Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Yosemite Valley Curry Village Waterfall Day Hike - Mammoth Lakes Fall Foliage Journey

Sorry for the long title. Going for all the search-engine bells and whistles. Jackson recently had a rogue day off, thanks to school-district machinations. So we took off for three-day Eastern Sierra sojourn and discovered some beautiful waterways, actual weather patterns (as opposed to the constant 80+-degree heatwave for weeks we've been experiencing at home), and the autumn mother-lode: foliage. All within a lucky weekend.

Most good trips result from a balance of three travel aspects: the destination, the company, and your health and well-being. We were constantly reminded of all three throughout the journey, thanks to the extreme landscape and in Yosemite Valley's case, extreme warning signage, but I ramble. Let us begin.

First off, we left the clogged streets of the Bay Area behind for Yosemite Valley's Curry Village. It sounds quaint, and perhaps in a way it is, but it's actually a tent encampment for the vast middle-class. Who else could afford eighty-dollar-a-night tent accommodations and who else would want to? Starting out in 1899 to encourage camping in beautiful Yosemite Valley, Camp Curry now has free WiFi in its lounge (note the millennials rocking on the front porch, eyes glued to their devices), but it's still rather rustic. And crowded, always.

A bear locker for each tent

Keith exalts in the temporary housing that is tent 267

Our gregarious check-in host, Mike, assured us that all our food would be perfectly fine as long as we stored it in our outdoor bear locker. He also told us bears have grown attracted to the scent of many toiletries as well, so those would have to go into the locker, along with any sunblock or other freshly scented products. As a middle-class citizen with too much sunblock rolling around in the back seat of my car, this required a little gathering and storing on our part. Check out our tent/cabin:

We sprang for the heated tent ($20 extra). Note the one chair, good for sitting.

Bedding and towels are included. Bathroom is through the trees, past your neighbors and across the path. Don't forget the bathroom code, or you'll be standing there, waiting for someone to let you in. Here's my cot:

It was hard, but that's no surprise—it's a cot. I've stayed in Curry Village three times but I always forget how noisy it is starting at 6 a.m. when all of humanity seems to be shuffling past the canvas walls, on their way to first-dawn flapjacks.

During the night things were pretty quiet but a nearby controlled burn (a mile-long burn leading into the park—a true vision of controlled hell) made the air-quality smokey and there was much snuffling and coughing in neighboring tents. A young racoon sauntered by our cabin multiple times like a nosy neighbor, oblivious of our superior role in the food chain. A group of hard-alcohol drinkers sat in a quadrant among tents full of elementary-school-aged sleeping campers. These whiskey-drinkers spoke so quietly among themselves they were virtually nonexistent except as a marker for the shared bathrooms. I tip my hat to these thoughtful well-doused campers. I wish my loud-mouth suburban neighbors with their wine-swilling bouncy-house parties behind our house were half as polite.

What about atmosphere? Yosemite has it and then some, but late at night, when it's dark, you'll have to make do with the reading material in your tent, lit by a dim hanging ceiling bulb. In my haste to unpack, I noticed this large sign, hanging next to our towels and I thought—oh, a treatise on deer mice and bears. But on closer inspection, we learned of the dreaded hantavirus, carried by mouse droppings, urine and saliva, and potentially deadly. Oh, and fascinating facts (the large print), such as deer mice eat nuts and seeds.

Fascinating - sleep well!

Yosemite has a long history of deadly occurrences within its granite formations. The deer mice who nested in cabins, causing an outbreak that claimed three in 2012, were found in the walls of a section within the camp that has since been torn down. Our cabins were the more traditional canvas variety with less area for mice to hang out in. Still, as I type this, I'm suffering from one of the worst colds I've ever had. So wish me luck. And, as the sign helpfully states:

And if you want to read up on bears, the cabins provide you with that information as well.

I'll condense, for time's sake:

Evicted from a tent city—that's gotta sting

Most importantly, remember:

The following morning, forewarned to avoid mice and bears, we headed over to the massive Curry Village Pavilion for flapjacks. I thought the Curry Village parking lot was SPECTACULAR and I think you'll agree.

After much food, we ran into Mike again, whereupon he told us we absolutely had to do the Mist Trail hike to Vernon Falls. He had already mentioned the trail when we checked in, but somehow, seeing him on his way to breakfast in his civilian clothes gave it more weight. Also, he told us it was something everyone had to do during their lifetime. 

We hopped a shuttle (ten-minute wait-time means you never have to drive) and within minutes were in deep nature, surrounded by people.

If you like people, you'll love Yosemite

On the way to the trail head, you cross a creek. A very dry creek due to California's historic drought. Hopefully we'll get some rain soon.

The Mist trail is paved. People brought kids in strollers, but those strollers were abandoned halfway up because it gets steep. Urged on by the promise of mist and falls, we all trudged forth. Jackson taking photos along the way.

If you get tired, pull up a boulder and set a spell. The public restrooms (nice to have on a hike) had signage (naturally) warning hikers not to "bonk" on the trail by drinking plenty of water. We did and avoided bonking.

Finally after a hundred stairs cut from granite—Vernal Falls.

As popular as Everest

I know what you're thinking: that's it?! Yes, it's October and it hasn't rained properly in three years, so that's it. It's pretty rad in the spring after normal rainfall. And although the trail is called Mist, there was none. No complaints though—it's a fine day hike, and if you're feeling frisky you can continue on to Nevada Falls. We didn't.

Here you can clearly see the dark area where the falls widen after snow melt. And it's so misty that hikers are encouraged to wear rain gear or they'll be doused.

