DNA X #23 From the Mountains to the Sea

November 30th, 2010 by

“But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite…” John Muir

Autumn is advancing quickly so we set our sights on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and one of our country’s most well known parks. We drive across California’s central valley and head east on Route 120. It is late in the day and clouds start to gather ahead of an approaching storm. We know our daylight is limited and we veer off onto Big Oak Flat Road climbing higher into an ever-narrowing canyon. Suddenly around a curve the massive forms of Half Dome and El Capitan come into view, spotlighted by the fading sun. The view is spectacular and our timing is unbelievably lucky. The canyon gets narrower and eventually leads us into Yosemite Valley where the road ends. Yosemite National Park is a paragon of diversity. At once raw, wild, quiet and untamed it covers a multitude of eco-zones from alpine to desert. The famous granite mountains present polished domes, ‘hanging’ valleys, numerous waterfalls, cirque lakes, giant sequoia groves and over 800 miles of trails through the High Sierra wilderness.

DNA-XAlthough it is late fall, it is near impossible to find a room for the night anywhere near the park (we thought all the tourists would be gone). Several towns around the park’s perimeter call themselves a “gateway to Yosemite” and most are at least a one-hour drive away – hardly convenient and hotels there were full as well. Somehow we land a room at the park’s historic Ahwahnee Hotel and pay an extortionate rate for the “last room” ($400.00+). Without proper investigation we pull up to the entrance and notice there are no parking places. Every space is full so we unload and get the “bear briefing” – no crumbs of any size are to be left in the car – so Bag O’Snacks, Bag for short, one of our worthy team members will have to room with us. Jay disappears for 30 minutes while I check in. The lobby is overflowing with a hodgepodge of tourists. They can’t all be staying here! Jay finally parks Blackie half a mile away, returns to the mayhem with a scowl and we venture forth to the room. The once upscale and charming lodge was in a stale state of decrepitude. The room was dark (two 15watt bulbs) probably that was preferable and no AC (broken). The “view” overlooked an alley filled with a collection of broken heaters, warped tables, trash, lawn equipment and rotting signs. The carpet was vintage 1959 (last time it was clean). Chief inspector Jay announced a grade of “F” for filth and a “D” for disgusting. Once again we were victims of the “captive audience syndrome”.
DNA-XYes, we were desperate and figured it was our one shot at visiting this jewel of America’s parks. So we head downstairs to the restaurant, full of course, and settle for the last bar seat and whatever food they had left. Since again we can’t find room at the inn (or any inn) we aim Blackie south and west on Route 140 down the grade and back into the vast central valley of California where agriculture is king. Pistachios, apricots, grapes, strawberries, artichokes, almonds and more all flourish here. We climb over Pacheco Pass and down to the coast arriving in Monterey. Frequently shrouded in fog, the city is nestled into a corner of the Monterey Peninsula facing the bay. The city was one of California’s first ports and has a list of other state firsts like; building the first theater, first public school, library and printing press that printed the first newspaper. Perhaps its past history was most remembered for being the inspiration for local resident John Steinbeck’s novels. Cannery Row in particular was the setting for the Depression era story involving people working the sardine fishery and canning factories. The once abundant fishery was destroyed by over fishing and the old canneries are now either vacant or turned into hotels or shops. We stayed at the Monterey Plaza Hotel which is built on the footprint of an old cannery and juts out into the bay. The crashing surf actually shakes the building! A must see is a visit to the world renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium where this history is displayed along with many wonderful marine wildlife exhibits.

DNA-XOther activities to explore are walking around town (lots of shops and good seafood restaurants), walking down to the docks to see the boats and the hundreds of sea lions lounging (ar, arh, arh, arh, 24/7!), walk or bike along the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreation Trail and look for sea otters and harbor seals (no ar, arh here).Stroll down to Fisherman’s Warf past the typical t-shirts etc. stores and hop on a boat to go on a whale watch or go fishing. Scuba divers come from all over the world to dive right off the beach into the amazing Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. If you don’t want to dive you can rent a kayak and paddle around the bay over the kelp forests and look for sea otters and other wildlife. Nearby there are beautiful golf courses, hiking, surfing and yes, even wine tasting. These are just a sample of potential diversions. This is a great area to explore – what are you waiting for?

The light of dawn revealed the reason for the crowds overflowing at the hotel, it is one of only two restaurants in the narrow funnel of Yosemite Valley where the campgrounds, tent camps and RV lots are also overflowing. Stay tuned for the real story inside the National Parks of America. We continue our tour of the park, craning our necks to admire the fabulous waterfalls (5 of the worlds highest are here) the hulking granite cliffs carved by glaciers eons ago and the dense forests and sunlit glades. Many people worked to help preserve this park (established in 1890) but none so diligently as John Muir “the father of the National Park Service”. He inspired and convinced people and presidents to make these lands forever protected for generations to enjoy. He would probably be shocked that over 3.3 million visitors come to Yosemite each year. This density brings with it a rabble of problems none of which help protect the park. What’s in store for the future? Good question.