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Photo of the Day: Mount McKinley No More, President Obama Makes Denali Official (again)

Even before we laid eyes on the mountain when our Trans-Americas Journey explored Alaska back in 2007 we were calling it Denali as the Athabascan native people have for generations. In 1886 a gold prospector christened the mountain Mount McKinley after President William McKinley and the US government recognized the name in 1917. The renaming sparked plenty of controversy and a serious push to reinstate the native name has been going on since 1975. In 1980 Mount McKinley Park became Denali National Park and Preserve but the mountain was still called McKinley. But no more. President Barack Obama has reinstated Denali as the official name of the iconic mountain, ditching Mount McKinley for good.

Any way you look at it, the tallest mountain in North America–which the USGS just re-surveyed and declared to be 20,310 feet (stripping 10 feet/3 meters off the previous height–is one gorgeous bump on the map.

Denali from the National Park

Denali

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Hurricane Katrina Flashback – New Orleans, Louisiana

When our Trans-Americas Journey started back in 2006, the very first destination on our so-called itinerary was New Orleans, Louisiana for the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival. In fact, days two through 28 of our journey were spent in and around New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina had ravaged our beloved NOLA just eight months earlier and the city was far, far, far from recovered but the Jazz Fest must go on and, as live music lovers and lovers of the city, we had to be there to see the music and to see the city. As the world marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we flashback to the thoughts and images we gathered when we traveled to the city eight months after the storm.

Katrina that Bitch bumper sticker

First impressions of post Katrina New Orleans

After passing through still-vivid signs of hurricane destruction in Slidell, Louisiana, we drove across the Slidell Bridge where a sign warned us to reduce our speed to ease the strain on the temporary spans holding the whole thing up. Most of the other vehicles on the road were trucks full of tools and day laborers on their way to clean up a yard/house/life in post Katrina New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina destruction 9th Ward  New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina destruction in the 9th Ward as it was eight months after the storm.

Then we entered East New Orleans. We’d seen the news reports and read the papers and had even talked to New Orleans residents post Hurricane Katrina but nothing prepared us for the wasteland that greeted us as we approached the city on I-10 through East New Orleans. Destroyed houses, abandoned businesses and downed trees were everywhere but there was hardly a soul (or ridiculously white FEMA trailer) in sight.

Almost exactly eight months after the hurricane hit, the place looked not only little improved but as if it would never be improved—like it would sit and rot for years to come as a sort of fetid, sprawling memorial to the destructive powers of nature and political and social inertia.

New Orleans City Yacht Harbor Hurricane Katrina destruction

New Orleans City Yacht Harbor had yet to be cleaned up eight months after Hurricane Katrina.

September 11 comparisons

Comparisons are tricky, but we were reminded of how relieved and hopeful we felt when the World Trade Center site (two blocks from where we were living in Manhattan) was cleaned up in the weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11. The folks living in New Orleans hadn’t even gotten the moral boost of having the uprooted trees removed from their smashed rooftops. No wonder so many residents hadn’t returned. Who could get up day in and day out and live in this ghost town?

And if residents don’t return why should businesses come back? Within minutes we could feel the despair of this vicious cycle sinking into the city. We drove on in silence.

New Orleans Lakeview Katrina Destruction humor

Homeowner black humor in the Lakeview area of New Orleans where little had been done eight months after Hurricane Katrina.

Fleeting signs of normalcy

We were snapped out of our funk when we turned onto St. Charles Avenue and saw very little visible damage to the stately houses. The famous St. Charles Streetcar was not running and the road itself was a pot-holed mess, but it honestly probably would have been in disrepair even without the hurricane.

Hungry enough to eat the dashboard, we pulled up to Domilise’s Po-Boy & Bar, our favorite spot for the quintessential New Orleans sandwich, only to discover a sign that said “Closed Today Only.” Reduced hours were a fact of life in post Katrina New Orleans as a way to cope with a lack of staff and a lack of customers.

That was all too much to process without the lunch we’d been dreaming about for weeks, so we quickly moved on to plan B: Cooter Brown’s where the menu made us crack up (try the Looter special, formerly the Cooter special but renamed post-Hurricane Katrina). The guy taking our order made us seriously consider a tattoo and the po-boys were so big we could hardly lift them…but we did, along with a couple or three Abita beers.

