Yosemite National Park
Sierra Nevada, California
Lush meadows, sheer granite walls and snow-capped mountains; backpacking doesn’t get any better than this.
05/2006 – by Christopher Burk, Outdoor Travels
It was a straight drop of over 1,400 feet to the rocks below. If my high school physics still serves me that would give me about 10 seconds to think about how much it is going to hurt before I hit the bottom. As I looked out across the valley from the top of Yosemite Falls those thoughts keep running through my head. I’ve stood on top of the Empire State building in New York as well as the Stratosphere hotel in Las Vegas without a problem but for some reason the sheer drop from the top of Yosemite Falls was freaking me out. It was almost as if some unseen power was pulling me towards the edge and I could see myself blindly jumping into thin air.
Up until recently it has always been the belief that the beauty and grandeur of Yosemite Valley and the surrounding areas are the results of millions of years of thermal and geologic uplift combined with erosion from glaciers, an ancient lake and the Merced River. The official park guide and map still support this long-held belief. In the past ten years however several geoscientists have started to challenge those conclusions. As science become better at interpreting the past and understand the clues found today there is a growing thought that the valley is less the result of glacial erosion and more the product uplift combine with fractures and shearing of bedrock.
Regardless of how the topography of Yosemite was created there is no arguing that the park can be a very wonderful outdoor experience if you know where to look. It would seem odd that in a park roughly the size of Rhode Island and 95% of it designated as wilderness it would be a challenge to find solitude. But depending on when you go and how far you are willing to hike, Yosemite can seem more like a municipal park than one of our nation’s premier natural wonders.
By far the most popular area in the park is Yosemite Valley. After all that is where the major highlights of the park are located, El Capitan, Half Dome, Glacier Point, Bridalveil Falls and Yosemite Falls, just to name a few. Add to that the fact that if you happen to visit the park in May or June when the waterfalls are running at their peak but many of the park roads and gates are still closed due to snow there really isn’t many other options for visitors. This means a large percentage of the 3.5 million annual visitors all pile into approximately 7 square miles.
Since our final destination was Upper Yosemite Falls and it was during the spring melt it only makes sense that we would follow the rest of the tourists to the land of road construction and confusion.
The official park maps notes, “To alleviate traffic in Yosemite Valley, park your car and walk to the places you want to see or ride the free shuttle buses that serve the Valley’s east end. If visiting for the day, park in the day-use parking lot near Yosemite Village.” I would agree with that statement 100 percent assuming that you could find it through all the road construction. After finally figuring out where the heck we needed to go to obtain our permit and bear canister, moving the car from day-use parking to trail-head parking and transferring our gear from suitcase to backpack we were reading to hit the trail. Or at least we thought we were.
Trailhead parking for Yosemite Valley is located way over by Curry Village. Not a problem if you plan on hiking up to Half Dome, Vernal Falls or Mirror Lake. If you’re hiking to the top of Yosemite Falls, you’re about as far away as you can get. That leaves you two options, walk the two miles to the trailhead or take the bus. We took the bus.
The bus is a wonderful concept. Especially when you consider that Yosemite has recently switched over to hybrid buses. It reduces the amount air pollution in the park as well as the amount of traffic, although you might not agree on the traffic based on the long line of cars coming into the Village.
Never was I more thrilled to carry a 35-pound pack up 3,000 feet then by the time I finally got off the bus and left the teenagers, tour groups of retired couples and myriad of families behind. There is no way to give a true sense of what our 30 minute incarceration was like. There seemed to be at least 20 stops along the route and for every person that got off, three more got on. It was about the equivalent of riding the New York subway at rush hour with a fully loaded backpack. There is no place to sit, no hope of being able to take your pack off and every person who gets on the bus looks at you as if we were from another planet.
I suppose in a sense having to endure the road construction and crowds makes being in the wilderness that much better. Of course leaving crowds and the hustle and bustle of the modern world behind is one of the main reasons why I go backpacking in the first place so I probably don’t need the additional incentives.
There are literally hundreds of different hikes you can do in Yosemite varying from a nice stroll down a paved, flat path to some serious vertical challenges. Upper Yosemite Falls Trail would be in the latter category. It’s almost 3000 feet from the valley floor to the top of Yosemite Falls and you’ll cover that in a mere 2 miles. That sounds pretty daunting on paper but it’s not as bad as it seems. OK, maybe we were just so psyched to get out of the bus that we were just in the zone but we certainly had no problems making it to the top with full backpacks. The entertainment and breathtaking views along the way may also help make reaching the summit a little easier.
