Yosemite – heaven and hell

They say you should never meet your heroes as disappointment ultimately follows. Stuck in the crowded Yosemite Valley amid folk stuffing their faces with fast food, I could feel this adage coming true again.

The High Sierra near Toulumne MeadowsYosemite has been my ‘landscape hero’ for years, since I read about big wall climbers in National Geographic clipped into bivvy tents far above the valley floor on sheer granite faces. My fascination with this awe inspiring scenery was further nourished by more stunning photography and tales of long trips into the wilderness, not least the grandaddy of the national park movement John Muir’s adventures in nature.

My rosy image of the valley was only tainted when I studied US national parks at college. Tales of crowded roads, a seemingly insatiable appetite for tourist development and campgrounds bursting at the seams coloured my view of the valley and I looked elsewhere… spending a long summer working in a marine national park in Kenya, in fact.

This year a trip Stateside had become long overdue. I had family to see – specifically my niece -and the spark of Yosemite had been rekindled.

Family duties done, we travelled through the park slowly in probably the most grotesque way imaginable: the ubiquitous Yank recreational vehicle. OK, so it was a small RV by US standards and we avoided the ire of motorists by travelling early.

Picking up supplies in one of the substantial, at-your-convenience stores in the Yosemite Valley, though, I wanted to escape the throng. We may have walked around with jaws dragging along the floor gazing at the stunning granite walls soaring above us, only to be left similarly agog at the number of calories packed into a bacon cheeseburger from the Yosemite grill. With fries, that’s more than three quarters of your daily calorific requirement. Thru hikers need only apply.

Mirror Lake in the Yosemite ValleyBut walking more than a mile from this souring honey pot and the crowds thinned. Yosemite revealed her true charms at last. We got lost in thick stands of coniferous woodland and rested by secluded, mirror pools… quiet places to stand and stare.

If the valley can descend into hell when summer crowds choke its highways, the High Sierra around Tuolumne Meadows approaches heaven.

The crystalline air at 8,000ft-plus is stark contrast to the heat and fug of the valley. Views are endless and sastrugi of white granite domes and peaks are sharply delineated by a deep blue sky. This is hiking nirvana. Trails run off in all directions exploring lonely peaks, lush alpine meadows and enticing wild-camp lakes.

Here the RV became an ungainly accessory. I hope to return, packing simply for the wilderness. I hope.

Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point

11 thoughts on “Yosemite – heaven and hell

  1. Many thanks… on reflection, it sounds like I’m being a bit (too) grumpy! It is a truly stunning place, but you have to work to get the best from it. I guess the same can be said of national parks in this country. Lakeland in the summer can drive me up the wall!

  2. Interesting to read of your experience of the American West, after my own travels earlier in the summer. I’ve not been to Yosemite and think I would probably go with a certain amount of trepidation – a place I’d love to see but am also a bit ambivalent about. Funnily enough the most disappointing place I went, for a variety of reasons, was the equally majestic Glacier National Park in Montana. Too many people to really enjoy, although I perhaps didn’t make enough of an effort to get off the beaten track. My preference was for less visited but equally glorious landscapes: the fjord-like Pacific northwest, the endless rolling prairies of Montana and the sky-islands jutting up from the Sonoran Desert in southeast Arizona.

  3. Love the photos. I visited Yosemite about 20 years ago and totally agree with the sentiments. The main tourist spots by the road are pretty crowded but once you start down the trails it’s real beauty emerges. We actually climbed to the summit of Half Dome with it’s unnerving climb up a steep Granite slope aided by a handrail. A magnificent outing including chipmunks on the summit to steal the salami out of your sandwiches. Like you I’d love to go back and do some true wilderness hiking in the Sierra – it looks awesome

    Thanks for taking my mind back to a trip I’d not thought about for many a year


  4. Thanks both for your comments. According to a couple of account I’ve read, the NPS has not necessarily showered itself in glory with the management of the Yosemite Valley. The landscape has bitten back over time, too, with devastating flash floods and rock falls. I found it all too easy to become irritated by the crowds… I guess the one main advantage the park has is it relative lack of infrastructure in the north, providing ample opportunity for escape.

  5. Hey, NW, nice to find your site.

    I was thru-hiking the PCT last year (well, trying to — made it to the WA border) and while holed up at Tuolumne, did a quick day-hike down to Yosemite so I could claim completion of the John Muir Trail. I’m glad I did it, but man, talk about crappy timing: July 4. I was in primo condition having walked from the Mexican border, and literally bounded down there after going over that pass.

    Then I met a trickle of day-walkers venturing up. Full marks to them for getting away from the pack, but many of them were obnoxiously noisy, messy, and cutting across paths. I played a game of dodging them as I ran downhill. Then I hit the main body of tourists — literally tourists, since this mob would go no further than the waterfall and there were HUNDREDS of them.

    I had to board a jammed bus to the shops after finishing the JMT and went to that fine dining establishment you mention. Well, I did in fact eat a big burger and fries, but I was thru-hiking and my body hardly noticed. But the crowds, the awfully big people and their awfully big servings of awful food…I had to flee.

    On the bus back to Tuolumne I met a real 70s big-wall climber and he did some reminiscing. That was the best part.

  6. Hi Goat,

    Thanks for sharing. You’d earned that big burger in my book! The valley is quite a shock to the system, certainly considering the context of your fantastic trek. I hope that restraint will now prevail in this area, although visitor numbers are likely to remain high.



  7. I’d like to visit Yosemite in spring when the falls are in full force with the snow melt and the frozen rivers start to thaw. I’d like to time it perfectly to see the frazil ice. This would mean I’d miss out on hiking the higher trails though.

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