The Enchanted Forest: Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove

This is the story of my first visit to Yosemite National Park.  It only lasted a few hours, because Yosemite Valley was closed due to flooding.  My friend and I had a memorable hike in the Mariposa Grove in the pouring rain.

The incessant blaring of my alarm erupted at 7:00 a.m. on the nightstand between our beds. I slowly reached over and turned off my phone’s alarm.  Joe began to stir in his bed, but I had been awake in mine for nearly an hour.  I was too distracted and irritated by the noise outside our motel room to continue sleeping.  The rhythmic drumming against our window simply refused to stop.

We were in a small motel in the town of Oakhurst, California.  We arrived late the night before.  It was a long drive north from Las Vegas, mostly due to a lengthy detour through Death Valley.  Stopping for the night in Fresno seemed logical, but after an unsuccessful attempt at finding a hotel we carried on.  Joe and I were both pretty tired and considered stopping, but then we got a second wind.  We carried on into the dark night and a relentless rain.

It was almost 11:00 p.m. when we stopped for the night in Oakhurst, just fourteen miles from the southern entrance to Yosemite National Park.  It was hard to tell in the blackness of the night, but Oakhurst appeared to be the typical small resort border town that we had seen outside so many other National Parks.

Once we were settled in our motel room I checked the weather forecast.  The rain was expected to continue well into the next day.  I was not happy about the rain, but we had dealt with virtually no inclement weather on our trip so far, so I guess it was bound to happen eventually.  I wasn’t looking forward to setting up our tent in the rain the next morning, but was excited to enter Yosemite.  Our plan was to get up bright and early, regardless of the weather, and head into the park a short distance away.

Not only did the rain continue through the night, it intensified.  Despite the weather we got dressed and ready quickly and packed up the car.  We were soon on the road, and just minutes from Yosemite National Park, one of our nation’s true treasures.

Just outside the park we stopped at a small General Store.  We had to pick up a few supplies and figured everything would be more expensive inside Yosemite’s borders.  Among other things we purchased large garbage bags.  In addition to their obvious use, we figured we could use the bags as make-shift ponchos if necessary.

Of all the stops on our journey ranging from Las Vegas, to the Grand Canyon, to San Francisco; I had been looking forward to Yosemite National Park as the pinnacle of our adventure from the start.  I had read up considerably on every facet of the park, looked at plenty of pictures, and studied up on the trails.  I was ready to explore Yosemite.

We rolled to a stop at the park entrance after waiting behind a line of cars to get in.  The ranger at the gate told us that the valley was closed due to flooding.  Apparently I was so excited to arrive that I didn’t realize the magnitude of that statement when I first heard it.

Then I remembered that of the millions of people who visit Yosemite National Park in a given year very few ever leave the valley floor.  Yosemite Valley is home to most of the park’s major attractions.  After the ranger told us there was no estimate for when the valley might reopen I began to worry.

Although things may have looked bleak, we were not ready to admit defeat just yet.  We stuck to our original plan and headed to the Mariposa Grove of the Big Trees.  The grove was still open to visitors and only a mile or two east of the entrance we used.

The Mariposa Grove is the largest of the three groves of giant sequoia trees in Yosemite.  Not only are sequoias the largest living things in the world, but they are also among the oldest life forms on the planet.  There are over 500 towering sequoias in the Mariposa Grove, compared to less than thirty in each of the park’s other two groves.

We parked in the Mariposa parking lot and made ponchos, as planned, out of our new garbage bags.  I was disappointed I had to leave my cameras in the car due to the pouring rain, but it wasn’t worth risking any damage to them.  Rain or shine, we were excited to get back to exploring some magnificent scenery after spending a weekend in Vegas.

We exited my car and walked out into the thick downpour.  The pathway was paved and covered with puddles.  We were immediately surrounded by massive sequoias.  I had never seen trees so monstrous and magnificent.  In fact, they dwarfed any tree I had seen in my entire life up until that point.  The unbelievable trees helped us forget about the ceaseless rain that was pelting us from above.

The trail led us through the lower grove of the Mariposa Grove, weaving between the gargantuan trees.  The path gradually gained elevation as it led us farther into the depths of the forest.  Most of the early sections of the path were bordered by a short wooden fence.  Fences were also used to restrict access to the largest of the trees.

