We were all excited today as we loaded the car and headed away from Mammoth Lakes, towards Yosemite. We knew it wouldn’t take us long – the Park entrance was only 30 miles from the motel, and it was dual carriageway all the way. But getting to the park gate was the easy bit! It turned out to be a long, long drive from the entrance to the Curry Village Lodge (where we were staying). We entered through the high Tioga pass (3,000m) to Tuolumne meadows. This was different landscape to anything we’d already seen in the States – grassy meadows, bordered by forests, with huge smooth granite outcrops popping up everywhere – and huge means anything from lorry size to mountain size.
We stopped for a picnic beside a beautiful lake, and encountered another of the features of American National Parks that we’ve seen a lot – road works. It seems that every national park chooses the summer to do their major road works programme. Charlotte and Emily are getting very familiar with the different types of lorries, diggers and earthmovers in use over here. And they even get to say “Hello” and “Thank you” to every ‘stop/go’ man/woman on the road (amazingly, they don’t use any traffic lights for road works, no matter how long the closure, but instead have humans turning Stop/Go boards. (Mind you, after their experiences with electricity over the last few years and weeks, perhaps its not such a bad thing after all!).
On the route down through the forest, we came across a forest fire. At first we were a bit concerned it could alter our plans, but we found out that it was under control – in fact, it was a ‘managed fire’. This means that the park authority allows it to burn itself out, perhaps covering a few hundred acres as it goes, because it helps to prevent larger, unstoppable fires. As long as the fire is limited to ground level burning, and not leaping hundreds of feet into the air to burn the tops of trees, its actually a good thing – it helps regenerate the forest floor covering, and many of the trees have a fire-resistant bark layer which actually needs to be burnt every few years. So small fires are watched rather than extinguished. Some are even started deliberately by the foresters, to burn up some of the deadwood and other material that could be potentially dangerous if left for a later fire to consume. (However sensible this sounds, it sometimes goes wrong – the big fire this year in Jasper, in Canada, was a fire started by the parks authority which went out of control, and ended up covering thousands of acres, closing roads, threatening towns and ruining the tourist trade at peak season.)
Anyway, after two hours of driving through meadows, forests and lots of twisty windy roads, we emerged from a mile-long tunnel to see this view. It was certainly another “wow” moment (and yes, for those who’ve been sending me emails over-using that word, I really, really do mean “wow”).
We drove the further half hour deep into the valley – all feeling refreshed by the view, and by knowing we were nearly there at last. We also felt that it was so much easier to breathe – at 3,000m I had definitely noticed that I got out of breath quicker doing physical things, and because we’d been at 2,000m-plus for 2 weeks, it was starting to get frustrating (I know I’m not fit, but I don’t want reminding every 10 minutes). The floor of the valley is at 1,200m, so the air is much thicker there (and much warmer than up in the meadows).
We arrived at Camp Curry around 4pm, and checked in. We’d booked a four bed tent for three nights. By booking in advance on the Internet, about two weeks ago, we’d saved half of the cost – reducing it from $76 a night to $38. This might seem a lot for a tent, but it isn’t an ordinary tent. They are laid out in the forest, under tree cover, and have a solid wooden frame – in fact they’re more like cabins except that the sides are fabric. But they have wooden floors, real beds (although the plasticised mattress was a bit basic) and a single bedside cabinet. We even had sheets and blankets (so we’ve still not had to use our sleeping bags in 7 weeks). The toilets were in a toilet block 50m away, and the showers 100m away in another block. Let’s hope that nobody needs to go in the night!