The Two Yosemites

Experience Yosemite's Essence
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Take time to explore both the peaks and the valleys of the park
Cathedral Peak

Various plans are afoot to relieve human pressure in the valley itself, some seven square miles in a park that has more than 1,000. It seems obvious that traffic will have to be regulated, and surely no new buildings should be erected.

If the valley is a crowded and contentious place, the"other Yosemite" provides an antidote that makes one feel alive and unfettered. Only an hour's drive from the valley is the fabulous high country. Tuolumne Meadows, my fortunate stopover place of eons ago, is the center of human activity of this region, and it can also be jammed with visitors. But on every recent trip I've found that if you walk a mile along a trail and then move off cross-country for just a few hundred yards, you won't even 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, lies splendid timberline country, only an hour's walk from the car. For decades I've repeated this hike because of its variety. If you get jaded by the somber gray granite, relax: soon you'll thread your way across blood-red slate. The forest is monotonous? Think of the gentle meadows and sandy lakeshores just ahead. From the lakes you can see glacier-clad Mount Lyell, the park's highest point, far to the south. Around you, all is wilderness. To me, this is the real Yosemite.

I'm always asked about the changes I've seen in the park during the past four decades. Besides making me feel very old, the question stumps me. While I abhor the touristy, big-city aspects of the valley, I can choose not to visit the supermarket and the gift shops; 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 thousand-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 still can. Just don't go on a bus tour during 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 famed High Sierra Camp circuit, a lovely but overcrowded five-day trek. Many alternate trails exist. And, yes, the bureaucracy is more aggravating than formerly: You must have a backpacking permit, but this is often just a formality.

Last year a few of us did a three-day walk in the southern part of the Cathedral Range, never straying farther than five air-miles from the highway. The middle part of the trip was trail-less but quite easy — and the only two-legged creature we saw was a bear straining futilely to reach our hung food sack. One night we camped below Matthes Crest, a stunning horn of granite, and I realized that I had last climbed it during that far-off summer, with my wretched blisters barely healed. Why had I waited so long to repeat this climb? Simple: there was too much else to do in Yosemite.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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