It takes a long time to get into Yosemite, but what a beautiful place that valley is. You do have to take some lengthy twisty roads with terrifying drops down into deep gorges just one swerve away, and then when you finally reach the environs of the park and the rocks start changing from a dusty ochre to a stern granite grey you see the line of cars going in at geological speed and start wondering about Fast Passes like at theme parks, and then you realize the drop to the valley floor, that is the Fast Pass. We arrived in the afternoon on a holiday weekend, therefore specifically requesting trouble on the form. You need a reservation to get into Yosemite these days to, ahem, stem the crowds. We had one, as we were staying at the Lodge in the middle of the park. You could see cars going the other direction and you just know they had shown up without one. It took the best part of two hours to get in, and it was hot. When we got in, we had planned to do the Mist Trail hike first and then go to the Lodge, but you couldn’t park anywhere near the Mist Trail. We found a spot about two miles or so away and then walked in, backpacks with hydration packs on, stopping to take photos of the amazing views, admire the immense rock walls of the valley, and also to question What The Hell. It was packed. It was hot. By the time we finally reached the start of the trail we were hiked out. The trail itself was fairly steep and a bit narrow, but mostly just jam-packed with people. I know why they call it the Mist Trail, it’s not the spray from the waterfalls but the clouds of other peoples’ sweat you have to walk through. I made it as far as the first bridge by a waterfall and we headed back. Massive headache. On the way back though, we saw a bear cub! I’ve never seen a bear in the wild. Not that I wanted to get too close to one, it was on the other side of the road, just minding its own business, I think it was in the collecting food business. Then I heard a very loud whistle. It wasn’t mama bear because they can’t whistle. It was some tall American dude in shorts and a big stupid hat, getting out of his big stupid car and approaching the bear like it owed him money, or honey, whatever. He was whistling to get its attention, while also exclaiming “do you see the bear!” to passers by. “Yeah leave it be, mate” I said. The bear disappeared into the bushes. The man looked like he was going to follow it in to try to get a photo on his phone up close. I mean, I don’t wish anyone’s face to be eaten by a bear for being stupid, but seriously, you don’t follow a bear into the bushes. Big Stupid Man in Hat then turned round and went back to his big stupid car still exclaiming “did you see the bear” to everyone who had been distracted by his ridiculous whistling. I’m pretty sure you can be fined a lot of honey for approaching the wild animals in Yosemite like that, at the very least his picnic basket should have been confiscated. Anyway now I had something to write about on my postcards, we got back to the Lodge. Our room smelled as if someone had been smoking in it, which was pretty unbearable (I see what you did there), so we opened up the windows and ran all the fans. I did insist we close the windows at night though Because Bears. They love to sniff out the food, they famously break into cars, I saw a documentary about it, Gone In 60 Seconds I think it was. Or maybe the Fast and the Furriest. Anyway, well fed and showered, and well rested, and safe from bears, I got up very early next day and headed out into the park before the heat, while the family still slept, and sketched the magnificent Yosemite Falls, above. It was not super busy yet, and this was the start of the trails leading up to the Lower Falls. Stunning sight though, and the absolute drama of the scenery is hard to describe, and not easy to draw either.
This was our third National Park this year (after Arches and Canyonlands). The colour scheme was quite different; before the Utah trip I did actually do lots of practice sketching so that I knew how I would like to draw once I got there, what colour palette I would use, even what style of sketching would work best for quickest effect. I didn’t do that this time; I wish I had in a way, but then the greens and blues are always tricky bedfellows in my paint set. The Yosemite light is overwhelming, like I felt there was no way to capture the sheer epic-ness of it, but even on the hot day I stopped and gave it a go. The one above was very quick and done with pencil and watercolour, and I was pleased with it. As we walked through Yosemite Village I happened upon a familiar face, Robert Dvorak, a Sacramento artist and art teacher who has joined us many times on our sketchcrawls in Davis. I hadn’t seen him since a sketchcrawl just before the pandemic, but I recognized his distinctive hat, he was teaching a small workshop on sketching. He was surprised to see me, and showed his students my sketchbook. I left and got the Yosemite National Park stamps in my sketchbook, and we continued exploring. The sketch below was drawn while standing on the Swinging Bridge (it didn’t swing, but I guess there were lots of 1960s British hip fashion-followers there at some point. I wanted to catch the colour of the Merced River and the silent giants behind it; I did the paint first and then pen over the top, which I never really like doing, and I can tell as it feels a bit awkward from about the riverbanks up. My green paints feel a bit dry as well. Still as a quick sketch drawn while balanced on a bridge with people passing by behind me, hoping not to accidentally drop my sketchbook and paints into the river, I still like it. It was a hot day, we explored the non-uphill parts of the valley, took a lot of photos, and headed back to the car for a drive up to Glacier Point.
