Sierra Cascades – Yosemite to Lake Tahoe
18 July – Yosemite Valley
I make a detour to Oakhurst to visit a real supermarket, the first in two weeks since Lancaster. Since then I have watched the price of the same tub of oats rise from $1.50 to $3.00, to $4.50, to $5.00 and, at Bass Lake, $6.99. I will not pay seven dollars for a few bowls of porridge – so at Vons I buy four boxes of instant oats and thirtysix cereal bars for $14. My bag isn’t large enough for it all so I lash some on top and head up 1300m to Yosemite.
The traffic is heavy but I am spurred by excitement to reach America’s the valley that John Muir so waxes lyrical about and that even in the 19th century people travelled from Europe to see. After 1200m of climbing the descent begins and carries me around Turtleback Dome to the mouth of the valley.
It was the combination of granite and glaciers that produced Yosemite’s unique topography. The graciers bored a deep, square-profile valley and where it covered the granite mountains to either side it rounded them to the famous domes we see today. Where the mountains rose above the glaciers it carved away their lower reaches to leave jagged spires reaching towards the sky.
This is what lay before me. The jutting square-jaw of El Capitan to the North, Cathedral Spires and Sentinel Rock to the South and the magnificent profile of Half Dome in the distance. I can see why the place is popular.
The magic is broken down in the valley however. The roads are teeming with traffic and lined with parked cars. Fed-up looking rangers direct queues at junctions. A truck pulls over and a woman leans out the window and calls, “Hey, it’s you!”.
After a moment I recognise her and the truck as the ones that tugged me up to Sequoia NP. “You gave me a lift up the hill!”.
Her family is there in the car too and it strikes me as unusual that she seems to do all the driving and talking because fathers here generally seem to play the family leader role more than at home. They get out and we chat and I am offered a raid on the cooler. Yes please! I take a root beer, another new favourite of mine out of the overwhelming variety of American soft drinks. It tastes like the smell of Deep Heat, the stuff you spray on sore muscles, and seems to share a flavour with nothing else on the planet. She tells me that they are on a road trip and that she is a cop in Dallas. I only find out later about the police shootings that have happened there.
The plus side to all this civilisation means laundry and showers. I wash myself and put on my rain gear so I can wash all of my clothes. My shirt comes out several shades lighter and I feel like a new man.
All the campsites are fully booked, of course, but there is one at the far end of the valley with a walk-in section for hikers. You are supposed to have an overnight hiking permit but, like the camping reservations, these are snapped up six months in advance the hour they go on sale. This strikes me as unfair on traveling cyclists and it’s either here or stealth camping in the trees so I choose the campsite and post the $6 fee into the box by the notice board.
I get chatting to a group of three who are about to hike the Johnson Muir Trail to Mt. Whitney, a 200-mile section of the PCT. Tomorrow they will start by climbing Half Dome. An older, grizzled man tells me he will hole to ‘Clouds Rest’ tomorrow, the trailhead for which is a drive away to the North. His description sounds stunning so I take note.
19 July – Porcupine Creek, Yosemite
I make a plan in the morning before heading out. I will cycle the twenty-odd miles and 3000 feet back out of the valley and around to it’s northern side where Tamarac Flats campground might, according to a ranger, have vacancies. I will reach there around lunchtime and set off on the seven mile return-hike up to El Capitan, the top of which should afford great views of the valley.
On my way out of the valley a group of four stags with great rounded antlers graze in a meadow. The low sun sets the stage in brilliant yellow-green and a backdrop of sheer, shadowed granite lies behind. Another serene diorama.
Heading up and out of the valley things become less peaceful. I was careful to avoid visiting Yosemite on the weekend yet the traffic is bad. There is no shoulder on these narrow, winding roads and impatient drivers blast past without giving me proper room. The speed limit is so widely ignored that long queues of traffuc back up behind cars thst obey it and the stink of exhaust becomes unbearable at its worst. A cyclist zooms past me done the hill with a “whoop!” and I look up just in time to see four panniers and and wild blonde hair shoot down the hill. The first tourer I have seen on this route and I missed him. Shucks.
At the Tamarac Flats trailhead the sign reveals that it is 8.4, not 3.5, miles each way to reach El Capitan. How can the rangers hand out such rubbish maps? Someone coming up from the valley and finding out they have am extra five miles to hike could easily run out of daylight and be in a dangerous situation. So far, zero points to park management for the running of this place.
