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Yosemite National Park (Wawona; Tuolumne Meadows); Twin Lakes, Woods Lake, Lakes Basin
Camping is in our blood. Joan's grandparents met in the Big Sur (California) campground in 1910; their families had arrived by horse and wagon. A romance began as they danced under the redwood trees to the folk tune Coming Through the Rye, fiddled by an old hermit from the hills. Joan's mother camped all her life, Joan camped from the time she was nine months old and Lou camped as a Boy Scout. We went camping on our honeymoon and we've continued to camp and backpack ever since.
SIERRA NEVADA MOUNTAINS
Risking cold weather and early snows one year recently, we headed into California's rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains in mid-September for five weeks of camping. Lou crammed our old Ford pick-up Frodo with (in order of importance) two guidebooks, eight boxes of firewood, a case of wine, two boxes of reading materials, guitar, several plastic bins of food & cooking gear, down sleeping bags, tent, air mattress, stove, ice chest, lantern and warm clothes. (Note: This is not a campground he's in, but Susan Krevitt's (Joan's sister) garden in Northern California! Why were we leaving this idyllic spot when we could camp here?!)
After five hours of driving from Santa Cruz on the coast across California's Central Valley to the mountains, we arrived in Wawona campground at the southern end of Yosemite National Park.
WAWONA CAMPGROUND (YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK)
When U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt came through the Wawona area 100 years ago, local dignitaries held a welcoming banquet for him at the Wawona Hotel. But Teddy was camping and - unwilling to leave the wilderness for boring speeches - never showed up at the banquet. Partly as a result of his meeting with ardent wilderness advocate John Muir in Yosemite Valley the following week, Roosevelt went on to establish America’s national park system.
Wawona Campground was our base for exploring Yosemite Valley, about an hour away. Wawona has pretty campsites along the river, with picnic tables, fire pits and bear-proof* food lockers. (See DETAILS for more information on each campground.)
*We seldom see bears when we’re camping, and saw none on this trip. California black bears are smaller and less aggressive than grizzlies, which aren’t found in this state. Because all food must be protected from them, black bears are more of a nuisance than a menace. Even so, we sang songs and made noise on the trail so we didn’t inadvertently startle one. Joan always held her hand a few inches above bear scat, thinking if it was still warm, she’d be outta there!
One day we drove to Glacier Point, 40 minutes away. The overlook provides a spectacular view of Half Dome and (3,200 feet straight down) the gorgeous Yosemite Valley. We scrambled up nearby Sentinel Dome and dangled our feet over the edge to look at El Capitan and the western end of the valley. From Glacier Point, Lou hiked down the nine-mile Panorama Trail, passing by roaring Nevada and Vernal Falls, while Joan drove the truck down to pick him up at the bottom.
TUOLUMNE MEADOWS CAMPGROUND (YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK)
After a few days in Wawona, we moved on to Tuolomne Meadows Campground above Yosemite Valley. From here, we hiked several trails in the surrounding area. One day we hiked along a nearby stream that has a series of small beautiful waterfalls that are great to picnic or read by. Another day, we hiked to Lembert Dome, pausing at a quiet tarn (small lake gradually filling with grasses) to watch grazing deer. Joan hiked ahead to Dog Lake (9,240 feet) to wait while Lou hiked up the Dome - actually, he scrambled up on hands and knees and slid back down on his butt. While at the top, a fellow hiker asked him to take a photo: "Snap it when I tell you," said the young man, who marched to the edge of the dome, faced away towards the panorama, dropped his trousers and underpants and said "Shoot!" He later told Lou he had a photo album full of mountaintop moon shots. When Lou arrived at Dog Lake, we ate lunch, then skinny-dipped in the icy water. Lou swam for a leisurely twelve to fifteen seconds, while Joan took just six seconds to enter AND exit the alpine lake. (The pond below is alongside a trail near Woods Lake.)
