Sunday, July 17, 2016

Yosemite National Park: Lower Yosemite Fall and Cook's Meadow (Blog Hike #589)

Trails: Lower Yosemite Fall and Cook’s Meadow Trails
Hike Location: Yosemite National Park
Geographic Location: eastern end of Yosemite Valley, CA
Length: 2.3 miles
Difficulty: 2/10 (Easy)
Last Hiked: June 2016
Overview: A short lollipop loop past America’s tallest waterfall and through a scenic meadow.

Directions to the trailhead: This hike starts at the Valley Visitor Center in the eastern end of Yosemite Valley.  Ideally you can park in the large day-use parking lot across Northside Drive from the Visitor Center.  Realistically, you need to park anywhere you can find a space in eastern Yosemite Valley and either walk or ride the free Valley Shuttle to the Visitor Center.  The Valley Visitor Center is Valley Shuttle stop #5.

The hike: No less than the famous and well-traveled John Muir described Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias as “by far the grandest of all the special temples of nature I was ever permitted to enter.”  The area’s awe-inspiring white granite cliffs that tower thousands of feet above the valley, collection of waterfalls that includes some of the tallest in North America, and massive, ancient, giant sequoia trees have caused millions of visitors since Muir’s time to agree.  The two special areas originally identified by Muir were set aside in 1864 (during the Civil War by President Lincoln no less) via a federal act known as the Yosemite Grant.  The grant gave title of the land to the State of California for preservation purposes, making Yosemite the first area in the United States to receive federal protection from settlement and development.
In the early 1900’s, the land came under federal control when a group of conservationists led by Muir persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps the greatest conservationist this country has ever known, that California was failing its stewardship responsibilities.  Sheepherders were feeding their sheep in the fragile alpine meadows, and lumber companies were cutting down ancient giant sequoias, to name a couple of travesties.  Thus, in 1903 Yosemite became America’s second national park (after Yellowstone), much to the joy of Muir and his allies.
The conservationists’ victory proved to be short-lived.  In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson approved the damming of Yosemite’s sister valley to the north, the Hetch Hetchy Valley.  This decision was made in spite of the fact that Hetch Hetchy Valley lies within the park’s boundaries set in 1903.  This act led to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916 to ensure that such short-sighted actions would never again happen within a national park’s boundaries.
The allure of Yosemite experienced by Muir remains a major attraction today, as Yosemite National Park has become one of the 5 most visited parks in the entire national park system.  Your entrance fee at Yosemite allows you to access the park for 7 days, which is a good thing: it is impossible to see the entire park in one day.  Indeed, I did my five Yosemite hikes (this one and the next four) over a three day period, and I came nowhere near exhausting the quality day hikes the park has to offer.  This hike offers a good introduction to Yosemite Valley and takes you to a couple of the valley’s most scenic and accessible sites: Yosemite Falls and Cook’s Meadow.  Be advised that this entire hike is on asphalt trail, and its location near the Valley Visitor Center means you will have a lot of company on these very developed trails.
Hike/bike path leaving Valley Visitor Center
Walk out the front of the Valley Visitor Center and angle right on one of many asphalt paths.  Your first destination is Lower Yosemite Fall, so you need to follow signs for Yosemite Falls.  The asphalt hike/bike path crosses a pair of access roads used by park employees as it heads west toward Yosemite Valley’s mouth.
At 0.4 miles, the trail to Lower Yosemite Fall exits right where the trail to Yosemite Lodge, one of the park’s main lodging establishments, continues straight.  Turn right to continue your journey toward Lower Yosemite Fall.  This trail is the eastern arm of a 1 mile loop that leads to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall.  This arm is handicapped accessible, but the western arm that you will hike later is slightly too steep for a wheelchair.
The asphalt and boardwalk trail heads gradually uphill through nice pine forest as it crosses a couple of Yosemite Creek’s many small channels.  Ignore a side trail that exits left and heads to the restrooms and the Yosemite Falls shuttle bus stop.  At 0.7 miles, the Valley Loop Trail continues straight where our hike turns left to keep heading for Yosemite Falls.  As its name suggests, the Valley Loop Trail is a 13 mile loop around the entire valley, and it provides a thorough tour of the valley without a lot of elevation change if you have an extra day in Yosemite.
