Yosemite Valley may very well be the most famous valley in the world. At the very least it’s among the most stunning. Despite it encompassing a mere seven square miles, 95% of the park’s visitors don’t set foot outside the valley. The incredible glacial valley is home to several amazing natural wonders.
Half Dome, the most recognized feature in all of Yosemite, rises nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. It is a massive granite dome with its western face being a sheer cliff. The top of Half Dome can be reached by a very strenuous sixteen mile hike. On the western side of the valley, is El Capitan, the largest exposed piece of granite on the planet. El Capitan has some of the steepest cliffs on Earth, and attracts expert mountain climbers from across the globe. Yosemite Valley is likewise home to four of the world’s tallest waterfalls, two of which careen off the top of El Capitan. Yosemite Fall at 2,425 feet is the tallest waterfall on the continent. Also surging off the top of El Capitan is the less celebrated Ribbon Fall, which has the largest single drop in North America (and second farthest in the world) at 1,612 feet. The Merced River, fed by several waterfalls and creeks, flows through the center of the valley.
Our first stop on the 25-mile drive to the valley was a roadside viewpoint. We got out of the car to see if we could get a preview of the valley from a distance. All that could be seen from there were the valley’s loftiest inhabitants. The two overbearing monoliths, El Capitan and Half Dome, loomed far in the distance. Even from afar they looked both imposing and impressive. The sight spurred a giddy excitement within me. It really struck me that not only had I finally made it to Yosemite, but I could actually see the infamous valley from where I stood. I thought we had lost our chance to see it just two days earlier. I was still wondering if the flood was some kind of omen or if our visit just wasn’t meant to be. After all, the valley flooded for the first time in nearly a decade on the day we happened to arrive.
We continued down the steep mountainside road. At times we cut through the mountain by way of a couple of short tunnels. Water leaked through the tunnel ceiling as we passed below it. We stopped again, just after the second tunnel. There were several cars parked at a pullout. We joined a small crowd of onlookers at the edge of the cliff overlooking the valley. There we stood, next to a thundering cascade that dipped under the road and careened down the side of the mountain. Much larger waterfalls drained into the valley from steep granite cliffs. From the scenic vista, Yosemite Valley looked like a sea of evergreens at the bottom of a large, gray bowl. Far in the distance, almost directly across from me was the stunning Bridalveil Fall, the next stop on our way into the valley.
Soon we were down from the higher elevations. We reached a fork in the road. To the left was Yosemite Valley; to the right was the Bridalveil Fall parking area. The gorgeous waterfall was only a mile or so away, just outside the valley. We decided Yosemite Valley could wait just a little bit longer.
We parked in the crowded lot and got out of the car. The striking waterfall was immediately visible. It was framed by thick trees of a flawless green that stood at the far end of the lot. Bridalveil Fall drops 620 feet down from a hanging valley into a forest. The waterfall may not compare in stature with the likes of Yosemite and Ribbon Falls, but it is a natural work of art. And, to put its size in perspective, Bridalveil Fall is still four times taller than Niagara Falls.
A short half-mile roundtrip hike leads to the base of the fall in the middle of a forest. The trailhead was at the far end of the parking lot, under the trees. A smooth, paved path leads hikers through the woods and beside the energetic Bridalveil Creek for most of the short hike.
I could hear the loud, guttural growl of the waterfall from the trailhead. It grew louderwith each step into the forest. We followed the creek through the woods to a ridiculous looking tree. Its thin trunk rose about a foot above the ground before it turned horizontal. Then it curved almost 180 degrees around. It finally straightened out vertically and shot ten feet into the air. It was very strange looking, a Dr. Seuss kind of tree if I ever saw one.
The trail was very congested due to it being so short and easy. We were constantly walking around others on the path. The end result was worth the commotion, though. Within a few short minutes we approached the base of the beautiful waterfall. Several people stood there admiring the sight, from a few feet away. No one had gone quite as far as the trail led, however, because the water was spilling down at such an intense level that the entire area was soaked. Bridalveil Fall was clearly being affected by the excess rainfall of the past week.
The thunderous fall was deafening at close range. I had to lean back and tilt my head far back in order to see most of the waterfall. It plunged off the steep cliff above, dropping straight down in front of us. In no way was it a cascade that tumbled down. The thing exemplified pure power. I can’t fathom what it would feel like to stand below the fall. It could even be deadly. I tried to get a little closer for a better view, but got pretty wet in the process. Mist filled the air around us and cooled the atmosphere.
Joe backtracked a short ways into the woods and took out his guitar. He strummed away with Bridalveil Fall providing an exquisite backdrop. I remained near the base of the waterfall, with my thoughts lost in the spectacle. Between the booming sound of the waterfall and the thick mist around me, I felt like I was fully engulfed in the fall.
After a few minutes I rejoined Joe. He wrapped up his brief guitar session and we returned to the parking lot for a parting view of the picturesque fall. Then off we went again.
