The view from Yosemite's Lembert Dome.
  • The view from Yosemite's Lembert Dome.
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With limited free time and a bucket list growing by the day, a return trip to Yosemite National Park had been on the cards for a while, but sadly the only weekend we could spare was in late July. We expected the worst – the heat, the traffic, the overcrowded viewpoints – but decided to grit our teeth and do it anyway. We knew there had to be a way to find the less-travelled roads and still enjoy the park in its peak season.

First, we needed somewhere to stay. In-park accommodation was out of the question at such short notice in the summer, and we prefer the out-of-the-way lodging options anyway.

We stumbled across the Red Door Inn in the nearby town of Ahwahnee and we’re so glad we did; just thirty minutes from the park’s south entrance and for less than $50 a night, we had a private apartment complete with farm-fresh eggs, deer grazing outside the window and starry skies to die for. Our hosts, Judie and Kevin, couldn’t have been more welcoming, and their invaluable hiking tips helped us solve our next dilemma: how to enjoy the grandeur of nature whilst avoiding constant traffic and busloads of yelling tourists.

Classic Yosemite shot of the valley and Bridalveil Falls.

Classic Yosemite shot of the valley and Bridalveil Falls.

On the advice of our hosts, we headed for the Sierra High Country at the east side of the park, even though it added an hour to our drive each morning. Best decision we could have made. The traffic through the entrance up to the 120 was hideous (think L.A. weekday rush hour, but single lane) but once we turned onto the high road we were practically alone.

The scenery through Tioga Pass is outstanding. Our first stop at Olmsted Point gave us a breathtaking view of Half Dome and the valley and the deep blue Tenaya Lake.

We spent our first day exploring Tuolumne Meadows. After an easy stroll through dappled forest to the pretty Dog Lake, we hiked up the impressive Lembert Dome for an incredible 360-degree view (top). Crows soared at eye level and struggled against the breezes as we tried to eat cheese doodles (unsuccessfully) in the face of the gale. This high up, it's hard to imagine that the speckled ant trails below are actually cars winding through the pass.

The trip back down was a different story; the face of the dome is steep, slippery and near-vertical in places without regular foot or handholds.

We descended with great care while a gang of hikers shouted for us to "channel our inner mountain goat" (they were lucky I didn’t channel my inner grizzly and smack them off the dome face). We did make it to ground level without injury or tearful breakdown, although for me it was a close call on both fronts.

With our confidence and nerve regained, we finished our day with a short hike to Soda Springs, where naturally carbonated water bubbles up through the red soil and lazy marmots chill out on the warm, flat rocks. My husband insisted on drinking the spring water, despite its dubious unnatural color, and still lives to this day.

The drive back out of the park was as hellish as expected, so we made the wise decision to stop for pulled pork at Todd’s Cookhouse in Oakhurst and wait for the traffic to thin out. They made me the best vanilla milkshake I have ever had, and I’ve had a lot of milkshakes in my time.

Back at the Red Door Inn, we laid out our blanket under the stars to enjoy the moonrise and a picture-perfect milky way with a few beers. We could not have asked for a more tranquil place to stay.

On our second day, we drove straight through Tioga Pass to the Gaylor Lakes. Parking at the trailhead was easy – again, hardly any traffic this side of the park – and we started the five-mile loop up to Middle Gaylor Lake. The first mile is fairly steep and the altitude kicks in quite rapidly, but the cooler temperatures are a pleasant respite from the sweaty grit of the valley and take the edge off the exertion.

The trail leads to the edge of the serene Middle Gaylor Lake, then cuts across an alpine meadow between rising granite peaks to the even quieter Upper Gaylor Lake. Even though the air is cooler, sunscreen and hats are definitely needed for the open meadow. We had a peaceful lunch by the water disturbed only by mosquitoes, unable to figure out why so few souls had followed us here on such a beautiful Sunday.

View of Gaylor Lakes from the silver mine.

View of Gaylor Lakes from the silver mine.

After strolling round the lake, we took the short hike up to the ruins of a silver mine. If abandoned buildings aren’t your thing, it's still worth a clamber for the stunning overlook. The derelict mining cabin at the peak had been taken over by a family of noisy marmots that seemed most annoyed by our intrusion; they squeaked and brucked while we rested in the shade of the cabin, but weren’t quite brave enough to do anything about it.

After exploring the pits and stone structures that remain of the mine, we headed back down to the lakes. The hike's even more breathtaking on the return trip, with the long shadows of the peaks stretching out across the panorama.

In the six hours we were hiking, we encountered four other hikers and two fishermen. Not bad for a July weekend at one of California’s most sought-after natural spots.

So soon, we were back on the road and following the lazy flow of traffic out of the park. After stopping in Lone Pine for obligatory burgers at the Mount Whitney Restaurant, we sped through a whole heap of nothin’ and made it back to San Diego by two in the morning, exhausted but very happy. Not a bad weekend at all.

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