Yosemite National Park: Be Prepared To Be Humbled

Yosemite National Park is one of those places that you have to experience in person. Although there are many beautiful photographs, movies and documentaries about Yosemite, nothing can compare to actually standing at the base of Yosemite Falls, overlooking the view from on top of Half Dome or positioning yourself on the edge of Glacier Point.

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Half Dome from Cooks Meadow after being flooded from snow melt

 

Located along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, the park covers 1,169 square miles of wilderness. In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln’s signed the Yosemite Grant and in 1890 naturalist John Muir lobbied Congress into expanding the park, which eventually led to today’s U.S. National Park System.

Yosemite Valley has been inhabited for thousands of years by the Ahwahneechee Native Americans with the Paiute, Mono and Miwoks in close proximity.

During the gold rush period of California, competition for resources between the Native Americana and miners began to take its toll. In 1851, the Mariposa Battalion entered the west end of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Wars erupted. This event was seen as the introduction of the white man to Yosemite.

 

Over the years, several concessionaries have obtained permits to open stores, restaurants, camping sites and hotels in the park. The best known of these was in 1899 by the Curry Company, which founded Camp Curry at the base of Glacier Point. In 1925, Curry Company and the Yosemite National Park Company were forced to join together, forming the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, which lasted until the late 20th century. It too has been transformed as other companies have coupled with park service.

The formation of Yosemite is due to tectonic and volcanic activity spanning millions of years. Yosemite Valley is only 7 square miles and is a product of glaciers sculpting and carving granite as it moved.

When the ice receded, it left lakes, streams, rivers and sediment forming lush green meadows and forests. This small area of the park harbors some of Yosemite’s iconic landmarks. The Merced River courses through the valley surrounded by 3,000-foot granite walls and the iconic landmarks of Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Half Dome and Glacier Point.

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The Merced River in Yosemite Valley with North Dome in the background

Driving the Valley Loop Road, you will skirt the river and pass through the forests and meadows. Near the west end, you come across Valley View, which offers and a pristine view of the valley with the Merced River at your feet. Here you will marvel at Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalvail Falls, all seemly a stone’s throw away.

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First snow at Valley View…El Capitan with a sliver of Bridalveil Falls 

A short drive from the valley floor is Tunnel View, overlooking nearly the entire valley. Views of Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Spires, Half Dome, El Capitan and Bridalvail Falls are all visible from this vantage point and nothing short of spectacular.

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Early winter from Tunnel View…El Capitan with Bridalveil Falls 

Another drive well worth taking ends at Glacier Point. With an elevation of 7,000 and the valley floor at 4,000, you find yourself looking over the top of Yosemite Falls, North Dome and Nevada and Vernal Falls. Half Dome in directly in front of you with Tuolumne Meadows in the distance.

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Tenaya Canyon from Glacier Point… North Dome (left), Half Dome (right) and Tenaya Canyon leading to Tuolumne Meadows and the “High Country”

Glacier Point is the trailhead for the Four Mile Trail, actually 4.5 miles, and the 9-mile Panorama Trail, both leading to the valley. Both trails offer beautiful views and vantage points to the delight of many, especially photographers, but they are not to be taken lightly. I have started in the warmth of the sun under clear blue skies in the morning only to encounter snow in the afternoon on both spring and fall days.

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My grandkids Dioni and Basil on their first hike, the 4 Mile Trail with Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Rocks and El Captian in the background… Basil is in college now

Accommodations in the park range from campsites to canvas tents, complete with wood stoves and wooden floors, to lodges to the magnificent five-star Ahwahnee Hotel.

The Ahwahnee is located in Yosemite Valley at the foot of granite cliff and the forests and meadows of the valley floor. Constructed of steel, granite, wood and timbers, it is one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. It opened its door to guests in 1927 and has welcomed moviestars, presidents and foreign royalty.

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The Ahwahnee Hotel with the Royal Arches in the background

The layout and décor are striking and is reminiscent of the hotel in the movie “The Shining.” The Ahwahnee lobby, elevators and Great Lounge were adapted into the set of the Overlook Hotel. So do not be surprised if you see two twin girls wondering the halls muttering “Redrum, Redrum.”

