Date: January 15, 2012
Yosemite Valley at dawn
This time, we were off to explore the Yosemite Valley. It’s the most famous and also most-visited part of Yosemite National Park, known for its sheer granite cliffs and waterfalls. Ah, the anticipation was intense. All the stories I had read in National Geographic about fearless rock climbers scaling the big walls of El Capitan were coming back vividly before the eyes. When we finally reached the entrance, the early morning sun was lighting up the east-facing granite faces, giving them amazing texture and emphasizing every crack and crevice on the rock face. The effect was breathtaking:
Yosemite tunnel view
Our next stop was at the so-called “Tunnel View” – an ungainly name for a place with such magnificent scenery. Some sources claim this to be the most photographed scene in the world. I can’t confirm or deny this claim, but I can definitely say that there was a fair share number of people with big SLRs and hefty lenses. We had no other choice but to join them, since the view was fantastic.
We continued on our way to the heart of the valley. On the way, we stopped at a turnout with a view on the Yosemite falls. Yosemite Falls is the highest measured waterfall in North America. Under normal circumstances, the water tumbles 2,425 feet (739 m) to reach the bottom of the valley. However, this time there was no water flowing at all – the waterfall was frozen. As we stayed at the viewpoint for a while to admire the scenery, we started noticing what looked like trickles of snow tumbling down the cliff. It may have been water from the snow and ice melting on the top, but I prefer to believe that we had seen “Yosemite snow falls”.
Getting to the top of the falls
Eventually we parked somewhere in the valley and headed towards the falls for a hike. We passed the Yosemite Village (it looked touristy, so we didn’t stop there). Then we made a quick trip to see the Lower Yosemite Falls up close. Incredibly, there was water coming down – the snow on top was really melting. Encouraged, we headed straight to the trail leading to the top of the falls. For a little while I entertained the notion that the 12 km round trip hike would be a piece of cake, especially after all our 25+ km Bruce Trail ventures. This myth was immediately dispelled when we actually started going up. The trail was basically a long step of rocky stairs, constantly going up. And then there was the additional complexity of constantly changing temperature. At the bottom, I was wearing my full winter skiing outfit, with several layers and a hat. As we started to climb up the trail and got out of protective shade of trees, it started to get really hot. Eventually, I took off all but the innermost layer, but it was still necessary to lug those bulky winter clothes around.
We saw some curious sights along the trail. There was this strange tree. The trunk of this tree looked like it was covered in some sort of red plastic (if somebody knows what kind of tree this is, I would appreciate to be educated ).
Then there was a granite wall covered with moss and also a thin sheet of ice. The ice was melting, and there were water droplets on the inside face of the ice sheet. It created a unique visual effect, check it it out in a video.
We also saw the Upper Falls, a lot. They were visible from a lot of places on the trail, in all their majestic tallness. It’s very hard to appreciate how tall they really are from a photograph. The only way is to try a relative sizing exercise: find a tree on the top of the cliff, and try to visualize it as a tall majestic tree, dwarfed on the photo by the scale of the cliffs. Another interesting observation is to notice how the falls changed in just a couple of hours from being totally frozen (see a picture above, taken early in the morning) to having a steady and consistent flow.
Yosemite Falls Overlook
It took us way more time than we had anticipated, but we finally made it to the top. The overlook was exciting. Getting to it required passing through a narrow section of trail, with only a guardrail between the trail and the cliff. In this specific spot, it looked like the trail would just drop off into the abyss at the end of the guardrail.
Getting closer to the abyss revealed a less scary picture: the trail continued behind the corner and just above the actual overlook. The distance to the overlook balcony was just a couple of meters, so the guardrail was simply not necessary. However, it required quite a lot of courage to get close enough to the corner to figure this out. The balcony was situated directly above the place where the water plunged off the cliff. It was possible to lean over and see a vertical column of water falling down, down, down, a long way down. Of course, this activity was also accompanied by a heavy dose of adrenaline being quickly released into the bloodstream. Not looking directly down didn’t feel as exciting, but it compensated by the austere beauty of the granite kingdom before us.
Valley at dusk
By the time we started heading down, the sun was already setting. The descent was relatively uneventful, except for a few exceptional views of sun rays entering the valley.
Just as we were walking towards the parking lot, we also caught a lucky glimpse of the Half Dome, “cut” in half by red light of the setting sun. Does that make it a Quarter Dome?