I can't imagine tromping down all those granite steps (they're high and uneven) in a heavy mist. Be careful up there!. This hike is the deadliest in Yosemite, mainly because people ignore signs, go off trail, wade in the water, or climb slippery rocks and get swept away. I've seen a lot of stupidly dangerous behavior around waterfalls. I'm not sure what it's all about. Someone died here from washing his hands in the river. He slipped, fell in and got swept away by the current. The worst and most terrifying are the people who go over the falls, because that's completely avoidable and there are so many witnesses, including children. Don't tempt the waters—they are powerful beyond all reckoning!

There's signage throughout Yosemite warning you not to wade in the water, warning you not to leave your picnic food for a moment or a bear will take it, warning you about the plague (carried by rodents), warning you not to litter, warning you to be sure and throw your pizza cardboards in the proper recycling container. We appreciated the directives and we did survive Yosemite, but it felt a little oppressive. It was time to move on.

Along Route 120 Tioga Pass Road toward Mammoth Lakes, in search of fall foliage.

First we hit beautiful June Lake Loop to see what was going on with the leaves, but it was late in the day and the spotty yellow Aspens weren't bursting with color yet.

Silver Lake was just getting some color.

It was getting dark, so we gave up on foliage and continued on to the Quality Inn in Mammoth Lakes, where breakfast is free and plentiful and the jacuzzi is HUGE, perfect for after hiking straight up a mountain.

Rain showers were reported for the next day, but it turned into heavy rain, so we drove four miles north of town (after buying lots of comfortable pants at the Bass outlet—Mammoth Lakes is a good destination for skiing and pants-shopping), to check out the Lake Mary Loop, full of lakes, easy to navigate.

Mammoth was overrun with fishermen and women, camping in tents in 40-degree weather, floating around in little inflatables with their waders dangling in the glacial mountain water, holding their reels and just sitting, waiting. I admire their tenacity. Also, the storm wasn't properly predicted, so people were forcing the issue during a downpour, for the love of fish. And more power to them.

Here's Lake George. It was coooold, which was refreshing coming from the seemingly endless heat wave of the Bay Area.

There's all these great little hikes around the lakes but Jackson had a sore throat and it began raining hard, so we just drove and parked, discovering as we went.

Here's stark Horseshoe Lake.

Posted signs explained that a 1989 earthquake opened up some volcanic fissures in the area, which now emit enough CO2 to kill nearby trees from the roots up. Hikers are advised not to lie down on the ground, rest in a tree well, or allow children or pets who are low to the ground to run about too long in this area, lest dizziness and unconsciousness occur. Not wishing to tempt fate, we obeyed the sign.

Dead trees

Keith suggested we check out Convict Lake. We'd passed it by, going down 395 to Bishop many times, but never took the mysterious turn-off. This extra-wide rainbow on the highway was a good omen:

Our quest for foliage spurred us on and we were not disappointed.

Wow—Convict Lake

Never again will we ignore Convict Lake. Besides hosting a fine resort with rental kayaks, the lake is stocked with trout and a three-mile trail around its glacial perimeter. It's 138 feet deep, which is impressive. And foliage abounds.

More than satisfied, we headed back to the Inn, unaware of the forces of nature at work during the night. The next morning:

Snow! Yes, snow—we had remembered hearing something about snow in the mountains many years before and here it was, surprising and beautiful, holding out a promise of a watery winter. And something else surprising: when we headed back to the June Lake Loop on our way home, we found it completely changed from two days before.

It was so colorful—the aspens and willows in full yellow mode. We hopped out of the car along the loop again and again, trying to capture the colors in the grayish light. Jackson was so patient with us. It's not always easy having nerd parents.

Keith, a child of Western Massachusetts, was finally in his element.

Satiated with leafy goodness, we made our way home without incident (the best way) over the 108 Sonora Pass, where we drove by the U.S. Marine Corps' Mountain Warfare Training Center and their massive vehicles, training for deployment to Afghanistan. Those guys are young, really young. We waved to each other as we drove by. I felt sad about everything.

We stopped at the Strawberry Inn along the Stanislaus River for lunch and headed home to visit with my family. In three days we had experienced rain, snow, foliage, the U.S. Marines, Billy on the Street on Direct TV, lingering cold viruses, no bears eating our food and no bonking. Great trip.

The Strawberry Inn's back yard

A word about Ansel Adams. For me, it's impossible to visit Yosemite Valley and not think about Adams' photographic legacy. The question is: how did he do it?

Yosemite Valley is a deep, deep canyon, subject to dark shadows against monolithic gray granite formations and bright skies. It's a photographic challenge to say the least. Adams used a large-format camera, which gave him a big negative to work with, hence more detail, especially for gray-rock detail. But his success ultimately depended on his skills in the dark room with the obsessive use of dodging and burning during exposure times. Using an arm, his hand, or a stencil—some kind of handy blocking or revealing devices, Adams could control how much light would reach each area of a photo. It probably took a lot of attempts before a satisfying print emerged. Later in his career, he had a series of assistants to work on prints, but the guy was a master of composition and printing.

During our entire journey, I was surrounded by guys (always guys) with tripods and big lenses, doing their thing. I just have a tiny Canon PowerShot, so I'm not even attempting for the grand landscape. If I can get a bit of our journey visually, I'm good with that. I've worked in dark rooms and I wonder how Adams would feel about my modern-day dodging and burning. Scrubbing away digitally with my Photoshop tools takes moments, rather than hours. He'd probably be intrigued and annoyed. There's an artistry to both forms of photography, but something about touching the paper, the smell of the developing chemicals, the battle with the negative in the enlarger—it's somehow more epic. I think that obsessive degree of perfection comes through in all his work.