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The Ahwahnee Dining Room

The dining room is 130 feet long and 51 feet wide and is nothing short of magnificent. Rock columns and timber in the form of trees support the 34-foot ceiling. During the Christmas season, the Bracebridge Dinner transports you to the Renaissance. This seven-course dining experience is reminiscent of a feast complete with a lord and his court, with minstrels and a jester that will surely entertain.

A visit to Yosemite will leave you both relaxed and exhilarated. Regardless of whether you are warming yourself by a campfire or the fireplace in the Ahwahnee, there will be a calm that overcomes you. Whether you drive or hike the valley floor, you will be humbled by Yosemite Falls, Half Dome and El Capitan. And if you are lucky enough to witness the wildlife of Yosemite and catch a glimpse of a bear, bobcat or one of the many deer that make the valley their home, one thing is guaranteed: You will never forget your visit to Yosemite.

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Yosemite Falls 2,425 feet located in Yosemite Valley

If you are there in the spring of a year with a heavy snowfall during the full moon you just might be lucky enough to see a Moonbow. It is formed by mist of the falls and the bright light of the full moon.

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Yosemite Falls Moonbow

 

My first trip was in 1965 with my grandparents and a few years later I would camp there as a Boy Scout. A few more years found me camping there as a hippie and in 1972 I spent my honeymoon at the Ahwahnee Hotel.

In 1982 I moved to Yosemite for a couple years and in 2012 I moved there for yet one more year. So you can see Yosemite has a very special place in my heart and has been and will always be in my life.

North To Alaska

Summer 2019… My Seventh Summer In Alaska

As I have written and photographed Alaska many times over the last 7 years, I want to focus on maybe some images of Alaska that you have not seen before. Many of these images were taken this past summer 2019.

The summer cruise season is upon us, and there is no place better to cruise at this time than Alaska. I firmly believe that everyone should cruise to Alaska at least once in their lifetime. It is nothing short of magnificent.

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Haines, Alaska sunset

There are many ways to reach Alaska, including driving or flying, but nothing offers the spectacular views, convenience or entertainment of a modern luxury cruise ship. There are no luxury hotels at the ports, but the accommodations on passenger ships range from modest, budget-priced cabins to luxurious staterooms.

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Cruising Alaska for any budget…

 

Depending on your itinerary, there are several ports of call where you can embark, including Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver and Victoria, in British Columbia. Typically, Alaska cruises last seven days, but there is a 10-day cruise leaving from San Francisco. Another port where you can embark or disembark is Whitter, Alaska, for those wanting to visit Denali National Park.

Travelling the Inside Passage through British Columbia and Alaska allows you to appreciate the stunning landscapes and fresh air while relaxing on your private balcony as the ship glides through the calm waters. You may also see an array of wildlife, including orcas, dolphins and humpback whales, as well as bears, mountain goats and bald eagles.

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The Inside Passage north of Skagway

On most cruises, you will visit three ports of calls Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway, each of which have their own charm and distinct personalities. Each town has numerous restaurants, places to shop and what seems like an endless amount of tours and shore excursions. Tours are offered both from the ships and from private companies.

I have spent seven summers traveling to Alaska and the Inside Passage as an acupuncture physician on various cruise lines which has given me an insider’s view and perspective. Here are some of my favorite tours:

Two of my favorites are located in Ketchikan, a town of approximately 14,000 residents and Alaska’s first city. It is also the second-rainiest city in the United States, averaging 13 feet a year. Be prepared for downpours, but the majority of the summer season, the weather can be very nice.

Aurora Birds and Bears encompasses all of Ketchikan’s sights and sounds and specializes in custom tours. The owner/operator Rich Lee is a Native American of the Tlingit tribe. He was born and raised in Ketchikan, giving him a distinct advantage over many of the tour operators that are summer transplants.

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Black Bears during the Aurora Birds and Bears Tour

 

During a three-hour tour, you will be offered a history lesson on Ketchikan, enjoy the rainforest and a waterfall and visit “real” totem poles, not replicas. Lee’s biggest expertise, however, is locating wildlife. Many times on the tour, we encountered black bear, deer, bald eagles and, at times, even orca and whales have been spotted from the shore.

