I can already hear the derision: “Why would anybody in their right mind try to explore the country’s most iconic national park in just 2 days? It can’t be done!” Well, yes, that’s one way to look at it. Or, you can just do it. Because we had good reason for not postponing it (yet again!).
Three times in the last three years we tried to go to Yosemite and luck was not on our side. First, it was an act of God, then an act of arson, then an act of dial-up speed internet. So when my friend Edward, messaged to say he booked a campsite for 8 people and wanted to know who was in, there was no question (except the obvious: “How the hell did you manage that?!”)
It took weeks of researching park locations, renting camera equipment, buying camping gear, and rounding up what limited warm clothing I had scattered around Southern California. It was only the night before we left that I had a chance to absorb the magnitude of the trip we were about to take.
It’s a monolithic challenge to describe a place that is one of the most written about, photographed, painted, sculpted, sketched, charcoaled and otherwise over-replicated places in the world. It almost seems futile. How can words or pictures do justice to a landscape that my own eyes can hardly believe?
1.) HIGHWAY 41
Just the anticipation of finally entering the park was enough to get me giddy (although it may have been the euphoria at the thought I could finally stretch my ass after an 8 ½ hour drive). As the road snaked higher and higher, I held my breath after every turn just waiting for that cinematic reveal of the country’s most iconic precipice. After miles of dizzying s-curves, I began to feel like Mother Nature actually gets a sick thrill from teasing us turn after turn with still no valley in sight. Then, when she’s had her fun, she decides to finally unveil the door to her inner sanctum.
Entering Yosemite Valley for the first time is like stepping into a postcard. It could’ve been 1916 or 2016 and it would’ve looked exactly the same. I tried to be in the moment, taking in the colors, the breeze, the vastness. I felt nature was calling me. And it was — I really had to pee. Mountain moment to be continued.
2.) MIRROR LAKE
Mirror, Mirror on the wall… Where the hell did you go?
Our first hike that evening was an easy 2-mile trek to Mirror Lake at the base of Half Dome. Mirror Lake Trail is the perfect warm-up because it’s short and flat. It’s also littered with Hummer-sized boulders (when you come out in nature, you need to take your perception of size to a whole new level!). I imagined what it must’ve been like every time one of those gigantic stones fell a mile and a half to the valley floor and crashed with the force of a meteorite. The sound would’ve been deafening, the earth would’ve trembled violently, and any tree unlucky enough to be in the strike zone would’ve become a floral pancake faster than you can say “fore!”
After about 45 minutes, we reached the lower pool of Mirror Lake. Although, “pool” and “lake” were huge misnomers. It was completely empty! Spoiler alert: It turns out that there’s almost no water anywhere in Yosemite during the month of September — something about summer heat and evaporation — I don’t know, I’m not a scientist. So I was a bit bummed not to see the picture-perfect postcard that I’d googled. But on the other hand, how often do you get to see things from a fish’s perspective? We walked right out into the middle of the dry lake, climbing over huge boulders and scouting for a place to watch the sunset. Sunset Tip: the best sunsets are not the ones where you watch the sun itself go down, but when you watch the light change on the scenery!
3.) VERNAL FALLS (AND NEVADA FALLS IF YOUR LEGS ARE UP TO IT)
The next day, after Edward cooked a delicious hot breakfast (albeit not without the traditional ribbing for my vegetarian diet — no pun intended), we set out on a hike that he wanted to go on to Vernal Falls.
“Vernal” means “spring” which I assume is because of the beautiful water along the creek. It would’ve been much more helpful, though, if it was the kind of spring that could catapult me to the top like The Rocketeer. I won’t lie — it was a really tough hike for me. I like to consider myself young and reasonably fit, but I guess I’m no spring chicken. I tried to blame my heart palpitations on the altitude but nobody (including me) was buying it. I used the ol’ “I want to take a photo” excuse for a respite, but that got old after awhile. I was breathing so hard it felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest in very Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein-like fashion.
Why do we humans voluntarily put ourselves through such torture? Every other creature in the animal kingdom tries to conserve their energy at all costs opting for inaction if it means living a little longer. Cursing the steep ground I was trudging upon, I looked up toward the falls, and then I realized: That’s why; For the moments when we look up. The dramatic cliffs, the beautiful trees and the thunderous sound of Vernal Falls propelled me upward. As I climbed (some might say crawled but it’s really a matter of ‘he said, she said’) higher and higher, a rainbow began to form near the bottom of the waterfall, and its beauty gave me a second wind that brought me all the way to the top. After my blurry vision finally refocused, I noticed myself standing at the brink of Vernal Falls overlooking the valley I had just traversed.
