Adventures in Yosemite National Park

This journal is based on two visits to our country's most spectacular national park, Yosemite.


Adventures in Yosemite National Park

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 15, 2004

Of the 20 or so US National Parks I've visited, Yosemite is by far my favorite. Few experiences compare to your first view of Yosemite Valley's granite walls from Inspiration Point--with El Capitan on the left, Half Dome on the right, waterfalls cascading down both sides. The valley is the park's centerpiece, a hiker's paradise and probably the most beautiful place I've seen in this country. But other sections of the park demand attention as well: Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Road to the north and the Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias to the south.${QuickSuggestions} Yosemite receives 4 million visitors annually, but I've managed to avoid the busiest times by scheduling both my visits for September when many families have left and the weather is still warm. If you're a dedicated outdoors person, you'll want to spend at least 4 or 5 days here. The casual sightseer can see it in two, but will miss out on a lot of the fun.${BestWay} Yosemite Valley is fairly developed by National Park standards with its campgrounds, hotels, restaurants, a supermarket, museums and other visitor services. A convenient shuttle bus service makes it possible to leave your car at your campsite for most of your trip while you hike, bike, swim, rock climb or horseback ride. As stunning as the vistas from the valley floor are, you'll have to hike up to the rim to get the best views.

Lower Pines Campground

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 15, 2004

Best Things Nearby:
Views of Half Dome and North Dome. Stores, restaurants, and showers at Camp Curry.

Best Things About the Resort:
Not as large as Upper Pines across the road, so more manageable to get in and out of your site. Good proximity to stores and other visitor services.

Resort Experience:
Few national park experiences compare to crawling out of your tent and awakening to the great granite walls that surround you in Yosemite Valley. However, camping here is so popular that it takes some planning to experience it. Campsite reservations are an absolute must. The National Park Service website (http://reservations.nps.gov/) makes reserving easy--if you act in time (weekend availability vanishes very quickly after posting dates).

The website provides detailed descriptions of the campsites available for the dates you select. Luckily, I was visiting midweek in late September, when most families would have their children back in school. Even so, the pickings for a site available three consecutive nights were limited. I chose a shaded campsite in the Lower Pines campground and paid online by credit card. About a week after reserving, I received a confirmation via mail from the Park Service. The mailing provided the campground rules, including several warnings about bears.

Upon arrival, I checked in with the ranger on duty who directed me to my campsite. True to its description, it was shaded by several pine trees. Vistas of Half Dome and North Dome from the campground entrance were awesome.

My tent site included an area for parking, ample space for two tents, a picnic table and fire ring. It also provided a bear box where food could be safely stowed. (Bears have been known to break into cars for food, and coolers are no challenge for them at all.) Bears aren't the only wildlife that might covet your food. Mule deer sometimes visit the campgrounds in late afternoon, and ravens seem to show up for breakfast every morning.

Yosemite Valley is convenient for car campers in that it offers two stores (at Camp Curry and Yosemite Village) where you can buy food and other supplies. Use the valley shuttle bus and you don't even need to move your car after you park at the campsite.

Although the September days are warm, the evenings and early mornings can be brisk. However, the Park Service only allows campfires in the evening, so bring along a stove if you plan to cook a hot breakfast. Because the valley offers several reasonably priced restaurants, you can get away without cooking at all if you choose.

The campground has flush toilets and running water positioned throughout, but no showers. To shower, hop on the bus to Camp Curry. The website states that they charge for showers, but I wasn't charged anything.

My site was $18 per night, fairly steep for a bare campsite, but a bargain when you consider the scenery that you wake up to. Plus, it's much cheaper than shelling out $300 a night for a room at the park's luxury hotel, the Ahwahnee. (I recommend a walk through the hotel's public areas, even if you aren't staying there.) The park also offers mid-range accommodations at the motel-like Yosemite Lodge and the cabins of Camp Curry.

