The Valley Loop Trail in Yosemite Valley and Natural Bridges off Parrotts Ferry Road in Calaveras County are interesting options on a weekend when you want to get exercise but you want to avoid miles of steep trails, rest your knees and retain chances to bail out when you’re tuckered.
Both these walks offer multiple distances and turnaround points. The Valley Loop is longer and it’s smack in the middle of one of the world’s most popular national parks. Natural Bridges, one of the Mother Lode’s unique gems, is shorter, much less famous, but still popular with locals.
One of the best things about the Valley Loop is you get to ditch your vehicle as soon as you arrive in Yosemite Valley. From Sonora and other points in the Mother Lode, you’re taking Highway 120 through Groveland and up into the park via the Big Oak Flat entrance.
At the bottom of Big Oak Flat Road you arrive at a T junction with El Portal Road. Look left and there’s a parking lot with a pay phone. Pull in there and get ready to enjoy the Valley at walking speed.
I started walking from here at 6:45 a.m. last Saturday and the Merced River was running a couple inches above the 10-foot flood stage at Pohono Bridge. Near-record winter snowpack is still melting and a week ago the Merced was ripping and roaring below Pohono.
Staying as close to the river as possible is a good idea where the trail is not flooded. I came to Pohono Bridge in less than a mile, crossed the river and checked the level at the gauge house at 7:15 a.m.
El Capitan came into view by 7:35 a.m. I was near the base of Bridalveil Fall by 7:55 a.m. There’s so much snowmelt flowing in all creeks and streams feeding Yosemite Valley there are waterfalls in places you may not have noticed before in drought years. From Bridalveil you can look north to Ribbon Fall on the west side of El Capitan. Geologists and park staff say Ribbon Fall has a drop of more than 1,600 vertical feet.
Just east of Bridalveil and across the Merced from El Capitan at 8:10 a.m., I came across a traffic control ranger in a white Trailblazer with U.S. Government tags and a sign on a trailer with its flashing lights turned off. The ranger was putting out orange cones to deal with a crush of motorists expected later in the day.
For the next hour I enjoyed views of the swollen Merced, changing perspectives of El Capitan, and isolated flooding next to the river. By 9:15 a.m. I was walking through shaded fields of purple lupine where three young mule deer with small racks of emerging, felt-covered antlers were dining. They didn’t mind my company but they kept their distance.
By 10 a.m. I was at Swinging Bridge with a view of Upper Yosemite Fall above the wide Merced. The riverbanks and some meadows were flooded. Eastbound traffic was bumper-to-bumper on Southside Drive before it reached Chapel Meadow.
I decided to use Swinging Bridge to loop back to my vehicle at this point. I’d covered 6 or 7 miles and had the same distance to walk back. Merced River flooding covered a hundred yards or more of the paved trail I wanted to use. The water was less than knee-deep so I waded it to get across to Northside Drive by 10:15 a.m.
An hour later I was next to another flooded meadow northeast of Cathedral Rocks. By 11:45 a.m. I was in El Cap Meadow, where I learned Alex Honnold free soloed the 2,900-foot Freerider variation of Salathé Wall, recording the first ropeless ascent of El Capitan, earlier in the day.
By 2 p.m. I was back at my vehicle. The most enjoyable aspect of the seven-hour walk was spending most of it within sight or earshot of the Merced River nearly the entire time. It rushes and rumbles in places, and it’s quiet in others but make no mistake: it’s a waterway brimful with melted snow moving fast and cold enough to kill.
On the drive out, I stopped at Crane Flat where several people were taking photos and video of a mother bear and her two cubs. I was back in Sonora by 4:30 p.m.
I woke up before 6 a.m. Sunday to meet several friends and co-workers in downtown Sonora before driving about 10.5 miles to the trailhead for Natural Bridges. It’s on the left as you drive Parrotts Ferry Road toward Vallecito and Highway 4. We were five people altogether and we were the only ones in the trailhead parking lot when we got there before 8 a.m.
A sign at the trailhead warns of “Extreme Poison Oak.” Anyone susceptible to poison oak and other itchy plants should wear full-coverage clothing with long sleeves, pants and light gloves, or bring a machete to cut vegetation back from the trail.
The walk to Natural Bridges is about a mile downhill, so this part can strain your knees. Once you are down in Coyote Creek proper, you have options to walk farther upstream or downstream.
By 8:30 a.m., we were exploring the downstream cavern entrance to Upper Natural Bridge, where water drips across part of the cave opening. Some of us swam inside the cavern. By 9:30 a.m., more people were coming down the trail to enjoy Upper Natural Bridge, so we walked about a half-mile downstream to Lower Natural Bridge.
By 10:30 a.m. we’d waded through Lower Natural Bridge to its downstream end. No one else came down to Lower Natural Bridge while we were there. We had time for more dips in Coyote Creek before walking back up to Upper Natural Bridge, which was crowded with revelers by 11:30 a.m.
We were back at the trailhead parking lot by 12:30 p.m. and back in downtown Sonora by 1 p.m.
The driving distance between the starting points for these two walks, from the parking lot east of Pohono Bridge to the Natural Bridges trailhead parking lot, is about 80 miles.
Reporter’s note: Before I began working for newspapers in the early 1990s, I spent seven years with VisionQuest and Outward Bound as a paid, certified wilderness instructor and emergency medical technician accountable for groups of felony offender teens, court-ordered children and adult Cuban refugees. I am in my mid-50s, and anyone who walks OK on their own can keep up with me anywhere.