Hi. I love Yosemite National Park. I try to go there at least 2 or 3 times per year and every time I go there I go hiking and get lost in the beautiful pristine sights and sounds. The towering granite cliffs are not a sight to be missed. If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area and have 2 days to spare, you should definitely consider spending a day at this National Treasure. I'll be taking you through the sites that I saw the last time I visited the park which was 6/13/02 and share my knowledge and experiences.
Without question, the place I like to stay at is Yosemite Lakes Lodge. This place has a lot of different types of accomodations to fit your budget. They offer (in order of increasing price): tent sites, bunks, hostel rooms, and yurts. I last stayed at the tent site and paid $20 with my AAA discount. I'm lucky because I live in the San Francico Bay Area and not more than 3.5 hours away. I know that from Mon-Thurs it's quite easy to find open rooms/sites so it is not necessary for advance reservation. If you do find yourself looking for accomodations and you decide to stay at this place, make your reservation and if possible, get the key!
Once I had made reservations and I hiked to Half Dome. It was peak season and all the rooms were taken. As I made my way to the counter the lady told me, "sorry, no more rooms". I told her I already had reservations and showed her my key. I don't know for certain if they will give your room away to someone else (even if you have already made reservations), but when it's 10:00pm, it's dark, you're dead tired, don't have a sleeping bag or tent, and there's no other accomodations for another 50 miles, it feels really good to know for certain that you have a room ready for you to sleep in.
There are a couple of camp sites which are first come first served and require no reservations. One is located just outside of Yosemite Lakes Lodge. I'm not sure what the name of it is. The other is Sunnyside camp which is located in Yosemite Valley. This used to be the best bargain. I'm not sure what it costs now, but 4 years ago it was only $3/night. Showers were located clear across the way at Curry Village, but for $3 what do you expect?
What to do there?
I won't go into everything as there is way too much to discuss. The most popular destination by far is Yosemite Valley. This is a good place to start. Before you go to the Valley, there are a myriad number of sites to see and visit as you come into the park from the West side (Hwy 205). One of them is Merced Grove.
Merced Grove is one of 3 Redwood Groves located within the park boundaries (the other two being Mariposa and Tuolumne Groves). Merced Grove is the smallest of the 3. The initial walk is easy as it starts out level and goes downhill (of course that means it's more difficult coming back up!). There are about 5 or 6 large Redwoods. Tuolumne Grove features a few more trees as well as one huge redwood which is so big you could drive a car under it. It is "cut out" at the trunk so visitors can wander underneath and peer up inside.
Merced Grove will take about an hour and a half round trip assuming you walk leisurely and take pictures along the way. It is not too strenuous and most anyone can do this walk.
Once you get into the Valley you are greeted with the sight of the Merced River. You may see river rafters going down. This is a new attraction. I don't know how much it costs but it looks like a lot of fun. As you continue along this scenic route, you can see El Capitan and its waterfall, Half Dome, and Upper Yosemite Falls. The Falls flow with the most water during Spring and early Summer. If you go during September or October, they will probably just be a trickle.
I spend more time hiking at Yosemite than doing anything else. I like to park at Curry Village and take the Shuttle Bus (which runs between every 5 or 10 minutes) to the Happy Isles. This time around, instead of hiking I decided to peer around and checked on "the Fen". A "Fen" is a marshy area where there is very lush vegetation and a lot of water flow. It's not the same as a river bed because the floor is lined with peat moss (rather than rocks) which is made from decomposed plants. The Fen was a nice little area with strange looking plants and bamboo shoots. I wanted to hang around, but the mosquitoes changed my mind very quickly.
Not in the mood to start my hike yet, I travelled to the Nature Center. This Center has been reconstructed. I have been coming to Yosemite every year since 1995 and every year it has been closed until now. I am very curious to see what is inside. I am not disaapointed. There are informative exhibits on display which helped me to learn how different animals such as bears identify their "turf" and how it is not wise to follow the trail of a fresh pile of "dung" as it means he is very near. I wish I could learn to identify the claw marks of all the animals, as well as learn the different plant varieties.