I quickly got us back onto the main road and took the fork towards the valley. We merged on to Southside Drive, a one-way parkway that heads east into Yosemite Valley along the southern bank of the Merced River. The two-lane road was lined with tall dark pines. Through an opening in the trees I saw a chalky gray sky ahead. Then as the road gently curved to the right, the space between the trees widened, transforming our view. The gray expanse before us was not the sky after all. It was El Capitan, the hulking granite behemoth. It filled the sky as high as I could see out the windshield. It was the definition of massive. The fact that it is the largest piece of exposed granite in the world made a whole lot of sense right then. The intimidating monolith that can literally block out the sun stands more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor. Its steep cliffs are near vertical, making the famous formation a mecca for rock-climbers worldwide. The extremely difficult climb doesn’t take hours to complete, it takes several days.
As we continued along Southside Drive, the majestic valley in all its grandeur appeared before us. It may have been a couple days later than planned, but we had officially made it. The wait was definitely worth it.
On our left, calmly dropping off the side of El Capitan in a 1,600-foot free-fall was the threadlike Ribbon Fall. As expected, the fall was exceptionally thin. It appeared to flutter in the wind. The road continued to parallel the Merced River. It looked relatively calm, but had swelled considerably from the recent rain and consequent flooding. We stopped in a large meadow beside the river. A boardwalk led across the swamp-like meadow. There was water everywhere, including half of the wooden walkway. Across the meadow and over a line of dark green pines, was another of the valley’s natural treasures. It was the magnificent and incomparable Yosemite Fall, plunging over a sheer cliff nearly a half-mile above the valley floor. The fall was a cloudy white blast that shot out from a wedge atop the enormous El Capitan. The sky was pale overhead, mimicking the color of the seemingly endless waterfall. It looked like the waterfall was pouring right out of the heavens above.
We took a long break in the meadow. Joe crossed over the partially submerged boardwalk with his guitar and played while he walked. Meanwhile, I took a lot of pictures of the stunning scenery surrounding me. I was overwhelmed by the astonishing valley. I couldn’t believe so much wonder and beauty could be packed into an area so small. It is less than eight miles long and one mile wide, a mere one percent of the park’s total area.
After a little while we met up and continued to the Yosemite Village Store. It was not quite as imposing as the Grand Canyon General Store, but it was sizable. The place was primarily a grocery store, but there was also a substantial clothing department, a section for camping supplies, and a boatload of souvenirs. We stocked up on the essentials; beer, ice, and firewood (and some food).
The store, too, was surrounded by outstanding views. After we finished our shopping we couldn’t help but stop in the meadow beside the store and admire the stunning scenery. On one side there was an outstanding view of Yosemite Fall, and on the other, the ominous Half Dome filled the eastern horizon.
Of all the spectacular sights in Yosemite Valley, Half Dome reigns supreme. The titanic chunk of granite rises nearly 4,800 feet above the valley floor. It is a silver-gray colossus that draws hikers, climbers, and photographers from around the world. As it is implied by the name, the round dome atop the granite formation is not full. One side of the dome is gone, essentially sliced off by glaciers eons ago. In a park full of granite domes and peaks, none resemble the unparalleled granite icon.
It was practically sundown and we were growing hungry, but felt we should try to fit in another short hike before returning to our campground for the night. Thankfully, we were within walking distance of the trailhead to Lower Yosemite Fall.
The hike is similar to the one to Bridalveil Fall. It is paved for at least half of its mile-long distance. The path is also mostly level, making it very easy. As a result, it is extremely popular. A crowded trail is a small price to pay for an unforgettable experience at the bottom of the continent’s tallest waterfall.
The wide pathway wound its way through a forest of pine and fir. Darkness had begun to descend, and with it a sudden drop in temperature. After a few minutes we were in the depths of the woods and I was feeling the effects of the cold. Wearing a tee-shirt and shorts, I was not prepared for cool temperatures. The hike was short though, so I figured I would survive.
The brief walk culminated at a clearing in the forest around the base of the gigantic waterfall. There was a small pool below the enormous granite wall. High up that wall, far above where I could see from the trail, Yosemite Fall was born. The huge waterfall plunges over 1,400 feet off the top of a high cliff, then tumbles down a series of smaller cascades totaling almost 700 feet that cannot be seen from the trail I was on. The final step of the fall, at 320 feet, crashes down into the small pool with a fury. Even though Lower Yosemite Fall is just half as tall as Bridalveil Fall, it packed even more of an explosive punch. That, of course, is because it is not simply 320 feet of water; it is the collective force of all three stages of Yosemite Fall, totaling 2,425 feet. So much water was packed into the thin waterfall that devoured the pool surrounded by huge boulders. The water splashed off the huge granite rocks and filled the area with an all-encompassing cloud of mist.
Yosemite Creek drains from the mountains in the High Sierra down Yosemite Fall and into the pool that continues into a lower part of Yosemite Creek. The creek eventually flows under a small footbridge and joins the Merced River in the bottom of the valley.
The trail led us over the wooden bridge that spanned Yosemite Creek. The best view of the hike was from there. I could only see the lower part of the fall, but it looked amazing under the darkening sky. The waterfall was a cloudy white, while the gray granite wall surrounding it transformed to an indigo shade due to the fading light and the flowing mist. The boulders were a gray-blue and the few trees that stood on each side of the creek had a host of dark green leaves.
It was growing dark and cold, so we left the bridge. We passed a pile of large boulders and proceeded to the trailhead. Done with the hike, we got in my car and drove back to our site at the Hodgdon Meadow Campground.
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