The Merced River flows 145 miles from its headwaters in the Clark Range down into the Central Valley. Even though we would only see about fifteen miles of its course, we would see the wildest, most pristine parts. Here, it flows into the sub-alpine Merced Lake before cascading through the granite canyons of the Echo, Lost, and Little Yosemite Valleys. From there it drops down Nevada and Vernal Falls, past Happy Isles and into Yosemite Valley proper. This most dramatic section of the river is the part we visited.
We left Happy Isles on Monday as all the weekend traffic was on its way out. We hiked to the top of Nevada Falls in an hour-and-a-half, and after this, would see no one but a lonely day hiker until we returned to this point two days later. Little Yosemite Valley is the quieter cousin to Yosemite Valley proper. The river here meanders quietly through forests, while views of Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and, further upriver, Moraine Dome dominate the horizon. Our quick uphill pace turned, here, into a slower walk through the woods.
At the opening of Little Yosemite Valley we stopped. Here, the river flowed down a shallow-sloped granite slide, similar to the Silver Apron above Vernal Falls. There was no indentation where the water flowed, no river bank, no beach. We were able to walk right up to the river, dip our feet into its cascading flow, and could have jumped right onto it and slid down as if it were a waterslide. We would see a few of these granite slopes along the course of the Merced River on this trip. The Merced was at the peak of its flow, and it was strong.
Past this slide was a small climb into Lost Valley. The character of this valley was different from that of Little Yosemite Valley. Where Little Yosemite Valley had an open forest feeling with much exposed granite, Lost Valley evoked rainforest with its dense vegetation, its swampy waters, and its cascading cliff faces.
We hopped a few creeks and hiked out to the base of the Bunnell Cascades. Here, again, the Merced River turns from quiet stream to violent river. We followed its rapids and falls into an opening in the canyon. On a map, this is the flat area beneath Bunnell Point before the footbridge. About eight miles into our hike we were tired and so decided to make camp. We found an exposed granite hill above the cascades and set up camp here, where we had great views of Bunnell Point and the opening into Echo Valley.
We were surprised at how little snow we saw on this hike. It was April, and usually this whole area is covered in it, but it was such a light snow year that the ground here was dry. Luckily, though, it seemed most people were not aware of this fact, and so we were the only people out here. The early season is such a beautiful time to visit these areas, since the water flows so high and snow still blankets the high peaks on the horizon. It’s amazing that more people don’t come up during this time. We weren’t complaining, though, and even though I had told myself I wouldn’t take a nap, I laid down on the sun-warmed rock and fell asleep.