Winter Deluge Enhanced the Beauty of this Natural Treasure

Original article on Medium
Yosemite Valley — photo by Caden Giaudrone

Wet Winter

February 2017 — according to reports, this was the wettest water season on record in Northern California.

One stormy winter day, flashes of lightning filled our dimly lit sky. Daylight struggled to find its way through thick, ominous clouds. Thunder cracked a moment later. Thick sheets of water poured from the sky. Our yard became inundated with standing water from the torrent of rain. We were among the fortunate, though, as the region had been experiencing an excessive response of weather to recent years of drought.

As precipitation that ensued from the thunderstorms continued to overwhelm our local waterways, reservoirs were pushed to their brink; one such dam wasn’t so lucky.

The main spillway at Oroville Dam, neglected and in need of reinforcement, had failed. Erosion had created a huge hole in it. This failure required use of the emergency spillway — really, just a hillside embankment of dirt, rock and trees, only meant to release light water flow, and that had never been used — resulting in extreme erosion that threatened the integrity of the entire dam. Surrounding homes were evacuated. Thousands were displaced.

Meanwhile, mudslides prohibited travel through the mountains. Fortunately frantic emergency efforts prevented extreme catastrophe. Still many homes in the valley below us flooded from overwhelmed streams and rivers throughout the region.

As we monitored the local affects of the storms — grateful for the warmth of our dry home — our backyard hillside became a cascade of miniature waterfalls carving new paths. In the midst of a calamity, this mild erosion, seen through my designer eyes, set my creativity in motion. The abundance of water begged to spill over river rocks and small boulders, then fall into a pond beneath a footbridge. Flowing water can be destructive, but also beautiful.

While envisioning the potential of our landscape, I further imagined the benefit of excessive precipitation: extraordinary waterfalls washing over the nearby mountains of the Sierra Nevada. Then, as if suddenly beckoned, I thought of a place surrounded in monumental cliffs.

Oh! Yosemite Valley must be amazing right now. Nature, the world’s greatest architect, sculpted this truly magnificent superstructure during the last Ice Age. I bet the waterfalls are gushing over.

“Let’s take the boys to Yosemite during spring break,” I told my husband, Aaron.

Our family had already planned to spend Easter in Hermosa Beach with my brother-in-law and his family — Easter egg hunts are so much more fun through the eyes of young kids. Now I hoped to take a detour along the way.

We hadn’t been to this wonder of nature in over ten years when our two sons, Caden and Cole, were very young. Then, it had been late September as the heat of summer had dried up most of the streams. This time we would go in early spring. From there we could head to SoCal to celebrate the holiday.

“See if you can get a room,” Aaron agreed.

I quickly went online to check for any remaining accommodations during spring break. Typically hotel arrangements need to be made months in advance. We were only a few weeks out. Could I catch a bit of luck?

The stars aligned. As fortune would have it, I was able to find one last room available at the Yosemite Valley Lodge for two nights before Easter weekend. (I’m not a great camper, especially in the cold.)

What?! Bingo. We were in. The plan was set in motion. I looked forward to sharing this stunning landscape with the boys.

Trip to Yosemite

Designers are planners, and I am both.

I had it all figured out. We’d take the scenic and more direct route of Highway 49 from our home in El Dorado Hills to Yosemite Valley. Along the way we would take a slight detour to stop in the historic town of Columbia, a preserved town from the Old West developed during the gold rush. Still inhabited, the town maintains its original structures and much of its original Old West charm. It looked interesting and we had never been there. The intent was to enjoy breakfast and coffee while taking in some history.

Sometimes though, life doesn’t turn out exactly as designed. And as it happened, this part of the plan would have to wait.

We took scenic Highway 49. We also stopped in Columbia, which did contain the promised historic charm, but I felt awful that day. I pushed through, determined that my family would experience the journey regardless. Unfortunately, my situation resulted in a short driving glimpse of the old town before continuing on our way.

It was a beautiful, clear day. Highway 49 was as picturesque as I had imagined. The route was also very narrow and winding — bends and turns followed the contours of the land — which possibly exacerbated how terrible I felt. Vistas overlooked the rolling hills of the Sierra Nevada. The narrow road hugged the hillside, and mostly without a guardrail, which allowed an unobstructed view straight down the steep cliffs.

I didn’t have enough energy to feel nervous as my husband calmly navigated the curves; nor could I think to divert from the schedule. It had been set for weeks.

We ended up a bit off course since the direct route was closed for the season. Then while I was resting, Aaron veered west, rather than continuing south, confused by the road closure signs. Once I had realized it, we added an extra hour to our drive. Just what I wanted — more time in the car.

Still, although the journey getting there wasn’t exactly as planned, it was definitely an adventure… and scenic, as anticipated. We ventured through parts of California that see little traffic — unusual for many areas of this state — and through terrain we certainly hadn’t seen before. The countryside was vibrant green and lush from months of rain.