Frustration beyond the French Quarter

Tourism is obviously a major source of income in New Orleans and the heart of that industry is the French Quarter and events like the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival that we’d come to take part in. Eight months after Katrina hit it was clear that whatever funding was available for hurricane recovery had been poured into the French Quarter where we saw plenty of evidence that everyone was working hard and rebuilding to get back to normal as soon as possible.

Beyond the French Quarter, however, little had been done. Even in swanky areas like the nearby Lakeview district, home after fancy home sat washed off its foundation and car after car was wrapped around a tree awaiting some miraculous clean up that hadn’t yet come.

17th street canal Katrina frustration Lakeview new orleans

Post Katrina frustrations with insurance companies, local government and aid agencies were running high eight months after the storm.

The overall mood was frustration aimed at the institutions that displaced residents had turned to for help, including their insurance companies and their city government. It made the looming mayoral run-off election between incumbent Ray Nagin and rival Mitch Landreau even more relevant. Even the most destroyed and abandoned yards in this area were sporting an election sign declaring allegiance to one or the other.

After a few hours it began to feel like the whole world was one big disaster area, but the worst was yet to come.

A family returns to the Lower 9th Ward

We knew it was going to be bad in the hard hit 9th Ward but it was so much worse without the television screen separating us from reality. As we crossed over a bridge into the Lower 9th Ward area we got an aerial view that lets us see the clear wave of devastation fanning out from the breach in the levee.

Katrina destruction alongside levee breach 9th Ward New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina destruction along the levee breach in the 9th Ward where recovery has yet to happen.

The Lower 9th Ward is surrounded on three sides by water so when the Industrial Canal breached the area was devastated. Nearly 90% of structures within a 12 x 12 block area, roughly 60% of the entire area of the Lower 9th Ward, were obliterated by the storm. The few that remained had been transported blocks away from their original locations. None of them looked salvageable.

We watched from a distance as a family returned to what was left of their house (no more than a lop-sided, soggy shell) just a block or two from the breached levee. They picked their way up the stairs and into the lower level on some secret, internal mission. Maybe just “being home.” was the point of the visit.

Hurricane Kartina 9th Ward destruction New Orleans

A house in the 9th Ward sits undemolished and unreconstructed, eight months after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

We were reminded of how good it felt when the National Guard and FBI allowed us to go into our apartment for the first time, three weeks after the terrorist attacks on 9-11 and we were able to do stuff that made us feel like we might, someday, be home for good. We emptied the fetid refrigerator, puttered around, watered the plants. This family, however, had no refrigerator or plants and would never be returning to this home.

Clean up crews had recently entered the neighborhood to finally start disposing of the debris after months of political wrangling. We talked to one contract worker from Colorado who was frustrated and disgusted by Mayor Ray Nagin and his inability to make or stick to decisions about how to proceed with the clean up. This worker had been in New Orleans for six months and figured more than half of that time had been spent waiting for the official governmental green light to go in and do what he was being paid to do.

9th Ward Hurricane Kartina destruction not on TV

A poignant sign in the 9th Ward of New Orleans.

Fats Domino’s house under water

Singer and pianist Fats Domino lives in the Lower 9th Ward and kept his home and business there long after his success would have allowed him to move elsewhere. We remembered news reports about his rescue during the hurricane and, on a long shot, we asked some men if they know where Fats’ house was and they directed us straight to it.

The Fats Domino compound is across the street from a Dollar Store and takes up about three lots. His simple white brick house with a huge “FD” insignia on it is connected to another home that’s been converted into the office headquarters of Fats Domino Publishing.

Discarded retro furniture in front of Fats Domino's hose 9th ward Katrina destruction

Discarded furniture outside the flooded 9th Ward home and office of singer and pianist Fats Domino.

Post Katrina, both buildings were abandoned but not destroyed since they’re located many, many blocks away from the levee breach. However, even this area was under water deep enough to require that Fats be evacuated and most buildings were still uninhabitable and the retro ’70s furniture on the curb out front indicated that the home had extensive water damage.

Hippies to the rescue in St. Bernard Parish

In neighboring St. Bernard Parish the scenes of destruction were much the same. Weirdly, many of the car washes were open for business even if banks, hospitals, grocery stores and schools were not. And they were doing a scorching business. It’s as if—and we totally understand this—people were desperate to keep some aspect (any aspect) of their lives under control and having your car washed had become something like therapy.