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Baby Sitka Deer during the Aurora Birds and Bears Tour

My other favorite is the Deadliest Catch Crab Fishing Tour. If you are a fan of the television show, you might be interested to know that the Aleutian Ballad of season two is now homeported in Ketchikan. Captain/owner David Lethine and his crew of merry misfits are all seasoned crab fisherman of the Bering Sea and share their vast knowledge during the three-hour tour. This hands-on experience enables you to hold live crab, spotted prawns and other creatures of the sea.

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Something he will never forget… holding his first snow crab

The highlight for many is a side trip to Annette Island, where dozens of bald eagles await your arrival. As the boat nears the island, 30 to 40 eagles leave their perches like a swarm of mosquitos as the crew toss herring into the water. It is literally like ringing the dinner bell as the eagles fly within feet of the boat, attacking the water in their quest for a free meal. It is truly incredible to behold and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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Bald Eagles near Annette Island photo taken from the deck of the Aleutian Ballad

In Skagway, I highly recommend taking a flight over Glacier Bay National Park with Paul Swanstrom, the owner/pilot of the Mountain Flying Service at the Skagway Airport. This seasoned Alaskan aviator provides an unforgettable experience with each seat having a window allowing you to witness the grandeur of mountain peaks crowned with white virgin snow. Fly over multiple glaciers as they wind their way through the valleys of the countryside on the way to the sea. Flights range from one to two hours, with the option to land on a glacier or a remote beach.

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Flight over the Marjorie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park

If you want to see whales, the capital city of Juneau is the port to book your whales excursion. There are numerous tours with a wide variety of options, including everything from private yachts to limited load tours to those offering a salmon bake and wildlife quests.

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Humpback whale bubble net feeding of Juneau

My personal favorite is the Discover Alaska Whale Tour. This limited load and small boat tour has a naturalist on board who will share scientific knowledge and research on whales and other sea life that you may encounter. The windows open in, so even in poor weather you are warm and dry and have ample opportunities to take photographs.

Yet another place to see and photograph whales is in the port of Icy Strait. This is not a common port of call but by looking closely at the different itineraries of the different cruise lines and ship you will find a number that do go there.

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Icy Strait humpback whale at sunset

One of the many reasons people cruise to Alaska during the summer is to experience its glaciers, many of which can only be reached by cruise ship. Words are hard to come by when trying to explain the sights and sounds of these glorious towers laced with blue ice. You will witness history as these living structures march only to terminate at the water’s edge and calving into the sea.

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The Hubbard Glacier calving in Glacier Bay National Park

For more information on cruising to Alaska and its ports, my book “Alaska and the Inside Passage – A Guide to the Ports, Tours and Shore Excursions,” covers this in greater detail, including my favorite restaurants and more excursions to explore.

What I think sets my book apart from most tour guides on Alaska (outside of my wonderful writing and insightful knowledge of the area, of course) is that I have included plenty of my own photographs (not stock photos). Consequently, my book is designed not only a travel guide, but also as a coffee table book. It is visually rich, but is small enough to travel with so that you can always have the information at your fingertips.

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I would like to close this entry with a few more shots taken this year… the summer of 2019.

A bucket list item for me… It took seven summers but I finally was able to photograph the Northern Lights. What sets this image apart for me is if you look close from mid upper to the upper left in the photo is the Big Dipper… just being at the right place at the right time.

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The Northern Lights near Juneau, Alaska

Near Juneau a large meadow in full bloom with the Mendenhall Glacier in the background.

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Mendenhall Meadow and the Mendenhall Glacier
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Living large near Ketchikan, Alaska
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Kodiak Brown Bear near Sitka, Alaska
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Two year old Kodiak Brown Bear cubs fishing for dinner – Sitka, Alaska
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Mountain Goats in the Tracy Fjord
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Spotted Seals in the Tracy Fjord

Maui Wowie…

I recently found myself once again island-hopping the Hawaii isles. My favorite island, Maui, is the second-largest of the chain, and its wonders are well worth taking several days to explore since you will never be at a loss for somewhere new to discover.

