We pulled into the gravel lot. There were no lines (that is the last time you will read that phrase here) on the ground guiding the drivers into right-angled order, so the meandering rows of parked cars appeared to be melting in the heat. We exited the car, strapped packs on backs, and set out to find the bus to the visitor center.
It was easy. Like the downtown nightclub, the long, cordoned path filled with waiting people advertised the popularity of the bus stop. Its exclusivity as well. The bus arrived, but it was no match for the line. Soon full, the bus left, the line of waiters no shorter. We decided to walk.
Welcome to Yosemite National Park.
I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now
I thought I knew what we were getting into. I had often heard the imperative not to visit Yosemite in August. But our schedules demanded it; we didn’t have a choice. I will also admit that I approached the situation with a backpack full of hubris. My previous experience with summer crowds in US national parks had taught me that hiking half-a-mile into the forest eliminates almost all unwanted pests. Yes, I knew Yosemite was a different beast, so I was willing to concede that I might need as much as a mile to find that Ansel Adams solitude. In retrospect, it’s nice to know that I still have so much to learn about the world.
One variable I knew I couldn’t solve for ahead of time was how our young children would affect our ability to improvise. This trip would be our first to a national park with all three now on their own two feet. We knew that would limit our options for escape if things got too wild, but come on, it’s an enormous park out in the middle of nowhere. How crowded can it possibly get?
Down by the riverside
We were staying in Oakhurst, just outside the southern entrance to the park. Our first full day was a Sunday. We thought it best to skip Yosemite Valley on a weekend and spend the day at the less-visited Wawona.
Our first encounter with Yosemite was the long line of cars waiting to pay the fee and enter the park. A freshman in a high school English class would have said, “Foreshadowing. Duh,” but I missed it.
We arrived at Wawona to hike the half-mile to the south fork of the Merced River. At 10 o’clock in the morning the parking lot by the trailhead was almost empty. My wife and I unloaded our three young children and began coaxing and cajoling them up the trail. We found the Merced, a body of water that fell somewhere between a creek and a river. Given the drought, we were pleasantly surprised by the volume of water. There was a swinging bridge, a rock slide, and a deep pool; it was a lovely scene.
My five-year-old son and I walked to the middle of the bridge and watched the fish swimming in the pool. He tried to count them and give them names (I think they were all christened “Swimmy” by the end). We were having fun making the bridge bounce. Then I noticed another family standing nearby. The father had a camera out. It was clear they were waiting for us to leave so they could pose over the water. I gave my son one more good bounce, and we gave up the bridge. Feeling the impatience from the waiting line behind me was almost as uncomfortable as being a waiter myself.
We enjoyed our stay at the river, sliding down the slide, swimming in the pool, hiking up the riverbed. Regrets, we had none. However, if we had expected a day in an isolated mountain stream, we would have been, at best, wrong. On the map Wawona might look isolated, but I was not the only one who figured out that the black line, wiggly though it might be, meant we could drive there. Families with young children, teenagers showing off for each other, adult yoga enthusiasts;by the time we left the river and its banks were teeming with national parkers.
We returned to Yosemite the next day. We calculated that on a Monday the valley should be empty. Wrong.
We got our first helping of line even before we arrived. There was construction on the two-lane road through the park. We had to wait while the traffic from the opposite direction passed on the one open lane.
Yosemite National Park in general, and Yosemite Valley in particular, is one long procession of striking scenes. Waterfalls, rivers, outcroppings, peaks – all the glory of the western wilderness is here for the gawking. I wasn’t oblivious to the valley’s charms as we arrived, but 90 minutes in a car with three young children had left me prioritizing a parking spot over the myriad of natural wonders on display.
Now that we had given up on the bus and were walking towards the visitors center, we were beset from both directions by cyclists. “Stay to the right,” I ordered the children. “Right now! Single file! Stay in line!” I had turned from oppressed into oppressor.