Also in St. Bernard, a group of volunteers had set up a mega aid station that was a cross between the Burning Man festival and the coolest Red Cross center you’ve ever seen. Run by a group called Emergency Communities, it was called Made with Love and the centerpiece was a huge geodesic dome tent in which 1,500 people a day were getting free meals.

Made with Love Cafe St Bernard Parish Katrina destruction

Volunteers at Made with Love met the basic needs of New Orleans residents left with nothing even eight months after Hurricane Katrina hit.

Other tents offered things like free clothes, free furniture, free groceries. FEMA had a table set up and the volunteer there was actually doing something: giving away free cell phones and service plans. Free internet access and phone books were also available and everything was cheered up by the addition of hand-made signs with happy slogans and smiling animals on them.

Made with Love was run by young volunteers with a visible hippie streak, which explained the recycling bins and vegetarian peanut oil in the fryers. By coincidence, we stopped by at lunch time (salad, broccoli—with or without cheese sauce—and sloppy Joes) and we found a whole cross-section of locals there: single moms, whole families, elderly couples, office workers. All in the same boat, so to speak.

Emergency Communities Made with Love Cafe St Bernard Parish Katrina destruction

Made with Love volunteers served more than 1,500 meals a day to residents of New Orleans who still needed help with basic needs eight long months after Hurricane Katrina hit the city.

The whole little cosmos was set up in the parking lot of a hurricane ravaged Off Track Betting business and it was obvious that the patrons were folks unused to taking and the volunteers were folks used to giving.  It all worked out just fine.

We stuffed some bills into the Made with Love donation box and headed out.

Cars destroyed by Hurricane Katrina New Orleans

Areas under elevated freeways in New Orleans became ghostly parking lots full of cars destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

Still storming, 10 years later

It was pathetic, but after only a few days of exposure to the fresh aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we were slowly losing our battle with destruction fatigue. Cars full of mud left wrapped around trees were beginning to seem normal. Hearing people talk about “taking water” was getting mundane. It was time for a change of scenery and a few days of distance and perspective on what we’d seen in New Orleans.

We could not then (and still can’t now) imagine what it was like to call post Katrina New Orleans home. On our Trans-Americas Journey we’ve returned to New Orleans four times since our visit eight months after Katrina, the most recent time in 2014, and each time we’ve seen many areas of the city make a comeback. It is a shameful truth, however, that poorer, predominantly black areas, like the Lower 9th Ward, are still storming 10 years later and seem as if they’ll never come back.

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The Alamo and San Antonio Missions, New UNESCO World Heritage Site

Everyone remembers The Alamo, but UNESCO wants us to remember far more than that. This year UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status on The Alamo and San Antonio Missions in Texas, honoring this collection of five missions, which were built by Franciscan missionaries in the 18th century, as “an example of the interweaving of Spanish and Coahuiltecan cultures, illustrated by a variety of features, including the decorative elements of churches, which combine Catholic symbols with indigenous designs inspired by nature.”

The Alamo and San Antonio Missions

The Alamo is most famous as the site where Mexican fighters trounced the “Texican” army (yes, that was the real name), a defeat which created the rallying cry “remember The Alamo” and inspired others to battle the Mexicans and ultimately take huge tracts of land for the US. But The Alamo is also a mission which is located in the center of modern-day San Antonio. The San Antonio Missions are scattered around the surrounding area. Here’s a look at The Alamo and San Antonio Missions, the newest UNESCO World Heritage Site in the US.

Alamo Mission - San Antonio Missions

The Alamo, aka the Alamo Mission.

Mission Espalda - San Antonio Missions

Mission Espalda, part of the San Antonio Missions group and newly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mission Concepcion - San Antonio Missions

Mission Concepcion, part of the San Antonio Missions group and newly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mission San Jose - San Antonio Missions

Mission San Jose, part of the San Antonio Missions group and newly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mission Espalda bells - San Antonio Missions

The bell tower at Mission Espalda.

Alamo Mission - San Antonio Missions

The Alamo Mission at night.

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The Most Complicated Tourist Attraction on Earth? – National September 11 Memorial & Museum, New York City

We recently traveled back home to New York City for an overdue visit with family and friends. While we were there we made it a priority to visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. We lived just two blocks from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on the day of the terrorist attack and like millions of other New Yorkers, US citizens and people around the world, that day changed our lives forever (including inspiring our Trans-Americas Journey).

