Sierra Mountain Area

We were on the way from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park. To get there, we took a break from the long drive from San Francisco with a few stops along the way to some beautiful mountain towns,

Murphys California

Murphys California is a pretty, historic, gold mining town. Many of its business district buildings date from the 1850s and 60s.

Murphys hotelMurphys CaliforniaMurphys General store

The town seems to have more wine tasting rooms than residents, which is right up our alley. While a number of wineries source grapes from neighboring Amador County, we wanted to explore grapes from local wines—primarily Italian, Spanish and Rhone varietals (rather than Zinfandel for which Amador is best known).

For this, we choose three wineries:

  • Lavender Ridge Vineyard, which focuses on Rhone varietals, was our favorite. We particularly enjoyed its 2016 Roussanne white and two reds: 2016 Syrah and 2017 Cotes du Calaveras, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre and Petite Syrah;
  • Brooks Wine, which, as we discovered, uses Lavender Ridge’s winemaker. It offers a couple of Rhones (Roussanne and Petite Syrah), but works primarily with Bordeaux varietals (Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernets). Although we did enjoy the 2009 Cabernet, its 2015 Petite Syrah and 2016 Samantha blend (two-thirds cabernet, one-third syrah) are particularly noteworthy; and
  • Mineral Wines, which offers zinfandels and a number of Mediterranean and French varietals, including a credible 2015 Tempranillo and 2016 Syrah.

We ate lunch at  V Restaurant, where we split a nice Caesar salad and Angus cheddar cheese burger.

Mariposa California

No surprise that Mariposa is another 1850s-era mining town. Although its one-block historic district was erased by an 1866 fire, the current block is now lined with buildings dating from 1867 to the early 20th century. The oldest building, located a couple blocks away, is the two-story courthouse—complete with bell tower—built in 1854.

Maripos CourthouseMariposa stores

Our visit was brief—just enough time for a walk around the town, a lovely dinner and a comfortable night’s sleep.

  • Savoury’s Restaurant. We followed our server’s recommendation and were duly rewarded with seared, roasted, maple Leaf duck breast with raspberry onion marmalade and crab cake with cilantro-lime aioli. Both included salad, broccoli and mashed potatoes or rice pilaf. With the food, we enjoyed a 2016 Belle Glos Las Alturas Pinot Noir.
  • Mariposa Fifth Street Inn. The Inn is a nice respite in Mariposa. Room was very comfortable. The air conditioning and wifi were both strong. The location is right in the middle of the very small town.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park is our favorite national park—in fact we have it in our wills. We love going there and love hiking in the High Sierra Camps where you hike from camp to camp. Beds and food await you so you only have to carry your clothes and toiletries. Alas, the camps are so popular that you have to win a lottery for a bed. As we haven’t won the lottery in years, we decided to go anyways as you can always find some beautiful spots. We took several hikes, some of which we climbed on previous visits.

  • Upper Yosemite Falls. This was our warm up hike up a steep and very dusty trail. It is a roughly three-mile round-trip journey that, by the time you add in the ups and downs, probably climbed about 1,400 feet in elevation gain. While we had to work for our rewards, the panoramic view from Columbia Rock was beautiful and the falls, in full run-off from the year’s heavy rains and snows were awesome. The end point of our hike made for a lovely, not to speak of refreshing (from the falls’ mist) lunch spot. The steep, difficult return trip, however, was a drag that required constant attention as you avoided tripping on rocks and roots.

2019-06-25 14.21.43Upper Yosemite Falls

  • Lower Yosemite Falls. We walked from the base of the upper falls trailhead. Another lovely (not to speak of refreshing, from its spray) show, especially when viewed from an angle that highlighted the 1,430-foot Upper Falls above the 995-foot lower falls.

Lower Yosemite Falls

  • Vernal Falls. This roughly 5-mile, largely paved round trip goes from the base of a 200-step overlook of the 317-foot falls. The trail follows the swollen, rushing Merced river along a steep, 1,200-foot elevation gain trail which provided views of several cataracts and other falls along the way.

Vernal Falls (3)Vernal Falls (4)

  • Bridalveil Falls. The falls take a 620-foot plunge into the valley. It is accessible from a short, one-mile round trip trail that ends at a vista point that is continually chilled by the huge volumes of mist that arises from the lovely river.

