Trails through the Sierras connect Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks to Yosemite National Park, but to drive there one must go through Fresno. We drove into Fresno planning to spend the night in a Walmart parking lot and head into Yosemite in the morning. From what I had heard, every campsite in Yosemite is reserved months in advance, as well as many of the backpacking permits, but some backpacking permits are available for walk-ups. So the plan was to show up to Yosemite in the morning to get a backpacking permit, since it would be impossible to get a site at a campground.
In Fresno John found a 24-hour Walmart Market, which is a stand-alone grocery store. Being much smaller than a standard Walmart, I was skeptical about parking there overnight, and I certainly didn’t want to bring attention to ourselves by cooking dinner in the parking lot. The map showed a small park a couple blocks away, so we drove there for dinner. The park turned out to be nothing more than a playground, and the only parking available was street parking in front of the huge houses in the neighborhood. Not comfortable parking in front of a strangers’ house, I suggested we go across the street to what appeared to be a strip mall. Strangely there was a picnic table in the back of the parking lot; perfect since the evening was hot and we wanted to eat outside. Shortly after parking there we were asked to leave by a security guard who explained we were actually on the campus of a school. Oops. Back to the Walmart.
After dinner we started researching Yosemite and discovered that a couple campgrounds were first-come first-serve for winter. We called the number that gives availability and learned there were spaces available. Not wanting to risk the sites filling up in the morning, we decided to drive in that night.
We arrived to Wawona Campground at 11:00 pm. We had to drive around the whole campground to locate an empty site; there were only two available and neither were very flat. We chose one but the direction we drove by was not optimal with the slope so we had to drive around the loop to come at it the other direction. A woman at a neighboring site was watching us, likely wondering why we were driving in circles. Finally in position, John started to back into the spot. I looked out my side to check for obstacles behind the van, but I missed what was right underneath me.
As we were backing up, a horrible grating sound emanated from under the van. We looked at each other, saying “what was that?!?” [John here: Actually, I think I said “What the *&^!@ was that!!!!???”] I jumped out into the near-freezing cold night air, shivering in shorts I put on in the 90+ degree lowlands, to find what we hit. There was a huge rock right under my door. Looking under the van I saw a metal plate hanging from the underside of the van that ran aground on the rock. John took a look and realized that this plate protects the plastic freshwater tank from flying road debris. No damage done, except that we made this racket in the middle of a campground at 11:00 pm, with an audience (the neighbor still stood there, watching us, thinking we are nuts). John jumped back in to drive off the rock. At first the tires spun, and we had visions of being beached on the rock overnight, blocking the road until we could get help the following day. But finally the tire caught and the van screeched off the stone. John finished maneuvering into the campsite. The van was at a pretty severe angle with the back pointed down, meaning that the head of the bed was angled down. But at this point, we had caused enough raucous and didn’t want to start the engine up again to pull onto leveling blocks. So we left it, and slept that night with the van at a pretty big angle. We went to bed (heads angled down) happy with our decision to drive that night, since we snagged one of the last two spots.
Driving through the night and almost getting the van stuck on a rock to get one of the last sights turned out to be in vain. The following morning, a Wednesday morning, the whole campground cleared out! Actually over the next few days this pattern repeated, every spot was taken by nightfall, but almost every spot was open the next day. It seems that most campers stay only briefly. We took full advantage of the campground and registered for a site as long as we could. It was first-come first-serve until April 14th, which gave us almost a full week before the reservations started and the campground was booked solid. This gave us plenty of time to explore the road-accessible parts of the park, and time enough before backpacking to eat all the fresh produce we’d stocked up on in Bakersfield. Once again, even without prior planning, things just fell into place.
Wawona Campground is far from the main attraction, Yosemite Valley, and there are not even any trails that begin at the campground. One day I did manage to walk all the way to Mariposa Grove, a sequoia grove that along with the valley formed the seed to the park in 1864. This was a very long hike, a mile of which was along the road. Despite those disadvantages, it is a lovely campground situated on the Merced River and surrounded by tall pine trees.
The Mariposa Sequoia Grove was developed to draw in tourists during an age before the priorities of the Park Service evolved to protect nature and allow it to run its course. Tunnels were bored into tree trunks as tourist attractions, roads and parking lots were laid right within the groves. Since then, the Park Service has realized that the pavement interferes with the hydrology of the tree roots and could result in the slow death of these ancient trees. Shortly after our visit, the New York Times announced that this mistake is being rectified, and the road and parking lot will be removed.
This project to improve the health of the Mariposa Grove is made possible by the Yosemite Conservancy. With the insufficient funding appropriated to the National Park Service by the federal government, there is no way that the parks can afford to do the projects they need to improve the parks. Budget cuts have reduced the number of rangers covering the 401 national parks, monuments, battlefields and historical sites administered by the Park Service to 4,929 rangers. It is unbelievable to me that the park system can function with an average of only 12 rangers per site.
Parks are now dependent on volunteers and conservancy organizations to fulfill the basic needs of the park. One quote in that New York Times article really stuck with me, from a former ranger Alfred Runte: “We’re dodging our national responsibility. In no way were these friends groups supposed to substitute for uniformed rangers or congressional appropriations, [Well-intentioned volunteers] are taking away park ranger jobs from educated young men and women.” These parks are such a wonderful treasure, they should be a higher priority.
Enough of my rant about the situation of parks, and back to beautiful things. Walking into the sequoia grove a patch of red caught my eye. I looked over and saw a strange plant. The plant is completely red: flowers, stem, leaves, even it turns out the roots (though I didn’t see these), all entirely red. I learned this is a Snow Plant and found a wonderful description of the plant in Muir’s book on Yosemite: “Its color should appeal to one’s blood. Nevertheless, it is a singularly cold and unsympathetic plant. Everybody admires it as a wonderful curiosity, but nobody loves it as lilies, violets, roses, daisies are loved. Without fragrance, it stands beneath the pines and firs lonely and silent, as if unacquainted with any other plant in the world; never moving in the wildest storms; rigid as if lifeless, though covered with beautiful rosy flowers.”
On the way back to the campground I took an alternate trail for part of my walk and came across a strange sight. First a pool (a swimming pool, in the middle of the forest in a national park?!?), followed by cluster of covered wagons. I walked over to take pictures, because they are reminiscent of our first post where we compared our van to a covered wagon, and something we still joke about often, when the dishes are particularly clangy above our heads as we drive. The land appears to be a privately owned summer camp (I did not see the “No Trespassing” signs until I left the camp).
April 8-10, 2014