A horseback exploration of Yosemite’s Sierra Nevada Mountains gains 2,400 feet during a 12-mile ride.
Story and Photos by Keith Stelter
My son was trying to be diplomatic, but his concern was obvious. “Dad, hiking in Yosemite can be pretty physical. Are you sure you’re up to it?” Since retiring 10 years ago, one of my goals had been to visit at least one World Heritage Site each year. I travel alone, all over the world, with just my backpack and camera. I like it that way because it gives me total independence and freedom of movement. I had just announced Yosemite National Park in central California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains as this year’s wilderness destination.
Aside from the physical challenges, I was aware from my research that a major challenge on this trip would be to minimize contact with over three million visitors annually who flock to the park’s most accessible seven square miles called the Valley. About 100 years ago, pre-eminent American naturalist, John Muir, spent ten years exploring the area, each day finding some new vista to document. Though he obviously covered far more of the 700,000-acre park than I intended to do, I still wondered how could he find so much of unique interest?
Cascading down the cliff face in three segments, Yosemite Falls is North America’s tallest waterfall.
Tent-cabins are the most rustic accommodation option at the park’s hub, Curry Village.
My exploration base camp was a tent-cabin in Curry Village, the Grand Central Station of Yosemite and focal point for most visitors. In a word, my tent-cabin was Spartan. It consisted of a wooden floor, canvas walls, a cot and a single bare light hanging from the ceiling. The toilet was a 40-yard walk from my front door. My choice of accommodation reflected my customary determination to leave as small a human footprint as possible on the environment, which included using public transportation and shank’s mare to get around.
My first walk had barely begun when, there in front of me, was a huge rock, both intimidating and magnificent, with its left half seemingly sheared off. Standing guard over the entire eastern edge of the valley, Half Dome is one of the world’s most photographed rocks, right up there with Gibraltar! It towers over 4,000 feet above the Valley floor.
Half Dome from Sentinel Bridge overlooking the Merced River
Further along the trail, I could see all three parts of Yosemite Falls from the trail, starting high atop a mountain, dropping straight down, cascading nearly flat and then dropping again, a total of 2,425 feet. At the base of the Lower Falls, I scrambled over large boulders, close enough to feel the spray. Sharing the slippery boulders was a lady from Australia, about my age, traveling solo, on the road for three months thus far. What an ego-buster! I thought I was the last of the ‘tough guys’.
Half Dome from the edge of Glacier Point, a spectacular lookout perched 3,200 feet above Yosemite Valley and Curry Village.
A park ranger offered valuable advice: “If you’re here several days, get your bearings by taking the Valley Tour bus to see what the valley looks like and where things are. Then hike on weekdays to avoid the flocks of weekend tourists.” The free Valley Tour was an excellent time investment, introducing me individually to the impressive granite walls standing guard over the valley with names like Cathedral Rocks, Three Brothers, El Capitan and Sentinel Dome.
The following day I set off on my own with the words of John Muir ringing in my ears, “If I were so time-poor as to have only one day to spend in Yosemite I should start at daybreak, say at three o’clock in midsummer, with a pocketful of any sort of dry breakfast stuff, and head for Glacier Point, …Vernal Fall and the wild boulder-choked River Cañon.”
Other than the getting up at 3 am, his advice sounded pretty good to me. Getting off the bus at Glacier Point, I shared the eagle’s eye version of the Valley. Matching any view I have seen in the world, the entire valley was below me: Half Dome, Nevada and Vernal Falls and other breath-taking mosaics of world famous features. Yet amazingly, less than 20% of park visitors get to Glacier Point.
From the Glacier Point lookout, visitors see both the park’s high country and deep into Yosemite Valley with Nevada Falls in the center and Vernal Falls on the left.
Being a keen photographer and again taking a tip from one of the park rangers, I developed a passing friendship with these natural monoliths at different times of the day, seeing them in different colors with different shadows. It was like looking through a child’s kaleidoscope,while twisting the viewer to see dazzling visions become even more spectacular than previous ones.
