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Sampling the grapes of Napa

Written by Emmy on 29 September 2011

When we arrived back at our campsite Saturday night in a bit of a food coma from dinner at the Ahwanhee, we were shocked to discover that our seemingly quaint campsite was pretty much at the base of a campground mudslide brought on by the rain and hail earlier that day. Our tent had been splattered with mud on all sides, an issue we decided to ignore until the next morning. So on Sunday we rolled each piece of our sleeping apparatus into separate garbage bags and, as soon as we got cell service, began Googling for tent cleaning techniques.

After our muddy adventure, we were in the market for a hot breakfast. What we really wanted was Seaplane Diner, but since a drive to Providence would have added a few more miles to the odometer than we were prepared for, we settled on the first establishment we found: PJ’s in Groveland, Calif., not too far outside the park. I had a mixed veggies omelet while Chaz opted for a more unusual creation, a chili omelet. After indulging in PJ’s unlimited coffee, we were ready to hit the road.

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The three-hour drive careening around mountains on two-lane roads was a good reminder of just how far removed the beauty of Yosemite had been.

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After traversing several of California’s many highways, we arrived in Napa at the appropriately named Chardonnay Lodge, our kick-off spot to a day and a half of wine tasting. Gabi, a friend of Chaz’s from high school, drove up from San Francisco to partake in the adventure. After showering and returning to a hygienic state, we set off.

Our first stop was at Gott’s Roadside, a destination lunch spot in Napa. The burger place is connected to a farm further up the coast, where much of the food comes from. Gott’s was previously named Taylor’s Automatic Refresher and gained acclaim in food magazines, blogs and TV shows. It was apparently a major controversy when the name changed a few years ago.

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As we read the menu, we informed Gabi of several rules. There would be no duplicate orders, everything was to be shared and the bill would be split evenly. We settled on three very different items: fish tacos with Mexican slaw, salsa and jalapeño cilantro sour cream; a spicy chicken sandwich with avocado, Mexican slaw, cilantro sour cream and jalapeño mayo; and a blue cheese burger. (OK, so there were some accent overlaps.) And because the stand is best known for its burgers and fries, we added on an order of sweet potato fries. Everything was delicious and full of flavor.

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Full of food, we were ready to begin our oenophiliac journey.

We began driving up Napa’s Highway 29, which is lined with vineyards on all sides. Everywhere we turned, there were more grapes! The whole scene was a bit overwhelming, so we tried to attack our wine tasting agenda with some organization. Chaz was the most experienced vineyard visitor of the group and so he laid out his criteria. We needed well-priced tastings at beautiful vineyards conducted by pleasant sommeliers. Armed with our usual cadre of guidebooks, we began to make choices.

Our first stop was at V. Sattui, a giant vineyard regarded for its food shop, wine museum and extensive grape selection. The basic testing allowed each person to sample five different wines from a list of twelve different varieties. Thinking we had bested the system, we ordered three tastings and rather than each only try five wines, we ordered all twelve and passed them down the line. We decided that the final tasting could be each person’s individual favorite. (The checkpoint is nothing if not a little OCD.)

Guided by Don, who was a bit sassier than what we were looking for in a sommelier, we made our way down the list, sipping dry whites, sweet whites, table reds, harsh reds, dessert wines and ports. We asked questions about things like sweetness and blend, but mostly we just passed the glasses and made comments about the accents we supposedly detected in an effort to seem like real wine experts.

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Unable to deviate from what I know I like, I chose the driest of the whites, a riesling, for my fifth glass. Gabi got the bang for her buck and chose the port, which gets its intensity because it’s mixed with brandy, something I never knew. Chaz was going to opt for the port too, but in accordance with previously stated checkpoint rules, did not duplicate an order and instead had a blended red. After downing our final tastes, we bid Don farewell and stepped back into the sunlight.

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Our next stop was at Mumm, a vineyard noted for its sparkling wines. This visit offered some of the beautiful scenery element so crucial to a good tasting.

