on October 18, 2008
Another place championed by John Muir, it could be the world’s famous valley. There’s far more here, although the crowds that flock to this park concentrate on the valley floor. It’s not hard to see why: whether we gazed down and over Yosemite Valley from Washburn or Glacier Point, or looked down the full length of the Valley from Tunnel View, or stood in the Merced River and gaped up at the walls all around us, this place is so beautiful it’s nearly surreal.We spent less than 24 hours here, but we loved it. And we saw a lot. We stayed at Wawona Hotel, which I heartily recommend as an alternative to valley lodging in high volume summer season. You’ll do more driving, but it's relaxed and pleasant, with a different feel. There are attractions at this southern end of the park, too: the famous Mariposa Grove of sequoias is about eight miles away, and (like so many things at Yosemite) worth an early morning visit before the crowds arrive.From here, it’s a good 90 minutes into the heart of the park, but that hardly felt like wasted time. We turned up Glacier Point Road for the famous and spectacular view out over the Valley from the southern side. It shouldn’t be missed, and few people miss it. Retracing our steps, we finally turned east into Yosemite Valley, joining more folks at Tunnel View, site of the famous Ansel Adams photograph that is Yosemite to most people around the world.In the valley itself, we waded in the Merced River, fought crowds at Bridalveil Falls, visited the recreated Native American Village, gave ourselves a tour of the Awahnee, and felt torn between the amazing beauty of the surroundings and the people everywhere. Even with the crowds, it’s an unforgettable place, and it looked absolutely gorgeous under beautiful clear blue skies.Leaving the Valley, we saw a bear near Oak Grove, and then headed over the Tioga Road. This is a spectacular drive, which would be the highlight of any other trip that didn’t have to compete with Yosemite Valley. It continuously climbs to Tioga Pass, where you cross the Sierras and leave the park. There’s beautiful mountains, gorgeous meadows, alpine lakes, and the terrific view at Olmstead Point.Getting AroundThere aren’t many roads in Yosemite, and with over 4 million visitors a year, that means the pavement is crowded. There’s one route along the park's eastern edge, from the south at Oakhurst to Wawona to the Valley Entrance and then to Hetch Hetchy, where it dead ends. The other main entrance off Highway 120 puts you on this road north of the Valley. This same road gives access to a spur to Glacier Point on the valley’s south side, the dead end road in to the Valley, and then the Tioga Road past Tenaya Lake, Tuolumne Meadows and through Tioga Pass to the eastern side of the Sierras. That’s it for roads.A shuttle runs throughout the Valley, and is a necessity for getting around. If you’re tempted to drive your car and avoid waiting for the bus, don’t do it. Get there early, abandon your vehicle, and ride the shuttles all day. Otherwise you’ll spend time searching for parking spaces and growing frustrated that you’re not seeing anything. We stopped at Bridalveil Falls as we entered the valley at 11am, and spent 15 minutes circling the few hundred parking spaces before pulling into a questionable spot. The day use parking is just south of Yosemite Village. It’s so large it reminded me of parking at a state fair or a Big Ten football game; not an experience I’d expected at a National Park.The Valley Shuttle Bus loops through 20 stops from Yosemite Lodge past the Visitor Center, out to Day Use Parking, and then east to Curry Village. Past Curry, only the shuttle is allowed on a loop that includes the trailheads to Vernal Falls and Half Dome as well as Mirror Lake. A separate shuttle runs from Wawona to Mariposa Grove daily. A third covers the Tioga Road from Tioga Pass at the park entrance to Olmsted Point, with stops at Tuolumne Meadows and other trailheads. Parking lots here are small, so even though there’s fewer people up here, the shuttle still makes sense.Walking wasn’t as pleasant an option as I’d thought. We hoofed it from the Valley Visitor center to the Ahwahnee, after having trouble finding the bus and figuring it couldn’t be that far. It was, and it had far more in common with walking city streets than I’d imagined possible. Next time, I’ll find the bus and wait for it, and save my walking for the trails.Lodging OptionsThere’s a lot of people to house in Yosemite, so make your reservations early. The high demand keeps prices high, too. In the Valley and in the stratosphere, there’s the spectacular Ahwahnee, whose stone and wood arts-and-crafts design is worth a stop (and perhaps a drink on the patio). Rooms here (without breakfast) will run $482 a night in summer 2009 (throw in another $55 for a morning meal). At the other end in the valley, the cinderblock-framed ‘units’ at Housekeeping Camp run $76 a night, and the canvas tents at Curry Village are $110 a night with breakfast; $95 with no food. If you’re looking for an actual room, in the middle of the price range are the cabins and modest rooms at Curry Village, running $140-$180. These are in high demand, though. There’s also the more upscale Yosemite Lodge at the Falls for $207 a night. Outside the Valley, there’s Wawona Hotel for a more reasonable $140 with breakfast; $208 for rooms with private bath. There’s a lot of motels in Oakhurst, which is probably 2 hours from the Valley without killer traffic. I loved Wawona, but it is a bit of a haul to get to and from the rest of park. I’d be willing to put up with the drive, and the shared bath, for the quality of the experience.And there’s camping. There are 13 campgrounds in the park, along the Valley Floor, by Wawona, on the Tioga Road, and in the backcountry. Reservations are strongly recommended; in fact, they’re required at six of the campgrounds. Things are particularly tight in May and June, because not all campgrounds open at the same time. Reservations open four months out (i.e., you can book for June 15-July 14 starting on February 15).
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