Taming the wild and mighty Yosemite
Guy Wilkinson hopes to avoid a grizzly end in the rugged home of bears and coyotes.
IN JON Krakauer's 1996 best selling, non-fictional book, Into The Wild, disillusioned college graduate Chris McCandless burns all the money in his wallet and heads off into the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land. As something of an idealist, he took with him only a few books, 5 kilograms of rice and a .22 calibre rifle. Some months later, moose hunters came across his wasted body in a disused bus.
Standing among the frozen lakes, the towering granite rock faces and wilderness valleys of northern California's Yosemite National Park with memories of the book running through my mind, I'm being especially careful not to lose my way. While this UNESCO World Heritage site now attracts more than 4million visitors a year, I have no desire to be picked apart by wild coyotes or embark on any similar such odyssey. During the summer months, this region of parkland is renowned for its bustling tourist crowds, but over autumn or winter, (September to March) the country's third-oldest national park offers a far more tranquil atmosphere.
Like many people who visit the park, I'm here on a day trip to the Yosemite Valley, an 11-kilometre-long, meadow-carpeted basin of iconic views. Despite the fact that millions now pour onto this 20-square-kilometre patch that makes up the valley area, it actually only accounts for about 1per cent of the total park land.
So why is it, you may wonder, that such hoards will flock to a proportionately tiny fraction of this vast region of wilderness? The answer lies in the proximity of so many awe-inspiring natural wonders in such a relatively small space.
Take the thundering Yosemite Falls for instance. Measuring an impressive 739 metres, they are regarded as the highest in North America and the 19th tallest in the world.
While torrents of water roar over its edge during winter, in summer there is often little more than a trickle.
Heading along the well trodden path of the Yosemite Valley there are many more wonders to take in. From across the frozen waters of the Merced River stand the mighty monoliths, El Capitan (2307 metres) and Half Dome (2695 metres), both of which are now something of a mecca for rock climbing enthusiasts. Gazing up at their monstrous granite faces, it's an effort not to let my bottom lip start trembling in wonderment.
But if monstrous rocks and dizzying waterfalls aren't enough for you, then there's always the abundance of wildlife. Yosemite has more than 85 species of mammals, the most feared of which are the black bears. Conflicts with humans are not unheard of, though park rangers have managed to significantly cut down on the number of incidents in the past few years. I've had a good breakfast so they should be safe from my death grip today.
With only limited time at my disposal, I opt for the 11-kilometre return Little Yosemite Valley Walk, though for hiking enthusiasts there are plenty more challenging treks to tackle.
Perhaps the ultimate hike is to the top of Half Dome, a fairly strenuous 27-kilometre round trip that rewards you with the definitive view over the valley. If that sounds a little too ambitious, you can follow the same trail as far as Vernal Fall or to the top of Nevada Fall - a comparatively brief 10.5-kilometre round trip. Other options include a short drive out to Glacier Point, where the 975-metre vantage point will put you virtually at eye level with Half Dome. Those of a more adventurous disposition might even consider rock climbing. The Yosemite Mountaineering School caters for all abilities.
After a few more hours of walking, I find a jagged rock outcrop overlooking the river and majestic El Capitan. I am alone, with only the sound of rippling water for company. This is my very own into-the-wild moment and while I may not be hunting deer or wrestling bears for dinner, it's a special moment of solitude - the kind that will stay with me for years to come.
* Flights: Qantas offers flights from Sydney to San Francisco for $1597 plus tax, one way. See http://www.flightcentre.com.au.
Yosemite National Park is about a four-hour drive from the San Francisco Bay area.
* Accommodation: Lodging reservations can be made a year in advance, yosemitepark.com.
* Skiing & snowboarding: See www.badgerpass.com or phone +1 209 372 1000.
* Rock climbing: Yosemite Mountaineering School, see www.yosemitemountaineering.com.