There is a lot to explore in Yosemite: Yosemite Valley with Half Dome and Yosemite Falls; Tuolumne Meadows, the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada; three Giant Sequioa groves; historical sites at Wawona; and the endless hiking opportunities in the High Sierras. Yosemite is a land of granite that was shaped by glaciers. Glaciers moing down the canyon of the Merced River carved the U-shaped Yosemite Valley and glaciers smoothed and rounded the granite domes that dot Tuolumne Meadows. Yosemite is a large park with elevation ranging from 4,000 feet on the valley floor to 8,600 feet in Tuolumne Meadows. Of course, the peaks are higher.
I spent most of my time in Tuolumne Meadows. The long meadow was flowerless in August. There is a granite dome on each end of the meadow with a trail to the top. I took a geology walk with a ranger up Pothole Dome. I learned that the flat side of domes, like on Half Dome, were made by glaciers moving down the side of the dome and plucking off pieces of the rock as it hit perpendicular lines. I also climbed near to the top of Lembert Dome. I watched fat, fluffy, white clouds form and pass overhead seemingly just out of reach. The grey peaks of the High Sierras ran in a circle around me. The clouds brought in thunder and lightening storms for a couple afternoons.
The most popular hike around Tuolumne Meadows is to Glen Aulin, which means beautiful place. The trail passes Tuolumne Falls and White Cascade. I managed to not see any of them. The trail starts off sandy and wide and not very interesting. It eventually meets and follows Tuolumne River. The landscape is open and you can see far and wide. Then the trail goes up onto slabs of granite. I’m not used to finding a trail over granite so I followed the mule poo from the mule trains that carry tourists and supplies up to the Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp. Sometimes the mules went to the edge of the granite hill to see the view; I had to backtrack and find the trail again. I noticed a PCT hiker with a large cardboard visor taped to his hat coming up a side of the granite hill. That’s where the trail was. The trail was pretty now with nice forests, a river, blue sky, and happy hikers with heavy backpacks. I came to a bridge with a small waterfall that was hard to see. People were everywhere eating lunch. I looked at my map and decided that this must be Tuolumne Falls. I continued on and came to beautiful views of the river tumbling down a washboard of granite rock. I thought this might be White Cascade. Glen Aulin couldn’t be much further so I pushed on. I came to another granite section and started following the mule poo and occasional sandy footprint. There were three parallel lines of poo and then nothing. Which way did the trail go? Worried that I would get lost if I went looking for the trail and sure that I must be the last person on the trail since it was late in the afternoon, I resigned myself to turning around. Then a group of backpackers appeared in the distance straight ahead of me. They dropped their backpacks to walk to the river and take a break. I still turned around and started back. It was a lovely hike back and I felt content. When I got back to my campsite, I read the trail description and looked at the map in my guidebook. I hadn’t quite gotten to Tuolumne Falls. It could have been what the backpackers stopped at. So now I have a good reason to go back to Yosemite and Tuolumne Meadows.
I took a walk in Tuolumne Meadows with a ranger and learned a number of things: Meadows keep the snowmelt from going into the rivers and clean the water that does go into rivers; lupine means wolf plant; gooseberry grows in arid soil under Lodgepole pines; Whitebark pines grow in groups of five because the Clark’s Nutcracker stores the seeds underground in groups of five; sooty fungus looks like fire damage; the Needlemeyer moth incubates its larvae in Lodgepole pine needles and when they hatch, it kills the tree. The best nature story I heard was about the Beldings ground squirrel. The females come into heat for three hours all on the same day. Many males die or get injured in the melee. Predators delight in all the squirrels that are out in the open and preoccupied. The following day many predators come back for more easy food and find all the squirrels gone.
During the week, I heard the rangers talking about the Rim Fire that had closed one of the west exits of the park. One evening I was sitting in my lounge chair by the river when I saw a large smokey cloud come over Lembert Dome. The fire was far from Tuolumne Meadows, but every evening the smoke settled over the campground and made it unpleasant to breathe.
