Naturalist Journeys, LLC - Small Group Birding and Natural History Tours

California’s Yosemite and Sierras
National Park Landscape Tours by Naturalist Journeys
September 28 – October 5, 2013

Guide: Greg Smith


Sentinel DomeDiscover the spectacular and varied scenery and wildlife of Yosemite National Park and California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains on a Sampler trip with ample opportunity to hike, watch birds, enjoy photography and more. Early fall brings color and fewer crowds, a great time to delve into the region’s iconic scenery: the mountain domes and escarpments, canyons, and lakes so spectacularly carved by glaciers.

Learn about the geology and wildlife of Mammoth Lakes, Mono Lake and Yosemite National Park, while enjoying nice lodgings and local cuisine. This trip is great to capture a wide variety of habitats as we cross the range.  Fall is a glorious time in the Mammoth Lakes area of the Eastern Sierras, massive peaks laced with water-carved rugged canyons and home to some of the finest fall color viewing in the west. Autumn displays of golden aspen leaves quivering in the breeze mingle with pine forests and contrast with the stark granite mountain walls. Stream banks are lined with cottonwoodsand willows, where a few lingering warblers and migratory songbirds may remain.

Mono boardwalkIn the Sierras we should find species such as White-headed and Lewis’ woodpeckers, Mountain Quail, Sooty Grouse, Pine Grosbeaks, Mountain Chickadees, Western Scrub and Steller’s jays, . At Mono Lake, we enjoy watching the spectacle of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds feasting on brine shrimp while in nearby sagebrush we may glimpse the rare Greater Sage Grouse, Sage Thrashers and Brewer’s Sparrows.

We spend four days in Yosemite National Park, where we hike at varying elevations, from the alpine down to the valley floor, from which we marvel at famous geologicwonders. With luck we’ll find American Dippers, Common Mergansers and Buffleheads along the river. We visit iconic waterfalls, hike in forests keeping an eye out for Willamson’s Sapsuckers, Lawrence’s Goldfinches and Oak Titmice. We stop at numerous photo lookouts, and spend time above the tree line where we may find rosy-finches, Clark’s Nutcrackers and migratory raptors.

Mono Lake and its briny water are home to tens of thousands of waterfowl as they make their way south from the wildlife refuges we visit in the western part of Nevada.  Eared Grebes, Northern Shovelers and California Gulls are mixed in with thousands of phalaropes and other shorebirds.  In nearby areas, we can also see great flocks of North Mono Lake tufaAmerica’s heaviest bird, the American White Pelican, along with Sandhill Cranes, Golden Eagles, and other species of raptors moving south for the winter. On the east side, we also find some Great Basin desert specialties, such as Chuckar and Juniper Titmouse.

Take time this fall to experience this iconic part of California; we plan to enjoy some great cuisine, fabulous scenery, historical sites, and charming lodgings as well as the array of wildlife that call this part of California and Nevada their home. This tour can stand alone as a great fall adventure, or can be combined with the California Coast tour immediately following.



Sat., Sept. 28 Arrival in Reno, NV
Arrive today in Reno, Nevada, at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, serviced by most major airlines. Plan to arrive by 2PM so we can head to Lake Tahoe, our first destination, an hour’s drive away. Aspens

Our hotel for tonight is the Granlibbaken Conference Center and Lodge, nestled in the trees above the lake.  After settling in, we enjoy a walk the private nature trail on the property, ahead of our welcome dinner.  Get to know your guides and travelling companions and go to sleep with the scent of pines.
Accommodations at the Granlibakken Lodge, Lake Tahoe (D)

Sun., Sept. 29 Tahoe/June Lake Loop
After breakfast, stretch your legs on a walk this morning at nearby Sugar Pine Point State Park.  Among the sugar pines, jeffrey pines and stately white firs, we should get our first glimpses of fall color among black cottonwoods and quaking aspens. 

We then head south along a scenic route to Lake Crowley, which sits at 5,000 feet in a high valley on the east side of the Sierra Nevada.  While the lake is known for trout fishing, the Owens River Delta at its north end offers an array of natural riches.  We explore the area, looking for migrant shorebirds and waterfowl.  Osprey forage overhead, while flocks of sandpipers pace nervously along the shore. We hope to catch Carrizo Pronghornsight of a Sabine’s Gull; although this is a pelagic species, a small number of individuals migrate south through the Great Basin desert area of the west.

From here, we travel the Hot Springs Canyon area, where we take a slow drive through sagebrush flats in hopes of seeing Greater Sage Grouse, a bird so rare it has been considered for inclusion on the Federal Endangered Species List.  Sage Thrasher, Sage Sparrow, Mountain Bluebird and Pronghorn Antelope are residents of this habitat.  Golden Eagles and other migrating raptors often mix with flocks of wheeling Common Ravens.