Lower Pines Campground
Yosemite Valley along the Merced River
Yosemite National Park, California
(800) 436-7275

Ranger Talks

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 15, 2004

No one visits national parks for the nightlife. So, is there anything to do in Yosemite after sunset besides sing around the campfire? Nightly ranger presentations held at several locations in the park (primarily Yosemite Lodge and Curry Village) provide lots of information to enhance your knowledge and appreciation of the park.

I attended three presentations during my stay. The first program taught about the birds of Yosemite. Most visitors, while they are busy gawking at the scenery, miss spotting a lot of the park's rich and varied bird life. A slide show accompanied the talk, as well as recommended viewing places for the various species. Riparian birds such as blue heron can be found in the park's rivers. Woodpeckers nest in the trees in the meadows along the Merced. The Stellar's jay, with its distinctive blue body, black crest and shrill cry, isn't shy about approaching people at the Visitor Center and campgrounds. The park also hosts a number of raptors--hawks and owls amongst them--and ravens can be spotted most anywhere. This talk certainly heightened my awareness of birds while hiking and touring the park.

The second presentation was an inspiring talk by wheelchair adventure athlete Mark Wellman, who became a paraplegic during a rock climbing accident in Yosemite more than 20 years ago. He stuck with the sport and became the first paraplegic to scale Yosemite's two great rock walls: El Capitan and Half Dome. Wellman gave a good overview of the complexities of the sport (for example, how does one eat, sleep or relieve oneself while hanging to the side of a cliff?) and its special challenges to the differently abled. A short film featuring other disabled adventure athletes called "No Barriers" accompanied the talk.

The third ranger program detailed a now-defunct Yosemite tradition, the Firefall. Years ago, a bonfire accidentally slid off the edge of Glacier Point into the valley below. The resulting fall resembled a glowing orange waterfall in the night. Visitors in the valley watched the cascading embers in awe. The next day, the visitors--not realizing the Firefall was an accident--asked the proprietors of the Glacier Point Hotel to do it again, and soon the Yosemite Firefall became a nightly event. For decades, visitors gathered in Camp Curry and the surrounding meadows to witness the spectacle. At precisely 9:00 each night, workers at the Glacier Point Hotel raked glowing embers off the cliff into the valley below. The tradition endured until 1969, when the Glacier Point Hotel burned down. Though the Firefall can no longer be seen, a brief film with actual footage gave a good idea of what the experience was like.

Ranger Talks
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park, California

Driving Tioga Road

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 15, 2004

It's hard to leave the beauty of Yosemite Valley, but other sections of the park deserve a look. I took a worthwhile ride over Tioga Road to view the northern section of the park. As you leave the valley, head north on Big Oak Flat Road. Gas up when you get to Crane Flat; fuel stations are scarce in the park and all that up/down mountain driving tends to burn gasoline faster.

Out of Crane Flat, turn right on Tioga Road. On the first part of the ride, you'll be winding through a heavily forested area. (Watch for deer--several bounded in front of my car here.) You'll feel the elevation rise as you head east--the valley floor is at about 4,000 feet while Tioga Pass (highest point on the road) approaches 10,000 feet.

After about 15 miles, the scenery begins to open up. Your first stop should be Olmsted Point. From this vantage, you'll get a backdoor view down Tenaya Canyon of Half Dome and the Quarter Domes. Also, there's some good rock scrambling here. Just over a mile further east, you'll pass lovely Tenaya Lake, which offers two picnic areas. During the summer season, the Park Service provides a shuttle bus from the valley to Tioga Road. If you get off at Tenaya Lake, you can hike back into the valley.

I saved my lunch for a point another seven miles down the road: Lembert Dome. You can eat at the picnic tables here, but I recommend walking just a little ways beyond the parking lot and finding solitude on a slab of granite that overlooks the Tuolumne (TWA-lum-nee) Meadows, one of the prettiest sights in this part of the park. There's a short trail that ascends the dome, however it was closed during my visit due to storm damage.

