Day 17: Yosemite National Park High to Yosemite National Park Low

September 19th, 2012

58 mi / time / mph avg. / 2500 ft. climbing
Staying at Lower Pines Campground

Last night I attended the Park Ranger Campfire Talk, because the amphitheater is right down the hill from the hiker camp, there’s a fire, and I still had a quarter of a beer and a bag of chips to put down. It was all about the history of climbing in Yosemite, and was really well done, even if the topic isn’t explicitly interesting to me. But one of the themes running through the talk was “why do we climb?” Even though they were talking about climbing with hands and feet rather than with a bicycle, a lot of the answers to that question were surprisingly applicable. I particularly liked the reason given by the junior ranger participating in the talk. She explained that she does it for the uncertainty. When climbing a challenging rock, she inevitably finds herself in a place where she’s uncertain how it will end. So it’s the journey to that uncertainty, and the satisfying return from it, that draws her to climbing. I don’t think that’s all of the reason for me, but it’s definitely some of it. It helps explain why I have generally designed each tour of mine to be more challenging than the last, which is a question that’s been percolating in my head as this trip has continued to push me to my limits.

But today was not about climbing, because it was another “easy” day. Starting at 8500 feet in the high country of Yosemite, I would bomb down into Yosemite Valley more than 4000 feet below. Only trouble is, they somehow still make you work in 2500 feet of ups and downs before you finally hit the real “down”. I had to fight the urge to do a hike up in the high country before heading down, but I knew I needed to keep the day truly easy, to allow my body to rest up. And I don’t know of anything that’s a threat to Yosemite in the next 20 years, so I can do that next time.

Since I knew it would be easy, and also cold in the morning, I took my time rolling out of the tent. Which meant that I was still inside when a couple rangers came by asking to see the tear-off flap from my self-registration. I’d never had that happen before, but I can imagine they get a fair number of people not honorable enough to play by the honor system here.

The best part of the ride through the high country was in the beginning, when each turn or rise in the road gave a view of a new granite peak slamming into view from nowhere. At Olmstead Point, I got my first view of the iconic Half Dome, rising high enough above the Valley to be visible some long before I dropped down into it. At one point I saw a deer leading her two small fawns through the forest beside me. A minute later, a car came up from behind, just as they decided to bound across the road. I didn’t know to make some sort of signal to the driver, or do nothing to make him notice the deer rather than me. I chose the latter, and luckily he was able to get on the brakes quick enough, avoiding disaster. But only one fawn made it across with her mother; the other made a horribly pained cry as she was left behind, and kept bounding through the forest alongside me, afraid to cross in my presence. Finally she dropped behind and I assume safely rejoined her family.


Later on the route hooked further north of the Valley, and essentially became a nice forest ride for 20 miles, but nothing particularly dramatic. The road surface was pretty dodgy and had no shoulders, and there was a fair amount of traffic; athough it moved slowly and carefully, those two factors combined meant that most attention had to be on the road, even though I was taking it pretty easy. I noticed that the 2013 Ford Mustang convertible must be the Official Car of Yosemite. I saw at least 20 of them before I started counting, and by the time I got to 40 realized there must be some explanation for it, but unfortunately I never ran into one of the drivers to ask. All I know is, better it’s that than the 1996 5th-wheel-towing F-350 diesel!

Finally I hit the real downhill, which I knew was the real one because it suddenly got hot, I went through the a tunnel, and then whoa, there is Yosemite Valley. I knew the cliffs would be huge, but they were even more massive than I expected. Even a FedEx truck that had passed me earlier was distracted from his mission and stopped at a viewpoint.

Once down in the bottom of the Valley, it’s a surprisingly long way to get to the end, much of it under a canopy of trees, where the mountains loom above you in secret. But then you hit the clearings, and there is El Capitan, and the is Half Dome, even more dominant from this vantage point. Rolling into my reserved campground at a nice early 3pm (which I was pretty proud to reach today considering I booked it 3 months ago and have been through 17 consecutive days of uncertainty-turned-to-certainty since then), I had a nice long chat with the woman working the entrance booth, who is an aspiring bike tourist. She mentioned that the crowds are suddenly down due to the Hantavirus scare, which I expected, but still, people are dumb. Oh well, more space for me!


I set up camp for a couple nights, then cruised over to check out Curry Village. They have essentially a mini-REI there, and yay, the first place in 200 miles with CR2032 batteries for my cyclometer! It essentially stopped working today so my stats are estimates; hopefully the new batteries do the trick. A shower there would have been nice, but not for $5! I got a late lunch at the cafe, and then rode around the east end of the Valley, both on the roads and the bike paths. I did a short hike to the currently-dry Mirror Lake, at the base of Half Dome. A woman told me they had just seen a bear there, but no luck for me.

I checked out the Ahwanee Hotel, where an older couple, impeccably dressed, stared grimly out of an enormous picture window while seated for their high-class dinner. Yeah, not the place for me. Instead, I stocked up on a boatload of groceries and brought them back to camp. I think tomorrow will largely be about refilling calories. Tonight, only 2 hours after my chicken panini and sweet potato fries, I put down another giant plate of pasta with the rest of that sauce, most of a big bag of chips, a quarter pound of baby carrots, and another bomber of that still wonderful Mammoth Lakes 395 Double IPA. I looked closer at the label today and saw that it’s brewed above 8000 feet with juniper berries and sage, and wild hops (when available), which goes a good way to explaining its awesomeness.

If there weren’t a couple trees in the way, I would have a perfect view of Half Dome from my picnic table. Instead, as it got dark, I walked 50 feet down and sat on a log in the middle of the Merced River, watching the last of the light fade on its ashen face.

Oh, and while there, I finished my beer and half a bag of mini donuts. While writing this entry I grabbed a bagel to munch on as I typed and thought, but suddenly I had finished the entire bagel before even picking up my tablet again. So I grabbed another one, and finished that about four paragraphs ago. I’ll see if I can save the rest for tomorrow.

No dramatic scenery, but if you’ve seen Ken Burns National Parks, you might understand why this was one of the most moving sites of the whole trip for me.

6 Responses to “Day 17: Yosemite National Park High to Yosemite National Park Low”

  1. Jan Says:

    Amazing journey Neil….keep up the good work and good karma will follow.

  2. Dennis Says:

    Mmmm beer and mini donuts. A not so common combination! 🙂

    Way to go getting in the river to finish the day. I bet the cold water running across the feet felt magical!

    BTW: I am at Sonics HQ til the 28th. Flew right over the Sierra mountains. Did a virtual wave to you from my seat. 🙂 I actually took my bike along with me to commute and do a mini tour to santa Cruz this weekend. Will think of you when I do 6000 ft of climbing! 🙂

    Keep on motoring up those mountains!

  3. Dennis Says:

    Forgot to mention… I’ll finally get to use my bivy sack!

  4. Joel Says:

    I used to be proud of my little 20 mile/1000 ft commute. Now it is just barely 1/3 of a Neil Easy Day.

    Pics – we want pics!

  5. Swati Says:

    Rides with Deer. 😉
    Also, I cringed when you mentioned the fawn’s horrible cry, but whew!
    So proud of you!

  6. Joel Says:

    Ah pics. Quite nice, but I’m sure they don’t even come close to doing it justice.