Yosemite Trekker Post #6 --- 7/11/09
Photographing one dome from another -- 7/7/09
Hike to Sentinel Dome
Last Tuesday, I caught a ride up to the High Sierras to get a bird'seye view of Yosemite Valley and some perspective on the granite walls that surround it. It is a strange geometry here. Soaring peaks and steep, deadman gorges are not uncommon at high altitudes. But there's something else going on, and it has been the subject of debate for more than a century.
State geologist Josiah Whitney blamed earthquakes and a massive downshifting of the earth's crust for the bizarre landscape that shapes the park. Muir said it was glaciers during the ice ages that carved the U-shaped valley and other features. U.C. Berkeley's Joseph LeConte concurred with the latter hypothesis. However, both explanations may be right, and a growing camp of independent researchers are pondering the prospect that every several millennia or so, Earth's crust undergoes a sudden and dramatic shift around the mantle. The movement is anything but incremental, sending continents on 2,000-mile roller coaster journeys in as little as a few hundred years or less. In 1953, Albert Einstein wrote the forward to a book called The Earth's Shifting Crust, which made the case for a phenomenon known as pole shift. Under this scenario, the fabled civilization of Atlantis may be lying under a two-mile thick ice blanket in a place we call Antarctica.
photo credit: Care2.com
Looking northward, pole shift might also account for the hundreds of thousands of mammoth carcasses found along the outer edge of the Arctic Circle. After all, archaeologists extracted warm weather foliage from the digestive tracts of many of the creatures involved in the die-off. Thus, if cataclysmic changes to Earth's geography are responsible for periodic mass species extinctions, the topography of Yosemite could offer additional forensic clues. That's why trekking up into the high country is such an eye-opening experience. You gain perspective here that's unattainable from the valley floor, casting the whole matter of subduction and uplift into sharper relief.
(For more on pole shift theory and other speculation about Earth's future, see our article "Apocalypse 2012?")
After gassing up a certain gas-guzzling Chevy Suburban whose ownership shall remain anonymous, my four trail companions and I headed up towards Glacier Point on Highway 41, going west. We passed through the famous Wawona Tunnel (below left), out of which so many park visitors emerge to get their first unforgettable glimpse of the valley. Looking back, I saw Bridalveil Fall streaming briskly down a cliff, with the foreboding El Capitan punching the sky on the left. And scar-faced Half Dome was lurking farther off in the distance. I wanted to stop and photograph all this, but the other girls were bent on forging ahead. Below on the right is a shot of Bridal Veil Falls that I took from Southside Drive the next day, while sitting at the back of a moving tour bus!
On the stretch of Highway 41 that's known as Wawona Road, the Grouse Fire was still ongoing, so there was a road delay. The photo below on the left was taken July 8th along Big Oak Flat Road near Crane Flat, where another fire burned out of control back in 1990. You can see the scars of that earlier inferno in the foreground. Depending on who you ask, the Grouse Fire either started on May 30th or two weeks ago. Initially classified as a "prescribed burn" (translation: watch and do nothing), things apparently got out of hand, as the blaze started jumping from tree crown to crown. Thus, a fire of a few hundred acres suddenly tranformed into a major event involving 2,500 acres and 300 firefighters. For fire updates, visit the Cal Fire website inciweb.org.
On the day we passed near the fire, park rangers kept one lane open for the firefighting equipment and personnel to move in and out, while escorting each direction of tourist traffic in caravans. This is the present containment line of the fire on its western edge. We saw small fires smoldering as exhausted firefighters sat by the roadside, taking a break from the action. The spot fires provided an eerie pyrotechnic flavor to our homeward trek later that night, along with two chance meetings with deer in the road. There was another short delay at 9:30 p.m. at the same place we were stopped before.
Wawona Road, snaking its way southward through Yosemite's high-country pines, eventually intersecting with Glacier Point Road. Here, a left turn takes you north (along another edge of the fire) towards Glacier Point, Yosemite's best-known High Sierra vista.
Taft Point and Sentinel Dome are two other escarpments with breathtaking dropoffs a few miles west of Glacier Point. (Washburn Point is another popular spot.) Unlike the famed tourist destination, these other landmarks require about a mile's hike from the parking lot. We first struck out west towards Taft Point, an easy trek without much of a grade, or so I thought until the return leg, which seemed like a longer slog. The view of the valley was pretty spectacular, albeit hazy due to smoke from the fire. At the edge of the granite, brave women dangled their legs casually or lay prone across rocks staring 4,000 feet down.
As for wildlife in the area, we saw plenty of lizards slithering around the boulders, and heard woodpeckers drilling in the bark, but the only animal we spotted in our own size category that we came across were a few deer. On the drive back, we slowed down for a big buck with antlers spanning three or four feet. Didn't get that shot, but here's one below foraging along the hillside.
With the wildlife a non-starter, that left the rocks themselves to scrutinize and speculate about. As I mentioned earlier, glaciation is blamed for some of the odd places where boulders have been deposited around the park. I marveld at a glossy heap of marble-like granite that was totally out of place in the woods where we were hiking. The chunk might have been part of the material that "intruded" from the molten magma chamber of millions of years before, yet how did this smoothly-surfaced rock emerge without the help of a polishing tool?
At any rate, we were back to the parking lot and onto Sentinel Dome by around 7:45 p.m. This part of the journey turned out to be more of a workout, since there's a much steeper grade and a lot of loose rock to negotiate. While some of the trail incorporated an old road built way back during the Roosevelt Administration (or so I romanticized), other rocky sections afforded no misteps less an ankle might be snapped if you foot got snagged in a fissure. (How anyone could make the return trip in the dark without injuring themself is beyond me.) After an hour's climb, we finally scaled to the top with only a few minutes of sunlight remaining.
Most of the people up here that evening had come to see the full moon rising. Of course, we girls had the same intention but forgot to bring jackets for the higher altitude, so abandoned the perch a little after 9 p.m. In the photo below, a couple from Europe were seated on the gnarled trunk of a long deceased Jeffrey pine, a tree that's native to the area. This specimen might even be the one of legend that fell a short a time back.
We also met a younger pair of natives who said they had just hiked up the 4-mile trail from the valley floor. It took them three hours. Impressive, considering the gas-guzzling Chevy Suburban required more than an hour just to haul us up to that parking lot…
For more info about hikes along Glacier Point Road, see the N.P.S. Yosemite pages..
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