I hired a little hatchback and rolled east out of San Francisco. Through flat sunny plains and towards the Sierra Nevada. The craggy mountains were just a name to me, I didn’t really know what to expect and even as I drew near there wasn’t much to prepare me for the sight.
Driving into Yosemite Valley I was overawed. The landforms are towering, there is a feel of the ancient and the powerful, the spiritual nature of the earth. Giant granite rockfaces climb heavenwards, standing watch over the coming of day and the coming of night, the changing of seasons, the passing of ages.
Waterfalls dropped from on high, vapors drifting off like steam. Squirrels and deer haunt the shadows. Snow lay thick on the high ground, but the sky was crisp and blue. Pine, spruce and fir trees, so foreign and lush to my Australian eyes, stood around clear quiet lakes.
Yosemite is rich in history. Until 1851 it was home to the Ahwahneechee tribe of indigenous Americans, but with white settlers flooding to California during the gold rush, they were routed and by 1855 tourists were arriving. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, which entrusted the valley to the state “for public use, resort and recreation.” This was eight years before Yellowstone became the world’s first official National Park.
I sensed it was a special place. And, I soon learned, I wasn’t alone. Yosemite National Park is the United States’ most popular and receives three and a half million visitors a year. Like busy little ants we shuttled around, from carpark to booking office to campsite.
On one hand, I thought it was fantastic that so many people were connecting with the real world, breathing the fresh air and walking the trails. On the other hand I really wouldn’t have minded if some of these people had buggered off to the shopping malls in the nearest city.
The park covers over three thousand square kilometres, but the majority of visitors stay within the eighteen square kilometres of Yosemite Valley. The glacier-carved valley is spectacular, more than worthy of this attention. This is where the peaks with names like Half Dome, the Sentinel and El Capitan are found. With their stark, striking forms they have become recognisable, almost like a symbol you’d see on a tshirt.
You need to book ahead for one of the four hundred daily passes to hike up Half Dome.
I’d planned to join the masses for some day hikes around the valley, but for the time being I was craving some space, so I waited in line at the visitor centre to arrange a pass for a three day hike in the quieter northern region. With the route mapped out and everything I needed with me, I was ready for a stroll through the backwoods.
|From Tunnel View lookout. El Capitan is in the foreground on the left, and Half Dome is in the background, just right of centre.|
|El Capitan. Can you spot the rock climbers? No, neither can I, but they're bound to be there - the place was crawling with them.|