There are many waterfalls in Yosemite National Park and it is impossible to see them all in one trip. Our trip ran just Friday to Monday, but we did so much in that short time that I’m shaking my head in wonder as I review my photos. On Saturday we hiked to Wapama Falls which is outside of the Yosemite Valley, then spent the late afternoon and evening in Sonora and Columbia in Tuolumne County. On Sunday we spent the entire day in the Valley and there was more than enough to keep us busy for the day.
The main hike of the day (to falls of course) was around 6.5 miles – hiking up Mist Trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls and then descending back to the Valley via the John Muir Trail. There are lots of photos in this post, even after I did some drastic cutting. One of my favourite soca artists says “suh much [so much] hard tunes, I can’t play all” and that’s how I felt scrolling through Sunday’s photos: suh much beautiful photos, I can’t post all. Even so, I still ended up posting lots of them.
Driving to Yosemite Valley
This was another day on which we had to wake up at the ass crack of dawn (that’s how it felt to me, I believe we left camp around 6:30 am) so we could beat the traffic to get into the Valley. Not just the vehicular traffic, but eventually human traffic on the trails as well.
I literally snapped these photos, through my open car window, as we were driving to Yosemite Valley. It was chilly and I appreciate that Tiffany who was sitting behind me didn’t complain about the cold. The views were worth the chill.
Shuttle Stop #11
Crowding in some national parks is a major problem and Yosemite is notorious for lengthy traffic jams (sometimes worse than traffic in L.A.) to get into the Valley and to some of the more popular trailheads. One method the NPS uses to manage this problem is a free shuttle service. So parking once and taking the shuttle around the Valley was our strategy to avoid getting snared in the traffic mess.
We started at shuttle stop #11 and even there the views were awesome. I don’t recall seeing any bad views (of nature) in Yosemite. The first set of photos is from the short walk to the shuttle stop from our parking lot and at the shuttle stop while we waited on the shuttle to go to the trailhead at Happy Isles. These photos are of the stunning Yosemite falls, all 2,425 ft of them. Yosemite falls actually comprises 3 falls: upper (1,430 ft), middle cascades (675 ft) and lower (320 ft). I took the second set of photos (starting at directional sign to trailhead) between shuttle stop #16 where we got off and the trailhead where we started the hike.
The Ascent: Mist Trail
Part 1: Mist Trail to Vernal Fall
This part of the trail is about 2 miles uphill. The first mile to the Footbridge is paved and soon after the bridge is the real climb – up the Grand Staircase of 600 steps, 600 botsie burning steps. All along the path and stairs are great views of Vernal Fall which is fed by the Merced River. The Fall itself is about 317 ft tall (NPS, 2019).
Part 2: Continuing on the Mist Trail to Nevada Fall
After resting and refueling at the top of Vernal Fall, it was time to tackle the second section of Mist Trail to get to Nevada Fall. We didn’t know exactly what to expect because none of us had done it before. We had a good idea of what to expect for the previous section because Ivan had hiked it before and he prepped us. This section was new to all of us and turned out to be the most challenging part of the entire hike.
I’m so glad that I’m active and spin 3-4 times a week because it would’ve been a lot more difficult to make it otherwise. I was of course tired, but after resting that night I had no muscle soreness in the days after and was back to spinning and walking from the Tuesday (no time for excercise that Monday cause after waking up in Yosemite we had to drive back to L.A. for Lionel Richie, my wedding singer 🤩). NPS rates this section of the Mist Trail as strenuous and it certainly was that at points. It was all uphill, with the most treacherous parts on rocky trail, running alongside steep dropoffs. I took very few photos of those parts of the trail. I’ve no desire to be a statistic. But at 594 ft tall, Nevada Fall is spectacular, so the opportunity to see and hear the fall, coupled with the opportunity to conquer the challenge, balanced out the burning buns.
The Descent: John Muir Trail
Yosemite is the gift that keeps on giving. After leaving the top of Nevada Fall, we headed to the John Muir trailhead for our descent back to Yosemite Valley. From the JMT there are also excellent views of Nevada Fall.
