On this weekend trip, my parents and I decided to take my auntie from Taiwan to Yosemite. She had never been on a trip like this and so we all thought it would be a treat for her to see the park in the Spring.
Of course I also had an ulterior motive…
Of all the waterfall hiking and viewing I’d done in Yosemite up to this point, the one thing missing was getting to the top of Yosemite Falls. Even though you don’t have to get to its top to appreciate the falls and get good photos of it, my inner voice kept nagging at me to do it.
And so I gave in to my subconscious (or is it my conscious?) and determined to do this hike.
We camped in the Wawona Campground, which is pretty reliable for late reservations unlike Yosemite Valley campgrounds.
The earlier parts of the trip consisted of visits to the usual haunts such as Hetch Hetchy, Mirror Lake, and the Yosemite Valley roadside attractions. We also saw old features that we hadn’t seen in years such as Wildcat Falls and Cascade Falls.
Poor Dad was struggling with pain in his leg – somehow induced by repetitive motion resulting from his golfing addiction. Given his condition, at least he could keep auntie company while Mom and I would do the strenuous Yosemite Falls hike.
But before we did that, we visited the famous Yosemite Falls first from the trail that everyone goes on – the trail to the Lower Fall. And as we approached the waterfall amidst the crowd on the paved walkway, we could see that the falls was gushing and thick. Clearly, the high snowpack from this year and the relatively warm weather made this one flow hard.
Even though it was very crowded, we still never get tired of seeing the spectacle of Yosemite Falls putting on a show. Anyways, when we got to the base of Lower Fall, we could feel the mist coming at us as the thick waterfall forcefully unloaded on the granite rocks at its base.
I wondered what must’ve gone through Auntie’s mind since she had never seen this before.
Anyways, when we were done checking out this falls, Dad and Auntie left for Curry Village while Mom and I walked towards Camp 4 to embark on the strenuous hike to the top of Yosemite Falls.
It was 2pm on a pleasantly warm Saturday afternoon when we set out for the hike.
Since we had done at least half this trail before, the earlier parts of the hike passed without much drama. Perhaps the only bit of tension was a stream crossing that seemed to have moderate flow that wasn’t there when Mom and I last did this hike.
It was basically the outflow of “El Capitan Falls” given the high snowpack this year. But we were able to utilize our Gore-tex boots so our socks stayed dry and we made sure not to slip and fall by the dropoff there, which wouldn’t have been good.
When we looked across the valley, we could see Sentinel Rock and Sentinel Falls but the waterfall appeared it still had a lot of water locked up in snow so it wasn’t flowing as vigorously as I would have liked. Still, it was a pretty nice panorama and if it weren’t for us hastily trying to get to the top of Yosemite Falls and back before dark, I probably would’ve lingered here a bit more.
Then, before we knew it, we were back at the Columbia Point Vista where we could see Half Dome in the background with Yosemite Village beneath us. Although the day was hot, we did notice that the skies were starting to get a bit more overcast.
This was probably one of the most satisfying spots to view Half Dome because we could see its sheared off face at an angle that made the dome seem like that Prudential Rock. Aside from the bridge over the Merced River looking up at Half Dome (back in the valley), I couldn’t think of any other spot that was better for seeing the dome (especially after having seen it from North Dome a few years ago).
After stealing one more glance at Sentinel Rock and Sentinel Falls, we then negotiated the steep and sandy switchbacks, which happened immediately after the Columbia Point Vista. Our calves were especially burning from this part of the trail though it had been completely uphill up to this point.
Once again as the trail went around the familiar bend, we saw the Upper Yosemite Falls. But this time instead of clear blue skies behind it, the skies were a bit gray.
As we got closer to the end of this flat section and approached the granite cliff responsible for Yosemite Falls, we were then about to embark on a series of granite steps that would take us all the way to the top of the cliff before us.
The mist from the trail moistened the granite steps – making them slippery. This was not a problem going up, but we could foresee complications when we had to come back down later.
Mom and I also recalled that this was the turnaround point when we last did this hike, but now we were heading into unchartered territory so to speak.
Somewhere along the switchbacks, Mom and I were separated. She lagged behind and urged me to keep going. And that I did.
Finally at about 5pm, the granite steps started flattening out. But instead of the dirt trail we expected to see, I had to follow footprints in the snow!
Following the signs and the footprints in the snow, I took the spur trail to the top of Yosemite Falls. The snow was slippery in places and it was easy to get sidetracked if you followed stray footsteps, but at least the hiking sticks helped maintain my balance somewhat. I sure hoped Mom was able to follow the proper tracks.
