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Yosemite Hamster

August 30, 2017

The Hamster and I had been looking forward to visiting Yosemite National Park for about a year, and today was finally the day.

Yosemite is consistently rated among the 10 best National Parks, and the Hamster and I love National Parks. It’s mostly known for its many impressive waterfalls, and the Hamster and I love waterfalls. And the Hamster would finally have the opportunity to be Yosemite Sam.

Almost all of the most popular sights in the park are centrally located in an area called Yosemite Valley, so named because it is literally a huge, relatively flat, rectangular valley bordered by massive granite cliffs. Outside of Yosemite Valley there are millions of acres of mountains and forest of impressive beauty, including a couple of sequoia groves and several waterfalls, but the vast majority of visitors to Yosemite focus almost exclusively on the valley. From the south entrance, where we were staying, it takes almost 1.5 hours of driving just to reach Yosemite Valley, so even though we were staying only a few miles outside the park entrance, we knew we had a long drive ahead of us.

We woke up early, raring to go. Before we even got inside the park, though, we got some pretty disappointing news. Our first planned stop was Glacier Point, a long road just south of Yosemite Valley that leads to a short hike that leads to a scenic overlook of some of Yosemite Valley’s most iconic scenery. Just outside the park’s entrance was a sign announcing that the road to Glacier Point was closed. We asked about it at the entrance and were told that it was closed due to wildfires and would probably remain closed all day.

We were disappointed, of course, but we shook it off and headed straight for Yosemite Valley. Cars enter Yosemite Valley through a long tunnel, and the view waiting for you the moment you exit the tunnel might be the best view in the entire park. You’ve certainly seen pictures of it; in fact some computers come with a photo of the aptly named Tunnel View as the desktop background. This is what it usually looks like:

Tunnel View Desktop Wallpaper

I didn’t take this photo; this is the desktop wallpaper version

Let’s deconstruct this into its individual components for a second. The trees comprising the bottom half of the photo are Yosemite Valley. The huge granite cliff on the left side is El Capitan, one of Yosemite’s most recognizable features. The two connected peaks on the right side are the Cathedral Rocks. The white vertical stripe below the Cathedral Rocks is Bridalveil Fall, a 620-foot waterfall that is one of the park’s most visited waterfalls. And far in the distance, jutting up into the cloud right in the middle of the photo, is Half Dome, maybe the park’s most iconic geological feature.

This view was by far Sam’s most anticipated moment of the entire day, his main goal for our visit to Yosemite. But smoke from that wildfire that closed Glacier Point Road had spread for miles, covering the entire valley with a thick smog. This was the Tunnel View we got as we entered Yosemite Valley:

Tunnel View

We could make out only the outlines of the biggest cliffs, and we couldn’t see the waterfall or Half Dome at all. It’s still kind of majestic in it’s own way, but it’s far short of the original.

We wanted to get to the Visitor Center as early as possible so that we could get a parking spot before the park and its parking lots filled up, but on the way there we had to stop off at Bridalveil Fall so we could see up close the waterfall that we couldn’t see from afar. It didn’t disappoint.

Bridalveil Fall

I should mention that late August is a lousy time to see Yosemite’s waterfalls. Peak waterfall season is in Spring, when snowmelt contributes to the flow of water and makes the falls nice and full. By this time of year, some of the park’s waterfalls have already dried up, and those that still flow have diminished considerably over the past month or so. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the short hike to the falls, and the pretty view once we got there.

On our way to the Visitors Center we stopped off once more to catch a better view of Half Dome and to see the massive Yosemite Falls. The smog definitely diminished the views somewhat, but they were still much better than what we saw at Tunnel View.

Yosemite Falls

Yosemite Falls has two parts, the Upper Falls and the Lower Falls. The much larger Upper Falls is seen here as a thin white stripe coming down from the top of the granite cliff a bit to the right of center. The dark shading around it shows how wide it is when it is at its fullest in Spring. Lower Falls is tougher to spot; it’s a short white line just above the trees, a little bit left of center.

Half Dome

I took this photo while standing on Sentinel Bridge, a spot known for its stunning view of Half Dome, both above the trees and reflected in the very calm waters of Merced River. The smog makes it much less striking, but you can still make out Half Dome’s outline here, both in the sky and the water.

When we finally got to the Visitors Center, we noticed something we haven’t seen at all on this road trip before today: humidity. We’ve had plenty of intensely hot days but, as they say, it’s a dry heat. Today the smog and clouds kept the temperature down in the 80s for most of the day, but the humidity steadily increased, becoming pretty unbearable by midday.

