For as long as I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area (off-and-on over the last 22 years) I have shamefully never been to one of this country’s amazing natural beauties…Yosemite.
So when my social media partner-in-crime at work offered to write a guest post that was basically Yosemite 101: Sights, hikes, and places to sleep, I immediately took him up on it. I get two presents: a wonderful guest-post and a guide for me when I do (and I will) get there!
Derek and I work together and he is an absolute doll (he also helped me find lots of fun things to do in Grand Rapids, Michigan!). He writes a blog called Could I have been..find out why he has that catchy title here and if you are into music check out his Music to Hump to on Wednesdays!
So you’re thinking of joining the nearly 4 million people that visit Yosemite National Park every year? Whether it’s your first, second, or fifth time to one of California’s most visited attractions, there are always different trails to hike, places to camp, and sights to see. I am by no means a Yosemite expert, but with about 15 visits under my belt in the last 5 years, I’ve accumulated enough knowledge to put together an informational guide for new and returning visitors.
Get to know the Park
The first thing you should do when planning a trip to Yosemite is to familiarize yourself with the layout of the park and determine which areas you want to see. You might even want to pick up a copy of the very helpful Complete Guide to Yosemite. Depending on how much time you’re planning to spend in the Park, the number of places you can visit and things you can do may be limited. While there are 214 miles of paved road in Yosemite, it can take a long time to get from one point to the next.
I divide the park up into four areas: Yosemite Valley, Hetch Hetchy, Wawona, and Tuolumne Meadows. In an ideal world, you’d have enough time to see each of these four distinct regions. If you had to see just one, most would recommend Yosemite Valley. I, however, would actually encourage you to visit the Tuolomne Meadows region, including at least a long day-hike that will give you views of the Valley (see day-hike recommendations). Placed at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level, Tuolumne Meadows gives you amazing high sierra views, milder temperatures, and the park’s best hikes.
While not located very convenient to Bay Area visitors, Wawona is great because it’s home to the best collection of Giant Sequoias, the Mariposa Grove. Alternatively, you can visit the more conveniently located Tuolumne Grove or Merced Grove to get your Giant Sequoia fix, which I highly recommend.
Hetch Hetchy is the large and somewhat iconic reservoir where the Bay Area gets all of its drinking water. The reservoir and O’Shaugnessy Dam are actually quite a sight to see and if you are around in the spring, you’ll be treated with two stunning waterfalls, Tueeulala and Wapama.
Finally, there’s Yosemite Valley, featuring the picturesque landscapes the park has become known for. Yosemite Valley is home to Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and the Nose. It’s the perfect destination for families, those who enjoy tram rides to see the sights, air-conditioned visitor centers, and fresh-baked pizza for dinner. These things are all great in their own right, but I’m much more of a naturalist and explorer so it’s hard for me to make the recommendation to base your trip around a trip to the Valley. Like I said before, spend the majority of your time relaxing in a different region of the park and either day-hike and get a view of the Valley, or set up camp somewhere else and drive in for a day.
Camping vs. Backpacking vs. Lodging
The second thing I recommend determining is how you want to sleep in Yosemite.
Do you want to sleep in a tent? If so, then you can either car camp at one of Yosemite’s 13 drive-up campgrounds or you can get a backcountry wilderness permit, backpack out into the wilderness and set up camp as far away from civilization as you wish. If you’re car camping during the busy summer months you should get a reservation. My favorite campgrounds are Tuolumne Meadows (big and busy, but a great location), White Wolf (because there are always nosy bears roaming around), and Crane Flat (because it’s convenient for getting to Yosemite Valley, but you get to avoid the chaos of staying in the Valley). There are some first-come, first-serve campgrounds but this can be riskier. During the summer months, my favorite first-come campground is Yosemite Creek. It’s about 4 bumpy miles off the main road, so not many people venture down there. You are rewarded with campsites that are far apart from each other and you also have easy access to the Yosemite Falls trailhead.
Alternatively, you may want to sleep in a real bed. Yosemite’s got you covered with several different accommodations options. There are multiple traditional hotels including several in Yosemite Valley, Wawona, Tuolumne Meadows, and at the White Wolf campground. There are also tent cabin options in Curry Village, part of Yosemite Valley. I have never stayed at any of these places so I can’t make any accurate recommendations. A lot of your decision-making process will be influenced by how much you want to spend. You’ve got the historic Ahwahnee Hotel in the Valley where you can shell out as much as $500 a night or the rustic Curry Village tent cabins as low as $25 a night.
For those looking for a more unique experience, Yosemite offers accommodations at several High Sierra Camps. Here, you hike in (usually between 5-8 miles) with your clothes and snacks, and you’ll be greeted with a warm bed in a tent cabin and meals served fresh. Reservations are required in advance and these visits can be pricey as well.
Far and away my favorite thing to do in Yosemite is to hike. Whether you’re looking for a short 2-3 miler, an all-day buttkicker, or a multi-day backpacking adventure, Yosemite offers it all.
For those looking to take it easy or perhaps for something kid-friendly, I recommend the Mist Trail (3 miles) starting in Yosemite Valley for views of great waterfalls, the Wawona Meadow Loop (3.5 miles) in the Wawona region, Taft Point, and the Fissures near Glacier Point for stunning views of the Valley, or Dog Lake (2.8 miles) near Tuolumne Meadows or May Lake (2.5 miles) along Tioga Pass Road for a short trip to a beautiful alpine lake (with a little bit of climb).
If you’ve got a full day available, there are numerous hikes around 6-9 miles, with a fair amount of elevation gain that will reward you with stunning views and access to great lakes. My favorites include: North Dome (8.8 miles) for a view of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley, Sunrise Lakes (8.8 miles), May Lake & Mt. Hoffman (6 miles), and Elizabeth Lake (4.6 miles) all along Tioga Pass Road; Chilnualna Falls (8.4 miles) if you’re going to be based in the Wawona area; and Upper Yosemite Falls if you’ll be in the Valley. If you’re looking for a butt-kicker day hike, you can’t go wrong with the infamous Half Dome (14.2 miles) although you now need a permit to do this hike during the weekend summer months. A nice Half Dome alternative is Clouds Rest (14.5 miles), accessed from Tuolumne Meadows, with panoramic views of Half Dome and Yosemite Valley.
If backpacking is more your cup of tea you can string together miles and miles of trail to fit your needs and timeline. I’ve never been able to find any great online resources for Yosemite backpacking trips (maybe I should start one!) but there are a number of really good books to check out. The one I use most frequently is Yosemite: Must-Do Hikes for Everyone, which contains both day hikes and multi-day hikes. Some of my favorite weekend trips include: Rancheria Falls and Smith Peak accessed from the Hetch Hetchy Region; Mt. Conness, Ten Lakes, and Cathedral Lake accessed from Tioga Pass Road; and the Buena Vista Loop for ultimate solitude accessed from Glacier Point Road. Note, you’ll need a backcountry permit for all backpacking trips.
What else is there to do?
If hiking is not your thing or if you’re looking for additional activities, there are plenty of options. You can bike around Yosemite Valley, rock climb one of the many granite walls found throughout the park, take a rock climbing lesson, ride a horse, take a bus tour, play golf and even ski and snowboard in the winter. There is obviously no shortage of things to do, you’ll just want to devote a little bit of time to research.
Regardless of what you do, what you see, or where you go, I can almost guarantee that you’ll have a great time in Yosemite. Take lots of pictures and enjoy yourself in one of the country’s most beautiful National Parks!
All photos were taken by Derek.