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Goleta Valley Senior Center Women Soak Up the Beauty of Yosemite National Park

The group embarks on a four-day camping trip to explore the summertime sights and sounds — and create long-lasting memories along the way

We started the second camping trip of the summer at 6 a.m. from the Goleta Valley Senior Center. This wonderful group of women from our center were gung-ho for the journey, if not a little bit sleepy.

Our first stop along the way to Yosemite National Park was for a much-needed breakfast at Ellen’s Danish Pancake House in Buellton. After a few cups of coffee and a hearty breakfast, we were off on our fantastic adventure. What lay ahead we did not know, although half of the group were hoping for bear sightings and the other half were clutching their bear spray.

We arrived at the park in just less than six hours to beautiful warm, sunny skies. As we drove down into the valley, we came across a huge traffic jam of cars whose passengers had jump out of their still-running vehicles and left them in the middle of the road as they ran to the edge of the road and were pointing out toward the trees. I told our group that there was a bear out in the field beyond the trees, and that was why everyone jumped out of their cars. How do I know that? Simple: People don’t stop acting with reason when they see a deer — it couldn’t have been anything else. The other half of the group now wished they had brought bear spray.

We arrived at our camp and got busy setting up our home for the next week. Everyone set about making our camp as comfortable as possible. Chairs were set up around the fire ring, food was brought out to begin preparing dinner, and the rest of the food and personal belongings were stored away in bear-proof lockers!

We had a delicious dinner of grilled barbecue chicken, veggie kabobs and grilled seasoned potatoes. After dinner we had a wonderful nature hike along the Merced River and sat along its sandy beach as we watched the sunset turn the face of Half Dome a dozen dazzling colors. Back at camp we stoked the campfire and sat around enjoying a dessert of warm brownies. As I write this, there is a group sitting around the fire and another group playing a fierce game of Yahtzee.

The sky is dark and the stars are bright. In the distance you can hear muted voices getting ready for bed. As I sit beside this fire, I can’t help but be grateful for this wonderful group of women I am sharing this experience with, and so thankful to have a job that I love so very much.

Lights are out and I’m fighting the urge to leave this fire and turn in for the night. I know bears will be about, and I know this first night every sound heard is going to be accompanied by, “Amy, what was that?” But the morning will be here soon, and we will be off on yet another fun adventure that my seniors will be able to share with their grandchildren.

Day Two

It’s 5:30 a.m., and as the seniors lay asleep I am awake to the beautiful music that is Yosemite. Birds are singing, squirrels and chipmunks can be heard scurrying about, and the tranquil sound of the Merced River flowing is almost enough to bring tears to one’s eyes.

A dazzling sunset lights up the face of Yosemite's Half Dome.
A dazzling sunset lights up the face of Yosemite’s Half Dome. (Amy Mallett photo / Goleta Valley Senior Center)

It’s 7 a.m. now, and enough is enough! Time to wake these sleeping beauties so they can begin what I already know is going to be a fantastic day!

With the bacon crackling and the coffee percolating, all that was left was to finish the veggie omelets. One by one the seniors appeared, lured by the smells of breakfast being served. We ate a hearty meal, and then off we went to explore the valley floor.

We decided on Mirror Lake as a first hike, and as a few people headed down the paved road to this wonderful place, we chose to hike the horse trail. This route meanders up and down hilly, rocky terrain with large granite boulders in between beautiful pine trees. It is such a pretty hike that no one cared that we had to dodge the fresh little presents the mules left behind for us.

Mirror Lake is spectacular! With all the snow this winter, we are excited to see that the lake still has water in it. We set about exploring all the trails around the lake, taking pictures of the mountains reflecting off the water, and then all of a sudden around one corner we come across what we called “The Zen Garden.” All around us were stacks of granite rocks in all sorts of different formations. Stacks of rocks on trees, atop boulders, on pine branches — it was magical and peaceful, and the seniors were delighted. Everyone set about building their own “zen sculpture” and just got lost within themselves for a moment.

