This post is a continuation of my last post, California Trip, Part I: San Francisco, about Matt’s and my trip to California a couple weeks ago.
On Monday morning, we left San Francisco and drove down to Big Sur, of which I’ve seen beautiful pictures and heard wonderful things.
I’d read (thank you, internet) that two of the best day hikes were in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park just off of the renowned Highway 1, so we drove there, paid the $10/vehicle day fee in the parking lot, and went for two brief hikes.
One was not even a mile long round-trip, appropriately called the Waterfall Overlook Trail, just out to a wonderful overlook and back to the parking lot. The water was an amazing azure-to-turquoise ombré, and the beach’s sand was untouched and serene.
There were many other tourists at the overlook too, even though we were there in the morning on a weekday, which speaks to both the popularity of Big Sur and the accessibility of this particular overlook.
We then went on a longer, five-mile loop hike through the redwoods just off the coast, called the Ewoldsen Trail. The redwoods were pure magic.
The trees felt prehistoric, ancient.
The trail followed a stream, then broke away up a long, dusty incline. We had the trail practically to ourselves. At the top, we were greeted by yet another dazzling overlook.
The morning mist hadn’t quite cleared from the coast.
Matt and I attempted to make this hike a sort of trial run for the more intense hikes and climbs we anticipated doing in Yosemite National Park, so we rushed back down the trail toward the car to make time. On the way down, I managed to lose my footing (a theme, now?) and scraped up my left knee and the palm of my left hand pretty badly. I’m sure the other tourists in their sundresses and flip-flops were at least mildly alarmed at the sight (and smell) of me dashing down the trail, covered in dust and knee dripping with blood.
I took fewer photos on our Yosemite leg of the trip since bringing my camera along on the long hikes and climbs wasn’t practical, so many of the following photos are from Matt’s phone instead.
We continued our drive to Groveland, a small town outside of Yosemite National Park, to stay at the historic Hotel Charlotte, which was built in 1921. Each of the rooms has its own bathroom, which includes an adorable clawfoot bathtub. The owners were very kind and helpful, providing us with maps and advice for our trip to Yosemite. I was a disappointed that the adjoining restaurant was closed on Mondays, especially since the reviews are so stellar. The owners just completed renovations on the restaurant and bar, and it looked beautiful- lots of soft metals and reclaimed wood.
Our plan for Tuesday was to wake up super early, book it toward the Tuolumne Meadows area of Yosemite, and climb Cathedral Peak. Matt had reserved a campsite for us for that night in Tuolumne Meadows, which is at a higher elevation than the famed valley area of Yosemite, so it stays cooler in the summer and has more of an alpine feel.
In reality, we woke up semi-early, in time to swing by the local coffee shop in Groveland and pick up breakfast, drove the steep and winding (and slightly terrifying) road up into Tuolumne Meadows, and arrived at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead at about 9:30AM. We stored all the food we wouldn’t be eating that day inside big, metal, locking bear-proof boxes that sat on the ground at the trailhead, and embarked with our packs full of climbing gear, food, water, and sunscreen- the essentials.
Relatively early in our trek we diverged from the main trail onto the climber’s approach trail, which was less traveled and hard to discern at points, especially when it meandered on top of some very large, flat granite features. Cairns lit the way like lanterns. The trail eventually evolved into step after granite step. I felt exhausted from the combination of uphill and heavy pack, uncertain about our success. When we reached the bottom of the peak itself, the start of the climb, we stopped for some water and a snack.
We climbed the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak, which is a 5-pitch trad (short for traditional) climb rated at 5.6. Matt led each pitch, placing gear, and I followed, cleaning it. We deviated a little from the main route in order to follow a really fun hand-size crack section up the face of the peak. There were a couple of parties ahead of us, and a party of three behind us, so we had company the whole climb, but we didn’t feel rushed.
The summit of Cathedral Peak was quite small, maybe the size of a large dining room table.
We had expected a rappel station at the summit to assist in the descent (the climb up is just half the battle), but there was none. We searched around for several minutes, and found evidence of chopped webbing, maybe some chopped bolts, but nothing else. So I began to place my FIRST TRAD GEAR EVER ON LEAD while gingerly down-climbing from the summit of Cathedral Peak. Eventually the angle backed off and we were able to hike down.
John Muir completed the first ascent of Cathedral Peak via the Mountaineer’s Route (which we used to descend), about which he famously said, “This I may say is the first time I have been at church in California, led here at last, every door graciously opened for the poor lonely worshiper.” Thus the name- Cathedral Peak.
By the time we got to camp, set up the tent, and made dinner (ground beef, instant rice, taco seasoning, water, diced tomato, and cheese), the idea of waking up at 3AM to climb Half Dome seemed ridiculous. We decided to take Wednesday as a rest day, camp in the valley as planned on Wednesday night, and then climb Half Dome on Thursday instead. Our friends, University of Wyoming geology students, happened to be doing field work in Yosemite National Park at the same time we were there, so they met up with us at our campsite in Tuolumne Meadows to share a couple drinks before bed.