I don’t have enough daylight to hike as planned or the energy to cycle back up to the main road so I take a nap in the shade but ants persistently tickle me so I soon continue. I decide to continue along Tioga Road to Porcupine Creek, from where I can hike to North Dome tomorrow morning.
On the road I see another cyclist with four panniers coming towards me. I have time to turn over and stop her for a chat. She started in Seattle and cycled down the coast before switching over to the Sierra Cascades. We commiserate over the poor selection of food in the shops. She is Swiss and as Western Europeans we share a competancy in bread and cheese in common. We cover every topic of cyclotouring conversation and then part ways.
Rather than pay $12 for a site at the rudimentary campgrounds without even running water I turn off down a dirt road and wild camp by a creek. The moon is so large and bright tonight is casts shadows on my tarpaulin.
20 July – Tuolumne Meadows
I lock my bike by the bear bins at the trailhead, fill my little stuff-away rucksack and set off. The straps on the rucksack are too skinny so that wearing it is like having a tourniquet wrapped around each shoulder and my hands swell until I take it off again. But it’s very lightweight!
The hike begins among the trees. Some burnt trunks tell of previous fires and others, living, are covered in a moss as bright as a high-vis jacket. As the day heats up the smell of pine resin fills my nose. The smell is so synonymous with these forests I am sure I will associate it with these memories for the rest of my life. Thinking of the rangers back at Big Bear Lake I stop to sniff the bark of those directly in the sun. Butter and syrupy scents reveal themselves and make me think of pancakes. I would really like some pancakes. Or pasta with parmesan and olive oil; or rice soaked with the fat from a stack of Lamb chops.
I spend a lot of time thinking about food these days. What I am not eating I think about eating and when I am eating I think about what I would rather be eating. I think about all the things I could make in a real kitchen; tripple-decker bacon sarnies and three-minute cups of Yorkshire Gold with lots of milk. I think of enjoying them on a sofa while rewatching the entirety of Game Of Thrones.
Soon I am onto a granite dome. Chipmunks dart under the manzanita that grows from the cracks and hugs the ground. The dome slopes away and I must Scrabble down a precarious path as it steepens. Layers of half-exfoliated rock hang impossibly, ready to crash into the forrest below.
Through the trees once more and then I am out again and climbing the smooth behind of North Dome. Pines grow from gaps in the rock but battered by winds and half-starved of nutrients they stand short and stout, gnarled and twisted like giant bonsai trees. Over the years their roots have cracked and heaved apart their granite foundations.
I meet a family of three near the top. They have been hiking for three days, including the daughter who can’t be as old as ten! What a trooper. The dad and I have a good natter about gear and take photos of each other posing in front of the views. He tells me why John Muir named these peaks “the range of light”; quartz crystals in the granite catch the light and sparkle like glitter.
Back at the trailhead I cycle on to Tenaya Lake. It is wide and still, so shallow in places that cairns of rock rise from the water where they have been built. The Californians dip their toes in, shriek and retreat but Europeans are made of sterner stuff – even me! The water is cool and refreshing.
At Tualamine meadows there is a store and so I am able to break my 24-hour diet of porridge and cereal bars. There is a campground too. The Swiss cyclist told me that they have a hiker/biker section but they are often hidden and not advertised at the entrance so I ask a passing couple if they know where it is. How convenient, they are heading there now! It looks like more campfire company and conversation is in store tonight.
They are Jason and Anna, both high-school teachers, and have been hiking with their kids who are already at the site with their friend Ben and his two children. Jason is an intelltual and probes me with all sorts of questions about current affairs and cultural perceptions in Britain. They start a campfire and I am fed a smore.
21 July – Not-so-restful rest day
It is too cold in the night for my gear and I slerp poorly but I must get up early to hike to Clouds Rest. It is a 16-mile return trip so I want to catch the first shuttle. Ben ladens me with dearly appreciated beef jerky and trail mix and I catch the ride to the trailhead by Tenata Lake.
The trail is through the same sort of terrain I have come to know but comes into it’s own at the very end with a scrabble up to the ten thousand-foot summit. A narrow bridge of rocks drops away to either side and at the top there is a breath-taking panorama; 360 degrees with Yosemite valley to the South-west, the snow-capped Western Divide mountains that seperates this range from the Great Basin desert to the East and placid, blue Lake Tenaya back the way I came. The view of Half Dome is particularly good. Anselm Adams, the photographer who earned his fame capturing Yosemite in black and white, once said, “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photogtaphs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” Therefore, I point you towards my photos.
