You Had Me at Yosemite

Itinerary:

  • Thursday: Fly to Fresno, CA and drive to our Airbnb in Mariposa
  • Friday: Day 1 in Yosemite National Park; hiked Mirror Lake loop
  • Saturday: Day 2 in Yosemite National Park; hiked the Nevada and Vernal Falls loop via the Mist Trail; dinner out Mariposa
  • Sunday: Fly back to Atlanta

Dates: June 8 to 11, 2017

Our Odyssey:

“Excuse me, you don’t happen to be leaving by chance are you?”

I can’t count the number of times Tim and I asked this question to strangers standing by their cars in Yosemite Valley’s overcrowded parking lot, swarming with vultures like us seeking a soon-to-be-open spot. It was Friday morning around 10am – which is apparently too late to find parking in the valley. We’ve visited 17 other national parks together, but had never seen one as busy as this.

During the summer, Yosemite Valley sees an average of 14,000 visitors per day, and they are all looking for parking in one of 3 main lots. When those fill up, cars park haphazardly on the side of roads or in random paved areas that park rangers would certainly frown upon.

After circling the lot for a half hour, we evaluated our options. Maybe we could check out another area of the park – like Mariposa Grove? Nope, that area is closed for renovation. Hmm, what about Tuolumne Meadows? Sorry, the road to get there is closed due to snow – you could go around outside the park but it’ll take you 6 hours. OK, so circling this lot is our only option, got it.

It was partly our fault – we had to call into work meetings that morning over on the east coast, so we couldn’t arrive at the recommended 8am (which would require a 6:30am departure from our Airbnb) for ample parking. As we navigated  the Disney-like infrastructure built all around the “village”, we couldn’t help our frustration with how many people we had to wrangle with during what was intended to be a relaxing nature weekend. There were lodges, restaurants, gift shops, art galleries, and shuttle busses galore. Were we in a national park or a resort town? As it turns out, both.

Like many of the United States’ older national parks, Yosemite’s infrastructure was built long before it became a faux pas to overdevelop our wild places. The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel) opened smack dab in the middle of Yosemite Valley in 1927 (one night costs about $400 during the summer) to lure tourists to our nation’s newly-expanded wild west.

The park’s abundance of amenities and proximity to major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles make it an easy and logical stop for many tourists who haven’t previously had the opportunity to explore a national park in the US. And they should – after all, our parks are for everyone and it’s nearly impossible to visit a park without falling in love with nature.

But, my unproven and scarcely researched theory is that with novice hikers crammed into a tiny valley of less than 6 square miles, with an atmosphere akin to any amusement park where the attractions are controlled with the push of a button and safety is assumed, people make mistakes. They lean over a rail to take a picture. They wade in the rivers. They underestimate their food and water needs. About 15 people die in Yosemite every year, and 200 have to be pulled from the park by search and rescue due to injuries or accidents. Statistically, with such high number of visitors, your chances of dying in Yosemite are very small – but when the first thing you see when you pull into the entrance is a poster of a missing 20-something guy who was last seen at the top of Vernal Fall 3 days ago, you feel a little unsettled. And you should. These are, after all, America’s most wild and dramatic places. Our tallest mountains. Our biggest animals. Our most powerful rivers and waterfalls. Yet when you ride from one scenic viewpoint to another on a tourist shuttle that rides on paved roads all through the park, and there are vending machines, bathrooms and lodges abound, it’s easy to fall into a false sense of security and forget that humans don’t have actually have control here.

But I digress. This post is supposed to be about our amazing hiking adventures, right? I’ll get there. By this point you probably don’t have the most favorable impression of Yosemite, and frankly, we didn’t either. But Yosemite redeemed herself beyond our expectations over the next two days.

Once we finally found parking (an hour later), we walked to the Visitor Center, got oriented, watched a quick video, and used the bathroom, all while fending off the limbs and bodies of oblivious strangers trying to figure out where they were going. Okay yeah, I don’t like crowds. We headed promptly for a board outside with a map that listed out hikes in the area, picked one at random that we could do in a few hours, and then embarked on a shuttle ride to our destination – Mirror Lake. As soon as we got off the bus at our stop and started towards the trail, we felt instantly better. Finally, 2 hours after arriving, we were in the nature we were seeking.

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Hiking Mirror Lake – things got a little wet

The trail started off smooth and level until we reached Mirror Lake, which is actually dry much of the year but fills up in the spring with snow melt. Most people stop once they reach the lake (about a mile from the trail head) and picnic, take pictures and generally lounge around. We came to walk as far as we could, though, so we carried on, initially through trees, and shortly after through a rocky terrain with Yosemite’s most iconic rock walls surrounding us from this part of the valley.

