Yosemite Trekker Post #1 --- 5/29/09
Behind Yosemite Lodge, taken 7/18/09.
Intro to Yosemite
Note: This brief article is followed by Yosemite Trekker's photo journal.
First set aside as protected wilderness by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, Yosemite's 1,200 square miles attract a steady stream of visitors year-round. Tucked away in the central Sierra Nevadas, the park is a testament to the century and a half of political advocacy required for its preservation. Explorer Galen Clark, naturalist John Muir, the Sierra Club and many other defenders lobbied relentlessly to keep this slice of Eden off-limits to logging, trapping, mining and development. Only a small but significant portion of the park, the Hetch Hetchy Valley, was dammed in 1913 to provide San Francisco with a water supply. And even that intrusion is still being debated. (See hetchhetchy.org for more on the initiative to move the dam and restore the valley to its pristine vintage.)
Prior to the 19th century, native Americans inhabited Yosemite Valley. The Miwok and Paiute tribes farmed grasses for basketweaving, harvested acorns for flour and lived in earthen huts or teepees made of bark. In fact, archaeologists believe indians have occupied the area for at least 4,000 years prior to the arrival of the pioneers. The inhabitants of Yosemite Valley were called the Ahwaneechees, or "those who live in Ahwahnee", which translates as “large gaping mouth" "or "grassy fields", depending on which park history you read. White-skinned settlers took over in the late 18th century with the help of the Mariposa Battalion, which forcibly relocated the indians to present-day Oakhurst.
As for the land itself, geologists think the subduction of one tectonic plate beneath another generated the volcanic activity responsible for the Sierra Nevadas. At the time, about 20 million years ago, the Pacific Ocean extended this far east. But sedimentary layers built up and would play a key role later on. . The granite walls we see today are the result of molten material that crystallized deep below the Earth's surface.
Glaciation of Yosemite/N.P.S. Visitors Center exhibit
Although the story keeps changing as the science of geology evolves, the current line states that El Capitan, Half Dome and other rock formations allegedly pushed up through a five-mile thick sedimentary layer beginning until they were towering thousands of feet above sea level. The sediment was eventually transported downstream, creating the Central Valley of California. During the ice ages, glaciers widened a narrow river valley that was sandwiched between the granite rock. The Merced River, Tenaya Creek and other waterways transferred more sediment onto the valley floor, filling in a gigantic lake left behind by the glaciation.
The new soil base facilitated the growth of today's woodlands and meadows we see today. The many layers of silt are also responsible for the U-shape of the valley. Over time, the granite walls have been chipping away, triggering rockslides. A major rockfall below Glacier Point in 1996 transported a block of granite two football fields wide down to the valley floor, generated an unprecedented wind blast that leveled trees and damaged the Happy Isles Nature Center. A hiker in the area was killed.
Major rockslides have occurred in 2006, 2008 and 2009, cutting off Highway 41 and a trail near Mirror Lake, as well as a series of cabins on the south end of Curry Village. If you hear a loud snap, crackle and pop, it's probably a rockslide somewhere in the park. Over time, the valley is expected keep widening as the granite keeps crumbling.
If you're planning a visit to Yosemite, here are a few tips:
Bring your bike and mosquito repellant. Of course, you can also rent a bike when you get here, but the cost is $9.50 an hour or 25.50 per day, plus $5 for the mandatory helmet. The bikes are also single-geared conveyances, which given the high cost is a little irritating. Regardless, bike paths abound, there's very little wind and relatively few steep grades to climb. You'll find looking up at the scenery a lot easier from a bike, while the light breeze caressing your cheek feels great. (Adults don't need helmets when riding their own bikes.) Don't forget to install a headlight and blinking back reflector for night travel,, and always lock up your wheels at a bike rack, since thefts are common. A pump, patch kit and carry basket may also come in handy. As for the mosquitoes, there are lots of them around in spring and summer, so you'll want to pack a good itch cream and/or repellant.
