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The Yosemite Valley Is Here To Stay. But, How?

Last October we spent 3 days in Yosemite valley, hiking El Capitan and confronting the new world’s problems in California.

We will not cover all the basic info you need to know before traveling to Yosemite: how to go around the valley, when is the best period of the year to go, when the cables on Half Dome are up, from where you can get the best view of the Half Dome and all that jazz. We are not a travel blog. Everything you need to absolutely know can be found here.

Last October, a work trip brought us to the US and it was the perfect excuse to tick something off our lists: Yosemite Valley. We made our way to the West Coast and linked at the San Francisco airport, having already agreed on avoiding completely a visit to the city pointing directly to the world’s famous Valley. From San Francisco, it is a 4 hours drive. And yes, we had a quick stop at In-N-Out on the road.

Before heading towards the inner state we had to go through the Bay Area with all the names we now recognize from the back of our devices and the tech media. Palo Alto. Cupertino. Mountain View and so on form a continuous conglomerate of offices and houses expanding from the highway running parallel to the bay. Even here, in this Tech El Dorado, you can spot the RVs and cars parked on the road which has become the new form of permanent housing for loads of people. In California, there is no in-between, either you are rich and own a house or you are poor and homeless. More than a quarter of Californians live below in or near poverty, despite the state being the fourth economy in the world. Welcome to California.

The more we go east the more the towns were smaller and shops start to disappear from the roadside. We entered the American big spaces, something almost unconceivable coming from the hyper-urbanized European continent. Our drive continued in the pitch dark with only houses and lights appearing at the main junctions - we recommend stopping at the Chinese Camp Store for all things China and Japan, from oolong tea and more. Everything was dark. We felt in the middle of nowhere. Right after 10 pm, we entered Yosemite National Park without even realizing what was going on in the landscape around and above our Toyota.

Entering the park late has its own benefits. Mainly, we avoided paying the entrance fee. Apparently only if you enter the park during rangers' working hours do you have to pay. From now on we planned our routes in and out based on this little trick. Every penny counts in the end and everything is expensive in California. Nowadays, nomad climbers and hikers can’t afford to sleep inside the park anymore and they are forced to commute from the immediate outer villages. Some blame the rising prices for the lost sense of community compared to 30 years ago. Business is business, everywhere.

yosemite valley climbers old
Climbers in the 80s at the top of El Capitan. Credit: Adventure Sports Journal

There are 3 ways of experiencing Yosemite Valley. You can do it the old way, like the climbers in the 60s with their mythological aura, and sleep at Campground 4. This is the spot where the third-century climbers' community still reunites. You can see them chilling in their tents or vans after a long day of bouldering. Then, you can do it the gentrified way and sleep at The Ahwahne, where you can choose between 2 restaurants and drink a nice cocktail in the nice lobby. The prices are similar to New York - same people same prices. Lastly, there is the middle: Curry Village. Huge camping with loads of cabins, common areas, and the feeling of being at a summer camp from the 80s. This was our choice. We didn’t have the equipment ready for Campground 4 and we still want to enjoy the atmosphere of camping in Yosemite.

El Portal Yosemite park entrance
El Portal Park Entrance

The park met gentrification a while ago. Everything is accommodated and made easy in the best American and, even more, Californian spirit. There is not much left of the wilderness from the 60s when the valley was a mecca for climbers. Today, tourists drive around in minivans to take pictures of the Half Dome every day, and many of them are not even getting off the van at all. You can drive up to Glacier Point, take your pictures, drive back and post everything on your social media account as if you did hike up there. How were Yosemite Valley before the Apple screensaver and its Instagram hashtag?

Early mornings and nights are the only moments of the day when you still perceive a sense of wilderness in the Valley. You are immersed in deep and dark silence. Nothing is really happening if it is not in your headlamp or iPhone torch radius. You look out for bears around your tent and be quick with your food - in and out of the bear box is the mantra from the lady at the village. How many times our lives are threatened by animals nowadays? This was the first time for me. Before you ask. Yes, we saw some bears.

Yosemite valley
The Yosemite Valley

The plan for our 3 days was simple and ambitious: Glacier Point, Half Dome, and El Capitan in this order. Around 90k and +4,000 meters of elevation. These are the 3 best one-day hikes you can do from the Yosemite low valley. You see pretty much everything. And here everything stays for thousands of slightly different perspectives of the Half Dome. Not just the ones in our MacBooks.

Day 1: Glacier Point & Panorama Trail

Looking at the valley from its extremities you can recognize the shape of a canyon. A miniature of the Grand Canyon full of green nature. For this reason, all the hikes start with a steep ascent to the upper valley. Glacier point is one of the most famous viewpoints for the Valley and is right in the middle of the south side. We started the hike thinking of doing an out and back to Glacier Point, around 16k overall. No mercy from the start. We gained almost 1,000 meters in the first 7k, pretty steep. The trail up to Glacier Point is nothing like what we have in Europe. Being one of the most frequented routes, the path is completely paved. Another example of the lost wilderness and the ease of living at all costs that we are chasing nowadays. We might as well have left our La Sportiva and Hoka at home. The view was definitely worth the climb, together with the 10 am Bud Light. Cheers.

Half Dome Glacier Point
Half Dome from Glacier Point

Our early start allowed us to reach Glacier Point before midday thus we felt we needed more from the day. We decided to link the hike to the Panorama Trail and descended from the far end of the valley, right below Half Dome. The Panorama Trail - a real trail with roots, rocks, and leaves everywhere - follows the south wall with an enjoyable descent. It is the type of American trail that is very runnable and walkable. Not many people go further than Glacier Point so the trail is not busy at all and you can run the single track nicely without many human obstacles.

