Yosemite National Park has been at the top of my list of places to visit for several years.
I swap out the background photo on my computer desktop several times a week, for variety, and have collected a good number of scenic background images off the internet in the process. At some point, I realized that several of my favorite photos were all from the same place: Yosemite. What a beautiful place it must be, I thought, and made it a priority to visit there the next time I was in California.
Once again, the winter is not the best time to visit—but it is not the worst time, either, at least not on the beautiful warm February day that I spent there. In late summer and fall, the snow-fed waterfalls usually dry up completely. On this day it was warm enough for the snow to melt, meaning most of the grand waterfalls were flowing.
Though some roads are closed in the winter, and I was not able to see everything in my short time there, here is a basic Hitchhiker’s Guide to Yosemite.
Entering the park on the west side via highway 120, the first part of the park you can drive to is Hetch Hetchy.
Actually, the Evergreen Road that connects you to the Hetch Hetchy Road comes right before you enter the park on 120. I ended up entering the park, getting a park map, and making a U-turn back out of the park to visit Hetch Hetchy. I did not know what the heck Hetch Hetchy was, but it was part of the park, and I was there to visit the park. If I tried to come back to it later, it would require a pretty big backtrack. I planned to exit the park to the south, and Hetch Hetchy is the northernmost part of the Yosemite.
Hetch Hetchy. There, I said it again.
The ranger at the Hetch Hetchy entrance to the park was more strict than the main entrance, which she explained was because the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir serves as a water source for the San Francisco Bay area. They were very concerned that the water could be polluted by terrorists or just a very, very dirty swimmer. I do not know why they are so concerned about that one particular water supply, when the vast majority of reservoirs that we drink water from are open to water skiers, bass boats, and drunk swimmers. I guess the terrorists just hate San Francisco.
Eyeing the kayak in the back of my pickup, the ranger emphasized that no boating was allowed anywhere in the park.
That was a shame, too, because the lake at Hetch Hetchy was beautiful, and traveling by water would have been the quickest and easiest way to see the areas across and farther up the lake. The road only approached one corner of the lake, at the dam, with hiking trails heading out from that point.
Hiking and backpacking are the main non-terrorist reasons to visit Hetch Hetchy. I could see a waterfall on the far side of the lake, and the brochures I had been given at the park entrance mentioned that it was a short 30-minute hike to the first of the lake’s waterfalls. According to the map, there should have been two waterfalls in view across the lake; one of them was apparently dry at the time. I later determined that it was the close, 30-minute-hike waterfall that had disappeared; the waterfall that I ended up hiking to was listed in the park brochure as being a “3 to 4 hour” round trip. It only took me 2 hours, but I wasn’t wasting time.
I was impressed by the effort it must have taken to build the trail. After crossing the dam, the trail passed through a granite tunnel and went up and down several sets of stone stairs, which were alternately cut from solid rock or built from the rocks that had been so removed.
Wooden bridges crossed over the stream at the bottom of the falls. The water at Wapama Falls drops a mere 1,300 feet or so, though it might have been 1,700 feet before the lake was built in the early 1900s. John Muir, of Sierra Club fame, fought unsuccessfully against flooding the valley, saying that Hetch Hetchy was Yosemite Valley’s twin.
Sort of. Photos from before the lake was built show a beautiful valley, but one that is only a poor stepsister to Yosemite.
I do have to admire the Sierra Club’s tenacity, though. It has been almost 100 years since they lost the battle over Hetch Hetchy, and yet they are still fighting. They now argue that the lake should be drained, the dam removed, and the valley restored. Good luck with that.
Bridal Veil Falls
The outhouses near the parking lot contained one of the best “obvious signs” I have ever seen:
DO NOT put trash in toilets
It is extremely difficult to remove
By the way, you can put my name first on the list of people who do not want the job of removing trash from the underground outhouse pits.
The sights in Yosemite tend to come in one of two forms: waterfalls and big rocks. The first really, really big rock you’ll notice in Yosemite Valley is El Capitan, which is the “largest granite monolith in the world”. Unless you are a rock climber, it is really just something to look at as you drive by.
