I tried to start this blog in a hundred different ways and ultimately looked to John Muir. Why try and say what has already been said? And so beautifully, no-less. Yosemite is a refuge and is good for everybody. However, that doesn’t mean that Yosemite is easy for everybody, myself included. As you’ll see, Yosemite can be quite a challenge at times! Let me explain...
When we left for Yosemite last April, TJ and I saw the threat of rain in the forecast. Unfazed, we brought an umbrella, an extra layer of clothes, and our cautious optimism. We departed from Los Angeles on Saturday, early (but not too early). Four hours later, we were arriving in Oakhurst, the last significant town before the national park. It began to rain.
We stopped at the market to grab some essentials and thought it would be prudent to have a pair of snow-chains in the event that the California Highway Patrol was checking for them. So, we bought a bag of cable chains and threw them into the trunk. The plan was to leave them untouched and return them on the drive home—devilish, I know. Well stocked and eager, we charged up the hill towards Yosemite. As we grew in elevation, the rain began to intensify. Suddenly though, it stopped—it was now snowing!
“Do you think we actually need to install the chains now?”, I nervously asked TJ.
“No, I wouldn’t do it unless we start to slip on the road”, he responded with feigned confidence. I would soon learn that TJ has never used snow chains before.
And as if on cue, I accelerated and my tires began to slip on the slick road, so we pulled over. I grabbed the bag, TJ opened it and scanned the instructions, and then proceeded to pull out one cable-chain. As in one chain for one tire. Naive and confused, we began asking questions in a subdued panic—“Is there only supposed to be one?” “Were we supposed to purchase a second bag?” “Is this how snow chains work?” I asked to see the small bag, as if TJ could have possibly missed the other set when looking. It still wasn’t there. We considered Googling for answers or calling the store we purchased them from but had no reception on the remote hill. “Do we risk it and drive forward without any chains?” “Do we go back down the hill?” “Should we install the one chain and go back?” “Go forward?”
We ultimately decided for safety’s sake to install the one chain on one tire, with the hope of added traction, and then proceed back down the hill to fact check. TJ toiled with the tire and after several minutes, we were ready to leave. When we made it out of the snow-line, we pulled over and with one bar of reception called the auto shop.
“Oh, yeah—there’s supposed to be two chains in the bag. Sorry”, the clerk shared matter-of-factly.
“Sorry my ass!” I thought, but couldn’t muster up the will to say.
And so, now out of the snow, we removed the one chain and drove back to the shop to exchange it for a bag of two snow chains. When I handed the clerk a bag containing the one used cable, he looked at me as if to say, “We can’t take this back if it’s been used.” I glared back with an expression that said, “You left us unprepared and could have killed us.”
He took the bag.
Now with a bag of two cable-chains in tow, we set out back up the hill—but our woes would not end there. We installed the chains and confidently continued up the road, chugging away like a train as each cable bounced between the road and the tire. We were only one mile further when we were stopped by a row of cars.
Our patience lasted only about 10 minutes or so. Getting antsy, TJ exited the car and trudged up the road, looking for answers. He soon returned with one: a 14-car pileup on the road ahead; expect 4 hour delays.
That would nearly take us to nightfall! I checked Google Maps and noticed another route from a previous search.
And thus, back down the hill we went, for a second time. We stopped to remove the now-used cables and take the alternate route to the park.
After one more hour of rolling across foothills and winding through canyons, we had finally arrived at the other park entrance. The park rangers were screening for tire chains (check!) and encouraged us to install them on the road ahead. We thanked them and went on our way.
Driving around the valley floor, we were pleased to see that the snow still dusted the ground and clung to the cliffs above. Clouds of mist slowly hovered above and deer, undisturbed, grazed below. It was quite a scene.
Happy as we were to stretch and take photos, we were just as happy to return to the car for a quick warm up. We saw that Yosemite Falls was just up ahead and we wanted to see the icon, replenished by fresh snow. Parking nearby, we took the short, quarter-mile trek to the base of the Lower Yosemite Falls. The upper-falls were often out-of-view but would occasionally emerge from behind the mist, ominously looming overhead.
After Yosemite Falls, we opted to not set off on a significant hike. It was already late in the afternoon and when TJ learned that I had never seen the Ahwahnee Hotel (the rustic, grand hotel near the valley center) he thought of just the plan—explore the historic hotel grounds and warm up near a fireplace with a spirit in hand.
And that's just what we did. Once there, we grabbed a seat, a bourbon, and enjoyed watching the snow outside the window.
Impressed with the Ahwahnee but growing hungry, we decided it was time to establish our camp. Our reservation was for a campsite near the base of Half Dome. Surrounded by tall trees and taller cliffs, it was a grand place for a camp.
After building the tent and locking the food, the next matter of business was the campfire. We purchased firewood at the valley market and TJ had a quarter-bottle of lighter fluid to help out. After stoking the flames for 15 minutes, the fire began to die! We soon ran out of gasoline and the tinder didn’t seem to be helpful.
We looked around for anything that would help. All of the twigs and pine needles were wet from snow. The cardboard box the firewood came in lasted just a few minutes. Then we thought to check the bathroom.
