The Evening Primrose Nature Show

Evening primrose close up

Coming to Yosemite to watch flowers open may sound like the beginning of a joke — Did you hear the one about the guy who went to Yosemite to watch the flowers open?

And yet, watching the evening primroses open in our yard is one of our great pleasures of summer. The nightly show is so stunning that it was once one of the principal attractions of Yosemite, rivaling Half Dome and the giant sequoias with visitors in the early 1900s. And then, just as Yosemite became world-famous for those blooms, they were gone forever. But when the deer are kind to us, we recreate a bit of that magic in our yard.

Read on to learn about evening primroses.

  • Part I: About Evening Primroses
    • Why is watching a flower exciting
    • A bit about their ecology
  • Part II: The Story of the Rise and Fall of Evening Primroses in Yosemite
    • How they came to be a major attraction in Yosemite around 1900
    • How they came to disappear and whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Though normally I think that being a historian is a thing I used to do, old habits die hard. I’ve been reading and speaking about this for years and wanted to finally organize my notes. So Part II really gets down in the weeds (bad pun, I know) on the history of evening primroses in Yosemite. But you can just look at the pictures and videos if that’s more your speed!

What’s so exciting about watching a flower blossom?

In the case of Oenothera elata, aka Hooker’s evening primrose, the yellow blossom almost the size of the palm of your hand opens most of the way in just a few seconds. When people see video of it, they usually think it’s a time-lapse. On the best nights at our house, it happens over 100 times in about 40 minutes (unfortunately, the deer wiped out most of the 2021 crop).

A few years ago, our friend Russ of Yosemite Hikes fame took this one-minute video in our yard. It will give you a sense of how fast the evening primrose opens. This real time, not at all sped up:

Real time video of an evening primrose opening and a sphinx moth arriving

This shorter video is a time-lapse that shows a five blossoms opening in 15 minutes and 17 seconds, compressed into about 12 seconds.

Evening primrose time-lapse. Total real time: 15:17.

At first, we thought this was just a strange thing that we got excited about. Over time we’ve seen young boys and teenage city girls and middle-aged men and others of all ages and interests get excited. And as our knowledge of Yosemite history grew, we learned that it was a major Yosemite attraction over a century ago that advanced the technical aspects of photography and motivated people to pay more attention to preserving the meadows of Yosemite Valley.

The evening primrose is a biennial. The first year it grows with just a basal cluster of leaves — no stalk and no flowers. It’s just putting out leaves and capturing as much solar energy as it can to store in its roots for the big show the next year.

The second year, it uses that stored energy to grow as high as four feet tall and can have a few dozen blossoms. The blossoms last for only one night, coming out at sunset in order to avoid having their precious pollen and nectar taken by day-flyers that are not as effective at pollinating them as the sphinx moth. In the full heat of the summer, the blossoms will be wilted and “dead” by 11am.

The pistil, that long thread with the cross at the end (called the stigma) in the middle of the blossom, is the pollen receiver. If you pull it out the filament is 2-3 inches long. Around it are the stamens with a sort of gooey pollen that sticks to the moth (or bee) and travels with them to the next blossom. The pollen grain brushes off on the cross-shaped stigma, then travels all the way down that tube to the ovaries to fertilize the seeds. The plant then makes hundreds of seeds for every seed pod. The pods eventually dry out and open and that tall plant, blowing back and forth in the wind, ejects the seeds a fair distance, like Father O’Connor spraying the congregation with holy water.

evening primrose blossom closeup
You can see the stamens laden with pollen. That sticky pollen holds onto the moth and the moth carries the pollen grains to the next blossom.
closeup of evening primrose blossom
The same blossom in Sentinel Meadow, from a different angle, showing the pollen on the stamens better.

More on the evening primrose

Is that a bird?

Notice the supporting cast in that video. It looks almost like a hummingbird when you first see it flying, but you will soon see that it’s the gorgeous White-lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata).

hyles lineata dorsal view
Hyles lineata, by Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

The sphinx moth’s secret weapon is a very long proboscis that lets it reach deep into flowers that have a large nectar reward. They are known to frequent columbines and we have seen them on pennyroyal, but the evening primrose is clearly a favorite. The sphinx moth is a major evening primrose pollinator, while the evening primrose provides food not just for the adults who come for the nectar, but for the caterpillars as well (though, sadly, we’ve never seen one on our evening primroses).

Hyles lineata with long proboscis feeding on nectar
The impressively long proboscis of the White-lined Sphinx Moth. Photo by Larry Lamsa from Flickr and Wikimedia Commons and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Their timing is impressive. We rarely see these moths, but within minutes of the first blossom opening, they arrive. To our human noses, the smell of the evening primroses is subtle. Apparently for a sphinx moth, it’s like Mama Ciccardi’s famous marinara sauce cooking on the stove — within minutes, the smell wafting from the flowers calls them to dinner from the far corners of the neighborhood.

Other pollinators

The sphinx moth is not the only pollinator. We see other insects in the flowers sometimes, but typically only in the morning. Carpenter bees (specifically Xylocopa tabaniformis) can be a major pollinator and the overlap in the range suggests this is an ancient relationship (Barthell and Knops). In our experience, though, it is the sphinx moth who rules the skies over and around the evening primroses when they open.

When does this happen?

In drought years and wet years, hot years and cool years, the first blossoms are always within a couple of days of Theresa’s birthday at the end of June. The show reaches its peak in early July and goes strong through most of the month and fades by early August, after which it’s just a few blossoms here and there. We’ll still get the occasional blossom into October, sometimes on plants that appear all but dead.

Where does this happen?

The evening primrose is not a rare plant, but it is a favorite food for deer. So while widespread, there are typically only a handful in Yosemite Valley that blossom each year. A century ago, that number was in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, but those days are gone (that’s the story of Part II). To the best of our knowledge, the best places to see them are just east of Tioga Pass along Highway 120 (a terrific display there in good years) and at our house, except in those years like 2021 when the deer ravage “our” plants (they aren’t “ours” of course any more than we are theirs).

A primrose by any other name

The evening primrose, by the way, is not closely related to the primrose, just like the primrose is not closely related to the rose. They are three distinct flower families belonging to three separate orders. In fact, the evening primrose is more closely related to the rose than to the primrose. To get technical, roses (Rosaceae family) and evening primroses (Onagraceae family) both belong to the Rosids clade, while primroses (Primula family) belong to the Asterids clade.

Part II: The rise and fall of Yosemite Valley’s flowers

Today’s visitor often hopes to see a bear, but very few people make the trip to Yosemite in hopes of seeing a flower open at sundown. In the early 1900s, it was the reverse. There were no bears in Yosemite Valley and when one did enter the Valley, most people thought it should be chased off or killed as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, they ranked wildflowers up there with El Capitan and Yosemite Falls as a must-see attraction. The wildflowers of Yosemite Valley inspired some of the earliest color photographs and the world’s first time-lapse movies of flowers. Indeed, time-lapse photography was virtually invented in Yosemite by Arthur Pillsbury, who held a photographic concession in the park from 1906 to 1922.

Among all the flowers of the park, the evening primrose was one of Pillsbury’s favorites. When he first came to Yosemite, he found entire meadows that would turn yellow as the flowers opened en masse, perhaps 100 per minute in some meadows. If our small patch gets 140 blossoms in 40 minutes, it does not seem out of the question that the huge displays in the meadows of Yosemite Valley might have seen 4000 blossoms in 40 minutes Given that some people report entire fields of them, it’s conceivable on the best nights there were 1,000 blossoms per minute at the peak.

Field of evening primroses in Yosemite Valley with Half Dome behind
From Arthur Pillsbury’s book, Picturing Miracles of Plant and Animal Life (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Press, 1937). Sadly, I can only find black and white reproductions of Pillbury’s hand-tinted color photos, like this one of the evening primroses in Yosemite Valley, with Half Dome rising in the background. Consider the quality of this photo given that it was taking in the fading light of early evening with the technology available around 1910. We hope some day to see the original!

Wildflower Tourism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Wildflowers were such an integral part of the Yosemite experience that when the National Geographic Society ran an article about the park in their weekly Geographic News Bulletin (vol. 1, n. 9; 3 April 1922), they titled it, “The Park of a Thousand Flowers — Yosemite,” and noted that “Yosemite National Park is beloved especially by children because of its many flowers.”

Photocopy of the start of the Geographic News Bulletin article on Yosemite
The Park of a Thousand Flowers!

That publication was aimed at teachers and clearly some read it. Later that year, The Western Journal of Education (vol. 82, no. 7, p. 8-9) ran an article on “Yosemite National Park for the Educators” that described Yosemite Valley in these terms, highlighting the central importance of the evening primroses:

Decorate these walls with titanic structures — El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, Cathedral Spires, Cathedral Rocks — chiseled smooth as glass in many places, then stud these walls with foaming cataracts that flash in the sun, Yosemite Falls… Bridal Veil…. Carpet the meadows with Mariposa lilies and evening primroses and other blossoms which have made Yosemite known as the “Park of a Thousand Flowers.” This is Yosemite Valley.

Western Journal of Education, 1922

The “thousand flowers” referred to the thousand species of flowering plants, but writers also frequently mention the profusion of flowers on the Valley floor. In short, for the visitor of 1922, the flowers of Yosemite Valley rivaled El Capitan and Yosemite Falls in majesty.

The Decline of the Evening Primrose

And yet, by the time these publications came out in 1922, the golden age of the Yosemite Valley flowers was over. In the Handbook of Yosemite National Park from 1921, the great botanist Willis Jepson wrote regarding the evening primroses:

One of the remarkable sights of the upper reaches of the Valley in midsummer are the fields of tall yellow Evening Primroses… In favorable seasons the dry open fields about Yosemite are often yellow with these stately plants. Many of the finest groups, however, are now a thing of the past, due to the mowing of the meadows for wild hay.

Jepson, Handbook, p. 254

In her 1929 survey of flowers in Yosemite Valley, the naturalist Enid Michael noted that, “June of the year 1920 witnessed the last great bloom on the floor of the Valley” (Giddens and Heady, p. 25). Joseph Dixon, writing in 1934, said that in a survey of Yosemite Valley in the late 1920s, only six evening primrose plants had been found in the whole valley (Dixon, p. ?? [get page no. from copy in Yosemite Research Library]).

A few years later, the Wildflower Man of Yosemite himself, photographer Arthur Pillsbury, wrote:

Unhappily this Primrose is now almost extinct in the Yosemite meadows. The mowing machine took its toll and since it has been put on the protected list the deer have acquired a fondness for the leaves, not hesitating, either, at blossoms.

Pillsbury, Picturing, p. 54

What was still a highlight of a Yosemite trip in 1910 had all but disappeared by the 1920s.

The naturalists lamenting the loss of the evening primroses typically point to two factors: farming and deer. For most visitors, it’s surprising to think that Yosemite Valley was once home to several hayfields and pastures for horse and cattle, but was home to almost no deer, bear or coyotes. And yet, that was the situation around 1900.

