Destructive floods may have racked this valley in January, but when we visited our regular camp site on the Merced River in mid-June, my six year-old son said it all:
"Mom! That hole I dug last year is still here!"
Indeed, although the news then showed nothing but rampaging white water in John Muir's paradise, six months later, to our casual but caring eyes, most of the natural sites seem only better for the severe deluge.
Waterfalls are exploding over the cliffs. Meadow grasses are a deep, luminescent green. We spotted what seemed to us more than the usual amount of wildlife - four antler-heavy bucks, a bear, falcons, hawks, meadow birds, and zillions of squirrels. Scanning the valley from 3,200-foot Glacier Point, we couldn't see any traces of the catastrophic forces that had moved through the park.
It's the man-made sites that were hurt most. Note that we only visited, not stayed, at our regular campsite. The flood wiped out nearly half the 900 campsites on the valley floor; we were too late to get our usual spot. Many regulars had difficulty. One woman told us of her in-laws who were turned away for the first time in 40 years of summering here.
As we went to rent bikes in Curry Village, (a community of canvas tents) I chatted with an employee supervisor, Alison Grove, who said that morale was hurt by the losses and lack of tent sites. Meanwhile, at Yosemite Lodge, several cottages, tents, and dorm rooms were lost in the floods, and staff has been reduced.
The biggest loss may be the Happy Isles Nature Center and ice-cream stand. These were squashed by a huge falling rock during the summer of 1996 and have not been restored fully.
Curbing valley traffic
But while the flood and three-month park closure has made temporary changes in the way people visit Yosemite, it also has opened the door for the Park Service to make permanent changes. This is in line with a 1980 National Park Service management plan that calls for reducing traffic on the valley floor in order to minimize visitor's impact on nature.
For the first time since the park opened in 1890, the entry fee is above $5; it is now $20 for a seven-day pass. In addition, nudged by a 20 percent overall reduction in guest capacity inside the park, officials are encouraging people to sleep outside the park and commute in by bus.
We tested the wave of the future by staying in Fish Camp at Tenaya Lodge, the only full-service lodge in the park's gateway communities, two miles from the south entrance.
While the lodge is beautifully located in high Sierra countryside, it's a tease to be so close and not in the valley. We missed camping beside the river under the trees, listening for last year's bear to return to our beach.
That said, the events desk at the lodge does a bang-up job of introducing mountainside activities - all without benefit of Half Dome or El Capitan, two of the valley's most impressive granite monuments. We rode a horse-drawn wagon to a swell cowboy cookout, nabbed a few of those steeds for a trot on woodsy trails, and chugged down old rail tracks pulled by an original logging steam engine.
All these outings were fun, but the best part of staying outside the park was going back into the park on a guided tour. Endorsed by even my six- and 10-year-olds, whose usual response to tours is eye-rolling and moans, the 25-person bus that took us the 40-minute ride into the valley was (literally) an eye-opener. The first, and most obvious, difference is those panoramic windows. They beat craning out the small windows our station wagon.
Then, there are the new places you go. In seven years of Yosemite pilgrimages, discovering new hikes and destinations each trip, we'd never turned off the main road to find Glacier Point. Suffice it to say, we now maintain that a tour should be the starting point of any newcomer's trip to Yosemite, complete with the peak-to-valley-floor, four-mile trail as well as the eight-mile Panoramic Trail.
Chauffered ride home
A word of caution about tour guides' hike time estimates. Ours, who looks like one of my son's X-men figurines, thought we could fly down the four-mile trail in 1:20. Even racing to meet the tour at the bottom, it took us a brutal two hours instead. Without question, the best part of a tour is collapsing into someone else's seats to be chauffeured home.
As we drove home on one last pass through the valley en route to the Tioga Pass exit, we realized the floods hadn't changed Yosemite at all. It was as awe-inspiring as ever. We realized that the opportunity to experience the valley the way we wanted was going to change, so we're planning early for next year. We hope we'll be able to forgo the Jacuzzi and restaurants for the ice-cold rivers and charred hot dogs of a campsite, because the stars-in-your-eyes of the valley floor beats a hotel room TV any night.