John Muir (1838-1914), an immigrant from Scotland, is one of the most well-known figures associated with the parks and wilderness movement in the US. Driven by life-altering events in his early life, Muir chose to spend the rest of his life as a student in the “University of the Wilderness”, becoming a world-renowned naturalist and conservationist. This seminal focus is a choice that outdoor recreation enthusiasts and others continue to benefit greatly from today. Muir became the Sierra Club’s first president in 1892 and kept the role until his death in 1914.
Notably, despite major contributions to the US, Muir did not become a citizen until April 28, 1903, a few days after his 65th birthday. It was a few weeks later that Muir took President Theodore Roosevelt on the infamous camping trip to Yosemite that is credited with strengthening Roosevelt’s support for the protection and conservation of natural resources at the federal level. While president, Roosevelt approved the establishment of 23 national parks and national monuments (including the expansion of Yosemite), 51 federal bird reserves (now national wildlife refuges), and 150 million acres of land in national forests (NPS, 2003). A total of 230 acres of public lands protected in some way by his pen (NPS, 2017). In 1906 Roosevelt also signed The Antiquities Act, one of two mechanisms for establishing national monuments.
There were two key paradigms at play between John Muir – protect and preserve (a la NPS) and Gifford Pinchot – conserve but use (National Forest Service). Roosevelt facilitated the setting aside of public lands under both paradigms. Alas, discussing these topics should be another post or I’ll never stop writing.
Muir’s transcendent impact on natural resource protection, the parks movement, wilderness and more is evident in the books and articles he wrote, books and articles written about him, institutes and research in his honour, and a range of trails and sites dedicated to him e.g. John Muir Trail we hiked; Muir Woods National Monument in California; Muir Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska; and Camp Muir in Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington. The NPS has a partial list of 19 sites, plants or objects named after Muir – one is in Scotland, all others are in the US, with 12 in California.
Such is Muir’s global impact that there are many buildings that carry his name in Scotland, Canada, and the US. Solar System object number 2004PX42, a minor planet, was even named after him in 2006 (Sierra Club, 2008). According to Ken Burns (National Parks: America’s Best Idea), Muir “ascended to the pantheon of the highest individuals in [the US] … [and] had a transformational effect on who we are” (Sierra Club, n.d.). Burns positioned Muir as one of the critical nation builders of the country.
We had the option of returning to the Valley via the Mist Trail, but taking the John Muir Trail allowed for a smoother hike down, different views of the park, and a few more miles. I saw a lot more flora under the trees and at the base of the granite walls on the JMT than on the Mist Trail.
As we descended to Yosemite Valley via the JMT, I thought often about the inhabitants of Yosemite who European colonizers encountered there in the 18th century: the Southern Miwok people and the Central Miwok people who called themselves Ahwahneechee (NPS, 2018). Not having yet researched the specific tribes, I was thinking of them simply as Native people or Native Americans. These Native tribes lived in Yosemite for around 4,000 years. In the 19th century, other Native American tribes (Mono Lake Paiute, Western Mono, Chukchansi Yokuts, and Mission Indians) joined the Miwok in Yosemite (NPS, 2018).
A marker from the Wapama Fall trailhead. Hopefully there are many more of these throughout the park.
As I hiked, I wondered how many members of these specific tribes and Native Americans as a whole, visit Yosemite today. How many visit national parks altogether? I knew anecdotally that the numbers are low, as they tend to be for minority populations, but of course I had to do the research.
The NPS collects visitation data on an ongoing basis, but comprehensive surveys are only done periodically. Yosemite National Park hosted 5,414 recreation visitors in 1906 and visitation for recreation purposes climbed to a record high of 5,028,868 in 2016, the NPS’ Centennial year. In 2017 and 2018 visitation fell from the 2016 peak to 4,336,890 and 4,009,436, respectively.
