So here we are, chillin' in Yosemite Valley now that summer is here and the temps are finally hovering around the hot mark. The incredible everlasting snowpack in the Sierra from last winter is still creating highwater everywhere - rivers, creeks, waterfalls, campgrounds, bridges - and the show is spectacular. We had planned a June birthday visit for my mom, coming from Michigan, and we couldn't have picked a better summer vacation for her. We spent some days in the Valley, tooling around on bikes, viewing the waterfalls and cooking up a Mexican birthday fiesta. But mom and I also traveled to the East Side - the eastern high desert counterpart to the Sierra Nevada's western slopes that is home to Tule elk, petroglyphs, hot springs and a lake twice as salty as the sea. After viewing the waterfalls up close in the Valley, we also traveled to Glacier Point for one of the best views on the planet.
Kathy likes a good Mexican meal, so we thought to fix her up for her birthday with a Taquisa (taco party) and invite over a few friends. Ted excels at guacamole, tomatillo salsa and pico de gallo, I make a swell fish taco, and we also offered carnitas tacos, coctel de camarones (shrimp cocktail), grilled knob onions, jicama salad and pineapple upside-down cake for dessert (all the good stuff we learned from traveling in Mexico and Chef Rick Bayless). Pacifico beers and tequila cocktails provided refreshment.
We braved a weekend drive to Glacier Point the next day, despite the nearly out-of-control traffic congestion in the park this year (today at the El Cap turnaround, NPS was telling visitors to exit the park due to a two hour wait to get near anywhere near Yosemite Village - El Capitan is 5 miles from Yosemite Village). We took a short hike out to Sentinel Dome. We tried to hike the Taft Point trail, but it was covered with snow (!). The way to Sentinel Dome was clear, though some snow remained on the dome itself. Once you reach the terminus of the Glacier Point road, you are standing at 7000 feet above sea level, where winter snow can linger. The day was brilliantly sunny and warm, but there was still plenty of snow melting slowly in the sun. The views from Glacier Point of Yosemite Valley are top contenders for most picturesque view on Planet Earth. The photo of the Valley at night was taken by my friend Kristal Leonard who is making quite a name for herself as a local photographer. It's one of my fave Yosemite photos ever. And no, it's not all campfires - there are several thousand people living in Yosemite Valley and we may be in the middle of nowhere but we do have electricity (not to mention all the stores, restaurants and hotels).
After several days in the park, we trucked on over to the East Side of the Sierra - one of my favorite places on earth. It's still the mountains of California, but it's the rain shadow side so it's all glorious high desert. We only have access to the East Side for about 4 months out of the year over the Tioga Pass, otherwise it's snowed in at 10,000 feet elevation. We cruise through Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows before exiting the park into Inyo National Forest and the tiny town of Lee Vining near Mono Lake. At Lee Vining you catch the 395 and go north or south to experience Eastern Sierra delight. This trip we went south to the Alabama Hills so Mom could see old western movie locations outside of Lone Pine, CA. A trip through the high country also requires a stop at Olmstead Point where you can view Half Dome from the other side - directly opposite from where we were viewing Half Dome the day before at Glacier Point.
It's desert hot on the East Side, so excursions have to be planned around the midday sun. The Eastern Sierra is geologically active and littered with hot springs in the valleys and foothills of the mountains. We were booked into a deluxe tent cabin at Keough Hot Springs, a developed hot springs site south of Bishop. We arrived in the afternoon after a stop at Mono Lake, a drive around the June Lake loop, and sandwiches to go at Erick Schat's Bakery in Bishop. We checked out Mom's timeshare at June Lake, the Heidelberg Inn, with it's ski chalet charm and the most impressive stone fireplace I've ever seen. In Bishop at the bakery the sandwiches are delightful, using their own "sheepherder" bread (and many other kinds) with great fixings. My favorite bread at the bakery is the Ham and Cheeze Bread which actually contains a light slather of tomato sauce baked inside so it's like eating pizza. Yum. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening soaking in the hot springs pools.
