Back from four days in Yosemite: that was fun! It was a big family-reunion trip, nineteen people total. We started at the Mono Meadow trailhead, off the Glacier Point road, and hiked down to Illilouette Creek for the first night. Scattered along the sand bar, our tents didn’t so much look like a single encampment as a whole miniature campground.
The water is unusually high this season, especially for July, as California had the same late-blooming summer we did in the Northwest. The creek was roaring away with surprising force, and the normal ford was completely unusable. We scouted up and down a bit and found no good options; there’s a great log bridge a couple hundred feet downstream, but it sits right above a very turbulent rapid and the spray from the high water made it slick and dangerous.
Solution? Engineering! Among nineteen people we had a good supply of burly dudes with upper body strength, and so we set about constructing a log bridge. We found a spot where the current split around a little island, located a couple of downed trees small enough to move, and started dragging the rocks and logs around. After a couple hours of hard work in the sun, we had built a rock pier on either side, and used ropes and levers to stretch two small logs across.
This was the point where a park ranger ambled up and casually inquired about our project, and just as casually let us know that there was, in fact, a decent fording spot upstream, just around the bend where we’d called off our survey expedition, and mentioned how he’d just guided three fairly short and not particularly burly women across it with no problems…
So we abandoned our mostly-finished bridge, trooped upstream, took off our boots and waded across. It was quite a production, but it worked and it was definitely less labor-intensive than the bridge.
Right, then: we trooped along through some open country full of blackened tree stumps, with little creeks and springs and wildflowers along the way. Above us, the domes of Mount Starr King; across the way, views of Glacier Point and Half Dome. We intersected the Panorama Trail, then tramped down the Nevada Falls trail, across the bridge, and on up to Little Yosemite Valley.
The campground there is so well developed it hardly feels like backcountry at all. It has designated camp sites, fire rings, bear lockers, and even toilets; only the fact that there are no cars distinguishes it from any of the valley campgrounds.
The next day was our Half Dome climb. Mom convinced us all to pack up our daypacks the night before, so we actually got our caravan out on the trail by 9 AM. It’s not a long hike – only three and a half miles – but it’s all elevation, so it’s not particularly quick going.
What’s to say about Half Dome? It’s an unusual mountain climb, with very clearly defined stages as the geology changes. First you walk up through the forest for a couple of miles, past the trail junction. Then you wind your way up the side of the ridge to the tree line. Then you walk along the ridge, with bare scrubby trees and increasingly dramatic vistas, to the lunch spot at the base of the sub-dome. Then it’s up a rugged, sun-exposed granite switchback stairstep section to the top of the sub-dome. A little bit down to the saddle, and the views are wider and the exposure more terrifying – then you climb the cables.
Our trip up the cables was more like a traffic jam than a normal climb; we were stuck with some genuine slowpokes ahead of us, who not only spent minutes at a time resting between each set of poles, but had themselves clipped in to both cables so that it was impossible to pass them without climbing outside the cable route. It was an exercise in patience: hanging on to the side of a mountain, just standing there, waiting for someone up above who seemed to be taking their time for no particular reason, while dozens of people just waited.
Oh, well. We all made it to the top, and we spent an hour wandering around looking at things and taking lots of group pictures. The trip down was also somewhat slow but not as bad as the trip up, and then it was just a long steady downhill hike back to camp, where we all grabbed our swim gear and went straight for the river.
We spent that evening celebrating Joel’s birthday around the campfire. There were miniature blueberry cheesecakes for all, a rhyming blues jam with rhythmic accompaniment (bear cans make great hand drums), and general foolery and merriment until late.
The trek down from Little Yosemite Valley to (big) Yosemite Valley is always an interesting social experience. You follow the line of the Merced as it drops first over Nevada Fall and then Vernal Fall; the latter is one of the most-visited attractions in the park, so the trail gets increasingly crowded the further you go. By the time you’ve descended the Mist Trail – a veritable shower this year, clouds of spray drenching us as we walked – you’ve left the back country and entered the land of poorly-shod, inexperienced day-hikers who stare at your towering pack like you’ve just come back from the Moon.
Our first destination was of course the pizza deck at Curry Village where we tore through seven large pizzas and a dozen or two glasses of beer, then headed for the showers and demolished a stack of clean towels. Oh yeah.
It’s a beautiful place. I love Yosemite. Things have changed, though; the Valley was crowded and full of cars. We spent literally hours sitting in stop-and-go traffic jams just entering and leaving, and ended up missing the Glacier Point bus due to the unexpected congestion. I missed the sense of calm welcome I’ve always had in Yosemite before. It’s been thirtyish years now, and things have changed; I’m not sure I want to go back to the Valley now.