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IMG_4602In recovery from our marathon with Don, we decided to split one tasting of the vineyard’s three most notable sparkling wines. The first two were both dry, though one was white and one was a rose. The third was much sweeter, although not as sickeningly so as I was expecting. Plus as a perk our wine came with crackers, so we made a big show of cleansing our palettes between tastes. Very important.

Despite the beautiful scenery, we didn’t linger too long at Mumm. Napa vineyards end tastings on the early side — most are shut down by 5 p.m. — so we wanted to make sure we could fit one more in. Our third vineyard was thus chosen because a sign out front proclaimed they had tastings until 6.

As a total bonus, our mystery third choice was actually two vineyards in one. The tasting room offered selections from Folie a Deux and Napa Cellars, plus when you bought a tasting, bonus free samples were included. Several glasses later, we had maxed out on our wine sampling abilities for the day.

Trading the campfire for a bite of luxury

Written by Emmy on 28 September 2011

No checkpoint adventure would be complete without a bit of fine dining. In accordance with such tradition, we had to make a stop at the Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room, the must-eat luxury within Yosemite. The Ahwanhee Hotel, which was built in the 1920s and subsequently declared a national landmark, has long been known for its food and its decor. As an additional fun fact, the hotel in “The Shining” is based upon this Yosemite site.

The Ahwahnee’s upscale dining room has a strict dress code for dinner, one that does not include athletic shorts and hiking boots. We had checked a few days earlier with the hotel’s concierge to ensure that we would be able to meet standards with the clothing we had stashed in the car and so when we rolled up to the Ahwanhee straight from our Hetch Hetchy trip, it was time to class it up. Dorothy saved the day, doubling as a full-size changing room, and once we had maneuvered her into a parking spot in the Ahwahnee’s crowded lot, we were ready.

Looking exponentially better than we had hours earlier, we strolled into the dining room for the 5:30 seating and were given a table right next to the window.

IMG_4419IMG_4421The views to the left and to the right of our table.

Though we were by far the youngest and most casually dressed diners, we started our dinner with fancy grown-up drinks in order to better fit in.

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The menu was overwhelming and filled with delicious-sounding entrees all crafted from relatively local ingredients. We decided to just pick the most outstanding few and share them.

We started with crab cakes, served over an aioli and topped with peppers, and a delightfully-refreshing salad of watermelon, avocado, feta and mint. I have had quite a few crab cakes in my day, and these were easily among the best I have ever had. The crab was so fresh and, save for a few vegetables, was allowed to stand on its own rather than be gooped in some kind of sauce. The whole cake was lightly coated and cooked, permitting the outside to just flake off. The peppers atop the crab cakes resembled pimientos de padrón, an item I have never seen anywhere other than Spain. Despite their jalapeño-like appearance, they are not at all spicy — just flavorful.

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IMG_4432The salad was unbelievable too, but we were pretty preoccupied waxing poetic over the crab cakes.

For our main course, we decided to sample the two specials of the evening. The first was a piece of roast chicken served over, as the waitress described it, a chicken pot pie without the crust. The chicken itself was full of flavor, but what was underneath was even more noteworthy. For lack of a better way to label it, the pot pie insides were comprised of the dark meat from the roast chicken and tons of fresh, local vegetables, beautifully roasted themselves. The whole thing was topped with a giant piece of fresh cornbread, making up for the pie’s lack of crust.

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The second entree was described to us as a piece of pan-seared trout served with a corn flan and topped with lobster in a red pepper sauce. What we were served, we realized after beginning to eagerly dig in, was actually a piece of salmon with the described preparation. (We’re pretty sure the special was supposed to be salmon and the waitress just misspoke. Either way, we stuck with it.) The fish itself was good, though nothing extraordinary. On the other hand, the sides — the lobster and the corn flan — were incredible.