Glacier Point (where I did the sketch below) is about an hour’s drive uphill from the Yosemite Valley floor. It is an overlook with a phenomenal view of the whole valley. The way up was a little depressing, as much of the landscape had been affected by big fires in recent years. In anticipation of this unusually hot holiday weekend there had been a controlled burn on the valley floor, we had passed the smouldering logs on the way in, but this was more of a sad beaten wasteland. Still, despite the fact that the past few years have been worse than anyone here has ever known, exacerbated by the rise in global temperatures, in the California wilderness fire is the way of things, nature’s way of renewing the forests. Still, it’s hard to see. It was another twisting rollercoaster of a road up. We have been to Glacier Point before; when we married in 2004 we came to Yosemite for our honeymoon, and we have photos of us looking much younger looking out at the view which is dominated by the otherworldly Half Dome, which resembles the cowl of a massive stone ghost. We could just about make out people on the top, tiny atoms in colourful hiking gear. It’s a dizzying view. There were a good number of people up there, but not as packed as the Mist Trail. I took a little time to do a quick sketch of the scene, but this one I did not fill in the gaps later at home, I just left it as it was. At this time of year the waterfalls are gushing and plentiful; in the western US we are in the midst of a potentially catastrophic drought though, so I expect that by the middle of the summer those will be trickles, if even that. When we were here in September 2004 Bridalveil Falls was not even running; this time that bride was running like she had just discovered her new in-laws were all death eaters or Hannity fans or something. It would be nice to come back slightly earlier in the year when it’s not already so hot, and the rivers are still booming, but even just a fortnight before there had been snow around here so it’s hard to predict. Maybe just when there are fewer people, not on a holiday weekend, it might be more fun to hike the trails. It just takes so long to get here. It’s worth it though, this Yosemite scenery is some of the best on the planet. We took a lot of photos of amazing backdrops, and the light always seemed to be just perfect.
I didn’t draw El Capitan, and it’s not in this panorama, but that was another geological marvel we passed by in awe. El Capitan is really massive. When we got home we watched the documentary film Free Solo, about the bloke who likes to climb up rocks with no ropes or harnesses or anything. They call that “free soloing”. “Freeing Solo” is when you dress up as a masked bounty hunter with a thermal detonator and sneak around Jabba’s palace at night looking for your carbonite-imprisoned boyfriend, just so you can ask him “what do you mean “I know”?” (Seriously Leia, when Han asked “Who are you” you should have said “Someone who knows you” and slapped him one.). So the Free Solo guy (Alex Honnold) was pretty bloody amazing. The movie was so good, and it detailed his journey to becoming the first – and so far only – person to scale the sheer face of El Capitan free solo, bottom to top, no ropes or nothing. Incredible film I recommend you watch it. (I also recommend the Return of the Jedi “Leia Says I Know First” special edition cut). It made me think, we all have goals, some people’s goals might be something huge like climbing a gigantic cliff with your bare hands, others it might be just drawing a picture of those cliffs and it turning out alright, but it’s an inspiration to see someone work on their goal, have setbacks here and there, but not give up, to really do it. No matter how big or small your goal, go for it. The only thing I didn’t like about the movie was the song that played over the end credits, which had a chorus that went ‘Gravity’s a Fragile Thing”. I mean, it’s literally not. Gravity is definitely the thing you can rely on not breaking. It will break you. Those lyrics were a pretty fragile thing. Still, the film reminded me of when I went rock climbing when I was 17, I went about 25 or 30 feet maybe, with ropes, and was absolutely terrified. I felt that Gravity pulling me down, and I was myself a very fragile thing at the time weighing about half a stone dripping wet, so it juts blows my mind to see someone achieve a feat like that. Mind Blown.
And that was Yosemite. It was a long and winding drive back to Davis, and when we got home we decided against long road journeys for a while. We had 17 years between visits to Yosemite, and this was the first time since we moved to America. It’s a pretty long way, but it’s worth it.
One thought on “Yosemite Slam”
Lovely sketches. We visited Yosemite back in 2014, and this really took me back. What a wonderful place! Thank you!