Go where you may within the bounds of California, mountains are ever in sight, charming and glorifying every landscape.
– John Muir, The Mountains of California (1894)
Along Big Oak Flat Road on May 26, after our day above the south rim of Yosemite Valley, we stopped to have a look at the wildflowers. The area the road passed through had burned in the late August/early September 2009 Big Meadows Fire. The fire, which began as a prescribed burn, escaped and burned 7,425 acres of mid-elevation forest west and north of Yosemite Valley.
In the seven years since the area was burned, a robust chaparral ecosystem has replaced what had been pine forest. The upshot is that this western section of Yosemite National Park, even at an elevation around 5,000 feet, feels like “California,” like the chaparral of Los Angeles or elsewhere in the state. There may be many high-elevation plant species that are the same as those found in the Rockies or the Cascades or Alaska even, but this chaparral was a reminder that Yosemite National Park is a California park and that these are the mountains of California.
Even the rock outcrops here reminded us of other parts of California. I remarked to Sean that it felt like we could be standing in Joshua Tree National Park with rock like this.
Below the road and to the west an even more recent wildfire, the El Portal Fire of 2014, had burned acres of forest that had been spared by the Big Meadows Fire.
The mountains of California are stressed.
These fires and many others have ignited during the state’s devastating drought. And the Sierra Nevada is a tinderbox. Decades of fire suppression have ensured ample fuel for any fire that does light. Even more frightening are the swaths of brown in the green of the pine-covered mountainsides. There is a certain beauty and texture that these brown trees provide (in a purely visual sense), but these are standing dead pines, killed by the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic that is destroying millions of acres of trees in western North America (from the Sierra Nevada to the Black Hills to Alberta). Usually severe winters and hardy trees keep the beetle under control. But the milder winters (which may be the norm in an era of climate change) and the stress on the trees caused by drought have weakened the forests and the pine beetle is killing trees in record numbers. The beetle is also spreading. In the United States, the Great Plains provide a natural barrier between the western and eastern forests, but in Canada, the Boreal Forest spans the continent. In Alberta, the Canadian government is destroying miles-wides expanses of forest as a last-ditch effort to halt the eastern spread of the beetle.
The trees killed or weakened by the pine beetle are susceptible to fire, the drought makes fire more likely, and the faces of mountainsides in the Sierra Nevada and throughout the West are changing.
The area along Big Oak Flat Road between Yosemite Valley and Crane Flat that was affected by the Big Meadows Fire now provides visitors with the transition of chaparral at lower elevations to mountain meadow at higher elevations, with portions of spared forest present too. The mountain meadow areas are filled with wildflowers. In late May, these were most abundant near 5,000 feet in elevation.
We stopped off at Crane Flat near the high point of the road to get some more firewood and gas. Back in camp, we made supper and settled in at the campfire.
Adam and Randi, the couple in the campsite next to ours, returned. After they’d eaten, asked if they could share our fire in return for s’mores. It sounded like a great trade to us, and soon we four were sitting around the fire trading stories from our days. We had been glad for their suggestion of Sentinel Dome and Taft Point, which had been the perfect level of exertion for Sean. They had spent the day hiking up and down Yosemite Falls Trail. That was a feat in itself, but upon descending, they had checked and discovered that they had won the lottery to go up Half Dome the following day. (The Park Service instituted a daily quota several years ago on hikers on Half Dome to lessen traffic and enhance safety.) So after a big hike that day, they’d be doing a much bigger hike the following day, including leaving camp at 4am to get started. “But it’s Half Dome, so how can you not?” asked Adam.
We got chatting about other National Parks, and for the third time, we found ourselves reminiscing about how fantastic Big Bend National Park is while sitting in another National Park. There really is something magical about Big Bend.
After the s’mores, Adam and Randi excused themselves to prep for their early morning and to get to bed. Sean didn’t last much longer. And I sat and thought and gazed at the campfire for a long time before I too climbed into the tent and into my sleeping bag.
Next morning was warm and bright and lovely in Hodgdon Meadow Campground. Adam and Randi were long gone by the time we woke up. The highlight of this Friday morning, May 27, was being visited in camp by a Douglas Squirrel (also called a Chickaree). He was a charming fellow full of personality who eventually sat on a rock near our campsite having his breakfast. In My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), John Muir called the Douglas Squirrel “the brightest of all the squirrels I have ever seen, a hot spark of life, making every tree tingle with his prickly toes, a condensed nugget of fresh mountain vigor and valor, as free from disease as a sunbeam.”
And our usual morning friends, the California Ground Squirrels, were also about camp. Rotund compared to the Douglas Squirrel, they preferred to warm themselves in the sunshine.