Yosemite and Sequoia

Yosemite, Sequoia & Tassajara

California, USA

July 15th - 24th, 2019

After a wonderful week at Lake Tahoe with Lara, Gary, Pearl and Max, I used the newfound freedom of my recent retirement to spend another 10 days travelling around California by myself to explore a couple of the national parks. After dropping the four of them off at the airport in Reno, I drove south through Carson City to the small town of Bridgeport, where I spent the night before heading into Yosemite.

Mono Lake:
I had a bit of time in the afternoon, which I used to see one of the most unusual lakes in the US. It is called Mono Lake and is located about 30 minutes south of Bridgeport to the east of Yosemite National Park. Driving south on California 395, I came across an amazing look-out spot, which affords this stunning view over the whole lake.

Mono Lake is an ancient lake, at least 750 thousand years old. What makes it so unusual is the fact that it has no natural outflows, which leads to such a high salinity that the lake is completely devoid of any fish. Instead, it contains trillions of brine shrimp. Yes, this number is not an exaggeration. It is in fact estimated that during the summer months 4 to 6 trillion of these tiny insect-like animals populate the lake. And they in turn provide food for millions of migratory birds.

Another strange feature are these rather unusual rock formations, which stick out of the water near the shore around the whole lake. They are called Tufa Towers and are formed by fresh water springs on the lake bottom. Due to the high alkalinity of the water, the springs create these large calcium carbonite structures. Most of the towers used to be completely submerged, but the surface of the lake has dropped by about 45 feet since the 1940's, when the city of Los Angeles started to divert some of the rivers feeding the lake for drinking water. By the 1990's the surface area of the lake had shrunk by nearly half. There is now an extensive conservation effort underway to restore the lake to its former size. But even though no more water is diverted these days, it will take several decades before the lake surface will reach its previous levels.

Yosemite National Park
Since I had been warned about the crowds during the summer months in Yosemite, I got up very early the next morning and began the drive from Bridgeport at 5:00 am. I passed Mono Lake again just when the sun came up:

The drive to Yosemite Valley took about 2.5 hours. Since I got there before 9:00 am I had no problems finding a parking space near Half Dome Village. I had decided to do the Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls hike. I first followed the Mist Trail, which wound up gently through the valley, and then turned left to join the much steeper Muir trail. I took about 2 hours of switchbacks through the forest, before I reached an open ridge and was greeted by what was one of the best views I have ever seen - Nevada Falls and Liberty Cap with Half Dome in the background:

I continued along the ridge for another 30 minutes, before I reached the top of the huge Nevada Falls, which are formed by the Merced River.

Here the hike joins the Mist Trail again for the loop back down into the valley, but I decided to continued further up along the Muir Trail. This is the trail you take when you want to reach the top of Half Dome. However this requires a permit in advance, which are very limited and allocated through a lottery system. The reason for the restriction is the last part of the Half Dome hike, which takes you along a very scary looking cable, that is strung across the back side of the huge granite slab. You can see the string of people making their way up in single file across the dome in this picture. I've put this on my bucket list and may try it on my next trip to Yosemite.

I turned around after about an hour, and re-joined the Mist Trail at the top of Vernal Falls. At that stage I realized it would have been easier to do the loop the other way around, since this part of the trail is very steep and narrow, which would have been much easier to do going up than down. When you reach the second of the big falls, Vernal Falls, there is the section, where the Mist Trail becomes true to its name. I got completely soaked from the spray blowing off of Vernal Falls.

Overall it was a fairly tough 6 hour hike, but with some of the best views I have ever had. The combination of giant waterfalls and enormous granite walls all around you is what made Yosemite  one of the most famous of the National Parks in the US. Established in the 19th century, it was also one of the first National Parks. In fact Yosemite Valley played a big part in the conception of the idea of the National Park System, when Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864 to protect the valley from development. The park became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, and typically receives between 4 and 5 million visitors a year.

There are a few lodges and hotels inside the park, but they fill up quickly during the summer. I stayed outside on the western side in a nice motel in the town of Mariposa, which looks like a typical small western town and has a couple of very nice restaurants. I drove back into the park very early the next morning, for what was to be my most ambitious hike on this trip - trying to reach the top of El Capitan.

The iconic El Capitan is the largest and most imposing of the big walls in Yosemite. It is the wall that Alex Honnold free soloed in less than 4 hours, while most mortal climbers spend several days to reach the top. Fortunately it is also possible to get to the top as a non-climber along the El Capitan Trail. The first part of the trail is quite steep and ascends a seemingly endless number of switchbacks that snake up on the right hand side behind the wall and along Yosemite Falls. There are several spots along the way from where I had some amazing view of the huge falls.

It took my about 2.5 tough hours to get to the top of Yosemite Falls, but the views across the entire valley made it more than worthwhile.

From here on the trail flattened out a bit and entered a beautiful forest. It seemed that most people turned around at the top of the falls, since I suddenly was very alone. I only came across a handful of people over the next 4 hours, but I had company in the form of the occasional deer and a large number of these curious little rodents scurrying about everywhere.

