Yosemite National Park protects 761,268 acres along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. Nearly 4 million people visit Yosemite each year, but most visitors spend their time in the 7 square miles of Yosemite Valley shown above. The valley is anchored by the iconic Half Dome, a giant granite dome that rises nearly a mile above the valley floor, and El Capitain, a 3,000-foot granite monolith.
Geologist believe that Half Dome has always been this shape, even though it appears as if it’s a full dome that over time lost its half. Early explorers thought Half Dome to be impossible to climb, but the summit was finally conquered in 1875 by drilling and placing bolts into the smooth granite back. Today hikers can follow a similar route by climbing up stairs carved into the granite, then pull themselves up the last few hundred feet with post-mounted steel cables, which are up only in summer. It’s a treacherous climb with the cables, and extremely dangerous without. Yet in the photo above you can see two brave people who made the climb and are standing on the edge nearly a mile above the valley below.
Of all the parks we have visited—on this trip and in our 20 prior years of visiting national parks each year on vacation—Yosemite is our most favorite park of all. That’s because Yosemite has it all—mountains, valleys, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, massive granite monoliths, giant Sequoia trees, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, complete isolation in the backcountry, incredible views, and dizzying heights.
Yosemite has three Sequoia groves: Mariposa Grover (200 trees), Tuolumne Grove (25 trees) and Merced Grove (20 trees). Sequoias are the largest trees by volume in the world, and are one of the tallest and longest-living trees. Larger Sequoias can exceed 300 feet in height and 50 feet in diameter and can live over 3,000 years.
The bark of Sequoia trees can be up to 3 feet thick at the base of the tree. This provides significant fire protection for Sequoia trees, which is important because Sequoias actually depend on fire for regeneration. The extreme heat from forest fires opens Sequoia cones and frees their seeds.
The Grizzly Giant is the oldest and second-largest Sequoia by volume in the grove. It’s 209 feet tall and has a volume of over 34,000 cubic feet. The huge lower limb is seven feet in diameter, which is wider than the base of any other non-Sequoia tree in the park!
Biologists believe the Fallen Monarch toppled centuries ago. Tannic acid in the wood of a Sequoia tree suppresses growth of fungi and bacteria, thus significantly slowing the decay of fallen Sequoias. Eventually after many centuries, rain and snow leach tannin from the wood, and decay begins.
The fallen Wawona Tunnel Tree is perhaps the most famous tree in the world. A tunnel was cut through the tree in 1881 to promote tourism in the park. Millions of visitors drove their cars through this tree until 1969, when the tree collapsed under a record load of snow. Biologists believe the tree would’ve lived at least another thousand years if it had not been weakened by the massive hole in its base. But ironically this tree’s sacrifice may have saved thousands of other Sequoias in the park, which were preserved as a result of the publicity generated by the Wawona Tunnel Tree.
One of our all-time favorite hikes brought us to the top of North Dome with its up-close view of Half Dome.
Elk are the most abundant large mammal in Yosemite National Park. More than 30,000 elk from 7-8 herds summer in the park. Elk are the second-largest member of the deer family (moose are the largest). Adult male elk can weigh over 700 pounds. A mature bull elk’s antlers may have 6-8 points on each side and weigh more than 30 pounds. The antlers are shed in March and begin to regrow in May. There has been some controversy over the years about elk overgrazing, and various attempts have been made to control the elk population. But recent studies have shown that plant production is actually increased by elk grazing in non-drought years.
There is an amazing formation at Taft Point called The Fissures, which are cracks in the mile-high granite rock that drop directly to the valley floor. Most of these fissures are not protected by railings, which make them especially dangerous. This photo shows Theresa laying down and hanging her head over the edge of the cliff, which is a great way to experience massive heights with minimal danger.
El Capitan’s sheer granite face was carved by glaciers as recently as a million years ago. BASE jumping from the top of El Capitan was shut down in the 1980s after numerous fatalities and injuries, plus damage to the environment. In 1999, a professional stuntwoman died while illegally BASE jumping to protest the ban.
Once considered impossible to climb, El Capitan today is arguably the most famous “big wall” climbing challenge in the world. There are over 100 climbing routes up El Capitan, and on almost any given day, park visitors can spot numerous climbers scaling the giant monolith, as shown in the photo above (click on the image for a larger version). Professional climbers typically require 4-5 days of full climbing to reach the summit and have a 60% success rate. But the current speed climbing record set in 2012 is an astounding 2 hours and 23 minutes. El Capitan appeared in the movie “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier,” in which Captain James T. Kirk climbs the rock face for what he called the most important reason for climbing a mountain: “Because it is there.”
You couldn’t tell from this serene scene, but I was surrounded by a mob of photographers set up on a bridge at sunset to capture Half Dome and its reflection in the Merced River.
There have been more than 20 deaths on Half Dome, and more than 60 if you include the trail leading up to the dome. Many people have died by losing their grip on the cables near the top and plunging down the slick granite dome. Other causes of death include heart attacks, climbing accidents, BASE jumps gone wrong, lightning strikes, and suicides. Most of the deaths on the trail to Half Dome occur near Vernal and Nevada Falls (shown below) by people who ignore the warning signs and wade into the Merced River, only to be swept over the waterfalls.
From this vantage point, Theresa had a great view of (left-to-right) the back of Half Dome, Mt. Broderick, and Liberty Cap.
The 317-foot Vernall Fall is just downstream on the Merced River from Nevada Fall. There is an adventurous hike cut into the sides of the granite canyon wall from the top of the waterfall down to the emerald pool below.
The 594-foot Nevada Fall is famous because the water free-falls for about the first third of its drop, creating a massive spray when it finally impacts the edge of the cliff a couple hundred feet below.
The waterfalls in the park were substantially reduced this time of year, and the world-famous Yosemite Falls were completely dry. In the photo above, you can see the ghost of the 1,430-foot upper Yosemite Fall stained into the granite. The waterfalls in Yosemite National Park flow heaviest in spring during the height of the snowmelt. The water flows so heavily that you can hear the roar of the waterfall all the way across Yosemite Valley. The three stages of Yosemite Falls total a drop of 2,425 feet, making it the tallest waterfall in the United States and sixth tallest in the world.
Yosemite and many other national parks may not exist today if it were not for our hero, John Muir. The Scottish-born naturalist, writer and founder of the Sierra Club petitioned Congress and inspired presidents and readers to preserve our natural lands for future generations. He is referred to as “The Father of our National Parks.”