It was Fourth of July weekend, and we’d just taken out in Gardnerville, Nevada, after an overnight kayak excursion on the Carson River.
But we weren’t heading home just quite yet. With Tioga Pass recently opened, we detoured to Yosemite National Park by way of Lee Vining, California.
Lee Vining is a modest mountain hamlet with impressive surroundings, like Mono Lake, Tuolumne Meadows, and Chouinard Falls, California’s epic ice climbing destination. It’s also home of the most well-known landmark to any professional road-tripper on Highway 395 — the Mobil compound at the Tioga Pass entrance.
Yes, Mobil, as in the gas station… but it’s not just any gas station. It has a surprisingly well-stocked market, gift shop, and most famously of all, a rather fancy restaurant with long lines of people on any given day. You won’t find cloth napkins and candles here, but you won’t find a better spicy jambalaya or cowboy steak in the High Sierra either.
We drove into Lee Vining fairly late, so after dinner we set out to look for a campsite for the night. We were certain that we’d be hosed, as holiday vacationers were pouring into the area by truckloads. We imagined sold-out campgrounds full of noisy families and McRVs. We cringed.
Following a random road just outside of town, we hoped to find a little peace and quiet on unimproved public land. Night fell quickly as we bounced along a narrow dirt road for several miles. After a few turns on trails that were barely lit with our headlights, we pulled into a dark, empty meadow. We set up camp and stargazed before falling asleep to the chirps and hums of our much more pleasant, late-night neighbors.
I remember Will nudging me just after sunrise. I was grumbling. I’m definitely not one to rise with the sun and the birds, and I’m usually allowed to sleep in a teensy bit. But he persisted, and when I poked my head up out of my sleeping bag, I saw the most magical sight you could imagine in the great outdoors.
And not just one, but two curious deer, standing not more than 10 feet away from our tent.
It was a fine start to the morning. Even finer when we got up and realized that we had camped in a stunning, wide open meadow surrounded by snow-capped granite peaks.
Ringed with tall pines and dotted with wild irises, it appeared to be an old horse meadow. A gorgeous meadow that we had all to ourselves, on Fourth of July weekend of all things!
We took a short hike up a hill for a view of the meadow and mountains on one side, and Mono Lake on the other.
After breaking down camp, we made our way to Tioga Pass, the east entrance to Yosemite. It was mind-boggling to consider summer was in full swing, yet the mountains were still frozen in winter.
Tioga Lake looked arctic, with sheets of ice just starting to crack on the surface.
Tenaya Lake, on the other hand, was glassy and warm and worthy of an afternoon paddle in the kayak. As the largest lake in Yosemite’s high country, Tenaya Lake sits in a bowl of sheer granite slopes surrounded by lodgepole forests.
We discovered a shallow inlet where the water was only a couple of inches deep in some parts, and realized that this inlet was actually a hiking trail on the perimeter of the lake. Normally dry, the trail and surrounding area had been flooded with an unusually high amount of snowmelt this year, and unknowing hikers had to wade across this mini lake!
The majestic horned Cathedral Peak, which we summited in 2008 on an overnight backpack trip, loomed above the heart of Tuolumne Meadows.
We passed many a roadside waterfall…
And the biggest one of all roared down a wall of smooth granite in a series of ice cold cascades.
As it was a holiday weekend, I’m not sure what possessed us to keep driving into Yosemite Valley, a solid hour from the east entrance in no traffic.
Perhaps it was this view…
Or the fact that seasonal waterfalls like Horsetail Falls, one of the highest in Yosemite, were still gushing in full force.
And even though a typically short drive through the Valley turned into a four-hour traffic jam to rival the worst of Los Angeles’ snarls, we did have a very nice view outside our window.
Who can complain about that?