By Douglas M. Kish, MA
Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a list of adventure hikes I wanted to conquer in my lifetime by visiting some of the best National Parks America has to offer. While I hiked through Sequoia in 2019, Yellow Stone, Grand Canyon, Glacier and Yosemite were still on my bucket list.
I crossed another one off in 2021 when I visited Yosemite National Park for the ultimate outdoor adventure.
Yosemite National Park, located in California, covers over 750,000 acres, almost 1,200 square miles and four counties. The terrain of this park is what makes it so exciting and different than other parks. The granite cliffs rise up as if they are touching the heavens. The numerous waterfalls make you feel like you’ve been transported to a tropical paradise.
The giant sequoia trees emit an exhilarating fragrance that erases all your stress. My experience will be difficult to put into words because it was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.
When I began to plan this adventure, the first thing I did was search the web. I looked for activities in the area, which trails I wanted to hike, rafting possibilities, lodging ideas, safety measures, wildlife and precautions due to COVID. Due to so many COVID restrictions, I would certainly advise calling ahead if you plan to visit.
Immediately I learned that park entry requires a reservation obtained through the website nps.gov/yose. No matter what your plans are, you need to register for day-use permits allowing for camping, lodging, Wilderness or Half Dome hiking permits and regional tour groups.
You must obtain a permit 7 days prior to your arrival, since the number of visitors each day is limited, and you must do this through the website recreation.gov. Depending on your adventure, costs of the permits vary. The cost of an entry permit is $35, plus a $2 processing fee, and it is valid for 3 consecutive days.
Most of all, I wanted to experience the Half Dome hike which requires a separate permit obtained through a lottery system and limited to a designated number of permits issued for each day. As with all adventures, some come with restrictions. The Half Dome hike should only be undertaken by individuals in good physical condition and capable of enduring the cable climb up the steep incline.
The main tourist area of Yosemite is called “The Yosemite Valley.” That’s the location where you will spend 99% of your time, even though it only encompasses 7.5 miles of the National Park. On the first day of my adventure, I entered the park and was absolutely speechless at what I saw.
Although I have seen these images in pictures, especially the iconic ones, seeing the amazing cliffs, waterfalls, colors, and terrain in person, I found myself at a loss for words and stopped the car, like many others, to start taking photographs.
Continuing on to the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center, it became clear that some additional research was required to find the available excursions and how to sign up for adventures other than hiking.
Finding my way to the Visitor Center was harder than anticipated, even with the map and literature received at the entrance gate. Stopping to get directions, I was advised that many roads were closed and limited to one direction in order to limit traffic and congestion throughout the park due to COVID.
I learned the best thing to do was park the car and walk. So, I did; I parked the car and headed on foot to the Visitor Center to get advice about which trails to tackle.
After talking with a ranger, I found out they only offer raft and kayak rentals during the spring, when the rivers and streams are flowing from the rain and snow runoff. The only way you can kayak or raft during other seasons is to bring your own equipment.
The choice of trails was a bit overwhelming, ranging from paved to accommodate handicapped transportation and bicycles, to off the beaten path and hard core, very difficult and strenuous. I knew I wanted to see the iconic Half Dome. The ranger advised me to head to Mirror Lake on the Tenaya Creek where he said I would have an incredible view of Half Dome.
On the trail to Mirror Lake the path was made up of many different terrains. First, it was paved, but as I moved to a higher elevation, there were makeshift stairs created from the stones on the path.
At times, it was very challenging. Arriving at Mirror Lake about an hour and a half later, the picturesque view was not disappointing. While there, I began talking with some people who seemed to be regular Yosemite visitors.
I asked them what trails they felt would challenge me. Someone suggested I check out the Mist Trail on the way up to Half Dome. Getting directions, I took out the map and headed that way, figuring it would take 2-3 hours to reach a certain point. It was explained that the mist from the waterfall would be refreshing, while I navigated the stone formation stairs on the way up.
Arriving at the start of the Mist Trail and the John Muir Trail, which is technically the first leg of the hike to Half Dome, I was so excited to see where I was headed. I traveled along the Merced River, loud and roaring in some areas.
Looking up, I could see a waterfall, Vernal Falls, quit a distance away. The trail seemed to be in a U-shaped valley. Gigantic boulders seemed so tiny looking up the 3,000-foot climb ahead of me.
At a check point on the way up to Vernal Falls, a park ranger met with hikers and reviewed how difficult the next leg of the journey would be. It was as if she was trying to deter people who may not have the agility or stamina to make it to the next section of trail. The ranger explained there would be a series of 600+ stairs formed from rock, dirt and the terrain of the mountain and not much room for error.
Making my way up, I did so in single file with other hikers on a trail only wide enough to accommodate one person at a time. Looking back down behind me, the increasing altitude was exhilarating but also scary. At times, I felt winded and stopped to rest, moving aside to let other people pass.
This required extreme caution as a mistake in footing could result in a disaster. I wanted to at least reach the next rest area at the top of Vernal Falls.
My backpack, filled with plenty of water and snacks, helped me make it all the way to the top where the view was EPIC. Although I felt every painstaking step to attain that view, I was proud to have tackled something so challenging.
Discovering that I had cell service at the top, I decided to video chat with a relative back in Ohio to share the fantastic view.
At the top of Vernal Falls was the Emerald Pool. I saw many hikers taking time to regroup, swimming in the pool and using the large rocks formed by erosion for slides. I also took the opportunity to put my feet in the water and cool off before grabbing a drink and a snack.
Although I thought about going to the next waterfall, Nevada Fall, which is twice the size of Vernal Falls,
I was exhausted and knew I would need all my energy to navigate the steep stairs down plus the 3-hour hike back to the car.
During my third and final day in the area, I decided to take it a little easy. I heard about two amazing hikes that would not be as exhausting as the previous day–the Columbia Rock Trail and the Lower Falls Trail. The Columbia Rock Trail had constant switch backs. It was back and forth up the mountain and the terrain was a little challenging.
The views on the way up were breathtaking. It was a clear and sunny day, allowing for an epic view down to the Yosemite Valley.
I only hiked to Columbia Rock where I saw the Upper Yosemite Falls. It was just over a mile hike up to this location but it took over an hour.
My last hike before leaving Yosemite was a very nice, paved, short hike on the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail. The rest of this easier hike was a welcome change.
This trail is accessible to wheelchairs and people needing assistance. It was nice to see that even if you’re not able to hike deep into Yosemite, you are still able to experience the beauty and awe of mother nature.
This trail did not disappoint. The over 2,400-foot drop from the top of the falls is the tallest in North America. It’s ten times taller than Niagara Falls. The views are very dramatic and the wooded trail area up to the falls is spectacular.
Reflecting on this bucket list adventure, the sights, sounds, and smells I experienced will stay with me forever. I knew it would be a challenge to put in writing what I had witnessed. Words on a page don’t give justice to the beauty of what I saw and experienced. At times, I was at a loss for words since every view was even more beautiful than the last.
I challenge you to check an adventure off your bucket list in 2022. We are never promised tomorrow; so, why not experience what you can today. Your memories, sense of accomplishment, and lots of great photographs, will remain with you forever.
Yosemite National Park Bucket list Adventure