Yosemite 2022: What to Expect

Last Updated: January 17, 2022

As we begin to approach 2022, we thought we would share a few things that are becoming clearer as we gaze into the crystal ball and as NPS issues press releases.

The key thing for our guests: you do not need to apply for a day-use reservation. Your overnight reservation includes and entry reservation to the park. You do still have to pay the entrance fee.

Here are a few things that are on our radar:

Yosemite Peak-Hour Vehicle Reservation System

The 2022 peak-hour reservation system is a bit different than in the past couple of years. It’s purpose is to alleviate traffic jams and peak-hour congestion. Between the hours of 6am and 4pm, you will need a reservation to drive your vehicle through the gate. For our guests, your overnight reservation is your park-entry reservation. You do not need any additional reservation. We are still waiting on the details, but in 2021 we simply entered your information in a database that was available at all entrance gates.

For the most accurate and up-to-date information, always refer not to this page, but to the official park service pages:

Glacier Point Road Closed for Renovation

A rehabilitation project for the Glacier Point Road has been in the works for several years, and it looks like this year they are finally going to get started on it. The project is planned to span all of 2022 and extend into 2023. That means that the road will be closed throughout the 2022 summer season, and we’ll expect delays in 2023. (Biking will not be allowed on the road during the construction project closure.)

On the bright side, the trails to Glacier Point – the 4-Mile Trail, Panorama Trail, and the Pohono Trail will all remain open. Although these are strenuous/steep trails, those who are able to make the hike will get to enjoy some extra solitude at the top.

Winter Snowpack and Water

The winter season got off to an early start in late 2021 with record December snowfalls, followed by a warm and dry January. The February 1 snowpack was still over 90% of average, but with very little snow after that promising start, the all-important April 1 snow survey weighed in at 41% of normal.

That has several implications. Of course, it means the skiing was not what we would have liked. More importantly, it likely means a return to high tree mortality with two dry winters in a row and hardships for California farmers who will be forced to leave large amounts of land fallow. And, from the visitor perspective, it means an early peak and an early drying of the waterfalls. In dry years, the falls typically peak in early May, as opposed to late May or even early June in a very wet year (the median peak is May 26). In a “normal” year, Yosemite Falls usually goes dry sometime in late August or September. In a dry year, that will happen somewhat earlier.

We created a gallery with some photos of the Winter 2021-2022 in Yosemite snow (and one photo of the Winter 2021-2022 no-snow for good measure).

Shuttle Buses Running Again

Shuttle buses didn’t run in the summers of 2020 or 2021 – not in Yosemite Valley, Tuolumne Meadows, or the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. The Yosemite Valley shuttle restarted in December 2021 and the plan is to keep it running from now on, as usual, but Covid outbreaks continue to make staffing difficult in many units in the park. The plan is to run shuttles within Tuolumne Meadows as well as the “hikers’ bus” that runs once daily between Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows.

Mariposa Grove Shuttle Restarting

For the Mariposa Grove, there was more to the decision than Covid and staffing. On January 18, 2021, a devastating Mono Wind damaged infrastructure in the grove – including the new restroom facilities. This impacted the visitor capacity of the grove, and park managers were afraid that the number of visitors that could ride the shuttle buses would overwhelm the portable toilet facilities.

The current schedule is to complete repairs on the bathrooms and restart the shuttle service for Memorial Day Weekend (also based on the January Gateway Partners meeting). Of course, constructions schedules can slide, but that is the current goal.

Tuolumne Campground Closed 2022-2023

The Tuolumne Campground is also beginning an extensive restoration project that is expected to take two years. While this is unlikely to have a direct effect on people renting our home in Yosemite West, we may also see reduced services along that corridor that would normally have been supported by the campground visitors.

On the bright side, Tuolumne Rangers say that they notice a significant increase in visitation when the campground opens, so if you decide to make the trip you may have more of the place to yourself.

What’s New at Alpine Escape?

