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August 1998

Yosemite: Treasure Of The Sierra

Forget what CNN and Your Daily News say about Yosemite's crowds and crime and traffic. the "treasure of the Sierra" is still a golden place for backpackers to escape.

My first backpacking trip into Yosemite’s high country in 1959 ended in simultaneous elation and despair. I had been climbing in Yosemite Valley for two months and was getting weary of hammering pitons. My father had signed up for a Sierra Club trip in an area about 100 miles south, and I came up with the bright idea of joining him by walking alone down the John Muir Trail to his encampment. Five days of hiking would do, I figured, since I was in great shape.

The first 15 miles passed like a dream. I churned up out of the Valley and into the quietest place I’d been to in months: Little Yosemite Valley, with the languid Merced River as a backdrop. I was a tiger. Maybe I could make the trip in four days. But as I pushed on after lunch I felt a tiny needle prodding my right foot. Just a fleck of granite in my boot, I thought. On examination it was an incipient blister. Climbing big wall routes like the Lost Arrow and the Royal Arches hadn’t exactly toughened my feet. By 7 that evening I was limping like a geriatric and far from Tuolumne Meadows, the goal for the night. I shed my pack, set up camp, and stared with loathing at the half dozen nickel-sized blisters covering my toes and heels.

By the time I reached the meadows the next morning, I was whimpering in pain. I made the decision to lounge around for three days recuperating, all the while cursing my hubris. But with little to do, I saw the Yosemite high country for the first time. The splendid pinnacles of the Cathedral Range rose just south of camp. I passed the hours watching shadows curl around them as if they were great sundials jutting into the sky. The domes, too, entranced me. On the third day I staggered to the top of nearby Fairview Dome and saw the northern half of Yosemite National Park spread before me. Each time I’ve climbed Fairview in the ensuing years-about eight times-I remember that summer day when I was so young and impetuous.

For 40 years Yosemite National Park, California, has whispered seductively to me: Come and visit, see my wonders. In the early years I was just a narrow-minded rock climber, ticking off the big routes. I loved the valley and roamed all about its lovely floor during rest days. But I realize now that I rarely saw the flowers or the birds, so intent was my focus on the cliffs. Not a bad life, to be sure, but an incomplete one.

Later, of course, I slowed down and looked around, much as I had done on that forced layover long ago. Only then did I realize what a splendid place the park is. Everyone knows about the cliffs and the waterfalls, but today I scarcely look at these. Instead, I stare at the Merced River in wonderment at how such an immense body of swift-moving water can be so silent. I walk around the sequoias, finding it impossible to believe these giants sprang from a mere seed, even if it was 4,000 years ago. I rub my hands along glacial polish, trying to imagine John Muir doing the same. I see a tiny pocket glacier nestled under the north face of a peak and imagine the renowned naturalist squatting on the ice, stroking his beard, scribbling in his notebook, and pondering how he’s going to prove to the doubters that the High Sierra contains living glaciers.

I think a lot about Muir when I’m in Yosemite. He climbed peaks just to get the lay of the land. He was a self-taught naturalist, possessing a curiosity that few of us have. He was a guide and a visionary. He helped found the Sierra Club and establish Yosemite as a national park. Blessed with wanderlust, he roamed the world for decades, but Yosemite was his spiritual home. When water-short San Francisco won the right to build a dam inside the park, Muir despaired and died soon thereafter, victim, we’d like to think, of a broken heart.

Muir was a loner and a bit of a misanthrope, and as I climb the cliffs of the Valley nowadays I think of one of his finer lines: “The tide of visitors will float slowly about the bottom of the valley as harmless scum collecting in hotel and saloon eddies, leaving the rocks and falls eloquent as ever.” Muir made that prediction in 1870 while lamenting the fact that “there are about 50 visitors in the valley at present.”

Now, of course, you’ll see 50 people lining up for the restrooms outside the saloon at Yosemite Lodge. About 4 million people visit the park each year, and what Muir would think of this I won’t hazard a guess. Naturally, some big-city problems have made their way into the park. There are traffic jams-as the newspapers love to report-but these prove minor except on holiday weekends. Camping reservations on the valley floor must be made months ahead of time. So, make them months ahead of time. And sure crimes occur, but most are relatively minor, like car break-ins. The solution: Don’t leave valuables in the car.

Various plans are afoot to relieve human pressure in the valley itself, which covers just 7 square miles in a park of more than 1,000. It seems obvious that traffic will have to be regulated, and surely no new buildings should be erected. Yet, incredibly, architects are even now designing large employee dormitories to be erected right next to the climbers’ famed domicile, Camp 4.

If the valley is a crowded and contentious place, close by is an antidote that makes you feel alive and unfettered. Only an hour’s drive from the valley, via Tioga Pass Road, is the fabulous high country, the backpackers’ Yosemite. Tuolumne Meadows is the center of this activity, and it can be jammed with visitors. As I’ve found on my recent trips, though, if you walk a mile along a trail and then move off cross-country over easy granite slabs or through an open pine forest for just a few hundred yards, you won’t see a footprint.

One hike that to me typifies the essence of the Yosemite backcountry is the jaunt to the Gaylor Lakes, close by Tioga Pass. Here, via a good trail, you’ll find variety and splendid timberline country only an hour’s walk from the car. Finding the forest monotonous? Gentle meadows and sandy lakeshores lie just ahead. Jaded by the somber gray granite? Relax, soon you’ll thread your way across blood-red slate. From the upper lakes you can see glacier-clad Mt. Lyell, at 13,114 feet the park’s highest point, far to the south. Around you, all is wilderness. This is the real Yosemite.

In four decades of visiting Yosemite, I’ve seen the man-made part of the valley grow from a village to a city. This bothered me greatly once, but I’ve calmed down. After all, I don’t have to visit the supermarket and the gift shops. Instead, I can walk along the river at dawn while campers are still yawning in their sleeping bags. Even a few hundred yards from the posh Ahwahnee Hotel I can lean up against a 1,000-foot cliff of the smoothest granite-and not see a soul. True, valley life was less frenetic in the old days. But if you want to catch the essence of the Valley, you can-and you must, for it’s still one of the seven wonders of the world. Just don’t go on a bus tour on Memorial Day weekend.

The high country may be more populated now than it was back in the late 1950s, but here again, creative planning can land you in your own private Yosemite. To be alone, you might want to avoid the John Muir Trail, as well as the justly famous High Sierra Camp circuit, a lovely but overcrowded five-day trek. Many alternate trails exist (see “Where Windshield Tourists Fear To Tread,” on page 52).

Last year a few friends and I did a four-day walk in the southern part of the Cathedral Range, never straying farther than 5 air miles from Tioga Road. The middle part of the trip was trailless but quite easy, and the only two-legged creature we saw was a bear straining futilely to reach our food sack. One night we camped below Matthes Crest, a soaring shard of granite, last climbed by me during that far-off summer when my blisters had barely healed. I’d traveled far in the meantime, but in a way I was back where I’d started from, full of wonder, staring at yet another of Yosemite’s endless treasures.

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