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valley sunse

After the disappointment of the Bay Area, I was excited to get to Yosemite — one of my favorite places in the world. I went there often during my San Francisco days. But I hadn’t been in over 20 years. I couldn’t wait to bask in the magic of this natural wonder — and to share it with Mtuseni.

I love the drive from the Bay Area to Yosemite. On the southern route from San Jose, you cross the flat farmland of the Central Valley. After a couple hours, you notice a few rocks and some grassy bumps — then bigger rocks and small hills. You’re gradually, almost imperceptibly climbing into the foothills of the Sierras and then into the mountains.

Along the northern route from San Francisco, you also drive straight across the Central Valley. But then suddenly you come to a steep, narrow road of hairpin turns, where you quickly rise in elevation, like a twisty elevator. Bye-bye valley; we’re in the Sierras now! 


sno whites

I was so happy to see Sno-White’s is still around — so many memories of stopping in for a thick cheeseburger and classic crinkle-cut fries.


That’s my preferred route. Not only because it’s more fun and familiar — but because you get to stop at Sno-White’s… a classic car hop from 1952, with perfect cheeseburgers, thick shakes, and crinkle-cut fries. So. Damn. Good.

I discovered the place in the 1990s on a ski trip to Yosemite with a kooky friend who’d been there before. As we walked in for the first time, she inhaled deeply and happily announced, “Ahhh, smell the grease! It’s fresh grease!” I will laugh about that ’til the end of time.

Unfortunately, this time we were there too early; it wasn’t open. But in this era of nostalgic old places closing left and right, I was happy and relieved to see that Sno-White’s is still there.   

Driving across the Central Valley I could smell smoke; there were fires burning everywhere in California. I didn’t think too much of it… until we were descending into Yosemite Valley and I could see the haze. It wasn’t thick, but it was there. We pulled off the road for a quick photo by the Merced River. Out of the car for five minutes, I slipped off a rock and got one of my shoes soaked. I’ve never been an outdoorsman, but that was pretty ridiculous. Luckily I had multiple pairs of shoes!


merced river 1

Less than five minutes inside the park, I slipped off this rock and submerged my shoe. Nobody has ever mistaken me for an outdoorsman!


Following my itinerary for everyone I’ve taken to Yosemite, we first headed up to the famous tunnel view of the valley. And, sure enough, the smoke from a fire in the Sierra foothills obscured that iconic view. You could barely make out Half Dome. That introductory “Oh, wow!” factor was not to be.

mtu valley view

The Merced wildfire filled the park with smoke, spoiling the iconic tunnel view of the valley. Half Dome is in the center — lost in the haze.

We then headed down to Bridalveil Falls — which I knew in October would be a wisp, if anything. Still, Mtuseni was excited to see a waterfall. And just being out in the grandeur of Yosemite … you can’t not be swept up in the natural beauty. 


bridalveil duo

Bridalveil is always a wispy waterfall. We were lucky to see any water in October!

From there we stopped to gape at El Capitan. I’ll never forget seeing it loom up on us for the first time on a trip with an old boyfriend in 1991; we were awestruck. You can’t explain the sheer scale of that 3,000-foot tall granite monolith. You just have to stand in its presence. 

Then we parked and headed on the trail to Vernal Falls, completing the classic first day visit. It’s a paved trail with some steady elevation, not much. I’d buzzed up there so many times I didn’t think about it. So I was stunned to be huffing and puffing halfway up the trail. I even needed to stop and catch my breath a few times. I was disgusted with myself! How could I be so out of shape?

Then I remembered: On prior visits, I was living in San Francisco. I walked five miles … and many steep hills … every day; I didn’t own a car. And I was in my 30s — not rounding the corner to 60! Plus, I’d been going nonstop on the road trip and sitting and driving for more than five weeks. And the valley air was laced with smoke. Those are all perfectly rational, valid excuses — but I was still bummed out. It was the age thing that bothered me most of all.

Mtuseni zoomed past me and went straight up the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Falls and the Emerald Pool. I kicked back at the base of the falls — which was also pretty minimal compared to its roaring springtime state. I was just happy being there and remembering past visits with different people. Back in my youth. 


Vernal Falls in Yosemite.

Vernal Falls is like a mini Niagara in the spring. But Mtuseni wasn’t disappointed by the meager autumn falls. Everywhere you look in Yosemite there’s beauty.


View from the top of Vernal Falls in Yosemite.

The view from the top of Vernal Falls. I only made it up there once, when my boyfriend cajoled me into climbing the precarious Mist Trail. (It was terrifying, but worth it.)


After returning from the falls, we stopped in the valley meadow to gaze at Half Dome. Normally as the sun begins to set, the flat face of the granite monument glows with gorgeous color. But not when the valley is hazy with smoke. I was disappointed, but thankfully my spirit tree was still there: the lone California oak reverently keeping watch over Half Dome.

I’ve sat by that tree so often, in various states of mind, alone and with others. There’s something sacred about that tree; we have a relationship. Like Sno-White’s, I’m happy and grateful to see it’s still there. I was surprised that it’s gotten much bigger. (Duh, it’s been over 20 years!) But thankfully the tree’s distinctive shape hasn’t changed. It’s been waiting for me to stop by and say hello. We had a nice little talk.


Half Dome from the meadow in Yosemite Valley

My spirit oak tree in the meadow, keeping watch over Half Dome. The National Park Service may have a different opinion, but that tree is mine. Just sayin’.


Our hotel was outside the park, past the southern gate. I’d hoped to get a room at the historic Wawona Hotel, where I’ve stayed many times. It’s part of my Yosemite ritual: having coffee on the broad porch to start the day and dinner in the stately old dining room with the tall paned windows. Alas, it was all booked up.

I stopped by to see if we could have dinner. It was full, so I made a reservation for tomorrow. Just being in the lobby, steeped in classic old resort history, I was flooded with memories and happily choked up.

But on the way to the Wawona, we encountered something I’d never seen before in Yosemite. Or anywhere. The smoke from the wildfires west of the park — the source of all that damn haze — created the most stunning sunset. Cars were pulling off the road everywhere to marvel at this breathtaking event. 


Sunset from the Wawona Road in Yosemite.

The setting sun shone blood red through the wildfire smoke. This looks like a piece of collage artwork… but it’s real.


As I’ve always said, Yosemite never disappoints. We may have had a hazy view of Half Dome, but the gods traded us up for an epic sunset. And we still had two more days ahead!


sunset wawona road