I fell in love with Yosemite the first time I saw that magnificent view as you emerge from the tunnel overlooking the valley. Half Dome, El Capitan, all those iconic granite monoliths displayed in a breathtaking panorama. It’s really impossible to fully understand the grandeur and sheer size unless you see them in person. Unfortunately, since my first visit more than 30 years ago, many others have made the same discovery. Maybe it was less congested only in my imagination but today, it felt like I was visiting “Yosemite – Your Natural Disneyland Park”. Open tour buses laden with families drove past me every 5 minutes, Moms and Dads pushing strollers full of screaming (or sleeping kids) up the path to Yosemite Falls (which was spectacularly flowing. It was a little depressing – until I started concentrating on me. How was I going to experience this amazing place over the next few hours?
I visited all those monoliths I had climbed – or attempted to climb – all those years ago. I stood in the meadows, following with my eyes the routes I could remember, drawing in the views, getting lost – and annoyed by the mosquitoes, who were as numerous as the tourists. I had forgotten about these vicious varmints. In fact, it was here in Yosemite that I first discovered DEET. (I remember it taking the paint off a can of Coca-Cola and thinking “that can’t be good for your skin”). All the itchy welts aside, it was still a wonderful day. But the real treat was yet to come.
I had never crossed over the Sierras at Tioga Pass to visit the small town of Lee Vining – and the site of the famous (and controversial) Mono Lake. Driving over the 9,000′ summit was supposed to provide amazing views and this didn’t disappoint.
John Muir had written about Tuolumne Meadows and the wilderness beyond Yosemite. Every turn revealed another breathtaking mountain vista and it became apparent that I was never going to get to Mono Lake if I kept stopping at every one. So, after leaving the park (at over 9,000 feet above sea level) I started down the steep grade. I feel comfortable driving mountain roads, but some of the cars ahead of me clearly did not and I found myself having to ride my brakes more than usual. I knew they were getting hot – I could smell them – but when those brakes began to feel like butter and I realized I wasn’t able to slow down as I should, that was a little unnerving. I stopped at a pull-out to see what was going on and discovered my front brakes were SMOKING! Not good. I figured I’d let them cool down and try to ease my way down the remaining 3 miles. That worked fine – but I’ll need to stop at the first opportunity to get brake pads I think. But first, more important things on the agenda.
Mono Lake was everything I had expected. This briny, smaller cousin of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, is home to unique geographical features called Tufas – calcium carbonate towers formed over thousands of years underwater and now exposed as the water level has lowered (drained to feed thirsty Los Angelinos – a huge controversy).
I had timed my arrival so that I could be set up to shoot in the late day light and today, it was a stunning sunset. I met a fellow photographer, Moy Williams from Great Britain, and it was a great end to an (almost) perfect day. After introducing Moy to an amazing tri-tip dinner at Brodie Mike’s, one of three local restaurants, it was a fun evening of good conversation, shared passion for photography, and some cool refreshment. But Lee Vining closes early – so it was time to call it a night and turn in to my room at Murphy’s Motel (I highly recommend it) and regroup for the next day.
On to Mt Whitney!