Eventually the snow gave way to rocks. The trail looked like it was going to drop over the cliff as I approached the edge. But then the trail ran parallel with the cliffs over steps with hand-railings to help the unsure.
And so the trail continued to follow the cliffs. I had to descend some steps so this downhill perspective gave me a bit of an appreciation for how insignificant I felt given the size of the granite cliff in front of me and how puny the trail looked below.
My leg started to cramp a bit but there was no way I was going to turn around here when we were so close to the end. I don’t think I had ever felt cramping this persistent on a hike before, though. I figured it must’ve been that long uphill stretch that did it to me.
Anyways, I used this as a resting opportunity for Mom to catch up to me. It turned out that she was still quite a ways behind me because I must’ve waited at least 10 minutes or so. So I kept going hoping that we’d be re-united at the top of Yosemite Falls.
The trail eventually bent and followed Yosemite Creek to the brink of the falls. I was able to see some interesting smaller cascades rushing its way towards the big plunge just down stream. But the granite ravine was definitely meant this was no place to be anywhere near the dropoff. For a fall here would most certainly mean a 1400ft plunge to the Middle Cascades which most surely would’ve been a terrifying way to die.
Continuing further on the trail as I now followed the path downstream, I then reached a part where there was a handrail protecting us (or at least reassuring us) from the cliff exposure. Actually, the dropoff here wasn’t as severe as I had thought because the viewing area for the brink of Yosemite Falls was just below me.
Straight ahead of me were some granite steps that would gently descend down to that flat ledge with more handrails to keep me away from the ultimate dropoff over the cliff responsible for giving the Upper Yosemite Falls its height.
So I took lots of photos on the platform. However, the suddenly cloudy skies got darker. I think it became clearer that the skies would start to open up and rain on us soon. There were even moments of some sprinkles sporadically hitting us every so often while we tried to enjoy at least this momentary achievement of making it up here.
It seemed like forever that I was soaking in the moment of being at the top of the park’s feature waterfall. I was beginning to get worried that Mom might have gotten lost. But then I finally saw her up above the final descent by the handrail. She looked down at me and had a similar look of relief that we were re-united. However, she was freaked out by the narrowness of the final descent and dared not join me down here.
At 5:30pm, I went up the stairs and followed Mom to a little makeshift rest spot where we could have some water and food. It couldn’t have come at a better time because my calves had once again cramped and locked up. I literally couldn’t walk any more so I was worried about not being able to make it down the trail.
Apparently the relentless uphill trail took its toll on my body and I failed to regularly pace myself while energizing with food and water.
The darkening skies didn’t help the situation as we sensed it was a typical mountain thunderstorm. It suddenly started getting cold and we certainly didn’t want to be up here with lightning threatening to strike. The snow also worried us since we knew it would slow us down initially on the way back.
Given all these factors, we still rested until 5:45pm. It was then that I tested my calves out and was somewhat relieved that I could at least take a few steps without locking up.
So with that we headed back down. It was already getting late since we had taken longer than we had anticipated getting up here and then resting. As we were headed down the relentless granite steps – relying on our hiking sticks to help absorb the shock – the skies started to open up and pour on us. Fortunately for us, we anticipated this and we had put on the rain ponchos that we had came prepared with by that time.
The wet granite steps always conspired to make us slip and fall, but we stubbornly used all four of our legs to maintain our balance while keeping our weight forward on the descent. We even passed by a couple of suffering families who didn’t anticipate the rain and thus didn’t have the right clothing for the suddenly changed weather. They certainly didn’t look too happy.
Eventually, we made it back to the shuttle stop between Yosemite Lodge and Leidig Meadow. It was 7pm and darkness had already taken over.
With our wet, smelly ponchos and packs, we eventually got on the shuttle and got off at Curry Village at around 7:45pm. We arrived about 45 minutes later than what we promised to Dad and Auntie, but in the end we were all united.
All of us had the Curry Village pizza along with self-brought salad for dinner. After going through the usual hygienic rituals, we drove back to the Wawona Campground to spend the last night of the trip peacefully.
Auntie enjoyed the park. I even learned through her and my parents the Chinese word for waterfall (“pu-bu”), which literally translated as a “silk cloth” or “silk rag.” Sometimes I’m quite impressed with how colorful and metaphorical different languages can be when describing things in nature.
Anyhow when I look back at this trip, I was glad that we prepared well. It was one of those times when we knew how quickly the weather could change and we had ponchos with us just in case. However, the leg cramps could’ve been avoided if I had paced myself and not put off eating and hydrating in my rush to get to the top. That was scary and fortunately I wasn’t stuck at the top during the storm. Big lesson learned there.
Speaking of leg problems, Dad’s leg eventually healed up and he was back perfecting his golf swing…
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