Yosemite National Park and Sierra Nevada Road Trip

In early May I flew out to see a friend who lives in Las Vegas.  The plan was to do a road trip to Yosemite, a place I have always wanted to see.  Along the way, we visited five national parks, and four states.  Just to mix things up, we also went to Zion National Park, my second time there.

Even though this blog focuses on Pennsylvania destinations, beautiful landscapes and parks need to be experienced, regardless where they are located; that is one reason why I began this blog.  So, enjoy this journey to the other side of the country.

Death Valley National Park

Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America

We got up and drove north out of Las Vegas.  Barren, jagged mountains clawed into the sky.  It was a world of brown, with some emaciated brush lingering in the lowlands.  The terrain was stark and beautiful in its own way.  We headed west into California and entered Death Valley National Park under blistering sunshine.  It was tough to hike any distance, the temperatures were almost 100 degrees.  We took a short walk to a view revealing eroded layers of colorful bedrock as Death Valley sunk in the distance.

The next destination was Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America.  As the park’s name implies- it is located in a vast valley, surrounded by more towering, jagged peaks.  The bottom of the valley is  comprised of salt flats.  To my surprise, there was water at Badwater Basin, a thick brackish soup the heaved up between layers of salt.  Some small wading bird picked for a meal.  We walked out onto the salt flats, but the heat was oppressive, at about 110 degrees.  The valley was utterly desolate, with virtually no vegetation.  The valley disappeared into the haze.  What surprised me most was the complete silence.  No airplanes, bugs, wind through the trees, rustling of leaves.

We headed north, where we passed sand dunes; it was the first time I had seen sand dunes in a desert.  We had hoped to see the Racetrack where stones have moved across the salt flats over the eons, leaving a path, but it was a long drive to reach that section of the park.

The road winded over mountains, across another desolate valley and up along a canyon with some great views.  Another descent brought us to the east side of the Sierra Nevadas.  It was a stunning sight as the peaks rose thousands of feet, encrusted with snow and ice.  I’m sure we saw Mt. Whitney, but I did not know which mountain it was.  The valleys became more green with trees, grass, and even a small stream.  After a quick meal in Bishop, it was back on the road as we made our way north.

Fortunately for us, Tioga Pass into Yosemite was open.  It was a surprisingly “low-snow” year.  This enabled us to appraoch from the east and see the eastern Sierras.  As the road gained elevation, Ponderosa pine trees became more common and we passed a dammed lake.  Mammoth Mountain was in the distance and we descended.  Mono Lake soon came into view.

Pictures of Death Valley.

Mono Lake

Tufa formations on Mono Lake

I first read about Mono Lake in a National Geographic as a kid.  I found it fascinating.  The lake was the center of a landmark environmental battle- rivers and creeks feeding the lake were being siphoned away for Los Angeles’ water supply.  As a result, the lake was evaporating and shrinking.  This is no normal lake- it is saline.  Water enters the lake, but does not leave it.  The brackish water is home to brine shrimp, on which birds feed.  Mono is also large lake, about 13 miles wide.  The lake is also home to unique, haunting tufa formations formed when the lake was higher; underground springs flowed through limestone, would reach the bottom of the lake, and bubble upwards, leaving calcium deposits that would become tufa towers.  When the lake’s level was being lowered in the 1980s, the formations were revealed.

Mono is a beautiful place, and well worth a visit.  The water feels soapy, or filmy- even a stiff breeze creates only a small ripple.  A fully loaded canoe would float as if empty.  Seagulls called from the air.  Tufa formations guard the south shore.  It is an odd expanse of water in a rugged, barren world.

As the sun began to set, we continued our drive, climbed through Tioga Pass, and entered Yosemite National Park.

Pictures of Mono Lake.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View

I had long wanted to visit Yosemite.  We reached one view of a distant Half Dome along Tioga Road.  I could hardly believe I was seeing it for myself.  It was cast in a golden sheen as hidden rivers roared in the canyons below.  The landscape was comprised of smooth, sloping granite mountains as creeks and streams descended with cascades and lakes.  We entered the valley in darkness, hearing the roar and echo of invisible waterfalls.  The next morning I had my first look around.  I crossed the Merced River to see the towering cataract of Yosemite Falls.  It was surreal to see something that once existed only in photographs.

Yosemite, of course, is an exceptional place.  Although not the first national park, it was the first protected place in the country, thanks, in part, to President Abraham Lincoln.  The valley features soaring granite cliffs, eroded smooth by glaciers.  Much of the park is white bedrock, with occasional pine forests scattered along creeks and drainages.  The valley itself is lush and green.

Yosemite Falls

The first hike was to the top of Yosemite Falls.  The hike was beautiful.  The valley was a little hazy, but the falls were in full force as mist bombarded us, even though the falls is a distance away.  Upon reaching the top, I scrambled down to the top of the falls as it fell away along the cliff and into the expanse of the valley.

The next day was a longer hike- the Mist Trail and Panorama Trail to Glacier Point.  This is the finest trail to hike in the valley.  I started early so the first hour or so I was by myself as the Merced River roared in the froth of rapids.  Vernal Falls soon came into view as shafts of morning light pierced the powerful mist of the falls.  I was soaken wet.  I climbed to the top to see a rainbow below.  Huge waterslides, that reminded me of the Youghiogheny River in Maryland or West Virginia’s Big Sandy Creek, followed.  The thunderous roar of Nevada Falls was ahead.  The falls was an incredible torrent.  I took a break at the top of the falls.

