Yosemite Part 2
Thursday, September 25, 1997
I stumbled out of the tent to greet a cool and overcast morning. The long arm of the giant Pacific Hurricane Nora was slowly making its way across the Sierras and the tent was covered in tiny dew droplets. The murky white sky gave a gray cast to the steep cliffs surrounding the valley. The black and white film in my camera wasn't going to miss anything this day the world was already limited to shades of gray.
Some of our camping neighbors told us that a bear had been through overnight. Apparently, one of the campers had left his cooler sitting out because he didn't want to keep it in his truck and it wouldn't fit in the bear-proof box. That was like sending out invitations to the bears. The camper had supposedly scared off the bear by making a lot of noise, so nothing really happened. All of this took place maybe thirty feet from our tent, but I can sleep through anything sometimes. I was disappointed to miss the bear though.
We knew we wanted to hike some of the trails, but I knew we couldn't do anything spectacular like scale Half Dome because of Jen's sore knee. With all of the rugged terrain surrounding me, I couldn't pass up the chance to climb something, to climb a trail with rocks under my feet, not a paved walkway suitable for octogenarians and short-attention-span school kids. Jen and I looked at the information guide that we got when we arrived at Yosemite. The guide listed several trails around the valley, times and distances, and a subjective classification of each trail's difficulty. Here in the valley, you basically have to walk the flat bottom or climb up some rocks; the guide had no difficulty levels between "easy" and "strenuous." I had the need to "get off the ground," so I eventually convinced Jen to give the Vernal Falls trail a try. This was the first of the "strenuous" trails, and the guide said we had to climb a thousand vertical feet on the hike.
The trail started off pretty tame, a nice walk up a slope that was pretty moderate. But you could see that we were indeed gaining altitude. The trail was busy in both directions, and it wasn't long before our German campsite neighbors arrived, wearing the same clothes we saw them in the entire trip. A curious squirrel sat on the rocks a yard away, probably waiting for a free food handout. I took his picture instead.
Not long after, the trail got much steeper. We found ourselves climbing a giant stone staircase that went up, up, up. Vernal Falls quickly came into view and gave us a good idea of how much more work this trip would be. I was glad to see that these falls were actually falling, as opposed to the bigger Yosemite Falls which were "off" for the season. I'm sure Vernal Falls would also have been more impressive in the late spring, but at least it was wet. We kept climbing and climbing, and soon it appeared that Jen's knee wasn't going to let her make it. We weren't far from the top at that point, but the steepest part of the climb was yet to come. Jen told me to go on, and I hated to leave her behind, but I was determined to get up there. I continued climbing, taking a break every twenty steps or so. I was going almost straight up, and then finally, I had arrived at the top. Here, the landscape had almost completely flattened out, I was standing on a very smooth rock surface, carved and polished by centuries of moving water. There were also trees and brush up here, somehow growing in the rocks. I stared out over the precipice, looking down into the cut made by the falls. It was easy to see the hundreds of others also scaling the cliff. Jen was sitting on a rock far below, and it was several minutes before she noticed me.
I followed the minimal stream of water from the edge of the cliff to its source. Hidden over a few bumpy rocks and behind some trees was a tiny lake. The water was very still and mirrored its surroundings quite nicely. Not as many of the fall climbers had come back here, and it was relatively peaceful. I didn't want to keep Jen waiting too long, though, so I snapped a couple pictures and headed back to the cliff to climb down.
You would think that going down would be easier, that gravity would be your friend and getting down would be nothing more than a nice controlled fall to the valley floor. Going down wasn't much easier. The distance between the steps was more than you could comfortably step down. Jen's knee complained more about the descent, so we took it nice and slow. It was past lunchtime now, and the day was still gray and not too warm. It made the climbing nice but I was really hoping for a little more sun.
After a expensive and poor lunch at the burger stand in Curry Village, we headed back to the campsite to get the car, intending to drive down to Mariposa Grove to see the Giant Sequoia trees. The sky was as overcast as ever and it had started to sprinkle. Stupid hurricane. On our way out, we passed a coyote who had come into the campgrounds seeking out a quick meal.
We drove back up the same hills we took to get to the Glacier Point a day before, but went south past the turnoff. Another long and twisty drive to get just a short distance. Despite the miserable weather, the tourists were swarming all over the grove. The huge sequoia trees were everywhere, towering above the forest floor. These trees weren't as tall as the redwoods of Big Basin, but they were very wide. I could smell smoke in the air, the result of a controlled burn that park rangers had used to clear brush. The trail wound up the hill for about three miles, but we only went about a mile since we were worn out from the Vernal Falls climb. One of the trees we saw had been carved out before the forest had become protected. It's really ironic that these groves became popular because the trees were big enough to drive a car through. And in turn, their popularity was what got them protected as part of the national park. These days, we know better than to cut a giant hole out of the bottom for amusement.
On the way down the hill we were lucky enough to spot a group of Dark-eyed Juncos, adding another western bird species to our list. We left the crowds and rain of the Mariposa Grove to go back to the crowds and rain of the Yosemite Valley. We scarfed down a hot pasta dinner for the second night in a row before returning to camp to get all of our stuff together. A long drive awaited us early the next morning so we could get back to San Francisco.