We spend the later afternoon exploring the June Lake Loop's four lakes: June; Gull; Silver and Convict.  This is a photographer's and hiker's dream landscape.  It is guide's choice for which trail we will hike to take advantage of the best photographic opportunities.
Accommodations at Mammoth Creek Inn (B,L,D)

Mon., Sept. 30 Mono Lake/Bodie State Historic Park   
We head to the almost eerie and fascinating realm of Mono Lake by a back road today, Mono cabinstopping to watch birds on our way down to the north shore.  A saline body of water with no outlet, Mono Lake is an ideal habitat for brine flies and brine shrimp—species that fuel the food chain.  Great numbers of Wilson’s Phalaropes are on the lake, along with myriad other shorebirds and Eared Grebes, all taking advantage of this food source during migration.  Thousands of California Gulls nested on Negit Island in the middle of the lake and now feed voraciously on the local invertebrates.  Merlins, Peregrine Falcons and Northern Harriers are on predatory patrol.

We spend the remainder of the morning walking and exploring the lakeshore and tufa mounds and discovering the area’s other hidden geologic features.  We will also spend a little time at the Mono Visitor Center to learn more about the area.  

BodieAfter lunch at an exceptional deli, we head to Bodie State Historic Park.  This is the finest example of a ghost town in California.  A gold mining boom town from the 1870's, the buildings are preserved in a state of "arrested decay".  It’s a photographer’s delight, and birders can also enjoy seeing Chipping Sparrows, Green-tailed Towhees and other species that frequent the town.  

The drive back will take us to one of the side canyons in the Eastern Sierra that are filled with glowing yellow and orange Quaking Aspens.  And, if the timing is right, we will stop at Mono Lake one more time to photograph the sunset's changing colors. Dinner is at your leisure tonight and you can choose from local restaurants. 
Accommodations at the Mammoth Creek Inn (B,L)

Tues., Oct. 1 Mammoth
Today is a day for picturesque mountains, with time to enjoy a great hike in the morning with a picnic lunch.  Your afternoon is free.  Some may want to shop and wander in the town of this Mono Lake fallpopular winter ski resort. The community has an artistic flair, and you may wish to visit art galleries.  Some may want to schedule ahead to visit the Belladonna Mammoth Massage & Day Spa for some fine relaxation.  Join Greg to work on your photography.  Or, adventurers may wish to take a gondola ride (under construction, scheduled to open November of 2012) to the summit of Mammoth, at 11,053 feet one of the most stunning views you'll find in the region.  Atop you’ll find the Sierra Interpretive Center and even a café, appropriately called, the Top of the Sierra Café.
Accommodations at the Mammoth Creek Inn (B,L)

Wed., Oct. 2 Tioga Pass to Yosemite National Park
California FinchThis morning we leave Mammoth Lakes and drive to the 8500-foot elevation meadow at Tuolumne, one of the most treasured places inYosemite National Park.  This alpine realm was first made famous through essays of John Muir.  Our travel up through coniferous forest gives us many opportunities to stop and explore.  Enjoy leisurely hikes in forests as we look for Pine Grosbeaks, Red Crossbills and Cassin’s Finches.

As we trek the edge of Tuolumne Meadow, Yellow-bellied Marmots can be seen in areas that provide a mix of rock and soil.  Uphill, talus slopes provide the perfect refugia for Pikas, small members of the rabbit family.  Small haystacks of drying vegetation and their shrill whistle will alert us to their presence.

Sooty GrouseAt this elevation, we explore areas above the tree line.  The opportunity to see Gray- and Black-crowned Rosy Finches increases with each step into the treeless granite.  Both species are seen regularly, but finding where they are actually foraging requires some luck, and some walking.  The other resident that makes itself readily seen is a loud and large corvid, the Clark’s Nutcracker.

From here, we continue into the Yosemite Valley, one of California’s iconic national parks. We will stop often to photograph the splendid views.

Tenaya LakeYosemite Valley is the finest example of the power of glaciation in North America.  Half Dome is a peak that had its northern flank scoured to a depth of over 2700 feet. White-throated swifts careen through the mist of the waterfalls, as Canyon Wren calls echo between the massive rock walls.  Those who wish to can finish our day by trying at dusk to locate Great Gray Owls at Crane Flat, a fitting end to a day in one of America’s finest parks.  Dinner is at your leisure tonight – choose an early or later seating as you wish, depending on if you go owling with Greg.
Accommodations at the Yosemite Lodge (B,L)

Thurs., Oct. 3 Yosemite National Park
Today begins with a treat, breakfast at the famous Awahnee Hotel, one of the gems of the tradition of great lodges in our national parks. The beautiful dining room has splendid views and delicious food.

