The famous American naturalist and conservationist, John Muir, once described Yosemite National Park, “It is by far the grandest of special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter!”
Back in May, a group of friends with Orangeburg connections went to explore the wonders of Yosemite, King’s Canyon and Sequoia national parks in the California Sierra Nevada mountain range. The group consisted of Colleen and Gene Atkinson, Dawn and Louis Griffith, Judy and Bill Evans, and Bonnie and Mike Journey.
Although Yosemite National Park encompasses 1169 square miles, 90 percent of the visitors go to Yosemite Valley, which is 7 miles long and only 1 mile wide. It is truly a spectacular area teeming with outstanding scenery, not to mention the waterfalls that are exuberantly overflowing in the spring and early summer from the snowmelt runoff. By mid to late summer, these outstanding waterfalls will have slowed to a trickle or even dry. But 2019 was very different. This year there was a near-record total snowfall of approximately 275 inches, which has led to the profusion of waterfalls with thundering displays.
The most famous waterfall in Yosemite is Yosemite Falls -- a gargantuan display of a thundering cascade. Encompassing three distinct segments, Yosemite Falls measures a whopping 2,425 feet from top to bottom, making it one of the highest waterfalls in the United States.
The day before our group of eight avid hikers arrived on May 17, 2019, a snowstorm blanketed the highest elevations of Yosemite National Park. Again, on the third day of our trip there, another snowstorm occurred. Comparatively, Orangeburg at the same time was experiencing temperatures of 95 or so degrees. But the snow was typical of an Orangeburg snow where it melted upon hitting the ground. However in the higher elevations, it was much more severe by dumping about 8 inches of this beautiful white blanket.
In fact, it was so severe that two of the three entrances into Yosemite were closed or either required chains on vehicles’ tires. Even the most spectacular overlook of the Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point, had to be closed for our entire visit there, depriving us of this extraordinarily beautiful overlook of the entire valley.
Our group’s first full day at Yosemite was devoted to hiking the most popular trail at the park. The Vernal Falls hike was extremely crowded. This hike began at the Happy Isles location in the southeast area of Yosemite Valley. Meandering for the first mile following the gentle curves of the raging Merced River, this path was about 6 to 8 feet wide and climbed steadily upward. That experience left us puffing for breath, not to mention tiring our leg muscles somewhat. At the 1-mile mark, we crossed a wide footbridge that provided us with our first views of the roaring Vernal Falls that was at least 50 feet wide.
But that was only the beginning. About 0.2 of a mile later, the real challenge began. At that stage, the tremendous mist from the falls saturated us so much that ponchos or rain suits were a must. Then the real challenge of exertion began. There were over 350 granite steps, wet with the saturating mist that were the epitome of extreme exertion to climb. After that we thought that the worst was over, but to our unpleasant surprise, there were 300 more granite steps to climb -- this time they were not wet with the mist as the trail had veered over to the side.
However, these steps presented an even more difficult challenge—the rise of each step was not the normal height, but a whopping uneven 12 inches to 14 inches on each one, plus they were tilted somewhat. By the time we reached the top, our legs were burdened with extreme exhaustion and our ability to catch our breaths was challenged. But we made it! Altogether, it was 1,000 feet in vertical height we had to ascend.
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Instead of trying to return down the same steep wet steps, our group decided to hike laterally to merge with the famous John Muir Trail. Well, we were definitely surprised when we found out that this cross trail to Clarke’s Point was a much more challenging upward hike than we thought. We ended up hiking over uneven stones on the path for an additional upward 600 feet. By this time, our bodies were begging for the downhill portion to return to the starting point. Although this hike proved to be extremely difficult, the exhilaration of the views overcame the challenge of this hike.
Our next daily hike was to the Hetch Hetchy area about 40 miles to the north of Yosemite Valley. Fortunately by this day, the roads were cleared from the snow to travel to do so. After a winding park road near the ridges with steep drop-offs, we arrived at the O’Shaunessy Dam there. This was a controversial project back in the early 1900s when the city of San Francisco, 180 miles away, need a source of public water for its city by building the dam. Environmentalists pleaded for this project not to happen but lost the battle with the politicians. The Hetch Hetchy Valley was considered to be a twin to Yosemite Valley.
The hike across the dam and along the ridgelines of the reservoir was only moderately challenging -- with many ups and downs during a 300-foot elevation gain. However, the view at the end of the 2.5 mile hike presented the outstanding Wapama Falls. With its tremendous snowmelt flow, this impressive cascading waterfall was worth the hike with its tremendous volume and thunder.
