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Mariposa and a Guided Tour of Yosemite

June 6-8, 2017
Written June 6+
Dear Diary, Friends, and Families,

A few weeks ago, we attended a fund raiser for the Sierra Foothills Conservancy and walked away with a cross and a guided tour of Yosemite. The cross now hangs over our patio, keeping our barbeques safe, and this week we took our guided tour.
First, we had to drive up to Mariposa, where we would spend a couple of nights.  It is an easy 90-minute drive through some of those foothills the Conservancy conserves.  The route takes us from the northern sprawl of Fresno, through yellow grasslands.  Gradually, green oak trees edge out the grass and ranches.  Farther up, the trees shift to evergreens.  All this happens bit by bit.  I recommend the drive.
Along the way, we could see the bare stems of pine trees denuded by the bark beetle infestation.  I imagine this will be a feature of these forests for many years - unless summer fires redecorate even more drastically.
Mariposa is basically a one-street town that serves as the northern entrance to Yosemite National Park.  This is not our normal way into the park, so we had a chance to explore the town, from end to end.

d170606_14_mariposabeads.jpgOur first goal was to buy "mariposa beads" for friend Jeanne, back on Cambridge Ave.  She makes bracelets in her spare time, although as a full time Florida State swim coach, I am not sure when that "free" time might be.  Right on Main Street we found the bead store and ran across Su Carney, a most friendly proprietress, who told us of the story of her Mariposa beads.  She buys "a ton" of locally-quarried stone each year and sends it to China to be hand carved into beads.  At 4mm (abut 1/4 inch), it has to be a tedious process!  Pretty, though.
After that success, we continued shopping and even I got into it.  The Mariposa Marketplace features a wide array of tourist-friendly things to purchase, from house stuff (Marianne's specialty) to unique clothes.  I loved some colorful shirts, hand made by Michael D. Hall, a Hollywood film and TV guy.  A blue car-themed one was a good fit, but too short to tuck.  The store's answer was to call the maker and order one without tucking tails.  Great.  Now, I just need to wait.
d170606_16_cr_dinner.jpgBy now we were hungry, and we headed to the Charles Street Dinner House, part of our Foothills Conservancy package.  We started with a cheese and fruit plate that was very tasty and generous.  It may have been the best version of this dish we have ever ordered.  After that, it was steak and spinach salad, also generous and within the parameters of our recently renewed diets.  All in all, a good recommendation.

Now we were ready to settle into the second part of our SF Conservancy package, an overnight at "Alkatebellina", an Airbnb place about 15 minutes outside of town. It turned out to be a two-bedroom suite, with a full-length veranda looking west over the valley.  We like spacious accommodations when traveling, but this was even more than we ever need! 
Alkatebellina was filled with sounds different from our Fresno urban environment.  Instead of sirens and traffic, we listened to  frogs, crickets, roosters, chickens, and dogs.  I even managed a different flower picture in the evening light.  Another good start.

On Wednesday, we had the third part of the SF Conservancy package, an all-day tour from Yosemite Close Up Tours.  We had been to Yosemite National Park at least a half-dozen times before, but never on an arranged tour.  (2012, 2015, Oct 2016, Nov 2016, Jan 2017). We really had no idea what to expect, but looked forward to learning a little, at least.

Ken Boche, our guide for the day, met us in Mariposa at 7:30.  We were also introduced to four of our traveling partners, a German family from Ulm!  We would spend the whole day practicing our German with Rudiger, Melanie, and their two teenage boys Nico and Lucas.  Fun for us, but their English was far better than our rusty German!

From Mariposa, we headed east on Highway 140, El Portal Highway.  There are three roads into YNP, with CA 140 being the oldest.  From Fresno, we had always used Highway 41 to the park's South Entrance.  Bay Area visitors most often use Highway 120, which I don't think I have seen either.  The El Portal Highway runs along the Merced River and it was roaring due to this year's rain and snow.  This is the river that drains all of Yosemite Valley and we had never seen it anywhere near this full. 
The highway is generally on the south bank of the river while the north bank shows signs of the railroad that ran from 1907 to 1945.  We saw a few old buildings on that side, but for the most part they are abandoned since the right of way has gradually been taken over by nature and can only be traveled hiking or by horseback. We definitely do not need to take on any project so challenging!

d170607_07_light.jpgNature has also been hard on the roadway.  According to our guide, all of Merced county, one of the largest in California, has just two stoplights: the pair that regulated one-way traffic on Highway 140.  A few years ago, a rock slide covered about a quarter-mile of the highway and bridges were erected to detour across the river, over and back on either end.  The first pair of "temporary" bridges were set at right angles to the river and the resulting turns proved too tight for tour buses, so they were replaced by the current diagonal steel structures. 
Meanwhile, highway engineers tried to figure our how to restore the original path.  However, in 2015(?), while they were covering the loose rock with chain link fence material, rains brought the whole hill down once again.  Ken said the highway engineers are now back to planing a new plan.  Nature makes engineers humble, or at least it should.

