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Yosemite National Park

The Sierra sun bleaching the old  bones of  Yosemite and me.


Larry Turner


 I sit naked on a large flat slab rock overlooking an emerald green pool along the Merced River below Washburn Lake. A perfect day to whittle time away in the high country of California's crown jewel, Yosemite National Park.

My restpite comes after an active morning fly fishing for rainbow and brook trout. The tabular sheeted granite where I sit is formed like a staircase with small waterfalls leading to pools and the pools to another cascade and so on until the valley floor is reached where the river courses itself more gently to Merced Lake.

There is an exception to this though just above our Merced Lake horse camp where a spectacular small narrow stretch is squeezed tightly between the hard granite. The chasm is moderately deep and the current strong.

                                                                            Photo by Larry Turner

001MercedRiver.jpg (138576 bytes)     Merced River



Wherever one travels in Yosemite National Park, one marvels at the dynamic, potent scenery--the culmination and continuance of millions of years of volcanism, placation and erosion. Nothing in Yosemite suggests quiescence, passiveness or restraint. This is a grand land of immense rock formations, mighty mountain peaks, deep canyons, topaz and emerald lakes, charging waterways and wondrous waterfalls.


By horseback, friend Rick Ponte and I explore Yosemite. It was by horseback that Yosemite was first seen by Euro-Americans, the Joseph Walker party in 1833 where one declared "The precipices more than a mile high" which were "impossible for a man to descend." "Impossible to descend" or ascend has proven not to be so with modern mountaineers and rock climbers. Rick was the first to greet Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell on their historic 28-day ascent of El Capitan's Wall of the Morning Light. "When I peered over, there was Harding, an outreached hand away," remembers Ponte. Ponte had led journalists from around the world to the spot where the two climbers would ascend into legend. Yosemite's granite monoliths are a beehive of activity in today's climbing world.

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Ponte would be my guide and mentor during this Yosemite trip, his first return to the Park since l973. "I worked for the Curry Company's High Sierra Camp and Tuolumne Stables (which he headed) for 14 years," reminisces Ponte. It is here where he would meet his future wife Carol, daughter of Gino Ottonello, Yosemite's Federal Magistrate for 30 years. An expert horseman and horsepacker, Ponte on several occasions packed in legendary photographer Ansel Adams. Adam's large black and white images have illuminated the natural beauty of Yosemite like no others. "Ansel loved life. He was very friendly and loved by all who knew him," remembers Ponte fondly.

Early day photography and the eloquent writings of naturalist John Muir paved the way toward Yosemite National Park's establishment in 1890


Photo by Larry Turner

Yosemite Backcountry



Our September journey would take us from Tuolumne Meadows to Glacier Point. We selected late September because of the traditional good weather and a paucity of people in the backcountry. We would encounter few backpackers and no horse packers except for park ranger/painter Holly Nash, a self described "park brat." Holly had been tending Washburn Lake's summer park cabin when we encountered her one morning as she as packing out for the season with her loaded mules. Our sojourn would last a week.


Day horse trips and extended horse pack traveling in Yosemite is commonplace. Early park explorations were horseback, the trails were built by horseback. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan and many other dignitaries explored Yosemite on horseback . Supplies to the High Sierra Camps are brought in by horseback. "Ninety percent of the trails are on rock," says Ponte, "therefore, horses do little damage to the trails."

Rick and I traveled with four surefooted standardbred horses--two for riding, two for packing. Though we brought our own horses, horses can be rented (with or without guides) at Tuolumne Stables or Yosemite Valley Stables.

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Each pack horse would carry not over 200 pounds, evenly distributed on each side. The horses allowed us to carry fishing, photo and fresh food which otherwise would have been limited. Two bottles of good wine packed was another perk.

