I am a mountain person at heart: the love that was born during my school trips to the Carpathian Mountains and nurtured during all those adventures around North America. So when the mountains call, as Muir so eloquently put it, I must go. Last summer, as I was planning our trip to California, many places were added, then scratched off the list. One destination, however, remained non-negotiable – Yosemite National Park, Muir’s old stomping grounds right in the heart of Sierra Nevada.
Sierra Nevada – view from Olmsted point in Yosemite National Park
Preparing for the trip
Our Yosemite adventure began way before we set foot in the park with booking a site. Since it was our first trip to Yosemite, we planned to focus on the Yosemite Valley. Staying at one of the valley campgrounds made the most sense because getting in and out of the park can take hours on some days – not the best use of time. Those three campgrounds, however, fill up fast, usually within minutes of the reservation opening. I thought all the years of booking campsites at Ontario Parks prepared me for this challenge. Turned out it was more like playing amateur soccer all your life and then all of a sudden being thrown into a professional league game.
There are lots of blog posts sharing tips on how to book a site, which I read diligently in preparation for the reservation day. I won’t go into too many details. This post provides excellent step-by-step instructions on what to do. All I can say is start early or risk disappointment.
So shortly before 10 a.m. EDT (7 a.m. Yosemite time) on April 15, every member of our family was stationed in front of a computer or some other device, logged into their own account, a browser open on a different campsite, ready to hit the reserve button. Once the official U.S. clock turned 10, I yelled “now”, we all clicked and…nothing happened. We didn’t get our first choice, nor our second choice, not even our sixth choice (some of us had two devices). Because as we were frantically pressing and clicking so were dozens (hundreds?) of other people. There was no time to ponder our interconnectedness at that particular point in virtual space and time. According to more experienced site bookers, if you don’t get in right away, you just have to wait for a few minutes for people to start releasing all those extra campsites they’ve managed to grab. Sure enough after we refreshed the page about a dozen times, green dots started to pop up among the sea of reds. Ten minutes later we successfully booked site # 179 at the Upper Pines Campground. We didn’t even consider the Upper Pines at first because, judging from the pictures, it gets pretty crowded there but in the end any campsite in Yosemite Valley was better than no campsite at all.
Our campsite # 179 was fairly private, as much as privacy is possible at the Upper Pines campground
By some camper’s luck, we ended up with a very good campsite. All our neighbours were at a reasonable distance and while all campsites offered very little in terms of cover (the downside of camping in a pine forest with little underbrush), ours had large boulders scattered around, which provided some privacy. One other thing I want to add about campsites in Yosemite Valley: yes, we lucked out with our site, but even if we ended up sandwiched between someone’s trailer and a food shelter, it wouldn’t matter too much because you don’t go to Yosemite to spend time at your campsite. There were days when we left before sunrise and returned after dark too tired to care about anything but sleep.
Our campsite had lots of boulders so we squeezed our tents in between them. Did I mention our tent is called El Capitan? We were very excited to introduce it to its namesake.
View from our tent – no people or tents in sight
Now that we secured a place to stay, I started looking into things to do. Half Dome was definitely on our list (hiking it, not climbing) but as it turned out the final section of the trail required a permit, which we could only win in a lottery, and we already missed the deadline for that (applications are accepted in March). Our only hope was to apply for one of the 50 extra permits that would be released two days prior to our planned hike date. If not, there are lots of other trails to explore in the park. Or we could always just scale the damn mountain. (Not really. After a few trips to the climbing gym, I have no illusions about my climbing abilities.) If you read my post about the highlights of this summer’s road trip, you will know the Half Dome Trail was at the top of the list so I wouldn’t be able to pull off a suspense even if I tried. We did get a permit on our second attempt. But more about the trail later. First, let’s get to the park.
Getting there is half the fun
You’d think after we got our campsite, everything else would fall into place. Camping gods had other plans. As we started our road trip, we learned that Yosemite was closed indefinitely due to the Ferguson fire. We were still three weeks away from our arrival date so we were keeping our fingers crossed, and toes too, but I was already making alternative plans and researching other options. The campgrounds reopened a few days before we rolled into the park. The Glacier Point Road was still closed so we never got to visit that part of the park and the El Capitan shuttle wasn’t operating, which we found out the hard way after spending 30 minutes waiting for a bus. The fire, however, must have scared some people away because the crowds weren’t as big as we expected.
Tunnel View of Yosemite Valley
And so we rolled into Yosemite Valley on a Sunday afternoon after weeks of frantically checking the website to see if the campgrounds reopened, after months of anticipating, watching documentaries, looking at pictures. To say that I was excited is a bit of an understatement, especially when El Capitan, and later Half Dome, finally came into view. Over the next few days, I got to see them many times from different angles, in different light, yet never ceased to feel star-struck like I was in the presence of royalty, endlessly mesmerized by the stories etched into those granite walls.