It was really telling that neither of us had thought about food since we left the camp. Normally, like a newborn, I’m sucking my fingers every 2 hours looking for a nosh but we’d been so distracted by the stairway to heaven that the concept of staying alive just didn’t register until then. So once at the top, we found a nice shaded area, plopped down on a fallen tree trunk and opened our packaged tuna with crackers for a nice, relaxing lunch. As it turns out, the Squirrels of Yosemite Posse had other plans. Yosemite squirrels are the most brazen, conniving, defiant and feisty creatures in the world! We kept shooing them away, kicking dirt towards them (not ON them), swiping at them (not ON them), but they did not give up. It’s almost as if they were working as a team coordinating a triangular crossfire. Or maybe they had stock in Chicken of the Sea. If we ever needed to mount an invasion against aliens, I’m recruiting these guys.
There was a big sign advertising a shortcut back to camp through the John Muir Trail which we decided to take. Turns out it was UP and over. Why is it that the higher you go, the prettier the view gets? One of nature’s great pranks, I guess. We spent a good 20 minutes taking in the view from up there. The clear blue sky and deep green trees created a beautiful canvas for photos. It was almost too pretty to leave. But alas, what goes up, must come down. Our 3-hour hike turned into 5 hours, partly because of fatigue, partly because the scenery was so beautiful, it simply took that amount of time to absorb it. I will say, though, that the one thing I wished we’d have invested in were trekking poles. (Just to be clear, I didn’t say “Trekky” poles — they don’t have Dr. Spock’s face on them — hmm… million dollar idea?). Trekking poles ease the impact of your body on the ground, both up and down, by a good 30%! Not to mention the added “I’m a super cool adventurer” factor.
4.) GLACIER POINT
Pushing our luck, we decided to drive up to Glacier Point for the sunset and some epic stargazing. Glacier Point was literally straight up overlooking our campsite but we still had to drive an hour and 10 minutes to get to a point that a few rocket boosters could have gotten us to in about 2.7 seconds. I never mind driving around here, though. It’s always beautiful, smooth, and apart from a few douchebag tailgaters, completely relaxing.
Glacier Point is one of the biggest “must-see” attractions in Yosemite. It’s the iconic elevated lookout onto the historic valley and its centerpiece — Half Dome. We were lucky to make good time and get the best spot because as sunset came, people came in droves as if somebody had shouted, “Free beer!” Up there, I heard almost every language around the world except English. The significance of the moment became clear: this was not just an American landmark, but an international icon. I think it’s the sense of history to be gained from this vantage that is impressive. The geological story is drawn on the mountains as clearly as a Dr. Seuss book. The visible rock striations, fires, landslides and waterfall stains all give evidence to a living, breathing being that has experienced millennia of change and evolution (thank you, Ranger Rick!).
When we arrived, there was a lot of cloud coverage and I began to feel like we’d drawn the short straw on the weather. Fortunately, the sun came out just in time and Half Dome lit up like a flame. Then, just as dramatically, the evening shadows slowly creeped up the steep face of Half Dome — much like the rock climbers that scale her beautiful visage (and yes, it’s a ‘she’ — look at those curves!). Finally, with the pink remnants of the sunset hovering above her, Half Dome disappeared into the shadows. This is the point where 98% of people left. Big mistake!
Nighttime is a very dark time in Yosemite. Ok, so it’s dark everywhere, but it’s really dark in Yosemite! Stars began to emerge one by one, and within half an hour, I saw more stars than I’ve ever seen in my entire life! (And, more importantly, we broke our full-moon-while-camping-in-an-otherwise-dark-place streak). The Milky Way arced overhead and I could see clearly from one end all the way to the other. Despite a few morons who kept shining their flashlights at the stars (as if those little AA-powered beams could reach 11 billion light-years), it was mesmerizing. We lay down flat on a large rock staring up at the hen-pecked blanket in the sky and realized this was the moment. Every holiday seems to have a moment of perfection that defines the entire trip. For me, this was it. I could even forgive those wonderfully astute people who’d asked us earlier why we were pointing our cameras at Half Dome and when we said we were watching the sunset they replied, “Then what’s going to happen?”
