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Tioga Pass

Sunset over Mt. Dana on the edge of Yosemite National Park. Mono County, California

Tioga Pass

A bat flapped against the navy blue background, muted by the roll of shallow water on the creek.  We sat in chairs in the meadow, blocked by bushes, looking at the dark amphitheater of mountains the sun had dropped behind.  It was good, it was home for my spirit that was homesick.  There were mule deer tracks in the mud beside the river of alpine water.  There was miner’s lettuce in the field, firewood galore.  We could live here forever, I thought.  But it was only to last a few days.

It was a hell of a morning:  Conference call delayed, work to wrap up before the holiday, said conference call from a booth at McDonalds, the closest Wi-Fi I could find from the road.  The humor that we were about to celebrate Independence Day, honoring our freedom, was not lost on me as I slammed my laptop and sped for 395 North.

Cruising alongside the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains on Route 395 North. Olancha, California

It was a Thursday and the previous Monday we had bailed on an ambitious backpacking trip through Mineral King. Days before the busiest weekend of the year we had nothing on the books.  No plans, no time, no reservations, we illogically set our marks on the most popular park in California, Yosemite.  Why not, it had been a couple years and we couldn’t stop talking about it all spring. 

We were gambling on one of the 125 first-come sites in the massive Tuolumne Meadows campground.  In need of a back-up plan I came across some handy dispersed camping on 395 and along 120, east and west.  Then the diamond in the rough, a map of a handful of campgrounds on Tioga Pass Road leading to the park entrance and a few leading up to Saddlebag Lake.  The Google Image results were mind blowing compared to the dense woods of Tuolumne Meadows campground.  We were sold.

These were small campgrounds, a dozen sites apiece but with back-ups in hand we pressed on with optimism.  It was at least a year since we’d drove 395 and it’s insanely gorgeous.  The Tetons’ conical horns may be among the most beautiful mountains in the lower 48, but the Sierras are most impressive; just huge, yes in height but also in breadth of geography, in density of peaks.  Seeing only minuscule segments at a time is still an overwhelming affair. 

We passed Mammoth, one of the magnets of my universe and the scenery continued to impress; through stands of pines, past June and Mono Lake and up Tioga Pass Road where Mount Dana, Conness and North Peak overtake the landscape and one’s senses. 

We turned onto the dirt road that climbed to Saddlebag Lake.  We headed straight for Saddlebag, the highest campground at 10,079 figuring we’d backtrack if need be.  Saddlebag was full.  The next one down was Saw-Mill, a walk in campground that piqued our interest.  We parked and set off down the trail toward the campground.  The trail opened to a gorgeous field with views of the alpine meadow below, the Lee Vining Creek wandering through, Mt. Dana to the left, North Peak to the right.  The sites were full and I continued down the trail.  It wound toward another small meadow with four more sites, all full.  The trail continued another quarter mile and I tried remembering how many sites there were at this campground and how many I’d already past.  Were there more down this trail or was I on a hike?

Two more sites came into view, 11 & 12.  12 was taken, 11 had a hat pinned to the pylon but was empty.  There was no one around me, even Alli was a ways down the trail but I nervously sprinted up and tacked my reservation to the pylon.  We had a spot.

It was about a half mile from the car to the site and it took a couple trips to haul our car camping setup out to the site but it was all worth it.  Walk-in sites are the best.  Quieter, no sorry saps doing laps at 10:00pm looking for a site, and in a campground so small and spread out, you feel like you’re in the backcountry except with luxuries like cold beer, bocce balls and pillows. 

Soaking in the Lee Vining Creek at Sawmill Walk-In Campground. Mono County, California

We setup camp, organized the bear box and made our way down to the river to see the night in.  The high of success in finding such a home, the release of leaving work and cell service behind, the bats in the sky, it was all so perfect.  We felt that feeling attached to memories of happy times, profound moments of calm, or ease, or inspiration, memories we think of when we say, “Couldn’t life just be like…”.  We were living it and soaking it up in real time.