El Capitan is known as To-tock-ah-noo-lah or “chief” in the Miwok language
El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the world, is the rock climbers’ dream
I still don’t understand how it is humanly possible to climb up this wall
Half Dome is another of Yosemite’s famous rock features
Half Dome bathed in the sunset light
Half Dome from Olmsted Point
Both El Capitan and Half Dome are major rock-climbing landmarks. And while I don’t climb, I can appreciate the skill, persistence, vulnerability and exhilaration, the deep awareness of your body and complete control of your mind, the connection with the rock – everything that goes into doing something so seemingly insane and counterintuitive. As we were preparing for the trip, we watched the Valley Uprising, a documentary about Yosemite’s place in the rock climbing history, about men and women who made it their life’s mission to conquer these peaks, about the historic Camp 4 and the counter-culture that was born there. (Since coming back, we’ve also watched The Dawn Wall and Free Solo, both of which fed my Yosemite nostalgia.)
I was looking forward to experiencing the place for myself. Of course, the Yosemite Valley we visited wasn’t the Valley presented in the documentary. Even Camp 4 spotting monstrous tents seemed to have lost its rebellious allure. And with fancy lodges, restaurants and stores, Yosemite Valley isn’t exactly wilderness but I could still feel the magic of the place, the reverence for these rocks, the same reverence that lives in the stories of Miwok and Paiute people who call Yosemite their home, the reverence that inspired John Muir and Ansel Adams and drew generations of rock climbers, hikers and explorers.
Camp 4 is listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its role in the development of rock-climbing
Yosemite: The introductions
As I mentioned already, we got a permit for the Half Dome hike for our second day in the park, which worked quite nicely. It gave us time to take things slowly and get a bit of an introduction to the park on the first day, and then slow down again and get some rest before starting our long drive back home. I did have plans to tackle the Four Mile Trail on our last day in Yosemite. But that was before we spent all day trekking up and down the Half Dome, after which every muscle in our bodies declared a strike.
On day one, we stopped by the visitor centre and museum to learn about Yosemite’s natural and human history. The museum featured exhibitions and a reconstructed village providing insights into the lives of Yosemite’s native Miwok and Paiute people from 1850 to the present. The park didn’t shy away from its dark history of dispossessing the Indigenous people of their home in order to make way for this “national jewel.” Unfortunately, this is a familiar origin story for many of the parks across North America, something they are starting to finally address, albeit very slowly. As uncomfortable as this truth may be to all the outdoor enthusiasts, it should serve as a reminder that standing up for Indigenous rights on Turtle Island and beyond should be the foundation of any wilderness preservation endeavour.
Reconstructed Miwok village at Yosemite
Ansel Adams gallery was another stop during our first day in the park. Ansel Adams, of course, has been an idol of mine for a long time. The gallery carried a few of his original works and it gave me goosebumps to know that the subjects of many of his photos were right outside the window and I could immerse myself into them through my own lens and not only through that of Ansel Adams, even if his images are orders of magnitude more beautiful. But then, nothing beats the real thing.
We also did a few of the shorter and easier trails around Yosemite Falls or rather their ghosts. The park’s most famous falls are fed by the snow melt so they usually dry up by late summer. We already knew that before arriving in Yosemite so it didn’t come as a surprise. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t a little disappointed that I wouldn’t see the park’s iconic falls, the highest in North America and fifth highest in the world. But then I tried to adopt more of a “the waterfall is half full” approach. After all, there is always next time. As a consolation, there were other waterfalls to explore. Nevada, Vernal and Bridalveil Falls were depleted but still a powerful and mesmerizing force. And, even though the Yosemite Falls were now gone for the season, their trace was imprinted in the rock – a testament to the power of water and vulnerability of rock in spite of appearing tough and indestructible.
Yosemite Valley was missing the sight and sound of Yosemite Falls
In August, all that’s left of Yosemite Falls is an imprint in the rock
At the bottom of Vernal Falls
Nevada Falls: depleted but still beautiful
At the right angle, you can catch a rainbow in the Bridalveil Fall
Half Dome Hike
Half Dome is Yosemite’s second famous chunk of granite. At an elevation of 8,842 feet, it dominates most of the valley landscapes. The name, a reference to the mountain’s shape, begs the question: where did the other half go? Well, there never was the other half.
The legend of the Yosemite Miwok tells about Tis-se’-yak and her husband, who travelled into the Valley of Ah-wah’-nee from a far-away country. By the time they got there, Tis-se’-yak was so thirsty she drained the whole lake. Her husband got upset, a fight ensued, Tis-se’-yak threw a basket at him. And as they stood there glaring at each other, they were turned into stone: the wife became the Half Dome, her husband — the North Dome across from her, to this day facing each other, separated by a chasm. The women’s face is tear-streaked, and her discarded basket is still lying nearby known as the Basket Dome.
Half Dome dominates most of the valley landscapes
The Paiutes tell the story a little differently. Tis-se’-yak and her husband came from the desert surrounding Mono Lake. Once they arrived into the valley, the woman wanted to go back but her husband refused. So she started running, and when her husband followed, she threw a basket at him creating the Basket Dome. She continued running and threw a baby cradle at her husband, known today as the Royal Arches. Because they had brought anger into Yosemite, the Creator became upset at the couple and turned them into the North Dome and the Half Dome. The woman regretted the quarrel and began to cry forming Mirror Lake. Hence, the name Tis-se’-yak meaning “crying girl” in Paiute.
