On Friday morning, we woke up in our cozy room at the Sierra Sky Ranch ready for a day of adventure back in the park. After enjoying some yummy waffles in the sunlit dining room, we headed out for our first stop at the Mariposa Sequoia Grove. We arrived a little before 9:00 a.m. and just before the mass of Memorial Day tourist buses descended.
We didn’t have to take more than five steps from our car before we were face to face with the gigantic trunk of our very first sequoia. We knew these things were massive, but nothing compares to seeing one up close! It was much colder that day, with rain predicted later in the afternoon, but we enjoyed walking through the lower grove of trees with our heads constantly tilted vertically.
One thing we noticed was that the trees are not as tall as we expected. I guess we thought that they are famous for being both impossibly wide and impossibly tall, but Charlie mentioned he thought he’s seen taller pine trees in Alabama. (Or perhaps we’re just homesick and can’t see a tall tree without thinking our Alabama pines have it beat!) Either way, what they may have lacked in height, they certainly made up for in girth. One tree, called the Grizzly Giant, had a branch whose circumference was greater than all the tree trunks in the near vicinity – a branch wider than a normal trunk!
The base of another tree had been tunneled out so that carriages could drive through it in the late 1800s. Standing inside an ancient sequoia tree was a neat experience, especially since this was one of the few giants that was not fenced off. We were able to feel the layers of weathered bark and see its beautiful red, orange and amber colors up close. Charlie even had me take a cheesy picture of him hugging the tree – we are in the California land of hippies after all!
After a chilly walk back to the car, we drove north towards Yosemite Valley where we had lunch and poked our heads into the Ansel Adams gallery. Adams was a photographer known for his work at Yosemite, and we had a beautiful copy of his photograph of Yosemite dogwoods hanging in our townhouse in Auburn. It was neat to see that print again, as well as take some of my own dogwood pictures as we meandered throughout the park – they were everywhere!
With lunch and souvenir shopping complete, we were back in the car again headed about 35 miles away from the valley to Tuolomne Meadows. The road to the meadows had just opened for the season, and it was nice to get out of the busiest parts of the park for the afternoon. I had read that the drive from the valley to the meadow would take us past all the best of Yosemite – alpine forests, crystal lakes, and granite formations – before bringing us to the “Meadow in the Sky” at 8,500 feet.
What the guidebook didn’t say is that climbing 4,000 feet when rain is coming through the area means that we’d quickly be caught in a freak late-May snowstorm!
That dogwood picture was taken only two hours before the picture shown above. What a difference a little elevation can make! It took a couple of hours to reach the meadow, and the skies alternated from completely white to clearing slightly along our way. While some of the major viewpoints along the way were obscured by the snow, others seemed to clear at exactly the right moment so that we could enjoy the view from so high up. Looking down into the valley from our snowy perch offered yet another great perspective.
Throughout the drive we passed still ponds surrounded by trees, drove through a red fir forest (beautiful with snow on the branches!), a few waterfalls and several large lookout points that offered views of granite formations we hadn’t been able to see in the valley. The rain forecast that bummed us out at first certainly turned out to be a blessing in disguise as we loved every minute of our drive through the soft white woods. I think it’s so incredible that we got to hike a waterfall in the warm sun, watch the clouds roll in through the granite cliffs and sit on the snowy banks of an alpine lake all within two days!
We originally planned to visit Tuolomne Meadows to walk through the early summer wildflowers. This shows you what southerners we are – “It’s May, so the flowers must be blooming!” – we didn’t realize that May still means winter weather at these altitudes. When we turned the corner by Tanaya Lake and came upon the peaceful meadow we realized we wouldn’t be traipsing through any wildflowers that day!
Despite the lack of flowers, I’m so glad the snow held off literally just long enough for us to see the meadow under a clear sky. We took a few pictures and enjoyed the view before going into the store (literally a tent) for some hot chocolate to warm us up. When we came out five minutes later, the snow had caught up to us!
Being relatively far from the valley, most park visitors don’t make it Tuoloumne Meadows. We relished the quiet surroundings and the feeling of being a world away from anything routine. As we explored around a little, we came upon several quiet streams just bubbling along toward the majestic Tenaya Lake. The thickening blanket of snow only added to the magical appeal of the area. However, we realized that it was coming down pretty hard and we would need to get down the mountain road before we became stuck. Hot chocolate and cookie in hand, we started back down Tioga Road.
And the snow came with us.
We noticed that no one was passing us going up the mountain and figured the park must have closed the road because of the weather conditions. A lot of people were headed back down and we joined a slow caravan through near white-out conditions at certain points. I felt awful for the people on motorcycles who thought they had a great, sunny afternoon drive up the mountain planned – they looked miserably exposed. At one point, we came around a corner and saw a car completely flipped on its side near the edge of the mountain, its lights still on as if the accident had just happened. Charlie stopped the car and ran back to check on the passengers. Apparently they had already escaped and must have been picked up by the park ranger who was at the next overturned car just down the road. The snow was getting thick at this point, and it had come on so fast that the park hadn’t been able to clear the road yet.
(below: just to give you an idea of how much snow had dropped in an hour – a lot according to our Alabama standards!)
It was a little stressful, but I just started praying that the Lord would get us all down the mountain quickly and safely. I’m thankful everyone in our caravan drove very cautiously and we made it back down to the main road just fine. Of course, we felt like we’d just stepped out of Narnia because the main road was sunny and warm!
We finally said goodbye to Yosemite and headed towards home around 6:00 p.m. It was perfect timing, and we were able to enjoy that magic hour around sunset just as the road began to wind through the little streams and canals that run off the river near our home. I felt like I had gone from Yosemite to the back roads of Baldwin County or Ocean Springs within two hours.
In the days since we’ve been home, I’ve really been struck by an urge to return. However, I’m realizing that no matter how many trips we might make to Yosemite, I don’t think it would ever feel like enough time to truly soak up its majestic beauty!