The 4:30 AM alarm gives me flashbacks to my endurance events. Marathon, half-marathon, triathlon, century — they all begin with the early morning alarm. Yet, this morning is not mine alone. This time, it’s a family day of hiking in Yosemite National Park.
Yesterday, we stopped by the tourist office in Oakhurst seeking an update on the park conditions, crowds, and hikes. After the typical warnings about high water rapids, and crowds, the aged information wizard behind the desk, Judy, inspires us to undertake an epic adventure. The recommendation:
- Get in Yosemite Valley by 7:00 AM and park in the last day-use lot right before the exit.
- Walk across the Swinging Bridge to the Four-Mile Trail.
- Take the Four-Mile Trail up to Glacier Point.
- From Glacier Point, take the Panorama Trail to Nevada Falls.
- Take the John Muir trail (or Mist Trail) down from Nevada Falls to Vernal Falls to Happy Isles then shuttle back to the parking lot.
The path is an estimated 14 miles with all the uphill effort on the Four-Mile Trail during the cool morning hours followed by flats and downhills. Judy did it when she was 67. Certainly, I, a trained endurance athlete, with a fit wife and strapping teenage boys could do it too!
Sure enough, the recommendation is accurate to Glacier Point. As we climb 3,200 feet in the cool morning air, the views of Yosemite begin to unfold. Every switch back demands a new photo of the ever changing view from different angles. At Glacier Point, the GPS tracker shows we are a bit over 5 miles. It seems the Four-Mile Trail is really 4.6 miles. With walking over the Swinging Bridge from the parking lot, we are just over 5 miles.
We rest for an hour staring at the amazing views from Glacier Point (Half Dome and the granite faces of Yosemite’s north rim). Then, we head out along the Panorama Trail.
Judy is half mistaken about the Panorama Trail. As advertised, the views continue to be stunning, but the trail is not flat. We descends to Illilouette Falls then ascends another 3,200 feet to the top of Nevada Falls. To my tired family and legs, that’s another Glacier Point ascent. Our paces slows and the hike becomes short hops between shade covering trees followed by gulps of water and fuel-replenishing snacks of M&Ms, beef jerky, and nuts.
We grind our way back to the top where we spy the backside of Half Dome and distant views of Yosemite Falls. With each step we hear the increasing roar of Nevada Falls, but it feels like the Falls never arrives. Either the mileage markers are wrong or we are moving really, really slow.
After cresting near the top of Nevada Falls we begin the descent to Vernal Falls along the John Muir trail. It’s supposed to be an easy downhill, but it’s not. With each step, we discover new leg muscles that have seldom been used. We reach the Vernal Falls bridge just as we run out of water. Here, there’s a large crowd standing in the misty winds of the falls next to a drinking fountain – fresh water. I want to stay here and sit in the cool breeze drinking the cold water, but we are not finished. It’s two more miles to the shuttle stop.
The final path to Happy Isles is a net downhill, but it’s not as flat or as short as I remember. We weave through the crowded paved path quickly speeding down the rolling descent only to find a super, super long line to get on a bus. It looks like an hour wait. After a short debate, we decide to extend our hike walking back to Curry Village (now named Half Dome Village) where we can get dinner and catch a different shuttle.
Ten hours later, the GPS tracker shows (with the Curry Village extension) 17 miles and close to 7,000 feet of climbing. My muscles hurt and I’m somewhat angry at Judy (17 miles is not 14 miles and it wasn’t flat and downhill after Glacier Point), but we will forever reminiscence about our epic hike. After all, you can’t have epic when something is easy.
By comparison, Half Dome and North Dome (two other classic epic hikes taken during my younger years) also involved suffering — just not as much.
- Half Dome (via Midst Trail): 14.2 miles/4,800 feet
- North Dome (via Yosemite Falls): 15.5 miles/4,760 feet
And, I reminiscence about them too.