Keough's Hot Springs is a (very) rustic resort where you can pitch a tent, park an RV, stay in a tent cabin or rent a trailer to stay and spend as much time as you want in the hot springs pools during operating hours. if you're thinking "Ugh! Hot springs in the summer?", forget it. The large springs pool is kept cooler with occasional sprays of cold water so the water is soothing and very relaxing without overheating. The staff all appeared to be under the age of 19, but they were friendly and the pools and facilities were very clean. Our tent cabin was ungodly hot during the afternoon, but cooled down nicely at night due to the circulating fan in the corner and the 4000 feet elevation. Our beds were comfy with flannel sheets and quilts and the refrigerator kept our sandwiches cool until we were ready to eat them. A tent cabin is $75 overnight which includes hot springs entrance for the occupants and access to showers and bathrooms. A day swim at the springs will cost you $8.00. My mom enjoyed her sojourn at the springs very much and I was happy to share one of the Eastern Sierra's many natural attractions. We slept comfortably and rose early to beat the heat and tour the Alabama Hills just outside of Lone Pine to the south.
The Alabama Hills were the filming location for many, many movie westerns from the 30s and 40s, but with it's proximity to Los Angeles, still provides the backdrop for current movies like "Gladiator" and "Ironman". Mom is a western buff and we toured the area with the movie location map in hand to see places where John Wayne and the Lone Ranger rode. We also hiked out to the Mobius Arch with Mount Whitney (the tallest mountain in the lower 48) looming in the background. First we had breakfast at the Alabama Hills Bakery and Cafe where the special was a decadent BLT breakfast sandwich on croissant.
Before we left Lone Pine we stopped by the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center to make sure we hadn't missed anything. Some of those agencies include Inyo National Forest, NPS, BLM and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. This is a first rate facility with interesting exhibits and the excellent Discovery Bookstore operated by the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association that deserves your support (proceeeds go to public lands). I am fascinated with the story of water in California, and the center has a piece of the Los Angeles aqueduct on display. The juiciest part of that story is the hijacking of Owens Lake by Los Angeles to water their ever growing hordes in the early twentieth century. The Los Angeles aqueduct carried water from Owens Lake until it ran dry, creating a conundrum for local agriculture (for the scoop read Marc Reisner's "Cadillac Desert: The American West and It's Disappearing Water" or see the movie "Chinatown"). However, on this day, the best part of the story is my mom's reaction upon seeing the salvaged section of aqueduct:
"Oh, is that the Stargate?"
I almost peed myself laughing, because it really does look like the Stargate! Here is the Atlantis Stargate for comparison (sci fi geek alert!!):
And then she points to the case nearby displaying various ominous looking mechanisms from military bases in the region and says, "And there's the part they're always missing or trying to repair."
Now if only we could have found this in the Stargate exhibit, my day would've been complete:
But alas, the good colonel was nowhere to be found, so we moved on. Heading north on the 395 to the town of Big Pine (are you seeing a pattern here?) we stopped at Manzanar, a National Historic Site that interprets the history of the land - from Owens Valley apple farming community to a World War II Relocation Center for Japanese Americans in 1942. Three original buildings remain and the vistor center is located in the former community hall for war camp interns.
Not exactly heartwarming, the story of illegally detained American citizens, but a vital part of our history that I'm not sure most Americans are even aware of. After viewing the museum, we left the somber mood behind and with several hours of travel ahead of us, stopped for BBQ lunch in Big Pine at Dick's Smokewagon. Yep.
A truly exceptional BBQ meal, the pork sandwich and highly original coleslaw from Dick's was a great treat. The sauce is made fresh daily and the meat swamps the bun (why even bother with a bun?) requiring a fork to consume in order not to wear it. There isn't any seating at Dick's, but we found a local park with picnic tables and plenty of shade just around the corner. After lunch we retraced our route going north to return to Yosemite, from the desert heat to the high country snow and back down to a warm and sunny Yosemite Valley. Ted and I are off again next week to the Eastern Sierra in search of petroglyphs and ghost towns with some stops for hot spring soaks and another BBQ lunch. Eastern California is home to the highest (Mt. Whitney) and the lowest (Death Valley) points in the continental U.S. and many more contrasting features - cultural, climatic and countryside - that we are always ready to explore.
Happy Independence Day!
Erick Schat's Bakkery: Junk in the Trunk!
Keough's Hot Springs: Junk-O-Rama
Alabama Hills Bakery and Cafe: Junk-O-Rama
Dick's Smokewagon: Junk in the Trunk!!