With only one full day in Yosemite to celebrate my birthday and Father’s Day, my husband, son and I poured over the pages of my hiking guide as we enjoyed a delicious dinner (best portobello mushroom entrée EVER) at the Mountain Room in the Yosemite Valley Lodge. Thom’s first pick, Cloud Rest, was too high (I get headaches at 10,000 feet). His other suggestion, the 4,000 foot trail descending from Glacier Point, would have killed my husband’s knees (victim of a long-ago accident at the Giggling Marlin in Cabo, but that’s another story). The Mariposa Grove hike, in the southern end of the park, was our Goldilocks solution.
We did not know that the Grove had been closed for restoration for three years and had re-opened only the day before. (I can imagine the toxic swearing that would have polluted the atmosphere if we had driven the 45+ minutes only to find it closed.) Chalk it up to birthday karma.
The hike met our criteria and then some: distance (check), elevation climb (check), views (check). But we found we needed new ones like “wonder,” “connection,” “succor,” and maybe even “epiphany.”
What you need to know
Though there are a few — maybe a dozen — parking spots at the newly improved trailhead, park employees will tell you have to park in the new welcome area, where the hybrid busses board. Do it. The ride to the trailhead is fast and pleasant, and the busses run frequently.
Most of the tourists will opt for the Mariposa Loop trail. Those who can will walk the 1,200 or so foot rise to 6,810 elevation Wawona Point, but I suspect many will stay on the lower paths, where there is plenty to see.
To get out of the scrum and add a little mileage, plan to take the “perimeter trail.” (You can get a free, up-to-date trail map at the visitor’s center by Big Trees Lodge, formerly known as the Wawona.) The trail is the same one my now out-of-date hiking book called Outer Loop Trail and Upper Loop Trail. Note that the perimeter trail isn’t always signed as such, but you can rely on signs with a bridal trail icon. (For example, from the trail summit at Wawona Point, the sign states the end-point destination, “Wawona 6 (something) miles,” below which is the horse-rider symbol. Follow trail signs that have the horse trail symbol.)
As you begin, take the main, broad path as far as the Grizzly Giant (roughly a half mile along). It’s the largest tree in the park and possibly the oldest, but what sets its apart is its decisive cant. Immediately after pausing to appreciate this tree, look for the perimeter trail sign off to the right.
Farther along, you’ll take a 50′ detour downward to see the Telescope Tree (a living tree that has a hollow center, allowing you to look from inside the base of the tree toward the sky). (There are many more “named” trees… I’m just mentioning a few as milestones.)
Eventually the perimeter trail will end in a short switchback and rejoin the Mariposa Loop road to Wawona Dome, with its spectacular views. Far below is the bright green swath of the Wawona Golf course. If you’re feeling brave, you can strike a Titanic “king of the world” pose on one of the walled prows that extend above the vast canyon.
Descending the road from Wawona Point, look for the trail sign toward Wawona (with the horsetrail icon). After a couple of miles, you’ll come to a well marked junction, which will direct you back toward the shuttle bus pickup location. You can’t get lost.
Wonder, connection, succor, epiphany
So much for the practical.
Wonder: I remember turning the corner of the pathway and seeing the Grizzly Giant above us. There were people around, but they might as well have disappeared. There she was, flexing her bicep, as big around as the trunk of a mature Sugar Pine. Or maybe she was raising that limb in greeting. Truly we felt well-come. Her caramel colored bark, a foot thick, coats her body. A gash at her base — old fire damage? (fires naturally come through wild forests every five to ten years; she’s seen plenty in her time) — creates the impression of legs, which end in huge foot-like knobs. She may lean, but she’s sturdy.
Connection: Grains of earth clung to my calves. I inhaled the distinctive vanilla aroma of Sugar Pines. Invisible molecules entered my pores, flooded my lungs. Some of it I sensed. Some I did not. This happens every time I enter a forest, but in Mariposa Grove the experience doubled, tripled. Grandmother Earth dwells in this place.
Succor: As much as things flowed into me when I hike, something flowed out of me. Worries. I don’t know if Nature relaxes my tension, or if such internal release makes room for the balm of Nature to enter. The sight of wild irises, pushing up on stubby stalks, filled me with joy. Budding Queen Anne’s lace brought back memories of my wedding bouquet nearly 36 years ago.
Epiphany: Hiking, I always feel clearer, cleaner, closer to the Greatness of Creation and the Goodness of God. Descending the Wawona Trail from the Dome, we stopped twice to listen. Just listen. In a meadow, bird trills lent a syncopated rhythm to the treble of a stream and the chords of the breeze-brushed treetops.
As pointed out in this NY Times article, the purpose of the restoration was to keep foot traffic off the roots of the Giant Sequoias, to give them the best possible chance of surviving for another millennia, since the gigantic trees have been known to live up to 3,000 years. The wide, split-rail fenced lanes of the lower section remind me of the valley floor pathways of Muir Woods. Mariposa Grove may not have the lonely aesthetic of the Pacific Crest Trail, but if you spend your time — as you should — craning your neck to see the tops of trees as tall as the Statue of Liberty, you won’t care.
See More Sequoias
Yosemite’s Giant Sequoias live in three groves: You can see more of the Giantesses at Merced Grove (fairly close to the Western entrance) and Tuolomne Grove (close to Crane Flats). Learn more at this informative article on the National Park Service website. Think Giant Sequoias are the world’s oldest tree species? Nope. They’re number three.
Best time: GO EARLY, not just to beat crowds but because of traffic in the Valley if you are returning there later*. My old guide book recommends June because of wildflowers and temperature but I can’t imagine a bad time to visit. Most of the perimeter trail is shaded, but certain stretches could be toasty in August.
Parking: Park at the Arrival Center. There are 300 spaces, which were almost full by the time we left around 1 p.m.. And remember, the Grove had only been re-opened for 2 days.
Trail type: Loop (if you take the Perimeter all the way around)
Elevation: Rises from 5,620′ to 6,810′
Difficulty: A “2” (1 = flat, easy) in my old guide book, although the Park Service trail map called the perimeter trail “strenuous.” (It’s not, but you’ll get some exercise.)
Distance: Something between 7 and 8 miles
Steps: 17,500 or so
Time: We took our time, roughly 2.5 hours. Don’t rush. Milk every minute.
Where to Stay: The platform tents at Half Dome Village are rustic but comfortable. For a summer visit, you’ll need to secure a reservation, minimally, a few months in advance. I booked in December. Be aware there are no plugs/outlets in the tents. You’ll be there with hundreds of others but the camp really does quiet down around 10 p.m. We didn’t have any trouble sleeping. If you want to dine in the famous dining room of The Majestic Yosemite, reserve a table well in advance. The decor isn’t as amazing, but the food is actually a little better at the Mountain Room at the Yosemite Valley Lodge. Plus, no dress code!
*Traffic in the Park:
The National Park Service may warn you about Hanta Virus (carried by deer mice) and bears, but the nastiest threat to your Yosemite visit will be traffic. By the time we had lunch at Big Trees Lodge (formerly known as Wawona Lodge), and returned to the Valley around 3 p.m., we were in a Manhattan-worthy traffic jam. It took us the better part of an hour to travel from Bridal Veil Falls back to Half Dome Village (formerly known as Curry Village), normally a trip of a few minutes. In two lane (one way) sections, cars are restricted to one lane, leaving the second lane open for hybrid shuttle busses. So go early, take the shuttles when you can, and if you’re planning on dinner at The Majestic Yosemite (formerly the Ahwahnee) and aren’t staying there, you’re better off on foot.