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Backcountry Yosemite.

Still mostly wild and uncrowded . . . ready for exploring as the grand old park celebrates its centennial

Of all the grand plans ever conceived around a campfire, one of the grandest was born in the High Sierra just over a century ago. Pioneer environmentalist John Muir and magazine editor Robert Underwood Johnson had spent several days in the summer of 1889 exploring the forest-fringed meadows and snow-filled rivers of the country above Yosemite Valley. At night, back in their Tuolumne Meadows campsite, their talk turned to the ravages that decades of grazing sheep ("hoofed locusts," Muir called them) had inflicted on the once-lush mountain meadows. After contrasting Muir's glowing descriptions of the meadows' former splendor with what they saw on their walks, Johnson came up with a scheme to protect the high meadows, and the headwaters of the streams that tumbled into Yosemite Valley (the valley itself already enjoyed protection as a park--granted to the state of California by President Lincoln in 1864). Johnson proposed that he and Muir join forces to promote the creation of a much larger national park, Muir to write articles extolling the virtues of the area and Johnson to publish them in his Century magazine. The plan succeeded. On October 1, 1890, President Harrison signed into law a bill creating Yosemite National Park, using Muir's recommended boundaries.

In historical perspective: a century of ups and downs The 100th anniversary of this act seems a fitting occasion to look ahead with serious concerns for the park's future--but also to take a fresh look at the still-wild Yosemite backcountry. Although there have been some significant changes, the backcountry still offers many of the same glorious experiences that inspired Johnson and Muir to work to protect it in perpetuity.

Sampling the backcountry . . . five areas in Yosemite's spectacular midsection

In 1905, the boundaries of the national park were redrawn; new ground on the north boundary of the Tuolumne River watershed was gained, but the magnificent wilderness around the Ritter Range was lost. A year later, poorly managed Yosemite Valley reverted to federal control and was incorporated into the park. In more than one sense, 1913 was a watershed for the park. After years of controversy, Congress okayed construction of a dam on the Tuolumne River (well within park boundaries) that would flood Muir's beloved Hetch Hetchy Valley. This was a bitter loss for conservationists, but it galvanized their fledging movement--and led to the passage, three years later, of the National Park Service Act. It wasn't until six years ago that Muir's vision of a place preserved in its natural state and protected from harmful exploitation was finally realized. In 1984, almost 95 percent of the park was officially declared wilderness, making it off limits to further road-building or any other new form of development.

A Sierra showcase: Yosemite has it all Crown jewel in the center of the Sierra Nevada chain (the longest continuous mountain range in the country), Yosemite National Park lies halfway between the range's northern end near Lassen and its southern terminus at Tehachapi Pass. Within it are represented all of the major Sierra Nevada ecosystems, from foothill woodlands to alpine tundra. Yosemite Valley, with its monumental granite walls and high-diving waterfalls, has always drawn the vast majority of park visitors--though it constitutes less than 1 percent of the park's 1,190 square miles. Last year, at least 70 percent of the nearly 3 1/2 million people who entered the park ended up there. The result of such dense visitation? Traffic and congestion problems not unlike those usually associated with an urban area. (For more on these problems, see page 114.) In the early 1970s, it seemed that the backcountry might soon be overrun with visitors, too. Backpacking was rapidly gaining in popularity, and hundreds of backpackers sometimes competed for campsites around a single lake. This stampede to the wilderness eroded trails, trampled vegetation, and polluted streams. To reduce impact on the most popular destinations, a system was instituted to control access through permits. But in 1975, the backpacking boom peaked. Since then, overnight use of the backcountry has dropped by half, though park visitation has increased by almost a third. Yosemite's wilderness is still more heavily used than most others in California, and permits are still required for overnight wilderness trips. But a visitor repelled by the crowds there years ago would be pleasantly surprised today. In the following pages, we help you get to know a representative--and spectacular--swath of the backcountry. Traversed by the Tioga Road, which is peppered with trailheads, this central third of the park is uniquely accessible cross-section of the High Sierra. Even just driving through, you can learn a good deal about the natural history of these mountains from roadside exhibits. Of course, you'll learn a lot more if you explore the park on foot--whether with a day's walk or by backpacking for a night or more--as Muir and Johnson did a century ago.

Tioga Road: from horse-drawn wagons to station wagons From the meadows and mixed forest of Crane Flat at 6,200 feet, the Tioga Road climbs gradually to 9,945-foot-high Tioga Pass, the highest highway pass in California. In between, it cuts through dense red-fir forests, glacially scoured expanses of granite, and subalpine meadows. Snow keeps the road closed for about half of the year--usually from November to late May. Summer sojourners motoring up the Tioga to the Yosemite high country follow a route blazed millennia ago by Miwok and Mono Indians who traversed the Sierra to trade acorns and obsidian. Known as the Mono Trail, it was used occasionally by white explorers to cross the mountains. The lure of precious metals eventually drew large numbers of white men to this route. In the late 1950s, gold seekers used it to reach mines near Mono Lake. Twenty years later, the discovery of silver near Tioga Pass attracted another wave of prospectors. In the 1880s, looking for an alternative to hauling heavy machinery for large-scale mining up the Sierra's precipitous eastern flank, the Great Sierra Consolidated Silver Company commissioned construction of a road leading in from the west. The road opened in 1883, but the company left less than a year later, without ever hauling machinery up the road--or ore down it. Interest in the abandoned road, by now known as the Tioga Road, picked up again after the national park was created. But it didn't officially become part of the park until 1915, when national parks chief Stephen Mather raised enough money (contributing half from his own pocket) to purchase the road and donate it to the federal government. The first automobiles chugged across it that summer. The modern thoroughfare on which today's visitors cross the park began to take shape in the late 1930s. Sections at both ends of the road were paved, and the western end was moved south to Crane Flat. The central section was oiled, eliminating dust clouds that annoyed early motorists, but it remained unpaved until 1961. You can still drive sections of the old road that lead to Yosemite Creek Campground and the May Lake trailhead.


