They have a tradition of booking a series of rooms at the centrally located Lodge at the Falls the moment they become available (precisely a year and a day in advance). Pretty impressive when you consider that Memorial Day is the busiest time of the year for the park.
As someone who’s spend most of his life in California, I’m mildly ashamed to say I’d never been to Yosemite. The equator and the arctic circle, sure, but not this jewel of the national park system which sits practically in my own back yard. I even made it to Yellowstone before Yosemite. They do start with the same letter… that’s gotta be worth something, right?
I didn’t think much about it until the folks who work in Yosemite started asking where we were from, and the reply of “Orange County” always engendered the same response: “oh, you’re locals!” It seems many of the park’s visitors travel from Asia and other such far-off places. It didn’t feel very local when we were trying to get there, though. After a full day of work and six hours of late-night driving on Thursday, we stopped at about 3 a.m. just south of Fresno to get some rest.
I assumed the remaining 90 miles wouldn’t take long the next morning, but between the winding roads and traffic, it was a solid two-and-a-half hours before we arrived in the valley. The drive was not unpleasant, and I have only myself to blame for not believing the Google Maps iPhone application when it correctly predicted the exact time it would take.
The next three days were spent exploring the base of Yosemite Falls, hiking to the top of Vernal and then Nevada Falls, bike riding to Mirror Lake, touring the village, and watching Kristi paint a lovely watercolor of a little church that sits up against pine trees and a 2,000 foot high wall of granite.
It doesn’t take long to see why people flock to Yosemite. I’m used to hiking trails in Laguna Canyon, Crystal Cove, Topanga, etc. These are spots along the California coastline with spectacular vistas. But nothing compares to standing atop one of the world’s highest waterfalls and seeing what is best described as a granite Grand Canyon filled with pine trees and flowing water. The photos below are my best attempt at capturing the experience, but even the finest photography doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing.
The Nevada Falls hike is fairly challenging if you take the seasonal (summertime-only) Mist Trail. It starts off easily enough, but there are areas where you’re almost rock climbing due to the rise of the granite stones. And the higher the trail gets, the steeper the gradient becomes. Eventually we reached the summit and were greeted by a hilarious sign proclaiming that Mt. Whitney was available if we were willing to hike another 211 miles. Um, no thanks. Maybe next year.
A park ranger was atop the bridge that spans the waterfall, and he suggested taking the John Muir Trail back down. It was a mile or two longer, but far less steep and therefore easier to navigate. All in all, we put in about 10 miles that day. Kristi’s cousins hiked up Yosemite Falls and I believe that’s an even stronger workout with a 2,600 foot elevation gain in just over three miles. Most people spend 6-8 hours to complete a round-trip on that trail. On the other hand, a guy named Hari Mix once climbed it in 43 minutes.
Despite the crush of humanity that could be found at certain choke points in the valley (one of which seemed to be the lodge — quite understandable because there are only two hotels in the entire park) the weekend never took on the look or feel of a visit to that most unholy of places, Disneyland.
If you only do one thing in Yosemite, though, I’d recommend a visit to Glacier Point, a vista from which you can see about a quarter of the 1,200 square miles that comprise Yosemite National Park. It’s 3,200 feet above the valley floor and from that point we were able to see Vernal and Nevada Falls, Half Dome, Liberty Cap, and all the other big landmarks. It wasn’t terribly crowded when we arrived, but by the time we departed an hour later the traffic was so bad that the Park Service had closed the road to Glacier Point because the place was so far over capacity.
Speaking of capacity, there’s nothing like being on the road on Memorial Day. Traffic was sporty, to say the least. It reminded me of a visit to Las Vegas over the Memorial Day weekend in 1990. I left Sin City at 1:00 p.m. on Monday and didn’t get back to Irvine until 10:00 a.m. the next day. That’s 21 hours to travel 299 miles. I’m pretty sure Hari Mix could have run it faster than that.