5.) UPPER (OR LOWER) PINES CAMPGROUND
This was actually our very first camping trip as husband and wife. Luckily, we’d survived 5 years together in a telephone booth-sized cabin on a cruise ship, so our tent felt almost palatial in comparison. I was shocked at how easy it is to build up tents these days! They’re self-erecting in 2 minutes! (That came out wrong). You just pull once and they elongate themselves! (That was worse). Anyways…
Upper Pines Campground is the thrill of mountain ruggedness combined with the security of safety in numbers. I was as close to my neighbors as I would’ve been back home in the suburbs, but instead of wanting to punch them in the face, I actually felt a sense of camaraderie; Because everyone is here for the same reason — to commune with nature, and that’s a bond that connects us at the very core of our being. Sure, you have to drive 2 miles to the nearest shower. Sure, there’s no soap in the bathrooms. And yeah, you may even have to go three rounds with a squirrel for your breakfast. But all that was forgotten every morning that I woke up to the sun bouncing off of Glacier Point, or smelled bacon cooking for breakfast (a vegetarian can dream, can’t she?!), or roasting s’mores around the campfire. That brings me to the next best thing about camping:
6.) EAT S’MORES AROUND THE CAMPFIRE
Making the perfect s’more is an art. The skills required to get a gentle rotation, perfect timing, accurate separation and multitasking without burning, stabbing or killing yourself or anyone else proves that it is a science. Dexterity is key because there’s a lot of peer pressure when you’re roasting marshmallows. Everyone has their eyes on the fire, just watching and waiting for your marshmallow to get so hot that it melts and falls in so that they can laugh at you for the rest of the trip. S’mores are something I would never usually eat outside of a campsite (well, lately we have been but that’s just to finish up what we bought for the trip! Don’t judge). There are probably activities you can do at home to sharpen your s’more-making skills — push-ups and such — so that next time you go camping, you’ll be the s’more king/queen. There may be more calories in a single s’more than in 5 Big Macs but if you hiked 5 miles like we did, you earned it!
Besides, when you’re eating a s’more around the campfire, that’s the time to truly relax and look around. Do you ever find it fun when you’re camping to make up life stories about your neighbors? No? Just me? Well, in the campsite to the right was a single father with three young boys, including a baby. No mother in sight but he was wearing a wedding ring. Hmm… Mom is a high-powered attorney and a workaholic and dad has brought the kids to the mountains to escape their mom’s latest alcoholic binge, but realizes that no matter how hard he tries, he cannot replace two milk-producing breasts. In the campsite on the left is an adult man riding a scooter while wearing a big, furry bear costume who, in about 38 seconds, is going to reach into the cooler for a beer and wonder why he just got shot in the ass. See? Campgrounds are fun.
7.) TUOLOMNE MEADOWS…AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN
The next day, in our quest to see as much as possible, we drove two hours out towards the Tioga Pass. We’d planned to drive to the farthest point of interest and then work our way back, but that went out the window when we saw the view from Olmstead Point. From here you have a view of the back side of Half-Dome (hopefully she doesn’t mind). The most entertaining part about this stop is when the pretty, blond lady tried to feed a chipmunk some cookies until some passersby scolded her that she’s not supposed to be feeding the wildlife. The woman lifts up the cookie box, points to it and says, “but is says ‘animal crackers.’” … I’m gonna let that one sink in for a second… cue: <<forehead slap>>
A little further up the road is one of the gems of Yosemite — Tenaya Lake. This is the quintessential landscape that I picture in my mind when I think of coming up to the mountains. Beautiful tree-lined cliffs framing a calm, turquoise lake with no sounds except a soft breeze and the gentle lapping of the water on your feet… Who am I kidding? I didn’t even put a toe in. I’m from Southern California! If it’s not 80 degrees, we stay away! But the rest is true. It’s a beautiful place for meditation — when you’re not disturbed by some guy behind you talking loudly about his wife’s sunburned feet for eight minutes straight. But this was still a huge highlight of the trip. It’s the kind of place where words like “schedule,” “deadline,” and “alarm” simply don’t exist. Nature has its own dictionary — with words like “serenity,” “honesty” and “harmony” — a dictionary that I think we, as humans, should learn to adopt.
Continuing on, we went to another “must-see” when we stopped at Tuolomne Meadows. I love this part of the park because of the peacefulness it affords. Half-Dome is stunning, but it’s so dramatic that it gives me a headache to think about its height, its formation or people crazy enough to climb all the way to the top as if nobody’s ever invented a car. Out near Tuolomne Meadows, the scenery may be less spectacular but I find it ever more so calming. I can breathe in the fresh air and not get lightheaded from the altitude. I can walk along a trail without my lungs exploding. And there’s far fewer people making the drive out there — which, for me, was one of the perks. We’d hoped to get out to Cathedral Lakebut evidently it was a 7-mile hike and our bodies were still in mourning from our Vernal Falls hike the day before. But that’s the other nice thing about Yosemite — you can put together a to-do list that’s never-ending! Because it will always be here. It’s reliable and loyal like that.
