Where do you begin with Yosemite? My wife Alli and I did on the lengthy drive after work on Friday from Los Angeles. Pulling into the park, still many miles from the valley floor where we were headed, the winding road courses upward. Once high enough for the conifers to dominate the land, we opened our windows and breathed in the incense of fresh pine we hadn’t sniffed since moving to California four months earlier. When we reached Tunnel View at the Wawona Tunnel, a years' long dream of mine was fulfilled and I nearly wept watching the silvery granite theater lit by a swollen moon.
Anticipating our late arrival we kept night one easy, renting a tent cabin in the valley’s Curry Village. Sleepy over Columbus Day weekend, these canvas cabins are full of young park employees and visitors during the summer. They’re good sized and some come with a wood stove. It was a charming way to kick off our adventure with plans to break into the backcountry the next morning. Our friends Joel and Ken were joining us and stumbled into the cabin hours later.
In the morning we repacked, assessing our stock and Ken and I shuffled down to the ranger station to pick up our wilderness permit. Being so late in the season it was a piece of cake to acquire, even on the popular Lower Yosemite Falls trailhead we had booked. The ranger gave us our permit and rented bear canister as well as a warning there was a nuisance bear where we planned to camp and potentially feet of snow. We accepted these conditions favorably and made haste to meet up with Alli and Joel.
A quick bus ride from Curry Village brought us to Lower Yosemite Falls Trailhead. To the right you’ll see the towering Yosemite Falls. To the left, the even higher El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the world. We took off up the trail nearly jogging with excitement. It was a beautiful crisp day with sun that made for imminent layer shedding. The trail ascends instantly with a series of switchbacks that link all the way up the 2700' in fewer than four miles. With our packs the heaviest they’d be all weekend, the grade was apparent. Still, we passed party after party of young foreigners as we sauntered up. We broke at a vantage just beside the spray of Lower Yosemite fall’s landing pad.
A couple miles later we felt like we had to be close. We dropped our bags on the wide elbow of a switchback, had a sandwich and poured out some rounds from the bag of boxed wine I brought with. Reveling in the sunshine, we realized we were starting to get a bit drunk and though near the top, we still had some climbing yet.
Forty minutes later and we were stomping across the bridge over the Yosemite Creek near the precipice of the falls. We stopped and chatted with a volunteer, a kind lady in her sixties who talked about the beauty of the day and the season and the incompetence of visitors who let their children splash in a river mere yards from the swallow of gravity. We parted ways and got a quick look at the stunning view: the valley far below, the pipe cleaner pines that drape between the horizontal valley and its vertical boundaries, Half Dome across the way.
This would be our first camp, back away from the cliffs and the river. We explored various sites, landing on a protected nook with a perfect tree bench. We set up camp quickly to take in the afternoon atop the falls. Walking along the edge of the river, we followed it out to the edge, beyond the anchor bolts of rock climbers, to an airy ledge, dangled our feet and smoked one as the shadows slanted before us.
Getting up from our lofty seats was a little trickier than getting down and we took caution to put our feet in the right places back up the river’s edge.
There was one other party camped near the cliff’s edge but from our position we felt utterly alone as the sun descended with the day hikers.
The following morning we woke with coffee and oatmeal. We were only at 5400’ but the late season morning blew crisp gusts on us as we broke camp. Before setting off into the backcountry, away from the valley, we took one more trip to the rim, Yosemite Point lookout, to watch the light refract across the glacial artwork.
We were off toward North Dome, winding into the backcountry on the Lehamite and Indian Creek drainages. The elevation profile looked tame after the previous day’s climb but the rollercoaster of granite knolls throughout the day took their toll. By lunch we had reached the offshoot to North Dome and dropped our packs, grabbed some essentials and had a spectacular lunch atop the dome.
Getting our legs going was a challenge but with five miles in the books for the day, we still had another six to go before camp. The trail led deeper into the backcountry, into a dense grove of pines dressed in sweaters of electric lime lichen. In the shade, the consolidation of early storms lay a thick and nearly untouched snow with the exception of a bear’s wandering tracks. In shorts and sneakers, we post holed passed out shins at some points and wondered how much time this surprise was going to add to our day. It didn’t matter.
The snow wasn’t a bother at all, a treat in fact and by my memory now, we floated atop it. A separate memory of sore soaking feet contradicts that but it couldn’t have been more thrilling. After three miles of wintry trudging we were back onto dry granite and dirt. As we neared camp, surpassing ten miles on the day, we found the view of the weekend, the view I planned the entire trip around. From the Snow Creek Promontory you are so close to Half Dome that the wall seems graspable with a long reach. To the immediate left Mt. Watkins towered too with a soft cloud perched on its summit.
We set up camp near the edge of the promontory, a hundred yards back from any cliff but it felt as if we were hanging onto the edge by our tent stakes. The incredible scale of Yosemite smack in your face is disorienting, like walking around with binoculars strapped to your face. One’s senses can do little to get used to it.
We passed around some brandy and built a roaring fire as the sun started to slide across the slick granite. A big dinner was made and Ken and Joel decided, with work the next morning, to head out that night instead of early in the morning. We shared dinner and stories recounting the day. Finally, Joel and Ken hoisted their packs and we watched their headlamp beams twist down the valley out of sight.
Alli and I took a deep breath and marveled. It was her first backpacking trip ever and had been an impressive one for her to cut her teeth on, especially performing so well. It was my first outside of New England and I was finally in Yosemite, finally in the west, in a world I so wanted to experience. I’d studied Yosemite and it’s tribesmen, old and new, profusely and dreamed of having my own pure experiences in its grace. We’d seen no one the entire day save the top of a man’s head heading off the promontory earlier in the evening. We’d inhaled the air and the mineral energy seeped in through our skin. We’d tracked bear through deep snow and climbed hard leaving offerings of sweat on the rock. Now as we lay by a fire, popping the summer-dried tinder like firecrackers, watching the stars and moon splash Half Dome, I couldn’t have been happier.
We woke up early in the sunless morning, gathered our things and laced up our icy shoes for the last stretch of the trip, meeting up with the Snow Creek Trail to descend from the high country.
As we left camp and met back up with the trail, two mule deer, a mother and her fawn, greeted us like ushers and led the way for fifty yards before darting into the woods, leaving us on our way.
The Snow Creek Trail back to the valley floor is an elevator shaft of blocky boulders. The switchbacks are steep, frequent and unforgiving. As respectable as the ascent of Yosemite Falls was, I, with the exception of my knees, agreed that it was preferable to go down Snow Creek and not up it. In less than five miles we descended 2700’ finding ourselves at Mirror Lake, a charmed landmark of the Valley. Minutes later tourists started appearing and the trail became gravel and finally pavement and we made our way to the bus stop not far from the trailhead.
We made it to our car pretty wiped and then to the edge of the park, detouring to take a tired look at the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. It started spitting rain, the first inclement weather of the weekend and it washed us awake from our Yosemite dream.