Stellar's JayWe spend the day in the landscape that so inspired John Muir.  The Sierra Nevada range covers one-sixth of California; some of its finest areas are protected in the Yosemite, including the highest peak in the State, Mt. Whitney.  Varied habitats at different elevations provide habitat for Yosemite’s more than 300 species of birds.  We start the day taking short walks at the parks scenic highlights, and birding the oak-dotted Yosemite Valley floor before heading to higher elevations where we can get different views of Half Dome, El Capitan and the eye-stretching falls that plummet to the valley floor.

Yosemite ValleyDriving around and above the valley, we pass through a striking change in habitat: from maples bright with fall color to the jade green coniferous forest.  White-breasted Nuthatches, both White-headed and Lewis’ woodpeckers and Red-shouldered Hawks give way to the higher elevation species such as Red-breasted Nuthatches, Hairy Woodpeckers, Townsend’s Solitaires and American Kestrels as we climb the valley. We’re likely to get excellent views of Mountain Chickadees after hearing their plaintive calls.

Hikes today will include Vernal Falls and the Valley loop trails, for a combined total of about 7 miles.
Accommodations at the Yosemite Lodge (B,L,D)

Giant SequoiaFri., Oct. 4 Yosemite National Park / Mariposa Giant Grove of Sequoias
This morning we will hike in the Sentinel Dome area of Yosemite for wonderful valley views. Afterwards, we reluctantly tear ourselves away from the valley, but will be rewarded with a visit at the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. A hike among these trees is an experience not to be missed! This grove is on a par with those of Sequoia National Park, with some 500 massive trees. Two popular giants have names, the Grizzly Giant and the California Tunnel Tree; by hiking we can reach others unnamed.

We will enjoy a farewell dinner tonight at the historic Wawona hotel. This is one of the park lodges, with Victorian-style architecture, and listed on the National Historic Register. Large meadows create the impression of a stately manor. Our final dinner is in the Wawona Dining Room, known for its excellent cuisine.

After dinner, we will make the drive to Fresno.
Accommodations at the Hampton Inn, Fresno (B,L,D)

Golden EagleSat., Oct. 5 Departures from Fresno or on to extension
After breakfast, those leaving will pack up and head for the airport. We plan to arrive at the airport by 10:30 for departures from Noon (or so) onwards. En route, we’ll keep our eyes out for Yellow-billed Magpie, a California endemic.

Those continuing on the coastal extension will have a bit of time at the hotel to catch up on laundry or relax before spending the rest of the day in travel, with the destination being Monterey on the spectacular California coast. We will stop at the San José International Airport, serving Silicon Valley, to meet arriving participants. We keep our eyes out for White-tailed Kites and other raptors en route.


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Cost of the journey is $2490.00 per person, based on double occupancy from Reno-Tahoe International Airport, NV, (RNO) departing Fresno-Yosemite International Airport, CA (OYS). Single supplement (subject to availability) is $690.00. The tour cost includes: all accommodations; meals as stated in the itinerary (B=breakfast, L=lunch, D=dinner); group airport transfers; ground transportation; professional guide services; park, preserve, and other activity fees; and miscellaneous program expenses. 

Tour price does not include: roundtrip airfare to Reno and from Fresno, and items of a personal nature such as: laundry, porterage, telephone charges, or beverages from the bar.  Please note that the cost of the journey is based on 6 participants; with a smaller group there may be a small group surcharge – typically $100-300.

Please arrive at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport by 2:00PM. on Sept. 28 for our drive to Lake Tahoe.  Please plan to depart after NOON, from Fresno, CA on Oct. 5.  If you wish to arrive early or stay on in the area, we can help you with hotel recommendations. 

This tour can be combined with the California Coast tour immediately following, October 5-12, 2013. That tour will begin in San José, as those continuing there will drive from Fresno to San Jose airport to meet new arrivals.

Moderate, a combination of birding, short to moderate hikes and sightseeing.  Hikes range from 3-7 miles, and some involve a gain in elevation.

Naturalist Journeys, LLC is an equal opportunity service provider and committed to the goal of ensuring equal opportunity for all in employment and program delivery.

Stellar's Jay, Peg Abbott; all other photos by Greg Smith.

Naturalist Journeys LLC, a top birding and nature tour company, offers specialty small group travel to many of the best nature destinations worldwide. Naturalist Journeys’ expert guides have decades of experience leading guided nature and birding tours as well as travel photography tours, all with a focus on responsible travel and eco-tourism. Naturalist Journeys also offer Utah hiking adventure tours and adventure travel in national parks and wildlife reserves ranging from in-depth Alaska wildlife tours to guided Texas and Florida birding tours. Costa Rica nature and birding tours are among our top-rated as are our Panama nature tours and African wildlife safari tours. Our many repeat clients enjoy dependable and diverse holidays on Galapagos nature tours, Arctic and Antarctica nature cruises, and birding and wildlife tours from Arizona to the Amazon and beyond.