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24 Hours in Yosemite

A photo essay about a trip to one of the best places on Earth

Story by Matt Quinn March 6th, 2015

heading west

Last November, as the world around me was starting to freeze, my wife, two children and I headed west to the sunny California coast. I hadn’t been out to visit my brother and his family for years and with American Thanksgiving coming up, we thought it was an ideal time to go. While there we also wanted to get out and witness some of the amazing natural beauty around the bay area. Not being all that familiar with the local geography, I hadn’t made the connection that Yosemite National Park was only a few hours away by car. I’ve wanted to visit Yosemite since as long as I can remember and to finally have the chance was something I had to make happen. Considering we didn’t have a lot of days to spare on our trip, the journey to Yosemite was going to have to happen in one day. With the 3+ hour drive each way, was a day trip even going to be worth it? There was only one way to find out.

We awoke around 4:30am the day of our trip. We packed as little as possible, some food, books and toys for the kids. We filled up my brother’s Siena and we were ready to roll. The kids were still asleep and we got them into the van without waking them up; it was a good omen. We hit the road just before 6:00am and it was still pitch black. Google maps said the journey was going to be 3 hours and 34 minutes. I had my fingers crossed that the kids would sleep most of the way and perhaps we might make it there in under 4 hours, given the coffee and bathroom breaks.

We headed east through the yellow hills of the California country side. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun was just about to peek over the horizon. The day was turning out to be absolutely stunning and our excitement grew as we wheeled onward. Driving through mid-land California was a different perspective on the state I had only known for its coastline. It was incredibly flat, dry and full of farm fields, fruit trees, pickup trucks and rodeos. Not what you would typically picture when thinking about California. It was nice to see the other side.

After about two and a half hours we hit the Sierra Nevadas and our route to Yosemite took us up some insane roadways that appeared to be dug out from the side of mountains. We climbed upward about 5000 ft. After a short while we entered the Stanislaus National Forest. As we got closer to Yosemite we noticed the base of most trees were scorched black from fire. Everything had scars and some areas had been completely wiped out. After some Googling we learned that there was a massive wildfire here in 2013 and was in fact the largest fire on record for the Sierra Nevadas. It was clear to the eye how much damage it had caused. Large swaths of land completely burnt to the ground. It was called the ‘Rim Fire’ because of its vicinity to the ‘Rim of the World’ lookout point. The landscape was still beautiful, just perhaps not as it once was the previous years. After reading about the fire we came up on the lookout and we had to stop and take in the view. It was immediately apparent why it was called ‘Rim of the World.’

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entering the park

We were so close now that the excitement was palpable. The vistas were large as were the trees. The road curved this way and that, no doubt built using a path-of-least-resistance technique by the 19th century workers. The paved road was built in the 1940s to accommodate cars going in and out of Yosemite. Before the main road existed there was an old wagon road that was known as the ‘zigzag’ route. It was built in the 1870’s and was the first reliable way into the Yosemite Valley by vehicle. Driving along these roads, I couldn’t imagine what that journey must have been like. Surely it required a great sense of adventure and weeks of planning. Today access to the park is as simple as getting in a car and going.

We came up on the Park entrance and stopped for a classic family photo in front of the Yosemite National Park signage. It was validating knowing we’d made it, even if it was just a sign. After some cheers and photos we got back in and headed towards the gates. We were greeted by a ranger in full garb. She briefed us on some basic details and wished us well. From there our drive changed from wooded forests to wide open expanses. We rounded a few corners and everything changed again. The rolling ground disappeared and we were now driving beside a deep valley. We made our first stop at a small lookout on the side of the road. From here we had our first glimpse of Half Dome and El Capitan. The scale of everything was incredible. On one side you had a valley that plunged thousands of feet down and on the other, granite that reached upward.

We followed the road inward and came up on the Merced River. We got out to have a look and dip our hands in. The sun was still fairly low in the sky and the frost from the previous night was burning off quickly. It was cold, very similar to an October morning back in Toronto. We stayed here for a while and let the kids stretch their legs and play by the river. It was just after 10:00am and we’d made it. We had the whole day to explore this amazing place and the question became: what do we do first?

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the tunnel view

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Making our way down into the valley we decided to take in some of the more traditional views of the park. Having a limited time and having never set foot here, I wanted to see for my own eyes what I had seen in countless photographs previously. The most renown of course was the Tunnel View, made famous by its half-pipe like vista through the valley with the iconic gateway of El Capitan on one side and Three Brothers on the other. The view culminating in the perfectly placed centre piece called Half Dome. The view was chiseled into photographic history in 1864 by Carleton Watkins and his work, along with John Muir’s, inspired US Presidents to protect this unique place. Given the time of year, Bridalveil Falls was quite low compared to some of the images I had seen in the past. It definitely didn’t take away from the moment however, as there was plenty to be awe struck about. The sky was so blue, most of the landscape around it was reflecting it back at us.
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the meadows

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We ventured further into the valley, past the epic wall of El Capitan and into the flat, open meadows. Close to the rock walls were large trees but as you approached the Merced River, they thinned out into open spaces dominated by grass. With the water level being low and the weather being so still, the Merced was like glass. It made perfect reflections of the landscape on its surface. Standing in the open spaces of these meadows and looking around gave me a new perspective on scale and grandeur. The granite walls were unapologetically flat, and stoic. It made me feel incredibly small, but somehow more connected to my place in nature. The walls commanded respect but at the same time they urged you to explore.