Solar panels on the roof

We do our best to maintain our place in good condition, but we also try to make upgrades every couple of years so that when our guests return, they find it just a little better than last time. Here are some of the major changes we’ve made. We didn’t start keeping this list until 2021, so things get a bit hazier as we go back in time.

2021: Solar Panels and Battery

In 2021, we added a 3kWh solar array and a battery backup to our house. We have frequent power outages, which can get frustrating, but no more! We now have a battery backup that is tied to the grid, the solar system and, if need be, a portable generator. The first time we had a power outage, we didn’t even notice until the power had been out for a couple of hours, at which point we did a happy dance in the living room.

In the summer, the system lets us run essentially indefinitely, because we generate more juice than we use. In the winter, we will get about a day or two out of the batteries, and then might need to fire up a generator to recharge.

Our location is not great for solar power, but we estimate we will generate about half of our own electricity over the year. As of May 1, 2022, we’re currently generating more than we use. Hopefully that will get even better over the summer. That number would be more, but we’ve been slowly electrifying our appliances to reduce our carbon footprint. Given how unreliable our electricity is, though, we are still on propane for heat.

Also, if you are curious why we chose Simpliphi batteries instead of, say, a Tesla Powerwall or any questions like that, get in touch. Battery tech is changing all the time, but we’re happy to share what we’ve learned.

Other changes in 2021

  • Added Dish TV. We’ve gone back and forth on this for years. We’re not TV people, but we finally decided to get it for the rental, but not for ourselves. We know that some people will like it and some people won’t. But now guests can perhaps watch the big game.
  • Adapters to connect iPhone and Android (USB-C) phones to the TV so you can download movies to your phone and play on the TV. Due to the poor internet here, that’s how we do it. We typically download movies over LTE somewhere with a good signal, then watch at home.
  • Living/Dining upgrades: New dining chairs, ottoman, dishwasher.
  • Switch to Hughesnet satellite internet. This is not exactly an upgrade. When it works, it’s faster than the T1, but it’s still sub-standard internet and it is less reliable than the T1 which was slow, but rock solid. In any case, we had no choice. AT&T is in the process of shutting off all T1 lines worldwide.

2020: Soundproofing Upgrades

We started 2020 by closing for three months to rip out all the ceilings and upgrade the soundproofing. We got it done just in time to get shut down for another three months due to Covid. Basically, the ceiling is now a double layer of drywall attached to mini shock absorbers. It still isn’t perfect, but it has cut down dramatically on transmission of voice and somewhat, though not as much as we had hoped, on the sound of footsteps above coming through to the downstairs. All in all, though, it’s a substantial reduction in noise transmission between our home and your home.

Other changes in 2020

  • New refrigerator, which wouldn’t be that noteworthy but for the worldwide refrigerator shortage.
  • New sofa.


  • Pergola added to patio. The umbrella on the bistro table just didn’t add enough shade on a sunny day.

2016: Air Conditioning

We added A/C to Alpine Escape mostly because we found a lot of guests from Southern California and the Southeast expect it. But in recent years, it’s also been rather hot and sometimes there’s smoke or pollen or simply noise from down the street in the air. As of 2021, Tom has still never lived in a house with A/C, but now that Alpine Escape has it, he’s starting to get jealous!

  • Patio seating area. Table for four out under the sugar pine. Actually, a tiny bistro table, but there are four chairs.

2014: Gas Fireplace

Fireplace and television
2014: Fireplace and TV cabinet added

Sure, the ambiance of a fireplace is nice. It takes the chill off. It’s romantic. But best of all, it runs without electricity, so when we lost power, there’s a backup heat source. And indeed, we lost power for five days in the winter of 2011 and decided that backup heat was a good idea. As of 2021, we also have a whole-house battery backup, so now it’s sort of a belt and suspenders thing. But the ambiance is still nice on chilly winter eve!

