Conquering Taft Point – Well Sort Of…….

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Taft Point – The View

After an hour and a half of pushing, pulling, straining and heaving I felt as though I had done an extensive work out at the gym. My arms and shoulders ached from the exertion and I greedily drew in deep lung fulls of the thin mountain air. According to the sign to my right we had come half way along the trail in twice as long as the guidebook suggested. After a few mouthfuls of water I pushed on.

What now seems in hindsight a slightly foolish idea, I had taken it upon myself to push my 10 year old son in his wheelchair along a trail situated at the side of Glacier Point Road to Taft Point in Yosemite National Park, California. My boy has Cerebral Palsy which affects the movement in his arms and legs and consequently his only form of mobility is his wheelchair.

The guide book I had read back at the hotel that morning over breakfast suggested that it was an “easy” hike. Easy on two feet maybe but taking myself and the four wheels of a wheelchair was an entirely different story. I soon discovered that the trail was more challenging than I had thought.

This is where most guidebooks fall down in my opinion. They seem to be written from the perspective of the single traveller or a small group. There is little account taken for those whose mobility maybe limited or the brave family dragging their gaggle of children through the backwoods of America.

Admittedly we weren’t in the back woods – there are too many cafes, souvenir shops and visitors centres to give you the feeling you really were in the middle of nowhere.  But it strikes me that this kind of information would more than useful – if only so that you know it is possible to traverse a trail with a pushchair for example. It certainly would have been useful for us in any case.

My wife and two other children aged 11 and 3 pushed on acting as reconnaissance to any new and interesting barriers that we may come across. They would shout back about what to watch for and then stand there at what seemed some impassable point on the path.

“You’ll never get through this part” they would say.

“Just watch me” I would retort.

“Are you sure, Dad” my son would ask quietly. “No,” I would admit next to his ear so the other’s couldn’t hear. “But let’s give it a try, shall we?” He would smile, the cue that he was happy to let his crazy father bounce him over and through the next obstacle.

There was a good deal of flat ground that meandered through stunning trees and calm wild flower filled meadows, however, the large rocks and boulders that occasionally filled the path forced us to take stock and work out a route over and  around these obstacles and this slowed us considerably. Once the chosen route was decided we bumped and wobbled our way through, on occasion scraping away at the metal of the wheels of the wheelchair.

One particularly awkward challenge was stream with it’s steep embankments to traverse. The wheelchair tipped this way and that at precarious angles. The cool waters of the stream eased my and weary feet as we paddled through. My son to his eternal credit gave only words of encouragement as he tenaciously gripped the arms of his wheelchair.

Occasionally, fellow hikers would stroll past do a “double take” and offer help out what most have looked like a slightly deranged father and family needlessly putting themselves through hell. Especially as some of them will have been aware that Glacier Point, with it flat easily accessible tarmacked paths, café selling food and cool drinks and safely walled look out points, was only two or three miles up the road. I guess it pays to read the guidebook a little more carefully in future and plan these things with a little more thoroughness.

We were reliably informed that the effort was going to be worth it and were complimented more than once for our tenacity. I have always had the philosophy that I will not let the wheels of my son’s wheelchair stand in our way on vacation. I have always found that the extra effort always pays off.

After the arduous and strangely fulfilling upper and lower body work out of the trail we eventually arrived at the top of a hill, the midday sun beating down on us. We looked down to where the path opened out to a huge flat area and then elevated towards the “point” where a lone piece of railing was the only structure that stood between you and a 3,000 feet drop.

With a tinge of disappointment, I looked at the steepness of the path and the way it twisted and turned horribly and realised that I had come as far as I could do. I was confident of getting him and his wheels down to “the Point”, however, in the thin air at the 7,800 feet elevation and the heat of the sun I was less than confident of getting in back to where we now stood, never mind the car.

At that point, a quick decision was made and I reversed him under the shade of a tree for shelter and, after enjoying a hard earned bottle of water, I descended the trail, camera in hand to go and see what all the fuss was about. My wife agreed that we would take it in turns to go and investigate the famed vista and waited with the children whilst I disappeared.

The view from the point is nothing short of spectacular. It reminded me of the feeling I had the first time that I went to the Grand Canyon and looked out at that enormous chasm in the earth. Nothing prepared me (or could have done for that matter) for the sheer scale and majesty of that sight. The sheer size and vastness of the canyon as the red and orange stone drops away from you is awe inspiring.

But in some ways it is also a little surreal because it feels almost unreal when considering the statistics of the canyon. The Colorado River looks like a small stream but it is a mile down in the canyon and has an average width or around 300 feet.  The length of the canyon is around 280 miles which is 80 miles further than where I live in the North of England to London. That’s a 4 hour drive or 2 hour train journey away. It is around 18 miles wide rim to rim – Yosemite Valley itself by comparison seems small at only 8 miles long. To me these distances are difficult to assimilate whilst you stand and take in the majesty of this natural wonder.