Bridalveil Falls

We ended our brief visit to the overly-packed (with people, cars, RVs etc.) valley, with a long and painful navigation of the traffic, interminable waits for parking spaces and perennial waits for buses (waiting for two or three buses before they were able to fit us on). These delays continued on our last, lazy-man’s panoramic adventure with a drive to the summit of Glacier Peak—what was the first Yosemite trail that we had ever taken. While we were reluctant to, and felt somewhat guilty of driving rather than hiking, the 90 degree-heat, combined with the dust we encountered on the nearby Yosemite Falls trail diminished our enthusiasm for the eight mile round trip, 2,700-foot elevation trail on this trip. So we drove to the top.

The views from Glacier Point, however, aren’t to be missed and deserve a big WOW. We were rewarded by magnificent views of the valley and many of its most iconic sites including Half Dome, Yosemite, Vernal and Nevada Falls, North and Basket Domes and the Royal Arches. We looked in awe especially at Half Dome, which we embarked on 15 hour strenuous hike many moons ago when we were in our 40s and could still do those kinds of things.  A Geology Hut traces the geologic history of the valley (see below discussion on Yosemite Valley Visitor’s Center). While Glacier Point is 2,700 feet above the valley floor, it was covered by the glacier, to a depth of more than 700 feet!

Half DomeTom and Joyce at the top of Half DomeYosemite Valley from Glacier PointJoyce and Tom at Glacier Point (2)

OK, so Glacier Point does not provide a view of the massive, pure-vertical, 3,000-foot tall Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the world and the world’s premier rock-climbing destination. But it is still an amazing view and needs to be on everyone’s list of things to do in Yosemite.

Other valley stops included brief forays through the:

  • Ansel Adams Galleries, where we always enjoy a chance to see dozens of the nature master’s originals, plus others from a handful of other nature photographers;

Ansel Adams

  • Yosemite Valley Visitor’s Center, where we enjoyed an update on the history, geology and biology of the park. Although we had learned much of it before, we welcomed a refresher on how the valley was created and its emergence as a resort area. It highlighted the dinosaur-age volcanos that created the granite of which the park consists, tectonic movement and the erosion of overlaying rock that exposed the more durable granite, and the role of glaciers (from 2 million to 20,000 years ago) in shaping the iconic landscape and forming a shallow lake that was gradually covered from wash-off to create the valley floor. It explained how the gradual warming of the environment brought plants and animals to the region and the different plants and animals that thrive in each ecosystem (such as black bears and bobcats at 3,000-6,000 feet of elevation, deer and mountain lions at 6,000-8,000 feet, marmots and squirrels at 8,000-9,500 and pica and eagles at higher elevations). It reviewed the impacts of climate change on each and provided a timeline of the area’s human occupation, from its 4,000-year habituation by Miwok Indians and the arrival of “civilization”, from the brutality the Miwok suffered at the hands of gold miners and the Army, though the emergence of an elite resort community, the role of artists in popularizing the area, Lincoln’s initial protection of the land and of more recent conservators.
  • Yosemite museum tells the history of the Miwoks and has a reconstructed Miwok village. It explained the role of various plants in Indian diets and society and portrayed and briefly explained the roles of a range of traditional buildings, from basic Indian and more elaborate chief homes, the humble acorn granary, the “sweat house” in which hunters endured sauna-like treatments to remove their scents before hunts to the large roundhouses that were used for religious and ceremonial purposes.

Miwok Village Bark HouseMiwok Village chief houseMiwok Village Round House

Dinner, as for all our visits to Yosemite, was at the Grand Dining Room of the Ahwanhee Hotel (for several years this was renamed The Majestic during a lawsuit over some copyright issues with a former franchisee). And what a beautiful place to eat.

Ahwanhee dining room

While the hotel is as lovely, and the dining room as grand as ever, the dinner did not get off to a good start. Although the sommelier did all he could help, he could not immediately address the woefully unrepresentative selection of pinot noir wines—all but three of the roughly 30 pinot noirs were from Russian River, which unfortunately do not fit our palette. We ended up with an acceptable, but basic bottle of 2015 Morgan Flor du Campo Chardonnay (the least oaked, lowest malolactic on the list) which went with Joyce’s dish, but not Tom’s. Joyce faced another disappointment with her entrée. The Norwegian salmon which she preferred, could be cooked only well-cooked in the park—far from the medium-rare she prefers. She ended up with Dungeness crabcakes with chipotle aioli that did not match those from Mariposa’s Savoury’s restaurant. In contrast, Tom’s roasted rack of lamb provincial (rare, as ordered—after initial medium-well version was returned) with lamb reduction was quite good, not to speak of large (with eight large ribs).

