Now is the time. The crowds are gone, the days are clear and warm and the nights are cool to cold. Mosquitoes and just about every other flying insect have bedded down for the winter or perished in the chill. Campsites are available. And Yosemite’s vaunted Tuolumne Meadows is as beautiful in the fall as ever.
I spent the 4th of July holiday weekend there, my first visit in 25 years, which told me a couple of things: just how quickly time can pass and a quarter of a lifetime can slip beneath your feet; and how short-sighted I’d been to allow so many years to drift away without making the simple four-hour-plus drive up from San Francisco. I swam in Tenaya Lake, fished the pools and streams that fed into it, got some strikes in the Tuolumne River as it wound through the meadows, and later, at Cathedral Lake, saw a trout with a head as big as my fist emerge from the depths to strike my lure repeatedly before losing interest, too smart to be caught by an occasional fisherman like me.
So imagine my surprise when my daughter’s 6th Grade class planned a field trip to Tuolumne Meadows and Mono Lake for September. I signed up and barely two months after my summer visit was here again.
This time I joined the kids to explore Mono Lake and its strange tufa formations that grow when freshwater springs bubble up into the saline lake and create chemical reactions. We hiked to the top of Lembert Dome, the final 50 feet a steep and intimidating scramble up a smooth granite mound to views over the meadows and river and surrounding peaks. We cast flies in the river and swam in pools, later drove to Tioga Pass and hiked up the steep trail to Gaylor Lake where the fish were starving and hitting anything red (but we’d left our rods at camp!). We swam in the frigid lake that put an ache in our bones but banished the heat and left us refreshed and ready for more.
At night, with the crescent moon long gone over the horizon, we lay in the meadow to gaze at skies as brilliant and awe-inspiring as any witnessed by our ancestors over the millennia of human history, identifying such common constellations as the Big and Little Dipper, Scorpius, Hercules, Capricorn, and lesser known ones such as Delphinus and Equuleus, the little horse.
On our last day we strolled across the meadow through the golden grasses along the river to Soda Springs, where naturally carbonated mineral water bubbles up through the mud. Some of the kids were skeptical but most drank their fill after tentative sips, enjoying the fizzy iron-flavored water.
Campfires are permitted in the campsite fire rings, and there’s nothing better than conversation, reading aloud, singing, and keeping warm around the fire before slipping into sleeping bags and dreams. For me, this second trip to Tuolumne Meadows sealed my appreciation of the place. I’ll get up here again soon, next summer, or the summer thereafter, because this high country region of this wondrous national park is a treasure for us all, not to be underestimated, and not to be missed.