We built a fire to mimic our excitement (big!) and clinked beers.  We usually find ourselves camping with no flame and we stoked it for hours before falling for the hypnotic embers.


In the morning I walked down to the meadow and along the creek.  A fisherman flung a dry fly into the small riffles below exposed rocks.  The sun was already high and bright and the warming air woke the mosquitoes.  Small rodents ran about the meadow looking for breakfast.  Birds sang from pine trees and fought for perches on the pinnacles of the highest ones.

A fly fisherman casts in the morning light on Lee Vining Creek. Mono County, California

We were headed into Yosemite to bang around Tuolumne Meadows, to scramble on granite and lounge in the alpine.  In less than ten minutes we were in the park, smacked in the face with the energy of Yosemite like a warm wind.  We passed Tioga Lake and the start of Tuolumne Meadows, manicured as immaculately as a golf course by the grounds crew of snow and time.  There are no grand hotels, old or new, no bars, no giant gift shops, just an austere visitor center. 

Dandelions flourish in the early days of summer in Tuolumne Meadows. Yosemite National Park, California

Directly off of the main drag lies Lembert Dome, an 800’ granite monolith rising to 9449’.  The dome is a beautiful off-tilt cone with routes ranging from Class II to 5.11.  We scrambled up among the tourists playing on the dome’s lower flanks, following a band of skinny ledges, up and up the Class III South Face.  Above the ledges, solid footing disappeared and we climbed the low angle slab cautiously.  Even a routine stumble would mean a lethal tumble. 

Walking up the the start of the Class III southeast face of Lembert Dome in Tuolumne Meadows. Yosemite National Park, California

Choosing our footing with care, we scrambled higher, sucking wind in the thin air and hot sun, passing rugged flowers and trees dug into the granite’s thin cracks.  Just five hundred feet above the granite we were alone, away from the crowds, with the sight of small figures on the summit.  I’m viciously critical of others trampling on my wilderness experience, a selfish plight on public land I know, akin to complaining about traffic while driving on the 10 in Los Angeles.  But on this glacial pottery, I felt kinship.  I was happy and happy to share all this with whoever was decent enough to want to spend their day here too.

In no time we were on the summit, a small boulder refusing to topple off the northern precipice of the immaculate dome.  A group of kids snapped pictures, a family ate lunch.  They wore pride on their grins, geeking out at the Yosemite high country:  Cathedral Peak poking the blue sky with its sharp tines, dozens of other domes lumping off the green carpet of snowmelt raised grass, the Tuolumne River coursing through the entire scene; and I felt proud too, grateful to know this place. 

Views of the Yosemite High Country from the summit of Lembert Dome. Cathedral Peak featured promonontly above Tuolumne Valley.
Yosemite National Park, California.

I began a slow jog down, impressing the train of Chinese hikers heading up the Class II route.  We slowed down as the slabs steepened, finding a route beside a growth of trees to descend quickly to the floor.  The dome was one of the most charming and thrilling hikes of my life, packed into a brief hour, directly adjacent to the road and parking lot.  In Yosemite, one does not have to travel far to enjoy its perfection and those who do are treated to even more. 

Back in the meadow, we walked along the river to a sandy bank to sit on a log.  Suddenly, we saw a Mule Deer, with a beautiful six point rack in full velvet, grazing on the sandbar across from us.  As I waded through the water for a closer shot, he ignore me casually, remaining calm as I drew even closer, careful not to cross the threshold of harassment.  There was a second deer as well, further behind and it took quick notice of me.  He darted off as the first deer turned and walked gingerly through the water away from me.  I grabbed a couple more shots from the knee deep water and turned back toward Alli. 

I felt a presence and whipped around to see the deer charging toward me.  I started shooting at rapid fire as he balked and turned right, running just by me and up the bank of the river.  It was the experience of a lifetime, one of my closest engagements with a deer who playfully reminded me to buy a telephoto lens and keep my distance. 