9-11 memorial One World Trade Tower - Freedom Tower

The Freedom Tower, the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere, soars above one of the two reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.

Is this the most complicated tourist attraction on earth?

After so many years of pushing and shoving to find the “right” way to memorialize Ground Zero and honor the victims. A staggering  5,201 submissions from architects and designers from 63 countries were submitted for the project and everyone, it seemed, had an opinion about what was appropriate for Ground Zero.

We wanted to see what had finally been created on hallowed ground where 2,753 people from around the world lost their lives during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11.

September 11 Memorial Pool - South Tower 2

The National September 11 Memorial is made up of two reflecting pools created in the footprint of each of the Twin Towers.

The memorial portion of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum consists of two large, outdoor reflecting pools constructed in the exact footprint of each of the Twin Towers. Each square pool is recessed into the ground and has four walls of 30 foot (eight meter) tall waterfalls and a final waterfall in the center. The falling water was strangely peaceful as it rushed into the mysterious central space in a never-ending flow.

National 9-11 Memorial Museum

Each of the two reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial are recessed cubes with four walls of 30 foot (eight meter) waterfalls.

Both reflecting pools are ringed by a bronze border deeply inscribed with nearly 3,000 names including the 2,977 victims who died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the four hijacked planes on September 11 plus the victims of the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

The city of New York expects the memorial and museum to be major tourist attractions. The memorial brochure is printed in eight different languages in an attempt to communicate with visitors from across the globe.

Survivor Tree withstood 9/11 attacks 9-11 Memorial

The so-called Survivor Tree at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City was salvaged from the wreckage of the Twin Towers and now flourishes as part of the outdoor memorial.

Family members of victims are encouraged to place a white rose in the name of their loved one, adding an element of softness and life to the memorial. Another unexpectedly moving part of the memorial, for us, was the so-called Survivor Tree. A mere eight foot stump when it was found in the wreckage of the Twin Towers, the pear tree was nursed back to life and has been re-planted in the midst of the memorial.

Controversial September 11 Museum

When we visited the memorial, the museum had not yet opened. Now that it is open to the public we think we’re glad we didn’t get the chance to visit it. While we understand the purpose of a September 11 Museum we don’t understand why it had to be constructed on the site itself. Though we had friends who should have been in the towers on September 11 but miraculously weren’t, we don’t personally know anyone who died in the terrorist attack. Still, putting a museum on a spot that represents he final resting place for so many seems unnecessarily close.

Also, the US$24 museum entrance fee (the outdoor memorial is free) feels slightly offensive, though we were happy to learn that every Tuesday night between 5 pm and 8 pm (last entrance at 7 pm) entry is free and, of course, family members of the victims and 9-11 rescue and recovery workers are always welcomed free of charge.

We’re not the only ones who have a sort of sick feeling about the museum and this piece written by the brother of a victim expresses those misgivings, as he tours the museum, very, very eloquently.

National 9-11 Memorial 75 West Street

The neon green line outlines the building we lived in on the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center just two blocks away.

The World Trade Center was our neighbor

We returned to New York in 1999 after a four year backpacking trip through South and Southeast Asia and we immediately moved downtown to the financial district. The area was being rejuvenated and rents were affordable. We found a great one bedroom apartment and settled in. Our most dynamic neighbor was the World Trade Center and for years the Twin Towers, just a few blocks away, factored into our view and our daily lives.

Our history with these buildings is complicated and visiting the National September 11 Memorial & Museum was both settling and unsettling. Here are some of our own memories.

World Trade center from New York Harbor

The World Trade Center in more peaceful days as seen from New York Harbor.

World Trade Center reflection

The Twin Towers were always most beautiful at night.

World Trade Center 11

Sparkling Twin Towers dominated the New York City skyline and the view from our apartment three blocks away.

First and second plane crash into WTC

On the morning of the attack Eric was on the roof of our apartment building taking photos of the chaos. These shots were taken minutes after each of the two planes impacted the towers.

WTC collapse aftermath on West Street

This is what our street looked like in the minutes between the collapse of the first tower and the collapse of the second tower. The awning on the right hand side of this photo that says “75 West” is the entrance to our building.

Landing gear of American Airlines #11 WTC North Tower

Landing gear from American Airlines flight #11, which crashed into the North Tower, landed near the entrance to our apartment building.

Moments before 2nd WTC tower collapsed

Seconds after this photo was taken the second tower collapsed.

