Half Dome — Page 4

Yosemite Valley - Atop Nevada Falls

IV. Nevada Falls

Of all the National Parks I've visited, Yosemite offers by far the most abundant and hair-raising opportunities to flirt with certain death. We're about to find one such opportunity now, atop Nevada Falls.

If you like to stand on the edge now and then and feel a little electricity, the viewing area atop Nevada Falls is a wall socket into which you can stick your fingers for not just a little buzz but a heart-stopping jolt. Be careful here!

Yosemite - Liberty Cap & Nevada Falls

Liberty Cap & Nevada Falls

Yosemite - John Muir Trail

Carved through Rock

Yosemite - Crossing the Merced River

Crossing the Merced

Yosemite - Nevada Falls Viewpoint

Viewing Area

Yosemite - Nevada Falls Exposure

Looking Down

Yosemite - Bill Henry

Bill on the Edge

As well-coddled Americans we expect our various government agencies to have childproofed everything in sight, keeping us safe not only from neighbors and nature but also from ourselves.

That is not the case in Yosemite.

Bill and I make steady progress up a long series of switchbacks, ascending toward and then beneath Yosemite's Panorama Cliff. There is quite a bit of climbing to be done in the early going here—from Curry Village's 4000' elevation, we must gain fully 2000' before we'll top the 594-foot high Nevada Falls.

We pass Clark Point, which offers a bypass connecting to the Mist Trail. Soon after, the John Muir Trail begins angling eastward, and we get our first good look at Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls.

Though Nevada Falls is far from the highest of Yosemite's waterfalls, it still looks big and robust. Here, the Merced River plunges off a broad bench on Liberty Cap's shoulder, flaring impressively across a nearly vertical fan of granite below.

We pass the Panorama Trail intersection, which traverses westward along the top of Panorama Cliff, connecting the John Muir Trail and Glacier Point—a major loop possibility that begs to be hiked at some future date.

Today, however, we continue on toward our objective, following the John Muir Trail toward Nevada Falls. The trail here has been carved directly out of rock, passing along a great, exposed traverse that offers a fine view of Nevada Falls.

Soon, the trail enters and then exits a verdant forest, and a footbridge across the Merced River pops into view. The river itself meanders peacefully here (and seemingly-harmlessly) until it abruptly plunges into space.

Statistically, this placid scene is one of Yosemite's more treacherous landscapes. People have waded into the river here and found themselves swept over the falls—no doubt to their great surprise.

Let's cross the footbridge and hook around the falls, to the 'viewing platform', where we can attempt to contemplate what that fate would be like. A short scramble down some rocks gets us to a flat section of granite adjacent and overlooking Nevada Falls. Here, the National Park Service has kindly put up a rickety guardrail, where we can put our toes on the very edge of the precipice mere feet from the thundering waters of the falls.

I look down and...overload. Brain recoils at the suddenly topsy-turvy horizon. It's as if the world has been tipped on end, and this clash of sensory data is scrambling my processor. 600 feet straight down! Isn't this normally the kind of place where the guardrails are meant to keep us out, rather than encourage us to stand right on the very brink and look down?

And maybe we've just discovered a subtle but vitally important difference about Yosemite. Maybe it's because of the valley's climbing history, or maybe it's just because so much of the place is vertically constructed, but you will be expected to take care of yourself here. Mostly you won't even get a guardrail, just unforgiving rock and unfathomably-large drops. And if you do wander carelessly and go over that edge, divine intervention itself won't save you.

next: Little Yosemite Valley