We got a late start the next morning.  We were up early, but we lacked some vital ingredients for breakfast.  Unfortunately, the grocery store in June Lake opens late, so we had to go hunting for eggs.  Out at the main road, we stopped at a deli / gas station, where we found a dozen eggs for $4.  After that, we got gas for $5 a gallon before heading for the park.


We drove back into Yosemite National Park, cresting Tioga Pass.  Beyond, we descended to lovely Tuolumne Meadows.  The campground there was far from full, and I wished that I hadn’t reserved the campsite at June Lake.  June Lake was fine, but Tuolumne would’ve been much more convenient.


Across from the campground, we found a picnic area and cooked breakfast.  It was a cold morning, requiring hats and gloves, but eggs, sausage, and pancakes helped warm us up.  By the time we were cleaning up, the sun was above the mountains, and the day was warming rapidly.  After several days of tourist activities, I was ready to get on the trail!


We left Tuolumne Meadows and headed for Yosemite Valley.  We drove out past Tenaya Lake, and enjoyed a nice preview of the scenery that was waiting for us.  The best view along the road was from Olmstead Point, where we could see Half Dome and the upper end of Yosemite Valley. 


Despite some tedious traffic, we reached Yosemite Valley in an hour and a half.  Driving into the valley was smooth, and we parked in the large day-use lot without any problem.  From there, we could’ve taken a shuttle bus to virtually any point in the valley.  I think we were all tired of driving around though, so we decided to walk from there.  My primary goal for the day was a hike to Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls.  The falls are justifiably famous, and as it was just the beginning of July, there was still some melting snow in the high country to provide water.  Bob had been to Yosemite 7 years earlier, but that trip had been in September, and the falls had been dry.


We followed the road and then a paved walking path through a meadow in the middle of the valley.  Although we weren’t far from busy roads, this was still quite enjoyable.  The views of the surrounding cliffs were dramatic, highlighted by the towering presence of Half Dome at the head of the valley.  We headed the other way though, towards the waterfall we could clearly see crashing down from the north rim of the canyon.


Getting to Lower Yosemite Falls only requires a short walk, and apparently virtually everyone who visits Yosemite makes it there.  When we reached the viewpoint of the Lower Falls, I immediately started laughing.  The entire run of the river from the overlook to the base of the falls was swarming with people.  From our perspective, it looked like a massive dragon had kicked over an ant hill.  We quickly decided that the view from there was more than adequate.  We headed out after a few minutes, eager to separate ourselves from the masses.


Getting to the Upper Falls requires hiking a separate trail.  We backtracked, and followed a path that circles the valley to the other trailhead.  There, we picked up the path that runs to Columbia Rock, Upper Falls, and beyond.  We endured an endless series of steep, rocky switchbacks that proved to be more difficult than I expected.  Despite the rugged terrain, the trail was still rather busy.  We passed quite a few hikers before the trail finally leveled off.


A gentle stretch of trail led us to Columbia Rock.  This part of the hike featured some nice views of the valley and the surrounding cliffs, as well as a few wildflowers.  The real scenery though was waiting for us at Columbia Rock.  There we were treated to a grand view of the valley, Half Dome, and distant peaks.  Miraculously, the overlook was deserted when we arrived.  Since it was noon, it was the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.  In addition to the views, we were treated to a refreshing breeze, which provided some relief from the mid-day heat.  While we ate, we watched an endless series of rafts drifting lazily down the Merced River far below us.  Considering the hot weather, that looked like a great way to kill a couple of hours.


Eventually another group of hikers showed up, and we pressed on.  A short, steep climb led to more easy hiking.  A few minutes later, we were rewarded with our first view of Upper Yosemite Falls.  This waterfall tumbles more than 2000’ from the rim of the canyon.  Although it’s possible to hike all the way to the top of the falls, I was more than content to enjoy the view from there. 


After a break, we followed the same route back down to the valley.  Once at the bottom, we walked back to our rental car.  Then, we headed over to Curry Village to look for groceries.  We picked a few things up, but found the selection a bit disappointing.  Later, we discovered that the store at Tuolumne Meadows was the best one in the park.


After getting groceries, we checked on the rafting.  We were startled to discover that renting a raft for a couple of hours cost $26 per person.  That seemed a bit ambitious to me, and we decided to skip it.  Unfortunately, the price wasn’t discouraging too many other folks.  By next summer, it’ll probably be higher.