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We looked at a dessert menu, but were far too stuffed to even consider it. The meal was incredible, and if nothing else, allowed us to return to our role as self-appointed food snobs.

The scenic consequences of progress

Written by Chaz on 28 September 2011

After our ordeal on Half Dome, we felt free to allow ourselves the luxury of sleeping in until a whopping 8:30 a.m on Saturday. Though I was skeptical of our (well, my) ability to pull off any physical activity that day, we nevertheless packed our bags for a hike in the park’s less-visted Hetch Hetchy section. After a relaxed breakfast at the campsite of cereal, fruit and coffee, we threw our things into Dorothy and set off for Hetch Hetchy, the route to which requires one to exit and reenter the park, passing through private land.

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Hetch Hetchy Valley is like a smaller twin to Yosemite Valley, nearly as dramatic if not on the same scale. But the steadfast march toward progress led the city of San Francisco to campaign for a dam in Hetch Hetchy to provide the city with water and power in the early 1900s. Over John Muir’s strenuous objections, the project was green-lighted, and so the first thing we saw as we descended on the winding road into the valley was the huge O’Shaughnessy Dam, which still provides water to San Francisco. The dam has since become a rallying cry for the preservation of national parks, and it’s extremely unlikely that another project like it could ever be approved. Though some people call for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy, it’s far more likely that we’ll just have to imagine what Hetch Hetchy Valley would look like were it not flooded.

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We hiked a couple miles along the northern share of the manmade lake to Wapama Falls, where we stopped for lunch, our leftover tortellini. Each time we stopped and started again, my legs cried out in protest.

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After we hiked back to Dorothy and bid farewell to Hetch Hetchy, we took a short driving tour up the Tioga Road, which leads to the eastern part of Yosemite. Though we had dinner reservations that prevented us from going all the way to Tuolomne Meadows, we made it as far as Tenaya Lake, stopping at Olmsted Point for a beautiful view. Though we had enjoyed blue skies all morning, storm clouds were rolling in and we got hit by heavy rain and even some violent hail as we retreated west.

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We drove back to the valley through the very visible scars of a huge forest fire, beautiful in its own eerie way.

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As we headed towards dinner, we took off our outdoor trekking hats and got ready for something more refined.

Our biggest challenge yet

Written by Chaz on 28 September 2011

We awoke on Friday at 4:15 a.m. sharp, immediately jumping out of our sleeping bags excitedly (yeah, right) to strike camp, pack the car and brew a much-needed pot of coffee. Our plan was to spend two nights in Wawona, in the south of the park, and two more in Crane Flat, in the northwest, closer to our eventual destination of San Francisco. Unfortunate scheduling meant that this change of camp coincided with our day on Half Dome. But even so, we were out of Wawona by shortly after five, and as I drove us back into Yosemite Valley, Emmy served a light continental breakfast and began packing our backpacks.

All told, by the time we arrived at the parking lot at Curry Village where we left our car, our two packs contained no less than:

  • Six Clif bars
  • Two bags cashews (assorted)
  • One bag Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies, a snacking essential
  • Two apples
  • Two peanut butter sandwiches
  • Two tuna sandwiches
  • Eight Oreos
  • Two packs chewing gum
  • Two containers chicken sausage and vegetables, leftover from dinner
  • Eight water bottles
  • Two raincoats
  • Two sunblocks
  • One hat
  • One extra shirt
  • Two lip balms
  • Baby wipes, without which the checkpoint does not leave home
  • Wallets
  • Phones
  • Flashlight
  • Toilet paper

Shortly after leaving the parking lot, we realized that we had made a huge mistake. There was a parking lot closer to the trailhead than the one in which we had left Dorothy, adding a total of about three-quarters of a mile to our day’s already-long journey. But we soldiered on, walking through the forest to the actual trailhead at Happy Isles and setting foot onto the trail at 6:35 a.m. Not too bad.

