I was recently fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit Yosemite National Park, one of our nation’s iconic natural landmarks and a destination for adventure-seekers from around the world. After a day in San Francisco making friends with homeless drug salesmen, getting ridiculously lost biking through the city’s parks, and enjoying the Giants game with good friends, my friend Tim and I hopped in a rental car early in the morning and set out due East. Although we had to navigate through the city to get started, going against traffic was fortunate, and as soon as we crossed the Bay Bridge into Oakland there was nothing but wide open roads and wilderness all the way to Yosemite.

Along the way, we read up on the history of the area to prepare ourselves. Yosemite national park was originally inhabited by a diverse conglomeration of Native American tribes who were forced out in bloody struggles throughout the later half of the 1800’s as European Americans took their manifest destiny west into the deeper wilderness. After visiting in the 1850’s and becoming concerned about the human destruction of natural wonders that was already occurring, John Muir and other conservationists successfully lobbied for Yosemite to become one of the first protected areas as a national park.

Four hours outside of San Francisco, we found ourselves deep in a forest of trees above our heads and were anxious to escape the rental car and get a first hand look at what this Unesco World Heritage Site has to offer. No first timers trip to the park is complete without driving straight into the heart of Yosemite Valley and pulling over to get out and stare in awe at the initial view of the glorious combination of El Capitan and Half Dome.

Rising at a sheer incline straight out of the valley floor, the pristine facade of El Capitan is a rock climber’s ultimate test, and professionals come from around the world to prove their worth and attempt to ascend the summit. Visible slightly farther in the distance from our vantage point, Half Dome is the stuff of legend (Quite literally). Surrounded by other fully circular domes on peaks within the range, Half Dome appears as though someone took a serrated knife directly through the center of a sourdough load, leaving a pure vertical face that remains stunning from every angle. Although the complimentary cables weren’t operational during our visit, there is an intrepid 17 mile round trip hike from the valley floor that crescendos on the dome’s summit, providing an unencumbered 360 view for miles and miles.

Splitting the difference between the two iconic facades, Tim and I stopped at a trail head and and began the steep 4.4 mile hike to the Glacier Point vista. Although strenuous and unrelenting in its elevation gain, the path up was buoyed by a sense of natural wonder; we were continuously re-inspired by every improving vantage points over the valley floor and El Capitan behind us.

Yosemite is known for its majestic giant trees, and for good reason. Multiple times along the way up, I found myself staring in wonder directly up the trunk of a tree then taking a few steps backwards and realizing it was actually significantly larger than I could have contemplated in my imagination. The trees in the park are some of the largest living things in the world and even though we were still just on the tip of the iceberg when it came to exploring the park’s wonders, they provided an exceptional sense of natural beauty to compliment the stunning view and deep sense of solitude within nature.

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The pace up was slow. We originally planned our timing at 25 minutes/mile, but between stopping for lunch, breaks to enjoy the view, and the thinning air, we ended up taking twice as long as planned to make the ascent. Reaching Glacier Point’s seemingly insurmountable peak after 3 grueling hours, we were gifted with the reward of a stunning panorama of the entire valley, stretching for miles across our view in both directions.

The pure thrill of having accomplished the most difficult part of the trek combined with the impressive view threw us into a delirious state of joy, and I felt like a kid jumping around the different vantage points and exploring the maps of the distant peaks. After only interacting with a few hikers descending the trail while we were on the way up, we were surprised to see a genuine crowd of selfie-snappers at the top who had just driven 90 minutes one way to reach this vantage point.

After sufficient exploration of the surrounding area, Tim decided we hadn’t had enough self-flagellation undertaking rapid elevation ascents in increasingly thin air and we set off for Sentinel Dome, just over a mile way but another thousand feet into the sky. Our intrepid nature and tough slogging on the path up was not destined for disappointment. The path ceases to lead the way as you approach the Sentinel’s summit, but the rocky slope it disappears into signals the elevation peak of the surrounding rock outcroppings. Once at the top, we found we had earned a 360 view of the entire valley and were awe-struck looking down at how high we had climbed over the course of an afternoon.

As the sun began its slow precipitation into the Western corner of the valley, we evaluated the time, our projected descent pace, and the situation, and decided we probably needed to initiate the trip back in order to not end up lost in the darkness of the park at night. Now sufficiently exhausted, we let momentum carry us as much as possible on the way down, running through the steeper portions and stopping for a few last immaculate views of the setting sun. Once the day’s light extinguished, twilight quickly turned into pitch black darkness and the last hour of the hike was a race against the night, which we promptly lost.

Using our iPhone flashlights to light the way on the steep descent, we lost ourselves in the complete darkness of the situation and it was not until we reached the bottom and stumbled into a clearing that we were able to get an unencumbered view of the night sky. Living in a city, it’s easy to lose appreciation for the vast expanses of the universe and the beauty of a sky full of stars in the middle of nature. Unencumbered by city lights and under a new moon, the stars in Yosemite illuminated a beautiful sky that night and is not something I’ll soon forget.