Setting off at just after 9am we begin our road trip. Shortly we are on highway 680 heading North and mixing with trucks and cars. I am trying to stay calm as massive semis pass by me going quite a bit faster. Gradually I start to feel more confident but the number of trucks is quite daunting. We are actually heading in the opposite direction to most of the traffic - the other direction traffic has 4 lanes packed and crawling along. We turn east along highway 580 and drive along flat land for the next couple of hours, stopping in a little town called Ripon for a cup of coffee and a stretch. I am ready for a break because I have found driving on the freeways quite stressful. In the cafe/bakery we meet a couple of retired gents in Lycra. I chat about cycling with them for a while and miss my bike even more than usual. Turning South on highway 99 we continue past flat farmland until we reach Merced where finally we start to head towards the mountains.
The road is now a two lane road which traverses undulating country with lovely green grass paddocks. The route is just what I had been hoping for and was so much more pleasant than the highways. At about 1 pm we finally arrive at Mariposa where we will stay for the next two nights. As it is too early to check in we walk to a nearby park to eat our picnic lunch and then find an information office where we get some useful advice about our visit to Yosemite tomorrow. Critically, we are advised to leave for the park between 7:30 and 8:00 to ensure that we can find a car park.
After a visit to a very interesting Historical Museum of Mariposa, where we can only skim their excellent displays, we walk to the local courthouse which is still used for trials more than 160 years after being built and find the remains of the original jailhouse. Every gold mining town needed a courthouse and jail of course.
After checking in to our room we drove to the nearest supermarket to stock up on food for breakfast and to get some lunch for our visit to Yosemite. Dinner was in a nearby restaurant where the food was tasty and the serves were only a little too big.
Yosemite! What can one say about Yosemite? After an early breakfast we actually set off for the park before 7:30 and soon found ourselves driving some pretty spectacular roads alongside the Merced River which flows out of the Yosemite Valley. Forty miles, two detours and countless bends later we rolled past the park gate to find a sign stating that we should pay on exiting!!!! To our left was the famous El Capitan monolith and to the right the Bridalveil falls, which we missed.
I was surprised at the number of cars already in the car park until I realised that there were lots of campers who had obviously stayed the night or longer. Nevertheless we found a car park easily and soon set off for our first walk. This was the Mist Trail walk which we were only going to do the first 1.6 miles to a certain bridge. Magnificent cliffs with waterfalls large and small surrounded us while a thundering river tumbled down through steep gorges. Tall trees reached for the sky while wildflowers dotted the sides of the walking tracks. The route was steep and well paved and relatively unpopulated at this early time. We came across a group of school kids with their teachers trekking up to one of the falls. It seems that they are there for the week on a camping excursion - what a magic place to take a group of school kids. The teacher/pupil ratio seemed very high too. I noticed that the permanent tents the kids were using even had a heater vent poking out one side. Such luxury!
We were told that the area has had one of the wettest winters for about 5 years. The verdant undergrowth and many fallen trees suggested that this was the case. There were also some signs of recent rockfalls, you wouldn't want to be caught in a rockfall - it would be a crushing experience. On our way down from the bridge we could see a constant stream of people walking up clearly getting there early was a bonus for us. We caught the free shuttle bus to the start of our second walk to Mirror Lake which was flatter and easier than our first one. The lake at the end did, in fact, offer some nice reflections of the surrounding hills but, due to a low cloud cover, the views were not as spectacular as the postcards. Maree commented that photos just can't do justice to the enormous 'geography' of the place. Once, in Africa, a fellow travellers had referred to taking 'eye pictures' when he ran out of film. In a way these eye pictures are more memorable than photos.
Another trip on the shuttle took us to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel. This structure, built in the early 20th century of local granite has huge public rooms with enormous, people swallowing, fireplaces. It costs about US$500 per night to stay there but it seems booked out for the foreseeable future. We took the opportunity to buy a hot chocolate each and to eat our lunch which we had bought the previous day. We had carefully carried our food with us wrapped to prevent smells escaping so that bears would not be attracted. It must have worked because we did not see any bears, or mountain lions or deer or beaver (although I did see a suspiciously gnawed tree). We did see heaps of squirrels and bright blue Stellar jays.
Yet one more shuttle trip took us to the Yosemite Visitor Centre/Museum where we found out all about the formation of the valley and about its early inhabitants. There was also considerable information about how the park was preserved and how it was the first declared National Park in America (possibly also in the world). After this we set off to view the Lower Yosemite falls. By this time the constant overcast had developed into a fine misty drizzle. Not enough to break out the raincoats but enough to ensure we wore our puffy jackets. The walk was gentle and each bend showed a new view until we reached the base of these falls. Above we could also see the much bigger and even more spectacular Upper Yosemite falls. Unusually there was even some dirty snow lying on the ground nearby. All the other snow we had seen was at much higher altitude.
By this time we had walked about 8 miles or so (15 km) so we decided that we had done enough for the day. There is so much walking here that you could easily spend a week or more visiting the famous waterfalls and viewpoints. We retrieved our car after yet another journey in the shuttle bus. What a great idea to have these buses circulating every 20 minutes. It makes getting from one trailhead to another and from one camp or location to another so easy. We left Yosemite at 2:30 and an hour and a half later we were back at the hotel for a well deserved rest.