Farther toward the park, we picked up two more travelers: Vladimir and Luba from Saint Petersburg, Russia, via almost four decades in Cleveland.  Another interesting and gregarious addition to our bus crew.  Marianne tried refreshing her Russian, but that is really rusty so we stayed with English for the most part.
Shortly after completing our team, we passed through the park's Arch Rock Entrance.   Soon, we passed under the balancing rocks that give the entrance its name. This is also where Ken started his geology lessons, lessons that would continue throughout the day.  The Arch Rock boulders were originally parts of the north wall of the Yosemite Canyon and they tumbled into their structure during an unrecorded rock fall, probably millennia ago.

Just past the arch was a north wall structure called "The Cookie" by local climbers.  It is a vertical plate, set off from the main wall, and does look like a cookie set on edge. Ken, a climber himself, says the slot between the Cookie and the wall is a favorite vertical climb.
Ken explained all this during a stop, where he pointed out the details of local granite.  We learned that dark, iron-rich inclusions, are the weakest part of the rock structure and dissolve over centuries, giving the cliffs their characteristic dark streaks.  Cracks form and then are spread by freeze-thaw weathering and, eventually, plant and tree roots.d170607_14_cookiepieces.jpg
Last year, part of the Cookie broke away, providing Ken an opportunity to show us "new" rock surfaces next to older, darker ones.  And the name of the rockfall behind our van: Cookie Crumble.  Some crumbs!

d170607_16_wildcatfalls.jpgOur first waterfall stop was at Wildcat Falls, where we learned the Yosemite system of falls' identification.  It's simple.  Falls are named after creeks, so Wildcat Creek forms Widlcat Falls as it cascades over the north face.  All the falling water eventually flows into the Merced River and then west, out into the San Joaquin Valley.
Many rock forms are also named, often by imaginative folks who see shapes others might not.  I was very proud to have been the first tourist in our group who correctly identified Elephant Rock, a structure along the south wall.  You CAN see it, right?
Ken also showed us another important valley feature: poison oak.  The bright green plants are easily identified, once one is made aware of their presence in the area.  I can still remember teenage bouts of poison oak infection, so I was glad I had worn long pants!  And I appreciated the reminder: "leaves of three, let them be."
Some of the local plants were not dangerous at all, except for temptations to take too many pictures.

d170607_27_kenpicts.jpgd170607_28_picts.jpg Speaking of pictures, this is also the point at which our guide showed us a family album from the Clark side of his family.  If I got the story straight, these were taken by a great-great aunt in Yosemite, around the turn-of-the-19th-century.  These dated from the time of President Teddy Roosevelt's tour, guided by John Muir and Ken's great-great(-great?) uncle, Galen Clark.  Although he grew up in Chicago, Ken definitely has deep Yosemite roots!

d170607_36_matbrvfalls.jpgThe next activity was a short hike to Bridalveil Fall. This is one of the most famous of the Yosemite Valley waterfalls and the flow was far more than I had seen on previous trips.  Walking up to the base of the fall, Ken pointed out the various dispersion streams that originate from Bridalveil Creek, split into a delta, and then recombine in the Merced River.  This was another detail that I'd never noticed, although I have visited and photographed the area on several occasions.

d170607_50_halfdomedistance.jpgWe continued our drive along Southside Drive, just our van and about a zillion other cars, vans, and buses.  Having a guide drive us, and do the worrying about finding parking, was a relief.  We did park a bit and I took one more "standard" picture of the Merced River and Half Dome in the distance. At first I was put off by the crowds, something we don't normally see in off-season visits.  Eventually, though, I came to appreciate that everyone was enjoying their time in the valley.  Crowds are people too.

No tour would be complete without stops to look at Yosemite Falls.  First, we looked across Yosemite Meadows, for the classic distance shot of the Upper and Lower Falls.  Then we went around to the Yosemite Village parking area, where Ken left us off to walk up to the base of the Lower Fall. 

d170607_47_counter.jpgd170607_48_crowds.jpgEarlier, we had learned that the black boxes on trees are for counting a kind of wildlife: tourists.   Park management is studying ways to improve the visit experience and part of their research is simply counting folks as we pass by.  We also saw young researchers asking visitors questions about their impressions.  A good idea, I suppose, but it seemed more Disneylandesque than wilderness park.

