Last year, I was lucky enough to visit fourteen different national parks, ranging from the lowest point in our country at the crackling hot Badwater Basin of Death Valley, to the glaciated summit of Mount Rainier in the Pacific Northwest. I watched a black bear and her baby cub cross my path in a golden-soaked valley in Kings Canyon, stood alongside the pulsing waters of the Rio Grande in Big Bend — waving to Mexico just on the other bank — and admired the sunset paint colors I never knew existed across the Grand Canyon.
Needless to say, I find myself obsessed with all the National Park Service has to offer, where our country’s beauty is showcased across fifty-nine different parks that range from coast to coast. From the countless pictures I post of my travels on Instagram, or the jean jacket I’m often seen wearing that has a patch from every park I’ve visited, my friends know that national parks are something I’m extremely passionate about.
There is one park in particular I visited last year that has stayed at the forefront of my thoughts ever since I left it, a place where massive rock formations, towering waterfalls, abundant wildlife, and a gorgeous valley filled with evergreens resides in a land seemingly tucked away from the rest of reality.
This of course, is Yosemite.
Before I share my recollections of this magical place, I think it appropriate to first let the great John Muir give it an introduction:
“Yosemite Park is a place of rest, a refuge from the roar and dust and weary, nervous, wasting work of the lowlands, in which one gains the advantages of both solitude and society. Nowhere will you find more company of a soothing peace-be-still kind. Your animal fellow beings, so seldom regarded in civilization, and every rock-brow and mountain, stream, and lake, and every plant soon come to be regarded as brothers; even one learns to like the storms and clouds and tireless winds. This one noble park is big enough and rich enough for a whole life of study and aesthetic enjoyment. It is good for everybody, no matter how benumbed with care, encrusted with a mail of business habits like a tree with bark. None can escape its charms. Its natural beauty cleans and warms like a fire, and you will be willing to stay forever in one place like a tree.”
- John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, (1938) page 350.
The state of California has nine national parks, more than any other. On my trip to Yosemite with my dear friend Rose, we were fortunate enough to also visit Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Pinnacles. Just within the span of six days. There is so much beauty to behold in the center of the golden state.
Our adventure started by flying into the San Jose airport, and then immediately driving the nearly four-hour route into the heart of Yosemite Valley. We arrived on a bright afternoon in early October, the sunshine waning as we ventured into the park, making our first stop at the famous Tunnel View lookout, an elevated spot along the road where our eyes feasted on a stunning panorama of Yosemite for the first time. It is here where we spotted El Capitan dominating the skyline alongside the other stupendous rock mountains, with a preview-like glimpse of Half Dome in the distance, all of them buttressing up against one another, yet leaving the space of the valley floor open and free, shrouded in green.
With the amount of daylight left quickly diminishing, we raced over to Bridal Veil Falls, basically running up the short trail to reach the spot where you can stand underneath the wispy waterfall and watch it tumble down from the top of a rock wall you can barely see the top of.
From here we continued on, driving further into the center of the valley, our eyes astonished by the highlighted views of El Capitan being drenched with the evening sunlight, it’s size and stature seemingly taking up the entire sky. What a sight.
We parked the car and headed to the middle of the valley floor, where we took a stroll along a meandering loop on the Cook Meadow’s trail. It is during this walk that we were formally introduced to the behemoth that is Half Dome, it’s curved façade painted in golden-hour light which reflected into the waters of the Merced River as we passed over a footbridge.
Our jaunt through the meadow also offered stunning views of the Three Brothers, turning warmer colors of red as the sun started to sink even lower toward the horizon. Large white-tailed deer and bucks with full racks on their heads casually sauntered around us, quietly munching on grass as if we weren’t even there. In due time, it started to get dark, and we decided to leave the meadow, picking up firewood and a bite to eat at the local visitor center before heading out to our campsite at Hogdon Meadow.
After surviving a chilly night in our tent bundled up in multiple layers and successfully not getting eaten by bears, day two in Yosemite began in the morning, our first excursion being the easy two-mile hike out to Mirror Lake, which we found to be pretty dry this time of year. Nevertheless, we still got lovely views of Half Dome and some of the other large rock formations. We were kind of cold since it was still early and were mostly in the shadows of the granite walls that loomed over us on both sides, but by the time we made it back to the car the sun had finally poked its way above the solid-rock horizon, drenching the valley floor in light, resulting in us happily shedding our warmer pieces of clothing.
Next up was the Yosemite Falls Trail, which to be honest was our first real hike of our visit, and it was no joke. It started with tons of steep, tight switchbacks which quickly took us up into a space elevated above the valley, the gargantuan granite formations shining in the sun. We had started the day in sweaters and pants, and now were in tanks and shorts. It was actually hot. Once we were above the tree line we could see the road circling around both sides of the valley below, the cars we could spot looking like miniature versions of themselves.
We soaked up some of the epic views and then decided to amble out to the edge of a big boulder wedged alongside a cliff that sat in a space steeply dropping off to the valley floor below. From here Yosemite stretched out before us, shades of green and gray mixing together in one beautiful image, Half Dome serving us a magnanimous backdrop. It was a bit scary standing here, and probably not the safest, but I’ll do almost anything for a good picture. Sorry Mom!
After our mini photoshoot we continued climbing, eventually hitting the bottom of the Upper Falls. Now here I have to be honest, while this visit to Yosemite was truly incredible, I was a bit disappointed by the falls. Due to the time of year and recent weather conditions, the sometimes thunderous falls were kind of just a trickle. So while the waterflow wasn’t at its peak, we were still impressed by the sheer height of where the falls began, and the distance the water fell down the rock’s front. We sat at a spot on the edge of the trail for a while, cracked open some beers, and watched as the H2O continuously succumbed to gravity.
Once we had hiked back down, we started the drive to our final destination in Yosemite: Glacier Point. The drive from the central valley to this incredible overlook took nearly an hour, following along the windy Wawona and Glacier Point roads. Here you get an epic view of the whole valley from above, allowing you to see all the formations from a completely different vantage point. It felt a bit strange to be looking upon Half Dome from this space, heightened above it when I had only known it from below, adding in new perspective and layers I didn’t think I’d see. The green pines that had towered over us just earlier that very morning now looked like pinpricks in my eyes. We stood here for a while, the shades of gray overtaking us, the dark greens carpeting the valley floor, the shadows spreading as the day decided to begin its journey toward night.
It was time to say goodbye to Yosemite, even though I didn’t want to. Yet there was chili to be made back at the campsite, a fire to be built, and rest to be found in our cozy sleeping bags. That night we danced around our tent as the flame we’d started burned in the hearth, laughing as we sipped on beers and thought back to all the beauty we’d seen over the past two days in just one park, feeling completely and utterly blessed that we still had three more national parks before us.
Central California is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and in my opinion, Yosemite sits as the crown jewel among the High Sierra. A part of me wants every American to be given the chance to see it, but at the same time, the selfish part of me that loves nature so much, and adores the resounding peace and strength it seems to give me every time I’m able to venture out into the woods, hopes that there will still be moments of tranquility without crowds, where I can revel in the delights of forests and mountains in solitude.
As the great John Muir once wrote in 1901: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
Get out there. Visit our national parks. Experience the beauty that was crafted by the forces of nature.
There’s truly nothing better.
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Alexander Rigby is the Editor-in-Chief of Allegory Ridge and the author of three novels: Bender, What Happened to Marilyn, and The Second Chances of Priam Wood. He lives in Seattle, WA.