In a comprehensive summer survey conducted for the NPS by the University of Idaho’s Park Studies Unit in July 2009, researchers found that of the 2,248 visitors who responded only 1% of visitors to Yosemite were Native American or Alaska Native; 1% were Black or African American; 1% were Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander; 11% were Asian; and 88% were white (Blotkamp et al, 2010). In terms of ethnicity, 11% of visitors who responded were Hispanic or Latino (Blotkamp et al, 2010). If the distribution of visitors remains similar, it suggests that around 50,289 Native Americans visited Yosemite in 2016, 43,369 in 2017, and 40,094 in 2018.
In addition to wondering about the number of visitors, I also wondered what Native Americans now think of their sacred land, where parts are at times overrun by visitors who have little or no patience to give this place the respect it deserves, but see a visit as an opportunity to check another well-known site off their list or to boast about having visited. We too were visiting Yosemite with limited time and though we spent the entire day in the Valley, did not have the opportunity to visit the Indian Village of Ahwahnee, a reconstruction on the site where the largest Indian village in Yosemite Valley once stood. I hope we each paid our respect to them and honoured their land in our own way.
As of 2018, relatively small populations of Native Americans still lived around Yosemite in Mariposa and Tuolumne Counties – in 1990 there were some 400 in the former and 500 in the latter. Native Americans use the Indian Village or Ahwahnee for gatherings and ceremonial observances (NPS, 2018).
When entitlement extends into the wilderness and basic manners are left at home.
In the midst of the grandeur of Yosemite experienced along the Mist Trail, some hikers found it necessary to be ill-mannered and obnoxious, putting themselves and other hikers at risk. I refrained from letting loose the good Bajan cuss words running through my head whenever I encountered this sort of boorish behaviour. For the hikers of this ilk it was too much trouble to ask someone to step aside or to simply alert a fellow hiker that they were passing on their left or on their right. The trail from Vernal Fall to Nevada Fall was very narrow and treacherous at various points. Yet the ill-mannered just pushed their way to get past others, not caring if they caused someone to trip on the rocky trail, or fall over the edge along which the trail ran. It was as if the prize at the top of the trail was only available for a few and they were making sure they got it instead of anyone else.
These people either had no knowledge of trail etiquette or they just didn’t care. For some it was as if getting ahead was their entitlement. They preferred to go off trail and climb over ledges rather than walking behind or waiting until the trail widened to pass. None of the people I observed exhibiting such behaviour were people of colour. It could be that the majority of users of such spaces are not people of colour. I think it is more likely that we don’t share the sense of entitlement and privilege that is a birthright for others.
During our descent there were also two children running down without a care of hurting someone. The adults with them were generally out of sight. Then we saw one of those same adults running down the trail in a similar way to the children. A light bulb went off.
The problems on the trail weren’t just about pushing and boring. It was also about the risky behaviours which could easily result in a fall. In the photo below I’ve highlighted an area which has a barricade to prevent people from going to the edge. One young lady (not with our group) took it upon herself to climb over the barrier so that her friends could photograph her from the other side of the river.
A bit earlier that day we had heard a helicopter on at least two occasions. I remarked that hopefully they weren’t searching for a lost hiker. I never found out why the helicopters were in the area, but we heard later in the day that a hiker from Romania had fallen to his death at Bridalveil Fall, another very popular one in Yosemite, on July 31. This hiker left the viewing platform to scramble over boulders to get closer to the Fall (NPS, 2019). Two additional incidents occurred a few days before we arrived. Fortunately they were not fatal (NPS, 2019). These kinds of incidents are avoidable, yet it seems as if they are increasing as people take quite unnecessary risks to see something up close or to get the best possible photo or video to brag about.
Lower Yosemite Falls
When you’ve done one hard hike for the day, the visitors center is closed and you still have time to kill before the night’s major event, what’s left to do but take a nice, casual, stroll to Lower Yosemite Falls. Because why would you need to rest? You’re in Yosemite! What’s another 2 miles?!
After our Lower Yosemite Falls stroll, it was time to experience Yosemite Through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier, but that’s definitely a tale for another post 😊.