“Yosemite and the Hike to Half Dome”
By Brian K. Brecht and Rico Prate
There are adventures that require plenty of planning, and some that come by happenstance. This trip would amount to a bit of both.
Since last spring, when we wrote our story “Walker & Muir”, we set a lose goal to journey to the Yosemite Valley the following summer. This was more a goal for myself, as Tom has been to the valley numerous times and even hiked the weeklong backcountry trails. Having never been myself, and after our exposure to Walker and Muir in Martinez, it was a destination that played in my mind for months.
Slowly as spring turned to summer, the idea took shape and through a series of conversations, it was floated to the other inspirational GAC members, my old crew from Chicago. With busy schedules, it took time to align our plans, but finally we found a date in September. Unfortunately, by this time, our full team was not available. It would mean my partner in crime Tom D. as well as Tom C. from Milwaukee; both wouldn’t be available this trip. But with full support from them we set the date and tickets were purchased.
Rick, having the more flexible schedule, would journey out ahead of Rico and spend some time in Northern California with me. That lead to some day trips we’ll highlight in later articles. We ventured up to the old ghost town of Shasta and back down to Salinas to revisit Rocinante, and happily Tom D. was able to join us for the Shasta trip.
Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir
Lets set the stage. The Yosemite National Park covers almost 748,000 acres, spanning across the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Yosemite Valley specifically, is only seven square miles of the total park but has some of the most iconic views of this amazing landscape. Towering redwoods, imposing granite mountains, and pastoral meadows all can be found within this wilderness.
The initial steps to preserve the park for future generations came under the Yosemite Grant signed by President Lincoln in 1864. It wasn’t until 1890, with the help of naturalist John Muir and the editor of the Century Magazine Robert Johnson, who lobbied congress for the act that created the national park on October 1st. Eventually it would also lead to the creation of the National Park Service by Theodore Roosevelt.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
In other posts I’ve mentioned being “somewhat” uptight in my youth, with my tendencies to set rigorous schedules and itineraries for our trips. I joked with Rick when he had arrived that it’s taken me 25 years to break that habit. When Rick asked, “what’s the plan?” I simply replied, “I don’t have one”. The surprised look in his eyes was proof I had indeed altered that behavior.
It was true; I had set no plan, made no reservations. I had read numerous articles about how it’s impossible to get into the park without a reservation a year in advance. I was rolling the dice that going after the peak season would allow some latitude regarding our ability to find lodging. Even if we had to stay outside of the park, and drive in each day, we were all ok with making the attempt, for better or worse. That said this was a trip to learn, some adventures really do require some preplanning.
By mid-week, Rick and I had a couple excursions in, but it was Yosemite we were both chopping at the bit for. We considered our trip having begun only once we met Rico at the Oakland airport, his 10:00pm flight arriving right on time.
So this was our goal, and standing in baggage claim in Oakland, it was clear we three were all ready to get too it. Tom Dietz and I had been driving to get the GAC off the ground for the past nine months. This was the first time I had tried to mold my long time (and inspirational) friends into the idea Tom and I had created. As soon as Rico walked into baggage claim, any concern vanished. Rico said it best in his journal:
the airport reunion
“Even though we only see each other a few times a year these days, because of our history – over 20 years of friendship – our shared experiences and adventures, and the strong, almost tenacious bond we share, every time I see them, it is almost as if I saw them just yesterday.”
And it was just that. While waiting for Rico’s bag it was short, light, brief conversation, with general pleasantries mixed in with the warm handshakes and hugs. We all knew, the real conversation, the real updates would happen as soon as we were on the road.
The goal for tonight was NOT to return home, but head straight west and make for Tracy. If we stayed the night there, we’d only be a couple hours from the park the next morning. So with a coke, some beef jerky, and plenty of attitude, we were off. Overnight in Tracy would be a blur as was breakfast the next morning. Again it was getting to the park that was the most important item.
It was during the drive when we started discussing our plans, or perhaps more accurately, Rick’s plan. As I mentioned Rick was the only one who did any real homework. He slowly outlined the concerns of hiking to Half Dome. Camping in the valley wasn’t really the concern, we’d roll with whatever we found, but as Rick outlined the severity of the hike, I started to think perhaps my “no plan” approach could have used a little more plan.