We had a leisurely breakfast at the picnic table, then parted ways. Matt and I went to a resupply/gift shop to stock up, then drove to our next campground to get set up early. It was considerably warmer in the valley than it had been up in the alpine meadows. We made lunch- mostly salami, cheese, crackers, and local beer- sat around, tried to jump start a fellow camper’s minivan (no luck; he called AAA), and reviewed our various pamphlets and maps. A little too buzzed to safely drive (hey, this was our vacation, after all!), we decided to hop on the park’s free shuttle to see some low-key (read: NO REAL HIKING) sites. We stopped at another store, hit up the Ansel Adams Art Gallery and gift shop, and did a slow-paced, relaxing one-mile loop hike on a paved “trail” to see Yosemite Falls which, at 2,425 feet, is one of the tallest waterfalls in the world. Unfortunately, on the shuttle ride to the trail, the bus driver informed us that, due to the drought conditions in California, there was no water to supply the Falls, and thus no real waterfall to see. It was kind of eery to watch tourists take photographs at the base of this nonexistent waterfall, pretending there was still something to see.
We went back to our campsite, made a quick dinner, and were in our sleeping bags before 9PM. Matt’s alarm went off at around 3:45AM. We broke down camp, packed up all of our gear, drove to the parking lot nearest the Half Dome trailhead, filled up another bear box, and began hiking at about 4:30AM. This was a little later than we had anticipated, but we had plenty of company on the trail.
A word about the trail- it was MOSTLY STAIRS. And not nice, carpeted stairs- but granite ones, with steps designed for a 6-foot-tall man with appropriately long legs. In a series of several moments (of which I am not proud), I *allowed* Matt to take some of the weight, in the form of water and climbing gear, from my backpack, which added weight to his. Something about getting moving that quickly and that intensely before sunrise made me want to vomit. I am sure I’m not alone in knowing this sensation, no?
Eventually the climbers’ trail deviated from the main Cables Route hike, so Matt and I split off left from the pack of hikers who had accompanied us thus far. After hiking about six miles with several thousand feet of elevation gain, I was tired, but there was still scrambling to do before the roped climbing could begin. As Matt can attest, I am the slowest at scrambling up rocks- not climbing, which is different, but scrambling, especially if the rocks are large, wobbly, and nerve-wracking. I believe that this was the point at which Matt seriously doubted whether we’d successfully complete the climb.
The climbing route we took up Half Dome is called Snake Dike which, according to Mountain Project, is 8 pitches of 5.7R. Matt again led each pitch, and options for placing gear grew fewer and farther between as we climbed. Toward the top, we chose to simul-climb. Instead of belaying Matt from a static stance like normal, in order to simul-climb, I climbed at the rate Matt did, keeping the rope relatively taut between us as Matt placed gear and I cleaned it. Simul-climbing is risky, but the climbing itself was easy (the angle was low), so we felt pretty comfortable with our choice.
The place at which the climbers summit is kind of on the opposite side of Half Dome from the hikers. After taking pictures, eating lots of beef jerky, and reapplying sunscreen, Matt asked a hiker, “Where is the Cables Route?” She looked at us like we were insane (we’d already taken off our harnesses and switched back into our hiking shoes) and pointed down at the way she’d come up.
The cables assist hikers up the last 400 feet of their ascent of Half Dome. Gloves are, understandably, recommended. After coming down the cables, I was so thankful we’d climbed the thing instead.
It was a 9.5-mile hike back to the car. The trail felt like it went on forever, especially the last couple of miles. Your knees grow numb from the incessant pounding. The fact that the last bit of the trail is paved, and packed with fellow hikers, didn’t really help. As an encouraging mantra, and looking forward to the end of our vacation, we kept saying to each other, “Beach and margaritas. Beach and margaritas.” We got back to the car at about 6:30PM, approximately 14 hours after we’d begun.
The plan from there was to drive to Santa Barbara, but we only made it to Fresno before stopping at a Holiday Inn Express and taking advantage of both their nice showers and their free-pancakes-until-midnight promotion. Upon walking in the front door, the man at the front desk immediately said to me, “Yosemite?” That obvious? Yep.
The next morning we woke up very slowly and painfully, sore and sunburned. After breakfast, Matt drove us down to Santa Barbara in time for some low-key surfing lessons with his cousin Kelsey. There is no photographic evidence of my first attempt at surfing, which is as it should be, to spare all parties of unnecessary pain.
Eventually Matt and I made up for lost calories with plenty of blood orange margaritas, ice cream, and seafood- a good way to end a vacation, I think. We met up with Matt’s family and caught up on sleep. We even squeezed in some climbing at a local crag called Gibraltar Rock with Kelsey, despite our very sore muscles. On Sunday I made my way back to Laramie via the Phoenix and Denver airports, but not without flight delays and missed connections, of course.
Many, many thanks to Matt, who not only planned the vast majority of this trip, but also did all the driving and most of the motivating. Thanks also to Matt’s family for putting up with us as well as putting us up. We can only hope we were coherent and presentable for the majority of the time you spent with us.
And, finally, what a way to say goodbye to summer! Today is the first day of autumn here in Wyoming- no snow in Laramie yet, thanks for asking. Until that day, I’ll just keep remembering that California sand and sunshine.
Love to all.