Back on the beaten track: three nights in Yosemite Valley

After our trip in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, we grabbed lunch and resupplied in Mammoth Lakes and then began the drive to Yosemite Valley, where we would be spending the next three nights. It was my first time visiting Yosemite, an iconic spot in California that Brett had visited twice before. He was excited that he would get to show me this iconic location for the first time.


25 July: Arriving in Yosemite Valley

Even after entering the east side of Yosemite National Park, it was a two hour drive before we reached Yosemite Valley. The two-lane highway wound through gorgeous meadows and thick forests, offering views of immense granite structures. We stopped multiple times to take pictures, including at Olmsted Point, where we could see Half Dome in the distance. While driving, we passed through a forested area that was thick with smoke, the trees blackened and piles of wood still smouldering. I struggled to hold back my tears as I was overcome with emotion.

Before we entered the valley, Brett predicted what I would do when I saw El Capitan for the first time – "you're going to look out the window and go 'wooooow,' because that's exactly what I did when I saw it for the first time."


He was completely right. That is exactly what I did.


The scale of the geological features in Yosemite Valley is truly breathtaking: El Capitan is a vertical cliff-face rising an astonishing 3,000 feet (900 metres) above the valley floor. Although it was getting late, we couldn't help but stop a few more times to take pictures of El Capitan and once more to photograph the golden light on the most most iconic attraction in all of Yosemite Valley – Half Dome.

Half Dome at golden hour, Yosemite Valley, California

At 18:30, we finally arrived to the Upper Pines campsite (which we'd booked all the way back in March 2021). Brett's twin sister, Siena, had driven up from San Diego that morning and was waiting for us. The campsite was composed of an area to pitch tents, a parking spot big enough for two cars, a picnic table, a firepit and a bear box where we would have to keep all of our food when we weren't actively eating it. We were only 50 metres away from a bathroom with toilets and drinking water.


Although a number of the pitches around us were empty (likely due to covid-related limitations on campsite capacity), it was definitely an adjustment being surrounded by people again after the solitude of our first two hikes. I found it fascinating to see all the different ways people camp. Our was probably the most basic setup (tarp plus bivys), but we saw people in camper vans, RVs, tents pitched on the back of pickup trucks, tents that looked like houses, hammocks – there are so many different ways to camp! Our setup looked pathetic compared to many of the other pitches around us...most groups had table cloths for their picnic table, a number were decorated with fairy lights and there was one group that looked like they had brought most of their kitchen cupboard with them! (No joke, they had set up shelving units next to their picnic table with a huge range of different cooking pots, pans and utensils.)


Anyways, back at our simple campsite we cooked gnocchi with tomato sauce and vegetables for dinner. As it began to grow dark, we ventured off into the valley to look for bats. At multiple points we could see them swooping through the sky above our heads, their clicks audible. The valley was very smokey, likely as a result of both the surrounding wildfires and the many campfires that were burning – particulate matter was visible in the light of our head torches.

cooking dinner at Upper Grounds campsite, Yosemite Valley

26 July: The Mist Trail and exploring Little Yosemite Valley // 9.7 miles (15.6 kilometres)

The next morning, we got up at 5:00 and made tofu scramble before heading off to hike the "Mist Trail." The trail passes both Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls, climbing 2,000 feet (600 metres) in the space of a few miles. I carried three cameras with me that day – potentially a bit excessive, but I didn't have to carry a big backpack full of camping supplies, so why not bring the extra camera!?

The first half of the hike was a tough climb, up many stairs and steep ascents, but it offered brilliant views of Vernal Falls. The trail was busy with people, chipmunks and stellar jays. At the top of Vernal Falls was a lookout point where we could look right over the top of the waterfall - quite a spectacular (and scary) view!

From there, we continued the climb up towards Nevada Falls, passing Emerald Pool and the Silver Apron waterfall. The heat was intense and the water looked inviting, but signs everywhere warned us of the dangers of going for a dip just above Vernal Falls. Makes sense really.

