I’ve been the proud owner of a Yosemite t-shirt since 2014.
It once belonged to my boy Mikey; his widow thoughtfully gave it to me. Still in good condition, I pack it whenever I go on an extended adventure. It has literally been around the world with me, serving as a memento mori that always provides perspective and a reason to smile.
The shirt often sparked conversation with strangers, though I routinely steered talk away from the park itself, owing to the fact that I’d never actually been there.
Until this year.
2020 has been brutal.
Australia was ablaze. Kobe died. New York deteriorated into a shuttered shell of itself and the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic in the blink of an eye. Fourteen months after moving to Brooklyn, I joined the ranks of the unemployed.
So it goes.
Paradoxically, however, the heaping portions of risk, social limitations, and budgetary fun came served with a glass half full of freedom. And I wanted to seize it (within reason and without too much risk).
Inspiration struck when I heard about my friends’ road trip through national parks out west (thanks, Casey & Leo!). After a few days of research – and not bound to a dense, sickly NYC – I booked a flight west and started looking into camping at parks.
Spontaneity vs Recreation.gov
Booking campsites on Recreation.gov was a hellish experience. This was a bad year for spontaneously hitting the great outdoors, since so many had the same idea. Yosemite is also one of the top 5 most visited National Parks in the U.S., so that didn’t help. But after refreshing tabs for hours on end over several days, I was IN!
The big win: Booking four straight nights at Upper Pines, the only open campground at Yosemite. With capacity reduced to 50%, it was a tough ticket to get.
The little losses:
- Those four nights were on three different campsites. I’d have to strike camp a lot.
- The cancellation fees added up on account of trying to string consecutive nights together. Their booking policies are inflexible and shitty.
- I didn’t win the Half Dome Permit lottery (a system Zion National Park desperately needs to implement for the Narrows. That place is an absolute zoo).
Yet I was fortunate to even be heading to Yosemite, so I couldn’t complain.
Go West, Old Man
After arriving in Vegas I skipped my customary In-N-Out stop by UNLV and instead went for a COVID test there. A negative result the next day allowed me to spend a couple days with the fam before heading to Yosemite.
Campsite booked and America the Beautiful pass in hand, I hit the road excited to spend time with Mother Nature and thankful I got to see my brother’s girls.
There were curves and steep grades aplenty once I got into California, so it was nice to be behind to the wheel of a stick shift again. Five hours after leaving Vegas, I arrived at Yosemite National Park. I would not be disappointed.
Into the Park
Entering Yosemite via the Tioga Pass gate on the east side was a wonderful introduction to the park. From nearly 10,000 feet up, I slowly wound my way down, past Tenaya Lake and through fragant ponderosa and cedar pines, to the valley floor.
I pitched camp and spent the afternoon biking around the park’s 12 miles of paved paths to get my bearings. It was a tranquil, thoroughly enjoyable ride, devoid of the usual crowds and warm enough to do it in only a t-shirt.
Firewood was overpriced and the craft beer selection was just ok, but I bought both; they paired well with the riveting Empire of the Summer Moon over the following few nights.
It was my first time camping in bear country (there are only black bears in Yosemite), so between the nerves and the jetlag, I didn’t sleep much until night three.
All my food was in the secure bear box, but…
Would the Chapstick and small hand sanitizer in my tent beckon the beasts?
Was that rustling just beyond my thin walls a squirrel, the wind, or a hungry bear?
It’s black, fight back; would my knife be useless in a brawl with a bear?
After my previous nerve-racking tent encounters with elephants, a hyena, and a honeybadger, I wanted to avoid adding bear to the list.
I started for Half Dome at 4:30 a.m. on my third day at Yosemite.
Without a permit for the cables – only 300 are issued each day – I would not be able to summit Half Dome. Nonetheless, I trusted that the travel gods would smile upon me once on the trail.
I was alone and, except for my headlamp, it was pitch black and silent. After getting a little distanced from camp, I began to clap twice and yell “Hey, bear!” on occasion, hoping none were silently stalking me from behind.
As I came upon a bridge, I saw eyes lighting up in the trees to my right. When the wildlife went from dark silhouttes with shining eyes to fully visible animals, I got a little nervous. They weren’t deer.