The first part of the hike took us up the John Muir Trail, an alternative to the thousands of stone steps we had descended the day before on the Mist Trail. Though slightly longer, we figured switchbacks were a much better way to ascend than stairs. By 8:30, when the sun really started hitting Yosemite Valley, we had already gained thousands of feet and had a beautiful view across to Nevada Fall.

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We veered off our route from the previous day onto the trail up to Half Dome, taking a short detour through a backpacker camp that enabled us to make the hike, usually almost entirely out and back, into a tiny bit more of a loop. As it turned out, hiking is a pretty tiring business, and long before we made it to the summit, we were more than ready for lunch. Or, at least, round one of lunch. We stopped for our tuna sandwiches (never have I had such a delicious tuna sandwich experience) as we gained even more elevation.

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The trail grew ever steeper as we approached Sub Dome, Half Dome’s much smaller sibling which sits immediately north of it and looks like a little bubble growing out of its side. At this point, the hike, which had seemed to be flying by in the first couple hours after we left Curry Village, began to drag. But at long last — about 11:30 a.m. — we arrived at the permit checkpoint, and chose to mark this joyous occasion with a frank discussion with the two rangers of the various ways in which we could die on Half Dome. “Honestly, most of the rescues we do are actually body recoveries,” one told us. (Just before we left on our trip out west, the New York Times ran an article about the growing death count within Yosemite’s bounds. This article, along with our previous day’s warning about lightning-caused death, really set the tone for our ascent.)

We began climbing the steep, winding granite stairs up the side of Sub Dome, and after a few exertion-filled minutes, arrived at its narrow but flat summit. Already, the views off to the north were spectacular.

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Soon after, we found ourselves face-to-face with what we had been dreading all morning: the infamous Half Dome cables.

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The cables stretch up an extremely steep granite face to cover the final 400 feet of Half Dome’s immense height. I had trouble picturing what the cables were going to look like, but that was because we were missing a key fact: The cables are connected to steel poles which are bored into the granite, and above each set of poles is attached a wooden two-by-four. As you pull yourself up to each set of poles, you can balance yourself, and nearly stand, on each two-by-four as you wait for the person in front of you to clear the next two-by-four. These pieces of wood totally answered my question. You’re never actually hanging off the side of the mountain by a little cable; you’re pulling yourself up to the next place where you can pause a second. And when traffic is heavy, you can expect to wait quite a while at each two-by-four.

As we starting ascending Sub Dome, Emmy started freaking out a bit about what was to come, and while I remained more stoic at that point, I too start to lose my calm as we picked out gloves from the enormous pile at the bottom of the cable and began to make our ascent. It was, in short, terrifying, not least because of the continued lengthy waits as people above us climbed, which we spent perched on the side of the rock clutching on for dear life. Not to even mention that it was becoming quite clear that the advertised storms were somewhere in the area, though it was still blue skies over Half Dome.

But once we got to the top, and heaved ourselves off the ascent onto Half Dome’s flat 13-acre surface, I forgot all my fears and all the effort we had expended as I took in the amazing view.

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IMG_1074We stopped for a quick picnic of our leftover chicken sausage, which we’d like to think is among the more gourmet of meals served on top of Half Dome, and for pictures. But we could see storm clouds rolling in off in the distance, and we were reminded that the cables act as lightning rods during a storm. (Is that not the scariest thing you’ve ever heard?) So, after a brief celebration of what we had accomplished, we headed back to the cables. I think both of us were almost more worried about descending, even though it would clearly be physically easier, but I realized as soon as we started that it was really no problem. Again, the two-by-fours were the key to the whole system.

We ended up making it off the twin domes safely, and sure enough, it started raining about half an hour after we reached tree cover, though very little rain fell on us. (Fortunately, we had packed our raincoats — see above.) The nine-mile slog back to our car was arguably more difficult than the ascent since we were so exhausted. Simply the pain in my feet was more than enough of a reason to stop. We opted for the Mist Trail again, so thousands of stairs and a few miles after that later, we made it back to Dorothy, who was truly a site for sore eyes.

