Over the course of California’s current “water year” (measured from October to September) epic amounts of rain and snow have fallen throughout the state, prompting Governor Jerry Brown to declare an official end to California’s five-year drought on April 7. In the northern Sierra Nevada, including Yosemite National Park, this has been the wettest water year on record, with 89.7 inches of precipitation as of mid-April, breaking the 1982-83 record of 88.5 inches. To put this in perspective, on an average year, the area gets 50 inches of rain.
Although the timing wasn’t great with other travel plans on the horizon, we couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to visit Yosemite this past weekend, if only for a quick 40 hours. We’d been invited to join our friends, Cari and Brad and their daughter (our older daughter’s best friend), on their annual Yosemite camping trip, a pilgrimage Cari has been making since she was four. The trip always takes place the weekend after Memorial Day, is always at Housekeeping Camp — one of Yosemite’s two fixed canvas tent campgrounds, located along the banks of the Merced River — and always includes a large and eclectic group of Cari and Brad’s family and friends.
We arrived at Housekeeping Camp around 9:30pm on Friday night, after a traffic-plagued six hour-long drive from San Francisco. Cari showed us to our tent and informed us that while others in the group had to be moved to different parts of the campground, their campsites flooded or at risk of flooding, we should be alright.
Fortunately, we made it through the night high and dry, and had a chance to check out some of the flooded Section K campsites the next morning.
After breakfast, Cari and Brad kindly offered to take our girls along with them for a bike ride through the valley so my husband, Matt, and I could hike the Mist Trail on our own. This, one of Yosemite’s most scenic and popular hikes, features two waterfalls — Vernal Falls and Nevada Falls — and then continues onto Half Dome, for those lucky and brave enough to have secured a permit.
As we’d been warned, the section of the hike that climbs alongside Vernal Falls was more monsoon than mist. Strong winds blew buckets of water onto us and our fellow hikers as we trudged up the exposed, granite steps, which had themselves become a mini waterfall. It was a challenge to get a good look at Vernal and the rainbows dancing over it without losing a contact lens.
After drying out a bit at the top of Vernal Falls, we continued up another steep and rocky trail paralleling Nevada Falls, the second of the two Mist Trail waterfalls. I enjoyed this one more than Vernal, partly because it was less crowded — some hikers turn around after summiting Vernal — and partly because I could actually look at it without being blinded by water.
Along the way to the top, I stopped several times to watch the water explode off the rocks and then swirl upwards as if in slow-motion, mesmerizing and hypnotic like flames in a fire. The power of this snowmelt from the mountains above was truly awesome.
We came to the top, an almost beach-like area of smooth, flat granite slabs and sunbathers next to the raging river, and then looped back down on the John Muir Trail.
Seven miles under our belts and boots, we reached the valley floor and hiked another mile or so to the hotel formerly known as the Ahwahnee. Currently called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel pending a trademark dispute between the old and new owners, this historic, grande dame opened in 1927 and retains much of its original Native American décor and old school ambiance. Sipping wheat beers at the bar while we rested our tired feet was a perfect ending to a great day of kid-free hiking.
The next day, Sunday, we took a walk from the campground to go see the iconic Yosemite Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in North America and the tallest in the park. Again, it was impossible to stay dry. On our way there, we crossed over a flooded meadow, the girls happily sloshing through ankle-deep water. As we had experienced on the Mist Trail, it was difficult to spend much time observing the falls up close without getting soaked. The bridge at the base of Yosemite Falls, normally elbow-to-elbow with amateur photographers and selfie sticks, was relatively empty, only a few diehards in raingear lingering to take pictures. Dashing across the bridge, I nevertheless managed a couple quick peaks at the roaring whitewater and a single, rushed photo with my iPhone.
By 12:30, we had broken camp and were on the road back to San Francisco. I was reluctant to leave so soon, itching to see more of Yosemite’s twenty-something named and countless unnamed waterfalls. But I was grateful to have been able to visit Yosemite during such a historically wet time, our trip well-worth the twelve-hour round-trip drive and the piles of camp-fire smoky laundry that it produced.