Away from the hustle and bustle of the Valley, but not yet to the hustle and bustle of the Chilnualna Falls Trail, the Alder Creek Trail offers a quiet and interesting alternative that's well worth the walk, especially in the season when the water is high, the snow is gone at mid-elevation, and the Glacier Point Road remains closed.
Park at the Alder Creek trailhead. This is the spacious pullout on the downhill side of the sharp 25mph hairpin, a couple of miles toward Yosemite from Wawona. Cross the street and start heading uphill through a pleasant stand of incense cedars vaguely reminscent of a sequoia grove. Notice also the massive sugar pine to your left.
The trail starts out with a relatively steep climb on smooth dirt trail for about the first mile. Though a steady climb, it is much easier than the steep and rocky trails of the Valley like the Yosemite Falls Trail or the Mist Trail. The forest is a dense mix of conifers and the occasional oak, with a ground cover of Mountain Misery. Mountain Misery is so-named for the sticky, aromatic oils it leaves on your shoes as you walk through it, but despite its moniker, it has attractive white flowers when in bloom. Mountain Violets put in an occasional appearance. The dense forest also provides hiding spots for a wide variety of birds whose varied songs will keep you looking, but the dense upper story will make it hard to actually spot them.
After about a half mile, you'll start to notice more sugar pines and that means you're nearing the top of the climb. At three quarters of a mile, you hit the intersection with the trail to Wawona. Take the left fork and continue climbing for a short while. Notice how dense the forest is, with a tremendous amount of downed wood on the forest floor and dense vegetation in both the lower and upper stories. One almost thinks of the Mirkwood in the Lord of the Rings. Even at midday the forest floor is shadowy. This dense forest looks primeval, but actually is an unhealthy product of a century of fire suppression that prevented the natural process whereby the debris and small growth of the understory gets cleared out every twenty years or so. It's hard to image that when the first white people came to the Sierra, they were struck by the fact that a rider could dash through the woods at a full gallop without having to duck. If not for the trail, there are sections here where you would need a machete just to make headway.
As you continue up the trail, you will abruptly come to the fire line that firefighters drew in the late autumn of 2007 to prevent a lightning-set fire from making it's way to Wawona. Notice how "cleaned up" the forest floor is after the fire. It still is not the forest one would see if nature had been allowed to work all these years. The downed wood causes a hotter, more descructive fire than the pine-needle bed of a truly healthy natural forest and the dense growth of small trees is often still standing, though frequently dead. Still, one can see how eventually a natural fire regime would return the forest to the open, healthy state that the first white people found.
Look for the holes left by trees that burned up entirely, including the root system, leaving bomb craters in the woods. These craters can be extremely dangerous in the days following a fire as the hot ash can be four feet deep. Finally, look for trenches in the ground where trees fell and burned and disappeared entirely, leaving only a depression where they burned away the fuels beneath where they fell. Keep your eyes open—there are some amazing forms in here. One incense cedar looks like a burned out hulk, but a bit of trunk keeps it standing and a bit of bark on the downhill side connects the upper tree to the ground. It's enough to keep this tree alive (on the right side, before the main fire area, while still hiking steeply uphill). Another blackened trunk stands improbably balanced like a giant bronze abstract art sculpture (on the left, near a jumble of boulders just before the Mosquito Creek drainage). The high contrast made it almost impossible to get a decent picture of these, so you'll have to go and look for yourself.
The trail eventually crosses the diminutive and often dry Mosquito Creek and then makes a short, steep climb to an abandoned railroad bed. You will soon see railroad ties stacked along the trail and eventually a piece of track over by the top of Alder Creek Fall. At this point you follow the railroad bed for perhaps a mile, crossing a couple of minor tributaries to Alder Creek and passing some substantial railroad cuts that were blasted away back in the day.
Again, you may look at these forests and see a pristine natural wonderland, but much of this land was virtually clearcut as the Yosemite Lumber Company harvested one of the richest stands of sugar pine in the world. As part of this effort, they built an extensive network of railroads, rising out of El Portal and criss-crossing the forests along Highway 41 (with another network going up the other side of the canyon toward Crane Flat). When the park was first created, no money was set aside to buy out pre-existing logging, mineral and grazing rights. The park boundaries had to be redrawn to accomodate the majority of claims. Others were bought out through land trades with the government. Much of the rights, however, were simply exercised. In the early 1920s, the Yosemite Lumber Company built the Alder Creek line until, in 1923, it had pretty much exhausted its claims on the south side of the Merced River. When you first reach the railroad bed, you're essentially seeing the furthest reach of the lumber railroads south of the Merced. By 1924, main operations turned to the north side of the river, in the direction of Crane Flat. As the last magnificent stand of virgin sugar pine was about to fall (over on the Hwy 120 side), John D. Rockefeller offered to buy out the logging rights if the government would match his contribution, and thus the last of the great Yosemite sugar pines were saved. Finally, in 1942, logging in the park came to a permanent halt. Now only wood that must be cut for other reasons is sold to be milled.
When you arrive at Alder Creek Fall, it comes almost instantly into full view and almost immediately inviting spots to sit for a snack appear as well. The trail does not go down to the fall itself and in high water crossing the creek near the fall would, obviously, be dangerous. Still, look across the creek at the glacial erratic perched on the slabs above the fall. It looks like it could roll down at any moment, but of course it has stood there since the last glacier receded.
As described, this walk ends here with a long gaze at the fall. You can, however, follow the railroad bed on toward Deer Camp and on around back to near Chinquapin just where the spur road to Yosemite West comes into Hwy 140. This is where I go if I'm looking for a long, flat run and I've explored the hillside up and down from the main trail. If you keep your eyes open, you can sometimes spot an old railroad grade, overgrown with manzanita. On rare occasions you can even still find the tell-tale ties in the ground (presumably the rails themselves were too valuable to leave behind). If you drive down into Yosemite West, you'll actually be driving on that same old railroad grade that trundled the Alder Creek logs down to the mills. You can take this road out to where Henness Ridge Road ends in a private dirt road (no entry). Five miles out that road is the house that formerly belonged to Hank Johnston, from whose books my information about the logging railroads comes. His house sits right at the top of the 45-degree counterweight incline railroad that eventually took those Alder Creek logs down to El Portal and then on to Merced Falls, 50 miles away, to be milled and shipped out to build the growing cities of California. If you exit the park via Hwy 140, take a moment look up the hill above Cedar Lodge and see if you can spot the scars of the old incline and contemplate that at one time huge sugar pines were being railroaded out of the "pristine" forest you just visited and sent down the hill to where you are now.
Recommended Reading: Hank Johnston, Yosemite's Yesterdays (Flying Spur Press, Yosemite, CA, 1989).