Now I start hiking along the John Muir Trail to Nevada Falls. There are two ways: you can use the main route or you can hike to Vernal Falls and then from there, hike to Nevada Falls. I've done both and I like the more direct path. This time around it took me 3 hours to get to the top. Jeez, I must be out of shape. In years past it only took me 1.5 hours to get to the top. Once you make it, you feel great! There is a beautiful view of the Valley from the bridge. Take pictures, but don't feed the squirrels. Many people like to stop here and eat lunch, play in the water, read a book, and hang out. This is the highlight of my trip.
I see Nevada Falls as a "half-way" point between the valley and the top of Half Dome. In actuality it is only about 1/4 of the way as Half Dome is an 8 mile hike, however, if you continue down the trail, you will quickly discover, that as you make your way down "Little Yosemite Valley" that the ground is quite flat. It continues this way for a little over 2 miles. This part is a breeze to hike through. If you decide to go to the top of Half Dome, the last part of the hike (2 miles) is very steep and strenuous. You'll know by the time you hit Nevada Falls whether or not you are ready to tackle Half Dome. On this day, I didn't have it.
After a long day's hike, there's nothing like a good hot meal. I like to eat at Curry Village Restaurant where it's $11.75 (I'm not sure of the exact price but it was just under $12) all you can eat. I had the mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti (with meatballs and cheese), and mixed vegetables with a tall glass of water to start. Mmmm... The restaurant also offers a "south of the border" section where you can build your own tacos and burritos, an Asian section where they serve up egg rolls and rice, a salad bar complete with lots of fresh fruits, and a large dessert bar. The spaghetti was awful, it did not sit well with my stomach. I'll remember next time to avoid eating that, but the rest of the food was good.
If you don't like "all you can eat" you can opt for pizza. It's expensive, but good. The crust is thin which you never see at places such as Domino's, Round Table, or Pizza Hut. The cheese is real and fresh. Waiting in line can take an eternity, but it's well worth it. People aren't stupid, they won't wait in line for food that tastes crummy!
Places to Take Pictures
One of the easiest and best places to take pictures is in the Valley in front of El Capitan and it's waterfall. Very beautiful. If you don't mind driving just a little bit, inspiration point is another excellent place to take pictures. There isn't much to do or see here except take pictures. It is on the way to Glacier Point, so if you are headed towards that direction, it is worth your time to stop here.
If you don't want to hike for 12 hours Glacier point is the best place to take pictures. You have an incredible panoramic view of Yosemite Valley and the whole park. Words cannot do it justice. It's easy to forget, but Yosemite is a huge park. There are many many other mountains, valleys, and trails which can be seen from this vantage. Because Glacier Point offers such stunning views and a nice area to visit, I would recommend this place if you are only here for one day.
The best views I've ever seen have been from the top of Half Dome. From here you have access to a 360 degree view of the whole park. Words cannot do it justice. At the same time, I must admit, travelling to the very top of Half Dome was by far, the most strenuous undertaking in my whole life. The first time I did it, I was slowed down by about an hour due to a tragic accident. A man had died of a heart attack on the top, his body being airlifted down via helicopter. The rescue crews would not allow us to advance so we sat there watching. This should give you an idea of how stressful climbing to Half Dome can be. It is not for the squeamish.
One Day Visit
If you could only spend one day at Yosemite I would recommend you definitely see these sites:
- Yosemite Valley - take in El Capitan, Half
Dome, Upper Yosemite Falls, Bridalveil Falls, Merced River, and
Sentinel Rock in one fell swoop.
- Top of Glacier Point - incredible views, can take less than 2 hours to and from the Valley round trip via car. Snack bar at the top.
- Easy hikes - top of Vernal Falls - take between 1 and 1.5 hours to get to the top. Beautiful view, get splashed by water coming down sides of the mountain (this is a lot of fun on a hot day). Sort of strenuous, but even people out of shape should be able to do this.
- Lower Yosemite Falls - it's only a one mile hike and it's level ground so it's super easy. Nice views, get splashed.
- Inspiration point - just off Hwy 41 on the way to Glacier Point. Take pictures here - you will feel like Ansel Adams.
