Yosemite National Park

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It feels like I just started visiting National Parks and also like I have been waiting forever to go to Yosemite. Much of the park is closed in winter and I wasn’t prepared to deal with snow, so I waited five months to visit the National Park of all National Parks.

I had seen so many images of Yosemite before arriving that it was genuinely strange to arrive at Tunnel View and see in real life exactly what I had seen in pictures. I actually had less of an idea of what to expect when I saw Grand Canyon than I did of Yosemite Valley. It was exactly what I expected except that I didn’t expect to see what I expected.

It is not exactly clear why some parks are so much more popular than others, but Yosemite is incredibly popular and perhaps because I had been expecting as much, the crowds didn’t bother me. On my first day I headed straight for the valley where I kept taking a picture first and then noticing there was a waterfall in it. I hadn’t realized Yosemite Falls is only the biggest of many.

I didn’t have much time before the sun would go down, so I explored the valley floor and then I hiked to Lower Yosemite Falls. When you’re close to the bottom, you can only see the Fall right above you, which I didn’t give a thought until I had nearly made it back to the road and turned around because I saw someone taking a picture in front of me only to realize I could now see the entire waterfall. Like I was in a bad comedy, I did a doubletake.

Despite the crowds, there were deer everywhere. They hardly seemed to mind me walking by and neither did the squirrels. The sun was setting as I drove out of the park and I stopped at several points to see the sun changing the appearance of the granite walls.

The next day I headed back to Yosemite Valley and took the shuttle to Happy Isles where I began Mist Trail. I pick my hikes based almost entirely on what my guidebook recommends, but I don’t do much research beyond that and I had not given much thought to why Mist Trail is called Mist Trail. After the first mile, you reach a bridge at the base of Vernal Fall, which is beautiful, and then you continue on through the wilderness until you reach the stairs--600 of them.

They were like the Stairs of Cirith Ungol. Steep. Uneven. Narrow. And, then, wet. The mist--more like torrent--from Vernal Fall hits you as you climb and it’s kind of miserable and also refreshing and maybe a little fun. I was soaked almost immediately and then I couldn’t see through my glasses, so I pushed them on top of my head and continued on with limited vision.

Eventually the trail climbs out of the mist and I dried off quickly. It’s funny what your mind does to keep you going, because at the end of the wet part of the trail, I thought that as soon as I was dry it would be easy, but as soon as it was dry, I realized I was tired. Later I thought that the uphill was so hard, and it would be easy on the way down, but the way down was painful. I am usually wrong, but it doesn’t matter; the point is that I made it.

The final stretch to the top of Vernal Fall is a set of narrow stairs along a granite wall that is made not terrifying by a guardrail. There is another guardrail at the edge of the Fall so you can stand right next to it. Sitting on warm granite next to a waterfall is very peaceful, but I kept thinking of the stairs back down, so I didn’t stay there very long.

Once I was back down at the bridge, I filled up my Camelback and decided to try the other trail to the top of Nevada Fall (the two trails run into each other, which I didn’t realize at first). This is the John Muir Trail, which is more than 200 miles total and which I have a dream of hiking eventually, so I was very excited to be on it briefly. It is longer but easier than Mist Trail, and the views are spectacular.

I wondered if it was a mistake to visit the top of another waterfall. How different could they be? But I’m so glad I hiked up to Nevada Fall. It had a different feel than Vernal Fall. There was more room to wander and everyone was a little quieter. There’s a bridge that crosses the water just feet from the Fall, so you can stand in the center of it and hope it doesn’t collapse. I was nervous about getting down on the ground before the sun set, but it took me at least three tries to leave. I kept finding myself stretching out on the granite just to sit for a little bit longer.

I have been having problems with my legs cramping again. My calves seem to almost seize up completely and I do what I can, but mostly ignore them when it comes time to hike. I hardly notice as they get better and worse throughout the hike. With my body in its current state, however, it kind of starts to break down at about mile seven. I noticed this in Bryce Canyon and Zion. Mostly it’s my feet that start to object to every step. I go all eye-of-the-tiger on the final stretch, not stopping until I can really rest.

On my hike to Nevada Fall, I kind of thought the large rock I was staring at was Half Dome, since the trail runs right through that area. It wasn’t until the next day when I drove to Glacier Point and got more perspective that I realized how wrong I was. I was really looking at Liberty Cap, which Half Dome dwarfs. Half Dome just became that much more intimidating, but I would still love to hike it.

The view from Glacier Point was beautiful and from there I hiked Sentinel Dome. Something about being on a dome removes a barrier between you and whatever you’re looking at; I felt more at the edge than I did even on cliffs. The climb to the top of the dome is easy, but once I was up there, I got a little disoriented and could not immediately find my way down. After taking in the view, I casually walked around in circles until I eventually figured it out.

From Sentinel Dome I hiked to Taft Point. A guardrail lets you stand right on the edge of a cliff, making for one of the most stunning views of the valley. You see large cracks in the granite, some of them forming beautiful patterns and others with large boulders stuck between them. One looked like it led to a perfect little viewing spot from which you would never be able to return.

I knew I was taking a slightly different trail back to Glacier Point since I wouldn’t be taking a detour to Sentinel Dome this time, but I think I accidentally took a wrong turn at some point and ended up on a trail that hugs the valley wall. It was an easy enough trail, but there was no room for error and sometimes I had to scramble. Finally I reached a creek for which there was not the obvious crossing I had come to expect. I shimmied across a couple fallen logs, looking graceful I’m sure but there were no witnesses. Finally I ran right into the trail I think I should have been on the whole time, and I made my way (struggled, actually, because I'd hit mile seven again) back to Glacier Point.

On my way out of the park, I stopped at Mariposa Grove, which features giant sequoias like I saw in Sequoia National Park. There are other areas of the park, especially Hetch Hetchy and Tioga Road, that I originally planned on visiting, but that would have required even more driving, and the days I spent in the park were already very long and exhausting. I had a secret dream of waking up early on Sunday morning and hiking to the top of Yosemite Falls, but instead I woke up and had trouble walking, so I decided to save it for my next trip.

I ended up being very happy that Yosemite was not the first park I visited even though images of it were what inspired me to start visiting National Parks. I had a strange moment the day I arrived where I wondered if this was really what I wanted to be doing--if I wasn’t just going through the motions--and then I had two long days of adventure where I saw more new things in a matter of hours than I probably did all of last year, and I had my answer.

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