Why were there so many flowers in 1900 and why were they all but gone by 1922?

Flowers in the Valley before 1900

After the glaciers receded, Yosemite Valley was a wetland or a lake. As the lands silted up and the waters receded, there is some evidence of ancient forest in Yosemite that was wiped from either rock slides or fires, either natural or manmade (Gibbens and Heady, p. 8-9).

For at least a few thousand years, inhabitants of Yosemite Valley set fire to the meadows, typically in the autumn. This made it easier to harvest fallen acorns and promoted the growth of plants with edible bulbs and tubers. Many of the common flowers we know today were prized as root crops, like Elegant Brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans), Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum), Mariposa Lilies (various Calochortus species), and many more. See the wonderful article by M. Kat Anderson and Frank K. Lake on the various “geophytes” (roughly speaking, “root crops”) prized and eaten traditionally in California.

The meadows were also important for plants such as dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum) that was not eaten, but was used for making twine and therefore an essential material for the residents of Yosemite Valley. The Valley was sometimes described as “swampy” and we know that numerous changes from blasting the recessional moraine near El Capitan to building roads began to dry out the meadows (Gibbens and Heady, p. 8 and passim). So it’s quite likely that swampy crops like onion were common, though they are rare today (there are local varieties of onion that like dry soil, some of which grow a short distance from our home, but the largest onions in the area are all wetland species).

This burning also kept tree encroachment from choking the meadows. As soon as the burning stopped, the size the of the meadows started to decrease and the European-American methods of controlling the brush through cutting was labor intensive and much less effective. A survey in 1868 found that there was 745 acres of meadow in Yosemite Valley. By 1937, only 327 acres of meadow remained (Gibbens and Heady, p. 24).

It also appears that the Ahwahneechee used fire to hunt the deer in Yosemite Valley, and probably elsewhere (Ernst, p. 39). Finally, oral tales speak of the Ahwahneechee going up to the Valley rim to hunt for deer, presumably because deer were not abundant on the Valley floor due to hunting.

All of this combined to create a Valley floor that had much more meadow and much less undergrowth than we’re used to. Also, those meadows may have been wetter and they were certainly burned more often. And finally, there were no grazing animals there, either wild or domestic. All of that probably means there were a lot more flowers than we’re used to, but we mostly know about the species that were used for food, and precious little even about those.

Yosemite Valley from Invasion to National Park

After the Ahwahneechee attacked a couple of trading posts, the Mariposa Battalion invaded Yosemite Valley in 1851 and forced the Ahwahneechee out for the first time. The tribe returned that winter, but most were forced out definitively in 1852. Though a small number resided in the Valley into the 1960s, they effectively lost control of their lands and therefore the meadow burning stopped in the 1850s.

In 1855, Just four years after the initial invasion by the Mariposa Battalion, an early tourist wrote that Valley was rich with berries, in particular strawberries:

The wag of our party said that any man who would find three feet square in a space of six hundred acres, where we encamped, that did not have the strawberry on it, should have the pleasure of shooting through his hat. The search was made for the space; but our friend says his hat will never have a hole through it from this proposition.

Reprinted in Browing, p. 219.

In 1864, Yosemite Valley became a California state park, but it was managed much less actively than today. Despite its status as a park, settlers and business people soon began grazing cattle and horses and plowing for crops. At least 20 acres of El Capitan meadow was plowed and sown with fodder for horses and cattle. Many other meadows were plowed or used as pasture for both horses and cattle. By 1887, 150 acres of Stoneman Meadow was under active cultivation. People began to complain and in 1890 new rules were passed to reduce farming in Yosemite Valley. Nevertheless, the government plowed and planted Ahwahnee Meadow from 1910 to 1914. Other meadows were not plowed, but they were mowed for “wild hay” as late as 1924 (Gibbens and Heady, pp. 4, 21-22).

Man with a plow and team of two horses with Half Dome in the background
Photo of US government electrician Sam Cookson plowing Ahwahnee Meadow in 1911 or 1912. Public domain photo from NPS collection.

Despite this history of plowing and mowing, Yosemite Valley nevertheless had breathtaking displays of flowers, with the evening primrose as one of the stars, perhaps the star of the show.

How is it, then, that the evening primroses thrived in the presence of mowing, and yet disappeared about the time mowing stopped?

Naturalists of the time agree on two things. First, before the mowing ended, it moved to new locations and wiped out some of the best surviving collections of flowers. Second, the deer population boomed. By the time the plowing and mowing stopped, the number of deer was sufficient, as it is now, to all but eliminate the evening primrose from the valley.

Yosemite Valley: Death Trap to Animals
(Or: Why the Deer Didn’t Eat All the Flowers in 1900)

We think of deer as numerous and ubiquitous in Yosemite Valley, but it wasn’t always the case. From the late 1800s until 1906 the deer, along with most large animals, were hunted to extinction on the valley floor.

Though the national park had been created in 1890, Yosemite Valley remained a state park under state management. Rules against hunting were widely ignored. In 1905, Yosemite Valley became part of Yosemite National Park. The next year, the U.S. Army, who managed the larger national park, took over management of Yosemite Valley as well. In his 1906 report, Acting Superintendent Major Harry Benson reported to Washington about the conditions he found on taking charge of the Valley:

The Yosemite Valley itself has, during recent years, been a death trap to all game that was unfortunate enough to enter it. Practically every person living in the valley kept a rifle, shotgun, and revolver, and any animal or bird that was unfortunate enough to enter the valley was immediately pursued by the entire contingent, and either captured or killed. A bear pen constructed about three years ago was found by me within 400 yards of the Sentinel Hotel.

During the early part of September two bears entered the valley, causing great consternation among those people who had been living here for some time, and they all seemed to think that these bears should at once be pursued and driven out.

Benson, Report, p. 10.

To make matters worse, during those years, the army only managed the park from May through October. The rest of the year, only two rangers oversaw the entire park. Benson noted that, as the two rangers did little patrolling, “the game scarcely receives any protection from them.”

Those conditions were terrible for the deer, but marvelous for flowers. The valley floor was reputed to be white with camas lily in the early season and yellow with evening primrose in July. It was during this period that Arthur Pillsbury took his famous hand-tinted photos of evening primroses and, later, his time-lapse movies of them opening.

As late as 1908, Acting Superintendent Benson was still worried about the deer population and intensive hunting. But from 1909 on, the Acting Superintendents repeated every year that the deer population was increasing. This hurt, above all, the evening primroses. As we have found in our yard, the deer seem to love this plant as much as we do. Still, the deer were not so numerous as to kill them all off. In his 1910 book, The Yosemite Valley, Galen Clark noted that the evening primrose was “very common in Yosemite.”

After about 1910, the evening primroses faced greater pressure from both deer and mowing. Initially, the rise of the automobile reduced the need to grow hay and graze the meadows (Gibbens and Heady, p. 5). At the same time, the burgeoning tourist trade in Yosemite required fresh milk and meat. Fresh milk and meat in the days before refrigerator trucks required cattle. And cattle needed hay. Despite the predations of the plowman and the deer, however, the flower remained an attraction. The July 31, 1922, issue of Yosemite Nature Notes still suggested that visitors go out into the meadows to watch the evening primroses open.

Sounding the Alarm in the 1920s

By the 1920s naturalists in the park had sounded the alarm: the flowers were disappearing. In response, the park service and the concessioner made various attempts to hold onto the tradition of Yosemite’s great flower displays. In the early 1920s, Yosemite’s Curry Company tried to plant wildflower gardens in Curry Village with poor results: “Although plants commonly grazed by deer were avoided, the project was abandoned after three years of unsuccessful attempts to keep out the deer.” (McLelland, Chapter 4, section “Grounds of the Concessionaires”).

During the planning of the Ahwahnee Hotel, a 1927 memo called for a “plant refuge” around the hotel because, “It is well remembered that the meadow many years ago were filled with evening primroses” and other plants (McClelland, Chapter IV, my emphasis). Note that already in 1927, people thought of the spectacular blooms as something that happened “many years ago.”

After a rough start, the plants were fenced in to protect them from deer and elk, the latter having been introduced into Yosemite. In 1929, Horace Albright, the new director of the National Park Service, commented that the Ahwahnee plant refuge was “‘the only place in the valley where native flowers’ could ‘be seen in any profusion’” (ibid.). Around 2010, as I was relating some of this history to long-time ranger Bob Roney, it sparked a memory. He told me that the evening primroses were still there in the early 1970s and, though he didn’t now the history, he remembered watching them open from a seat by the window in the Ahwahnee Dining Room the night he proposed to his wife.

Meanwhile, the park service began maintaining flower exhibits behind the new museum, first with cut flowers gathered from around the park and, beginning in 1929, with a live garden protected from deer. The garden expanded under the direction of naturalist-ranger Enid Michael. In 1935, evening primrose was planted. This collection of now-rare flowers “became the object of popular evening walks” (McClelland, Chapter IV and Chapter VI).

During my ranger days, I would occasionally encounter long-time park visitors who remembered going to the museum garden in the evening to see the evening primroses open. In 1941, Enid Michael wrote an article for Yosemite Nature Notes (vol. XX, no. 4, p. 30-31) on the “Guests of the Evening Primroses,” about the carpenter bees and sphinx moths. She still waxed poetic about the show the flowers put on as the sun goes down, but she now located it in the Museum Garden, not in the meadows of Yosemite Valley as the author of the 1922 article had done.

Evening Primroses Today

Over time, even the Museum Garden and the Ahwahnee Hotel “plant refuge” disappeared. Now, only visitors with a sharp eye and good timing will find evening primrose blooming in Yosemite Valley. Every year there is at least one place in the disturbed soil along the roads in the Valley that you can find an evening primrose that has survived the deer. By far the best collection grows along the road just east of Tioga Pass. It is perhaps the last place where, on a good night, you can see hundreds of plants produce perhaps 1000 blossoms. The next best place is our house in a year when we succeed in keeping the deer away.

When we first found evening primroses in bloom near the house, we did not know most of this history. We had seen them by the chapel and had noticed that they were there when we drove by in the morning, but not in the afternoon. Though it was on our list of things to do, we had not actually sat and watched one open. It wasn’t until our first crop came in at our house that we sat and watched and witnessed the magic of the blossom opening. That started our education and our desire to create, if possible, a small refuge of evening primrose, at least in those years where we do not lose our running battle with the deer!

Humans, Nature and Evening Primroses

The story of the evening primrose in Yosemite raises some interesting questions. When I first came to Yosemite in 1985, I imagined I was walking through a landscape preserved from time immemorial just as it always had been. Of course, even the most superficial reflection reveals that to be untrue — a landscape formed by the Big Bang, plate tectonics and glaciers has no “original” form outside the Singularity. Still, I imagined that it had changed little over the last few hundred years, setting aside a few roads, trails and hotels of course.

