Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Yosemite in high season

We are at the Lower Lee Vining Forest Service campground (map), along Lee Vining Creek, perhaps three miles west of the eponymous town at the junction of Tioga Pass Road and US-395.

Monday morning we got a fairly early start (for us, anyway), leaving the Oakhurst Elks by 9:30 or so. I wanted to make the ascent into the park in the cooler part of the day, and I also knew that just before noon would be the best time to try to score an unreservable camp site, as noon is the official checkout time.

As always, the drive through the park was wonderful and scenic. With outside temperatures in the 70s and the low park speed limit of 35, Odyssey had little trouble with the enormous climb, although we did heat things up enough to cook some more oil out of the exhaust -- I will sure be glad when it is finally all gone and we don't have to smell it any longer. I bet the folks driving behind us felt the same way.

We arrived at Crane Flat around 12:30, a bit later than planned due mostly to two stretches of park road under one-way traffic control for maintenance. One of those stops was so long we ate our lunch -- no big deal for us, but we detected a palpable sense of frustration among the other drivers in line with us as we approached the 20 minute mark. In any case, we arrived just in time to grab the last 35' (nominal) camp site (map), which accommodated us easily and was actually a lovely spot. As I expected, though, it was under the trees, so we were unable to deploy the satellite dish. As a side note, Crane Flat is 50% (of 166 spaces) first-come-first-served, yet it is not listed at all on the Camping Without a Reservation page; perhaps that's why there were still plenty of spaces left at 12:30.

We observed that Yosemite Valley was, unsurprisingly, a complete zoo as we rolled past on the way to Crane Flat. Nevertheless, we were able to get a 5:30 dinner reservation at the Ahwahnee Hotel, an old favorite of ours. We rode back down the hill on the scooters, roughly 20 miles to the hotel. We had left ourselves plenty of time, in case we got caught in the construction again, but this time the delay was just ten minutes. So we decided to ride around the valley a bit, and see what we were missing at the valley campgrounds (100% reservations-required).

I have to say, our digs at Crane Flat were much nicer. The Upper Pines campground was absolutely cheek-by-jowl, and the Lower Pines only a little bit less so. Many sites had four or five tents in them, and the six-person limit per site seems to be widely ignored. Had I managed to book a site in one of these camps (several sites popped up briefly as available during my search, but all would have been a gamble on fitting us), we would have had the advantage of free shuttles to valley destinations (including dinner), and swimming in the Merced River nearby, but we would have been miserable from the crowds.

If we had, in fact, managed a site in the valley, we might have spent more than one night. But that was plenty for us, Yosemite veterans as we are, and we broke camp yesterday morning to head over the pass. Again, cool temperatures and a fairly low speed limit meant the climb from 6,200' at Crane Flat to 9,600' at Tioga Pass was fairly uneventful, and I only had to turn out a handful of times. We stopped briefly near Tenaya Lake for lunch, and again at Tuolumne Meadows for a bathroom break and to stamp our passport, which had somehow escaped it thus far.

The back side of the pass always makes for exciting driving, and even though we did not burn a single drop of fuel on the downhill run, I still had to pull over once to cool down, just from the retarder shedding that much heat into the engine coolant. I still had to stab at the brakes a few times even with the retarder engaged, but we made it down without heating either up excessively.

The drive over the hill is physically tiring, and we decided to stop at one of the half dozen Forest Service campgrounds on the eastern slope. This is actually the last one in the eastbound direction, and it turns out to be a lovely spot. We are in a lush grove of aspens, with wide separation from other campers (unlike in the park, where we opted to turn the air compressor off overnight to avoid disturbing the tenters). If we intended to stay a few days, we could choose a spot next to the river and set up the hot tub; since we are just passing through, we opted for a more isolated space closer to the entrance. There are nearly 60 sites here, but you wouldn't know it from the entrance or where we are parked.

Today we will make a quick stop in Lee Vining for some groceries, then continue east on 120 to the state line. We call this section of 120 the "whoop-dee-doo" road, because it traverses a set of rolling hills that give the road a roller-coaster aspect; when we've done it on motorcycles we've even gotten "air" on some of the hills. We will endeavor to keep Odyssey firmly on the pavement. That will connect with US-6, which will take us all the way to Tonopah, Nevada, where we will need fuel. From there we have a choice of three directions, and we will pick one tomorrow morning based on the weather outlook.


