The Yosemite most people never see: 10 dazzling hikes – East Bay Times
YOSEMITE — Gazing at the spectacular scenery surrounding Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy reservoir, I can’t help but marvel. Nature has endowed Tuolumne County with such splendor, it almost doesn’t seem fair. That these riches are so easily accessed by hiking trails makes us all the luckier.
I am bound for Wapama Falls, a moderate 2½ miles from the O’Shaughnessy Dam trailhead, harboring thoughts of wonder and a bit of sadness. Before this lake was formed at Yosemite National Park, Hetch Hetchy was a glacier-carved, granite-walled valley complete with a mighty river and waterfalls crashing down from dizzying heights. Sound familiar? Naturalist John Muir called the valley “a wonderfully exact counterpart of the great Yosemite (Valley).” Muir led the battle to save the valley from being dammed to create a reservoir for post-earthquake San Francisco — a fight that was ultimately lost.
Less than 5 percent of Yosemite’s visitors come to this area, tucked away in the northwestern part of the park, where there is so much to see. Hetch Hetchy lies near the Big Oak Flat entrance to the park on Highway 120. Pretty Carlon Falls is nearby, offering a 3.8-mile round-trip jaunt, sometimes skirting fire-damaged forest, which burned in the devastating Rim Fire of 2013.
If you follow eastbound Highway 120 as it becomes the Tioga Road, you’ll find an array of High Sierra hiking trails leading to Lukens Lake and Ten Lakes, Yosemite Creek, North Dome and more. Stop at Olmsted Point for views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome and other granite wonders. Explore the high subalpine meadows with their vast grasslands, granite domes, meandering river and trails galore.
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If you’re a hiker or wilderness lover, this is nirvana. The trail that runs along the Dana and Lyell Forks of the Tuolumne River to the Twin Bridges is a one-hour round-trip on this breezy autumn day. But if weather, energy and time permit, you can continue on to Lyell Canyon, Lembert Dome and Dog Lake, the latter a four-hour commitment.
If ever there was a year to pay heed to Yosemite’s usual “check road conditions before you go” admonition, it’s this one, with snow flurries on Yosemite and Tahoe peaks already in September. Snow typically closes Tioga Pass, which crests the Sierra at 9,945 feet of elevation, to automobile traffic in mid-November, so yes, check before you go.
On this fine day, though, the pass is clear and I roll through, bound for Highway 108 and Sonora Pass in a great looping arc. The steep highway dives down the eastern scarp of the Sierra Nevada, past majestic Tioga and Ellery lakes to the high desert below, before I begin the vertiginous, snaking climb up 108. The road offers stupendous alpine views of granite and basalt, dotted with patches of snow and hardy stands of evergreens. I soon reach the 9,624-foot Sonora Pass. Pacific Crest Trail hikers are often spotted here, where the trail crosses the road, hoping to hitch a ride back to civilization for supplies.
The way down is just as inspiring. The middle fork of the Stanislaus River cascades down its carved-out gorge. I drive past the Kennedy Meadows Resort and pause awhile at the Columns of the Giants, its strange hexagonal basalt formations formed by ancient lava, before heading for the Donnell Lake view point. Don’t miss this mini hike, a ¼-mile loop with vistas of the lake, dam and canyon far below. On this brilliant day, I marvel at the super-saturated greens of the forest, thankful for the winter rainfall that spurred new and rejuvenated growth.
Arriving at Pinecrest Lake for a little break from the road, I stretch my legs by walking a bit of the almost 4-mile loop trail around this popular spot. The fall season offers a quiet respite from the summer vacation rush. There are few people on the trail or in the water. It’s blissfully quiet.
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The city of Sonora makes a fine stopping place, with its restaurants, inns and Dragoon Gulch urban hiking trail, before returning to the Bay Area. But I can’t resist one more stop — at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, which straddles Tuolumne and Calaveras county lines along Highway 4. The park is comprised of a North Grove and a South Grove, containing 100 and 1,000 examples of giant sequoias, respectively.
The trees became famous in 1852 when a hunter, Augustus Dowd, chased a wounded bear into the forest. Dowd was stopped in his tracks by the sight of the outrageously huge trees. A year later, a tree — the Discovery Tree, which measured 25 feet across — was cut down, the bark was stripped and the tree was reassembled in Europe, where it was promptly deemed a hoax.
Considering that in the 1800s, we savages thought nothing of exploiting our lands. It’s a miracle that these groves survived. The North Grove was designated a park in 1931; the South Grove was added in 1984. Here, you have two hiking options: There is a 1½-mile North Grove loop trail and a 3.5- to 5-mile South Grove route that includes the Agassiz Tree. At 25 feet in diameter, it’s the largest tree in the park.
I opt for the South Grove trail, which is pristine, quiet and remote. I chuckle as I walk. I’ve done this hike before with people who have never seen a sequoia. They would always ask, “Is this a giant sequoia? Or is that?” pointing to random trees along the way.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” I’d say.
Then, when we came upon one of the behemoths, with mouths wide open, they’d say, “I got it.”
It’s a place that inspires awe, even after a full weekend of awesome sights.
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If You Go
Yosemite National Park: A seven-day pass to enter the park is $30 per car. Wilderness permits are required for overnight camping on backcountry trails but not for day hikes. Permits can be obtained at the Hetch Hetchy entrance station, Big Oak Flat Information Station, the Tuolumne Meadows Wilderness Center and in Yosemite Valley. Fall weather is unpredictable: Wear layered clothing and carry food, water and a flashlight. Find trail maps for the Tuolumne Meadows area at www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/tmhikes.htm. Be sure to check road conditions before you go.