The understanding that the place I thought of as stable could have changed so much in 150 years took a process of education. Only over time did I realize that large patches of the Valley are almost entirely populated with cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), which did not even exist in North America until the late 1800s. The common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), which grows widely throughout the Valley, was brought over by Europeans and planted as a medicinal (for stomach ailments). And many of the Valley meadows are full of Kentucky Bluegrass which, despite it’s name, is a Eurasian species, not a native of Kentucky.

All of that makes me ask what it means to refer to a place as “natural”? Is Yosemite today, with its roads, hotels, restaurants, exotic Eurasian plants and huge deer population, natural? Was the Yosemite of 1906, with no deer, plowed meadows and a magnificent show of evening primroses in unplowed areas, natural? Was the Yosemite of 1800, with double the meadow and a tiny fraction of the undergrowth that we know today thanks to annual fires set by the Ahwahneechee, natural? Once you ask that question, it becomes clear that the simple word natural is an inexact label for an extremely slippery concept.

Those are not questions I try to answer, since better minds than mine have devoted entire books to wrestling with those questions. Instead, on the question of what is human and what is natural, I’ll just end with a quote from historian William Cronon:

If wilderness can do this—if it can help us perceive and respect a nature we had forgotten to recognize as natural—then it will become part of the solution to our environmental dilemmas rather than part of the problem. This will only happen, however, if we abandon the dualism that sees the tree in the garden as artificial—completely fallen and unnatural—and the tree in the wilderness as natural—completely pristine and wild. Both trees in some ultimate sense are wild; both in a practical sense now depend on our management and care. We are responsible for both, even though we can claim credit for neither.

Cronon, The Trouble with Wilderness

And that is why I have avoided calling the evening primroses that grow near our house “our plants.” We feel responsible for them, but can’t claim credit. They are their own plants.

Sources

Many sources are either cited in full or linked in the text. The sources that are mentioned just by author name are here given in full:

Covid Safety

gloved hand with bottle of Clorox spray

Update: as of June 15, 2021, the “sector guidance” for all sectors, including lodging, has been lifted. This means that we have no more formal restrictions. We do still have some additional measures in place.

We are both fully vaccinated as of May 5.

This means we no longer leave a gap night and we are now able to do things like leave out extra linens for guests. However, we do and will comply with any guidance from public health officials as things evolve.

If you’re not worried about the safety aspect, you can skip to the section on downsides, which highlights a few minor (we hope) inconveniences that result from all this.

Planning and Communicating

We have in the past really enjoyed welcoming guests and poring over maps in over the dining table shoulder to shoulder to help plan their outings. We now try to keep a safe distance and meet with our guests only outdoors unless everyone in the group is fully vaccinated. We appreciate it if guests let us know their vaccination status.

Cleaning between Guests

In addition, we have a number of measures in place to enhance safety for us and our guests. Of course, we cannot guarantee safety from Covid-19, but we are taking precautions to reduce the chance of spread. Some of these measures, sadly, make the experience a little less “homey,” but that is the reality we live in until state and local health departments lift current rules, though many of these rules we now think of as prudent practice even in the absence of Covid.

  • In nice weather, we ask guests to open a few windows before leaving and to turn on the bathroom fan to help turn air over and we typically open all the windows during cleaning to get as much air flow as possible. In hot weather, we close the windows when done cleaning and turn on the air conditioning. In cold weather when we cannot open the windows, we have an Austin Air Healthmate, medical-grade HEPA filter that we ask guests to turn on before leaving and that we run during cleaning and leave on for the next guest.
  • High-filtration filters in the heating system with a MERV rating of over 13 or higher (Filtrete MPR of 1900 or higher; MPR 2800 filters if obtainable). There are many standards, but this is roughly speaking a HEPA filter. See the New York Times article on The Best Furnace Filters 2020 (opens in new tab) for more information.
  • We use the safest disinfectants we could find approved for Covid-19. We have settled on hydrogen peroxide, which breaks down into water and oxygen, and Vital Oxide. Vital Oxide is approved for food-contact surfaces without rinsing and breaks down into a salt.
  • Keyless entry so no key handoff required. This is not contactless entry as you do have to enter the code on the keypad, but we disinfect the keypad between guests.
  • Provide alcohol-based sanitizer for us and our guests.
  • HEPA filter on the vacuum cleaner.
  • Keurig coffee maker with individual-use K-Cups. This was a tough one for us, but county public health officials were emphatic about not leaving open food bags, so we can no longer provide bulk coffee. If you dislike the waste or simply prefer a different coffee experience, just let us know.

The Downside

There is a huge upside to all this — most summers, people encounter traffic jams and crowding. In 2020, even on Fourth of July and Memorial Day it was pleasant being out and about.

There are a few downsides to all this. We try to provide enough of everything to keep our guests comfy, but given the new cleaning protocols, we are providing fewer of some things and have stopped providing some things altogether:

With respect to our accommodations:

  • Fewer spices. We recommend guests bring their own.
  • No bulk foods like cooking oil, coffee, flour, sauces, and condiments.
  • Fewer spare linens (more available upon request).
  • Fewer dishes (again, more available upon request – we want people to be comfy, but try to keep it to three dishwasher loads per changeover).
  • Fewer throw pillows, decorative blankets and such.
  • We do still have a closed shelf of DVDs and guidebooks. We generally do a very light, quick spray of that shelf and close the doors. We leave it up to our guests whether or not they are comfortable with using those items or not.

With respect to the park in general

  • The shuttle system is not running in 2021. For the most part, this is not too bad, but there are a couple of places where it adds significantly to your walk:
    • Mariposa Grove. It is now a two-mile walk from the parking lot to the first giant trees. This road is, however, open for biking this year (normally it is not). If you can bring bikes, they could be handy.
    • Mirror Lake. Normally you can shuttle to the trailhead, but now you would have to walk from trailhead parking, Curry Village or the Ahwahnee Hotel. There may also be parking at the Stables near North Pines campground.
    • Any route that doesn’t end where it started. For example, up the Four Mile Trail and down the Panorama Trail. In the past you could shuttle from one trailhead to the other, but now you will need to walk it.
  • Limited food service. The restaurant offerings are limited. Stock up on lunchable picnic items and, for the most part, plan to cook at home.

So there you have it. I think we’re being responsible, though with some regret that we can’t, as we did before, supply many extra sets of dishes and towels and all that. Research has shown that Covid does not spread through surface contact, but we are trying to stay compliant with all local and state regulations, even if they have, perhaps, not adapted to what we know a year into this.

We do want you to be comfortable, so if you are short on anything, let us know.


Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

About Recycling

bluerecycling bin

When we explain our recycling guidelines to people, they are often surprised and say things like, “In our town, they recycling all plastics #1 through #7.” This is based on a misconception about the difference between what is accepted and what is recycled, and there is a huge difference indeed.

Contents

Recycle These

  • Clean, uncoated cardboard
  • Clean newspaper, office paper, phone books, etc.
  • Clean glass jars and bottles
  • Aluminum cans, pure aluminum foil. Aluminum is one of the most recyclable materials in the world. It takes 95% less energy to recycling aluminum than to make more from scratch and the resulting product is just as good as the virgin material. If nothing else, recycle this.
  • Clean steel cans.
  • Clean #1 and #2 bottles without full-length sleeves, round tubs and pails. No other plastics, no clamshells, blister packs, black microwave trays even if labelled #1 or #2.

Put These in the Trash:

  • Paper: Coffee cups, take-out food containers, paper plates, cash-register receipts, paper towels, napkins, facial tissue, wax-coated cardboard, pizza boxes, frozen food boxes, label backing sheets; or paper coated with food, wax, foil or plastic. No waxy refrigerator cartons such as milk & juice cartons or shelf-stable cartons such as soup, soy milk, juice & wine cartons
  • Glass: drinking glasses, window glass.
  • Aluminum: if you aren’t sure it’s “real” foil, trash it. Wish-cycling an aluminum composite (e.g. Tetra pack) could contaminate a load.
  • Plastic: All plastics except #1 and #2 bottles, round, food-grade containers and tubs. That means that all of the following go in the trash: small bits of plastic, almost all packaging, yogurt containers, clamshells, blister packs, all plastic bags. Even though marked as #1 or #2, black microwave trays are not actually recyclable either.

Batteries are special

Please leave spent batteries on the counter. California law prohibits batteries in either recycling or trash. They have to be handled specially.

In my town they accept all plastics. Why not here?

Plastics #3 to #7 were never actually recycled. Up until 2018, plastics 3-7 were sent to China and mostly incinerated or landfilled. However, large amounts of them washed into the ocean. Much of the ocean plastic is the result of all of us well-meaning recyclers putting plastics 3-7 into the recycling for 20 or 30 years.

In 2018, China stopped accepting the world’s garbage, but the US and UK still export most plastic waste to poorer countries where they often cannot properly handle them.

The problem is that most plastics cannot be turned back into usable material. As the CEO of waste-management giant Recology has written:

For five years, Recology employed a chemical engineer with 25 years of plastics manufacturing experience. He was given the mission to find something that we can do to with single-use plastic waste; his work netted no practical results…  there exist few, if any, viable end markets for the material. Which makes reuse impossible.

That sad truth is that, for the most part, we were simply told a comfortable myth by plastic manufacturers that made it feel good to put the plastic in the blue bin instead of the brown one, but we likely did more harm than good in doing so.

Now China won’t take our trash and 180 countries have agreed to the Basel Convention agreeing that OECD countries will not send their plastic trash to non-OECD countries. However, the United States and the United Kingdom (as a result of Brexit) are not signatories to this agreement. The result is that we still send our low-grade plastics to poorer countries or, as The Guardian reveals, simply landfill it from Los Angeles to Florida.

A Guardian investigation reveals that cities around the country are no longer recycling many types of plastic dropped into recycling bins. Instead, they are being landfilled, burned or stockpiled. From Los Angeles to Florida to the Arizona desert, officials say, vast quantities of plastic are now no better than garbage.

Of course the article is wrong when it says this plastic is now no better than garbage. In fact, it never was.

Isn’t it better to put it in recycling just in case?

Actually wish-cycling is worse than throwing it in the trash.

  • Contamination. First and foremost, you can contaminate the entire load, leading it to be landfilled even though it has recyclable materials. So wish-cycling can be like a form of negative recycling that negates the effort of getting high-quality materials into the blue bin.
  • Energy cost and carbon footprint. Our trash needs to be shipped only 52 miles to our landfill, while “recycling” needs to be shipped hundreds, even thousands, perhaps across the ocean. It’s not even clear it’s worth it for good plastic, but it is definitely not worth it for plastic that just gets landfilled at its faraway destination. It’s just an expensive trip around the globe for what is actually trash.
  • Ocean plastic. Our local landfill is a modern facility that sequesters toxic materials and covers the trash with dirt at the end of each day. Of course, some plastic escapes, but little of it makes its way into waterways and oceans. If, instead, I put my #3 plastic in the blue bin, it gets a long trip to an open dump in Malaysia, where it has a high probability of ending in the ocean. It really is worse. This opinion is shared by the New York Times: “Though many American communities dutifully collect plastic for recycling, much of the scrap has been sent overseas, where it frequently ends up in landfills, or in rivers, streams and the ocean.”
  • Fairness. Is it fair for us to export our pollution to poor communities in foreign countries? Strangely, through decades of indoctrination, it feels like the right thing to do, but it really isn’t until such time as domestic recycling capabilities improve.

