Aaahhh, Yosemite. You offer us your staunch granite cliffs, snow covered high Sierra, gentle meadows, cascading waterfalls, giant sequoia groves and wooded valleys; and all you seek in return is our admiration.
Our experience in Yosemite begins in Yosemite Valley. We arrived at our campground near El Postal in the afternoon and waited until the evening for our first drive in to Yosemite. If you do not stay inside the park, then we do recommend El Postal – it gave the best access to Yosemite Valley, the most popular and must-see area of the park. Here is a map of the valley…
First impressions are the most lasting we have found in our travels, so we like to dedicate some time to just enjoying what we see as it comes and not planning anything for our first experience. As we entered the wooded Yosemite Valley, we found a line-up of wonders looming over us and vying for our attention. First, we had a view of shimmering Bridal Veil Falls to showcase the sheer granite cliffs with softening cascading falls…
We also crossed the Merced River which runs through the valley and out of the park. Within the eastern portion of the valley, the river runs very calmly, but as it makes its way to the end of the valley and then outside of the park, it turns in to whitewater rapids. In the valley, it would be a good place for our inflatable kayak. A water outing would have kept us from the crowds and allowed us to view granite walls from a unique vantage point. Also, there are several “beach” areas in the valley with sandy areas for visitors to swim. We did not have a chance to explore the river, but it would be on the list for a second visit.
We walked to the Visitor Center area, but everything was already closed for the evening. We chose to take a short trail through Cook Meadow in front of the Visitor Center. Here is the surrounding view of Cook Meadow, with Upper Yosemite Fall on the left.
After enjoying some peaceful time in the meadow surrounded by giants, we made our way back to the truck to return to our campground. Once it hit 7:00 pm, the major traffic in the park had cleared out, so we had no problem exiting. Our brief introduction stoked our fires for the days ahead of further exploration. The next day, we picked some hikes and headed back in to the park early to beat the worst of the traffic. There is a free shuttle that takes visitors around the valley, so our plan was to find a parking spot and then take the shuttle for the day. We entered the park and made it to the far eastern end of the valley where we found a parking spot at around 8:30 am. We parked in the Curry Village lot and were shocked to see we actually had cell phone service & 4G, so Chris took care of a few work things right there in the parking lot.
As you can see above, the lot was already mostly full at that earlier hour, and people were parked all over the place. One of the things that surprised us the most was just how many accommodations there are for people to stay inside the valley. It was so packed with lodging that the parking lots were mostly full just from the people staying inside the park, let alone visitors staying outside the park.
We chose three hikes for the day: Vernal Fall, Lower Yosemite Fall and Mirror Lake.
Vernal Fall is a steep hike, and it was packed with people. The crowds turned us off on this hike, so we only went to the footbridge below Vernal Fall (1.6 miles roundtrip) to see it, then turned around to continue our day elsewhere. We did later hear (from other hikers) that if you continue hiking past Vernal Fall to Nevada Fall (5.5 miles roundtrip), that fall is much more spectacular and with much fewer people.
From the Vernal Fall trailhead, we took the shuttle over to Yosemite Falls. There is a paved walkway, a mile roundtrip to the bottom of Lower Yosemite Fall. There is the option to hike to the top of Upper Yosemite Fall (over 7 mile roundtrip). Here is the view of Lower Yosemite Fall…
From there we walked over to the Visitor Center and the museum and took a break while watching the park video. They actually have a small movie theatre, which is a lovely facility, and they play several different videos about the park on a rotating schedule. We watched the main park video. They also have an Ansel Adams art gallery in this area, a small cemetery of early settlers, and much more to explore. Plus, a food market and some places to eat.
After our visit to the village area, we took the shuttle again to the Mirror Lake trailhead. The entire loop is 5 miles. We did the trail, but honestly, we would recommend foregoing this one and trying a different trail. Yosemite is so full of great trails, and this one would not have made our top hikes; but we did make new friends on the trail, so it was still a great experience for us, and a great way to end our day in the valley.
Don’t worry, reader, I stayed a good 10 yards from the edge admiring the view from a distance. In this area, we also spotted a bear. I know it looks brown, but it is actually a black bear, no grizzlies in Yosemite.
As we made our way back from Glacier Point, we stopped at Bridal Veil Fall just in time to catch a rainbow. This is another very easy paved walk from the parking lot, probably less than a mile roundtrip.
Finally, here is a video to recap our visit…
We took in the granite walls and drank in the cascading falls. We walked the valley and the high elevations. We crossed babbling brooks and viewed snowcapped peaks. We saw deer, a bear, a coyote, spotted towhees, Steller’s jays and more.
Yosemite, our admiration you have won.
Tips on avoiding the crowds:
- Try to go out of season, but you will have a small window due to winter weather and snow; and if you want to see the waterfalls at their best, you should plan on Spring.
- Plan several hikes in the valley for one day, then drive in early to get a parking spot.
- Use the shuttle to get around the valley, but it will be crowded. Expect to have to stand on the bus, or even have to wait a full round because the shuttles are too full. Give yourself extra time when taking the shuttle, it will take much longer than you think.
- Do not attempt to leave the valley in the evening before 7:00, or you will just be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic at a standstill. They did have rangers out directing traffic in several locations, but it is just too many people trying to exit at the same time. Wait until 7:00 pm or later.
- After 7:00, the trails really open up. Be smart and plan to stay in to the evening. This will give you the best chance of seeing wildlife too!
- The more longer, more strenuous trails are obviously less crowded, but you will want to see the popular spots too, so keep our tips in mind.
Fun Facts & Other Tips:
- Traffic & Crowds – This is the biggest obstacle to enjoying the national park. We shared the trail with an older couple who had been coming to Yosemite since their youth. They said that when they were kids, there were very few people on the trails. What will it be like in another 30 years? Or in the other national parks in 30 years? Another reason to visit them now instead of later.
- There are hilarious shuttle drivers on some of the routes – I hope you get a chance to enjoy their humor and singing.
- We stayed at Indian Flat Campground in El Portal for around $45/night. It was a great location for easy entrance to the valley. We also stayed an extra night for free by boondocking on the side of El Portal road before the entrance to the park. We saw people park there overnight, so we gave it a try. Most of the pulloffs are marked as no overnight parking, but there is one area that you may overnight park. You will see other campers there, so you can’t miss it – it is between El Portal and the entrance to the park (on the opposite side of the street from the river). Other than being mildly annoyed by the very loud techno music someone was blaring until 10:00 pm, we were grateful for a free place to overnight and extend our stay. Our 26 foot fifth wheel fit fine, and there were several Class C RVs and tent campers. Some people had campfires, which I would not recommend with how dry California is. I am hoping the fires and trash people were leaving don’t force California to close this area for responsible overnighters. We can recommend it as a safe place to legally overnight, but clean up after yourself and only do one night – don’t abuse the privilege.
- Mariposa Grove (sequoias) was closed during our visit, but would be a must see for visitors who have not seen a sequoia. We had just done Sequoia N.P., so we were not too disappointed.
- Yosemite Valley is very confusing to get around – we were constantly being asked by others how to get places (I am not sure why we looked like an authority on the subject, maybe it was just that we look American). From people who barely spoke English to other Americans (even some Californians), we had our hands full trying to give directions to people. That was unique to this park, but it seemed as though everyone was having trouble getting around the valley and to the different trailheads.
- We were very blessed that we visited Yosemite after a winter with the most snow they have had in years, so all of the waterfalls were running with force. Going in June helps too! If you wait until later in the summer, more of the water will be dried up.