The hot, bright sun filled the sky and the Panorama Trail featured amazing views of Yosemite Valley and several of the major falls.  Half Dome is a constant presence and it is a lot more narrow than I realized.  In the distance, the High Sierra glistened white.  I reached Glacier Point to be surprised by all the people.  I treated myself to ice cream as I enjoyed the views.  One man had a zoom lense which showed climbers on Half Dome, you could not see them with the naked eye.

Although tired, I decided to climb Sentinel Dome from Glacier Point.  It was a superb hike with 360 degree views.  It was odd to look down on El Capitan and Yosemite Falls seemed so small.  If you aren’t sure about climbing Half Dome, Sentinel Dome is probably a good second choice.  Half Dome was closed to hiking since the cables weren’t up.

I returned to the valley, where we visited Bridalveil Falls and its rainbow.  I decided to check out Mirror Lake and returned back to camp in the dark.  It was an exhausting, but incredible day.

The next morning, we visited the Mariposa Grove and made our way south the Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.

Pictures of Yosemite National Park.

Kings Canyon National Park

Sunset over Kings Canyon

We reached Kings Canyon in the early afternoon and made our way down into the canyon.  The drive was long and curvy, but very beautiful.  Unlike Yosemite, which was worn smooth by glaciers, Kings Canyon has a more rugged, jagged appearance.  We reached the bottom and visited Boyden Cavern, a small, but interesting cave.  The Kings River roared with incredible rapids as steep mountains rose above.  We made our way up the canyon, visiting some waterfalls and a meadow.  This park is isolated, out of the way, and not very popular, but the scenery is superb.  I’d like to stay at the campground and hike some of the backcountry trails someday.  It is a hidden realm where one can escape for a few days or weeks.

We drove out of the canyon as the sun set and reached Sequoia National Park in the dark.

Pictures of Kings Canyon National Park

Sequoia National Park

Giant sequoia trees

Our next stop was Sequoia National Park, home to the massive sequoia trees.  The trees are truly impressive and stand like gigantic columns.  Unlike eastern forests, there wasn’t much under growth.  Sequoias are not as high as redwoods, but are much thicker.  The General Sherman tree was a sight to see; it is the largest living thing in the world.  The top of the tree is dead, so it no longer grows higher, but it continues to grow wider.  I also took a hike up Moro Rock with more superb views; however, the views were hazy from smog in the Central Valley.  From there was the long drive back to Las Vegas.  We drove near Edwards Air Force base as massive transport jets landed in sequence.  This part of the country is vast, brown, and barren under a blistering sun.

Pictures of Sequoia National Park

Zion National Park

Virgin River Narrows

Zion is a wonderful park and it was great to return.  In some ways, it was like Yosemite, but much more colorful.  The soaring sandstone cliffs with layers of white, orange, and rust red is always an impressive sight.  The goal for this trip was to hike up the Virgin River Narrows.  On my first trip, the river was too high.  This time it was at a great level.  The narrows is an amazing place as cliffs soar hundreds of feet above the river.  In places, the river cut under the huge cliffs as cottonwood trees added a splash of green along the hike.  There were pools and gravel bars, and even a few merganser chicks trying to find their mom, and avoid a blackbird.  Clouds began to grow thick, so we turned around.  On the way out, a group was canyoneering down a side gorge.

Pictures of Zion National Park

Red Rock Canyon

Red Rock Canyon

My final hike was to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area just outside of Las Vegas.  I was pleasantly surprised.  The colorful sandstone cliffs reminded me of Zion, but at Red Rock, the terrain is more open as compared to the narrow valley at Zion.   Red Rock is the site of an active fault where harder limestone is being pushed over the sandstone.  I did a few short hikes in the heat, which included some petroglyphs from ancient native american tribes.  One annoyance were the helicopters buzzing around carrying sightseers.  As late afternoon approached, I hiked up Ice Box Canyon and scrambled over boulders to a dry waterfall.  As I drove out, I saw one helicopter had to make an emergency landing in a parking lot at an overlook; the blade was removed and mechanics were working on it.  I returned to my friends house and left for home that night.  It was a phenomenal trip.

Pictures of Red Rock Canyon


It was amazing to see a different part of the country and travel through distant towns and villages.  In some respects, there is little that changes from one place to another.  You seem to see the same type of people wherever you go.  Each town relates to the land in a different way, depending on it for water, food, minerals, or tourism.  Through it all were the vast, rugged, and desolate landscapes that kept a constant presence.  These parks protect some of the most incredible scenery in the world and continue a tradition of conservation through the generations (where has John Muir not been to?).  In the end, I was happy to return to the green Appalachian forests with the waterfalls, canyons, rivers, and lakes that others only see through photographs.


One thought on “Yosemite National Park and Sierra Nevada Road Trip

  1. Great stuff Jeff. 2 winters ago we did a similar trip between Christmas and New Years. Flew in to Vegas, drove to Death Valley, Sequoia, and Yosemite, then out of San Fran. Sequoia had 8 feet of snow up near the trails heading out from the General Sherman tree. Made snowshoeing even more fun. We also snowshoed out to Glacier Point at Yosemite. We took a break for lunch at Dewey’s point and saw a snow slide coming down the side of El Capitan across the vallety. Amazing!

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