Watering Horses, Warburton Lake

Photo by Larry Turner


Leaving Tuolumne, quickly we gained elevation, riding through Cathedral Pass, beside stoic, chiseled Cathedral Peak (10,940 ft.) and along the edges of the beautiful alpine Cathedral Lake. A few miles past Sunrise Backcountry Campground we set up our first encampment along isolated Echo Creek. After caring for the horses, we slipped into the refreshing glacier polish pools to cleanse off the trail dust. Fishing for Eastern brook trout was plentiful, supplying us supper and breakfast.



Our Merced Lake encampment the following day would be our lowest (7250ft.) and warmest. We stayed several days, enjoying the scenery, day explorations, swimming, fishing, photography and camp reading. Other than a few backpackers, we had the area to ourselves.

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Rick Ponte greets hikers
Photo by Larry Turner

Tarrying the days away pleasantly trapped in the might, sheer beauty and poetry of Merced Canyon will never be forgotten. Granite, gin clear water, pine, fir and regal cedar rule this zone. In the first morning light we were treated each day to several three-point mule deer bucks drinking river water near our camp. Continually, we had sightings of Stellar jays, sapsucker woodpeckers, belted kingfisher, Oregon juncos, soaring hawks and the comic constantly bobbing water ouzel birds. Yosemite is home to 75 mammals species, 240 bird species and over 1500 different types of plants. One notable Yosemite tree is the giant sequoia, known to live 3200 years. John Muir reported one at 4000 years,



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Our last encampment was in a grove of large fir, pine and cedar along idyllic Sunrise Creek. Near our camp, we had a compelling view of Half Dome's bare solid rock bones.

I trekked several miles via foot from our camp one afternoon and climbed Half Dome's backside. It was a Sunday afternoon. No sooner had I left our isolated camp and hiked a mile, I ran into a human traffic jam on the main trail to Half Dome. Rick had warned," You'll be in shock when you hit the main trail. Some days, as high as 600 people in the peak tourist season (summer) come from the Valley floor to tackle Half Dome's backside." Without climbing gear, a hail and hearty trekker can reach Half Dome's summit via a cable climb, at times ascending nearly straight up the formidable granite. It is well worth the effort as Half Dome's summit views will inspire and humble. Provided are spectacular views of the Clark Range, Dana Peak (13,053 ft.), Mt. Lyle (13,114 ft.), Red Peak Pass, Star King, Clouds Rest, Tenaya Peak, Little Yosemite, Royal Arches, Yosemite Valley, North Dome, Muir Lake, Tenaya Canyon and Glacier Point.

I was the last to leave Half Dome's summit. In the last light of day, I trekked back to our camp, my heart in my throat, my soul soaring.

Later that night, we would encounter our first Yosemite black bear. Her raided our camp. A constant vigil of yelling and tossing of small stones kept him at bay the remainder of the evening. As Rick said," He made a mortal enemy of me when he ate my fig Newton's!" Bear proof food containers we added to our future Yosemite pack list.

Hiker Descending Half Dome

Photo by Larry Turner

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View from the top of Half Dome

Hiking the Ridge to Half Dome

Yosemite Backcountry Trail

Photos by Larry Turner


Our journey would end at Glacier Point, which offers astounding vistas in every direction, including 3200 feet below to the Valley's floor. Glacier Point offers the most sweeping views of the Park accessible by auto. En route that day, we passed Nevada and Vernal Falls. Of the world's ten highest free falling waterfalls, two are in Yosemite (Yosemite Falls at 2425ft and Sentinel Falls at 2000 ft.).

Contact Information: High Sierra Camp Reservations 209-253-5674. National Park Service 209-372-0200. Recorded Park information 209-372-0200. Live Park information 1-900-454-YOSE($l.95 first minute, 95cents each additional). Wilderness Reservation 209-372-0740. Weather and road information 209-372-0200. Visitor Center Tuolumne Meadows 209-372- 0263. Yosemite Online: http://yosemite.org. Yosemite National Park Home Page: http//www.nps.gov/yose/yo_visit.htm




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