With 800 miles of trails in Yosemite National Park, the hiking choices seem daunting. Even the relatively small Yosemite Valley area can keep avid hikers on their feet, with trails ranging from short and sweet to long and strenuous. Our easiest trek was the five-mile looping hike from Half Dome Village to Mirror Lake following Tenaya Creek. Normally Mirror Lake reflects the cliffs high above only in spring and early summer, so here in autumn we were expecting a dry meadow. Happily, the recent rains had left a large enough patch of water to show off a reflection of the north-facing cliffs.
We passed an extensive rockfall area where enormous white and gray granite boulders had tumbled dramatically from the cliffs above. We continued through oak forest displaying pretty fall shades of yellow and moist patches of reedy ground along Tenaya Creek. Crossing the bridge at the end of the trail, where water spilled over more large boulders in the creek, we looped back west on the sunny, warmer side of the valley. Here the creek became gentle once again, and the trail was simply delightful.
Despite the tranquility here, Yosemite takes potential bear activity very seriously. Park materials make you think bears lurk behind every tree, waiting to break into your car, tent or cabin to steal food. Rangers ticket vehicles with anything in plain sight that looks edible or scented, such as baby wipes or lip balm, and no food is to be left in cars overnight. As we finished our hike, approaching the riding stables near the campground, Hector and I were discussing Yosemite’s food storage regulations.
“I find it hard to believe that a bear is going to break into a car for baby wipes,” I said skeptically. No sooner did the words escape my lips than I looked up and saw a bear some 150 feet away. A color somewhere between honey and milk chocolate, the yearling nosed its way along the forest floor, completely ignoring us. It was our first and only bear sighting in Yosemite, and unfortunately we didn’t have time to get a photo before it moved off into the woods. (I still have my doubts that baby wipes in a car can tempt a bear’s taste buds.)
On our final full day in the park, we hiked the strenuous Four Mile Trail. We commenced with a short trek across a misty golden meadow, then crossed over the Merced River to begin the ascent near the base of Sentinel Rock. The trail quickly climbed the north-facing side of Yosemite Valley, and we soon had fine vistas of the valley below us and Yosemite Falls across the way. Eventually we arrived to views of both Half Dome to the east and El Capitan to the west. The scenery was simply stunning.
We continued uphill and topped out at Glacier Point, one of the most picturesque spots in Yosemite (and in such a picturesque park, that’s really saying something). The lookout offered breathtaking views of Half Dome and the plateau across the valley. Instead of tackling the 3,200-foot elevation gain on foot, many people make the 90-minute drive from Yosemite Valley up to Glacier Point. Guided bus tours also go to Glacier Point, and many visitors buy a one-way ticket and hike down. We were glad we hiked it round-trip, and it made the list of our favorite hikes of Project 100.
By the time we were ready to leave Yosemite the next day, Tioga Road had reopened to traffic after being closed for several days due to snow. This high-elevation road bisects the park from east to west and tops out at nearly 9,943 feet, and it’s normally open only in the warmer months. The beautiful drive crosses a variety of habitats, from logdepole pine forests and sequoia groves to exposed granite tablelands and the vast, golden expanse of Tuolomne Meadows.
We stopped at the granite plateau at Olmsted Point for magnificent views of Tenaya Canyon, whose creek drains down into the Yosemite Valley, and Half Dome in the distance. A chilly wind blew forcefully, chasing us back into the car and up the road a bit to Tenaya Lake for a picnic on the northern shore of this dazzling, mile-long High Sierra lake.
My friend Grace and I had backpacked in Yosemite back in 2000, including one stretch of trail along the south shore of Tenaya Lake. We both found the lake’s beauty one of the finest rewards of that trip. Throughout Project 100 I’ve had many occasions to think of Grace and often uttered aloud to Hector, “Grace would have loved this trail.” Hector never had the good fortune to meet her before she died, but he shares her appreciation of nature and the thrill of being out on the trail. Both of us seemed wistful as we got back into the car, perhaps because, despite our enthusiasm about moving on to the next stop on our journey, it’s always sad to see a magical place in the rear-view mirror.