Almost every visitor to Yosemite goes to Yosemite Valley where the scenic highlights have been artfully concentrated into a few miles by the action of mountain uplift, erosion along fracture zones, river carving and glacial re-decorating. Millions drive in and out of the Valley’s developed east end but they drive right by a lot of attractions in the west end of the Valley. Two exceptions are the stop on the way in to see 600′ Bridalveil Fall, and then on the way out to look up at 3000′ El Capitan from El Capitan Meadow on Northside Drive.
If there were nothing else in the park, these two places would still be world-class on their own. We even put El Capitan’s profile on our money: the 2012 California quarter features the big rock as seen from “Valley View”. (You can also see Bridalveil Fall from here, but that was too big to fit on a 25-cent piece.)
There are some interesting things that people drive by without seeing. You can get a great look at the Valley’s west end by walking a very pleasant bridle trail that loops the whole thing in a 5-6 mile jaunt. If you park at Bridalveil Fall when you first enter Yosemite Valley, you’ll find the trail heading east on the right side of the one-way road with a small sign marking some destinations. Follow it uphill over the terminal moraine (boulder debris pile) left by the last glacier, and along the dramatic base of the Cathedral Rocks; there’s a grand view of El Cap just a few minutes along that hardly anyone sees. Beyond Cathedral Rocks you cross another section of end moraine, then have some quiet walking through old growth Douglas-fir and white fir trees, where the trail leaves the road a bit. Watch for where a popular rockclimbers’ trail comes in from the left; you’ll see a small parking pull-out where climbers park to climb Cathedral Spires. Take this cut-off to the El Capitan Cross-over Road which brings you north over the Merced River.
If it’s April-June or September-October, be sure to stop and look at rockclimbers through the telescope on the bridge; our local climbing association is stationed here just to educate people about the sport. Pick up the trail again on the right as soon as you come off the bridge. After a couple hundred yards, cross the street at the busy dirt pull-through parking and you’ll find the trail sign that says, “Bridalveil Fall.” Great views of the Capitan here, now that you’re right beneath it. Now head west in the forest between El Cap and Northside Drive.
Soon you’ll come to Ribbon Creek’s several channels. In spring you might need to walk along the roadside to get by; in fall you might not notice any creek at all. Look up through the trees to see the Valley’s tallest single-drop waterfall: at 1600′ Ribbon Fall is a longer fall than Upper Yosemite Falls. It’s less well known because its seasonal life is shorter, it’s tucked into an alcove -and it’s in the unknown west end. Beyond the creek is a crumbling roadbed; this is the Old Big Oak Flat Road, which entered the Valley in 1874 – imagine making your visit via a dusty, multi-day carriage ride. Next comes the Valley’s woodyard and brushpile. A CCC camp was built here in 1937; a few remnants remain if you’re sharp-eyed. The pleasant route continues, over a couple more glacial moraines, then comes back to the road. Cross Pohono Bridge and return another mile upstream to Bridalveil Creek.
I bet you hardly saw anyone for most of this walk – even if you do this on a holiday weekend. The Yosemite Field Institute usually leads a day-long hike here each spring and will show you far more stuff than I’ve mentioned here. Right in busy Yosemite Valley there is something new and somewhere quiet to be explored.