What’s wrong with this picture?
It’s a perfect day in Yosemite Valley. The sun is blazing, the sky is a robin’s-egg blue, the waterfalls are gushing, trees are flowering, visitors are bicycling in short sleeves, frogs are croaking and the park’s famous bears are making their presence felt. So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing. Only it was the second week in March.
It should still be winter. Yosemite’s Badger Pass, California’s oldest winter sports facility, should be hosting skiers. But due to the lack of snowfall, it closed after operating for just two weeks in December.
The imposing granite face of Yosemite Falls should be shrouded in a mantel of ice. Instead it’s flowing at full force and may, according to park officials, be dry by June. Highways like the Tioga Road that connects the eastern and western entrances to the park commonly remain snowed-in until late May but could soon be open. And those bears? They should still be sound asleep.
At the luxurious Tenaya Lodge (just outside the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park on California Highway 41) racks of snowshoes hang unused. The sledding hill is totally bare. And signs advertising the lodge’s sleigh rides note that they have all been cancelled.
The truth, says Yosemite Park Ranger Dean Shenk, is that nobody really knows what the ultimate impact of the drought is going to be.
“For a long time we were in a wet period,” he said. “Now we’re in an exceedingly dry period, and no one knows how long it’s going to last. The snow pack (which is crucial to the parks, people and the San Joaquin Valley’s vast agricultural industry) is at 12 percent of the level it should be at this time of year. And we’re not expecting any more significant snowfall this year.”
There is, however, a bright side. Visitors who can make plans to visit Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite National parks during the next few months will find the early onset of spring glorious. Activities and facilities usually reserved for summertime will be in full swing. An abundance of wildflowers and flowering trees will be bursting out. The falls and rivers will still be flowing. And destinations like Glacier Point, which ordinarily remain all but inaccessible during the winter months, will be accessible by car and hiking trails.
There are also rooms to be had, including special “off season” incentive packages. In the park of the big tress, Sequoia’s Wuksachi Lodge and John Muir Lodge are in full swing. Tenaya Lodge is replacing snowshoes with mountain bikes, providing the perfect (pet-friendly) family destination resort.
Inside Yosemite National Park one can savor the classic accommodations (and fine dining experiences) at the world-famous Ahwanhee Hotel. At the same time, rooms (and special packages) are available at the Yosemite Lodge and the rustic tent camps and cabins of Curry Village.
Like everyone else, I’d heard about the California drought. Nevertheless, as I prepared for my trip to Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite National parks I took the usual winter precautions: long underwear, snow pants and boots, tire chains, etc.
None of them, as it turned out, necessary. The coolest days were in the high 50s and as high as 73 degrees. It did drop into the low 40s and high 30s at night, but I suppose that must sound absolutely balmy to anyone living in places like Boston or Wisconsin.
From Los Angeles one heads north on U.S. Route 99 then follows state Route 198 through the picturesque town of Three Rivers to the Sequoia National Park entrance. From there the two-lane road snakes its way up and up and up into the park, and it’s hard to describe the sense of awe that envelopes you as the road enters the realm of the ancient giant sequoias, which are some of the oldest trees on Earth.
The road to the Giant Forest (home of the General Sherman Tree) and the park’s signature granite formation, Moro Rock, opened the day before our group arrived. We were able to wander among these massive living pillars, smell the pungent odor of pine needles, enjoy the screech of a stellar jay and then ascend the cut-rock stairs to the top of Moro Rock. The view from its peak, however, made it all too clear how meager the snowcap was atop the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
These grand stands of giant sequoias only exist in a limited area that is defined mostly by temperature and altitude. They are first cousins to the towering redwoods familiar to California’s coastal regions. The redwoods are taller, but the sequoias, including General Grant and Sherman trees, are the largest (by mass) in the world and well over 2,000 years old.
Fortunately, according Park Ranger Dominic Papia, the giant sequoias are in no immediate danger from the drought. But fire, he points out, may be a different matter because as the drought deepens the risk of fire within the parks will continue to increase.
The parks are also remarkable for the clarity of the night sky, and the Wuksachi Lodge hosts several special star-viewing events during which professional and amateur astronomers can gather to seek out the wonders of our galaxy and beyond.
There is no direct road between Sequoia, Kings Canyon (site of Grant Grove) and Yosemite National Park. You must descend all the way to Fresno and then travel into the park via state Route 41 through the towns of Coarsegold and Oakhurst.
Once inside the park you have myriad choices, including whether to spend some time at the Wawona Hotel (the oldest hotel in Yosemite) or head directly to the valley with its towering cliffs and waterfalls, meandering rivers and verdant meadows. Whichever itinerary you choose, there are few places on Earth that can rival the wonders of Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Yosemite. But as California’s drought conditions deepen, changes within the parks are going to be inevitable.
WHEN YOU GO
Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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