Friday, February 26, 2010

Catching the Firefall in Yosemite Valley

No, I'm not talking about that misguided late-19th and early-20th-century phenomenon of folks who dumped burning embers off Glacier Point into Yosemite Valley just for the heck of it. I mean the rare occasion when the light of the setting sun turns Yosemite's Horsetail Fall into a shimmering river of gold.

We were lucky enough to be in Yosemite National Park this past Monday afternoon, and saw this ethereal sight for ourselves. (Not to diminish such all-natural glories, but it really did look for all the world like an elvish land set from a Lord of the Rings movie.) The firefall effect, which is only visible from mid- to late-February, is created by the angle of the setting sun as it hits this graceful cascade on the east side of El Capitan, one of the valley's famous granite formations.

Want to see the firefall for yourself next year? Surprisingly, the best observation points are not on the valley's Northside Drive, but off of Southside Drive between Cathedral and Sentinel Beach picnic areas.
As the park ranger at the Arch Rock entrance station advised us, Southside Drive gives you the widest-angle landscape shots of the waterfall. Just look for all the cars pulled off on the side of the road, and armies of tripod-toting photographers walking toward the Merced River, braving snow and ice to snap an unforgettable scene.

Local photographer Michael Frye has a detailed online article with everything else you'll need to know about photographing this impressive phenomenon.

Related posts:
Where to Find Rare Ansel Adams Prints
Freeze and Stay Cheap (or Even Free!) in Yosemite
National Parks in 2010: Looking Forward

Photo credit: Horsetail Fall, Yosemite Valley (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Lovelorn Elephant Seals at Piedras Blancas

Valentine's Day isn't just a human celebration. It also coincides with the peak mating and birthing season for northern elephant seals on the Pacific coast. Right now, our local elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas, just north of Hearst Castle, is reaching the peak of its winter activity. Every year, thousands of these gigantic, smelly and noisy marine mammals migrate down from their summer feeding grounds in Alaska to spend their winters on the beach in balmier southern climes.

Large male bulls with their harems of pregnant and nursing females and fatty pups are crowding the beaches of the Central Coast right now as I write this post. What makes it worth driving all the way down here, south of Big Sur, to see these ginormous wild animals? Unlike at Año Nuevo State Park, you don't need to pay an admission fee or make reservations weeks in advance to join a guided tour just to observe the seals on our beaches. The prime boardwalk viewing point is 4.8 miles north of Hearst Castle, where blue-jacketed docents are on hand to answer all your questions. Because the seals can move faster on the sand than humans can, always keep a safe distance back while viewing the colony.

What happens to those unvictorious male seals who are too young or small to win any female companionship after battling for mates? They gather together on out-of-the-way bachelor beaches, where they're unlikely to raise the ire of any granddaddy bulls. Sometimes those lovelorn young males apparently get a little bored, and they occasionally try to cross Highway 1 to go join the Hearst Ranch cows grazing on the other side. For these lonely seals, it seems that having some cows placidly chewing their cud for company is better than having no one at all on Valentine's Day. Better luck next year, boys!

Photo: Piedras Blancas northern elephant seal colony (Michael Connolly, Jr.)

Friday, February 5, 2010

American Wilderness: Too Noisy for You?

Thanks to a Matador blog post, I found this recent Newsweek article "An Unquiet Nation" about America's vanishing silent spaces. According to audio ecologist Gordon Hempton, there are alarmingly only a dozen truly quiet spaces left in the whole country. As he defines it, that means areas "where natural silence reigns over many square miles." (Hint: One is hidden in the rain forest inside Olympic National Park.)

Hempton's book One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World documents the author's cross-country road trip in a VW bus, during which he took measurements of noisiness in various places, including national parks. He mentions "snowmobiles roaring through Yellowstone, helicopters flying over Hawaii volcanoes, and air tours over the Grand Canyon.
" I agree that all of those are annoying disruptions to the experience of wilderness. Too many times my serenity while hiking around the summit of Maui's Haleakala or on backcountry trails in the Sierra Nevada was spoiled by noise pollution.

However, one of Hempton's recommendations is "to prohibit all aircraft from flying over our pristine national parks." Yet what national park can claim to be pristine? Recreational tourist development means that all parks by definition already are not pristine, though there are often large swathes of wilderness mandated by law to be protected in near-pristine condition. Plus, prohibiting all aircraft from flying over the parks is not feasible. When I worked as a seasonal ranger in Kings Canyon National Park, I learned military overflights were simply unavoidable in that area of the Sierra Nevada. A bummer, but necessary for now.

Where Hempton and I agree is that tourist overflights and other noise-making leisure pursuits should be severely curtailed in our national parks. In Haleakala National Park, for example, helicopters are allowed too near the summit area. At Grand Canyon National Park, air tours are a nuisance to hikers and anyone else wishing to experience the solitude of the canyon. Air tours also make a sizable carbon footprint on the environment.

Until more national parks start to restrict noise-polluting air and overland tours inside their boundaries, each one of us can help preserve America's last quiet places by voting with our tourist dollars. Skip the noise-making group tours next time you visit a national park, and strike out on foot instead. The wilderness, and your fellow explorers, will thank you.

By the way, who's going to tackle the issue of visual pollution in our parks and the wilderness? I'll start with the Grand Canyon Skywalk. Anybody with me?

Tell me about your pet noise-pollution peeves and most hated eyesores in wilderness areas by leaving a comment below.

Photo: Haleakala National Park (Michael Connolly, Jr.)