Hidden Yosemite

Explore the high country to complete the Yosemite experience.


By Kallie Markle


If you’ve visited Yosemite National Park without ever venturing beyond its famous valley, then you’ve sold it short. That’s like traveling to the Louvre Museum in Paris, looking at the Mona Lisa, and immediately leaving without glancing at the other 34,999 works of art. No Venus de Milo, and nothing by Rembrandt or Michelangelo. Your experience would be so limited you could hardly say you’d been there at all. There’s so much more to Yosemite that, frankly, you owe yourself another trip.

I owed myself a trip, period. I love camping, but I’m not hardcore; I just like sitting in a lovely outdoor setting and devouring the marshmallows I’m supposed to be roasting. But, I was ashamed of myself for being a fiercely loyal Californian without a solid knowledge of dear Yosemite, so I bribed two pals who’d never been and we began to plan.

We lacked the fitness, equipment, and general chutzpah for the more alternative Yosemite offerings and thus made a simple goal of “not the valley.” We headed straight to the high country in late July, coming from the east over Tioga Pass, through snow-speckled mountains and past mirrored lakes and galloping waterfalls before we even reached the park’s borders. We were scenery-saturated and we’d yet to see what Yosemite officially had to offer.

Take Tuolumne Meadows, for instance. This is the meadowy panorama where Maria von Trapp wishes she could have spun around. All eight-plus miles are as storybook and idyllic as anything one’s dreams of paradise could craft. Yosemite’s signature peaks and domes surround the meadows, but instead of craning our necks to scope their sheer height, we could simply look out in any direction and commit it all to everlasting memory.

The Tuolumne River winds its way through the meadow, and on a day ending in “y” you might see grazing mule deer, industrious pika, sunbathing marmots, and winking wildflowers. Summer thunderheads offered fantasy sunsets, and the scene was so halcyon we wondered what heaven has to offer that Tuolumne doesn’t already have in spades. We (metaphorically) drank in the carbonated water bubbling from the ground at Soda Springs en route to Parsons Memorial Lodge, where we were treated to a visiting storyteller and illustrator. Other visitors might find conservationists, musicians, and writers on hand for an engaging dose of culture in the midst of highly concentrated nature. The historic stone building, with its intimate fireplace, is a cozy welcome once the sun dips behind the mountains and is an amble from the river’s picturesque wooden footbridge. To prove the high country is not just for high-intensity activities, Tuolumne Meadows beckons guests to snooze on its riverbank, picnic on a comfy boulder, or set up an easel and see if they can tear their eyes from the horizon long enough to put paint on the brush. It is both a reprieve for mountain adventurers and a casual adventure for the leisurely set.

We planted ourselves in the Tuolumne Meadows Campground, a 304-site conglomeration of reservations and walk-ins, retirees in RVs, and hikers who slipped in at sundown and vanished before first light. Volunteer Bill gave us the bear talk, and we pledged to keep all temptations hidden away in the locker; we were safely bear-bare, despite our fish dinner. The campground offers evening campfire programs for fans of singing and storytelling and, on clear nights, star programs for fans of celestial twinkles. Making no attempt to match the food courts, galleries, and shopping of Yosemite Valley, the Tuolumne area boasts a store for when you run out of firewood, a grill for when you tire of trail mix, and a post office for sending your boss a Half Dome postcard announcing that your final paycheck should be directed to “Yosemite Park, Tuolumne Campsite #119.” There’s also a 24-hour gas station and the Yosemite Mountaineering School, which offers rental equipment, classes for all levels of climbers, and private guided climbs.

For a loftier perspective on the surrounding country, consider taking the trail to the uppermost Gaylor Lakes—a moderate, four-mile round-trip hike over 860 feet of elevation change. The forest stones offer natural stairs, so the terrain is easily navigable even where it’s steep. Be sure to turn around periodically for sweeping views of the valley below you, like meadows nestled among the peaks and Mt. Dana and Mt. Gibbs stretching up to shake off any clinging clouds. At the top of the pass we caught our breath, glimpsing the lake below but unsure that anything could possibly compare to what we’d already seen. Descending the hill planted us right at the edge of Middle Gaylor Lake, a dish of mercury ringed by granite crests and fed by a snowmelt stream; a panorama of Yosemite’s western ranges peeked out from the vanishing shoreline. Putting aside the trail and following the stream to Upper Gaylor Lake took us out of time completely; there was no sense of Sunday, or of July. There was only a place empty of footprints and silent but for the occasional sound of snowpack settling under the sun. We munched our crumbled Pop Tarts before embarking on the last stretch of our Gaylor journey: rimming the lake and climbing the last hundred yards to the historic Great Sierra Mine. The ruins of its stone cabins dot the slope, a far cry from the silver riches the mine promised but never delivered.

