Yosemite Part I: Yosemite Valley
We were anxious to get to Yosemite National Park, so we took off bright and early on the morning of our first full day staying in Park of the Sierras in Coarsegold. Park of the Sierras is located in the foothills of the Sierras, and, as we said, is about 30 miles from the south entrance of the park. Much of the drive is on steep, winding roads, so it took about 45 minutes to get to the park entrance.
Once inside the park, the roads get narrower, steeper, and even more winding. Yosemite Valley is the main attraction in Yosemite National Park, and it took another 45 minutes to get from the south entrance to the valley.
When driving in from the south entrance, there is a long tunnel. At the other end of the tunnel was Tunnel View overlook where we were greeted with the view below. That's El Capitan (El Cap for short) on the left, Half Dome in the far distance in the center, and Bridalveil Falls on the right.
No matter which of the three entrances to the park you use, be sure to drive to the Tunnel View overlook located at the eastern end of the tunnel along the road to the south entrance. The view is worth it.
Yosemite National Park isn't the easiest place to get around. Many of the roads in the park are steep, narrow, and winding. The park is vast - nearly 12,000 square miles, and 95% of it is designated as wilderness area.
Most visitors want to go to Yosemite Valley, which can make the valley fairly congested - especially in the summer and during holiday weekends. This is one reason we wanted to go to Yosemite early in the season. The other reason is many of the waterfalls in Yosemite dry up in late summer and fall.
The Merced River runs down the middle of the valley. While the roads in the valley are flat, there are one-way sections that make getting around a little confusing at first. There is a road on the south side of the river that is mostly one way up the valley (east), and there is a road on the north side of the river that is mostly one way down the valley (west). There are several bridges crossing the river, but adding to the confusion was the fact that one central crossing was closed for construction while we were there. To add even further to the confusion, there were periodic lane closings for road work and line painting at various times during our visit as well. This is probably all due to the fact we were there fairly early in the season and the park was rushing to try to get as much maintenance work done as possible before the Memorial Day weekend.
We went to the park that first day and mostly did reconnoitering. We stopped at the visitor center, picked up a trail map, saw the video about Yosemite, and looked at the exhibits on the geology and history of Yosemite. We stopped in the trading post and bought some hummus and crackers for a snack. The trading post is located close to several of the park's campgrounds, so they had a pretty good (but expensive) selection of food items. Margery liked the s'more kits they had for sale.
We also stopped at Indian Village near the visitor center. The photo below is a bark house, a type of shelter built from the bark of a sequoia tree over a pole frame. These shelters were common in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The next photo is the ceremonial roundhouse. This would have served similar functions as the kivas we have seen that were built by the puebloans and cliff dwellers. This roundhouse is actually used by the local Indian community for ceremonial purposes, so we weren't allowed inside.
Not much is known about the earliest inhabitants of Yosemite, but there is evidence of human activity dating back at least 8,000 years. Yosemite Valley came to be known as Ahwahnee (meaning "place of a gaping mouth" - probably referring to the shape of the valley) and the people who lived there 700 or 800 years ago called themselves the Ahwahneechee (people who live in Ahwahnee). The Miwok Indians, who lived in the surrounding area and who feared the Ahwahneechee, called the Ahwahneechee Yo-sem-ity, meaning either "they are killers" or "full-grown grizzly bear" - pretty fearsome either way.
There were early European visitors and explorers to the area, but there wasn't much interaction with the Indians. It wasn't until the discovery of gold in California that the Ahwahneechee were attacked and driven from their homes. In the late 1850s, tourism began to develop in the Yosemite area. By the early 1900s, Yosemite Valley had become a resort with golf courses, tennis courts, museums, and inns. Many Native Americans returned to work in the resort.
Yosemite Valley, and most of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, is made up primarily of granite. When the mountains were raised up, rivers cut valleys into the granite. Later, during the Ice Age (there were at least three ice events in Yosemite), glaciers cut the Yosemite Valley deeper and smoothed the sides. When the glaciers retreated, hanging valleys, which are the source of the waterfalls today, were left along the sides of the main valleys.
The moraine left by the retreating glacier formed a dam at the end of the valley and created a deep lake. Sediment that collected at the bottom of the lake formed the flat valley floor that exists today.
After learning a little about the history and geology of Yosemite, we began our tour of the valley. Going into the valley, you travel eastward on the south side of the Merced River. One of the first landmarks you come to is Bridalveil Falls. We parked and walked the trail to the base of the 620-foot falls. Even from fairly far away, we could feel droplets of moisture hitting our skin, and we saw people coming back from the falls who looked pretty wet.
As we approached the base of the falls, the wind shifted and we suddenly knew why so many people were wet. Wow, the water was cold! You can see the mist filling the air in the photo below.
The next photo is Bridalveil Creek as it flows from the base of the falls toward the Merced River.
From Bridalveil Falls, we continued our tour of Yosemite Valley. Our next post will have information about more of the things we saw.