The trail continued for another 2.5 hours of rolling terrain through the forest before I ended up on the top of El Capitan. I took a short rest here to enjoy the incredible view of Half Dome across the valley, before turning around and making my way back down. Even though I hiked it up over the back, I think got a small glimpse of what an enormous sense of accomplishment it must feel like to reach this point after spending several days climbing up the huge wall.

It took me almost 4 hours to get back down, and I was completely exhausted but elated when I reached the car after being on my feet for nearly 9 hours. The whole hike ended up being 28 kilometers (over 17 miles) with an elevation gain of almost 1,500 meters.

Sequoia National Park
After another night in Mariposa I woke up with very sore muscles from the big hike. Fortunately today was largely a driving day, as I had planned to make my way further down south to Sequoia National Park. The drive took about three hours and took me through seemingly endless orchards of perfectly aligned fruit trees. Sequoia National Park, located in the Southern Sierra Nevada, was established in 1890. It includes Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, but the park is most famous for being home to the giant Sequoia trees, among them the gigantic General Sherman Tree, which is the largest tree in the world (measured by trunk volume) and was my first destination today. The drive from the park entrance in Three Rivers to the tree took over an hour along one of the windiest roads I have ever been on. But it was well worth it, seeing this mind-boggling giant, which is a short walk from the car park. This photo gives a good sense of scale as you can just make out the little people in front of the enormous trunk:

The tree is estimated to be about 2,200 years old, which is still almost a 1,000 years younger than the oldest known Sequoias around here. There are also many fallen trunks, which are way too large and heavy to be moved, so they just cut tunnels through them if they are in the way.

I went on a short walk through the forest full of these giants, which made me look like a little hobbit.

I stayed the night in a nice motel in the town of Three Rivers just outside the park. The next day, since my legs were still quite sore, I decided against doing any long hikes here (although there are many great hiking trails in the park). Instead I visited the Crystal Cave in the morning. It is an impressive deep marble cavern with some huge rooms and beautiful formations. You can only visit the cave with a guided tour, and you have to buy the tickets at the office near the park entrance.

In the afternoon I went on a short hike to Moro Rock, which is a strange geological feature, a large isolated granite dome overhanging the valley below. There are stairs cut into the rock face for visitors to climb to the top. It seemed to be a very popular destination, as there were quite a lot of people making their way up the stairs. But it was definitely worth doing for the beautiful views of the high Sierra Nevada on one side and the winding road and the valley below on the other.

For my last week in California, I had decided to try out something new and rather unusual for me. So I had signed up to join a five day yoga and meditation retreat in a Zen monastery. This is not something I had ever done before, and I didn't really know what to expect.

The retreat took  place at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, which was founded by a Japanese Buddhist monk in the late 1960's. It functions both as a monastery for zen monks, who live here all year round, and as a yoga and meditation retreat for visitors during the summer months. It is located in a very remote part of the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park about 3 hours south of San Francisco. The center could hardly be more isolated. It is more than 25 kilometers from the nearest paved road and requires a 4WD if you want to drive there yourself. It is nestled in a beautiful valley along a small mountain stream.

You are almost completely cut off from the outside world here. There is no cell phone network, no internet, no news. The thought of not being connected and not being able to keep up with social media and world events seemed strange at first. But it took me less than a day before I noticed that I had stopped thinking about any of that, and started to feel a great sense of calm come over me.

I had signed up for a five day retreat, which involved about 3 to 4 hours of very gentle yoga every day, and 1 to 2 hours of meditation practice. The program also allowed plenty of free time, which I spent reading, relaxing in the baths or hiking on the many trails surrounding the monastery. There was a beautiful spot just 20 minute down river - the so-called narrows, where you could slide off the rocks or jump off the cliffs into a deep pool of clear cold water.

The retreat itself was lead by two women, a buddhist monk, who had spent 10 years at Tassajara, and a yoga teacher from San Francisco, who had been leading retreats here for many years. The other participants were mostly from California, and many of them had been coming here regularly for years. It was a really fun group. We always had breakfast and dinner together in the main dining hall, where we were served unexpectedly great food. It was entirely vegetarian, but varied and very tasty, and there was not alcohol (but they didn't mind when people wanted to bring in their own meat or alcohol).

The area also has natural hot springs, which heat the hot water pools in the bath house. I often spent my early morning before the first yoga class in the bath house, alternating between soaking myself in the (very) hot plunge pools and the frigid waters of the little creek.

I think it was a combination of the beautiful natural surroundings, the remoteness of the location, being completely off-line and the restorative yoga classes, that resulted in me reaching states of relaxation that I had not been familiar with. Signing up for a retreat like this, was meant to be mainly an experiment of doing something that took me out of my comfort zone, and it ended up being a incredibly relaxing and very enjoyable experience, and one that I may very well repeat some time in the future.

After leaving Tassajara, I had a couple of days to wind down and re-adjust to civilization in San Francisco before the long flight back to Singapore.

No comments:

Post a Comment