Right now, and probably for years to come, the drive in to Yosemite National Park on highway 120 and Big Oak Flat Road will be a bittersweet experience. The bitter begins a few miles east of Groveland as the scars from this summer’s quarter million acre Rim Fire come into view. Thankfully, the town of Groveland escaped physical damage, although the economic impact to the town has reportedly been significant. The government shutdown in October just as the fire was dying didn’t help either.
Links to supporting articles:
New York Times
Although driving in on Highway 140 through Mariposa is another viable option, for those coming from the Bay Area or heading to Tuolumne Meadows and the eastern Sierras, highway 120 is the more practical option. And while it now looks like a lunar, or Martian, landscape, new plant life is already taking hold and will continue in earnest in the spring. According to botanists and other experts, we can also look forward to some spectacular wildflower blooms in the recovering landscape, including species of wildflowers whose seeds have been dormant for decades.
The town of Groveland, itself is a popular place to stop and even to spend the night (or several nights) if the lodges and/or campgrounds inside the park are full. The town is small, but among others, favorite eating spots are Dori’s Tea House and Cocina Michoacan. Lodging favorites: Yosemite Rose Inn, a charming B&B on Feretti Road, and the Groveland Hotel.
As I drove past some of the worst fire damage as I approached the park boundary, it was comforting to see that the structures and resort properties around Buck Meadows were mostly intact, undoubtedly due to heroic efforts by firefighters. Along the roadsides, a green dyed seed mixture as protection from erosion covered the burned ground. While the more famous, picturesque areas of the park escaped damage, the fire did reach inside the park’s western boundary and is evident north of the road.
Once inside the park’s tollgate, the scenery damage disappears soon after entering. On my recent visit, a steady rain was falling and even turned to snow for a short time as Big Oak Flat Road crested above 5500’ and 6000’ before descending into the valley. Though Yosemite Valley (approx. 4,000′ elev.) is a treat for the senses most any day, in the fall and winter, the one negative, crowds, are absent. As I drove along the Merced River towards Yosemite Village and my ultimate destination, the Happy Isles Trailhead, it seemed as though I had my own private National Park. This feeling diminished as I got closer to Yosemite Village, but compared to the prime tourist season between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the crowds were negligible.
If you’re going to hike in Yosemite this time of year, it’s important to keep in mind a few things. 1) As always, a trail map is a good idea. 2) Although it’s cooler, and in some spots downright cold, hydration is still important. You’re not going to feel as thirsty, but underneath all your layers, you’ll still be perspiring and using up liquid. 3) It gets dark early so unless you want to hike in the dark (like someone I met who was forced to use ambient light from his phone to hike his last mile the day before), finish early or carry a flashlight or headlamp.
I started my morning’s hike from Happy Isles and opted for the Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls. Helped by the previous day’s rainfall, the waterfalls were freshened, although the flow was just a fraction of what it is during the peak late spring/early summer months. Past Liberty Cap, at the top of Nevada Falls, the Mist Trail rejoins the John Muir Trail. Had I started earlier or had more daylight, it would’ve been tempting to continue northeast towards Little Yosemite Valley and Half Dome. For the return trip to Happy Isles, and since I plan on hiking the entire JMT to Mt. Whitney next summer, I opted for this flatter and easier, albeit longer, route back to the valley with the excuse of advance scouting.
For my night’s lodging in the Valley, initially I had reserved a $60 tent cabin at Curry Village, splurging an extra $20 for a propane-heated option. Two things had me considering asking for an upgrade to a walled cabin. First, were the cold temperatures. Second, was a severe high wind warning issued by the National Weather Service. At the Curry Village reservation building, my concerns were rendered moot. Because of the wind danger, Curry Village customers were being moved or registered at various other lodges in the park by the National Park Service. I was given Yosemite Lodge.
At times, it might seem like the weather service is often wrong, but in this case, their forecast was so accurate it was scary. They predicted that the high winds would start at about 7:00 p.m. and almost on cue, just before the appointed time, from the warm comfort of my room I heard the winds start to howl through the trees and along the granite ridges outside. It was comforting to know that the NPS takes such proactive precautions for guest safety.
The relocation also served me well in the morning since I was able to walk from the parking lot to the Upper Yosemite Falls Trailhead nearby. Initially, I was going to climb just high enough to view the waterfall past Columbia Rock, but once on the trail, the top of the falls proved too tempting. There were a few spots where the wind was still blasting, but once I reached the upper switchbacks, the trail was protected and it ended up being a perfect morning for hiking. At the top of the falls (6,936’) there was still some snow on the ground from the recent system. Looking across the valley, it was apparent that there were some thicker accumulations at Glacier Point and the surrounding area.
At the overlook where Yosemite Falls tumbles to the valley, like Nevada and Vernal, the day before, the water flow was a mere trickle, but at least it wasn’t bone dry like photos I’d seen of the falls from September and October. On the way down, clouds were once again gathering and threatening, but although the temperature dropped, the rain held off.
As with my recent article about the fire damage on Mt. Diablo in Contra Costa County, I look forward to follow up article and photos to document recovery and changes in the landscape between Groveland and the Big Oak Flat gate.