Yosemite is a household name across the United States and has surely reached the ears of those across the globe. It is recognized as one of the most scenic parks in the country. But what is it that makes Yosemite one of America’s most popular national parks?
Yosemite Valley is the heart of the park and the location where most people wind up. The road that loops through the valley is the obvious reason. It also happens to pass by some of the parks treasured landmarks. Half Dome is one of the most recognizable mountains in the world. It is a pure granite dome that was ground in half by the passing of glaciers over the ages. As one of the best-known mountains in America, it has also become one of the most famous hikes. The trek to the top of Half Dome is not for the faint of heart, however. The hike is long and the vertical ascent is considerable, taking you 4,800 feet up along a distance greater than fifteen miles. It is definitely an all-day affair, regardless of what kind of shape you are in. With the proper permits, it is possible to camp along the way. In the past, one would simply park a car and hike to the top, or at least try. Nowadays, a day permit is required for the hike. That might seem a little overbearing or perhaps controlling but there is a very good reason for it. The hikes in Yosemite Valley can be extreme. The ascents can take longer than hikers expect. They can require more exertion than many hikers anticipate. On our visit to Yosemite Valley, we would up on the losing side of a hike that taught us, and quite a few others, a valuable lesson. But let’s finish with Half Dome first, then I’ll tell you the tale of Four Mile Trail.
Hiking up to the top of Half Dome is the experience of a lifetime. Tall pines surround the trail and mountain rivers tumble by the trailside. The trail brushes past mountain precipices that provide stunning views. Plenty of people hike the trail so you find company along the way. Of course, that mostly happens the first half of the trip. A certain percentage of people turn back when the reality strikes of just how far this hike goes on. For those who persevere, the tall pines thin and the trail winds upward to the bald top of Half Dome. The magnificent granite dome towers above the Yosemite Valley as its unrivaled king. But reaching Half Dome does not mean you are done. You must then mount the granite top, which is actually the hardest part. The dome is steep and fairly devoid of hand and foot holds. While it could be done with care, it is not something the park service is going to allow tourists to do en masse. Rather than installing an emergency care unit, they have instead installed a chain railing that visitors can use to ascend to the top. While that is a daunting climb, most people will use the chain to reach the peak. I heard more than one hiker say they did not want to climb the chain but did so anyway so as not to waste the effort taken to get there. The reward for the chain climb is victory over Half Dome. It also one of the best views you will find on planet Earth. Breathtaking and dizzying, the vistas span all of Yosemite Valley, the floor of which is approximately 5000 feet below you. The surrounding mountains are in view also, revealing that Half Dome is, in fact, not the only granite dome in the region. The view reveals that the entire region is filled with granite mountains.
After the hike to Half Dome, we returned to the valley again to sightsee and hike. The Half Dome hike was so long, we decided to take an easier hike. We checked the guide book and found an easy-sounding hike called Four Mile Trail. Four miles. What could go wrong? While perhaps the guide pamphlet contained warnings, we failed to read them. Fellow hikers gave us advice, however. The advice was, go prepared, and one of the items mentioned was flashlights. How happy we were to receive such advice. But let me take you up Four Mile Trail before I describe the trip down. The trail is as short as it says it is. It is also about a 20 to 30 degree incline the entire way. That’s right, it’s similar to a four-mile staircase. That’s not to say it isn’t a nice hike and that it can’t be done. Just don’t be fools like we were and think you were going on an easy hike. To our fortune, we were all healthy enough. We ascended our four miles and reached the top to gain yet another astounding view of Yosemite Valley. We also found ourselves standing at the edge of a road. Yea, we could have driven. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Would I wear different shoes next time? Oh yea. We arrived at the top, took in our views, rested, then discussed heading back down. Although we debated, we decided that we could take the bus back. We made our decision just in time to see the last bus leaving the parking lot and driving away. Our way back down was Four Mile Trail. Sigh. We started off, nursing blisters and biding our time. That’s when the sky began to grow dim. The sun set behind the mountains and the valley grew dark. While the light faded, the trail became harder to see, then, at last, it was nighttime and we were still half way up the mountainside. Out came our flashlights. Thank goodness! Not every hiker had gotten the memo, however. During the descent, we found hikers stuck on the trail, walking ever so carefully, some even feeling their way along! Others had simply stopped and sat down, having few other options. The result was an unusual and, therefore, enjoyable hike. One small group at a time, we rescued stranded hikers and created a long chain, with flashlights evenly spaced among us. I estimate we were a group of about thirty by the time we reached the bottom.
While we had planned another hike the next day, we decided Four Mile Trail had won the battle and chose to enjoy other activities. What a boon that turned out to be! Yosemite Valley has all kinds of things to do that don’t include mountain hiking. We rented bikes and rode the trails around the valley. That was amazing. We saw far more than we would have on foot or from the confines of a car. Yosemite Valley is truly one of the most remarkable places in the world. When the bike riding was done, we ran into some visitors who convinced us that the “thing to do” was float down the Yosemite River. Of all the things I have done in Yosemite, that was perhaps the best. We purchased flotation devices at the gift store – no, not cheap, but we were on vacation. Then we jumped in together and floated away. What a party! As we drifted down the stream we wound up alongside a host of other floaters. It was an amazing time with every stranger behaving like a friend. And, as for those blisters I mentioned, the river was the perfect cool and soothing therapy.
Yosemite is an amazing vacation destination and deserves a spot on anyone’s bucket list. This post actually has missed some of the other amazing adventures we had there, but perhaps that can wait for another time. The park is enormous and Yosemite Valley is actually only a small part of it. To this day I have still not explored it all.