By now, we were more than a little hungry.  We all loaded into the van to continued the loop, along Northside Drive this time.  We passed "Camp 4", a tents-only campground that is the home to the rock climbers that practice their craft on the granite walls of  "The Valley" (Reportedly, the climbing community refers to Yosemite Valley by one word only.  Like locals refer to San Francisco as "The City".) 

d170607_52_beartrap.jpgLunch, served on picnic tables under the nose of El Capitan, was a great bag lunch.  Simple sandwiches, chips, apples, and cookies, but the setting was unbeatable.   When we finished, we were given a lesson on the care and (non) feeding of bears.  Uneaten food had to be placed in "bear boxes", to prevent the animals from breaking car windows and doors.  All trash had to go into steel containers that had bear-paw-proof handles.  And, if that was not successful in discouraging the animals, rangers would trap them in traps like this, and move them a bit farther away from the tourists.
Just as we were leaving, one of the cars pulling out of the parking lot mentioned that a small bear had been seen just a few minutes earlier, up near where some El Cap climbers were starting their climb.  Ken quickly led us on a quick hike to see if we could spot the animal.  Nope.  All we found were a pair of climbers, working their way up the rock face.  Interesting enough.

d170607_60_staircasefalls.jpgd170607_62_mtclark.jpgFrom the base of El Capitan, we drove twenty minutes or more to the best viewpoint in The Valley: Glacier Point.  To the south, are the Merced River's Nevada Fall and Vernal Fall.  Off in the distance is the Mount Clark and the Clark Range. 

Ken told us the story of how he and a climbing partner made the first ascent on Mount Clark a couple of decades before.  They had to hike one day over to the mountain, climb and descend for a day, and walk out on the third day.  I was impressed!

But the best view from Glacier Point is north east, to Half Dome and the upper Yosemite Valley.

d170607_66_halfdome.jpgd170607_68_crowdview.jpg No matter how often one might look out, it is a mesmerizing view.  If you look closely, you can see climbers on the sun lit face of Half Dome.  That's what the crowd below us was doing. (Also see our "Super Moon" excursion for an evening view last year.)

On the way down, we stopped at Mono Meadow, where our guide explained mountain meadows to us.  (He had written a Master's thesis on this and other Yosemite meadows.)  This time of year, the open grassland is more bog than pasture.  The drainage from surrounding creeks make the meadow too wet for trees to grow, but grasses and varying crops of tiny wild flowers thrive.  We also learned that tree limbs favor the side of the tree facing the open, sunny, meadow. 
d170607_76_tunnelview.jpgFrom Mono Meadow, we headed down to probably THE iconic Yosemite Valley viewpoint: Tunnel View.  The tunnel is on the Wawona Road, built as the second road into Yosemite in 1936 and our normal path in from Fresno.  I can not tell you how many times we have come to the tunnel and stopped, for just one more picture.  (Last time, in winter.)  On this day, after almost eight hours of touring, it was almost an anti-climax, but I did take the classic shot, with Bridalveil Fall on the right and standard tourist shot with the Fall flowing into someone's head.
By now, I think we were starting to get saturated with scenery, but guide Ken continued to insist we get our money's worth.  Down on the valley floor, he stopped to allow us two more waterfall views.  Ribbon Falls, from the relatively small Ribbon Creek, was blowing in the wind and did remind us of a wind-ruffled ribbon.  Bridalveil Falls, across on the south face, was now in proper afternoon light.

d170607_87_climberexpl.jpgA few hundred yards farther east, we stopped for a climbing lesson.  No, not REAL climbing, but rather climber Ken Boche's history-of-rock-gear lesson.  He brought out an array of the devices used over the last several decades by rock climbers to fasten themselves to the cracks here in Valley walls.  He made it sound so matter-of-fact, but I still can not imagine hanging my life on the gimcracks.

d170607_84_climbers.jpgd170607_85_climbpair.jpgKen set up a telescope to let us see a trio of climbers going up El Capitan (or "El Cap", as climbers call it).  My camera lens was not as powerful, but you can get the idea of how small these folks appear on the side of the massive rock.  These were "normal" climbers, and aided by partners and ropes and anchors, they might take two or three days to climb El Cap.  A week ago, Ken had watched Alex Honnold make the 3,000 foot climb, solo, unaided, in under four hours for what has been called the ultimate rock ascent.  I, literally, can not imagine such a feat.

d170607_90_kensing.jpgWith that, we left the park, heading toward Mariposa, following the path of the melt-fed Merced River.  Just to pass the time, Ken broke into song, singing a rock climber dittie.  The song was funny, long, and I have to admit I can not remember more than a few words.  Maybe he will record it someday?

Part way through the river gorge, we watched as a car two places in front of us ran off the road into the rock wall. It happened in the blink of an eye, despite the traffic being slow and crowded.  Along with other motorists, we stopped and gave what assistance we could, reminded of how quickly an idealistic day at a national park can go wrong.)  The four passengers' injuries seemed limited, but it took twenty minutes or so for emergency personnel to respond, in part because there was no cell phone coverage near the area.)
After that sobering stop, we drove along in silence. Guide and driver Ken made one more stop, so I could take a picture of kayakers bouncing by in the fast-flowing, ice-cold river.  I think this is another hobby, like rock climbing, that has passed me by.  Driving on twisty mountain highways will probably be my limit for river adventure, but cautiously in light of what we had seen a few minutes earlier.
Finally back in Mariposa, eleven hours after we left, we bid farewell to our new German friends and thanked Ken Boche, the best guide to "The Valley" that anyone could hope for.

At this point, we are fresh out of plans for any diary-worthy activities for the foreseeable future, but one can never tell.

Stay tuned,

John and Marianne


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