With four million annual visitors, you wouldn't think Yosemite would be a spot for solitude. But hike for just a mile or two away from the crowded main valley, and you'll discover, as I did, the peaceful tranquility of one of America's most popular parks.
I've visited Yosemite often, hiking a variety of its trails, and each time I discover there's a certain point on every trail where people begin greeting you with a hello and a smile. It's a magical spot where you've transformed from being part of commuter traffic to part of a hiking community.
The Secret of the Trail is to get to that place where you say hello as early as possible on your trip. And here's how a Yosemite hike can quickly get you to that "hello" moment.
Get Off the Loop
Yosemite is well-designed for the casual visitor. This can be a good and bad thing, as it does enable a lot of people to access nature, but the valley viewpoints can be as mobbed as Times Square during the busy summer season, which defeats the whole purpose of leaving a city and going to a park. Think rush hour traffic with some waterfalls. You’ve got to deal with parking, with traffic jams, fuming as you’re stuck behind a slow-moving RV, listening to people honk horns and rev engines in frustration.
But if you get off the loop and take a walk, the crowds thin like they’ve been chased off by bears and coyotes. A ten minute walk, and the crowd has been cut by half. Go twenty minutes by foot from drivable terrain in nearly any direction, and the number of people drops by perhaps 75%, maybe 90% in some areas. I’m sure some mathematician could come up with a formula, but there’s a certain combination of time, distance, and location of trail that creates the sweet spot where you’ve changed from a tourist into a Hiker.
Once you reach that point, you’re part of a club, if even for an hour, and people will greet you with a smile, nod and a hello. It feels like an exclusive membership, but the only requirement is the ability to put one foot in front of the other and a willingness to step off the well-traveled thoroughfares. Stage two is when you’ve gone far enough where people may start adding some commentary with their hellos: “It gets tricky up there,” or “Crazy weather yesterday, eh?” You know you’ve really made it to the Hiker Zone when people begin to stop in their tracks and start a conversation “Where ya comin’ from,” or “How’s the trail.” It doesn’t seem to matter if they’re hard-core rock climbers dragging a load of gear, or backpackers with a week’s worth of supplies, once you get out on the trails, everyone’s in the same walking club.
Hug a Tree
Although I have actually seeing people hugging trees in Yosemite (“It’s speaking to me!! It’s sooo old!” said one woman embracing a sequoia), you don’t literally have to caress a tree in order to connect with nature in your hike. But you do need to engage with your surroundings, in essence, saying “hello” to the natural world around you.
Step one: slow down, look around. Unless you’re on a seriously dangerous ascent, if you have to stare at the trail when you’re hiking, then you’re walking too fast and missing the point of being there. Snapping photos is a good exercise in focusing on your surroundings (assuming, of course, that they’re not all selfies).
Step two: Engage with your surroundings. Even if you plan to hike on your own, it’s good to take a short interpretive hike with a Yosemite Ranger to get some key tibits. Before my first guided hike in Yosemite, all I noticed were a whole bunch of pine trees. After the ranger’s lessons, I realized there are 19 types of different conifers in the park, which made it fun game for me later to try to identify the trees as I passed them on the trails. But everyone has their limits: I just about quit one hike I did in the Blue Mountains of Australia because my guide lost his mind with delight every time he saw flowers, stopping for long lectures what seemed like every other minute.
Finding a balance between getting somewhere in a timely fashion, and appreciating the journey along the way is the secret to any good hiking trip. When people nod and say hello to you, you know you’re at least part way there.
Bill Fink is an award-winning travel writer whose stories have appeared in over 50 publications, including National Geographic Traveler, San Francisco Chronicle, and Lonely Planet’s “Best of Travel Writing.” Tales from his many hikes can be found at www.billfinktravels.com, and tweets from the trail @finktravels.