“We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable,…
“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Last Labor Day, I took a much needed solo expedition to Yosemite, a national park that’s long been on my bucket list. 2014 came with the level of stress at work that leaves you feeling strangled and trapped, so much so that I decided to embark on a drastic career change (which only created a new, different level of angst.) This trip came at the perfect time, it was exactly what I needed to reset, unplug, and regain perspective.
As a procrastinator, I waited too long to plan my trip – two months out and on a holiday weekend, all the back country passes were taken, so I made my basecamp at Yosemite West, a KOA campground in Mariposa. It was far less expensive than staying in the valley and only forty-five minutes via car to the trailheads I wanted to explore. And an unexpected bonus was getting to witness the sunset over Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest every morning as I drove in.
Day 1 – Pohono Trail
The Pohono Trail is a 15-mile rim trail that hugs the south side of Yosemite Valley. If you want a sampling of everything hiking in Yosemite has to offer, this is it. This trail is not for the faint of heart – it’s 15 miles, about 3.5K in elevation change and unless you have two cars, you’ll probably have another six miles in the valley to get back where you started at Yosemite Lodge.
Getting up to the trailhead is easy – buy a one-way bus ticket from Yosemite Lodge to Glacier Point. This was the only guided experience I had in the park, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, the driver supplies you with plenty of inspirational and interesting stories about wildlife in the park, mountaineers climbing the many cliff faces, and the history of this incredible landscape, which is truly the birthplace of the national park idea. When I got off the bus, I had one of those soaring, awe-struck feelings in my gut.
Glacier Point sits 4,000 feet above the valley floor, and has stunning views of Half Dome. I spent about an hour wandering and gazing out over the hazy expanse as the sun rose. Several spot fires were burning in the distance. And I was treated to the heartbeat-skipping sight of a dad taking his ten-year-old out onto Hanging Rock, an tiny outcropping that dangles over the void. I couldn’t watch and started my hike.
The Pohono Trail winds past Sentinel Dome and continues on to Taft Point in its first section, which is well traveled and marked. This section is a popular day hike, and I don’t think I was ever more than a hundred yards from another person. Along the way you’ll find the Fissures and then Taft point, another dizzying overlook with nothing more than a metal bar between you and a yawning panorama of El Capitan and Half Dome. I found myself stopping multiple times to sit on the edge of the cliff to take in the air and the view.
Between Taft Point and Inspiration point, the trail turns into a bit of a slog. This 4- to 5-mile section veers away from the ridge and wanders through the woods. I was treated to moss covered trunks, sandy trails, and dry creek beds. It was here that I decided to change where I was planning on hiking on Day 2 and 3, the drought had strangled every single creek bed I crossed. There was no water to be had. I’d downed 32 oz. at Glacier Point and carried 64 oz. more, but I was planning on making it to the Bridalveil Falls viewing area restroom to replenish, since it didn’t seem I’d be able to filter any water.
Past Inspiration Point, the trail gets much rockier and takes a steep downward turn – the bulk of your elevation change can be found here. If you’re hiking the trail from Tunnel View up to Glacier Point, congratulations, you’re in much better shape than I am. Bonus insanity points if you try to do the 30-mile round trip in a day. Most times, I find going downhill harder on the body than uphill, especially when it’s steep.
As I stomped down this section of trail, I heard a noise behind me, and turned to catch a flash of brown fur. My immediate thought was “Shit. Mountain Lion. My wife and mom were right.” After the adrenaline surge faded, I realized it was only a deer. The thing regarded me as it walked down the path, and I slowly backed away to keep distance. As it kept coming, I veered off into the forest, thinking it merely wanted to use the trail. But the deer turned off the path and probably got within two arm’s reach. So I raised my walking stick, yelled, and almost fell over myself. If anyone had been watching, I’m sure they would have died laughing.
After the deer, I made it to the valley floor, out of water and with sore joints. I arrived at Bridalveil Falls only to discover no running water. It was near 5 p.m., and the shuttles (still 3 miles away) were stopping. I had 6 miles to the lodge. I drew a little inspiration from Cheryl Strayed in that moment and kept telling myself, “There’s only one option. Keep walking.”
The 6-miles from Tunnel View to Yosemite Lodge is unremarkable, under trees and steps from the road. When I got to the lodge, I monopolized the water fountain, refilled my bottles and headed home for the day.