YOSEMITE SUMMER: When Summer Turned to Winter

This and several upcoming blog posts are about my recent month long visit to California and experiences in Yosemite National Park, where I served as a park volunteer.

Wednesday, July 8

For Mark Twain, his coldest winter was San Francisco in July. This evening, as I watch my breath fog up before my eyes, my coldest winter has the makings of being a July spent in Tuolumne Meadows. Two major hailstorms struck today, one ten minutes west at Tenaya Lake and the other twenty minutes east at Tioga Pass and Saddlebag Lake. The hail storm at Tioga Pass included several inches of snow. Cars entering the park from that direction were blanketed in snow.

Patches of snow along Tioga Road

Patches of snow along Tioga Road

The day began calmly enough. When I ate breakfast at Tenaya Lake at 7:00, I actually had to remove a jacket and the sun beat warmly on my cheeks. At 7:30, the car dashboard registered 51 degrees as I made my way back to the campground to change before heading to the Visitors Center with Cassie for my 10am-4pm shift. The meteorologist had nailed it. I could expect a day in the low 60’s.

But my expectations were dashed as the thermometer dropped. By 11am, the temperature had fallen to the low 40’s. Cassie and I took turns at the outdoor booth so each of us could take a turn inside the Visitors Center for warmth. By the end of our shift, we were ready to add several layers of clothing.

At 5:00, all of the volunteers headed to Tuolumne Lodge Dining Room for dinner together. I had not dined there for over 10 years, but the meal rekindled memories, some fond, some not. The dining room sits next to Dana Creek. When the creek flows at its fastest, as it did after a day of storms, the cataracts soothe any troubled soul. But the service was slow and the fare mediocre and overpriced.

The contingent at our family style table included two women from Sacramento. They said their husbands preferred the comforts of their pristine homes to the beauty of nature witnessed only by trudging down dusty trails.

Back to the weather. The forecast is for nighttime temperatures below freezing with tomorrow night’s low reaching 27 degrees. Tomorrow, I head to Olmsted Point for my last volunteer duty at that site. If it’s windy, it will be very, very cold. I had expected my tour of duty to end with warmer weather, but the mountains have a way of casting aside foolish human assumptions. I’ll update the actual weather in my next segment.

Thursday, July 9

No appearance at Olmsted Point today. At 6:30 a.m., I woke up to the drum roll of heavy rain on my tent. I gathered my shaving kit and headed to the Rangers facilities to brush my teeth and shave. The temperature gauge on my rental car registered an outside temperature of 41 degrees. I’ve not had eggs my entire stay, and I craved a breakfast sandwich with scrambled eggs, sausage, and cheese, so I drove to the Tuolumne Grill with my Delaware North Corp. (DNC) 50% discount card in hand. Each sandwich is priced at $6.75 and I was willing to pay that amount for two, but not for one.

The cold rain had driven the Pacific Crest Trail and John Muir Trail backpackers inside the Grill and the neighboring store. I waited in line 15 minutes only to be told that DNC had changed its policy again and would not give a 50% discount to Yosemite Conservancy volunteers. “That’s ridiculous,” I said – at least the third time I had run into this obfuscation. As much as I craved the egg biscuits, I wasn’t about to fork over money to this motley crew.

I drove back to the campground to check on other people’s plans. Dee and Cassie still planned to hike from Tioga Road to the Valley and return on the afternoon bus. Cyndi had left for a two-night stay in San Francisco. Susan said she would think about driving to the Valley later. Woodlee was game to ride to the Valley with me. None of us wanted to be stuck in our tents all day during what promised to be a long-lasting rain shower.

On our drive to the Valley, we saw patches of snow on both sides of Tioga Road. After heading south from Crane Flat, the temperatures rose with the drop in elevation, as did our dispositions. By the time we reached the Valley, the temperature had risen to the mid-50’s. The Valley looked much more promising than the High Sierra.

Yosemite Falls after the storms

Yosemite Falls after the storms

Our first destination was the Food Court near Yosemite Lodge. We bought eggs, sausage, and toast. To our delight, the cashier honored our DNC discount card. After savoring the first eggs I had eaten in five weeks, we walked to the Village Store and the Ansel Adams Gallery to survey possible mementos. Then we were off to Yosemite Falls – respectable with the help of the mountain rains and snow but not spring time powerful. Then it was time for lunch, so we walked 1.5 miles to the Ahwahnee Hotel Bar. The grand old hotel is arguably the most beautiful in America’s national parks. It was completed in 1927 and is constructed primarily of granite, concrete and steel to protect it in the event of forest fires.

Back to the bar. We waited about 30 minutes before being seated at an outdoor table. Of course the rain began as soon as we ordered, but we were under the protection of an umbrella. The food was pricey, but excellent, the latter quality a rarity in the park eateries.

We decided we had seen enough of the Valley, so we caught the shuttle bus to the stop nearest the parking area, and headed toward Tuolumne. Woodlee soon fell asleep. A light rain fell as we headed north to Crane Flat and turned torrential once I turned east on Tioga Road. Hail joined the rain as the road at times appeared ready to flood. At one point, what appeared to be a 30-foot-wide creek flooded across the road. Heavy rains brought rock debris onto the road, a constant threat to blowing out a tire. Woodlee awoke after I drove through the worst of it.

We returned to Tuolumne after 6:00 and made phone calls to the near and dear. The temperature was 41 degrees. I later joined Susan and Gary (here for a wildflower tour) for hot chocolate at Tuolumne Lodge. The good company and the warmth of a wood-burning stove provided a welcome diversion to isolation in my tent during a rain shower. The threat of snow is in the forecast, but as I write this entry at 10pm, the rains have tapered off and I hope the snow stays away. I’ll see in the morning.

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