  1. Hi Sean & Louise~
    I met you briefly about 5 years ago when you visited Silver Strand State Beach in Coronado. My husband, Woody, and I are getting ready to hit the road now that I've retired. Something we bought for our 5th wheel is a mi-fi. It's a cellular high speed modem, router, and a wi-fi hotspot all in one unit. It's about the same size as an iPhone. It runs on batteries or plugged in. We bought ours through Verizon. We pay $60 a month for 5 Gigs a month. It goes almost as fast as the cable at home. You might want to check into it as then you wouldn't have to park in the open for your satellite dish. We love it.

  2. @Sandybee: We have considered 3G cellular, and occasionally still think about getting it as a backup to our satellite. (Specifically, I am thinking about changing my Blackberry over to a plan that allows tethering, which would more or less fit the bill.)

    Sorry to say, though, that most such devices would not work at Crane Flat, nor at many of the places we park. The Mi-Fi router requires access to Verizon's 3G cellular network to work.

    Neither of us had a signal at the Crane Flat campground -- I have Sprint and Louise has Verizon. Although I was able to make a phone call about half a mile away, at the gas station, by standing in just the right spot and holding my arm up just so :)

    Since we park so many places that have no cell signal at all, satellite Internet is a better choice for us, but we acknowledge that 3G cellular is a better choice for many others.

    I like the Mi-Fi product because it is well packaged, compact, and battery operated, which makes it a good choice for travelers working out of a suitcase. However most RVers would probably be better off with a more generic 3G-to-WiFi router that accepts USB or PC-Card 3G "air cards." This will let you choose an air card that accepts an external high gain antenna, which will increase coverage in those marginal signal areas (one may very well work even in Crane Flat and other parts of Yosemite). Of course, with the Mi-Fi you can always just put the whole unit up on the roof in low signal areas to increase range.

    Another advantage of a more generic router is that the Mi-Fi "Personal Hotspot" ties you to one carrier (Verizon); switching to, say, Sprint would require replacing the whole device, whereas with a split setup, you would merely need to insert a different air card.

    The service plans for the Mi-Fi unit and normal air cards are the same. I admit, when 3G is available, these connections are much "faster" than our satellite, but the 5gb limit would also be a significant issue for us. Our ~$65 per month satellite plan is more like a terabyte.

    It really all comes down to how you use your rig and your internet. One of my stock seminar topics at rallies is wireless access on the road, and I discuss the pros and cons of 3G cellular, satellite, and subscription Wi-Fi services.

    BTW, congrats on your retirement (from teaching, wasn't it?). We do remember meeting you at Silver Strand. I am sorry to say that the reservation system now in place there likely means we will not be able to return; on our last excursion to San Diego we ended up staying at Shelter Island instead.

    Good luck in your travels, and perhaps we will meet again on the road.

  3. OK. You're WAY over my head in tech knowledge. I'm more of a plug and play sort of a gal. You're right about the mi-fi's limitations. Every Christmas we travel to an area of Colorado that has iffy cell service reception. That will be the test for us. At the moment, we're not bloggers. But, that might change once we hit the road. Maybe then we'll need to have multiple ways to access the internet. But, that's Woody's dept. I just plug and play~or not.

    Wow. Your memory is impressive. Yes, I retired from teaching (Kindergarten). 37 years was enough.

    I know what you mean about the Silver Strand. You probably now that Ahhhhnold wants to close some State Parks. SS is on the hit list. Or, at least it was last time I checked (which was a long time ago).

    Maybe we will see you on the road.

  4. Sean & Louise,
    I'm envious of your trip through Yosemite and the eastern Sierra. Some of my favorite distinations are on backroads and lakes between Sonora Pass and Bridgeport. Many adventures there (most of them good). Nice memories of camping with our tiny little boys and their grandparents. Then trips with much bigger boys. One time we even serendiptously ran into my dad's half-brother at a lake in the middle of the Hoover Wilderness. I looked up at this man who looked so much like my dad and said "Uncle Craig????." Sure enough, and I marched him and his girlfriend back to our campsite where my parents were also camped. We spent the next week traveling through the Sierra together. I hadn't seen him in 10 years and my boys had never met one of the nicest characters in the family.
    I love your updates. --Donna D.


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