Is this really true? Can I read more?

This is a topic I have been reading about and following for years, but I am not an expert. It’s just what I’ve learned from a variety of publicly-available sources, corroborated by what I hear from a friend who attends conferences on waste management, zero-waste efforts and recycling. But if you have a reliable source that contradicts, corrects, updates or adds to this, I’d love to hear it. My goal is not to take a position, but to find and share the best available information.

How can I learn more?


Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Yosemite 2021: What to Expect

Last updated: September 3, 2021.

To answer the number one question our guests have: if you are staying with us, you do not need to get a day-use reservation for your trip. 

If you are coming between May 31 and September 30, a reservation system is in effect for visitors, but your reservation with us includes a reservation to enter the park. We will enter your name in a database that will be available at the gates. Your photo ID must match the name in the database.

For many of you, that may be 100% of what you wanted to know. In that case, we look forward to seeing you this year. For those who want a bit more of an overview, read on.

As for what follows, this is my best understanding. This is not official information. I suggest you also read the official park service page on how Covid-19 will affect your visit. Where these two pages disagree, go with the NPS page.

This page will cover:

Winter 2020-2021

There were three major things from this winter that will affect how the spring and summer will look: wind (lots), snowfall (not so much, but over half in one storm), and Covid, because what doesn’t it affect these days.

Covid 

You’ve probably heard of this. In fact, you’re probably sick of hearing about it. The short version is that Covid makes it complicated to fully staff up and presents other challenges to operating the park at full capacity. I’ve provided additional details below for those who are interested or perplexed (go there). See also the NPS page I already mentioned.

Windstorm

On January 18, we had a major Mono wind event that brought down thousands of trees, including 15 mature giant sequoias (very sad). The falling trees destroyed houses, public buildings, power lines, blocked roads and, miraculously, did not kill any people. Still, it did an estimated $200 million dollars in damage just within the park. Many houses were destroyed in the surrounding area too. Some people in Wawona, where they have above-ground powerlines, were without power for a couple of months.

Westfall Ranger Station destroyed by Mono wind event, Jan 18, 2021
Westfall Ranger Station, RIP

Snowfall

We had three storms that dropped about a foot of snow each, a few storms that just dropped a few inches and one storm that dropped seven feet at our house from late on January 27 to early morning on January 29. At the end, we had up to eight feet of snow in the yard as measured with an avalanche probe (6-8 feet depending on the location, sheltering trees and so forth). 

Digging out my truck after big Yosemite snowstorm in 2021
Almost free!

One of my (Tom) community service activities is to drive the snowplow when the full-time guys can’t. On the morning the snow ended, an avalanche closed the main highway they come in on. I had plowed until midnight and skied home, but they couldn’t make it so I put my skis back on to ski back up to the plow. In then end, NPS cleared the avalanche and the crew got there before me, so I got to ski home and have soup. This photo is on the main road in the neighborhood, up near the guard rail. It had been plowed less than 10 hours earlier.

Tom skiing up Yosemite Park Way to fetch the plow
Somebody’s gotta plow the roads!

We have seen a lot more snow than we did this year including some massive series of storms, such as in 2017 when we had one of the biggest snowpacks. But I believe that in our 18 winters in Yosemite, the seven-foot snowfall was second only to the 11-foot snowfall in late March 2011. 

That might sound like a lot, but the total is still low by Yosemite standards. According to the April 1 snow survey, the water content of the snowpack was 63% of normal in the Tuolumne River basin and 64% of normal in the Merced River basin.

The main effect of this is that high-country trails and creek crossings will be accessible earlier than usual, but seasonal waterfalls and small creeks will also dry up earlier than usual.

Vaccination Status

We were both fully vaccinated as of May 5, 2021. Yay!

We are still planning to take all the extra cleaning measures until the state and county public health officials recommend otherwise. And we will still be somewhat cautious compared to many people, but it will make us more comfortable in interactions with guests and, we think, makes the whole undertaking somewhat safer.

Impact on Operations

So what does all this have to do with you? There are a few operational impacts that follow from all this.

Day-Use Reservations

This is the big one. Between May 21 and September 30, people wishing to come to Yosemite for the day will need a reservation in addition to the normal entry fee. Also, the park pass will be for three days rather than the normal seven days.

Our guests are not significantly impacted by this policy.

  • Your reservation with us includes your reservation to enter the park.
  • Your reservation will be valid for the length of your stay, even though in almost all cases for our guests it will be over three days.
  • You still need to pay the $35 entry fee or have some other pass (annual, Golden Age, etc).

We have been given access to a database that we can update with your name and stay dates. When you arrive at the gate, you will simply need to present a photo ID matching the name on your reservation.

The official instruction from the National Park Service offers this helpful information:

What proof does my Vacation Rental guest need to get into the gate? Each vehicle entering the park will need the Photo ID (or copy of Photo ID) of the reservation holder. The Gate Staff will look up the reservation using the reservation holder’s name. As a back-up, they will ask your guest for proof of reservation… Their reservation will be checked against the Gate List and your guest will be issued a Vehicle Permit. 

Last update: 3 September 2021

No Shuttles or Tours

The shuttles pose a problem in that the concessioner struggles to find enough drivers in the best years, the Covid housing rules have reduced staff considerably, and even in the best of times shuttles are packed way beyond what the CDC allows. Indeed, I’ve often wondered about the effects of sick people on Yosemite shuttles even before Covid. There are tours running from outside the park, such as Tenaya Lodge Tours and Discover Yosemite Tours, but basically the entire transportation system within the park is shut down for the year.

Mariposa Grove Opening

The Mariposa Grove re-opened May 5, 2021 after being closed for a Mono wind event, which not only knocked over trees, but damaged buildings and boardwalks.

Keep in mind that even after it opens, there will be no shuttle service, which means you have to hike the two miles each way on the road to get to the grove, then whatever hiking you want to do in the grove itself. This is good and bad. The bad is obvious. The good is that an extra four miles of hiking really cuts down on the crowds. After the grove reopening, we enjoyed a solitary early dinner at the grove museum, an unthinkable prospect when the shuttles are running.

One of the great way to have the best of both worlds is to bring bikes. If you can bring bikes from home, great. If not, you can rent from our good friends at Pedal Forward Bikes and Adventure (Tom’s former officemate and boss, Jorge and Mike).

Road Openings

Update: Glacier Point Road opened April 30, 2021.

You might think that in a low-snow year, that Glacier Point Road and the Tioga Road would open on the early end. However, since we had thousands of trees fall across the roads just before getting 6-8 feet of snow, there are lots of buried trees so plowing operations are going slowly. After the wind event, the Verizon guys said they encountered 29 large trees across the road in less than a quarter mile on the Glacier Point Road. Their problem was solved after 6-8 feet of snow fell on top of them and they could drive a tracked vehicle out to service the cell tower. But those trees are still there.

If you look at other years with a similar snowpack, opening dates ranged from May 12 to May 31 for Tioga Road and April 28 to May 31 for Glacier Point. The median is May 21 and May 16, respectively. The National Park Service maintains a full list of opening dates since 1996 if you want to so your own research (back to 1980 for Tioga Road actually).

Note: the Glacier Point construction project scheduled for 2021 has been postponed. The road will be open in 2021, but will be closed for all of 2022.

This video from an April flyover from 2017 (a big snow year) shows the scope of the task.

And this tells you a bit about the plowing process:

Waterfalls

The below-normal snowpack means below normal flow in the rivers and earlier drying of the ephemeral creeks in the park. This includes Yosemite Falls, which dries up by late July in severe drought years and is dry by late September in all but the heaviest snow years. Vernal and Nevada Falls flow all year. The Bridalveil Fall viewing area is closed for restoration this year, but the fall itself is quite close to the road, so there are plenty of places to see it from (in fact, our favorite is from a pullout on the opposite side of the valley across the river from where it lights up beautifully in the late afternoon light). 

Trail Conditions

This is just a guess, based on early experiences and what happened this winter. Snow should be off the trails early, given the light snowpack. We have already been running trails at over 6,000 feet, which is early. A recent guest hiked Eagle Peak and encountered little snow (also early). That’s the good news. It means that not only will trails be clear of snow relatively early, but creek crossings will be safe relatively early. The bad news is that some areas of the park may have a lot of trees across the trail due to the wind event. This seems to be mostly in the south of the park (Wawona area) and will improve as trail crews get out and clear them.

The only Covid-related restriction on trails is that starting in late spring (no official date yet), the Mist Trail will have one-way traffic from 9am to 4pm. The Mist Trail itself will be uphill only with return via the John Muir Trail.

Visitor Centers

Generally, the visitor centers are all closed. The Valley Visitor Center has information stations staffed with rangers and volunteers who can help you out. That said, we have lived here for 18 years, Tom has been a ranger and Theresa has volunteered at the visitor center and used to run the hiking guide service. We think that there’s not a lot of information you can get at the visitor center that you can’t get from us and we are more than happy to share our Yosemite knowledge. 

Restaurants, Stores and Other Services

A lot of this in flux. In general, most of these are running, though perhaps at limited capacity. If things go well with Covid (get vaccinated people!), some of the restrictions should get progressively rolled back, but there’s no question that NPS and the concessioner will be short-staffed this year.

Why Does Covid Affect Park Operations?

You come to Yosemite to be in the great outdoors where transmission is extremely rare. Why does Covid still matter? The short version:

  • Covid creates special challenges for hiring and housing a large seasonal staff in the normal congregate living situations
  • Welcoming visitors from all over the country means that even when local infection rates are low, there are still potentially a lot of infected people in the park
  • Not all outdoor recreation happens outdoors as traditionally people would be crowded into shuttles, bathrooms, grocery store lines and so forth. 

Agree with them or not, these considerations and probably many others have led the National Park Service to implement the day-use reservation system and limit some other services.  

1. Housing

Typical housing in Yosemite involves two or three employees to a room. Even in “good” housing where an employee has his or her own room, it is in most cases with shared bathrooms, showers, kitchens and commons areas. In short, it is “congregate living” like a prison or a nursing home or a college dorm. It has the added complication of a fluid, seasonal population coming from all over the country and arriving in large numbers at the start of the season. 

The housing guidelines for the park require single-occupancy rooms for the duration of 2021. Of course, they do allow for congregate bathrooms, kitchens and showers, otherwise all parks would be forced to shut down. This, of course, means a substantial reduction in the work force and that makes for a reduction in services.