It was John Muir's battleground. Today you hike for views, waterfalls

John Muir called Hetch Hetchy "a grand landscape garden, one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples." Early on, this glacier-sculpted valley's resemblance to the more famous one about 17 miles south earned it the nickname of "the Tuolumne Yosemite." Muir was looking at the dark side of this equation when, in one of his articles arguing for the creation of Yosemite National Park, he expressed his hope "that the Hetch Hetchy will escape such ravages of man as one sees in Yosemite." Muir was to live just long enough to see much worse befall Hetch Hetchy. Despite his years of tireless effort on the valley's behalf, the 1913 Raker Bill granted San Francisco the right to dam the Tuolumne River and flood Hetch Hetchy as its reservoir. Before the bill's passage, Muir had said that the fight against the dam was killing him; many people have attributed his death a year later to his sorrow over losing Hetch Hetchy. Work began on O'Shaughnessy Dam in 1919, and it was completed in 1923. In the 1930s, the dam was raised 85 feet to its current height of 430 feet. The concrete structure holds back water that covers 3 square miles of the valley floor; this reservoir fills drinking glasses in San Francisco and generates electricity that courses through the wires of the city's transit system. Controversy over Hetch Hetchy flared up once again, briefly, four years ago, when then--interior secretary Donald Hodel made headlines with a proposal to demolish the dam and restore Hetch Hetchy to its natural state.

Even so, it's still well worth a visit Despite the fact that a manmade lake how covers the valley floor, Hetch Hetchy's granite domes and waterfalls retain a grandeur that can still be appreciated on mostly level hikes along benches on the valley's north wall. And even though you can no longer stroll through the meadows and ponderosa pines of the valley floor, these terraces are among the few spots within park boundaries where you can explore the habitat of the foothill woodlands. May is the best time to visit Hetch Hetchy. Snowmelt fills the falls, now at their boisterous best, and summer has not yet brought blistering heat to this relatively low elevation (about 4,000 feet above sea level). In fact, the terraces can seem positively lush at this time of year.

Exploring Hetch Hetchy's distinctive ecosystem To reach Hetch Hetchy from State Highway 120, turn north on Evergreen Road 1 mile west of the park's Big Oak Flat entrance station. The paved road leads 16 miles to a parking area at O'Shaughnessy Dam. Along the roadside, watch for the bright, tricolored blooms of harlequin lupine. Begin your hike by walking across the dam. You can fill your water bottles with San Francisco's finest at a fountain in the center of the dam. From here, look out over the reservoir to the major landmarks that escaped submersion. To the left are Tueeulala Falls and Wapama Falls, compared by Muir to Bridalveil and Yosemite falls in Yosemite Valley. Between them and just beyond are two massive rock formations (the farther one is called Hetch Hetchy Dome) that Muir likened to El Capitan and Half Dome. Kolana Rock, protruding proudly from the opposite wall, reminded him of Cathedral Rocks. On the far side of the dam, your route leads into a windy tunnel blasted through a sheer rock wall. Emerging on a dirt road you'll soon encounter that unmistakable denizen of the Sierra foothills, the Digger pine (a name derived from white pioneers' contemptuous name for California Indians). Because no other Diggers grow for many miles to the west, the Hetch Hetchy stand is believed to be a remnant from a time when the foothill plant community reached higher elevations. This pine is easily distinguished by a forking trunk and skyward-pointing branches that bear long gray-green needles. Although its foliage is thin and almost ghostly, its cones are hefty and substantial. On the Hetch Hetchy terraces, another lower-elevation tree, the canyon live oak, forms dense stands that offer hikers occasional refuge from the sun (but not, unfortunately, from the flies, which also seem to seek the shade). Manzanita and mountain mahogany grow as shrubs in open areas. Among the wildflowers you might see are clusters of trumpet-shaped elegant brodiaea and stalks of larkspur, both purple, and--as summer approaches--the loose pink blooms of aptly named farewell-to-spring. A trail that leaves the road to follow the reservoir shoreline takes you past the sheer descent of graceful Tueeulala Falls (which can trickle away by July), and then on to the foot of thunderous Wapama Falls. Spray from the waterfalls gives hot hikers a welcome soak as they cross its tumultous toes on a series of footbridges. Retrace your steps from here for an easy 5-mile round trip. Backpackers and hardy day-hikers can continue 4 miles around imposing Hetch Hetchy Dome (notice the massive arches, formed when sheets of granite peeled away, resembling Royal Arches in Yosemite Valley) and across a rocky hillside (supporting only scattered Digger pines) to Rancheria Falls, smaller than the other two falls but still quite attractive. A ponderosa pine greets you as you approach the falls, verifying the obvious fact that you're gaining elevation. There are campsites under the trees near the falls, but store your food carefully if you use them; we met two park biologists here last year who were trapping bears that frequent these popular sites.

Where to stay

Campgrounds. A backpackers' camp near O'Shaughnessy Dam is planned for opening in August. Call the Park Service (see the box on page 112) for current status. Two national forest campgrounds on Evergreen Road (Carlon and Middle Fork) have a small number of first-come sites that fill quickly in summer but often have midweek vacancies in late spring or early fall.

Other lodging. In a wooded area just outside the park on Evergreen Road, Evergreen Lodge (209/379-2606) rents one- and two-bedroom cabins for $49 to $74 a night. Accommodations tend toward the rustic, but the restaurant serves surprisingly sophisticated fare.


