Yosemite Day II: The Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias

My second day in Yosemite was nothing short of unforgettable. I woke up with the sole objective being to hike as much as possible throughout the day. The beauty of being by myself meant that I could go wherever I wanted to, whenever I wanted to, for as long or as short as I wanted to.

So I slept in, because I really needed it what with the long day I had just had, and man it felt so good being able to take things slow and take my time. The bed itself was very uncomfortable, and I honestly probably would have had better sleep in my tent, but I really couldn’t complain. I was staying at the Yosemite Bug in Midpines, CA, a small hamlet (if you can even call it that) about an hour give or take, outside Yosemite Valley. Aside from my obvious elation at being back in Yosemite, another reason I was so thrilled was because I had more time to explore the area AND I was able to drive the route from Midpines to the Valley during the day. See, the last time I was in Yosemite, I only stayed for a day, and the long, dark drive back from the Valley to the hostel that night was one of the saddest of my life. I knew the next morning that I’d be off to Big Sur (not a bad trade off) but I already had to say goodbye to a place that I had just fallen in love with.

Curiousity gnawed at me throughout the whole drive to the hostel that night a few years ago. I could make out the stars and occassionally the granite walls reflected by the moon and starlight, but I wondered what this drive looked like in daylight.

Well I’d find out soon enough. Following a light breakfast, I readied my pack and departed the hostel, this time happy that I was turning left towards the valley. Almost immediately the scenery amazed me. The road follows the Merced River, as it winds its way through valleys and hills dotted with chaparral. The sun was shining bright, the hills were green and the wildflowers were in full bloom. I couldn’t believe I was in California.

The hills overlooking El Portal Road (HWY 140)

 

California Wildflowers

 

The beast – missing it to say the least

 

As with the drive into the valley from the 41 W, you could tell you were getting closer to the park based on the emergence of granite domes from the mountainsides. The transition from chaparral to evergreens was interesting, as it seemed almost sudden that the shrubs disappeared and the massive conifers appeared. A couple of kilometres from the park entrance,  I was stuck in a traffic jam of sorts due to construction but it was the chillest, most laid back traffic jam I’ve ever been in. I put the truck in park and just took in the sights all around – waterfalls flowing strongly off of cliffs hundreds of metre above me, with granite faces glowing brightly in the sun, as the Merced roared swiftly beside me.

 

Secret waterfall

 

Upon reaching the park entrance, I did actually have to pay this time (only $30 for a week long pass), but took the opportunity to ask the ranger about the Merced Grove, and if it was open. I had literally only learnt about this place just an hour earlier during breakfast. It piquing my curiosity, I seriously began to consider hiking it, despite it being quite an isolated trail far from the valley, and me being solo. The ranger gave me his blessing and encouragingly told me that it was only another 30 minutes or so from where we were.

So off I went, with no GPS or cell service, to find this place. I made numerous stops along the way, which made the drive much longer than 30 minutes, but was well worth it.

 

Brief stop en route
Granite & Snow
Bridalveil Fall & the Valley

 

The drive through the high country was as beautiful as ever, and I eventually reached the Crane Flat area (1889 m) but I couldn’t help but feel like I should have arrived at the trail head by then. Becoming increasingly discouraged, I told myself to keep going for at least another 10 minutes or so, at which point I’d turn around had I not found the place. Fortunately, at a certain point, after rounding a corner, I had finally found it. The parking lot was small, and right off the highway, evoking memories of the time John and I tried to find the trailhead for Cascade Mountain in the Adirondacks. To say I was excited to be there would be an understatement.

As I prepped my pack and gear, I saw two other hikers and greeted them, wanting to clarify if  they had just arrived from the hike or were readying to depart. A couple from Australia, they told me that they had just finished their hike and excitedly told me that it was well worth it and beautiful beyond belief. Seeking a bit more information, they asked them what conditions were like, and if they had seen any signs of bears. To this they said that some parts of the trail were very snowy and wet, but to my relief, they said they hadn’t seen any traces of bear activity. We briefly bonded over our mutual love of Yosemite and our use of the metric system and went our separate ways.

