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Yosemite area offers a dog-friendly retreat

by Matthew S. Bajko

Enzo takes in the view at Yosemite National Park, with Half Dome in the background. Photo: James LaCroce, Ph.D.
Enzo takes in the view at Yosemite National Park, with Half Dome in the background. Photo: James LaCroce, Ph.D.  

In the summer of 1869 famed naturalist John Muir landed a job as a sheepherder in the Sierra Nevada in order to finance a return to the forests and alpine landscapes he so dearly loved. Accompanying him in the mountains was a St. Bernard named Carlo, whose hunter-owner begged Muir to take with him so that the dog could escape the heat of the Central Valley.

As Muir noted in the book "My First Summer in the Sierra," based on his daily journal entries that were first excerpted by the Atlantic Monthly in 1911, Carlo's owner predicted, "He will be good to you. He knows all about the mountain animals, will guard the camp, assist in managing the sheep, and in every way be found able and faithful."

Carlo proved to be a trusted canine companion, alerting Muir to the presence of bears nearby as the sheepherding party made its way farther up the mountains and into the heart of Yosemite Valley, whose rivers, waterfalls, and granite cliffs Muir would be instrumental in having designated as a national park in 1890.

"No friend and helper can be more affectionate and constant than Carlo. The noble St. Bernard is an honor to his race," wrote Muir.

Nowadays four-legged travelers are not allowed to roam freely throughout Yosemite's backcountry, as did Carlo and other dogs brought to the woods centuries ago by herders, hunters, and tourists. Nonetheless, the Yosemite area can still make for a dog-friendly getaway most any time of year.

My husband and I decamped with our dog, Enzo, for a long Veterans Day weekend amid the pine trees and redwoods of Yosemite and the Sierra National Forest to celebrate my birthday. The normal $30 entrance fee per vehicle to the park was waived for visitors on November 11 and 12 in honor of the federal holiday.

Dogs on leash are welcome in all of the park's developed areas and on paved trails throughout the valley floor. They can marvel at the sight and sound of Yosemite Falls and scamper over the Merced River via the Swinging Bridge in the nearby meadow. They can also trek up the first paved mile of the Mirror Lake Trail.

While the park's three hotels do not allow guests to stay there with their dogs, the main campgrounds are dog friendly, though campers are forbidden from leaving their dogs unattended. (Dogs are not allowed at the park's walk-in campgrounds or group campsites.)

At Glacier Point, at the end of Glacier Point Road an hour drive from the valley floor, dogs can join their owners on the paved path out to a rocky overlook and marvel at the majesty of Half Dome across the canyon. (The road is closed in the winter after the first significant snowstorm of the season.)

Another area of the park dogs can explore is Hodgdon Meadow near the Big Oak Flat Entrance on Highway 120. Not as crowded as other areas of the park, visitors can walk with their dogs on Carlon Road from the trailhead to the meadow as well as on the Old Big Oak Flat Road from the meadow to the Tuolumne Grove parking lot.

Wawona area
We headed to the park's southern Wawona area, as visitors are welcome to check out the Pioneer Yosemite History Center with their dogs. Decades ago the Park Service relocated historic structures from around Yosemite to create a small village along the banks of the South Fork Merced River. After walking through a covered bridge, built in 1857, visitors will find cabins, stables, a former Calvary office, and an outpost once used by the San Francisco-based bank Wells Fargo.

Across the street at the end of the paved road in the middle of the Wawona golf course is the start of the dog-friendly Wawona Meadow Loop trail, a 3.5-mile hike popular in the spring when the park's wildflowers are in full bloom. Dogs are also welcome on the nearby Chowchilla Mountain Road, and Four Mile and Eleven Mile fire roads. But the trio of trails are obscure and unsigned, so ask a ranger for help locating them on a map of the park.

The Park Service is currently revamping the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, turning once paved roadways through the forest into hiking trails. When the area by Yosemite's South Entrance reopens this spring, there will be more than half a mile of new accessible trails and boardwalks, though it is unclear how much of the redone walkways dogs will be allowed on.

