms and a pool for lounging. It’s a short walk to restaurants, shops and supplies. mariposalodge.com
Mccaffrey House Bed & Breakfast
This quiet B&B is located in the forest of the High Sierra on the outskirts of Yosemite. This is the quintessential bed-and-breakfast with four-poster beds, hand-made quilts and breakfast served at 9:00 a.m. mccaffreyhouse.com