“Take a course in good water and air;
and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own.
Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you.”
Dusk fell like a blanket, soft and purple, skimming the mountain tops and dipping into the valley; a hushed plane, save for the distant roar of Yosemite Falls and the soft echoes of my own footsteps. I had the place to myself.
Entering the Lower Yosemite Falls trail head, a fleeting image passed behind my eyeballs in which I saw myself staring in The Revenant 2: Bearkind’s Revenge. I pushed it aside and headed up the trail, following the sounds of rushing water. A lone photographer passed me, lugging a tripod back down the trail and a family of four moved on up the path after capturing a group selfie, but otherwise I was alone, wrapped in the (frigid cold) peace of a January evening in one of the country’s most popular national parks.
It was absolutely sublime.
My trip to Yosemite came about a couple of months earlier when I was asked to help my employer execute a tradeshow booth and VIP event at a wine conference in California (yes, that’s right, my own real life version of the Catalina Wine Mixer — I couldn’t swan dive onto that sword any faster). The conference was scheduled to end on a Thursday evening, which meant I could either fly back on Friday with my coworkers, or spend the weekend in California on my own dime and catch a flight back on Sunday.
With Yosemite just a few hours away, I couldn’t pass up the chance to cross off another National Park on my list. And so, I found myself in line at the Sacramento Airport’s Dollar Rental counter in the predawn hours of Friday morning. After accepting the keys to a white Kia Rio, I dragged my suitcase across the parking lot, opened the driver’s door, and was immediately knocked backward into an innocent Chevrolet Malibu by a powerfully pungent aroma. I checked the backseat for either a dead skunk or a napping Snoop Dogg, and upon finding neither, headed back to the rental counter. To Dollar Rental’s credit, the clerk managed to stifle his laughter, apologize profusely, and offer me an upgrade to a Buick SUV.
Chariot situation under control, I began my three-hour drive south along Interstate 5, through Stockton and Modesto. I got off in Merced and drove east to Mariposa where I was scheduled to pick up the YARTS bus at the Mariposa County Park & Ride.
When I first started researching Yosemite for my trip, something that jumped out at me on the official NPS website was the line “guests entering the park during winter are required to carry snow chains.”
Real talk, y’all…as a native Floridian, I honest to God don’t know what snow chains are, where to find them, or how to apply them to a vehicle. Were I ever face to face with snow chains I can only imagine that I would probably throw them over my shoulders and recite some Game of Thrones lines or pretend to be the ghost of Jacob Marley.
Not knowing what the weather would be like at the end of January, I decided to play it safe and purchase a ticket for the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS). The air-conditioned, very comfortable bus has pick-up spots all around the Merced/Mariposa area. I chose to catch a ride in Mariposa, about two hours outside the park. I truly can’t recommend YARTS enough — it was only about $10 each way and allowed me to actually sit back and take in the views on the approach to the park instead of white-knuckling my rental car through some pretty twisty roads (which we know from my experience at Glacier National Park last summer is not one of my strengths). It also helps cut down on traffic and emissions inside the park.
Now, you know I can’t take a trip anywhere and not hit up a museum of some sort. With a little over an hour to kill before the bus arrived, I had just enough time to squeeze in a visit to the Mariposa Museum & History Center. For a $5 donation, the cozy little museum was a wonderful addition to my day that I would recommend to anyone in the area. Through letters from gold miner Horace Snow and a series of windowed vignettes, the museum tells the history of this beautiful part of California. In addition to the main building, guests can tour a stamp mill, residence, and (my favorite) the Mariposa Gazette cottage with its antique printing press.
After my museum sidetrip, I boarded the YARTS bus and began the last leg of my journey. We left Mariposa around 2:30 pm and arrived in the valley around 4:30 pm. Rounding the corner into Half Dome Village, I struggled to keep my shit together when I caught my first glimpse of the snow-laden tree limbs. A few inches had fallen the day before, barely a dusting for Yosemite in the winter, but for this Floridian it was pure magic.
I chose to stay at the Yosemite Valley Lodge because it seemed like a good middle ground for a one-night stay. My room was about $250 for the night, more than a heated tent at Half Dome (around $100) but less than a stay at the famed Majestic Hotel (around $400). It was also conveniently located near the center of the valley, a reasonable walk to the two trails I knew I wanted to tackle during my short visit.
Right after I checked in and dropped my things in my room, I bundled up (the temperature was in the lower 40s and falling) and headed over to Lower Yosemite Falls. After my tranquil experience there, I came back to the lodge and grabbed dinner in the cafeteria-style Garden Terrace restaurant.
This is the one spot where I have to give Yosemite (or more accurately, Aramark) some bad marks. For a Caesar salad, Half Dome beer, and a pepperoni pizza that any college student could identify at a distance as Totino’s, I spent $22 on my dinner. Breakfast was no better (rubbery scrambled eggs, burnt potatoes, and cold bacon), and also $20+ with coffee and orange juice. I don’t expect five-star food in the middle of a national park, but decent eats for a reasonable price doesn’t seem like a lot to ask.
Aside from that, the lodge was actually pretty great. It took me a while to get a hang of the heater situation (again, Floridian outside my element), but once I did the room was cozy and quite enjoyable. My second floor room had a balcony where I sipped my coffee and watched the sunrise on Saturday morning.
I had a return ticket on the YARTS bus for 4:30 p.m., so I set off just after daylight to make the most of my day. My goal was to make it to Columbia Rock, which is about halfway (three miles) up the Upper Yosemite Falls trail. Though hiking alone is never a great idea, I followed safety protocols and let someone know when I left and when I was expecting to be back. Also, there were enough people throughout the trail that I never really felt alone — I felt certain if I had to scream for help, someone would hear me.
With a backpack of water and snacks, layers of gear, and a playlist of good tunes (Avett Brothers, Sturgill Simpson, Brandi Carlile, The Lone Bellow, and Jason Isbell) I set off on what turned out to be a pretty grueling hike. Three dozen switchbacks made a gain of 1,000 feet, making this a steep ascent over slick rocks. Melting snow dripped on my head from the trees as the sun climbed up over the mountaintops.
A few things I quickly learned:
- Sneakers are not the same as hiking shoes
- Hiking poles are always a good idea (especially if you’re clumsy like me)
- The best thing you can do on a climb like this is relax, take your time, and enjoy every step
Nothing about the hike was easy and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about giving up more than once, but I’m so glad I didn’t. I actually stepped out on a little hidden cliff just below Columbia Rock for these photos (which in no way, shape or form, do the view any justice).
Look, I’ve said this before and I will hold it as my truth forever — everyone finds faith in their own special corners of the world, but I could visit every church, chapel, and cathedral on Earth and never feel as close to God as I do when I’m in spots like that precipice overlooking Yosemite Valley. Maybe I’m an Emersonian Transcendentalist at heart, but there’s just an accord, a moment of pure calm that acts like a healing salve, filling in every scar, crack, and jagged edge I’ve amassed while walking through this crazy life. I really don’t know how else to describe it.
I stayed up there for a while, how long I couldn’t say for sure, because time passes differently in places like that. Eventually, I made my way back down the trail and wandered through the rest of Yosemite Valley. I visited the Ansel Adams gallery, visitor’s center, and another cafeteria-style restaurant that took all my money in exchange for less than mediocre food.
I caught the YARTS bus back at the lodge, picked up my rental car in Mariposa, and drove the three hours back to Sacramento (with a quick stop for In-N-Out along the way, because after all that crappy Yosemite food I deserved it, dammit). I collapsed into my Hampton Inn bed that night feeling exhausted and thankful for my solo sojourn.