Once we got up past Nevada Falls, we decided to keep hiking along the John Muir Trail (JMT) to try and find a set of meadows and marshy areas where Siena could look for some local species. As we got further away from the waterfalls, the number of people decreased dramatically and the Merced River slowed. When we saw people paddling in the water, we changed into our swimsuits and dove in, grateful to be able to wash off the heat of the morning. At one point, we saw a freshwater river snake – swimming straight towards Siena! It was swimming on the surface with its head above the water, a sight I had never seen before. After some mild panic, it changed course and headed towards Brett, who was safe on a rock. Crisis averted.

swimming in the Merced River, Yosemite, California

We attempted to find a lake called "Lost Lake," but as the name would suggest, it was incredibly elusive. As we left the path and headed off-trail in the direction of the lake, we encountered a huge amount of trees that had fallen down. The detritus made walking almost impossible, so after a few minutes, we turned around and headed to another pool on the map. This spot was more accessible, just outside of Little Yosemite Valley. The drought had obviously affected this pool, as it was a fraction of the size it looked like it had been in the past. But Siena still managed to find some interesting algae there.

We ate lunch by the Merced River, bagels with avocado and pesto – it was nice not to have to cook! Siena and I went for another swim, but since there was no-one else there, I opted to go skinny dipping. After the business of the valley and the Mist Trail, it was almost surprising to find ourselves completely alone in the wilderness.


After lunch we walked down the other side of the Mist Trail, following the JMT. The views from the top of Nevada Falls were incredible, and we got a wonderful view of the waterfall itself from Clark Point. From there, the trail involved many steep switchbacks down the mountain – my knees were aching by the end of it. We were slightly concerned by the huge dark clouds forming in the distance, but it only rained for a few minutes on our walk back down the mountain.

At the bottom of the trail, Siena and I went for another swim in the Merced before we headed back to the campsite, completely exhausted. We read our books, did some codewords and played Uno (Brett's first time playing Uno!). For dinner, we ate vegan chick'n noodl' soup and instant mashed potato with sausages. After that, it was an early night.


27 July: Mirror Lake Loop and exploring Yosemite Valley // 10.5 miles (17 kilometres)

After many days rising with the sun, we had agreed to sleep in. We got up at 7:30 and made pancakes for breakfast, absolute luxury! We were planning on having a chill day in Yosemite Valley, but we still ended up hiking a lot.


We started the day off hiking to Mirror Lake, a flat and easy hike which is meant to offer beautiful reflections of Half Dome. Unfortunately, the lake was nothing more than a puddle (yay climate change!), so we instead of admiring the reflections, we walked on the dried lake bed. While Brett did some bird watching, Siena found some alfredium colonies in the pond and I photographed the sun rising over Half Dome. The hike there and back was easy, beautifully flat compared to the Mist Trail.

After Mirror Lake, we headed back to the campsite, where we had to "check in," having failed to do so on our first two days there. The ranger was very friendly, and he explained that a beetle infestation, ongoing drought and high winds were why we had seen so many fallen trees. With the drought, the tree roots are getting shallower to reach the water, so when there are big wind events, the trees are weak and they all fall over. You can read more about tree mortality in Yosemite here.

Having checked in, we got ready to explore Yosemite Valley. We set off from our camp around 11:00 and made our way towards Yosemite Village, the main "downtown" area of the valley. The walking route from our campsite to the Village was not pleasant, following an unshaded path along a busy road for a good stretch. Vast parking lots and an abundance of cars made it feel like we'd stepped out of the national park and back into the sun-drenched suburbs of San Diego.


After a brief visit at the general store, we made our way to the Ansel Adams Gallery. Adams was a film photographer whose work and books inspired Brett's own endeavours in film photography. Although there were a few original Ansel Adams prints on display, the "gallery" definitely felt more like a gift shop than an art gallery. Despite that, it still ended up being an exciting visit: as I was looking through some of the books for sale, I heard Brett, who was talking to one of the employees, say "I follow you on Instagram!" We were excited to meet Blake Johnston – a film photographer whose work we both admire. We ended up chatting with him for 15 minutes, discussing film photography and good spots in the valley to photograph sunrise.