Royal Arches with the North Dome up above
The legends and stories behind geographic locations always fascinate me, especially the way they link with scientific explanations and intertwine with the stories of people who have lived and visited the place. And as I was pounding the Half Dome trail that day, I kept thinking about slowly weaving our story into this grand narrative. At 22 kilometres round trip, there was plenty of time to ponder the question.
We started the day at 6 a.m. to ensure we had plenty of time to return before the dark. Correction: I started the day at 6. The rest of the family began poking their heads out of the tents closer to 6:30 when breakfast and coffee were well underway. Our older son made numerous in-what-universe-is-this-a-vacation comments, something he continued to do throughout the day accompanied by sidelong glances every time I took a picture.
In-what-universe-is-this-a-vacation look from my older son
The first section of the trail to the top of the Nevada Falls featured endless sets of stairs and steps. Luckily, it was still pretty early in the day and we enjoyed a nice shade on our way up.
The first section of the trail was nice and cool
Lots of stairs on our way up
Followed by even more stairs
Once we passed the Nevada Falls, the hike became less steep but also more sunny. As we were preparing for the hike, we knew hydration would be our biggest challenge. We had about seven litres of water on us in water packs and bottles when we set off in the morning. With only one refilling station at the bottom of the Vernal Falls very early into the hike, we knew we needed to find some other ways to get more H2O along the way. Merced River and water purifying tablets provided the answer. Before the trail veered off and started zigzagging up the hill, we stopped by the river to refill our water bottles and get a snack.
Taking a break
After that, it was a long, consistently upward climb through the forest, probably the longest part of the trail. About five hours after starting the hike, we finally emerged out of the woods to the sweeping views all around. We didn’t have much longer to go but were about to enter the most challenging section of the trail: about a kilometre of zigzagging stone steps etched into the rock wall followed by an almost vertical trek up the Dome holding to the steel cables.
Are we there yet?
The section through the woods was less challenging but so, so long
More stone steps
I watched quite a few videos and skimmed through endless photos of the Half Dome hike and they all made it look easier than it actually was. That last part of the hike is challenging, doable but still hard as hell. The granite rock is sleek and slippery so most of the time you have to pull yourself up with your arms. At some point I started feeling the burn in my biceps and triceps and whatever other -ceps are there, my back and all sorts of other muscles the names of which I wouldn’t know.
The last and most exciting part of the trail
Also the most challenging
And those gloves everyone is talking about – you absolutely need them unless you are prepared to have your palms scraped to the bone. There is a whole pile of discarded gloves at the bottom of the cable section. So even if you didn’t bring your own, you are bound to find a pair in your size and even the colours to match your outfit.
As you huff and puff your way up the rock, you meet a few people along the way making their way down. So you perform an awkward dance of trying to let each other through. Although, whether because we were completing the hike later in the day or because the crowds overall were smaller this year, we didn’t have people lined up back to back as in some pictures I’ve seen.
Gloves are a must for the cable section of the trail
All those challenges were forgotten the moment we finally got to the top of the Half Dome. The feeling is hard to describe – the sensation of awe and exhilaration. I wondered if that was how a bird feels before its feet leave the ground or a leaf the moment before it is whisked off into the sky.
Finally at the top
That on-top-of-the-world feeling
Some people take a more straightforward route to the top
I never get tired of mountain views
After spending some time at the top and having veggie burgers for lunch, we started making our way down. I’d like to say that the trip back was easier than up but by then we were a little tired and walking down the stone stairs was hard on the knees. By the time we reached our campsite, it was already dark. We were too exhausted to cook so we headed to the Half Dome village to buy dinner; then crawled into our tents and fell asleep.
Good-bye already? Till next time
Needless to say, the next morning started slow. It took us some time to relearn how to walk and just in general use our muscles. Sometime mid morning we got a surprise visit from a black bear. As a big black shape slowly sauntered through the campground, followed by camera clicks and flashes, I finally saw the point of food boxes at each campsite. Yosemite is very strict about not leaving any food lying around or even storing it in a car so each campsite has a metal food box. Every parking lot is surrounded by food boxes for day visitors too. Considering we ran into two bears during our last day in the park, all these precautions made sense.
Taking a walk through the campground
As I already mentioned, we weren’t up for any challenges that day, so we just visited El Capitan, stopped by some famous lookout points and ended the day splashing in Merced River.
Packing the next day was hard, not only because we were leaving Yosemite, but also because it was the last stop before heading home. Our fabulous four-week road trip was coming to an end and it was hard not to feel sad about it, even though we still had a drive along the Tioga Road ahead of us.
Tenaya Lake is a popular destination along Tioga Road
This alpine lake is more than 8,000 feet above the sea level
Tuolomne Meadows are among the largest alpine meadows in Sierra Nevada
As we left Yosemite and started making our way back to Toronto, I could still hear the call of the mountains days later. In fact, almost a year after our trip, that call is going strong. The mountains are calling…