We quickly dropped 400 meters before another climb up to reach a glorious viewpoint on the Panorama Cliff. From there it was all the way down to Yosemite Valley going through the most iconic falls in Yosemite: Vernal and Nevada Falls. As you reach the Arizona Fall you are back in the polished and accommodated Californian experience. Hordes of tourists made it here every day as it is one of the shortest and most scenic trails in the valley. Despite all the selfies, the girls hiking in Vans, and the loud FaceTime calls, you can still enjoy the greatness of these rock walls. We made our way down to the trailhead after dribbling at least one hundred Californian day hikers and caught the bus back to our car at the Glacier Point trailhead. Easy as it is: 24k with 1,211 meters of elevation.

Day 2: Low Valley Run & East Valley Walk

Our plans messed up on the second day. Energies were running a bit lower than expected with all the traveling we did to get here. We decided to skip Half Dome, which would have been a big day: 26k with 1,800 meters of elevation and a technical last climb to the summit of the Dome since the cables are down during the low season - Half Dome, we will be back for you. We opted for an easy day in the low valley and drove to some sightseeing spots around the park.

First, a nice morning run around the western valley. It is hard to call it a trail run. Most of it is paved, even if covered with leaves, or on trails made of solid wood. One of the best 10k I can remember and by far the one with the most pictures taken.

After the run, we made our way to Mirror Lake and then to Yosemite Village. We stayed below 100 meters of total elevation and just chilled all the way to a spot on the river where we enjoyed some beers with our feet in the cold water. The nature in the valley is astonishing in autumn. The foliage is nothing to envy in Vermont or Japanese mountains.

mirror lake yosemite park
What is left of Mirror Lake

We need to talk about Mirror Lake. Mirror lake is not there anymore. No water at all. We walked on the lake bank and enjoyed the views. Before it was known to be dry in the summer, but we went in the last week of October and the water level was 0%. This is the result of the water shortage that is afflicting California. One of the 2 biggest climate problems affecting California and even more the Sierra Nevada right now, the other is fires - we will come to this in a second. After Yosemite, we made our way to the Mammoth Lakes area and among the dozens of lakes there, most of them were reduced to half or even less of their original size. The drying up of the lakes causes a dramatic change in the landscape and, therefore, in the local economy. In the June Lake area, one of the 3 big lakes is down to somewhat 20% of its original size, resulting in a dystopian landscape out of Mad Max. A pier 50 meters away from the water line. Wide plains of sand everywhere. Cars drifting around the lake bank. Climate change led to lower snow and rain levels in the Eastern part of the state. It is a matter of time before more lakes will disappear for longer and longer during the year. The scenic walks might not be scenic anymore.

Day 3: El Capitan

On the last day, we went for the big one: out and back to El Captain summit. El Cap dominates the mid-valley with its Oscar-winning 1,000 meters wall. The ascent to the peak starts from Campground 4 and it is the longest day hike you can do from the low valley. We started early again as we knew we had a big day ahead and it lived up to our expectations: 9 hours in total with a lot of breaks, we were on holiday after all. We counted 8 people on the trail that day. I guess big hikes are not for everyone. A completely different experience compared to the first day when we were 2 of the many - maybe thousands - on the trail. Again, the start was merciless: 842 meters in the first 6k. The last push to get on the north ridge was a steep and beautiful ascent in a narrow valley between two huge and scary walls.

El Capitan Summit
El Capitan Summit

During this climb, we saw the sun rising above the opposite ridge together with the smoke coming from fires in the outer parts of the Park. What was only a smell in our noses the previous mornings became a dangerous confirmation that morning. Fires were still going on in the park even if we were past mid-October and temperatures were around 0 degrees before sunrise. We then started to notice all the “High Fire Risk” signs along the roads. Fires have been a rising problem in California, where more than 2 million acres were burnt in 2021. We all remember the scary images from the fires in the outskirts of Los Angels and San Francisco from a few years ago, without even mentioning cities like Paradise that were destroyed by this new danger. Every year this problem keeps getting bigger and it is not showing any signs of cooling down. During the week we spent in the Sierra Nevada, we drove through huge portions of forest burnt, feeling hopeless about the threatening future we will face.

After the first climb, we had a long approach to the El Cap summit, which is not a real summit, but just the top of the ridge above the huge wall. The trail goes deep into the wood with huge sequoias that makes you feel very very small. The last part opened up on the ridge and you can admire the Half Dome again. When we got to the summit, we did not feel anything special. The summit is a plateau with few trees that gently descend to the big wall we all know. We chilled a bit there and then started the inbound route. We found ourselves running the last few kilometers as we were craving our beer-based reward.

la sportiva jackal beer
La Sportiva Jackal and Bud Light to end the day

After reading about California and its problems a bit everywhere in the last 2 years, Yosemite Valley felt like a condensed version of California in a few square kilometers. Desperate technological advancement conflicts with the last frontier territories and their once-pristine nature which is succumbing to humanity. In the end, Yosemite might be the condensed version of our planet and society, not just California.

The contrast between the most technologically developed area in the world and the belly of America is visible here more than anywhere else. We saw software engineers coding in their vans with a satellite antenna on their roofs, while the lady at the reception was learning how to use a computer - What should I type if I want to find a map of a place? Just type ‘Maps’. Oh wow, this is great. - and she has worked inside the Park all her life.

Climate change with all its arising problems and mutation in the environment we live in. Fires and water shortages are more powerful here than anywhere else. Less snow and less rain equal disappearing lakes and falls. Higher temperatures and aridness equal a higher risk of fires. How this piece of land will change in the next few years?


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