From there we went on to the Happy Isles Nature Center, where in 1996 one of the ladies in our group made a decision that she could never have known would save her life. She and her husband had been hiking the trail on a very hot day, and when they came off the trail he wanted to get ice cream at the shop by the nature center. My ice cream-loving senior decided she would rather take a shower first, and then get ice cream. Five minutes later the mountain came crashing down, crushing the ice cream shop. So we spent some time today in that area.

It was pretty hot, so we all went down to the river to cool off. Splashing around in the water like kids was just a great time, and we all had some time to sit around and reflect on past memories and take in the splendor of this awesome place.

Back at camp finds me busy getting a feast ready for the ladies as they sit around the campfire for “cocktail hour.” It warms my heart to see them all sitting around with smiles on their faces, talking about their day’s adventures and what is to come tomorrow. Dinner is served, and it is a feast!

Three young girls from London have moved into the campsite next to us for the night. They are traveling on holiday and are in Yosemite for only two days before heading to Monterey and then down the coast to San Diego. The seniors grill them for details of their trip and find that they will be staying one night in Santa Barbara! Do I really even need to go on at this point? These girls did not stand a chance. They had an itinerary of things to do from Goleta to Santa Barbara that one could not finish in a week. They even tried to get them to come to the line dancing class at the senior center on Friday. We also realized they were not at all prepared to camp, and as our feast was set about the table, we had to feed these poor young things! How lucky could these girls be? They stumbled into a camp with a group of loving grandmas. I am pretty sure at this point that I will be making breakfast for three more tomorrow morning, as my seniors would not allow these young ladies to drive off without a proper breakfast and full tummies.

Tomorrow, Tuolumne Meadows ...

Day Three

A perfect day on a group trip is pretty hard to come by, and anyone who has ever participated in group travel can attest to this fact. That being said, the only way this day could have been better is if we could have squeezed out a few more hours in our 24. Seriously, it was awesome!

I woke up at the crack of dawn knowing we had to get an early start. I had told all the seniors the night before that breakfast was going to be military style, which meant they were going to get a five-minute warning to line up to get a piping hot breakfast of burritos and coffee, choke ‘em down, pack a lunch and off we go! And off we went at exactly 8:30 a.m. We were on our way to Tuolumne Meadows for a day of gorgeous hiking!

On our way over the Tioga Pass we stopped at many vista points of the meadows. The favorite stop was Olmsted Point. The ladies got out of the van, and before I could say anything, they were off climbing all over the rocks like a group of schoolchildren! They took off down a steep path, and after about 20 minutes they started returning back up the path, huffing and puffing from the strain of the altitude, but with smiles that looked like kids at Christmas. They had just witnessed the beauty of the Yosemite Valley spread out before them. It was a view of this magical place none of them had ever seen before, and they were captivated by its power.

On to Tuolumne Meadows, where we began our day of hiking at the Visitors Center. Why start there, you ask? Here is a travel tip for you: The Visitors Center has good water to fill up water bottles, and most importantly, it has the largest and cleanest bathrooms in the area! I showed them all where I would be starting the John Muir Trail next year, and then we were off to our first hike destination — Soda Springs!

We started hiking, and after a bit we came across fantastic granite ledges along a swift flowing stream. We decided to plant ourselves on those rocks and enjoy a delicious lunch with a view that was just as pleasing. We finished our lunch and then took off up the trail to Soda Springs. At the springs, the earth is a deep burnt red from the high iron content in the water. We filled up a cup with the mineral water bubbling to the top, and everyone in the group had a little taste. It tasted almost like flat Perrier, but we didn’t care — it was the experience. We set off once again, and our entire group of seniors can now say they hiked part of the John Muir Trail!

After a couple of hours of hiking in this gorgeous wilderness, we were all a little hot and tired and were ready to cool down a bit. We piled into the van and headed straight to Tenaya Lake!

In a word, Tenaya Lake is perfection. Surrounded by granite walls and pine forest, this snow-fed lake is crystal clear and so inviting. We donned our bathing suits, and a couple of us climbed some boulders and took the plunge into the icy water. Some of the ladies walked around the lake taking pictures, while others sat and just enjoyed the scenery around them. After awhile, we all drifted to the same sandy beach area, and before long we all drifted off into a warm, inviting nap.

