"Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space."
There are places in the world that evoke so much awe simply from their raw beauty that words cannot suffice. They must be seen, experienced, and felt. Yosemite is unequivocally one of these places. In hindsight, I'm also amazed that it took me so long to make the trip! It's hard to believe something so incredible is so close and accessible, and I can say with certainty I will be making many more trips back. It was nothing short of incredible, and certainly one of my most memorable experiences yet.
We only had a couple days there, our plans centering around hiking to the summit of the infamous Half Dome. For safety reasons, the park implemented a permit system for the cables leading up to the top, and knowing how in demand they would be we reserved ours way back in June for September 21st. Our group, consisting of a couple coworkers, a friend, and myself, headed to the park Tuesday evening after work and arrived at our campsite around 11:30pm. You really couldn't call it camping, though. The place was called Housekeeping Camp, located in Yosemite Valley, with units made up of three cement walls, a curtained fourth wall, a canvas roof, a bunk bed and double bed, a patio, fire pit, and bear locker of course (be bear aware!). I was actually a bit surprised when I first saw our accommodations, but they actually ended up working out really well. They were reasonably comfortable, affordable, and had a great location.
our unit at Housekeeping Camp
"be bear aware"
After starting to feel better the day before, my cold seemed to have come back with a vengeance, and my throat was killing me on the drive in. I was a bit worried about how I would feel on such a strenuous hike, but I just hoped I'd feel better in the morning. We got settled in pretty quickly and hit the sack with our alarms set for 4:30am, hoping to hit the trail at 5am.
Well 6:10am rolled around and we realized there was going to be a slight change in plans : ) The extra sleep was probably a good idea in hindsight though since we got in so late and were all pretty exhausted. We ate breakfast, put our packs together, and then made the short drive to the trailhead. We walked about 3/4th of a mile to the actual start of the Mist Trail, the most popular route of ascent. We got started around 7:30am, and right from the start, we started climbing! Erin, Chris, and I started to get flashbacks to Pier to Peak (I promise the race report is coming!), and I started to think about just how long we'd be hiking. Most references said it takes the majority of people 10-14 hours to hike the ~14 miles roundtrip. It was a perfect morning, though, with clear blue skies and a nice breeze. I was feeling a little fatigued early on, which was not surprising given my 5 day workout hiatus while I was sick, plus the strenuous nature of the hike. And things were only going to get tougher!
up we go!
destination: Half Dome
sunrise on granite
The Mist Trail is one of Yosemite's signature hikes, with stunning views scattered all along it. It starts with a bridge overlook and continues on to two breathtaking, unforgettable waterfalls that are the trail's namesake, all the while being surrounded by sky high granite walls reaching up to the clouds. To get to these falls, however, you must climb an endless number of stairs, most carved directly into the granite. I was huffing and puffing, and I'm sure my heart rate was through the roof, but as soon as I caught my first glance of Vernal Falls cascading down the granite, and was hit with my first wave of mist, I was really left breathless. It was nothing short of stunning.
first glimpse of the falls!
looking back down at the trail
After taking plenty of pictures we continued up more stairs til we reached the top of the waterfall and could look back at the steep climb we'd just made. While looking at the waterfall from distance was incredible, there was something even more impressive about seeing it from the vantage point at the top, were it turns from river to cascading waterfall.
at the top of Vernal Falls
Just beyond Vernal Falls is the stunning body of water that feeds the falls, aptly named the Emerald Pool due to it's deep green color. It had warmed up considerably by that point and the water looked positively divine, but unfortunately the water was off limits for swimming! Instead we crossed a little bridge and continued on up and soon caught a glimpse at the second waterfall, Nevada Falls, quite as stunning as Vernal Falls. The trail continued up the side of the falls, again with a looooong flight of steep granite stairs. I pulled up the rear in our group, afraid that my heart might actually explode, but I finally reached the top and was of course rewarded with yet another incredible view. The Mist Trail technically ended there, at about 3.6 miles, but we continued on, following signs for Half Dome, about 4.5 miles away.
