‘In every walk with Nature, one receives far more than he seeks.’ John Muir
California has long been Number 1 on my list of ‘return to’ destinations since my first visit in 2003. Embarking on a long road trip covering cities, theme parks, the coast, deserts and mountains there is such a wide variety of landscapes to visit meaning there is always something to return for.
One place I have visited on several occasions is Yosemite National Park. If I had to describe this place in one word, that word would be majestic. The scale and grandeur, the beautiful meadows, the lush pine forests, the roaring waterfalls and gigantic granite cliff faces leave me awestruck every time I enter the park. I’m sure that most of you will have seen the famous black and white Ansel Adams photos of Yosemite, or certainly seen images of landmarks such as El Capitan and Half Dome. As stunning as these photos can be, they do nothing to provide a sense of scale of what you will see.
You may have noticed from my previous posts that I am somewhat in love with the great outdoors and the mountains. This love was born out of my first visit to Yosemite. It was only a fleeting visit as part of a huge road trip. Arriving late in the evening, myself a group of friends stayed in a motel outside of the park before driving in the following morning and basically doing a loop of Yosemite Valley for a couple of hours before racing off to our next destination. It whet my appetite, but left me yearning spend more time exploring the park.
So I returned. Twice. On these occasions myself and my partner spent more time in the park and stayed in lodgings in Yosemite Valley to be closer to the action. By action, I mean the scenery and the great outdoors. There is very little action unless you have an unexpected encounter with a bear, which is fairly unlikely. Deer and chipmunks maybe, but rarely bears. Despite all the warning signs I have yet to see a bear in Yosemite National Park.
Yosemite is located in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of Northern California, approximately 4 hours drive east from San Francisco. Easily accessible by road from the west all year round and seasonally from the east (the Tioga Road closes over the winter months) it is a destination that is suitable for all seasons. With 1,200 square miles of mountain scenery, the park attracts millions of visitors per year which is definitely something to consider when planning what time of year to visit.
We had visited twice in September – the weather was gorgeous, the crowds were fairly manageable but my main (slight) disappointment was that the waterfalls were mostly dry. Barely a trickle. We chose to plan our most recent visit for early June for two reasons. 1) There would be water at the waterfalls and 2) We would travel in from the east along the Tioga Pass Road to mix things up a bit and see a new part of the park.
Heading in from the east, the Tioga Road (or Highway 120) is the highest highway pass in California and meanders through the mountains past sub-alpine meadows and glacial lakes before heading down towards Yosemite Valley. There are a few stopping points along the way which are well worth taking a short break for.
Toloumne Meadows Visitor Center is one of the first stops that we made with views onto the meadows and the backdrop of Lembert Dome.
Further along, we made our next stop at Tenaya Lake – a gorgeous alpine lake located next to the highway. A short walk from the car park through the forests brings you out onto the shores – almost deserted on the day of our visit.
Continuing along from the lake, a little further along is a stopping point called Olmsted Point. It’s quite clearly signposted but not to be missed as it gives a very unique vantage point towards Yosemite Valley and Half Dome which is almost unrecognisable from this position.
Onwards from Olmsted Point and we continued on our way to Yosemite Valley where we would spend three nights.
Yosemite Valley is the main hub of the park for tourists. Approximately 7.5 miles long and 3000-3500ft deep, it is home to large open meadows, pine forests and numerous accommodation options and attractions. The valley is also the starting point for many of the trails that lead to some spectacular hiking routes, but more on that later.
There are a variety of lodging options:
Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village) with camping options and some cabins.
Yosemite Valley Lodge (formerly Yosemite Lodge at the Falls) with traditionally styled hotel rooms set in a number of buildings.
The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly The Ahwahnee Hotel), a large and grand mountain lodge style building aimed at a higher end market.
We stayed twice at the Yosemite Valley Lodge (with one night in a cabin in Half Dome Village). The rooms were lovely, as was the Mountain Room Restaurant and Lounge – great food and a fabulous view of Yosemite Falls. Breakfast offering was rather a more chaotic affair with a food court style operation. I’m not sure why there is no breakfast option in the restaurant as I would definitely have preferred that – in fact we chose to skip the food court breakfast and buy some supplies to have in our rooms on some days.
There is a one way loop road that runs around the valley, with plenty of stopping points to see the main sights and take in the views. Wherever you stop, the views are breathtaking.
The map here shows some detail of Yosmite Valley layout and points of interest, and the photos below show of my favourite spots.
Valley View is located at the west end of the valley alongside the Merced River, looking east at the vertical face of El Capitan on the left and Cathedral Rocks to the left.
The meadows further into the valley offer some amazing views of the surrounding mountains. One of the most famous landmarks in Yosemite is Half Dome. Rising 4,737 feet above the valley floor, this huge rock formation takes its name literally – a dome that seems to have been cut in half with one side being a sheer rock face.