With no shuttle bus to the base of Bridalveil Falls, I decided to hike the eleven mile round trip. This I knew would be a test of endurance, since I had only trained for 8 mile hikes. On the walk to the trailhead, I noticed a sign declaring this to be the very spot that John Muir had lobbied President Teddy Roosevelt for the creation of Yosemite National Park. A strange feeling came over me. I’m not sure what it was, but I felt good about being there.
The bus drive from Curry Village to Glacier Point is 36 rugged miles, a bargain at $11.00 round trip.
The Ahwahneechee Indians called the falls, Pohono, “spirit of the puffing wind.” The wind does puff about the cliff, often lifting the falls and blowing the water into a mist. In the late afternoon as the sun sank lower in the sky, Bridalveil became a dancing rainbow of colors. On the return trip, I took a slight detour to El Capitan meadow. I thought my eyes were playing tricks until I turned binoculars on the face of this giant monolith and discovered that the small moving dots were climbers, inching their way up the nearly vertical wall.
At 3,000 feet high, El Capitan is the largest monolith of granite rock in the world.
Why did UNESCO Choose Yosemite as a World Heritage Site?
In 1984, the world recognized Yosemite National Park’s special status as a United Nations Natural World Heritage Site. Its largely-granite ‘hanging’ valleys, many waterfalls, 300 cirque lakes, polished domes, moraines and U-shaped valleys provide unsurpassed overviews. It is a dramatic example of glaciations from the massive sheer granite walls to the 3,000-foot (914-meter) deep cleft that is Yosemite Valley.
The author and his horse, Crackers, take a rest near the base of Chilnualna Falls.
I had saved the big adventure of the trip for the last: a horseback ride into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Riding from the south end of the park at Wawona, we gained 2,400 feet in elevation on the 12-mile, six-hour round trip — that’s steep, and hard on both horse and rider! I kept thinking, there is no way I could have hiked this narrow, sometimes only four-foot-wide trail on granite rock.
At the Chilnaulna Falls, we ate lunch and just bathed ourselves in the magnificent mountain scenery. The ride down was more stressful, with my horse, Crackers, having to be coaxed around each hairpin curve. Though the adventure and beauty of this ride were exhilarating, my body felt the stress and strain that evening. I decided to reward myself with a delicious meal at the historically-preserved Wawona Hotel, a place that Teddy Roosevelt and many other celebrities have enjoyed for a century.
Yosemite is the perfect destination for a brief vacation, whether viewing the highlights from the comfort and convenience of a car, or hiking and riding the less trod pathways in the footsteps of John Muir. In Yosemite, time and scale must be redefined, a place where geology rules and many human preoccupations seem insignificant. I can now understand how Muir could have spent ten years exploring its obvious and discretely camouflaged treasures, and why he lobbied so tirelessly to preserve the area as a national park.
Getting There: Yosemite is about 200 miles (320 kilometers) east of San Francisco and Sacramento. There are no car rentals or drop-off stations within the park. Amtrak provides a combination of train and bus service throughout California to Yosemite area. Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System, YARTS provides fee-paying bus service into the park from communities along Highways 120 and 140.
Yosemite National Park Service website: www.nps.gov/yose.
Guest lodging and tourism services in Yosemite: www.yosemitepark.com.
Inside the park: Yosemite Valley Shuttle Bus (free) drives to access points around the valley, stopping near all overnight accommodations, stores, and major vistas. Glacier Point Hikers’ Bus charges $11 round trip to Glacier Point, 36 miles each way from Curry Village with an elevation change of 3,200 feet. Many visitors prefer not to drive themselves. Various eateries in the park furnish everything from a pizza to a five-course meal, complete with wine.
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Keith Stelter is a writer/photographer and sometime adventurer. His base camp is Spring, Texas. His professional affiliations include: Outdoor Writers of America (OWAA); Texas Outdoor Writers (TOWA); Western Outdoor Writers (WOW) and North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA). He writes for the HCN newspapers, with a circulation of 750,000 and for various magazines. His independent travels have included Alaska, Canadian Maritimes, Costa Rica, Europe, Hawaii and the United States. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.