the view from the top of Nevada Falls
After such all those stairs, it was a relief to soon hit a nice, long, flat and sandy stretch. The boys were on a mission and were setting a pretty fast pace, but Erin and I hung back a bit, enjoying the scenery, chatting, and taking pictures. The sky had turned a brilliant blue, and we were soon surrounded by lots of trees. During this stretch I noticed that my hands had swollen quite a bit and realized I was probably a little dehydrated. I was sweating a ton and was still fighting my cold, so I started to drink more water and took some salt caps. Before long we started going up again, the trail turning into a rocky path winding through the trees.
big trees, little Erin : )
I zoned out a bit here, and then all of a sudden I was catching my first glimpse of Half Dome! We were pretty high at that point, close to 7000', and I could definitely feel the effects of the altitude. While the air was getting thinner, however, the views were getting even better. Vast granite walls and peaks as far as the eye could see, underneath a vivid blue sky. We were getting closer, so I decided to make one final pee stop in a bush while I still could, and nearly had a heart attack when a startled deer jumped out of said bush!
there it is!
We passed the park ranger checking permits and were given a final warning not to attempt the summit if we were even a bit unsure...ending with just how easy it is to fall and die off Half Dome. Just what I needed to hear! At that point we made the short hike up another hill before we reached the killer switchbacks leading up to the sub-dome. This is when my nerves (and legs) really started to be challenged. The footing on the switchbacks was tricky and the path basically followed the tree line straight up a cliff - from the distance it actually looked totally vertical! My legs were pretty tired at that point, and many of the steps were extremely steep. I couldn't really catch my breath due to the altitude either, then I made the mistake of looking back down...and freaked out a bit. I managed to slowly make my way to the top without having a panic attack, only to reach the sub-dome and become a nervous wreck at my first sight of the infamous cables. My legs were shaky from exhaustion and nerves at this point, and I literally started to question whether or not I could actually do this.
The sub-dome was full of people hanging out and resting. As nervous as I was, I did take a few minutes to take in the unbelievable views surrounding us in every direction, as far as your eyes could see. Granite giants, forests of green trees, blue skies and fluffy white clouds. I tried not to dwell on the cables and sat for a bit to eat a Clif Bar, drink some water, and rest my legs, then it was go time!
We made our way across the Saddle, a narrow stretch of granite between the sub-Dome and the base of the cables. Luckily the cables weren't too crowded yet. At the base of the cables there's a pile of discarded gloves to help grip the cables, but I passed over them since I'd brought my own. I realized immediately, however that mine were actually too slick so I decided to go bare handed. Our friend Ryan, the only one in our group to have hiked Half Dome, promised to stay right behind me and talk me through it. I was really freaking out, but just started slowly making my way up, one foot in front of the other, gripping the cables for dear life. I tried not to look up or down and just focus on what was right in front of me. It was fairly slow going as folks tended to pause at the wooden planks to rest or give space to folks coming down. And honestly, I don't think anyone is in a rush going up those things!
About halfway up Ryan ended up giving me the gloves he'd grabbed at the bottom which were more rubbery than mine and made a world of difference. There were a few really steep sections, and I was just so grateful for my grippy trail shoes and gloves and the strength (however meager) of my arms. Finally we crested the face of the Dome and reached the end of the cables, and just a short uphill walk later I was standing at the summit of Half Dome!
I did it!
I was exhausted, elated, terrified, and proud all at he same time. The top is actually much bigger than I expected, with plenty of places to wander and catch breathtaking views. I sat down immediately to catch my breath and compose myself a bit and ate half of the sandwich I packed. Then it was time to check out the views from the top! I honestly can't capture the feeling of standing at the top of something like Half Dome, 8,800' in the air, with precarious ledges, sheer drops all around, and stunning vistas everywhere you look. It was nothing short of thrilling. We spent a good deal of time at the top, taking pictures and just relaxing underneath the warm sun. While there was no way I was dangling my legs over any ledges, I did work up the courage to take a picture from the infamous "diving board", a ledge that sticks out from the edge of the Dome with Yosemite Valley in the distance below. I tried not to look down as my stomach would do somersaults, and it was actually much wider than it appears in pictures.
