“It was by far the grandest of all the temples of nature I was ever permitted to enter” John Muir
I am taking the world’s steepest Stairmaster to the top of Vernal Falls in Yosemite (300+ feet) near the end of a 2.5 mile hike, and I am not only amazed by the view, but also by the Hispanic man who is walking down the steep rock steps, a cell phone in one hand and a baby in the other, and I’d like to ask him two questions (and the order is important): One, who is your service provider, since apparently as an additional benefit they have a satellite in geosynchronous orbit directly over your head at all times, being, as we are, crawling up a steep valley in a wilderness area and yet you can still take a call, and two, what is the number for Child Protective Services, since it’s pretty obvious that you have less love for your child than the average sack of potatoes you might casually throw over your shoulder. I’d also like to know if he’s the President, since I’m sure he must be chatting on the phone about the launch codes for a nuclear attack that is imminent, because that’s the only thing that would MAYBE take priority over your child’s safety.
In the event, however, I say nothing, and keep huffing and puffing up the cliff past 100-ton boulders and giant redwoods, stopping only to see a rainbow at the base of the cascade and a very docile squirrel that poses for photos. Soon we’re on the side of cliff, actually, and the steps are steep enough that I’m sure the area’s native population of Mountain Goats avoids them. After just about a million more of these high steps, topped by a climb on the waterfall’s flat, yet somehow…vertical granite face using a rickety handrail for support, we surmount the wall, and follow the smooth hard surface down to the fall. By the time we summit, the sun is behind Glacier Point, and the shadows of the valley lend sharp contrast to the silvers, golds, reds, and blacks of the canyon walls still bathed in light. The water flows smoothly and continuously over the cliff face. Tall cottonwoods line Mirror Lake at the headwaters of the fall’s creek behind us, and the cavernous and craggy void below us is filled with tall cedars and the muffled roar of liquid on rock. Further west, the light is fading on Grizzly Peak. We are surrounded by nature. We are surrounded by wonder. We are witnessing a miracle. While Niagara boasts an incredible flow full of sheer power and force that causes the earth to tremble, Vernal provides an elegant counterpoint, the feng shui of falling water: a thin sheet of clear water pouring over a flat grey vertical wall in a box canyon of tall green trees. Simple but graceful.
Jonathan is not convinced. He opines that Niagara is far more impressive. To each his own.
We arrived in Yosemite this afternoon after heading west from San Francisco over the Diablo Range and through the San Joaquin Valley. The trip was monotonous flat farmland until we hit the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas and gained 4000 ft. altitude, where the tall pines grow and the air clears and thins. Interestingly, on our approach, we encounter huge westbound traffic jams, the remnants of the Labor Day weekend crowds, in tiny hamlets serving the Yosemite tourism industry.
We enter at a manned station at the western El Portal entrance and pay our $20 fee, then drive along a wonderful serpentine mountain road past Inspiration Point before motoring east along the Merced River in Yosemite Valley until we see Half Dome, El Capitan, and Yosemite Falls, each a wonder on its own merits, and its easy to see why this is a National Park, because it’s a National Treasure, and I think as Americans we can be proud that we managed to save places like this from development so that people from all over the world can enjoy it, as indeed they do (during our visit I hear, and frequently, Italian, German, Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese, and a number of English accents, along with some I can’t recognize). Thanks, Teddy Roosevelt!
Our first stop is for a short hike to the base of Bridal Veil Falls, which, being extremely accessible from the road, is covered in tourists, though still a tall and pretty sight. I note in disgust that this beautiful place is being violated by worthless smokers who toss their butts onto the ground, and I’m sure this is a bad example for their children, because I pick up a candy wrapper on the way back to my car. It makes you wonder how some people grow up, thinking that the whole world is their trashcan.
Our next stop is at Sentinel Beach, where we get a view of both Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls, but, after blundering around a while in a field of tall grass with no real trail trying to get close, we realize that this isn’t the best viewpoint. But there are advantages to being wrong, or lost, or both, as I often am, and this time we were able to see a family of elk nesting in the shade of a copse of deciduous trees munching on the dry summer flowers, and I’m glad we made the detour. I am once again amazed at how little fear the animals in these parks have of people, as we’re able to draw within 50 yards without spooking them.
We make our way to Yosemite’s Lower Falls Trail and look up at the 2,425 foot-tall (total drop, including Upper) cascade of water. It’s so tall that much of the water dissipates before it hits the talus at the base, carried away in swirling mists and into the valley below. Yosemite’s monolithic granite wall is V-shaped in appearance from where we are at a vantage point between some big Ponderosa Pines, and the pencil thin ribbon of water streaming over its face seems like a tiny force among the giant sheets of stone around it, yet it has shaped this valley just as surely as the glaciers did 1,000,000 years ago. The overall effect is of majestic grandeur, which, indeed, sums up this park rather nicely.
We check in with the typically incompetent, yet clueless National park Staff at Curry Village, where Jonathan has arranged a tent cabin for us ($88). I stand in line for 10 minutes before being cheerfully told that I am at the tent camping check in, and should have spent my time waiting in line a quarter mile away across the parking lot. Do I need to tell you that there was no sign indicating any of this? So I go to the correct registration desk, which is also well hidden in a maze of lookalike and unmarked buildings. While there, you can see the results of leaving your food in your car overnight here. A bulletin board shows pictures of car doors that have literally been ripped asunder by hungry bears looking for table scraps. It’s hard to imagine the power of an animal capable of that kind of Herculean effort, but the Rangers say bout 100 cars a year wind up this way, and we are driving a ragtop, so I’m going to secure our food in a bear-proof locker as we are required to do. If this is what a black bear is capable of, what could a Grizzly do?
After check in, we take our hike to Vernal, then clean up for some food. Yosemite is unlike the other National Parks we’ve visited in that it has FAR more infrastructure and personnel in place due to its popularity (3 million visitors a year), so we have three restaurants and even a full service bar to choose from. We take the pizza option ($26 for a large pie-mediocre), as I hate buffets and am in no mood for a burger from the grill. We sit at the Guest Pavilion, where we are told we will have WiFi Internet, but of course, in keeping with NPS standards, it doesn’t work, so I chat instead with a woman from Pheonix, Valerie Brown, who is visiting with her mother. She’s a Real Estate Agent forced into the appraisal business by the lousy economy, but is optimistic that we’re near bottom in her industry, because positive cash flows are possible from rentals. I’m not sure about that, but enjoy her company, and we talk late enough that Jonathan is already in bed when I get back to the tent, exhausted.
Tomorrow we see giant Sequoia trees and the Ventura, CA. See ya’!