I’ll never forget the rush of seeing those two bears twenty feet away. Their presence stopped me dead in my tracks and quickened my heartbeat. It was my first time coming across bears in the wild.
I watched them for a good 20 seconds, trying to both enjoy the moment and assess their demeanor. They weren’t threatening, but wanting to put some distance between us, I shooed them. They slowly scampered away. Whew.
Half Dome High
The ascent up the Mist Trail was beautiful, with gushing waterfalls, great weather, and plenty of solitude. Masking up was a bit odd, as was hiking with my Candid aligners, which made trail snacks & lunch a chore I didn’t care for. But, hey, vanity.
Four hours into the hike and literally minutes before being asked for my permit by a park ranger, I got my lucky break. All the (masked-up) small talk and asking fellow hikers about an extra permit paid off. A couple hikers changed their minds about the climb upon seeing the cables, and I got one of their permits.
The ranger said it happens every day.
I was damn happy and couldn’t fault them for having second thoughts. The Half Dome cables are intimidating and the danger is real.
But with some patience (the two cables can get crowded, and traffic goes both ways) and preparation, it’s totally doable. Packing gloves to increase grip and reduce friction is a good idea. Hell, my palms got sweaty just seeing the cables up close.
After watching other people move up and down Half Dome, I decided to face the granite wall in both directions (some people descend facing outward. No thanks!). Eventually I abandoned my hiking poles, and gathered the courage to go up.
Gripping the cables hard and keeping three points of contact at all times, I eventually settled into a rhythm. I never got comfortable, but I did get to the top.
It was a scenic, fulfilling halfway point for the 15-mile trek. Thirty minutes after summitting I went down the cables, grateful I lucked out on a permit.
At the bottom, I gave my gloves to a masked-up stranger who was making small talk and asking fellow hikers about an extra pair.
Two bears, one beer
Walking through Little Yosemite Valley after lunch, I spotted a mama bear & cub walking in a wide open expanse – though at a nice distance this time. The final highlights before hitting the Muir Trail switchbacks back to Yosemite Valley were the view from Nevada Fall and the panorama toward Half Dome.
Once at the bottom, I found the perfect way to finish my Half Dome day. And I thought of Mikey.
Yosemite is truly incredible
The day after hiking Half Dome, I practically had the Four Mile Trail all to myself on the way up. It’s an excellent choice for a quick, short hike, as the views at the top are rewarding and worth the nice steep climb. Afterward, I capped off my last day at Yosemite with a cool dip/bath in the Merced (the showers at Yosemite were closed on account of the pandemic), a nice bike ride, and some postcard writing.
The next morning, I hit the road to Sequoia National Park for a couple days. It was another gem of a National Park.
Due to strict COVID guidelines – very limited overnight camping and hard caps on day visitors – I was fortunate to experience Yosemite National Park with few other tourists.
That said, some of the few campers were truly inconsiderate and loud. Quiet hours were never enforced by the elderly campground hosts and the lack of camping ettiquette by drunks and families was constant and frustrating. I had no choice but to drop the courtesy and add an F-bomb to my plea for quiet one night.
It worked, but it shouldn’t come to that.
Inconsiderate campers aside, my trip to Yosemite couldn’t have been much better. It provided the solace I needed, the endorphins I wanted, and the tranquility I can’t get in Brooklyn.
I can’t say enough good things about this wonderful National Park, especially if you can make it while capacity is capped.
- Get an America The Beautiful Pass if you plan to visit National Parks more than once in a year. Incredible value and truly worth it.
- Book your campsite and enter the Half Dome Permit Lottery in advance.
- If camping at Upper Pines sites 1-94, get a spot closer to the river, away from the day hiker lot. Unless you love road noise & headlights at 4 a.m.
- Take your own soap. None is provided in the campground restrooms.
- There are plenty of filtered water fountains (next to each campground restroom), so take reusable water bottles.
- Take a refreshing dip in the Merced River if the weather is right (or if the showers are closed due to COVID)!
- Data/cell reception is spotty in camp (a good thing). Head to the Yosemite Village (where the post office is) for the strongest signal. It’s good enough for fantasy football drafts and streaming the Golden Knights playoff games, as I found out on a later (insanely smoky) visit.
- Avoid visiting when there are forest fires, if you can help it. Really, uh, changes the experience.