A tunnel with wrinkled rock walls. As you pull out of it, the view hits you. It’s a boomer, as my parents used to say on family road trips. A “boomer” is a view that goes “boom!” Half dome is sculpted in blues and grays, framed between two epic mountains. It looks like a movie set painting. “It never gets old,” I say. I always say that when I come to this view, because it’s always a surprise how glorious it is.

We stop along with everyone else for photos. Well, I just stop to look. The urge to take a photo is strong, but how many photos have I taken of Half Dome in my life? So many, and I’ve thrown them all away. Rather, let your eyes and heart soak it in, like Muir must have done in 1868 and the Miwok before him for thousands of years until the Mariposa Battalion, contracted by the California government, destroyed them and their valley village in 1851. I had found a pair of binoculars by the side of the road near Hogdon Meadows, where we camped. I pull them out and get a closer view of Bridalveil Falls, which is gushing. It’s a good water year, making a dent in the drought. The falls are all going strong. There’s a yarmulke of snow on top of Half Dome.

We had made it to Hogdon Meadow, a campground just inside the Big Oak Flat entrance on 120, at 9:30 am. I’d left my house at 6:30 am for Yosemite with another scout and his dad (my boy scout was already there, but I had had a gig the night before followed by a sleepless few hours). To my delight, they had let me use my annual national park pass to get in to Yosemite (it was going to expire in April). We’d set up camp among the colorful tents of the rest of the troop, and then taken off on the 45-minute drive to Yosemite valley.

Once we descend to the Merced River, the fluorescent riparian green is enchanting. Giant white flowers balance on dogwood trees, petals toward the sky. Then you reach the meadows and enter nature’s cathedral, with the glacier-sliced mountains towering, El Capitan and Half Dome the most famous of them.

My companions offer to treat me to lunch at the Ahwahnee Hotel, now called the Majestic Hotel. Everything in the park has recently been renamed, because the concessions company lost its lease and demanded $50 million for the naming rights to all the attractions. Yosemite National Park declined that investment. Instead they renamed everything, which is a bit confusing — Curry Village is now Half Dome Village, for example.

Though I want to get a jump on an epic hike of my own, I accept lunch. The food is expensive but not great, but what do you expect in a national park? I enjoy endless coffee refills as I soak in the glorious dining hall with its four-story windows framing the wilderness like Gold Rush-era oil paintings.

After lunch, we go separate ways. I start by scrambling up the scree towards the mountains parallel to the historic hotel. It’s so easy to get away from the crowds at Yosemite. Just go a quarter mile off any beaten path (but not a dangerous one — stay on those famous trails like Yosemite Falls, the Mist Trail and the Four Mile Trail). As I clamber up the granite rocks, I come to various groups of mountain climbers belaying up the mountain. I see a baby rattlesnake and take a picture of it. It finds a hidey hole under a log and coils up in strike-ready position, then stays still.

I come back down the scree and start hiking the flat Valley Loop Trail toward the Mist trailhead. Ultimately, I do four to six miles, and my feet are hurting as I rush back to the car at the hotel to meet my group. They aren’t there, so I leave a note and go into the hotel. In the vast living room area, a man is playing jazz piano. I sit in an armchair, order a coffee and ponder my luck. I love a new wrinkle on an old experience. I’ve been to Yosemite so many times, but never sat or lunched in the Ahwahnee/Majestic.

We finally meet up and make it back to camp. I take a blissful nap in my two sleeping bags, with my favorite pillow. I can hear one of our elder scout leaders patiently playing a game with a young scout who keeps blurting out “Fuck!” among other expletives. Mr. Barnes, in his inimitable gentle and logical tone, explains that while the words don’t offend him, they betray a lack of vocabulary — can’t he come up with something more creative?

Later, after dinner and cleanup, scouts and adults sit around the campfire. First we do Thorns and Roses, which is where everyone goes around the circle saying what they loved and didn’t love about the trip. Every thorn must have a bud, or solution, however. It’s one of my favorite scout traditions. Then a few of us stay tending the flames while laughing at jokes and discussing philosophy, the future, technology (we are from the Bay Area after all) and, best of all, telling each other the plots of Twilight Zone episodes.

The next morning after breakfast and multiple sweeps through camp picking up microscopic bits of trash left by previous visitors, we go down to Hogdon Meadow and sit in a ceremonial circle. Our troop leader, Mr. Prime, tells us that he loves getting away to nature because it stops him from thinking so much about his life and helps him clarify the big decisions. Then he says we’ll do a group silence. “Since five minutes will seem like an eternity to teenagers and one minute is too little, let’s do two minutes of silence. Out of respect to where we’re from, I’ll set a timer on the iPhone,” he says. We all laugh, then go silent.

The birds over the meadow are calling and chirping and very quickly it begins to sound like a symphony to me. Motif, refrain, call and response. The same birds play the same three or four notes, every few seconds. The sky is blue, the clouds are gauzy gift bags filled with mountain rain, the marsh and wide-open meadow give us an instinctive sense of possibility and peace. A woodpecker pecks far across the field but in the group silence we all can hear it clearly. A few seconds later, the phone timer goes off, an electronic woodpecker answering the real one.

