And then, quite by accident, Robert Frost intervened, and for two days we wound up on what was for the vast majority of the thousands of visitors to Yosemite that weekend the Road Not Taken. It made all the difference.
What follows might be considered a bit of heresy. It is a suggestion that the best way to experience Yosemite National Park is to avoid Yosemite Valley altogether.
Bear with me.
When it comes to trips, I am a planner. I love guidebooks; I live for maps. And while I have fully embraced the digital age, a trip to a national park seems worthy of the physical entity rather than the virtual ones. So I picked up a handy little tome called “Best Easy Day Hikes: Yosemite National Park” and I studied maps of the park, dominated of course by Yosemite Valley. But I was also intrigued by the newly reopened Mariposa Grove, home to the epic sequoias.
If Yosemite Valley bisects the park, Mariposa takes you on a steep jog to the south and east. To planning-mode me, it seemed to be a good spot to start the 2½ days my son and I would have in the park. Not far (which, in Yosemite, is a relative term) from Mariposa was Glacier Point, which won the distinction of being the easiest of the Easy Day Hikes in the book. A short jog from there was Sheldon Dome, which landed squarely in the middle of the two dozen easy hikes. We would do those before heading into the valley for the “real sights” — Vernal Falls, El Capitan, Half Dome. Day One Planned.
So off we set on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, leaving before dawn from our adorable Airbnb, located 45 minutes from the park. We took a southern approach, avoiding the Yosemite Valley entrance — remember, that’s the theme of this journey — and made our way to the brand-spanking-new Visitor Center at Mariposa Grove. The area had been closed for several years while renovations were done, including the creation of this spot, where cars are parked and shuttle buses boarded to limit the pollution that could damage the mammoth and ancient specimens.
The grove is spectacular, and a newly added boardwalk makes it easy for young and old to navigate a small portion of the site. But the reason for this visit with my son was to check in on him. He had graduated from college, been hired on contract in the communications department at Oculus and was living, working, breathing as a sentient adult for the first time. Weekly FaceTime calls are great; texting is terrific. But I wanted to spend some real time with this child of mine, this “old soul” from whom truths leak rather than flow.
So we abandoned the boardwalk and the chatter of other visitors to make our way to trees so iconic they have been named, including “Faithful Couple,” which is actually two trees that have over the course of a thousand years grown to have one fused trunk.
There is something profound about nothing more than the gentle crunch of pine needles under your feet, the abandon to ponder the monogamy of anthropomorphized trees, to smell — despite the remnants of fire — the unbridled freshness of air into which trees are breathing life. And to be, less than a mile from the shuttle stop, so surprisingly alone in this sacred place.
And so Mariposa Grove, off the beaten path and unlike any other part of Yosemite in its lushness, was an auspicious start to our journey. By the time we returned to the visitor center, it was clear that our early start decision had been the right one. Queues formed for shuttles; the parking lot was nearing capacity.
Our next stop was Glacier Point, where — with its much-touted views overlooking Half Dome, Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Falls — we encountered what I had feared for the weekend. While visitors might overlook Mariposa Grove, they do not pass by Glacier Point, and by the time we arrived at 1 p.m. on a beautiful holiday weekend, we most definitely were not alone. Circling the parking lot to find a spot — which included waiting patiently while a German family packed their gear and gathered up all the children from the restrooms, took longer than driving from Mariposa to Glacier Point.
And the views, while spectacular, were marred by teeming people, jabbering away, taking selfies, staring at those selfsame selfies instead of staring at Half Dome, the valley, the falls. Andrew and I sat for a bit on a rock, took a few photos and then sort of shrugged as we made our way through the crowds, excusing ourselves as we went. It was Yosemite on a holiday weekend: What did we expect?
We had resigned ourselves to battling crowds as we made our way the short distance to Sentinel Dome, another peak in the area. We were surprised, therefore, to find it relatively easy to pull onto the side of the road at the trailhead. Whatever Sentinel Dome offered, it did not attract crowds and rather than that deterring us, it enticed us.
In front of us, across a broad expanse of wildflower-strewn meadow, stood an imposing granite monolith, home to a Jeffrey pine, one of the world’s most famous dead trees — immortalized, as so much of Yosemite is, by Ansel Adams.
“Are we going up there?” Andrew asked. To be honest, it did not look like an “easy” hike, so part of me thought that the hike was to Sentinel Dome and not to the top of Sentinel Dome. (In fairness, the book labels it as “more difficult” but that’s in still in the context of “easy.”)
Uncertain — and made a little giddy by the uncertainty, we set off. The path was flat, crossing a now-dry creek, and while we passed a pair of hikers on our way and greeted a pack on their way back, Sentinel Dome — less than three miles from Glacier Point, seemed as if it were on the opposite end of the world.
The hike to the base of the dome took the better part of an hour, and on the approach it seemed as if getting to the top would be taxing in the extreme. But after wending around to the back side of the dome, we found that the climb to the top, while steep, was a shorter-than-expected quarter-mile.