The trees that amazed the mountain men

As the winter of 1833 began to tighten its grip on the Sierra, Joseph Walker and his party of hunters and trappers--the first white men to attempt an east-to-west crossing of the range--struggled slowly westward along the divide between the Tuolumne and Merced rivers. Their destination was the fabled Central Valley, where they hoped to find enough beaver pelts to make up for their hardships. But what they found on their way over the mountains was of more lasting importance. Their first discovery was Yosemite Valley, which they surveyed from its north rim without descending to its floor. Soon they encountered other wonders: "We have found some trees of the Redwood species, incredibly large--some of which would measure from 16 to 18 fathom round the trunk." Though the measurement might be questionable (more than 30 feet in diameter!), there is little doubt that the trees that amazed the Walker party were giant sequoias. The sequoias Walker encountered were not in Yosemite's well-known Mariposa Grove at the south end of the part, but in one of two less-visited stands near Crane Flat--the Tuolumne or the Merced. These groves are much smaller than the Mariposa, but also much less crowded. One is accessible by car, the other by a short hike. At 6,200 feet, Crane Flat is more than 2,000 feet higher than Hetch Hetchy, and the difference in vegetation is immediately apparent. The forest is more diverse and mutlilayered here than anywhere else in the park. Outside the two groves of giant sequoias, white firs dominate. Stately sugar pines, sturdy Jeffrey pines, cinnamon-colored incense cedars, and black oaks (named for the distinctive color of their bark) also thrive in this region--as does the endangered great gray owl. From June through mid-August, you'll find a dazzling array of wildflowers throughout Crane Flat's meadows. You can park in the lot at the junction of the Tioga Road and the Old Big Oak Flat Road and walk across the Tioga Road to the upper end of the meadows. Three tall-growing wildflowers stand out from the others: yellow coneflowers, white cow parsnip, and white-stalked corn lilies.

Two groves with giant sequoias--and fewer people Although the Merced Grove was "discovered" at least once before, surveyors of the first road into Yosemite Valley thought they were the first to lay eyes on the stand of giant sequoias when they stumbled upon it in 1871. To capitalize on this newfound attraction, the toll road's route was redirected through the grove. No longer open to vehicles, the road now serves as a pathway for visitors hiking n the 2 miles to the big trees. Four miles past the Big Oak Flat entrance station on the Big Oak Flat Road, look for a hiker symbol marking a small parking area by a gated dirt road. Walk south on the level road, which is lined with sugar pines and littered with their pineapple-size cones. After about a mile, you'll come to the old Coulterville Road. The left fork slopes gently downhill for another mile to the giant sequoias. In June, western azaleas growing in the shadows of the massive trees erupt in white and yellow blooms. A fire-scarred colossus across from an old log cabin is a monument to the resilience of these thick--barked ancients. If you find the sugar pines along this route as enchanting as John Muir did ("Of all the world's 80 or 90 species of pine trees, the Sugar Pine is king, surpassing all others, not merely in size but in lordly beauty"), you might want to hike 3 miles into the Rockefeller Grove on a dirt road across the Big Oak Flat Road from the Merced Grove trailhead to see one of the finest remaining stands of virgin sugar pines in the Sierra. Like the Merced Grove, the Tuolumne Grove lies along the route of one of the early toll roads to the valley. Completed a month after the Coulterville Road, the original Big Oak Flat Road led from a mining town to Tuolumne Grove and Crane Flat, continuing eastward to Gin Flat before winding down to the valley floor. The Big Oak Flat Road has since been realigned, but the old portion past the Tuolumne Grove is still open to westbound cars. If you don't want to drive the entire 6 miles to Hodgdon Meadow, you can park in the lot of The Tioga Road, then walk a mile down the road to the grove. Meandering among the grove's 25 giant sequoias is a 1/3-mile-long nature trail, signed to tell the long life story of the trees. In May and June, you'll see the graceful white blossoms of dogwood trees along the shady banks of North Crane Creek.

Where to stay

Campgrounds. Crane Flat (166 sites) is open May to October; Hodgdon Meadow (105 sites) is open all year. Both require Ticketron reservations ($10 per site) from May to October. For information on camping west of the park in Stanislaus National Forest, call or stop in at the Groveland District Ranger Station, 8 miles east of Groveland on State Highway 120; (209) 962-7825.

Other lodging. The Park Service (see box on page 112) can send you a list of accommodation outside the park--but generally situated along approaches to it.


As you climb higher, magnificent red firs, lakes, views, curious marmots

Leaving the Crane Flat area, the Tioga Road climbs gradually to about 8,000 feet, an elevation it straddles for many miles as it winds eastward from one watershed to the next. This middle region of the park is home to the somber but hauntingly beautiful red-fir forest. Few plants can grow in the shade of these magnificent conifers; nor can other trees compete to enter the exclusive stands that red firs often form. Muir claimed the red fir possessed "a richness and symmetry and perfection of finish not to be found in any other tree in the Sierra." Besides passing through miles of pure red-fir forest, travelers on this segment of the Tioga Road will also see other species that flourish at the same general elevations. Interpretive signs at pull-outs along the road identify distinctive features of various trees and explain conditions that encourage their growth. Examples include the hardy Western juniper, which seems to grow out of bare rocks, and quaking aspen (the fall-color favorite), which requires a dependable supply of ground water. Half a mile past Porcupine Flat Campground, a short nature trail introduces you to the most common conifers seen along the highway; among them is the lodgepole pine, a scaly-barked tree that keeps company with other species at most elevations within the part, but truly dominates in the lofty subalpine region. Conditions that favor one plant species over another are not always nature's doing. Years of fire suppression by human managers can allow certain trees (such as white fir) to take over a forest that would otherwise be mixed or dominated by a species that needs fire to complete its reproductive cycle. Since 1970, prescribed burns have been par of a Park Service program to compensate for the effects of previous fire suppression; besides reestablishing a more natural competitive environment, these controlled fires remove the buildup of deal plant material and undergrowth that could fuel large, catastrophic fires (like the cones in Yellowstone in 1988). You can see the effects of extensive prescribed burns along the Tioga Road as it climbs eastward from Crane Flat.