We drove north out of the valley to Crane Flat Campground, where we hastily set up camp and fixed an appetizers course of chips, hummus, guacamole and a few well-earned cocktails. Emmy once again mastered the camp stove to produce a delicious dish of pesto-filled tortellini and roasted eggplant in marinara sauce.

IMG_4355Though we had long lost the light required for photography, here’s the dish in its lunch reincarnation.

Despite being essentially on the ground, I don’t think I’d ever fallen asleep so quickly.

The grandest of all special temples of Nature

Written by Chaz on 28 September 2011

We woke up early on our second day in Yosemite, around 6:30, marking the beginning of a long, productive and somewhat unpleasant trend of our beginning our days between 4 and 7 a.m. We hopped in Dorothy and headed down to the Wawona Hotel to “borrow” their wireless Internet for a pressing need: securing permits for the trail up Yosemite’s famous Half Dome. Though most are reserved months in advance, the Park Service releases a few each morning at seven for use the next day, and so by 7:02, we were back in Dorothy, permits successfully reserved.

After two attempts, I was able to make us coffee using our camping stove and percolator (both worked flawlessly for the rest of the trip). We stopped by the campground’s amphitheater to ask some questions a park ranger about our plan for the day. Her coffee setup put ours to shame.

At the ranger’s advice, we hurried into Yosemite Valley to leave Dorothy and catch a bus back to Glacier Point, where we would begin hiking back down into the valley via the Panorama Trail and the Mist Trail. Unfortunately, by the time we got to Yosemite Lodge, the bus was completely full. We pled our case to the very friendly bus driver and before long, we were on our way to Glacier Point in the most comfortable seats on the bus: two white towels in the center aisle.

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The bus driver, Charles, kept us entertained on the drive with a very interesting narration of the park’s history, botany and geology. By the time we arrived, we were already hungry again, so we fueled up with some Clif bars before heading down the trail to begin our nearly nine-mile hike.

The hike took us around the edge of Yosemite Valley to Illilouette Fall, the first of three huge waterfalls we saw on our hike, with sweeping views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome and the other two waterfalls along the way.

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John Muir, who fought to preserve and protect Yosemite as a national park, called Yosemite Valley “the grandest of all special temples of Nature.” As we began to explore, I started to see what impressed him so much.

We stopped at a beautiful overlook just past the waterfall for our packed lunch: turkey, muenster and avocado sandwiches on whole wheat bread.

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After a couple more miles across the valley ridge, we stopped at the top at Nevada Fall, where just a few hundred feet before the fall’s precipitous drop is a calm pool, ideal for a quick foot bath in the middle of a long hike. We stopped and had a snack and relaxed our feet. At this point, we were nearly directly in Half Dome’s shadow, though the trail to the summit winds around through the forest to ascend one of its hidden sides.

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From Nevada Fall, we began descending back into the valley, passing Vernal Fall on our way. Vernal Fall is a very popular destination if you’re going to do just one hike out of the valley, so the trail began to get significantly more crowded. The views remained spectacular.

We wound down the Mist Trail’s thousands of stone steps back into the valley, through the mist from the fall that gives the trail its name.

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We made it back to the valley in one tired piece, and after picking up a couple things at the general store in the valley, we headed to the visitor center to get advice about our hike up Half Dome. The ranger in the campground had told us to start the 18-mile hike at sunrise or earlier, and we were hoping to get a few more tips. As we walked up to the counter, we saw that the weather board indicated a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms for the next day. I pointed this out to the volunteer on duty and told her we had Half Dome permits.

“Well, if there is lightning, do not go on Half Dome,” she deadpanned. “You will die.”

Scared but not deterred, we decided to get as early a start as possible the next day to maximize our chances of a death-free experience. As we left the valley, we stopped at Tunnel View, a scenic overlook named for the long highway tunnel to which it is adjacent and owes its construction. A fellow tourist took a wonderful picture of us in front of the valley’s splendor.