If I can digress for just a second, the area where the Visitors Center is located is called Yosemite Village, and it’s exactly that. There’s a deli, a post office, an art gallery, a museum, a general store, and even a cemetery. When we saw signs for the cemetery, Sam and I wondered what kinds of people might be buried there (Park Rangers? Idiots who die in the park doing reckless things like feeding bears?), and Sam was appalled that the park’s management missed the opportunity to call it “Yosemetery.”

Anyway, back in the Visitors Center, a Park Ranger helped us plan a robust itinerary for the rest of the day that included two hikes and a rafting trip, leaving room for a trip to Glacier Point at the end of the day if the road ever opened up. (Spoiler: it didn’t.)

Our first hike was the shorter of the two, an easy half-hour loop to get a close-up view of Lower Yosemite Falls. We had stopped off at a CVS the previous night to buy a knee strap for Sam so he’d be able to hike without pain, and it worked. My blister, meanwhile, was still a little painful even bandaged up, but I was so excited to make the most of our visit to Yosemite that I didn’t mind the pain.

I was a little cranky as we walked to the waterfall, partly because of the smoke’s effect on our day but mostly because of our visit to the general store. You know when you’re in a very crowded store for much too long, and the combination of crowding and time use up all your patience and make you a little crazy and anxious and claustrophobic? That’s what happened to me today. So I needed to decompress as we left the store and headed toward the waterfall, but the humidity and the continued crowds were making it difficult. But then Sam turned to me at one point and suddenly exclaimed, “YAY!” with such a huge, excited grin that I couldn’t help but feel better. For the rest of the day, Sam would yell “YAY!” at random points here and there, just to express how excited he was to be there and how much fun he was having. And every time, I answered his “YAY!” with a “YAY” of my own.

The Lower Falls, meanwhile, turned out to be worth the trip.

Lower Yosemite Falls

From there we took one of the park’s free shuttles to a different part of the Village in hopes that a longshot would pan out. When I woke up this morning I had a message waiting for me from my friend Heather, who visited Yosemite earlier this summer. She recommended renting a raft, which I didn’t even know was a thing. It turns out that, for $30 per person, you can steer an inflatable raft for three miles down the Merced River, which runs through the middle of Yosemite Valley. But the rafts get snatched up quickly, so I wasn’t confident we’d be able to get one. This time, luck was on our side. Not only did we procure a raft, but we were able to have one all to ourselves. (They normally put four people in each raft when they’re busier, but crowds were a bit smaller than usual today.)

As we got our raft orientation, the humidity reached a truly oppressive level and I was wondering if we were making a big mistake. Then we had to carry our raft about 200 yards to the riverbank, and I was sure we were making a mistake. But as we got onto the water Sam and I looked around and immediately realized how incredible it was. We drifted slowly down the calm, glassy river, surrounded on all sides by landscapes so extraordinary that we couldn’t even find words to express our wonderment. Behind us was Half Dome, in front of us was a stately stone bridge, to our left were towering pine trees, to our right were constantly changing views of Yosemite Falls, and visiting us now and then were the cutest, most playful ducks I’ve ever seen. Dipping feet and hands in the cold river now and then did a lot to alleviate the heat, and as we paddled down the river the smoke finally started to lift and the sky began to clear. Without question, the rafting trip was the highlight of the entire day.

Half Dome

Yosemite National Park

Merced River






Yosemite Falls


The only negative of our rafting trip was that, because the water levels are low this time of year, there were a few spots were the river was so shallow that we had to get out of the raft and pull it several yards until the water got deeper again. We did this barefoot, and Sam ended up scraping up the bottoms of his feet a bit in the process. That, in turn, necessitated the canceling of our final hike, a one-hour hike that would get us close to Half Dome for a supposedly great vantage point. Sam felt bad about causing us to miss out, and apologized heartily. But by this point we had gotten clear views of Half Dome from so many different angles that I wasn’t terribly disappointed about missing out on the hike.

That left us time to right the most important wrong of the day. Now that the sky was finally clear, instead of heading straight out of the park I took a slight detour. Exiting Yosemite Valley, I zig-zagged a little and got us back to the parking lot at Tunnel View. As I had hoped, the view was much better. In fact, it was downright desktop wallpaper worthy.

Tunnel View

It was a perfect way to end an incredible day. We got back into the car and headed out of the park absolutely beaming. As we approached the park’s exit, we found a secluded picnic area that was a perfect place to have dinner. To celebrate our day we grilled the steaks I bought in Las Vegas, and as we ate them we watched the sun inch lower through a grove of fragrant pine trees.

Yosemite sunset

Hours later, I’m still smiling.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jean Thomsen permalink
    August 30, 2017 9:02 am

    Loved reading about the Yosemite part of your road trip. It took John & me back over 40 years ago when the 4 of us camped & hiked there. The views are still as majestic as they were then. Keep enjoying God’s beautiful creation.

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