After lunch, I turned around, heading back west. Just a mile into it, I stopped at the Pothole Dome, which is not so attractive itself, but provides some great rock scrambling opportunities and a dynamite view of the prettier Fairview Dome across the highway.

When you're through scrambling, keep driving west, enjoying a different perspective of the same natural features. When you return to Crane Flat, stop at the parking area for the Tuolumne Grove. Walk a mile down a steep (but paved) hill and behold a grove of one of nature's greatest creations: the mighty sequoia. A short path takes you off the paved road (once the old stagecoach route) into the forest of giants. You'll get to see a tunnel tree, some fallen giants and other magnificent sequoia specimens.

You can complete the entire round-trip drive with stops for lunch, hiking and rock scrambling in about five or six hours. Forests, lakes, wildlife, mountain meadows, granite domes, giant sequoias--what more can you ask for in one day?

Driving Tioga Road
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park, California

Yosemite Falls Trail -- Part 1

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 15, 2004

Part 1 Standing at the base of the Yosemite Falls, the country's tallest, it doesn't look possible that a trail leads to the top. But there is a great path that snakes around and brings you up 2,700 feet from the valley floor to the brink of the falls. The hike begins at Sunnyside Walk-In Campground. The shuttle bus stops here, so no need to drive to the trailhead. This is your last chance to use a restroom before starting on the trail. Otherwise you'll have to do as the proverbial bear does.

Almost immediately, the trail rises steeply over a series of switchbacks. Don't despair -- the whole ascent is not like this. After a mile or so, you'll get to catch your breath at Columbia Rock and enjoy the wonderful views of the valley below and the Three Brothers formation behind you. Less ambitious hikers might want to turn around here, but I recommend continuing to the top.

Soon after Columbia Rock, a less-steep section brings you close to the Lower Falls and Middle Cascade. I hiked this trail in late September when crowds are lighter. Unfortunately, so is the water flow -- mighty Yosemite Falls is reduced to a trickle in late summer. Still, you can imagine feeling the spray from the falls if you hiked the trail in May or June. For the last uphill mile, the trail winds and steepens again. As you reach the top, a short spur path brings you to the brink of the falls. (A railing here keeps you from falling over as well.) Watch for soaring hawks here.

Continuing on the trail, a wooden bridge carries you over the creek feeding the falls and points you toward Yosemite Point, which offers sweeping views of the valley. Most hikers turn around at this point for a 7-mile round trip, but with a lot of water, energy and daylight left, I decided to continue on to North Dome. Here the trail retreats a bit into the forest and you lose the valley vistas for the next 2.5 miles until you reach the North Dome spur. This short path puts you on top of the granite dome and provides dead-on views of Half Dome across the valley. It's a great place to break for lunch. Returning from here, it's about a 12-mile round-trip hike. But. . . .

Continued in Part 2

Upper Yosemite Falls Trail Hike
Sunnyside Camp 4 near Shuttle Stop #7
Yosemite National Park, California, 95389
+1 209 372 0200

Yosemite Falls Trail -- Part 2

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 15, 2004

Part 2 While eating my sandwich, yogurt, and fruit on the top of North Dome, I examined my trail map and saw I could make a loop hike out of this instead of retracing my steps past Yosemite Falls. It would be over 18 miles for the entire loop -- a large undertaking considering all the ups and downs -- versus 12 miles for the out-and-back hike. But I still had some daylight ahead of me and was feeling revived after lunch, so I decided to tackle it. (Don't try this unless you have plenty of water remaining.) I returned to the North Dome trail heading east and was soon back in the forest and moving away from the valley rim.

The feeling here greatly differs from the valley rim trails: no granite, lots of green, the smell of pine needles all over, rolling landscape and very few other hikers. The scenery doesn't change must in the forest, but it's nice to stop here for a while, sit on a fallen tree and listen for wildlife. After a few minutes your notice birds (and deer if you're lucky) that you would have missed if you just hurried through.

