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Yosemite Part 1; Alpine Elevations; Plague??? Tuolumne River; Cathedral Lakes; Lembert Dome

Well, my annual week-long solo backpacking trip is complete, and I had a fantastic time in California’s Yosemite National Park. I flew to Fresno, rented a car and drove north for four hours, up US 41 and the Wawona Road, arriving late afternoon at Tunnel View (near Inspiration Point) for this view of Yosemite Valley. The image shows El Capitan on the left and Half Dome in the distant background, both iconic locations in this famous park. Bridalveil Falls (on the right) did not show its cascades, since water levels this late in the season are very low. But the sun was fast setting, and I didn’t have time to linger at this relatively low elevation (4,400 ft).

The route to my destination took me into the Valley, past El Capitan and its 3,000 ft high sheer vertical granite wall. That’s more than twice the height of the Empire State Building (1,454 ft) in NYC. There were several teams of climbers working their way up this world-renowned wall, and a dozen folks were watching through telescopes from the bottom.

After the El Cap photo op, I hustled north on the Tioga Road for another 50 miles or so to my campsite at Tuolumne Meadows. While passing Tenaya Lake (8,150 ft), even though the shadows were quickly lengthening, I stopped for another photo. It would be days before I would be back here, and the weather is always uncertain in the High Sierras. The lake was named after Chief Tenaya of the Ahwanechee people, even though he said that the lake already had a name, Pie-we-ack, or Lake of the Shining Rocks.

I would be spending two nights at Tuolumne Meadows (8,600 ft) before heading into the backcountry. I needed to get acclimated to the alpine elevation here since The Villages, my departure point, is at only 75 ft. The weather was a bit different as well; I would see 25F that night, and 30-35F lows at night for the remaining week. Daytime highs were predicted to be much better, 65-70F. I set up my one-man tent and fixed a quick meal of freeze-dried Mountain House sweet and sour pork, rated a 6 on a 10 point scale. (Note to self: on your next trip, get a real steak for your first night’s meal.) On a walk to the restroom, I found this warning sign posted (uh-oh, here we go again). For those interested in medical issues, the most common variety of plague found here is the bubonic variety (history buffs will recall it as the Black Death in Europe during the Middle Ages), caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacteria carried by infected rodents and fleas. Three campgrounds in Yosemite had been closed just a few weeks ago when the bacteria was discovered there, but they had been disinfected prior to my arrival and reopened. (Let’s hope the CDC and the Park Service did their jobs very well!)

The Dana Fork of the Tuolumne River was running at typically low fall levels, only a foot or so deep at this point. The river runs about 150 miles to the Central Valley, where it merges with the San Joaquin River. Prior to the ongoing drought, 15% of the total flow is diverted to San Francisco and about 50% of the remainder for agricultural irrigation. (The state is now cutting water allowances to farmers drastically.) I would be hiking down the gorgeous canyon created by the Tuolumne in a few days, after getting used to the elevation.

My first night’s sleep was a bit restless. Even in my tent and inside a 32F-rated down sleeping bag, I had to don all my extra clothes – three shirts, long underwear, pants, socks, fleece beanie and a down jacket –  to maintain a semblance of warmth. The next morning found me rolling out with the sunrise to a frosty welcome (quite literally), but two cups of coffee brewed over a tiny gas backpackers’ stove brought me awake. My first day’s hike would be to and around both Lower and Upper Cathedral Lakes, an 11 miler with a relatively light day pack (12 lbs with water and food). The trail rose 1,500 ft through a serene lodgepole pine forest past this granite dome, which is actually part of the back side of Cathedral Peak (10,940 ft).  

There are occasional dead trees standing in this forest. Some died of old age, others of disease or lightning strikes. Logging is not allowed in the National Parks, so these trees will stand until they fall, unless they are an imminent danger to visitors. In fact, a live tree fell on two teenagers in their campsite just a month ago, fatally injuring them.  Keeping that in mind, I selected a tentsite away from suspect trees.

Here is Your Faithful Correspondent on the trail, with Cathedral Peak in the background. The surfaces of these granite outcroppings were ground smooth by centuries of glacial action. During the Pleistocene era, the ice here was between 1,000 and 2,000 feet thick. Jagged peaks indicate that they were above the glaciers. Lower elevation surfaces are almost always smooth and rounded, often in a teardrop shape, with the steep side “down-glacier”. 

Lower Cathedral Lake has a lovely sandy beach, but the water temps were in the 50s. No one was swimming. 

The climb to Upper Cathedral Lake allows a much closer view of the peak, a stunning mountain that I would love to climb if I was 25 years old… there was actually a Scottish couple on the Mountaineers’ Route to the summit, but I didn’t have the least desire to make the ascent with them. (Am I getting older but finally wiser???)

The Upper Lake is surrounded by a muddy meadow, very buggy in summer but only mildly so in the fall. I didn’t even need my DEET bug repellent. The view, however, is magnificent.

The day closed with dinner (freeze-dried lasagna, rated 5 out of 10, and of course there was no Chianti to help it go down) and a postprandial walk for meditative purposes on the slope of nearby Lembert Dome, another glacially-carved hunk of granite near the Tuolumne Meadows campground. Rising 870 feet above the surrounding terrain, Lembert Dome is one of the most popular hikes in the area. I spoke to several hikers and folks in the campground, and I came to the conclusion that I was about the oldest person there, and definitely the most senior camped out in a tent. I think the rest of the over-60 crowd was in RVs or in a hotel down in Yosemite Valley. They must be wusses, I thought. But they are also warmer and better-fed than I. Hmmmmm…….

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