If you’re ever heading to Yosemite, and plan to hike Half Dome, here are a few important tips you should know. First Half Dome is a granite dome formation at the eastern end of the valley. It’s likely the most iconic image you’ve seen of the park as it rises almost 4800 feet above the valley floor.
Thousands of hikers hike the 8.5-mile trail to the top of the dome from the valley floor each year. This starts from the Mist Trail and runs approx. 2 miles to the Half Dome base in Little Yosemite Valley, all while gaining an elevation of approx. 2000 vertical feet. But not before climbing over 600 rough-cut stairs that have been hune from the very rock face. From Little Yosemite valley, you’ll ascend the rounded east face and ANOTHER 2000+ vertical feet using the cable path, to the summit. All of this is achievable but ONLY if you’ve purchased a permit to do so PRIOR to coming into the park.
THE (lack of) PLAN
Now, with no plan and clearly no permit, it was questionable whether we’d make it to the dome or not. Regardless, we’d take this adventure as it came and see what we could accomplish.
Here I turn again to Rico’s take on our day;
“After breakfast, we ride west on Route 120 and make a beeline toward Yosemite National Park. After a few miles of staid, four-lane blacktop, 120 quickly turns into a wonderful two-lane highway that nicely reflects the character and personality of Central California. Our scenery begins as rows upon rows of various fruit trees, dotted with numerous roadside fruit stands. As we gently ascend into the highlands that precede the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the fruit trees fade away, replaced by heartier looking, less pampered trees that have a scruffier appearance to them. The colors change from the greens and reds of the fruited plains, to shades of brown and tan. The road becomes 8-10 miles of excruciatingly twisted and angry paved mountain road, requiring every ounce of Brian’s mental focus to navigate its relentless nature successfully.”
We reached the town of Groveland looking for a last stop gas station to make sure we were filled but instead we find a Yosemite Visitor Information center where we were helped by a lovely park ranger named Katie.
Katie was young, pleasant, extremely knowledgeable and finally, patient. She took her time thoroughly answering the seemingly endless questions from three Yosemite virgins. Her instructions, what to do and what to be aware of, where the nearest grocery store was, and most importantly that we should have no problem getting a campsite within the park. To this point she clarified, yes it was true if we had wanted to stay in the valley specifically we would have needed a reservation well in advance. However, there were a number of campsites, within the park, but outside the valley that all had open sites for a few nights.
From Rico’s journal;
“The Main Street market in Groveland is less than a mile from the visitor center. There, we get freshly made deli sandwiches for lunch – just fill out a form where you pick your choice of meats, cheeses, bread, and garnishes. We also get ice, drinks, food, and other potential campground needs.
at “The Rim of the World” – Stanislaus National Forest
On our way to Yosemite, as we pass through the Sierras, the scenery can only be described as strikingly beautiful. We pull over at a turnoff called “Vista – Rim of the World, Stanislaus National Forest.” Here, we are gifted with a glorious, panoramic view of the mountainous terrain we find ourselves squarely in the midst of. The vista, while breathtaking, unfortunately, contains some negative indicators of this part of the forest’s current state. A large portion has a pale, dry, death-like cast to it – reflective of the drought conditions that are prevalent here right now. We also see some black and charred evidence of recent forest fires, which, inevitably, accompany a drought.”
We got to the Western Gate and did as Katie instructed, we pulled to the right and parked in front of the park camping office to secure our site for the next two nights. As she predicted, there was no trouble getting a spot in Crane Flats, the second campground inside the park, campsite #825.
“After we make our campground reservation for two nights – a ridiculously good bargain at $40 – Rick’s enthusiasm takes a noticeable leap forward. When we enter the actual campground – inside the gates of Yosemite, he is akin to the proverbial kid-in-a candy store. The unexpected intensity of his childlike joy of being in Yosemite – somewhere none of us had ever been – was certainly infectious to both Brian and me.”
We entered Crane Flats and eventually got to site #825. A relatively minor mishap with our site cause some delays but eventually the camp was set and it was time to make our way to the valley for what remained of the afternoon.
Our first glimpse of Yosemite Valley
The trip in was quick and easy and afforded us a great view of other areas of the park. We continued our drive when as we rounded a short bend, wham!! There was the valley laid out in front of us. Not surprising, there was an immediate vista point on our right, so we and a number of other park visitors, pulled off to take in the view.