For a dog-friendly jaunt among the neck-straining trees, which can reach heights of nearly 300 feet, head to the Nelder Grove of Giant Sequoias. Part of the Sierra National Forest, the out-of-the-way spot is outside of Yosemite about 10 miles south on Highway 41 off of Road 632. The route into the grove is part of the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway, which meanders for 100 miles on old logging roads and fire access routes throughout the forest, though it is usually inaccessible during the winter months.

The grove is currently closed to visitors as crews repair damage caused by the Railroad Fire that burned through the area in early September. It is expected to reopen in May; check for updates from the forest service at https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/sierra/home.

Another dog-friendly way to see the forest and learn about the area's logging history is to ride the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad right off Highway 41 in Fish Camp. Hour-long excursions on the old Logger Steam Train take guests on a loop trip through the second-growth grove of trees, most now more than 85 years old.

Luckily, we grabbed seats toward the back of the train far from the locomotive, as at one bend of track it releases water and ash in a screeching gasp. Prone to bark at loud noises, Enzo mostly ignored the ear-splitting sound.

(Tickets cost $24 per adult and $12 per child, while dogs ride free. For the schedule of departures, which changes throughout the year, call (559) 683-7273 or check online at http://www.ymsprr.com.)

As for lodging, the nearby Tenaya Lodge was our "base camp" for the weekend as it welcomes canine guests. The hotel, which was unharmed by the Railroad Fire, is about a five-minute drive from Yosemite's South Entrance.

The staff of the 302-room hotel makes staying there with a dog an enjoyable experience. Guests can dine with their pets on an outdoor patio, which features a fire pit and has heat lamps for colder months, or order takeout to bring back to their room from one of the resort's three restaurants at the coffee shop adjacent to the hostess stand.

The lodge's Deluxe Pampered Pet Package includes one night in a premium or cottage room, a pet fee for up to two dogs (normally $100), a dog toy and treats, and bowls and a dog bed for use during the stay. Rates per night vary from $295 in late fall and winter to $515 in the summer. (The cottages are not available during the winter.)

The package also includes two hours of pet sitting so dog owners can slip away to enjoy a meal or pamper themselves at the onsite Ascent Spa. A less expensive option is the hotel's Fido Friendly Pet Package, with rates per night ranging from $259 to $479 based on the season, as it only includes the room and pet fee.

You can now book a massage for your pet, as the hotel just launched a dog massage service that costs $70 for an hour session. Unsure at first of what to make of the masseuse when she first arrived, Enzo eventually settled down and enjoyed being pampered on the morning of our departure.

Outdoors, guests and their leashed dogs are welcome to explore the resort's Summerdale area and its hiking paths that lead to the Big Creek that flows around the property.

"We love dogs at Tenaya Lodge," said Brooke Smith, the hotel's marketing coordinator.

In 2019 the hotel plans to open dog-friendly "glamping" luxury cabins it is building on 30 acres of adjacent forestland. There will also be a new dog play area for its canine guests.

Visiting the Yosemite area with your dog is manageable any time of year, but more enjoyable in the fall, winter, and spring months when you and your pet don't have to deal with the hordes of summer tourists. The smaller crowds make it easier for your dog and yourself to enjoy what Muir long ago described as "a heaving, swelling sea of green as regular and continuous as that produced by the heaths of Scotland."

To learn more about Tenaya Lodge and to book a stay, visit https://www.tenayalodge.com/.

Another option for travelers with dogs is to rent one of the dog-friendly vacation homes at The Redwoods In Yosemite, a private development inside the park in Wawona. The accommodations range from small cabins to larger houses with rates varying depending on the size of the rental and time of year. To learn more, visit https://www.redwoodsinyosemite.com/pet-friendly/.

For updated information about where dogs are allowed in Yosemite National Park, visit the Park Service's pet page at https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/pets.htm.
Another good site for information about traveling with your dog in the Yosemite region is https://dogtrekker.com/.

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