Eric and Beth's Yosemite Flat-Fixing Trip

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Yosemite. Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California describes Yosemite Valley as, "America's archtypical glaciated landscape, an object lesson in what enormous valley glaciers can do with an enormous mass of granite." It's a gorgeous landscape, full of waterfalls and amazing geological features, such as El Capitan, above. The valley is up to 1,600 m deep (1 m), according to Wikipedia; most of it is roughly 1,000 m (3,300 ft). This makes for some truly spectacular scenery.

Eric and I try to do an overnight bike trip every year, and this year's choice was from Lonely Planet's Cycling USA West Coast, called Yosemite's Western Gateway. It started from the Yosemite Bug Hostel in a town outside Yosemite called Midpines, and followed California Route 140 up into Yosemite Valley. I had driven up Route 140 once before with my mother, and remembered it as absolutely gorgeous. Since we were going in September, Eric was able to get us a camping reservation at Curry Village in the valley. I have never been able to get a camping reservation in the valley before; in the summer, even booking six months out, I've always ended up at Hodgdon Meadow or Tuolumne Meadows. The ride was listed as moderate-hard, but both the Bug Hostel and Curry Village had tent cabins with cots, so we did not have to bring any shelter or bedding. Cooking was also not allowed in Curry Village (because people leave food out for bears), so we didn't have to bring dishes or cookware, either. The ride was 55 km (34 mi) each day, which is slightly higher than our usual 50 km (30 mi), but we've done 90 km (55 mi) in a day before with all the camping gear. I had been afraid of low mountain temperatures this late in the year, but the weather was forecast to be spectacular. Without any camping gear, this should be the easiest bike trip ever.


The Yosemite Bug Hostel

Our first problem did not involve a bicycle at all, but a motorcycle. Specifically, it involved a motorcycle that went down on I-580, our route out of the Bay Area. While we had left not at an optimal time, but still at a reasonable time, the motorcycle accident added half an hour to our travel time. I'm sure it was worse for the motorcyclist than it was for us, but it got us off to a late start. One of the problems with bicycle touring away from home is that, in addition to the time you need for cycling, you've also got to plan on driving time. We arrived at the Yosemite Bug Hostel just after 22:00, and so didn't get to bed as early as we had hoped, and so couldn't get up on Saturday as early as we'd hoped.

We enjoyed the Bug Hostel, even though we didn't have time to enjoy the hot tub (it closed at 22:00) or any of the yoga classes or spa treatments.

The Bug Hostel had several of these bug sculptures. Photo by Eric.

The inside of the main common room at the hostel, with a real mountain lodge atmosphere. Photo by Eric.

One of the decorations was a relief map of Yosemite Valley. Photo by Eric.

I loved these antique cameras above the mantelpiece.

A wedding reception would be taking place at the hostel the next day. We were entertained by a sign for the reception. Photo by Eric.

The whole hostel was built on a steep hill. We had to park in the upper parking lot, and we got the last space available there. If we hadn't gotten that one, we would have had to park far, far up the hill. Our cabin was fairly far up the hill.

Tent cabin from the outside. Photo taken by Eric, obviously the next morning. This was an insulated cabin with an electric heater inside, so I didn't need to worry about being too cold.

Inside, the cabin was fairly spacious. It had space for four, one double bed and two twins. The mattress and box spring on the double bed were sagging very badly, while the two twins had mattresses on hard cots and were much more solid. I didn't want to start the trip out with my back killing me, so we rearranged all the furniture so that the two twin beds were together.

By the time we got to sleep, it was 23:45. I had wanted to get eight hours' sleep, but decided to settle for getting up at 7:15.

In the morning, we showered (after retrieving soap from Sydney), packed up our cabin, and put the furniture back the way we had found it. We had a very nice breakfast in the hostel dining area. We ate in a lovely room with large windows overlooking a garden. I had buckwheat pancakes with fruit and Eric had an egg burrito. We took a few minutes to explore the hostel and see the large hot tub, which was being refilled.

I heard some birds squawking like parrots, but they turned out to be woodpeckers. I was hoping I was going to see some exotic mountain woodpecker, but they are more common woodpeckers, either Hairy or Downy. I am guessing Hairy because they were relatively large.

Since the hostel was so steep, and there was space available in the lower parking lot in the morning, I decided it would be worth the time to move Sydney down the hill. It was steep enough that, other than for aiming correctly into the new parking spot, I did not have to engage the engine at all. I knew we would be grateful the next day not to have to climb up to the upper parking lot.

Of course, with all this, it was 11:00 by the time we got started. There was a geocache at the Bug Hostel, at the bus stop out by the roadway. But it was full of people, so we skipped it.

