There is no other valley so evenly high, and as dauntlessly deep, as the Yosemite Valley. I cannot think of a word that fully describes the Yosemite Valley, a word that blends the splendour and divine nature of the park. However, I do know a word that describes what I feel every time I remember my time in Yosemite, “saudade”. Saudade is a Portuguese word, difficult if not impossible, to translate to English. The best description I could find for the meaning of Saudade is: “the recollection of feelings, experiences, persons, places, or events that once brought excitement, pleasure and well-being.”
Not being a writer, and not writing in my native language, I might not be able to eloquently describe the beauty of Yosemite.
The iconic view
The first view I had of the valley was at Tunnel View, a scenic overlook, located on State Road 41, when exiting Wawona Tunnel. This is the iconic view of Yosemite Valley, seen in magazines and videos across the world.
As you exit the tunnel you will be overwhelmed by the valley splendour. A dense pine forest, flanked by a multitude of rock formations, mountains in size, partly separated from each other by canyons, and harmoniously arranged throughout the valley.
These walls of granite are simply superb. At their feet, in the middle of the valley, 1220 m above sea level, flows the Merced River. Is nature shifts in character as it thunders and tumbles from the valley walls, before peacefully winding across the valley floor, reflecting the lined pine forests, gorgeous meadows and the gigantic rocks flanking the valley. Yosemite Valley is Mother Nature’s temple.
When looking to the valley from Tunnel View, Bridal Veil waterfall immediately captures your attention. Located on your right, the white veil created by the running water falling from the cliff, is a lure to your eyes.
Next to Bridal Veil, Cathedral Rocks form the side of the canyon through which Bridalveil Creek flows. The remarkable Cathedral Rocks, the highest nearly 820 m high above the valley, massive sculptures, three in number and with different heights.
Across the valley, El Capitan, a rock that stands tall above the pine groves. Its sublime feature stands forward, outside the general line of the wall, imposing its grandeur. Its faces are rugged but simple, eroded through time and by what was once the Yosemite Glacier.
Far in the back, the enigmatic Half Dome emerges. Half Dome is without doubt the most impressive and most sublime of all the wonderful Yosemite rocks.
Wandering along the valley
The main valley extends for approximately 13 km, 800 m to 1600 m wide, and nearly 1200 m deep. This temple of solid granite walls, lit from above, changes its appearance as the sun travels across the sky and light floods the sheer cliffs, enhancing the beauty of countless rock formations, waterfalls, groves and meadows.
Once on the valley floor, heading east and following the Merced River upstream, the size of the granite walls are overwhelming. On the right, Bridal Veil Falls welcomes you. As the water leaps from the cliff, about 180 m from the talus, forming a small arch that sways in the wind creating a gauzy spray of water, half falling, half floating. The falls seems gentle and peaceful seen from Tunnel View, but up close, the power of hundreds if not thousands of litters of water in free fall, roaring and thundering as it dashes on the granite boulders at its talus, producing and abundant spray, is as frightening as spectacular.
On the other side of the valley, almost opposite the Bridal Veil, the highest continues falls in Yosemite, Ribbon Falls or The Virgin's Tears Falls. It seems wider than Bridal Veil, but only flows from March to June, while the snow is melting. Measured from the crest of the cliff where it springs out to the rocky talus on which it broken up into cascades, 490 m.
After Ribbon Falls, as I continued along the Merced River, El Capitan rock. If from Tunnel View El Capitan looked enormous, it will dwarf you to the size of an insect when seen from below. Seen through the trees, the magnificent and massive rock seems to grow taller and taller, as I approach it. This gigantic granite wall rises 1000 m into the sky. Its size is unmatched in height and length.
Across the Valley, next to the Bridal Veil, are the scenic Cathedral Rocks and Cathedral Spires, a collection of cliffs, pinnacles and buttresses, some of the finest massive sculptures of Mother Nature that you can fine in the valley.
