Post #73: To Half Dome and beyond

January 16, 2021. It got dark at the campsite by 5 pm, but the nearby RV’s generator didn’t shut off until 9. We couldn’t imagine why anyone would need to run a generator for more than an hour or two at night. RVs have battery banks that can run the lights, fans and a DVD player. We assumed they were new to RV-ing or just didn’t care. It was one of many examples of people trying out camping during Covid to escape and social distance that was making camping harder for the hardcore. We were pretty sure that once Covid was over, most would go back to what they had been doing, while a much smaller percentage would become fellow travelers—and potential friends.

But this morning our minds were on getting into the main part of Yosemite, which opened at 8 am—the park was only open from 8 am to 5 pm and camping in the park was prohibited due to Covid. Yosemite is one of the most visited national parks and we expected we’d find crowds.

We left for the five-minute drive to the entry gate but when we got there at 7:45, there was already a long line. Today was Saturday, forecast to be 70 degrees, only limited parts of the park were open, and this was the main entrance used by visitors from the San Francisco Bay Area, which is only 2 ½ – 3 hours away.

Once in the park, we realized that even though there were lots of visitors it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it was the last time we visited, in early September 2018. Yosemite Valley was quite a bit colder than it was yesterday at Hetch Hetchy and at one point as we were driving toward the valley from the entrance, the truck’s outside thermometer registered 30 degrees. We doubted we’d be seeing 70 degrees today. 

We started looking for a picnic table for breakfast but found none in the sun. Much of Yosemite Valley is surrounded by steep and very tall granite walls and the sun doesn’t have much time to warm the valley floor in winter because it’s so low in the sky. 

It was so cold we didn’t want to sit outside for too long, so it would be a cereal morning. And with our wonderful new Jetboil, heating the water for Susan’s coffee took merely 90 seconds. So, like yesterday, we had breakfast in the shadow of granite cliffs. This time, the nearby cliff was the renowned vertical rock formation, El Capitan!

After breakfast, we found the large trailhead parking lot (already almost full) that provided access to several nearby trails, including the starting point of the John Muir Trail. While most people were hiking to the waterfalls up the Mist Trail, we’d just done a falls hike yesterday and with temperatures still not above 40 degrees we had no desire to get wet from the mist that sprays off the falls onto that trail. We decided instead to take the 5-mile round trip trail to Mirror Lake. Normally, there are shuttles in Yosemite Valley that deposit visitors close to Mirror Lake, but the shuttles weren’t running due to Covid and the road was closed. This meant only hikers would be there so it was a rare opportunity to go there without the usual crowds. Perfect.

Tall pines and redwoods surrounded the trail
The large boulders reminded us that we were in Yosemite, a place where boulders are, well, nearly everywhere
The water level of the Merced River was low, revealing its rocky bottom
The trail went along the lovely Tenaya Creek

The hike was beautiful, through a thick pine forest with some pine tree-sized redwoods that would eventually dominate. The trail crossed the Merced River and then paralleled lovely Tenaya Creek. We stepped over and under boulders along the way. 

We’d learned our lesson from yesterday’s hike and shunned heavy jackets for multiple layers. But in the shade of the tall trees and canyon walls, my layers weren’t quite enough and I was chilly most of the way. 

If you look closely, there are people walking on what will be Mirror Lake come spring

Mirror Lake is now close to disappearing altogether due to sediment accumulation. The biggest attraction of Mirror Lake is its reflection of nearby Half Dome—something that obviously can be seen only when the lake has water. 

When we arrived at Mirror Lake, we discovered it wasn’t there. There was a sign, but no lake to be found. We learned that in winter, the “lake” is nothing but a few small puddles in an open grassland, but magnificently surrounded by granite peaks on one side and thick forest on the other. Even in its prime in the spring when there’s snow runoff, it’s a shallow lake that’s the final remnant of what was once a large glacial lake that filled most of Yosemite Valley at the end of the last Ice Age.

The trail opened up to a wide expanse of grassland as we approached Mirror Lake
Half Dome is a spectacular sight even when it's not reflected in water

At about 11:00 am the sun finally made it over the mountains and we found some warm spots in the meadow where sometimes there’s a lake. We hung out in the warm sun for a while before we headed back on the loop trail on the other side of the creek. 

By the time we arrived back at the truck, the crowds had thickened and Yosemite started to feel like an amusement park—the last place we wanted to be during Covid. We sat in the truck enjoying some PB&J sandwiches and reviewing the map to decide on our route out of the park. We decided we’d head home and enjoy the continued warm weather at home, and it was still early enough in the day that we could easily take a slightly longer, scenic route we’d never been on before. So, we chose a less-traveled route that took us out of the park along the Merced River. From there, we’d head north on California Highway 49. 

We passed through the particularly charming gold rush town of Angels Camp. We learned the town was founded by a shopkeeper who decided he could make more money providing supplies to the gold miners than looking for gold himself

Highway 49, running nearly 300 miles north-south, was named for the 49ers—the waves of gold-rushers who’d come to the area around 1849, The road passes through many historic mining communities and traverses the Sierra foothills, so we figured it would be historically interesting and probably pretty. We were right on both counts.

Our scenic route was far more scenic than we'd anticipated
The twists and turns of the southern section of Route 49

We were taken aback by the beauty of our chosen route. The road traverses over, under and around the foothills, sharply winding its way through a large section of the hills that was dry and steep. The road was a delight for many miles with almost no other cars. The extra 30-45 minutes of driving was infinitely worth it, we thought. We also noted the number of motorcycles enjoying the twisty, nearly empty road and decided we’d return on the bike when it’s warmer.

Soon, the sun was setting and we began to get into larger and larger cities. We hit Sacramento in the dark and the drive was pretty automatic from there, having done it so often. We loved the fact that Yosemite is only a four-hour drive from home and decided that Hetch Hetchy was worthy of more exploring later.

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