After about an hour at the top we started to notice darker clouds in the distance that looked like rain, and heeding the many warnings about how fast-moving these storms could be we decided to start our descent. I was actually way more scared at the prospect of climbing down then coming up, mainly because you could see where you were going and how steep it was. I chose to go down sideways, with Ryan in front of me, and the scariest view behind me. Once again it was slow going, my hands ached from gripping the cables to hard, and some of the steeper sections were difficult to maneuver, but I made it down to the sub-Dome. Next up was the nasty switchbacks, which I made sure to take very slowly as parts of them had loose granite and steep steps. My legs were fairly shaky once again, and I was so happy to reach the bottom!
We definitely picked a good time to descend because the clouds had already moved in a lot closer. The crazy thing was the handful of folks still trying to go up as we were making our way down. Way too risky! In fact as we made our way down we started hearing thunder crack in the distance. I also discovered that my pack, which holds 70 oz., had been drained in just the ascent, so I was even more eager to get down. I decided the faster we got down the better, plus we wanted to get as far down as possible before the storm got there, so I started booking it down. It was much easier on the descent, but the trail was still pretty technical with rocks, roots, etc. so careful footing was crucial. I welcomed the change in muscles used, but my feet were killing me at that point and I was so thirsty! We were making good time and passing lots of folks, and soon found ourselves back at the top of Nevada Falls.
We'd decided earlier to take the Mist Trail on the ascent but the John Muir Trail for the descent. The latter is about 2.25 miles longer but less steep (read: no stairs). We stopped for a quick break at the top of Nevada Falls and before we knew it the sky finally opened up and it started raining! We all quickly donned our jackets (mine being an ah-mazing new Brooks shell - look for a review soon!) and where the trail split we followed the arrow for the John Muir Trail. We got one final view of Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls before I put my camera away and focused on getting down. It was definitely less steep than the Mist Trail but fairly rocky so it was still no leisurely stroll.
My thirst at that point had progressed to intolerable and all I could think about was water and other liquids to quench my parched mouth. I didn't want to drink from any of my friends packs since I was sick, and there was nowhere to refill along the trail. It continued to rain and the trail got pretty slick, necessitating even more caution with footing. Still, we were making good time as we descended switchback after switchback. All of us were feeling the effects of the day in our legs and feet and were eager to get to the bottom. When we were about a quarter mile from the end of the trail I decided to just run - I knew the water fountain was at the end, and I was about to go crazy from thirst. My friends got a good laugh when they rounded the corner and found me with my mouth stuck to the fountain like a camel : ) In all seriousness, though, it was quite scary to be so dehydrated with no water left. Especially since I was also sick, I needed even more water than usual. Definitely a lesson learned.
From there we headed the mile or so back down to the trailhead. This section, while in good shape, was pretty steep, and my legs were killing me from trying to hold back so I just let myself loose and went barreling down the trail, getting some looks from other hikers like I was crazy! I waited at the bottom for my friends then we slogged back to the car where it felt amazing to finally sit after completing a looooong and challenging hike. It ended up taking us about 9 hours, including our time at the top, to finish the whole thing, so I think we did pretty good.
When we got back to camp we took glorious showers and assessed the damage. Other than being sore I had some nasty blisters on my toes and got sunburnt pretty badly. It was all totally worth it though : ) After cleaning up we headed out to get some pizza for dinner then spent the rest of the evening fireside, talking and making s'mores before passing out fairly early from exhaustion.