Some people have suggested that park employees be required to vaccinate and then live together in shared housing. It is, however, not legal to force employees to take a medicine offered under an emergency-use authorization. Even the military cannot require personnel to take a vaccine approved only under and emergency-use authorization, let alone a civilian employer. Until a vaccine receives full FDA approval, such a requirement would be illegal.

The upshot of this is that the park will be operating with far fewer employees than in a normal year. That means a reduction in services.

2. Visitors from Everywhere

Our second challenge is that our visitors come from all over. County health officials have been monitoring sewage from Yosemite since early in the pandemic. Before we had any cases reported among park staff and residents, we had detectable Covid in the sewage coming out of Yosemite Valley suggesting that as many as 170 people present in the park over the July 4, 2020, weekend were infected with Covid. Similarly, we have started to see the B 117 strain in the Yosemite Valley sewage even though we haven’t seen cases locally, according to a recent article in the local paper.

All of which is to say that our small rural community is exceptionally porous and is a true mixing pot for people from low-Covid and high-Covid areas.

3. Not all “outdoor recreation” takes place outdoors

People think in terms of what it’s like out on the trails. Sure, trails are sometimes very crowded, but all the research shows that outdoor transmission is exceedingly rare, especially from casual contact like passing someone on the trail. So why the worry?

Most of the concern comes from the parts of a traditional Yosemite trip that are not outdoors: bathrooms, the massive lines at the Village Store, crowded restaurants and so forth. One solution might be to simply close these facilities, but we saw from the recent government shutdown what happens when people are left to fend for themselves in the park. It was not a viable situation even in the low season.

4. No Shuttles

For various reasons (staffing, crowding), the shuttle system will not operate this year. That means more traffic and that means it takes fewer visitors to create traffic jams. Not only do traffic jams make for a bad experience, it also can make for a dangerous experience. During an April 8, 2021, call with the community, the superintendent said that over Easter weekend, they saw one-hour response times for emergency services to get to Curry Village. This is a 5-minute bike ride, but already traffic was so tight that it took one hour for an ambulance to get through. She said visitors were stuck in two-hour traffic jams and one visitor claimed to have spent five hours in traffic in a single day. And that was in April! It would be completely untenable with July crowds.

Conclusion

It may seem that there should be no restrictions on people going hiking and therefore no limitations on Yosemite visitation as a result of Covid, but as you can see, it remains a complicated situation, especially in the current race between the progress of the vaccines and the progress of the variants.

Bette Davis said it best in All About Eve: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” But hopefully, some of the measures put in place will make it less bumpy. In general, those regular visitors who could gain entry last year found it to be a vastly superior experience to what they found pre-Covid when, in the last few years, traffic jams have been common from late June through mid-August. Most people find doing without a few services is amply recompensed by not having to sit in traffic!

Should You Buy Travel Insurance?

picture of travel insurance document and boarding pass

Choose Carefully

Every year, we have guests who have to cancel their trips. Usually, the reasons are sad and unexpected — a sick parent, a hurricane, a broken arm. It’s always regrettable, but with the right insurance, you can avoid losing a lot of money, as well as losing your vacation.

The Pitfalls of Most Travel Insurance

As I found out with trip cancellation insurance purchased for my father in 2018, most plans cover very few circumstances. In his case, his incoming flight from Rome was cancelled due to weather, which meant he missed his connecting domestic flight. When I tried to use the insurance purchased on Expedia, it turned out that it did not cover weather events.

Regular travel insurance does not cover a lot of common events:

  • Bad weather, but roads are open.
  • Air is unhealthy due to smoke, but the area is not evacuated.
  • You get sick, but do not get a doctor to certify your illness.
  • If you are a caregiver and need to cancel you trip to take care of someone who is not on the trip with you.
  • If you get divorced, you might be covered, but if you break up with the person you’re living with who is not your legal spouse, you’re not.
  • If a parent dies, you’re covered, but if a pet or dear friend dies, you’re not.
  • And so on.

As I have found out in looking at trip cancellation insurance, the typical policy covers almost none of the reasons that have ever caused me to cancel a trip and probably only about a quarter of the trips our guests have cancelled.

Cancel for Any Reason Insurance

There are, however, policies that though much more expensive (maybe a lot) are also more likely to be pay out. What you are looking for is “Cancel for any reason” policies. Typically you must:

  • Purchase the policy relatively soon after purchasing your trip.
  • Ensure your entire trip — air travel, accommodations.
  • Purchase it before a reasonable person would be able to guess that there will be a need to cancel (i.e. before there is an official hurricane forecast, for example).
  • Cancel your trip a specified amount of time before departure, typically 2-3 days.

If you meet those criteria, you have a lot of leeway. You had planned on skiing, but it’s a drought and there’s no snow? Covered. Have asthma and it looks like there will be smoke from a wildfire? Covered. Have too much work and just can’t get away in the end? Covered.

In this case, “covered” means something on the order of a 75% or a 50% refund, depending on the level of coverage you select. So it’s not a get out of jail free card and it can cost a significant percentage of trip costs. Cancel for Any Reason insurance may or may not be worth it, depending on the cost, but at least there is a very high chance of getting some usable coverage.

Purchasing Cancel for Any Reason Travel Insurance

We do not have a recommended provider, but we have found a few sources of Cancel for Any Reason Trip Insurance online.

For better or worse, we have no relationship with these websites and provide them for information only. The “better” is that we have no financial relationship with these sites and are not promoting them out of any self-interest other than avoiding uncomfortable conversations with guests that have to cancel. The “worse” is that we have have not actually used them to purchase insurance yet.

  •  Squaremouth is a comparison shopping site, not an insurer. It’s similar to Kayak for airfare and Bankrate for loans. They have a lot of Cancel for Any Reason policies to choose from.
  • TravelGuard from insurance giant AIG also has Cancel for Any Reason policies.
  • TravelEx offers Cancel for Any Reason upgrades on their Travel Select policies.
  • Insure My Trip is an comparison engine like Squaremouth and offers policies with Cancel for Any Reason coverage.

There are probably many more options to choose from and the market is changing rapidly since the SARS-COV2 virus entered our world. Still, that should get you started.

Insurance Not Included with Your Reservation

When we first started in this business, cancellations were quite rare and we almost always made exceptions to our cancellation policy. That has changed over the years as people who are used to hotels came to use vacation rentals more and more.

One of the big differences between us and a hotel is that we cannot oversell. A hotel with 100 rooms, will often take 110 or even 120 reservations for the night. The count on natural “attrition” as people cancel or simply fail to show. If that doesn’t happen, you can show up for your room and find that despite a reservation, they don’t have space for you and they “walk” you (this is why when an area is in a sellout, never be the last one to show up at the hotel).

We obviously cannot take more bookings than we have space for, so cancellations are a lot more difficult for us to handle than it is for a 300-room hotel which can (and usually does) play the odds on cancellations. We think a vacation rental offers a lot of advantages over a hotel, but cancellation flexibility is generally not one of them.

How We Handle Things

We have always tried to implement a few basic principles in our business:

  • Treat people like we would like to be treated.
  • Start from a position of trust (in other words, don’t create rules for the sake of creating rules).
  • Be fair to everyone.

When we can’t hold up our end, such as when Covid or fire closes the park, we of course refund fully.

But we can’t offer refunds if the weather is bad or it’s a bit smoky. On that latter point, for example, if the air is Good, Moderate, or Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, like other lodging in the area, we do not offer a refund. Yes, if it’s in that last category, it will impact the views, but for reference, in 2019, there were 133 days per year that bad or worse in San Bernardino county and 86 days that bad or worse in LA county.

When we feel circumstances warrant, we do try to be generous and focus on the safety of our guests. We don’t lock people into reservations when we feel conditions might not be safe for a given traveler (say, someone traveling with little children during a blizard).

Screenshot of AirBnB reviews
Reviews from AirBnB guests encouraged to cancel for full refund because we thought travel conditions were too dangerous.

That said, when the park is open and conditions are reasonably safe, we hold to the policy in force with whichever listing service you have booked with (it varies depending on how you booked because policies don’t map perfectly between listing services).

We don’t refund for rain, smoke, weather at the point of origin (e.g. your departure airport is closed). We expect guests who book for winter periods to expect to be ready for winter driving.

If you can’t afford to forfeit your trip costs, we now strongly recommend that people purchase supplementary insurance. 

When our guests need to cancel at the last minute, we try to be fair. We do our best to rebook the property and to pass on any money we take in to the guest. We have on some occasions been able to offer refunds of most fees for guests who cancel at the eleventh hour, but the closer to arrival, the harder it is.

We strongly recommend that guests purchase insurance rather than counting on our ability to rebook and, if you choose not to, give us as much notice as possible so we can do our best to rebook those nights and get you the largest refund we can.

Getting Groceries in Yosemite

Grocery shopping cart with kid on tiptoes

You can certainly buy groceries inside Yosemite National Park. However, we strongly recommend stocking up before coming to our house. The nearest restaurants and grocery stores are 30 minutes away. So as a minimum, you should arrive with enough food for your first dinner and breakfast (we do try to keep the place stocked with coffee and tea).

We’ve arranged this guide based on which highway you’ll be driving on your way to Yosemite.

Also, we have two “eco” requests for you to consider while shopping:

  • Our water source is excellent. Please don’t add to the world’s massive plastic problem by bringing cases of single-use water bottles. 
  • If you can, please avoid styrofoam ice chests. There is nothing we can do with these except put them put them in the trash.

Yosemite Valley Groceries

Given its size, the Village Store in Yosemite Valley is an good little store, not the “nothing but chips and soda” that you often find with small stores in tourist destinations. It’s easy to buy staple foods there, and the store contains many vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options, as well as more standard fare. They also have a contract with a local CSA to bring a small selection of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables into the store as they come into season. 

The Village Store is approximately 17 miles from our house in Yosemite West, in the same general area as the Visitor Center, so if you are planning a trip into or through Yosemite Valley, then it is relatively easy to swing through and get some last-minute supplies.

Hwy 41 (from Fresno, Los Angeles)

Fresno

Your last outpost of 21st-century American civilization (using that term loosely), is Fresno. There you have access to various alternative grocery stores such as Trader Joe’sWhole Foods, and Sprouts, as well as giant stores like Costco and Target.  Fresno also has wide range of restaurants. For healthy cheap eats, we tend to go to Sweet Tomatoes.

Oakhurst

Your next stop is Oakhurst which has dueling grocery stores on opposite sides of Highway 49 and both within sight of Highway 41 as you drive through town. We are generally fans of Raley’s, which seems to have a slightly better “natural” foods selection, but we know plenty of people who prefer Von’s. For foreign visitors they are probably close to indistinguishable. 

Oakhurst also has a selection of fast-food restaurants, some local restaurants (Greek, Mexican, Japanese and, as of 2018, a vegan restaurant).

