The majesty of Yosemite Valley beckons me every summer. My husband and I make the long winding drive from Marin County, across the Central Valley and up into the hills and down again, to hang out with friends by the lazy Tuolomne River, surrounded by trees, and gaze at the astounding glacier-cut granite. I’m a polio survivor, have some paralysis, walk with forearm crutches or a cane, and have found that it’s a very accommodating National Park. There are accessible places away from the crowds, though most of the trails adapted for wheelchairs or scooters are in the more populated areas. You can reach many meadow and wooded sites and picnic grounds, the museum, the ancient graveyard, the Ansel Adams Gallery and gift shop, other shops and restaurants and more—including the Village Store for an ice cream!
Along the road to Mirror Lake (a summer-dry lake overgrown by a meadow), you can drive a car in for a mile or two if you have a disabled person (DP) placard or license plates. I like to park and walk in 30 feet to sit by the Tuolumne River and read, paint, chat or just contemplate. If you have a motorized chair or sit scooter, you may want to scooter in a couple of miles, until the paved path at the end of Mirror Lake Road crosses the river. There are also stables near that end of the Valley where you can arrange to ride horses out into the woods with a guide. From almost anywhere, you will enjoy spectacular views of Half Dome.
A more populated jaunt for a scooter is the one-mile paved trail up to Lower Yosemite Falls (across from Yosemite Lodge), an awe-inspiring view even if there’s less water falling in the summer. The trail is interesting on its own for anyone who likes geology or finds beauty in intimacy with rocks and trees. There is a partially hidden spot off the main path (there’s a sign) with a perfect distant view of the falls where I like to go and sit for a while.
I’ve made it up to the foot of Bridal Veil Falls, which is nearly always still running in the summer, but it is a pretty steep trail. My husband pushed me in a wheelchair for the first portion, and I walked using my crutches the rest of the way. It’s a pretty challenging walk, and the park service warns of this to those with ambulatory or breathing difficulty, but there’s a nice spot to sit once you’re up there. Another thing we like to do is park across from the bottom of the mammoth cliff, El Capitan, and spot rock climbers with our binoculars. Careful you don’t get a stiff neck; it sometimes takes a while to sight climbers who look the size of toy soldiers hanging on the rock face.
About an hour northeast of the valley, Tuolumne Meadows awaits those who want a little more peace and quiet in wide-open spaces. My husband and friends generally go hiking for a few hours, while I park myself somewhere near the river and paint a watercolor. There are a lot of places not far from the dirt and gravel access roads where you can feel somewhat isolated but still safe, if you don’t mind using wilderness style bathroom practices, and are able to walk about 100 feet from the road. Right by Tioga Road (Highway 120, which was originally a Native American footpath, later a Sierra Wagon road and then a mining road), especially near the little general store, you’ll probably see people every few minutes. But if you sit with your earbuds and tunes, you won’t notice their conversations. There are also lovely places to park sit near the rushing Tuolumne River. When I have gone a quarter mile or more away from the highway (assuming I can find a parking space!), near Lembert Dome, Tuolumne Meadows Campground or Tuolomne Meadows Lodge (a tent cabin site where you may be able to purchase refreshments), I have seen hikers approximately every thirty minutes. A ranger may lead a walk every hour or two, which has given me the feeling of someone responsible for knowing where I am. At the same time, I’ve had a bit of the isolation in nature that I crave and cannot achieve in the same way as those who can hike far into the hills.
Until three years ago, we “car camped” for 25 years at Housekeeping Camp in Yosemite Valley right on the riverbank with our large group of friends. There, each unit has a tent with three concrete walls, beds with acceptable mattresses, a modestly furnished patio with privacy fence, and minimal lighting and electricity. There’s a pit campfire for each unit and you can bring your own Coleman stove and/or hot plate. Some of the units are accessible by wheelchair, but some have soft dirt that has to be traversed from the camp road, so if needed, ask for either a DP/ADA unit or a unit close to the road when you reserve. The shared restrooms throughout the camp have toilets and sinks (and are generally wheelchair accessible). It became too hard for me as I got into my 60s to pack all the gear needed, plus do the actual housekeeping required with camping. There’s a reason it’s called Housekeeping Camp. But it’s the most accommodating and comfortable place to camp in the Valley.
There is one DP bathroom in Housekeeping equipped for wheelchair showers, with one accessible unit nearby which you can reserve. I can’t recommend the shower (unless they’ve fixed it), and the main Housekeeping Camp showers are not roll-in accessible. However, at Curry Village, a reasonable scooter ride or quick car trip from Housekeeping, you can use the new, spacious, and pleasant accessible showers, even if you are staying in Housekeeping. Curry has a few accessible lodge rooms and cabins, and a lot of tent cabins, all with no cooking. Curry includes a cafeteria and a few modest but acceptable cafes and food stands.
We began staying at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls in the Valley in 2012. It costs twice as much per night as Housekeeping Camp (about $200 vs. about $90), but it’s great to have a bathroom in the room, a lot of electrical outlets and a somewhat better mattress. I don’t miss traipsing to the communal toilets in the dark, though we do miss waking up in a tent unit near our friends and sharing a quiet cuppa in the mornings. Each room in the Lodge has a private patio and also a mini fridge, so we bring small coolers of dairy foods and fruit, and prepare breakfast and often lunch in our room. Sometimes we walk across the street to the food court and eat with the tour group masses if we want a cooked breakfast, where the food is… well, meh, for the most part. There is also a pool at the lodge, which is often nearly empty in the mornings. The lifeguards are generous about letting me use float devices to do my water therapy, even though there is a rule against using them in the deep end. When I explain to them that I am a polio patient, they kindly let me bend the rules.
