It must have been my father who passed his love and admiration for the beauty of nature on to me when I was a small kid. My first time to the U. S. was back in 1989 and we returned year after year after. But no state was as often on our travel list like California and its gorgeous national parks. I ruined a pair of new Converse shoes on Mono Lake, we accidentally ran over a rabbit at night in Joshua Tree and I was scared to death when driving at high noon through Death Valley with no other cars passing by, imagining the worst possible case of a flat tire… . Yosemite though had been a blank space on the map though.
Until now. So what would you say if I told you that during my latest San Francisco layover, I did the most crazy day trip I had performed so far. And that on the weekend before Independence Day, when almost the entire nation was on its feet seeking adventure in the great outdoors.
It all began with me being on reserve. This is a duty that we do have to perform three to five times a year, yet it is way more comfortable than being on standby as the lead time for a flight is between 12 and 24 hours. So you pretty much know the day in advance where you will be going next. Very exciting.
While my mind was already focused on a five night rotation within Europe, I was more than surprised to finally end up with a six days SFO rotation (which is something really, really unusual) leaving me eventually with three full days off on site. Is that jackpot, or what? A huge thank you to crew operations at this point!!!
So right after I got the flight confirmed, the planning on what to explore this time began. And it was though! Not only, because it was a normal weekend during summer holidays, but also since most Americans would take the monday off as a bridge day to extend their weekend right into Independence Day. And this would mean horrendous hotel prices and lots and lots of traffic.
Yosemite ranked as my highest priority right from the beginning. Originally, I intended to drive in a triangle from San Francisco up to Lake Tahoe, spend the night on site and then continue down to Yosemite National Park where I hoped to spend the second night before heading back to SFO on day three.
I soon had to change plans though. First of all, due to the outrageous prices for overnight accommodation (a night started at 250 US-Dollars!). But mainly, because I simply did not get a car for the entire duration at any of the rental car companies close to the hotel. And I did not want to have to take a longer pick-up journey into account as that would have eaten precious time.
So in the end, I had to compromise on a two days rental from early Saturday morning to 7:00pm on Sunday, which left me with reasonable time to plan my Yosemite getaway. As an overnight in or close to the park was not an option (either fully booked or simply too expensive), the next thing to work out was the schedule for the trip. Once I have made a decision on what I would like to do, I can get quite determined (some would say even dogged) to make it happen, no matter how short the amount of time or how strenuous it may be in the end.
This is where being German comes quite handy. Our efficiency and structure that some nations are even scared off helps quite well when dealing with situations like this.
5:30am wake-up. 6:30am coffee at Starbucks. 7:00am car pick-up. By 7:30am on the road. Estimated time to reach Yosemite around noon. With breaks in between maybe 1:00pm. With traffic around 2, 2:30pm. Return to San Francisco no later than 6:00pm. That would leave me with a maximum of three and a half hours inside the park. Not much, that is true, and just enough to get a tiny glimpse of the beauty that was waiting there. But way better than nothing at all. So after the schedule was set, I focused on what was definitely possible to see. I knew that I had to stick with sites that were accessible by car. There simply was no time for any hikes around the park. So I noted all my must see´s on a piece of paper and then checked on Google maps wherever they could be reached by car or not.
And this was pretty much it. Trip was set.
The next morning went pretty much just the way I had planned it. Wake up. Coffee. Car. Highway. Luckily, it was not before Groveland, so quite close to the park´s entrance, that I seriously got stuck in traffic. At that point, I realized that truly the whole nation must have been on its feet. But after I finally managed to pass the entrance (admission is 30 US-Dollars for a week, no day passes available) the congestion cleared up and it was not again a few miles ahead of Yosemite Valley that long car queues made it impossible to drive without constantly having the foot on the brake.
At that point, I figured that it was the best to start my Yosemite adventure up on Glacier Point. The road seemed less crowded and the drive rewarded with amazing vistas from several lookouts on the way. As unspectacular as Yosemite seemed on the first few miles after entering the park, as breathtaking and extraordinary it revealed its natural beauty from high above. The road elevated to over 2,000 meters, passing picturesque mountain meadows and winding through a sea of trees. I stopped several times to get out of the car to simply breathe in the fresh air while enjoying the amazing views.
Apart from the masses of people who were running around at Glacier Point, the view from up here was astonishing. The whole valley lied in front of my feet and it was such a clear day that I felt that I could see to infinity and beyond. North Dome, Half Dome, Mt. Broderick, Vernal Falls and Yosemite Falls, this panorama would truly burn itself into my mind. It was one of these moments when you truly comprehend that humanity is so unimportant and all our tiny little problems matter nothing at all. Absolutely spiritual. I wonder how blown away the first discoverers must have been centuries ago?
On the way down to the valley, traffic worsened and was particularly dense around the Tunnel View lookout and Bridalveil Falls. That killed quite some time and I sadly had to skip the mini hike to the bottom of the impressive waterfall, that lies quite close to the main road.
It was already late afternoon and I definitely wanted to catch a glimpse of Yosemite Falls from the valley perspective. As more and more cars flowed into the park, the drive on the circle road was a stop and go all through. But that left me at least with quite some possibilities for snapshots with my iPhone from the driver´s seat. The sun already stood low, covering the mountains and the valley in a magical golden light. It was astonishing, you could not find another word for it.
I got off the car here and there to take photos and to enjoy the marvelous beauty that stretched out in front of my eyes. All of the hustle and bustle around me suddenly disappeared. The peaks of the mountains casted their shadows over the scenery and I could not stop imagining buffalo herds grazing on the luscious green meadows while American Indian hunters had returned home to their tribes to present their rich catch and to celebrate their gratitude to nature around the campfire.
Exhausted and full of beautiful memories, I started my long drive back to San Francisco. Sure, it was definitely a stressful and strenuous day and some may even call me crazy for doing such a thing in one day. But in the end, what counts is what you get out of it for yourself. And in my case it was being close to Mother Nature again, connecting to the immense beauty of our planet and leaving after this short time with the feeling, that my inner self was in balance again. Ok, and tired.
If I had the choice, next time I would definitely plan for an overnight stay and I might consider to take someone along. A four and a half hours one way drive is pretty tough for one driver and can result in dangerous fatigue on the way back. It was also a very good idea to pack groceries and lots of fluids in advance and not to enter the park with a half-full tank as there are close to none gas stations inside Yosemite. Especially during the summer months, packing sun screen and a hat have proven as bare essentials when jumping around at 5,000 feet. Oh, and I would absolutely recommend to take all coverages and insurances on the car that you can get, just to be on the safe side and even if that means quite an amount extra on the price.
This was a lifetime adventure though. It was crazy short and for a real mountaineer probably the most touristy thing to do. But I am taking lifetime memories along. And that is priceless.