Hwy 120 West (from SFO, Sac)

If you’re coming from the Bay Area or Sacramento, you should shop before you leave the big cities if you have specialty needs that you won’t find at a standard American grocery store. You’ll also find a Costco in Manteca and, if you go the southern route and come in via Highway 140, you’ll find a Trader Joes in Modesto.

Oakdale

Normally, though, we recommend shopping at the Raley’s in Oakdale. That’s about two hours before you get here and shortly before you start climbing out of the sweltering Central Valley.

Like Oakhurst, Oakdale has a variety of fast food restaurants, pizzeria, Olive Garden and a few local restaurants, none of which we know well enough to recommend. Beyond Oakhurst, at the top of Old Priest Grade, just before you arrive at Big Oak Flat, you will find the Priest Station Cafe, which offers good food in a memorable setting. 

Hwy 120 East (coming via Tioga Pass)

Mammoth Lakes

In the summer, when Tioga Pass is open and coming from the South, you’ll be passing close to Mammoth Lakes. Coming from Bishop or other points south on Hwy 395, we do our shopping at Von’s in Mammoth.

Carson City and Garderville

If you’re coming from the Northeast (Tahoe or Reno) on Hwy 395, there is a Trader Joe’sCostco and standard grocery stores in Carson City. The major grocery store that is the farthest south is Raley’s in Gardnerville.  You are still quite a ways away (well over three hours), so it’s not a place to buy ice cream.

Lee Vining

Also, in the town of Lee Vining you’ll find the diminutive but surprisingly good Mono Market.

Other Stores in the Park

There are also much smaller convenience stores in various places within the park for quick snacks and some basic supplies.

Wawona

If you leave from our house heading toward the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias (toward Oakhurst, not toward the town of Mariposa), you’ll pass one of these stores in Wawona, just before you get to the gas station. Basically, it specializes in chips, soda and beer. You can do a little better at the Pine Tree Market in Wawona, which has more real food. Even some fruits and vegetables (shocking!).

Tuolumne Meadows and Crane Flat

Tuolumne Meadows Store, located in along Tioga Road in Tuolumne Meadows carries a selection of grocery items. In addition to the standard chips and beer, they stock real food to supply the campers in the Tuolumne Meadows campground and passing hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail.

There is also a basic chips and beer convenience store at the Crane Flat gas station.

Neither of these stores is open in the winter.

Yosemite Valley

If you are not planning to stop in Yosemite Village, you can also pick up very limited groceries at the Curry Village Gift Shop, located in Curry Village on the deck to the right of the Mountain Shop and Grill, or at the Yosemite Lodge Gift Shop, which has a small number of food items in addition to souvenir gifts.

And then, of course, it is legal within limits to harvest nature’s bounty. If it’s for personal use and you harvest only a small amount, you can pick currants, thimbleberries, morels, acorns and elderberries if you find them. Note that elderberries, though one of our favorites, are potentially dangerous due to the cyanide in the leaves, twigs, roots and seeds. So you’ll need to educate yourselves a bit before planning on this option.

Ferguson Fire Chronicle

Ferguson Fire day 2 from El Portal

In 2018, we made it through the Ferguson Fire without burning down and, in fact, with no damage whatsoever. No small accomplishment, though not through efforts of our own.

Want all the gory details? Read on.

The Fire Starts

Whenever we go away in the summer, it is always with some anxiety.

Fire looms large in our minds as the creeks and vegetation dry out and news of California fires rolls in. Every summer, we think “This could be the one where we lose the house.” The idea of being away when that happens and not being able to grab passports and momentos encourages us to stay home during fire season.

For the last twenty years, though, I have gone to Michigan every other summer to teach my summer paleography workshop. This year, Theresa came with me so she could finally meet the folks I had been talking about for 20 years.

We left for Michigan on July 7, so on Friday, July 13, we were both away when we got news that a fire had started near Savage’s Trading Post. This is nine miles from our house, so it was a matter of some concern, but not major worry.

The only real problem was that early on the fire burned the main power lines to the region and we had guests in Alpine Escape. This is only the second time we’ve had a major event while we were away and fortunately, in both cases, our guests proved themselves to be self-reliant and adaptive people.

It was disappointing for our guests, but not yet the fire we had always feared — the one straight down the hill from our neighborhood. But that would come.

The next day, we found out that a firefighter had died, bulldozer operator Braden Varney, a well-liked local resident and friend of a friend. After the first 24 hours, the fire had expanded to 828 acres and was still many miles away.

Could it possibly reach Yosemite West?

The Fire Grows

By the time the morning map came out on July 17, representing three days of activity, the fire had covered six of the nine miles to our house and was lapping Pinoche Peak. There were now three miles and one ridge between the fire and our home.

Four days later, our neighborhood was placed under an evacuation order. By this time, we had left Michigan to spend a long weekend with Theresa’s parents in Minnesota. We cancelled our flight, not realizing that our long weekend would last 24 days!

Before the evacuation was mandatory, several kindly friends offered to swing by the house and grab things for us. Eventually, two neighbors actually came to our house and fully loaded our pickup truck and drove it to safety. It was more than we would have dared to ask, as their house was threatened too and they had plenty on their minds. 

There were nearly a dozen evacuated communities and, finally, on August 3, they ordered the evacuation of Yosemite Valley, only the second time in history that Yosemite Valley was evacuated due to fire.  There are four substantial residential areas that are inside the park gates: Yosemite Valley, Wawona, Foresta and Yosemite West. With the mandatory evacuation of Yosemite Valley, all four were now evacuated.

The last time the Valley closed due to fire, in 1990, that fire would ultimately destroy many of the houses in Foresta and Yosemite West narrowly escaped due to a shift in the wind.

Would this fire destroy Yosemite West?

Firefighters Draw a Line in the Forest

By July 24, things were looking positive. The fire was fully established on Pinoche Peak and in the drainage below Henness Ridge, the ridge right above our neighborhood. But firefighters had built dozer and hand lines all the way along their primary defense line on Henness Ridge. There were over 3,000 firefighters deployed. Things looked good.

Backburns

Over the next few days, the firefighters backburned along the entire line, starting at the top and working their way all the way down to Highway 140.

Backburns or “tactical firing operations” as the fire people call them widen and strengthen the line. Initially, they create a line anywhere from a handline the width of a narrow hiking trail to a dozer line the width of a road.

A fire can easily jump a line like that. So they try to wait until they have winds blowing away from the line, and then the set a fire using drop torches and a gas/diesel mix. Ideally, the wind pushes the fire away from the line and toward the main fire. The goal is a relatively low-intensity fire that will broaden and strengthen the line as it burns out fuels. When the main fire hits the burned out line, it is starved for fuels, runs out of strength and can be held there.

That’s the theory anyway.

In reality, a hot fire creates massive updrafts that throw embers high into the sky. On a recent hike at least a quarter mile from one of the backburns, we found the forest littered with charred bits of bark that had been wafted on the wind, but fortunately did not “spot” across the line. In extreme cases, a hot fire on a bad day can spot as much as a mile across the line.

This is why wildfires commonly leave a burn pattern that is a patchwork of burned and unburned areas. Sometimes, within the boundary of the fire, the vast majority of the area is burned only in the understory and large sections of many acres are not burned at all.

Back on the Line

By July 28, with firing operations complete along the line protecting our area, things were looking good and we got ready to return home.

We had dodged the bullet. Or so we thought.

Then, the fire operations map for July 29 showed a small bulge outside the containment line. The fire had slopped over the line and because of thick smoke due to a strong inversion layer, the firefighters had not noticed it.

The morning briefing was optimistic. They had crews in there and expected to contain it.

The rumor mill was saying otherwise.

Spotting Across the Line

Tragedy on the Line

Then tragedy struck. While cutting down a tree to contain the fire, a dead tree fell and killed Brian Hughes, the much-loved leader of the Arrowhead Hotshots. This incredibly sad event, right in our area, cast a pall of sadness over the future successes.

With the forest thick with dead trees from bark beetle infestation and rocks rolling downhill, it was too dangerous to risk another life. So the crews pulled out.

With the inversion holding the thick smoke low and preventing pilots from seeing through it, there was no air support. They made the decision to let the fire run, hoping to stop it at road 03SO30X. We bike this road pretty often and estimated the chances of making a successful stand there were very low.

Game Over for Yosemite West?

Over the next couple of days we watched as the fire approached road 03SO30X. On August 2, we anxiously waited for the day’s fire operations map to post online and saw that the fire had jumped the road and was now straight downhill of our neighborhood in dense forest with no significant barrier between it and our homes.

It looked like it was game over for Yosemite West.

Firefighters Make a Stand

Unlike 1990, this time, however, they had had three weeks to prepare a line on Henness Ridge, secure some exits routes, thin in the neighborhood. Also, over the past 12 years, residents have made a concerted effort to make our area more fire safe. Plus, the inversion was still slowing down the fire.

The firefighters decided to stay and fight.

I had never expected that decision and I would never has asked it of anyone. But the professionals on the ground had been planning for this night for three weeks and felt comfortable with their plan.

Now they just had to fight the fire they had always said they would not be able to fight. No big deal.

They fell back to their contingency lines, some quite close to the community. A firefighter told a friend who was in the neighborhood, “We’ve got a lot on the line tonight.” So, taking advantage of the nightly downslope winds, they walked into the forest and started setting fires along the contingency lines to burn out the fuels in advance of the oncoming fire.  There are countless ways in which this could have gone wrong, but inaction meant almost certain destruction.

All night long they set fires and then worked to keep them out of the neighborhood, watching for spot fires and generally keeping the fire from jumping the lines once again. The big question now was “Were the lines deep enough to hold off the flame front when it arrived?”

The Fire Arrives

After three weeks of nervous anticipation, late on August 3, the main flame front finally arrived at the Yosemite West lines.

Fortunately, in most areas, close to the neighborhood, the fire did not crown. To the south, the fire made a hot run up toward Henness Ridge. To the north, it made another hot run. Firefighters witnessed a fire whirl (aka “firenado”) race up a drainage near Avalanche Creek. One of the firefighters who also happens to be our dental hygienists nephew, captured a fire whirl on video not too far from our area. 

The northern run jumped the Wawona Road and then in short order raced uphill and jumped the Glacier Point Road. If any of these hot runs had come straight at Yosemite West, I would likely be writing a very different chronicle at this point.

The fire also jumped Highway 140 and made a run toward the community of Foresta. To the far north, the fire encroached on Highway 120 west of Crane Flat.  That meant Yosemite Valley was cut off from all three western exits, leaving only Highway 120 over Tioga Pass open.

With Wawona Road and Glacier Point Road compromised, firefighters were cut off from their “spike camp” at Badger Pass and had to shelter in place in our neighborhood. This is exactly what they could not have risked if residents hadn’t spent the previous 12 years reducing the fuels in the neighborhood and firefighters hadn’t had three weeks to make additional preparations.

It is hard to describe just how much luck we had on our side.

An Anxious Night

As the fire passed to the north, one resident who stayed said that you could hear the roar of the fire all night long. We knew this was the big show.