It’s nice to go to the Ahwahnee Hotel at least once to view the outstanding early 20th century Julia Morgan architecture—the Great Room and the dining room are lit by two story windows and surrounded by tall graceful trees—and have lunch or a drink on the patio. The breakfast buffet is pretty good though expensive, but for a special dinner we prefer the Mountain Room at the Lodge, which does not require a jacket or tie, and will usually have at least one dish to satisfy a foodie.
I recently started renting a sit scooter to use in the Valley, so that I can feel close to nature like all my friends on bikes. Now, I can smell the pines and really see the butterflies and wildflowers. An especially great benefit has been that my husband and I are able to go a few places together without the car, with him either walking or riding his bike. We have a hybrid, but the park does its best to discourage car use in the valley. The Valley shuttle is a helpful asset, with a wheelchair lift and bike rack, and it goes nearly everywhere, but since I am not in a wheelchair, for me there is still too much walking required from the shuttle stops to my destinations. (The shuttle lift may handle up to 750 pounds, maximum size 24” x 46,” and there are tie downs inside the bus. Most scooters range from 200-400 pounds with the rider, so it’s possible the lift may take a smaller scooter.) A walk from the shuttle stop to, say, the interior of Housekeeping Camp can be the equivalent of between a couple of blocks to a quarter mile, which is a long trek on crutches. However, many of the stops are right in front of the places you’ll want to be. Clear, specificmaps of the shuttle route and stops are available. They also show the safest routes for wheelchairs and scooters (essentially the paved bike paths).
I take the scooter from Yosemite Lodge over to Housekeeping Camp each day (20 minutes by scooter and five by car). We take the car for campfires in the evening and cook with the group. If you don’t know someone who is camping, there are sometimes evening ranger campfires in the Valley, with entertaining historical presentations. There are also tours of the Valley floor so that you can see it all at once fairly quickly, and perhaps determine which sites you’d like to revisit.
During our 2014 trip, on my scootering back from Housekeeping Camp to the lodge, I was on the paved path when it was nearing dusk, with hikers and bikers passing me occasionally. One Asian tourist couple was walking right on the curb, dangerously close to the road, and I was tempted to caution them but kept my own counsel. While casually enjoying the woodsy scenery, I saw off to my left in a little clearing a huge bear statue, which hadn’t been there the prior year. I thought it was a little odd that they’d put one in that particular location. Then the statue turned its head and looked at me! The live dark brown bear was about six-feet long, nose to tail, and three-or-four feet tall on all fours. Its head was a foot wide, including ears—the size of a Grizzly, but there have only been brown bear species in this area for decades (and they can be either brown or black in color). He was a mere 20 feet off the path, watching me motoring by. He or she was wearing a green collar placed by the park service. So he was known in these parts; his territory, overwhelmingly not mine.
We stared at each other, our heads slowly moving in tandem as I scooted past, and suddenly it seemed the scooter was not nearly fast enough. He took a step toward me, when I realized that ocular contact was absolutely the worst possible thing to share at that moment, so I tore my eyes away from him (or her). I adjusted the scooter to top speed—maybe six mph, a bit risky on the curvy and bumpy inclined path—and began to think of what I was going to do if the bear followed me. Hmmm…. start beeping the horn, since all wild animals hate and are intimidated by noise (but the horn was not loud enough to be optimally scary). Then maybe throw my backpack toward him, even though it had my laptop in it. Bears know backpacks sometimes contain food and that would have been the most interesting aspect about me from a bear’s perspective. After sunset is about the time when animals are thinking of checking out campsites for unattended food. I was thinking, “Please, oh please, not my laptop; just turn around, Big Bear!”
I kept looking over my shoulder every few seconds till I was sure he was not following me. Now I understood why that couple had been walking so close to the road! When I was about a quarter mile down the path, I was sure he was not in pursuit. A lumbering bear is easily heard from a distance; we’d heard them often enough in the middle of the night when we camped in Housekeeping. My heart rate had gone up, but it all happened too quickly for me to be very alarmed or upset, or even decide if I’d been courageous.
A few of my friends at Yosemite have had even more close and direct encounters with bears, and no one’s ever been attacked. The bear would win, so it’s important to know how to behave with them. Normally, you back away from these beasts, especially if it’s a mama with cubs, but I hadn’t had that option. The next afternoon, I nabbed a Mammoth Beer coaster at the Mountain Room Lounge at the Lodge, picturing the giant head of a bear that looked just like my new pal. I have it displayed in my kitchen to remind me of my good fortune, both in seeing the bear and in his disinterest in following a small human on an unfamiliar little vehicle.
This year, I was watchful about getting back to the Lodge before dusk. I found, though, that I was a little wistful at that bear spot, and scanned more deeply into the woods in that area each day, slightly hopeful I’d see him again. Even if you don’t engage with a bear, there’s probably a deer, squirrel or marmot waiting to meet you at Yosemite, so make your reservation!
by Francine Falk-Allen
If you camp in Housekeeping (where you can cook) or, Curry Village, or stay at the Yosemite Lodge in the Valley, or in the expensive but lovely Ahwahnee Hotel (none of which allow cooking), and want to stay for up to a week, you will need to reserve a year and a day in advance. You can also try your luck on getting a unit for a couple of nights on short notice, but you may need to call or go online every day for a month to obtain a reservation. For most lodging, visit www.YosemitePark.com/lodging.aspx or call (801) 559-4892; TTY (559) 439-3002
If you stay at Yosemite Lodge in the Valley, be sure to call there about a week before to make sure you are in a downstairs room, if necessary. There are very nice ADA rooms, but we found that they are so specifically for wheelchairs that we did not have enough room for our gear. We always ask for a room in the Alder building as it is perfect for scooter access, slightly quieter, more private with patios offering views looking out into the trees, and is where we often awaken to deer peering into our window. The Maple building is OK as well.