The meadows also provide some great views of the rest of the valley along with some wildlife, but no bears!
Some of my favourite shots from the valley floor are the ones where despite the fact that the camera lens is completely zoomed out, the full backdrop of the images are the granite cliffs. It really given a sense of scope as to how large they are when compared to the very tall pine trees sitting below.
It’s not just the meadows and the cliffs though, there are some other great view points. Bridges over the Merced River are a great place to stop and there is also a chapel in the valley which is really quaint.
Another impressive feature of the park are the waterfalls. There are many in the park, but some are very accessible without long hikes to reach them.
The first of these is Bridalveil Fall. To the west of the valley, Bridalveil Fall is usually the first waterfall you will see when entering Yosemite Valley. At 620 feet high, the hike from the parking lot is only a 0.5 mile round trip so very accessible for most people.
Another, and more impressive waterfall which is easily accessible from the valley floor is Yosemite Falls. Separated into the Upper and Lower Falls, these combined form the highest waterfall in North America at 2,425 feet high. Whilst there are some moderate to strenuous hikes which will take you up towards the Upper Falls, the hike to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls is a flat and paved one mile round trip. When we first visited in September these falls where barely a trickle, so it was great to return in the spring showed us the full effect.
That pretty much covers Yosemite Valley, but there is plenty more to see on the park without having to go too far off the beaten track.
If you want to venture further afield in the car, I would recommend a trip to Glacier Point – an overlook with unparalleled views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley from a vantage point at 3,214 feet above the valley floor. The journey from Yosemite Valley is about 30 miles, firstly on the Wawona Road where there is a stopping point which gives you, arguably, the most famous view of Yosemite Valley – Tunnel View. Prepare to try and time your visit well to avoid the hordes of tour buses and people vying for the best photo location. It’s definitely worth it though.
Onwards from Tunnel View along the Wawona Road, a left turn will take you onto the Glacier Point Road which takes you all the way up to the parking lot and then a very short trail to the viewing points. Once again this is very accessible to all, and in my opinion, provides the best views you will see in the whole of Yosemite National Park.
I have mentioned in previous blog posts that I am a bit of a fair weather hiker. Being out in the wilderness for hours on end, away from my creature comforts does not really suit me. There was one hike, however, that I felt like I had to do – The Mist Trail.
The Mist Trail is a 6 mile round trip and a fairly strenuous hike which takes you up close to two large waterfalls – Vernal Fall and Nevada Fall, with a 2000 feet elevation gain. Named the Mist Trail due to the sheer amount of spray from the river and the waterfalls in the spring, you need to expect to get a little wet along your journey but it’s also nicely cooling in the summer heat. It does make things slightly slippery underfoot so sensible footwear is a must.
The trail begins at the Happy Isles trail head to the east of Yosemite Valley and follows the John Muir Trail alongside the Merced River to the Vernal Fall footbridge which offers some great views of Vernal Fall.
Continuing on from Vernal Fall Footbridge, the trail separates into the John Muir Trail and Mist Trail. Following the Mist Trail, this section of the hike is a dramatic journey which takes you up a granite stairway of more than 600 steps along side Vernal Fall. The power of the falls and the spray generated at this stage are such an experience. There are further steps built into the side of the cliff face which take you to the top of the falls, a spot to take a well earned break. It’s worth noting that this is the only hiking trail on the park which has restrooms along the journey – there are three in total, which is great for a hike of this distance.
Once at the top of Vernal Fall, the views back down towards the valley are impressive – the mist from the water creating rainbows in the air.
Continuing on the Mist Trail past Emerald Pool and Silver Apron, the trail then crosses the river providing a great vantage point downstream overlooking Silver Apron and upstream looking towards Nevada Falls.
After a walk through the forest the trail then opens up into a series of steep, rocky switchbacks which climb up the 594 feet alongside the thundering Nevada Fall. Once at the top, this is the highest point along the journey and a great opportunity for a rest and to soak in some of the spectacular views.
At this point we have made it to the top. There are two choices. Head back the way we came and back down all of those steps, or take a slightly longer route back along the John Muir Trail. We opted for the latter, firstly as it would be a quieter route and secondly, more views!!
The John Muir Trail at this stage heads away from Nevada Fall and to a vantage point called Clark Point. This spot provides great views of Liberty Cap and Nevada Fall before descending slowly back down to meet the original trail near the Vernal Fall footbridge and back to the valley below.
This hike probably took about six hours in total, including some breaks along the way. There were some fairly strenuous sections but I would say it’s definitely a manageable hike for most people with a reasonable level of fitness. Well worth doing for the spectacular views along the way.
So, that concludes my post on Yosemite National Park. I know I will return someday in the next few years to explore more of the park. I think I will also treat myself to a stay at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel! Why not!