At the flattened top of granite summit were two women with three children among them frolicking on the rocks . . . and us. And not another soul. And when the moms announced to the boisterous crew that it was time to head down, Andrew and I had Sentinel Dome — with its stunning, unimpeded view of Half Dome, El Capitan and the breathtaking expanse of Yosemite Valley, to ourselves.
We sat, snacked on granola and marveled. The view was not appreciably different from Glacier Point. The experience — the sound of nothing more than the breeze, the ability to see in 360 degrees without another soul appearing in the panorama — was jaw-dropping. We spoke little on the summit; this felt as close to church as I had been in some time. But we found ourselves exchanging glances as if to say, “This can’t actually be real; and we can’t actually be here all by ourselves?”
Leaving became an existential challenge — if we chose to leave behind such bliss, would we ever again rediscover it?
On the way down, we decided that we would rediscover it, only better. Andrew demanded the hikes book. How could we find another hike that was more like that? And, by definition, less like Glacier Point.
The answer came in the form of Tuolumne Meadows, in the northeast part of the park, and Lembert Dome.
To say that Lembert Dome is off the beaten path doesn’t begin to do it justice. More than 90 minutes from the famous valley, on challenging winding roads, this part of the park has only one lodging: a glorified campground called Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, complete with a dining room that is really just an enormous heated tent.
But we set off on Sunday morning prepared for a long drive, a hearty breakfast and Lembert Dome. That is, until we saw Lembert Dome, which the guide book described as a “huge, lopsided, smoothly polished mound of granite.” Andrew, still high on the adrenaline from Sentinel, was game. I, still toting the guidebook and noting that it called summiting Lembert “far too challenging to be considered for inclusion in easy day hikes” was skeptical.
And it was surprisingly crowded at the base — as it turns out, this is the starting point for just about every hike in this part of the park, including one to a spring with carbonated water (we’ll do that next time). I nervously asked the National Park Service employee if summiting Lembert was doable. “You look fit; you’ll do fine. Make sure you have water.” Andrew gave me that “don’t be a wimp, Mom” look and there was no turning back.
The first ¾-mile through forest was extremely challenging. The vertical climb was far harder than any part of the Sentinel Dome ascent. We stopped multiple times to catch our breath. The fellow travelers we encountered every 10 to 15 minutes — two and threesomes to whom we would nod knowingly — looked far heartier than us: They had poles, hats with ear flaps, insulated non-hipster water bottles. And by the looks of things, we had made very little progress toward the actual dome. But then, as inexplicably as the back entrance to Sentinel had been, the path leveled out, we caught our second wind and less than a quick, flat mile later we could see that we were within one good push of the top. Upon summiting Lembert — which was far more vast than Sentinel — we found maybe a dozen climbers on the massive hunk of granite.
Just ahead of us were a father and son who were eyeing a rocky promontory that jutted above the planed granite summit. “There’s no way they get up there,” I said to Andrew as we watched them gingerly manage footholds on the ascent. But they scrambled up, and we were not to be outdone. Had we really climbed this far to not get to the very tippy-top?
And again, there we sat. A father and a son; a mother and a son. Most of the other travelers were content to walk the perimeter beneath us. We couldn’t have been further from the demands of the world if we had been on the moon. And yet we had traveled for no more than 90 minutes, by foot, along with a handful of other wandering souls. There was no cell service, and that was no small thing. It served as a reminder that there is a world to be explored and imagined that is so much more vast than the devices we spend so much time holding in our hands.
We knew we had to return, that the escape was temporary, that what made the interlude so special was that it was so otherworldly . . . that it reminded us of a bigger universe.
But still we sat, speaking little, marveling, reveling in where we were, just being in this place that we had reached because we had dared. Little needed to be said. As a mother, I knew that I had given my son something that would outlive me: his memory of this moment with his mother.
On our last day in Yosemite, we drove into the valley — because really, you have to do the Valley, don’t you? We stopped in the main visitor center gift shop. We enjoyed a decadent breakfast at the historic Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly the Ahwahnee) and tried for one more hike from the guidebook: Vernal Falls. A much-heralded, a must-see. We rode a shuttle bus, we trudged, practically cheek to jowl with teeming hordes of others who seemed to be doing a must-see hike because a guide book told them it was must-see. And we stopped, looking at the near-dry falls, snapping a picture before turning around to trudge back down. We didn’t need to say what we were both thinking: This was no Sentinel. This was no Lembert.
I suspect I will return one day to Yosemite, which naturalist John Muir called “the grandest of all the special temples of Nature.” If I do, I think I will venture to Soda Springs and Wapama Falls, to Taft Point and McGurk Meadow — because sometimes it is in the places less storied but no less beautiful where we begin to write our own stories.
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Yosemite National Park
Big Oak Flat Entrance: 6107 Big Oak Flat Rd, Groveland, Calif.
See California’s famed ancient Sequoia trees up close along with glaciers and waterfalls. Famous landmarks include Bridalveil Fall and the granite cliffs of El Capitan and Half Dome, plus Tunnel View, the scenic overlook photographed by Ansel Adams. The park has five entrances and the author used the South entrance on Highway 41 near Mariposa Grove. Open year-round. Seven-day passes, $35 per vehicle; annual passes, $70 per person.