WTC burning while evacuating to New Jersey

As Eric was evacuated across the Hudson River to New Jersey, lower Manhattan looked apocalyptic as the World Trade Center burned.

9 9-11-skyline-from-NJ

Lower Manhattan smouldered for days, a constant reminder of an attack we were all still trying to comprehend.

10 National-Guard-WTC-ruins-from-75-West-Street

The National Guard was called in to man the streets of lower Manhattan, much of it an FBI crime scene (including our apartment building, seen on the left), in the weeks after the terrorist attack on September 11.

Ground Zero from roof 75 West Street

The angular wreckage of the Twin Towers from the roof of our apartment building.

Ground Zero Cleanup - South Tower 2 Washington Street

It seemed like the rubble would never get cleared away from the site or from our minds. This shot was taken from the front of our apartment building looking two blocks down Washington Street.

Smoking Ground Zero Cleanup from roof 75 West St.

Still-smoking Ground Zero as seen from the roof of our apartment building.

Funeral FDNY 10 House Fireman - First at the Big One

One of the heartbreaking number of funerals held for firemen from the Ten House in our neighborhood who died trying to rescue people from the stricken towers. The prophetic banner on the back of this fire truck shows the slogan and emblem for the Ten House: a firefighter standing atop the burning Twin Towers with the words “First Due At The Big One”  written below.

Towers of Light 9/11 memorial

As people argued over the best plan for Ground Zero, Towers of Light kept the tragedy in our hearts and minds.

Towers of Light

As people argued over the best plan for Ground Zero, Towers of Light kept the tragedy in our hearts and minds.

Find out more about how the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center inspired our Trans-Americas Journey.

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The King of Cactus – Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Cactus experts tell us there are between 1,500 and 2,000 different species of cactus but in Arizona there’s just one king of cactus: the saguaro. The bloom of this tree-like cactus is the Arizona state  flower. Saguaros are only found in the Sonoran Desert and Arizona is lousy with the things.  At this point, it should surprise no one that a whole national park was created to protect this prickly prize. Saguaro National Park was founded on October 14, 1994 and it celebrates its 19th anniversary this year.

Entrance Saguaro National Park, Arizona

We love the graphic cactus on this sign at an entrance to Saguaro National park in Arizona.

Saguaro National Park is divided into the two districts, both easily reached from Tuscon. As you can imagine, it’s dry and hot in this desert landscape so try to visit early or late in the day so you can enjoy some of the short trails within the park without getting scorched.

Cactus close up - Saguaro National Park

A cactus closeup in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park.

The Saguaro is the quintessential cactus. If someone told you to sit down and draw a cactus, this is what you’d draw. They’re also a classic symbol of the Wild West right up there with tumbleweeds, ten gallon hats and hitching posts.

Saguaro Cactus - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Despite its prickly spines, saguaros make nice homes for critters including the Gila woodpecker, as the holes in this one attest.

Every species of cactus is built like a sponge but the saguaro is particularly thirsty. It can hold up to 200 gallons (757 liters) of water for up to a year. The saguaro can shrink or swell by up to 25 percent depending on how saturated it is.

Giant Saguaro Cactus - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Eric dwarfed by a saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Park in Arizona. They can grow to up to 40 feet (12 meters) tall and can weigh more than a ton.

In the United States, Saguaros are only found in the wild in Arizona and, rarely, in southeast California. Saguaros have also become a popular landscaping plant but many of the saguaros you see in front yards were illegally harvested.

Saguaro Cactus Forest - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaros as far as the eye can see in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park. In the US, this cactus is only found in the wild in Arizona and a few parts of southeastern California.

Saguaros can grow to up to 60 feet (18 meters) tall, however, they may take their sweet time getting there. In dry conditions it can take years for a saguaro to grow just a few inches. In wet years a saguaro may shoot up five feet (1.5 meters).

Cactus - Saguaro National Park

Not every cactus in the park is a saguaro. Here’s a rebel.

Fully grown and fully saturated, saguaros can weigh up to a ton making them the largest cactus in the United States. Saguaros typically live between 100 and 200 years though experts admit some giants may be even older than that.

Golden Eagle landing on a Saguaro Cactus

We have no idea how birds like this Harris hawk can land on something as thorny as a saguaro but they do it all the time.

The “arms” branching out of a central trunk, which we associate with saguaros, don’t develop until the cactus is many decades old. Some saguaros eventually sprout more than 50 arms. A saguaro without any arms is called a spear.

