Growing up, a map of the world hung on my bedroom wall. I put green stickers on the places I’d been and blue ones on the destinations I wanted to visit. There was just one location that had both a green and blue sticker – Yosemite National Park. I first visited the park with my family the summer before starting high school and after just a day in Yosemite, I knew I needed to return to climb Half Dome. From the start of our trip, the park was one of the places I was looking forward to most and it was the perfect capstone to our three months in California.
Due to a combination of things – waiting for the snow to melt and having to get back to Ohio for a wedding – we ended up in Yosemite over Memorial Day. We knew that a holiday weekend in a park infamous for crowds would be rough but the payoff would be a four-day weekend with just one vacation day.
Spring is a great time for waterfalls!
A few years ago, they started requiring a permit to hike to the top of Half Dome. Before implementing this system, on busy weekends there were 1200 people summiting; now they only give out 300 permits per day. There is a preseason lottery – we both applied but neither got a permit. The NPS released data on the 2017 lottery showing that over 10,000 people applied for a permit the Saturday before Memorial Day, meaning less than 3% received one. Fortunately, they save a few permits for day of lotteries. Even though the odds were not in our favor, we got a Half Dome permit for Sunday!
Half Dome as seen from Glacier Point
Wanting to save our legs for the difficult trail the following day, we diverged from our typical park activity of hiking and tried out horseback riding … well mule-back riding! I hadn’t been on a horse since 2002 and I think my steed could tell. I don’t know if I was especially bad at giving it directions or if Kip was particularly ornery but she wandered off trail to eat more than any other mule. Zach, who grew up in proximity to horses, had a much easier time.
Zach and my mule Kip
The next morning, we woke early and headed into the valley. I had heard of people starting the Half Dome hike anywhere from 2 am to 2pm. We decided on a reasonable 6 am start time. The first half of the hike follows the popular Mist Trail. It was great to admire the two waterfalls without any other people around. When we travelled back down that afternoon, the trail was unbelievable packed. It was like walking through Cedar Point on its most crowded day.
Vernal Falls in the background
Half Dome rises 4800 feet above the valley below, roughly the same elevation gain as hiking from the Colorado River to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I like to think of myself as a fast hiker and given that we are the people doing the passing the majority of the time, I must be. But when I hike with Zach, he makes me feel like a slowpoke. By the time we got the top, every other minute he had to stop and wait for me. It seemed like he was immune to the elevation gain, altitude and mileage.
Struggling to keep up with Zach
The final stretch of the hike, the part that actually takes you up onto the dome, is the most terrifying part. The rock is granite which feels slippery and the grade gets up to 60 degrees. To help, there are cables to hold onto and wooden rungs about every ten feet. People are going up and down and passing by each other takes some careful maneuvering. After a few rungs up, I was ready to turn around but I preserved and continued on to the top. Once I got the hang of things, it really wasn’t too bad. I never felt unsafe, just worried that I would feel unsafe at some time in the future.
The 360 degree views from the top were magnificent. We drank our summit beers overlooking Tenaya Canyon to the east. I was too worried about going down the cables to fully enjoy things at the top but decent was just as manageably difficult as the ascent. The seven-mile hike back down was easier than going up but by the end my legs were shot. The tiredness was overpowered by feelings of accomplishment, exhilaration and gratitude. We finished off a great day by watching the Cavs win Game 7 of the Eastern Finals.
A great place for a beer!
The next day, my legs were still very sore so we took it easy by driving up to Glacier Point. Even higher than Half Dome, from here we got more great views of the park. We did a short hike to Taft Point where we saw two BASE jumpers take off. I couldn’t get within a few feet of the edge, I can’t imagine jumping off it.
Crazy BASE jumper
Having learned from previously wasting time looking for parking inside the valley, we went straight to the furthest possible shuttle stop and took the bus in. We rented bikes and I spent a good portion of my energy was spent trying to avoid groups of pedestrians who liked to walk shoulder to shoulder and take up the whole path. My one complaint about the park was that, at times, it was incredibly crowded. But we managed to find some more secluded areas and enjoy the majestic beauty in peace.
Crowd at the bottom of Lower Yosemite Falls
After only having seen one bear in the first sixteen months of this trip, we were blessed with three bear sightings in Yosemite! None were as exciting as our first time when we spotted the bear while hiking alone. Every time this weekend, we joined an already formed crowd to watch the bear. Still, a bear sighting is a bear sighting!
On our last day in the park, we headed into the High Sierras via Tioga Road. The drive takes you over 10,000 feet, offering great views of snowy mountains, crystal clear lakes, green meadows and more granite domes. We bagged our second dome of the weekend, hiking to the top of Lembert Dome. Much smaller than Half Dome, it was also much less crowed, providing tranquility the rest of our time in the park was lacking. To cap off the trip, we hiked up to an overlook of Gaylor Lake. Most of the trail was covered in soft snow, leading to each step sinking you knee-deep in snow.
Slow moving through the snow
A few weeks ago, I bought a collection of John Muir’s work and have been greatly enjoying reading about his experiences in the Sierras. He is a fantastic writer and I would highly recommend reading anything by him. He is full of great quotes but I’ll end with one of the most relatable. After a day spent at the top of Yosemite Falls, he writes, “My first view of the High Sierra, first view looking down into Yosemite, the death song of Yosemite Creek, and its flight over the vast cliff, each of one those it of itself for a great life-long landscape fortune – a more memorable day of days – enjoyment enough to kill if that were possible.” This weekend was one for the books – each of my days spent in Yosemite was the most memorable day of days.