Everyone packs up their cars and leaves for Oakland — except us. Now comes day two for me and my son. We had planned to do a second epic hike on Sunday, because we are trying to get in shape for another Mt. Shasta climb. So, my enormous 15-year-old man-child and I take off for the valley, planning to do the Four Mile hike to Glacier Point. We hit the grocery store in Yosemite Valley first and buy a ton of food and treats for the hike. Then we park near the Swinging Bridge, cram a massive amount of water and extra warm clothes into our day packs, and cross the half mile to the other side of the valley on foot.

We’ve never done this hike, which is actually 4.6 miles from the valley floor to the top of Glacier Point. We aren’t sure how long it will take, but going by our Yosemite Falls experience, we estimate it could be up to three hours to get to the top. It’s already noon, and there are a few islands of dark clouds suspended above us. We have boots on and warm clothes and even a rain poncho, though — we’re very prepared.

It only takes an hour and a half to reach Union Point, the first viewing spot over the valley, three miles up. The trail is a lot easier than Yosemite Falls, I observe. Even though it’s all switchbacks, it’s very smooth and was once paved in spots. None of the careful picking of each step that you have to do on Yosemite Falls. Some of the people we pass are in sandals and shorts. One has two dogs (against the rules). One young guy we pass asks “How are you this fine day?” “Great, and you?” we reply. “Living the dream,” he says. We laugh. Once we get to the top, we talk with a young couple from Michigan. They look less prepared than us and are wondering whether to continue on to Glacier Point or not. We decide to forge on, as it’s only 1:30, while they turn back.

It takes almost another hour to get to Glacier Point. The terrain changes dramatically as you ascend and begin to cross around to the other side of the mountain, facing Half Dome. The woods are dark, and there are patches of melting snow. Suddenly, a narrow path with a sheer cliff to the left and an ice shelf to the right juts us precariously out over the valley. We are probably 6000 feet above it. The view is amazing but it gives me a bit of vertigo and I have to be careful as I wedge between the snow and rocks that mark the trail’s edge.

Finally we see a stone lodge atop a ridge and hear voices. When we reach the top, just two hours and twenty minutes from when we began climbing from the valley, we are back in civilization. There are throngs of people and a paved wheelchair trail that takes you out to Glacier Point. The view at 7214 feet above the valley is not disappointing. You are much higher than Yosemite falls, and now you can see beyond the valley walls to Tenaya Canyon and various snow-covered domes.

We eat lunch in the snack area of the lodge, throw away our trash, put on warmer clothes and start back down the mountain. One thing I love about hiking with my sons is they are a) such enthusiastic hikers and have learned not to complain (though my 10-year-old still whines, not surprisingly) and b) the incredible philosophical discussions we have while trekking. We talk about politics and various dynamics we observed with people around us. We muse about how little time, really, human civilization has been around and whether at every point in history technology has appeared to be moving too fast.

I’ve often thought about global warming in the context of other “great scares” that were around when I was a kid. Nuclear war was a big fear when I was young, and so were killer bees, whale extinction and deforestation of the Amazon. Yet I remember dropping out of college amid the inevitable sense that the world was going to shit and driving across America while living in my VW van and realizing how vast and beautiful my country was. It was a like a secret. Shh, don’t tell everyone that everything is still beautiful.

“Isn’t it weird how we discuss global warming?” I ask my son as we walk down the mountain. At breakfast one of the moms had been talking about a glacier in New Zealand that she’d visited; in the last 20 years it has melted away. “We talk about these things in a very apocalyptic way, and yet we get in our cars and sit in a traffic jam in Yosemite. So is it because it is either not apocalyptic and is just a negative meme we’re hammering on like the scares of my childhood, or is it something else?” I ask.

He thinks before responding. “It’s real, but people ignore it,” he replies. “It’s like Daddy, the doctor says he could have a heart attack if he doesn’t stop smoking and drinking, but he just keeps doing it.”

“But what about the idea that the real culprit is big industry, not us? Or is it like the drought, everyone must do their part?” I say.

“Yes, but if everyone stopped driving completely, that would send a message. Like if everyone limits their showers to 5 minutes, that has a huge effect. If we don’t stop driving, industry can just say, ‘You’re asking us to make these changes and you can’t even sacrifice driving.'” He goes on to tell me that he had been surprised in a class survey that his family was in the minority with having only one car. “My biology teacher doesn’t own a car, he bikes everywhere,” he says.

We go on to discuss myriad other topics. My son keeps thanking me for “making” him go on this hike. We’re so pleased that we have done it. Of course, after over an hour of descending, it becomes apparent to your body that going down is not a whole lot easier than going up, though it is slightly faster.

We get to the car and change out of our clothes for the drive home. I am too tired to get my phone out and take pictures (I had forgotten it in the car during the Four Mile hike), though this is a moment that a photographer is trying to capture with his tripod and long lens on the Swinging Bridge. The magic hour  turns the Merced River glassy gold, with bright green meadow banks on each meandering side. Ahead, Yosemite Falls roars luxuriant white water froth. The crowds are gone and only single photographers and curious ravens dot the valley.

We hop into Minimúsculo and trundle back home to Oakland, my son playing horrible rap music to keep me awake. We stumble in the door at 9:30 pm. I go to sleep just ten minutes later, at peace because everything is still beautiful, and I was there to see it.