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I’ve always referred to myself as a ‘park person’. I’m most comfortable in hiking boots with unwashed hair and only the slightest idea as to my exact location at any given point in time. I find comfort in falling off the grid and only interacting with those I meet on the trail or at the general store.
Visiting national parks is an unparalleled experience, so much so that you are going to meet people who are just like you, other *park people*. Folks who abide by a different clock than the outside world. No morning is too early, no mountain is too steep, no person is a stranger. We’re all here for very similar things: fresh air, peace of mind, adrenaline rushes…and distance from anything and everything that hinders all of the above. Nothing brings people together quite like the desire to escape from daily routines, albeit how different those routines might be.
Which is how we decided on visiting Yosemite in April. Although peak season isn’t until June since many of the park areas are closed due to snowfall this early in the year, we wanted to immerse ourselves in nature, not tourists. Visiting Yosemite in the off-season allowed us to venture from trail to trail uninfluenced by mass crowds trying to sneak a peak of this waterfall or that overlook. There’s something magical about this time in-between, the empty roads, the chill in the air, the determination to overcome obstacles that cease to exist in the summer sun. The secluded cabins up in the woods where it’s just you and the bears. And the other park people. The people who live there year round and are so eager to suggest where to go during this down time. The travelers who come every April to witness the gushing waterfall flow that is all but a trickle in August. This is the best way to spend four days in Yosemite in April, and how to prepare for any obstacle that comes your way.
After landing in San Francisco, we rented a 4WD SUV to take us the four hour drive into Yosemite. While chains are needed in the thick of winter, we kept our fingers crossed that we would avoid this hassle. The scenic drive into the park is only a small taste as to what you’ll witness once in the valley. We made a quick stop near Livermore to pick up groceries to last the week. With limited access in the park, we wanted to be sure we’d have enough food for all three meals, plus hiking snacks, each day. Luckily, the studio condo we rented out came equipped with a tiny kitchen which made soup and pasta nightly favorites for us.
Driving into the park feels like you’ve entered into a different world. The towering cliffs framed with strikingly tall evergreen trees is the only preview needed for what’s to come.
The winding roads with snow banks on either side led us to our condo in a small neighborhood in Yosemite West. Fitted with a living space, kitchen area, large bed and fireplace, we were excited to call this home for the next few nights. While there were many people who opted to camp, I wasn’t yet ready to give up my hot shower each morning. After settling in, we prepared for a long day ahead of us.
After an early meal of oatmeal and bananas, we headed down towards the village to plan out our adventures for the day. However, the park had other plans. Since it was the off season, many of the roads were in the process of being repaved, causing an unbelievable amount of detours. After failing to find the Visitors’ Center, we got hike suggestions from a hotel lobby we stumbled on and headed on our way.
Our first walk was to Lower Yosemite Falls. A short one mile hike with close-up views of the bottom falls. The ice that clung to the rocks before it had a chance to melt only added to the pristine view. Looking for more of a challenge, we trekked towards Upper Yosemite Falls which is made up of 6-7 miles of steep inclines and snow-covered trails. After passing a family of deer, we headed into the most challenging hike of our trip. Yet, with spectacular views of the entire valley, it was easy to get lost in the hike rather than focused on how many miles we had left.
The ice had frozen onto the tree branches and would drop off in solid chunks whenever the wind blew, knocking us with hail-like balls of ice periodically. Luckily the day warmed up quickly and the ice *almost* felt refreshing. We made it to the top fall and stopped for lunch. Peanut butter sandwiches and trail mix (which will reappear each afternoon) were easy to travel with and fueled the long days. It took us about four hours in total and with just a little steam left, we had one stop left for the day.
The free Yosemite Valley bus took up to Happy Isle for us to check out the most popular Yosemite hike. The Mist Trail is heavily-trafficked, even during the spring, for good reason. It’s a quick hour hike to cover 3 miles if you stick to the Vernal Falls. Another four miles if you want to head all the way up to Nevada Falls. The waterfalls are at full force and colorful rainbows spread across the wet stones. With limited daylight left, we headed back to warm up with soup and sandwiches and to plan the next day.
Having spent the previous day in the valley, we headed south to the Wawona region of the park. Chilnualna Falls, a lengthy 8 mile hike up a mountain along side a powerful creek, was one of the highlights of our trip. After driving through the small town of Wawona and prepping our whistles and flashlights in case we encountered any mountains lions (a real concern in these parts), we set off around 9am.
The trail varied from rocky hills to flat fields to staircases dipping below the waterfalls. We didn’t pass another hiker for four miles, and only then saw a few groups of people on our way back. The summit opened up to the top of Chilnualna Falls, large boulders overlooking the valley. We ate our packed lunch on top of the falls and soaked in the warm afternoon sun until we made our way back down the mountain.
Since we were in the area, we had one final stop for the day at Nelder Grove. Although Mariposa is closed for the next few months for restoration, we were set on seeing some Giant Sequoias, trees so large that the diameter of their trunks are twice my height. After stopping at the Wawona General Store for directions, we made our way down the series of dirt roads to the park entrance. Sadly, the park was filled with giant stumps, very few live sequoias to be found. Fittingly, the trail was named “Graveyard of the Giants”. We only walked a mile of so into the park and actually found the walk to be more depressing than we anticipated. It was devastating to see the impact humans have had on nature, the dead trees a symbol of the irreversible damage done to these woods. We stuck to the trails so as not to destroy anymore of the treasured area, and made our way back to Yosemite West before the second half of our trip.
Although Yosemite is a beautiful learning environment for all who visit, it’s also a reminder of the carelessness of mankind and its impact on the land. Black trees stick out along the highway like burnt toothpicks from past forest fires, and constant warnings to stay away from the endangered animal life are posted everywhere. It’s with optimism and subtle confidence that one hopes that the more people visit national parks, the more knowledge and power they’ll have to protect them.
Stay tuned for the second half of our trip, including a view of the park from the river and an early sunrise over Half Dome! Make sure to visit part 2 here!
Have you ever been to Yosemite? What is your favorite national park?
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