Poor Yosemite National Park. Beset by a deadly hantavirus outbreak. Ravaged by the Rim Fire (did you know that fire has its own Wiki page?). Knee-capped by the $%*#*&! US government shutdown. It’s been a tough few years for one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Here’s an all-season travel guide to snowshoeing, hiking Half Dome and saving sequoias so your Yosemite National Park travel plans are in place when this amazing park re-opens.
Mariposa Grove and the stately sequoias of Yosemite
As if epic valleys and views weren’t enough Yosemite is also home to hundreds of giant sequoias, aka redwood trees. These are the oldest trees on earth and two of the giants in the Mariposa Grove, in the southern part of Yosemite National Park, are on the list of the 30 largest examples of this species on the planet.
Fire is an important part of the natural life-cycle of redwood trees and the giants are built to withstand fire with a natural fire retardant in their bark which can be two feet thick at the base of the tree. However, the very hot, very fast Rim Fire had naturalists worried enough to construct fire breaks around Mariposa Grove and even bring in sprinklers.
Hiking Half Dome? Check!
In all of our visits to Yosemite we had somehow never managed to hike up iconic, valley-dominating Half Dome. On our most recent visit to the park we remedied that.
After getting a campsite reservation and back country permits (needed to climb Half Dome) we decided to do the 16 mile (25 km) round trip hike from Yosemite Valley to the top of 8,836 foot (2,695 meter) high Half Dome and back in two hard days instead of one insane day. That meant a night of camping in Little Yosemite Valley just below the dome followed by an early morning trip up to the top of the rock.
We got a later start from the valley floor than we’d hoped as we sat out some morning rain, but soon enough we were heading up a section of the John Muir Trail which climbs pretty steeply before reaching the top of Nevada Falls. Then we continued on to Little Yosemite Valley back country campground.
It was damp and cold by the time we got our tent pitched but a communal campfire and some tasty freeze-dried Mountain House camp food warmed us up before we climbed into our sleeping bags with one ear cocked for the aggressive female bear that the camp site ranger warned us about when we arrived.
The next morning was clear and sunny and we got fantastic views from the trail during the hike up to the base of the final climb to the top of Half Dome. The last 400 feet (120 meters) of the ascent require walking up a nearly vertical granite rock face using massive steel cables to help pull yourself up—and keep us from falling off.
This is no joke. Hikers die during this final cable section of the Half Dome hike. These accidents often involve water on the rock face which causes climbers to slip and fall off. That’s why the cables are removed every fall and put back up only when the weather improves.
Even in dry conditions this cable section is not for the squeamish and a few hikers seemed to be re-considering their need to get to the top. We, however, hadn’t climbed 5,000 feet (1,520 meters) up from the valley floor just to turn back without reaching the summit so we headed for the cables and started basically walking straight up a rock wall.
We reached the expansive top of Half Dome with sore pecs and triceps. This is one of the few hikes we can think of that works the upper body as well as the lower body thanks to all that hauling up the cables.
After resting a bit we headed back down Half Dome via the cables (it’s no easier on the way down) and back to Little Yosemite Valley campground where we quickly broke down camp, put on our packs (why do they never seem any lighter even after you’ve devoured most of the food that was originally packed into them?) and continued another three hours very steeply down the brutal granite terrain of the Mist Trail.
Some sections of the so-called trail remind us of ancient Roman roads (only steeper) and the uneven, sole-beating, solid-granite conditions proved, yet again, that hiking downhill is often even harder than hiking uphill.
Then we got lost
Well, not really lost but poor signage at a cross roads sent us up the wrong trail briefly before we realized our mistake and backtracked to the cross roads. This unplanned detour ate up precious time and sunset was fast approaching. This is not the sort of trial that should be navigated in the dark so, despite our fatigue, we hustled.
Tuolumne Meadows bound
Tuolumne Meadows, in the eastern part of Yosemite National Park, is a different world and one many visitors skip. We think they’re missing out, as these photos prove.
Bonus: Whoa Nellie Deli gourmet gas station
Another reason to wander through Tuolumne Meadows and exit Yosemite National Park near the town of Lee Vining? Whoa Nellie Deli. Located in the Tioga Gas Mart gas station, white-capped chefs have replaced microwave burritos with gourmet meals including fish tacos and elk steaks.
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