Yosemite is certainly a gorgeous place, with raging waterfalls, majestic granite cliffs that rise up from the valley floor in dramatic fashion, and incredible grandeur at any time of the day.
Yet, hiking in the overcrowded national park, it is hard to connect with nature. For every bird bursting out in glorious song, there is a jackhammer running in the distance, exacerbated by the horns and screeching brakes of angry drivers. For every three-thousand-foot waterfall, there is a trail where hundreds of people flow past each other, much like they would on a city street. And for every mighty black bear that roams its massive territory, there is another that has become dependent on humans and must be shot if it doesn’t get run over by a car first. Solitude is increasingly elusive, and suddenly, the cost of entry to the park doesn’t seem quite worth it. One may experience a sense of awe looking at the jaw-dropping landscape – that is why Yosemite was made a national park in the first place. But with so many people simultaneously trying to enjoy the same small area, the connection between the hiker and nature is painfully frayed.
The trap that too many people fall into is believing that they need a trail to get anywhere, that every aspect of their route must be planned out. I used to think this too, simply because it is much easier to let others map out your destination and create a wide, easily accessible trail leading to it than be forced to find your own route, sometimes through difficult terrain. Very few Yosemite visitors would prefer to make their way over treacherous scree and run the risk of getting lost. But since my father introduced me to cross-country hiking, I’ve been a firm believer that it is worth it. I can’t say that I had a moment of euphoria the first time I went off-trail, because that’s not how it works. Nor have I ever taken an overnight backpacking trip, as so many people dream of doing. But when I visit one of our many secret spots, reachable in half a day from our house, I know that it’s likely no other human has ever set foot on the path I take. It’s extremely rare to encounter another hiker all day. I am alone in nature, and, free of crowds and noise, I can be one with the mountains for the next few hours. Though they are inanimate lumps of rock and soil, the solitude of hiking alone – even for just an hour or two – gives the Sierra a human-like quality that is hard to understand in the crowded, confused, overrated mess that is Yosemite. One can see the mountains as long as they are close enough, but to truly experience the mountains and feel their surreal energy, there is no substitute to hiking alone on an uncharted route.
Maybe it’s important that we have areas like Yosemite Valley – where millions of tourists can cram into a relatively small area of accessible ‘wilderness’ – for the good of the Sierra Nevada as a whole. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them sacrificial, but they definitely bear the brunt of increased tourist visitation in recent years. Yosemite’s congestion has skyrocketed, with three-hour waits outside park and an incredible parking conundrum inside, but for the cross-country hiker, little has changed besides that there are more cars on the road – we rarely need to enter Yosemite for any of our hikes. Areas that require navigation and knowledge are still reserved for locals, something I’m immensely glad of. Tourists seem more inclined to hike well-known trails, which bring better bragging rights than an obscure cross-country route, and are certainly much easier to find for those not familiar with the area
Yosemite, or the “cattle march,” as we locals like to call it, is not necessary to enjoy what the Sierra Nevada mountains have to offer. Many years ago, John Muir valiantly fought against the “machine men” who wanted to allow cars in the national park, fearing that it would become exactly what it is today – both beloved by millions of tourists and gravely threatened by the overuse and congestion that those tourists bring. Of course there are secret spots inside of Yosemite that are untouched, where no tourist has ventured and the mountains reign supreme. By and large, though, Yosemite (especially the Valley) is a classic tourist trap. Don’t tell the tourists that, though!