Day 16: Yosemite and Mono

One of the things that has struck us in our journeying through America is how many dangers lurk around corners. We had already been warned about the Mountain Lions and Rattlers; but Yosemite is a whole nuther ball game. Here there are also several breeds of branded Yosemite mosquito, extensive evidence of forest fires that have been raging throughout California, and rock falls or precipitous drops on each side of the road. Then there’s the plague, carried in these parts by your friendly neighbourhood chipmunk (and caught by at least  two humans this summer). And finally, the bears. We had to remove absolutely everything from the car in case it was raided and torn apart by hungry animals looking for a Hershey Bar.


Armed and ready, though, we decided to trek out into the Yosemite wilderness. We chose to do the Gaylor Lakes Trail, which was fairly short, but which took us up a steep, forested embankment to about 10,500 feet, before opening out into a flat grassland with several beautiful mountain lakes.

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Dominic said Karen could star in this pic...
Dominic said Karen could star in this pic…

The views from the top of the trail were absolutely stunning, particularly those looking back on Yosemite behind us. Beyond the far end of the second lake was a narrow path leading up to the Great Sierra Mine, a remote silver mine dating back to about 1880.

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Now, with silver selling for about $14 an ounce (compared to gold’s $1133 per ounce), you can see why it has gone into something of a decline; and the two hour hike to the top of the mine shaft doesn’t exactly make the Great Sierra seam cost-effective any more. Nevertheless, it was this sort of a seam that William Randolph Hearst’s father mined in the 1840s, lugging 38 tons of the stuff back over the mountains to San Francisco. Well, we saw what came of that – it was obviously worth a pretty penny back in the day.

Our hike was truly exhilarating and we had a real sense of satisfaction in reaching the silver mine. And, although you do need to take the wilderness seriously and heed the warnings, the benefits of this wonderful place far exceed the potential hazards (we were quite disappointed not to see any bears  – although probably for the best).

But today’s adventures were really only beginning.

We’d come to this side of the park for a very particular reason – to see the extraordinary tufa sculptures of Mono Lake. After a spot of lunch we drove into the lakeside town of Lee Vining, and were at first a bit disheartened because smoke from the Sequoia Park forest fire had completely overcast the sky, making our chance of seeing these sculptures more or less impossible. However, we stopped in at the visitors centre, run by Mono Lake Committee, and watched their promotional film about the lake and their efforts to save it. This really altered our perspective on the lake, and following the advice of a really helpful volunteer from the committee, we opted to go on the guided tour later that evening, by which time, we hoped, the smoke would have cleared.

So with a bit of time to kill we climbed a volcano.

This was the Panum Crater, a plug volcano that was formed only about 650 years ago. It’s just a short off-road drive from the highway, and easy to hike up through the pumice field to take a look at the plug itself.

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By the time we came down, the sky was beginning to clear a bit, so we ventured further on to the South Tufa beach area, where we met up with our wonderful and very knowledgeable guide Andrew.

Mono Lake is extraordinary, as you can see from these pictures. And the tufa, which are limestone sculptures formed when fresh water streams bubble into the alkali waters of the lake, are ghostly, ethereal and other-wordly. They give the place the look of a lunar landscape, or a prehistoric terrain. Strangely, though, we were told they are probably only about 200 years old.

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However, although most visitors come to see the lake in order to gaze at these extraordinary tufas, the story of the lake itself is even more extraordinary, and it was this that really turned our interest in Mono Lake on its head. It transpires that these tufas were all formed underwater, and that until 1941, the Lake would have been several vertical feet higher, and covering significantly more land. But in 1941, the city of Los Angeles (over 300 miles away) decided to pipe water from the surrounding streams by aqueduct to supply the growing city, and as a result the lake shrank in size, devastating its natural ecology and threatening its habitat. It was only thanks to the decades-long battle of the Mono Lake Committee that a landmark victory was achieved against the big boys in LA. In 1994, a high court ruled that the diverted watercourses should be rerouted to feed the lake again until it had reached a compromise level. The good news is that the ecosystem of the lake has been saved, and it has now risen several vertical feet; the bad news is that current drought conditions have presented a natural threat to the ongoing security of the lake. It looks like it will be several years before the lake reaches the height that was agreed by that landmark ruling. But we have been really inspired by the work of the committee in rescuing this extraordinary place and in saving the lake for the birds and marine life that inhabit it.

This whole area, if you are travelling in California, is an absolute MUST-SEE. The marketing material states that Yosemite is the ‘best place on earth’…they could be right!



Day 15: Woods Creek and Yosemite

Today has been one of the highlights of our trip so far. We had a fantastic 2 hour gold mining lesson down at a dry creek with Frying Pan Frank, Brent and T.J (and a couple of their dogs).

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We were a bit sceptical at first, we honestly thought that they would chuck a few flakes of gold into the earth so we would come away pleased. But, this was evidently not the case. We worked hard to extract gold, and we learnt so much from these professionals. Frank (known as Frying Pan Frank, because he’s a good chef) has his own claim, and he showed us how to prospect and go through the various stages of cleaning up the soil, sifting through it and then finding the gold. He has his own step by step way of going through the process, and his obvious desire to share his skills makes it easy to learn.

Karen using the dry washer.

We also learnt how to use the dry washer – and this helps to get things done a bit quicker. Brent’s father set up the spot along the creek so that ‘everyone could have their chance at the experience of prospecting and finding gold’, and school kids have enjoyed learning these skills here.

We felt that not only did we have a super, enjoyable morning, but that there was a sense of ‘passing down the skills’ which we really valued.

We would totally recommend the experience, so if you ever come along to Jamestown be sure to look these guys up. If you think $180 is expensive for 2 people, we think the quality of the teaching and the fun that you have really is worth it (in fact, we’d recommend a slightly more expensive three-hour session). Oh, and you never know you might also come away with some gold. Whatever you find is yours to keep. We found a little bit – Frank reckons about $20-30, but I don’t suppose we will be in a hurry to sell it. It’s a great memento of our time here!

So check these guys out here:

and here:

Then it was on to Yosemite…Wow! This park is amazing. The sights are extraordinary and change regularly throughout the park. Most people tend to come in to the park from the West for a day trip to see the stunning waterfalls and perhaps do a spot of hiking. We’ll be doing some of that tomorrow (from the East side, minus the waterfalls – because of the drought), but our purpose today was slightly different: we were driving through the whole park from West to East on Highway 120, a distance of over 50 miles on windy roads getting higher and higher on the Sierra plateau. It’s slow going, but well worth it, and every few miles the scenery completely changes from extensive pine forest around Yosemite Creek to staggering vistas of white rock around Olmsted Point, to verdant stretches of watery flatland like the Tuolomne Meadows. The many lakes in the park are just stunning with their mountainous backdrops: especially Tenaya Lake, which even has a shoreline and a beach. We could have spent days just taking pictures and soaking up the scenery. There are beautiful lakes that you can swim in and hikes all over the place. We can’t wait to come back tomorrow and experience some more, though today’s drive has been a really magical experience, taking in the park as a whole in a snapshot and really opening our eyes to the majesty of its natural beauty.

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We have stopped for the night at Mammoth Lakes Inn, just beyond the park. This is a ski resort from about October until July (we know, a long season). We found the hotel service to be a bit rubbish, so we won’t dwell on that, and why would we when there is so much beauty to experience up the road in Yosemite, and we will continue doing that tomorrow.