Most people do the Upper Yosemite Falls trail as a day hike. Hike up in the morning, enjoy the views, take some pictures then hike back down in the evening. Our late start had us going pretty much against the flow of traffic. There was a constant stream of people from almost every walk of life on their way back down. We passed families with small kids, teenagers, retired couples, aspiring photographers, tourists from other countries; pretty much the same cross-section of people from the bus. And their gear and outfits were as assorted as they were; sandals, T-shirts, jeans, day packs, purses, no packs, rain gear. Well, the rain gear makes sense because there is one section of the trail that gets doused by the spray from the falls but based on how unprepared a lot of people looked, I never would have though a lot of the people would have made it to the top if they weren’t already on their way down.
There was one very “helpful” lady who risked not making it back down to the bottom. I’m sure she meant well but your sense of time gets skewed between how long it takes to hiking down versus up. As we passed her she offered the information that it was about 10 more minutes to the top. An hour later and still not to the top, I was very tempted to hunt her down and explain her egregious error. There are far better ways to have fun with people hiking up as you head down. For example, carry on a conversation about how amazing it is to find a pub located at the top of the falls. Depending on how natural you can make the conversation as you pass people, they will wonder whether it’s true or not. That is until one of your hiking companions narcs on you.
If you’re one of the brave who decide to make the trek to the top with camping gear, you’ll need to continue on for at least another ½ mile before pitching your tent. The trail splits at the top and you can either continue ahead towards higher ground or make a right and work your way along the rim of the valley. Regardless of which way you go, once you find an established fire ring you know you’ve gone far enough.
Of course you don’t have to stop there. You can continue to follow the trails on to North Dome, Eagle Peak or follow Yosemite Creek farther upstream. Before you do that you will want to take a quick detour to your right over where Yosemite Creek makes its dramatic plunge into the valley below. After all this is the whole reason why you hiked up here in the first place.
Once there, the top of the overlook offers great views of Yosemite Village as well as Sentinel Falls, Glacier Point and Half Dome. But that isn’t the “official” overlook. A small spur trail leads down to Yosemite Creek where the daring can make a right and work their way out to a railing located on the edge of the valley wall. Based on the pictures, it’s a wonderful view. Hey, I made it down to the creek. I just couldn’t get over the 10-second delay before going splat thoughts to go out to the railing.
Whether you hike it as a day hike or spend some time in the high country, Yosemite Falls is definitely worth the effort. And if you have the time, I would suggest at least an overnighter. It may mean carrying a little more weight but you get away from the crowds down below. And the farther you go from the valley rim, the more solitude you’ll find.
Trails Hike: Upper Yosemite Falls Trail, Eagle Peak Trail
Distance: 6 miles
Outdoor Travels Rating: 5 out of 5 backpacks
- Scenery, scenery, scenery
- Having to ride the shuttle bus to the trail. Can you say sardine with a backpack.
Overnight parking is way over in Curry Village and it’s not a very large lot to begin with. If you need to park there, get there early.
- If you plan on hiking the Upper Yosemite Falls trail, you’ll want to secure a spot at Camp 4 even if you don’t need it. It will allow you to park right there at the trail head eliminating the need to park way over by Curry Village and ride the bus to the trail.
- Even if you’ve discussed meals prior to the trip it’s a good idea to go over it one more time before actually loading the packs. It will cut down on everyone carrying enough oatmeal for a family of six.
- If you’re the one carrying the bear canister, it’s a good idea to pack stuff in it prior to shoving it in your pack. Otherwise you’ve just created a nice empty spot in the middle of you pack.
Nuts & Bolts
Location: Yosemite National Park is located in the central region of California and is easily accessible from Sacramento, San Francisco or Fresno.
Directions: Be sure to check road conditions prior to arriving in the park. There are five entrances to the park:
-South entrance on Highway 41 north from Fresno
-Arch Rock entrance on Highway 140 west from Merced
-Big Oak Flat entrance on Highway 120 west from Modesto and Manteca
-Hetch Hetchy Entrance (to Hetch Hetchy Valley)
-Tioga Pass entrance on Highway 120 from Lee Vining and Highway 395.
The Tioga Pass entrance is closed from the first major snowstorm in November until late May to early June due to snow. All other park entrances are kept open all year, but may require tire chains because of snow any time between November and April.
Trails: There are over 100 trails throughout Yosemite National Park ranging from easy to very difficult.
Activities: Hiking, Road Biking, Climbing, Fishing, Horseback Riding, Rafting, just to name a few.
Admission: $20 per car. The pass is valid for seven days.
Contact: Visitor information & Headquarters – 209-372-0200 Website
Maps & Stuff
Lots of great photos to give you a good idea of what the area is like!