According to the internet, which is always correct and without error, “El Capitan” is a translation of the native name “To-to-kon oo-lah”, which referenced a Paiute chief named To-to-kon. Since the rock was named after a chief, it was translated into Spanish as “El Capitan”. It was then not translated into English, just like the rest of California was not translated into English (Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc.).
Before even learning about its “chief” background, I had the thought that someone could carve a really huge statue of Crazy Horse out of the 3,500-foot-tall chunk of granite. Luckily, no one is looking to try such an art project. For one thing, El Capitan doesn’t need it; it is beautiful in its own right. Also, if anyone did carve a statue out of El Capitan, the Sierra Club would just make him put it back.
Mirror Lake and Half Dome
Parking is kind of a mess in Yosemite Valley; you can’t even park at the visitor center to ask where you can park.
After searching to find the entrance to a one-way loop, I was able to find a parking lot near the start of the trail to Mirror Lake.
It is a 1.2 mile walk from the trailhead to Mirror Lake, at the base of Half Dome. The famous rock face and the reflections in the lake have been the subject of many a photo, including some of the images that drew me to Yosemite.
The lake, it turns out, has been slowly filling with sand. It used to be kept dredged for tourism reasons, but the park service now takes a natural approach to the maintenance of Yosemite. Meaning: Mirror Lake will soon disappear entirely, replaced by Mirror Sandbar.
I would still count it worth the hike, probably, for the views along the way of North Dome and Mount Watkins, and of course the nearby Half Dome. Though, for photographic beauty, Half Dome looks better from a distance or at an angle than it does up close.
My favorite photo of Yosemite, and the single one most responsible for me visiting, was a huge shot of Yosemite Falls taken from across a wide meadow, with tiny cars and buses parked in a line at its base.
I was able to recreate that photo, somewhat, though at a time of year with much less water flowing.
According to park information, the two-level Yosemite Falls are the tallest waterfalls in North America, and 5th largest in the world, at 2,425 feet tall. According to other sources, Yosemite ranks anywhere from 6th to 19th. You would think that someone would have figured out how to rank something as simple as height, but there seems to be some debate on what exactly a waterfall is, and how you measure it. You might also think that all half-mile-tall waterfalls on Earth would have been noticed by now. But amazingly enough, Yosemite was knocked down a notch when a taller waterfall was discovered in Peru in 2005.
A trail led to the base of Yosemite’s lower fall. By that point, it was getting late in the day, and I felt I had done enough hiking. I wanted to make it at least as far as Fresno that night, and had a long way to go.
I stopped myself. What, really, had I accomplished, if I simply recreated one of my favorite photographs? Sure, it was much better to see it in person, but it wasn’t exactly new, either. Plus, there was a sign at the trailhead with a John Muir quote about how the one thing people should do when visiting Yosemite is to stand right by the lower fall and admire the power of nature. Or something like that.
So, I parked alongside the road and started hiking up the trail. The waterfall remained out of sight, behind the trees, until I reached a bridge over the stream that flowed out from the waterfall.
Here was a much better view of the lower fall, but the trail still stopped well short of the fall’s base. Between the viewpoint and the spot John Muir had talked about was a sloping field of boulders.
I debated the obvious for a minute. Should I leave the trail and hike up to the base of the falls? It did not seem like a big deal, and would not have given me pause except for my bad experiences off the beaten path in Oregon. But what is the point of experiencing things if you cannot truly experience them?
I climbed over a couple of giant felled trees and carefully made my way up the rock pile.
This was much better, I realized. Instead of seeing things I had already seen, I was getting to view things from a different angle. For instance, you could not see from any other distance or angle that the lower falls do not simply fall in one long cascade. Rather, the water bounces off a ledge 2/3 of the way down and shoots off to one side. And I was also able to see the high poolwhere the water finally comes to rest after the 2,425-foot drop.
Satisfied that I had done my job and could now leave Yosemite, I hiked back out for the slow drive south.