2010-2012: First Years

We did our best to anticipate our guests’ needs, but there was a lot we missed. For the first two years we asked almost every guest: “If there was one thing you could have had that would have made you more comfortable, what would it be?” We got a ton of great suggestions — an ottoman, shelves in the bathroom, a better can opener and so on. Sometimes in later years people would say, “You thought of everything,” and we would say, “No, our early guests thought of half this stuff.” We’re immensely grateful for the insights all our guests have shared over the years, but the guests in these first years really helped us with ideas.

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, when the deer are kind to us, 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. The story of the evening primrose and how they mostly disappeared touches on a surprising range of topics from the history of the Ahwahneechee, their expulsion from Yosemite, the commercialization of the park, the history of color and motion picture photography, and ultimately humans’ relationship to nature. That’s a lot for one little flower.

Read on to learn about evening primroses.

  • Part I: The Natural History of the Evening Primrose
    • Why is watching a flower exciting?
    • A bit about their ecology
  • Part II: Cultural History: 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
    • What the story of the evening primrose says about the human presence in Yosemite and our relationship with nature

Part II really gets down in the weeds (bad pun, I know), but if that does not interest you, you can just look at the pictures and videos. Do not skip the video.

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 an evening primrose opening, they usually think it’s a time-lapse. On the best nights at our house, it happens over 100 times in about 40 minutes.

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 a time lapse:

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.

Basic Evening Primrose Ecology

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 captures as much solar energy as it can, storing that energy in its roots for the big show the next year.

That second summer, it uses the stored energy and the new energy coming in to grow as high as four feet tall. Each plant can have a few dozen blossoms, with just a few opening each evening at sunset over the course of about a month. The blossoms last for only one night.

Why wait until sunset to open? Because the plant doesn’t want it’s precious pollen and nectar taken by day-flying pollen thieves (no judgement, this is just what botanists call an insect that takes pollen and nectar without pollinating the flower). To be effective gathering and spreading the gooey, filamentous pollen strands of an evening primrose, the insect needs to be properly equipped. No insect is so well-equipped for the task as the sphinx moth, who we will meet in a moment.

These blossoms really are intended for the night flyers first and foremost — in the full heat of the summer, the blossoms will be wilted and “dead” by 11am, sometimes earlier.

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 moths 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. It has to complete that journey overnight before the flower wilts.

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 is 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. In return, the evening primrose provides food not just for the adults who come for the nectar, but for the caterpillars as well.

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, not like the powerfully-scented flowers like azalea or pennyroyal. Apparently for a sphinx moth, it’s like Mama Ciccardi’s famous marinara sauce cooking on the stove on a summer evening — 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. The overlap in the range between the Xylocopa tabaniformis and the Oenothera elata suggests this is an ancient relationship developed through long co-evolution (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 exception to this rule is this record-breaking snow year of 2022-2023 when as of July 3, there are still no seed pods showing). 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 or even more, 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 our plants of course, any more than we are their humans).

Taxonomy: a primrose by any other name

The evening primrose 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. Roughly speaking, that means they share a great-grandparent. The evening primrose is actually somewhat 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 comes to Yosemite in hopes of seeing 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. When a bear 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. Our small patch on its best days sees 140 blossoms open in 40 minutes, peaking at perhaps 7-10 blossoms per minute. How big were the massive displays of Yosemite Valley, reputed to have turned entire meadows yellow? One hundred blossoms in the peak minute? Five hundred? Probably thousands 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. The black and white photo does not do it justice. The quality of this image and the brilliance of the colors are stunning. If one of the Pillsbury tinted “orotones” goes on display in the Yosemite museum, as they periodically do, it is worth some effort to get there to see it.

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!

It seems strange, in our era of video games and Red Bull athletes to think that children were drawn to Yosemite for the flowers, but apparently it was so which speaks to a different aesthetic in 1922 than in 2022.

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 (my emphasis):

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

In short, for the visitor of 1922, the flowers of Yosemite Valley rivaled El Capitan and Yosemite Falls in majesty in a way that is rarely the case a century later.