We woke up after a bit and watched mesmerized as three rock climbers were ascending an almost shear granite wall above us. I can’t even describe the comments that were coming from these seniors regarding the “questionable” sanity of these guys, but trust me it was hysterical!

We went back to camp for dinner, and then we decided to sit by the river and watch the stars appear. As we lie by the river looking up at the moon and the stars, and giggling like school girls over everything and nothing, we all saw a shooting star flare across the night sky. It was right then that we knew we had just had “a perfect day.”

Day Four

These seniors never cease to amaze and inspire me!

We woke early today with a plan: The last big breakfast cooked over a fire — nothing tastes better than that — and then a hike to Vernal Falls, a float down the Merced River, some last-minute shopping and then a talk at the Sierra Club LeConte House on John Muir.

Well, it started off on the right track. We had our big breakfast, and then fought the shuttle to Happy Isles for our hike to Vernal Falls. The morning temperature was cool, but the warmth of the day was promised. We filled up our bottles of water and off we went.

I can say that I was concerned about the abilities of a few, but they wanted to do it so my job was clear — to help them accomplish this goal. We started off together, but soon the stronger in the group disappeared up the trail as I stayed behind with the slower group. Slow and steady we climbed, and we soon met up with the rest of our group taking a water break. We continued on, stopping often to enjoy the beauty all around us. In no time at all the entire group had made it to the bridge. Just below Vernal Falls. This is the last place on the trail to get water, and so we drank up and refilled our bottles.

It had been my understanding that at this point the weaker of our hiking group would use this spot as their turnaround point and the stronger hikers would continue to the top of Vernal Falls. Well, guess what? Peer pressure is alive and kicking in the senior community! So we all began the climb to the top of the falls on the mist trail. If you have never done this hike, it is hard to explain except to say wet, slippery granite steps that seem to go on forever.

Again the group split up, and I stayed with the second group. We stopped along the way for photos — aka mercy stops. But my ladies just kept on going, and I have to say that they impressed the heck out of me. Slowly but surely we came to the top of Vernal Falls and were treated to the coolness of the Emerald Pool in all its splendor. The ladies were pretty wiped out by this time, but just as I had said at least a dozen times going up, we did have to go back down. Well, going down the same way we went up was out of the question, as those steps are rough. The only other way down was by going the John Muir Trail.

Taking the JMT is a good way of going down, except that you have to hike within 0.06 miles of Nevada Falls, which is up higher. Up we went, and we had a couple of other groups that decided they were going to tag along with us, as they wanted nothing to do with those stairs ever again. When we got to the trailhead of the JMT, a couple of the ladies felt they had to go to the top of Nevada Falls since they had gone all this way.

We began our steep decent, very grateful for the shade the trail provided. Step by step we went until finally we made it down. We had hiked for five-plus hours, and by now the temperature was 85 degrees and everyone was too tired to go boating. We mustered all the energy we could and did two important things — chowed down on burgers and fries, and finished our shopping. You tell me if these ladies are not truly amazing and inspiring.

Back at camp we rested for a bit before heading over to the LeConte House for an amazing interpretive talk from Frank Helliman, an expert on Muir who took on the part of Muir to tell his life story. Everyone was wiped out from the hike and this program was put on quite late, but we all sat wide eyed and mesmerized by this performance as it actually felt as if Muir himself was speaking to us. We walked away in awe and with a small understanding of why he loved this glorious place so much.

It is almost 11 p.m. as I sit by the fire writing this. Not a peep is coming from the beds of my seniors — they are out like a light. Tomorrow we travel back home. I hope they all have fond memories of this trip, but one thing I know they are going to take away from it is the knowledge that they accomplished something huge today, and it was something they hadn’t planned on even doing — they showed me that I can do anything as long as I keep telling myself I can.

— Amy Mallett represents the Goleta Valley Senior Center.

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