In the middle of the night I woke up in a lot of pain. I don't think I adequately rehydrated, and my whole body was cramping up. I couldn't find a comfortable position and after tossing and turning I just lay there for a good half hour, unable to sleep, before deciding to take a few ibuprofen. Thankfully these dulled the pain enough for me to fall back asleep. We slept in a bit and had a leisurely breakfast before packing things up. We had a couple things on our to-do list for the day, all far less strenuous than Half Dome which left all of us stiff and hobbling all day.
Our first stop of the day was Lower Yosemite Falls. Despite the rainy weather the day before, we lucked out again and it was once again a perfect, clear day. It was a short hike in, down a stretch with trees on either side and the falls sitting directly in the middle in the distance. Although it's late in the season, the falls were still running fairly high and were quite stunning. While we were looking at them we spotted a couple people sitting on the rocks near the bottom of the falls and quickly decided that we wanted to, too.
It took a great deal of careful climbing over rocks and granite boulders (made a bit more challenging when your whole body is sore) but eventually we found ourselves at the base of the Yosemite Falls with the pool of runoff directly below us. As we sat relaxing on the rocks marveling at the view of the falls from our close-up vantage point, a random guy jumped in the water! So of course our two guys soon followed, actually swimming out to the very bottom of the fall and standing under the mist. They both came out shivering and immediately bundled up in their clothes.
Not wanting to be left out, and thinking that it would be pretty epic (if a bit cold) to swim at the base of Yosemite Falls, Erin and I made our way down to the water. After several minutes of hesitating, I finally submerged my lower half. I can only describe it as a giant ice bath...the water was freezing! Like takes-your-breath-away, could-catch-hypothermia-in-minutes cold. There were two rocks in the middle of the pool, so Erin and I both set out for one. My breath caught in my chest when I started swimming, and I swam as fast as I could to my rock about 25 yards away and clambered up and out of the water. Surprisingly it was actually pretty warm just standing there in the sunlight. After a couple minutes we reluctantly slid back in the water and swam furiously back toward the rocks. It didn't seem so cold on the way back, maybe because my body was already numb...? We hung out for a bit longer and watched as a steady influx of tourists, many foreign, made there way out to the rocks. A few more braved the cold water, but many were behaving quite foolishly, too. I would've bet that if we'd hung out a half hour longer we would've seen someone get hurt.
When we got back to the car we had a little snack then headed out on our next little adventure for the day, the Cook's Meadow/Sentinel Meadow Loop, a nice, flat 2.25 mile hike through two meadows with multiple views of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and other towering granite faces. The loop basically followed a stretch of the Merced River, a slow-moving, shallow snake of water that was a gorgeous array of colors. While we meandered through a meadow we came upon a young dear, although no mother was in sight. She seemed pretty comfortable with us and we were able to get extremely close, perhaps because she's become used to all the tourists? The views on the loop were all amazing, especially Half Dome, where it was hard to believe we'd been just a day before. Best of all, the hike was flat and easy, just what our legs needed at that point. When we got back to the car we talked about going to Mariposa Grove, but after looking at a map and realizing how far away it was, we decided to just call it a day and get home before dark.
On the drive out of the park we made a final stop at turnoff with a nice view of the infamous El Capitan. We were even able to spot a few rock climbers scaling the face, looking like nothing more than ants. Just the thought of attempting something like that gives me goosebumps, but it's impressive nonetheless! The rest of the drive was fairly uneventful, and about 4 hours later we found ourselves back in good 'ol Sacramento, in lovely 100 degree weather : /
There's no way my words or pictures can really do Yosemite justice. It's a must-do for everyone, and something you're sure to remember forever. Half Dome itself is a hike you can't die without doing. It was one of the most terrifying and challenging things I've ever done, but also one of the most rewarding, both for the views and the feeling of overcoming my fears. It's incredible that places like this exist right here in the United States, amidst cities and towns, buildings, and roads. So amazing to behold, and yet so accessible. I'm already researching other trips to National Parks, especially since many are so close! Yosemite is the perfect reminder that nature really is magnificent. It may have taken me way too long to finally visit, but I'll be back soon. We're already planning our winter trip : )