Chasing Rainbows in Yosemite

Published: May 23rd 2016
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When we embarked on a year of travelling, we expected to have some unusual accommodation. We were fully prepared for sleeping in tents and caravans, hotels and youth hostels. We expected some really comfortable places and some places less so. We were grateful for all of the friends, family and friends of friends and family who had offered us a place to stay. What we didn't expect was to stay in a retirement community.

However, we were profoundly grateful when Mike and Kathy, who we had first met in San Francisco, offered us their late mother's home in Mariposa for a few nights. We didn't really know what to expect but we though it would be sedate and gentle. You can imagine our surprise when we were woken in the early morning by loud punk music and even louder cussing from our neighbours.

Day 1 - Fire

We had fumbled our way through the house in the dark and very quickly gone to bed the night before. We had decided to rest and recover from a long drive the next day. Our plan was to stay local, if we ventured out at all it would be no further than the local town. By mid-afternoon we were ready to see some local sights.

There was a walking guide to Mariposa on one of the tables which we flicked through. When we saw a two block walk around the courthouse which was supposed to take twenty minutes, we decided we needed to find something a little faster paced.

The first building we came to in Mariposa was the Tourist Information Office. Inside we found an extremely knowledgable woman who had worked there for a couple of decades. She gave us extensive information about the town and suggested some places to visit. She then moved on to Yosemite and rattled off a standard list of things to do, see and walk to. We were just thanking her and about to leave when she said, nonchalantly, "Oh, and then there's the Fire Falls."

Fire Falls... Who could resist such a thing? Actually we had no idea what it was but it got our attention. Apparently, for about a week, if the conditions are right and there has been enough rainfall in the early spring, then, just as the sun is going down it strikes a waterfall in just the right way to make it light up as if it is on fire. This hadn't been seen for a few years but they'd been visible over the past few days. It was uncertain whether they would still happen.

She looked up at the clock and then said to us that we probably couldn't get there in time. In unison Lindsey and I both looked at the clock, looked at each other and smiled. In a moment we had both gone through the calculation that the entrance to Yosemite was forty minutes drive away, sunset would be around 5.30pm and it was 4.15pm. What we weren't sure about was how much of the one-way system we would have to traverse before we could get to where we needed to be. We also weren't sure where we could park. We got out as soon as politely possible and dashed to the car. I took a look at the map and came up with a cunning plan... rather than drive the huge loop of one-way system we could park up and walk about a kilometre. This would save us a huge amount of time and solve the parking problem.

We raced out of Mariposa but just as we left the town limit I realised there was no petrol in the tank and we had to turn around. Gassing the car is a bit of an ordeal in America as you have to insert a credit card into the pump and supply your zip-code. As a foreign national, I didn't have a zip-code so I would have to enter the shop, hand over my card, fill the car and then go back into the shop to complete the transaction. For some reason, this time the process didn't work so I had to repeat it, resenting the delay as it happened.

This time I left Mariposa even faster. We drove down a winding scenic road, crossed the beautiful Merced River a few times and reached the park boundary. Here there was a stunningly beautiful view of the river running through a deep valley of the surrounding mountains. Despite the time pressure we just had to stop to get some photographs. Once we got back in the car we quickly found the point we had been aiming for and parked up. We dashed out of the car and hurried to where the map suggested would be the best viewing point.

After a while we saw a large group of photographers sitting around and decided we must have reached the right place. We had to wait about twenty minutes for the sun to get to just the right spot. Whilst we waited we looked around and admired the beautiful valley. In the distance behind us, instantly recognisable, was Half Dome. In front of us was the imposing edifice of El Capitan. All around us golden light diffused through trees to reflect off the shallow lake at Sentinel Beach. Our surroundings looked spectacular and the funny thing was that the group of photographers, all with expensive cameras, didn't even turn around to see it because they were focused on the waterfalls in front of them. I just loved soaking up the grandeur and spectacle of a sunset in this magnificent place.

As the sun went down, two things gradually happened... firstly the pool of light striking the Horsetail Falls on El Capitan was shrinking in a heart-shaped halo around the falls. The second thing was that a heavy cloud was racing to place itself right between the setting sun and the falls. Just a couple of minutes before we should have been gasping in amazement, the falls suddenly went dark. The golden light surrounding us was gone and the sky took on a much deeper blue hue. There were mutterings from the crowd of disappointed photographers. We walked back in the twilight, sad to have not seen the rare Fire Falls but inspired and delighted by the beauty of the valley.

Day 2 - Ice

The next day dawned and we were far too tired to be up early enough to catch the sunset. This time we took a more leisurely pace to get to the National Park and I had time to admire the pretty pine-clad mountain slopes, the charming little hamlets and the Merced River. By the time we arrived in the park there was already a short queue.

The morning was bright and fresh and we were looking forward to our first planned activity - a ranger-led snowshoe walk. Instead of heading into Yosemite Valley we turned right and headed to Badger Pass. On the way we passed the exquisite Tunnel View lookout point and had to pull in the admire the phenomenal vista. To our left loomed the heights of the sheer El Capitan cliff face. To the right was the surreal shape of Half Dome, with its rounded back and equally sheer front. Between these two iconic mountains lay the valley, completely covered in pine trees. Further to our right we could see some waterfalls dropping down the mountains into the river below. There had been a reasonable amount of snow over the winter and it was now warming, so the waterfalls gushed furiously over the cliff edges.

