Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Autumn Trails in the Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Falls seen from the Merced River trails

Catching the tail end of the fall in the Yosemite Valley is a wild weather roll of the dice. You can enjoy California's warm indian summer and winter's rains in a couple days, just before snow storms pound the Sierras. That's what we got and exactly why I love that time of the year - it's so unpredictable! When I planned this trip back in September for my family (husband, kids 5 and 7) and my mother, I wasn't sure whether the valley would be snowed in or not. In terms of lodging, that could change a lot of things for everybody's comfort. I came up with a practical compromise: my husband and I would stay at the Upper Pines campground and my mother and my girls would stay at the Ahwahnee Hotel. Guess who got the best of the valley?

Morning reflection of trees in the Merced River

We left the Bay Area at 2pm and arrived at the entrance of the valley at twillight on Friday. As we drove between thick stands of alders, bigleaf maples and black oaks, darkness engulfed the road and our hopes of pitching our tent in daylight too. Pitching in the dark is not fun. You don't see the tiny rock that will poke through the sleeping mat between your shoulder blades at 3am, you don't know if you're setting up on level terrain and won't slide at night, and you want to make sure you're far enough from the neighbors but still on your site. As it turned out, our campsite was so crappy and narrow anyway that we had just enough space for the tent (#106 for the record). Fifteen minutes later, the tent was up and we dropped off the rest of the family at their "rustic" five-star cottage. We enjoyed the cozy walk-in fireplaces of the beautiful Ahwanee Hotel before returning to mother nature at the campground.

Hey, we had new neighbors! Huh, a frat party of sorts. So much for quiet hours. The next morning, we knew everything about the frat party's wild nights, their boring day jobs and dancing skills. We felt enlightened in their ways and made it a duty to enlighten them in ours. See, I'm an early bird. We opened and shut the doors of the bear box as much and as loudly as was needed to recover our morning tea and toiletries. There, no sleeping in kiddos! Small revenge but sweet nonetheless.

Morning fog on the meadows east of Yosemite Village

We drove over to the Ahwahnee and caught the tranquil reflection of the trees on the Merced River. It was as perfect as a Vermeer painting and we jumped out of the car to capture the image before a jumping trout created ripples. Nearer the Yosemite Village, a fuzzy fog fleeted above the Indian Canyon Creek meadows while a shy sun and clear skies announced a glorious morning. The stars were well aligned for a great day out.

In terms of activities, we were limited by my mother's recent hip surgery. Still recovering, she couldn't walk more a mile, maybe 1.5 mile, over flat terrain. That ruled out any upwards rocky trails or steps but opened up vast scenic possibilities. We parked at the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls and rented bicycles there - even for my mother but that was short-lived since she hadn't ridden in 30 years. She cursed, I insisted; she insisted, I returned her bike.

Biking in the Yosemite Valley

After a quick look at the trail map, we opted for the easiest trail  across the lodge, along the river on a paved path towards the swinging bridge. It is my favorite discovery trail as you follow a tree-lined winding path until views open up on Leidig Meadow, and keep on to the Swinging Bridge where a little sandy cove offers a perfect splash spot for kids (and ducks).

Autumn foliage on maple trees 

The fall colors were amazing. Every step was as potential photo op for non-believers in the gospel of autumn foliage in California. Seriously, why do people gloat about the East coast without checking their Sierra backyards? If you want to know where to find fall colors in California, check out a website called Fall Color in California. You will find visitor reports of fall colors with exact locations, dates and photos. I read there a report about a magnificent bigleaf maple tree by the chapel in the Yosemite Valley so this was our destination today. 

When we arrived at the meadows, we were greeted by a nice line-up of rear-ends photographing the valley with more pro equipment than I've seen since Lady Di got married. OK, barely. If anything, this confirmed that it was definitely a good weekend to be around. We admired the view and found a comfortable stump for my mother to sit on while the girls rushed to the river to build sand castles. Once I even found an arrowhead along the edge.

Yellow leaves raining on Merced River by Swinging Bridge
 Imperceptibly, outside temps had dropped and skies darkened. Vivid gusts of wind shook the trees and much to our delight, they shook the trees until tempests of yellow leaves literally rained on the river in slow motion. Light and unaware of the weather change, the leaves blew with the pre-rain puffs and blanketed the shores of the river in golden hues of yellow. It was absolutely gorgeous and we couldn't get enough of it.

Yosemite Chapel seen from Upper Yosemite Falls trail

However it was clear that rain would be upon us fairly soon so while my mother rested by the bridge, our little family hopped on bikes to go find the Yosemite chapel. With its tall frame, wooden beams and shingle roof, the oldest structure of the valley could be a distant cousin of Scandinavian stave churches. Quaint and surrounded by tall granite walls, it is the site of many wedding ceremonies. 

Yes the bigleaf maple tree was there but we had seen more impressive ones by the Yosemite Falls so we turned around and rode back to the Yosemite Lodge. By then it was about 2pm and our girls were in dire neeed of quiet time. My left them with my mother to rest in their bedroom and took off with my husband. I wanted to see the valley from above to admire the colors of the fall and the only trail I kew for that was Upper Yosemite Falls trail.

Columbia Rock, Upper Yosemite Falls trail

This iconic Yosemite Valley hiking trail is also one of the oldest (it was built from 1873 to 1877) trails and rises 2,700 feet over 3.6 miles. With our late start, we knew that we wouldn't get to the top if we wanted to make it back down before dark. However we aimed for half of the trail, figuring we'd be way above the treeline with nice views of the valley. Our expectations were not disappointed.

In Tom Stienstra's words, this hike is a demanding climb. You bet! Both on the way up and down, we passed people holding their crooked backs or panting against rocks. Granted, some were poorly outfitted with flips-flops but most had good running shoes - which still doesn't beat real hiking boots. The trail is comparable to a never-ending staircase with flat respites on loose gravel.

Top of Yosemite Falls from the trail

During the first 1.2 miles, it's switchback after switchback until you surface on a hard slab at Columbia Rock. By the railing above the vertiginous drop (you're 1,200 vertical feet above the valley), it's a good idea to take a picture just to show you were there. We obliged, followed a flat stretch  and kept on until the trail dipped to a portion with views on the face of Upper Yosemite Falls. There are no words to describe this monstrous beauty except that you feel ridiculously small and vulnerable.

Rainbow on Half Dome

From the trail, we could follow the setting sun's shadows stretching farther in the valley and dark heavy clouds progressing in our direction. We still had an hour of daylight so turned around but of course, what we thought would happen happened. It started raining. Not hard, mind you, but a healthy soak nonetheless and it felt incredibly refreshing. Clever me, I was in short-sleeves and had left all other layers in the car. Since we had almost ran up the trail, I was still warm enough that I didn't get cold at all.

My husband was giddy with excitement for a different reason. He changed the lens on his camera and kept peeking left to catch a rainbow if any should appear. At a turn of the trail, the most beautiful surprise of the day awaited us: a giant rainbow sliced Half Dome in the middle, diving straight down to the valley's trails. We could see exactly where the pot of gold was burried. Hallelujah! 

1 comment:

Debi said...

Yosemite is my home away from home (read: I have a family cabin there). In fact, we're heading there this weekend! Sounds like your trip was amazing. For the record, the hike to the top of Yosemite Falls is my most dreaded in the park. Ugh! :o)