We hit the mother lode of hikes today. Let me tell you that our hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls rivals our favorite dramatic trails – Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, Comet Falls in Rainier National Park, and Multnomah Falls on the Columbia River Gorge.
And it all happened by cosmic karma. Hannah and I knew our longtime York friends, Wayne and Mary Lynne Boardman, were going to be spending a week in Yosemite at the same time we were passing through the park. We go way back. When our son Will was in fourth grade, he and I took a course in bicycle maintenance at York High School from Eric Boardman, their son. Will and their daughter Lani competed in foul shooting contests in elementary school and later dated in high school.
We have scheduled to hike together in Yosemite National Park tomorrow (Thursday), one of the two days our hiking vacations overlapped. But Thursday’s forecast is for rain, even snow, which would kibosh any hiking on the rocky, granite trails to the falls.
If we want to hike the Vernal and Nevada Falls at all, we have to change our hiking togetherness day to Wednesday. Texting with Wayne early this Wednesday, we all adjust on the fly to make our hike together happen.
Hannah and I have avoided Yosemite National Park for years. Too crowded. Finally, with Hannah giving me a 70th Birthday Road Trip to anywhere of my choosing, I chose Yosemite as one of the five California national parks we would visit. Waiting til September, we’d miss the school kids and their families whose young’uns would be back to their classrooms. But not so fast, my friend. It seems that Asians and Europeans understand September is the perfect time to visit, too. Oops.
Wayne and Mary Lynne are one of my favorite married couples; they always seem just so damn happy to be together; thoughtfully, they saved the primo Vernal and Nevada Falls hike, high above the Yosemite Valley, to do with us.
Staying in Oakhurst (pop. 2829), the southern gateway city to Yosemite, we have a 90-minute drive to Yosemite Valley. Just two weeks ago route 41 to the park was closed due to wildfires. Passing within arm’s length of the charred trees and white ash strewn up and down the hillside, we soon wait for flaggers to let us through on a one-lane road; these government heroes repair the highway and use their chainsaws to manage the burned acres.
Once in Yosemite Valley, we might as well be in Times Square as we are crawling in traffic, unable to find a parking spot. Looping around the park road hoping for a miracle (It’s only 930A on a Wednesday in mid-September!), we create a spot by a side road, then take the park shuttle to meet up with Wayne and Mary Lynne. Finally arriving at the Vernal Falls Trailhead 30 minutes late, we fall into their waiting and loving arms.
Make no mistake about it, Yosemite is busy in September. At 4000’, the trailhead to Vernal Falls is teeming with hikers, but not in an objectionable way. It’s all good! We are in Yosemite, for goodness sakes. Many go just ¾ of a mile to the Vernal Falls Footbridge, but numerous others join us on the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls themselves. It’s 1.5 miles of steady climbing with 1000’ of elevation gain.
At the Footbridge, we catch a view of the 317’ Vernal Falls in the distance. They call it Vernal Fall. What’s up with that! No s! Say Vernal Fall; you got to admit, it just doesn’t roll off the tongue. I’m sticking with Vernal Falls. (Dan, you are such a rebel!) Soon granite steps take us higher. With views of the falls as our constant companion, we let the exuberant step by and just mellow time it to the top ourselves.
Just prior to the head of the falls, we hug the mountainside, though the very solid metal fence gives me the confidence that I would never have without it. Among the steady stream of people, we see groups of school kids who, among other things, are asked to take their resting pulse. California, at the forefront of education, (my first teaching job was at Patrick Henry Elementary School in Anaheim, CA) requires all school districts to provide a week in nature for all sixth graders. That legislative mandate makes opportunities for all communities, not just the elite and wealthy.
At the head of Vernal Falls, we are with a hundred others taking in the view of the Yosemite Valley below. Looking across the valley, we see no sign of the smoke and haze from recent wildfires.
From the top of Vernal Falls at 5000’, we take the trail along the Merced River to the 594’ Nevada Falls. Steadily climbing through the wooded terrain, we soon hit the granite switchbacking steps that efficiently, but with some serious effort, get us to the top.
Though a tough climb of an additional 900’ of elevation gain, once atop the Nevada Falls, we have a wide view of the valley as a backdrop to our lunch together.
Choosing to make ours a loop hike, we take to the more gently sloping, though one and a half mile longer, John Muir Trail back to the trailhead. Throughout our descent, we have the Nevada Falls as a backdrop to our hike.
We couldn’t ask for better hiking companions. Fit and personable, Mary Lynne and Wayne are easy company with miles of good conversation over six hours of hiking up and down the mountains of Yosemite.
Back at the trailhead, the eight miles of hiking with 1900’ of elevation gain has made me one weary boy; satisfied and stunned with our good fortune to hike on a sunny 65F afternoon, we know weather nastiness is coming Yosemite-way tomorrow.
Turns out on the following day, the forecasted rain and snow comes and the high is 44F. In mid-September!
If you have time for one hike in Yosemite, make it to the Vernal and Nevada Falls. And if you can, take along hiking companions like Mary Lynne and Wayne.