We found the visitors center. My wife took our older daughter to find a restroom. I set up shop with our younger two children on a shady bench and unpacked the snacks. The squirrels arrived soon thereafter. Clearly, they were used to being fed, and now appeared to treat it as an entitlement. Half-hearted kicking provided little deterrence. Throwing small pebbles was an improvement. Upgrading to larger rocks worked even better. Then I gave my five-year-old son the option to fire at will. He heartily joined the battle and, with his bloodlust piqued, the squirrel menace was soon vanquished.
As my son continued to chase the retreating squirrels across the plaza, shouting threats at them, I began to wonder what had happened to my wife and daughter. Eventually they returned. The main restrooms had been closed and the only available alternative was the limited facility in the post office. The line had been long.
We boarded a bus bound for Happy Isles where we planned to participate in a ranger walk. Our bus made its way through the facilities of the valley. We passed the Pines Campgrounds. With almost 400 tent sites, all of them filled and fronted by a smoldering campfire leftover from breakfast, the campground could have passed for the staging area of a medieval army preparing for battle against the orc hordes.
The ranger walk was fun and (whisper it in front of the kids) we learned a lot. Technically, we did have to wait in line at the end for our children to receive their Junior Ranger badges, but I’ll let that one go.
Catching the bus back to the parking lot was difficult. The first bus was too crowded for us to board, but I can’t include it in the list of things we had to wait in line for, because it wasn’t a line: it was just a mob trying to force its way on.
Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded
We returned to the valley two days later. This was adult day. We had left our children at home and travelled with a brother-in-law and his eighteen-year-old son to take on a 14-mile hike up and around the valley.
We had gotten an early start – so early that the toll booths at the entrance to the park weren’t staffed yet. We sped through the gates only to be thwarted by the early-rising road crews – we got our line-waiting in while the southbound traffic used the one lane.
Our plan was to hike up Four-Mile Trail to Glacier Point, then take the Panorama Trail back to the valley. This was our chance to hike that one mile and give the orc hordes the slip.
Four-Mile Trail runs straight up from the valley floor to the Glacier Point Visitor Center. There were a couple cars already at the trailhead when we arrived, but nothing to raise an eyebrow over. We started up.
We were in no rush. Several wide open vistas along the way beckoned for appreciation, and we acquiesced. A couple groups of hikers passed us over the course of two hours. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Just before the summit the trail cuts into a patch of large pine trees. Sheltered from the wind, the grove was silent, save for our own huffings and puffings. The peace and solitude of this final segment made our arrival at the Glacier Point Visitor Center all the more grating. It was swarming with people and cars.
I could smell the coffee from the cafe; enticing, but I couldn’t bear to subject myself to another line that wasn’t absolutely necessary. That trial would have to be the restroom. Naturally, the first one was closed. We enjoyed a 15-minute wait on the narrow sidewalk, moving aside for a pedestrian every few seconds.
Now drained, we walked to the overlook. A long guardrail wrapped around the curve of the plateau. Hundreds of people were planted at the edge, taking pictures, posing for pictures, communing. We waited for a space to open up and quickly saddled up to gaze out over the valley. I understood why it was so popular, but my aesthetic of these nature-appreciation moments does not include sharing them with a medium-sized town.
My wife suggested we continue with the hike. She led the way, anxious to escape too. She has a particular gait when she walks to work – fast and with purpose, her stride announces to all that the journey to the office is a strictly utilitarian activity, undertaken only to facilitate the great deeds ahead. With the efficiency of an urban commute, she sliced through the orcs to the trailhead.
Our foursome found the trail and the chaos of the visitor center faded away. But we were by no means alone. The trail had several sets of wide-open switchbacks, offering a view of the hikers above or below us. My back-of-the-bandana calculation was one group per switchback segment, about an eighth-of-a-mile. With time to kill, I continued my calculations. The trail runs for ten miles, giving me 80 groups of hikers. The average hiking group size is, what, three? So there are 240 people ambling along the Panorama at any given moment. Interesting. But also wrong, as we would learn in a few hours.
