People love to visit Yosemite, which lessens the specialness for me because this sanctuary of extreme natural beauty feels more like a busy, pulsing city in the middle of the wilderness. When I come here I sense that the ancient native people who knew of this place regarded it as very sacred ground because of its majestic views and because of the way it is tucked back so far into a box canyon. No other place in the world looks like this and the crowds who throng here can do nothing to spoil the spectacle of the unusual rock formations and water falls. I wish I could have discovered the valley myself long ago and kept it secret, but how selfish of me to think like that.
I have fond memories from younger days when I could just pull into the park and camp for a week along the river without reservations. The memories override my displeasure with the crowds such that I want to go see it again. I figured that if I were to visit early in the season, the crowds might not be so thick, and I might not be so distressed by them. I went in on Saturday morning for the day and left before sunset so that I would not have issues with lodging or camping spaces. Just a day dedicated to viewing the rugged features that form the valley. I managed to miss the snow and ice that can also visit the valley this time of year. Saturday had the right forecast of warm sun.
The last time I came to the park my brother-in-law and I rode in on motorcycles from his home in Sonora. On that occasion we went over 10,000-foot Sonora Pass, a spectacle in its own right, with massive granite boulders, and creeks and rivers running down the steep mountain sides. We then scooted south to Lee Vining, then over Tioga Pass, through Tuolumne Meadows, and dropped down to Yosemite Valley from the high country. A long ride that lasted well into the evening. I remember that day what a tangle of traffic we came across, but were able to weave through it on the motorcycles. Probably the best way to get around in the park.
This past weekend, however, I entered through the southern pass. Highway 41 took me through a mile-long tunnel where I first saw Half Dome in the distant haze and a bolder El Capitan up closer. I thought that maybe I would see a few rock climbers working their ropes on this challenging hunk of granite. Even from the first view of the valley I could see that the waterfalls flowed abundantly and filled the entire valley below me with a fine, watery mist that would show up in nearly all of my photographs that day. It seemed as if the view from here was being veiled or curtained by the mist, enticing me to come down to the valley floor to see more of what the springtime run-off intended to show off.
When I sit beside the Merced River in the summer time, it appears to be a lazy river that wraps its way through a riparian forest and meadow. This day I could detect more current as it ran through the flats of the valley. As I moved closer to the falls the river became more tumultuous and filled with whitened rapids. Cold, quick moving water, but so invigorating to watch nature working with such intensity. I stopped once in a meadow and walked down from the road to the edge of the river to take a quick look. From there I could hear a constant thunderous sound and immediately recognized the source.
I found parking near Yosemite Village and left the car for the day. Driving is a mistake in the valley, unless one loves to sit in idle traffic. Walking is still best, but the park service runs shuttle buses to different points of interest, so I did both. From the village, it was a short walk to Yosemite Falls to take a long look at the big drop. I can hardly take it all in without stretching my head way back and looking up. The 2200-foot vertical drop makes this the second tallest in the world. The water comes down in two stages, with a break in the cascade about half way, before it tumbles to the valley floor. Up close the thunder is intense. Standing near the base, the water produces a wet wind that delights the tourists who make the short hike to the observation point. I see some scrambling over rocks in the water at the base to get even closer. I could tell them how dangerous this is, but know they would not listen. Last year seven people died in the park by not observing caution near the falls.
I may have seen more water falls during this visit than ever before. Because of recent rains and me arriving early season, the Sierra run-off is at its fullest activity. Many of the smaller falls dry up in the summer heat, when California rain is almost nonexistent, but in the early spring these tiny streams of snow melt and rain become quite dramatic as they cascade a thousand feet over the granite walls. I spent the day with my head cocked back and looking around me 360 degrees to make sure I didn’t miss any of them. In some ways the activity reminds me of laying out under the stars while watching for meteors.
So many long, shiny tour buses feed the daily population of the park. They drop their loads in Yosemite Village and from there people go in all directions on the shuttle buses to see the sights. It’s hard to believe that one can hop on a tour bus in down town San Francisco and arrive here a few short hours later, look over the famous sights in this special little corner of the world, then ride back to the city in the same day. What would John Muir, father of our national parks, have to say about all this? Perhaps he would be delighted to see how his efforts toward preservation have allowed so many to enjoy. The physical characteristics of Yosemite remain mostly intact, but us moderns have tampered with the sense of wilderness.
Now that I have had my early-season view of the park, I likely will not return at least until the fall. One day and six hundred photos must satisfy me until the crowds begin to dwindle. I see many of the younger park visitors bedecked in new hiking shoes and day packs ambling up the steep trails to get to the tops of the waterfalls, but I move slowly and find that hiking down through the cool forest along the banks of the Merced River at my own pace is quite enjoyable. Listening to the rumbling and roaring while looking up at the profound geology is enough sensory load for a day of inspiration. I come here to let the forceful elements at work have their effect on me, and they have done just that.
I leave the park several hours before dark, following the Merced River down the long canyon on Highway 140 to Briceburg. White-water rafters engage the churning river. I see wild poppies spill a bright rusty-looking orange all over the mountains, while redbud trees glow along the edge of the river. When I stop along the road and look more carefully, I see that all the earth here is ablaze with many tiny wild flowers that hide among the taller grasses At Briceburg the river and road depart. I go over the next mountain and down to Mariposa to spend the night. I would like to stop longer and drink deeper from what is all around me in these mountains, but the sun lowers behind the mountains and I’m getting tired and sleepy.