Another shot of Yosemite National Park that’s not Half Dome! This is Tenaya Lake, near the summit of the high country in Yosemite just a few miles from the east entrance to the park at Tioga Pass. Even late in the year there’s snow visible at this altitude.
The lake is right beside the road, so no trouble finding it – but do turn off and walk in the woods too. Pack breakfast on your day excursion to Mono Lake, Bodie or Bishop and picnic here after you’ve spend the hour or so it takes to drive up from the valley floor. The Tioga Pass Resort just outside the entry station also does a great breakfast if you prefer not to picnic, and you’ll be surprised how good the deli inside the Chevron station at the foot of the hill just outside Lee Vining is – make sure you eat there at least once!
If you’re heading to Yosemite National Park this summer, don’t forget to visit the high country. There’s year-round tundra in Tuolomne Meadows, wonderful walks along the Tuolomne River, fewer visitors, more granite domes and the opportunity to skip across Tioga Pass to visit Mono Lake and maybe even Bodie ghost town.
After visiting Yosemite a few times, one gradually becomes aware that there’s more to see if you travel further afield. Just outside the eastern entrance to the park, a few miles to the north of Lee Vining up US-395, there’s a very well preserved gold rush ghost town called Bodie.
While it was already know as a ghost town before the first world war, it was still occupied until the last mine closed during the second world war and as ghost towns go, it’s pretty modern – there is even a well-preserved gas station. There are full streets of “wild west” wooden buildings in a good state of repair, and you can definitely imagine the spirit of the place when it was a bustling and rowdy mining town.
It’s definitely worth a visit if you venture out of Yosemite, as is Mono Lake (visit the Mono Lake Committee store) and, much further to the south, the small town of Bishop where you’ll find Mountain Light Gallery, the photography base of the late Galen Rowell.
One of the most amazing discoveries I can remember from my many visits to California is the over-winter Monarch butterfly colonies that dot the central Californian coast. These amazing creatures migrate thousands of miles to spend the winter huddling together for warmth in huge clusters. They – or their children – migrate to the same places every year. As a result, there are places that reliably have vast numbers of the butterflies clustered in the trees for months on end. As the weather warms, they return to active life and start to spread out onto the surrounding trees, as you see in this photo.
Every year I’ve been in the area at the right time I’ve gone to see them – my favourite spot is in Santa Cruz. If you want to know how to find them, send me an e-mail and I’ll try to help. They’ve naturally all flown now – they will be back in the late autumn.
The tranquil isolation of Mono Lake in California – just outside the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park at Lee Vining – makes it almost a place of pilgrimage for me. It’s a lake filled with mountain snow run-off from the Sierras, and it has no outlet. The mineral wash from the mountains and the volcanic springs that enter from the lake bed get concentrated through evaporation and as a consequence the water is highly alkaline. Almost nothing can live in it, except algae, a specific kind of brine shrimp and a kind of brine fly almost unique to the lake.
All of these thrive in unthinkable numbers, making the lake the perfect feeding stop for migrating birds. The consequence is this “dead” lake is one of the most important wetlands in North America, providing a “service station” for countless birds each year as they cross the otherwise barren wastes of Nevada. You can see the flies swarming in the video above. They’re quite safe – they have no interest whatever in humans and simply fly away when disturbed.
There was a problem, though. The growth of metropolitan Los Angeles meant there was an ever-increasing need for new sources of water. LA bought the water rights to the area around Lee Vining and started to divert the mountain streams into a giant aqueduct that runs all the way down the back of the Sierras. The water level of Mono Lake started falling, so much so that in 1978 an action committee formed to protect it. The “tufa towers” you can see in the photograph used to be completely submerged – they are mineral deposits from underwater volcanic springs.
The activists were successful in a judicial review of the practice and were able to secure a court ruling that the level of the lake should be restored. That’s a slow process, still in progress and still needing a great deal of activism to keep it on track. I’ve been supporting the Mono Lake Committee ever since my first visit there and still regularly hear from them of assaults on the lake and its water catchment. The pressures can only increase.
But this is vital habitat. If its destruction at the hands of the water prospectors were to resume, it’s possible that bird migration across the USA could be affected. This isn’t a dead lake, nor just a local landscape that might be expendable because of its isolation. It’s a vital in-route service area for millions of birds. It would be a crime to let it be destroyed.
Despite the crowds who gather to share the experience, watching the sun set and the shadow of the Sierra Nevada pass across the face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is always a tranquil and enriching experience. A hush settles over the place, as if everyone is aware of a sacred presence, and discussion settles to a whisper as the transition to night gradually embraces the landscape.
The year I went there with friends after JavaOne (including Juggy the Java Finch) I set up a tripod and took a sequence of stills to build this timelapse record of the experience.
Walking around Hearst Castle in Central California there is so much beauty in the pools and the buildings that you could be forgiven for not noticing these little tiles, quietly hiding on the steps. I am sure most visitors hardly glance in their direction but it is often the attention to all the small details that add to the overall splendour of a place for me.
Whilst Hearst Castle more generally showed signs of superficiality, with the backs of façades left unfinished, attention to unseen detail fascinates me endlessly. Backs of cupboards, insides of drawers, carvings and sculptures hidden in places where few people will ever see them – all are signs of extravagant and heart-felt quality to me. The sign of a passionate craftsman is to demand perfect work in places only he and God can see.
When you leave San Francisco behind you and follow the coast road South you eventually reach a place called Big Sur. In its vicinity the views are stupendous, every bay offers new delights to the eyes and the road bridges add to the magnificence of the surroundings.
Living at the bottom of a valley, we often dream of moving to a house with a view; it would be difficult to surpass the vistas in this area. Unfortunately, (or should that be fortunately?) these views are not for sale, yet every time we pass this stunning place the dream returns…
Yosemite National Park is probably my favourite place on earth. Even though it operates at maximum visitor capacity all year, it’s still easy to get away from the crowds and find the most beautiful landscapes imaginable.
This view from Olmstead Point shows the granite landscape of the area beautifully. If you’re in Yosemite, I very much recommend driving the Tioga Pass road and taking some long walks from the various trailheads. Don’t be put off by the crowds in the car parks; no-one much walks more than 5 minutes from them.
One of the pleasures of walking along the shore in central California is seeing pelicans. There are often great flocks of them, and to British eyes this is a thing of excess and exoticism.
I caught this one flying in San Francisco Bay, just to the west of Alcatraz Island. There’s a pleasant symmetry to that – “alcatraz” is the Spanish for “pelican”.