sonoma county to first night in yosemite [travel journal continued]

In my last travel-journal entry, we had our last night in Sonoma County and were getting ready to drive to Yosemite.

We hit the road early, driving down to the Bay Area, then east to Yosemite. As we drove in and out of the Bay Area, the sky was frequently dotted with hawks, soaring and gliding over the vineyards. Little critters come to eat the grapes, and the hawks come to eat the critters. I love birds of prey (part of my thing for carnivorous animals) and it was beautiful to see so many hawks.

We stopped in the town of Tracy to do laundry, buy some food - and eat more In-N-Out! There was an In-N-Out billboard on the highway, which is why we chose the town for our pit stop. [Idea for phone app: In-N-Out locator.]

Past Tracy, it was all farmland, both cattle grazing on ranches and seemingly endless orchards. There are many farm stands selling corn, berries, peaches, almonds and "ice cold melons".

The drive in and out of Yosemite National Park is a long approach, up a winding road into mountains and through some tiny historic towns. Once you hit the park entrance, it's many more miles to wherever you're staying - which is part of the point. As I've mentioned, if you visit Yosemite or any other large US National Park, you want to plan ahead to be able to stay in the park, or persist in trying to get a spot through a last-minute cancellation. If not, you'll spend many boring, frustrating hours driving back and forth each day. The Park is huge, requiring hours of driving to see things anyway. You don't to spend all day driving.

Within Yosemite itself, there are expensive luxury accommodations, campsites and a few things in between. Most visitors stay in Curry Village, almost a city itself - crowded, noisy and annoying. We would have done that if we had to, but I called frequently to check on cancellations, and was finally rewarded with a spot in the White Wolf area. We had a "tent cabin," which is a large tent with a cement floor; each tent sleeps four on cots. It includes linens, towels, a wood stove (with wood, kindling, lighter fluid and matches), candles, and a few folding chairs. There's no electricity and you use community showers and toilets in the centre of the camp.

There's a lodge building that serves as office, store and restaurant. The store sells a little of everything, with no markup: two beers, chips and coffee were $7.00. At the lodge, you can have an all-you-can-eat hot breakfast buffet for less than $10.00 per person. At dinner, you share tables with other people and are served by eager and well-meaning, if a bit over-matched, camp staff. Dinner is also all-you-can-eat: fresh salad, soup, entree, vegetable, potatoes, dessert for under $20. The setting is very pretty, not at all institutional. The food was very good and a great value.

That's the plus side of the tent-cabin thing. On the negative side, the biggest drawback is negotiating the vissicitudes of the bear box, as I explained here. You don't have a private bathroom, but I don't find that a big deal for a few days. The showers are designed for drought conditions, to dissuade you from taking an indulgently long shower - a drawback when you return sweaty and dusty from hiking. But the real inconvenience was keeping our toiletries in a bear box that was difficult to lock and unlock.

However, given the choices, I would choose White Wolf every time. I don't camp, and I no longer apologize for that (although I am beyond tired of people who enjoy camping laughing at me, as if the desire to go camping bespeaks some natural superiority). I have only been real tent camping twice in my life, and I absolutely hated it. I don't need luxury, but I need to sleep in a bed, not on the ground, and I need a hot shower. White Wolf let us avoid massive crowds, was affordable, was in a beautiful secluded setting - and gave me the bed and the shower.

Our first night, we found we were woefully unprepared for the campground experience. This was a complicated trip for which to prepare - city, wedding, park - and it was inevitable that some things would slip through the cracks. What's more, the campground web page could have been more helpful; a list of essential items to pack would have been good. We were unprepared for cold nights and mornings (which is fine for me, but most people would have been very uncomfortable), and most importantly, we didn't bring a flashlight. The tent cabins don't have electricity and the generators for the washroom lights turn off overnight.

That night, we had dinner at the lodge, which was really nice. We sat next to a Dutch couple and talked about the differences between the Netherlands, Canada and the US. They understood the whole picture - how we want Canada to be more like the Netherlands and less like the US. They had been in New York, San Francisco, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas. By coincidence, there were other Dutch people at the table, a guy who is living and working in San Diego and his friends who were visiting him. (Surfer dudes, road trip to Vegas, whoo-hoo!)

After dinner, we picked our way back through the dark to the tent and used the car headlights to find our things!


WILLY said...

I'm not getting a chance to get away on a trip this year, so I will live vicariously through yours. Waiting for the next installment.

L-girl said...

Thank you! It will be better after we have photos. But I hope you enjoy it anyway. Do some Google Image searches to enhance the experience. :)

Amy said...