The Ride

The trip started out with a steep descent, from about 700 m to about 350 m (about 2,400 ft to about 1,200 ft) in the space of about 5 km (3 mi). We would have to save the energy to climb back up that at the end of the day Sunday. The elevation profile of the ride in Lonely Planet's Cycling USA West Coast showed that we would be mostly climbing for the rest of Saturday, so that most of Sunday would be spent descending. The road would go gently uphill back up to about 700 m (2,400 ft) for about 30 km (20 mi), then steeply uphill into Yosemite Valley (up to about 1,200 m (4,000 ft) in about 10 km (6 mi)), and then we would ride through the glacier-flattened valley for about 10 km (another 6 mi).

The road was as lovely as I remembered. Photo by Eric.

Photo by Eric.

Before we got very far, we stopped at a scenic overlook. I chatted with a couple visiting California from Finland while Eric not terribly discreetly looked for a geocache that he did not find. I felt badly that I didn't even know how to say hello in Finnish. The couple had an adorable Mustang convertible with the top down. We would see many of these cars on the road, and I suspect they were all rentals.

We entered federally-preserved territory.

Route 140 is so beautiful because it runs along the Merced River.

We finally found our first geocache of the day, and it was a good one! It had a geology lesson--we were among some very old rocks, which had once been under the Pacific Ocean.

Here are the rocks themselves.

In the river, Eric spotted some fascinating chert across from the oldest rocks. Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California tells us that the area has rhyolitic chert, made from the shells of ancient crustaceans.

While we were looking for the cache, I noticed that some of the vehicles ahead of us had been waiting for a traffic light up ahead for an extraordinary long time.

Apparently, a landslide or rockfall or some other mountain hazard has forced a closure of one of the lanes of the road along an approximately 1 km (.6 mi) stretch where the road crosses the river. We jumped on our bikes when we saw the light turn green. Fortunately, we made the light, and it gave us enough time to get through the stretch before traffic started coming from the other way. This could have been a very scary situation, as the road was not really wide enough here for both a bike and a car.

About the time we were getting hungry for lunch, we came upon this lovely park with gazebos.

I think these were actually the grounds of a lodge on the other side of the road, but no one was around, so we had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch in one of the gazebos.

We stopped to use the restrooms at a gas station in El Portal, the last town along our route, just before the climb would steepen. We had a fun conversation with a lady from the London area who came to visit the US every year and often visited Yosemite. Eric noticed that the thermometer read 95F (about 35C). We would be climbing in some heat. Photo by Eric.

This was the last place to buy gas for quite some distance, as several signs proudly declared that no gas was sold in Yosemite Valley. The laws of supply and demand were clearly in effect.

We began the steep climb, in the burning heat. Eric has a low tolerance for heat and needed to stop frequently to catch his breath. What with all of our other summer travel, we had really not had the time we needed to train adequately for the trip. I had remembered the road as shady, but it turns out the shady parts were in Yosemite Valley.

The scenery, however, was gorgeous.

One major annoyance along the road (about which the guidebook had warned, describing this section as "not for the squeamish") was this low rock wall. There really was nowhere to go if a car passed too closely, as several of them (particularly those with trailers) did. The rock wall ran along the road most of the way from El Portal to Yosemite Valley. Photo by Eric.

About halfway up the hill, we entered the park. Photo by Eric.

We were fascinated by this rock overhanging the road. Photo by Eric.

The river was lovely, and the cool water seemed very tempting. Photo by Eric.

Eric took a picture of some fascinating rocks along the road. Notice the narrowness of the road and the lack of a shoulder. This was originally a train route.

As we approached the ranger station, Scheherazade suddenly started to feel very wobbly. I looked down to discover that her front tire was flat.


I announced my predicament to Eric. The ranger overheard me and asked whether we were equipped to change the innertube. I said that we were, and she pointed to a picnic area just up the road where we could swap out the flattened tube. We had to pay $10 each to enter the park, which just didn't seem fair, as we would have paid $20 for both of us to drive in with Sydney. The ranger told me she agreed with me completely and gave me a comment card to fill out.

At least we had a pretty place to change the innertube. I removed my spare tube from my bag while Eric inspected the tire for hazards, finding a piece of glass. I had many, many bitter things to say about people who threw things, particularly glass things, out of car windows. Eric noticed that I had bought the wrong size spare tube (it was a narrower tube for a road tire), but we figured it would work well enough. Out of an abundance of caution, Eric told me to save the punctured tube.

Eric put the tube in the tire and onto the wheel and then pumped it up, using our new Morph RoadG Master Blaster pump. This is a small pump light enough to carry on a bike, but with a little foot stand so you can use it standing up. We found out about the Master Blaster last year at a bike touring class at The Missing Link, and, after our adventure trying to repair a flat tire using only a hand pump on top of Mt. Tamalpais last year, we knew we needed a Master Blaster of our own. We were very glad we had made this purchase.