Most of the sequoias were light brown accented by a reddish hue. They almost looked amber or cinnamon.  Nearly all of them were perfectly round and upright.  Their bark, which is soft and smooth, aids in making these super trees essentially fireproof.

Admittedly, I didn’t think I could have been so impressed by a tree.  But these were mammoth beings.  They were beyond belief; I couldn’t even see the tops of most of them.  They were bigger than most buildings I had seen.

Then, less than a mile down the trail, we reached the grandest of them all.  The Grizzly Giant is the largest sequoia in Yosemite.  It is over 90 feet around.  It had to be at least five times the size of the largest tree I had ever seen.  Not only was it incredibly thick, but at 209 feet tall it was like a skyscraper in a forest of colossal buildings.  The enormous tree shot straight up from the ground to the clouds.  The bottom half of the mighty trunk was devoid of limbs.  But enormous branches shot out at several different angles higher up.  They looked like huge curved tentacles belonging to an octopus of mythic proportions.  One single branch about 100 feet up is thicker than most types of trees across the world.  The giant tree is also incredibly old, estimates vary as far as exactly how old, but it is likely somewhere between 1,800 and 2,700 years old.

We moved on from the Grizzly Giant to the next mighty sequoia of interest just a short distance down the path.  The California Tunnel Tree has a large door-shaped opening, cut right through the base of its dense trunk.  The tunnel was actually cut way back in 1895, to be used by horse-drawn carriages.  Most cars wouldn’t be able to fit through the passageway now, but the trail does lead hikers directly through it to the other side.  I can’t believe the giant hole didn’t kill the tree.  It continues to thrive more than 100 years later.

We took a short break from the rain inside the large sequoia.  We were already drenched.  My hiking boots made a squishy sound with each step.  My pants and hat were completely soaked through and my improvised garbage bag poncho was helping some, but my whole body was well saturated.  We were only around a mile from the trailhead and the rain did not look like it was going to let up anytime soon.

Perhaps the only bonus from the endless rain was the fact that we were nearly alone inside the Mariposa Grove.  Very few people were willing to brave the inclement weather that morning.  That was fine with me.  Despite the rain, the forest was captivating and well-worth exploring.  We were used to the rain after a short time and the sounds of the forest were actually quite comforting.  Water was the only thing to be heard throughout the grove of giant trees.  The constant rainfall and tiny streams that had begun to flow throughout the woods created a sort of steady white noise.

After another half-mile of walking through our water-logged surroundings we came to the Faithful Couple.  This is a combination of two soaring sequoias that are attached at their base and grow apart higher up.  Nowhere else in the grove did a pair of giant trees fuse together like that.

The trail had begun to gain some elevation as it brought us to the Faithful Couple and it continued uphill towards the Upper Grove.  The Mariposa Grove is made up of two smaller groves, the Lower Grove and the Upper Grove.  The Lower Grove is closest to the parking lot and thus more accessible; however, the Upper Grove has a greater population of the colossal sequoias.  The Upper Grove is also more scenic because it has more open space, which better showcases the giant trees.  It is worth the extra effort, even in the rain.

The Mariposa Grove Museum can be found in the middle of the Upper Grove.  The museum is a wooden cabin deep within the enchanted forest.  It occupies the site where Galen Clark built his own cabin in 1861.  The museum replaced it in 1930.  A few small exhibits and a gift shop are within the building.

There is another option for those who want to reach the Upper Grove and the museum who don’t feel like taking a hike. A Tram tour drives visitors throughout the entire Mariposa Grove, stopping at Grizzly Giant and the museum.  The Tram is basically a series of open-air cars linked together and pulled by a truck.  Visitors that ride along are supplied with headphones and get an audio tour.  The Tram is convenient, but expensive.  It wasn’t running when we were there, but I’m not sure if that was due to the weather or if it was just too early in the season.

Small wooden signs pointed hikers toward different famed trees and the museum in the middle of the forested fairyland. Several trails intersect throughout the grove and they also cross the paved road that the Tram runs on.  We followed the signs for a while, but eventually just kind of wandered around.  We figured we had plenty of time to explore the area since the valley was closed anyway.

After going in circles for a long time we made our way to the museum. We were glad, because we wanted to fill up on water and take cover from the rain.  Much to our dismay the museum had not yet opened for the season.  I guess it should have been obvious considering there were still patches of snow scattered throughout the forest.  Furthermore, the museum itself was boarded up and partially covered in snow.

