The first time I ever visited California, I was amongst the ranks of the great unwashed – back-packing, low on funds and at the tail end of a two year long trip that took me around the globe. I headed for my cousin who lived in San Francisco and had a brief telephone conversation with her before I arrived. She said, ” You really should visit Yosemite National Park.” It sounded to me like it should be spelt “Joe-samity” and so when I searched on the map for it I couldn’t find it. One place I do remember seeing, I pronounced in my head as “Yos-ee-might,” and so I though – nah that can’t be it. It mustn’t be that famous if I can’t find it on the map….I won’t bother!
I’m a fortunate girl that had the chance to retrace her steps and come back to this spectacular part of the world to see what I had missed first time. When I first met my husband and told him that story, he promised to bring me there, after he could breath again following his laughing fit!
Now I’ve been to Yosemite a total of three times and plan to return for more. I’d put myself on the line here and say it is up there with those other natural wonders of the world I’ve visited, Niagara Falls and Uluru (Ayres rock). Yosemite is a world heritage site.
I’m hoping that this post will allow anyone planing to take a trip there to make informed decisions on where to stay and how best to use the time that they have whilst there.
Where to stay
Accommodation inside all National Parks is expensive for what you get, and you need to book far in advance as they get filled up quickly, especially the lower priced options. Its only advantage is that you are right there and have little driving to do. There are many more reasonable (though still in the high price end) places to stay at just outside the gates of the park and as you get further from the park those prices get even more friendly.
My recommendation is, for the first night, after a day traveling from, for example, San Francisco or Los Angeles, stay outside the park, moving on to stay inside the park perhaps for a night or two, and depending on the time of year, you can cross the Sierra Nevadas and stay in Lee Vining for a night. Then make your way back through the park or travel on through to Death Valley and perhaps even Las Vegas!
The Yosemite View Lodge at El Portal, near the West gate comes highly recommend, and is about a half hour drive to Yosemite Valley depending on traffic (summer sees a lot of traffic). Rooms here range from $104 per room per night in November/Early December (low season rates) to $174 for the same room at the height of the summer. Again, you need to book early to secure the lowest deals.
Another option is to push back to Mariposa, where prices start at $50 per room per night on Expedia. It’s a hours drive from here to Yosemite Valley.
Oakhurst is really handy for the south gate. We stayed in the Queen’s Inn and I wrote about this in last week’s blog. Oakhurst is about twenty minutes to the south gate and about an hour and a half to the valley.
There is a wide range of accommodation inside the Park. This website has all the accommodations listed and is great for comparison. You can push the boat out and stay at the plush Awahanee Hotel for $500 a night.
Prefer to spend the money on hiking boots and gortex?
You can stay in the cabin tents in Curry Village for $120 a night. Not much of a bargin but right in the middle of things. I’ve stayed in these cabin tents on two occasions. Once was in July 2005 and again in October 2009. Both times the tents smelt fusty, and they are a pain in that you cannot have any food stuff in your tents because of the bears. In fact, you cannot even have your toiletries in the tent for this same reason. Don’t leave these items in the car as bears will rip apart vehicles to get to them. You must store all food and toiletries in bear-proof lockers located beside the communal toilets (a few tents have them conveniently beside them, if you’re lucky).
The wildlife do wander around the camp grounds. Keep a sensible distance from them no matter how cute and tame they appear. This buck grazed the bushes outside the toilet block last October when I took my Mum to Yosemite and stayed in Curry Village.
Although the cabins tents are similar I prefer the campgrounds at White Wolf. This area is higher in the mountains and only open for the summer months. If it is open when you want to visit, stay here and visit the Valley for a day trip.
These cabin tents have their bear lockers right at the door, and inside they have a little stove for heat. You get a couple of pieces of wood, and though we were advised that would be plenty we had been so cold in the cabin ten in Curry village the night before that my Husband and I decided that we would buy a couple more logs.
A few hours later our tent was so warm we had to open the windows and doors. I’m sure the camping neighbors where thinking “Those crazy Irish!”
There are also regular camping areas where you bring your own tent, but these fill up really fast and you need to make a booking as soon as you decide that you are going.
If you click the link in the subtitle above you will get a web-page with a very comprehensive list of activities in Yosemite. I’ll just comment on what I know.
