Wednesday, June 17, 2009

DAY TRIP REPORT - Yosemite National Park

It has long since been a dream of mine to backpack the major parks within the United States. The parks which are on my list include Yellowstone, Redwoods, Arches, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite to name a few in the contiguous U.S. This dream has been perpetually “on hold” pending everything from funding, to vacation time, to waiting for my two sons to be at an appropriate age, and even my general health.

Recently I was fortunate enough to have a business conference which sent me to California. Being that the “business” aspect was only 4 days, it was my intent to burn the candle at both ends as much as possible to try to see everything I could in my limited time while stretching the trip to both weekends. Considering my options from my launching area of Los Angeles, I decided to make every effort to take a short trip to both Yosemite National Park and Joshua Tree National Park. My next two blogs will identify the highlights of these two amazing trips.

Yosemite National Park spans eastern portion of Tuloumne, Mariposa, and Madera counties in east Central California. It is always funny to me, being a Virginia native with minimal experience out west, to hear names like “Mariposa” which until now I thought was nothing more than a clever name for a lightweight Gossamer Gear backpack. The 1,189 sq mi park is roughly the size of Rhode Island and contains thousands of lakes and ponds, 1,600 miles of streams, 800 miles of hiking trails, and 350 miles of roads. Two federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Merced and the Tuolumne, begin within Yosemite's borders and flow westward through the Sierra foothills, into the Central Valley of California.

Yosemite covers an area of 761,266 acres or 1,189 square miles and reaches across the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain chain. Yosemite is visited by over 3.5 million people each year, many of whom only spend time in the seven square miles of Yosemite Valley being that bulk of easily accessible attractions are readily visible within the immediate area. Although visiting in June isn’t ideal due to the crowds and heat, it was what I had to work with. Yosemite Valley represents only one percent of the park area, but this is where most visitors arrive and stay. El Capitan and Half Dome are two prominent granite cliff that loom over the valley and are also two of the most popular rock climbing destinations in the world because of their diverse range of climbing routes in addition to its year-round accessibility. Granite domes such as Sentinel Rock and Half Dome rise 3,000 feet and 4,800 feet, respectively, above the valley floor.

Yosemite has a Mediterranean climate, meaning most precipitation falls during the mild winter, and the other seasons are nearly dry (less than 3% of precipitation falls during the long, hot summers). While I was there, temperatures ranged from the 60’s to 70’s depending on the elevation. Being from Virginia and accustomed to humidity, it was amazingly comfortable to be in cool temperatures without all the fuss of the damp air.

The average (mean) daily temperatures range from 25 to 53°F at Tuolumne Meadows at 8,600 feet. At the Wawona Entrance (elevation 5,130 feet), average daily temperature ranges from 36 to 67°F. At the lower elevations below 5,000 feet, temperatures are hotter; the daily average high temperature at Yosemite Valley (elevation 3,966 feet) varies from 46 to 90°F. At elevations above 8,000 feet , the hot and often dry summer temperatures are moderated by frequent summer thunderstorms, along with snow that can persist into July. The combination of dry vegetation, low relative humidity, and thunderstorms results in frequent lightning-caused fires as well.

Yosemite was designated a World Heritage Site in 1984 as it is internationally recognized for its spectacular granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, Giant Sequoia groves, and biological diversity. Almost 95% of the park is designated wilderness and to pretend that a trip of any length could summarize the amazing beauty and breathtaking scenery would be foolhardy.

Of California's 7,000 plant species, about 50% occur in the Sierra Nevada and more than 20% within Yosemite. There is suitable habitat or documentation for more than 160 rare plants in the park, with rare local geologic formations and unique soils characterizing the restricted ranges many of these plants occupy.

The geology of the Yosemite area is characterized by granitic rocks and remnants of older rock. About 10 million years ago during the shift of the plate tectonics, the Sierra Nevada was uplifted and then tilted to form its relatively gentle western slopes and the more dramatic eastern slopes. The uplift increased the steepness of stream and river beds, resulting in formation of deep, narrow canyons. About 1 million years ago, snow and ice accumulated, forming glaciers at the higher alpine meadows that moved down the river valleys. Snow can be seen on certain peaks year round. The movement of the ice cut and sculpted the U-shaped valley that attracts so many visitors to its scenic vistas today. For a guy from the east coast, it seemed a lot like a giant fishbowl. The valley was virtually flat and handled the bulk of the visitors who merely explored the vastness of the area between the surrounding granitic rocks walls.

The park has three groves of ancient Giant Sequoia trees; the Mariposa Grove (200 trees), the Tuolumne Grove (25 trees), and the Merced Grove (20 trees). This species grows larger in volume than any other and is one of the tallest and longest-lived. These trees were much more widespread before the start of the last Ice Age. I visited the Mariposa Grove and found them to be outstandingly beautiful. I had been to the Sequoia National Park earlier in the week and liked the fact that Yosemite didn’t fence in every tree as it allowed me to get up close and personal. The sounds and smells in a forest containing one of the giant Sequoias is almost something out of a fairytale.

The Mariposa Grove contains the fifth (publically known) largest tree in the world. This tree is lovingly referred to as “the Grizzly Giant”. This enormous tree is believed to be 2700 years old, the oldest known Sequoia tree. Sequoias are among the oldest known organisms on earth, surpassed only by the bristlecone pines. The Grizzly Giant is 100 feet in diameter at its base and is 209 feet high. It is the largest tree is Yosemite and is estimated to weigh 2 million pounds. The picture on this blog is of me with one of the smaller trees in the Grove. Keep in mind, I’m 6’6” and 280 pounds.

My experience in Yosemite was inspiring. The whole environment was so different than my normal stopping ground that I found myself merely starring off into the wilderness several times and being amazed by something as simple as the feeling of dirt. Animals and trees were different, the sounds and smells were different, and it all seemed so “wild”. I even got a kick out of chatting with the chipmunks and trying to avoid being eaten by a bear who walked around with her two cubs within a very close proximity. It was quite an amazing and enchanting experience - one which has left me reassured to educate my kids of the different environments of the world as it is as important to understand differences of wilderness as it is to appreciate differences in people and politics. I also learned that curvy roads are equally horrible and nauseating in California as they are in Virginia. Not limited to just Virginia either apparently, California also affords the right to drive to people who quite literally appear to have the genetic composition of fecal matter. On a sad note, I was also reminded how dangerous certain outdoor activities can be. While in the valley, I watched a helicopter pick up the remains of a touristist who fell off the climbing ladder on Half Dome. He simply slipped and tumbled to his death. It was sobering.

Bottom line – if you can’t find inspiration and a love for the outdoors in this environment – you might very well be dead.

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