Yosemite National Park: Wonders Of The Panorama Trail, Tuolumne Meadows, and El Capitan

There are too many  incredible places in this world to see, too many incredible places in our country to see.  And I don’t just want to see them, I want to experience them.  This year marks the centennial of the National Park Service and what a happy birthday it’s been.  This September, one of my best friends and I embarked on a ladies adventure to Yosemite National Park and I came home saying that it’s maybe my favorite place I’ve been to.  The stars seemed to align, literally, for this trip to happen the way it did, and even though it was Labor Day, the busiest weekend of the year at Yosemite, we didn’t feel dampened by the crowds because we timed everything right in terms of being in and out of the valley.  We camped at the North Pines campground after the stress-inducing ordeal of reserving a campsite five months prior, and we had a lovely spot near a stream and a view of Half Dome from our site.

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The day we arrived at the park, we did some exploring at the Village Store and the Visitor Center before setting up camp.  One thing I didn’t realize about the park is that they have every single thing you could possibly need for your trip: a grocery store, grills, markets, outdoor shops that carry stove fuel, clothing, and gear, a post office (!!!), and some really lovely gift shops, along with a very informative nature center.  The next time I go to the park I’m planning to purchase all food and fuel when I get there to save room/weight in the luggage.  The shuttle system in the valley is also excellent and the best bet is to park your car at your campsite and take the shuttle everywhere.  That’s what we did (except for the day we drove Tioga Pass Road) and we had little trouble getting around.

After we set up camp and had something to eat, we headed up to Glacier Point to take in the views and walk to Sentinel Dome for sunset.  We also stopped at the Tunnel View on the way up there, the quintessential Yosemite postcard vista.

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We found the trail leading to Sentinel Dome, but quickly discovered that signage in Yosemite is a dicey.  They have these old metal signs that are mysteriously absent at junctions in trails, leaving one to scratch their head and wonder in which direction to proceed.  Unfortunately for us, the turnoff for Sentinel Dome wasn’t an obvious one and the sign pointing the way was placed up in the trail, so we walked right past it without even noticing.  As the sun got lower and lower and we walked farther and farther, it became apparent that we needed to take our pictures, eat a quick snack, and head back.

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We’d actually been on our way to Taft Point without realizing it.  So we still saw a lovely view, but walked a ways in the dark (thank God for headlamps!!!) until we came back to where we’d started at Glacier Point.  As we rounded a bend we ran into a man who invited us to the “star party” that happens every Friday and Saturday night at the Point.  Different Astronomy groups set up high powered telescopes and view the stars from one of the most spectacular vantage points in the whole place!  We were able to see Saturn, a green nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Hercules star cluster, and the Milky Way.  One missed turn in the trail made way for a really cool experience we won’t soon be forgetting.

The next day we woke up early and caught the bus headed to Glacier Point where we would take the Panorama Trail all the way back down to the valley.  There is no shuttle that goes between the valley and the Point so you have to get a one way ticket for $25 that can be booked in advance.  I’m so glad we did this because it not only saved us 32oo feet of elevation climb, but we also ended up with a really knowledgeable bus driver who’d worked at the park for 30 years and told us tons of factoids about its formation, geology, and of course, John Muir.  It was a fascinating way to wake up on the way to a trail!

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I can’t accurately describe how incredible the Panorama Trail is, but in John Muir’s book The Yosemite it’s one of the things he suggests doing if you only have a day in the park.  You can take the 4 Mile Trail up to Glacier Point, and I’ve heard this is spectacular, but the elevation gain is around 3000 feet before you even start the 9.4 miles that lead back to the valley.  So we started at Glacier Point on a clear day with views as far as the eye could imagine.  You basically traverse the upper edge of the valley and see Half Dome from one side to the other.

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It was an incredible hike that was mostly downhill, except for a 700 foot elevation gain somewhere in the middle.  Shortly after Illilouette Falls we took the unmarked trail to Panorama Point for a breathtaking view of Half Dome and the valley.  It was really too much for the mind to grasp because you are trying to comprehend massive depth and height all at the same time.  Apparently there used to be a guard rail here at one time, but it fell off and is hanging on the mountain, but we didn’t hang over far enough to see it.  We heard hikers passing the unmarked trail and couldn’t help but feel sorry for them because they were missing the most gorgeous view on the trail.

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As we continued on we headed to Nevada Falls which was quite a force to be reckoned with in spite of it being at its lowest point in the year.

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If we’d been smart, we would have just taken the John Muir Trail back to the Valley at this point, but we headed to Vernal Falls, which was meh at the top, choked with foolish people swimming in the Emerald Pool.  Also, we had to take the mist trail from Nevada to Vernal and I kept praying we wouldn’t get injured along the way.  This is an extremely tough walk down “steps” that aren’t really steps that are covered with sand so it’s hard to gain traction.  I can’t stress enough how careful we had to be, and it’s no surprise that people die on this trail each year, and we weren’t even near the part that goes next to the waterfall and is often slippery.  So instead of going down the rest of the Mist Trail we opted to back track to the John Muir Trail and take that down to Happy Isles.

