After our first encounter with Yosemite Valley on the evening of Tuesday, May 24, we needed to chase the setting sun through occasional spits of rain northwest to Hodgdon Meadow Campground, where we would pitch our tent for the next four nights. Hodgdon Meadow, located some forty-five minutes from the valley off of Big Oak Flat Road, is in the vast portion of the Park beyond the frenzied hub of activity in Yosemite itself. It is also in what became a National Park over a decade and a half before the valley.
After the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 established the precedent of a National Park as opposed to the granting of federal lands to a state for protection, as had been the case in the 1865 Yosemite Grant, lobbying began to protect a much larger portion of the Sierra Nevada surrounding Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove. In 1890, twenty-five years after the Yosemite Grant, three National Parks were established in the Sierra: Sequoia, General Grant (which would later be incorporated into Kings Canyon), and Yosemite. The new Yosemite National Park was thirty percent larger than it is today, but it did not include Yosemite Valley or Mariposa Grove, which still belonged to the state of California. What it did include was a huge section of the Sierra Crest high country, Tuolumne Meadows, the Tuolumne River Canyon, Hetch Hetchy Valley, and two groves of Giant Sequoias. It also encompassed transition zones stretching from 2,000 to 13,000 feet in elevation. Crucially, it included the headwaters of the Merced and Tuolumne Rivers.
By the first decade of the twentieth century, the tension between state and local control of portions of Yosemite had become apparent to the Theodore Roosevelt administration, particularly as more National Parks joined the portfolio of the Department of the Interior. In 1906, Roosevelt signed legislation that undid the Yosemite Grant, giving the valley and Mariposa Grove back to the federal government to be incorporated into greater Yosemite National Park. To compensate California, the size of the Park was decreased by thirty percent, much of which became part of the Stanislaus, Sierra, and Inyo National Forests administered with an eye toward resource extraction by the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. Today, Yosemite National Park encompasses 747,956 million acres.
So out of the valley and up Big Oak Flat Road we climbed. Because we wanted to get camp set up while it was still nominally light, we didn’t stop at the turnouts as the road ascended the north side of the Merced Gorge. We knew we’d have plenty of opportunities to explore Big Oak Flat Road as it would provide the sinewy backbone of our Yosemite experience. From the 4,000 feet elevation of the valley, the road crested near Crane Flat at 6,100 feet and then descended to Hodgdon Meadow Campground, near the Big Oak Flat Entrance to the Park, at 4,900 feet.
The campground was full, as were all the campgrounds in the Park the entire time we were there. Our site was a walk-in about one hundred feet down a gentle slope from the parking area. There was no campfire wood for sale at the campground, but signs informed us that dead and downed wood was able to be collected anywhere in the park except the valley. It had rained off and on all day in the Park, so it was somewhat miraculous that we were able to get a campfire going with somewhat soggy and very sappy pieces of Ponderosa Pine and Mountain Hemlock collected in the immediate vicinity of our campsite.
Sean was feeling pretty lousy and wasn’t particularly hungry, so once we got the tent set up and our gear stowed, we had peanut butter sandwiches on sourdough toast for dinner. A fellow from a neighboring campsite upslope from ours came over and introduced himself as Seth. He and his friends had befriended a boisterous group of young twenty-somethings at a neighboring site. He said that if they were too loud to just holler to quiet down. Turns out they weren’t too loud at all and were quiet in advance of the beginning of the campground’s official quiet hours at 10pm.
Next morning, Wednesday, May 25, I awoke around 6:30am and climbed quietly out of the tent. I didn’t want to disturb Sean, who needed to get a good night’s sleep to fight off his cold. I made some coffee and got acquainted with the open Ponderosa Pine forest that would be our home for the next three and a half days. Our site was on the edge of the campground, so downslope from us there was nothing but forest and another gently rising slope beyond. The campground had an open, parklike feel typical of the Sierra Nevada and very different from the shrubby Carolinian Forest of the southern Great Lakes and the Eastern United States. The scent of the pines, which I remembered from my youth, was exhilarating. Mixed with warm sunshine and the flavor of hot coffee, it was perfect.
After staring at it for a long while, I walked down the slope to make the acquaintance (as John Muir would say) of a huge Ponderosa Pine.
It was by far the largest and most noble of the Ponderosa Pines in the general area of our campsite
The average size of full-grown [Ponderosa Pines] on the Western slope, where it is associated with the sugar pine, is a little less than 200 feet in height and from five to six feet in diameter, though specimens considerably larger may easily be found. Where there is plenty of free sunshine and other conditions are favorable, it presents a striking contrast in form to the sugar pine, being a symmetrical spire, formed of a straight round trunk, clad with innumerable branches that are divided over and over again…The bark is mostly arranged in massive plates, some of them measuring four or five feet in length by eighteen inches in width, with a thickness of three or four inches, forming a quite marked and distinguishing feature. The needles are of a fine, warm, yellow-green color, six to eight inches long, firm and elastic, and crowned in handsome, radiant tassels on the upturning ends of the branches. The cones are about three or four inches long, and two and a half wide, growing in close, sessile clusters among the leaves.
– John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912
Climbing these grand trees, especially when they are waving and singing in worship in wind-storms, is a glorious experience. Ascending from the lowest branch to the topmost is like stepping up stairs through a blaze of white light, every needle thrilling and shining as if with religious ecstasy.
– John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912
I have always loved Ponderosa Pines. They have meant for me the West and the mountains since I was an adolescent. As excited as I was to see again the waterfalls and domes of Yosemite, I was also very excited to hang out with Ponderosa Pines, so I was delighted to have such a grand tree thirty yards from our tent. With the morning sun on its bark, the tree exuded warmth and life. Later, when Sean woke up, I introduced him to this wonderful tree.
Sean woke up, and we made a breakfast of Mountain House Breakfast Skillet (our absolute favorite) wrapped in tortillas. As we sat on a large log watching California Ground Squirrels and eating, we discussed what we should do that day.
When we had arrived the previous evening, both the Tioga Road and Glacier Point Road were closed, but hopefully they would both open at some point while we were in the Park. Our plans were not wholly laid out for Yosemite because of the uncertainty about these road closures in the high country. The only thing I knew absolutely that I wanted to do was to drive into the valley, leave the car at Bridalveil Fall, and spend the day walking the foot trails of Yosemite Valley.
I was worried about Sean, who only looked worse. The night had been chilly enough to warrant hot water bottles in our sleeping bags, and Sean later admitted that he had almost slept in the car. I said that we could just take it easy and spend the day hanging around camp, but he insisted that we should go and do something.
There was a forecast of possible rain and a chance of thunderstorms later in the day, although at that moment the sky was completely clear. Sean was not in any shape for a seventeen-mile walk in the valley. So I suggested that we make the three-mile out and back hike to Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias, which was near Hodgdon Meadow. Then in the afternoon, if it threatened rain, we could go to the valley and check out the visitor center and Yosemite Village and get lunch. It was a plan.
We had gotten in too late to officially check in the previous evening, so while Sean got himself together and made his ablutions, I walked up to the entrance hut to check in. I overheard the ranger telling another camper that Glacier Point Road had opened, but that Tioga Road was still closed, although they expected it to open soon.
As we were assembling our daypacks, I spotted a Red-Breasted Sapsucker, but I didn’t get a clear photo of it. American Robins, Steller’s Jays, and Ravens were also prevalent in the campground.
And Sean spotted some Mule Deer browsing near our campsite.