Given that we made reservations a mere four months in advance, many places to sleep were sold out—so too were the tented cabins with private baths at Curry Village (temporarily called Half Dome Village). Our only option was a shared bath tent. When we arrived, our reserved 2 bunk tent was changed to a narrow double bed that was barely big enough for one person. As we strongly rejected this option, we were then given the 2 bunk bed tent that we reserved. Thank goodness for checking in early!. Well, this type of “camping” does not suit us. The 2 bunks had uncomfortable coils that stuck into our backs at night and the mattress had a plastic coating (not breathable) on which you sweated throughout the night. But even harder for us was the bathroom was a 3 minute walk away. As we get up several times a night, this was not an ideal situation. While it will not stop us from enjoying Yosemite, next time we plan further in advance than 4 months.

Mariposa Grove and Wawona in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite is hugh. An hour and a half drive from the valley, you are still in the southern-most part of the park. That is where you can find the Mariposa Grove and Wawona.

Mariposa Grove

Mariposa Grove has the largest existing and the only native grove of sequoias—the largest living organism ever to live on earth. These trees can live up to 3,000 years and weigh up to 640 tons! They may reach heights of 300 feet with a circumference of more than 100 feet. While they once thrived on all continents (including Antarctica), native populations now survive only in a 250×9 mile strip in the western Sierra Nevada mountains. Gailan Clark played a large role in promoting, and promoting the protection of the grove and his official role of its Chief Protector in the area.

The trees longevity is due to a combination of its thick–up to two feet–layer of insulating bark (which protects it from fire), its high levels of tannin (which repel insects), its widely extended root structure (which provided a secure base) and its large numbers of seeds (which facilitate reproduction).

Mariposa Grove - Sequia spread base

While its many seeds facilitate species preservation (a specie of spruce, closely related to coastal redwoods), the odds of each seed’s survival is minimal. Squirrels release most of the seeds as they eat the cones (but not the bitter seeds). But few of these new seeds grow into trees. Ironically, fire releases seeds that have the best chance of survival. Why? The  fire eliminates ground cover (which allows the seed to root in fertile soil) and much of the canopy (which exposes it to sunlight).

Fires may burn large gashes in the sequoia’ trunks, yet the insulating bark usually provides enough protection to allow the tree to survive and continue to grow. This growth, which continues through the giant’s entire life, occurs in different phases. While it initially grows in height, once it approaches its maximum, it grows primarily in circumference and in the breadth (although not necessarily depth) of its root structure. And with the tree consuming hundreds of gallons of water (primarily from gradually released snow melt) per day, growth can be rapid—the equivalent of about one 200-foot tall, seven-foot circumference tree per year.

Tree death may come from a particularly long, hot fire, soil erosion or most likely, a strong windstorm or a large volume of heavy snow accumulating in its branches that topples the tree.

We walked along some magnificent trees in the relatively flat, lower grove and continued on a several mile hike though the much more varied upper grove, which had a larger concentration of magnificent sequoias. Pictures cannot even begin to give one the scale and beauty of these giants, but some of those that we most liked were:

  • A few fallen giants, including the Fallen Monarch, the Massachusetts Tree and the several-hundred foot Fallen Tunnel Tree, whose tunnel made it the most photographed tree in Yosemite and which also contributed to its toppling;

Mariposa Grove - Fallen Tunnel Tree

  • Wawona Tree, a currently standing tunnel tree that was cut from a large burn scar, has a gap that used to accommodate cars and horse-drawn carriages;

Mariposa Grove - Tunnel Tree

  • The roughly 2,800 year-old Grizzly Giant, the oldest in the grove and the 25th largest tree in the world, at 210 feet in height and a circumference of 92 feet. Its largest branch, which has a diameter of more than six feet, is larger than any non-sequoia in Yosemite;

Mariposa Grove - Grizzley Giant

  • The Washington Tree, which at more than 36,000 cubic feet, is the largest in the grove and the Columbia Tree, whose 285-foot height makes it the tallest;

Mariposa Grove - Columbia Tree

  • Faithful Couple is one of several fused-root trees whose single base divides into two, separate crowns;
  • The Clothespin Tree continues to stand despite a giant hole that was burned through its base. The Telescope Tree, meanwhile, has had virtually its entire interior consumed by fire, but continues to thrive despite being totally hollow.

