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Mirror Lake at Yosemite National Park
Mirror Lake at Yosemite National Park, Yosemite Valley
150 years ago, June 30, 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, the US Congress and Abraham Lincoln were convinced to set aside the first wild land in American history - Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia trees. This act paved the way for the entire American National Park system, and to the creation of Yellowstone as America's first National Park. (The protected areas of Yosemite were originally set aside as the first California State Park before it joined the National Park system in 1890 with its current, larger boundaries.)

young Giant Sequoia trees
These Giant Sequoia are still only babies.
Someone was thinking - the shuttle buses
have skylights!
Bear boxes are used to store food and personal care items - anything with a scent - in Yosemite Valley.
A Bear Box in a Yosemite campground. (It usually
takes the people a few minutes to figure it out.)
All Yosemite trash must be placed in bear-proof receptacles.
Bear-proof trash receptacle.
Pack your trash until you find one!
I last visited Yosemite decades ago, as a child, with my grandparents, before my visit last week. Certainly I had always remembered it fondly and as a grand place, but even prepared, and even though I live in another quite beautiful section of California, I found it breathtaking to be back among the land of immense granite and powerful waterfalls amongst trees that touch the sky.

This week, I was chaperoning a school trip, so my time was not my own, but that was traded for the sense of community that comes with being with a large group of friends and friends-to-be. (Yes, we still do some pretty wonderful things in public schools.) For a week we mixed hiking and camping with writing and math and history and science, plus perhaps some of the finest lifelong PE learning one can receive.

Yosemite has changed since I last visited... a place sculpted by change for its past and future.

To get to Yosemite, we came in past Hetch Hetchy and through the burn area. The size of the devastation is immense. And yet, new life is already teeming there, and I felt not sadness but merely curiosity, about how it looked before and how it would look again. The contours of the land and the color of the soil, unhidden by trees, have their own magic.

A thoughtfully designed free shuttle bus system now circles the valley 14 hours a day - leaving the air far cleaner and making it possible to park your car permanently once you arrive. It connects all the lodgings to all the trailheads and to the two store/restaurant areas, so there is no need to drive. This is a good thing, because one of the lessons to learn at Yosemite is how the love of humanity yet damages it. Campfires are allowed only from 5pm to 10pm, and in that time, a thick miasma of smoke blanketed our campground, to the point where asthmatics are not advised to stay there. The valley campgrounds are small and tightly packed - really more of an attractive parking lot with tents than a wilderness experience. They are usually booked full the first day reservations are open.

The bears have a tense balance with the tourists. This is their habitat, and if the people bring them delicious snacks, they have no trouble opening whatever packaging surrounds said snacks, even if it's a vehicle. (Note: Keep in mind that black bears prefer minivans.)

Campgrounds are filled with bear boxes to store food and personal care items like soap and lotion, and all trash has to be packed out to a bear-proof trash receptacle. Rangers patrol night and day to remind people to keep their food put away and carry special guns that shoot bags of mineral oil at any bears that come into the campgrounds. They regale us with recent bear stories, to remind us to be vigilant; and as our stay lengthens, we repay them with our own stories. We hear of the bear who has started swiping backpacks (even un-fooded) from picnic tables; my comrades tell of the bear who walked a few feet from their tent in the night. Every evening, we carefully pick up every scrap of litter or food debris... we're thinking it's a long way to the bathroom at 2 am.

The Mist Trail: You Will Get Wet!
What is amazing to me about Yosemite Valley is how you can look up nearly anywhere and see a waterfall - and often more than one is visible. The waterfalls make their own weather; as you approach one, you can feel a coolness and turbulence in the air.

The main event of our trip was a hike to the top of 317-foot Vernal Falls and then up to 594-foot Nevada Falls, with some of our group heading on to Half Dome. This is a day hike, but a serious day hike: it was about 10 miles round trip including the walk to the trailhead, and it gains 2,000' in elevation. We took the aptly named Mist Trail, which climbs via granite steps in the spray of Vernal Falls. With every step I took, I thought of the NPS workers who had been there before, to cut and chisel and place each bit of granite so I could have this amazing journey up the side of a massively powerful plume of the Merced River, its Giant Staircase.

There are a lot of steps... and most people in my group were expressing that if they never saw stairs again it would be too soon. But somehow, this trail agreed with me. The early morning, the shade, and the mist kept me cool. The switchback ends made easy places to rest. My footing was always secure. And everywhere I looked were amazing views that changed every few feet. Up to the waterfall. Down to the rainbows. Out to the valley behind us. Ahead to see the next element of the trail, where the water sparkled on the granite, granite that would cost thousands to import into the landscape, but here is the most abundant raw material.

The water is clean and crisp and shows the bright colors of the rock below it. The vibrant green of Emerald Pool above Vernal Falls is inviting... you can see why people are tempted into it, and why they are soon after swept away over the falls.

Hiking the Mist Trail below Vernal Falls (before the wet part!)
Hiking the Mist Trail in Yosemite
Hiking the Mist Trail
Vernal Falls (from the Mist Trail) ... and remember, this is a drought year.
Top of Vernal Falls
Nevada Falls from Vernal Falls... it looks like just a short little jaunt from here...bwahahaha
Nevada Falls from the Mist Trail. We thought we were almost there again.
Top of Nevada Falls, Yosemite National Park
Top of Nevada Falls
Nevada Fall from the John Muir Trail, Yosemite National Park
Nevada Falls from the John Muir Trail
Upper Yosemite Falls from the John Muir Trail
Upper Yosemite Falls from the John Muir Trail
North Dome, Yosemite Valley
North Dome, from the Mirror Lake loop trail
The kids had to mention careers in the Park
that they noticed. This job went to the top
of my daughter's list.
Tenaya Creek
Tenaya Creek, Yosemite Valley
Daily Kos water bottle at the top of Nevada Falls, Yosemite
Top of Nevada Falls!
Horses were a clear presence in the park. We saw several sets of mounted rangers, patrolling campgrounds for safety and bear violations and overcrowding, as well as a private group of horsemen on the John Muir trail and the Yosemite Valley stables rental rides. You too can ride a horse or mule up to Nevada Falls, if you prefer that to walking. (Of course, they don't take the steps!) I remember begging my grandparents to go riding here - some day I'll do it. When Yosemite was first protected, the only way in was by horse, so it seems very fitting.

It's been too long since I've been in Yosemite. I hope to return more often in the future. It was a very special place to my grandparents, and it was well populated by seniors while we were there... most memorably when a spry 75 year old danced his way down the trail and encouraged us that it was not much farther, that we could all make it. We saw people from all over California, all over the United States, and all over the world who had come to experience this natural wonder. We encountered at least two other school groups hiking the Nevada Falls trails.

Camping is good for me. I walked over 20 miles. I went to sleep at dusk and kept to regular mealtimes. I'm going to try to bring those habits back home with me.

I took literally hundreds of pictures, quite a lot of good ones, too. I managed to fill this diary with pictures... and there's not even one Half Dome shot in this diary. (I got many, of course!) I wish I had pulled over at the Vista Point and taken the shot as you enter the valley for the first time. The light was perfect and the view spectacular. But, everyone was anxious to make camp, so I figured I could get it later. Alas, the light was early morning flat and from the wrong direction then; no point in stopping. So, once again a reminder that there's no time like the present.

Originally posted to elfling's Magical Mystery Tour on Tue May 20, 2014 at 08:46 AM PDT.

Also republished by Shutterbugs, National Parks and Wildlife Refuges, and Public Lands.

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