We were noodling up US 395 in California’s Owens Valley east of the Sierras, enjoying the dry climate and lack of crowds, when The Tour Director (that would be my charming wife) decided she wanted to pop over the mountains and go to Yosemite, so the bus driver (that would be me) snagged a couple of nights at a Forest Service campground right outside the park, and over the pass we went.
What the heck, I say to myself. The children are still in school where they belong for another couple of weeks, it looks like a couple of good days before it starts raining, so let’s go.
The pass in question is Tioga Pass, highway 120 from Lee Vining on 395 over to the park. It tops out at 9,945 feet, where there’s a entrance booth. All we had to do is wave our Senior Pass at the ranger, grab the offered map, and we were in. We crossed beautiful high country with spruce, fir, pines, and then the redwoods started popping up. We were really in the Pacific coastal ecosystem.
Around and down and up and across we drove – these are 30-35 mph roads with no guardrails, so you really couldn’t make good time even if you wanted to.
Deer, coyotes, and a few birds and squirrels were on Tuolumne Meadows up at 8,000 feet, and the campground was still closed, which is good because there’s snow all over the place up this high, even in mid-May.
The Yosemite Valley floor itself is down at 4,000 feet, and the action was hot and heavy as we arrived. Scads of bus tours, hipsters from the Bay area outfitted in the latest floppy hats, high-tech walking sticks, and titanium water bottles, real backpackers carrying everything they’d need for the next month in their gigantic packs, families with little babies, it was a zoo.
I was nearly impaled on a selfie stick more than once. But even all this human activity was dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape. Ordinarily, crowds bother me, especially crowds of city folk. Here, it hardly registered. All I had to do is look up, and the people just disappeared. Whatever you want to call it, in Yosemite Valley you are in the presence of… something.
We sent the day wandering up and down the valley, and headed to our campground as it got late, with a 350ish pound bear crossing the road in front of us as we went back up to 7,500 feet to get out of the valley, and back down to 5,000 where our campground was near the town of Fish Camp.
Up again early, and a quick look online thanks to my handy satellite internet dish shows disturbing news – a big storm system is coming out of the Gulf of Alaska to hit California, with snow forecast down to 5,000 feet tomorrow.
Everyone else is oblivious – there’s no cell coverage in the area, so almost nobody has any way to get online. I tell the campground host to give the second night of our spot to some deserving tourist, and that we will head out of the area after spending a day in the valley again. I know we need to be over the pass by dark unless we want to wait for them to plow all this spring snow, and we will be waiting in the rain with several thousand other stranded visitors, none of whom are very well prepared – not a pleasant prospect.
We hit Mariposa Grove on the way in, which is near the south entrance and where the highest concentration of sequoias and Japanese tourists can be found, and spent another wonderful day on the valley floor. By 3 p.m. we decide it’s time to head out.
We fill our tanks with incomparable Yosemite mountain water and hit the road. It’s slow going as the park floor’s traffic slows to a crawl, because word about the weather is getting out and people are on the move. In addition, there are multiple flagmen and one-lane sections on the highway – there’s a limited season for road repair in Yosemite, and it’s in full swing.
It took us an hour just to get out of the valley. We follow a Class A towing a Jeep who knows what he’s doing. He sets a good pace but takes no chances. Neither do we. The margin for error is gone – can’t afford any kind of delay now. Clueless Rent-an-RV drivers are headed the other way, into a dismal week of being marooned once the snow hits.
Up and over the pass, and the clouds are really moving in, looking ominous.
As we get back down on the eastern side and drive up 395 toward Reno, we see a cluster of stern-looking highway patrolmen at 108, the Sonora pass road. They are closing the passes because they don’t want to be up there rescuing tourists in T-shirts and flip-flops in the foot of snow that’s coming.
We later learned that they closed Tioga Pass an hour or so after we skedaddled over it. Those are the only two ways out of town, so it’s a good thing I had satellite internet and paid attention to the weather.