Yosemite National Park, grand temple of nature

July 14, 2020

An epic view, including Half Dome in the distance, greets you as you enter the park via the Big Oak Flat entrance.

Half Dome. El Capitan. Tuolumne Meadows. Yosemite Falls. The names of Yosemite’s majestic granite walls, grassy leas, and thundering waterfalls are more familiar to many of us than the features of parks in our own regions. Yosemite National Park has long occupied a cherished spot in America’s imagination, fed by John Muir’s lyrical writings of the late 1800s and Ansel Adams’s dramatic photographs from the 1920s. Even today, acclaimed documentary films Free Solo and The Dawn Wall wow us with Yosemite’s breathtaking scenery and the human drive to scale its forbidding heights.

We visited Yosemite in June, the ultimate destination on a road trip through six national parks of the Southwest (how we pulled it off is detailed in my first post, linked here). Because of Covid-19, Yosemite currently requires a reservation in order to reduce visitor numbers, and I’d made ours the day the reservation system debuted. It granted us 7 days of entry into the park, and we ended up using 4 of those days.

Enough of logistics. Let me share with you pictures of one of the most beautiful places on earth. I first visited Yosemite in 1995, and I was prepared to be awed again by its sublime scenery. But memory and faded photos can’t substitute for rippling, yellow-green meadows fringed by dark firs pointing toward hulking, sheer cliffs, surmounted by a dome of blue sky.

Yosemite Falls

At every turn, lofty waterfalls thunder from cliff faces into the valley. While some of Yosemite’s waterfalls dry up by late summer, in mid-June they flowed freely.

Sentinel Beach

The only other time I’d been to Yosemite was in chilly October, so I was surprised to see how many people come to the park to play in the Merced River, which winds through the valley. Several beaches offer easy access as well as fantastic views. One late afternoon we saw a black bear swimming across the river and clambering into the brush on the other side. That one we named River Bear. (See other bear sightings in my post about Sequoia National Park.)

Black bear

Another day we saw Meadow Bear, above. Earlier that day we’d seen Tunnel Bear, who’d darted across the highway right in front of a tunnel, from which a car was emerging. Thanks heavens the other driver saw it in time and slowed down. Signs throughout the park remind visitors to drive slowly and watch for bears on the roads. Sadly, a number are struck and killed each year.

Having watched Free Solo and The Dawn Wall several times (yep, we’re fans of climbing documentaries; I highly recommend Touching the Void too), we expected to see climbers on El Capitan, a gargantuan block of sheer granite. With binoculars and a zoom lens, we watched two climbers who seemed to be scouting a path upward.

Atop a boot-shaped sliver of a ledge, one climber anchored the rope of another, who swung in a great arc back and forth, looking for what exactly we did not know.

Insanity, right? But also awe-inspiring.

One day we drove up to Glacier Point. At a pullout along the way I photographed this curious raven, one of many we saw throughout the park.

Near the end of the one-hour winding drive upward, I caught sight of this view and yanked the wheel into a pullout. Just. Look. At. That. This is the view from Washburn Point, just south of Glacier Point. Half Dome, like a cowled monk in profile, juts skyward. Behind it the “giant staircase” is marked by a forested hanging valley and the white streamers of Nevada Fall (597 feet) and Vernal Fall (317 feet).

Panning left you see blue shadows and the chasm in which Yosemite Valley lies.

Is it not the most epic scenery?

Half Dome in profile. David hiked to the top of Half Dome on our second day in the park (yes, he’s a badass), and I’ll tell about that in my next post.

As clouds gathered and the afternoon light grew more golden, we drove on to Glacier Point. A short trail leads to a stone hut, known as Trailside Museum, overlooking Half Dome.

I waited outside until the hut was empty of other visitors and then took my turn, framing a view of the trail through a window…

…and then admiring the majestic view of Half Dome, its sheer face visible from this vantage point at 7,200 feet above sea level, and 3,200 feet above the valley floor.

It seems almost as though you could reach out and touch it.

But you’d have to sprout wings. The hiking route ascends the back (non-sheer) side — but it’s still extremely steep. More details on that in my next post.

For now I’ll leave you with golden trees reflecting in the Merced…

…and a mule deer picking its way through a valley meadow.

Up next: Tales from a hike up Half Dome, plus the Dawn Wall and Olmsted Point. For a look back at the wildflowers and whitewater of Kings Canyon National Park, click here.

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