Yosemite National Park

I’ve always had this vision of Yosemite that made it seem otherworldly, untouchable. Like somewhere I’d never get to actually see. It was for people with money and connections and serious climbing gear. In my mind, it was a combination of Ansel Adams’ pristine photography and a valley so crammed with tourists that the line of cars would stretch forever. The idea of Half Dome seemed completely inaccessible to me, and I couldn’t even imagine El Capitan. I thought the park would be impossibly large. All of these things were contradictory and confusing. I clearly didn’t know what to expect.

After spending four days in the park, I have such an intense love for this place that I can’t believe I was so conflicted about it. Yosemite’s beauty goes far beyond anything I’ve experienced in the National Park System – except in Alaska. It was approachable, easy to navigate, and filled with happy people – but not so full that the people and cars overshadowed the nature. For me, Yosemite was a land of surprises.

I’ll start at the beginning. We arrived at the west entrance gate the first morning and were ready to dive right in. We thought the park would be so large that once we got to the valley we wouldn’t get back to this point, so we explored the immediate area.

Based on a recommendation from a park ranger, we started with a hike at Merced Grove, famous for its giant trees. We were prepared to hike in Yosemite – we brought hiking shoes, sun protection, rain gear, water, camera equipment, backpack, hiking sticks, you name it – but we left most of it in the rental car. It was a pretty day, and the hike was only a couple of miles along a well-marked path.

Well, you already know where this is going, right? Things change. Weather is tricky. We were about halfway to the end of the grove when we heard the first clap of thunder. We made it to our destination – a stand of huge trees – before it started raining, but then we had to hike back. Oh, and did I say “rain”? It was actually hail. So much hail that my hair was filled with ice and the trail was white and we were super wet and freezing cold and the word “hypothermia” crossed my mind.

Welcome to Yosemite. Land of surprises, indeed.

But the freak storm ended and we dried off and took another hike in nearby Tuolumne Grove to see more mind-blowingly-large trees (above). This time we carried more gear, which of course we did not need.

After a picnic lunch, we drove into Yosemite Valley and were blown away by one spectacular sight after another: Our first look at Half Dome. The imposing El Capitan. Yosemite Fall. Bridalveil Fall. The rushing white-water rapids of Merced River. Sentinel Bridge. The famous “Tunnel View” where you can see Half Dome and El Capitan and Bridalveil Fall all at the same time.

Well, I should just shut up and show you the pictures:

We did all this sight-seeing before we even checked in to Yosemite Valley Lodge, our home for the next three nights. It was an incredible day. Maybe the best day EVER. I was so stoked to be staying in Yosemite Valley, with Yosemite Falls pounding behind our lodge, that I didn’t even care that our room was tiny and probably furnished in the 1970s. We found a bar within our “village” that served good beer and surprisingly good food and called it a night.

Oh, and today was Dave’s birthday.

 

Day 2

The next day we left our car in the parking lot and took off on foot. We wanted to hike and explore and take the shuttle buses wherever we needed to go.

We had a whole list of hiking trails we wanted to attempt. We started with a hike at Mirror Lake, with its views of the surrounding peaks (above). Apparently it’s not really a lake but just part of Tenaya Creek. Anyway, the hike is just an easy two-mile loop but we didn’t end up doing the whole thing because the signage confused us.

We meandered around and took the Mist Trail to Vernal Fall and tromped around Lower Yosemite Fall and got wet with a couple hundred goofy tourists with selfie sticks.

We walked through meadows and watched deer – they are as tame as dogs, these deer – and hung out at the Yosemite Museum and Ansel Adams Gallery. I think we overdid it the first day, because we were really tired.

We chose our lodging – Yosemite Valley Lodge – because of the location and because it was considered moderately priced. There are other lodging choices in Yosemite: Campgrounds are cheaper; The Majestic Yosemite Hotel is very pricey; Big Trees Lodge is cool and historic but located a long way outside the valley. I wanted to at least visit the Majestic and Big Trees, so we decided to eat meals at both places.

Tonight we ate a disappointing dinner at the cafeteria in our village and had more beers in the bar.

