Sunday, October 23, 2011

Yosemite National Park - Amazing Sights, but it's the Disneyland of National Parks!

Yosemite National Park has amazing scenery.  Incredible, giant rocks surround a lush, green valley filled with not only pine, but also sugar maple and oak.  Much of the park is at lower altitudes, making it incredibly lush compared to the High Sierra that we have been hiking around Mammoth Lakes.

The fall colors were just starting, but I imagine that Yosemite will be spectacular in a week or two.  Look at that maple in the bottom right of the picture below.

We were amazed that the waterfalls were still flowing this late in the year, even if at a fraction of their spring volume, so we got lucky there.  Maybe in the spring, Yosemite will make a better impression when the water is flowing full bore.

Unfortunately, you can't escape the fact that Yosemite also features 4 million visitors a year, and it seems like all 4 million try to crowd into the Valley.  It also seems to be staffed by volunteers, and most people in uniforms that we encountered had only superficial knowledge of the area.  It was quite a change from Glacier, Yellowstone, and the Tetons, where every person in a uniform that we spoke to seemed to have a geology degree.  The ranger-led presentation we attended at the Lodge on the geology of Yosemite was great, and the presenter obviously knew her stuff, but she was the exception rather than the rule.  We have obviously been spoiled by the high caliber of the staff in the aforementioned Parks, so Yosemite's volunteer staff were a bit of a let down. 

When we first arrived in the Yosemite Valley, we went straight to the campground reservations booth to check out the waiting list for a campsite on a Tuesday morning in the "off season".  Unfortunately, the off-season doesn't really seem to exist here at the moment, and the list was about thirty names long before noon.  Next, we checked out Camp 4, which showed as "open", but when we got there, it looked more like a gathering of the Rainbow People than a campground (and to be clear, I'm not saying that it is a gathering of Rainbow People, just that it looks a lot like what I encountered at "the Slab" in Ocala one March when I stumbled onto a gathering of Rainbow People).  We bailed quickly on the Valley, and headed south to Wawona.  This turned out to be the right move.  The Wawona Campground was open, and clean, with plenty of sites available in the early afternoon.  It was entertaining to get back from a day of hiking, and sit in our campsite enjoying a freshly cooked hot meal of white chili or black beans and rice, and watch a few dozen cars and RVs who hadn't hit the campsite lottery in the Valley race around the Wawona campground trying to find an empty spot.  We ended up sharing our sight with fellow tent campers every night - once with a nice young couple from Israel, once with some hard drinking Dutch, and once with a couple from California.

Despite this evening rush, Wawona was a good spot to pitch the tent for the week.  There was a Pioneer History Center less than a mile down the road.  The Wawona Hotel next door had wireless access, and a restaurant if I needed a night off from cooking.  There is also the Tenaya Lodge just outside the park, where we enjoyed a hot meal and a fizzy soda one night when our son was feeling a bit green around the gills due to the time spent driving back and forth on the winding roads of the Park.  Glacier Point was about an hour away, as was Yosemite Valley, so most days began and ended with the same drive, and three days of this and a recharged Nintendo DSi gave him a brush with car sickness that was miraculously fixed with an orange soda and a cheeseburger.  Finally, there were good hikes and the Mariposa Grove seven miles down the road from Wawona, which, while crowded, were nothing like the trails in the Yosemite Valley.

We had previously been through the Muir Woods north of San Francisco and seen the coastal redwoods, but the four-mile hike through the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias was stunning.  The parking lot and the lower trail is crowded, but few people actually hike up the path to Upper Grove at the top of the trail.  There is a tram that runs up and down a paved road, but it runs infrequently enough that we hiked in almost complete peace and privacy to the top.

When you reach the top, near the "museum", the giant trees scattered about with bright green spaces between presents a scene that tops anything we saw in Muir Woods.

If you look carefully, you can see my wife at the bottom left of the picture above, and of course, the "museum" is in the center background.  This is truly one of those "places of power", where you stop and stand in awe of what surrounds you.

Angels BBQ, Mammoth Lakes - So Much More than BBQ!

We hadn't tried Angels BBQ until recently, and what a mistake.  It isn't the BBQ that we were missing out on, however.  It wasn't bad, and it wasn't great...and unfortunately, Angels BBQ has to share this blog with Wilson's BBQ, which is a tough act to follow.  Thankfully, we asked our server for a few recommendations, and she pointed us to the Fish Tacos and the Chicken Tostada salad.  Both were fantastic!  The Fish Tacos were so good that my son almost bit the end of my finger off as I shared one with him.  No lie.  My fingernail is black!

Another plus for Angels BBQ is the Hop Ottin' IPA, which accompanies the fish tacos nicely.  My wife gave the thumbs-up to the Chicken Tostada salad below.

Our son went with the pulled pork sandwich, which scored a solid average on the BBQ scale.  If you're craving BBQ, it will satisfy your need; but you can get a sandwich that tastes like the one below at just about any BBQ shack on the side of the road from Florida to North Carolina or Texas to Tennessee.  Next time, maybe he'll order something a bit higher up on the BBQ difficulty scale, and we can re-rate Angels BBQ.

Finally, the Boysenberry Pie at Angels BBQ is fantastic, even though you may want an extra scoop of ice cream to top it, so save some room.  The Deep Dish Apple Pie could use a lot more brown sugar and cinnamon, but we're big fans of Apple Crisp rather than Pie, so we could be biased.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Convict Lake Camping - Fall Colors near Mammoth Lakes, CA

Wow, what a wonderful weekend to be camping at Convict Lake!

