“It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more butiful than any built by the hand of man.” – President Teddy Roosevelt.
The cliffs close in on you, as if you’re going down a bright and spacious alleyway. But instead of being dragged under by a concrete claustrophobia, your heart soars.
Such is the nature of Yosemite National Park, one of my most beloved places in the world.
Yosemite covers over 3,000 square kilometres of granite cliffs, giant sequoia groves, valleys and forests. Nearly 95% of the park is designated wilderness. It’s been a World Heritage Site since 1984.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like for the first explorers – or even for the natives before that – to enter this captivating wilderness and know that it’s all yours and all untouched.
The mighty Yosemite National Park
Despite the granite cliffs closing in around you as you enter Yosemite Valley, there’s something soft about these surroundings.
To hikers and rock climbers, the cliff surfaces pose a formidable challenge. El Capitan looks to me like a solid granite slate promising little, but overnighting climbers flock here to conquer its cracks and crevasses.
And in the distance beyond is the remarkable Half Dome, a lump as smooth as a loaf of bread with one side so cleanly lobbed off it looks like it was carved in two. No such thing, in fact. This Half Dome was never whole, never complete; a glacier during an ice age made sure of that. It looms large on the horizon, an indomitable force I could never fathom surmounting, yet hikers come here every year to crest its peak.
But despite the harsh realities of Yosemite, it’s all soft hues and tranquil waterfalls here. Time stops. Enter Yosemite and you feel an almost physical transformation. The air is crisp. The rest of the world seems so far away and so inconsequential. Everywhere you look there are reminders of a former era, a glacial, uninhabitable time written in the carvings and scratches on every rocky surface.
Waterfalls stream from the cliff tops, though in summer these peter out to a few drizzles; the only remnants of dried up waterfalls are black smears down the cliff face.
Contrasting against the blue-grey cliffs are the forests of pines and firs, creating a lush habitat for squirrels and deer, bears and mountain lions. These innocent locals regard the tourists as if overwhelmed that their paradise has been discovered.
Because unfortunately, Yosemite isn’t a secret any more. Over 3.7 million international and American visitors head here yearly. And most of them congregate in Yosemite Valley, which represents just 1% of the total park. Mercifully, this national park is a big place, allowing a peace to descend on even the most hectic of locations.
And venture off into a more remote path or a grove of ancient sequoias and you’ll easily find a moment alone to reflect on the brilliance of Mother Nature. It’s impossible to think we need anything more than this natural beauty when you’re here.
The Upper Yosemite Falls Hike
OK, so we’re human beings – myself included – and we’re not easily satiated. And that means that when we’re in Yosemite, we’re typically there for a reason – to conquer El Capitan or Half Dome, cycle the valley bicycle tracks, survive a camping weekend with the family, what have you.
My stays here have only ever been day trips, which severely limits the hiking options available to me – OK, maybe my fitness level has something to do with it too.
But Yosemite has a huge range of challenging hikes suitable for a morning, afternoon or day. And the more popular of these hikes is Upper Yosemite Falls.
The Yosemite Falls is the fifth highest waterfall in the world. It cascades down the rock face, pooling about halfway down before tumbling to the valley floor. And the Upper Yosemite Fall hike is a 5.5 kilometre hike almost directly up to the brink of the Upper Yosemite Fall.
When I started out, the trail gave me a misleading sense of confidence that I was much fitter than I imagined. This isn’t so bad, I thought. I can do ths.
The first mile entails 60 switchbacks – not ideal in the first place, but at least sheltered in a forest with dappled light struggling to hit the soft forest floor through a thick canopy. And anyway, it’s no Colca Canyon.
But then I hit Columbia Rock. Even then, at first, I was so blown away by the views that I didn’t noticed the path’s position in direct sunlight, a sunlight of burning strength on a 35 degree day.
I mean, just look at the vista:
But I was determined to keep moving and the path got a whole lot trickier. It may not have helped that I was hiking in my soft and squishy pair of Ipanema sandals, a fact many people couldn’t help remarking on. I’m Aussie, I would respond. I’m tough.
But when the path turned to gravel and sand, the going got a whole lot harder. Along this path, I became grateful for the views, the perfect alibi for my constant stopping. I was clearly taking a photo, not catching my breath.
And then the path started descending. Down? Seriously? I’d barely travelled a mile and hundreds of metres of stone hovered above me still. Down should not even be an option.
As the hike curved around the rock face, Half Dome came into view, with the extent of the valley below. Harsh rock blended with soft forest. I could have stayed there a long time, but I had to keep climbing. I had to, as they say, conquer this bitch.
Soon enough the base of Upper Yosemite Fall appeared, a thin tricking of water running down the rock. It was hardly Iguazu Falls, but it had a poetry of its own in its faint trickling. I continued hiking, determined to get closer. Time – in a place where minutes and hours shouldn’t count – wasn’t on my side and if I wanted to catch my ride out of this paradise (did I?) I needed to turn around soon. Not to mention that my water supply had diminished to a paltry amount resembling the dribble on the rock.
But the path started to climb again, switchback upon switchback, and the waterfall grew no closer. In fact, its tinkling grew quieter and quieter. When I asked a descending hiker if I would be able to approach the falls – was I even close? – her cackle stilled my resolve.
Bugger that. I thought and turned around. I could have admired the view on the descent. But my rubber sandals allowed no time for it on the steep, slippery incline. It was head down, feet scuttling. After a two and a half hour ascent, I had skittered to the bottom in thirty minutes. Did I have time to go up again?
For more adventures on the West Coast of North America
North American. What a stunning continent with so much to offer. Here’s what more you can do:
- Live for heights? You can’t miss Capilano Suspension Bridge Park in Vancouver
- Enjoy the sea breeze and utter tranquility of a cycle around Stanley Park, also in Vancouver
- Reacquaint yourself with the city bustle in Seattle
- Enjoy a haven of another kind at Powell’s Books in Portland.