After Cathedral Rocks, still on the south side of the valley, towers the Sentinel Rock to a height of more than 1000 m. Its shape resembles a tombstone and for different reasons is a magnet for rock climbers, painters and photographers.
As I continue to follow the river upstream, through the woods and meadows, while contemplating, admiring and searching for new wonders, yet all around me was already so wonderful, I can feel the presence of Sentinel Rock, watching me, following every step I take from high above. Maybe for this reason this rock received its name.
As I approach Sentinel Beach, a constant roar starts to emerge, a few hundred meters further on, the sound resembles a never ending thunder, and then between the groves the Yosemite Falls was revealed in all its magnificence, from base to summit 739 m.
The Yosemite Falls is separated into an upper and a lower falls, with a series of falls and cascades between them, but when viewed from the front, down from the Valley, they all appear as one.
Across the Valley, on the south side, the oldest structure in Yosemite Valley, the Yosemite Chapel.
As I reach the meadows near Swing Bridge, Yosemite Falls is eclipsed by the wide upper portion of the Valley. A wonderful view includes the Royal Arches, the Washington Column and North Dome on the left, Glacier Point on the right and in the middle, directly in front, looms Tissiack or Half Dome, the most stunning and most magnificent of all the wonderful Yosemite rocks, rising in a peaceful splendor from flowery groves and meadows to a height of approximately 1440 m.
At this location the valley divides into two canyons, Tenaya Canyon and Nevada Canyon, both extending back to the High Sierra.
On my last day in Yosemite, I had a three to four hours window of good weather to explore Tenaya Canyon and Mirror Lake. The best time to photograph Mirror Lake is in the afternoon, unfortunately I had to do it very early in the morning.
Before first light, I made my way into Tenaya Canyon. As I progressed, following the Mirror Lake Trail, around me the woods were still a sleep and I could only hear the constant sound of running water of Tenaya Creek. I could not see much, it was dark and I choose to keep my headlamp off and navigate using only the soft light from the moon and stars. As I progressed, engulfed in joy, a quote of Oscar Wilde came to my mind: “Yes, I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find is way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world”. In my context, the dawn would be the reward, so I could not help smiling and kept pushing uphill.
By first light I was in Mirror Lake, alone and surrounded by two giants; to the east Half Dome, and to the north Mount Watkins. As I contemplated another cold dawn, immerse in my thoughts, from behind a rock showed up, what I believe was a California Quail, initially unaware of my presence, stopped and looked at me for a few seconds, probably assessing if I would pose any danger, then continued into the willows and disappear.
The name Mirror Lake is truly a misnomer. Mirror Lake is actually water overflow from Tenaya Creek. During the spring and early summer, Mirror Lake appears to be a lake, reflecting the granite giants surrounding it. Regardless of being a lake or not, Mirror Lake is known to be the ideal place to get some nice photographs, with the mountains reflecting in its waters.
I confess I was disappointed with what I found. The light conditions were far from being ideal, so I made plans to return in the afternoon hoping the weather would allow. Unfortunately heavy rain showers and thunderstorms prevented from happening.
The Nevada Canyon
Due to the weather conditions I was not able to hike to Nevada Canyon and explore its two waterfalls, Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls.
However, from Glacier Point I was able to get these pictures of the two water falls. The lower falls is Vernal Falls (91 m in height), up and to the right, the Nevada falls (181 m in height). On the left, a different perspective of Half Dome.
The last view
Yosemite Natural Park extends way beyond the Yosemite Valley. It would take me months if not years, to explore this park and hike the countless trails. I am certain that beyond its granite walls, there is much more to see and appreciate.
My time in Yosemite was short, very short! The weather conditions far from ideal. Yet, I enjoyed very much my time there.
My last view of the valley was at the valley gates. I left, without knowing if I will ever return to this unforgettable place. In the words of John Muri, “this is a place far easier to feel than to explain. This is a place, to wash the spirit clean.”