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Yosemite Falls Hike

Posted May 08 2009 11:39pm
Like many ultrarunners, I’ve always been reluctant to embrace the concept of hiking.

Given that most hiking takes place on the same terrain that I spend hours running up and down, purposely walking on trails seems awfully pedestrian, in both senses of the word. Like a track runner who wouldn’t get satisfaction out of merely walking around the oval, I can’t honestly claim to enjoy strolling through the wilderness more than I’d love running through it.

That’s why it takes a special trail to make me slow down and appreciate a good hike; a trail that is so challenging and scenic that you can’t help but take it easy and enjoy the journey at a slower pace than usual. Coincidentally, that’s also why I love hiking in Yosemite National Park.

In mid-April (three days before the Diablo 50-miler, to be exact), my wife and I spent two days in the park, with our main objective being a hike from the valley floor to Yosemite Point. It was scheduled to be a 10-mile round trip, with almost 3000’ of elevation gain. As luck would have it, our “schedule” was a little bit off – as I'll explain later.

Before we proceed, however, there’s one more note to address. When I first reported on this hike, I called Yosemite Falls the tallest waterfall in North America, as the park's own website claims, as well as this site and this site. However, one of my Canuck friends reported that the James Bruce Falls in British Columbia is taller – and sure enough, a different wiki page confirms this.

Actually, the more websites I found, the more confused the “tallest in North America” issue became. For example, Colonial Creek Falls in Washington is at the top of a few lists. Two waterfalls in Hawaii are even taller, but are apparently not properly in North America – which might come as news to most Hawaiians. Some waterfalls don’t run year-round. Some (like Yosemite) are split into separate cascades. The tallest waterfall may vary depending on what criteria you use.

The lessons, I guess, are twofold: 1) measuring waterfalls is not nearly as simple as it would seem, and – most importantly – 2) none of this really matters. Whether it’s the tallest or sixth tallest, Yosemite Falls is completely awesome – as you’ll soon see. Oh, and 3) You shouldn’t believe anything you read on the Internet. But you already knew that.

(One other fun waterfall fact: among the list of Canadian waterfalls is one in Newfoundland named Pissing Mare. I mean … I don’t even have to come up with a joke for that one, right? Canadians crack me up sometimes.)

On a random note, our first picture doesn’t have anything to do with the hike, but I wanted to share it anyway …

… because it’s a bear. And it’s Yosemite. Enjoying the outdoors doesn’t get much cooler than this.

So here we go - our objective for the day: Yosemite Falls (elev. 6526’) at left, with Yosemite Point (6936’) rising to the upper right.

We stayed at Yosemite Lodge (elev. 3900’) and walked about a half-mile to the trailhead for Yosemite Falls. The sign says it’s 3.4 miles to the top of the Falls; our Garmin eTrex Vista had it closer to 4. However, there were several spots where the signal was pretty shaky, and our gadget might have done a lot of extrapolation to make up for it. Either that, or the sign’s wrong. File this point under “doesn’t matter” as well.

The trail starts with a series of about 60 switchbacks under tree cover, where you gain elevation very quickly. About halfway up the switchbacks, you get your first glimpse of Half Dome through the trees.

The views of Half Dome will get better all day long. Approximately one mile up the trail, there’s an observation point with a great unobstructed view. However, you’ve barely started the climb, so don’t worry about spending too much time here.

A little further ahead, you get your first glimpse of the falls up close. See that white stuff all around it? That would be ice. The overnight temperature before this hike was 22 degrees – which makes for one very frosty waterfall. Also …

The mist spraying from the Falls was still freezing in the cool morning air, creating a shell of ice on several trees near the base.

Yosemite Falls on the left, Half Dome on the right. No other words necessary.

On the top third of the trail, the Falls disappear out of sight as you work your way around a ridge that blocks it from view. Near the top, the terrain takes on that distinctive Sierra Nevada look – and if you look closely, you’ll start to see snow here, at just below 6000’.

A little higher up, the snow’s much easier to see. From this point, the Falls are in one direction, and the trail to Yosemite Point is in another.

At the Falls overlook area, there’s a rocky staircase that leads down to the observation point. If you get squeamish about heights and narrow places, this might be a good stopping point.

The observation area is down by the railing. You don’t get as close to this fall as you can at the top of Nevada Fall or Vernal Fall, but the vantage point is still pretty impressive.

Even in early spring, the water was bombing down this rock face. Note all the ice on the side of the column.

Above the observation area, there are lots of rocky outcroppings with great views of the valley. Our second destination of the day, Yosemite Point, is here on the left, with Half Dome curving into it.

But first, we found a nice little perch for a lunch break.

Later, it was time to continue along the snowy trail towards Yosemite Point. It’s only supposed to be one mile from this turnoff point – but the snow temporarily wrecked havoc on our plans.

Starting towards the Point, you cross Yosemite Creek, which (obviously) is the water source for the Falls. The trail is still easy to follow at this point.

I love this sign for two reasons: one for the goofy look that some clever vandal drew on the dude’s face, and also for the “How can we make this any clearer?” warning (click to enlarge) that there are no second chances. In case you were wondering.

Looking downstream from the bridge, to where the water tumbles over. Remember – no second chances!

Upstream, you can see the trail off to the right hand side after crossing the river. Unfortunately, this was the last clear portion of the trail until we reached Yosemite Point.

Here’s how you know you’re lost: when your only sense of direction comes from following sets of footprints in the snow, and you suddenly realize that there are no tracks anywhere around you. This was a ridgeline that we bushwhacked our way up to, which turned out to be 300’ higher than the destination we were seeking. This little detour cost us an extra hour or more, as well as another couple of tricky miles that we weren’t bargaining for.

Eventually we made our way down to Yosemite Point, which features killer views across the valley. This is where I took the photo that concludes this post.

We relaxed a bit at the Point, grateful that we were back on the map, with all of our climbing for the day completed. We tiptoed our way back down to Yosemite Falls, double-checking and retracing our steps about every 50 yards or so to make sure we were still close to the consensus path down the rock.

On the way down, with the sunlight spilling in from a different direction than the morning, we found some rainbows to go with our ice. Nature's snow cone.

There’s one short side trail from the middle cascade area you can take on the way up or down, where you’ll find a great vantage point of both the middle and lower falls. It’s definitely worth a few extra minutes of walking.

Finally, about 7 hours and 12 miles after we left, we returned to our room at the lodge, which happened to have a great vantage point of the rock we had spent all day climbing on. It was the perfect end to an amazingly beautiful, rewardingly strenuous day. The feeling of satisfaction afterwards felt nearly as good as any long trail run I’ve done lately. In other words, it’s an ultrarunner’s kind of hike.

Yosemite Park is chock full of excursions like this – and I can’t wait to return here for another one. In fact, next time, I might try to tackle this guy:

I'll be sure to bring my camera.

*see other photo tours in sidebar at right
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