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Yosemite, Inyo and the Devil

Sunday, 2 November 2003
written by Teresa

The Zen of Tenaya Lake I always feel a little intimidated when I sit down to write about somewhere like Yosemite National Park. The chances of doing it justice are slim and I usually succumb to a string of superlatives that I then eye suspiciously. In my mind, Yosemite has two distinct faces: the natural and the artificial, the former posing the challenge of description.

The deep blue skies typical of the mountains are always a wonderful backdrop to any scene and as we entered the Park from the eastern side, the sun shone with unseasonable warmth and the clear air gave a clarity and sharpness. White granite domes dominate the landscape, their rounded forms sculptured by the massive inexorable movement of glacial ice, the surrounding evergreens, skirting below. Steep sided valleys mark the glaciers passage; rocks, polished and scratched indicate itís direction of travel and the transparent waters of the ribbon lakes reflect the surrounding beauty. A perfectly calm surface and clear water provides a two-way view: into the lake below, and out to the world above, tree shadows adding momentary confusion.

The sheer scale of the iceís work is truly evident on entering Yosemite Valley itself. Sentinel Rock and El Capitan Three thousand feet of near vertical walls rise from the canyon floor, the characteristic "U" shape, that of a textbook. From the valley bottom, the cliffs tower above and looking straight ahead, the eyes are met by nothing but rock. Itís a place that brings home our size in the wider scheme of things, humbling in itís enormity and majesty.

The urge to see all this from above, drove us up the Four Mile Trail, a couple of days later. Now there are a few things to be said about this walk. Firstly, itís not four miles long but then I suppose a nifty name like Four Point Six Mile Trail just doesnít have the same ring. This reminds me: such misnomers are not uncommon. In Rainier National Park we came across the Mountain Beaver and looking him up in our mammal book, we were informed that he "is not especially partial to mountains, nor is he a beaver." Back to the trail. The altitude, combined with the gradient is enough to make the legs rebel and is another of these places where the term breathtaking has a dual meaning for much of the ascent. Thirdly, the trail was built by an entrepreneur in the eighteen hundreds who paved the way from the bottom, up to Glacier Point at the top, misguidedly thinking that people would pay him for the privilege of exhausting themselves on itís slopes. The more likely scenario must have been that he would nearly bankrupt himself in the construction, holding back just enough funds to bribe a handful of people a day to tread his path, guaranteeing further payment at the top if they had not turned back after the first thousand feet. Nowadays the trail is best described as "partially paved"; sections of it having been carried off down the canyon side by the yearly snow and consequent melt. Half Dome and Tenaya Canyon The views along and down into the valley are magnificent, the meadow that we set off from becoming smaller and smaller until finally disappearing far below. Other panoramas open over to Half Dome, back to El Capitan, across to the dry site of Yosemite Falls, and up into Tenaya Canyon. It is worth every step even though the way down proved nearly as hard on the legs although a relief to the cardiovascular system. I have to report that the days following this exertion, the leg muscles staged their protest by refusing to work without considerable moaning and groaning.

It is usually true that if we go to this amount of effort, one of our rewards is visually stunning solitude in which to have our lunch. Yosemite is different. While the trail itself is quiet enough, we were greeted at the top by a veritable milieu of people who had driven there. It is a little disconcerting to emerge into crowds after the solitary and virtually silent nature of the path. This dichotomy is part of the Parkís nature. The valley floor is littered with campgrounds, lodges, tent towns and even villages with their own banks, shops, post office, restaurants etc etc. A free bus service links all of this, ferrying visitors around what must be the most developed park in the system. Returning from Glacier Point, the prospect of cooking seemed daunting and so we took advantage of the public transport and jumped on a bus to go out for pizza and beer. What a strange experience in a National Park.

Just outside the eastern boundary of the Park, lies the Inyo National Forest, away from the crowds but beautiful in itís own way. From Junction Campground a short trail climbs gently up to the site of a nineteenth century silver mining town at Bennettville. The Forest Service have restored two of the original buildings and emerging into the clearing, it is a little surprising to find them standing there. Small Islands The trail continues across pristine alpine meadows, along several lakeshores, and the banks of mountain streams teaming with fish that dart back and forth at our approach, the whole tableau surrounded by mountains. Flocks of Western Bluebirds perform hummingbird impersonations in their attempt to catch winged tidbits aided by the brisk breeze that they seem to use to their advantage. Although this is a landscape untouched by the rounding effects of the ice leaving the lines sharp and craggy, erosion still continues, washing particles down the hillside into the lakes, building small islands during the silting up process and producing surprising white sandy beaches along the waters edge. It is wonderfully silent, devoid of people and somewhat of a relief after the comparative hubbub of its busier neighbour.

On our way back towards Bakersfield, we made a small detour to visit Devils Postpile National Monument. This involves going through the town of Mammoth Lakes, sitting within the Long Valley Caldera that has been experiencing earthquake swarms over the last few years, a sure sign of increased magma activity below the surface. This area is another of those enjoying the close scrutiny of the US Geological Survey and hopefully sufficient warning will be available when the time comes. One of the area's other telltale warning signs are the widespread stands of dead trees, killed by the high concentrations of carbon dioxide discharged by the sub surface activity and accumulating in the soil to dangerous levels. Warnings about the dangers of lying face down on the ground in these areas may sound humorous but are I suspect deadly serious.

The Devils Postpile The Monument itself is at the bottom of a challenging single track road that had itís fair complement of people attempting to pass us in spite of the fifteen mile an hour speed limit, the blind corners, steep drop offs, narrowness of paving and "No Passing" signs. The Postpile owes its present appearance to the action of both fire and ice. The basalt posts result from a homogeneous lava cooling at a uniform rate, cracking in the process to produce pillars with anything from three to seven sides. There is something vaguely unnatural about such obvious symmetry and the cross section visible on the top of the pile could just as well be a fancy pathway created by the Park Service for the ease and delight of its visitors. The paving stones have the characteristic polish and scratches of glacial ice and it was the movement of the glacier across the area that weakened what today is the revealed face of the Postpile, causing the collapse of the pillars that now lie strewn in the talus pile at its base. A short walk out from here, the trail leads to Rainbow Falls named for its habit of displaying the spectrum in its falling waters and spray when the sun is overhead. It is too late in the year to be able to see this effect but the weather was warm, the views lovely and besides which, the leg muscles still needed some loosening.

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