It was stunning. Even from this distance and this elevation (we still weren’t in the valley) the view of Half Dome and El Capitan was breath taking. This is the part where everyone says, “you just have to see it to believe it”.
With photos taken, and our excitement reaching a peak, we got back into the truck and continued down.
the majestic El Capitan
“Our initial foray into Yosemite takes us into “the valley”. The Yosemite Valley is centrally located within the park, and is close to many of Yosemite’s signature attractions, such as Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and Half Dome. On the way, we pull off and walk through a small wooded area to get a superb view of El Capitan. At almost 7500 feet tall, only Half Dome is taller (at 8839 ft) within the expansive confines of Yosemite”
Once on the valley floor you lose your perspective as to what you’re seeing, as now you’re below the tree line and underneath the canopy. Moving through in the truck wasn’t going to do for us, so I quickly found a pull off and we disembarked from the truck to get a more close up view.
There was an easy trail off to the left and we followed it through the pines. Soon it opened up into a pastoral scene of high sierra beauty. Tall grasses fill the near by field while a shimmering stream flowed through. We walked in the shadow of El Capitan until finding a spot where the sun cut through the trees and stone.
walking the river
It was breathtaking to say the least and the thought that occurred to us all, was how easily you could believe in giants after feeling so small in this environment. What did the natives feel when they walked this part of the earth thousands of years ago?
“There be giants here!”
There was a good amount of stick and rock throwing as we revert to our childhood ways of play, but then it was time to move on. We had only just arrived and knew there was so much more to see.
One thing to note regarding the park, we of course had in our minds the idea that we would be in the wilderness, perhaps even alone amongst the trees. Yes we all knew this was a tourist destination, but you have high hopes of finding some amount of isolation. Going to Yosemite, you should know this is not the case. The park sees HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of visitors each month, and at peak season it can feel almost claustrophobic. For that we were glad we came in the off-season. We spent a little time in the Yosemite Village, checking on supplies and souvenirs, and couldn’t wait to get out. We were also very happy we chose to not stay on the valley floor.
With time to kill we thought we’d do a short hike and see Yosemite Falls, a short mile or so distance from Yosemite Village. Rico’s description here speaks to the tourist populations.
“…we decide to go on a short hike to Yosemite Falls. This “hike” is nothing like I had pictured it might be. It turns out to be a walk on an uphill path through some woods. The entire trail is paved, and there are numerous people, both coming and going, that we pass along the way. The one thing that is expected is the scenery. Lush, rugged, and striking in its picturesque beauty, Yosemite is just a privilege to be in and around.”
The imposing, yet dry Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls is the 5th tallest natural falls in the world. At a towering 2,425 feet the falls consists of three sections, the Upper Falls, the Middle Cascades, and the Lower Falls. Its primary source, coming from Yosemite Creek, the falls are primarily produced from runoff every year of the proceeding snowfall. In years such as this, the falls in fact, were not falling at all. The California drought has been bad enough this year that in the late season of August and September its not uncommon as today that the falls are completely dry. To see the falls at their most spectacular, the early spring is when they run at their height.
Even though there was no water flowing, you can’t help but be awestruck standing at the very base of the massive shear rock face. Judging by the debris at the bass of the falls you can imagine the roar that must come when the falls are at capacity.
Half Dome in the dwindling afternoon light.
With no water, we turned and followed the (yet again) paved path around its full length. As we walked back we were afforded one of the many beautiful treats the valley provides each night, as the sun sets hitting Half Dome and lighting it up with brilliant warm amber tones as it sits above the darkening valley floor. It was a fantastic sight.
We were back at camp as the last light of day was dwindling. We broke out our makeshift dinner for tonight, all of us still pretty full from the deli sandwich earlier. As the night came on, the fleece jackets came out, and soon so did the travel bar. Rick had gotten our first campfire going well and Rico and I couldn’t resist a nightcap in front of the flames.
1st night in camp. Keeping warm with a wee dram.
“…whisky (for Brian and I), and good conversation consume the rest of the evening. It has been a good and exceedingly satisfying day. We are certainly looking forward to tomorrow as we crawl into our sleeping bags a little past 11 o’clock.”
We talk into the night, staring at the stars above the redwoods, seeing the night sky light up with no ambient surface light to obscure our view. We talk until around 11:00 when we all head into bed, knowing we have a long hike ahead of us tomorrow.
**See “Part 2” for our conclusion**