By this point, it was late afternoon, and we still had to drive 2+ hours back to June Lake.  We headed that way, skipping the drive up to Glacier Point.  Glacier Point offers some of the best windshield scenery in the park, but it would’ve required a long drive out of the way.  I guess I’ll have to save that for another time.  Likewise, we didn’t make it down to the Wawona area of the park.  Wawona features some of the most impressive Sequoia Groves in Yosemite.  Unfortunately, there was a wildfire burning nearby, and it also would’ve required a long drive in the wrong direction.  I’ll have to make visits to Wawona and Glacier Point priorities the next time I’m in Yosemite.


We made it back to camp a bit before dark this time.  We dined on Chicken Fajitas for dinner before darkness fell. 


That night, we all saw a UFO.  There was a strange collection of glowing red lights, cruising through the sky above June Lake.  The orientation of the lights ruled out the possibility of an airplane, and the object was moving surprisingly slow.  Now, I’m not necessary claiming that the lights belonged to a spaceship from the planet Beetlejuice, full of crusty, green aliens looking to give someone an anal probe.  But it was definitely a UFO.  You see, “UFO” stands for Unidentified Flying Object.  The object we saw was certainly unidentified, and was definitely flying.  It brought an interesting end to a unique day.






We got an earlier start the next morning.  We had eggs, bacon, and hashbrowns at the campground, before driving back to Tuolumne Meadows.  There, we stopped at the ranger station to pick up our permit for the JMT.  I had reserved our permit six months earlier, on the first day they became available.  Getting the permit went smoothly, and we set out to explore Tuolumne Meadows


Christy wasn’t feeling well, thanks to an accidental overdose of medication the night before.  Bob and I wanted to hike, but Christy wasn’t feeling enthusiastic.  After a bit of debate, Bob and decided to hike Lembert Dome.  Meanwhile, Christy would take the rental car down to Tenaya Lake, where she could relax and get some sun.  Once Bob and I finished hiking, we’d catch a free shuttle bus down to the lake, and meet Christy there.


Christy dropped us off at the trailhead for Soda Springs.  From there, Bob and I followed an old dirt road towards Parsons Lodge and Soda Springs.  This route took us through Tuolumne Meadows proper, and offered great views of the meadows and the delightful river running through them.  Best of all was the surrounding mountains and the many open granite knobs dotting the landscape.  Along with the scenery, we spotted some wildlife.  Early on we saw a marmot, and later we passed a deer.  It was nice to see some wild animals, as we hadn’t seen any the day before in Yosemite Valley.


We reached Soda Springs, which are natural although they are now protected by a man-made enclosure.  The springs are carbonated, and Bob and I couldn’t resist giving them a taste.  The experience was quite unique – the water actually ticked my mouth as I swallowed it.


We didn’t have a lot of time, so we skipped the restored Parson Lodge.  Instead, we followed the Pacific Crest Trail north.  This path led through more meadows initially, before reaching Lodgepole Pines.  Once in the woods, the hike was a bit dull.  A bit later, we reached a junction, and turned back east towards Lembert Dome on a horse trail.  This route was dusty and hot, despite the shady forest.  At one point, we had to stop to let a horse party pass.  Finally, we reached the stables and the end of the road running from the Lembert Dome picnic area.  From there, we followed a footpath and began working our way around the north side of Lembert Dome.  Before long, we were tackling a significant climb.  The uphill was a bit abrupt, as the first couple of miles of our walk had been mostly flat.


We reached the junction with the trail to Dog Lake.  We’d heard that Dog Lake had horrific mosquitoes, so we chose to have lunch near the junction instead.  We watched lots of traffic pass by, before resuming our walk.  We passed a small pond with a nice view of the sheer cliffs of Lembert Dome, and continued to circle the knob.  Finally we reached the east side, and joined a trail running up the ridge towards the summit. 


The climb from there was fairly easy.  Initially we followed the ridge up through the woods, before the trees gave way to bare granite.  From there, we wandered up the open rock faces, finally reaching a saddle just below the summit.  From here, the route to the summit looks scary.  However, we quickly discovered an easier approach by circling to the west side of the peak.  From there, a short scramble got us to the summit. 


From the top of Lembert Dome, we had a grand view of Tuolumne Meadows and the surrounding peaks.  Far below, the elegant Tuolumne River wandered lazily through grassy meadows as more granite knobs looked on.  To the south, west, and north, snowy peaks reared towards the clouds.  I enjoyed contemplating the view to the south, since the John Muir Trail heads that way.  I was looking forward to hiking there, but I knew we’d have to make the climb up from Yosemite Valley before we got the chance.


