2014 marks the 150th year of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Yosemite Grant Act that set aside Yosemite Valley and neighboring Mariposa Grove for its preservation and subsequent enjoyment as public domain. It paved the way for the establishment of the national park system in the United States. Today, Yosemite National Park encompasses 3,026 square kilometers of vast wilderness and spectacular scenery in central California near its border with Nevada. It is known for its numerous waterfalls, towering granite cliffs, and giant sequoia trees.
My wife and I visited Yosemite as a day trip from Silicon Valley. Our itinerary only included Yosemite Valley – the park’s most accessible central area which sees bulk of the park’s 4 million visitors annually – since majority of the park was closed for winter. The roughly 200-mile (308-kilometer) drive took approximately 4 hours: a little over 2 hours of boring freeway driving and nearly 2 hours for the ascent into the valley. Fortunately during our visit, road conditions were excellent and tire chains weren’t required in the park (we would have been turned back if icy conditions were present).
Yosemite valley was formed millions of years ago when glaciers cut through layers of granite, forming the U-shaped valley that now houses most of Yosemite’s park facilities and most popular sights.
Wawona Tunnel View
Motorists driving north on Wawona road from southern California are treated by the awe-inspiring vista famously known as Tunnel View, named such because this is the first glimpse of Yosemite Valley after emerging from Wawona Tunnel. The panorama includes three Yosemite landmarks: El Capitan granite cliff on the left, Bridalveil Falls on the right, and Half Dome straight ahead in the center. Visitors park their vehicles at the parking lot beside the tunnel entrance and crowd the viewing deck for that postcard shot.
Bridalveil Falls and El Capitan
The turnoff to Bridalveil Falls is a short downhill drive from Tunnel View, from which the base of the waterfall itself is an easy 5-minute hike. Because of its height, it’s a little difficult to get a good shot of Bridalveil Falls from the base. Frankly, the view of Bridalveil from Tunnel View is better.
The good thing about our winter visit is that there were relatively few visitors to the valley. It was easy to park by the roadside and take short walks off the main path. Just a few steps from the main road, we found this snow-covered riverbank along the Merced River with a view of El Capitan, the tallest granite monolith in the world at 900 meters (3,000 feet) from valley floor to the top. The granite wall is so tall that experienced wall climbers take 4 to 5 days to reach the top.
To the east of El Capitan are other interesting rock formations such as the Three Brothers – three triangular peaks that look like the roof of Sydney Opera House.
One of the highlights of Yosemite Valley is 739-meter (2,425-foot) Yosemite Falls, the tallest in North America. Its peak flow is in spring from April to June; though in late winter such as when we visited in February the falls is just as spectacular. In winter, an ice cone forms at the base of Upper Yosemite Falls, the topmost tier of three-tiered Yosemite Falls. Sentinel Meadow, right beside the main valley road, provides an unobstructed view of the falls.
Overlooking Sentinel Meadow to the opposite side of Yosemite Falls is Sentinel Rock.
Clustered around Yosemite Village are most of the park facilities such as the Visitor Center which contains a small museum that illustrates how Yosemite Valley was formed, the Village Store containing a huge selection of souvenir items, and the Ansel Adams Gallery. Next door, the Lower Yosemite Fall trail has good views of the falls.
All in all, covering the main sights of Yosemite Valley took us six and a half hours. The downside of a winter visit to Yosemite is that many roads outside the valley are closed due to snow. Because of this, we were unable to go to what is arguably the most stunning view of the valley: a viewing deck called Glacier Point. The viewdeck is accessible by road only between late May and November. It’s difficult not to fall in love with the beauty of Yosemite. Countless people, including renowned American photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams, have found inspiration from the snow-capped peaks and lush greenery of the park. The decision to preserve Yosemite for future generations was made 150 years ago, but the message still resonates today as nature is constantly under pressure to produce more resources for the world’s growing population.