At this point, I noticed that the tread on the tire was facing the wrong direction. Eric tried to insist that the handles for taking the wheels on and off should be on the same side of the bike. I felt it was more important to have the tire tread going in the right direction. Eric agreed to turn the wheel around.

However, as soon as we started riding again, I noticed that my cyclometer was not recording data. Of course, Eric said. Now the magnets were on opposite sides of the wheel. Rather than rechanging the tire, Eric moved one of the magnets to a different spoke on the other side of the wheel. At last, after about 45 minutes, we were on the road again. It had become obvious that, given the lateness of the hour, we would be doing no more geocaching that day.

We loved these rocks over the road. Photo by Eric.

As you can see from the picture, the hour was becoming late. We still had more than an hour before sunset, but I was afraid we would still be riding along this narrow road in the dark. Too many drivers had come too close to me, and I had become quite frightened. I was trying to enjoy myself, but I was scared. To make matters worse, as the sun lowered, copious numbers of gnats emerged from their daytime slumber and began to hover around our heads. As we were still climbing steeply, we were not riding fast enough to rid ourselves of these monstrously annoying beasts.

But I couldn't let my fears and annoyances get in the way of some artistic photography of the slowly setting sun.

This picture was taken at the same spot, a few minutes later, as the view became more and more dramatic.

As we approached the valley, fascinating geologic features came into view. Photo by Eric.

I took a closer-in shot.

At last, we entered Yosemite Valley proper, the terrain flattened out, and the road became two lanes in one direction. We had to turn our lights on by this point, but I was enormously relieved. Photo by Eric.

The sun was setting on El Capitan. Photo by Eric.

A close-up of El Capitan's top.

Bridalveil Falls in the setting sun.

The same falls, a couple of minutes later.

The sun was still shining on Cathedral Rocks.

Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Falls together.

Curry Village

After that exciting (if dim) tour of Yosemite Valley, as darkness finally fell, we entered Curry Village, our lodging for the night. You'll see from the photo that it looks a little, well, loud.

I have been to all sorts of campsites, from developed RV sites, to undeveloped walk-in sites with chemical toilets and no plumbing, to primitive backcountry sites where we had to hang our food from a tree. But I have never seen a camping area as developed as Curry Village. As we drove into center camp, we were surrounded by people. In September! I heard the desk clerk at the check-in counter tell someone that the campground was entirely full. A bunch of hippies sitting in the middle of a pathway showed us where the bike parking was. A lot of people rent bikes in this area, so fortunately, there was plenty of space for Boing and Scheherazade.

We went up onto a large patio filled with people sitting at picnic tables. There was a line for pizza and another one for a bar. We wanted something a bit better than pizza, and it was becoming somewhat chilly for me, so we went inside. We had heard there was a taqueria, but someone told us it was closed. There was a $15 buffet, a window for a cheaper grill, and a number of large television screens displaying a college football game. I felt as if I were in a sports bar. Eric waited in the grill line while I found a tiny empty table. I had a grilled cheese sandwich with mushrooms, and Eric had a Yo-Vege-Mite burger. We shared some fries. You know, they're good for replacing lost potassium.

Our cabin was very similar to the one at the Bug Hostel. Eric had chosen to pay an extra $10 for an insulated "signature" cabin with an electric heater. Curry Village is so expensive that the cabin cost $110 for the night. Photo by Eric.

Inside, the cabin was very similar to the one we had had at the Bug Hostel, but the double bed had a hard pad under the mattress with supports underneath. We were able to sleep in it. They even supplied towels.

We made a plan to get up at 6:45 (getting a full eight hours' sleep this time), and tour the park until noon. We agreed that we would leave the valley at noon, which would allow us plenty of time to get to the hostel by 16:30, planning generously on a full hour for the uphill climb at the end. We would sneak into the showers there and have dinner there (we decided sneaking into the showers would be OK if we were paying for dinner), and leave by 18:30. That would be enough time for us to get home by 22:00, plenty of time to unpack and go to bed, with some margin for error.

I confessed to Eric my fears about going down the road the next day. We would be on the side with the rocks, not the side with the river, so there might be blind curves around to the right where we could be squashed.

"We should feel triumphant after climbing all the way up here," I said. "But I don't feel triumphant; I just feel scared."

Eric told me that the faster we would go, the safer we would be, because, as we approached the speed of the cars, fewer of them would pass us. I told him I would do the best I could to go a little faster, but that I surely didn't want to fall down.

We took showers that night, partially so as not to sleep in our sweat, but also to avoid crowds and lines in the morning. In the bathroom, I took a look at myself in the mirror, and noticed that I looked like someone who had been outdoors all day. My cheeks may have been a little bit sunburned. I looked like an adventurer, and I took some pride in that.

As usual, I worried about all the wrong things.

What I should have worried about.

Last updated: 09/20/2011 by Eric and Beth Zuckerman