Friday, March 25, 2022

A Tale of Two Pullouts: Yosemite Valley From a Different Angle

El Capitan and the Merced River from the east

I know that I am truly privileged living as I do only a two-hour drive from one of the most sublime places on Earth, Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada. We head up there two or three times a year, sometimes with students in tow, and sometimes on our own, so in 30+ years we've been there at least 100 times.

And I never get tired of it.

Part of the allure is seeing the seasonal changes. Winter provides the coating of snow, while fall provides the changing colors of foliage. Spring offers surging waterfalls and wild river flows. Summer provides...well...crowds, but also nice moments in places we learn of where the crowds can be avoided. We have favorite meadows and lakes for instance where people rarely stop. No matter when or where we visit, there always seems to be something new or different.

The Cathedral Spires are tucked away on the east side of the Cathedral Rocks at Bridalveil Falls
I know how it is if one gets to see Yosemite Valley for the first, and maybe only time. I've had that experience at so many other places around the world. The time available may be very limited, one may be part of a tightly controlled tour, and no one wants to miss any of the most famous views or hikes. And so it is that there is the required stop at Tunnel View, Bridalveil Falls, Cook's Meadow for the view of Yosemite Falls, and maybe Ahwahnee Meadow for a view of Half Dome. The walk to Lower Yosemite Falls, or Nevada Falls. And the Visitor Center. It makes for a full day, and a fulfilling day too. One of the most spectacular days you might ever experience.

And I never get tired of it. I'm perfectly happy to hit those same spots on my 101st trip to the valley. The season, the time of day, and the weather all conspire to make each stop a unique experience of wonder. But sometimes there are changes of a different nature, and that makes some trips really memorable. That is what today's collection of views is about.
Sentinel Rock rises above the south side of Yosemite Valley across from Yosemite Falls
Since the time that Yosemite Valley became a park, suppression of all forest fires has been the official policy. It was not however the natural condition of the parkland, nor was it the normal condition of the valley floor over the last few thousand years when it was managed by the original inhabitants of the region. 

The Ahwahnechee people, with roots among the Miwok and Paiute peoples of both sides of the Sierra, depended in large part on the acorns of the Black Oak and grazing animals like deer or bighorn in Yosemite Valley. It was in their best interest over the centuries to allow fires to burn through the valley floor and hold the quick-growing conifers at bay. When the park administrators put an end to the fires, the pine and cedar trees choked out meadows (only 65 acres of the original 750 acres of meadows remain) and grew into impenetrable thickets, blocking views of the canyon walls above.

What's worse is that choking off small fires can cause a buildup of fuel in the forest that could only lead to much worse fires than usual. This was always a danger, but it is far more hazardous today in a time of warming climate and extended droughts. Every Californian is fully aware of how wildfires in the state have morphed into monstrous events without parallel in written history.

The National Park Service has come around in their fire philosophy, especially after extensive fires a few decades ago in Yellowstone and Mesa Verde National Parks. They have instituted new policies of prescribed fires and selective tree removal to make the parks safer, but also to enhance the experiences of park visitors. In what way? The views.
The distinctive profile of the Three Brothers is the result of parallel jointing, or fractures in the granite that occur as the rocks are exposed by erosion
There are the parking lots that attract the majority of park visitors, but on the roads that loop around the valley there are many small pullouts, enough for perhaps three or four cars. In years past there seemed no real purpose for them, as they were surrounded by thick forest and offered no views or trailheads. On our visit a week ago, I found that two of those previously uninteresting pullouts had had the forest thinned out, and that they now possessed some outrageously spectacular views! The familiar iconic cliffs were there, but from angles I had never really seen before. In particular there was the long vertical cliff extending east from El Capitan, a view of the rarely seen Cathedral Spires (as opposed to the Cathedral Rocks at Bridalveil Falls), the vertical pillar of Sentinel Rock (often missed by people staring at Yosemite Falls), and the Three Brothers, which have never really had a designated viewpoint and are usually hidden by the tall trees. Upper Yosemite Fall was visible as well, perhaps farther away, but how many of you Yosemite veterans can recall seeing the falls with not a single other person in sight?
Yosemite Falls from a pullout west of Swinging Bridge
We had a leisurely lunch at the pullouts and wandered about taking pictures, and only two or three cars pulled off the road, and no one else actually got out. Except for the noise of passing traffic on a crowded Sunday afternoon, we literally had the best of Yosemite Valley to ourselves.
Prescribed fire in Yosemite Valley, with Half Dome and Clouds Rest in the distance.
We stayed at the park through Monday morning, and when we stopped by Tunnel View we witnessed another chapter in the new fire/forest regime: the ignition of a prescribed fire. It was done in March because the ground was still damp enough to prevent the uncontrolled spread of the fire. If you are on Facebook and would like to know more about forest management in Yosemite, check out (1) Yosemite Fire and Aviation | Facebook.

1 comment:

DSchwartz78 said...

In the time of native fire management systems would we call the valley basin an oak savanna?