A mule deer in full velvet runs through a sandbar on the Tuolumne River in Tuolumne Meadows. Yosemite National Park, California

We explored the area more before moseying back to camp for an afternoon lunch.  It was brilliantly sunny and we scarfed down our food in a rush to get to the river.  We spent the afternoon much like the evening before, enjoying our private alpine meadow with all the trappings of a fine life.  We crossed the river into the open plain as the sound of water continued to amplify.  We followed the rush, finding a cascade amidst the woods.  Each corner of the property continued to impress more and more and we wanted less and less to ever leave.

Hidden waterfall in the woods of Sawmill Walk-In Campground. Mono County, California


Adventure continued to call though and we walked back to the car to drive to Bridgeport in search of Travertine Hot Springs.  Driving by Mono Lake, the sun lit the shoreline tufa towers like beacons, contrasted against dark clouds on the opposite horizon.  The road toured through high meadows and cattle ranches, finally revealing Matterhorn Peak and the Sawtooth Range to the west.  We found the dirt road and eventual sign marking Travertine and the small lot of cars of fellow soakers. 

Travertine is an incredible place, with several pools to accommodate a lot of visitors, each with its own temperature, character and scenery.  We strolled down the trail to an open bath and climbed in.  The hot water scalded and we sat deeper and deeper as our red skin asked for more.  There was a family in the adjacent pool and we chatted casually before they made off to try the others. 

Sunset tones over the Sawtooth Mountains from Travertine Hot Springs. Bridgeport, California

The evening was perfect, sitting in the natural water as the sulfuric faucet pulsed with earth’s energy, bleeding hot groundwater.  We sat gazing across the wide flat valley floor and deep into the Sawtooths, hazy with distance.  The low humid clouds changed from white, to taupe to purple as the sun traced the wide sky.  All was right, all was free, all was natural.  And then the cop showed up. 

The peace was ironically disturbed by the squawk of his dispatcher over the radio and I turned around as he responded.  I rolled my eyes, picturing him leveling an open container ticket on me for my cracked Budweiser but he kept moving to the farthest tub.  There was a young guy and girl bathing au naturale, as you tend to do in a hot spring.  As a matter of fact, I was under the impression that wearing clothes in a hot spring was against the rules and only recently tolerated.  The cop waddled down to the couple and slapped the woman with a ticket for indecent exposure.   Who she was exposing herself indecently to, I don’t know.  We were a ten minute drive down a rural dirt road, down a trail, soaking in natural tubs on a meadow perch.  Even the mother of two young boys was appalled by the cop’s actions, who must prowl the springs routinely to stare at tits and pad his stats.  It was a predatory, sexist and simply shitty move.  If you feel the same way I encourage you to call their Bridgeport office and complain ((760) 932-7549)).  We shouldn’t have to worry about such bureaucracy in the wild spaces we fled to in order to escape society in the first place.  Plus, boobs are the best and only serve to enhance a beautiful experience.  Let’s not criminalize them or our women.

The purple sky and waning sun were all well and good but a rotten energy hung over the scene and we, like others, bailed.  The drive back to Lee Vining was even prettier than the drive from, with rainstorms and radiant bands of sunlight striped over Mono Lake. 

Last light strikes an incoming storm over Mono Lake. Lee Vining, California

We stoked the fire early and smoked out the mosquitos.  I’d premade burritos at home, wrapped in foil, and tossed them in the fire.  After an effortless five to ten of sipping beer and yucking it up, we had deliciously hot burritos.  We were happy, really happy.  Conference calls seemed a lifetime away and we’d deluded ourselves to believe they’d never exist again. 


The next morning was the fourth of July and within five minutes of being at Saddlebag Lake (virtually adjacent to our campground) a bald eagle coursed the sky, circling the edge of the lake twice before peeling off toward the mountains.  Anyone would have traded all the fireworks, the hot dogs, beer and flags that embody Independence Day for that one encapsulating flight. 

