Exploring the Secrets of Yosemite

Employees of the park reveal hidden adventures.

Photo by Trent Erwin on Unsplash

** Republished from 2015 **

If you’ve ever been to Yosemite National Park in California, you’ll understand why it is one of the most famous National Parks in the world.

Its valley and all the glory within its walls are some of the most iconic places in the United States.

World-class Yosemite rock climbing. Wild Yosemite park camping. Its impactful history. And the plenty of wildlife. It all adds to make it one of the most renowned parks in the world.

It was a hot summer weekend in late July of 2015.

I was living in my car that summer while I traversed western America. Refreshing river showers at sunrise followed by morning hikes was my daily routine.

Thursday night, I spent an evening of euphoria at Tahoe Lake. With my hammock strapped to a few trees, I fell asleep to nature’s surround sound.

By Friday afternoon, I was headed down the scenic two-lane road of Yosemite Valley.

The hills of spruce trees felt endless. Every song that came on the radio filled my emotions. I felt free and I was living like it.

In a little over 72 hours, I had to be in San Francisco for a concert. But, until then, I planned a weekend inside Yosemite. Little did I know I would get the experience that I did. . .

Arising Uncertainty with Yosemite Park Camping

I was to meet a friend whom I hadn’t spoken to the entire summer. She worked as a park river guide. She offered to accommodate me for my stay in the Valley.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to take her up on the offer — maybe I’d try to see her but I never like being a burden.

Then I arrived in the Valley and quickly learned the camping situation. It’s impossible to visit the Valley for consecutive days without making the hour-plus drive out of the Valley each night. Or, of course, camping. But Yosemite Park camping is so limited you usually have to reserve a spot months in advance.

It was forbidden to sleep in your car in the Valley. Sleeping in your car usually meant you also had food in your car. This attracted bears into Yosemite Valley. For obvious reasons, they didn’t want this.

The drive into and out of Yosemite Valley is absolutely jaw-dropping. I would love to spend every morning and evening making that drive. But, on this particular trip, I didn’t have time. Not to mention, the extra gas required to drive into and out of the Valley would be an unplanned expense on my budget.

Yosemite Park Camping with Employees

Although my friend invited me to stay with her, I never intended to take her up on the offer. We were friends, but not close friends. I didn’t want to put that kind of burden on her. However, the limited Yosemite park camping options forced my hand.

I had to take Maddie, my friend, up on the offer.

I met her at a raft stand on the Merced River. She was napping on a pile of river rafts when I found her.

“Maddie. . . Is that you?”

She bolted upright.

“Oh, hey!” she said with a friendly smile. She rushed over to give me a hug and quickly introduced me to three others. I can’t remember who they were or what their job was. I met more people than I can recall.

I stayed in the employee’s camp for three nights; each night feeling more and more involved and included. If I would have stayed any longer, maybe I’d start looking for Yosemite National Park summer jobs.

My envy grew each time I met these people fortunate enough to spend the summer in Yosemite.

I lucked out and got one of the best Yosemite Park camping experiences you can receive. Shaded underneath towering redwood trees, the employees have a semi-permanent tent accommodation.

Elevated onto a wooden floor, the 10-foot by 10-foot tents usually held two to three employees. I found some space on Maddie’s floor and slept on a rock climbing mat the entire weekend.

Every employee I met in Yosemite made me feel like one of them. I went to work with them, I ate at the staff canteen, I drank beers at night, and never stopped in conversation.

They were all obsessed with a new documentary called “Valley Uprising”. It’s a Yosemite climbing documentary on Netflix. I highly recommend it before you go, to build some inspiration for your trip.

The employee’s lives revolved around outdoor adventures. Obviously. Most of them were amidst their second or third summer in the Valley.

Any conversation had, any joke told, and any moment spent was all done in the Great Outdoors.

They were all so like-minded. Inspiring and with wild minds. They made me feel comfortable with my unorthodox career plan. Most importantly, they showed me one hell of a time.

I learned Yosemite rock climbing techniques, was introduced to the art of vinyl collections, expanded my adventure vocabulary, and shown thriving alternative lifestyles.

Throughout the short weekend, everything that people told me we would do — we did. I’m used to big, radical plans that fall through. But, this wasn’t the case inside the walls of Yosemite.

Among other things I did in this short timeframe:

Bouldering in Yosemite Park camping ground

I was introduced to bouldering at two in the morning on my first night in the Yosemite Park camping ground. Bouldering is beginner’s rock climbing as it gives you a chance to get used to the kinds of crevices in the park.