On the other hand Yosemite Valley and Taft Point is not on such a huge scale. The reality of the fact that you are standing, precariously in some ways on a 3,000 ft high block of granite seem to hit home that much harder. I have to confess that I have never been afraid of heights and yet when I peered over the edge and saw that there was nothing between me and a long, long fall during which time I would have plenty of opportunity to empty my lungs of scream after scream before my body splattered into the rock. With the Grand Canyon I felt there was a crumb of comfort in that if you fell there would a ledge or two that would break your fall and possibly save you from certain death. With Taft Point you know that there would be no second chances.

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Stunning Yosemite

And so it was that I found myself gripping onto the rail near the edge slightly harder than I would normally and marvelling at the incredible scale of the valley and breath-taking vista. The number of superlatives to describe this place quickly ran dry. I turned to see in the distance my family, tiny dots on the mountain side where they awaited my return. I stuck a hand up to wave and watched them wave back. It was sad that I hadn’t been able to take my son all the way down to the edge, especially after coming so far. I was also aware though that if my boy had been able to make it, so would my 3 year old and I know that I would have had to have maintained a vice like grip on her as she would surely have been too tempted to peer over the edge.

Looking over the valley, I imagined John Muir, back pack filled with bread, tea and a blanket as his only provisions, standing at this point and resolving to protect this area for all time. He spent a great deal of his life investigating the valley and it’s surroundings recording and publishing his findings in the hope that he could inspire people to see this natural wonder and nature itself in a new light and not just as an opportunity for profit and gain. He battled to have the park protected as he watched the lumber companies and farmers slowly erode the lowlands surrounding the valley destroying the meadows with their abundance of wild flowers.

He managed to convince no less than an American President – Theodore Roosevelt – to segregate the valley and surrounding area and make it one of America’s first national parks thereby inspiring a change in attitude and philosophy that generated the National Park system that is in existence today.

At this height you look down on the granite monolith that is El Capitan. Down to the valley to the Merced river below. The railing at the end just doesn’t seem substantial enough and one could imagine a gust of wind could lift you from the lofty perch and deposit you over the edge in an instant.

I quickly absorbed and photographed as much as I could and then followed the path back to where the family had been patiently waiting. Whilst my wife and elder daughter made their way down toward the Point to experience the natural wonder for themselves, I gave my son a full debrief in as much detail as possible and showed him the photographs. Today this was the best that I could do.

Tomorrow, would bring new challenges. Everest anyone?

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Yosemite National Park – Paradise in California

Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View

We love holidaying in North America and over the past 10 years have seen as much as we possibly can with our three children in tow.  From  bustling cities such as New York and San Francisco to National Parks such as The Grand Canyon and Shenandoah we have tried to experience all that represents American cityscapes and landscapes.

There is one state though that we consistently gravitate back to: California. And there is one place in California that draws us back every single time and that is Yosemite National Park.

Yosemite was designated a World Heritage site back in 1984 and was one of the very first National Parks in the USA. It covers over 760,000 acres straddling the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The 3.7 millions visitors per year tend to keep to a 7 square miles of Yosemite Valley.

The park is a reasonable 4 hour drive from San Francisco and it is more than worth the effort to get there. Even on paper the valley is impressive:

  • It was one of the first National Parks in the USA
  • Yosemite falls is the highest waterfall in the US with a drop of 2,425ft
  • The park has three groves of ancient Giant Sequoia, the largest trees on the planet: Mariposa Grove, Tuolumne Grove and Merced Grove. Photographs of these trees cannot do them justice. They are truly awe inspiring in the “bark”.
  • El Capitan is the largest single monolith of granite in the world
  • The park is home to one of the biggest bears in the world: the Grizzly.  It is essential that you read and heed the notices and warnings about these animals and be “bear aware”
  • Ansel Adams, arguably one of the world’s best landscape photographers did some of his best work in the valley and it is not hard to see why he was consistently drawn back

In the heart of the valley sits Yosemite Village. This is a great place to stop and has a decent cafe and store. The store is particularly useful if you are lodging or camping in the park itself. It has a good selection of food and drink along with souvenirs, t-shirts and books. There are other interesting things to see and do in the Village including a visitor centre,an art centre and bookshops.

Map of the valley

Most people’s first view of the valley is at Tunnel View where you are presented with an incredible view that will have you instantly reaching for your camera. With El Capitan to your left, Yosemite falls to your right and half dome in the distance it is time to reflect for a minute on what has got to be the perfect picture postcard landscape. In the summer it can get very crowded but there is a decent sized car park. In all the times that we have been we have never failed to find a space.

From here the road winds down into the valley and before long you are in the one way system that loops through the valley and towards the village.

In addition to Yosemite Valley itself there are many distractions including the groves of Giant Sequoia, Glacier Point (with not to be missed views of Half Dome), Taft Point, Toulemne Meadows, the list goes on with dozens of trails to take you off the beaten track.

El Capitan in all it’s glory

Once on the road on the way into the valley itself there are are lay-bys and car parks next to trails, stunning meadows, glimpses of mountains and sheer granite rock faces. Essentially, everywhere that you turn takes your breath away.  It is a area of visual riches that we never, ever tire of.

We have been in Spring when there is still snow on the ground and parts of the park closed; Summer when the weather is beautifully hot and clear; and Autumn where the colours of the trees adds a special dimension.

