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Hiking, Starving & Freezing on Sentinel Dome

Two brothers' trek through Yosemite National Park.

Last summer, we vacationed in Yosemite National Park. This 1,190 square mile utopia is easily one of the most scenic areas in the US and is ranked among the most beautiful destinations on earth. Everything here is massive: the mountains, cliffs, falls, pinecones—a sharp contrast to California’s delicate food portions and dainty water supply. Reminiscing over our two-week adventure brings back warm fuzzies to our hearts and gnawing pangs to our stomachs. (We were always hungry on this trip.)

Yosemite Lenscape: A Travel Montage on Vimeo.

In preparation for this grand trek, Jon got a glidecam, travel-size tripod, neutral density filter, and ballhead. We also made a last-minute trip to TJ Maxx and Ross for backpacks and athletic wear.

Not wanting a bunch of luggage to complicate travel, we challenged ourselves to fit everything into one bag each (except camera equipment). To pull this off, we packed with minimalist efficiency.

Packing like a pro.

  • Computer and accessories (charger, headphones, etc)
  • Cosmetics (travel-size when possible)
  • Clothes
    • 3 moisture-wicking shirts (not cotton)
    • 2 pairs of shorts
    • Pants (wore on the plane to save room)
    • Cold weather jacket (wore on plane). Here’s a top-rated down jacket that stores into its own pocket.
    • Lightweight sweater (wore on plane)
    • Hiking shoes (wore on plane)
    • Compression pants (for extra warmth)
    • PJ’s
    • Bathing suit
    • 5 pairs of underwear
    • 3 pairs of athletic socks
    • Gloves

With some creative packing and folding, we squeezed a two-week trip into one daypack apiece (we love these 15-liter and 17-liter bags).

Yes, if you habitually bring a few bags for a major trip, you’ll find this quite the shift, but we both agree that we didn’t really sacrifice anything to go this light. How many of your shirts and fancy jeans come home unused after a trip? Keep that in mind and pack only what you will absolutely use on a daily basis. In lieu of a stash of sweaters and jackets, pack multipurpose clothing that will layer well. For sub-30° weather, plan on a 3-layer system of a moisture-wicking shirt, down jacket, and windbreaker.

Yosemite

Day 1: Sunday, May 10

We arrived bleary-eyed at the Atlanta airport very early in the morning and got a lift from an unusually chipper shuttle driver to the terminal. Having “digital tickets” on our phones and keeping liquids/technology in easily accessible compartments made check-in and security a breeze. Jon brought us the breakfast of champions while we waited by our gate:

Breakfast of hungry champions.

Our assigned seats were originally on opposite sides of the airplane, but an obliging passenger swapped seats with us so the three of us could sit together! Josh read the Giver, until we passed through some nerve-wracking turbulence that felt like racing a shopping cart down a flight of concrete stairs.

We were surprised to find San Francisco cold. And gray. Not the most exciting introduction to the West Coast, but the train ride was fun! We indulged a second breakfast of luxurious apple fritters and Pete’s Coffee.

Car rental was a pain because the agency wanted to overcharge us for the young driver fee, but we were able to negotiate it back down thanks to Jon’s backup reservation. Lesson of the day: don’t be intimidated by car rental agencies. Rates are insanely lucrative and change on a whim. Find a manager and get it fixed.

Our ride.

After haggling over the car rental, we hit the road for our final stretch to Yosemite. We stopped at Chili’s midway for munchies. Josh got Cajun chicken pasta, and Jon got this mouth-watering sweet-and-smoky burger:

Burger envy.

Since we were about to drive into the middle of nowhere, we made a grocery stop at the next door Target, then a Starbucks stop (S’mores Frappuccinos and raspberry swirl pound cake with our birthday gift cards!). Had we but known how long it would be before we tasted coffee again…

There was plenty of scenery during our three-hour drive to Yosemite. The yellow plains soon grew into mountains, shadows lengthened, and Josh ignored it all while reading The Giver in the backseat. We drove through canyons looming higher than we could see out the window. Finally...our lodging! Cedar Lodge is one of a few places remotely close to the park entrance, and they have two pools and a hot tub. The lodge also boasts a fabulous front-seat view of mountains covered with arid bushes and grasses. That evening, we began our sumptuous diet of lunchmeat sandwiches, almond milk, peanut butter smothered bananas, and Gatorade.

Sharing a queen-sized bed took a lot of getting used to.

Day 2: Monday, May 11

We woke up much later than we had planned. After a meager breakfast of peanut butter bananas and cereal (the fridge froze our poor almond milk), we headed out to witness a beautiful sunrise atop the mountains. Although Cedar Lodge is one of the closest hotels to the park, it still took a half hour to reach the park entrance.

Silky rocks.

Just past the entrance, we pulled up beside a rocky river. Jon snapped some photos and video footage with the glidecam while Joshua played gaffer boy.

Jonathan framing a long exposure.