Like Willy, I am getting vicarious pleasure out of reading this. Not sure I could deal with the tent-cabin, let alone a tent! My camping days are 35 years behind me! And the bear box, not to mention the bear, are the straw that would break the camel's back for me.

L-girl said...

It's definitely not my preferred accommodations, and like I said, "real" camping is OUT. Not an option. But because I love to travel so much, I don't want to let transient discomforts keep me from certain experiences.

One of the most uncomfortable travel nights I've ever spent was on our way to Nazca, in Peru. But I toughed it out, and saw the Nazca Lines, something I had dreamed of for so many years. And I survived the night, nothing terrible happened, I was only uncomfortable.

I try to remember that and suck it up.

Except about sleeping on the ground. :)

Amy said...

I used to enjoy camping, when my body could tolerate a night on an air mattress in a sleeping bag. Not any more. I would not be troubled as much by the tent-cabin idea, but the bear box and bears would scare me off. And I admit---I do like a private bathroom. Just too much trouble for someone who gets up to use the facilities at least once a night to start traipsing up to a common bathroom!

When I went back to camp reunion five or so years ago at my old camp, we slept in the bunks on the old rotten cots. I did not sleep at all. Not sure how I used to do that for an entire summer.

Our cottage is hardly luxurious---no AC, no fancy kitchen or bathroom---just 550 square feet of space. But we do have our own bathroom!

L-girl said...

Believe me, I like a private bathroom! For a few nights, under these circumstances, I could manage, but it's hardly my preference.

Re camping, how did you cope without a shower in the morning? That's even worse for me than sleeping on the ground.

Amy said...

The campgrounds I used to go to all had showers in the bath house. Not sure I would shower in the morning---usually in the evening to get the day's grime off.

Not to mislead you---I was never a big camper and never outside a real campground. I think I did it about six times back when I could not afford a motel room.

Harvey never camped, except once when we both chaperoned a group of teenagers as part of a summer job he had. That's a long story---quite funny. Suffice it to say, we never camped again! My NYC boy was not made for the woods.

L-girl said...

Ah-ha! Campgrounds with a shower. That's a whole different thing.

The camping that I won't do is when you sleep in a sleeping bag in a tent and there are no toilets or showers in sight. I know so many people who do this and they all *laugh at me* for not wanting to. This to me is more irritating even than camping!

redsock said...

I know one loyal reader who is gonna be mega-pissed at being forced to read all these travel journal words!


The first night without a flashlight was annoying. I woke up and had to pee. All but pitch black outside, and L was saying I should not just go outside the tent. So I lit a candle and wandered out in the cold in my barefeet. (Naturally, I thought I saw a bear hulking away in the distance as soon as I went out ...) And 1/3 of the way the candle went out. Shuffling along with little steps, I got to the mens room. Lights were shut down -- and there was no way I was stumbling around in there. Should have gone beside the tent. (Does human urine attract bears?)

If the Yosemite site does not mention bringing a flashlight, that is a serious screw-up for people staying outside the Valley.

L-girl said...

L was saying I should not just go outside the tent

It was so quiet! I thought the people in the next tent would hear you. Had I known the trouble you would go through, I would have told you to go in their tent instead! :)

L-girl said...

I know one loyal reader who is gonna be mega-pissed at being forced to read all these travel journal words!

Yes, he was horrified at how much I wrote in New Mexico. I should really cut him a break and be more succint, seeing as he is forced to read every word I write.

redsock said...

watching the pre-game show on mute -- and i am feeling a biut of amy's hate for jon miller. he bobs around like a moron. even on mute you can tell he is sucking up to morgan's stupidity ... couple that with joe's hearty embrace of ignorance and orel's wrinkled brow and squinty eyes ...

Amy said...

Yes, I still hate Jon Miller. Even more than Papelbon.

And the image of you stumbling around in the dark is exactly why I need a private bathroom!

Scott M. said...

I didn't realize until I read this entry that your car was right beside the tent! I assumed your were at a hike-in tent. Were you specifically told to keep all smelly items in the bear box even if your car was there?

That's an unusual event. Bear boxes are normally on-site for bicyclists/hikers who (in the case of Yosemite) use the transit system and have no vehicle. Normally you'd instruct folks to keep things in their trunk if it's a drive-to-site-type site.

After all, you had all your stuff in your car to get there and the smell doesn't go away just because you took the stuff out...

L-girl said...

It's not unusual - everyone with a car is told (over and over) to use a bear box for all food and toiletries.

SUVs and hatchbacks don't have real trunks, so anything stored would be exposed.

I really can't speak to the logic or illogic of it. But I can tell you that all visitors are instructed to get everything out of their cars and use a bear box.