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 (my emphasis):

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 (my emphasis):

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.

Why did deer become a problem for Yosemite flowers in the 1920s? What changed? Why were there so many flowers in 1910 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 by 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 annually, 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). Dogbane was not an important food crop. As the name suggests, it’s poisonous at least to dogs. It was essential for making twine which could be used to make baskets, nets, traps and anything else requiring rope. It was therefore an essential material for the residents of Yosemite Valley.

The Valley was sometimes described as “swampy,” but the new guardians of the Valley brought changes. It’s likely that swampy crops like onion were common, though they are rare today in Yosemite Valley. Meanwhile, those same moisture levels made the meadows inhospitable to the native pines, firs and oaks. The Ahwahneechee practice of burning the meadows also kept tree encroachment at bay.

It appears that the Ahwahneechee used fire to hunt the deer in Yosemite Valley, and probably elsewhere (Ernst, p. 39). So the fire that kept the trees from overtaking the Valley also indirectly helped keep the deer population down and, therefore, prevented the deer from eating so many of the Valley’s flowers. Oral tales speak of the Ahwahneechee going up to the Valley rim to hunt for deer, presumably because deer were not sufficiently abundant on the Valley floor.

As soon as the burning stopped, the size the of the meadows started to decrease. The European-American methods of controlling the brush through cutting was far more labor intensive and far less effective than burning. It was impossible to keep the overgrowth at bay and the meadows began to fill with brush and forest. A survey in 1868 found that there were 745 acres of meadow in Yosemite Valley. By 1937, only 327 acres of meadow remained (Gibbens and Heady, p. 24).

In addition, the European-Americans changed the hydrology of the Valley. Blasting the recessional moraine near El Capitan in 1878 for the express purpose of draining the Valley had a major impact on the meadows. Raised roadbeds disrupted the flow of water. Utility pipes often cracked and were abandoned, leaving them to take in water and channel it out of the meadows (Gibbens and Heady, p. 8 and passim). With the drying came more brush, more trees, and fewer flowers.

All of these changes that came with the expulsion of the Ahwahneechee combined to create a Valley floor that had far less meadow and much more undergrowth than it had had in perhaps thousands of years. Still, the 1937 state of the Valley was far less forested than what we have become accustomed to in the twenty-first century. The result was undoubtedly a greater quantity of flowers than we know today, but beyond that we mostly know only 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 and the meadow drying began soon after, with the consequences we’ve just seen.

Those consequences did not, of course, happen immediately. In 1855, just four years after the initial invasion by the Mariposa Battalion, an early tourist wrote that Valley was rich with 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 were 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 point to two factors. 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. As we saw in the discussion of Ahwahneechee practices, deer had probably been rare on the Valley floor for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. With the influx of settlers and their guns in substantial numbers, 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 (my emphasis):

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 low deer population and intensive hunting. But from 1909 on, the annual reports of 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. Of course, the process took time. In his 1910 book, The Yosemite Valley, Galen Clark still 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 as there was no longer a need to feed and stable the horses that brought tourists to Yosemite (Gibbens and Heady, p. 5). At the same time, the burgeoning tourist trade in Yosemite required fresh milk and meat. In the days before refrigerator trucks, fresh milk and meat required local cattle (and a slaughterhouse, from which Slaughterhouse Meadow in Yosemite Valley gets its name). And local 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 meadows 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 know 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, the curators planted evening primrose. This collection of now-uncommon 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 located that show 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 an 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 near the park 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.

Humans, Nature and Evening Primroses

The story of the evening primrose in Yosemite raises some interesting questions about “natural” places and whether there is such a thing or, more precisely, whether there is a real difference between “natural” places and other places.

When I first came to Yosemite in 1985, I imagined I was walking through a landscape preserved through visionary action from time immemorial just as it always had been so I could appreciate it in its natural, almost primordial form. The naivete of that young rock climber shocks me now, but both the rock climber and the culture around him have evolved somewhat in the intervening forty years.