Mariposa Grove - Clothespin Tree

  • Bachelor and Three Graces, a cluster of four close trees that share a common, huge root system.

All of the grove’s more than 100 sequoias, whether named or not, are unique. Many developed very different shape bases and different patterns in their bark and heartwood. Some mature trees, meanwhile, developed irregular snags at their peaks and one has a 128-foot Ponderosa pine growing from its crown. All are very interesting.

Mariposa - scarred tree w Joyce

Wawona

Yep, we are still in Yosemite National Park. This time in Wawona. The town began as an Indian settlement before emerging as an important regional stagecoach stop in the mid- to- late-19th century. Its open meadows, river, nearby sequoia grove and ready transportation led to its becoming a major resort area with hotels including Big Pines Lodge and the Wawona. While it is still a popular resort, it also serves as a base for understanding the initial development of Yosemite as a tourist destination.

The Wawona Visitor Center is located in the former studio and gallery of Thomas Hill, a 19th-century landscape painter who was instrumental in popularizing Wawona as a tourist destination. The displays trace the history of the English-born, Hudson Valley School painter who moved to San Francisco to paint its famed natural landscapes. The manager of the Wawona Hotel, who married Hill’s daughter, built the studio to entice the painter to focus on park scenes. His, and other artists’ plein air works became very popular and, along with writers (such as John Muir) and photographers (especially Ansel Adams) helped spur both tourism and the conservation movements.

Pioneer Yosemite History Center is the focal point for exploring the history of Yosemite from the days that visitors arrived by stagecoach. The center consists of a number of period structures from the area ranging from outhouses and stone jails, to mountaineer and homesteader log cabins, to the park’s first cavalry office (for troops who protected the park) and Wells Fargo stage office, which provided not only stagecoach tickets, but also access to telephone and telegraph services. It even has a covered bridge.

Wawona jailWawona - History Center covered bridgeWawona - History Center cin

Although most of the buildings are virtually empty and closed (at least when we were there), each provides very good interpretive descriptions of the context of each of the buildings, explaining, for example, the role of homesteading and the history of transportation in the area, from horses, through the 1870’s construction of roads and the first use of stagecoaches, the 1907 introduction of train service and the arrival of the first automobiles in 1914.

One barn has an interesting display of all types of period horse-drawn wagons, from basic buckboards and farm wagons, to family wagons and stagecoaches and even a chuck wagon. Visitors can also rent horses or take a short, 10-minute stagecoach ride through the village.

Wawona Area Hotel and Meals

We stayed at the Narrow Gauge Inn right outside of the south entrance of Yosemite at Fish Camp. It is based in a set of historic buildings that served as the base for a century-old (1908-24) lumber company that ran a narrow-gauge railroad to carry lumber. The complex consists of a pleasant hotel, one of the area’s better restaurants, a 10,000-gallon water tank, fire department and reconstructed sightseeing narrow–gauge railway, complete with depot and maintenance building.

Narrow Guage Train

The location was what made this place. It was clean and the room was OK with a coffee maker and a night light in the bathroom. Our issues were with the room’s curtains which were mostly for privacy as they only covered the bottom part of the windows. The light through the top of the windows came into the room early morning. Another  issue happened around 3 AM when some motor outside of our room kept cycling going on and off interrupting our sleep. If we are ever in the area again, we will request a quieter room.

We had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant where we shared two dishes: seared Alaskan halibut with Yukon Gold mashed potato puree, red peppers, roasted bacon and lemon aioli, and grilled New Zealand venison loin with marbled potatoes, leaks and venison au jus. Both were acceptable, although less than satisfying. So too was the wine, a 2016 Calaveras County, Twisted Oak Rhone Blend (MSG).

We had lunch at Big Pines Lodge, a lovely 1879 Victorian resort. We had trout almandine with brown butter (slightly overcooked for our tastes), quinoa pilaf and vegetables and a good burger with Swiss cheese, bacon, mushrooms and fixings.

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