It was midday when we finally made it into Yosemite Valley. With the road trip behind us, my boys looked up, amazed by the landscape.

The Yosemite Experience

Yosemite is one of the world’s most awe-inspiring places. Seriously. It’s truly awesome — a photographer’s paradise. There is a reason that Ansel Adams spent so much time capturing this natural wonder. It’s hard to take it all in at once. Inexplicable beauty surrounds every glance. My stimuli were on overload. The scenery is inescapable.

As for encountering incredible waterfalls, this hope was definitely realized. The valley was alert with a chorus of sounds. Birds sang. Trees rustled. Beyond it all were various sounds of water — ranging from trickles to roars — more abundant than usual. This year the notable falls were rushing with life; some that had been previously dried up reappeared, while others carved their own new path. One prominent resident captivated us right outside of our room.

Just beyond our door, an immense wall of sheer cliffs rose about twenty-five hundred feet above the valley floor. From a crevice carved between the granite rock, icy water gushed from Upper Yosemite Falls, taking a 1,430-foot free fall onto the middle cascades below. From there the slushy water traveled to Lower Yosemite Falls, at which point it took another descent of 320 feet to the lower cascades, and flowed out to the Merced River beyond.

After getting settled, the boys set out with Aaron to explore on their own, leaving me to rest and take in the view from our room. They took the shuttle to Half Dome Village (previously Curry Village) to enjoy the warm, sunny day.

They ventured on a seven-mile hike under the watchful eye of Half Dome, rising nearly 5,000 feet above the valley floor, heading down the trail to Mirror Lake — which they decided was more like a pond despite being full — and back. Feeling better, though bummed that I missed out, they shared with me their photos of the amazing views from the valley floor, along with stories of their trek.

“We got off the bus at the wrong stop, which made our walk even longer… but we found a treasure. It’s hidden until we go back for it tomorrow.” The boys were excited about their adventures with Dad. “We put it in a special place, so hopefully no one finds it.”
“What did you find?” I asked, but would just have to wait to see. The next morning we would all go out for further exploration.

Half Dome — photos by Caden Giaudrone

The next day proved to be a much different experience.
We awoke to a veil of clouds hanging low in the valley. As it rained throughout the morning, a foggy mist obscured the craggy cliffs that surrounded us.

Still, the beauty of Yosemite is undeniable in any conditions. The peaceful atmosphere made the imposing cliffs feel even more surreal. Without the masses who were deterred by the weather, there was a muted sense of calm throughout the park. Only the rushing sound of water filled the air. Even the bird calls were more hushed.

Misty veil surrounding Yosemite Falls

Determined to enjoy our time regardless of the weather, we got bundled up with warm coats and boots and a large golf umbrella, then jumped on the shuttle for a moving tour around the park. We got off in search of the “treasure” (a small branch) that the boys stowed away in a special “hidden” spot (behind a unique boulder). After we retrieved their goods, we hiked around through the forest and along the river. The conditions, however, prohibited us from traveling as far into the woods as I would have liked.

In the forest surrounding the Merced River — photos by Caden and Ali Giaudrone

Cold, wet and hungry by the afternoon, we headed for the Ahwahnee Hotel (now named the “Majestic Yosemite” due to a legal dispute over the native name — but I just can’t call it that) hopeful to get a table for lunch in the dining room. Reservations are typically required ahead of time, but due to the current weather, we were able to get one on short notice.

As we dried out, warming ourselves next to a massive stone fireplace, I admired the construction. The warmth and opulence of the hotel reflects the bygone era of the 1920s when it was built. Aspects of the inn evoke an image of flappers enjoying martinis, though lovely, equally out-of-place among this wilderness. But while quality doesn’t have to mean pretentious, I was viewing it as cozy and hospitable, unlike the day outside.

The rustic architecture of this historical lodge combines elements from Arts and Crafts, Art Deco and Native American design. Its volume and craftsmanship especially struck me. We waited in the Great Lounge where I took in the 24-foot-high ceilings with hand-stenciled beams, large leaded glass windows with stained glass details, and large natural stone fireplaces.

We were seated for lunch in the large dining room that boasts 30-foot-high ceilings. The log beams and truss work of the vault support the hall’s expansive volume and provide its grand lodge aesthetic. Surrounding us, full height windows framed the striking view of nature while we dined on hot French onion soup.

Great Lounge and Dining Room at the Ahwahnee Hotel

After lunch, the rain began to subside as we continued our exploration. Half Dome struggled to make an appearance from beyond the shroud of thick fog. Cold continued to set in. The wintry weather was evident in the dusting of snow on the peaks and tree tops above us. As the day waned, the clouds began to break open to blue sky beyond.