Saguaro Cactus - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaros in the afternoon sun in Saguaro National Park in Arizona. The saguaros pictured above without any arms are called spears.

Cactus jungle - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

It’s a cactus jungle in Saguaro National Park.

Cactus Arizona desert

You’ll be in a forest of saguaros in Saguaro National Park but don’t forget to look for other species, like this one, too.

Cactus Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A cactus cluster in Saguaro National Park in Arizona.

Bonus: the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Two miles (3 km) from the Saguaro National Park visitor center you’ll find the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and we highly recommend it. Yes, there’s no shortage of cactus in the park but this living museum presents a huge variety of species and lots of cactus-loving critters in a great setting. A two mile (3 km) stroll takes you through a meticulously curated zoo and botanical garden celebrating the best the Sonoran Desert has to offer including 40,000 types of cactus and other desert plants, many of them rare or endangered, and desert animals ranging from cougars to butterflies.

Cactus flowering - Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A flowering cactus at the excellent Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Saguaro National Park.

Flowering Cactus - Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A flowering cactus at the excellent Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Saguaro National Park.

One last prickly issue

You will notice that we have worked really hard to avoid using the plural of cactus in this post. That’s because we couldn’t decide which one to use. According to that know-it-all Merriam-Webster, cacti, cactuses and cactus are all correct.

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Snowshoes, Sequoias & Hiking Half Dome – Yosemite National Park, California

Poor Yosemite National Park. Beset by a deadly hantavirus outbreak. Ravaged by the Rim Fire (did you know that fire has its own Wiki page?). Knee-capped by the $%*#*&! US government shutdown. It’s been a tough few years for one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Here’s an all-season travel guide to snowshoeing, hiking Half Dome and saving sequoias so your Yosemite National Park travel plans are in place when this amazing park re-opens.

Yosemite Vallet Tunnel View

The iconic Yosemite Valley. This view is what greets you after you drive through a dramatic tunnel and approach the mouth of the valley.

Panorama of Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point

Panoramic image of Yosemite Valley shot from Glacier Point. Want to see a larger version of this shot?

El Capitan and Yosemite Valley view - Yosemite National Park

One view–Yosemite Valley with El Capitan on the left–in two seasons.

Half Dome view from Sentinal Bridge Yosemite Valley - Fall & Winter

One view–Half Dome as seen from the Sentinel Bridge in Yosemite Valley–in two seasons.

Mariposa Grove and the stately sequoias of Yosemite

As if epic valleys and views weren’t enough Yosemite is also home to hundreds of giant sequoias, aka redwood trees. These are the oldest trees on earth and two of the giants in the Mariposa Grove, in the southern part of Yosemite National Park, are on the list of the 30 largest examples of this species on the planet.

Giant Seqoias Redwoods, Mariposa Grove - Yosemite NP

The hundreds of sequoias, aka redwoods, in the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park are some of the oldest living things on earth.

Fire is an important part of the natural life-cycle of redwood trees and the giants are built to withstand fire with a natural fire retardant in their bark which can be two feet thick at the base of the tree. However, the very hot, very fast Rim Fire had naturalists worried enough to construct fire breaks around Mariposa Grove and even bring in sprinklers.

California Tunnel Redwood Tree, in the Mariposa Grove, Yosemite

Karen walking through a tunnel cut through the trunk of one of the redwood trees in Yosemite National Park’s Mariposa Grove.

Hiking Half Dome? Check!

In all of our visits to Yosemite we had somehow never managed to hike up iconic, valley-dominating Half Dome. On our most recent visit to the park we remedied that.

Half Dome & Tenaya Valley from Glacier Point

Half Dome looms large over Tenaya Valley as seen from Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. Yep, we’re hiking up there.

After getting a campsite reservation and back country permits (needed to climb Half Dome) we decided to do the 16 mile (25 km) round trip hike from Yosemite Valley to the top of 8,836 foot (2,695 meter) high Half Dome and back in two hard days instead of one insane day. That meant a night of camping in Little Yosemite Valley just below the dome followed by an early morning trip up to the top of the rock.

We got a later start from the valley floor than we’d hoped as we sat out some morning rain, but soon enough we were heading up a section of the John Muir Trail which climbs pretty steeply before reaching the top of Nevada Falls. Then we continued on to Little Yosemite Valley back country campground.

