The natural power, the grandeur, and the serenity of Yosemite National Park have a grip on my family’s imagination, but while we’ve visited the park several times during the Christmas holidays and in the summer, we had never been to Yosemite when its snow-fed waters were flowing abundantly. We’ve seen Yosemite Falls and Bridalveil Falls reduced to a trickle in an August drought and choked by ice in late December. And though these legendary cataracts are impressive in any season, we could only imagine how impressive they would be in the spring thaw, when the snowpack in the Sierras swells the creeks that cascade over Yosemite’s towering granite cliffs.
On the last weekend in March, we got the chance to see Yosemite’s waterfalls at their free-flowing best – with some very colorful surprises!
For me, just getting to Yosemite this time was going to be an adventure. Victoria and the girls were driving up to the park on Friday morning, but I was going to be stuck at work until 4:30 pm that day. So, while they enjoyed the scenic car ride up California State Route 99 through the San Joaquin Valley to Fresno, and then northeast on Route 41 up into the mountains to the south entrance of Yosemite – I was leaving my office in Hollywood and sweating it out in traffic on La Cienega Blvd., trying to make my 6:30 flight out of LAX to Fresno.
Luckily, the travel gods smiled upon me, and I was among the last shuttle load of passengers to board our tiny American Eagle jet to Fresno, landing at 7:30 pm. By 8:30, I was behind the wheel of a rented Jeep (with 4-wheel drive so I wouldn’t have to worry about using chains in the possibly snow-covered mountain roads) and on my way up Route 41. I made Yosemite’s south entrance by 9:45 – and the moonlight hinted at the natural wonders I was passing on my way down to the valley floor.
Just before 11:00 pm, I drove up to the Ahwahnee Hotel, named for the the Ahwahneechee – the Native American tribe that inhabited the Yosemite Valley when the white men “discovered” it. I was happy to discover that my family, and the dear friends with whom we would spend the weekend, were waiting for this straggler to arrive.
On our previous visits to Yosemite we’d spent a lot of time at the lovely and historic Ahwahnee, designed by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood and built in 1927, but we’d never stayed there. We’ve been to the celebrated Bracebridge Dinner in the dining hall at Christmastime, warmed ourselves by the huge fireplaces in the Great Lounge, and enjoyed many dark beers and hot bowls of chili at the Ahwahnee Bar after our winter hikes. This time, we were spending three nights at the Ahwahnee, and I was delighted to join my family and friends for a nightcap on the 6th floor sun porch (which was actually a full moon porch at the time) before retiring to our splendid, comfortable room.
Back in the early 1920´s, Stephen Mather, the National Park Service Director, chose the hotel’s site because of its stunning views of several of Yosemite´s natural landmarks – Half Dome, Yosemite Falls and Glacier Point – but those breathtaking sights would have to wait until morning.
The next morning, we enjoyed a quick breakfast on what was now truly a sun porch. Brilliant sunlight streamed through the windows, and the magnificent sheer cliffs that rise above the hotel were now in view. Those cliffs rise 3,000 feet above the valley floor – and today, we were going to hike to the edge of one of them.
It was my first time wearing snowshoes, and while these weren’t the classic snowshoes I’d known from watching Yukon Mountie movies as a kid, we all put on our red plastic versions and stepped out across the frozen snowpack through stands of lodgepole pines and blindingly white wide open meadows on our way to Dewey Point on the south rim of Yosemite Valley.
Note: From this point on, all the photos were taken by the tall and talented Brad Hall…
At an elevation of 7,385 feet, the air was crisp, fresh and relatively thin as we reached Dewey Point – where we were rewarded for our efforts on the trail with a stunning panorama from El Capitan to Half Dome – and beyond.
We paused on this glorious ridge to gape in wide-eyed wonder, devour a picnic lunch – and listen to our guides as they described what we were so fortunate to be seeing. Most interesting of all, was the background they gave us on Yosemite’s Native American population, and the local legends they inspired.
Tenaya was the leader of the Ahwahneechee tribe — which means “people of the Ahwahnee” (Yosemite Valley) — when white men came to Yosemite for the first time in the 1830’s. The Ahwahneechee were feared by the surrounding Miwok tribes, who called them “Yosemite” meaning “they are killers.” Some historians say the name is a corruption of the word “Uzumati” meaning “grizzly bear” — which was also a fearsome, deadly appellation. Clearly, Chief Tenaya and his warriors were a badass bunch.
By 1851, tensions between Tenaya’s band and the white settlers in the Sierra started to increase, and the state of California decreed that the Yosemite natives should be relocated to reservations outside of the valley. The Mariposa Brigade was enlisted to carry out the relocation – an operation which eventually resulted in the tragic killing of Tenaya’s youngest son.
When Chief Tenaya was informed of his son’s death, he was enraged — and confronted Captain Boling of the Mariposa Brigade, expressing his anger in a fateful curse: ”Kill me, sir captain! Yes kill me, as you killed my son — as you would kill my people if they were to come to you! You would kill all my race if you had the power. You have made me sorrowful, my life dark. You killed the child of my heart — why not kill the father? You may kill me, sir captain, but you shall not live in peace. I will follow in your footsteps. I will not leave my home, but be with the spirits among the rocks, the waterfalls, in the rivers and in the wind. Wheresoever you go, I will be with you. You will not see me, but you will fear the spirit of the old chief, and grow cold.”
To this day, it’s said that Yosemite Valley is haunted by the spirit of Chief Tenaya’s murdered son — and Native Americans and white folk alike attribute mysterious accidents and unaccountable deaths to the curse of Chief Tenaya. The old chief’s namesake landmark, Tenaya Canyon, located at the northwest corner of the park, is a particularly deadly place. Park rangers refer to it as the “Bermuda Triangle of Yosemite”.
On our way back down Route 41 into the valley after our Dewey Point hike, we came out of the Wawona Road tunnel, and paused to take in the fabulous panoramic view of the Yosemite Valley – featuring Bridalveil Falls. Incredibly, the cascading waters of Bridalveil Falls were lit up by a vivid rainbow: the kind of spectral vision that kept the Valley’s foremost promoter, John Muir, transfixed.
The next day, we explored the wonders of Yosemite Falls. I will let my very good friend Brad Hall’s photos tell the tale of our hike to the lower and upper sections of these landmark cascades. Brad’s inspired camerawork captured the beauty and majesty of Yosemite Falls – and those fabulous, ever-present rainbows!
Many thanks to Brad for his marvelous photography – and for a wonderful weekend together!