No rule exists insisting that the groups of hikers maintain even spacing. Several times we found ourselves playing leapfrog with another group. We would stop for a photo op on the single-track trail. They would excuse themselves and squeeze by. Minutes later they would stop for water and we would ask to pass. And so on. For one mercifully brief period we were synched with a pair of fast hikers, who asked to pass us while we were walking (“On your left!”, spoken with a Yosemite squirrel’s air of entitlement), only to stop in the track a minute later to photograph a bird or something, forcing us to skim the pricker bushes as we passed on the edge of the trail.
We stopped for lunch at Illiloute Falls. We walked upstream for a minute to both escape the other hikers on break, and to find a good place to dangle our feet in the water while we ate. My nephew passed the time by capturing ants, then dropping them in the water for the trout to eat – I have no idea if that runs afoul of the National Park Service’s “Leave No Trace” guidelines.
Back on the trail, and more than halfway done, we passed the turnoff for the John Muir Trail. John Muir is 210 miles long, ending at the 14,000-foot summit of Mt. Whitney. It is also an on-ramp to the thousands-of-miles-long Pacific Crest Trail. Our passers-by now included people whose loaded packs announced their intention to spend (or who’s unshaven faces announced that they had already spent) more than a single day on these long hikes through the wilderness. Passing our little group, they were probably muttering about day hikers glomming up the trails as I had sniffed about the car-hikers back at Glacier Point. Internally, I tipped my hat to them.
Vernal Falls blew my earlier Panorama population calculation out of the creek – there were 500 people lounging about who had hiked the two miles from the valley to sit in the water or photograph the view.
Most of the shady spots were already occupied. We had to walk further than I would have preferred to find a vacant tree. Slowly recovering, and regrouping for the last leg back to the valley, I analyzed the crowd. My first conclusion was that we must be closer to the valley than I had thought, because there’s no way that guy and his wife walked two miles. I double-checked my map. Wow, they really did it. Another internal hat tip.
Bears are not the most dangerous animals in Yosemite
Rested, we started the homestretch. Now there were people all over, though I was too tired to care.
Less than a mile away from the falls we saw a group of 12 people on the trail, stopped. I could see cameras. As I pulled up I saw the roadblock: a short way ahead a young bear was eating berries. Click click click click, went the shutters on all 12 cameras, over and over. We sounded like some giant cicada. The bear kept eating. Click click. The bear moved to a different bush, and kept eating. A couple people started looking at their watches.
Two men began discussing options. “How long do you want to wait?” and “Should we try to scare it away so we can get by?”
That last option elicited a strong response from the pro-bear members of the group, who made it clear that disturbing the bear would not go unchallenged. I began to wonder if my first Yosemite bear sighting would be most memorable for the fight that broke out between the hikers.
Before any punches were thrown, the bear diffused the situation by ambling off into the woods. Blessed are the peacemakers.
With a mile to go we merged with the paved Mist Trail. Near the intersection was a restroom where we briefly stopped. It was crowded and there were lines, of course. But a long wait for an oversubscribed pit toilet was downright soothing compared to watching the crowd feed the squirrels. The King of the Idiots was the guy who was encouraging his daughter to let the rodent eat the potato chip out of her hand. I didn’t say anything, as I have never enjoyed being lectured by strangers who find fault with my parenting skills. But if ever a situation called for intervention, this was it. A couple weeks after we returned home, a child staying in a Yosemite campground contracted plague from a squirrel. Yes, plague. The Black Death. Killed 100 million people. The child at Yosemite recovered, but I feel that minimizing exposure to plague is something most parents should be able to agree on.
The Mist Trail was the most difficult section of the hike. A relentless flow of walkers gummed up the path in both directions. Dodging and weaving for the last steep downhill mile, we finally staggered to the bus stop. We didn’t wait in line, I was done. We just shoved our way on board. The original plan had been to ride back to the main visitor center and wait for another bus to return us to our car at the original trailhead. But I’ll repeat: I was done. No more lines for me. While my wife went to buy our requisite refrigerator magnet (line), I jogged the two miles to retrieve the car. I was dead on my feet, but I had had enough of humanity and its lines (squirrels, too). It was time to get out of the woods and return to the quiet solitude of Chicago.