Water cascades over 600ft falls, trees grow to around 200ft and live for thousands of years, and giant, 8,000ft granite monoliths stand guard over the valley floor. Welcome to Yosemite National Park, where nature rules on a grand scale.
When you first enter the park you drive along the valley floor, which is carpeted with Giant Redwood trees, most of which stand over 200ft tall. So you're already feeling pretty small when you round a corner to be suddenly confronted with El Capitan, a granite monolith that stands at around 8,000ft. When me and Vincent first saw it we both started exclaiming: "What! Wow! Oh my god! Oh my god!" And Vincent, who claims that he will never be interested in fantasy literature, immediately compared it to The Wall in Game of Thrones. This photo is a picture of El Capitan, but it doesn't do it justice. It's so much more impressive in real life!
Once we had parked in the main valley and wandered up to the visitor centre to get our bearings, we began by learning how to pronounce Yosemite in an American accent. I had been pronouncing it yu-sem-it-ee, which is an OK pronunciation, but to be all-american about it, you need to say Yo! at the start, then "semit" really quickly, then an elongated "eeee" at the end. Kinda like this: "Yo-semiteee". Once you've got the hang of that, Yo-semiteee is pretty much foolproof. All the trails are very well signposted and there is a free shuttle bus that goes around the valley floor in a loop, dropping off hikers at the start of various different trails. We went for the Mist Trail which takes you past two stunning waterfalls on the way up to Clark's Point, which is 5,400 ft above sea level.The photo here is of Vernal Falls, which is about 1 1/2 hours climb from the valley floor. To give you a sense of scale, look closely at the rock to the top right of the waterfall. Believe it or not, there are people standing there. They are miniscule in comparison to the waterfall.
As you climb the Mist Trail from the valley floor up to Vernal Falls, you start to hear the roar and crash of the water as it thunders down the mountainside into the pool below. For us, as we experienced the power of this waterfall first hand, it was incredible to know that the flow this August is just a trickle compared to what it is typically like in early spring. At the moment, California is currently experiencing a severe drought and some of the largest falls and lakes in Yosemite have actually dried up completely. The park only received about 20% of it's usual level of snowfall this year, meaning that there is only 20% of the usual amount of snowmelt to create the waterfalls.
The photo here shows me and Vincent at the top of Clark Point, which we hiked to from the valley floor. I was very grateful that I remembered to pack my hiking boots as we climbed the trail! From this point we could see the back of "Half Dome" which is the most famous granite mountain in Yosemite. We could also see the Nevada falls, which are over 600ft long. The temperature was a pretty toasty 30 degrees C, but the Giant Redwoods provide much needed shade most of the way up and down, so it didn't feel too hot.
We made our way back down via part of the 211 mile long John Muir Trail, named after the famous 19th/early 20th century Scottish-American conservationist who persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to put the Yosemite valley under federal protection as part of America's first National Park. We stopped here for our picnic in the woods (thanks to mum and dad for contributing to this as part of our wedding present!) and we were so dwarfed by the giant trees and rocks that I felt that we'd fallen through Lewis Carroll's rabbit hole and taken shrinking pills. You can now try playing Where's Wally and look for where I am in the photograph.
As we ate lunch I thought more about the differences between the American National Parks which were first created in the mid 19th century, and British National Parks, which were created in the mid 20th century. The American parks are predicated on the need to conserve the wilderness for future generations and prevent over-commercialisation, but National Parks in the UK, specifically the Peak District National Park, have slightly different origins based on pressure from ordinary people who wanted to have access to mountain and moorland that was hitherto held by the landed gentry. When Yosemite National Park was first created in the mid 19th century, America was still a frontier society, where the wildnerness belonged to any man bold enough and grasping enough to claim it from it's original inhabitants - the Native Americans. In contrast, northern England in the 19th and early 20th century was a much more static society, still affected by the process of enclosure which had begun in the 16th century and had stripped working class people of their rights to common land.
It was quite amusing for me to see how commercial Yosemite was when it was first "discovered" by white Americans in the 1860s. They built a cinema, a dance hall, a music hall and various hotels, with lots of enterprising American entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the magnificent scenery. In contrast, the Peak District in the 19th and early 20th centuries was jealously guarded by the landed aristocracy who wanted to maintain the grouse moors as a playground for the elite. However, despite their slightly different beginnings, one rooted in conservation, the other in access for ordinary people, both Yosemite and the Peak District National Park are based on the recognition that areas of outstanding natural beauty should not be subject to usual property laws: they are heirlooms of the whole nation and everyone deserves access to them. As the Sheffield socialist and freedom to roam campaigner G.H.B. Ward said: "The mountain has no master save the lonely man who stands upon it's highest crag". Or, as demonstrated in the fantastic picture on the cover of this book I saw in the gift shop: "The mountain has no master save the two crazy ladies dancing the cancan on it's highest and scariest crag".