Walk completed August 28, 2011

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Yosemite's Four Mile Trail

With my valve job scheduled for the end of August, my thoughts naturally turned to the Yosemite trails. Yosemite National Park’s 1200 square miles are crisscrossed by 800 miles of maintained park trails. I have hiked about 600 miles of those trails, so I searched my mental inventory for a scenic trail which my heart could handle. I settled on the Four Mile Trail, which, in my opinion, mile for mile, step for step, is the best trail in the park.

Built in 1878 by James McCauley as a toll trail, the Four Mile Trail ascends 3200 feet from the Yosemite Valley floor to Glacier Point by 59 switchbacks, varying in length from 12 feet (No. 18, counting from the gate at the bottom of the trail) to about a mile (No. 7). The trail was riginally 4 miles long, but in 1923 the National Park Service realigned tt to lessen the grade, resulting in a present length of 4.6 miles. The former name remains nonetheless.

Some parts of the old Four Mile Trail can still be found, although now overgrown by nearly 100 years of vegetation. 130-year old dryrock walls, reminiscent of the dryrock walls in Britain, still line the trail’s former switchbacks. For scenery, nature and history the Four Mile Trail can’t be beat. It is my favorite trail in the park, as my car’s license plate attests.
The trail not only offers jaw-dropping views (a trait common to most Yosemite trails), but with its diverse vegetation changing both by season and elevation, the trail presents a new experience on every hike. The lower part of the trail passes though old, stately oaks interspersed with dogwood, whose lovely white flowers harbinger the coming spring, and alders, whose golden leaves in autumn glow when backlit by afternoon sunshine. A little higher, the manzanita’s delicate pink flowers in springtime upstage its polished, brick-red branches so coveted by decorators. In late summer, the manzanita’s flowers mature into bright red berries on which bears feast by the bushel. At the trail’s highest elevations, pine and cedar provide both shade and fragrance on a hot summer day. Stellar’s jays, finches, grouse, woodpeckers, squirrels, chipmunks and lizards are commonly seen along the trail. Less often, deer, bear and bobcat show themselves.

At Glacier Point, the Four Mile Trail connects to the Panorama Trail, which in turn connects to the John Muir Trail, providing a 16-mile loop with 4500 feet of elevation gain and loss—completing a perfect training day for Britain’s End to End Trail.

I typically hike the Four Mile Trail a dozen or more times each year, and until May, the trail always provided new and different joys. In late May, hiking the trail became less fun as I struggled to reach a point about 2/3 of the way up (2,000 feet of elevation gain), beyond which the trail was closed due to snow. In early June, I could ascend only about 500 feet before my heart stopped me in my tracks; in late June, I could barely ascend 100 feet. The Four Mile Trail had become something more to me than a joyous walk through the forest—like a miner’s canary, it provided an early warning of my failing heart valve.

Alas, I am presently unable to ascend from the valley, but my heart is strong enough to do the reverse. So, today, Janet dropped me off at Glacier Point. While she took the hour’s drive to Yosemite Valley, I visited with my good friend Ranger Dick, one of the few Yosemite rangers fortunate to reside at Glacier Point. At 9:30, I started the descent, and at the same time, Janet began ascending from the valley. As expected, we met halfway—descending the steep trail requires sure footing, and always takes as long as ascending.

As always, the Four Mile Trail was in shade, but typical California sunshine bathed the rest of the park. Temperatures in the Yosemite Valley were in the mid-80s. Yosemite’s famous waterfalls, which run full force in May and June, have faded to a trickle. By September, many of them will be dry.

While not my typical Yosemite hike, getting back on the trail allowed me to clear my lungs and revitalize my spirit; or, as John Parsons might say in his Lejog Plod: yes, it was another good day.

© 2010 Ken Klug

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