As soon as you enter the Yosemite National Park in California, US, the first thing you see is a signboard, directing you to “store all scented and food-related items in animal-proof bear boxes”. The thought of coming across a bear occupies your mind while you are inside the park and it becomes a nagging presence every time you eat, or see any kind of food or even your toiletries pouch.
Our local friends, who drove the three of us from San Francisco to Yosemite for more than three hours, have anecdotes to share from previous trips on how to not leave any eatables overnight in the car — the smell would be invitation enough for the bears. Many have witnessed the grizzlies shaking vehicles in a frenzy at night on smelling food.
With this in mind, we keep an eye out of the car windows to spot bears, and other signs of wildlife. The road is sandwiched between massive black rocks on one side and snow-covered ground on the other. Granite cliffs, waterfalls, clear streams, lakes, mountains, meadows, glaciers, and biological diversity make up this 7,47,956-acre Unesco World Heritage site. Our hosts inform us that of California’s 7,000 plant species, more than 20 per cent are found inside Yosemite. The name “Yosemite” (which means “killer” in Miwok, a native American language) originally referred to the name of the tribe which inhabited the area; before that, it was called “Ahwahnee” (“big mouth”) by the indigenous people.
The sublime black-and-white view of the enormous granite cliffs — formed more than 10 million years ago, owing to seismic activity — covered in patches of snow take my mind off bears and to the opening scenes of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), one of the few films, we are told, including The Last of the Mohicans and Maverick, which have been shot here. Soon, our wooden cabins — inside the Half Dome Village, the park’s designated tourist area — are in sight.
As we pull over, we wipe clean the car seats and carpets, leaving no trace of any food particles. Out with our luggage, the sheet of snow below our feet feels soft as we head to the small, but functional, cabins. We paid a little extra for the ones with an attached bathroom. Young backpackers, however, prefer to camp in the canvas tent cabins.
After a sumptuous lunch, our first adventure awaits — a 40-minute hike to the Bridalveil Falls. As the name suggests, it is a milky white veil of water falling from the top of a cliff, snow particles adding to its thickness. The 188m-high Bridalveil is one of the most prominent waterfalls here, visited by millions each year, followed by Vernal Fall, the Upper and Lower Yosemite Falls. The hike isn’t very steep, until the final leg, where we have to climb boulders and navigate the stones to reach the pool into which the water falls. The life-affirming water falling on our faces is just what we needed after the trek.
In the evenings, one could access the wi-fi (in the common lounge, not in the rooms) to reconnect with the world outside. But signboards warn: “Due to the 3000+ foot tall granite cliffs surrounding Yosemite Valley, cellphone services may not work as well as you may be used to. We encourage you to use this time to completely unplug.” So, we retire at 8 pm, making a start next day at 6 am for short walks and hikes, amid flora and fauna. After a quick bite at the pizza shop and some memento-hunting at the next-door gift shop, we take a short break in our rooms.
Out again, while driving inside the park, a faint sound of water falling perks our ears up. It keeps growing as we hunt for its source. Our search leads us to the Lower Yosemite Falls, after an hour-long trek. The spectacular views are rewarding. The volume seems gargantuan, as it nears its peak ahead of the spring season. We all take out our smartphones and record its thunderous sound.
In the evening, on our way out of the park, the exit signboard bids us goodbye with the message: “Take Nothing But Pictures. Leave Nothing But Footprints.” We, however, are smuggling out some sounds too. The bears, we could only see with our eyes closed.
Back In Time
In 1855, entrepreneur James Mason Hutchings, artist Thomas Ayres and two others were the first to tour the area. The duo was responsible for much of the earliest publicity about Yosemite, writing articles and special magazine issues about the Valley. Now, around four million people visit Yosemite each year. It is open year-round and numerous activities are available such as nature walks, photography and art classes, stargazing programmes, bike rentals, rafting, mule and horseback rides, and rock-climbing classes.