If you are a photographer, hiker or climber you are in seventh heaven here with so much to photograph and climb that you are spoilt for choice. For photographers my advice would be to take plenty of memory cards with you – you will need them. Also if you venture into the the Ansel Adams Gallery (highly recommended) you may get an inferiority complex so please be warned!!

There is plenty of accommodation around and in the park from campgrounds to plush hotels. Be warned though that in peak season it gets booked up pretty quickly. Also accommodation outside the park is generally cheaper too although you will have a reasonable drive to get to the park.

We have always stayed in a small town called Oakhurst. It is south of the park and around a 45 minutes drive to the entrance. It has some great restaurants with Crab Cakes and Sweetwater Steakhouse being particular favorites – no prizes for guessing what they specialise in! Hotels and Motels are reasonably priced too. We have stayed in both the The Best Western Yosemite Gateway Inn and the Comfort Inn. They were both clean and comfortable although the Best Western doesn’t include a breakfast in the price.

So all in all it is a piece of paradise in California – a State that seems to have more that its fair share of stunning places to visit.

All photographs taken with a Canon 5D MkII and 24-105L lens.


Palm Springs a Surprise…….

Palm Springs City Centre

Before venturing there I had always had something of a fascination with Palm Springs. As the getaway resort for numerous A-list celebrities in the 50’s and 60’s other than the fact that it was an escape from Hollywood, I often wondered what was it that drew them to a small town in the middle of the desert?

When I was planning to go there twenty years ago, Palm Springs was to be in the middle of a “budget” road trip through some of the South Western States of America.

It seems hard to imagine now trying to find decent, bed bug free, reasonably priced accommodation outside of the major hotels without the internet. Most of the time the only option was to turn up at the chosen destination and take pot luck that there would be something there to meet your needs. This takes time and eats into vacation time.

Luckily for me my parents had spent some time in Palm Springs the previous summer and had a recommendation: the Mira Loma Motel. It was apparently stuck in a 60’s time warp with each room adorned with Art Deco style furniture but above all it was clean and cheap. As icing on the cake, apparently Marilyn Monroe had spent some recreation time there in her heyday. Well, if it was good enough for Norma Jean……

The Legendary Mira Loma Motel in it’s Heyday

After three or four drive by’s each time missing the small building set back from the road, I soon found myself parked in front of the hotel lobby. I went into reception and was met by a pleasant lady, in her late fifties. She had clearly seen too much sun and cigarettes and had that puckered expression of one who enjoyed both vices in equal measure.

I was soon checked in and had the keys to the room in my hand. The receptionist suggested that I park the car around the back of the building as there was a gate there that allowed easy access to the complex and better still was a few feet from our room.

I duly parked the car around the rear of the hotel and proceeded to lug to two heavy suitcases from the boot of the car. I half carried, half dragged the cases to the gate and pushed it open with my foot. I heard a voice from my right “let me get that for you and an arm was extended across my shoulder to hold the gate open for me.

I turned and squinted into the mid day sun to say thank you but my good Samaritan was already on his way to his room with a wave of his hand. Something though struck me as being a little odd with this encounter. I shook my head. Must be seeing thing. The sun was high in the sky and I had left my sunglasses in the car…..

My wife opened the room and we were soon checking out our new surroundings: home for the next two nights.

I turned to my wife who was looking out of the window as if trying to check on something. I had to ask the question: “is it me, or was the guy holding the gate open for me completely naked?”. She turned and nodded. I knew that California had a reputation for being a liberal State for the USA but naked guests strolling around an everyday motel? Not that I am a prude but it did seem a little too much.

I tried to rationalise the situation. Maybe he had just had a shower and in his rush to help me at the gate, his towel had fallen off. A simple explanation for what could easily happen to any of us. Couldn’t it?

When I look out of the window, I saw the same guy open his room door, stroll out to the pool in nothing but a pair of flipflops. He flicked these off and dove straight into the pool. Try and rationalise that I thought.

What kind of motel had we come too? I began a search of the room to give a clue to this question. I soon found a postcard in a one of the bedside table drawers. On the back beneath the name and address of the motel were three words that made sense of everything: “CLOTHING OPTIONAL MOTEL”. Why would my parents have come to somewhere like this? With my two young sisters too! I then began to wonder if this was a practical joke. When I got home and confronted my parents they swore that the motel was nothing but a standard, everyday no frills motel when they were there. Not only was it no frills, it was no clothes to boot.

It now made sense why the woman on reception was dressed in nothing but a dressing gown at lunchtime. The doors to the motel were also frosted glass from top to bottom unlike most of the motels and hotels we had driven past on this stretch of road. Obviously, this was so that people walking and driving past couldn’t see the naked hotel guest cavorting in nothing but their birthday suits.

And so it was that I spent two nights (we were out most of the day thankfully) there. Breakfast was the most interesting part of the day. As it was warm the other guests thought nothing of standing around eating bagels, muffins and sipping coffee in the nude. I was not sure where to look – actually I was sure where not to look. – maintaining eye contact seemed to be the order of the day!

I cannot say that I was sorry to leave the motel. I am now thankful that with the internet similar mistakes are unlikely to be made!