If the Tuolumne Meadows trail is too mild for you but you’re disinclined to attempt anything involving the words “upper” or “climb,” consider splashing around in Tenaya Lake or taking the path around it. A popular stretch of the Sunrise Lakes trail is a flat, comfortable two miles that briefly requires crossing a shallow slice of Tenaya Creek, but it’s a cinch if you don’t drop your socks in the water. Feeling valiant after our Gaylor success, we promptly abandoned the trail and followed the creek instead, roaming over logs and boulders as we marveled at the rolling hills of granite underfoot. The high country is ideal for exploring glacier movement; it’s easy to envision the centuries of change and the forces at work over time. Tenaya Creek alternately lazes and races over the rocks, forming pools and falls and keeping the scenery from repeating itself. Kayakers and other water-tumbling enthusiasts can revel in the natural slides it forms as it works its way down to the valley, but casual paddlers should stick to the less vigorous lake.

The creek is easy to follow, but there’s just as much exploring to do around it as there is on its banks—keep it in your sight or sound and you’ll not need that trail of breadcrumbs to get back to the lake. The dry land allows for carefree scrambling and bouldering, which generously made us feel cleverer and more sure-footed than we really were. Walking along the huge, rounded expanses of granite feels like trespassing on the backs of slumbering behemoths, but they’re just the bare, sun-baked bones of the Earth, too busy holding California in place to be bothered by enraptured campers. Reunited with the trail, we found a tree that had been hugged by an enthusiastic bear and had lived to love another day; it was a darkly comic reminder that we were hardly the only ones roaming the Yosemite hills. We capped off the afternoon by driving west to Olmsted Point, a lookout offering views of Half Dome that turn positively enthralling under gathering thunderheads and coloring skies.

The high country is imperative for waterfall junkies, and July and August can be just as rewarding as the prime snowmelt season in late spring. Even if you go in a dry spell there are stunning, alternating vistas. Those willing to invest in a 16-mile hike or, for a (literal) change of pace, an all-day horseback ride will reap the payoff of three falls—Tuolumne, California, and LeConte—and the grand prize of Waterwheel. Waterwheel Falls is nature’s way of saying, “Look what I can do!” The exuberant falls carve deep rivets in the granite, creating a dish that sends the plunging water leaping out with so much gumption that it doubles back for another trip. This display of hydro-acrobatics strikes a balance between the heady beauty of nature and the relish of its eccentricity.

When we were finished barely scratching the surface of the Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake areas, we made our way west to camp in Tamarack Flat. This “first come, first served” campground is accessible only by foot or by rough, unpaved road and claims no flushing toilets or water faucets. Sites have picnic tables, fire pits, and access to Tamarack Creek, so if you’re looking for a slightly rougher camping experience without forgoing all the niceties, this is your place. The vehicle-juggler of an entrance road discourages RVs, so the 52 sites are strictly for the tent types who don’t mind boiling creek water for their morning coffee. The campground is spacious and affords plenty of exploring among surrounding pines and boulders. Had we known the dastardly road we’d braved to get there was historic Old Big Oak Flat Road, we might’ve been more gracious. Ambitious hikers can take the old road, closed to vehicles beyond the campground, all the way from Tamarack Flat to the valley floor, check the Mona Lisa off their list, and head back to the high country for the rest of the Yosemite experience.

I had fulfilled one duty to California and could scarcely forgive myself for waiting so long. I’ve travelled and seen some of the wonders of the world—I’ve even been to the Louvre—but Yosemite had been in my backyard all along and opened itself simply and unfolded magnificently. It created both a resolution and a craving and became a relationship more than a destination.

SIDE TRIP

There aren’t many gas stations you would consider for catering your special occasion, but here’s one for the short list: Tioga Gas Mart and its gem, the Whoa Nellie Deli. This must-stop shop is east of Yosemite National Park in Lee Vining, perched high above Mono Lake along U.S. Route 395 and Highway 120. Sure, you can fuel up your vehicle before the last stretch, but it’s just as useful for an empty belly. A Yosemite-prone friend suggested I stop in for their excellent fish tacos, which I assumed was just a niche thing, but I soon discovered the full menu. The tacos aren’t the niche: the unexpected marriage of gas mart and high-caliber fare is. Take a seat inside or on the lovely lawn to enjoy the views, and if it’s a summer evening, plan to stick around for the concert series. Grab a beer or glass of wine to go with your Wild Buffalo meatloaf, legendary lobster taquitos, or herb-crusted pork tenderloin. Of course, the “legendary” part carries fishing and camping essentials for those headed to Mono Lake or Yosemite, as well as gourmet groceries and souvenir merchandise. It’s rare to find an establishment with a fan base equal parts local and far-flung, but the Tioga Gas Mart, with the Whoa Nellie Deli tucked inside, has earned its fame for being altogether unique, necessary, and excellent.

For more of the untraditional, take U.S. Route 395 about 23 miles north of Lee Vining to Bodie State Historic Park. This ghost town, abandoned after the mining gave out, is preserved in a state of arrested decay. It is so thoroughly trapped in time that the park doesn’t offer modern amenities like food or gasoline, and the only flush toilet facilities are in the parking lot. The interiors of the buildings remain untouched—dust accumulates on stocked market shelves, church pews, and the saloon bar top. There’s a three-mile unpaved road to get to Bodie, so it’s best to leave your new Corvette at home. High-elevation weather can block access in the winter, but if you can get there your visit will provide a historical perspective hard to find in the shiny, speedy sphere of the here and now. Bring $7 for park admittance for yourself and $5 for children ages 6 to 16; pack snacks and water, and warn any faint-hearted companions that there’s a reason it’s called a ghost town.

Whether you’re wearing your life’s possessions on your back or storing two of everything in the neatly lined cupboards of your RV, there are a few musts for all visitors to Yosemite’s high country. If you intend to bypass the valley and arrive via the Tioga Pass entrance, you can fly into the Mammoth Yosemite Airport (weather permitting) or the Reno-Tahoe Airport, three- and four-hour drives from the park. Research opening and closing dates in advance, because unlike the ever-available valley, the high country is subject to snow. If you don’t want to travel with your own roof, book a stay in one of the canvas tents at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge or in a cabin at White Wolf Lodge. Committed hikers can head for the six remote High Sierra Camps, with their tent cabins and dormitory-style beds. Those carrying (or driving) their accommodations prefer the sites at Tuolumne Meadows Campground. Summer trips should include your choice of mosquito repellant: all the DEET products you can pack, or alternatives like Picaridin or lemon eucalyptus. Wear loose, light-colored long sleeves and pants, and if you really can’t stand the suckers, bring a mosquito net enclosure for your picnic table. Visiting when water is abundant makes for spectacular waterfalls, but the price is a particularly happy population of mosquitoes; preparation will make it a nonissue for you, or at least an expected issue. Warm-weather visitors shouldn’t discount the altitude and its nighttime temps, especially when tent camping. Plan for warm sleeping layers and a toasty, polypro sleeping bag. Because the high country is so much closer to Yosemite’s mountains, you’ll be glad you packed your binoculars and zoom lens; they’ll close the last little bit of distance and afford some choice wildlife watching that those with mere eyeballs won’t be able to claim. The Tuolumne Meadows store accepts credit and debit payments, but only with the relic of a sliding carbon copy machine. Having cash on hand will save everyone time and buy you some good karma. Pack a journal or a voice recorder to keep track of what you did and saw and how you felt about it, because after just a week back at home, you’ll start to think your memory is exaggerating. Artists should bring the tools of their medium, readers and history buffs should tote John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra, and everyone should prepare an appropriate playlist for when they drive through Tioga Pass to greet or bid farewell to the worthy icon known as Yosemite National Park.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS

Whether you’re wearing your life’s possessions on your back or storing two of everything in the neatly lined cupboards of your RV, there are a few musts for all visitors to Yosemite’s high country. If you intend to bypass the valley and arrive via the Tioga Pass entrance, you can fly into the Mammoth Yosemite Airport (weather permitting) or the Reno-Tahoe Airport, three- and four-hour drives from the park. Research opening and closing dates in advance, because unlike the ever-available valley, the high country is subject to snow. If you don’t want to travel with your own roof, book a stay in one of the canvas tents at the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge or in a cabin at White Wolf Lodge. Committed hikers can head for the six remote High Sierra Camps, with their tent cabins and dormitory-style beds. Those carrying (or driving) their accommodations prefer the sites at Tuolumne Meadows Campground. Summer trips should include your choice of mosquito repellant: all the DEET products you can pack, or alternatives like Picaridin or lemon eucalyptus. Wear loose, light-colored long sleeves and pants, and if you really can’t stand the suckers, bring a mosquito net enclosure for your picnic table. Visiting when water is abundant makes for spectacular waterfalls, but the price is a particularly happy population of mosquitoes; preparation will make it a nonissue for you, or at least an expected issue. Warm-weather visitors shouldn’t discount the altitude and its nighttime temps, especially when tent camping. Plan for warm sleeping layers and a toasty, polypro sleeping bag. Because the high country is so much closer to Yosemite’s mountains, you’ll be glad you packed your binoculars and zoom lens; they’ll close the last little bit of distance and afford some choice wildlife watching that those with mere eyeballs won’t be able to claim. The Tuolumne Meadows store accepts credit and debit payments, but only with the relic of a sliding carbon copy machine. Having cash on hand will save everyone time and buy you some good karma. Pack a journal or a voice recorder to keep track of what you did and saw and how you felt about it, because after just a week back at home, you’ll start to think your memory is exaggerating. Artists should bring the tools of their medium, readers and history buffs should tote John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra, and everyone should prepare an appropriate playlist for when they drive through Tioga Pass to greet or bid farewell to the worthy icon known as Yosemite National Park.

Kallie Markle is a freelance writer based out of Redding, California. She likes writing about nature because it’s simultaneously easy and impossible.

This article appears in the Spring 2012 issue.

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WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Shivam

August 15, 2013

it very very useful and good for lecture

OlTrailDog

April 4, 2012

"we wondered what heaven has to offer that Tuolumne doesn’t already have in spades" Immortality and "a place prepared for you", i.e. me! Nonetheless, an enjoyable article.

Pat

March 28, 2012

Went to Yosemite last Sept. LOVE the high country with those pristine lakes!! Can't wait to go back and drink in more of that beautiful place.

Christine

March 24, 2012

just read the article in the actual magazine. Going to Yo this summer and appreciate the info.

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