When you enter the park it costs $20 for a pass that lasts you a week, and you get a newsletter with a schedule of all the ranger led walks and talks. These are free and very informative. My Husband and I did the bear hike the first time we were there in 2005. A bunch of about eight of us met the Ranger in the car park and he pointed up a tree. High up in the branches sat a black lump. (Just below center in the photo)
When it moved, we realized that it was a bear. The ranger told us all about bears and bear safety and that was the hike!
My favorite Ranger talk was the one I went to at Glacier Point for sunset when I was there with my Mum in 2009. We watched Half Dome, the iconic mountain of the park, change through a repertoire of colors like a Diva changing costumes, while the sun set.
The Ranger was a good story teller, enthusiastic about his work and very entertaining. This was where I heard about the fire-fall for the first time. We were able to plan our schedule around these talks and learned lots from them that enhanced our Yosemite experience.
You can hire bikes, take horse back rides and bus tours through Yosemite but by far the easiest activity is hiking. It’s a fabulous way to feel part of the grandeur that is all around you. There are many trails. You could spend a month here hiking alone. One of the most talked about trails is the hike up Half Dome, however, these days you need a permit for it. A much easier hike and one that is great if you only have a couple of days in the park is the hike to the top of Sentinel Dome. Here it is as seen from Curry Village.
But you can drive a good ways up before you start the hike. Take the road to Glacier point, and look for a parking area and a trail head for Taft point about 13.5 miles on the left hand side. There is also a restroom here – not that you want to rest too long in it – its a long drop – whew!
The hike is an easy to moderate 2.2 mile round trip with a bit of a scramble to the top of the Sentinel Dome. From here you can see a 360 degree view of the Yosemite National Park. It is truly spectacular.
We did the short hike to Bridalveil Falls in July 2005.
Mariposa Grove near the South gate is about an hours drive from the valley. Here you will see absolutely massive Sequoia Trees. Where Redwoods take the crown for being the tallest tree, Sequoias are the biggest trees by mass. Here is definitely the “Little House in the Big Woods” – is there an Laura Ingalls Wilder book theme going on here?
You can take a tram up through the groves for $25 per person or save that for a pair of good hiking socks and walk up through the groves. We went all the way to the Fallen Tunnel Tree. This was the original tree that had a tunnel carved through it for cars. Obviously, not that good for the tree.
If you want to see Yosemite and not have to pay top dollar nor battle through the crowds, the best time to visit is any time other than the summer months, June-August. During the winter, the mountain passes are closed and the highest areas, like White Wolf, are in accessible. Glacier Point road is closed beyond Badger pass road once the snow comes, but then there is skiing at Badger Pass, which I have yet to try.
I’ve been twice during fall and once during the summer. The August 2005 trip was cold and wet when we were there. The 2009 fall trip was cold and there was snow at Glacier Point but not enough to close the road and just last month the temperature was a glorious 70F and sunny, even though it was two weeks later in the year. So Yosemite weather is pot luck for the most part – you just have to take what you get!
What to do if you only have:
Take a drive through the Valley in the morning, visit the falls and have lunch at the Awhanee Hotel – not because its that good but because you just have to see that hotel!
After lunch, if it is summer time or you are a fast walker, take a hike to the top of Sentinel Dome. Or you could wander the valley floor some more then catch sunset at Glacier point. Allow an hour to get there from the Valley.
Spend a day as above then another day at the Mariposa Grove.
The first two days as above then on day three go to Hetchy Hetchy Resevoir and hike to Wapama falls.
Weather permitting stay at White Wolf. Then on day four get up and go through the Tioga Pass.
This breath taking (for more an one reason!) 9943 ft. pass takes you over the Sierras to the town of Lee Vining. Stay here for the next couple of nights (at least).
You can rent kayaks and explore the tufa but make sure you catch the sunset at Mono Lake.
Take a day to explore the Ghost Town of Bodie. A town that grew rapidly out of the gold rush, and declined even faster.
Homes and businesses were abandoned, as if in mid breath. Everything has been preserved as it was left…
You can look through the windows of the building but are only allowed to enter some of them. Again – attend the Ranger talks – they are fascinating. A real flavor of the Wild West!
From Lee Vining you can continue south then east to get to Death Valley – a blog post in it’s own right.
If you have to return to the Bay Area you can go back through Yosemite or take the Sonora Pass. Beautiful and less traveled than the Tioga Pass, it’s a good option of you still want to see more new things. Of course, if you do take the Tioga Pass, you can always sneak back up to Glacier Point for one last view of Half Dome.