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The rugged coast of Maui

The airport in Maui is located in largest city of the island, Kahului, located on the northern coast. Here you will find most of the big car rental agencies, as well as some locally owned rental companies. Being the Maui is a major tourist destination for both U.S. travelers and foreign tourists, and the added population of cruise ship passengers, if you are planning to rent a car, it is a good idea to book your reservation well in advance.

Kahului is the perfect base from which to explore the island. Less than 30 minutes away is the town of Lahaina, a small coastal village is filled with oceanfront restaurants and quaint shops. One of its best known features is the large banyan tree, with its limbs gracefully stretched out, providing amble shade from the tropical sun.

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The thick, lush rainforest at the Iao Valley National Park is crowned by rugged mountaintops.

If you want a close encounter with a rainforest and the chance to see beautiful mountains, the Iao Valley National Park is just a 30-minute ride away from Kahului. It has several short trails to hike. But be warned, whether you opt for make the short ascent to the lookout or the descent to the river, you will be climbing a lot of stairs. If mobility is an issue, there are wonderful views you can enjoy without having to take any trails. Iao is not a large area, so spending 30 minutes to an hour will allow you to cover all there is to see.

Another adventure and one of the best known treks is the Road to Hana. Beginning in Kahului, the road winds its way along the coast and through the dense rainforest, navigating its 52 miles, 59 bridges the 620 curves that have made it famous. There are shirts and bumper stickers available at roadside stands bragging “I Survived the Road to Hana,” as well as drinks and plenty of places to get a bite to eat.

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One of the many waterfalls on the Road to Hana waiting to be discovered

The rugged coast and white sand beaches, are breathtaking, as are the dense green rainforests and scenic mountains. Scattered along the road are numerous waterfalls and cascades, many with banks to stop and to take photographs as the water surges over the edge of a cliff and tumbles down a mountainside.

The other famous landmark in Maui is the Haleakala Volcano National Park. It’s about a 90-minute drive from Kahului, depending on your experience driving steep mountain roads. Along the way, you will pass through the small village of Kula. Make a point of having a meal at the Kula Bistro, where the food is farm-fresh and very reasonably priced (but be prepared for a short wait, depending on the time of day).

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From the top of the volcano, you can get a spectacular view of the island amid a moonlike landscape of multi-hued rocks

The O’o Coffee Farm is about a 10-minute drive from Kula and definitely worth a visit. After short walk up a gentle slope, follow a dirt road which leads to a rustic farm building and the gardens.

Here you will be met by one of the farm’s very knowledgeable workers, who will describe the different types of award-winning coffee grown at O’o while you enjoy a complimentary sample. (You can also buy a bag or two of the farm’s brew to take home with you.)

Continuing toward the volcano, the road beings its long ascent to the summit. You will travel through lush green valleys and rainforests and a layer of clouds as you make your way to the 10,000-foot crest. The terrain at the peak resembles a moonscape of various colored volcanic rocks that are millions of years old, having been expelled during the mountain’s fiery rein.

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The island seems to be eternal swathed in a blanket of white clouds

Slightly lower in elevation is an additional parking lot and visitor center. Here you can take a steep hike to the top of hill with wonderful views of the crater on one side and the valley on the other.

Most of the time, the valley will be obscured by an ocean of white clouds as far as you can see. This view is particularly beautiful at sunset, as the sky changes color from blue to yellow to deep orange when the sun dips below the false horizon of the clouds.

Here’s a tip: On your way to the summit, take note of the several lookouts. To avoid traffic and a slow descent down the mountain, leave 20 minutes early and then stop at a lookout to marvel at the sunset.

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Nothing is more spectacular than the setting of the sun over the false horizon of clouds viewed from the volcanic summit.

Also bear in mind that if you decide to come for the sunrise. you must leave very early and also make a reservation well ahead of time. Those without a reservation will be turned away.

Whatever itinerary you choose to follow in Maui, you are sure to find some unrivaled natural beauty that will leave you saying “mahalo.”