Armed with nothing but my ridiculously loud and annoying whistle, and my voice (bear spray is not permitted in Yosemite), I ventured out into the woods, immediately coming across large patches of snow. It was during moments like these that I wish I had been able to pack my hiking boots, and not just my Asics runners. I found it funny that Audrey and I had left Ottawa quite impulsively, to escape the last remnants of the long winter, in exchange for California’s sunnier and warmer climate, and there I was ankle deep in snow.

 

A segment of the trail down to the Merced Grove

 

 

There can definitely be a propensity for people that have never been to California to think that SoCal’s weather is indicative of the state’s as a whole. That would be further from the truth and one of the many reasons why I love the state so much. The following day for instance, would have me waking up in the mountains and taking in the sunset by the ocean at Laguna Beach.

I am very comfortable being out alone, but the one exception to that is if it entails me being out in bear country, especially without bear spray. That said, I did many things to calm my nervous mind. I initially wanted to run the trail, so as to minimize the amount of time I spent out there by myself, but knowing better, I opted to move at a slower pace while affording me the ability to listen and watch my surroundings intently. The other benefit of truly hiking, as opposed to running, was that I was able to make much more noise than I would have had I opted to run. And so began a medley of poorly sung songs from a variety of different genres and well, movies. From what I can remember, I sang all sorts of Disney songs, as Audrey and I had back in Banff’s Boom Lake, this time throwing in everything from Smashmouth, to Oasis, Hozier and Bon Iver. With all of the singing at the top of my lungs, plus the occasional clapping and whistling, in conjunction with hiking at nearly 2000 m elevation, I was parched. Throw in the unease and slight anxiety of a possible meeting with a bear and my mouth and throat became incredibly dry – a feeling all too familiar with me in California.

 

The trail itself, at least it’s initial part, was an old fire road comprising a very wide dirt path mixed in with snow at parts. The trees all around were ancient seeming and incredibly tall. Despite their height, there wasn’t yet much of a canopy, and the shade was virtually non existent on this portion with it having been around 1pm.

Some portions of the trail were covered with snow

 

Ever more shade the lower down I went

 

Once I reached the junction, the clearly marked trail and signs pointed me to the left, down a fairly gentle slope that immediately became more shaded and snowy. The songs continued, as did the speaking. Had anyone ran into me or heard me, they’d have surely thought I was crazy. But hey, it worked. Although I was far from being out of the woods, I ultimately would not encounter a single trace of a bear, or honestly any other wildlife for that matter.

On and down the trail went, becoming much narrower and noticeably cooler, as I began to hear the sound of running water from nearby Moss Creek. In this darker, cooler part of the trail, the hills became more prominent and the trees were much grander. Traversing through copious amounts of mud and snow, I continued forward, singing and all until I came to a standstill at the bottom of a large hill. Up ahead, there they lay, incredibly clear, yet surreal as ever. Their trunks and bark dwarfing those of their neighbours all around. I’m pretty sure I excitedly yelled something, attributing it to being a method of bear encounter prevention, when it was truly me just being ecstatic beyond belief to finally be seeing sequoias.

 

Approaching the first of the sequoias

 

 

 

It sounds ridiculous, but I’ve always wanted to see these trees, I had even had dreams of hiking amongst them. And to think I was here, on a whim, an absolute whim, was blowing my mind. I wasn’t supposed to be here. Hours ago I didn’t even know this place existed. I thought I would have had to wait until my next visit to Yosemite at which point the Mariposa Grove would be reopened. But from all accounts, there’s no solitude in that grove, as beautiful as I’m sure it is. See, it’s funny, there I was, a bit uneasy that I was alone, but gradually as I came to peace with it and what it entailed, I found the beauty in it. Don’t get me wrong, I love people and company, but I was so happy that there weren’t throngs of tourists and selfie sticks all over this trail. Having it all to myself for the couple of hours that I was out there is a beautiful memory that I’ll always have and cherish.


