One of my bucket list items is to visit every national park. It’s a fairly ordinary goal for people, but the US National Park system is one of the great gifts of our forefathers to future generations, and I want to experience all it has to offer. Despite living in California my entire life, there are four national parks I’ve yet to visit right here in my own home state: Channel Islands, Lassen Volcanic, Redwoods, and Pinnacles. So a few years ago I put together an itinerary that hit three of those four, in addition to Crater Lake which I also had never been to. I figured I’d do it with my kids once they got a bit older, and I still might. But I found myself with a free week between Christmas and New Years this year, so decided to go. And then the government shutdown happened.
I debated for a while whether I should still go. I read about what was closed and what wasn’t at each park. Then I decided it would be even more of a story to tell during a shutdown, so on December 27th I departed home for Yosemite.
I got out of the house late on the 27th, so I was chasing the light the entire time as I headed north. The weather heading through the Grapevine was spectacular. Low clouds wiping overhead at breakneck speeds made you feel the wind despite being comfortably enclosed in the car. Once over the pass I stopped for a quick lunch at Tejon Ranch and then onward towards Yosemite.
Yosemite was cool, but not cold. Unfortunately everyone coming in thought there was ice at every turn and was driving accordingly. I’ve honestly seen cars from the 1920s drive faster between the Wawona Hotel and Tunnel View. This slowed me down by about ten minutes and caused me to miss the end of the golden hour, but I made it in time for the blue hour.
I tried to race up the trail to the overlook above Tunnel View, where you can get much better pictures than at the parking lot, but was too late and missed the light. It was an inauspicious start to my trip.
Once it got dark, I headed down into Curry Village to see what this government shutdown looked like, but found everything operating normally. I had already cooked myself dinner, but grabbed a slice of pie at the cafeteria and then hung out in the lounge for a while. The lounge is my favorite building in all of Yosemite, it is one of the beautiful restoration projects that Architectural Resources Group has done.
Once it got late enough, I found an empty parking lot near Happy Isles campground to sleep for the night. In preparation for this trip I built myself a platform so I could sleep in the back of my car. This worked wonderfully. As I fell asleep, I could look up out of my rear window and see the stars above me. It was one of the most peaceful nights sleep I’ve had in a long time.
I set my alarm to wake me before the sun so I could catch the pre-dawn light. At this hour, during the shutdown, Yosemite was empty. I didn’t have any specific pictures I wanted to capture, so I drove around to see what caught my eye. As I walked up to Lower Yosemite Falls, a six-point buck came walking through the forest. He and I walked along together, side by side, for twenty minutes. I was truly communing with nature. Of course, my skill in wildlife photography is lacking, so none of the pictures I took are worth sharing, but it was a wonderful experience. I felt a bit like Cinderella or Snow White.
Since I’ve lived in Southern California my entire life, I have never had an opportunity to drive through the west entrance to Yosemite before. It is always wonderful seeing parts of a park you know well that you’ve never experienced before.
I got on the road late, again, and had to chase the light all the way into Lassen. I arrived in the park just as the sun was setting, and the mountain was a beautify shade of pink. Unfortunately, I did not have time to find a clearing where I could get a good picture, but I did have a chance to explore a bit and figure out where I could get some good shots in the morning.
Once it was dark I backtracked a few miles to a little place called Shingletown. I figured I could find some real food, and I came across a pizza place that looked to be the only place open in town. They had no problem with me camping out at a table in the corner while I edited photos and recharged my batteries. After a couple of hours there, I headed back into Lassen.
Despite the shutdown, the Lassen visitors center parking lot was well plowed and level, so I decided to stay there for the night. Once again I set my alarm to wake me before the sun, I was going to go on my first snow shoeing expedition in the morning.
I planned to hike around Manzanita Lake, and hope I could get some good views of the frozen lake with the mountains in the background. I’m glad I did, this was the most productive two hours of photography I’ve ever had. The rising sun lit up the wispy clouds over the mountain in pink and orange, the frozen lake was peaceful and quiet. No matter what else happens on this trip, this morning in Lassen will make the entire thing worth it.
I headed out of Lassen fairly early in the morning, so I didn’t have to rush to catch the light at Crater Lake. It’s a good thing I did. I arrived at the entrance to Crater Lake around one in the afternoon. Unlike Yosemite, which was operating normally, or Lassen, which was open but unstaffed, Crater Lake was completely closed to cars and had Park Rangers guarding the entrance. They were letting people hike into the park, but it was a 15 mile round trip with nearly 2,000 feet of elevation gain. There were enough people doing it, and it was early enough in the day, that I decided to make the hike too. I didn’t make it to the rim.
As I got further into the park, I saw more and more people turn back. Fifteen miles is a long way, and it was 20 degrees out. As I got within about a mile from the rim, the clouds started closing in. As my visibility dropped to about 500 feet, I decided to turn around and head back to the car. I was so close, but it no longer felt safe. I wanted to get back under the cloud cover.
The hike back was one of the hardest of my life. Between the hike around Manzanita Lake in the morning and the hike up to Crater Lake, I had put about 17 miles into my legs in a single day. I’ve only hiked that far once or twice before in my life. On top of that, it was all in my snow boots, not my normal hiking boots, so my feet were hamburger. Amazingly, despite the low temperatures, I was never once cold.
Once back at the car, I decided I didn’t feel like sleeping there for the night and headed down the mountain to a place called Jo’s Motel I had seen on the way in earlier in the day. Thankfully they had one room left. I took my first shower in three days, swallowed down some ibuprofen, and had a good, long nights sleep.