After a week at Tuolumne, I went down Tioga Road to do a ranger recommended hike to Indian Arch and North Dome. The first few miles of the trail were wide and smooth. Except for one couple, I didn’t see anyone. It was a beautiful forest walk. I quickly reached the turnoff for Indian Arch. I could see a white pile of rocks on the top of a little hill. When I got up to it, there was a rock arch. The arch was impressive, but so was the entire formation just sitting there by itself on a sandy hilltop in the forest. A little further down the main trail I came upon a number of people. They were walking up from an overlook straight ahead of me. I saw some rocks lining the path that turned sharply to the left. A woman told me I was within a mile of North Dome and it was worth it to go there. I looked down from the overlook and saw what I thought was North Dome way down below. More people kept appearing ahead of me on the overlook. Was the trail really straight ahead? This time I had my guidebook with me which has good maps. It described the overlook and said to go left. Those rocks I’d seen were showing the main trail. So I went back and continued down the granite ledge I was on. I had to follow the trail over granite, walk down steep granite rocks, and carefully pick my way over the stone staircase that had eroded away. What kept me going was seeing a couple walking up to the top of North Dome. It wasn’t steep and I knew there were other people there. I eventually made it down the ledge and onto the base of North Dome. The wind picked up and behind me I could see large,white clouds filled with orange and blue from the Rim Fire. I walked to the top of North Dome and stopped for lunch. To my left were granite domes that were so close I could see the texture of their sides. To my right was Yosemite Valley and Half Dome far below. The couple I had seen was nowhere around. There were no other hikers. The hike back up to the top of the ledge was tiring, but once I made it back up, the rest of the trail was easy. I came to one spot of pure mature California Red firs. It was an enchanting red forest. On the old campground road near the trailhead, I looked up to see a black bear cross the trail just in front of me and disappear in the bushes. I started yelling ‘Hey, Bear!’ to scare it away. The bear was unfazed and walked out into the open and looked at me. Too bad I was worried about what it was going to do, otherwise I could have enjoyed the moment of looking at a bear. It went off and continued eating and I made it back to the car. The couple appeared at their car only about ten minutes after I got back.
My last two days were spent in Yosemite Valley. Even with all the people there, it’s a beautiful place. The most popular hike this time of year is to Vernal and Nevada Falls, the only waterfalls in the Valley that still have water. I only hiked to Vernal Fall because I was feeling lazy after walking up a few hundred stone steps. Instead of going back down all the stone steps, I took a different trail back that had wonderful views of both waterfalls.
The highlight of my stay in the Valley was attending a presentation by the director of Search and Rescue. He started off the presentation with a home video of a couple of young guys trying to get on top of a large boulder in the middle of a river. One guy is able to get onto the top of the boulder, but the other guy”s legs are too short to climb up. He goes around the lower portion of the boulder and finds a log to stand on to give him more height. The log breaks and he goes into the river. It’s not deep, he’s sitting down with his head above water, but the force of the flowing water against his shoulders doesn’t allow him to stand up. The video stops. He was swept down the river, got tangled underwater by debris and drowned. Another video starts and shows the recovery. The presenter said drowning is the number one cause of death in the park. He continued by saying that you can drown in a quarter of an inch of water if it is above your nose. Then he gave some statistics: Sixty-five percent of rescues are for hikers and nine percent are for climbers. Twenty-five percent of rescues are on the Vernal Fall trail because people slip on the stairs and break their wrists and ankles. He also showed a photo of three young women posed by the railing above Vernal Fall, a place I had been that day. In the background was a young man in a half standing position. He had gone over the fence to fill a water bottle and then lost his footing when he stood up. He went over the falls and they weren’t able to recover his body for three months until the flow of water over the falls was at a safe level for the divers to go in. After talking about a few climbing accidents, he talked about getting lost. The North Dome trail has a lot of people getting lost. They don’t make the left turn and continue down the overlook and get stuck on steep ledges or just lost. He showed a map of of the North Dome area with dots on it representing where people had to be rescued. The dots were all over the place. He told us that the Park Service doesn’t put cairns on trails, so people need to carry good maps. I’m glad someone put those rocks on the North Dome trail or I might have added a dot to his map.
For all I did and saw in Yosemite, I feel that I only scratched the surface. I want to go back and see it in early summer. The waterfalls will be raging and the meadow flowers will be in full bloom.
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. John Muir