We had done pretty well at going about our daily business, keeping up with our work remotely, enjoying dinner with family. This night, we fell asleep late, slept fitfully and awoke early, expecting that when the news of the day came, our home would likely be gone. Being two hours ahead, though, it was a long wait until the morning report came out.

Structures Lost

When the report finally came out, it updated the number of structures lost from one to eleven. We assumed that the neighborhood had been lost and that the low number was just a delay in reporting and that as the day wore on, the number would climb and bad news would roll in.

Slowly, we heard rumors that no houses had been lost that night. Finally, in the evening update on August 4, we read, “Fire burned to the north, east and west of Yosemite West. Firefighters were successful in protecting structures and ignited tactical fires to buffer both communities” (that is, Yosemite West and Foresta).

It turned out that a handful of abandoned mining shacks on the other side of the fire had been lost.

Out of Danger

By August 6, we were hearing fire managers finally say that they thought the danger to Yosemite West was past. There were still threats in Foresta, but generally, things looked good there.

We could finally really enjoy the family time we had left before going home.

Before the highway by our house could reopen, there was a long process of lighting backburns all the way down the Wawona Road to Elephant Rock, a defensible ridge that would let them reliably stop the fire before it entered Yosemite Valley.

There were also hundreds of hazard trees along the roads that had to be felled and countless hours of labor in improving safety and getting fire restoration crews into the areas that had been churned up by dozer lines and hand lines.

But for the communities involved, the stressful part of the fire was effectively over.

The next day, they lifted the evacuation on Yosemite West and we bought plane tickets to return from Minnesota on August 13.

What would we find?

People kept asking us how we would deal with smoke damage and things like that. We didn’t know.

Coming Home

We finally made it back home on the afternoon of August 14, after going into Yosemite Valley to pick up our truck that kindly neighbors had packed and driven out for us. A small section of Hwy 140 was very smokey, but mostly the forest looked good, with nice burning in the understory and very little crown fire.

The normalcy of everything was uncanny.

Within the neighborhood, everything looked as it had before we left. Standing on our porch and looking out, you could see no signs of fire. Nothing told of the pitched battle that had raged there just ten days earlier. It all felt surreal.

We braced ourselves for smoke damage, but the worst of it for us was that our house had been closed up for 39 days in hot weather and smelled stuffy.

We expected to be hunkered down hiding from the smoke, but instead, we opened the windows and turned on fans to let the fresh air in and slept with the windows open. We couldn’t believe it.

But every rush of joy turned our thoughts to the families of Braden Varney and Brian Hughes and the fact that two men had died in the effort to fight this fire, one specifically in the fight to save Yosemite West. We lost a good portion of the year’s rental income, but it was so small in comparison to what we expected and couldn’t help but stack our minor loss up against the loss to the families of the firefighters who died.

Right across the street from our house, we found a new “trail.” That is to say, they had dug fallback handlines right near the house. As this was more of an emergency fallback line, it was all unburned around it and we walked it just for a look.

We were dubmstruck by the amount of effort that had gone into building that line and others around the community. This doesn’t count the miles of line that were on the edge of the fire and the miles of line that were eventually overrun. In addition to all the lines, they also laid out 85,000 feet of firehose. Again, it is hard to quite wrap my mind around the effort just to save some houses.

Aftermath and Recovery

It wasn’t until August 24 that the Wawona Road opened and we could drive through the hottest part of the burn area. It was a staggering contrast to the normalcy of our neighborhood and the Wawona Road in the other direction (toward Wawona). For about two miles, the bulk of the forest had burned.

In general, the forest of the Sierra Nevada must burn to stay healthy and the vast, vast majority of the area burned in this fire saw the healthy, low-intensity fire that rejuvenates the landscape. But the area where the fire had made the hot, fast run on August 3-4 was absolutely scorched.

But again, the ecosystem here has evolved not just to survive fire, but to need it. Many species simply cannot reproduce effectively in the absence of fire. Some seeds require heat or smoke exposure to germinate. They lie in the soil for up to 100 years waiting for a fire. Other species can sprout from their roots even with the entire part above the soil is burned.

We walked one of the dozer lines about two weeks after the fire had passed and saw oaks putting up new shoots around the stumps. The bitter dogbane was sprouting and flowering, while outside fire area,  the same species was turning yellow for fall. We saw large numbers of tracks from bears, mountain lions, coyotes, foxes, small mammals, lizards and snakes in the dusty ground, sometimes right in the ashes. Over the next few days we spotted two bears walking the edge of the burn area. Many oaks were dropping acorns early, which is good news for bears.

We are looking forward to doing some fire phenology and see what blooms when and what comes back first.

The Kindness of Neighbors
The Efforts of Strangers

During the entire time, we were philosphical about losing the house. But we realized that we would also lose a community. The fire coming while we were away meant we depended on friends and neighbors to take care of things we would have taken care of ourselves under other circumstances. Countless people offered to help including, as I mentioned, several who went by the house to grab things for us, including two neighbors who entirely filled our pickup truck and drove it to safety so that if we lost the house, we would have clothes and camping gear.

While insurance would help us if we lost the house, our community would be dispersed and many would never come back. After the fire, when we saw neighbors and had a chance to gather, there was a feeling of having dodged a bullet, but also an appreciation of how special it is to have neighbors you care about and who care about you.

And then, finally, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is still hard to quite fathom the effort that so many people put into saving our community and others threatened by the fire. We never imagined that any team, no matter how dedicated and courageous, could stop a fire coming up the hill from below us, and yet they did. And they did so at the cost of two lives, one on the far side of the fire and one specifically in the effort to stop that fire that threatened our community. And they did so through the efforts of countless firefighters working the lines for sixteen hours a day in hot, smokey conditions, supported by a small army of logistics people. 

It is with profound thanks and awe that we remember the effort, courage and sacrifice of Braden Varney, Brian Hughes and all the other firefighters who contributed to saving Yosemite West and all the other communities in the path of the Ferguson Fire.

Safety Equipment for Hiking Half Dome

Crowds on the Half Dome cables

The homemade “safety” equipment I saw on my most recent trip up the Half Dome Cables horrified me. I put “safety” in quotes, because in my opinion, many of these people are making themselves less safe, not safer, with these inadequate setups. In this article, I’m going to discuss:

Disclaimer: this is just my opinion. I’m not a guide, a manufacturer of safety equipment.

Before you call me

After quite a few phone calls, let me just say this:

  1. We do not sell or rent gear. We have links below to places that do (or did) sell gear.
  2. Nobody will rent this kind of gear. Generally, climbing gear is not returnable and outside of gyms and guide services who provide gear for their clients, nobody will rent safety gear because the liability is too high. Either buy it or go without.
  3. The vast, vast, vast majority of Half Dome hikers do not use safety gear.
  4. We do not guide Half Dome trips.
  5. We will not consult on systems that are not UIAA-approved for via ferrata. If you want to build your own and you have the climbing knowledge to do so safely, that’s fine. But if you call me on the phone, I will tell you exactly what is written here: most people do not use safety gear, but if you wish to do so, you should use gear designed for the purpose.

The Short Version

The vast majority of people who hike Half Dome use no safety gear. I have never used safety gear. Nobody I have ever been with has used safety gear on the Cables. Until recently, I’ve rarely seen people using safety gear on the Cables. Most people do just fine without it.

So why did I write this massive, long article?

One reason: in recent years I have seen a lot of people starting to use absolutely dangerous “safety” gear that in my view is worse than nothing at all. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that Death Clip system is making your safer. It probably isn’t. In my opinion there are two choices:

  1. Just use your hands, feet and brains like the large majority of people have done over the years (of which, yes, some have died).
  2. Use actual, proper safety gear designed for the task that will most definitely make you safer and not just give you a false sense of security.

What NOT to Use: The Death Clip

The most common setup I saw was what I call the Death Clip. People bought two carabiners and a length of climbing webbing and clipped one carabiner to either their backpack strap or waist belt and the other went around the actual cable. There are so many problems with this setup that I barely know where to begin. As a rock climber, I would never trust that system and it gives me the chills seeing people use it on Half Dome, thinking they have somehow improved their safety.

On this last trip, I did not see anyone with a genuine climbing harness, but I have seen that on other trips. A genuine climbing harness is better, but still potentially dangerous the way most people use it. A harness and a simple tether are not designed for this use any more than it is designed for taking the place of the seat belt in your car. 

But isn’t it better than nothing?

Maybe or maybe not.

How could it possibly be worse than nothing?

Imagine systems like the ones I saw on Half Dome that to me appear very unlikely to hold a fall. So now the person has no *actual* safety equipment (so no risk reduction), but has two factors that now increase risk:

  1. He or she has a system to manage and clip and unclip, increasing the chance of getting distracted and taking a fall.
  2. He or she has a false sense of confidence. This might encourage her to pay less attention or push past her limits in false confidence that if she falls, this makeshift system will catch her. So her risk tolerance goes up, but she still has no safety gear.

It might conceivably make her safer only because she’s more relaxed… unless she’s read this article. In which case, she is going to want a better system

So will I surely die if I fall on one of these makeshift systems?

Not surely. In fact, probably not. You might, but there are some significant mitigating factors.

  • Half Dome is not very steep. It may seem so as a hiker, but when falling, you will absorb a lot of the fall energy through friction with the granite slab. It might be enough.
  • You might still even have a hand on the cable and be partly holding on, so that will reduce the forces more.
  • You might be bowling other people off the wall as you tumble down, which is bad for them, but is probably slowing you down
  • The stanchions are not in all that tight, so they have some sway and that would reduce the force as well.

How much does all that reduce the force?

I don’t know. And since I don’t know, I would say most systems I’ve seen hikers use on the Half Dome Cables are, to me, dangerous. That’s why I call it the Death Clip and would prefer to see people use nothing at all or the right gear.

What Should You Use:  A Via Ferrata Kit

Again, most people do not use any safety gear on Half Dome. But, again, people have fallen and died, albeit very rarely. Whether you use a safety system is entirely up to you (more on that in a minute). If you do feel you want one, however, the only safety system that is actually approved for this usage is a via ferrata system that includes the necessary energy-absorbing components such as:

Note that sometimes these kits are out of stock on the manufacturer websites I link to, but they should be in stock at some retailer somewhere.

Going Gearless: Do I Need Safety Equipment to Hike Half Dome?

This is one question I cannot answer for you. Personally, I have been up and down the Cables Route many times, with the cables both up and down and have never used any particular safety equipment aside from my hands and my brain. That said, I also have spent pretty much my entire life rock climbing, ice climbing, mountaineering and otherwise doing ill-advised things in the mountains.

Royal Robbins, who bagged the first ascent of the steep side of Half Dome in 1957, famously walked down the slabs outside the cables, with a heavy haul bag on his back, Converse All Stars on his feet and his hands in his pockets. Not recommended for most people.

