Of all the places we went on our recent USA road trip, (San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Park, Death Valley and Las Vegas,) Yosemite was the absolute highlight for me and I would say somewhere that I will look back on forever as awe-inspiring and breath taking. I think everybody has places that they have seen in magazines, on the television or online and thought, ‘I really want to see that, to actually be there and feel it for myself,’ and for me that was the towering sheer cliff faces of El Capitan and the National Geographic pin-up, Half Dome. We chickened out of including Yosemite in our honeymoon trip because I didn’t think I’d be able to pack for the weather, the hiking gear, the serious ‘wilderness experience’ and I couldn’t have got it more wrong. So aside from making you catch your breath with awesome scenery this morning, I hope this post encourages some of you to include it in a future trip. I’d go so far as to say it’s worth making a special journey.
Tunnel View, looking east along Yosemite Valley on the morning we left the park. El Capitan is in the foreground on the left and half dome in the centre distance.
We drove from San Francisco and made the trip in about 3 hours and 45 minutes arriving at our accommodation, the Yosemite View Lodge in El Portal. I wasn’t very happy about staying here, we had fancied The Tenaya Lodge but as it happened we made by far the best choice. Not looking much from the outside, our room was huge – 2 doubles, a big bathroom and a mini kitchen, all very comfortable. The best part however was that we were 2 minutes drive from the (Arch Rock) entrance and another 10-15 minutes to the parking areas in Yosemite village, whereas when we passed the Tenaya lodge when we left the park on route to Sequoia, it was almost an hour south.
The Arch Rock entrance, near El Portal.
After check in we headed straight into the park, paying $20 for a week long pass and parked up. I had this idea that Yosemite would be really arduous to do but of course in true American style there is every convenience – a heck of a lot more than you’d get in the UK! The Valley has 2 main epicentres, Yosemite village and Camp Curry. The former houses the post office, a deli, pizza place, general store and the visitor centre with the usual things to look at and films to watch. Camp Curry is where the campsites are based or spread out from and has a couple more eating places, (pizza and burgers mainly,) with a bar. We found that if people weren’t camping they left at 5pm and ate outside the park, whereas we wanted to enjoy every minute so stayed and ate there. The downside was that there were few places to eat that opened later and they were in Camp Curry, so park down there if you don’t want to walk back later – it’s about a mile between them on foot. On our first night we walked between the two areas, got our bearings, saw deer, then headed back to the hotel for dinner.
Our first evening in the park, including our first view of the valley. The bottom picture was in Yosemite village – less village, more ‘forest clearing’!
The next day brought some heated debate over breakfast (we bought cereal in the hotel shop and fed ourselves breakfast in bed at the lodge,) about what kind of ‘hikes’ we were going to tackle. On entering the park you get a map which shows you the starting points of the main walks, all of which run off from Yosemite Valley. It’s also worth noting that there is a shuttle bus which does a loop around the valley taking you to each start point – good for maximising the energy you spend seeing stuff instead of getting there in the first place. The map also gives a guide of how strenuous the walks are and how long they take. After much discussion I talked Pete out of a crack of dawn 8 hour hike to the top of Yosemite Falls and we opted instead for what was described as THE walk to do in the park, the ‘mist trail’ to the top of Vernal Falls.
Hiking up to Vernal Falls and admiring the views.
It was described as moderate to strenuous hike taking around 4 hours so we set off with some trepidation. I don’t mind walking far but don’t love walking uphill; this was pretty easy I would say, with some short steep bits all the better for stopping to admire the view. We stopped on the footbridge halfway for the longest, admiring the falls then headed on to the mist trail. On the way up we sniggered a bit at people donning ponchos and bin bags over their gear before attempting the walk and strode past them feeling hardy, then emerged at the other end drenched! There’s a 5 or so minute section where the mist from the falls blows onto the path. Mist is a romantic expression and I would liken this more to English heavy drizzle whilst walking up a tiny stream! Thankfully after that we climbed the last short ascent and emerged into the sun to dry out. All in all the supposed 4 hour walk took us 2 hours up and 40 minutes back down, with lot of stops in both directions for pictures, so I’d say take the walk advice with a pinch of salt.
Getting soaked and looking down at the mist drenching people coming up the mist trail.
On both days we had lunch from the deli, queueing for it on the first day in Yosemite village. The second day we bought it at breakfast and ate it on our hike taking in the views – a good tip to save time. As we had time on our hands that first afternoon, we decided to ‘hike’ to Mirror Lake, a 40 minute or so, mainly flat walk, which was only difficult due to the heat.
We eventually decided we were in need of a drink and caught the shuttle bus to The Ahwahnee hotel, a legendary historic place with fabulous architecture and amazing history – presidents and royalty have stayed there. I sampled the signature cocktail, an El Capitini with it’s token carabiner souvenir!
Day two dawned and after a slightly later start we took a trail to the bottom of Yosemite Falls. We had already walked to the bottom of Bridal Veil Falls which took us less than 10 minutes at a brief stop along our usual drive into the park. One of the 5 highest waterfalls in the world, the walk to Yosemite Falls wasn’t nearly as impressive as the waterfall itself, with wide paved paths and tons of people so we decided to just go for it and hike to Columbia Rock. This was described as a strenuous uphill hike. It was later in the day and hotter than the day before so it was much harder going.
Top left, Bridal veil falls. Top right, view from the hike up to Columbia Rock and bottom, reaching the top.
We basically walked for an hour up large steps and switch backs with only one major look out point on the way and quite a bit of it in full sun, so really hot. However it was completely worth it. Where Vernal Falls was in a kind of crevice off the valley with views of the cliff walls, this trail took us up the side of the main part of the valley. Once we emerged onto the top we had panoramic views that showed the flat forested valley floor and sheer cliffs rising up, like something pre-historic.
The view from Columbia Rock of Yosemite Valley
We ate lunch there under a solitary tree and raced back down to rent a raft. We spent the afternoon on the river, floating on our backs downstream and stopping on various shingly beaches to sunbathe. That and pizza with a margarita at the Camp Curry bar was the perfect end to an extremely relaxing couple of days. The combination of activity and solitude was incredible and I really fell in love with it.
Camp Curry and rafting in the image above – can you see me walking along the fallen tree across the river
To round off, there’s just a few things I thought I’d mention because it might be of use to those of you planning trips:
- Because lots of the park is on high ground, park information talks about snow and cold weather as late as June – hence my fears about being prepared. However Yosemite valley is warm barring odd weather – in the 80’s when we were there, so take sun cream and layers in case.
- Park accommodation is expensive, wherever you stay. After my initial reservations, I actually liked our hotel, but if I went back I’d camp, for the real experience – you can camp in tents and huts that are already there and equipped with everything you need so no need to take it with you.
- Campground reservations are available in blocks of one month at a time, up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month at 7 am Pacific time and often sell out within minutes of going for sale – you need to be super organised!
- Don’t be afraid of bears! I was, although we didn’t see any and apparently they are very afraid of you but you do have to be vigilant about keeping food in bear proof containers (which you can rent.) Don’t leave any in your car!
My last view of the sun setting on Half Dome as we left the park on our last night.
I hope you enjoyed the pictures and if you have any questions I’d love to answer them 🙂 I can’t wait to go back already…
Edit: I forgot to include this! The National Park service has tons of information on both the practicalities and fun things to do in Yosemite but in terms of what to do while you are there I used this site, which has day long itineraries in their planning guide. I never would have known about the rafts otherwise and you can rent bikes or horseride too.