At that point we decided it was time to return to the trailhead. That was the idea, but we still took our time and roamed rather freely.  We rambled up and down hills, along miles of trail.  It is about a 1,000 foot climb in elevation from the trailhead to the museum, but I’m sure we gained far more than that in total.

After walking through the wonderland of gargantuan trees for over two hours the rain finally stopped. It was raining when we arrived in Oakhurst, just outside Yosemite National Park, the previous night.  It continued overnight, and all morning.  Then it abruptly ended.  I was shocked.  We had grown so used to the rain by then that it became the norm.  I probably had my hat and poncho on for at least a few minutes before realizing it was no longer raining.

Once I did take off my heavy rain-soaked hat I felt strangely liberated. My head felt light and free.  It wasn’t until the rain stopped that we really noticed the effects of the storm.  The forest was completely saturated.  Small creeks that wound through the grove had become twice their normal size.  Several new streams were also born; they flowed over the trail and across the Tram road.  With our boots being as wet as they were we rarely bothered trying to find dry land.  It also wasn’t until the rain stopped that I realized just how wet I was.  I was soaked to my skin and pretty cold as a result.  Needless to say, we welcomed the break from the rain with open arms.

Shortly after the rain stopped, the sun crept through slivers in the clouds and gaps in the towering trees above us, setting the stage for a breathtaking scene. The sight before us was of an endless combination of different shades of green.  The trees, the grass, the ground, everything around us appeared green.  Next to the giant sequoia roots, patches of wet green moss glistened under the emerging sun.  Damp leaves sparkled in the sunlight and colors transformed right before our eyes as the moisture melted away under the sun’s beams.

The landscape turned surreal as a stream of fog hovered in the air passing between the trees. Finally, the splendor of the grove intensified as the sun exploded through parting clouds, rupturing the low-lying layer of fog.  Our surroundings were displayed in a completely different way.  It was as if the entire place shined with renewed life.  That was one of the lasting images of the trip for me.  I wished I had my camera, but the mental image has stuck with me.

We followed the Tram route for a little while before reconnecting with the primary Mariposa Grove Trail. Soon we were back at the California Tunnel Tree and then the Grizzly Giant.  Things were different this time.  Since the rain had stopped, hordes of people had swarmed the grove of the giant trees.  People posed for photos inside the tunnel tree and surrounded Grizzly Giant.  Sans cameras, we didn’t bother stopping again.

It took a fairly long time altogether, but we made our way out of the Mariposa Grove and back to the parking lot. When we first parked our car it was one of only a handful in the lot.  When we returned the lot was beyond capacity.  Dozens of cars waited in line for spaces to open up.  I saw that as a bad sign, because it meant Yosemite Valley was still closed, causing the massive influx of visitors to the Mariposa Grove.

We got in my car and headed northwest to the Wawona Campground, where we had reservations for the next two nights. It was less than ten miles away along the scenic park road.  Once we arrived I walked up to the campground office to inquire about our reservations and the condition of the valley, while Joe waited in the car.  A worker told me that not only was the valley closed indefinitely, but due to flooding in the Wawona Campground they were unable to honor our reservations.  Apparently many campers who were already in the campground were forced to move to dry sites, which quickly filled the campground to its limit.  There was no room for us, so we received a full refund.  The lady at the desk told me that Yosemite Valley had not been closed due to flooding since 1997, eight years earlier.  It remained closed for an entire week that time.  Once I heard that, the magnitude of the flood really hit me.  My spirit was crushed as I dreaded the worst.

After telling Joe the bad news we decided it was time to explore our options. We figured we could try to come up with a new plan over some lunch.  We went to the Wawona Hotel since it was so close, but there was a long wait.  So we decided to leave the park and look for a place nearby.  On our way out we noticed that the Mariposa Grove had been closed, too.  It probably got far too crowded due to everyone being forced there with the valley closed.

We ended up at a local barbeque joint in Oakhurst for lunch. We had maps laid out on the table between our food.  We were both rather solemn and irritable at that point, but we tried to stay focused and take it in stride.  After some deliberation we decided to move a couple days forward on our itinerary and head west to San Francisco.  If luck would be on our side we could return to Yosemite once it reopened.  We had a backup plan in the works involving a possible trek to Yellowstone National Park in the event that Yosemite remained closed.  Off we went, once more, heading west to stay with a friend in San Francisco for two days.  At that point, we had no idea if we would return to Yosemite.


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