Hiking around giant boulder
The Lower Yosemite Fall Trail passes around a giant house-sized boulder before reaching the site of a former sawmill, which predates the park.  This sawmill was owned by a man named James Hutchings, who also owned an inn in Yosemite Valley.  The mill’s most famous worker was John Muir, who rebuilt it in 1869 and operated it for two years.  Muir milled trees blown down by storms into improvements for Hutchings’ inn.
At 0.85 miles, the trail reaches its highest elevation as it crosses Yosemite Creek’s boulder-filled main channel on a wide footbridge just below Lower Yosemite Fall.  The Lower Fall faces southwest, so the best viewing area sits at the far side of the creek.  When I came here on a late afternoon in mid-June, shadows completely covered the Lower Fall, making for pleasant temperature conditions but difficult photography conditions.  If you look down the creek from the footbridge, you get a nice view of the cliffs on the opposite (south) side of Yosemite Valley.
Lower Yosemite Fall
Continuing on the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail, the trail descends briefly to head away from the fall area.  As you walk away from the fall, keep taking glances over your shoulder: there is a special point about halfway to the main park road where you can see Lower and Upper Yosemite Falls together.  The Upper Fall appears to be directly above the Lower Fall even though they lie more than 0.5 miles apart.
Yosemite Falls
When you approach the restroom building, angle left to begin paralleling the main park road.  As you cross Yosemite Creek on the trail’s footbridge, look to the right and notice the nice stone park road bridge, an example of the “parkitecture” in our national parks that has gained much acclaim over the past few years.  The creek’s clear waters flow over the sandy as opposed to bouldery creek bottom here.
The shuttle bus stop reached at 1.3 miles marks the end of the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail for us.  If you wanted to short-cut this loop, you could angle left and head directly back to the Valley Visitor Center or simply hop on the shuttle bus.  To visit Cook’s Meadow, another of Yosemite Valley’s awe-inspiring sites, angle right to begin the Cook’s Meadow Trail.  The Cook’s Meadow Trail is another asphalt hike/bike path that forms a semi-loop through its namesake meadow, which lies in the middle of Yosemite Valley.
After dodging cars while crossing busy Northside Drive, the only vehicle road out of eastern Yosemite Valley, you head through a grove of black oaks before emerging into sunny, grassy Cook’s Meadow.  As you walk around the meadow, you will get bottom-up views of nearly every major summit in Yosemite.  Moran and Glacier Points appear directly ahead, Half Dome stands to the left (due east), and North Dome peaks its top over the cliffs to the northeast.
Half Dome, as seen from Cook's Meadow
Just past 1.4 miles, the asphalt path splits.  We will eventually go left to continue the loop through Cook’s Meadow, but first choose the option on the right and walk a short distance to the hike/bike path’s bridge over the Merced River, the main waterway through Yosemite Valley.  The clear, fast-flowing river seemed serene on my visit, but a flood gauge attached to the bridge marks major historical floods.  At the top of the gauge (probably over your head) is the January 1997 flood, which caused $178 million of property damage and stranded over 2000 park visitors.  The lesson here is to enjoy the scenery but respect God’s power as demonstrated in nature.
Merced River
Back on the main loop, as you continue through the meadow views of Upper Yosemite Fall emerge at first behind you and then to your left.  A boardwalk takes you over the meadow’s wettest area, and some interpretive signs tell of this area’s history.  One sign states that animal herds were allowed to graze in this meadow in the park’s early days, and a hotel operated on this site.  These acts may sound sacrosanct in one of nature’s grandest cathedrals, but we should not be self-righteous: the park service built an asphalt walking path through this meadow much more recently.
Upper Yosemite Fall, as seen from Cook's Meadow
At 1.8 miles, you reach a small parking area where you need to turn left to continue the Cook’s Meadow loop.  Now heading north, another boardwalk is crossed as the Three Brothers, a collection of mountains separating eastern and western Yosemite Valley, come into view above and to the left.  After another careful crossing of Northside Drive, you close the loop.  A right turn and 0.25 miles of walking return you to the Valley Visitor Center to complete the hike.  While you are in this area, be sure to check out the Ansel Adams Gallery, which sells works by the famous photographer among other items.

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