I visit Yosemite with the best possible guide. Leroy Radanovich has been a park regular longer than I’ve been alive. His first visit was in the 1930s as a young boy. As a teenager he took his first job in 1948, clearing up after visitors, then later spent time behind the wheel of a tow-truck, hauling tourist vehicles out of trouble.
In ensuing years, there have been few park tasks Leroy hasn’t tackled and hardly anywhere within Yosemite National Park he hasn’t been, whatever the season. He has stirring tales of downhill skiing at Badger Pass, of epic cross-country ski expeditions and lengthy hikes to all corners in spring, summer and autumn.
Leroy’s knowledge of the area is priceless. He owns a motherlode of historic photographs, a legacy of his work as both local historian and commercial photographer. The photos document early exploration, local mining history and the development of the park itself. Many of the large prints that gaze down from the walls of Yosemite’s grand Ahwahnee Hotel are from his collection.
One of America’s favourite national parks, Yosemite is particularly famous for the towering rock formations and wonderful waterfalls within the Yosemite Valley, four hour’s drive east of San Francisco. The valley attracts 4 million visitors a year so in the height of the tourist season, May to September, you can imagine how crowded it gets. At these times a shuttle bus runs a continuous loop through the valley.
Fortunately Yosemite is open year-round and each season offers unique attractions, which makes it easy to visit when it’s not as busy. The valley is spectacular, yet represents a fraction of Yosemite’s 3,100 square kilometres. So make sure you spend some time in the vast wilderness that comprises 95% of the park.
Leroy takes me north of the valley along the winding road to Crane Flat, then east along the Tioga Pass Road. It traverses the park’s northern wilderness where places have splendid names like White Wolf and Porcupine Flat. At Olmsted Point we stop to gaze south at the stupendous views of Clouds Rest and Half Dome. Hikers emerge from the rocky landscape and slowly make their way east as Leroy speaks longingly about the many years he’s spent walking this magnificent country.
Tenaya Lake is idyllic. Bald rock mountains, forested slopes under a clear blue sky are perfectly reflected in the mirror surface of the water. I praise the gods of photography. Tuolumne Meadows is covered by snow for much of the year but the early melt has already transformed the largest sub-alpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada into an immense expanse of shimmering green.
The high country area is popular for camping and picnics, although visitors are essentially kept off the grass to protect the fragile ecosystem. The Tuolumne Meadows Lodge campground is being set up for summer with simple metal frames erected on platforms and covered in white canvas. Brown bears are already prowling the woods, so all food is stashed in “bear proof” lockers.
The road continues its climb past Mt Dana and Mt Gibbs to reach Yosemite’s Tioga Pass entrance. At this altitude lakes are still covered in ice. Above 3000 metres the oxygen in the air is thinner and it shows. A touring motorcyclist drops his huge BMW at the gate, not once but twice, then needs help to pick it up.
This prompts Leroy to reveal that we are now at the highest elevation he’s been since he had a heart attack a few years ago! I’m certainly surprised by this news but it doesn’t worry me. I reckon that doughty, warm-hearted adventurers like Leroy are destined to be forever embedded in the Yosemite landscape.