Admit it: If, like me, you’re not from the USA, you probably know Yosemite either as a Mac OS or a cartoon character. And you might pronounce it “yos-e-MIGHT” instead of “yos-em-it-EE.”
A Bit of History
Yosemite National Park is actually one of America's most treasured landmarks and has been the inspiration for countless artists and great men and women. Covering a huge area of 1,190 sq miles (3,081 km², five times the size of Metro Manila!) in the Sierra Nevada of California, Yosemite gave birth to the concept of the “national park;” i.e., the idea that there are areas of natural beauty and/or historical importance that must be kept protected and unspoiled in perpetuity for the appreciation of all generations.
Today, the concept of the national park has been adopted throughout the world, including the Philippines: ours include the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, Mount Pulag National Park, Luneta Park (no, seriously), and many others.
Two Clueless Pinoys, One Long, Dark Drive
Originally, I had planned to check out the hipster haven of Portland with my friend of 13 years, San Francisco-based designer Christine “CH” Herrin. But those plans fell through, and so CH and I spontaneously decided to go to Yosemite instead. With the Internet as our only guide, we booked a rental car and accommodations online, and prayed we wouldn’t crash or get lost. We booked on a Monday and set off the following Friday, Feb. 13.
Neither of us had much experience driving on American freeways, but we had a 160-mile drive into the mountains ahead of us. We left downtown San Francisco at around 5:30p.m. and made the long commute to Oakland International Airport, where we had found the cheapest rental rates online. We arrived at 7:30p.m. - a full three hours later than the pickup time we had scheduled. Oops. We finally hopped in our car, programmed our GPS, and left past 8:00p.m.
It was, as expected, stressful for me to bomb down zigzags at full speed in pitch blackness as we approached the Sierra Nevada. I would never drive like this in the Philippines because of the ever-present threat of pedestrians, livestock, tricycles, misplaced electric posts, rogue overtaking cars, etc., but apparently in America, you can expect other drivers and people to act in a predictable, rational manner. Slowing down too much would have made me a hazard to other drivers, so I kept up speed and held on to my balls! Figuratively speaking. :-)
Not a Soul in Sight
At 11:30p.m., we arrived at our camp for the night: Yosemite Pines RV Resort… where we did not see a single human being. Everything was closed, and I feared we had paid $75 to sleep in the car. Why hadn’t we thought of calling them up to inform them we were running three hours late?
But after poking around a bit, CH found a note and the keys to our cabin taped to the front door of the visitor’s center. Whew. It must have been around 0 degrees C and we were pooped, but with the relief of getting our cabin sorted out, we were able to look up and appreciate our reward:
At First Sight
At sunrise, 7:00a.m. the next day, we packed up and drove to Yosemite in order to beat the crowds converging there for the long weekend. The one-hour drive was gorgeous, with tree-lined mountain passes and the sun rising just off the road to the right.
Soon we arrived at the entry point for the park. Normally, private cars pay $20 for 7 days of 24/7 admission. But, as a nice park ranger informed us, we had chanced upon visiting during President’s Day weekend, so admission was free!
We pulled into the last stretch of our drive, and I caught my breath as El Capitan began to loom above us. It was mind-bogglingly massive and looked surreal as the first rays of the sun hit the infamous Dawn Wall.
Before entering the loop that served as the main thoroughfare around Yosemite Valley, we hung a right to arrive at our first stop: Tunnel View, for the classic view of Yosemite.
For me, in terms of sheer physical grandeur, seeing this for the first time was up there with my first panoramic view of the Pyramids and even Machu Picchu: I felt this pure awe and gratitude that somehow I had made it all the way there to see it.
After we’d had our fill taking pictures, we hopped over to nearby Bridalveil Fall. It wasn’t in full flood as California has been under a drought lately, but still worth the stop.
Driving further into the valley, we had to make another stop for this view of El Capitan, glowering imperiously in the morning sun.
We shortly found a parking space (pays to come early!) and made a ten-minute walk to the Visitor’s Center. The weather was perfect - not a cloud in the sky.
After making a cursory sweep of the area around Visitor’s Center, we made the short hike to Yosemite Falls. First, we made our way to a viewpoint where we could see both the upper and lower falls in all their glory, complete with a hint of its signature rainbow.
From there, we hiked further on to the foot of Lower Yosemite Fall. The hike took about half an hour from the Visitor’s Center, with regular stops for photos.
It is actually possible to hike all the way to the top of Yosemite Falls, but it’s a 6-8 hour round trip hike where you gain 2,700 feet in just 3.6 miles. We figured we’d save that for another visit!
We made our way down to Cooks Meadow via the steeper path to the west of the falls and were treated to another famous view, this time of Half Dome.
We walked back along Cooks Meadow and rebounded back to the Visitor’s Center. They had a souvenir shop, a museum, and an updated display of weather conditions around the park, including many roads that were still closed for the winter. For that reason, we weren’t able to drive down to Mariposa Grove to see the famous giant sequoias, or make the reputedly stunning drive east on Tioga Pass.
Then we walked into the theater and caught free back-to-back showings of two half-hour documentaries: “The Spirit of Yosemite” and “Yosemite: A Gathering of Spirit.” They gave me a deeper appreciation for what this park has meant to the US and the world. One interviewee called it “America’s cathedral;” indeed, as you can tell by the movie titles, it’s a place of such singular, wild beauty that one can’t help but drop into a deeper state wandering about its woods and mountains.
After the film, we took a long walk east to have lunch at the grand old Ahwahnee Hotel, a US National Historical Landmark. It was here at the Ahwahnee that I chanced upon a show of stunning photos of Yosemite by photographer Robb Hirsch. Robb himself was there, so I introduced myself and we had a short talk about his travels and his work. It was a treat to see the art and get to pick the brain of the artist too.
After eating, we took the free shuttle back to the Visitor’s Center and decided we would just relax. There was too much to see and so many trails to walk, but we knew we would be back soon! For perspective, the tiny yellow highlighted area below shows what percentage of the park we covered by car and on foot:
We had only done the most basic and touristy of itineraries in Yosemite, but we didn’t feel like we had wasted any time. We grabbed some coffee and had a long conversation in the fresh valley air.
As the sun went down, with a long drive ahead of us, we decided to head out. On our way out, we stopped by Valley View for another obligatory photo.
And that ended our brief glimpse of Yosemite. I finally saw for myself why this place has been a life-changing font of inspiration for great men and women of the past, and why it continues to inspire the artists I admire most today.
As always, thanks for reading! Here are a few more photos that I hope will inspire you to escape the city and recenter yourself in awe amidst Nature. If all cathedrals were like this, I'd go as often as I could.