White Wolf: meander through meadows, day-hike to lakes Originally a small resort and way station on the Old Tioga Road, but now a mile removed from the modern highway, White Wolf still serves as a mid-elevation base camp for visitors staying in the tent-cabin lodge run by Yosemite Park and Curry Co., or in the adjacent Park Service campground. You can enjoy the area's natural appeal without going any farther than the flowery meadow across the road from the lodge, where clusters of yampah often form a lacy sea of white. Two small lakes are popular destinations for day-hikes from White Wolf. Harden Lake is 3 miles northwest, via the Old Tioga Road along the Middle Fork of the Tuolumne River; the lake is between two ridges of glacial deposits embedded with granite boulders. Swimming can be enjoyable here late in the summer, though the lake's level drops as its temperature rises. Lukens Lake, another glacier-dammed lake, is 2 1/4 miles from White Wolf in the opposite direction, on a gently ascending trail. A shorter trail (1 mile) also leads to Lukens Lake from a pull-out on the Tioga Road about 2 miles east of the White Wolf junction. Backpackers interested in an uncrowded, mid-elevation route can continue west past Harden Lake through red-fir and Jeffrey pine forest to Smith Meadow, 8 1/2 miles from White Wolf and 1,600 feet lower. From the meadow, it's a 1 1/2-mile ascent to the summit of Smith Peak--at 7,751 feet, the highest point for miles around, and a spot with superb views (especially of the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, to the east). If you'd like to forgo the footwork but still see the area, the park concessionaire's White Wolf stables offers 2-hour guided rides to Lukens or Harden lakes and half-day and all-day rides to other locations; see page 112 for details.

To fabulous views from the upper rim of Yosemite Valley Vistas of Half Dome and other granite monoliths from the floor of Yosemite Valley are inspiring, but views down into the valley from high on its rim can be almost overwhelming, as anyone who has ever been to Glacier Point knows. To experiment with some breathtaking new perspectives, hike one of the mid-elevation trails that lead south from the Tioga Road through red-fir forests and over glacier-scoured expanses of granite to the valley's north rim. You can hike from the Tioga Road to the valley rim and then back again, or do a one-way walk ending with a descent into the valley. Both one-way and round-trip excursions can be done either as day-hikes or overnight trips. If you're staying in Yosemite Valley, take the Lee Vining bus from Yosemite Lodge to a trailhead in the morning and hike back down to the valley. The bus departs at 8 a.m. daily from July 1 through Labor Day weekend; one-way fare is $7.

Yosemite Creek. Begin this hike from a trailhead on the Tioga Road just east of where it crosses Yosemite Creek, or 2 1/2 miles down the trail where it touches the Old Tioga Road (near Yosemite Creek Campground). From the latter point, the trail follows the creek 6 miles past tools in the granite stream bed to the valley rim, where the water plummets 2,425 feet to the valley floor as Yosemite Falls. Spur trails (well marked, as are all Yosemite trails) lead to other vantages atop Eagle Peak and Yosemite Point; from the rim, the main trail switchbacks 3 miles down into the valley.

North Dome. A face-to-face encounter with Half Dome (once known as South Dome) and a stupendous view of the entire valley reward your excursion to the bald summit of North Dome, a 10-mile round trip from a trailhead 1 mile east of Porcupine Flat Campground. En route, a short detour (signed as Indian Rock) leads to a rare rock arch. An alternative return route climbs beside Lehamite Creek through successive belts of Jeffrey pine, white-fir, and red-fir forest. From the dome itself, it's another 6 1/2 miles to the valley via the North Dome Trail.

Snow Creek. Reaching Mirror Meadow in Just 7 miles, a trail through Snow Creek Canyon offers the shortest route from the Tioga Road to the Valley. It also presents a big vertical drop: from the 8,500-foot trailhead 1/2 mile east of the May Lake junction, it descends almost 4,500 feet. As on the North Dome hike, Half Dome's massive face dominates the view as you wind your way to the valley on more than a hundred switchbacks.

Where to stay

Campgrounds. Tamarack Flat (53 sites), Yosemite Creek (75), and Porcupine Flat (55) are car-accessible (although with limited or no access for large RVs or trailers) but relatively primitive (no piped water); they're open from June to October. Sites are first-come, first-served; the fee is $4 per site. White Wolf (88 sites) has the plumbing amenities of other park campgrounds. Open June to October, sites ($7) are first-come, first-served.

Other lodging. White Wolf Lodge has four wooden cabins with baths ($48.75) and 20 tents cabins ($29). There's also a small store, and a dining room serves breakfast and dinner (reserve for dinner; call 372-1316). As you travel east on the Tioga Road, the visual gateway to the Yosemite high country is a rocky promontory named for landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who chaired the first board of commissioners of the Yosemite Grant. At Olmsted Point, a large roadside pull-out overlooks Tenaya Canyon--from the southern rampart formed by Clouds Rest, Quarter Domes, and Half Dome, clear to granite-bound Tenaya Lake at the north. Seeing so much glacier-polished rock, you can imagine the rivers of ice that periodically overtopped the massive humps of granite around the lake, flowing down the canyon toward Yosemite Valley--most recently about 15,000 years ago. Displays at the pull-out explain how the domes were formed. Descending to the north, the Tioga Road skirts the west shore of Tenaya Lake, named for the Yosemite Indian chief whose people were captured here by the volunteer Mariposa Battalion; the lake's original Indian name, Pywiack (meaning "lake of shining rocks"), now designates the small freestanding granite dome at the north end of the lake. On warm summer days, Tenaya Lake's azure beauty and effortless accessibility attract crowds of swimmers, anglers, even sailors. There's a beach at the lake's northeast end, with a picnic ground just past it. Continuing past Tenaya Lake toward Tuolumne Meadows, look for climbers testing their skills on popular roadside routes up Polly Dome (on the left) and Pywiack Dome (on the right).