Scott M. said...

Huh. I suspect it's more a liability thing than a logical thing, though their liability for having a bear box that's harmful to the users would be much higher!

Either way, it's much better that people use the bear box than bring it into their tent, or put their cooler under a picnic table, or in a soft-sided trailer or vehicle.

L-girl said...

I suspect it's more a liability thing than a logical thing,

I assumed it was based on years of experience with bears. If it's mostly about liability, that's not good!

Amy said...

It would seem that a car's trunk is as impenetrable as the bear box, unless the bear can pick those trunk locks more easily. :) So Scott's theory may make sense. They don't want people suing for bears scratching up their cars, even though I am sure the Park Service has some disclaimers inserted into their entry ticket that holds them harmless for any damage to cars while in the park.

L-girl said...

But how many cars have trunks nowadays? Almost every car in the campsite was an SUV or a hatchback.

Another point to throw in is that all accommodations and concessions at the Park are managed by a private company. The Natl Park Service has (of course) been cut to shreds and much work contracted out. Of course a visitor could still sue the NPS, but they are not responsible for the campsite.

Amy said...

Do you think bears would break windows to get into an SUV? I know nothing about bears, but after reading all this, I am not sure I'd want to meet one on the loose!

L-girl said...

I don't know about breaking a window, but we've seen videos of bears opening cars like sardine cans - just clawing through the metal. They are incredibly strong.

As I understand it, a normal bear won't do this. But a bear who is starving or who has learned that cars are food sources may.

Scott knows way more about bears than I do, so he can correct or augment this.

L-girl said...


Some baby bears stealing food that was improperly left out

Bear foraging in campsite - shows what the tent cabins look like, but these bear boxes in Curry Village are all shiny and new, not like ours!

Bear prowling around campsite

Bear breaking into car - suspect video, as it was compiled and edited - Discovery Channel

Bear "breaking" into car - that was unlocked!

L-girl said...

Bear looking in various trucks!

L-girl said...

Bear wants to be friends, a video made by morons who shouldn't be allowed outside.

L-girl said...

Here we go: large bear wants to find way into car and eventually does, with tons of people standing around watching and videoing.

L-girl said...

Mama bear finds cubs in a car, what a car looks like aftewards

Amy said...

Wow, that's a LOT of bear videos! I will have to catch up a bit later. Have to get out of the cottage soon, listen to the game in the car, and get home and do laundry!

L-girl said...

They are short videos - and not compulsory!

There are tons of bear videos on YouTube, although I won't post any violent ones.

Scott M. said...

At the park (of 30 campsites), we trapped and shipped around 40 black bears (that's all that exist in Califorina) in a three-month season every year, and killed an average of 2. I've seen bears rip open soft-sided trailers to get inside, rip down and lick dining tents that people were stupid enough to cook in, destroyed bear barrels, open up and drink a can of beer between two paws, and even had a scary/hilarious 24 hours where we caught a mom in a trip with two suckling cubs outside. Stories galore.

But I digress.

As far as keeping food secure, the most secure food is that which is hung in a tree, preferably with pulleys, at a minimum distance from the ground and other trees. When you do that, it doesn't matter which container it's in really, it can be in a soft-sided backpack (in fact, as a camper, I prefer that).

The bears will move on to easier food.

For really smelly stuff, next up would be a secure building (like the concrete garage with thick garage metal door we used for the garbage hut).

I'm not a fan of "bear boxes" on the ground (that aren't pulleyed up always). They just present a challenge to the bears, and they'll always be super smelly as it's the place everyone puts their super smelly stuff! And once a bear figures out how to get in, you're toast.

When people feed bears, or bears find a source of human food, the expression we use in the park (pithy and tragic as it is) is: "A fed bear is a dead bear". In other words, you feed it (either through inadvertence or an intentional act), it'll become accustomed to that food source. We'll try (once) to trap and ship it away, but if it returns we have no choice but to kill it.

If there is a problem bear prying open car trunks, that bear should be tracked down and (unfortunately) killed. Park folks take no pleasure in doing this, but the choice is between human safety and the life of a bear. Once bears have gotten to the point that they violently search out human food, chances are they will hurt a human if they get in contact with them.

Black bears have a great sense of smell, so if your trunk had food in it yesterday, chances are the smell is still in there.

Scott M. said...

Quick clarification: Black bears are the only species of bear in California... I'm not saying there are only 40 bears there!

L-girl said...

I did think you meant there are only 40 bears in all of California! What a relief!

I had no idea that different strategies are called for in response to different types of bears. They didn't tell us that in Denali.

