It was time to leave the city behind, but not before some scheduled maintenance. Alex’s bike was due for an oil change and Ben graciously agreed to show us around the Alameda island to warm it up. Ben has a WR250X, which is closely related to Alex’s WR250R, and they swapped bikes to try them out. Alex said it felt very very different.
After changing the oil and fixing a couple other minor things, we were off towards Yosemite. Once out of urban area and off the freeway, the path passes through numerous farm fields, with local produce advertised on the side of the road. Everything from strawberries and peaches to walnuts and almonds – I was getting seriously tempted. Sometimes when you go with a purpose in mind, you tend to keep going by inertia, instead of stopping to check something unexpected. So in this case, by the time we caved in and agreed to stop at the next available fruit stand – the farm fields ended and we were reaching into the mountains. Think faster next time.
Before getting to Yosemite National Park, you first pass through Stanislaus National Forest. National forests in the States are quite a useful concept for travellers like us, as you can camp anywhere as long as it’s not prohibited (and it’s usually not).
The mountains themselves were quite remarkable, as they were so different from what we have seen earlier in Washington, Oregon, and coastal California. We finally stopped to take photos, before continuing on to Yosemite Valley.
When we got there, we were excruciatingly tired and overheated. Access to the valley is limited to just one road, and everyone drives slowly, in awe of the majestic landscape all around. Instead of stopping for photos right away, we skipped right to the lodge, sat in the air conditioned food court, and drank bottled Frappuccinos. I don’t drink coffee very often, but when I do… well, it’s for a special occasion.
And Yosemite is definitely special. I have seen numerous photos of it. Everything from casual snapshots, to legendary prints by Ansel Adams. Personally, I think even Adams’ creations fall short of truly expressing what it looks like and how it feels like. I’m going to throw some photos here, but frankly, it’s so much better in person.
As the sun disappeared and the sky began to darken in haste, we rode out of the park to find the campground suggested by Ben. I took a wrong turn in the dark, and we had to back track a few miles, but after we finally found it, it was a great campsite indeed. Unlike the humongous, busy campgrounds inside the park, this one had only about 5-6 spots, quietly nestled right by the Merced River – the river that flows through the entire Yosemite Valley. That right there, is the good stuff.
Since we were staying in Yosemite for a few days, we left our tent in the same spot and rode towards Glacier point, hoping to spend the day hiking. Before we got there, we circled around the main valley road one more time to appreciate it in full sunlight, before continuing on.
Before getting to Glacier point we passed by one of the most iconic views of this park – the tunnel view. Named that way not because you can see a tunnel, but because there is a tunnel directly behind you as you look at the valley. The tunnel itself gets no love.
The views from Glacier point require almost no hiking at all. Easy access means it’s rather crowded, but the views are so hypnotic, multilayered and serene, you accept it anyway.
We picked up some sandwiches at the Glacier Point Snack Stand and embarked on the actual hike, to Taft Point and Sentinel Dome. The path to Taft Point meanders a bit through the woods and then comes out dramatically to some of the most impressive rock cliffs in the park. What surprised me even more is that there are huge trees growing on the almost vertical rock faces, clinging to minute amounts of soil. How do they do that?
There were quite a few people enjoying the Taft Point hike, but once we turned to Sentinel Dome later in the afternoon, we barely met anyone else. That trail is wooded, but typically still lets you see the valley and other mountains around. We stopped for lunch at a particularly convenient flat rock, enjoying the view under the last golden rays of sunlight. By the time we made our way to the 360º overlook at the top of the dome, the sun had set and the sky was turning all sorts of pink and purple.
As we made our way to the parking lot it actually got completely dark. There is this turning point between taking photos, marvelling at the fast changing light, and then taking your eye off the viewfinder to realize the light has disappeared entirely. Curiously enough, the closer we got to the parking lot, the more people we were seeing, mostly loading up into their cars or standing around sharing the day’s impressions. It was a bit colder now, so we decided not to waste any time, geared up and headed for camp.
Except we had to stop with our jaws dropped when we got to the tunnel view again. It was lit by moonlight and absolutely unbelievable.
As we were closing in on our campsite, I noticed a strange noise. Upon closer inspection, turned out that two of the spokes in my rear wheel snapped. I had them all replaced with stronger ones just before the trip! Come on! The speciality shop making these spokes is located close to Los Angeles, so we figured perhaps we can make our way there and ask them for advice. Some time next week…
The following morning we saw a familiar WR250X as we were packing our stuff. It was Ben, here to do some rock climbing. We chatted, he shared more local tips, and we parted ways. We still had to find breakfast.
Speaking of which, I wish I was on a diet that morning. Several years ago I had a root canal on one of my teeth. Those are always fun. My dentist said that I should really get a crown done for that tooth but then he proceeded to describe in gory detail how the tooth is going to be prepped for the crown and I decided to chicken out of that process. Fast forward to the sunny morning when I was chewing on a breakfast sausage, looking at the gorgeous trees outside the window, and hearing something crack in my mouth. It didn’t hurt too much, but it felt scarier than the snapping wheel spokes. Something with that tooth was not right.
Hoping for a quick resolution, we headed to the Yosemite Medical Clinic, which is right by the main lodge, but apparently they don’t have dentists there. Made an appointment at the Mammoth Lakes instead, for next day.
With that out of the way, we went on with our original plans of riding across the Tioga Pass and hiking the Elizabeth Lake trail. It’s a loop trail leading to and around an alpine lake. We chatted with one of the fellow hikers once we got to the lake, exchanged favours taking each other’s photos, and found out that he lives just a block away from our place in Toronto. All roads do lead to Toronto. Also, no cross-continental North American road trip is complete without Yosemite. It’s in the rule book you get when you study for a driving test.
Although the lake is surrounded by mountains, you can barely see them because of the dense forest all around. On Ben’s advice, we scrambled up a rocky section on the far side of the lake, and from there the views truly opened up.
We spent some time enjoying the blissful serenity of the lake view, and as the sun began to set, started on our hike out. By the time we got back to the bikes and were ready to hit the road, it was completely dark. That said, the skies were clear with an almost full moon rising over the mountains. If you think Yosemite is beautiful in daytime, just wait until you see it under bright moonlight. It is simply magical, and oh so hard to keep your eyes off. What makes it even more special is how fleeting that sight is. Even if you try to photograph it, it never turns out quite like the real thing, so your memory of it is all you get to keep.
Another thing that happens in Yosemite High Sierra at night is a sudden temperature drop. By the time we made it to Mammoth Lakes, I could barely hear my own thoughts over the chattering of my teeth. This is supposed to be August! The town of Mammoth Lakes greeted us with lively streets decorated with lights, and we were happy to find that quite a few restaurants were open for dinner at the late hour. It felt like Christmas. A South African inspired stew was just what we needed after a cold ride, hearty and delicious. Although we brought a few pots with us thinking we would be engaging in some camp cookouts, I have since realized the most sophisticated dish we’re gonna whip out in a campsite is a good cup of tea. At least we’re covered in case of a tea emergency.
As we were settling in what was the last room in a cute Austrian style chalet, Alex realized his cellphone was missing. Few things can make your heart sink quite like a lost iPhone. Did it fall out along the way? Did it get left behind in the restaurant? Did one of the other drunk guests pick it up thinking it was theirs? Alex donned his gear again and went to retrace his steps, but there was nothing in the parking lots or on the road, and the restaurant had closed for the night…