The trick was toilet paper! With the fire finally roaring, it was time for hot dogs and some beers. We laid the umbrella out over the table to house the condiments and some cold Doritos. It felt far too wet and sad to seem like a feast but deep down, it is what I had hoped this trip would entail.
When John Muir said that Yosemite’s natural beauty “cleans and warms like a fire”, he was referring to the soul. For me, this remained true but my physical self was over it. After finishing my beer, I found myself exhausted, wet, and cold. It was my first time camping in a tent and I didn’t seem to be enjoying this part of the experience at all. It had been a long, comedically terrible day. I figured the best way to make it better was to turn-in early and go to bed. Hopefully, the valley would be more comfortable on the other side of sleep.
Throughout this whole realization, I was often recording video. Part jester, part mad-person, I started slipping into characters and half-joking about the terror of it all. To see the resulting video of everything that went wrong in Yosemite, you can watch below—
The next morning, I woke up to eerie silence of a snowy campground. “Man last night sucked!”, I thought. I had woken up several times, had stomach problems, and at one point, I just sat in the bathroom for no reason other than to warm up. We had forgotten to bring a sleeping bag rated for the cold and had to improvise with blankets; I forgot a pillow and had to use an IKEA seat cushion, folded into thirds. Throughout the night, I kept on looking at my car and I considered starting it to run the heater, but that felt like the ultimate failure to me, so I resisted.
The tent was sweaty and I was cold. I cleared my throat, half-expecting to be ill but other than a sore neck from the improvised pillow, I seemed to be fine. With TJ still asleep, I unzipped the tent, slipped on my boots, and stepped out into the winter wonderland.
I was in awe of the place. The snow, insulating everything from the spread of sound, blanketed the valley and turned it into one large plane. I felt as though I was in space.
TJ soon awoke and had the foresight to know that the snow would be gone in mere hours. "If you want to grab photos of a snowy Yosemite, this is your chance." he said, and so, we warmed up the car and took off around the valley.
Satisfied with our early-morning photo tour, we returned to the campsite for breakfast. We wanted to make the most of the day and knew that a hike wouldn’t be possible without some fuel.
After some amazing homemade breakfast sandwiches (possibly a trip highlight for me) we deconstructed the tent and cleared out of the campsite. After all the struggling we had encountered, at that moment none of it seemed to compare to the hassle of getting a sleeping pad into its snug casing. With everything finally packed up, we departed for our hike of the day, the Mist Trail.
The Mist Trail is a well established (mostly paved, in fact) trail to Vernal Falls. It is a short, moderately steep trail, and was already busy that morning. Not particularly challenging by itself, the elevation and my previous rough-night combined to slow me down. I was clearly dragging as we climbed and TJ eventually took off on his own pace.
TJ had used the Mist Trail as a starting point for a 215 mile hike down the John Muir Trail. As far as he was concerned, it was barely the tip of an iceberg he knew was conquerable.
On the bright, northern rock faces, the signs of snowmelt had already begun. The white trees were giving way to a bright green and occasionally, I would get rained on by snow that had lost its structure and fallen from the tree branches above. But in the shadows of the cliffs, the snow remained, unconcerned with the rising sun.
This grew problematic as the final approach to Vernal Falls was a series of snowy ramps and a long, granite staircase. With the snow trampled into ice, each step needed to be carefully taken. I imagined slipping and cracking my head on a step or sliding off of the trail entirely. All of the hikers took turns allowing one another to pass. Most seemed aware of how dangerous it was.
Ultimately, I decided I had no need to go all the way to the top. I was out of shape and out of control on the slippery stairs. TJ agreed that we had seen the main bits and we chose to return down the trail. Ultimately failing to complete the hike, we toasted to our struggle with another beer on the way down. You know, for the, uh, the energy-calories. Yeah, that’s it.
Back on the valley floor, the snow was in its last minute. We visited the stables and the Visitor’s Center and had no further problems with the stuff.
The Yosemite Valley floor is at 4,000’ elevation and the higher parts of the park rest at 8,000’. So while it was warm and green where we were, most roads in the park were still closed due to snow. We resigned to the fact that we wouldn’t be able to drive to a high-elevation lookout. Oh well, lunch time it is!
We found a spot between the famous rock face, El Capitan, and Bridalveil Fall and set up shop for some lunch. Rice and tuna would make for the perfect, light meal.
At this point, similar to the previous day, we had found ourselves too late in the day for another hike. Besides, we were pretty exhausted. Yosemite had kicked our asses and personally pushed my limits on this trip. With the return drive to Los Angeles approaching 6 hours, thanks to traffic, we decided to call it an early day. We drove up the pass towards the southern, tunnel exit and chose to stop for one last look: the famous Tunnel View.
Though snow still bunkered down on the high tips of the cliffs, the valley was mostly green and grey at this point. It was pretty amazing to have seen Yosemite go through the transformation that it had in the very short time we had been there. Being in the park to witness this change wasn’t easy. Over the last 24 hours it had pushed me around. This trip was hard—very hard.
But as I stood at that famous and predictable view, I couldn’t help but fall prey to John Muir’s prediction—I couldn’t escape Yosemite’s charms. I will certainly be back, and soon.
Until then, check out more photos from this trip below!: