Camping 101 // Art. Mountains
First time at Yosemite Valley? Book ahead they say... Make sure you're wearing appropriate footwear on 8-hour hikes they say... Stay hydrated in higher elevations they say - so we pack some extra beer and a bit of Jameson just in case those Dr. Martins with floral designs don't work out so well. And off we go - to where the trails lead up, there where waterfalls drop into the valley that gave birth to the modern day rock climbing.
So where do you start if you are heading to Yosemite for the first time?
Yosemite Park official website is great for road and weather reports and webcams. It has a descriptive map, however, I found it close to impossible to learn where the park even starts from it. There are a lot of campgrounds that are in fact outside of the park. Also, booking gets tricky as each campground has it's own website and differs by car/van allowance or tent only/ horse camp only rules. Availability also differs within the site/campground pages and the reality. However, booking online has still proven to be the most efficient. Just requires a bit of research and patience.
There are three roads going through Yosemite. The one that leads to the Valley from the North East, the one that goes South and the one that goes East (which is closed in winter and through the spring until the snow melts). We were there at the end of April. There was still snow at the Glacier Point (dah).
I used the REI app to look for hikes (seemed to work better than the Alltrails that I usually use for hikes in Arizona).
Since I booked the camp spots less than a week prior to our trip - I had to come up with a cover story for my friend persuading that the fact that we would need to change the sites every night was due to my attempt to explore the park more.
Since we had to rent a car - my other friend recommended using camper vans that she had experience with on her trip to New Zeeland. After some research that is what I found out: the most popular brand seemed to be Juicy. But they are bright green and have huge fees for dogs. So I booked with the company named Lost Campers. Super accommodating, no crazy advertising on the actual van and very flexible on any alterations to the booking. Also very budget friendly. We got the Dodge Caravan with an extra roof tent (I was hoping to bring my dog but after I realized that dogs aren't allowed on trails at the park I thought it wasn't feasible and left her back home).
The total rental costs for 5 days was $445.45 (that includes tax and free 100 ml of travels). If we did end up bringing a dog that would add $55. This car (considering the tent) could comfortably fit 4 people. The only downside was that we had to pick it up from their office that was located in a bit of a sketchy neighborhood (to say the least). Close to the LAX airport - on the brighter side.
Make a list before going to the store! The main takeaway from those endless pointless loops around the isles that we experienced on this mission. (Unless you count daily steps - then it was a workout)
We started off at Santa Monica. We spent probably two hours at a grocery store trying to plan for almost a week of camping. There is actually a food store and a few restaurants at the park (mostly centered at the Valley) but we assumed the efficiency and the budget benefits to doing the shopping prior to arrival. Make a list before going to the store! The main takeaway from those endless pointless loops around the isles that we experienced on this mission. (Unless you count daily steps - then it was a workout)
Car charger - a huge bonus (which we didn't have). We bought the $5 one at that store and all it did - was to barely support the battery from losing its charge. On the brighter side - it helped to fully embrace nature and only use a phone to take the carefully curated photos from time to time. The only place to charge your cell in the Park was down at the Valley at a local outdoor bar (which gave us something to do while waiting for the phones to come back to life).
Due to the late night shopping for the trip, we had to spend the first camp night in Malibu overlooking Zuma Beach. We parked there, where there were at least 5 signs that said no overnight parking. From the previous experience, adviced by the local rangers, I learned that in case police stops to ask why are you still parked - the response should be as follows: "I was driving for a prolonged time and don't feel safe to keep going as I found myself getting tired. I had to stop to take a nap until I can cautiously enough drive again."
From the previous experience, adviced by the local rangers, I learned that in case police stops to ask why are you still parked - the response should be as follows: "I was driving for a prolonged time and don't feel safe to keep going as I found myself getting tired. I had to stop to take a nap until I can cautiously enough drive again."
That was not the case with us. Only the sound of the ocean interfered with the night's silence.
We woke up the next day, made coffee. As I was exercising my first-time camp stove set up pride - the whole box of dishes, nicely provided by Lost Campers dropped out of the back of the car. Dishes were ceramic, I learned. Note: not a good choice for camping but looks nice (I can only assume as I didn't get the chance to experience that part of "glamping").
There was some movie being shot outside. Somebody asked if we were a part of the crew.
The first night was at Bass Lake (outside of the park). The campground was almost booked out at the time I was picking the site. It overlooked a huge lake. It started to rain as we arrived. We found our spot quickly. What we didn't find was anybody else camping there, or the camp host. So we settled down and went on a walk. Rain or shine the scenery was gorgeous. We spotted a trailer. There was nobody there but then we heard somebody cutting the wood in the back. The lady said she was a host substitute and that the campground was currently empty. "Your site is by the local bear's favorite dumpster so make sure you don't sneak up on her when going to the bathroom. Take a flashlight and make yourselves apparent." - she added. "Well, can we change the site since nobody else is here?". "No."
