Despite San Francisco’s allure and all of the smiling faces that I left behind, I couldn’t help the excitement that ushered me eastward. Yosemite National Park lay just three hours away from me. Alongside the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and few others, Yosemite National Park remains one of the quintessential expressions of American wilderness in its most sublime. Whether people remember stories of harrowing ascents of El Capitan, the slight twinge in your neck as your gaze rises to meet the lip of Yosemite Falls, tales of John Muir and his failed struggle to protect Hetch Hetchy valley, the unforgettable contours of Half Dome, or simply lounging on the valley floor in one of the many meadows, anyone who has seen, or even heard of, Yosemite has felt its undeniable power. And here I was, barreling towards its entrance ready to experience it anew.
Even though I knew that much of Yosemite, including Tioga Road, would be impassable this late in the winter season, I had no doubt there would be more than enough in the valley to fill at least a few days of adventuring. Arriving late in the afternoon, I headed to the visitor’s center for my commemorative stamp and a few words of wisdom about where to sleep that night. As I expected, the ranger directed me to Camp 4. Amazingly, this iconic campground is still only $6 per night. Normally, I do my best not to pay for lodgings, but $6 was definitely the best deal I had found in any National Park. Not only, was it a great deal, but Camp 4 has an inescapably fascinating history. The sheer granite walls that line the Yosemite Valley are widely considered to be some of the best climbing in America, especially for big wall climbers in the continental United States. As such, many of the best climbers in the world have scaled routes up El Capitan, Half Dome, and many others. Yosemite played an integral role in the golden age of climbing in the 1960s and Camp 4 is where many of those climbers decompressed at the end of a long day or prepared for their next big wall assault or bouldering adventure. Yvon Chouinard, the outdoor visionary who would go on to found Patagonia, was one of the leaders of this movement, climbing during the day and selling his homemade climbing gear at night down in Camp 4. As I staked out my tent and unloaded my food into my bear box, I wondered who else had shared this spot in the past.
You know that feeling you get when you wake up in a new and exciting place that you are dying to explore? I’m sure you do. If you don’t, you need to get out more. I practically tore out of my tent when I remembered where I was the next morning. I hurriedly assembled my gear, preparing for my first day on the trail. Having been discouraged in talking with the ranger’s the night before about the snow/ice cover on Half Dome, I had decided to climb to the top of Yosemite Falls. Although the trail to the top is only 3.5 miles long, it switchbacks up the full height of valley, some 3,000 feet. The trail is really one long set of switchbacks with a flatish break in the middle. It was in that flatish section that marks the halfway point, just as I rounded a corner to see my first unimpeded view of Yosemite Falls that I realized that the memory card in my camera was out of space. Major bummer. I quickly retraced my steps back to the car, loading in a new card and eating a few scoops of peanut butter, before starting up the trail all over again. The frustrating setback had the unexpected bonus that now everyone on the trail thought I was a total stud. Some even asked if I just went up and down trail all day! The congeniality and trail humor spurred me forward, especially when one kid equated me to Superman…
Soon, I was back on track, recapturing the photo that had overburdened my previous memory card. Yosemite Falls, the tallest waterfall in North America, hypnotizes all who look upon it. The towering cascade transitions between a torrent and a trickle depending on the season, but El Niño had pushed the waterfall to its limit. Water tumbled from the river mouth like wisps of pale smoke defying gravity. As it fell farther away from the cliff, the chaotic spray spread outwards, blanketing the granite walls until they shimmered. Finally, it crashed into the snowy rocks below, sending shiny droplets in all directions, some forming rainbows, others hardening to ice crystals. With the wind and sun constantly working their magic on it, no two glances at Yosemite Falls looked the same. I couldn’t help but stand and stare, captivated by the light dancing through the cascading water.
Eventually, I realized that my current vista meant that I was only halfway to the top. That meant that more switchbacks hid just around the corner. Moving into the shadow of the valley, I found my switchbacks covered in sloshy snow. After a quick break to throw on my YakTracks, I continued upwards, leaning hard into my trekking poles for support. After more than a mile of slipping and sliding up switchbacks, I found the river coursing towards the abyss. From the top, the view of the waterfall was impressive, but far less captivating that below. Instead, I was met with high angle views of the valley floor and the surrounding rim. Not a bad compromise if you ask me.
On the way back down, I was glad to move once more into the growing shadow of the Three Brothers. My SD card side trip had left me more exposed to the sun than I had hoped, so I welcomed the opportunity for shade, even if it did often mean snowier trails. Before I knew it, I was bounding back into camp, where I met up with a group of young women I had met earlier that day. Eventually an older couple joined our conversation and recommended a spot to see the firefall that night. I quickly made dinner, packed up my tripod and headed off in search of the clearing he had mentioned.
For those of you who do not know what the “firefall” is, here is a quick explanation. Every February, there is a two-week period when the trajectory of the setting sun perfectly illuminates Horsetail Falls just before it falls below the horizon. The low-angle light and the falling water combine to create what has been named: The Firefall. Although an apt name for this mystically natural event, it pays homage to a bizarre 19th century tradition. Starting in 1872, employees at the Glacier Point Hotel would light massive fires atop Glacier Point in preparation for the finale of the nightly summer programming. As the ceremonies came to a close, the burning embers would be dumped off the edge of Glacier Point, sending a fiery waterfall of coals into the valley below. Even though the tradition lasted for almost a century, it goes without saying that the Park Service put a stop to this rather absurd grand finale. Ironically, the Glacier Point Hotel later burned down, never to be rebuilt. The firefall at Horsetail Falls, however, continues every February. Hiking towards my clearing, I soon realized that I would not be alone. There were at least a hundred tripods already set up alongside the Merced River, all trained on Horsetail Falls. I should have known…
After testing out a few different angles, I finally found a spot and set up my tripod. Scanning the crowd, I realized I was easily looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of photographic equipment. It was a sight to see. From high-powered DSLRs attached to wildly expensive lenses to handheld iPads, everyone wanted to capture this epic confluence of natural beauty. My closest neighbor in the crowd was a delightful woman from Colorado who was just as eager to chat as I was. We passed the time, marveling at the already transforming colors of the Falls, talking about our respective adventures, and commenting on the funky array of photographers that surrounded us. Our eyes, however, rarely left the falls. Even though I arrived more than an hour before sunset, the sun was already refracting through the cascading waters of Horsetail Falls. It began as a pale, almost white, gold, shifting and swaying in the wind. As the sun dropped lower, the gold deepened to a burning orange. The whole scene reminded me of Mount Doom or of a goldsmith pouring molten gold into a mold. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. Finally, just as the sun was dropping below the valley, the oranges ebbed into vibrant reds. Yet even as the top of the falls burned crimson, the sun had already left the bottom, obscured by some high ridge or mountain. Then, the color that we had watched for the past hour evaporated away into the pale grey of dusk. It was over.
Not bad for a first day in Yosemite if you ask me…
The Road to Yosemite