When President Roosevelt came to Yosemite in 1903 for three days of backcountry camping with the naturalist, and champion of the park, John Muir, he likened the experience to ‘lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man’.
Yosemite has that effect on you. There’s something almost spiritual in the harmony of stone and sky, as if nature had found its perfect balance, its masterpiece of light and form. The centrepiece of Yosemite National Park is Yosemite Valley, where there are many wonders: the staggering cliff face of El Capitan, whose Dawn Wall was recently, implausibly, climbed; the cracked edifice of Half Dome; and Glacier Point and Tunnel View, vistas made famous by the photographer Ansel Adams, one of the park’s early champions. And then there are the waterfalls. Niagara may be bigger by volume, but Yosemite Falls — a spectacular series of three cascades that drop 2,425ft to the valley floor — is more than 13 times as tall. In spring, it’s a raging torrent, a thunder that echoes across the granite cliffs, rainbows sparkling in its mist. And it’s not alone; nearby is Sentinel Falls, 2,000ft of snow-melt tumbling like a waterslide; Ribbon Falls, 1,600ft of vertical drop, the longest in North America; and the otherworldly glow of Horsetail Fall, which, in late February, reflects the last embers of the setting sun, lighting up like a falling fire.
Yosemite Valley can get crowded — in summer, it can feel like the front row of rock concert. But it’s estimated that 95% of visitors cram themselves into only 5% of the park — and most never stray more than a mile from their car. The spark of Yosemite is the valley, that first gasp of wonder and awe, but the fire, the part that stays with you, is in the high country, where only a few dare go.
I start at Mount Hoffman, the 11,000ft geographical centre of the park, with the swirling peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains unfurling around me like waves frozen in a storm. From there I spend five days walking the High Sierra Loop, a 49-mile backcountry trail that links some of Yosemite’s most spectacular and remote landscapes. I swim in secret lakes, watch Alpenglow hush the peaks with orange and amber and sleep out under the endless stars of the Milky Way. I see meadows glowing red with bracken and find flowers bursting from the ash of lightning-burnt forests. But the more I walk, the more I feel like I might just float away. This is a land of giants, too big and uncontained to be real.
At the end of my journey, I climb the 12,000ft knife-edge ridge of Cloud’s Rest, 6,000ft of air beneath me on either side. From the top, on a clear day, it’s said you can see all the way from Nebraska in the east to Hawaii in the west. But my eyes are gazing downwards, back at Yosemite Valley, where it all began. John Muir said, ‘Mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.’ That idea gave birth to the concept of wilderness conservation. That’s why Yosemite is special. These were the first lands to be put under protection, the first time nature was considered valuable for its own sake, not just the dominion of man. Since then the idea has spread across the globe, but it began here, among these rocky spires, in this solemn cathedral, this masterpiece of light and form.