The beauty of added falls through the forest

Half Dome shrouded in fog

North Dome

Foggy shroud begin to break open to blue sky

Clear blue sky shone brightly when we awoke for our final morning. We set out on a walk to capture the sun gradually casting its light over Yosemite Falls. Surrounding its icy descent, fingers of frost splayed out onto the cliffside. As we arrived on the footbridge beneath the Lower Falls, we were greeted by a rainbow at the base of the cascades.

Light and color had returned. All was well.

From the rainbow’s end, slushy water pushed its way through snow and rock. The sun warmed the air. Sparkling light played against shadows. We continued along the trail that wound through the wooded forest, parts still piled with snow, and out to the meadow. In the clearing, the expansive views of the falls are breathtaking.

Yosemite Falls

All too soon, it was time to pack up to leave. We took a drive around the valley loop, stopping to capture the views — to really breathe in the beauty of this place. Each granite precipice hovers over meadows in the valley below. North Dome on one side looks across the valley at Half Dome on the other. We briefly visited the site of the Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center, a granite-masonry lodge that was completed in 1904, where Sentinel Dome rises up behind it.

On our way out of the valley, we paused to capture the massive precipice of El Capitan. Its sheer verticality ascends above the Merced River below. From there, it was time to make our way up the grade. Before continuing down the mountain, however, we stopped to take in the expansive panorama at the Tunnel View lookout point.

Valley meadow views

Conservation Heritage Center built in 1904

El Capitan

Yosemite Valley once more

Although this view has been photographed by millions, I could never tire of it — especially in person. It’s absolutely magnificent.

From above, the vista captures the amazing glacial landscape — one of the most dramatic in the world. We soaked in the sun shining over perfection, difficult to fully absorb. Between and around this place where sheer cliffs face protruding monoliths, many bird and mammal species call its vast forests home. We were lucky to call it home for a couple of days.

Lunch in the Gold Country

We made our way down Highway 41, heading south. Curving through mountainous terrain, we dropped into the foothills. Hungry and searching my Google Maps app for a place to stop, we came upon Coarsegold, a tiny gold mining town in the hills. I hadn’t anticipated this little gem, nor ever heard of this place. I didn’t know it even existed.

Life works in mysterious ways. Though I had not planned for it (unlike my plan to stop in Columbia), we experienced a little piece of history after all.

This small village, once inhabited by gold miners, has been home to the indigenous Chukchansi people for thousands of years. A tepee at the entrance indicates the presence of this native tribe. Across from it sits the smallest Chamber of Commerce building that I have ever seen.

Nearby, tiny huts remain from the gold rush. These little structures contain shops for artists, jewelry, antiques, flowers, garden items; visitors can pan for gold; a cafe provides drinks and pastries for weary travelers. As it happened, a new restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and brunch, the Wild Fig Kitchen, promised “fresh ingredients and bold flavors.” That sounded promising.

We stopped for lunch at the Wild Fig, named for its pre-existing fig tree, and were impressed with its current take on classic dishes.

“a family restaurant dedicated to providing fresh food from the finest available ingredients.” — Wild Fig Kitchen

My palette enjoyed their use of quality ingredients and the way in which they prepare dishes. As a designer, I was impressed with both their food presentation and the modern-rustic interiors. They respected the origins and essence of the town, presenting it in a contemporary way. Their outdoor seating was adjacent to a grassy picnic area, where rusty wheels adorned the garden — more evidence of the the town’s identity.

Modernization does not have to mean complete demolition and reconstruction. It is important for architecture and design to respect both history and the environment. By preserving elements of the past, we can celebrate the character and soul of a place. Design should pay attention to the surroundings. This creates a setting that feels current while still maintaining its historical roots.

Here, the charm of Coarsegold is kept in tact. Quality and thoughtful preservation of history creates an attractive combination. Development with intention creates appeal that draws visitors.

Coarsegold, California

Overall, this trip was a valuable reminder to appreciate and protect the purity of nature, our roots and evidence of the past; also that, although planning is important, it is always important to be flexible. Life takes unexpected twists and turns. Many of these deviations turn into welcome discoveries. Storms in our lives can erode the surface, but may also release awaiting beauty, or even present new opportunities. Be open to the possibilities. Rainbows await.

Those abundant winter storms became an opportunity for our family to capture early spring in Yosemite where we could truly appreciate the sights and calming sounds of nature. We were able to reset — and to connect.

While I wasn’t quite able to enjoy the first day as planned, our sons spent a beautiful afternoon exploring nature with their dad. Together we continued the adventure through rain, and through cold, and finally, with a return to warming sunshine. Disconnecting from our devices allowed us to really connect — with nature, with each other, and with ourselves. We discovered a small piece of gold country history after all… along with something new.

As our detour trip came to an end, we continued south to the beach town that we have come to know well — Hermosa Beach — to spend a warm, sunny Easter with our sons and their cousins. Another important reminder that while we are busy moving from one place to another, it is important to enjoy the journey, and people in our lives, along the way.


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