L-girl said...

In other words, you feed it (either through inadvertence or an intentional act), it'll become accustomed to that food source.

That's what I was trying to say in these posts - why it is so important to keep your food away, far more important than damage to your car.

But this is confusing - because, as you say, if you are traveling with food, your car smells like food. There's not much you can do about that. You've got to bring the food in somehow, right?

Maybe that's why it's more about liability than safety.

redsock said...

Bear wants to be friends, a video made by morons who shouldn't be allowed outside.

The next bear they "befriend" may take care of that for them.

redsock said...

Here we go: large bear wants to find way into car and eventually does, with tons of people standing around watching and videoing.

Holy shit. They are crowding around, and then coming right up to the windows while the bear is inside the car.

Did the Future Darwin Award Winners Society hold their annual convention at that park?

Scott M. said...

Bear attacks are extremely rare. This post does NOT cover how to interact with black or grizzly bears and is just speaking to a very specific, rare event. Any readers should make sure to educate themselves much more fully before heading out into bear country.

A key example between Black and Brown/Grizzly bears:

If a black bear (ursus americanus) attacks (ie actually touches you), fight back vigorously. If you have a frying pan, use it to whack it in the head. Same with a rock. If you have numerous rocks, keep one as a hand-to-head weapon, throw the others at it.

Black bears are lazy, fundamentally. If they're attacking you to eat you or your food, they'll give up and go for something easier. If they're attacking you because they feel threatened, it's not going to hurt any more. (You should, of course, had long before this taken yourself out of the threatening position).


Grizzlies (ursus horribilis) will attack to kill. The more aggressive you are, the more aggressive they are. If you can't hide, the best thing to do is get into a ball with your hands protecting the back of your neck. Grizzlies may walk away.


Black bear like dead things, they like ripping open garbage bags "just to see what's inside". You don't want to be ripped open just to see what's inside.

The Rocky Mountain National Parks of Canada try, as best they can, to come up with a generalized rule for all bears so visitors don't have to learn the difference. It's really a shame because doing the right thing with the right bear can minimize injury should this *extremely rare* event happen.

L-girl said...

So the strategy that we learned would get us killed if used against a black bear?


We were taught:
1 - yell at the bear
2 - stand still, do not run (prey runs)
3 - make yourself appear larger by waving your arms around and making noise
4 - if attacked, fight back like crazy, it may save your life.

I do know bear attacks are very rare and it's not like I worry about them or anything. But this is not a good strategy if needed?

Scott M. said...

I think I probably didn't state it as clearly as I could have.

What you learned was the proper way to deal with a Black Bear (with the slight adjustment of not waving your arms around, rather just raising them above the head).

What I was saying is that that would be the WRONG thing to do with a Grizzly.
Conversely, going into a ball and interlacing your fingers behind your head protecting your neck is what you should do if a Grizzly attacks.

But it's the WRONG thing to do with a black bear.

L-girl said...

You stated it completely clearly. I'm just shocked that this thing I have been repeating to myself all this time is not the right approach for *all* bears, and completely the wrong approach for *some* bears!

Scott M. said...

Parks Canada tries to tackle the situation differently (and in a way that I'm not sure I agree with). Instead of trying to ascertain what you're dealing with, they attempt to have the person being attacked ascribe a motive to the attack and react accordingly.

Which I find a bit odd, but there you go.

Here's their definitive word explaining what to do in our Rocky Mountain National Parks where both Black Bears and Grizzlies coexist.

Yes, that's right, if you guess the bear's motive is defensive, play dead. If you guess the bear's motive is predatory, fight back. Not sure if I'm comfortable ascribing motives in a heated situation.

The fact that a black bear being defensive (>99.999% of black bear encounters) will leave you after two or three minutes of rolling you around like a ball doesn't provide me any comfort, especially knowing that they would have likely left me had I attacked back right away.

Grizzlies are equally likely to leave you alone (maybe after a couple of swipes) if they're being defensive, but will definitely not take well to being attacked back.

Ultimately, as they say on the Parks Canada website, "It is very difficult to predict the best strategy to use in the event of a bear attack. That is why it is so important to put thought and energy into avoiding an encounter in the first place".

L-girl said...

That seems bizarre and dangerous to me! How could one be expected to mind-read a bear, especially in such a frightening situation?

I definitely understand doing everything possible to avoid an encounter. That's obviously the first and best defense. But in the event of an unavoidable encounter, clear instructions - what to do and what not to do - are essential.

Scott M. said...

A brief 4 minute video on how to act around bears (scroll down to Survival Videos and press play). Production really amaturish, but message completely correct.