We continued up the hill, went through the tunnel which gave the lookout it's name, rounded a bend and suddenly reached the snow-line. We continued up the well-cleared road, admiring the snow dusted pine trees to our left and right. At the top we came to the car park for the Badger Pass Ski Resort. We headed over to the Ranger Station and joined Brandon, our guide for the morning. He handed us snow shoes and we tried to put them on. Lindsey was successful but I had to adjust mine to the maximum size and they barely fastened even with Brandon helping me. They would come undone a few times over the morning. We have never walked in snow shoes and it takes some getting used to.

By the time we set off quite a crowd had gathered and been shod. Brandon led us up the hill, telling us a bit about himself and stopping every so often to tell us about the local botany or geology. By the time we got to the top of the hill the fresh day had become hot and we were sweating under our winter clothes. From the top we had views out across the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains. The brilliant gleaming snow contrasted starkly with the deep blue of the cloudless sky and the darker pine forests before us. We paused for a short talk from Brandon on the history of the National Parks Service and Yosemite in particular. By the time we got back to the Ranger Station we were tired and hungry. We ordered a couple of hot chocolates which were really quite disgusting and then went to have lunch in the car.

After lunch we drove back down towards the valley, stopping once again at Tunnel View. Not far beyond the view point we stopped to take a short walk to the Bridal Veil Falls. As we approached these impressive cascades we could feel the spray from the immense volume of water dropping down the cliff. It was obvious why this impressive waterfall got its name.

We continued down the hill to the valley floor. We decided to get out of the car and walk to the Visitor's Centre. We crossed the Merced River and saw the beautiful Scene of Half Dome reflected in the river as immortalised by Ansel Adams. At the Visitor's Centre we revived ourselves with a cup of coffee before visiting the Ansel Adams Gallery. I was in photography heaven and very tempted by all of the books on sale. Not far beyond the gallery we found the post office and finally, after over a week in America, found somewhere we could buy stamps. Excitedly, we bought a dozen and put our postcards in the postbox.

It was getting late, we were tired and the light in the park wasn't great so we called it a day...deciding that there was little chance of us seeing the Fire Falls. It was nice to have an early night and recover a little more from the exertions of our road trip.

Day 3 - Water

Whilst at the Ansel Adams Gallery I had signed up for their sunrise photographic walk. We got up, cleaned the house as we were vacating that day and headed to the park. On the way we got stuck in traffic as it was such a nice morning. This meant that we were twenty minutes late for the guided walk and it had left without us.

Not wanting to waste our last couple of hours in the park we decided to take a walk ourselves. We headed to Yosemite Falls which was a short walk and well worth the effort. The falls, the sixth highest in the world, plummet spectacularly down the face of El Capitan in three long stretches. At the bottom they hit a rocky base and cast large amounts of water back up into the air. This water strongly refracts the early morning light to form an incredibly vivid rainbow across the bottom of the falls. The golden light across the valley was beautiful and the rainbows just stunning.The trees seemed to glow and the mountains were positively radiant. The whole atmosphere was completely indescribable. The crowds gathered around the stream were certainly delighted.

We hung around until the crowds made us feel uncomfortable. The park was filling with people as it was a Saturday and the weather was gorgeous. We stopped for a quick coffee and then decided it was time to leave as we had to get back on the road for the final leg of our road-trip, back to Los Angeles. We drove out past Badger Pass, stopping once again for a final view from the Tunnel. We sighed... this was a hard parting. As we left the park, the queue to get in wound its way down the mountainside. I can understand why it is a popular destination but it must be quite unpleasantly crowded in summer.

I am sure that the beauty of Yosemite will haunt us until we return. I envy Ansel and all who got to spend so much time amidst such phenomenal beauty. Once more the bucket list got longer rather than shorter. Next time I want to be here for at least a week because we barely scratched the surface. Next time we will stay inside its boundary so we don't waste time traveling backwards and forwards. Next time we will camp amidst the trees and river and mountains. Next time... it's inevitable.

Additional photos below
Photos: 16, Displayed: 16


24th May 2016
Yosemite Falls

Yosemite N.P.
Beautifully written and exciting excursion of discovery of this famous National Park, Richard. Oh to have caught the fire in the Falls...oh so close. I thought you had it. Then...!
24th May 2016
Yosemite Falls

Re: Yosemite NP
You win some, you lose some... Though even without the fire falls I felt like a winner. Yosemite was by by far the hardest place for me to leave and I considered not doing so!
24th May 2016
Rainbow at Yosemite Falls

24th May 2016
Sentinel Beach

What wonderful photos of this amazing place--Ansel would be proud! How lucky that you had good weather and were there after winter rains, so the waterfalls were so thunderingly rainbow full. Also, wise that you got out before the crowds, and you're right, summer is impossible. But then, I think they now bar cars from entering and have trams that take people around. Excellent idea to stay a week in the park next time.
25th May 2016
Sentinel Beach

Thanks for such affirming comments Tara. Much appreciated.

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