We lounged for a bit, before heading back down.  Once back at the main trail, we continued on our loop, heading south towards the highway.  A long descent brought us to the road, and we managed to cross it without getting run over.  From there, the trail continued down to the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge.  As we approached the lodge, we heard a shuttle bus pull away.  Crap!  As usual, I’d missed a shuttle bus by mere seconds.  At the stop, we found the bus schedule.  We had missed the 2:30 bus.  Normally, the buses run every 30 minutes, but for some reason, there was no 3:00 bus scheduled.  The next one wouldn’t arrive for another hour, and we were already running late.  Calling Christy wasn’t an option, as we didn’t have any cell reception.


We stopped by the river to cool our feet and debate our next move.  Christy was expecting us no later than 3pm, and we wouldn’t be there.  I knew she might come looking for us, but she wouldn’t really know where to look.  After a brief debate, we decided to hike a mile back to the original trailhead.  We figured she would check there first.  We followed the JMT, and arrived back at the picnic area 20 minutes later.  We found a few trees that offered shade, and settled in to wait.


At 3:35, the next shuttle bus arrived.  We hadn’t seen Christy, but I was afraid that if we both took the bus, we might miss her en route.  So, I left Bob at the trailhead, and boarded the bus for Tenaya Lake.  That way, we figured she would at least find one of us.  The bus ride was smooth and relaxing.  There were only a few people on board, and after we left the stop at the Visitor’s Center, I was the only passenger.  It’s a shame that more people aren’t taking advantage of the free shuttle service.  I’m afraid the shuttle is likely to be discontinued if that trend continues.


We were almost to Tenaya Lake when I saw Christy pass by in the rental car, heading the other direction.  Crap, again!  I could only hope that she would find Bob quickly, and then return to pick me up.  I looked out the back window of the bus, and saw her turning around.  Smart girl!  We turned into the Tenaya Lake parking area, and I got off the bus just as she arrived.  I gave her a sheepish grin, and jumped into the car.  Then we headed back towards the campground to pick up Bob.  She had enjoyed a lazy day at the lake, taking in some sun and watching a huge Mexican family playing soccer on the beach.  She was beginning to feel better, which was a relief, since we were starting the JMT the next morning.


We picked Bob up, and headed back towards June Lake.  Before going to camp though, I wanted to make one more stop.  Near Lee Vining, we found the turnoff for the South Tufa region of Mono Lake.  Mono Lake is a large salt lake in the desert east of the Sierra Nevada.  In 1941, the City of Los Angeles began diverting fresh water from streams feeding the lake for municipal needs.  The lake shrank to half of its normal size, while its salinity increased dramatically.  As a result, the entire ecosystem began to collapse.  Fortunately, local environmental groups were willing to fight for the future of the lake.  In 1983, the State Supreme Court ruled that the state was required to protect Mono Lake and other natural resources.  A minimal lake level was established at that time.  The amount of water Los Angeles was allowed to divert from the lake was reduced.  In fact, those reductions are still in force today.  LA won’t be able to increase the amount of water it diverts until the lake level reaches a specified goal.  Due to years of drought, that is likely to be many years away.


We drove down, down, down through the roasting desert, past a number of extinct volcanic cones, towards the shore of Mono Lake.  We stopped at the main parking area, and couldn’t believe the heat.  It had been hot up at Tuolumne Meadows, but down here, at an extremely low elevation, it was brutal.  Despite this, seeing Mono Lake was high on my priority list.  We each paid a small entrance fee, and followed a paved path down to the lakeshore.  There, we gazed across a vast expanse of saltwater towards the distant mountains.  As you might expect, the highlight of Mono Lake was seeing the bizarre Tufa formations.  Tufa is a calcium carbonate deposit that looks like rock.  The Tufa rose out of the lake in pinnacles, bluffs, and spires, each its own unique shape.  We explored the formations, and examined the water, which actually looked greasy due to the high salt content.  We wandered around the area for a bit, but we didn’t last long in that heat.  30 minutes later, we were back at the car and ready to head back to camp.


We made pasta for dinner.  While cooking, Bob asked if there was anything he could do to help.  I suggested he drain the fat from the ground beef, which I had just browned.  It seemed like a good idea, until the pan slipped, and the hamburger spilled into the fire pit.  Sigh.  That had been our last chance to eat real meat for a while, since we were beginning our backpacking trip the next morning.  Bob felt bad, and to make amends, he drove into June Lake to find more beef.  The grocery store was closed, so he went to a nearby restaurant and picked up two burgers to go.  Once he returned to camp, we added the meat to the past sauce.  At the time, the events were a little traumatic, but everything worked out in the end.

Continue reading about our trip as we begin our thru-hike of the John Muir Trail in Yosemite Valley.

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