Sierra Nevada

Trekking through Yosemite

I was immediately thrown into the deep-end as we departed SF airport. The early afternoon traffic was pilling up on Highway 101 as we slowly made our way south east through the Bay Area.

Driving on the wrong side of the road wasn’t the challenge; I last drove in Iceland a few weeks prior which was also on the left side. The challenge on the highways is navigating the sheer volume of traffic which overtake from the left and right. There are also far more exit ramps which require some quick lane-changing manoeuvres (and some double-backing after inevitably missing them as they flash past).

Our destination was Evergreen lodge near the famous Yosemite Valley, some 200 miles east in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In the first of many detours, we crossed a long bridge and ventured south to the Tesla factory in Fremont. It’s an enormous factory but much like the offices in Silicon Valley, it’s not exactly an architectural masterpiece. There’s a large car park full of thousands of new Model 3 vehicles which I’d quite like to get my hands on one day.

After a quick bite to eat at a veggie south Indian restaurant (that wouldn’t be out of place in Leicester), and we headed back on the highway. Along the way we made an hour long stop at a Verizon shop to fix Nishay’s SIM-card data which wasn’t working, without avail. I handed over the reins to Nishay and cracked the network settings on his phone along the way, which made the stop completely pointless in the end.

The handover to Nishay was a cheeky one on my part. I had forecasted the huge traffic jams ahead and figured I’d much rather him be in the driver’s seat than me. When we finally escaped the rush hour mayhem and arrived in the countryside, I jumped back in with the roof down as we passed through almond plantations. The roads were windy but the environment much like the prettiest English countryside, more so with the perfect weather.

It was just after dusk when we arrived at the lodge. It was chilly – we had ascended 4000 feet into the mountains in the middle of the wilderness. The hotel is more of a campsite, with the cabins nestled between the trees around a central complex consisting of a lounge, bar, restaurant and a supplies shop. Vegan meals were available at the restaurant despite being somewhat overpriced, but we needed the fuel for the upcoming treks so the price didn’t deter us (not that we had any other options anyway).


After a heavy breakfast the next morning, we drove to the Yosemite park entrance and paid a $30 fee for a week’s pass. We stopped frequently along the way to admire the stunning view of the Half Dome Peak in the distance. As we climbed higher and higher through the valley, the green wilderness became increasingly white with snow.

Our first short hike was at Tuolumne Grove which is home to several Giant Sequoia trees. These trees are some of the tallest in the world, reaching heights in excess of 90 metres, and are be incredibly wide too. As we walked down the slopes on the trail, we could easily make them out by the slightly orange bark. Standing next to these trees made me feel so insignificant in comparison, so much so that it was impossible to take a half decent picture without taking many steps back and craning my neck as far back as it would go.

The 4km roundtrip hike through the grove wasn’t physically strenuous, but between us we’d packed too many layers, as the morning sun made the temperature much warmer than anticipated despite the snow. Occasionally we had to be careful not to place a foot off the trail as it would fall through up to two feet of loosely compacted snow.

Along the way we walked through the famous Dead Tunnel Tree, a long-deceased sequoia that was tunnelled through in 1875 to serve as a tourist attraction for motorists. The remnants of the tree fascinated me more than the tunnel itself – the tall bark forks reminded me of the Barad Dur building from Lord of the Rings.

The Dead Tunnel tree

After a quick snack of tortilla chips, we drove down through the valley into Yosemite. The one-way system throughout the park made the drive easy, and we parked up at the heart of the valley outside the Glacier Point trail which was our intended trek for the afternoon. However, we quickly abandoned this plan when we realised that we were short on water which would have been a necessity on the steep ascent. Finding drinking water is easier said than done in Yosemite, as we found, and we regretted not bringing a few plastic bottles with us.

We managed to find a refill tap at Yosemite Lodge after a half hour walk alongside the Merced river. It wasn’t a complete waste of time though; the views of the surrounding cliffs and waterfalls was truly remarkable (the stunning Mac OS desktop background pictures honestly don’t do the place justice).