So we learned to carry a flashlight was a must. And of course, there were no bear lockers. "But the bear is local and very friendly" - she said.
Next day we entered the park. The campground was just North of the South entrance. It was called Wawona. The spots are pretty tight. But there is a nice river going through the campground and a small town just a few minutes drives or like 20 minutes walk down from it. The first trailhead that we decided to approach was located by the parking lot at the end of the North Wawona town. It was called Chilnuana Falls Trail which later turned into Chilnuana Creek Trail.
It took us roughly 8 hours to go out and back but that included the walk to and from the campground (that would be a lot smarter to avoid as we practically walked on the road and that didn't help at night when we were heading back). It also included my sketching and a bit of the off-roading at the top of the waterfall.
Dish of the day at our specialty Wawona camper van: Chicken of the Sea.
Next day we went to the valley. As cheesy as that view became it was still astonishing to enter going through the tunnel. It was magical - you drive through the darkness to enter this surreal new world. It felt like a different dimension. Reminded me of that Dino cartoon I loved growing up "The Land Before Time" when they get to the safe valley. We charged the phones and decided to try this other trail, committed to not staying up on the mountain until late again. It was called Upper Yosemite Falls.
Finding the trailhead was a bit tricky. Signs are all leading different directions. They took us with the rest of the massive crowd to the lower falls first. However amazing that was we had to return to Camp 4 to get to the actual trailhead. It starts deeper into the woods just outside of the camp. We saw a bunch of climbers attacking the rocks all over the place. The trail was steep and we were taking layers on and off all the time as it would get very hot from going uphill but then the temps would drop drastically when going by the falls. It was also way more crowded than the Wawona. But the views were so worth it! Truly amazing. It overlooks the whole valley, Glacier Point, Half Dome - everything. Naturally, it got dark by the time we hit the road towards the next campground located by the North entrance to the park.
It was called Hodgdon Meadow Campground. It is a great spot to stay if you enter the park via the North entrance. However, when staying the valley driving to Hodgdon gets a bit much. We got there pretty late so there were no rangers on the ground. The campground had both ‘tents only’ and ‘van appropriate’ sites. There were also ‘group tent’ spots. Finding your site was a bit like treasure hunting. It took a while as there is no particular system appropriated. But the atmosphere was great. This camp was a bit more casual and low key. There were campfires and music everywhere. The spots were also a bit more spacious than that at Wawona. We made some more of the Chicken of the Sea and soon crashed exhausted from the long day.
There are no epic trails around Hodgdon Meadow. But nevertheless, this part of the park is gorgeous. It has a more natural peaceful look. If you go down the lower level road and through the group campsites - there is a trail that leads through the forest out into the meadows. It is very secluded and gives you an option to just embrace nature's greatness as is without having to commit to 9 hours of climbing up the hill.
It was supposed to be our last day in the park before we start back towards Santa Monica and maybe look to spend another night somewhere on the beach. We also had to stop to buy the set of dishes that I so skillfully crashed the first day.
That day we drove up to Glacier Point (although it was big-time cheating considering there was a trail that led to the same spot that we could've hiked from the Valley). There was still a lot of snow left. We could see the endless spines of the Yosemite mountains and realize how little we actually managed to explore in this short time. It seemed that a year would not be a sufficient time frame to see it all though. We spent some time at the top, I did some more sketching.
On the way down we decided that coastal California can wait and we had to stay one more night. We rushed back to Wawona and after the pointless bureaucratic loops between the campground host and the local ranger stations, we were finally able to check in. This time we did it properly: we hang a hammock and made a fire. It was our last batch of Chicken of the Sea.
Next morning we woke up before dawn. (As probably all the rest of the campers did too after we started a car and turned on the headlights (not a good look, don't do it). We had six hours to buy the dishes and make it back to return the van in LA.
It took us a while to find the first gas station way past the Fish Camp South of the park. (So don't leave the park with an empty tank as we did) Then off we were. We stopped in the middle of nowhere to watch the sunrise and say a proper goodbye to our Yosemite ventures. Then there was a clustered repacking of all our stuff on the parking lot of this only diner in the small industrial town on our way and a burrito that we split. We stopped at Target where the flux of human crowd caused total anxiety after spending a week in the forest. At the checkout, the very passionate cashier lady wrapped each dish I purchased individually supporting that with a descriptive story of her life. Then we made it through the LA traffic and stopped half a mile prior to the Lost Campers office to empty the huge cooler (yap right on the street. Not a good look either).
We were sitting in the sun, with a lot of sporadic luggage and waiting for Uber to pick us up. When I said that I broke all their dishes but bought the new ones they were extremely happy. The whole checking out process was almost too smooth - no inspection, no nothing, just drop the car and go which was at that moment.
It one of the most spectacular trips we both had and just the beginning of the outdoor explorations! Next stop: San Francisco -> Redwoods. But there is a lot in between :)