After hanging out by the rapids for far too long, we sneaked in a quick visit to Lower Yosemite Falls before heading back to the hotel. Same sunset, same dinner. Today’s lesson: almond milk separates after being frozen and becomes inedible.

Day 3: Tuesday, May 12

This time we journeyed deeper into the park and explored Wawona Road for the more iconic Yosemite sites. The Tunnel View framed an incredible triple-punch shot of Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and Half Dome.

Tunnel View

A left onto Glacier Point Road took us up thousands of feet into the nosebleed zone. Nothing around here is a short drive...it took over 30 minutes to ascend to Glacier Point. Thankfully, our car’s satellite radio had a classical music station, which perfectly complimented the sights (and always lost connection at the most stirring portions).

Washburn Point

We stopped at Washburn Point halfway up, which was mind-numbingly surreal. A steep, rolling drop and a front seat view of Half Dome makes you feel like you’re sitting on a giant amphitheater. Jon shot plenty of video footage.

Half Dome

After some nauseating hairpin turns on the cliffside, we arrived at Glacier Point...the parking lot at least. The hike to the actual spot is only steps away, making this the easiest hike we’ve ever made in backpacking history. We found out quickly how much altitude affects temperature (i.e. it was freezing). Also, our diet of “starvation” left our stomachs gnawing for grub. Fortunately, there was a hiking tourist trap gift shop up there.

The tourist trap at Glacier Point.

We grabbed several packs of peanut butter crackers. (Since this trip, Josh has fallen in love with peanut butter.)

We could only take in the landscape for so long; Jon wanted to capture some sunset pictures, so we feasted on crackers and Gatorade in the car for two hours.

After hanging around, we headed back down Glacier Point Road and stopped at the trailhead for Sentinel Dome. While not as trite a hike as Glacier Point, it took no more than half an hour to reach the top. Consequently, we arrived an hour earlier than we expected, so we had to weather punishing winds while awaiting the sunset. We had worn shorts and compression pants expecting 50’s weather, but the blustery 40’s kept us huddled together on a bare rock. Josh played Daphnis et Chloe on his phone to pass the time.

Path to the Dome

Thankfully, Providence took pity on us poor souls: we met some German angels who had a stash of chocolate they wanted to part with, which we hungrily wolfed down. At the time it was the best chocolate we had ever tasted.

Sentinel Tree

Back on El Portal Road, we had a stunning evening view of El Capitan and the tall pines.

El Capitan

Jon nearly got run over while frisking about the pavement with his glidecam, while Josh insisted that a hippie-looking van should be featured in the photo album.

Day 4: Wednesday, May 13

The next morning, we returned to the Sentinel Dome trailhead and hiked up to Taft Point; much of our video footage is from this stop. Its claim to fame is a 7503-foot sheer drop into Yosemite Valley. Two tightropers had set up their equipment between the ledges—good thing they had a safety net! We never got to see them walk it.

Taft Point

We retraced our steps back into Yosemite Valley and up a new road—Tioga Road—that splits off just past the park entrance. With the elevation change, the temperature dropped significantly. The snowy stretch lasted an agonizing hour and a half, but our destination, Tenaya Lake, was absolutely worth the exhaustion and bathroom jokes.

Tenaya Lake

Surrounded by a vast assembly of green firs and set at the foot of snow-capped mountains, this lake habitat belongs on the front cover of National Geographic.

Tenaya Lake

Day 5: Thursday, May 14

Due to the continuing snow (yes, in May), Tioga Road was closed, so we headed south to see the Redwoods. Whispers of mutiny over insufficient rations prompted us to pick a destination that would take us conveniently close to a town, so we headed to Mariposa Grove. Because parking is rarely available at the Grove, we parked at the Wawona Hotel and General Store for the shuttle stop. While we waited for the next bus, Josh spotted lupine and braved the snow/rain mix to get an up-close view.

After a nerve-wracking cliffside bus ride, we arrived at Mariposa Grove to find the trails packed with tourists likewise braving the snowfall. The mammoth trees were interesting but seemed overrated. Josh and Mom both smuggled a colossal pinecone under their jackets. (Those jackets still have sap on them.)

S'mores Frappuccinos

With our day rained out, we drove down to Oakhurst for some Italian food at Di Cicco’s. It was quite good, though not as rich as its Californian price tag. After dinner, we went to Starbucks for delicious S’mores Frappuccinos.

They had these awesome Yosemite metal prints in their shop, too!

Metal print of Yosemite.

Day 6: Friday, May 15

The morning was overcast. We visited the misty Bridal Veil Falls, which was less than stunning after being spoiled by more jaw-dropping views. Still, upheld between fog-capped groomsmen, the Bride was worth the short hike.

West Coast Tuscany

From there, we went up Big Oak Flat Road and took some footage at a hidden road called Yosemite National Park Road. The mist played to our advantage and set the tone for a dramatic, Tuscany-like landscape. Josh gawked at more lupine.

Lupine.