Most people visit Yosemite Valley as that's where all the "sexy" sites are, but in a much more laid back atmosphere, Tuolumne Meadows deserves mention here. I've only visited twice (during Spring), but I've had fun nonetheless. If you are looking for a nice quiet vacation come here. The road to get here is 120 (Tioga Pass) and goes through the entire park. It is closed during (early) Spring and (late) Fall, so prepare accordingly. It takes about 45 minutes to get to the popular hiking destinations where the road (to the Valley) branches off.
Words of Caution
When I goto Yosemite I know that it is important to be cautious. This is not the kind of environment (like Disneyland) where you have the right to feel "safe" wherever you go. Many things have happened to me during my frequent visits over the past 7 years. Among the most potentially serious scenarios: 120 was wiped out by a rock slide. This is a very common occurrence. Every year there are major and minor rock slides as the steep slopes of the mountains (in combination with the waterfall) in the Valley make it inevitable. I had to drive (with only a half a tank of gas left) all the way around the entire park using 140 to 49 then back up to 120. I was deathly frightened that I would run out of gas in the middle of the road. You probably have never driven 49. It is a long, twisty, windy road, and there is no room to pull over if your car gets stuck and there are no lights along the side. It is also out in the middle of nowhere so if you did get stuck (in the middle of the night), the likelyhood of someone else being there to help you out is minimal.
Yosemite National Park is wild. At nighttime there are many animals that come out to forage including bears, foxes, coyotes, and many others. The last thing you want to do is be stuck in the middle of the road with no gas, no lights, and a bunch of wild animals. Not to mention temperatures that can get down to the 40's (farenheit). Now I always bring an extra can of gas when I goto Yosemite to lessen the chance I will be stuck in the middle of the road.
The other incident was the first time I made it to the top of Half Dome. I completely misjudged the time it would take to get down and I ran out of daylight. I did have a flashlight, but the batteries were beginning to fade. There were others with me on that day. Two large caucasion men were also lost. One had a headlamp but I can't remember about the other one. All 3 of us had made it down the John Muir Trail to the point where we could hear the sound of the waterfalls at the Happy Isles, but we could not find the bridge to cross the water. There are at least two bridges. The first bridge will take you across the water, but it's the wrong bridge. I don't know the geographics, so I don't know where that particular trailhead leads, but it was definitely the wrong trailhead. So we backtracked across the bridge and started back up the switchbacks.
I remembered earlier that day as I made my way along the beginning of the trail remarking to myself how large and how massive the granite boulders were. We had not passed any of these large rocks at any point so I began to look for them. Eventually my flashlight landed on one of them and we were able to make it out. One half hour later, we came across a group of about half a dozen girls. They too were stranded! They told us they didn't have any flashlights and didn't know which way to go. We helped them out with our lights and we went along. I don't remember whether or not some of them stayed behind, but after getting off the trail and finding a road, we flagged down a Yosemite Park Ranger in his big truck. One of the girls told him that there were still some girls stranded up on the trail and did not have any flashlights. His response was that we would not help them. I was very surprised at his words. I thought that he would immediately radio for help. These park rangers have probably seen it all. They probably have to deal with people stuck on the trailhead on a nightly basis. Maybe it was too much of a liability for them. Maybe they didn't trust these girls. I don't know the reason for his indifference.
The lesson to be learned: make sure you don't leave yourself stranded on the trail with no lights. Bring extra batteries, bring those glow stick thingys, bring backup lighting! The last thing in the world you want is to be stuck in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wild animals, freezing cold, with no help possible. Even if the Park Rangers know you are there, they probably won't bother to come and get you. And, if you've never walked on the trail, I'll let you know that it is very slopey, rocky, and uneven. If you tried to take a few steps with your eyes closed, you would run the risk of twisting your ankle, or even possibly falling off the trail. And when you are on the trail in the middle of the night with no flashlight it is the same as trying to walk on the path with your eyes closed. I'm speaking from experience when I say this. You can't rely on the moonlight because the shade of the leaves makes it impossible.
I'm not trying to scare anyone. I did not make these stories up. I'm just trying to let you know that Yosemite National Park can be a very unpredictable place. It can also be very fun and spiritually enlightening, but you need to be cautious and plan ahead.
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