It is the place where the Great Spirit stood when He made the entire Earth. So said the resident Ahwahneechee Native Americans and, aesthetically speaking, few who have witnessed sunrise from the misty meadows of the Yosemite Valley will contend against their point of view.
It is one of the rare places where the onlooker can pivot in full-circle to take potential calendar photos exposed at every compass point. To the north cascades Yosemite Falls, fifth highest on the planet. Looking Eastward the signature logo of Yosemite National Park, Half-Dome, rises upward to meet the morning sun. To the south, magnificent Glacier Point captivates wide eyes and causes mouths to open in silent wonder. Gazing west, the ever-changing Merced River’s placid sheen soon reflects the grandeur of El Capitan, the largest granite monolith in the world.
Linking with Utah’s “Mighty Five National Parks” and Yellowstone as premier displays of American scenery, Yosemite lies at the far western point of that great triangle of unsurpassed natural western beauty. Each park is unique in its own way, but produces the same hypnotic responses in visitors whether surrounded by mountains of granite, sandstone canyons, or geothermal wonders.
Lafayette Bunnell, the army doctor credited with naming the valley, described his feelings as being one of the first white men to ever witness Yosemite.
“…suddenly we came in view of the valley of the Yosemite. The grandeur of the scene was softened by haze over the valley, light as gossamer, and by vapory clouds on the high cliffs. My astonishment was overpowering, and my eyes welled up with tears as I sensed my own inferiority. Here, before me, was the power and the glory of the Supreme Being. This seemed God’s holiest Temple where were assembled all that was most divine in material creation.”
Chief Tenaya, however, was devastated as his villages were torched, and he mourned, “When I am dead I will call to my people to come to you, that they shall hear me in their sleep. I will follow in your footsteps. I will not leave my home, but be with the spirits among the rocks, the waterfalls, the rivers, and in the winds. Wherever you go, I will be with you.”
Naturalist John Muir wrote about the place he called The Range of Light. The Sierras, 400 miles long and 80 miles wide of granitic wonder, also inspired him to advise, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.”
Another of his quotes inspired six of us to hike to the top of Half Dome. “Climb the mountains and get their glad tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares drop off like autumn leaves.”
Although the trek is an arduous 16 miles with a 5,000 foot elevation gain, Muir was accurate. Climbing past thunderous Vernal and Nevada Falls, striding through heavily-scented coniferous forests and reaching the base of the Dome produced sensory overload with every step. Yet, dangers are evident. Signs along the way read simply: “If you fall, you will die.”
The sight of Half Dome’s crest from the bottom of the cable route can be intimidating. One third of the hikers reaching that point refuse the final 400-foot ascent and retreat to the valley floor. Determined to succeed, we pulled our way up the steel cables to the top where the view exceeded our anticipation. Lush green meadows below were garnished with silver threads of water, imposing granite peaks were embellished with emerald forests, swallows were jetting upward on thermal winds, and the sky was so blue one could scoop it into a bowl.
Bunnell, Tenaya, and Muir were correct. Nature has a way of providing even more than we seek.