Mike Ashton loves spending time outside, especially in Yosemite. After two decades in the finance sector, Mike followed his love of service and the outdoors to the nonprofit world. He earned a professional certificate in nonprofit management, and has been working with the Conservancy on a variety of organizational projects — and sharing his deep love of the park with us — since spring 2019. In this guest post, Mike reflects on his family’s June 2020 Yosemite Valley camping trip, which took place just after the park reopened from a weeks-long pandemic-induced closure.
Yosemite is my family’s favorite place. My wife, Carrie, our 4-year-old son, Owen, and I love going to the park to camp, hike, and enjoy time together outside. We always have an amazing time, but our most recent visit, in June, was even more memorable than usual.
We happened to have an existing reservation at Upper Pines Campground for the weekend of June 12-14, right after the park reopened to the public after being closed for nearly three months due to the coronavirus pandemic. We were eager to get back to our favorite place — but we knew that this camping trip would be a little different from prior ones.
In planning our trip, our primary concern was making sure we kept ourselves and fellow park visitors safe. We decided to make the entire trip as self-supported and contact-free as possible, from the time we left the house to the time we returned home. Along with practicing social distancing, we decided to spend as much time outside as possible – given the ample outdoor activities available in the park, that took little additional planning! We also opted to bring all the food we’d need. We usually cook many, but not all, of our meals while car camping; for this trip, we made sure that we had enough food to make all meals and enough snacks for the road.
These minor adjustments around food and activity choice had an unexpected effect on our trip. Even though the three of us had spent the prior three months together at home, we had one of the most enjoyable and memorable weekends as a family that we’ve ever had. We were all grateful for the opportunity to spend some quiet time in our favorite place. Cooking at camp, usually over the course of two hours, provided a relaxed sense of spaciousness, where every meal was a time to relax and savor the surroundings.
We drove to Yosemite on a Friday afternoon expecting light traffic within the park. However, when we arrived at just after 6 p.m., we were still surprised at how few cars were on the roads. As we checked into our campsite, we were greeted with a booming thunderstorm that blew rain and ricocheted thunder off the granite walls.
As the rain began to taper off, I set up the tent while Carrie and Owen read a book in the car. We made dinner on the camp stove when things quieted down. By 10 p.m., the skies had cleared, and Owen and I were able to look for constellations and scan the sky for shooting stars. It was the perfect start to our trip, and I think we all appreciated that first night at the campsite even more than usual.
On Saturday, we drove up to Glacier Point. When a car passing in the opposite direction flashed its lights and pointed out a coyote quietly taking in the scene along the road, we stopped to enjoy the moment and take pictures.
We stopped at Washburn Point to enjoy the views and take some family photos, continued to Glacier Point, and then decided to hike to Sentinel Dome. The 3-mile round-trip walk was our first hike without Owen on my back (he recently outgrew the hiking carrier we’ve used in the past). At one point, Owen started asking where the car was, but after a quick stop to refuel with some chocolate he was ready to keep moving. When we made it to the exposed rock at the bottom of Sentinel Dome, Owen got a huge burst of energy and charged to the top of the dome.
We eventually persuaded Owen to return to the trail, but when he got to the bottom of the rock he turned around and started right back up. Long after we had left Sentinel Dome and driven back down to the Valley, Owen kept up the insistent refrain that we needed to go climb the rocks again; he was still talking about it when we got home the next day. As his dad, it was a special experience to see his pure enthusiasm for being outside, hiking and climbing.
A Slow Sunday
Leaving is always the most difficult part of any Yosemite trip for me. When we woke up on Sunday, our final day in the park, we enjoyed a long breakfast and relished every minute of our remaining campsite time. We reluctantly checked out of the campground just before noon and took a slow drive, looping back around the Valley to Sentinel Beach. As we walked from the car to the beach, a small group of people pointed out a bear meandering through the tall grasses to the east of the footpath, rewarding Owen with his first bear sighting.
Once we settled in at the beach for a picnic lunch, Owen absorbed himself in the essential tasks of digging tunnels in the sand and collecting sticks. More than two hours later, when it was time for us to pack up and head home, he was still at it, still completely absorbed in the microcosm of the beach.
As we left the Valley, we took our time driving past Sentinel Bridge, Yosemite Valley Chapel, and Yosemite Falls, savoring the beautiful day and unhurried pace. Owen began talking about returning to the bear-proof box at the campsite, not yet convinced that the morning’s packing was a sign of our imminent departure. Within a few minutes, though, he was sound asleep. I like to think that images of the star-filled night sky, our campsite, and the summit of Sentinel Dome filled his napping thoughts and etched themselves forever into his memory.
Here are a few tips from our trip for car-camping in Yosemite during the pandemic:
- Be prepared: Yosemite’s new, temporary reservation system requires visitors entering in their own vehicles (vs. on public transit or a tour bus) to have a day-use permit, a wilderness or Half Dome permit, or a camping or lodging reservation. You’ll need to show hard copies of your reservation in order to enter the park. In our case, we printed multiple copies of our campground reservation to have handy, and kept the papers in the car, in our bags, and in my pocket.
- Plan your meals: If you’re aiming to limit your time in indoor spaces and minimize close contact with other people, consider preparing most or all your meals. Think about the ingredients, seasonings, and camp kitchen supplies you’ll need for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus snacks and car food. (And be sure to use a bear-proof food locker to store all food and scented items when you’re not using them!) If you forget something or want to grab a meal away from camp, there are dining options, groceries, and other supplies available in the Valley.
- Embrace outdoor activities: Many, but not all, of the park’s usual indoor spaces are closed temporarily, including the Yosemite Museum and Happy Isles Art and Nature Center. Take advantage of the park’s abundant outdoor options: Enjoy a walk or bicycle ride, picnic on a beach, go wading, watch sunsets and stars, and check out spots that are a little less crowded than usual right now, like Glacier Point.
Mike offers some great tips for planning a safe visit! If you’re planning to drive to Yosemite this summer, remember that you’ll need to make a reservation in advance. Accepted reservations include day-use passes (valid for seven days, available from Recreation.gov), lodging or camping bookings, and wilderness or Half Dome permits. For more information, see the Yosemite National Park site.
If you’re interested in a guided experience, check out our upcoming Outdoor Adventures, or contact us to plan a Custom Adventure or Custom Art Class. We’re following strict COVID-19 safety precautions for all our programs in the park, and your registration includes the required park entry reservation. Whether you visit on your own, or join one of our naturalist guides or art instructors, we encourage you to #RecreateResponsibly — and joyfully!
All photos courtesy of Mike Ashton.