TWIN LAKES CAMPGROUND
Next we headed over Tioga Pass and down Highway 395 to Twin Lakes Campground in Inyo National Forest. One of the hikes we took near here was our favorite of the trip. Little Lakes Valley is in the John Muir Wilderness, about 30 miles south of Mammoth Lakes and ten miles west of Tom's Place. Since the Little Lakes trailhead begins at 10,300 feet, the truck did most of the climbing for us. The glacially-carved valley surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks is gorgeous. A seven-mile trail passes several small lakes and is said to be spectacular in the mountain spring (July) when the wildflowers are in full bloom. The trail ascended 800 feet, past golden aspen as well as lodge pole, limber and white bark pines. After lunch Joan read while Lou took another 15-second dip in a remote, snow-fed lake.
Joan had a minor melt-down at Twin Lakes from too much togetherness. Most retired couples must adjust to being together a lot, but - being homeless nomads - we'd been together 24/7 for more than four years at this point. So she took the day off, drove into the town of Mammoth Lakes, had her first massage in ten years and bought $30 worth of used books. After her day off, all was peaceful again.
After checking out of the Twin Lakes Campground, we drove north for an hour to the abandoned mining town of Bodie. Born of the discovery of gold in 1859, Bodie became the second largest city (10,000 people) in California within twenty years, then gradually faded away to a ghost town after $700 million (in today's dollars) in gold had been mined. Since 1962 it has been a California State Historic Park.
Bodie has not been restored as have other gold towns, but maintained as it was in 1962 - in a state of arrested decay. It's a nostalgic place - a scattering of weathered buildings, broken machinery, glass shards and rusted metal. We entered a sagging wooden house filled with cobwebs and thick dust, and peered into small rooms furnished as if the owners were away on a (very) long trip. Tin plates and cups sat on a dusty oilcloth-covered table near a tilted wood-burning stove; a tiny room off of the kitchen had a sagging metal bed and stained, peeling wallpaper. In this treeless, barren landscape, these houses must have been very chilly in winter (-20 degrees F) and scorching hot in summer.
By all accounts, Bodie was a godforsaken place in its heyday. With 65 saloons and scores of brothels and gambling houses, it was disorderly and often downright dangerous. The National Park guide suggested that the claim that there was a murder a day is a stretch, and offered this anecdote as evidence of fewer deaths: a brawl in one of the saloons resulted in a shoot-out in which eight rounds were fired but neither of the drunks hit the other - although a bystander did have the cigar shot out of his mouth!
WOODS LAKE CAMPGROUND
Located a couple of miles west of Carson Pass, Woods Lake was our favorite campground of this trip. There are several good hikes nearby, as well as a rustic tavern serving beer and hamburgers where we watched the World Series. The stream that feeds the lake in the summer was now dry except for a few tiny ponds glazed with quarter-inch sheets of ice. Beneath the ice were a few dozen trout fingerlings that were not going to make it until next summer's flow. Joan and Lou to the rescue! We gathered blackened pots from our campsite and marched around the lake. After clearing off the ice, Joan stirred the waters (she's always been good at that!) with a stick at one end of the pond, while Lou - with shoes off and jeans rolled to his knees - waited for the fingerlings to flee toward his side, where he managed to trap a few between pot and fire grill. Joan transferred them one-by-one to a bigger pot, took them 100 feet to the lake and poured them into the reed-filled shallows. While happy to report that we saved a dozen baby fish, we worry that you might ask "Is this all that retired people can find to do?"
LAKES BASIN CAMPGROUND
Heading north from Carson Pass along the western shore of Lake Tahoe, we stopped to hike the beautiful Rubicon Trail that winds around Emerald Bay and the left side of the lake, then drove north into a region of the Sierras visited by relatively few people. Our tent site was in an aspen grove in the Lakes Basin Campground in Plumas National Forest. When we arrived in mid-October, the aspen leaves were just beginning to turn yellow; by the time we left a week later they had passed their peak. Each day at dusk there came a moment when the color changed to a luminous gold. Wow!
There are many fine hikes around here. Joan was getting back into good hiking condition by now, so we hiked to the pinnacle of Mount Elwell – an elevation gain of 2,000 feet on an eight-mile round trip. Another day we climbed to the top of the Sierra Buttes (8,600 feet.) On this trail, if the steady elevation rise of 2500 feet doesn't take your breath away, the final ascent to the forestry lookout will - it's up a wind-exposed 100-step metal stairway that clings to a sheer rock face. From the top we could see westward across the Central Valley to the Coastal Range, southeast to the rim of Lake Tahoe and north to Mount Lassen.
Just before sunset one day we established a "bridgehead” in the center of a wooden bridge spanning the stream at the lower end of Grassy Lake, a short walk from our campsite. From the bridge, we could enjoy the richly-colored fall foliage reflected in the water. We’d brought with us two folding chairs, a small folding table, Lou's guitar, Joan's book, a chunk of expensive Parrano cheese and a bottle of cheap "Two-buck Chuck" (Charles Shaw cabernet sauvignon – don’t laugh, the 2001 vintage was actually drinkable!) Lou practiced playing Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" on his guitar, while Joan read in Robert Sapolsky's hilarious A Primate's Memoir about his research on African savannah baboons. At dusk we returned to camp to catch the aspen's final glow.
Among the joys of autumn camping: no flies or mosquitoes, few people and lots of available campsites. The quaking aspen were golden and the air was cool and crisp - perfect for hiking. On the other hand, most wildflowers were long gone and the waterfalls dried to a trickle. Several nights the temperature dipped into the mid-20s and - although we were warm at night in our down sleeping bags - it was difficult to get up on cold mornings. Lou climbed out first, built a campfire and started water heating before Joan would budge from the tent. Fortunately, we were able to scavenge firewood from abandoned campsites and kept warm with lots of campfires. The campground water supply had been turned off at the end of the season, so we scooped water out of nearby lakes for bathing and dishwashing, and got drinking water from faucets in a nearby village.
Our appearance deteriorated as the weeks went by. The sleeping bags were a 1961 wedding gift, and in their old age oozed goose down that clung to the black thermal underwear we wore as pajamas. By morning, we looked as if we'd been tarred and feathered. Since we were virtually alone in the forest, we bathed by heating pots of lake water. We'd find a secluded area, strip to our shivering skin, lather up and pour cupfuls of warm water over our heads. It was amazing to Joan that Lou – who likes to take the world's longest showers every morning - could suds his body, hair and beard and rinse off with just one pot of water!
Reluctantly, we drove down from the Sierras in late October. Just in time. A week later some of these campgrounds were covered by a foot of snow.
By now Joan was nearly recovered from tuberculosis, and we could plan our 2004 trip: SOUTH AMERICA
DETAILS, DETAILS, DETAILS
GUIDEBOOKS We used California Camping and California Hiking, both by Tom Stienstra to select campgrounds and hiking trails. The first describes and rates 1500 public and private campgrounds on a scale of 1 to 10; the second rates 1000 hikes on two scales: hiking difficulty and scenic beauty.
EQUIPMENT Outdoor stores frequently rent items such as tents, sleeping bags, camp stoves, lanterns, cooking pots and utensils. Cheap cookware and utensils are often available at thrift shops. If you’re traveling to California by plane, try to borrow some of your gear from a California friend and pack the rest in the ice chest you’ll need at camp. Buy gear on-line: www.rei.com www.campmor.com
CAMPGROUND RESERVATIONS During summer months, reservations are often a necessity for Thursday through Monday nights and highly recommended the rest of the week. Very popular parks such as Yosemite may necessitate reservations months in advance. At most campgrounds, the reservation is simply for a space; on arrival you select a campsite from those available. It's easiest to find a good site on Tuesdays and Wednesdays; try to arrive at a campground by mid-day.
U.S. National Park campgrounds nationwide: www.nps.gov/ (U.S. residents who are 62 or older can buy a lifetime "Golden Age" pass at any national park for $10. The pass provides free entrance to national parks and 50% discount on campsite fees.)
Yosemite (only) campsite reservations: 1-800-436-7275
Nationwide state park campsite reservations: www.reserveamerica.com
WAWONA CAMPGROUND (rated by Stienstra at 9 out of a possible 10 points) is located just inside the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park at about 4,000 feet. It's a pretty campground with good riverside spots for tents, small RVs. Sites have tables, fire pits, bear-proof food storage lockers; water and restrooms with flush toilets nearby. Open year-around. Reservations taken. $15/night, plus $20/week Yosemite National Park entrance fee. Coin showers are available at Camp Curry in Yosemite Valley, an hour's drive away. (We prefer Wawona to the campgrounds in the valley, where the sites are closer to many of the park's trails, sights and activities, but are also less scenic and closer together.)
TUOLUMNE MEADOWS CAMPGROUND is on Tioga Pass Road above Yosemite Valley at 8,600 feet. (Stienstra rates it an 8.) This is a big campground; the best sites are along the upper road. #C-95 is a secluded site. Reservations taken. $15/night plus $20/week park entrance fee. Open June - late September, weather permitting. Water, flush toilets, tables, fire pits, bear-proof food storage lockers. Hot showers two miles away at Tuolumne Lodge ($3.)
TWIN LAKES CAMPGROUND is located a few miles off Highway 395 on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains - near the town of Mammoth Lakes. 8,600 feet. The campground includes two small, picturesque lakes with trout fishing. (Stienstra rates it an 8) Open mid-May to late October, but can be accessed via Tioga Pass only when the pass is snow-free and open. No reservations. $13/night. Tables, fire pits, bear lockers, water, flush toilets. Hot showers available at camp store. ($4)
WOODS LAKE CAMPGROUND is located two miles west of Carson Pass. 8,200 feet. (Rated 9 by Stienstra.) Open June through October, weather permitting. It's a small, beautiful campground near a lake. Site #8 is especially good - hidden from the camp road by boulders and hemlock trees. $12/night. No reservations. Tables, fire pits, water, clean vault toilets, no bear lockers. (We stored all our food in Frodo - and hoped bears wouldn't tear the truck apart to get to it!)
LAKES BASIN CAMPGROUND is located 65 miles north of Lake Tahoe, off of Gold Lakes Highway and south of the town of Graeagle at 6,400 feet. (Rated 8 by Stienstra.) We were the last campers of the season; the campground water was turned off, there was no garbage collection and no campsite fees. Tables, fire pits, vault toilets, no bear lockers. Site #22 is set apart from the others in a beautiful aspen grove. #20 is also a good site. (#20 and 22 are among the few sites that can be reserved.)
CAMP FOOD: Everything tastes better outdoors. But we don't take any chances; we plan ahead and eat really well. Joan bakes muffins and cake, and makes homemade wholegrain dry pancake mix ahead of time, and prints out good soup and stew recipes from www.epicurious.com Lou enjoys cooking over an open fire - dodging the eye-smarting, throat-choking smoke to fry bacon, cook French toast or grill fish. Among our favorite meals: avocado and cheese quesadillas, grilled salmon or steaks, curries, pasta, chili, homemade soups and stews. We always take Lou's Booze Cake* (see recipe below) with us, as it keeps well and is delicious with peppermint tea by a campfire.
LOU'S BOOZE CAKE
(This is a dense, moist cake that keeps for a week in camp if wrapped in foil and stored in an ice chest.)
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees (F)
1 box yellow cake mix
1 small size instant chocolate pudding mix
4 eggs, 1/2 cup water, 1/4 cup vodka, 1/2 cup Kahlua (coffee-flavored liqueur)
Pour into greased and floured tube or bundt pan. Bake 45-50 minutes at 350 degrees. While cake is
baking, prepare topping.) Test cake for doneness with a wooden skewer. (Don't over-bake; it should
be done but still very moist.)
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup (6 T.) butter
1/4 cup water
Boil one minute; remove from heat.
1/4 cup vodka and 1/4 cup Kahlua
While cake is still in the pan, use a wooden skewer to poke it full of holes. Slowly pour on topping
and let stand for 30 minutes. Use knife to loosen from pan, flip upside down onto plate. (For camping
trip, leave cake in pan and cover with foil.)
WARNING: AFTER EATING, CAKE, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO OPERATE HEAVY EQUIPMENT!
Joan and Lou Rose email@example.com