Hiking the Vernal/Nevada Falls Trail to half Dome, Yosemite

Hiking up the John Muir Trail headed to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

It was damp and cold by the time we got our tent pitched but a communal campfire and some tasty freeze-dried Mountain House camp food warmed us up before we climbed into our sleeping bags with one ear cocked for the aggressive female bear that the camp site ranger warned us about when we arrived.

Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park

Vernal Falls, one of the many stunning highlights from our hike up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park

Nevada Falls, one more watery wonder along the trail up to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

The next morning was clear and sunny and we got fantastic views from the trail during the hike up to the base of the final climb to the top of Half Dome. The last 400 feet (120 meters) of the ascent require walking up a nearly vertical granite rock face using massive steel cables to help pull yourself up—and keep us from falling off.

This is no joke. Hikers die during this final cable section of the Half Dome hike. These accidents often involve water on the rock face which causes climbers to slip and fall off. That’s why the cables are removed every fall and put back up only when the weather improves.

Half Dome climb - Yosemite National Park

See those ant-like specs toiling up the sheer rock? That’s the “trail” to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

Even in dry conditions this cable section is not for the squeamish and a few hikers seemed to be re-considering their need to get to the top. We, however, hadn’t climbed 5,000 feet (1,520 meters) up from the valley floor just to turn back without reaching the summit so we headed for the cables and started basically walking straight up a rock wall.

Climbing Half Dome Cables - Yosemite National Park

Karen heading up the cable section of trail- the final ascent to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

We reached the expansive top of Half Dome with sore pecs and triceps. This is one of the few hikes we can think of that works the upper body as well as the lower body thanks to all that hauling up the cables.

Yosemite Valley view from top of Half Dome

Eric celebrates reaching the top of Half Dome by scaring the hell out of Karen.

The edge of Half Dome, Tanaya Valley view - Yosemite National Park

Eric celebrates reaching the top of Half Dome by scaring the hell out of Karen.

Panorama from Half Dome - Yosemite National Park

A panoramic shot from the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Want to see a larger version of this shot?

After resting a bit we headed back down Half Dome via the cables (it’s no easier on the way down) and back to Little Yosemite Valley campground where we quickly broke down camp, put on our packs (why do they never seem any lighter even after you’ve devoured most of the food that was originally packed into them?) and continued another three hours very steeply down the brutal granite terrain of the Mist Trail.

Tenaya Valley from climb up to Half Dome - Yosemite National Park

Tenaya Valley in Yosemite National Park as seen from Half Dome.

Some sections of the so-called trail remind us of ancient Roman roads (only steeper) and the uneven, sole-beating, solid-granite conditions proved, yet again, that hiking downhill is often even harder than hiking uphill.

Then we got lost

Well, not really lost but poor signage at a cross roads sent us up the wrong trail briefly before we realized our mistake and backtracked to the cross roads. This unplanned detour ate up precious time and sunset was fast approaching. This is not the sort of trial that should be navigated in the dark so, despite our fatigue, we hustled.

Mission accomplished, time to head down

Departing Half Dome and beginning the sole-beating hike back down the valley.

Tuolumne Meadows bound

Tuolumne Meadows, in the eastern part of Yosemite National Park, is a different world and one many visitors skip. We think they’re missing out, as these photos prove.

View from Olmsted Point on Tioga Road - Yosemite

The view from Olmsted Point on Tioga Road looking across the Tenaya Valley at Clouds Rest Mountain and the top of Half Dome on the far right.

Tenaya Lake reflection Yosemite National Park

Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park.

Mount Hoffmann and Lake May - Yosemite National Park

Panoramic shot of Lake May with Mount Hoffmann in the distance accessed via Tioga Road in Yosemite National Park. Want to see a larger version of this shot?

Tuolumine Meadows Yosemite National Park

Tuolumne Meadows really should be part of your visit to Yosemite National Park.

Cathedral Range fro Tuolumine Medows - Yosemite National Park

The Cathedral Range seem from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park.

Bonus: Whoa Nellie Deli gourmet gas station

Another reason to wander through Tuolumne Meadows and exit Yosemite National Park near the town of Lee Vining? Whoa Nellie Deli. Located in the Tioga Gas Mart gas station, white-capped chefs have replaced microwave burritos with gourmet meals including fish tacos and elk steaks.

Snowshoeing in Yosemite National Park

Karen (right) with her sister Kristy during a snowshoeing adventure in Yosemite National Park.

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