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We hopped back in Dorothy and hightailed it to the Mariposa Grove, a grove of enormous giant sequoia trees. We were only able to spend a few minutes there because we were quickly losing daylight, but we got a good glimpse, included one fallen sequoia that has been there for centuries, preserved by the trees’ natural composition.

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We drove back to Wawona and kicked off dinner with an appetizer of hummus and carrots, before Emmy whipped up some chicken sausage and vegetables on our trusty stove. After our long hike, it tasted just about heavenly. I made a fire, and we roasted marshmallows for s’mores.

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After dinner, we began preparing our extensive supplies for the next day’s voyage, and we went to bed under the stars before long.

In which we meet Dorothy and our adventures begin

Written by Emmy on 25 September 2011

On Wednesday (September 7th — it’s been a while), we began our west coast adventure road trip. The day began early in each of our hometowns, as Chaz boarded a plane before 7 a.m. and I boarded one just afterward. Several hours and plane rides later, we reunited in the Salt Lake City airport. We nearly missed our last flight and had to be paged to the gate, though we’re not really sure how that happened because we were waiting at the gate. Mishap was avoided and we took the short flight to Fresno, Calif.

We touched down in the small airport just after noon and made our way to baggage claim. In celebration of what the region is most known for, the airport was filled with giant redwood trees (truly — they were poking out of the ceiling). We simultaneously addressed two hurdles: the baggage and the rental car. We had reserved a car as part of a great Hertz deal: rent in California and return in Arizona in exchange for a great rate. (They need more cars down south for winter vacation.) This deal guaranteed us a small car and we were prepared to take what we could get. When we reached the counter, the woman explained that due to a series of regulations, there were only two cars available to us: a Chevy Aveo, which would barely have fit the two of us, let alone our luggage, and a Dodge Grand Caravan. We weren’t thrilled about the minivan, but said we’d take it, especially since we didn’t have to pay extra since it was their mistake. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we had basically won the rental car lottery.

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Our baggage made up the vast majority of what had been on our little plane and we loaded it into the minivan, which we formally named Dorothy. For the record, we’re really not sure how we would have fit into a smaller car; we left the airport with three suitcases, a cooler, a huge box of camping supplies, two backpacks and two additional carry on bags. We then went to Trader Joe’s and loaded the car up even further with food. After making our way toward Yosemite, we bought more supplies at a second supermarket stop. Less than two hours in and Dorothy was reaching capacity.

After about 90 minutes on Highway 41, we reached the outer perimeter of Yosemite. Yosemite is a large park — larger than little old Rhode Island — and there are campgrounds throughout. We headed toward Wawona Campground for our first night, which is conveniently close to the entrance nearest to Fresno.

We set up camp and began preparing dinner after a quick appetizer of guacamole, chips and mango salsa. Camping really challenged my culinary abilities, but we persevered in an effort to eat and create beautiful food. The first night’s menu featured turkey burgers and so we tried to use charcoal, but those coals took a while longer to heat up than we might have hoped. We were aiming to eat in enough time to be able to watch sunset from Glacier Point, about a 30-minute drive from Wawona, but the burgers just weren’t cooking. So in a moment of desperation, we put them in a pan, popped them on top of the propane stove, aggressively cooked them and then ate them while en route with muenster and avocado atop honeywheat buns. Though we faced some technical difficulties, dinner could at least be classified as gourmet to go.

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Chaz navigated the winding roads of the park while I handled the car-based cuisine, a common theme throughout our trip. We got to Glacier Point, one of the best (and most accessible) overlooks in the car just as the sun was setting.

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From Glacier Point, we could see all of Yosemite Valley stretched out in front of us, waiting to be explored.

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After watching the sun dip below the mountains (and taking the obligatory 20+ sunset photos) we headed back to our tent and quickly fell asleep, tired from our day of travel and ready to wake up bright and early for adventures in the park!