If you can't run, you can hide here...
Every morning at around 5:30, especially on weekends, I wake to the banter of hikers outside my back tent flap. They're on their way to Half Dome, the must-see, must-climb spot in Yosemite. The signature rock face can get pretty toasty in the afternoon, so the sooner you start, the sooner you can get back for pizza and beer. Or so the conventional wisdom runs.
On their march to the trailhead at the east end of the park, many, if not most of these rugged adventurers miss the pleasure of a place but a stone's throw from their ambling feet. Just before they reach the Merced River, where it splashes around the bend from Vernal Falls, is the stop on the shuttle bus route for Happy Isles. Beside this strangely named starting point for high country trekkers lies a marshland plush with greenery and a gently churning brook. It's called the Fen.
I have lied deep into the night wondering how I could have never heard this word fen before. It must be related to zen. You find the same comfortable simplicity among these ferns and grasses. Nature leaving a light footprint. The sensation of being at harmony with the world.
The wetland occupies two acres - for Yosemite, a size equivalent to a postage stamp - and can be reached by an unmarked trail that starts on the eastern edge of Curry Village, where the sprawling expanse of tent cabins ends. The path hooks around the Trailhead parking lot on the left, then makes a direct shot through a patch of woods. Just before the parking lot you'll find an ancient Douglas fir and an incense-cedar that are a marvel to behold.
In 1996, Yosemite's biggest rockslide in modern times brought a chunk of granite two football fields wide crashing down over Happy Isles, partly damaging the back of the Nature Center and killing a hiker. Trees snapped like twigs before the force of the tumbling rock and it took 24 hours for the dust cloud to clear. But you wont' see much evidence of the destruction now, just a pile of rocks at the base of the rock wall.
In fact, the Fen reminds me of the Japanese Tea Garden at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Many a summer day long ago, I hovered around this refuge on my days off work, admiring the sleek design of the pagodas, the pastel colors and scent of water lilies and blossoms. I imagined myself on a long journey down the path that wrapped around the landscaped garden, eventually arriving at the home of peace and tranquility that eluded me in everyday life. However, since the location charged an admission, I don't think I ever set foot inside it. It sufficed to partake of its pleasures from different perspectives beyond the fence.
Happy Isles is a bustling spot, by the way, despite the hidden treasure of the Fen nestled alongside it. It's the trailhead not only for Half Dome, but for Vernal and Nevada Falls and other destinations outside Yosemite Valley.
As I poked around behind the Nature Center, I uncovered another secret, a trail through the woods and alongside that river that has a far more rustic feel to it than the paved slog up to Vernal. Apparently designated a horse trail, I ran into a couple of people with fishing rods who used the path to reach a stretch of the river with a deep pool, right beside some rapids.
The day I stumbled upon it, I didn't meander very far, but made a mental note to return another day to see where this new path leads.
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The marsh itself is fed by groundwater emanating from the talus rock at the base of a granite cliff wall. Since the stream flows more or less year-round, layers of peat get to form, a rare thing this high up in altitude. (Most marshes of this type are fed by rainwater.) Incredibly, it wasn't long ago that a parking lot covered this spot, and next to it sat a trout farm. Fortunately, in recent years the Fen was earmarked for habitat restoration, while the fishery was replaced much earlier, in the 1960s, by Yosemite's Nature Center. The center is a kid-oriented museum with exhibits describing the local flora and fauna.
Secret Places: The Fen and Beyond