Where: Yosemite National Park, CA
When: Late May 2011
We unexpectedly arrived in Yosemite in complete darkness after a monster drive from Vegas. What should have taken 6-hours in our shiny red convertible, ended up more than double that – pulling up at our motel in pieces at 1:30am! We learnt a key lesson that day: Always check ahead with US Highways Department for road closures. Our intended route into the park through the west entrance was still closed in late May due to snow. We only discovered that key information mid-afternoon once at Mono Lake. The diversion? Well the Sierras are not overly navigable in snow, so we had no choice but to head hours north, up nearly as far as Lake Tahoe, circling far beyond the park’s borders to get west. Having left Vegas that morning in t-shirts and sunglasses, our surroundings changed dramatically, and taking it in turns behind the wheel we completed the journey with windows open in the frigid night air, filled with gas station coffees fighting to stay awake. It wasn’t a good start.
I knew that two days in Yosemite wouldn’t do the park justice; an area roughly the size of the US state of Rhode Island! It was to be a whirl-wind tour, and hopefully a place we could return to in the future to discover the back-country trails. Due to the weather conditions of prevailing snow, the northern Tuolumne Meadows section of the park was off-limits, accessed by the main Tioga Road (Highway-120). We therefore decided to split our two brief days accordingly.
Day 1: Yosemite Valley Highlights
Due to the cost of staying in the park over-night we based ourselves at Yosemite View Lodge, a simple but adequate motel a couple of miles outside the eastern Arch Rock entrance. From there it was a slow, windy drive into the main valley area, passing through the famous narrow passageway that gives the entrance station its name…
Yosemite valley is renowned for spectacular waterfalls, dramatic rock formations, and crowds of people! In late May, due to rapidly melting snow, the waterfalls really were in their full glory. If only I had been more skilful/ patient with the camera I could have perhaps captured their ethereal quality better. Only a short (and accessible) half a mile wander from a car park, took us to Bridalveil Fall. One of the most-viewed of Yosemite’s wonders, the fall plunges 620-feet, famously wafting a mist in the breeze that resembles a bridal veil.
Given to the ever-increasing number of visitors to Yosemite, the main road through the valley is one-way. Slowly making our way along it headed west, we were struck with the monolith El Capitan granite peak, which looms prominently into the valley. A world-renowned hot-spot for rock-climbers, we peered up bewildered at the very idea that people could climb such a vertical rock-face.
At the Happy Isles trailhead we joined the Mist trail – Yosemite’s signature hike. Our intention was to make the 2.4-mile round trip to the top of Vernal Fall, and then if feeling fit, continue onto Nevada Fall (5.4-mile round trip), OR even take the intersecting John Muir trail back to the trailhead to make a 6.5-mile loop. This did not pan out. I blame the crowds. But the constant up-hill climb up the ever-increasingly slippery trail didn’t help! What we covered of the Mist trail did offer spectacular, up-close views of Vernal Fall, following along the scenic Merced River. Most people turned around after reaching the footbridge 0.8 miles in. Probably a good move because that was a great ‘photo point’. But we didn’t take much pause, eager to reach the top.
The trail soon became a steep granite stairway, with little to no place to hold on, and living up to its name, spraying us with a fine – but very wet – mist. After a slow couple of hundred feet past the footbridge I chickened out (lame I know), and retreated. I was feeling uneasy with the slow, precarious footing, with people squeezing past. I didn’t know this at the time, but according to the Park’s website, more people die on the Mist trail than anywhere else in Yosemite. Statistically this is probably something to do with it being so well-trafficked, but ultimately the deaths were due to the often deceptively strong currents. Less than two months after we walked that very trail three people in their twenties fell to their deaths together in the cascade of Vernal Fall. The group had disregarded safety fences and signs to cool off, before two slipped into the water and a third tried to save them.