Of course, even the most superficial reflection reveals my naïve first impression to be untrue — a landscape formed by the Big Bang, plate tectonics and glaciers has no “original” form outside the Singularity. A slightly deeper reflection would have highlighted the obvious fact that there were virtually no uninhabited places in America in 1450 and still less so in 1850, so there was no primordial, untouched place to preserve in 1864. Still, I imagined that it had changed little over the last few hundred years, setting aside the accoutrements of industrial tourism such as roads, trails, hotels, vacation rentals and rangers.

The understanding that the place I thought of as stable could have changed so much in 150 years took years to appreciate. The hotels were obvious as was the absence of Ahwahneechee hunters. Only over time and with increasing knowledge of natural history, though, did I come to see 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 let alone the Sierra Nevada. A century of fire suppression has radically changed the composition of our forests. They are far denser than before and biased toward small, shade-tolerant trees rather than the massive fire-tolerant (even fire loving) trees of the past.

All of that poses an obvious question: what do we mean when we talk about “natural” landscapes and going into the outdoors to experience “nature?” Is Yosemite today, with its roads, hotels, restaurants, exotic Eurasian plants, dense cedar and fir forests, 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? Was the marshy valley of 5000 years ago, before the arrival of people, ipso facto more natural than the dry valley that humans lived in? Do humans, by our very presence render a place less natural? It is now clear in the Anthropocene that there is no landscape that has not been influenced by humans, so how do we distinguish between a place like Yosemite Valley and a place like Manhattan?

Once you ask these questions, it becomes clear that simple words like “natural” and “wild” are inexact labels for slippery concepts. Better minds than mine have devoted entire books and careers to wrestling with those questions. Rather than hazarding an answer, I will 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 we cannot claim credit. They are their own plants.


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:

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.


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 Retrospective

Digging out my truck after big Yosemite snowstorm in 2021

Last updated: December 3, 2021.

There was no big surprise to the way 2021 started: with the park closed due to surging Covid. There was a bit of surprise to what happened next: a powerful windstorm that knocked down thousands of trees including some mature giant sequoias. That was followed by the one big snowstorm of a drought winter, some excellent skiing. We had a dry summer (of course), but less smoke and fire impact than the previous year and a gorgeous autumn.

For much of that time, the park had a day-use reservation system in place (May 31 to September 30), which changed the feel of the park substantially and resulted in some inconveniences, but overall was great for our guests.

Winter 2020-2021

Covid Surge

You’ve probably heard of this. The short version is that the park closed in mid-December and stayed closed until early January due to a Covid surge. The park might have opened earlier, but for a couple of other events…

Massive Windstorm

On January 18, we had a major Mono wind event that brought down thousands of trees, including several mature giant sequoias. The falling trees destroyed houses, public buildings, power lines, and blocked roads. Miraculously, the mayhem did not kill any people. If there was a silver lining to the park closure, that was it. 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

Drought Winter… with one big storm

Overall, 2020-2021 was an extremely dry winter. According to the final snow survey on May 1, the water content in the Tuolumne River watershed was 25% of normal and in the Merced River watershed it was 31% of normal (Daily Report, May 7). That made it one of the driest of our 18 winters in the park.

Fortunately, it wasn’t completely dry. We had a few storms, and one of them was a nice one!

We had three storms that dropped about a foot of snow each, a few storms that just dropped a few inches, but the highlight of the winter was a single 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, but we believe that in our 18 winters in Yosemite, the seven-foot snowfall was second only to the 11-foot snowfall in late March 2011. 

As I said, that was still not enough to bring us out of drought. We expected that less than a third of our normal snowpack would lead to massive tree die-off, but it didn’t happen. The huge number of trees that died in previous years from beetle kill and drought must have already thinned the weak trees.

Summer in the Park

Day-Use Reservations, Limited Services, Lots of Peace and Quiet

From May 31 to September 30, the National Park Service required day-use reservations to enter the park for anyone who was not staying inside the park gates at hotels or rentals, in campgrounds, or backpacking. Of course, many potential visitors and the gateway community businesses found this quite hard and it did make it harder to get backpacking permits.

