For the past three years, our family has spent time during the Christmas holidays in a truly sacred place: Yosemite, the greatest jewel in our treasury of national parks. I can’t imagine that anyone who’s ever visited the Yosemite Valley came away unmoved by its wonders and its power. To see and experience the famous natural landmarks, El Capitan, Half Dome, Bridalveil Falls and Yosemite Falls is to realize that not even Ansel Adams’ incandescent photography can capture the enormity and the splendor of what you’re witnessing.
You can take photos, of course – everyone takes photos or draws pictures or paints these majestic scenes – but ultimately the images you take home can never really convey what you saw and felt when you were there. In fact, it’s hard to put it in writing, too. There may be a Native American word that fully describes Yosemite, that synthesizes the natural beauty and divine nature of the place, but you’ll wear out your thesaurus trying to find a completely satisfying adjective in the English tongue.
This past December, we stayed for five days in the tiny town of Wawona, just inside the southern entrance to the park. Long before SUV tires wrapped in snow chains began grinding their way up CA Route 41 and down into the Yosemite Valley, the native Miwok Indians called this spot “Pallachun”, meaning “a good place to stop”. I don’t know why it’s called Wawona today, but it’s still a great place to stop.
A favorite haunt of Yosemite tourists since the mid-1860s, Wawona is primarily known for its namesake hotel, a National Historic Landmark that opened in 1879. The Wawona Hotel is glorious, and we always make it a point to have lunch or dinner there and thaw out in its lovely Victorian lobby – but we’ve never stayed there. Owing to the hotel’s vintage, most rooms don’t have their own bathrooms: not a plus when traveling with children. Or teenage girls, for that matter.
This year, we rented a cabin in Wawona, just a short hike from the hotel, and made day trips to Badger Pass, the Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Falls, the Ahwahnee Hotel (another wonderful man-made landmark), and the Tenaya Lodge (a beautiful and comfortable resort hotel built in recent years in the nearby town of Fish Camp). But our most satisfying experience was our hike to Chilnualna Falls, a lesser-known but wholly adjective-taxing cascade that splashes down a high, rocky 6,200 foot ridge just a few pine-forested, Sequoia-dotted miles northeast of Wawona.
Chilnualna Falls is not only hard to pronounce properly – it, too, is nearly impossible to put into words. “Breathtaking” comes to mind, but it’s overused. And what the kids have done to “awesome” has rendered that marvelous word meaningless.
But where was I? Oh yes, the hike!
The hike to Chilnualna Falls is about a 5-hour round trip, depending upon how often you wind up stopping to gape slack-jawed at the beauty that surrounds you. (And take more inadequate photos, of course.) The trail rises 2,400 feet in elevation through some of the most gorgeous scenery you’ll ever see, and though I dearly wished that we would, we encountered no bears, cougars, or bobcats. (Though they are, I hope, lurking somewhere in all that dense greenery.) As we hiked the not-too-strenuous trail, Chilnualna Falls revealed itself to be not just one big waterfall – but a miles-long series of rocky cataracts, descending over a jumble of huge moss-covered boulders, flowing from its source: a dramatic 240-foot plunge over the cliff and into the gorge below.
Luckily for us, we weren’t swayed by a negative description of the trail that we’d Googled the night before. After our soul-satisfying, heart-lifting hike on the Chilnualna Falls trail, we could only conclude that the entirely misleading listing at Yosemitehikes.com was deviously written by a Wawona local determined to keep the glories of this natural gem a strictly local treasure.
Generations of Yosemite lovers can be grateful that not all of the park’s fans have been so jealous and greedy regarding its many wonders. The 19th Century naturalist, author, preservationist and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, perhaps Yosemite’s greatest (and most protective) fan was also the park’s foremost promoter. Over the course of his many years living and working in the Valley, Muir did his best to put Yosemite into words.
In his 1912 book, The Yosemite, he came pretty damn close.
“The Bridal Veil and Vernal Falls are famous for their rainbows…amid the spray and foam and fine-ground mist ever rising from the various falls and cataracts there is an affluence and variety of iris bows scarcely known to visitors who stay only a day or two. Both day and night, winter and summer, this divine light may be seen wherever water is falling dancing, singing; telling the heart peace of Nature amid the wildest displays of her power.”
That’s pretty evocative stuff — but Muir is almost obsessed with these rainbows.
“Lunar rainbows, or spray bows also abound in the glorious affluence of dashing, rejoicing, hurrahing, enthusiastic spring floods, their colors as distinct as those of the sun and regularly and obviously banded, thou less vivid. Fine specimens may be found any night at the foot of the Upper Yosemite Fall, glowing gloriously mid the gloomy shadows and thundering waters, whenever there is plenty of moonlight and spray.”
Despite my wife’s constant vigilance (and she was nearly as obsessed as Muir), we never saw a satisfactory example of Muir’s lunar rainbows on our recent trip – but I did manage to capture an image of these spectral shafts of light on our hike along the Chilnualna Falls trail. (See photo at left. Did I mention my wife took all the other photos in this post?)
Now, back to John Muir on Yosemite Falls…
“Though the dark gorge hall of these rejoicing waters is never flushed by the purple light of morning or evening, it is warmed and cheered by the white light of noonday, which, falling into so much foam and spray of varying degrees of fineness, makes marvelous displays of rainbow colors…even at the bottom, in the boiling clouds of spray, there is no confusion, while the rainbow light makes all divine, adding glorious beauty and peace to glorious power.”
To that, I can add no more. After all is written and said, you just have to experience the beauty, peace and power of Yosemite for yourself. Do it soon. Check out Chilnualna Falls — and keep an eye out for those lunar rainbows.