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Again, this was tough because at one point this trail was paved, but now it’s just covered with sand, so I was incredibly thankful to have my trekking poles to at least stop me from slipping in my trail runners.  My knees were aching by the time we reached the bottom, but the satisfaction of seeing the sign where the JMT begins was a moment for me.   I cannot recommend the Panorama Trail highly enough.  If you have the energy and are able, do it.  The views are unmatched.

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The next day we headed to Tioga Pass Road, which was another heart stopping experience.  The sheer beauty of the Sierras reached deep into my soul, and the peace of Tuolumne Meadows made me realize why so many people prefer the PCT over the AT.  It’s just a different landscape that is more open and humbling.  Since Mariposa Grove is closed for renovation, our best option was the Tuolumne Grove.  We did this first thing in the morning while there was still plenty of parking in the lot and we were so glad we did.  The hike in is all downhill, so be prepared for a decent lung workout on the way back.  The first sight of a giant sequoia just stopped me in my tracks and made me so excited, I still can’t even believe these trees!!!

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They are the oldest living beings in the world and they are of such width and breadth that even now as I think about how awesome these trees are, I can’t wrap my head around their sheer “bigness.” In the shadow of these trees, standing there like a mere speck on the ground, one gets the sense of humanity’s frailty.  Some of these trees were around before Jesus was.  When I stare up at a tree that has lived through fire, flood, drought, and literally stood the test of time, it makes me feel oh so small and oh so thankful for creation, for the natural world, and places like Yosemite that are doing all they can to preserve these wonders for future generations.  I’ve been told the Mariposa Grove is much more impressive, but this small section of the park is well worth seeing if it’s the only chance you will have to stand amongst the giants.

Next stop was up at Olmstead Point which surprised me because I didn’t realize the role that Frederick Law Olmstead played in the planning of park.  He was such an incredible man whose fingerprints are all over the American landscape, but in urban areas and in the wilderness.  The view from this point is epic and I was kicking myself for not having binoculars because you can actually see the climbers on Half Dome from here.  If you walk the .3 miles to the overlook, you can also see Tenaya Lake from the far side.  Again, the Sierras just grabbed hold of me in this spot.

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We drove past Tenaya Lake and headed straight to the visitor center where we were able to get some info on where to head.  One of the saddest factoids we learned here is that 75% of people who visit Yosemite never go further than 1/4 mile from their car the entire time they are in the park.  This is astounding because I can’t imagine how much you’d miss if you didn’t explore just a bit more.  It made me so glad that we weren’t part of that demographic.  We got some great advice here that I will pass on.  Head on over to Soda Springs and Parson’s Lodge.  There is a parking area where you can park and walk in, then from the lodge it’s .75 miles to the visitor center across the river and a lovely bridge that leads to a trail through the meadow.  The sun was shining, the picket pins were popping their heads up out of the golden grasses, and the little dippers were wading in the stream as trout swam by.  If ever there was a place that personified the word “ideal” this would be it.  We took the trail to the grill where we got some great ice cream cones before heading back to the car.

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Tenaya Lake was next on the list, and what a sparkling, cerulean blue oasis.  We sat in the cold wind on a sandy beach with water lapping at the shore as climbers tackled the dome in the distance.  Luckily the water was low enough for us to cross over to the trail that goes around the lake.  Then we caught the shuttle back to our car.  Peace and tranquility own this place.

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Obviously there is so much to do at Yosemite that it’s hard to do everything, but we sure tried.  The next day we headed down the trail from our campsite to Mirror Lake which was almost completely dried up and was henceforth known as Mirror Puddle.  The view of Half Dome from this vantage point is stunning.  The face stares down at the Puddle and when it is a Lake, the reflection is perfect.  We then headed back to the Happy Isles Nature Center which was a wealth of information and we nerded out on factoids we’d been missing, such as types of tree bark and scat we saw on the trail.

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We also headed down to the Majestic Yosemite Hotel which is really the Awahnee, but some name issue has messed everything up at the park.  We had drinks on the veranda and wrote postcards in the shadow of the pines.  We also used an obscene amount of hand soap in the bathroom since it had been quite a long time since we’d used a warm faucet.

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My parents’ trip to Yosemite overlapped ours by a day, so we met up with them for dinner, but before that I wanted to go stare at El Capitan because it is utterly mesmerizing.  It’s the largest granite monolith in the world and its height is the equivalent of three Empire State Buildings end to end.  There were some climbers on the ground with a telescope so we could so the climbers on the wall.  They answered lots of questions and showed off their muscles for all the ladies.  El Cap…

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Standing in front of Yosemite Falls at dusk.  Totally dry.

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The morning we left Yosemite, Alicia and I were wondering what we would see that day.  Our campsite was a haven of fun activity.  We saw mama deer walking their babies past.  Over a dozen Merganser ducks swam by in a line through the stream one day.  And on our last day, we were not disappointed…

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Next year, I plan to go back here with Rob and another friend.  I want to see this place again, to feel the way I felt when I was there, to experience the awe that so rarely infiltrates daily life.  Yosemite is a place of wonder.

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