I’ve been to Yosemite National Park several times in my life. The first trip was on an eight-week cross-country trailer trip with my family when I was eight years old. I remember Yosemite being a magical place. There was even a free bus that would take my eight-year-old self anywhere in the valley. And, of course, there was listening to story time around a big campfire. I remember the tall waterfalls and the stories of folks falling to their death for a photo op. These are the faded memory remnants some half century later.
Fast forward to the holiday season and to my last full day in Northern California. Roy and I had a fantastic Christmas holiday at my oldest brother’s house and both of my children with their significant others were able to attend. We did the whirlwind must-stops of Twin Peaks, Haight-Ashbury, Goat Rock Beach and stood near ancient Redwoods. My kids were both on their way home and, my boyfriend Roy and I had an extra unplanned day. I mapped a drive to Yosemite and it turned out to only be 3 hours away. This was Roy’s first trip to California and I felt like Yosemite was a must-see, if possible. Six-hour round trip on the road through the San Joaquin Valley — let’s get this checked off the list.
Observations on the return to Yosemite:
Part of the reason for heading to Yosemite was that we were dropping my daughter, Natalie, and her boyfriend Kevin off at the San Francisco Airport at 6 AM. If we were going to be on the road at 6 in the morning, why not head out? Being on the road during a holiday week (between Christmas and New Year’s) made for easy driving, which is not the norm during that particular week in the Bay Area. We didn’t run into any bumper-to-bumper traffic until our return over the Pacheco Pass. So if you are going to run off to Yosemite, make sure you do it on an off-week to avoid the frustration of traffic.
The only way to Yosemite from the Bay Area is through the San Joaquin Valley. Roy was excited to see some of the richest agricultural land in the world. Our drive did not disappoint. We saw miles and miles and miles of orchards on our way to Yosemite. And miles and miles and miles of crops and cattle on our way back. It’s amazing to see how immense the agricultural machine is. I think it’s what Roy was most impressed with on the trip that day; perhaps the biggest surprise. Especially when you read labels at the grocery store almost daily that say it was produced in California, and there it all is as far as the eye can see. It was impressive seeing it through Roy’s eyes. I was much more impressed by the size of it all. Appreciate what surrounds you.
The GPS on my phone mapped the trip. At one point, when we were driving through the foothills up to Yosemite, the GPS directed us to take a right onto a very narrow road. When you leave a larger road to take a very narrow road, and you have some 90 miles to go to your destination, it’s a bit scary. There is faith that the GPS knows what it is doing but there is also the fear that technology might fail us. We might get stuck. Roy and I talked about turning around. This was impossible, based on the hairpin turns and width of the road. Yosemite is in the middle of nowhere. We went for 60 or more miles without a gas station or restaurant. It is remote. West Coast remote is a lot more remote than East Coast remote. If you are driving to the Smokey Mountains National Park, you will be able to find a bathroom, French fries and a tank of gas if need be, within 20 miles of the park. Not so at Yosemite. The GPS got us safely to the park, but it was a leap of faith. Don’t expect to stop at a gas station for directions.
We drove through about thirty miles of road that warned that you needed chains or snow tires. We were in a rental car. Who knew what tires were on that thing. We approached via route 120, which I would not recommend in winter, as the elevation was over 4,000 feet and the road was icy with temperatures reaching 28 degrees outside. After traveling for some 3 hours, we thought about turning around as the elevation continued to climb. I told Roy that it was worth it (so long as we didn’t have an accident). Sure enough, we came around the bend and there was Half Dome standing mightily in the valley floor. It was breathtaking. Don’t have an accident getting there and be safe; the payoff is worthwhile.
I think we spent about an hour or so driving through Yosemite Valley. There were remnants from the fires in August. I realize now that the trees are not what make Yosemite special and unique, as much as all that granite. El Capitan stands regally in the center of the valley. It is immense. Pictures do not do it justice. The waterfalls are beautiful, regardless of the time of the year. In fact, the valley is timeless, regardless of fire, government shut down, or drought. Yes, it is commercialized to some degree, despite its remoteness, but it’s an inconsequential part of the experience. It’s rather nice to have good food available at restaurants or a decent hotel room after a day of hiking. After all, you can pull off to the side of the road anywhere and there you are in the heart of the valley that was carved out by glaciers over 87 million years before. Every vista is jaw-dropping. It truly is a transformative experience.
Getting outside is restorative. Heading to parts unknown by a path less traveled is life affirming. The journey to Yosemite was as transformative as the park itself. Get outside, take the unknown route, and lean into your fear. You might be surprised and, perhaps, even changed.