12 December 2019
Read Time: 3.9 mins
A colleague once told me Yosemite National Park was his favourite place in the world. As he had just returned from Norway, this was extraordinary praise and set my expectations high.
“Make sure you take a moment at the base of Yosemite Valley to look up at Half Dome and El Capitan,” he said, citing two of the national park’s most popular attractions. “Find a space to yourself in the meadow below and just enjoy being among the scenery.”
Yosemite National Park is definitely one of the US national parks you’ve heard about, welcoming 4.2 million visitors annually, mainly from June to August, to an area that’s the around the same size as the ACT.
Situated in the Sierra Nevada range in California, it’s the most accessible national park for Aussie travellers, a four-hour drive east from San Francisco, or a 4.5-hour drive south from South Lake Tahoe on the Nevada border.
In early June, there’s still a 50m snow pack on the High Sierras, thanks to three times as much snow in winter than in the past four years, and the Tioga Pass road remains closed past Memorial Day. But the massive snowfall pays dividends in summer – the waterfalls are gushing as the ice melts and there’s a superbloom of wildflowers.
We overnight at Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, an upscale basecamp at the southern end of the national park. In the morning, we travel north along Wawona Road to Yosemite Valley, along switchbacks and swathes of blackened, felled trees from the Ferguson Fire in 2018 that closed most of the national park – part of the reproduction process of giant sequoias and a natural occurrence familiar to Australians.
Exiting Wawona Tunnel – boom, out of the darkness, there it is – the breathtaking moment when Yosemite Valley is revealed: El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall in the foreground framed by Half Dome at the rear.
Tunnel View outlook offers the classic view of El Capitan and Half Dome, made famous by freewall climbers, including Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of ‘El Cap’ in the 2018 documentary, Free Solo. Amid the bright blue sky and lush greenery, I squint to try and make out climbers ascending these sheer, granite cliffs.
From towering cliffs to giant sequoias, I join ranger Scott Gediman on a walk through Mariposa Grove where the trunks of 3,000-year-old redwoods are so thick, you can walk right through them. More than 500 mature giant sequoias reside here, including stalwarts such as the gnarled ‘Grizzly Giant’, ‘Fallen Monarch’ and the aforementioned ‘California Tunnel Tree’ with its hollowed entrance.
As we walk past soaring sequoias so tall you have to crane your head back to locate the top, I have an overwhelming urge to touch one of the ancient redwoods, but feel conflicted about the conservation and preservation of these groves. “Can I hug a tree?” I ask Scott. He replies in the affirmative and I run my hands over knobbly bark, leaning into the grooves and whorls of a giant sequoia, dwarfed in its shadow.
Despite the popularity of Yosemite Valley (around 90 per cent of tourists visit here), it’s possible to steal away from the crowds and wander for 10 minutes to find yourself gloriously alone. I take my colleague’s advice and find a spot in a meadow to just be. He’s right.
At the aptly named Cathedral Beach looking up at El Capitan, I can see how this is a quasi-religious experience for day-tripping hikers and climbers. It’s immense and foreboding – and bathed in the most beautiful natural light, El Cap knows its best angles.
On the plane home, I watch Free Solo, reconciling the myth with the cliff I saw, and the grit and athleticism it takes to climb what’s essentially a vertiginous 900m granite wall. While scaling El Cap is out of the question, I still pinch myself to think I was there.
This is one of Flight Centre's Top 50 Travel Experiences for 2020. Read the whole list here!