The icy water cascades over my pink, blistered toes, runs across the smooth granite rock and plunges over the cliff, vanishing in an effervescent mist. The waterfall would be a quick way down, I note, as my feet grow numb. I scoot back and dry my skin in the sun before tugging on my dirt-crusted boots.Jenn, my hiking partner, materializes next to me. “Right now, we’re closer to Half Dome than the Valley Floor,” she reports with a heavy sigh. I struggle to stand. “We probably shouldn’t have underestimated Yosemite,” I say as we cross the quaking foot bridge that spans a swollen Nevada Falls.
OUR SECOND DAY IN CALIFORNIA'S most iconic national park started innocently enough: a 4.6-mile trek up the erroneously named Four Mile Trail, terminating at Glacier Point lookout. A thundering noise like stampeding horses followed our footsteps up the broken pavement. I assumed it was traffic until I glanced across the valley and saw towering Yosemite Falls rupture the adjacent ridge like a gashing white wound.
Jennifer Hubbert hikes up Four Mile Trail | Alison Hodgins
Perhaps it was because we had ascended 3,200 feet in a matter of hours that the math was messing with our heads. "What's that, like six kilometres?" I guessed. "And 800 metres of elevation gain?"
"I don't know...but it's not as difficult as the Grouse Grind," Jenn conceded, referencing a grueling trail we had both climbed back at home in British Columbia.
Views from Four Mile Trail | Jennifer Hubbert
THE MAIN REASON I LOVE to travel is to try new things and meet new people. One of those well-intentioned new people led us to our next trail, and a body-wrecking adventure we’ll likely never forget.
“You two look spry,” said the cashier at the Glacier Point gift shop as we purchased souvenir stickers and postcards. “Usually folks are pretty whipped after Four Mile Trail. You should continue on to the Panorama Trail.”
“Is it exposed?” Jenn enquired, referring to sun exposure.
“Not at all,” he replied, referring to vertical drop.
Our misunderstanding went unacknowledged and we decided to tackle Panorama Trail. Fortunately, I re-filled my three-litre hydration reservoir at a water fountain before descending the winding eight-mile stretch.
Stunning views of Yosemite Falls afforded by Glacier Point Lookout | Jennifer Hubbert
Unlike Four Mile Trail, Panorama Trail is aptly named: unparalleled views of Half Dome and Nevada Falls unfolded before us as the tourist crowds thinned and the hum of car engines faded away. We passed park rangers on switchbacks permeated with wild flowers and song- birds. Under a blazing afternoon sun, Jenn and I exchanged expressions of empathy for the oncoming hikers who were only beginning their ascent. “So much for not being exposed,” I mused.
Across Illilouette Creek, we were greeted by a 243-metre climb; only this time, in the glaring sun. We shade-hopped from tree to tree, watching geckos sunbathe and much more spry hikers, including families with small children, pass us by.
But for the most part, the trail was quiet. Jenn and I walked in staggered succession, straining our eyes as majestic waterfalls poured over sleek rockfaces. California’s High Sierra received a staggering amount of snowfall over the winter, which succours the powerful rivers that gush over the sides of the mountains.
Writer Alison Hodgins takes a moment to appreciate Nevada Falls from the John Muir Trail | Jennifer Hubbert
We leave Nevada Falls and descend via the John Muir Trail. I’m keen to trek the trail named for one of California’s most influential conservationists and well-known writers, but I get more than I bargained for: excess snowmelt has created a temporary waterfall, one that drains directly over the trail. Jenn takes off her sneakers, but I march straight through in my boots, laughing as the frigid water cools my sunburnt shoulders.
By the time we cross over to the Mist Trail, I’m no longer laughing. My body protests the sustained downward motion. My hiking boots feel like weights strapped to cracking ankles holding up gelatin calves.
“I think we may have miscalculated this hike,” Jenn says.
I check the conversion on my phone. “If this is right, we’ve hiked just over 16 miles,” I say, dispelling a sharp exhale of disbelief. “That’s 26 kilometres!”
Feeling more relief than accomplishment, we reach the Valley Floor and take a seat to wait for the next shuttle bus. I’m not sure I can stand back up.
We miss the last connecting El Capitan shuttle back to the trailhead, where we parked the truck and started our ambitious climb some 10 hours earlier.
“We have to walk across the Swinging Bridge,” Jenn says glumly while consulting a park map. Half-crazed with exhaustion, I strip off my hiking boots and plod the remainder of the trail in my socks.
THE NEXT DAY, WE drive to Mammoth Lakes. We spot grubby Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers on journeys of more than 3,000 kilometres that put our 26-km day trek to shame.
Snow is only beginning to melt on Mammoth Mountain. This lava dome volcano boasts one of the longest ski seasons in the U.S. Luckily for my glutes, there’s still enough geothermal activity in the area to create natural hot springs.
Writer Alison Hodgins enjoys Wild Willy's Hot Spring near Mammoth Lakes | Jennifer Hubbert
I ease myself into a heart-shaped spring, but there’s no need: the bottom is soft gravel and the temperature feels like a fresh-run bath. I stretch my legs in the steaming water and feel my muscles relax. Behind me, the Sierra Nevada Range beckons. I smile and glance at my soothed, puckered, blistered feet, wondering where they’ll take me next.
When you go:
Writer Alison Hodgins peers out at Half Dome from the Glacier Point Lookout | Jennifer Hubbert
WHAT TO DO: Must-see sights in Yosemite National Park include Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan and Half Dome, and Tunnel View and Glacier Point lookouts. Discover Yosemite leads full-day private and public tours in air-conditioned shuttles, departing from the South Entrance; pick-ups include Bass Lake, Oakhurst and Fish Camp. If you base yourself in Mammoth Lakes, skiers can get their fix on Mammoth Mountain well into summer. If you’d rather bask in the glow of the mountains than climb them, follow the boardwalk from the parking lot to Wild Willy’s Hot Springs.
WHERE TO DINE: The burgers and craft beer at South Gate Brewing Company in Oakhurst are not to be missed. For a special occasion, treat yourself to a glass of wine on the patio at Ducey’s on the Lake at Bass Lake. In Mammoth Lakes, start your morning with a cappuccino and an Earl Grey muffin at Black Velvet Coffee or a hearty bagel at Old New York Deli & Bakery Co.
WHERE TO STAY: If you don’t want to stay in Yosemite National Park, base yourself just outside one of the five entrances. At the South Entrance, consider The Pines Resort at Bass Lake. The rustic chalets exude a family camp charm. East of the park, and while Tioga Pass is clear of snow, enjoy the modern aesthetic and central location of The Village Lodge in Mammoth Lakes. Take advantage of the Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System (YARTS), an affordable coach service with seasonal daily departures from Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite National Park.