Monday, May 18, 2009

Yosemite Part 1: Any Room at the Inn?

We enjoyed our stay in Arcata, but a guy can only see so many dreadlocks and yoga pants before looking for a change of scenery. We headed just a little ways down the 101 to Ferndale, CA, a one-horse town renowned for its Victorian architecture and quaint Main Street.

My Lonely Planet guidebook told us that we could camp for a modest fee - hot showers included - at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds in Ferndale, so we followed the signs when we arrived in town. The fairgrounds are located a couple of kilometers outside of town in some pretty serious agricultural country. We weren't sure the camping rumours would be true, but sure enough we found a field adjacent to the county racetrack that had a few ramshackle motor homes amidst the overgrowth and a hand-painted red-and-white sign that said "Camping Check-In". The sign pointed to a trailer that could not have had half as much furniture inside as it did outside.

Ten dollars later we were setting up our tent at the edge of an unkempt field across the street from a fine bovine herd on one side, the county fair grandstand on another and a scrap tire yard on yet another. It would seem that they don't get too many one-night visitors at the Humboldt County Fairgrounds (except during the fair, we were later told), as eyes peered out from behind tattered screens and rickety front doors of each of the ten or so trailers and motor homes that lined the field, watching our every move as we set up the tent and settled in for the night. A couple of young road trippers from Canada were the front page story for the fifteen hours we were camped at the fairgrounds, as every time we went to the bathrooms or walked off the property, locals made sure to find a reason to be standing in front of their trailers or in their windows to get a good look. I'm not sure if it felt more like a scene from Deliverance (backwoods creepy) or Snatch (bare-knuckle boxing gypsy creepy), but either way I wasn't sad to be leaving on Tuesday morning, the back-in-time charm of Ferndale not withstanding.

The coast had been good to us, but it was time to head inland a ways. After a one-night stopover in Ukiah, CA we headed to Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada Mountains therein. It being midweek and early May at this point, we were looking forward to some time in the woods away from civilization. Everyone knows that National Parks are mobbed from June to September, so we were psyched to think we were ahead of the rush.

We were surprised, then, when we arrived late Tuesday night and found an "All Campgrounds Full" sign taped to the unoccupied entry booth in the Southwest corner of the park. Slightly confused and a little but unnerved, we turned around and set up camp in a dark and primitive campground (no picnics or brushing of teeth allowed, because of bears) about forty kilometers outside of the park.

We rolled in to the park again, for the first time, on Wednesday morning. We were told that all of the reservable campsites in the park were taken, but that the walk-in and non-reservable Camp 4 might still have a few spots left. Camp 4 is located on the floor of the Yosemite Valley, a good half-hour's drive from the entry to the park, so we booted it there as fast as we could, knowing that if we got shut out from Camp 4 our Yosemite experience might be in serious jeopardy. Again, this being the supposed off-season, we were taken aback at the amount of traffic we saw driving in, but we plowed on undeterred and were relieved to get one of the last sites available in Yosemite National Park.

How to describe Camp 4? It's a walk-in only campground, where everyone parks in a dusty lot and walks in to their site (we were about two hundred metres from the car to our tent). People are camped on top of each other, six to a site with, one meagre set of washrooms (no showers) serving all two hundred and some campers. Set in the shadow of Yosemite Falls and the iconic El Capitan, Camp 4 is renowned among rock climbers, who seemed to comprise at least 90% of the residents of this strange little village that was one part campground, one part music festival, and one part parents' basement. Twenty- and thirty-somethings who could probably be doing something more productive with their lives are the norm (present company proudly included), but the duct-taped gear and mac-and-cheese diets belie the diversity of the campers. Once the headlamps get turned on around the picnic tables at night you are just as likely to hear conversations about how "Siiiiick, dude" the nose route of El Cap is as you are to get recommendations on where to get sushi in Berlin or whether The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer's best work.

Tents and bear-proof food storage cabinets at Camp 4. You really have to hope your neighbour doesn't snore.

The full campsites and traffic heading from the park entrance to the valley (where most of Yosemite's commercial and slumbering activity takes place) had given us some cause for concern, but I don't know that either of us were quite prepared for the total gong show that would await us after we set up in Camp 4 and made our way to the beehive that is Yosemite Village.

The village is the hub of Yosemite National Park. Three and a half million people visit the park each year, and it seemed to us on Wednesday afternoon that 2009's entire allotment had checked in that afternoon. There were gift shops (and one "souvenir clearance outlet") swarming with tourists browsing the floor-to-ceiling t-shirts. Others clambered over each other in line at the full service grocery store, and still more were found in line at the plethora many eateries in the village, or on their way to the 18-hole championship golf course. It was like a dusty Disneyland, with all of the jostling, noise and aggravation of a major tourist trap and none of the anticipated tranquility or even mutual respect one anticipates when entering a national park. We had paid twenty bucks (the entry fee to the park, per car) for the privilege of fighting crowds for parking spots and roadside views, and were both feeling pretty demoralized.

Thursday was better, however. After the confusion and frustration of Wednesday, we checked out of Camp 4 into the more serene and natural North Pines Campground, and had a wonderful day of hiking 10 miles (round trip) to the top of Yosemite Falls - North America's highest waterfall, plunging over 2,000 feet to the valley floor. Watching the water unfurl as it leaped over the falls and billowed its way into the streams below and hearing its jet-engine roar that could only have been soothing in this particular setting was just the therapy we needed and left us feeling like we'd had a real day in the woods. We looked forward to a rest day on Friday and then a climb of the mighty Half Dome on Saturday.

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