Feeling hungry we headed to Yosemite Village, where a group of deer were roaming the parking lot. The place is not exactly what I would call a ‘village’; the site is home to the park’s headquarters/ visitor centre, residences for park workers, a post office and a few concessions. After a deli sandwich lunch, we gave the exhibits in the visitor centre a quick browse, then watched the short Spirit of Yosemite film in the auditorium. It proved a good introduction to the park, and more importantly, a nice little post-lunch rest stop.
Completing our tour of the village, we popped into The Ansel Adams Gallery to look at the collection of photographs – old and modern, then headed across the street to Yosemite Cemetery. Home to the Pioneer graves that were originally scattered across the Yosemite Valley before the national park was formed in 1864, Native Americans – including a tombstone that simply read’s “A Boy” – and more recent park visitors and dignitaries. Cemeteries hold a certain morbid curiosity for me. I always wonder what the lives of those whose remains rest there held. Good or bad, they certainly ended their time in a tranquil, natural place.
It was late afternoon by the time we reached Yosemite Falls, one of the world’s tallest cascades. The falls are made up of three separate falls: Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet). Short of time, we took the 1-mile loop trail that took us to the base of the lower fall. The ‘strenuous’ all-day hike to the top would have to wait for another trip!
We ended our visit to the park that day with a drink in the Ahwahnee Hotel (now renamed The Majestic). The grand, historical hotel is famous for providing interior inspiration for the sets of the fictional Overlook Hotel in the horror film The Shining. The giant Grand Hall fireplace and huge tree-truck vaulted ceiling definitely felt familiar! Having spent a decent amount of the evening (after a few drinks) posing for predictable tourist photos around the place the unthinkable happened… we lost the camera! Many of our Yosemite shots were therefore never seen again, including all those from that evening in the hotel. It wasn’t an overly expensive camera – a simple point-and-shot – but the loss of so many memories is something that still kicks me today!
Day 2: Mariposa Grove
The next day we were destined for the Park’s southern borders. According to Google Maps this was a simple 1 hour-15 minute drive into the valley, before turning south along the Wawona Road. In reality it was a painfully slow drive that involved lots of single-track sections where construction workers patched up the winter-beaten road. Over 2-hours later we arrived in the parking lot of Mariposa Grove, and instantly felt like we had left the sun in the valley behind us!
The Grove is home to about 500 mature giant sequoia trees, which by total volume are the largest known living things on earth! The parking lot was much less busy than those in the valley, but with a handful of families – and carrying very little by way of supplies – we hit the shaded Lower Grove trail.
As the trail slowly progressed in elevation, the number of fellow visitors dwindled, to the point that Conrad and I found ourselves completely alone. Aside from the truly monstrous trees – including ‘Grizzly Giant’ – the thing that struck us was the ever-increasing amount of snow! By the time we reached the [closed] museum 2 miles and 1000 feet in, the air was biting. We sat on a wooden fence (because the picnic tables were buried under snow) and ate some crisps and Pop Tarts in eery silence.
We continued uphill towards the Wawona Point Vista, which I think we got to, but am not certain due to the amount of snow on the ground. Regardless, the trail got steeper as we switch-backed our way upward and I couldn’t help but feel very alone. I was on high-alert for any sounds that could possibly have indicated bears! Yosemite is famous for its Black Bear population, thought to be around 300-500 strong. Signs throughout the park warn campers and hikers to be vigilant with food and disposing of rubbish safely, but sadly people can be stupid and not follow rules. This can led to bears becoming conditioned to associate humans with food. When this happens and the bears get a little too ‘friendly’, rangers have no choice but to follow protocol and kill the animal for public safety. So hiking that day, we made sure to take all rubbish with us, and kept talking so we didn’t startle any animals going about their business. We didn’t see a single bear in Yosemite, but from our other [limited] experiences so far we have found black bears to be curious but skittish.
I came away from Yosemite wanting more time. It is spectacular, and despite a few closures, we felt lucky to visit during the less busy season. Yosemite is notorious for being the most frequented park in the Summer months, and I prefer to enjoy nature with minimal reminders of humanity.