GPS: 38°01'N 119°57'W
John Muir was prophetic when he wrote that in Yosemite Valley “Nature had gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her.” That communion can get downright cozy with the park’s 3.6 million visitors in 2007. But the truth is, they don’t all need to squeeze into the seven-mile (eleven-kilometer) valley. Marvel at the temple, by all means, but look to high country, low country, and the unsung glories of the Sierra Nevada for your solitude. There’s a lot of park out there.
Just off Tioga Road in Tuolumne Meadows is the trail to Elizabeth Lake. It’s only a five-mile (eight-kilometer) hike, but one that distills all the joys of the High Sierra into an easy jaunt. You’ll take in granite outcroppings; lodgepole pines; grassy, flower-strewed meadows; and, finally, the frigid reflecting pool of Elizabeth Lake. The glacial tarn lies at 9,508 feet (2,898 meters), beneath 10,823-foot (3,299-meter) Unicorn Peak. Camp here and you’ll have seen Yosemite‚ even if you never venture into the valley.
Three Days or More
If Yosemite has a gentle side, it’s near the settlement of Wawona, in the southern portion of the park. The elevations are lower but this is still the majestic Sierra‚ just with a longer hiking season and fewer crowds. For a three-day highlights tour, forge a 22-mile (35-kilometer) clockwise loop, hiking from Wawona to Buena Vista Pass. Along the way, stop off at Chilnualna Fall, a series of foamy tumbles that would be a major tourist attraction were it in Yosemite Valley. Camp the first night just down from the pass at Buena Vista Lake, in a beautifully carved cirque below 9,709-foot (2,959-meter) Buena Vista Peak. On day two take it easy: Wind your way through forest until you reach the picture-perfect campsites at either Johnson or Crescent Lakes.
It sounds preposterous, but there’s a hidden path in the heart of Yosemite. The 13-mile (21-kilometer) Valley Floor Loop Trail is an old bridle path that hasn’t seen much traffic since the 1950s. Still, the trail is signed and very much intact. Pick it up behind Yosemite Lodge or Camp 4 and walk west, hugging the base of El Capitan, as far as Pohono Bridge. There, the trail crosses over to the south side of the valley, then east past Bridalveil Fall, through El Capitan Meadow, and across Swinging Bridge over the Merced River for a stunning view of Upper Yosemite Fall.
Vitals: The cedar-shrouded cabins at Evergreen Lodge, about 500 yards (457 meters) from the park’s western boundary on the road to Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, are a good way to dodge the larger and louder campgrounds in the valley (www.evergreenlodge.com). For park info and free backcountry permits, visit www.nps.gov/yose.
Originally published in the June/July 2006 edition of National Geographic Adventure
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