 

Day 3

We had a breakfast reservation at the Majestic the next morning. It was a Sunday. Our reservation was early, but we knew the shuttle buses would be running. We put on our nicest clothes and waited at the shuttle stop. We waited a long time. An older man was waiting with us, and he was complaining loudly about how slow the shuttle service was. According to him, just two buses start circulating at 7 a.m. (many others are added later). One bus is supposed to go one direction, the other bus the other direction. There are about 20 shuttle stops, and it takes a long time to make the whole loop. He theorized that both buses went the same direction. And he was right. Long (boring) story short, we waited so long for our shuttle to pick us up that we ended up walking to the Majestic (me wearing shoes not made for trail hiking) only to be passed by BOTH of the shuttle buses going the same direction. I was very cold and irritated by the time we got to the hotel (half an hour late), but the enormous dining room seemed really warm and welcoming. Until they told us the buffet would cost $56 per person and sat us, literally, in between two waiter stations even though there were a gazillion other available tables. (In hindsight, why did I not ask to move to a better table?) Luckily, we could order food from the menu, so we weren’t stuck with a $135 breakfast bill. I ordered The Continental, which ended up being some fruit and coffee and juice a plate filled with such amazing little pastries that I forgot all about being pissed off and just enjoyed it. (See the hotel’s historic interior, above.)

Our destination for the day – Hetch Hetchy – required our car, so we caught the shuttle back to our lodge, changed clothes, and drove out of the valley. The Hetch Hetchy reservoir (above) provides drinking water and hydroelectric power to the city of San Francisco and was the site of some serious controversy between John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt (spoiler alert: the president won). It’s a beautiful area, but we didn’t think it was nearly as pretty as the valley. We were planning to hike the trails around the reservoir, but once we crossed the O’Shaughnessy Dam we encountered standing water on the trail that would have filled our shoes. We considered doing the hike anyway but ultimately decided were unwilling to get our feet that wet for a walk that didn’t look all that interesting.

We had talked to a park ranger the day before about going up to Glacier Point, a destination south of the valley that isn’t far as the crow flies but is a fairly long drive down and around and up a mountain. He said there was snow on the peaks, with a potential for wet, snowy trails. After our disappointment at Hetch Hetchy, we had plenty of time on our hands, so we cut our losses and headed for Glacier Point anyway.

As we drove up the mountain, we did indeed see a lot of snow on the sides of the road. Some of the side roads were actually blocked off because of deep snow. And it was raining by this time, so we had sort of low expectations for the Glacier Point lookout.

Hoo, boy, were we wrong. Turns out there were a lot of crazy people who drove up the mountain in the rain, and they were all hanging out up there getting soaked. We found a place to park and decided the rain was light enough that we should just hike up to see the view before the weather got any worse.

Our first glimpse at our surroundings took our breath away. We pulled our rain jackets over our cameras and started shooting. Every few yards the view became more spectacular. By the time we got to the top, it was just unbelievably gorgeous. The low clouds just added to the dream-like atmosphere. Eventually, as we stood there with our mouths hanging open, the sun came out and we had to shoot everything over again because it looked completely different. How many pictures can you take of a snow-kissed Half Dome? It turns out A LOT.

Again, just shut up and show the pictures.

For a day that started off with an overpriced breakfast, bad service, and an iffy reservoir, today ended up being another Best Day Ever.

We eventually stopped taking pictures and saying “WOW” over and over and headed back to our car. On the drive back down the mountain, the road was covered with new snow. At the intersection at the base of the mountain, we learned that our 45-minute-ish drive back to the valley would be a tiny bit longer. The road was closed due to mudslides. (Apparently this happens.) We could wait an indeterminate length of time to see when (if) the road opened back up, or we could take the very long route south and west then north and east back to the main entrance. It took for freaking ever. Maybe three hours. But the drive along the Merced River back into the valley almost made up for it. Almost.

We were really ready for our evening beer.

 

Day 4

The next morning, we checked out of our lodge and drove south in the park to Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. If I remember my John Muir history right, this was one of the first places he sought to have preserved as a national park-type area, before Yosemite was a national park.

We took the Mariposa Grove Trail and the Grizzly Giant Loop Trail and took more pictures of large trees than were strictly necessary, especially considering that we were headed next to Sequoia National Park, home of the most giant of giant trees.

After we had our fill of large trees, we doubled back a bit into the park to eat lunch at the aptly named Big Trees Lodge. I was hoping to dine on the wrap-around veranda, but we were served in the dining room instead. Still, it was a nice meal.

So, that’s my Yosemite experience. If you go, I have a couple of pieces of advice: First, stay overnight in the valley. You won’t regret it. And plan your trip a year in advance if you can, because even though it seems like there’s plenty of lodging in the valley, it fills up very quickly, especially during the summer months. Also, if you go too early in the season, just be aware that many of the roads will be closed. We were there at the very end of May / first of June and Tioga Road to Tuolumne Meadows (an area I would have loved to see) was still closed. Glacier Point Road had just opened before we got there.

Here’s a lovely thought: Maybe someday I’ll go back in the fall.

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