One of the perks of an accademic job is an occasional conference trip to somewhere exotic, and at Easter 1998 I went to Async98 in San Diego, California. Having had the airfare paid for by the University I thought I ought to make the most of it and spent the next week on a quick tour of a couple of the best known beauty spots.
It was really a bit early in the year for visiting Yosemite. At 1200m the valley was mostly clear of snow, but not the surounding peaks. To reach them (at around 2500m or so) would have needed cross-country skis or snoe shoes, which I wasn't kitted out for. So I spent my time in and around the valleys, taking in the famous waterfalls (fairly full thanks to the snow melt) and Ansell Adams views.
The first day out was an ascent to the top of Upper Yosemite Fall; a pleasant walk, with lots of big trees full of snow that falls on you as you walk underneath!
Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls from the valley
Upper Yosemite Fall from the trail
One the second day I took in some of the other famous landmarks. Climbers will recognise the name El Capitan; the ascent of its huge sheer face takes about three days. Sadly it was too cold for them when I was there.
The views from Mirror Lake are well known from Ansell Adams' pictures. To get a good reflection you need a totally calm day, and to see Half Dome reflected you need a very wide angle lens (these shots are all from my little Olympus compact).
North Dome from Mirror Lake
Half Dome (Ansell Adams had better weather!)
On the final day I had slightly better weather, and walked up the Merced valley past Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls. I think this is the walk I would recommend to anyone looking for just one outing from Yosemite Valley; Vernal Falls in particular is very impressive, and unlike some waterfalls you can get good views, in particular from the John Muir trail.
One day I'll go back - either in the Summer, or with skis - and escape from the valley to the real wilds.
A short internal flight took me to Flagstaff and then on by coach to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Here there was also some snow - the rim is at about 2300m, and it was cold at night - but the sun was bright, and it was probably the best time of the year for hiking there.
You don't need to go far to get some excellent views of the canyon. Just walking along the rim gives a succession of fantastic views, and you don't have to go more than half a mile to escape from the hoards of tourists.
The Grand Canyon
The initial view comes as quite a surprise; the canyon is in the middle of an otherwise almost entirely flat desert. You can't see anything at all until you're just a few meters away. Then there it is!
View from the South Rim
The rock formations have been given extraordinary names, like "The Alligator" and "Tower of Ra". The geology is layed out in front of you in cross section; layers of white limestone, red sandstone, and greenish shale, perfectly horizontal, some more resiliant than others. At the bottom the rusty red river is cutting away at a harder layer of igneous rock.
Looking West from the South Rim, with the River Colorado at the bottom.
Having seen the view from the rim I decided that I needed to go down to get the full experience. I had only one day left, and the park authorities go out of their way to explain the dangers of trying to walk too far down in a day, so I decided to go to Plateau Point, about two thirds of the way down at around 1200m. With hindsght I should have walked all the way down to the river; the warnings may be appropriate for an unfit casual visitor, or to anyone in the full heat of summer, but I got back to the rim before 2PM.
View into the canyon from the Bright Angel Trail
The path down was a well engineered track all the way, with water, toilets and shade available half way down. The first part descends the steep cliffs with zig-zags, where there were odd patches of dirty ice (not really deserving the recommendation of crampons from the rangers!). Patches of mule dung made a more serious obstacle.
View back towards Indian Garden
The view from Plateau Point was excellent, with a very steep drop to the Colorado River 300m below.
The River Colorado from Plateau Point
So that was it; just a few days exploring these world-famous landmarks. I'll be back for more oneday.
I bought the National Geographic Maps / Trails Illustrated "Yosemite National Park" (206) and "Grand Canyon National Park" (207) sheets. These seemed to be the best available; despite searching in San Diego and at the outlets in the national parks, I couldn't find anywhere to buy genuine USGS sheets. The scales are "Approximately" 1:100 000 and 1:73 530 respectively, which doesn't inspire confidence. And of course everything is in feet and miles. One good thing about them is that they are printed on waterproof plastic, which is far better than the OS's scheme of encapsulating paper maps in chunky plastic.
The U.S.A. is the Land of the Car, and getting to out-of-the-way areas is difficult without. Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon are the two exceptions, with coaches connecting the railway stations in Merced and Flagstaff with Yosemite and the Grand Canyon respectively. Details are in the Amtrack timetable.
The "Sunnyside Campground" at Yosemite was OK, though a bit of grass would have been nice. The Grand Canyon needs something similar; there, the large and comfortable campsite charges per plot, which is a bargain if there are 12 of you with three cars and a "recreational vehicle" the size of my flat, but not such a bargain for me in my coffin-sized tent. Motels in small towns are cheap enough that you don't need to worry about hostels or the like.
National Parks Service
© 1998, 1999