No one goes to Aspen Valley anymore. No one, that is, in Yosemite terms.
Actually there are still about 20 families who own cabins around the meadow, and no doubt a few hikers pass through every season, but who's counting them in a park that sees more than 3 million visitors a year?
Before Tioga Road (Highway 120) was rerouted in the 1930s, Aspen Valley was a popular stopping place along the challenging, unpaved route. The meadow boasted a lodge, a store, a gas station, a restaurant and many cabins.
If you try to find Aspen Valley in a Yosemite guidebook or on the Internet, you won't learn much without some hard work. It's one of the least-known and least-visited parts of the park. Most books only mention it in terms of "and if you hike the other direction, you'll end up in Aspen Valley" without telling you anything else about it. Even the best book on the region is misleading: "Private summer homes and a logging operation existed into the 1950s." The implication is that these homes are no longer there.
In actuality, there are still about 20 rustic cabins around the pretty, forest-ringed meadow. The oldest cabin was moved to the Wawona Pioneer History Center in the 1950s and can be seen there today. At 6,200 feet, Aspen Valley is just high enough to have a small grove of its namesake tree.
These days, the shortest routes to Aspen Valley include a poorly maintained 4.8-mile trail and a 6.5-mile road that is closed to vehicles except for those of cabin owners. Although you can't drive the road, it is an excellent mountain bike route. Yosemite's trails may be closed to bikes, but roads aren't and Aspen Valley Road still officially counts as a road.
To Aspen, by bike
Not too long ago, my dad and I set out to reach Aspen Valley by bike.
The ride starts at a locked gate on a section of what used to be the Tioga Road. You can find it by taking Evergreen Road north from Highway 120 just before the Big Oak Flat Entrance Station. After a little more than a mile, turn right at a sign for Aspen Valley. Follow the bumpy road for another mile and park at the gate without blocking it. This is the original Tioga Road and the starting point of your bike adventure.
Neither of us bike regularly, but we decided that riding would be the easiest way to see Aspen Valley in a day. If nothing else, we'd be able to walk the bikes uphill and then coast downhill. To our surprise, the 1,200-foot elevation gain was less challenging than we had expected. About the time we were starting to dare to believe that we might be halfway there, we started seeing aspens and cabins.
We'd left my truck at the gate less than two hours earlier.
An even greater surprise was that we didn't see anyone the entire day -- no footprints or bike treads on the road, and no one staying in the cabins. Deer tracks far outnumbered human tracks. We had the meadow and all of its views entirely to ourselves on a crisp, blue sky day. The 40-minute downhill cruise back down to my truck was fun without being dangerous.
Part of the fun of Aspen Valley is that it is one of the places in Yosemite where no one goes, even though it isn't very hard to get there. The other part of the fun is that it is beautiful. The small aspen grove will probably be turning a week or two after you read this. Although much of the land around the valley is privately owned, you can still enjoy the meadow and the surrounding forest.
I am still marveling at the fact that I didn't see a single "no trespassing" sign. I assume that means that it hasn't been much of a problem.
If you visit this beautiful valley, please respect private property so that it remains the way it is -- one of the few places where you can really feel like you have stepped back into another age.
Adam Blauert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org