Dangerous to stray from the trail? Dangerous to stay on the trail in the spring after a series of lovely spring snowstorms. Disclaimer for the rest of this post: do not try this at home. Nothing quite like a brisk death march, I mean hike, to the top of the falls in spring when the waterfall is roaring and the dusty trail is cleverly masked with mud. The Upper Yosemite Falls Trail is a tough one in the summer with no obstacles but tourists, but it is mad difficult when the top half is covered in snow. Oh, and - spoiler alert! - you can't actually get to the top of the falls when the trail is obscured by 6 feet of snow. But we went anyway.
Arguably the second most popular trail in Yosemite Valley after the Mist Trail, the Yosemite Falls Trail involves a seven mile round-trip and an elevation gain of 2600 feet that is achieved by ascending 8000 switchbacks equivalent to climbing the stairs of the Empire State Building twice. But the views of the Falls and Yosemite Valley are fine and you won't need to workout for the rest of the week.
In the spring the trail is muddy from constant snowmelt and the trail itself is often the runoff conduit as the water trickles its way from the High Sierra to the Merced River on the Valley floor. In some places the granite block-reinforced trail has far more than a trickle of water, so wear those waterproof shoes and bring extra socks. Soon after the point where you view the Falls for the first time the trail disappeared into the snow, but many intrepid souls had broken trail long before we got there. Though it was treacherous going in the snow, using our trekking poles like ice picks we scrambled and heaved to ascend 8000 more switchbacks through the small canyon behind the Falls in order to make it to the overlook.
The weather was strange this day. You could plainly see blue skies above the Falls and Half Dome, and yet we would be covered with swirling snowflakes. Yosemite Valley does have its own microclimate and the granite walls were creating their own weather. We moved through mist, rain, snow and sun in varying degrees both up and down the trail. Slogging through the snow was both painful and exhilarating. But had I known we wouldn't make it to the Falls overlook, I may not have slogged so much. At the top, we were stymied by the loss of the trail to the overlook and what appeared to be a bona fide snowstorm, so we hustled back out of there. Once we traveled the snow-covered portion of the trail we only met five other people in that last mile or so. Three people were sliding back down the trail on their butts, and the other two guys were going up as we were coming down (only occasionally on our butts and not intentionally) at around 6:00 PM. Good on ya, mates.
But on the way back down, still slogging through the snow, you get gobsmacked with views like this:
And I also realized that the view above was the inspiration for this:
"Evening Glow at Yosemite Falls" was created by Japanese artist Chiura Obata in 1930. This color woodblock print is one example of Obata's prolific body of work with the Sierra Nevada as his subject. He took his first trip through Yosemite and the Sierra in 1927 and used traditional Japanese painting techniques and his own innovations to recreate the landscape he encountered. If you live in California, you are likely familiar with Obata and his work - he was an influential artist and teacher in the Bay Area for decades. Though many artists have been inspired to pay tribute to Yosemite, no one shows you the Sierra Nevada quite like Obata. My friend Kimi Kodani Hill is the Obata family historian, and she shares wonderful stories about her artist grandfather. Obata's history is also representative of life in the American West. As a Japanese immigrant he found great success but was also sent to an internment camp during World War II along with thousands of other Japanese Americans before becoming an American citizen in 1954. If you've never seen Obata's work, check out "Obata's Yosemite: The Art and Letters of Chiura Obata from His Trip to the High Sierra in 1927". If you make it to San Francisco, you can view his artwork at the de Young Fine Art Museum. Obata was also featured in the Ken Burns' documentary "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." By the time I took the photo above, Ted was well ahead of me on the trail. He looked back at me, puzzled, as I yelled "Obata!" and gesticulated wildly toward the waterfall.
Eager to leave the snow behind and get back to the mud, we realized the snow level had fallen while we hiked and though the bottom half of the trail was still clear, the trees were dusted with snow. We emerged at Columbia Rock just as the sun was setting at the west end of the Valley and spied a smidgeon of alpenglow on the far side, affording the best view yet. I stumbled after Ted down the rest of the switchbacks in the evening glow.
P.S. I want to point out to my friend Carl that no food was mentioned in this Yosemite adventure post, but that's only because I neglected to take a photo of the well-earned pizza we inhaled for dinner.