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Mirror Lake

About a mile later, our path led to a small pool of water – our trail was flooded. Do we proceed or turn back? We kept going, of course. Pro tip- water proof hiking boots are only water proof until they are completely submerged in water, and then you’re feet are swimming in a solid water-tight boot-shaped bucket. But when you have the opportunity to frolic around puddles in the woods, you don’t complain just because your feet are wet! For much of the remainder of the trail, until it began looping back towards the start, we would trek through intermittent streams and pools, giggling at how unexpected our leisurely, easy hike had become.

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Tim always knows how to make a splash

Happy with the outcome of our first day in the park, we walked back to our car, musing about all the open spots that were there now at this late afternoon hour.

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Yosemite’s impressive rock formations as seen from the Mirror Lake trail in the middle of Yosemite Valley

That evening we stopped by a small grocery store on the way home, grabbed two small frozen pizzas and two beers for dinner, and curled up on the couch of our place reading and watching TV, making the day a perfect mix of action and relaxation.

The next morning, having learned from the day before, we got to the parking lot shortly before 8am. And sure enough, we had our pick of parking spots. Now that we’d mastered Yosemite’s logistics, we took the shuttle to the Happy Isles stop where we embarked on an 8-mile loop hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls. This hike was pure adventure of the highest caliber. It began with a gradual but long uphill climb to a bridge cross the river with Vernal Fall poking out from around the cliffs in the distance. A sign by the bridge warned people to stay out of the water with the story of a mother who lost both of her sons when they were wading in the river and got swept away. Another tragic reminder of nature’s power.

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Seriously powerful water

Beyond the bridge the hike continues up along the right of the waterfall via 600 steps through the fall’s “mist” – which is more like a torrential downpour (we later learned that this is the first summer in several years where the falls have been flowing with so much water due to the break in California’s drought). Breathless and soaking wet, we paused at a dryer spot. In front of us was a perfect rainbow- a beautiful reward for our grueling work to get to this point.

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A rainbow over the mist of Vernal Fall

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I made Tim stop in the middle of the downpour for a photo

But we weren’t out of the woods – err…mist – yet. We still had many steps to go. My boots were heavy with water and my pants clung to my legs. Thankfully my rain jacket kept my shirt and arms relatively dry and my hood kept the water mostly out of my eyes so I could continue to focus on my footing as we climbed higher, with the roaring river below the edge to our left.

Finally we made it to the top and were greeted by a community of hikers who had also just made the climb and were drying their socks out on rocks in the sun while snacking or sleeping. Tim and I found rock to sit on, pried off our hiking boots and socks, wrung out a lot of water, and laid them out to dry (it was a futile effort). From here, while catching our breath and restoring energy with Tim’s magical PB&Js, we could see over the falls, with a full view of the seemingly-permanent rainbow.

And then, shoes and socks still soaked, we climbed on, this time towards Nevada Fall. Just as my pants had finally dried, we came to a part of the trail where, once again, we would be going through the mist of the waterfall. This time  it was much more mellow, but still left us drenched.

Shortly after, we passed by another hiker coming from the opposite direction. “Grab a large stick, there’s a small black bear on the trail ahead,” she told us. Encountering a bear is always a mix of terror and excitement – it’s such a thrill to see these beautiful animals in the wild, but they are incredibly dangerous. By the time we got to the part of the trail where the bear was, he or she was about 20 feet away ambling over some rocks, beautiful in a honey-colored coat. I only caught a glimpse before he or she ducked below our line of sight. Fun fact – black bears can actually have black, brown, cinnamon, blonde or even white fur.

By this point we were along the left side of Nevada Falls, still quite far below its top with a lot of climbing to go. When we eventually made it to the top, we were once again surrounded by a gathering of fellow hikers taking a break and taking in the view. We followed a short trail down to an overlook, giving us a full view of the thundering water plummeting over the edge. And once again, a vibrant rainbow hovered over the falls. It was simply magic.

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Rainbow over the rushing water pouring from Nevada Fall

We paused on the rocks to eat the rest of the food we packed and to rest again after the long climb. We were officially at the halfway mark, and the rest of the trail would be downhill, following switchbacks past more views of Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and Nevada Fall. The whole day had felt like more than just a hike – it was an experience. We had just climbed to the top of two waterfalls via a torrential “mist” and a wonderland of rainbows.

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Tim and me with Nevada Falls behind us

Back in Mariposa, we spent our evening at a microbrewery called 1850, sampling their beers and devouring a lot of delicious cheesy, meaty food. The food coma hit us both hard and we crashed into bed early, capping off a weekend that was simultaneously relaxing, physically challenging and awe-inspiring. Which, if you ask me, is the best kind of weekend of all.

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Half Dome

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Yosemite Falls

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