A group of us hiked until we found the perfect, untouched boulder. We set our beers down at the base and played music so loud that it probably woke up the bears. They didn’t care, it was as much their home as it was the bears’.

I wasn’t very good at bouldering. Especially when compared to the others who spent hours upon hours scaling whatever rocks they could find. The race was to be the first to ascend.

I sat on the sidelines, mostly, though, enjoying the sea of stars overhead. I had never seen so many.

Climbing Yosemite Peaks to reach the Secret “Pools”

I followed a group of strangers to secret “pools” on the mountainside. Especially under the moonlight, it was highly dangerous and illegal. But one of the most genuine times I had ever had with strangers.

We sat in and swam around the pools all night. No one would have found us — even during daylight. I watched dozens of shooting stars scream across the night sky. Like rocks skipping on a smooth lake.

The way down was one of the most difficult, intoxicated hikes I had ever been on. I’m no expert on Yosemite climbing deaths, but I’m sure we were lucky we didn’t add to the count that night.

Elephant Rock — A Yosemite Rock Climbing Gem

The next evening, around sunset, they took me on another adventure. They weren’t going on these outings just for me, this was their life during Yosemite summers.

I stood hidden from the road and any bystanders that could save my life if something went awry. I inched closer to the cliff’s edge forty-five feet in the air. I had to use a rope to climb the giant boulder, physically pulling myself up each inch. Below, a plunge into the Merced River whose depth I could never be sure about.

It took a lot of nerve. My new friends promised that they had done it plenty of times before. The water is plenty deep, they said.

Still, no one wanted to jump first. They said it was my initiation.

I had to ‘earn my keep’ in this group of adventure-seeking adrenaline-junkies. I had to show them that I could hang with them for the weekend. I didn’t want to be cast out as a ‘Lame’ — what they called the camera-happy resort tourists in the Valley.

The rock, also known as Elephant Rock, can be seen in Valley Uprising.

Finally, I built the gumption to take the leap. My stomach dropped and my heart leaped from my chest.

The freefall, the big splash. All I remember is treading water after (waiting for the girls who never did jump).

I stared down the river, through spruce trees, only barely able to see the vivid colors of the sunset. A warm fire dancing to the thrills of our screams. It was not the only time I asked myself whether I was in a Yosemite dream.

High Sierra Glen Aulin Hike: May Lake to Glen Aulin on the Glen Aulin Trail

My last day was spent hiking to a secluded, lesser-known mountain village of Yosemite’s highlands. Where a few employees spent the summer without any contact with the outside world. Where mules had to deliver food each week. Where there was only one spout with running water.

The Glen Aulin trail was stunning; especially from May Lake to Glen Aulin.

The trail was actually closed to the public. An old trail that shortened the walk for mules was no longer used for tourists. However, being with employees, they shared the secret with me and we arrived at Glen Aulin in about half the time.

I highly recommend a Glen Aulin hike to escape the summer crowds. Even the trail open to the public is vastly underexplored.

Unimaginable Sunsets in Yosemite Park Camping Grounds

I witnessed one of the most majestic sunsets imaginable. From the greatest vantage point in Yosemite unbeknownst to millions of tourists.

No one said a word; everyone stared in disbelief. The skyline looked like a canvas of warmth. An explosion of color. With no rhyme or reason. I don’t imagine even Bob Ross could have painted a better sky for us.

On the last night of my stay, I attended an employee-only party in the employee tent district. I met so many people and had so many stimulating conversations. All galvanizing individuals.

Exploring the secrets of Yosemite was an excellent way to visit the park for the first time. Looking back, I didn’t do any of the typical tourist trails or routes while I was there. However, I like it better that way. I may have missed out on some of the park’s most iconic sights, but I didn’t miss out on a fulfilling experience.

My time in Yosemite serves as a constant reminder that the beauty in traveling doesn’t lay in the things you see but the experiences you receive.

Although there was a bit of uncertainty heading into the weekend, it ended up forcing me out of my comfort zone. The people in Yosemite inspired me to continue to grow as a person and a traveler. To never become complacent.

It made me crave the adventurous risks and adrenaline that came with them.

I am grateful for the opportunity that Maddie and all the friends she introduced to me gave me. It is those kinds of unique opportunities that travel presents that make it so great.

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** This article was originally published at www.adamcheshier.com **

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