Tuolumne Meadows: flower-strewn hub of the high country "The Upper Tuolumne Valley is the widest, smoothest, most serenely spacious, and in every way the most delightful summer pleasure park in all the High Sierra." Thousands of high-country habitues would agree with Muir's assessment. Tuolumne Meadows is the hub of the high country, and more people. gravitate to it than to anywhere else along the Tioga Road--from backpackers shouldering only the most basic necessities to RV dwellers equipped with the proverbial kitchen sink. Here in the subalpine region, summer seems the more glorious for its brevity. Snow can linger in the meadows until June and cling to the high passes well into July; by October, the first snow flurries already signal the return of winter. To this brief opportunity, wildflowers and animals respond with a burst of activity. As the pools left by melted snow dry out, the ballistic profiles of shooting stars appear among the green sedges, followed by purple meadow penstemons and magenta Lemmon's paintbrush. Later, for the pink trunks and ears of little elephants heads. Three species of funnel-shaped gentians bring the wildflower season to a close in August. Animals don't pose as patiently as wildflowers and require a bit more effort to see. Early risers keeping quiet watch by the edge of the meadows usually have the best luck spotting furry creatures such as squirrels, marmots, martens, or weasels. Deer often graze in these meadows in the evening. While lodgepole pines make frequent appearances at lower elevations, they star on the slopes rising above Tuolumne Meadows. On some trails, such as the Rafferty Creek approach to Vogelsang, you'll see no trees other than lodgepoles until you get close to timberline, where multitrunked whitebark pines steal the spotlight. Two other trees that play supporting roles in the area's subalpine forest are mountain hemlock, with gracefully drooping branches, and Western white pine, its stocky trunk clothed in checkered bark.

In the path of glaciers: a landscape of geological drama The longest glacier in the Sierra created Tuolumne Meadows, the range's largest subalpine meadow. Ice fields high on Mount Lyell fed a glacier that advanced 60 miles--down Lyell Canyon, across Tuolumne Meadows, and through the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne and Hetch Hetchy Valley. The best vantages for studying this geologic legacy are the domes at each end of the main meadow. Pothole Dome, at the west end, can be scaled in a matter of minutes. Larger Lembert Dome, to the east, requires a 1 1/2-mile scramble from the trailhead parking area on the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge Road, but its summit gives a more expansive view. Before ascending, notice that from the south either dome has a striking profile: a gradual slope on the east side is the result of glaciers flowing up smooth rock, while the steep face on the west shows where the same glaciers pulled away great blocks of jointed rock. Hiking up the east slope, you cross patches of glistening granite polished by rock particles embedded in the moving glaciers. (The rounded depressions that gave Pothole Dome its name were carved by whirling particles trapped in a subglacial stream.) Boulders you see atop the domes were deposited by melting glaciers. Reaching the summit, survey the valley in which Tuolumne Meadows sits and you'll see that it has the U shape characteristic of a glacier-carved valley (as opposed to the V shape of unglaciated river valleys). South of here, the pointy peaks of the Cathedral Range kept their heads above the glaciers--though they, too, were shaped by ice: water that had seeped into joints in the granite froze and expanded, knocking away blocks of rock to leave horn-like spires.

High-country hikes: uphill in every direction Almost every hike out of Tuolumne Meadows starts with a climb. Most are shaded, but get an early start to avoid a steamy ascent in the midday sun. Trails leading to the High Sierra Camps can be tiresome to tread in stretches pulverized by mules and backpackers carrying heavy loads. Here we describe a number of day-hikes and overnight trips to lakes, passes, and peaks, as well as a popular loop route that samples a wide variety of the high country.

Walk to a cool mountain lake, take a dip, drop a line While it's true that hikers who march single-mindedly toward a destination without any concern for what lies along the route miss much of the joy of the experience, it's also undeniable that most of us like to have some sort of goal in mind when we set out on a trail. And few natural features serve that function better than a clear mountain lake--whether you're looking for a cool pool to plunge into after a sweaty climb or a seductively isolated spot to fish for cold-water trout. Keep in mind that most of these lakes are filled with runoff from newly melted snow and can be heart-stoppingly frigid until late summer. Trout are not native to the high-elevation lakes, but some lakes are stocked periodically; ask at the Tuolumne Meadows visitor center for current information (buy required California fishing licenses at the nearby store). Generally, your success will increase with your distance from a trailhead, though the very highest lakes could be barren. Of these four lake hikes from Tuolumne Meadows, three are day-hikes, one's an overnight trip. Mileages are one-way.

Cathedral Lakes. The quickest route to these lakes (3 1/2 miles) begins at an often-overflowing parking area 1/2 mile west of the visitor center. The John Muir Trail climbs through thick stands of mountain hemlock and lodgepole pine. Leveling off, it circles two-pronged Cathedral Peak, which seems to take on a new persona with each angle from which you see it. A spur trail leads down to Lower Cathedral Lake; the upper lake is 1/2 mile past the junction. Continue a short distance to wide-open Cathedral Pass for views of sawtoothed ridges in almost every direction.

Elizabeth Lake. From the group campground in Tuolumne Meadows, a 2 1/2-mile trail leads steadily uphill to this meadow-ringed lake nestled in a basin at the foot of Unicorn Peak. This lake is a great choice if you have only a half-day or want to spend more time lingering on a lakeshore than hiking.

Dog Lake. Only 1 1/2 miles north and 600 feet up from the trailhead mentioned earlier for Lembert Dome (page 109), Dog Lake is the most accessible from Tuolumne Meadows. It's also the warmest, making it a good option for swimmers.

Young Lakes. From the road leading past Lembert Dome to the stables, you can make an overnight trip to these three lakes, which are tucked behind Ragged Peak at about 10,000 feet (no campfires allowed). Take the gentler western leg up, and return on the eastern leg past Dog Lake for a 14 1/2-mile-long loop.

Ghost mines at the crest The Tioga Road reaches its apex at Tioga Pass, only 55 feet shy of the 10,000-foot elevation mark. Alternating peaks and passes stretch north and south, dividing the national park from Inyo National Forest and the Sierra's relatively lush west flank from its forbiddingly dry and steep east slope. Here the gray granite of the park's geologic landscape is usurped by the red and black hues of metamorphic rock not worn away by erosion. Veins of silver-bearing quartz embedded in the rock drew miners to the crest around Tioga Pass in the 1870s, though they met with little success. Today, abandoned mine shafts and cabins add a picturesque element to the awe-inspiring scenery on day-hikes to the high passes. A longer overnight option culminates at a saddle below 13, 114-foot Mount Lyell, the park's highest peak.