We had tickets to cross the lake and hike the Five Mile Loop that tours a staggering number of alpine lakes in the Twenty Lakes Basin, all above 10,000’.  Not only is the boat ride a nice perk, the loop is one of the flattest in the Sierras and allows you to take in the insane scenery with ease. 

“Not too many Golden’s left in here.  We had a guy up this weekend take two,” the young boat assistant said shaking his head.

“It’s not illegal to take ‘em, but it’s frowned upon.  It’s such a rare fish and only live over 10,000 feet.  And it’s the California State fish,” the captain continued, who’d probably grown up like the younger assistant, pointing out the names of the peaks and tying cleat hitches on the docks. 

I wondered where they lived and how they grew up, if they’d date the cute girls in the general store or if they were all related.  I envied the captain, who cared not for cities and their accoutrements, who cast a spin rod into the calm water, waiting for guests to board and knew every god damned thing about this area. 

We crossed the wide lake filled by the snow from the mountains which surrounded it on all sides.  We pulled into the dock on the opposite side of the lake. 

“Remember,” the captain said, “You don’t have to outrun the bear, just the slowest person.”

We set off on the trail with instant views of Mount Conness and North Peak in our face.  The trail was nearly empty and it felt as wild as the Alaskan bush.  We past Hummingbird Lake, dainty and warm, then Odell Lake, ominous and deep, surrounded by crumbling black and red  cliffs.  We descended the talus trail, arriving at Helen Lake, lined by scree and patches of beautiful White Mountain Heather.  A waterfall poured into the lake on the opposite side and we followed the trail around it. 

Delicate White Mountain Heather decorates the sides of trails and lakes in the Twenty Lakes Basin. Mono County, California

Helen Lake feeds into Lundy Canyon and we were encouraged to make the quick detour to stare down its throat.  We were also warned to not venture down Lundy Canyon and it’s obvious why, with its waterfall charging down jagged cliff into a wide, deep canyon of rock and void. 

Looking down into the depths of Lundy Canyon. Mono County, California

Back on the trail we rounded Shamrock Lake, the most beautiful, with its granite islands fit for camping, cliffs for jumping and the most impressive view of North Peak smack in one’s face.  We edged Steelhead Lake, Waso and Greenstone, with fishermen throwing lines into each one. 

Moody skies above North Peak and Shamrock Lake in the Twenty Lakes Basin. Mono County, California

Back at the shore of Saddlebag, we saw hikers lined up on the dock.  The captain called, “Ryan?” from the reservation log and we waltzed right on first, our timing impeccable.  I cracked a beer and we loosened the laces on our boots with a sigh.  It was our day to celebrate freedom and we were satisfied in our work to feel as such. 

What else was there to do but tramp back to camp, back down to the river and yield the rest of the day to the arcing sun which painted the clouds bright orange, then vivid pink.  Clouds, I’ve learned, are usually anything but white.  It was an awesome display of color and the setting sun gave way to an even more dazzling display of starlight fireworks.

Sawmill Walk-In Campground splits the aesthetics of the backcountry with the convenience of car camping. Mono County, California

We’d head back the next day, back down Tioga, back down 395, past the awesome Sierras, through Bishop and Big Pine, through Red Rocks and Mojave, bridging pine to palm, back to LA.  We’d be at work a day later, wondering if we should move to the mountains.  But tonight, we were, living by our own design, in matrimony with nature and we uncluttered each moment to know how it feels to do so.  The bats had returned to the sky and we welcomed them.

In the morning, driving down the road adjacent to the meadow, we saw a coyote by the river.  We got out and walked close to admire.  He saw us and trotted closer to greet us. 

“Why were we leaving?” I wondered and narcissistically wondered if the dog felt the same way.  We stared at each other for a while until a truck rattled past on the road and the coyote pranced toward the woods.