No matter how many times I visit Tuolumne Meadows, it always feels like the first time.
During the 3 1/2-hour drive from Fresno, familiar Yosemite landmarks go by in a blur. First El Capitan, next the Crane Flat turnoff to Tioga Pass Road, then Olmsted Point with its hazy view of Cloud's Rest and the almost unrecognizable east face of Half Dome. At Tenaya Lake, hemmed in by glacier-polished granite, the sense of anticipation grows.
Finally, when the granite gives way to green meadows, I pull over near Pothole Dome, the most accessible and easily climbed of the 11 major domes in the Tuolumne Meadows area. During the 10-minute stroll to the baseball field-sized summit, the meadows are enveloped in a fine mist -- light as gossamer, as John Muir might say.
Checking my watch: It's 8:30 a.m. Time for a nap. When I awake 90 minutes later, the sun is out and the sky is blue.
Fairview Dome and the peaks of the Cathedral Range cut jagged outlines over my right shoulder. Looking east toward the Sierra Crest are Mount Dana and Mount Gibbs, recognizable by their reddish hue.
Below my feet, the Tuolumne River gently flows downstream as Lembert Dome gleams in the background.
If this place isn't paradise, I don't know what is.
Nestled at an elevation of 8,600 feet along Tioga Pass Road, Tuolumne Meadows is Yosemite's nerve center for summer recreation. Folks come from all over to experience the incomparable hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, horseback riding, fly fishing and plain ol' sight-seeing.
The list of things to see and do is seemingly endless. There's beauty and magic no matter which way you go.
Even though Yosemite Valley receives 95% of all visitation in the park, it doesn't mean Tuolumne Meadows is uncrowded.
In fact, the opposite is true. During the peak of summer, lines of cars typically are parked at popular trailheads and climbing areas along Tioga Pass Road, and the campground usually is filled to capacity.
But unlike the valley, there's more room to disperse in Tuolumne Meadows, so it's pretty easy to find solitude. More often than not, it's just a matter of taking a few steps off a popular trail. (Just be sure to bring insect repellant. The mosquitoes can be pretty thick until early August.)
Tuolumne Meadows owes its unique beauty to interesting geology.
For eight months a year, the meadows are blanketed by snow, which doesn't allow much time for grass to grow or wildflowers to bloom.
But if you think that's a harsh environment, you should've been there 2,000 years ago when the entire area was buried beneath a 60-mile-long glacier that flowed from Mt. Lyell, Yosemite's tallest peak, all the way down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne.
When the ice finally receded, it left behind a lake filled with melted water. Over time, the lake silted and a meadow formed in its place.
Come back in another 1,000 years, and the meadow will be gone, taken over by the surrounding forest.
Just glad that won't happen in my lifetime.