Ansel Adams Gallery, Yosemite Valley, California

After passing by the Visitors Centre (which was closed due to covid), we agreed that it was time to find somewhere to eat lunch. Walking through the lush green Cook's Meadow offered magnificent views towards Half Dome. We ate lunch on a little island in the Merced River. While Brett napped in the shade, Siena and I went for a refreshing swim in the cool water.

We had planned on doing the Valley Loop walk (a 7.2 mile (11.6 km) hike around the valley), but after consulting the map at lunch we realised we had only just just gotten to the start. Instead, after a brief stop to climb onto a big boulder, we hiked a shorter loop, hugging the edge of the valley before crossing the river again at Swinging Bridge. Once again, we were amazed to find we had the trail to ourselves. Despite the huge volume of people in Yosemite Village, we had managed to find peace and quiet just a short walk away.


From there, we followed the river as we headed back towards town, passing the dry stone walls where Yosemite Falls flows in wetter seasons. We stopped in the general store to pick up some ingredients for dinner plus another fuel can for our stove, then made our way back to the campsite.

On the way back to the campsite, we took a longer route, passing The Ahwahnee, a posh hotel on the side of the valley. We ended up chatting with three mid-western twins who were incredibly excited to learn that Brett and Siena were also twins. When Brett said he'd moved to the UK to study, they exclaimed "the University of Kentucky!?" Brilliant. As we walked together, they tried to convince Brett and Siena to travel to Twinsburg, Ohio for the "Twins Day Festival." Brett says he's keen to go to one day, but Siena may take some more convincing.


After saying farewell to our new friends, we rushed back to our campsite, cooked mac n'cheese and then hopped in the car and drove out to a spot we'd scouted for sunset. We watched the golden light crawl down the face of Half Dome, taking pictures and playing Uno on the sandy beach next to the Merced River. Unfortunately, the peace and magic of the moment was interrupted by a group of people partying nearby, blasting out The Beastie Boys on loudspeakers. As the sun disappeared and the valley grew dark, we hopped back in the car to scout locations to photograph sunrise the next morning.

Despite wanting to have a "chill" day, we ended up walking over 10.5 miles (17 kilometres). Once again, we fell into our sleeping bags, exhausted from a long day of adventures.


28 July // Our last morning

On our final day in the national park, we had a very early start to the day. We were up at 4:30 to get everything packed so we could leave the valley after photographing sunrise. We stopped at Valley View first, but quickly moved on to another spot – this one suggested by Blake Johnston. It had a great view of the Three Brothers and El Capitan. We cooked porridge by the side of the road as the rocks were illuminated with golden light. After eating, I walked to the shore of the Merced, to capture the reflection of the Three Brothers in the river. To get to the water, I had to walk through a partially burnt forest, the bark of the trees blackened, ash billowing up with every step.

Three Brothers reflected in the Merced River at sunrise, Yosemite Valley, California

After breakfast, we said farewell to Siena and began the drive out of Yosemite and towards our final camping destination!


Yosemite on 35mm film

Here's a few shots we took in Yosemite on 35mm film. These are ones I shot...

And here are a few that Brett shot...


Lessons learnt:

  • Yosemite is so much more than just Yosemite Valley! The park is huge – roughly three times bigger than Dartmoor! – which means there is so much to explore that isn't just the popular sites in Yosemite Valley.

  • The valley can be packed with people, but it doesn't take long to get out of the crowded areas.

  • Food and petrol are expensive in the park, stock up on your supplies before entering the park (if possible).

  • Bring fairy lights to give your campsite an extra *sparkle*

 

Resources:


Land acknowledgement: We acknowledge that we were hiking on the traditional land of the Numu (Northern Paiute) and Sierra Miwok peoples.


Find out whose land you are on by visiting https://native-land.ca/. To learn more about Indigenous people in Yosemite, here are some resources we have found interesting:

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