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The Ancient World of Yosemite Valley

A panoramic view of Yosemite Valley

A panoramic view of Yosemite Valley

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Yosemite Valley is a 5.94 sq. mile (3,500 acres) glacial valley located on the western flank of the Sierra Nevada range inside Yosemite National Park, about 211 miles east of San Francisco. The approximately 210 million years old valley was carved and sculpted into existence by giant ancient glaciers, of which a few are still lingering in the region. It was officially designated as a historical landmark and preserved area on June 30, 1864 by Abraham Lincoln.

Yosemite Valley, approximately seven miles long and a mile wide at its broadest expanse, is situated about 4,000 feet above sea level, and its mighty granite cliffs on each flank rises another three thousand-odd feet. The majestic valley is most known for its 3,000-year-old giant sequoias, incredible waterfalls, towering granite monoliths and turquoise lakes. Visitors to Yosemite Valley make up almost 80 percent of the 5 million annual tourists visiting the park.

Waterfalls of Yosemite Valley

One of the most famed aspects of Yosemite Valley is its spectacular waterfalls. The creation of numerous hanging valleys by wandering glaciers millennia ago has left the entire area with a high concentration of waterfalls.

Yosemite Falls, North America’s longest waterfall, descends almost 2,500 feet into a beautiful display of mist, though it usually dries up between August and the start of snow season as it is fed exclusively by snowmelt. Lower Fall, at 320 feet, almost twice the height of Niagara Falls, is impressive on its own, but utterly pales in comparison to the 1,430 feet high Upper Fall, which ranks as the tallest unbroken waterfall in the Americas.

The staggered drops of Ribbon Fall is even taller at 1,612 feet, but the flow of falling water that clings closely to the cliff wall only becomes impressive in the spring courtesy of the melting snow. The 594-foot Nevada Falls and 317-foot Vernal Falls, both descending from the powerful currents of Merced River, smashes against the rocks below in a compelling display of the wild force of nature. The cascades of Bridalveil Fall, steeped in old Native American mythology, offer the most wonderful visuals among the many other very imposing falling cascades here, including Sentinel Falls, Snow Creek Falls and Royal Arch Cascade.

The landscape of Yosemite Valley appears almost dreamlike at times
The landscape of Yosemite Valley appears almost dreamlike at times. Image courtesy of Needpix.

Rock Formations of Yosemite Valley

The colossal El Capitan, the biggest exposed granite monolith on the planet, will greet humbled visitors as they enter the valley from the east. Soaring over 3,000 feet into the air, the immensity of El Capitan is difficult to capture in photographs and videos – it’s one of those things that you just have to be there to understand. The still remarkable Cathedral Rocks (and Cathedral Spires), at 2,500 feet, sits almost opposite El Capitan. Both of these granite towers are a favorite with the rock climbing crowd, though many consider the shorter Cathedral Rocks as the tougher climb.

Sentinel Rock, the Royal Arches, the Three Brothers, Glacier Point, and Washington Dome are some of the other notable rock formations found inside Yosemite Valley. However, the Half Dome is by far the most recognizable and visited formation here. The gigantic 5,000 feet tall formation has three smoothly rounded sides and one sharp vertical one, lending it the appearance of an unfinished masterpiece of a giant child.

The Sequoias of Mariposa Grove

Located just 2.5 miles from the Visitor Center, Mariposa Grove is home to a cluster of giant, ancient sequoias that will give visitors an instant sense of wonder and awe. The 1,800-year-old, 209-foot-tall Grizzly Giant is the star attraction here, alongside the California Tunnel Tree and other hulking, skyscraping sequoias.

A beautifully-captured, almost magical image of the magnificent sequioas at Mariposa Grove. Image courtesy of Robert Brett.
A beautifully-captured, almost magical image of the magnificent sequioas at Mariposa Grove. Image courtesy of Robert Brett.

Camping and Hiking in Yosemite Valley

There are 459 campsites spread across the Lower Pines, North Pines, Upper Pines and Camp 4 campgrounds, capable of accommodating up to 2,754 campers. Recreational vehicles (length restriction applies) are also allowed in campgrounds, subject to availability.

There are numerous official hiking trails crisscrossing the valley that you can take either on your own or in a group, with guides. Short and flat trails such as Cook’s Meadow Loop and Mirror Lake Trails are the two easiest for beginners. Challenging ones, such as Panorama Trail and Four Mile Trail, should be left to expert hikers. However, follow the rules – people have died here. Stick to the trails and avoid taking shortcuts across unfamiliar territory, don’t swim near waterfall cliffs and make sure you have the basic essentials (good shoes, water, comfortable clothing, etc.)

Getting to and Around Yosemite

The valley is accessible by road all year long, though tire chains may be required during winter. Greyhound and Amtrak have daily services to Merced, while YARTS has regular routes inside Yosemite. The park also has a free shuttle service to major attractions and campsites in the valley.

 

Song of the day: Van Morrison – Caravan

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