Yosemite National Park. Few names evoke images as grand as those roused by that name. Few places live up to, let alone surpass, their immense reputation the way Yosemite does. Few parks have such spectacular scenery combined with deep, rich human history. Yet Yosemite manages all of these things with seemingly easy aplomb. Sure, it has its reputation for crowds but the absolutely astounding scenery overwhelms all but the most misanthropic misgivings about sharing such a marvelous natural spectacle. Yosemite is one of the places people spend their lives waiting to get to and then finish the balance remembering their experiences there. It also happens to be the place where my family began.
Clouds swirl around Half Dome.
Both of my parents’ families had histories of camping in Yosemite deep in the early 20th century. As important a heritage as that may be however, it was 50 years ago this year that my parents met for the first time while hiking to the top of Half Dome. In truth, my dad and his brother were setting out on a backpacking trip to Vogelsang, a high sierra camp in the Yosemite backcountry. My mom and her best friend were hiking up Half Dome. When, as my mom says, their “trails crossed” my dad and uncle decided a trip to the top of the great Yosemite icon was in order. The rest, as they say, is history. Since then, as before their meeting, my parents have not missed a summer of camping in Yosemite Valley. Though they usually make several trips to the park each year (often roughing it in the Ahwahnee these days), the core is always the week spent with family in Housekeeping Camp, the same campground my mom’s family has been using for 65 years. Consequently, my brother and I grew up camping there and have considered it our home away from home.
Now, my brother and I have our own families (having also been joined by a cousin who shares our love of family and Yosemite), our wives have entered into the tradition, and our children now make their own memories much the same way we did when we were youths. Each summer brings a new set of experiences. While we like to revisit old favorites, like the Panorama Trail, we are always on a quest to explore new parts of the park in general, and Yosemite Valley in particular. It is amazing how many first-rate destinations are completely unknown to the crowds who swarm the well-known attractions.
A rainy Yosemite Valley.
Last week was our annual week in the Valley and the new experience this year was rain. When my brother and I were younger, my folks would take us in July. The date has been slowly creeping forward and this year it was set for the first week in May. One week about 20 years ago had rain nearly every day, so while the older generations had had that experience, it was new for our kids. Everyone handled it with grace and flexibility, and the week turned out to be a memorable one for all involved. Now, having gotten the rainy Yosemite memories out of the way, we have decided to improve our odds at good weather and are looking at meeting up in June next year.
While the rain did dampen the anticipation of the many hikes we would take, the truth is that elements of our group still covered quite a bit of ground. Unfortunately, that group, for the most part, did not include my wife and me. Having 3.5 and 0.7 year olds puts a real kink in our ability to get on the trail. My mother eagerly seeks for us to leave the grandchildren with her, but we would rather build the kind of memories we have from growing up into our kids instead of running off to pursue our own hiking ends. Most of the time, at least. Having recalibrated our expectations, we flexed with the weather and managed to spend some quality time on the trail, though only one outing would truly qualify as a hike.
What did we actually do? Several games of “Bang” were played and there was much Lord of the Rings trivia exchanged between my nieces and nephews. I put on a Yosemite Valley-wide treasure hunt where the kids had to ride their bikes and follow clues to find a treasure I had stashed in an unknown location. There were many campfires spent drying off from the rain. Everyone was very patient with my young son who was perpetually filthy, and all the family was excited to hold my daughter, who is the newest member of the clan. But for most it was the hikes that stood out, as always. As I was setting my sights lower and taking my kids on more age-appropriate outings, my brother led the older kids on two notable trips. First was the long scramble up to the base of Ribbon Falls. I did this years ago and my brother had not, so he was eager to explore this part of the park. It was a resounding success, and the marvelous scenery and chance to see a very seldom seen part of the park was enjoyed by all. Later in the week, after my cousin’s family’s unfortunately early departure for home in Oregon, my brother also led his troop on a long hike up trailless Indian Canyon. At the top of the canyon, they intersected the North Rim Trail, visited Yosemite Point and then descended via the Yosemite Falls Trail. My brother and I had first gone up Indian Canyon around 2000, but we made the grueling mistake of following the North Rim Trail the opposite direction, going around North Dome and descending into Yosemite via the Snow Creek Trail. That trip deserves its own post sometime in the future. By all accounts, the Yosemite Falls descent is much preferable.
A seldom seen section of the Merced River.
My wife and I were much less ambitious. We took my son to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls. As short a stroll as that is, we still had to coax him forward by pointing to rocks ahead, exhorting him to climb that rock too! The next day we took both kids to Vernal Falls. We stopped just short of the Mist Trail but a fair bit beyond the bridge. There is a large flat rock extending out into the enraged river offering a wonderful view of Vernal Falls. At one time, a signed, maintained spur trail led easily out to the rock. While much of the path remains, the signs are gone and trail is obscured where it splits off of the Mist Trail. This meant that we had the awesome spot to ourselves and decided that that was far enough. Given the wet weather and the paucity of dry clothes, we reckoned that taking the two children through the mist of the Mist Trail may be a bridge too far. On the way back, I did split off from my family for a little bit. I descended below the trail as it heads back to Happy Isles and explored a surprisingly placid part of the river between the bridge and the trailhead. Across the river, I could see the four channels of Ilillouette Creek joining the mighty Merced. It is a spot seldom seen and worthy of more exploration in the future.
Slackliner over Yosemite Falls. (Enlarge this one.)
On our last full day in Yosemite my wife and I hauled our 7-month old daughter up the Yosemite Falls Trail. This was the same day my brother and his family were planning to head down the same trail, so we hoped to run into each other. My daughter, who up to this time had been an exceptionally pleasant baby, decided she did not like the switchbacks climbing out of Camp 4. Although I was supposed to carry her, she wanted mama, and my dear and patient wife carried her up the long series of switchbacks, even going so far as to take her out of the backpack and cradle her in her arms while we hiked. Needless to say we were not going to be turned back on the last, and nicest, day of the week. After long pause taking in the view at Oh My Gosh Point (it is really too awesome for words) we continued a little further and stopped at a perch above the trail with a great view of Upper Yosemite Falls. There we ate some lunch and watched as someone slacklined across the top of Yosemite Falls. We also noticed that there were two other slacklines leading to the top of Lost Arrow. Those folks are crazy.
Lower Yosemite Falls seen from Oh My Gosh Point. Note the footbridge below the falls.
Upper Yosemite Falls viewed from a lunchtime perch.
The drama and power of Upper Yosemite Falls.
So, all in all, it was a good week. Not the kind of week we had anticipated, but certainly a memorable one. It was rich with family, wonderful scenery and a great sense of continuity, with both the past and the future as we built our love for Yosemite into the next generation. My parents are older now and don’t get out on foot like they used to, but they still love to be in Yosemite. I think that they were deeply gratified that, on the anniversary of their meeting in the park, their family is still returning to the place where it began.