As a guide points out, the only thing spoiling the view is the grey layer of smog from San Diego and LA on the horizon.
22 July – Topaz Lake
From Tuolumne Meadows I have only a short climb to Tioga Pass, the exit of the park and my highest elevation on the bike yet at 9945 feet, or 3031m. The way down is long and steep and I decide to set my GPS app to record mode to check my maximum speed. I press myself low to the bars and need only rise to slow mtself like a parachute for the corners. I reach 50.7mph. The green forrest and pale granite has been replaced by rust-brown metamorphic rock and, to my dismay, burnt brown chaparral-come-desert once again; descending to Mono Lake is like lowering myself into a clay oven. I buy myself a thermometer from a hardware store and it reads 20°C inside but rises to 38° out on the road. I am still at seven thousand feet – how is this possible? I have skiid at half this altitude! And I can see snow on those mountains over there! I feel cheated; I really believed that I had left the heat behind me.
Signs needlessly warn me of crosswinds that buffet me about but fails to clear the air of the stink of hidden roadkill. The heat and the climb have me sweating but the hot wind dries it almost instantly,leaving me with a second skin of salt that cracks as I move and stretch. To make matters worse, the traffic turns nasty on the way to Bridgeport. Lorries and long RVs towing cars and trailors with jetskis join the fray and seem to adopt an attitude of ‘might is right’.
I reach Bridgeport exhausted and fed up. A coronary disaster in a bun raises my spirits a little. The mercury has reached 43°.
If I don’t reach the post office at Lake Tahoe by tomorrow lunchtime then I will have to wait until Monday to collect a package that is waiting for me so I put in good miles in the evening and camp near Topaz Lake on a secluded perch above the road.
23 July – Lake Tahoe
I have fifty miles to cover before the post office closes at 2pm. The catch is that fifty miles includes two mountain passes and more than 5000 feet of climbing. Doable in a day but in a morning? I’m not sure. This will be the true test of my fitness!
At dawn I am awoken not by the sunlight but by the call of coyotes. OOOoooooo Aiaiaiaiai. It sounds like someone watching a baseball sail out of the stands then all his friends joining in with an Indian call a la old Western movies.
I cook porridge from my sleeping bag then deflate, roll and pack my things in a practiced sequence. I’m on the road at 6am and turn left into a tight valley and the ascent to Monitor Pass begins. It begins with a headwind unfortunately and I lose spirit. The incline is steeper than usual – 8% at my guess – and I crawl up in first gear then get off and push. After a mile or so the valley opens up, however, the wind drops and I get at a proper pace. 3000′ up I reach the pass at 8am. Next it’s a long descent to Markleeville, where I enjoy a thousand-calorie snack stop. At 9am I get going again
I may have overdone it and feel sluggish heading up to Luther pass but I am making good time. Hordes of Harley-riders pass me. Up into the trees again, I reach the top at 11.30am. From there it’s through heavy traffic into the town of South Lake Tahoe. I make it to the post office at 1pm. Result!
A couple are sitting outside with large backpacks so I ask them if they are hiking the PCT. They are – and they are from Devon! A lengthy reminiscence of tea and roast dinners ensues. I think we all feel the worse for it afterwards.
We must all make do with what we’ve got so it’s Taco Bell for lunch. At least it’s not another hamburger. I have a double tripple crunchwrap supreme box meal and follow it up with an XXL food log. Refill and after refill of root beer helps it go down. Is there an unspoken limit? Why would you ever pay extra for a large cup?
The couple from Devon recommended a budget supermarket up the road where they have done a major resupply and spent the day boxing food to mail forward to themselves. All my cereal bars are gone so I go to check it out. Once inside, my problems are twofold; everything is very cheap and I’m still hungry. I leave with two packs of biscuits, a box of thirty cereal bars, two melons and a box of Reece Puffs with two pints of milk. Reece Puffs is the cereal created by the folks who do the peanut butter cups encased in chocolate and it is divine. It is just as well they don’t sell it in the UK or I would be obese. I open the box outside and have to stop myself before I reach the bottom. Flashbacks of the aftermath of my last pizza warn me just in time.
I call home with the new sim card that was inside my package and waddle off to D.L. Bliss State Park on the West side of the lake. The have a campsite with a hiker/biker area but are unfortunately ten hilly miles away. With a three thousand odd calorie lunch sending me into anaconda-post-antelope shutdown (and two bloody melons weighing me down- what was I thinking?) it is a bit of a struggle.