At one point, the trail takes you within a mile of Tioga Road in the northern section of the park. There, you will hook into the Snow Creek Trail, which parallels the eponymous creek and leads back into the valley. After a couple hours in the woods, you'll finally emerge at a point on the rim between Snow Creek Falls and Basket Dome, revealing your reward: the best views of the hike with Half Dome and the Quarter Domes looming across the way.

The trail then descends quickly down a series of switchbacks, so tighten your laces first. Once you reach the valley floor, you've still got a couple of easy, flat miles to go before ending at bus stop #17. The last section of this monster hike passes Mirror Lake where many artists and photographers set up their easels and tripods to capture Half Dome at the golden hour preceding sunset. Two bus stops later, I was back at my campsite, gratefully reaching into my cooler and rewarding myself with a cold can of Budweiser. The entire hike with stops took me between 8 and 9 hours to complete. I move pretty fast, so allow an extra hour or so if you don't.

Upper Yosemite Falls Trail Hike
Sunnyside Camp 4 near Shuttle Stop #7
Yosemite National Park, California, 95389
+1 209 372 0200

Sequoias of Mariposa Grove

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 23, 2004

As if spectacular Yosemite Valley weren't enough, Yosemite National Park offers another of nature's greatest wonders: the giant sequoia trees. They can grow as tall as a 25-story building and live as long as 3,500 years. Coastal redwoods grow taller and bristlecone pines live longer, but no tree has greater volume. These are the world's largest living things, and they grow only on the western slopes of the Sierras at elevations of 5,000 - 8,000 feet.

The Tuolumne Grove of sequoias, near Crane Flat, is closest to the valley, but Mariposa Grove at the park's south end is more impressive with more, older and bigger trees. It lies just over 30 miles south of the valley, but allow more than an hour each way to navigate winding, hilly Wawona Road. If you enter the park from the south, make this your first stop.

Try to arrive early in the day, as the parking lot fills up quickly. Several big trees are visible from the lot, but you'll have to walk a couple miles along the nature trail to see the most famous trees. Be prepared for some uphill terrain, although it will seem fairly mild if you've already conquered the walls of Yosemite Valley.

The greatest of these sequoias is the Grizzly Giant, about a mile up the path. At an estimated 2,700 years old, it measures 209 feet high, 92.5 feet in circumference and 33 feet in diameter. Visitors often look for the "drive-through" tree, but this sequoia fell decades ago. You can now see it in its recumbent position. But you can still walk through the popular California tree.

One of the most remarkable things you'll notice about these trees is the amount of scorching on them. Their bark is flame retardant, so in the course of their long lives, sequoias will likely endure many fires. They also resist disease very well, contributing to their longevity. However, even though they are the largest trees, they possess rather shallow root systems, making them susceptible to toppling. Hence, some of the trees like the Grizzly Giant are surrounded by fencing to prevent visitors from trampling the roots.

I caught part of a ranger talk and learned more about the sequoias. The first white travelers to see these trees were both awed and frightened by the forest. If the trees were this large, then maybe the animals were too, they reasoned. Once these fears were disproved, they looked at the trees with dollar signs in their eyes; just one of these giants could provide as much timber as dozens of ordinary trees. Fortunately, the grove was soon protected by a federal land grant, which led to the eventual formation of the park.

Give yourself a couple hours to enjoy Mariposa Grove. If time allows, on the way back to Yosemite Valley, turn off on Glacier Point Road, take it to the end and enjoy one of the most inspiring views of Yosemite.

Mariposa Grove
Mariposa Grove
Yosemite National Park, California, 95389
209/372-0200

Half Dome Trail

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 26, 2004

This is the mother of all Yosemite day hikes, the ascent of Half Dome. Get an early start (like 8 a.m.) and pack plenty of food and especially water. Take the valley shuttle bus to Happy Isles (stop #16) then find the Mist Trail, which runs along the Merced River. After about 1.5 miles, you'll cross a footbridge that offers a view of your first stop: Vernal Falls. The trail ascends to the top of the 317-foot falls, then another footbridge takes you back across the Merced. The impressive Liberty Cap dominates the views in this area.