The approaches and descents from many, many climbing routes are much harder and more dangerous than the Half Dome Cables. Anyone who has spent much time rock climbing in Yosemite has encountered things much more serious than this. 

What if you’re not a rock climber, not someone with a lot of experience in the mountains?

The main thing to know what your comfort level is and what your fitness level is.

  • If you are a framing carpenter and in decent hiking shape, you almost certainly have the fitness, grip strength and comfort with heights to find the whole thing trivial.
  • If you get woozy looking off a bridge and you consider five flat miles a long walk, you’re probably going to have a miserable time on Half Dome and would be better off doing something else. But if you do it anyway, you might be safer with some safety equipment.
  • Do you get seizures when you’re tired or stressed out? Then some safety gear seems mandatory.

Are you guiding your child?

Yeah, that changes things. There are just too many considerations for anyone to tell you what you should or should not do. 

What do most people do?

Are you “most people?” No, you are just you. But nevertheless, here are a few observations:

  • At the end of the day, only a small percentage of Half Dome hikers have ever used any safety gear other than the cables themselves. The vast majority of them have gotten up and down just fine.
  • Every time I have been up there “in season,” I have seen at least one person frozen with fear, who probably would have had a much less stressful day with a little safety gear.
  • People do die on Half Dome. Many of these deaths are either directly or indirectly related to weather. In other words, in those cases they didn’t die because they lacked safety gear, but because they forged on even as storm clouds built. But for those who slipped on wet rock, safety gear and the knowledge required to use it correctly would likely have saved their lives.
  • It’s okay to turn around. Mountaineers have a saying: “The summit is optional. Basecamp is not.” If you’re super tired or you’re just not feeling it, do not go to the top. Don’t die from summititus.
  • The best safety gear you can bring with you is between your ears.

Safety Tips for Half Dome

  • First and foremost, use common sense. If you are new to outdoor sports, go with someone who has the experience to make good decisions. Remember, you do not need to go to the top. Repeat that. “I do not need to go to the top.” I have turned around on more outings in the mountains than I can count on three, perhaps four continents. The only regrets I have are the climbs where, against my better judgement, I did not turn around and almost died (usually weather related).
  • Gloves help. There are usually gloves at the bottom, but if you want to be sure of having gloves that aren’t three sizes too big, bring some. 
  • Don’t be afraid to take your time and catch your breath (but please let faster people by).
  • Never, ever start up the Cables if the sky looks threatening. If you see thunder clouds building, do not go up. The times I thought I should have turned around in the mountains, but didn’t and almost died, all involved lightning.
  • Don’t be brought low by the Subdome. People focus so much on the Cables, that they don’t realize that the Subdome is quite steep and a longer climb than the Cables themselves. Last time I was up there, I saw several people retreat from the Subdome or be too exhausted after the Subdome to go to the top. If Half Dome is going to be a challenge for you in terms of fitness, rest in the shade, have something to eat and drink, and generally recharge a bit before the Subdome.
  • Set a turnaround time and stick to it. Despite what people think, it takes most people as much time to come down as to go up. For very tired people, it can take more. Decide what a safe turnaround time is. If you think you only have 10 hours of gas in your tank, then you have 5 hours to get to the top. If you are unwilling to hike in the dark and sunrise is at 6am and sunset is at 8pm, your turnaround time is 1pm. If you are not within spitting distance of the summit, turn around at your turnaround time.

Appendix for Engineers: Why a Via Ferrata System is Better

This is for the engineers in the crowd and probably more detail than most people want or need. But, if you are wondering why a simple tether is bad and a via ferrata system is better, here’s the semi-technical explanation.

There are three important parameters in any climbing safety system:

  • tensile strength
  • maximum force
  • energy absorption

Climbing ropes are not rated for tensile strength. You will never find a specification that says a climbing rope can hold 1750kg, because that is not an important number (plus technically it’s a mass, not a force, so meaningless in this context). Climbing ropes are rated for maximum force and indirectly for energy absorption (a fall rating).

The characteristics of a good safety system

A climbing safety system must:

  • Be strong enough to hold the force put upon it. I just bought a new carabiner the other day. It’s rated for 24 kilonewtons. Roughly 5400 pounds. So it needs to be strong. But that is stronger than the human body, so…
  • Absorb energy. When you fall, the key thing is that you dissipate the energy. If you fall 50 feet and stop instantly because you are caught by a steel cable, that’s the same is hitting the ground (worse actually, because the load in concentrated). So climbing systems are designed to absorb energy.
  • Limit force on the body. Which brings us to the last category – the maximum force you can apply before you kill the climber. It’s easy to create a really strong rope that would nevertheless kill the climber because the stop is so abrupt that the force is very high. In the climbing world, this is called the “impact force.” The maximum impact force allowed by the UIAA for a certified climbing rope is 12KN, so half the rated force for the carabiner I just bought.

The characteristics of the systems I see on Half Dome

Now, think back to the systems I described that I see people using on Half Dome.

They Are Tied to a Backpack Strap

A backpack strap is not rated for any load except the one they expect you to carry in the backpack. The strap is usually sewn to the pack body with a single bar tack, so it can probably hold a maximum of 3KN, or roughly 674 pounds (a 22KN Black Diamond sling has 11 bar tacks, a Mammut 23KN sling has eight larger bar tacks). More importantly, that strap and stitching is undoubtedly stronger than the little plastic adjustment slider. Those typically aren’t rated at all, but if you hunt around, you can find suppliers who list the breaking strength and it’s not good news. A 5/8-inch buckle, typical of a backpack, has a breaking strength of about 53 pounds (aka 0.24KN) according to JAD Buckle and Best Buy Button and Buckle (supplier to Helly Hansen, Nike and other outdoor gear companies according to their About page). 

They use Standard Climbing Webbing

Let’s assume that your backpack is made with some superbuckle and it’s as strong as the bar tack and can hold 674 pounds. That sounds okay, right? Or, even better, you’ve upgraded to a genuine climbing harness rated to hold thousands of pounds. You attach this to the cable with a climbing sling and carabiner, each rated to 22KN, that is to say, roughly 5,000 pounds. Clearly, that’s safe, right?

No. This system as no built-in energy absorption. It’s possible, even probable, given the low angle of Half Dome and the give in the cables and stanchions that the force generated by stopping your fall will be fairly low and you will get all the energy absorption you need. That’s possible, but you don’t know.

In testing, climbing slings that are rated to 22KN (almost 5,000 pounds) regularly break in falls of just 44 inches (111 cm) when loaded with 165 pounds (75kg)! If the stanchions don’t give and you pick up any speed at all, you will subject your body to a 22KN shock before the sling breaks. So it could stop your fall, but rupture your kidneys and break your back. And then what? A ruptured spleen is typically a fatal injury unless advanced life support is given within an hour or so.

Or it could just exceed the design load and break. If you have it clipped to your backpack, it will exceed the design load. If you pick up any speed at all and stop quickly, you could exceed the max force your body can sustain or the maximum load the equipment can hold.

The two basic problems in this scenario.

The first is that you have a static system. Of course there is some give in the stanchions, in your harness and in your body, but again, you do not know how much give there is. It’s not the length of the fall that matters, but the speed of deceleration. Your body and normal climbing gear are not designed for this.

The other problem is that these falls will have a very high fall factor. Let’s assume you plan to outsmart everyone and instead of climbing webbing, you attach yourself with climbing rope, which is designed to hold a fall. The problem is that climbing ropes are only designed to handle a “factor 2” fall and no higher, but your fall factor could be way higher. 

What is Fall Factor?
Fall factor is a simple, but crucial concept. In brief, it is the ratio of the length of the fall to the length of your rope. So let’s say I have 100 feet of rope attached to a point 200 feet off the ground. If I climb up 10 feet and jump off, I take a 10-foot fall on a 100-foot rope. My fall factor is 0.1. That fall is going to be like falling into the airbag I mentioned above. Now let’s say I climb up to the attachment point and jump off. That’s a 100-foot fall on 100 feet of rope. That’s a fall factor of 1. And if I climb above the attachment point until the rope comes tight, that’s a 200-foot fall on a 100-foot rope, the mythical and feared factor 2 fall. 

The part that most non-climbers don’t understand is that the length of the fall is less important than the fall factor.  As a climber, I would far rather fall 40 feet with 200 feet of rope out (factor 0.5) than fall 20 feet with 10 feet of rope out (factor 2). The latter fall will be way more violent.

Now imagine that you have a 2-foot lanyard made of climbing webbing and you fall 10 feet down a vertical cable before it catches on a stanchion (not on Half Dome, obviously, but on, say a European via ferrata). That is a factor 5 fall. No climbing rope or human body is made to sustain that.

Only one standard piece of outdoor equipment is made to sustain that load, namely the via ferrata systems, which are made to stretch and give and absorb the energy of a fall (and that’s a pretty extreme situation even for the via ferrata kit).

So if I am recommending equipment, the only equipment I can recommend in good conscience is equipment designed and certified by the UIAA for this usage, which is to say an actual via ferrata system. That is by far the safest option. Anything you use other than that will reduce your safety.

So at that point, it’s just a question of your risk tolerance. In my case, I’m comfortable on Half Dome with no safety equipment. Maybe you are comfortable guess that given the low angle of the Half Dome Cables and the give in the stanchions, the final impact force will actually be quite low. That’s not unreasonable. What matters is what you are comfortable with, not what anyone else is comfortable with.

Now, all of that is pretty theoretical. On Half Dome, as I mentioned, the angles are low, there’s a fair bit of give in the cables and stanchions, and you’ll probably have a bit of a grip to slow you down. In reality, you won’t encounter anything like a factor 5 fall. A climbing harness and a bit of climbing webbing might work out just fine. 

The problem is that I don’t know and, because I don’t know, I suggest either going with no special safety gear like the generations before you have done, or get the right safety gear. Don’t go up there with a Death Clip and delude yourself into thinking you have significantly increased your safety.

Customer Reviews

Review from two young guests

We have hundreds of five-star reviews, but our favorite reviews aren’t even posted publicly, such as the one above from two young guests. See below for some screenshots of a recent sample of public reviews at the time we’re updating this page.

We are proud of how many great reviews we have gotten from our guests. Rather than just giving you a sample, we encourage you to look through our reviews on Airbnb and VRBO.

Scroll through the reviews below to get a sample of what you will find there.

See what our guests say

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Also, we are always trying to improve with a major upgrade every year or two. Though we have gotten great reviews since we started, we always want to make things better if we can. If there’s something we think we could improve either based on guest feedback or simply asking ourselves what we like when we are vacation, we try to create a plan and make it happen so we can get better over time.

  • Major soundproofing renovation in 2020
  • Added an outdoor patio and Pergola in 2019
  • Added air conditioning in 2017
  • Upgraded to T1 internet in 2016 (it’s still slow, but the best you can possibly get here)
  • Added a fireplace in 2014

You’re also welcome to book through Airbnb or VRBO, but be aware they charge a roughly 10% booking fee (fees vary).