In Yosemite Valley, we spotted a panoramic view and crawled along the cliffside wall to catch it (the road was too narrow for a pedestrian lane). Josh’s pants discovered bird droppings while we shot and was obliged to take off his jeans with only compression pants on. No fun.

Hole under the Mountain

Day 7: Saturday, May 16

We desperately hoped Tioga Road would be open on our last day in Yosemite, but found out at the park entrance that it had been closed. Disheartened, we headed back to Glacier Point and dropped Mom off to paint. We then made for the “U-turn” just before the Glacier Point parking lot, which afforded an unobscured panoramic view with Half Dome. Jon shot some time lapses and we scrambled up a giant rock to get a sweeter view of the U-turn.

Ever On and On

Later, we were delighted to learn Tioga Road had reopened for the day, so we seized our last opportunity to see Tenaya Lake again. Along the way, we drove through impressive pockets of snow between on-and-off rainfall.

Tenaya Lake

Jon grabbed some time lapses and long exposures of the Lake, Mom labored on a new painting, and Josh slept in the car eating espresso bean trail mix. On the way back, we stopped by Yosemite National Park Road for a purple-and-orange sunset—a majestic finale to our visit.

Burning Sunset

Monterey

Day 1: Sunday, May 17

We checked out of Cedar Lodge in the morning and hit the road, bearing west toward the coast. Per tradition, we stopped at Chili’s and Josh ordered the famed sweet-and-smoky burger. A 3.5-hour commute landed us at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Monterey, CA, where Jon would be teaching a course. The accommodations were ironically outdated and skimpy considering the sky-high prices, but we had somewhat acclimated to that from Cedar Lodge. California seems characterized by sticker shock and mediocrity.

Escape Route

While Jon had dinner with his students at Asilomar, Mom and Josh headed over to the artist haven Carmel-by-the-Sea for a coastal sunset and some locally baked goods!

Sunset at Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Day 2: Monday, May 18

Josh hung out in the Social Hall for the morning, then went piano hunting around campus. (None were in tune, of course.) He even espied a Steinway...rudely locked up in a conference venue. By chance we discovered that seaglass was common to the area, so Josh dragged Mom to a stretch of beach behind a dumpsite and filled a grocery bag with keepsakes.

Day 3: Tuesday, May 19

While Jon taught, Mom and Josh traveled along the West Coast toward Big Sur, where gargantuan waves threatened to engulf the beachline. The wild groundcovers were exceptionally colorful: earthy reds, cabbage purple, and a million shades of green. Josh snapped plenty of pictures of the coast.

Big Sur

For the evening Josh and Mom explored Carmel-by-the-Sea and checked out Dametra Cafe. According to Google Reviews, getting a table here without a three-day reservation is unheard of, but we miraculously got a table immediately. This was authentic Greek cuisine at its finest. The two owners from Greece and Jordan had partnered up to found this special restaurant. They personally visited each table and explained the recipes to diners for a personal touch. We even had live entertainment!

Josh ordered the Great Greek Salad, featuring one amazingly tasty salad accompanied by freshly-baked pita bread, and Mom got traditional Moussaka, which looks much like lasagna. Packed with eggplant, meat sauce, cheese sauce, and a secret ingredient (cinnamon), this became our favorite eclectic comfort food. We even found a recipe to recreate this culinary experience. (Note: it’s not high on the health meter.)

We didn’t order dessert and were ecstatic when they brought us a beautiful slice of Baklava to split. Of course there was sauce delicately drizzled all across the plate. This was by far the best restaurant experience we’ve ever had—and one we’ll never forget!

Day 5: Thursday, May 21

Jon hosted a movie night for his students while Mom and Josh visited Carmel-by-the-Sea again and smuggled back some assorted truffles. That evening we ate well: truffles, almond milk, and some of Jon’s movie night snacks, all in front of the glorious Social Hall fireplace.

Day 6: Friday, May 22

Beach without Sea Otters

Jon had not yet seen the West Coast, so we retraced our steps toward Big Sur for the day, then headed north to the San Francisco airport for an overnight flight. We had burritos at the Urban Tortilla while waiting by our gate. Big mistake. The flight went from 10 PM to 6 AM (with the time change), and while Jon was a happy flyer, Josh didn’t sleep a minute of the flight. By the time we landed at Atlanta, he was obliged to visited the airport facilities three times.

When we got to the parking lot, Jon found his car battery had died (at which point Josh nearly lost it). We picked up Chick-fil-A biscuits on the way home and landed in bed at noon.

It's Been a Year, and...

Bixby Bridge

This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience—one we’d do all over again in spite of dead batteries, perpetual hunger, shared mattresses, and frozen almond milk. There’s a reason Yosemite National Park maintains its coveted status as the most beautiful national park in the US, and a year later our hearts still flutter at any reference to this western paradise.

In tribute, we compiled our video footage and took social media by storm with the resulting nature montage, Yosemite Lenscape. Check it out!

Jonathan Martin

Jonathan Martin

Globe-trotting digital nomad and fine art landscape photographer from Atlanta, GA. Pretty pictures on 500px and Flickr.

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