For our guests, who had guaranteed entry by virtue of an overnight reservation inside the park gates, it was generally a good thing. Yes, there were some inconveniences: shuttles weren’t running, there were fewer food-service options, there were fewer ranger programs and so forth.

On the plus side, there were fewer people. Based on the Year to Date visits (2.8 million through September 2021), it looks like 2021 will see a bit over 3 million visitors to the park by the end of the year. That would make it roughly equal to visitation levels in the late 1980s and well below the 4 million visitors we’ve had in recent years and far below the 5 million visitors who came for the NPS Centennial in 2016 (see stats for 1906 to 2020).

Not counting construction delays, there were basically no traffic jams and trails were less crowded, but many people who wanted to see Yosemite were not able to do so. So there was both good and bad.

We do not yet know what the plans are for 2022 in Yosemite. At a certain point, though, we as a nation will have to decide whether we want to let as many people as possible into our national parks at the cost of creating an unpleasant and degraded experience. Or will we limit access and preserve the experience, but shut out people who might want to come regardless of conditions? These are not easy questions. There have been times during the Covid restrictions when it felt like a few more visitors would not have been noticed. On the other hand, we cannot keep increasing visitation indefinitely. At a certain point, it’s just too much, as in 2016 when Yosemite “welcomed” a record 5 million visitors. Stay tuned.

Mariposa Grove Reopened

After being closed for almost three years for restoration (2015 to 2018), it was sad to see the Mariposa Grove closed again due to damage from the windstorm. The Mariposa Grove re-opened May 5, 2021. There was no shuttle service, which meant that it was (and continues to be) a two-mile walk to the first trees. But what a great experience for those who are up for the walk. We’ve never seen the Upper Grove so quiet during the summer. Normally, for that kind of solitude among the trees, you have to ski in. Of course, like the day-use reservations, it also meant that a lot of people who wanted to see the grove were unable to do so. There are no simple answers!

Fires and Smoke

Despite the massive fires in the state, conditions in the park were surprisingly good. We had a handful of really smoky days, but nothing like in 2020 when the massive Creek Fire raged just south of the park. This year there was no major fire activity in the park. The one big fire in the area was in Coarsgold about 45 miles away and it was early in the year, which meant there were a lot of resources available and things weren’t that dry yet. In short, we got lucky this year.

End of the Year

It’s not fully over as I write this on December 3, but all in all we had a gorgeous autumn. We would, of course, like more precipitation, but we got some good rainstorms and even a nice October snowstorm. Now we just need some snow so we can get out with our new backcountry ski boots!

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)


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.


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). If you want some local flavor, Idle Hour Winery and Kitchen has good food and good wine.

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.


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.


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.

We get a lot of questions from guests about the evidence of forest fire they see while driving to our house. Someday we may add some articles on fire ecology and things like that, but for now, this is the story of how those burn areas along Wawona Road and Glacier Point Road came to be and what it was like for us.

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.


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 drip 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 “mosaic,” 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, the tree took an unexpected bounce 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 as close to zero — it is a one-lane logging road where the trees branches often bridge from one side to the other.

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. Afterwards, I told the fire chief, who had spent most of her career in fire forecasting, that I never thought it would work. She just smiled and said, “Yeah, me neither.”

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 smoky, 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 except for charred pieces of ponderosa pine bark littering the ground everywhere, having been hurled high into the sky on the fire-fueled updrafts. 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.

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 forests 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.

[2019 update: the spring of 2019 brought the most astounding wildflower displays we’ve ever seen — carpets of blue and yellow and white throughout the burn area]

The Kindness of Neighbors
The Efforts of Strangers

During the entire time, we were philosophical 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, smoky conditions, supported by a small army of logistics people. 

It is with profound thanks and awe that we remember the 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 and emails, 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).