Despite growing up within 2 hours of Yosemite, I have only vague memories of the rare trips to that venerated national park. One cloudy memory feels more like a childhood adventure movie, like Stand by Me, like The Goonies, like Super 8, like The Sandlot, stories about coming of age and feeling older than you actually are. That foggy film that plays over and over in my head when I think about Yosemite is when I camped for a few days just before my 12th birthday with a friend and a few of his distant relatives. One thing that stands out to me in this recollection is the absence of adults. My friend’s grandparents, aunts, and uncles were there, I know that, but I don’t even recall having meals with them, let alone having them there to take care of us and make sure we didn’t get lost in the vast wilderness that surrounded us. To me, that memory is preserved and improved by my perceived missing supervision. We were just a few kids, camping on our own, riding bikes through the park, walking through open meadows, hiking up to waterfalls, creating our own adventures.
I can remember a few specific memories: my friend’s cousin and I climbing the misty trail to Vernal Falls near sunset and lounging around the lake. I can’t remember exactly what we talked about, but I feel now like it was a profound and deep conversation; it’s hard to imagine, though, what a couple 12-year-olds would actually philosophize about. I can remember filming a home video at our campsite, a high production value cut of Robin Hood, thanks to the beautiful natural scenery provided by Upper Pines. I remember a phone booth at the end of the campground, where my friend’s 11-year-old brother and I walked together once so he could call his girlfriend, me there for support and him with a sheet of paper, a list of conversation starters, in his hand to give him the confidence to dial her number. I remember hours of card playing, slapping our hands down on matching pairs and straight runs to try to collect the entire deck.
Forming such great memories at such formative years, it would be tough for Yosemite to ever live up to that. But Kierstin and I, along with a handful of friends, spent a few days in July for my first camping trip in Yosemite since that great adventure nearly 15 years ago, and despite my romanticized perception of Yosemite Valley, we had a spectacular time. Hiking, sun bathing, eating, drink, and games – it was the typical formula for a fun camping trip – but set in the most beautiful and well-preserved natural scenery in California, and among the best in the United States. It’s just not the same as a quick day trip with a specific hike in mind. The park is profoundly majestic, and it’s the short walks taken, even just something as simple as getting firewood at the local store, that reveal snippets of Yosemite that you don’t catch if you’re not there to camp. There’s a good reason that the likes of John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ansel Adams revered the natural landscape, what is now Yosemite. We had an incredible experience camping in Yosemite.
The weather was phenomenal when we arrived. We drove from Modesto, past Oakdale and through small mountain towns, climbing to the valley floor. It was a mini-caravan, Jawsem and his girlfriend following Kierstin, Daniel, and me. We each had one end of a two-way radio so that we could play 20 questions to pass the time. When we got to the park though, the radios were set down. Our first view of Yosemite was taken in without distractions. The Merced River winded against the road, white water following the tortuous path to the lowest point. Meadows, green with tall grass, and forests, trees trying to touch the sun, passed by. Our destination was Upper Pines, across the street from where I camped over a decade before. The boughs of the forests stretched far in all directions at our campsite, shading us from the sun, and keeping the temperature warm enough to wash over us comfortably, not too hot that we were sweating miserably. Every breath of the pine forest air was brand new; every single time I am away from paved roads and concrete buildings, even after all of the places that I’ve been for weekend getaways and long camping trips, mountain air feels so good each time rushing in and out my lungs.
Two friends from Santa Barbara met us at the campsite, and we set up camp on the dirty forest floor. Kierstin and I were nearly glamping, having borrowed her parents’ truck and choosing to sleep in the camper shell. After the tents were pitched, the hammock was strung between two trees, and the food and drinks were organized and set out, we went out searching for trails. That first day was spent on a short hike. Dogs aren’t allowed on the trails in Yosemite, paved roads only for our furry friend, and so Kierstin and I just ventured to the trailhead before parting ways with the rest of the group. They made the popular trek up to Vernal Falls while Kierstin and I explored the banks of the Merced River. We stopped at a small bend in the river to let Simba splash in the water. It’s not clear whether dogs are allowed to play in the river, and so we hesitantly let him plop down in the water to cool off. He was definitely content in the icy water. We made it back to camp a little bit before sunset. There was enough time to cook dinner and start eating before the light was lost behind the trees. We ate our fill of slow-cooked tri-tip, blackened on the edges, along with fresh veggies grilled in butter and salt and pepper. And of course, there were delicious s’mores around the campfire for dessert. The night ended perfectly; we took a midnight stroll to the boardwalk in the center of the valley. We laid on the planks set in between the grassy meadow and watched the night sky, free of light pollution, and the millions of stars above. The Milky Way could be easily spotted from the middle of Yosemite Valley. The quiet of the evening felt good.
Day two of Yosemite saw two of our group leaving us; Jawsem and his girlfriend had to catch a flight back to Texas later that evening. After a morning of board games, the rest of us found a rocky beach near the river. It was warm enough outside that the cold water was refreshing as long as it wasn’t more than waist-deep. Another dog was bounding in and out of the river, and so we gave in and let Simba in, although we were still unclear about any rules against it. After that relaxing afternoon at the beach, Kierstin, Dan, and I trekked over to Yosemite Falls. There are a few paved trails that dogs are allowed on, and the Lower Yosemite Falls is one of them. It’s an easy walk through the valley, past the village, and up a paved asphalt road to the flowing falls. It was nearly dusk when we walked back, and we had a perfect view of Half Dome glowing orange from the setting sun. A simple camping classic, grilled hot dogs topped with chili and cheese, was the last meal of our short trip. We had to leave the next day, but not before spending another few hours on the beaches of the Merced River. Laying on the warm, coarse sand next to the slow-flowing stream, we were creating new memories; it was a new adventure, a new film reel to play back in my head, to look back on when I think about friends, good times, and Yosemite.