If you can't get reservations, don't give up. Since the campgrounds, cabins and hotels book far in advance, there are lots of cancellations and no-shows. Walk-ins are usually welcome, especially on weekdays. Hotel reservations are held until 4 p.m. unless other arrangements have been made. Housekeeping Camp sometimes has its Vacancy sign hung by 10 a.m. In addition, nearly a dozen campgrounds in the park (mostly outside of the valley) are first-come-first-served, so check on the times and procedures for getting a site at the National Park Service's website. (See below.) Backpackers line up every morning at 8:30 a.m. to secure their $5 a night spot at Camp 4, which is near Yosemite Lodge. (There's an additional backpackers camp behind the Pines campgrounds, but you'll need a wilderness permit to gain entry into it.) There's also a nice campground up at Tuolumne Meadows, about an hour and half from the valley. Several motels and hostels just outside the park (along the road from Merced) afford you the opportunity of riding the YARTS bus into the park, thus avoiding the $20 entrance fee (as explained below).
Save yourself a $10 or $20 park fee by arriving on public transportation. TheYosemite Area Transportation System (YARTS for short) transports park visitors between Merced and Yosemite Valley, stopping at about dozen small towns along the way. From Merced, it's a pleasant 2 1/2 hour drive to the valley. You can stow your bike on the bus, too. Amtrak will book you automatically on YARTS, which picks up at nine and eleven a.m., and two p.m. in the afternoon daily. Check the website yarts.com for specific route, times and fares. From the Bay Area or Sacramento, the total cost of a train ride is under $50 each way in the summer, and as low as $35 in offpeak. Amtrak also offers other discounts, so check their website at amtrak.com.
Never leave food in your vehicle or tent. Currently, the National Park Service is tracking 15 bears who meander around the valley, after already euthanizing three this year. You'll be levied with a $250 fine for failing to store your food in desginated storage lockers at the campsites and tent cabins. The black bears here don't attack people unless provoked. They are simply foraging and have a keen sense of smell. Even a flavored tube of lip balm can cause a bear to break into your car.
Use Yosemite Valley as your staging area for any backwoods adventures. For safety and convenience, the valley is a good place to get acclimated to the park, stow your gear and purchase supplies. The valley is home to Curry Village, Yosemite Lodge and Yosemite Village, all within about a mile of each other. The free shuttle transports visitors between these three hubs, and out to several major trailheads. Access to backcountry trails is limited, but you can pick up a permit and get the latest on weather and fire conditions at the Wilderness Center, which is a few doors down from the official valley visitors center.
And now for some photos I took my first week in the park:
Half Dome on the afternoon of 5/22/09, looking up from the bike path just outside of Yosemite Village. As still and impenetrable as they appear, the granite walls encasing the valley are slowly breaking apart, causing an uptick in rockslides in recent years. Yet geologists believe there was never any second half of Half Dome. Most of the original rock formation remains intact. Or so they say...
Yosemite Village is home to the National Park Service's Visitors Center and the Indian Museum and outdoor exhhibit. Inside the Visitors Center are geology and history exhibits, as well as a restrospective on artists who've painted the park. Above left is a panel in the Visitors Center recounting naturalist John Muir's life. To the right is a painting from the late nineteenth century by Thomas Hill.
The Village Store is a combination supermarket/Whole Foods store. Besides the usual souvenirs, you'll find sprawling grocery aisles stocked with both conventional and organic food, over-the-counter drugs, household goods and sporting goods. There's a big parking lot on the east side, so you don't need to haul your provisions very far. (The lot fills up during the day, so the best time to stock up on supplies is before 11 and after 5.) The store stays open until 10 p.m., when the last shuttle makes its run.
The hustle-bustle of the Yosemite Village strip. In addition to the Visitors Center and a post office, you'll find several restaurants, retail stores and other shops laid out in a row adjacent to a bike path and shuttle stops. The Wilderness Center is staffed by N.P.S. rangers who issue wilderness permits for backcountry travel. You can also purchase detailed maps and survival guides here. The shuttle buses all stop here going to and from and other destinations. There's also a auto/RV repair garage in the village. Keep in mind that gasoline isn't sold in Yosemite Valley. Make sure you fill up your tank before entering the park.
At Yosemite Lodge, the tourist busses unload and the in-park tours begin. Close to the base of Yosemite Falls, the lodge is home to the second major hotel in the valley. "Food Court" is also here, with lots of seating, indoors and out. Nearby, a large public pool is open to the public free of charge. (There's a lap swim in the a.m. and p.m. daily.) The couple and their pup in the right photo were relaxing here one morning as I rode through on my bike.
Dogs on leashes are welcome in Yosemite in the outdoor areas and along the paved roads and bike paths. They're not allowed on most of the trails, but once you get away from the valley and the large crowds, and onto less-trafficked trails, the prohibitions are not so strictly enforced.
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