Time was ticking on so we agreed on hiking the nearby Upper Yosemite Falls trail for the remainder afternoon. It was a moderately challenging 2.4km hike to the half way point at Columbia Rock. The gradient along this trail is steep and rough, and it didn’t help that we were walking in the opposite direction to most other hikers.

The trail has countless switchbacks along the ascent and passes through several waterfalls. Nishay didn’t hesitate to refill his water bottle with fresh spring water along the way.

Even though we were a long way from the top, the final view from Columbia Rock was thoroughly rewarding with a beautiful view across the whole valley.

The view from Columbia Rock

We arrived at the car just before dusk, which let us catch a glimpse of Bridalveil Falls glistening in the twilight sun on road back to the lodge.

Hetch Hetchy 

Our legs were as stiff as Yosemite’s toughest boulders as we awoke the next morning. We consulted the lodge’s travel guide and decided on visiting the smaller, lesser-known valley of Hetch Hetchy nearby. In 1923 the valley was submerged to become a crucial reservoir for the San Francisco Bay Area, yet it retains an idyllic appearance that is often overlooked by tourists.

The dam at Hetch Hetchy

We hiked 4km along the edge of the reservoir admiring the snow-dusted cliffs above the opposite shore and reached the end point at Wapama Falls. The valley is at slightly lower elevation to Yosemite, and noticeably warmer. By the end of our sweaty trek I wasn’t wearing any layers at all. Throughout the trek we met hardly any passers-by and it felt as though we had the place to ourselves.

The reservoir at Hetch Hetchy

It was early afternoon before we headed back to Yosemite to the opposite end of the valley, this time on another trail to Mirror Lake. The trail is flat and well signposted and was a ‘walk in the park’ for us so to speak. We kept stopping every 200m along the way for pictures beside the various rivers that we crossed over.

The view from Mirror Lake towards the Half Dome peak and surrounding canyons is sublime, as it the clear and still lake itself. Every crevasse and indentation in the surrounding cliffs are detailed in the reflection, as if it were actually a mirror.

Mirror Lake

On the way back, Nishay took a dip in the streams which he later regretted. Despite the warm weather, the water temperature was only just above freezing, and he didn’t feel particularly well later in the day.

Not as warm as it looks..

Nevertheless, I persuaded Nishay for one final short hike to the foot of Lower Yosemite Falls. The Yosemite Falls is the highest waterfall in North America, dropping over 700m from top to bottom. The spray was immense at the bottom but I was fortunate to take a couple of excellent long-exposure photos without messing up the camera.

At the foot of Yosemite Falls

It was already past dusk by the time we reached the car, so we had to make haste on the winding, pitch black roads back to the lodge that evening.

From one wilderness to another

Yosemite and the surrounding valleys are probably the most jaw-dropping natural places of beauty I’ve ever visited. With towering trees and cliffs above and the sound of crashing waterfalls in the distance, one feels completely embedded inside a true wilderness unlike any other. It’s wilderness as nature intended it to be, without any major human disturbance or pollution – the park is almost spotless. These kinds of places are becoming increasingly difficult to find on our planet.

The crowds at Yosemite aren’t excessive so it doesn’t feel like an amusement park, though I imagine it wouldn’t be quite as tranquil in the height of summer. But Yosemite has a distinctly different appearance from season to season (so I’m told), and I imagine the valleys would be even more gorgeous in full summer bloom.

Aside from seeing a couple of coyote, we weren’t that lucky when it came to spotting wildlife. With more time and patience, it’s possible to spot mountain lions, black bears and a variety of reptiles and birds. Well, at least there’s a reason to come back again in the future.

Assuming I were to return, I’d definitely book the accommodation much earlier. We paid an eye-watering sum of money at Evergreen lodge, and while it’s a perfectly reasonable place to stay, we hardly spent any time there and it’s a 40-minute drive from the park itself. Camping seems a more appropriate. The campsites are much cheaper, situated in the heart of the valley and I think provide a more authentic experience.

With memories at Yosemite that will last a lifetime (and more photos on my camera than I care to admit), it was time to bid a fond farewell. We woke up especially early the next day to set off on the longest journey of our trip – a 400-mile drive to the desert of Death Valley.


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