Getting into Yosemite was pretty stressful. We climbed a winding mountain road for seven miles as the entrance gate was perched high up, over ten thousand feet, and it was snowing, the road was icy and the (automatic) hire car insists on changing down to a very low gear – stump-puller gear – at the first hint of a hill so wheels were at risk of spinning.
We got there, paid our fee to the Park Ranger on duty who looked to be on the verge of getting frostbite and drove into Yosemite.
Fifteen miles in and most of the snow had gone and the sun came out, ten miles more and the temperature was showing 88 degrees and we were able to get out and walk around. Snow is pretty to look at, but when you’re wearing shorts and sandals, I prefer sunshine any day.
This is a true wilderness and there’s a lot of it.
The areas not accessible by road, that’s most of Yosemite, are well served by walking trails, but if you want to spend the night in the wilderness areas you have to be vetted by the Rangers and get permission. Not that Marigold or I have any intention of setting off into the interior or camping out under the stars. Been there, done that, but not recently!
Yosemite is one of those places that unless you book a hotel well in advance, you’ll find yourself sleeping in the car. We’d booked a hotel on the far aside of the Park, thinking it would give us a flavour of the place if we drove through the entire width of the Park on arrival. One of those ‘well, it seemed a good idea at the time’ arrangements, as it turned out.
I was tired, had had enough of driving by the time we reached the Park entrance through a mini blizzard and now had two hours or so still to go.
Marigold was a great help, pointing out mysterious shapes deep in the woods and saying, ‘that might have been a bear,’ to keep me engaged. We didn’t see any bears. Fifteen bears are hit by cars every year, but there were none about today. Not that I wanted to hit one with our car! We did see a deer, with antlers, but didn’t get too excited.
On a blind bend several idiots had pulled up in the middle of the road, jumped out and were taking photographs of what turned out to be a sheep. Yes, a sheep. A ram, actually, with curly horns, but still not worth causing a traffic accident to see. ‘Tut, tut,’ we said as we threaded our way through the bottleneck.
Our hotel is a lodge, three levels, and of course we were upstairs. As I lugged our overnight essentials, that seem to expand in both size and weight every day, up the outside steps I muttered, ‘better be worth it.’
It was. A lovely room with a balcony and a burbling stream below. We were soon settled in. At check-in a couple from Texas, (we know this because they mentioned it many times), had been complaining about the noise of a ‘raging torrent going right past our window’ and demanding a different room. The girl on the desk said, ‘we are full, no spare rooms, and all our rooms feature raging torrents. It’s a big attraction here.’ Everybody in earshot cheered.
The next morning it was already hot by eight o’clock, in the mid 80s, and we ate our absolutely not ‘gourmet’ banana sandwiches on the terrace. The ‘raging torrent’ was a soothing accompaniment. Two fishermen appeared, casting flies, and below, a family of squirrels. Marigold threw down a small piece of bread and provoked a vicious fight so they didn’t get any more. I took a photo in case this was to be our only sighting of Yosemite wildlife.
Last night we’d arrived at the very high and snowy Tigard Pass entrance and driven through Toulouse Meadows, past Tenaya Lake and Porcupine Flat and ended up at El Portal. There’s 1,170 square miles of Yosemite and at one stage last night I was beginning to imagine we’d covered every inch of it!
Refreshed and reenergised, we set off again in search of bear. Bears were to prove elusive and on arriving at Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfalls in North America with a total drop of 2,425 feet, we realised we were far more likely to see a bear today than a waterfall. There was a dark stain on the rock face and that was about it.
‘Come back next Spring or early summer,’ a know-all woman told Marigold, ‘they’re magnificent then.’ She went on, at great length, explaining the falls were dependent on water and needed heavy rain or melted snow to be viable. I left Marigold listening to all this and wandered off.
‘She was a teacher,’ Marigold said when she found me again, ‘talked to me as if I was one of her first year kids.’
I thought it best not to comment.
So, no bears, no waterfall. Half Dome was impressive though. It rears up 8,840 feet from the valley floor and looked magnificent in the sunshine. A sign told us the views from the top were ‘something to behold’ and that we could walk there from the nearby Happy Isles Trailhead.
I told Marigold she was looking terrifyingly fit this morning and we should set off right away. She pointed out the small print mentioning the walk being rated both ‘strenuous’ and ‘difficult’ over its nine mile route and advised hikers to allow 12 Hours to complete the climb.
‘Then we have to get down again,’ Marigold pointed out.
‘You are a wise woman,’ I said and we went back to the car instead.
The feature of Yosemite I wanted to see most was El Capitan, billed the world’s second largest exposed rock.
‘Not very American, settling for second best,’ I said, prompting a debate as to which rock was accepted, even by Americans, as the biggest.
Australia's Ulruru, what used to be called Ayers Rock, we decided upon, after accepting the Rock of Gibraltar had very little chance of ‘winning,’ despite its British associations. Looking up ‘ whopper rocks of the world’ or something very similar later, I found there is considerable debate about the relative merits of ‘biggest rocks.’ Mount Augustus, again in Australia has its supporters, while El Capitan’s claim to being second biggest in the world may have to be revised downwards.
I’d wondered at the time about the difference between the ‘rock’ staring back at us and a monolith, but learned Ulruru is not just a monolith, but is also, technically, a monadnock or inselberg. I shall now try to forget all these unnecessary complications. El Capitan is a mighty big rock. Let’s leave it at that.
El Capitan is quite ridiculously sheer which makes it irresistible to those people like George Mallory, who died attempting to climb Everest, and when asked why he wanted to do such a thing famously replied, ‘because it’s there.’
Both Half Dome and El Capitan are magnets to rock climbers. In 1868 Yosemite’s first guidebook stated, ‘the summit of Half Dome will never be trodden by human foot,’ the writer was tempting fate. George Anderson reached the top in 1875 and numerous others followed.
I remembered watching a TV documentary about two US climbers who made it to the top of El Capitan, the first to do so without the aid of artificial aids, meaning no drilling of bolts into the rock to make hand holds. Incredibly, it took them more than two weeks and they spent nights suspended in slings from the sheer rock face.
Seeing the scale of the challenge at first hand massively increased my admiration at their achievement. There were about twenty climbers on the rock today, tiny specks on the rock wall, only discernible by their bright clothing. We both decided an attempt on El Capitan was not for us.
The day after we left Yosemite, watching tv news in a café in the Napa Valley, we heard about a tragic accident where a slab of rock, described as ‘the size of an apartment building,’ had become detached from the rock face, killing at least one climber and injuring another, both climbers believed to be British. Ranger Scott Gediman said at least thirty climbers were on the rock face at the time. We’re glad that didn’t happen while we were watching, must have been horrific.
There was so much we didn’t see on our visit to Yosemite. The sheer scale of the place is daunting and of course we’re not accomplished trail walkers so we miss many of the ‘best bits.’ Even so, we left with a sense of accomplishment, falling just short of the dreaded wilderness fatigue. This place is so big, so overwhelming, so magnificent we wondered whether staying another day would lead to ‘Florence Syndrome.’
This little known condition initially manifested itself on our first visit to Florence. An incredibly scenic and engaging city where we wandered, agog, taking in the ancient sites, sculptures and everything that Florence has to offer. In the heat of mid afternoon Marigold announced she was ‘cultured out’ and why didn’t we forget about going to look at yet another Leonardo da Vinci statue and go and have an ice cream instead? I believe it’s now officially recognised as a syndrome. If not, it should be.
Almost at the end of our US road trip now and we’re making our way back to San Francisco. We’re detouring, again, to take in the Napa Valley on the way, of which more anon.