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Great Granite in Yosemite

Story by Karoline Cullen, Photography by Cullen Photos

The meadow glows golden in the afternoon sun. It is dotted with people looking up, eyes glued to binoculars. Joining in, I scan the massive rock face of El Capitan and spot a tiny speck moving slowly upwards. My bino-toting neighbour explains the speck is a rock climber. The ascent entails a two-night bivouac on that sheer hunk of granite and I wonder how the climber weathered yesterday's storm.

We've come to Yosemite National Park for a less extreme tour of the landscape made famous by Ansel Adams' photographs. In the Sierra Nevada of Eastern California, Yosemite covers three-quarters of a million acres, spans 3400 meters of elevation, and encompasses groves of giant sequoias, massive granite formations, a valley carved by glaciers, and alpine wilderness. It would take a lifetime to explore it all but we have two days for the highlights.

Our mini-exploration begins with a hike through the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. These red-barked, gnarly trees are the Earth's largest living things by volume. They are not so much tall as massive, are fire resistant, and live hundreds of years. One called the Grizzly Giant is thought to be 1800 years old. Scarred by fire and with twisted branches, Grizzly looks like it could tell some tales. The paths amongst these silent giants are peaceful, and on our return, a deer and her fawn pass us.

A winding road flanked by dense forest leads to the Glacier Viewpoint, at the edge of a soaring, sheer cliff. Below stretches Yosemite Valley and the granite formations that cradle it. Directly in front is Half Dome. Its stark face is straight as if sliced by a knife and the gray-streaked rounded side is a smoothly curved dowager's hump. Far below, Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls spill hundreds of meters. A blanket of gray cloud rolls in, obscures the view, and drenches us with a freezing downpour. Scurrying back to the car through the mist, we regretfully cancel our stop at Taft Viewpoint, with its spectacular near 1000-meter drop from its edge.

The forest presses close as we motor through the storm, out the West entrance of the Park, and on to our B&B for the night. Warmly welcomed, we soon sit on the covered deck, glass of wine in hand. The drone of hummingbirds fills the air as dozens zoom in for their evening meal at the feeders ringing the deck. Our hostess is an expert on Yosemite and insists we visit her favorite part of the Park, the high country along Tioga Road.

Fortunately, the next day dawns with conditions highly conducive to a high-country drive. Tioga Road was initially constructed as a mining road in the 1880's. It steadily gains elevation and winds us through forests, past wide meadows, along lakes, and above the tree line. At Olmsted Point, a rocky outcrop offers a vista filled with granite, Half Dome, and glacier erratics - giant boulders left behind by the retreating glaciers that carved the valley. It's a monochromatic panorama of grays and dark greens, brightened with an occasional tree in its yellow autumn glory.

Retracing our route, we descend to some Valley viewpoints. Bridalveil Falls, enlarged by yesterday's rainfall, pour down a sheer granite face in a thunderous cascade and the spray is refreshing. Sunbeams pierce the mist around dark trees standing like sentinels along the high ridge above the falls. At Tunnel View the entire valley, flanked by Half Dome, opens before us. There are evergreens and textured granite as far as we can see.

We skip the Valley Village's Visitor Centre, shops, and museum in favour of lunch at the venerable Ahwhanee Hotel. This National Historic Landmark was opened in 1927. Its design reflects Art Deco, Arts and Crafts, and Native American influences. The grand public rooms feature giant stone fireplaces, massive beams, tapestries, and stained glass. Lunch on the patio gives a view of the grassy valley floor flanked by a treed wall of granite.

After lunch, we drive through tree tunnels towards the meadow facing El Capitan. Golden grass is waving at the cliff's base, the sun is warm, and a long white cloud makes a necklace across the rock face. The rock climber is obscured, but only for a moment.

FYI:

Yosemite National Park gets over 3 million visitors a year. Summer is particularly busy so plan far ahead for accommodations. Waterfalls are biggest in May and June. The Glacier Point area is popular for cross-country skiers in winter. Tioga Road is closed from late fall until mid to late spring. www.nps.gov/yose/

Blackberry Inn Bed and Breakfast www.blackberry-inn.com

Photos

1. A Giant Sequoia dwarfs the author in the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite National Park. G. Cullen photo
2. Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, seen from Glacier Viewpoint. K. Cullen photo
3. El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. K. Cullen photo

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