Mark Liebenow, author of Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite, won First Prize in the 2011 Literal Latte Essay Award for his work titled, “Tinkering with Grief in the Woods.” Below he shares what to do if you only have one day in Yosemite.
Readers have been asking, “If I have one day in Yosemite, what should I do?” This is what I recommend.
If it’s summer, stand in Leidig Meadow at 5:30 a.m. and watch the stars in the night’s darkness give way to the orange and yellow colors of dawn. You will see deer and a few coyotes. As soon as it’s light enough to see the trail, head for the top of Upper Yosemite Fall, pausing at Columbia Rock halfway up to take in the view and to catch your breath. Arriving at the top two hours after starting off, walk over to the bridge that crosses the creek, look up the river to see what channels the water down, walk to the overlook, notice the Lost Arrow to your left and the Sierra Nevada range along the horizon. Head back down, arriving on the valley floor around 10:00 a.m.
Hike across Sentinel Meadow with its view of Half Dome and go pass Curry Village. At Happy Isles head up the John Muir Trail toward Vernal Fall. It will now be around noon. There is a clear view of Glacier Point and reclusive Illilouette Fall at a bend in the trail. After the footbridge with its view of Vernal Fall, the trail splits. Take the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Fall and look for rainbows. Notice the Emerald Pool and the Silver Apron above Vernal, and continue on to Nevada Fall. At the top of Nevada, have lunch on the flat rock, look at the fractures in Liberty Cap and Mt. Broderick and wonder why the glaciers didn’t break them up and carry them away. Notice how different Half Dome looks from the backside. At 2:30 p.m. head back down, taking the John Muir Trail this time.
Arriving back in the valley around 4 p.m., take the shuttle to your car and head for El Capitan. In El Cap’s Meadow let the grandeur of this granite monolith overwhelm you. Look for climbers on the rock; they are the colored dots. Drive around the bend to Bridalveil Fall, then up to the Inspiration Point parking lot and gaze in wonder over the length of the valley. Drive to Glacier Point, arriving early evening to watch the sunset drape alpenglow’s rose and purple colors over the mountains.
If you're not up for a day stuffed with hiking, or it’s winter, just hike the Vernal/Nevada trail at a leisurely pace. And when you come back down, walk across the valley to the Indian Caves. A large flat rock there has holes worn into it where the Ahwahneechees ground acorns for food. Walk past Washington Column and the Royal Arches, looking up for climbers. Visit the grand Ahwahnee Hotel.
Another alternative is to find natural settings that appeal to you and sit in each for a couple of hours, watching the valley change as the sun moves over the mountains. Discover what animals and birds live there. Feel yourself drawing close to nature.