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yosemite falls

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We stopped for some lunch and gathered our thoughts on what to tackle next. While we discussed, the kids ran around and explored the area. We were just outside the entrance to the Yosemite Falls hike and it made sense to head that way when we wrapped up lunch. The hike was easy and the path was made for strollers. No doubt thousands of families have made this walk up to the base of the falls in the past. When we reached the base it was fairly busy. This was the only time we saw a crowd. The water was so low that people had taken it upon themselves to hike up the rocks to get right beside the falls. No words can describe the scale of these waterfalls. When you’re at the base and look upward the brain can’t really compute the size. We weren’t aware at the time, but Yosemite Falls is one of the highest waterfalls in North America and in the top 20 highest in the world. On our way back to the van, we ran into a family of incredibly tame deer. They munched away as if nothing was out of place. A nice treat for my daughter who always loves a good animal sighting.
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along the merced

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The light of the day was starting to fade. It was approaching 3:00pm and we’d made our way around the valley floor loop and headed back the way we came. The road went right up against the side of El Capitan and we stopped to have a look. The granite wall was almost completely perpendicular to the ground. It made you scratch your head in wonder on how it got that way. It was like the rock was pushed directly upward without disturbing the ground around it. We got back in the van and carried on. The road weaved through the valley and as we came closer to the nose of El Capitan the view had this crazy parallax effect happening. In the foreground were the trees and behind them this epic rock wall that seemed to go upward to infinity.

Nearing the road out of the park, we stopped to get a view of the Merced River with El Capitan. The area hadn’t received any sunlight that day as the ground was still covered in frost. The river itself was steaming as the air cooled. The reflections here were just as incredible, and perhaps more so then other areas due to El Capitan’s presence in them.

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Sunset

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The sun was setting and we did a mad dash to our favourite locations to get a new perspective. We first went back to the Tunnel View and instead of the valley being lit up blue and green like it was earlier in the day it was a hue of orange and yellow. El Capitan was lit up gold and the valley floor was darkened by shadows. We then moved quickly to the Sentinel Bridge to capture the sun reflecting off the peak of Half Dome. The light hit it so intensely that it glowed this amazing yellow/gold colour. As the sun went further down, the yellow gave way to orange and red and the sky went from blue to purple. It was an amazing display of colour. When the sun went behind the mountains, the afterglow turned the sky pink and purple like nothing I had seen before.

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staRry night

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As night fell on Yosemite, we took a much needed rest and ate dinner. The kids were put into their pajamas for the ride home. They were pretty tired, but given the crazy day we put them through, they were in good spirits. After dinner we drove around waiting for the sky to get as dark as it possibly could and to let the kids fall asleep. When they did finally pass out the sky was pitch black and the Moon had set behind the mountains. It was the perfect time to venture around the valley and take in the stars and Milky Way before heading home. Taking photos of the night sky in a dark location like this is a treat on its own, but to take photos of the night sky with the silhouette of the Yosemite Valley below was a dream come true.

We first stopped near Half Dome and ventured into the meadows. My brother and I thought it would be fun to do some light painting photos. I sent him off into the meadow with my headlamp and he placed it behind him on the ground. It made for this really fun shot of him standing casually against the epic night sky. After this we drove along the road that led out of the valley and stopped to capture the Milky Way against the granite walls. Earlier in the day those walls seemed staggeringly large, but with the limited night vision it was hard to see them anymore. When reviewing the photos, it was interesting to see how the mountains were now being dwarfed by the night sky and stars above them. It was like we had zoomed out and the once large mountains were now tiny compared to the immensity of space. It was another one of those moments where I felt connected while at the same time feeling incredibly small.

After a few more stops we decided to head home. It was hard for me to leave but I looked at it like not overeating my favourite food. If you have a taste it somehow doesn’t become normal, it’s still a treat. In the dark of night the journey home wasn’t nearly as exciting as the trip in. The winding road that we came in on was almost mesmerizing on the way out. We were bleary eyed and the lines of the road set against the blackest of the black night made the first hour of our journey feel pretty isolated. We hadn’t seen a car or a person for a few hundred miles. When we finally reached Oakdale, we felt we’d arrived back in civilization. It was a mixed feeling of relief and like we’d just returned from a trip to a fantasy land. We fuelled up our brains with some coffee and were on our way. San Francisco was still two and a half hours away.

We arrived back in the bay area at around 2:00am, almost 24 hours after we had left. Our journey was over and to answer the question: was it worth it? Absolutely. I have a feeling there are only a few places on Earth where you can get this sensation of being small but a part of something much, much bigger. It made me understand the importance of a moment and that was magnified when I looked at the faces of my kids. I’ve always wondered how I could slow down time because as an adult time passing seems to accelerate at an ever growing rate. What this place made me realize is that I’ve been failing to stop and smell the roses. The day-in and day-out routine of the modern world is really good at keeping us distracted from noticing time pass. When we have those wake up moments and realize time has ticked away, we wonder where it went. Without sounding overly cliche, this trip helped me see that slowing down time was simply done by stopping and taking notice of everyday things. Observe change, growth, death, renewal, and adaptation. In a way the shortness of this journey is what made it so valuable. It’s these types of adventures that etch time on our consciousness and I look forward to doing many, many more like it in the future.


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Yosemite Valley, CA, United States