8.) TUNNEL VIEW
On the way back to camp, we decided to stop at Tunnel View, the other iconic lookout of the Valley with El Capitan protruding its big head in the foreground. But before you get to the vista point, you have to maximize thrill of driving through the tunnel itself. For one thing, going through it was like riding Big Thunder Railroad at Disneyland! I half-expected to see stalactites dripping from the ceiling into a pool of hidden Mickeys. But the big moment is the epic unveiling. It’s probably similar to what a baby sees right before it comes out of the womb. So when you emerge from the tunnel, be sure to do it very slowly and dramatically (and maybe blast the soundtrack from the “Star Wars” in your car just to maximize the effect), because the reveal of Yosemite Valley coming out of the tunnel is that epic.
I almost didn’t recognize Tunnel View as such. There seemed to be something missing. Later, I realized that it was Yosemite Falls, the iconic waterfall that deluged into the valley in every photograph that I’d ever seen. In late summer, all that is left of the great waterfall was a skyscraper-sized black stain where the waterfall used to be, like the remnants of a raging fire. Oh, well. Another excuse to come back! Add to the to-do list… check!
While there, we met some very cool people — all of whom, interestingly, were from Boston. One was a young guy, amateur photographer/adventurer who was also involved in some missile-testing business that I was afraid to ask more about for fear of being “accidentally” thrown over the side. And another was a couple who had detoured through Yosemite after their holiday to Big Sur went up in flames (literally). I love community sunsets. Everyone is in their most relaxed, content, and hopeful state. It’s a great way to meet truly authentic people and bond over life’s simple pleasures.
9.) PROCRASTINATION STATION
The next morning, it was time to leave. Packing up our campsite was a bit depressing because we didn’t want to leave. The mountains are really infectious and I was dreading the shock of returning to civilization. It’s like when I go night swimming in a pool — I procrastinate getting out not only because it feels so amazingly refreshing but because I know I’m going to be hit with a very freezing wall of air that’s going to undo all of the relaxing I just did. I would squat on the campsite for a few more months if it weren’t for the fact that the showers are 2 miles away and by then, we would certainly be scavenged upon by wild animals thinking we’d died.
On the drive out, I finally spotted what I’d been trying to see for 3 days — rock climbers on El Capitan. About ¾ of the way up, I could see a climber’s triangular tent precariously dangling over the mile-high precipice and I had a revelation. These guys are absolutely insane!!! It takes days, maybe even up to a week to climb El Cap, so not only do they have to scale their own bodies up one of the steepest rock faces in the world, but they have to do so carrying food, a place to sleep, and I don’t even wanna think about how they go to the bathroom. But they figured out a way to do it. It’s incredibly fascinating that human ingenuity has allowed us to do things that we, as a species, were never born to do — fly, breathe underwater, and hang off cliff edges. In a way, we’re always battling Mother Nature — and coming out on top. We look to her for peace and inspiration as much as for a challenge to overcome her.
10.) THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS
We got back in the car for the long drive home and a lot of cars passed us for driving too slowly, but we didn’t care. We were savoring the last of this beautiful landscape. JP had the driver’s side window down to let in the last of the mountain fresh air. A big truck pulled up next to us and a guy in the passenger seat leaned out of the window and pointed. I smiled thinking he was gonna say something hipster like, “Rock on, dude!” Instead he shouted, “There’s a camera on your roof!”
JP and I, deadpan, looked at each other. It’s a good thing we were in shock for a few seconds because a reflex of slamming on the brakes would’ve sent it flying like Evel Knievel onto the pavement. Instead, we very gingerly came to a complete stop, I put on the emergency flashers, and JP opened the door. Sure enough, right there on our rooftop, was one of our three cameras; just sitting there almost gleefully enjoying the breeze against its lens like a dog when it sticks its head out the car window.
It’s an absolute miracle that it stayed up there. We were going probably 25–30 mph, and not in a straight line! Had we not been so resistant to leaving in the first place, there’s a very good chance you’d have gone to Yosemite to find Yogi with a Sony A7R slung around his neck. We had insurance, thankfully, but still… can you imagine filling out the claim form on how it got damaged?
All in all, our first trip to Yosemite was everything we’d hoped it’d be, including the hope that it would not be our last. We plan to come back in a more off-peak season with fewer crowds (in winter, according to the Québecois). The great thing about Yosemite is that it changes constantly, so you can keep coming back and you will always see something new — new trails, new colors, new perspectives — exactly the way we should be looking at life in the first place.