Gaylor Lakes, Tioga HIll. This 2-mile hike to the birthplace of the area's short-lived silver rush begins with a steep climb north from a parking area just west of the Tioga Pass entrance station. Reaching a ridgetop, the route drops to a broad meadow and circles Middle Gaylor Lake to an inlet that leads gently upslope to Upper Gaylor Lake. It's a short climb from here to a stone cabin of the Great Sierra Mine--an impressive work of masonry, its stacked stone walls and chimney still standing without the aid of mortar (though its timber roof has collapsed).

High country hikes to lakes, ghost mines, alpine peak

Nearby you'll find other cabin remains and two vertical mine shafts, as well as a rusting horse-drawn lifting winch.

Mono Pass, Parker Pass. Following the route of the Mono Trail from a trailhead 1 1/2 miles southwest of Tioga Pass, a 4-mile hike leads past two pioneer cabins and on to Mono Pass, where you have a clear view down Bloody Canyon to Mono Lake. Just above the pass are cabins (one with an intact roof makes a good shelter during sudden rain squalls) and tunnels of the Golden Crown and Ella Boss mines. Before you reach Mono Pass, a sometimes-faint trail branches west around Mount Lewis to Parker Pass, below the Kuna Crest's snow-filled crevices.

Donohue Pass. Before tackling the 2,000-foot ascent to Donohue, you can stretch your legs on a 9-mile approach up almost-level Lyell Canyon. This part of the John Muir Trail (pick it up at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge trailhead) alternately traverses open meadows along the willow-lined Lyell Fork and stands of young lodgepole pines; look for a wide swath cut by a rockslide on the east canyon wall. As you approach campsites at the head of the canyon, the canyon and trail curve to the right, revealing a majestic view of glacier-capped Mount Lyell and the crown of the Sierra. The 3-mile climb from the base camp to Donohue Pass offers even more awesome perspectives, including the craggy Ritter Range.

A peak you can scale without climbing skills or equipment The trek to the 13,053-foot peak of Mount Dana takes you into the alpine realm, where only small, ground-hugging plants can tolerate the harsh conditions. It's best to make this ascent early in the day, before thunderclouds gather. An exposed peak is the last place you want to be when lightning starts flashing. Although commonly used, this route is not an official trail, and anyone hiking it should exercise extreme caution to avoid damaging the fragile alpine vegetation. The 3,000-foot climb to the summit of Yosemite's second-highest peak begins at Tioga Pass, heading east between small ice ponds and ascending steeply for about 1/2 mile to a saddle. From here, follow a ridge south to the summit. An extraordinary view opening down the east slope of the Sierra includes the White Mountains and Mono Lake. Closer to the north, Dana Plateau is an unglaciated remnant of a once-extensive upland. In midsummer, sky pilot dots the high slopes with bright blue; these delicate-seeming flowers grow only far above timberline.

High Sierra Loop: stay in a tent cabin, or pitch your own From windswept passes near timberline to shady lake basins thousands of feet below, the High Sierra Loop makes a nearly 50-mile circuit through the diverse Yosemite high country around Tuolumne Meadows. Camps (with tent cabins and backpacker sites) lie within a short day's hike of one another. The entire loop takes six days to complete, with one night at each of the five outlying camps, but you can either extend your stay at any of the camps or do only part of the loop for a shorter outing. The High Sierra Camps offer woodstove-heated tent cabins with comfortable beds and linens, showers and toilet facilities, hearty breakfasts and dinners, and, if you request them, box lunches for the trail. All you need to carry is a day pack with extra clothes, toiletries, and personal gear. If this appeals to you, you're not alone; reservations are in great demand and are taken in early December for the next summer. Cancellations do sometimes open slots during the season; call (209) 454-2002. Or you can try to reserve space on a seven-day, naturalist-guided hike, or a four- or six-day saddle trip. Backpackers camping on the loop can reserve dinner or breakfast at the camps, which will also store food overnight for you so it won't attract bears (otherwise, be sure to use the cables or hooked poles provided for hanging your food). The campsites have potable piped water. We list camps counterclockwise from Tuolumne Meadows; distance given is from the previous camp on the route.

Glen Aulin (7,800 feet: 7 1/2 miles from Tuolumne Meadows Lodge): virtually level hike along Tuolumne River leads to camp (eight tent cabins) at base of thundering White Cascades. More waterfalls downriver can be visited on day-hikes. May Lake (9,270 feet; 8 1/2 miles): nine tents on shore of tree-ringed lake at foot of Mount Hoffmann; also accessible via short hike from trailhead off the Old Tioga Road. Rent rowboats for $5 an hour. Ridge behind camp is great for sunset-viewing. Sunrise (9,400 feet; 8 1/2 miles): route follows the Old Tioga Road to modern road and Tenaya Lake, climbs steeply to Sunrise Lakes, continues to nine-tent camp at edge of Long Meadow. (Or take 8 miles of John Muir Trail from Tuolumne Meadows.) Merced Lake (7,150 feet; 10 miles): lowest and largest (19 tents of the camps. Good fishing nearby; rowboats for rent. Bears. Vogelsang (10,300 feet; 7 1/2 miles): two routes lead from Merced Lake, each a long climb to near timberline. Fletcher Peak stands high above 12-tent camp and nearby sites around Fletcher Lake. Good base for exploring alpine lakes. Descending to Tuolumne Meadows, 7-mile trail traverses a flowery meadow with distant views of Ragged Peak and Mount Conness.

Where to stay

Campgrounds. A walk-in campground (50 sites, $7 a night) at the west end of Tenaya Lake is open June to October--first-come, first-served. At the much larger drive-in campground (330 sites; $10) at the east end of Tuolumne Meadows, Ticketron reservations are required for half the sites; the others are available for same-day reservations (spaces go early). There are also 25 sites ($2) for backpackers.

Other lodging. Tuolumne Meadows Lodge has 69 woodstove-heated tent cabins ($29), hot showers, and a dining room that serves dinner and breakfast. Outside the park, 2 miles east of Tioga Pass, Tioga Pass Resort rents cabins ($285 to $450 a week) and motel rooms ($42 a day); write to Box 7, Lee Vining, Calif. 93541. Otherwise, nearest lodging is in Lee Vining, 14 miles east of Tioga

Pass; call the chamber of commerce at (619) 647-6386.