The next hike undertaken was a gentle stroll in the woods along the edges of Tenaya Creek and Mirror lake. This hike had gentle ups and downs around large granite boulders and trees that had much green moss growing on its sides resulting in a tropical rain forest look.
Two afternoons were spent at grand hotel in the valley, the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. This impressive lodge-like hotel, formerly named the Ahwanhee, was built in 1927-1928 under the guidance of noted park architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood. The current name reflects its grandeur, not to mention the $500-a-night cost to stay there. The dining room was large enough to accommodate 300 guests among its two-story height, with windows going up the entire outside walls to visualize the beautiful surroundings.
After staying five days in Yosemite Valley, our group headed south about 30 miles to the famous Mariposa Grove, where Yosemite’s largest display of sequoia trees reside. Some of these behemoths were over 2,000 years old and tower upwards over 200 feet. Snow from the previous storm had blanketed all the area there. We were fortunate that the road there was cleared from the storm for us to be able to visit this area.
From Mariposa Grove, we continued south and then west for about 120 more miles to the impressive King’s Canyon National Park. Climbing the Sierra Nevada mountain range for the last 30 miles proved to be interesting. While traveling this winding mountain road with significant drop-offs, bad weather moved in with dark clouds and a penetrating fog. Our visibility was limited to a little over 100 feet. Fortunately along this harrowing drive, there was little traffic due to the two snowstorms over the previous few days that caused tourists not to come. In fact, when we reached the John Muir Lodge at Grant Grove at the top, snow was everywhere on the ground. It was about 8 inches deep, but the roads and parking lots had piles up to 3 feet on their edges. It was truly a winter wonderland, yet at the same time, Orangeburg was experiencing temperatures in the upper 90s.
After a good night’s sleep at the John Muir Lodge, our group went to see the General Grant Tree the next day. This is the world’s second largest tree by volume. This mammoth tree was 1,700 years old, towered 268 feet in height, and measured 40 feet in diameter at the base. Afterwards, a trip along King’s Canyon road was taken. This deep canyon goes beside the South Fork of the King’s River. Along its lengthy course, this canyon drops 8,200 feet in altitude.
Visiting Sequoia National Park the next day provided multitudes of these giant behemoths of trees. The winding Generals’ Highway was a 27-mile ride along this very curving road. From the Lodgepole Visitors’ Center, we took a shuttle bus to the General Sherman Tree -- the largest of all the trees in the world. This historic tree is 2,200 years old and measures 275 feet in height, with a circumference of 103 feet at its base. Although redwood trees can be taller, sequoias are thicker and contain more volume.
Our hiking group was fortunate that the shuttle bus system had its first day of operation this season only the day before we arrived. This certainly saved the problem of limited parking.
The Big Trees Trail was a loop around an open, wet meadow with giant sequoias on the outside. There seemed to be innumerable of these sequoias on this pleasant level hike around the perimeter. There were three black bears feeding in the middle -- two adults and a cub a little over a year old. Despite the name, black bears are black, brown or cinnamon in color, but this cub was black, while the two adults were brown. As we proceeded around the trail loop, the mother bear decided to leave and crossed the path several hundred yards in front of us to go up into the hills. A few minutes later, as we approached the area where she had crossed the trail, she suddenly reappeared to beckon her cub to come with her. As we were only about 100 feet away, our group cautiously backed up somewhat. The cub started running to the mother, and they took off running up the hill together. So much for a close encounter that almost put us in between a mother bear and a cub! Nevertheless, this hike that was surrounded by these beautiful groves of sequoia trees was one of the most interesting of all our hikes.
After this unusual encounter, another shuttle bus drove us to the incomparable Moro Rock. Although Moro Rock is a giant rock sitting out on an overlook, the views there are very beautiful of the canyon of the Great Western Divide. In spite of the trail to Moro Rock being only 0.25 of a mile long, getting there was another story. It was an entirely upward, winding climb of 400 stone steps to the top of this barren rock. This hike definitely produced some huffing and puffing, not to mention getting very tired legs in doing so.
Unfortunately, after nearly nine days touring these unbelievable natural wonders, it was time to return home. America is blessed to have its national parks and the enjoyment and beauty they provide for all of our citizens to experience. This adventure certainly was for us.