Last Updated: 12th Oct 2013
by – Alex McCarty, Tour Manager, North America
A trip to California is arguably incomplete without a visit to the spectacular Yosemite Valley.
Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the valley is a major attraction of Yosemite National Park, featuring the world’s largest single piece of granite (El Capitan), North America’s tallest waterfall (Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls), and three separate groves of giant sequoia trees – the world’s oldest living things.
Yosemite is a great place to find out what fresh air really smells like, see rainbows formed in the mist of a waterfall, or feel like a pioneer in the modern age. About 4 million people visit Yosemite National Park each year, and every one of them, before they leave, learns an ongoing lesson in the true essence of nature.
In the 1860s a Swiss-born immigrant named John Muir, graduated from college in Minnesota and moved west to California. Upon his arrival in Gold-Rush era San Francisco he began asking a few of the locals where they thought the most beautiful, adventurous place in the state was. To a man, the answer was invariably ‘the Sierras’.
It is here John Muir, the naturalist, was born and he began writing papers which were eventually sent back east to the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., where increasing support mounted to create the world’s second national park.
In 1890, Yosemite National Park was formed. Named for the tribe of peoples indigenous to the region, Yosemite (an Ahwahnee word literally translated to mean ‘grizzly bear’) was soon discovered to be a marvel of the evolution of the Earth through an Ice Age, teeming with breathtaking mountain features, waterfalls, giant sequoias, gentle meadows and abundant wildlife.
El Capitan, the single largest piece of granite in the world, is rooted in the valley floor of Yosemite and rises to a height of over 3,600 feet (1,100 meters). Throughout the months of spring and autumn you are likely to see the most daring of climbers attack its sheer, smooth face, which takes seasoned climbers anywhere from 9 days to 2 weeks to successfully reach its summit. Cathedral Rocks, adjacent to El Capitan and across the Merced River, jut out into the valley in three successive points and features the beautiful Bridal Veil Falls at its base.
The ‘Half Dome’ is the default logo of the park (as seen on any surface in the park next to the word Yosemite) and probably the most iconic formation in the Sierras, standing as the best example of the forces of nature that brought it into existence. The Merced River winds throughout the valley, and has done so for tens of millions of years, helping to carve the valley into a distinct V-shape. However, more recently in the history of the earth, a glacier slowly moved its way through the valley, breaking off ginormous boulders in its wake (making what was a whole dome, into a Half Dome) and forming the valley into a new, wider U-shape. This event has led many scientists to claim Yosemite as the best example of glaciation in the world.
The most popular and most easily accessible waterfall in the park is Lower Yosemite Falls. It stands at over 300 feet (about 100 meters) and is fed by the larger Upper Yosemite Falls just above it, which stands at over 1400 feet (about 430 meters), and both, along with about 200 meters of cascading waters flowing between the two, comprise the tallest waterfall on the North American continent.
A mild trail beginning at Yosemite Lodge leads a short distance to the base of the Lower Falls and is both scenic and refreshing. The hike to the top of the Upper falls is very strenuous and is a day’s hike, at least. Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls (317 feet/97 meters and 590 feet/180 meters, respectively) are also quite breathtaking, and the trails reaching them are very challenging but can be completed in a matter of hours. Spring, between April and late-May is the best time to witness the full blown beauty of the park’s waterfalls, when the snow from the peaks melt, leaving the rest of the year time to explore other hidden treasures throughout Yosemite.
I have personally been lucky enough to witness with my own eyes falcons, vultures, a timberwolf, a black bear and several mule deer during my visits to Yosemite, and those only scratch the surface of the abundance of wildlife in the park. Of course there are also squirrels, chipmunks and mountain goats, among almost 200 species of birds, 60 kinds of other animals and 30 species of trees. As you will see posted on signs throughout the park – ‘Do Not Feed Any of the Wildlife’!
Your day more than likely will begin at Yosemite Lodge (at the base of the Lower Falls), where you will find a large cafeteria, a gift shop, pay phones, internet kiosks, restrooms, a bar, a swimming pool, an ice skating rink and bicycle rentals (these last three being seasonal).
There is a free shuttle, which provides service to the valley floor, which, among other places, like the trails to Nevada and Vernal Falls, will take travelers to Yosemite Village. Here, you can take in a movie at the Yosemite Theater (a documentary on the history of the park is all that plays) and visit the Ansel Adams Gallery, which features the famous American photographer’s portraits of the Sierras and Yosemite. From here a short walk will deliver you to the crown jewel of the park – ‘The Ahwahnee’. The Awahnee is a luxury hotel in the middle of the wilderness, with an outstanding restaurant and is one of the oldest buildings in the park, giving weary travelers respite since the turn of the 20th century. This is not to be missed!