Tag Archives: Yosemite
Return to Yosemite: Snowshoes & Rainbows
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.
We drove up Route 41 to Badger Pass Road, where we rendezvoused with two naturalists (not to be confused with naturists) who would guide us on an 8-mile snowshoe hike to Dewey Point.
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.
Chief among the legends was the story of Chief Tenaya — and the infamous “Curse of Tenaya.”
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!
Wearing Out Adjectives in Praise of Yosemite
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.