Soon you'll come upon spectacular Nevada Falls -- 60 stories tall. A series of switchbacks puts you at the brink of the falls. Signs at the tops of both cascades warn about getting too close; every year some unfortunate hiker gets swept over. You are now nearly halfway to your destination. Just above Nevada Falls, turn left at the junction onto the John Muir Trail, which runs along the Merced before retreating into the forest. You may be sharing this trail with some horse traffic, so be prepared to pull over.

About a mile into the woods, look for the Half Dome Trail on the left. (If you miss it, you'll eventually end up at the top of Mount Whitney in Sequoia National Park.) After another half mile in the woods, you'll emerge on a granite ridge that forms the top of the Quarter Domes. Finally, you'll get the back view of Half Dome. A ten-minute walk puts you at its base.

The last section of this hike is the hardest: you must pull yourself up by steel cable handrails set into the granite slope. Looking up at it, I felt just a bit of dizzying altitude sickness. I took a few minutes to catch my breath, then started hauling myself up. It wasn't so bad, as long as I didn't look down.

The summit was flat and large enough to hold a score of other hikers without feeling crowded. Looking west, the valley view was terrific (except that Half Dome itself wasn't in the picture). Looking east, the Sierras seemed endless. Looking down, it was scary with no barrier between me and the sheer cliff.

After about 20 minutes at the top, I headed back down the cables. (Be especially careful while passing other hikers.) The downhill return hike went faster than the ascent. I retraced the same route except that I remained on the John Muir Trail, which parallels the Mist Trail to the valley floor. It's slightly longer, less exposed and more woodsy.

In the woods, a fox quickly crossed my path. (A ranger told me that it was probably a young coyote, but I'm sticking with my fox story.) After about 10 total hours, 17 miles, and 4,800 feet up and down, I reached the Happy Isles bus stop exhausted but with the satisfaction of having bagged the valley's greatest peak.

Top of Half Dome Hike
Happy Isles Shuttle Stop #16
Yosemite National Park, California, 95389
+1 209 372 0200

Wildlife in Yosemite

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Adventures With Adam on July 15, 2004

As developed as Yosemite Valley may seem with its hotels, stores, restaurants, and museums, you are in the wild here and are likely to see wildlife. Bear warnings abound, especially in the campgrounds, where bears are known to frequent the dumpsters. I heard loud noises in the campground in the middle of the night when I had to use the bathroom. However, I saw no sign of bear anywhere. You probably would have more luck spotting one in the backcountry, which is probably the only place in the park you might encounter a mountain lion, the park's other large mammal predator. Check with a ranger for safety information about encounters with these animals.

You will very probably spy mule deer--so-called for their large ears--especially in the meadows of the valley. I've also had them tramp through my campsite and cross in front of my car on Tioga Road. Coyotes are also somewhat common. Though I didn't see one, some other visitors I spoke with spotted a coyote in the meadows along the Merced River. I did have an elusive fox scamper in front of me on the John Muir Trail. Squirrels and chipmunks abound in the park. Don't confuse the two: a ground squirrel's body may be striped like a chipmunk's, but it lacks the facial markings. Despite their cute appearance, the Park Service highly discourages feeding these critters; their bites and scratches can be quite painful. Still, you'll see many tourists luring them with food to get a close-up video. At night, you can spot bats fluttering around lighted areas as they swoop down on insects.

Bird life is rich and varied here. A visitor favorite is the Stellar's jay, commonly seen around the Visitor Center and campgrounds. You'll recognize it by it's blue body, black crest and distinctive cry. Ravens seem to show up at the campgrounds just in time for breakfast every morning. On the top of the valley rim near Yosemite point, I saw a number of hawks, circling, soaring and swooping. Scores of other avian species inhabit the park from wading blue herons to woodpeckers to owls. A stop at the Visitor Center or a ranger talk will better acquaint you with Yosemite's wildlife.


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