Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: Chilkoot Campground, Sierra National Forest (Yosemite National Park)

Location: 4 hrs from San Francisco
Website: USDA Forest Service
Map: Google Maps
Camping Facilities: Car Camping
Grade: B- (Chilkoot)
Stargazing: Heavy canopy, so not great
Summary: Limited services, friendly staff, painful drive into Yosemite
The crowds in the valley
can get dense
Thoughts: If you want to camp in Yosemite National Park during peak season, book early.  As early as possible.  Otherwise, you won't be camping in Yosemite National Park.  That was the lesson I learned when trying to book two weeks in advance to stay in this beautiful park.  No, as the title above suggests, two weeks was not early enough.  So instead I stayed at the closest available public campground, in Sierra National Forest.  If you want to explore Sierra National Forest, I imagine this campground is quite convenient.  If you want to explore Yosemite, it is not.  You'll have to drive roughly 30-45 mins before you even enter the park.  Once you arrive at the park, depending on where you want to go, the drive can get much longer. You're at the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias when entering here, but getting to the valley is likely another hour (depending on how slow the car you will get inevitably get trapped behind is going) and so is Glacier Point.

On-site water source
at Chilkoot
The Chilkoot campground, other than being a little tricky to find since the directions that you receive upon booking tell you it's on Beashore Rd, though GPS data and Google Maps call this Beasore Rd.  But once you've figured that out and make it to the campground, you're fine.  It's then just a matter of settling into the site and getting a visit from the campground host who will register you.  This was a very pleasant experience with our host, who was friendly and helpful (we were able to purchase firewood for $7 a bundle, two of which lasted the 3 night stay).  The main inconvenience is getting water; we lugged water up the steep, unmarked path from the creek (which you can find mainly because its audible from all sites).  Our host kindly offered to supply us with some water (though I'm not sure what the cost would have been, or if there even was a charge), but other than that, you'll have to get your water in the nearby hamlet of Bass Lake (which also sells gas cheaper than you'll find in the park, or even just outside of the park on the highway 120).

Sites are in close proximity,
but not uncomfortably dense
The sites themselves are better than average for car camping, even with the limited services.  There is a reasonable amount of privacy, considering it is car camping.   The privacy stems from there being only 14 sites in the campground, making a single loop around a few outhouses.  The sites themselves are very large, and since it's a single loop, you aren't completely surrounded by sites, just adjacent to and/or across from them.  However, the sites are wide open, as you can see from the picture.  Additionally, there is no scenery to speak of at the campground, just trees and the creek (which isn't visible from the sites, but is audible).


Wildlife in the Mariposa Grove
Yosemite is a spectacular spot.  The natural beauty of the park is breathtaking, though the crowds and staff in the valley detract from the experience.  The valley was extremely busy when we went (mid-June), and, while beautiful, it has an amusement park feel due to the hoards of tourists.  Try to allot a single day to visit the valley; that way you can see its many great views in one shot (it's easy to drive from one to the next), then you don't have to make the trip back down.  Regarding the staff in the valley, most that we encountered were somewhat ignorant of the park.  Often they wouldn't have answers to questions on the locations of trails or where to get a park map or if the park store had wifi (it does, and you don't need to pay), and there are large line-ups to access staff that seem better informed.  Many of the staff were volunteers, possibly seasonal, perhaps in their first season at the park.

View from Wawona Point
If you want to escape the crowds, all that needs to be done is to travel a little further up the trail head.  After you're about 500 meters (1/3 of a mile for my American friends) down most trails, you'll lose most of the more laid-back park visitors; most seem to have the few main attractions to check off their lists (Grizzly Giant in the Mariposa Grove, Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls, Glacier Point, maybe Sentinel Dome) and don't make it much further.  But fortunately there is much more to see.  A great hiking resource can be found on this site, so that you can plan accordingly.  Some spots where we found very few other hikers on the trail, but that were very nice include:
  • Upper Mariposa Grove (much nicer and more densely populated with giant sequoias than the lower grove), and Wawona Point (provides a spectacular view that you'll have all to yourself)
  • Taft Point (though it was covered with snow so we didn't make it very far)
  • Artist Point
View of the Valley from Glacier Point
Many fallen trees on
the way to Artist Point
The biggest issue with hiking in Yosemite is the grossly insufficient trail marking.  There are very few trail blazes, in fact some trails didn't have a blaze to speak of, just signs pointing the way at the trailhead.  If a trails isn't well trampled, it would be easy to get lost...just as we did on the Taft point trail (the trail was buried in snow).  In addition, less popular trails are very poorly maintained, with fallen trees and limbs blocking the path (see the photo of the trail to Artist Point on the right).  Considering the number of inexperienced staff, poor maintenance and terribly marked trails, I suspect the culprit here is under-funding.  While this might be expected in less popular parks during these turbulent financial times, to find that this is the case in the 3rd most visited park in the US was a shock and a great disappointment.
Museum at Upper Mariposa Grove

View from Artist Point - worth the trek

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