The first time I visited Yosemite it was like walking in a dream. I couldn’t seem to wake myself and hold onto the immense, overwhelming reality of nature. I could see the granite walls of El Capitan and Half Dome, I could hear the waterfalls and watch the mist fall to the rocks below. But somehow it was just too much for me to process in a short visit and I knew I wanted to go back someday to really experience this mighty land. Yosemite was at the top of my travel wish list.
Then, the perfect opportunity appeared. I had airline vouchers left from a canceled trip and had plans to visit friends in central California—Yosemite seemed the perfect socially distanced vacation. I was able to book early enough to get a hotel in the park, allowing us a coveted entry permit. This time, I wanted to experience Yosemite the way I love to see the world, on foot, following my heart deep into the beauty of nature.
The first day we stopped at a grocery store to pick up breakfast and lunch supplies and then drove the rest of the morning, arriving at the park entrance at lunch time. It isn’t easy to get to Yosemite. There are long curving roads with few guardrails to protect from the precipitous drops as we climbed higher into the great Sierra Nevada mountains. We spent the afternoon enjoying the famous and spectacular Yosemite Valley. High granite walls make a narrow valley floor with large ponderosa pines and a gentle, meandering river. We stopped and put our feet in the river, smelled the warm pines, said hello to a deer who was complete unimpressed with our presence. I love the dry warm air with a gentle breeze and the amazing smell and feel of the vast western United States, so different from the humid south. By late summer, the waterfalls that make the valley impossibly beautiful have dried up but we were able to walk the short path to lower Yosemite Falls which still had a bit of water. Hamilton spent time rock climbing in the valley in his 20’s and enjoyed reliving the memory of his adventurous youth.
That first evening we drove about thirty miles down to our hotel at the far southern end of this park which is about the size of Rhode Island. I booked us into the newly renovated Victorian hotel, The Wawona, built around 1903. It is charming with claw-footed tubs and wide porches; but, alas no air conditioning so we made do on the hot summer nights with a fan. The dinning room offers three buffet meals a day and I was happy with the quick and easy dinner and then back to our room to read ourselves to sleep—no tv or internet but some cell service.
We had the next three days to hike so I strategically chose trails to give us the best experience of the park. I knew our hiking limit was around 8 miles a day at 7000 feet altitude and I don’t really love trails that are extremely steep. With the help of a good guide book, I chose our first trail close to our hotel—the trail to the Giant Sequoias. The largest trees on earth, they only grow in a small area of the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas. They grow up to 300 feet tall, 29 feet in diameter and live to 3000 years. Because of pandemic restrictions and a storm that badly damaged the trees near the parking lot, the only way to reach the Sequoias is a two mile walk to the beginning of the trail and then another mile to Grizzly Giant and California Tunnel Tree. Further up the trail, we met Cothespin Tree and The Faithful Couple—two trees growing together. Ultimately, we made it to the Mariposa Grove of about 80 Giant Sequoias, all identified but not named. Our final destination was to a summit overlooking a green valley and a fire watch station for the surrounding area. We had lunch of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, cheese, apples, cashews and chocolate. The trip back down gave us another perspective of these amazing beings, sentient and strong, wise and resilient. We hiked nearly 10 miles and were ready for a cold drink and a hot shower. Hiking brings the most delicious exhaustion with brilliant memories of beauty and a satisfaction of a trail well walked.
For our second hike, we chose to drive to Glacier Point, an overlook of the Yosemite Valley and a closer view of the iconic Half Dome. We arrived early so we could miss the crowds and see the valley in the morning light, tinged with a bit of smoky haze from the wildfires farther north. We parked at the McGurk Meadow trailhead that went to the Dewey Point trail. The first half of the trail was through a boggy meadow. I didn’t expect to see such beautiful wildflowers that time of year, but the purple and yellow flowers were busy with golden butterflies and fat yellow bumblebees. Farther down the trail we climbed higher through large groves of pines, weaving through the freshly cut stumps of downed trees recently cleared by the park service. After a final steep hill, we came to a magnificent overlook directly across from El Capitan and looking down the valley to Half Dome. Yet another perfect luncheon spot with the same menu as the day before—peanut butter is always delicious after a four-mile climb. I was delighted to see the flower meadows again on the way back to the trail head and happily climbed into the air conditioned car after 8 miles of hiking. We stopped again at the market near the hotel and got gas and cold drinks. The only beer available just happened to be Hamilton’s favorite oatmeal stout. We flopped onto the porch chairs and pulled off our boots and enjoyed our drinks with some snacks before a bath and an early dinner. The evening was warm and the room was hot so we mostly fell asleep early and enjoyed the extra rest.
On the third day, we debated how far we would be able to hike but as we drove along and had some coffee, we made our next plan for the Tuolumne Meadows area north of the valley and in the more alpine country of the John Muir Trail. The Elizabeth Lake trail seemed to be the right length and incline for our sore legs and time constraints, and it turned out to be perfect. The first part of the trail was fairly steep and, at 8000 feet, I had to stop often and catch my breath and drink some water but eventually the trail leveled off and I found myself in “Alpine Hobbitland” all presided over by Unicorn Peak (10,823 ft). I’m sure if I looked closely there were fairies and water sprites–it was that picture-perfect. We chose a log by the shining Elizabeth Lake and had the same hikers’ lunch that always seems to satisfy. Around the edge of the lake were a few other hikers with fishing poles and families enjoying the clear, cold water. This trail was only five miles but the incline and the altitude were plenty for the third and final hike of our Yosemite adventure.
That afternoon we drove back to Sacramento to an airport hotel for our flight the next morning. We were so hungry and dirty, the best we could find was a dinner of In and Out burgers and fries and a shared chocolate shake to end the long but glorious trip. I enjoyed the air-conditioned room and made sure I was good and cold all night long. The flights back were slightly delayed but otherwise uneventful and we got home safe and sound. Caroline did a great job taking care of the farm while we were away.
I was so happy to have such a complete experience of Yosemite and feel like I really got a long and deep encounter of this iconic land. By walking into the land, I saw, smelled, felt and heard the world around me and was able to absorb nature deep into my bones. To a certain extent, Yosemite will always be a dream but now it is a dream I can hold on to and re-experience anytime my mind wants to wander down a deep forest trail or overlook a granite valley. Dream and memory are now woven tightly together.
Hamilton and I enjoyed our adventure so much that we are now planning to visit other parks for some extended day hikes and adventures—I’m looking at you, Olympic and Glacier. Thank goodness the Great Smoky Mountains are in my back yard to keep me happily hiking through out the year.