Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Mountains Are Calling And I Must Go

There is a magnetism to this place. More than its spectacular scenery, Yosemite just feels different than the other parks I’ve visited. There is a real sense of unspoiled nature here, where we are just a piece of it and we do not control it. Unlike Death Valley, where the wildness is intimidating in its power, the wildness at Yosemite is inviting. Deer graze just feet away from people, with a seeming understanding that there’s no reason for them to act defensively if the humans let them go about their business.

With mountains, waterfalls, cliffs, rivers, meadows, birds, wildflowers, geology, just to name a few, the park invites visitors to try it all on for size. And people certainly take advantage of that. People, by and large, are not here to see Yosemite; they are here to do Yosemite.

On my big hike of the day, I ran into a couple here from Michigan. Although they have both climbed Half Dome in the past, today they were on the same easy 2-mile trail as me, and were just as in awe of the trail’s destination as I – a first-time visitor – was (but more on that destination later). We all noted that the waterfalls are running at spring-like levels, and they remarked that while it’s possible to see the falls in this condition any year in the early spring, this was so much better since all the roads and trails are open and you can actually do things, instead of just looking at falling water. That’s the attitude I’ve encountered here, in a nutshell.

I consider myself relatively lucky to be coming from you from Campsite 57 in Loop B of the Bridalveil Creek Campground along Glacier Point Road tonight. Campsites are hard to come by in Yosemite, and I was intent on nabbing one in the most difficult way – coming to the park without a reservation. Bridalveil Creek is a first-come-first-served campground, so no one here had a reservation. The downside is that you can’t be sure if you’ll get anything here, at all.

I left my hotel at 5:15 this morning, arriving at the park entrance even before the rangers reported for duty. Making my way to the campground, I drove around until I found a campsite that, although having a claim ticket on it, was devoid of stuff. I quickly learned how to interpret claim tickets and concluded that these people had spent the night but had already left this morning. Victory!

Victory was short lived, however. I realized that I had only $14 in cash on me, and it would cost me twice that much for my 2-night stay. So I filled out my claim ticket and rushed around Glacier Point Road looking for an ATM. Making it all the way to the end of the road, I was tempted to get out and see Glacier Point, but I resisted, telling myself that I had to do it right, not just as a drive-by looking for cash. In the end, I didn’t find cash so they got a check. I haven’t heard anything about it, so I assume I’m all set.

Today was my day to explore the area around Glacier Point Road, south of Yosemite Valley. First, after a hearty breakfast of dry Rice Krispies, a Babybell cheese wheel thing, and some Diet Coke (Breakfast of Champions!) I rode back to the end of the road, at a more leisurely pace this time. Coming around one of the many tight turns, Half Dome rose up in front of me, seemingly close enough to jump onto. I had to intentionally avert my eyes, lest I be drawn to it, pull the car just the slightest bit to the right, and plummet off the cliff, where I’d later be eaten by bears and yellow-bellied marmots.

Arriving at Glacier Point, my decision to live long enough to get to this moment proved to be well worth the effort. I was rewarded with a sweeping panorama of the entire Yosemite Valley, as well as much of Yosemite’s backcountry. I had seen pictures from this vantage before, but in reality the scene is enormous and right in your face. A 3-foot wall was all that separated me from a sheer cliff face plunging thousands of feet straight to the valley floor. If I were to fall, there would be no bouncing on the way down. My first contact would be somewhere along the valley’s
Southside Drive. Frequently regarded as one of the best views anywhere on earth, I couldn’t help but agree. This put the Grand Canyon to shame.

I had been warned that Glacier Point would be crowded and that parking would be hard to come by. True, I didn’t have the place to myself, but there was plenty of room to breathe, and here you didn’t need to get right up to the edge to have a spectacular view. If the lookout facing the valley was full, just watch Yosemite Falls from the other side for a minute, then move over and see the rest of the panorama.

Leaving Glacier Point, I set out for my big hike of the day – Taft Point. I’ve heard the route described as a pleasant stroll through the forest with stunning views greeting you at the end. I did get excited when I saw a notice that the trail would pass through a meadow that was known for its wildflowers, the display of which would peak and be “particularly spectacular in July.”

Aside from the flowers, the forest stroll part was right on, but the descriptions of the view at Taft Point were understated. Like Glacier Point, Taft Point sits on the very precipice of the valley walls, perched at least 4,500 feet above the nearest ground. Approaching the edge, one moment there is ground and the next minute it just stops being there, and opens up into a 4,500-foot hole. According to one source, if you fall off the edge there, you wouldn’t even be injured for the first 30 seconds. That didn’t deter a group of women from attempting to tightrope walk between two of the ledges.

Unlike Glacier Point, Taft Point involves a series of overlooks, only the highest of which has a guardrail. The aforementioned Michigan Half Dome couple refused to even go near the edge. Without exception, every person gasped when peering over the edge for the first time.

Taft Point offered some unique perspectives on the most famous park features. El Capitan? That 3,500 foot chunk of granite, the largest in the world? Here you look down at it.

Yosemite Falls? The highest waterfall in North America, falling nearly 1,000 feet in the first of its 3 stages? Pictures of it from here look like they were taken from an airplane.

I stayed out on those cliffs a long time, taking in the view. Unlike the Grand Canyon, here it was easy to grasp the scale of the scenery. Just look down and you’d see 100-foot lodgepole pine trees looking more like pine needles. If you really looked closely, you might even be able to pick out a car. I also spent a while trying to get a picture of myself where you could really tell I was standing on the edge of this massive abyss. In the end I must have gotten lucky, because this is what I got:

Making my way back from Taft Point (which was a rather uphill climb, surprising because I didn’t remember going downhill on the way there), I had a late lunch and went back to Campsite 57 to relax for a while, before returning to Glacier Point for a ranger talk and a sunset. Tonight’s ranger talk continued the tradition of National Park Rangers being awesome. Ranger Joe discussed the history of the conservation of Yosemite, punctuating the story with asides about the giant cookies at Tenaya Lodge, how to tell the difference between red and white pine needles by taste, and how Californians have a skewed geographic perspective (apparently I’m from the Far East).

 Incredibly, he managed to finish just moments before sunset, so that I was able to catch the day’s last light on the top of Half Dome.

Tomorrow I visit Yosemite’s main attraction – the Valley itself. If the last 2 days of opening acts have been any indication, tomorrow should be legendary.

1 comment:

  1. I pretty much looked at every picture of the views in this post and went "wow."