Strolling down the river

In some ways, a hike down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne is a nonmotorized alternative to a drive across the park on the Tioga Road. Dropping from 8,600 feet to 4,200 feet, you pass through most of the park's basic plant communities, while always in view of the protean river and its rock walls. Early summer is a good time to do it; the numerous waterfalls are still going strong, and temperatures haven't yet reached seasonal peaks. You can cover the 20 miles to Pate Valley in two days; add another day for the 8 1/2-mile climb to White Wolf. Setting off on a dirt track from the road to Tuolumne Meadows stables, you stroll through the meadow to Soda Springs, the river meandering alongside. As you veer northwest on a trail into the lodgepole-pine forest, your route is almost level for a few miles. You climb a rocky knoll, then see the river splashing swiftly downward. Here it enters the stage Muir described so evocatively: "For miles the river is one wild, exulting, on-rushing mass of snowy purple bloom, spreading over glacial waves of granite without any definite channel, gliding in magnificent silver plumes, dashing and foaming through huge boulder-dams, leaping into the air in wheel-like whirls, displaying glorious enthusiasm, tossing from side to side, doubling, glinting, singing in exuberance of mountain energy." The trail follows the river as it slips over terraces and spills abruptly in a powerful fall to the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp at the base of booming White Cascade. (The nearby backpacking camp is a good place to spend the first night, as the canyon has few campsites.) Just past the camp, you get a good view of Glen Aulin proper, a perfect glacial canyon. Dropping into the glen, the trail follows its level floor among burnt snags. The river is momentarily tamed as it flows through the glen--a good place for a picnic and foot soak. Soon the trial and river descend in tandem again, with the river executing a free fall. Lodgepoles give way to red firs, and to solitary junipers in rockier spots. Winding deeper into the canyon past more cataracts, the trail reaches spectacular Waterwheel Falls, where the river cartwheels high into the air as it strikes joints in the open granite slabs. There's one more waterfall to follow before you bottom out in a stand of sturdy sugar pines. (One of the few campsites in the canyon is just ahead, where Return Creek flows into the river.) For the next few miles, the route remains fairly level, revealing immense granite expanses--decorated with ribbons of glistening waterfalls--that make up the south canyon wall. Then the canyon narrows to a steep-walled chasm. Rather than follow Muir's pioneering route through the river's cleft (Muir Gorge), the trail retreats from the river to climb above the gorge. The descent back to the river's level seems interminable, though a pool at the base of a beautiful falls beckons with the prospect of a refreshing dip. After more riverside hiking, you finally arrive at Pate Valley--and spacious, shady campsites equipped with bear cables. Shaded by ponderosa pines, incense cedars, and black oaks, it's a lot like Yosemite Valley, but without the crowds. How to get out of the mile-deep canyon? You can return by the same route. Or continue down-canyon to where a trail climbs relentlessly up the south wall to White Wolf, about 3,700 feet above the canyon floor. A third option is to have a packer and mules meet you at Pate Valley and ride up to White Wolf; for a party of four, this costs $105 per person. To get back to Tuolumne Meadows, leave a car at White Wolf before you set out, or camp overnight at White Wolf and take the Lee Vining bus in the morning. A final option is to reverse the direction of the hike, starting in White Wolf. You hike uphill for a much greater distance, but never as intensely as on the grueling climb from Pate Valley to White Wolf.


Challenges and concerns, old and new

Concerns about Yosemite Valley go all the way back to John Muir's day, when he fought against private structures springing up and meadows being converted to hayfields. Today public debate focuses on traffic, crowds, development--and on the 1980 General Management Plan (GMP) that proposed to restore much of the valley's original natural splendor. This year--the park's centennial--was to be the target date for implementing the plan's major proposals to redirect automobiles and development away from the valley. A recent National Park Service (NPS) draft report identified parts of the plan that have been acted upon, and those that haven't. The result? "Have nots" far outnumbered "haves." Reasons given for failure to implement various proposals included lack of funding, a shortage of suitable sites outside the park to replace valley facilities, and roads too narrow to handle shuttle buses for visitors and employees if cars were banned from the valley. Yosemite Park superintendent Michael Finley, who headed up national parks in Florida and Alaska before coming to Yosemite last year, agrees that funding shortages have been a major obstacle to the plan's success. "A lot of the big-ticket items have not been accomplished," Finley acknowledges; he points to the creation of vast new parks in Alaska and the need to address dire environment threats to other established parks as priorities that have drawn money away from Yosemite. In joint comments on the draft report, five conservation organizations (The Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, National Parks and Conservation Association, Yosemite Action, and National Audubon Society) recommend that the actions prescribed by the GMP be carried out as originally intended. "While several real constraints to plan implementation have been identified, a primary one appears to be a reluctance on the part of the NPS to aggressively pursue its implementation," state the groups. They hope that the concessionaire's contract, up for renewal in 1993, will "require absolute adherence to plan provisions." Many conservationists are also calling for a significant increase in the concessionaire's franchise fee, now less than 1% of its annual revenue. Some are even exploring the possibility of a nonprofit group bidding for the contract. A spokesman for the park's sole concessionaire, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, defends its role in the controversy. "We don't disagree with the basic objectives of the GMP," says John Poimiroo. "Our position is that you've got to come up with practical solutions." For example, he feels that partial implementation of proposals to reduce traffic may actually make things worse; he cites the removal of 600 parking spaces in the valley without any provision for alternative parking. As for the plan's directive to remove 17 percent of the valley's accommodations, Poimiroo insists that visitors staying outside the park generate more traffic than those staying in it. What do we make of such diverse points of view, all from people who care about Yosemite? David Brower, former director of the Sierra Club and founder of Friends of the Earth, shared his perspective on the Yosemite Park and Curry Company in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times. "Be grateful for the company that manages the wonderful shuttle system, that has driven Styrofoam out of the valley, that has long been recycling beverage containers . . . while keeping prices lower than . . . equivalent tourist meccas in San Francisco or Los Angeles." Sunset's publisher, Bill Lane, who worked in his youth as a packer in Sequoia and Yosemite national parks, also points out that progress has been made in restoring Yosemite's beauty. "When I worked at Yosemite over 50 years ago, there were many more campsites and far more smoke pollution; a cluttered, ragtag old village of commercial shops where an open meadow lies today; a movie theater; a firefall; motorboats and raw sewage in the Merced River; parking congestion; an open garbage dump where bears could feed. "Conservationists and other Yosemite support groups have played a big part in keeping the preservation of the park's natural splendor foremost as the goal. Working together, if we get the critically needed financial support from Congress, much more can and must be done. It's truly a national priority."