Yes, that is our son playing a massively multi-player online game...but he did walk 5 miles earlier in the day, so it is computer time earned.

A stream full of trout, golden aspen, blue skies, temperatures in the just doesn't get any better than this!

This is our campsite with the morning sun rising in the east, lighting up the face of the mountain opposite.  You should have seen this same scene at moonrise last night.  The granite rock face caught the moonlight like a silver veil, with the crevices as black as the dark side of the moon.

Our second hike around Convict Lake started by crossing the bridge between the campsite and the resort.

We found this hornet's nest on the trail near one campsite.  Our son joked about chucking his walking stick through it...six hours later, he was stung by a bee on the trail around the lake.

Pictures just don't do this place justice....

Coming from the deciduous forests of the Appalachians, I'm used to the entire mountain turning colors.  Here in the Eastern Sierra, it's more like amazingly bright yellow, red, and gold paint has been poured wherever there is water runoff.

The views around the lake are spectacular at this time of year, with the color on the leaves, the color of the water, and the color of the mountains.

Best of all, after the hike, we get to hang out in the bar at the Restaurant at Convict Lake, watch some football, and have their indescribably delicious Chocolate Ganache dessert!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Snow in Mammoth Lakes, CA - Oct 5, 2011

We had about a half-dozen inches in town, and Mammoth Mountain is reporting 15 inches!  Another couple inches expected tonight as well, before fall returns by week's end!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Season is Changing

When we lived in Conway, near Orlando International Airport, the noise of the jets landing and taking off was ever present except on the week of 9/11/2001.  Within a few weeks of buying our house, we replaced the old "contractor-grade" windows with double-paned sliders and regained peace and quiet.

Here in Mammoth Lakes, the change of seasons sounds like a dozen jets landing at OIA.  In our sheltered hollow on the leeward side of the mountain, the pine trees don't move, but you can hear the wind screaming down the valley below where the Eagle Lodge sits at the end of Meridian Road.

I believe that I'll have pictures of the first snow of the year to post tomorrow!  I just watched the first cloud of snow flurries dumping past the window...cast off from the wind whipping down the valley below. 

Time to wax the skis and snowboard, and make some hot chocolate!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sherwin Lakes Trail followed by happy hour at John's Pizza Works, Mammoth Lakes, CA

The Sherwin Lakes trail head is convenient from Mammoth Lakes, CA and is easily found by taking Old Mammoth Road to Sherwin Creek Road.  On Sherwin Creek Road, you'll see the sign directing you to turn to the Sherwin Lakes Trail head pictured below.

Turn up the dirt road, and continue until you see the sign below directing you left to the trail head parking lot.

The trail head is clearly signposted.

The parking lot offered plenty of room, but we are in a quiet week for the area - the mountain bikers and fishermen are gone, and the snow has not arrived yet.

The trail is the usual extremely well-maintained High Sierra path.  It meanders slowly up through the woods, crossing Sherwin Creek on a small bridge.  It appears that horses use a small path a few feet upstream of the bridge to cross.

After a short walk through the woods, the trail begins a series of switchbacks that rapidly cover the main part of the ascent on this walk.

After negotiating most of the switchbacks, you're rewarded with spectacular views of the town of Mammoth Lakes and Highway 395.

After a short, more or less level walk through a recently burnt section of forest, the largest of the Sherwin Lakes reels you in.  In the distance across the lake, you can see a mountain stream splashing down the rocks.

This path to the right is inevitably where you will go on your first visit here...the views of the lake are too tantalizing to resist.

However, if you backtrack a short distance and take this left fork up the hill through the burnt trees, you come to a path that follows the lake shore and passes through three beautiful campsites.

The nearest site is a short walk from the fork in the trail mentioned above.

The next is on the far side of the lake and sits on a bluff offering beautiful views.

The third campsite sits just above the splashing creek, and offers plenty of room and well-spaced trees if you're sleeping in a hammock.

We saw fish jumping everywhere in Sherwin Lake.  During a picnic by the falls where the creek tumbled into the lake, we watched dozens of trout leaping in the rapids for fun or food.  We will definitely be returning to camp here in the future!  The round trip is about 4 1/2 miles, and we passed a number of people walking their dogs (all wet from a dip in the lake) both coming and going.

Of course, with the usual morning exercise and this hike, we felt a happy hour would be appropriate, so we stopped in at John's Pizza Works and Outlaw Saloon for the first time.  I enjoyed the Mammoth Brewery ale on tap, my wife liked the double gin and tonic, and our son was all over the pizza, wings, and the Taco Wedgie!

What's a Taco Wedgie, you ask?  Descibed as "taco meets calzone", it sounded like a gut-busting, doughy carb-fest.  We were amazed when it arrived with an incredibly crisp thin crust wrapped around a nice taco filling.  It turned out to be the hit of the happy hour!  If it had been served with a nice, fresh salsa instead of the taco sauce, I would have had to order two!  I can imagine one of these stuffed with any number of ethnic dishes - Chicken Curry Wedgie, Fajita Wedgie, Chili Wedgie, the list is endless!

The happy hour menu at John's Pizza Works offers great value, but the food is good enough that you'll still spend more than you think as you work your way through multiple rounds of pub grub and big ales!  I'm sure that makes John, and me, happy!