Twenty-two years of living in California left me with one main regret: that I had not driven the 5 hours and 57 minutes from my front door to visit Yosemite National Park. I felt legitimately guilty, almost like I had ignored a milestone in the life of a friend, thrown away a book-length invitation, declined to show up to see my state in her bridal best.
Those regrets ended this past Monday. A week before I had been trying to finagle a ride to Modesto for a friend’s wedding, when I glanced at map and had a crazy idea. If I was driving to Modesto, then why not go a few hours out of the way and spend a night in Yosemite? My family got wind of the idea and jumped on the bandwagon, and Sunday morning we all started off for Yosemite via Modesto.
Of course, to get to either of these places you must first muscle through several hours on the 99 freeway, one of the least interesting roadways I have come across in my travels throughout the Western US. On a whim, we pulled off at a roadside stop called Bravo Farms about 45 miles south of Fresno. I expected the usual touristy diversion—some Old West saloon doors, a grubby wooden horse, and a corner bar with carefully distressed wood. All of these turned out to be present, but they were folded into a labyrinth of vintage signs, hobble-horse tire swings, old cars, and the best treehouse I have ever ascended. Even though I’m usually against places that exist only to lure in tourists, I was surprised by the originality and playfulness that defined this particular Old West knock-off.
After several more hours on the 99, we finally made it to Modesto. I quickly changed in the hotel room and then hurried off to my friend’s wedding, which proved to be a truly beautiful evening in the perfect spot overlooking a river. I headed back to the hotel room grateful to have been a part of their celebration, and the next morning we headed off to celebrate Yosemite.
We took the 120 freeway into the park, driving through cattle land and some foothill towns. After hitting some construction, we made it into the park around 10:30. We were a bit nervous at this point, as we didn’t have a campground reservation. Luckily, we were able to nab a spot in Tamarack Flat Campground, a spacious first-come campground 3 miles off of Tioga Pass and about 45 minutes from the valley floor.
After settling into the campground, we headed towards the valley for some casual exploration. As we drove I began to feel strangely uncomfortable. Outside was the type of wilderness that I knew—tumbled granite, oak trees, cedars, manzanitas with rust-red bark. This was the wilderness that I had grown up with, and I haven’t been able to shake a slight prejudice against the dry, acorn-littered forests and parched chaparral. I’ve always seen these as somehow inferior to the Ideal Forest, which I imagined as something lush and dripping like the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. In other words I fall right into the old trap: I count my home as less important than the Grand Unseen. I didn’t want to give the grandeur of Yosemite to this “lesser,” homey country.
My prejudice puddled as we finally entered the valley. The first thing we saw was the Merced River, weaving out of the stony corridor where it had clawed cliffs and pulverized granite. In August it was calm, cool, welcoming. We stopped off at a swimming hole and dipped beneath the blue-green water, then climbed a boulder and jumped into the river. Even my mom and dad went for a swim.
We were off again before the water had evaporated from our skin. By now we had entered the valley proper, and the view was impressive. Sheer granite faces rose on either side, sculpted by the river into rocky spires and monoliths. I was reminded of the sheer cliffs of Zion National Park, but with grey stone instead of red. At the far end of the valley we caught glimpses of Half Dome, Yosemite’s most iconic peak. And in the middle of the valley, the Merced River wound through evergreen forests and grassy meadows where does ushered their fawns away from traffic.
Our first stop in the valley was Bridalveil Falls, the closest waterfall to the entrance of the valley. Although nearly dry, a thin sheet of water rose from the top of a cliff and, pillowed by an updraft, swayed in midair before dissolving into the damp stone. From below the feathering of mist was captivating, almost intelligent.
From Bridalveil falls we drove through the valley to the Ahwahnee Hotel, a building famous for architectural innovation and mountain luxury. I felt out of place in my damp t-shirt and dusty sandals, a somewhat ironic sentiment since it was the hotel that had insisted upon luxury in this rugged environment. Irony aside, the hotel was cool and spacious with dark wood and Native American accents. I peeked inside the dining area and was amazed at the high, elegant windows. Then I walked back outside in my dusty sandals to our dusty minivan and planned our next dusty walk.
After stopping by Yosemite Village’s large grocery store for some ice and Curry Village for some ice cream, we drove back down the valley in search of a good walk suitable for my parents. We pulled off at a turn-out and decided on a trail along the river. The view was gorgeous—the mountains reflected off of the surface of the river, its water smoothed by the scattered clouds that had chased off any swimmers. Then the trees opened into a meadow where long grass housed iridescent blue beetles. Above the meadow, the valley opened up into a succession of granite peaks shadowed against the branch of an oak tree. Only the constant whir of cars along the road reminded me that we were in a space framed by people as well as by granite.
We returned to our campground that evening for a sunset dinner hurried by the threat of bears, then went to bed early. Our plan: to wake up the next morning to watch the sun rise over the distant mountains. 6:00 am found us at a lookout point off of the 120 highway, my sisters still bundled up in sleeping bags to ward off the early-morning chill. We sat on the granite boulders where daytime travelers posed for pictures, watching as the hazy line of second-hand light angled down Half-Dome. Finally the rim of the mountain next to Half-Dome disappeared beneath a half-circle of gold that stained the sky pink, scattering light on the oak leaves and Manzanita branches and granite boulders that formed the seat from which I watched the distant glory. In the hush that followed I forgot about my prejudice; there was no room for distaste beneath the tilting light of a new day.
We drove back to the campground to make breakfast and pack up camp, then my sisters and I donned our hiking gear and headed out on our next adventure: Vernal Falls. We left our parents at the trailhead and started up the trail with a backpack stocked with water bottles. The trail was paved and crawling with fellow hikers, but as it rose above the river into an amphitheater of stone I couldn’t help thinking of something a professor had told me about the Yosemite writer John Muir: his editing process, Muir once complained, consisted of crossing out the word “glorious” again and again throughout his journals. I looked at the stone cliffs and thought, glorious. Glorious, glorious, glorious.
We followed the trail up to the Vernal Falls footbridge, then re-filled our water bottles and used the restrooms before starting up the Mist Trail. The mist trail is one of the most well-known of the Yosemite hikes, and the number of people on the trail attested to that fact. When the waterfalls are going in full force the trail is a slippery corridor of stone carved into the rock, but in the slump of August the steps were steep, but dry. After admiring the pool of Vernal Falls and the rainbow that wavered in the mist, we climbed the many, many steps up to the crest of Vernal Falls.
After taking pictures at the top of Vernal Falls, we ate lunch by a beautiful but sadly un-swimmable pool a hundred feet back from the cliffs. On our way back down the steps, we looked toward the waterfall to see a lone figure in blue swim trunks treading the deep pool of the waterfall. Judging from the way he swam, we decided that the currents in the pool were gentle enough to allow for a safe swim. There are, it seems, some advantages to visiting Yosemite in August—in other months, this pool would be a cauldron of spinning water. We quickly made our way down the hill and left our stuff among some rocks. Then, after asking the dripping men and boys around us if the water was deep enough, I walked to the end of a boulder over the pool and vaulted out into the mist of the waterfall. My sisters followed in a few minutes. After the shock of adrenaline faded the water was icy-cool, but deep enough and calm enough that I paddled around the pool blinking mist out of my eyes for a few minutes before climbing up on some boulders to dry out.
We hiked back down the hill in damp t-shirts and met our parents in the parking lot of Curry Village. Then, we settled back into the car for the drive back to Long Beach, the drive that I am so grateful I had finally taken.