“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” ~John Muir~
I found myself thinking about this quote a lot as I hiked the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. These words were first published in a Sierra Club bulletin in 1908. The Club’s founder, John Muir, was arguing against a proposal to dam Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. It is a fight that he lost. The congressional act that allowed the construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Hetch Hetchy was passed in 1913, and Muir died a year later. My route on this trip took me past Hetch Hetchy and up the canyon of the river that John Muir fought so hard to preserve.
John Muir often compared Hetch Hetchy to Yosemite Valley, and although Yosemite Valley is still beautiful, it is has changed pretty dramatically since Muir first explored it. I chose to solo hike the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne because I wanted to do something that would be challenging. What I didn’t expect was a challenge of perspective. During my trip I felt as though I was, for the first time, catching a glimpse of what Yosemite looked liked long ago, and seeing it through the eyes of John Muir.
After leaving from White Wolf I camped within site of Hetch Hetchy. I’ve seen Hetch Hetchy from the dam on its western side, but this was my first glimpse from the east shore. Proponents of the dam at Hetch Hetchy argued that a lake would enhance the scenery. Naturally, John Muir took a different stance. Looking over the dam I wasn’t as sure. Although I knew the site before me was unatural, it is hard to argue that it was completely ugly from this vantage point.
The next day I met up with the Tuolumne River and hiked into Pate Valley. Pate Valley feels like a remnant of Yosemite’s past. The valley is full of black oaks, an important food source for the Native Americans that lived in Yosemite long ago. I didn’t know until after my hike that it’s also the home of petroglyphs, the only place where they can be found in Yosemite. (I’m totally bummed that I missed out on seeing them; but, on the upside, I have a great excuse to hike this trail again.)
I started my third day of hiking near Muir Gorge. I was determined to make some serious mileage that day. Within the first hour I came across this little pool and waterfall that looks like a set from an Indiana Jones movie. It was only 7:15 in the morning but I jumped in anyway. I was glad that I did as the temperatures rose as I climbed the trail up and over Muir Gorge.
The view from the top of Muir Gorge was stunning. Despite my push to make a lot of miles that day I stopped for nearly an hour to eat and just soak it in; beauty as well as bread.
The next section where the trail rejoins the river is beautiful. There are so many small falls and cascades that most of them are unnamed.
Unfortunately, I was hiking this section during the hottest part of the day. I had grand plans to hike the next three miles in only a few hours. Although it looked relatively flat on the topo map, the trail went up and down over a series of small ridges. They weren’t significantly high but on top of the mid-day heat they felt like torture. Even with jumping into the river at every opportunity, those three miles were the hardest of the entire trip and they took two hours longer than I planned. I was completely dreading the next section, where the trail climbs past Waterwheel, LeConte, and California Falls. As I mentally prepared myself for pain and suffering I came around a corner and I was swept away by my first glimpse of Waterwheel Falls in the distance.
Maybe it was because the day had finally cooled down. Maybe it’s because the silver beacon of the falls was beckoning. Maybe it’s simply because I forced myself to take a long break and chomped through two Cliff bars as though I had never seen food before. I don’t know what kind of trail magic was going on but it worked wonders. I suddenly went from the depths of despair to feeling unstoppable. I flew up the sections of trail between the falls.
It was glorious. Sitting by the falls it was easy to understand why Muir fought to protect this canyon. If he hadn’t made such a big fuss over Hetch Hetchy, would the area around these falls have been developed later on — like another dam or a road?
Did the fact that I had to walk for two days to see this place make it more meaningful? I thought of Vernal Falls in Yosemite Valley, only about 15 miles away. If I had hiked up the Vernal Falls trail that day, I would have seen at least a hundred people on the trail. Here in a federally protected wilderness area, I saw only 14 people in the first two days of my hike.
As crazy as it sounds it felt like John Muir himself was sitting there next to me. (Or maybe it was just heat stroke.) In his prose John Muir is poetic, and sometimes flowery to the point of nausea. Sitting next to the falls which he might have described as “leaping” or “rejoicing”, the John Muir in my head only asked one simple question;
“Do you get it now?”
Yeah John, I got it.
When I finally continued on the magic started to wear off. I hiked about halfway into the valley above when I finally hit the wall. I decided to camp on a ridge above the trail and the 100-foot climb to my campsite was a slog of epic
suffering self-pity endurance.
I was slightly put out by how much I had struggled that day until I looked more closely at the maps at the end of my trip. That’s when I realized that I hiked about 10 1/2 miles that day, and climbed roughly 2,800 feet in elevation. That’s when I really started feeling bad-ass.
The closer I got to the High Sierra Camp at Glen Aulin, the more people I saw on the trail. Although the scenery was no less magical, the feeling of solitude was in retreat.
For example, this is clearly a habituated baby marmot. (Don’t feed it!)
I ended my trip at Tuolumne Meadows, and stopped at Parson’s Memorial Lodge on the way out (where, sadly, my camera batteries finally died.) The lodge was built in honor of John Parsons, another Sierra Club member who fought alongside John Muir to prevent the damming of Hetch Hetchy. It has a lot of its own history, serving as a headquarters and reading room for the Sierra Club, and as a model of architectural design for the National Park Service. It was cool to look through the exhibits and think of all the people that came here with a very similar purpose to mine for nearly a hundred years.
Even though the dam at Hetch Hetchy was completed in 1923 the controversy still continues. Any decision about water use in a highly populated and water-scarce region is going to be contentious. While the individuals peopling the debate have changed, their positions have not; and modern technology has only complicated the situation. Honestly, if I had to choose today whether or not to remove the dam, I would still have a difficult time deciding. It’s a complex and difficult dilemma. But I feel like I finally understand what it was John Muir was fighting for, and I am eternally grateful that he did.
P.S. I took more pictures than I could fit in a single blog post. If you want to see more you can check out my Flickr set.