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Experiencing Yosemite and Lake Tahoe with Grand American Adventures

El Capitan

Story and photos by Bart Beeson

It’s difficult to truly appreciate the scale and sheerness of Yosemite’s El Capitan monolith until you’re standing right beneath it. The rock wall rises up from the valley with a jarring suddenness. On a recent trip to Yosemite, my first time to the park, I spent a long while gazing up at El Cap, as it’s known, just taking it in. To further underscore its vastness, I could just make out a few tiny specs of color on the wall: climbers on their way up. As someone with a moderate fear of heights, the mere thought of being thousands of feet up secured only by ropes made me feel slightly queasy. A visit to Yosemite had long been atop my list of places in the U.S. that I wanted to visit, and just seeing the towering El Capitan in person made it worth it.

I had come to California to participate in trip organized by Grand American Adventures, which bills itself as small-group adventure specialists. My group consisted of nine people, including myself and the guide. Never having participated in a similar kind of group trip before, I did have some trepidation going into it.

What if the other people were loud and obnoxious? What if everyone just wanted to drive from spot to spot and take pictures, without taking the time to explore?

My concerns were quickly put to rest during the meet and greet over some wine at a San Francisco hotel – my fellow travelers were friendly and seemed excited to get out and about. And I quickly learned that one thing you’re almost guaranteed to have in common with other participants on such a trip: a love of travel. Many of the conversations over the next few days revolved around sharing past travel experiences and discussing what was on our respective destination bucket lists.

Our trip was called “Yosemite and Tahoe In-Depth,” a seven-day journey that included certain activities such as a guided hike and boat cruise, six nights hotel, some meals, the services of a tour leader, and private transportation in a comfortable mini-bus. My only quibble with the trip was that its title was a bit of a misnomer – rather than an in-depth visit to Yosemite and Tahoe, it was more of a taste of northern California. Not that I was complaining – going into the trip, I knew that in order to truly do either location truly in-depth you would have to spend more than a couple days there.

Whale Watching off Monterey

We began by making the roughly three-hour scenic drive down Route 1 from San Francisco to Monterey, stopping on the way to admire the coastal views. Eventually we made our way to Monterey’s Old Fisherman’s Wharf for a whale watching expedition. After a brief ride out into the bay we started seeing the telltale spouts, and then the shapes of the arched backs followed by the tail flukes: humpback whales. Over the course of the next several hours we watched as a various groups of whales repeatedly dove and then resurfaced several minutes later. A knowledgeable guide spoke over a PA system, providing interesting facts about the whales and the bay.

The Half Dome

From Monterey we made our way to Yosemite, stopping first at the recently reopened Mariposa Grove forest, where we took a short hike to take in the Giant Sequoias. Our next stop was Glacier Point, getting our first real views of the park. While I had seen many photos of the park before, it was still breathtaking. I was particularly taken in by the famous Half Dome, which stands out from the other rock formations with its smooth rounded side and then sheer face. From a certain angle, I couldn’t help thinking there was something slightly ominous about it, like the profile of a hooded wraith-like figure. The last stop of the day was down in the valley, watching the shadow of the setting sun work its way across El Capitan and imagining the intrepid climbers preparing to settle in for the night.

The view from Yosemite Falls

The next day it was time for our big hike – a roughly nine-mile round trip trek past Yosemite Falls (dry at that time of year) to Yosemite Point. The trail gets right to the point, climbing 1,000 feet in the first mile, and then another 1,700 hundred feet to the top of Yosemite Falls. One of the oldest trails in the park, it’s been extremely well-maintained despite the heavy traffic – with lots of switchbacks, rock- retaining walls, and even some rock-paved sections.  A local nonprofit organization, the Yosemite Conservancy, provided us with a guide who regaled us with information about the park’s history, its geology, and the raging wildfires that forced the park to close for nearly three weeks this past summer (in some parts of the park you could still spot smoldering trees). She also told us that our timing couldn’t have been better, explaining that at that time of year (mid-September) there were only five to ten percent of the crowds that are on the trial in the high season. The views from the summit were spectacular, and as is always the case, I appreciated them that much more having put in the effort to hike to the top.

Up next on the agenda was Lake Tahoe. But first we got to spend the morning driving through Yosemite, stopping at Olmstead Point (named for the famed Central Park landscape artist) and the picturesque Tenaya Lake, before exiting through Tioga Pass and driving down what is most definitively proclaimed as “the most scenic mountain road in all of California” by a roadside plaque.  After spending most of the day in the car, I was looking forward to arriving to Lake Tahoe, but I had to admit I was somewhat underwhelmed by it upon pulling into the city of South Lake Tahoe. The town itself, which straddles the Nevada and California lines, has a bit of a strip-mall feel to it. It wasn’t until the next day that I was really able to appreciate the beauty of the lake.

Lake Tahoe.

Our group got an early start, and headed off to hike the Rubicon Trail, a lakeside path that winds along the shore, passing through two state parks: D.L. Bliss and Emerald Bay. Looking down to the lake from the trail, you could immediately appreciate the clarity of the water and the striking range of colors, from a translucent emerald green to the deepest of blues. After a couple hours of hiking, we reached the aptly named Emerald Bay, where I rented a kayak and paddled out to Fannette Island to explore the remains of what was once a small teahouse and to take in the views of the bay. After heading back to land, I hustled to explore the rest of the Rubicon Trail, ending at Eagle Point, from where I had spectacular views of the lake. From that spot, I realized that all I had heard about the beauty of Tahoe was on the money. We finished the day on a sunset booze cruise from South Lake Tahoe to Emerald Bay, heading out on a 1950’s-era luxury yacht and listening to the guide tell us about the history and characteristics of the lake, such as the fact that it has an impressive maximum depth of over 1600 feet, and water so pure that it does not conduct electricity.

On our last day we made the drive back towards San Francisco, stopping briefly to explore Sausalito and then walking across the Golden Gate Bridge. We ended the trip as we began it, over glasses of wine at the same hotel, promising to share photos and videos. The week had flown by, and it seemed like just a day or two earlier we were meeting each other and discussing what to expect on the trip. For my part, the six-day trip was just enough to give me a glimpse of all the area had to offer, and I was already plotting a return visit to hike and camp in Yosemite.

Visit Grand American Adventures for details.

Bart Beeson is a Burlington, Vermont-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not travelling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.

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