Stepping into the future While budget cuts may hamper the ability of the NPS to address problems, Yosemite hasn't been left defenseless. Concerned citizens have helped fill the breach, contributing money and labor to preserve precious resources for future generations. Projects are being stepped up this year to ensure that the centennial will be a celebration of the park's vitality. The Yosemite Association, the first volunteer group linked to a national park and the oldest nonprofit organization designed to aid Yosemite, is still going strong after 70 years. Its volunteers provide park interpretive services, and proceeds from publications sold by the association are donated to the park. In 1986, the fundraising arm of the association became a separate entity called The Yosemite Fund. Since then, the fund has financed more than $1 million worth of projects throughout the park, such as revegetating downtrodden meadows and campsites and replanting damaged oak woodlands. Yosemite's wildlife has gained from the fund's beneficence, too: among many projects, a herd of bighorn sheep was reintroduced to the canyons along the park's eastern boundary. Other goals slated for this year include rehabilitation of the Happy Isles area, the Yosemite Museum, and the Pioneer History Center. Labor for these projects and others is provided in part by volunteers of the Sousson Foundation, a San Luis Obispo--based nonprofit group. Last year, members spent 2,500 hours working on such projects as cleaning up trash along the Merced River and installing picnic tables and grills at Tuolumne Meadows. For the centennial year, the foundation plans to rally 300 volunteers, each committed to a 40-hour week.

Backpacking and hiking tips

Wilderness permits. Before setting out on any overnight trip in the park, you need to get a wilderness permit--available (free) at the Big Oak Flat Information Station and a booth on the road to Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. You can get a permit a day ahead, and it's a good idea to do so (Tuolumne Meadows trailheads fill up most summer weekends). You'll be given a leaflet on camping restrictions that protect the wilderness.

Elevation. Your body does not make the transition from sea level to the high country as fast as your car does. Start slowly on any hike; or arrive a day or two early and give yourself a chance to acclimatize.

Weather. In general, the Sierra is blessed with remarkably hospitable weather. But though skies may be cloudless in the morning, thunderstorms can develop in midafternoon (particularly in July and August), threatening hikers with downpours and lightning. Stay away from peaks and other exposed areas if thunderclouds are forming. To stay dry, wear wool and/or synthetic garments--not cotton.

Drinking water. Streams and lakes may look pure, but they might contain Giardia lamblia, an organism that can cause severe intestinal disorders. Purify any surface water, either by boiling it for at least 3 minutes or by using a filter guaranteed to remove giardia.

Blisters. To avoid painful blisters on your heels and toes, be sure your boots fit comfortably; don't break in a new pair on the trail. Wear more than one pair of socks. If you start to feel an irritation, stop and apply padded moleskin. Taping your heels with duct tape before you start out can prevent blisters from forming.

Bears. Yosemite's black bears are notorious raiders, causing the most mischief in the most popular areas. You must be sure to store your food properly at night. Follow the instructions in the permit flyer for the counterbalance method of hanging food from a tree branch or bear cable (if available); you'll need at least 50 feet of rope or nylon cord. Some campsites (such as at May Lake) have tall poles with hooks that keep food out of a bear's reach.

Mosquitoes. These can be nuisance early in the summer, when ground-water levels are high. Bring an effective insect repellent, and keep your tent flap or mosquito net zipped in camp.

Trail guides and maps. Berkeley's Wilderness Press publishes excellent guidebooks and maps to virtually all of Yosemite's trails. You can get them in outdoor equipment stores, or at general stores in the park.

Organized activities, important phone numbers

Unless noted, area code is 209.

Ranger-led activities. Join a nature walk, campfire sing-along, or star-watch at Crane Flat, White Wolf, or Tuolumne Meadows. See Yosemite Guide, offered as you enter the park. Saddle trips. Stables at White Wolf (372-1323) and Tuolumne Meadows (372-1327) offer 2-hour (26), half-day ($35), and all-day ($53) rides on mules or horses. To reserve a four- or six-day guided ride to the High Sierra Camps, call 252-3013. You can also arrange extended pack trips into the backcountry or spot trips that drop you and your gear at a backcountry location and pick you up later. Cost is $54 a day for animals, $106 for required guide.

Climbing. Yosemite Mountaineering School (372-1335) leads beginning and intermidiate rock-climbing classes out of Tuolumne Meadows. Other classes teach how to cross, climb or descend snow-covered sloopes. Cost is $35 to $75 per person, depending on group's size. Guided two- to four-day backpack trips cost $100 to $180.

Field seminars. The Yosemite Association (379-2646) offers one- to five-day seminars ($25 to $255) on botany, geology, astronomy, Indians, birding, photography, art, writing. Guided two- to seven-day backpack trips run $80 to $200. Here are some other important resources. Yosemite Park and Curry Co. Reservations (Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, White Wolf Lodge, Yosemite Valley lodging), 5410 E. Home St., Fresno, Calif. 93727; 252-4848. Ticketron Campground Reservations, Box 62429, Virginia Beach, Va. 23462; (900) 454-2100. Or reserve at Ticketron outlets. National Park Service, Box 577, Yosemite National Park 95389; 372-0265. Road and weather information, 372-4605. Through May 31, you can reserve wilderness permits by mail: specify trailhead to be used, number in your party, dates.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles on Yosemite National Park
Date:May 1, 1990
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