Yosemite National Park, California: Nature at its most naturiest.
When the great black and white, nature photographer Ansel Adams first gazed upon Yosemite, California, he must have stared dumbfounded at the breath-taking splendor and thought, “We’re gonna need a bigger camera.” (a line that would years later be co-opted by Peter Benchley for the “Jaws” screenplay).
If you’re going to California’s most overly photographed natural treasure, I recommend getting a wide-angle lens. A really wide-angle lens. Because things here are big. Prehistoric big. And fitting the enormity of sights like El Capitan in frame is about as hard as fitting an In ’N Out 16x16 in your mouth.
For almost 14 years, we’d heard friends and homeless people drone on endlessly about this beautiful and spectacular and amazing national park. So we decided that the only way to shut them up about it was to pack the hybrid and head due east.
Driving to Yosemite from the Bay Area took about four hours, about the same time as it takes to get to Tahoe. Yet the two places couldn’t be further apart — both geographically and geologically.
Tahoe is a big, deep valley full of fish and water. Yosemite is a big, deep valley full of minivans and SUVs. Tahoe is a lake while Yosemite, on the other hand, is a valley the size of Rhode Island in the western Sierra Nevada mountains. More to the point, it’s also a glacier-carved, made-for-tourism, photo-op and death wish fulfillment park.
If you’re a free-climber (i.e. mentally touched), then Yosemite is your Nirvana: sheer, vertical, rock face with hungry bears waiting at the top. For people who like affordable hotel rooms and omnipresent wifi, it’s more like purgatory with bears breaking into your car. It has something for everyone.
According to Wikipedia, Yosemite is “one of the largest habitat blocks in the Sierra Nevada, [which] supports a diversity of plants and animals.” But despite all the scary talk about bears and bobcats, all we saw were squirrels and one incredibly ballsy mule deer who wandered lazily across the well-trafficked main road and into camp for, I’m guessing, cigarettes.
We stayed at the Tenaya Lodge; its name is derived from a Native American term meaning “an hours drive from the good part of the park.” By way of local charm, the hotel lobby proudly displayed a number of dead, severed and mounted animal heads on the walls as if to say, “We love Nature, especially killing it.”
The rooms were decent, almost entirely lacking the lobby’s stink of death, but they were clearly resting a lot on their laurels (i.e. their location) instead of something like a thorough cleaning and/or total renovation.
The Tenaya Lodge’s three hotel restaurants were oddly managed, utilizing a bizarre centralized maitre ’d system that ensured that patrons of one restaurant would have to wait for patrons of the other two restaurants to be seated first. It was a model of efficiency as long as no more than one table showed up for dinner at a time.
The people working at the Tenaya, however, couldn’t have been nicer. In fact, a very helpful woman at the front desk tipped us off that the first thing we should do is climb Sentinel Dome, so not knowing any better, we did.
Naturally, we assumed that when she said “climb,” she actually meant “casually stroll,” and so we ventured forth. Yet once underway, and for reasons we couldn’t fathom, our breathing quickly became labored and our faces flushed.
Ahead of us rose a menacingly mammoth rounded peak that we assured ourselves couldn’t possibly be our final destination — but was. Huffing and puffing, we made our way around the base of the dome and ever upward until we were finally at the top and could see why she’d suggested this route — clearly, she wanted to kill us.
From this vantage we had a spectacular vista of the entire park, or so we were told by the EMTs. While being resuscitated, we vaguely remembered hearing voices marvel about being able to see Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, and all the rest.
The next day, we drove the 30 miles (a frickin’ hour!) down to the valley floor and parked. The shuttle bus picked us up and did the normal route around to various attractions and we jumped off to see each.
Our first bus shuttle jump-off point was an easy walk to some lake near the base of Half Dome that was virtually dried up this time of year and sort of pointless to visit in hindsight, but we went to say we did. Still motivated and not yet succumbing to heatstroke, we went to Sentinel Bridge over the Merced River to see people kayaking peacefully because that didn’t sound particularly exhausting either.
We next hiked the High Sierra Loop Trail towards the High Vernal Falls Bridge. Supposedly only 0.8 miles, this “light stroll” turned out to be a gulag death-march straight up. Seriously, they should warn people that this entire 8/10ths of a mile trek is at a 45-degree incline, the whole way.
Finally arriving at the Vernal Falls bridge, we momentarily considered pressing on toward the actual falls. But only momentarily. Then we remembered the “missing persons” sign we’d seen at the trail entrance and reconsidered.
Tragically, two young hikers had met their untimely demise at Vernal Falls and now that I’ve been there, I better understand how they were unable to fight the current. After hiking all the way to the falls, you’d be lucky to have the strength left to fight off a brisk wind.
We soon headed back and found ourselves at the famous Ahwahnee Hotel where we had an over-priced, mediocre lunch at the cafe next to two midwestern biker couples on a white-trash double-date. (Actual dialogue: “Waitress, is that goat cheese?” “No, ma’am, that’s cheddar.”)
Not having seen any waterfalls up close, we ventured forth (on the shuttle bus) and soon found ourselves staring up at the Lower Yosemite Falls. It was impressive from the indicated vantage point, but we weren’t content with “viewing from a safe distance” and climbed over the rocky surface to get closer.
We traversed the boulders at the waterfall’s base until we realized how difficult it would be to get back and stopped. Sadly, the Yosemite waterfalls kinda sucked because it was so late in the season — the place wasn’t overrun with tourists either, so you give a little to get a little — water flow had slowed to a trickle and didn’t really inspire awe as much as the urge to pee.
Climbing back to safety, our ill-conceived adventure ended with me slipping on a sand-covered rock and smashing my knee into an extremely hard granite rock. The resulting injury didn’t look bad, but it took about 8 weeks of complaining to fully heal.
Extending about 3,000 feet from base to summit, El Capitan is one monstrous, sheer granite cliff that crazy people attempt to climb instead of simply whistling in awe, snapping a photograph and getting back into the minivan.
Half Dome was originally called “Tis-sa-ack,” meaning “Cleft Rock,” and never actually existed as a full dome shape (due to budget cutbacks). We didn’t get the chance to climb it, but that’s only because we don’t like falling to our untimely deaths from great heights. We’re funny that way.
All in all, we liked the place. Though we probably would’ve tried to find a hotel inside the park next time — that drive in everyday was a royal pain. But overall, the grandeur and spectacle of Yosemite National Park more than lived up to its billing as the Grand Canyon’s runner-up.