The snow began just as we entered the park’s eastern side, and while my wife Emma was marveling over the view — a sheer drop into a netherworld of gigantic sequoia trees — I realized the tires were getting no traction. We were sliding — sure, at a mere ten miles per hour — but still I had no choice but to let off the gas, avoid the brake, and hope for moments where the tread would grab and keep us on course. The view seemed even more impressive when looking at it that way.
We’d been on cruise control all day, sunshine glaring in every direction, roads dry as a horny toad’s hind side, something that had only fortified our will to camp. Inside Yosemite, it took us over an hour to idle along the death cliffs to the valley, where the snowfall turned into a monsoon-like downpour. We circled Yosemite Village for another forty-five minutes until finally we found a parking lot. The run to the nearby ranger shack soaked me through to my boxer briefs.
Being fly-by-the-sodden-seat-of-our-pants types, we had not bothered with reservations. The ranger looked at us dubiously and began calling around to the different stations. By the grace of precipitation, there had been cancellations: an outdoor yurt-like room for $100 or a couple of tent sites in the campground. We choose camping, taking the challenge head-on. By the time we’d driven over, the rain had slowed to a trickle. The forces of nature were with us.
In Your Bucket Because…
- Yosemite Park is famous for El Capitan (and other rock formations), plunging waterfalls, giant sequoias, rampant wildlife, and unfathomable natural beauty.
- To come to Yosemite and not spend the night out in nature seems the antithesis of making the most of it.
- The park has accommodations suitable for everyone from grandparents to grizzly vagabonds. Obviously, nature and animal lovers will get the most from it.
Home is Where the Bears Are
Some may complain that camping in Yosemite Village is a bit like being in a suburban backyard. There were rows of matching cabins, hot showers, park rangers patrol the roads like a neighborhood watch, and SUVs everywhere. It is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the United States, so much so it has its own jail for the visiting roustabouts. That said, as the ranger checking us in explained the campground rules, he ignored crime rates and focused on the other wildlife.
Bears are thick throughout Yosemite and notorious for getting into mischief. Campers are told to remove all food items from the car and, for good measure, any make-up, lip balm, toothpaste, or item that may be scented in anyway resembling food. To illustrate the significance of this, the ranger used the photo on the nearby wall of a car that had been utterly destroyed by a hungry bear. All of it, he told us, needed to go in the bear-proof box.
By the time we pulled into the parking space at our site, the rain had stopped, with only fat drops of leftover moisture free-falling from the treetops. We set up our tent in flash and then proceeded to empty everything from the car: clearing out the glove box, bags of food, searching our backpacks for toiletries, and fretting over what we may have missed. Nevertheless, sufficiently set up, we headed towards the village for some late afternoon sightseeing.
Something around Every Corner
We were on foot and had just made it to one of the main roads when a coyote lazily loped across an adjacent field and passed right by us. The sun had come out strong, clearing away mist, and the barren rock cliffs towered above the valley, stark gray against the gold and blue of the sky. Already, the life and limb we’d risked driving in and the impending bear attack in the night seemed worth it.
The trails within the village are clean and paved, winding through the thickets of forest. We passed streams ferocious with rainwater, huge old-growth evergreens, and deer. Lots of deer. As we neared the base of El Capitan on our way to Yosemite Falls, a waterfall of preposterous height, we happened upon several deer nonchalantly grazing roadside as people stopped their cars for photos, or in our case, took turns posing ten or so feet away from them.
From the foot of Yosemite Falls, it’s impossible to see the top, so we meandered along the paths looking for the best views. At one spot, we ran into a fellow with binoculars staring up at El Capitan, one of the premier rock climbing venues in the world. He pointed out a few tiny specks dangling about a hundred feet or more from the top. They’d been climbing all day. We watched for a while, explored a few more forest paths, and made our way back to the campsite.
Surviving the Night
Early on on our road trip, I had taught Emma about the apex of camping cuisine: Frito pie. As if eating food from a five-star restaurant, we licked our spoons clean of canned chili, polished off the bag of Fritos, and fingered the left-over juice from the bottoms of our bowls. The dishes nearly sparkled, but with bears in mind, we decided it was best to wash up anyway. We stowed everything, sat shivering by the fire for a few minutes, and stared into the darkness.
The temperature was supposed to drop below freezing that night, so we had taken the emergency blanket from the car, dressed ourselves head-to-toe (caps, coats, and woolen socks), and climbed into our doubled-up sleeping bags. It was barely nine o’clock, but beyond our campfire was nothing but black night and black bears, and we weren’t interested in being midnight snacks..
We’d done well in our paranoia about staying warm and storing foodstuff. In the morning, I woke up with nary a shiver and in one piece. Emma yawned next to me, and we unzipped the tent as we like to do, peering out as the forest gets going and feeling the cool of dawn rush in. Mission complete.
- Make a reservation. We were insanely lucky to have gotten a spot. Yosemite books up months in advance.
- Check the weather forecast. Seriously, I feel fortunate to have not driven over a cliff. And, we were also pretty close to having to sleep in the car (with the food and vanilla-scented lip balm) because I wasn’t about to drive back out of that place.
- Regardless of the weather, drive slowly in the park. Dozens of bears are hit and killed by speeding vehicles every year.