Destination of the Day: Yosemite National Park

Happy holidays!  As we get ready to welcome 2015, I thought I'd spend a little time with one of my favorite places on earth - Yosemite National Park.  There aren't words enough to describe the amazing beauty of this place, but I think the ongoing massive sales figures of Ansel Adams prints & calendars may speak louder than mere words could.  It is a huge park, with lots of different areas to visit and tons of activities to enjoy across a varied and sometimes challenging landscape, so some guidance and planning is necessary to make sure you have the best experience for you.  First things first, the official national park site has a WEALTH of information, and will cover all the official nitty-gritty (http://www.nps.gov/yose/index.htm).  Below I'll give you my thoughts based on personal experience, along with some of my photos to help you get excited about this fabulous corner of the country.

1) Where to stay??  Yosemite IS large, and where you'll want to stay really depends on your budget, duration & plans in the park, and where you're coming from & going to before/after your park visit.  There are official park lodges that range from antique luxury to no-frills camping, and then there are a multitude of neighboring cities & villages with simple to moderate hotels & lodges.  The most popular area of the park is the iconic valley, where you'll find the largest concentration of official park facilities, sights, and activities.  The Ahwhanee Lodge is the grande dame of the valley - an iconic lodge that really is a must see, even if you don't have the budget to stay there (usually about $500/night) or have a meal in the incredible dining room.  At the other end of the budget & luxury spectrum is Curry Village, which is a collection of furnished tents - perfect for families or groups of friends with more modest expectations.  In the middle of both of these options is the Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, located just at the base of the Yosemite Falls with another amazing window-filled dining room.  These three are the highest in-demand lodging options and will be completely sold out during the busy season.  The Ahwhanee, in particular, sells out really early for summer, and has a very limited number of rooms with two beds.  Here are a few shots from my recent visits to both the Ahwhanee & Curry Village:

Another in-park lodge is the very quaint and historical Wawona Hotel, located at the southern end of the park near the giant Sequoia trees (about 1 hour drive from the main valley).  It is only open seasonally, and offers more minimal amenities (no tv or telephones, only some rooms have their own private bathrooms, etc).  There is another collection of minimally furnished tents at the northeast end of the park, the Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, perfect for those interested in more back-country hiking but don't want to pack tents.  Other than actual camping though, that's it for in-park lodging.  

Luckily, there are lots of towns just outside the park entrances that offer everything from Best Westerns to a chateaux-style lodge from the Relais & Chateaux group!  Oakhurst is a basic town filled with hotels that is quite close to the southern entrance, but about 1.5 hours from the main valley village.  It is also less than an hour from Fresno, which offers the closest airport to the park.  For those that want to be closer to the main valley, there are two road-side hotels in El Portal, just about 20 minutes from the "main" park entrance (and across the street from the fabulous swimming on the Merced river). Each has a restaurant on-site, and there is a gas station/small market in the village, but that's about it for El Portal. Then another half hour down the highway 140 west past El Portal is the cute town of Mariposa with a few more options (including a surprisingly nice Best Western). Availability may become difficult in these towns as well, especially in the summer. Highway 120 leads west out of the park in a more northern route, but you have to go a bit further to reach a town of any consequence - Sonora, for example, is almost 2 hours from the main village, so it's probably better for those on their way west to Sacramento or San Francisco.  The east side of the park is more difficult to access, especially when there is ANY hint of snow, but there is the quaint mining town of Lee Vining on the shores of Mono Lake, but that's really only suited for people who are done visiting the park on their way out to other destinations in Nevada or south to Death Valley.  

2) When to go? Yosemite can be difficult in the winter due to snow concerns, but it will be lovely and practically empty.  Spring is the best for waterfall-viewing, along with lovely wildflowers blooming in the meadows.  Again, spring snows can close the Tioga pass on the east side of the park out of the blue (as late as May!), but spring is basically perfection, especially mid-week.  Summer gets really crowded, and it can be sweltering hot.  Expect tons of tour buses, crowded view-points, and long lines at breakfast buffets.  The fall does start slowing down, but in California we often have Indian summers, so it was still pretty crowded into October. There may be some fall color on the hillsides, but it's mostly evergreen trees, plus the waterfalls can be completely dry (like this year which was particularly drought plagued).  To give you an example- here is a shot of Vernal falls in July, and then another one from close up in October.  Ditto for Yosemite Falls - in July there was a trickle, by October it was completely dry (you can see the black watermark on the side of the cliff in the upper left of the photo).   

3) Park Highlights - Yosemite Valley: There is a reason the valley is so popular and often crowded.  It's simply stunning. From Half Dome at one end to Sentinal Dome on the western end, you've got sheer cliffs & sweeping waterfalls leading down to redwoods and/or sequoias framing meadows, with a gurgling stream running through the middle.  Gentle walks, strenuous hikes, rock climbing, horseback riding, star gazing - you name it, you can find it here in the valley.  Once you enter the valley, the road turns into a one-way loop, going in & out of towering groves that just begs for slow, meandering drives (or walks, or bike rides).  Going slow is important, because you never know when you'll see deer (often), or even a bear or two (rare, thanks in good part to the education the park does to keep food where it belongs  - not out attracting them).  The best view of the valley, where you can really see the U-shaped glacial carving, is Tunnel view, which is just a few minutes up the 140 past Bridalveil falls (my personal favorite falls in the valley, of which I DON'T have a photo somehow).  Seriously - if you only come to the park for a day, drive through the valley & pop up to check out Tunnel View - truly amazing. 

4) Park Highlights - Glacier Point: Another "must do" is Glacier Point, which is a tough climb up from the Valley floor up the "Four Mile Trail" (but that's four miles straight up), or a half hour drive out from the village.  This vantage point out over the entire valley, and especially of Half Dome itself, is really unparalleled (unless you're able to ascend Half Dome, which is difficult, scary, and requires a permit, plus then you don't get to see that amazing block of granite!).  The drive up to the point is pretty curvy, so that 30 minutes or so can me tough for motion-sickness-sufferers, but it is worth it.  It can be really crowded, but even with the masses in July, we were able to find a quiet spot in the shade for a picnic lunch, along with a spot on the railing for people-free photos.  Watching the sun slowly descend would be spectacular, but weather & circumstances can often get in the way.

5) Park Highlights -Mariposa Grove: Another really popular spot in the park is at the southern end (about an hour from the valley village).  While not as impressive maybe as the redwoods in Redwoods National park (at the north end of the state) or the sequoias like General Sherman at Sequoia National Park (a few hours south), the grove of giant sequoia trees found here are not too shabby, and well worth a visit if you've got the time.  It actually makes a perfect last stop in the park on your way south, as it doesn't take too long to visit.  There are several trail loops through the forest, but even a quick 10 minute visit gives you some truly impressive trees, stretching up almost higher than you can crane your neck.  The few root systems you see of fallen trees almost look like art - it's really, really cool.  Of course most of my photos are vertical- but here are a few to give you an idea:

There are of course other amazing places to visit in Yosemite.  I know many a SF local who regularly go camping and hiking in secluded, non-populated areas of the park, many of which are equally as lovely as the highlights I've listed above.  In particular, the drive across the park by Tenaya lake and through Tuolumne Meadows is simply gorgeous. But, for the typical visitor from further away with only a few days to explore, this should give some ideas about visiting the park.  I hope the pictures do some justice and tempt some of you to come visit this magical natural wonder.