As I made my way down a snow filled path, I reached the bases of four grand sequoias, cordoned off by a short log fence. A simple sign urged hikers to NOT step foot around the bases of the trees, due to their delicate nature. Respecting this, I remained behind the fence, gazing upwards at a sight that still seemed fake. To say I felt tiny and humbled would be putting it lightly. These trees are MASSIVE, some even taller than some of the buildings we have in downtown Ottawa. As for their base circumference, the General Sherman (the largest Sequoia) for instance, has a 31m circumference. Absolutely bonkers.

 

The log fence and myself

I eventually passed an old and rustic cabin (pictured in the header) that used to house park superintendents. It was here that I decided to sit and stay for a while, taking in the sights and giving my voice and mind a rest. The uneasiness and anxiety dissipated in the presence of these giants. I no longer thought about bears but just turned my thought and attention to the beauty of this place. Again, without my tripod, I did the best I could to prop my camera up on very low ground, so I could best capture the enormity of these trees.

 

The old ranger cabin

Once I was done here, I opted to go on a bit further, noticing that the snow pack became more widespread and deeper and that the sequoias began to trail off. Realizing this, I took one last look down the trail, and turned around, back to the grove, and ultimately back to the trailhead. I took a few more pictures, bid farewell to this amazing grove and began the short 2.5 km hike back with only 180m of elevation gain.

Feeling small as ever beneath these behemoths
Spring in the western Sierras

As I began my ascent up the trail, I unexpectedly ran into two Brazilian hikers, making me glad to think that I had stopped yelling and singing. They asked me how much further until they reached the sequoias and whether it was worth it to which I gave an emphatic yes and reassured them that they were just steps from their destination. Several hundred metres later, I ran into another pair of hikers, also asking me whether they should bother continuing, to which again I told them that they absolutely had to.

The rest of the hike was very nice and relaxing, a far cry from the initial stages of my hike, about an hour and a half prior. I was relaxed, at ease and marvelling at everything around me. The presence of other hikers definitely eased my mind, however, I was very glad that I had had the grove to myself for as long as I did.

Clearly not a sequoia, but still an absolute unit

Making my past snow and more snow, I was back on the main road, wide, dry and hot as ever. Within no time I was back at the trailhead, amazed to see a nearly packed parking lot.

With my shoes and socks soaked, I threw on my Sperrys, put some tunes on and was back on the road again, unsure of what my next hike would be, but knowing that I was happily heading back down to the Valley, excited for what was to come.

 

Half Dome View on Big Oak Flat Road

 

 

As always, thanks for reading and if any of you ever have the opportunity to go to Yosemite National Park, please do, and please go see sequoias at least once in your life. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Details 

Hike: Merced Grove of Giant Sequoias

Distance: 4.8 km round trip

Trailhead Elevation: 1800 metres (6000 feet)

Total Elevation Change: 180 metres (600 feet)

Difficulty: Easy. First part consists of a wide, flat and smooth trail. The hike back has you climbing 180 metres, but is still at a gentle grade.

Facilities: Parking lot – about a dozen spaces. Washroom at the trailhead

Crowd Factor: Nowhere near as busy as the Mariposa Grove, or any of the other hikes in Yosemite Valley for that matter

Driving Directions: The trailhead parking lot is off of highway 120 north of the Valley. From the Valley take the 120 north for 21 km to the trailhead. Note that there are several spots worth viewing on the way up from the Valley

Notes: At the junction, keep left and head downhill. This section is well marked so you shouldn’t have any difficulty here

More Facts About Sequoias: https://www.treehugger.com/natural-sciences/16-spectacular-facts-about-giant-sequoias.html

Map: Courtesy of Redwoodhikes.com

 

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