Pictures of Yosemite Valley in the winter covered with a blanket of snow have always mesmerized me. I don’t think there could be anything more magical than that scene. You would think it’d be pretty easy for someone who lives less than a four hour drive away to get to see it in person, but California has been hit hard the last four years with record drought conditions meaning there has been little to no snow. But this year was different, with the snowpack deeper than it has been in years. So my GEO (Geocaching Executive Officer) and I thought last weekend would be a perfect time to make the trip.
Boy, were we wrong! A recent heat wave melted most of the snow on the valley floor. Temperatures were in the high 60’s the day I arrived. I ended up chucking my ski jacket and thermal underwear which were baking me alive, but I really can’t complain. Large amounts of snow plus unseasonably warm weather equals raging waterfalls! So I made lemonade out of lemons and took advantage of the dry weather to find all the geocaches on my list.
Geocaching in Yosemite was a whole new ballgame for me. For someone who does most of her geocaching with a smart phone, the lack of cell phone coverage was quite challenging. Fortunately, I was armed with my brand new Garmin 600 and printouts of the geocache descriptions I needed. Technology has come a long way since I first started this hobby. Modern handheld GPS units have touch screens so coordinates can be entered just like dialing numbers on a phone. I ended up plugging in the coordinates as I went along. If you find yourself really stuck, and desperately need some helpful hints from your smart phone, here’s a secret. Go to the Visitor Center entrance and you should get a pretty strong cell phone signal there. That’s where I ended up getting a couple of screen shots of some cache descriptions that I forgot to print out at home.
Now that the National Park Service no longer allows physical geocaches in Yosemite in an effort to preserve the environment and for safety reasons, we are limited to virtual caches. The great thing about virtual caches is they offer a whole new perspective of the park. Not only did I learn new things about my amazing surroundings, but I also noticed more details that I normally would have missed in the past. And I definitely went off the beaten path looking for a couple of these.
If you enter the park from the west on Highway 41, you won’t believe your eyes as you come out of the Wawona tunnel and get your first glimpse of the Yosemite Valley. Named Tunnel View, this is one of the most visually stunning and probably one of the most photographed vistas in the world. Some of Yosemite’s most recognizable landmarks are just sitting there waiting to have their picture taken; El Capitan stands proudly on the left, Bridal Veil Falls is dazzling on the right, and Half Dome majestically brings up the rear. While you are stopped here for pictures, take the time to read the informational placards and you might discover GCG2AD (Out of the Darkness, Into Yosemite Valley).
From this point, you will descend into the valley where you can explore these monuments up close. Your first stop in the valley should be the trail to the base of Bridalveil Fall. This will be the most worthwhile half mile loop you will ever make. Bridalveil flows year round unlike most of the other waterfalls in the park.
Now that you have had a taste of things to come, hop in your car and drive to the visitor parking lot a few miles away to take the free shuttle to Yosemite Falls which, at 2,425 feet, is the fifth tallest waterfall in the world. Made up of three separate falls, Upper Yosemite Fall (1,430 feet), the middle cascades (675 feet), and Lower Yosemite Fall (320 feet), its spectacular power never ceases to leave me in awe. I have seen quite a few waterfalls in my lifetime, but none of them, not even Niagara Falls, is as striking as this one. The one mile round trip to the Lower Falls is nice and flat but can get tricky when it is icy or you can get completely soaked from the heavy spray of the fall when it is at its peak flow, which makes taking a picture or even seeing difficult. Located here is GCJHJ4 (The Highest Leaping Waterfall in the World). Even though some of the cache questions for credit were outdated, reading the description alone made this one worthwhile for the wealth of information it provided about the waterfall.
When you return to the trailhead, you will notice a large meadow across the street. For a great photo opportunity, walk over and look to the east where you will find Half Dome. This breathtaking granite dome rises almost 5,000 feet straight out of the valley floor. Thousands of people hike or climb this mountain every year.
About a half mile away from the meadow is GCHVOX (For Climbers), a puzzle cache that led me to Camp 4. Many say this was the birthplace of modern rock climbing. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Camp 4 was a base camp used by famed rock climbing pioneers from 1947 to 1970. See how excited I was to pin my note to the camp bulletin board to prove that I had been there?
With few dining choices available in the park, especially in the winter, I say treat yourself to the experience of dining in the enchanting Ahwahnee Hotel, a National Historic Landmark. Many notable figures have passed through here, including Queen Elizabeth, President Kennedy, and Judy Garland. For Harry Potter fans, the dining room’s design elements might remind you of the Great Hall at Hogwarts.
Across from the hotel’s main entrance are the Royal Arches, which is the name given to a granite cliff containing natural exfoliation arches. A thin waterfall cascades over this cliff and ends in a pool near the Ahwahnee parking lot. I have been to Yosemite more than a dozen times and if it hadn’t been for GCBF3D (Royal Cascade) I never would have known that the pool was easily accessible from the road. This cache was very tricky and took some time, but rest assured the answers are there if you look hard enough.
On the way out of the park, my GEO and I were in the right place at the right time to be caught up in the whole firefall frenzy at Horsetail Fall. This event is so rare that it is only possible at sunset for two weeks in February. And even then, conditions have to be perfect. First, there has to be enough water for a waterfall. Then the sky has to be clear enough for sunlight to hit at just the right angle to give the water a bright red glow creating an illusion of hot lava flowing down the side of El Capitan. I think I missed the firefall because we had already driven past it before the sun made the promontory of El Capitan glow a radiant orange which was glorious in and of itself. At least now I know the drill for next time!
Yosemite is as close to heaven on Earth as one can get. How lucky I am that this stunning beauty is practically in my backyard! And what better way is there to celebrate the National Park Service’s Centennial than by visiting one of its crown jewels. Maybe you will catch me here again next year since my GEO promised me a return visit once there is another winter with a heavy snowfall. I think I need learn a rain dance!